Continued from 28. Altolcz Proposes a Toast.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
The next day, Romik sat in the sky car, watching the city pass by beneath them. They’d been flying for hours now since dropping Julin, Sari, and Vhen off at the freight center.
Cottack sat next to him, the last remaining armsman who would accompany them off Siben. The others had been ordered to sit tight at Dorgio’s for another day, then report to Major Mus for reassignment.
It was a risk, but they wanted to see their families again.
Kolteo was up front in the pilot’s seat, minding the autopilot.
The car had been quiet for quite some time. Each man sat silent, lost in his own thoughts.
Romik resisted the urge to check his kit yet again, but he went over the checklist in his mind. His gun was cleaned and oiled, the sights checked, the cartridges filled, the safety on. His armor was cleaned and polished, checked for damage. His shield generator was fully charged and tested. His helmet systems were all checked, maps loaded, local comms checked, remote comms not checked. He cracked a grim smile at that. If he needed remote comms on this mission, there’d be a lot more to worry about than whether they worked or not.
His kit was ready, checked, five by five. The endless city passed on by beneath. Up ahead, through the front windscreen, the mountains loomed.
Directly ahead, the high peak of Mt. Pesh grew taller. Romik had never been to the facility at Mt. Pesh, but he’d heard stories. Miles of tunnels catacombed the mountain, delving deep beneath Siben. Rumor held that the facility had tunnels descending to the very bottom of Siben’s crust, and that it drew power from the planet’s mantle itself.
It was the highest-security facility in all the Empire. Legendary.
And they were about to assault it with three men.
Well, infiltrate, not assault. At least, that was Plan A, but no plan ever survived encounter with the enemy. They were prepared to commit some assault when the need arose.
This much Romik knew: Mt. Pesh had been Director Ais’s first command after Alcorande, after the Emperor had taken notice of him. The Director claimed to know it like his own home. Crucially, he had long ago established secret access protocols for himself for just such an occasion as this.
Romik hoped those protocols still worked, or else this would be a very long ride for a very short mission.
The landscape began to rise gently before them. Mt. Pesh grew inexorably larger and larger.
Romik breathed a long sigh of relief when the sky car settled onto its perch.
Director Ais chuckled and looked back at him. “Did I have you worried?”
Romik gave him a deadpan look. “You? No. I was worried about the gun emplacements that tracked us in.”
Cottack laughed at that. “You said it, Chief.”
The Director grinned. “Alright, you jokers ready?”
The two armsmen nodded and donned their helmets. “Ready,” confirmed Romik.
A tactical map appeared on the HUD of his helmet, overlaying a map of the facility with his vision.
They exited the sky car and crossed the hangar, just another officer and his escort. Director Ais carried a briefcase. If anyone were to check IFF on them, they were Major Pettley, Corporal Urquez, and Chief Friddis.
A pair of Enforcers approached them, weapons at their sides. “Good morning, Major,” challenged the leader, a corporal. “We weren’t expecting you. Please state your business.”
“Good morning, Corporal. I’m here to inspect certain weapons stores. Orders from Admiral Garg.” He produced a datapad and held it out for the corporal to inspect.
Romik gave silent thanks that his speaking parts didn’t come until later. He preferred plain speaking and direct action over subterfuge and deception. Ever since he was a kid, he’d always stammered when he was telling a lie and got an awful hollow feeling in his stomach.
Still, this was better than going in with guns hot. They might actually make it out alive.
“Alright,” said the corporal, handing the data pad back to the ersatz Major. “Everything looks to be in order. Welcome to Mt. Pesh.” He bowed from the waist.
The Director returned the bow, and Cottack and Romik copied him. “Thank you, Corporal. Good day.”
They went on their way, exiting the hangar. The Director led them through a maze of passages, then to a security checkpoint, where “Major Pettley” displayed his orders again. Then they were ushered through and entered another hangar. Here were a long row of three-man Hoxhan-class fighter-bombers, vacuum-rated, workhorse of the Navy and the pride of the Imperial Espatier Corps.
“Alright, Chief,” said Director Ais. “You’ve got your orders?”
“Aye, sir. See you soon.”
Director Ais and Cottack turned and left the hangar, leaving Romik alone. He watched them go, took a deep breath to steel himself, and then turned to go find the duty officer.
His heart sank when he found him. Lieutenant Rames. He’d served with him, a few years back, in a tour out on the Periphery.
Courtesy demanded that he remove his helmet when addressing an officer in peacetime. Would Rames recognize him? He swallowed, ducked his chin, and removed his helmet. He forced his voice to obey: “Uh, Lieu—Lieutenant?”
The man turned, saw him, and cocked his head. “Good morning, Chief.”
Romik fumbled at his side with his free hand and produced his own data pad. “Uh, orders from… D— uh, Major Pettley, sir. With respects, sir, the, uh, M-major would like you to, uh, prepare one of your, uh, Hoxen for flight.” At least he remembered the pet name they had for the Hoxhans.
The lieutenant gave Romik a strange look as he accepted the data pad. “Alright.” He looked it over, then looked at Romik again. “Don’t I know you?”
Romik frowned. “Uh, I, I d-don’t think so, sir.”
Lieutenant Rames looked thoughtful. “I’m sure I know you from somewhere. What’s your name?”
“Er, Ch-chief Friddis, s-sir.”
Rames shook his head. “No, that’s not right. You must remind me of someone else I know. What was his name? Ronnie, or something. My apologies.”
Romik aped a smile. “Oh, er, no, no problem, sir.”
Rames turned his attention to the data pad. “Full load, huh? Where’s the Major going?”
“Out to, uh, B—Bukász, I, uh, think.” Siben’s moon. “He, uh, likes to keep his hours up?”
Rames chuckled. “Hasn’t resigned himself to flying a desk, eh?”
That got an honest chuckle out of Romik. “No, sir.”
Rames handed the data pad back to him. “Alright. Number four is probably closest to being ready. I’ll get a crew prepping it. Go on over if you like.”
Romik smiled in relief. “Thank you, sir.” He bowed.
“You’re welcome.” Rames bowed, gave him another odd look, then turned back to whatever he’d been doing.
Romik took his time walking down to bay four, admiring the line of “birds”. The Hoxhan fighter-bomber—the Hox—looked ungainly: little more than a long gray tube coupled with a ball-and-plate on either side. The plates were the shield generators, the balls the gunners’ turrets, placed so that the guns could shoot through the natural weak points in the shield. The design had been refined over hundreds of years. The galaxy knew no deadlier small craft.
When he reached number four, he removed a gauntlet and ran his hand down the edge of the shield generator plate. In an early assignment, he’d been tasked to escort a team of field specialists working on these out of tenuous forward bases. He’d often helped them in their repairs—usually in the “here, go fetch this; here, hold this” variety of grunt work. For a while he’d actually considered switching out to become a specialist. Most of the field techs were ex-infantry.
He was content that he’d eventually decided against it. But he still held a deep admiration for these men and their birds.
“Ho, Chief. Can I do somethin’ for ya?”
Romik broke out of his reverie. A young specialist had come up beside him.
Romik smiled. “No, just admiring her lines.”
The specialist broke out in a grin. “Aye sir, she’s a beaut. We’re getting her prepped to fly right now for some major.”
“That’s right. I brought the orders. Need any help?”
“Nah, this one’s almost ready. Not much left to do.”
Just then, a corporal appeared around the shield plate. “I’ve got arms for number four in the lighter out here. Where do you want ‘em?”
The specialist raised his eyebrows. “Oh? The Loo didn’t say anything about specials. He just said full load.”
In answer, the corporal held out a data pad with a manifest. The specialist scanned it, his eyes widening. He whistled. “A’right, bring it in.” He glanced at Romik. “Most of this load-out is capital Tees.”
Top secret. Romik smiled knowingly. “That’s right, spec. They issue you blokes blindfolds yet?”
The specialist laughed. “Not yet, sir.” He turned to the crew, who’d assembled behind him. “Right, let’s get ‘er done. This load’s CTEC.” Capital Tees, Eyes Closed. “No peeking!”
Everybody laughed, and Romik felt at ease. Nobody questioned him after that—it was perfectly natural for a chief to supervise a T-load.
He wondered what was in the load. The Director had only told him to expect it and see that it was loaded properly.
The specs worked well and efficiently, and they had the Hox loaded and flight-ready in good time. Romik took a deep breath. Maybe this would all go smoothly.
Then a voice called out to him across the hangar, “Why, Chief! What a pleasure to run into you here!”
Romik whipped around. No. It couldn’t be.
Major Marrem Mus approached him across the hangar, escorted by a squad of Enforcers.
Continued in: 30. Customs…
Vhen gets his precious cargo through customs. The hard way.
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