Final Exams (pt. 1) (2008)

Raphe crouched in the darkness and assessed his situation.

He still had eight of the ten shots in his blaster. Good. Eighteen opponents out of twenty were down, and he hadn’t actually shot any of them. Finesse and skill. The exit was a mere seventeen yards away . . . with both of his last opponents flanking it. They had body armor and carbines, openly worn. He had no armor and very little remaining beyond the blaster. A firefight was the obvious answer, hit one before they knew he was there. That would leave seven shots for the last one. He might even be able to pull off two clean head shots. The Ayma training blaster wasn’t as accurate as his preferred electromag rifle over distance, but it should be enough. But firefights were messy and lacked finesse. Even if he passed, Master Talo would be disappointed if the victory lacked finesse.

Balanced on the balls of his feet, Raphe closed his eyes. He took a deep breath through his nose and slowly released it through his mouth as he’d been taught in order to calm himself and find his center.

There was a solution that would balance mission completion, efficiency, and finesse. He just had to find it.

A few more cleansing breaths passed before the solution revealed itself to him.

Seven minutes later, Raphe stood with the rest of his team before the board of instructors overseeing their exams. They’d been training together for so long that he could picture them while keeping his eyes on the masters. Leton, the tallest member of the team, would be standing with the bland mask of stoicism that only the long life of an Elf and years of training in the art of disguise could perfect. Fortunately, Leton’s beloved tech devices, Collegium designed and modified by the Elf, were stowed and silent. To Leton’s left would be Singe. The compact woman would be working to restrain her impatience. Probably deconstructing bombs in her head. He’d heard her solution to the final guards—probably a pound of explosives that she must’ve managed to smuggle into the exam. Impressive, since they’d been snatched directly from their bunks. Last, and to his immediate right, would be Kaly, their Orc and team computer expert. Not that she was a slouch with blade or fist. There was still a bruise on his chest from their last sparring session. She’d be quietly confident, hands behind her back, feet exactly shoulder width apart, a stance he tried to mimic.

The masters were another story. Seven of them seated in shadow and with hoods covering their faces. Very traditional.

Master Talo, their unit instructor, would be among them.

Maybe the one with its hood pointed vaguely toward Singe.

The silence stretched, obviously intended to see if they would snap or show signs of stress.

Or impatience, in Singe’s case.

Finally, the central figure cleared its throat. When it spoke, Raphe recognized the voice masker they’d trained with years ago.

“The board finds that Raphe passes, seven to zero. Kaly passes, seven to zero. Singe passes, five to two. Leton passes, six to one.” Which was why the board was hooded, no Mehleen could then know who voted against him or her. “As the highest scorer on all the tests over the last two weeks, the board officially names Kaly as team leader. You are all now named Mehleen, with all the benefits, duties, and responsibilities that come with this conferral of title. Conduct yourselves with the honor of your person, your families, and the People always in mind. Know that any team is replaceable and the masters will not hesitate to make examples of dishonored, weak, or failed teams and their members.”

Four voices answered as one, “We accept and understand, masters.”

The hooded figure on the end rose.

“You are all dismissed. Report to Kunil at dawn for your first assignment.”

Dawn found the team seated in one of the training building’s numerous briefing rooms. They took up half the desks, facing the instructor’s lectern and the display board. Not yet entirely wakeful after a night of celebrations, Raphe observed the rest of the team. Singe was clearly doing her best to surreptitiously nurse a hangover. Leton had his characteristically bland look of stoicism. To his familiar eyes, Kaly appeared tired and anxious. Her first command. He doubted anyone outside the team, except maybe Master Talo, would catch the signs or interpret just how anxious she was. A non-Mehleen would probably consider her perfectly calm, whereas she was easily the most agitated he’d ever seen her.

They only had to wait a few more seconds before a diminutive man, barely up to Raphe’s waist, entered the room.

All four rose automatically in the instant before the door opened. They bowed as one to the Gnome master as he strode to the podium. Master Kunil’s people were rare in the Mehleen, the most recent species adopted by the culture, but were no less respected than the others.

Once they were seated, Kunil brought up a photo on the display screen.

“Your first assignment will not be an easy one,” he said as preamble, “But as Mehleen, you knew that may happen as few assignments are easy. And you are aware that first assignments have a seventy percent survival rate. But this one is especially challenging. The man behind me is your target. We neither know nor care what he has done. The elders accepted the job, therefore they are satisfied. This target has eluded capture by the Empire, the Republic’s Patrol, and the CFL. He has survived at least three previous assassination attempts, all believed to be executed by the Republic’s foreign intelligence agency. This is likely why the Mehleen were contracted. All information regarding the target’s history, previous attempts, and his patterns have been loaded onto your comps. What makes this assignment notably difficult is his location. He has been traced to a place called Sargasso Drift. The Five Nations believe this station to be a pirate myth. We know where it is located and that data too is in your comps. This is an especially closed community, smuggling in most gear, including the vast majority of weapons, is quite probably impossible. In fact, most people brought to the drift are captives. How you manage insertion and extraction is your decision. A small converted freighter can be assigned to aid extractions, if you wish it. Any questions?”

The team looked to Kaly who asked, “Master, will we stand out without species disguises?”

“No. That is one reason your team was chosen. Humans and Orcs are the largest groups on the drift.”

At the Orc’s nod, Leton asked, “Do we have any of their captains who might be bribed to ‘capture’ a team?”

“A list of known Sargasso captains is on your comps. None have been open to bribes, but their usual territory is on the list.”

Raphe and Singe simultaneously added, “Is there detail on the place’s layout?”

Kunil nodded, “It has been loaded. Other questions?”

He surveyed the room.

“Then, you are dismissed. The contract specifies that the assignment will be completed within three weeks. Leave as soon as possible. Good hunting.” With that, the Gnome packed up his few pieces of equipment and left the team to deliberate.

Raphe and Leton had the drift schematics and description respectively called up before Kunil was out of the room. Their squadmates compared gear notes at the same time. All four were aware of the challenge they faced. Infiltrating a station was difficult at the best of times, but a paranoid and very insular station was worse.

They all came together about twenty minutes later.

Leton pointed to a pair of neighborhoods on the map. “Feohold and Radlet. Both neighborhoods are good insertion points, specializing in slavers and piracy. We should be able to set up a scenario in which to be captured.”

Raphe noted two others, “I’d favor Nyd Drift. It’s anarchic and near the fringe of the drift. Easy infiltration point. Better than Ing Landing which is too close to the drift’s center.”

The team leader thought things over before adding, “Singe would like to try to bring a fair amount of gear. I don’t need much. I’ll go with Leton and be captured. We can pass as tourists or something near a slaving or pirate point. Leton, start on identities. I’ll find a good ship for passage. Raphe, you and Singe will attempt infiltration at Nyd Drift. You two can bring us some gear with your own.”

Raphe nodded. A plan was forming as he considered the station layout. Its very structure, a conglomerate of old and new capital ships, could be used in their favor. He moved to sit with the demolitions expert and outlined a possible plan. With a Mehleen ship, a cramped, compact two-man shuttle, they could slip up to the drift. Especially with Singe piloting. Given the structure of the place, there were bound to be forgotten airlocks. And since the Nyd area had no central authority, the chances of organized and swift detection were slim. If they could rig the ship to move off to a safe distance under its own control, even better. They ought to be able to escape the neighborhood with their skills. And that would only leave smuggling gear across the neighborhood borders. Gerlan was the most likely place for their target to setup as home. The info portrayed it as a comfortable trade hub, a place where someone could hide out without giving up any creature comforts.

Kaly broke into their deliberations.

“We will rendezvous on Yar’s Tiger in the morning, after arrival. Backup site will be Starhorse in the late afternoon,” she said, meaning follow the pattern of returning to both at roughly the same time each day. Thus, they would find each other eventually, while seeking their target during the rest of the day. “Extraction plans can wait until we see what’s on the ground.”

The other three nodded agreement before they all left the briefing room to see about their own preparations.

The squad gathered at the facility’s dock the next day. Rather than leave from the community port and lose time, they planned to leave the afternoon after receiving their assignments, and from the nearest port. Raphe and Singe had authorization for a small ship that was barely more than an FTL drive with seats. The other two were scheduled to pick up a chartered freighter a few score lightyears away. Raphe looked over their gear and accepted responsibility for Kaly and Leton’s traditional Mehleen knives. It wouldn’t do for them to be caught with obvious signs of membership in what outsiders called the Collegium. He stowed them in his pack alongside a pair of hand sized holdout needle guns and other gear he was carrying for them. A few parting words had the Humans in their ship and their partners headed with civilian gear to their shuttle.

Raphe reviewed the plan as Singe did her pre-flight check. If all went according to plan, Kaly and Leton would pick up a chartered freighter and make its cargo and route enticing. They’d be picked up by Radlet based pirates, captured, and brought to that neighborhood. Meanwhile, he would lead Singe in infiltrating Nyd Drift. If everything worked, they should arrive on Sargasso at roughly the same time. Assuming the plans did not work, at least half the team should be on station to carry out the contract. In theory.

Any other plans would have to wait until phase one was complete, he thought as the ship took off.

The infiltration expert remained silent until they jumped. Since even a few days in the cramped stealth ship would try anyone’s patience, he didn’t want to get off on a bad foot with his normally constantly moving partner. Freck, the ship would probably try even his patience, and he’d been trained to sit in one place for days waiting for a perfect shot.

Once they jumped, he handed a packet forward over her shoulder.

“What’s our ETA?”

Singe snagged the drink pouch without looking.

“Three days to STL range, another day or two from there.”

Depended on the drift and its ship patrols. How much they had to dodge, of course. The first couple days would be dull and cramped. Raphe shifted in his seat, maybe half a hand’s breadth purchase when he totaled both sides. And all the gear was in stowage, only accessible when the hatch was open or by moving his seat.

He switched gears to take their minds off the trip and asked, “So . . . how’d you get that explosive into the last test?”

Singe’s bark of laughter preceded, “Kept it as a liner to my belt all week, and kept the belt on me all the time. Surprised no one noticed.”

He laughed along with her. “Oh, wouldn’t put anything past old Talo.”

“I did worry about him . . . thought he suspected once,” she said as he imagined her grin.

Raphe thought for a few seconds. Then, “You think Kien was on the panel?” The two were well known adversaries, which also included their students. Master Kien’s classes had always been the hardest for the team. As Master Talo’s were for Kien’s squad. A little healthy competition was encouraged, even though those two pushed things a bit.

“It would explain why Leton’s vote wasn’t perfect and why you weren’t named squad leader.”

The next couple hours passed in silence as Raphe considered the theory. Honestly, it made sense. Kien was known for his distaste for Elves. He wasn’t quite one of the purist wackos who wanted to turn the Mehleen back two thousand years to the all Humans days, but close. And Raphe had to admit that putting Kien’s star pupil to shame in the sniper trials over the last four years certainly didn’t put him in Kien’s good graces.

Not that he wanted squad leadership.

In fact, he’d been avoiding command and nudging Kaly and Leton toward it for years. That kind of responsibility was definitely not his thing. Never mind that old Talo’d said he was a natural leader and hoped he’d take charge.

Singe had evidently become bored with his silence. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed a novel on her screen. Probably one of those future stories she liked so much. They were about the only thing besides bombs that would calm her down. He’d never seen the appeal, preferring non-fictional histories himself, but had to admit that they worked. Give her one of those and Singe reached a level of absorption that he both envied and shied away from.

Still, she had a good idea. Better to read now while it was still novel enough to actually have the time.

Raphe called up a new history of the CFL that he’d been wanting to get to. The fact that they’d failed to catch the target was an added bonus. Maybe he could find something tangentially useful while reading for fun. With that thought, he got himself a drink packet and settled back to kill a few silent hours.

The next couple days reminded Raphe of Master Talo’s endurance exercises—twelve hours of sitting watching a target point from an uncomfortable seat. Any time they moved more than a fraction of an inch at a time, the whole class’ countdown reset. Once they went two days without food or sleep, resetting more times than he could count, before the master was satisfied.

Finally they came out of jump with indicators flashing. The last of several jumps.

Raphe checked his board while Singe cut their forward thrust.

“ECM is green,” he reported, “Scan’s showing a distance of . . . right on the mark. Nice plotting.”

Singe grunted, “Alright, all non-essentials are down for the next hour. The stealth hull and ECM should keep us out of sight for a while. And passive scan is excellent. Take your time and pick a target.”

The infiltration expert spent the next six hours doing exactly that. After mapping the section of the drift that he wanted, he pinpointed airlocks and other access points, setting the computer to track ship traffic near likely spots. Meanwhile, he knew, Singe would be studying the over all ship traffic, getting a feel for the rhythms and the holes. As an extra bonus, their target neighborhood seemed to lack much exterior coverage. Probably the disorganization of the neighborhood. Add in the closed, even clannish, nature that the drift’s inhabitants were supposed to have and it really wasn’t surprising. Which was exactly what he’d hoped for. Well, that and a hope their ships were running outdated ECCM. Very likely given the state of decay of Nyd Drift. They all assumed that Eohton would have the best military equipment.

After a brief reconstituted meal, he tapped the pilot’s shoulder.

“Whenever you’re ready. I’ve got three possibles, will map all on approach.”

Singe gave him a thumbs up and engaged the thrusters at their lowest practical level. The minimal power usage combined with the hull and high grade ECM should, Raphe thought, help them evade detection. The speed and their position added thirty-six hours to approach, but that was worthwhile.

Once Singe had them moving, all he could do was sit back and watch the incoming scan data.

Although they were virtually drifting to their target, Raphe felt the occasional bump as his partner corrected their course or dodged a ship from Sargasso. Their tiny craft only had minimal inertial reduction capability in order to leave enough artgrav to avoid bone density and muscle loss. A few hours into the careful flight, Raphe discounted one of his options. He made a decision on the other two sites soon after, based on their speed, trajectory, and ability to alter course. And the fact that several patrol ships had parked over one of them in the last nine hours.

“Got a target,” he told his pilot, as he sent the lock’s location to her screen.

Singe acknowledged receipt with, “Got it . . . could you find a trickier landing?”

“Figured it’d be a cakewalk,” he shot back, “Since you’re the best pilot in the Collegium.” Not entirely true, but flattery never hurt.

“Hmm.”

“Can’t do it? The other option’s been crawling with patrol ships.”

“Well, at least it’s minimal course corrections,” she replied. “And it’s dead. No activity since we arrived.” The last added as Raphe fed over his raw data from observation. “Guess that’s it. Any ideas on the lock?”

He shrugged, forgetting that she couldn’t see him. Then, “It’s old, but our lock’s pretty near universal. And if all else fails, there’s the torch.” Not as fun as explosives, he knew, but the laser torch was more precise, quieter, and wouldn’t kill them.

Raphe settled back to watch the traffic and keep quiet as his partner set the ship into a slow spiral. One reason his entry of choice was tricky and had no traffic over it was its location. In another, larger, ship, he wouldn’t have suggested it. The old lock was on the dorsal side of one of the drift’s component ships, an old heavy freighter that couldn’t have seen service in the last two decades at least. Normally, this would be an easy insertion requiring only that they spin their ship since their own lock was dorsal. In this case, the ship was part of Sargasso’s second layer of three, linked to other ships by corridors, shared or removed walls, or, in this case, lifts. Singe would have to thread the space between the freighter and an equally old commercial transport located a few dozen meters above it. There was just enough clearance, he knew, if she calculated the approach right. And their ship would be well concealed there, with even a little luck, for potential extraction. Assuming no Nyd residents managed to get in and swipe it. The chance that they might not need extraction didn’t occur to him.

After a time, he went over to reviewing information about the drift, what little they had, with one eye on local ships.

Feohold appeared to be a likely place for their target. Predominantly a trade neighborhood of over thirty large ships, it created a lot of places in which to lose oneself, and a lot of escape routes. Their own insertion point was least likely. But, the Sargasso was immense and old. According to the records, each of the Five Nations had been trying to find the station for nearly a century. Presumably the place could move in STL and used misdirection to remain hidden. The lock they were heading for was on a ship that, if the scans were correct, was at least two centuries in age, Yiron’s Luck. The Mehleen database showed public records that the ship vanished, supposedly to pirates, and that searches gave up after a few weeks. Raphe absently wondered how many other lost or supposedly destroyed ships were in Sargasso Drift.

Much later, both Mehleen checked their gear for the third and last time in Yiron’s Luck’s airlock.

Pleased with the weight distribution, Raphe attached a small device to the airlock’s inner control panel. While it cycled through combinations, he placed another item on the inner door itself and glanced at Singe. When she looked at her wrist and shook her head, he nodded. Geophone was negative except background vibration, bioscan negative. There shouldn’t be anyone within sight of the lock.

He drew his palm sized air-powered needlegun as the geophone returned to a pocket, just in case. Singe drew her own as the lock device clicked open.

She ducked into the corridor and checked both directions as he retrieved the device.

The needleguns were silent and poisoned, but he still hoped not to shoot anyone yet. There’d be bodies to dispose of.

Fortunately, the hall was clear. It was run down, complete with missing wall and deck plates, exposed ducts and wiring, and rust, but no signs of life. Part of Raphe’s mind waited for their luck to turn. Skill could only account for so much of their success so far.

Technically in charge now that they’d left the ship, he flashed silent hand signs to Singe. Their own squad language sufficed to give her a direction, that was easy. They were on the outer edge and wanted to work their way inward. He took a left from the airlock toward a t-junction that looked like it went their way.

After a couple yards, the corridor turned again to reveal another dotted with empty doorways and trash. Coughs and groans, followed by shushing noises, came from the rooms. Raphe nodded and made the needlegun vanish, assuming Singe would follow suit. They proceeded to creep down the corridor, hoping to get by without attracting much notice. This seemed like the kind of place where people heard little and saw even less.

Similar areas went by until they were stopped short by a large open space.

From the looks of things, the pair concluded that the natives had converted the old ship’s hold into a marketplace. Singe guessed a hundred or two people moving around and Raphe had to agree. She was, he thought, better at assessing large group sizes. He focused on small groups, like guards, and individuals.

He glanced over the outfits that Leton had chosen for them. Nothing stood out screaming assassin or foreigner, so far as he could see. All their gear was stowed in concealed pockets, save only his NMT electromag pistol and Singe’s Cyntec R-17 blaster. Both weapons were common enough among pirates and smugglers and were likely expected in this neighborhood.

“All right,” he muttered more to himself than Singe, “First test. Just walk across, we’re local bravoes. And let’s hope Leton’s disguises work.”

Raphe saw his partner’s lips moving and allowed her the silent prayer before they stepped out into the open.

The moment they left the corridor, he blended with the motion of the crowd. Singe followed with a bit less fluidity and finesse, but managed to keep up. As they walked with confidence and just a hint of a swagger, they passed stalls offering all kinds of junk goods for trade. Or so Raphe classed it. The stuff he caught out of the corner of his eye wouldn’t make a credit in any other market. He led Singe, though, in looking over the wares of several stalls and unconsciously adopting the mannerisms of a few real toughs, probable gang lackeys, moving around them.

The key trick was to look like they belonged. Thus, years of training kept Raphe from glancing at his partner to see how she was doing in the masquerade. They also kept him moving at a sedate pace, neither too slow nor too fast, across the hold.

During one faked look at merchandise, he spotted an exit in the direction they needed. With an air of disgust that owed nothing to his acting, he steered their course toward the new corridor. Two stalls later, he was bumped by another bravo. Raphe’s hand dropped to his sidearm even as his brain said posturing. He growling at the Elf in broken Elven, noting that Singe had her eye on the guy’s Orc companion.

Some empty posturing later, the Mehleen continued on their way.

Raphe made a mental note to thank Master Talo for his infiltration training and Leton’s acting coaching.

After a couple hours, the pair passed across the border between Nyd Drift and Ethelridge.

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