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Starsector 0.9.1a is out! (05/10/19); Blog post: Personal Contacts (08/13/20)

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Author Topic: Crossfire (ch.13 2017-10-24)  (Read 25998 times)


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Re: Crossfire (ch.7 & 8 2016-03-26)
« Reply #15 on: March 31, 2016, 05:00:56 AM »

Thank you for the encouraging words :D

Well, I'll keep working on this at the usual pace. Still need to work out some of the plot details for the next few chapters.


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Re: Crossfire (ch.9 2016-04-30)
« Reply #16 on: April 29, 2016, 11:02:38 PM »

Chapter 9: Cooldown

Artemis was turning away from the hospital bed when she saw Adela Sybitz by the ward entrance, leaning against the wall with what bore a suspicious resemblance to a smirk. The pirate waved, and the man on the bed waved awkwardly back after a moment of staring, trying to remember if he’d met this stranger before. Artemis just scowled.

Alas, her glare as she walked over didn’t serve to remove the younger woman’s smirk as she had hoped. Made it worse, in fact. “How long have you been there?” she said stiffly. “And are you following me?”

“Oh, not long.” Adela grinned. “Just in time to see you drop those flowers off for your boyfriend. As for your other question, I just heard you were here and decided to pay you a visit. As a friend, I mean.”

She opened the door and slipped out, and Artemis took her continuing to hold it open as a cue to follow. “He is not my boyfriend,” the captain said stiffly as they walked down the corridor.

“Really? I’d have thought you were into the dark, strong and handsome types. After Marenos, that is.” Her companion’s flat stare in response was water off a duck’s back to her. “Though perhaps you like them a bit older?”

Artemis raised a fist, and Adela brought her hands up. “Hey now, I’m just teasing. Besides, I think a nice lay would do you some good –” She narrowly dodged the right hook. “Okay, okay! You’re no fun at all. At least you seem physically unharmed.”

They looked at each other for a while, and Adela’s grin faded. “Seriously, I’m glad you’re alright. I heard it was pretty bad out there.”

Artemis looked away. “Yeah. It was.”

“What happened, actually? All I heard on the news was that the rebs hit the village while you were visiting and started shooting people at random.”

“We were there to showcase Nath – Ragunath Desai’s new gadget, a machine for turning cellulose into useful everyday products.” They were walking again now, with no particular destination in mind. “The rebels must have known we were coming; they were waiting in the woods, and came rushing in as soon as they got most of us in one place. So far as we can tell, they didn’t want to kill the villagers; they were after the rest of us, the visitors.”

“So they were targeting the Longian government officials, and the foreigners. Yourself included.”

“Yeah.” Her face tightened. “It didn’t matter that we were there to help the people. We were part of the enemy, and therefore to be destroyed.”

Adela gave her a look, but didn’t speak whatever was on her mind. “It seems you were lucky to survive,” she said instead.

The older woman shrugged. “Luck, yes, but I also had a fair bit of help. One of the soldiers survived the opening fusilade, and with his help I managed to get Nath to the shelter of a nearby barn. The other guy didn’t make it, though.” Cyan eyes closed for just a moment. “I almost died to a rebel coming from the other direction, but the village head got him. I guess not all the locals believe the rebs speak for them.” This time, she grinned. “Seriously, you should’ve seen the old biddy.

“‘Course, it wouldn’t have mattered even then. We were surrounded, outnumbered, and with no relief in sight. I certainly never would have imagined that a gunship would show up at the last moment and blow the attackers away. If they hadn’t been on that training exercise there and then...”

“You lead a charmed life, AA.” She smirked. “You know that, don’t you?”

They emerged onto a rooftop garden, green grass and shrubs spilling outwards in all directions. Several people milled about – patients, hospital guests, staff, engaging in conversation, getting some fresh air or just basking in the midday sun. Artemis walked over to a nearby oak tree, leaning on it with one arm.

“They had a tree in the park like this near where I grew up, you know.” She looked up, the sunlight warm on her face as it streamed to the trees. “I used to have fights with a bunch of boys in the neighbourhood, so one day I hid a bag of rocks up there. The next time I met them, I lured them to the tree, then climbed up to my stash and started pelting them from up high. That was the only time my mother ever spanked me.”

She reached for the lowest branch, the bark rough under her hands, and hoisted herself up into the foliage. “Say, Adela. Have you ever wondered why trees grow so high?”

“To keep herbivores from munching on them, I’d guess.”

“Sure.” Artemis turned around, seated several meters up, and looked down at her sort-of-friend. “But you only need to be so tall for that. Most animals aren’t Old Earth giraffes.”

“Why, then?”

“To shade out their neighbours. Or, even if they don’t want to do that, they need to be tall enough to keep others from doing it to them.” She shook her head. “Of course, when they’re competing like this… the taller everyone gets, the taller they need to be still. So much energy, so many resources, all going into a needless race.”

Adela smiled thinly. “If only trees could talk to each other, then. Then they could all agree to only grow so high and no more.”

“They could. But the one who tries to get everyone to do that might just be planning to get rid of the competition.”

“Or secretly a browser looking for an easy meal.”

“Yeah.” Artemis looked up at the sky, feeling the wind rustle her copper hair and the leaves around her. “Think we’ll find a better way?”

The light overhead flickered slightly, but Gilbert Trung paid it no heed, his attention focused on the map render on the large wooden table before him. Nor did he take notice of the slight squeaking of the almost anachronistic ceiling fan, or the sounds of the few other people moving about in the underground chamber. Such things were but part and parcel of the base they’d set up thirty kilometers from Hue, and he had long grown accustomed to them; it would have been more disconcerting if they were to disappear, in fact.

He looked up only when Dinh Thi Huyen came through a side door. “How did it go?”

She started to say something, but then another person entered, and she just barely avoided glaring at him. The buff, hooded figure gave her only a quick glance before walking to the other end of the room and going through a set of double doors, disappearing as quickly as he had come.

“Should he be having free run of our base?” Huyen said tartly.

“He doesn’t. I just let him supervise the men training with the new weapons he brought.” The quasi-NCO looked sourly at Trung, and he sighed. “Come now. You know as well as I do that it is his contributions that will allow us to restore Longia’s freedom and equality. Or would you rather we continue flea bites like today’s op for a decade or two?”

She scowled at that. “No. But that doesn’t mean I have to like him. Or trust him. Or do you believe an outsider of his means cares anything for our cause?”

“I’m not asking you to like or trust him, Huyen,” he said patiently, resting his hands on the tabletop. “Nor am I under any illusion that his interests bear any particular relation to ours. But if we decline his aid, we remain relegated to the sidelines, and then it won’t matter whether our interests conflict. And now, I’ll point out that you haven’t answered my question.”

With a sigh: “Could be worse.” She ran a tense hand through her hair; a couple of grey strands came free with it, and she threw them aside. “They’re still rather shaken; we’ll need an easy mission or two to restore morale.” That the fiasco they’d ran into was supposed to have been one of those “easy” missions, she did not mention; they both knew that already.


“Rua tried to stop them, you know.” She pulled back a wooden chair and dropped heavily into it, seated at right angles to her CO. “They wouldn’t listen. Let their rage get the better of them, after the losses they’d taken. Well, running up more losses sure helped there, didn’t it?”

Her fist struck the table, sending everything on it bouncing up in the air. “Those dolts! Even if that gunship hadn’t showed up, what did they think was gonna happen? Trying to rush an entrenched enemy who’d already proven she could kill them quite effectively? If they’d spent three seconds thinking instead of raging, they’d have figured out what a five-year old could have told them: two of three of us for one of them makes no sense. None! The’d already accomplished their mission; if they’d just pulled back then, we’d have sent a message instead of an opportunity for their propaganda heads to crow about the ‘defeat’ we’ve been handed!”

“It’s not a complete loss,” Trung pointed out mildly, and Huyen snorted. That was one way to describe eight of twelve men KIA, alright. Especially when the enemy only had three regular combatants and one armed civilian at the time of the attack. “An irritating setback, yes. But in a few months – on the outside – we won’t even be bothering with such little pinpricks any longer.”


She leaned back in her seat, looking up at the ceiling, and exhaled slowly. “She was there, you know. Artemis Archer. In fact, she was the one who stalled our assault till the gunship showed up.”

Trung’s lips twitched in something that seemingly couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a smirk or a scowl. “Ah, yes, her. The foreign woman who puts on our clothes and pretends to be our friend.”

“I’ll be frank – I don’t like having her here on Longia.” Huyen frowned. “With all the public appearances she’s making, we should have ample opportunity to kill her. Put an end to her deceitful charms.”

There were two prongs to the outworlders’ strategy. One was the iron fist represented most starkly by the Hegemony fleet in orbit around the planet, ready to drop the hammer on anyone who stood against their puppets. The other, and in many ways the more dangerous, was the temptations of comfort and prosperity offered by Archer and her kind. And while the people would bravely stand against the guns and armor of an invading army, even the best of them could be seduced into accepting the false friendship of the League’s charming ambassador.

“An opportunity like the one we had this morning, you mean?”

The old soldier reddenned slightly, but didn’t back down. “She took us by surprise this time. We didn’t know she’d be specifically present, or that she’d be that good in a gunfight.” There was a hint of grudging respect in her tone; Artemis Archer was one of the enemy, and Huyen wouldn’t have hesitated to slit her throat, but neither would she falsely deny the younger woman’s courage. “I’ll lead the op myself if I have to.”

“No.” He shook his head. “The same thing that makes her such a threat to us is also the reason we can’t kill her. If we do, we kill a philanthropist, a benefactor of the people… we make a martyr, a saint.” Again that not-a-smirk, not-a-scowl, and then he lifted his hands off the table briefly. “We’ll just have to match our ideas to hers. I’ll have a chat with Zhou later; it’d be good to circulate a few reminders that the League isn’t the benevolent force it makes itself out to be.”

“That’ll have to do, I guess.” She pushed the chair back and stood up. “Well, I’ll let you worry about that, while I focus on the things I can deal with. I’ll be inspecting that last gun shipment if anyone needs me.”

“What’s up, Doc?” Adela said with a grin as she stepped on to the Dead Reckoning’s bridge.

“I’ve reviewed the job postings on offer that meet our requirements, Mistress Adela,” the AI said. “I’ve highlighted one of particular interest for your attention; it is easily the most lucrative of the missions on offer, and should be significantly less dangerous than our last assignment.”

“Like what?” Dragunova snapped. “A raid on Tri-Tachyon headquarters? Hunting IBB bounties?”

“We’re practically an IBB bounty ourselves,” Adela murmured. “The only thing we’re missing is a unique ship.”

Sequeira looked up from his tablet, his bronze face a couple of shades paler than usual. “Actually… we might have one, in the near future. Blackrock’s discontinued the current model Desdinova in favor of a heavier, beefier version. Doc here could be an even rarer specimen than now in just a few cycles.”

Both women stared at him for a while, then the skipper shook her head. “Well, that’s out of our control, and we hopefully won’t have to worry about it for a good while anyway. So what’s the job like, Doc?”

“A simple courier mission, and relatively quick. We only need to take a few canisters of harvested organs to Parameswara, 21.7 light years away, then bring back a secured data storage unit. It should not require over fifteen days to complete the round trip.”

“Alright, then. Set up a comm with the dealer, and we’ll see if we can get the shipment loaded by midnight.” She put on her most winsome face. “Let’s see how big of an early delivery bonus I can fleece out of them this time.”
« Last Edit: May 30, 2016, 06:17:56 AM by Histidine »


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Re: Crossfire (ch.9 2016-04-30)
« Reply #17 on: April 12, 2017, 03:46:35 PM »

New Chapter?

I know it might be necro, but it helps if we know if this story is dead or not.
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Re: Crossfire (ch.9 2016-04-30)
« Reply #18 on: April 13, 2017, 06:31:04 AM »

I had writer's block/I-don't-wanna-work-on-this for the longest time. It's actually gone now, but I can't say how long that'll last.
I should have two new chapters ready in a few weeks at least.


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Re: Crossfire (ch.9 2016-04-30)
« Reply #19 on: July 14, 2017, 10:36:55 PM »

Necro or not, is there a possibility that this gets continued? Or is it already getting written? Just curious.
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Re: Crossfire (ch.10 & 11 2017-07-24)
« Reply #20 on: July 24, 2017, 04:33:53 AM »

Nearly 15 months since the last update. Alex's got nothing on me for delayed releases, ha!


Chapter 10: Tension
Ugh, I hate giving speeches.

But Artemis gave no outward sign of that thought as she stood on the podium, addressing the crowd that had come to attend the ribbon cutting for the new genetic clinic downtown. With thousands of eyes on her, she recited the myriad benefits the facility would bring to the people of Hue and gave a (mercifully brief) paean to the everlasting friendship between the Perseans and the Longians. Only twice did she have to give her holoprompter a surreptitious glance.

It’s really not that bad. Just smile a lot and give the usual platitudes.

It’s hot out here. There’s no wind at all. I don’t think these crowd humidifiers even work. And my feet are starting to hurt.

At least you didn’t have to dress up like some fancy foreign princess like back at that ball. Now quit your whining.

But –

Do your duty, Captain!

She was just winding up her speech when something shifted in the crowd. A middle-aged man was pushing his way to the front, half-bald scalp shiny under the pre-noon sun, oblivious to the dark glares people were giving him as he elbowed them aside. Artemis sensed the police officers behind her tensing, stepping forward, ready to draw weapons.

The man reached the front of that surf of people, and she saw the compact hand megaphone in the fist he raised in front of his face. “Liar!” his amplified voice reached out in all directions. “Con woman! Seducer!”

Artemis reached out sideways with one arm, stopping the cop advancing on the heckler with baton in hand. “Let me handle this, officer.” Facing the other man, she let the microphone on the lectern catch her calm soprano: “You, sir, what is your grievance with me? Why do you hurl such epithets?”

“Your silk tongue doesn’t fool me, Persean!” he roared. “You speak of our friendship, when all you see is how to use us for your own benefit! How to adorn the mansions of your politicians and your magnates with the wealth of Longia! Do you deny it? Do you want to tell us again about how your mighty League is helping us poor, humble people out of the goodness of your hearts?”

Okay, wise woman, she said tartly to that annoying mental voice. How do we deal with this?

The same way you captain your ship, the reply came instantly. Don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Get to the heart of the matter. Remember that this isn’t an academic debate; this is an impassioned plea by a man with strong feelings and not necessarily articulated thoughts. ...Or he could be a provocateur, but let’s not worry about that now. Anyway, you know what to do.

She took a moment to gather her thoughts, the hardwood of the lectern warm under her hands, before speaking again. “It is true that we have our own interests in mind in our interactions with the people of Longia.” She placed a fist on her sternum. “Do you do otherwise, in your own daily life? Surely you do not wholly neglect your own needs and wants in your dealings with others, even those close to you. Yet that does not mean that you do mistreat those you interact with, or that you fail to take into account their own needs and desires.

“Now, I speak of how good people – such as yourself, I believe – act towards each other. Certainly, there are many in positions of power, people in the government and the business community, who are only looking out for themselves. Some of them are even from the League.” A ripple of chuckles spread out across the crowd, and she smiled even as the man scowled. “But that does not mean you cannot gain from dealings with them. All you need do is ensure that their interests match yours, that they can earn their profits only by bettering your lives. And if your interests and theirs should diverge again, you need only speak up. Make your voice heard to your representatives, as the people of Longia.” She waved an arm over the crowd. “That’s you. All of you.”

She could feel the murmurs of approval rumbling through her. But the heckler wasn’t done. “Will of the people, is it?” he all but sneered. “Like the will expressed by the people of Mazalot?”

Mazalot. Everyone in the Sector had heard that name. It wasn’t something the League as a society liked to talk about even now, but Phoebe Archer had chaired the Senate committee inquiring into the whole botched matter after the Battle of the Coral Nebula, and she hadn’t minced words when retelling the story to her daughter and later her granddaughter.

“That’s right,” he said, teeth bared. “Your precious League did nothing for them while they were under the boot of your puppet government, but when they refused to pay your bloody tribute, you crushed them under your heel. That for your precious commonality of interest.”

She spread her arms. “I admit, Mazalot was poorly handled by the Persean government. But the reason things went wrong there to begin with is also the reason you need not fear us. For good or ill, the League does dictate the domestic politics of its members, or its allies. Sometimes this leads to tragic errors, or tyranny, as happened in the Zagan system. But it also keeps the established powers from running roughshod over the common people, like yourself.”

Nice spin, AA. So long as he doesn’t think to ask why we admitted them into the League in the first place.

Shut up.

“One of the lessons of humanity’s history,” she went on, “is that even with the best of intentions, nation-states can easily worsen their neighbors’ already-bad situations by meddling in their internal affairs. And when it comes to the wars of great powers, good intentions are scarce indeed. That is why, when the founders wrote the Charter of Perseus, they defined the League’s powers so that it presents a single face to the rest of the Sector, but can never dictate the organisation of its members’ societies. And that is why,” she spread her arms, “those who do not take up arms against us need never fear us.”

The audience seemed to like that. Some even clapped. Artemis gave the man who’d confronted her a polite nod, and he scowled back, and started to say something

An explosion roared in the distance, and suddenly no-one was interested in the conversation any longer.

Artemis spent two minutes calming the crowd, and made it a point to step down from the podium in a relaxed manner instead of scurrying off to see what had happened. But as soon as she was out of sight, she wheedled the source of the explosion out of one of the cops, then ran off in that direction as swiftly as dignity would permit. The man who’d challenged her had disappeared into the crowd again, but she had no time to worry about him.

Three blocks away, another crowd had gathered. She made her way between the gawkers to find a hastily deployed police cordon, a line of officers – at least two of whom were clearly paramilitary types – keeping civilians away from the scene of the crime.

The crime itself was readily visible: a ground car blown up, reduced to a mangled, immolated ruin. Two bodies were lying in pools of blood on the sidewalk, and paramedics were loading another person into an ambulance, but at least all three of them had kept all their limbs. The same could not be said for whoever had been inside the car.

Lost his limbs? Say better: the limbs were now just a few of many bloody chunks scattered about. One bloody, mildly charred arm rested not four meters away, hurled away by the explosion, leaving messy splotches where it landed. More bits of flesh were spread out in an arc away from the wreckage, the air thick with their burnt reek. Then – nothing.

Artemis had seen enough bloodshed – inflicted enough bloodshed – that she barely had to fight down her gag reflex. But her face was still stiff as she stared at the newly arrived forensic team starting their macabre work.

One of the officers in front of her coughed. “You should head back, ma’am. There’s nothing to see here, and the terrorists who did this may still be around.”


“It could be.” The scowl on his face made it clear he’d be perfectly willing to suspect the Resistance Front if his wife left him and his phone battery died. “On the other hand, it could be a freelance type. We’ve been seeing more of those lately, as the LRF steps up its propaganda campaign. Not everyone here approves of the deals with you foreigners, particularly the Hegemony military.” He paused for a while. “You League corporate types aren’t that welcome either, come to think of it.”

That much wasn’t news to her, certainly not after today, but it still hurt to have it spelled out by a random cop. At least the League was probably winning the contest, insofar as it was desirable to call it a contest in the first place.

Regardless, there was nothing for her to do here, so she nodded politely to the other guy. “Keep up the good work, officer.” He returned the nod, and she turned her back on the ghastly scene.

As she made her way through the ever-thicker throng of onlookers, a dark thought came to her. That car bomb could just as easily have been aimed for her event – a van plowing through the screaming crowds, detonating at the end of its run, blasting so many bodies into blood-soaked offal… the celebration of the new clinic turned into a day of nightmares…

Despite the afternoon heat, she shivered, pulling her cardigan in close.

Moonlight – and the man-made glow of the never-sleeping metropolis – streamed in through the window as Artemis sat on her hotel bed, browsing the local net. As expected of a terrorist attack, the car bombing today was all over the news, despite the low body count. Her own clinic opening ceremony was barely even noticed.

Comments were piling up on news sites and social networks alike. Most of them expressed condolences for the victims, condemnation of the perpetrators, or both. But while no-one apparently was willing to go quite as far as praising the attack, there were more than a few insinuating that the target – a controversial undersecretary in the Ministry of the Interior – kind of deserved it. With official figures and media talking heads alike placing the blame on the LRF (although no-one had claimed responsibility as of yet), this naturally led to the pundits segueing into a broader argument between two sides: those who approved of the government and its offworlder friends, and those who did not.

Artemis was skimming through one such “discussion” when one particular post caught her eye. She read it twice, then spent a dozen or so minutes searching and doing more reading, then opened her messaging client and contacted Ambassador Yoshida.

<Hello, Ambassador> She almost typed “may I ask a question?”, but deleted that foolishness before sending it. <Do you have a moment?> was far more precise and sensible for the opening pleasantries.

<Yes, what is it?>

<Is there any truth to this?> “This” was a link to a news article – in a fairly reputable publication, at that – claiming that the League had quietly put large sums of money into a bank account of President Cong, with some impressive-looking transaction documents to show for it. If true… well, the thought that the suits back on Kazeron were bribing foreign heads of government sat poorly with Captain Artemis Archer, to say the least.

<Not at all>, the reply came quickly. <The individual documents are genuine, but the connection between them insinuated does not actually exist. And I can categorically state that we are not bribing President Cong.>

Artemis stared at her holo-display for a few moments. Perhaps she should have gone ahead and requested an A/V feed; text chat just plain didn’t work for telling if someone was hiding something.

<alright | But what’s with the 5k credits going to the Kinh Democracy Institute?>

There was an extended pause, and Artemis felt her suspicions rise. <The Foreign Affairs Department does sponsor the KDI, yes.> the reply came after a while. <It is part of our efforts to promote Longia’s social and political transition after the civil war.>

Promote transition, she thought sourly. That’s a nice shorthand for “shape smaller polities in the League’s very expensive mold.” Not that she had any great dislike of this mold – on balance, she quite approved of it – but somehow the thought of applying it through the application of copious amounts of credits instead of reason and an honest sales pitch seemed… distasteful. And worse, actively self-defeating.

She said as much.

Yoshida responded with the expected platitudes on the goodness and the useful functions served by providing a pro-democracy think tank with much-needed funding for their work. It wasn’t as if they were paying any partisan entities or officials of any kind, after all.

Perhaps it was a good thing that she didn’t ask for an A/V conversation after all, in light of her histrionic sigh.

<Well, you’ve answered my question> she typed after a while. <Sorry for being a bother at this late hour>

<It’s alright.> Neither of them was really fooled by the exchange, but Yoshida was an experienced diplomat, and Artemis was fast becoming one; they both knew how to pretend. <Given your role here in Kinh, the embassy is always at your disposal.>

One exchange of pleasantries later, Artemis signed off with another sigh. Maybe she should have kicked up a bigger fuss, but it didn’t seem worthwhile and she expected she’d have bigger things that would need her social capital soon enough. It was time for bed, anyway.

Chapter 11: Trainer
Well, at least they’re finally here, Commander Ross Diamond of the Persean League Navy muttered in his mind as the docking tube connected with his shiny new ship. About time, too.

The PLS Michel Souris was but a humble Hammerhead-class destroyer, but he was also the flagship of the little League picket in the Kinh system (all three ships of it, and the other two were frigates), and his crew were expecting to put on a good show at the joint fleet exercise starting in just two hours. Which meant Diamond would much rather be preparing for that instead of standing here in the docking bay waiting for his uninvited guest. Like I need some random diplomatic corps sycophant looking over my shoulder for this, anyway!

Then the tall, copper-haired woman in the deep blue uniform jumped gracefully through the boarding tube, and his jaw dropped. He hastily secured it, then – even more hastily – mentally retracted every derogatory comment he’d made or thought about his hitherto-unknown visitor.

“Permission to come aboard, Commander?” Captain Artemis Archer asked, just the tiniest hint of a smile on her face.

“Permission granted, uh, ma’am!” He saluted sharply, and she returned it. “I, um, didn’t expect you to be the observer from the embassy.”

“Let’s just say I got bored dirtside.” She gave the bay a cursory inspection; it looked clean and well-maintained, and the side party was sharp. She gave it a small nod of Unofficial Approval, then returned her attention to the ship’s CO. “Seems like you’re doing quite well for yourself here, Ross. I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do in the upcoming sim.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He’d regained his composure by now, and managed to look the part of the admirably grave starship captain. If you’ll come this way, Captain, I’d be pleased to introduce you to Captain Manatos and my officers.”

To the external observer, the Persean and Longian ships were in a quiet parking orbit around the planet, the external lights and the IR emissions of idling reactors being the only clue that anyone was even alive up there. To the crew inside the ships, however – the ones connected to the sim system, at least – they were at battle stations, arrayed in an impressively martial formation, ready to take the fight to the Enemy.

Of course, to half of them the enemy was the other half, but that was a given.

“They look orderly, at least,” Artemis commented, examining the primary display on the Souris’s bridge. She looked at the two men standing next to her, studying the same plot. “You two don’t look so confident.”

“Well.” Captain Manatos squeezed his dark, bushy jowls with one large hand, then waved it at the angry red swarm of icons representing a pirate armada. “If these were all our League boys, I’d back them against half again, maybe even twice the number of pirate scum we’re facing here. But these Longian boys… they’re competent enough, but real green.” He thought for a while. “Many of them, anyway. Some of them are the most hard-boiled motherless bástardos I’ve ever had the questionable pleasure to meet.”

“And most of those are with the OPFOR,” Diamond added. “I just hope Admiral Binh keeps our chaps on a short leash.”

Artemis took a moment to review the order of battle. For the purposes of the sim, Souris had been upgraded to a Vulture-class cruiser, bristling with Hornet pods and HVDs. And the flagship was bigger still: a Vindicator-class cruiser, massive Gungnir cannons ready to stand off and blast any opponent into so much scrap. None of the enemy ships were remotely as impressive on an individual level… but there sure were a lot of them.

“I’m curious,” she said after a while. “Do the Longians expect to face – or field – forces of this size? It’s not something most systems in this part of the Sector can afford.”

Diamond nodded. “They’re running scared, chief. You heard about that encounter at the Trinh L4 trojans?”

Artemis made a face. “Yeah.” That incident had involved a reconnaissance-in-force for rebel activity near a suspected transshipment and storage point, said to include a weapons cache packed to the gills with needlers and heavy mortars.

That cache had been there, alright. So had three frigates, a Sunder-class destroyer and a Drover-class carrier, all carefully concealed. They’d been detected before the trap could be fully sprung, and the Longian CO had demonstrated exceptional skill in reacting to the ambush, but he’d still lost two frigates outright, and his shiny new Archon flagship (a gift courtesy of Kazeron) was so badly damaged the League Navy would have seriously contemplated simply decommissioning it rather than attempting to return it to service.

“Yeah, indeed,” the ship’s blonde commander muttered. “Nobody quite knows where the rebs got that kind of space firepower, but they definitely know they want a lot more ships of their own. In the meantime, we get to stiffen their spines a bit.” Scowling: “I hate that stuff. Never ends well for anyone involved.”

The first OPFOR move consisted of the bulk of their frigate strength, padded out with a few destroyers, approaching the defenders in an encirclement formation. Cautiously, almost timidly, as if they were afraid of something.

The allied phalanx stood them off, long-range ballistic fire keeping them at bay. The Souris neutralized one Sidecar at range, pinpoint HVD fire scoring enough hits even against the small, evading target to batter down its shields for a swarm of Hornets to tear into the thin armor and fragile hull, and began pounding a Lasher even before the debris had cooled.

As if recognizing the futility of their tactics, the pirates began falling back. In two different directions.

The allied force advanced. The pirates retreated.

The allied force advanced. The pirates retreated.

“I don’t like this,” Diamond said to no-one in particular. “This is just a little too easy.”

“Because they keep falling back and not committing their main force?” Captain Manatos asked from the division CO’s seat behind him.

“Kinda. Mostly, though, I’ve just become cynical.” He sighed. “Nothing in my life is ever this easy.”

“The lead elements are outpacing our main force. And they’re too far apart for us to support both at once. Get the admiral on the horn and tell him to rein them in.”

“Negative, sir,” the young lieutenant at the comm console said nervously. “We’ve just suffered a comm transmitter failure.”


My, my. Artemis suppressed an incipient grin. I wonder who did what to *** the umpires off?

She had her own ideas on what to do now, but kept them to herself. She was a spectator here, and Ross – and Manatos – didn’t need her jogging their elbows. It wouldn’t be hers to deal with when the other shoe dropped.

...right about…

The allied comm channel descended into pandemonium as multiple Sharks and Boars bore in on both prongs of the fork. Autocannon and assault gun fire poured into the fleet from knife range, and Mongrel-class gunboats added their own heavy ballistics and missile volleys to the mix. Their lack of shielding was no liability at all when their targets could barely even defend themselves, much less attempt to return fire.

Artemis watched expressionlessly as the green icons vanished one by one from the display, the crude pirate ships pounding their more sophisticated opponents into so much scrap metal. It was just as well that this was an exercise and the voices being abruptly cut off were cries of outrage, not the screams of the dead.

“Well,” Manatos said, staring at the plot speckled with the grey of dead ships and the indicators showing the enemy’s new two-to-one advantage. “Well.”

Thi Chính and allied ships are advancing on the starboard force, captain,” Diamond said. “Falling into formation.”

Good decision. But it’s likely too little, too late. I’ll be impressed if we can kill a third of them before their buddies swarm us under.

She watched silently as the Souris’s HVDs opened up again, uranium penetrators punching deep into thinly armored frigate hulls. A Boar got in the way and received an ion beam to the face for its troubles, before its captain hastily decided that it was better to take the hits on the shield.

That kept the worst of the danger away for a while, till the LPS Thi Chính cut loose with a volley of Squall missiles and the massive Gungnir Cannon. Caught between so many threat types at once, the pirate skipper was paralyzed into indecision – and an overload. High-explosive submunitions slammed into the destroyer’s bow like wet-navy grapeshot, but with far greater effect, rending and gouging the armor like so much papier-mâché.

As the cruisers reduced their target to a scorched hulk and turned their attention to their next foe, their lesser consorts plunged headlong into the melee, avenging their fallen allies. Shells, photons, energy bolts and missiles streaked in seemingly all directions as the opposing forces sank claws and teeth into each other.

The defence fleet was clearly gaining the upper hand, hostile after hostile disabled or destroyed in a withering hail of fire and a pyrotechnic display of explosions. But they were taking losses, too, and most of the survivors had cratered armor and bare missile racks.

“Enemy reinforcements enter engagement range in fifteen seconds,” the tactical officer called out, in the tone of one who already knows they are doomed.

“Joy,” Manatos muttered. “Regroup and vent. We’ll take as many of them with us as we can.”

“Fighter squadrons, two-eight-six high. There’s a Venom with them.”

Diamond looked at the red icons zipping past on the tactical display. Then tightened a fist on an armrest as the swarm banked sharply to port and came boring down on his command. Artemis suspected his thoughts matched her own: What’s it doing?

“I don’t like this, Captain,” he said. “We could probably take them with our own escorts and the drones, but they’ve got to know that. And why’s the frigate apparently not using all its engines?”

“A no doubt interesting question, commander, but I don’t see what trick they can pull that would lead them to accomplish anything.” Manatos jabbed a finger in the direction of the bow, even knowing Diamond couldn’t see him. “The threat we need to worry about is right in front of us.”

“That may be so, but –”

“Fighters entering engagement envelope, skipper,” the tactical officer announced. “Vectoring drones to – son of a – !”

The OPFOR ship did a barrel roll, shedding the blocky side “pods” that had concealed its true identity. Not a Venom, a simple combat freighter and an unremarkable specimen of the breed at that; a Venom-X, bane of the spaceways, as far removed from the ordinary pirate frigate as a direwolf from a Chihuahua.

Diamond lurched forward in his seat. “Kill it! Now!”

The Souris yawed frantically, bringing his HVDs to bear on the new threat, but the frigate sidestepped the kinetic volleys with contemptuous ease. Only one round even struck its target, doing little damage beyond a clipped wing, and the ship drove headlong through interceptors and defense drones, trusting in its own fighter escorts and the blue glow of its temporal shell to see it through.

Ordinarily this move was suicidal even for such a nimble frigate, something better suited to those still referred to as kamikaze pilots than anything else outside of the cockiest fighter jock’s dreams. But the time dilation turned it into something that was all too likely to succeed, and Diamond cursed as the Venom-X did a split-S and dropped behind what was normally one of the Sector’s nimbler ships – for its size, at least – yet now felt ponderous as an old Earth hippopotamus.

A single Reaper-class torpedo was thrown forward, sliding into the gap in the Vulture’s shield and turning his engines into an uncontrolled, directionless fusion torch. A stream of heavy MG rounds punched through the thin walls of the now-exposed engine shafts, perforating optronics, fuel tanks, and flux capacitors alike, leaving the larger ship immobilized and pointing in the wrong direction.

It took a painful 37.2 seconds after the pirate frigate broke away, using the last of its shell charge, for the Souris to vanish in a boil of plasma. The Thi Chính followed 16.9 seconds later.

In comparison, the destruction of the rest of the allied fleet was an afterthought..

“I hate my life,” Diamond muttered as he slumped onto a couch in the officer’s lounge on Thành – the Citadel, headquarters for the Longian People’s Navy. “I haven’t felt this much of a failure since… well, that time you chewed me out on the Marenos tour, captain.” Captain here being Artemis Archer, not Sabbas Manatos.

“Wasn’t your fault, Ross,” Artemis said in her most reassuring tone. With just the teeniest bit of false modesty: “Even I didn’t anticipate that trick.”

“‘Not my fault’,” the commander mimicked sourly. “I think the phrase you want is ‘no excuses, ma’am.’ You’d be the first to tell me that, if you were still my CO.”

“Well, if you think we’ve got egg on our faces, imagine how Binh must feel,” Manatos put in. “It’s probably just as well they didn’t have any swords around, or he’d have fallen on one by the end of the debrief.”

Artemis winced in sympathetic reflex. To his credit, the Longian admiral had pulled no punches on his failures in the exercise, and most of his subordinates had taken their cue from him. In her role as semi-official observer, Artemis had offered some pointers and commentary of her own, and when they were done most of the officers looked eager to have another go. She even let herself hope that they’d remember, on average, a full third of the Lessons Learned today. At least a quarter.

The hatch opened, and the three of them looked up at the sharp-faced figure in the grey service dress entering. “Hey, that’s Commander Can,” Diamond said, a bit surprised with himself for not referring to the man – even mentally – as ‘that jerk who wrecked my ship with his cowardly sneaky backstabbing’. “Commander?”

The man stopped on his way past their table, and Diamond stood up and offered a handshake. “I didn’t get the chance to congratulate you on that feat you pulled off earlier. It’s not often I get a humbling experience like that.”

Can looked at the offered hand, then at the three League officers, and nodded curtly before walking away. Diamond and his companions stared after him, a full three seconds passing before it occurred to him to stop gaping at the shocking breach of basic etiquette.

“Not very friendly, is he?” Manatos muttered.
« Last Edit: August 18, 2018, 04:57:33 AM by Histidine »


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Re: Crossfire (ch.12 2017-09-09)
« Reply #21 on: September 09, 2017, 02:11:50 AM »

Chapter 12: Standoff
Arnaud Bennett watched silently as the two hired thugs tossed the corpse of the truck driver into the organic waste bin in the night-shrouded back alley. They made sure to shift the contents around so the blood-splattered body was covered in a thin layer of detritus. Good. They could follow simple instructions, at least.

That task done, the goons started the task of loading the crates of modified methane cylinders into the delivery truck the dead man no longer needed. These things remained a favourite of campers and other such people going off the grid: cheap and able to stand up to abuse, they provided a compact, relatively lightweight source of fuel for heating and lighting wherever the high-density power cells favored by core worlders were not available.

Bennett wasn’t going camping.

He didn’t bother looking back at the bin. By the time anyone found the body, the people involved would be long gone. Just the victim of a botched robbery, although they might wonder what happened to the truck. And before the murder investigation could get anywhere, well, the police would have much bigger problems to worry about.

They’d finished loading in a couple of minutes, and Bennett tossed the driver’s mobile to the nearer of the two thugs. “A reward for a job well done,” he said. “I’ll let you figure out how to split it between the two of you.”

They grinned with undisguised avarice. Bennett left his face expressionless; time enough to tie up that loose end later. “Now, get in the truck. We have a delivery to make.”

The scrawny, bespectacled man named Ngan made sure to knock twice on the unmarked door in the Vine Market’s basement. But he was also in a hurry, so he opened it before the occupant could respond. “Boss,” he quickly said before he could get yelled at, “police have surrounded the market. They’re calling for quote LRF rebels unquote to exit the building with our hands in the air.”

“What?!” The short woman behind the desk stood up abruptly, brown-grey eyes flickering with outrage. “That brickhead inspector said they wouldn’t be ready to move until two days from now!”

Ngan shrugged. “Maybe he lied. Or it got moved up somehow. Anyway, we need you topside.”

The woman scrubbed her face with the back of one hand, then hissed between clenched teeth. “Alright.” She strode over to a nearby locker, pressed her thumb to the lockpad, and yanked out a mag-PDW and and a light armor suit. “Go upstairs and tell them to initiate Parthia. I’ll be up as soon as I get changed.”

“Report,” Phan Thi Lac barked as she emerged from the stairwell into the back of the atrium.

She studied the nervous faces of her cell members around her. Even after two and a half years here, they usually seemed to have a hard time believing she was their leader. (Being fair, shoulder-length twintails dyed Reseda green are not a typical hairstyle for heads of communist rebel cells). But today there was none of that, only the concerned looks of her people looking to her for answers.

“They’ve formed a perimeter on all four sides of the block, covering all the exits,” Son said, elbowing his way between two other rebels to appear before her. The short, heavyset man with the hatchet face was a former staff sergeant in the Longian People’s Army, and he continued putting his NCO skills to good use after going over to the LRF. “Estimate one platoon equivalent immediately surrounding the building, with unknown reserves. Most of them are regular cops, but three Pongoes were visible at last count.” That many APCs made for over a full squad of Special Response Unit personnel. This was not making for Lac’s idea of a good day.

The voice on the loudspeaker outside demanding their surrender was becoming quite insistent. She tuned it out. “Immediate response?”

“We’ve shuttered off the south side of the market and all the entrances. I’ve got three of the boys,” he jerked his head up at the floors above, “waiting on levels 2 and 3. Hùng’s preparing our exfil right now… and on that note, you’ll be wanting to leave shortly, Miss Lac.”

“Soon as we’re done here. RF scrambler?” She really, really didn’t want the công an being able to see everything going on inside here from the outside through the walls.

“I started it up the moment Son reported the cops,” Ngan piped up. “Even if they started monitoring ahead of time, it’s unlikely they have any specifics, unless they found a way to tell us apart from everyone else here.”

He glanced at the crowd of people on the floor of what had started as a farmers’ market and was still the best place to get fresh produce in this part of town. A small crowd of customers and shopkeepers – the ones whose mercantile interests weren’t a cover for their LRF activity, and who hadn’t fled screaming in all directions when the cops showed up – were cowering beside stalls and under tables, wondering when (or if) things would go back to normal.

“Okay. Get the boys down here and we’ll –”

The setup was simple, as far as such things go. A railpistol was stripped down, attached to a remotely activated trigger mechanism, and placed in a holder. This was concealed in a flowerpot hanging under the window of an abandoned store, pointed in the general direction of a corner junction.

The weapon was completely unaimed. Of the three shots it fired, only one of them struck flesh, and even that was sheer luck. The 6 mm capsule shattered the unfortunate officer’s ulna, disabling that arm and causing scream-inducing pain, but nothing that even the post-Collapse medical establishment couldn’t fix. But that was sufficient for the purpose.

Her partner reacted instinctively, ducking behind the squad car and firing his pistol wildly at what he imagined to be the perp.

Several heads jerked up at the sounds of gunfire above, both incoming and outgoing – the snarls of railpistols, and a few booms from a cruder but still lethal gunfoam-powered sporting rifle. Ngan grabbed Lac and shoved her back into the stairwell as Son dropped into a crouch, sidearm in hand. “Report!” he barked into his wrist-mounted communicator. “And cease fire and get down! Cease fire, damn it!

The shots from the upper floors tapered off almost instantly, and the sounds of bullets impacting the plasticrete walls followed soon after. The screams from the trapped civilians took a little longer to wind down.

“We engaged police forces outside, sir,” a voice came in. “They’re hunkering down, snipers watching the windows. I took a hit in the arm, probably a ricochet. Hit one of them, don’t know if he’s dead.”

“I definitely killed one,” someone else said. “Saw his brains explode.”

You *** stupid worthless jackasses –”

“Sir,” the first rebel had a half-apologetic, half-defensive tone, “I swear on my ancestors that none of us fired first. I don’t know what happened – there was a mag-gun shot that sounded like it came from outside the building, but close by – but it wasn’t anything we did.”

“Okay,” Ngan breathed. “I think we really need to get out of here.”

The order to withdraw given, he hustled Lac down the stairs, two more rebels bringing up the rear. They strode down the corridor, ignoring the car park – no way the police would leave such an obvious exit uncovered – and heading straight to a door with a large “No Entry” sign.

The room beyond was to all appearances a simple maintenance area, except for the open door at the other side through which the sounds and the faint but unmistakable stench of city sewers drifted.

As they were approaching it, someone stumbled out from the darkness beyond – a woman clutching her side, blue dress stained red, angry shouts echoed in the distance at her back. “Kieu!” one of the men cried out, elbowing his cell leader aside and rushing to catch the newcomer before she fell. “What happened?!”

“They’re… in the sewers,” she managed to say, voice quavering as Lac darted forward to punch a few keys on the adjoining keypad that slammed the door shut. “Hùng’s down. We’re… we’re trapped in here.”

The news was met with startled exclamations and hisses of fury, one of the latter coming from Lac herself. The sewer access in the basement wasn’t on the official plans for either the building or the waterworks, which meant… when she found out who leaked them…

No. No time for that now. She unclenched her fists, then looked at Kieu, now lying on the floor. Ngan grabbed a first aid kit from a nearby shelf and crouched beside her, pulling out a pair of scissors and using it to cut her dress.

“What’s going on here?” a baritone voice demanded, and everyone turned to look at Son standing in the doorway. He looked back at them, taking in the scene for all of two seconds, then nodded. “I’ll start rigging up the traps. The rest of you,” hard eyes swept over the other troops present, “break out the heavy weapons. We’ll hope the chief can negotiate our way out of here, but if the worst comes to pass, we’ll let all of Kinh know that when the LRF goes down, it goes down fighting.”

Heads nodded, and the men filed out. By now Ngan had applied the trauma spray to the entry wound and applied an adhesive bandage. Kieu whimpered, but did not move when Ngan rolled her over and tore her dress to reveal the exit wound as well. Thankfully the shot had gone clean through her kidney, not hitting any bones or intestines, and before long the cell second-in-command was sterilizing his hands. “Can you walk?”

“I… I think so,” she whispered. “Just help me up…”

Ngan and Lac took one arm each and hauled her to her feet. She managed to stay upright, although she kept clinging to Ngan for support. “Take her to my office,” Lac said. “She should be safe there, if we can collapse the basement accessways. Then rejoin us topside.”

She sprinted off without waiting for a response, and took the steps two at a time when she got there. Halfway up, her netphone started ringing – not the short-ranged tactical communicator the cell used in scenarios like this, but someone calling her civilian device – and she snarled as she yanked it out of her pocket. It wasn’t even someone on her contact list.

“Evelyn Lou. Sorry, but I’m a little busy right now. Call me back in an hour.”

“Oh, I think you can spare time for me, rebel,” came the obviously filtered voice on the other end. “And we can dispense with the false names, Ms. Lac.”

She came to a halt just short of the stairwell’s top, fingers tensing on the device. “An interesting greeting, whoever you are. If you’re going to flirt, why don’t you tell me your name?”

“My name is not important. But for the purposes of this conversation, you may address me as Inspector Long. I am calling because I know you’re in the Vine Market, and I think you’ll want to talk to me before you and your friends get hurt.”

“Inspector, eh? I see Special Branch hasn’t given up spying on people like you said you were going to. And why would I listen to a word you have to say?”

The… person on the other end made a sound like a chuckle, if such had come from a comic book devil. “Come now. Did you think we wouldn’t keep an eye out for the wayward niece of the National Assembly's Chairman?” She could swear she heard him smirking through the phone. “As for your question, allow me to cut to the chase. You and your men are wanted for terrorism, smuggling, money laundering, sedition and acts of treason against the Republic of Longia. Be a good girl and surrender peacefully, and I’m sure your uncle will see to it that you get the really serious charges dropped. Otherwise…”

Lac laughed – a short, barking, sarcastic laugh. “The fact that you think you can bribe me in such a manner is precisely why I joined the LRF, Inspector. And tell your uniformed goons to keep away from this building. I’ve got a really big bomb here,” she lied smoothly, “and you probably don’t want to have to explain to your boss why you provoked those terrorists into blowing themselves and a few hundred civilians up.”

“Taking hostages and threatening to massacre them? How fitting for a ‘freedom fighter’ like you, I suppose.”

“I didn’t say I want to do it. But I will, if you push us. Now I’m sorry, but I’m really not in the mood to chat. Call me when you have a proposition I can take seriously.” She hung up.
« Last Edit: September 09, 2017, 02:14:19 AM by Histidine »


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Re: Crossfire (ch.13 2017-10-24)
« Reply #22 on: October 24, 2017, 05:21:27 AM »

Welcome back! When we last met, a group of LRF rebels was barricaded in a farmers' market and preparing for the siege. Now we learn what happens to them:

Chapter 13: Detonation
Back on the ground floor, Phan Thi Lac looked over the civilians still inside the building, looking back at her nervously. They hadn’t been a concern earlier when the plan was to bug out, but now that everyone was trapped in here…

“We could keep them as hostages,” Ngan said, coming up behind her. “They’ll hesitate to try anything that risks getting two or three hundred civilians killed.” Lac glared at him, and he raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “Was just putting it out there. I don’t actually want to do it, either.”

She looked at the crowd again. Shopkeepers, farmers, factory techs, students, interns, homemakers, service workers… My people, for all that they didn’t realize it. They whose lives, whose future she was fighting for.

The phone was in her hand again, and she connected it to the building’s PA system. “Everyone!” She stepped forward, arms raised, the speakers carrying her mezzo-soprano clearly throughout the Market. “There’s going to be fighting here soon. We’ll let you out of here before that happens. Please remain calm until then.”

A quick conference with her subordinates worked out the details, and ten minutes later, there was a double file queue lining up near of the main entrance. A holoprojector created a large, waving white flag outside the door, and Son stepped slowly out into the small courtyard, arms spread, all weapons left behind. Well, mostly. Lac had personally searched him before he left, but even she only knew about the knife in his right boot.

An officer with the rank tabs of a police captain stepped out from the barricades, approaching the rebel slowly. “Captain Rua, People’s Police”, he said evenly. “I don’t suppose you’re here to make my life easier by surrendering?”

The other man smiled thinly. “Sergeant Son, Longian Resistance Front. I’m afraid I can’t indulge you on that score, Captain.”

“Thought not.” He considered Son’s hard visage for a while, then decided this scenario was not one for false bonhomie or beating around the bush. “What is the purpose of this parley?”

“As you probably realize, we’ve got a few hundred civilians trapped in the building with us. We’d like to let them out, and I’m here to let you know our plans so they can leave safely.” Smiling thinly, now: “Wouldn’t want you to shoot up a bunch of innocents or anything.”

Rua's eyes widened for a second or so. Then he nodded, studiously ignoring the implied “as good as you goons are at that sort of thing”. “I see. In that case, perhaps we should step over to somewhere we can speak with my superiors?”

“Alright. When I give the signal, walk through the door slowly, and in orderly fashion. The police will receive you outside the gatehouse. Don’t shove, jostle or run, and don’t dither around. Understood?”

Murmurs of assent came up from the crowd. None of the people to whom this was addressed were inclined to disobey. Despite the palpable relief at the prospect of escaping this nightmare, the situation was still tense, and nobody wanted to cause a misunderstanding that led to someone getting shot.

Ngan looked at Lac, and when she nodded, he waved the crowd forward. “Alright, start moving. Slowly, now.”

They watched the civilians streaming out the double door, careful not to rush for all their eagerness. In three minutes two-thirds of the crowd had been cleared, and Lac let her gaze sweep over the people continuing to file out of the building. Along came a tall, pale man, trying – and failing – to look inconspicuous, sweat beading his forehead.

“Not you, oppressor.” She reached out and grabbed him by his starched shirt collar.

The man – a manager for the million-cred conglomerate that owned the building – struggled violently, but Lac was quite strong for her size, and restrained him long enough for one of the rebels to apply a good roll of duct tape. The line stopped as the other civilians gawked at the scene, a few startled gasps coming up, but a few shouted orders and a prod with the muzzle of a gun got it moving again. After the third time the scene was repeated, nobody even stopped anymore when someone – usually a foreigner or someone recognizably wealthy – was dragged out of the shuffling flow.

Before long the market was cleared, aside from the LRF members and their half-dozen suitably trussed-up hostages. The shutters for the main entrance were lowered again, and the cell went to work rigging up explosive traps and setting up barricades.

Lac was helping to move a bench when one of the junior rebels came running up. “Chief. Lee’s clinic on the third floor is still open.”

She dropped the bench and ran up the escalators. In another situation she might have thought to knock, but here she simply shoved the door open as soon as she reached it.

The woman in the green lab coat, seated at the reception desk, didn’t look up from her report. “Go away. I’ve got no business with you.”

Lac folded her arms. “Are you going to tell me you were so busy you didn’t hear the order to evacuate?”

“And leave my patients?” She waved a hand at the door to the ward. “One is unconscious, and another is in no shape to walk even the distance out of this building. If you’re willing to call an air ambulance and carry a stretcher, we can see about moving them to another hospital.” She shrugged. “They ought to have been in one already, but with the recent budget cuts, well, the lines to get into a government hospital are pretty long.”

And whose fault is that, dragon-head? Lac wanted to snarl, but restrained herself. There were no grounds for blaming the good doctor for the decline in social spending during and after the civil war, simply because she was one of the ethnic minority that heavily populated Longia’s social elite. And… she had to admit, Dr. Lee had gained a lot of respect in her book with her willingness to stick it out in what would likely become a battleground soon enough.

“Will they be fine if we leave them here for a while?”

Lee nodded, still not looking up. “There shouldn’t be any problems. It’ll be somewhat bothersome if my nurses don’t show up to work tomorrow, but I’ll manage.”

“Alright, then. We can try to keep the fighting away from the clinic, at least.” Turning to leave, said over her shoulder: “Let us know if you need anything.”

Captain Rua had reason to be displeased. He’d wondered whether the rebels weren’t getting the better end of the deal letting their hostages go; debriefing them had required him to detach half a squad, and getting them to the nearest bus/metro hub so they could find their way required the other half. That was added to the two full squads spent just keeping away curious onlookers from the scene.

Still, that problem was a minor one compared to what he still had to solve.

He leaned back in his chair as he studied the building plan projected above the plastic table in front of him. It was a moderately uncomfortable chair, as befit the fast-food joint he’d commandeered for his CP.

Well, I still have enough men to keep the Vine Market locked down. Not that the rebels seem inclined to go anywhere. Now if only –

One of the constables burst into the room, a loud whirring sound audible through the open door. “You need to see this, sir. We’ve got a military unit overhead.”

Rua sprang to his feet, then walked outside more sedately – it wouldn’t do to be seen rushing. A Skyrider VTOL transport was hovering thirty meters overhead, rappel lines dangling from under its tail, and he fought down a scowl as figures in dark grey battle armor leaped from the open hatch and slid down the cables to the ground. A glance to the side showed another dropship doing the same thing further down the block, and he could hear at least one more.

One of the first soldiers down walked over, and Rua looked up at his closed visor. In that suit, the faceless marine towered a full foot over him, and he felt like a belligerent child facing off an adult in an authority position. Which went perfectly with his present mood, truth be told.

“You in charge here?”

“That’s right. Captain Rua, People’s Police. Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“Your bosses thought you might need a little help. So we got drafted to solve your rebel problem.” He thumped his own armored chest with a fist. “First Lieutenant Alon Shalev, Hegemony Marines, at your service. Or not, as the case may be. We’re taking over here, captain.”

Rua ground his teeth. “I asked for a professional negotiator. Not a bunch of armored goons.”

If Shalev took offense at that barb, he gave no sign of it – at least, none that was visible outside the suit. “Maybe. But what you or I asked for doesn’t enter into it, it seems. Our orders are to secure the perimeter and prepare for an assault on the building. Seems like someone in there,” he gestured at the Vine Market, “really *** off your government.”

By now the dropships had finished unloading, and the noise of their engines faded as they flew off for parts unknown. A full squad of marines in armor were strutting about, like big mastiffs showing off before the alley mutts, drawing more than a few stares from the police officers. “So it seems,” Rua heard himself mutter. “If you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant, I’ve got a few calls to make.”

In a battered downtown tenement 6.7 kilometers from the incident area, Dinh Thi Huyen crouched before a dressing table in the closet, staring at the communicator atop it. The display showed a fuzzy blur; there was no need for faces, nor a desire to give anyone who got past the encryption the ability to see them.

“I can muster a platoon-sized element within half an hour. A company will take three hours to assemble and get into position. The situation could resolve itself before then, of course, but I’ll organize the force anyway if you wish.”


“No, sir, I don’t think it’s a good idea. If it was just the police I’d say go in and pound them flat. But with the Hegemony Marines on top of that…

“Yes, we might still win if we threw a couple of companies at them. But at what cost? We’d be lucky to be left with more than two score troops afterwards. Mau forgive me for saying this, but we cannot justify sacrificing fifty or a hundred men to save nine. Worse, we’d reveal just how much hardware we’ve been stockpiling while we’re still vulnerable. When that happens, the rebellion is finished.”

“... …”

“We could ask. But then, they were never supposed to get raided in the first place, much less have to face the Hegemony. Someone – I imagine it’s the good chairman – is pulling the strings on this one harder than we can.”


“It does seem that way, yes.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ngo.”

After closing the connection, Huy?n stepped out of the dingy closet and walked to the bedroom window. The midmorning sun was already approaching its zenith, unoccluded by the puffy cumulus clouds drifting in the distance. Strange how such a pleasant, sunny day could feel so gloomy.

She rested her elbows on the windowsill, gazing past the well-worn buildings of the inner city towards the horizon, and thought of compatriots trapped in the Vine Market. Lac, the young woman who’d left a life in the lap of luxury to fight for those beneath her. Ngan, an unassuming lad who’d always been there when his comrades needed him. Son, perhaps the model of the patriotic traitor.

Tomorrow, the LRF’s agitprop pieces would name them martyrs. But Huyen never called them that in her own mind. They were and would always be just – her children.

Lac looked out grimly over the atrium, one fist closed tightly around the grip of her PDW.

The cell was never large to begin with – it mostly served as a recruiting office and transshipment point, not a depot or base camp – and they’d moved almost all the materiel out when the warning of the raid came. Had it actually taken place the day after tomorrow as it was supposedly going to, all of them would have been long gone instead of being trapped in here.

They did still have a few things. Two anti-armor rifles, which she’d given to Son and one of the others. Three tripod-mounted sentry guns, with full magazines of AP ammunition and scanners alert for unrecognized intruders. And kilos of blasting compound, with multi-function detonators. There was still no prospect of them surviving an assault, of course, but against the Longian police, they could have turned the Vine Market into a slaughterhouse. With the Hegemony Marines outside – a wave of bleak fury and hatred washed over her, but she pushed it aside – they might even take half their number with them into the afterlife. Might.

She wanted to give a rousing speech before their last stand, something that would be quoted generations from now. But no suitable words came to mind; only a memory of a little girl who’d, asked to speak in front of the class on her first day at school, been so petrified that she burst into tears. Looking back on it now made her lips quirk in humor, but she shook the thought away; this was not the time for reminiscence.

The Viners would just have to settle for her steady, reassuring presence. She fastened her combination gas mask and multi-optic goggles, a gift from the LRF’s mysterious sponsors, and the others did the same. Now – only the wait.

“This is a mistake, ma’am,” Rua grated in front of the communicator on the small wooden table in his impromptu command post. “They still have hostages in there, and the kind of firepower the Marines brought with them is likely to get them all killed. And does the government really want the PR mess that’ll result from bringing in foreign military units on a police operation?”

“I share your concerns, captain,” the woman on the other end said, “but there’s no use arguing it with me. The order came from the Inspector-General himself.”

He started on a string of curses, then looked at the frowning face on the holo and thought better of it. “Fine. I’ll just file another protest when I get back. In the meantime, what am I expected to do here?”

“Your official orders are to provide the Marines with any assistance they require. How any such requests might be fulfilled is entirely up to your discretion. And yes, the Hegemony CO is now officially in charge of this operation.” They’d known each other for years; the inspector’s slight shrug conveyed but you’ll probably get the blame if things go belly up along with I’ll try to cover for you if that happens but not at the cost of my own career, with an aside of I’m sure a big boy like you can figure out how to make this work, though.

Rua looked back over his shoulder. Lieutenant Shalev was standing against a wall several meters away, at parade rest, projecting an aura of complete indifference. “In that case, I think I’ll just be getting back to work now, ma’am.”

After he’d terminated the connection, his new boss came walking up casually, remarkably quietly. If he hadn’t already known he was there, Rua suspected the Marine could have knifed him in the back before being detected. “Got the answers you needed?”

“I have.” The police captain pushed himself upright. “Well, how can the People’s Police be of service today?”

“For now, I think just keep securing the perimeter.” Shalev looked at the Vine Market, on the other side of the – entirely opaque – restaurant wall. “When the assault actually begins, I’d like to use your SRU boys in the follow-up wave. They could –”

Old-fashioned acrylic window plates – an attempt at giving the building a more “vintage” design – gave way under the impact of smoke grenades, hurled from high-velocity launchers through windows on three sides of the buildings. In moments, most of the Vine Market’s interior was filled with thick, choking, blinding fog.

Seven sensor remotes followed the grenades in. The sentry guns got four inside of three seconds, and with their enhanced-vision equipment their human masters took out the rest with well-aimed small arms fire within four. But that was more than enough time for the little devices to do their work, even if imperfectly, and send their results along the thin fibre cables they’d been hooked to.

“Interesting,” Shalev murmured. “All but two of them are positioned to cover the main entryway, but they mostly don’t seem to be watching it. In fact, they seem more interested in the windows.”

“Quite prescient of them, sir,” First Sergeant Dar commented.

“Or perhaps they know we’re not daft enough to waddle in through the front door.” He drummed two armored fingers on the plastic restaurant table. “And since they know that… it would be tragic if their high expectations of us were disappointed.”

“Even if they’re not expecting that, it’s not exactly an advantageous entry point, sir,” the NCO pointed out.

“I know. Which is why we’ll mostly stick to the existing plan. But if we send in a fireteam in breacher configuration that way simultaneously with the main entry… presenting the enemy with multiple threat axes should give us an edge. The additional mass will be helpful too, in any case.” He looked at Dar. “What do you think?”

The sergeant considered this for a moment. “Makes sense, sir. I just can’t shake the feeling that it makes too much sense.”

“If it was easy to figure out, they wouldn’t need us, Nawaz.” He smiled thinly, even knowing it wasn’t visible under the helmet. “Now, how do we fit the blueshirts into this?”

In a sporting goods store on the second floor, methane canisters were stacked on shelves in a back storage room, courtesy of the delivery Arnaud Bennett had arranged. Their modified electronic valves now responded to a signal from an optical sensor, which in turn got its orders from a carefully aimed laser in a building a hundred and fifty meters away.

The canisters began discharging their contents in the darkness. Slowly, at first, making no sound beyond a subtle hissing noise. Before long the room was filled with flammable gas, diffusing through vent shafts to the rest of the building, and the valves opened further.

The entry was perfectly choreographed.

A wave of stun grenades preceded the assault, blanketing the upper floors of the market with light and sound. (The smoke had largely, but not entirely, dispersed by then.) Lieutenant Shalev led two fireteams from First Squad in a contra-grav leap up the side of the building, the Marines plowing through the plastic windows like so much cardboard, hitting the floor within 273 milliseconds of each other.

The stun grenades hadn’t debilitated everyone in the building, and one of the privates toppled over, her armor and chest cavity penetrated by close-range rifle fire. But that outcome was entirely within expectations, and the rebel gunman was taken down not a second later by the return fire, his unarmored skull offering no protection at all against the ferrous capsules.

Most of the rest of the return fire was irregular and poorly aimed, the dazed and inexperienced rebels triggering their weapons prematurely and perforating the walls, and the front door entry team faced no resistance as their breaching charge demolished the shutters and transparent double doors in a cloud of smoke. Four Marines dove through the entryway, ballistic shields raised.

They quickly discovered why the rebels hadn’t bothered covering that entrance. The knowledge was brief, fleeting.

The armored figures set off an IR sensor set into the ceiling, even through the smoke and debris. The remotes earlier had detected it, but their human masters had paid it no heed, believing it to operate the automated door mechanism. Which it did. It was just also hooked up to several blocks of blasting compound, concealed inside drywalls and crates of fresh produce.

The front half of the corridor vanished in another roaring explosion, far more powerful than the first.

The cylinders in the back room were going full bore now – way past the manufacturer’s safety rating, in fact. Propelled by the release of their pressurized contents, they sprang free of their racks and ricocheted around the room, the violent hammer blows damaging everything in the room they struck. One even punched through the wooden door and made it into the storefront beyond, opening the way for more vents to distribute the CH4 through as much of the building as possible.

No-one took notice. Even if they could hear it over the other noises in the building, they had far more immediate concerns.

Lac dropped behind a display stand, fighting down the urge to collapse into a screaming heap. She was half-deafened from all the explosions, and the gunfire was still raging in the confines of the market, the supersonic cracks coming from seemingly every direction.

Had she even managed to hit anyone, in that brief initial second-and-a-quarter of gunfire? She remembered catching a glimpse of a Hegemony marine falling out the window, chest plating caved in by an anti-armor round, and the thirty-millimeter grenade explosion that shredded Son’s face. Everything else was nothing more than a blur. Through the ringing in her ears she could make out a few curses, screams, the electrical screech of an autogun blown apart and sent tumbling to the floor… but nothing that was helping her make any real sense of the situation.

Another squad was coming in through the windows, and Lac raised her PDW at the large grey form flying in from her left, even as his rifle began tracking her. She fired first, and found the blessings of fortune; three saboted penetrators cleaved through his helmet to penetrate his throat and mouth. The man’s dying motions deflected his rifle slightly, its rounds finding her right shoulder and upper arm instead of her sternum.

Even so, shock spilled her on the floor, white bone glistening in her wounds. She hissed with adrenaline-stifled agony, and even as the gun nearly spilled from her fingers, another enemy rounded the corner with a raised rifle. With no time to pass her weapon to her left hand, she willed her mangled arm upwards, trying to draw a bead on her opponent, staring with cold defiance at Alon Shalev’s faceless helmet.

The laser transmitted another signal, and a small electric igniter in the storeroom triggered. The dispersed gas reacted violently, the resulting fuel-air explosion like the fist of a deity's fury.

For the battered Vine Market, this last bit of abuse was just too much for it to take. The building collapsed on itself, plasticrete crumbling into gravel, alloy steel members buckling and snapping under abruptly increased strain.

With their excellent armor, many of the Marines survived being buried under tons of debris and rubble in the hours and days it took to dig them out. Lieutenant Shalev did not. Nor did any of the LRF members or civilians.

Note on future updates
I may be suspending work on Crossfire indefinitely with this chapter or the next, to focus on other commitments (which may or may not include an entry for NaNoWriMo 2017, depending on what else is also on my plate).

I liked telling this story, and believe it to still be worth finishing in time, but it doesn't hold my attention the way it once did (as you might have noticed from the paucity of updates).
My apologies for leaving it hanging :( Perhaps someday...
« Last Edit: August 06, 2018, 12:44:18 AM by Histidine »


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Re: Crossfire (ch.13 2017-10-24)
« Reply #23 on: January 18, 2020, 12:54:54 AM »

I wanna give u a big hug as i reread all the stories youve written for starsector tonight on a nostalgia binge
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