Category Archives: Episode 1: Out of the Darkness

Out of the Darkness — Act IV

orphan-squadronIn Act III, Able Sequoia and Jig Cypress are attacked by enemy fighters while searching for the secret Vortani refueling base hidden in the asteroid belt that surrounds Rendios. Cypress quickly destroys one of the attackers, but finds himself the target of the second one. Seeing his former squadron-mate in danger, Sequoia is faced with the dilemma of abandoning his commitment to nonviolence in order to save him from certain death.

# # #

A salvo from the Vortani ship connected with a propulsor on Cypress’ ship, turning the engine into a stream of orange fire. Cypress shouted in pain; his helmet sensors connected him to the ship’s systems as if they were symbiotic living creatures.

“I’m hit!” Cypress shouted. “Fire, Able! Fire!

As he watched Cypress weave his damaged ship to avoid the Vortani’s energy beams, Sequoia’s genetically engineered mind worked faster than it ever had in an effort to calculate all the variables confronting him. But he was programmed to instantly determine the optimal way to kill an opponent, not to find solutions to moral dilemmas.

He needed an option that lay outside instinct.

Forshana, he called in his mind. I can’t let my friend die! Tell me what to do . . .

He blinked in surprise and his eyes widened. Suddenly, he had the solution. The solution for which he had been searching all these years — since Forshana’s death, since his exile to Rendios. He laughed in surprise.

Sequoia flipped a switch on his control column and the target reticle switched to boresight mode, overriding the tracking computers and enabling him to point the cannons manually. With deft nudges to the controls, Sequoia aimed the cannons at the Vortani fighter’s starboard engine and fired off a short burst. Shards of armor flew off the attacker, but he continued homing in on Cypress.

Sequoia fired a second burst that had the desired effect; the ship immediately began slowing and shuddering. Quickly, Sequoia angled his ship to fire on the Vortani’s port engine and fired another non-lethal burst that shredded its housing without causing it, or the ship, to break up. With no choice left, the Vortani broke off its attack on Cypress and pulled up and away, trailing vapor and white-hot fragments of engine. For good measure, Sequoia fired off additional bursts that passed close above and below the fleeing ship, inspiring it to increase its acceleration.

Overcharged on adrenaline and in pain from the combat damage his ship had sustained, Cypress turned and prepared to give chase to his former attacker.

“No!” Sequoia shouted. “Let him go.”

“But . . . ”

“Stand down!” It was the universal command for test-tube soldiers to disengage their combat instincts, and Cypress instinctively obeyed his former superior officer. Time quickly slowed to normal for both men.

“He’s going to tell the Vortani high command that we know about the refueling base,” Cypress said, his voice calmer but still edged in the pain of his symbiotic injuries.

“Let him,” Sequoia responded. “They’ll know it’s not a secret anymore and they’ll have to abandon it. How’s your ship?”

Cypress quickly scanned his displays. “I’m okay,” he replied. “Number three propulsor is dead and it looks like the sensor pallette is shot up, but nothing critical. Structural integrity and pressure are nominal.”

Sequoia chuckled. “Young Mister Juniper is going to be mighty upset at you when he sees what you did to his ship, Cypress.”

Despite himself, Cypress smiled. The two ships formated on each other and turned back toward Rendios. “So, you found a solution to your ethical quandary or whatever it was, huh?” Cypress said.

Sequoia thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I did. A little nuance that our programming overlooked. It’s not about killing the enemy, it’s about preventing them from carrying out their mission successfully. Stopping them from reaching their objective. Thwarting their plans. You don’t have to kill them to do that.”

“What about attrition? They don’t lose pilots or ships your way.”

Sequoia waved his hand in dismissal. “There’s always going to be more where they came from. You’ll never win a war on body count alone.” He paused. “No one ever has.”

Cypress thought for a few moments, trying to wrap his programming around the ideas that were suddenly so clear to his colleague. “Just because you showed them mercy doesn’t mean they’re going to return the favor, you know.”

Sequoia nodded solemnly. “I know. But I’m not asking them to. This is my choice. This is how I fight.”

Cypress wrestled with the idea. “But it’s a lot harder to do non-lethal damage. It’s going to take a lot of skill and precision. Every single time. While all they have to do is aim and fire.”

Sequoia smiled. “I’m pretty good at what I do, Cypress. I am an Able, after all.”

“Yeah, but even Ables can wear out from too much fighting. The Vortani will just keep coming back. Over and over again. And there will always be more of them, but there’s only one of you. They’ll be fresh every time, while you will always have to be at the top of your game. Day after day, fight after fight. In combat, it’s a lot harder to not kill someone than to kill them.”

The smile faded from Sequoia’s face and he took a deep breath as he thought about Cypress’ point. “Then I guess that’s the price I’ll have to pay for the decision I’ve made,” he said quietly.

There was no more to be said. For the rest of the flight back to Rendios, both men were lost in their own thoughts, each trying to make sense of the far-reaching implications of Sequoia’s momentous decision.

# # #

Epilogue

Three shadows quivered against the wall of Able Sequoia’s forest hut, animated by the flames that emerged from the shallow fire pit around which Sequoia, Cypress, and Colonel Brookbine huddled. Beer bottles in hand, each man stared into the fire, their faces reflecting its yellows and reds. Aside from the crackling of the burning wood, the only other sounds were the distant calls of creatures prowling in the darkness beyond.

Brookbine, in particular, pondered what Seqouia and Cypress had just finished recounting to him about the events of their mission.

“I agree with Jig here,” Brookbine said after a long silence, gesturing with his bottle. “Eventually, you’re going to burn out, Able.”

“Fighting the same person three times is no different than fighting three people once,” said Able.

Brookbine shook his head. “Not quite, my friend. The first time, you might be fighting one opponent. But if you don’t kill him, the next time he’ll show up with someone else. And the time after that, those two will return with a third. But each time, there will still be only one of you.”

“Not to mention that it’s harder to damage a ship in a way that doesn’t kill or injure the pilot,” added Cypress. “Especially in the middle of combat, when they’re maneuvering to evade your fire. And returning it.”

Sequoia took a long swig of beer and thought about his friends’ advice.

He nodded. “I know,” he said matter-of-factly. “But ultimately, it’s my call. Maybe the risk is the price I have to pay for my principles.”

Maybe so,” Brookbine said, trying unsuccessfully to mask his fatherly pride from the tone of his voice. “I guess we’ll find out on future missions.”

“What future missions?” Sequoia asked in surprise.

Brookbine chuckled. “Fleet Command was mightily impressed with your little operation. And, of course, they denied ever doubting that there was a refueling outpost there to begin with.” Brookbine shrugged, and took a drink. “In exchange for not reminding them, I was able to wrangle a deal.”

“What kind of deal?” asked Cypress.

“They agreed wholeheartedly with me that in order to prevent future Vortani incursions, an attack squadron should be stationed on Rendios. But the fleet is already stretched too thin as it is.” He paused, looking at his men, his ice-blue eyes twinkling under his heavy brows.

Both men needed only a moment to process Brookbine’s implication.

“An attack squadron crewed by nothing but orphans?” Sequoia was incredulous.

“Sure, why not?” Brookbine gestured with his bottle. “Those men back there are all hardened combat veterans with decades of incomparable experience.”

“None of them have been in a cockpit since they got dumped on this rock,” Sequoia pointed out. “Most of them are drunks or addicts. And I think it’s fair to say they might have developed some problems with authority along the way,” he added wrily.

“Well, they need a leader they can trust.”

“Colonel, they love you, but they don’t work for the uniform anymore.”

“Not me,” Brookbine said, pointing his bottle at Sequoia. “You.”

Sequoia laughed in disbelief. “Me? I don’t know what you slipped in your drink when I wasn’t looking, Colonel, but those men you’re so fond of back there in Port would be happy to see me dead.”

“This last mission might change their minds about you,” Brookbine said.

“Colonel, they’d never listen to me.”

“Yeah, but they’d listen to me,” Cypress said.

Sequoia fumbled for words, glancing back and forth betwen the two men, unable to process the insanity he was hearing. “Wait, so now you’d fly with me?”

Cypress smiled. “I just did. Remember? Besides, you’re going to need an executive officer who can keep those guys in line.”

“A shipment of LM-20 two-seat attackers is on its way here now,” Brookbine added quickly, before Sequoia could protest again. “Not the latest and greatest, but in the right hands it’s still a potent weapon. And with all those junked ships rusting away at Port, we’ll have an endless supply of spares. What do you say?” Brookbine extended his bottle towards Sequoia.

“Sounds good to me,” Cypress said, extending his bottle likewise.

Cypress ran a hand over his bald head, then raised his eyebrows and let out a long sigh. “Well then, gentlemen, here’s to the Orphan Squadron.” He clinked his bottle with those of his comrades, and the three leaned back to empty their drinks.

# # #

Be sure to tune in for the next exciting episode of Orphan Squadron, right here on this station!

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Out of the Darkness — Act III

orphan-squadronIn Act II, exiled Able Sequoia and Jig Cypress agreed to a tentative truce in order to carry out a dangerous reconnaissance mission in the asteroid belt near their prison planet of Rendios. But for Jig, the danger is not enemy Vortani fighters lurking amid the asteroids — it is Able, the man he believes allowed his entire squadron to be annihilated by his misplaced devotion to nonviolence in wartime. Would Sequoia’s ethics put their lives at risk?

The two stubby blockade runners skimmed their way through the asteroid belt at the outer edge of the Rendios system, their low-reflectivity, dark-gray paint schemes blending against the jagged hunks of rock through which they flew. The two ships flew side-by-side, with Able Sequoia, the flight leader, on the left and Jig Cypress, once his squadron-mate, covering the right. They maneuvered almost as one toward the next large asteroid in their search sector.

Sequoia punched a button on the console above his head. “Scanning the surface now,” he said, his voice thinned by the helmet microphone, as he turned his attention to the screen in front of him. “Looks like natural radiation only. No artificial signatures.” He watched intently as the monitor displayed the results of the slow sweep by the sensor pallet. “Some mid-range residuals, but they look too erratic to be manmade. What do you see?”

“Same,” replied Cypress.

“You forget how to talk over there?” Sequoia asked, glancing out the window at his wingman. “You haven’t said a word with more than one syllable since we left orbit. And we’ve looked at, what, twenty asteroids so far.”

“Yup.”

“Nothing to say to me, is that it?”

“Right.”

“That’s fine. I’ll do all the talking. Have to do something to stay awake out here. Or maybe you’d rather hear me sing.”

Cypress rolled his eyes in exasperation, but remained silent.

Sequoia listened to the hiss of background static for a moment. “I know what you all think about me, but you have it wrong, you know.”

Cypress punched a set of coordinates into his flight computer, determined not to be drawn into a conversation with the man he had shunned years earlier.

“What happened on Shalamand, none of you people can understand.”

“That’s because everyone who was there is dead, thanks to you,” Cypress blurted out.

“Aha, he does know how to speak after all,” Sequoia jibed, smiling tightly. “Well, I didn’t die there. And neither did Colonel Brookbine.” The smile faded, and with it his voice. “But Forshana did.”

“Who?”

“When the advance fleet arrived at Shalamand, my squadron was billeted on an island in the Correm territory. Colonel Brookbine sent me to meet with the local Correm leaders to requisition supplies. The leaders asked Forshana to work with us.”

Sequoia adjusted his ship’s sensor settings. “The entire Correm culture was founded on the principles of nonviolence. For thousands of years, they lived in peace with each other. With the other nations on Shalamand too. Not that they didn’t suffer for it. Most of the other Shalamandi were warlike and sometimes they crossed through Correm to get to each other. But no matter how much the Correm lost, they didn’t fight back. The other nations couldn’t understand. They would demand that the Correm surrender. But the Correm would tell them, We can’t surrender because we’re not fighting you.” Sequoia chuckled ruefully and shook his head. “The way they see it, they never lost.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Forshana taught me their history,” Sequoia replied. “I asked her to teach me. Between missions, after debriefings, any chance I had. I wanted to learn everything I could about them.”

Cypress was unmoved. “Scanner sweep completed. Readings unchanged.”

“By the time our fleet arrived, the Vortani had already been raiding their planet for months. But even with thousands of people being slaughtered in space raids, they still chose the way of peace. For a squadron full of genetically programmed warriors, it just did not compute, you know what I mean?”

Cypress looked at his monitor panel. “Next asteroid is at two-seven by one-one-four, range three hundred. Set course.” He punched the figures into the navigation console and his ship began to arc down and to the right.

Sequoia entered the coordinates in his own navigation console and his ship followed Cypress’ lead. “I asked Forshana to explain it to me. I wanted to see if I could understand. It’s like the instructions say, get to know the locals, right? So we talked. A lot. And it did something to me. I got what she was saying. I began to understand that there could be another way to relate besides conflict.”

“You’re programmed to fight. We all are. It’s our whole purpose.”

Sequoia nodded. “That’s what I told her. But she just refused to believe that that’s all I was capable of ever being.”

“So what, you fell in love?” Cypress said mockingly. Such a thing was simply beyond their programming.

“Or the closest I could come to it. We decided to commit.”

“Commit?”

“That’s what the Correm call marriage.”

“Married? You?” Cypress glanced at his monitor. “Coming up on the next asteroid in ten. Stand by to commence scanning.”

Sequoia punched in a command sequence. “In order to commit, I had to be accepted by the Correm first. And that meant taking the vows of nonviolence. I studied their precepts for months. Forshana was my guide.”

“And what happened?”

Suddenly, Sequoia’s monitor began flashing red. His brow furrowed as he studied the screen. “Sensors are picking up artificial signals from the asteroid.”

“Confirmed,” replied Cypress. “Level four and stable.”

Sequoia punched several buttons in the panel above his head. “Triangulating. Tie in sensors.”

In his ship, Cypress punched the same sequence. “Tied in. Getting a fix.” The two pilots watched their monitors as yellow lines spread out and crossed, intersecting at a point near the top of their screens. “Three-three-two.”

Both men looked out their cockpit windows at the designated point on the pale-gray asteroid passing slowly above them.

“Nothing,” said Cypress. His hyper-sensitive eyesight detected nothing but a pitted, rocky surface.

“Must be buried,” Sequoia replied. “Radiation signal’s getting stronger. I think . . . ”

A piercing alarm sounded in both men’s helmets. “Incoming fire,” shouted Sequoia. “Break!” The ships split to the right and left as three bolts of high-energy plasma sizzled through the space they had just occupied.

Both men’s genetic programming kicked in automatically in response to the threat. The acuity of their senses increased by several orders of magnitude, and time seemed to slow down.

“Sourcing!” called Cypress as he turned a dial on his target screen. “I track it one-eight-three astern.”

“On it,” Sequoia responded, rolling his ship hard to the right, his head swiveling in search of the source of the plasma missiles. “Got him!” He spotted a dark shadow skimming above the surface of the asteroid. “Single-seat Targon, looks like he’s coming around for another shot. Two-one-five.”

Cypress turned to look in the direction that Sequoia had called. “I have it,” he said, instantly assessing the course and range. “He’s mine.” He banked his ship toward the enemy fighter. After the initial break, Cypress’ ship had ended up being the closer of the two runners, allowing him to slip in behind the fighter and give chase. “Energizing weapons.” He flipped two switches; two green lights confirmed his twin Mark 9 blast cannons were armed and ready.

Cypress expertly jinked his ship into firing position. An illuminated target reticle appeared on the cockpit window in front of him, tracking the small dart-shaped fighter with its yellow crosshairs. A few moments later, a short three-tone beep sounded. “Locked and tracking.” At the right moment, Cypress squeezed the trigger on his ship’s control column and the cannons squirted a barrage of supercharged particles at the target. The blast shredded one of the fighter’s wings, and it spun out of control into the asteroid.

“Smash one!” Cypress exulted.

Good kill! Sequoia wanted to shout, but he fought the urge back down. “Confirmed,” is all he said. From his vantage point, Sequoia could see Cypress’ blockade runner skimming low over the surface of the asteroid, passing the debris field of the crashed adversary. Suddenly, to his left, he glimpsed a fast-moving low shadow sliding through a lava channel parallel to Cypress’ track.

“Targon below and behind you!” called Sequoia. “Break high!”

Cypress pulled back on the stick and gunned his throttle, pointing the blockade runner away from the surface of the asteroid.

Sequoia watched as the Vortani fighter slid out of his camouflaging trench to give chase. This pilot was smart. Unlike the other fighter, which had exposed its position right away, this one had used the terrain to mask its approach, letting its partner lure Cypress down to where it could line up behind him undetected. But because Sequoia had the superior combat instincts of an Able, he was able to sense the adversary was there before he actually saw it.

“He’s good,” said Cypress, his voice strained under the high-G loads of his combat maneuvers. The Vortani was sticking to him like a shadow — a shadow that was gradually getting closer, its plasma bolts slicing past Cypress’ wildly gyrating ship.

“I’m on him,” Sequoia called as he dove down to pursue the pair. He firewalled his throttles, the four propulsors screaming at full combat power. Instinctively, he threw the cannon arming switches and got two green lights. The target reticle began sweeping across his canopy, hunting for a lock on the Vortani fighter as it slewed across his line of sight. He turned to follow, gradually closing the gap.

“Are you locked?” Cypress grunted as he threw his ship around the sky, trying to shake his adversary’s deadly grip.

As he steered his blockade runner to place the yellow crosshairs on target, Sequoia suddenly felt a cold sweat trickle down the back of his neck. There was a living, sentient creature at the other end of those crosshairs. With just the touch of a trigger, Sequoia could end that life. Every finely programmed instinct in his body was demanding of him that he pull that trigger. His entire existence came down to that one simple action.

A three-tone beep signaled that his cannons had acquired the target.

All he could see was Forshana’s smiling face, hear her soothing voice. Nonviolence doesn’t mean that you don’t want to kill.

“Sequoia! Are you locked?

It means that you choose not to.

A salvo from the Vortani ship connected with a propulsor on Cypress’ ship, turning the engine into a stream of orange fire. Cypress shouted in pain; his helmet sensors connected him to the ship’s systems as if they were symbiotic living creatures.

“I’m hit!” Cypress shouted. “Fire, Able! Fire!

# # #

Stay tuned for Act IV of Orphan Squadron: Out of the Darkness, right after these messages!

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Out of the Darkness — Act II

orphan-squadronIn Act I, exiled pilots Able Sequoia and Jig Cypress are recruited by their former commanding officer to undertake a dangerous mission. But can they overcome the bitter memories of a previous mission in order to work together again?

Able Sequoia took a deep breath to calm himself before reaching out to push open the creaking front door of the Gene Pool. The last time he had been here, the hostile glares and icy contempt of his former colleagues had made it clear that they would be happy to never see him again. And until today, he had respected their wish. He understood why they felt the way they did about him. The fact that they were completely mistaken, though, had always hurt.

As Sequoia switched himself into conflict mode, he could feel his senses become more acute as the adrenaline coursed through his veins. He would need his combat sensibilities not just to sense incoming threats, but to tamp down his natural emotional responses and avoid reacting to the taunts and threats he was likely to receive. He was through the door before he realized it.

Few people noticed him; many of the denizens of the smoky, crowded room were new, and didn’t know him by sight. After collecting a mug of the local swill at the bar from a disinterested bartender, Sequoia wove his way through the crowds standing around the billiard tables toward a corner alcove almost beyond the reach of the Gene Pool’s murky lighting.

Two people sat on bar stools at a tall table. As Sequoia got closer, he saw that the one facing him was Colonel Brookbine. The one facing away was obviously a former soldier, judging from his bulk. It had to be Cypress. Brookbine saw Sequoia and gestured him over. He pulled out the stool and sat down. Cypress scowled into his mug.

“Thanks for coming,” Brookbine said to Sequoia, who nodded.

“All right,” rumbled Cypress. “He’s here. Talk.”

“What, no social niceties?” Brookbine prodded Cypress gently. “No chit-chat? Where are your manners, Jig?” Cypress seethed but did not otherwise react.

“I have a mission for you,” Brookbine said, with forced nonchalance, knowing that this would trigger the soldiers’ biologically programmed itch for combat. “But I won’t give you the details until I know I can trust you to keep it quiet.”

Brookbine knew how to play their instincts with masterful skill; he saw both men perk up, though with reluctance. Sequoia and Cypress glanced at each other. For them, some things ran deeper than blood.

“Not a word,” said Sequoia. A moment later, Cypress nodded in agreement, frowning.

“Good,” Brookbine said with satisfaction, then leaned in close. “You both know that the Rendios system is ringed by a large asteroid belt, right?”

“Yeah,” Cypress mumbled. “The remains of two planets that collided on the outer rim about 5,000 years ago. Spread carnage throughout the system. Made Rendios the lovely corner of paradise that we all know and love today.”

“Correct,” said Brookbine. “There’s a lot of places to hide out there. And I believe that the Vortani are constructing a refueling depot somewhere in there. As a base from which they can launch an assault on the Inner Worlds.”

Sequoia scowled, running the variables through his quick mind. Cypress, on the other hand, snorted. “A base this close to the home planets? They’d never get the ships past the picket.”

“I’m not so sure,” Sequoia said to no one in particular, oblivious to Cypress’ scowl. “The Bestik sector of the picket was always the weakest. And it’s the closest sector to Rendios.”

“See?” Brookbine said, pointing at Sequoia with his mug. “The kid gets it. There’s been an increase of freighter traffic in this sector for the past four cycles. But I’ve checked with all the ports of call. No increased arrivals or departures. The numbers don’t add up.”

“So why not go in with a cruiser squadron and chase them off?” asked Cypress.

“Fleet Command doesn’t want to scare them off,” Brookbine said.

The soldiers looked doubtful.

“They don’t believe you,” said Sequoia, the facts suddenly becoming clear. “You did this analysis, presented it to Fleet Command, and they don’t agree with your assessment.”

“Correct.”

“Your assessment makes sense.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Brookbine couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“So you need a couple of expendable pilots to go look for you,” concluded Cypress.

“Not expendable at all,” Brookbine said. “I need pilots who know how to get in, take a look, and get out without being seen or getting caught. We need to know.” He paused. “I need to know.”

Brookbine took a deep draft of his bitter ale, then reflexively looked around the room to make sure they were not being overheard. “Look, I’ll level with you boys,” said Brookbine. “The Vortani are beating the tar out of us. Battle after battle, they’re out-thinking and out-playing the fleet. The Conglomerate leadership is too inflexible, too unimaginative. And the Fleet Command is just …” Brookbine sighed and waved his mug. “Let’s just say that it takes them months of meetings and conferences to figure out what young Able here can figure out in thirty seconds. And by then it’s too late.”

The two veteran soldiers contemplated Brookbine’s candid comments.

“If I’m right about this, then we can’t wait that long,” Brookbine finished, fixing Sequoia and Cypress with his penetrating gaze.

“You’re asking us to take on an unsanctioned mission,” Cypress said. “You know that goes against our programming.”

“I’m sanctioning it,” Brookbine retorted. “As far as you’re concerned, that should be good enough.”

“I like it,” Sequoia said, smiling. “Count me in.”

“What about you, Jig?” asked Brookbine.

Cypress tilted his head at Sequoia. “I don’t know if I can trust him. He won’t kill. And that might get me killed as a result. I may not have a lot to live for here, but at least I’m alive.” Unlike my twin, he didn’t have to say.

“Don’t worry about me,” Sequoia said coolly. “Just because I don’t kill anymore doesn’t mean that I’m going to let someone get killed. Even you.”

This brought Cypress up short. Even after bearing the brunt of Cypress’ contempt and hatred for years, Sequoia was still willing to show comradeship with a fellow soldier. Had he misjudged the man?

“All right, I’m in,” Cypress said after a few moments’ consideration. “It’s not like I have anything better to do here anyway.” He took a long pull on his drink.

# # #

Able Sequoia squinted in frustration as he tried to decipher the badly chipped and faded signage on the walls of the spaceport’s Gamma block. He had been wandering around the area for twenty minutes, trying in vain to find the hangar where Colonel Brookbine had instructed him and Jig Cypress to meet.

He spotted a service technician walking in the distance and whistled to catch his attention. “Hangar Gamma-Fifteen?” he called.

“Two rows down,” the technician waved casually to his left. “Fifth one in.”

Sequoia shouted his thanks and broke into a jog, turning down the row the technician had indicated. He blinked over to his retina clock and was relieved to see that he would still be a few minutes early. He didn’t want to disappoint his former—scratch that, his new—commanding officer at the outset of an assignment.

The fifth hangar was, if anything, more dilapidated than the ones around it, with one door hanging open crookedly and the other one missing altogether. At first he wasn’t sure he was at the right place, but he sensed body heat from within, and thanks to his acute vision, which spanned the infrared through the ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, he could see a dim glow emanating from inside and at least three people moving.

Colonel Brookbine spotted Sequoia as he entered the hangar, and walked over with his hand extended. “Thanks for coming,” Brookbine called, his voice echoing off the cavernous walls. Sequoia couldn’t help but notice that Cypress did not acknowledge his arrival, but was instead examining one of the ancient blockade runners parked in the hangar.

“Well, here they are,” said Brookbine, gesturing to the pair of oddly proportioned craft, each consisting of a quartet of oversized propulsors clustered around a small, lightly armored single-seat crew module high off the ground.

In the early days of the war against the Vortani, the nimble blockade runners had been the weapon of choice for penetrating deep behind enemy lines for scouting and intelligence gathering. But once the fighting had lost its initial momentum and ground itself into a slogging war of attrition, the Conglomerate traded the speed and maneuverability of the lightly armed blockade runners for the massive, brutish, heavily armed and armored multi-crew attack ships that pilots like Sequoia and Cypress had been bred to operate.

“The museum called,” Sequoia deadpanned. “They want their antiques back.”

“It just so happens that these two birds are in peak running condition,” Brookbine retorted. “I wouldn’t send you out in anything less.”

Cypress came over to where Brookbine and Sequoia were standing, wiping his hands on a rag. “Well, the fuel-line seals look intact, anyway,” he said, pointedly not making eye contact with Sequoia. “Those were always the first things to go on these old birds.”

“I know,” Brookbine said. “The previous owner threw in the mechanic as part of the deal.”

“Huh?”

Brookbine pointed to the top of one of the blockade runners, where a reedy young man in dirty green coveralls knelt on a servicing platform working on one of the propulsors. “Peter Juniper,” he said. “Once a promising young pilot until his twin was killed in a training accident. Managed to avoid getting sent to Rendios by signing on as a maintenance apprentice to a, shall we say, less than reputable cargo operation.” He whistled. “Hey, Juniper! He’s here!”

The young man looked down from his scaffolding and when he caught sight of Sequoia he quickly stood up and clattered down the stairs as fast as he could, then made a beeline for Sequoia.

“Able Sequoia, sir! It’s an honor to meet you! Peter Juniper at your service, sir.” His small hand disappeared into Sequoia’s paw as he shook it vigorously, to Sequoia’s barely concealed amusement.

“And this is Jig Cypress,” Brookbine said, completing the introductions. “Next to the Sequoia line, the Cypresses are the finest heavy armor pilots in the fleet.” Juniper and Cypress shook hands as well.

“Good,” Brookbine said “Now that we’ve gotten the introductions out of the way, let’s talk about the mission. Peter here has programmed the flight computers in both ships with a dynamic map of the asteroid belt. I’ve flagged the asteroids that look like candidates for a refueling base. I want you to go and do a fast fly-by of each one, scan for any artificial activity, and scoot back here. No combat, no heroics.”

“In these things?” Cypress scoffed.

“They’re armed,” Juniper said defensively. He pointed to the turrets perched below the crew modules, each sprouting a pair of slender blast cannon. “Two Mark 9s each. Cannibalized from a decommissioned Hedgehog.” Juniper’s pride was evident. Cypress nodded respectfully.

“Not that you’ll need them, if all goes according to plan,” Brookbine said.

“Plan or no plan, I won’t need them at all,” said Sequoia as he climbed up the ladder to peer into the cockpit of one of the ships.

Cypress tensed. “What does that mean?” he hissed to Brookbine.

“Don’t let that worry you,” Brookbine replied, putting his hand on Cypress’ shoulder. “You know he’s a fighter, bred and trained, just like you.”

“If I have to go into combat again, it’s bad enough that I’m going in with half a spirit, but with a wingman who won’t shoot . . . ” He shook his head. “Why don’t you just let me go alone?”

This time it was Brookbine who shook his head, vigorously. “I need you both out there.”

“Why are you so intent on getting him back into a cockpit? What’s so important about him?”

“It’s a long, long, story,” Brookbine said, softly. “For now, let’s just say that I owe it to him.”

“Well, what about me? What do you owe me, Colonel? An early death?”

“Who said anything about letting you get killed?” Sequoia said as he descended the ladder and walked toward the two men.

Cypress squared off with Sequoia. “Not like you haven’t done exactly that before, ” he said levelly.

Sequoia instinctively drew himself up to his full height and met Cypress’ glare.

“Or have you forgotten about what you did on Shalamand?”

Instinctively, Sequoia balled his fists and started to lean into a fighting stance.

“What’s this? Fists?” Cypress taunted expertly. “I thought you had renounced violence.”

Stop this!” Brookbine shouted, interposing himself between the two primed warriors. He glared in turn at each of them. Both men quickly ratcheted down as their programming to obey orders overcame their fighting instincts. “Save it for the mission! For the Vortani! Not for each other.”

Sequoia and Cypress each took a step back and forced themselves to relax. Sequoia nodded penitently.

“Now, you’ll find your gear in the lockers in the back of the hangar,” Brookbine said. “The ships are fueled and ready to launch. Get suited up so you can plug into the ships and get to know them.”

To get the best performance out of their pilots, the Conglomerate had perfected the technique of hard-wiring pilots into the central computers of the ships they flew, effectively turning the ships into extensions of their own bodies. While this had the effect of improving reaction times and control, it also had a more insidious, unpredicted side effect: the longer a pilot flew this way, the more they came to experience the stresses and strains — and damage — of combat as actual physical pain.

Practical experience had found that it was only the first seven clones of any given genetic line — the Ables through the Kings — that had the resilience to endure that kind of stress for the duration of a typical combat career. As a result, they were the elite of their lines. The further down the line, the less endurance each clone had. The Loves, Mikes, and Nans made reliable bomber, reconnaissance, and cargo pilots, but at the far end of the genetic line — the Uncles through the Zebras — those clones were considered useful only for the pack-infantry.

Sequoia and Cypress returned with their helmets and gear. Juniper followed Sequoia and helped him get seated and plugged in; Brookbine did the same for Cypress.

Once he donned his helmet and plugged into his ship, Cypress turned to Brookbine. “Like I said, I don’t have anything else to do,” he said with resignation. “So what does it matter if I get killed out there now instead of later?”

“Sequoia’s not going to let you get killed,” Brookbine said.

Cypress snorted derisively. “Set!” he shouted.

“Set!” Brookbine echoed, stepping back and closing the canopy. He quickly scrambled down the ladder and rolled it back from the ship as the four propulsors began to wind up, their combined roar filling the hangar.

Secure in his cockpit, Sequoia turned to look at Cypress’ ship and gave a thumb’s up sign. Hesitating a fraction of a second, Cypress gestured ahead: let’s go. The two ships hovered off their landing skids and began to move forward, kicking up dust as they glided along. Juniper and Brookbine followed alongside, watching for clearance and hand-signaling their paths out of the hangar.

Port lacked any semblance of a traffic control system; ships came and went as they pleased, doing their best to stay out of each others’ way as they did so. As soon as the two blockade runners were out of the hangar, their noses tilted up and they accelerated away into the grimy sky.

“What do you think they’re going to find out there?” Juniper asked Brookbine as the sounds of the engines quickly faded.

“If they’re lucky,” said Brookbine, watching the departing ships, “a reason to trust each other again.”

# # #

Stay tuned for Act III of Orphan Squadron: Out of the Darkness, right after these messages!

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Out of the Darkness – Act I

orphan-squadronIn the thirty-fifth century, the military breeds identical twins to serve as disposable space warriors. When a twin is killed in combat, the survivor is shipped off to a labor colony — or worse. They call these forgotten soldiers “orphans.”

But one man believes these discarded and broken men still have a purpose. Against orders, he has recruited the downtrodden . . . the forgotten . . . the hopeless . . . to fight again. And to lead them, he has chosen a legendary veteran who has vowed to kill no more.

With nothing left to lose, they take the missions that no one else wants — or dares. They are . . . the Orphan Squadron.

# # #

Rendios. Where some people go when they want to be forgotten. And where the rest end up when the Conglomerate wants to forget about them.

The main spaceport is the largest city on Rendios, only because no one wants to venture too far away from the steady supply of alcohol and psychotropics that flows through there. The city doesn’t even have a name; everyone just calls it “Port” — when they bother to call it anything at all. Port is squalid, dark, and in a state of perpetual collapse. Streets are little more than clearings between piles of debris, often marked by fire pits that burn constantly through the bleak nights and grim days, fueled by the bottomless reservoirs of petrochemicals that lie just beneath the planet’s greasy surface.

Down one of those streets, a tall, bald, muscular man strode through a crowd of lingering, aimless people whose clothes and skin had become permanently stained in the same drab earthtones as their surroundings. His clean-shaven head, his epauletted waistcoat and camouflaged cargo pants, and his self-assured stride signaled to the others that not only was he a serving military officer and newly arrived, but also that he wasn’t to be trifled with. 

He approached one of the younger men, seemingly oblivious to the suspicious glances being cast at his every move. In response to a question from the stranger, the man pointed resignedly down a side alley and shambled mutely on his way. The stranger nodded his thanks and continued on, turning the way the man had just indicated.

At the end of the alley squatted a large shack surrounded by personal vehicles of all sorts — motorcycles converted to run on the local petro-brew, surplus military uni-trucks fitted with oversize tires, and even a couple of ancient jet skimmers. A sign above the shack’s front door spelled out “THE GENE POOL.” The man walked confidently through the tangle of parked vehicles and pushed his way through the saloon-style doors. No one paid attention to the man, and he in turn paid attention to no one as he threaded his way to the bar and caught the bartender’s eye.

“I’m looking for Jig Cypress,” the man shouted over the din.

The bartender looked around the room and jutted his chin wordlessly over the man’s shoulder. The man turned around, spotting his objective at a barstool against the far wall, under a spluttering neon logo for some long-defunct beer brand. The man nodded at the bartender and headed over to the wall. Cypress turned as the man noisily dragged the empty barstool next to him and sat on it.

“Colonel Brookbine,” Cypress said after a moment of puzzlement, his icy blue eyes widening in recognition. “Who did you cross to end up here?”

Brookbine chuckled. “Nice to see you, Jig. I’m actually here by choice.”

Cypress gave a quick, derisive laugh. “You don’t strike me as the suicidal type.”

Brookbine let that pass. “I’m here on business.”

Cypress took a long pull from his mug, never taking his eyes off Brookbine. “What kind of business?” he finally asked.

“Recruiting.”

Cypress’ laugh was a combination of surprise and ruefulness. He slammed his muscular arm down on the narrow counter, jostling his stein. “Is that right?”

Brookbine nodded, his face a mask of seriousness. “I need the best pilots for a new squadron.”

Cypress picked up his stein and waved it around the smoke-filled room. “Look around, Colonel. You see any pilots here? Because I sure don’t.” He took another swig. “Just orphans,” he muttered into his stein.

Brookbine leaned close. “Look. I know the Conglomerate’s official line. ‘It’s more cost-effective to grow a new pair of fighters than to keep feeding a veteran who has lost his twin.’ I hear it all the time. It’s a waste of manpower and experience, neither of which we can afford at this stage of the war. But they won’t listen to me.”

Now it was Cypress’ turn to lean in close, fixing Brookbine with a piercing, knowing gaze. “This business you’re here on,” he said. “It’s not exactly official business, is it?”

Brookbine stared at his stein.

When Cypress spoke again, his voice was no longer that of a bellicose drunk. “You of all people know that genetic twins like me are bred to fight because we have a subconscious connection to each other. It’s like we are of a single mind. We can react to a threat dozens of times faster than you naturals. When we lose our twin, we don’t have that same connection anymore.”

Brookbine nodded. “But you do have the training, the experience, and the skills that can only come from a decade or more of front-line combat experience.”

“We’re also alone,” Cypress said, almost in a whisper. “Alone in a way that you naturals could never possibly understand.”

To that, Brookbine could only nod in sympathy. In order to prevent Cypress from sinking into despair, he changed direction.

“Look, just hear me out, OK? Meet me here tomorrow morning at zero-eight-hundred.”

“Why not just tell me now?”

“Because I’m going to ask your old buddy Able Sequoia to join us.”

Cypress slammed his stein on the counter, his eyes widening in an instinctive, wordless rage.

“Now hear me out…”

“Able Sequoia is a traitor!” Cypress bellowed, the energy nearly knocking Brookbine off his stool. “He got most of his squadron killed on Shalamand! And for what?

“You weren’t there!” Brookbine shouted back, jabbing his finger into Cypress’ massive chest before turning it on himself. “I was! And if that’s what you think happened, you have it all wrong. All of you.” He met Cypress’ glare, neither of them blinking.

“You heard that he renounced killing, right?” Cypress sneered. “Man’s bred to be a killer, then he gives it up. Not the kind of man you want leading a combat squadron, Colonel. Sounds pretty broken to me.”

“You and I both know he was the best pilot in the Conglomerate.”

“That was before he got his twin Baker and all his squadron mates killed.”

“I told you, that’s not what happened!”

“Yeah, well, pardon me if I’m having a little trouble believing you. Colonel.”

“What you choose to believe or not is none of my business. But finding Able Sequoia is. I’ve been asking around ever since I got here, but everyone I ask reacts like you did just now. And that’s not very helpful.” He said that last sentence with a rueful smile.

Slowly, Cypress defused from his confrontation. “He lives somewhere in the forest,” he said with weariness. “The wilderness to the west of Port. Spends all his time doing martial arts or something. No one talks to him when he comes into town, and he finally stopped trying to talk to anyone else. Just comes, gets supplies, and goes away.” Like he should, he telegraphed.

“Where?”

“About five pops due west. Just follow the Vertigon trail, then left when you get to the sulfur lake.”

Brookbine stood. “Thanks, Jig. It’s good to see you again.”

Cypress snorted. “Wish I could say the same.” He shrugged. “Circumstances, is all.”

Brookbine nodded sympathetically and extended his hand, which after a moment’s hesitation Cypress shook. “Think about it, will you? I could really use your help. I hear tell that everyone here respects you.”

“No promises.”

“That’s better than an outright ‘no,'” replied Brookbine with a faint smile. He slapped Brookbine on the shoulder and left. “Tomorrow at zero-eight-hundred.”

Jig Cypress took a long pull on his beer as he watched his former commanding officer disappear into the smoke and the crowd. Memories of their time in the field came back to him. Memories of the death of his twin, Item, and how Brookbine had talked him off the ledge following that final mission. Only for Cypress to be shipped off to Rendios without Brookbine’s knowledge. It was too much to hope that Brookbine was here again to offer him a new life. Every orphan knew that when their twin died, their own life was as good as over.

Or maybe not. 

Cypress shook his head. Of course this would never work. The Conglomerate would never allow it. Damn Colonel Brookbine for holding out a straw for him to clutch at. Because Brookbine knew that, no matter what else he felt, he probably would.

# # #

Colonel Brookbine picked his way carefully along the Vertigon Trail that led away from Port, in the direction of the rising pale-green sun on the backward-rotating world. The trail was too dangerous to walk at night. Not that it was safer during the day, but at least in the light you could see the threats coming.

The denizens of Rendios used the rough-hewn trail to reach the Vertigon methane fields and their abundant free fuel. Every few minutes, Brookbine passed another person going in the opposite direction, carrying or rolling every variation of pressure vessel imaginable. Some of the people he even recognized from past campaigns, but they stared right through Brookbine as they passed, lost in their own personal hells.

When Brookbine’s tracker alerted him that he had reached the five-pop mark, he began scrutinizing the dense thickets of tall, ancient trees for a path that would indicate the trail to Able Sequoia’s dwelling. Several hundred yards down the road, he spotted a break in the trees and a lightly worn path. Whoever made the trail tried hard to give it the appearance of a natural break in the tree line; Brookbine smiled at the obvious signs — to his experienced eyes, anyway — of a soldier trying hard to avoid being seen.

Finding no signs of either booby traps or surveillance devices, Brookbine stepped on the side trail and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness.

Careful to make no sound, Brookbine stepped around fallen branches and large seed pods that resembled fist-size pistachio shells as he followed the meandering trail. About a half-pop down the trail, Brookbine noticed the surroundings beginning to lighten up, and soon he found himself in a man-made clearing of treeless ground covered in knee-high grass that undulated gently in the refreshing breeze.

As he stood on the edge of the sunny field to cool himself from the steamy forest and looked around, Brookbine noticed an old heavy-duty cargo supply container near the center of the field. Like the path, the placement of the large metal box was meant to appear random, as if it had merely fallen off the loading deck of a passing freight shuttle. Brookbine nodded, confident he had found his destination, and set off toward the container.

As Brookbine came around to the side of the cargo container in search of the access hatch, he saw the back of a man sitting cross-legged in front of a fire pit. Even without seeing his face, Brookbine knew that this still, poised figure was the legendary Able Sequoia. Unlike many of the former soldiers and pilots that Brookbine had seen in Port, Sequoia looked like he was still in fighting shape; the dark-skinned arms emerging from the tattered combat vest were still muscular, and his head was still shaved bald, as he had always preferred.

“What are you doing here?” a deep, resonant voice said with infinite calmness. Sequoia didn’t even turn around to confront the intruder.

“I came to see an old friend,” replied Brookbine without missing a beat, not surprised that his comrade’s super-sensitive hearing was as good as ever.

In a smooth, calm motion, Sequoia stood and turned to face the intruder. Instinctively, he snapped to attention and saluted. “Colonel Brookbine, sir.”

Brookbine waved Sequoia’s arm down. “None of that. We’re off-duty.” He walked confidently toward Sequoia and extended his hand. “How are you, Able?”

Sequoia hesitated for a moment before accepting the handshake with a grateful grip. “It’s been a long time since anyone has offered to shake my hand, sir.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I don’t blame them,” Sequoia said with a hint of resignation. “I’ve heard the stories they tell about me. I’d feel the same way.”

He gestured in an arc, encompassing the cargo pod, fire pit, and field. “I’m sorry I don’t have much to offer in the way of hospitality. Don’t get many visitors, you know. Come on in, I have chairs inside.” Sequoia ushered Brookbine through the pod’s access hatch.

The pod was furnished with remnants and jury-rigged equipment, including an air conditioner rigged from a life-support system scrounged from a Type 4 fighter and fed by a knot of flex hose. Scavenged illuminating panels provided the light. Sequoia scrounged up two crates from a corner and offered one to Brookbine. The two men regarded each other in silence across a table made from an upside-down landing gear assembly. 

“I’ll get right to it,” Brookbine finally said, breaking the tense silence. “I’m here to offer you a squadron command.”

Sequoia’s neutral expression cracked in surprise, accompanied by a sharp exhalation. His dark eyes betrayed the confusion and disbelief he was suddenly feeling.

“I know it goes against everything,” Brookbine conceded. “But hear me out . . . ”

“No,” Sequoia said, emphatically, before adding, “. . . sir. I’m . . . I’m done, don’t you get it?” Brookbine could see Sequoia tensing up, the pent-up pain of the past two years flash-boiling to the surface again. “In case you haven’t heard, sir, I took a vow to never kill again. And now the Conglomerate wants me to fight for them again?”

“Not the Conglomerate,” Brookbine said. “Me.”

Sequoia stared at Brookbine in confusion.

# # #

Stay tuned for Act II of Orphan Squadron: Out of the Darkness, right after these messages!

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