DISCLAIMERS: This is fan fiction. No profit involved. It is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. This takes place twenty five hundred years in future in the furthest reaches of the known universe. This is the fifth story in the UGCS Rebus Prime series and a long overdue sequel to my story Huine. Although 'zerks is part of a series it can technically stand on its own. This is for Celesta whose constant badgering and encouragement helped in its completion. Read on.
Archivists note: the first four stories in the series have been combined into one story "UGCS Rebus Prime".
On the edge of Quadrant 89045-6 deep within the bowels of Teledyne's Main Station Huine in one of its dilapidated sick bays seven men took an oath that would forever change their destinies.
Fourteen Earth Days later aboard the floating space station Xian Long, the UGCS Rebus Prime was still undergoing modifications, the cargo ship had to be retrofitted for its new mission; the maintenance crew was fine tuning the last of the modifications. The Rebus' crew had been temporarily assigned to the Xian while they recovered from their ordeal. Larabee stood at the entrance of the Maintenance Bay watching as his ship had the final coat of camouflage applied. Mixtures of dark greens and brown splotches covered the upper surfaces and the belly of the craft was a light gray, the layers of new color permanently obscured the ship's name. His co-pilot Buck Wilmington was having an animated conversation with the crew chief. Larabee merely shook and began walking in their direction he almost felt sorry for the chief. Chris chuckled quietly because he knew what the conversation was about.
"Buck " He called out to his old friend. "Let the man finish with his work "
"But nothing Listen no matter how hard you try they are not I repeat no matter how many times you ask they are not going to paint that picture of yours on the side of the Rebus."
"I think it's a great picture "
"Maybe so but a larger than life portrait of a scantily clad woman kind of defeats the idea of camouflage "
"Hey kid better relax your grip gonna pop yourself in the head with the recoil if you tense up like that " The quiet relaxing drawl of Vin Tanner reached J.D.'s ears but not before he did exactly that. After the round was fired off the pulse rifle kicked back and the barrel of the weapon grazed off the younger man's temple as he was toppled onto the deck of the firing range. The Rebus' new navigator couldn't help but laugh as he held out a hand to the fallen youth and helped him back to his feet.
"How'd you know?" Dunne steadied himself with one hand while gently rubbing his head with the other.
"Experience!" Tanner's quick reply was punctuated by a shrug. No need to point out that he'd been shooting a pulse rifle longer than J.D. had been alive.
"You could've told me that a little sooner " The kid winced as he hit a particularly sore spot.
"Ready for another go?" Vin queried eyeing J.D. for a moment watching as the young man slowly nodded. The youngest member of the crew was tougher than he looked but Tanner already knew that as he patiently began to show Dunne how to hold the formidable weapon again.
In a little over twenty-four hours he would leave this wretched space station behind. His luck with the games had been mediocre at best. The Xian's crew had little to offer in money or trade. Its remote location coupled with infrequent supply drops removed any hope of increasing his monetary status the moment he stepped on board. The idleness had given him an unwanted opportunity, time to think. A habit the gambler wasn't accustomed too. He let a deep sigh before slapping the well-worn deck of cards onto the table, a pack that he had carried with him for years. Ezra fanned the cards out and effortlessly flipping them over one at a time. They were all he had, well that and his memories. Little comfort considering the trouble he knew lay ahead. An exasperated groan slipped out, he was relieved that no one was within ear shot to hear his frustration. With an exaggerated flair Standish gathered the cards up, carefully tapping the deck back into order before slipping the pack into his pocket leaving his empty coffee cup and the nearly deserted cafeteria behind.
Inside the Rebus' cramped infirmary Nathan Jackson painstakingly catalogued and stored his new stock of medical supplies and equipment. During the ship's overhaul the sickbay had been enlarged and re-equipped. Not exactly state of the art but the recent modifications would make him as the ship's doctor self-sufficient no what matter what injury or malady befell the crew. Nathan didn't want to repeat the agonizing journey the crew made fleeing Athos. He had felt helpless trying to treat J.D.'s extensive injuries when there had little that could be done given the Rebus' supplies but to dull the pain. The physician pushed the thoughts aside and deftly sorted through the newest container of pharmaceuticals.
Under the harsh artificial light of the maintenance bay Josiah Sanchez stood off the starboard side peering inside one of the UGCS Rebus Prime's four propulsion engines. Busy familiarizing himself with the newest retrofits and modifications, it had been over a decade since he had actively worked as starship mechanic. A trade the older man had picked up during his compulsory stint in the militia. Although the Rebus was an older corporation cargo cruiser she was well maintained, originally coming out of the factory nearly a half-century before and was in remarkable condition. While the Rebus was still on maintenance jacks Josiah ran his hand along the paneling as he ducked to walk underneath the belly of the cargo ship giving her hull a final inspection before the ship would be lowered onto the deck. He paused when he saw Standish enter the bay and waved him over. A bemused grin graced his face when he saw what the crew's new munitions specialist was wearing. Definitely was neither Military nor Corporation issue. The stubborn man had refused to wear a uniform instead he had somehow manage to procure a stylish and well tailored ensemble, at least what he was wearing was subdued earth tones unlike previous day's deep burgundy flight suit.
"Mr. Sanchez." The greeting was relaxed and drawled out with an accent that the missionary could not quite place.
"Ezra you here to check out the latest armament upgrade?" The smaller man during mid shift had dutifully checked through the weapon systems.
"One can never be too careful Where's Larabee?" Ezra asked as he looked around the bay for signs of the captain.
"Last I know he was headed for the firing range." Sanchez shrugged slightly as he answered, then watched as Standish climbed up the maintenance stand and disappeared into the hold.
Although the words were never uttered Ezra was grateful that the formidable man was elsewhere at least for the moment. Larabee had questions that he simply would not answer and this irritated the man to no end. Standish was a gambling man by nature and by taking an oath to protect this quadrant he had increased his odds of being uncovered a thousand fold. The sensible decision would have been to leave but the events on Athos and Huine along with crossing paths with Travis had complicated matters. Forcing him to risk everything and join this motley group of men in the fight against the Skraeling.
Alone in the Rebus' cargo area Ezra ran a hand through his neatly coiffed hair before turning his attention to the tedious task at hand and comparing the list of munitions to the stores on hand.
0545 hours Xian Long's Flight Deck:
The UGCS Rebus Prime was the first sortie of the shift. The Xian's crew chiefs had just finished refueling. They didn't miss the arrival of Captain Larabee and his crew as the five men walked in a relaxed group into the bay for the preflight check out. The munitions specialist and the ship's mechanic were already aboard the craft and had been for most of the night.
"Sir, the ship is fueled and ready to go " Larabee eyed the nervous maintenance tech. The man was squirming in his boots, as the Rebus' pilot looked him over making him wonder what it was over.
"Good " Chris almost smiled as the chief stumbled slightly as he rapidly moved away.
Wilmington smirked as he passed by and climbed up the access ladder into the cockpit.
"What?" He growled up at his old friend moving up the steps after him.
"Ya gotta work on those people skills " Although the words were slightly muffled it was loud enough for the others to hear and a few sniggers slipped out of the rest of the men that waited to gain entry to the ship.
What was I thinking when I took on this crew? Chris thought to himself as strapped himself in and began the sequence of routine preflight procedures.
"Tanner you have the our course plotted?" Larabee peered back to see that Vin had already kicked his feet up and appeared to be well on his way to sleep.
"Yep already uploaded the calc's " The nav. smirked as he cracked open an eye before answering.
"Then let's fly " Larabee flipped a few last switches and took hold of the throttle.
The Rebus' engines thrummed and droned as they kicked on. The retrofitted ship and her crew left the white lights of the Xian bay behind as it slowly hovered out into the dark expanse of space.
"Hey Chris any words of wisdom?" The co-pilot chuckled as he gleefully prodded the captain.
"Yeah Buck, keep it in your pants you might live longer." Larabee's wry remark caused Tanner to abruptly snigger at the nav's table behind them and Wilmington gave his old friend a dirty look before turning his attention back to the controls.
The hulking form of the Xian Long slowly faded into the distance as Ezra stood and watched through one of the Rebus' view ports wondering how long he could evade the captain's intrusive line of questioning. Now he was trapped in tight quarters with the man and had no easy answers in sight. Letting out a quiet sigh Standish broke his gaze and went to join the others in the ship's galley.
The concept of time baffled Dunne as he sat nursing a tepid cup of synthetic berry flavored beverage listening to the conversation going on around him. He was still a bit wired knowing what lay ahead of them he couldn't help but be thrilled and a bit frightened to be involved in such a grandiose venture to defend the human settlements. Buck Wilmington had mentioned earlier as J.D. had tittered on trying to figure outoud what lay ahead as they were both trying to get ready and asked if he was always this chipper this early in the morning. It was easy enough for the young man to accept that there were sixty minutes to an hour, twenty four hours to a day and so on by but the terms morning, evening and the middle of the night eluded him having spent most of his young life aboard corporation run space stations he hadn't actually set foot on the soil of a planet for more than a tiny fraction of all his years. The time he had spent on Athos was the longest he had actually ever been on solid ground. Unpleasant memories surfaced and J.D. tried not to think too hard on the events that had changed his life so drastically.
"Mr. Dunne, are you alright?"
The young man's head popped up at the quiet question and paled slightly, he hadn't even noticed the munitions specialist walk in and silently berated himself 'some warrior he made' before he answered Standish.
The response was so low Ezra could barely make out what he had said. The conversation at the table stopped and all eyes were on Dunne as Standish slid into the seat next to him.
"You will be..." A broad smile spread across Standish's face as he slipped a pack of cards out of his jacket pocket. " Can I interest anyone in a game of chance?"
"We've barely left the Xian's gravity field and you want to play poker?" Nathan gave Ezra an incredulous look.
"Gentlemen when opportunity presents itself " With green eyes twinkling Standish broke into a broad dimpled grin revealing his gold tooth as he deftly dealt everyone at the table five cards.
"Is that real gold?" J.D. couldn't break his eyes away from golden premolar.
"Depends how the bets are?" The response had the younger man ducking his head down and deeply blushing as he stared at his cards.
"You are incorrigible " Sanchez's laughter rumbled out and filled the galley. It wasn't long before they others had joined in the jovial mood and a leisurely game began.
The mood in the cockpit was relaxed as Captain Larabee guided the ship out of Quadrant 89045-6 following the course Tanner had carefully plotted out to maximize the distance covered balanced with an acceptable consumption of fuel to their ultimate destination. The Serapis colony on Huang Ti was sixty eight hours away including the scheduled in flight refuel at Trochees-165. Once the Rebus had cleared the Xian's flight pattern Chris flipped control over to the on board computer and opened the safety catch on the harness that held him in his seat. He rose and briefly stretched as he headed off of the flight deck.
"Don't know about you boys but I'm getting some coffee " He said as he slapped Vin's feet off the nav's table. "Ya coming or not?"
"I'm right behind ya " Buck bit back a laugh as the navigator thunked to the floor.
Tanner just smirked at the captain not at all disturbed by the rough treatment he climbed back in his seat put his feet back up and settled in for a comfortable nap as Wilmington and Larabee climbed down the access ladder to the lower deck.
The card game was in full swing by the time the captain and the co-pilot walked into the galley. Chips, coins and other articles had been cast into the center of the table. Dunne had just draw two new cards and was sorting through his hand as Larabee walked up behind him. The older man rested a hand on younger one's shoulder while leaning over and studying the hand J.D. held.
"Hope you boys aren't working too hard?" He chuckled and asked.
"Not at all Captain Larabee. Would you and Mr. Wilmington care to join in?" Ezra drawled out the invitation as he leaned back in his seat examining his own cards.
"Don't you have something better to do?" Larabee shook his head at the ad hoc version of entertainment.
"Not at the moment " Ezra smiled back with a dimpled grin. The fact that Standish had spent most of the night aboard the Rebus going through the munitions stores hadn't escape Larabee's attention.
"Just leave them with some capital because I don't want to hear grumbling of being short of funds when we land on Huang Ti." Advised Chris as he eyed his cocky munitions specialist. The other men at the table groaned, as Wilmington laughed handing Larabee a cup of dark hot brew and walked away.
"I'll do my best " Ezra's smile never faltered under the scrutiny of the captain.
"See that you do " Chris's parting words hung in the air as the man followed Buck out of the galley.
"He know something that we don't?" Nathan questioned the smug gambler.
"Not at all gentlemen care to ante up "
"Woo I'm glad I'm not in that game " The co-pilot's voice reverberated back into the room along with the captain's loud chortle caused several of the men at the table to cringe.
"Aw heck " Dunne was the first to toss in his cards. " I'm out."
"You dealt those cards mighty fast how do we know you didn't cheat?" Nathan looked down at the cards in his hand when he asked.
"You don't "
Along the narrow passage back to the flight deck Buck watched his old friend for a moment before asking a question that had on his mind since they left the Huine.
"What's in your craw?"
"Excuse me?" Chris stopped in his tracks and stared at the big mustached man.
"You've been watching Ezra like a hawk " Buck prodded on.
"He's hiding something I just haven't figured out what yet " Larabee muttered clearly suspicious of Standish's continued presence aboard the Rebus.
"Chris lay off him. We all have secrets in our pasts you of all people should know better than anyone "
Wilmington strode off leaving an agitated Larabee in his wake.
There weren't that many places to hide aboard the Rebus that Chris Larabee didn't know about but some how Standish managed to find one or two. He would disappear for hours and suddenly reappear without giving the slightest hint as to where he had been, a feat that amused Ezra. That infuriated the captain to no end because Chris wanted to question him privately regarding his mysterious past. The rumors had begun before the newly formed crew had departed the Huine. Most of it centered on how exactly the man bypassed the complex security system. Larabee stalked the corridors looking for the elusive man. In approximately an hour they were going to dock with Trochee-165, the refuel station that orbited the planetoid Su Sung and the damnable man was nowhere in sight.
A small grunt slipped out as Ezra bumped his head on an overhead strut when Larabee bellowed his name waking him from a light sleep. Lord didn't the man know what it meant to rest he ruefully thought as he gingerly rubbed a tender spot on his scalp before hopping down from his perch right behind the exasperated blond.
His sudden appearance startled Chris as he whirled around at the sound of Ezra's voice.
"Dammit Ezra " Within a fraction of a second Larabee had composed himself again. "Been looking all over for you..."
"Well?" Green eyes twinkled egging the captain on.
"I want you buckled into the troop seats for the refuel " Chris bit out knowing full well the other man was goading him on.
"I'd rather not " A wicked smirk turned into a broad dimpled grin.
"It wasn't a request " Ezra raised an eyebrow at the sharp remark. "Don't start go get strapped in or I'm going to really enjoy doing it myself." Larabee's words were growled out.
"In that case " Standish's smiled never dimmed as he gestured down the narrow passageway.
"Just move it before I change my mind " Chris grunted as he physically prodded along Ezra the corridor.
Larabee dragged Standish the last few feet into the new troop hold and shoved him onto an unoccupied seat.
"Buckle up or do you want me to help?"|
"That will not be necessary Captain." Ezra glared at Chris as he shrugged on part of the shoulder harness.
"Good we are on approach and should be refueling in a half " Larabee's smart-ass comment still rang in his ears as he watched him stalk off towards the flight deck.
Although Ezra didn't agree with other man's methods he did understand the necessity as he secured the remaining myriad of buckles and straps over his torso and upper legs. The in-flight refueling process on such an old ship was a bone jarring experience.
"Find him?" Tanner snickered from his seat as Larabee walked in.
"Yep everything else is battened down." Chris grumbled as he proceeded to buckle himself in half listening to the radio transmission that Buck was trying to send.
"Trochee-165 this is United Galaxy Cargo Ship Rebus Prime requesting approach instruction for a scheduled refuel " Wilmington's request was met with dead air. The Rebus had pulled into the planetoid's orbit.
"Trochee-165 this is United Galaxy Cargo Ship Rebus Prime do you copy this transmission?" Buck patiently tried again the second attempt was met with a low crackle through the transceiver. Chris punched up the view screen and a closer image of Su Sung flickered into view as he quickly began rechecking his coordinates. They were at the correct longitude and latitude but the orbiting refuel station was simply not there. Tanner was intently scouring his radar images when he discovered a blip that was quickly joined by others was rapidly headed their way.
"INCOMING BOGIES NINE O'CLOCK!"
Larabee had very little time to react before a violent impact rattled the cruiser its shock wave coursed though the ship's metal frame. The attacking vessels had fired an electronic burst that rendered most of the navigation instrumentation useless. Chris took the only option he had left which was to try and make an emergency landing on Su Sung. With their attackers hot on their tail he pushed the engines full throttle flying blind as they heading into the gravitational pull of the small planet.
"YO COWBOY DOES THIS BOAT HAVE A SEXTANT PORT?" Tanner shouted over the loud shuttering of the ship as it was hit with another blast.
"OVERHEAD!" The captain didn't even turn around when he answered. Vin looked up saw the access port grabbed an unusual looking device off the nav's table as he unfastened his harness. A moment later as he stood on unsteady flight deck peering through the eyepiece of the sextant. During a lull in the noise Vin spoke.
"We are going to do this the old fashion way on my mark " Tanner began to verbally guide Larabee through the difficult descent into Su Sung's atmosphere.
Inside the troop hold its five occupants were brutally jolted in their seats. Thankfully most of them were strapped in, with the exception of Standish who hadn't had a chance to finish buckling in when the ship was struck had slipped partially underneath his seat and the man was struggling to right himself, when the Rebus was hit again.
"Aw hell " Ezra muttered as he floundered a moment on the floor before Sanchez leaned forward as far as he could and grabbed the back of the smaller man's jacket latching onto a fistful of the fine fabric in order to help pull him back into his seat. A quiet thank you was gasped out as the munitions specialist frantically snapped his harness into place just as the ship started a slow spiral. Ezra took a glance at the men around him. In the seat next to him was Josiah who had his head bowed while quietly praying. Across from him sat J.D., the youngster had his eyes clenched shut and maintained a white knuckled grip on the edge of the canvas troop seat. The ship's doctor Nathan was the only one who met his gaze. Their eyes locked from a moment before Nate nervously smiled and looked away just as the ship began to violently shudder.
"Hold on tight boys we're going to hit the atmosphere in 5 4 3 2 " Chris grunted out the words as he fought for control. The shimmying yoke threatened to loose his death grip. A sweaty Buck manipulated the throttle trying to ease the groaning engine back a notch in a desperate attempt to slow the Rebus' wild descent while Vin screamed out the exact positioning needed to traverse through the rough turbulence of entering the air space. Tanner's valiant struggle to stay upright faltered when the ship suddenly lurched sending him tumbling across the small cockpit slamming into the back of Larabee's chair before he scrambled back into position to help guide the captain with his continued directions. At that moment only the navigator knew that a single enemy ship was still on their tail. Its counterpart's attempt to fire on them had ceased once they had encountered Su Sung's gravitational pull. The other ships had peeled away apparently leaving the sole craft to pursue them to the planetoid's surface on its own.
As soon as the enemy ship cleared the pressured difference it launched a missile that immediately locked heat sensors onto the Rebus' propulsion trail then began to lag back. Tanner barely had time to scream out.
"BANK LEFT "
The evasive maneuver failed and the projectile clipped the tail section, tore open a three-foot section of craft's hull and severed the hydraulic stabilizer lines. The damage caused the cruiser to abruptly flip and begin plummet rapidly in uncontrolled dive. Vin's head careened off the nav's table sending him in a dark oblivion before he fell through the access portal and brutally slammed into the deck six feet below.
From the ground retreating colonists could see a light streak across the gray sky amidst anti craft shells being lobbed through the air. None of them stayed long enough to see the cargo cruiser shear through outer rim of the strip mine plowing down the rocky tiers as it skidded with debris flying to a precarious halt a half dozen feet from a steep drop into the man made canyon. The attack ship swooping in fast preparing to fire on the downed ship exploding before getting a chance. The Rebus was spared because one of the giant land cannons had hit its target.
Momentarily stunned a myriad of sounds and smells greeted Larabee as he rolled his head across the seat back slowly blinking open his eyes. Wiping the blood away from his nose with the back of his hand looking over at Buck. The co-pilot was slumped forward only the seat's harness held the senseless man in place as a think trail of blood trickled down his neck.
"Buck?" The name came out as a hoarse whisper as Chris fumbled with the latches trying to free himself from the safety straps never taking his gaze from his old friend. Wilmington's brow wrinkled, the big man sucked in a breath that set off a harsh bout of coughing.
"Whoa I thought you knew how the land this bird " The quietly wheezed words caused a smile to slip across Larabee's face.
Just below the flight deck Tanner lay wedged behind the access ladder. Pinned behind the rungs by a toppled storage unit, groaning as he woke up. A shaky hand reached up and touched the heavy object that held him in place. At that particular moment in time he wasn't exactly sure what had happened. Vin felt weak and jittery, his dull senses were having a hard time interpreting was going on around him. The overpowering odor of burnt carbon reached his nostrils, he could almost taste it as he lightly palmed one of the offending rungs that held him securely to the deck trying to figure out what to do next.
Fortunately the Rebus had landed on her belly more or less intact. Inside the crew-hold Josiah was the first out of his seat side stepping the debris that littered the deck pushing past Nathan while he checked on a subdued Standish make sure the man hadn't been too badly injured when he collided with the troop seats. A thoroughly shaken J.D. was still strapped in grappling unsuccessfully with latches of his safety harness when Sanchez finally started making his way towards the cockpit. The narrow passage was partially blocked by storage containers that had sheared loose from the bulkhead, it took an exerted effort on his part but the big man managed to squeeze through and drop down by the access ladder narrowly missing Tanner's leg with his foot.
"Vin?" He spoke the name as he reached down and gently touched the navigator's boot.
"Josiah?" Sanchez relaxed slightly when he heard the response that followed by grunted out request. "Ya mind get this shit off me?"
"I'll see what I can arrange " Unable to see the rest of Tanner he lightly patted the man's knee before he stood up and bellowed to flight deck. "You boys alright up there?" After a tense seconds of quiet Sanchez heard a voice from above answer.
"Fine except Larabee needs to go back to flight school to learn how to properly land a cargo cruiser " Josiah chuckled at Buck's response as did Vin but his laughter was quickly cut off with a hiss of pain.
"Good then you can help me free Vin " The big man shouted. As he looked up Buck's mustached face popped into view.
"Aw damn it to hell be down in a sec "
The cruiser had rested awkwardly on a group of boulders. The massive weight of the ship on that small section of the hull caused the paneling to collapse inward. The Rebus abruptly tilted and forcefully settled sending Chris tumbling off the ladder and colliding on top of Sanchez's large frame. Grasping the bulkhead he quickly rolled off the big man and stood up.
"You walk as gracefully as you landed this crate " Buck chuckled out as he latched on to the toppled container for support.
"Shut up Buck " Larabee snarled back. Even Sanchez was laughing.
"Ah guys I'd really appreciate if would help me outta of here " No one heard the quiet muffled voice drawled out from behind the ladder. Tanner's upper body was completely obscured under storage unit. The verbal barbs continued to fly until Tanner simply had enough. "GET ME OUT!!!"
The any snide remarks remained unspoken and other than the occasionally grunt as the men tried to shift the container it was silent. Moments after the arrival of the three other crewmembers Vin was freed and was laying still on the deck as a concerned Jackson checked him over.
"I'm okay "
"Uh huh that's why you're bleeding all over the deck " Nathan muttered wondering if there would ever be a compliant patient with this lot of men. That thought was quickly dismissed as a physician's fantasy and he quickly turned his attention back to the task at hand. An old fashion pressure bandage would have to do the trick and he fished the needed supplies from his med kit.
Nate was just tying off the last knot when the eerie quiet that followed the crash was shattered. A nearby explosion rocked the ship and the retaliating barrage from the land cannons recoiling shook the ground.
"Gentlemen it's not wise to remain within these confines " The sage words came from Standish as he stepped back into the passage with pulse rifle and survival pack in hand.
"Yep boys Ez is right we better move out gather up your kits and I know I don't have to say this but limit yourself to essential gear " Larabee grunted out as he helped Nate lift Tanner to his feet.
Within ten minutes the Rebus' crew had abandoned ship. Her captain quietly hoped that they would be able to return for her as they hauled the last of the gear out under the rainy skies of Su Sung. The planetoid's environment was tempestuous at best, warn and wet similar to old earth's monsoon season in the Indies. Each man had donned a camouflaged poncho for protection against the current clime and they were securing their packs for the journey ahead of them. Larabee squinted up at the dark gray sky before looking back at his ship grimacing for a fleeting second as he sought out J.D.
"Got that data pad uploaded with the info kid?"
"Yeah Chris Tei Wei that's the settlement its about ten clicks due south from here " Dunne punched in their current coordinates into the G.P.S. program in the palm-sized data processor. Not a soul missed that the charted course was over rough terrain currently under a barrage of enemy ordinance. The soil beneath their feet quaked as the distant rumble of the land cannons as they returned fire.
"Pretty hefty defense system for a mining colony " Nate muttered out as he checked the bandage wound around Vin's head, the irritated navigator swatted the dark man's hand away.
"Not if they were involved in the Trade Wars." Tanner hissed back as Jackson unfazed by the slap on the wrist tried to check the dressing for spotting. "Aw hell leave me be."
"Okay for now " The surly statement made the healer chuckle out his reply. "But if you get dizzy or nauseous you let me know."
"Yeah I will " Tanner hastily agreed as he tugged up the hood on the slicker over his wet hair wondering if any one noticed what he just said. Hopefully they had been preoccupied with their own amusement at his expense. The thought seized him as the laughter of his companions was offset by the distant thunder of a battle waged high over their heads. Chris signaled them to quiet down as he took up the lead as the men headed towards Tei Wei with an unusually somber Standish following a short distance behind the others with his eyes carefully scanning the surrounding area, half listening to a question posed by the youngest crewmember.
"Hey Vin what Trade wars?"
Ezra mentally cringed and turned to see Vin's slump when his unintentional slip of the tongue was brought back up, though he had to give the man credit because he managed to seamlessly cover his indiscretion.
"They're an old soldiers tale kid a ten year war that was waged between several of the corporations over mining rights in this and several other sectors in the quadrant happened 'bout hundred years ago "
"How come I never heard of it before?"
"Not many people have "
"Then how do you know?"
"Like I said an old soldier told me "
The odd response caused more than a few curious glances in Tanner's direction the captain's included. Larabee considered himself well versed in military history after serving through the insurrection. But even he hadn't heard of the Trade Wars yet the monstrous land cannons were booming in the across the vastness of the massive strip mine gave credence to Vin's statement.
Showing a wisdom that belied his youth Dunne didn't ask any further questions even though he hadn't gotten a satisfactory answer instead he turned his focus on maintaining a virtual heading on his data pad without falling down as the group began the steady climb out of the ancient mine.
Thankfully as they began their ascent there were no ground troops in sight, it was going to be hard enough to reach the top the weather was already working against them. The hefty pulse rifles coupled with the added weight of their packs ensure that almost every one of them had slipped and fallen in the almost knee-deep sludge the only exception was Standish as he carefully stepped his way through the squalid mire, a pace that quickly left him far behind the others. This feat wasn't lost on Larabee in fact it grated on his frazzled nerves because Tanner's inadvertent admission was gnawing at him.
"Standish we don't have the time for this shit git your ass up here." Chris shouted back to the slow-moving munitions specialist who was almost twenty meters behind Sanchez and the gap was growing.
"In due time Captain in due time " Ezra's sarcasm was evidence as he called back up to Larabee. The self-proclaimed gambler plodded gingerly up the slope seeming oblivious to the order.
Unwilling to charge down the steep incline after the errant man Chris pressed onward with the others until they reached the flat rim of the man made canyon. Standish arrived at the top a full ten minutes after the rest where a furious Larabee knocked him sprawling in the thick muck where he landed ungracefully on his ass taken down by a well-aimed fist.
"Next time listen."
A filthy Standish sat there for a moment watching the captain retreat before he tried a half-hearted effort to wipe the mess from his face. Ezra quickly gave up the futile attempt instead he rubbed his sore jaw starting to smile as he blankly stared at the churned up mud by his feet. Someone came over and offered him a hand up. The smile dimmed when he realized it was Chris. The gambler reluctantly accepted the proffered hand and was pulled to his feet. The captain snatched up Ezra's fallen weapon handing the rifle over an locking eyes with him for a few fleeting seconds before he slogged back through the mire to once again take up the lead as they headed out across the upper rim of mine. Ezra stood there wavering slightly as he watched their departing figures. A long moment passed before he trudged after them.
Su Sung had been terra-formed centuries earlier by joint union of the Teledyne and Chu-Ling Corporations. The vast abundance of raw minerals available made the effort to make the planetoid habitable for the miners a profitable venture, as was the case for many of the colonized planets in the region. Larabee's initial mental reaction to Tanner's verbal slip was of mistrust but he quickly let it go after all corporate history was edited and re-edited to present the appropriate image for their billions of investors. Chris became all too familiar with the practice after he and Buck enlisted and fought during the Quadrant 9011127-04 miners' strike of '87. The rebellion was quashed after a year of bloody fighting leaving him bitter over the experience and stifled by corporate control spurring him to leave that part of his life far behind. The only true vestiges of such events were passed along in soldiers' tales, as undocumented oral history and here he was again trapped in the midst of another corporate cover up coming to light.
Larabee was so engrossed in thought that he didn't hear his co-pilot call out to him. Not until Buck tapped him on the back of the elbow startling him did he realize the man had been talking to him.
"Chris?" Wilmington's concern was evident in the man's voice.
"Yeah Buck " Sighing heavily he responded knowing full well his lapse in attention hadn't gone unnoticed. He was getting too old for this.
"You okay?" It would have been a loaded question coming from anyone else, but knowing his long time friend only wanted an answer for that particular moment in time.
"Something's just not right " Chris squinted his eyes as he scanned the rough terrain for anything suspicious. Over a half an hour had passed by since they had abandoned the ship and there had been no sign of the Skraeling except the ongoing battle being waged in the tempestuous skies overhead. "We better keep moving " He muttered as he cast a quick glance back at his men before picking up his pace. He noticed that Standish was in the back of the group again, falling in step several yards behind Josiah, the act itself seemed almost intentional and it pissed Chris off. Why did the man have to be so difficult?
Under normal circumstances Ezra Standish would have been miserable. He was filthy and almost soaked to the skin. What parts of his clothing were dry roughly chafed against his skin. The situation was far from normal and he did his utmost to ignore his own discomfort. Ezra shot a look in Vin's direction but the ex-marine didn't acknowledge him instead the man trudged through their wet world intensely scrutinizing the surroundings. A chill ran through him as he realized that Tanner too had picked up on the familiar scenario's danger signs, quickly quashing any hope he was wrong. Ezra tightened his grip on his pulse rifle knowing there was nothing he could do about it but stay alert during the long trek that lay ahead. He kept up pace with the others but remained a constant distance behind them.
The landscape they crossed was desolate, Su Sung's natural flora was sparse and its fauna almost nonexistent. Centuries of mining the world had destroyed the delicate eco system leaving behind a wet and inhospitable land. The Rebus' crew had managed to descend the man made mountain. The journey had been an exhausting endeavor for all after managed to get over the crest because there was no easy path down, the seven men were either sinking down in the muddy mining debris several feet deep or they were climbing across jagged boulders that had been spewed down the mountain side during the massive mining processes. Almost a quarter cycle had passed by the time they reached the base. All the more disheartening was the distance that the men had actually covered was a fraction of the ten kilometers to Tei Wei. With no other options the crew had little choice but to press on once again. Together they strode out onto the fractured plain burdened with heavy packs and a myriad of weapons trying to stay upright in the growing squall.
"Kid you still got the heading?"
Larabee strode up behind Dunne as the younger man slouched forward in a vain effort to keep the data pad's screen clear enough to get a accurate reading.
"Seven and half clicks south west "
Chris bent in for a closer look at the small display.
"Looks like there is a shorter route "
"Yeah its three clicks straight south but we have to be able to fly that there's another massive ore pit " To emphasize his point J.D. tapped the flickering GPS image. The captain had to take Dunne's word because of the unrelenting deluge they could barely see two feet in front of them. The constant downpour was almost maddening as the wretched troupe of men moved onward over the ground heaves at the same time trying to avoid a slew of miniature sink holes that dotted the area with only Dunne's readings leading the way. Their progress was slow going, in little over an hour they had only traversed a hundred meters thankfully the rain finally began to let up given them their first real glimpse of the land they were crossing.
"Shit " Buck's oath was the first word spoken couldn't adequately express what they saw ahead of them. Hundreds of pieces of charred wreckage littered the vast plain judging from the immense size of the debris field they had found what was left of the missing refuel station Trochee-165.
As the rain dispersed a light mist had slowly drifted in from the west limiting the visibility across the desolate tract of land. Ezra had once again fallen back watching as the other men wound their way through the enormous pieces of twisted metal. Somewhere amidst the wreckage a small child-like cry could be heard. With a wave Larabee's hand they all stopped in their tracks and listened to soft almost inaudible whimper. Standish caught a glimpse of the small filthy figure tightly huddled against a large section of the fuselage. Everyone held their places as the captain slowly approached the tiny being speaking low soothing words.
"Hey everything is okay "
As he inched closer Chris sufficiently hid his shock over finding a child in the middle a devastating scene, a thick layer of muck covered the pathetically thin limbs and was clotted in the dark badly matted hair all the while repeating the soft litany of words. "Its okay no reason to be afraid." But no one was more stunned than Larabee when the 'child' turned around blinked once revealing enraged coal black eyes before uttering a deep throaty snarl and bodily lunging for him. A nanosecond later he was spun around painfully clipped by a pulse rifle blast and using what little wits left he rolled with the force of the shot. The creature let loose an angry howl flipped backwards onto its feet and charged after the fallen man again.
The munitions specialist got off another shot before others got beyond their initial shock and finally started firing off a volley of pulse fire. Standish never knew what hit him as an earsplitting roar filled the air. One instant he was firing his weapon the next he was knocked flat air whooshed from his lungs and fighting for his life unable to stop from screaming as razor sharp teeth and talons tore away his flesh. Trapped he fought with waning strength as several long agonizing seconds passed before the beast's bone crushing weight was gone sent flying by a direct hit to its skull. Ezra dully blinked up at the gray sky struggling to get up before sagging back onto the soggy ground. A weak strangled groan escaped as he listened to continuous barrage of pulse rifles firing all around him.
The second larger humanoid creature had charged through the mist while the others had been occupied trying to repel the first. Tanner had managed to get one round off before it latched onto Ezra. Its angry bellow coupled with Standish's screams brought the attention of the remainder of the men, a bloodied Larabee had somehow managed to stagger upright and began awkwardly firing his weapon at the beast that refused to relinquish its hold on the fallen man.
Six men had their attention instantly divided between the twin assaults. Josiah kept his sights trained on the child-sized beast and had it scurrying under a hail of fire while J.D. matched him round for round neither man managed to actually hit the small creature as it scuttled effortlessly through the debris. Buck and Chris continued to fire in the air over the bigger creature in a vain attempt to frighten it, the attempt failed.
Ezra's bloodcurdling screams abruptly stopped.
In the middle of the melee Vin took a calming breath as he shouldered his weapon and skillfully executed a shot. The round hit its intended target with enough force to spin it off. Under an onslaught of pulse fire the beast finally backed away from Standish as a third and a fourth creature came into view and began a menacing circle around the Rebus' crew dodging the wild shots weaving in between over huge chunks of the wreckage. No longer willing to wait Nathan broke from his cover and made a mad dash to grab the badly injured man. Slipping and sliding over the short distance the ship's doctor got with in an arm's reach of Ezra when one of the creatures dove at him only to be successful deterred by well-placed blast.
Relaxing slightly and slowly letting out his breath Vin was relieved when his shot set the beast somersaulting through the air dead before it even hit the ground. A violent jolt stunned him, as he was slammed bodily into the muddy ground the pulse rifle went flying from his grasp. Writhing under the massive form unable to utter a sound as the creature clamped down onto his throat painfully sealing off his airway, his struggles ceased long before the others could force the creature away from him.
"This is fucking bullshit "Chris grunted out, infuriated at the monsters again circled in closer. He grabbed a Stinger off of his pack, pulled the pin and lobbed at the closest fiend hitting his target. The white flash was accompanied by murderous roar causing the captain to toss another. An enraged howl was cut off as the second Stinger made contact the creature's companion, an electrical charge sizzled and the beast collapsed in a heap, as dead as the first. The child like one made a fatal error as it tried to plow into the group of men. A random pulse hit its open mouth quickly ending its life.
The low rumble of the on going air battle overshadowed the gasps and pants the men made. With a wobbly stance and shaky hold on his pulse rifle Chris searched through the light mist, straining to see if there were any more monsters on the prowl. He and the others had made a protective circle around Tanner and Standish while Jackson did his best to tend to their injuries. Half watching as Nate did a quick check on Vin before the doctor focused his attention on Ezra's injuries.
After ten tense minutes elapsed Chris moved over to where Vin lay. The navigator's long hair was flung over his face as Larabee crouched down beside him and gently brushed it back. Blue eyes blankly stared through the captain.
"Vin? Oh my god Nate?"
The light rain still fell as Ezra dully blinked at the muddy ground under his nose knowing that Nathan hovered by his side struggled to stop his mutilated shoulder from bleeding and binding up savage tears in his back and side. Standish heard the captain call out and Jackson's response startled him
"I'm sorry there was nothing I could do for him Chris "
A blind panic seized the wounded man and as he fought unsuccessfully to sit up a black wave rolled in stole the conscious world away.
A strangled sob escaped as Chris fell to his knees leaning over Vin's body until their foreheads touched. The hardened man's stoic façade crumbled when he uttered a single hoarse word. "No " His cry caused the others to turn.
The awful reality had struck home.
With his lower lip quivering J.D. leaning heavily on his pulse rifle sagged down to the sodden rain soaked ground too stunned to make a sound. Nathan dipped his head even lower, as he did his best to tend Ezra's injuries, while a wave of guilt threatened to suck him into despair for not being able to help Tanner. Josiah gazed at a despondent Larabee before slightly tilting his face skyward to offer a silent prayer to a lost soul. A somber Buck let out a sigh, once a soldier he knew the heavy cost of war, the man steady himself before he took a step forward to bid a friend farewell.
Numb Larabee still knelt beside Tanner, trembling slightly as he reached over with his uninjured hand and closed Vin's unseeing blue eyes. Nothing at that moment seemed real. Not the rain, not the distant rumble of land cannon fire or the scattered wreckage of the refuel station strewn across the vast plain. The bodies of the dead creatures lay nearby momentarily forgotten as the weary captain tried to hold back his grief as tears fell unchecked down his cheeks. He didn't acknowledge the comforting hand that had settled on his back.
"Chris we can't stay here " Buck's hoarse whisper reached his ears.
"I know "Larabee sighed out his own words his gaze never lifted away from the pale still form.
The rain began falling in earnest as Josiah Sanchez said an old prayer over the broken body of Vin Tanner.
"Yeah we shall walk through the valley of death "
With the utmost care Buck and Chris laid the man out gently arranging his limbs as they settled him in his own rain poncho tugging over the edges to completely wrap him up.
"Wait please " Dune had pushed passed Buck and with shaky hands ran a thin metal cable around the navigator's misshapen neck snapping it closed after attaching a small tag. "In case we can't make it back it's an I.D. chip "J.D. blinked tears from his red rimmed eyes unable to say another word as the ladies man tugged the hood down respectfully covering Vin's face before allowing Josiah to set the first chunk of wreckage in place before adding his own. The two men continued until Tanner's body was covered completely by the debris.
"Nate?" Chris queried as squatted down by Ezra's limp form.
"Not good he's bled too much he shouldn't be moved." Nathan met his gaze and unflinchingly answered the question.
"We don't have a choice." Larabee grimaced as he broke eye contact
"I know I'm sorry about Vin "
"Me too Dammit we survived everything else and he had to " Chris couldn't say the words.
"We gotta to move out " Buck stepped in and broke up the conversation knowing there was no sense dwelling on things that could not be changed.
The somber group headed out of the debris field led by the captain. Buck and Josiah tasked with carrying Ezra aboard a makeshift stretcher assembled from two solar blankets and salvaged unistrut. Nathan walked steadily at their side keeping an eye on his patient as they strode across the open plain. J.D. took up pace behind them warily watching for the enemy as the men made a steady path towards the hills that lay on the fringe of muddy flat.
An hour had passed by the time they started to travel up the first steep grade. Larabee called out to the young man.
"J.D.!" Seconds later the dark haired youth scrambled up to his side. "You still got those coordinates plotted out?"
Briefly fumbling through his damp pocket Dunne fished out the data pad wiping off the moisture from the screen as he turned it on. The GPS program flickered on a topographic map illuminated the small three-inch monitor with two stationary blips blinked into view.
"What the hell is that?" Chris growled out as he squinted down at the small device.
"That one " J.D. tapped the blip indicated five clicks from their current position. "That is Tei Wei "
"And the other?" Chris steadily gazed at the younger man waiting for an answer.
"Vin." Dunne ducked his head as he explained he shoved the data pad into the captain's hands before quickly jogged back to his position behind the group.
Rumbling filled the skies overhead as Larabee glanced behind him unable to see the approaching craft through the heavy dark cloud cover. Missiles hit the ground exploding in the distance lighting up the sky in an area a click north east of the Trochee-165's shattered remains.
"Shit " Chris grumbled under his breath watching for a brief instant before shouting out to the others. "MOVE IT LET'S GET UNDER COVER " His words were barely audible over the din caused by the enemy bombers, waving towards a crevasse that split the hillside a fifty meters from their current position.
Even though the rain had lulled into a light drizzle the slick mire underfoot further hampered the trek up the hill. Another thunderous explosion ripped through the air as Buck slipped losing his hold on the stretcher. Ezra rolled off and toppled face down in the sodden earth. For a fleeting second Josiah managed to stay upright but lost his struggle and he fell landing bodily atop the limp munitions officer.
Pain tore through the blackness as Ezra Standish abruptly returned to the waking world. Gasping frantically as he fought back against the tidal wave agony that threatened to send him just as quickly back into the dark realm again. He could hear someone close by mutter. "Sorry brother " Ezra's body refused to cooperate unable to stop the hands that groped his body from rolling him onto the stretcher or the nauseating sensation it created as he was lifted airborne.
"Got him?" He identified concerned voice of the speaker as Captain Larabee and wondered what caused the man's worry. An awkward step by one of the litter bearers jolted through Ezra, he lost the tenuous grip on reality.
The loud drone of the incoming Skraeling squadron was effectively drowned out by the earsplitting bombardment that began in hills. The explosions lit up the darkened horizon. Normally light on his feet J.D. Dunne strained under the burden of his heavy pack and dropping the unwieldy weapon he carried as he scrambled up the hill behind the others. The young man abruptly halted, dropping to his knees as he groped through the thick mud trying to pick up the pulse rifle. Once he did he was up and moving again, only to have to almost stop dead in his tracks. Sanchez's slow moving form blocked his path. After falling a second time with the makeshift litter the big man now bore the wounded Standish across his shoulders. He had to shorten his lengthy stride to accommodate the additional weight as he strode across the slick ground while Wilmington remained close by to lend a steady hand if necessary. Slowing his own stride a shaky J.D. fell in step behind the others watching as the munitions officer's wet head bumped against Josiah's broad back with every step, peering past the hulking mechanic he could see Jackson slogging through the deep mud and Captain Larabee at was the front of the group waving them on ward.
Within a few short meters of their intended shelter a sudden rush of warm air caused the un-strapped areas on Dunne's poncho to flutter up, causing the young man's balance to falter slightly as he suddenly stopped watching the breeze sweep over the rest of crew and turned towards its source as it grew in speed and intensity. A bright flash filled the sky, a split second later the air erupted turning the sky into a sea of fire sending an immense tidal wave of fire their way.
"Ah shit " Was all J.D. could utter before being knocked to the ground, pinned down under a sudden weight his head forced down as the oxygen was sucked from his lungs and searing heat washed over him.
The sound of the fiery wave roared in Dunne's ears as it passed over him. Unable to take a breathe as the noise, along with a burning sensation that enveloped his body threatened to overload his senses J.D. pulled his hands in and covered his nose and mouth before laying his head face first into the mire while fighting the urge to suck in some air.
The heavy mass the weighed him down was gone, hands gently rolled him over. Rain drops splattered on his cheek as J.D. fluttered his eyes open not completely sure what had just happened, rapidly blinking in an attempt to clear his fuzzy vision. Buck's concerned face popped up in front of him, the man smiled and lightly patted his face before disappearing from view. Everything was quiet save the occasional cough and raspy breath.
"He's gone " Captain Larabee's gravelly voice broke the quiet.
"I lost hold of him " Josiah's somber voice was choked out by a series of painful hacking coughs.
The level of the conversation lowered, it was going on just off to the left and Dunne's heart raced as he struggled to sit up needing to know what was going on. Once he managed to right himself his eyes roved around for a moment before locking onto his companions. Looking beyond Nate as the man approached him he could see Josiah had propped himself up on one hand as he too sat in the deep mud. The big man along with Chris and Buck stared out across the foothill.
"Where the hell does he think he's going?" Buck's words reached his ears and he lowered himself down on a elbow to get a better view for the first time seeing the mud churned tracks that headed straight back towards the debris field making him wonder how Ezra could have mustered up the energy to take off like he had. Jackson temporarily blocked his view as the man knelt down in front of him. A second later he heard Buck scream out.
The alarm in the co-pilot's voice had Nate twisting around to see what the commotion giving J.D. a clear view as the blond captain trudged off through the shin deep squalid mire farther in the distance he could just make out Standish staggering away. A high pitched squeal pieced the air seconds before an enemy missile slammed into the ground sending earth and rock catapulting through the fiery explosion The force of the blast sent Larabee flying. The young man grunted as Jackson pushed him down as the violent impact rocked the very ground under their feet. Dunne was momentarily squashed back into the wet filthy mess unable to move until Nate rolled off him mumbling an apology as he did so.
With the steady drone of enemy aircraft overhead Chris drew an arm across his face and wiped the muck from his eyes before pushed himself up onto his knees. His green eyes strained to see through the steam and heavy rain, not noticing that Wilmington at his side.
"Damn it where is he?"
A large crater was furrowed into the ground mere meters from where he had made the last visual contact with Standish's departing form. The thunderous roar of explosions ripped through the area as a new round of heavy bombardment began in the adjacent hills. A hand touched his back and he glanced up to see the sad blue eyes haunting the face of his long time friend. The mustached man squeezed his shoulder before grasping an elbow and helping him back on his feet.
"Come on old man, we gotta move "
Sliding down until he sank his ass firmly into the mud muttering to himself as he rested his aching head against his knees. The air vibrated as the latest barrage of enemy fire plowed into the hills just to the east of him. " North east " Lifting his head off his filthy pants, the bloodied man looked over to where a fireball shot back up into the gray sky after the impact of another missile. He sat there momentarily mesmerized by the fiery plume that mushroomed out as it pierced the dark clouds. Not conscious of the wet seeping through his clothes, he fought against the near blinding agony that twisted like a knife through his side and shoulder with each shuttering breath he took as he struggled back to his feet. Dazed green eyes searching the land that lay before him, Ezra Standish took one tremulous step followed by another, doing as he was trained to do so many lifetimes before to push down the pain, wavering slightly, the tightly bound shoulder throwing off any natural sense of balance as he trod through the thick mire slowly headed towards the northeast.
Despite the chaos going on around him, a baser instinct took over and unerringly made the trek back towards the debris field, to where Tanner's body lay. He needed to be sure and for that he had to see for himself. At that moment in time Standish felt his age, mentally vying for control over his body's natural function knowing full well he should have succumbed to his injuries. He let out a small chuckle. The ability to suppress pain was something he discovered he to could do early on during his time in the labs.
Images of bright lights and sterile rooms filtered to the forefront of his mind coupled with the suffocating feeling of being trapped.
No no no
Nearby rumbling brought his focus back to the present and he did his best to force those thoughts from his head. The effort to keep his balance was draining his remaining strength. Rebellious legs violent shook as he sagged down and sat amidst the erratic boot prints that were strewn through the muddy trail.
Why? Ezra turned his thoughts towards recent events mulling over what had happened as he squinted, slowly gazing in the rapidly dimming light trying see if he had any unwanted visitors ruing the fact he never had a chance to tell the others about the zerks.
Why where the zerks here?
Stupid question really. Considering that the feral clones had been wiped from the know regions universe over two centuries earlier because they had a penchant for eating their handlers and were impossible to control. Their production banned as part of the Corporate Treaty that followed the Trade Wars.
The question was why now and why here?
All he knew was whoever was behind this was powerful.
Shifting his legs from underneath his backside Ezra grimaced once again returning his attention to the task at hand. He carefully shifted the rain poncho that covered his carefully wrapped injuries. An odd mixture of prickly numbness and pain gripped him as he began with tremulous fingers to pluck at the blood stained bandages that held his shoulder and arm immobile in a valiant effort to free the limb from the bindings unaware he was being watched.
Quadrant 89054-8 Huang-Ti
Mid shift within the communications room was generally mundane. For Ensign Almonte it was far from routine the UGCS Rebus Prime had failed to make several scheduled transmissions, though not officially overdue it was cause for concern. His most recent attempt to contact the cargo cruiser had failed. Chills running up his back the ensign carefully checked starting with the most recent images from the long-range radar and found that the last known location of the cargo cruiser had it approaching Su Sung. More alarming was unusual amount starship traffic throughout the region. Almonte immediately punched in a call to his supervisor.
Su Sung: Tei Wei Colony- Mining Operations
"Mr. Marabelli, excuse me sir?" A young red headed tech mech female popped into main control booth. She awkwardly wiped at the gray silt that coated into her skin before pulling off her goggles and letting them dangle from her neck as she waited for the senior executive to respond.
"Yes Teague?" Micah Marabelli didn't take his eyes away from the monitor screen that continuously updated him on the ongoing battle with the invaders.
"Conager sent me over Appears you were right Trochee-165 is down "
"He sent you over for that?" The man seemed more curious than annoyed as to why his chief security officer would send a tech mech up with a message rather than a standard call. He finally looked up at the messenger the young woman every inch of her was caked with a fine layer mineral residue.
"No sir he wanted you to know that we intercepted emergency transmissions from a cargo cruiser shortly before it was forced down " Although she looked him straight in the eye she shifted nervously in place.
"When was this?"
"At the beginning of the last duty cycle "
"Damn any survivors?" Micah Marabelli feeling much older than his fifty years at that moment he let out a long sigh.
"Don't know..." Teague just shrugged.
"Is that all?"
"Keep me advised " The senior executive turned his attention back to the monitors as Tech Mech Teague slipped from the room.
The meager light on the small planet finally dimmed making further progress across the squalid little world dangerous if not impossible. Captain Larabee finally called a halt. The remnants of the Rebus Prime's crew huddled together, cold, wet and miserable. Chris sat with a pulse rifle resting across his lap as he stared at his men. A quiet conversation was going on between J.D. and Buck. His long time friend and co-pilot was trying to console the younger man. Josiah was muttering a soft prayer while Nathan sat next to him trying to check through what remained of the medical supplies. The day had finally taken as toll on all of them. Knowing such thoughts could be their downfall, he flipped open the date pad he held tightly in his grip and studied the illuminated topographically map. In the north west corner was Tei Wei's steady blip curiously the one in the debris field flashed intermittently.
Peering at the tiny screen, it almost seemed to Chris that the blip had changed positions.
The night chill had seeped through his skin and had settled deep into Ezra's bones. He was too tired to move. The bandages he had pulled off earlier lay in a sodden bundle at his side. The agony that had burned through him earlier had dulled as he fought against the weariness the threatened to lull him into sleep. Standish bit back a groan as he shifted positions again in an effort to stay awake. The night sky occasionally lit up with the impact of enemy fire during one of those flashes, he saw something that sent shivers down his spine, standing less than three meters away a small pale filthy child with coal black eyes was intently watching him. Lacking the strength to move Standish tiredly sighed, tentatively flexing the digits on the recently freed arm as the growing numbness settled over his body as his eyes slid closed he could hear distinctive sound of bare feet lightly squishing through the mud stopping directly in front of him.
"It seems " Ezra spoke his words came out slurred and slightly skewed. "that timing is everything "
The constant drone of enemy craft that had filled the sky had been replaced with the electric snap of lightening and the rumble of rolling thunder. An earlier downpour had only further saturated the crew. Night' had fallen over the northern hemisphere of the small planetoid. The twilight cast by a distant sun dimmed hours ago leaving the wet world behind almost in pitch-blackness, still unable to safely proceed towards Tei Wei, although no one was able to sleep the men waited using the brief respite to physically rest. Under the pale green glow of the standard issue portable lighting Chris sat quietly watching what remained of his crew as he kept an eye on the surrounding area. Nathan had taken this time as an opportunity to check on and treat the various injuries sustained in the crash and during their frantic flight across Su Sung. Chris had steadfastly refused to have Jackson treat him until all the others had been looked over. He let out a sharp hiss as Nate's gentle probing hands touched the bruised flesh covering a cracked rib. Other than that barely audible acknowledgement Chris paid the healer little heed as he studied his men. At the far end of the group Buck Wilmington crouched down acting as sentry, his face had been scrubbed clean fresh stitches crept up into his hairline. A bleary eyed Dunne leaned against heavily Sanchez's large frame his normal exuberant chatter had died after he engaged in a hesitant conversation with Buck. There would be little solace for any of them that night. He glanced down as another beep emitted from the data pad.
The dark sky opened up and the rain fell sending torrents rushing down the man made canyons and hills. Rivers cut through the rocks flooding the flat open plain with knee-deep water.
The one word was woefully inadequate to explain just how the Ezra Standish felt. His head was buzzing and he wavered slightly as he sat drenched atop an outcropping of rocks in a feeble attempt to escape the rising muddy water. Pins and needles coursed through the damaged muscles, the pain hadn't completely abated but the level was tolerable. Too dark to see he strained to listen over the deluge, but he could no longer locate the sounds of his quiet companion in the black night.
Forced to move twice as the heavy rain fell, guided by the weak light provided by their portable light units Larabee led them farther up the hillside the only viable path had the men struggling over immense boulders, a by product of the mining operation. The slick surfaces of the wet stone ensured the treacherous trek upwards remained slow. Slow enough to cause them trouble it was the third time that J.D. Dunne had slipped and fallen. This time the kid couldn't muster the energy to get up again, he had been pushed to his physical limits they all had simply put they had to rest. Chris called a halt to any further movement they would have to wait out the weather in less than comfortable surroundings.
When would the dawn come?
Ezra chuckled to himself since that classic classification of time belonged to old earth signifying the rising of the sun. He longed for its soothing warmth. An uncharacteristic snort slipped out a wandering mind was one of the side effects of what his body was forced to undergo, in most normal circumstances that was bad enough but right there and then it could prove to be deadly. Thankful that on a night like this even the zerks were forced to stay put, well that and somewhere just out of earshot someone kept watch over him.
Blip Blip Blip
The intermittent tone was barely audible over the din caused by the heavily falling rain.
Pulling the hood of his poncho back down over his face in a futile attempt to keep the rain off, the captain of the Rebus Prime wiped the excess water off the screen of the data pad. Unable to voice to the others what he now knew to be true, the tracking device left behind in the debris field had moved.
A brilliant light startled Larabee from his thoughts, its blinding rays washed over the five men as Wilmington clambered to his feet weapon in hand ready to fire, stepping protectively in front of an exhausted Dunne as the young man struggled to stand. Sanchez hadn't moved much just enough to have his pulse rifle lay across his arm ready to fire. Jackson sat behind the former missionary deftly resting his own weapon on his knee. Hearts were racing as the light wobbled. As its holder rapidly approached them, the beam of light bobbed up and down in the darkened night before stopping a respectful distance a way. The men had to strain to hear the faint voice that shouted over the whoosh of falling rain.
"Are you the crew of the Rebus Prime?"
The bombardment of the tiny planetoid Su Sung had stopped. The Enemy craft had broken off only after losing several bombers due to volatile air currents, poor visibility and disruption of both long and short range radar systems brought on by the massive storm's electrical field as it blossomed and savagely rolled over a quarter of the northern hemisphere. Security Chief Conager James was thankful to his predecessors, because their foresight and planning insured that Tei Wei's systems hadn't suffered a similar fate. He checked and rechecked images from the skies overhead confirming what he already knew, the enemy no longer patrolled the immediate space orbiting Su Sung. Not wanting to emit communications to the open ear of the enemy he was relying heavily on runners to relay messages between through the myriad of ancient tunnels and passages that ran under fifteen feet of dirt and rock, that had been there since the time of the trade wars. Conager wanting to take full advantage of the respite had sent out a half dozen reconnaissance teams to search out the area surrounding the mining complex.
The sound of running feet jolted him from his thoughts and he hefted up his pulse rifle as the security area's door quietly swung open.
"That's a good way to get yourself killed Teague "
"Sorry sir, just thought you should know that Rodriguez and Brennan have spotted something rather someone people."
The sudden steady illumination in the dark southern sky had a weary Standish awkwardly climbing up, trying to find a better vantage point to see the nearby activity. The rainfall had lulled somewhat, enough for him to hear the erratic patter as bare feet squished slowing through the thick mud on the trail behind him.
"Who are you?" Wilmington called back. Not knowing exactly who was approaching them had put the crew on the offensive as they quickly tried to assess the situation.
"Security Detail from Tei Wei, I'm Ensign Rodriguez, this here is Brennan "
None of the men could see past the glaring light to confirm what the voice was saying.
"We can't see shit so we're supposed to take your word on that?" Larabee snapped out
The flood light dimmed and a scruffy looking young man in a filthy well worn uniform stepped forward so that they could see him, his companion stayed back hidden in the shadows cast by the glow of the remaining portable light sources.
"Begging your pardon sir but it's not safe here be best if we head back under ground "
The spattering of unshod feet as they tread over the wet rock inadvertently drew Ezra's attention away from the treacherous steep path. The lapse caused Standish to misjudge his next step instead of landing on a solid surface he stepped into air before tumbling off the massive boulder before coming to a painfully abrupt halt atop the rocks a mere meter below. The sound bare feet scurrying across the rocky outcropping mingled with a weary groan.
"Remind me not to do that again " The slightly slurred words were grunted out as the sodden munitions officer struggled to sit up pushing long strands of wet, filthy hair off his forehead. Somewhere close by the dazed man could hear the barely stifled giggle of a child. "Mr. Tanner, I'll have you know I do not find this at all very amusing."
A snort followed by another giggle had Ezra twisting around searching for its source.
"Mark my words I'll remember this."
Winding through tight narrow passages reminiscent of the space station Huine, five of Rebus Prime's crewmembers were nearing the main sector of the Tei Wei mining colony Ensigns Rodriguez and Brennan leading their way. The progress through the poorly lit tunnels was slowed in deference to the injured members of their party. Even though he was in pain Chris maintained a steady pace behind the young man. Buck's normally exuberant nature dampened by a throbbing headache had him quietly following the captain. J.D. was a few steps behind the mustached co-pilot, moving as fast as his bruised body would allow. Josiah's giant frame ungainly lurched to one side as he painfully limped along trying to avoid putting too much weight on his battered knee.
Nathan had shortened his lengthy stride keeping his doctor's discerning eye on his fellow shipmates as he fell in step behind them. The only thought that weighed on his mind beyond the health of his friends was they had been lucky to be found just not soon enough for two of the crew.
Less than a half hour later after their various injuries had been treated Larabee, Sanchez, Wilmington, Jackson and Dunne were escorted into modest stores room that was doubling as a ready room for the auxiliary security teams. The gap-toothed Ensign Brennan was left to watch over them, older than Rodriguez the seasoned man held a surprisingly low rank that had Chris wondering if he had lost seniority or was simply high tenure as he tried to find a comfortable position his damaged ribs would tolerate. Larabee shifted his attention from the balding man back to his crew who had become uncharacteristically silent. . The situation seemed more than a little surreal as he sat there listening to the array of harsh breathing, mixed with grunts and decided that wasn't exactly true, but given the recent turn of events after being rescued from the dank, dark filthy world only to be corralled into the tightly enclosed station their lack of conversation was at least understandable. His thoughts were interrupted when Tei Wei's Senior Executive strode into the ready room fully intent on interrogating the 'survivors' of the downed cargo cruiser. Marabelli stopped dead in his tracks when he recognized the familiar youthful features one of the worn and battered men.
The whole process was tiring but to survive the ordeal Ezra knew he had to press on or rather upwards as the storm grew in intensity. Lightening flashes brilliantly illuminated the thick, heavy rain swollen clouds overhead. Glancing down Standish could see his small companion struggling to keep up only to be hindered by over sized ill-fitting attire and trying to tote a heavy pulse rifle that was as long as he was tall. Ezra abruptly stopped and waited while short legs closed the distance. The sodden being finally reached his side, the munitions officer crouched down and pulled out a blade that had been concealed in his boot.
"This simply won't do " Mumbling as he began to adeptly saw through the pant leg material that failed to stay rolled up around thin limbs. A twinkle reached his tired blood shot green eyes when he heard the drenched child growl. Chuckling as angry blue eyes bore holes through him as rivulets of rain streamed through wet matted hair. "Mr. Tanner, one would think these were your favorite pair of trousers."
"Shut up Ez!" The quiet child like voice trying hard to sound deadly had Standish laughing so hard he had to stop his crude clothing alterations and sit.
"Mr. Marabelli?" A weary Dunne squinted up at a face from what seemed a lifetime ago and a small smile crept across his face.
"These friends of yours?" The harsh tone had faded from the older man's voice. When J.D. replied with a small nod Marabelli addressed the rest of the group his gaze switching from man to man until it rested on highest-ranking man. "Unfortunate circumstances that we have to meet under "
"Unfortunate my ass, I've already lost two of my crew since crash landing on this ball of sludge ." His nerves worn raw from recent events his sense of decorum failed and Chris snapped out a verbal onslaught. Shrugging off the hand Buck had rested on his shoulder.
"Nine of my people were slaughtered in the initial attack, another dozen were injured " Marabelli's own reply was terse and equally fraught with anger. The room fell silent as to two men squared off.
"My apologies it's been a rough day " Quashing down his ire Chris managed a halfway civil response trying to diffuse the situation.
"Then perhaps we should start from the beginning, I'm Senior Executive Marabelli, and I'm in charge of the Tei Wei mining colony operations here on Su Sung."
"Captain Larabee of the UGCS Rebus Prime, this is my crew." Chris calmly introduced the others. "Lieutenant Wilmington, my co-pilot. The ship's doctor, Lieutenant Jackson, my engineer Sergeant Sanchez and you apparently already know my communications ensign. Okay now that this happy introduction is over, what are we going to do?"
Under the dark sky, amid the deluge and flash lighting two moving figures remained little more than a shadows contrast against the horizon, one only a quarter the size of the other, immediately stopped as they crested the ridge noticing movement no more than ten yards to the east. A brilliant bright white flash lit up the sky just a quiet 'aw hell' was uttered. The sodden duo quickened their pace then abruptly disappeared from view.
"Hell Captain Larabee at this point I am open for suggestions, all long range communications were effectively cut off when our orbiting satellites were destroyed "
Marabelli stopped mid sentence as the walls around him groaned and the floor shook. "God damn it " He staggered over to the room's com-link his frustration audible. "Teague what the hell is going on?"
The young woman's voice intermittently came through on the speaker's static.
"Sir the complex has been breached lower level three intruders "
Lower Level Three
Teague smacked the comm. station, cursing a blue streak as the floor shook under her feet. At that moment the unit choose to smoke and arc. Wispy plumes that traveled up the wall quickly turned into flames. The young woman desperately trying to squelch the small blaze abruptly froze in place as a low throaty growl resonated through the area.
Heavy boots hit the floor. Ezra Standish's aching muscles kept him from being the stealth soldier he had been trained so long ago to be. Despite the discomfort he moved quickly and quietly down the corridor ignoring the light thud, caused by his diminutive companion entry, behind him. Shrill screams had Ezra pushing his remaining physical reserves to bolt off into a dead run down the long passageway leaving the soft patter of wet feet in his wake.
Blood was everywhere and the blasted creature had the unmitigated gall give a bloody grin to Standish as he rounded the corner. The brazen act was met with dual assault of pulse fire and a stinger quickly dispatching the lone zerk. A thin trail of smoke wafted off the creature's carcass floating towards the ceiling as Ezra slipped back the hood of his rain poncho and crouched down by what remained of the human female. Knowing there was little he could do for the dead didn't help, a small nudge from behind told him that Tanner was there offering the use of his poncho and he took the tattered garment respectfully laying it over the woman's body.
"Lord I loathe these cretins vermin festering boils "
The floor tiles rattled and quaked underfoot temporarily halting the rabid diatribe. Overhead lights flickered and dimmed. With walls shuddering and groaning around them it was apparent there was no time to spare the two weary soldiers set off again heading deeper still into the complex, one of them slowly whistling the first few notes of an old song. The softly whistled tune echoing eerily through the hallow halls was drowned out in the deafening rush of sound as the station's sub-terrain structure trembled as the rocky sub-straight that it was cored into violently shook before being plunged into darkness.
The emergency lights flipped on as Larabee struggled to his feet barely able to see with any clarity in their faint glow. Taking stock of the situation quickly glancing about the small room making sure that everyone else was unharmed noticed that Rodriguez and Brennan had already disappeared from their posts and was in time to see the retreating form of Su Sung's Senior Exec bolting out after them. Deftly moving away from the table he motioned for his men to follow.
An insistent vibration on his hip garnered some of Chris's attention. Not stopping his constant scanning of the badly lit corridor he pulled up the small data pad so he could see the screen knowing the flashing blip had increased in frequency despite being unable to hear its shrill sound.
Larabee stared at the blinking light. A mere blip that indicated that locating device had moved and now was inexplicably within the complex. Spewing out a string of obscenities Chris resisted the temptation to fling the device instead he jammed it back its holder on his belt.
Although what Chris had said was lost amid the noise his frustration was evident to the other men as they passed him heading out into the hall, but no one had to ask why they knew.
Explosions on the ninth sub level went unnoticed as the Tei Wei's primary power grid had flickered back on for a brief instant before plunging the entire station into complete darkness, the secondary grid kicked in eerily illuminating the sixth sub level corridor that Standish and his petite cohort were running down. Ezra stopped short as they came to an intersection hesitating momentarily unsure of which direction to take but any reservations were dispelled as a short wiry figure sprinted passed by. Standish sucking in needed air before staggering forward starting off an erratic pace in an attempt to catch up with the fleeing form of his companion.
Ezra's flight was short as he skidded to a halt and unable to avoid crashing into his diminutive ally fell behind some C.O2 tanks. The whistling that had eerily filled the halls had stopped instead he heard the whoosh of automatic doors. In the seconds that took him to regain his bearings Ezra had lost sight of Tanner and wasn't at all pleased with what he could see.
Six of them from what he could tell had just cleared the elevators. An unusually small number, they normally fought in larger ranks, the munitions officer knew this was bad. That there was only one reason they were here, 'zerk handlers.
Peering through the fiber bundles that made up the colony's communication infrastructure, the muddy child watched the enemy troops move through the corridor below home, hoping that Standish would stay put. They were sorely out numbered and out gunned. Any hopes for that where short lived as the man popped up and began to fire upon the Skraeling.
Old soldiers die-hard
The thought went through his mind for a fleeting second before dropping down into the melee.
The battle on the lower levels continued on as Tei Wei's security detail vainly tried to gain access to the miners' elevators. But some how they had been blocked off, a fact that righteously ticked off Larabee. Marabelli had feverishly punched in the door codes. Initially there'd been no success, but eventually the doors opened revealing a cavernous shaft all remnants of the car they held were gone. The car was completely destroyed only twisted remnants of the track they ran remained. The significance of their loss wasn't lost on Larabee.
"Marabelli, what's the run down?"
"We have to get to the lower levels we can't lose control over them!"
"What's down there?"
"Lower Level Three houses the complex's power plant without it the vital power grid would go down and the capabilities of the massive land cannons would be lost leaving Tei Wei completely vulnerable to enemy attack."
With no choice left the men split up into two groups, Larabee and Dunne went to the western end with Marabelli and Brennan as lead. Sanchez, Wilmington and Jackson followed Rodriguez to the east.
Climbing down the maintenance ladders was a cramped order of business. The men already battle weary from slogging across the soupy quagmire on Su Sung's surface dodging trouble. Sore tight muscles combined with being on constant tactical alert made the descent slower than normal. The whole operation took on a surreal quality when they all began to hear a child's muted off key voice singing a song. The words were unmistakably that of an old Earth Army cadence.
I wanna be an Airborne Ranger,
Live the life of guts and danger,
Blood, guts, lies and danger,
That is the life of an Airborne Ranger.