chapter six
Part Six

Colonel Nickle hadn't been keen on Finn's departure but he couldn't argue with the orders, General Dean had approved them and Nickle wasn't fool enough to try and counter that. Though it didn't soften the scowl on his face as he watched the shuttle pull away from Celeste's boat.

Dean's involvement was bad news. Nickle suspected he'd just seen the last of Finnegan, and that was a bloody shame. He turned to Sandoval, "Time to go."

* * *

Finn climbed aboard the Tolex class shuttle, marveling once again at its compact design. Looking aft he could see four other Officers from the Network's Ground Forces, each representing a different specialty and that made him wonder what sort of mission Major Frohman had in mind.

The Tolex was a ten metre long craft, divided in four parts: Cockpit, Airlock, Cabin and Driver. The cockpit was a low ceiling, tiny compartment with two forward facing seats, one on each side of the aft connector, with both nestled tightly between the fore windows and the twin-hull aft cockpit bulkhead.

A twin-hull aft bulkhead in a cockpit seemed redundant to most passengers but that's because few people, even in the military, knew that the cockpit of the Tolex could separate from the main body and maneuver in space as easily as a Maintenance Pod.

Even though the module look of the Tolex seemed like the sort of thing that would increase flexibility, the degree of flexibility the craft was capable of far exceeded what most people would've thought necessary for such a small craft.

And if the separating cockpit seemed redundant then the four-way airlock just aft of it must have looked like someone with a phobia of explosive decompression had designed the craft.

Sure, the port and starboard Omni-Locks™ guaranteed a secure connection with nearly any other airlock in the Network (and most New Soviet designs as well) but unless you knew the cockpit could detach, the double-lock doors between the main body of the craft and the cockpit seemed like overkill.

Having so much of the small craft consumed by such safety features would seem, to even the most nervous of fliers, like a big waste on what was supposed to be a simple courier craft.

Yet, the Astral Corps loved the 40-year-old Tolex design and worked hard to ensure the spaceframe was still in production. No other craft could move about so inconspicuously and then, when needed, split into two fully operating vehicles and come at the same target from two different approaches. It was great for the type of covert missions that no one ran anymore.

* * *

Seeing no open seats in back Finn turned and crossed the threshold moving into the cockpit. He'd figured to stand here, crouch actually, but was surprised to see the port seat vacant and Ethan in the starboard one.

"Are you legal for this, Major?" In the four years they'd worked together Frohman's ability to fly had never come up. In fact Major Frohman's comm-badge gave no indication of him having any flight status at all. Ethan saw him looking for that.

"I have reserve status, one of the skills I've needed for my investigative work."

Finn nodded, accepting the response just as he saw the horizon rush underneath them. They were heading east.

"Indeed." Finn looked at the controls, then back at Major Frohman with new appreciation. This "dirt devil" as Fleet often called the people in Ground Ops, was no novice with the controls. Finn was impressed.

"Strap in, Leftenant. Airspace around Baden-Baden is a little tight right now."

The tone and words told Finn something that gave him pause and he moved quickly to the open seat. One didn't care how tight airspace was unless they were planning to by-pass local Control and "crash the party", as emergency flights rushing into controlled airspace were commonly called.

"What's the rush, Major?"

"It took a bit longer to find you than I expected. Our subject arrives on point in fifteen minutes and I'd like his body guards to be there first." Body guards? This certainly was a most unusual mission, even for this man.

Major Ethan Frohman ran a module at the Tactical Action School, Astral Command, a 'MOST SECRET' level training group that specialized in teaching its students the best way to find quick workable resolutions to problems during combat. The skills were transferable to other missions and because of it Frohman kept in touch with his best students, occasionally tapping them for special assignments as required.

Finn wanted to call these special assignments "Black Ops" but the truth was Black Ops were impossible in an age where every inch of the planet was under constant surveillance. There were no shadows to hide in anymore.

Yet Command still turned to Ethan when they needed something done "outside the usual channels" and more and more often it seemed the Major turned to Finn. And why shouldn't he, the Ground Operations trained Senior Leftenant had once been a Fleet Combat Pilot. Driven from that service after a nearly disastrous mission almost seven years ago. It was all politics. Someone had to take the fall for what happened and the high profile members of the 655 Squadron were the easiest targets.

Ethan tried repeatedly to get Finn to join him at the school, but the Senior Leftenant kept stubbornly refusing. Ethan couldn't understand why, it was like he still had something to prove.

* * *

The United Network Command Authority building in Baden-Baden stood out like a sore-thumb against the backdrop of this quaint Bavarian village, well, more accurately it looked like an angry claw.

The once grand resort town in the black forest of Germany had played host to Royalty for centuries, but since the Eco-Crisis the region had fallen on hard-times and decay. Buildings that had withstood World Wars crumbled from neglect as many of the region's population vacated the area in search of a better life.

It was one of the reasons the Network had selected Baden-Baden for it's European headquarters. The charter mandated Network funds helped to revitalize the area around their footprints and Baden-Baden was, by this point, an area in desperate need of revitalization.

Which is why the population accepted the Network's monstrosity in their quaint village. It meant important visitors would return to the region, it meant a steady flow of guests in a town whose charms weren't much in demand anymore. It meant re-birth.

And an ugly rebirth it was. The architect of the structure had failed to consider its surroundings when designing the building. The region begged for a low structure, smooth and rolling, like the countryside. And while most new structures being built on the planet actually hid in the Earth, a testament to the understanding that mankind was finally aware it was subservient to the true master of Nature, Erik Van Hoeven instead chose to build upward.

The 33-story structure, four times the height of any other building in the area, including the town's ancient Church, was a stretched pyramid, somewhat akin to the now classic TransAmerica Building in San Francisco, but the line of this building favoured one face more than the rest, so that from certain angles the building's profile was that of right triangle.

Erik would stress, to anyone that would listen, that the basic structure of the building represented the History of Man, emphasizing at once that by "man" he meant "mankind", not just those with genitals. The fact that both sexes had genitals was lost on Erik, who had spent too many years in front of his PAT-D design board and not enough at parties, coffee shops, or even outside.

It was another reason the European Headquarters for the Network failed to mesh with its surroundings, Erik had never visited the site and seemed to express no interest in the place other than the ground composition studies that confirmed the solidness of the base for his masterpiece.

If that wasn't bad enough, erupting from the building at a height 1.61 times the base width, was a secondary spire representing Man's ascent to the Heavens. Between the two spires, twenty-three stories up, was a courtyard, sunken nearly two meters into the building for protection from the Alpine wind.

This was a landing pad, which allowed visiting dignitaries to completely by-pass the town of Baden-Baden and never venture beyond these composite walls. It was all very symbolic of the relationship between the power and the peons.

* * *