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Excerpt for Elizabeth Skousen Episode 1 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Elizabeth Skousen Episode 1

By Cai Olan

Copyright 2018 Cai Olan



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“Colonel, fifteen minutes before the final jump is completed.” the black haired male pilot announced from his controls.

“Thank you, Major Novak. Have all the final preparations been made, Major Maly?” a female voice asked. It belonged to Imperial Colonel Elizabeth Skousen, who was the highest ranking officer on the spacecraft. She stood at the center of the command center, directing the final stages of the Imperial Heavy Cruiser Goddard’s return to sublight speeds. The Goddard had been on the trip from Earth to the far outlying Rukast system for the past six months. While there were other stops to recharge the FTL drive along the way, this would be the final jump, the crew would arrive at their destination, at which point the drills would end and the real work of patrolling the Rukast system would begin.

“Yes, colonel.” was Major Maly’s reply. He was just a few years younger than Colonel Skousen, in his late twenties. “The marines have drilled on the end of the jump several times now. Will you be requesting everyone to battle stations?” he asked.

“Your marines can rest for now.” the colonel replied. “We’ll evaluate the system on arrival.” Then she pressed a button to communicate throughout the entire ship, “This is Colonel Skousen speaking, we will be arriving in Rukast in ten minutes. We will arrive under TAC Four.” Threat Assessment Condition, or TAC, was a five point scale, with four being the second lowest level of alertness. It was a typical setting for arrival in a new system where intelligence did not indicate any immediate threats, as it was nearly impossible to scan systems for threats ahead of arrival.

Throughout the ship, several teams moved into place. Weapons were armed, shield generators underwent final preparations, damage control teams moved into position, and the people in the command center were preparing to conduct a more detailed threat assessment upon arrival. The process had gone reasonably smoothly. Most of the enlisted crew of the Goddard were fresh out of training upon their assignment to the vessel, and many of the officers had only a completed a couple of short assignments before this mission. Much of the past six months was spent drilling them for actual operations on arrival, but Elizabeth thought actual combat would be the only true test of the crew’s capabilities.

“Dropping out of FTL now.” Major Novak announced as the tactical viewscreen went from being blank to lighting up with a top down view of the Rukast system. There was a slight jerking of the Goddard as this happened, but Colonel Skousen had no problem remaining standing without holding anything, she had prior experience with command and with spacecraft returning to sublight speeds. “Triangulating the Goddard's position in the system.” Major Novak announced next. “Estimated time twenty minutes.”

“Very well.” Colonel Skousen answered. “Status of our comms, Captain Lagunova?” was her next question.

The black haired woman replied, “Establishing communication with Imperial satellites in system. Estimated time to receive preliminary intelligence brief is ten minutes. It will be several hours for a report from Rukast.”

“Good.” Colonel Skousen answered. It was always said many new spacecraft commanders were bothered by the time delay upon arriving in a new system, but without faster than light communication capabilities it couldn’t be helped. Colonel Skousen understood it would take time for them to make contact with the Imperial spaceport on the planet and was patient.

“No threats within two light minutes detected, Colonel.” The woman in charge of the sensors answered. She was of Asian descent, her hair was short and colored a dark blue, which was technically against regulations, but the colonel smiled, given her own straight blonde hair went a couple inches below her neck, making it technically against regulations as well. She had a great deal of discretion in enforcement of some regulations on an assignment this far away from the heart of the Empire.

“Thank you, Captain Yi.” The colonel acknowledged. Two minutes was a pretty safe initial threshold, as it meant initial scans indicated they did not jump into an immediately hostile situation. The margin of safety would continue to be increased as they spent more time waiting for intelligence and system scans to come in.

“Status of weapons?” was Colonel Skousen’s next question.

It was a German woman that answered this question, “Weapons are currently armed, ready at your command.”

“Thank you, Major Hafner.” Colonel Skousen acknowledged.

For now it was about remaining alert and waiting. Ten minutes after arrival Captain Yi announced, “Margin of safety is now five light minutes.”

“Preliminary intelligence briefing inbound.” Captain Lagunova said. Then a couple seconds later added, “And received.”

“Send it to me.” Colonel Skousen ordered. Lagunova pressed a few buttons and a couple seconds later the colonel had the preliminary intelligence briefing in front of her, the one stored in the satellite, at least. A more comprehensive report from the planet would take several more hours. She scanned the report’s executive summary, “Reports of an illicit military spec base on the edge of the system as well as regular transport disruptions from piracy.” she announced. “Continue system scans for all space stations in the system. Also monitor any potential communications from the illegal station.”

Outlying regions often had problems like this, Elizabeth knew. Short on resources to properly defend their own space, they relied on Imperial assets. Imperial resources to defend systems were also stretched thin, even in the best of times. Which is likely why they assigned one heavy cruiser for an entire star system. Elizabeth thought bitterly to herself, but didn’t complain about it openly.

The colonel fell silent as she took a seat in the chair at the center of the command center. She knew at this point it would be mostly waiting for light speed scans and communications to be returned.

“Goddard’s position is calculated, adding to viewscreen now.” Captain Yi announced as the viewscreen showed they had arrived at the edge of the system. As the minutes passed, more spacecraft were plotted onto the display. Most of them were either cargo or courier vessels in the major space travel lanes, both essential in keeping the Empire functioning. The former enabled trade of goods throughout the Empire, while the latter were in charge of distributing information between planets as the closest thing to a faster than light communication network that had been managed. “Scans indicate margin of safety is now fifteen light minutes.” she announced next.

“Very well. Initiate long range scans, how long will that take?” Colonel Skousen asked.

“Given the size of the system a full long range scan will take about thirty-eight hours.” Captain Yi replied.

“In that case let me know if anything needing my attention comes up. I’m going to get a few hours of rest.” the Colonel said. Then she pressed the button to speak throughout the entire spacecraft again, “This is Colonel Skousen. Arrival in the Rukast system is successful. Stand down from TAC four. Resume normal operations.”

With that she left for her personal quarters. She knew little could be done to speed up the process of long range scans for an entire system. Watches would proceed as normal until the system was fully scanned.

The colonel’s quarters were close to the command center. She had a separate room to conduct official business, but the computer in her quarters had signs of significant use, with many of the keyboard’s keys no longer being marked. She knew it would be at least a day before they had any significant information on the system, the Goddard was currently safe, and the command center wouldn’t need her attention for at least another twelve hours unless something went wrong.

With that she checked the clock on her computer, then she went through the intelligence report sent from the satellite to see what time it was in the Imperial city on Rukast. Seeing that there it was only late evening there, she began to compose a message.

Alex, I’ll be on planet soon. In some ways it feels like we’ve known each other for such a short period of time, while in others it has felt like years. Am looking forward to meeting you!

Elizabeth

She sent her message, knowing she would have to wait the better part of a day to receive any kind of reply.

--

“Is it true the colonel has a boyfriend on planet?” Eunji Yi asked as she watched the sensors.

“I’d be careful letting her hear you say that.” Lilya Lagunova responded. Space travel was long and often uneventful. While officially discouraged, it was no secret one of the major activities during the long periods of downtime was gossip. “I’m not sure who they are, but she’s probably in touch with somebody down there. Supposedly she asked for this posting for some reason, and given how long outlying postings are for you don’t just do that without some thought behind it.”

“Could always be family. She could be from around here for all we know.” Ambrus Novak added.

“Unlikely.” Lilya responded, “Since when has anyone heard of an Imperial officer from Rukast? All their military talent goes into one of the local organizations.”

“Is it really that violent down there?” Eunji asked.

“Focus.” came the voice of Lieutenant Colonel Seiger Abraham, in charge of the current watch. “Anything showing up on sensors?”

“We’ll have at least an hour’s warning concerning any potential threats currently, colonel.” Captain Eunji Yi responded.

“Keep watching.” was the next command from the Lieutenant Colonel Abraham. With that the command center fell silent as they went back to watching their screens.

--

Eventually, Elizabeth did receive a reply. It had been several hours, and she was reading the preliminary intelligence summaries provided from the satellite on arrival.

I’m looking forward to meeting you too! I hope you’re well. It really does feel like forever, doesn’t it? Let me know when you arrive.

Alex.

The intelligence briefings didn’t tell her anything extra she didn’t already know or suspect. Illegal pirate activity with a space station built to military specifications to operate out of targeting cargo spacecraft. The planet itself was as tense as ever and there was some speculation at least one of the local planetary governments was supporting the pirates as privateers. All matters she would have to investigate, but that would be easier once she got onto the planet.

With that, Elizabeth went to lie down for some rest as the Goddard approached Rukast.

--

Not too long after falling asleep, she was being woken up by a call to her quarters. “Colonel Skousen.” she answered. Her mind was still a bit foggy, but that was going away as the Abraham spoke and told her she was needed in the command center. She disconnected the call shortly after and made her way to the command center, taking her position at the center. “Report.” she requested.

“Modified Wilhelm class detected, colonel.” Lieutenant Colonel Abraham explained. “We can be in firing range in eight hours.” he explained.

“Estimated speed and vector?” Colonel Skousen asked.

“It appears to be heading towards us, it has likely not detected our presence yet, but it’s in the major space lane towards the inside of the Empire.” was Abraham’s answer. “We have reason to believe it’s a pirate vessel by behavior.”

To Colonel Skousen, it was no surprise to hear a Wilhelm class spacecraft was engaged in probable pirate activity. They were an older model of spacecraft, but when they were made their high sublight speed in combination with their ability to hold a limited amount of cargo made them ideal for commerce raiding and were sufficiently cheap and available they were one of the preferred vessels of pirates in areas where the Empire’s influence was weaker. The primary modification made to such vessels was the addition of a railgun that ran along the top of the spacecraft, making it formidable in short and mid-range encounters against the larger freighters they often targeted. “Plot an intercept course, keep updating it, and activate sublight engines to full speed until we’re within beam weapon range.”

“Beam weapon range, colonel?” Abraham asked, knowing that would be inside of the range of the other vessel’s railgun.

“It will be good combat experience for the crew.” Colonel Skousen replied. “In six hours implement TAC three readiness. Captain Lagunova, do not open comms with them yet, it will only alert them to our presence.” she ordered.

“Yes, Colonel.” Lagunova replied in confirmation.

“Captain Yi, maintain passive sensors on the vessel, send an active ping in six hours.” was Colonel Skousen’s next order.

“Yes, Colonel.” Yi confirmed as well.

“Major Hafner, have final checks on all armaments ran, but prioritize beam weapons.” was Colonel Skousen’s next order.

“Yes, Colonel.” It was another confirmation, this one from Major Luise Hafner.

Colonel Skousen opted to stay in the command center to wait. It would be the Goddard’s first time in combat, and she felt the need to stay on the command center for the entire approach and confrontation.

--

The next six hours were largely uneventful and mostly consisted of updates to the Wilhelm class vessel’s course and the required corrections to intercept the vessel. Colonel Skousen looked over the command center. As they got closer, replies became more hesitant.

“Captain Yi, send an active ping in the direction of the potential hostile.” Colonel Skousen ordered. Her voice was steady as ever.

“Yes, Colonel.” was the reply she received from Captain Yi. “Current estimate is intercept will occur in 75 minutes. Approximately.”

“I need an estimate within one minute, captain.” Colonel Skousen insisted. Then she looked over at Lieutenant Colonel Abraham, “Initiate TAC three preparations. Have the weapons techs prioritize beam weapons but make sure everything is ready. I’ll keep you patched into command center comms.”

“Yes, colonel.” Abraham confirmed before leaving.

Captain Yi spend the next few minutes calculating the intercept. The colonel could clearly see she was intensely, almost obsessively, focused at points. Colonel Skousen could also notice the pilot was taking longer to plot course corrections. Finally, Captain Yi spoke up, “72 minutes until beam weapon firing range at current velocities.”

“Thank you, captain.” Colonel Skousen replied. When no one else was looking, she sighed quietly before activating the shipwide communication system again. “We are assuming battle stations for our first target. This is a modified Wilhelm class vessel. Its armament consists of one mounted railgun. This will be, for many of you, your first time in live combat. Rely on your training and follow orders, the results of this encounter will depend upon these two things. The Goddard is the newest generation heavy cruiser the Empire has, it is well equipped to handle this threat.”

The next sixty minutes consisted of additional updates, but now the updates included reports from damage control as well. Finally Captain Yi spoke with another update, “Within reliable projectile weapon range.” she announced.

“Continue to close to beam weapon range.” Colonel Skousen ordered. Then she said, “Captain Lagunova, open comms with the Wilhelm class.”

“Comms to the Wilhelm class are live.” was Captain Lagunova’s response.

“This is Imperial Colonel Elizabeth Skousen.” she began. “Identify yourselves and transmit authorized flight plan immediately.”

The command center fell silent for the next few minutes, then Captain Yi spoke, “Vessel is changing course away from us. We will be in beam weapon range in four minutes.”

“Continue to approach.” Colonel Skousen ordered, then she sent another message to the Wilhelm class vessel, “This is Imperial Colonel Elizabeth Skousen, your lack of transmission of a flight plan and alteration of course has been determined to be hostile. We will open fire if you do not respond.”

The next minute was silent as well. “Vessel has turned to face us, incoming railgun projectile!” Captain Yi announced anxiously. “Impact in two minutes. We’re still three minutes from viable beam range!” her voice was excited.

“Major Matharom.” Colonel Skousen began, addressing the shields officer in the command center, “Plot course of incoming shot, activate shields at fifty percent at point of impact, radius three meters.”

“Colonel!” Major Arthit Matharom tried to argue, “Two minutes to calculate that precise an impact-“

“Do it, major.” the colonel interrupted.

“Yes, colonel.” was the shields officer’s response. Who hurriedly initiated calculations. The colonel could see sweat coming from his forehead and a trembling right hand.

Sixty seconds later the colonel spoke up again, “I need that calculation, major.”

“It’s coming, colonel!” Major Matharom responded, then another twenty seconds later he announced, “Shield calculated, fifty percent, radius three meters.” The next forty seconds were silent except for the machinery in the command center. Then Matharom announced, “Shot impact at location of shield, no damage. Deactivating shield.” he announced.

“Good.” Colonel Skousen announced. “Don’t keep the shield up as long next time.” was her next directive. “Major Hafner, plot a firing solution for the main beam, fire once we’re in range, aim for their reactor room. Only fire one main beam weapon, twenty-five percent power. Use the full recharge time between shots.”

“Yes, colonel.” Matharom answered.

“Yes, colonel.” Hafner added as well as she went to perform the final calculations.

“Within beam weapon range.” Captain Yi announced next.

“Firing main beam now.” Major Hafner announced. The sensors showed the laser come from the front of the ship towards the Wilhelm class vessel.

“Another projectile coming in, Colonel!” Captain Yi announced. “One minute out.”

“Prepare shield calculation, fifty percent, two meter radius, activate five seconds before impact.” Colonel Skousen ordered next.

“First beam hit, absorbed by shields.” Captain Yi announced.

“Next shot will be ready in one minute.” Major Hafner added.

“Shields appear to be the universal type.” Captain Yi added after Hafner’s announcement.

“Calculating shields.” Metharom confirmed.

“Fire second shot when ready, twenty-five percent again, aim for the reactor again. We’re aiming to disable the vessel, not destroy it.” the colonel ordered.

“Shield activated.” Matharom announced, several seconds later he added, “Projectile hit shield, no damage. Deactivating shield.”

“I said five seconds, Major Matharom, not seven.” Colonel Skousen observed coldly.

“Yes, colonel.” was Matharom’s only response. The tone was a flat one.

“Firing second beam.” Major Hafner announced.

The room fell quiet again for a minute, after which Captain Yi announced, “The beam overpowered the shield. Reactor area has been hit.”

It took another minute, but Captain Yi added, “The Wilhelm is no longer moving in a way that indicates a working propulsion system.”

“Wilhelms don’t have a proper secondary reactor.” Colonel Skousen added, “Major Novak, take the Goddard into boarding range. Then she set her comm to speak with Major Maly, “Major Maly, have the marines ready to board and capture the personnel in five minutes. Use Ranger Suits. Rules of engagement are non-lethal if they don’t resist, if they have a death wish, use light rifles. We want the ship somewhat intact if we can help it.” she ordered, referring to the lightest combat suits available to Imperial Marines. Then after a pause she added, “As for you, stay behind. I know you're in good form. Direct the operation over comms.”

The reply she received from Major Maly was almost instant, “Acknowledged, colonel. We’ll be ready for boarding operations.”

“Yes, colonel.” Major Novak replied once she was done speaking with the marine leader.

--

Major Maly stood in front of a platoon of Imperial Marines. “Boarding of the disabled vessel will begin in five minutes. Ranger suits. Non-lethal armaments and light rifles. Go!” he ordered. The twenty marines assembled went to change into the Ranger suits, a mix between a space suit and powered combat armor.

Four minutes later they had returned, having put on the Ranger suits as well as having equipped themselves with short range stun sticks, flashbang grenades, and light rifles. While they were referred to as light rifles, referring to their weight, they were only light in the sense they were not the much larger machine guns and small artillery pieces that were made to be operated by suited soldiers. This had the effect of making the suited soldiers appear to be heavily armed compared to one out of the armor.

“To the boarding airlock.” was the next order the major gave. It was close to them and only took a couple minutes to get there. “We are prepared to board when given the order, colonel.” he announced.

“Very well, major.” Colonel Skousen observed, “Extending boarding corridor now.” Without atmosphere on either side of the corridor, the only sound heard was the sound of the extension of the corridor from inside the Goddard, not the contact with the other vessel. “Completed, board and capture the ship as intact as possible.”

“Yes, colonel.” Maly confirmed. “Move out!” was his next order, as the marines began crossing the boarding corridor. The Ranger suits were the lightest of the combat suits available, and while the Ranger suits were often stronger than an unsuited human, a plasma cutter was used to force the entrance to the Wilhelm open.

Once on the ship, the platoon split up into four squads. The first rushed for the reactor room, facing no resistance on the way until they ran into a bulkhead. “Team one reporting, path to reactor blocked by bulkhead.”

“The reactor room is likely severely damaged, it’ll have to be opened from the command center.” Maly responded from the Goddard.

The second team went to secure the habitation areas. On seeing a closed door to what were likely the beds the door was rapidly opened and a pair of flashbangs were tossed in, since there was still the remnants of life support on throughout most of the spacecraft still. Once they went off the second team rushed in, quickly using the stunsticks to subdue the five people that had holed up there. This was followed by applying simple zip tie restraints to their arms after they had been placed behind their back. “Habitation secured. Five captured.”

The third team rushed towards the single cargo bay the spacecraft had. The door, like habitation, was closed, and it was opened with flashbangs thrown in. This was, once again, followed by the rapid entry of the marines. “Cargo bay secured, it’s empty. None captured.” was the response.

The fourth team made their way to the command center of the spacecraft. The door appeared to have been sealed closed. “It’s sealed.” one of the marines commented. “Preparing breaching charges.” The other four members of the team were rigging the entire door with shaped charges to press inward on the door. “Hope for their sake the structure is stable.”

“You’re authorized to blow through the door and capture the command center when ready.” Maly responded. “Orders may prefer non-lethal, but if they’re refusing to surrender and die to venting atmosphere that’s their issue.” Then he put himself on the broadcast frequency with the Wilhelm class vessel, “We are preparing to breach the command center in two minutes. Disable any blocks on the door and surrender.” he announced.

There was no response on the comm. After one minute, he spoke again, “This is Major Maly with the Imperial Space Corps, we will be breaching the command center in one minute. This is your last chance to surrender.” The marine team itself was backing away from the door, preparing to detonate the charges. With no reply from the Wilhelm’s command center, he spoke up again, “Team four, no response from the Wilhelm. Be prepared for resistance.”

With that the fourth team’s leader used a detonator and the passage to the command center was open, with the sealed door flying inward towards the spacecraft’s controls. This was followed up with the fourth team rushing into the command center by throwing another pair of flashbangs. The only difference was this time there were three men in the command center wearing suits similar to the Ranger suits the boarding team had. As the crew in the command center noticed them, their visors went dark for a moment as the flashbangs went off.

They took up positions behind critical equipment, wielding large rifles designed to be used with combat suits, they did not appear to be impaired from the flashbangs. “They have suits!” the fourth team leader said into the comm, taking cover just on entering the command center. “Sending visual.”

Maly received the image. “Looks like an Angel class suit. The Empire rejected them because the armor at the neck is shit.” Then he adds, “Aim for the neck and they’ll go down.”

The fourth team drew their light rifles. The two marines on the far sides of the room initiated suppression fire. The other three aimed their rifles and waited for the enemy to attempt to make a shot. When one moved his head out to attempt to shoot at the marines, one of the marines discharged the rifle and made a direct hit at the neck, the bullet penetrating the weakened armor there.

The second hostile panicked and stood up, the other two men who had not yet fired took shots. The first hit the chest, the projectile bouncing off of it with little more than a dent, but the second hit right under the helmet, going through the thin material at the neck like the first one.

The third hostile threw his rifle into the space between the marines and those who were holding the command center. “I surrender!” he announced through his suit, he also broadcast his announcement over all frequencies.

“Come out, hands above head, helmet off. The craft still has atmosphere.” the fourth team’s leader commanded. This was met about thirty seconds later with a short man walking out as requested. “Remove the suit.” he ordered the marines under his command. The two at the far side quickly closed the distance, removing the suit and restraining the man.

“Get all prisoners off the ship and into containment.” Maly ordered next. “Team four, be ready to lift the bulkhead to the reactor. Team one, be ready to secure the reactor, be aware the reactor room is likely vented.”

“Acknowledged, major.” was the reply from both teams.

A few minutes later the prisoners were on the Goddard and secured. “Lift the bulkhead.” Maly ordered.

Soon the bulkhead to the reactor room came down and the fourth team entered. It was less a room they entered and more a floor with the propulsion system and ceiling missing. There were a couple unsuited bodies on the ground. “Reactor is secure.” the first team leader announced.

“Colonel, hostile spacecraft is secure, artificial gravity still works so the reactor has output, the Wilhelm is also now vented with the open bulkhead. Orders?” Maly asked.

“I’m sending in a damage control team with instructions to get the spacecraft working as much as possible using equipment from within the neutralized vessel.” was the Colonel’s response.

--

With the damage control teams ordered onto the ship and system scans still needing to be completed, Elizabeth considered the encounter over. “Continue scans and the reactor repairs. When the vessel is repaired enough to fly our destination is Rukast orbit.”

“Yes, colonel.” Major Novak replied.

“Colonel.” Elizabeth heard on her way out of the command center, “May I have a moment?” It was Abraham.

“What is it, colonel?” she asked tersely.

“With all due respect, you made the confrontation much more difficult for the crew than required. A missile would have solved the whole thing, or a projectile shot.” he argued. “And is five second precision on shields necessary?”

“Academy training is too soft on them.” Elizabeth answered, still walking towards her quarters. “We both know we’re going to have this crew for at least the next five years. It’s also unlikely Command will dispatch another spacecraft to this region. When we’re outnumbered ten to one and are unable to retreat or call for reinforcements they will thank me.”

“I understand, colonel.” Abraham acknowledged.

“Shield duration at fifty percent should have a window of three seconds, not five. Should we ever need full shield strength, the correct duration is one and a half seconds. I’m being generous.” Elizabeth continued. She appreciated Abraham’s concern, but she was also aware that he lacked combat experience that lasted longer than a single mission. Then she took a moment to laugh slightly, “As for the missiles, last time I used too many Command complained about how expensive they were. Well, that and we likely won’t be seeing any more missiles for at least eight months. It’s best to teach them to go without.”

“And a damage control team?” was his next question, “Asking them to fix that reactor enough to fly is unnecessary.”

“Best to train them in adverse conditions on something we can afford to lose.” she answered. “One day it may be the Goddard that needs next to impossible damage control.” Then she stopped outside of her quarters, “Your concerns are acknowledged, colonel. Dismissed.”

“Yes, colonel.” Abraham replied as he walked back to the command center to oversee the cleanup operations.

Elizabeth went into her quarters. It would be at least ten hours before they were in Rukast’s orbit. With that she began to flip through some of the intelligence reports from the planet that had now arrived. Most of them detailed the internal political conflicts still ongoing on planet. There were no outright wars, but the atmosphere between the governments on planet was tense. Additionally, signals warfare was suspected as several frequencies were showing as receiving unidentified noise. She soon turned off her terminal, she needed to be ready for the initial meetings on Rukast when they arrived.

With that she fell asleep.

--

Fourteen hours later Elizabeth had slept, taken a shower and put on a black business suit with a knee length skirt, anticipating arrival in orbit soon. Normally she would wear her dress uniform to the initial meetings, but she had other business on the planet first. She looked over alerts and messages to make sure nothing requiring her immediate attention. Then there was one message from Captain Lagunova addressed to all Goddard personnel Elizabeth noticed and continued to read.

As we make our final approach to Rukast, please be mindful to maintain data and operational security. Many of you will seek out media from Rukast. It is important to keep in mind when a comm is connected to the Goddard’s network, comms staff is able to make a note of all incoming and outgoing traffic. It is also important to remember to acquire your media from reliable sources. Mature content is a particular danger to data security as it is well known many viruses and worms come attached. If you suspect your actions have compromised data security, please see someone in comms immediately.

The message went on detailing specific procedures, but after finishing with the message she returned to reading the intelligence briefs that had been received. The current intelligence document she was reading quoted heavily from recent tourism guides, providing an overview of Rukast fashion trends within the Imperial city as well as advice for Imperial visitors.

While it’s getting better, Rukast fashion will mostly feel like a time capsule to Imperial visitors. While likely to be noticed, suits are considered acceptable wear by the locals for professional business and will not be considered unusual. Women wearing suits can opt for either slacks or a skirt, but should keep in mind showing any significant portion of the bare legs is viewed by the locals as an indicator of wealth. In addition, many cosmetics and similar products that most will take for granted near Earth are much rarer on Rukast. Imperial women should avoid heavy make up until they have a better read on their specific cultural situation. Stick with the light stuff.

“We’re approaching Rukast orbit now. The Wilhelm class was repaired enough to fly for a little bit and is shortly behind.” Major Novak’s voice could be heard through Elizabeth’s comm, stopping her from continuing to read the report.

Elizabeth nodded, it seemed repairs took longer than initially anticipated. “Very well, major.” she answered. “Prepare a shuttlecraft for me for my initial meetings. I will designate leave after the initial meetings and an assessment of the situation on planet.”

“Yes, colonel.” It was Abraham that replied to this order.

--

Soon enough Elizabeth had entered the shuttlecraft and made her way to the Imperial city on the surface. It was legally considered neutral territory in the planetary conflicts, but following the guide’s instructions and dressing in the business suit over her Imperial Space Corps dress uniform would allow her some degree of ability to blend in. She took out her comm and sent out a text, I’m here. Elizabeth.

She received a reply a couple minutes later with an address. It’s a café. Meet me there. Alex. Elizabeth smiled as she no longer had to worry about the time lag between communications now that she was on the planet. She would need to meet with the Imperial governor while she was on planet as well, but she had been looking forward to meeting Alex for well over a year now.

The café was nice, mostly wooden furniture and flooring rather than the more modern methods of construction she was used to on Earth. Elizabeth smiled, thinking it was a nice aesthetic. She looked around expecting to find the person she was meaning to meet among the people she saw in the café. She noticed most of them were dressed conservatively, with many wearing clothes that covered both their arms and legs. She took out her comm and pulled up the picture of Alex she had, noting the short dark hair and the dark grey suit with black necktie. After several seconds of looking around and not finding anyone who looked like the picture gave up, entered a number and dialed.

She watched to see who would pick up. The reaction was quick, it was a picked up by a woman with light skin, dark black straight hair that went a couple inches below her neck in a short dark blue sleeveless dress. Elizabeth blinked, surprised by who picked up, “Hello?” It was a female voice. “Is this Elizabeth?”

“Y-yes.” Elizabeth answered, surprised. She continued to look at the woman answering the call from a few feet away. The woman’s large eyelashes, contoured eyes, and the fact most of the length of her legs were clearly visible was not lost on the colonel.

“I’m right here, come, sit.” with that the woman disconnected the call, motioning to a chair next to her.

“Alex?” Elizabeth asked quietly after approaching the woman that answered the call. “I thought“ she began before being interrupted.

“It’s short for Alexandra.” the woman wearing the dark blue dress said with a smile. “You read my work on cybernetics, saw my picture, and thought I was a man, didn’t you? I hope this isn’t an issue.”

Once Elizabeth’s initial surprise wore off she smiled as well, “Not at all.” she replied, taking a seat across from the woman. Elizabeth didn’t quite know what to say at first. “I am surprised, this is a picture of you, right?” she asked, showing Alex the picture she was using a few moments before.

“Oh!” Alex said, smiling and laughing for a couple seconds. “You used my academic profile. I had to have that picture professionally taken, you know. My hair was shorter back then, but I had to put it all under a cap and wear that awkward wig you see.” Then a pause before she added, “If I were only worried about Terrans taking me seriously I wouldn’t have gone through the trouble, but you know how late phase colonies can be.”

Elizabeth nodded a little at this reply. “Yeah, that makes everything make sense. I can’t believe I didn’t ask for a current picture before coming here.” Then a brief pause before asking, “I know it’s been over a year since I first asked, but have you made any progress since your last paper?”

Alex sighed lightly, “The answer is not really. Restoring a function someone’s body previously had, like a lost limb, is reasonably simple. Even adding functionality a body can use without too much conscious thought is a reasonably easy possibility, but it’s not without problems. New complex capabilities that require intense conscious thought to use is a problem we’re still working on the theory for. Modern combat armors and other tools provide most of the things one would want such cybernetics for.” Then Alex offered another smile, “But you can always write to me about my work now that you won’t have to wait two months for it to be sent and for me to send a reply. It’s a long trip from Earth, I hope it wasn’t too horrible.”

“No, I’m used to it.” Elizabeth replied.

The dark haired woman made a point of sighing dramatically, “Elizabeth, you need to learn to relax a little.” Then she smiled again. “You’re so tense around me! I’ve read your work, too. Well, the redacted version anyway. You’re quite accomplished yourself!”

“I know we’ve written back and forth for over a year, I’m just a little surprised is all. It was always exciting when a courier brought the messages and data from so far away and I could read what you wrote me.” Then Elizabeth forced a laugh, “I just wasn’t sure what to expect. I can’t believe I didn’t even think to make sure I got a current picture.” She paused for a second, then asking, “So what’s it like here?”

“It can’t be helped that you would ask.” Alex began, shaking her head slightly, but she smiled while doing so. “It’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. Living here, that is. There are plenty of proxy conflicts, but nobody is openly defying the Mars Decrees.” she explained, referring to the laws that governed interactions between the different planets in the Empire. “If you like the multicultural nature of Earth you’ll find plenty to like on Rukast. A diversity of food, traditions, music, and culture.”

Elizabeth sighed, “Sounds like a nightmare to manage.”

“For someone in your position? It’s probably pretty horrible. Managing dozens of governments who aren’t used to significant Imperial interaction? I don’t envy you, Elizabeth.” Alex replied. “The governor is, well, replace governor with mayor and you get an idea of how things really operate down here.”

“Thanks for the information.” Elizabeth said flatly, realizing that her mission in the Rukast system was going to be significantly more difficult than the intelligence briefings on Earth had suggested.

“I hope soon we can do something a little more fun and not work related. You really need a hobby that doesn’t involve reading papers of academics working out on the frontier.” Alex said. “You’re surprisingly nervous in person, I didn’t expect that of you.” She had a playful smile.

“Not usually. I was caught by surprise, it isn’t fair!” Elizabeth complained, but she laughed immediately after this. Alex joined her. “But it’s nice to get to know you, I hope nothing is weird between us.”

“It will be fine, really, I’m used to that mistake.” Alex said reassuringly. Then she smiled again, “Besides, your nervousness is kind of endearing. It’s fine, I won’t tell anyone else about it. It’ll be our little secret, okay?”

“Thanks.” Elizabeth managed to answer. “We’ve been talking for over a year, but it feels like I know you really well and that I barely know you at all. It’s strange.”

“It’s not uncommon for first meetings like this, I’ve heard.” Alex replied. “Some things really are easier said in text, after all.”

“Yeah, they are.” Elizabeth agreed.

“Message me, I’ll be able to reply quickly now!” Alex suggested. “I’ll make time for you if you make time for me, okay?”

Elizabeth smiled at this, “Thanks for understanding, I’ll keep in touch. I have other duties that need attended to quickly, so I need to leave.” With she stood up to leave and added, “But it was very nice meeting you!” she offered quickly, clearly excited about that aspect.

--

“Colonel Elizabeth Skousen.” the man announced from behind his desk, stating the obvious as she stood before him in his office.

“Yes, governor.” she acknowledged. “The Goddard is in orbit and will be in this system. I want a copy of all the Mars Decrees complaints that have been documented sent to me so I know what to watch for.”

“Every government on this planet will be your target then.” the governor replied cynically. “Good luck with that. They do enough to hide the violations so we don’t have confirmation, knowing we don’t have the resources to investigate most of them. I’ll send you everything you want, and you’re the highest ranking officer in the system so naturally the Imperial forces on planet will be under your control, but they aren’t much.”

Elizabeth listened, “Fine, get me in touch with the diplomatic corps on planet.”

“Sure, sure.” the governor agreed. “Like I said, I’ll send you everything you want but Imperial intraplanet diplomat isn’t exactly a prestigious profession.”

“Thank you, Governor Sloh.” Elizabeth replied.

She started to turn to leave before the man spoke up, “Was it necessary to engage a spacecraft before you met with me?”

Elizabeth turned back to the governor, “The intelligence available indicated piracy was a problem in the system. The spacecraft engaged matched the profile. Additionally, a flight plan was requested from the Wilhelm and not provided. In the absence of specific engagement orders, I followed Imperial protocols on piracy mitigation. All well within regulation.”

Governor Sloh didn’t say anything right away. “Yes, all within guidelines.” he eventually said with a sigh. “I have nothing further.”

“In that case I will take my leave.” Elizabeth said in acknowledgement.

--

It was another office, though this one was more difficult to get through, having to show identification and being watched by the security forces present. Finally she was in front of another man. He was older, in his early forties, and he greeted her with a smile, “Colonel! Glad to see you could finally make it! I’ve been waiting for the Goddard to arrive so we might actually be able to get some work done!”

“I take it you’re Filat Naumov, in charge of Imperial Intelligence for me.” the colonel replied flatly.

“I am!” the man said excitedly. “And you got through security so quickly. Did you forget your sidearm?” he laughed as he asked this.

“When is the last time a colonel has ever made a situation better with a sidearm?” Elizabeth asked flatly. “If I am unarmed I am less likely to stand out while in the city.”

“Is it captains that always carry weapons on the surface? I can never remember that joke properly.” Naumov lamented. “I know it ends with generals just carrying a twig and pointing it or something.”

“Can we just get to the briefing?” Elizabeth asked, exasperated.

“Of course! They sent me on a faster ship” Naumov began excitedly, Elizabeth grimaced a little at a spacecraft being referred to as a ship, but he continued, “and I’ve been hard at work! I’m sure your scans will get their own counts, but you’re looking at enough small spacecraft by the major powers to cause us a headache, even with the Goddard present. Even for someone like you.” the man answered.

“And the governor hasn’t given them any orders to take care of the pirates in system?” was the colonel’s first question.

“Sloh? That man? He doesn’t care. He just keeps the Imperial city up and running and lets everyone else do as they wish so long as they pay enough in Imperial taxes to run the city and don’t do anything to make him take action. The Rukast representatives agree on him for exactly that reason.” Naumov explained. “I’ve been waiting for you to arrive so we actually have a stick to use to clean everything up. Just know the political situation is a damn mess. Three major sides who’d love nothing more than to kill each other but are content to keep things small and run covert ops. That doesn't include the lesser power blocs.”

“Any obvious aggressor?” was Elizabeth’s next question.

“If there were, it’d make our job easier!” Naumov answered, sounding excited.

“And the reports that pirates in this system are being used as privateers?” the colonel asked next.

“Almost certainly!” Naumov replied casually. “Just circumstantial stuff, it’s not like we got a hold of the actual agreements. The pirates are probably collecting from everyone on planet either to privateer or as tribute to not assault their vessels, and before you ask, nobody on this rock is going to take their spacecraft out of low orbit and leave themselves open to losing orbital superiority over their own land, so the pirates make a killing.”

“I understand.” the colonel finally replied. “Send the detailed reports to the Goddard.”

“Sure thing, colonel!” Naumov answered cheerfully.

“Thanks.” she replied flatly.

“Also, can you not kill the person in charge on the next ship you raid?” Naumov then laughed again, “It’s a little hard to question corpses. A live person is much more responsive! I even made a special question chair for whenever you want to bring me guests!”

“You aren’t torturing anyone, are you?” Elizabeth asked, concerned at the intel chief’s declaration.

“Torture? No no no! They’re physically unharmed! I am a man of finesse, give me some credit! I like my work and didn’t get into this to poke people with hot irons!” Naumov defended himself, still in his cheerful demeanor. “I’m just really good at asking questions. Pirates aren’t exactly hardened enemy operatives so they’re pretty talkative on their own.” Then he shook his head emphatically, “Did you have to waste the captain of the ship? It’ll be a pain to try and get into the Wilhelm’s systems now.”

“He was wearing a suit, the rules of engagement allowed lethal force, that’s all I did.” Elizabeth responded simply.

“Fine, fine! I’ll try and do it another way. I suppose it isn’t as much fun if I can just ask someone for the password to the system core!” Naumov responded, seeming like nothing could break his enthusiasm.

“Let me know when you have something.” Elizabeth ordered.

“Sure, sure!” Naumov agreed as Elizabeth left.

--

“How is the planet, colonel?” it was Abraham asking when Elizabeth returned.

“We have a planet where no one cares about Imperial law outside of avoiding being caught violating the Mars Decrees, a governor that doesn’t see how any of this is his problem, and an intelligence chief who is way too cheerful about his work.” the colonel replied. Then a couple seconds later she added, “I’ll set up leave schedules in a short while. The Imperial city itself is safe.” With that she headed to her personal quarters. She had to coordinate local resupply of foodstuffs and make arrangements for other equipment should resupply prove difficult.

--

“Actual fresh air is nice!” Lilya Lagunova, the comms officer, said cheerfully on leaving the spaceport.

“I heard the city had some nice vantage points.” Ambrus Novak, the Goddard’s pilot added.

“Plenty of good food, I’ve heard.” Arthit Metharom, the shields officer, contributed as well.

Eunji Yi, the sensors officer, was looking at her comm while the others talked at first. Suddenly her face lit up and she began speaking quickly and cheerfully, “Everyone! Our pay has already been added to our accounts!” she jumped up in the air at this. “Six months’ worth!”

The other three pulled out their comms as well to check. “What are we going to do?” Lilya asked, “Nice city, six months’ worth of pay!”

“We have sixteen hours.” Ambrus mentioned, “So let’s keep it a little under control.”

“So much music!” Eunji said, smiling brightly and looking at her comm, pressing buttons. “Everyone, they’re only a month behind Earth on movies and music here!” Then slightly quieter, “Wanted this song, this album, a few comedies I’ve been wanting! Oooh, some local stuff that looks interesting, too!” Then she spoke up again, “Everyone! We should coordinate buying movies so we have something to do once we’re back on the ship! I really need to send out the list to everyone on the ship of what movies and series they need to buy so we have complete sets on the server!”

“Sure, sure, Eunji, but one day you’re going to call it a ship in front of the colonel and she won’t be happy.” Lilya said, “Besides, can’t we buy all that stuff on the Goddard? It’s nice out, we should enjoy it.”

“Let me know what movies to buy.” Ambrus interjected, “We really need some new ones. It was pretty boring once we ran out of new things to watch.”

“And some of them were horrible.” It was Arthit speaking, “The only way I got through them was by commenting on how bad they were.”

“We should go to the edge of the city for now.” Ambrus suggested. “There’s a pretty nice view of the ocean.” Which was met with agreement.

--

A half hour ride on a subway later, the four were walking to their destination. “Did anyone notice no one looked at us weird?” Ambrus asked.

“So no one looked at us weird, isn’t that a good thing?” Eunji asked, seeming confused by the question.

“I think what he means is we have a Hungarian, a Russian, a Korean and a Thai. We’re all together being friendly with each other, but no one cares.” Lilya explained. “On most patrol assignments the planets are monoculture so foreigners and military would stand out. Rukast is pre-Empire, back when several of the old countries would try to colonize the same planet. So there’s a lot of different cultures in this city, and so it’s not unusual to see that kind of diversity. At least in the Imperial city.”

“I’m not from Earth, but her point stands. It’s also why you can get some authentic food here you can’t on most planets.” Arthit explained.

“Ohhhh.” Eunji replied, understanding Lilya and Arthit’s explanation.

Then the group approached a ledge with a rail, beyond that was the ocean. “This is the view.” Ambrus announced.

“It’s all ocean!” Eunji said excitedly, “But why no beach?”

“That is because all the land on Rukast was occupied by the time the Empire got around to this planet and claiming control. So the Empire responded by placing a city in the ocean, something none of the planetary governments had the resources or desire to do.” Lilya explained for Eunji’s benefit again.

“It’s in the deep ocean, heavily anchored, so no one government on planet could claim it was infringing upon their territorial rights.” Arthit added.

“There are a couple artificial beaches, but most people on planet prefer to visit real ones instead of those.” Ambrus said. “I think the view from a real beach would be better anyway.”

“We have to go some-“ Eunji began to suggest excitedly.

“The colonel will never allow it.” Ambrus interrupted.

Eunji frowned at this. “Maybe in the future then.” she said quietly, disappointed in the response she received from the pilot.

--

“We have a problem.” Colonel Skousen said to Abraham. They were sitting in a situation room, looking at a viewscreen showing a full scan of the system, including most of the satellites and space stations.

“A Golem?” Abraham asked, looking at the screen. “How did a bunch of pirates get a Golem?” he asked incredulously.

“An excellent question.” Colonel Skousen replied. “More importantly, that station is likely the key to the pirate activity in this region, and probably the base for several nearby star systems, eliminating it would reduce their effectiveness greatly.” She looked at the screen for a few more seconds before adding, “As for getting rid of it, a long period of concentrated bombardment by a dreadnaught could break those shields, but that would likely take a week. It would be better to use a Paris-class siegecraft. You could probably get something past the shields in a few hours that way, assuming you could protect the Paris long enough.” She was frowning as she said this, obviously concerned.

“The Goddard doesn’t have anywhere near the firepower to get rid of that thing.” Abraham confirmed. “Enough missiles timed correctly and you might be able to cripple the station for some time if you hit the right location.”

“It would take nearly all of them and they would need perfect synchronization, which doesn’t allow losing any to point defenses, which is highly unlikely.” Colonel Skousen continued. “Even then, you’re right, we could disable the station in ideal conditions for some time but that would need to be followed up with continued operations. One reason it got that name is because they’re nearly impossible for any legal planetary force to eliminate, and somehow pirates got a hold of one.”

“And we have to disable it.” Abraham observed. “Talk about some well-fed pirates. A Golem is quite illegal, we could call for reinforcements.”

“That would take seven months minimum.” Colonel Skousen said as she continued to look at the screen. “And that’s if Command agreed to send any, which is doubtful. Besides, Command has bigger problems than a Golem on the frontier.” she sighed at this. “This is going to take some time, and we’re the ones that are going to have to do it.”

“Does that mean you have a plan?” Abraham asked.

“I wouldn’t call it a plan, I would call it a direction.” Then Colonel Skousen said, “Get me a list of every officer that can fluently speak two or more languages along with information on their field of study. Then get me detailed scans of known mineral deposits on Rukast.”

“Yes, colonel.” Abraham replied.

“Dismissed.” Colonel Skousen said. With that Abraham left.

--

“Our current objective is to eliminate the illicit Golem.” Colonel Skousen said the next day, briefing the situation room now full of officers of various ranks that had been selected from Abraham’s list. “Unfortunately the Goddard does not possess the direct combat capabilities required to capture or eliminate the station. There will not be reinforcements so it is our duty to resolve this ourselves.” she continued. Captain Eunji Yi was one of those in attendance, listening to the briefing quietly.

“Additionally, our current intelligence gives us reason to believe the Golem is deeply intertwined with the politics of the planet. Our core strategy to eliminate this threat is to build a sufficient coalition of planetary space forces to assist the Goddard in isolating, capturing, or destroying the station. In order to do this, I have tapped those of you in this room to assist in building this coalition.” the colonel continued to explain.

“Colonel, why is the diplomatic corps unable to perform this task?” Captain Yi asked during a pause.

“Given the complex political situation on planet, the diplomatic corps will provide information and assistance as requested, but it is believed a truly external force should be the foundation of achieving these objectives.” Colonel Skousen answered. “Many of the diplomatic corps are from the planet itself. All of you will receive individual briefings concerning your assignments.”

--

Eunji Yi soon found herself being briefed by Sieger Abraham. “Captain Yi, you are fluent in Mandarin and Korean in addition to Imperial Terran, is that correct?” he asked the 23 year old woman, he had her file open that he was looking at on his comm.

“Yes, colonel.” Captain Yi replied.

“Your education in political science as well as fluency in Mandarin will suit you well for diplomatic assignments to the Chinese in the arctic region. You will need to take time to evaluate and study the local customs as well as respond to our direction in diplomatic overtures.” Abraham continued.

“Colonel, I’m trained in sensors, not the finer points of planetary diplomacy-“ Captain Yi began.

“That is understood.” Abraham interjected, then continued, “However, given the situation on the planet you are one of the few qualified for that specific assignment. Given our limited crew, we will still need you on patrols, so these will be additional duties. Successful accomplishment of these duties will be rewarded with commendations and recommendation for promotion. Do you understand?”

“Yes, colonel.” Captain Yi said quietly.

--

“I understand your skills as a linguist and familiarity with the cultures would make you an excellent candidate, but considering the situation I cannot assign you a direct role.” Colonel Skousen explained. She was behind her desk in the room she used for conducting official business.

“Yes colonel.” Captain Lagunova confirmed. She did her best to maintain a straight face but it was evident there were hints of a frown.

“I will be more than happy to allow you to serve in an advisory role.” the colonel offered. “Your knowledge would be quite valuable.”

“Thank you, colonel.” Captain Lagunova replied in a monotone.

--

Soon Elizabeth returned to her personal quarters, typing a message on her terminal.

I’m looking forward to seeing you again. Hopefully I can see you within a week. You know the city, so I will leave planning to you. Elizabeth.

She knew she could have sent a video or audio message just as easily now that she didn’t have to worry about using a courier or any significant time delay, but she was used to text with Alex. A couple minutes later she received a reply.

I’ll come up with something! Alex.

With that Elizabeth went to sleep for the night. There were several things to worry about in the coming days, but there was nothing further she could do immediately.




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