“God didn’t even know what He was doing in the beginning! Look what He ended up with!”
-- Captain Amber Santos, TI
from a debriefing session after the Ashdown massacre
The quiet hum of the ship made him drowsy. He forced himself to take another drink of what some humorously called coffee. Xinjao O’Reilly almost spat out the murky beverage but managed to swallow it anyway. The engineer was busy in his quarters trying to sort out these damn efficiency reports. Damn it, couldn’t Earth Fleet take his word for it?! The lieutenant commander knew he had the best ship in the whole Federation; why did Central constantly ask for verification, new warp osciliscope readings, and God knows what! Next thing, they’ll be asking me to take a temperature of my…
Something clicked. Xinjao wasn’t sure he heard it, but something clicked that wasn’t supposed to. He looked around the desk in his cramped room. Nothing. Where did that sound come from? Then it clicked again. O’Reilly turned and saw it. It was incredibly small, so easy to miss, but there it was… a black little smudge in the crack of his metal chair.
The engineer whipped out a metal wire probe from his pocket (he always had a probe on him) and picked the smudge onto the end of it. O’Reilly gleamed as he sat down, bringing the little object underneath the electron scanner. He couldn’t believe his eyes. A listening device with holographic recall capacity? What the hell was this doing here?
Xinjao started whipping out tools to dissect this microelectronic bug. It had a transmitter; of course, that much should have been obvious. If it didn’t have one, he would have never found it. They had made devices so small they could never be detected by the naked eye. However, with the built-in transmitter, they needed something big enough to contain the power necessary to broadcast. Now, if he could only open the front compartment.
The GQ alarm sounded, jolting him out of his concentration. A strained female voice screamed through the intercom. “All crew to battle stations! All crew to battle stations! This is not a drill, we are live! I say again, all crew to battle stations!”
Xinjao looked back at the bug on the probe. “I’ll get back to you,” he whispered, placing the thing in one of the side containers. Carrying the delicate operation with ease, he turned off the scanner, and ran out the door.
Before he knew it, the expanse of the ion drive reactor opened up before him. After four months on this crate, O’Reilly was sure that he could find this place in his sleep. The chief engineer made his office here because if anything were going to go wrong, it would happen here first. Being closer to the source made problems easier to fix before they went out of hand.
At his control console, the communication light pulsed with a brilliant red. His hand came on the button as soon as he sat down.
The hologram projection flickered to life out of the nothingness there had been before. “Engineering, report!”
The lieutenant commander’s hand flew across the console, picking up information from all the systems aboard the ship. “Fusion 1 is ready. Fusion 2 & 3 on standby, Ion Drive will be available in thirty seconds.”
The bubbly blonde on the other side of the screen turned from it and looked over the bridge of the EFS Schaumburg. In a minute and a half from the alarm, the bridge crew was ready. Commander Johanna Ingolfsson was proud of their reaction time. It should be that good, she thought, I drilled them enough! She turned back to the holoproj and smiled. “Very well. Bring Fusion 2 & 3 to full power and await further instructions.”
“Yes, ma’am.” O’Reilly nodded and broke the comm link.
Just then, the bridge doors opened, and the commanding officer appeared on the deck. Johanna didn’t miss a beat. “Captain on the bridge!” she called out, and immediately stood up.
Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg took his time, easing himself into the command seat, and enjoying every minute of it. This was his third command and every time it just felt right. There was a certain rightness to everything that was happening. They had been on an anti-piracy/anti-smuggling operation in the Rios System for a few months and had managed to capture fourteen smugglers and played footsie with a pirate for three days before he finally disappeared. The amount of illegal trade had alarmingly increased over the past few months. This petty little squabble that had arisen became a beacon for every low life and degenerate who had been hiding out in the Frontier Worlds Territory. Erich didn’t care for politics or who was trying to overthrow who. He had sworn an oath to the Earth Federation when he joined Fleet and he was going to do his job. Let the politicians all go to hell; his orders were to patrol the Rios System, so that’s what he was going to do.
“Weapons crew is ready and we have a lock on the vessel…”
“Are we sure it’s a smuggler, commander?”
The curly blonde shot a hurt look back at him. “Yes, sir. Lieutenant Gergenstein?”
From the tactical console, the lieutenant perked up. “I ran their SAC through the net relay. It matches a stolen ship out of San Angeles about a month ago. If they’re not smugglers, I will eat a Edo Eel!”
“I’ll try not to hold you to that, lieutenant.” The captain smiled as he turned back to his exec. “Continue, commander.
“Jolly Roger Squadron is primed and ready to launch, sir. Commander O’Reilly reports that all engines should be ready…” Ingolfsson glanced at the ship clock, then turned back toward her CO, “…now.”
“Very well, let’s surprise our unwelcome guest. Helm, do we have a intercept course for the vessel?”
Lt. Shijumi faced the captain. “Yes, sir. Ready on your mark.”
“Thank you, lieutenant. Activate ion drive, full burn in ten seconds.”
“Engineering,” Commander Ingolfsson echoed, “activate ion drive, full burn in ten seconds.”
“Aye,” Lt. Commander O’Reilly repeated, “full burn in ten seconds.”
“Helm, take us on an intercept course.”
“Confirmed, sir. Intercept course laid in.”
Soon enough, the Schaumberg jolted forward out of the shadow of the system’s only planet and whipped around toward the lone freighter.
“Santa Maria!” Andrea Treschi exclaimed, cursing his bad luck as the light cruiser came into his sensor range. Of all the times, he thought, this was probably the worst. It had taken him forever to get into the Fearless Jackals. They were a tough bunch and even the toughest of them couldn’t outfight an Earth Fleet ship. His glare passed over to the helmsman of his freighter. “Can we outrun them?”
“No,” the grungy little helmsman replied, wiping the sweat off his brow, “they knew where to ambush us, M. Treschi. Even if I went to full burn, their weapons could shut us down quick.”
“Damn it!” Andrea yelled. Catching himself, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. I must be calm, he thought, I must be calm. I need all my faculties clear to focus on the problem at hand. “All right, we’re still travelling on the standard routes, maybe we can pretend to be a regular freighter.”
The helmsman looked frazzled. “But, M. Treschi, what about the…”
“Shhhhhhh!” he shot back. “If it comes to that, I can hide it, but not before. Open comm channels.”
The holoproj lit up and soon he was staring at the face of a slight greying, very determined looking captain. “This is Captain von Shrakenberg of the EFS Schaumberg. Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded.”
“Captain, I am Andrea Treschi, in charge of this freighter for the Proxima/Durendal Export Company. May I ask why you feel it’s necessary to search an outbound ship? We’re not even at the border.”
“M. Treschi, the Ashdown System fell to the Jurvain 2nd Fleet five days ago. This is the border.”
Of course, Andrea knew that, but maybe he could play his ignorance and get this captain off his back. “Really? We just jumped in from New Madrid. I had no idea! We’ll turn back at once.”
“That warning was flashed to all sectors days ago. You would have received it long before you could have left New Madrid.” Von Shrakenberg growled. “There’s only one reason why someone would be willing to risk jumping through a war zone. Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded.”
“Sir, I really must protest…”
“Cut your engines or I will order my fighters to open fire. Do I make myself clear?”
Treschi sighed. “Very well,” he replied, cutting the comm channel. Then turning to the helmsman, he ordered, “Cut the engines.”
“Do you want to die? Cut the damn engines!”
The helmsman obeyed and the background hum of the ship died. It was a very eerie feeling; being dead in space, surrounded by hostile ships. Not the most pleasant sensation in the world, especially with a giant warship closing in, and his employees getting itchy. He shook off the feeling and went back to the cargo decks. He had some work to do before they boarded his ship.
“Hit ‘em again, Lars, YEAH!”
The scuffle in the mess hall had become a full brawl. The entire platoon made a cheering circle around the two fighters, punching and rolling and moving as fast as they could. With bio-augmented troopers, that was pretty damn fast. With FTS rolling through their veins, the entire melee had the look of lightning cats on speed.
“Atten-SHION!” called out from the door, as Lieutenant Malachi Spyder and his platoon sergeant, Elly Ragdowski entered the TI mess hall. The crowd went ramrod straight while the fight still continued. Spyder just looked at Elly and she rushed over to the blurr of a battle. “Break it up! Break it UP!’
With a couple of expert punches, the sergeant knocked the two scufflers out their concentration, sprawling them into the crowd, knocking over several troopers. Sergeant Ragdowski growled at them, “What do you think you’re doing?!”
One of the fighters, PFC Denrock, got up first. “This is personal, sarge, it has nothing…”
“It has everything to do with me!” Elly got right in his face. “So you can cool your ego in liquid hydrogen. NOW!”
The other brawler, Private Amlen, also talked back. “Damn it, sarge, we…”
She swiveled, like she was on a vid-stage. “You better stow that shit, trooper.”
“What are you going to do?” The thick block of a werewolf shot back.
Elly smiled. “Make your move, private.”
“Sergeant!” Lt. Spyder called out.
Ragdowski contained a frown and piped up, “Yes, sir?”
“Place them in the brig.”
The platoon sergeant snorted out her disgust and pointed to one of the troopers. “Corporal Heckswill. These… hmph, men are from your squad. Escort them to the brig.” Amy Heckswill nodded, gathered the rest of her squad, and took the two troopers out of the room. Once they were gone, Ragdowski turned her frustration at the platoon. “What is this, some vac-sucker party? Form for inspection!”
The platoon (relunctantly) moved into formation; or… as much as the mess hall could allow. Elly huffed her way back over to the lieutenant who didn’t take his eyes off her. Finally, once they were in position, she began the ritual as old as the Tech Infantry itself. “Who are you?”
“Sabres, sir!” a corporal blurted out.
Another corporal answered, “Spyder’s Sabres!”
“HOO-AH!” the platoon replied.
Malachi said nothing at first, taking his time as he walked down the rows, glaring at the eyes of his platoon. What did he ever do to deserve this sorry bunch of Deimos rejects? “The Old Man tells me we’re going on a search-and-seizure run, first action we’ve had in a week. So I come down here to tell you and what are you doing? Jacking off with each other in the mess!” Spyder felt the steam rise off his head as he ran his fingers through his short hair. “All right. I want 1st and 3rd Squads to suit up in Mark 3 armor, ready to come with me and board the ship. 4th squad’s going to be in Mark 35’s ready to EVAC. The Heavy Weapons Squad is our reserve, so I want you to be suited in 35’s as well. 2nd Squad,” Heckswill’s squad, which had already lost half its members to the brig, ” will not be joining us for this exercise. I want you mean and hot in fifteen. Sergeant?”
Elly blasted her own rage at the platoon. “You heard the man, move it, slugs!”
Treschi watched from the small window as the assualt shuttles came in from the massive sunblock called the EFS Schaumberg. His employees were all huddling around him, hoping for a sign, hoping they wouldn’t get sent to Pluto for an extended stay. “Everything’s ready,” Andrea said to them, “you all know the drill.”
“Good. Then when those troops get over here, do nothing to attract their attention. Let them do their work. With any luck, they won’t detect it till it’s too late.
As the assault shuttle docked in with the freighter, the airlock cycled open, and Treschi was there to meet it. He had been in the Tech Infantry before and was not intimidated by the two squads boarding his ship in their white light battle armor. He was surprised at first that they didn’t come in with heavier suits, then he remembered; Mark 35’s and heavier suits would have difficulty making their way through a freighter’s corridors. They were designed for ground combat, not infiltration raids like this. As they spread out around him, there was a certain… laxness in their movement. They were green troops or out of training. For a moment, he felt sorry for their commander, but it quickly passed. Andrea had to keep his mind on the business at hand.
One trooper came up and opened his visor. “My name is Lieutenant Malachi Spyder. Under the authority of the Earth Federation, we will conduct a customs inspection of your ship.”
“Which Federation would that be, lieutenant? Are you with the Grand Council or with Auntie Sarah?”
Spyder leaned closer to the mage and whispered, “We’re with the those who’ll rip your balls off if you get snobby on me. You want to try something?”
“Hardly diplomatic language, lieutenant.”
The trooper stepped back. “This is hardly a diplomatic mission, sir.” Looking to his squad leaders, he started barking out orders. “1st Squad, take the front, 2nd can start here. Hollings, Kristos, you’re with me.” Turning back to Treschi, he said, “I’m going to search the crew quarters, starting with yours.”
God, this officer was arrogant, Andrea thought. Colonel Clarke would have handed this guy a new asshole by now. Treschi put one of his patented smiles on his face and gestured down the corridor. “Follow me, then.”
“Anything from the freighter?” Erich asked.
Lt. Altair Jerez swiveled in her chair to face him. “Sir, the last communication we had from Lt. Spyder stated they were starting the search. Sensors have not picked up any combat fire, so we must assume that they’re continuing their sweep.”
“Thank you, lieutenant.” The captain nodded, cursing himself for even asking the question. It was stupid. It had only been a few minutes. The jarheads weren’t stupid; they knew their job and they were thorough. If it was smuggling something, they’d find it out.
Altair turned around as if she had been bitten. Her hands flew across the console until she got the answers she wanted. “Sir, I’m detecting a jumpgate activating!”
“Aspect?” Johanna shot back.
“GC 256 mark 315.” Jerez checked her calculations again. “Inbound from Fieras System.”
“ID?” the captain asked.
Gergenstein beat her to it. “It reads as a Earth Fleet corvette, registry code… blocked?”
Erich raised his eyebrow. A corvette wasn’t a threat to a light cruiser but why on Io would the code be blocked? “Prepare to move us off station. Helm, plot an intercept course with the incoming ship…”
“They’re hailing us, sir.” Commander Ingolfsson interrupted.
Captain Von Shrakenberg shrugged. “All right, commander, let’s talk to them.”
Johanna pushed a couple buttons and the holoproj of a black and silver suited officer appeared in front of them. “This is Major Iradne of Federation Internal Security. You are ordered to release that freighter immediately!”
InSec, Erich cursed, great. They always seemed to appear at the worst possible moment. “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.”
“Captain, those orders were signed by traitors to the Federation. I’m telling you that you are to release that freighter.”
That’s it, the captain thought, time to put this guy in his place. “Major, I am the senior officer here, and you have no authority in this system. Until I receive orders from Fleet Command to the contrary, I’m going to search that ship.”
The corvette cut off the comm leaving an eerie silence across the bridge. Gergenstein broke it, shouting as he turned from his console. “Sir, the corvette is targeting the freighter!”
The day started as any other in the Federation's Consulate on Khmer. Bureaucrats came in with the ruffle of paperwork and the stench of strong coffee already on their breath. The platoon, if you could call it that, of TI troopers charged with the safety of the consulate groggily manned their posts without an unusual amount of bitching. Life in the city of Chiatzo, where the consulate was located, went on as it had for decades. And Master Sergeant Alistar Soldati Dimiye, the consulate's acting military commander, awaited yet another glorious day in the Corps.
"We can cross the vast expanses of space, create life on lifeless planets, but we can't make beer that won't give you a hangover." Alistar thought as he walked into the anteroom, regretting last night's drinking. He wasn't a drinking man as soldiers go, but the last few weeks had been oddly tense for him on this normally sleepy assignment. His superiors had recommended a nice, relaxing tour guarding the diplomatic corps. It bordered on comatose most of the time, but after five years of being at the receiving end of a broken bottle, the change of pace felt good… until recently.
Three weeks ago the consulate's CO, Lt. West, left for reassignment, leaving Alistar in charge until his replacement got here. The extra duty he didn't mind; reporting to the consul he did. But that wasn't what was really bothered him. Sleep would not come easily these past few weeks no matter how hard he tried. His nightmares were getting worse, his visions stronger. It would help if he could remember either.
He pushed that out of his mind as he went into the Consul's office.
"Good morning, sir." Alistar said
"Ah, good morning, sergeant." The ambassador replied taking a sip of his morning coffee. "I trust that nothing Earth-shattering happened to the compound last night? Or did we get a visit from our green eight legged friends?" He chuckled at his own joke.
"Night watch had nothing to report, sir." Alistar said. The biggest trouble he had to deal with was a local gang that called themselves "The Green Spiders", after some sort of mythical Shinto creature. Once a week, they would graffiti the walls of the compound... or they tried. This gang had been doing it for twenty years; it was sort of a tradition. Nobody ever got hurt and it was a fun competition that both sides enjoyed. Of course, the guards on watch who didn’t catch them had to scrub the shit off; they never enjoyed it. Part of Alistar enjoyed it, the other part resented the spoiled little punks… at their age, he was already a soldier.
"Well, this is a change of events, isn't it? For the first time, I have something to report to you." The ambassador said.
"Were receiving a coded message from ConnSat as we speak. It's coming in along with the rest of the morning's dispatches and should be ready in a few minutes. Any idea?"
"Probably the personnel file of the new LT we’re supposed to get next week."
The Consul shifted comfortably in his seat. "Good. I'll have you review it first and we can go over our most recent 'acquisition' over lunch." He said sarcastically rubbing his hands together for effect.
"Sir." Alistar said as he left the consul's office towards the comm room. Soon enough, he had the reports in hand, and started to read.
TEN MINUTES LATER…
Wonderful, he thought, as he charged his plasma rifle, just fucking wonderful.
Master Sergeant Dimiye ran through the consulate's small barracks and banged on all the doors. "Get up, apes! Move, damn it! Up, up, UP!"
The moans of his platoon were like zombies rising from the dead. The tension in the air had led to some hard drinking last night, leaving in its wake the hung-over victims that were now getting an ear-full from their sergeant.
"I said, UP, apes!" Dimiye belted out, grabbing a cigar and clenching it between his teeth. "I want you geared up and hot in ten minutes. MOVE!"
"Sarge," Trooper Collins managed to get out of his bed as he spoke, "what's the rush?"
The master sergeant turned at the offending noise and the offending noise quickly ceased. Everyone knew by now not to fuck with the Sarge when he got serious.
"We're moving out?" Corporal Tess echoed. "But Sarge, why? This place is about as hot as bitch-ass Kansas."
"Secure that baggage, corporal." Dimiye moved through the barracks with razor determination. "That's right, ladies, get up! I want you hot! HOT, damn it! I want full kit ready to move in ten. Armor by fifteen! You get me?"
"Armor?" Trooper Dreven dared to speak.
"You got a hearing problem, private?"
"Good! I want us up and ready in twenty." His men stood shocked at first. "Move…" Dimiye growled, and the barracks suddenly burst into activity.
"Really, sergeant, I think you're overreacting."
The Federation consul for Khmer was an efficient administrator, well versed in global politics, and completely without common sense. Somehow, although he grasped the general situation in one half of his brain, that never seemed to translate over to a need to survive. Alistar was frustrated; no, that was too light a word. The master sergeant was infuriated at the vast stupidity of this man. "Sir, did you read the dispatches this morning?"
"Of course, and I'm fully confident that this is a minor concern, and will not affect the course of our overall objectives."
The rage boiling inside him was rising. "Sir! The Eastern Bloc has begun moving in on Federation systems. Do you seriously believe they'll leave the consulate alone?"
"It is of no threat to them. Besides, the Federation…"
In the midst of the diplomat's speech, brilliant blue light started to emanated from his face. His voice had changed into one that the sergeant was all too familiar with, Polaris. The werewolf knew that voice. His totem spoke through the mouth of the man in front of him. "…you don’t have much time."
While the official and his staff were oblivious to the Voice, Alistar knew it was right. He snapped back into reality in the middle of the ambassador spouting off about the brotherhood of man. He grabbed him by his finely pressed suit and pulled him near.
"Sir! I am responsible for the safety of you and every member of your staff, not to mention the lives of my men." He growled, as the animal within started to come forth. Rage poured thought his body as his muscles tightened and hair started to grow. "If you wish to stay here and die, then be my guest. But I'm not gonna let you condemn these people as well!" The sergeant released him, leaving the consul's mouth hanging open like a fish.
The staffers around were stunned but his totem was right, they didn't have time for this. Dimiye activated his comm device. "Corporal Johannes, what's our status?"
"1st Squad's hot, sarge, 2nd's still suiting up."
"Send first on perimeter. Cover all firing angles, I want grazing fire on the North and East. We don't wanna start anything we don't have to."
"Got it," she replied, then they cut the connection.
The sergeant pivoted toward the still stunned staffers. "You! Gather all civilian personnel now, meet here in the hall. Carry nothing and be here in five. Anything else is your ass."
A thin beanpole of a man dared to respond. "B… but, sir…" Dimiye didn't hear him as he headed over to the armory to get suited up.
As if on cue, a mob appeared in front of the consulate, staying a good distance from the walls. A few warning shots had kept them at bay, but they were angry, and ready to pounce. 1st Squad was already at the walls, shifting positions with trained precision, always keeping the mass of humanity unnerved. The sergeant was decked out in the Mark 30 battle armor and already scanning the darkening situation with its sensors. Figures; the diplomatic corps never considers the possibility of hostile action, so they leave us these antique suits to fight with. They were good, tested under fire, but against anything resembling modern armies would tear them to bits. The chameleon circuits were currently deactivated; they needed to preserve power, they didn't know when they could recharge the suits again.
He turned back toward the civilians, the suit quickly calculated the numbers around him. 49; there were only twenty of his men, they couldn't jump over the mob with all the civilians with them. They couldn't get them all in one jump before the mob rushed the consulate. How to get the civies out in one piece, that was the question... finally, an answer arose in his mind. It just might work.
"Corporal Tess!" Alistar barked through the comm.
"Go ahead, sir."
"Those merchant marines at dock still sweet on you?"
"Yes or no?"
"I guess, but..."
"Report to my position ASAP. Private Jackson?"
"You still remember how to hot wire a skimmer?"
This might work, he thought. It was risky, but it was better than waiting here to die. For once, he was glad not to be stationed at Showa. The embassy must be knee deep in shit by now. Sure, the consulate didn't offer all the perks the embassy would have, but it was small enough to be overlooked, he hoped.
"All right, apes, is everyone straight on the plan?"
"Yes, sir!" The coarous rang out over the secure comm channel.
"We wait till the enemy gets within 1200 meters then we break. Don't draw fire unless ya have to punch a hole. Benjamin, you and I are the wild weasels."
"But sarge…" Corporal Johannes rang in.
Sergeant Dimiye cut him off, "This is too important and none of you have the experience needed. Besides, I need you to lead the squad if I get hit."
"Affirmative." Johannes said, holding his tongue.
He was a little worried about Peter Benjamin on this one. The kid was without a doubt the best armor jock the squad had to offer, but he was so green he could sprout roots, and… he was just a kid. Then again, the sergeant thought, he's only two years younger than I am. When the hell did I get so old?
"Sarge, 5000 meters and closing!"
Alistar looked out towards the advancing troops. "Everyone at the ready!" They were coming from the Northeast, the direction of the star port; not even bothering to circle the perimeter. It was stupid on their part, but then they outnumbered his platoon more than three to one, and the Eastern Bloc wouldn't be sending second rate troops. Who ever the horse's ass leading them was, he was letting his troopers roar in on full flight mode, even with two fighters coming in with support. We'll make them pay for that waste of fuel.
Some of the advancing troopers opened up at 2000 meters with their gauss rifles, putting neat little holes in the compound's walls, and into some of the crowd gathered bellow. Assholes, he thought; they'll blame that on us.
"Here it comes." Someone said over the comm. He sounded scared… was it Tyler?
"Get ready…BOUNCE!" The sergeant bellowed as the entire troop took off due south. He checked his sensors. The air units were zipping around to the flanks…their armored troopers were keeping their neat little battle line right towards the compound. Perfect; they didn’t notice the civilian transport. "Keep it fast boys, but remember to save enough power for the rally point." He checked his sensors again. Their commanding officer must be surprised as hell. Expecting a valiant last stand and having a route handed to him like this; he's stopping to think. A lot of his units have stopped at the compound. Beautiful.
"Sara Lee, hit it!" She was his demolitions specialist. Her unfortunate name did nothing to tarnish her ability. The massive explosion that followed leveled the consulate and about a third of the troopers following them. Cheers rang over the comm.
"Button up!" The sergeant cried. "This ain't over by damn sight!" He checked his sensors again. Some of the enemy troopers continued to pursue, most were stunned by what happened. The two aerial units were coming in for the pinch.
"Scatter!" He heard one of his own scream. The kid read my mind, the sarge thought. The enemy fliers tucked in together at the last minute to do a strafing run down the center of the squad with little to no effect. Then they turned in mid air to face his advancing squad.
"Juice up your chameleon circuits," Corporal Johannes' voice announced over the comm, "Don't let them get a missile lock."
"Oh f…-" A trooper's voice said over the comm as he exploded into a fireball, as did three others.
"Peter! Get their attention! We've got to lead them away from the rest of the squad if…" He stopped as PFC Benjamin jumped to within 20 meters of one of the craft and put a plasma bolt right into her fuel tank, obliterating it. Then did the same thing to the other a split second latter. Damn, that boy was good.
Cheers rang over the comm again, but the air units had slowed the squad enough to let the enemy armor gain some ground. They were back in a meat grinder with four men down and kilometers to cover. " B Quad, rear guard with me." The sergeant said as he blasted a trooper back to his ancestors. "Johannes, Benjamin! You two take point, lets move it ladies!" Within seconds, the three troops from B Quad joined ranks with their commander. Hum, Alistar thought; Donaldson must have taken a missile. Were down to fifteen, Dear God, lets keep it that way.
It had been a little over an hour since they left the consulate, it felt like much, much longer; it always does. Three more men were down, two of them from B Quad, wounded. The enemy's gauss rifles were more accurate at longer ranges then their plasma cannons and it had taken its toll. Jimmy Kemper probably wouldn't make it, poor kid. He always thought Kemper was about as useless as tits on a bull. But when he got pulled up to rear guard he fought like a tiger. Goes to show that you never can tell.
"Listen up! Were a little over two clicks away from the safe zone. Everybody maintain, or it's your ass!" No sooner had he said that when a large blip appeared on his sensors at 20,000 ft.
"Sir, troop carrier, five o'clock high!!!"
"I see it, let's step it up ladies!" This was bad. They must have really pissed them off to get this kind of attention. That class of troop carrier can hold an entire armored infantry company, and their suits will undoubtedly have full air capability.
"Maybe we should have made a stand at the consulate." Corporal Johannes said wistfully.
"Too late now. I just hope Tess and Jackson have had more luck than we have." Alistar said, sounding bemused, which was quite out of character for him. He was unconsciously recalling his training. The worse the situation, the more relaxed you should sound; a simple, yet effective command technique.
"There it is!" A trooper chirped over the comm, "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your entire life!"
At the moment, Alistar couldn't think of anything to compare with the beauty of what laid before them. "No," he said over the comm, "I don't think I have." A huge wave of relief washed over his body. My god, I didn't think we'd get this far! They finally reached the Yarobi Hills.
The Yarobi Hills has been home to the richest and most influential members of Chiatzo society for years. Home to politicians with enough money and influence, rich industrialists, shipping tycoons, powerful shoguns, etc. Dozens of absolutely beautiful estates owned by the elite of Khmer society, each with a price tag equal to the GNP of a small colony. Set scenically on the outskirts of the city with lots of beautiful rolling hills, schools, private residences, parks, gardens; you get the idea. All of this at a high elevation in almost the exact opposite direction that the star port is to the consulate, and the last place you want to bring a battle to.
The men and women of the Federation's Tech Infantry jumped joyfully up and down the streets of Yarobi Hills, their safe zone, their corridor to freedom, as the troopers from the troop carrier rained down towards them. What was a second ago a grim specter was now nothing more than annoying insects.
"You fuckers are too late!" A trooper cried out.
As if the offending soldiers had heard him, an entire company of men turned back to their mother ship which was moving off to cut off their escape. Alistar felt like singing, he felt like picking wild flowers. Moments later, a cry went out over the comm, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" It was Pvt. Jimmy Kemper, and they were the last words he would ever speak. The heart of every man and woman in the squad immediately went into their throats; and PFC Benjamin, who had been carrying his fallen brother on his back, began to weep.
Sergeant Dimiye shook his head and forced himself to evaluate the situation at hand. They couldn't stay here forever. If worse came to worse they could hold up here longer then they ever could've at the consulate. Months if need be. That would involve taking hostages though. He wasn't sure his squad had the stomach for that. He checked the time. One minute and change till the scheduled rendezvous. He quickly went on the comm.
"Free Bird, this is Decoy, over?" Silence.
"Free Bird, this is Decoy, are you receiving, over?" He was about to try again when a gigantic object showed up on his sensors. He looked up just in time to see the Federation Merchant Frigate Veracruz rain fire down upon the enemy troop carrier. Within seconds the carrier exploded into an orange fireball, taking its contingent of armored troops with it.
"Decoy, this is Free Bird." It was Corporal Tess.
"Go ahead Free Bird." The sergeant said in his customary tone of voice.
"You boys better haul ass. We've got a real narrow launch window and this LZ's about to get hot!"
"Copy that Free Bird, commence with evac.”
The sky was filled with the smell of burning plasma and charred rock. Justine Macoure huddled the boulder as the blazing sun beat down on them. Figures, she thought, they land on a tropical planet, and they get ambushed in the only open area in the entire damn jungle! “Cianan, can you take them out?!”
The freckled brown-haired man shook his head. “Are you kidding? They’ve got us pinned seven ways to Sunday!”
“Heh, heh… I can do it.” Freak answered, as another plasma bolt lanced above his head.
“Buddha, no!” Rebecca shot back. “Last time he took care of anything, like those assholes on Babylon, he practically killed us with them!”
“Have you got a better idea?!” Justine gasped, firing her plasma revolver back without even aiming. Rebecca shook her head. Macoure looked over at Freak. “Do it.”
The shaggy-haired man chuckled loudly as he reached into his bag. He tossed out bit after bit of junk; some of it was explosive, some of it disgusting, some of it… unidentifiable. Finally he found something that looked like a spiked ball. Chuckling even louder, it turned into a giggle. “Watch this!” he said, before pitching it over the rocks.
The ball dropped close to the enemy and then there was a explosive WHUMP! The ball shot out its spikes in all directions. Each spike had a heavy chemical charge on the end. Wherever the spike hit, things exploded. Bursts of unholy flame burst everywhere. The blast was enough to pitch Justine thirty feet in the air, smashing her back against the open ground. When the flame receeded, the girl managed to get to her feet and see the burning remains of suits of light armor. “Is everyone all right?” she called out.
“I’m going to kill that son-of-a-bitch!” Rebecca threw a boulder into the air as she managed to gain her footing. “FREAK! Where the fuck are you!”
Cianan discovered that he was still alive. “Becky, let him go.”
“NO!” The angry and incredibly strong woman roared. “This time the bastard has gone too far!”
“I did take them out. Heh, heh…” Freak’s voice echoed through the shattered wasteland.
Rebecca pivoted around to try and find the source of the sound. “Freak! Come out and show yourself! Let’s see if you’ve got the balls!”
“Becky!” Justine interrupted, trying desperately to calm her down. “We don’t have time for this!”
“Why not?! The little turd’s been asking for it since we landed in this swamp!”
“Look, if the Light Infantry can track us in the middle of the jungle, then they can send more of them to finish us off, right?” Rebecca stopped shouting for a second and thought about it. Finally, she sighed, and nodded her head. Justine smiled, “Okay, let’s get out of here.” She took a final look over the charred landscape, then shouted out, “Freak, meet us back at the ship!”
“Heh, heh, heh… sure.”
Why had they come to the Van Diemen System? Simple, they were broke. After breaking the big wheel on New Pretoria Station in Deseret, the Jurvain 4th fleet had to come in and ruin everything by invading the system. They only got out of there by bribing the Lord Over... whatever into ignoring their sensor readings as they booked it to the jumpgate. However, it cost all their winnings and then some. So here were a bunch of hard-core party animals, out of luck, out of cash, and desperately running out of fuel. The Derision’s fusion core needed a recharge so the hyperspace engines could only make one jump. A friend of Wilhelm’s (safely back on the ship, damn him) had said where to get some wild fairy lace. That drug made a pretty penny, and although there was an awful lot of it here, it would get them enough credits to get out-system and to where some real action was.
After slugging their way through thick foilage and throat-burning stench, the three of them made it back to the edge of Cayborn Junction, the shantytown which had grown up around the shuttle transfer station. Rebecca muttered to herself, “I’m going to get to that saloon, order a big glass of Red Nox, and force it down that bastard Chambers throat!”
“Now, Becky,” Justine replied calmly, trying anything she could to calm the giant’s temper, “we don’t know that Chambers ratted us out to the LI.”
“I do.” Cianan shot back, spitting the last bit of hornbuck leaf out of his mouth. “Let’s get him.”
“But the rest of the team’s at the orbital station.”
“We don’t need them.” Rebecca muttered, lifting her fists, “I only need these babies here. Let me just get a hold of him once…”
Hex sat in the white-washed room, beating the four-dimensional chess game for the fifth time. It was embarrassingly easy… and this was supposed to be the best game computer in the Federation! He just cast it aside and watched with amusement as the pieces fell all over the floor. He was calculating their trajectory relationships in his head while the doctor came in the door. “It’s not nice to be throwing your toys around.”
“Doctor Xaktos!” Hex cheerfully went over and gave him a hug. The doctor was the only person he had ever really loved. In fact, he was one of the few people he ever known. He had vague memories of a life before the Center, but it was nothing more than blurs and incoherent images.
“Please, Hex, calm yourself! It’s not like I haven’t been checking on you.”
The teenager blinked, looked over at the hidden camera emplacements, and smiled. Yes, they always cared for him; watched over him. It was like a warm blanket, reassuring him that the world was all right, that his training was perfect. “What is it today? Archery? Knives? Tactics?”
“No more training, Hex. This time you’re going out on your own.”
His voice thudded against the blank walls of his home. Leave? What could he mean? “What?”
“Your training is complete. We now need you to do great work for the Federation.”
“But… leave the Center?”
“You’ve done it before.” The doctor reassured him.
“Only with you, doctor. Don’t make me go. Please!”
“You’re a big boy now. You need to spread your wings and test yourself.”
“I…” he tried to protest, but all he could see was the doctor’s eyes, compelling to do his duty. Hex couldn’t refuse; he loved him. Finally, he bowed his head.
“That’s better. Your mission is to travel to New Paris System and root out the traitor Mary Obanye. She was a senator before she betrayed the Federation to its enemies. She’s gone into hiding lately and we need you to find her… and eliminate her.”
Hex smiled; he could never refuse a challenge. Find a single person in one of the most populous systems in the Federation? That was worthy of his mettle. “Okay.”
“Good boy.” The door swung open behind the doctor. “Report to Security and get the necessary equipment and your transportation voucher.”
“Thank you, Doctor Xaktos!” Hex cheered, running out the door.
The scientist muttered around the room, looking at its sparse surroundings, and remembering. Suddenly, a hidden speaker burst to life. “Doctor?”
“Do you think you’re making the right decision about Patient 6-1-8?”
“How can we test the results if he never leaves?”
“But… do you think he can make it through the Resistance’s security? He could die out there and our research is over.”
“Well,” the doctor groaned, “we have others. One boy is expendable.”
END OF PROLOGUE
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved. Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you do find a microscopic camera on your chair.