“You sure the cloak’s working?”
“I checked it yesterday, it’s fine mate.”
“You only finished installing it yesterday.”
“Ramses. Are we or are we not currently being shot out of the sky?”
“No Sol, we are not.”
“Well, I guess it’s bloody working then ain’t it?”
Cole Traske stood in the back of the cockpit listening to his pilot, Solomon Dane and demolitions man Ramses Barden bicker as they always had. He’d never gotten to the bottom of where the bickering started between them, it was already in full swing when he met them, and it had gone on that long that he couldn’t be certain they’d even remember.
A voice spoke up from his left, it was Gregor Mishkol, the first new member of Shadow Point since Cole had joined ten years ago and only the sixth member in its twenty-five-year history. He had been busy quietly cleaning his rifle and Cole had forgotten he was even there.
“Are they always like this sir?” Gregor asked.
“Unfortunately they are kid,” Cole said, “but you’ll get used to it.”
Cole had gotten used to it. He’d gotten used to a lot of things. Then again he did have a decades head start on Gregor, who was only a few weeks out of the Academy.
A shudder rolled through the cockpit as Sol brought the ship closer to the surface. It wasn’t usually this rough, but then the Havok wasn’t exactly designed to fly consistently at this altitude. Nothing he hadn’t sat through countless times before though. The city was just coming into view, the low setting sun catching on the endless rows of glass and concrete that made up its bulk.
Following a short series of beeps, several displays lit up on the central console and information began streaming across them.
“About bloody time,” Sol said.
“Ram?” Cole asked, continuing to look out over the city.
“Target is a Modosian male,” Ram said, his eyes never leaving the screen. “Political extremist. Recently been associating with some undesirables he probably shouldn’t have been.”
“Location?” Cole asked.
“Currently enjoying a lovely evening at the Tragg Empirical Casino. I expect that’ll change.”
Ram paused. “Housecleaning.”
Cole thought for a moment and sighed. “Smash and grab it is then.”
“Cole, don’t,” Ram said, turning his eyes away from the monitor. “Now’s not the time to ruffle feathers. After Nate, I don’t–”
“It’s a smash and grab. No arguments. If Command doesn’t like it, they shouldn’t have put me in charge.”
“They almost didn’t,” Sol chimed in.
“Fine,” Ram said, raising his hands in surrender. “But you’re doing the paperwork this time.”
“I always do the paperwork Ram,” Cole said.
“I know, I know, I’m just saying that this time, specifically, you’re doing it.”
From the rear of the cockpit, Gregor cleared his throat. “Um, sir? Not wanting to interrupt, but just so I’m clear on the details, we’re taking the target alive?”
“Apparently so kid,” Ram said as he returned his attention to the monitors.
“And that’s going against orders?”
Cole turned to face Gregor who looked visibly uncomfortable. “Is that a problem?”
“Um, no? I mean…is that normal? I-it doesn’t feel normal. Federation Code says that–”
“One thing you’ll learn kid, is that FedCo doesn’t always apply to us. We have certain…freedoms.”
Sol laughed. “Loopholes you mean.”
“Hey look,” Cole said, stifling a smile, “loopholes, freedoms, call it whatever you want, point is we have final say.”
“So it is normal then?” Gregor asked.
“More or less.”
Gregor slumped back against the cockpit wall, but Cole could see something was still bothering him.
“What’s up kid?” Cole asked.
“Why are the orders coming in so late Sir?, Gregor said. “I thought there was supposed to be a forty-eight-hour buffer to allow for proper preparation and–”
“There have been some…issues of late,” Cole said.
“Leaks,” Sol said over his shoulder. “Targets getting tipped off, things like that.”
To say there had been some issues lately would be putting it mildly. Acquisition rates across the 42nd Unification Division had been at an all time low for months, and enlisted casualty rates were at their highest point since the end of the Fifty Year War. These weren’t details Cole felt like going into though, the kid looked spooked enough as it was without putting that out there too.
“How far out, Sol?” Cole asked.
“Well then,” Cole said, moving for the door, “let’s do this.”
Gregor got up and rushed to the door before he was pulled up by Cole.
“Easy,” Cole said, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “First time ain’t so bad. Just let it come to you and you’ll be fine.”
“And can we please cut it with this Sir crap?” Cole asked with a sigh. “You’re killing me.”
“Yes Sir, s-sorry Sir,” Gregor said, tripping over his words. “I, uh–”
Gregor proceeded to shuffle hurriedly out of the room, head down.
“Poor kid, you scared him,” Ram said with a chuckle.
Cole laughed. “I was trying to be nice.”
“He’s gonna be a handful isn’t he?” Ram said, already knowing the answer.
“I told Oren we’d be okay with just the three of us,” Cole said. “But y’know–“
“Regulations,” Ram said.
“Regulations,” Cole echoed.
“Fickle bitch they are,” Sol said, forcing his way between the pair and out into the main hold.
“You said it,” Cole said as he made his way out of the cockpit after him.
“Hey remember,” Ram said, “first time ain’t so bad. He’d be proud of you.”
“I hope so.”
“He would be,” Ram said. “Just…keep your head on a swivel okay? After what happened we need to be careful about–”
“I know. I’ve got this.”
It had been six months since the death of Nathan Revik, their former leader. For six months Shadow Point had been sat on the bench, a command sanctioned grieving and evaluation period. Two months ago Cole had been appointed the new leader of Shadow Point. Today was their first day back on the job.
The Havok touched down silently on the roof of the casino. It’s boarding ramp lowered, and four figures descended, moving into cover. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the ship glided away to a safe altitude. It was nothing but a faint shimmer in the ever darkening night sky. The roof was empty, and it seemed no one was aware of their arrival.
Ram gave Sol a short, sharp punch in the arm as his only reply.
It took no time at all to locate a maintenance shaft and, with a quick blast from a plasma cutter, they were inside. They moved in silence, Cole on point, Ram bringing up the rear with Gregor just in front of him.
Sol however, was muttering to himself the whole time, running his hands along the walls, looking for a jack in point for the casino’s security. It took longer than he’d hoped, but he found it. “Sneaky little bastard.”
“Got him?” Cole asked.
“Just a sec,” Sol said, flicking through the feeds. “Ah, there he is. Private game room off the main floor.”
“How many others?”
“About a dozen. Looks like maybe four security.”
Cole moved closer to get a better look at the feed. He scanned the faces of those in the room, but couldn’t make anything out on the grainy feed. For a reason he couldn’t explain, Cole started to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Cole?” Ram said, trying to get Cole’s attention.
Snapping out of his trance Cole pulled back from the monitor. “Floor plan Sol?”
“Uh, yeah, here it is.” The main floor of the casino flickered onto the screen as a vague three-dimensional rendering.
Cole looked it over. “Sol, I want you to stay here, monitor the feeds and get ready to cut the power. Ram, I need you on the floor for crowd control, they’ll probably panic.”
“They usually do,” Ram said moving off down the walkway.
“Gregor, I w–“
“Yes, sir?” Gregor said, interrupting. Cole just looked at him, he got the message.
“I want you up here, on this mezzanine” –Cole pointed it out on the map– “looks like it’s undergoing some renovations, so there should be plenty of cover up there.”
A quick nod later and Gregor was off running down the corridor. Cole watched as he darted around a distant corner and disappeared. He was young, maybe too young and this was his first time in the field. The higher ups had assured him that Gregor was the finest young sniper the academy had seen in years but apparently that didn’t stop him from also being the most nervous young sniper Cole had seen in years. He was however, seventeen years Cole’s junior, so he could be forgiven for being just a little jumpy.
“He’s eager,” Sol said, “I’ll give him that.”
“We all were at his age.”
It took Cole a few minutes to navigate through the vents above the casino’s main floor, being careful not to make too much noise and alert those below him. There was enough noise coming from the casino floor that he probably didn’t need to be so careful, but it was always better to be safe than sorry. He’d been shot at in a vent before, it wasn’t fun. The three jagged scars in his left calf were evidence of that.
“Everyone ready?” Cole asked over the comms.
“Good to go,” came Sol’s reply. By this time he’d gutted several control panels back in the maintenance shaft, it turned out gaining access to the lights proved to be more complicated than he’d planned. “I’ll only be able to get you twenty seconds of darkness before the backup kicks in.”
“It’ll have to do,” Cole said.
“I’m ready Sir,” Gregor whispered. He had a clear view of the entire main floor from his position. Gaming tables covered the majority of the floor, and there were several large statues scattered about. The private game rooms were along the back wall, there were about ten by his estimation, and he had a clear view of all their doors. To his left a large two-level walkway stretched into the distance, no doubt leading to some kind of balcony or outdoor plaza. Below him to his right was the bar, it extended the length of the wall, and there he saw a familiar face.
“Ram?” Cole pressed, after not getting a reply.
“He’s uh,” Gregor stammered, “a bit busy.”
“Ram,” Cole said, not louder, but more urgent.
“All right, all right,” Ram said, farewelling his new female companion with a wink, “keep your pants on.”
“You keep your pants on,” Sol said, chuckling, as he watched the scene on the monitor.
“What can I say? I’m a people person,” Ram said, moving away from the bar out onto the main floor.
“You good?” Cole said.
Ram leaned against a giant gold statue by the entrance giving him a clear view of the whole room. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“All right then, wait for my mark,” Cole said.
Cole had positioned himself at a ceiling grate which gave him a relatively clear view of the private room beneath him. The lighting was dim, but he could still make out the individuals inside. Sol was right, a dozen players, two with a pair of private security each. One of them was the Modosian they were after, the short horns protruding from the back of his head made him easy to spot. The guards complicated things, but not dreadfully so.
Cole retrieved a small plasma cutter from his belt, and after a few quick bursts, the brackets holding the grate in place were severed. A barely imperceptible scraping was the only sound the grate made as Cole gently pushed it aside leaving nothing between him and the room below.
It was time.
“On my mark,” Cole said, readying himself, still unable to shake the uneasy feeling in the back of his mind.
The lights went out almost immediately. Cole fell from the ceiling, dropped to a knee and quickly surveyed the situation. The emergency lighting had kicked in, bathing the entire room in a dull red glow. He blocked out the panicked screams from the patrons outside and made his move.
Swiftly dodging between scattering gamblers he came upon the two guards quicker than they were able to react. With a crunch and a snap, the two guards dropped to the floor and began to slowly crawl away nursing their wounds.
Cole took a slow, deliberate step towards the target and unholstered his pistol. The Modosian recoiled reflexively, pressing his back deep into the soft leather chair.
Cole offered a half smile. “You can thank me later.”
Confusion flashed on the Modosian’s face.
With a short drawback and a thunderous strike, Cole pistol-whipped the Modosian square in the side of the head, and he slumped down into his chair. He was out cold.
“It’s done,” Cole said, the message circulating through the squad’s earpieces. “Prep for extraction.”
Cole holstered his pistol and produced a pair of cuffs from his belt and slapped them on the Modosian’s wrists.
“Hey golden boy,” a man’s voice said, clear amidst the chaos.
Cole froze. As he turned slowly to face the voice, the lights flickered back on.
Cole was right to feel uneasy about the mission.
The man stood from the table. “It’s been a while.”
The commotion outside had started simply enough. When the lights went out, the patrons scrambled. Some panicked and ran, some hid under the tables, and others tried to make off with whatever chips they could grab. It got a lot less simple once casino security got wind of what was happening.
At least a dozen security personnel currently clogged the doorway to the main floor. Half were ushering people out, and the other half were firing at Ram. Ram hated that other half. He was ducked down behind a table, and could only pop his head out every now and then to get a few shots off in an effort to hold them back. Gregor was doing what he could to help, but that amounted to little more than some suppressive fire. With so many civilians rushing about he couldn’t risk taking any direct shots.
Cole hadn’t yet reappeared from the private room and too much time had passed since he’d said the job was done. From Ram’s current position he couldn’t even see the rooms without losing his head.
“Hey kid,” he shouted to Gregor, “can you see Cole?”
Gregor looked to the doorway, and the lit room beyond. “I can’t see him.”
“Cole,” Ram yelled into the comm, “we could actually kinda use a hand out here. It would seem Security has taken exception to our presence.”
“Sol,” Ram said, “have you got eyes on?”
“Nah mate,” Sol said, clearly out of breath, he was running, “I’m a little busy with some friends of me own. I’m coming to you.”
“Terrific.” There was only one thing to do, Ram grabbed two grenades off his belt, primed them and lobbed them towards the bases of a pair of statues near the entrance. They landed just right, as always. The two closely timed explosions caused the statues to come crashing down across the entryway, blocking the advancement of the security team. It may have also crushed a few of them, but that wasn’t something Ram could be concerned with right now.
Cole took one step towards the man standing at the end of the table, he wasn’t even all the way through the step when the two guards at the man’s side ran for it. The man looked after them and laughed.
“I guess you really do get what you pay for,” he said.
Cole slowed his advance, still silent, getting a closer look at the man in the dim light to confirm his worst fears.
“After all these years, you have nothing to say to me?”
Cole stopped and steadied himself. “Tobias– you’re supposed to be d–“
“Dead?” Tobias said, cutting him off. “Funny how that works out sometimes.”
Tobias stepped away from the table and started walking towards Cole.
“You know you don’t look any different,” he said, and then motioned to the limp body of Modosian. “Though you do seem to be doing things a bit differently these days.”
Tobias stopped short in front of Cole, who remained frozen in place, reached down and snatched Cole’s pistol out of his holster. He then turned it about and presented it to Cole, handle first.
“Go on then, why not have another stab at it?” Tobias said, goading Cole into action.
No action came, Cole just stared into Tobias’ eyes, the same eyes that had haunted him for the last fifteen years. He couldn’t process what was happening.
Tobias sighed. “No? Really?”
In an instant, Tobias spun the pistol around, pressed it firmly into the side of the Modosian’s head and pulled the trigger. A plume of blood sprayed across the table.
Tobias turned the gun back around and presented it back to Cole. “How about now?"
Cole’s ears were ringing from the shot. He looked back and forth between the crumpled body of the Modosian and Tobias. His legs felt like lead.
The dull thud from the explosions outside echoed into the room.
Tobias let the gun fall to the floor.
“No? Well alright, I guess we’ll have to do the other thing then won’t we?” He pulled his hands back and then thrust them forward towards Cole. The force of the invisible blast knocked him clear across the room into a wall. Without wasting another second, Tobias ran for it.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” Sol shouted. He’d burst through a maintenance door just as Ram had brought the statues down. “Where’s Cole?”
“Still in there,” Ram said back over the din, pointing to the private rooms. He was out of cover now, the statues had done their job of slowing up security.
“Uh, guys?” Gregor said from above.
“What?” they both replied.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to the lone figure running from the private room.
Ram and Sol’s gaze followed Gregor’s outstretched arm, to see a man running down the long hallway.
“Beats me,” Ram said, puzzled. “Probably just a civilian.”
“What’s that about then?” Sol questioned, as he saw Cole burst out of the room in pursuit of the man.
“I dunno, I thought he said he got the guy,” Ram said.
“Should we follow?” Gregor asked, already moving in that direction.
“I’m sure he’s got it,” said Sol, unholstering his pistol.
“Yeah,” Ram said, heading towards the hallway, “I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Are you guys freaking kidding me?” Cole shouted into the comm as he ran full tilt down the hallway. That was all the prompting they needed.
Gregor had the worst of it trying to catch up, the whole upper floor was in the middle of quite extensive renovations, and the walkway to the outside was cluttered with boxes and equipment. He tripped at least three times, but when he eventually made it the scene was one he hadn’t expected.
With the last sunlight just disappearing over the vast cityscape behind him, Tobias stood with his back to the open air and his hands held out from his side in surrender. The balcony plaza had cleared in seconds after they had arrived, it was now just the five of them. Cole looked around, and saw Gregor up on the balcony, his rifle trained on the confrontation.
“Do you have a shot?” Cole asked.
“I-I do,” Gregor replied, flustered, “I have a shot, but I don’t–”
“Take it,” Cole said.
“What? I can’t. He’s not–”
“Found your balls at last have you, Cole?” Tobias called out. “It’s only taken twenty years.”
Tobias’ words hung in the air, faint screams from elsewhere in the casino drifted on the wind.
“Take it, Gregor,” Cole said sternly.
Gregor didn’t know what to do. “Sir, he’s an unauthorised–”
“Take the damn shot,” Cole yelled, glaring up at Gregor from below.
The shot rang out and echoed across the plaza.
The moments after it was fired seemed to drag an age as the shot missed and flew harmlessly wide right. Tobias, from his perch on the edge of the balcony, laughed, shrugged, and then stepped backward into the ether.
“Damn it,” Cole shouted as he ran to the edge. What greeted him made his blood boil.
Twenty meters or so below the lip of the balcony hovered a ship. It was medium sized, probably a civilian model, and crouched on its roof was Tobias. He stood slowly and stared down Cole as the wind ripped furiously at his clothes. Slowly the ship began to glide away into the night and before long was gone from sight entirely.
All that could be heard now was the faint rustling of leaves from the many trees that lined the plaza. Cole sighed and backed away from the edge. “Sol, bring the ship around,” he said quietly.
“Already on its way.”
Cole turned and pointed up at Gregor. “You,” he said, far too calm for the situation, “down here. Now.”
Gregor was gone before Cole had even finished the sentence.
The Havok came to a rest hovering just near the edge of the plaza, the ramp appearing from its shimmering mass. Without a word Ram and Sol made their way up.
“Sol get me a fix on that ship, I want to know where it’s headed,” Cole said as Sol passed him.
Cole lingered on the ramp, Gregor was nowhere to be seen.
The loud repeated cracking of gunfire drew Cole’s attention, and he looked up to see Gregor running full tilt down the corridor towards the ship with at least twenty security personnel in tow.
“Hey look at him go,” said Ram over the comm, doing his best to stifle a chuckle.
“A little help would be nice,” Gregor shouted, firing a pistol blindly over his shoulder as he ran.
In no time at all shots rang out from the belly of the Havok, thinning the pursuing herd a little.
Not much, but enough.
Gregor leapt for the ramp and only just made it. Cole caught his arm and hauled him aboard in one swift motion.
“Thank you, sir,” Gregor said, deeply out of breath.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Cole said.
Gregor scrambled to his feet and ran into the belly of the ship.
Cole turned to face the guards as the Havok began to drift away from the balcony and gave them a short, sharp salute before hitting the button to close up the ramp and heading inside.
As he came into the cockpit, Cole saw Sol and Ram both pouring over the displays. “Tell me you’ve got him.”
Sol pushed back from the screen and let out a sigh of defeat. “He’s gone. We lost visual, and the scanners aren’t getting anything.”
A yell escaped Cole’s throat as he slammed his fist into a nearby panel. The lights in the cockpit flickered.
“Hey, steady,” said Sol, concerned for the welfare of his ship.
“Cole,” Ram said, concern evident in his voice, “who was that?”
Unconsciously Cole ran his fingers down the large scar that ran the length of his forearm, their tips caught on a glinting piece of metal embedded in his flesh.