part one | part two
“Lanwolf under fire! Repeat, Lanwolf under fire!”
It was a dream, a nightmare. It was a little too fuzzy around the edges, a little lacking in clarity, to be real. I knew it, but I couldn’t wake up. Instead, I was trapped in the cockpit of my starfighter, Vengeance, fighting a losing battle against impossible odds. I maneuvered through crisscrossing webs of friendly and enemy fire, opening fire when I saw the opportunity, trying to work my way toward the Insurrection flagship, the Lanwolf. From what I could see on my tactical sensor display, so was any Insurrection ship in the vicinity.
“Delta and Rogue squadrons are down. Frigate groups one and three are down. Attack cruiser group…”
I skimmed the hull of a friendly attack cruiser, shielding myself with its mass, then peeled away and gunned through a dogfight taking place ahead of me. Several hits exploded in a rainbow of colors on my shields before I cleared the battle. I put the Lanwolf in my sights and dumped all the power I had into engines.
“Lanwolf needs support! All ships, rally to Lanwolf! Repeat, rally to Lanwolf!”
The Vengeance groaned in protest and I was momentarily pushed back into my seat before the inertial compensators kicked in. Ignoring the rapidly declining shield display, I gritted my teeth and screamed through the pincher blockade that had split our fleet in two. Some kind of explosive ordnance detonated behind me, and I rode the rest of the way out of the blockade on its blast.
The Lanwolf was listing severely, venting coolant in several places. Surrounding Insurrection ships were trying to protect it, to draw fire, but they weren’t having much success. Beam after beam of starfighter weaponry and heavier shipboard cannons pounded into it, already forming a halo of vaporized armor plating.
Checking my tactical display, I saw that the Insurrection ships in this area were a disorganized mess, with each ship acting as an individual unit, instead of part of an organized whole. I saw strike cruisers going after wings of starfighters and leaving larger ships free to attack.
“Commander Jerek Steale-Salis’d’ar to any Insurrection ships in the area. Concentrate fire on those starships; leave the fighters alone! Repeat, concentrate fire on –“
The firing stopped. Scores of new firing solutions resolved themselves on my sensors, each on an impact course with the Lanwolf. I recognized them immediately. Trapped by indecision and the inability to do anything, I slammed my fist into the console. “Dammit!”
“Enemy ordnance on collision course with Lanwolf; hell, there are a lot of them! All ships, deploy countermeasures!”
Suddenly battle-weary, I keyed the comm. “Belay that.”
“What? We can’t just—“
“They’re not ordnance! They’re boarding pods!” I snapped.
The comm fell silent. I watched as dozens of the pods impacted with our flagship, the symbol of the Insurrection’s power in space. Already the enemy starships were moving in, extending their shields to cover the Lanwolf from any final acts of desperation we might make; namely, destroying her to prevent her from falling into enemy hands.
“All ships, full retreat. This battle is over.”
And then the comm echoed with the silence, accented by the sight of drive trails moving toward our flagship, soon to be in enemy hands.
* * *
I awoke with a start, sweating profusely, sheets in a tangled mess around my feet. Groaning, I rolled onto my stomach and groped for the comm unit I found it.
“Eric.” Eric Soule. He wasn’t on op duty at the moment, but I didn’t really want to talk to an operator right now.
There was no response for almost a full minute, then he replied, voice thick with sleep. “Yeah?”
“What’s the status of the Lanwolf?”
“What… do you know what time it is, Jerek?”
“I’m aware. What’s the status?”
I heard keystrokes. “It’s docked in orbit right now. Why?”
“I…” I sighed. “Nothing. Just a bad dream, I guess.”
He grunted. “Nice try.”
“You’ve never come crying to me about nightmares before. What’s going on?”
“I had… a dream.”
“So you’ve said.”
“The Lanwolf got captured. It seemed too real… it was weird.”
“What did you eat for dinner?” I could hear the sarcasm in his voice.
“Hah. Funny guy, Eric.”
“No, but really, it’s just a dream. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to bed.”
I rolled onto my back and checked my watch. I didn’t particularly want to go back to sleep, but nobody but the night shift would be up for another two hours. Making a decision, I put my pants on and took the lift down to the firing range.
I wasn’t the only one there; the firing range was never completely empty, but what surprised me was the man in the stall next to me. Admiral Dar’Kallis, out of uniform and in fatigues, unloading a laser pistol on a practice target. I watched him until he noticed me.
“Commander Steale,” he said. “You’re up early.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” I replied. Gesturing to the pistol, I said, “You’re a pretty good shot with that, sir.”
He held up a hand. “No ‘sirs,’ please. We’re off duty.” He smiled. “And yes, I suppose I am.” He paused. “I should hope so, anyway. I’ve been shooting them since before you were born.”
We passed the better part of an hour in silence, each of us lost in our respective thoughts as we vented our private frustrations on the targets. Then he glanced over at me and said, “Something bothering you, Jerek?”
I holstered my pistol and turned to face him, searching him. The suspicion was there after my last mission, but it was mostly just concern for a friend. I relaxed. “Has Intelligence reported anything about Imperial fleets gathering recently?”
Dar’Kallis thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Why? Do you know something that we should know?”
I shook my head. “No. Just a feeling, that’s all.” I whipped my pistol out of its holster and fired three shots from the hip. All bulls-eyes. I calmly replaced the weapon.
Dar’Kallis didn’t look impressed. “No, in fact, Intelligence reports that things have been pretty quiet as of late, which is rather worrisome, considering the appearance of three of the network’s top surveillance targets.”
In addition to the return to public light of Reynard Anatolya, two others had also surfaced, both extremely brilliant engineers. The fact that the three of them had cropped up so close together had Insurrection Command on its toes. I nodded but said nothing.
“They might feel a little better if we were more certain of the Empire’s plans for Anatolya,” he continued, looking at me pointedly. “But since we are not, there’s a lot of uncertainty and speculation going around.”
“That’s pretty much SOP for Command, isn’t it, sir?”
Dar’Kallis almost laughed. Almost. Instead he said, “Yes, well. Report to my office at 0630, Commander.” Holstering his pistol, he started to walk away.
“For what, sir?”
He didn’t even look back as he strode away. “Mission briefing.”
* * *
I wasn’t the only one in the Admiral’s office. There were almost a dozen of them, seated around Dar’Kallis’ desk in chairs that were a little too small. Marines, mostly, with a few specialists. A few faces that I recognized, one or two that I knew by name, but mostly anonymous.
“It will,” the Admiral was saying as I entered the room, “be a hit-and-run operation, a surgical – Commander Steale. Please come in. Take a seat.”
I shook my head at a proffered cup of coffee as I settled in the chair, leaning forward on the back with my hands under my chin.
“As I was saying, this mission is a surgical strike to deal with a… problem that has come up recently.”
“What’s the target?” someone asked.
“Not what, who.” Dar’Kallis corrected. “One of Insurrection Intelligence’s primary surveillance targets, Doctor Edward Kassinger, recently turned up on an Imperial starbase in the Agaundan system. You will go in, find this man, and get him out alive.”
“Stealth imperative?” One of the marines, in typical break-it-and-shoot-it fashion.
Dar’Kallis shook his head. “Due to uncertainty of how long Kassinger will remain on the starbase before he is moved, this mission is smash and grab. Whatever force your team deems necessary to extract Dr. Kassinger, but I stress that he must be taken alive, preferably still in a condition to be interrogated.” He looked around at us. “Any other questions?”
Iain Lane, one of the specialists present that I happened to know by name, spoke. “Commander Steale will be leading the mission?” I saw where this was heading right away. I usually led any mission that I was part of, partly from merit, partly from complicated circumstances that I won’t go into right now. Except that I usually didn’t fail missions as disastrously as I had.
Dar’Kallis shook his head. “No. Commander Dis will be heading this mission.” He looked at me. “And Commander Steale will follow any orders given. To the T.”
I refused to be baited. “Who’s operating this mission?” Another thing – I always had Eric Soule operating any mission that I was part of; I refused to entrust my life in that way to anyone else. Insurrection Command knew this, and if they were feeling particularly vindictive…
“Arvaad N’kale,” Dar’Kallis replied, the look on his face daring me to argue. Several others in the room started to look vaguely uncomfortable.
I took the dare. “Ensign N’kale isn’t qualified to op a mission of this magnitude, Admiral. In fact, he’s shown the propensity to break down under extreme stress such as this mission may present.”
“Commander Dis specifically requested Ensign N’kale for this mission, Commander,” Dar’Kallis returned evenly. “If you have a problem with that, you can file it in your report after the mission is over.”
The others were beginning to look acutely uncomfortable. I simply nodded. “Yes. Sir.”
* * *
“Drop from hyperspace in five minutes, twelve seconds and counting.”
I had my entire arsenal laid out in front of me – my laser pistol, a standard-issue laser rifle, a combat knife, and a pair of frag grenades. My tactical vest was already strapped on, tightened, and itching under my clothes. I shifted uncomfortably as I holstered the pistol, slung the rifle across my back, slid the knife into its boot sheath, and clipped the grenades to my belt, and then I was ready.
“Drop from hyperspace in four minutes, forty-seven seconds and counting.”
I looked around at the rest of the team. Dis, Iain Lane, Ben-Rashad, the only ones I knew by name. The rest I hadn’t even bothered to learn. I normally would have, but I wasn’t heading this mission, and saw no reason to go out of my way to do so.
The marines were in the back of the transport having their pre-mission powwow, and the relative silence was punctuated by a wordless grunt as they threw their hands into the air. I smiled and shook my head, moving up to the airlock.
“Commander Steale.” I turned. It was Dis.
“I…” he hesitated. “I just wanted to talk to you about this mission.” I waited. “I’ve never led a personnel extraction before, and I was hoping that you could offer some pointers on how we should run this thing.”
“Run it by the book,” I replied.
He looked crestfallen. “Yes, but you never…” He trailed off.
“I never run things by the book.”
A single nod. “Exactly.”
“Look, Commander,” I responded, facing him. “This mission is no time for heroics. Just stick to what you’ve been taught, and you’ll do fine.”
He nodded again. “Yes, sir. I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”
I mused on that a moment as he left me alone. He wasn’t really required to call me “sir.” He carried the same rank that I did, and outranked me by default on this mission. And yet he, and a lot of other people that come into contact with me, called me “sir.” Ah, the benefits of being me.
“Alright, form up, people!” Dis called. “Let’s go!”
We formed up exactly how we had rehearsed; Dis and I near the front, in the middle of the marines, with Lane and Ben-Rashad taking up the rear. I could already hear weapons being readied and armed, which made me a little nervous. All it took was a little too much pre-game jitter, and the deck would be wearing somebody’s grey matter.
“You know the drill,” Dis was saying. “Get in, find Dr. Kassinger, and get out. Try to minimize shooting. If, for any reason, we are split up, everyone is to maintain radio contact at all times. N’kale has the layout of the starbase, so talk to him if you get turned around. Any questions? No? Alright, let’s do it!” The marines started hooting and hollering as I felt the minimal shudder that signified the shift from hyperspace to normal space. We were now running full stealth, and closing to our target fast.
“Hey boys, listen up.” The pilot’s voice came over the comm. “I’m going hard dock with a maintenance port, offload you guys, and jet out of here.”
“You’ll be back when the mission’s over?”
“Yeah. Once you grab Kassinger, security will go through the roof, so you’ll probably have to fight your way back out the airlock, but I’ll be waiting.”
“Good luck.” We felt, rather than heard, the thud of docking. “Overriding airlock security. Have fun, guys.”
* * *
The airlock cycled open with a slight whoosh as the pressure between the two craft was equalized, revealing an empty corridor. We rushed into holding position, covering every possible angle that the Empire could come at us from, and a few that they couldn’t.
Dis consulted quietly with N’kale for a moment, glanced up, then gestured down the hall and said, “This way. Let’s go.” I shook my head as we followed. He should have had the path to Kassinger memorized by now; he was just wasting time and therefore, putting us at risk. I said nothing, however. Let him run the mission how he wanted it run.
Things were quiet as we navigated the maintenance sector of the starbase. No alarms, no personnel, nothing. I mentioned this to Commander Dis.
“Good. That makes our job easier.”
“For now,” I muttered.
“Nothing.” The whole thing smelled like a trap. The marines felt it too; they were silent, looking around as if they expected something to jump out and bite them. I fell back to talk to Iain Lane and Ben-Rashad. The latter had on some sort of jet-black headgear with green lenses, and was scanning the surrounding area.
“Nice glasses,” I told him, falling into step between the two specialists.
“Thanks,” he replied, now staring at the ceiling.
“See anything interesting?”
“What are you seeing?”
He grinned. “Broadband sensor sweep. Any life forms or electronics in the area will show up bright as day.”
I grinned back. “You think we’re walking into a trap too, then?”
Ben-Rashad stopped smiling and nodded, an oddly insectoid gesture with the headgear on. “Yeah. They should have been all over us when we stepped out of that airlock. Something’s not right.”
“Keep that in mind,” I told him as I went back to my position.
Dis hardly glanced at me. “I’d prefer it if you stayed in your position, Commander.”
“I don’t play it by the book, remember?”
His face hardened. “That’s an order.”
I responded to that by drawing my pistol and checking its sights.
“Form up,” Dis growled to the team. “We’re picking up the pace.”
* * *
“You should be almost right on top of Kassinger now.”
I looked around. We were in the middle of the habitation ring, surrounded by doors that led to housing. Being right on top of the good doctor wasn’t that hard of a feat. Finding him might be.
We had gotten this far with only three minor skirmishes and no wounded; it didn’t make any sense. It was like the Empire was letting us walk in and grab Kassinger. The marines had started to relax.
“Where is he?” I asked Dis. “Make the call, Commander.”
Dis looked slightly lost. “N’kale, can’t you be any more specific than that?”
“Sorry, Commander.” I could almost hear him shrug. “That’s the best I’ve got.”
“Dammit,” Dis muttered under his breath. Straightening, he looked around. “Start a room-by-room search of this area. Make a full sweep. Move it, people.”
Ben-Rashad made a low grunting squeak in his throat, and we all turned to look at him. He still had the headgear on, and was staring at the far wall.
“What is it?” Dis asked.
“Enemy spotted, Commander,” he replied in a controlled voice. The marines were instantly ready, weapons up and scanning the area.
“Report. Everybody, spread out! Find Kassinger!”
“Maybe twelve life signs,” Ben-Rashad reported, gesturing to a blast door at the end of the corridor, “and a lot of electronics showing up on the sweep.”
“Kassinger won’t be here, Commander,” I called. “We need to get out of here.”
“Impossible,” Dis insisted. “This is where Command says he is, this is where we’ll look for him. What are they doing?” he asked Ben-Rashad.
“They look like they’re waiting for something.”
“I don’t see anything, Commander.” N’kale said over the comm. “Maybe Ben-Rashad’s headgear is malfunctioning. Picking up starbase systems or something.”
Dis nodded at the same time I shook my head. He gave me a questioning look. “Not likely. Not worth the risk, even if it is. If they’re waiting for us over there, Kassinger will have been moved a long time ago.”
“Movement,” Ben-Rashad reported. “They’re –“
A bone-jarring explosion went off, and it took me a moment to realize that it hadn’t come from the direction that Ben-Rashad had indicated the enemy. It had come from behind us. I spun around, laser pistol already out. An alarm klaxon was already blaring, red lights flashing.
One of the marines had tried to open a door, and a claymore or some similar explosive had gone off within it, turning the marine into a bloody smear on the far wall. I heard somebody gag behind me.
And then the shooting started.
* * *
There were a lot more than twelve of them, Imperial marines that came pouring through the blast door when the claymore went off. We went scrambling for cover, returning fire when we could.
“Um… uh… oh… contact…” N’kale was babbling over the comm.
“Give us something useful or shut the hell up!” I snapped, flattening myself into a doorway and firing blindly across my body.
“They’re coming around from behind!” Ben-Rashad screamed into the comm from where he crouched, pinned in an empty room by suppressing fire.
“Now would be a good time for some commanding, Commander!” I said. I could see Dis from where I was. He looked panicked, eyes wide. I groaned silently.
“Fall back! Everybody fall back!”
The marines started to pull back, spraying everything with weapons fire. I armed a grenade and sidearmed it down the corridor, past the blast doors. “Fire in the hole!”
The confusion brought about by the grenade bought us a few seconds, during which time we pulled around a turn in the corridor. I turned to Ben-Rashad. “Keep an eye out for the ones coming around behind us.”
“I’m in charge of this mission, Commander,” Dis said to my face, “I’ll give the orders.”
“Then start doing it.” I hissed. Looking around, I said, “I’m going to find Kassinger. Meet me back at the transport.”
“No, you’re not.”
“My orders – uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Your orders what?”
“Never mind. Let’s move!” He started going. I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Your orders what, Commander?”
He looked me in the eyes. “My orders say not to let you out of my sight, Commander Steale. Now let’s move before they come after us.”
“Too late,” Ben-Rashad reported. “Multiple contacts, coming in fast.”
A door slid open and gunfire immediately came from the other side. We scattered and ran, shooting at the Imperial marines when we got a shot, with Commander Dis routing with us. No composure, no orders, just scared running. “Ensign N’kale!” I yelled over the noise. No response. “Ensign N’kale!”
“Pull up starbase schematics and tell us where we’re going! Hurry it up!” If Dis wasn’t going to take charge and save our asses, I would, chain-of-command or no. I shouldered a door as it slid open, grunting and rolling with the blow. A shot sizzled past my head, hot and fast.
“Next left – no, next right. Follow it –“ A lucky shot from one of the Imperials caught a marine in the back of the head. He pitched forward screaming. “Oh God! I – I can’t –“
“You’re relieved!” I said, “You are relieved. Get Eric Soule on op pronto!”
“Commander, what are you doing?” Dis yelled at me as we charged headlong down the corridor.
“Saving our asses!”
“Commander, I am in charge of this –“ I swung and pistol whipped him in the mouth, not hard enough to do any real damage, but hard enough to hurt. Only combat training kept him running as blood began to flow. That was probably a court martial, but at this point, I didn’t care.
“Listen to me, Commander Dis. This mission has been a disaster ever since we got here. Do not argue with me, not right now.”
“Jerek, you there?” It was Eric.
“Dammit, what took you so long?” I paused to line up a shot that dropped an enemy marine.
“Oh, I figured that you guys were enjoying a nice walk in the park. What do you need me to do?”
“Funny. Pull up the starbase schematic and find out where the hell we’re supposed to be going.”
“Will do, give me a – got it.”
I was impressed. That was fast, even for Eric. But there was no time for congratulations. “Okay, now get us a bead on Kassinger. The last op just gave us some ‘general location’ bullshit.”
“Mmm hmm… go right.”
I signaled and the team swung right with me in a fluid motion.
“Two hundred meters straight on. He’s being held in a detention cell ‘for his protection.’”
“You’re a lifesaver, Eric.”
“Thank me later. I’m going to go have some fun with a certain few Imperial marines.”
"Having you around is almost like cheating, Eric."
* * *
Iain Lane knelt in front of the control panel for Kassinger’s cell. The marines had broken off pursuit shortly after Eric had started “having fun” with them. The alarms were still going, but we were blocking them out.
Three seconds later, the lock clicked.
“Everybody stand back,” I ordered, aiming my pistol at the door as I keyed it open.
“Please don’t shoot!” Kassinger was cowering behind a chair, covering his head with his hands. “I’m unarmed, don’t shoot!”
I did a quick sweep of the room to make sure it was empty, then prodded him to stand up. “Edward Kassinger? Doctor Edward Kassinger?”
He nodded, and I heard Eric’s voice in my ear. “That’s him, all right.” I whipped my pistol across his temple and he crumpled into a heap. I heard Dis make an angry noise, and his gun was aiming at my head. Then he forced himself to lower the weapon. I cocked an eyebrow.
Turning to one of the larger marines, he gestured to Kassinger. “Pick him up. Let’s get out of here.”
* * *
We were mostly quiet on the way back. I was lost in my own thoughts, Dis was lost in keeping an eye on me, and the rest of them were quiet because of the tension, I think. I focused out the view port to the blackness of hyperspace and listened to the thrum of the hyperdrive, blocking everything else out.
* * *
“Congratulations on a job well done, Commander.”
I regarded Admiral Dar’Kallis carefully. “Thank you, sir. If you don't mind my asking, what, exactly, were Commander Dis' orders?”
Dar'Kallis gave me a hard look. "I do mind your asking, Jerek. That's priviledged information." He paused. “Kassinger is currently undergoing interrogation. From what I hear, it may be a while.”
“He’s not talking?”
“Oh, he’s talking all right. But with the amount of information he’s telling us, we have no idea what’s important and what’s just babble.”
Dar’Kallis measured his next words carefully. “Jerek, there has been some… concern… expressed among some members of Insurrection Command.”
“About your last mission. Some of the top brass seems to think that you… purposely failed your mission, and…” He trailed off.
“That you killed your extraction team to cover it up.”
“The extraction team was dead when I got there. Read my mission report.”
“I have, Jerek. We have. They’re picking it apart right now.”
I hadn’t heard this before. “They’re analyzing my report?”
Dar’Kallis shook his head. “I’ve already said more than I should. Jerek, tell me again. Is what you put in your mission report exactly what happened on Earth Orbital?”
I looked at him for a long moment. “Yes, sir. It is.”
“I hope for your sake that that’s true, Jerek. I hope to God that it’s true…”