Chapter One

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This weather sucks, Marcus La’Dek thought as he and his partner Daren West negotiated the muddy road leading to the target Mining Facility.  The ground had been reduced to something of a black sludge, thanks in no small part to the torrential downpour that had been battering the moon’s northern hemisphere for the past twelve hours.  But the deluge brought with it more than mere soggy conditions.  A grayish, almost eerie mist comprised of unidentified particulates, always seemed to accompany the rains, making it difficult to see more than five feet in any direction. Due to the thick haze, the use of advanced image processing goggles, commonly referred to as IPGs, were an absolute necessity.

Marcus was quite impressed with the overall performance of the goggles. With the exception of a slight yellow hue, the IPGs provided remarkable clarity under virtually any condition. But given the option, he’d rather have donned his own tactical eyewear, as they were far superior to the IPGs in every way. But alas, blending in was the name of the game for this mission, so he was okay with settling for less.

Particle Storms are what the inhabitants of the moon called this atmospheric phenomena.  Most experts attributed the mist to the failing methane scrubbers of Titan’s problematic Terraforming Modules.  Of course, further research would be required to know for sure, but it was unlikely the Interstellar League of Planets (ISL) would spend the time or money on such a study.  After all, Titan – Saturn’s largest ISL terraformed moon – was dedicated for one purpose: The mining of what is galactically known as the lifeblood of terraformed planets and moons: Krillium Ore.  As long as environmental conditions on the surface didn’t cause the moon’s populace to drop dead in droves, business as usual would continue, regardless of the numerous complaints lodged with the ISL. Taxpayer dollars hard at work, Marcus thought as he adjusted the hood of his jet-black poncho, which covered the tactical gear that clothed his muscular frame.

Given the circumstances, Marcus and his team couldn’t ask for better conditions for a nighttime raid on a lightly guarded mining facility, to procure a drove of that precious Krillium. Sure it was dangerous business, but the substantial sum of money for which their employer was willing to pay, made the risk absolutely worth the reward.  After all, Krillium deposits were becoming increasingly rare due to what was galactically known as: “The Terraformer Energy Crisis”.

Planetary Terraforming Modules (PTMs) were massive technological wonders used to modify the atmospheres and oceans upon otherwise uninhabitable worlds. Placed at numerous points throughout a celestial body’s surface, PTMs created suitable atmospheric conditions for its inhabitants. But those Terraformers were on the verge of failing, jeopardizing the lives of trillions across The Milky Way. The reason for that impending failure was simple: the Terraformers primary power source: Krillium Ore – found on asteroids, planets and moons throughout the galaxy – had been mined to almost non-existence.

Marcus and his small crew of mercenaries, never considered themselves anything more than “mules”, occasionally picking up and dropping off ore from hard to infiltrate facilities on behalf of their employer: Teric Winters – the brilliant, yet reclusive leader of the Outer Core’s largest and deadliest terrorist organization: Orion’s Shield. The Outer Core – an area of the galaxy far beyond the limits of laws and structure which the Inner Core provided its inhabitants. – It was known for its ruffians, kingpins, and black market dealers. With fewer resources than Core Systems, The Outer Core was also known for its impoverished planets and moons.

Marcus and his five bandits, officially referred to as Raven Squad, were arguably the most lethal, covert mercenary group operating in the Outer Core. Though sought after by every shady organization in the business, Raven Squad operated under an exclusive agreement with Orion’s Shield, with Marcus reporting directly to Teric Winters himself. Quite an honor among mercs, as few ever came face to face with Teric, much less received direct orders from the ruthless totalitarian. What could he say? The pay was good and the job allowed him to travel to exotic locations… but not today, Marcus thought as he and Daren, his number two, slowly made their way toward Titan’s largest ore processing facility: ISL Mining Outpost Alpha.

“Here we go. Just follow my lead,” Marcus said to Daren as they approached the military checkpoint which guarded the entry to the complex.

The checkpoint consisted of a small control booth attached to a larger guard tower. But that’s all the facility needed in the way of protection. The entire complex was surrounded by a translucent green energy shield that would take nothing less than a starship bombardment to breach.

“Why don’t you let me handle this one?” Daren asked. “Situations like these require a little more… finesse. Ya know?”

“Be my guest,” Marcus answered.  “But don’t screw this up. We only get one shot at this.”

As they neared the checkpoint, the storm seemed to kick into high gear, causing their ponchos to flap like flags in the wind. But despite the harsh conditions, they pressed forward, confident their plan would go off without a hitch.

They had it all worked out. Prior to reaching the main road, three members of Raven Squad fell out of formation and took up positions behind several large boulders a few meters back. There, the three lethal team members anxiously awaited the signal to assist in the heist.

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Among them was heavy weapon’s specialist Tony Lyles, who despite his human name, was actually a Gorean Cyborg raised by humans on the war-torn Outer Core Planet: Bion IV. Goreans were a genetically bred and engineered humanoid race. They were born part-man-part-machine from cybernetics that could only be described as a living metal, that was as much a part of them as a human’s skin and bones. Though larger than the average human, and somewhat similar in appearance, it was their strength, speed and ferocity on the battlefield that truly set them apart from humanity.

Next to Tony sat Skyela Evans, the medic and resident computer specialist; though she preferred to be called Skye. She was as beautiful as she was smart. Tough as nails, and a prodigy when it came to computers and electronics, Skye was also trained as a combat medic during her brief stint with the Interstellar Guard (ISG), the military ground force of the ISL.

Then there was Maxlyn Wesner who, despite her fervent objections, everyone called Max.   Hailing from Earth, Max was a simple country girl with a southern drawl… and a love for explosives. Max started off as a brilliant young chemist designing explosive ordnances for The Maxis Corporation, a multi-trillion dollar human run defense contractor. But her budding career was cut short when forced to flee to the Outer Core on suspicion of attempted murder.

While Tony, Skye and Max awaited their orders from Marcus, the sixth and final member of Raven Squad: Jason Crowley was posted several miles back at their ship, which he had landed on a small rocky plateau. Jason, the half-brother of Skye, was more of a condescending military brat, who like his sister, was thrown out of the ISL military where he served as a pilot with the Interstellar Fleet (ISF), the ISL’s space and terrestrial naval forces.  But after getting himself kicked out of the ISF, Jason dedicated his skills to what he considered to be the greatest mercenary squad in the galaxy, flying the greatest ship in the galaxy: The Indicator.

Named after the long extinct earth fowl, the Indicator was an experimental medium sized gunship modified from a cargo vessel. It housed an impressive collection of advanced sensors and astrometric locator equipment… and was armed to the teeth. Though primarily designed for stealth reconnaissance and electronic warfare, The Indicator could hold its own in a fight.

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Sitting at The Indicator’s helm with his feet up on the navigation console, Jason had been using the ship’s electromagnetic pulse emitter to send a discrete signal toward Mining Outpost Alpha for the past several hours. The goal was to surreptitiously scramble local communication and security sensors. The art of jamming without jamming, is what Jason called the complex process. He knew his low-level pulse would go virtually undetected, and the interference it caused would likely be attributed to both the storm and aging security equipment.

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At the checkpoint, Marcus and Daren were approached by three soldiers. But only moments before, Marcus and Daren appeared to be shadowy ghosts emerging from the mist, as the soldiers could only make out the dark silhouettes of their ponchos and the yellowish glow of their IPG’s.  Nevertheless, the guards were not alarmed by their presence, believing Marcus and Daren to be fellow soldiers coming from the nearby work camp. And why would they think otherwise? In their experience, nothing ever happened on that uneventful rock.

“Sorry, guys. We’re gonna have to do a manual security check,” one of the guards said. “The automated system is down… must be this freak particle storm.”

“Of course it’s down,” Daren replied. “Why do you think we’re here?” The guards looked to each other confused, but Daren continued. “Don’t worry about it. The watch commander sent us to fix the comm and security systems. So if you’ll kindly let us through…”

“What are you talkin’ about? They already have guys inside workin’ on the system,” Another guard continued.

“Well, if those ‘guys’ knew what they were doin’, we wouldn’t be here now would we?”

Daren went back and forth with the guard for several minutes trying to manipulate a way past. In reality, talking was actually what Daren did best. He often used his verbal prowess to get in and out of situations, not to mention, to score with the ladies.

But Marcus noticed that Daren seemed off his game. Either that, or this guard was a lot brighter than Daren thought.

“C’mon guys, cut us some slack,” Daren continued. “Today was our day off, how do you think we feel?”

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From the guard tower, a fourth soldier peered through the thick ballistic glass window, eying the situation on the ground. He couldn’t hear the conversation due to the ridiculous level of static blaring through his speakers. I hate this place, nothin’ ever works around here, the guard thought. He switched off the useless speakers and decided to address his growling stomach instead, figuring everything to be under control on the ground. So he sat down and proceeded to stuff his face with the various treats he smuggled into the tower before the start of his shift.

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At the checkpoint, Daren and the guards were locked in a stalemate. “The Commander’s already pissed at us for last week. So no passes today,” said the guard with whom Daren had been primarily speaking.

Clearly annoyed with Daren’s ruse, which at present was spiraling to a flaming wreck; Marcus used the distraction to silently assess the threat level. Whereas Daren preferred words, combat was where Marcus was most comfortable. Through years of rigorous training in several styles of martial arts, one could say that Marcus was something of an aficionado in the ways of doling out pain. But his skills didn’t stop at melee; he could also shoot the wings off a Kor’Dalean fruit fly with a pistol from two hundred meters.

Marcus could tell these guys didn’t see much action either. Guard number one, the soldier arguing with Daren, was armed only with an AP17 tactical pistol, standard issue for ISG soldiers. His rifle was likely sitting next to the box of Lyrian puff pastries he observed inside the control booth. And instead of manning their posts, guards two and three stood behind the first with their AR19 assault rifles casually slung over their shoulders, instead of at the ready. They stood snickering at the verbal exchange between Daren and their squad leader. He thought at least the tower guard would be more vigilant. But Marcus wrote him off as a non-threat after he noticed the soldier taking his ill-timed lunch break. Too easy, Marcus thought.

Marcus slowly reached beneath his poncho toward the two XP90s holstered to his belt, his favorite pistol. Its design was sleek, and appearance sexy… but they were more than just pieces of ostentation. Each pistol carried a multi-layered magazine with various specialty rounds. With a few button presses on the pistol’s grip, each weapon’s fire mode could be changed on the fly. Its most versatile load consisted of ten standard ballistic rounds and five shock rounds, for a less lethal approach. And when changed to the airburst setting, a nerve round could punch through a wall and detonate midair, rapidly dispersing its gas.

Daren noticed the hard look Marcus was giving him. He knew that if he didn’t wrap this up fast, Marcus would take matters into his own hands.

“I’m tellin’ you,” Daren yelled to guard number one. “We have orders from the watch commander himself…”

As Daren continued with the guard, a green hover jeep made its way up the muddy road toward the checkpoint. Another ISG soldier exited the vehicle with a cup holder containing four drinks of what Marcus figured to be coffee. He was a scrawny man wearing a uniform that looked to be two sizes too big. He had no facial hair and wore thick black glasses. Even though the 32nd century offered numerous options to permanently correct eyesight deficiencies, many humans favored the retro look of the 21st century. So, they adorned these superfluous spectacles merely for the fashion benefits they offered.

“What’s goin’ on here?” The new visitor asked. “Who are you guys?”

Daren ignored the java-toting soldier, and continued with the guard. “Look genius, you think I’m out here in the pouring rain for my health? The commander ordered us to…”

“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, Soldier,” The skinny visitor interrupted.

Daren finally turned toward the source of his annoyance, and after one look, counted the guy to be some fresh out of boot camp errand boy.

“Look Junior, piss off,” Daren shot back. He looked down at the beverages and changed his mind. “Better yet… Run and grab two more of those, will ya?”

Furious at Daren’s audacity, the soldier threw the cups to the ground. “Just who do you think you’re talkin’ to? I’m the Commander of the Watch.”

A knot swelled in Daren’s throat, though he did a remarkable job of concealing that fact. He – and Marcus for that matter – knew that his ill-conceived plan had finally derailed.

“Oh, Commander… We… I mean, I was just sayin’,” Daren said, attempting to recover.

Having seen and heard enough, Marcus decided to act before the freak show he was witnessing could get any further out of hand.   He tightened his grip on those two XP90s beneath his poncho. He quickly set the left pistol to its shock round setting and the right one to nerve gas. Then, Marcus pulled the two weapons out, simultaneously firing at the watch commander and the lone tower guard.

A cylindrical round blasted the Watch Commander’s chest, delivering a high voltage, low current shock that sent the man to the ground in a violent convulsion. The second round crashed through the ballistic window of the guard tower. Before the half-asleep guard could react to the sound, the nerve round detonated midair, filling the room with its toxic vapor. The gas worked quickly, as he also fell to the ground into what looked like a violent seizure.

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With one swift motion, Marcus holstered the sidearm in his left hand, and flipped the other into the air. He quickly grabbed the pistol’s barrel in midair, and used its grip to strike guard number one in the face, immediately knocking the unprepared man unconscious. Next, Marcus turned his attention to the last two guards who nervously struggled to unsling their rifles. He quickly holstered his second sidearm and gave the guards a barrage of punches, knee strikes and elbows; a melee that lasted but a few seconds, yet leaving both guards barely conscious and with broken limbs. The entire ordeal happened so fast that even Daren was unable to join the fray.

“Really, Daren?” Marcus said while pointing to the watch commander on the ground. “You didn’t see that guy’s rank?”

“I had it under control.”

“We don’t have all night… Now clean this up.”

Realizing the futility of arguing with Marcus, Daren compiled the incapacitated guards into the control booth, after which he bound and gagged them. In normal circumstances they would have just shot the guards and dumped the bodies. But when raiding an ISL controlled facility, the last thing you needed were murder charges added to your list of crimes if caught. Therefore, Marcus put a zero body count rule of engagement into effect, and there were to be no exceptions.

As Daren secured the guards, Marcus contacted Jason on the Indicator. He pressed a button on his earpiece to activate his comm unit. “Raven six, this is Raven Leader, we’re in position.”

Jason responded over the Indicator’s radio. “Leader, this is Six. The jamming signal is holding. I’m sure they’re havin’ a hell of a time findin’ the problem.”

“Copy that, Six. Standby for extraction order.”

Marcus approached the control panel that operated the energy shield. Months of research and planning had paid off. He successfully bypassed the shield’s security measures with a small data stick containing a custom written virus, courtesy of Raven Squad’s resident hacker: Skye.

“We’re in business,” Marcus said to Daren. “You ready?”

“Almost, just need to secure our buddy in the tower. Go ahead, I’ll be there in a sec”.

“Whatever, just hurry up,” Marcus said to his partner as he exited the control booth toward the unknown opposition that awaited inside the mining facility.

 

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