part one | part two
I shifted my weight from my right foot to my left uncomfortably, then back again. The maintenance uniform I was wearing felt like a burlap sack, and fit about as well.
"Audren, Maximilian." The man in front of me looked about as uneasy as I felt as he stared into the retinal scanner and spoke his name into the audio pickup. "Audren, Maximilian."
After a moment, the terminal beeped and lit up green. The security guard waved Mr. Audren through the checkpoint. "Next."
Stepping up to the checkpoint, I inserted my badge into the receptacle and planted my face against the retinal scanner.
"Name, please," the computer requested in a voice that tried but failed to sound pleasant.
"Norbert, Harris." A red light swept from right to left across my field of view as I shuddered inwardly, then back again. "Norbert, Harris."
The moment of truth. The next second or so seemed to stretch on forever as I prayed for a green light. Then I was shuffling through the checkpoint, trying to prevent my so-called "uniform" from rubbing my skin raw.
"Harris Norbert," I muttered to myself. "Whoever came up with that is getting shot."
Entering the men's restroom, I locked myself in the far stall and retrieved a small bundle from behind the toilet, an earpiece communicator and a pocket tool that was the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife on steroids. Lots of steroids.
Fitting the earpiece into my ear, I clenched my jaw to turn it on. "White Knight to White King."
There was the faint hiss of static. "This is White King. Go ahead, White Knight."
"Acknowledged, White Knight. Proceed with mission as outlined."
"Copy that. Oh, and White King?"
"Let whoever picked out my ID know that they're going to have a little talk with me when I get back."
I heard distant laughter. "Will do, White Knight. White King out." The static ceased.
My name, fortunately, is not Harris Norbert. It is Jerek Steale-Salis'd'ar. I am part of the rebel group known as the Insurrection, and I was on a mission to infiltrate the Imperial shipyard in orbit around Earth. So far, so good.
I pocketed the multitool and flushed the toilet. Thanks to subvocalizers built into the earpiece, the only thing anyone in the stall next to me would have heard as I talked to mission control was me muttering to myself while I took a dump. Isn't technology great?
Leaving the restroom, I grimaced. The maintenance uniform was becoming more uncomfortable by the minute. Looking around, I hurried to join a group of about a half dozen maintenance workers heading down the corridor.
As I approached, one of the workers groaned. "I hate these uniforms." Oh, good. I wasn't the only one.
"Quiet," somebody else snapped. "They monitor these hallways."
"Hi, guys," I put in. "Where are we headed?"
The one who had complained about the uniforms glanced at me. "The construction bays. You new here?"
"Uh, yeah. Just transferred in from the Marches."
He looked surprised. "You're a long way from home."
I shrugged. "Too much excitement out there. Too many raids." Which was technically true, except that the Insurrection was doing a lot of the raiding on the Empire. Not that I needed to mention that.
He smiled. "I know how that is." He stuck out his hand. "Roj D'Atali-D'Arnan."
I lifted my eyebrows as he pumped my hand enthusiastically. "D'Atali-D'Arnan? Outworlds?"
He looked pleased that I'd noticed. "That's right."
I whistled. "Talk about a long way from home."
We had stopped in front of a set of heavy blast doors, the kind that can take a hit from a starship and keep standing. On either side of the door was an Imperial trooper.
"You need Level 5 Clearance to enter the construction bays."
I stepped up to the retinal scanner, my heart racing. Usually I was shooting these guys, not exchanging nods with them.
"Norbert, Harris," I said. "Norbert, Harris."
"Level 5 cleared," the computer intoned. The blast doors rumbled open, and I stepped through.
To understand the actual scale of the Earth Orbital shipyards, there are a few things you need to know. First, the starships being built in the shipyards range in length from a half kilometer to four kilometers. This, in itself, is a big operation, since most starships are no bigger than a few hundred meters, at most.
Second, at any given time, there are between twelve and forty ships under construction. That's between twenty and one-hundred sixty kilometers of ship being built at any one time.
Of course, the number of workers, engineers, technicians, security personnel, programmers, and so on that are required for an operation of this scale is enough to populate a large city. Insurrection Intel isn't quite sure on exact numbers, but their best guess is upwards of a million. One million people from literally hundreds of worlds across the galaxy, and every one of them with a security clearance high enough that if they were to board a civilian starbase, nobody would even question them as to why they were there.
That's what I saw as I stepped out onto the causeway, a glasteel tube extending along the entire working length of the shipyard.
"It's really something, isn't it?" I turned. The Outworlder, Roj, was standing next to me.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. It's amazing." I was thinking of the Insurrection's shipyard. It was about a fifth of the size and had, on a good day, about a third of the workload capacity. Admiral Selis, the man in charge of starship production within the Insurrection, would kill to have the Earth Orbital shipyard under his command, or at least to make it unusable to the Empire.
"It kind of loses its appeal when you've worked down on a rig." Roj laughed. "Of course, most things lose their appeal up close." He shrugged. "Oh well, let's go. Our crew is in Bay Seven today."
We walked about fifty meters to the nearest transport dock and boarded the transport. When you have a shipyard as big as Earth Orbital, it's no longer possible for workers to walk to their job sites. So the Empire uses small shuttles for transport. Yet another facet of shipyard logistics -- air traffic control.
"Where to, boys?" the pilot asked as we boarded.
"Bay Seven," somebody replied. The pilot punched the location into the computer, and we were off. The total trip was about seven minutes, during which I reviewed my mission assignment internally.
* * *
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
Admiral Dar'Kallis looked up as I entered his office.
"Commander Steale. Please sit down." I'd known Dar'Kallis for five years, and he still insisted on the formalities. I remained standing. "I'm going to be forward, Jerek." About time. "We might have a very large problem, very soon."
"What can you tell me about a man named Renard Anatolya? I understand you've had a run in with him in the past."
"Earth native. Former Imperial officer. Current ties with several pro-Imperial factions. Brilliant strategist and engineer."
"And your previous encounter with him?"
"I'd prefer not to talk about it."
"Very well. Anything else?"
"Not that I can think of. Oh, Anatolya's current whereabouts are unknown."
"Until about 0700 yesterday."
"Anatolya turned up yesterday at Earth Orbital. The Imperial shipyard."
"What do you want me to do about it?"
"Go to the shipyard. Find out what our friend Renard is up to. Your extraction team will meet you when your mission is complete."
"When do I leave?"
* * *
As we exited the shuttle, I quickly surveyed the situation. The ship being built in Bay Seven was almost completed. It wasn't large, relatively speaking, but it wasn't small, either. I guessed about a kilometer and a half long. About two hundred personnel working on it at any given moment. Nobody would miss one worker, time to start looking for Anatolya.
Splitting off from the work crew, I sprinted down past the next team and stopped at the lift. Checking to make sure I wasn't being watched, I stepped inside.
"White King, come in."
"White King here. Go ahead, White Knight."
"Where is Black Queen? Any positive location?"
"Uh, negative, White Knight. Last we heard, Black Queen had been stationed on one of the sublevels, but we're not sure which one. You may want to start there."
"Copy that, will do."
"Be careful, White Knight."
"White Knight out." I looked at the wall diagram, trying to decide where I'd start first. "Sublevel Four."
The computer beeped. "Sublevel four has been designated as a restricted area. Authorized personnel only."
Jackpot. And on my first try, too. I grinned briefly, then activated the earpiece comm. "White King."
"Get me Soule on the line."
"All right, give me a minute."
Eric Soule. Eighteen years old, and already the best slicer in the Insurrection. Probably top ten percent in the galaxy.
The earpiece crackled. "Yeah."
"Eric. I need to ask you a favor."
"You up to breaking into Earth Orbital and getting me authorization to access Sublevel Four?"
"Earth Orbital?" He sounded a little dubious.
"It's important, Eric."
"All right, what do you need?"
"Security clearance high enough to go downstairs. Oh, and some toys, if you can open a weapons locker for me."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, man. I owe you one."
"Uh huh. Smile for the camera."
I looked up. I couldn't see it, but I didn't doubt that it could see me. I flashed a brief grin.
"Nice teeth. Ok, leave the lift, hang a left. About twenty-five meters is a door. That's your weapons locker. You'll have about thirty seconds once you get there, so hurry."
I left the lift and half walked, half ran to the locker. "Ok."
"Remember, thirty seconds and you'll be locked in. Go!"
The door slid open and I sprinted inside. The locker was about three meters wide and six meters long, lined with the Empire's standard issue laser rifles. At the far end was the explosive munitions. Grenades, fun.
Grabbing a rifle, I hesitated, then slung it over my back and grabbed another. Then I pocketed three grenades and ran out of the room.
"Twelve seconds to spare," Eric said. "You're getting slower, Jerek."
"Thanks," I grunted.
"Ok, about the security clearance. There's a small problem."
"The security level encryption is a little weird, it's hard wired to the system or something."
I stopped. "What are you telling me?"
"I can't change your security clearance without somebody noticing."
"What do you suggest we do?" I started walking again.
"Well, if I change only your security clearance, it's going to take about eight seconds before they freeze you and you can't even get into a bathroom stall."
"But, if I change everyone's security clearance, it could take a while. From what I can see, the computer's safeguarded against freezing massive numbers of accounts."
"Eric, I like the way you think. Ok, I'm in the lift. Now what?"
"Let me go change the clearances."
"Tell me when you're finished."
"Ok, they're running now... Get ready when I tell you."
Outside the lift, I heard alarms going off, and I grinned. Good old mischief and mayhem, as usual.
"Ok!" Eric said. "Go! Now!"
"Sublevel Four!" I snapped. The lift started to move, and I tightened my grip on the laser rifle.
Only years of combat training and intuition saved me from buying the farm as the lift doors slip open. I hit the deck firing as laser blasts erupted outside. Either these guys had orders to shoot on sight, or they had really itchy trigger fingers. Or both. I hit one, possibly two, troopers before I had a half-dozen laser rifles aimed straight at my head.
"Drop it! Drop it now!" somebody screamed. Still lying prone, I shoved the rifle away from me.
"Stand up! Slowly!" Mind going about a million lightyears a minute trying to think of how I could get out of this without being killed or captured, I got to my feet. The odds didn't look too promising.
"Go get him," somebody ordered. The squad leader, I guessed. One of the troopers started forward.
Up until this time, the lift had just been sitting there with its doors open, since I had been lying in the path of its sensor. Now, it started to slide shut. I decided that now was the time to make it or break it.
I palmed a grenade and armed it. At the same time, the troopers lunged forward, trying to stop the door from closing.
Winding up, I pitched the grenade as hard as I could into the nearest one's head. It would have made one of those baseball players from Earth proud.
An Imperial trooper's armor is designed to offer maximum mobility, mostly at the expense of protection. It will guard against some energy weapons and most low-scale kinetic impacts, but a grenade fastball traveling at upward of 150 kilometers an hour falls a little outside of "low-scale." The trooper's faceplate shattered, and he stumbled, screaming and clutching his face. As the doors slid shut, I heard the distinct THOOM of a concussion grenade.
"Hold!" I ordered. I unslung the laser rifle that I had on my back, glad I'd thought to pack a spare. "Open the doors!"
Threat eliminated. The trooper that had taken my grenade to the face was mostly obliterated. The others were either dead or unconscious, I couldn't tell, and didn't really care. I took off down the corridor before reinforcements could arrive.
As I rounded the corner, I saw two troopers conversing with a uniformed man. Officer, by the pips on his collar. I fired twice as I closed the distance, then slammed the officer into the wall, pressing the laser rifle into the back of his head, before the two troopers had even hit the ground.
"Where's Anatolya?" I demanded.
"I don't know what--" He stopped talking as I shoved the rifle forward, cramming his face into the wall. I heard his nose breaking.
"I'm gonna ask one more time before the wall's wearing your brains. Where's Anatolya?"
His voice was muffled by the wall and distorted with pain, but understandable. "In his Ops Room."
"Better. Take me there." I brought the rifle away from his head. He snuffled, and I saw the blood running from his nose. "Now." He started walking slowly, and I prodded him in the small of the back. "Hurry it up."
He stopped in front of an unmarked blast door, about ten meters down the corridor. Not as big a blast door as the one I had gone through to get onboard the shipyard, but a blast door none the less. "No heroics," I told him. "Just open the door."
He punched an access code into the terminal, and the door rumbled open. Inside, I saw an Operations Room that rivaled the War Room back at Insurrection Base. I hesitated.
"Commander Steale. Please come in."
And there he was, sitting in a converted command chair, the same as I remembered him. A few more wrinkles, maybe, a little more gray hair, but the same voice, the same piercing eyes. The same mind.
“Please, don’t be rude, Commander. Come in.”
Still pressing the laser rifle against the back of the officer’s head, I stepped into the room, almost shooting him as the blast door thudded shut behind me. A pair of marines that I hadn’t been able to see from the corridor had their laser rifles leveled on my head, twin aiming markers hovering around my temples, one on either side of my head.
The officer tried to step away from me, but I clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?” He stopped moving and snuffled again, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
Anatolya regarded me with amusement for a moment. “Please come forward. It’s more comfortable to speak with you face to face.” I glanced at the two marines on either side of me. Anatolya must have noticed, because he said, “Don’t mind the marines, Commander. They are simply insurance against your trying anything… rash.”
Inclining my head in an “I suppose” manner, I prodded the officer forward, following behind him. About five paces from where Anatolya was seated, I stopped.
“Much better.” Anatolya peered at me over steepled fingers. “Now. Tell me why you have come here, Commander. Inquiring minds want to know.”
“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
There was a momentary pause. “I see. You are playing messenger for the fools in Insurrection Command again, then?”
“You might say that.” I shifted my grip on the laser rifle, causing the officer to whimper. I ignored him.
“Yes. Then tell me, why the heavy-handed tactics?” The marines were edging closer, although they were obviously making an attempt not to be noticed.
I raised an eyebrow. “What?”
He returned the gesture. “Hostages, Commander? There was a time when you wouldn’t have needed to resort to such methods to accomplish your goals.”
I shrugged. “Getting old, I guess.” The marines were a dozen paces from me now, give or take. “Losing my touch.”
“A pity.” He smiled congenially. “You realize that you’re probably not going to walk away from this alive.”
“Of course. Standard procedure.” Eleven paces.
He nodded. “Of course.”
“Which means that you’re going to tell me what you’re doing here, right?” Ten paces.
He chuckled. “No, Commander. What that means is that I am first going to torture you for every last bit of knowledge you possess, and then kill you slowly and painfully.”
“That would have been my second guess.” Nine…
“Then let him go and surrender now. It will make things easier on yourself.”
“No.” Eight paces. I clubbed the officer across the back of the head with the butt of the rifle, twisted around to fire off a covering shot that completely missed both marines, then armed a grenade, keeping the detonation safety firmly depressed. The officer pitched face-first into the ground, his nose crunching again as he landed. I trained my rifle on one of the marines. They both looked ready to shoot me, grenade or no.
“Hold your fire,” Anatolya ordered them. He turned to me. “Well, Commander. It appears that the tides have changed.”
“It appears so. Start talking.”
He reached into his jacket, staring me in the eyes the whole time. I removed my thumb from the detonation safety. The marines lunged forward, and I prepared to die. Two shots and both of the marines ended their lunges in a heap on the ground. I looked up. Anatolya was holding a small laser pistol and staring at me calmly.
“Please disarm the grenade, Commander.”
I flicked the grenade back into ready mode and pocketed it. “What…?”
He cut me off with a quick hand gesture. “Just listen. I’m jamming any and all emissions from this room, so we don’t have much time before they come to check it out. What I’m about to tell you is for your ears only, do you understand? Yours only.”
* * *
“Commander Steale. Please sit down.” I remained standing. “I read your mission report, Jerek.” I said nothing. “The loss of your extraction team does not reflect well on you, especially considering that, by all accounts, the mission was a failure.”
“I understand, sir.”
Dar’Kallis stood, hands clasped behind his back. “No, I don’t think that you do.”
He looked me directly in the eyes. “Jerek, what happened out there? You don’t fail missions, and you’ve never lost an extraction team.”
“Things went wrong,” I replied. “I made a mistake. With all due respect, sir, you read the report.”
He sighed. “I know, Jerek. I just…”
He shook his head. He looked old. “Nothing. It’s nothing. Dismissed.” As I left, he called out to me. “Jerek.” I looked over my shoulder. “Understand that whatever happened out there, I’m sure it was for the best.”
He held my gaze for a few seconds, searching my face. Then I nodded.
The door whooshed shut behind me as I walked slowly down the corridor.