Tour of Duty

Marching Orders Prologue and Chapter One


Prologue

Defense Vessel Nibarger

Hatacan System

Captain Dalia Genar’s finger absently tapped the spine of the book she was reading, or rather trying to read. Her thoughts lingered on the orders that had brought her battle group just inside the Hatacan system. For nearly two weeks, the Defense Vessel Nibarger had been on station along with the Mirico, Geriss, and Priana. Long-range scans had indicated the presence of several Pridrallian and Yaarmoan ships inside the system, as was expected. The meeting between representatives of those two worlds to ally themselves with the warlord Nai Lamarco was apparently underway.

That was problematic to be sure. Lamarco had been disassociated from his home world almost two decades earlier for attempting to prevent a global disaster. His scientific findings had failed to convince the overseers of his world. Once that disaster had become a reality and his wife and family perished, Lamarco became a madman. He had since amassed a large and formidable pirate fleet that was the bane of the Ranar Alliance. Years of hit and run missions on Alliance and non-Alliance supply ships had helped to strengthen his power. Now, the warlord was intent on conquering the Ranaran system itself. Securing an alliance with Pridrallia and Yaarmo Prime would certainly make that possible.

Though the Ranar Alliance’s defense vessels were heavily shielded and bristling with armament, there were just over thirty in service, and Ranaran space was far too vast to defend at every point. Peacetime had been lengthy, but all peace seemed to eventually come to an end. Genar looked over the top of her book at the sounding of her door’s annunciator.

“Enter,” she spoke.

The door slid aside to admit the Nibarger’s First Officer. Commander Saniah Vannen was a striking, middle-aged woman. Her soft chocolate features were augmented by a wave of jet black hair that was currently pulled back away from her face per ship’s regulations. A native of the Island of Enaya in Ranar’s tropical region, Commander Vannen was directly related to the royal house, though she preferred to keep that fact quiet as she served. It was her wish to do so without any special attention or perks based on her lineage.

Like Genar, Vannen was an officer in the Zhiacor, Ranar’s naval and special forces division. Before she’d been recruited, she’d been top of her class at the Academy. She was exceptionally gifted in unarmed combat and a cunning pilot. Captain Genar knew Vannen to be efficient in her duties, but the younger woman had one fatal character flaw; she possessed a smoldering temper. That flaw if not checked, would possibly hinder Vannen’s run for a captaincy, but as her service record was exemplary, that same captaincy was inevitable. Provided of course the brewing war could be avoided.

“Good evening, Commander.”

“Captain.”

“Any luck with your investigation?”

Vannen nodded minutely. “Ensign Sira’s still not offering up any crucial details, but I have a suspect.”

“I see. And has Sira changed her mind about being transferred?”

“No Ma’am. She says she no longer feels safe here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Genar.

“So am I,” said Vannen. “When I find the person who assaulted her, he will not be safe here.”

The exec stood gazing out the viewport, and when she didn’t speak for several moments, Genar cleared her throat.

“Is there something else on your mind Saniah?”

“You might say so Ma’am.” She paused briefly. “It’s the Yaarmo. They’ve been our allies for so long. It saddens me to see them divided over this silly prophecy.”

“It’s their religion Commander. Lamarco is just using it to exploit them.”

“Perhaps Ma’am, but those of them that are sitting out this current conflict are acting quite irrational.”

“How so?” Genar queried with a raised eyebrow.

“Well they claim not to want to harm this so called “Chosen One” of theirs, but they have no idea who he or she is.”

“That’s not a bad thing Commander. Better safe than sorry eh?”

“Perhaps,” Saniah shrugged.

Genar closed her book and tossed it on the large wooden desk. “Commander Vannen, your empathy on this current unrest is admirable.”

“Empathy Ma’am?”

“Yes, I see in you the desire to unite the Yaarmo against a common enemy, rather than divide and destroy the entire race of them. It is much the same with the Alliance. Some think it’s a losing battle to fight Lamarco and as such, choose to sit out while others, like us, refuse to back down.”

Saniah looked at her captain significantly before replying.

“You are already aware of the fact that I have my own issues with our government Ma’am. I still feel Lord of Council Torvo is taking far too long to come to a solution regarding Lamarco and this pirate problem. Then, there is the overspending on needless weapons projects such as the Seastar. One imagines that perhaps Lord Torvo no longer has the people’s best interests at heart.”

Genar nodded. “I would agree, though politics are not really my thing. It’s hard enough just to know whose side we’re on.”

“And which side are you taking Captain?”

Genar smiled softly. “I’m Zhiacor through and through Commander. It’s my desire and my duty to thoroughly destroy any threat posed against the Ranaran Alliance.”

Vannen smiled. “Agreed. Still-"

Her words were cut short as a spectacular fireball suddenly ignited outside the viewport. The ship’s red alert klaxons blared general quarters.

Both officers made for the exit as Vannen spoke into her chronocomm.

“Bridge, report!”

The response from the bridge officer was immediate and calmly efficient. “A battle group just jumped right into the center of our formation. The Geriss has been destroyed.”

Genar and Vannen stopped and looked at each other in shock. Vannen regained her composure a millisecond sooner.

“Shields up. The captain and I are on our way.”

Genar took her seat and Vannen relieved the watch lieutenant beside her. The captain glanced briefly at her personal plot before making a decision that would affect her entire battle group. Shields had come up quickly, so the massive debris from the Geriss was of little to no consequence.

“Helm, bring us to a heading of .704. Weapons, lock in multiphase torpedoes and charge all pulse batteries. Fire on my mark.”

Genar bit her lip, but released it just as suddenly. A casual observer would have thought it to be a nervous action, but it was only an acquired bad habit that surfaced when she was thinking intently. The situation was grim. Minus the Geriss, they were only three defense vessels strong. The Pridrallian fleet surrounding them boasted at least twenty capital ships and they had already targeted the Priana and were pounding her shields mercilessly.

Genar and Vannen studied the plot centered between their command chairs and Vannen suddenly seethed.

“There’s their flag. Let’s blow through it and regroup.”

“Agreed,” Genar replied with her impossible calm. “All ships shadow my target and fire all!”

The Nibarger opened up with her pulse cannons and decimated the battlecruiser directly in her path. Once clear, the massive warship changed course and targeted the largest of the attacking vessels and let fly with everything she had. The Mirico and Priana followed suit.

Multiphase torpedoes tore through the enemy ship as if it were made of paper. The enemy’s deflector shields gave some defense, but they were ultimately useless. The multiphase torpedo warheads were fired in waves of twenty and each wave transmitted to subsequent waves, key data on its target. Each group thus could adapt to and penetrate any shield. Short work was made of the enemy flagship.

Several members of the bridge crew cheered in triumph as the remaining DV's surged onto their escape vector. But their victory was short-lived as the Priana took several direct hits to her drive section and disappeared in a ball of flame. Vannen snarled at Priana’s demise even as two more enemy ships blew apart.

“Thirty seconds to lightspeed,” the helmsman announced.

Ensign Sira, recently returned to duty, spun in her chair. “Mirico reports she just lost one quarter drive power.”

Genar eyed the CIC plot again. “Drop acceleration by thirteen percent to allow her to overtake us. Can she still make lightspeed?”

Sira conferred briefly with the Nibarger’s sister ship. “Yes Captain.”

“Good. All hands stand by for the jump.”

A moment later both DV's disappeared into the far reaches of space.

And Hatacu was alone.

Chapter One

Ranar Alliance Trainee T. Reggor

Journal Code 102.1

Well here I am in my 11th week of basic training and I could not be more bored. I know I must be driving T’lia and Kadri crazy with my restlessness. General Amano has informed the 128th that we are nearing the most difficult portions of our instruction. I hope she’s serious. So far I haven’t really learned anything new here. I could certainly use a challenge.

End Code.

Carasia

Ranar Alliance training moon

It was raining as usual. An unnaturally heavy and bone chilling downpour that hammered away at the fallen tree. Beneath it, in a dugout hideaway barely big enough for one, Princess T’lia Zorren lay stock still. With barely perceptible motion, the first daughter of the House of Enaya readjusted her rifle’s line of sight to rest on a mud soaked mound 20 yards away. She slowed her breathing by degrees so she could hear better. That proved to be useless. Heightened as her auditory nerves were, all she heard was the continuous thunder of the pounding rain striking the fallen tree. Still she kept her training rifle steady on the unmoving mound. If it was indeed her roommate and best friend lying encased in the muck, she didn’t appear to be breathing. T’lia frowned. The exercise they’d been assigned to execute was simple; track your opponent and get one kill-shot. Sniper basics in which the rain was an unexpected factor but not unwelcome, if the distant mound would just move; then she could take her shot and win General Amano’s approval. Both T’lia and Tona Reggor were at the top of their class when it came to most everything. All of their squad[mates had stakes in a pool of who actually was the best with Tona being the favorite. T’lia was determined to prove them wrong. She at least wanted to avoid seeing Tona’s smirk if she came in first in yet another exercise.

T’lia got a firm grip on the barrel of the Jentech-70 training rifle and peered through the scope. Still no movement. She cursed inwardly as she fingered the trigger. She’d tracked Reggor into the ravine three hours earlier but had lost the trail once the rain had started. Judging by time and the elements slowing her own progress, T’lia tried to extrapolate the distance Reggor could have traveled in the expended time, not to mention the lack of available shelter. And still the distant mound did not move.

T’lia knew her friend could be very patient. Tona Reggor was primarily melancholy but with just the right amount of extrovert to balance her personality. In the four years T’lia had known her, only Joran Reggor had been able to make his sister truly “lose it.”

But now was not the time for jokes. T’lia wanted this victory. Reaching for her right shoulder pouch, she extricated a silencer and carefully placed it on the muzzle of her weapon, painstakingly screwing it on all the while keeping her attention on the mound.

A sudden movement to the right caused her to freeze. She glanced over, eyes only and caught sight of several stones rolling to a halt. Realizing her mistake, she swore and spun onto her belly to bring her weapon to bear. Reggor wasn’t there. She should have been. The stones’ trajectory should have originated from behind her. Or above her.

The training rifle was fired at low power and T’lia had on class two field armor, but the projectile still stung as it struck the protective vest.

“Gotcha,” Tona Reggor smirked from behind her stealth mask. The 19-year-old Ralean hopped off the top of the fallen tree T’lia had been hiding beneath and held out a hand to her friend.

“How in Fiotia do you do that,” T’lia demanded.

Tona smiled smugly as she removed her mask. “Family secret pal. Now come on. I believe you owe me dinner.”

General Alicah Amano regarded the two trainees before her with great satisfaction. They were of course unaware of this. The general’s ability to mask her emotions was legendary. Montiesa, her assistant, placed the women’s files on the desk and stepped back to take her place just behind her boss’ shoulder.

Tona Reggor and T’ila Zorren looked decidedly uncomfortable. Alicah preferred to let them squirm a bit. Both of the women were too cocky for their own good. Certainly they were talented in the military sense, but Alicah knew as all good leaders did, that overconfidence could get one killed. Then there was the matter of trainee Reggor’s problem with following orders. The exercise had been to fire on the opponent at no less than 15 meters. Miss Reggor’s kill shot had been taken at just over one meter. That could have been lethal even with the J-70s set to low power as hers had been. But orders were orders and Alicah could not let this pass, no matter how talented Tona was.

“Trainee Zorren?”

“Ma’am?”

“I trust you’re feeling the effects of not watching your back?”

“I am general.”

Alicah offered a stiff smile at that. “They didn’t nickname trainee Reggor 'The Shadow' for nothing.”

T’lia returned the general’s smile but didn’t respond further. Alicah turned her attention to Tona. “Trainee Reggor, I am disappointed in you. That was a very dangerous stunt you pulled. You could have permanently incapacitated a fellow soldier. What say you of your actions?”

Tona straightened noticeably and met her superior’s gaze.

“With respect Ma’am, I believed the exercise to be search and destroy. I thought the closer I could get to my target the better.”

Alicah leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers. “Nonsense. These were sniper basics. You were showing off. Miss Reggor, I should not have to remind you that the role of a sniper is to remain undetected. After 11 weeks you should know this. Now while you got lucky this time, in the field such actions could cost you your life. Need I remind you of your skycar mishap?”

Tona’s face reddened slightly. “No Ma’am.”

Alicah continued. “I will say that your ability to remain undetected was admirable. In spite of your disobeying your directives, your stealth skills are unmatched. I am happy to inform you that you will be passing this test.”

“Trainee Zorren, your performance was also exemplary. No one in the history of this program has remained undetected for as long as you did under these specific weather conditions. Miss Reggor’s victory is actually less heralded than she might believe. You may feel free to rub that in her face at your leisure.”

T’lia smiled again. “Thank you Ma’am.”

“You will of course have the repeat the exercise if you wish to gain your full sniper credit.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

General Amano regarded her two top trainees with more approval. This time she let a full smile replace her normally stern visage.

“Well done ladies. Well done indeed.”

She saluted once sharply. “Dismissed.”

Tona and T’lia returned the salute, pivoted on their heels and left the chamber.

Behind her shoulder, Montiesa finally stirred and moved to collect the personnel files.

“Miss Reggor’s skills are impressive.”

“Yes, they are,” Alicah replied rubbing her brow.

“Her motive for being here is still revenge.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Yet, you still believe she will make a good soldier?”

“Yes Montiesa, I do,” said Alicah. “She’s young and as such, brimming with youthful ideas, but I believe the more she encounters the real world, the less important her personal crusade will be.”

Montiesa put the trainees’ files away before responding. “Or she could succeed with her quest and someday kill Lamarco.”

Alicah nodded. “True, but I see more in her character. She will find her way. And she will do the right thing.”

“Did she have to bring up the skycar?”

Diric Aswin laughed out loud. “It’s your own fault Reggor. I told you to let me drive.”

Tona purposely ignored the younger, blond-haired pilot whose lanky form was taking up much of the couch on the other side of the recreation room. He had practically glued himself to her hip since meeting her, much to her annoyance.

She plopped down cross-legged on one of the loungers, wineglass in hand. Her drink of choice was a very dry Ralean vintage, stronger than usual, but still a favorite. She took a long sip and glanced at her best friend who was getting a back massage from fellow trainee Kadri Jessers. The two were gaining a healthy admiration for each other, though T’lia staunchly denied it. Her subterfuge was pointless. A blind taralbeast could see they were in love.

“I’m sorry about your back,” Tona apologized.

T’lia glanced at her friend, then closed her eyes, succumbing to Kadri Jesser’s firm but gentle touch.

“So you’ve said, a hundred times.”

She arched her back involuntarily as Kadri hit the sore spot in question.

“Sorry,” he apologized. Like T’lia, his skin was a rich ebony brown and he stood a foot taller than his client. He was often as soft-spoken as he was solidly built. The latter of which kept other trainees from challenging him in open combat. Both Kadri and T’lia were from the Isle of Enaya, but there the similarities ended. T’lia was the daughter of Queen M’kia Zorren, and next in line for the Enayan throne. No other Enayan elect had ever served in a foreign army before becoming a member of the Enayan royal guard, but T’lia had had other plans. Like Tona, she desired to join the Zhiacor, Ranar’s naval special forces division. She and Tona were betting, as they often did, on who would be accepted first. Tona’s 27-year-old brother Joran had been accepted three years earlier, and the two friends were determined to follow in his footsteps.

“Will you two stop apologizing,” T’lia scolded. “You’re killing my mood.”

Tona and Kadri exchanged a look.

“What mood?” They asked in unison.

T’lia shifted under Kadri’s hands. “What? You think you won the sniper round fair and square? I’ve been waiting for this massage all day.”

Kadri grinned widely at the not so subtle compliment, but Tona merely snorted and took another sip from her glass.

“Well if that isn’t the biggest sack of Hork phlegm. Just admit it. You lost to the best.”

Tona set her glass on a side table and shifted to draw her feet up under herself.

“Tona Reggor, the only thing you’re the best at is being emotional.”

Tona feigned offense. “Emotional? I’m not the one going all gushy under my boyfriend’s man hands.” She caught Kadri’s eye again. “No offense Jessers.”

“None taken.” T’lia sat up, flexing her shoulder muscles and Kadri sat beside her at a respectful distance. He was a licensed masseuse, but rumors of royalty fraternizing with a commoner would make Queen M’kia very angry, and no one wanted to do that.

Kadri looked from one to the other and clicked his teeth.

“I swear if anyone heard you two talking, they’d think you were sworn enemies.”

Tona shrugged. “I suppose. But if anyone were to try to stop our bickering, we’d have to deal with them as the real enemy.”

Kadri raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey I’m just a trainee. I don’t even have a real gun yet.”

The three friends shared a round of laughs and two more drinks before T’lia rose and announced she was ready to turn in.

“I’ll walk you down,” said Kadri.

“That’s all you’d better do,” Tona warned, pointing a finger at him.

Kadri just grinned shyly, but T’lia gave her friend a significant look. Tona drained the contents of her glass, stood and looked her chronocomm.

“You two go ahead. I’m gonna run down to the docks and chat with Maffail. Who knows, maybe my brother will grace me with a surprise visit.”

Kadri sighed dramatically. “He’s Zhiacor Reggor. Why would any of them step foot on this obscure rock?”

Tona walked slowly down the corridor, and not by choice. Her usual relaxed gait was hampered by the effects of the Ralean wine. Head spinning, she caught her balance against the smooth grey wall and recalled the conversation with T’lia and Kadri. Those two were so hilarious thinking no one knew of their romance. Tona would have even wagered that Queen M’kia already knew of the dalliance. The Queen had to have been a realist knowing of the adventurous nature of her only daughter. Out here on the fringe of the Alliance, Tona doubted she really cared. Out of sight, out of mind. T’lia Zorren knew her lineage and respected her mother’s office and more importantly, her own responsibility to the Enayan crown.

Hearing voices, Tona peered around the corner and was surprised to see an entourage; Surprised and excited. The six person detail approaching her was mostly known to her. General Amano, Montiesa and her brother Joran. But the strangers were all Zhiacor. Judging from the rank bars, they were a lieutenant, a commander and a captain. Tona’s breath caught in her throat. What were they doing here? She knew Joran was assigned to the Chasanna, so the captain was unarguably Tolani Salzer. The group passed her and so engrossed by their presence was she that Tona didn’t even think to eavesdrop. She caught Joran’s eye and raised an eyebrow, but he just gave a barely perceptible shake of his head.

Montiesa was bringing up the rear and Tona grabbed her arm as she strode by. General Amano’s personal assistant glanced at the hand restraining her before her silver eyes settled on Tona’s face and recognition set in. Belatedly remembering Montiesa’s intense dislike of being touched by anyone, Tona released her.

“Yes, Mistress Tona?”

Tona inclined her head at the group’s retreating backs.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s a war council, near as I can tell,” said Montiesa.

Tona looked at her, perplexed. “A war council? At a training facility?”

Montiesa nodded and turned to follow the others, leaving Tona to wonder if she had perhaps drank too much.

“By order of Lord Torvo, I am to expedite transport of all available trainees to Hatacu. Reason being is to establish a line of defense while we await reinforcements from the Nibarger and Jeir battle groups.”

Tolani Salzer set his orders in front of General Amano and returned to his seat. The general studied the official document for several moments and those in the room remained silent as she did so. Montiesa was in her usual position, hovering just over Alicah’s left shoulder, but she had begun shifting her weight from foot to foot. The mannerism unnerved Alicah as Montiesa did not generally exhibit any nervous behaviors. Alicah finally looked up and met Salzer’s gaze squarely. The fifty-something captain’s features could only be described as efficient. He sported a neatly trimmed beard which covered a face that appeared gruff, but welcoming simultaneously.

Though somewhat heavier by Zhiacor standards than others, he was all muscle. His quiet way had been deceptive to many a new recruit. They had learned the hard way that though he could be very understanding and fair, he did not play around when it came to discipline and the duties of his crew. Alicah had met very few of the Zhiacor captains, but she knew Salzar to be very rational so she knew the orders must have been as disturbing to him, as they were to her.

“With all due respect captain, these trainees are not prepared for what Lord Torvo requests. They still have several weeks of training left.”

From behind her came a hardened voice.

“Perhaps then, your instruction leaves something to be desired. If this were a Zhiacor base…”

The speaker’s voice trailed off as Alicah turned towards it. Commander Lar Dann had declined to join the others at the conference table, gazing instead out on the rain dampened landscape. His ghost white hair was in stark contrast to his black Zhiacor uniform. Dann was no aging senior however. His species was Donaxxan and the hair color was as common among them as Dann’s lavender skin.

“I beg your pardon,” Alicah spoke.

Without turning to address her face to face, Dann replied, “I said –"

“That’s enough Commander,” Salzer spoke harshly. He turned his attention back to Amano when Dann did not say anything further.

Alicah frowned. She had expected a scathing rebuke for Dann’s insubordination and a mere “shut up” did not satisfy. There was no way she would put up with a junior officer dressing down a superior like that, but this was the army. The Zhiacor had so many extra-governmental freedoms that it remained a mystery to most how they ever managed to have disciplinary cohesion. She decided Dann was Salzer’s problem, but resolved to keep a close eye on him.

“General Amano I understand your position and I sympathize, but your trainees are the best defense Hatacu has right now. The Pridrallians and many of the Yaarmo have made clear their intent to support Lamarco and we both know that lunatic wants to destroy the Alliance. Personally, I don’t intend to sit back and do nothing while he succeeds.”

Alicah glanced at Dann’s back and he turned to regard her as if he’d been expecting her attention. His purplish skin had gone a shade darker. She had no idea why. The Donaxxan physiology was a mystery to many. Knowing the nuances would have taken much study and many other races just didn’t have the patience to figure it all out, Alicah included among them. Returning her attention to Salzer, she sighed.

“You have your orders captain. I don’t like them one bit, but I will adhere to them.”

Salzer nodded once, tersely. “Thank you general. I promise you that my men will do everything we can to insure your trainees’ safety until the reinforcements arrive.”

“Thank you captain. That’s all I can ask for under the circumstances.” She turned to her assistant.

“Montiesa, alert all commands. I wish to meet with all trainees first thing in the morning. And have Maffail secure the docks. We will be transferring ordnance, shuttles and materials to the Chasanna.”

“At once Mistress.” As the efficient aide made her way from the room, Alicah heard the Chasanna’s first officer complain further.

“Great. More babysitting duty…”

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