The plundering and backstabbing might be all fun and adventure for pirates, but if you are good guy charged with cleaning up the mess, it is a real pain in the ass. And it doesn’t bode well when you’ve pissed off some of the most elite pilots in the ‘verse.
RISE OF THE FALLEN
Bengal Carrier SS Billy Shaw
Lucifer paced around the holographic display, his brow furrowed. A translucent rendition of the sweeping T-shaped Merchantman hung in the center, surrounded by a private asteroid-belt of wreckage. Five swept-back Sabers formed a spherical perimeter; engines pointed in, guns pointed out.
Lieutenant Nathan ‘Tombstone’ Earp set his tablet down with a sigh. “How many ways you wanna go over this, Major? We’ve run it at low-intensity, high-intensity, total surprise and total awareness. These guys are criminals in homebuilts. They’re cannon fodder and we’re flying the cannons.” He stood, rotating his torso to stretch a stiff back. “Any way you run the sim, we kick their ass.”
Lucifer glanced up, the warmth of their friendship tempered by a hard, steel-grey stare from beneath that brow as he flicked an index-finger at the Merchantman. “Thats what they thought to begin with.”
His eyes snapped back to the Merchant vessel. So how did they take you?
The Banu had been both slow and slim on details. Either they really had no idea what took place or refused to admit they’d done a shit job of planning; neither of which looked good in front of their Xi’An customers.
It was pretty clear the Banu had taken a low-profile approach, moving the cargo on a single ship rather than in a small fleet. Escorts draw attention. But the Merchant ship wasn’t exactly stock, in fact they’d bolted some custom turrets in places the ship was never designed to support. Lucifer wondered if, at the onset of a fight when everyone went to trigger, they didn’t just blow the circuit breakers and go dark.
Go dark. The words scratched at his brain. No, not a bunch of pirates. Then again…
Lucifer snapped into motion; he lost the drawl when he was serious. “Wex, give me a four by four grid on the debris field where the Merchantman disappeared.”
The Sergeant, having faded into a slump, jerked upright, a reflexive “Aye sir!” off his tongue as he spun up the display. A huge volume of empty space rezzed into holographic view, littered with the bits and pieces of ships left behind after a firefight. Other small icons dotted the vast black.
Lucifer scanned the map for tiny details. A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. You.
“Pull up the maintenance records for Comm Array Two Seven Niner.”
The young Sergeant shook his head. “CA Maintenance data isn’t in our system sir, NSA keeps that stuff locked… under…” He slowed, then paused, watching as his team leader cocked up one eyebrow. Abruptly Wex went nose down, fingers tapping rapidly. “Rog that sir, hacking NSA.”
Lucifer suppressed a mild chuckle as he imagined some disgruntled mid-level manager at the NSA throwing a hissy about Special Forces getting into their shit again. Hacking into secure nets were part of the mission profile around here; nobody said it would always be an enemy network.
If you didn’t want us breaking rules, you shouldn’ta taught us how.
Columns of data silently spilled down a virtual plane in the air. “Good to go sir,” Wex announced with unabashed smugness. “What are we looking for?”
“Component-level failures attributed to ESD. You won’t find ‘em on the mains; we already know the bad guys were busy flipping the breakers before moving into an area. Focus on the small stuff, attitude control systems, navlocks, shit that runs autonomically even when the Array is powered down.”
Several seconds passed before Wex looked up, eyebrows raised. “Sonofabitch Major, how’d you peg that? Two Seven Niner blows not one but three navlock mods, all listed as ‘severe electrostatic discharge’. MTBF of 19,000 hours per unit; odds of all three blowing at once are…” Wex looked up at the ceiling as he rolled math in his head, then shook it off. “Pffft. Too low for my brain to figure. One in a billion? Or is it ten billion?”
Lucifer allowed his grin a moment’s liberty. Then the smile faded as he looked back at the map, imagining chess pieces on the board. You sneaky mother fuckers…
Sensing the quandry around the room, Lucifer explained. “EMP. The pirates set off a pulse. Fried the Merchant, but also scorched the Comm Array. The question is, how?”
As team weapons specialist, Tombstone took his cue. “Baby nuke, something like a M54. Maybe a Flux Comp, something they cobbled together out of scrap? Either way, that’s a one-shot act. There’s no reloading an EPFCG.”
Lucifer nodded thoughtfully, then sensing the lull prompted, “Or…?”
Tombstone wrinkled his face. “What, a Sentinel? I don’t see where these guys come up with a ship of the line. Somebody would’a noticed one of those gone missing, yeah?”
The Major stroked his chin. “A Sentinel yeah, but what about something older, something that looks like a whole lot of other boats out there.” Their eyes were blank when he said “What about a Warlock?”
He watched the dismissive scoffs that ran around the room and grimaced. Sometimes being the best, having the best at your fingertips, dulls your appreciation for yesterday’s tech. The space penguin hasn’t been a player in frontline warfare for longer than most of these kids have been alive, but was a day not that long ago that hardcore SF missions snaked along on Avengers. Those were old school, big class-5 GAU-18s on the nose instead of the anemic 3s they bolt on these days. Back in the day an Avenger could ass-rape a ship twice its size in a one-on-one; in groups the black-n-white deltas were like piranha.
“OK, homework. Everybody in this room is gonna become experts on the Aegic Dynamics Avenger. Flight ops, performance envelope, the works. Most notably, the Warlock EMP variant. Tomb, I want min/max on output, what it could do stock, and how far you could beef it up today. One of those suckers comes smoking in and some of us could end up riding surfboards out there.”
Lucifer looked at chrono on his Mobi. “Regroup in two hours. Wex, Update the sim to add a Warlock to OPFOR assets.”
Wex was already typing. “Rog that Major, for which scenario?”
Lucifer gave him a scalding glance. “All of them.” He clapped his hands. “C’mon Fallen, this is how we earn our wings.” He barked loudly “You think training is hard??”
“Try losing!!” Every voice in the room chimed in; tired, frazzled, but all shouted as one.
“Damn right.” Lucifer watched as his team scrambled out of the room. He stood silent for a moment, then turned to one of the black-mirrored windows that lined the briefing center. “What do you think sir?”
The black glass slid down into the wall, revealing the shadowed room beyond, the row of chairs, and Charles Martell. The dark flat-top had all but given over to grey, making the gem-blue eyes seem even brighter.
Martell had a voice like gravel. “I’ll have Hanson run the traps on any Warlocks, but a shitload of them have been decomissioned over the years. They’re supposed to be de-MIL’d, but most chop-shops do a half-ass job on slagging the cores. One out of five probably end up on the black market.” The Old Man looked at Lucifer. “Good catch.”
The senior Fallen nodded. “Banu intel was supposed to be working backtrack on where these statues might’a gone, or who might be behind it all. Anything come of that, or just more of their usual jerking around?”
Martell shook his head. “Fucking useless. They want this to go away but don’t want us to be the ones that unfuck it.” His eyes tracked rapidly side to side; Lucifer knew the Old Man was surfing his Mobi. “Looks like there is some unsourced data suggesting Leir may be involved, but they haven’t released any analysis.”
It was Lucifer’s turn to sneer. “Goddamn Outsiders. Wouldn’t that just be the icing on the cake? Makes sense tho, lot less Empire presence in that little parking lot. We need to beef up containment there?”
Martell chuffed. “Like the man says, ‘its a big damn sky.’ We’ve been re-inforcing the jump points and known trafficking routes, adding random patrols to sift the commercial traffic. But everything is borrow from Peter to pay Paul. Assets we pull for this clusterfuck are coming off the Vanduul line. We picked up three more TDYs this morning, the Sumner, the Archer and the Davenport.”
Lucifer stared at the map, adding those bits of data to his personal Operational Picture. “The Archer, that’s Scanlon’s boat isn’t it?”