tagSci-Fi & FantasyOrbital Academy 16

Orbital Academy 16

byMaddirose©

I can't say thank you enough to all of my fans; I read and love every message!

This marks the first of the longer, more story-filled chapters of Orbital Academy; something requested by a huge amount of fans. I hope you enjoy this new direction, and hope you enjoy the latest update!


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*** Part 1 - A Change in the Orbit ***

General Hunter stared off through the wall of the elevator, lost in his thoughts. When the doors opened he stepped through on autopilot, flanked by two of his security force. Anger and worry warred in his stomach, but he kept his face calm as he reached the door to the Academy rookies' cell. *They didn't cause this mess.* He reminded himself. *They may've been the catalyst, but it's Auspus who is the root. This is Auspus' disaster. For whatever reason.* He entered the cell barely thinking about the rookies within.

"General Auspus is coming to Orbital Pivot to retrieve you." Hunter spoke even as he entered. The rookies sprang to their feet, but he didn't wait for them to get comfortable. "Is there anything you two think I should know before I meet with your General?" Of course there was nothing they could tell him. These were the lowest level of Academy, it was doubtful they'd even met General Auspus after their initiation; his true purpose was to see if they would give up the crystal that Errisa had seen them with. His eyes moved to the streak of blue in the girl's hair. Dorson, the files had told him.

"He has a crystal that he uses when alone." *She seems eager enough to give up the information.* "We think that's why he wants us killed, because we saw him using one. It's like this." The girl held out the blue crystal he had seen in the video recordings, and Hunter nodded to his guard to take it from her. "We got that one from the Terrans." She eyed the guard with worry as he carefully took the crystal in a protective glove, depositing it into the containment unit gingerly. Hunter nodded once, half to himself. *Of course, they would probably know the cells have security cameras, he mused, so them giving up the crystal is no proof they're on my side, but it's enough. My gut doesn't lie, they won't cause trouble.*

"You'll be brought to the hangar as soon as General Auspus lands." He spoke tersely."I'll have guards escort you."

"You're not going to turn us over-" Dorson began to protest, but her boyfriend put a gentle hand on her arm, interrupting.

"Yes sir, we'll be ready." he said quietly. Hunter nodded again, and then spun on his heel, already lost in thought again before he had even reached the door.

***

"Sir, I'm not sure I should have my entire security compliment present when the General boards." Hunter didn't have to look up from his screen to hear the note of concern in his Chief of Security's voice.

"You don't think they can handle themselves?" He asked, rerouting flightpath traffic to clear a hangar's schedule for later in the day.

"They'll carry out almost any command you give them to sir. Almost. But if the situation goes as bad as possible, I can't guarantee they'll open fire on General Auspus."

"I wasn't aware your security compliment had such loyalty to Orbital Academy, Kathryn."

"It's not Academy sir, and you know it." Despite the tension in his stomach, Hunter smiled. Promoting a select few trusted soldiers into Chiefs of staff was an unpopular idea, but he found it comforting to surround himself with men and women who would call him out when they had to. "My men are used to dealing with criminals and thugs, General Hunter. Even then, most of them haven't had to deal with anyone more dangerous than Tech-Major Skivens when he's had a few too many drinks. An order to break one of the covenants? I'm just saying that some of them won't follow that order, and I'd like to ensure that I'm surrounded by only the people who will."

"Kathryn, do you really think I'm going to order you to *shoot* General Auspus?" General Hunter allowed himself a smile, which turned to a frown when he saw that Kathryn wasn't returning it.

"Can't you promise me you won't?" she asked.

Hunter opened his mouth to answer, but paused, and Kathryn nodded as if it was all the answer she needed. He passed a hand over his forehead, trying to mentally prepare for the ordeal that was starting. *A few days ago, I wouldn't've thought I'd be opposing Auspus. How do I know how far things will escalate?*

"Gather the security who won't hesitate." He finally said. "I'm not preparing for a war, Kathryn." He added after a pause.

"Don't see why sir. It could be that Auspus is."

***

"You can't expect us to just wait out here while our daughter is handed over to guards, Hunter," Barnes was angry enough that he left the General's title off of his name, but Hunter didn't mind. *I'd be in just as bad a shape, if my daughter was at the center of all this nonsense.* His fierce gaze must've made the man in front of him pause regardless.

"General Hunter," Barnes corrected himself, "we'll stay out of your way, we won't make any noise, my wife and I just want to see our little girl."

"I understand that Barnes, I do." General Hunter worked hard to keep the scowl from his face. *I'm doing you a favor. You won't be doing your girl any favors, complicating a situation that's already too complicated.* Hunter didn't bother trying to articulate his thoughts. Instead he said "I'm keeping all civilians out of the hangar. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. Tensions are going to be high enough as it is. I'll try to give you the opportunity to see Samantha as soon as it's possible."

"Hunter, listen, you know me. You know my family-" Barnes began, but at a nod from General Hunter, one of his guards put a gentle but firm hand on the man's arm, leading him away. He turned back to the hangar door and stepped into the wide open space.

It wasn't one of Pivot's larger hangars, and Hunter appreciated the finer control the size gave him over the situation. His gaze traveled across the room as he put a small earbud into his ear.

"Chief of Information, talk to me."

"Good afternoon dear husband." Errisa's voice was clear in his ear, and even the sound of it did wonders to ease a small bit of the tension that had knotted up his stomach.

"Not sure if I can handle something this big." He muttered.

"Don't talk like that, especially not where your men can hear you." Errisa admonished, but her voice softened. "You didn't think you could handle a lot of things, my mighty Hunter. The mineral trade dispute, the Terran invasion, that horrible chef who tried to force those 'natural food' laws through. You've made it this far, haven't you?"

"Thanks to you." Hunter smiled. *I would never thought I'd make it this far. Maybe I can make it through this as well.*

"Thanks to the both of us. We make a good team, you and I, and don't you forget it. What does the child General think he can accomplish, going up against us?"

Hunter grinned, knowing the cameras would pick up the motion. Kathryn stepped up to his side as he gave the hangar a once over again.

"How's the setup?" He asked.

"I think we've got a good system in place here sir. Two groups, one on either side of the shuttle, ensure nothing comes out that we don't see. There are an additional squad in the hallway just outside, observing through the cameras. If you need them for intimidation or protection, lift a closed fist and they'll come through and line the back walls, flanking you. I'm not sure what we've got for tech security."

"I've taken care of it." Hunter said shortly.

"By which, of course, you mean you hope I've taken care of it." Errisa laughed in his ear. "Lucky for you, I have. The second the General's shuttle is in the dock I've got lockers and scramblers in place, it'll be cut off from all communication, so if we decide Auspus won't be returning, we can control exactly what Academy hears about the encounter." Hunter frowned, and his wife seemed to read his mind. "Don't give me that look dear husband. You need to come to grips with the idea that this meeting might go very, very poorly. You're not planning on giving into Auspus' demands, and Auspus is the type to take that personally."

"Nothing moves forward without my say so." Hunter gave the command half to Kathryn and half to his hidden wife. "When does the General land?"

"Flight control says he left Academy a few minutes ago." Kathryn confirmed after a short pause.

"Bring the Academy rookies." When Kathryn stepped away to relay his command, Hunter muttered into the earpiece. "Will there be any trouble with them, do you think?"

"I don't think so." His wife sounded confident, and Hunter knew she had been watching them. "The one who seems to be in charge, Jackson Rade, doesn't trust you. The blue-haired and her boyfriend talked him into it though. They seem to think you're a standup guy."

"How do you know Rade is in charge?"

"He's augmented, so he's as close to artificial intelligence as humans can get. Stands to reason he'd be the smartest of them." Hunter smiled at her teasing, grateful for the minor respite from his worrying.

***

He had been in the General position for seven years, interacting with the Generals of other Orbitals on a near continuous basis, but it never ceased to startle Hunter how young Auspus looked. It made Hunter instantly suspicious of every action he made, since he could never be sure how to read the man's facial expressions. The turbulence that the transport ship kicked up as its engines slowly powered down caught Auspus' black hair and tumbled it, and he looked almost regal brushing it aside as he descended the ramp. Hunter worked to keep a scowl of disdain from his lip.

"Focus, Hunter." He had clearly not been completely successful, since Errisa's voice was sharp in his ear. "Don't look down on him, don't underestimate him. He doesn't just use those looks to win the hearts of young fools, he also uses them to disarm old fools." She was right, of course. Once Hunter calmed himself at his wife's words, he noticed several things that he'd missed on his first contemptuous once-over. For one, Auspus was wearing a pistol at his belt, and his thumb casually rested on his waistband, within inches of it. Auspus' eyes also flicked across the hangar, in an even, measuring way that made Hunter uneasy. *Even warning myself not to underestimate him, that's precisely what I did.* He realized. He mentally thanked Errisa and stepped forward, extending a rough hand to shake. Auspus glanced down, pausing for a split second in what might've been disdain, before taking it in his own.

Hunter was glad he had kept civilians out, the hangar was quieter now that Auspus' transport ship was powering down. The normal hustle and bustle of the scrub teams who sprang into action checking and refueling the large boxy ship were muted, clearly cowed by the importance of the two Generals. Two squads of Pivot soldiers stood at the edges of the room, far enough away not to intrude, but within the proper angles if they needed to intervene. There were clearly more than were needed for a simple prisoner exchange, but Hunter noted that there were just as many Academy soldiers making their way out of the transport ship to fall into informal formations behind General Auspus.

"Aren't you glad the room has cameras now?" Errisa whispered in Hunter's ear. "Don't those backup soldiers in the hallway seem a little less paranoid?"

"General Auspus. I'd like to extend a hearty welcome aboard from all of us here on Orbital Pivot." Hunter's voice was flat.

"It is always quite the pleasure to be aboard," Auspus replied smoothly. Hunter didn't betray his annoyance; by this time he was used to the niceties and formalities. They came with the job. "I think we have much to discuss, but I felt this matter was important enough to see it through in person." Auspus motioned to a pair of soldiers near the back of the group, and they dutifully moved to the rear of the transport as he continued speaking. "As a matter of pure officiality, Orbital Academy has carried out a preliminary trial of the scrub and admin level engineers, Cynthia Cormorant and Samantha Barnes. Just in case you found yourself too busy for a trial on Orbital Pivot, we thought we would save you time by giving an official recommendation."

This was the part that General Hunter hated about running an Orbital; when formality and law moved toward a purpose. *I'm a damned engineer, not a politician. When they start talking fancy it feels like adults speaking around a child's head, making decisions without consulting him.* He knew without a doubt that without help in the political sphere, the other General's would've woven him a noose made of words and hung him with it years ago. Thankfully for him, he had found the perfect help in the woman who now translated into his ear.

"He's saying that he has a justification to say the engineers are guilty, but without offending you by officially trying them." Errisa clarified. "I don't know why though. Maybe he's going to press you on that, try to make the case that since your engineers fucked things up, you're liable for the damage to Academy."

"I'm quite grateful to you for that." General Hunter replied to Auspus. He couldn't bring himself to plaster a fake smile on his face, so he instead nodded. "We'll certainly keep your result in mind when we give the matter our attention."

"I'm glad to be of service." Auspus did smile, one with friendly warmth that reached his eyes. The only reason Hunter knew it was fake was because he'd never known Auspus to genuinely smile.

"Now about that talk-" Hunter began, but Auspus cut him off with an imperious gesture. Hunter internally cursed, but he had already stopped talking in spite of himself, and Auspus talked on.

"We can discuss those topics in a more private location, I think." He said. The Academy guards returned from the back of the transport, escorting two young women. Even with his back to the rookies he could hear a few sharp intakes of breath, and his brow furrowed.

"Oh no. Hunter." Errisa sounded worried, and the emotion made the knot in his stomach jump into his throat. "Elevated heartrate, dilated pupils. The Academy rookie leader Jackson Rade, the augment? He's in love with one of those engineers, I'm sure of it. That's why Auspus is making such a show of it, he's hoping some or all of the rookies will turn themselves over to him in exchange for the girls. Auspus is playing on their loyalty to Rade, and playing Rade's heart like a synharp."

Hunter glanced behind him sharply. He didn't need to measure pupils or sense a pulse; the large brown-skinned boy was clearly stricken.

"Hunter, watch your expression." Errisa warned in his ear, but the General didn't care. He wore his glare outright, and the lack of reaction on Auspus' face just made him that much angrier. Auspus' soldiers escorted the two girls next to him, and Hunter glanced at them each in turn. The Barnes girl looked enough like her father that she was easy to identify, but the other he didn't recognize. Not that he would know every scrub who graduated from Pivot. They were both redheads, both clearly terrified, and both were staring across the hangar at the augmented rookie. *They both care about him, miss him, are worried about him. A lover and a relative then?* Hunter shook his head, lip curled in disgust.

"Be careful, husband, easy there." He barely heard his wife, but Hunter tried to push his building rage down a bit.

"I think our discussion is best served here, Auspus." Hunter's voice came out a little harsher than he'd intended. "I'd just as soon get this whole 'misunderstanding' over with, and I'd hate for our discussion behind closed doors lead to nasty rumors running around."

"Wow, that was actually a nice little threat." Errisa said in his ear, surprised. "A little bit heavy-handed, but for you it was practically subtle."

"I suppose it would be best to get this over with," Auspus frowned, "and it is fairly straightforward. I've returned the engineers via the proper legal channels, and there is enough room in the prisoner transport for the Rookies on our return trip."

"They're not going back with you, Auspus." Hunter snapped. Auspus didn't seem surprised, but he raised an eyebrow as Hunter continued. "You didn't even know the number of rookies in your so-called rebellion, and you didn't do anything to explain the clothes they were wearing."

"Clothes?" For the first time, Auspus looked confused, and Hunter knew with certainty that he was making the right call.

"The rookies are staying Auspus."

"You're declaring war then?" The ease with which General Auspus asked made Hunter pause. *He asks it as if that's normal, as if Orbitals have ever gone to war before. Dear god what has happened to this man?*

"He wants you to say yes." Errisa whispered. "I don't know why he wants it, but I can tell."

*Don't need an AI system to read that from his face.* Hunter was off-balance, his rage confused by the eagerness of the calm face in front of him.

"I'm not declaring war and I'm keeping the Rooks. Make of that what you will. If you feel the need to escalate things further, that's on your head, not mine." Hunter locked eyes with Auspus as he spoke, still slightly unnerved by the other General. Was that humor, in those frighteningly ancient eyes? Was Auspus laughing at him? He certainly wasn't surprised, and he heaved a regretful sigh.

"I must say I'm disappointed, General Hunter. I had hoped we would keep to our standard legal tradition, but I understand that times change. If justice is to be served on an Orbital-by-Orbital basis, then Academy judgement has already been passed."

"Hunter bring the soldiers in. Now." Errisa spoke urgently, but Hunter hesitated, confused by the other man's confidence. *What are you doing Auspus, you crazy old man?*

"As these engineers have been found guilty by Orbital Academy, it is Orbital Academy's job to dispense that verdict."

Cynthia suddenly broke into a run as Auspus continued talking in an easy, friendly manner, drawing the pistol from his waistband and firing a shot into her back. There was screaming, from behind him, in his ear, but Hunter couldn't focus on it. He didn't remember deciding to move forward, stepping over the scrub, his scrub, as Auspus lowered his arm to line up another shot. He couldn't recall the exact instant he chose to draw his own weapon. All he knew was that suddenly his left hand crushed General Auspus' gun wrist, and his right held the pistol to the man's young looking temple. Very slowly, reason returned to General Hunter, and he blinked. He could hear his backup troops pouring through the door behind him to move into position, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Auspus' troops raising weapons to the ready, most trained on him as he held their General at gunpoint. The Academy rookies were just behind him, working to take care of the scrub. *The girl I'm responsible for, who Auspus just tried to murdered.* All of these impressions were muted in Hunter's attention compared to the face of General Auspus, inches away. Auspus was smiling at him. A tight lipped, triumphant smile. Hunter grit his teeth, trying to think of what to do next in the sudden tense quiet. Someone was crying behind him, and it made it harder to think.

"Go ahead." Errisa said sadly. Hunter couldn't tell if she was sad for the girl who just died, or the entire scenario. "Make it grand and official, everyone in the orbit is going to be seeing this."

"General Auspus." Hunter cleared his throat. "Due to your actions of violence against workers of Orbital Pivot, as well as your steadfast stubbornness in continuing your conspiracy against these Rookies, I am forced to declare..." He paused for a moment, searching Auspus' face. *It's not just triumph, it's greed there. He'd go so far for me to declare war on him, wouldn't it be easier for him to make up some excuse?* "...forced to declare an embargo on Orbital Academy."

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