Barghest – Chapter 16

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Nosey Neighbors

Hour 0630, Day 070, Year 2148

Dark:(noun) as in, The Dark. Space between solar systems where the effects of the gravitational pull of objects (e.g. stars) has no discernible effect on ISG drives, providing the widest margin of error for safe departure and reentry into sublight space travel. Note: also allows interstellar travel that leaves no commonly monitored trail.

    Ex. See Spot run. See Jane chase Spot. See them run down the hall in the family ship. See the blue giant star shining through the window. See Dick engage the ISG drive. See Jane slam against the bulkhead as local star gravity pulls the ship backward. See Spot be sucked into a microfissure as the hull is damaged by conflicting gravity wells. See Dick disengage the ISG drive. See Jane undergo emergency cranial surgery. See Spot be mopped off of the floor. Dick may not pilot the ship again.

Malak wrapped his fingers around the edge of the table and squeezed. The metal could withstand his grip, and the crew working on the bridge – just on the other side of the plastiglass door of his ready room – could not see him, so he considered the small loss of control acceptable. The dark brown skin over his knuckles turned white under the pressure. Almaut was still speaking on the main screen, his pale forehead furrowed with irritation. Smaller windows at the side of Almaut’s image showed the other betas. Kapziel was cleaning a weapon while he listened. Giltine had a tablet in front of her, on which she was doubtless taking notes. Skoll leaned far back in a chair, frowning thoughtfully.  Their weekly meeting had started poorly and was still rolling downhill.

“- ignoring requisitions is one thing, misplacing intelligence is another. I forced the brief through the new firewall, it will pop up on Admiral Tsang’s defense system feed in twelve hours, but what he does with it will be another matter entirely. Thomas said he would speak with Batma about it, but the General is scheduled to be in meetings at Opik Station all week. I can hack a direct comm from Thomas to Batma, but the local station security will know about it within a few minutes.”

“Without Batma, Tsang will be listening to his Congressional liaison,” Skoll noted, still frowning. “If recent actions are an indication, he is more likely to favor caution rather than letting the public get ahold of any news of a surge in deployments.”

“Sending a single scout ship to the VK10 System,” Giltine made a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh, “he might as well direct them to fly into a quasar, for all the good it will do.”

“The Coalition would be better off leaving the Cullers on VK10 alone and letting us take care of it, if they can’t get an entire task group in there.” Skoll leaned forward, causing the blue-tinted light of the planet he was on to glint in his eyes. They shifted from red to green. “You’re sure you can’t send that message to Tsang?”

Almaut growled, uncharacteristically losing his humor. “If I had known that the SIS was going to graduate from annoying misplacement of supplies to blackballing our intelligence, I would have taken care of it. But I can’t tell the future.”

“You could push it through, if you weren’t working so hard to keep the humans from finding out about us,” Kapziel stated with feigned nonchalance. Skoll snapped his teeth with impatience at the old argument. Giltine hissed a warning. Almaut ran a hand over his face.

“That is true,” Malak finally interrupted their conversation.  All eyes snapped to him, and he knew they were surprised by his comment. It had grown increasingly difficult in the last eighteen months to carry out their directives without letting the rank-and-file of the Sol Coalition know they existed. Or worse, handing the SIS – Sol Intelligence Service – proof of the Thirteenth Legion’s actions. The SIS had been a minor irritation for years, but had recently stepped up from paltry attempts to disrupt requisitions to a blockade of information between the Legion and Coalition leadership. The situation was growing intolerable.

Malak knew his people were good. Better than human soldiers. The best at what they did. However, they were still only 500 individuals. Less than a full battalion. Although they were faster, stronger, and trained for nothing but war, they could not be everywhere at once. Almaut had eyes and ears across the local arm of the galaxy – and some a good deal further away than that. His intelligence pointed to a massing of Culler activity on a small planet in the VK10 system. The activity was suspiciously like a few other instances that they had investigated, and destroyed, over the years. Only once had they found any indications that the type of work discovered during their training mission was ongoing, but Malak was constantly wary of it. That had been the first documented Culler defense base – a permanent outpost with installations and apparent research being conducted. He had posited a few theories to Thomas, and been given the go ahead to pursue the issue as long as it didn’t interfere with other missions.

That was the crux of the matter. There were always other missions. Skoll was seven star systems away from their base of operations – in the opposite direction from Malak.  He had the bulk of the twenty-eight and twenty-nine series, each a full company of one hundred, serving under him on Legion business. Their position was necessary to combat a cell of Culler ships which were moving toward Sol-controlled space. Giltine had most of their own company, the twenty-sevens, with her on a deep Dark run to get around a human-Nick trade route and destroy a Culler supply base. Kapziel had just completed a mission a thousand light-years from Sol and would be weeks returning. Almaut had his hands full managing his intelligence network and dodging the childish spycraft of the SIS. Malak was the closest to the VK10 system, but he was supervising a training exercise with the youngest company in the Legion. The thirties were not ready for live combat on that scale, even if there were enough of them to risk it.

“Finally going to bite the hand that feeds you, Lieutenant?” Kapziel’s use of Malak’s rank, afforded by the Sol Coalition, added a tone of disrespect to the question. Malak had carried the same title for eighteen years, and expected to do so for the rest of his life. All in service to his creators. Malak did not have to say anything; he turned his stare on Kapziel and the beta lowered his eyes after a few seconds. The older male did not intend to challenge his Alpha, Malak knew, but they were all bitter over their position within the military. Kapziel was simply more outspoken about it. Regardless of how much their place out of sight and mind sometimes chafed, they were all dedicated to their duty. Protect humanity. Destroy the enemy. Humans, intentions aside, had created the Legion. Cullers had killed Legionnaires. With the two combined, his choice was easy.

“No,” Malak answered finally, “but we will save the Coalition from the interference of the SIS.”

“Again?” Skoll asked with a grin that revealed his sharper-than-human teeth.

“Okay,” Giltine agreed, “but you’ll have to kill gravity drives in that area, or you know Tsang will send someone to take a look-see and then all hell will break loose.”

Almaut flicked some information onto the shared screen. “Malak, it looks like you have all of the equipment in your inventory. Parshav shouldn’t have any trouble building a few Gravitron Apples for you. The rookies will get some good hands-on experience out of that.”  Malak considered the proposal. Almaut had come up with a device for disrupting interstellar travel shortly after they were promoted to the field. He and Parshav and refined the idea, a Gravitron Apple, but had only tested it once. Malak would have preferred to take care of the problem himself, but that wasn’t an option. The best alternative then, was to make certain that the Cullers which were already in VK10 couldn’t leave, and that no reinforcements could arrive. There was an outside chance that the Sol Coalition might send a ship into the system on sublight engines, but it would take weeks to reach the planet even if they came out of ISG drive on the edge of the Dark. And that was assuming they had any captains in the vicinity. Captains that were extremely dedicated to duty, overly ambitious, and risk takers. It was unlikely the SC would have anyone in place before Malak could finish the training mission, return the thirties to base, and get back to VK10.

“Giltine,” he said quietly. The rough quality to his voice had not faded from his injury on that first mission, and the sound reverberated against the plastiglass, causing the bridge crew to raise their heads and glance his way. “We’ll hit VK10 in five weeks.” He said nothing more about the matter, but continued on to the next subject that needed to be discussed. “The new ship design under construction by the SC is inferior. How would you improve upon it?”

While they discussed various flaws in the plans, he accessed information about Coalition deployments. There were no ships in the same sector as VK10, but a Sidus class battleship, the Pershing, was in an adjacent system. Her current course was taking her away from VK10. Another Coalition ship, the Perry, one of the new Ferox class destroyers, was on her maiden voyage. It was likely she had been ordered to stay on course and test her engines. She was so fresh from the construction yard at Europa she might squeak as she passed by the sector. A newly-minted captain, Malak thought. Too young and worried about getting their crew under control to take a chance on investigating. That was good. The less interference in his plan, the better.

The next topic gained his full attention. Almaut said, “I pulled a couple of the humans-”

“Falcon Platoon,” Skoll interrupted. Of all of them, he was the most careful to never denigrate humanity. Despite their physical superiority, Malak and his betas knew that the humans had several advantages over the Legion. Numbers. Political power. Varied experience and education. Freedom.

“I pulled some soldiers from Falcon away from admin and intel,” Almaut amended with a roll of his eyes. “I’ve got them working on our side project, but if I don’t make headway soon, I’ll have to agree with Thomas that it’s time to turn it over to the scientists in SC research.”  For nearly two decades they had been analyzing the data and what few pieces of technology had been salvaged from their training mission to try and determine what the Cullers had been up to on that planet. It had been an exercise in frustration. Just as they were prepared to give up, some new whisper of intelligence or abandoned Culler devices would give them a hint and send them in a new direction. Malak hoped, privately, that VK10 might provide some answers.

“Give Falcon six months,” he decided. “If they don’t have any breakthroughs, we’re finished with it.” Malak had worked hard to get a unit of humans, trained scientists, researchers, and support personnel, cleared through military security and assigned to his command. He couldn’t allow any misuse of their talents and time. They spent another twenty minutes discussing personnel issues and some minor mission intelligence before Malak ended the meeting.

He stepped out onto the bridge of the small ship Thomas had requisitioned for training exercises. It was an older, retrofitted cargo hauler. From the outside, and even on the bridge communication display, it looked thirty years out of date and barely capable of reaching the next star system. Behind the flaking ceramic shield and cargo doors pock-marked from micro-impacts, the Lead Belly held a tremendous amount of firepower. Old-fashioned high consoles concealed technology that had not yet been released to the Coalition. Narrow, dark corridors split off into dozens of bunk rooms and well-equipped training facilities for the hundred new soldiers on board and the twenty-six senior personnel that were supervising them. The cargo bay was packed with military grade supplies. What had once been passenger rooms had been converted to house enough weapons to start a small war. Or end one.

Smierc turned toward him as he entered. “That freighter is hailing us again. They have altered course slightly to come alongside us.”

“Assessment,” he stated, coming to stand beside her at the command console.

“No tactical threat.” She paused, a smile quirking at the corner of her mouth. “I believe they want to socialize.”  Malak raised one eyebrow. It wasn’t too surprising. Long-range cargo ships could spend months between ports. While the Legion was not immune to the effects of isolation, humans were not as conditioned to tolerate it. It was a common practice, and considered a courtesy, when crossing paths with another hauler to cruise together for a few days and exchange social customs.  As a black book unit the Legion could not allow themselves to interact with the general population. The sight of a ship full of genetically modified soldiers would be unsettling to civilians – at best. “I told them I would notify the captain. They are waiting on a response.”

“Standard rejection,” Malak ordered.

Smierc nodded and punched up a comm line. “Dolcezza,” she said calmly. Her smooth, low voice was as familiar to Malak as his own growl. “This is Lead Belly. Unfortunately, my captain has denied the request to dock. We have a mild outbreak of influenza, and that means no unnecessary air exchange until we get it locked down. Hopefully there will be a next time. Over.”

“This is Dolcezza,” a male voice came over the comm. “Sorry to hear that, Lead Belly, but we don’t mind a few runny noses if you don’t. We’re just happy to see a friendly smile. Over.”

Smierc let out an irritated breath and glanced at Malak. He shook his head and walked over to the sensor station to check the readout on the other ship himself. If it was anything more than a lonely hauler, the crew of the Dolcezza was hiding it exceptionally well.

“This is Lead Belly. That does sound nice, Dolcezza, but as I said earlier, our visual comms aren’t working quite right. We’ll have to wait until we make it to port to let our hair down.” The soldier manning the sensory station gestured with a half-eaten MRE bar and mouthed ‘hair down’ with a questioning tilt of her chin. Malak ignored her. He spoke a few Earth languages, but the idioms rarely made sense. Smierc was better than most of them at using the strange phrases correctly. It was why she was assigned comms. She passed for human better than most of them.

“This is Dolcezza. I have a few mechanics over here that are pretty good. How about we come over and give you a hand.” There was a chuckle that was no doubt intended to be disarming. Malak found it annoying. “Promise we won’t kiss anyone with a fever.”

Smierc was looking both amused and frustrated, so Malak motioned to her that he would turn on the video feed. Better to get this over with, he thought. He hated acting. Smierc pulled a worn civilian jacket from a crate near the console, and took out her ponytail. Her long red hair covered her pointed ears. The soldier at sensors pulled on a hooded vest and handed a checkered cloth to Malak. He carefully draped it over his head and around his neck. The disguises worked well, in low lighting, as long as there weren’t any humans standing around for comparison. A female trainee from the thirty series, just learning the weapons post, snapped a headband over her ears with an excited grin. Malak gestured to his own pointed teeth, reminding her not to show off her canines, and pressed the command for visual comms. The forward wall of the bridge pulsed to life, revealing a sharp image of the bridge of the Dolcezza. A man in his prime sat in the captain’s chair. Several other males, all the same age or slightly younger than their leader, were standing eagerly nearby.

Hn, Malak thought with growing irritation. He was aware that the researchers on Project Hellhound had spent several series trying to curb the instinct to procreate. The Legion was designed to be fully focused on their duty. Of course, some of the Legionnaires that spent long periods with individuals not related to them – such as Falcon Platoon – exhibited a desire for intimate activities. Still, it was surprising to him how focused humans were on their need for sex. Even in the poor lighting, Smierc would be considered attractive by the humans. Add her physique and odd eye coloring to that of Ondrea at sensors and the rookie at weapons, and the Dolcezza would be nearly impossible to get rid of.

“Thank you for the offer, Dolcezza, but it looks like our mechanics are already solving the problem. We won’t trouble you. Over.”

“No trouble, Lead Belly.” The captain leaned forward in his chair, and Malak could see the man’s eyes travelling over Smierc’s open jacket. Smierc had been raised as pack, comparable to a sister in human families. She shared a significant portion of his DNA as well – everyone in his series did. In the abstract, he could understand that she was attractive. But having fought, eaten, slept, and showered with her since he could remember killed any desire that genetics and behavioral programming might have left alive. Even the rookie was pack – family – to him. The delay due to the attractiveness of his sisters was aggravating. “Maybe we could learn something from you,” the captain cajoled.  “We can have a small boarding party over there in ten minutes.”

Smierc did not look over at her Alpha, but she made a low, questioning sound in her throat. It would have been easier to get rid of friendly traders who wanted to help a ship in need. Lonely, instinct driven males would be more difficult. Instinct. Although the Legion was more in tune to survival and hunting than procreation, the crews on both ships had the same urges. The same instinct for self-preservation. It could be used advantage. Malak stepped around the command station, looming behind his beta. Smierc was tall, but he would dwarf even the largest human male he had ever met.

“No one boards my ship,” he said calmly. The unavoidable rough burr in his voice made the captain flinch.

Smierc noticed and continued diplomatically. “Our crew can take care of any necessary repairs, and the standard Sol Confederation Health Procedure demands that we minimize risk of infection. Sorry, again, Dolcezza. But I’m sure we’ll see you out there.”  The captain finally seemed to come to terms with the situation, but still transmitted his course and a direct comm code to Smierc before he cut communications.

“Next time,” Ondrea said after a long pause, “can’t we just shoot them?” Smierc snorted and then ducked her face to let her long hair hide her laughter.

The rookie hesitatingly asked, “Are they all so….insistent about making friends?”

“That man,” Ondrea said between barely suppressed chuckles, “did not want to be Smierc’s friend.”

Smierc ignored Ondrea, and replied to the younger female, “When we get back, ask one of the Falcons to explain it to you.”

“Do not encourage such behavior,” Malak said disapprovingly. The rookie whined submissively at his tone. Some of the Legion might have embraced a deeply buried biological imperative, but it would make missions exceedingly difficult to plan if that became standard practice. They had more important issues to deal with, starting with preventing the Sol Coalition from walking into a Culler ambush. “Have Parshav in my ready room, five minutes,” he ordered Smierc. “You have the bridge.”

As he returned to the utilitarian space that doubled as office and conference room, he heard Ondrea speaking to the rookie. “Alpha isn’t pissed at you, kid, so no whimpering. I’ll draw you a diagram later.”

Smierc choked back her laughter long enough to mutter under her breath, “Maybe Malak should have someone draw him a diagram.”

Malak let the insult go as if he hadn’t heard it. The training mission had been long, and the crew deserved a little lightheartedness. He closed the door behind him and let out a hard breath. Maybe they all needed a break. We last took leave… Malak sucked in air, surprised at his own calculations. It had been almost a year since any of the Legion was off duty. Leave for them was restricted to a few days on uninhabited planets, but the value of that time unconcerned with danger or duty was incalculable. Malak resolved to schedule some rotations as soon as the issue with VK10 was settled.

He stared out the window at stars slowly passing at sublight speeds. It wasn’t just the lack of vacation. They were born to be soldiers. Born for Death, he reminded himself. They didn’t technically need any time to recover, psychologically, from war. There were other aspects to their duty, however, that wore them down.

Tedium.

Reports. Frustrated intelligence and missions thwarted. Covert encounters with irritating humans. As he waited for Parshav, Malak came to the realization that he was verging on burnout. It was inevitable, he supposed. Even he could only go so long without a challenge, without new experiences. He picked up a tablet and opened the files for the Gravitron Apple. Blockading a star system was new. And perhaps, if he was lucky, when he returned to deal with the Cullers they might present a piece to the puzzle Almaut and Falcon Company were working on.

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