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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