Chapter 20: Rimfire
She saw me and waved. Not wanting to go up there and broadcast to everyone to my lack of freefall coordination, I picked up a radio and asked what she was doing. "Well the Scarab took a few good hits. The cloaking system is history. Eiran and I decided to use the extra space for adding a few limbs. You can't see it from here but we also mounted the two spare particle rifles from the Sentinels dorsal side. The controls are being redone to better fit your cybernetic linkage."

I noticed the contrast between the Scarab's dark green hull and the orange of the Sentinel arms. "Ya think I can get a new paint job while you're at it?"

"Sure, just name your color and the computer will do the rest."

Further conversation was interrupted when the intercom ordered Fireflight to the bridge. Dass was leading the funeral proceedings for Celine. Long speeches were made by him, Larani, Aleoi, and myself about her heroism and zest for life. From the looks of everyone while Larani was talking, I don't think anyone blamed her too much for what happened. At least they didn't blame her as much as she blamed herself. What little could be found of Celine's body and her personal belongings was being sent to her family for burial and her mekton was being cannibalized for spare parts so there was little we could do to honor her passing. This resulted in a short service which ended with her military hologram being put on the main viewer and faded out.

Everyone was there for Tammis who said that he could have nearly become Celine's boyfriend and that he wished they had more time together. That day and the next six days were spent doing constant patrols and testing new tactics and getting all the glitches our of the Scarab on twelve hour shifts. We got little, and sometimes no, relaxation time. I did have the chance to design a new color scheme for my scarab. As with my helmet insignia, I chose the color scheme to be parallel with my street name. It was hard to match a fox's shape with the Scarab's but I managed to do it. The forearms, tip of the nose, and nacelles were painted black, the main body and most of the tail was a dark red, finally the tip of the tail was white.

We did our part to make sure that we didn't let Celine's death didn't split us apart. In fact, I'd say we grew closer together. My promotion to Special Operative was done quietly and no big deal was made. The Scarab was something unique to fly. The addition of arms made it easier to control mentally because it made the mekton seem more human-like. It was more like discovering a new limb than playing a video game. Near the end of the sixth day Dass finally called a stand down from stage two alert and all of us gathered in the recreation area for some well deserved rest.

Just as the food and cards came out, the music started, and we were finally going to do some 'team bonding', Jummel ran into the room with pony tail flying. Breathless she told us that Dass wanted a general meeting on the bridge in ten minutes. Now the bridge was cramped in normal circumstance, but with the full twenty-five people here, there was barely a spot to stand. When everyone got as comfortable as possible, Dass began. "Dr.Tal sent me this transmission last night. It's a tape copy of Elaran and Kargan newscasts. Both ran within the last two days. The Axis has struck again, only this time, they're a bit more circumspect."

The main screen flared to life. There was a pretty newscaster reading a story, with the UAA symbol behind her. "Our final story tonight. Network 12 has received this photo through a source high in the Elaran Peace Council." The picture was momentarily replaced by a picture of a prison camp, with guards in UAA uniforms and a few dozen people huddled behind the fence. "Geographical experts place the location of the picture to be somewhere on the Kargan continent. Our same source has been quoted as saying that some of the rash of missing persons may well be political prisoners of one type or another. A spokesperson for the UAA claims that the picture is a fraud, and that the UAA is not a 'secret police' organization."

The picture is then replaced by a grim-faced Kargan reporter. "We have investigated the report that the UAA is holding political prisoners on our continent. There is no truth to this rumor. The photo was either a fake or the Elarans were wrong about the location. We did find evidence that the UAA was planning on building a facility near the Sharifin mountains. UAA officers showed us the plans, and there were for a tracking station, not a prison camp."

Then Tal's face appeared, "There are hundreds of other items along this vein popping up down here. For every rumor that we kill, two more pop up to take its place. It seems that the Axis are determined to wreak as much havoc with the UAA as possible. I've arranged as interview for you with Lathrin Darkmoor, a pilot who has had a great deal of problems with the Axis in the past. All the links should hook up at 11:00am tomorrow."

The screen went black and Dass said, "Lathrin will be on-line in five minutes, and I want to everyone to be here for the talk. I have a list of questions I need answered, so I requests that everyone keep their opinions quiet until after the talk. The link will only be up for twenty minutes."

After a tense five minutes, the screen comes to life again. This time everyone sees a dark haired man sitting next to an attractive woman in a wheelchair. She simply stared straight forward with a blank look on her face, while he looked around the bridge. "Some ship. Looks a little crowded, though." he said.

"Thank you for your time, Major."

"I'm retired."

"I'm sorry, I heard differently."

"Don't be. Yrmi keeps me on as an 'advisor'. So technically I'm on the payroll. Just call me Lathrin. I've heard that you've got some problems with Axis?"

"Yes, but before I got on, may I ask where you get all your information of their activities?"

"In the closing months of the Archipelago War, Karen was kidnaped by a Kargan named Ebonflack and brainwashed. She was kept as a pilot for a new control system they were developing. I barely beat him in a fight when I rescued Karen. After that, he turned to the Axis for some reason or another. He's very vindictive, and still wanted me dead. Since then, the Axis have been gunning for me. In order to survive this long, I needed to learn a bit about them. And the Axis aren't the only ones with spies."

"Why do the Axis want to destroy us?"

"Two reasons as I see it. First, you represent a direct threat to them. If the UAA solidifies, there well be no room for Axis to act. They will become hunted like animals, to be tracked down and destroyed. Secondly, there is some personal reason why Dremmond hates you. It may be that someone up there once turned him down for a date. He's a crazy bastard."

"You know Dremmond?"

"Yes. He and I crossed paths once. He tried to get me to join the Axis. Said he could 'cure' Karen's brain damage." Lathrin held the girl's hand. "I passed."

Dass continued, "And you're sure he runs Axis?"

"It would take an ego even greater than Ebonflack's to keep him from taking over. And Dremmond is the only one I've ever met who could come close to matching or surpassing Ebonflack in that department."

"Do you have any idea what the personal vendetta might be? Could your 'spies' find out?"

"I've really got no idea. If I can find anything, I'll let you know."

Dass then opened the floor for questions. "Do you know how deep Axis has it's spies in the UAA?" I asked.

"I don't know, it's possible that they have agents creeping up the chain of command. Assistants are the most likely candidates."

Larani gasped when she heard this. We had reached the same conclusion: Marci D'Able. Eiran asked about any possible link between Dremmond and extraterrestrials. Lathrin thought he was referring to myself, but I knew Eiran meant the Aggendi.

"Since Dremmond is a nilhist, it MIGHT be possible that he expected mass destruction to 'rain from the heavens' as some apocalyptic prophecies go. But since is the only alien here is working against him, he might be especially interested in eliminating him so the 'real' destroyers could come.

I asked about Dorian. "Now that's an interesting character. A powerful psychic in his field. He is one of the few Algolians who possesses the power to deactivate technology. Last I heard he was going through some fan carriers looking for someone. I wouldn't worry too much about him. He hates technology and I find it very unlikely that he'll fly into outerspace looking for trouble. But then again, he's very vengeful. I have learned that you defeated him. The need for revenge might overpower his dislike for technology, but it's not too likely."

Others made inquires about Axis mektons and any new developments. The Scarab was one of their more powerful robots and right now I had their only one. Beyond that, he did not know. He also had no idea about how many psychic Axis agents there were in space, but he did say that Axis had few agents out here. Hard to believe with Marci though. Lathrin did believe that Axis was planning something big, something which might have been the goal of the operation. Whatever it was, Lathrin had no clue what it was.

Karin asked who was funding Axis. "The money has to come from somewhere.", she explained. As it turned out, they required little funding. The agents were fanatics, needing only the basic necessities. The money for mektons and research was donated by various dummy corporations and sympathizers in Elara. Taylor was one of those businesses and my little venture dealt them a minor blow on the economic front. Karin's question was the last because time was almost up. He wished us luck before signing off. Dass announced a general meeting in the rec area the next morning and sent us to our quarters.

The meeting had stolen our desire to socialize and we spent the rest of the day doing little more that sit with each other in relative silence. I did spent some time with Arisa, the first since Celine's death. But it didn't last long due to schedule conflicts. I wasted more time wondering if Dorian and I would meet again and plotting various strategies in that event. Nothing I could think of would work. The best thing I could come up with was to activate the reflex boost before he gave me the evil eye. While the boost was activated by metal, the actual surge was from natural adrenaline. I hoped that there would be enough time to activate it, but it didn't seem too likely.

Somewhere during this I fell asleep and woke up still sitting in the chair a bit sore but with no dreams. I arrived early to the rec area for the meeting (only so that I can get the most comfortable chair) and found Karin already there. She didn't say a word as everyone else strolled in. Dass was himself slightly early, but not early enough as there was no real place to sit. Guess all of us were concerned about the nature of the meeting. Dass refused several offers of their chairs and went straight into the briefing.

"Tal contacted me again last night. It seems that one of the long-range sensors at Sunlight1 has picked up something unusual in the quadrant that Tal told them to look into. It's possible that whatever this object is, it is what the Aggendi transmitted to. We are to proceed directly to Sunlight to meet with Emilia Darka, the station commander. She has compiled all the information that might be useful to us. That is all."

He turned to leave, but before he walked out the door, he stopped as if he remembered something. Dass pulled out a tape from a pocket and handed it to Larani saying it was a private message from Karga. After he left, Haj crushed a steel can in his cyber hand. "Damnation!" he shouted, "In the old day's we'd take the fight to the Axis, not let them run us around like lost puppies! They've attacked the flight crew three times and killed Celine!"

Karri turned to him and asked, "What can we do? They cloak all their bases and hide. We can't find them!"

Realan, who had just finished cleaning his glasses, entered the conversation, "We find one of their agents and make him talk. Then we hit them with everything we got."

The voices of several other people injected with their agreement or opposition. Words of caution were counted with cries of vengeance and various suggestions. Wisely, I didn't offer my opinion. Remembering what Celine told me, taking sides will only increase the schism we were just beginning to close. However Larani was too absorbed wondering what was on the tape to notice that the conversation was turning into a heated argument. I had to practically snatch the tape from her hands before she did anything.

As if hearing their raised voices for the first time, she realized what was going on and snapped back into her commander's persona calling for general quiet. All action immediately stopped and Larani and I got a good look at how the team had degenerated. Karin and Jabess were almost ready to get in a fist fight. The only thing holding them back were the physical restraints from both Rimfire and Fireflight. Fortunately the restrainers were from both crews and there appeared to be no team pride involved. Only Eiran and Arisa were the ones not involved. Arisa clearly did not want to take sides because of her beliefs. But Eiran...well right now I felt pretty sorry for him. He felt he had to choose between friends and that if he chose one side, his teammates on the other will hate him.

Larani gave a disciplinary speech in the style I expected of her (that is, someone who's out to prove to everyone that she is the commander here) and confined everyone to their quarters until the next day. Only bridge duty and patrols would be the exception. As everyone slowly filed out accepting their punishment, she faced me and said, "That includes you, Sergeant."

Apart from us, Eiran and Arisa were the last to leave. Eiran was about to ask why he was being punished, but I stopped him, "Don't make waves, Kid. Give her some time to simmer down."

I placed an arm around him and Arisa and led them out the door. I wish I could say something interesting during our confinement, but nothing did. The most which happened was spending a few hours convincing Eiran not to be upset about this. I wound up asking Larani for help. I could tell that she considered use of the video phone prohibited for the time being, but she was willing to make an exception in Erian's and my case. She had cooled off and told him about team unity and how everyone had to take responsibility for the team's actions. All he had to do was hear the words, and know that he had a few liberties.

When Eiran hung up, Larani spoke privately to me. "The tape was from a...friend. She believes that a friend of my estranged father is part of Axis. What's more is that her husband believes that they are plotting against Kargan's emperor. I don't need to tell you not to repeat this to anyone. The only reason I told you is because you claim to have experience with conspiracies and a bit more observant when there's something up."

"Understood. If we ever meet the Emperor or you father, I'll be on the lookout." I hung up wondering who she thought I was. Despite her attitude towards me, I think she also got caught up in my superhero reputation. Yes, I have been through a few conspiracies. But as Taylor taught me, Algol is no strangers to them. These people will cover their tracks making my chances of finding them out a small bit above average. On the other hand, my psionics (however underdeveloped) might help. In the meantime, I'll only do the token actions.

When morning (or what passed as morning on a spaceship) finally came, those involved in the debate were back to normal and acted like nothing happened. The next three days passed without further incident, from without or within. The weightlessness of the circus and during flight had grown less confusing. I spent some of my spare time bouncing off the walls telling everyone that I ate too much sugar as a joke. No one laughed. This evolved into a sport, zero-gee dodgeball. However it wasn't too much fun when Felina, the resident null-gee expert, played so we arranged 'matches' to be played when she had bridge duty.

Here cyber was more hindrance than help. The added mass moved my center of gravity away from its location on a normal person. It made my leaps harder to control, but it did make for some radical spins. Even Captain Dass got involved. I guess we were all looking for something to do with our combat skills. The game did take our minds off our fear, and hope, for the alarm to action.