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By Sandra Barret
The 28th squadron milled about outside the lecture hall, waiting for Instructor Ngollo. Dray and Jordan leaned against the bare steel wall, their shoulders just touching and fingers intertwined. Her concentration focused entirely on Jordan, Dray didn't hear Jenny and Red come up until Red tapped her on the shoulder.
"Oh, sorry," she said.
"You seem distracted this morning," said Red with a wink.
Dray looked up into his wide red eyes, puzzled, until Jordan whispered in her ear, "What do you think he and I talked about last night?"
Dray pointed to herself in surprise.
"Am I missing something?" asked Jenny.
Red dragged her into the lecture hall as Ngollo opened the doors from the inside. "I'll tell you all about it."
Dray, her face flushed up to her ears, followed them into the lecture hall, still holding Jordan's hand. They separated as they took adjacent seats. Ngollo waited for the squadron to settle into their seats, and then she flicked on the vid-screen. A modified Cygna-major troop transport illuminated the screen, superimposed over a planet that Dray didn't recognize. A handful of groans from her squadron mates suggested some of them did recognize the planet and not in a good way.
"Okay, as some of you already guessed, we are going on an excursion today," said Ngollo, standing to the side of the vid-screen. She pointed to the gray-brown planet. "This is Beta-1. It has near-Earth gravity but negligible atmosphere. We'll take the Cygna-major transport and practice landfall and planetary take off. As you can imagine, this will take a few days."
More groans emerged from the class.
"It's not the prettiest scenery, but you'll get no atmospheric interference. And the Cygna-major has ample room for two full squadrons and supplies. Anyway, I'll expect each of you…"
A short tremor rolled through the metal infrastructure of the classroom. Dray looked around, confused, as Ngollo paused in her speech. The squadron sat in silence, as confused as Dray was. Two more tremors shook the classroom, rattling chairs and Dray's nerves. She heard a muffled rumble, like an engine starting, from somewhere above them.
Ngollo marched to the door. "Barron, take over." She flicked on her com-link as the door slid shut behind her.
Red walked to the front of the class. His steady composure seemed in stark contrast to Dray's nervousness. Base stations don't rattle, at least not in her experience.
Red stood in front of the vid-screen. "As Instructor Ngollo was saying, each cadet must bring full combat and survival gear. While we won't be leaving the transport, this is still a simulation of real combat situations."
They all heard the echo of a remote explosion of some kind. Seconds later, the emergency alarm clanged in three rapid segments, paused, and then repeated the alert while the classroom com-link roared into life.
"Station emergency. Enact lockdown procedures. Repeat. Station emergency. Enact lockdown procedures."
The message blared in a continual loop until Red turned down the volume. "Bello! Hold open that door until Ngollo gets back in here!"
Closest to the door, Bello jumped out of his seat and stood before the door. When the automatic open didn't trigger, he banged on the manual door open pad.
"It's too late," said Bello. "We're in lockdown. We're stuck in here until this drill is over."
Red marched to the door and pushed against it in frustration. Another tremor rolled through the classroom. "This is no drill."
"What do we do now?" asked Dray.
Red returned to the front of the classroom. "We wait. Whatever the problem is, we're in lockdown now. Every lecture hall has been automatically shut, and likely every major section of the station is in isolation by now. If it's a hull breach, we'll be released as soon as they have the section isolated and verify the rest of the station."
Jordan turned to Dray. "And if it's not?"
Dray shrugged, masking her own nervousness. "Probably a cadet just blew a landing somewhere."
An explosion rumbled somewhere above them, strong enough to throw the vid-screen out of focus. Half the squadron jumped out of their seats, pushing toward the locked door. Red hopped on top of the front desk.
"Back to your seats. That's an order." His voice boomed over the upset cadets. Most obeyed. A few stragglers waited until Red stood over them, his muscular orange bulk staring down at them until they shuffled back to their seats.
"There are over three thousand people on this station," he said. "Including two full fighting wings in active status."
His words sent a wave of calm over the squadron. "Whatever is going on out there, they are more than able to take care of it, and we are better off right here, out of their way."
Within an hour, the squadron had relaxed into the monotony of their forced isolation. A group of seniors huddled around a game of electro-dice, while a handful of others practiced martial drills in the back of the room. Dray and Jordan sat with Jenny on one of the side tables. They kept away from Red, so as not to detract from his status as de-facto commander of the squadron. From time to time, Jenny went to him to talk.
Another explosion rattled through the base station.
"I wish that would stop," said Jordan, who sat on the desk with her arms wrapped around her legs.
Dray rested her head on her arms. "There's less of them now."
Jordan gave her a wane smile as another explosion shook the classroom.
It was two more hours, accentuated by repeated, distant explosions, before the silent com-link changed the lockdown message. Jenny pointed out the change to Red, and he turned the volume back up.
"…systems failing. All squadrons report to your evacuation launch point. Repeat - Zenon has been compromised. Life support systems failing. All squadrons…"
The door that Bello was leaning against slid open behind him as he jumped back. Fear of the unknown gripped most of the squadron, who were no longer anxious to leave the relative safety of the classroom. Bello leaned out of the door, then came back inside.
"Two other rooms are marching double-time."
Red joined him at the door. "Any sign of Ngollo?"
"Not that I could see."
"Okay, we've done this as a drill before. We stay as a squadron. The nearest evac pad for us will be launch bay five. That's four levels above us."
The squadron lined up behind him, in formation.
"We go two by two, double-time. Senior Cadet Bowers?"
"Yes, sir," answered Jenny.
"You are in front with me. Bello, take the rear with Samson."
In military order, the 28th squadron trotted down the hallway with one other squadron trotting along side of them. Dray kept pace with Jordan near the front of the column of cadets as they made their way to the fire-safe stairwell that would lead them up to the launch area. The 28th led the two squadrons up the metal stairs. The precise clang of boots on metal gave Dray renewed confidence. Whatever situation faced them, they were prepared to handle it. They were trained for emergencies and they would all come out of this together.
The column stopped progressing up the increasingly dusty stairs after two levels. Word came down the line that debris blocked the stairwell above them and they would have to pass through the current level to another stairwell to make it to the evac site. By Dray's reckoning, they were on Level Twelve, where the advanced pilots stayed.
"Okay," said Red. "We don't know what's beyond this door, but obviously there's been a lot of damage to the station in this section. We'll go out in groups of six. Keep your eyes open and stay together."
Red opened the door and led the first group of six. Dray and Jordan waited by the closed door with Jenny, who would lead the second group of six. Dray scanned the remnants of the staircase leading up to the next level. Metal rods protruded from where the steps attached to the steel walls. She leaned down and picked up a piece of the shattered plasteen wall.
"Jenny," she said, handing the fragment to the senior cadet. "The edges are melted."
"What are you thinking?" asked Jenny as she examined the plasteen.
"Looks like weapons fire."
"And we just sent Red and five others out there unarmed," said Jenny, finishing Dray's thought.
Jordan examined the fractured wall leading up to the next level. "She's right. There's clear laser burns all the way up to Level Thirteen."
"Okay, send word down the line. Tell them to go down a level and make their way to the evac site. Bello is in command."
Dray looked at Jenny. "Bello? What about you?"
Jenny turned to the door. "I'm going after Red."
"Not on your own," said Dray.
Jenny turned back. "I can't order you to come with me."
"And you can't order us to stay behind," said Jordan.
"Okay," said Jenny. "Warn the others that the station is under attack. Tell them to arm themselves."
The two squadrons slowly moved back down the stairs behind Dray. "Where's the nearest weapons cache to us?"
"The central stores depot, half way across the station," Jenny answered.
"Dismal. Let's get going," said Dray.
Jenny hit the manual door open button. The door slid back half way before it stuck in its track. The three women squeezed through the opening and into the nearest dorm room. Jordan examined the room's contents while Dray scoped the activity down the hallway. A haze of smoke occluded her view but she heard the distinct ping of projectile weapons being fired in the distance. She saw no sign of Red and his group of cadets.
"Nothing useful in here," said Jordan. "Whoever lives here is a slob."
"Let's work our way down the hallway and check each room. These are officer's quarters and some of them must have weapons," said Jenny.
They trotted in and out of multiple rooms as they made their way down the deserted hallway. All they managed to pick up were two metal-tipped canes and an antique survival knife. An open doorway in front of them led to the shared common area. Jenny leaned through the opening.
"Anything?" asked Jordan.
"Something is burning. I can't see beyond that. No wait. There's a group huddled behind the counters on the near side."
"Red?" asked Dray.
"I can't tell, but some are wearing cadet uniforms." She ducked back into their hallway. "Are you ready? We're in open area between here and the group. If there are enemy forces in there, we'll be easy targets."
Dray gripped the survival knife, wishing it was an APC laser strafer or at least a projectile pistol. "Let's go."
In a crouched position, they scrambled from their relative safety to the counters with the other group. Dray saw Red watching their approach.
"Where are the rest?" he asked.
"I sent them back down a level. Dray figured out the station was under attack," said Jenny, crouched next to Red.
"Good thinking. We haven't seen the enemy yet, but we can't see much beyond that burning storage bin," said Red. "I'm going for recon. If it's clear, I'll signal for the rest of you to follow."
"We should go back," said Jenny. "We can follow the rest of the squad on Level Eleven."
"I can't. Did you count? There's only five of us here. Paxton panicked and ran ahead. I have to get him back."
Jenny nodded. "Take this." She handed him the cane. "It's all we could find."
Red grinned. "Thanks."
He gripped the cane and scrambled from their cover to the nearest overturned table. The smoke from the burning bin filled Dray's nostrils as she tried to track Red's progress through the common area. He zigzagged across the open space until he was even with the fire. As he scrambled out from his last cover, shots rang out, echoing through near-empty area. Red lay on the ground.
"He's hit!" Jenny shouted. She ran out into the open before Jordan could grab her.
"What's she doing?" Dray asked, a sense of panic rising in her voice.
Jenny scrambled from table to table, following Red's path.
"She's going after him," said Jordan.
Two more shots rang out as Jenny ran from cover to cover. When she makes it to the last table, she'll be and easy hit if she goes for Red, thought Dray. She turned to the other four cadets huddled with them. Carson and Petros were senior cadets, sitting like frightened rabbits. Ketal sat wiping tears from her eyes. They wouldn't help. That left Venkata, a gray, hulking Gilgaran female sporting black protective eye covers and an air filter that generated the atmospheric content of her homeworld.
"Venkata," she said. The gray Gilgaran turned to Dray. "Is it true that Gilgarans can simulate any sound they've heard."
"Yes," said Venkata, mimicking Dray's voice pattern.
"Nice," said Dray. "Can you make sounds like weapons fire?"
Venkata looked down the smoky space separating them from where Jenny paused. "Yes, just tell me when."
"When Jenny makes her move for Red, you make it sound like half the Alliance is laying down cover for her, got it?"
Venkata nodded and pushed her way forward. With arms the size of a man's thighs, there was room for no one else by the edge of their cover besides Venkata. Dray prayed the Gilgaran would come through. A heartbeat later, Venkata through her head back and the sound of realistic laser fire came forth from her massive lungs. The sound was enough to send Carson and Petros ducking to cover their ears. When Venkata stopped for a long breath from her air filter, Dray scrambled around her and looked down the hall.
"Yes! It worked. Jenny's got Red with her behind the last table," said Dray.
"Now what?" asked Jordan. "If he's hurt, there's no way she can drag him all the way back here."
Before Dray could answer, she heard shouting coming from the hallway where they had first come into the common area. The distinctly female voice continued shouting and banging her way down the hallway. If she continued making that noise, she'd be a sizable target for whoever was firing on them.
"I have to go shut that idiot up," said Dray.
Jordan grabbed her by the arm. She held Dray with her eyes, pinning her with unexpressed fears. She slid her hand down Dray's arm and came to rest with her hand in Dray's.
"Please be careful," she whispered.
Dray lifted Jordan's hand to her lips and kissed it lightly. "I'll be back soon. With that screaming idiot in tow or unconscious."
Jordan let go of Dray's hand. Dray clenched her fist around her knife and sprinted back down the common area. Behind her, Venkata sounded off another round of simulated fire to protect Dray's dash to the hallway. Dray slid to a stop just inside the dorm hallway. She could hear the woman clearly now, storming from room to room, shouting Jenny's name. Dray ran to the nearest dorm room just as a beautiful blonde woman emerged, holding a laser strafer aimed at Dray's chest.
"Easy! I'm Dray from the 28th squadron!" Dray held up her hands, dropping her nearly useless knife.
J.P. Malory Grace lowered her weapon. She grabbed Dray by the cuff of her collar. "Where is she? Where's Jenny?"
"She's safe," said Dray.
Malory Grace let out a low sigh. "I heard weapons fire."
Dray loosened the other woman's grip on her clothes. "Most of that was simulated fire. Jenny's safe, but she's pinned down by a sniper along with Red. He's injured, but I don't know how badly."
"Take me to them."
Grace pushed Dray forward. Dray picked up her knife and trotted to the nearest cover from the hallway door. That was enough to set Venkata sounding off cover fire again. Grace hid back, but Dray grabbed her.
"It's simulated cover fire. We have to run fast before she gets out of breath."
The two sprinted to join the rest of the group, ducking behind their cover just as Venkata ran out of breath. Grace scanned the small group then turned back to Dray, the panicked expression returning to the junior pilot's face.
"She's not here," said Grace.
"I know. She's trapped out there." Dray pointed down the open space between them and the overturned table where Jenny crouched with Red lying prone beside her.
Grace's expression turned from fear to determination.
"What's your plan, J.P. Grace?" asked Jordan.
"Malory, just call me Malory," she said. "Where's the sniper, do you know?"
"No idea. Somewhere on the other side of that fire," said Jordan.
"I'm going after them." She took her eyes off of Jenny for a moment, turning to Dray and Jordan. "I need your help. If Red can't walk, I'll need you two the help Jenny get him back here, while I try protect you from the sniper."
Dray nodded in unison with Jordan. On signal, they darted from their cover and scrambled from table to table until they joined Jenny and Red. A small pool of unnaturally light blood lay by Red's side from a wound below his ribs.
Malory grabbed Jenny and pulled her into a frantic hug.
"Glad you could join the party," said Red, shifting to a sitting position. The effort painted a grimace across his pale orange face.
"Wouldn't miss it for anything," said Dray.
Jenny gently pushed Malory back. "Why didn't you evac with your own pilot squad?"
Malory sat back on her heels. "I couldn't. I needed to know you were safe." She looked around at their sparse shelter. "Obviously I was right to come."
"Thanks," said Red. "Now if we could move this happy reunion to someplace else?"
"Yes," said Dray. "Someplace less in-the-line-of-fire?"
Jordan examined Red's wound. "Can you walk?"
Red shifted painfully to a crouch. "I think so."
"Okay, you three go for it," said Malory. "Venkata should do her magic once she sees us on the move. I'll take up the rear."
Dray and Jordan waited on either side of Red, with Jenny in front to set the pace. On Malory's signal, they moved out. With the sounds of Venkata's simulated fire mixing with Malory's real weapon fire, they moved from cover to cover. When Red stumbled, Dray and Jordan hoisted him up by the shoulders and helped him make the final length to the rest of their small group. He collapsed to the floor as fresh blood oozed from his wound.
"Not as bad as it looks," he said, holding his side. He orange hand came away covered in pale blood. "Tarquin's heal fast."
"Okay, let's move out of here," said Malory. What evac site were you headed for?"
"Up on Level Fourteen," said Dray. The stairs are destroyed back there, though."
"We'll go down a level and across," said Jenny.
Red pulled himself up. "Let's go."