The Iron Mother by Henrik Rohdin by Henrik Rohdin - Read Online

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The Iron Mother - Henrik Rohdin

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support.

Prologue

A whoosh of air escaped the locked room as Petty Officer Angel Jimenez pulled on the manual override lever. Despite the helmet over his head and the oxygen pack that fed it, he still inhaled sharply as he heard the sound. It was purely instinctive, and he cursed himself for wasting even mere particles of breath.

Remember your training, Angel, remember what they taught you.

He fumbled around trying to pull the tab to turn on the lights built into the chest and collar of his spacesuit. The beams emanated a soft glow, casting dark shadows in the pitch-black hallway beyond. The small microcomputer built into his helmet alerted him that the passageway had been vacuumed. Taking a less ambitious breath this time, Jimenez grabbed the sides of the doorway and foisted himself through.

The ship’s gravity had gone offline along with life support. Jimenez tugged at a different tab on his shoulder to activate his communicator in case anyone tried to reach him, but his first priority was to find a way off of the ship. The Alliance Navy equipped every heavy destroyer with twenty lifeboats, each large enough to hold forty men. If there was anyone left – a big if – he could escape and still leave plenty of boats for the others to survive on.

Half-floating, half-pulling himself along the walkway, Jimenez jogged his memory on what had happened before the lights went dark and the failsafe slammed shut the door to the equipment room he was working in. He had been the only person inside, ironically checking on the integrity of the spacesuits stored in the massive closets lining the walls. He tried to think if he had heard an alarm, anything that would clue him in.

There had been a terrible force, something quick and violent that had sundered the ship in seconds. He thanked God that he had been near a spacesuit to put on and let go of a nearby doorjamb to quickly cross himself and chant a quick Hail Mary before continuing along.

Something buzzed over his communicator, something unintelligible, and Jimenez tapped at it to whimper, "This is PO Angel Jimenez, ANV Hagia Sophia, over!"

Silence.

"This is PO Angel Jimenez, ANV Hagia Sophia, somebody please answer, over!"

Again, there was no sound. Had he been hearing things? He’d heard stories that people invented noises in the vacuum, swearing they heard things. Outside of the small reinforced bubble that covered his head, though, he knew there was eternal quiet. There was no noise, no air, nothing.

The communicator crackled again, even more unintelligible than before but twice as loud. Jimenez stopped as he saw motion ahead in the hallway. Something was moving, eerily slowly, across his line of sight.

Dios mio, he thought in panic in his native Spanish, crossing himself once again and mumbling half of his second Hail Mary as he let go of the zero-gravity handles on the wall. He let his body drift down the hallway, the lights on his suit gradually illuminating the figure before him.

It was Spaceman McArthur. He was C Shift, unlike Jimenez who was in A Shift, but they had talked from time to time whenever Jimenez was on pre-shift after waking up. The young Auroran spaceman’s eyes were bulging like those of an insect, his face white and mouth open. It had probably not taken long for him to asphyxiate.

Jimenez didn’t have time to stop and mourn his fellow spaceman. As respectfully as possible, Jimenez grabbed his fallen comrade by the shoulders and gently moved him out of the way so that he came to rest, bobbing aimlessly in zero-gravity, against the bulkhead.

There was a shudder – not a sound, but a shaking sensation – and Jimenez grabbed onto the nearest handle and held on as the ship vibrated intensely. He started hyperventilating and hurried through another two Hail Mary’s before letting go to float down to the door at the end of the hallway.

Despite being disoriented, he knew where he was. As part of shift drills the captain had cut gravity and the lights and required all the spacemen to know how to get around a wounded ship in the pitch dark. Jimenez rounded to the right, at least what would have been his right if directions had bearing anymore, and paced himself down this perpendicular hallway until he reached a large door with a red sign that read ENGINEERING.

He was on the second-lowest deck of the ship, right above the engine rooms. He wasn’t an engineer, but Jimenez knew enough about the mainframe to run a diagnostic. He knocked twice on the door with the side of his fist and called into his communicator, This is Petty Officer Angel Jimenez. If anyone is alive in the engineering room, please respond on this frequency.

Jimenez cycled through all six frequencies once, and then repeated the process. Silence. Satisfied that he wouldn’t be vacuuming anyone on the other side out, he manually pulled the door open with a lever on the front.

There was a gaseous hiss as whatever little atmosphere left inside engineering seeped out and Jimenez shone his light on the three dead spacemen sitting slumped in their chairs, asphyxiated. There was a breach in the bulkhead up in the right corner of the room. They couldn’t have survived more than two minutes.

Jimenez found the manual generator pump under the arm of one of the dead spacemen and primed it twice. The engine diagnostic – connected to an independent power source specifically for these kinds of situations – flickered to life and displayed a massive red warning sign:

CRITICAL ENGINE FAILURE

CATASTROPHIC HULL BREACH

Jimenez gulped and leaned in to his communicator one last time, trying to find the frequency where he had heard the feedback earlier.

"This is PO Angel Jimenez, ANV Hagia Sophia. If anyone can hear me, we’ve had a catastrophic breach and lost power and life support on all decks. I am going to retrieve the hard drive from the bridge before disembarking. Please, if anyone can hear me, come in. We have a catastrophic hull breach and need assistance."

The range on the communicator was a tenth of an AU, which should have been enough to hail the rest of the carrier group. Jimenez shuddered as he started pondering the potential reasons why he hadn’t heard anything from any of the other ships that had come out here with the Sophia. Had they been attacked by something? And if so, what could possibly have ambushed an Alliance carrier group and disabled it so quickly?

Jimenez slid a small datasphere out of the lining of his jacket and slid it into the requisite slot on the engineering diagnostic. If anyone discovered the ship floating out here, they’d be able to retrieve it and hear his messages and see what he had seen through a body camera built into his suit up until this point.

This is PO Angel Jimenez, he muttered again into the communicator as he turned to leave engineering. I am heading to the bridge. Please, if anyone can hear me, we need immediate assistance.

He started cycling through the frequencies again, repeating the message over and over, but each time he received only silence and each time he started to lose hope more and more. He was forced into auxiliary hallways by doors that had been sealed shut by the ship failsafe systems during the hull breach.

Jimenez made a turn towards the port side and found himself staring out of a gaping hole on the side of the ship. Beyond was inky darkness, a million stars twinkling against the canvas of space, and below him was a vast, creamy gas giant with spectacular brown, white and gray rings that arced just below his crippled ship.

Framed against this gas giant were the other ships of the carrier group, or at least what was left of them. Thousands of pieces of debris were fanning out in all directions, their momentum either flinging them eternally out into space or pulling them into the crushing embrace of the Jovian below. Amongst the debris, Jimenez could make out the reflection of the nearby star’s light against the white service jumpsuits of hundreds of Alliance spacemen, no bigger than little dots like the stars around them, floating suspended in the vacuum as the gravity of the planet pulled them ever lower.

Jimenez’s jaw dropped. The destroyer shook again as something passed it, and he saw a shape, perhaps another ship, move between the Sophia and the debris field. It was dark and moving quickly, and the force of its engines caused the crippled ship to tremble so that Jimenez lost his grip and plunged out into the void.

He lashed out with his hand, trying to grab ahold of something, and then he was twisting and turning in space, slowly spinning towards the graveyard of his comrades. He would use the rest of his oxygen supply to say a thousand Hail Mary’s before it ran out.

The Ceisian Caper

Chapter One: The Lonely Monastery

Luotay, Latu System, Briling Dominion

Sixty Years Later

The engines of the small transport craft hummed to life in the early dawn, still before the sun had cleared the horizon but with just enough light to see the gorgeous mountains looming in the west.

Time to go, Commander, a voice called out in Brili and Commander Riyao Seryin blinked and rubbed his eyes. Right, of course, he said and stood up. Behind him, seven tall and athletic briling watched him with their attentive yet featureless white eyes. Armed to the teeth and dressed in camouflage-painted combat gear, the small team of former Shades looked formidable and ready for a fight.

A dark-skinned human jumped out of the humming transport craft and approached Seryin, pulling off his gloves. Air Team is aboard, Seryin, he said in Standard. Give the word and we move.

Seryin glanced at the horizon beyond the flat-topped, pillar-like mountains dotting the landscape. These were the legendary Finger Mountains of the Aylui Range – near-vertical formations created in some long-past deluge that swept away the softer stone that had once surrounded them. Here on Luotay, they were a popular tourist destination and one of the landmarks most prominently associated with the planet’s warm, subtropical southern hemisphere.

The first rays of the star Latu burst free of the planet’s curve beyond a pair of particularly tall buttes, and he shielded his eyes as the light reflected off of the ship’s side.

There’s the sunrise, we should probably move, Seryin said. Gunny, take us down to the base of the pillar and wait for our word. Don’t circle for too long or they’ll see you and know something is wrong.

Sounds good, champ.

Seryin motioned for the seven Shades to hop aboard the gleaming shuttle, where twelve Shades were already seated at the back of the vessel.

The biggest of these seated Shades tapped the fingers on his left hand to the base of his crest. The Teacher smiles, Commander.

And on you, Lieutenant Uyail, Seryin replied, returning the gesture. The door slammed shut to his left and he felt the ship start to pick up from the top of the flat mesa where they had been camping. Seryin grabbed onto a rung on the roof and looked at the expectant squadron of Shades watching him.

I wish I could phrase this some other way, comrades, he began, but I can’t. This will be the most dangerous mission any of you have ever embarked upon. If we fail, we will be branded as traitors and swiftly executed. The Council Hand Orunao will be merciless in his vengeance against not only us, and but likely our families as well.

The Shades stared back at him solemnly. The shuttle dipped down towards the valley floor and Seryin tightened his grip on the rung as the vessel slanted downwards.

We all lost friends when Cantar was destroyed. Many of us lost family. The Dominion has been brought to its knees, and it is likely no coincidence that Orunao is now reaping the rewards. He knew why my team on Mirra was sent there to die by the Council, and he now hides at his fortress here on Luotay like a coward. If the Dominion’s new government will not go the distance required to protect itself, then we will do it for them!

There were whoops and cheers. Seryin smiled through his thick, dark face paint.

And when we take the Council Hand and hold him accountable for his betrayal of Shadow Operations, he will rue the day he placed his personal ambitions over the integrity of the Dominion!

The Shades applauded loudly and all crested Seryin, grinning from ear to ear. In the past months they had become so bitter and disillusioned that they were now unhesitatingly ready for this day. They had suffered through the shock of having nearly the entire command structure of their organization wiped out in a matter of seconds during the nuclear destruction of Cantar Station. In the scattered aftermath, dozens of Shades had been purged from the ranks in a politically motivated ‘review’ by the Council Hand’s office as Orunao had identified malleable loyalists to promote.

The old Shadow Operations was gone – instead, a handful of former operatives and an army of bureaucrats sat around at their new headquarters on Woceye, their new job to make sure that the discharged Shades didn’t cause trouble. Most of the Shades on this transport had been followed by secretive government agents to their homes, brought in for routine questioning, and continually harassed in other ways.

As the transport leveled out near the bottom of the valley, the faces of those lost flashed through Seryin’s mind. He saw his friend Eyochiya bleeding to death in the tunnels under the Feshyue waterworks, saw Vish be shot in the head at point blank range, saw Cholo sacrifice himself by pulling the lever to open the docking bay and allow his escape. And then he saw those who he hadn’t seen die – the dozens of colleagues from Shadow Operations incinerated with the rest of Center Module when Cantar was destroyed, most prominently the stern face of his superior, General Shiaouel.

Finally, he saw his wife, smiling.

The transport hovered in place and Gunny’s voice boomed over the voxcom, We’re here, Commander. Drop point.

Seryin checked the time on his armband and nodded. Give us twenty minutes to get into position, then attack. Mission cap is the fifteen minutes after that plus another five minute window for escape. If we’re lucky, we’ll be well on our way before they alert the local fighter base.

What’s the response time again? one of the Shades asked.

Twenty minutes. That gives us a fairly wide window if we remain undetected as long as possible. He glanced at a sniper seated by the door, checking his precision carbine to make sure it was in perfect condition. Ensign Taiyemi, are you ready?

Twenty minutes, then let them have it. Check.

Seryin glanced back at Uyail and touched his fingers to his crest. The Teacher smiles, Lieutenant. We’ll see you up there.

The gruff briling nodded his head once and crested back. Save some of Orunao for me.

Seryin banged on the wall facing the cockpit. See you soon, Gunny. Be careful.

Same to you. See you in twenty.

Nine Shades disembarked from the shuttle as the door on the starboard side slid open, jumping into a grassy meadow ringed by high, thin trees swaying in the wind created by the transport. Seryin jumped out after them and the transport swung up and away, giving him his first view of the tall rock pillar before them and the fortress sitting at its very top.

#

The Buoishoiyin Seiyanshi – the Lonely Monastery – was a relic from the first briling settlers to arrive on Luotay six centuries earlier. The complex rested atop one of the Fingers, perched on the pillar of rock like a bird’s nest. It had been started by a monastic order of priests who valued its seclusion and location in a pristine landscape on the new world. Over the many decades, even as Luotay’s farmlands and fisheries boomed to turn it into the Dominion’s main breadbasket, the Lonely Monastery stayed secluded high in the remote mountains.

The monks had been first driven out by pirates, who then were driven out by a different gang of bandits, who finally were overrun by Shades to end the threat to local supply routes. Many years ago, an ambitious young Prime had purchased the place with his own money, fixed it up into a personal retreat and, in recent years, made it his private fortress.

As Haoloy Orunao, Council Hand of the Dominion, made his way through the Lonely Monastery’s inner garden, he thought of the disarray he had found the compound in when he had first bought the land all those decades ago. The wood buildings had been collapsing, rotting from years of neglect. The religious artifacts had all long since been looted, all but the massive stone statue of the Chobwon in the central temple that was far too heavy to lift and too worthless to bother stealing. It had taken an enormous investment of money and energy to bring the decrepit retreat back to a point where it was livable, and it had cost even more to restore it to its idyllic former glory.

Like almost all other briling monasteries, it was hexagonal in shape, with each of the six corners formerly housing a shrine for one of the Six Saints. At its center was a large temple for the Chobwon, and a small reflecting and meditation garden. Around this was a village of living quarters, kitchens, workshops and even a mausoleum for priests who had passed into Aiuy – the Next.

Venerate Council Hand, a voice called out and Orunao turned to see his chief aide, Huon, approaching.

Good morning, Huon, the ancient briling croaked and crested his assistant. What do you need?

With your permission, Venerate Council Hand, Huon began reverently, cresting profusely as he approached, there is an additional list of candidates for the remaining seats on the Council that are yet unfilled. The Arch-Prime and his advisors asked you review it and make recommendations.

Of course, Orunao replied, steadying himself on his cane. Prepare the list for me in my private study, I will review it there. Have you looked at it yet?

Yes, Venerate Council Hand. I glanced over some of the names.

And your thoughts?

There are good, dedicated civil servants there. Many are known believers in the powers of the Primacy.

Good. Thank you, Huon.

The assistant crested and left Orunao to continue his morning walk, trudging as he did with the support of his cane. He had spared no expense in importing the menagerie of flowers and other plants for his garden. Some of the rarest species in the Dominion and the galaxy grew here, tended to by the private groundskeeper he had hired to look after the place even when he wasn’t there.

There was the sound of a distinct whine and Orunao glanced up, recognizing the sound of shuttle exhaust. The contrails of a ship formed in the air just beyond the monastery’s walls, and the glint of a shuttle arcing upwards above them twinkled in the sky.

A tall, muscular briling missing two fingers on his left hand approached, quickly cresting Orunao. Venerate Council Hand, a ship has entered our restricted airspace.

I can see it, Orunao croaked, pointing upwards.

What action do you want us to take?

It’s probably a tourist flight. People do love coming to the Fingers this time of year. Take no action, Commander Nassiya. It wouldn’t be prudent of us to start shooting down sightseers, now would it?

The head of Orunao’s security snorted. Yes, I suppose. The Teacher smiles, Venerate Council Hand.

Indeed he does, and upon you, Orunao grunted disinterestedly and haphazardly crested Nassiya. Go about your duties, Commander.

They turned to part from one another, neither noticing the shuttle completing its arc in the air and turning back towards the monastery.

#

Chad Gunderson adjusted the controls in the cockpit of the shuttle, feeling pockets of turbulence shake the vessel back and forth. Renée, check angular stress, please.

The female copilot next to him complied, jotting down calculations on a notepad. "Oui, Gunny. Angular stress at forty-five percent, optimal approach angle 34-one-third degrees."

Gunny glanced at the spacer, once more soaking in her unusual appearance. Her head was shaved spare a thick black Mohawk in the middle, and her ears, eyebrows, lips and nose were befitted with multiple piercings, mostly rings but with a handful of studs. Her arms were heavily tattooed and Gunny had every reason to expect her torso was just as colorful under the cutoff-sleeve burlap sack she wore for a shirt.

Renée caught him staring and raised an eyebrow. "Yes, mon ami?"

Nothing. Just looking at your… art.

She flipped two knobs above her head. "I would prefer it if you were looking at the controls instead, cher."

Gunny coughed, embarrassed, and tilted the nose of the shuttle downwards. He pressed a finger down on a button to call the Shades in the shuttle hold and announced, We’re making our way down. Get ready.

He glanced at his silver wristwatch, the hands ticking as they had done for centuries. The twenty minutes were nearly up. It was time.

Gunny, with Renée’s help, brought the shuttle down below the level of the monastery’s western wall and steadied it into a hover, gradually inching it towards the rocky mountainside. He took a deep breath, flipped a switch to open the doors on the side of the vessel, and once the shuttle’s wingtip was no more than two or three feet from the cliff he started bringing it upwards to the wall.

On your mark, Lieutenant Uyail, Gunny announced over the intercom. Holding pattern is steady.

The shuttle cleared the top of the wall and through the cockpit windows Gunny saw a surprised sentry – most certainly not dressed in the attire of the Dominion’s army – turn to see the shuttle. There was a flash of bright light as a plasma carbine was fired and the sentry’s head vanished in a cloud of blue blood.

It had begun.

#

There was a hum as a plasma round decapitated the last sentry on the winding path around the pillar-shaped mountain. Orunao’s guard plunged over the side in silence, bouncing off of the gray cliff on the way down.

Seryin motioned for his team to move forward. There is the gate. How long has it been?

Nineteen minutes exactly, Commander, Ensign Miey Miyacao replied. Under-Corporals Peiy and Huinaoy, move on the gate and prepare for attack.

The two identified Shades, neither of whom had been in the elite Special Tactical group like most of the others but who were talented young commandos nonetheless, did as asked. Peiy stood in a crouch at the bend in the road immediately before the gate into the Lonely Monastery and signaled back to his partner with both thumbs and two adjacent fingers. Four guards.

Seryin touched the top of his crest to signal for them to hold and then looked to Miyacao. This is your area of expertise, Ensign.

Naturally, Commander, Miyacao replied and removed a satchel from his belt, retrieving from it an affixture which he quickly attached to his carbine. To the end of this device he put on a large silver cylinder, snapping it into place and then stepping forward so that he stood next to Peiy.

On your mark, Commander, he hissed back to Seryin. There was a distant sound of a plasma shot and Seryin looked to his timer. Twenty minutes and seventeen seconds. They were just barely late.

Fire at will! Seryin barked, loud enough for the four guards at the gate to hear. They noticed the two Shades crouching just in sight by the bend in the path in time to raise their carbines, but Miyacao had already launched his small mortar round.

The explosive detonated against the gate, the white-hot plasma within incinerating two of the guards closest to the monastery and the force of the blast throwing the other two forward, with one of them tumbling off of the precipice. The second was dispatched with a well-timed shot from Peiy that sliced his upper torso in half.

Miyacao quickly attached a gold-colored mortar shell to his launcher and fired it, all within five seconds. The second round was a conventional explosive, and it went off just below the hole that had been burned into the gate. Though the fortress had been reinforced with thicker wood years ago, there was now a gap through the heavy doors.

Move on the gate! Suoyang, give covering fire!

The small team of Shades hurried to the gate as Miyacao prepared another explosive. As they reached the shattered wood, two plasma rounds zipped through the hole and ripped open Peiy’s stomach. Blue and white intestines spilled out over the ground as he collapsed to his knees, clenching his jaw shut so as to not let out an agonizing scream.

The Teacher smiles, brother, Seryin intoned as the Shades scrambled away from the exposed hole. He pulled a plasma grenade from his belt and handed it to Peiy. No bodies, no evidence, friend. I am truly sorry.

Peiy nodded in understanding and armed the grenade. The Teacher smiles upon you, Commander. With his remaining strength, he clutched the grenade to his chest and threw himself backwards off of the cliff. There was a muffled sound as the plasma bomb went off, incinerating him in midair.

It was all done in less than thirty seconds. Miyacao armed a satchel bomb and hurled it through the hole. Take cover! he bellowed and the Shades threw themselves to the ground. There was a zip as Corporal Suoyang dutifully shot a sentry that had appeared up on the wall and then there was a powerful explosion as the bomb blew the gates right off of their hinges, shards and splinters of wood zipping in every direction.

Head in! Teams of two, secure the perimeter! Seryin then tapped the communicator in his ear. This is Leader, we have secured the entrance and Flame has destroyed the gate. Confirm, Eyeball.

Leader, this is Eyeball, the sniper Taiyemi answered. I have secured a tower with Black and Pewter. Second has taken his team into the central monastery. No casualties.

Juvenile has been killed, no other casualties on our end, Seryin confirmed as he and Miyacao moved within the monastery, hearing angry shouts from less than fifty yards away. Wings, what is your status?

Just hanging out over here, Gunny replied in Standard. Better move quick, I just picked up an emergency broadcast from the monastery’s comm station.

Fifteen plagues, Seryin swore under his breath. Confirmed, Wings. White and Copper, this is Leader. Destroy the communications network. That is priority one.

Understood, Leader!

Seryin and Miyacao turned left, carefully running between a long building and the monastery walls. Miyacao dropped a timed explosive on the ground next to the building’s entrance and they rounded the corner to see two sentries fleeing across an open courtyard. One plasma blast from Seryin’s carbine sliced off one guard’s legs, and Miyacao quickly lobbed a small grenade that blew sizzling acid over the other, stopping him before he could escape.

There was a loud explosion from across the monastery and the sound of zipping plasma. A white-robed civilian servant appeared, drenched blue in blood, and took a shot at Seryin. The veteran Shade ducked behind a building to avoid it and then threw himself to the ground, exposed, to line up a perfect shot that decapitated his hapless attacker.

Leader, this is Second, we’ve lost Steel and Iron. We’re pinned down behind the main temple. It was Uyail’s voice, and Seryin could hear alarmed cries for help in the background.

Seryin breathed out. On our way. We’ll outflank them by cutting through the temple.

They moved towards the center of the complex, crouching down in the intricate garden. There was a low rumble to their rear as the explosive Miyacao had placed earlier went off. They could see white and blue lights flashing as plasma pulses were discharged up ahead.

The door to the temple was already open when they reached it. The two Shades quickly hurried through the ancient pews, pausing briefly to crest the statue of the Chobwon, smiling benevolently, before kicking down the door to the far side of the temple.

The three guards who were lined up behind a row of boxes never saw them coming. One, two, three plasma rounds put them down on the ground for good and Uyail’s team emerged from cover behind the mausoleum.

We’ll secure this area and clear out a path back to the shuttle, you go find Orunao, Uyail suggested, indicating the shuttle hovering just above the edge of the wall. They’ll make a run at the shuttle and try to take out our escape route.

Seryin motioned for Miyacao to follow him and they stole off across the courtyard, their eyes on the large, two-story structure directly across from the temple. It had been the dormitory for the monks who had once lived here, but now it was Orunao’s mansion, renovated in splendor for the ancient Prime. They could already hear shouts and plasma shots going off inside the building when they nudged open the door.

They won’t give up the Council Hand without a fight, Miyacao commented as Seryin cleared the corner, watching for hostiles. We will be in very close quarters.

Seryin tapped his ear and said, Eyeball, keep watch on the windows of the dormitory for contacts. We are going inside.

Understood, Leader.

The two Shades hurried down the hallway and there was a thumping noise as a body bounced down the stairs. As it splattered on the landing in a haze of blue, Seryin recognized Suoyang, one of his Shades.

It is Corporal…

I see who it is, Flame. No names, remember? Stay close to me.

They hesitated at the bottom of the stairs as there was a commotion above. The sentries that had presumably killed the Shade appeared at the top. Before they could descend or fire back, a volley of plasma rounds had shredded them, and bright blue blood seeped down the staircase like a waterfall.

They must be protecting something up there, Seryin whispered and said into his communicator, Team, this is Leader. We have Wind down in the dormitories, no sign of his partner Soil. Be advised, the second floor of the dormitories is controlled by hostiles. Watch the windows for contacts.

They inched up the stairs, Seryin never taking his eye off of the corner and Miyacao keeping his carbine trained on the two doors to the stairwell behind them. When they reached the top, Seryin removed a small mirror from his combat belt and stuck it around the corner. He saw the corpse of the Shade Tuiyian slouched against the wall and a host of Orunao’s guard huddled around it, waiting for someone to come up the stairs.

High-yield grenade, Flame, Seryin hissed and Miyacao complied, handing him the requested weapon. Seryin rubbed the black ball with his thumb until it glowed green and nonchalantly rolled it down the hallway along the floor, hearing alarmed shouts. There was a loud bang, the sound of burning flesh and screams, and the two Shades quickly stepped out from cover to end the survivors’ agony.

Hallway is clear, watch the doors, Seryin suggested. Leader and Flame requesting backup in the dormitories, cover the ground floor and prepare an escape route.

Seryin moved both of the thumbs on his right hand onto small buttons along the side of the carbine to eject the overheated plasma pack on his weapon. As he did, the door nearest to him burst open and two sentries emerged. Miyacao was able to shoot the first one to come stumbling out the door in the gut, severing his left leg from his body while opening his stomach, but the other was upon Seryin before his friend could react.

The Commander raised his carbine to defend himself against the blow and pressed down on the eject button, sending the sizzling plasma pack flying into the face of his attacker. The sentry screamed and dropped his own carbine, slapping his hand to his face where his blue skin was already crackling and scarring. Seryin recognized the figure immediately.

Commander Nassiya!

The former Shade vanished around the door before Seryin could try to strike him with the butt of his weapon and another sentry emerged down the hall, taking Miyacao’s attention away from shooting the fleeing guard.

Seryin peered around the door to see an open window facing away from the courtyard, and no sign of his one-time comrade. He swore under his breath and reloaded a new plasma pack into his carbine.

Second, this is Leader. Have someone sweep around the back of the dormitory. I saw Commander Nassiya flee out that way.

"Deiyuol Nassiya?

The one and the same. Make sure he does not escape, Seryin ordered and heard shouts of protest from down the hall. There were two shots fired, the sound of collapsing bodies, and then Miyacao appeared from the last door on the left, dragging a thrashing Council Hand Orunao out by the collar.

Let go of me! Do you know who I am? I am the Council Hand of the Dominion!

Seryin narrowed his white eyes and growled, Exactly.

With the Council Hand in tow, they moved down the stairs, pausing to set a grenade on top of the body of their fallen comrade, and then hurried out into the courtyard to find much of the monastery burning, with civilian servants running in circles with their robes ablaze and the corpses of sentries strewn about the ground. It was like a scene out of a nightmare.

We have the package! Fall back to the shuttle! Seryin shouted into his communicator as he and Miyacao hauled the old Prime across the ground. Orunao bit Miyacao on the arm and the Shade responded by violently jabbing him in the back of the head with the butt of his carbine, causing him to stumble and sway.

Stop that! He is too old to beat savagely, Seryin cautioned and they picked him up under the arms, hauling him forward. There was an intense explosion far behind them as an armory went up in smoke, knocking them to the ground, but they quickly scampered to their feet, dragging Orunao to his, and hurried up the rampart to the top of the wall.

Uyail and the sniper Taiyemi were standing in the doorway to the hovering shuttle, gesticulating wildly for them to hurry. Throw him over to us, Commander! We need to go!

Seryin did as asked while a younger Shade covered him and Miyacao. The explosives expert jumped aboard once Orunao had been moved onto the vessel and then Seryin did the same, turning to cover the young Shade.

Just as the younger commando turned to get onboard, a plasma round blew straight through his head and careened inside the shuttle, barely missing Uyail by a few inches.

Close the door! Seryin screamed and they did, with the shuttle pulling up and away abruptly. Once the craft was screeching high into the sky, an eerie silence crept over the gathered commandos within.

How many did we lose? Uyail finally panted.

I count six casualties, Seryin admitted and ran a hand along his crest. At least thirty enemy contacts killed, maybe more. We did it, men. We retrieved the Council Hand.

The Shades whooped and hollered in excitement. Gunny’s voice blared over the intercom, We got him?

We got him, Seryin said excitedly and crouched next to his prize. We got him.

Chapter Two: The Skies of Woceye

Planet Luotay, Latu System, Briling Dominion

The cargo shuttle slowed to a hover above the tarmac of the small spaceport at the edge of Port Geiying. The sun was now moving up in the light blue sky, the light of its rays shimmering in the shallow bay immediately adjacent to the fishing town.

The two humans leaning calmly against the hull of the long, bronze-colored civilian passenger craft looked up as the small transport touched down to the ground and left its engines on. The door to the cockpit opened and Gunny hopped out, motioning to them.

We are on the clock, boys, let’s get moving.

The two humans approached, followed shortly thereafter by four briling who emerged from the larger shuttle. Gunny looked over his shoulder at Seryin and three of his Shades disembarking from the ship they had attacked the Lonely Monastery in, bringing the figure with a bag over his head along with them.

"Bon jour, Gunny, the larger of the two men said and gestured at the four approaching Shades. So it was a success, oui?"

We’re not out of the woods yet, Jean-Pierre, so let’s not celebrate prematurely, Gunny grunted and waved down the four briling who had come from the shuttle. Go fire her up, we need to be off the ground in less than ten minutes.

"Scanners picked up a wing of interceptors en route to the monastery, cher, the other human spacer informed his employer. They will come here next."

We’re doing better on time than I thought, then, if they haven’t even gotten there yet, Gunny replied. That’s why we won’t be here when they arrive.

Was our cousin’s flying satisfactory? Jean-Pierre Reynard asked as his brother Alphonse went to help Seryin drag the half-conscious Orunao along.

She was my copilot, we’ll see how she holds up under fire with the stick in her own hands, Gunny reminded him as a second small transport, identical to the shuttle he had flown to the Lonely Monastery, turned on its engine a hundred yards away. He could barely make out the impressive horns of the Balgoshan pilot he had hired two days ago through the dark, tinted windows.

Jean-Pierre shrugged the comment off and hauled Orunao into the arms of a briling standing in the passenger liner’s doorway. "Be careful with this one, mon ami, he is valuable."

It hadn’t taken Gunny much convincing to hire the Reynard brothers to join his mission, particularly since they thought they were ransoming the Council Hand. He’d only worked with them once before, years ago, on a Border World job and knew they had few scruples about their work if the price was right and that they kept their mouths shut if the price was even more right.

It was an added bonus that the brothers, both former undercover policemen from Montreal on Terra, had a cousin who was a cargo pilot whose price was even lower than theirs. Now was the time to see if Renée’s reputation matched reality.

Alphonse Reynard checked his touchpad and grimaced. Half the interceptor wing has broken off from circling the Lonely Monastery and is headed our way.

ETA?

"Fifteen minutes at most, probably less. They’re moving faster than we were expecting, cher."

Seryin sent the three Shades who had helped him with Orunao back to the shuttle, instructing them to split up the group between the two smaller transports. He then turned to Gunny and nodded once. We fly a bare crew on the passenger liner. You, me, the Reynards, and two Shades.

Agreed, Gunny said and sent the two other Shades from the passenger liner to the second transport. He pulled a voxcom out of his pocket. Artwork, this is Wings. The package is secure. Good Cop and Bad Cop are coming with me. You ready?

Renée’s voice crackled across, "Oui, cher, I’m ready. I’ve flown under fire before."

Sounds good. We’ll see you in two days.

"Au revoir."

Gunny and Seryin hopped inside the passenger liner and shut the door behind them, carefully moving down the aisles of comfortable, egg-shaped seats. Seryin stopped by Orunao, who was tied to a chair near the front of the shuttle, while Gunny continued up a short flight of stairs to the cockpit, where Jean-Pierre was running diagnostics.

You playing pilot, buddy?

"I know enough to check it for pre-flight, cher."

I’ll figure out your Montreal slang eventually.

"It’s not slang, it’s French, imbécile. Figure that one out."

That wasn’t very nice, Gunny chuckled sarcastically and did a quick once-over of the various dials and gauges on the holographic instrument panel. He preferred physical knobs and switches to hologram controls, especially when he was flying a ship much larger than he was used to, but the deception required a briling-local single-deck civilian passenger liner.

Everything looked good, and Gunny initiated the takeoff engines. Ten small thrusters along the belly of the ship burst to life, pushing the ship off of the tarmac and letting it gently hover ten feet above the ground. There was a sound from outside the cockpit as the two transport shuttles zoomed away over the bay, splitting off in opposite directions as they curved up towards the heavens.

Disguising their escape in this fashion had been Alphonse’s idea. Every ship in orbit of Luotay would be under scrutiny, particularly ones that matched the description of the vessel that had attacked the Lonely Monastery. Lucky for Gunny, there were two such vessels making a furious path from the planet’s southern continent to the nearest jump gates, and when they were inevitably stopped and inspected they would find neither weapons nor the Council Hand aboard.

You remembered to pay the tower controller, right? Gunny asked as he let the main engines growl to life. They were doing fine on time.

"Oui, mon ami, we even gave him more than he asked for lest he get any délirant ideas. These blues, you never know."

Better not use that kind of language around Seryin.

There was a crackle and the tower controller’s voice sounded inside the cockpit in Brili, Passenger liner 81-21, you are cleared for takeoff. Please confirm receipt of jump codes.

Seryin, you’re on! Gunny barked down the stairwell.

The Commander hurried up to the cockpit and leaned down to reply, Confirmed, control. Jump codes have been downloaded and received. Thank you.

The Teacher smiles, friend, the controller replied and cut out. Gunny shoved down the throttle and the shuttle lurched forward, its engines booming as it reached supersonic speed. The craft shook and rattled as it roared skywards, bright red plasma forming outside of the cockpit window as the atmosphere thinned around it.

Jean-Pierre checked a display and smirked. The interceptors will be late to the spaceport. The traffic controller will tell them that only a passenger liner took off, just as was in his ledger. The two contacts fleeing the planet from our direction will arouse their suspicion, but they would never shoot down a civilian craft without due cause, especially if they thought the Council Hand might be onboard.

Your brother is a smart man, Reynard, Seryin said and patted the spacer on the shoulder. He had still not managed to master the pronunciation of either Quebecois’ given name.

"Oui, he has his moments," Jean-Pierre snorted and leaned back as the sky went from light blue to dark blue to black, dotted with stars. Seryin reached down to tap the side of his dark red boots, and the magnetic strips on the heel and toes came on to attach him to the floor.

A lot of things could still go wrong, Gunny reminded everyone and carefully steered the shuttle in a wide arc parallel to the planet’s curve, so that Luotay filled the entirety of the cockpit window. They could freeze all departures from Luotay’s orbit and search every ship. If they shut down the outgoing jump gates, we’re… well, I don’t need to say it.

He turned the ship back over onto its belly, so that the cockpit looked up to the magnificent panorama of stars, with the sun Latu to the ship’s starboard. They had gamed everything out to the last minute, and they were running almost seven minutes ahead of schedule. They had spent close to two weeks studying civilian liner routes – from which spaceports they departed, what jump gate they used based on their point of origin, the flight patterns of their pilots, even when and how they turned in orbit and how fast they flew. Everything needed to look inconspicuous.

The civilian liners that left southern Luotay almost always used a jump gate suspended above the planet’s polar ice cap in the northern hemisphere. Gunny had determined they did it because it allowed them to slingshot their way across the world’s abnormally strong magnetic field, thus saving on energy to reach a gate cluster that was much further from the planet’s surface than was typical. They were following an almost exact flight path from two civilian liners they had shadowed the week before.

Jean-Pierre checked the scanners. Two orbital fighters and a gunboat are crossing our flight path, port to starboard. One thousand, two hundred and seventy miles ahead.

Speed?

1.3 thousand miles per minute for the fighters, slightly less for the gunboat, Jean-Pierre replied, and Seryin narrowed his eyes as he stared out of the wide cockpit window. They could see the identified shapes moving far ahead of them, the sunlight bouncing off of them against the darkness of space. At this distance, they looked like shooting stars.

They’re moving fast for being a simple patrol, Seryin said quietly with concern, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

What’s starboard of us, Jean-Pierre? Gunny asked, tightening his hand on the throttle. He loved that the stick was physical and not some flimsy hologram.

Renée’s shuttle is approaching the equatorial jump gates over the eastern hemisphere, Jean-Pierre said as he expanded the reach of the scanner. They will have intercepted her vessel before she is able to dial up to it and slip through. He looked at Gunny. This is what we knew would happen.

That it is, Gunny concurred and breathed out. Distance to jump gate?

Two thousand, three hundred and sixty-one miles and closing, Jean-Pierre announced. At current speed…

I got it, Gunny muttered and pushed the throttle forward ever-so-slightly. We can afford to move a little quicker.

We can’t afford to look suspicious, though, Seryin reminded his partner. They will wonder why a civilian liner is moving so fast.

"It’s not a problem yet, Commander. This is what I do best."

"On our ten, cher, two gunboats closing at nine-fifty miles per minute."

Intercept course?

"Oui, but there is another civilian liner five hundred miles to our four. The gunboats are moving on the jump gate."

"Shit, they’re