A quick short story, knocked up on the flight to Sri Lanka, and finished on the beach. Still not completely happy with it – some bits feel a little like they’re just listing what happened, rather than telling a story, but meh.
by Ian Peters
“Corporal Miles, Reporting as ordered, Sir!” Roland drew himself up to his full 183cm in height, and saluted the crimson robed officer seated in front of him. The officer flashed a quick salute by way of reply, then looked expectantly at the corner of the room, away from the pool of light he had just marched into.
The figure who stepped out from the shadows needed no introduction to him. A short, grim man, with the creases of a frown fossilized into his face. Scar on his cheek, from an almost fatal shrapnel fragment. The hard unblinking stare of a legend. Colonel Elias Rathburn. Survivor of Kadesh, Victor of Kadesh II. A man who had literally written the book on special forces warfare, passing on in ink lessons learnt in blood, on moons, planets, and hunks of rock across the known universe. Roland gulped.
With a mild quirk of his lips, Rathburn spoke, “Good morning Corporal, I believe you may have heard of me.”
A firm “Sir!” was Roland’s reply.
Rathburn looked down at a file in his hands. “Corporal Roland Miles, enlisted 2/10/466, from Kalisthead, Ursurus 9. Good marks during training, followed by exemplary performance during two tours of the Scorpio quadrant. Recommended for special forces training 19/3/470, by Ricardo Schmidt.” Rathburn looked up. “Good man, Schmidt, I served with him, but that’s all way above your clearance level…”
Rathburn continued, “9 months of S.F. training, again with good performance evals, and here we are.” He stopped talking and looked expectantly at Roland.
The silence dragged out, and Roland decided another “Sir!” may be called for.
Appearing to deem that sufficient, the crimson officer spoke for the first time. “Corporal, fate appears to have delivered us with a man of your skills, experience, and training just at the right time. There’s a mission coming up, one for which you are perfectly qualified, however I am loath to order you to do it. It’s dangerous. Very dangerous. In fact our estimate is there’s an 85% chance that whomever goes on this mission will not come back. I’m looking for volunteers…”
A thought flashed through Roland’s mind. High-risk, meant high-reward, and something like this could be just the step he needed to kick his career into high gear. “Sir, I’d like to volunteer.”
The crimson officer just sat, looking into Roland’s eyes, measuring him. Roland must have passed whatever tests he was being measured against – the officer eventually nodded.
Rathburn took over again, “We have been informed that deep within Continuum territory a new research and development facility is being spun up. Amongst other things, this facility will be working on further improving their Project Anchiom weaponry. As you no-doubt know, Continuum R&D centres are normally too well defended to infiltrate or attack. Even if successful, there is a nuclear failsafe to contend with. However, we appear to have an opportunity – a new facility on 7728-C is still under construction, but for some reason has already received it’s data core.
Your mission is to be inserted by shadow pod to the facility, infiltrate by whatever means necessary, and obtain a copy of the data core, especially any data related to Project Anchiom. You will leave in 3 days. In 60 earth-standard days time, we will be launching an offensive against the Continuum. Knowledge of Anchiom weaponry could be vital. Therefore you will take whatever data you have gathered to a new U.P. R&D facility on system 11659 for analysis in no later than 15 days time, then report to our fleet staging area in orbit around system 21873.
This mission is critical to our future.
Due to security concerns,” here Rathburn’s gaze drifted over to the officer, “no official record is being kept of this mission.”
Rathburn paused, and handed Roland a slim ovoid cylinder.
“The only record of this mission is in the identification cylinder in your hands. This contains a copy of your orders, background and briefing material, and is signed by both myself and General Hackett here. Use this to avoid getting shot by our R&D facility, and the fleet. Do you have any questions?”
Roland considered what was being asked of him. Security concerns were nothing new, and he’d heard all about black ops during his special forces training. The mission sounded pretty standard – get in, get the data, get out.
“Well, good luck then. Dismissed.”
Roland saluted with a snap, turned on his heel, and marched out of the office with mind whirring. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d signed up with special forces to do. A secret solo mission, dangerous but potentially a career maker, and involving not only the famous Colonel Rathburn, but also General Hackett, one of the most influential military leaders of his day and currently in command of the Strategic Services! With a bounce to his stride, Roland marched back to his room to begin his mission prep.
Back in General Hackett’s office, Rathburn watched the departing Corporal, closed the door, and slumped into chair opposite the General.
“Well, that’s all eight done,” Rathburn said, “the dice have been cast now…”
The General replied, “Yes, and we’d better hope this works. You know as well as I that the Continuum are making steady process in the war. If this doesn’t work, then I’m rapidly running out of ideas… Still, the dice are as loaded as we can make them. Even if we only roll a couple of 6’s, that would be enough.”
He looked suddenly weary as he let his guard down, and unbuttoned the neck of his command-staff uniform. “We’ve both ordered men in the field, even to almost certain death, but this feels different…”
Rathburn caught his eye and nodded. He knew exactly what the General meant, and he also felt the need to take a shower after the last few hours of briefings. The two war-weary officers paused, each lost in memories of other times, and other comrades, then General Hackett straightened in his chair, and composed his features.
Roland pried his gummed-up eyes apart, and cued the status display on the goggles embedded in the foam in front of him. Head still foggy from the left-over super-c anaesthesia, he tried to focus on the report in front of him. All told, things looked nominal to profile. An intercept trajectory was automatically plotted to the third planet of system 7728, and on the second attempt his croaked “execute” told the computer to follow it.
Four days had passed since the mission briefing, the first three of which had been a maelstrom of activity. The data within the ID cylinder had been surprisingly complete – floor plans, authentication and identification points, security shifts and patterns, and details of the development schedules for the facility. It was these schedules which had given him the first inkling of a plan.
The facility was being constructed by indentured servants, drawn from the workforces of a wide assortment of Continuum planets. Security was focussed around the single port of entry for the planet. Once he had gained access to the lightly-protected HR system, he should then be able to schedule himself on work tasks, ultimately gaining him proximity to the R&D data core. It was by necessity a very rough plan, as he’d need to rejig things when on planet, but Colonel Rathburn had given him final approval.
Roland thought back with pride to the message he had received, “Plan approved. Arch-Chancellor Wainwright concurs, and wishes to pass on his best wishes. Good luck, and see you at 21873 in 12 days.” The Arch-Chancellor himself had been briefed on this mission!
A beep from the computer brought him back to the now. Whilst he’d been daydreaming, his stealth ship had caught up with the planet and inserted itself into an elliptical polar orbit. The drop pod was now prepped for planetary insertion, and there was only 5 minutes until he reached the insertion window. With minimal movement he clicked throught the status screens on his goggle display, verified the board was green, and ordered the computer to proceed.
Seconds later he felt a clunk through his crash padding as the pod was ejected from the orbiting ship. In theory, the orbit he had selected would avoid any of the official trans-system traffic. For the next minute, his life was in the hands of fate, and the under-paid workers who had built the pod.
The whistling outside grew as resistance battled with speed, and then dropped off to a whisper as a truce was called. Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait there was a second clunk as the terminal guidance fins slide into place, and the computer flashed up a ground map of the area near the workers camp. Three different landing sites were offered on the display, in accordance with criteria Roland had entered during the planning stage. He selected prospect 1 with a flick of a thumb, and then waited as the pod banked, slid, and glided to the marked location. A flashing light eventually indicated a successful landing, confirmed when the pod-local gravity field was disengaged and planetary gravity asserted itself.
Heavy. At 1.4G he had been expecting it but still he was surprised. The pod levered open, finally allowing the movement of more than his extremities as the crash pads separated. Roland rolled out of the pod, rifle ready as he had been trained, and found his heart beating even from this minor exertion.
Hearing nothing, he reach up and plucked his goggles from the crash padding. All systems green, the goggles glowed at him – the pod hadn’t even been tickled by radar on the way down, and its systems were all ready for launch and evacuation with only a moments warning. Replacing the goggles, he retrieved his pack then pressed the button to order the pod to close up tight and enable its chamaelion coating, rendering it all but invisible. Lofting the pack, he started walking.
Prospect 1 was 10km from his first port of call – a low grade storage depot. Back home that would have taken him only a couple of hours to travel. In the higher gravity, and with the much denser-than-expected jungle, of 7728-C it was some 6 hours before he arrived, panting for breath, within sight of the depot. As expected, it appeared to have no guards posted. Dropping his pack, he crept stealthily forward.
His stealth proved unnecessary. He realised as he drew nearer that not only were there no guards, the depot had no cameras or automated defences either. After scanning for entry sensors he slipped through an unlocked side entrance into the dim glow of standby lighting.
The lack of security made sense when his eyes grew accustomed to the light. The building was largely empty. But Roland wasn’t there for petty larceny; a scan of the room showed his target – a data terminal used for stocktaking, connected to the base central logistics system.
Rushing now, he strode over to the computer and inserted a slim black box into the I/O port. The screen flashed in front of him as the quick-deployment auto-backdoor, a gift from the Strategic Services CNE team, installed itself, logging him in with administrative privileges. A final flash and he was in. He started browsing through the available systems, and found his first step – personnel. A few taps and he had created a new persona – an IT tech Grade 9 called Richard Moyles. A few more and his alter-ego had an embarkation date of earlier that week, had been allocated housing, and had a slot on the work rota.
He backed out of the system, making sure he’d left no trace, and performed a final arcane set of incantations which triggered the backdoor to delete itself, restoring the system to its original unused state. Pausing only to retrieve the deployment canister, he made a swift exit and returned to his pack in the jungle.
His new identity now established, it was time for him to take up his role as Richard Moyles. A calm stole over him, and a mild sneer formed on his face as he slid into his carefully constructed persona. As his personality changed internally, he changed his external form. Off came the form-fitting combat-suit, with chaemeleonic coating, gekko gloves, and tactically placed armour. Replacing it came the Continuum-standard uniform of an indentured servant, grade 9, albeit with a few very non-standard modifications. Opening up the shielded bioports in his fleshy flanks, he double-checked the charge of his emergency weapon, and the silver bullet designed to take the copy of the data core. Pondering for a moment, he decided to take the identification cylinder, with his orders, with him – he couldn’t be certain yet which route he would take to escape the planet after the job was done. Refitting the equipment, he closed the bioports and felt the sweet pain as they hermetically sealed.
He was ready.
Entry into the main complex was marginally more difficult than the storage depot, but only marginally. The security appeared to be very much geared to stop inmates escaping, rather than outsiders gaining entry, although some extra building foundations implied this wouldn’t be the case much longer. A quick hop up some foolishly placed windows and he was up the exterior wall. A shadowy corner, sandwiched between two temporary buildings provided an opportune place to drop down. Wearing his new personality like a cloak, he walked out from the corner as though he belonged, and headed to his assigned quarters. It was 7pm of day 5, and he was in.
Day 6 began with a reveille. He was rota’d onto an 8am-7pm shift, and it appeared that that required a wake-up call at 6am. Stretching out muscles abused the day before, Roland got dressed and ready for the day ahead. Not knowing what the procedure was in mornings, he hung around the door until he saw movement along the corridor, at which point he slipped out. Floor plans ran through his mind and he came to the conclusion that the growing exodus was headed towards the dining hall. He snorted with self-derision, he should have expected breakfast to be in the plan.
As he walked, a nagging doubt crept into the back of his mind. Something was wrong. He could feel himself standing out. Then he realised – as people were walking they had formed little groups, clusters of friends or acquaintances. There were very few people walking alone, and a general hubbub had grown to fill the corridors – a hubbub in which the vacuum of silence surrounding Roland was beginning to stand out. He sidled over to another group of Grade 9s, and tried to blend in.
“So how’s things going on the lab complex? Managed to get that seal in place yet?”, a haggard older man asked of a brawny young one.
“Nah. The damn thing’s been spec’ed wrong. I’ve tried telling you-know-who over and over, be he just says ‘your problem, you fix’. Damned C….” he tailed off as he noticed Roland for the first time.
Roland decided to dive straight in – “I know what you mean! The data interfaces for the computer system are crusty beyond belief, and I don’t know what magic is needed to get the transverse buffers working but I can tell you swearing at them doesn’t help. I try to explain all this, but you can guess what the answer is…”
This set off a ripple of agreeable grumbling, despite no-one, including Roland, knowing what on earth a transverse buffer was. The conversation continued in a similar vain, with Roland offering vague interjections whenever appropriate, and by the time they reached the dining room he was established within the group.
The dining hall was a large hangar-like room, with a line of servers on one side, and banks of tables filling the rest of the room. Posters lined the walls, offering a mixture of advice – “Work hard, Work Short – good behaviour reduces indenture length”, threats – “Refusal to serve is a capital offence”, and propaganda. Roland followed his adoptive group and retrieved his portion of grey sludge.
The conversation continued over the unappetising meal. Eventually, actual introductions were given, with Roland explaining he was “Richard Moyles, here doing IT”. He explained he had been bounced around both in accomodation and duties, and was starting a new job working on the R&D data core interfaces.
Following breakfast, one of Roland’s new group helpfully pointed out the direction he needed to go. Here was the first real test of his new credentials, and one of the first times he’d seen a Continuum soldier up close on this planet. Each person in the column had to submit to a biometric scan before passing through the checkpoint. This check was administered by one of a cluster of soldiers – the soldier holding the portable tester was surrounded at a safe distance by a number of others, weapons held at the ready.
Roland could feel twinges of doubt grabbing his stomach, and sweat beginning to bead on his skin. With an effort he took control of his emotions, and fear, and slid back into the persona of Richard Moyles. Just in time for it to be his turn.
He offered up his left eye, and right hand, as he’d seen the others do, and the soldier tweaked the controls on the portable tester. There was a flash which temporarily blinded that eye, and for a moment he thought he saw some reaction from the soldier with the other. His moment of doubt vanished though – the man just waved him on, and he was in.
His mind again ran through the schematics he had for the place, and his feet unerringly followed the necessary track. After a few turns he was within sight of his target – an innocuous looking data terminal. He looked around. The corridor he was on, and the room which was his target, were both too busy to retrieve his equipment – someone taking objects out of their own body would draw attention anywhere.
A small side-room provided the necessary opportunity. Looking both ways to check the coast was clear, he slid into the room, closing the door behind him. Really more of a closet than a room, there was still sufficient space to do what was needed. He quickly pulled off his shirt, then stroked the trigger pattern onto his chest, all whilst focussing on making his brain-waves follow a specific pattern – ‘if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…’.
A twinge of pain announced his success as the bioports opened, and he retrieved the items he had stored within. Closing himself up again, he dressed, composed his features, and mentally ran through what to do next. Confident now of success, he opened the door and stepped out.
Straight into a cluster of soldiers, waiting expectantly.
“Roland Miles?” The officer in charge, a lieutenant judging by his collar tags, asked him. Roland jumped with reaction to his real name, but tried to cover it up. Drawing on the personality profile of his alter ego, he replied.
“I’m sorry Sir – do you mean me? Richard Moyles?” he simpered.
The lieutenant looked less than impressed. “Corporal Roland Miles, assigned to U.P. special forces, serial number 83249342. You are under arrest.” He nodded and two of the soldiers moved in, one to grab each arm.
His arms, however, where no longer stationary by his sides. The fact that the officer had known his name, serial number and other details had not, as perhaps hoped, frozen him in shock. Instead it had seemed to free him from the constraints of a role no-longer necessary.
He spun on one heal, and kicked the leftmost soldier, sending the soldier recoiling into his comrades. Roland used his residual momentum to swing close to the other solder, checking the soldier’s assault rifle against his chest and preventing it from being brought into play, whilst at the same time covering that flank against counter-attack – the soldier’s compatriots would have to shoot through their colleague to get to him.
His right covered, he brought his emergency sidearm into action, the short rod emitting a sputtering of laser fire into the stunned soldiers across from him. With a fizz, the rod burnt out, but now the enemy was down to two soldiers plus the lieutenant, and his opposition was yet to open fire.
The lieutenant was the first to recover from the shock of the suddenness with which violence had been dealt out. Showing a complete lack of regard for his team, he opened fire towards Roland, shooting through the soldier currently providing cover. At first the soldier’s body armour held, but very quickly the hyper-rapid fire of the AK-7400 began to punch holes through.
Roland twisted to face the now deceased soldier, jumped, and kicked outward. The body flew through the air and collided with the lieutenant, bring both down in a tangle of limbs. Roland flew backwards from the kick, landing on his back a couple of metres away from where he’d been standing. He tucked his legs back into his body, rolled over backwards, and lay prone next to the smouldering corpse of one of his victims. Rolling to one side, he grabbed the corpse’s firearm and hosed down the remaining guard. Three seconds had elapsed.
He waited another three seconds, weapon trained at the ready, whilst the remaining echos from the gunfight chased themselves up and down the corridor, and his mind churned furiously. The opposition had known his name, and that he was here, so there was a leak. But how much else was compromised? Did they know about the stealth ship? The insertion pod? His target?
He didn’t, and couldn’t, know. But what he did know was that there was no longer any point to stealth. A broad grin lit up his face as he decided it was time to, as one instructor had called it, ‘go loud’. Stooping, he collected several magazines of ammunition, an assortment of grenades, and a backup assault rifle.
Just because the mission was blown, he reasoned, didn’t mean its purpose was no longer valid. He removed the safeties from a couple of grenades, and jammed them between the door and frame at either end of the corridor. He then smashed in the glass door to the data terminal, and inserted the silver bullet of the data storage device.
The bullet was completely automated, and would search through the data core sifting out and copying the needed data. A simple counter was counting down from 15, and a green light showed that the core data was valid. Apparently either the opposition hadn’t thought he’d get this far, or had decided that if they didn’t use real data then their trap may have been detected. Either way, they had made a mistake and Roland planned to make them pay. His grin broadened.
A loud explosion from one end of the corridor announced the appearance of reinforcements. Roland stuck his rifle through the door, and squeezed off an entire clip of 100 rounds, aiming below waist height. Screams of pain and shouted curses echoed down by way of response.
His ears perked up as he heard a metallic tinkle on the ground. Instinctively, in his hyper-aggressive state, Roland dived out of the side-room and towards the matt-black spheroids rocking on the ground. Grabbing one grenade in each hand, he rolled onto his back and flung them away back to the enemy. It felt like only an instant after the grenades left his hands before a surge of pressure, with accompanying whistle of shrapnel, burst over him. A corpse besides him jumped with the impact, but Roland remained protected. More screams and curses showed that the grenades had found a mark, or several.
A second explosion announced the arrival of reinforcements at the other doorway. Thus far, the enemy had shown a real lack of training and insight, and so Roland decided to gamble. Reaching into a pocket, he snagged a pair of the smoke grenades he had liberated previously. He triggered these, sending billous clouds of dense smoke, blocking not only visuals but also IR and even some kinds of radar. He waited until the cloud was dense enough, stepped into the side room, stuck his arms out into the corridor, and let rip with both his main and backup weapons, one aiming each direction down the corridor.
True to form, the Continuum troops responded badly. Each group opened fire towards the phantom target in the middle. As friendly fire slammed into the troops, each set of reinforcements stepped up their assault, filling the corridor, and each other, with explosive-tipped ammunition.
A cheerfully triumphant da-dahhh anounced that the data copy was complete. Roland snatched the pod from the data interface, and listened as the weapons fire ran down. Whether this was due to their wising up, running out of ammunition, or running out of people, he didn’t know. And didn’t really care – his plan was the same irrespective.
No doubt whomever was in charge of this debacle either knew or had guessed that he had arrived in a military pod, and would likely depart via the same route. Only a fool did as the enemy expected however, so he had decided to try for the spaceport. Yes, it would be well guarded. Yes, there was a possibility that there wouldn’t be a ship prepped. But he still had the pod as a backup plan.
Turning left, he threw several grenades through the smoke, after holding them for a couple of seconds to run their fuses down. A few screams sounded out, which were then choked off as the last grenade went off, throwing red-hot fragments into vital organs.
He ran down the back-corridors, towards the space port. A complete lack of opposition showed that he had picked well – the enemy was on the back foot and leaning the wrong way. With just a little luck, he would make it. And what a story he’d have to tell!
Skidding to a halt, he peeked around the last corner before the main docking gates. The remains of a checkpoint showed itself: abandoned fixed weapons emplacements, barriers, and a still burning cigarette. Roland grinned to himself, he could picture the chagrin of the enemy as they rushed towards his drop pod, and saw his hijacked ship scream up through the atmosphere.
He jogged down the access corridor, and into the docking corridor. The stars continued to align – there was a scout ship docked directly in front of him, and he knew Continuum procedure was to keep all such battle-vessels on warm start, ready to go at a moments notice.
Two steps in, a fantastically bright light exploded around him. He was blinded, disoriented. He tried to head back into the cover of the access corridor but couldn’t seem to find the way. Groping around, his vision began to return. From behind he heard a click. Roland turned instinctively, weaving a combination of martial arts movements with one arm whilst the other brought his annexed weapon to bear. But too slowly. He could just make out the outline of a man, blurry with tears from his seared eyes. He refocussed, to something the man was holding in front of him.
“Good try, Corporal Miles.”
He didn’t hear the shot which followed.
“Well, that’s it for Aztec Gamble,” Colonel Rathburn uttered, closing the file in front of him.
“So the leak in the Arch-Chancellor’s office is confirmed,” replied General Hackett.
“Yes, and the others. All eight were captured and killed, mostly within an hour of landing. We almost had one disaster though…”
The General threw a quizzical look at Rathburn.
“Number eight,” Rathburn opened the file again, and looked up the details, “Corporal Miles, almost managed to escape with his data. That wouldn’t have been a problem, as he apparently had confirmation that it was a trap…”
Hackett interjected urgently, “but he was carrying the lure. Did it survive his death?”
“Yes. Our source reports that the lure was taken – the Continuum are going to launch a surprise attack on 21873 in a few days time, with a large part of their second fleet. We will be ready for them. And then…”
“And then we’ll have struck the first major blow against the Continuum for months. Worth the sacrifice of eight good men.”
The mention of sacrifice reminded both soldiers of the casualties. Eight men lost on a gamble. Eight men for whom death had been guaranteed from the moment they walked into this very office. It felt nothing like combat, rather it felt like murder.
But then what was war, if not murder on a grand scale.