Level 4Nur Dutchung - pt. 7
By Thane Barnier

October 30, 2071
TRI Media Center
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

Trach Rognalan was livid. There was no way he could spin this; there was no way he could get this out of the public eye. One didn't simply erase the occurrence of a CAV on CAV firefight in the middle of a public urban area. This was exactly what he had told Governor Marag he would prevent, exactly what he had paid so much to the Hell's Gate Brigade to stop. And they had failed.

"Mr. Rognalan," said a shy voice from the intercom, "Saikoan Jorl is here."

"It's about time! Send him in."

Jorl entered the room, dressed not in his formal uniform but in a scarlet combat suit. Trach found his attire completely inappropriate for a meeting with one's employer and found it very insulting.

"OK Saikoan," snapped Trach, "would you like to explain yourself?"

"Explain what, exactly?" Jorl sat down in the vacant chair without invitation, furthering the injury to Trach's ego.

"Your utter failure to provide security on this planet," shouted Trach. "You allowed a group of rag tag miscreants to start lobbing missiles at each other in the middle of the Katourach industrial complex! Do you have any idea how much damage was done? Do you know how many people were killed? By the gods man, this is exactly what I hired you to prevent!"

Being further infuriated by Jorl's amused expression, Trach's tone changed from rage to derision. "Perhaps the vaunted reputation of the Hell's Gate Brigade is unwarranted after all. Your utter failure to maintain security has put this entire operation on the edge of a precipice. Your inability to handle this situation has put me in the most awkward of positions and I demand an explanation as to why you disregarded your duties."

Jorl stood and walked calmly over to stand nose to nose with the diminutive Trach. "First of all, Rognalan, never question the ability or reputation of the Brigade, or I will show you first hand how we gained that reputation in the first place. Second, you created your own situation, put yourself in this position. You are the one who brought the Fire Fangs back into the game, hoping to create some kind of rivalry between them and the Regents. You pushed and prodded this sentiment and lit the fires of animosity, not just in the Fangs, but in the local populace as well. You did all of this for ratings sake, and then it all came crashing down when Klaug and his wannabe CAV jockeys got destroyed by, I believe your propaganda called them ‘devious Rach-hating Terrans'."

Trach drew himself up, trying to match Jorl's size with little success. "It is your job, Saikoan Jorl, to keep the peace in such a way that I can put out such propaganda. It is my job to boost ratings, to create a reason for our viewers to get interested. I can't do that if you fail to keep the peace."

"And I can't keep the peace under the rules you have imposed!" shouted Jorl. "It was you, trying to placate the local governors, who decreed we could not station armed troops within the city limits. It was you who said local constabulary would handle those incidents. What, did you think there would be nothing but bar fights and angry words when two units met up? These aren't rival sports teams; these are warriors, dealers of death. Even worse than that, most of them are scumbags and lowlife pirates with no sense of decency or self-control.

"Did you think these ‘oh so noble' pirates of yours would try to square off out on the plains and duel it out like Ritterlich nobles fighting over some countess? Come on Trach, these are pirates. They attack in the night, strike when the opponent is sleeping. They could care less how much collateral damage they cause, so long as they kill their targets. You're just lucky that firefight didn't go down in a residential neighborhood."

Jorl took step back and opened his arms in resignation. "Look, if you want me to prevent another incident like this, I need to have units inside the city limits, and we also need to declare a state of martial law in those cities. This would only need to be for the duration of this event, or when the units barracked in the respective city leave. If I'd had CAV's in the city I could have detected what Klaug was planning and I could have reacted fast enough to stop the firefight from happening. Besides, if you don't, I guarantee the Regents will start posting their own guards and treating this like a war zone. Would the governors rather have my armed CAV's in the city to keep back would-be attackers, or theirs?"

"Damn," swore Trach, "how do you expect me to convince the governors to let you declare martial law?"

"Just point out that the amount of monetary damage that was caused to their industrial sectors. Point out how much worse the loss of civilian life would have been had the conflict happened downtown, for instance. They were lucky that civilian casualties weren't higher."

"There wouldn't have been any casualties if that stupid Earther had just ignored that rabble and taken the high road."

Jorl's face went stony. "Trach, I would suggest you modify that train of thought right now. If you try to spin this to pin the blame on the Regents instead of on the Fire Fangs where it belongs, the repercussions will be disastrous. First you may very well incite a full scale riot against the Regents. What kind of civilian casualties will there be then? The Regents will undoubtedly fight their way off the planet, leaving only you to bear the blame with no scapegoat to pin events on."

"They'd never make it off planet," said Trach confidently, "not with you here to stop them."

"What makes you think I would stop them?" asked Jorl. "Major Ghardoki and his men have shown more self-control than any of my men would have under these circumstances, and far more than I would have given the Regents credit for. Ghardoki went out that night in an unarmed CAV to scare off a group of civilians. If you watch those tapes you'll see most of the civilian members of that mob take off and run. The only ones who got hurt were the ones who hung around trying to plant charges on the CAV, and most of those were hurt by fire from the Fangs. If Ghardoki had thought those men were armed he'd have gone out armed as well, and with more than just a lonely Gladiator. Do you think he will assume the next group of protestors is simply a group of drunken civilians, or armed assassins?"

Trach's head began to pound and he slumped against the desk. "OK, Saikoan, what do you suggest?"

Jorl nodded once in approval of Trach's acceptance of the situation. "First you need to get armed men, real soldiers in place to guard the Regents base. Not some local militia, but a third party."

Trach shook his head. "Jorl, those sycophant politicos aren't about to let us put CAV's in the streets. I'll send over a platoon of TRI's security forces to augment the Regent forces. We can set up perimeter around the Regents base without causing any undue disturbances to the local population. They'll never accept martial law."

Jorl shrugged. "It's not enough, but I've given my council. Now, secondly you need to go out and get your propaganda machine rolling, this time to bring the reputation of the Regents up in the public's eye. You need to slap down the Fire Fangs for this attack."

"Are you insane?" asked Trach. "Do you know how many viewers that will cost us?"

"If you don't there will be more attacks, and these will result in dead civilians. I guarantee it."

"Alright," said Trach resigned to this disruption of his plans. He would just have to pump up The Dire Wolves as the last great Rach hope to defeat the Regents.

"Third, you better do something to placate Ghardoki."

"What? Why?" Trach hadn't even considered Ghardoki in this whole endeavor.

"Why?" asked Jorl incredulously. "Because you've put him in a situation where his men are at risk, not on the battlefield, but in their own beds. He now has to weight whether or not that risk is worth the gain of staying on. A smart commander will cut his losses and run. You need to make him feel like he can safely stay."

"And finally, you need to replace his CAV." Jorl shook his head knowingly. "You wouldn't understand a pilot's connection with his CAV, but it will not sit well with him that he has no war machine to ride into battle. He will be forced to either not lead his troops personally, or take over the spot of one of his other warriors. No commander likes to dispossess his men that way."

It made sense, and Trach had to admit, it was probably the least he could do. Though he would do the same thing again in a heartbeat, Jorl was right in that this incident was partially his doing. Besides, the potential monetary gain far outweighed the cost of one CAV. Especially since he wouldn't be paying for the replacement in the first place.

 

October 30, 2071
Regents' HQ
Katourach Industrial Park
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

Rigel awoke at about nine the morning after the attack. He was stiff, sore, and felt his age just a tad too much for his liking. He punched the button on his comm unit.

"Yes sir," answered the voice of the watch commander.

Rigel frowned as he tried to remember who was on duty. "Danny, find Captain Spiro and tell him I want the senior staff assembled in fifteen minutes."

"Yes sir."

He tried to rise and the stiffness forced him to groan as joints popped and bones creaked. Stumbling to the shower he turned on the hot water and climbed in. Twelve minutes later, shaved, showered, but still feeling appreciably older than he usually did, Rigel walked into the conference room.

"Where the hell's the coffee?" he roared.

"Right here sir," said Tomas, sidling into the room with his customary swagger and lopsided grin. "Are we feeling a bit under the weather today Major?"

Rigel accepted the mug from his XO and took a large swig. "Ugh you made this didn't you?"

Tomas looked hurt. "Yeah why? Tastes fine to me."

"That's because you have no taste." He sighed, "Oh well, I probably couldn't tell the difference anyhow."

The rest of the senior staff arrived shortly thereafter and the meeting began.

"Alright," said the Major, "what's the scoop."

"Well sir," began Sergeant Major Goran. "We rounded up most of the mob out front, but the majority of the armored infantry got away."

"Casualties?"

Captain Spiro opened his folder. "The fangs lost 35 men, 4 Hunters and one Dictator to a pair of perfectly placed shots, if I do say so myself."

"Knock it off Captain," snapped Rigel, "you can flatter yourself later."

"Of course sir." Now Tomas was less jovial. "Unfortunately we did suffer a few casualties. We have 8 security troopers injured, though only one seriously. We suffered 2 losses, Senior Mechanic Slarthe and Corporal Titone. They died when a satchel charge was tossed in before we got the doors closed. The only equipment we lost was your Gladiator. I'm sorry sir, but it is unsalvageable. The Fangs saw to that after you went down."

"Great," said Rigel, "Well at least we won't have to worry about the Cobras tracking it down by the serial number." There was a chuckle around the table at the remembrance of how the unit had acquired that Gladiator for the Major as a gift.

"OK," sighed Ghardoki, "so what in the blue hell where the Fangs thinking?"

"Well sir," continued Goran, "the Hell's Gate garrison arrived shortly after the fighting had died down. We expected trouble instantly because the Fangs were a local unit. Quite surprisingly, that wasn't the case, we got no more trouble."

"Seems the local garrison didn't take kindly to being woken up in the middle of the night to go break up a street brawl," said Tomas.

"I know how they feel," groaned the Major. "Continue."

"The garrison force leader, a Captain Norng, met with Captain Spiro and deduced the situation. They took custody of the Fang troopers from us and promised us a full report."

"Yeah," laughed Tomas, "That's likely."

"Actually Captain," grinned Goran, "I have it right here."

"Already?" Captain Spiro was stunned. "That can't be very informative then. Are they trying to cover the whole thing up? Let me guess, we baited them into attacking…"

"Actually Captain, it's surprisingly complete. Apparently the sole motivation was revenge for the defeat we gave them in the last battle. Klaug figured that if they set up a civil disturbance, that we'd act. He knew that you wouldn't trust anyone else to handle that but yourself. He seemed to think you might worry about us not showing proper restraint."

Rigel snorted. Klaug was right, that was why Rigel had chosen to deal with it personally. His men had dealt with a lot of crap from the locals, and it would have been hard for them to resist the temptation to take out a little of that frustration on a local mob. From there it would have escalated.

Goran continued. "He figured he could draw you out alone, most likely using a CAV to scare off the mob. From there the mob, which was actually comprised of soldiers with satchel charges and small arms, would wreak havoc on our base while the tanks softened you up. When your CAV had been damaged, he would come in and destroy you personally; avenging the dishonor you caused him by defeating him last week."

"Maybe that was Klaug's idea of taking you out for a moonlight stroll," quipped Tomas, "I think he's sweet on you Major."

"What he didn't expect was for you to go down that fast."

"Thanks for reminding me," said the Major rubbing his face. "OK, how did they know we wouldn't have our CAV's ready to roll?"

"Easy sir," said Goran looking straight into his eyes, "because they have someone on the inside."

Rigel set down his mug and looked coldly at Goran. "How did they manage that?"

"It has to be the local service workers sir. We employ almost 40 local workers who provide our most basic services. From cooks to housekeepers to the Major's receptionist. One of them is a spy for the Fangs."

"Didn't you screen them?" asked Captain Yu, the unit's air wing commander.

"Of course we did Sir but this spy probably has no other qualifications than being the friend of a friend of a friend of one of the Fangs. They gave Klaug the one piece of information that helped him. After the last match, you ordered us to strip and overhaul all of our CAV's. This isn't a war zone, so we didn't keep any of our CAV's hot. They knew that tonight we'd not be able to arm and ready a significant force to stop them, and that Major Ghardoki would likely be the only CAV to roll out against them."

"OK so what are our choices?" Rigel was tired, damned tired. He didn't want to admit it but his legs were killing him. Nothing was broken but having the cockpit of a 90-ton CAV form-fitted to your lower body definitely left a mark. "Can we live without the local workers? Can we screen them enough to keep this from happening again?"

"Truth be told Major," said the security chief reluctantly, "the answer to both is no. We don't have the staff to handle the mundane tasks that the local staffers handle, and it would be nearly impossible to determine who is friends with whom. The best we could do is bar all local staff from our operational centers and post added security in restricted areas such as the CAV hangers. I've already taken the liberty of doing that part."

"OK," said Rigel, "We remove all local staff from duties surrounding combat equipment and planning centers. This includes communications. Beef up security and we'll need double watches. If this means some of our pretty boy CAV jocks need to sling a rifle and stand a post for a few hours a week, so be it." Sergeant Major Goran grinned at that prospect.

"Now I just have one other thing," said Rigel. "We don't have medals in this unit…"

"Unless you count the trophy for unit belching champion," piped in Tomas. A steely look from the Major shut him down, but he kept grinning broadly.

"But I wish I could give everyone a medal for last night. In any case, commendations are going under everyone's file for valor in a combat situation. No one lost their heads last night, and as much as it pains me to say this, Captain Spiro's foresight saved my ass."

Tomas shrugged off the compliment, "No foresight really, it was actually Klaug's fault my Assassin was ready to go. He never would engage me, so I never actually fired a shot that whole match!" Again the room burst into laughter. When the group had calmed, Rigel continued.

"We must be making progress," said Captain Yu, "That's the first time I've ever heard you use the term valorous while talking about this motley crew. Maybe we should think about some kind of decoration for valorous service in the future." Everyone chuckled, but there was pride in their mirth.

"Also I'm putting Corporal Barnes in for promotion." Ghardoki looked up and surveyed the room. "I'm promoting her to 2nd Lieutenant."

Everyone looked uneasy. Lieutenant Charles was the first to speak. "Sir, I don't mean to question your decision or Corporal Barnes' worthiness for promotion, but skipping from corporal to L. T.? That's going to cause hard feelings among the other noncoms don't you think?" He flicked a slight glance at Sgt. Major Goran. "And sir, it goes against your own policy of no one filling an unnecessary rank. Logistics & Communications doesn't have an opening for another lieutenant, and there are three others in line for that promotion."

"Both very good points, Lieutenant," said the Major, "and exactly why I brought this up today. Barnes is being transferred to active combat operations as a weapons systems operator."

"But sir," said Captain Spiro, "she's never so much as fired a weapon in a simulator. What makes you think she has the skill to be a wizzo? It's not like we need another one."

"First off we do have a need Tomas. Remember that little hunk of steel sitting in the back corner of the CAV hanger that no one wants to touch because they can't understand anything in it?"

"You mean the Panther?" Tomas was shocked. "You want to put her in that thing? My God Rigel, that CAV's worth more than our entire command section, and you want to put a rookie in there?"

"Well," said the Major matter-of-factly, "not until she's trained of course, but she is a communications specialist. If you look at her file you will see that she also studied electronic warfare at the Terran Military Academy on Antares. No one else, including you wonder boy, has had any training with the kind of gear that's in that CAV. This might be a chance for us to get an upper hand."

Rigel looked around the room. He could see the other officers mulling over his points and he could see them registering the advantages that Panther could provide them.

"Sir," started Goran tentatively, "with all due respect Sir, do you think she can handle the pressure? I mean, she's not a combat soldier."

"Good point. Lieutenant Charles you're a qualified wizzo, what would you have done if you had been back-seating me and we'd run against those forces unarmed?"

"Sir," said the Lieutenant, snapping to attention, "I would have relayed whatever information I could have, engaged the defensive electronic systems and apprised you of possible hostile targets."

"And kept your cool," said the Major smoothly.

"As best I could sir. I don't like being out of control," he said truthfully.

"Ok Spiro, what would have happened if you'd been with me last night?"

"Well, after I got done crying like a school girl, I'd have done the same thing Charles would have done," replied Spiro sardonically.

"And when that gauss slug shattered the view port?" asked Ghardoki.

"I would probably have soiled myself, Sir." Tomas knew where Rigel was going with this, and he found he couldn't disagree with the Major's judgment.

The Major leaned forward. "That girl was cooler than most of the combat vets I've fought with. She had no clue what she was doing, she was totally unfamiliar with her surroundings, yet she stayed calm and did not panic. Not only that, but she did everything she could to assist me, and did it all on pure instinct. And don't think she didn't know we were truly and royally screwed out there.

"All I was trying to do was buy you guys some time and hope we survived the pounding, because I knew ejecting would have been suicide. She didn't even worry about dying; she was ready to give her life for the unit. When we went down she didn't freak out, never shed a tear, never had a quiver in her voice. She then finished her performance by trying to stand there and defend my trapped ass barehanded when they came for us. In short, she behaved the way I would expect any combat officer to behave.

"Loyalty, bravery and raw talent. That's what I saw last night gentlemen and that's why I feel we need her in the CAV program. This isn't a promotion of gratitude and it isn't for her benefit; this is to strengthen the unit. Now, anyone have any problems with my decision?"

All the officers present shook their heads. "Sir," said Captain Yu, "if you post it like that in her new orders, no one's going to give you any grief."

"Thank you Captain," said Rigel, "I'll be sure I do that then. Okay if that's it, dismissed."

The staff stood, saluted and started to file out.

"Sergeant Major," said Rigel, "hang back a moment."

"Yes Sir?"

"You've been with me a long time and I want a straight answer. Do you have a problem with me promoting Barnes to L. T.?"

"Sir," started Goran, "first off that's none of my business. Secondly, you know I've turned down your repeated requests to commission me. I feel being a noncom gives me more respect with my men,so there's no need to worry about my ego. Third as you said, no one can dispute what she did last night, or her worthiness for this promotion."

Goran looked to the floor. "And lastly, as the security chief who almost let his commanding officer get butchered last night, I'm all too happy not to be busted back to corporal myself to worry about who you are promoting."

Rigel chuckled and slapped the man on the back. "Listen, we all underestimated things last night, but you have to remember that we didn't start this. This isn't a combat zone and you weren't wrong in not treating it as one. This is a game show, not a war, and the Hell's Gate boys are supposed to be here to stop exactly this sort of thing. They dropped the ball, not you."

"Yes sir," said Goran, "but I still shouldn't have let you go out there like that."

"Sergeant Major," said Rigel smiling, "I'm a big boy who can get himself into trouble without your permission. There's also the small matter of me outranking you. Just let it go and worry about plugging those security holes you found."

"Yes sir."

"And if you still need to clear your conscience, you can buy me a drink tonight." The Major sat back and smiled, remembering someone else who owed him a drink tonight. He returned Goran's salute, but his mind was elsewhere.


Rigel wandered up through the staff offices until he found Corporal Barnes' cubicle. "Corporal Barnes," he barked.

She snapped to attention and turned to face him crisply snapping up a salute.

The Major returned the salute. "Corporal, I believe the drinks are on you tonight, if I remember our deal correctly. 1900 hours in the lounge."

"Yes, Sir," she said sharply.

Rigel turned and walked away and he thought he heard just the slightest giggle from the receptionist as he past. He couldn't help but grin. After all, all work and no play...


Rigel and Tomas were already relaxing by the fireplace in the unit lounge when Barnes arrived. She strode up, snapped to attention and started to raise her hand.

"So help me Barnes," said Captain Spiro rolling his eyes "don't do it!"

Barnes stopped mid-salute, looking confused.

"Our illustrious XO has issues with saluting in social environments. Tomas had a bad experience with a cadet back when he was with NADO." Rigel took a pull off his cigar and sat forward to explain. "You see, he was in charge of a training cadre and returning salutes all day can make the act rather automatic. One evening he was at a party with this rather fetching young thing..."

"She was a countess," broke in Tomas.

"Who cares? Anyway…"

"It's important! It was a very formal occasion."

"OK, as I was saying," continued the Major, "there was Tomas, talking to this countess, when one of his cadets strode up and snapped him a salute. Tomas returned it without even thinking and proceeded to pour the drink he had forgotten he was holding all over his head."

"Not to mention it was 35 year old Avalorr brandy"

"What difference does it make?"

"Well you have to explain the gravity of the situation, otherwise it sounds silly."

"I understand the gravity of the situation clearly, Captain," said Barnes, "but it still sounds silly. Sir."

Rigel nearly choked on his cigar laughing and Tomas threw him a look of utter disdain. "Fine, Corporal. I believe the Major said something about the drinks being on you tonight."

"I didn't mean to imply you could spill them on me though, Captain." Near by, Captain Yu let out a howl of laughter while Tomas just looked at her with snobbish contempt.

"Fine missy, just for that make it a double, now be gone," said Spiro with a wave of his hand.

"Yes, Sir!" As she left she snapped Tomas a salute, which he returned automatically, nearly putting out his eye with the end of his cigar.

"Dammit!"

Rigel was by now doubled over laughing uncontrollably.

"Yeah, yeah, real funny." Tomas looked at his commanding officer disdainfully. "Oh do stop it Rigel, you look foolish."

"That's the first time I've seen anyone, let alone a girl, get the better of you."

"Oh knock it off, so I'm having an off day." Tomas drained the last of his drink. "And stop calling her a girl. In case you hadn't noticed, she's a little too well developed to not call her a woman."

Rigel had noticed. He mind flashed back to the sight of her stripping off her jacket as she got into the CAV. That t-shirt had been a little tight and she'd obviously dressed in haste to respond to the alarm. Rigel briefly wondered what she might have skipped putting on in her haste that night. He snapped back to reality as Barnes showed up with the drinks, along with Captain Yu and Sgt. Major Goran.

"I have the drinks, sirs."

"Oh for the love of money," groaned Tomas, "AT EASE! I'm not going to sit here and feel like I'm drinking with the NADO precision drill team. Just relax"

"Whatever you say, Sir." She set down the tray and started to pass out drinks. "Major? Bourbon neat?"

"Thank you, Corporal"

"Captain Yu, bourbon on the rocks, correct? And Captain Spiro, double Shirley Temple."

Captain Spiro glared at her. Yu chuckled. "I believe the score is 3 for Corporal Barnes, zilch for you Tomas."

"Whatever," said Tomas reaching to take a sip of the drink. Immediately he started to cough and gag, reaching for Yu's bourbon and downing it in one gulp, clutching his throat.

"Oops," said Barnes demurely, "that must have been the Malvernian fire ale for Sergeant Major Goran. Here you go Sir, my mistake."

Rigel shot bourbon out his nose and all Captain Yu could say through hyperventilating laughter was "Four."

"Alright, alright," said Spiro, "I'll admit when I'm beaten. I give up. But just remember missy, I'll get even one of these days. You won't know when, you won't know how, but I'll get you."

"Yes sir," she said, snapping him a salute.

As he started to return the salute Captain Yu cried out, "FIVE!"

 

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