“Thirty Seconds to touchdown!”
It was just like in the academy days. Every war game she had ever been in, every time she played the role of field infantry, she would hear those exact words. Thirty seconds.
The routine was simple. She would pile out the rear of the dropship, when the ramp dropped. She would get to cover the moment she saw some. She would pick her targets. She would take them down as they came.
Being statified, or stunned, was the worst that could happen in the war games though.
This was a real world. This was planet T’pauzi V. It wouldn’t be stat guns aimed at her this time.
It would be live plasmars. Or lasers. Or explosives. Ballistics. By Bentor, the attacks could have been psychic. This was the T’pauzi she was about to deal with.
Would her lightweight combat suit absorb the damage? She had her doubts. She heard about the T’pauzi. Their weapons fired lightning. Even the handheld ones. If it didn’t burn a hole clean through, it fried anything electrical and probably still paralysed the target for life.
There was a timer counting down on the ramp door. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen.
The air conditioning in her combat suit worked perfectly, but she still sweat bullets, and she started to pant. Her hearing blurred.
She heard all about dropship platoons and their luck. Nine times out of ten, the platoon was wiped out the second the ramp was dropped, and the dropship itself was grounded, if not destroyed.
Thirty seconds. She never thought she would be the one saying that. Never thought she would get her own platoon, not at twenty-five. Behraan must have been getting desperate, she figured.
At least, she thought to herself, she was fresh out of the Navy Academy, on track to become an officer, so she was somewhat prepared.
She wasn’t prepared for being pulled out of her education, much less being put on a dropship with twelve men and women she never met, charged with the burden of sending them to their deaths—and likely dying, herself.
She stood up, her suit hiding the nervous wreck that she was. She grabbed a long-snouted rifle from the gun rack along the side wall inside the dropship. Double-checking that the weapon was loaded and the safety was off, she made her way for the ramp.
She then looked to two larger, male soldiers with tower shields that matched their green-on-black armour, and beckoned them to her left and right. She spoke sharply and firmly, “You two will raise your shields and cover me. The rest of you lot will not move until I say so.”
“That’s not the plan, Sentinel!” one of the shield-holding soldiers protested, his voice crackly and high-pitched. He couldn’t have been older than perhaps seventeen or eighteen.
“The plan got everyone else killed!” she argued, “You’ll do as I say, or you’ll wish the T’pauzi got to you before I did. Understood?”
With a moment of hesitation, the two shield soldiers turned to the ramp—which then read five seconds--and knelt forward and raised their tower shields, joining edges to form a wall in front of her.
The Sentinel then knelt in between the two overlapping tower shields, shouting back, “Five seconds! Draw your weapons and get low! They’ll shoot up the ramp!”
The other nine soldiers quietly yet promptly complied.
The Sentinel held the sniper rifle in her hands, not aiming out but keeping her eyes above the shield wall. The visor on her helmet was limiting her field of view, so in the last few seconds, she quickly took it off with one hand, waiting until the door dropped.
She appeared quite young, herself. She was pale skinned, with wavy black hair that fell to the sides of her face, tucked behind one of her ears. Her face was somewhat angular, her lips somewhat thin and long, her nose long and pointed. Her eyes were an icy blue, and they darted around, as if unable to focus on one place for too long.
“Are you okay, Sentinel?” asked the crackly adolescent soldier.
“Eyes forward,” she spoke out the side of her mouth, “Lower the ramp!”
The ramp then lowered, almost dropping out rather than being controlled. The dropship was still a good thirty metres off the ground, which was barely visible through the dense fog. In the distance, the loud chirps and low bangs of the weapons of war could be heard echoing from every direction. Every so often, a final scream could be heard. No one could guess which side it came from.
“Keep those shields up!” she commanded, plucking a grenade from a clip on the hip of her suit, pulling the pin and dropping it into her helmet before lobbing it over the wall.
As the explosives-laden helmet spun and fell to the foggy ground, she could see blue streaks of energy chasing it, until one such streak punctured straight through it. The explosion didn’t happen right away, but when it did, it cleared a good ten metre radius of fog, as well as all the unlucky T’pauzi troops waiting for the Behraanese soldiers to come down.
The grenade-laden helmet was a test, more than an actual means of clearing troops, just to test the defences.
“That wasn’t manned weapons fire,” she concluded, “That was automated. They’re waiting for us to come out.”
“But we have to come out eventually,” said the shield soldier on her right.
“That’s right,” she nodded, noting that only ten or so metres remained between the ground and the dropship, “But now, we know what to expect. I need two more shields covering our flanks. I need one on anti-tank, taking out those automated gun placements. The rest, you take down anyone stupid enough to get close. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Sentinel!” the platoon answered in concert, quickly forming up as she commanded.
The dropship landed hard upon the ground, and the ramp scraped upon the pavement below it. The Sentinel then pointed forward, shouting, “for Behraan! For destiny!”
The holographic projection of the entire thing came to a halt, and all the characters within had frozen in place. One would have thought the frozen image to be rather heroic. An unlikely sight in statistically doomed landing parties.
The projection was emitted from a small silvery disc that sat upon a dull metal desk.
On both sides of the desk, two people sat upon similarly featureless chairs, yet the two people were anything but featureless.
In one chair, closer to the door of the small office, sat the same Sentinel portrayed in the projection. She wore the standard green-on-black, Navy uniform, though this uniform betrayed her thin, tall and sharp physique better than the combat suit ever did. Her hair was tied back. Her lips were closed, emotionless. Her eyes still darted about the room, though less erratically than in the dropship.
In the other chair, with his back to a circular window, sat an aged man, also in such a uniform but clearly decorated with numerous medals and rank pins—namely those of a General. His hair was grey; his face wrinkled with time and stress both.
“Bold idea,” he said, crossing his hand on the edge of the desk, leaning forward, “So rare is a person who would think beyond the plain orders. Beyond standard Academy training. You know—that sort of mindset is exactly the sort of thing that gets people killed.”
“It also changes the tides of a battle,” the Sentinel replied in kind, crossing her arms, “as you’ve witnessed.”
“What I witnessed was an act of insubordination,” the General said more sternly, “and, of course, the consequence of such acts greatly depends on the outcome of such acts. Those who fail are considered reckless rebels with no regards for the rules, or others. Those who succeed are considered heroes among their ilk.”
“This was three years ago,” she replied simply, “imagine if more such acts of insubordination didn’t happen. We’d still be on T’pauzi. The casualties would be numberless. But instead? We control T’pauzi now. We won.”
“Justifying taking matters into your own hands?” the General argued.
She only raised her brows, if only to make a silent yet affirmative response.
“Indeed,” the General nodded, sighing, “Laura—I didn’t call you in here to talk about decisions made in the past. I called you—because I need someone exactly like you, who can in fact make decisions, just like that, once again. You are still in possession of that—yacht--you inherited, yes?”
“Yes sir,” she nodded, “what of it?”
“It is a military vessel, is it not?” The General asked, as if already knowing the answer.
“It’s registered as civilian,” the Sentinel said, shaking her head.
The General lowered his head and looked her in the eye expectantly.
“It has five plasmar turret placements,” she added silently.
He continued his stare.
“And two torpedo banks.”
“Rather well-armed for a civilian yacht, don’t you think?” The General crossed his arms.
“The torpedo banks are disabled, and the turrets are uninstalled,” said the Sentinel, “the Skyreign follows all the civilian regulations. I had her inspected and certified last year.”
“Yes,” he looked away, at his desk, humming and gently tapping his thumbs on the top of the desk. Then, he looked back to her, “well—you had best reinstall those weapons. I’m authorizing the re-certification of the Skyreign to military, Light Frigate Class of a unique type, endowing it with the Behraanese Navy Star-Ship prefix. Officially.”
“Unofficially,” He continued, “the Skyreign will remain Civilian. If anyone asks you your faction, even other Behraanese officials, you will give them a civilian signature. A civilian transponder. Any doubts can be deferred to General Alvoa—myself. But your vessel will be a part of the Fleet, now.”
“So—like a secret member of the Navy,” Laura concluded, “like a black op or something.”
“Secret member is closer,” the General smirked, “and, I have a secret mission for you.”
With that, from his chest pocket, he took a tiny data chip, no larger than his smallest fingertip, and slid it across the desk to the Sentinel, patting it once and leaving it to her. “Your eyes only,” he said, “you may disclose details with your new crew, but this document itself remains confidential.”
“Crew?” she shook her head, “I—I’m just a Sentinel. I just graduated from the Academy. Aren’t there—a million other people who could do this job?”
“Is this you, declining the mission?” he raised a brow, “because I could find someone--”
“That’s not what I mean,” she replied hastily, “I just—why me?”
“Well,” he crossed his hands together on the desk, “my reasons are, as always, my own—and all I can tell about you is from what I see and hear in projections, such as the one I had just watched with you. But my grand-daughter tells me that you are the perfect candidate.”
“Miya? She said that?”
“That and more,” he smiled, “So, what shall it be then?”
Laura stared for a moment, and then nodded. Her eyes then widened as she spoke, “But if you’re giving me a ship and crew, isn’t the minimum rank Commander?”
“Ah,” the General shrugged, “my mistake. What an oversight. I certainly could not put a Sentinel in command of a military vessel. But—that will not be an issue, since you are not a Sentinel. Congratulations, Commander Laura Vinfield.”
With that, he also pulled out a pair of triangular, silvery rank pins and slid them over, next to the data chip.
“I--” Laura stuttered a bit, then cleared her throat and slowly took the pins from the desk, “Thank you, Sir. I won’t let you down, Sir.”
“I know you won’t,” he nodded, “Transfer your vessel to Pier 1942 and have it refitted for combat. All expenses will be covered by the Navy. You have two Behraanese days to begin your mission. Can you assemble a crew and depart for that time?”
“I will,” she stood, “I know some people already. I’ll make it happen.”
“Do take care to understand every detail of this mission,” he stood as well, “Your life may well depend on it. Now, go. You have your work cut out for you.”
As the door to General Alvoa’s office slid closed behind her, Laura headed down the grey marble-floored hallway, entering the main lobby of the military intelligence building.
Numerous soldiers and officers made their way from place to place within, appearing and disappearing through any number of doors, paying her no mind. A handful of figures not in uniform sat in the chairs lining the walls of the room, waiting for what could have been anything.
There, sitting in one of the lobby chairs—which oddly looked more comfortable than the office chairs—was one female brunette, a Sentinel, also in uniform. She was shorter than Laura, her eyes were brown, her face was more rounded and her figure was more sturdy—yet wiry. Her hair was long enough to tie back and little more.
Laura knew this woman well. This was Roselii Khental. The two were best of friends, and had become so in the Academy. She never found out Rose’s exact age, but she could not have been far from her own age. Yet she seemed more worldly, somehow.
Rose’s eyes met those of Laura’s, and she stood, waving her over with a smile. “Well, you’re still alive,” Rose said in jest, “so it didn’t go that badly.”
“Could have gone better,” Laura remarked, looking to the front exit leading outside, “walk with me.”
“Sure,” Rose followed.
The two officers walked casually through the automatically opening exit, out into the eerie green-skied sunny day in Behraan’s capital city, Graldica. A good hundred million people resided within the megalopolis. Very rare was any part of the city quiet.
Still, Laura and Rose walked into a park that surrounded the military installation—which was easily a hundred storeys. There, on the mowed grass and tall, spindly coniferous trees, they found the quietude Laura desired.
“What’s on your mind?” Rose asked, clearly getting the hint that Laura was greatly concerned about something.
Laura then sat on a bench along the pathway through the park, sighing, not making direct eye contact with Rose as she spoke, “I’ve been promoted to Commander.”
Rose took a second to reply, as he eyes widened and a smile stretched from ear to ear, “Commander? He made you Commander? Laura, that’s great news! I’m so happy for you!”
“You shouldn’t be,” Laura shook her head, “he’s given me a mission. I have two Behraanese days to depart for it.”
“Well,” Rose shrugged, sitting next to Laura, “he could have said ‘right now’. But he didn’t. So, two days is pretty good!”
Laura smiled faintly, “Sure. Pretty good. My ship’s been pressed into military service, I’m tasked with selecting a crew, and I’m to get the Skyreign—sorry—B.N.S.S. Skyreign—fitted for combat. Could you believe it?”
Rose tilted her head, looking to Laura with bewilderment, “why would he put your old, beat-up yacht into service? Is he trying to get you killed?”
“I don’t think so,” Laura shook her head, laughing lightly.
“But seriously,” Rose continued, “it would be cheaper for him to just give you a new frigate. Not even kidding! And—the open deck thing? That’s a serious flaw in a warship! They’ll have to fit it with some sort of transparent shell, just to keep the crew from getting sucked out of the first hole someone pokes into her.”
“I know,” Laura nodded, “I’d sooner try my luck in one of those Alpha-Wolf fighters. At least they have some durability.”
“And the action radius of a stone’s throw,” Rose added quickly, “Well, the General had his reasons for putting the Skyreign into service. He’s smart like that. Which is more than I can say for her plugging retarded grand-daughter.”
“I was actually thinking to select Miya for my crew,” Laura crossed her arms, waiting for some kind of reaction.
“Yeah—anyway--all jokes aside, the old General doesn’t make decisions like that lightly. He believes in you. Did you review the mission details?”
“Not yet,” Laura replied, “It’s confidential. He didn’t discuss the details with me, but apparently all the details are on a chip.”
“Oooh,” Rose grinned widely, rubbing her hands together, “a secret mission. I can’t wait.”
Laura looked to her, then out to the park, then back to her, “Wait—wait for what?”
“Oh, come on,” Rose crossed her arms, pretending to be offended, “You’re a ship Captain now. You need a first officer. That’s gonna be me, right?”
“Don’t you have somewhere to go already?” Laura eyed Rose.
“Yeah,” Rose grinned wryly, “Wherever you’re going. Someone is gonna have to fix up your ship’s weapons. And probably a million other things.”
“But you’re not an engineer,” Laura said more seriously.
“No,” Rose shook her head, “but I know a guy who knows a guy. Ejjar Levee. Goes by Edge. I watched him work, guy’s out of this world! He could pick up the scrap parts of a downed Alpha-Wolf today and build a new one for tomorrow. He could fix your ship up.”
“Great,” Laura said, “I’ll reach out to—actually—I’ll have my first officer reach out to him. Yeah. That’s your job, Rose.”
“Will do,” Rose grinned, “Captain Vinfield.”
“So,” Laura hummed, trying not to cringe upon hearing the new title, “Now the question is: who’s going to fly it?”
“I fly like a civilian,” Laura replied, “Could I take her on a luxurious, easy-paced atmospheric flight from here to the next city over? Sure. Could I navigate across the stars, or in uncharted territory?”
“Sounds like you need someone like me,” Rose concluded, “but, someone who’s not me. Anything bigger than a fighter, and I can’t handle it. I’d probably get everyone killed!”
Laura looked up to the sky, pausing the conversation just to think for a moment, as she caught a glimpse of the numerous flying vessels, as small as hovering bikes and as large as lumbering freightliners. They criss-crossed this way and that, hundreds of metres above the ground.
“I knew I would have to choose people I didn’t know,” Laura said, “I never had to hand-pick my own crew before.”
“First time for everything,” Rose stood, facing her and bowing shortly with a smirk, “Captain.”
“Captain,” Laura scoffed, “who would have thought.”
Rose then started for the way out of the complex.
“Where are you off to?” asked Laura.
“Gonna track down Edge, get him on board,” said Rose as she continued moving away, “Won’t take much.”
“What will it take?”
“Coffee!” was the last thing Rose said before disappearing around a bend.
“Man after my own heart,” Laura muttered quietly to herself.
Just as Rose made her exit, an older male soldier with the rank markings of a Sentinel made his entrance, headed for Laura.
The man was, Laura guessed, into his fifties. He wore red-on-black, but otherwise the style of his uniform was identical to Laura’s. He was a member of the Legion, then. Ground forces. He was taller than most men. He kept a short beard and sideburns that ran along his jawline. His white hair ran down the sides of his face, but nothing was unkempt about it.
She would have gleamed more of him, if he didn’t march straight for her, stopping just two metres in front of her.
“Commander Vinfield,” he said, his voice gruff and raspy, “Thought I’d find you here.”
“Do I know you?” Laura raised a brow, unimpressed with such informal approach, “Sentinel?”
The man snorted, “Don’t pull rank with me, girl. We’re part of different armies. Besides, I’ve been putting Behraan’s enemies in the ground since before someone’s mistake became your grandfather.”
“And yet you’re still just a Sentinel,” Laura looked straight ahead, spacing her words, “What do you want?”
He paused, before passing her a datasheet—a document as thin as a piece of paper, but in fact a touch-sensitive document one could sift through with the greatest of ease, containing as many as a million pages of data.
This document was only five pages, and Laura sifted through it quickly. Finally, she eyed the man, “You’re Olsein. The Olsein.”
He nodded slowly, the once.
“And you want to work—under—me.”
He nodded again.
“My reasons are my own,” Olsein replied.
“You’re the second person to say that today,” Laura sighed, looking up to him, standing up—almost meeting his height, “you wouldn’t happen to be a solarcraft pilot, would you?”
“Bentor, no,” Olsein shook his head, “Saw your ship in the recruitment database. Told me you needed security on your crew. Well, I’m it.”
Laura crossed her arms, thinking on the matter.
“First time, huh?” Olsein finally said, sitting next to Laura, “Thought so. Pretty young to make Commander. Twenty-eight?”
“How did you know?” Laura asked quickly, only half-surprised.
“I’m psychic,” Olsein said, straight-faced, “That and that’s in the database too. Anyway, as for your solarcraft pilot problem, I know a guy who knows a guy.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that today either,” Laura grimaced.
“So,” Olsein then crossed his arms—and Laura noted that his arms were noticeably much more defined than the average soldier, “what’s it gonna be? Long, drawn-out interview and bureaucratic grahaamut, or am I in?”
Laura then took the extra moment to glean more from the man. He was clearly built like a soldier, only, something did not quite fit with the profile....
She slowly nodded, her only response at all.