Old Wounds Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Camp Gideon was built upon the biggest rock overlooking the Red Plains, half a continent away from the capital. The only man-made structure for a thousand kilometres in any direction.

Terraforming had been completed on St. Aloysius decades ago, but vegetation was only just starting to appear this far from the domes. The camp leaders had begun to wonder if they might have to rename the Red Plains in another generation or so.

It was founded as a summer camp destination, a place where Christian Youth could come together to strengthen their ties through group activities and bible study.

But since the official end of the civil war and the rise of the Order, its original mission had taken a darker turn.

Now the obstacle course ended with a firing range and arts and crafts had been replaced with a bomb-making course.

 

The Oversight of the camp, a broad-chested bear of a man named Father Bob McCarlin, rose at 5:45 a.m. sharp to ready himself for the morning bugle call. Rain, hale or shine Father McCarlin rose to wash, shave and dress himself to rouse his camp to action, even on a day like this, where the youths in his care were out on their second day of a four-day bivouac out in the mountains, camp staff had to be up and to their stations on time. They had a long day of maintenance, administration and prayer ahead of them.

Father McCarlin emerged from his cabin clean shaven and his fatigues pressed and ordered to the same military standard they had been during the war. His cabin was a prefabricated one-bedroom cell with all the modern amenities. It was his only nod to luxury and one he only granted to himself due to his role as caretaker for the entire camp during the rest of the school year. Camp staff were housed in a communal barracks and the kids camped in permanent tents with their troop leaders.

Father McCarlin took in the silence of the hills for a moment before marching purposely towards the parade grounds in the middle of the camp.

He reached his position beside the flag pole, took a deep breath and rose the bugle to his lips.

The bullet penetrated his temple and exploded out the other side of his head before he could exhale.

“Go.” A voice yelled from the edge of camp and a dozen figures in black fatigues threw off their camouflage blankets and rushed onto the grounds. They reached the first barracks without challenge, attached a charge to the door and melted it into a pile of superheated slag before tossing a string of fragmentation grenade inside.

The blast drowned out the screams and the assaulters split into two groups, the first rushed inside and started putting a burst into everything human-shaped they could find, while the second group rushed the second barracks.

But that explosion worked better than the bugle ever would. When the second group was almost at the walls the camp staff threw open the windows and unleashed a hail of bullets at the figures.

Some had the time to drop to their bellies and return fire, but the three figures at the front took the brunt of the fire and were all but torn to shreds.

The first group in the ravaged barracks copied their enemy’s move and opened up the windows to give their comrades covering fire. The assaulters on the ground crawled desperately to the relative safety of the barracks’ left side.

Over even the roar of that much gunfire the sound of a heavy speeder’s engines announced its arrival and a Federation Troop carrier dropped right out of the sky and onto the parade grounds.

The rush of hot air spewing from its thrusters forced a pause in the gunfire as both sides diverted their attention to this new threat.

The Order and their attackers had barely enough time to notice that the Troop carrier had been hastily repainted before the door gunner turned his weapon towards the bunkers and opened fire.

A guided tear-gas rocket shot nimbly through the open window of the furtherest barracks and air-burst its payload throughout the entire room. A second and third rocket did the same to the other barracks while armoured troops leapt from the carrier and rushed the black-clad soldiers outside the second bunker.

The armoured soldier in the lead shouldered his canister rifle and fired at the first assaulter to reach cover. Before the figure could react a ball of glop the size of a soccer-ball exploded from the canister and splashed over his torso before hardening like plaster in the next instant. The figure tried to force his arm to move, being trapped only by the edges of the glop where it was brittle, but a second canister was shot at his arm and covered his hand and most of his rifle.

The assaulter’s companions turned to return fire but were soon overwhelmed by the next three armoured soldiers behind the leader. Without missing a step these soldiers rushed the first barracks while their comrades poured into the second and third.

The armoured troop carrier deployed landing gear and lowered its leading ramps, by the time the pilot shut off the speeder’s engines the entire camp had fallen silent.

 

Theresa’s wrists itched where the armoured troops had cable-tied her arms together. Anyone who hadn’t been covered in glop had been paralysed through nanohacking, then everyone was bound and lead into the camp’s assembly hall, her assault team and the Order’s survivors alike.

The soldiers surrounding them were wearing marine infantry combat armour, also painted blue.

“Who the hell are they?” She heard someone whisper. “Are they the feds?”

“Only if the feds have started painting their ships blue.” Someone else muttered.

“They’re going to kill us.” Someone from the other side of the room shrieked. “They’re going to slaughter us like lambs.”

A woman’s voice cut through the the entire room as she took her place by the pulpit up on the stage.

“If we were going to kill you, we would have waited for Free Aloysius to do it for us.”

The woman opened up her helmet and looked out at the assembled insurgents with her own eyes.

She was young-looking and of Asian descent, her hair in a neat pageboy cut. Theresa recognised Zheng Hua immediately.

“Then we would wait for them to think they’d won and slaughter them on their way out. We have not done that. We rushed into the middle of their attack because we wanted everyone alive.”

“What are you going to do with us?” Theresa demanded.

“Your team will be taken away from here and dropped off at another location of your choosing. Your dead will be brought with you. The Order will be left here to tend to their own dead. In the meantime the Black Mask Society are calling for a cease-fire between both parties. We’re holding a summit between all of the major insurgency movements on this planet and we cannot have anymore bad blood between you than there already is. Both of your sides have been at each other’s throats since the war and you’ve gotten nowhere, but look at us.”

She gestured towards the armoured soldiers around them. “Even a year ago, the mere possibility that the Black Mask Society could humble not one, but two insurgent movements in the one day would not have occurred to any of you. This is what we have been able to achieve in one year, imagine what we could do a year from now. Meanwhile the Order continues to firebomb train stations and kill their own citizens and Free Aloysius mutters amongst their spies and gives the feds a headache here and there. In the last twelves months, the biggest attacks you’ve launched were the apostate lynchings in February and this very attack here today. Your greatest achievements, wasted on each other.”

Zheng Hua brought her fist down on the pulpit beside her and the loud bang sent a ripple through the crowd.

“All we are asking is that we take the fight back to the real enemy. We are leaving invitations to our summit with both parties. I urge you to press the issue with your commanders. We can stand against the Federation and we can free this planet from their tyranny. But that can only be done together or not at all. I’m going to leave you all to think about that.”

Another armour soldier marched into the room and stood to attention. From across the room he called out. “Bodies have been loaded. Engines are spooled up and ready.”

Zheng Hua nodded at him, then turned to the Free Aloysius side of the room.

“It is time to go. Anyone who needs help to stand please ask the society foot soldier nearest you.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 11 Part 2

We’d smoked out two ringleaders in the capital and started moving out to the rural areas. I took a platoon out to this two-bit nowheresville out on the coast and we hit the streets. I wanted to see the grounds with my own eyes. The locals were nervous, but I told the Jarheads to pop their helmets, let ’em see our faces, see that we’re just like ’em.”

Rodgers face fell. “We passed this old house in the middle of an open plaza, a man was standing in the doorway, just watching us. I smiled at him, gave him a wave and he waved back. Next thing I know his head disappears in a red mist and he drops like a sack of ‘taters. I look at the marine next to me and he’s got his rifle up, pointing right at the dead man.”

A fire ignited behind Rodgers’ eyes. His hands came up and he started moving them in space as he talked.

“Before I could tear it out of his hands and demand an explanation the whole squad opened fire. None of them knew where the ‘attack’ was coming from, but they had rifles up and firing like good little marines. I rushed into the midst of them with my shock baton, knocking marines on their backs and shocking them left and right. The rest of the platoon worked out right quick that I was the one attacking them and they tried turning their rifles on me.

I tossed flashbangs to distract them and circled around a building to close the distance and I went at it again. I didn’t just want ’em to stop shooting, I wanted those sons ‘a snakes to bleed a little. Get something resembling justice for those civilians.

Finally when the whole thing was brought before the MPs the whole damn platoon was cleared of any wrong doing.” Rodgers snorted angrily. “They said the Marines were just following standard operating procedure. The marine that fired the first shot said he thought the man was reaching for a weapon.” Rodgers slammed his hand against the judge’s box and turned away.

Penny gave him a moment to cool before saying. “One isolated incident…”

“Isolated!” Rodgers spun to face her. “You think marines trained for assaulting and capturing planets can transfer over to peacekeeping with just one screw up? You’re smarter than that Dreadful. Throw in the political games at the top end, the senators squabbling over pacification contracts whether their troops can speak the local language or not and you honestly want to tell me that massacre was the only one? I know it wasn’t. I’ve seen more.”

Penny fumed at him quietly. “I know.” She said. “I’ve seen Marines and Garrison troops fly off the handle and I’ve seen civilians pay for it. But I’ve always brought it to the attention of their superiors.”
Rodgers leaned in close. “And you’ve seen justice done?”

Penny stared up at him, defiantly. “Not always.”

Rodgers nodded.

“But I’ve seen the Black Mask Society disregard civilians lives and livelihoods as well. On the very last planet I was on a Triad Red Pole almost contaminated the ground water for an entire continent. All so he could mine Kerium on the sly.”

Rodgers pulled back and grudgingly nodded to that as well. “The BMS ain’t saints neither. But the weaker side in a fight can’t afford to play by the rules. That’s why I taught you grunts my code. I wanted to make sure you conducted yourselves as decent human beings in the midst of that bloodbath. So that I’d never see you punching down on the Periphery citizens. But when you’re the little guy, when the other side has all the resources, soldiers, weapons and logistics, striving to always be an officer and a gentleman won’t get you nothing but a quick death. When your back’s against the wall the only part of the code that matters is that you ‘Do what has to be done’.”

“SO WHAT!” Penny shouted, taking a step towards him. “Was everything you told me just a lie? Just whatever happened to be convenient for you at the time?”

Rodgers stood tall through Penny’s assault and replied calmly. “If what I taught you was what you needed to make a real soldier of yourself, if it got you through the nightmare of the Hades campaign and let you move on to keep helping people even after you done your time, then you’re damn right I meant every word of it.”

Penny blinked, but held Rodgers gaze. The words hung heavy in the virtual air around them.

“So.” Penny said after a while. “You think the Black Mask Society are the lesser of two evils?”

Rodgers shrugged. “I think out of the two, they’re the ones with less blood on their hands.”

Penny nodded. “Then with all due respect sir.” She threw him a sharp salute. “I have to say I disagree with you.”

Rodgers lowered her eyes. “Then I guess this is war.”

Penny pulled her hand back to her side. “It already was.”

Rodgers reached up and tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Goodbye, Penny.”

And with a quiet ‘blip’ he disappeared.
Penny pulled out of her nanoputer returned to the Ravenwing‘s common room. She slumped back into the couch and stared down at the little book in her hands. Penny drew out a long, tired sigh, closed her eyes and closed the book.

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Old Wounds Chapter 11 Part 1

Chapter 11

When Penny’s eyes opened again, she was standing in the middle of a windswept field. High above her a flock of virtual geese flew in V formation across the cloudless sky.

Penny called up her portal and a human-sized oval of shimmering light appeared before her. The borders were brilliant light but the inside displayed nothing but endless black.

Penny copied the Headspace’s address from her photo and the blackness rippled like a pond after a thrown stone. In its place the front steps of a stately municipal building began to materialise.

Curious, Penny stepped through the portal.
The borders of shimmering light passed overhead and Penny’s virtual foot touched the first step leading up to the building. It was a grand stone structure, with a rank of Corinthian columns out the front and a white belltower on the roof.

High above the grand oak doors were the words ‘The Court of Public Opinion.’

Penny made her way up the stairs and put her hand on the big double-doors. Something bubbled in her gut but she squashed it down and pushed the heavy door open.

Inside the electric blue receptionist A.I. looked up from the document she was pretending to type and smiled brightly at Penny. She was seated at a neat virtual desk with a little obsolete desktop computer and an in tray filled with papers. It was all for show of course, any data the headspace stored was safely in their servers.

The far wall was taken up entirely by an oversized notice board. The top of which read. ‘We do not tolerate facetious and flippant behaviour here, this is forum for serious discussion. If you want to laugh, our members recommend the following comedy and chill out spaces.’
The list itself was extensive, running almost from the ceiling to the floor.

“Welcome to the Court of Public Opinion.” The secretary beamed and rose from her seat. A clipboard appeared in her hand and she offered it to Penny. “Would you like to see a list of topics our members are currently discussing?”

“No thank you Ma’am.” Penny said waving her off. “I’m here to see a Mr. Rodgers?”

The clipboard vanished and the secretary nodded. “Ah yes, our private booking.”

She gestured down the hall. “I have set the second portal on the right to take you to your desired room. Mr Rodgers is not in yet, but he has left a placeholder you can summon him from.”

Penny raised an imaginary hat at her. “Thank you kindly.”

Penny turned down the corridor and the bubbling in her gut started up again, this time it was followed closely by a chill down her spine.

Penny clenched her fists until both feelings went away. The corridor was lined with portals that had been modelled to resemble hard wood doors. This allowed them to blend in the with the décor. In Penny’s headspace, where there were no walls to apply a door to she had chosen the freestanding shimmering light portal because it was the least obtrusive idea from her options.

Penny reached out for the doorknob, steeled herself again and pushed through.
Rows and rows of uncomfortable looking pews sat before the court. At the far end of the room lay the judges’ box, flanked by the witness stand. Before them were the plaintiff and defence’s desks.

Every seat lay empty, leaving only a black outline of Rodgers’ avatar standing before the Judges’ box. The word ‘Away’ in glowing purple letters hung in the middle of the image.

Penny made her way passed the pews, her boots echoing loudly about the hollow room. She reached out to the silhouette and touched it. ‘Away’ changed to ‘Contacting’ and Penny took a step back.

A moment passed and ‘Contacting’ changed to ‘Signing in’ and in the next moment he appeared.

Rodgers avatar materialised in his civilian clothes, a long brown duster over a pair of jeans and combat boots. The coat was faded and torn in places but the button-up shirt was freshly pressed.

By instinct Penny’s hand rose to her temple. “Rangers lead the way sir.”

Rodgers looked Penny in the eyes and returned the salute sharply. “All the way.”

They lowered their hands slowly. Silence rushed in to fill the void.

Rodgers cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re wonderin’ why I…”

“Why the hell are you here?” Penny blurted. “On Aloysius? With the Black Masks? First word I got you gone rogue was when Seera passed on the order to give you your discharge papers. I couldn’t believe it, I made her repeat it three times. Now I’ve chased you halfway across the spiral arm and I still got no clue what’s going on in that head of yours. None of this makes a lick of sense.”

Rodgers smirked and shook his head. “No I don’t suppose it do to you. You always were a stickler for the rules.”

Penny summoned her digital copy of the Code of the West. “They’re your rules Roy. What happened to them? What happened to ‘Always ride for the brand’?”

Rodgers set his jaw and scowled at her. “It got into a small disagreement with ‘Know where to draw the line’.”

Penny clenched her fists by her side. “Now what does that mean?”

“It means when I was on Monandeag hunting down insurgent leaders I saw a little incident play out. I was travelling with a patrol of marine infantry, getting the lay of the land.

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Old Wounds Chapter 10 Part 2

The disposal android stretched out both arms and burrowed its tendril cameras into the windows’ metal frames. It repeated this process a few times, checking various places on the frame. Finally it stopped.

[Power cable found, deploying micro-droid.]

[Understood.] Penny replied. She turned to Marines. [Hang tight boys and girls. It’s using the micro.]

[Hang tight she says.] Amrah sighed, suspended against the wall beside her. [Ten steps ahead of you Ranger.]

Being as tiny as it was, the micro-droid covered ground like a snail through wet concrete. But nothing else could trace the cable to the system that ran it and report back to them. Severing the power was simple enough, but if the trip-lasers were hooked up to a dead man’s switch powering them down would trip the bomb anyway. So they waited.

After a brief eternity the Android spoke again. [System found. No countermeasures detected. No redundancy systems detected.]

Penny took another deep breath. [De-power laser-matrix].

While the disposal android recalled its micro-droid it turned the tendril camera towards the power-cable and used its drill-heads to gently carve through the line.

[Matrix de-powered. System is off-line. Scanning for further anomalies.]

[Check the lock.] Penny ordered.

The droid inserted its tendril cameras into the frame around the lock. [Lock appears to be a generic commercial model. No anomalous additions detected.]

[Cut it.]

The droid remove its hand from the door frame and a plasma torch emerged from its forearm. With two brief passes the door was removed from the frame via lock and hinges and the droid pulled the whole thing right out.

[Continue inside.] Penny ordered. [Sweep and clear.]

Penny and the marines cautiously descended to the balcony and followed the droid inside. Unlike the trap house the apartment still looked like human beings lived within its walls. The curtains were closed, shrouding the apartment in darkness, but with their helmets’ low-light optics they could see everything inside plain as day. A couch sat opposite the entertainment unit, plates and glasses sat in kitchen sink with streaks of gravy still on them.

[Threat detected.] The Disposal droid warned. [Multi-frequency laser trip-mine behind front door.]

Penny looked over at the front door and saw it. The mine had been adhered to the wall beside the door. It was a standard Federal fragmentation mine, deadly if tripped, but only to the first three people to barge through the door and Penny couldn’t see any wires leading out of it towards another explosive. The mine was it.

[Disable the mine]. Penny ordered.

[Acknowledged].

Penny and the Marines crouched behind whatever they could find while the droid got to work. Just in case it screwed up.

When the droid reported that the mine had been disabled everyone finally relaxed.

“Alright.” Penny breathed aloud. “Scan through the rest of the rooms, report anything else you find and then proceed to disable it. Nobody open any doors or cupboards unless you get the droid to do it for you.”

[I’ll send in the spare droid.] Said Captain Niazi. [Don’t want you out there all day.]

[Much obliged Captain.] Penny replied.

Amrah followed the droid as it moved to check out the bedrooms. The remaining marines milled quietly about. Trying not to touch anything.

Penny sighed and leaned against a wall.

Then she noticed something. Sitting on the edge of the dining room table. A dark rectangle the size of a cigarette packet. Penny froze.

She glanced at the Marines and saw them looking aimlessly about. Still waiting for the all clear.

She waited and her eyes repeatedly flicked back towards the dark object.

Then finally the droid jumped back on the secure channel.

[No further anomalies detected.]

Penny failed to hide her loud exhale. “Okay people. Start going through everything, but be extra careful.”

“Roger that.” The nearest Marine said and the squad spread out to check the rest of the apartment.

When she was sure they had their backs to her Penny carefully made her way over to the table and got a closer look at the object.

Her heart jumped into her throat. It was exactly what she’d thought it was.

A musty, leather bound book. The kind one could carry in a breast pocket. And inlaid into the cover in gold were the words ‘The Code of the West.’

Penny had an exact duplicate of it in her Headspace.

With a trembling hand she reached out and opened the cover. She stopped. Written on the first page in permanent marker were the words ‘We need to talk Little Lady’ and the contact details for an online space.

With one final glance at the Marines to make sure they weren’t looking, Penny swiped the book off the table and hid it in her medtech pouch.

 

Penny waited until she was back onboard the Ravenwing and Wu had been locked in his quarters for the night. She sat herself down on the couch in the mess hall and waited some more.

Starring down at the beaten-up old book Penny felt her heart pound against her ribs.

Jamming her eyes shut she slammed the book down on the table. “Knock it off.” She whispered to herself. She forced herself to swallow and slow her breathing.

Only when she had everything under control did Penny open the book up again and take a photo of the Headspace’s details through her nanoputer.

Then she rested her shoulders against the back of the couch and turned her attention inward.

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Old Wounds Chapter 09 Part 3

Niazi ignored her tone. “I used to have this friend. He served at Hades, he died at Hades, but none of his squad mates would tell me a damn thing about what it had been like there.”

The question put out the fire in Penny’s eyes and her whole face darkened. She broke eye contact with her.
“It’s um… it’s difficult for veterans to talk about Hades. It’s hard to put into words what it was like to serve there, even explaining it to other soldiers is a challenge.”

Penny swallowed and continued. “I did some research and the only battles I could find that were anything like it were the first day of Operation Michael from World War One.

“My history classes didn’t cover a lot of the old wars.” Captain Niazi turned aside and scratched her head nervously. “Or maybe they did and I was too busy stealth texting my friends.”

“Then I’ll do my best.” Penny said. The colour had drained from her skin just from thinking about it, leaving the normally sun kissed Ranger ashen-faced.

“Hades is a primordial, mostly volcanic rock. Like a giant chemistry set some bored kid won’t stop playing with. When volcanic activity decides it wants to act up in your sector, something will detonate around you three or four times a second and this will go on for four, maybe five or even six hours at a time. It’s like you’re getting shelled by artillery but there’s no-one to return fire on.
Even through the insulation in your armour, standing around getting hammered constantly by shockwaves takes its toll on you and you’re left punch-drunk and stupid. Feels like you’re trying to walk through thick soup. It takes everything you’ve got just to pray you don’t get ambushed by remote drones.”

Penny propped her chin up with her arm. She wasn’t looking at anything anymore, just aiming her gaze down at a point on the table. “A lot of veterans claim time on Hades, because you could only be deployed to it for 2 days at a stretch. Any longer than that and people just break down, can’t even bring themselves to stand when the enemy shows up. As bad as it was for us it was worse for the periphery troops. They couldn’t rotate out like we could. They had to stay couped up in their underground bases and control their drones. By the end of it Hades was the first world to offer complete and unconditional surrender. I’d cycled in fifteen times. Each time: two days on planet, ten days in orbit. Ten days of the most terrible waiting, because you knew at the end they were going to ask you to go back.”

Captain Niazi quietly asked. “How did you do it? How did you keep going back?”

Penny looked her right in the eye. “When Rodgers took over our unit, he taught us his code. It’s got ten rules:”

Penny counted them off on her fingers. “Live each day with courage. Take pride in your work. Finish what you start. Do what has to be done. Be tough, but fair. When you make a promise, keep it. Always ride for the brand. Talk less, say more. Remember that some things aren’t for sale. And… Know where to draw the line.”

Penny put her hand back down on the table. “I did it because it had to be done. Every time I went I was saving some other poor Jarhead from having to go down there. Total losses for the entire campaign were well over eighty thousand. Our side and theirs.”

Wu quietly put his glass down on the table. He hadn’t quite finished it. Without looking up from his glass he asked. “What was so valuable that we threw so many of our youth into a meat-grinder?”

Penny smirked. “What has no value in peace, but means everything in war?”

Wu smirked back.

Hae Lee looked inquisitively at Penny and when she offered nothing further she turned to Wu.

“What is it?” She finally asked.
Captain Niazi threw her a bone. “Strategic position. Hades sits on the border between the Hellenic and Egyptian Pantheons. Whoever controls it controls traffic going in or out.”

Penny reached across the table and closed her fingers around Wu’s glass. She pulled it back towards her and stopped just short of putting it to her lips.

“To the needs of the Generals.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 09 Part 1

Chapter 09

Out of the pub’s speakers thumped rapid-fire beats, lightning fast rhythms and a string of Hindi lyrics so long and hurried that Penny could never tell when one sentence ended and where the next began.

“Oooh I love this one.” Amrah said, his head popping up to hear the song. “I haven’t heard these guys since high school.”

Captain Niazi gave him an impish grin. “While you’re up Corporal would you be so kind as to buy the first round?”

Amrah sighed. “Yes ma’am.”

“None for me thanks.” Penny said, raising her hand.

Amrah hesitated. “You sure? It’s your tax credits paying for it?”

Penny pointed at Wu sitting beside her. “I’m still on duty.”

“Well sucks to be you.” Wu laughed, raising his own hand. “I’ll have her beer.”

Amrah laughed. “Anyone else?”

“Just water for me.” Hae Lee said.
Her Majesty’s Finest was a marine bar deep within the green zone. Force Recon had taken it as their unofficial off-duty headquarters. The décor was stately and reminiscent of Imperial Britain. Flags of the former colonies were displayed on placards all around the pub as were replicas of the Brown Bess musket and the Lee-Enfield rifle. Penny, Wu and Hae Lee were seated at the back wall, boxed in by Recon Marines sitting shoulder-to-shoulder around them.

“So.” Niazi began as she lowered her pint from her lips. “If Wu is Penny’s prisoner, what’s your story little Miss?”

“Umm.” Hae Lee said, shrinking back slightly. “I’m uhh.”

“She’s my… friend.” Penny said.

“Oooh.” Niazi purred. “It’s like that is it?”

“Huhhhh…?” Penny said, stretching out the sound until the token dropped. “What? No?”

“Yeah.” Wu smiled, nudging Hae Lee. “Give the girl some credit, she’s got standards.”

Niazi pointed at Wu. “So she’s with you then?”

Hae Lee began laying the foundation for a little smile until Wu opened his mouth. “Well no… not like that.”

Niazi failed to hide the enlarging grin on her face. “So if she’s not Penny’s prisoner and she’s not Wu’s lover, who is she?” She turned to Hae Lee. “Come on sweetie, you tell me. These two are useless.”

Hae Lee cast her eyes around for a moment, like she was looking for a way out. She shrank back even further into her chair.

“She’s… shy.” Wu said.

“She’s also the mechanic of the ship I’m flying. Without her the whole thing drops out of the sky.”

Amrah returned to the table with a large circular tray with everyone’s drinks on it. The Recon marines around them turned, took their beers and returned to their own conversations.

Amrah put his Captain’s drink down first, she thanked him with a polite nod, then Amrah passed Wu two beers and a tall glass of water for Hae Lee.

“I got you an iced tea, since you ain’t drinking Ranger.”

Penny took the glass. “Much obliged.”

Wu put one of his beers down on the table and took a quaff from the one still in his hand. “Ahhhh.” He beamed. “That first beer after a long day’s work.” He took another drink.

Penny sipped her tea. “You’ve been sitting on your butt all day back on the ship.”

Hae Lee drew a sharp breath. “No he hasn’t, he’s been helping me maintain the Ravenwing.”

“Yeah.” Wu said in between mouthfuls of beer. “We’ve been very busy.”

“Whoo!” Amrah cheered. “High five my man!”

Amrah leaned in with his hand up for Wu to hit. Hae Lee turned bright red.”

“Busy fixing the ship Genius.” Wu narrowed his eyes at him.

“So Ranger.” Niazi said to deflect the mood. “Seeing as you’re not drinking tonight would you mind being our designated driver? Normally we have to draw straws after the first round.”

Penny smirked. “Only if you boys and girls are getting an early night. Some of us can’t party till first call like we used to.”

“Why not?” Wu asked.

Penny looked at him. “Because if I give you an inch you’ll try to escape. That’s why.”

“Yeah, but why do you care? You’re already breaking the rules just to be here. Why not have a beer on the job and some fun while you’re at it?”

Niazi regarded Penny with an amused look. “Ranger, what does our esteemed guest mean by ‘breaking the rules’?”

Penny opened her mouth to answer and hesitated. Four other pairs of marine ears leaned in to listen.

“I’ll tell you Captain, I trust a Force Recon officer to be discreet.”

Captain Niazi put a conspirational air into her sly grin and sent Penny a private chat request. [So tell me.]

Penny took a deep breath. [I’m not officially on the Rodgers assignment. I was pulled off it temporarily when I was ordered to bring in Wu and his master. I got Wu, but Sifu got away and I lost a valuable piece of Federation property when she split.]

Captain Niazi whistled in appreciation. [Nice to know you’re not all perfect Ranger.]

Penny rolled her eyes. [I was on my way back to Mars when another Ranger called me and told me Rodgers had been spotted. So I took a detour halfway across the spiral arm to come here.]

[Interesting.] Niazi nodded. [So what’s the deal with you and Rodgers?]

Penny narrowed her eyes at the Captain. [I already explained that.]

[But is that really all there is: He was your boss, he went rogue and now you’re just going to bring him in like any other perp? You disobeyed orders to be here Ranger, there’s got to be more than that.]

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Old Wounds Chapter 08 Part 2

Wu put the tools down next to the cleaner and leaned back against the couch. She had a point.

He picked up his tea and took a sip, he’d left it a bit too long, but he could get it down a lot easier now.

[All right.] He messaged. [But you’ve got to get me out from the Ranger’s yoke before this agreement means anything. I’m going to give you my access to the Triad’s network. You’ll be able to send Sifu a message, she’ll send it on to Dragon Han who’ll hopefully to send it onto whoever the Ranger’s target is working for. It’s a bit of a long-shot. But they’re the only people who might give a damn that I’m out here.]

[Okay Wu. I won’t let you down.]

[Thank you Hae Lee].

Wu grimaced and finished his tea. A heavy feeling settled on his shoulders. He put his cup down and rested his head on his hand. Up near the kitchenette the marines changed guard. Not one of them even acknowledged Wu was in the room.
Dragon Malcolm got up from his knees. He was a towering hulk of a black man. 6’8”, 99 kilos at fighting weight, 114kg walking around. He wore a weathered black Gi jacket, greying at the edges. On his back the same logo that hung on the wall was emblazoned in a tattered patch, a pair of coiled snakes around a rising fist. A long pair of red kickboxing shorts with a black stripe along the thigh covered him from the hips down and his ankles and fists were wrapped in red cloth.

With his eyes closed he looked as calm as stone.

Dragon Malcolm’s Head Space was a perfect replica of the Mixed Martial Arts gym his father had raised him in. Three hours a night, every night after school. He knew every crease in the tatami mats and every scrap of leather peeling from the heavy bags.

To his right sat a black octagon cage. But today’s exercise required more space to move.

Dragon Malcolm opened his mouth and the voice that came forth filled the room. Commanding rather than instructing.

“Begin program: World Class Fighter. Level 23.”

A chime sounded from nowhere and three figures materialised out of the air around him. To his right appeared a man dressed as an officer of a periphery constabulary, he pulled a baton from his belt as he settled into his stance.

To his left a skinhead punk cracked his knuckles and flicked his cigarette butt onto the floor.

Behind him a figure dressed as a fictional ninja, complete with tabi slippers and shuko claws struck an exotic pose and growled.

Dragon Malcolm’s lips parted and he sucked in a deep breath.

Then another chime sounded and he sighed it all out. “Pause.”

Opening his eyes Dragon Malcolm saw the warning flashing high in the air. Telling him that he was receiving a long-distance call.

“Answer.”

A vidwindow appeared in the air in front of him. The former Ranger Rodgers stood to attention on the other end. “Dragon Malcolm. You wanted to speak to me sir?”

Malcolm curled his lip into a smirk. “Yes. Now I don’t, as a general rule, act as a messenger boy for the people under me, but when one of the Triad’s celebrity terrorists asks you for a favour the wise man gets on that real fast. The P.A. of Dragon Han’s Incense Master got himself picked up by the feds and they’ve brought him right to your doorstep. To make things even more interesting, they tell me that the Ranger guarding him is an old protege of yours.”

Rodgers’ eyes snapped into sharp focus on Malcolm’s. The hardened ranger leaned in close to the vidwindow. “They say who?”

Dragon Malcolm looked him in the eye right back. “The name Penny Dreadful ring any bells?”

Rodger’s jaw clenched and for a few seconds of silence he wouldn’t even blink.

“That explains a lot. I had wondered why the Jarheads cottoned on to my trap-house so soon. So Ranger Dreadful is on Aloysius?”

“So they tell me.” Malcolm said. “Now I want you to find this Ranger and free her captive. Doing this won’t just put Han’s Incense Master in my debt, it’ll drag Masamune Hiro to my side as well. Where Sifu goes, Hiro follows and between them they practically exhale public support. Even without your plan rallying the factions under the Society’s leadership will be a piece of cake.”

Rodgers rubbed his chin. “You want this rescue to take priority over the plan?”

“No.” Malcolm raised a finger. “Get it done, get it done soon, but continue the plan to the best of your ability. The timing for this is critical. If Sifu and Hiro arrive before the plan is complete they’ll object, but if it’s too late and we have their friend gift-wrapped and ready for them, they’ll make the best of it.”

Rodgers crossed his arms. “I’ll get it done. Get me everything you’ve got on that P.A. and I’ll have him in your hands by the time our guests arrive.”

Malcolm beamed at his subordinate. “I haven’t even told you the best part yet. We got us an inside woman within Ranger Dreadful’s people, I’ll send you her contact details with the info on the P.A. Get this done for me Rodgers and everyone gets what they want.”

“Sir.” Rodgers nodded and his vidwindow closed.

Dragon Malcolm closed his eyes and sucked in another breath. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

“Resume.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 08 Part 1

Chapter 08

Wu put the soldering pen down and looked up from the parts spread out in front of him. “Hey man.” He said to the marine standing by the kitchenette. “Can you put the kettle on? I’m parched.”

The marine’s armoured shoulders shrugged at him. Wu took that to mean the soldier hadn’t understood a word he’d said.

Wu mined drinking out of a cup at him. The marine stepped aside and gestured towards the kitchenette. Wu sighed, got up and walked over.

He wasn’t really annoyed. His exasperated expression concealed the mischievous smile that threatened to break out across his face at the first unguarded moment. Their language ignorance was his tactical benefit.

Wu got the kettle going and found his favourite tea canister from the cupboard. He threw the leaves into a cup and waited for the water to boil. Across the room another Marine sat on the couch, trying his hardest not to look bored. The rest of the squad were down in the ship’s hold.

Wu added the boiling water and grabbed a cover so the tea could steep while he worked. When he got back to the table he looked over his components again.

This time he was pretending to fix the high pressure cleaner, it had the power output he needed. More importantly, even though it lacked any kind of wireless transceiver, it had the space for him to hide one inside it while he worked.

The marines would be monitoring wireless networks in the area, because despite their reputation they weren’t idiots. But Wu was a revolutionary, getting away with clandestine communications right under the enemy’s nose was what he did best.

Wu mentally typed out his first message in his nanoputer, compressed it and sent it through the cleaner’s new upgrade. The transceiver broke the message up into small bursts and sent them intermittently. Only when it reached Hae Lee’s end did it unpack and display the full message.

[Are you receiving this. It’s Wu.]

Some time passed before Hae Lee could reply.

[Yes. What’s going on?]

[I need you to pass on a message for me. I’m being watched too closely to send it myself.]

Wu held his breath for a long time after he sent that. There were going to be strings attached to this.

[Who to?]

[My boss.]

[That’s a big risk you’re asking me to take.]

[I know]. Wu hesitated before adding. [What can I do for you in return?]

The pause before her reply was brief, but agonising. [I’ll help you. If you’re trying to do what I think you’re doing then I’ll do everything in my power to help you, just say the word. But if I help you escape, I want you to give up the Black Mask Society.]

[The Hell?]

[I’m not going to help you get your freedom back if all you’re going to do is go right back into the fray and loose it again… or worse.]

Wu let out an exasperated sigh. The marine on the couch snapped his head up at him.

On the spot all Wu could think of doing was growl the words “Stupid piece of crap” and slap the side of the cleaner before going back to work.

The Marine shrugged and went right back to sitting on the couch.

[What am I going to do out in the spiral arm without my brothers and sisters?]

[You can come with me. I know someone who can change the Ravenwing’s registration, we could travel across the stars, pulling odd jobs here and there. You’re a good pilot, I’m a good mechanic, there’s a lot of things we could do out in space. You’re asking me to risk everything, my ship, my liberty, possibly my life, so those are my terms.]

[Then no. I’ll find some other way.]

[No wait! Fine, if you won’t give up the BMS then let me join them and take me with you.]

Wu didn’t feel like pretending the cleaner was giving him more trouble. So he resisted the urge to put his face in his palm.

[That’s not a decision I’m allowed to make. We don’t take Blue Lanterns with us when we’re out in the stars. And I don’t have the authority to initiate you as a sworn sister. That’s Sifu’s call.]

[You don’t want me.]

[You’re trying to force me to do what you want and you’re holding something I need to ransom for it. That’s not the sexiest look in the world.]

[I just want you to give me a chance. You keep pushing me away.]

[I’m trying to give you a chance. A chance to live a normal life. The Ranger and I don’t see eye to eye on much but we both agree you’re not cut out for a life of crime. She just let you off the hook and at the first opportunity you’re jumping right back on it.]

[She gave me my life back, that much is true, but it’s mine to do what I want with it.]

[And you want to join a revolutionary movement and die for a free periphery?]

Wu sighed and began screwing the pressure cleaner back together. [All right. If it’s really what you want to do. But I can’t make any guarantees. Sifu may initiate you into the Triad or she may just say the revolution thanks you and give you a pat on the head as we walk off into the sunset.]

Wu tightened the last bolt and had another thought.

[There is also every chance this could get you killed.]

There was a long pause before Hae Lee responded.

[We always want other people to be safe. But for ourselves we want the right to make our own decisions, even if that make us unsafe.]

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Old Wounds Chapter 07 Part 3

Penny reached the droid’s hand out over the sheet and at the last moment, hesitated. She pulled the hand back until it was a few inches from the edge of the sheet and burrowed the tendril-camera right into the floor. Angling the tendril around until she entered the couch-space she was expecting from the side.

[Well I’ll be damned.] Penny whispered.

In the space under the sheet of MDF, Penny saw a pair of trip-wires. Literal wires stretched across the underside of the floor. Directly underneath the fibreboard were deliberate reinforcements to allow the sheet to take a lot of weight, but also a series of pressure switches.

[What are we looking at Ranger?]

[I’ve never seen a set-up like this before. But at a glance I’d say that the board is meant to be stepped on several times and then…] Penny zoomed in on some of the features underneath the fibreboard. [Yeah… after enough times those explosive packets blow the reinforcements and the victim drops into this hole and breaks the wires. There’s also a line attached the the underside of the fibreboard, rip that up and it sets it off again. I’m not seeing any means to kill the victim so I can only assume the switches are wired up to the main bomb.]

[Is there always a main bomb in these safe-houses?]

[There is if it’s a deliberate trap.] Penny said. [The goal is to get as many enemy personnel wandering around inside when the whole thing goes up.]

LC Amrah rubbed his chin. [Seems needlessly elaborate. Why blow out the floor at all? Why not just rig the place to blow when the pressure switches have been hit enough times.]

Penny shrugged [Sometimes, if we’d been working on the place for long enough, we’d start doing one thing and then have a better idea, so we’d modify the original as much as we could to make it fit. This trap may well have started out like the one I described until someone decided letting you marines track your feet over a bunch of times would work better. If they’ve been using this place up until now it would make sense for them to allow for their own people to walk around a little.]

Penny withdrew the tendril from the floor and stood the droid back up. She looked around the room and noticed the other boards covering a bunch of random-looking spaces about the room.

[At any rate Amrah has a point, that was a lot more sophisticated than anything Rodgers and I put together back in the war.

Captain Niazi grumbled. [Yeah. It’s almost as though he’s had ten years to improve on the idea.]

A noise alerted the Captain to something just off screen. She lightened for a moment. [Looks like it’s our lucky day. The feed from your droid has convinced High Command this house isn’t worth the effort. They’ve authorised an orbital strike at the droid’s exact coordinates. Let’s get you out of there so the Voiders can start warming up the big gun.]

Penny breathed a sigh of relief and turned her attention on getting the droid out the door and back down the steps. She could feel the sweat around her temples begin to cool.
Penny phased her consciousness out of the droid controls and found herself back in her own body.

She sat at the ordnance control console in the mobile C3 centre on the dropship. “Am I in time for the fireworks?”

Amrah looked up from his nanoputer’s controls. “Jagganath’s main gun is 90% ready and climbing.”

“Gather ’round Marines.” Captain Niazi called. “The hammer’s about to drop.”

Penny commanded her helmet to close around her head and activated her flare compensation systems.

Outside the marine high command broadcast an open message across all civilian frequencies.

[All citizens, a controlled demolition is being conducted in this sector. Anyone currently outdoors is instructed to stop whatever they are doing and look down at the ground for the next thirty seconds. For your own safety. This demolition utilises extremely bright light.].

On the vidwindow Penny could just start to make out fleeting wisps of light. They looked like brief, glowing raindrops falling from the sky. Up above the gunners on the Jagganath‘s primary ordnance used the sighting lasers to double-check their targeting data.

“Main gun is at 100%.” Amrah reported. “They’re firing.”

In the silence that fell upon the scene a pillar of light descended from the heavens, splitting the clouds as it came down. The initial beam was little more than light as the marines on the ground radioed a one-foot correction of the beam’s path.

Then the pillar of light flashed even brighter. The flare compensation in Penny’s visor maxed out for an instant. In its wake came a deep rushing sound as several dozen tons of brick, wood, plexiglass and fibreboard were flashed into vapour followed by a deafening thunderclap as air surged in the fill the void. Penny felt the sound hit her in the ribs as much as heard it.

Every marine in the area threw their arms up in the air and hollered as dust caught in the rushing air was kicked up into the sky.

Curious, Penny checked out the aftermath on the feed from the drone sensors. A flawless pit of black glass twelve metres wide and two metres deep sat where the safe house had once stood.

“Looks like the price of obsidian just went down again.” LC Amrah sniggered.

“All right people.” Captain Niazi spoke up. “We’re off the clock as soon as we get this mess cleaned up. Sergeant, take the Corporal here and get this place squared away.”

“Yes Sir.”

Penny slumped back in her chair and took a breath.

Captain Niazi waited for the two men to leave before turning back to Penny.

“Thank you Ranger.” She said. Her voice sounded different. It took Penny a moment to realise this was what Captain Niazi sounded like when she wasn’t speaking in her Command Voice.

“It’s not often an outsider shows concern for my people. That you risked your reputation instead of my soldiers’ lives is a gesture I will not forget easily.”

Penny looked up at her from her seat and gave the Marine Captain a tired smile. “It ain’t over yet sister. Don’t be surprised if I don’t call in that favour before I’m off this rock.”

Captain Niazi smirked at her and the command voice came back on. “Whatever you need Ranger, Force Recon has your back.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 07 Part 2

The safe-house itself was a turn of the century structure that dated back to the early years of the colony. The front garden was strewn with weeds and the brickwork around the gate was crumbling.

Captain Niazi’s face appeared in a vidwindow in the corner of Penny’s vision. [Long-range scans detected nothing on the infra-red or ultraviolet spectrums. Harmonics and electro-magnetic scans also came up empty.]

Penny nodded and the droid’s head nodded with her. [They don’t want wildlife tripping the alarm and putting everyone on edge for no reason. Our first hurdles won’t appear until we’re at the front door.]

Penny kept the droid’s sensors scanning in the background as she approached. But before she rose the last three brick steps to the front door she stopped and knelt down to test them. Penny placed a finger on the back of the leftmost brick on the first row and pressed it down like she was trying to play a piano key from the back of the keyboard. The brick didn’t budge.

Penny turned her thoughts towards the droid’s CPU. [Test every brick on the stairs in the same manner.] She commanded.

The droid responded with the voice of an eager secretary. [Acknowledged.]

Penny left the machine to continue its task. [Any activity from the inside?]

[Nothing.] Captain Niazi replied. [The usual amount of gawkers are standing around the cordon but the target itself is silent.]

[Alright.] Penny said and heard the chime indicating the droid had finished its task. [Looks like the steps are clear. I’m going to try the front door.]

Without rising from her kneeling position Penny reached out with the droid’s arm and pointed at the door. [Laser Microphone].

The droid’s index finger opened up and shined an invisible beam at the door, the beam picked up the vibrations in the air created by sounds on the other side of the door and translated them back into sounds Penny could hear. Quiet nothingness met her ears.

Penny turned off the laser and pressed the droid’s fingertips against the wood. [Finger drills.]

At her command, a needle-thin tendril extended from the droid’s middle finger and began to burrow through the wood. When it had finished burrowing, the tiny drill head opened up and exposed a camera on the end of the flexible tendril. Penny pushed the camera through the door and got a 160º view of the room beyond.

Inside the safehouse looked like tidied up squalor. Fibreboard panels boarded up sections of the walls, ceiling and floor. Penny recognised the tactic. She noticed a particularly large fibreboard sheet covering a slice of the floor, barely three paces from the entrance.

[Hmmm.]

[So.] Captain Niazi began. [How many of those panels are concealing booby traps?]

[One or two, tops] Penny said.

For good measure she scanned the room with the droid’s more advanced sensors but came up empty.

Penny withdrew the tendril back into the droid’s finger, stood up and stuck its other index finger into the lock on the door. The automatic pick cycled the tumblers on the old mechanical lock and the droid turned the knob with its other hand and gently pushed the door ajar.

[And… everybody take a deep breath…] Penny said. When the safehouse failed to detonate into a billion pieces she continued. […and it looks like I don’t gotta buy the Federation a new disposal droid].

Before she swung the door open any further Penny swept her tendril camera up and down the length of the door, looking for any stray string or wire connected to it. The classic ‘baby’s first boobytrap’ was to attach a length of the string to the end of a door and the other end to the key on a grenade.

Rodgers was leagues ahead of a basic trick like that, but Penny was NOT going to get caught out by an amateur tactic just in case he decided to shake things up.

When Penny found nothing she opened the door about halfway, making sure not to allow it to swing shut or fly open. But before she could actually step droid foot into the room she knelt down again and drilled into the floor with the tendril camera.

[No pressure switch under the threshold.] Penny reported. [I’m taking my first step inside.]

[Geez.] LC Amrah groaned, his face appearing below the Captain’s. [We’ve been on site for an hour and you’re only now stepping inside.]
Captain Niazi answered before Penny could. [You want to be standing in a cloud of brick-dust and dirt? Let the woman work.]

[Thank you Captain.] Penny smiled. [I used to build these things back in the war Amrah. We used every trick in the manual, no matter how basic. You’d be surprised how often the old tricks still work.]

Penny took the droid another tentative step into the room and knelt down yet again in front of the long sheet of fibreboard. [For instance. This one time, when we knew the Periphery troops liked to smash their way in on their raids, we cut out a space big enough to fit a couch just in from the doorway, covered it with a 3mil sheet of fibreboard and then placed a couple of mines at the bottom of the hole. When the raid team busted in their entire entry team rushed right into the hole and got blown into hamburger meat.]

[But Rodgers knows we wouldn’t do that.] Captain Niazi said. [He’s got to know the Marine Corps is more methodical than a bunch of rookie militia.]

[And yet.] Penny said, looking at the sheet. [Here it is.]

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