Chapter One

~ June 25th, 2287 ~


Sydnee's heart seemed to be beating faster than was humanly possible. It was after midnight and the light provided by the tiny sliver of a small, distant moon was barely sufficient to see the ground in front of her while she strained to hear any sounds that might indicate danger was near. This was her very first trip down to the capital city of Yolongus, and when she managed to block out the pounding of her heart, the only other sounds were the soft footfalls from her own carefully placed steps.

She had studied the map before beginning the mission, but after fifteen minutes of trying to escape pursuit by unknown individuals, she had lost her bearings. She believed she was close to the deserted warehouse on whose roof she had parked her shuttle, but she was unsure in which direction she should be traveling.

She stopped for just a moment to check the map on her viewpad. The light provided by the small device was extremely dim, but in the darkness that surrounded her it was enough to give away her position. A flurry of laser flashes suddenly flew in her direction, all narrowly missing her body. The light from the viewpad had been so dim that the shooters hadn’t been able to target her properly, and none got lucky— this time.

As laser flashes continued to narrowly miss her body, she dove for cover behind a low, stone wall. Her cover story for this mission was that she was a human who had been enslaved by the Clidepp government so she hadn’t been able to wear the DS personal armor which would have enabled her to walk through the city almost without fear. Almost because, as everyone knows, where there are laser weapons, there might also be RPG weapons and hand grenades, although the local police on the Clidepp home world were rarely so armed. Laser pistols and rifles were more than adequate to put down any citizen insurrection and even fight civilian crime on a planet where the citizenry wasn’t armed. Many decades ago, the government of Yolongus had required that all civilian owned weapons be registered with the local police or the owner might face severe fines and even suffer imprisonment. When the registration process had been completed, the government then asked, purely in the interest of protecting the civilians from a handful of deranged people, that the hundreds of millions of law-abiding civilians voluntarily turn in all weapons. The populace, for the most part, complied. Then government law enforcement officers visited everyone who hadn't complied and confiscated the weapons that hadn't been turned in voluntarily. A substantial number of citizens had died during those confiscations, all quite accidently according to the secret police charged with collecting all guns on the planet. A few civilians, those who wisely hadn’t registered their weapons or turned them in, still had their guns. Unfortunately, most were ancient lead projectile weapons that presented little danger to anyone wearing armor. So the people firing at Sydnee with laser weapons most likely had to be either the local police, the secret police, or the military. The local police might not have anything more dangerous than laser pistols or laser rifles, but the secret police and the military were well armed with much more deadly ordnance.

As Sydnee squatted behind the wall, looking at the map while trying to block the dim light, she tried to determine which direction would take her to the warehouse and how she might accomplish that with her position now known. Her attention was instantly yanked from the map as a grenade practically landed in her lap.

Sydnee instinctively jumped up and over the low protective wall of stone in a quick movement reminiscent of a startled house cat on Earth. Landing on her back on the other side she remained flattened against the ground as an explosion shook the pavement beneath her. It was too dangerous to remain where she was so she jumped to her feet again and began running in the direction where the laser flashes seemed lightest. Each time she was able to identify where a flash had originated, and she could see what appeared to be a person’s shape, she fired her laser pistol in that direction. She finally got a good look at one of the shooters when laser flashes in his background briefly illuminated his shape. From the uniform he was wearing, she knew him to be part of the secret police agency known as the Qummuc. Halting briefly she managed to take down that attacker and three of his associates. She continued her flight and rounded the corner of a building at the end of the block. She didn't know if she had killed any of them, but each had stopped shooting and fallen backwards in response to her fire.

As she hurried down a side street, she seemed safe for the moment, but she couldn’t stop to catch her breath. The surviving attackers would be on her trail in a minute, and she knew there were a lot more back there than the four she had shot at. At times it had seemed like she was fighting an entire brigade.

As Sydnee began to race down the street, she spotted the one story warehouse she had been searching for. It gave her renewed strength and she ran flat out to reach the safety of the structure. She entered the alleyway next to the building and pulled open the door to an interior stairwell that led to the roof. Bounding up the stairs two at a time, she reached the roof in just eight seconds.

She opened the door cautiously and scanned the roof before leaving the comparative safety of the stairwell. There was no one visible on the roof. Hurrying to her shuttle, she raced up the ramp and entered the small ship, then smacked the small plate on the wall that would retract the ramp while sealing the hatch. Sydnee began to relax and released a sigh of relief, but she’d begun her respite too soon. Before the hatch was fully closed, an RPG round entered the shuttle’s rear cabin. There was nowhere to run in the confines of the ship, nor enough time to get clear. As the round exploded, everything was suddenly bathed in blinding light. Then everything went totally black.

A few seconds later, the area illuminated to normal levels. A horn sounded somewhere as the holographic ship around her disappeared. Sydnee discovered she was lying on a raised platform with low walls, not in a shuttle.

"Excellent score for your first time through the new Marine Combat Range, Syd," Marine First Lieutenant Kelly MacDonald said as she walked up to the raised platform. "Congratulations."

"Damn it, Kel," Sydnee said. "I thought I was going to make it to safety."

"You came close, Syd," First Lieutenant Martin Aguilo, the range officer, said from behind MacDonald. "You just failed to check the surrounding roofs before lowering your guard. There was a member of the secret police hiding behind a pile of refuse on the roof of the building across from the shuttle location. A thermal scan would have revealed him. As you ran up the shuttle’s ramp, he stepped out and fired the RPG launcher."

"What was my score up until that RPG round entered the shuttle?"

"Your final score was four hundred thirty," MacDonald said. "If you had spotted that secret policeman on the roof before he fired, you might have survived that final RPG round, and you would have been the very first to receive a perfect score of five hundred. As it is, you’re in the top five percent of the range leaders. That's incredible for a first run."

"I'll do better next time."

"Care to go again now?" Aguilo asked. “We’ll reset the game to another part of the city.”

"Are you kidding? I'm wiped out. I doubt if I could score a hundred the way I feel right now."

Kelly MacDonald chuckled. "Exactly the way I felt after my first time. And after my second and third time as well."

"You've really outdone yourself, Martin," Sydnee said with a smile. "This has to be the greatest Marine Combat Range in any ship in the fleet."

"Thanks, Syd," Lt. Aguilo said. "We spent a long time planning it, and then even more time constructing it. I wanted it to be the best."

"You succeeded. I'm anxious to go again— but not tonight."

"I hope you have a chance before your next mission."

"I should. I told Captain Lidden that my people and I need three weeks downtown before we deploy again. My entire crew needs a long rest after those months of surreptitious activity in Clidepp space. But I heard SCI is pressuring him already. They want us to drop off that Yolongi minister before he tries to claim citizenship in the G.A. for having been in our custody for so long."

"Technically, he's been in orbit around Yolongus for most of the time since we kidnapped him," MacDonald said, "although he's been inside a prison cell inside a Space Command vessel."

"True. And he’s logged more kilometers in a CPS than most members of Space Command,” Sydnee said with a chuckle. “I’m reasonably confident that after our last mission, we now have the right person in custody for the bombing of the trade show. So all I want to do is drop the innocent minister off on his home planet and consider our role in this complete.”

“We still have to seed the Clidepp Empire with the spy satellites.”

“Maybe not, Kel. If we do have the real Citizen X this time, SCI may cancel that part of the operation. Bringing back his two top lieutenants was the icing on the cake.”

w w w

“What have you learned?” Prime Minister Gustallo Plelillo screamed at the military officer who had just stepped into his office. Plelillo ruled his nation with an iron fist, and demanded absolute loyalty and obedience.

“The captain of your personal yacht keeps repeating the same story over and over. He says that they were attacked by a ship they were never able to see with their cameras, and which never showed up on radar. The captain of that mystery ship called herself Captain Anne Bonny. She demanded that the two top persons aboard the ship climb into a shuttle and fly over to their ship. They said they would guide the shuttle once it left the yacht. The captain says they had no choice. The unknown ship had already destroyed the yacht’s temporal generator so it couldn’t get away. And they were threatening to completely destroy the yacht if they didn’t comply. The yacht has no offensive weapons and was helpless.

“So your son sent two of his top people over. Bonny must have realized the two weren’t the top people, and she demanded that the top person aboard the yacht come to their ship at once. She again warned that failure to comply would result in the destruction of the yacht. Bonny then sent the yacht’s own shuttle back to ferry him over. The captain says they never even saw who was piloting the small craft. As soon as your son climbed in, the hatch was closed and the shuttle pulled away. That was the last time they saw any of the three. When they heard nothing for hours, they tried to contact the ship or the shuttle, but they received no response. So the captain decided to take the course the shuttle had followed. They had been able to follow its course on radar and could see it was still there, but when they arrived at its location, all they found was an empty shuttle. They performed a standard search of the area, but they never found the three individuals that had gone to meet Captain Bonny, and they never even caught sight of the mystery ship.”

“A ship that can’t be seen by radar? Impossible. Go back and grill the captain again. He has to be hiding something. Squeeze him until he splits wide open like a melon. I want to know what happened to my son.”

“Sir, I heard a rumor that some time ago a Space Command ship stopped a freighter in our space and demanded food. They didn’t steal it. They paid for it in G.A. Credits.”

“Yes, I heard about that. What of it?”

“We’ll I also heard that the freighter never saw the ship until it was next to the freighter and threatening to fire on it unless it stopped. The security officer aboard that freighter swears that they never DeTected the ship as it approached them, and it remained invisible to their radar even when it was stopped alongside the freighter.”

“Are you sure of your facts?”

“I didn’t speak to the security officer personally, sir, so I can’t swear to it. But the informant who told me has always been extremely reliable.”

“A black Space Command vessel that can’t be seen on radar? Yes, it’s all starting to make sense. All of the attacks on this planet occurred at night, and no one ever saw the attackers. Someone blacked out the city just before the attacks on our holding facilities and the slave marketplace. There have been numerous attacks where no one ever saw a thing. Black ships that can’t be seen on radar would explain many things. I’ve heard that Space Command was using black ships exclusively now, but I never heard about their being invisible to radar. So, how do we target it the next time one attacks?”

“I have no idea, sir. Perhaps one of our scientists might know.”

“See what you can find out. Did you damage the captain of my yacht to a point where he’s of no further use?”

“No, sir. He has some bruises, and will need a few days to recover from muscle strains. That’s all.”

“Very well. Release him and send him back to my yacht. It appears he couldn’t have done anything to stop the events that occurred.”

“Yes, sir. Is there anything else you wish us to do with regard to the unseen ship that took your son?”

“Until we learn a bit more about it, there’s nothing to be done. But keep your people on the case, and report anything you hear.”

“Yes, sir.”

w w w

Lt. Sydnee Marcola stepped into the Captain’s office when the double doors slid back into their pockets on either side of the entranceway. Walking to the Captain’s desk, she stopped two feet away and braced to attention before saying, “Lieutenant Marcola reporting to the Captain as ordered.”

Lidden looked up from viewpad he held in one hand and said, “At ease, Sydnee. Have a seat,” before returning his attention to the viewpad.

“Thank you, sir,” she said as she sat down in an oh-gee chair that faced his desk.

Commander Timothy Bryant, the Denver’s XO, was sitting in his customary location at the side of Lidden’s desk. He smiled and nodded to Sydnee when she looked in his direction. She returned the smile and nod.

Both Bryant and Sydnee remained quiet while Lidden read from the viewpad. Lidden had once told Sydnee that if he invited her sit when she entered his office, she probably wasn’t in trouble, but she had only been back for three days and didn’t expect to be summoned until it was time for her to begin her next mission.

“Sydnee,” Lidden said as he finished reading the message and looked at her, “SCI tells me that you did indeed bring back the individual responsible for the bombing of the G.A. Trade Show where over four hundred children and over twenty-five hundred adults were killed. I understand that Space Command wants to honor you on Earth, but SCI has requested and any mention of your name in connection with Citizen X be postponed until after you complete the mission to return the Clidepp minister to Yolongus. Space Command H.Q. has agreed, so both S.H.Q. and SCI wants you to leave as soon as possible.”

“We’re not going to get the three weeks recovery period I requested, sir?”

“I’m afraid not. SCI says you can rest up during the voyage to return to Yolongus.”

“Sort of a working-vacation, I guess.”

“Uh, yes, something like that. I’m sorry. If it was up to me, you’d have your requested three weeks. But SCI wants us to return the minister as quickly as possible. As it is, they’ll be making an announcement that the party responsible for the bombing to the G.A. has been captured. He and his top two lieutenants will stand trial before you’ve reached Yolongus. And Sydnee, it’s imperative you get in and out quickly this trip. The slaves you brought back on your last mission are proof positive that the Clidepp Empire is not only condoning Terran slavery, but actively promoting it. So get in quickly, drop off the minister, and get out. And don’t bring back any more slaves.”

“That was my intention last time, sir, until you ordered us to pick up an SCI undercover agent who refused to leave until we rescued a ship load of slaves.”

“Uh, yes, that’s true. And I’m sorry we burdened you with that extra task. SCI ordered me to pass that task onto you.”

“I understand, sir, and I’m not blaming you. And I don’t regret being forced to rescue the slaves. It was just something that spiraled out of control. Once we started the rescue SCI ordered, we couldn’t just drop the effort.”

“You did what you had to do to carry out your orders. We’re grateful that everything turned out so well. You raised a lot of hell on Yolongus. I hope this mission goes smoother.”

“Has SCI made a decision regarding the satellites?”

“Yes. They’ve confirmed the assignment. Since the Trade Show bomber is the son of the Clidepp Empire Prime Minister, it’s more imperative than ever that we have intelligence regarding their military plans.”

“SCI surely doesn’t suspect that the Clidepp Empire will attack the G.A. over this issue, do they? I mean it would be extremely foolish of them. They wouldn’t stand a chance against our battle capabilities.”

“They don’t know what the Empire will do. That’s why they want those satellites in place.”

“Then I’d like to make a request for additional resources.”

“What kind of resources?”

“I’d like two extra habitat containers, and a doubling of all food, plus a doubling of all spare engineering supplies and parts.”

“Double the usual allotment for an extended voyage?”

“Yes, sir. If we’re going to seed all those spy satellites in a possible hostile environment, I want to ensure we don’t have to go hunting for food and spare parts this trip.”

“Two extra containers will mean you’ll be dragging ten total.”

“Yes, sir, but the CPS-14 is more than able to handle it.”

“Then we’ll need to install a second computer interface unit to handle more than the present eight containers since the Justice only has one interface installed at present.”

“I understand it was part of the original design of the ship and it’s a relatively simple task to add up to two more interface units.”

“So I’ve been told. Okay, Sydnee, I’ll order that done right away. Anything else?”

“No, sir. That should do it. I’ll sleep a lot better knowing we’ll have plenty of supplies this time.”

“Remember, Sydnee, don’t bring any more slaves back this trip. That order comes direct from SCI.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll do my best.”

“Do better than your best. Leave it to the G.A. to handle the issue of slavery in the Clidepp Empire now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, Sydnee, you’d better get your crew together. SCI wants you to shove off as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir. I don’t look forward to telling my crew that their leave has been cancelled. They all worked extra hard and deserve a rest. This assignment is voluntary, right?”

“Thinking of declining the mission?”

“No, sir. Not me. But I’m sure someone might ask. And if anyone does decline, I’ll have to find replacements for them.”

“Yes, the mission is voluntary. And you can’t discuss the details until after they commit.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

“Thank you, Sydnee. I’m sure this mission is going to go smoother than the last two.”

“I hope you’re right, sir.”

w w

“Syd, you said we’ve have three weeks,” Lt.(jg) Peter Caruthers said in a complaining voice.

“I’m sorry, Pete. SCI overruled the captain. They want us gone yesterday. In fact they want us gone before we even got back.”

“Damn.”

“Look at it this way, Pete. It going to take us a month to get there. We know that the trip in is always boring. You’ll get plenty of rest.”

“I’m in,” Lt.(jg) Jerry Weems said. “We’ve been dragging that poor minister back and forth. This time he gets to go home, right?”

“Right Jerry. We drop him off before we do anything else.”

“Okay, I’m in,” Caruthers said.

“And me,” Lt.(jg) Olivetti said.

“Ditto,” Lt.(jg) Templeton said.

“I’ll make it unanimous, Lieutenant,” Chief Petty Officer Wilson Lemela said.

“Great,” Sydnee said. “Thanks. Now all we have to do is get the rest of the crew to sign on. I’ve scheduled a meeting in this conference room for 1300 hours. I’ll see you all then.”

w w w

At 2147 hours, Commander Bryant had the watch and was seated in the command chair on the bridge when Sydnee approached him and handed him a viewpad.

Sir, this is the crew roster of the Justice for the upcoming mission,” Sydnee said.

“Did you have anyone decline?” Bryant asked.

“No sir. Lt. Colonel Dennier, Marine Captain Blade, and Marine Lieutenant Kelly MacDonald have all reported that they and their teams will be ready. And my Space Command team will be ready as well. I do have one substitution to report. Marine Corporal Vernon Jensen broke his right arm yesterday while training on the new Marine Combat Range. He tripped while trying to leap over a low wall as he dodged fire from a Tsgardi patrol. The doctor estimates that the nano-bots will have the damage completely repaired in two to three weeks, but he wants Jensen to remain on light duty for two months. That disqualifies him from coming. Lt. Kelly MacDonald has filled the position with another Marine who volunteered for the mission. So we’re ready to go as soon as the Justice is prepped.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. The ship will be ready for deployment by 13:00 hours tomorrow. You can alert your team to be prepared to deploy at that time.”

“Aye, Commander. I’ll alert everyone immediately.”

End of Chapter 1


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