The StormKeepers Chronicles
Volume IV "Masters of the Galaxy"

Copyright (c) 1998 by Low Ee Mien
All references to Hercs and the StarSiege Universe (c) 1998 Dynamix Corporation

Chapter 6 : A Moment of Truth

330 km above Mars terrain-level
2,400 km (ground distance) from Stormkeep Plains
Air/Space Assault Carrier Phoenix 2
Herc Slot #1
0931 hrs
3 days after the storm

Katana was incensed. His rage threatened to unleash itself and blow clear through the Transparillium cockpit of his gleaming Basilisk, which was still immaculately dressed-up from the required, the necessary parade and inspection before Emperor Petresun himself on one of those days that whoever it was had long ago dictated to be one of the holier days on the Earth calendar. Holiday it was not, and neither was it the Emperor's birthday, nor was it even NTDF Day. It just was, and Katana didn't want to have anything to do with it until he found himself stuck with the none-too-enviable position of having had a direct communication from Emperor Petresun to get an entire company ready to ship all the way back to Earth for a little pomp and pageantry. Of the long journey itself, nothing was mentioned, save for a terse paragraph that stated flatly that the Empire shall "cover all necessary travel expenses". Being tight-fisted as the Empire was, Katana had reason to be surprised that they were parting with their money at all.

Pomp and pageantry indeed. That, and politics, and a centuries-old tradition. Some things simply never changed. Despite all the wars, and all the advanced technology, and all the 'Sieges that resulted. Despite everything. And if having to drag his hand-picked platoon's collective sorry behinds all the way to the Imperial Palace on Earth, having to scrub down their Hercs thoroughly and do silly, gaudy-looking paint jobs, having to drill long monotonous hours under the impossibly bright glaring Sun, and then having to drag 'em all the way back home to the remote reaches of the Solar System weren't enough, Katana now had to deal with the possibility that the StormKeepers Squad, of all the people in this Prometheus-forsaken galaxy, had tried to steal one of his new recruits. Had, in fact, somehow managed to whisk him off the parade grounds of the Imperial Palace and all the way onto the whats-its-name SK stronghold on Mars. And craziest of all, had reportedly slotted him into a Herc and placed him directly in harm's way, making him defend a StormKeepers base from a surprise Cybrid incursion.

Yes, the StormKeepers worked in mysterious ways. Yes, they did do strange things from time to time. And yes, they did have rather strange beliefs. And, of course, there was the fact that they owed allegiance to no-one, not the Emperor, not the Rebel Leader Harabec, nor anyone in the Terran Defence Forces. They claimed to answer only to some person known as Tsoron, or was it Xacalon. Sometimes they changed it to "the Aldur". Sometimes they shortened "Xacalon" to "Xac". And neither did they worship any of the major religions of the time, preferring, instead, to claim to do everything for some "Darkstar". Presumably it was some kind of holy relic, its worthiness known only to the SK's.

But, hell no, that did not mean they were entitled to grab a newly-promoted freshie from the ranks of the New Terran Defence Force, straight out from under their noses, so to speak, the very night before the grand parade was to begin. How they managed to do it, nobody knew. An entire TDF barracks, a portion of which the NTDF had borrowed for the duration of the parade, defended by no less than four PERIHASP Hercs on active duty around the clock, and they had managed to slip in a transport, an unarmed supply transport, no less, and take off with just one man into the starry night. The StormKeepers were mysterious, and seemed to have strange capabilities in unexpected ways, granted, but this was over-stepping their bounds. This was where they had stepped over the line. This had to be classified as kidnapping, plain and simple. Enforced slavery was one of the more recurring terms being pushed around in the NTDF High Command, themselves thoroughly mystified by the whole matter and unable to render much assistance from home-base millions of miles away.

The StormKeepers were going to have to pay for their audacity, Katana decided.

He checked in with the pilot of the assault carrier. Good - they were cleared all the way to ground level. Which meant that as far as could be told from groundward-looking sensors and reports from friendlies in the region, there were no baddies in the region. No rebels. No Cybrids. The StormKeepers - well, they were something else entirely. Nobody did know how to classify them exactly - good, or bad. It was almost as if they wished to remain unclassified.

Tapping a button on the console, Katana did a quick-check of his squad. They were still there, all right, Hercs standing at frozen attention in the dark recesses of the transport's belly. NTDF Thrawn was glaring back at the holo-cam, his own rage mirroring that of Katana's. Avatar looked cool about the whole matter, his calm mien belying the fact that he, too, was troubled by the whole business. PrinzEugen simply growled, "lemme at 'em..!!" - short, and to the point.

The long wait through the dark night of inter-planetary space did at last penetrate through to Katana's consciousness, with the same old arguments playing themselves over and over again in his mind. A crack of doubt began to show itself, keeping his simmering rage from truly boiling over.

What if it was all just a dumb clerical mistake?
What if there really was something about this Dire Wolf guy?
What if the SK's came up with some perfectly good reason?

Not likely, Katana, thought. His ruminations continued, however.

What if....

Katana quashed the thought. It was too far-fetched, too unlikely, given that the Humans had decades to implement all the appropriate technological safeguards.

He just had to wait and see. No matter how he chafed at it, no matter how angry he got, and no matter how he wished it could take less time, there was simply no way to expedite the extensive planetary check-in procedures in the space above Mars, for that space was hardly empty, but crowded with dozens of cargo and personnel transports plying the Earth-Mars route, fleets of Imperial ships and their accompanying air/space fighters, and even one or two space-borne leisure craft owned by some rich director, or owner, of some giant corporation.

And then there were the Orbital Defences to contend with. It was said that no craft, no matter how small, could escape their steady gaze, armed as they were to the teeth, what with their electro-magnetic railguns, plasma cannons, and ultra-large-scale lasers. It was rumored that some of these platforms even carried kiloton-range tactical or even megaton-range strategic nuclear missiles, but, as always, in such cases, nobody could really be sure, and it was all publicly denied. Which meant absolutely nothing, of course.

What Katana did know, was that you absolutely did not mess with an Orbital Defence Platform. They told you to follow a prescribed landing course, and you did, whether you were from the TDF or not. Or NTDF, for that matter. The platforms orbiting Mars were much less dense than those around Earth, that was for sure, and there was a possibility that some skilled pilot could fly right past them. But none of the NTDF pilots, nor the a/s assault carrier's captain, was in the mood for suicide runs today.

The lurch of the carrier jolted Katana, and the rest of the pilots, back into a heightened mode of alertness. They had entered the Martian atmosphere, and the radar-predicted weather disturbances in the high stratosphere did not augur well for chances of a silky-smooth ride.

Presently, the assault carrier burst through the thin cloud cover, and after a period, too long, as PrinzEugen had repeatedly grumbled, they arrived at their Landing Zone, or LZ, which still was a long trek from their intended WayPoint. Even Thrawn himself cursed, once, and swore that they had better get what they came here for.

Nearing the objective, the four Hercs assumed a Crescent formation, a broad, concave pattern that would allow all four of them to lock onto a single, frontal target, creating a kill-zone of extreme lethality.

They had not quite reached the glowing WayPoint depicted in their holographic cockpit displays when a gray dot appeared simultaneously on their radar screens, right behind them, a position in 2D space they were in barely ten seconds earlier.

Taken by surprise, but reacting like the combat-hardened veterans they were, the NTDF soldiers quickly performed the Crossover Maneuver, their already-excellent skills honed by the precision parade drills practised for the past week-and-a-half.

Hanuman's black Basilisk, his personal Hanulisk, shimmered into view, taking on solidified form as the stealth cloak disengaged with a deep gurgling sound. His weapons were pointed skywards, and groundwards, aiming at nothing in particular, showing that Hanuman did not intend to have an armed showdown, despite the fact that the time was now almost high noon - a classic time for such encounters in many of the old, flat, two-dimensional rec-vids.

"Greetings, NTDF Katana, Thrawn, Avatar and PrinzEugen. I, Chief Instructor Hanuman of the StormKeepers, have been expecting you. And before you decide that I belong in your Crescent Kill-Zone, I would like to tell you, all of you here, that we, of both the SK, and the NTDF, have all been played for fools."

... continued