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.”

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

Old Wounds Chapter 10 Part 1

Chapter 10

Gerald Sanswick leapt over the edge. His heart kicked into high gear as he enjoyed the fleeting moment of weightlessness before gravity took its hold.

Gerald sailed over the narrow street, two stories down and landed in a roll on the opposite roof.

He sprung out of the roll and was running at full tilt again right away.
A twinge of pain scrambled along his arm up to his brain. He ignored it. The doctors assured him he’d fully recovered. The pain was all in his mind.

But that was also where he hurt the most. He vaulted over a low wall dividing one shop front from its rear neighbour and heard his superiors’ dismissive snort in his mind.

That he’d had his arm broken by a foreigner and a woman was only the beginning of his humiliation. Having the BMS’ data torn from his grasp hadn’t helped. But the final straw landed when they went back to toss the safe house for Free Aloysius’ terminal box and found nothing but where the hardline had been torn out of the wall.

No more intercepting couriers for Gerald no more. Back to running patrols in the green zone.

Darren, his cell leader, promised him this was only temporary. If he did a good job here he’d be back to chasing down the other faction’s freerunners in no time.

 

Gerald ran up to a towering apartment block, launched himself at its drainpipe and began shimmying his way up to the roof. Running the Green Zone was cake. The kids spoke of going into the belly of the beast like it was a death sentence. And when you panicked and started shooting the moment you saw your first marine it was. But ‘The Interceptor’ was no rookie and this wasn’t Sunday school. You stayed quiet and looked harmless and the big scary marines left you well enough alone. It wasn’t exactly rocket science.

He reached the roof and pulled himself over the edge and onto the building’s crown. It wasn’t the tallest building for miles around but it did give an excellent view of the suburbs, if you had the stamina to get up here.

Gerald checked the time in his nanoputer and smirked. 09:32 right on time. His patrols were coming in at a consistent 1 hour per lap and today was looking to be no different.

He looked out across the city, the morning rush was in full-swing, filling the sky with speeders. He counted five Federal APCs, one more than his last patrol, but still well within the norm for this time of day.

Then, glancing down, he took a look at the foot traffic for this area.

He froze when he saw them. For a whole three seconds he couldn’t believe this eyes. Then he opened up his menus and started recording his feed quick smart.

The Black Ranger himself and his Chinese witch stepped out of an apartment building right across the plaza from him. Gerald zoomed in to get a clear look at their faces.

He flashed his teeth in a smile. “Well hello there.”

He recorded the whole feed until they stepped into a rented speeder and flew away. Once they were out of sight he opened up his nanospeak app.

The glowing face of the dispatch A.I. appeared in the corner of his vision. [Seraphim Precinct Police, how may I direct your call?]

[I’d like to report some suspicious individuals.] Try as he might, he couldn’t quite keep the smile out of his voice.
Less than an hour later, Penny was hanging over the side of the apartment block in a rappelling harness. Beside her, on lines of their own were the rest of Amrah’s squad and the bomb disposal droid.

Captain Niazi’s face appeared in a small vidwindow in Penny’s vision. [How’s it look from there Ranger?]

[No obvious traps or switches on the balcony. The disposal droid just reported in, it can’t see anything on alternative light spectrums. Ready to move in when you are.]

[Proceed.]

Penny turned to the squad beside her, pointed at the droid and then pointed down to the balcony.

[Acknowledged.] Came the droid’s eager secretary voice.

The droid gently lowered itself down to the balcony. Penny held her breath for a moment as its feet made contact with the floor and took its weight. When it failed to detonate and take the entire block with it she breathed a sigh of relief.

Unlike the last place, this one fit none of Rodgers’ normal criteria for a good trap house. It was the fifth floor apartment on a block of about thirty other homes. If this one went up it would take dozens of civilians with it. Or it would have if the Marines hadn’t evacuated everyone to the minimum safe distance. Regular mobile infantry held the line and bundled the residents up in temporary shelter, while Force Recon did the sensitive work.

Penny didn’t want to jinx it, but this actually looked like it was on the level. She’d worried this was a trap when she first heard the report but even someone like Rodgers couldn’t stay completely out of sight.

[Threat detected.] The Android reported. [Ultra-violet laser matrix lining balcony window.]

The stream from the android’s eyes appeared in Penny’s vision. [Penetrate the window-lining.] Penny ordered [Search for the power-source.]

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.”

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

Old Wounds Chapter 09 Part 2

[There ain’t.]

Captain Niazi crossed her arms and let the silence hang in the air for a while. She regarded the Ranger sitting across from her like a burglar casing a new mark.

Then she spoke out loud. “Okay we’re done.”

“Hey Ranger.” Wu interjected after the first mouthful of his second beer. “What I don’t understand is why you make me follow you around on a leash. Why not make an arrangement to leave me with the local police?”

Penny smirked and turned to Captain Niazi. “What are the local cops like ’round here?”

“Them?” Captain Niazi rolled her eyes. “They have an annoying habit of ‘loosing’ important equipment that somehow turns up in the insurgents’ hands later. Leave Wu with them and the same thing’ll happen.”

Wu shrugged and raised his glass again. “Worth a shot.”

Then from out of nowhere a woman’s voice called out. “There’s Daddy!”

Amrah spun around to face the voice. Suddenly he was more excited than when he thought Wu had gotten lucky. Across the bar a young, dark-haired caucasian woman approached their table. She had a toddler in a pair of red overalls in one arm and was letting go of their kindergarten-aged son as he broke into a headlong sprint straight to Amrah.

Amrah snatched the kid clean off the ground with one muscular Force Recon arm and parked him on his hip. Not spilling a drop from the beer in the other hand.

“Hey little tiger.” Amrah grinned. “Were you a good boy for Mrs McLachlan today?”

“Yeeesssss.” The boy said, turning his eyes away.

The woman with the girl sidled up to Amrah. “He was chasing girls again. He gets that from you.”

“And look how well that turned out.” Amrah said, hunching down to present his cheek to her.

She kissed it gently and pulled away, only for Amrah to snap his lips onto hers unexpectedly.

“Oh you silly man.” She giggled.

“And how’s my other little trouble-maker?” Amrah leaned in further to the girl in the overalls. “Have you been a good girl today?”

The toddler just giggled.

“You have? Oh of course you have.”

The other child on his hip grabbed at Amrah’s face and tried pulling it towards him.

“Daddy. Stop.”

Amrah looked at his boy. “Daddy will stop when you let go of Daddy’s face. Come on, Daddy needs that face.”

The woman brushed her son’s hands off her husband’s cheek. “He’s getting tired, we should head back soon.”

“One moment, there’s someone I want you to meet. Ranger!”

“Yeah?” Penny smiled up at them.

“I’d like you to meet my wife Lucy and this is Saru and this little monster is Nimir. Honey, this is Federation Ranger Penny Dreadful, she’s helping us go after the big man in the mask.”

“Oh?” Lucy said, reaching across the table of marines to shake Penny’s hand. “How long have you been on Aloysius?”

Penny accepted Lucy’s handshake. “Just made planetfall this morning. These are my associates: Wu Gang Shu and Cho Hae Lee.”

“Sure.” Wu said. “Lovely to meet you.”

Lucy hesitated for a moment. Following her eye line Penny realised she had noticed Wu’s slave collar. But she accepted Wu’s hand and after a glance at Hae Lee’s neck shook hands with her as well.

“Well Ranger, if you’ve got the time we’d love to have you over for dinner some night. Give you a taste of what my planet’s culture is like when it’s not entrenched in a prolonged civil war.”

Penny nodded. “I’d like that a lot Mrs Amrah. I hope y’all don’t mind if I bring my friends with me?”

“Oh yes please.” Lucy said, relief washing across her face. “I’ve been cooped up at work and with the kids for the last eight months I’m dying for an adult conversation.”

“Happy to oblige.” Penny winked.

“Thank you.” Lucy smiled back. Then she turned to Amrah. “Alright, finish your drink before she starts screaming and he bounces off the walls.”

Amrah made a show of deflating. “Yes dear.”

Amrah put his glass to his lips and tipped it up. His throat clenching over and over as he downed the whole thing in one hit. Amrah pulled the empty glass away and exhaled a loud “Ahhh”, grinning at his young son. Little Nimir immediately copied his father’s “Ahhh.”

Amrah put the glass down on the table and raised his hand at his comrades. “Amrah out!”

Captain Niazi raised her head. “Don’t spend all night playing with your lovely wife, I still expect you on the grounds bright and early at 6 a.m.”

Amrah waved behind himself “Sir, yes sir.”

Penny watched Amrah leave. She turned to Niazi. “Brave boy, to put down roots in a place like this.”

Niazi shrugged. “Amrah’s always had more heart than brains. He’s a marine after all. But I know he loves his Lucy very much and they’re happy together. Gotta grab hold of something like that when it’s there.”

Penny couldn’t help but steal a glance at Hae Lee, who was herself casting a sidewards look at Wu, who immediately took a long guzzle from his beer.

Penny smirked and turned her eyes back towards Captain Niazi.

The stout Marine Captain had become uncharacteristically quiet. One finger absently tapped the side of her glass. “Speaking of taking advantage of what you’ve got while it’s there. There’s something I’d like to ask you Ranger… about the war.”

Penny felt her shoulders tense and had to work to cool them down again. She hadn’t quite calmed the growl from her voice when she replied. “What about it?”

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.]

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.”

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here

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.]

Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here