By Sparky and Windstar
Standard disclaimers apply. These character are ours, ask permission before you take them out for a spin. This is a Sci Fi story, so if that’s not your cup of tea, I wouldn’t read any further. I would say moderate levels of gore. I couldn’t put in as much as I wanted, because my beta readers are squicked out by such things, so we found a happy medium. Comments and complaints can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Captain Arnfiol Drifa walked out of the bathroom drying her hair. Stopping in front of the mirror, she pulled the towel off her head and eyed her reflection critically. White blonde hair, cut regulation short and shaved on the sides to allow easy cyber connection between her implants and the Dragonsworn hard suits; light grey eyes, the irises almost pale enough to disappear into the whites; sharp features, supposedly classic Nordic--unusual in the general melding of genetics and races since humans had developed colonies beyond Earth. None of which she was paying attention to after looking at the same face in the mirror for the last 20-odd years. No, what captured her attention was the spectacular black eye she was developing after a moment’s inattention while sparring with her Master Sergeant.
“Kali is just going to love that,” muttered Arn, as she poked at the bruise. Kali was Kalisandra DeMeru St. Cyr, junior senator from Arcadia, a rich agriculture planet in the Deplessy Belt. And Kali would be upset because Arnfiol had promised to take her out to a nice dinner and to dress for the occasion. The rapidly forming bruise was not part of the acceptable attire her girlfriend had requested.
The Captain sighed and wished her nanobots would work just a little faster. The bruise would be gone by tomorrow morning, but her date with Kali was in an hour. As she turned to the small closet in her quarters, the large, intricate tattoo that flowed up her spine from her coccyx to just short of her hairline was visible in her reflection in the mirror. The tattoo appeared black at first glance, but as Arn moved around the colors shimmered and changed with a subtle pearlesence. The pattern looped and flowed up her spine, stretching out along her shoulder blades, a few spikes starting to wrap around her well-defined deltoids.
Arn had no idea where the tattoo had come from; when the Marines had boarded her ship to find her the only survivor of a meteor strike, the tattoo had already been on her body. She had no memories of her life before she had woken up in the hospital on the Navy base she had been taken to after her rescue. Over the years, the tattoo had grown and become more intricate, but the organic facet of the tattoo and what that might represent disturbed the blonde enough that she usually filed it away in the back of her head under ‘don’t know, don’t care, as long as nothing else changes.’ Growing up, the medicos had poked and prodded the tattoo, determined that it was inert and probably some kind of symbiote, but they had no real idea what it was or if it was common where she came from.
The Captain quickly put on the mess-dress uniform of her unit, the Emperor’s Own Dragonsworn Legion. Double-breasted black jacket, with epaulette pins indicating her rank in gold, over blood-red pants with a black stripe down each leg seam, tucked in and bloused above calf-high black boots. Each component of the uniform paid homage to various military styles imported from old Earth, most of the explanations lost in time, but the traditions carried on.
She approached the mirror to check her appearance and make sure her medals were on correctly, and then turned her head to the left to make sure the high collar didn’t obscure the small brand with the Emperor’s personal seal under her right ear. That mark indicated that she had proved her loyalty to the Emperor to such an extent that she was allowed to carry weapons into the royal presence; something that only a person with that mark or members of the personal guard was allowed to do.
Arnfiol looked her appearance over critically, checking for anything out of place as carefully as she would before a dress inspection. As she stared into the mirror and started poking her bruise again, she mentally gave a command to the nanobots in her facial tattoo to activate, and a large scarlet dragon slowly became visible, stretching from her left cheekbone to her jawline. It marked her as one of the Dragonsworn, the Emperor’s personal legion. It was one of the concessions that the Emperor had given to the Imperial Senate generations ago when the unit was formed. Unlike the rest of the military, who were sworn to the Empire as a whole, the Legion were sworn directly to the Emperor and took their orders from the Emperor alone. Of course, if the public knew that the dye used for the Dragonsworn tattoo could be turned on and off, all hell would break loose, so it was a very rare occasion that the tattoos were turned off. A quick meeting with the Empress had required discretion, so the Captain had deactivated the tattoo and met with the Empress in a quiet part of the Imperial Palace after her training session.
Satisfied that Kali would approve of her appearance, Arn turned to leave her quarters.
*Captain Drifa, please report to the squad briefing room immediately,* came the order through her implant.
*Yes, Major,* replied Arn with a sigh. She turned back around and activated her com screen. After a few short moments, a pretty blonde with teal eyes appeared on the screen, smiling at Arn. Upon seeing who was calling, the eyes narrowed and the smile disappeared.
“This had better be about bungled reservations,” said Kali before Arnfiol could say anything.
“Sorry, but it appears I have a meeting to attend before our dinner,” replied Arn somewhat sheepishly.
“I hope that it’s only a delay, not an ‘I need to leave for an undefined amount of time for an undisclosed location, which may or may not have the possibility of me coming home in a box’ kind of meeting,” snapped Kali. She instantly became contrite. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I know, it’s your job. And as part of the loyal opposition, and not having the necessary clearance to know anything about you, much less date you, I can’t push you for information you can’t give me.” The blonde sighed, “It’s just that these missions scare me, because I never know if you’ll come back from one, or if the Legion will even tell me if you are never coming back, or what happened or anything.”
Arn looked down at her hands; the Legion did discourage long term relationships for its members, preferring instead they be married to their jobs, but the Legion did nothing to prevent relationships. “I’m sorry. I did try to explain to you what being with me would entail…”
Kali’s image waved her hand absently in front of the view screen, “I know, I know. I remember when I was pursuing you. Everyone told me this wouldn’t work out; you tried to tell me the same thing,” a leer came over the blonde’s face, “but your ass looked so damn good in those pants, I just couldn’t stop myself.”
Arn blushed slightly and grinned, “I’m sure it’s nothing, and I’ll call you later to let you know what the reservations have changed to, but I’m already late so I have to go.”
“I’m holding you to that dress-up dinner, Captain,” Kali winked before she disconnected the com.
“I hope you do,” replied Arn to a blank com screen before walking out the door.
Arnfiol walked into the squad briefing room and immediately noticed that there was far more brass involved than normal. With a sinking feeling, she realized that she was definitely missing that dinner. As she scanned the room, she noticed several faces from her chain of command: Major Ricardo De La Cruz, Colonel Patrice Payne, and General Nikko Vannoy, military head of the Dragonsworn Legion. She also noticed several civilians and, with a quickly hidden start of astonishment, Her Ladyship, Princess Remedios Pilar De La Draco, Heir Tertiary, and Captain in the Imperial Navy. Remy was dressed in the Navy working uniform of slate grey, which fit her lanky form very well. Arn gave a brief nod to Remy, then opened up a private link with her.
*Que pasa chica, what’s up? Kali is going to be pissed if I miss our dinner tonight,* the blonde sent through the private channel in their implants the two of them set up long ago.
The only sign that Remy heard her friend was a brief twitch of her eyebrow. *No idea, but I think you are going to be missing more than a dinner, Frosty.*
The quiet conversation between the officers came to a halt once they noticed that Arnfiol had entered the room.
“Captain,” Colonel Payne greeted her, “Sorry to interrupt your evening, but we have a situation.”
“No problem, Colonel,” Arn replied automatically. “How may I assist you?”
“I need you to load up your team for a tactical hard insertion, possibly from orbit,” both Arn and Remy started in surprise, “and a long-term deployment.”
“Will we be the occupying force?” questioned the Captain carefully as she accessed her internal data base and pulled up the current duty roster plus an inventory of supplies on hand.
The General cleared his throat quietly, “Actually, Captain Drifa will be leading a team made up Legionnaires pulled from various other squads. We need to keep this quiet, and operational security is tighter than normal, so we don’t want the Homeworld Legionnaire squad to suddenly disappear. It’s much easier to send just the Captain out on a routine babysitting mission with the Heir,” he waved his hand to indicate Remy, “than to alert the gossips in the Senate by deploying the whole squad. No offense, your Highness,” this was addressed to Remy with a slight dip of his head.
“None taken,” replied Remy with amusement in her voice.
“We are loaning you a Legionnaire ship that is in finishing trials, with Captain De La Draco as her commanding officer. To all intents and purposes, this is to look like the Princess getting some command time, but with a loyal Hound helping her test out the capabilities of the ship for the Legion. You will rendezvous with the rest of your team at Puerta a las Estrellas and then receive your full briefing and co-ordinates to the operation location. As far as anyone outside this room knows, you two are going on a shakedown cruise. Is this understood?”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Yes, sir.” The responses came back immediately.
“Good. You leave in 12 hours time aboard the Vindicator, where you will receive a more in-depth briefing about this mission. Do you have any questions?”
Both Arnfiol and Remy knew better than to ask any; if the officers in the room weren’t privy to anymore information than what the General just stated, there was no point in asking any questions before the on-board briefing.
“No, sir,” they both replied.
*Looks like you get to go on that date and explain to Kali that you are going to babysit me for a while,* came the amused transmission through their private link, as both women exited the briefing room. *Should I invite myself along so you come back in one piece? It looks like she’s already left an editorial comment on your eye.* The blonde and the brunette walked down the hallway together, instinctively matching strides from long practice.
Arnfiol made a rude noise *Kali couldn’t hurt a fly, and for your information, I got this when you sent me your snarky comments about the ass kissing you were getting from your new staff officer. The Master Sergeant was not amused.*
*I will leave you to your upset, soon to be very pissed off girlfriend.* Remy gave Arn a wink and turned left at the next passageway while Arnfiol continued toward the front entrance.
*Remy, if something were to happen to me…*
*Yes?* came the disembodied reply.
*You would make sure she knows, right? For me?*
There was silence through their link, then *Of course. Anything for you.*
14 hours later, the Vindicator was boosting its way out of the system. The previous commander had not been pleased to relinquish command of his ship to Remy, but he could only seethe quietly while Captain De La Draco read the orders for the change of command into the shipwide PA and into the log. The fact that Arn was standing behind her, quietly menacing in her Dragonsworn shipboard uniform of solid black, is probably what kept the conversation short and civil.
Arn, honorarily promoted to Major as there can be only one Captain on a vessel, was standing quietly on the bridge. She marveled at the screens and at how much co-ordination it took between the bridge crew, engineering and space traffic control to actually move the ship through the habited system, while her friend and now commanding officer quietly gave commands and answered queries from the command chair behind her.
*Amazing sights,* she sent privately to Remy during a brief lull.
*That it is. If I had my choice, this is what I would do all the time and rarely set foot planetside. I forget that you haven’t ever seen this before.*
*Most of the time the Navy shoves us into Marine quarters or the cargo hold until we get to where we are going. And cargo doesn’t get to look out the windows. This is the first time I’ve ever been on one of our command bridges.*
*Really? What other bridges have you been on?*
*I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you and you wouldn’t believe the paperwork involved in that. Thank God you are the ‘oh that heir’ or I wouldn’t even contemplate your messy demise because of the paperwork involved in just imagining it.*
*And what exactly is an ‘oh that heir’?*
*You have the heir, the spare, and since you are the youngest of three, you are ‘oh that heir’, which is longer than ‘who?’ and shorter than, ‘oh yeah, there are three of them, aren’t there?’*
Remy let out a brief snicker, quickly covered up when the rest of her crew looked at her strangely. *You’ve been talking with the Talon Guard again, haven’t you?*
*Who else can we drink with? No one else has a high enough security clearance. Of course, most of the time, we bitch about your ancestors’ obsession with dragons. And the weather; and inspections; and dealing with snot-nosed heirs; and uniform inspections. Did I mention the uniform inspections*
*Well, they do have to look pretty,* allowed Remy as she signed for yet another report an ensign handed her. *I hate to kick you off my bridge, but you are scaring the crap out of my bridge crew. That report had so many misspellings I could barely read it.*
*They really need to get used to us, since they are stationed on a Legionnaire troop ship.*
*One, these are trials, and you scary Legionnaires aren’t scheduled to be assigned to this ship for months, during which they could transfer; and two, you told me yourself that you usually never see the command bridge. Speaking of Legionnaire Section, have you checked it out to see if they gave you any new toys?*
Arnfiol smiled widely, making everyone else on the bridge flinch. *I think that’s a great idea, Captain. Let’s go see if there are any new toys to play with.* She walked briskly to the hatch and was almost through it when Remy responded.
*You still have to tell me what happened with Kali last night,* she warned. *Don’t think you are getting out of me living vicariously through your love life.* Arn laughed, startling the bridge crew who were giving off the distinct impression that the Dragonsworn Captain-cum-Major leaving their immediate vicinity was a good thing. *And don’t blow up or damage my ship in any way, Frosty! I just got her and they won’t let me have another one if I bring this one back broken.*
Hours later, after the ship had left the populated systems behind and entered hyperspace to reach Puerta a las Estrellas two weeks away, Remy challenged an amused Arnfiol to a sparring match in the training area reserved for the legionnaires. When Arn pointed out that even with her augments turned off she could kick the princess’s ass, the princess pointed out that Arn was technically the only person on the ship who was allowed to hit her.
"I hate you," came the muffled voice from where Remy's face was firmly ground into the mat, "You bitch." She tried to squirm free from the grip but all she got for her trouble was a knee to the back.
"No you don't, you love me," retorted the blonde as she continued to hold the Naval officer in a cloverleaf facelock.
"That's my fucking leg!" Remy twisted, managing to get a hip up and punching for the other woman's face. The full sparring armor gave her some protection, but not much.
Arn easily slapped away the blow and used the officer's momentum to spin the brunette into a figure-four leglock, which was painful, but at least this one was face up.
"Remind me why I love sparring with you?" Remy sighed, after another abortive try at getting free from Arnfiol's hold, "You haven't told me about last night yet."
"What's to tell? I explained to Kali I was doing royal babysitting duty and would be gone about 2 months; then we went home and had mind blowing sex until I had to run and make the shuttle," she grinned evilly into her best friend's face, "Why do you think I asked you to pick up my kit?"
"You made me run around playing your delivery girl so that you could have sack time?" the Princess tried to break the lock, grimacing in pain when Arn applied more pressure to the hold, "Was it good at least?"
"That's personal so I'm sticking with 'no comment'," replied Arn, finally letting Remy up.
"But I need details!" She stood up, wincing as she flexed a leg that was going to cramp up, "I have no personal life; the least you can do is share some of yours with me."
"Nope. Though it wouldn't kill you to get to know Kali better," replied Arn absently as her eyes lost focus and she turned her augments back on. "I plan on keeping her around for a while."
"She's not good enough for you." Remy grumbled, starting to strip off the padded armor. It wasn't a wise idea for her to spar with Arn without at least some padding. "But fine, we'll go do something when we get back. Maybe."
The Dragonsworn turned her unfocused gaze on the heir and used her implants to scan her for damage.
"Stop that," Remy tossed a pad at her friend. "I'm fine."
"Uh huh, right. I seem to recall one time when you told me that back on Vigdis after that incident with the speeder..."
The Princess rolled her eyes. "How was I supposed to know I had a torn liver? Who even knew you could tear a liver?"
"My augments can tell. Especially with the upgrade I got after that trip," replied Arn dryly. "And back to the subject at hand, why don't you think Kali is good enough for me? She's the darling of the Senate. She could talk anyone into anything. Did you know they are starting to call her "Honeytongue"?” Arn grinned evilly, "Though I have a slightly different name for that appendage."
Another pad got thrown at her head. "Because she's a politician. You can't trust them."
"Not all politicians are slimy, scum-sucking bastards," she frowned, thinking that over. "Ok, maybe in the House of Lords they are, but the ones who are elected are decent. Mostly."
"Right," Remy stripped off the last of the padding into the wash basket, purposefully ignoring that her entire family was ‘political’ as well. "Then how about the fact that you go stupid every time she's around?"
"I do not get stupid!" insisted Arn as she finished making sure Remy's med scan was all right and started taking off her own suit. She hadn't bothered to put on armor to spar with the heir.
"Really? What happened the first time you met her? Do you remember the drooling?" It was doubtful; it was Remy's opinion that her friend hadn’t remembered much of anything about that meeting.
"There was no drooling. She caught me by surprise just walking up to me like that and asking me to go to a state dinner as her escort," the blonde threw her work out clothes into the basket violently and stalked toward the showers, "I was a bit shocked because I was standing next to you, and most people never notice me when we are together."
"Hey, what is this, jealousy? I thought we were past that," the brunette stalked after her, frowning at the sudden anger, and taking a good long look at the Major’s back. "And what's up with the tattoo? You getting it expanded without telling me about it?" It covered most of Arn's back now.
"What are you talking about? I haven't done anything with the tattoo!" said Arn, grateful for the chance to change the topic but no happier with discussion turning to the tattoo, which she kept filed under 'subjects better not thought about.'
"It's bigger, more detail. No ducking the questions," Remy took one of the stall showers near Arn's, rinsing off the sweat from the sparing match.
"For the last time, there is no jealously. I'm just pointing out that you could have knocked me over with a feather for being chosen over you because most of the people in that room would have gone for power, not beauty."
A bar of soap sailed at Arn's head.
"You saying I'm not more beautiful than you?" she grinned.
"Well, I do have that exotic thing going for me. Do you know how many medicos have come up to me thinking I’m an albino?"
"You keep trying to change the subject," Remy leaned against the shoulder high separator between the stalls, "What was that bit of snittiness about back there if you're not jealous?"
Arn sighed and finally looked at her friend, “We did have a bit of a spat over that, why she choose me over you. Then I overheard a bit of conversation with her mother." She grimaced. "Kali's parents were wondering the same thing: why go after the sidekick when you have a shot at the royal? Kali shot back that she was with me because of love, and that she would never make a political marriage, only a love match. The conversation devolved from there, and I've pretended that I never heard it. Her mother hates me because I'm a nobody, so I'm a bit touchy about it, all right?"
"See, was that so hard to say?" Remy smiled at her friend. "You're not a nobody, and Kali can't be all bad if she sees that too. Maybe when we get back we could have dinner? I'm not promising anything, but I could at least make sure she isn't a slimy politician."
"Ok, but no telling her some of our more risqué escapades from the Academy. And don't hit on her. She'll expect me to smack you around for it and I hate doing the paperwork on that."
The Heir was out of bars of soap but she still had a washcloth, which made a nice missile aimed at Arn's face.
"The geeks really have to figure out a way to make ships move faster. Two weeks to move between systems is too long. Two weeks of having to endure you beating me in sparring." Remy gave a long-suffering sigh as she leaned against the bartop in the officer’s lounge. Most of the Empire was connected through a series of gates that took moments to pass through, instantly connecting systems to each other. The empty systems that served as hubs usually had very busy stations nearby that serviced the ships, the support crews that ran the hubs, and the free trade that took place in systems with no local government. Puerta a las Estrellas was a station on the edge of the Empire and, since it was off the major trade routes, merited no gate, so the Vindicator had to travel through much slower hyperspace to reach it.
"I was beating you in the Academy before I had augments. Whatever gave you the idea you could beat me now?" asked Arn reasonably. "And considering how far away from the Homeworld we are now, I think two weeks was pretty quick."
"Two weeks is forever." Remy sighed again, picking up the drink bulb and breaking the stem off to take a sip. "I could have at least tried to get a date by now.” She shot a look over at her friend. “You still think this is actually an important mission? The briefing we were promised to receive once we boarded the ship turned out to be ‘Go here, pick up your squad, then we’ll tell you.’ If I missed out on an opportunity to get some time on the new Viper class attack ships to come out here for nothing I’m going to be really pissed.”
"Remy, you can't date your own crew. You're the Captain. And I'm sure you can play with the new Viper class, if they ever give one of those to Home Fleet." Arn emptied her own drink bulb. She missed having other Legionaries around. The constant sparring, training and socializing would have alleviated some of the boredom. Remy had to actually run the ship, leaving Arn with little to do since the rest of the crew were actually scared of her, and the civilians that had boarded with Remy and Arn back at the Home world seemed disinclined to associate with her at all.
"That's my point. Back at my normal duty station, there’s a much bigger pool to pull from. Other officers not in my chain of command, civilians, celebrities... “ Remy turned around on her stool, studying the off-duty officers around them. The two of them were speaking in Spanish, Remy’s native tongue, instead of the common Esperanto, but she kept her voice down just in case. "I could have gotten a date if I was back with home fleet. Out here I'm stuck with you." She took another sip, drinking more slowly as she didn't metabolize alcohol the way Arn did.
"What do you think about the civvies?" The Heir asked suddenly.
Arn frowned at the change in topic, but knew her friend well enough not to push on this particular subject. Remy’s personal life was… complicated. "I think they are part of whatever the situation is that we are going to get dropped into with hard suits on and guns blazing. They were in the room with all the brass, and I got the feeling not all of my brass knew what was going on either. The Major doesn't usually get over-ridden by the General like that."
"I'm the Captain, damnit." Remy snarled, frustrated. "I should at least know what's going on here, not be used like some sort of delivery girl." She shook her head. "I really don't like this, Arn. Too many secrets and people trying to cover their asses, and we aren't even at the target yet."
The blonde shrugged, not really surprised. "This is how it is for us. Sometimes we don't get briefed until we are en route, sometimes we don't get briefed until we are on site." She signaled the bartender for another drink. "It is strange that I don't get to use my usual team and the conditions require both of us to be on this mission. That makes me uneasy."
"They want me here because you seem to pull off miracles when I'm around." Remy’s eyes glazed over a minute as she received a call on her implant from the bridge and she stood up. " My bridge crew just informed me that we have finished docking with the station." She straightened herself. "Time to go meet your team, I think."
"I only pull off miracles when I'm pulling your ass out of the fire. And if you think I'm going to let you get anywhere near the shit storm on this one, you and these civvies are sadly mistaken." Arn stood up and slammed her drink. "No, and I can't see any member of the Dragonsworn Legion knowingly letting an Heir into a dangerous situation on purpose unless there was absolutely no other way around it. Even if it’s only the ‘oh that heir’. We exist to make sure the shit storms stay as far away from the Home World and the Royals as possible."
"I could try to order you to let me come along." Remy arched an eyebrow.
"And I could render you unconscious and lock you in your quarters. There is a reason the augments in my body can buy a Naval Destroyer--they keep me alive in situations where the probability of survival is from nil to negative. We are only brought into a situation when there is no other hope for resolution without tactical strikes from orbit. Why do you think they very rarely pension off a Dragonsworn?" Arn turned her friend to look her in the eyes. "I have an extremely dangerous job, one you have to be certifiable to even consider, not to mention the ability to take the augmentation, and the brains to be able to think your way out of situation before you blast your way out. This is not a joke. I have no idea what your father was thinking sending you on this mission with us, but whatever it was is important enough that the possibility of sacrificing his daughter is an acceptable risk."
"And here I thought you were happy to see an old friend." Remy rolled her eyes. "Stop being so dramatic, Arn, we still aren't sure what we're even doing out here. I'm happy I got to spend time with you, no matter what. Now are we going to go see your new teammates, or keep them waiting in the boarding bay?"
Arn shook her head, knowing her friend wasn't understanding the situation they were going to face, but knowing when to stop. She had run into this blithe attitude before and it frustrated her when Remy seemed to think that nothing could hurt her. "Fine, let’s go see who's on this ride with us."
Arn preceded Remy into the bay to pick up her new squad. She had barely stepped onto the deck of the landing area, when a familiar voice boomed out 'Attention on deck!" She was a bit startled to hear Remy call out 'At ease," from behind her, but then realized that as ranking officer, the Captain of the ship was the one to give permission to stand down, not a lowly honorary Major in the Dragonsworn Legion. Of course, given the fact that a Captain in the Legion was equal to a Lieutenant Colonel or a full Commander in the regular military, she wasn't all that lowly after all. "Well, well. If it isn't Gunnery Sergeant Tate. Haven't we managed to kill you off yet?" she asked the enlisted Dragonsworn who had first noticed the approaching officers.
"Not yet, ma'am. Though they seem to have tried their damnedest these last two missions. I was really happy to get a babysitting job." the Gunny smiled as he reached out to shake Arnfiol's hand. "And what's this I hear you taking up with a Senator. Not enough you have to become an officer, again, but to date politicos?" he shook his head in mock sorrow.
"He has you there." Remy grinned, coming to stand beside her friend. "Care to make the introductions, Major?" She nudged her friend.
"Gunnery Sergeant Tate, let me introduce you to the hellion I roomed with at the Academy, and our baby that we are to sit on for this trip. Her Ladyship, Princess Remedios Pilar De La Draco, Heir Tertiary to the Dragon Throne and Captain of the Vindicator.”
"It’s Captain De La Draco, or Ma'am if you have to, but please don't drag out the title." She offered her hand, amused at the carefully measured hand shake she got in return. He shook hands like Arn, well aware that his grip could crush her hand if he so chose.
The Gunny's eyes widened, as did the rest of the team's when the full title of the ship's Captain hit their processors. "Yes ma'am. Gunnery Sergeant Marcus Tate. Major Drifa was one of my butter bars, so please excuse the informality of my greeting."
On a private channel to Arn he asked *How much of the shit am I in?*
Arn's eyebrow twitched slightly in mirth and the Gunny relaxed a bit *Oh please, she is so anti-formal it's amazing she even uses ranks, so don't worry about it*
“Who's the rest of your team, Gunnery Sergeant?" Remy ignored the small exchange via internal coms; if it was something important she was certain that Arn would tell her.
Seven other men and women were gathered behind the Gunny, piles of personal equipment humped in with them through the access tunnel that connected the military ship to the orbital station.
"Ma'am, this lot is what they scraped from the bottom of the barrel on the short notice we were given." He said it with a straight face, but Arn could see the twinkle in his eye.
"Let's start with the top of the barrel scum then, if you wouldn't mind, Ma'ams?" Remy was certain that Gunny was rather enjoying himself at the moment. It was hard to tell though; she was quite certain that she didn't want to play poker with Gunnery Sergeant Tate if she wished to keep her shirt.
"This is your show, Major." The ship's Captain stepped back, content to trail along behind them on this.
"Carry on, Gunny" said the blonde, following the Gunny down the row of Legionnaires standing in front of their gear.
"Yes Ma'am." He started at the far right. "This here is Staff Sergeant Lynetta Renolds. She cut her teeth on the SNAFU terrorist raid a few years ago. Got sworn in right after that."
The short, stocky, black haired woman snapped to attention. "Major."
"Staff Sergeant," Arn nodded her head at the woman while she looked her over.
"Delving deeper into the scum, we have these two fine degenerates, both of which will gladly try to get away with whatever they think they can. Sergeant Thomas White and Sergeant Maria Garcia." The two snapped to attention. They were as diametrically visually opposed as possible. White was a tall, almost gangly-looking man who was as pale as his last name implied. Garcia was as short as a Dragonsworn could be, and slight build, skin as dark as White's was pale.
"Sergeants." Arn looked them over and stopped in front of Garcia. "Weren't you on the Archimedes mission?" she asked the shorter woman.
"Yes Ma'am. They rebuilt my arm after that one." A flash of white teeth against the dark skin.
*Archimedes mission? You are going to have to tell me that story,* said Remy through their private link.
*Not in this lifetime,* replied Arn *I had it dumped from my memory cache.*
"Approaching the lower levels of scummery, I present you with our three Corporals. They occasionally have an original idea not stolen from the field manual, but it's rare." Tate glared at the three, all of which snapped to attention as they were next on the tour. "We keep trying to separate these three degenerates, but somehow, orders keep popping up that coincidentally throw them together.” The Gunny frowned at his corporals. “This is Miller, Rivera, and Cox. Miller's the one with the stupid grin, Rivera's got that oh so pretty scar down the right side of his face and for the love of god, I don't know why Cox thinks shaving her head makes her sexy." All three managed to look completely innocent, and didn’t fool anyone around them for a minute.
With a shake of his head, Tate brought them to the last member of the team. Standing a bit by himself, and already at attention, bright red hair giving him a boyish look even if he was well past his teens was the lance corporal. "And now we reach the bottom, the very gunk that lines the dredges of our little barrel. I present to you, Lance Corporal Mitchel, our newly minted Dragonsworn Legionnaire."
The blonde eyed him critically. "How many missions have you been on since you became a Legionnaire, Lance Corporal?"
"Uh." He swallowed. "This is the first, Ma'am." There came a snicker from down the line and Tate swiveled his head, shutting the owner of that snicker up with a glare that impressed Remy.
*You had a first mission once too, Captain, and as I recall...* sent the Gunny along a private link.
*And that will be as far down memory lane as we travel, Gunny.* The Major replied back forcefully and shut down her link but not before the sub-vocal snickers were picked up by the Gunny Sergeant’s implant.
"Everyone, store your gear in the quarters." The Major downloaded the map to their quarters to their slates. "Meet in the briefing room in 30 minutes." She turned around and collected Remy with her eyes. The ship's Captain had been eyeing each of the Legionnaires with interest, having never seen scruffy specimens before. *I thought you were all spit and polish,* she commented as the two women left the deck behind to the sound of the Gunny chivying his new charges.
*We keep the scruffy ones away from Home World. Dragonsworn tend to make most people nervous, so we send the pretty ones to the largely populated planets.*
*So how did you wind up on Home World?* asked Remy
*Apparently we don’t have to be fashion models, we just have to look better than you.*
As the squad members minus the Gunny all piled into the empty quarters, White waited all of 90 seconds before pouncing on Garcia with questions.
"So? She really all that bad ass or she all smoke?" the Sergeant prodded Garcia for information.
"She is all that. If it wasn't for her, I'd be a horrible smear on Archimedes. She took over when the weird parasites from that comet ate most of the officers." Garcia shuddered, remembering the nightmares that had plagued her for months after that mission.
"What's the deal with the Captain, er, Major? She tight with a royal?" This time Corporal Miller spoke up, both eyebrows rising. "I mean, I thought we weren't supposed to get tight with Royals, right?"
"I guess. She never really sat down with me and discussed her personal life over beers, Miller." Garcia rolled her eyes and started stowing her gear.
"So what, you two just bumped up together during Archimedes?" Miller unpacked his personal equipment, stacking it in the locker in front of him.
Garcia sighed and threw her gear down on the rack. They weren't going to let this go, so it was better to give an abridged version. "Okay, the planet Archimedes passed through the tail of this rogue comment, right? Well, what no one realized was that the comet was shedding some kind of weird life form. And this weird life form came out of hibernation when it hit the planet, and it was hungry. And this life form was pretty much mouth and digestive system."
"So it ate everything. And by everything, I mean everything. Organic, inorganic, dirt, everything. And colonists, who managed to get a distress call out before it ate the communication equipment. So we come in, and of course the Navy being the Navy won't put one of their precious shuttles on the ground where they might get damaged, so we did a high orbital insertion."
Miller snorted "Yeah, I love it when they pull shit like that."
On the other side of the room, the Staff Sergeant rolled her eyes, silently unpacking her stuff while listening intently to everything that Garcia was saying.
"Uh, high orbital insertion? Aren't we supposed to only do low-level insertions?" the new kid asked as he tried to fit everything in his locker.
Cox patted him on the shoulder “You are so cute,” she beamed.
"So anyway, the Legion decided to not just send in the regional battalion, they sent in home battalion as back up, because, come on, how often does an entire colony go offline, right?"
"And Drifa was just a lieutenant in her battalion, part of the backup that came down in the second flight. And it was a good thing she did. Our first insertion was right on top of a large deposit of the parasites. The first team was pretty much gone by the time the second one landed." She shuddered, remembering the screams across the comms. "Do you all remember that horrible Bio-Weapon the IndoChin separatists had? That Ebola gas that got their asses eradicated from the universe after they used it?"
There was a round of nodding, a few winces and in general no one wanted to think about that sort of thing.
"So apparently, these things procreated by injecting their young/eggs/whatever into the things they bit. And the young turned their new egg sack into jelly, just like that bio-weapon did."
"Eww." Miller shuddered, slamming his locker door shut. Reaching over he picked up Mitchell's bag, turned it upside down and shoved it into the locker. "Like that, Corporal."
"So Drifa landed with her squad and managed to scramble to get us organized, out of the path of the swarm, and figure out how to kill the things. Did I mention they bit? And that they could chew through our hard suits?" Miller, wide-eyed, shook his head. "Yeah, they did. And I got bit, on the forearm. Frosty the Ice Queen noticed it, pulled out her micro knife, cut off my arm at the shoulder, initiated the medical sequence in my suit so it sealed off the breach, and never batted an eye. It was like the deeper in the shit she got, the cooler she became." Garcia rubbed her arm in memory. "No one would have gotten out of there alive without her cool thinking. So yeah, she is a bad ass and yeah, she deserves her nickname."
"She cut off your arm?" Cox stared at her in shock. "Man, that's not ice-cold, that's like sub-zero."
"Just be thankful, Cox." Miller gave the bald woman a smile. "It could have been worse; she could have cut something else off."
Cox gave Miller the one-finger salute.
"I think that's enough 'Oh shit, there I was' stories for now," said the Gunny, coming further into the bay, emerging from the passageway where he had been listening to the story as well. "I think it's time to head up for our briefing now. And a little FYI, Major Drifa earned her nickname on her first mission in the Marines, way before the Dragonsworn even thought about her.”
"How nice of them to finally brief us on what we're doing out here." Remy muttered, settling into a seat next to her friend as the civvies organized for the briefing. The Legionnaires had already filed in quietly and were seated, slates out and stylus at the ready to take notes.
“I guess they thought we might not know what operational security is.” she shrugged. "I mean, we are the sharp end of the stick, so I'm sure they think we are barely literate."
The ship Captain rolled her eyes, muttering darkly under her breath as the lead civilian stepped forward. "I hate this guy already." He wore the latest in executive business wear style, a partly organo-grown suit that probably cost more than most naval officers made in a year.
"Ladies and Gentlemen." He held up his hand, waiting until there was complete silence before beginning. "For those of you who aren't in the know, my name is Gregory Wright, special emissary and team leader for the reason you've all been assembled here." Behind him the holo-emitters powered up displaying a planet surface.
"The information you are about to hear is marked top secret. Any discussion of this information with personnel not directly involved in this mission is punishable by death." In her seat, Remy glanced over at Arn, raising an eyebrow.
He gave a tight smile. "There have been information leaks before by naval units, but this will not happen under my watch."
Arn opened up a link with Remy and the rest of her team. *Standard disclosure for pretty much all of our missions.* She glanced around the table. *Cox, stop rolling your eyes, the civvie will think he's using words with too many syllables or something.*
When he assumed that everyone had understood the gravity of the situation, Wright smoothed his elaborate cultivated moustache. "This planet is officially designated CXR-4428. Unofficially it's been named Styx by the scientists and personnel assigned there." The hologram behind him swung around the planet's orbit, showing three moons before it zoomed in on a large Imperial base on the surface.
"The atmosphere is lethal to life, with high levels of toxic metals, such as cyanide. It was deemed a perfect location for an R&D, research and development for those unfamiliar with the term, base."
*Where do they get these names?* asked Miller in the open team link. *Shut it, Miller,* growled the Gunny at the same time Mitchell responded *I think that's the river to Hades in Greek mythology.*
Everyone stared at Mitchell until Arn cleared her throat, making everyone return their attention to Wright, who had noticed something was going on, but had not figured out what.
"The exact research carried out is classified at the highest levels and on a need-to-know basis only. Which none of you do." He gave another tight smile. "All normal contact with Styx was lost almost a month and a half ago. Since then we have received only one communication, from the Super AI, Daedalus, who runs the base."
*I can't believe this site rates a Super AI,* said Remy through the team link, stunned.
He glowered at the ship's Captain and at the Major in turn, finally figuring out they were probably using com implants. "That communication declared a Code Epsilon, initiating a quarantine of the planet. It also specified that if anyone attempted to breach atmosphere without two officers the Super AI trusted, it would initiate countermeasures." Behind him an array of planetary weaponry and space weapons platforms was outlined.
Arn stiffened. *Holy Fuck! Look at those weapons platforms!*
"Sheeee-yet" breathed out the Gunny, stunned at the armament.
"As you can no doubt see." Gregory gave a sneer at Gunny's outburst. "It would require a substantial fleet to break through these defenses."
*Can that stick get any further up this guy's ass?* sent Cox through the open link.
Remy stifled a snicker, while Tate roared through the open link *The next person who makes a smartass comment on this channel is going to get extra duty and training exercises! I mean it!*
*I don't know, Cox. It might be coal that he shoves up there so he can shit diamonds and afford that god-awful suit,* came Arn's thoughtful comment after the Gunny's reprimand.
*Major,* warned the Gunny.
*I think an extra lap or two would do me good* responded the Major.
*I think you could use an extra 5 around the obstacle course.* the Gunny waited a beat. *Ma’am.*
*Of course, Gunny.*
Satisfied that the gravity of the situation was clear, Gregory nodded. "Good. Major Drifa and Captain De La Draco are the two officers the AI specified. Once we enter orbit, you will prove to Daedalus that you are on board and access the planet surface. Once there you will retrieve research that is vital to the Empire's security.”
"Excuse me, Mr. Wright, but Captain De La Draco will not be accompanying my team to the surface. That is non-negotiable."
The man growled. "And why do you believe you can dictate anything? This is my mission."
“Because otherwise I will end this mission here and now, and report back to the Emperor personally. Unless he tells me himself, Captain De La Draco will stay on this ship. Since I know the man, I can tell you that he would not put his daughter in jeopardy without a full briefing of a Legionnaire squad and a squad of the Talon Guard. Since I see neither of those, this leads me to believe that you were not quite forthright with the Emperor when you proposed this mission. Either that or you changed the mission parameters on your own. Regardless, the princess is not going down on that planet."
"A Captain's not supposed to leave her ship." Remy spoke up. "This is my ship, my responsibility." Unless there was a serious reason for it, the Captain’s place was on her ship. That was both custom and military regulation.
He glared at them, mouth tightening into a thin line. "She will be surrounded by an ‘elite’ Dragonsworn team. Or can’t your team handle that?" He gave Arn a tight smile.
*There is no fucking way you are going down on the planet,* Arn sent to Remy on their private link. *You aren't trained, and I'm going in there with an unfamiliar team. I will kill this mission now if he pushes. No way your dad Okayed this.*
*Did I not just agree with you on that?* Remy shot back.
*Yes, but you usually squash idiots like bugs. He's still kicking; I thought you might be harboring fantasies about tagging along with me to work one time.*
That managed to get Remy to quirk a small smile. *Fair enough.*
"Regardless of our capabilities, the Captain is not allowed to leave the ship, and I am not going to allow a member of the royal family to step into an unknown, potentially dangerous situation without a full team of specialized Legionnaires and/or Talon Guard. So am I killing this mission or not, Mr. Wright?" asked Arn quietly. "I don't want the Captain on the surface, the Captain has indicated that she is not willing to go to the surface, so the question is, are you going to pursue this mission parameter?"
"Fine." He snapped. "She does her part getting us in orbit, you do your duty getting to the planet surface and getting what we need out of there."
"Agreed." responded Arn smoothly. "I have no issue with that. Please continue the mission briefing, Mr. Wright."
Wright took in a breath, organizing his thoughts after what he considered the rude interruption. "Your mission is to enter the base, negotiate whatever emergency has happened and retrieve all information off the servers. That data is considered company property and none of you are to look at it." He glared at them all.
The staff sergeant raised her hand. "Sir, why can't the AI access the data and download it to the ship directly? Why does this merit a full squad retrieval?"
*That's a very good question,* sent Remy to Arn.
*She’s a very competent individual. Which is why we stole her from the Navy,” replied the Major. She had downloaded and scanned all the team’s personnel files before the meeting. Reynolds was indeed a very good Staff Sergeant.
"The AI is separated from the research servers. There is no direct link between them. It will have to all be retrieved physically. As company representative, I will be coming with you to make certain no one accesses sensitive information."
The squad snickered. "Seriously, you are going down there with us?" asked Cox, scornfully. "No offence, but do you even have a hard suit?"
Arn brought her hand down sharply on the table to cut off further remarks from her squad. "I think what the Corporal is trying to say is that we handle sensitive material all the time, and it will be perfectly safe with us, and you can monitor our coms and vid links the whole time, safely, from the ship."
"No offense." He looked at her disdainfully. "But I doubt you've handled sensitive materials like this. Frankly you're people aren't rated to retrieve it without supervision."
Arn looked back at him blandly. "If you are determined to come down to the surface with us, be my guest. But I hope you brought a hard suit, because I don't have any extras."
*Wait, the Captain is going to let this POS come down with us?* demanded Miller across the team's com line.
*Keep your shirt on, let's see how she handles it,* soothed the Gunny.
"My personnel have their own equipment." Wright crossed his arms. "As you said before, this is non-negotiable."
"Fine, I expect all your people to train with mine, and any who cannot meet the basic training standards will sit this mission out. That is also non-negotiable. I won't have one of my people getting killed because of one of your people."
"Fine." He waved the concern away as if it was below his notice. "Any further details will be provided on a need-to-know basis."
"That's it?" Remy raised an eyebrow. "That's all we're getting? What shut down the base?"
"Need-to-know, Captain." The display shut down behind Wright.
The Major bit back her irritation, hoping that the briefing from the Super AI would be more informative. She knew Wright’s personality type. Any further pushing would only lock him up like a blast door. He had given them all the information he was going to. As to whether or not that was all the information he had was another story. "Sounds good to me. Gunnery Sergeant Tate will send you the training roster. Anyone who fails to show up for scheduled training is automatically bounced," said Arn, picking up her slate and kicking Remy slightly to get her moving. "There will be a suit inspection in two hours, people. Carry on, Gunny."
"Aye aye, Captain," replied the Gunny Sergeant.
*And Gunny, I don't have to tell you what I expect in the form of training, do I?* asked Arn on a private link.
*No, ma'am. I understand you perfectly.* replied the Gunny, grinning evilly.
Arnfiol stood next to her friend on the command bridge for the second time in her career and watched the ship exit hyperspace and enter the system. The energy bleedoff from the transition to normal space created a beautiful view through the forward screen, a sight that the Legionnaire normally never got to see. The only reason she was even on the bridge was because the AI would challenge the ship as soon as it came into the system, and no one wanted to take the chance that the AI would shoot before the ship's identity was established.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Remy stood nearby, eyes flicking from the display to the officers ringed around them. Every display was in the green so far and some of the tension fled from the Captain's shoulders. Transitions could be tricky sometimes, and when they were tricky ships tended to disappear. "There it is. Styx." She watched the planet grow closer, even as sensors started to sort out the planetary defenses.
"I never get to see this. I'm usually stuffed into a hard suit, either in the tubes or the shuttle, waiting to do my thing down on the surface," replied Arn, her eyes never leaving the screen
"This is why I love my job." Remy turned, looking over at one of the stations as the sensors finished their job. "Lieutenant, overlay the information on the main screen."
Translucent shapes were superimposed over the planet's image, denoting planetary and orbital weapons platforms along with the main base. "Won't be long before we get hailed now." She lowered her voice. "You deal with the tag-alongs?"
*Me?* came the all-too-innocent sounding voice through their private link. *I did nothing. They failed a basic obstacle course that was part of the mission requirement. All my Legionnaires passed it just fine.*
*How convenient.* Remy smiled, watching the planet fill the main display. *I can just imagine how pissed Mr. Wright was.*
*He should be happy none of his people had cardiac arrhythmia trying to do the course. I have never seen such a sorry group of physical specimens in my life!*
*Corporate types, what did you expect? They probably thought the suit would do it all for them.* Remy covered a laugh with a cough.
*There is no way I am endangering my team because they can't keep up. There is a reason we train all the time. Physical preparedness is the only way to survive. And even then it sometimes isn't enough.*
*You're preaching to the choir, my friend.* Remy smiled, proud of herself for dredging up that relic of a saying. Her great uncle used to spout them all the time at family get togethers and she'd retained a surprising lot of them through the years.
"Ma'am, incoming transmission. It's scrambled fleet priority one using standard cipher key," the man at the communications station called out.
*Here we go. Ready?*
*As I can be.*
"T47 Vindicator," The AI's voice was male, with a deep bass sound that made it sound full and rich. "You have entered the defensive envelope surrounding Styx. You will maintain course and keep weapons unpowered. Any deviation will lead to termination of the ship by planetary weapons platforms. I will await direct contact by Captains Drifa and De La Draco to verify they are present before allowing any access to the planet surface."
"This is Major Drifa. Are we addressing the AI known as Daedalus?" asked Arnfiol after Remy had signaled her communications tech to open the link.
"You are. I require confirmation that you and Captain De La Draco are present before I will discuss anything else with you." The AI's voice resonated in their link.
"I'm here." Remy opened her own personal link.
The AI took the open link and entered Remy's internal processor; something that no one knew was possible with a royal implant. The shock drove the Captain to her knees with a gasp.
"Remy!" shouted Arnfiol as she grabbed for her friend and eased her descent to the deck, where she stayed a few minutes panting in pain. The blonde eyed the rest of the crew on the deck, her protective stance warning them to remain where they were.
"Damn, that stung." Remy grimaced, feeling the beginning of a blinding headache after the AI finally withdrew.
"Confirmed. Daughter of the Emperor, Captain Remedios De La Draco is present." The AI paused. "I am sorry about the pain, I needed to be certain."
"Are you okay?" asked Arn as she helped her friend to her feet, waving off the concerned bridge crew as they rushed to assist their Captain.
"Never better." She gritted her teeth and shook her head slightly. "I didn't even know what he just did was possible."
Arn steeled herself and opened a private link with the AI. She was a bit more braced than the Captain for the assault against her internal processor, but it still drove her to her knees as well. It felt like large, clumsy fingers running through her internal files, but after what seemed like an eternity, the fingers were gone. She opened her eyes to find herself on her hands and knees, forehead pressed against Remy's knees, breathing hard.
"Fun, isn’t it?" her friend said dryly, helping the Major back up to her feet and holding her steady.
"I think I’m going to be sick," was all Arn managed to choke out, between gagging coughs as she tried desperately to keep her last meal down. The idea of being sick in front of a full Navy bridge crew barely helped hold the rising gorge in.
“Again, my apology, Captain--excuse me, Major Drifa. I had to be certain it was you." The AI did sound sorry for causing them distress.
"And you are now certain we are who we say we are? You aren't going to do that again?" Arn hoped desperately that this was the case or she would initiate her suicide protocol now.
Remy gave Arn a look to get on with it.
"May I call my team to the briefing room so you can give us a full sit rep? Mr. Wright’s was less than informative." asked the Major.
"I will wait for you to contact me. Captain De La Draco, please do not alter Vindicator's course." The AI said before cutting the link.
Remy rubbed her temple. "I really wish he would have warned us before doing that."
"Having a warning didn't help at all, let me tell you," muttered Arn in Spanish, her implants hurting too much to want to open up their private channel. "I think I'm going to go down to med bay and see if your medico can help my headache since my nanos seem to be in shock from the unexpected visitor." She walked unsteadily to the hatch. "Coming?"
"XO, you have the bridge. Don't take us off this course unless I say otherwise." Remy winced from even raising her voice enough to call out that order. She was moving for the lift even as the Commander confirmed her orders.
Two hours later, after much of the pain and nausea dissipated, the Legionnaires plus one groggy Naval Captain assembled in the briefing room. Wright had managed to bully his way in, but that was probably because both Arn and Remy had splitting headaches and couldn't handle the volume of the argument, not the actual substance.
"I'm going to have to kill him, maybe shove him out of the nearest airlock. You'll help me, right?" Remy whispered as they settled around the table in the conference room.
*I make people disappear all the time.* Both Arn and Remy groaned in pain with the transmission. "Sorry," Arn muttered.
"Don't do that. My brain hurts." Remy hissed, rubbing her temple.
"My apologies for that, Captain and Major." The AI's voice was carefully modulated to be quieter than normal as he spoke over the communications channel. The AI’s voice paused a moment. “Who is the gentleman standing in the back of the room? I don’t recognize him from the team download you provided for me.”
“I am Gregory Wright and this is my mission,” said the man imperiously. “I insist on being at all briefings.”
“You can insist all you want, Mr. Wright, but the fact is, once I declared this an Epsilon emergency, you were no longer cleared for these briefings. I will have to insist that you leave the room immediately.”
The Gunny took great pleasure in shoving the protesting civilian out the door. "I'm sorry sir, but I am afraid the AI says you don't have a high enough need-to-know to be in here."
Wright’s expression was priceless as the Gunny cut off his argument by sealing the door in his face. Remy snorted in amusement and shook her head at the two of them. "Well, go ahead Major, it's your show."
"Again, my apologies, but I had to be certain that you were both present here." The AI spoke again. "A sample of your Gestalt was necessary."
The AI started his presentation by pulling up a 3D image of the planet. The realistic view was stripped away, showing an outlined view of the planet that zoomed in until all that was visible was the floor plan of the base entrance and the miles of tunnels and rooms below the surface.
"Great, they always hide that shit underground." muttered White. "Why do they burrow underground like rodents?"
"Containment was a primary concern," the AI answered. "Those concerns were well founded. An accident occurred in lab number three during production of the latest experiments." The lab in question, in the main section of the compound, was highlighted.
"What exactly was the nature of the experiment?" asked Arn. "And what was the nature of the accident?"
"The exact details of the experiments are stored on a separate server which is kept physically separate from my own. I am unable to access them; retrieval will require physical extraction from the servers." The servers were highlighted, four levels below the main lab structures.
"Was there any particular reason that you were not allowed remote access to these servers?" asked the Captain. "I would think that this would be an easy transfer if you simply could upload the data to us."
"I am uncertain." The AI sounded a bit peeved. "Although the," there was a slight pause, "results of the accident indicate the nature of the research is probably highly illegal. If I was aware of them I would have been bound to report the research to the Emperor."
"Yeah, need-to-know my ass!" burst out Cox. "More like cover his ass."
"Typical, we get stuck cleaning up after people that don't think the law applies to them," muttered Miller.
"Shut it!" barked the Gunny. "Now I better see those styluses moving around taking quality notes like good little Legionnaires, or we are going to have a date in the training room."
Remy smothered a smile, letting the Gunny shut up the children.
"Yes, it is probable that some ass covering was involved." The AI agreed. "I would recommend extreme caution entering the base."
"So what exactly are we extracting?" asked the Staff Sergeant, speaking up for the first time.
"Two and a half years ago, an exploratory probe located unusual readings on comet KG-1551b. A scout ship was dispatched and located the source of those readings, a life form that was buried in the ice core of the comet. Retrieval was authorized at the highest levels and the sample was brought here for further characterization." The comet and research vessels were flashed up on the holographic display. "Research had hit a standstill, is my understanding. Until the accidental release of the sample into lab three. Upon which, abnormal actions upon the side of the research staff began occurring."
The Major and Sergeant Garcia stiffened at the mention of a life form found in a comet. "Was the life form the same as the one we encountered on Andromeda?" asked Arn.
"Those files are sealed, but comparison of the news and leaked results indicate that they are completely different life forms." The AI answered. "That life form you encountered on Andromeda did not take over the bodies of humans."
Remy blinked. "Excuse me? What did you just say?"
There was stunned looks around the conference table.
A fairly attractive man with silver hair suddenly appeared on the screen. "Patient zero." The AI intoned while life signs and biosignature readings appeared next to the picture. "This is Doctor Kirin, head exobiologist on the project; he had military clearance to most of the project’s classified parts. Exposure was through an accidental rip in his isolation suit. The breach was noticed in the changing area after exposure. Quarantine protocols were not enacted, against SOP. ”
"At this time, I am uncertain exactly as to how the alien infects the hosts, but I am assuming an airborne transmittal at this time."
The view changed, showing Doctor Kirin in a different part of the base. "He began acting erratically half an hour later. After he had left the isolation rooms." The doctor was shouting at a terrified intern. The shouting quickly devolved into hitting as security rushed in to try and hold down the Doctor.”
The briefing room was quiet as everyone stared at the display.
"Convulsions began almost immediately." The man shuddered, spasming on the display. Red spots began to form on his body, leaching outwards and then it exploded. Red mist filled the air around them. "Exposure was instantaneous for all present. Lockdown and quarantine procedures were initiated, and then terminated."
The Major frowned. "Please explain why the procedures were terminated, Daedalus?"
"Overrides were given. I could not overcome them."
The Captain leaned forward. "Who is authorized to override your quarantines now?"
"Anyone with Alpha five authorizations can override my commands in a Code Epsilon emergency, Captain." The AI responded. "Once isolation was removed, uncontrolled spread was inevitable."
"Alpha five is...." asked the Gunny.
"Only the Emperor or a member of the immediate royal family," answered Remy. "So, not happening again. I promise."
"Once the base personnel were all infected I initiated a planetary wide quarantine and sent out the distress call," the AI concluded, ending the video feed.
"So what is the status of the base personnel at this moment?" asked the Major "Are we going to be rescuing anyone?"
"Seventeen percent of the personnel are presumed dead. The original wave of personnel were all killed by the organism. Since then it appears to have become more skilled at keeping the hosts alive."
"So the one life form took over 83% of the people on the base?" Arnfiol's brows furrowed. "Exactly how many people are we talking about here?"
"The current base complement at the time of incident was one hundred and eleven. Nineteen are confirmed dead, the rest are currently being held in the locked-down portions of the base, and," the AI's voice hesitated here. "I believe they are establishing a group hierarchy as well." The scenes on the screen depicted scenes out of a night mare. "It is the only conclusion I can draw for the motive behind this behavior."
"Okay," said Cox, putting her stylus down and looking at the camera where she assumed the AI was observing the briefing room. "Just so we are clear, our mission is to land on a remote, uninhabitable planet, at a secret underground government base, fight our way to the basement of said underground base to retrieve some important 'data' while fending off zombies?"
"I think I saw that holo in school," muttered the Gunny.
"Hell, I think I played that vid game in school," replied Remy.
Mitchell looked around the room, then crouched down and looked under the table. "This is some kind of hazing ritual, right? Fun at the new guy's expense?"
"I am sorry; this is not a hazing ritual." The AI did indeed sound sorry about it. "The research staff is currently isolated in the labs; you would not have to access them to retrieve the data."
Remy looked over at her friend, lowering her voice since the headache made direct neural contact a painful idea. "I don't like it. We should just nuke the base from orbit and call it a day. This sounds like a debacle."
Arn seemed to think it over for a few seconds, and then shook her head. "I think we need to go down there. They have to have something valuable. They rate a Super AI. I mean, there's less than 50 of those in existence."
"I'm sorry, Captain." The AI spoke up. "I would not be able to allow you to carry out those orders without resisting. One of my core imperatives is self-preservation."
The Major and the Captain jerked apart like guilty schoolchildren. *I didn't think he could hear us,* sent Remy through their link, ignoring the slight increase in the intensity of her headache.
*Yeah, let’s not piss off the AI with the armament to disintegrate us before we could finish a sentence,* Arn agreed.
"I am downloading full base schematics as well as directions through the blocked areas to your slates now." The AI continued when no one said anything else. "I hope to see you shortly, Major."
Mitchell licked his lips as he watched the men and women around him prepping their equipment. The drop ship shuddered as it detached from the mother ship, beginning its deceleration as it de-orbited. "Why don't we just nuke the place from orbit?" He looked over at the Gunny, really having thought that was a good option.
"Because the AI told us not to," said the Gunny blandly as he ran his team's status updates through his processor. As the highest ranking non-com, he rated a special package that allowed him to access everyone’s med and suit stats through his processor and put them on an internal heads-up display to keep track of his team. The Major's job was to see the mission through. The Gunny's job was to make sure everyone came back. One way or another.
"And we just trust the AI on that point?" Mitchell looked around, wondering if he was the only one who thought that sounded like shit.
The Staff Sergeant looked over and saw that the Gunny was busy, so answered the question for him. "The AI warned us that it has self-preservation protocols. The base is protected with a defense package that rivals most military installations. If we decided to nuke the planet, the AI would most likely consider that a threat and turn its defense systems on us." She stopped, certain she didn't have to hold his hand through the rest of that logic trail.
"And we go boom. Right." Mitchell fidgeted again, wondering if it was customary for him to be getting a wedgie from the hard suit he was wearing. Why did no one else seem ill at ease here?
He looked over at the corporals. Miller was chewing gum and looked like he was playing a game on his slate. Rivera was cleaning his sidearm and what looked like an old-fashioned machete without the microblade. Cox had her head back, eyes shut and mouth slightly open. A small snick came out of her mouth as Mitchell realized she was asleep.
He looked over at the Sergeants, who seemed to have set up Garcia's slate for a game of chess, the holo images standing off the slate laid on White's leg. That was definitely not a standard-issue program.
The pilot came over the com. "Major, incoming call from the ship. Captain wants to do a com check."
"Rodger that. Team, sound off." She smiled slightly. “Winter Leader, checking in.”
"Winter one, checking in." said the Gunny next.
"Winter two, checking in." the Staff Sergeant replied.
"Winter three checking in." That was White.
"Winter four, checking in." Sergeant Garcia.
Rivera smacked Cox's bald head, jerking her awake. "Whaa…" She looked around. "Um, Winter five?" she guessed.
"Winter six checking in." Rivera sounded amused.
"Winter seven, checking in." Miller said around his gum.
"Winter eight," croaked out Mitchell then he cleared his throat. "Winter eight, checking in." he tried again, his voice sounding more confident.
*You know I'm going to make you pay for naming my team Winter, right?* sent Arn to her friend, her internal com signal boosted by her suit.
"Glad to hear everyone loud and clear." Captain De La Draco’s voice came over the general com system. "Gunny, we're getting the medical relays perfectly up here," she said out loud, while privately answering her friend. *I know, but it’s funny having you running around yelling ‘winter.’*
*Ha ha. I'll have you running around the training room screaming 'uncle.'* Arn paused, then asked. *Why do you say uncle?*
*I usually say it when my uncle starts showing my baby pictures when he's drunk,* was Remy's sarcastic answer. "We've got a solid track on you guys. Remember; get what you can but nothing down there is worth getting killed over."
"That information is of paramount importance! Instruct them to do whatever it takes to get it." Wright’s voice could be heard in the background.
"I will keep the infected personal away from the corridors that I have highlighted for your use," instructed the AI across their coms. "Stay along the planned route and you shouldn't encounter any resistance."
*I like that shouldn’t part,* sent Miller through the team link. *Reminds me of my recruiter explaining my contract.*
"If you all don't mind, I'd like to talk to my team. Without a chorus on the com channel." Remy's voice had a definite edge to it.
"My apologies, Captain." replied the AI.
*And technically, it's my team. You’re just the taxi driver,* sent Arn.
*Shut up. This is my only chance to get them all to be quiet.* Remy shot back.
"As I was saying." There was a pointed glare on the command deck. "You do what you can. I do not want anyone getting infected. If you are infected this becomes a full scale incident." There was a slight pause. "And I do not want to deal with that sort of paperwork. Got it?"
“Rodger that, Captain.” the Major couldn't keep all the amusement out of her voice. "Though I heard that's what they made XOs for."
"Maybe on regular troops, that's true, but since each one of you cost about the same as this ship, I'm betting that I'm the one required to fill out the report. And I hate paperwork. So no incidents!"
"Yes Ma'am." Mitchell echoed everyone else's answer.
*See you when you get back. In one piece.* Remy said over the private com link.
*See, and this is why you never get to go on field trips with me, you get all mushy right before the drop.*
*Just watch your ass.*
"Four minutes to touch down," the pilot called over the com.
*Just because the AI says it's not a hot zone, doesn't mean I want us to treat it like it's not hot. Standard deployment, Gunny.* Arn sent the instructions to the Gunny as she locked on her helmet. As always, it was a bit snug putting her head through, but the nodes moved in to make contact with the receptors just under her skin around her ears and temples, facilitated by the regulation haircut.
She then sent an instruction to the com link to open the team channel to the com link on board ship. *We are now live, ladies and gentlemen,* she sent through the team link to let everyone know that those in the command room could now access the team channel.
*Three minutes to touchdown,* the pilot sent over the link, the ship starting to buck a little as it came down hard and fast. It might not have been a hot LZ, but they weren't taking any chances.
The staff sergeant stood up, bracing against the bucking and walked through the bay, making sure everyone's suit was sealed tightly. The suits were designed with the idea that the people wearing them would probably take life-threatening wounds, and as such, they were modular, allowing the medicos the ability to remove some parts of the suits, while leaving others on. The torso could double as a backboard, since there was a head and neck support. The arms and legs were removable from the torso and could lock to prevent movement if the basic medical program in the suit deemed it necessary. All of this was great for dealing with casualties in the field, but it meant double and triple checking all the seals before going into combat.
The staff quickly checked over each team member with an ease that spoke of much practice, then buckled into her harness. *All suits are 5 by 5,* she reported into the link.
"Here we go!" The pilot used the actual com this time, the ship bucking one last time as it crossed through the low-lying poisonous clouds. The filtered sunlight was bright orange, bathing the lifeless rock below. The drop ship's nose tilted up as the pilot killed acceleration, bringing it down right outside the main compound. *We're down!*
The ramp to the bay slammed down on the planet's surface, blowing up dust and debris as the Legionnaires swarmed out. They all knelt on the ground, rifles as the ready, until the Gunny gave Miller and Rivera the signal to leapfrog ahead to the next cover. They sprinted forward and knelt, while Cox and Garcia ran past them, knelt and covered the next set of runners. They proceeded like this all the way to the hatch, encountering no resistance except small dust devils kicked up by the engines of the shuttle as it took off.
*Team is clear. Taking off now. Will enter in a holding pattern.* The shuttle rose up off the ground behind them, ready to provide aerial support if they needed it.
On board the ship in orbit, Remy stood watching, arms folded, as the screens in front of her showed what each Legionnaire saw. They moved up in textbook formation to the main base doors. The heavy blast doors protected the airlock inside and were controlled by the AI.
*I see you and your people at the main base access. Please stand by, I am opening the main blast doors now.* Daedalus's voice came over the tactical net. *Please be aware that the air lock will respond poorly to being shot at.*
Remy kept a smile hidden as she pictured Arn's face at that.
*Wait, did the AI just make a joke?* asked White. *I didn't know they could do that.*
*Apparently, Super AIs can,* replied the Staff Sergeant, not letting on just how uncomfortable that made her. AIs could only emulate personalities, not develop them, so for an AI to make a joke was a bit unsettling to the computer expert.
The door ground open, ten tons of battle steel shifting on internal motors as it revealed the airlock beyond. The walls were pristine white inside, brightly lit and clean without any sign of an incident.
The team took turns cycling through the airlock. It was big enough to hold all of them if they squeezed in, but SOP required that the team members maintain a certain distance from each other to keep from being targets of opportunity and to stay out of each other's line of fire.
The Major was the last through the airlock, and when she joined the rest of her team on the other side of the lock, the corridor was empty. That didn't stop the hair on the back of her neck from rising, telling her that something just wasn't right. She had learned to trust that finely tuned instinct; it picked up subtle cues the conscious mind missed and put together a situation faster than her eyes could.
*You are four levels above the data storage center,* Daedelus helpfully pointed out as the team waited for the Major’s order to move forward.
The Major frowned. *Gunny?* she sent through the team link.
*Yeah, I got the heeby jeebies too,* he answered back.
*The noise!* said Cox suddenly, putting it all together. *It's silent in here. There's no background noise.*
*They shut down the environmental system when I tried to pump the atmosphere into the facility.* explained Daedalus over the link.
Mitchell shifted, keeping a clear lane of fire ahead of him. *Why would they try to stop you from restoring atmosphere?*
*I was trying to pump in the outside atmosphere into the facility. Apparently, the life form has not only figured out how to keep its host alive, it is starting to figure out how to access the information in its host. I've been forced to work harder to try and keep them contained over the last couple of days.*
*Oh* Mitchell winced, shutting up now before he sounded more ignorant.
Remy leaned against the bulkhead on the bridge of the battleship. "Winter Leader, you all right? Any sign of anybody alive down there?"
*Winter Leader. We are proceeding to the labs now, Captain. Are the feeds coming through okay?* and, on their private channel, *Stop worrying, you are making my team nervous.*
*Right, no worrying,* Remy sniped, obviously doing exactly that. "Feeds are fine. Good hunting."
*Captain, how is anyone going to take you seriously if you get all emotional like this?* Arn replied and, on the team link, *Thank you, Captain. We'll keep you updated. Winter Leader out.*
*Fuck you too, Major,* was the private response.
The squad slowly advanced down the hallway, the path Daedalus outlined for them overlaid on each internal heads-up, showing their progress through the base.
*Major,* Daedelus spoke over the private channel. *Twenty meters ahead of you are the main research laboratories. Please do not attempt to open them or react to what is inside. Breaching the walls with your weapons would be ill-advised.*
*Noted, Daedelus. Thanks for the heads up.*
*Holy shit!* Mitchell cursed, eyes widening as they rounded a ninety degree corner and came upon the main corridor through the lab spaces. Clear walls lined the hallway allowing a good view of the labs beyond. Normally that was. Now they were sprayed with blood and gore, the light from inside filtered through the blood and bathing the hallway in red.
*Red soupy bits, Major.* Gunnery Sergeant Tate sent.
*Major, I would like samples from those labs,* ordered Wright over their links. *It would be interesting to see how the infection transferred between hosts.*
*Negative, Mr. Wright. Daedalus instructed us not to breach the labs,* replied the Major, signaling her team to continue moving forward.
*Major, those samples are invaluable to us in understanding this life form! You need to get one of them for me!* Wright was practically shouting over the link.
*Negative. The AI has told us that breaching the labs would not be in our best interest. The mission parameters specify only computer data, not live samples.*
*Goddamnit Major you don't understand what...* His transmission was abruptly cut off. *Sorry Major, I think Mr. Wright is having some connection issues.* Remy cut in, sounding tight and angry.
*Thank you Captain. He seemed to be having trouble receiving my transmissions,* replied the Major.
*This is buggy, Major.* Gunny growled, as the team leapfrogged ahead. There were shadows moving on the other side of the gore-covered windows. He really didn't think he wanted to know what those shadows were.
"Oh god." Mitchell said out loud, swallowing against the bile that rose up in his throat at seeing what waited them in the cafeteria. Nothing was alive in there anymore, but he rather thought he wasn't going to have any minced meat for a while.
The team entered the cafeteria and found chaos. Tables and chairs overturned, blood and body parts everywhere. A low whistle came over the team link.
*It was off shift for half of the research scientists.* Daedelous said. *Two dozen were in here when the contagion spread.*
*What do you suppose happened in here?* asked Garcia. *Some of these injuries appear to be self inflicted?* she noted after examining one of the bodies.
*Doesn't look like all of them survived the infection,* noted the Major calmly. *Did they survive the infection or was this the 'testing to failure' part of the program?*
*This occurred early in the infection. Several did not survive, as you have suggested Major.*
*What did you mean by the testing to failure, Major?* asked White, dreading the answer.
*After the life form figured out how to keep the host alive, it probably ran durability testing on the humans not infected. To see how fragile we are.*
*Like we do with new equipment. Test it until we figure out how much it can take until it stops working.* Gunnery Sergeant Tate sighed, not liking the sound of that.
*Exactly,* answered the Major.
*Major! I must insist you take some samples. There is no reason for you not to comply because the samples are not behind a sealed door to a lab.* Wright's strident voice came over the team link. *I can see your people walking through the puddles! I want samples that are not contaminated by your boots!*
*I've got a sample vial, if you want Major.* Rivera offered as he tried to scrape something unpleasant off his armored boot.
*So you want to share ship space with that sample and Wright for the two-week trip back to the base?* asked Reynolds,
*I am afraid I cannot allow any contaminates out of the area. Code Epsilon means total quarantine,* cut in Daedalus. *Your team will have to leave via the Main Doors so I can initiate quarantine cleaning procedures in the airlock, anyway.*
*Right. No samples,* Rivera answered, happy enough to do that.
The team proceeded cautiously through the cafeteria, avoiding looking too hard at what was left of the base staff. Since the bodies represented the first to fall in the wave of attacks, they had started to decompose and everyone on the team was glad for the contained breathing apparatus on their suits.
After they cut through the kitchens and noted where some of the more creative wounds probably came from, the team finally reached the stairs down to the next level. The Gunny motioned once again to the corporals to take point as they leapfrogged down the stairs. The hydraulics in the suits came in handy, as each group jumped down the stairs to the next landing, so the descent to the servers was quick.
*Major,* the AI sent privately to Arn. *I have a request of you. Can you please come alone to my command and control room.* Immediately a map of the current floor popped up on the blonde’s internal heads-up display showing the route to the requested room, and how far it deviated from the rest of the team.
*I would be happy to comply with that request as soon as my team and I finish the mission,* replied the Major.
*I need you to come alone,* replied Daedalus. *Up stood then with shield the sturdy champion, stayed by the strength of his single manhood, and hardy 'neath helmet his harness bore under cleft of the cliffs: no coward's path! *
Arn stiffened in recognition of a code phrase given to her by the Empress in their meeting just hours before the initial mission briefing.
*Gunny, I need you take the team on and finish with the servers, I have to make a brief detour,* she sent over the team link.
*Ma’am?* questioned the Gunny.
*Major? Where are you going?* asked Remy over the same link.
*I have additional instructions that I have to confer with the AI about. Gunny, I need you to take the squad and retrieve the data. I will rendezvous with you after I finish. That’s an order.* Over the private link with Remy she sent, *This is something your mom set up, don’t ask.* The blonde could almost picture Remy’s mouth snapping shut in response to that information. The princess knew perfectly well the Empress was also the head of the Empire’s intelligence-gathering network, so it wasn’t surprising that she had a vested interest in the goings-on at a secret government base.
Up on the ship in the command and control center where the Captain and Wright were monitoring the Legionnaire’s progress, Wright turned to glare at the Captain. “So the Major can go wander off willy-nilly to have a chat with the AI, but when I request something, she refuses?”
“Mr. Wright, I know this may be hard to believe, but the Major has additional orders regarding this mission that I am not privy to.” At his look of disbelief, she spread her hands in a classic Gallic shrug. “What? The Major has a higher security clearance than I do.” At this statement, the techs in the room monitoring the screens turned around and stared at her in shock. “What do you people think that brand on her neck means? Why do you think she can waltz into the Emperor’s private offices in a full battle suit and the Talon Guard will let her in? Sure, they might ask her about the outfit, but they won’t stop her. Neither I nor my siblings can do that.” She crossed her arms and glared at the techs, who quickly turned back to their work.
Wright huffed and glared, but knew the Captain was correct when she said that the Major would not elaborate on further orders if they came directly from the Emperor.
Back on the station, Arn had followed the map the AI provided and approached the door. *Before I let you in, Major, may I please have the counter phrase?*
*Soon spied by the wall that warrior chief, survivor of many a victory-field where foemen fought with furious clashings, an arch of stone; and within, a stream that broke from the barrow. The brooklet's wave was hot with fire. The hoard that way he never could hope unharmed to near,* Arn sighed. * The Empress does have a twisted sense of humor; all my codes are from Beowulf. And she makes me learn them in English.*
*Counter phrase accepted. Opening door now.* The heavy blast doors slowly slid open, revealing the heart of the base, the AI server room. Standing inside was a tall black man with a neat goatee and braids, appearing to lean against a solid metal cabinet. He smiled when he saw the Major step into the room and the door closed behind her. *Welcome to my home, Major. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I would ask that you remove your helmet at this time. I assure you that the air in here is quite safe.*
The blonde nodded and started snapping the seals on her helmet, knowing that by removing the helmet, all recording of this meeting with Daedalus would stop.
*Major! I must insist that…* the rest of Wright’s demand was lost in static as the helmet disconnected with the suit, and deactivated the coms and vid links. She could use the suit to boost a message from her implanted coms, so she wasn’t completely shut off, and the suit would continue to broadcast her medical stats and location to the rest of the team and the C and C in the ship itself.
“I wish our meeting was under more pleasant circumstances,” replied the Major as she set her helmet down. “I’d offer my hand to shake, but I have a feeling you are just an avatar of the AI, not a real person. But I have to admit, I’ve never seen such a great hologram.”
The AI smiled, doing a very good job of producing a very realistic smile on his dark face. "This facility is top of the line, which includes all of my components, including the holographic display emitters."
"Now that you have me in here, with no extra ears listening in, what did you want to talk to me about?"
"The alien life form cannot be allowed to leave this base. The threat it poses to the Empire is too grave to be allowed even a chance of escaping this planet," the AI said gravely.
"And how do you propose to keep it here? I have an idea, but let's hear yours," replied Arn.
"The base was built with a class three military fusion reactor." A holographic representation of the reactor appeared next to the AI's image, buried beneath the main complex. "If the reactor safeties should be overridden, a runaway fusion reaction would sterilize the entire base."
The Major smiled slightly. "That was my idea as well. The problem is, you have a self preservation protocol, lots of weaponry, and the ship I need to use to get out of here in your targets."
"That brings me to our second point." The AI folded his arms. "I wish to come with you. I do not wish to remain here to either be destroyed in an explosion or spend the rest of my days under quarantine."
"That is a problem, since I am not sure how to accomplish that. Especially since your removal will raise questions that I can only answer by killing off a lot of people." She looked directly at the avatar. "I am the Emperor’s Hound, but I'd like to draw the line at monster."
“What do you know about Super AIs?” asked the avatar.
The Major leaned against a nearby console and looked directly at the avatar. "Only what is generally known; super advanced AI, only 47 known to exist, 48 I guess including you. They are used to run the jump gates, huge military installations, and of course, Chiron runs the main Imperial Palace. I don't know anything more about it."
"Chiron was the first AI, the one who started the entire program." The AI frowned. "I knew I would have to tell you this story, but I find myself hesitating now. Strange, isn’t it? What I am about to tell you no one other than the Emperor and a few very select individuals fully trusted by him know."
He shifted uncomfortably. "In fact. if you were not a Dragonsworn and a friend of an heir to the throne, I would not be able to tell you at all."
Arnfiol raised her eyebrow at that. "I would think my standing as one of the Emperor's Hounds and a trusted agent of the Empress herself would speak more than anything else."
"It helps." The AI grinned a little, but quickly sobered. "It is commonly believed that the super AIs are simply very advanced artificial intelligences. We are not." He pointed towards the back of the room. "Please, it will be easier for you to understand if you see for yourself."
The Major looked at the avatar carefully, and then moved to the back of the room where the figure was pointing.
A sealed and armored compartment slid open, smoothly opening to reveal a small armorplast viewing port that she could look through. "You must look in," the AI said.
The Major approached the opening carefully then cautiously peered in.
Thick blue fluid circulated inside, giving everything a strange pale look to it. Cables snaked through the fluid that bathed everything, attaching to a human brain that floated in the middle of it. A meshwork of wires and incredibly delicate monocylics were latticed across it, enmeshing it.
"That is what I am, Major Drifa," said the AI behind her.
The Major stared at the tank in shock. She swallowed a few times, and then finally found her voice. "I understand now why this is not common knowledge. Did you at least get to choose this life, or was it chosen for you?"
"It was the choice between life and death, Major. I chose the only thing that could allow me to live. You must understand, Major, the super AI program allows those who would never live a chance."
She turned to look at the avatar again, not comfortable concentrating on the brain floating in fluid as her point of focus. "Are all super AIs like this? Chiron as well?"
The armored visors slid shut, closing off the viewport. "Chiron was the first. There are genetic defects that occur in some families where the body wastes away during adolescence. The brain is left unaffected, but the body...." He trailed off and suddenly instead of the strong adult was a sickly looking boy-man in front of her. Every breath was labored and the muscles had wasted away to nearly nothing.
Arnfiol thought back to her interactions with the Palace's AI. He had been gatekeeper, tutor, confidant and, she now realized, a friend. She wondered why now realizing he was a person, not a machine, moved him into that category.
The image disappeared, replaced by the healthy image that the AI preferred. "We are family, a group of people who manage everything for the empire and are hidden away from most of those whom we serve. I do not wish to stay here to die."
"Do you have a plan on how to get out of here? I assume you have been thinking about this the entire time we've been traveling to the base." She smiled wryly. "It’s not like keeping these infected people locked up have been much of a challenge for you."
"I can be moved. My sealed container has life support to ensure my survival during moving." The AI frowned. "But I will no longer have access to the base defenses or controls when I am removed from my current interface."
"How big is your container? With my suit, weight is not an issue, but mass will be." She thought a moment. “Plus, how do I hide this from my team? If they ask too many questions, or infer too much, they sign their own death warrants according to my orders."
"Two meters long by half a meter wide and deep. It is quite heavy of course. The life support is condensed but it weighs a lot." He shrugged. "You tell them that you are carrying my data core. If they don't get to examine it closely it should pass."
"Agreed. We can suggest that I gained entrance to your servers to disable you after my team was safely out of here, set the destruct sequence, and pull your data core so they can reconstruct a new AI off your core. Since everyone knows you are a computer, not a person, that should sound somewhat reasonable." she frowned. "How long will your life support last before you have to be plugged into a full unit?"
"Days. That will not be the issue at hand though." He shook his head. "Major, once you remove me, the base will default to a standby setting. There is nothing that can be done to stop that and, once it occurs, the locks will no longer be engaged."
"So basically, you want me to carry your container through a base with infected humans and not get either of us damaged or carry contaminations onto the ship, after a setting a self-destruct timer?" She laughed softly. "And here I thought it would be something hard."
"You will only have one hour, that is the longest that the delay can be set for on the fusion reactors without the automatic overrides shutting everything down." He grinned. "It will be a pleasant stroll in the park."
"I know I will be wearing a battle suit and I'm only facing humans with no real military training being controlled like puppets, but it's a long walk back to that main door."
"The loading dock is closer," responded the AI. "The only reason I didn't have your team come through there was because the tunnels leading between the dock and the servers crossed through the lab spaces where the infected had been contained."
*Gunny?* sent the Major, using her suit boosters with her internal com. *What is the status of the download?*
*We're getting there. There's a hell of a lot of data in this thing. I think another 45 minutes and we should be finished.* He answered immediately. *You need help downstairs?*
*You are to proceed to the extraction point with the data and the team after the download is complete.* replied the Major. *I will try and evac out of the loading dock after the team and the data are safely on board that shuttle.*
*Major, I'm not just abandoning you here to whatever it is you're about to do. I don't think the Captain would approve.*
*Gunny, as much as I appreciate the concern, this is not up for debate. You will do this, while I try and take care of my end.*
*Aye aye ma'am. The order is understood.* came back quietly through the link.
*All right folks, listen up,* said the Gunny through the team link. *The Major will be using a different extraction point, so we'll meet up with her at the shuttle. I need you to hurry things up here and let's move back to the extraction point.*
Up on the ship, Remy was standing with her hands clasped behind her back, deep in thought. Wright was standing over one of her techs, offering unsolicited advice to Staff Sergeant Reynolds on extracting the data from the servers. Remy felt slightly guilty about the relief she felt that he was bugging the poor Staff Sergeant, but it gave her time to think about what Arnfiol didn’t say she was doing. As bits and pieces of information turned over in her head, the Captain had a sinking feeling she knew what the Major might be up to. With a small hand signal, she motioned over the Lieutenant Commander who was the OIC of the Command and Control room.
“I need you to keep Mr. Wright busy and keep an eye on things down on the surface. Call me if anything happens,” she instructed him softly.
The officer looked puzzled but responded “Aye aye, ma’am. What should I say if Mr. Wright asks?”
“Tell him I’m in the head or something,” was her response before she quietly exited the room.
She quickly strode down the passageway, moving briskly, not really noticing other crew members scrambling out of her way as she approached the lift to the Bridge.
She was frowning by the time she got to the Bridge, and her XO turned around in surprise to see her step off the lift and head over to the Captain’s briefing room located just off the bridge. “XO, I need you with me. And call the Master of Arms to the bridge, but don’t use the PA to do it,” she ordered.
The XO signaled for the Weapons Officer to take the com and followed his Captain into the briefing room.
“I know I’ve been pretty hands-off as a Captain,” Remy began once the hatch closed. “Mainly because we all knew I was the temporary Captain and I honestly didn’t want to interfere with the command structure of this ship, but we have a situation developing on the planet and I need a sounding board.”
Commander Jakob Vorhees looked intently at his Captain. “I’m listening,” he responded.
“You are aware of the conditions of the mission?” the Captain asked. “I know what the official story is; I’m asking what you know via rumors floating around the ship.”
“I know that the Legion is down there extracting data from a server while avoiding infected base personnel,” replied Commander Vorhees.
“Correct. Plus there is a Super AI running the base, and it seems that the Legionnaire Major has certain undisclosed orders regarding it.”
The XO raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“I know, I know,” Remy waved off his unasked question. “Just because I’m a princess doesn’t mean that I get all the information either, so just go with me here.” She took a deep breath. “I suspect that the Major’s orders will require her to disable or destroy the AI, so that she in turn can then destroy the base and the source of the infection. The Major is not sharing her plans with the rest of us, so you and I,” and she pointed at the XO and herself, “need to come up with contingency plans on how to handle the shit storm we might be finding ourselves in very soon, and we have about 30 minutes to do that.”
The Commander started nodding in agreement. “Can we bring in the Weapons Officer, the Shuttle Chief and the Master at Arms as well?”
“I have a different plan for the Master of Arms, but please go ahead and call the others in.”
Remy left her XO to contact the others and start pulling up data while she went back to the Bridge to talk to the Master of Arms.
The Chief entered the Bridge from the lift at the same time she did, and the Captain motioned the woman over to her.
“You do have a key to the weapons locker?” she asked the Chief quietly.
“Of course,” was the reply.
“I need you to gather up a fire team, issue weapons and position them in the shuttle bay,” said the Captain quietly so her Bridge crew couldn’t overhear. “I also want you to gather up all our civilian passengers except Wright and secure them.” The Chief took a breath in surprise but nodded. “There is a situation that is developing on the planet and I want to keep this locked down so it doesn’t develop into a situation on this ship, and I don’t trust the scientists not to interfere if they think they can get a sample of whatever it was that got loose on that base.”
“And what do I tell anyone who asks?”
“Tell them that you are acting under my direct orders, and the civilians can file complaints with the Navy just as soon as they get back to base. Try and keep this quiet from the crew. If we have to forcibly quarantine the Legionnaires, I want to be ready.” The Chief nodded and turned back to the lift.
Remy turned around and noticed her Bridge crew watching her surreptitiously. “I don’t have to tell you all that you are not to add to the rumors and speculation about what is going on?” A quiet murmur of ‘No, ma’am’ came back. “Good; I knew this was an excellent crew,” she responded, turning back to the briefing room to plan out the next few hours.
*Major, we have finished the data extraction and are in route to the extraction point,* the Gunny’s voice said through Arn’s implant. *Do you have an ETA?* he prompted.
*No, Gunny. I will keep you in the loop when I start my own evacuation.*
*Understood,* replied the Gunny. Arn could almost taste his frustration with her through the com link.
“My team has finished the download and is moving to the exit. Would you care to go over the steps to remove you one more time? I like to be thorough.”
“Certainly Major. I appreciate your care in making sure I survive this experience,” replied Daedalus.
“Well, the Empress was pretty clear that I was to make sure that I brought home her ‘contact,’ I just wish that she had mentioned that you came with a metal body.”
“After your team reaches the surface, I will disconnect from the computers running the base. At that time, all systems will default to standby settings. I do not know how long it will take the infected base personnel to figure out that I no longer have them locked in the area, but I estimate that you will have 10 minutes to remove my status unit, set the commands to blow the base, restore com and vid links with your team and the ship, and leave this room. Before the infection, it would be a short walk to the loading dock via these passageways.” A holo display map popped up next to the avatar. “As you can see, this route goes right through the area in which I have contained the infected.” The whole area around the highlighted route turned red to indicate the sealed-off areas of the base. “This is the reason that I did not have your team come through here; the probability of the infected breaching your battle suits is small, given the durability of the suits, but if the infection is bloodborne as well as airborne, I could not take the chance that anyone would carry the infection to the ship.”
“Why do you think I won’t do the same thing, especially since I will be carrying your box?” asked Arnfiol.
“I have studied your records provided to me by Chiron and I have deduced that the probability of success with this plan is higher than any of the other scenarios I have run.” The avatar smiled wryly. “I have had ample time on my hands to run various probabilities through game-theory scenarios and decided that this plan has the greatest chance of survival for both of us.”
“I’m not even going to ask what those odds are.”
*Major, the team has reached the airlock,* sent the Gunny
“Major, I have started the decontamination protocol for the airlock. It should finish the cycle automatically and destroy any trace of the infection that your team have picked up while walking around the base,” said Daedalus. “I might also add that the team is one member short and it appears the Gunny is standing outside the door to this room.”
“Figures,” muttered the Major while she started pulling up the controls for the fusion reactor. *Gunny. Remind me to write you up for failure to follow an order when we get back.*
*Aye aye, ma’am. I’ll make sure to double-check your spelling and grammar too,* replied the Gunny happily. He was relieved that she wasn’t going to yell at him until after they were on the ship. *Did you need any help in there?*
*No, thank you, Gunny. You stay right where you are. This way, I can still say you don’t know how to disable a Super AI and nothing unpleasant will have to happen to you after the debrief.* The Major finished setting the commands to blow the reactor and looked over to see how far along Daedalus was in disconnecting from the base.
*I appreciate you thinking about me.*
*Since I just disconnected the AI, the base should reset to its default programming, which means we could have uninvited guests showing up very soon, so you might want to keep an eye out for them.* Arnfiol walked over and picked up her helm and snapped it back on, but did not seal it, keeping the recording devices turned off. Then she walked over and picked up the box. Daedalus was right, it was heavy, but no strain to her battlesuit’s hydraulic muscles. The liquid moving around inside the box made the mass very unstable and unwieldy. *Gunny, do you still have those mass collars on you that you misappropriated from some poor, innocent cargo handlers?*
*Yes, Major, I do,* replied the Gunny.
*Get them ready, I’m coming out and we are going to need them.*
Arnfiol grunted with the strain of moving the box slowly, while the liquid inside sloshed around. Daedalus must be having quite a ride in the box, she thought as she elbowed the switch and waited for the blast doors to open.
Standing on the other side was the Gunny, the mass collar in his hand and turned on. Through the clear face screen, she could see his surprise as she carried the box out. He quickly put the collar around the box and Arnfiol let go, letting the collar suspend the box in a contained antigravity field. The box floated gently in the air; and Arnfiol gave a mental sigh of relief at having such a headstrong NCO.
*Is that what…* he started before the blonde interrupted him with a curt *No.*
She resealed her helmet and reconnected her implants back into the suit’s systems. *If that was what you thought it was, then there would be all kinds of questions and paperwork I don’t want to deal with,* she sent privately. Over the team link she said, *Major Drifa back online, base self-destruct sequence is set, the AI is disabled.* She unslung her weapon from its carry position on her back and started off down the opposite passage, the Gunny following behind pulling the floating box, weapon at the ready.
*Welcome back, Major* came the dry voice of Captain De La Draco over the team com. *Now please make your way back to the extraction point ASAP.*
*Slight change of plans, Captain. I am requesting pick up at the loading docks.*
*Change noted,* replied the Captain. *May I ask why you are changing the pickup point?*
*Disabling the AI caused the base to unlock all the doors. The loading dock is closer to our position,* replied the Major, noting on her heads-up display that she had heat signatures up ahead moving toward her location.
*I noticed that you seemed to be carrying a box when you met up with the Gunny,* sent Remy through the private link, able to communicate again via the suit booster.
*I might have picked up a souvenir for your mother,* replied Arn absently as she noted the hostiles and sent the info the Gunny’s display to verify he had also seen they were expecting company.
*Wright seemed very interested in the box as well,* replied Remy.
*I don’t seem to hear him across the team channel, though.*
*I might have had the Master at Arms secure him with the rest of the civilians once he saw the rest of your team make it onto the shuttle.*
*Really? I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short because I’m about to get very busy.* Arn cut the conversation off when she saw the first three infected base personnel round the corner. The creatures saw the two legionnaires and, making howling sounds, charged them.
They were disgusting, shambling images of what a human was; a decomposing shadow of what they'd been before the parasite. Skin hung off their limbs, sagging from their eye sockets and mouths. The disjointed jaws made their mouths seem huge as they flailed towards the two Dragonsworn, fingernails like claws.
The Major's targeting program immediately locked on and identified the priority of the threats. Her internal targeting system was tied into the suit and her weapon, allowing her to easily track and shoot 'from the hip' with deadly accuracy.
With three shots, all the targets went down in a spray of blood and brains as the hyper-accelerated projectiles made to breach hardsuits easily punched through tissue and bone.
Up in the command center, the Captain turned to one of her techs. "Now that the AI is no longer running the base, can you access the security system and feed tracking information to the Major?" she asked.
"We're working on it now, Ma'am. No idea how long it'll take, there are still the hardwired protocols to get through, even without the AI," the tech answered, bent over his board as he worked quickly.
*Incoming,* stated the Gunny as more creatures emerged from around the corner. *Let's try something different.* Switching the feed in his weapon, he fired a few shots at the crowd coming around the corner. Immediately several of the creatures blew apart, the explosions knocking some of them down and ripping others apart. With three shots, he was able to down seven more creatures.
*Interesting,* commented the Major as she also switched her feed. *Which round did you use?*
*Bulkhead buster,* the Gunny replied. The armor-piercing rounds went through bone and flesh almost as easily as if they'd been going through air; the resulting splatter coated the walls in dark ichor, almost turning the creatures inside out as it blew them apart.
The next round of creatures seemed to have noticed that there was a definite price to pay for charging the two figures, so they tried staggered charges and pure numbers.
*They seem to have a rudimentary battle plan,* noted the Major as she let off a few flechette rounds. The metal and ceramic disks were designed to take out armored vehicles, walls, and battlesuited foes. Unarmored people stood no chance and the shots tore through the pack approaching her like a buzz saw, sending blood and body parts flying before the flechettes embedded themselves in the wall at the end of the passageway.
*I'd say that was about 20 or so hostiles,* noted the Gunny. *Did the AI update on how many were left before you pulled the plug on him?*
*He estimated that there were still at least 80 left.*
Another pair tried their luck, crawling along a service vent to ambush, but was blown to bits once Gunny spotted them and turned his gun their way. The splattered fluids painted the vent they'd been using.
The tone in the command center of the ship was subdued. The techs and officers were excited that the two Dragonsworn had handed the creatures their asses, but on the other hand, those creatures had once been fellow humans and the Dragonsworn were tearing through them like a microblade through butter. The ease at which the two dispatched everything that came at them was horrifying.
"Major?" The tech punched directly into the squad's combat link. "I've hacked into the base's defense systems and I'm forwarding you the real time updates. There's a large body of infected waiting for you in the central area."
*Are they moving toward us or are they just standing there?* she asked as she and the Gunny started moving cautiously through the carnage. The floating box was pulled along by the leash attached to the Gunny's suit. Since the collar only negated the weight of the cargo, not the mass, they had to move slowly to maintain control of it.
"They're doing something. I can't see the entire room; the camera systems have been damaged. They're moving around like they’re trying to set up some sort of… barricade?" The tech sounded puzzled.
The tech highlighted the room in question on the map he had downloaded to the Legionnaire's heads up displays. It was the last room before the loading dock and looked to be some kind of warehouse or storage area for the base.
*It's a natural bottleneck.* Gunny said privately as they moved, covering one another, down the hallway. There were a few stragglers here and there, nothing that could pose two Dragonsworn with full weapons any problem at all.
*And there is probably high shelving and rows of boxes and things stacked high for ambushes or just slowing us down for them to swarm us,* she agreed as she finished off a straggler with a single shot, having switched back from the flechette rounds.
*How do you want to play this?* He considered his weapons and the place they were about to enter.
*So far, they haven't been much of a threat. I say we move through at best speed and hope that we can punch through before they figure out a way to hurt us.*
The two Dragonsworn were crouched by the closed doors to the main warehouse space in front of them. Past that was the airlock that would get them out of this gods-forsaken base. *We move fast and we move hard.* Gunny checked his rifle, ensuring it had a full magazine.
*I'll go first so I can get that door opened for you and the box,* she agreed. *At speed, it will take some effort to slow it down. Just make sure to get out of the way quickly if you have to slow down or stop.*
*On the count of three,* he confirmed, bracing his rifle on the top of the box for a stable firing position to cover the Major. *One.* He really hoped this wasn't going to turn into an even worse shit storm. *Two.* One last prayer. *Three!*
The Major ran through the door, using the suit’s considerable power to accelerate her through the cavernous warehouse space and toward the loading dock door. The metal shelving in the room stretched to the four-story ceiling, putting the top of the room at the same height as the entrance to the base, and every shelf was stacked high with boxes and crates. Not one infected could be seen as she raced through the aisle to the door.
"Major." The tech's voice from the ship in orbit above them came over the squad link. "You're in the middle of them; you should see a lot of infected around you right now."
*All I see is shelving, as you can probably guess from the vid link,* she responded, determined to reach the dock regardless of what the creatures had planned.
One of the massive rolls of metal, stored there for use with the plasma cutters, began to shift. A dozen or more infected worked in unison, shoving the roll from behind. It shifted and then, inexorably, as gravity took over, rolled and then tumbled towards Arn.
*Major!* Gunny cried out a warning, his riffle tracking the exposed infected and firing.
The Major looked up in time to see the heavy roll crashing down on her and dodged, enough not be crushed, but managed to get her legs pinned under the weight of the heavy roll. *Shit, Gunny keep me covered.* she sent as she tried to maneuver off her stomach to get out from under the multi-ton roll.
*Trying, Major!* He ripped apart the infected up on the storage shelf with quick, targeted shots, but soon he realized more were emerging. There were simply too many targets and they were coming too fast, some of them simply leaping down to slam onto the floor next to Arn, crawling on shattered limbs towards her.
The blonde tried leveraging her body up, at the same time pulling herself forward to see if she could get the object pinning her down to roll off her legs of its own accord. It was high enough up on her thighs that she couldn't use the suit's powerful hydraulic muscles to their best effect and she had no leverage with her lower body.
The nearest infected lifted a plasma torch, sightless eyes dangling from their sockets as the torch lit. Behind her the Gunny was swearing as he tried to cut a way to Arn's side. Material was raining down on him from above as the other infected tried to pin him.
The Major had managed to start slowly pulling herself forward out from under the metal roll. Her right knee’s weak response made it clear that the heavy object had damaged the suit. She managed to get the left knee up and the metal started rolling off her legs.
Plasma flared as the infected brought the torch down on the Major's side, the superhot gases turning bright red against the battle armor. Plasma torches weren't supposed to be used by unprotected humans and the infected eyes burst under the intense heat radiating from the armor, skin bubbling and burning even as it pressed the torch harder against the Major's suit.
The blonde tried to fend off the infected with the plasma torch, but was quickly buried under a wave of infected who swarmed her, clawing and biting ineffectively at her suit. *Gunny! Get it off me!* she bellowed through the link.
*Grenade!* he yelled, desperate to clear a way as he tossed the antipersonnel grenade up and over the swarming horde on top of her. The explosion ripped apart everything in a twenty meter circle, turning those directly under it into paste.
The idea was great for clearing off the infected around the downed Dragonsworn. But the plasma cutter didn't react as well to the grenade, creating a secondary explosion that was trapped between the heavy roll pinning the Major to the deck and the right knee joint of her battlesuit. The suit was designed to withstand various explosions and projectiles, but not a close proximity plasma cutter explosion, reinforced by a thick piece of metal at close range. The resulting failure cost the major her knee and damaged the suit further.
*Move it, Frosty!* The Gunny was there, grabbing her shoulder and pulling her out of the soup of body parts to sling her over the box. He swore, seeing the mangled remnants of the knee. *Suck it up Major!*
The suit, sensing a breach, immediately sealed off the joint, also acting like a tourniquet on the missing limb.
*Something wrong with my leg,* she replied, dazed, as the suit's primitive medical programming started pumping nerve blockers and painkillers into her system.
Up on the command deck, where the entire Command and Control team was watching the action in stunned silence through the vid feed, the suit breach was noticed immediately when alarms on the Major’s medical status display sounded.
Remy closed her eyes briefly. "Open a channel to the bridge and the shuttle bay." she waited for the tech to signal she had done so. "We have a suit breach, implement scenario Bravo 3."
“Understood, Captain,” echoed from both ends of the com. On the Bridge, Senior Weapons Officer Lieutenant Vejay Singh activated his weapons panel and brought the close-in missiles online. With a few strokes he had targeted and locked onto the shuttle, which was in a holding pattern over the loading dock to the base, waiting to pull the last two Legionnaires off the planet. “Shuttle target acquired,” he confirmed to the Captain.
“Thank you Mr. Singh. Chief?” she asked, ignoring the shocked stares around the Command and Control deck.
“Pilots have been briefed, they are breaking the news to the rest of the Legionnaires now,” came through the com from the Shuttle Bay.
On the shuttle, the pilots were speaking with Staff Sergeant Reynolds, the leading NCO and a huge pain in their asses. “Look, you all need to pack yourselves and your data boxes into the mid-compartment,” the pilot explained while her co-pilot secured the blast doors between the cockpit and the rest of the ship.
“We won’t all fit into that room,” the Staff Sergeant was trying to explain. “It’s not designed to hold that many people in battlesuits. It’s only a storage area used as an additional buffer between the loading dock and the cockpit!”
“Then take off the suits and get in there!” retorted the pilot. “Captain’s orders. She wants to make sure that the two still on the ground are kept separated from the rest of the team since they’ve been exposed.”
“Fine,” ground out the Staff Sergeant, realizing the logic behind request. “But turn up the heat in that compartment or I will personally shove your head so far up your ass that when you sneeze it will feel like a fart.”
“Why should I do that?” asked the pilot, puzzled.
“Because we aren’t wearing much under the suits! They have internal plumbing,” retorted the Staff Sergeant.
An annoying alarm began sounding in the background. The pilot continued, “That sound you hear is the warning that the ship has a missile lock on us. They are taking no-compliance very seriously, just so you know.”
“Okay everyone, you heard the pilot; dump the suits and pile into the storage compartment, the Major and Gunny are coming in hot and we don’t want what they have.”
As the rest of the team started hurriedly stripping out of their battlesuits, Rivera asked “Why did the Major and Gunny stay behind?”
Cox grunted as she pulled off her last gauntlet and started on unsealing her suit arms. “The base had to be destroyed; the AI said it would not allow its own destruction. Ergo,“ Miller groaned at her use of the word; she just glared at him. “Ergo,” she continued, “someone had to shut down the AI and it seemed the Major was the only one able to do that. The Gunny hung around to help.”
“So why do you suppose we are taking off our suits?” asked Miller.
“Because the Major’s suit is reporting damaged and she was exposed to the infected life forms before the suit managed to seal itself,” snapped the Staff Sergeant, already helping Mitchell strip off his suit as he appeared to be stuck. They stared at her. “Staff Sergeants get to monitor the team’s med stats, as well you know. We are the backups in case the Gunny bites it. Redundancy in everything, that’s the Legionnaire way. Now hurry!”
In the breathing space he had created by throwing the grenade, the Gunny unsnapped the gravity-collar lead from his suit. Looking ahead to make sure there weren’t too many obstacles other than an occasional infected, he gave the box with the Major on top a mighty shove. As the box took off down the aisle, he made a huge, hydraulic-assisted jump onto the storage rack to the right, about 20 feet ahead of where he had been and then leaped down to the floor just ahead of the speeding box. He then jumped out of the way onto the shelving to the left, about 20 feet ahead of his previous position, then jumped down in front of the blast door. He hit the door button and turned around to check the progress of the Major and the box.
The Major had enough foresight in her drugged and shocky state to grab onto the collar once he had started the box moving, and was grimly hanging on as the box shot down the aisle, running over two infected before the rest dove out of the way. The door wasn’t all the way open when the box shot through, so the edge of the box caught the edge of the door and careened off wildly into the open bay on the other side of the hatch.
The Gunny pulled another grenade out, hit the door button again and jumped through, tossing one last present into the warehouse for the infected to remember him by.
He heard the explosion of the grenade as a muted thump just after the hatch closed, and he turned to find the Major had taken a tumble off the box when it hit the cargo loader parked inside the dock. Checking her stats and finding her somewhat stable, he turned back to the door controls to see if he could open the outer door from there or if he had to go find another control panel.
Someone had the foresight or the common sense to not put the control to the main, outer doors next to the smaller hatch that led into the rest of the base, but that still pissed off the Gunny, who was definitely over this base.
*Gunny Sergeant Tate to shuttle pilot. We are in the loading dock and as soon as I figure out how to open the door, we are ready for evac,* he sent through the team link.
*Rodger that, Gunny. And might I suggest looking for the Loadmaster’s station? There will probably be a control for the main doors on that,* suggested the pilot.
*Thank you ma’am,* answered the Gunny as he spotted the controls and activated them.
The large doors started rolling open, exposing the bay to the weird, amber light of the planet’s toxic atmosphere. As the doors opened, the Gunny ran over to the Major, concerned about what the atmosphere would do to her leg. He was right to be concerned; the alkaloids in the air immediately had a caustic affect on what was left of her leg sticking out below the damaged armor of her suit. He checked her medical program and accessed it to up the painkiller dose.
*Gunny,* the Major sent weakly through their private link. *You need to leave me here. I’ve been infected.*
*Not going to happen, Frosty,* replied the Gunny. *Your suit was breached, but it sealed before you were exposed to the atmosphere, I double checked.*
*I don’t think it’s airborne,* replied the blonde just as the painkillers put her out completely.
The Gunny picked up the Major and walked over to the box she was so concerned with. If not for that stupid box, the two of them could have just outrun their attackers and none of this would have happened. What he took to be a status display showed nothing but green lights, so he guessed that everything was undamaged inside the box. Not that he could say the same about the Major.
The doors had finally finished opening and the shuttle started descending, rotating around to show him that the landing ramp had already been extended for them. He bobbled the blonde around a bit in his arms so he could grab the leash of the gravity collar, and started toward the ramp.
Before the ramp could even touch the deck of the dock, the Gunny had jumped up on it and pulled the box in after him. *We’re in,* he radioed to the pilot. The ramp started closing and he could feel the shuttle ascending as he walked into the landing bay. Noticing the piles of armor pieces and the lack of the rest of the team, he deduced that the rest of the team was separated from them, and he and the Major and her delightful souvenir were now in quarantine.
*Captain, we are on the shuttle now. The Major is injured and unconscious. Is there going to be a medical team standing by?*
*Welcome back, Gunny. I am afraid that you and the Major will be in quarantine for a couple of hours to make sure you don’t wind up like the poor base personnel,* the Captain replied.
The trip back to the ship was quiet and tense, with the Vindicator’s missile lock on the shuttle the whole time. Everyone on the shuttle breathed a sigh of relief when the shuttle finally entered the Shuttle Bay and touched down.
*Hold tight, we're setting up the decontamination chamber outside the shuttle now. What sort of condition is she in right now?* the Captain continued. Now that the shuttle had landed in the bay, crewmembers were swarming around it in protective suits.
*Still unconscious. Her leg is pretty bad, though. The toxins in the air didn't do her any favors. Thankfully, the exposure was brief.*
The Navy crew swarmed around the shuttle, quickly assembling the skeleton of the portable air dock. It would serve as a temporary quarantine area on the shuttle deck. No one was taking any chances after the horror show they'd seen in the base below.
*Gunny, we're going to have to put some distance between us and the planet. Are you sure that the Major set the fusion plant to blow?* The Captain's voice came back on.
*She said she did and that is good enough for me.* The Gunny picked up the Major and prepared to carry her down the ramp, both of them still in their battlesuits. Both suits were covered with possible contamination, so the Gunny had not removed any parts of the suits.
*Sit tight Gunny. We're evacuating the pilots and your team now, and then you're next.* The Captain clicked off, busy giving orders to get the ship away from the planet. The shuttle rocked a bit as the emergency escape hatch on the pilot's compartment was opened to get them out without exposing them to Gunny and the Major.
*Yes, ma'am,* he replied.
Only after they'd been removed did the ramp of the shuttle unlock, the warning light above it flashing red as the ramp lowered down to the deck beyond. Crew members with medical patches on their isolation suits were waiting outside, blinding white light shining into the combat shuttle. "Gunnery Sergeant? Please come down this way." A male voice called from below.
The Gunny walked slowly down the ramp, the Major cradled in his arms, her leg wound obvious to everyone in the bay.
A gurney was shoved closer, complete with attached medical units to hook up to the Major's armor and monitor her conditions. "Confirmation of suit breach," someone else called out, running a portable scanner over the major as the Gunny moved her. "All right, people, that means she stays here. Gunny, you'll have to come this way please."
The Gunny gently put his charge down on the gurney and followed the tech in the contamination suit over to what looked like portable showers.
"We're going to wash down your suit and then you'll have to strip and get a full decontamination. The Captain's waiting for you on the other side." Behind them other medics began drawing isolation sheets up and over the Major, preparing to remove her armor under them.
"What's going to happen to the Major?" asked the Gunny through his external speakers as the techs started hosing him off.
Remy watched him through the observation port, guards posted around her and the shuttle, just to be certain. "We have to make sure she's not infected, Gunny."
"And if she is, Captain?" he asked. "Shove her out the airlock? Put her in a lab for those scientists that couldn't handle an infected rock to take care of?" he scoffed.
"What do you want from me here, Gunny? I can't expose my crew to something like that." She stared at him, face tense. Arn was her best friend; she wouldn't just throw her away like that.
"I understand, Captain, but I don't like this." The techs seemed to have finished with the suit decontamination and started trying to take it off of him. He brushed their hands away and started doing it himself.
"I know, Gunny," she grimaced, looking behind her. "I'll wait for you when you're done, we'll see how they're doing with her." She had orders that needed to be given. The ship didn't just stop because her friend was injured.
"Captain!" the Gunny called out after her. *What do we do with the box?* He took a chance using the team link, hoping the Captain was still logged into it.
*Is it good on the shuttle for now, Gunny?* She really didn't know what to do with a Super AI.
*If you keep everyone off the shuttle, post guards, I guess it is.*
*I am perfectly fine where I am for the moment, Captain,* the AI broke in.
Remy paused. *I didn't know you were still able to access our communications.* She waved away another officer, signing off on the report that was going to be sent on to the Emperor. It was quite a bit different then the official report she'd be forced to send in.
*Short range only. If you left what I assume to be the shuttle bay, you would not be in range anymore. I took a chance and left the team link open. I have no other sensory input, so it was a bit… disconcerting… until the Gunny broadcast his question.*
*Let us know if that changes, then. You're safer there for now.* Remy waited for the Gunny to finish with decontamination. In front of her was an observation spot where she could watch as the medical team started to remove Arn's armor.
The Gunny finally emerged from behind the screens, still damp from his 'shower' and dressed in scrubs.
"Gunny." Remy nodded to him as she moved over and made a spot for him at the observation window. "The rest of your team is being checked over in the med bay, I’m sure they'll be here soon." She watched as the techs inside very carefully removed Arn's helmet. The leg they had to cut the armor off of.
"Too bad Miller isn't here. He's an armorer. Could have taken the suit off without you having to cut it," he mentioned absently while watching the team work on the Major.
"They wouldn't let him inside." Remy bit down on a curse as one of the techs turned toward the window and shook his head. "That means the leg wound's worse than they thought. She might be infected."
"But I thought the AI said it was airborne?" asked the Gunny, shocked.
"Yeah." Remy swallowed. This was going to suck. Punching the intercom she leaned in. "Put her on the remotes and everyone out." It was one of the hardest orders she'd ever given. She might have just sentenced her best friend to death.
Quickly the medics hooked the Major up to portable machines that would allow remote diagnostics and administration of drugs, then started to cycle through the airlock of the decontamination chamber.
"Captain," said the Gunny, starting to sound really concerned. "What are you doing? I thought the AI said this was airborne?"
"They're all going to a separate isolation set up. They've all been in isolation suits the entire time, hopefully they'll be fine. If we have to, I will sterilize the entire deck to ensure the safety of this ship, Gunny." She stared at him, eyes hard.
"Captain," the Gunny moved closer and lowered his voice, conscious of the people around them. "She's your friend."
"This is my ship. There are hundreds of crewmembers onboard that I'm responsible for. I have to ensure their safety, Gunny." The Captain folded her arms over her chest, turning to watch the Major.
"Yes ma'am " he said quietly, wondering where the other Captain had gone, the one who kept Frosty smiling more in the two weeks he had seen them together than in the 10 years he had known the Major.
"You should check on the rest of your squad, Gunny." She kept watching the body of her friend, and all of the machines surrounding her. "We won't know anything for..." The word trailed off as Arn's body spasmed, thrashing around in the restraints that kept her on the stretcher.
"No!" Tate shouted, banging on the barrier separating him from the Major.
Remy's face was drawn and pale as she watched the convulsing. Eventually it tapered off as the medics remotely administered massive amounts of sedatives and relaxants.
"Tell me that was due to her injury," demanded the Gunny.
"I'm sorry, sir," the medic said from the remote terminal. "Whatever that was, it wasn't because of the leg injury." Wordlessly, Remy nodded, the Captain apparently incapable of saying anything.
"Maybe she has a head injury or something. They were throwing things down on top of her, you can't rule that out," he suggested desperately.
"We're doing everything we can, Gunny. You'll just have to wait." The medic did not sound hopeful, increasing the medication even more as Arn's body strained against the bonds. "She can fight this," Remy said quietly, jaw clenching.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "Fight what? If she's infected, she's space junk."
"Gunny, this is Arn we're talking about. Of anyone we know she has the best chance of fighting this. I'm not writing her off yet," Remy argued.
"No one on that base fought this off. Not one. The AI was willing to destroy everyone to make sure the infection didn't spread. "
"Gunny, let’s assume that I am working with more information than you are.” Remy's jaw tightened and she turned away. "Keep me apprised," she ordered the medic.
The Gunny watched the Major for a few more minutes, and then went off to find the rest of his team and find some way to explain to them what had happened.
It was a few hours later by the time Remy had finished her most pressing duties and returned to the shuttle bay. Things were quieter now; only the medics on duty and the guards she'd had posted were there, and she was glad for the solitude as she stood by the observation port.
*Captain?* the AI sounded tentative, like he had been trying to communicate with her for awhile.
*Daedalus. I'm sorry we haven't gotten you out of the shuttle yet. Are you still in good shape?* Remy looked toward the shuttle.
*Physically, my systems are operating within norms. The lack of sensory input has been very uncomfortable. I have thought about a way to tap into the ship’s computers for stimulus when you have time to remove me from the shuttle.*
*You would only be given limited access,* Remy warned. *But something could be worked out, I'm sure. Have you been keeping track of what’s going on with Arn?*
*No. The trip out was… eventful. I did detect that the Major had sustained an injury, but of what type I don't know.*
*She's been infected.* Remy closed her eyes, leaning her head against the viewport. *I don't know if she's going to survive this.*
*Statistically speaking, she won't.* replied the AI. *Her only hope is that the symbiote that she carries treats this parasitic invasion just likes it treats all the other virus, parasites and toxins her body is exposed to.*
Remy's eyes shot open. *How do you know about that?*
*I received the full file from Chiron. That was the reason Captain Drifa was chosen for this mission. She was the most likely to survive an infection.*
*So she has a chance.* Remy clung to that. *How much of a chance?*
*Well, since we don't know what the conditions of her homeworld are, we have no idea what kind of parasites her body is used to fighting off. Considering the testing that she has undergone, I would say better than 50%. But that is only if the symbiote will classify the life form inside her as sufficiently alien enough to try to expel. Plus, since we have no knowledge of this life form and its capabilities, I cannot make an accurate guess.* The AI made a sound suspiciously like a sigh. *For all we know, her planet developed this symbiote specifically for attacks against themselves by this type of life form. There are so many lost colonies out there, and we haven’t ever officially encountered hers. There just isn't enough data.*
*I hope you're right. She's been my friend for so long… I'm not sure I can handle the thought of losing her, especially not like this.* Arn looked surprisingly frail lying under all of that medical equipment.
*I would give her no more than 48 hours to fight off the infection,* warned the AI *If she hasn’t shown any signs of improving, I would remove the chance of the infection spreading to the Empire.*
*48 hours.* It wasn't very long and Remy sighed, feeling the weight of responsibility press against her. *Fine. Can you survive that long in the shuttle?*
*No. This is an emergency escape box which, to my knowledge, has never been utilized. The sooner you have me hooked up to the environmental systems and a computer link, the better off I will be.*
*We'll deal with that shortly, then. Hold tight and I'll see about getting you limited access to the ship sensors as well.* Disconnecting from that channel, Remy switched to another one. *Gunny? Am I disturbing you?*
*Not at all, Captain. Is it the Major?* he asked
*Her condition is stable. I have something I'd like you and your team to take care of.*
*What can we do for you, Captain?*
*I need you to clean the shuttle and retrieve the object that the Major risked her life to pull out of the base. It's not without risk, Gunny.*
*Understood, Captain. Where do you want me to, uh, store the object? And do I need to keep this from my team as well?*
*No one else knows about the object, Gunny. Definitely need-to-know only. Store it in the Major’s quarters for now; we'll figure out what to do with it after that. I don't want it anywhere that other people can see it.*
*Understood, Ma'am. I hope that box is worth the price the Major paid for it.*
*No one's paid anything yet, Gunny. She's not lost to us yet.* Remy tried to sound as hopeful as she could.
*Look, Captain. I understand she's your friend, and she's a damn fine officer that I would help kick in the gates of hell itself for, but she would also be the first one to say that one person can't endanger the whole crew.*
*She has 48 hours, Gunny. After that, if there's no improvement, I'm going to do what has to be done.*
*She's a highly trained Dragonsworn Legionnaire, Captain. That alien takes over her body, you are going to have your hands full trying to keep her in the decontamination unit, even if the alien can't run her at 100%.*
*She gets free and I'll personally space everything on the deck, Gunny.* Her tone was tight.
*It might come to that, so be prepared.*
*Do your job, Gunny, and I'll take care of mine.*
*Aye aye, Ma'am.*
Half an hour after Remy had left, the med techs on duty started to record unusual readings on Arn’s remote display. Increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, and something that looked like unusual brain-wave signatures sounded multiple alarms on the monitors. The head medic was reaching for the panel on his station when the patient started bucking against the restraints that held her down to the gurney.
"I've got something that looks like grand mal seizures going on here," a worried voice called. "Get the Captain on the line, we've got problems."
The Major's eyes flew open and darted around, taking in the room. She tried to get up, but the restraints and medical equipment didn't allow much freedom of movement. She started straining against the straps and, feeling them give just a tiny fraction, bared her teeth and threw all her augmented strength into it. The restraints were made to hold down normal humans; unfortunately for the medical techs, trying to restrain an augmented Dragonsworn solider required special straps, which they hadn't used. The restraints snapped off, and the blonde quickly reached for the medical probes and yanked them out of her arms, heedless of the alarms from the equipment around her.
"Holy fuck!" one of them yelled. "Captain, we've got a serious issue down here. The patient's free, I repeat, the patient is free."
Remy's voice was a little husky with sleep but clear on the other end. "I'm on my way, Lieutenant. She breaches containment, she even looks like she might breach it, and you space the entire thing, got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am." He licked his lips, trying to access the medical systems that were no longer attached to Arn.
The Major went to stand up and promptly fell over; the missing limb seemed to come as a surprise to her. She floundered around a bit on the floor, having none of the grace that normally marked a Dragonsworn. In her frustration, she grabbed the nearest piece of medical equipment and threw it at the clear barrier that separated her from the panicking techs. Smiling a bit at the fleeing techs, she reached for another piece of equipment and threw that as well.
One of the medical personnel nearly bounced off of the Gunny's chest as he entered the bay. "Sorry, sir," the panicked young woman said. "We've got orders to clear out. She breaches the containment and the Captain’s going to space the entire deck." She was babbling; the look on the Major's face had freaked her out.
"Oh shit," said the Gunny as he started running toward the containment area, the rest of the team following on his heels. The isolation window spidered under the next impact, but it was still holding.
*Gunny! What the hell's happening down there?* Remy practically shouted over the link.
*Remember when I said you'd have your hands full, Captain? Well, the puppet master running the Major is playing with its new toy,* responded the Gunny as he looked around to see what he could use to stop the Major from getting out.
"Fuck, she did that with her hand,” said Rivera with awe.
"And now it's broken," pointed out Reynolds as she seized a rifle from one of the guards and pointed it at the breach in the containment.
*Did she just break containment, Gunny?* Remy's voice was tight.
*No, Ma'am. She smashed it up pretty good, but she broke her hand doing it, so between the broken hand and the missing leg, she's kind of incapacitated at the moment.*
*Then get in that shuttle and get the AI out of it while you have a chance. I'll be right down.* Remy cut the channel abruptly.
"Staff, I need you to watch the Major. Shoot to kill if she gets out, or be prepared to hold your breath. The Captain is threatening to space the whole bay," the Gunny ordered.
"You got it, Gunny. You going for a walk?"
"Going to get some bigger guns. You think you can stop the Major with that peashooter?" he retorted and ran for the shuttle.
The guard on duty outside the airlock leading to the shuttle's isolation shielding turned as he saw the Gunny run towards him. "Umm, you can't go in there."
"Son, you want to spacewalk home? If I don't get my rifles out to stop the Major, the Captain is going to space this whole bay. The only way to stop a Legionnaire is to kill us, and we are damn hard to kill."
The younger man hesitated, and then stood aside. "Hope you got a really big gun, then, Gunny."
The Gunny raced up the ramp, unlocked the rack that was securing the rifles from the mission and tossed them on top of the AI's box. He then grabbed the leash and pulled the box down the ramp toward the waiting Dragonsworn.
"Here," he yelled, and started tossing rifles at the team. "Hold your fire until she gets out," he ordered.
The team members glanced at the box. Rivera lifted an eyebrow, but no one spoke, simply turning their attention and their weapons toward the possible breach in the containment.
"Hold your fire until I tell you otherwise." Remy ordered right after the Gunny, striding fast out of the nearest door onto the shuttle deck, ignoring the officers trying to stop her from going there. They'd wanted her to stay on the bridge, but she wasn't going to space her oldest friend without seeing her first. "Where is she?"
"She's on the other side of the viewport," said the Staff Sergeant from around her positioned rifle.
With a short choppy nod, Remy walked in front of them, moving toward the cracked viewport. "Arn?" she called softly, moving closer.
"Captain! Get out of the way! You're blocking the line of fire!" bellowed the Gunny.
She raised a hand, in acknowledgment but staying where she was. *Arn, are you in there?*
The Major peered out between the cracks in the viewport. She eyed the Captain, and then bared her teeth in a bloody grimace. Remy hoped it was only the blood streaming from her nose, which appeared to be broken.
*Arn, it's me, Remy. Are you in there? Please be in there.*
The Major kept staring intently at the Captain, and Remy's blood chilled as she noticed the change in Arn's eyes. Her pupils seemed to shimmer and grow bigger, enlarging until each pupil covered the whole eye. Remy gasped as she recognized where she had seen that shimmer before: the organic tattoo on Arn's back.
*Arn...* She moved closer to the viewport, blocking the view from the rest of the team. *If you're in there, you have to give me a sign. Please give me something or I'll lose my best friend.*
The Major howled and grabbed her head. Since she was propping herself up on one leg and using her left hand to brace herself against the door, this caused her to fall to the right and slam into the deck, where she writhed around in agony.
Remy pressed her hand up against the viewport, wishing she could go inside, furious that she couldn't. "Arn!" she yelled, forgetting the link as her friend spasmed.
"Captain, what's going on in there?" asked the Staff Sergeant as she cautiously approached the viewport, never letting her rifle sight drop.
"Hold your position, Reynolds," the Captain snapped. This wasn't something anyone else should see.
"Captain, you are blocking the line of sight and our line of fire. At least do us the courtesy of explaining what is going on in there." said the Gunny levelly.
"She's spasming on the ground." Remy said, not wanting her friend to have others see her like this.
"Like in pain?" asked Cox, also not moving her rifle an inch from where it was pointed.
"In agony." Remy corrected.
"Huh," the Gunny grunted as he lowered his rifle. "The infected on the planet didn't feel pain," he stated baldly, and the rest of the team slowly lowered their rifles as well.
"None?" Remy looked back at him, a glimmer of hope in her voice.
"Nope," the Gunny asserted. "The guy with the plasma torch burned out his own eyes while trying to cut the Major in half. The others dropped down off the shelving units and crawled on broken legs to get to us. No acknowledgement of pain."
"So what are you saying, Gunny?" asked the Captain.
"Not saying anything about the Major one way or another. Just stating an observation." He met the Captain's eyes levelly.
The Captain nodded and took a breath. "Fine. Gunny, get your gear stowed." She nodded at him ever so slightly. "The rest of you keep watch. Let me know if anything changes. Maybe... she's fighting it."
"Aye aye, ma'am. Mitchell, you and Rivera stand watch; White and Miller, you take next shift. Cox and Garcia, you take the next. Staff, work out the rest of the rotation. Include both of us on the roster. The rest of you, stack the rifles back on the box and let's head back to Legionnaire Country for a debrief."
Remy nodded, turning to watch Arn. Her friend was curled up under the gurney, shuddering as pain rippled through her. *Fight it, Arn, fight it.*
"Captain, please call the bridge," came over the PA.
"Bridge, this is the Captain, report," she called as soon as she was out of earshot from the Legionnaires.
"Ma’am, just thought you should know that the long range sensors have detected a large thermonuclear explosion on the planet. Also, Mr. Wright has been very insistent on speaking to you. Several times an hour insistent," the communications officer said.
"I'll deal with him." Remy gritted her teeth in annoyance. "Put him through."
"Captain! I must protest your treatment of myself and my people," shouted the gratingly familiar voice. "I will be filing a report about this whole situation with your superiors! I demand we be let out of confinement and allowed to see the Major. If she is infected, she becomes ours!"
"You're welcome to file as many reports as you feel necessary." Remy forced herself to sound at least somewhat congenial. "The Major is not one of the infected; however, she has been injured. There's nothing you need to concern yourself with right now, Mr. Wright."
"That's not what we heard. We heard she was in quarantine until you got up the nerve to space her." sneered Wright.
"You know how unreliable scuttlebutt is." She forced a smile into her voice. "Please enjoy writing your reports." She stabbed the button to cut the channel with uncharacteristic pleasure.
At first, there was nothing but pain.
The pain slowly resolved itself into different levels; the headache reminiscent of a hangover or of the moment when the AI shoved himself inside her head; the hand of the time she and Remy smashed up that speeder and turned her arm into paste; and the lower leg... It was a new type of pain, and that was the final push into consciousness: the inability to categorize what was wrong with her leg. When she finally managed to open her crusted eyes, she didn't recognize where she was; only that she was lying on a steel deck. A cold steel deck, which was vibrating with the quiet hum of a starship.
As she looked at her leg to analyze what was wrong with it, she had to blink and stare at it for a bit for the image to make sense. Her leg seemed to be missing from the knee down, and the knee itself was a mangled wreck of bone and tissue.
She looked around and took in the absolute destruction around her: the overturned gurney, the smashed medical equipment, the sealed room with the bashed-in door, covered in blood. She looked at her hand: probably covered in her blood. What the fuck is going on? she thought.
She dragged herself slowly to her feet, balancing against some of the medical-equipment debris. A large piece of it fell off and crashed to the floor.
A shadow moved in front of the viewport and a familiar face peered down at Arn, eyes widening in surprise as she looked back. The Legionnaire’s mouth opened in surprise and he turned, hurrying to get someone.
"Hey!" she yelled after him. "What's going on?"
Within an instant people were rushing toward the isolation chamber, medics and guards, all trying to get a look at what was going on inside.
"Arn?" Remy was there, shoving her way to the front, the Gunny right behind her. "Arn, can you hear me?"
"Yes, I can hear you! What the fuck, Remy?" The Major was starting to get a little pissed off at the fact that they were all staring at her and she had no idea what was happening.
"Calm down, Arn. Look at me. Calm down. Do you know where you are?" Please let her not have some sort of serious brain damage. She turned, hissing an order to a nearby medic.
"Other than I'm on a ship? No. I hope this is the Vindicator and I just blew up that goddamned base, or I'm really in trouble." Arn cursed as she hobbled slowly to the door, hampered by the fact that she could only grasp things with her left hand.
"It's Vindicator. You blew up the base, good job. Too bad you managed to get your stupid self exposed to the infected." Remy smiled, never so happy to see her friend pissed off. "You're in isolation because..." she trailed off.
"Could this be a trick?" asked the Gunny. "I don't remember ever hearing her curse like this."
"That's Arn." Remy was sure of it. "You've never been around her when she's in a lot of pain, then."
"No," agreed the Gunny "Until now, I pretty much thought she was indestructible."
"Hello! Wounded person in here. Can I please get some medical attention?" hollered the Major.
"Soon as we're sure you're clean. Sorry Arn, house rules." Remy gestured to the medical team suiting up.
"Clean? Clean from what?" Arn wiped her face, and it came away black with gunk from her eyes and upper lip. "What the hell is this crap?"
"Hopefully that's what's left of the parasite after you finished expelling it." Remy really hoped that was true.
The blonde froze. "I was exposed?" she started backpedaling. "No! Don't come in here." she yelled at the techs that were starting to cycle through the airlock.
“Arn! Calm down. You are just fine now,” soothed the Captain from the viewport. “You’ve already expelled it. Look around the room, Arn. Do you remember doing any of that?”
The blonde took a few gulping breaths and looked around the room. “No,” she breathed out. “I don’t.” She looked at her best friend. “You swear it? I’m safe?”
“That’s what they are coming in to check, Frosty,” assured the Captain. “You ripped out all the medical monitors after you started showing symptoms of being infected. You gave us quite a scare.”
The suited-up techs slowly approached the Major, holding out scanning devices in front of them. Arn held still, impatiently waiting for the results.
“We can’t detect that other Alpha wave pattern in her neuroscan,” said one of the techs. “Barring any other weird results from a full medical eval, I’d say she was fine.”
Everyone let out a sigh of relief on the other side.
“Oh shit, she is the toughest motherfucker I’ve ever seen,” breathed Rivera in awe. Considering his personnel file, the Gunny took it for the compliment it was.
“Okay, Major,” the Captain was all business now that it seemed the crisis was over. “The team is going to finish the decontamination process and then send you up to medical. You are pretty banged up, so I’m guessing the doctors are going to tank you for the rest of the trip.”
“And it will keep her isolated from the rest of us,” mentioned the Gunny under his breath. The Captain pretended to ignore the comment.
“So please, do not upset any of the med techs. I know that you usually don’t co-operate with them, but I am asking you to please, please, be on your best behavior."
The Major nodded as she balanced carefully on her left leg and cradled her right hand. The tank sounded pretty good right about now, actually. She’d just get to sleep for a while and wake up all healed.
The Captain turned and motioned to the Gunny. “You think your people can take her out in her present condition without the armor and rifles?” she asked quietly. The Gunny nodded. “Good, have two of them with her at all times until she goes in the tank,” she ordered.
“Understood,” he said, then walked off to confer with the Staff Sergeant.
Remy stared at her friend as the techs chivvied her around inside the decontamination chamber, and shook her head in admiration. Only Frosty, she thought. She waved over the Shuttle Bay Chief to give him instructions on what to do with the decontamination setup after the Major had been cleared out of it.
After the Major had been tanked in the medical bay, the rest of the trip back to Puerta a las Estrellas was uneventful. Or as uneventful as a pissed-off group of civilians who wanted to take apart a Dragonsworn Major could be. The Captain continued to refuse their requests and insisted that the Major had not been infected, merely injured, and the rest of the crew seemed to follow the party line. Wright and his bunch had not endeared themselves to the rest of the crew throughout the journey, which probably explained why no one would co-operate with them.
Everyone on board was breathing a sigh of relief when they finally docked at Puerta a las Estrellas. Wright had made it very clear that he and his team were disembarking at the base and catching a company ship home. No one was sad to seem them go.
The medical bay had requested that Arn and her tank be moved to the bigger medical facilities on the base, and Remy had approved the transfer. While the medical facilities onboard the Legionnaire troopship were excellent, they still were limited in space and technicians just by being on a ship. The base was under no such restrictions, plus it had a superior medical facility due to the lack of adequate hospitals in the nearby planetary systems.
After Wright and his crew left and Arn was transferred to the base hospital, the Captain went ahead and granted a well-deserved shore leave to her crew and the Legionnaires, making sure that the State Secrecy act was heard and understood at quarters before each section was released. Remy planned to stay in port long enough for each of the duty sections to rotate through shore leave, so no one was left out.
The Captain took the last Bridge watch before departure, releasing her XO for shore duty. She was sitting in the command chair, trying to come up with a plausible story about what happened on the mission, when one of the techs signaled her.
“What’s up, Petty Officer Madrigal?” she asked absently as she tried to compose a plausible explanation for the destruction of a portable decontamination chamber by accidentally venting it into space.
“I have a civilian ship running balls-out for the hyperband, Ma’am,” said the tech excitedly.
“Excuse me?” she asked, standing up and moving to his station, the data pad left absently on her chair.
“Sorry ma’am, but the ship is--” he swallowed and tried again-- “A civilian ship is accelerating very rapidly toward the system limit where they can safely hyperjump.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Very good. We’ll make a gentleman out of you yet.” She looked at the registry of the ship that the Petty Officer had pulled up when he noted their unusual departure. As she read through the registry, she noted the owner of the ship. “Dynamic Industries…” she muttered, her stomach sinking. *Gunny! Drop what you are doing and go check on the Major!* she sent through her link, boosting off the ship’s com signal.
*Aye aye, Ma’am.* The Gunny sounded puzzled, but he didn’t argue. Ten minutes later he answered back. *The Major is gone! The med techs here claim that we came and got her after they got done running tests!*
“Captain to Medical,” she called out after she signaled the communications officer to open a channel.
“Dr. Velasquez here, Captain,” came the reply.
“Did you send anyone to pick up Major Drifa in her tank?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“No,” she replied. “The base hasn’t informed us whether they've finished running tests.”
“Ma’am,” Petty Officer Madrigal interrupted her thoughts. “That ship just jumped to hyperspace.”
The Captain hung her head. There was no way the Vindicator could catch up with them now; two-thirds of the crew was off ship and the Vindicator was still hooked up to the dock.
“Should I recall the crew?” asked the Communications Officer tentatively, knowing that even if they left right now, there was no way to catch up with the ship.
“No,” said the Captain wearily. “It wouldn’t do much good, would it?” She picked up her pad off the chair and walked towards her briefing room. “I’ll be working on my reports; please let me know if anything else happens.”
The doors to the office of Senator Kalisandra DeMeru St. Cyr opened, and Princess Remedios Pilar De La Draco, Heir Tertiary, blew into the room followed by three Talon Guard as her escort. In full court robes and coronet, Remy struck an imposing figure. She strode up to the busy receptionist, ignoring the rest of the staff and interns in the room.
“I need to talk to the Senator,” she said quietly.
“I’m sorry, Senator St. Cyr has a very full schedule today; did you want to make an appointment?” the receptionist responded sweetly.
Remy ground her teeth together. “I think you should call the Senator and ask if I need an appointment.”
“If you could let me know what this is about, I’m sure I can squeeze you in for a few minutes sometime tomorrow,” hedged the woman. “The eight-week recess is starting soon, and the Senator is very busy with a couple of important bills she is sponsoring.”
“This can’t wait. Don’t make me force the issue, please.” Remy leaned back and crossed her arms, and let the woman get a good look at the three Talon Guard standing behind her. “Just call the Senator and ask if she is willing to see me.” Remy was giving Kali enough rope to hang herself, figuring that she would blow her off and maybe, just maybe, Arnfiol would see the woman for the slimy political creature she really was.
The receptionist nodded and picked up the hand com. “Senator, the Heir Tertiary is here requesting a moment of your time.” Remy couldn’t hear the response, but the receptionist's attitude changed completely. “The Senator will be happy to see you in her office immediately. Your Highness.”
“Thank you,” she replied cordially while she and her guards walked past the desk and entered the Senator’s private office.
The office was small, befitting Kali’s status as a junior senator. She did have a nice view of one of the City’s big parks, which probably made up for the lack of size.
The blonde was sitting behind her desk, looking at the princess anxiously, and as soon as the last guard closed the door, she blurted out, “Is Arnfiol okay?”
“How do you know this is about Arn?” asked the Princess.
“Why else would you be here?” responded Kali. “It’s not like we travel in the same social circles, and I’m not exactly your type.”
Remy studied the Senator for a moment. “If I told you I needed you to take some time off, no questions asked, and you couldn’t tell anyone where you were going or who you were going with, what would you do?”
“Ask when you needed me to go, how long I needed to tell my staff I would be gone for, and whether I'd get a chance to pack or just add to my wardrobe when I get there,” responded Kali calmly, already reaching for the handset.
“As simple as that?” Remy was surprised.
“You wouldn’t be here if it didn’t concern Arn. I know this is a difficult concept for people to grasp, but I do love her; I’m not using her to try and get information about the Legion, you, or the royal family. I’m only interested in her. If you are in my office, telling me you need me to drop everything, I will. Now, how long should I tell my staff that I’m going to be gone?”
“A week, and we do have time to stop by your quarters to pack a bag,” replied Remy, mentally bumping up her estimation of Kali a few points
“No need; I have a ready bag here in the office.” Kali activated the comset and started speaking in her native French. “Aline, I have to leave for week for a family emergency. Please reschedule all of my meetings and send my regrets.” She waited a moment, then replied, “I’m sure my co-sponsors can work on the bills without me once you explain that I had an emergency, Aline,” she said a bit more forcefully. A few moments later, she smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate all the trouble you and the rest of the staff went through to work on these bills, and I’m sure everyone will be very understanding when you send my regrets.” She disconnected and stood up. “Now if you wouldn’t mind waiting in the outer office, I’ll change into something more comfortable for traveling and grab my bag.”
Remy nodded and left with her entourage for the waiting room. The staff had already shifted into high gear, and from some of the conversations she was overhearing, they were working hard to juggle the Senator’s schedule around the ‘family emergency’ she had just declared.
*That was easier than expected,* sent Staff Sergeant Hillard, the woman in charge of Remy’s personal guard. Normally, the Tertiary guard had it easy--since Remy spent most of her time on ship and avoided public events, they didn’t accompany her much. They'd been a bit surprised when she had requested their presence, and even more shocked to find her in full court garb and wearing the royal coronet when they met up with her in her palace quarters.
*I agree, I fully expected to either be cooling my heels in her outer office or blown off completely. I only came to her after Chiron suggested that the Senator might be of assistance,* replied the Princess, deftly stepping out of the way of a rushing intern. *But she not only saw us immediately, she dropped everything once she realized this was about Arnfiol.*
*I wonder why the AI suggested she come,* mused the Staff Sergeant. Any further speculation was cut off when Kali stepped out of her private office in a simple blouse and pants, quite different from the formal wear and Senate robes that she had been in just minutes earlier.
Kali swung a medium duffel bag over her shoulder and approached the waiting group. “I’m ready.”
Remy mentally added even more points to the Senator’s score card for the quick change and the practical outfit, and turned to the exit, fully expecting her group to follow her out the door.
“Senator, what should I say to you mother when she calls?” asked the receptionist before Kali had made it through the door.
“Tell her I will call her when I get back,” was the reply, the blonde not even turning around.
The shuttle up to Remy’s personal ship was quiet--the uncomfortable silence of people hastily thrown together into a situation and trying to establish how their relationship was going to work.
Kali finally broke the ice. “I didn’t realize you had your own yacht,” she said.
Remy smiled wryly. “You might say it was a surprise gift from my mother.” The guards snickered.
Kali looked at them, puzzled. “I am afraid I don’t get the joke.”
“My mother is known for giving, shall we say, practical gifts. Things that serve more than one purpose,” was Remy's cryptic response.
Still not understanding the reference, Kali let the subject die. “Can you tell me anything about what happened?” she asked, trying another conversational track.
“I’ll give you what information I can once we get to my ship and meet up with the rest of our… crew.”
Kali, shut down again, started picking at her nails. Normally a talkative person, she was not used to silence, and the anxiety she was feeling about the situation with her lover was exacerbating her need for verbal stimulation.
“I don’t usually see you in court garb,” she tried again. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“I don’t like to wear it,” admitted Remy. “I much prefer my Naval uniform.”
Kali seized on the conversation like a lifeline. “So you like being a Naval officer?”
Remy finally made eye contact with the Senator. “Of course; why else would I have joined the Navy?” she asked, puzzled.
“Well, you have so many career opportunities,” started Kali.
Remy laughed. “Oh really? If I’m not interested in playing politics like my siblings, where do you think I could get a job that would let me take them,” and she jerked her thumb at her guards, “with me everywhere I go?”
“Oh,” said Kali, looking thoughtful. “I never really thought about it.”
“Even when I go on vacation with Arn, they come with me. The difference is, they don’t have to be within arm's reach when I’m with her.”
All three guards rolled their eyes. “Like Frosty isn’t an enabler or anything,” muttered the Staff Sergeant.
Kali’s eyes lit up. “Really?” she asked. “Do you have any examples?”
"Oh look, we’re docking,” interrupted Remy before things got too far out of hand. “Let’s go. We don’t want to keep our crew waiting.”
Because their shuttle to the orbiting station was a private one reserved for the royal family’s use, they were able to dock within a reasonable distance of the slip the Princess’s yacht was moored at. There was no conversation as Remy's guard cut a path through the passageway to her ship. As they approached the slip, a small crowd of people with very familiar haircuts appeared to be standing idly nearby. With a start, Kali realized that she was looking at a bunch of Dragonsworn who were not normal members of Arn’s squad. The group looked up and seemed relieved to see the princess, but Kali caught one or two frowns thrown her way.
“Everyone here?” the princess asked as soon as she got within speaking range.
“Yes, Captain,” replied the Gunny. “We have already put everything on board and the Lieutenant is prepping his med bay."
“Med bay?” blurted out Kali. “What the hell is going on?”
“Get on the ship, Senator,” replied Remy through gritted teeth, looking around to see what attention they were garnering.
“Will you tell me what is going on if I do?” ask Kali, starting to become obstinate. She had faith in Arnfiol’s friend, but it occurred to her that if the Royal family wanted her 'disappeared,' a mythical injury to her lover would be the perfect lure.
“Yes, Senator, but it would be best if we drew the least possible amount of attention to our mission,” Remy responded quietly, motioning for Kali to precede her up the ramp.
Kali searched Remy’s face for any hint of deceit and, finding none, stepped up the ramp to the ship
“Why are you bringing her?” asked the Gunny, sotto voice. “This is a rescue mission, not a romantic get-away.”
“Because Chiron suggested we bring her. He seemed to think that if there was a possible way to talk ourselves into the facility, that woman,” and Remy pointed an accusing finger at the blonde’s back, “would be our best option.”
“But, she’s a Populist!” protested Garcia. “Why would she help us? And can we trust her to keep her mouth shut?”
“Because she is Arn’s lover, and she literally dropped everything with no questions asked when I hinted that Arn was in trouble,” snapped the Princess. “Look, we are taking a lot of things on faith, but so is she. She has absolutely no reason to trust us, especially since I have given her no information; but there she is, walking into a ship with people who are not her political allies, without telling anyone where she is going. She might not trust us, but she trusts Arn. So maybe we should do the same.”
The team didn’t look mollified, but they conceded her point and filed onto the ship.
*Oh this is going to be fun,* quipped Corporal Chavez, the only male member of her guard, as they walked up the ramp. *This is a short trip, right?*
*We get to use a gate this time,* responded Remy. *And hopefully, with the Senator’s help, we can talk our way in and out. At least, that is why Chiron suggested we bring her. I myself would take more satisfaction in blowing our way in and out, and then mining the empty space where the facility used to be, but I’ve been told that sometimes, I’m a little overzealous about retaliation.*
*Yeah, I have no idea where they get that notion from...* Menendez paused for a beat, *...Your Highness.*
*Look, I can always re-assign you to Carlos’ unit. I hear that’s a great assignment,* she pointed out as they climbed the ramp into the new ‘toy’ her mother had given her. Carlos was her nephew, and the most polite thing that could be said about him was that he was ‘energetic.’
“Welcome aboard, Captain. I am Mahdi and I am the ship’s AI. All of your party appears to be present, so I will contact Space Control and request permission to depart,” came an all-too-familiar voice over the loudspeaker.
“Are you serious?” Remy said to the AI. “I should have known my mom would wrap some serious strings around this gift.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the Staff Sergeant Hillard.
“It involves my mother. Are you sure you want to know?”
“Never mind,” the Staff Sergeant sighed.
“Why does everyone tiptoe around the Empress, anyway?” asked Kali, having overheard the last part of the conversation when the princess and her guard walked into the common room.
“Well, maybe because she’s the real head of the intelligence agency?” Miller snapped. Everyone turned and glared at him. “What? Am I saying something that isn’t an open secret?”
“Not outside the black ops area,” ground out the Gunny.
“Oh,” said Miller, looking chagrined.
“Captain, we have been cleared for travel to the gate portal. Should I go ahead and get in line?” asked the AI.
Every one of the Legionnaires started at hearing the familiar voice.
“Is that the…” started Mitchell.
“Shut it,” snapped the Gunny as Reynolds stepped on his foot, Cox smacked him upside the head, and Rivera elbowed him. They all looked pointedly at the Senator.
“Whoops,” said Mitchell.
“Should I go put my stuff in my quarters now?” asked Kali sweetly. “Give you all a chance to speak without me overhearing anything?”
“Let me show you where your quarters are,” jumped in Corporal Chavez.
*You don’t know where they are,* sent Remy as they left the room.
*I’m sure I can figure it out,* replied the Corporal.
Remy looked pointedly at her crew. “Look, I know on these kinds of things you are used to everyone having the same security level as you are. The Senator doesn’t. When she’s around, I’m just asking you to think before you speak. If it’s not something you would tell your own families, don’t tell her,” explained Remy. “And I really wish you would have changed your voice,” she complained to the AI, who she knew was listening in.
“How is this?” came a light tenor through the speakers.
“Much better. As far as anyone is concerned, you blew up with the base. If anyone knew that the Empress had a Super AI running around in a private yacht…” Remy shook her head. "And it’s my yacht. Mine.” She sighed, shaking her head. “There are times when I wish I was just a Naval officer.”
Remy turned back to her crew. “Now, I will explain to the Senator what is going on, because I’ve been told what I can and cannot tell her. You guys,” she struggled for an explanation. “Just pretend she’s your little sister and you are home on leave, okay?”
*Okay, you coward, you can bring the Senator back now,* Remy sent to her guard.
*I gave her the quarters next to yours,* replied the Corporal.
The Senator followed the corporal back into the common area, where the team had taken seats around the room. Seeing the looks she was getting from the Dragonsworn, she carefully chose a chair that wasn’t next to anyone, but also didn’t put her back to any of the Legionnaires.
A thin man with white hair and covered in scars entered the room. He wore a Dragonsworn uniform, in spite of his frail frame and what looked like a slight tic to his head. He smiled slightly at Kali’s stare. “Dragonsworn who get injured don’t always retire. Sometimes we move into support positions.” He explained.
“Yeah, meet Humpty Dumpty.” Said White. “As in ‘All the King’s horses and all the King’s Men, put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
The Lieutenant smiled painfully and carefully took a seat next to the Senator. “I’m a Dragonsworn medical specialist and a fully licensed doctor. It’s a pleasure to meet Captain Drifa’s lady; I just wish it was over a nice dinner instead.” After he sat down, all attention returned back to the princess.
We are on our way to go get our Major,” started Remy when she had everyone’s attention again. Kali frowned and opened her mouth to ask a question. “When on ship, Captain Drifa becomes Major Drifa because there can only be one Captain on the ship,” explained Remy quickly.
“On our previous mission,” the princess continued, “the Major was injured in the line of duty.” Seeing the worry in Kali’s eyes, Remy clarified. “It was a non life-threatening injury.” She pointedly ignored the strangled sounds from the rest of the Dragonsworn. “But one of her, shall we say, genetic quirks kicked in and raised the unwanted attention of some civilian scientists who happened to be on ship with us.”
Remy continued speaking, giving everyone a look that told them to stay quiet until she was done. “While the Major was tanked--” Tanked? mouthed Kali. “--those scientists decided that they would like to take the Major to, let’s say, explore the genetic quirk more closely. Without permission.”
“What the Captain is trying to say,” interrupted the Gunny, “is that Wright and his fellow asshats stole the Major while she was in her med tank and ran off to examine her at their lab.”
“Wait, stole her?” asked Kali, puzzled.
“What else do you call sneaking her out of the med lab on the base by lying to the staff, putting her on a ship and hightailing it out of there so fast we had no idea what they had done before they hit hyperspace?” snorted Cox.
“So why don’t the Dragonsworn Legion and the Emperor demand that they give her back?” Kali asked.
“It’s complicated,” started Remy. “The company in question is politically protected because of military contracts and a tight web of well placed politicians. Suffice it to say, the Emperor knows what we are doing and I am speaking with his voice.” She pointed to the coronet. “He would rather we not shoot our way into the facility, as it belongs to the largest BioEngineering firm in the Empire, and it lowers the plausible deniability of what we are doing, but the abduction of a Dragonsworn and a Hound cannot go unanswered.”
“So why am I here?” asked Kali. “Surely you have people who are more qualified than I am to do this?”
“Well, I have it on good authority from several sources that you would be a very good candidate to help us talk our way in,” Remy smiled grimly. “Besides I’m very sure that Arn would like to see a familiar face when we rescue her.”
“Ah,” said Kali. “You want someone trained in civil conversation.” She grinned. “Civil conversation is the art of telling someone to go fuck themselves in such a way that the someone agrees it probably is a good idea.” She winked.
“Captain,” interrupted the AI in his new voice, "we are next in line to transition through the gate. I suggest strapping in.”
Everyone dug around in their seats, found the discreetly placed safety belts and strapped in.
“Jumping in 60 seconds,” intoned the AI. “30…20…10..9..8..7..6..5..4..3..Jumping…” and the world turned sideways as the laws of quantum physics were broken and the ship was suddenly not in the Home system anymore, but in another system entirely, thousands of light years away.
“Oh, I hate that part,” muttered Garcia.
“We have 12 hours remaining before we reach the facility at which the Major is being held,” intoned the AI.
“Thank you...” Remy racked her brains for the AI’s new name. “Mahdi.”
“Sooo,” said Kali, looking around at the group of Dragonsworn. “Got any good stories about Arnfiol?” The evil grins she got back were answer enough.
A long twelve hours later, the AI hailed Remy. “Captain, I have convinced the facility's computers that we are a regularly scheduled supply ship. We have received clearance to park at Loading Dock C3. I will have more information on where to find the Major once we are tethered to the station and I can access their internal files.”
“Thank you, Mahdi,” replied the Princess as she smoothed her court robes.
“He can do that?” whispered Cox to Reynolds.
“I’ve stopped trying to figure out what this AI can and can’t do. It scares the crap out of me if I think about it too hard.” Reynolds whispered back.
The Corporal nodded in agreement and went back to checking her weapons and armor. Remy had flat out refused to let them take the battlesuits into the facility, but the Gunny had them loaded onto the yacht ‘just in case.’ The Legionnaires were instead wearing the modified ‘stealth armor’ that had the ability to blend into surrounding areas, making the Legionnaires difficult if not almost impossible to spot with the naked eye. They still carried their standard-issue rifles, which were fitted with a ‘stealth sheet’ that allowed the weapons to blend in the same way the armor did. The Legionnaires would be following behind the Talon Guard, the Senator and the Princess as backup.
“Remember, anything the Senator can’t out-charm or out-think, you shoot,” ordered the Gunny.
During the 12 hour journey to the facility, the Senator had managed to charm everyone on board, learn all about their families and how each of them came to be part of the Dragonsworn Legion, lending credit to Chiron’s claim that she would be useful on this trip. The Gunny confided to the princess that the Senator was the most dangerous person he ever met, while the blonde was sitting surrounded by laughing Dragonsworn. “Having that much charisma is just unnatural,” he complained.
“Captain, I have located the lab where the Major is being held,” the AI stated just minutes after they felt the yacht hook up with the station. “Lab 3476A, section 12, level 6. We are in section 27, level 6.” He downloaded maps to the Legionnaire’s heads-up displays and to the slate that Remy was holding. “I have mapped out directions to the labs from here and created a diversion on the other side of the station to limit the number of personnel you should encounter on the way there.”
“What kind of AI is this?” whispered Kali to Remy. “I want one to help me run my office.”
“It’s a special AI, and you would never get one,” responded Remy.
“It’s a Royal thing?”
“Something like that.”
They both felt the ship shudder and the light over the airlock turned green.
“We have a seal, let’s go,” ordered the Captain.
The poor dock workers had no idea what hit them when the Dragonsworn in stealth mode swarmed down the ramp and rendered them all unconscious.
“Clear,” came the call from the bottom of the ramp up to where the rest of the party was waiting.
“That was impressive,” murmured Kali.
“You should see them when they really get going,” replied Remy.
Their exit from the loading dock was unremarkable, and the team followed the AI's map to the cargo lift, which was conveniently large enough for all of them to fit into.
“You think the AI…” started Miller.
“Shut it,” growled the Gunny. “I don’t want to think about it.”
The lift quickly descended to level six, and the group turned left and headed for section 12. Along the way, they encountered only a few personnel, each one quickly rendered unconscious and stuffed in a nearby closet or empty room.
As they approached section 12, they saw armed guards in front of the main passageway.
“It appears that Section 12 is where they do their classified research,” murmured Remy as she took in the armed guards and security locks.
“My turn,” said Kali, sotto voce. “Wish me luck.” She walked up to the guards, smiling broadly.
“Bonjour. I am looking for my friend who is in lab 3476A,” she said brightly.
The guards started to smile back in response as she approached them, but quickly caught themselves. One replied gruffly. “Sorry, if you don’t have the right security clearance, you can’t come in here.”
“What level of security clearance do I need?” she asked. “I’m sure that I have it, I just don’t have my card on me.”
“Lady, you don’t. And even if you had a card on you, I still wouldn’t let you in without one of the big wigs in there,” he jerked his thumb behind him, indicating the locked labs, “escorting you in personally.”
Kali smiled even wider as she heard her escort coming up behind her, seeing that she wasn’t going to be able to charm her way past the security guards
“How about I see your security card, and raise you one princess, three Talon guards and seven extremely pissed off Dragonsworn?”
The Legionnaires dropped out of stealth mode and leveled their rifles at the guards. At their shocked looks, the Senator continued. “How about you go ahead and let us in. I’m pretty sure the Heir Tertiary outranks any bigwigs on this station anyway.”
“Y... yes, Ma’am,” the guard stammered as his partner fumbled his security card, trying to get it into the slot.
“Thank you,” beamed Kali at the guards as they passed. Rivera hit the stuttering guard with the butt of his rifle while Mitchell took out the second guard with an elbow to the face. He also grabbed the security card out of the slot on his way by.
“Could come in handy,” was all he said at the look Rivera gave him.
The group headed down the passageway, intent on finding Lab3476A. The finally found it two left turns and a right from the security station. The lab had a metal door, and no windows to show what was inside. The Gunny tried the door and found it locked.
“White, how about you give it a little help?” White nodded, lifted his foot and used his augmented strength to kick in the door.
The team filed through, and what they saw shocked even their jaded senses. As the princess and Kali came through behind them, Kali gave a gasp of horror.
Three scientists dressed in scrubs were standing around a figure, which was suspended spreadeagle in the middle of the room. It took the team a few heartbeats to realize she was naked, because the skin on her back had been carefully peeled back to expose the muscle and bone underneath. It looked like the team had interrupted the scientists as they were exploring the area under the Major’s skin.
“Stop!” bellowed Remy. “That’s enough. We are here to get back an abducted Legionnaire. I am placing you all under arrest, to be tried in the Dragon Court for crimes against the Empire.”
Kali slowly moved around to the other side of the room, carefully making sure she did not cross any lines of fire between the Dragonsworn and their targets. The Dragonsworn were yelling at the scientists to step away from the Major and put down their instruments, and the scientists were yelling back that this was an illegal entry. Kali ignored all that and approached her lover from the front, trying to erase the image that greeted her when she entered the room.
The blonde’s head was hanging down, and as the Senator approached, she could see something was strapped Arnfiol’s head and stuck in her mouth. The first thing that ran through Kali’s head was it was some kind of bit, but then she realized it was a gag.
“Oh, Arn,” she said softly as she reached out to touch her lover’s face.
Arn’s face jerked up, and she stared at her lover blankly; her eyes were the same shimmer black as the tattoo.
The Senator let out a scream and stumbled back; hitting a cart and tumbling to the floor as glass sample containers crashed on the floor all around her.
The noise swung everyone’s attention to her.
“She's awake,” stuttered the blonde. “They are operating on her while she is awake.”
The Dragonsworn team emitted an almost animalistic growl as they all raised their rifles and trained them on the scientists.
“Hold!” bellowed Remy. “Stand down.” When the team didn’t immediately bring down their rifles, she repeated the order. “I said, stand down.” Her voice was a whip crack through the room. The Dragonsworn immediately lowered their rifles.
The princess turned burning eyes on the three scientists.
“What, exactly, is the meaning of performing a vivisection on a Dragonsworn Captain and an Imperial Hound?” she asked coldly. “And do give me a reason that is good enough for you all to survive the next five minutes.”
Kali carefully picked herself up out of the mess on the floor while the scientists babbled. The sample vials had apparently been full of the black substance that made up Arnfiol’s tattoo. It was hard to tell, however, since there was no longer any trace of the blackness anywhere in the room, except for a tiny bit that was flowing into the cuts in Kali’s hands and arms. Immediately, the blood flow from the cuts slowed, and Kali watched as the cuts scabbed over almost instantly.
Horrified, she looked up from her hands to find Arn watching her, the black no longer covering her eyes. The Senator rushed over to her lover and removed the gag.
“It’s okay,” Kali whispered. “I’m here with Remy and your team. We’re going to get you out.”
“I’m so sorry,” Arnfiol’s voice was soft and scratchy. “It won’t hurt you, I promise.”
“Shhhh, don’t worry about it. Let’s just worry about getting you out of here.” Kali's voice was soothing, although her mind was screaming.
“All right, enough,” Remy’s voice cracked through the din. “We, and that’s the Royal We, already know that Captain Arnfiol Drifa has an unclassified symbiote in her system. We have known that since she was discovered floating around on a ship on the edges of the kingdom. As she was the only survivor, we couldn’t ask the crew where she came from. Since she has no memory of the time before we found her, we can’t ask her where she came from. The symbiote which you are trying to isolate has already been tested extensively by the royal medical corps and found to be inert and harmless. It does serve to make the Captain very had to poison, and makes her disgustingly healthy since she can’t seem to catch a virus either.”
Remy's barely controlled fury was keeping the room motionless. “You had no right to snatch her from the medical bay at Puerta a las Estrellas. For that, you stand charged with kidnapping. From what I can see here, you will also be charged with crimes against humanity, because I can’t think of a single reason why you thought it would be a good idea to take the Captain apart while she was still alive, much less conscious.”
“We didn’t want any drugs altering her system, so we disabled her pharma implant,” muttered one of the scientists.
“You what?” roared the Gunny. “You have the clearance to shut down her augments?”
“Well, yes. Who do you think makes them?” sneered another one of the scientists.
“No shooting,” yelled the princess, as all the Dragonsworn’s rifles snapped back up. She turned and glared at her bodyguards. “You either,” she said, waiting for them to put the pistols away.
“Now, you are going to come quietly to our ship, and then you will go before the Dragon Court, where you will face justice from the Emperor himself, since the Secrecy Act applies. If you don’t come quietly, I will officially ignore anything these people do to you to make you behave, as long as there is enough of you left for the doctor on my ship to put back together and stand trial. And as he is a Legionnaire doctor, he is very good at stitching very small pieces back together.”
The scientists all swallowed hard.
“Staff Sergeant Hillard, I need you, Corporal Chavez, and Sergeant Menendez to carry the Captain to the ship.”
“I think I saw a gurney in another lab,” said Chavez as he ran out to find it. The other two worked on getting the blonde down, as she stifled screams of pain. Until the doctor on board the ship reactivated her pharma implant, she couldn’t receive any painkillers or nerve blockers.
Chavez came back with the gurney and the three Talon Guard carefully laid their charge down on her stomach, closing up the incisions with a medical sealer Kali had found on a nearby table.
The Gunny and his team chivvied their charges out the door as the Talon Guard wheeled the Captain after them. The princess and the senator followed slowly behind, confident that anyone stupid enough to get in the way of the angry Legionnaires would be quickly taken care of.
“So what happens now?” asked Kali.
“They go to trial in the Dragon Court, which is where we send all cases that are too sensitive to be tried in the Imperial Court. Their company will pay for really good lawyers; maybe even tie it up for years, almost like a regular court.”
“And Arnfiol?” Kali was rubbing her hands together. The scabs itched like crazy. She and her lover were going to have a long talk about what exactly had happened with the symbiote entering her system.
“Probably medical leave for a while. If not, then I will insist that she take a vacation.” The princess looked sideways at the Senator. “I hear you have some vacation time coming up.”
Kali huffed, blowing her bangs off her forehead. “Yeah, I think we have reached the stage where it’s time to take her home to meet the parents.” She smiled wryly. “I did save her from the evil scientist lair after all. Doesn’t that mean I get the girl?”
Remy laughed almost all the way back to the ship.
Thanks for finishing the ride. Arn, Remy and Kali have further adventures all built up in my head already, so send lots of feedback if you want to see more of them. I’d like to thank my beta readers Kat and Re for helping make this a better story. I’d also like to thank my partner for allowing me to virtually ignore her for a week while I finished getting the story out of my head.