Episode 220: A Wolf in the Fold
- Part 1
by Mr. Hook
For a split second, Lt. Flanders seriously considered disobeying a direct order. He had been ordered to inform Isabelle "Dizzy" Flores that the guard detail on the hanger deck had been rescinded. Technically, he out-ranked Private Flores, but she was a decorated veteran of the Bug Wars, not to mention ten years his senior. She was a hardened Mobile Infantry Trooper who had seen more combat than Lt. Flanders had seen in his entire Fleet career. It wasn't that he was afraid of her, exactly, but she was someone with clout who seemed awfully good a bearing grudges. Private Flores was NOT someone he wanted to piss off. Lt. Flanders took a deep breath and pressed down on the door activation stud.
Flores was still pacing back and forth along the gangway overlooking the hanger deck. She never took her eyes off the Transport Bug nestled awkwardly on the docking ring platform below as Lt. Flanders approached.
"Private Flores, you are dismissed," said Flanders in his best no-nonsense voice.
"You mean they sent an Ell-Tee to relieve me?" Flores said with a raised eyebrow.
"No, Private, the night watch on hanger deck has been canceled. You are to report to quarters for some R&R. Admiral's orders."
"I didn't realize Admiral's orders could cure insomnia," said Flores stubbornly. But she did stop pacing and eyed Flanders wearily. "You do realize if just one of those Warrior Bugs got loose on the ship we wouldn't even be allowed to shoot it."
"Shock-sticks and tranqs only. That's the regs, Private."
"Yeah, well, trust me sonny, when a pack of Warriors is charging you, sticks and stones aren't much comfort. Who canceled the watch anyway? Officer Jenkins, I'll bet."
"The chain of command is not at issue here, Private...
"Listen, kid, Jenkins may be some Intel big-wig now, but I knew him when he was just a greenie. Believe-you-me, he's been known to overestimate his psychic abilities on more than one occasion..."
"Flattery will get you all sorts of places," said Officer Jenkins.
Flanders and Flores both jumped back, startled to see Jenkins standing just behind the Ell-Tee.
"Jeez, Carl, give me a heart-attack why don't-chya," said Flores.
"Yeah, I get that a lot. You're dismissed, Lieutenant, I'll handle this."
Flanders high-tailed it out of the hanger, clearly glad to be elsewhere.
"The Bugs aren't going anywhere, Diz," assured Carl, "I put them in a kind of 'stand-by' mode akin to sleep. Their Queen is dead, they don't have the will to move unless I give it to them."
"Yeah, lucky us."
"Come on, Diz, go to bed, get some sleep. You're going to need it for tomorrow's op."
"And what exactly is tomorrow's op?"
"Whatever Admiral Ibanez says it is. My guess is she'll try something similar to the covert assassination drop we tried on Klendathu way back when."
"OK, refresh my memory here, wasn't that op on Big K a total pooch screw?"
"OK, I take that back, flattery does have it's limitations."
Flores brushed past Carl as she headed for the door. Carl expected her to sling back a witty retort, but she said nothing. She just scowled and kept moving foward, not waiting for Carl to get out of her way. Carl was impressed by the strength of the psychic barriers Dizzy had walled around her emotions. He wasn't sure he could slip past them without doing more harm than good. He saw his friend's pain, saw the raw emotions eating at her inside, but as long as her psychic force-field was in place, there was little he could do to help. He was about to say something to her retreating back when the proximity alarms of the Thomas Davis went off.
"ALL CREWS TO BATTLE STATIONS, ALL CREWS TO BATTLE STATIONS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, REPEAT, ALL CREWS..." the computer recording kicked in as the hangar bay warning lights started to twirl.
Dizzy looked over her shoulder at Carl and gave him a wry smile. "Just like old times, eh?"
Carl smiled back. "Yeah, just like old times."
When Carl got to the bridge he was somewhat surprised to see Robert "Paper Boy" Higgins working the communications console. Though Higgins probably was one of the best qualified personnel to man the console, it was still unusual to see a UNN reporter on the bridge. Admiral Carmen Ibanez was still barking orders at him.
"...I need those visuals, Higgins!"
"I'm on it, sir!"
"Officer Jenkins, reporting for duty!"
"Carl, good, we've got two bogies, pre-lim scans say they're Freeman's ships. Can you sense anything out there?"
Carl squinted in concentration. "No, sir, but I am being blocked, definitely Freeman's ships."
"Visuals up, sir!" said Higgins, "Woah!"
Higgins' exclamation was probably prompted by the sight of dozens of long range fighters being expelled from the hanger-slings of Freeman's antiquated Bug War cruisers.
"Fighters swarming at three o'clock, in firing range in two minutes," Ensign Burkoph informed.
"Scramble Alpha and Bravo squadrons!" Ibanez ordered, "Tell Charlie and Delta wings to stand by. Order turrets to focus their fire on the main ships."
While Ensign Burkoph relayed those orders, Carmen turned to Carl and whispered "Any bright ideas?"
Carl shook his head. There were too many fighters for Carl to focus on individually. By the time the Tom Davis' fighters were in space, it would become just as difficult for Carl as the turret gunners to avoid friendly fire.
"Helm, ahead half speed, I want a closer shot at that main ship."
"Alpha and Bravo squadrons launched, sir," Burkoph said.
"Get me Commander Lintz on comm...Lintz, take those fighters out of my sky, try to keep the fire-fight in their back yard."
"Roger that, Admiral," Lintz replied through the comm.
Everyone's eyes were glued to the bridge's main holographic display as Higgins piped in the ship-to-ship chatter sputtering over the comm.
The green blips representing the SICON fighters dove around the loosely deployed Freeman fighters and headed for their mother-ship. Some of red blips indicating Freeman's fighters broke off to pursue, others plummeted forward where the Thomas Davis' turret gunners attempted to pick them off. Some of the fighters broke through and let loose a few missiles, but the volley wasn't anything the Tom Davis' countermeasure decoys couldn't handle.
"Sir, second bogey is attempting to flank us," Burkoph noted.
The second ship was indeed trying to take up a firing position on the Tom Davis' starboard side. Freeman's minions had evidently learned their lesson from their previous encounter and stayed well out of the firing range of the Tom Davis' turrets.
"Scramble Charlie squadron to engage secondary target," Ibanez ordered.
But before C-squadron's blips appeared on the screen, a third bogey suddenly detached from the "secondary" target's blip.
"What the hell is that?" Ibanez demanded.
Higgins switched the vid monitor to a starboard external view and everyone on the bridge gasped as a Transport Bug lunged toward the camera. But wait, were those six slender limbs extending from the Bug's underbelly? No one had ever seen a Transport Bug do that before. And what were those bulges in the Bug's mid section? They looked like a pair of air bladders about to burst. Beyond the bulges, the Bug's hind end tapered into an appendage of some kind. Higgins zeroed in on the trailing appendage and magnified the view to reveal what looked for all the world like the ring-mouth of a lamprey, one of those parasitic eels that attach themselves to sharks.
"C-wing, new target, repeat, new target!" Ibanez yelled into the comm.
But by the time C-squadron was deployed it was too late. The Tom Davis lurched, everyone who wasn't strapped into their seats on the bridge hit the deck plating like a bunch of Trekkies.
"That felt like a collision!" said Ibanez, "Status report!"
"Take a look at this, sir," Higgins had patched in one of C-wing's external camera feeds to the main vid-screen. The lamprey Bug clung to the midsection of the Tom Davis with its six slender limbs. The tooth-ringed sucker-mouth of its rear appendage was poised to strike like a scorpion's tail in reverse. Before anyone could think to react, the scorpion's tail struck home with a loud clang that rang throughout the ship's bulkhead.
"Lieutenant Maxwell," Ibanez addressed the wing-leader of C-squadron, "get that Bug off my ship!"
"Sir! The Bug...it's...deflating!" Maxwell exclaimed. And it was. The air bladders were contracting with considerable force.
"HULL BREACH DETECTED, HULL BREACH DETECTED, ALL PERSONNEL PLEASE DON POWER SUITS AT THIS TIME, REPEAT..."
Ibanez stabbed a button on the arm of her command chair to clip off the computer's ranting. Everyone followed procedure and put their helmets on, except for Carl, who was hastily donning a Power Suit in the spare storage locker adjacent to the bridge. C-wing unleashed a missile volley at the lamprey Bug, causing the ship to moan and shudder again, but the Bug remained rooted firmly in place.
"Cease fire!" shouted Ibanez, unsure if the channel to C-wing was still open.
"INTRUDER ALERT, INTRUDER ALERT, INTRUDER ALERT..."
Ibanez nixed that message as well and demanded a ship's status update.
"Hull breach was on deck nine, sub-level B," Burkoph reported, "Motion sensors have detected intruders on sub-level B, but they seem to have stopped moving - for now."
"What is that, the exercise room? Higgins..."
"I'm on it..."
The main view-screen now displayed the security-cam input from the ship's gym. Most of the exercise equipment was clustered near the far wall which faced starboard. There was a hole in the wall, which might have explained how the furniture had been rearranged during the hull breach. What was left unexplained was how the hole had been plugged with what looked like a splotch of web-goo similar to the stuff sprayed by Spider Bugs. There were no Spider Bugs in sight, but there were pod-like things scattered on the floor. The pod nearest the camera erupted into the form of an Imposter Bug, so-called because of it's roughly bipedal proportions.
Ibanez opened up a ship-wide channel. "All M.I. personnel report to deck nine, repeat, all M.I. personnel report to deck nine, this is an Intruder Alert Code Red, shock-sticks and tranq-guns only." She switched the channel off and turned her attention to Burkoph. "Have Delta-wing man the turrets. Have all remaining Fleet personnel assist the M.I. - and activate all the emergency doors on deck nine!"
The Tom Davis lurched yet again.
"C-wing, report in!" Ibanez commanded.
"Unidentified Bug has detached from the ship's hull, appears to be in retreat," said Maxwell, "Permission to pursue, sir?"
"Negative. Resume engagement with secondary target."
Ibanez knew she should check in with with her other squadrons to see how they were faring against Freeman's ships, but the on-board intruders were now her main focus.
"Lt. Flanders here, Admiral, I'm standing outside the main door to the rec room, still waiting for M.I. to join the party."
"We just lost all the comm feeds to deck nine," Higgins' voice rang in Flander's ears, "they must have slashed a cable or something."
"What? How could the Bugs know..."
"Bugs may be ugly, but they ain't stupid," Dizzy Flores proclaimed as she and the rest of Rico's Roughnecks tramped into the corridor.
"M.I. is here now, Admiral, proceeding with intruder purge," Lt. Flanders left his helmet channel open so the bridge crew could listen in.
"What do we have here, Flanders?" asked Rico.
"Bugs cut the security-cam feeds somehow. Hull breach was here on sub level B, so the emergency hatches should have sealed automatically. We just got done sealing the rest of the emergency bulkheads, so wherever the intruders are, they shouldn't be leaving deck nine any time soon."
"This is the door to the rec room?" said Rico.
"What's above and below?"
"Sub-level A is the mess hall. Sub-level C is sim-training facilities. Sub-level D is standard life support and gravimetrics grid."
"Awww, man," said Gossard, prompting quizzical stares.
"Hello! Life support? Air ducts? Ventilation shafts? This is the recreation deck, the vent shafts in the life support system only run about two-thirds the length of the entire ship."
"Awww, man," said Doc.
"OK, Dizzy, you and Brutto stay here and find out what's on the other side of this door. Doc, Gossard, Zim, you're with me. We're going down to D-level to make sure the Bugs stay put. We'll try to flush them your way if we can," Rico nodded to Brutto.
"Don't go doing us any favors." Dizzy's voice dripped sarcasm.
"Move it, apes!" Rico roared.
Rico and his men disappeared around the bend in the corridor just as six members of Echo Squad jogged into view, finally completing their jaunt from their turret stations located on deck one. Brutto and Dizzy flipped down their helmet visors to study the emergency door, something Flanders and his half-dozen crew-mates couldn't do since Fleet helmets did not come so equipped.
"Switching to thermal scanners," said Brutto, " I've got...two, four, six...eight Arachnid targets moving sideways...heading to the stairwell...getting interference of some kind from the stairwell, must be air ducts embedded in the steps...looks to me like the Bugs are headed up to A level."
The Lt. of Echo Squad ordered his sergeant to get to work on a manual over-ride for the nearest elevator shaft. Two minutes later the whole company was stationed outside an identical emergency hatch on sub-level A just outside the mess hall. Dizzy and Flanders were the only crew members carrying tranq-guns, so they took point.
"I've got eight stationary targets at eleven o'clock," said Dizzy from beneath her helmet visor, "looks like they're just sort of...squatting there or something, not moving much."
"Maybe they think we can't see them behind overturned tables or something," suggested Brutto.
Dizzy flipped her visor up and gave Flanders a wink and a nod. "OK, Sticks and-stones Boy, it's show-time!"
"Right," Flanders grinned. "On three. One...two...three!
Flanders and Dizzy yanked down on the manual over-ride handles on either side of the emergency bulkhead. The door snapped up and Dizzy heard something which prompted her duck and roll instinctively. Flanders was not so lucky as he caught a full round of munitions fire right in the chest. Dizzy managed to look up and catch her balance in time to see two of the Imposter Bugs jump up from behind their overturned benches and point their Morita rifles straight at her head.
Doc saw the Bugs' shadows cast against the wall of the stairwell before they got anywhere near the bottom. Doc nodded to Gossard who stationed himself on the opposite side side of the stairwell, waiting for the unwelcome visitors to arrive. Doc raised his tranq-gun in anticipation but when the first Imposter Bug reached the base of the stairs it pointed a limb in Doc's direction and suddenly the calf of his left leg cramped up. Doc lost his balance and hit the floor, shocked that the Bug had attempted a psyonic attack. By then Gossard had nailed the offending Bug in the head with the butt of his shock stick. Rico and Zim squeezed off a few rounds of carefully aimed tranq-darts to subdue the next few bugs that barged down the stairwell, but shortly ran out of darts. The troopers had lucked out in that the Bugs were bottle-necked at the base of the stairwell. By the time they had finished stabbing their shock-sticks into everything that moved, they were exhausted and about fifteen inert Imposter Bug bodies lay strewn about. But as Gossard went over to see if Doc was OK, he made a horrifying discovery.
"Is it that bad?" asked Doc, "I can't feel my left leg."
"Huh? How should I know? You're the doc. I was just about to say that it looks like this Bug here was carrying a Morita."
"WHAT?" Doc, Zim and Rico exclaimed in unison.
With a primal scream that everyone in the corridor would tell their grandkids about someday, Dizzy barrel-rolled to snatch up Flander's dropped gun and with one swift movement somersaulted to her feet, tranq guns blazing. Seconds later, six dead Imposter Bugs lay on the mess hall floor, multiple tranq darts sticking out of their faces. The two remaining Imposters leapt up from the concealment of overturned commissary tables and looked like they were about to turn tail and run. Dizzy's tranq guns were clicking on empty so she tossed one aside and threw the other one at the Bugs' retreating backs. The butt of the rifle caught one of the Bugs in the back of what passed for its head. As the Bug went down, the weapon in its claws sprayed bullets randomly at the far wall, the wall with a large bay window running the length of the mess hall. The manual over-ride on the door was over-ridden as the emergency hatch clamped down again to contain the new hull breaches that now puckered the commissary window. Dizzy didn't even attempt to move as the bulkhead slammed down not inches from her face. One foot further and she would have been crushed. She wished she could see the look on the Bugs' expressionless faces as the window began to crack and everything not nailed down in the commissary got sucked out into the vacuum of space. Instead she bent down to check Flander's pulse. As she removed the Lt.'s shattered helmet, she could hear Carmen Ibanez' voice ringing over Flander's Power Suit comlink.
"Lt. Flanders, report! Flanders! What's happening?"
Dizzy fingered the dial on the side of her helmet. "Lt. Flanders bought the farm, sir," she stated matter-o-factly. She was pretty sure she heard Carmen swear under her breath before she thought to switch off her comm.
So the Ice Queen has a heart after all, mused Dizzy, Who knew?
"Damage report," Carmen Ibanez insisted.
"Sub-levels A through B on deck nine are completely decompressed. Seals are still holding. Diagnostics say holographic systems are still operational on sub-level C, but the outer hull is leaking like a sieve. Estimate complete decompression on C-level in about twenty minutes," Ensign Burkoph informed.
"That, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is illegal to fire munitions on-board a starship," Carmen said to no one in particular. She had already switched the comm channel off and the only person who could hear her was Carl, the only other person currently seated at the conference table. Carmen continued to pace the conference room while she and Carl waited for Rico to arrive.
"Bugs with guns..." Carmen shook her head. "Can you imagine what the Bug Wars would have been like if we had had to go up against Ripplers that not only spit acid barbs but could lob grenades?"
"I can imagine we would have lost," said Carl, not entirely certain that her question wasn't rhetorical.
"And since when do Bugs plot hit-and-run missions? Once that Lamprey Bug disgorged it's load, Freeman's entire 'fleet' tucked tail and ran. Maybe it's the only Lamprey Bug he has and he's saving it up for a rainy day. Any other Bug would have held on for dear life and forced us to blast it off."
Carmen was clearly talking to herself now and Carl was not about to interrupt.
The conference room door chimed and Major Rico stepped into the conference chamber. "Sorry for the delay, Admiral, didn't want to tramp Bug guts all over your nice clean floor."
Carmen was in no mood for joviality. "Hazard assessment?"
Rico sighed. "Bug infestation is contained. We were able to compare the number of kills to the number of pods that showed up on the initial security tape."
"How did the Bugs arm themselves?"
"It was a coordinated attack, sir. Once inside, they all headed straight for the armory on the sim-training deck, like they knew precisely where they were going. Luckily, there were only ten Morita rifles in the rack, and there were 24 Bugs. At this time it is unclear how they managed to reload the weapons with live rounds. However they went about it, it slowed them up long enough for us to head them off before they reached the life-support systems on D-level. They split up into two teams and eight armed Bugs ambushed our troops in the mess hall. It was all planned in advance. The Bugs knew where the armory was and how to get there, how to load the guns, and how to use the stairwells to bypass the elevators."
"Three casualties, 14 wounded, two fighters lost."
Carmen directed her next question at Carl. "How did Freeman's ships locate our position? We've been in running in stealth mode ever since we dropped into the system. It's almost as if he knew ahead of time when and where to strike, and it looks like he engineered an entire Bug for just such an occasion."
"I think it's time to consider that Freeman may be getting information from the inside," Carl said guardedly.
"You mean a mole?" said Rico, "We ran a routine security sweep before we dropped out of warp. We detected no listening devices, no unexplained transmissions."
"At least no electrical emissions," Carmen pondered.
Carl's eyes narrowed, "What are you getting at?"
"What about Haley Roman?"
"What about her?" Carl bristled.
"Te Kooti found her wandering a few klicks from that derelict ship on Erebus. It was during the recon of the derelict that Rico's team was first attacked by these "Super Imposter" Bugs. Isn't that just a little too convenient?"
"It sure as hell wasn't convenient for Haley," said Carl, not feeling the need to recount the extensive injuries Haley had suffered from the crash of the derelict.
"We still shouldn't discount the possibility that Freeman allowed her to escape," Carmen countered.
"Hey, what if Freeman planted one of those 'dead drop' things on her?" Rico said reasonably.
Carl rose to leave. "I'll look into this personally, Admiral. Please let me handle this. I have to talk to Haley alone."
"Very well," said Carmen.
"Go easy on her, buddy," said Rico, "If she picks up on your suspicions..."
Carl shot him a nasty look.
"...OK, my suspicions, either way it requires a delicate touch."
"Don't worry, I'll try to be subtle."
Next Episode: 220B: A Wolf in the Fold - Part 2