Final Exams (pt. 2) (2008)

There were some odd looks from the new neighborhood’s guards, and they had secretly left a few bravos unconscious in corridors, but since they were better dressed than most Nyd denizens, Singe managed to convince the guards that they were Radlet pirates. Her story about meeting gangers in Nyd to unload substandard junk on the local rubes met with knowing chuckles. Raphe almost lost control and grinned. Guards were the same everywhere, bored and easily distracted. And these were easier thanks to Sargasso politics and internal jingoism.

Once they were far from the checkpoint, they found a place to stay in the manufacturing neighborhood. It was loud and smelled like year old eggs, but it was cheap and near enough to Yar’s Tiger, as well as Gerlan and Feohold. Fortunately, it seemed that people rented rooms in different neighborhoods on a regular basis. Probably station size and cross-neighborhood business.

The pair resisted celebrating—Talo said that was only appropriate back home after a successful mission—and settled in. Both hoped to be reunited with their squad and to complete the mission soon. Even so, they prepared to be on site for several months, if need be. Even if they found the target quickly, an opportunity to complete the mission may not arise. And then there was opportunity for extraction.

With these thoughts in mind, both crashed for much needed sleep in something more comfortable than a cockpit seat.

Morning found the pair aboard Yar’s Tiger pretending to be visitors interested in their supposed home’s history.

As they moved through the section devoted to the drift’s earliest days, Raphe took in the architecture and the artifacts. Based on his education, he guessed the museum was once a Republic destroyer. Singe confirmed the suspicion during a hushed conversation, adding that the design went obsolete over a century in the past. After looking over obvious replicas of old artifacts, the Humans wandered toward the Feohold section. The rooms contained more paintings, busts, and friezes of famous captains and dictators than artifacts as such. With no sign of their teammates there or in the Radlet section, the pair left the museum ship an hour after their arrival. To allay suspicion and keep from standing out, they left a token donation in the appropriate box by the door.

Once they were back in their room, Raphe watched as Singe broke out most of her gear, such as they’d been able to smuggle in. He had gone over his own minimalist gear before the meeting.

After a few minutes, he rose, saying, “I’ll see what I can find out. See what you can find in the neighborhood. Meet back here at three for Starhorse.”

After her distracted nod, he moved into the station and navigated the corridors back toward Feohold. His eyes roamed subtly even as he seemed to move with purpose. Raphe took in his surroundings and the locals, mildly impressed by their adaptation of the old ships. Of course, he thought, Sargasso was probably one of the largest stations in the Five Nations. Due to its construction, it was probably one of the most vulnerable too.

He slipped across the Feohold-Ethelridge border, maintaining his Radlet persona.

Once over, the Mehleen sought out a taphouse or caff bar. The briefing said Feoholders were predominantly traders. Therefore, he reasoned, they heard a lot of the drift’s business. And he could play to their desires, especially the base ones. Gathering intel was part of his brand of infiltration. If Mehleen information was correct, the Feoholders of Duria’s Fire were most interested in news and least interested in morality or ethics. Probably a good place to start seeking answers.

So it was that Raphe found himself sitting outside a bland caff bar that opened onto an old cargo hold. He occupied a surprisingly well crafted “outdoor” table and chair simply listening to other customers at first. In the process, he obtained a good idea of what was going on in the neighborhood and its neighbors. He also got to practice Leton’s trick of picking up accents. Most of the news consisted of the trifles commonly discussed by merchants. Raphe tuned those aspects out. Local politics gained his attention briefly, parsing out likely biases from actual fact occupied his mind until a possible informant came into sight.

Soon, he was having an animated, if roundabout, conversation with a young man from Discovery of Aesctown. Raphe couldn’t help but be pleased with his prospects. The kid, actually not much younger than the Mehleen, seemed to be the archetypal cloistered academic. Raphe learned quickly that he’d been sent to Feohold to shop for his master. And it was his first time away from the learning focused neighborhood. The kid, he forgot the name as soon as he heard it, was apprenticed to a sorcerer-historian, apparently once of some repute in Aesctown. Since he detected no concern about his lack of recognizing the master’s name, Raphe assumed she was only known in that neighborhood.

A couple hours and two lunches later, the Mehleen excused himself and reminded his young companion that he was late.

As the apprentice ran off, Raphe casually strolled back toward Ethelridge. He replayed a modified and condensed form of the conversation in his head on the way. Still, a part of his mind was aware of his surroundings, as he was made conscious of when his attention was drawn to a face across a market hold. Nothing looked out of place, but as he thought about it, Raphe swore he’d seen a familiar face. Which must have been a random pattern recognition illusion. After all, he’d been in the Collegium training program for the last six years and had little memory of his pre-training life, beyond his family. And there were no Mehleen on Sargasso beyond his squad.

He took a breath and exhaled to clear his mind and regain focus.

Although details could be helpful and coincidences were rarely coincidences, dwelling on them could be paralytic. And he needed to go over his information with Singe, hit the Starhorse, and scout out the station’s night life. Contacts on station would be good and there was some gear they could use that couldn’t be smuggled in. With luck, they’d meet up with the others, then he could pool resources with Leton.

Raphe arrived at the apartment a little before three. He had to wait for a few minutes before Singe returned.

Before he was conscious of moving, Raphe was in position offline to the door, his air-powered and silent needlegun in hand. She held up a wait sign and appeared to be listening at the door.

After a couple seconds, the demolitionist relaxed. In rapid succession, she signed a warning and possible tail. Raphe nodded, and knew not to speak about their business. The apartment may no longer be secure. Even without bugs, there were microphones and cybernetics that could pick up conversations from a distance.

“Found a buyer for those chips,” he said aloud, nodding toward the door. His holdout weapon vanished just before they went into the corridor. “So, good news for Berratt.”

Singe shrugged, “Good for Berratt, if he’s got the goods. Pietre wants to see us at Starhorse asap.”

“Pietre?” Raphe gestured for her to lead. So, if she had been followed, the tail had a problem. They could be going to the park, or that could be a rouse. The tail could get more info, or lose them.

The two kept up inane banter through Feohold and Oslen, occasionally sending a surreptitious hand signal. Throughout the walk, Raphe never detected a tail, nor did Singe indicate one. He had to hope they’d lost anyone, but assume they hadn’t.

Once they reached the ex-freighter, the pair relaxed somewhat. Raphe’s shoulders rolled and lost their tension, his partner’s posture gained some slack. Perhaps, he thought, it was the plant-life. Or the prospect of re-uniting the squad. Whatever the reason, he found himself enjoying the park. The freighter had been gutted to minimal structural support and filled with plants. As his eyes roamed, Raphe absently wondered where they’d gotten the soil.

The pair fell into unspoken roles instantly, Singe looking for their partners while Raphe kept an eye out for anyone showing an unhealthy interest in them.

After an hour with no sign of their squadmates, they left.

Rendezvous on the next two days also failed, but Raphe began to acquire contacts in the Feohold underworld. They were tentative, but something. On one hand, he figured their insularity made acceptance difficult. On the other, that same insularity meant that his story of being a Radlet denizen representing some pirates was well nigh impossible to disprove. Even with the progress he’d made, another couple months would be ideal to really get connected and trusted. Which was time he didn’t have. At least, he hadn’t seen any more familiar faces. That was something.

Singe spent her time working Ethelridge, finding backup boltholes and places she could quietly acquire equipment she might need.

By the end of their third day, both were convinced that their target wasn’t residing in either neighborhood. That left Gerlan, if he was going the comfort route. The ship Centauros might be an option, if he had major clout and wanted security. The capital of the drift would make their job much more difficult, were it his hideout. They didn’t find Leton and Kaly until the morning of their fourth day on the station.

In the Radlet section of Yar’s Tiger, Singe was approached by their teammates. The Orc slipped a message into her pocket in such a way that no bystander, not that there were many, noticed. A short while later, Elf and Orc left, arm in arm. After a couple minutes, the Humans followed with Singe reading the message as if she were checking directions.

By the next hour, all of the squadmates sat at a table in a Feohold bar.

Over glasses of a local distilled concoction, Raphe and Singe filled the others in on their news. Kaly then explained that they’d been on site for a week, but had only been able to get away without a tail that morning. Due to their cover stories, both had been put to work stripping and categorizing the fruits of Radlet’s piracy. Leton took over to say, “One of the other workers overheard a trader from Gerlan complaining about some outsider guest of the Council.”

“The target?” both Raphe and Singe said simultaneously.

“That’s my guess. Especially if you two are certain he’s not in Feohold.”

Singe nodded, “And I’ve checked Ethelridge, he’s far from there. And Raphe’s Aesctown contact’s got nothing there.”

“Even with eight other possibilities,” Kaly opined, “based on his file, we can eliminate at least five other the others. Gerlan’s most likely. Not that I buy that he’s really a guest in the traditional sense.”

Raphe nodded in turn, “Unless he sneaks out. The only other viable option I can see is Centauros, but I think there’d be more talk if he was there.”

The Elf nodded, “Very likely. The worker I talked to has quite a bit of contact with traders. They’d be buzzing if he was in Centauros.”

Kaly surveyed her unit. “Raphe, Singe, check out Gerlan. Maybe move into Beorchard, it’s closest, your call. Because of the jobs we’ve been given, we can’t get out often, at the risk of breaking cover. You two will have to do the preliminary work. We’ll try for more rumors or direction when possible. A day or two before we act, we should be able to get out and case the place. First priority is to identify and track.”

“Talo’s Lesson Seven,” Singe grinned.

The rest joined in their own ways as Raphe added, “Variation of the Ergus scenario.”

Every squad ran that training scenario. Even after six attempts, it had a mere twenty percent pass rate. Their unit had taken four tries before their first successful run.

A short time later, the group broke up with basic plans laid.

Raphe and Singe elected to remain in Ethelridge, largely to allay suspicions. It meant more transit time, but was outside even a broad search around Gerlan. Even if the neighboring areas were inclined to assist in said search. Because movements could possibly be traced, they did take the precaution of changing identities and cover stories. Raphe became a Feohold gem dealer looking for trade in Gerlan while Singe made minor changes to become a vagrant freelance guard, looking for a personal or property protection job. He could catch rumors, she could hack an employer’s computer.

By noon, both were separately crossing Feohold on two different levels.

The infiltration specialist did his best to blend in with the crowd. A few days in Feohold had given him a good idea of common attire. Not as great as Leton’s knowledge would have been, but he hoped it was enough to pass a cursory look. He’d left all his arms save only the pocket needlegun and a flat, barely threatening, knife, both well concealed and immune to any detection short of a strip search.

His cover identity ended up aiding in the security issue. Apparently, the neighborhood guards were used to blustering Feoholder merchants who refused to be searched. He heard a few tales of small, valuable pieces of stock going missing in such searches. To allay suspicions, Raphe followed suit and threatened to go to the Gerlan council if he was searched, after complaining to Feohold’s dictator, of course. The guards waved him through, only halfway through the routine tirade.

A few yards from the border, Raphe veered to the left, across what was once the ballroom of a small liner.

He followed a few other dealers toward the neighborhood’s fine goods market. Due to the speed of creating his cover, he didn’t actually have any gemstones on his person, but supposedly he was a new employee sent to scope out the market. And within minutes, he was pretty certain that the market would be horrible and his fictitious employers would be upset. From what he saw, the entire neighborhood was the station equivalent of farmland. Or at least a good percentage was. Everywhere he looked there were hydroponic facilities, until he neared the center of Gerlan. There, Raphe finally came across shops and government offices, based on the signage and windows. Most appeared to be offering distribution services to other neighborhoods.

Noting a lack of his favorite places to acquire information, Raphe settled for entering one of the shops. He chose one near what he guessed was a government building. With a little luck, that meant the patronage would come from government servants. He realized that the place dealt in personal electronics, and their repair, after a few seconds. A quick look around netted the infiltrator a couple talking points. The moment that a young Dwarf entered the room, from a back area, Raphe made a snap decision.

“Is that really a Draan dynasty Imperial short range comm? Monus War era?” he asked, pointing to the device.

After a second of stunned incomprehension, the Dwarf nodded, “Repaired it last week.”

Raphe’s look of disbelief was not entirely feigned.

“Really,” the young man insisted, “Works perfectly now, it’s in great condition.”

“I didn’t think any existed anymore, not after the mark III’s primary plant was bombed near the end of the war.” In fact, the whole planet had been rendered uninhabitable for two centuries. Re-colonization had only just started a couple years before he’d entered training.

The Dwarf grinned. “Human off Indomitable brought it in a month ago, sold it as junk,” he said, a hint of price entering his voice, “I scavenged parts and rebuilt it. Might be the last working mark I in existence. Two thousand Drift creds, hard currency only, and it’s yours.”

“Sorry, friend,” Raphe shook his head at the price, “out of my range. The old bosses don’t pay enough for that.” He came closer and leaned on the counter. “Name’s Telyn. You have any other collectables a bit more in a working man’s range?”

“Satem, apprentice here,” came the reply, “If it’s Imperial comms you’re into, there’s a Koru-dynasty civilian short range around somewhere, third emperor, first decade, I think. Based on the markings and internal wiring. It’s missing a couple pieces, but should be fixable.”

Two hours later, Raphe left with an elegant and slightly old comm unit of Clanhold-Alliance design under his arm. He was still mentally sorting through the chatter, determining good information from chaff. The circumstantial evidence seemed to support Leton and Kaly’s theory. They hadn’t directly discussed the council or its guest, but the Mehleen picked up enough subtext to confidently state that something was out of place in Gerlan and it had an outsider at its root. And he’d say the outsider was a non-stationer with reasonable certainty, given the Dwarf kid’s familiarity with not only the other neighborhoods but with off-station tech. In fact, Gerlan as a whole seemed quite comfortable with the rest of the drift. Unless there was an inter-neighborhood political current he was missing, the disturbance had to originate with an off-stationer.

But, one source, even two, wasn’t enough to confirm things. Not on a mission this important.

He walked a fair distance from Satem’s shop to avoid being conspicuous before looking for another opportunity.

As he turned to enter a jewelers, Raphe’s attention was caught by movement in the corner of his eye. He was careful to make his change of direction seem to be a change of heart, as he’d been taught. After a quick glance, he decided that it hadn’t been a face that was familiar, it was a, well, a way of moving. Even as he surreptitiously scanned the crowd, the Mehleen couldn’t see anyone, but he saw where they’d been. His trained eyes spotted the signs of someone moving through the mass of people. It was what he experienced when he watched Leton, Kaly, or Singe blend and trail through a packed area. Whoever it had been was good, not a specialist, but good nonetheless.

The question was, did the person follow him or someone else?

Recalling Singe’s tail and his own odd encounter, Raphe had to assume the former. He continued into the jeweler’s with that in mind, the better to avoid too much attention. A couple hours and a few shops later, the Mehleen was certain he’d achieved his purpose. Generalized questions had confirmed Satem’s impressions and reinforced his own conviction that their target was in the neighborhood. And he’d gotten a good feel for the layout of Gerlan’s core ships as well as the local policing. Based on observation, he placed the latter as roughly equal to Commonwealth police forces in powers, equipment, and training. Better for security than the Alliance, worse than Imperials. So, not the best possible world for the team, but far from a worst case scenario.

The day’s reconnaissance complete, Raphe passed back through Feohold toward Ethelridge. Despite his best attempts to spot a tail, he saw nothing and no one out of the ordinary on his return trip. Once in the apartment, though, he swept the place for listening devices and other undesirables using a couple devices he and Singe had constructed from local parts. After her incident, they decided to keep the place and be careful, both determining that moving may be suspicious.

He just started getting some food out when Singe arrived.

A quick flurry of hand signs followed and indicated that she wasn’t followed, he wasn’t followed, and that he’d swept the place.

While he finished the meal, the other Human said, “I’m pretty sure he’s in Gerlan. Good news is the Council rooms aren’t his location. A few freelancers I talked to said the Council’s personal security shows up at Wond’s about every morning and escorts someone toward Rotse, and comes back the same evenings.” Apparently the stayover was a mid-to-high end place located a few decks from the neighborhood capital’s administration decks, on a different ship. After Singe gave him what information she could, Raphe passed on his own news, this time including his possible shadow.

She reacted with the question he both expected and had trouble answering.

“You think it was a local?”

Raphe shrugged, “What are the other options? It definitely wasn’t your tail from before, this was no amateur.”

“Where do we go from here? If there’s someone with our training following you . . .”

“Check with Kaly?” he suggested, “It’s her show. But, I’d like to try to catch my shadow, if it was even after me. And Wond’s needs to be cased, with the Council’s security pattern.” An amateur might just shoot the guy on the next morning, and wouldn’t survive beyond that point. Which was why there were professionals on this job. So, he wanted to see patterns and where there were weak points. Kaly’d make the final decision, but they all wanted everyone to have a chance to escape afterwards.

The other Human nodded. “Alright. You check out the place, I’ll meet Kaly or Leton. That way your tail won’t find them, if it hasn’t already. I’ve been working on some homemade shape charges as backup, so keep an eye out for places to set them as insurance. If all else fails, we can go amateur and blow the compartment or hull.”

He didn’t bother asking. Singe’d know the structural integrity of the Wond’s ship already, he bet, and knew her explosives.

Two days later, Raphe returned to the apartment to find his squadmate assembling what he assumed were the homemade bombs on the small place’s lone table. A quick glance told him that her procurement trips had been quite fruitful. Beyond the stuff that made tiny things out of large things, he spotted basic gear for Leton and Kaly, as well as upgraded firepower and close-in surprises. They all hoped to avoid a close up firefight, not least because those tended to get messy and draw the authority’s attention, but things rarely went according to plan. His own preference would be a long rifle from at least a hundred yards, not likely anywhere on Sargasso. So that left close up or indirect. The latter was uncertain, too many variables, and could get even messier than a firefight. Thus, the last option.

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