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chapter eleven
" KEEN "
Part Three

Tepu Solinoff swore as their stolen method of transport bucked under them again. He could pilot any craft, they were all built on the same premise, with the same design logic, the principles of flight demanded it, except for these Rigel craft. They had interfaces that not only allowed for customization but seemed to incorporate intuitive controls almost as a matter of security.

Alexei Podarkin climbed back into the co-pilot seat after being thrown from it with the last motion. He thought about buckling in but he was trying to leave. Tepu Solinoff, swore again.

"Frustrating?" Alexei asked playfully.

"This bastard is possessed by the devil!" Tepu responded angrily, rightly putting the masculine on the machine as any good Russian would.

"Joules didn't have any problem." Podarkin was mocking him now as he rose from the co-pilot seat and made way for the stairwell.

* * *

A deck lower the four mercenaries picked up at the LZ were fighting off nausea from the wild pitching of the craft.

Their leader, a quiet burly sort known only as Romanov growled at Yuri Lexamsky, “What is the point to this?”

Yuri ignored him. He was senior to Romanov and didn't have to explain anything, the field leader wasn't letting go of it though. “You gave us a rendezvous code, not a departure code!”

As Alexei came down from the flight deck he overhead this exchange and wondered what Yuri would say, he couldn't continue to ignore this challenge.

Romanov growled as he leapt toward Yuri, “We were finally seeing payoff!” Alexei and two others rushed to intercept, barely able to hold him back.

Yuri didn't appreciate the tone, but he didn't even flinch at the challenge. “Your job was to agitate and pit the Natives against the Squatters.”

Romanov frowned, “Which we were doing.”

Yuri snapped at him, “Your report said they had engaged, what more was needed?”

“They had engaged us, yes. But either side could think themselves the winner if neither is further provoked.”

Alexei could feel the tension mounting and knew Romanov well enough. He knew how much his team respected him. He saw their tension, each one of them ready to defend their leader, even if it meant engaging their comrades. If their field leader wasn't placated the situation would get much worse.

Although he had no love for Yuri he interjected for the benefit of the mission, “The Network was closing in on your area.”

Romanov looked at him, trying to gauge if Podarkin was telling the truth.

Alexei continued, “A Squad was in the Village already. They had orders to mediate.”

Romanov weighed this. Had they attacked the Village while the Squad was there the whole deception would've been found out and all their work would've been for naught. Worse still they could've lost some members, have them captured by the Network and that would have been very bad. It had been lucky they'd been attacking the Natives for the last few days.

Actually as Romanov moved back to his seat he began to smile, “That Squad is in for quite a reception when they head north.”

“Those stupid Netties.” Quipped one of them referring to members of the Network with their favourite derogative. “They don't have a clue what they're rushing into.”

Everyone else chuckled at the thought.

* * *

Finn sat in the command alcove sulking while the terrain of the region whizzed past. They'd spent two hours searching for “Fawn Knutson” or whatever the Phendo-wearing, cargo-container-flying young woman was actually called. They'd hunted on various spectrums, almost finding something, but ultimately coming away without success.

Whether she was a threat or not was no longer a concern, she'd been a diversion and one that could've, in their absence, allowed either the Villagers at Cogan's Corner or the native band at White Creek another chance to engage each other, with fatal if not catastrophic affect.

It was sloppy and Finn chided himself for the lapse in judgment as they rushed toward White Creek.

* * *

Romanov turned a vivid shade of green as the Starbus bucked again in mid-flight. “What is that idiot doing up there?”

Yuri nodded toward the upper deck while grinning like a savage animal, “The owner didn't exactly release the presets when we cut her loose.”

This elicited a wave of chuckles from the others, particularly those who'd witnessed it.

The cheer waned immediately when the craft pitched sharply then the Starbus landed with a thud.

Alexei rose and looked back at their original twelve and the six they've picked up since, each of them geared up for the last evacuation of this mission. It hadn't been easy, securing transport to get three teams out of their regions before the Network Squads arrived.

The hatch opened and Alexei peered out. The sun was setting, they'd have to be off before it did unless they wanted every Network team in the area to realize they were around. Tepu hadn't figured out how to kill the running lights.

Romanov followed quickly with his team of three. They'd picked up the bio-signatures on approach but their comrades weren't coming out to greet them. That didn't surprise Romanov, he hadn't expected a Network craft either when they came for his team, and he'd almost given the order to engage the new arrivals thinking they were opposition.

It was a tough call either way. Engaging Network forces would've been bad as it would most surely have tipped off what was happening in the Commons and maybe even given their opponents the proof they needed to embarrass their leaders. New Soviet leadership wouldn't forgive a second such incident.

Thankfully it hadn't come to that. The question was how to avoid looking like Network forces when that pretty much was their cover. He glanced back to see Alexei stepping forward while peering intently at the grassland.

“They tell me you shot the prostituki that owned that ship.” Romanov's choice of words boiled Alexei's blood but he maintained composure. What they'd done to Joules was weighing heavily on him and having this savage call her a Prostitute nearly drew out his true feelings but instead he nodded as he spotted the third team and waved them forward.

Romanov looked up at Alexei with new found appreciation, “I'd always thought you were soft Podarkin, never guessed you'd be a Patriot.”

Alexei stopped cold, fighting back his retort. After all, he's been the one to pull the trigger, these cretins didn't need to know it wasn't a fatal shot.

Instead he greeted Breznicki and his trio. “Comrades! I'm sorry but it's time to go.”

The elder field commander, a great bear of a man who looked at though he'd always been out here, and had never met a razor, stared back at Podarkin squarely, “We're not finished.”

“It doesn't matter. Network teams are all over this region and we've got new orders.”

Romanov's ears perked up at that. It was news to him also.

Quickly they loaded their gear in the rapidly filling lower deck of the Starbus and then everyone who'd already flown a leg secured themselves ready for another bumpy ride.

* * *