Level 4Nur Dutchung - pt. 8
By Thane Barnier

October 31, 2071
Regents' HQ
Katourach Industrial Park
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

Rigel awoke as the soft sound of the shower coming from the bathroom penetrated the fog in his brain. He blinked his eyes rapidly trying to focus on the world around him. Opening his eyes finally he looked across the room to see the familiar surroundings of his quarters. He slowly sat up and instantly the pain pierced his head like a hot knife cutting through the base of his skull. He closed his eyes quickly, blinked again, then turned to look at the bedside digital display.

7 am. He swung his legs off the bed to sit on its edge, groaning and bringing his hands up to scrub away the last of the fog that clouded his mind. How much did he drink last night?

Memories of the previous evening came rushing back, forcing a smile to penetrate through the pain in his head. Listening again to the sound of the shower, he mused at the impulsiveness of his actions over the last few days. In his youth, that impulsiveness had cost him his career, and he had tried to bury it deep. Now suddenly here it was, back on the surface, and Rigel remembered how much fun it was to be bad. It was different now though. He was older, more seasoned, and surely he could control it. And if the benefits for cutting loose once in a while included evenings like last night...

It was beyond doubt that he found Alicia attractive, no man wouldn't. It was his impulsiveness the other night which had prompted him to invite her on that raucous ride over the edge of insanity. It was his idea that they share a drink should they survive the encounter, but was that mere bantering meant to calm her nerves? There's no doubt that he had been showing off a bit out there, but was that just his natural ego or was he trying to impress her?

He'd been so engrossed in his musings that he didn't hear the shower turn off. "What," Alicia said in a slightly mocking tone, "did it just occur to you that you spent the night with a woman half your age or were you thinking about the look on Captain Spiro's face when you tell him?"

He could see Barnes was teasing him and knew at once that she was completely at peace with their tryst. Good, he thought, that's one less thing to worry about. "First off I have no intention of making our encounter public. Not that I plan to hide it, I just don't kiss and tell, so to speak. Secondly, half your age my ass. How old do you think I am?"

"Well after last night," Alicia said coyly, "not as old as your file says."

Rigel felt himself flush a bit. "Why Major," she laughed, "you're blushing."

Rigel reached out and brushed back a lock of still damp hair from her face. "Alicia, I think we can dispense with ranks, since we aren't exactly in uniform."

She looked down at the towel wrapping her body. "I hope you don't mind, the towels here in officer country are much nicer that over in the barracks."

"I'm glad you like them," Rigel said grinning, "I hope they will continue to suit your fancy."

Alicia's face went serious. "Look Rigel, I'm not sure it's a good idea to contemplate me using your towels that much after today. Don't get me wrong, last night was great and I really do like you, but while you may not feel the need to hide this little encounter of ours, we're breaking about every rule of fraternization between commissioned and non-commissioned personnel that the Regents have. Rules, if I remember correctly, that you yourself set down."

"Oh that's no problem anymore," laughed Rigel.

"Changing the rules to accommodate your own desires? Excuse me Major, but that doesn't sound like your style." Alicia was a bit put off by the implication of his statement. She respected him more that she had any commanding officer, and she thought him above manipulating the rules he had set down.

"No, no nothing like that. Oh wait a minute," he said, playfully feigning shock, "I did forget to tell you last night didn't I? You know, when you reach my advanced age, you tend to forget such things."

"Tell me what, Rigel." Alicia had struck a pose of indignation, hands on her hips.

Rigel chuckled as he walked over to where his jacket lay, thrown lazily across the writing desk, and fished an envelope out of the pocket. Still grinning he handed it to her.

Looking suspicious, she tore open the envelope and read the letter inside. After a pause he said, "Congratulations Lieutenant Barnes."

"But Rigel," she stammered, "Major, I don't understand."

"Sit down Alicia and I'll explain." He then went into his reasons for the promotion, including her change of MOS to Weapons Systems Operator. He watched the excitement grow in her eyes as he explained her new assignment. He saw the eagerness in Alicia's eyes when he told her of the special need the unit had for someone with advanced electronics training, and he saw her swell with pride as he told her of how her courage and strength during their tenuous battle in the street had impressed him.

"Ok Rigel," she said, "then why all the secrecy? Why wait until this morning to spring the news? A sense of adventure perhaps? While I was still a Corporal I was still forbidden fruit?"

"Not exactly," he said sardonically. "I had planned to announce this in the lounge. Captain Spiro posted the orders right before coming down himself. As things started getting a little friendlier, well I guess I wanted to be sure that anything that might happened..."

"... was because I was attracted to you and not out of gratitude for the promotion." She finished his statement matter-of-factly, nodding her head in understanding.

"Call it male ego, I guess."

"So aren't you worried that others might think that's what last night was about?" asked Alicia with a crooked smile.

"More likely they'll think it was in gratitude for saving your ass out there the other night," shot back Rigel.

"Good point." They both laughed.

"Frankly," said Rigel, "I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks, it's none of their business. Besides, I run this unit!"

"You've gotten quite a reputation for impulsiveness over the last few days, you know," said Alicia. "This ought to cement that reputation firmly in place!"

"What makes you think anyone's gonna find out?" asked Rigel a bit perturbed. At her mockingly questioning look he chuckled. "Ok, you're right. I forgot that gossip was the most finely honed skill in this unit."

They laughed, and then the Major drew himself up straight said, "Welcome to officer's country, Lieutenant Barnes. Enjoy the towels." He extended his left arm, handing to her the small royal blue box which contained her new Lieutenant's bars. His right then came up in a crisp salute. As Alicia instinctively straightened and returned the salute. Her towel fluttered to the floor.

She simply smiled and tossed the box onto the desk. Stepping up she spoke softly in his ear, "Now that we are clear that last night had nothing to do with gratitude, at least grant me the courtesy of showing my appreciation this morning." As he returned her passionate kiss, the comm unit began to beep.

"What the hell! I can't sleep, I can read a book, I can't..." He punched the button furiously. "What?"

"Well Rigel, I see we are surly this morning," said Captain Spiro, his voice chipper and bright, "I would have thought you would be in a better mood this morning."

"What's that supposed to mean," snapped Rigel, looking over his shoulder at where Alicia lay stretched across the foot of the bed stifling a giggle.

"Nothing Chief," said Tomas. "Anyway, just thought I would remind you that you have a meeting in 20 minutes with Trach Rognlan to discuss the incident."

"Damn, I'd forgotten about that," said Rigel. "Thanks Tomas."

"I live but to serve, Major." The comm went dead as Rigel smashed his fist into the kill switch.

Sighing he turned around and saw Alicia pulling on her uniform. He must have looked like a wounded puppy because she laughed and reached out a hand touching his face. He smiled sheepishly and said, "I guess duty calls."

When she had finished dressing and straightening herself in the mirror he saw her looking around for something on the desk. Seeing the box with her new bars laying on the floor, he retrieved them and came up to stand in front of her. Opening the box he formally pinned one on each shoulder, stepped back, and saluted once more. She returned the salute and burst out laughing.

"What's so funny," he said, "it's customary for the commanding officer to pin the insignia on a newly commissioned officer in this unit."

Alicia smiled. "I'm sure it is, Major, but I'll bet this is the first time you've ever done so in your underwear." Kissing him quickly she left the room with a bounce in her step.

As she left, the hangover which had been long forgotten came rushing back. With a groan he stumbled into the shower and dressed quickly. This meeting had better be good. Today was Sunday, and in the Regents, Sundays were a rest day. On Sundays all operations were run on a skeleton crew which rotated so that no man worked more than once per month, unless the unit was deployed on combat operations. The recent goings on meant that the security corps would have to put in a little overtime, but he'd make sure they were taken care of for the inconvenience.

His head throbbed, but he began to feel a bit better. He had to remember that he was the commanding officer of a mercenary unit, a unit that was suddenly in a very unstable environment. The other night's incident in the streets could very well be a harbinger of things to come.

October 31, 2071
Regents' HQ
Katourach Industrial Park
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

The Major strode into the conference room to find Tomas waiting for him, a pot and a steaming mug already set at the head of the table. "Captain," he started, "if that coffee's as strong as it smells, you just might sidestep the tongue lashing I was about to give you for waking me up."

"It is, Rigel," said Tomas, "but don't give me that waking you up crap. I know damn good and well that you were up, and probably occupied when I called."

"Look Tomas," said Rigel suddenly serious, "I know you'd have an idea of what happened, but don't go blabbing it around ok? I don't want this getting blown out of proportion."

"No need for me to open my big mouth, since pretty much the entire unit knows by now."

"What?" yelled Rigel, "How the hell did that happen?"

"Oh come on, Rigel. The way you two were laughing and having a gay old time? It was pretty obvious that there was a mating ritual taking place. The funny part, Rigel, is that I don't think you were aware it was going on."

Tomas snorted a short chuckle and continued, "Rigel my boy, you can be suave and debonair when want need to and you had that poor young woman wrapped around your finger. I saw you turning on the charm, and knowing you as long as I have, I knew you weren't doing it on purpose. You don't know how. And she had your attention the entire night too.

"I know you weren't trying to be obvious about it," said Tomas with a lopsided grin, "but it was. When you got up to leave it took her about two seconds to find a way to excuse herself as well."

Rigel groaned took a big swig of his coffee. He really didn't need this. "So what do you think the ramifications will be? I don't need the whole unit thinking she got promoted because of last night, or for that matter..."

"That last night was in gratitude for the promotion?" Tomas took one look at Rigel's face and knew he was right. He burst out laughing. Rigel gave him a withering look, and Tomas got himself composed.

"OK, OK, I'm sorry," he said. "Don't worry, Rigel, your reputation is secure. And enhanced a bit I dare say."

"How so?"

"Because my dear Major," said Tomas sardonically, "since she joined the unit last year I don't think there's a single male member of this unit that hasn't tried to hook up with our lovely Miss Barnes, all unsuccessfully I might add. You are now the envy of every young man in this command sir." And with that Tomas snapped to attention and threw the major a salute.

The salute the major returned was far from military in nature, and used just one finger. Tomas started roaring again and collapsed into a chair to drink his coffee.

"To be truthful Rigel," he said, losing none of his mirth at his friend's discomfort, "I wouldn't worry about it. Everyone gets why she was promoted, and everyone knows what happened out there in that Gladiator. We saw the gun camera footage and we heard the cockpit recorders. There's no mystery that she's ready, willing and more than able to pull off this new duty.

"Major you've given these troopers a new sense of purpose. You've earned their respect and given them a second chance when no one else would. They also know that this is your second chance, and they respect that. This assignment is the first decent chance they've gotten to show their stuff and to prove that they are worthy of being called soldiers, regardless of their past problems. They're here because of you, and they know it.

"And don't forget, you tried to die for them the other night. I'd say the average trooper wouldn't dare begrudge you anything that made you happy because you've given back to them what their previous commanders took away: their pride."

Rigel looked up at his friend, truly amazed at what he had said. "Do the men really feel that way?"

"Yes Rigel, they do" said Tomas, suddenly serious. "Well except for me, of course. You know I never had any pride to begin with."

They raised their mugs and chuckled in a silent toast.

"Between you and me," said Tomas, "my biggest concern was that you would either get cold feet and chicken out at the last minute, thus embarrassing yourself and the unit at the same time, or that she'd give you a heart attack."

"The thought had crossed my mind," mused Rigel, "about the heart attack part. But you know the old saying, 'death before dishonor'."

"So what you are saying, is that you did it for the good of the unit," quipped Tomas.

"That's my story," said Rigel serenely sipping his coffee.

He thought back briefly to the previous night's escapade, and the possibilities for a repeat tonight. As tired as he was from his lack of sleep, he felt younger than he had in years.

"So what is this meeting all about, Tomas?"

Tomas shrugged. "I'm not sure. Rognlan just called and said he wanted to meet with you regarding the 'incident', as he called it."

"Great," said Rigel rolling his eyes, "thanks for bringing me down. When are he and his gaggle of cronies coming?" He was answered by a knock on the door.

"I'd say right now," said Tomas, wryly.

The yeoman outside the conference room showed Trach Rognlan, the CEO of TRI, and his entourage in. Trach crossed the room with a look of concern on his face and his arms outstretched. As Rigel stood, Trach grasp his offered hand in both of his own. "Major Ghardoki, you have my sincerest apologies. That was a heinous attack, absolutely incomprehensible. I have been given full assurances from the local constabulary that the culprits will be dealt with. I've also been told that Colonel Klaug is going to be facing charges for mayhem and attempted murder."

"But," said Tomas sardonically, "those are going to be with a military tribunal, this world currently being under martial law for the remainder of the Nur Dutchung and all. This means that we have no recourse to recoup damages for our lost equipment from this attack."

Rognlan nodded. "That is true, yes, but we will make sure you are justly compensated. This attack was allowed to happen through a lack of proper security. The fault lies not on the Regents, but on the local garrison. And TRI," he added reluctantly.

Ghardoki looked at the man, a ridiculous figure in an out-of-style suit of alien manufacture. He was a real piece of work, this one, and he was as slimy as a toad. Rigel didn't trust him in the least.

Rognlan spoke again in a conciliatory tone. "I assure you Major, we will be putting in place additional security forces to make sure you are not bothered by any further incidents. We need to make sure that your preparations for the final round are not disturbed in any way. We want to be sure that you are perfectly comfortable continuing your fine record of success."

And there was the true reason behind Rognlan's concern. Rigel almost laughed at the revelation. Having already lost one of the finalists, TRI was now faced with the possibility that the Regents would be incapacitated by some rogue element, or worse would pull out of their own accord. That would leave him without a final battle, and a de facto winner, unless he pulled up a couple more of the losers, again. Major Ghardoki held up a hand.

"Don't worry Trach," he said, "we aren't going anywhere. You'll get your final match and your ratings boost. Your investment is safe."

Rognlan looked shocked. "Sir, my first concern is for your unit's safety. I can not and will not allow a repeat of this incident for a myriad of reasons."

Rigel smiled and nodded and Rognlan relaxed. "Now if you would accompany me to your hanger," said Trach standing, "I have a surprise for you."

They left the room and walked down to the CAV bay. Upon entering the hanger, Tomas and Rigel did their best to hide the surprise at the presence of a number of trucks and vehicles. "And what, pray tell, is this, Trach?"

Rognlan smiled. "Your compensation. All working equipment and supplies of the Fire Fangs was seized by Hell's Gate. Colonel Jorl has decided that it should be turned over to you to recoup your losses from the attack."

Rigel and Tomas traded looks of interest and turned to see Sergeant Major Goran come striding up. He saluted and handed the major a clipboard. "Here is a full inventory, sir."

Rigel perused the manifest intently. There were a great number of miscellaneous munitions, from gauss rounds to short and long range missiles, tons of replacement armor plates, and other sundry supplies. Not enough to make up for the loss of the Gladiator, but still worth something. He saw that there were eight vehicles, including a pair of Badger APC's, two Hunters, and four Chieftain hover tanks.

"There is one other thing I would like to present to you," said Rognlan. "TRI is most aggrieved by this cowardly attack which has cost you your personal CAV. To that end, we would like you to accept this gift as a token of our regret at our lack of foresight."

Rigel had to move further into the bay to see outside the open doors to where Rognlan had gestured. Standing there, still wearing the factory silver and red of KODA Works, stood a massive Emperor CAV. Rigel stopped dead in his tracks, stunned. He had heard of the Emperor, but had never seen one, having only been in production for a little over a year. He couldn't help but wonder how TRI had gotten their hands on one. Perhaps the same way Tomas had acquired the Gladiator for him?

"I'm not sure what to say, Trach," said Rigel. "That's a fine piece of machinery."

"Just assure me that you will put it to good use in the final," said Rognlan grinning with self importance.

"I think we can arrange that for you," said Tomas. "Come on Major; let's get that thing dressed in some proper cloths. This CAV hanger is strictly blue tie, after all." The trio chuckled and Rigel could already see technicians preparing to paint the brand new CAV in the units blue and silver colors. Rigel smiled to himself. Apparently Tomas was right; the men did have their pride back.

November 8, 2071
Regents' HQ
Katourach Industrial Park
Touragnul City, Tourac (3)

A week had past, and still Rigel had gotten no word of when they would have a mission briefing on the final round. While he was mildly concerned by this, he certainly had other distractions to take his mind off the impending match.

He had spent everyday getting used to his new Emperor. Though he had loved the Gladiator, he was still in awe of the difference that 20 years of technical advancement could make in a war machine. With its massive rotary gauss cannons this CAV was a deadly beast. The toughest thing for him to get used to was the lack of mobility. Granted, the Gladiator hadn't been the fastest pair of legs in the group, but it was a speedster compared to the Emperor. This was a super-chassis, one of the new monstrous class of CAV's designed to keep up with KDM and their Rhino. It required different tactics, requiring him to get in close and slug it out, where as with the Gladiator he could stay back and snipe. He would have to adjust his fighting style a bit to suit his new machine.

He also had the distraction of the lovely Lieutenant Barnes, who had spent nearly every night in his company. He wasn't sure where things were going between them, but he wasn't really worrying about it either. No man in his right mind would complain about the presence of a woman like Alicia, especially a man his age. He was simply enjoying the temporary distraction from the reality of impending combat. If he survived this fiasco called the Nur Dutchung, he could worry about what came next in his personal life.

He stood at the foot of Emperor, having just returned from another run. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and watched his wizzo, Lieutenant Cleminsi, descend the gantry. "Well Eric," said Rigel, "Are you feeling a little more secure now?" Cleminsi had expressed concerns about the new tactics of getting in tight and daring people to shoot at them. Rigel had arranged a little live fire demonstration for him.

"That wasn't funny," said a sour looking Cleminsi, "you could have warned me!"

Rigel laughed. "What would have been the fun in that? Besides, if I had you would have just mustered for sick call. I just wish I would have had a camera to see the look on your face when that first gauss slug hit us in the chest!"

Rigel pointed up to the Emperor's chest. A quartet of dents in the armor plates showed where the 4 nickel ferrous gauss slugs from Captain Spiro's Assassin had struck the CAV. It was clearly obvious that the paint was gone and there were cracks in the plates, but they were for the most part intact. The Emperor had taken four direct hits from the Assassin, and the results were only minor armor damage and a few nicks in the breeder. Those had been repaired amazingly well by the Emperor's advanced repair system.

"Nice grouping," said a voice behind them. Turning, Rigel saw Captain Spiro and Lieutenant Barnes striding over. Tomas had taken charge of Alicia's training, once she had passed the simulators (with flying colors no less). He had told Rigel that she was a natural with the electronic warfare systems, but was having a little trouble with the targeting and gunnery side of things. However, that wouldn't be her primary job in the Panther.

He could see that Alicia looked a bit shaken, but was also grinning. He couldn't help but noticed that she looked extremely sexy, her sweaty hair matted to her face and her flight suit hugging her curves almost too well. Rigel had to close his eyes and mentally switch back into commander mode. Opening his eyes, he saw Alicia throw him a wink, telling him she had recognized his thoughts. Rigel shook his head.

"Who was at the controls for those shots?" asked Rigel.

Tomas motioned over his shoulder at Alicia. "Oh that was her. I didn't tell her the first two were gonna be live though. After the shock wore off and she realized that she hadn't killed you, she pumped those next two right through the holes made by the first two."

Tomas smiled his lopsided grin. "She just kept saying, 'just a couple more, let me pump a couple more slugs into him!' It was quite disturbing how bloodthirsty she got."

"Oh I did not!" snapped the new lieutenant. "You scared the hell out of me!"

"Relax, Barnes," said Tomas, "you'll still have help making your bed in the morning."

Alicia stiffened and looked as if she was about to slug Tomas. Tomas, still grinning turned to Rigel and noticed the stony look in his face as well. "Ok," he said, "went too far didn't I?"

"You could say that," said Rigel through clenched teeth.

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry," said Tomas quickly to both Rigel and Alicia, "but I didn't think you two were still touchy about this. Especially you, Alicia."

"Look Captain," Alicia said haughtily, "I know you are the major's best friend, and I know he's told you more about our relationship than I would probably like to know, but that doesn't give you the right to throw it in my face."

When Tomas was about to speak, she continued. "I've earned everything I've gotten and I will not have anyone saying any different. Especially someone who I'm sure knows the true reasons why I am where I am today."

"Now hold on..." Tomas began, but Alicia cut him off.

"And another thing, it just so happens that I appear to be the only person in this unit who can put you in your place when the need arises. This is one of those times. So chalk up another point on my side of the scoreboard and let's get on with our lives."

At this Tomas's concern left his to be replaced with exasperation. Rigel burst out laughing and Alicia smiled sweetly, looking thoroughly pleased with herself. "When are you going to learn, Captain, that you have met your match?"

"Whatever, Lieutenant," said Tomas. "Should I describe to the assembly how you squealed like a school girl who just saw a snake when those cannons really fired?"

Alicia did hit Tomas then, slugging him in the shoulder. "Oh shut up! You set me up for that, what did you expect?" Rigel promptly started choking with laughter.

"Don't encourage him!" she said turning to Rigel.

Tomas pointed over Rigel's shoulder at Lieutenant Cleminsi. The poor young man was displaying a look of shock and confusion, and looked completely uncomfortable at the banter between the three.

"Sorry Eric," said Rigel, "I'd forgotten that you were on leave until a couple days ago. I guess I just assumed you'd been caught up on all the gossip."

"No sir, I've been trying to get up to speed on the new CAV. It was quite a shock to come back and find our old ride in the scrap pile." Cleminsi had been devastated to find the Gladiator destroyed. It was truly a CAV that displayed a gunner's skill.

"Captain Spiro," said Rigel, "would you please explain the facts of life to my wizzo for me? I see Sergeant Major Goran waving at me."

"Certainly sir," said Tomas throwing his arm around Eric's shoulders and started to lead him away. As they walked away, Tomas began, "You see son, when two people really care about each other, it's natural that at some point they may want to take their feelings to another level."

"Not those facts Spiro!" bellowed Rigel with exasperation.

"Oh," drawled Tomas, "sorry sir. My mistake." Cleminsi still looked thoroughly confused as Tomas led him away.

Rigel shook his head and motioned for Alicia to join him as they went to meet Goran. "What's up?" asked Rigel.

"Sir," the Sergeant began, "I'm not sold on these new security troops TRI sent over. These guys are fine for protecting media stars, but this is different. We need to treat this like a war zone now."

"Well," said Rigel, "I don't think it's that bad. Sure we need to tighten security but the area isn't exactly a hot LZ."

Goran looked down and sighed, trying to get his courage up to finally confront his commander. Rigel was a bit shocked at the way the Malvernian shuffled his feet. He had never seen his security chief uncomfortable before.

"Look Major," he began, "meaning no disrespect to yourself or the lieutenant but I think recent events have clouded your judgment on this matter. Last week we had a very traumatic event, a major breach in security that almost cost us your life. Since then you have had a lot of good fortune between the acquisition of that shiny new CAV and your liaison with Lieutenant Barnes. I think these may have clouded your vision, and made it appear that all is back to normal and better than ever. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury.

"Had I been on the top of my game that night, none of this would have happened. As it is I wasn't, and the hole in my security almost resulted in my commanding officer getting splattered all over that street out there." Goran was not about to back down now.

"Sir, while you have been enjoying the fact that you made it out alive, I have had to live with that nightmare for 9 days. I have one job, to keep the men and machines of this unit safe, and I failed miserably, almost catastrophically. I can not allow that to happen again, and this is why I have to make you see reason. Major, believe me, I don't begrudge you your happiness, but..."

"But," interrupted Rigel, "you still have a job to do. You're right, Sergeant, I need to be more focused. Perhaps I haven't been as serious as need be."

"Now Major, I don't mean to imply that you are in any way neglecting your duties." Goran crossed his arms and stood firm in front of his CO. "All I'm asking sir is that you realize that while this may not truly be a war zone, we should err on the side of caution and treat it as such. We have to put up the face that we aren't going to take this lying down and we aren't going to allow another opportunity."

"In short," said Rigel grinning, "take off the handcuffs Major and let me do my damned job? Is that what you are saying?"

"Well sir, I guess it is," said Goran straightening his shoulders.

"Ok Sergeant, you're right. I want a plan for tightened security on my desk by 1700 hours tomorrow."

"Thank you sir," said Goran. "I'll set things in motion and inform..."

"Gun!" Alicia's yell echoed through the hanger, and Rigel turned to see a trooper wearing the uniform of TRI Security bearing down on him, auto-pistol in hand.

Rigel barely had time to react as he saw the trooper raise the auto-pistol and point it at him. As the trooper pulled the trigger Rigel felt himself being knocked to the ground as Goran dove to shove him out of the way. Falling to the ground, he heard two quick gunshots, these closer and the distinct cracks of a pilot's sidearm. He saw the TRI trooper hunch forward as the slugs took him in the center of his armored vest. The trooper staggered but stayed up, the rounds having failed to penetrate his body armor. Rigel was suddenly crushed beneath Goran's massive body and heard another shot thunder out. This one had the deep pitch that could only come from a Malvernian Mag Pistol and erupted mere inches from his head. He saw the TRI trooper's darkened visor shatter as the shot glanced off it. A second thunderous shot took the trooper in the visor again, spiraling part of it away. Another high pitched double tap sent two more slugs into the assassin, dropping him to one knee. A third cannon-like shot found the vacant space where the bulletproof visor had been. The metal jacketed round passed all the way through the trooper's skull and hit the back of the Kevlar/ceramic helmet he wore. The bullet ricocheted back into his skull and attempted to exit through his forehead where it contacted the remaining half of the visor, shattering it and blowing it away from the trooper as he fell to the ground, his face as shattered as the visor.

Turning his head up, he saw Alicia, a smoking pistol in her hands, crouched and still covering the fallen trooper as she scanned the hanger for other potential attackers. A swarm of Regents security personal formed a protective perimeter around their commander, rifles leveled at anyone wearing a TRI uniform.

Goran rolled off his commander and struggled to his knees, with his massive sidearm still trained on the ruined would-be assassin. Rigel saw that Goran had taken that first bullet in the chest armor, just a few inches above and to the left of the heart. "Lockdown!" Goran shouted, but the security team had already sprung into action. Seeing the situation under control, the Security Chief collapsed.

Rigel rushed to check the Sergeant Major's condition. He saw no blood and Goran was conscious, but judging from the massive dent in the man's armor, he was sure Goran would be feeling that for days. Even with body armor, that shot would have probably killed a human, or at least sent him into cardiac arrest from the shock. Medics arrived and ascertained that the big Malvernian was in no immediate danger. The Major laughed in relief.

"Well, I think we can safely dispense with the 'I didn't do my job' crap Sergeant Major," said Rigel. "Now let's get you patched up."

Rigel ducked under the big Malvernian's arm and helped him to his feet. As Alicia grabbed Goran's other arm, the security chief gave her a quizzical look.

"What?" asked Alicia.

Turning to Rigel, the security chief grinned and asked, "Major, would you consider transferring Lieutenant Barnes to security?"

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