Sentinel-17, usually filled with eager mercenaries looking to ply their trade in the name of the Empire, was suddenly in the hands of the military.
Eighty Deimos Gunships, ten Phobos “Aura” Command Fighters, two dozen Dwarfs, six Hydras and a quad of Neutrons, all painted in matt army beige now dominated the main launch hangars. They bore the markings of the 303rd Army Group, the “Devil’s Advocates”. Shuffled into secondary launch bays were a myriad of support craft, mostly mercenaries from the core worlds, though jutting from the approach gates of Bay 16-C was the distinctive nose cone of a Cerberus class hull, painted in Wardens colours to match the other seven vessels that were resting in its hangar bay.
The Army pilots stood at ease, resplendent in their cream flight uniforms. They stared straight ahead, heads unmoving and eyed fixed forward as five ships approached the primary access hangar. Four Kastors, two of the Wardens and two of the Army flew in escort of a monstrous frigate. The mercenaries who saw it stood with jaws dropped, stunned to silence by the scale of the machine. It was painted in a mottled blue camouflage pattern with the Legion Aquila emblazoned on its hull in multiple, prominent places. The ship’s name was unreadable at a distance, but the ship class was known to those with a fondness for warships. “Centaur”; the ultimate symbol of Imperial might. They were almost never seen outside of the core fleets. For one to be docking with Sentinel-17 was proof that the Empire had taken a considerable interest in affairs within the Sector.
The Warden escort peeled off as the Centaur approached the void shield. As the tips of the forward sensor clusters touched the barrier a series of static discharges rippled along the hull. It was an impressive pyrotechnic display that awed those unfamiliar to it, but for the men and women of the station it was forgettable, routine.
The ship touched down on an empty platform and the Army Kastors found their own docks. The access ramp of the Centaur dropped to the deck with a harsh clang, and the pilots snapped to attention.
“Now we’re for it,” hissed a man at the front of the parade.
“Shut up!” snapped a second. Both the men wore Imperial flight uniforms, but in place of the army Eagle they wore their own distinctive markers. The former had platinum insignia pins of the Wardens order, the latter bore the corporate logos of NASA. “Why the hell are you here anyway?”
“Trust me, I don’t want to be…” that was all the explanation there was time for.
A party of four officers in smart uniforms marched forward to greet the two representatives. The first was a woman pushing sixty, who stood out starkly from the others due to her crisp, ocean-blue uniform. The Aquila was displayed upon her chest, wrapped around the cuffs of her jacket and down her right leg. She had no intention of leaving any room for doubt as to who she represented.
The NASA officer took a half-step forward and snapped a salute. “Cullen, Wing Leader, NASA Corporate Army and acting sector commander of 1337.”
The woman nodded and gestured to the men beside her. “Dimitri Kholodov, Emperor’s Special Bureau; Void-Marshal Zimmerman, Alpha Squadron; Wing Commander Quinn, 303rd Army Group.”
Cullen’s eyes flicked briefly at the introduction. “And you are, ma’am?”
“None of your concern. You stand relieved, Wing Leader. From here on out you are subordinate to Marshal Zimmerman, understood?”
“Yes ma’am,” Cullen replied. There wasn’t much else he could have said.
“Shall we inspect the troops?” Zimmerman asked, noting that Quinn was distracted to the point of obsession by the Wardens officer stood before them. “Who is he?” the Marshal asked.
“Family,” Quinn rasped.
For the first time in not-long-enough, Jasan Quinn had to meet the family. He was very different to his father; still young enough and soft of face to pass for “boyish”, with short hair dyed rust-red on a whim and piercing amber eyes, the result of extensive implantation and self-augmentation. Quinn Senior, on the other hand, was a man who had discovered old age somewhere in his thirties and had liked it so much he’d never left. His rounded face was wrinkled and weather-worn; his once brown hair had turned to grey, like burnt paper. His eyes had the stare of a man who’d seen more than most, and the set of his jaw suggested he approved of very little he was seeing now.
“The prodigal son comes before me… and with Warden Emblems no less.”
Quinn the younger allowed himself a premature smile of pride. “Whose corpse did you loot to get those?” his father sneered, and Jasan deflated somewhat.
“I earned then,” he said with less conviction than intended. “I am an agent of the Fourth Armada.”
The namedropping utterly failed to register. “You’re a damn disgrace is what you are! A petty criminal! Scum! The idea that anyone would let you wear that uniform brings shame upon the whole damn Empire!”
There was a quiet clearing of the throat from Marshal Zimmerman, and Commander Quinn realised his voice had strayed up in volume a touch. He showed no sign of embarrassment over that fact, however.
“Maybe we should discuss this in private?” Jasan suggested, giving a quick and well-rehearsed smile to try and lighten the mood.
There was no lightening the mood of Commander Quinn. “Maybe you should get the hell off this station. Us real soldiers have a war to fight. You are dismissed, and damn you to a court-martial if you get clever with me again!”
Jasan took the hint, saluted and marched away as quickly as dignity would allow. It was a very long walk, and he had plenty of time to brood.
He stepped into his quarters and slammed the door behind him. “To hell with you!” he spat at the wall, channelling his rage towards an imagined father-figure between the bulkhead and a data-screen. “What the hell are you doing here anyway? As if you’ve got a bloody clue what’s going down here! You’re obsolete, you’re cannon fodder! The only thing you’re going to do out here is get shot in your God-damned fat arse!”
He almost threw the Wardens pins at the wall. Shaking with rage, Jasan dropped them into the silk-lined storage box on his bedside and, after a dozen deep breaths to calm his temper, opened a channel to his crew. “Quinn to the Tortuga: Stocken, have her ready to leave as soon as possible. There’s no money to be made here. Looks like the Legion’s running the show, and they’re damn picky about who they’ll hire.”
Stocken had questions, but Quinn had no intention of giving any answers. He sat on his cot and scowled at the door, imagining all the things he’d say to his father the next chance he got. Halfway through an internal rant the communicator chirruped, and after a minute or so Quinn answered to find a familiar voice on the other end.
“Quinn? It’s Gol. Z and M are pulling up every pilot we’ve got in the Sector. Something big’s going down, something that’s going to change the game out in your neck of the woods. If your ship’s still around we’d like to hire you.”
“Gol?” Memories of an earlier mission came back to him. Lucky-Six, one of the Emperor’s finest, had attempted to defect to the Dynamis Corporation and take with her a whole host of Imperial secrets, not to mention a monstrously powerful Wardens prototype. She’d been a freelance agent like him. Since then the Wardens had let him be; he’d wandered to 1337 in search of old friends and big earnings, almost forgetting the little adventure that had taken place. “What are you doing in this Sector? I thought you were down in 1331?”
“Things change,” Gol answered. “Look, NASA is all-in on this one, and we aren’t the only ones. Some of the biggest hitters in the Imperial Corporate Military are rolling out here. We want you onboard.”
“Any particular reason?” There was a long pause from Gol’s end. “Don’t worry, the line’s secure. Nobody’s listening in.”
“Ever heard of Iridium?”
Of course he’d heard of Iridium. It was… well, nobody had a clue what it was. It didn’t exist in nature that was for sure; iridium’s properties were varied and many-fold, sometimes defying rational explanation. Quinn had encountered the stuff working with a Jericho Tech known as “Isaac”. Together they’d found an artefact they believed belonged to the Precursors, and the precious iridium within. Isaac had worked night and day to try and unlock the secrets of the wonder-material, but to Quinn’s knowledge he had yet to succeed…
…none of this was shared with Gol, of course. Instead, he patiently allowed Gol to explain what NASA knew about iridium, which was only a fraction more than he knew already. They also had a small stockpile of it, all discovered in 1337. That had caught the attention of the Empire’s top brass, but when it was discovered that Federation and Jericho elements had iridium as well a greater sense of urgency had surged through the Emperor’s servants. Hence the mobilisation of troops.
“Listen, if you’re interested, we’re rallying units at WX-48,” Gol said when his explanation wound down. “Army insists on pushing headlong into Jericho territory, despite our better judgement, so we’re going to take the a little jaunt through Federation territory while everyone’s eyes are elsewhere. It’s high risk, but well paid. What do you say?”
Jasan’s eyes were drawn inexorably toward the cuff-box on his bedside. Truth be told, he had half a mind to cut and run – to bolt for Jericho space and throw his lot in with the Techs. He had contacts, acquaintances, men and women who’d do right by him and help him start over.
Damn my loyalties, he thought. They’re going to get me killed.
“We’re in,” he answered firmly. “I’ll make the Tortuga ready to depart. We’ll be at WX-48 in three days.”
“Three days? Got it. Don’t be late. Gol out.”
Alone once more, his thoughts returned to his father. The screen above the bed had flickered on and begun to broadcast a grand speech by the Empire officials. They spoke of the importance of the sector, and of the victories they were to earn in the Emperor’s name. Words like “duty”, “honour” and “glory” were used so often they all but lost their meaning. Jasan glanced at the screen in time to see his father, stern faced but proud as he exchanged a few curt words with the assembled squadron leaders. He wondered if he shouldn’t make an effort, despite the difficulties, to make things right. He was family, after all; it wasn’t like he could just go and find a new father.
Bitter memories old and recent crushed the idea as it formed. If there was going to be a making-up between them, it sure as hell wasn’t going to happen now. It could wait until the fighting was done.
The Tortuga slipped its moorings four hours later, a full crew aboard and attack squadrons primed. Less than two hours behind were the 303rd Army Group and supporting elements, and by the end of the day cycle Sentinel-17 had all but emptied itself of mercenaries.
Out in the void, a storm was about to break.