Band of the Red: Part 4

4.

DEPLOYMENT

My training had finished with the recruits, and I was forced into a test. Roughly a hundred other– most of which the original Officer’s of that first wave of recruits– were tested with what we believed to be advanced Officer’s training. In time, it was revealed that we were chosen for our aptitude in espionage and subterfuge. Where most of the Federation’s people have since lost these ways from eons of peace, evidently, I was one of the few personally suited for it. The deception and stealth involved gives me great personal satisfaction– I smile as I slowly stab my enemy in the back. Many would find this a point of disgust for me, but most do not know it. Just as well, I was perfect for the Einheit.

My instructions were simple, received via old-fashioned, coded-letters written by hand: become a member of the Band of Red, receive their training, then return. Regardless of which side I was loyal to, there was a potential to do great harm to both. As such, I made sure to keep both sides in check where I felt they were lacking in morality or conviction. The Band of the Red nor The Federation ever knew whom was sabotaging them at these points, and I wish not to divulge them. They are not essential to the story, nor do I wish to be linked with them anymore than I wished to be linked with The Federation during my time with The Band.

The mediator for the Einheit, known only as Sir, was the one who hand picked me. We never met face-to-face in a lit room, so for all I knew he was Sharok’s right hand. I doubted it though, but didn’t care in the least if it had been. See, the Einheit have become known for their secrecy, and deviously-cunning espionage, but it is a matter of fact that I was the only one properly motivated for the mission.

The others, while their merits do not go unrecognized, were of an improper mindset. I liked the Band of the Red’s members in my time there, I would even have gone so far as to call some my friends. The others were different. The Einheit was a job to them, something they wished to go home from one day and forget about. I had no such wishes, nor could I ever. The Einheit was an honor-bound duty for me. I was chosen to become one of its shadows, an anthropomorphic entity attuned to whatever task lay before me.

It was this difference that set my deployment apart from the others. I wasn’t a refugee, I wasn’t a defector, and I certainly wasn’t a foolish duo that could have cost us the whole operation. I was a federation draftee, a training officer, and I was damned good at both. That was how I presented myself. I was a highly-valued intelligence link, because I was within The Federation’s Officer ranks. I was invisible to the higher ups– Ah, but an officer has ears, and might hear all sorts of things. Why not play both sides? I had an eternal trust, unshakable within The Federation, but I needed that from The Band.

I hid aboard a civilian freighter bound for a medical outpost in a contested system, laid in wait in the cramped cargo-hold, and laid my plans. When I emerged, I was in neutral territory. These enormous medical barges remain separated from the fleets of both sides, flying no flags by those of medical aid. Either side can use them, and it is treatise held to the greatest heights, even by those that would otherwise rape and plunder.

To see them in space is to understand that they are off-limits. They are armed with heavy guns that would be suicide to even the strongest of Federation cruisers to attack. It was there that I found my opportunity to begin executing my plan.

Within the sterile-white halls of this medical barge, I found a Verbero company bound for a settlement on the planet. Amid the cries of pain from the wounded and dying, I followed them unseen into the ventilation shafts of their shuttle. When we set down, the settlement I found myself in was one that would have put the greatest of the “agrians” to shame. It was little more than thatched houses, inns, and businesses that only wished to thrive on war-profiteering and not be murdered by either side.

To the locals I was on-leave, but in truth, I was waiting for The Verbero to break the hopes of the settlement and ransack the place. When they arrived at the inn, I seated myself in the tavern– a place of ancient architecture; wood and stone easily burned by our modern weapons. Ransack would be a kind term to what the Verbero did to the place. Even still, I sat in the corner booth, drinking, and watching.

Ah, the adrenaline-filled exchange between myself and the soldiers that came when I wasn’t intimidated. The soldiers with their plasma-blasters had obviously yet to train with the Band, or I surely would not have survived. As it was however, they engaged me.

Blasts flew. The inn caught fire. But I was faster, had seen the Band enough to emulate them– if sloppily. My fist and arms worked like lightning. Bones broke, and armor cracked. I incapacitated all but one of the men, and when he begged mercy, I told him how he might earn it: set up a meeting with a Band member. He agreed to oblige, but not before I killed the others to convince him not to risk incurring my wrath. It was rather foolish now that I look back, but I stand by my actions.

I helped to extinguish the fires before the inn burned to the ground, and informed the soldier and other patrons that I would be present for another two weeks. If in that time an emissary from The Band did not contact me, I would defect solely to hunt he. (I may have too, for he was my only lead, and perhaps sticking to my word would have caught the Band’s attention.)

It was only two days of miserable food, and sour drink before the emissary met with me. He was a small sort, but dangerous-looking. Scars across his exposed skin etched warnings of death at any challenge to him; either your or his, it didn’t matter.

He spoke with me in low tones so that I had to become accustomed to leaning over my drinks, and was given a look to speak in kind as I told him of my intent. Though apprehensive in his belief we brokered a deal: in exchange for an audience with Sharok, I would relinquish battle-plans for the attack on this planet. I would remain here as the fighting began, and if the information was accurate, he would return to bring me to Sharok.

I told only truths. Yes, I caused the deaths of my own people, but it was on Council orders. It was also, the only perceivable way into the Band. The planet was next on The Federation’s list, held the largest mine of D-335 in the system, and was a strategic stepping-stone to establishing a sustainable presence there. Those plans had deployment dates, troop numbers, and the expected paths of the various detachments. Even still, I did not care how the information was used– In fact, I never have. It was only my job to acquire it, what I or anyone else did with it was only the concern of those who suffered the consequences.

My information was accurate enough for the Emissary to return during the staging. I was led out of the inn as the first bombardments began. I only just saw the counter-attack on the shuttles launched for ground-incursion before I was blind-folded. I was led to a ship, felt its cold metal reverberate my boots, then a pinprick in my neck. When I awoke, I was being carried forward with my feet dragging behind me, in what I later learned was the Band’s main-base.

The logistics of the battle I sabotaged are not something I know, nor do I wish to. They are simply a foot-note on a much larger story. And only the beginning of my vicarious killing-spree. Again, however, I digress.

As I was led through the base, I was met with a strange sense of complacency. For better or worse, I felt, this was where I was meant to be. It was a dilemma I later faced when given a silent ultimatum.

I was led into a small room and my blindfold was removed. It was dark, save for a dim light hanging in its center. I was forced into a chair beneath the light, and my hands were bound behind me. An interrogator, likely desiring to torture me attempted to question. I was resolute: I would share nothing more with anyone but their leader.

I still remember my exact words, “I would be more than happy to divulge everything I know, but only with Sharok. And only alone.”

There was quite a commotion over this, but I said no more. Though I suspect this was not the first time it had been suggested, for what came next seems almost comical to me now. Sharok entered the room, a beautiful woman in all respects and strengthened through years of physical training and combat. With her were two guards whom took a place on either side of the doorway.

She spoke to me with an almost angelic voice, but an undertone imparted the danger of taking it at face value, “The guards are deaf. Their eyes the only thing that works properly on them, save their fists.”

Those tones were both music to my ears and blind terror in my veins. I agreed it would be sufficient, and asked for only one, additional comfort; that my hands be unbound.

I thanked her, posed my bargain thusly; “I am an officer in the Federation’s ranks, one who distrusts my people and their ways. But the Verbero are scum, thieves without honor. Take me on as a member of The Band, train me, and in return I become your spy. The information I seek will be at your request, and yours to do with as you see fit.”

She stood pensively, but listened as I imparted a final parameter, “But only if you train me yourself. I want no man or woman’s hand-me-downs.”

She laughed, replied something about flattery. I assured her this was the catch. She sensed as much, replied in kind, “I’ve no use for anyone without boldness. That you’ve come this far says you have it, or that you’re a fool.” She waited a moment, in which I didn’t not bat an eye, then added; “Very well. Take me at my word, and know that to distrust it is to dishonor me. You give me what you know now, and you will be my new apprentice.”

I did not smile, nor blink or speak. The simple silence was enough to affirm the deal under that single, dim light. After a moment, Sharok began to pace beyond the edge of the light as I divulged all that I knew. She took it in stride.

“Several Verbero planets will be coming under Federation and Mustela attack soon– retaliation for Verbero attacks on defenseless planets. They wish to level the playing field. You will need their jump and arrival coordinates to plan your attack properly.”

I recounted them all from memory; platoon numbers, dates of the attacks, inter-spatial coordinates– everything she needed. When she was satisfied, I conferred that I would have to return to The Federation to renew my intelligence, and be gone several weeks, but would return with information for the coming months. These returns, we assured one another, were when I would receive my training.

And so it went for a year that the only contact I had with The Band of the Red, was Sharok in confidence. Her honor in obliging me still leaves me with a certain satisfaction knowing that there is such honor left in the universe.

As the information flowed, so did my training. Planets and ships burned while Sharok imparted fighting-styles that only she had truly mastered. The rest were child’s-play for The Band, but these were something her and I alone shared. Among the training I gained deeper insights into espionage, employed them all against both sides– most notably when my honor was challenged by a member of The Band.

Someone had sought to wreak havoc on the Einheit’s plans, calling me out as a spy, betrayer, and double-agent for the other-side. While it was true, it was still hardly admissible. There was simply no proof to base the accusation on. That was the point of the Einheit. Moreover, I never truly betrayed the Band. It was not in either side’s interest, I was sent to learn their combat methods, not sabotage them. Even still, I was not going to let some fool jeopardize my standing with Sharok for a personal conspiracy.

I engaged him in single combat. What the Band calls a duel to the death. As all questions of honor are met with death, Sharok immediately agreed to it. In truth, I believe she wanted to see my progress– or perhaps rid herself of my company. In either case, the duel was to begin immediately. The rest of The Band on-base was in attendance around a wide room. There, we were to fight until one or both men lay dead.

I knew I was to employ the techniques Sharok had imparted. After all I learned them harshly from her, and thus to challenge me was to challenge her. No doubt had it seemed I would lose, she would have just as well finished me herself. No matter, I made easy work of the fool with ancient blades, maintained for this very purpose.

As an aside; The Band of the Red is a very ancient order. This I learned in my training on honor with Sharok. They are as old as the ways of peace, which in turn seems fitting. For the peace in the universe to have sufficed for all those millenia, something had to be its counter-weight. This was The Band of the Red’s purpose: To take advantage of the peace of the star-systems, bend it to their will.

In truth, it was much more worthwhile to have The Band as a the counter-weight than any other group of miscreants, smugglers, or thieves. The Band’s prospects have always been heavily stunted by the burden of its self-imposed honor.

The crossing of the ancient blades was yet another tradition, as only a man truly at peace with the blades’ use and his own conviction could have won the fight.

The fool and I sparred, and he got the better of me in a couple of positions– sliced me well across the belly, but not so deep that it was mortal. He also scarred my face, something I’ve had to explain away in my time with The Federation and with others whom knew me outside of it. It was a bar accident, I told them. Most believed it. It was an easy lie– I’m a terrible drunkard, barely able to hold myself up after a few drinks.

With quick parries, I positioned myself rightly, circled the wretch with predation. Then, a flurry of moves in a full-body spin injured the poor bastard more completely than most have ever seen. That technique was one of Sharok’s, and a dangerous one at that as it is easy to slice oneself if the upper-body is not poised just right. But mine was. There was a pride in her eyes, I think, when I finished the man with a leaping spin-sweep that sliced him in two.

My success earned me a new-found respect from both the Band and Sharok. But only after this, was she convinced my training was complete. By this point however, I had begun to make a case with Sir; the combat experience was important, but not enough to compromise my position with Sharok.

In this, I made the mistake which almost cost me life.

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