Being a commander of a Union Task Force galaxy ship usually meant leading operations from the ship’s command room. Only on rare occasions commanders left the ship to join their troops on the field. Commander Nihad loved her ship, and couldn’t think of a better place to work than the command room at Ignis.
Still, she had to admit that this little field trip to UR03 was refreshing. Of course, the mission itself was a rather gloomy one – missing personnel in research areas usually meant they were dead – but Nihad didn’t let that prevent her from enjoying herself.
Sometimes people called her cold-hearted, unempathic, ignorant or nonchalant, because of this ability to not let things affect her that wasn’t her concern. To Nihad herself, that ability was crucial for doing her duty. When it came to her own crew, she engaged whole-heartedly in their well-being, but others? They had their own to worry about them. And crying saved no lives.
They had put up their portable equipment on the table outside the tent. Usually, they used the shuttle as base for command and communication during operations, but since the landing and lift-off location was a couple of kilometers away from the station, Nihad had decided it was better to have it here.
The head of the station, Biely, was sitting at the table with them, and had been telling Nihad about the station and their work, but as captain Avril called Nihad on the comm, she held up a hand.
Then she looked at Biely. “Do you have more than two drones in the air right now?”
Biely frowned. “No? We have three, but only two are in use. Why?”
Nihad pointed at the ID-signal. “Do you recognize that?”
“Yes, it’s ours, but that one is in our storage.”
“Let’s go and see if it’s still there, shall we?”
Biely looked worried now, but rose from the table.
On the comm, captain Avril reported that the drone somehow had tampered with Felicia’s sonar. Nihads mood shifted. If these scientists had sent up an extra drone without telling them, that was annoying. To directly interfere with her operation? That was a crime.
She looked at Biely, sternly, while answering the captain. “You are free to shoot it down if you think that is necessary.” She then turned to the TR:s. “Xander, find out who’s controlling the drone and from where. Daleen, the drone was affecting Felicia’s sonar somehow. I want you to check the other drones so they’re not doing the same.”
The two TR:s began to work, focused.
“Rashida, unless your foot objects too much, you’re coming with us.”
“Yes commander.” The soldier who had been sitting at the table with them, her injured foot up on the bench, grabbed her gun. She was still limping, but it seemed the sprain hadn’t been too bad after all.
They walked after Biely to the storage building. The head scientist opened the door and turned on the lights, and led them to the part where the drones were usually stored.
“It’s… not here.” She looked genuinely surprised.
“The ones controlling the drones are inside the station, are they not?”
“Yes, they are.”
“Lead the way.”
As they walked over to the station, Nihad gave Avril a quick update. With Rashida one step behind, she followed Biely into a small room where two of the staff were sitting with control tablets for the drones.
“Is anyone of you using Sting Ray?” the head scientist asked them, nervously.
“No”, one of them answered, puzzled, “only Manta Ray and Eagle Ray.”
They glanced at Rashida and Nihad.
“Who among the crew can fly them?” Nahid asked Biely.
“Well, Liz, one of the two who went missing, she could use the drones, and Wayan and Johannes.”
“Gather your crew immediately. All of them. I don’t care if they’re off duty or in the bathroom, round them up. Now.”
The head scientists hurried to carry out this task while Nihad made sure the drone operators had their drones return and land on autopilot.
Thanks to the limited size of the station, gathering the staff was quickly done. It was also not hard for Biely to see that they were missing yet another member.
“Johannes isn’t here.” Her voice was weak.
Nihad decided to call her troops back to the station. For now, finding the missing scientists was of lesser prio than preventing a possible derailer to cause even more damage.
“Any idea where he could be? Especially if he was to operate the drone?”
Biely desperately shook her head. “If you have the control pad, you can do it wherever.
Nihad looked at the gathered staff. If there were more allies to this Johannes in here, she didn’t want to give them a chance to sneak off.
“Everyone, go outside. Sit down at the wall to the right of the front door. Move.”
The station workers all looked at each other, insecure.
Nihad raised her voice. “I said move!”
She didn’t have to tell them a third time.
As Rashida made sure they all followed orders, and stayed to watch them, Nihad went back to the TR:s.
“What do you have for me?”
“The other two drones were only being used for camera searching”, Daleen said. “I found no software other than what they are supposed to have. They’ll land here soon.”
“And the misbehaving one?”
“It’s been modified, obviously”, Xander answered, “but it’s also encrypted, not to mention it’s been shot down. I’m still not able to tell where its controller is. But… this encryption is of Federation origin.”
Nihad looked at him, her eyes narrowing in distrust. “Federation encryption? On a Union research drone?”
He shrugged, almost apologetically.
“Alright. Keep up the tracking efforts. It will take team 1 half an hour to get back, another fortyfive minutes for team 3. I’d prefer not to engage a possible Federation spy without backup, but we can’t afford to let them get away either. Dmitri, has there been any unauthorized attempts to get inside or take control over the shuttle?”
“No commander.” Dmitri had stayed with them at the station, but was still able to keep an eye on the locked shuttle through his tablet.
“Daleen, find out who is in charge of landing and lift off. Work with them to make sure this Johannes can’t leave the surface.”
“On it, commander.”
Nihad put her hands on her back, looking over the nervous station staff, then at the small screen showing the two team’s movement through the forest. Waiting was part of her job as well. So she waited, ready to take action whenever the situation changed.
– – –
Haylen had just caught the first glimpse of the station between the trees when captain Avril put up her hand, and the soldiers stopped. They had been jogging whenever possible, moving in combat formation most of the time. Haylen had activated his barriers a little while ago. The station had no lethal weapons, at least not officially. Then again, the station drones weren’t supposed to have amp jammers either.
During the Gamma wars, the development of jammers and counter-jammers had been like a war in itself. The Federation equipped their warbots with interference devices, and the Union invented both software and physical blockers for their amped soldiers, each better than the previous.
The T9 program used top-notch counter-jammers for the time being. Haylen wasn’t sure if the upgrades he had had since then was actual upgrades or only the standard quick fixes that most implants got once a year or so. Either way, it would require a lot of skills and money to produce a jammer that could get through them even today.
Still, if this derailer had jammers that worked on a Task Force soldier, they might as well have those skills and those money.
Captain Avril listened to the comm call, then looked at them, speaking in a hushed tone. “They tracked the derailer to the lift-off area. We’re to surround him and catch him, alive and if possible unharmed. Questions?”
“Is he armed?” Felicia asked.
“We don’t know. It’s possible that he has firearms, but not likely. He could have improvised melee weapons. He’s to be treated like a threat anyhow.” She looked at Haylen. “You approach him first. If you can’t make him move with commands, you take him physically. Shooting him is last resort”
“Alright people, let’s go.”
They headed for the lift-off area where they split up in two, and spread out along the treeline. The Ignis shuttle was standing on the concrete next to the lift-off ramp, and a bit further away was the station shuttle.
“I see him”, said Felicia on the comm. She had taken position where she could overlook the lift-off area. “He’s sitting at the control hut.”
“Haylen, on Felicia’s call”, said the captain. “The rest of you, close in, slowly.”
“I got aim on him”, Felicia said. “He looks unarmed.”
Haylen made his way towards the control hut, diagonally since the man apparently was sitting on the opposite side. He kept his barriers up, and the gun ready but pointed at the ground for now, moving around the corner.
The derailer, a light-skinned man who must be younger than Haylen himself, looked up at him. He was holding something small in his shaking hand, and he had tears in his wide open eyes.
“Stand up”, Haylen said, not raising his voice nor his gun, but not losing his ready stance either.
The man just looked back at him, and from one moment to another he turned absolutely calm, and then quickly moved his hand to put whatever he had in it in his mouth and swallowed.
Haylen shoved his gun at his back and flung himself down on his knees beside the man, grabbing the back of his neck with one hand and tried making him open his mouth with the other. The derailer tried to squirm free, pulling at Haylen’s arms, but Haylen was stronger. He gave the man a couple of quick punches on the mouth with his fist so he could pry the jaws open, then forced his fingers down the man’s throat until he threw up.
He heard captain Avril report to the commander, and saw the rest of the team run towards them in the corner of his eye. He sat back on his heels, still grasping the man’s shoulder, while taking his gun with the other hand. The man slumped back against the control hut wall, but it wasn’t long until he put his arms around his stomach with a painful moan, his face twisting in agony.
“What happened?” captain Avril demanded to know as she squatted down beside them.
“Poison”, Haylen answered.
She looked at him, then at the derailer and the vomit in front of him. “Good thinking”, she mumbled, then called for the medics.
– – –
They left UR03 early next morning, with the Federation mole, his modded drone, and two body bags. Leon and Nyree had been able to prevent the remaining poison to cause too much damage to the derailer. He had been unconscious for a while, but regained consciousness eventually, and was now handcuffed and put in the hindmost seat in the shuttle, staring at the floor in front of him.
Felicia wished he had been placed in the cargo section instead, preferably in a body bag too. She was repulsed by the mere sight of him. None of the soldiers were allowed to speak to the prisoner, but even the commander couldn’t prevent Felicia from glaring at him.
She and Tianyi had found the missing scientists eventually. That was the only thing the mole had told them. “I left them in the ravine south of the station.” He had lured them out, poisoned them, and dragged them to the ravine. And for what? To get some Union imps come over so he could try his toy out on them? It was disgusting.
Someone patted her thigh lightly and she reluctantly turned her head away from the derailer, and looked at Tianyi beside her.
“Don’t dwell on it, Scopes.”
“I’m not dwelling on anything.”
“Yes you are.”
“Well excuse me, but this could mean that the Federation is crawling up from their hole again. I think I got the right to dwell on that.”
“As long as you stop that sulking when we get back on Ignis. I can only handle so much grumpiness during maintenance.”
The turbulence ceased as they left the atmosphere. A few seats away, Daleen put a sickbag to her mouth. In front of her, Haylen had fallen asleep. On her right, Keith and Santo had picked up their argument about the ‘stolen’ candy again. Tianyi nudged Felicia with her elbow, grinning.
Everything was as it used to be.
Except the branch had turned out to be a snake after all.