Band of the Red: Part 5

5.

BETRAYAL

I will admit that I am, by no means, a genius of stratagem. With that being said however, I am one to lay their plans knowing their strengths and weaknesses. When I joined The Band of the Red, I was told to prove my loyalty, and did so time and again. Each assignment afforded me more opportunities to gather information for both sides, but I was never foe to the Band, nor was I truly friend. I kept all sides in check with my reports, but ensured the least amount of damage was done to the ancient Order.

For instance, I was once sent to a Verbero-caravan as the attached guard. When I arrived aboard the new, pristine frigate, I learned that such ships were being manufactured and deployed fresh from non-combatant worlds. I leaked this information to the Federation knowing they would begin targeting the shipbuilding settlements to disrupt supply-lines. But I also leaked that information to Sharok. I knew the Federation would target the frigate ships old and new alike, and in response Sharok would have to withdraw her people from them or risk losing the Order to attrition.

The Band lost no members in those attacks, and Sharok’s “foresight” allowed her to adjust the bargain made with Lord Verbero to merely training their men. As such, the caravans were now vulnerable, but so too were the Band able to focus solely on training the Verbero’s new recruits.

However these sloppy stratagems appeared more to be the acts of a rogue, Federation soldier to Sir and his superiors. Admittedly, it was not all that much of a stretch to assume. I had yet recover anything for Sir, and there was no doubt his superiors were suspicious of their deep-cover agent. More importantly, I had cost countless lives and ships of both the Federation and Mustela armies and it was becoming more obvious that something had to have been exchanged for my standing with the Band.

The fact remained though, that this war might single-handedly teeter upon the information I held. Neither side was yet willing to risk my life, but still neither side was certain of my actions against them. Sharok was largely content with the information I provided, and Sir was hopeful for the mythic training I’d received. Even the small pieces of intelligence I leaked to the Band– that, in turn, were given to the Verbero– always ended in stalemates.

We received an order, in code, to provide Sir with manuals on training in the ancient ways. Each of us began writing them out, but agreed to their pointlessness. There is very little that can be written properly on the subject. It must be imparted from master to student, as it had been from the Band to the Einheit. But this excuse did not suffice for Sir nor his superiors. That we had yet to do much on paper forced Sir to call upon me– in the Einheit’s cryptic way– to explain our actions. It was dangerous, foolish, and we all knew it.

We met discreetly in a darkened room, as we had during the Einheit’s formation. It smelled of old welds and electricity with the distant sounds of the port’s PAs and ships beyond the metal walls. It was there that I heard Sir enter behind me, never showing his face, nor even stepping before me.

I was told to relay any information I had within the next month, otherwise I would be wanted for treason. It was an idle threat I knew– No amount of Gal-Net nor Intranet corruption could have contained the revelation of the Einheit once my face had been plastered across the Galaxy. Still, at heart I was a Federation solider. I hated that fat bastard Verbero, and the company of his men during my assignments with the Band only soured my feelings. I wanted to see the Verbero burned alive in plasma fire, their Lord’s eyes roll back in his head above my clenched hands.

At the time, that was my motivation. I still feared court-marshals, reprimands, and life in captivity. Sir could have jailed me in that room for any reasons he might’ve concocted, and at the time, I’d have taken my dues. So, I told him what little I could without endangering Sharok or the Band. He stopped pacing long enough to listen. Then, he informed me that Third and Fourth would be pulled from the field. After that, First would follow. But due to our standing, Second and I were to be left in under close watch for the time being. If we did not produce results within the month, we would be hunted.

He left the room to a slammed door that echoed in my head. From then on I was a suspect of treason. It bothered me at first, and as I made my way back through the systems to rejoin the Band, I realized the dangerous position it put me in.

Delicate political finesse was required to successfully handle the situation, but it was not something I had ever possessed. It was because of this that I made a grievous mistake.

When I returned to The Band, I had resolved to inform Sharok I was under suspicion. It was a stupid thing to do, and one of the few regrets I have now. I still remember the long walk through the ancient, stone bunker, passing other Band members in the hall who laughed and paid no mind to my suffering. When I reached the wooden door to Sharok’s room and office, I hesitated to knock. When I did so, I was certain I was to be looking death in the face.

Instead, she handled it in a way I thought impossible.

I knocked, entered at a beck, and put on a flustered air that included slamming the door behind me. Sharok immediately attempted to calm and soothe me. She set us beside one another on her bed, and mustered the gentlest, most angelic tone I have ever heard from her.

It was a strange thing to be part of. She was more than friendly– almost, seductive. I calmed myself as best I could; true frustrations had boiled inside me to produce a convincing air. What they were, I later realized, was a battle of my dual-lives coming into conflict. I had emulated the Band before I had been apart of them. Their honor and skill were par-none, and their rules firm, simple. They were the manifestation of an elegance lost over eons, but the Federation was my home.

Sharok’s private quarters are place few are allowed to be, when there, she is in-absentia– not to be disturbed by any but a close few. I was one of them. How long we sat there I could not say, and for a long time, there was nothing but silence. Perhaps it is this that caused the later rumors of her and I as lovers, but I assure you nothing that went on in that room was enough to call the rumors meritable.

When that contentious silence finally gave way to her angelic tone, the hardened warrior had returned beneath it.

“The way I see it,” she told me. “Is that my best agent is in danger.” She hesitated, pensive with thoughts that only those as wise and honorable as she might have. “Under normal circumstances, I would remove you from the situation. But given your standing with the Federation and myself, and the aid you’ve provided, we will have to choose a different path.”

What she did afterward caused utter chaos, and drove me deeper in-bed with The Band. What a fool I was to have told her.

I left the room moments after the conversation had taken place, and felt that fateful stirring in me that signaled my duality battling itself. Unfortunately, normal operations had to resume. I was sent to retrieve payment from nearby systems for their protection, then returned to base and readied for my trek back to the Federation.

When I reached Federation territory, it had been exactly twenty-nine days since I had left. I was greeted at Lucknor space port by a group of military police. They parted to reveal an aged, white-haired man. I knew even, before that familiar voice met my ears, that it was Sir whom greeted me.

That damned fool came to me in the light of day to tell me of an investigation against me. His posse were ready to take me in with only two days remaining to produce the requested materials. He knew I was unprepared. When pressed for an explanation as to the guard, he told me that several commanding Officers– men and women far above me– had been assassinated at a Federation’s consulate-meeting. These, no doubt, included some of Sir’s superiors.

I had no words. Sharok had ordered hits on my supposed senior officers, and now that damned fool was showing himself.

We knew long before this that Sharok had other operatives in The Federation and Mustela’s forces– as she had agents within the Verbero and her own forces as well. All of them were trained and planted for one purpose; to keep a close on her people and ensure the Band’s code was upheld. That was their sole job. Sir knew this, and used it to set a trap for me with himself as the bait.

He recited formal allegations of treason to me over the roar of thrusters and departing engines, all the while knowing he’d given permission to do the things I’d done. There was only one purpose for this; he was forcing me– his hand picked, elite spy– to choose sides. He was showing his face to those watching me, hoping he would sign both of our death warrants. Even he knew he would be dead before week’s end, but we both knew there would be no way to dissuade the Council I wasn’t solely a Band spy. The only hope I had of ever returning home was tied to the information I’d yet to produce, and knew I couldn’t. Sir knew too, and he’d rather see me dead than to withhold it.

What a damned idiot! I walked right into being framed to avoid the inevitable revelation of the Einheit’s existence. On the one side, my confidentiality with Sharok would either force me to leave The Federation or face death by them. Likewise, I would have to either join the Band permanently or be considered Khie’Yen– traitor– and hunted down. I saw the forest through the trees; if I chose the Federation, I would be imprisoned long enough for Sharok to have me murdered or broken-out. The latter did me no good if I ever wished to return home.

This last thing was the tipping point in my duality. As I said before, this was not a job to me, it was a way of life. It gave me fuel. The last thing I would let happen was my death at the hands of the true betrayer before me. I was still a Red Band member, but could no longer be a Federation soldier. And both The Mustela and Verbero could shove it if they thought I was going to join them. They had caused all of this, neither side willing to give up coin to keep the other happy, nor honorable enough to have done away with the other in a single fell.

The choice became clear, I would return to Sharok’s side, but not before I killed that stupid bastard Sir. He caused his own demise, and mine. No-one be allowed to get to him before me.

He informed me that I would be taken into custody in two days time. We both knew it would never happen. He and his posse of military police exited the port and left me to fume, but my plans were made before he ever turned smugly on-heel to march off.

I made my way through the housing block that night, down its long, narrow corridors, and disabled the lock to his home. I found him waiting in the front room. He was surprised to see it was me and not a masked assassin.

I stood before him in the dim light as his liquor-glazed eyes affixed themselves to mine. My words were my own, and I remember them better than I remember any of my life.

“A moment of enlightenment, Sir, from the greatest of your Einheit.” My blood boiled, but I kept calm, as Sharok had taught. “Had you been willing to recognize my importance, and that of the Einheit themselves, it would never have come to this.”

Still my anger frothed, but to kill in such a way is not honorable. To do so by the ways of the Band, one must be in great peril or at great peace with their prey.

I continued, “Your death would not have come had you not shown your face. And I would not have reached this conclusion had you not taken what minor vestige of devotion I had left for the Federation in doing it.”

He seemed reluctant to believe me, but my blades ran crimson all the same.

I escaped Lucknor with ease, stowing away in another medical frigate. I hold-hopped from there, and was a dozen systems away before news of Sir’s murder ever reached Gal-Net. To this day, I’ve no idea what they said, and I don’t care. With his dead I washed my hands of the Federation, and its ways.

My return trip to the Band was uneventful, but I was of a new mind. I was no longer a double-agent, nor a Federation soldier. I had no home to return to but that of the Band’s. It was with this in mind that I once more rapped at Sharok’s door.

When I informed her of what had transpired, all of her angelic tone was gone. There were no more words meant to soothe or comfort. She was furious. I was kicked from her room with a booth so heavy you could sense my standing with her hitting the ground as I did.

I was, simply, no longer as useful and I had done something that nearly caused an incident between the Band and the Galaxy; an unauthorized assassination. Had my skills of stealth and evasion not been so sufficient, she would have murdered me publicly for tarnishing the Band’s image and honor.

As it was though, I still knew things and I was still good at what I did. I was kept on as an outcast. This only fueled the rumors of she and I as lovers– that I was now I spurned by her. Such is of little consequence in the scheme of things, because what came next ensured an end to the war.

I met with Second, in private and away from all that might intervene or eavesdrop. She was still awaiting contact from Sir, unaware of his death or the price on our heads. I relayed what had happened at a hush.

“I murdered the bastard. He was going to frame me, likely you too, as the scapegoats for the Einheit’s perceived failure.”

Second had known me from training, and though her tone could never match the angelic quality of Sharok’s, she spoke to soothe, “I believe you. And either because time has changed me, or Sir’s betrayal has shown me a new light, I vow to remain with you and never return to those greedy fools. When First returns from assignment, we will approach him. For now, we must lay plans.”

Second, you see, was a Mustela recruit before transferring to The Federation. It was there that she was recruited into the Einheit. She was not however, a draftee. Instead, she had been an intelligence officer for the Mustela’s new army, a willing recruit of the war who’d joined years before when it was little more than a defense-force. This experience and motivation, combined with an encyclopedic memory, ensured she knew all there was to know of Mustela forces. I, in combination with First, carried all the knowledge of The Federation’s fleets and soldiers. All we needed was Verbero intelligence. With it, and Second’s strategic-mind, we could bring about a grinding halt to the war.

It also meant we needed Sharok’s help. Which in turn, meant she would have to know of the Einheit’s mission and its existence. She would have to know the whole story. If she refused reason, we would be forced to kill her– and most probably, the whole damned Band.

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