Chapter 28: N-12
Lift Off
By morning Arisa appeared to have at least partly recovered from the emotional shock and was thankful to me for what I did (and didn't) do for her during the night. The Sentinels have been dismantled and the ExSentinels had been moved into place. To my relief, my Scarab was still there and the ExSentinel which was designated to be mine had been moved to the lower level. A course had been set for Aries and the new crew members had been integrated into the Rimfire crew (though I still haven't seen them or learned their names). As we were preparing for departure, a final debriefing was organized on Sunlight1.

In the room were Emilia, Tharis, Dass, and several other Sunlight conspirators. Once everyone was inside Emilia stood and addressed us. "This message was received my this station via tight beam transmission. It is addressed to the "crew" of the Rimfire."

She pushed a button, and a large screen behind her lowered. It lit up, and an imposing man in an Axis uniform appeared. He turned and addressed the camera. "Greetings from the new commander of all Algolian-based Axis forces. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Xoniver Ebonflack, and I am the new head of the Axis. My EX-superior has decided to go off chasing 'aliens' and has left me in charge of planetary operations. Being that Lord Dremmond is entirely unstable, I have decided that it is in everyone's best interest that he not return. Provided with this transmission is a copy of his navigational programs. This is not false information. On that you have my word. The world is in a new age, and we will meet another day, but not now, accept my best wishes and a successful hunt."

The screen went blank. Emilia handed Dass the information on a small disk then echoed Ebonflack's wishes of a successful hunt. But she had her doubts as to the validity of the information. Heads turned to me for whatever advice I could offer. "Ebonflack has been able to usurp control of Axis from Dremmond. Unless he sabotaged Dremmond's ships (which I doubt), I would believe he is telling the truth. After all, it is in his best interest to see that his former boss doesn't return and we are the only ones who can make sure he doesn't. Sabotage is very unlikely because it might be discovered and Dremmond might come back demanding answers. Plus Ebonflack will have to arrange that the damage occurs when he is too far away from Algol to survive the trip back, a very difficult task. I mean, unless he also has psionic powers, it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to sabotage a ship that is their only means of survival. Throw in the possibility that said damage could be repaired left him with only one option: us."

This seemed to satisfy everyone, though it would be fair to say that there were some who disliked trusting information from the enemy. We returned to the Rimfire and made preparations for liftoff. The launch was without incident and as we pulled off into space, Sunlight blinked out a final message in the Algolian equivalent of Morse code. "Good luck-E and T", Arisa translated.

During the long trip to Aries, Dass ordered a constant two mekton long range patrol to work as an early warning for the ship. Late that night, it was Cedric's and my own turn. Cedric was rather quiet, more so than usual. "Penny?" I offered.

"Huh? For what?" he responded startled.

"For your thoughts. It's an old Earth saying. Why are you so quiet tonight?"

"I was just thinking about the past. About someone I loved and lost."

"Ahhh." I said with instant understanding.

"Her name was Maria Armandi. We were close. I loved her dearly. Even planned to propose. But she was shot down before I had the chance. No wreckage was found, but everyone's sure she's dead."

"What about you?"

"I don't know. I want to say that she is still alive, but it would be my heart talking. Maybe it's just a man hoping for something which will never happen. If I ever find her again, I swear that I will ask her to marry me no matter what. There is no way I'm going to let another chance slip by me again!"

"Keep hoping. Because if there's one thing I've learned in my life is that hope is sometimes the best thing you've got."

He derived comfort from my words and went back to his silence, but now it was more comfortable. As the patrol continued, I saw a flashing light in the distance. It was another code. Fortunately Cedric knew how to decode it and gave me the translation. "I HAVE INFORMATION. DO NOT FIRE, DO NOT USE RADIO. I AM UNARMED. PLEASE APPROACH UNARMED. I AM IN A SHUTTLE ONLY ONE COME."

"Do you want to go?" Cedirc asked.

"Sorry, but the sender asked that the person be unarmed and that basically leaves me out. You can't disarm this puppy."

"Point taken, but cover me."

"You expected otherwise? Patch me through, OK?"

Cedric said he would and flew towards the shuttle. I followed right behind him, but more slowly. My own scanners reported that the shuttle was indeed not armed, but they could be wrong. The possibility of a trap was rather low. Even if the shuttle did have a hidden gun, the shuttle was too small for it to be very powerful or effective. Through Cedric's mekton's eyes, I saw the shuttle as it appeared to normal people. The ID computer said it was an unmarked black Sky Shark.

As he approached, the cockpit opened and a female form is visible in a space suit. I directed Cedric to zoom in on the pilot. She had a small canister in hand. She gently tossed it underhand toward the ExSentinel. I interfaced my teleoptic with the mekton's own long range lenses for a better look. Standing there in the vacuum of space was she. Waiting for Cedric to catch the mysterious gift. I set my recorder to save the images as I reached out with my psychic abilities. My attempt to read her mind had mixed results. There was fear, hate, good and bad conscience pulling her psyche in different directions, and love. Yes, deep down buried under mounds of possibly artificial negative feelings was something pure and good. This feeling was able to take just control of her body long enough to preform this act.

Cedric caught the package and her job was done. Pure love once again was forced beneath a sea of evil. In the mundane world, she closed her hatch and quickly flew off into the blackness of space. As Cedric flew back I replayed what had happened. Concentrating on the exposed faceplate, I caught a glimpse of lavender hair. Recalling an earlier recording, I viewed it again. Was it ... yes it was. Our mysterious pilot was the same woman who was looking at Cedric at the party at Lord Arkman of Acrol.

"This is weird. I felt that I knew her, like we met before."

"You might have." I commented, telling him about that woman at the party back then. He didn't know what to make of it, but we both agreed to return to Rimfire immediately and see what was. Actually he felt as if he should open it right now and asked for my opinion. When I touched her mind, I felt that she would never purpously cause Cedric any harm.

"I don't think it's booby trapped. It might be a good idea." I approved.


"How easy is it to access that on UAA computers?"

"I don't know." mystified of the message he opened it without heed of the possible consequences. I held my breath from the time it was opened until the contents floated out. No explosion, not as if I expected one, but you can never be too sure. "Maria..." Cedric whispered, lost in his own thoughts.

"What was inside?"

"Her locket. I gave her this locket with our pictures inside it. How did she get it? Plus there's a note."

The pieces of this puzzle were coming together and I was quite sure of the result. "Read me the note."

"ahem. 'Cedric, His mind is away from me now, I can act. There will be an attack in two days time on the Elaran colony N-12. The attack will come without warning or provocation. The attacking unit is very powerful and deadly. You must destroy it, or it will kill everyone on N-12. I can barely think for myself, my will is not my own. Please stop this. Please stop the killings! Don't let those people die! I have give back the only piece of me there is left to give. I loved you.' It's signed Arnellia but...but it's crossed out and Maria is written below it!"

Everything clicked together so loud I swear it could be heard all the way back to Algol. Maria didn't die. Axis captured her and made her their slave. All Cedric could say was, "I didn't propose. Another chance slipped by."

"She still cares, I felt that. Don't loose hope now or your both finished. Now let's go. We've got to get this to Dass."

But instead of the immediate action, he let the crew debate the issue and act accordingly. Mox and Arisa agreed that we should help the colony despite the disbandment of the UAA. "We still got the responsibility even if we don't have the authority." Mox said.

But Sarka and Tara insisted that we go after Dremmond and that the message was just another Axis trick. Karin agreed citing my inexperience with my psychic ablilties could have led to a misreading. This brought Laian into the debate. She supported what I sensed and how it was impossible to get a wrong impression. As if to spite her, she voted for helping N-12. Everyone voted, one by one. Those more fanatical against Axis firmly believed that it was a trick. But there were more people who either had the compassion to at least check in on the station or knew me well enough to trust what I felt.

Relunctly, Sarka took the controls of the Rimfire and opened the throttle towards N-12. The colony was a mere few hours away. I was on the observation bridge as we approached it. As it turned out, the trip didn't take us too far out of our way. A small consolation to those who voted against going. The colony itself was a large circular ring, in the style of both Earth and Elaran space stations. It rotated slowly on its axis, with a long non-moving cylinder, much like the one on Sunlight1, down the middle. I wondered why there would be a need for centrifical-created gravity when Algol technology can made it artificially. I figure it was either to change the view or the station didn't have the power to make it on its own. What struck me most noticeable about the station was that the ring was only three fourths completed and construction mektons were in heavy use.

The docking bay for ships and mektons was at the top of the cylinder, and it was at one of these docks where the Rimfire found itself on the afternoon of the 7th. When the airlock opened, we were greeted by David Harkson, the mayor of the colony. He was a tall, gregarious man who welcomed us with a friendly smile and an outstretched arm. Dass asked to speak to him in private, on a matter of life and death. Dass, David, Larani, Cedric, and myself met in David's apartment, and Dass explained the perceived danger. David listened carefully, asking few questions. He did inquire about Cediric's and my experience of how the information about the attack was acquired, but he asked about little else. The colony was a victim of Elaran "peace" dividends. It had only two Turbos in its own defense. But it had the capability to hold many more.

Dass told everyone about a plan he developed. The idea was to reassemble the Sentinels held in storage. Then the Rimfire, with Sentinels in its bay, would take off, heading into space. The ExSentinels would remain behind in the station's bays. There would be a communications blackout for security reasons. Fireflight would stay behind and defend the colony as station pilots would control the old Sentinels as backup. Since the Turbos were not very powerful, it was decided that they would serve only as a recon patrol and early warning mektons.

I asked about the need to send the Sentinels away, there was more than enough space for them on the station and the extra firepower might come in handy. But Dass insisted on some sort of defense against any attack directly against the Rimfire. I countered with stating how many guns the Rimfire had and the addition of an extra weapons officer. Ultimately we agreed that half of the Sentinels would stay here and the rest would be on the Rimfire. Since the attack was in two days, there was plenty of time to relax and prepare.

We took the time to get a second opinion as to the reconstruction job done on the Rimfire. The crews agreed that the two ships were make with the option of merging and gave us the thumbs up in terms of the job Sunlight1 did. They too were curious as about how well the two ships fit together. With a bit of convincing, I talked the mayor into letting us a tour of the station. Being the furthest outpost from Algol, they receive few visitors. Their hospitality didn't help any either. The station itself was very functional and spartan. There were only the token park and entertainment areas. The people were cautious and gave us a look similar to a gang member when a stranger strolled through their territory. Whether it was a reaction to all the bad press we got or the natural desire to protect what was theirs, I'll never know.

As the tour progressed, I noticed that in different areas of the habitat ring there seemed to be something resembling an extended family unit. Neither money nor even barter were used to purchase goods. People in one neighborhood went to nearby stores and took what they needed. It wasn't stealing in any way shape or form, but more like collecting a paycheck. What's more this system was applied to each area and was separated by a wall that divided the ring into sectors. I began to notice that people in a certain sector of the ring had a certain symbol. Each symbol was of a predatory animal of one sort or another. There was a wolf, panther, bear, eagle, and a few others I couldn't identify. It was on shops, clothing, vehicles, and even on people as tattoos. The realization that this station more closely resembled downtown Night City's gang subculture than what I had considered normal Algolian culture slowly sank in.

My eyes darted all over the place looking for some sign of intrastation warfare. There didn't appear to be any outward signs, but that didn't eliminate the possibility. My answer came when, while viewing routine maintenance, a worker entered from another sector. Every eye was on him and I noticed that an equivalent of a police officer had his hand very close to his weapon. The man himself was very nervous, almost running to his destination. He made his delivery and quickly returned to his own neighborhood. In another sector there were two groups of symbols, a bear and a tiger. People of one group kept their distance from those of the other. We had arrived to see a Hawk carrying a heavy load accidentally bump into a Falcon. They began to argue and quickly switched to name calling and shouting. Right when I thought that they were going to begin a fist fight, the mayor ordered a stop to it siting that there were visitors to the station and how no one was to present a negative impression.

Tensions were mounting all over the station and I hoped that when the station finally erupts into civil war that we would be very far away. The tour ended back at the airlock to Rimfire where upon I took Dass and Larani aside and told them of my suspicions and recommended that all unnecessary trips to the station be prohibited. Dass was doubtful, but Larani knew me well enough to know my concerns were real. "We came here to defend this station. Now you want us to not even enter it?"

"These people appear to be very territorial. By wandering around, we could increase the general feelings of hostility. You don't realize the danger of this situation."

"Fine, I will restrict shore leave. But this will be hard to explain to the crew. Remember, after this mission, we are going to be in this ship for a long time. People are going to want a chance to see something else besides Rimfire halls. Groups of no less than four will be permitted to visit. Do you think that's fair?"

"Only if you discourage any visits and totally restrict the section where both the Bear and Tiger people are. That sector I'm most concerned about."

When the general announcement was made and I was asked to state my reasons for requesting the restriction. Dass was right in the sense that many people did want one last chance to be somewhere else than the Rimfire, but I do think they got the message. That night I slept naturally, to balance my use of the inducer. Since my contact with Laian was minimal, I predicted no psychic nightmares. But I was wrong, I saw four people in Rimfire uniforms hiding behind some crates. The dream was too blurry to clearly see the faces or where they were, but I did notice the gunfire in the distance. I woke up instantly and told the computer to give me a list as to who was on the ship.

Four people were unaccounted for, Larani, Mox, Harris, and Realan had failed to check in since they had left Rimfire several hours ago. Fearing the worst, I notified Dass and Cedric. Neither of them seemed too worried, Cedric said that Larani had told him of a party they heard about in the Wolf sector and Dass decided to be lax in enforcing the curfew. Checking with the security division on N-12 was of no help. They flatly refused to honor my request for information relating to any sort of disturbance in the Wolf sector. It looked like it was going to be up to me to save them. I stripped off my Rimfire uniform in exchange for my Edgerunner gear of an armored long coat, protective pants and several guns. As an after though, I attached my Special Operative badge to the outside of the coat.

The station was quiet. To simulate normal night and day, the lights were turned down very low and some were off entirely. When I passed through the Hawk sector, I could hear it, gunfire, semiautomatic weapons, and plenty of them. When I attempted to radio the Rimfire for help, I found that the communications blackout also affected my link to the others. Wolf sector was on the far side of the station and the party had extended a quarter way down the ring. The firefight began near the wall dividing the two sectors Falcon and Hawk. Their internal fighting was no real concern of mine, but it would be harmful to my rescue mission if I were to get hit. Every doorway leading to the next sector was crowded by the battle. I hid behind a demolished vehicle and waited for an opening. My chance came sooner than I expected in the form of a grenade. Its thrower was unknown, but the explosion it generated cleared the door long enough for me to pass through unnoticed. Apart from the two walls which separated Hawk sector from its neighbors, the street was quiet. Windows were dark and stores were closed. The only exception was a building clearly marked as a hospital which was buzzing with activity. Someone caught a glimpse of me and alerted the guards. Before I could leave, I found myself facing the business end of several rifles. "What Kin are you with?" one asked.

"Kin?" I asked in response.

The guard looked at my Overwatch badge and studied it for a moment. He returned his glance back to me and said, "Which Kin is Overwatch supporting? Do the want the Bear Kin to control this station or the Falcon Kin or what?"

"I don't care. That's not my decision to make. The only reason I'm here is because four of my crew got caught between sides and I'm the one who's going to save them. Now will you let me pass?"

The guard looked doubtful for a tense moment then he lowered his weapon. "You may pass." he said, "Then when you find your comrades, you may return here on the condition that you do not fight the Falcons or the Pythons. We will let them know you are coming so they won't attack. Remember this Special Operative, and tell your superiors how Kins Falcon and Python helped you so they will know who they will want controlling N-12."

It was a fair trade, safe passage through two sectors in exchange for a good word given to the UAA. The fact that the UAA was canned was something I choose not to reveal. In response, I nodded my agreement and returned to my trek. The Falcons were fighting against both the Hawk and the Megalith Kin. Like before, every passage between the two was being fought over. There was one door where the Megalith Kin appeared to be winning. With a final burst of weapons fire, the Falconers defending that door were killed. What I did was foolish, dangerous, and can be considered just plain stupid, but it was also the last things Megalith expected. They don't call me "Fox" for nothing!

I charged the group of victorious Megalithers with my two SMGs blazing. Unprepared for a second offensive, they were quick to fall. Using the dead bodies as a spring board, I lauchned myself into the new sector. Luckily, they were too busy closing the gap I had made to pay attention to me. When it was clear that I was not after them, they ignored me entirely and concentrated on the more dangerous enemy. This sector was like the Falcon's in its current state. Using teleoptics, I saw that beyond this sector was the Python's. Recalling the tour, the next sector was Wolf's, my current objective.

Python Kin were able to hold their own on the main door which got me swift access into their home. The reception was non-existent, but at least no one was threatening to kill me. Wolf must have had other plans tonight as there was only a small skirmish of about 5 people per side. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I stealthfully entered Wolf Sector.

Once inside, I tried my radio again. With the communications blackout only affecting intersector signals, Mox was able to respond. He whispered to me that he and the others were being held in a cell on the third story of a building. Realan had been shot in the arm. They were able to stop the bleeding, but it wasn't likely he'll be using that arm any time soon. However there were many buildings here which had at least three floors. Finding the right one wasn't going to be easy. Or was it?

One building had quite a bit of activity about it. Large boxes where being carried in by primitive construction mektons. Silently, I moved to the storage area and opened a box. Inside there was sheet metal, probable for station repairs. I removed enough sheets for me to fit into the box. I waited in the dark for about five minutes when I felt myself get picked up and carried. When I was finally set down, I paused for a second to wait for the pilot to begone and opened the box. To my surprise, I couldn't! Another box had been put onto of mine. Thinking quickly I kicked the sides until one of them gave. I enlarged the opening and slipped out just as some drone put another box in front of my last escape route. No one was around, so I ran up the stairs. As I expected, no one was here.

In this world of high-tech, I guessed correctly that everyone was using elevators. I opened the third floor door just a crack to check inside. I saw a sleepy guard at a desk. Slowly, I entered the room and looked around. The guard was protecting a jail cell where my friends were being held. It was a simple task to knock out the guard and open the cell. Everyone rushed out bleating their thanks.

Larani gave the expected explanation of, "The head of this sector gave us an invitation to a party in our honor. Some of the people here claimed to be from Karga and requested Ariel to make an appearance. It was a trap. When the fighting started the locals threw us in here and threatened to torture us unless we gave them information about the UAA. But before we could say anything there was a small explosion and the four of us were hustled in here. Do you think we can make it out?"

"Well I cut a deal with some of the Kin. But it won't solve all our problems. Either we make a break for the nearest friendly sector and work our way from there, or we head the other way and try to contact the Rimfire from outside the station." I passed out some of the weapons I brought and whatever the guard "donated".

Larani was dead set against contacting the Rimfire from the outside since it would violate the radio silence directive. Mox questioned Larani's sanity and the worthiness of the station in relation to saving it. Realan agreed, though not as loudly. Harris just wanted to go home to Rimfire as she supported Realan on her shoulder. "Captain, it is suicide to go back through there. It was tough enough alone. With four more people, one wounded, who are inexperienced at urban warfare your suggestion is like playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun! Besides, if we were to be monitored when we call for pickup, wouldn't it make our leaving N-12 more convincing?" I reasoned.

Everyone was surprised that I still considered this space spiral worth risking my life to save but agreed that my idea was sound. However that meant that we had to pass through the Bear and Tiger sector to make it out of the blackout zone. As we carefully moved down the stairs, I heard Realan ask Larani, "Russian roulette?" Larani could only shrug ignorantly.