Final Exams (pt. 3) (2008)

After her last trip to see Kaly, Singe passed on their timetable. They’d decided to make a play the next day, after the Council guards dropped him off. There’d be minimal security, the target would likely relax after a day doing whatever he did, and what passed for police would be undergoing a shift change, if Leton’s sources were correct. The Elf had been managing to sneak out and conduct a couple recon runs of his own the last two days.

All of which was why the Elf and Orc arrived at their door in the late morning.

Most of the gear was concealable, including the four old comm sets Raphe had procured from Satem the other day. He figured there’d be no suspicion from the Dwarf after his cover. Once they were all set, Kaly reviewed the plan for everyone, knowing that once they passed the last abort time, there’d be no second chance. If things blew up, they’d be lucky to get off the station. Everything in place, the squad headed toward Gerlan, Elf and Orc as bravos, Raphe reprising his gem dealer role, and Singe taking a different route as an odd job seeker complete with explosives packed toolbox. She even carried some Gerlan maintenance identification that Raphe managed to acquire for after she was safely across the border.

He took up his position in a little used corridor near the sleepover. According to the plan, he had the least distance to go, so he used the remaining time to check his gear. Most importantly, Raphe checked the blast carbine they’d managed to find. It was old, nearly antique, and he’d prefer a much more accurate laser or EM rifle, but it should punch through any of the target’s defenses. Most of those would, admittedly, be focused on lasers since those were favored by assassins for their accuracy.

As ready as possible, Raphe checked the time and called in his prep status. Kaly’s and Leton’s voices replied affirming that they were in position. A short while later, as Raphe spotted the security detail coming down the street-corridor, Singe called in her readiness.

The sniper watched their target and security go past.

He waited for the man to enter Wond’s before he counted down the time.

A few seconds behind schedule, the lights in their target’s room turned on.

Well within variables, Raphe thought as he started to signal the others.

He’d just thumbed the antique comm to transmit when the sleepover’s window shattered and the target came out backwards. He watched the body tumble nearly thirty feet to the deck, where it hit head first with an audible crack.

Rather than report, he called, “Abort. Repeat, abort. Another team’s in the game and they just won.” Raphe repeated the message twice before cutting comms. It was the only thing that made sense, because neither Kaly nor Leton, no one, would change the plan without saying something.

The abort given and confirmed by Kaly, Raphe only remained long enough to try a quick, distance, bio-scan to confirm that the corpse was their target and not a fake. In the process, he caught sight of two others much closer to the body and quite interested in it. He had the handheld scanner get information on them before he turned and melded into the growing crowd. The carbine, lacking prints or other identifying marks, dropped into the first trash incinerator he passed. The rest of the team would be abandoning much of their illicit gear on their way back to the predetermined regrouping site.

On the way through Gerlan, he operated on autopilot with most of his consciousness focused on replaying the scene. Every time he analyzed the last several minutes, Raphe became further convinced of his initial impression. The execution was a classic—high yield laser or blaster shot to the head, blow through to destroy the window, throw him out to be sure. It was more flashy than most liked, but had been part of their own study at the Collegium. Masters there called it the Illya Method, after a famous Mehleen mistress who used it as a sort of calling card. In fact, Master Drorn, one of her figurative descendants, was said to favor the method as well. Which didn’t mean the technique was limited to Mehleen use.

Half an hour later, having just gotten past Gerlan security before they closed the access points, Raphe followed the last couple turns to throw off pursuit. Certain that he hadn’t been followed, he made his way to the rendezvous site in Ethelridge. The instant he saw Kaly and Singe, he said, “Illya Method?”

The question drew surprise and concern from the other Human, but the Orc nodded. She’d been the only other one in a position to see the attack itself.

“Definitely another team on the playing field,” Kaly agreed, “I didn’t get a look at any of the players.”

“A man followed me a bit on the way here, but I lost him in Gerlan,” Singe said, “At first I thought it might be Raphe, he moved the same way, when I got a glimpse.”

Raphe nodded, “Hate to say it, but it looks like we were set up. I spotted two when I did the confirmation scan. Definitely Mehleen movement, Sikcula or Millun, I think.” They’d trained with and against students of other masters enough to recognize the styles. And they’d worked on identifying both security and intel operatives from every nation by their stances. As Master Talo drummed into their heads, knowledge was power and even the smallest edge was an edge. Then, he added, “Where’s Leton?”

“If he wasn’t sidetracked or caught,” Singe considered, “he should be about halfway across Cending by now . . . give him about fourteen to get here. He took the most scenic route.”

And, Raphe thought, add another five because the plan had been blown. Leton would be triply careful about being followed.

“No way to contact the council or Talo until we’re well off-station,” Kaly summed up the situation in the meantime. “So, I suggest we assume the other players are a backup team, to be sure we could get the high profile job done, being beginners to some extent. They got itchy, thought we’d taken too long or failed, and moved on their own. At least until we hear otherwise. Which means we evacuate, once Leton’s safe, and head for the rendezvous point before going home to report.”

Singe almost gave herself whiplash from shaking her head. “No. I’m not going back empty-handed with a failure. The target may have been wiped by someone else, but we need to find out who. Or at least try to.”

“Much as I agree,” Raphe got in before their leader, “This place’ll be hot for a couple weeks. Security’s always tightest after an incident, everyone wants to be seen being vigilant at their posts. And if this was a backup team, they’re senior to us and will be impossible to find due to experience alone.”

“Exactly why we need to figure out extraction now,” Kaly said, “You know he’s right, Singe.”

The demolitionist refused to budge, “What would Master Talo say if we didn’t at least confirm they’re Mehleen?”

“You think I haven’t considered that?” Kaly’s voice rose, before she regained control. “You think I want to start out with a failed command? You should know better than that! But better a failure in command than losing the entire squad on its first mission.”

“She does have a point,” Raphe hedged, “Master Talo would be frecking mad if we can’t confirm that a Mehleen team completed the contract. And if they aren’t Mehleen, honor dictates that we wipe them to save face.” Not that he truly believed the other team were anything but Mehleen. “Maybe we should wait for Leton’s report.”

Kaly sighed. “Alright. Compromise. Singe, check all the comm chatter we can catch. Raphe, extraction plan based on current situation and projections for the next twelve hours. I’ll try to hack the comp, see if I can find out more. When Leton gets in, he can cover what he’s seen and we’ll decide what to do.”

As Singe gathered the comms and a couple backups they’d stowed and the Orc crouched over the computer terminal, he started trying to get them out of the station. Unfortunately, everything that came to mind at first relied too heavily on the myriad neighborhoods remaining territorial and disorganized. Although he thought it likely that the response would be chaotic, counting on chaos to work in their favor was not exactly how Raphe wanted to get out. Too much chaos and things fell apart, just enough was good but could spiral too easily. And, he decided, any plan would have to be open to periodic revision, in case they did stay and it had to be postponed. Every six hours seemed about right, for broad strokes. Specifics would change by the second once the plan, or plans, was in action.

By the time Leton made it back to the group point, a couple hours late, Raphe had the start of a few extraction plans in mind. They were all nebulous, but for the time he’d spent and minimal information, they’d have to do.

The Elf explained that he had gone across the border into Cending mere minutes before the sorcerers called for a lock down and shut off all access. “As near as I can tell,” he related, “they did it because of the assassination, but not to help Gerlan. The main corridors and halls were blocked by guards. The word I picked up seemed to tend toward the sorcerers being worried about their own safety. Some locals said they do it anytime there’s an incident in a neighbor’s territory.” Common lock downs meant the locals had developed ways around them, of course. Raphe guessed there were back corridors and ways through the ships’ walls all over Cending neighborhood.

His thoughts were interrupted by Kaly.

“Could you see clearly, Leton? Who got there before us?”

“Not enough that I can identify them, but they were professionals.” The Elf considered, “All the local incidents we’ve managed to hear about . . . seems like the local are amateurs by my standards. Prefer poisons and brawls, maybe accidents. These people used planning and fair weaponry, an old A-17 concussion grenade to take out the door, unless I am mistaken.” He glanced at Singe, who nodded.

Raphe caught the exchange and added, “The two I saw looked like Sikcula or Millun’s people, pair of Arehawk blasters, heavy.” Most places, those were illegal for use or ownership, outside of the military or a licensed mercenary outfit. Not that the same rules applied on Sargasso. Among the pirates and others, heavy artillery was common. But most of what he’d seen on station was old, Arehawks were fairly new and pricey hardware.

“Could be a recent raid,” Kaly temporized, but her tone told Raphe she really didn’t believe that. Not that it mattered. As he’d said earlier, they duty was to prove Mehleen involvement or make an honor example of the non-Mehleen.

Leton shrugged, “Irrelevant to remaining or leaving. This could be a last test, see how we operate in the field and deal with failure.”

In other words, did they slink back home in disgrace or stick it out with honor. Master Talo already knew what they would do and therefore wouldn’t bother. The other Collegium masters, though, were entirely another matter.

“Might be something to that,” Raphe conceded even as the Orc started to agree.

Kaly shifted gears smoothly, though. “So. How do we go about tracking these people? Raphe, you’re on extraction. Figure out how another Mehleen team would leave. Factor in Sikcula and Millun as possible influences. Singe, keep monitoring the comm chatter. If they’re local, maybe they will be picked up. If not, we can hope for a mistake. Leton’s with me checking contacts, the few we’ve got. Maybe we can trace the gear, or at least confirm no one’s gotten it on station.”

“It’s a long shot, if Mehleen are involved.” Raphe suggested, “But you might try acting as buyers for Arehawk hardware. If we’ve got locals, they might be sloppy about ditching the gear, or might even sell it.”

The Elf gave another shrug, “Worth a try, subtly. Don’t want to raise any alarms.”

As the two left, a short time later, Raphe ran possibilities against the data they’d collected since arriving on Sargasso. He bounced everything off their previous observations of other students and the instructors in question. They were surely more experienced, but stations were notoriously tricky regardless of size. He smiled to himself, enjoying the hunt and challenge, now that there was a plan and clear goal. With the initial shock and adrenaline rush past, Raphe settled into calmly and happily figuring out the puzzle, pitting himself against a worthy opponent.

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