The Daughters of Kali

By Joshua Hill

A novella based in the Infinity the Game universe, created by Corvus Belli

Chapter 1

Paradiso: Santa Barbara City

It was raining the only way it does on Paradiso, heavy and constant.  The sounds of nearby combat were almost drowned out.  The city of Santa Barbara lay on the front lines of this new war, a war against alien aggression.   The neon lights reflected in the puddles gathering around the squad of Kamau infantry. This was their element, water. They owned it.

Corporal Sarah Patel fought to keep her heart from racing.  It wasn’t the plasma blasts that were exploding closer and closer each minute that got her heart pumping.  It wasn’t the attack ship that had been providing CAS (Close Air Support) burning behind her, with rounds from the autocannon cooking off from the heat.  It was what it always was; performance anxiety.

The Heads Up Display in the visor of her “Kamau” variant armor showed red glyphs and symbols representing Non Friendly Forces in the near distance…and getting closer.  She shouldered her heavy M-91A5 Sniper rifle, keeping the weapon lowered.  Her Extreme Distance Visor Mk 4, or X-visor, detected the rifle being readied and superimposed a bright red line, like a laser beam from the barrel of her rifle, letting Sarah know exactly where her weapon was pointed.  However, instead of the laser being straight, it was curved to represent the trajectory of the bullet.  For most weapons this increased the accuracy at longer range but for her M-91, it also let her use it in CQB more effectively.  Sarah pointed the massive weapon down the alley, waiting for her target to appear.  The alley was narrow and strewn with rubble and debris from the months of fighting.  Most of the buildings were hollowed out shells, spilling their innards into the streets.

Sarah had seen her 2/111th Alpha company “the Hammer Heads” deployed to warzones all over the Human Sphere.  Even though the posture of the war effort was on the defensive, the Kamau never got that memo and used their anti-terrorist experience to take the fight to the enemy.

Sarah, the best designated marksman in the company, was ready for what was coming.  The ambush had been planned carefully, and right on time her sergeant, David Atkinson, rounded the corner of the alley running towards her at a full sprint.  Every step, sending splashes of dirty water.

Close on his heels was a TAG sized monster of nightmarish proportions. The nine foot tool monstrosity rounded the corner, fixing its baleful eyes on the fleeing Kamau sergeant. The beast had terrible claws, brimming with weapons. The muscles in its neck were gigantic and pulsed with alien life. The code name for this bio-mechanical beast was “Avatar”.  The name alone sent her Hindu blood boiling and strengthened her resolve, casting aside any fear.  The Avatar of the Enhanced Intelligence turned into the alley, using its clawed hands to tear at the sides of the buildings to keep its balance as it ran, striving to catch the human.  The feet were very small, made for running on hardened surfaces, which it did very well. Because of the small impact, the tiny human made much more noise and splashed much more water as he ran.

Sgt. David sprinted across a pre-marked line and tossed himself to the ground as Sarah and the rest of her squad opened fire over David’s prone form.  The automatic decibel levelers in her helmet certainly saved her hearing as she put the red “laser beam” on the monster and pulled the trigger.  The powerful 8.5mm AP rounds tore through the air at frightening velocity and slammed into the Avatar repeatedly.  An M-45A1 Heavy Machine gun opened up next to her, filling the Alley with Hate and discontent.  Rifle and grenade fire added to the cacophony.

The Avatar, being taken by surprise and having nowhere to turn, took the full fury of the squad’s fire.  It brought its arms up to shield its head and torso, sparks and flashes bursting over the creature’s shiny, bug-like armor.

Sarah assumed the thing would be destroyed or retreat back through the alley, heavily damaged.  Like most assumptions, it was wrong.  The thing roared as it crouched in a low stance, keeping its arms up as a shield and charged towards Sarah and her squad.  It tore through the makeshift barricade of old refrigerators and car engine blocks, sending debris and men flying.  Instead of firing the massive gun mounted or implanted in its arm, it threw its disproportionately long arms to the side.  Sarah felt a buildup of power, as tangible and shocking as being thrown in icy water.  The monster’s bio-mechanical eyes flashed, bathing the squad in a putrefying, green light.  They had all been briefed on the “Sepsitorizing” capabilities of the enemy, but this was the first time she had seen it used and for the first time this battle, Sarah felt fear.  Red warning glyphs flashed on her Heads Up Display as the sickly light hit her.  She said a quick prayer, praying that the NBC capabilities and built in fire walls held up.  The flashing red lights turned green indicating the attempted breach was stopped.

The urge to wretch was almost unbearable, but she fought it. Still feeling like herself, she shuddered, thanked the Gods and placed the targeting laser on the Avatar’s head and squeezed the trigger.  The recoil dampers and weight of the rifle itself kept the kick to a minimum, the rough equivalent to being punched in the shoulder.  The round pierced the eye of the monster with a shower of sparks and gore.  This made it even angrier.  It raised its clawed hand and the muzzle flash from its cybernetically implanted machine gun was almost blinding.  It raked the squad with its machine gun, spraying side to side in one long, impossibly long burst.  Sarah heard screams, but didn’t have time to check her HUD about the status of her other squad members.

Sarah went to one knee yelling “Reloading!” and dropped the empty magazine from her rifle.  Slapping a new one in place, she yelled “Up!” and leaned around the corner of her barricade.  She put three well placed shots, like a clover leaf, into the Avatar’s knee joint.  The knee buckled, forcing the Avatar down, but still fighting.

Sgt. David was behind the Avatar, it having ignored him and running past him in its rush to come to grips with the rest of the squad.  David raised his 36mm rifle mounted grenade launcher to his shoulder and with a THUMP, sent a low velocity round flying, striking the thing between its shoulders.  This didn’t cause any visible damage but did distract it, giving the squad’s machine gunner enough time to raise his weapon and begin dumping an entire drum magazine into the monstrosity.  Most of the rounds bounced harmlessly off, but some found their way, past and between the thick armor plates, penetrating and sending gouts of viscous fluid pouring out of the wounds. The Avatar attempted to stand up, but another Kamau fired a grenade that detonated in its face, sending bits of carapace and milky fluid flying.  Very slowly the enemy slouched and became lifeless, the green glow of its remaining eye fading. Sarah thought she could see the energy flow out of the thing, like strands of smoke, though later she would debate with herself if she saw or felt it.  Sgt. David and two other squad members ran up to the thing and began pumping combi rifle rounds into its body and head to make sure it was dead.

“Squad, report in,” Sgt.David said over the squad channel.

“Alpha two, Green, Red, Green,” Sarah chimed in, reporting her health, ammunition and equipment status.

As the squad reported in, the painful truth of five casualties out of the twelve member squad fell on Sarah.  The Squad’s medic had already began to evaluate and stabilize the casualties, working feverishly fast.  Sarah opened her comms to battalion to begin her nine-line cas-evac radio protocol.

“Battalion, this is Alpha Company, second squa…,” she began.

Before Sarah could start the cas-evac, she heard a gunshot.  She looked to her left as PFC Lao fell to the ground, a fist sized hole in the side of his helmet.  Standing beside the falling Kamau, was Corporal Tung, holding a smoking pistol.  Sgt. Davis and another squad member rushed to tackle Tung as he began to swing the pistol towards Sarah.  They piled onto Tung as he pulled the trigger, sending the shot wild and missing her.  The two men pinned Tung’s arms down as a third member rushed over and began taking off Tung’s helmet.  With a hiss of escaping air, the helmet tore free.

The medic, a female private named Atwood ran over and flashed a sensor in Tung’s bulging eyes.  She observed for a few seconds, then looked up at Sarah, shaking her head.

“Compromised,” she said, in a thick Australian accent, which was so rare these days.

“Fuck,” Sarah said as she drew her pistol from her thigh holster.

The X-visor flashed warning signs as the targeting system fell on Tung’s forehead, his IFF telling her visor he was a friendly.

Sarah eased the trigger back, felt the trigger reset click, then eased it back some more.  The Slide of the pistol flew back, with a muzzle flash the size of a tennis ball seeming to kick the gun back.  The round impacted above Tung’s right eye, ending his enlistment.

“Battalion, battalion, this is Alpha company, second squad.  Prepare to copy Nine-line medvac…”, Sarah began again.

Chapter 2

Varuna: Camp Irwin, three months later

Sarah hefted her trusty M-91A5 sniper rifle to the firing line.  She kneeled down and placed the rifle on the sand bags and lay down beside it.  If there is one thing Sarah loved, it was shooting.  She loved the skill and talent it took to be proficient.  Even with all of the new gadgets; the visors and holographic, parallax free optics and ballistic computers, it still took skill.  You don’t get as good as Sarah is, without enjoying what you do.

She used her gloved hand to wipe away some dust that had settled on her rifle.  She had a bond with her chosen weapon.  She didn’t give it a name like some of her teammates did, it was still just a mindless tool, but she did connect to it on an emotional level.  This is why only she could touch it, gods help the person who actually tried to fire her rifle.

Today’s exercise was long range marksmanship without the aid of technology.  Good’ol iron sights, non-digital scope and a notebook.  The range went out to three kilometers, but they were not expected to shoot that far, especially without the X-visors.  Sarah stayed within the 1K range band to zero in and record her “dope”.  The firing line was covered in a dark green grass that swayed in the wind. This helped her judge the windage. Rumor was that the grass was imported from Ireland, back on Earth. That would explain why it was so beautiful.

At noon, the four designated marksmen of her platoon were released for lunch.  Sarah took her rifle to the covered prep area, a couple of tables and benches with a tin roof, and began to put the rifle in its protective case.  Outside of the firing line, everything was gravel. The military was too cheap to pave the area, so they lay gravel everywhere. This helped keep the mud at bay when it rained, which was almost every day. Except today. It was sunny and gorgeous. The scent of the ocean wafted everywhere and she loved it.

It was then that she noticed she was being watched.  Sarah looked up and noticed a tall, slender blonde woman across the parking lot observing her.  The stranger’s long, straight hair, parted down the middle was gently flowing in the slight breeze.  She was dressed in civilian clothes, black, baggy cargo pants and a form fitting black, long sleeved shirt.  Her arms hung loosely at her sides and an ID badge was hanging between her breasts.  She wore mirrored sun glasses but Sarah could tell the stranger was looking directly at her. They looked at each other, neither one moving for what seemed like forever. Whoever the woman was, she was beautiful. Sarah didn’t want to look away.

Sarah shook her head and tried to ignore her while she finished putting her rifle and magazines away.  When she looked up again, the mysterious figure was gone.  She didn’t give it a second thought and decided on Spanish food for lunch, she knew a good place.

After locking up her rifle, she mounted her brand new Madras Motors Ashigaru motorcycle and rode to the restaurant.  Sarah took the back road, the one that gave the best view of the ocean. Palm trees imported from Earth lined the narrow streets. She pulled into the crushed sea shell parking lot of La Matador and parked the bike.  There were no other vehicles in the lot.

Slow day, she thought as she walked inside.  She was seated in a corner booth, where she could see the entrance, exit and most of the other seats, at her request.  The décor was stereo typical, old Earth Spain but she didn’t come here for the visual. She loved the food.

Despite her squad being very close, Sarah almost always ate alone.  She was friendly and a good team member during business hours, but after hours everybody avoided her. Eating alone was not by choice.  This change seemed to happen when they got back from their last deployment to Paradiso.  Everyone looked at her differently after she put Tung out of his misery.  She was cleared by a board of inquiry, and what she did has even become SOP in dealing with those who become sepsetorized. But she was convicted in the court of her peers. It was the right call, but that didn’t stop her squad from looking at her differently.

She ordered some shrimp paella and munched on some bread and olive oil.  As she sipped her tea, she saw a figure that she hadn’t noticed before, stand up from one of the other booths and walk towards her.  Without a word, the same stranger, that beautiful blonde woman she saw at the firing range sat down across from her.  Her lithe form, moving like a predatory cat, graceful but deliberate.  Her long hair was now pulled into a bun, held in place by chopsticks.

“Hello Sarah,” the stranger said.

Sarah instinctually put her hand on the grip of her sidearm.  It was PanOceana military policy that all personnel, while in or out of uniform, were required to carry their issue pistol and knife.  Sarah would have followed this even if it wasn’t policy.  Being anti-terrorist experts meant you were always a target.  While still in the thigh-holster, Sarah quietly thumbed the safety from ‘safe’ to ‘fire’.

The stranger gave a knowing smile and placed both hands on the table.

“What do you want?” Sarah said, keeping her hand on her gun.

“I just want to try some Spanish food and talk with you.  Can you believe I’ve never tried Spanish food?” said the stranger.  Her voice was very pleasant, almost seductive with a slight accent Sarah couldn’t place.  Sarah also couldn’t help noticing that she was very beautiful.  Sarah could feel her temperature rise a little.

“Do you mind?” The stranger asked, indicating the satchel she was wearing.

Without waiting for permission, very slowly, she pulled a military issue data pad out and placed it on the table between them.  She placed her hand on the screen, and let it analyze her hand print to gain access.  A holographic image of a hexahedron floated in the air for a few seconds while the tablet booted up.

“Oh shit,” Sarah said, instantly taking her hand off her weapon.  The Hexa Operative just smiled again.  Sarah’s warm blood just went ice cold.

Chapter 3

Varuna: El Matador restaurant

“You look a little pale,” said the Operative.

“What can I do for you ma’am?” said Sarah, after taking a sip of tea.

“Ma’am? I have no rank.  Do I look old?  How old do you think I am?” she said straight faced.

“I meant no disresp…”

“Please, just call me Aurora,” she said, interrupting and laughing.  Sarah didn’t know Hexa operatives could laugh.  Then again she had never met one before.  Her laugh was musical and pleasant.

“So what can I do for you…Aurora?”

“Many things.  Let’s take a look,” she said, swiping her hand over the data pad lying on the table.

Aurora started flipping through every document pertaining to Sarah’s life; her time in the orphanage, school records, tax returns, even the misdemeanor charge she received on leave for being drunk in public which was supposed to have been expunged.  Finally Aurora found her military records.

“Ah, here we go.  You recently returned from a tour on Paradiso, where you received a Neoterra Commendation medal and a Bronze Cross with Valor for helping to take down a big space monster.  Way to go.  You’ll have to tell me that story over drinks sometime.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Your superiors, couldn’t decide to commend or condemn you for your quick action in executing your sepsitorized team member.  Thankfully someone had common sense. They didn’t send you in the corner without any dinner and made your execution Standard Operating Procedure,”

“I did what I had to do.  And I’d do it again,” Sarah said defiantly.

So this is why the Operative was here, Sarah thought.  She knew there had to be repercussions. She knew no good deed would go unpunished. She just didn’t expect a Hexa.

“Oh I know.  And that’s why I’m here.  Besides being the best shooter in your squad, which will come in handy, you have the intestinal fortitude and quick thinking to do what needs to be done,” said Aurora.

“I don’t understand.  Why are you here?”

“I’m putting a team together for a highly classified mission.  You are exactly the type of woman I need on my team,”

“What kind of mission?  What about my squad?” asked Sarah.

“You’ll find out all the details when you get to Neoterra.  Your commander has already received and approved the transfer orders. It’s almost like they wanted to get rid of you,”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.  Being a Hexa has its perks, like being able to requisition the best troops I can find, even though they are a little stiff and formal.  You need to loosen up a little.  This is going to be fun!” Aurora said with a wink of her big, blue eye.

Their food arrived, apparently Aurora had already ordered.  As they ate, the Operative asked her about her latest tour and the encounter with the Avatar.  The conversation was actually very easy going.  Even though Sarah was socially awkward, Aurora was surprisingly easy to talk to.

“Ok, that was good!  I’ve never had Spanish food before,” Aurora said.

“Yeah, I never had it until I came here.  It’s like a local specialty,”

“I’ll cover the bill if you give me a ride back to base.  Deal?” asked Aurora.

“Um, I rode a bike…”

“Great! Sounds fun,” she said as she paid both their bills and stood up.

They both walked outside to Sarah’s bike.

“Is that the new Madras Motors Ashigaru?” asked Aurora whistling.

“Yes it is,” said Sarah, beaming with pride as if someone had complimented her child.  Sarah tossed Aurora a helmet and mounted the large motorcycle.  The thing roared to life and sat there grumbling while Aurora climbed on behind Sarah.  She wrapped her surprisingly strong arms around Sarah’s waist and laid her head against her back. Sarah could feel Aurora’s muscles and breasts press against her and her legs tightening.

“Ready,” Aurora said and squeezed harder.

Sarah could get used to this.

Chapter 4

Neo Terra: Hexahedron

The flight to Neo Terra was uncomfortable but thankfully short.  Sarah was hoping for a chartered civilian flight, but had to make due with hitching a ride on a military cargo vessel that was heading that way.  She thought that after all the centuries of manned flight in the military, they could come up with more comfortable seats than nylon webbing.  Some things never change.

This was Sarah’s first time visiting the capital and had hoped for a leisurely trip, driving through the city and seeing some of the sights before arriving at the Hexahedron.  In this, she was also disappointed.  There was a large, unmarked van of almost ancient make and model waiting for her at the spaceport.  Sarah wasn’t told what should be on her packing list of equipment to bring, so she brought everything and it almost filled up the entire van.  She had her weapons and armor of course, but also; toiletries, bedding, extra uniforms, hacking device, sensor/sonar array, not to mention her civilian possessions.  She was told this would be an extended deployment, so she brought her clothes, books, video games and her bass guitar.  Unfortunately she had to leave her beloved motorcycle in storage on Varuna, though she debated putting it in a crate and saying it was part of her equipment.

The driver didn’t help her pile her things into the back of the van.  After she squeezed her belongings in, the only room was beside the driver, a surly looking middle aged man with a scruffy beard and several scars.  He was in a uniform, but no rank or insignia were visible. The moment she was in and buckled her seat belt, the driver put the antique van in gear and speed off at break-neck speed through the spaceport sally port.

“Could you slow it down a bit?” asked sarah, hanging on to the ‘oh shit’ handles.

“No.  You’re late,” he said, narrowly missing a parked bus.

The streets were crowded with vehicles of all shapes and sizes.  Every building gleamed in the strong Neoterran sun. Their polished surfaces reflecting the myriad of colors. The small part of the city she saw followed a mix between modern and art deco styling. Lots of chrome and neon, one reflecting the other. It was the most beautiful city she had ever seen. The people were also beautiful. They were all attractive and stylishly dressed.

Thankfully the Hexahedron was only a couple miles from the spaceport.  They pulled into the security gate with screeching breaks and the smell of burnt rubber.  The Hexahedron was massive. She had seen pictures and vids of it before, but it was so much more impressive in person.  It loomed over her like an obsidian monolith, black and imposing.

“Go through that gate. I’ll take care of your shit. They are waiting for you,” the driver said, snapping her out of her transfixion.

Sarah, decked out in her dress uniform, complete with new ribbons earned on her latest deployment, grabbed her briefcase and headed towards the security gate.  She approached the gate, and noticed the small, stealthy, automatic weapon turrets tracking her.  Two men in Fusilier body armor painted black stepped out.  Their weapons were not pointed at her but were definitely angled in her direction at the ‘low ready’.

“Badge,” said the larger of the two guards.

Sarah dutifully handed him her military ID, freshly updated with her new security clearance.  They scanned her badge, then searched her briefcase.  .  It only contained a couple of tablets and snacks.  She didn’t really need the briefcase, but she wanted to look official and make a good first impression. They inspected her pistol and knife and put them to the side.  Finally she went through the full body, 3D scanner.  She noticed the two guards giving each other approving looks as she went through.  What pigs.  She hoped they would have been a little more professional than that.

They handed her the briefcase, weapons and her ID and told her where to go.  Floor 11, room 42B.  The room was easy to find.  She stepped to the door, an innocuous looking one that would belong in any generic office building.  She steeled herself, put her ID card on the scanner and stepped through.

Inside, she saw a dozen men and women mingling around the room.  There were chairs placed in rows in the middle of the large conference room.  However most of the people were gathered around the various tables loaded with food, obviously catered.  Some were in dress uniform like her.  Others, like the three Bolts, were in full armor, helmets at their side and rather dirty.  There was even one person, an extraordinarily large Sikh in civilian clothes munching on some naan.  A couple people turned to look at her when she came in, then continued eating or talking.  Only one of them, a Bolt, approached her, smiling.  A Lieutenant, her hair in twin, blonde pigtails, with the name Babinski stenciled on her breastplate. She was tall and Sarah could tell she was well-muscled but still shapely even under all that armor. Her face was plain, until she smiled. Then it became beautiful.  Sarah began to salute, but was stopped by the Bolt.

“We were told no saluting while here.  I was told we are all to ignore each other’s ranks for now.  I’m Bella. Brygida Gomenski. But everyone calls me Bella” she said, sticking out her dirty, gauntleted hand.

I’m Corporal, I mean, I’m Patel.  Sarah Patel.  Pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking hands.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?  We were on a training op, when we received orders to come right here, straight from the field.  No delay, so here we are,” Bella asked, looking around confused.

“I have no idea either.  I was approached by an Operative a week ago on Varuna.  She told me I had my marching orders and to be here.  Other than that, I know as much as you,” Sarah said, shrugging.

“Maybe we can figure it out.  Let’s look around the room and see what we have,” said Bella.

“I’m a Kamau,” Sarah said, pointing to her unit insignia.

“I’m fully qualified as a hacker and marksman.  I have anti-terrorism experience and recently fought against the Alien Menace,” Sarah continued as if in a briefing.

“Me and my team, we’ve seen it all.  We’ve fought Ariadna, Nomads, the Chinese, you name it, we’ve fought it,” Bella said, indicated her other two squad mates, two very large Polynesians, possibly Tongan or Samoan, destroying some pulled pork.  Bella was very tall and muscular, but was dwarfed by the other two.

“What about the large gentleman over there?” asked Sarah, pointing to the naan-eating Sikh.

“Oh, I don’t know his name yet, but he’s an Akal Commando.  Looks capable,”

“And the quiet guy in the ruffled dress uniform?” Sarah pointed to a Filipino man seated by himself, looking bored.

“Ah, He’s a Nisse.  Just got here this morning.  His unit is deployed to Paradiso, but he was pulled to come here.  He arrived an hour before you.  He’s a marksman too, like you.  He also has lots of experience under his belt,”

“And what about those two?” she said, indicating another Indian woman with chin length, shiny, black hair.  She probably could resign and join a modeling agency except for the large burn scar that ran over her left eye, which was cybernetic but not obviously so.  The man she was talking to was approaching middle age, but was as hard and fit looking as a Drill Sergeant.

“They are with the Orc Battalions.  They are both highly decorated.  No specializations, just combat and training experience…but lots of it.

There were a few fusiliers, engineers and paramedics scattered around, but before Sarah could ask about them, the door opened and Aurora stepped in.  She was dressed in the same cargo pants and tight, black, long sleeved shirt that Sarah had seen before.  Her hair was pulled into a pony tail, which hung over her shoulder. She walked over and placed a holo projector on the table.

“Good afternoon everybody.  You can call me Aurora, I’ll be in charge of this operation.  I’ve asked each of you here today for one reason.  You are all the best at what you do.  We won’t bother with introductions, I’m sure you’ll all get to know each other.  Now, let’s get down to it.  I’m sure you are all wondering why you are here.  Here it is.  Someone get the lights,” she said as she turned the projector on.  A large fuzzy orb manifested over the projector and as the lights turned off, Sarah could see it was a globe, showing the topography of the planet Svalhareima.

Everybody groaned except the Nisse, who yelled “YES!” and couldn’t stop smiling.

Chapter 5

Neo Terra: San Pietro di Neoterra

Sarah had a lot of time to think about the briefing while walking to her new apartment.  The Hexahedron didn’t have barracks, so in order to stay low profile, each member of this new team would be put up in apartments scattered around the city.  Thankfully, her new flat was only a ten minute walk away.  Others weren’t so lucky.  One of the Bolts, a Samoan she found out, had a forty minute subway ride.  From now on, it was civilian clothes only unless geared up for training or an op.

This mission was huge.  Huge, in that it will be multiple deployments over different planets and a long period of time.  Also huge in the scope of what it was about.

“Because you are all in this building, it should go without saying that anything said here is not to be repeated. There is Top Secret, then there is ‘I will personally put a bullet through your eye if you even think about it’,” Aurora had told the group before the briefing.  She wasn’t joking.

Sarah was so wrapped up thinking about her new mission that she didn’t even look at the city she had waited her whole life to visit.  The sounds of the turbo-prop buses or the smells of the food vendors passed her by as she walked by.  It took a lot to keep her mind off taco trucks.

“The endgame objective of the mission: retrieve data stolen by Yu Jing.  Due to the success of the ‘Maiden of Orleans’ project, Neo Terra had funded another project; Rani Lakshmibal.  Joan has had overwhelming success leading our Military Order brethren, so Lakshmibal was developed to lead our more secular military.  Files about the historical Rani Lakshmibal have been transferred to your tablets.

However, the success of Joan has not gone unnoticed by our neighbor, Yu Jing.  They have been developing their own version, Hua Mulan…but without success.  Mostly because their historians and scientists can’t decide if she even existed.  So in true Yu Jing style, instead of working through their development problems, they just kidnapped our scientists and stole the data on Rani.  Our mission ladies and gentlemen, is to get it back,” Aurora said.

This was the kind of mission Sarah dreamed about.  A unit of the best Pan Oceana had to offer and a historical, clandestine mission with a black budget.  Whatever they needed, they would get.  If Sarah was less composed and perhaps more girly, she would be skipping down the streets.  As it was, she walked briskly, head held high.

Sarah almost passed the apartment complex she had been assigned.  Room 219, she was told and when she found it, put her hand on the scanner and it opened.  The lights turned on automatically when she entered.  It was small for a studio apartment, but might as well have been a palace compared to the barracks she had been living in on Varuna…or the bay in the orphanage she grew up in. But she didn’t want to think about that.

As promised, all of her ‘shit’ had been taken care of and was piled haphazardly in the middle of the floor, except her weapons, armor and issued equipment.  After checking the refrigerator to make sure it was empty, it was, she started to unpack when she received a call.  She brought up the call on her retinal HUD.  The number was unknown, but she answered it anyway in case it was Aurora or someone else from the Hexahedron.  The mission was in a holding pattern until intel about the whereabouts of the missing scientists was located.

“Hello?” Sarah said, answering the call.  The face of Bella appeared to hover in front of her.  The other two Bolts were behind her.

“Oh hey!  Glad it was the right number.  Me and a few others in the group…unit?…squad?…I don’t know, but we are getting together to have some fun.  Wanna come?” she said smiling.

“Oh, I don’t know…” Sarah began, thinking about unpacking, studying the dossiers of her fellow team mates and the topography of possible locations of Svalarheima.

“Don’t give me that!” the Bolt Lieutenant said playfully.

“Don’t make me pull rank and order you,” she added with a wink.

“We are not supposed to use our ranks here,” Sarah added dutifully.

“Oh my god…it was just a joke.  I’m sending you the address, be here in an hour.  I need to go take a well-earned shower and get into some real clothes first.  I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Bella hung up before Sarah could respond.

The address appeared on a pop-up on her peripheral vision.

“A Karaoke bar?!” Sara said in disbelief.

About twenty minutes later, Sarah walked out of her new apartment wearing a T-shirt of her favorite band, Nimrod, and a pair of old jeans.  Of course her pistol and knife completed the ensemble. Both of which were concealed. The Times Square Plus wetware (a civilian model cybernetic enhancement upgraded for military applications) implants superimposed a bright red line on the pavement, showing her where to go to get to the Karaoke bar.

She followed the friendly, cartoony bobbing line through the streets.  She decided she didn’t like the aesthetics of a plain line, changed the settings and now a white rabbit in a waistcoat was dodging through the legs of the fellow pedestrians, beckoning for Sarah to follow it.

Much better.

The illusionary white rabbit led her straight to the bar, then disappeared.  Bella was already waiting for her outside.

“The Golden Manatee? What the hell kind of place is this?” Sarah asked.

“C’mon! Everybody else is already inside,” Bella said, ignoring the question.  Her hair was still in pigtails, but she wasn’t in filthy armor.  She wore tight, button down shirt and a short skirt with leggings.

She cleans up nicely, Sarah thought to herself and couldn’t help but notice how cute she looked…and smelled.

The Golden Manatee was a large place, with a full bar and private rooms for karaoke. It was clean but well worn. It looked like it had gone through several stylistic changes through the years. Part of the bar was in an American country/western theme, complete with mechanical bull. Another part was Japanese. But somehow it all seemed to work.

They found their way to the private room where the Nisse, named Mosiah, the large Sikh, Adesh, the female Orc trooper, Aanandi and their combat medic, aka ‘Trauma Doc’, a caucasion woman named Crystal, also very pretty with bobbed red hair, were all seated and looking through the books, picking out songs.  Sarah had copied all of their names to memory, so when she looks at them, their names appear in her vision.

Sarah took a seat next to Bella and began thumbing through the music catalogues.  She found the ‘Classical,Western’ book and began thumbing through it.  She found a couple of her favorite songs and programmed them in.

A waitress walked in and began taking drink orders.  Everybody ordered beer, except Aanandi, who ordered an Acontecimento-jito and Mosiah who ordered a Coke.

“A Coke? We are celebrating!  Drink up!” said Bella.

“I don’t drink,” he said non-pulsed.

“Why?” Sarah asked.

“I’m Mormon,”

This was met with a chorus of ‘aaaah’s of understanding.  Mystery solved, everyone went back to finding songs, except Sarah.

“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with Mormons.  So you can’t drink, but you can fight and kill people?”

“Heck yes. We rock at violence,” he said with a huge grin.

“Fair enough,” Sarah said.

The drinks arrived and after everyone but Mosiah took some liquid courage, they went in random order.  Bella was first.

Bella sang a song by the biggest teen idol in the Human Sphere, Garuda.  The song was vapid and pointless, but she sang it with such zeal, and copied the choreographed dance moves from the video of Garuda that played in the background perfectly, that everybody had to stand and cheer when she finished.  She bowed and sat back down.

Next up was Mosiah.  He picked a new-age Disco song but danced along with ancient, twentieth century Disco dance moves.  His voice was horrible and he sung very loudly but his happiness and exuberance were contagious.  When the song was over, he was booed off stage, but good naturedly and with many claps on the back by Adesh.

Adesh was next.  The song he chose first was the number one Bollywood song on the charts, which he actually sang and danced to very well.

Aanandi got up and stood before the microphone like a statue.  Once the music started, she remained motionless but sang the most beautiful rendition of Music of the Night from the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ that she had ever heard.

So on top of having a side career as a model, she could also be a professional singer, Sarah thought to herself.

Sarah’s name and song came on the screen next.

“Here goes nothing,” she muttered.

Soft Piano notes started playing and the prompted words came to life on screen.

“Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum,” Sarah started singing softly and smoothly to the words of the Best is Yet to Come by Frank Sinatra.  This was a song she knew very well and sang it perfectly.  As the song picked up, so did she and was soon singing loud and strong.  Her team mates were cheering and clapping, motivating her.  When she was done, she got a high-five from Mosiah (Sarah didn’t even know that was still a thing,) and a hug from Bella.

“That was wonderful!  I’ve never heard that song before,” Bella gushed.

That definitely went better than Sarah expected.  She wasn’t sure if they would like such old music.  But she was always told that she had an ‘old soul’.

The red-headed trauma doc, sang a super sappy love song that brought a tear to Adesh’s eye, though he tried his best to hide it.

Everyone sang two or three more songs, most of which were top 40, except for Aanandi who sang another show tune and Sarah who sang Comfotably Numb by Pink Floyd, another classic.  Sarah lost count of what and how many drinks she had and was feeling tipsy.

“I don’t want this night to end!  I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.  Let’s sing our hearts out!” Sarah said, standing on the table, drink in hand.  It was getting close to midnight and they had to report in by 0600.

“Sorry love, tomorrow comes really early and we have hand to hand training all day.  Best we call it quits.  I need some proper sleep if I want to fight Adesh,” Said Crystal, in her heavy Northern English accent.

“Yeah, let’s call it quits for tonight.  But we have to do this again!  Maybe next time I’ll sing some Sinatra,” said Bella.

“Awwwww,” said Sarah, exaggerating a pout.

“It was nice to see you let your hair down…literally and figuratively,” said Mosiah.

“What are you talking about? I’m always fun,” said Sarah, straight faced.

They all said their good byes, paid their tabs and parted ways.  Sarah’s apartment was in the opposite direction of everyone else, so she walked back by herself but very happy that she had a good time and made friends.  That never came easy to her.  Especially in the orphanage…but she didn’t want to think about that.  Why spoil the mood?

She found her apartment without the White Rabbit program. Sarah fumbled for her key card, as she did, she could help get the feeling that she was being watched.  She looked all around but didn’t see a soul.  She chalked it up to the booze and entered her flat, making sure to lock it behind her.  If she wasn’t as buzzed as she was, she might have seen the lone man, standing at the entrance to an alley keeping his one good eye trained on the Kamau.

Chapter 6

Neo Terra: Hexahedron

Sarah, along with everybody else, gathered in the gymnasium.  They all wore their workout clothes, most of them emblazoned with their unit insignia.  Sarah proudly wore her 2/111th “Hammerhead” shirt and sweat pants with ‘Kamau’ written vertically down the leg.

Sarah was really regretting those last couple of drinks.  While not a full onset hangover, it was enough to make her more than uncomfortable.  A full day of hand to hand combat won’t help.

Sarah looked around at the others from the night before to see if they were as miserable as she was.  Adesh was as stoic as ever.  She didn’t believe anything could faze him…except a beautiful rendition of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ apparently.  Crystal, the trauma doc, was practically green and a little wobbly on her feet. Aanandi, with her black Orc tank top also looked undisturbed, despite being the only one to drink liquor.  Sarah saw Bella, as bubbly as ever, bounding toward her.

“Hey Sarah! You ready for some hard core training?” she said.

“Ugh. I think I made a big mistake.  Maybe one drink too many,” she said.

“It won’t be that bad.  This is the fun stuff.  This is what my unit does for fun on our days off,” she said smiling.

“Yeah, we don’t do much of this.  If we are not at the range or kill houses, we are online, trying to track down our next target.  We figure if we have to pull out our knives, we’re already screwed,”

“Well, you never know when it will come in handy.  They don’t issue those knives to look pretty,”

“No they do not,” Aurora said, walking into the room wearing her full combat gear, including thermoptic cloak and helmet. Her form fitting body armor was very complementary to her lithe physic. The helmet making her voice sound artificial.

“Why is everyone dressed like they’re at dance rehearsal? Go and put your full kit on.  In the Hexahedron we train like we fight and we don’t fight in our jammies.  You have twenty minutes,” Aurora said, setting the time on the display mounted in her vambrace.

Everybody scrambled to their lockers. They call them lockers, but they are really large walk-in closets with all of their gear stowed on racks and shadow boards.

Sarah had no problem getting into her armor in time.  After snapping her helmet into place and feeling her suit pressurize, she began to run back to the gym, when she noticed Aanandi was having trouble putting on her powered armor.  Sarah immediately began to help her, snapping buckles and fastening power feeds.
“Thanks.  We usually have machinists to help us put this crap on before an operation,” Aanandi said.

“No problem.  We are on the same team here,” Sarah said seriously.

With one minute to spare, they all made it back to the gym, where the Operative was waiting for them, looking at her time piece.

“What took you two so long?” Aurora asked Sarah and Aanandi.

“I was helping her get her armor on,” Sarah said immediately.

Aurora took a few long strides and was in Sarah’s face in a heartbeat.

“Would you mind saying that again so the entire class can hear?” Aurora said.

“I said, I was helping Aanandi get her armor on,” Sarah said loudly.

Aurora then surprisingly put her hand gently on Sarah’s shoulder and whispered “good job,”

“And that is exactly what I want to see.  I know all of you are highly trained and the best in your fields.  That’s why I hand-picked each and every one of you. Today’s exercise, and all the ones following are not to train you, but to make you work as a team.  To work together.  Without this camaraderie, without this esprit de corps, we will not be able to complete these missions.  We need you to work together and train together to form a cohesive fighting force,”

Aurora began walking around the room and inspecting everyone’s armor.

“All training will be done in our armor from now on.  We fight like we train.  Now this will give some of you a distinct advantage in certain circumstances while training here. Well guess what? In real life, your equipment will give you an advantage, so get used to it.  For you poor fusiliers, engineers and docs…try not to get punched in the face by an ORC,”

After the pep talk, the team was divided and paired off randomly.  Sarah’s luck had betrayed her and paired her off with the hulking Akal Commando, Adesh.  Even with the added bulk of his jump pack, Adesh moved fluidly and gracefully.  He stretched his neck, rolled his shoulders and got into his fighting stance; legs bent and both arms in front with palms facing out.

Sarah took up a textbook boxing stance.  She cast a quick glance around the room and saw the poor medic, Crystal, was facing off against the the male ORC trooper, Gbate.  Poor girl, Sarah thought.

“Fight!” Aurora yelled.

Without any hesitation, Adesh rushed her.  Sarah tried to palm strike Adesh in the face, but the Sikh stepped into her strike and brought a knee to Sarah’s stomach.  The strike lifted her off the ground and knocked the wind out of her.  This wouldn’t have been so bad except Adesh also brought an elbow down on her kneck.

When Sarah came to, Adesh was there offering a hand to help her up.  A little wobbley, Sarah took the offered hand and stood back up.

“Again,” Sarah said.

Without a word the Akal came towards Sarah again.  This time Sarah played a little more defensively, and managed to slam the Akal on his back.  Sarah figured he’d be at a disadvantage in a ground fight with that heavy jump pack.

She was wrong.

Adesh was apparently even more adept at ground fighting and within seconds, was on her back putting her into a ‘rear naked choke hold’.  Before Sarah passed out, she tapped his leg, indicating the fight was over.

Again, Adesh helped Sarah to her feet.  By this time Aurora told everyone to switch partners.  Sarah noticed that Aurora was also participating, squaring off against Mosiah.  Sarah’s next opponent was Bella.

“Now this is fun!” Bella said with her usual cheerfulness and enthusiasm.  She dropped into a boxer’s stance.

“I don’t think the bruised rib and sore neck are going to be much fun tomorrow,” Sarah said.

“Maybe I’ll drop by tonight. Maybe some karaoke will make you feel better,” Bella said in a low voice.

Aurora yelled “Fight!” and Bella attacked her.

Bella, like Adash, was far more competent at hand to hand than Sarah was and had her on the ground with Bella’s knee on her spinal cord.

Bella and Sarah fought a couple more times, with Sarah finally finishing with a hard earned tie against the Bolt.

“Great job! See, you’re already improving,” Bella said.

“Yeah, maybe in a couple months of this, I’ll be able to beat you,” Sarah said trying to ease her already aching muscles.

Aurora stood in front of Sarah next.

“How are you holding up?” Aurora asked.

“So far so good, but ask me again after I fight one of those Orcs,”

“Fight!” Aurora yelled.  However after yelling, she stood there, relaxed with her arms at her side.

Figuring this was a trap, Sarah crouched in a boxer’s stance and came slowly towards the Operative.  Sarah’s first swing was easily blocked, as was her second.  Sarah almost didn’t see Aurora’s punch and ducked in time for Aurora’s uppercut to catch her on her face plate.

Sarah landed on her back and Aurora was instantly on top of her.  Sarah wrapped her legs around Aurora’s waist to prevent her from gaining a dominant mount but Sarah broke the hold using her elbows and mounted her.  Sarah grabbed Aurora’s arm and using the leverage from her legs tried to flip her over.  Aurora saw that coming and before Sarah knew what happened, Aurora had her in an ‘Americana’ which caused excruciating pain and forced her to tap the ground before her arm broke.

After Sarah tapped out, they both didn’t move, with Aurora on top of her breathing hard.

Sarah didn’t know what to think or do, but was in no hurry for whatever this was to end.  So they both sat there.  Sarah wished she could see Aurora’s face, to figure out what she was thinking.

After a while, Aurora got up and offered her hand to Sarah.  Sarah took it and stood up.  Aurora put her helmet close to hers as if about to say something.  She could hear Aurora breathing through her helmet. Then she turned around and started to walk away.

“Take fifteen,” she told the group.

Sarah watched Aurora leave the gym, admiring the way she walked.

“Was this going somewhere?” Sarah thought to herself and had to admit she liked the idea.

Chapter 7

Neo Terra: Hexahedron

Sarah held her M-1A1 combi rifle at the low ready, muzzle down.  She was stacked behind Ammon, one of the big Tongan Bolts.  Ammon was on point, with Sarah behind him.  Mosiah was next in line with Aanandi taking up the rear.

Ammon checked the door for traps.  Not finding any, he placed small charges on the door and leaned back.  He held up three fingers and without a word, started dropping his fingers, counting down one by one.  When the third finger dropped, he toggled the detonator icon on his HUD.  A series of small explosions tore the door loose from its hinges.  Before the door hit the ground, the four person team was already rushing through the door.

The whole point was to spend as little time as possible in the doorway.  Standing in a doorway is a good way to get shot in the face, so the team all rushed through the ‘fatal funnel’ right behind one another.

The moment they entered the room, gunfire erupted.  Ammon cut to the right and opened fire with his under barrel shotgun.  Sarah cut to the left of the door frame and ripped a burst from her old M-1A1.  She liked the older A1, with its rotating barrels better than the newer single barrel A2 model.  The A1 had a much faster cyclic rate of fire, but the A2 was more reliable.

Sarah found a target, a male in red armor, wearing goggles, raising a rifle to his shoulder.  The red armored enemy was about to send some rounds into Aanandi as she came through the door, but Sarah already had a bead on him and stroked the trigger twice, sending approximately a dozen 6mm rounds into his center mass.

Sarah could see the shock and pain on the man’s face as the rounds struck him, dropping him to the floor instantly.  However, that didn’t stop his buddy from shooting Mosiah.  Three rounds struck him in the chest and arms as he cut to the right after clearing the doorway.

“I’m hit!” he called as he looked down at the impacts on his chest plate.  He swiped a finger on the neon green paint dripping down his chest.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Aurora called over the radio.

Sarah lowered her rifle and the fusilier in red ‘bad guy’ armor got up off the ground from where Sarah shot him.

“Dammit that hurt!” said the fusilier.  Sarah still hadn’t learned his name.  The fusiliers rotated in and out. It was almost never the same ones twice.

“That’s the point.  We can run simulations all day, but you don’t learn unless there’s a little pain to bring the lesson home,” Said Aurora from the cat walk hanging over the heads of the kill house.

The Hexahedron had its own kill house that can be manipulated and changed by a push of the button.  Completely automated and customizable.  Sarah had never seen a live-fire training facility like this before.  There was a cat walk that crisscrossed over the top of the roofless building, which Aurora used to observe the team as they trained.

“Excellent job everyone.  The correct amount of explosives was used for once.  You each covered your own sectors of fire.  Very quick reaction Sarah.  You are as handy with a combi as you are with the sniper rifle.  The only mistake was with Mosiah.  Mosiah, what did you do wrong?”

“I wasn’t through the door quick enough?” he said sheepishly

“No, your times were actually pretty good.  You went through the door quickly, stayed on your team mate’s ass and covered your designated sector of fire.  But you committed one fatal mistake,”

“What?”

“You gave up.  After you were shot, you stopped.  Never quit.  Even if you know you’ve been shot, keep fighting.  Many gun fights have been lost, that could have easily been won, because the person that was shot gave up.  Even if the shot is fatal, your body takes time to react to it.  Those precious moments of life, could mean the death of the enemy or saving a buddy’s life,” Aurora said.

“Again!”

That night everyone was exhausted.

“Anyone want to go to the Golden Manatee?” Bella asked.  In the two weeks the team had been together, the Golden Manatee had become their favorite drinking establishment.  The home brewed beer was good and plentiful and they had the best fried, curried octopus balls.

Everyone groaned, rubbed their sore muscles and politely declined.  Except Sarah.

“I’m up for it. I want to finally try their ‘TO camo cider’.  I heard it was good,” Sarah said.

“That’s the spirit!  Just me and you.  Let’s shower, and then I’ll meet you by the exit.

Sarah noticed a couple of the others winking at Bella. She wondered what that was about.

Sarah took a quick shower, dressed in her typical rock band T-shirt and jeans. As an afterthought, she added a small, red Bindi in the middle of her forehead. She always liked the way they look and she loved mixing new and traditional. She then headed for the exit.

Bella came a few minutes later dressed in a very flattering skirt and blouse.  Sarah noticed that she was wearing lipstick, eye liner and perfume.

She’s never done that before, Sarah thought to herself.

“Two hot chicks out on the city!  Let’s go!” Bella said excitedly.

The two walked side by side.  They had both been to the bar enough times to not need the GPS programs anymore.

“I do love the city.  The sights, the sounds, even the smells,” Bella said.

The large holographic advertisements cast a warm glow on the pedestrian crowds that shambled underneath them.  It had just rained so the sidewalk itself reflected the same glow, giving the crowds the appearance of schools of neon colored fish.

“You live here.  Doesn’t it ever get old?” Sarah asked.

“Never.  I’ve been to almost every planet in the Sphere and Neoterra is by far the best.  Nothing compares.  It never gets old,” She said.

“Yeah, I can see why.  Varuna has its charms, but I want this.  I want to be surrounded by people.  I want a city that doesn’t close down at night,” Sarah said.

“You belong here.  It’s the perfect fit for you.  Maybe after this tour, you can transfer here.  I have so many places I’d like to take you,” Bella said shyly.

“Like where?”

Before Bella could respond, a blinking red light appeared in her peripheral vision.  She toggled it with her eye and saw that it was a message from Aurora.  She opened it up.

“Report to the Hexahedron immediately.  No delay.  Urgent”

By Bella’s expression, Sarah could see that she received the message also.  Though, she looked a lot more dismayed than Sarah and even uttered a few choice curses under her breath.

Being only a few blocks away, they both ran back to the Hexahedron.  They had to go through the entire embarrassing security procedure to get back in, even though they just came through.

Everyone arrived back at the meeting room within five minutes of each other.  Apparently no one got very far.

Sarah noticed that when Aanandi came in the room, she gave Bella a sad, knowing look.

“Did someone not clean the coffee maker again?  I don’t even drink coffee and I had to clean it last time,” Mosiah said.

“No, I think this is serious,” Adesh said.

“I bet it’s all night training!  Round the clock operations,” Crystal said excited.  Crystal loved training, no matter what it was..

Before any other wild guesses could be made, Aurora walked in.

“It’s time.  My informants finally came through and we have intel on our first op.  Everyone grab your gear and meet me down by Hanger Alpha 2 as fast as you can.  I’ll brief you in transit,” she said and walked out the room.

The two Tongan Bolts high fived each other.  Mosiah yelled “YES!”. Aanandi and Adesh didn’t give any reaction whatsoever except to leave the room, heading for their gear lockers.  Sarah followed their examples and went to her storage room.  She put everything she thought she might need on a wheeled cart, grabbed her bug out bag and headed toward the hangers.

She arrived at Hanger Alpha 2 before anyone else.  She pressed her palm against the scanner and the door opened.  Inside was a vast hanger containing many different types of craft. The craft that was berthed at Alpha 2 was a large turbo prop cargo/passenger VTOL.  It was twice the size of a city bus with four huge turbo props at each corner.  The rear door was lowered to form a ramp.  The crew chief, dressed in black fatigues approached her and began packing her equipment in cargo containers.

“I didn’t expect to get the intel this early,” Aurora said.

Sarah jumped, she didn’t hear Aurora approach.  She was always quiet.

“I’m ready for anything, Aurora,” Said Sarah dutifully.

“I know you are and I’m glad you can come with me on this.  I need you,” Aurora said.

One by one, the other members of the team filtered into the hanger, gear in tow.  Other crew members grabbed their gear and began stowing it into the bird.

“Everyone, please file in and take your seats.  This bird will take us to the star port. A ship is waiting to take us off world,” Aurora announced.

Sarah sat in the closest seat and strapped herself in.  One of the massive Bolts sat on each side of her, stealing her arm rests and crowding her.

“This flight is going to suck,” Sarah said, hoping the big Samoans heard her.

Then they started passing a bag of smelly pork rinds back and forth.

Chapter 8

Svalarheima

Sarah made sure to get a different seat on the transport ship docked to the Circular for the fight to Svalarheima.

Working for the premier intelligence agency for the Hyperpower has its perks.  This was no mere box-like troop transport, this was a powerful, sleek new design with stealth enhancements.  From where they were told they were going, they were going to need it.  Also, the seats were a lot more comfortable than nylon webbing.  Not quite first class, but only because first class doesn’t have a weapons rack.

Sarah wanted a seat besides Bella, but she was already in the seat between her two team mates.  She was starting to really like Bella.  She was always positive and friendly (except when fighting or shooting) and was very pretty.  She wanted to get to know her better and thought that a long flight would be the perfect opportunity.

In the end, she found a seat next to Gbate, the other ORC trooper.  He just grunted and continued reading his paperback book.

After getting comfortable, the ship rose from the flight pad and with a heart attack inducing lurch, it sped off towards the upper atmosphere.

A few minutes later a floating exclamation mark appeared on her Times Square Plus wetware.  She toggled it, and saw that it was going to be Aurora’s briefing.  The names of each person appeared as they individually logged onto the group briefing.

“The first phase of our operation is beginning.  As you all know, we are heading to Svalarheima to combat the Yu Jing troops garrisoned there.  Our objective: to rescue Dr. Draut,” a picture of an attractive, middle aged French woman appeared in Sarah’s vision.

“We know she is being held in this building,” she said as a 3D holographic image of a small town appeared in her vision.  One of the buildings glowed a different neon color.  It was a large and appeared well fortified.

“I have assets on the ground giving us up to date intel.  The good doctor might be moved to a more secure installation any time now.  We’ll be in contact with them once we enter the system,”

Aurora began to explain the specifics of each of their responsibilities.  Aurora’s and Mosiah’s job was to provide supporting fire to the team as they extricate the doctor.  A Fusilier with an M-45A1 HMG will be providing covering fire for each sniper.  The sniper/HMG teams will be stationed on two different buildings, both abandoned, with a clear line of sight to the target building.

The three Bolts and two Orcs will be in two different buildings close to the target to act as a Quick Reaction Force, to fend off any troops sent to recover the stolen asset.  The two buildings will both be facing the entrance to the compound and each other.  This will allow them to cover each other and severely punish any enemy forces exiting the building in a murderous crossfire.

The Akal Commando will be in geosynchronous orbit to also act as a QRF.

The Trauma Doc and the rest of the Fusiliers will be in over watch, much like the snipers, but in a building closer to the target.

Aurora explained that no plan survives enemy contact, so prepare to improvise and be flexible.
“What about your assets on the ground?  Will they participate in the action?” Asked Mosiah, all business now.

“Yes, they will be with me,”

“What about infiltration and exfiltration?” Bella asked.

“We will not be flying to the ‘X’.  Our transport will land us in the hills west of the town. We will approach the town on foot during the night, staging and proceeding with the op as soon as we arrive.  Exfiltration will be by ground transports that my local assets will hopefully have acquired.  I’m not going to lie, it’s going to get messy.  Usually I’d have more information and time to plan this properly, but I don’t and time is of the essence.  That’s why I picked all of you.  You are the best at what you do and have reputations for thinking on your feet.  I trust all of you to get this done,”

Aurora continued the briefing explaining their ROE (rules of engagement) and METT-C (mission, equipment, troops, training and civilians).  The ROE was summed up by “If you see them, shoot them,” and METT-C was “mostly slave soldiers and some Celestial Guard. Try to avoid civilian casualties,”

They had a few days to go over what little intel and planning they had and to check and re-check their equipment.

Sarah hated the waiting.  She didn’t mind being in combat, but the waiting bugged her every time.  This is when doubts and fears would creep in.  She had days of second guessing herself and nights of anxiety fuelled dreams.  She’d much rather shoot and be shot at.

In order to avoid the pre combat jitters, she found space on the transport ship to work out.  When she became too sore to continue, she would clean and lubricate her weapons.  She didn’t trust the weapon lube the military issued her, so she bought her own, much better stuff; Slipstream. The best weapon lube in the Sphere.  She could only clean and lube her weapons so much so she finally settled down to watch movies, catch up on some net series and read a book.

Bella was given tactical command of the op while Aurora retained overall strategic command.  Because of this responsibility, Bella was too busy getting everything ready to spend time with Sarah, which was disappointing.

Thankfully the time passed quickly and they arrived in orbit of Svalarheima.  Everyone was to kit up and be prepared.  The ship docked with a small space station, just long enough to let Adesh out for his part of the op, and then was underway. The transport was going to fly directly to the infiltration point without stopping, relying on low level, nap of the Earth flying and the stealth features of the transport itself.

The red light came on and everyone strapped themselves into their seats, ready for atmospheric reentry. The thick, four-point crash harnesses fit comfortably around, even while wearing armor.  Sarah also always hated this part.  She knew it was just the feeling of not being in control of her fate, but knowing that didn’t help alleviate the dread she felt every time.

Aurora sat beside her and fastened the safety harness.  She also was in her full gear. Her beautiful face hidden by a bone colored helmet. Sarah noticed for the first time that the helmet even had small cracks and imperfections painted into it, making it look like real bone.  The rest of her kit was completely black.

“I always hate this part,” Aurora said.

Aurora then took Sarah’s hand and gripped it tightly.  Sarah squeezed Aurora’s hand in return, partly out fear and partly out of the joy of holding her hand.  This simple act seemed to take the anxiety away and Sarah had the most enjoyable atmospheric reentry ever.

The ship tore through the thick atmosphere like a comet.  All exterior and interior lights were extinguished and they rode the comet down in total darkness.

Thankfully it didn’t last long and the ship was soon flying smoothly, descending towards a mountain range.  The pilot took the ship into the middle of the mountains, the shortest of which dwarfed Mt. Everest on Earth.

“10 minutes,” the pilot’s voice said over the intercom.

Aurora unstrapped herself and walked up to the pilot’s compartment to use the communications relay.  Sarah also got up to take her weapon from the rack.  She checked that it was loaded with a round in the chamber, ready to go.  All fear and anxiety washed away, she was ready.  She was in the zone.

“Nothing like a nature walk through a blizzard in the mountains to start an op,” said Bella standing beside her, loading the under-barrel shotgun one round at a time.

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to the hike, but thankfully my armor is insulated,” Sarah said.

“I wish I had that big coat like Mosiah’s…though I don’t think it would be very flattering,” Bella said.

“Are you kidding?  Everything you wear is flattering.  If you can pull off heavy plate armor, you can pull anything off,”

Sarah couldn’t tell, but Bella was blushing.  Bella put her hand on Sarah’s shoulder.

“Let’s go shoot some mother fuckers in the face,” Bella said.

“Sounds like a plan,” Sarah said with a wink.  Then she realized she was wearing her helmet and the wink was lost.

“One minute!” said the intercom again.

They all held on to the hand holds as the ship touched down gently.  It was so smooth, that Sarah wasn’t quite sure they actually landed until the rear door opened and everyone began to pile out.  Local time was around midnight, and it was pitch black outside, except the snow which seemed to reflect what little light there was, casting everything in an eerie glow.

“Remember, no radio communications from here on out until the shooting starts.  Hand and arm signals or laser burst transmissions only,” Aurora reminded them.

With that, they all began the hours long trek through the snow and darkness to the little town that held their target.  Thankfully it was all downhill.  Unthankfully, a storm picked up and she could only find her way through GPS and thermal imaging.

Kamau were not trained for or used to treks through blizzards and Sarah was glad they never trained on this miserable planet.  She’ll stick to the warm sandy beaches and surfing thank you.

Her comms antennae picked up a communique from Bella via laser.

“Having fun yet?” Bella’s message said.

“I bet Mosiah is.  He probably lives for this shit,” Sarah messaged back.

Sarah was glad for the radio black out.  She was breathing pretty heavily, marching through snow was very tough going.  She hoped there was going to be some down time once they get in position before the shooting starts, at least enough to get her breath back.

It took over two hours to hike down the mountain and onto flat land, where thankfully the snow storm wasn’t as fierce.  However there were new problems now.  Civilization.  They were in the outlying edges of the town.  Small prefab houses in the typical Yu Jing style started to dot their path.  Hopefully nobody would be out in the middle of the night during a snow storm.  Some of the team members were issued stun pistols, for just such an occasion.

Every house was evenly spaced with small, fenced in yards surrounding each house. It was illegal in Yu Jing controlled Svalarheima to own a pet dog, so that was one less thing to worry about.

They snuck through the fields and yards of the neighborhood and entered the town proper without being seen.  Thankfully because this town was so far away from the front lines, there were no traps, sensors or automated defenses.

The buildings began to get bigger as the suburb gave way to the commercial district. Most of the businesses were small and shabby, half of which were boarded up.  From here the teams began to split up, keeping to the alleys and shadows to reach their predetermined positions.  Sarah heard the discharge of a stun pistol but couldn’t tell who fired.  It didn’t matter, she had to focus on her part of the mission.

Sarah and her Fusilier support broke off and took a filthy alley towards the tall building they were going to use.  The fusilier was a tall but thin man and wielded his older style M-45A1 like it was a rifle.  Despite not having a full enclosed helmet he seemed perfectly comfortable and not out of breath.  He just had a grim look of determination on his face.

Sarah found the building without any problem.  It was an office building, still under construction.  Rebar and plastic sheeting were scattered everywhere. The door was locked, but a firm kick fixed that problem.  She ran up the stairs to the fifth floor and found an empty room facing the military compound.  She was approximately five hundred meters away and with a clear line of sight.  Unlike what you see in the movies, she did not rest the barrel of her rifle over the edge of the window letting everyone see where she would be firing from.  Instead she found a work bench and laid her rifle on the bench in the rear of the room, still able to see the target but hidden from view. Sarah then threw a plastic tarp over her for good measure. The fusilier set up beside her and did likewise.  Rule number one of sniping: don’t be seen.

Sarah saw the three Bolts take up position in a building facing the entrance to the compound and the two Orcs enter a neighboring building.

“Sydney,” Aurora said over the encrypted radio.  This was the code word to start the operation.  Radio silence was broken and the time to be sneaky was over.

Sarah looked for Aurora, even though she knew she wouldn’t see her in thermoptic camouflage.  There were two guards posted outside, looking miserable and sleepy, barely holding onto their combi rifles.  Suddenly one of them fell onto the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.  Through her 20X scope, Sarah could see the blood flow from a wound on the back of the neck where Aurora had stabbed, twisted the knife and severed the spinal cord.  The other guard didn’t notice at first.  By the time he did notice, Sarah saw Aurora, now uncloaked draw her knife over the second guard’s neck.  He also fell without a sound.

The two guards were standing in front of a sealed door, they were there more for show than anything.  The real problem is hacking through the security to open the door, then taking out the guards on the other side, most likely stationed in a secure booth with vid access of the entire compound.  Definitely a job for a Hexa.

Aurora knelt down and began her voodoo.  To the uninformed, it looked like Aurora was performing sign language or trying to cast a spell.  But to her, it was menus, fire walls, cyber defenses, code and algorithms.  Maybe it was like casting a spell, Sarah thought.

Just then, Sirens and strobe lights activated all over the compound.  Aurora had said this would happen, so it was no surprise.  There was no way to hide the deaths of the two guards on live feed.  Sarah wondered why it took so long.

After about thirty seconds, but what seemed like at least an hour to Sarah, Aurora opened the outside security doors, activated her thermoptic camo and slipped inside.

After Aurora infiltrated the base it looked like somebody had kicked an ant hill.  A dozen of the soldiers poured out of the compound, looked around and discovered their dead comrades.  To their credit, they took up defensive firing positions while they dragged the bodies back inside.  The rest stayed where they were, looking for the threat.

“Open fire,” Bella said calmly over the radio.

Chapter 9

Svalarheima: Yu Jing compound

Between the HMG from the ORCs and the newer model M-50A3 spitfire one of the Bolts was carrying, the enemy soldiers didn’t stand a chance.  Before Sarah could pick a target, the enemy squad was wiped out.

“Do not wait for my order, if you have a target, take it out,” Bella said.

Sarah began to scan her sector of fire and thumbed her safety off.  It only took a minute before more troops exited the compound.  Sarah recognized them as Celestial Guard, a bigger threat than the Zhanshi they just killed.

“Shoot the fuckers in the face.  That’s what the boss said,” said Sarah, more to herself, but the fusilier took it as an order and opened fire.

Sarah lined up the holographic trajectory her X-visor supplied on the head of a Celestial Guard that didn’t quite understand the difference between ‘cover’ and ‘concealment’, let out a breath, held it and squeezed the trigger.  The massive rifle barked and sent an 8.5mm projectile at incredible velocity towards the target.  The Yu Jing soldier had taken cover behind a wooden fence, looking over the top.  The bullet punched through the wood as if it didn’t exist and hit him in the face.  His head exploded and sent grey matter and blood all over the wall behind him.

“Good shot!” yelled the fusilier.

Sarah didn’t hear him and was already scanning for another target.

“Enemy inbound!  I say again, Enemy inbound!  Tiger soldiers rapidly approaching from orbit.  ETA ten seconds!” Said the Pilot of their transport who had been monitoring the radar.

“Madre, guardame. Madre de dios, tenga misercordia…” the fusilier began to chant.

“We got a heavy!” yelled Aanandi.  Sarah swung her scope to look at the entrance of the compound.  What looked like a Terracotta soldier on steroids exited the compound.  It was over two and a half meters tall with an impossibly large cannon mounted over the shoulder.

“What in the name of Vishnu is that?” asked Sarah.  She had never seen or heard of anything like this.  This must be something new Yu Jing had cooked up.  Perhaps a prototype.  It didn’t matter, Sarah was going to put a bullet through the bastard’s eye.  The Orcs and the Bolts opened up on it from their hiding places.  The rifle and machine gun bullets bounced off harmlessly.  It leveled its cannon at the building the ORCs were in and fired.  The top half of the building disintegrated, sending debris flying.  It was a magnetic cannon. Sarah could tell by the hallmark sound it made.

Before Sarah could squeeze the trigger on the new target, the ceiling above her exploded. A Tiger Solder landed in a crouch next to the fusilier.  The brave fusilier, without any hesitation, shrugged the plastic tarp off and swung his machine gun towards the new threat.  The Tiger Soldier batted the barrel of the machine gun aside, pulled out a large knife and with one swing, chopped the fusilier’s left hand off.  He dropped his machine gun, screaming and holding the stump, which was sending out torrents of arterial blood.

Sarah was already on the move and while the Yu Jing soldier had just finished swinging his knife, Sarah had lined up a straight kick to the Tiger Soldier’s chest.  The Tiger Soldier had at least a hundred pounds on Sarah, but she had the weight of momentum, adrenaline and rage.  Her kick sent the Tiger Soldier into the wall, smashing through it.  He instantly recovered and was on his feet, his eyes locked onto Sarah. He raised his rifle and flame thrower towards Sarah.

Sarah had the advantage still and had already raised her sniper rifle.  She didn’t need to use the scope and simply put the holographic laser the X-visor provided on the center mass of the Tiger Soldier and pulled the trigger, not worrying about trigger discipline or breathing.  Two heavy caliber rounds tore through the Tiger Soldier’s chest.  They put small, 8.5mm holes in the front of his armor but emptied out his chest cavity through holes in his back large enough to toss a cat through.

As the Tiger Soldier fell backwards, he did manage to toggle the trigger on his under barrel flamethrower, sending a stream of liquid fire into the ceiling.

Now Sarah had the start of a blazing fire in the room and a screaming, bleeding fusilier.  She decided the fire was the bigger priority and ran over to the body of the Tiger Soldier.  She knew that they always kept an emergency extinguisher in their kit in case of accidents.  She easily found the small extinguisher in one of his pouches and started putting the fire out.  She emptied the extinguisher on the fire and extinguished it without any problem.

Sarah now ran over to the very pale, but still screaming fusilier.  She found the ends to the tourniquet built into their uniforms and began twisting the two ends of the tourniquet below his elbow to cut off blood flow to the stump.  The bleeding slowed to a trickle then stopped altogether. She then stuck him with a pain killer ampule similar to morphine.

“It’s just your hand, we’ll get you a new one.  Now I need you to cowboy the fuck up and get back behind that weapon.  Can you do that?” Sarah asked.  The fusilier feebly nodded.

“Good,” Sarah said.

Sarah picked up the machine gun and put it on the desk they were both using for support.  The fusilier got back behind his HMG. He was pale and moving like he was dizzy, but that grim expression was back on his face.

“It’s a good thing it was only my left hand.  I shoot with my right,” he said shakily, trying to smile.

Sarah got back behind the scope of her rifle and looked for that super heavy powered armor with the rail gun.  The thing was still there, marching slowly up the street, firing into the buildings the rest of the fusiliers were using.  Sarah could hear their screams over the radio. The Bolts and the Orcs were fighting off a massive wave of slaves, Zhanshi and Celestial Guard.  The Bolts were tossing Drop Bears through the door, discouraging any of the enemy from trying to rush through.  The Orcs, ignoring the fact that their building had collapsed around them, kept up a punishing rate of fire and were holding their own.  Aanandi had blown the shoulder plate off the massive armor with a shower of sparks, but it was still advancing.

Sarah lined up a shot on the Heavy’s head.  When the holographic line showing the trajectory of her shot connected on his face, the powered armor trooper looked surprised, and then looked directly at Sarah, as if he could see and follow the line her X-visor showed her.

Impossible.

Sarah sent two rounds screaming towards his head.  One missed, but the other struck home.  The round didn’t penetrate, but it rocked his head back and caused the massive brute to stagger, throwing off the aim of his HRMC that was leveling towards Sarah.  Some wild shots from the HMG armed Fusilier next to her struck the Heavy in its chest plate, but also failed to penetrate.

As Sarah was lining up another shot, something streaked down from the sky.  Adesh, finally entered the battle.  The Akal Commando landed deftly behind the Super Heavy Yu Jing powered armor and brought his combi rifle to his shoulder.  He didn’t fire the rifle, but a large, cylindrical object fired from underneath his rifle and struck the rail gun armed heavy in the back.  There was no sparks, or whips of electrical energy, nothing dramatic.  The EMP weapon, or E/Mitter simply sent a wave of elctro-magntic pulses and quietly shut the large powered armor down, as if someone turned the off switch.

Sarah used this opportunity to send two more rounds into the now still powered armor’s head.  It was just like being out on the firing range, a nice, non-moving target.  Both rounds struck home this time, one of which found the eye lens and blew the back of his head out. It slowly and loudly fell to its knees, sending a cloud of dust in the air and moved no more.

Adesh was already on the move and began firing on the rear of the enemies advancing against the Orcs.  The Bolts seemed to be doing fine, even enjoying themselves, firing volleys of buck shot into waves of the enemy, mowing them down.  One brave or foolish Celestial Guard managed get through the mine field of Drop Bears the Bolts had planted and started to crawl through a side window.  Bella saw what was happening and threw a Drop Bear at the soldier’s face as he was halfway through the window.  The heavy mine smashed into his face, and even from this distance, Sarah could see bloody teeth flying from his mouth.  Both the Celestial Guard and the Drop Bear fell back out through the window.  The mine landed on the chest of the now unconscious soldier.  He’ll have a nasty surprise when he wakes up.

Sarah was now picking targets of opportunity and managed to kill three more enemy that were advancing on the Orcs, expended the last of her magazine and instantly slapped in a fresh one.

“All units, all units, be advised.  A van containing the target is escaping on the South side of the base.  Stop at all costs,” Aurora called over the command net.

Sarah swung her scope over to the South side of the compound, which was to the right of where she was positioned. There was a small sally port opening up. Sure enough, there was a large, black van speeding off down the road.  It was far, but Sarah took the shot, trying to hit the wheels to slow it down.  One of her rounds struck home, blowing out a tire.  The van fish tailed, slowed but didn’t stop.  It was on open road, with only fields on either side.

Sarah saw two figures, dressed in what appeared to be business attire burst out a nearby building and run towards the van.  The two figures, Sarah could now tell they were female, ran impossibly fast, almost as fast as her Ashigaru motorcycle.  They left rooster tails of dust behind them as they easily caught up to the van.  One of them raised a shotgun to her shoulder and fired a slug into the rear door of the van.  The doors burst open and the other mysterious female jumped inside, followed by the one with the shotgun a second later.  The van swayed, then jerked to the side, almost flipping over, then came to a stop.  The two mysterious females ran out the back of the van, carrying Dr. Draut, unconscious between them.  There weren’t running as fast as they were, but still very fast, back towards the town and towards their position.

Aurora, uncloaked and visible, ran out of the compound and intercepted the two females with the doctor.  They handed her over to Aurora.  Aurora slapped the doctor conscious.  She said something to the doctor and then they both began to run into the town, towards the egress point.  Some more slave soldiers ran out of the compound and the two females dressed in business suits laid covering fire while Aurora made her escape with the doctor.  One of the slave soldiers fired in the direction of Aurora but was quickly disemboweled by a shotgun blast from one of the mysterious females.

Sarah saw Aurora run into an intact building, next to the one the Bolts were firing from and lost visual on her.

“All units, begin egress.  Use bounding overwatch as you exfiltrate,” said Bella, her calm voice sounded over the radio.

“You begin.  Head out and I’ll cover you,” Sarah said to the one handed fusilier.  He just nodded, picked up his machine gun by the carry handle and jogged out the door.  Sarah took one more look through her scope, didn’t see any targets and followed him down, and out through the building.  She easily caught up to him, put his arm around her shoulders and helped him to the predetermined extraction point.

Sarah saw Crystal, the Trauma Doc running back towards the battle, heading towards the small building Aurora and Dr.Draut were hiding.  Oh Gods she hoped none of them were hurt.  She couldn’t dwell on that and just worried about getting her team mate back alive.

She met Mosiah, Gbate, Adesh and a couple fusiliers already at the extraction point. They were formed in a rough semi-circle, guarding the peremiter.

“Any sign of our ride?” Sarah asked.

“Not yet,” Mosiah said with a grunt.  His armor was charred black. It looked like his long coat was burned off and he was holding his side.  Gbate didn’t look any better.  His Orc armor was covered in the telltale, silver streaks of bullet impacts and blood was trickling through seems in his armor.

Aanandi arrived a minute later, still firing her HMG from the shoulder at unseen enemy.

“I think that’s the last of them,” She said, wheezing and panting.  She looked as bad as Gbate.

As she finished saying that, an eight-wheeled vehicle the size of a city bus sped around the corner and pulled up to them.  A lithe, beautiful female, with purple hair, wearing a skin-tight body suit and pleated skirt with knee-high boots jumped out.  The cold and snow, completely not effecting her.

“I’ll be your driver for today.  Please enter the vehicle via the side ramp in an orderly fashion,” the girl said.  Another girl, just as beautiful and just as inappropriately dressed for the weather, followed behind her, scanning around with a shouldered spitfire.

“Devas?” Sarah asked, whispering to her fusilier companion.

“Yes, we are Devas.  All will be explained, please enter the vehicle,” said the purple haired Deva.

Without any further ado, everyone piled in the truck.  Moments later Aurora, Crystal, the two business women and all three Bolts came running and dashed right for the truck. Bullets screamed past them as the few remaining enemy soldier fired after them.

Sarah got a good look at the two women in business suits. She could now see the ‘Corporate Security’ logos on their clothes.

CSUs! That made sense.

The two CSUs looked like they could be twins, but were most likely genetically modified to fit their company’s chosen image. They were both very beautiful and shapely Caucasians. They were breathing heavily and shivering and one had her arm around the other. Sarah figured it was either the cold, which neither of them were dressed for, or adrenaline dump.

“Get us out of here!” Aurora yelled to the Devas.

Once they were sure everyone was aboard, they jumped in.  The purple haired Deva put the truck in gear, and began speeding towards their ship parked in the hills outside of the town.  The other Deva manned a copula mounted machine gun. Sarah heard small arms ping off the armor plating of the truck.

The storm began to pick up but the large, eight-wheeled truck seemed to ignore the snow and plowed through it.  The snow storm will also serve to cover their tracks.

Only now, with combat over, Sarah relaxed.  She could physically feel the adrenaline dump and began to shake.  It had nothing to do with nerves, just a physiological response.  It was still not pleasant.  This happened after every op, and she always hated going through it.

The Trauma Doc, Crystal began to treat wounds and look everybody over.  She had a very worried look on her face that had nothing to do with the injuries she was looking at.  Sarah was going to have to ask her about that later.

“What’s the casualty report?” Aurora asked Bella.

“We have three KIA, Fusilier Hernandez, Fusilier Balboa and Fusilier First Class Chao.  All three Cubes recovered.  Almost everyone is injured, some critically so,” Bella reported.

“What happened to the HVT?  Where is she?” Bella asked.

“She took a round as we were escaping and didn’t make it.  She did however have this data stick on her.  Hopefully this contains the information I need,” Aurora said, holding up the data drive.

“Slave Soldiers and Celestial Guard my ass!” said Adesh.

“A squad of Tiger Soldiers and a top secret, super heavy powered armor totting a rail gun is not my idea of lightly defended,” said Aanandi.

“And as I said in the briefing, intel was sketchy and we would have to adapt and overcome,” Aurora said nonchalantly.

“We are alive, don’t blame her.  She couldn’t have known,” Sarah said, coming to her defense.

“Let’s worry about the After Action Review after we get safely into orbit,” said Bella, sounding very tired.

The truck reached the ship without incident, almost anti climatically.  Everyone boarded, and the ship jumped off the ground in an explosion of snow and began its flight back to PanO territory.

Fai Dong woke up ten minutes later.  His mouth was in agony as he spit some teeth and dried blood out.  He couldn’t remember what happened.  He vaguely remembered trying to climb through a window to kill the invaders, and then nothing.  He felt a great weight on his chest and sat up.

A large metal object fell off his chest and clattered to the ground.  Fai Dong looked over at it confused.  A large, metal disk stylized to look like a cartoon bear face looked back at him.

Then it exploded.

Chapter 10

Neo Terra: San Pietro di Neo Terra

The trip back to Neo Terra was busy.  They uploaded all of their helmet-cam footage and did a play by play After Action Review of the entire operation.  To Sarah it seemed that everyone else had a far more difficult time than she did.  Watching the Bolts and ORCs footage gave Sarah a deep respect for their prowess and courage.  Everybody laughed when Bella threw the Drop Bear into the enemy’s face.

“What? I was reloading.  I didn’t have anything else,” she said defensively.

She also gained a huge amount of respect for Mosiah.  The Nisse sharpshooter and his Fusilier HMG support, practically fought off the rest of the squad of Tiger Soldiers by themselves.  The fusilier lost his life in the process.

When her footage played, she felt embarrassed that her ordeal wasn’t as harrowing as the rest of the team’s.  She sat in the back, trying to be invisible while her exploits played on the large screen.  Everybody nodded appreciatively at Sarah’s five hundred yard shot at the enemy crouched behind a wall.  However when the footage of her Spartan kicking a Tiger Soldier through a wall played, everybody cheered and hooted.  There were even more cheers when she put a bullet through the eye of the Super Heavy dude at four hundred meters.

“Do we have any intel on what the hell that thing was?” asked Gbate.

“No, this is the first sighting.  That’s why I’m sending this footage upstairs.  Our mission aside, this op was worth it for this intel alone,” Aurora said.

They continued going over the footage and taking notes.  There will be a more in depth analysis when they got back to the Hexahedron.

“So we watched all of our footage, but what were these Corporate Security and Devas doing while we were fighting for our lives?” Aanandi said.

One of the CSUs stood up.  Sarah noticed a sewn in name tag that said ‘Rogers’.

“Did you see any ninjas?” the CSU Rogers asked.

“No,” said Aanandi, looking around the room for confirmation.

“Exactly,” she said and sat down without another word.

The way she said it and the look in her eye, gave everyone the chills and there was no further questions about their activities.

The ship arrived at the San Pietro di Neo Terra Spaceport and touched down without any incident.  Sarah was glad to be off the ship.  There was only the most basic washing facilities and all she wanted was a hot bath in her own home.

Thankfully technicians from the Hexahedron were unloading her gear and would take care of it.  The injured, including the Fusilier she fought beside, whose name was Flores she learned, Mosiah and both the Orcs, were all taken on stretchers to the hospital.

“I’m fine! It’s just a broken rib. Leave me alone!” Aanandi protested as they carted her off.

They had all changed into their civilian clothes and ordered to go home, relax and take a couple days off.  It would take time to decrypt the data they got from the deceased doctor.

Nobody felt like celebrating.  Some left to get drunk.  Some left to get laid.  Sarah left to go home and be alone.  This was her standard post-deployment ritual; go home, take a long bath with candles and play her bass guitar, and she couldn’t wait.  It always seemed that the fear she should have been feeling during the battles, always seemed to catch up with her after the fact, and her ritual helped.  Everybody has their own post battle ritual.

Not for the first time, Sarah caught herself wondering about Aurora.  What was her ritual?  Drinking? Movies? Dancing? Sex.  Just thinking about that made Sarah feel a spike of warmth in her lower belly. And not for the first time, Sarah walked home fantasizing about Aurora.  She ignored the bustle of the city, lost in her own fantasy world.

It was because of these daydreams, Sarah didn’t notice the three men following her.  They were within two meters before Sarah noticed she was being followed.  She was still two blocks away from her flat.  She decided to make a break for it and escape to her place before they could catch up.

Sarah didn’t look back and didn’t give any warning, she just started to run.  She instantly heard the footsteps behind her speed up and take after her.  Sarah didn’t get far before a grip like a vice latched onto her arm.

“Got you!” said a gravelly voice with the harsh accent of the poorest classes of San Pietro.

Sarah grabbed the hand to twist and push it in ways nature never intended, but felt the unyielding metal of cybernetics.  The other two men caught up and also grabbed Sarah and pulled her into the ally one block from her pad.

Sarah finally got a good look at the three men.  The one with the cybernetics was heavily modified.  All limbs and both of his eyes were replaced with low tech, ugly cybernetics.  The other two seemed to be unmodified, ugly and dirty.  He was so close, she could smell the disgusting, sickly sweet alcohol tainted breath.

Sarah palm struck the cyborg in the nose.  His grip loosened enough for Sarah to pull her arm free.  She backed up to give herself space as she tried to draw her pistol.

The cyborg was on her instantly.  He obviously had reflex and speed enhancements.  He grabbed the pistol and with a wine of servos and hydraulics, crushed the gun in his hand.

Sarah, while grieved at the loss of her favorite pistol, used this opportunity to draw her knife.  She pulled it out with her left hand and jabbed it into his armpit as hard as she could, twisted it, then pulled it out.

He stumbled back, obviously in pain.  A surprisingly small amount of blood dripped from the blade.  She could smell the iron tinged scent of the man’s blood.  She thought it must be cybernetically enhanced, ultra oxygenated blood to smell that strong.

She swung the knife again, this time low, aiming for his kidney.  One of the other men managed to grab her arm in mid swing.  The third assailant used the distraction and punched Sarah in the stomach.

The cyborg seemed to recover and stood up straight, looking at Sarah.  A blade, a half meter in length, unsheathed at his wrist with a hydraulic snap.

“Hold the bitch still,” the cyborg said, completely calm and aimed the blade at her face.

Before he could push that blade into her eye, his elbow exploded in a shower of blood and synthetic fluids.  The other two assailants were stunned.  The cyborg crumpled on the ground, holding his shattered elbow.

Behind him, holding a large, silenced pistol was Aurora.  That pistol was now aimed at the other two thugs.  They looked at each other, at their destroyed leader, and took off running.

“What are you waiting for?  Get going,” Aurora said to the cyborg.

“Wait one sec,” Sarah said.

Sarah then walked over to the thug and kicked him squarely in his groin.  He had a look of disbelief and pain on his face before he passed out, face down and still bleeding.

“Or you could do that.  Are you ok?” Aurora asked as she looked Sarah over.

“I’ll be fine.  Nothing some painkillers wouldn’t fix,” she said, then looked confused.

“What are you doing here?”

“A ‘you’re welcome’ is customary I think,” Aurora said.

“Of course!” Sarah said and gave Aurora a hug.

“Thank you for helping me!  Not saving me…I could’ve taken them.  I already had them on the ropes,” Sarah said.

“Of course you did.  Now let’s get you home,” Aurora said as she put her arm over Sarah’s shoulders.

“Are you stalking me?” Sarah said coyly.

“I wasn’t following you.  My flat is just a couple blocks past yours.  I was just heading home,”

Sarah turned her head to make a smartass reply, but when she did, she noticed Aurora was facing her as well.  Their faces and most importantly, their lips were millimeters away from each other.  Sarah could smell her warm, sweet smelling breath.  She could see the neon lights from across the street reflected in her large, blue eyes.

Sarah couldn’t breathe.

She so wanted to kiss those perfect lips, they looked so soft.

But she didn’t.  She turned her head away and kept walking.  They arrived at the front door to her apartment building moments later.

“I escorted you this far, I may as well see you all the way,” Aurora said.

“How chivalrous of you,”

They stepped inside the elevator and Sarah pushed the button for her floor.  Sarah wanted to say so many things to Aurora, but couldn’t.  She was her superior first of all.  That was against regulations.  But most importantly, she wasn’t sure if Aurora liked girls or would like this specific girl.  As always, unless she was behind her rifle, self-doubt reared its ugly head.  So instead of talking to Aurora and possibly asking her to come inside with her, they rode the elevator in silence.

The elevator door opened.  Her flat was directly across the hall.  She took her time fumbling with her ID/key card, not wanting this to end.

She finally opened the door to her place and took one step inside.

“Mind if I come in and look around? Maybe those assholes were here,” she said.

“Good idea,” Sarah said, not really believing it.

Aurora stepped inside.  She had a very confident and commanding presence, so when she walked around, it really looked like she owned the place.

“Nice place,”

“Thanks.  You want something to drink?”

“No, I need to be going.  I just wanted to make sure you were safe,” Aurora said.

“I appreciate it Aurora,” she tried to sound sexy, but it just sounded awkward.

Aurora went back out the door.

“If you need anything or those douche bags come back, gimmie a ring,” she winked and closed the door behind her.

Sarah exhaled loudly.  She didn’t even realize she was holding her breath.  Now she felt waves of relief and disappointment.  She desperately wanted to invite her to stay.  She also was scared of the truth.  She didn’t want to find out that Aurora wasn’t a lesbian.  Or worse, she was but didn’t find her attractive, or thought she was dumb or boring or any number of scary things. Not knowing was better than rejection.  Ignorance wasn’t personal, rejection was.

Her anxiety and fear was building up, so she went ahead and drew a hot bath.  She lit some candles and put on her favorite relaxing music, Enigma.  The hot water seemed to wash her fears away.  The lavender scented bath salts she added seemed to relax her even more.  She stayed in the tub until the water turned cold, then finally got out and dried off.  She dried her long, black hair and put it in a two, loose buns.  To complete her relaxation, she grabbed her bass guitar, put on her favorite songs to play bass with and started jamming to ‘Ramble on’ by the classical group Led Zepplin.  About halfway through the second chorus, she heard a knock on her door.

She grabbed her backup pistol and walked cautiously to the door.  She accessed the security panel and brought up the camera feed.

It was Aurora.

Sarah immediately opened the door.

“I can’t wait any longer,” Aurora said in a husky voice.  She was breathing heavy, as if she had just finished running.

She stepped inside the apartment, grabbed Sarah around the waist and kissed her.  She closed the door with her foot and drew Sarah closer to her.

Bella stepped outside of the Golden Manatee Bar and Grill.  She didn’t usually go drinking after a mission, but tonight she figured she needed a little ‘liquid courage’.

She wasn’t drunk, just a couple of ‘Morat Monkey Milks’.  But it was enough to ease some inhibitions aside.

Bella knew where Sarah’s apartment was and began walking the eight blocks to get there.  As she walked, she thought about what she was about to do.  There was nothing like facing death to put perspective on things.  Life was too short, carpe diem and all that shit.  She’s been flirting, but tonight she was going to tell Sarah how she really felt about her.

She found the apartment building and walked inside.  As the elevator rose, so did Bella’s excitement.  She knew that Sarah would reciprocate.

By the time she reached Sarah’s door, she was practically jumping up and down.

Before Bella could knock, she heard a faint noise coming from inside.  Bella put her ear to the door.

She quickly drew it away, as if the door burned her.

Bella could hear the faint but unmistakable sound coming from inside.  The sound of two people having sex. One of them definitely sounded like the Hexa bitch, Aurora. Bella could guess who the other person was.

Bella stood there for what seemed like forever, stunned, hurt and disappointed. She then turned around and left.  She went back to the Golden Manatee to finish what she started.

******************************************************************************

In the morning, Aurora quietly let herself out and began walking home, though with some slight stiffness to her step.

Damn, that girl was enthusiastic.

She brought up her “to do” list from her Times Square Plus, and with a thought, checked off a box labeled “own Sarah”.

She chuckled and thought how much easier it was to make Sarah hers than she thought. Sarah’s psychological profile told Aurora many interesting things.  It told her that while Sarah was in the orphanage, she had been disciplined several times for “inappropriate behavior” with other girls.  So Sarah knew she wouldn’t have to ‘outsource’ the seduction.

The psych eval also hinted at abuse, whether just physical or sexual it didn’t say. This caused Sarah’s thin, candy shell of professionalism and coldness that she wore like armor.  But underneath that thin shell was a hyper-emotional mess, ready to burst.  But Aurora’s degree in psychology also told her that it might lead to a dependence.  Sarah would cling to the first person in authority that needed her.  It was easy for Aurora to ‘act nice’, and that was all it took to catch Sarah, hook, line and sinker.  The fact that Aurora researched Sarah’s porn searches online also helped Aurora shaped what she, herself should look like.  Sarah definitely favored the blondes, so Aurora did a little face shaping, skin lightening and hair dying to create Sarah’s ‘dream girl’.  So easy.  Hiring some thugs to attack her was just match needed to light the fire. Someone with her almost childlike ideas on relationships would jump on a “White Knight” saving her.

Normally Aurora wouldn’t go through all the trouble, but she needed Sarah’s loyalty for what was to come.  Aurora needed Sarah’s marksmanship skills, she really was the best.  However she also needed her hacking skills just as bad.  Sooner or later Sarah would become suspicious and a hacker of her caliber would naturally start looking where she didn’t belong.  So if changing how she looked, acting girly and getting laid was what it took to keep Sarah loyal and non-curious, then that’s what she would do.

Besides, Aurora needed a good lay and this was a great one.

“If Sarah ever did find out what was going on, she’d put a large bullet through my brain,” she thought to herself as she walked back to her place.

Chapter 11

Neo Terra: San Pietro di Neo Terra/Hexahedron

Sarah had spent the next two weeks of leave in bliss.  She had never been happier and for those two weeks, she never even thought about her time in the orphanage.  That’s never happened before.

Aurora had not had two weeks leave like the rest of the team, she had to decrypt and analyze the data that had been recovered from the late doctor Draut.  However, Aurora had spent every evening and night with Sarah at her place.  And it was heaven.

“Was Aurora my girlfriend?  Would that make it fraternization?” Sarah thought to herself as she walked the streets of San Pietro di Neoterra on her way to the Hexahedron.  Sarah did not want these two weeks of leave to end, but it was time to get back to work. She had received messages that Mosiah had made a full recovery and would be there at the Hexahedron today with the rest of the team.

Her feet barely touched the sidewalk as she glided through the busy streets bustling with people, mostly white collar types.  She saw couples holding hands. Boyfriends and girlfriends.

Girlfriend.

That word kept coming back to her.  She had never had a girlfriend before, so the word still seemed rather alien to her.  Sure she had very brief affairs before, but never an actual relationship.  Maybe since she had never had one, she couldn’t tell if Aurora was her girlfriend or not.

It was while dwelling on those thoughts that Sarah finally made it to the outer security of the Hexahedron.  She looked up at the building.  No matter how many times she had seen it, it still awed and humbled.  Stories of matt black granite, marbled with deep red veins gave the building a very ominous and intimidating feel.

She passed through the usual security checks and made her way to the team’s briefing room.  Most of the team was already there.  The two Corporate Security goons and the two Devas were also there surprisingly.  Mosiah was in the middle of everyone, telling funny stories about his time in the hospital and how he had a date tonight with one of the nurses.

Sarah saw Bella standing beside Mosiah and approached her.

“Hey Bella!  How have you been?” Sarah asked, happy to see her.

“Fine,” Bella said absently without looking at her.

“I tried calling you, but you never answered.  We should do something tonight,”

“No, I have plans tonight.  Sorry,” Bella said, a little more coldly this time.

“Okay,” Sarah said.  Maybe she’s in a bad mood and just hasn’t had her morning coffee yet.  Sarah decided she’d try talking to her again later.

“Hey Sarah,” Crystal said, coming from behind Sarah.

“Oh, hey Crystal.  What’s up?”

The red haired medic looked nervous and fidgety.

“I need to talk to you,” She said looking around the room.

“Ok, about what?”

“Not here.  During our lunch break.  Meet me outside the main gate.  It’s very important,” Crystal said, her British accent becoming more pronounced.

“I’ll be there, I promise.  What’s this about?” Sarah asked nervously.

“Aurora,” Crystal whispered so quiet, Sarah could barely hear.  She then turned on her heels and went and sat on a chair in the corner of the room, arms folded over her chest.

A few minutes later, Aurora entered the room, dressed all in a skin-tight black outfit.  Sarah’s heart skipped a beat.

Damn my girlfriend is badass looking, Sarah thought to herself, then questioned again the use of the term “girlfriend”.

“Alright, everyone take a seat…even you Mosiah.  Glad you decided to join us,” she said good naturedly.

“I hope you all had a couple of good weeks to relax and have some fun, but it’s time to jump back into things.  All the data has been de-crypted and analyzed and we know where our next target is.  A file containing all of the data has been sent to each of your accounts, so I’ll just go over the good parts,”

“Our next area of operations will be in Nomad controlled territory,” Aurora said with finality.

There was a collective groan from almost everyone in the room.

Gbate spoke up.

“I have fought Nomad forces more times than everyone in this room combined.  They are very tough and determined.  Even the smallest battle will be a tough fight,” he said gravely.

“I understand your concerns.  The outpost is small, isolated and not heavily guarded,” Aurora said.

“That’s what she said last time,” Aanandi said under her breath.

“Where will this be?  I’m assuming it’s not on one of their mother ships,” Bella said.

“That is correct.  The data we are tracking down is on a former mining colony, built into the side of an asteroid known as Roanoke Island. Apparently the late Dr.Draut sold the info about the next Recreation project to Yu Jing, through some Nomad middlemen. Our mission will be to access their data hub and find out where the data is,” Aurora said.

Sarah pulled up the schematics of Roanoke Island.

“The entire base is a labyrinth of tunnels.  It will be all close quarters combat,” Sarah said.

“Unfortunately that is true.  All of you using machine guns and sniper rifles, you’ll be drawing M1A2 or M1A3 combi rifles or MK 10 shotguns and make sure your knives are sharpened.  We’ll be fighting in bad breath distances,” Aurora said.

“But I like my sniper rifle,” Mosiah mumbled to himself.

They spent the rest of the morning going over the mission.  The team will be split into two fire teams.  Aurora will lead one team to a computer terminal while Sarah leads the other team to the second terminal.  Once there, Aurora and herself will have to hack the terminals at the same time to extract the data.  Once the data is secured, the team will exfiltrate the same way they arrived.

Sarah liked the idea that she’d finally be able to use her hacking skills on a mission.  She was an excellent hacker but her marksmanship skills were in higher demand.  She also had no problem using the combi rifle, she was just as proficient in its use as the sniper rifle.

The briefing was a lot to take in and Sarah was definitely ready for lunch.

“Before everybody breaks for lunch, Sarah, I need to see you in my office,” Aurora said.

“Um, yeah, no problem,” Sarah said.

Everyone stood up and started to make their ways out of the room, discussing which restaurant to go to.  Crystal approached Sarah.

“Don’t forget.  I’ll be waiting outside for you,” Crystal said.

“I won’t.  I don’t know what she wants but I’ll be there as soon as I can,”

Sarah made her way to Aurora’s office and knocked on the door.

“Come in,”

Sarah walked into the office.  Sarah was surprised how Spartan the office was.  There were no decorations of any kind.  No citations, photos, unit patches or coins.  Not even a plant or tiny Zen garden.  There was only a desk with a computer and two metal chairs, also undecorated.

“Close the door behind you,” Aurora said.

“I feel like I’m going to the principal’s office after being naughty,” Sarah said as she closed the door.

“Want to do lunch?  I have some paperwork to do while I eat, so I can’t leave but do you want to order something in?” Aurora asked.

“I would love to but I already promised someone else I’d eat with them,”

“Who?” Aurora asked, ice in her voice.

Sarah didn’t know why, but felt that it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell Aurora.

“Bella, Aanandi, Mosiah and some others.  I think they wanted Mexican food,” Sarah lied.

Aurora visibly relaxed and gave that same smile that Sarah loved.  However, Sarah noticed something this time that she never noticed before.  Aurora’s smile never went to her eyes.

Aurora stood up and walked over to Sarah.

“Since we can’t do lunch, how about a little snack?” Aurora said and started kissing Sarah’s neck.  Sarah melted.

“They can wait,” Sarah said and forgot all about false smiles.

Ten minutes later, Sarah approached crystal while still trying to fix her hair and look proper again.

“What took you?” Crystal asked.

“Sorry, Aurora wanted to discuss some of the particulars of hacking those terminals,”

“Follow me,” Crystal said as she began walking.

They found their way to a small panaderia a few blocks away.  The place was small but full of old world charm.  There was an overhead in front of the store with several tables and ivy crawling up the lattice work.  Crystal seated herself at one of the outside tables, still looking nervous.  Sarah sat down opposite of her, not saying anything yet.  Moments later, a pretty barista came by to take their orders.  Crystal just ordered an Agua de Jamaica while Sarah ordered a torta ahogada and tortilla soup.  She apparently worked up an appetite.

“So what’s this about?” Sarah finally asked, tired of Crystal’s silence.

“It’s Aurora,” she said quietly.

“Yeah, you said that.  What about her?” Sarah said.

“I don’t trust her,”

“Why?  Is it because she’s an operative?  Listen, they get a bad rap but we can trust Aurora.  She’s different,”

“Is she?” Crystal asked seriously, looking into Sarah’s eyes.

“Why are you coming to me with this now?  It’s been months and now all of a sudden working for an Operative is scary? Please,” Sarah said, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms.

“I saw the body.  You know, Draut I think her name was,” Crystal said.

“And?” Sarah asked.

“And there were powder burns around the bullet wound,”

“What does that mean?” Sarah asked, but thought she might have already known the answer.

“It means it was a close contact gun shot.  Somebody executed her,” she whispered that last sentence.

“Are you sure?” Sarah asked seriously.

“One hundred percent,” Crystal said without hesitation.

“Shit,”

Nobody spoke.  Sarah thought about this dilemma.  She knew Aurora wouldn’t have executed the person they were sent to rescue. She knew Aurora wasn’t lying to her or the team.  There had to be a logical explanation.

“At what ranges do these powder burns appear?” Sarah asked suddenly.

This caught Crystal by surprise a little bit.  She thought for a second.

“I’m not exactly sure.  I’d have to look it up, but I do know it has to be at very close ranges,”

“Also wouldn’t the weapon, propellant and type of ammunition also effect the wound?  I mean there are many variables that we just don’t have an answer to,” Sarah said.

Crystal was about to answer, but then she sat up as if an electrical shock went through her and she looked angry.

“Is that a hickey?” Crystal almost sounded disgusted.

“That wasn’t there before you went to Aurora’s office,”

Sarah didn’t know how to react.  She knew she had been discovered and a lie would only make it worse.

“I’m telling you she’s different.  I know her and she wouldn’t do anything like you’re suggesting,” Sarah said defensively.

Crystal stood up from the table and swiped her palm over the table to pay her bill.

“Fine, forget I said anything.  You keep fucking the boss and pretending everything is a world of balloons and sea shells.  Keep an eye on her, you’ll see I’m right eventually,” she said angrily and walked away.

Sarah stayed at the table, quietly thinking to herself.  She had sabotaged every relationship she could have had.  She thought a psychologist would tell her it’s her “need to punish herself because she didn’t feel good enough to be happy” or some bull shit.  Hadn’t Aurora always been upfront and honest with her?  Hadn’t Aurora always been nothing but nice, supportive, caring and recently loving toward her?

Sarah decided that she would not use baseless conspiracy theories to self-sabotage the best relationship she’s ever been in.  She had faith in Aurora.

Still, that beautiful smile of hers.  It never reached her eyes.

She shook that thought out of her head and called the barista over.

“Can I get a cheesecake to go?”

Chapter 12

San Pietro Spaceport

Sarah sat on the tarmac of the spaceport, leaning against her baggage.  It was a typical “hurry up and wait” scenario. Time was critical, but waiting for refueling and a liftoff window superseded everything.  After the disastrous lunch with Crystal, they spent the afternoon doing pre-checks on their equipment and packing it up.  The deployment to Roanoke Island would be a short one, so they were traveling light; weapons, armor, ammo and demolitions.   Now they were just waiting for their departure.  Thankfully it wasn’t raining for once.

Sarah hated leaving her beloved M-91A5 sniper rifle at home, but it would be a liability in the close quarters fighting they will encounter.  Instead she drew an M-1A1 combi rifle.  She preferred the older, rotary barreled model.  The higher rate of fire would be more helpful fighting in the tunnels and corridors of Roanoke Island.  The reliability issues won’t be a problem for such a short deployment where she won’t be crawling through the mud or walking through dust storms.  Sarah wasn’t the only one that had to draw a different weapon from the armory. Mosiah and Aanandi also drew more CQB oriented weaponry.

Sarah field striped her rifle and generously applied Slipstream brand weapon lube.  After one hundred and seventy-five years, it is still the most effective weapon lube in the entire Human Sphere.

Mosiah walked up to her.

“Hey, can I borrow some of that?  I only have the crappy issued stuff,” he said.

“I don’t know.  Can you ‘borrow’ lubrication?  Are you going to give it back when you’re done?” Sarah asked with a smirk.

“Oh!  Look who has jokes now!  Sorry, can I have some of your Slipstream?” he asked, emphasizing the word ‘have’ and taking a seat next to her.

Sarah passed him the small bottle without another word.  She wasn’t used to joking around when she was sober and decided to quit while she was ahead.  She looked at Mosiah’s weaponry.  He had an M-1A3 combi rifle, the model with the underbarrel shotgun attached. Sarah noticed Mosiah had something else as well.

“What the hell is that?” Sarah asked, pointing with her chin to the stubby lump of metal on Mosiah’s lap.

“This?  It’s a family heirloom.  This Ruger Alaskan has been passed down from father to son for almost two-hundred years.  I take it everywhere I go,”

“How did you get approval for that?”

“I asked Aurora about it and she said ‘I don’t give a fetch’,”

“Did she actually say ‘fetch’?” Sarah asked.

“No, but I’m Mormon…I try not to swear,” he said

“What caliber is that beast?”

“.454 casull.  I like to keep it for close encounters,” he said, then made a big show of thinking.

“Or hunting TAGs,” Mosiah finished.

“I bet you could,” she said.

They sat on the tarmac of the flight line for two more hours before they were allowed to board.  It was going to be a long flight, so everyone dressed comfortable and settled into their seats.  Aurora was up in the cockpit as usual, so she looked for a seat next to Bella, hopefully she was in a better mood.

Bella was dressed in her PT outfit with the Bolt insignia emblazoned on her chest.  She looked up from her seat but didn’t say a word when she saw Bella. The seat next to her was empty, so Sarah took it.

“Hey,” Sarah said.

“Hey,” Bella responded.

Sarah sat in her uncomfortable seat wondering what to say next.  She knew something was between them but didn’t know what it was.  She ran through her memory trying to figure out if she said something to offend Bella.  Nothing came to mind.

“Are we good?” Sarah blurted out awkwardly.

Bella didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“Define ‘good’,” Bella said.

“How we used to be,” Sarah said instantly.

“In that case, no, we are not ‘good’,” Bella said using air quotes.

“Why?” Sarah asked.  She was hurt by the answer, but not surprised.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

That did take Sarah by surprise.  She stopped to think about it.

“You know?” Sarah asked.

“You and the boss lady? Yeah, I know,”

“It’s not fraternization.  She’s technically not in our chain of command,” Sarah said defensively.

“Oh my fuck, you can be so dense sometimes,” Bella said as she stood up and walked away quickly.

Sarah was stunned.  The realization hit her like a slap to the face.

“All this time,” Sarah said to herself.

“I’m sorry,”

Chapter 13

Roanoke Island, Nomad asteroid base

Sarah settled in for what would be the longest and most miserable flight of her career.  She pretended to sleep, only so she could close her eyes and prevent the tears from coming.  Was she making a mistake by getting involved with Aurora? Did she permanently destroy her relationship with Bella?

Sarah pondered these thoughts and many others while their ship, the Agamemnon sliced through the vacuum of space at impossible speeds.  They were disembarked from the Circular and were making good time towards their target.

Nobody else seemed to notice the awkwardness between Bella and Sarah or the discomfort they were both feeling.  They were islands of regret and pain in an ocean of excitement and anxiety over the mission.

The blinking red symbol that informed her of the mission briefing danced at her peripheral vision.  She used her retinas to bring it to the fore, then toggled it to open the group briefing.  One by one, everybody logged on.

Aurora’s voice, usually sultry and seductive to Sarah, seemed like a nails on a chalkboard.  Contrary to all logic, she felt that just listening to Aurora’s voice would make Bella hate her more.  She knew it didn’t make sense but couldn’t help it.

“Welcome aboard everyone.  Long and complicated plans always have a way of bogging the mission down so I’m going to keep things simple and to the point. As we all know, the Nomad outpost known as Roanoke Island is built on and inside an asteroid.  As a result, all fighting will be done in the close quarters of these tunnels.  We will be divided into two chalks.  Chalk Alpha will consist of myself, Bella, Gbate, and Adesh.  Chalk Beta will be Sarah, Mosiah, Aanandi and the other two Bolts; Ammon and Feke.  Each chalk will also have one each of the CSUs and Deva liaisons.  Crystal and the rest of the Fusiliers will protect the ship and act as a QRF.  Maps of the base have been attached to this briefing so study them well.  Don’t rely on your HUDs.  If you get EMP’d and your navigation wet ware stops working, you’re going to be glad you looked over the map.

Bottom line, Sarah and myself need to get to these two computer terminals, hack the data and then egress at all possible speed,” Aurora said, indicating two points on the map.

“I’m not going to lie, this mission will be tough.  We have no idea of the enemy, their capabilities or numbers.  We won’t have to worry about radio silence because they will know we are there.  We do know that neither they nor we have any support or backup.  It’s all up to us and failure is not an option.  If we fail to obtain this data, the trail goes cold and we lose.  I cannot allow that on my watch.  Vitra Vires!  Keep your heads on swivels, watch your sixes and happy hunting,” Aurora said as she logged off the group chat.

“What’s not to like about this plan?” Mosiah asked facetiously.

Sarah spent the rest of the flight in an awkward silence, except for Mosiah’s endless supply of bad jokes.  She supposed that was his coping mechanism to deal with pre-combat stress.  Everybody seemed to have their own technique.  Sarah’s was to unplug and disconnect with movies and books.  Unfortunately this was incompatible with Mosiah’s, so she pretended to listen to him while she played Tetris on her wetware, the little 3D blocks appearing to float in the air in front of her.

Sarah hadn’t even realized she dozed off, until she was jolted awake by Mosiah.

“We are an hour out, time to get into full battle rattle,” he said, using the ancient American euphemism.

Sarah went over to her bags and found her armor.  Privacy was something you gave up when you joined the military, so she striped down to her underwear and began putting on her armor.  The last thing she put on was her helmet.  She had removed the X-visor function and installed her CWU, or Cyber Warfare Unit.  Her Times Square Plus wetware was capable of basic hacking, but she needed the powerful, military grade hacking device for this job.  Nomads don’t play around with their cyber security.

Sarah looked around in a brief panic, looking for her sniper rifle before remembering she brought an M-1A1 combi rifle.  She picked it up and for the hundredth time, checked it wasn’t loaded, the safety was on and the liquid propellant tank was full.  Just like her M-91A5 sniper rifle, the combi uses a liquid propellant injected into the firing chamber to propel the bullets.  It was a much better mechanism than the ancient brass encased solid propellant that Ariadna and other primitives use.

Sarah magnetically slung the rifle to her chest and walked back to her seat.  All of the lights in the cabin went dark or turned red, the ten minute warning.

Everyone stood up and lined up in order in their respective chalks.  Aanandi, dressed to kill in Orc armor, took point, shotgun in hand.

“Stay on my ass and you may live through this,” Aanandi said gravely.

Sarah just nodded.  She was already in the zone.  No chit chat, no distractions, just get the mission done.    But she could already feel chinks in her armor. She was thinking of Aurora and Bella…she was distracted.  Concentrate!

“Condition Red,” came Aurora’s voice over the comms.

She heard everybody pull back the charging handles on their weapons, chambering a round.  That was Condition Red.

The red lights in the cabin began to strobe softly.  Five minute warning.

Sarah shook her head in one last attempt to clear her head.  When she was in the zone, she was fearless and merciless.  Distracted she was a liability.  She can’t let that happen.  She forced all thoughts of women, relationships and drama out of her head and started going over “failure to fire” procedures.

“Slap, pull, observe, release, tug, squeeze…” she repeated to herself.  Of course she knew the procedure to handle a misfire by heart, it was the same with the combi rifle as was for the sniper rifle but it forced her mind away from those hurtful thoughts.

The red cabin lights began to flash rapidly. One minute.

She unslung her rifle and held it at the low ready, butt stock at the shoulder, muzzle down, finger indexed near the trigger but not on it.

The ship rocked slightly as it made contact with the docking port of Roanoke Island.  The ship’s hacking protocols kicked in immediately in an attempt to open the airlock.  The lights around the doors turned green and the airlock opened into the base.  Chalk Alpha started hurrying through the portal as soon as it was open.  Gunfire blazed immediately, though Sarah couldn’t tell who was doing the shooting.  When the last member of chalk Alpha stepped off, Chalk Beta began to move.

“Here we go,” said Sarah as she raised her weapon, scanning for the enemy.

Chapter 14

Roanoke Island

Aanandi kept low as she advanced out the airlock.  The first thing Sarah saw was the blood.  It was sprayed on the back wall, the floor and all over the airlock control consoles.  This didn’t bother Sarah in the slightest, she had seen her fair share.  The bodies of two male technicians lay on the ground, their work overalls riddled with holes.  The Iron rich and pungent smell of blood hit Sarah and she instantly switched her self-contained breathing unit on. In her now fully enclosed helmet, the sound of her pounding heart and controlled breathing drowned out everything else.

Red strobe lights flashed all around.  Apparently one of the dead technicians had hit the alarm before getting ventilated.  This was expected.  They knew there would be opposition.  It would have been a certifiable miracle and the Neo Vatican informed of such if the alarm wasn’t triggered.

In the airlock room, with the entrance to their ship behind them, the room split into two hall ways.  Chalk Alpha would take the left, Chalk Bravo, Sarah’s chalk, would take the right.

Aanandi knew what to do and lifting her shotgun to her shoulder advanced down the hallway.  Her movements were fluid and catlike even through the powered armor.  Sarah spared one look back before heading down her assigned route.  She saw Chrystal and four Fusiliers in a semi-circle in front of the ship guarding it.  Then they were out of sight.

They didn’t run, but were in a crouched fast walk, often referred to as a “duck walk”.  As they moved, their weapons were trained in their respective lanes of fire but their heads were constantly on a swivel, looking for trouble.

They were heading down narrow corridors. Nothing was painted or decorated. It was all in stainless steel, with soft fluorescent lights lighting the way.  Every few dozen meters, there would be a door. They checked every door before moving past. So far, every door encountered had been locked.

Suddenly Sarah was pushed to the side as the Deva stepped forward and fired two short bursts from her spitfire at the ceiling.

A shower of sparks and metal debris appeared in the ceiling of the hallway three meters ahead.

“Thermoptic auto security turret,” she said, tapping a finger on the surface of her eye, indicating her multi-spectral vision.

“Good to know.  Thanks,” Sarah said.

Chalk Bravo continued down the hallway until they came to a T shaped intersection.  Sarah crouched on the ground and took a quick peek around the corner, below eye level.  In that quick look, Sarah saw a large automated turret in the middle of the hallway…the hallway they needed to go down.  It’s large, almost insectoid bulk hanging from the ceiling.

Sarah pointed one finger at one of the Bolts, then that same finger pointed to the thing around the corner. She then mimed the motion of pulling a pin out of a grenade.  One of the Bolts, probably Ammon, nodded and took an EM grenade out of one of his pouches and snuck up to the corner.  He armed the device, then casually threw it around the corner.  It didn’t take long before they all heard the comforting high pitched whine of an EMP device.  All of the glowing optics of the turret were extinguished and the weapons hung limply.

“Clear. Moving,” said Aanandi.

They slipped past the turret, into a much wider corridor.  The ceilings rose to an impressive five meters.  There was a huge hangar door on one side and a row of latrines on the other. A large sign saying “Praxis Labs welcome you!” with a cute, Anime girl with a lizard tail gave the readers a smile and flashed a peace sign. When Sarah looked at the sign, the Anime girl winked at her.

That’s disconcerting.

As they entered the corridor, all of the lights went out, pitching everything in total darkness.

Sarah’s helmet instantly switched to night vision, a combination of low-light, thermal and infrared, which gave a very clear but ghostlike image of her surroundings.

Aanandi gave the signal to spread out and everyone dutifully obeyed.  There were various pallets of shrink wrapped goods scattered around the corridor in no apparent pattern.  Sarah took cover behind one of these pallets and looked around the side.  She didn’t see anything.

“Advance with caution,” Aanandi said over the radio.

A chorus of acknowledgements came a split second later and then they all began to slowly advance.

“I’m not picking anything up,” Said the Deva looking around.  Her eyes held the same reflective quality of a nocturnal animal.

“Neither am I,” said Mosiah.

“Something doesn’t feel right.  Stay frosty,” Sarah said.

Almost as if on cue, an incredibly loud bang came from the right side of the hallway, where the hangar door was.  A large bulge had appeared in the hangar door.

Another very loud bang echoed through the corridor and a second, even larger bulge appeared in the door.

Finally with a third loud bang, the hangar door flew off its robust hinges and a very large, bulbous, humanoid shape burst into the room. It only had one arm. The other arm was a writhing mass of cables and wires. Diagnostic devices still clung to the cables hanging out of its shoulder socket. Sarah’s IFF screamed “TAG: ENEMY: LIZARD” in large red letters over her HUD.  The large Nomad TAG, a heavily modified version of an obsolete PanO model, didn’t have a head, just a heavy armored plate with optics embedded in, resembling a spider.  It swung its ponderous frame towards Sarah, its malevolence apparent as its optics switched from blue to red, indicating a target acquisition and raised its one weaponized arm toward her.  Sarah brought up her CWU “hacker halo” in an attempt to hack into the TAG but she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough.  The damn thing’s encryption was strong.  Typical of these anarchic Nomads.

Before Sarah could finish her decryption, the Lizard unleashed a long burst of fire from its arm mounted machine gun at her.

Chapter 15

Roanoke Island

The burst from the Lizard’s machine gun went wild as Aanadi rammed into its side with her shoulder, sending it off balance.

Not for the first time Sarah heard the unmistakable sound of rounds flying past her head.  It always had an angry, buzzing sound, like a swarm of evil wasps.

Aanandi’s shoulder ram didn’t slow the thing down, but it definitely shook it and knocked it off balance.  Aanadi then shoved her shotgun into the armpit of the TAG’s good arm and emptied her magazine into it.  The heavy, saboted AP slugs took their toll as the Lizard’s remaining arm rocked with an internal explosion. Aanandi had detonated the ammo hopper for the machine gun mounted in its arm. It began dripping fluids and shooting sparks everywhere, but the arm was still functional.

“You little fucker!” the TAG pilot bellowed from its loudspeaker and with its one arm, back handed Aanadi.  Her breastplate took the brunt of the hit and split open with a loud, audible crack.  She flew and hit the opposite wall and slumped to the floor.

Sarah didn’t have time to check on her.  She was busy deconstructing the algorithms that protected the TAG with a “Gotcha” program.  Almost there.

Mosiah, the two Bolts, the CSU and Deva were firing at the Lizard while running and taking cover.  One of the Bolts loosed another EMP grenade.  It went off on the spider-like face plate of the TAG, but with no effect.

“I called the QRF, they’ll be here soon.  We just need to keep it busy until then,” Mosiah said.

The Deva brought her spitfire up to her shoulder and let rip with a long burst, aiming at where the pilot was curled up.  One round found a chink in the armor as the pilot screamed in pain with a bullet lodged firmly in his knee.  A trickle of blood leaking out of the neat hole punched by the spitfire.  That was another reason Panoceania abandoned the Lizard; it was tremendously easy to see the anatomy of the pilot.

Still roaring, the Lizard thrust its HMG towards the Deva and began firing.  She took cover behind one of the pallets but whatever was in it, wasn’t bullet proof as the rounds punched right through it and into the Deva.  Her left arm was blown off at the shoulder, sending her arm and her spitfire flying.

“Taking incoming fire,” she said calmly and ran behind another piece of cover while retrieving her weapon.

The Lizard tried firing at Mosiah but with a loud CLACK CLACK CLACK sound, the pilot realized its Ammo hopper had been destroyed. All it had was its claws.

Sarah moved to another piece of cover on the opposite side of the corridor of the entrance.  She knew the Fusilier QRF would be arriving from there and wanted to give them every advantage, by making sure when they arrive, the TAG’s back will be to them.  She ducked behind another pallet.  Taking a deep breath, she concentrated and finished taking down the Lizard’s cyber defenses.  It was now wide open.  She stood up.

“Hey, over here dumbass!” she yelled at the TAG.

It turned towards her, sensing that its defenses were down and now viewing her as the most immediate threat.  It raised its clawed hand to swat at her, but she was ready for it.

“Gotcha!” Sarah said smiling and sent the invasive program.

The Lizard shuddered, small arcs of blue electrical discharge arced from its body.  It struggled to regain control, then collapsed to its knees.  The red glow of its optics flashed then faded out.

Sarah ran over to Aanandi, for the first time, feeling fear this engagement.

“Are you ok?” she asked in a panic.  Her Times Square Plus wetware running a diagnostic on Aanandi’s Orc armor.  It was damaged and lost much of its structural integrity, but was still operational.  Sarah needed Crystal, an actual doctor to run a diagnostic on Aanandi herself.

Three Fusiliers, one of which was armed with a missile launcher burst into the room.  Crystal came in behind them, saw Aanandi on the ground and instantly ran over to her.  She knelt down beside her and began removing the power armor.  Sarah bent down to help Crystal.

“No, I got this.  The pilot in that thing is still alive.  Take care of that first before it gets back up!” Crystal said without looking up.

Sarah stood up again, this time noticing that her hands were visibly shaking.  That wasn’t fear or nerves, just plain old adrenaline dump.  Nothing could be done, but she put her hands behind her back to keep them from view.  With a slight tremble in her voice she called out to the pilot.

“Come out peacefully or we’ll put a missile through you,” she called in what she thought was an authoritive tone.

“Go to hell,” came the amplified male voice.

“Have it your way,” Sarah said, then motioned to the Fusilier with the missile launcher.

He took a knee and raised the giant weapon to his shoulder and took aim.  With an almost soft woosh sound, the missile left the launch tube.  Then the onboard engine kicked in, and a jet of flame kicked out from the rear of the missile that sent it streaking towards the incapacitated TAG.  The missile, unable to miss at this range, slammed into the TAG, creating a fireball that engulfed its upper torso and knocking it on its face.

The Lizard sat there burning for only a few seconds before the pilot came crawling out of the wreckage.  He was unarmed and came out with his hands in the air and coughing from smoke inhalation.

“I’m unarmed, please don’t…”

BOOM! 

The Lizard pilot’s face exploded.  In an instant, his face turned into a bloody mask and Sarah could hear the blood falling to the floor like a spring shower on a tin roof.  The CSU stood next to the TAG, smoking shotgun in hand.

“The orders were no prisoners,” she said as she loaded another round, topping off the magazine.

Sarah just looked at her with a withering gaze, completely lost under her helmet.  She felt a moment of anger and righteous indignation flare up.  Then it subsided quickly. What was she going to do with a prisoner? She still didn’t have to like it but she was going to be professional.

“I know what our orders…” Sarah began to argue.

A faint but strong howl could be heard reverberating throughout the base.  The first howl was then joined by another, then another.

“Oh shneikies!” said Mosiah, fear in his voice.

“We need to get you to that terminal in a hurry,” said one of the Bolts.

“What was that,” asked Sarah.

“Pupniks.  You need to go.  Now!” said Aanandi.  She was trying to get up, but Crystal was holding her down.

“This way!” said Mosiah as he grabbed Sarah by the arm and started running towards the end of the corridor.

“I’m taking Aanandi back to the ship.  Good luck,” said Crystal over the radio.

“Roger. Out,” replied Sarah.

What was left of Chalk Bravo was sprinting down hallways and corridors towards the information hub.  Sarah could swear the howls of the pupniks seemed closer this time.  She had never fought them before, so didn’t know what to expect.

With Aanandi gone, one of the Bolts took point.  As he was running down the hallway, a large, fast object tackled him from a side hallway.  The thing looked like a grotesque, malformed man with the head of a ram.  It then used its giant horns to impale the bolt in the gut, underneath his protective breast plate.  Sarah raised her rifle to fire at the beast, but with both of them grappling on the ground, she couldn’t get a clean shot.

The brave Bolt didn’t scream.  He just grunted, brought his knife up and tried to jam it into the creature’s neck. The Pupnik blocked the blade with a forearm, then leapt off the Bolt, running back down the hallway it came from.  The Bolt raised his weapon in one hand and fired a few scattered shots after it.

“Son of a…” said the Bolt.

“How bad are you hurt?” Sarah asked.

“It didn’t go deep.  Just patch me up tight and I’ll be good to go,”

The other Bolt quickly slapped on a field dressing and a dash of ‘QuickQlot’ to stop the bleeding.  He helped his team mate to his feet and Chalk Bravo was hurrying down the hallway again.  As Sarah passed by the hallway the Pupnik came from, she noticed light reflecting off a swinging chain in the shadows.  It was only for a moment, and then it was gone.  She didn’t have time to think about it.

“We take this next right, then it should be only a hundred meters ahead.  We’re almost there!” said Mosiah.  Sarah picked up the pace and ran even faster.

The CSU was the first one around the corner and ran right into a Securitate.  The sound they made upon impact was the same as an antique, wooden Cricket bat hitting a ball.  They both fell to the ground in a jumble of limbs and both dropped their weapons.

The Securitate landed the first blow with an elbow to the CSU’s jaw.  To her credit she just ducked her head down and began to mount the Securitate, with her legs around his waist, pinning him to the floor.  The Securitate anticipated the move and wrapped his legs around her, preventing her from gaining the dominant position.  She dug her elbows into his thighs, causing him to grunt in pain, but more importantly to drop his legs.  She used the opportunity to get her legs up above his guard and giving her the upper hand.  Now she started raining fists and elbows down on the Securitate, looking like a school yard bully.

Mosiah rushed around behind the Securitate, kneeling by his head.  The CSU saw what Mosiah was doing and ducked in, wrapping her arms around the Securitate and lifting his torso off the ground.  Mosiah instantly took the opening and grabbed him from behind.  He put the Nomad into a rear naked choke hold, one arm around his throat and the other behind his head, putting on the pressure.  The Securitate knew he only had seconds before he lost unconsciousness and drew his boot knife.  The Deva saw it and instantly kicked it out of his hand.  The Nomad had no more fight left in him and slowly went limp.  Mosiah held the choke hold for another minute, to make sure, then let him drop to the ground.  The CSU got up, wiped the blood from her lip, drew her pistol and pointed it at the Securitate.

“Don’t,” said Mosiah.

“Why? The bastard hit me,” The CSU, her name tag said Stevens, said.

“We don’t need to,” Mosiah said calmly and with conviction.

Steven nodded and holstered her pistol.

Sarah didn’t waste any more time and ran over to the terminal.  The terminal was in a small, square room on the other side of a narrow hallway. It was a small unit built into the wall.  She brought up her Cyber Warfare Unit and waited to hack into the computer.  She saw on her HUD that Aurora was also at her terminal.

“Alpha One, Alpha One, I am in position.  Beginning hack,” Sarah radioed to Aurora.

“Bravo One, Roger.  I’m ready.  Beginning hack in three, two, one,” she responded.

One queue, they started hacking the Nomad system at the same time.  It was part of the security system that it could only be accessed by opening both terminals at the same time.  This was supposedly to keep one, lone, curious hacker from breaching the defenses.

Sarah had dealt with Nomad security systems before and knew what to do.  She fully immersed herself into what she was doing and didn’t hear the baying of the Pupniks again, getting closer.

Sarah destroyed all of the security surrounding the system and gained total access.  She didn’t have time to sort through every file, so she did a quick search for the word “Rani Lakshmibal”.

No files contained those words.  She knew that would have been too easy.  They must have been using code words, so she began a data dump and copied every file.  They could just go over it later.

As she started the download, another presence was detected on the server and began to stop the download.

“Alpha One, be advised, there is a native element attempting to stop download.  How copy?”

“Bravo One, copy that.  I am also encountering resistance.  Proceed with caution and get that damn data.  Out,” Aurora said.

Whoever the enemy hacker was, they were good.  However Sarah was better.  She blocked the enemy hacker with a Labyrinth program and started the download again.

“Eat it sucker!” Sarah said excitedly.

Then a red warning popped up in her vision.  The enemy hacker, unable to block the download began to wipe the server clean of all data.

That was madness!  That would destroy the system for the entire base.

Sarah tried to block it again, but the wipe was unstoppable at this point, so she just tried to get what she could salvage.

“Damnit!  Stupid son of a Bitch!” she said.

She knew she only downloaded a small percentage of the data she could have.  She just hoped that what they were looking for was here.  The enemy hacker left the now empty system without further event.

“Bravo One, this is Alpha One.  System has been wiped.  I retrieved what I could.  Immediate egress.  Head back to LZ,” Aurora said over the operation net, so everyone could hear.

That was odd.  Something felt wrong, but she couldn’t place why.

Sarah turned around to begin the run back to the ship, when she saw four figures running down the hallway towards them at incredible speed.

“Incoming!” Mosiah shouted as he lifted his weapon to his shoulder and began squeezing off short controlled bursts from his M1 and then emptied the magazine of his underbarrel shotgun. The CSU took a knee and added her shotgun to the weight of fire.  The Deva began firing her spitfire one handed in long, uncontrolled bursts.

One of the pupniks took a round to the neck and fell in a crumpled heap.  The other Pupniks jumped on the walls or slid on the ground to avoid the incoming fire and no more rounds found their mark.  Sarah shouldered her rifle, but the Pupniks were on her team before she could get a round off.  The Deva fell quickly.  With only one arm and holding a cumbersome weapon, she was in no position to defend herself.  A Pupnik that looked like a cheetah or leopard pounced on her and began tearing her apart with tooth and fang.  The other Pupnik, the one that looked like a ram, tackled Mosiah to the ground.  The CSU ran over to help him, so Sarah ran over to try to help the Deva.  The Deva was already dead, or destroyed she guessed but the Pupnik was still ripping into her.  Sarah butt stroked the Pupnik in the head, it flew back on the ground and the look of surprise on its face was almost comical, except the fierceness and hatred returned quickly.  The two Bolts opened fire on it with their shotguns, but it jumped out of the way, putting Sara between itself and the Bolts.  Sarah fired at it with her M1 combi rifle.  The Pupnik was freakishly fast.  It jumped on the wall to Sarah’s side, then launched itself off the wall and right into both of the Bolts.

Sarah spared a quick glance at Mosiah and the CSU, they were both alive and still struggling with the Pupnik.  Then Sarah noticed another figure step out of the dark hallway, behind Mosiah.   Her HUD instantly identified it as “illegal cybernetic organism: Chimera”.

The light glinted off the chain it was swinging, a chain wrapped in a shimmering nano field and tipped with a dagger-like point.

It was beautiful.

The feminine grace with which it moved, gave it an unearthly allure. The pale skin of its feline face was almost translucent.  Her hips swayed perfectly as she casually strolled up behind Mosiah.  She spun the chain very fast and sent the deadly point flying.  The spike pierced Mosiah’s helmet through the eye lens and he fell flat on his back, the rifle falling from his limp hand.

Sarah heard someone scream incoherently and it wasn’t until much later that she realized it was herself.

The CSU was now alone, fighting the much stronger Pupnik.  Sarah fired at the Chimera, but it dodged, using the CSU as cover, much like the Pupnik did before her.

“Sarah, help me!” cried the Stevens.

Sarah swung the barrel of her M1 towards her.  The CSU, who was on top of the Pupnik, now rolled, and let the Pupnik have the dominant position on top of her.  This was a very dangerous position to be in but Sarah didn’t waste the opportunity and fired three controlled pairs into the Pupnik’s chest.  Most of its lungs and heart emptied out the back of the creature and it rolled off the CSU and died, messily.

The Chimera screamed in rage and launched its chain weapon at Sarah.  Sarah had no time to react as the blade tip struck her in the chest.  Sarah thought she would be its next victim.  However the blade gouged a hole in her breast plate but didn’t do anything more than that.  Sarah figured her environmental protection suite saved her from the nanite swarm, surrounding the Chimera’s weapon.

The cybernetic creature’s beautiful face grimaced and looked disappointed.  Then, swinging the chain around her elbow, ran towards Sarah and kicked her square in the chest.  Sarah went flying, her head hitting the back wall, then slumped to the ground dazed.

She looked up in time to see the Chimera looming over her, holding the knife point of her chain, ready to stab her in the eye with it.

Before the Chimera could finish her off, her shoulder exploded in a shower of white, viscous fluid.  She looked back confused and saw Mosiah, propping himself up with one arm, holding the giant .454 revolver in one hand, barrel smoking.  The revolver then fell from his grasp and he slunk to the floor and never rose again.

Sarah, hot tears pouring down her cheeks, used the distraction to pull out her pistol and pointed it at the Chimera.

The Chimera noticed the pistol pointed at her now and dodged the wild shot Sarah sent at her.  The beautiful, and now one armed Chimera Kicked Sarah in the head, before turning and running back down the hallway she came from.

Sarah didn’t know if the two Bolts were still alive.  She didn’t know much anymore, and slipped into the warm, comforting blackness of unconsciousness.

Chapter 16

???

Sarah awoke to waves lapping against her feet. She didn’t know where she was but she didn’t care. She was on a sunny beach, which went on for as far as the eye could see on both sides. She was lounging on a deck chair with her bare feet in the water.  Something was in her hand. She looked down and noticed some kind of fruity drink with a little umbrella sticking out of it.

She sighed, relaxed and dug her toes into the sand with a contented smile on her face.  She assumed this was a dream but didn’t mind.  She’d stay in this dream for eternity if she could.

She enjoyed the sun and the infinite beach for hours, maybe days when she noticed the sun began to dim.  She looked around and saw a wall of fog moving towards her from both sides. She jumped off the chair, dropping her drink, which promptly disappeared.  Yup, a dream. She thought about jumping into the water to escape the fog but figured this was a dream and it couldn’t hurt her.  The fog rolled over her harmlessly and cut off all visibility.

Sarah wandered. There was no more water or sandy beach.  The ground became firm and the air cold. She picked a random direction and began to walk.

Sarah didn’t know where she was when she came out of the fog.  She looked around, expecting to find the familiarity of a hospital bay or even the dim corridor of the Nomad base Roanoke Island.  But what she found instead was a grey, cloudy sky framed by the run-down slums of New Delhi.  Low cost and crime-ridden government housing surrounded her on all sides.  She was standing in the middle of an atrium that was once modeled after a Roman villa with plotted grass and a fountain but had degenerated into a garbage dump and sewer for the tenants of the housing.  The buildings that surrounded her slowly began to loom farther and farther overhead, actually bending to enclose the atrium as if they were staring at her. She supposed they were.

Sarah knew where she was.  More importantly, she knew when she was and didn’t want to be here.  She looked down at her lithe but filthy six year old body clad in rags.  She wanted to run away, to escape this memory but couldn’t.

A police officer walked towards her, flanked by a woman in a business suit.

She wanted to plug her ears.

“Are you Sarah Patel?” the officer asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered shyly.

“I’m officer Sharma and this is Mrs. Bose,”

“Miss Bose.  Nice to meet you Sarah,” she said with a beautiful smile.  The smile turned into the predatory smile of a shark, complete with rows and rows of sharp teeth.

Don’t trust that smile Sarah!  Run away!

“Am I in trouble?” Sarah asked innocently.

“No, you are not in trouble but you need to come with us.  We have some bad news for you,”

This was how Sarah found out her mother was killed. She remembered every detail of that terrible day.  It wasn’t terrible that her mother died. Her mother was a drug addict and prostitute, who cared little for Sarah.  She was killed by a John the night before.  The true tragedy of that day was that she allowed herself to be taken by Miss Bose to the New Delhi Orphanage for Girls.  Miss Bose was young and pretty.  Sarah had no idea the devil would appear as an angel.

The New Delhi Orphanage for Girls was a state run institution for only the most desperate of cases.  On the outside, the orphanage was the model of the new, progressive and advanced form of government charity. The building wasn’t very tall, only two stories, but it grew in front of her eyes.  The building grew dark and lopsided and bent at impossible angles. The sky circled in black, ominous clouds directly over the orphanage. All children were to receive the best care and education.  As always, the reality was far, far from what the pamphlets said.

Unlike all of the movies about orphans Sarah would watch later in life, every girl had their own room, with a desk and computer.  Of course the rooms had no locks, for the girl’s safety of course.

Sarah remembered that first night, even though she fought the memory. She wanted desperately to go back to the beach and close these memories behind a locked door again.

Sarah lay on her bed, not sad about her mother, just nervous.  She had no belongings to pack and didn’t know how to use a computer or even what she would do with it.

She didn’t want to remember this either.

Four of the bigger girls barged in her room.

“I’m Saanvi.  Who are you?” the oldest and fattest of the girls said.

“I’m Sarah,” she said meekly.

“I don’t care who you are,” said Saanvi.

“So why did you ask?”

“Oh, you want give me lip huh? Since you new here, I’m going to educate ya.  Around here, I am boss.  You don’t do nuth’n without my say so.  You don’t even piss, without my permission. Got it?” Saanvi sneered.

Sarah just nodded and didn’t say a word.  She didn’t want to cause any problems.  She just wanted to blend into the background and not be noticed until she gets out of here.

“I asked you a question bitch,” Saanvi said.  She then took a step forward and slapped Sarah hard on the cheek.

“I got it,” Sarah said, holding her burning face.

“Ya know, I don’t think you do.  You not smart enough. We can help you get smart enough,” Saanvi said.  She then motioned and all of the big girls fell upon Sarah and beat her.

Sarah remembered spending the next week in the hospital pissing blood.  It wasn’t the last time she received a vicious beating but it was the worst.  Eventually Saanvi turned eighteen and left, and the beatings stopped.  However, Sarah would have been more than happy to get beaten if she could have avoided the worst part of the orphanage, the true purpose of the orphanage.

Sarah tried to run away from these memories.  She knew what was coming next.  She had buried these painful memories for years under a hard, unfeeling exterior that she called professionalism but was actually a purposeful disconnect from her feelings and memories. Her cold, outside demeanor was the door she locked these terrible memories behind and it was wide open.

These are the memories that hid in her closet and under her bed at night.  They didn’t show their ugly faces, but Sarah knew they were always there, just on the edge.  Sarah feared more than anything that these terrifying memories will rear their ugly heads.

Sarah was now ten years old and stood in front of Miss Bose’s door and knocked.

Turn around!  Don’t go in there!

Sarah pleaded with her younger self, but she reached for the door knob anyway.

“Ah Sarah!  I’m glad you came,” said Miss Bose from behind her desk.  In the chair across from the desk sat an elderly, well-dressed man, staring at Sarah with an expression she couldn’t understand yet.  A halo of light surrounded Miss Bose’ head.

“You see? Pre-pubescent, Punjab with long hair and very pretty I might add.  Just like you wanted,” Miss Bose said in a business-like tone.

“Yes.  Very impressive.  Very pretty.  What’s the price?” he asked.

“Funding for another month, and a two percent raise,” she said immediately.

“I’m assuming for that price I get unlimited liberties?”

Miss Bose laughed.

“My dear, no.  That’s the price for one time.  If you don’t like it, find someplace else that can make custom orders and won’t ask questions.  Sarah, you may go now,” Miss Bose said.

Sarah turned around to leave.  She was getting a creepy feeling and wanted to leave immediately.

“No!” the creepy man yelled.

“Oh? You decided to agree to my conditions?” she asked.

“Perhaps we can compromise on the price?” he asked hopefully.

“We do not barter here like a roadside merchant.  If you don’t like the price, you can leave.  I have a long waiting list of potential clients,” Miss Bose said.

The entire time Sarah stood as motionless as a statue, not understanding what was going on, but knowing something was wrong.

“Fine.  The next chamber meeting is in three days.  I’ll get your funding and your raise,” he said with a sneer.

“I’m glad we could reach an agreement.  Upon confirmation, she’ll be delivered to you,” she said with the same smile Aurora would wear years later.

“Five percent raise and I get a sample right now,” the man said excitedly.

“Deal,” Miss Bose said.  And with that, she stood up and walked towards Sarah.

“Now you be a good girl and obey Mr. Gupta. If you don’t…let’s say, you’ll be in serious trouble.  Pissing blood will be the least of your concerns,” she whispered in her ear before she left the room. Her halo of light turned into seething worms made out of pure darkness.

“Come over and sit on my lap little girl,” grinned the evil man.

NO!

Sarah forced the memory from her mind like a priest exorcising a demon.  She wouldn’t survive re-living those memories.  She had to escape, had to find a pleasant memory somewhere.

She found her first kiss. Her first voluntary kiss. It was another girl from the orphanage, two years older than her.  Sarah couldn’t remember her name, but did remember that she was adopted three weeks later and Sarah never saw her again.

Sarah needed a stronger memory, a better memory to keep her away from that room.  She could feel the tendrils of what happened in that room reaching closer towards her.

She remembered when she turned eighteen and left the orphanage.  That was a very good day and a very good memory.  She could feel the pull of that room, the evil man and Miss Bose getting weaker.

Sarah was there, eighteen and free for the first time in her life.  She walked the five blocks, straight to the recruiting office.  She had never felt freedom before and didn’t know what to do with it.  It terrified her.  She wanted order, structure and if she was going to give up her freedom, at least it would be her choice and for a good cause.

Sarah remembered signing the paper and the congratulations of the recruiters.  Two days later she was shipped off to Varuna for Basic Training to become a Fusilier.

The Drill Sergeants did their best to break her down, but none of the yelling or hitting affected her.  You can’t break what’s already broken.  She was one of the rare people that enjoyed Basic Training.  This was heaven compared to the orphanage!

The BRM, Basic Rifle Marksmanship, portion of the training changed her life forever.  Having never touched a firearm before, she scored near perfect marks.  She was a natural.  Those in charge took note.  Not only was she a natural, she enjoyed it.  She found her calling.

It was no surprise that after only a year as a Fusilier, she was selected for the Kamau teams.  You don’t join the Kamau, you are selected.

The day she was accepted in the Kamau teams was the happiest day of her life.  The tendrils of her nightmares fled from these happy memories and she clung to them.  For the first time in her life she found purpose and a sense of what home is supposed to be like.

She was running on the beach with the rest of her squad, all brothers and sisters.  The Kamau had a strict physical regimen; a 10 kilometer run and a one kilometer swim every morning.  Sarah enjoyed them and learned to turn her brain off and relax.

Sarah could feel the wind blowing through her thick, black hair.  She could feel the ocean spray hit her legs and cool the burning muscles.  The sun was bright and gulls circled overhead.

Sarah looked around and found that she was alone on the beach and it was getting darker.  The sun wasn’t setting, it was just growing dark and cold.  She shivered and noticed that she could see her breath come out in puffs of mist.  Then, the same dark mist grew out of nowhere and began rushing towards her.

Sarah knew she couldn’t escape it and threw her arms out, tilted her head back and let it hit her.

Before it hit her a figure came running out of the fog towards her.  It was Bella dressed in full armor.  Bella glowed and gave out light like an angel. Six feathery wings sprouted from her back.

“Get away from the fog!  Don’t let it take you!” Bella shouted as she ran.  When Bella got close, she bent down and scooped Sarah up onto her shoulder, carrying her like a bag of potatoes.

Sarah awoke.

Lights were flashing past her vision as she was being jostled up and down.  She was fully awake now and realized that she was being carried on someone’s shoulder.  Two long, blonde pig tails poked out from the helmet of the person carrying her.

It was Bella and she was running as fast as the rest of the team, back towards their ship.

“Mosiah?” Sarah managed to say through a throat that wasn’t cooperating.

“Adesh has him,” she said through her heavy breathing.

Before Sarah could croak out another question, Bella ran through the airlock of the Agamemnon.  She threw Sarah onto a grav couch and buckled her in.

Before Sarah passed out again, she felt somebody holding her hand tightly.

Chapter 17

San Pietro Di NeoTerra

Sarah woke to the sight of an unfamiliar ceiling.  It was an off-white color and made of that flimsy cork board all government building used since time immemorial.  She cast her eyes around the room.  There were no decorations, no flowers and no colors.

Yup, a government building.

Sarah noticed that she was hooked up to various machines and began pulling off the sensor pads that monitored her vitals.  The machine instantly gave the sound of a flatline. A nurse instantly stuck her head in to see the problem and noticed Sarah.

“Glad to see you awake Miss Patel.  Would you like something to eat or drink?” said the pretty, young nurse.

“Where am I?” Sarah asked.

“Inside the Hexahedron infirmary.  You’ve been here since last night when Operative Aurora brought you in,”

“What’s my status?” asked Sarah, her professional façade back in place for now.

“All vitals are good.  You had a nasty bump on the head, but nothing serious.  You were just brought here for monitoring,”

“Did they bring anybody else?  A couple of Tongans? An American Corporate Security officer? A Filipino man named Mosiah?” Sarah asked, though she knew the Nisse was dead.

“I’m sorry to inform you that Sgt. Mosiah Hernandez was killed in action,” the nurse said and seemed genuinely sad.

“The Orc trooper, Aanandi Sodhi received two broken ribs but is resting comfortably.  The other Orc trooper, Gbate was shot, stabbed and burned but is conscious and alert and asking the nurses to bring him books…he’ll be fine,” the nurse said with a smile.

“Can I leave?” Sarah asked.  More than anything she just wanted to go home.

“I’m afraid we still have to monitor you for another four hours,”

“Ok, thanks,” Sarah said.

She lay back down on the bed, but putting her head against the pillow gave her a headache.  She sat up, operated the controls on the nightstand beside her and accessed the net. She checked a few forums she was following but nothing new or interesting, so she decided to catch up on the news.

A sleazy tabloid said that Achilles is going through a nasty fight with whatever girlfriend he had this week.  Another even sleazier tabloid said that the infamous “Bat Boy” has been found on Paradiso.  Sarah almost chuckled, then found a real news site.  She wasn’t in the mood for comedy.

A small city on the Sino-Indian border, Nathu La has declared its independence from Yu Jing and wants to join with Pan Oceania.  Pan Oceania is threatening to retaliate of Yu Jing uses violence against the peaceful, freedom loving people.

“Those commie bastards aren’t going to like that,” Sarah said to herself.

“No they are not,” said a voice that sounded like it belonged to a movie star.

Aurora walked in the room and walked over to Sarah.  She bent over and kissed her gently on the lips.

“How are you feeling?” asked Aurora.

“Like a Jotum stepped on me, but I’ll be fine,” Sarah said.

“You know Mosiah didn’t make it?” Aurora asked.  Her face instantly transforming into a mask of grief.

“Yeah. I watched it happen,”

Sarah didn’t know what to say and feared that if she said anything else, she would burst into tears.  Sarah hadn’t cried since she was in the orphanage and wasn’t going to start again.  Especially not in front of Aurora.

“You did a great job out there Sarah.  You really did.  I’m proud of you,” Aurora said smiling.  The mask of grief instantly falling from her face like it was never there.

Sarah noticed that even this smile still didn’t reach her eyes.  She couldn’t be sure, but she might have seen a small tick of annoyance behind the façade.

“Thank you baby.  I just hope it was worth it,” Sarah said, thinking of Mosiah’s death.

“Oh it was.  We have so much information, it’s going to take a while to go through it all.  You managed to get a lot, despite the attempted server wipe,” Aurora said, with a hint of frustration on the last part of the sentence.

“Just doing my part I guess,” Sarah said, feigning humility.

“Well, you take it easy.  I want you healthy and I want you home.  Let’s face it, I just want you. See you in a few hours…I’ll be waiting,” Aurora laughed.  The laugh seemed genuine, and it was such a beautiful laugh.

Sarah just smiled at Aurora as she left.  The moment Aurora was gone, the smile left Sarah’s face.  She toggled her HUD and dialed a number.

“Hello?” Said Bella, her two dimensional face appearing to hover in front of Sarah’s vision. She was panting and sweating. Of course it was all just electrical impulses fired directly into her brain via her wetware cybernetic implants.

“Bella, I need your help,”

“What do you need?” Bella said, instantly serious and alert.

“I need one of your Cyber Warfare Units brought to the hospital,”

“Why?” Bella asked as she started walking out the gym.

“I’ll explain when you get here.  Please hurry,” Sarah said, pleading.

“Enroute,” Bella said and cut communications.

Sarah lay back in her bed and anxiously waited for Bella to arrive.

Bella arrived not even ten minutes later, panting and holding a visor and gloves, still dressed in her sports bra and yoga pants.  God, she was beautiful. Sarah felt the twinge of regret again.

“I didn’t know if you needed the gloves or not, so I brought them,” she said.

“No, I have the finger implants.  All Kamau do,” Sarah said taking the CWU visor from Bella.

“So, do you mind telling me why you need to borrow a military grade, Bolt issue, hacking visor?” Bella said, placing her hands on her shapely hips.

“I’m having doubts about my relationship,” Sarah said, putting on the visor and turning it on.

Light flooded her vision and she felt the familiar disorientation of jumping face first off a cliff.

The Bolt issue hacking device was almost exactly like her Kamau issued one, so there was no problem with familiarity.

She knew where she was going and dove straight for the Hexahedron government files.  She came at it sideways, covering her tracks and masking her presence.

Sarah was in her element. She was just as comfortable here as she was on the firing range.

She easily found and accessed the medical examiner’s files regarding the late Dr. Draut.

Since they were not tagged as “Secret”, they were open for any government agency viewing.  Sarah wasn’t an authorized government agency, so she masked herself as one and made sure not to trigger any automatic alarms that would send an alert if the file was accessed.

She easily found the file and opened it up.

It was blank.

“Shit,”

“What’s up?” Bella asked as she watched Sarah sit in bed and wave her hands around.

“Dr. Draut’s ME report has been erased,” Sarah said.

“Why is that important?” asked Bella.

“Hold on,”

Sarah had to evade a security protocol, which she did so easily.  It was an automated, random sweep, no problem.  She continued searching for Dr. Draut’s personnel file. That too had been erased.

“Every mention of Dr. Draut has been erased from all government servers.  It was systematic and deliberate,” Sarah said.

“Why would someone do that?” Bella asked.

“I’m not sure,”

Sarah thought about what Crystal had told her about Dr. Draut’s wound.  Shot at point blank range, execution style.

“Something is definitely not right here.  It’s too bad all of her info has been erased.  We need to find out what she was up to,” Sarah said.

“Well, her files might have been erased in the Hexahedron…but that doesn’t mean they aren’t somewhere else,” Bella said with a shrug.

“Of course! Bella you’re a genius!”

“I know,” Bella said with a shrug.

“But out of curiosity, can you explain why I am a genius?” Bella asked.

“Dr. Draut’s files aren’t in the databases of the Hexahedron, but you just told me where I could find them,” Sarah said.

“Where?”

“With the Nomads,” Sarah said.

“But what are you getting at here?  What’s going on?” Bella asked impatiently.

“Bottom line, I think my girlfriend might be a giant psycho-bitch,” Sarah said.

“I could have told you that,” Bella mumbled.

Chapter 18

San Pietro Di NeoTerra

Sarah had her suspicions.  What trust she had in Aurora was diminished. She did not know that Aurora was up to something, but she no longer trusted her.

Aurora was at her apartment, waiting for her to return home and that was the last place she wanted to be right now.  She didn’t want to spend a romantic evening with someone she no longer trusted.

It was Bella that convinced her to go anyway.  Even though Sarah could see how much it pained Bella to say it, she was right.

“You need to go home.  Aurora is waiting for you,” Bella said.

“Are you kidding? I can’t go there.  Not with her there,” Sarah protested.

“The last thing we want right now is for a Hexa Operative to be suspicious of us.  She can’t know that we are on to her.  You need to stay close and find out what she’s up to.  If you don’t go to her now, she’ll know something’s up,” Bella said.

Sarah was released from the hospital and walked back to her flat by herself.  It was good to have Bella on her side again, but hated doing this to her.  She knew that Bella had feelings for her, she couldn’t deny that anymore.  And now she knew how much this must be hurting her. However, Bella insisted Sarah act normal and stay close to Aurora.  Discovering the truth behind Aurora and doing right by Mosiah came before Bella’s own feelings, as strong as they may be.  Sarah definitely respected that and admired Bella for it.

It still wasn’t easy though.

The sun was still setting, casting a red glow over the city.  Normally this was her favorite part of the day, but even the gorgeous sunset couldn’t cheer her spirits as she walked home.

Just yesterday the thought of spending the evening with her girlfriend would have made her ecstatic. Now she felt a little like that little girl that knocked on Miss Bose’ door all those years ago.  She never wanted to feel like that again.  Sarah vowed she would never debase herself again, but it looks like she might have to.  At least this was for a good cause, not the greed of a government employee.  She was going to find out the truth.

Who knows? Maybe Aurora isn’t planning anything, she’s innocent and they can go back to being a happy couple in a healthy relationship.

However, that feeling of dread followed her to her front door.

She stood before it, not wanting to go in yet.  Ever. But she knew how to put on a face and act happy, even when you are dead inside. She’s had plenty of practice.

She opened the door and walked in.

Aurora was standing there with a bottle of champagne in one hand and two glasses in the other.  Her long, blonde hair, normally hanged down and unbound, was stylishly up, with chopsticks keeping it in place.  She wore a tight, almost transparent black dress.  Gods she was beautiful.  Sarah prayed with all of her faith that her suspicions proved to be nothing.

“I’d love to be that woman that can prepare a romantic, candle-lit dinner…but I can’t cook.  So I ordered from my favorite Indian restaurant,” Aurora said with that same, superficial smile and dead eyes.

“That sounds perfect, love,” Sarah said.

She gave Aurora a quick kiss and headed to her bedroom.

Sarah came out a few minutes later wearing a sari and bindi.  Her long, glossy black hair parted to show the bindi on her forehead and hanging down over her shoulders.

Sarah stopped to light some incense at the shrine of Ganesh and Ardhanarishvara before meeting Aurora at the dinner table.  The small table was adorned with perfectly placed plates, utensils and champagne glasses.  There was even a rose in a small vase in the middle of the table.

“You are truly stunning Sarah,” Aurora said.  Now that Sarah could read Aurora better and knew what to look for, she could tell that Aurora was actually impressed.  That made Sarah genuinely smile.  Sarah could always make the sari look good.

“Thank you love. This dinner looks and smells wonderful.  You really shouldn’t have,” Sarah said.

“You don’t understand how scared I was when we lost contact with your team.  The thought of losing you terrified me.  I’m just glad you’re ok,” Aurora said.

What good feelings Sarah had upon seeing Aurora in the slinky black dress burned away like fog in the sunlight.  She saw behind Aurora’s mask and knew that she didn’t mean any of it.  None of this meant anything to her. As Aurora’s mask fell for Sarah, she put on her own.

“All I could think about was you, Aurora.  I was just hoping that you would make it back to the ship, that you would be safe,” Sarah said.  Those drama classes in school were finally paying off.  Sarah figured that Aurora thought she was gullible and emotional, so she would play into that.

“How sweet,” Aurora said.  She picked up her glass and raised it.

“To us! May we both watch each other’s backs and always make it back safely,” Aurora said.

“To Mosiah,” Sarah said.  She knew this wasn’t in character but couldn’t let it slide.  She wanted to throw his death in her face and make her pay for it.

“To the fallen,” Aurora said, her smile faltering.

“Let’s eat!” Sarah said quickly, not letting the awkward moment last.

Sarah dug into her keema curry.  She had to hand it to Aurora, the food was great.  She never let little things like being disgusted with herself or discovering your girlfriend is a lying manipulator, get in the way of her appetite.

She kept up the conversation as if everything was normal.  She even flirted and acted sexy for Aurora.  After dinner, as Sarah feared, they made love.  Though, Sarah knew love had nothing to do with it for either of them.

Thankfully Aurora was gone before Sarah woke up.  If Aurora had stayed, she would have seen Sarah spend an hour in the shower trying to cleanse herself of memories from her time in the orphanage that reminded herself so much of last night.

After her shower and breakfast, she messaged Bella and Crystal.

“Meet me at the corner café two blocks south of the Hexahedron in one hour.  Wear something inconspicuous,”

Sarah got dressed in a sari.  Because of the large Indian population in San Pietro, she would blend in.  Also, the sari would hide her shoulder holster nicely. She then walked the few kilometers to the café. She made sure she wasn’t being followed and took a circuitous path to get there. She arrived a half hour early and cased the place. It was the same brick and Ivy covered café that she shared with Crystal before the mission to Roanoke Island. She made sure to get a table not visible from the office building across the street.  When performing surveillance ops, she would frequently set up with a laser mic in a nearby building. Once seated, she used her internal radio scanner wired into her Times Square Plus wetware and started scanning.  If there were any listening devices or small cameras, she could detect the trace frequencies.

The café seemed clear.  When dealing with Hexas, it’s not whether you are paranoid, but whether you are paranoid enough.  She had no doubt Aurora had her on some form of surveillance.

A few minutes later Crystal and Bella arrived and sat down at the table.  Crystal did not seem happy to be there.  She was wearing a black trench coat, with her bobbed, red hair hidden beneath a black beret.

“Could you TRY to stand out any more? You look like you’re in a cheesy spy movie,” Sarah said.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t get super spy training at the super spy Kamau academy like you.  I’m a medical student. I’m just trying to do my time to pay for med school like all Trauma Docs,” Crystal said.

Bella was dressed much more sensibly in a frumpy grey sweater, jeans, baseball cap and sunglasses.

“Next time, dress like Bella,” said Sarah.

“So besides a scathing critique of my espionage wardrobe, what am I doing here?” Crystal asked.

“I think you were right,” Sarah said plainly.

“About what specifically?” She said.

“About Aurora.  I think you were right to suspect her,”

“I’m intrigued.  Why are you coming around?  What happened?” Crystal asked, now leaning over the table towards Sarah.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about what you said about the contact burn on Dr. Draut’s temple.  Simply, there is no other explanation. Aurora was alone with the doctor on Svalarheima.  She was the only one that could have killed her.  I decided to look into it some more, so I hacked the Medical Examiner’s files and every mention of Dr. Draut had been erased.  It’s as if she never existed,”

“There’s more,” Bella said.

“Right.  On our last op, on Roanoke Island, something happened.  While I was hacking the data servers, there was another hacker trying to interfere,” Sarah said.

“What’s weird about that? Those mongrel Nomads are famous for their illegal hacking.  There was probably a Custodier or Moderator trying to keep you out of their system,” Crystal pointed out.

“Like you said, Nomads are very good hackers.  I was better than this one and when the enemy hacker couldn’t block me, they wiped the system.  Destroyed it. No Nomad would destroy their own base’s system.  That controls their life support and communications. Also, the other hacker logged off right before Aurora left her console.  I was watching her on my HUD,”

“So, if it was Aurora, why would she order you to hack the console and then try to block you out?” Crystal asked.

“Well, if you paid attention to the mission briefings…” Bella started.

“I slept through all that hacking bullocks,” Crystal said unapologetically.

“…You would have heard that in order to gain access to the system, two people had to initiate hacking protocols at both consoles at the same time,” Bella finished.

“So, Aurora needed you to gain access, but then didn’t want you to obtain the information we were sent for?” Crystal asked.

“Exactly!” Sarah said.

“It’s like she is covering her tracks or tying up loose ends,” Bella said excitedly.  When she got excited, her Polish accent would come through. Sarah liked the sound of it.

“She’s not trying to obtain information, she’s systematically destroying it,” Sarah said.

“Why? Is our mission a total lie? Was the data for the next Historical Recreation even stolen?”

“The data to recreate Rani Lakshmibal was indeed stolen.  I verified that.  Also, Yu Jing most likely does possess the data in an attempt to recreate their own, Hua Mulan,” Bella said.

“So what the bloody hell is that blonde bitch up to?” asked Crystal.

“I’m not sure.  It would help if we knew what was on that server that was erased,” Sarah said.

“Too bad we can’t just call Roanoke Island and ask them,” Bella said as she signaled for the waitress.

Sarah stared at Bella wide eyed.

“You’re a bloody genius again Bella!” Sarah said.

“Of course I am,” Bella said.

“We’ll contact Roanoke Island.  Their entire system was wiped.  Life support, heating, plumbing and communications are all down.  I still have a partial copy of their system.  I can remotely upload it and bring the base back online in exchange for the info,”

“That is genius…glad I thought of it,” Bella said.

“This is going to get big.  We need more people on our side here.  Who else on our team can we trust with this?” Crystal asked.

“I think we can trust Aanandi and maybe Adesh,” Sarah said.

“I know I can trust the rest of my Bolts,” Bella said.

“Good.  I’ll approach Aanandi and Adesh, you fill the rest of your team in. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get,” Sarah said.

“You keep dressing in those saris and you could recruit anyone,” Bella said with a wink.

“Oh god.  You two always flirting…” Crystal mumbled.

Sarah was about to comment on Bella’s drab clothing when she noticed the butt of a handgun sticking up from a paddle holster on her hip, partially hidden by her sweater.

“What’s that fashion accessory you have there? That’s not your issued weapon,” Sarah said.

“It’s Mosiah’s .454 revolver.  I contacted his family when I shipped his belongings back. They wanted me to keep it until this mission was over.  They said that Mosiah would want it to keep me safe and bring me home again.  Good people,” Bella couldn’t say more without losing her composure.

“Good.  You keep that with you. Mosiah definitely would have wanted that,”

“Now where is that damn waitress?  I need some caffeine,” Crystal said.

Chapter 19

Hexahedron: San Pietro Di Neoterra

Making a call to a Nomad Nation secret base wasn’t as easy as it sounded.  The Nomads were not connected to Mayanet and made it extremely difficult to access their internal network.  However, through a little digging, Sarah found one place in San Pietro that could make such a call.

Inside the Hexahedron itself.

Sarah found the CDLD (Communication Device Long Distance) in a secured area.  Since she was working on Hexa Operative business with the proper authority, she gained access.

Sarah had never seen one before.  She was expecting a giant, dramatic looking bank of holo-screens and terminals but what she found was a simple monitor set up in a glorified closet.  An archaic keyboard, with actual keys finished the ensemble.

First, she used the authorization code of another Hexa she stole from the data crypt, then input the transponder code for Roanoke Island.

The connection took several minutes.  Sarah used that time to set up fire walls and encryption to make sure this conversation stayed private.

Eventually the monitor crackled to life. And a face appeared.  The face was attractive, seductive even, but was not human.  The image was fuzzy but there was no mistaking who it was.

“Who is this?” said the Chimera on the other side of screen.

“How’s the arm?” Sarah asked.

The Chimera was taken aback, but regained her composure.  She looked thoughtful for a moment before responding, her facial expressions almost exaggerated.

“How’s your head love?” the Chimera responded with a smirk.

“So you remember me? How touching,” Sarah said.

“What do you want? I didn’t think Kamau were paid enough to afford this kind of long distance call,” she said.

“I have a proposition to make.  I think you’ll find it in both of our interests,” Sarah said.

“You come into our house, kill our men, wipe our system and leave us cold, running out of air in deep space without comms…except for this, and now you want to make a deal? You have some cojones!” the Chimera scoffed.

“Wiping your base’s system was never part of the plan.  That is partially what I want to talk to you about,”

“I’m all ears,” the Chimera said, wiggling her feline ears.

“I can partially restore your base’s system, possibly bringing vital systems back online in exchange for some information,” Sarah said.

“Restore our atmosphere filtration system as a good will token first, then we can talk.  I have personnel that unless they get some oxygen, will no longer need rescuing.  In less than twenty-four hours, I’ll be the only living thing on this damn rock,” the Chimera said seriously.

“Give me a few minutes, I’ll try.  I haven’t gone through the data packet yet,” Sarah said as she began extracting the vital algorithms necessary for the atmosphere recycling systems.  She isolated and extracted the information and sent it to Roanoke Island.

Sarah saw the fine, white fur on the Chimera’s pretty face being rustled by a slight breeze.  The atmosphere recycling systems had obviously come back online.

“My crew will appreciate that love. We would just rebuild our system, but you killed all of our programers.  Now, what do you want to know that your illegal attack and data theft couldn’t tell you?”

“I want to know why we were there,” Sarah said seriously.

The Chimera was surprised again.  She obviously wore her emotions on her sleeve.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re right.  We were there illegally under orders from the Hexahedron.  The Operative that planned the attack has an ulterior motive and I want to find out what it is,”

The Chimera laughed.  Her laugh, like her voice was musical and very pleasant to listen to.  She could understand why so many people considered Chimeras seductive.

“A Hexa Operative being shady? Who would’ve guessed?” the Chimera said, still laughing.

“Are all ground pounders so stupid?” she said, as she finally finished laughing.

“Yeah, well…it’s complicated. Anyway, we were sent there to steal information regarding the theft of a Historical Recreation that my government was working on.  Project Rani Lakshmibal.  We were informed that you stole the data,”

“Stole? We didn’t steal anything. A Dr. Draut…I think that was her name, sold us the information.  I know, I brokered the deal myself,”

“Dr. Draut!? She sold you the information? She died trying to keep the information secret,” Sarah said.

“Well, the tall black-haired beauty with the gun to her back might have had something to do with it,” the Chimera said.

“Who? Someone forced her to sell you the info at gunpoint?” Sarah asked.

“Ok, there wasn’t literally a gun to her back but you could tell that she was being forced to by the other woman and that she was scared,”

“The other woman wasn’t tall, blonde and Caucasian?” Sarah asked

“No.  She was tall and beautiful but definitely with black hair,”

Sarah uploaded a picture of Aurora to Roanoke Island’s server.

“I just sent you a photo.  Take a good look.  Is that the other woman?”

The Chimera looked at the photo for only a second.

“Yup, that’s definitely her.  I’d recognize those dead eyes and glorious high cheek bones anywhere.  A very beautiful but frightening woman,” the Chimera said.

“Yes she is.  She’s the Operative that ordered the strike on your base,”

The Chimera’s eyes narrowed dangerously and she bared her fangs and began swearing in languages Sarah couldn’t begin to understand.

“Why would she sell you the data, then turn around and wipe it from your servers?” Sarah asked.

The Chimera rolled her eyes.

“Duh. She’s covering her tracks obviously.  Probably because she doesn’t want it found out that she meant for us to sell it to Yu Jing.  We were just the middle men in this little business deal.  The Nomad Nation has no interest in developing decrepit historical people.  We have better shit to do,” said the Chimera.

Sarah was stunned.

“I’m going to kill that bitch,” Sarah said gritting her teeth.

“Good.  Please put a bullet in her face for me.  If you send me a video, I’ll owe you a favor,” said the Chimera.

“Deal.  I’m uploading the rest of your system data now.  You should have life support and communications up and running soon,” Sarah said as she began the upload.

Chapter 20

Hexahedron: San Pietro Di Neoterra

Leave was over and all personnel were ordered to report to the briefing room in the Hexahedron.  Sarah was very glad.  She enjoyed having time off, but did not enjoy spending time with Aurora.  Aurora was the same; attentive, thoughtful and passionate.  It was Sarah that was different.  She knew that Aurora was lying and putting the team in danger for her own agenda and it gnawed on her.  Each passing day, it was becoming more and more difficult to act like normal around Aurora.  She was glad to finally be busy again.

The entire team, except Mosiah of course, were gathered in the briefing room.  The two CSUs and both Devas were also in attendance, one of the Devas sporting a brand new body thanks to some Pupniks.

Sarah gave Bella and her team, Crystal, Aanandi and Adesh a nod.  Those were all of the team members that were in on Sarah’s little rebellion.  Aanandi still wasn’t sure about Gbate and was still debating whether to let him in on the secret. Even though they worked together for years, there was something about him that Aanandi didn’t trust.

Aurora walked into the room at exactly 0800 hrs.  She was wearing her full combat gear and followed by a man in hulking Aquila armor.  He didn’t say a word and stood there with arms crossed.

“Good morning all.  I hope you enjoyed your rest and recovery because it’s game time again.  We are going to have to move fast on this one.  There will be some training and rehearsals, but not much.  To cover our loss, I enlisted the help of Major Instructor Mesa of the Aquila Guard.  He’s stationed here on Neoterra as a CQB instructor.  He has generously agreed to help us on our final mission, where his close quarter combat expertise will come in handy.  Major Mesa,” She said, stepping back and giving the attention to the gigantic Aquila Guard.

“As Operative Aurora said, I am an instructor here.  I have been on countless deployments and fought in every theatre of war the Hyperpower has been involved in in the last thirty years.   I’m not saying this to show off and impress you.  I don’t give a fuck what you think of me.  I say this, so when I tell you what you did wrong and what you can do to fix it, you take it to heart and don’t let your ego puff you up.  You puff up at me and I will deflate you.  I’ve gone over the footage from your last mission and to say that I was unimpressed by your performances is a severe understatement.  Fusiliers straight out of Basic Training would have been more professional and precise than what I saw here.  We are going to go through each of your helmet-cam footage and do an After Action Review on what you did…step by step,” said Mesa as the lights dimmed and Aanandi’s camera footage was holo projected in the front of the room.

“Orc Trooper Aanandi.  You’re up first,” said Aquila Mesa.

The AAR took all day and it was well into the night before they were released for the day. Sarah, Bella, Crystal and Aanandi left the Hexahedron to go to the Golden Manatee.  They all needed a drink after what they just went through.

“That was the most brutal AAR I’ve ever been a part of.  I almost walked out of the room when he began to criticize Mosiah choking that Nomad out instead of killing him,” Crystal said, pulling the collar up on her issue “Trauma Doc” trench coat.

“Mosiah never wanted to take life unnecessarily.  Definitely unique for a Nisse,” said Bella as she kicked a small rock down the street.

Sarah was about to add to the conversation when she heard some footsteps coming up behind them.  She put her hand on the butt of her pistol and turned around.

“Easy there Tex.  This aint high noon,” said one of the two CSUs that had been following them in a horrific fake Texas accent. They both stood there, about fifty meters behind, in their white bodices, dark red skirts with matching hats.  They too also wore side arms on their hips.

“Why are you following us?” Sarah asked, not removing her hand from her gun.

“We want to talk to you. May we approach?” said the other CSU.

Sarah relaxed a little and the two CSUs took the queue and walked closer.  They were both blonde and had very similar facial features and were very pretty.  It was obvious genetic tampering.  Corporations usually wanted a uniform appearance for their security.

“We want in,” said one of them. Her name plate said Rogers.

“In on what?” said Sarah.

“Whatever you guys are planning.  I overheard you talking at the café after the last op.  We agree with your conclusions and we want in,” said the other CSU named Stevens.

“I didn’t see you at the café,” said Bella.

“We weren’t at the café.  We were in the restaurant across the street,” said Stevens.

“Then how the bloody hell could you hear us?” said Crystal.

“Enhanced hearing.  Some of our modifications are permanent.  Increased hearing, vision and olfactory senses are part of the package.  It’s the big stuff, like sub dermal armor or speed that kicks in at random times,” said Rogers with a shrug of her perfectly shaped shoulders.

“How can we trust you?  You could be part of it,” said Aanandi, almost angrily.

“You can’t.  I understand.  We were just hired out by our company.  We’re mercenaries, nothing more.  We have no allegiance to the Hexahedron.  Give us a mission, something to prove our loyalty.  If this bitch Aurora is going to get us killed, we’ll do what it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Stevens in her harsh American accent.

“That’s a good idea but I can’t think of…” Sarah began.

“I know what you could do,” said Aanandi.

“Name it,” said Stevens.

“Follow Gbate.  Verify if he would be receptive or if he’s loyal to Aurora.  I would like to enlist his help as well but my gut tells me no,” Aanandi said.

“We can do that.  After we verify one way or the other, will you let us in?” said Stevens.

“Yes,” Sarah said without hesitation.  She had been hacking into their personnel files while talking and saw that they had no prior connection with Aurora and had never even worked for the PanO military before.

“It’s a deal.  We’ll find out and return and report.  Have a nice evening ladies,” Stevens said with a wink as she turned and walked away, Rogers one step behind.

Once out of earshot, even enhanced earshot, they began talking again.

“Those two would be very welcome allies,” said Aanandi.

“I don’t know…I don’t trust them,” Bella said without conviction.

“We’ll see what they find out about Gbate, then decide.  The more the merrier, as they say,” said Sarah.

They turned around and started heading to the Golden Manatee again.

Once at their favorite bar, all thoughts of duty, vengeance and betrayal quickly left them. A few drinks, paid for by Sarah, helped ease the passing of anxiety.

“The A1 is clearly superior to the A2,” Sarah said for the fifth time, slurring the last word.

“A higher rate of fire does not mean it’s a better weapon!” Bella said.

“Ok, I admit that maybe for protracted engagements, rolling around in the mud and general snake eating like you Bolts do, the A2 is the better combi rifle.  But for us, more elite units…” Sarah received a quick punch in the arm from Bella.

“…the A1, with its rotary barrels and much higher rate of fire, is the better weapon.  We don’t deploy for months on end and crawl around in the mud.  We deploy, take out the target and are back in time to shove dollars in a strippers G-string that night,” Sarah finished, ignoring the punch.

Bella sat back in her booth seat, exasperated.  The worn, but surprisingly clean seats were covered in a dark crimson faux leather and all the furniture was a dark wood varnish.  A live band doing covers of the latest top forty songs played loudly in the background.

“Aanandi, Crystal, please talk some sense into our esteemed Kamau,” Bella said.

“I prefer the shotgun or M-45A1 HMG.  Sorry, I don’t shoot baby guns,” Aanandi said.

“I’ve only ever used the A2. Can’t help you there,” said Crystal.

“Damn medical student,” Bella grumbled.

“It’s a moot point anyway.  I prefer the M-91A5.  That sniper rifle, combined with the Xtreme Range Visor is a deadly combination.  Not many things can take a hit from a Tesseum core, 8.5mm round traveling at thirty-five thousand feet per second,” Sarah said.

“That’s a good point,” Bella conceded.

“But the A2 with an under barrel ‘master key’ is by far the best weapon in our armory.  You can reach out and touch someone or blast them in the face with a shotgun up close.  It’s the best of both worlds really,” Bella said and took a sip from her Acontacimento-jito.

Sarah was about to argue that the under barrel grenade launcher was superior when she received an incoming call. She toggled the red, blinking glyph in her periphery vision to answer.

Rogers and Stevens faces appeared.

“We got something for you,” Rogers said in her jarring American accent.

“I’m sending you the live video feed now,” Stevens said.

By now, the other women could tell that Sarah was listening to something important and quieted down.

Sarah received the feed and began to play it after she ran a few tracking programs of course.  She clearly saw Gbate and Aurora sitting in a restaurant together.  Sarah didn’t recognize the place, but it was fancy.  Italian by the décor.  The voices were fuzzy, but understandable.

“I’m counting on you baby,” Aurora said, gently stroking the side of his face.

“You know I got your back.  I’ll do anything for you,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her.

“I’ll fill you in on the specifics later, but I need you to protect the package.  At all costs.  Everything depends on it,” Aurora said, looking to Gbate with feigned hope and admiration.

“You seen ‘nuff? Stevens said.

“Yeah, I’ve seen enough.  Ok, you’re in.  Meet us here at the Golden Manatee.  We have a lot to discuss.

Sarah then sent the saved file to Bella, Crystal and Aanandi without a word.

After they all watched it, they each showed a different emotion.  Bella was angry.  Crystal was resigned to it and just shrugged.  Aanandi showed deep anguish and disappointment on her scarred face.  Her two eyes, one biological and the other bionic, flashed up at Sarah.

“Us Orcs are supposed to stick together. This bitch is going down,” she almost growled.

“We start planning now.  But whatever plan we come up with, I’m the one that takes her out.  Agreed?” Sarah said.

They all agreed.

Chapter 21

Neoterra: Hexahedron

Baxter looked up from the perfectly polished gun counter he was working at.  A beautiful Indian woman walked through the front door of his store, “Crusader Weaponry and Range”.  She wasn’t in uniform, but he could tell she was military; her poise, confident and rigid demeanor and of course, the standard issue sidearm and knife on her belt.  Baxter spent ten years in the service himself.  Three as a Fusilier and the rest as a Guarda de Assaulto.  He knew the type.

“Good morning ma’am.  What can I do for you today?” he said jovially.

“I need an hour of range time and all of the .454 casull rounds you have,” the beautiful Indian woman said.

“.454?! What do you have that fires those?” Baxter asked in surprise and wonder.

She put a case on the counter and opened it up.  Inside was an ancient but well taken care of Ruger Alaskan revolver.

“Holy shit…” Baxter said to himself.  The large revolver was obviously used.  He could see certain spots where some of the stainless finish had rubbed down, indicating frequent use in a holster.  The sights had been changed to tritium night sights and sported custom rubber grips.

“That is a beauty.  Fortunately for you, I do carry .454 rounds.  There is a private contractor company called ‘Dead Six’ that buys a lot of large handgun rounds.  It’s part of their creed or something that all members use some kind of big wheel gun.  They’re crazy, but they’re good customers,” Baxter explained.

He found a total of one hundred rounds and plopped them on the counter along with the proper paperwork to fill out.  She took his pen, expression never changing and voice the same monotone.  Most people were happy to come to the range, Baxter thought.  He shrugged and looked over her paperwork.

“Sarah Patel,” he read off the paper.

“Here’s your ammo and hearing protection.  Enjoy!” he said, overenthusiastically, trying to cheer her up.  She just put the boxes of ammunition in her basket and headed to the range without a word.

Baxter was curious about her and observed her through the safety glass.  She obviously knew what she was doing and took up a perfect Isosceles stance and began destroying paper targets with the ancient gun.   Nothing makes a satisfying bang like a large caliber revolver.

Eventually he had other things to do and went back to work but something about Miss Patel bothered him.  He tried to read her and figure out what she was feeling or thinking, but she had an awesome poker face.

An hour later, Miss Patel walked out of the firing range, smelling of burnt powder and turned in her hearing protection and basket.  She used up all one hundred rounds.

“How did you do? Mind if I see your targets?” Baxter asked.

She shrugged and showed him.  There were neat, extremely tight patterns over what would be every major body organ of the printed silhouette man on the target.

“What range was this?” he asked in awe.

“About twenty meters,” she said nonchalantly.

Baxter was speechless.  This wasn’t good shooting, this was the kind of shooting only a professional marksman could do.

“I’m guessing you ain’t a REMF admin type huh?” Baxter said.  He still used the ancient American term for Rear Echelon Mother Fucker.  He knew a paper pusher could never shoot like that.

“Definitely not,” she said simply.  She paid, put the revolver back in the case and left without another word or glance back.

An hour or two after the pretty Indian lady left, Baxter realized what he saw on her face and body language.  Terrible sadness.

That was odd. Why would she be so sad?  She had an amazing old firearm and shot really well with it. He knew random speculation would never give him the answer, so he shrugged and went back to work.

Chapter 22

Neoterra: Splendor Archipelago

Sarah slapped in another magazine into her M-91A5 sniper rifle as she took a knee behind cover.  The barrel was so hot from the constant firing, she could see heat waves coming off of it.  Incoming rounds flew over her head and cracked against the concrete barrier she was taking cover behind.  The crumbling, abandoned apartment building provided plenty of debris for her team to use.  Crystal came running and slid beside Sarah like a baseball player sliding into home.

“Are you hit?” Crystal asked, panting and sweat soaked.

“No.  I’m golden.  I could use your help though,” Sarah said, shouldering her large rifle again.

“Whatever you need, I’m here.  Adesh is down.  It’s just you, me and Aanandi, wherever she is,” she said.  Trauma Docs, like Fusiliers were not equipped with HUDs, so she could not track her team mate’s locations.

“Good, I need you to fire from your side of the barrier, and I’ll fire from the other side.  Just remember to fire from the side, not over the top.  The enemy is wanting to play ‘whack’a’mole’ with us.  On the count of three…” Sarah said and held up three fingers.  Silently she brought each finger down, one by one.  When all three fingers were down, they both turned and presented as little of themselves as possible and fired from each side of the concrete barrier simultaneously.

The loud bark of Sarah’s 8.5mm rounds drowned out the anemic, smaller rounds of the combi rifle Crystal was banging away with.  They each popped off four or five rounds each and took cover again, just in time to avoid the return fire.

“I got one!” Sarah said excitedly.  Her heartbeat and breathing echoing in her helmet, almost drowning out the gunfire.

“Time to scoot!” Crystal said.  Even though she was just a medical student doing her time in the military, she knew to never fire from the same place twice.

They both crouched low and fell back to another barrier, a fallen tree.  Aanandi was already there, reloading her MK 10 Boarding shotgun.  Sarah peaked from around the corner and saw that they had egressed just in time.  Two grenades plopped down right where they had been taking cover and detonated.

“We are all that’s left,” Aanandi said, slamming the drum magazine in place and pulling the charging handle.

“I say we go with plan A. Shoot everybody we see that’s not us,” Sarah said.

“Sounds like a good plan.  I go left, you two go right and take a firing position behind that burned out APC and cover me.  I’ll be aggressing the bastards,” Aanandi said.

“Moving!” Sarah called as she ran for cover behind a destroyed armored vehicle.  Crystal was one step behind.  They both took cover and immediately began laying down suppressive fire.  Sarah couldn’t get a good visual on any of the enemy but tried to keep their heads down with aimed shots.  She could see Aanandi moving on the map in her HUD and was almost in position.

“Keep firing, she’s almost there!” Sarah told Crystal, who didn’t have a HUD.  Crystal nodded and let loose with a long burst, emptying her magazine.

“Reloading!” Crystal yelled.  Sarah then began to rapid fire her rifle to make up the difference.

Crystal came back up and opened fire again.

“I’m up!” Crystal yelled again.

Aanandi was now in position.  Sarah could hear the bark of the large bore shotgun over the pop pop of the enemy’s combi rifles.  The tall Orc trooper pumped round after round of flechettes into the enemy position and just like that it was over.  All enemies defeated.

A loud claxon shouted and everyone stopped firing and put their weapons on safe.

“Dammit! I thought we had you!” Gbate said, standing up from behind cover and taking his helmet off.  The face plate of which was covered in paint. Paint that Aanandi had put there.  Simmunitions were a very old concept but still viable.  It was the Aquila Guard’s idea to train them in old school techniques.

“Just like Hannibal, we feigned retreat and led you into an ambush. Study your history,” Sarah said.

Gbate responded with a very old but universally rude gesture.

Instructor Major Mesa walked up to the group.  The casualties of the latest training session followed behind him.  Adesh, Bella and everyone else sported fresh paint splotches and looked dejected.

“Excellent work.  I’m very impressed,” the hulking Aquila Guard said.

“He’s complimenting us?” Bella said.

“Impossible,” said Crystal.

“Wait for it,” Sarah said, knowing what was about to follow.

“I’d be very impressed if you were Auxilia on their first day of training!” he shouted.

“There it is,” said Aanandi.

Instructor Major Mesa took off his helmet and tucked it under his arm.  If his face wasn’t covered in scars it could almost be from a recruiting poster.  High and tight haircut, clean shaven and ruggedly handsome. It was when he started talking, that those good looks and presence went away. He never talked.  He always yelled, and when he did he had what everyone called “crazy eyes”.  Sarah thought there was obviously something broken inside the man.

“Now, if you can manage without fucking it up, go shower, get dressed in your dress uniforms and be in the classroom at ten-hundred hours! Dismissed!” he yelled.  He then turned and marched off back the way he came.

“I can’t believe you shot me in the face,” Gbate said to Aanandi jokingly.

“That’s what happens when you’re not on my side,” she answered darkly.

That answer made Gbate do a double take. He thought about it, then realized she couldn’t possibly know and took it as a joke.

“Seriously, I think everyone did an outstanding job out there.  I don’t care what that douche bag Major says.  We keep fighting like this and we’ll all make it back.  Let’s watch each other’s backs and stay frosty,” Sarah said to the group.  Bella and Aanandi patted her on the back.

“If any of you want to join the real military and transfer to the Orc battalions, I’ll put in a good word.  Except you Crystal.  You need to finish medical school, become a doctor and make a lot of money,” Aanandi said, in a rare good humor.  Sarah noticed she was always in a good mood after some good violence.

They made it back to their barracks, old wooden ones that were obviously thrown up during the first colonization of Neoterra, not thinking they would be permanent.  At least they were dry, the AC worked and the showers had great water pressure.  The barracks were segregated by gender, the males on the second floor and the females on the first.  They were open bay type barracks, so privacy was non-existent.

None of them had ever completely undressed in front of the others before and were a little hesitant.  Crystal looked around and shrugged.

“Bloody hell.  Are all of you shy?” She said and instantly stripped off all of her armor and clothing, letting her red hair fall to her shoulders.  She then stood there and posed like a model in a photo shoot.

“Yeah, I’m confident.  No need to be shy ladies,” Crystal said, picking up a towel and heading to the shower.

“She certainly has nothing to be ashamed of that’s for sure,” Rogers said. Stevens just nodded her head in acknowledgment, staring wide eyed.

“No she doesn’t, but I think I have her beat,” Bella said.  She then removed her armor and uniform.  This was the first time Sarah had seen Bella naked.  Bella had always been gorgeous, but naked, covered in dirt, sweat and paint, Sarah had never seen anything more beautiful.  Her heart felt like it dropped to the pit of her stomach, then kept going south.  She definitely became a little warm. Gods she wanted her.  All the time spent with Aurora was such a waste.  The thought that she had hurt such a thing of beauty made her heart freeze and return to its original location.

Sarah and Aanandi got undressed at the same time. Sarah kept sneaking peeks at Aanandi.  Her original assessment was correct, she could have been a model, tall with a muscular but slight build and gorgeous black hair.

Aanandi didn’t notice Sarah’s glances and they both headed for the shower.

The shower, like the sleeping bay was open, with no privacy. The two Corporate Security liasons came in the shower a few minutes after Sarah.  She could see the obvious cybernetic and genetic enhancements, but that didn’t mar their beauty one bit.

“Ok, time to get serious. There’s no surveillance in here,” Sarah said, trying to get the sex fantasies out of her head.

“What is Aurora’s plan?  What is our plan?” Sarah asked the group.

“One thing that was mentioned on the recording with Gbate, is something called ‘the package’.  We need to find out what that is,” Bella said as she lathered up her hair.

“I could try to hack into his personal system, but I doubt he’d put something that secret where someone like me could get to it,” Sarah said.

“We’ll keep following him and recording any meetings with the Hexa.  Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Stevens said.

“What is her overall goal? Why did she sell the data for the recreation to the Chinese and why is she actively trying to get it back?” Aanandi asked.

“I’ve been thinking about that.  I have a theory…or hypotheses really. What if the data for the historical recreation was a hoax, or faulty or a dead end?  What if the data is just the excuse for something else?” Crystal said as she stared up at the ceiling, thinking aloud.

Everybody stared at her.  When Crystal noticed that nobody else wasn’t talking, she looked around confused.

“That’s it!” Sarah said.

“The Data was never important.  We are just here to clean up the trail that leads to her true purpose…whatever that is,” Bella said.

“So why go through this horse and pony show?” Stevens asked.

“Why not just go right for the objective?” Rogers asked.

Everybody thought for a moment. They all looked at each other, hoping someone else would have an answer.  No one did.

“Add that to the list of things to find out,” Bella said.

The idea came to Sarah with such a jolt, she dropped her shampoo bottle.

“Uh oh. New girl dropped the soap,” Rogers said with a devilish grin.

“This isn’t prison,” Sarah said defensively, but still very self-conscious now.

“You jumped a little,” Stevens said.

“I think I know why we’ve been doing all this.  Well, not the whole reason, but why we’ve been running around the galaxy cleaning up after the bitch,” she said, still not bending over to pick up her shampoo.

“Do tell. We are waiting with baited breath,” Aanandi said.

“Don’t you see? She sold the data. Real, faulty or a hoax, she sold it. How much would something like that cost?” She asked nobody in particular.

“Priceless,” Bella said.

“Exactly.  She sold the Recreation data to fund this project. All of this is to erase all evidence of the sale and money transfer and whatever else she’s bought with the money,” Sarah said excitedly.

“The package,” Aanandi said.

“Come again?” Crystal said.

“That’s what she said!” Stevens and Rogers yelled together.

Aanandi rolled her eyes and continued.

“The package.  Whatever the package is, that’s what she bought with the money.  It makes sense that something that important and expensive would be heavily guarded, say by an Orc trooper?” Aanandi finished.

“And possibly our new Aquila friend as well,” Bella said.

Nobody liked the idea of going against an Aquila Guard.  Instead of thinking about that, they started to actually use the shower.

“Of course, all of this is small potatoes compared to the real question,” Crystal said.

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Sarah, we know how you swing.  Bella, we know how you swing.  But Aanandi, we’ve never seen you with a guy or a girl.  What team are you batting for love?” Crystal asked with a goofy smile on her face.

Sarah gasped at her boldness.  As progressive as India has become, that kind of thing still wasn’t polite to ask about.  Apparently in the British Isles it wasn’t seen that way.

Aanandi didn’t seem to mind the question and took it in stride.

“What do you think?” she asked completely dead pan, giving away nothing.

“Lesbian,” said Rogers and Stevens together.

“Straight,” said Bella.

“I’m not going to dignify this,” said Sarah.

“C’mon Sarah.  You’re hoping I’m a lesbian.  I saw you sneaking some peeks while I was undressing,” Aanandi said with a wink.

This made Sarah blush even more and she looked away embarrassed.

“Which is it?” Crystal asked.

“I’m a nunya,” Aanandi said.

“A Nunya?  What’s that?” Crystal said confused.  Apparently Stevens and Rogers knew because they both began giggling.

“Nunya damn business,” Aanandi said with finality.

Even though the joke was old, everybody started laughing.

“Fine, fine. But I will find out.  Mark my words you tall Indian bitch,” Crystal said still laughing.

Sarah was realizing that she did have to pick up the shampoo bottle eventually.  She waited until she thought no one was looking and bent over to retrieve the wayward bottle.  This was immediately greeted by cat calls and whistles from everyone in the room.  Sarah stood up, blushing bright red and tried to ignore everyone.

“So juvenile,” Sarah said shaking her head.

Though, when she was bending over, she caught Bella’s eye.  Bella was not laughing or making cat calls.  She just looked Sarah straight in the eyes. Sarah knew that look and her heart floated down to her belly again.

Chapter 23

Splendor Archipelago training facility, Neoterra

Everyone sat in the briefing room with the lights off.  Once again, they were doing an After Action Review on their helmet cam footage.  They were going over Adesh’s footage when Instructor Major Mesa paused the video.

“Can anyone here rub two brain cells together and tell me what our hero did wrong here?” Mesa asked.

They all looked around confused.  The footage showed Adesh take cover behind a wall, then use that cover to return fire, taking out one of the Fusiliers. Nobody could see anything wrong, in fact he looked pretty baddass and professional.

“Nobody? I figured as much.  Simple here was too close to his cover.  You should be at least fifteen centimeters away from your cover, not crowding it,” Mesa said.

The Aquila Guard was correct.  However the footage clearly showed Adesh do a power slide and use the wall to stop himself.  Instead of taking a second to adjust his distance from his cover, he wisely decided to take a shot at the Fusilier that had left cover.  Given

another second and he would have missed the opportunity.

Adesh started to say something to defend his actions but Sarah and Bella shook their heads.  There was no point, Mesa wouldn’t listen.

The rest of the day was spent in a grueling marathon of having to explain and justify every action taken during the training exercise.  Sarah, like everyone else was a veteran of multiple combat deployments.  They all knew that they made the right call, but Mesa was by the book, and any deviation from prescribed tactical doctrine was a sin in his eyes.

The AAR finally finished at 2000hrs, too late to make it to the chow hall for dinner.  The entire team pooled their money and ordered some Thai food to be delivered.  Like all military bases, there was always a small town located outside, dependent on the military personnel’s need for food, clean clothes, entertainment or companionship.

They all pulled out their foot lockers to use as seating and formed a rough circle in the middle of the bay.   The food arrived and just as they started eating, Aurora walked into the barracks, dressed in full tactical gear.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” Aurora said pleasantly.

“What do we have here? Thai food? And I wasn’t invited?” she said with an overly dramatic pout.

“Honestly, we didn’t even know you were here.  We haven’t seen you all week,” Crystal said, swiping a stray strand of red hair from her face.

“I know, I was just kidding.  I just flew in an hour ago.  However, I am the bearer of bad news,”

Everybody groaned.

“I need one person to pull guard duty for one hour, right now.  Then you will all take turns,” Aurora said.

“Who’s first?” Bella said, giving Aurora the Evil Eye.

Aurora made a show of looking at her holo pad.

“Gbate, you’re up first.  Grab your weapon and you can bring your food with you,” Aurora said and started to walk out of the building.

Gbate put down his container of food, grabbed his multi rifle from his locker, grabbed his Thai again and followed Aurora.  Both Aanandi and Sarah gave him dark looks as he left.  He didn’t notice.  Stevens and Rogers giggled a little.  Sarah was about to ask them what was so funny but was interrupted by Aanandi.

“I bet they’re going to do some planning. Like hell he ‘happened’ to be first on the list,” Aanandi said bitterly.

“I bet they’re going to do something a little more intimate,” Sarah said angrily.

“Or both,” Crystal said helpfully.

“But they are gone so now we can catch up Adesh, and the Bolts…what were your names again?” Aanandi asked.

“Ammon and Feke, for the hundredth time,” said Ammon.

“Right.  We, the women I mean, did a lot of discussing about the situation here.  Here’s what we believe so far,” Aanandi continued.

It took about ten minutes to tell the three guys what they had discussed, about Aurora’s dealings and possible objectives.

“So you plan to kill her?” asked the hulking Bolt, Ammon.

“Yes.  Her trying to cover up her illegal activities resulted in Mosiah’s death.  That is unforgivable.  Not to mention her betrayal of the Hyperpower by selling top secret data to Yu Jing. She has us risking our lives to cover up her crimes. I don’t think we’re getting out of this unless she dies,” Sarah said with conviction.  Sarah failed to mention the personal betrayal.

“Why don’t we just hand over the evidence and get her arrested?” Adesh asked.

“She’s a Hexa.  They operate outside of the law and have free reign to do what they want.  Who would we bring the evidence too?  What’s higher than a Hexa?” Sarah explained.

“So we need to find out what the ‘package’ is and what her ultimate goal is,” Feke said.

“Exactly.  How we are going to do that…I don’t know yet,” Sarah said.

“We might be able to help you with that,” Stevens said.

“I channeled my inner ninja and planted a bug on Gbate’s Thai food container. So now we can listen in on them right now. We can hear them through our implants.  We’ll be able download the file later so you can all listen to it,” Rogers said with a giggle, obviously pleased with herself.

“What are they talking about? Have they mentioned the ‘package’ yet?” Sarah asked.

Stevens and Rogers both looked down, blushing.

“No, not yet,” Stevens said.

“They are a little busy,” Rogers said.

Sarah looked down and realized she broke a chop stick.  She did not love Aurora.  Hell, she didn’t even like her anymore, but betrayal was betrayal regardless and it still hurt.

“Fill me in in the morning. I’m going to bed,” Sarah said.

“Sarah,” Bella started to say but Aanandi put her hand on her shoulder and shook her head.

Sarah started towards her bunk, but decided to go outside for some fresh air.  She opened the heavy door and stepped outside into the humid night air.  Unlike most people Sarah enjoyed the humidity.  She was used to it from India and Varuna.  San Pietro wasn’t humid but here in the Archipelagos, she felt comfortable.  There was a cicada-like insect that lived here, and their constant noise put her at ease even more.  She picked a direction and started walking, just losing herself in her surroundings.  She could smell the fresh grass mingled with the heavy, acidic smells of the nearby motor pool and its compliment of APCs, IFVs and TAGs.

She had a lot to think about.  What did Aurora mean to her? If she didn’t mean anything, why was this betrayal so painful? Could she really pull the trigger and kill her?

Sarah didn’t have the answers to these questions and pondered them as she walked barefoot through the dewy grass, leaving dark footprints in her wake.

Sarah knew she wanted to be with Bella.  So much time had been wasted with Aurora that could have been used getting closer to Bella.  She wanted to talk to Bella about it, but did not think that she would forgive her.

But there was that look.  The look in the shower.

Is it possible that Bella would overlook her mistakes and accept her? Could someone be that forgiving? The more she thought about it, the more she realized that if anyone could, it would be Bella.  Bella was strong.  She was fierce, yet playful, easy to talk to and fun.  And she was beautiful.  She also might be the only person on the team that could out shoot her.  Sarah found that attractive.

Sarah decided in that moment to not be hurt by Aurora’s infidelity anymore.  She made the conscious decision to not let that pain get in the way of her future, a future hopefully with Bella.  It wasn’t the first time that she had to force painful memories aside to go forward in life.  Her past, the abuse she suffered would always be there.  It lurked in the corners of her mind and interjected itself whenever it could in her thoughts.  She had nightmares of knocking on that door in the orphanage and what was on the other side.  The pain was there, but she was stronger.  She would not let those creeping thoughts and memories affect her.  This experience with Aurora, who she thought was her first, real relationship, would be added to the backlog of bad memories.  However, unlike the other ones, she could do something about it.  She took out the ancient Ruger Alaskan .454 revolver out of the shoulder holster and felt comforted by its weight.  Aurora would feel this steel and know how Mosiah felt.  And know how Sarah felt now.

Sarah pointed the massive hand gun at a tree and took careful aim.

“Bang,” she whispered into the dark.

Chapter 24

Hexahedron: San Pietro Di Neoterra

The two weeks of intense training at the Archipelago finally ended and Sarah was exhausted and looking forward to some leave time.  Sarah didn’t mind tough training, in fact she loved it.  What she didn’t like was the “by the book”, micromanaging of Aquila Guard Instructor Major Mesa and his attitude.  Back in the Kamau teams, they were treated like adults.  She despised the “back to basic training” feel of the last few weeks.

The city of San Pietro was feeling like home.  She never realized it until she saw the city from the window of the aircraft and felt her heart leap.  She loved the city but more importantly, she loved the people she worked with.  She never thought about Varuna anymore.

Sarah looked around the plane at her team.  Bella was sitting next to her, passed out and snoring. She didn’t mind, in fact she thought it was cute.  Even though Bella was asleep, her hand was still grasping Sarah’s.  They had held hands almost through the entire flight.  It’s as if they both didn’t want to let go.  Sarah was grinning like an idiot the whole time.  It just felt right.

The plane touched down without a problem and were told to report back in two days.  Until then, they were free.

They stood on the spaceport tarmac, baking in the sun and humidity, waiting for their luggage to be unceremoniously thrown from the bottom of the plane.  She could see the heat waves coming off the black top and was already starting to sweat.

Sarah saw Aurora approaching and swore under her breath.  She didn’t want to spend any time with her but feared that Aurora would want some quality time during leave.

“Hey Sarah, can I talk to you in private?” she asked, sounding professional.

“Um, yeah.  No problem,” Sarah said and started walking away from the group.

When they were a safe distance away from everyone else, Aurora began to speak.

“I’m so sorry.  I know I’ve been busy lately and you were probably looking forward to spending time together…”

NOPE!

“But, I won’t be able to.  I’m going to be busy these next few days getting everything ready for our final mission.  I probably won’t even see you until you come back,” Aurora said with a pouty face that was almost believable.

“It’s ok love. I understand, mission first,” Sarah said, also pretending to look disappointed.

“That’s a good girl,” Aurora said, and bent over and kissed Sarah on the mouth.  Sarah wanted to retch, but she was a good actress and kissed back.

When their lips parted, Aurora smiled and walked away.  Sarah walked back to where the rest of the team had gathered.

“I need to wash my mouth out.  Do you have any hydrochloric acid?” Sarah whispered to Crystal.

Crystal chuckled and shook her head in the negative.

“What did the psycho want?” Bella asked, giving Aurora the evil eye as she walked away.

“She said that she won’t be able to spend any time together because she’ll be too busy.  I think I was supposed to be heartbroken,” Sarah said.

“Damn, what a shame.  I guess you’ll just have to spend it with me,” Bella said.

“And us! You can’t hog her to yourself.  We have some serious karaoke lined up for tonight’s entertainment and we need her voice,” Crystal said.

Alma, Feke and Adesh gathered around Sarah as well.

“What nobody wants to hear my lovely singing voice?” Adesh asked, feigning heartbreak.

“Of course we need you, and these two big Tongan boys,” Aanandi added.

“We’re Samoan,” Ammon said.

“We need everybody,” Sarah said, looking everyone in the eye with a grave expression on her face.

“There is still some stuff we need to figure out,” Sarah said.

“When and where should we meet?” Rogers, one of the corporate security units asked.

“Golden Manatee at nineteen hundred,” Sarah said.

Everybody agreed and went their separate ways.

Except Bella.

“So what are you going to do until then?” Bella asked innocently.

“Probably take a shower, play my bass and relax,” Sarah said, though she knew perfectly well what Bella was fishing for.

“Want some company?” Bella said, slipping her arm around Sarah’s waist and pulling her closer.  Bella’s scent was almost intoxicating.  She was so strong and beautiful. Sarah wanted her more than anything in the world.

Which is why she gently pushed Bella away.

“I can’t,” Sarah said softly.

“Why not?  I want you.  I know you want me,” Bella said confused.

“That’s why.  You deserve so much better than me.  You are perfect Bella.  I’m damaged. I’m broken.   I’ve already hurt you and I don’t want to hurt you again.  Yes, I do want you. But what I want most is your happiness,” Sarah said, on the verge of tears, her sentences running together.

Sarah was about to continue.  She was going to explain that she has been used and broken and is an emotional wreck hiding behind a thin veneer of professionalism and duty, as fragile as a Faberge egg.

She didn’t get another word out.  Bella grabbed her shoulders with both hands and kissed her forcefully on the lips.  Her lips were impossibly soft and sweet despite the power behind them.

Sarah wanted to pull away again.  Bella deserved better! But she couldn’t.  Her soft lips made her melt on the airport tarmac.  All resistance crumbled away instantly.  Sarah knew she was weak and selfish, but ceased to care.

“My place,” was all Sarah could say after their lips finally parted.

Sarah’s flat was only two kilometers from the starport and they walked the entire way, taking their time, holding hands and smiling.  There was no need to rush.

A few minutes before nineteen hundred, Sarah and Bella showed up at the Golden Manatee.  They didn’t run, but they did still hold hands.  They were both much too sore to run.

Aanandi was already there waiting for them outside of the bar.  She took one look at Sarah and Bella.

“Congratulations you two love birds.  It’s about fucking time,” Aanandi said in her typical, gruff fashion.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Sarah said indignantly.

“We totally did it!” Bella said, and gave Aanandi a high five.  Sarah shook her head.

“C’mon, let’s go get a private room,” Aanandi said and turned to head inside the Golden Manatee.

Within a few minutes, the small private karaoke room was filled with Sarah, Bella, Crystal, Aanandi, Stevens, Rogers, Adesh, Ammon and Feke.  Gbate’s absence was glaringly noticeable. The pleather seats were overcrowded, forcing everybody to get real comfortable with their neighbors.  As usual with the Golden Manatee, everything was clean, but a little worn from wear.  But the drinks weren’t watered down and the song selections were the best in the city. Crystal turned the lights down to make the room a little more dark.

“Let’s get started!  I’ll go first!” Crystal said excitedly.

She chose a random track and let it play in the background while she sat back down.

“Before we begin this night’s festivities, we have some business to discuss,” Crystal said seriously.

“First, congrats are in order for Bella and Sarah. Maybe now you two can stop giving each other longing, lustful gazes when your backs are turned,” Crystal said to the applause of everyone in the room except Sarah.

“Come on! I wasn’t that obvious,” Sarah said, blushing.

This was met with rounds of hysterical laughter.

“Ok, back to business,” Aanandi said.

“While on deployment, everything we see is recorded by our helmet cams…those of you that have them…which is pretty much everyone here except me.  If we plan to do what we plan to do; how do we do it without being recorded?” Crystal asked the group.

Ammon immediately began laughing.

“That’s what you are concerned about? That’s easy!” Ammon said.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“It’s a trick we used to pull all the time on field training exercises.  We are issued EM grenades, right? So when we want to take a ‘tactical nap’ or something, we take an EM grenade, pull the pin and Bingo! They can’t track you or access your helmet cam feed,” Ammon said.

“Fuck me, that’s brilliantly obvious! Why didn’t we think of that?” Crystal said.

“So, we just EMP ourselves before we kill the bitch and destroy the package.  Sounds easy enough,” Sarah said.

“Not as easy as that.  We still have the Yu Jing to fight at the same time, only now we have no communications, targeting or positioning.  We’ll be fighting blind,” Adesh said.

“Good point.  We’ll just have to stick together, keep within visual and do this the old fashioned way,” Sarah said with determination.

“Despite what psycho bitch says, our main goal is to stop her and her plan, not fight all of China,” Bella said.

“Kill her, destroy the package and get out before a Sino horde descends upon us.  Sounds easy.  Except Gbate will be guarding the package and who knows what that douche bag Mesa will be doing.  That’s two powered armor heavy infantry we’ll have to take down,” Stevens said.

“I’ll bring extra EM grenades,” Feke said.

They then got down to the serious business of singing horrible songs and getting drunk.

Sarah’s rendition of “Fly me to the Moon” was interrupted when someone walked into their private room.  Sarah stopped singing and everybody turned to see who came in.

One of the Devas that fought with them on Svalarheima and Roanoke Island stood in the doorway, hands on her hips.

“I see you started the party without me,” she said in a monotone voice.

Everyone was dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say.

“At ease people, I’m here to help,” the Deva said.

“Help us what?” Bella asked suspiciously.

“Aleph knows what the Hexa operative is up to and knows you guys plan to stop it.  However you don’t have all the facts,” she said, as her solid white and slightly glowing eyes surveyed the room.

“Aleph does not approve of the operative’s mission but because of certain reasons, is unable to take direct action.  Aleph noticed that you are very curious about Aurora’s extracurricular activities.  Aleph also knows of her betrayal on a personal level, Sarah and concludes you intend to do something…drastic.  Of which, Aleph is in complete agreement,”

“What does Aleph know?” Sarah asked, overcoming her shock.

“Aleph knows what the package is and where it’s going,” the Deva said with a wink.

“What is it? Where?” Sarah asked excitedly.

The Deva just sat down between Stevens and Rogers and started flipping through the song selection.

“Has anybody sang Elvis Presley yet?” the Deva asked, looking around.

Chapter 25

Hexahedron: San Pietro di Neoterra

Sarah took her seat in the briefing room next to Adesh.  Adesh gave her a slight nod but said nothing.  Their two days of leave were cut short a day early.  Most of the team were still hung over from the night before.  Sarah and Bella did not expect an early morning and had stayed up until three AM, when they got to call to report in at zero seven hundred.  Neither one of them got any sleep and were still sore from their escapades.  Despite the lack of sleep and soreness, neither one of them could get rid of the smiles on their faces.

Aanandi was the last one to arrive.  She had large black rings around her eyes and was carrying the world’s largest thermos of coffee.

“Don’t say anything.  Don’t even look at me,” Aanandi said to no one in particular.

Aurora and Instructor Major Mesa walked into the room a few minutes later.  Mesa stood at attention behind Aurora as she stood behind the podium.

“Thank you all for getting here on time.  I’m sorry about the cancelled leave and short notice.  We just received intel and have to move on it right now.  As I speak, all of your gear and equipment is being loaded onto a civilian transport for a flight to Earth.  We will be flying in whatever you are wearing now and will be fully briefed when we land.  This is the end game here, the final mission.  I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be the most dangerous mission we’ve been on so far.  We will be operating in the homeland of Yu Jing itself.  If we fail, there is no coming home.  There is no emergency egress scenario.  All knowledge of us and our mission will be disavowed.  We are playing for real here.  Get your war faces on and let’s go,” Aurora said.

Aurora then turned and walked quickly out of the room before anyone could ask any questions.  Mesa stayed.  Everybody was too tired to be surprised or upset, they just grumbled.

“Alright, you heard the lady.  Get your tired, hung over asses out of those chairs and follow me.  We’re going directly to the San Pietro Starport.  Do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred Oceanas.  Assholes and elbows!  Let’s go!” Mesa shouted.

Everybody took their time getting up. Feke and Crystal even went to fill up their coffee cups.  Mesa glowered at them, but didn’t say anything.

The team eventually boarded a shuttle bus that took them to the starport.

“I hope its first class at least,” Bella said.

“Have you ever seen the military issue first class civilian tickets before?” Crystal asked.

As predicted, all of their seats were in the back of the plane. Thankfully, being military, they didn’t have to leave their side arms or knives. Being budget seating meant everybody crammed together.  Sarah didn’t mind, Bella was seated next to her and laid her head on Sarah’s shoulder and instantly fell asleep.

The flight to the Circular was short.  The transport docked inside the large craft and extinguished its engines.  Nobody except Sarah noticed, she was the only one on the team still awake.  She was terrified, but didn’t let it show.  She wasn’t scared of the mission, she was scared of going back to India.  Aurora didn’t tell them, but Sarah knew they were going to India from the intel the Deva had given them.

“You are going to the Sino-Indian border.  I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to current events, but there is a small city called Nathu La.  It is currently a part of Yu Jing, but wants to secede and become a part of PanO, citing Indian ethnic majority and historic ties to India.  Aurora will tell you this is where the data is being kept.  However, this is where the Package will be delivered to. The Yu Jing scientists have already examined the data and realized it’s been corrupted,” the Deva explained.

“And what is the package?” Bella asked over the noise of a Bollywood soundtrack playing in the background of the Karaoke bar.

“A chemical weapon. It is a powerful nerve agent developed before the O-Twelve or Aleph came online.  It covers a fifty kilometer radius and is one hundred percent lethal to all life. It was developed by China, before it became Yu Jing.  Aurora plans to detonate this device inside the city,” the Deva said, showing no emotion.

Everyone at the Golden Manatee was horrified.

“Why? Why would she commit mass murder? Just to cover up her illegal activities?” Crystal asked.

“No, of course not.  The historical recreation data was just used to fund the purchase of the chemical weapon, as you figured out.  She plans to destroy the city and Yu Jing will be blamed for it.  The fact that the weapon was of Chinese manufacture and that Yu Jing desperately does not want the city to defect will point the finger squarely at Yu Jing.  The PanO government honestly doesn’t know about Aurora’s mission, so they have plausible deniability.  This is what Hexas do.  They act on their own, without oversight and will do anything to keep PanO the Hyperpower.  Framing Yu Jing for mass murder and genocide will pit the rest of the Human Sphere against Yu Jing and make PanO look sympathetic.  It’s a pretty clever plan actually,” the Deva said.

“But what about us? We’ll know what happened.  We will all be witnesses,” Sarah said.  The moment the words came out of her mouth, she fully understood.

The Deva saw Sarah’s change of countenance.

“Good, you got it,” the Deva said.

“She plans to kill us all,” Aanandi whispered.

Sarah sat in her airline seat, with Bella now drooling on her shoulder, pondering what the Deva told them.  The two Devas were not participating in this operation, but a fire team of Fusiliers and the two Corporate Security Units will be there. She had to get everyone out. She wouldn’t tell anyone but if it came between getting Bella out alive or the city, she would chose Bella.  Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that and she could stop the WMD and get her team out safely. Of course they had to fight and possibly kill Gbate and Mesa to do it.

She began to pray for the first time in a long time.  Sure she lit incense to Ganesh and other gods, but she hasn’t chanted a mantra in years.  She began with the Gayatri mantra and continued from there.  She finished with mantras devoted to Kali, the Dark Mother.  She invoked her protective as well as her destructive nature.  She prayed for the protection of her team and the destruction of the forces they will face.  She didn’t pray for herself, she didn’t feel worthy.

When Sarah finished whispering her mantras, she noticed that Bella was awake and looking at her.

“That was beautiful,” Bella said, smiling.  Bella’s smiles always reached her eyes and showed her perfect teeth.

“I thought you were asleep,” Sarah said sheepishly.

“I couldn’t understand the words, but I know what you were praying for,” Bella said.

“Do you pray?” asked Sarah.

“Every day.  I couldn’t get by without it,” Bella said as she leaned back and fiddled with the crucifix around her neck.

An hour later, when the Circular was full to capacity, it began its long burn towards the wormhole, towards Earth.  Towards India.

The thought of India made her cringe again and gripped Bella’s hand tight.

“What’s wrong?” Bella asked.

“I hate India.  I’d rather be dropped off in enemy territory naked than go back,” Sarah said, closing her eyes against the memories.

“Didn’t you grow up there? What happened?” Bella asked.

“It’s a long story,” Sarah said.

“It’s a long flight.  I’m a very good listener,” Bella said.

Sarah didn’t say anything and just looked out the window.  It wasn’t a very exciting view, just the side of another ship, a cargo transport by the look of it.

Bella didn’t say anything and just looked at Sarah with a heartwarming and caring look, not one of pity.  When it became clear Sarah wasn’t going to talk, she leaned back against her seat and said a silent ‘Hail Mary’.

“My mother was a drug addict and prostitute.  I don’t even remember her name.  How pathetic is that?  She died when I was very young…” Sarah said and continued for hours, telling Bella everything about her life and the tragedies of her childhood and of India.  She couldn’t stop talking.  When she broke down or had trouble speaking, Bella would just hold her, not saying a word.

It was a long flight, but Sarah felt better by the end of it.

Chapter 26

Earth: India/Nathu La

The transport finally touched down at the New Delhi Starport.  Sarah and the rest of the team waited for everyone else to disembark before grabbing their carry-ons and exiting.  Without any verbal command, they all followed Aurora out of the starport and into a waiting bus.  The bus was unmarked and had tinted windows.  It screamed “government use only”.

Aurora grabbed a hand hold and stood up.

“I wish I could say that we will have some high altitude training and plenty of time to adjust to the altitude and climate, but I can’t.  We’ll be going to a nearby military base, kiting up and leaving.  This is it ladies and gentlemen.  This is the culmination of all of our hard work and sacrifices.  We’ll be at the base in an hour,” Aurora said and sat back down and didn’t notice the evil glances and death glares she was getting from the entire team.

They rode the large tour bus in silence, everyone lost in their own thoughts.  Sarah just stared out the window at the crowded streets cascading past her.  Since the colonization of the other planets in the Human Sphere, India didn’t suffer from massive over-crowding like it used to.  New Delhi was a large city and like all large cities, was still over-crowded and dirty.  The same shady back alleys, flickering neon lights and shabby street food vendors brought back a flood of memories she didn’t want.  Though, this time, the pain was considerably less than usual.

She spotted the arch types that any seedy city street would have.  She saw the beggar, trying to get money for his next fix.  She spotted the con man, trying to hustle some fake Mototronica watches.  Sarah found the lookout for the local drug dealer. Then Sarah spotted a little Punjabi girl, dressed in rags and covered in filth, head to toe.  The little girl looked right at Sarah and time seemed to slow down.  The look was hard to read.  It could either be accusatory or pity, Sarah wasn’t sure which. The little girl looked like Sarah, before she was taken in by the orphanage.  It wasn’t until the girl pointed at Sarah that she realized it was her.  She was looking directly at herself, the little girl was her.

Then the bus turned a corner and the apparition vanished.  Maybe it was lack of sleep or the Dramamine she took for the flight, but Sarah knew she saw herself.

Sarah always got the jitters before a mission, but never hallucinations.  She said some mantras silently to herself, in hopes of calming her nerves.  It helped a little.

The bus arrived at the front gate of a tiny military installation outside of the city.  The security was tight however, as the guards came onboard the bus and checked everybody’s retinal scan and finger prints.  Unsurprising, everybody checked out and the bus rolled inside.  It drove up next to a hanger and opened its doors.

“Everybody out! This is our staging area,” Aurora yelled.

They piled out and walked inside the hanger.  The hanger was huge, big enough to fit a large cargo plane but was completely empty except a portable chemical toilet.

A large truck pulled up as the bus started to leave.

“Alright listen up! Our gear is here.  They will call out your name.  When they do, in an orderly fashion retrieve your gear and start getting your kit ready.  Time is of the essence here,” Aurora said.

They had a lot of gear, and it took them an hour to get it all off the truck.  Thankfully Sarah was the first one called and was completely geared up when they threw the last container of equipment off the truck.

Adesh was the last to be called and scrambled to get his gear.  Sarah and Crystal helped him get his heavy back pack on.  They weren’t even sure if he was going to use it in the upcoming operation, because they still haven’t been briefed.

Instructor Major Mesa walked into the hanger, already kitted out in power armor and carrying a newer model M-45A2 HMG at the “low ready” position across his chest.

“You fucktards ready yet? Our ride will be here in a few minutes,” Mesa said in his gruff voice.

Ammon and Feke raised their hands.

“What do you girls want?” Mesa asked impatiently.

“Where are our EM grenades? We packed them with the rest of our equipment, but they’re not here,” Ammon said.

“My EM Baton isn’t with my gear either,” Adesh said, pointing to his Baton holster, which sat empty.

“All EMP weapons have been taken out of your kit for this operation.  We will have very sensitive equipment and we can’t risk it being disabled.  Instead of throwing your pussy little grenades, try shooting them like a man.  Suck it up and drive on,” Mesa said dismissively.

The two bolts looked at Sarah with shocked and confused expressions on their faces.

“Now what?” Aanandi asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Sarah said. She kept a calm exterior, but inside she was panicking.

“Our entire plan counted on those EM grenades!” Crystal whispered angrily.

Sarah turned the audio and visual off in her helmet.  She stood in almost complete darkness and silence.  She needed to think.  She calmed her mind and forced every other thought out of her head.  Somebody tapped her on the shoulder and she just held up a hand, telling them to hold on.

Then it came to her. She turned her audio and visual back on.

“I have an idea,” Sarah said.

“I hope so, because I sure don’t” Crystal said.

“Just give me a second and I’ll have an answer,” Sarah said as she opened up her Times Square Plus mayanet browser.  Even though she didn’t have her Infowar military grade hacking visor, she still had access to Mayanet and the know-how.  She started to access Yu Jing troop placement across the Sino-Indian boarder.

“Are you looking for something?” a sultry female voice asked.  It was coming from inside her head.

“Who is this?” Sarah asked, a little panicky.  This has never happened before.

“Tsk tsk Sarah.  I thought you’d know me by now.  You’ve been working with a part of me for a while now…I even sang an Elvis song with you,” the beautiful voice said.

“Aleph?” Sarah asked, surprised.

“Bingo,” Aleph said, as Sybil, the ever helpful Mayanet icon appeared in her vision.

“I decided to personally help you out with your predicament.  You’ll never be able to access the Sino-Defence net, so I did it for you. You want to know if the local Yu Jing forces have access to EMP weapons, right?” Sybil asked.

“Um, yes.  I was hoping they’d have some in storage so we can just steal them,” Sarah said in her mind.

“Yu Jing forces are not known for their abundance of EMP weapons, but this is your lucky day.  The usual garrison is Zhanshi, Hsien and various agents, however there is a squad of Domaru Butai in the area doing cold weather and mountain training.  And as luck has it, they are all carrying EM grenades.  I’ve already sent a message to have them return to the town, so they’ll be there by the time you arrive,” Sybil said calmly.

“I never thought that sending a squad of Domaru Butai after me would be a favor, but thank you,” Sarah said.  It always helped to be polite to an ultra-powerful AI that ran the Human Sphere.

“Don’t mention it.  Unfortunately, that’s all the help I can give you.  You’re on your own from here on out.  For what it’s worth, good luck,” Aleph said.

Sarah could feel the presence of Aleph leaving her mind.

“Thanks,” Sarah said to no one.

The conversation with Aleph took only a half a second in real time.  She turned off her Times Square Plus wetware.

“I know exactly what we have to do,” Sarah said to her team quietly.

Sarah told everybody what the local garrison was like and about the Domaru Butai.  She explained that Aleph sent them to the town because they were armed with EM grenades that needed to be liberated.

“So we need to take out a squad of sword wielding, power armored fanatics just to get the EM grenades.  Not to mention, finding the package and then finding the transport that Aurora and Mesa were going to use to escape.  No problem,” Aanandi said, waving her hands wildly.

“It’s ok.  We got this,” Bella said.  She put her right hand out, palm down and held it there.

“What’s that? What are you doing?” Crystal asked.

“You’re all supposed to put your hands in on top of mine,” Bella said.

“Why?” Aanandi asked.

“It’s a team thing.  You know?” Bella said looking around.

“C’mon! You’ve never seen that? We all stand in a circle and put our hands in to show solidarity. Never mind.  Forget it,” Bella said as she put her hand down by her side again.

“Our ride is here!” Mesa shouted.

Sarah looked out of the hangar and spotted a large, black aircraft of some kind approach the airfield.  Sarah was very familiar with every transport aircraft the military used, and this was not one of them.  It was painted dark grey, was completely silent and had no visible propulsion.  The large delta-winged aircraft silently touched down and lowered a ramp.

“Ass holes and elbows people!  Get moving! Get inside!” Mesa shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Can’t wait to put a bullet in that fucker’s head,” Stevens said as she ran past Sarah.

Sarah grabbed her M-91A5 Long Distance Rifle and ran towards the aircraft.  Bella, holding her combi rifle with underslung shotgun that she named “Elizabeta”, ran up beside her.

“Stay next to me.  I’ll keep you safe,” Bella said, via her bone-conducting radio, aka ‘bone phone’.

“You stick with me, I’ll keep you safe.  I have the bigger gun,” Sarah said with a smile on her face.

They ran up the ramp and took their seats. Every seat had a four-point harness and variable geometry, to fit any sized armor and back pack.  Sarah took her seat next to Bella and began strapping in.

Aurora was the last one up the ramp and pushed the button to close it.  She walked up the center aisle, her combi rifle held at the low ready.  Before Aurora walked past her, Sarah grabbed Bella’s hand and held it.  When Aurora came close, she noticed them and stopped.  She was wearing her bone colored helmet, so it was impossible to read her face.  She just stood there, motionless and looked down at Sarah and Bella.  She stood still for a second or two, but it seemed like an eternity.  Then she looked forward and kept walking.

“Why did you do that? I thought we were still trying to hide it.” Bella said over laser transmission.

“It doesn’t make a difference now what she thinks.  Besides, I want her to know what it feels like to be taken advantage of,” Sarah replied.

Moments later, all of the lights in the cabin dimmed and a holograph of the city of Nathu La appeared, floating in the middle of the aisle.

“This is a topographical map of the city of Nathu La,” Aurora’s voice piped over the loudspeakers.

“We will flying to the ‘X’ here, on the outskirts of the city,” She said, as a small, three-dimensional X appeared.

“The data hub is located in this building here, in the middle of the town,” a large building was highlighted in red.

“I will infiltrate into the adjoining building beside it.  Here, I can access the security protocols and shut them down, allowing your team to enter the building.  Two of the Bolts have been outfitted with Infowar units and will hack the undefended system and steal our data back.  Sarah, you will post on the top floor and provide covering fire.  Aanandi, Stevens, Rogers and Bella will be on the bottom floor to keep the entrance and exit free of anyone that might want to interfere.  Crystal and a small team of fusiliers will post in this empty warehouse a block away.  They will act as a QRF and will stay there until requested,” Aurora said.

A new floating red letter X appeared on the opposite side of the city.

“This is your exfiltration point.  As soon as the data is recovered, regroup and make your way here, where this transport will be waiting for you.  If everything goes according to plan, we will be in and out before the local garrison even gets word.  If not, you will have to slog your way through a few platoons of enemy soldiers to make it out alive.  If you are not at the transport within an hour of your boots on the ground, the transport will leave without you.  Is that understood?  You and your presence there will be disavowed by the government.  I plan to be there, you should too,” Aurora said with a chuckle.

Of course this entire plan was a fabrication. Sarah knew that Aurora had no intention of following her own plan.  She only halfheartedly listened to the briefing, she was already forming her own plan.  She knew the transport would not be where Aurora said it would be and that most likely there was not data to steal in the first place.  Aurora wanted the team to chase a dead end and be delayed enough for the garrison to be alerted.  Sarah needed to know where the package would be and where the transport would really be.

“Ma’am? Where do Adesh, Gbate and Mesa come into the plan?” Sarah asked.

“Adesh will stay on the aircraft and be deployed if and when he is needed.  This transport has the latest stealth tech and will be circling overhead until that time.  After our Akal Commando is deployed, the craft will touch down at the exfiltration point and wait for you.  Gbate will come with me and watch my six while I am doing my job.  Mesa will protect the transport. Any other questions?” Aurora asked.

Since nobody actually planned to follow the plan as explained, nobody had any questions.  Sarah had her own briefing to give.  She sent short burst transmissions via laser to all of her team mates with HUDs in their helmets.  Crystal would have to be filled in later.

Sarah pointed out on the map where the Domaru Butai would likely be coming from.

“Our first priority is to locate the squad of Domaru Butai and take them out.  We need those EM grenades first.  That team will be all three of the Bolts, Aanandi and myself.  Crystal, Rogers, Stevens and Adesh will have to locate the package and our ride out of here.  There is also the problem of finding a thermoptically camouflaged sociopath and taking her out.  We know she’s going to activate the package and then head for the transport.  So if we find the transport in time, we can head her off and taker her out,” Sarah transmitted.

Everybody acknowledged.  Adesh, who was sitting next to Crystal, quietly explained the plan to her.  She then whispered to Adesh.  Adesh nodded and sent a transmission to Sarah.

“Crystal wants to know what to do about the five fusiliers she will be with,” Adesh asked.

“Tell her to leave them.  Once we find out where the exfiltration point is, we’ll let them know that plans have changed and the location,”

Sarah saw Crystal nod.  It was a two hour flight to the city of Nathu La, and with the briefings done, she had nothing to do.  She checked and rechecked her rifle and side arm.   She cycled the action, did function checks over and over again and for good measure, added a few more drops of Slipstream weapon lube.

She put the barrel of her rifle on the deck of the craft and lay her helmet on the butt.  She tried to think about every possible variable and outcome of the coming operation.

“Five minutes,” Bella said as she nudged Sarah with her elbow.

Without knowing it, Sarah had fallen asleep.  She shook the sleep from her head and mentally prepared herself.  The onboard lights turned red and the seat harnesses released.  Sarah stood up and stacked in front of the rear, exit ramp.  She could feel the aircraft change speed and altitude from the vibrations through her feet.  She felt the plane gently touch down and the ramp dropped.  Everybody except Mesa and Adesh ran down the ramp and formed a perimeter around the transport.  Without a sound, the stealth craft took off with only the slightest gush of wind.

They were forming a rough circle in the middle of a large parking lot.  Rusting construction equipment was heaped along the edges.  A chain link fence had been put up at one point, but it had long since decayed and fallen.  Weeds that came up to her waist sprouted through the myriad of cracks in the pavement.  The Sun won’t be up for a few hours so her night vision painted everything in a crystal clear green tint.  Everyone stood motionless, making sure there was no enemy movement or alarms.  Aurora then sent a signal to everyone to start the operation.

Sarah saw Aurora and Gbate run off in the direction of their rally point.  Sara saw Crystal and the two CSUs run off, keeping low and trying to follow them.  The fire team of Fusiliers looked confused.

“Change of plans.  You guys head to your rally point and hold position,” Sarah told them.

They nodded and jogged off.

“Follow me,” Sarah said to her team.

They shouldered their weapons, stayed low and followed Sarah into the city.

Chapter 27

Earth: Nathu La

Aanandi, with her Mk 10 boarding shotgun and heavy armor, took point.  It was after midnight, but there were still people around.  Even a small city has a night life. Because of that, the team kept to the alleyways and side streets.

The outskirts of the city was old, dirty and run down.  Abandoned businesses and warehouses seemed to grow like weeds. Only the homeless lived in these parts and they were easy to avoid, their burn barrels usually giving them away.  As they got closer to the city center, moving around became more difficult.  The downtown area had a very active night life, though nothing compared to Neoterra. The large groups of young people bar hopping were bad, but the constant police patrols were even worse.  As a group, they decided to go around the downtown area, through the industrial sector.  It would take a lot more time, but being spotted by police or worse, an Imperial Agent would be disastrous.  They were not here to fight.

Sarah had her rifle slung and held her giant revolver in both hands, pointed down at the ground. Her rifle would be useless in these close quarters. They were in a wide, trash strewn alley and were approaching a street intersection.  Aanandi held up her hand, fingers straight up, telling everyone to stop in place and don’t move.  The “Halt” icon appeared in her HUD as well, in case she missed the hand signal.

“I hear voices up ahead,” Aanandi transmitted through her laser.  Sarah could see the very slight blinking at the end of the antennas mounted on her Orc helmet.

Aanandi, slowly and cautiously got on all fours and peeked around the corner.  If someone happened to be looking that way, they would be more likely looking at eye level and not near the ground.  Despite being in heavy Orc armor, Aanandi moved like a cat and was completely quiet as she got on the ground.

She slowly peeked around the corner.  Exactly thirty two meters away according to her laser range finder, she saw a Zhanying Imperial agent grabbing a civilian by the collar and holding something to his eyes.

“Two pax. One hostile. One non-com. Thirty-five meters to left,” Aanandi bursted and ducked her head back in the alley.

Sarah referenced Zhanying in her database and she didn’t like what she saw.

“Bloody twat has sensors and cybernetically heightened senses. This is exactly what we don’t need right now,” Sarah transmitted via laser to her team.  Any other form of communications, even whispering could be picked up by the Imperial agent.

“I say we wait here until he leaves,” Ammon suggested.

“I don’t know if we can wait that long.  We need to get in position to ambush the Domaru. I say we take him out,” Bella said.

“I have a better idea,” Sarah said.

Sarah looked up the emergency contact number for the city and made a call.  Thankfully she still spoke Punjabi fluently.  She walked a block away, so the Zhanying couldn’t hear her and placed a call to the friendly, local police department.  She dutifully reported an assault in progress and faithfully described what the Zhanying looked like along with his exact location.

Her civic duty done, she returned to where her team was still waiting and informed them what she had just done.  They stifled a few giggles and waited for the police to show up.  The Zhanying was in plain clothes, no armor but with a rifle slung across his back.  He definitely looked suspicious.  Apparently the local police thought so too.  Two cars pulled up to the Imperial agent with lights and sirens on.  Four officers jumped out, weapons drawn.

There was a lot of yelling and the team used the distraction to run across the street into the next alley.  Sarah thought she saw the Zhanying look their way as she crossed the threshold.

They didn’t stop and kept going, only pausing to check around corners.  Eventually they came to an intersection.  They could go around the block, or pass through the business park in front of them.  It was a large park, filled with trees and a picturesque stream running through the middle.  Benches and tables were placed all throughout the park, obviously intended to give the local employees a nice place to have lunch.

It was then, they heard a voice come over their bone phones.

“You passed your objective.  Where the hell are you going?” Aurora’s voice came over the radio.

“We had to by-pass and come around the long way.  There was a Zhanying blocking our route. We are still enroute to the objective. ETA twenty-five mikes,” Sarah responded.  It was a lie of course and a thinly veiled one at that.  Sarah knew, but they were already past the point of no return and she didn’t care if Aurora found out.  It was too late now.

“You forget I can track your movements.  You wouldn’t plan on doing something foolish would you my love?” Aurora said.  The last two words were dripping with contempt.

“Actually the opposite. We’re going to do the first smart thing since we’ve joined your little illegal operation,” Sarah responded, keeping her voice level and emotionless. She then cut the transmission.

“Alright, time table just moved up.  Fuck stealth, let’s get going,” Sarah said, and started dashing across the park.

Sarah ran about twenty meters when she heard someone screaming over the radio.  She couldn’t tell who it was, but it sounded like they were in pain.  A bright point of light caught her eye and she looked up.  She saw a streak of light fall from the air towards the opposite side of the city.  Sarah’s heart stopped when she realized what it was.  Adesh.

“Adesh! This is Sarah, how copy?” Sarah said in a panic over the radio.

“I had a rough landing.  That fucker Mesa shot me and pushed me out when they realized what we were up to,” Adesh said, breathing heavily.

“What’s your status over?” Sarah said, trying to get back to proper radio protocol.

“It isn’t too bad, I’ll make it. I’m on the opposite side of the city from your location but I think I saw where the package fell.  They dropped it from orbit and I think I saw it fall into the residential district two kilometers away.  I’m heading there now,” Adesh said.

“Good luck and keep us updated. Sarah, out,”

Sarah and her team continued running through the park.  They had to kill the Domaru, get the grenades and then hurry to help Adesh destroy the chemical weapon being guarded by Gbate.

Running through the beautiful park in the moonlight provided a very surreal experience for Sarah.  She was surrounded by beauty and peace while hurrying on her way to perform a lot of violence. In combat, the strangest things always go through your mind.

It didn’t take long, and they were on the opposite side of the park, exactly where they needed to lay an ambush.  Sarah spotted the building she was going to use as her sniper nest.  The building was at the end of a “T” shaped intersection, giving a perfect field of fire over the street.  There were plenty of cars on the street, but nobody used them for cover.  Cars are notoriously bad cover.  Bullets go through cars like a hot knife through butter, except the engine block, but then your feet are always exposed.  Instead, her team took cover behind the brick wall surrounding the park, the corner of a building, and a dumpster filled with scrap metal.  They were all veterans and knew the difference between cover and concealment.

In turn, everybody radioed they were in position.  Bella placed all three of her Drop Bears so they were hidden from view but still giving a good blast area.

Sarah came to the door of the building she would be using and kicked it open. It was an office building but most of the floors were vacant and there were no alarms.  The stairwell was plain concrete with no hand rails. She held her rifle close to her body as she started to run up the stairs to avoid hitting it against the wall.  Thankfully it was only a four story building and she made it to the top floor without even breathing hard.

She found a room with a big window, possibly a conference room.  There was even a large, sectional table in the middle. She moved a section of the table against the back wall.  Sarah then went over to the window to see if it would open.  It wouldn’t, so she knocked it out with the butt of her rifle.  Once the shooting started, she didn’t want her position given away by a large, spider-webbed, cracked window.  Sarah found a tarp from a room that was being painted, crawled into a prone position on top of the table and lay the tarp over herself.  Not even the barrel of the rifle was poking out to give away her position.  She could lay like this for hours, maybe days but thankfully the Domaru would be marching up this street any second so she wouldn’t have to find out how long she could be that bored.

She lay under the tarp and worked on controlling her breathing. Her M-91A5 used liquid injection propellant that allowed her to raise or lower the velocity.  She switched the rounds to armor piercing and turned the propellant to maximum.   When it came to fighting powered armor, she didn’t play around. Especially when it came to fighting a whole squad of powered armor.

Sarah turned on her X-visor and lined up the trajectory with the Domaru’s most likely route of advance.

“I hear something,” Aanandi said.  She would be the closest to the enemy once bullets start flying.

The street was narrow, with townhouses on one side, and the brick wall surrounding the park on the other.  Once the ambush started, there was no place for them to run or try to outflank their attackers.

Sarah dialed up the magnification of her variable power scope and saw a heavily armored figure look around the corner.  He looked around carefully, then motioned for the rest of the squad to follow.

They were very cautious, and moved with skill and discipline. But they were still going to die.

“On my mark,” Sarah said calmly.

Sarah lined the trajectory up with the head of the lead Domaru. She exhaled slowly, felt the rhythm of her heart beat and eased the trigger back twice.

The rifle bucked against her shoulder and sent the high velocity projectiles screaming through the air.  The first Domaru’s head jerked back violently. Two small, 8.5mm holes appeared in his forehead but the exit wounds was big enough to empty the contents of his head.  He didn’t react at first, he just stood still, then fell straight back.

The four other Domaru were already taking cover before the body hit the pavement.  Aanandi popped up from behind the brick wall and pumped a saboted slug into one before he got to cover.  It didn’t fell him, but she saw a spray of blood, so she knew he was wounded.

Bella and the other two Bolts poured fire onto the squad of Domaru and their combined fire killed another before he reached cover.

Through her scope, she saw a Domaru pull out a sword and charge Aanandi.  Sarah tried to put her sights on him, but was moving too fast. He leapt on top of a car and jumped over the brick wall Aanandi was hiding behind.  Aanandi saw him and tried to shoot him out of the air.  Her shotgun belched an armor piercing slug and struck the Domaru.  His left arm was blown off at the shoulder and was sent cartwheeling into the bushes.  Unfortunatley his sword was in his right hand and he brought it down on Aanandi with what strength was left him.  The sword entered her gut, just below the rib cage.  She screamed in pain and surprise.  The Domaru pulled the sword out, readying for another strike.

Sarah had him.  She pulled the trigger again. The Domaru’s remaining hand exploded into a fine mist, his broken sword falling to the earth.  He looked around confused, then looked right at Sarah’s position. Aanandi grabbed the Domaru by the helmet with one hand.  With the other hand, she drew her pistol, shoved it under his jaw and pulled the trigger as fast as she could.  The rounds penetrated the lightly armored underside of the helmet, but not the top.  Aanandi wouldn’t have known she killed him until the blood came gushing from the holes in the helmet.  She tossed his body down with contempt and kicked him for good measure.

Sarah could see that Aanandi was bleeding, but she was moving fast and without any problems. Sarah figured she would be ok at least until the battle was over.  There were still two more enemy.

A Domaru charged Bella, sword raised in one hand, and chain rifle spitting out shrapnel in the other.  Bella took cover from the Chain Rifle and didn’t look worried. The Domaru ran passed a trash can, which promptly exploded, sending the Domaru flying.  A Drop Bear claimed its first victim.  The Domaru was dazed and bleeding, but to his credit, he grabbed his sword and jumped back up.  Bella appeared from around the corner of the building she was hiding behind and started pumping flechette rounds into the enemy from her underbarrel shotgun.  Tiny, bloody holes appeared all over the Domaru and he fell, limply and wetly, face down on the pavement.

Only one left.  Sarah scanned the area but couldn’t see him.  Then she spotted movement.  She saw the final Domaru raise a Spitfire, aiming at Bella. He was already bleeding from the slug Aanandi put into him at the start of the battle. Sarah rapidly swung the barrel of her rifle over and placed the Trajectory line the X-Visor provided center mass on the Domaru.  He was behind a car and aiming the spitfire over the trunk of the car. Rookie mistake. Cars are concealment, not cover.  Sarah squeezed the trigger. The round zipped over Bella’s head and slammed into the trunk of the car. Whatever light-weight materials these commie bastards made their cars out of, did nothing to stop the bullet that punched through the Domaru’s diaphragm and exploded out his spinal cord. He was dead before he hit the ground.

“Bella, go take a look at Aanandi. She’s been wounded,” Sarah said over the radio.

She saw Bella nod and run towards Aanandi’s position.

Sarah threw the tarp off of her and began running down the stairs to regroup with her team.

Ammon and Feke were already looting the bodies for the precious EM grenades.  Bella was supporting Aanandi, bringing her over.

“I’m ok.  The med-gel from my suit will take care of it for now,” Aanandi said.

“The suit is keeping her stable for now, but when this is over, she’s going to need a hospital,” Bella said.

The sound of police sirens filled the air.

“We need to get going.  Adesh is waiting for us,” Sarah said and started running in the direction of Adesh and the package.  They didn’t worry about stealth now and were running down the main streets, following the quickest route.  They ran past a group of drunk bar hoppers who just looked at them confused.  A policeman saw them, covered in weapons, armor and blood. He took one look at them, turned around and went inside a building, trying to pretend he didn’t see them.

Smart guy

It only took them fifteen minutes to reach Adesh’s position. Adesh, Stevens, Rogers and Crystal were already there waiting for them.  They were siting on the back of a broken down pickup truck.

“You said you were shot?” Bella said confused.  She couldn’t see any wounds.

“The bastard shot me alright,” and he pointed to his helmet, that had a big dent in it.

“You have the location of the package and the transport?” Sarah asked with apprehension.

“It’s on the other side of this building, in an abandoned construction site.  Gbate is guarding it.  The Hexa bitch is there as well.  I think she’s arming it,” Adesh said.

“The transport is past them, about three kilometers out, parked behind a hill.  Mesa is guarding it,” Crystal said.

“We need to circle around, put us between Aurora and the escape route.  We cannot let her escape.  How many EM grenades did you guys find?” Sarah asked.

“We have six EM grenades,” Ammon answered, the hulking Bolt holding one out for Sarah to see.

“OK, it’s time. We are going to EMP ourselves, so there is no record of what we are about to do or have done. This also means that there is no more communication or tracking.  We will each be on our own. Keep an eye out for your buddy, don’t get split up. If you do, make your way towards the egress, we’ll meet you there,” Sarah said.

With that, Sarah took the grenade from Ammon.  Everybody gathered around and Sarah pulled the pin. A high pitched whine came from the grenade then stopped.  Sarah’s HUD instantly turned off and the almost silent crackle from her radio went silent.

It was very anti-climactic. Sarah was expecting something more.

Aanandi visually slumped as the servos in her armor ceased functioning.  Crystal took something out of her bag and plugged it into Aanandi’s armor.  She had “liberated” a Machinist’s kit before she left, knowing that Aanandi’s Orc armor would be effected.  Within a minute, she had the servo motors up and running, but not the comms, HUD or helmet cam.

“Move out,” Sarah said.

Chapter 28

Earth: Nathu La

Adesh led the way, he already knew the route.  He led them a block north of the target, then east to head off the escape route.  They were passing by more and more scared civilians but they just ignored them.

They circled around the big building and were in sight of the target.  Sarah could hear Aurora talking to Gbate and see their shadows.

“If Aurora makes a break for it, myself, Crystal, Stevens and Bella will head her off. Everyone else, disable the chemical weapon, even if you have to kill Gbate to do it,” Sarah whispered to her team. They all nodded in acknowledgment.

Sarah counted down on her fingers so everyone could see. She held up five fingers at first, then one by one, let them drop.  When the count reached zero, they shouldered their weapons and charged around the building.

Gbate jumped in surprise when the rest of the team came into view.  Aurora didn’t move a muscle, she didn’t even look up from what she was doing.

“You’re late,” Aurora said. No hint of emotion in her voice.

“Sorry, I guess I missed the part of the briefing where you commit mass murder,” Sarah snapped.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Sarah,” Gbate said.

“You’re too late.  The weapon is armed and only I know the pass code.  I don’t know how you found out, but this little rebellion is over.  Lay down your arms and I’ll see that you receive a fair trial,” Aurora said.

“Let’s speak the truth. We are beyond lies at this point. There’s not going to be a trial for anybody. Either we make it out, or we die.  Same goes for you, but only one of us is leaving,” Sarah said.

“Gbate, why are you helping her? We’ve worked together for years and you’re throwing it all away for this skank?” Aanandi said, holding her wounded side with one hand.

“This mission is bigger than any of us.  Yes, people will die, but the outcome will be so worth it.  Yu Jing will be diminished and the Hyperpower will be lauded. In this case, the means definitely justifies the ends,” Gbate said.

“Using nerve gas to kill the entire population of a city is not justified. Especially a city that wants to defect to our side,” Aanandi said.

“Nerve gas? Where did you get that idea? This is an EMP device. It’ll throw the city into chaos. PanO will be justified in stepping in and ‘stabilizing’ the situation,” Gbate said confused.

“I told you they would say that baby,” Aurora said, looking at Gbate.

“They received false intel from the Nomads. They think this is a WMD.  They are compromised and this mission is too important. You know what to do love,” Aurora said, raising her rifle a little.

Gbate didn’t hesitate and raised the barrel of his machine gun.  Before he could pull the trigger, Bella threw a Drop Bear like a discus and it slammed into Gbate’s chest plate. Aurora instantly dodged out of the way, inhumanely fast.  The cute, bear shaped mine landed at Gbate’s feet and detonated.  The blast would have sent a normal person flying, but Gbate was already a very large man and his armor was thick and heavy. He weathered the blast but was knocked off balance.  Aurora brought her M1A2 combi rifle to her shoulder and fired a controlled pair into Bella. The rounds struck her breast plate and she fell to one knee.

Sarah shouldered her massive rifle and not even bothering to aim, double tapped two rounds of her own at Aurora.  One round struck, though it was a glancing blow.  At 3,500 feet per second, even a glancing blow could be lethal.  The round zipped through Aurora’s light armor above her hip, splashing the wall behind her with her blood.

Aurora screamed in pain, and suddenly she was gone.

“She’s using her thermopics and making a break for it! Crystal, Bella, Stevens you’re with me! Let’s go!” Sarah yelled.  Bella grunted from the pain and slowly stood up.

Sarah, without waiting for the other two began running for the stealth transport craft.  They were between it and Aurora and Aurora was now wounded.  They would get there before her and hopefully have enough time to take out Mesa before she arrives.  Sarah ran like she never ran before.

Gbate recovered from the explosion quickly and took cover behind a forklift.  Adesh hit him with a slug from his MK 10 shotgun, but it hit his shoulder plate and didn’t penetrate.  Gbate knew he was outnumbered and that they would try to outflank him.  He had to take one of them out quickly to even the odds.  He saw that Aanandi was already wounded, so despite her Orc armor, she might be the softest target.  Flechettes and shotgun slugs were pinging off the cover he was hiding behind.  There was no hiding or waiting, he had to act now.

Gbate popped up from behind cover with his heavy machine gun shouldered.  Looking through the sights, he pointed at Aanandi’s last position.  She wasn’t there.  He quickly swung the barrel of his weapon to search for another target.  He spotted one of the Bolts running for cover and fired a short, controlled burst at him.  He couldn’t tell, but he thought a round might have hit him.  The Bolt was behind cover before he could verify.

Rogers leaned from around a corner and opened up on full auto with her Breaker rifle. The rounds struck, one of them piercing his armor. Gbate felt a sharp, hot pain slice his temple, above his right eye. Blood quickly flowed over the eye, forcing him to keep it shut.

Adesh leaned from around a corner and pumped two slugs at Gbate.  Gbate ducked back, not wanting to take the chance of getting hit by armor piercing saboted slugs.  Gbate crouched and duck-walked to the other side of his cover. It was never a good idea to fire from the same place twice.  He leaned around his cover and saw one of the Bolts in the open.

Perfect!

He never did like either of those dudes.  All they did was eat and joke around. He placed the aiming reticle on the Bolt’s chest. The Bolt did not have his shotgun in hand. It was mag-locked to his back and he was empty handed, almost as if he had just thrown something.

SHIT! Grenade!

Gbate anticipated the detonation but none came. Instead he heard a high-pitched whine and then everything went dark. His night vision, HUD and comms equipment all died and he couldn’t move his finger to pull the trigger of his machine gun.  He had trouble keeping upright from the weight of his armor.

“You fucking traitors!” Gbate growled.

“You should be grateful. When this thing went off, you’d be here all by yourself, in a city filled with the dead and no way to get home.  When the Yu Jing authorities found you here, who do you think they’d blame?” Adesh said, taking off his helmet and walking up to Gbate.

The Bolt that threw the grenade also walked up to Gbate and kicked the machine gun from his hands.

“You stupid fucktard,” Aanandi said.

“You betrayed your team for that skanky twat? She plans to kill everyone in this town and blame it on Yu Jing, and you were going to help her. That is a chemical weapon, the most deadly nerve agent ever developed.  She was going to frame Yu Jing for the mass murder,” Aanandi finished.

“It’s an EMP device!” Gbate said, refusing to listen to more of their lies.

Adesh walked over to the device and leaned inside the crate it was airdropped in.  He fiddled around for a minute and then stood back up.  In his hand was a long, flat metal panel.  The panel had the universal symbol for Bio Hazard printed on it.

“I’m a little fuzzy on my warning labels, but that doesn’t look like a radiation symbol to me,” Ammon said.  Ammon then pulled the pin on one of his EM grenades and dropped it in the crate.  A second later, the WMD was rendered useless.

“I know why they didn’t want us bringing our own EMP weapons now,” Adesh said.

“What do we do with him?” Ammon asked, looking at Gbate.

“Leave him here, let the Yu Jing authorities have fun with him,” Rogers said.

“Let’s take him with us,” Aanandi said.  The others looked at her confused.

“We’ve fought together for years. Even though he was fooled by Aurora, he deserves better than that,” Aanandi explained.

“Ok, but you get to carry him,” Adesh said with a shrug.

Aanandi stooped to throw Gbate over her shoulders.  She gritted her teeth in pain as her wound opened up and started bleeding again. She would need a doctor really soon.

With Gbate over her shoulders, the five of them began running towards the direction of the transport, and their ticket back home.

Sarah, Bella, Stevens and Crystal ran towards the transport craft.  The buildings were thinning out to a few outlying gas stations and houses, all of which seemed shabby and run down. They followed a small, one lane road out of the city and up into the surrounding hills.  The lush gardens and parks gave way to the dried scrub brush and rocks of the natural terrain.

Sarah saw the hill that hid the transport Mesa was guarding.  They slowed down to catch their breath and plan their next move.

“Bella, you have any more of those Drop Bears?” Sarah asked, huffing and out of breath.

“I have one more,” she said, taking the mine out of her bag.

“Good. Place it in a good spot.  Maybe it’ll slow the bitch down or at least let us know when she is coming,” Sarah said.

Bella nodded and placed the Drop Bear next to a rock and covered it with dirt.

They then started to jog towards the hill.  Sarah could see the nose cone of the stealth transport poking from behind.

Me and Stevens will take the south side of the hill, you two take the north side. We’ll hit him in a pincer attack,” Sarah said.

Without another word, Sarah darted off, circling around the building.  It only took a few seconds and she rounded the corner.  The large, dark, sleek looking aircraft sat in the middle of the yard on its landing gear.  Aquila Guard Mesa stood in front of the ramp, HMG in hand.  Mesa saw Sarah in that same moment and started to raise the machine gun to his shoulder.

Sarah’s sniper rifle was already raised and she fired first.  The EM had knocked out her optics and X-visor, so she just aimed down the barrel. She fired a quick controlled pair at the massive Aquila Guard.  One high velocity round struck the Aquila in the helmet, knocking off an antenna and throwing his aim off.  He let rip with a long burst at Sarah but because of Sarah’s shot, his burst went wild and only one of his rounds found a target.  A heavy caliber bullet smashed into Sarah’s beloved rifle, knocking it out of her grasp and spraining her wrist.

Mesa recovered from the hit and corrected his aim, ready to unleash another long burst at Sarah, not even attempting to find cover.  Suddenly the air was filled with hot flying metal as Bella, Stevens and Crystal opened up on full auto, emptying their magazines into Mesa as they took cover behind a pile of bricks.  Sarah could see dozens of bullets sparking off his heavy armor. Most of the small caliber projectiles glanced harmlessly off, but some found their mark.  Mesa raised his left arm to block some of the incoming rounds and three of his fingers were disintegrated in the hail of bullets.  Another round found its way between his armor plates, under his arm pit.

“Take that mother fucker!” Stevens shouted while reloading her Breaker rifle.

Mesa grunted so loud after being hit, Sarah could hear it over the sound of the gunfire.  Sarah drew her huge revolver and her knife and crouched low.  After only a couple of seconds Bella and Crystal ran dry.

“Reloading!” they both called at the same time and took a knee behind cover. They were both already ripping magazines from their pouches.

Sarah used the lull and with pistol and knife in hand, dashed towards the wounded Aquila guard.  He seemed to forget about Sarah as he fired a never ending burst in the direction of Bella and Crystal.  All discipline out the window, he kept his finger on the trigger and didn’t let up.  The barrel of his HMG was already glowing red when Sarah fell upon him.

She used her momentum and jumped, planting a solid kick to Mesa’s chest plate. He dropped the machine gun and stumbled backwards.  His feet caught on the edge of the ramp and he toppled backwards.  Sarah was instantly on him, straddling him.  She swung the knife down, towards his eyes. He swatted the strike aside with ease, his reflexes and servo motors still in fine, working order.  His left hand reached out and grabbed her throat.   Despite missing a couple of finger, he squeezed so hard, all breath instantly left her lungs.  She put the stubby barrel of her .454 revolver against his arm and yanked the trigger back.  The blast was tremendous. The vice-like grip around her neck relaxed as she realized the revolver blew Mesa’s arm off at the elbow.

Mesa didn’t scream, he looked at the stump of his left arm, confused.  Sarah didn’t wait for him to regain his senses and slammed the knife down.  The knife slammed between the armor plates of his neck and shoulder, all the way to the hilt. Blood gushed out in an arterial spray.

Mesa’s back hand knocked Sarah off him and dented the face plate of her helmet. Sarah flew back and landed on the ground hard.  Mesa shakily stood up and pulled the knife from his neck.  A fresh torrent of blood shot out and he stumbled for a second.  Slowly and with little coordination, he pulled the pistol from his holster and tried to aim it at Sarah.  Sarah’s vision was blurry from the hit and her eye lenses were cracked.  She had dropped the Revolver and started to search for it, knowing she wouldn’t find it in time.

Bella ran up to Mesa, shoved the barrel of her underbarrel shotgun to the side of his helmet and pulled the trigger.  Mesa’s head exploded in a shower of meat and grey matter. Mesa didn’t fall. He slowly slumped to his knees and stayed there, upright, pistol still in hand.

“Would you look at that,” Bella said, eyes wide.

“At least I blew the bastard’s fingers off,” Crystal said and spit on Mesa’s body.

At that moment, they heard an explosion coming from nearby. It was a small detonation and made a THWUMP sound.

“The Drop Bear!” Bella said.

“Hurry, you two drag the body away and hide,” Sarah said urgently and ran up the ramp, into the transport aircraft.

Bella grabbed Mesa under one arm, and Crystal the other. It was easier because he was still upright, but he still weighed a ton.  The quickly dragged him off and hid the body and themselves behind a pile of rubble, Stevens covering them.

It was barely in time.  Aurora came limping around the corner of the building, holding her rifle by one hand, almost dragging it.  Her thermoptic camouflage was flickering in and out.  She looked around, then raised her rifle to her shoulder, scanning her sectors for threats.

Aurora approached the landing site, dizzy from the loss of blood.  She didn’t know how bad the wound was, but was afraid that if she took her hand away, her intestines would come with it.  She didn’t know who shot her, but if she found out, she was going to kill their whole family. Slowly.

Aurora saw the Drop Bear they left for her and shot it from a safe distance.

Amateurs.

She rounded the corner of the building.  She was worried that asshole Mesa would take off and leave without her.  She recruited him before he was formally charged with several accounts of sexual assault.  Sure, she was going to make him disappear after this operation, but he was useful for now. She just didn’t like loose ends.

Despite some setbacks, the package would still go off and her plan would still work.  She underestimated that stupid Indian girl. Aurora didn’t know how Sarah put everything together but it didn’t matter now.  Her ticket out of here was in sight.

But where was Mesa? She looked around and didn’t see him.  She checked her HUD, but his IFF wasn’t registering anywhere.  It’s almost as if he disappeared.

She braved taking her left hand away from the wound on her side and shouldered her combi rifle.  Thankfully her guts didn’t spill out.  It was only a glancing blow and it looked mostly superficial, thankfully. But it still hurt and bled a lot.

Aurora looked around for anything that could be a threat or any sign of Mesa.  She could smell gunpowder, lingering in the air. She then noticed a pile of bricks off to her left.  It looks like it was chewed up with a machine gun.  Broken bricks and brick dust lay everywhere.

She took a few steps closer to the aircraft, always looking down the sights of her gun.  On her left hand side, she saw a destroyed sniper rifle. A heavy caliber bullet had obviously struck it.

“Sarah,” she said out loud, almost laughing. She hoped the round that destroyed her rifle, hit her too.  The snooty bitch had it coming.

Then Aurora noticed the massive amount of blood near the ramp of the aircraft. She froze in place. She looked and listened for threats.  She cycled through the different forms of night vision and checked her HUD. Nothing.  Then she noticed a reflected light coming from near the landing gear. It was a Kamau helmet, with a large dent in the face plate and cracked eye lenses.  It looks like Mesa destroyed her rifle and then made the fight personal. A broken helmet, a large pool of blood and no sign of Mesa. He obviously fucked her up and went looking for her buddies. Good. That meant she could leave him here and not worry about killing him later.

Aurora lowered her rifle and walked up the ramp, hitting the button to close it. She checked the time. The device should be going off in five minutes.  Time to go!

She walked up to the pilot’s compartment and pressed the button to open. She needed to tell the pilot to take off immediately.

The door slid open and a figure was standing there. Aurora was very confused at first. It wasn’t the pilot. It was Sarah. He armor was covered in dirt and blood. She was helmetless and was pointing a gigantic, ancient revolver at her head.  Aurora couldn’t read the expression on her face, but it seemed sad. Maybe disappointed.

Aurora’s grip tightened on her rifle and was doing the math to see if she could bring it up in time.  Sarah’s grip tightened on the revolver and the hammer eased back a fraction of a millimeter.

The two women stood there, facing each other.  One, a half-pound of pressure away from sending a .454 Casull round into the other’s head and the other debating to raise her rifle and throw the dice.

Aurora finished the math. With the realization, a great weight lifted from her shoulders and every muscle in her body relaxed.  The grip on her rifle loosened and it clattered to the floor. She slowly raised her hands and undid the clasps of her helmet.  She let the helmet fall to the floor as well. She shook her long, blonde hair free.

Aurora looked at Sarah and gave her the first genuine smile she ever gave her.

Sarah stroked the trigger back and Mosiah’s Ruger revolver bucked in her hand. Aurora was temporarily lost in the muzzle flash. The huge round entered Aurora’s head just above the left eye and took the top of her head off.  She fell straight back, arms at her side, the sweet smile, now a grimace.

Sarah didn’t even look at Aurora as she walked past, holstering the revolver.  She pushed the button to open the ramp.  Everyone was at the foot of the ramp, waiting.

“Someone contact the Fusiliers, let’s go home,” Sarah said to her team.

Epilogue

Neoterra: San Pietro di Neoterra four months later

“C’mon! You’re going to be late!” Bella said, holstering her service pistol and heading towards the door to their apartment.

There was very little aftermath to the failed operation to destroy the city.  The entire team gave the exact same report. Of course leaving out the part that they went rogue and killed an Aquila Guard and a Hexa Operative. They denied knowing about the nerve agent or what Aurora’s true plans were.  Since it was an operation planned by a Hexa, there was very little scrutiny. There was no helmet cam footage to go over to disprove their stories. They just got the story so they knew what to write on the bronze plaque to commemorate the life and service of the brave operative.  The entrance of the Hexahedron was wallpapered with hundreds of similar bronze plaques. Each one told the story of their final acts, never using their real names. Aurora. Sarah never knew her real name. During the debriefing, Sarah learned that the small city of Nathu La would be annexed by PanO and that the O12 already authorized it.

“What are you doing?” Bella said, putting her hair into two pig tails.

“I’m writing Mosiah’s family a letter to send with his gun.

“What are you going to say?”  Bella asked seriously.

“I’m just telling them what a great man he was. How bravely he fought and died and that this family heirloom was put to a use that would have made him proud,” Sarah said, turning off the holographic keyboard and standing up from the desk.

“You should send them a wedding invitation,” Bella said, looking at her uniform in the mirror.

“I already included one.  I hope they can come. I’d love to meet them. I am going to miss that big Ruger though.  I grew kinda attached to it,” Sarah said sadly.

“Maybe, just maybe someone was able to track one down for a wedding present for their bride,” Bella said with a wink.

That put a big smile on Sarah’s face.

“C’mon.  You don’t want to be late to your first day of being a certified Bolt. I’m so glad you’re not in that glorified swim team anymore,” Bella said, dodging the boot Sarah threw at her.

Sarah stood beside Bella, both of them looking in the mirror at their Bolt uniforms.

“I gotta admit. We look good,” Sarah said smiling.

She reached up and kissed Bella. Bella kissed back.

Sarah finally found her place. This is where she belonged. She had the woman she never thought she would deserve. She had a new team that would accept her and a new city to live in. All of the demons of her past were still there, but will always be in the background, never center stage.  Sarah was truly happy for the first time in her life.

About the author

Joshua Hill is an avid fan of everything Infinity. He spent fourteen years in the United States Army before becoming a police officer. After four years as an officer, he decided to switch careers and become a truck driver. This doesn’t give him a lot of time to play Infinity, so he writes about it instead. He studied for a year under Orson Scott Card in his creative writing class at Southern Virginia University and has been writing ever since.  This is the most ambitious story Josh has written to date.

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