VANGUARD (Part I)
This is a short story I wrote to help develop the world and voice for the main character of a new novel I'm tentatively calling Starmaster. I'm not sure where this falls in the storyworld timeline, or if any of it will make it into the book, but so far, I'm digging the character and looking forward to working with her.
If Jaden clicks his tongue one more time, I’m gonna punch him in the head. Cluck, cluck, cluck--every five minutes for the past thirty. It’s distracting, and the last thing I need right now, the last thing any of us need, is to be off kilter. This is Operation Star Hammer, and as the General put it during the briefing, Hammer can’t fail.
Cluck, cluck, cluck.
Argh… My hand lashes out before I can catch it, racks Jaden’s helm. “Knock it off!”
The blow pushes him off balance, but he throws a hand down and maintains his crouch. I should’ve hit him harder.
He stares at me through the dark of his visor. I can’t see his face, but somehow I know he’s grinning. There’s very little Jaden doesn’t find amusing. It makes it hard not to like him and I hate him for it.
“Feeling a little tense there, Stormlund?”
The chuckle in his voice makes my eyes roll, but my visor’s down, so it’s a wasted gesture. “Annoyed’s more like it. Told you about doing that over comm. One more time and I’m gonna put a slug in your head, hear me?”
“Then who’d cover your back?”
I nod over my shoulder toward Varuna and Tolen, the remaining members of our cell. “I’m sure one of these assholes’ll step up.”
Varuna snorts over the comm. “So it’s optional then, huh?”
Jaden only tsks, as if I’d recommended a generic substitute. “You love me too much to slug me.”
I sneer at his confidence, neither confirming or denying the accusation. But if he gets killed before we shag, I admit I’ll be extremely disappointed.
Deep down, I know I'll be disappointed either way. Command might let the regular troops play loose with fraternization rules, but they’ll never allow it in an Alpha Cell. If we even smell like we’re having sex, they’ll transfer him to another unit, put a light-year between us, and it’ll be a decade before this girl gets to lead another team.
I put my mind back on the mission. I’m ready to do this. It’s been almost two hours since we took position and I’m starting to get antsy. But timing is absolutely critical, so here we sit in the dark of night, shrouded in thick green bush near the jungle’s edge waiting for a signal from our command carrier, Triton. She’s in orbit, cloaked for now, but as soon as our evac launches, the Kellmari’ll be all over her. That means my cell won’t have long on the ground. Trust me, I’m not complaining. This may be my first time on Tyress-5, but it didn’t take long for me to start hating this ugly mud-ball of a planet.
We dropped in four days ago about five-hundred kilometers south of our target location. We hadn’t moved two klicks before we came under attack, some kind of blood-crazed indigenous fauna that looked like a bad splice between a boar and a crab. We must have gotten too close to their nest, because they came out of nowhere and went carnival-freak crazy on us in a split second. There was at least thirty of them, leaping, slashing, biting at our armor. We fought ‘em off, but not before one of the little bastards shoved a bony scythe-tipped appendage into the soft mesh at the neck of Morrian’s armor. She bled out before anyone could get to her.
Damn… She deserved better. Soldiers always do.
I shake it off, check my chrono. We’ve got about five hours to sunrise. This rock’s got three moons, none of which reflect much light. It’s dark as hell. Unassisted visibility’s barely fifty meters, but my visor’s HUD enhancements add at least two hundred to that. The Kellmari equivalent isn’t nearly as advanced, which should make this run a hell of a lot easier.
Through my HUD, I see a world of few colors set against the black of night. Friendlies are green, hostiles red, everything else is rendered in shades of mind-numbing gray—the jesperia trees, the muddy terrain, even the research facility itself. It’s all secondary to my team and the enemy, or at least that’s what the AI controlling my HUD has decided.
The facility ahead is the only sentient-made structure for more than five-hundred square-kilometers, a windowless two-story building about seventy-five meters long. I’d label it unassuming if it wasn’t hiding in the middle of a dense jungle projecting holographic terrain to avoid orbital detection. That, coupled with the three red hostiles patrolling the roof, tells me we got the right place. Now if we could just get inside.
I don’t know what’s worse, waiting or waiting in silence. Jaden apparently thinks it’s the latter. He shimmies closer, thumbs his chin release and swipes his visor up into the forehead of his helm. “So you think they’re inside? Both of them?”
I don’t like raising my visor in combat situations, but we don’t seem to be in any danger at the moment. Besides…it’s Jaden. I like his smile. Maybe some day I’ll find out if there’s anything he likes about me.
I check the chrono in my HUD then thumb the release and swipe up. I immediately regret it. The air’s heavy and dank with a sour leafy scent that turns my stomach, and if I’m not mistaken, something down here just took a crap up wind of our position. The stench twists my face into a nasty frown, hardly the look I was going for, but Jaden’s seen worse. “We been sitting here for three hours,” I say. “They better be in there.”
Jaden grins. “Wonder what makes these guys so special?” He’s eying me, looking for a reaction, wondering if I know something he doesn’t.
“Who the hell knows,” I say. It’s a lie. I do.
Intel’s been a bit sketchy lately, but if the Proctors at Ixion got it right this time, there’s two high-level Kellmari scientists in the facility that Command wants terminated, ASAP. But that information’s compartmentalized, need to know. Hell, I’m sure the only reason they told me was so I’d understand the urgency of the situation.
Jaden stares at my profile. I can see him grinning in my peripheral. He knows me too well.
A labored sigh signals my submission and I key the interface on my forearm to mute my mic. If I’m gonna violate protocol, I don’t need the AI recording it. I check over my shoulder. Varuna and Tolen are too far away to catch my whisper, but I lean in anyway to protect my voice.
“Supposedly…these two Kellmari geeks are working on some kind of super weapon that uses tribinium as an explosive agent. Detonate one close enough to a star, it could stop all fusion at the core—instant supernova.”
Jaden shrugs it off with a huff. “What’s the chances of the Kellmari getting that close to a sun in a Protectorate-controlled system?” His lack of imagination is frightening.
Our ships utilize folded space dynamics to move hundreds of light-years in a single instant. The navigation computers require a gravity well at the destination point to anchor the slip. Without one, there’s no telling where you’d end up. Stars make perfect anchors, but they have to be within sensor range to get a lock.
When I tell Jaden the Proctors think the Kellmari’ll use the weapon to take out as many stars as they can in the neutral zone between our two territories, I can practically see the light flare up behind his eyes. “Like an interstellar firebreak.”
“Exactly.” My head bobs agreement as I make a quick visual sweep of the facility. “They know they can’t win the war, so they’re trying to close the door.”
Jaden runs a hand down his mouth and exhales with a blast.
I turn back to the perimeter and drop my visor. I can’t take the smell of this place any longer and there really isn't anything else to say. He gets it.
Kellmari ships use a different method of propulsion to achieve faster-than-light travel. They don’t need anchors, and that means the Protectorate would remain vulnerable to attack with no way to take the fight to the enemy. Maybe I shouldn't have told him. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t know the stakes. With Morrian gone, our chances of success are down to 73.6%, not exactly the best odds and definitely not something either of us needs to be focused on right now.
It’s funny, though. After almost two years, I still couldn't tell you why Jaden puts it on the line. Me? My father served, like his father, and his father before. It’s a tradition, and so is getting killed in action. It’s been a few generations since a Stormlund made it to retirement. I hope my little bro can break the streak, because I doubt I will, especially if I keep accepting missions like this.
Another thirty minutes pass in silence. My stomach growls like a thing possessed and I’m just about to rip open a protein pack when my HUD beeps and the comm icon begins to flash.
“It’s about frickin time,” I mumble over the squad channel before switching to the primary Net and pressing three fingers to my ear-cover. “Star Lord; Hammer-1, receiving.”
A crack of static announces the controller’s voice. “Hammer-1; Star Lord. Triton is in position. You are clear to proceed. Enter facility, terminate all resistance and prosecute directive. Primary egress confirmed: rooftop. Scavenger-2 is standing by for evac—will launch five mikes after mark. ETA to rendezvous: fourteen mikes. Triton will hold position as long as possible, but you are advised to hurry. The clock is yours Hammer-1, call the mark.”
I’m smiling inside. The rooftop extraction was my idea and it means we don’t have to fight our way back out of the building. “Copy all, Star Lord. Standby to sync.” I drop off the primary Net and turn to my cell. “Lock up. We’re moving.” I key the interface embedded in the forearm of my armor. It’s time to start the clock. Back to primary. “Star Lord; Hammer-1. Sync on me, in three…two…one…mark. Confirm sync, over.”
“Good-to-go, Hammer-1. Make us proud. Star Lord out.”
My cell rises as one ready to deal some damage. I take a deep breath, eject the thermal clip from my weapon and check the gauge. It’s green, a full charge. I already knew that, but old habits die hard.
I turn to the others. My heart’s beating out a marathon, flooding my body with adrenaline. If we don’t get moving soon, I’m gonna get the shakes. “Alright…just like we planned it. I’m running van. Cover me to the door then wait for my signal. When I say go, you move. I want you through that door five seconds behind me. No monkey-shit. Got it?”
Tolen chuckles. It’s a squeaky little sound for such a big guy. “We wouldn’t leave you hanging, Darling.”
“What’d I tell you about calling me ‘Darling’?”
He laughs. “Sorry, babe.”
I shake my head and turn toward the target. “God, you’re such an ass-mite.”
It takes me exactly fifteen seconds to reach the door on the west side of the facility. I set a breach charge and launch a small airborne drone to lead the way. It’s only about the size of my thumb, but it’s loaded with a short-range sensor package that sends telemetry straight to my HUD.
To be honest, that little nugget’s the real vanguard, out in front and fearless with a one track mind that’s always on the mission. And right now, that’s exactly what I need, because I’ve got no idea what’s waiting on the other side of this door. There could be five armed Kellmari inside, or fifty. There’s only one way to find out.
This is it—another career defining moment. I give my helm a few hard smacks to focus my thoughts and ready up. I know I’m about to set off a shit-storm of rage; I just don’t have time to give a fuck. “Hammer-1 to cell. On me in three…two…one…go!”
I wait ten seconds, blow the door and peel around the corner, weapon tight against my cheek and only one thing on my mind—Hammer will not fail.
>> Continue - Vanguard, Part II
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