Of Heroes, Villains and the Parts In-Between,,, Crime and Punishment, The Crucible

Of Heroes, Villains and the Parts In-between,,

Tiber System
Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space
Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent’
March 6, 2937
Fall of Tiber

In the way of old friends, there wasn’t even a need to discuss it. They already knew each other’s hearts in this, and it was as inevitable as starlight.

The Destroyer was in night mode with most nonessential crew bunked for the next several hours, and lighting reduced to a muted luminescence. They watched the fight on the forward array, far enough distant to be ignored by the enemy but close enough that the desperation of those fighting and dying weighed on their souls.

One of the men leaned against the railing of the observation deck over the commander’s station, a steaming mug of coffee loosely grasped in one hand. The other stood straight, feet braced as if on a moving deck and watched the multitude of distant explosions on the screen, cigarette smoke swirling in accompaniment to the steam coming out of the insul-mug held by the first man standing a few feet away. The taller of the two men, with dark hair and a lean frame clad in a dark blue flight suit with a Midnight Squadron badge on the shoulder, glanced sideways and spoke to fulfill the obligation to do so. “We are under orders to stay out of it…” he offered casually.

The other man clad in a matching uniform nodded, not taking his eyes from the screen. “Yup…we are,” he agreed.

The first man took a sip of his coffee then pursed his lips, head canting to the side slightly. “Of course there’s nothing says we can’t work more than one contract at a time…,” he speculated.

His friend glanced at him for the first time, a slight smile touching his lips and faded blue eyes. “Technically that contract is almost fulfilled anyway…they took the bait. Now we just take care of loose threads. Besides- we already have another non combat mission going. Reese is planet-side with a salvage crew grabbing components to subsidise the cost of our presence here. ”

The taller man grunted and stretched his back as he stood to his full height, then rolled his neck. “Hmm…of course we’d have to work up the figures on contractual fees, tally resources, prepare a plan…and we haven’t actually been asked to that particular party out there…we can’t violate the conditions and bylaws of our Mercenary status…” He glanced sideways at his friend, a gleam of mischief in his hazel eyes. “Say Xander…you think maybe you might know a guy out in that mess might wanna hire a couple old space pirates like us..?”

Xander Morgan, CEO of Midnight Enterprises and Officer in Command of the mercenary squadron detachment grinned. “Why Frank, I do believe I might know one or two folks with the authority to make a contract with us.”

Frank LeBlanc scratched at the back of his head thoughtfully. “Of course, a couple hack pilots like us…can’t ask too much. Only fair. Let’s say…a credit?”

Xander laughed, shaking his head as Frank grinned at him. “Sounds about right to me. A single credit for two old dogs that should know better and are probably going to get themselves killed. Let me make it official. I’ll have Senator Willoby approve it and we can drum up a couple volunteers.”

Frank saluted Xander with his coffee mug held high, then quaffed the contents and turned to the portal. “Meet you at the ships, bossman!” he teased, his energy subtly changing as the promise of a fight transformed him somehow. He strode through the exit as the door slid open, a fierce light shining from his eyes and the energy of a much younger man evident in the spring in his step. His smile was grim as he began to switch into a mental state that had earned him the reputation of being one of the most dangerous men in the ‘verse when behind the controls of a fighter. He suddenly seemed larger and more substantial. If Xander had not seen the transformation countless times before, he might have been startled. As it was, he felt an answering intensity stir in his own breast.

Xander pressed a button on the console in front of him. The portal opened again, this time admitting the hulking form of his Security Chief and Enforcer. Richard stepped forward and then waited, his hands crossed in front of him, his stony gaze alert despite the late hour as he looked at his boss. “Yes sir?” came the rumbling question.

“The game is afoot, Jaeger. The trap is sprung and you are now free to find and question our turncoat. I will be allowing you the wherewithal to deal with this issue as Frank and I have other business to attend to. The transmissions we captured should lead you right to our man and from him to the Senators working against the Imperator, and ultimately identify the corporations involved. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that we glean any and all information from the source here on the ship in order to follow the trail back to the source.”

Pale eyes narrowed slightly. “I may see to this person in a manner I choose?”

Xander met his Enforcer’s eyes, a matching hardness there that lent truth to his reputation as a ruthless and dangerous man that was not crossed without consequences. “Yes.”

Richard nodded, accepting the glas Xander handed to him. He saluted sharply and turned on his heel, joined by his security team as he strode out the door.

Crime and Punishment

Tiber System
Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space
Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent’
March 7, 2937
Fall of Tiber

In the centuries past, hunters had tracked quarry in a number of ways; from tracks, scent, scat, or the minor signs that always indicated the hunted had passed on a specific route. Nothing could pass undetected if the hunter was skilled. Over the centuries, this had remained true, and Jaeger was one of the best. If one knew what to look for, had access to the right technology, and possessed the instinct and patience; any quarry could be found. This was what Jaeger had always been best at. Yet it was when this skill was kicked into overdrive by a sense of personal investment, well then the hunter became an unstoppable force- and this quarry had made it personal.

In some ways Jaeger was disappointed. He had been easy to unmask once the transmission files and communications were in hand. It had been so easy that he had dug deeper just in case it was a case of misdirection. Yet there was no mistaking the one of a kind frequency match originating from the man’s implants.

And that man, a spacecraft biosystems engineer newly hired by Midnight Enterprises, was presently secured to a chair in front of Jaeger. He was not particularly good at the game he had played, which presented questions to be answered at another time. Yet he had all the right papers to ensure placement and certain implants intended to maintain communications in as subtle means as possible with his real employers. Unfortunately for him, Xander had known what he was and who he worked for before he even applied for the position with Midnight Squadron.

Jaeger stood in a relaxed pose as he looked down on the man. His expression seemed thoughtful, and his voice was surprisingly soft- almost gentle when he spoke. “And the man whose identity you took? The actual ‘Don MacMannis’?”

The man in the chair licked nervously at his lip and shifted as much as he was able. “Dead.”

“At your hand I assume?”

The agent shrugged. “Of course.”

“And his family?”

The corner of the man’s mouth ticked nervously and sweat slowly dripped from his temple down the side of his face. “Wrong place, wrong time. You know how it is…” Jaeger nodded thoughtfully then glanced over at his companion. Lothar checked the data against the cranial readings and nodded slightly to his boss. Jaeger paced slowly, his hands moving to clasp lightly behind his back. His tone was almost friendly when he spoke. “I must say, you have been most forthcoming about all of this. Very cooperative in fact.”

The man in the chair seemed to relax slightly and even smirked a little. “I know when I’m caught. Just be sure you pass on how helpful I was to the Advocacy.”

Jaeger stopped pacing and turned to face the man again, smiling in kind, though his eyes remained as cold as empty space. “Whatever gave you the idea we were turning you over to the Advocacy?”

The saboteur froze, his eyes widening as his lips parted. He began to speak after a false start, his voice unsteady and fear creeping into his expression for the first time since he had been apprehended trying to tamper with the cargo. “But…you have to…you are a legal representative…a law keeper…an Enforcer attached to the Advocacy! The law says you have to turn me over for the Imperator’s justice…”.

Jaeger’s smile widened until his teeth were visible in a singularly feral grin. His tone was rumbling velvet steeped in wickedness as he responded. “Oh, you are correct. If I had caught you and arrested you, you would certainly have to be turned over to the higher courts for acts of sedition and corporate piracy as well as murder. However…I do not recall notifying you that you were under arrest…” Jaeger arched his brow and glanced over at Lothar. The Turk grinned widely, a gold tooth catching the light as he shook his head.

As if on cue, two security personnel entered carrying a heavy space suit and a small black box which was set down very carefully before they turned and exited.

The prisoner was tense now and he eyed the items nervously. “You can’t do…whatever you are planning to do. I’m valuable…I know things! You won’t have any proof without me!”

Jaeger shrugged broad shoulders. “We have the transmissions you sent after you confirmed the ‘Secret Weapon’; which by the way never existed, unfortunately; was in the cargo hold. Your friends in the ‘Pirate’ armada have decided not to make a showing after all, and your employers are now identified. Why would we need you as a ‘witness’? Do you think we plan to bring any of this to the courts?" Jaeger snorted contemptuously at the idea. "We have all we need. You, my friend, are disposable and your usefulness is at an end.”

Something shifted across the man’s features, a flicker of expression that gave Jaeger a moment’s pause. His eyes narrowed, his agreeable tone suddenly hard. “You seem to have more to say. I would advise you tell me what it is.”

Sensing an advantage, the man sneered. “I’m not telling you shit until you call the Advocacy.”

Jaeger looked at the man broodingly. “You have an opportunity to impact the sentence I have devised for you. If I feel you have come clean with me, it will go easy on you. If not….” Jaeger’s long fingered hand lightly caressed the black box.

“Fuck you!” The man spat, a crazed light in his eye. He laughed unsteadily. “You haven’t won this!”

Jaeger shrugged, once more looking composed. He nodded to his assistant who tapped his screen. The interrogation chair gave a soft hiss as the paralytic was injected into the occupant. He slumped almost immediately, everything but his face seeming to go limp. He cursed and screamed invective at the impassive Enforcer as Lothar efficiently suited him up in the heavy spacesuit. After Lothar had secured the helmet, Jaeger stepped closer, slipping an electrical component out of his pocket. He rolled it around in his hand, allowing the spy to get a good look at it. As realization dawned the man gave a choked scream. “You inhuman, black hearted…freak! Don’t you fucking do it! Just fucking kill me and get it over with!”

Jaeger leaned in and almost lovingly secured the biohazard beacon to the man’s space suit, ensuring that not a ship in the universe would come anywhere near him once he was launched on his ‘flight’. Jaeger placed his finger on his lips and shushed the man who had lapsed into gibbering as he realized what was in store for him. “Shh….shh, my friend.” Jaeger patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. “There is still a chance it will not be so bad for you, yes? So why not bare your soul and tell me whatever else it is you have on your mind?” The commiserating tone hardened. “Your last chance, I’m afraid.”

The man panted inside the suit despite the perfect temperature controls and fresh oxygen, flecks of foam at the corners of his mouth. He met Jaeger’s eyes and sneered. “How bout I fuck your sister instead?”

The random, childish retort seemed to trigger something in the big German and he tensed, rage flaring in his eyes as he grabbed the suit by the front with one hand and lifted the paralyzed prisoner until he dangled like a ragdoll. Jaeger took several steps, ramming him against the plasti-steel walls of the interrogation cell. “You make this too easy…” he snarled. The Turk laid a hand on Jaeger’s arm, having quickly stepped in when his boss had given in to the sudden surge of murderous rage. Jaeger’s attention jerked to his companion and muscles clenched in his jaw. The Turk glanced at the black box pointedly. Abruptly, Jaeger released the prisoner from his grasp, allowing him to slide down along the wall and fall to the floor in a heap. In an instant he was calm again and he moved to the table where he carefully opened the box.

“You are right, of course, Lothar.”

Conversationally, as if the show of rage had never happened and they were simply chatting about the weather on Terra, Jaeger spoke to the prisoner. “I have found the idea of men believing that we humans are the apex of evolved life forms quite amusing. Certainly we express dominance over those things we come in contact with…it is true. But it is not so wise to forget how fragile we are, hmm? And as we have expanded our influence into new worlds, we have encountered many wondrous things. And some of these things, we have learned, have also evolved into a perfect form for what it is they do. Take for example, the Xerxes.” Jaeger raised a lab specimen vial from the black box, an inch long, purple, soft bodied creature glistening with secretions swaying inside. It had a series of ridges like an Old Earth Pillbug, and an ever shifting array of pearlescent colors shimmering along the purple exterior. Countless tiny legs covered the underside of the creature and bright red eyes marked the head over a flat line that seemed to be the creature’s mouth.

The panting from the man on the floor seemed to choke off entirely, his eyes going impossibly wide. Then as if a mental breaking point had been reached, he began to beg and plead, promising anything and everything, then alternatively shouting insults at the big German, trying to make him angry enough to simply kill him. He quickly became incoherent as his words had no effect, and finally just started to scream in terror.

Jaeger carefully took the vacuum sealed metaglass lab sampler to the prisoner and crouched next to him, turning the clear jar slowly in front of the man’s helmeted face. Jaeger carefully attached the end of the specimen tube to a seal on the suit, then gently tapped the tube. The Xerxes reared back, mouth opening wide to display a maw lined with razor sharp teeth designed to flense, the agitated hiss muffled by the container. Faster than the clumsy shape of the creature would suggest, it shot out of it’s prison and slid into the space suit. With a twist, the sampler was removed, minus the former occupant and the seal was again closed.

Jaeger set the empty tube on the table and straddled the chair, arms folded on the back, chin resting on his hands. The man continued to scream in a high pitched, mindless manner.

“Ah, I see you are familiar with our little friend. You understand now why it was necessary to attach the biohazard beacon as well. Nasty little creature, the Xerxes. It should have your skin flayed off in a day or so, all the while leaving pain receptors chemically heightened and secreting slime over the muscles beneath to ensure you do not bleed to death. After it has grazed, it will lay its eggs, which will hatch into larvae within an additional day or so.” He continued to speak in a friendly manner, as if lecturing a particularly apt student on a beloved subject. “The larvae will hatch and eat fatty deposits and some large muscle masses, unerringly leaving vital organs intact as they make their way to the brain.” Jaeger grinned at the man whose scream was now no more than a rasp, repeating over and over, his bulging eyes rolling back in his head.

Jaeger continued his lecture despite the fact the prisoner seemed to be past hearing at this point. “Once there, they will feed on the electrical activity created in the pain response synapses…the parent of course ensuring that there is a constant food source.”

Jaeger stood, his smile pleasant as he nodded to Lothar. The security detail returned, securing the saboteur between them. “Launch him into space through the garbage duct. Be certain his beacon is activated and the bio supports are optimal. His new friend would not appreciate him dying of hunger or lack of oxygen in the months ahead.”

The spy was drug out and Jaeger turned to Lothar. His tone was once again brusque and to the point. “Pull all the security footage and ping his location since he boarded. I want to know where he has been and I want a team examining everything he has touched.”

The Turk nodded, fingers flying over the interface. “Already on it. Other than sleeping quarters, his primary stationary time expenditure footprint seems to have been….the fighter deck.” He glanced up at his boss who was already hastening out the portal, and fell in behind him.

“Then we will examine every inch of every fighter and the surroundings,” came the growled reply as his assistant relayed orders for a sweeper team to meet them on deck.

The Crucible

Tiber System
Tiber Orbital Space
March 7, 2937
Fall of Tiber

They harried the enemy in lightning quick sorties that would draw Vanduul fighters out of the pack, then pick off those too eager or too slow to return to the larger group. They sewed confusion into the large congregation of alien craft, breaking their concerted attacks on the troop carriers and battlecruisers of the Empire.

They worked together like a perfectly engineered machine- one always knowing what the other would do, the accompanying groups of volunteers from the Squadron brutally efficient at culling targets of opportunity.

Gunslinger and Capm worked together in what seemed explosive acts of god- the human gods of Old Earth; violent and staggering in reprisal and power. Nothing could touch them as they dove and strafed and spun in the clusters of enemy ships hovering like gnats over the blue-green planet. It was beautiful and breathtaking and deadly, and soon the enemy squadrons fell back to their own destroyers to regroup and gain the protection of the primary swarm. Many soldiers that would have otherwise perished won free of the falling warzone and made the jump to safer space.

Spirits that had fallen as comrades had died rallied in fierce joy as fighter pilots attached to the remaining Empire fleets recognized the legendary presence of the famous ‘Gunslinger’ amongst them, and their own efforts redoubled.

Xander bared his teeth at his partner on the comms display in a fierce grin. Another troop carrier shielding a Hospital ship won free as the Midnight Squadron flight and UEEAF wing closed behind them to face off any thoughts of pursuit. Frank spoke up on the personal frequency.

“How about we take a break and let these boys and girls catch their breath, Capm?”

Xander looked over his screens, studying the activity surrounding the planet. He registered that despite their heroic effort, the UEE was still taking a pounding, and their small corner of the battlefield was the only place to be seen where a relative calm was evident. He noticed a cluster of engagement several minutes away where a limping Corvette and a couple desperate fighters were struggling to break free of a pursuing group of Vanduul. He considered only for few seconds before responding.

“Negative Gunslinger- once more into the breach dear friend…then we head home. First round on you, of course,”Xander grinned.

He watched as his friend gave him a one finger salute, laughing as he switched to team comms and directed his wing to fall in for a final run.

* * *

Tiber System
Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space
Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent’

She pulled herself slowly along the exterior of the vessel, the grey mottled space excursion suit molded tightly to her body, the face shield dark and obscuring her features. Arriving at her camouflaged vehicle, she slipped into the pod where it clung to the outside of the Midnight Squadron command ship. Even a discerning eye would have written the rounded lump off as a sensor modification- one of the advantages of targeting a group like Midnight Enterprises, where no ship profile resembled the factory specs, and most of the personnel would not have access to the particulars of how a ship was modded out. Hundreds of eyes had likely scanned over her pod, and none had seen anything amiss. The ship itself had simply accepted the pod as yet another specialized accessory thanks to a certain little program she had access to.

She paused for a moment after she was secured. Enforcer Richard von Blucher was more brutal and efficient than she had expected even for an individual trained by the Advocacy. He had forced her to alter her timeline considerably by apprehending her dupe so quickly. Of course it had worked out beautifully when Xander Morgan and Frank LeBlanc opted for an unscheduled excursion to the battlefront. She smiled at the perfection of it as she entered the code to activate both packages, then disengaged after setting her nav computer to the rendezvous point. She was confident her small pod would simply register as debris floating off into space from the warzone. Once far enough away from the ship sensors, the pod’s dampened propulsion system would set her course. She relaxed into her seat, a smile curving her lips.

* * *

On the flight deck, the security scanning crew was coming up empty. The signatures from the various types of armament made it impossible to identify any alien residue that would indicate sabotage to the ships within an immediate timeframe. Sifting through the billions of chemical particle layers would take time he just didn’t have right now. Of course he had no proof that anything further was amiss, yet his instincts were screaming at him that there was something to that brief flash of expression he had seen on the spy’s face.

There was no help for it. He was going to issue the priority mission cancellation code and have all fighters return from wherever Xander had taken them. It was better to be safe and arouse Xander’s ire than the alternative. As he turned to relay the order to Lothar, he found the Turk frowning slightly as he stared at his glas.

“What is it?”

Lothar glanced at his boss and stroked his beard. “Maybe nothing. It’s just…well, there was a signal burst- it was tiny…barely detectable. In fact without your security protocols it would not have been detectable. At the same moment AI logged a sensor array went dead on the exterior of the ship with diagnostics stating it no longer existed- that it had never actually been there. It could be a glitch…coincidence…,” he conceded dubiously.

Jaeger scowled and snapped out an order. “Override executive orders via security prioritization and bring all fighters back NOW!” He was already running for his ship, bellowing for a security team to mount up. Lothar cursed as the recall failed to ping any Midnight Squadron command craft on the battlefield, and turned to sprint after his boss.

* * *

Tiber System
Tiber Orbital Space

Pain.

He didn’t know how it was possible to continue breathing with this much pain stabbing into him. Yet he fought the oblivion of unconsciousness, as merciful as it would have been. He clung to the rage as waves of anguish and agony washed over him, clawing at the darkness that had become his world as he drifted in the cold, debris strewn space. He focused on one thought: Whoever had done this would pay.

He could hear his men dying as they threw themselves valiantly against the Vanduul while trying to save him, but all other communications chatter had gone dead the moment the small explosion had gone off. By some miracle, there had been no breach, but his controls had been reduced to slag and his fighter was floating space junk.

He cursed and wept at the brave sons of bitches shielding him from the Vanduul fighters, begging them to leave him, ordering them to fall back to the command ship. But no sound could reach them with his outgoing comms completely toasted. In some distant corner of his brain, he registered that it was a small mercy that he did not have to watch. In a desperate measure, he had even attempted to eject in order to save his people the need to protect him. But even that mechanism had failed, leaving him entirely helpless in the prison of his fighter cockpit.

And so he sat and raged and wept and yelled in turn, his pain secondary to the images blasted into his memory as his best friend had died before his eyes. Gunslinger had died the way he had lived; fighting to the last, the most heroic bas t ard he had ever known. Whatever insidious damage had been done to the ships of both flight leaders, Gunslinger had seen the effects first. He had been intentionally crippled though, where Xander’s ship seemed to have been rigged to explode. Whoever had concocted this death sentence had seemed intent on killing Gunslinger’s legend by simply handicapping him enough to be taken out by random, unremarkable contact; a move calculated to kill morale on the UEE armed forces side. He filed all of this away in his head even as he mentally watched it happen over and over.

The final look Frank had given him. The wistful smile. His gloved hand pressed to his cockpit window towards his friend as he directed his ship in front of Xander’s after his final words.

“Take care of my little girl.”

And then he was gone, his fighter taking the hit and knocked aside like a toy; a fiery comet descending to the roiling, war torn surface of the planet below. A heartbeat later the detonation took his sight and destroyed the interior of his fighter. A clinical part of his mind wondered at the delay, and considered the faulty result of the tampering done to his fighter. Intentional or accidental?

The smoke made it hard to breathe as the scrubbers in the fighter limped along attempting to recycle oxygen. He wondered if he would simply suffocate. He coughed, the spasm awakening a fresh onslaught of agony from his burns and acid seared face.

He was losing the struggle to remain aware, and then dimly he registered a shout on the short wave and a ragged chorus of cheers from far too few remaining voices. Cries of “Jaeger!” overrode the sounds of engagement and he was confused further; men cheering Jaeger? Was he delusional?

He felt a vibration and faintly heard the grate of metal. There was a terrible static on his comms and then the deep, intense voice of the Enforcer came through as if from a vast distance.

“Damn it Lothar, I’m right on top of him, get those comms open!”

The signal was lost then swung wide again, this time clear as a bell. “Lothbrok to Capm, can you hear me? Sir…. I have you… Xander…hang in there.”

Vaguely Xander decided he was hallucinating…his Enforcer had never called him by his first name. He was far too regimented for such familiarity. And that gruffness in his voice sounded like concern. The sounds of fighting had died away and there was silence. He sighed and slipped into a deeper darkness that blessedly made the pain go away.

Of Heroes, Villains and the Parts In-Between,,, Crime and Punishment, The Crucible

Stories of The 39th Midnight Squadron Sharhun