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.”