Barghest II – Chapter 3

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Fish in a Barrel

Nick, noun, slang: Species originating in the Nu Lupi system. Bipedal, endothermic amniotes distinguished by short, pervasive body hair, reverse jointed knees, and long upper limbs. Culture is heavily influenced by the concepts of barter and cunning. The second alien species known to humanity.

     Ex. Watch out for that trader, he’s such a cheat you’d think he was a Nick.

Malak listened carefully to the data Skoll presented at their weekly meeting. His lieutenants all sat around the table. It had been well over a year since they had all been in the same sector, much less the same room, and some of the tightness that was always in his shoulders eased because of it. He had never experienced anything more relaxing than knowing his pack was safe and his back watched.

Skoll was the last to give his regular report, the new scar that divided his face from hairline to jaw making him look angrier than his scent indicated. He leaned back in his chair, clearly tired from a prolonged battle with the Cullers. Nearly four years of trading heavy weapons fire over a narrow band of useless planets and empty deep space had worn on him. His smile, although crooked, still quirked up when Almaut immediately sat forward.

“Yes, yes, you killed everything that moved. We read that in the report. Good work. Now can we please talk about something new?”

“Perhaps you should spend more time in the field, and less in front of your equipment, if you think it’s so easy.” Kapziel’s eyes were narrowed, his arms crossed over his chest. Malak wasn’t overly concerned that the two would do more than argue. Kapziel had also had a difficult mission: a quick operation to gain information that had turned into a two-week stakeout. Coalition forces had moved into the sector and disrupted all suspect activity in the area – meaning Kapziel couldn’t grab the intelligence resource he was after without alerting the entire Coalition to his presence. Mission failure combined with a frustrated desire to hit someone had made him easily irritated.

“If you want to establish a new pack order, do it on your own time,” Giltine said, frowning. She was edgy as well. Malak breathed deeply, scenting the chemicals floating around the room. The only female present had taken on twice as many field missions as the others during the past year, and she currently had two of her Legionnaires in the infirmary.

“The two of them?” One sharp fang hung out of Skoll’s uneven smile. “What would they fight for? The last bone?” He chuckled at his own joke, and Almaut followed a bit later. That only made Kapziel fume.

“I-”

“Enough,” Malak said quietly, cutting off the argument. A soft chime sounded and the head of research for the Falcons entered.

He glanced around the room and paled, “I can come back?”

Malak nodded, and the human made a quick retreat. Smart, the Alpha thought. “Get up.” He stood, and the others followed him without question, although he could hear the soft whisper of Almaut, needling Kapziel still, and Giltine’s warning growl. Corridors cleared before him so quickly he wondered if the researcher had sent out a wide-band communication, warning everyone of the ill-tempered soldiers stalking through the base. They were half-way to his destination before the others noticed.

“Is this-”

“Are we…”

And a string of expletives from Kapziel, stated with a tone of relief and the strong smell of anticipation. Malak placed his palm on the security pad, and the door opened in seconds. The dojo – named by Colonel Thomas as if it should have been a joke – was not the largest of the training rooms on the Keres base, but it was Malak’s preferred space for hand to hand combat. A selection of blunted weapons, all well-used and maintained, was kept ready. A sizeable first aid kit was mounted to the wall by the door, for non-fatal lacerations, broken bones, and minor internal injuries. The ceiling was transparent; in the early morning it gave an unparalleled view of the planet they were orbiting.  He stepped to the side and allowed his lieutenants to file in. Already their scents reflected a reduction in tension. They removed their boots and jackets; each of them folding their personal items into regulation piles against the wall.

“Giltine, Skoll,” he ordered, and the two paired off. Giltine picked up a short, heavy staff and a dulled service knife. Skoll merely stretched, no doubt planning to rely on his fists and superior reach.  “Kapziel, Almaut, on me.” Almaut grimaced, while Kapziel shot a death-glare at his new teammate.  The pale soldier in charge of base operations and intelligence selected a long bo staff. It was not his usual style, and Malak was interested to see how it worked with Almaut’s technique. Kapziel, like Skoll, prepared for bare-knuckle fighting and martial arts, shaking out his muscles and cracking his spine. Malak selected a newer weapon, one which he had requested after seeing a human Special Forces unit carrying them. Part utility tool, part bludgeoning, part lacerating, the tactical tomahawk was an old weapon that was gaining popularity again for its variety of uses. Malak had never trained with one, and would never give up his service knife for it, but he was interested to see how it handled. The blade had been capped with a flat edge of silicone, as had the weighted handle butt, but it could still kill if used improperly during a sparring match.

There was no starting bell or command to begin. As soon as he stepped onto the lightly padded mat, Kapziel attacked. Malak had seen it coming, and anticipated it. Kapziel was nothing if not forthright. They were evenly matched for speed, and while Malak did manage to step aside, Kapziel was prepared for that and his closed fist hit the Alpha in the lower back. Thick muscles there absorbed the impact, protecting his kidneys, but it was only a distraction while Kapziel went for Malak’s weapon hand.

The tomahawk proved its value almost immediately. Malak loosened his grip, allowing the shaft to slip through his hand until the inner curve of the blade rested against his knuckles. The heavy end drove into Kapziel’s outstretched fingers, resulting in the unmistakable pop of dislocated joints. Kapziel bit off a growl and circled wide, barely missing Almaut’s first attack. A long, wooden pole snapped against the mat – right where Kapziel had been standing. The older soldier snapped his teeth in irritation, but Almaut only grinned. The two males were focused on a competition with each other, and Malak used it to his advantage. He dropped to one knee, swinging out his weapon hand and the opposite leg at the same time. The padded edge of the tomahawk succeeded in a glancing blow on Kapziel’s hip, while Almaut had to leap back to avoid tripping over Malak’s foot. Both soldiers were quickly out of reach. Circling. Testing.

The sounds of flesh hitting flesh, the crack of wood on harder bone, and a mild, warning growl followed by laughter assured him that Giltine and Skoll were also finding the sparring therapeutic. Malak breathed easily through his mouth, letting scents flow across his tongue. Dopamine, serotonin. His brain registered it as a spicy, meaty taste, and it burned pleasantly. Saccharine insulin. Salt. Sweat. The coppery bite of catecholamine. The familiar, base musk of his pack. His tension decreased further, his muscles relaxing into a state of readiness. Malak’s mouth eased; he could feel the beginnings of a smile lifting the corners. It was good to have everyone home.

Hours later, drenched in sweat and staunching blood from a wound on his forehead with a sterile pad, Malak sat in his chair and waited for Laureaux to pull up his notes on the wall display. The senior researcher with Falcon company did not seem overly impressed with the strong odor of sweaty Legionnaires in the small conference room. Even Malak had to admit it was pungent, but his nose was far superior. He could also smell the satisfaction, the equanimity, the comradery. The room, and his adjacent office, would need to be aired out, but the inconvenience was worth the cohesion of his lieutenants.

“We haven’t had time to complete a comprehensive analysis of all of the notable objects included in the retrieved stellar maps,” Laureaux began. An overview of the local galaxy flooded the wall, with several areas shaded green to indicate maps that had already been examined. Malak easily recognized a few planetary systems, and some others that seemed familiar. “However, I can extrapolate a few consistencies from the data we have collected so far. Please keep in mind this only represents twenty-two percent of the maps that-”

“Technical disclaimer noted,” Kapziel waved his hand in an impatient gesture, the same hand that was wrapped in tape and covered with a cold pack. That the motion was not followed with a glare, growl, or snapping teeth indicated how much good the training had done him. “Moving along.”

“Yes, well, hm.” Laureaux shuffled through some files on his tablet and pinched his lips together, clearly put out that he had not been allowed to go on as he wished. “As you can see, the maps seem to link together, forming a sort of ring around Sol-controlled sectors of the Orion Arm of the galaxy. Their general position seems to vary anywhere from one thousand to eighteen hundred light years from Close Space Near Sol.”

“Close enough to stage an attack,” Giltine observed. Her swollen and split lip slurred her speech a tiny bit.

“But far enough to avoid large-scale confrontations,” Almaut added. The sleeves of his shirt were pushed up, revealing mottled red and purple impact injuries.

“Not all of them.” Skoll tapped his own tablet and the wall screen zoomed in on a portion of the overview map that had not been shaded, indicating that none of the maps recovered from the mining platform had been of that area. “This is where we had been hitting the Culler front.” He drew a thin red line, illustrating four years of fierce fighting. “This would have been a far better staging platform.”

“Except for a pack of snarling dogs with automatic weapons and body armor,” Kapziel grinned.

Skoll nodded and returned the expression. “That, and the Gravitron mine field we left behind, thanks to Almaut and the Falcons.”

“Exactly,” Laureaux got back on track, ignoring the praise through pink ears. More of the map became shaded, this time in yellow. “These are the mapped areas that we retrieved, but haven’t yet analyzed in depth. It is a rather selective picture of this quadrant of the galaxy.” He met Malak’s gaze, “Major, we took your suggestion and started first with planetary systems. The maps reviewed to date do have a higher than average number of mainstream or fringe habitable planets and satellites, and 62% of maps so far have at least one object that has had a similar composition to VK10-RD48. Not all of these systems have been completely surveyed, so that percentage may be higher. Astrophysics, Astrogeology, and Stellar Cartography divisions all agree the most likely conclusion is that the Cullers are looking for new locations to test their wormhole devices.”

Skoll raised an eyebrow. His scar combined with a vicious black eye to make the expression look painful. “That was already understood.”

“He hasn’t got to the best part,” Almaut chided, sitting forward with a wince as his bruises accepted a new position.

“The best, oh, right. These maps were definitely not copied from the storage devices you reclaimed, Major. Given the time indexes, they were transferred more than six weeks previous, from various other storage locations at varies times. Our forensics expert feels this is a good indication that the maps were collected over a period of months, gradually transferred to your target’s possession, and were waiting to be transferred to a buyer.”

“The Cullers don’t have the maps yet.” Almaut sat back with a satisfied smile and slouched in his seat.

“No, you only know that they probably didn’t get this information from the traitor.” Giltine patted at her lip with a square of wet gauze. “There is nothing to say that this isn’t simply an insurance policy, a second copy made simultaneously with one that has already been sold.’

“Or that there wasn’t more than one party going after this information. No reason not to hire multiple thieves.” Skoll was staring at the display with intense scrutiny.

“Why not?” Kapziel snorted, “It you’re going to gut them instead of pay, might as well hire anyone who is stupid enough to take the job.”

Privately, Malak agreed. If the Cullers had learned new tactics and were recruiting the worst of humanity to help their war, then there was no reason they wouldn’t have approached the issue from multiple angles. It was the smarter tactic. In a similar situation, Malak would have considered it himself.  Given what he knew of the enemy and the most likely purpose for the maps, his own strategy would be easy to determine. Aloud, he asked, “And the other items?”

“What Hanako and Gunnar found on the mining platform was definitely genetic profiles.” The stellar map was minimized and a new set of charts expanded, showing a series of DNA code sequences, each with tagged sections. “This is probably the strangest thing we have seen so far. And, no offense Lieutenant Almaut, but this posting is the definition for unexpected.”

“You’re welcome,” Almaut replied easily.

“In what way?” Giltine ignored her bleeding lip to point at the display, “What makes this so special?”

“It is human DNA.” Laureaux grimaced, flipping open another file that listed storage facilities and security clearances. “DNA profiles, at least partials, are all over the place. Not particularly secure. It is how most of our access clearances, medical files, and aptitude and evaluation tests are categorized and assessed. The SC uses DNA almost as often as enlistment numbers and ID photos. But that is just an abbreviated form. It would be impractical, and a waste of data storage, to use the entire genome of a human being for identification purposes. The long form is kept much more secure. The central medical database for the SC on Earth, the primary care providers of civilians, and whatever ship or post that soldiers are assigned to keep a copy. But it requires security clearances and a whole headache worth of forms to transfer that data.”

“Sounds like a pain in the ass to steal.” Kapziel tipped his head against the back of his chair, staring at the ceiling. He sounded disinterested since they had moved away from enemy coordinates and battle plans. Malak watched Giltine carefully. Although she hid it better, she too seemed confused as to why they would care about a thief having stolen information in his possession. Information that had nothing to do with their mission to seek out and destroy the wormhole devices.

“That is correct, Lieutenant Kapziel. It would be difficult.”

“But not impossible,” Almaut clarified.

“No,” Laureaux confirmed, “not impossible, and it would explain why the data was collected over such a long period of time, rather than all at once.”

“So no one would notice a huge security breach.” Skoll was still concentrating on the screen. “Makes sense, but what is the point? Identity theft? Clean records for burners? I don’t image most of the people that flee mandatory military service would be able to afford this kind of data.”

“You’re right. Most anyone with money would just grease the wheels of the system to get a cushy posting, rather than trying to avoid service altogether.” Laureaux smiled, and Malak felt his adrenaline tick up. “Even more interesting…” he paused, waiting to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “…this DNA is completely useless for identity theft.”

The room was quiet, and Laureaux looked triumphant. It was not often one of the Falcons had the opportunity to completely stump a Legionnaire – certainly  not the leaders of the secret force. Malak looked over the DNA readouts again, but he didn’t see anything that stood out to him.

“Here,” Skoll said quietly. He flipped his screen onto the wall display, circling sections of the sequence in blue. “And here.” Malak had passed all of the mandatory life science courses, but none of them were more than a high school equivalent. He understood the basics of genetic engineering, could even name a few sections from his own genes that dictated particular traits. Skoll, however, had taken a keen interest in how the Legion was created, and how they different from their human and alien ancestors.  “That’s Tay-Sachs, this one is Alzheimer’s, and here,” he underlined a portion, “that’s Marfan’s, right?”

“Impressive, Lieutenant Skoll. And correct. These genomes are peculiar because they are unaltered. Un-engineered. The incidence of this in the human population less than 1%. Since the Americans and old European Union declared genetic therapy a basic health care right in 2047, most developed countries followed. The Sol Congress made provision of free medical genetic engineering a tenant of the first wave of Rights Declarations. Most of the people born before then are already dead.”

“So these are genomes of dead people.” Kapziel had, if anything, become less interested in the conversation.

“Most likely. Easier to get, you can find poor quality samples at every high school in the Sol System – teachers use them for biology lessons. More importantly, why would anyone want them?”

And why store such useless, easily stolen, data under the same security as stellar maps that could lead to the death penalty and a half-billion in anti-matter? Malak filed that thought away for further contemplation.

“The samples in the target’s private collection were more interesting. Those weren’t just printouts, but live DNA. And while there were two that were unaltered – I would love to know where he got those – there were also some average, ordinary samples that could have come from any human. Although, and I had the medical division double check our results – twice, over half of the samples are from medi-engineered genomes and GMH individuals.”

“Speak plainly,” Kapziel growled.

“Specialized engineering that isn’t run of the mill anymore on Earth – or in any Sol-controlled systems. Humans that have only had the bare minimum alterations to their genetic code to eliminate life-threatening issues, and those that have had non-human DNA added to their structure.” Every Legionnaire sat up straight, their gazes zeroing in on the researcher. “Not you,” he added hastily. “There wasn’t anything from Project Hellhound or the Legion in there.”  Malak nodded, and Laureaux visibly relaxed. He gave a brief overview of the other items recovered. A rare spice that was hand-cultivated on Earth, an extinct mammal in cryo-freeze, anti-matter, and rare elements. After his report, he sent copies of the full data to each of them, then left quickly. Malak was grateful for the relief from the sour smell of his anxiety.

“Maybe – and I’m not suggesting that you didn’t make the right call, with what you knew at the time – but maybe you shouldn’t have killed the target.” Almaut looked apologetic as he said it – what didn’t need to be said. It was obvious, in hindsight, that the man that Malak had ordered be utterly destroyed by fire and the deadly, heavy gas of a giant planet had left a great deal unsaid. That could not be helped.

“Shut it, Almaut,” Giltine bit out.

“More constructively,” Skoll stated before another argument could start, “is this mission critical information?”

Malak contemplated the question while his four lieutenants watched him. It seemed far too coincidental that a known black market dealer, one whom had made an arrangement with the Cullers, would have such detailed and unusual merchandise at the same time he was trying to sell far more valuable items. It was suspicious. It made the small hairs on the back of his ears twitch. It made give him an itch at the back of his mind that could not be soothed. The answers were not essential to completing the duty currently before him. No matter how he wanted the knowledge.

“No,” he finally responded. The burr of his voice, as always, had a equally soothing and stimulating effect on the others. Their was purpose cleared and sharpened with his decision. “We already have what we need to draw out the enemy and locate any other devices.”

“Their plans will take much longer to enact, whatever they are, if they have to turn to other sources for this information.” Giltine picked up her table and began to type.

“That is why we will make it easier for them.”

Skoll stared at Malak. Kapziel grunted in disbelief. Giltine set down her tablet precisely. Almaut laughed.

“Brilliant, Malak. Just brilliant! Whichever maps we give them, those will be where they set up shop. They’ll bring their wormholes right to us.” Almaut grinned and Skoll and Giltine relaxed in understanding. Kapziel grunted again.

“Finally, I get to shoot something.”

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