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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Old Wounds Chapter 07 Part 1

Chapter 07

“I kinda thought we’d be taking the space elevator.” Penny said as she strapped herself in.

“Can’t.” Captain Niazi shrugged as she buckled her own harness. “Insurgents crippled it eight years ago. Now when we go from ship to surface, we take the fast lane.”

“Oh Yeah.” LC Amrah hollered. His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas. “In the Marine Corps, we put the drop in ‘Dropship’.”

Penny resisted the urge to grip the harness tighter. She didn’t want to give the Jarheads the satisfaction of knowing she was nervous. It had been a long time since she had made planetfall like this.

The hum of the magnetic catapult warming caused a hush to fall upon the marines around her. Excited looks flicked between them and the entire ship, collectively, took a deep breath.

Captain Niazi bellowed “BOMBS AWAY!” and with a loud metallic ‘Clank’ the restraining claw released its grip on the dropship. The tension ignited. The voices of a platoon of marines became a single, unified roar as the dropship blasted down to Aloysius.

Penny suddenly didn’t give a care what they thought of her and squeezed the harness till her knuckles turned white.

She looked down at the vidwindow beneath their feet. The planet rushed up to meet them and the entire ship began to shudder violently as they broke atmosphere. Air rushed passed the ship so fast it ignited. Over the roar Captain Niazi yelled. “Activating energy shields.”
The orange glow that had overtaken the view through the vid-window turned white as the energy shield leapt forward to part the air before the heat could reach the drop-ship. The shuddering calmed a little and Penny forced herself to at least pretend to be relaxed.

After a handful of heart-pounding seconds they reached the lower atmosphere and fired the deceleration jets. The shuddering returned with a vengeance as engineering wrestled against gravity, until the ship slowed enough for the repulsor engines to take over and allow the dropship to hover. The vidwindow beneath their feet showed nothing but endless ocean, making it impossible to tell if they were five or fifty metres from the surface.

“Well.” Penny breathed. “That was something.”
From their place over a random stretch of ocean the dropship rose and rocketed off towards its destination. Captain Niazi unbuckled her harness and moved down to the floor of the craft.

“Ears peeled Marines. Let’s go over this again for our guest.”
Niazi clapped and a series of vidwindows appeared in the air before her marines. Penny saw the front of a prefabricated, two-storey, civilian house and a corresponding orbital image of the same, besides both of these was the computer map showing its street address.

“This, is our target. Intel has identified it as a safe-house of the Black Mask Society and our own OP has confirmed seeing BMS agents coming and going from it. Including our mystery woman.”

Captain Niazi added the image of the woman in the pageboy cut to the screens.

Penny brought her hand up to her chin and rubbed it thoughtfully.

Captain Niazi turned to her people. “I know it looks like a text-book takedown but I need everyone to be double and triple checking every detail on this one. Bravo team’s ordnance tech noticed nothing unusual, they went over the place from top to bottom and the whole thing went up like a truck full of roman candles. So stay focused people, your lives depend on it.”

Penny moved her hand from her chin. “Ain’t gonna to be worth it.”

Every pair of marine eyes turned towards her.

“You won’t find intel in there worth a tinker’s damn.”

Niazi narrowed her eyes at Penny. “Intel has seen a top-tier target like Rodgers’ assistant in the vicinity. High Command isn’t going to let this one go without us at least taking a look-see.”

“I get that.” Penny said. “But it’s a Trojan horse. One of my first assignments in the Rangers was to infiltrate behind enemy lines within major Periphery cities. We’d set up trap houses just like these and use them as waypoints as we returned to base. We’d wire up the place with enough explosives to blow a hole in the side of the world and then set up Rube Golderg-style booby traps, the kind that don’t show up on your disposal droid’s sensors. The last squad you sent into one of these likely bought it when they picked up a book with a string attached or opened the wrong cupboard in the study.”

Captain Niazi folded her arms. “Then what would you suggest we do?”
“Well if if it were up to me I’d requisition orbital support and turn the entire two-storey property into a vacant lot. But they ain’t gonna let you do that are they?”

Niazi shook her head. “They ain’t. Not on your word alone.”

Penny nodded. “Then I’ll make you a deal. Let me take your disposal droid out for a spin and I’ll get you and High Command all the proof they need that safehouse is nothing more than a death trap.”

For a moment Captain Niazi’s features took on a softness that seemed out of character for the gruff Marine commander, but she quickly smirked it back into its hiding place.

“Alright Ranger, you got a deal.”
Penny brushed a hand across the cold, dew-covered railing beside the worn brick steps leading up to

the safe house. The disposal droid’s hand reported the ambient temperature and noted the humidity, but otherwise no sensation of cold was transmitted to her.

Penny never liked controlling a droid by remote. The insulation from the real world made her numb. Even her eyes and ears felt duller somehow, despite the droid’s high-definition sensors.

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Old Wounds Chapter 06

Chapter 06

The briefing room was quite a few corridors away, situated between the Docking Bay and Marines’ Barracks. Lecture hall chairs lined the walls of the circular room, focusing the occupants’ attention on the sunken floor in the centre, where stood a short and slim woman with close-shaved hair and a marine captain’s insignia floating in the air beside her head. Recon Marines filled the chairs, at a glance Penny counted a full platoon in attendance.

“Captain Niazi.” Amrah saluted. “This is Ranger Dreadful.”

Penny offered the Captain her hand. Niazi didn’t even look at it.

“Thank you Corporal but the armour gave it away.” Captain Niazi shot her gaze right down the barrel of Penny’s eyes. “I got pulled off a raid I was planning so I could give this high-school report Ranger. So stand straight, shut up and listen and we can all get back to work.”

Penny cleared her throat, returned her hand to her side and politely refrained from telling the marine captain where that attitude was going to get her.

“This.” Captain Niazi gestured to the air and an AR image of a planet appeared. “Is St. Aloysius. If you’ve been awake at some point in the last twenty years you’ve heard of this rock. It was the capital of the Pantheon of Saints. The war started with decisions made on this planet and it is still being fought here today. The Periphery may have surrendered ten years ago but attacks on Garrison forces have not ceased on Aloysius. Since this conflict began an entire generation of Aloysians have been born, raised and had their first augmentations knowing nothing but war.”

Captain Niazi clicked her fingers and the image of the planet was replaced by a series of photographs.
“The factions that oppose us on the ground shift and change but right now the three major players are as follows:”

Niazi waved and the top row of photographs swept down to fill the entire space. The photographs showed men with bandanas over their faces standing in front of a black flag with an image of the haloed St. Aloysius holding a skull in one hand and a lily in the other. The men were heavily armed and frequently held aloft bibles or crosses.

“This is the Order of Latter-day Saints of Aloysius or if you’re in no mood for that mouthful just ‘The Order’. They’re backed by the old ruling class of this planet and their only goal is to reignite the war against the Federation. They will attack anything that does not fit with their values, be it something we’ve introduced or something a native Aloysian came up with now that they’re out from under the Order’s thumb. Churches, schools, businesses, doesn’t matter. If it’s not something from the old days it’s on their hit list.”

Captain Niazi swept her hand again and the images changed. This time they depicted a group of people from a variety of ethnicities and genders. All of them neatly dressed and composed with determined stares at the camera, daring the photographer to pick a fight.

“These are the few individuals we’ve managed to identify as belonging to the Free Aloysius movement. While they lack the Order’s wild aggression they make up for it with cold, calculating precision. Free Aloysius does not strike often against the Federation, but their attacks have crippled major operations in the past. What’s more their information network is extensive and their civilian support is loyal. Intel can get informants and prisoners to rat out the agents of any other faction, but no-one has ever given up a Free Aloysius member.”

Captain Niazi waved one last time and only two pictures appeared. The first was an Asian woman with her hair in a pageboy cut and a black nanoweave mask. The second was a personnel photo provided by Ranger HQ. Behind her lips Penny grit her teeth, causing her jaw to clench.

“From the look of your friend with the collar I’d say you’re already familiar with this last group. The Black Mask Society have always had a presence on St. Aloysius but until now their participation has been minimal, mostly supplying the other factions with arms and equipment. That all changed when an AWOL Ranger took over the cell, now they’ve gone on the offensive. The Black Mask Society’s operations are the cause of 40% of our casualties over the last 12 months. So far they’re only responsible for 5% of civilian casualties, a factor only beaten by Free Aloysius, who sit at 0%.”

Niazi removed the picture of the woman, the image of Ranger Rodgers enlarged to fill the space.

“This efficiency has caught the attention of other struggling factions and the Society’s ranks have swelled with new members, we’ve seen exponential growth as a result and what was cooling down into a mere police action is back up to Counter-Revoluntionary warfare.”

Penny nodded. “So they weren’t nothin’ until Ranger Rodgers swooped in and took over. Now they’re life-takers and heart-breakers.”

Captain Niazi scrunched up her face like a pine cone. “You know his name? They pulled me off a raid so I could brief someone who already knows?”

Penny held up her hand at the Marine Captain. “I know Rodgers, Honey. The Order, Free Aloysius and what happened to the Black Mask was all new to me. But taking a ragtag bunch of misfits and whipping them into shape is Rodgers’ M.O.”
Penny looked up at the photo, a hard set to her jaw. “I was a scared kid, terrified of another battle and seriously considering desertion when Rodgers took over my unit. Two years later I was a Hades veteran and applying for special forces selection.”

Penny looked back at the Captain and pointed at the vidwindow. “All because of him.”

Penny lowered her arm but never broke her gaze from Captain Niazi’s eyes. “That’s why I can do what forty thousand Marines can’t.”

Captain Niazi held her gaze. For a few moments Wu didn’t even dare to move.

Finally she narrowed her eyes at Penny. “Alright Ranger, let’s see what you can do. Corporal!”

LC Amrah threw a hasty salute. “Sir?”

“Leave the Ranger’s prisoner with another squad. We’re taking our guest on a field trip.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 05 Part 2

“Yes Corporal.” She replied.

“Hmmm.” Said an impressed Penny as she turned and made her way up the next flight of steps. Even the PFC spoke perfect English. Being Recon Marines this squad could all speak at least one language beyond their planetary standard. Pity the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the Jarheads.

The Marines lead Penny up two more flights and across several tight corridors until they reached the General’s office. Like ocean-based naval craft of old this ship had no turbolifts or broad walking areas. Hand-holds spaced at regular intervals ensured that the crew could continue their duties in the event of an artificial gravity failure and the corridors were sectioned into five metre segments, each bordered with an open pressure door. Wu felt a little better when he noticed this. In the event of a pressure loss the bulkhead doors would shut and localise the damage only to the section hit.
The General’s office was situated on the Bridge deck just down the hall from the office of the Jagganath‘s Captain. LC Amrah left Wu outside with the rest of the Marines and accompanied Penny inside.

General Ram leaned back in his chair like a school principle about to dress down a delinquent. No AR rank insignia floated beside his head and unlike every other marine on board he wore no combat armour. His rank and as his campaign ribbons were plain to see on his uniform shirt.

Only two kinds of commanders flaunted combat regulations when it came to 24/7 pressure suit duties: ‘Down with my ship’ types and arrogant bullies for whom the rules applied to everyone else.

The General’s office was mostly spartan save for three flags across the back wall. Penny only recognised the Terran Federation flag on the far right, the one on the far left matched the shoulder decals of the Marine’s combat armour, so she guessed that flag was for Vishnu, but the one in the middle with the green, white and orange stripes she had no idea.

In the meantime Penny strode in and threw a smart salute. “Rangers lead the way sir.”

LC Amrah hesitated before translating. General Ram snorted like a cartoon bull and fired off a quick response.

Amrah turned back to Penny. “The General says. ‘All the way’.” He looked puzzled for a moment. “What does that mean?”

Penny lowered her hand. “It’s how Rangers addressed our superiors during the war. Even though we’re glorified cops now we still salute that way when we gotta mix with regular forces. Reminds you Jarheads and Voiders that we didn’t always wear a badge.”

General Ram snapped his fingers and barked again. The only word Penny caught was ‘Corporal.’ Then another staccato of words shot from his mouth. When he was finished, he crossed his arms and waited.

LC Amrah apologised quickly. Penny could only tell from his body language. Though it was interesting to see him with a facial expression other than ‘smirk’.
“The General asks what your business on Aloysius is? He wants to know if you’re here to break up a narcotics racket or some kind of smuggling operation amongst the troops?”

Penny smirked. “I had a feeling your boss had dealt with us before. Tell him I have good news: I’m after this man.” Penny sent Amrah a photograph over her PAN.

“Whoa.” Amrah said. His eyes widening. “Going straight for the big man.”

Amrah passed the image to General Ram’s PAN. The General looked at the invisible image floating in his augmented vision and shrugged before replying.

Amrah popped up his eyebrows at the General’s words. “He says he’s got forty-thousand troops trying to catch the Masked Ranger. What difference does one more make?”

“The Masked Ranger?” Penny said. “Really flexing the ol’ creativity muscles there ain’t cha?”

Amrah shrugged. “Marines tell it like it is.”

General Ram fired off another vocal volley and made a brushing away gesture with his right hand.

Penny sighed. “I take it I’m dismissed?”

“He says if you’re just here to shave rocks on a grindstone, it’s no concern of his. But he’s told me to take you down to the briefing room where my C.O. will fit you in on the situation planet-side.”

“Thank you kindly.” Penny said. She threw General Ram another sharp salute, which he returned, and they filed out of the room.

As they collected Wu and headed towards the briefing room Penny perked up with. “Care to settle a curiosity of mine Corporal?”

LC Amrah grinned at her again. “I’m sorry to inform you that I am happily married Ranger.” He puffed out his chest and flashed his pearly teeth at her.

Penny smirked. “Don’t flatter yourself honey.”

“That won’t stop him.” PFC Verma butted in. “Commending himself is his favourite thing in the world.”

“It’s not my favourite…

“Favourite thing you can do outside your rack then?” Penny suggested.

One of the bigger Marines laughed. “She’s got you there Corp.”

LC Amrah crossed his arms and turned his nose up indignantly. “Hmmmpf. You’re all just jealous of my Lucy and the love we share.”

“Lucy’s his dog right?” Wu asked the big man. “No wait, you’re Marines, it’s his rifle.”

LC Amrah unfolded his arms and pouted. “Don’t want to talk to you no more.”

“That won’t last.” Penny smiled at him. “So about my question…”

“Yeah, go ahead.” LC Amrah grumbled.

“Those flags in the General’s office…”
“Ah. The green, white and orange one is the Indian flag back on Earth. The one with the orange and white striped tiger on the green background is the flag of Vishnu.”

Penny nodded. “So he’s trying to say he’s proud of his heritage, loyal to his home world and a patriot of the Federation.”

Amrah shrugged. “He’d phrase it differently… and for a lot longer, but basically yeah.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 05 Part 1

Chapter 05

An electronic ‘ping’ in her nanoputer told Penny that she was coming up on the Jagganath.

Penny switched her main window from the navicomp’s screen to the visual sensors, putting the pride and joy of the Hindu Pantheon Fleet right in front of her.

Jagganath sat in high orbit over St. Aloysius like a turtle guarding its eggs. The flying fortress was the ops centre for the entire pacification effort, keeping key administrative and command personnel out of harm’s way while they directed ground troops, logistics operations and orbital support.

At her approach a pair of aerospace fighters broke off from their patrol route and switched to an intercept course.

The hailing alert sounded and an audio-only window appeared in the corner of Penny’s main screen. [Unidentified Vessel, you have strayed into official military space, please change your course or state your business in this area. Over.]

Penny sent the mental command to transmit her own hail.

[This is Ranger Penny Dreadful commandeering the civilian freight vessel Ravenwing. Requesting permission to dock with the Jagganath. I have instructions to check in with General Ram. Over.]

[Roger that Ravenwing. Please hold your position while we transfer you through to Jagganath Comms. Over.]

Penny reached out with her mental commands and began the deceleration process.

[All engines stopped. Awaiting further communications.]

The Jagganath‘s comms team did not keep her waiting. The HPG message she’d sent ahead assured as much. In the meantime the two aerospace fighters positioned themselves at the Ravenwing’s 5 and 7 o’clock.

A vidwindow appeared before her. On its screen Penny saw two men of subcontinental decent dressed in Marine Corps uniforms. The junior officer sat at the console the camera was pointed at, standing over him was a burly man with a thick, black moustache and gold General’s bars on his collar. Penny straightened up a little more.

The General scowled and began barking at her in a language she did not understand. After several volleys of noise he paused and looked down at the man at the console.

The junior officer cleared his throat. His voice was softer and carried little hint of an accent. [This is General Ram, Commander of the St. Aloysius task force. What business do you have in our theatre of operations Ranger?]

Penny failed to hide her annoyance. [I’d rather not have that conversation over an open channel. Protocol insists that I report in with the highest authority when entering an active combat zone and I am following those instructions. I restate my request to dock with your vessel and further request a pair of hands to supervise a dangerous prisoner aboard my ship.]

The junior officer relayed her request to the General, who growled a few more sentences and walked off camera.

[Permission to dock has been granted. The General will meet with you on the command deck and requests you be brief. A squad will be dispatched to escort you and your prisoner aboard ship. Please proceed to docking bay four and await further instructions. Jagganath out.]

The vidwindow disappeared and Penny brought the ship around.
Penny hesitated. Her hand hovering above the button to lower the cargo ramp.

“Keep your hands behind your back.” She told Wu. “They’re sending a squad of Marines to babysit us while we’re aboard and they seem a little jumpy. So don’t go making any sudden moves.”

Wu shrugged and crossed his arms behind him. “Did you tell them who I was?”

“Just that you’re a talented nanohacker. That’s all I wanted to say over the channel.”

Penny hit the button and the cargo ramp began to descend.

Three marines in recon armour stood at ease on either side of the ramp, their squad leader had put himself just in front of where the ramp came to rest. The leader had his helmet open and his weapon slung on the magnetic clamps on his back. Every other marine had their weapon in hand but lowered.

Around them the rest of the docking bay got along with its hustling and bustling. Judging from the contents docking bay 4 was the Jagganath‘s shuttle bay. Wu glanced around and saw that he was the only living soul not wearing a pressure suit. On the one hand he was impressed that the Aloysius resistance could keep even a vessel this high in orbit on a war-footing. On the other he quietly hoped they didn’t have any sneak attacks planned for today.

Penny popped her helmet and made her way down towards the marines.

The leader put a foot on the lip of the ramp and threw a salute. A pair of AR Corporal’s stripes hovered in the air beside his head. His English was crisp and clear, if strongly accented “Ranger Dreadful, My name is Corporal Sandeep Amrah. Welcome aboard the Jagganath.”

Penny shook the marine’s hand and looked him in the eye as she gave it a squeeze. He smirked and squeezed back. After a moment they both let go.

“Thank you. Marine” Penny said evenly.

LC Amrah indicated Wu with his chin. “This your prisoner?”

Penny turned to Wu. “That’s him. He’s been collared so if he causes any trouble I’ll just yank on his lead.”

LC Amrah nodded. “Anything else we need to know about?”

“I also have a civilian on board. Name of Cho Hae Lee, she’s our ship’s mechanic. If I could leave a Marine with the ship in case she needs to ask for anything that would be most appreciated. Beyond that she’s just like any other civilian.”

LC Amrah nodded. “Chandra, stay here and look after the Ranger’s ship. Everyone else form up.”

He turned back to Penny and Wu and smiled at them. “Let’s get you to the General’s office Ranger.”

The marines Amrah ordered to follow shouldered their rifles and stepped into line around them.

As they crossed the docking bay, LC Amrah flexed his hand and stretched his fingers.

“You’ve got a strong grip for a lady. You special-forces?”

Penny nodded to him. “All Rangers are ex-SF. It’s how we recruit.”

“I see.” He nodded. “That’s a good idea, you get to leave the service… without actually leaving the service.”

Penny smirked back at him. That sly tilt never left his lips. “Beats working for a living.”

The marines led them up the stairway. “They let you keep your augmentations up to date?”

“The Ranger mission statement is to police the periphery for any crimes, even those committed by Federal personnel. If we ever have to tangle with… let’s say a rogue Recon Marine, for arguments’ sake, we need to be up to par.”

Amrah turned to one of his troopers. “PFC Verma. Remind me to buy our guest a drink to stay on her good side.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 07 Part 1

Chapter 07

“I kinda thought we’d be taking the space elevator.” Penny said as she strapped herself in.

“Can’t.” Captain Niazi shrugged as she buckled her own harness. “Insurgents crippled it eight years ago. Now when we go from ship to surface, we take the fast lane.”

“Oh Yeah.” LC Amrah hollered. His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas. “In the Marine Corps, we put the drop in ‘Dropship’.”

Penny resisted the urge to grip the harness tighter. She didn’t want to give the Jarheads the satisfaction of knowing she was nervous. It had been a long time since she had made planetfall like this.

The hum of the magnetic catapult warming caused a hush to fall upon the marines around her. Excited looks flicked between them and the entire ship, collectively, took a deep breath.

Captain Niazi bellowed “BOMBS AWAY!” and with a loud metallic ‘Clank’ the restraining claw released its grip on the dropship. The tension ignited. The voices of a platoon of marines became a single, unified roar as the dropship blasted down to Aloysius.

Penny suddenly didn’t give a care what they thought of her and squeezed the harness till her knuckles turned white.

She looked down at the vidwindow beneath their feet. The planet rushed up to meet them and the entire ship began to shudder violently as they broke atmosphere. Air rushed passed the ship so fast it ignited. Over the roar Captain Niazi yelled. “Activating energy shields.”
The orange glow that had overtaken the view through the vid-window turned white as the energy shield leapt forward to part the air before the heat could reach the drop-ship. The shuddering calmed a little and Penny forced herself to at least pretend to be relaxed.

After a handful of heart-pounding seconds they reached the lower atmosphere and fired the deceleration jets. The shuddering returned with a vengeance as engineering wrestled against gravity, until the ship slowed enough for the repulsor engines to take over and allow the dropship to hover. The vidwindow beneath their feet showed nothing but endless ocean, making it impossible to tell if they were five or fifty metres from the surface.

“Well.” Penny breathed. “That was something.”
From their place over a random stretch of ocean the dropship rose and rocketed off towards its destination. Captain Niazi unbuckled her harness and moved down to the floor of the craft.

“Ears peeled Marines. Let’s go over this again for our guest.”
Niazi clapped and a series of vidwindows appeared in the air before her marines. Penny saw the front of a prefabricated, two-storey, civilian house and a corresponding orbital image of the same, besides both of these was the computer map showing its street address.

“This, is our target. Intel has identified it as a safe-house of the Black Mask Society and our own OP has confirmed seeing BMS agents coming and going from it. Including our mystery woman.”

Captain Niazi added the image of the woman in the pageboy cut to the screens.

Penny brought her hand up to her chin and rubbed it thoughtfully.

Captain Niazi turned to her people. “I know it looks like a text-book takedown but I need everyone to be double and triple checking every detail on this one. Bravo team’s ordnance tech noticed nothing unusual, they went over the place from top to bottom and the whole thing went up like a truck full of roman candles. So stay focused people, your lives depend on it.”

Penny moved her hand from her chin. “Ain’t gonna to be worth it.”

Every pair of marine eyes turned towards her.

“You won’t find intel in there worth a tinker’s damn.”

Niazi narrowed her eyes at Penny. “Intel has seen a top-tier target like Rodgers’ assistant in the vicinity. High Command isn’t going to let this one go without us at least taking a look-see.”

“I get that.” Penny said. “But it’s a Trojan horse. One of my first assignments in the Rangers was to infiltrate behind enemy lines within major Periphery cities. We’d set up trap houses just like these and use them as waypoints as we returned to base. We’d wire up the place with enough explosives to blow a hole in the side of the world and then set up Rube Golderg-style booby traps, the kind that don’t show up on your disposal droid’s sensors. The last squad you sent into one of these likely bought it when they picked up a book with a string attached or opened the wrong cupboard in the study.”

Captain Niazi folded her arms. “Then what would you suggest we do?”
“Well if if it were up to me I’d requisition orbital support and turn the entire two-storey property into a vacant lot. But they ain’t gonna let you do that are they?”

Niazi shook her head. “They ain’t. Not on your word alone.”

Penny nodded. “Then I’ll make you a deal. Let me take your disposal droid out for a spin and I’ll get you and High Command all the proof they need that safehouse is nothing more than a death trap.”

For a moment Captain Niazi’s features took on a softness that seemed out of character for the gruff Marine commander, but she quickly smirked it back into its hiding place.

“Alright Ranger, you got a deal.”
Penny brushed a hand across the cold, dew-covered railing beside the worn brick steps leading up to

the safe house. The disposal droid’s hand reported the ambient temperature and noted the humidity, but otherwise no sensation of cold was transmitted to her.

Penny never liked controlling a droid by remote. The insulation from the real world made her numb. Even her eyes and ears felt duller somehow, despite the droid’s high-definition sensors.

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Old Wounds Chapter 04 Part 2

Penny leaned in towards the camera some more. “So what’cha callin’ for Dylan? Official Ranger business is supposed to be run through Seera.”

Sundance smiled slyly. “Well you know me girlfriend. I trust that glowing pixie as far as I can throw her little digital behind. No I heard through the grapevine that a certain Ex-ranger had holed up on a particularly unpleasant periphery rock and was leading the local resistance there.”

Penny’s composure remained largely the same, but Wu saw her hands on the console snap into fists.

“Who’d you hear this from?”

“Ranger Wayne just rotated out of duty in the Pantheon of Saints. When I caught up with him he said the Black Mask Society have been making a major push in that area. Especially on St. Aloysius.”

Wu perked up at that. “Aloysius? The locals there hate us almost as much as the Feds.”

“That would be the first thing that caught my attention yes.” Sundance replied. “I dug into it a little and it wasn’t long before I found this:”

A still image appeared in the corner of the screen. It was blurry from movement but the resolution brought out the details in the black ranger armour clear as day.

He’d even left his name tag on.

“Rodgers.” Penny muttered.

“I figured you’d want first dibs on this. But with your perp in tow I guess…”

“No.” Penny said suddenly. “He’s mine. I’ll put in a course for Aloysius and head out there immediately.”

“Really?” Wu asked, one eyebrow raised. “What about me?”

Sundance tipped his hat to Penny. “You do what you gotta do Ranger. I’m just passing on your intel like you asked. Sundance out.”

Penny saluted the camera. “Thank you Dylan. Dreadful out.”

And with that the screen returned to the progress bar, which reported that the scan was complete.

Wu rounded on Penny. “What the hell Ranger? You won’t go against your orders when a life is on the line but this is okay?”

Penny grabbed the collar of his jacket and pulled his face up to hers. “You know damn well I said if you could give me anything on Rodgers I’d have let you go back on Ernutet. Now I know he’s on Aloysius, I am NOT letting him get away again.”

Penny released him and Wu returned to his seat. He shook his head at her. “Typical fed. Your needs come before anyone else. What about Hae Lee? You think she’ll be happy you’re keeping this ship for however long you want?”

Penny summoned a vid-window displaying the navigation data in her augmented vision. Without so much as a sidewards glance she said. “If it means more time to spend with you, Hae Lee would let me take this thing on a round-trip of the whole spiral arm. If you want me to give her this ‘nudge’ of yours you’ll sit tight and keep the whining to yourself.”

Wu seethed quietly, his jaw clenched. But he pushed away from the pilot’s console before he did anything he would regret.

“Good.” Penny said, then she put enough emphasis on her next words that Wu knew she was putting a new command into his collar. “Stay in that chair.”

Sure enough, Wu heard the collar ping to indicate it had received the new command.

Penny turned back to the console, made herself comfortable in her chair and turned her attention towards her own Headspace.

 

When Penny opened her eyes again she was standing in a field of sunflowers.

She’s modelled her personal Headspace after the fields out the back of her parent’s property on Bast.

Being surrounded by the places she used to run and play through for hours as a kid never failed to calm her.

But right now Penny had work to do.

“Summon Seera.” Penny commanded the air.

There was a flash of light beside her and Seera’s feminine form appeared in a glowing outline of electric blue.

“Good day Ranger Dreadful, how may I help you?”

“I need you to relay a message to Ranger High Command.”

Seera nodded. “Go ahead.”

“I believe I’m being followed by the Black Mask Society, who are likely attempting to retrieve their companion. I have considered my options and I believe my best course of action will be to Run Silent for the next little while. At least until I can lose them.”

“Are you sure Ranger?” Seera said, not a hint of suspicion in her voice. “Would you prefer we coordinated with the navy for additional protection?”

“We’re too far away from any naval vessels in the immediate area. I need to go quiet and drop out of sight for a while. Maybe take a long detour, see if I can shake them off.”

“If you believe that is wise Ranger, I will pass that on.”

“I believe it is essential.”

Seera nodded again. “Very well Ranger Dreadful. I will pass this on to Captain Harrison for you. Be advised that you will only be granted three weeks of silent running, after which you must report in to Ranger High Command with your exact location and the current status of your mission. Failure to do so will result in disciplinary charges being laid against you.”

Penny nodded back to her. “I’m well aware of the risks.”

“Understood. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No Seera.” Penny saluted. “That will be all.”
“Then good luck, Ranger.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 04 Part 1

Chapter 04

Wu parked himself in the copilot’s seat and waited for Penny to finish locking him out of the controls. She’d put his personal area network on the exceptions list shortly after she’d taken control of the ship, but now she was locking him out of the manual controls as well.

She hadn’t done this already for safety reason. In an emergency, if Wu needed to steer the ship out of danger and Penny and Hae Lee were unavailable he would need access to at least the manual controls. The perils of deep-space travel made the trade-off in security more than worth it. But right now Penny was of sound mind and body and she needed to make sure Wu didn’t touch anything she didn’t want him to.

“Alright. That’s that.” Penny said. “You make yourself comfortable there Mr Wu. And I’ll go back to the exciting life of software checks and system scans.”

Wu swept another mouthful of stir-fry into his mouth with his chopsticks. “Mmm-hmm.”

Penny slumped her armoured body into the pilot’s chair and stared at the status monitor for a moment, watching the system scan itself for errors and bad sectors.

Penny started on the noodles first and tried to make as little a slurping noise as she could.

“So…” Penny said after a moment. “This is riveting.”

Wu chewed on his bamboo shoots for a moment. “Yup.”

Penny let that hang in the air while the progress bar at the bottom of the screen inched forward again.

Then she turned to Wu and asked. “So how far have you and Hae Lee gone exactly?”

Wu smirked and got his food down before answering. “Foul two.”

Penny blinked for a second. “What?”

Wu fished around in his stir-fry for another broccoli. “Baseball terms.”

“Yeah I know that.” Penny said. “But that’s measured in bases. First base is kissing…”

“Exactly.” Wu replied. “But we haven’t made it to first base, she keeps hitting fouls.”

“Really?” Penny took another look at Wu. “Because I got the impression you and her…”

“Nooo.” Wu said, shutting her down. Then he nervously glanced towards the door. “But I would like to talk to you about that. It’s just… could we have this conversation ‘in private’.”

Penny knew what Wu referred to. Private Chat meant the two of them speaking over the Personal Area Networks on their nanoputers instead of speaking aloud.

Penny reached into her nanoputer’s system and set up a secure channel, one that Wu could only manipulate through audio and with severely restricted volume limits.

[Okay, how’s that?] Penny asked when the connection declared itself complete. Wu heard the words as though Penny were throwing her voice right behind his ear, though her lips never moved.

[Loud and clear Ranger.]

[So what did you want to talk about?]

[I need you to give Hae Lee a gentle nudge. She’s kind of throwing herself at me. I’ve walked in on her in the shower three times and yet she keeps ‘forgetting’ to lock the door.]

Penny shrugged. [She’s making sure you get a look at the goods.]

[Oh… I’ve seen them.] Wu nodded. [And they are indeed good. But she reminds me of an ex I had in university.]

[Hey hang on, that ain’t really fair on Hae Lee now. You can’t punish her for your ex’s mistakes.]

[She reminds me because she’s doing the same things that annoyed me about my ex. She wants me to settle down, start a family, change the direction of my entire life to better suit the idea she’s got in her head. I’m a revolutionary, I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting the Federation or rotting in prison, neither of which is going to mix well with her dreams of a white picket fence.]

Penny noticed the progress bar was just over three quarters of the way through, she kicked back and put her boots up on the console.

[Alright, I’ll talk to her. I don’t know what I’m gonna to say but I’ll take a whack at it. Gotta warn you though, if the promise of running her own ship isn’t enough to keep her from helping you, there may not be a way.]

A melody of beeps, the consoles’ hailing alert, cut Wu off before he could reply. With the system in maintenance mode the ship’s backup computer was handling the systems and its AR interface burned out years ago, according to Hae Lee. No-one ever remembered to replace it.

Penny checked the screen for the hail I.D.

“Mmmph?” Penny said aloud.

Wu tried not to look like he was reading the I.D. out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t an official government channel, he could tell that much.

Penny smirked at the screen and hit the receive button.

A voice like that of a cartoon chipmunk blared out of the speakers.

“Hiiiiiiidddeeee Hooooooooe.”

Penny laughed. “Dylan!”

“What’s up girlfriend?” The speaker asked, now sounding like a defensive linebacker mimicking one of the cheerleaders.

“Eurgh.” Penny made a show of rolling her eyes. “It’s a long story. I’m haulin’ in a perp to headquarters.”

“Ooooh, well aren’t you just the eager-beaver. Who ya got?”

“See for yourself.” Penny slid her chair to the side and beckoned Wu over. “Wu, may I introduce Ranger Sundance.”
Out of sheer curiosity, Wu rolled his own chair over to the pilot’s console.
“Dylan, this is Wu Gang Shu, bodyguard of the Incense Master to the BMS’ Tang Sing cell.”

As Wu had expected, the figure on the other side of the screen was a man in ranger armour. Everything else was a bit of a shock. He wore his helmet open, so he could perch a white ten-gallon hat over his head of radiant blond hair. Upon seeing Wu he beamed a friendly smile, revealing perfect teeth. He tipped his hat to him. “Pleased to meet’cha Mr Wu. I hope you’re looking after my girl here.”

Wu smirked at him. “This may shock you, but she and I are not friends.”

Ranger Sundance winked. “Give our some girl time, she grows on you.”

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Old Wounds Chapter 03 Part 2

“What are your plans for the future?” Hae Lee tried again. “Do you see yourself settling down? Maybe starting a family?”

“It doesn’t matter what I want.” Wu said. The timer hit zero and Wu switched the encryption. He held his breath for a moment while he waited to see if he’d chosen correctly. When the collar didn’t shock him, he knew it worked. The timer reset and he went back to the job.

“In less than a month the Ranger will hand me over to her HQ. I’ll be interrogated mercilessly until I give up everything I know about Sifu and then I’ll be tried for treason and sent to a penal colony for the rest of my life. Unless I can get out of this damn collar.”

Hae Lee rested her arm on the bench and looked at Wu. At the focused determination in his eyes and the set of his firm chin. Her heart quivered for a moment.

Hae Lee sighed. Behind the literal walls of code around him Wu didn’t even notice.

Wu opened up the control systems for the collar. He found several different options in front of him, each in charge of a different aspect of the restraining collar’s functions. Wu glanced up at the timer and saw he had ten seconds before he had to switch again. He considered his options. If he could disable the collar’s wifi he could stop the Ranger from discovering he was tampering with it. But if he tripped the anti-tamper, it would still shock him. That problem went the other way around if Wu rendered the shock system harmless but still tripped the alarm. The Ranger would know what he was doing and she might be able to force a reinstall of the collar’s software.

Wu noticed the locking mechanism controls. If he could hack that and it still tripped the alarm… well it wouldn’t be ideal, but at least he’d be free of the Ranger’s yoke.

The timer hit zero and Wu changed his encryption. After a moment’s held breath the timer reset and the collar still hadn’t shocked him.

Hae Lee noticed the simmer-time was over and turned off the heat.

“About Sifu…” Hae Lee asked hesitantly. “You speak very highly of her… all the time.”

Wu smirked. He opened up the collar’s locking mechanism and began searching through its code.

The timer showed ten seconds, the sequence must be speeding up.

“She’s the reason I am who I am. She took a directionless, lazy, know-nothing and turned me into a revolutionary. She’s a remarkable woman.”

“Yeah.” Hae Lee bit her lip. “So would say you two are… intimate?”

Wu brushed aside two walls of code with a wave of his hand to get a clear look at her. “What?”

Then the timer hit zero.

A crackle of pain tore into the soft flesh of Wu’s neck and scrambled its way down his spine, firing off synapses and tensing every muscle on its way.

Wu roared in pain, collapsing back against the seat of the couch behind him, he writhed in agony as the current reached his feet.

Hae Lee abandoned the cooking, grabbed the first-aid kit and rushed to Wu’s side.

“Wu.” She screamed. “Wu are you okay, what’s wrong?”

“He’ll be fine.” A commanding, female voice called from the doorway. “Just don’t touch him and y’all won’t be get hit by any residuals.”

Federation Ranger Penny Dreadful strode into the Mess and found it just as she expected.

She was armoured from head to toe. She hadn’t taken her armour off since they left Ernutet. Her inner suit kept her clean and sanitary enough and she couldn’t lower her guard for an instant with a nanohacker of Wu’s talent in her custody. When she saw that Wu was in no position to make any sudden moves she popped open her helmet and it retracted behind her neck.

She had short, flaming red hair and the piercing gaze of a career policewoman, a thin shrapnel scar under her left eye attested her civil-war service.

Ranger Dreadful walked up to the table and inspected Wu’s prone, gasping body with a glance. She turned to Hae Lee, who hid her gaze by staring down at her shoes.

Penny sighed and shook her head at her. Her normally stony-faced expression softened. “Hae Lee.”

Penny reached an arm out to Hae Lee and pulled up her chin to make her look into her eyes.

“I didn’t bring any aiding and abetting charges against you on account o’ your old crew. Please don’t make me bring up any new ones ’cause of him.”

Penny let Hae Lee go and the young woman kept her eyes on Penny.

“When this is over.” Penny said. “And I hand him over to HQ, I won’t need this ship anymore and I’d rather it stay in your hands than get auctioned off on some Federal lot. So please sweetie, don’t go throwing all that away over a pretty face.”

Wu moaned in pain. Penny reached down and grabbed him by his lapels.

“And you.” Penny yanked Wu up onto his feet. “Looks like I’ve been keeping you on too long a leash. From now on you’re to stay within line of sight of me at all times. Which means we’re taking our dinner to the bridge ’cause I still got some checks to run on the navicomp. Understand?”

Wu scrunched his face up to fight back at least some of the pain. “Yeah I understand.”

“Good.” Penny said, shoving him in the direction of the door. “Then get moving. Oh and Hae Lee.”

Hae Lee shot her head up again. “Yes?”

Penny threw her gaze over her shoulder as she followed Wu out. “I like mine with extra soy sauce.”

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