Band Of The Red

Band of The Red

1.

Prelude to War

At peace for thousands of years, and presided over by the loudest voices in ten galaxies, The Federation’s open-court held deliberation. The issue at-hand was whether or not to break treaties passed long ago by ancestors whose names have been forgotten. The leaders of many, great worlds pled for continued peace in the council’s enormous chambers. They cited that no man nor woman has a warring sense about them any longer. The strategically minded agreed; there was no favorable outcome to aggression, our weapons were powerful, but our tactics untrained. These voices echoed endlessly off the Council’s great, metallic walls.

And in reply? Nothing more than their echo back at them.

How did it come to this? The truth is, it should not have. At least it would not have, had the decision been left to those whom would fight. But they were not the individuals in the position to make the call. Those old, robed fools merely sat on-high, deciding the fate of Billions with less consideration than a larvae to its evening meal.

So, what then was the motivation to break three thousands of years of serenity, tranquility? It was, as it always has been, personal gain.

Two major factions began a conflict that led to Federation intervention; the Verbero, and the Mustela. The Verbero, represented in council by their Lord and namesake, sought profits with an unchecked desire. Verbero was a fat man in the grandest of senses. His robes fell over his stained undergarments, that rarely (if ever) were cleaned or changed. Jewel-encrusted rings shined across his plump fingers that groped mercilessly for all within grasp– in both a literal and figurative sense.

For many years, he and his faction had been responsible for trade among The Federation’s planets. He held himself a king. But fiefdom was not the Federation’s way. Often Verbero-shipments were accompanied by the Lord’s personal men; scoundrels and dregs of the galaxy that hassled merchants for increased payment on delivery. The Verbero (both the man, and those whom took his namesake) were unscrupulous scoundrels.

The Mustela, until very recently, were a poor and simple folk– farmers, hermits, the like. They wore the obvious rags of their station, and it was said their Council representative owned the only suit to be found in the whole system. Only after massive veins of the mineral D-335 were discovered within their planetary system, did the representative even have cause to wear it.

For whatever reason, (perhaps at the beginning of time, the formation of their solar-system allowed it) this mineral seemed most abundant in their system. As the main component to The Federation’s defensive weaponry, the discovery placed the Galaxy in a unique position. The balance of economic and political power tipped from Verbero to the Mustela.

In a literal, over-night sense, this tattered, agrarian system became the most important political power in The Federation. Their representative quickly curried the Council’s favor through his home-grown charisma and ever-present suit. Gal-Net news briefs showed him in Council perched humbly in his seat, or at banquets for those of The Federation’s highest esteem. As such, his voice became both well-heard and well-regarded.

That was, to everyone but Lord Verbero.

Ancient and unforgiving, the fat, old-bastard felt entitled to a share of profits from the D-335 mines. As far as the Mustela were concerned, he was not. For a moment, this was only a minor source of contention with either side pitted against the other in negotiations.

Why there were negotiations in the first place is beyond me. Had you asked, I’d have said Verbero wasn’t entitled to a damned thing– but I digress. The contentious negotiations later broke down. The Federation’s mediator, a neutral party if Gal-Net were to be believed, as well as the Mustela representative, failed to see reason for a tithe to Verbero. Though the mineral was found along his trade routes, he had not found it. And so long as the Mustela did not use his caravans to transport it, he had no rights to it. In simplest terms, the mediator sided with the Mustela even before the talks broke-down.

Gal-Net went wild when The Federation formally denied all tithe Verbero sought. Some called for Verbero’s head, others for annexation of the Mustela system. Still more made speculations and predictions of what was to come. Though most of them were wrong, the few that later turned out to be right, wished they weren’t.

What followed Gal-Net’s formal reports was the beginning of a series of hit-and-runs that turned to a formal declaration of war. While no evidence against Lord Verbero personally, was found, even a fool could see it was his men ransacking the Mustela trade-routes.

One such incident was widely reported, amid obvious rumors, on Gal-Net: Mustela’s caravan had made its hyper-jump between its system and the next, only to emerge before an armada. The plundering thieves tore through the Federation-appointed guard, and boarded the Mustela ships. They murdered all aboard, took the D-335, then made for the black market. The few Federation scouts that escaped did so with brutal, visual evidence of the attack. Even now, years past, the images of their scorched ships are used as a symbol of remembrance.

Following Gal-Net’s report, many system-leaders chose sides. Those seeking profit sided with Verbero, hoping to create a veritable aristocracy among the stars. The others, seeking justice and retribution, sided with Mustela. This led to a precipice of peace, where it was possible look down into a chasm of war.

How could we war over this? It was undoubtedly foolish, selfish even. But as I said before, it is not those who take up weapons to fight that have the final say. The Federation has always had a vast army, but its main purposes are defense, posturing. The Verbero though, have always had vast riches at their side. At that, rumor suggested that Lord Verbero, with aid from certain mercenaries, was building an army to rival The Federation’s own.

This was the point where we attempted to jump the chasm– leap its distance and land on the other-side at a peaceful resolution. A final round of peace-talks began. But the chasm was as wide as it was deep, and stretched into the bowels of planet as volatile as the Lord’s lust for riches. Little hope for peace remained, and when the talks once more faltered, The Federation began drafting recruits.

There was no point in lying to ourselves anymore. War would begin in the coming days. Ships and weapons that had not been launched or fired in anger for thousands of years would immediately loose themselves upon the stars. Until the first shots came, some held hope with bated breath that a last-minute resolution would be reached.

I for one, held no such hope. I had been drafted. The final session of Council in those blasted chambers determined my fate. With The Federation at his side, the representative of The Mustela appeared on Gal-Net to personally condemn the attacks suffered on the D-335 trade routes. Though the word was never said, war had been be declared. Undoubtedly, the fighting immediately began; either side laying in wait for the formal acknowledgment with their first targets already sighted.

But how did I feel about it? The truth was, it didn’t matter. I’m one of the few who smelled the Verbero’s treacherous nature before Mustela’s D-335 was ever discovered. I knew their Lord, greedy and ruthless as he was, would one day bring an end to peace. The only thing needed to spur the warring was something valuable enough to both he and The Federation. The trade-routes presented ample fuel for the fire, and I sensed it outright.

Never has a thing been more dangerous nor depraved than a leader whose sole pursuit is riches.

I smelled the proverbial fire before it was ever thought to be lit. And in the nights of the first peace talks, I dreamed of assassinating Lord Verbero and his seconds. I wished nothing more than to see his bloated corpse begin to rot beneath my outstretched hands. In the years that I have lived, the Verbero traders have slowly imposed their stranglehold on The Federation. Inside it has been near-invisible. From the outside, it has been subtle, insidious, but even with the greatest foresight there was little to be done about it; the Verbero had monopolized trade. At the formal declaration, that trade came to a screeching halt. The majority of The Federation’s populous who’d sided with the Mustela would starve before the end of the war unless something were done.

When the council adjourned live on Gal-Net, The Federation had split damn-near down the middle. It was almost as if one could see the aristocracy rise and exit the chamber to one side, while the crusaders wandered out the other. Regardless of my feelings, I prepared for war.

 

2.

The First Days Of War

In the days and weeks that followed the resolution, many were drafted. Gal-Net’s reports of the numbers hit home with vids of lines of men and women that filed in to report for training. These outposts had, for security reasons, remained unnamed, but even so, their lobbies and ports were filled with civilian shuttles and masses of bodies whose fear and confusion were obvious in their wanderings. Until my shuttle arrived, I was merely an on-looker. That changed as my body was jolted outward and into the port’s shielded hangar. Then, I simply became one with the mass.

The military’s intranet, their own version of Gal-Net, said that the senior recruits had gone to war while they awaited their reinforcements to complete training. Never have I had such confusion underpinning depth-less hatred as when I was shoved to a desk with little more than a number card and the clothes on my back. It was undignified, humiliating– for myself and our species as a whole.

It took several months to train a company of a hundred or so men and women, and at first, only three companies were trained. This gave those higher-up strategists pause; if many too companies fell at-once, few could replace them out-right. It was therefore of the utmost importance that more effective training be devised and completed. The first wave of draftee’s training shifted from simulated-battles and tactics to Officer’s corps training.

As I was trained, so were two-hundred and ninety-nine others. We spent day and night drilling in simulators, strategizing as mock-fleet commanders, and practicing scenarios where-by, having simulated the loss of others in our squadrons, we were forced to take command. Only the best of us, with the most formidable skills were chosen to continue as commanders.

We had little time to indulge in personal pursuits. Each day was a mere few hours to recuperate, a moment to eat, then training. More than a few recruits were rushed to the infirmary after collapsing in a heap, but after revival, were immediately sent back in to complete training.

After our basic training, Commanders like me went straight to overseeing others as we had been. Where once there had been only two to three companies, now there were dozens. Each of us ran our companies through the same exercises we had practiced– until their limbs ached and their minds cracked. Time and time again draftees and recruits alike were forced past failure to sustain the Federation’s lust for new bodies.

Though they learned well and fast, something was unnerving about the training. All of it was being done in simulations, and almost none in physical respects. As most battles are carried out through the use of operator-guided weaponry, it appeared a sensible stratagem to the higher-ups. In the Officer’s eyes, it was not. We had not faced an adversary in thousands of years, but we knew our weaponry was more than sufficient. As operators at the controls, we were nigh-on perfect. But we had, in no way, been prepared for physical confrontation.

At this revelation, had there been a debate on which side to choose for combat-merit, regrettably, I’d have chosen the Verbero. Verbero caravan-guards were shrewd and vicious but combat experienced, pinned as a devastating threat far before the war had ever begun. Their experience was ten-fold that of any Mustela or Federation draftee. This made them a pendulum on which the battlefield might pivot. It also, however, made them a prime target if handled delicately: If the Verbero’s mercenaries could be infiltrated or eliminated outright, the Federation could level the playing field. This had seemed a futile proposition to even dream of, as just as The Federation and Mustela were building their armies, so were the Verbero. The difference? Training. The Federation’s training, while sufficient in defensive-weaponry operations, did not prepare its recruits for offensive combat, nor a style of warring unknown to us for thousands of years; Guerrilla combat.

Verbero’s mercenaries were guerrilla fighters, and damned good ones. If they hadn’t been, The Federation would have put Lord Verbero down for hiring them to protect the trade routes. But the specific Order the mercenaries were hired from was infamous, even in the furthest reaches of the Galaxy.

Gal-Net had done exposes on them along with the Intranet. Both showed vid-evidence of their protection of the former trade-routes against pirates and slavers. In all cases, vicious, skilled fighters, used ancient weapons and styles to cut literal swaths through their enemies. Each one it seemed, was also an expert marksmen with extreme agility. This was witnessed in one member whose primary blade-weapon lodged itself in an enemy. He seemed not the least bit impeded. I still remember the speed with which he hurled himself sideways, retrieving a plasma-blaster mid-roll to rise and clear the rest of the pirate scum from the room.

This was our most dangerous enemy: deadly no matter the engagement, and always– for a reason unknown to any– bearing a red cloth tied ’round the bicep of their right arm.

Known as the Band of the Red, the Order was infamous, deadly. But for as long as we cared to remember, the Band of the Red had been diplomatic to The Federation– at their worst, simply indifferent. Though blamed for the D-335 raids by some, evidence suggested it was solely the Verbero wreaking havoc while the Band was present. As far as any could tell, the group never took more than their share. Their price was firm; in exchange for protection from pirates and other, anarchic scum, The Federation over-looked the droves of illegal activity on the dozens of planets they called home.

This last point requires elaboration. There was certainly corruption involved in the Federation’s dealings, though its intent was purely altruistic. Gal-Net never bothered to say it, nor investigate it, but yes, murders and drug-trafficking were overlooked. But no-one in their right mind crossed the Band. It was suicide. If one had found themselves in so deep a debt that they could not repay, there were other agreements to be reached. The Band’s leader, Sharok, was said to be a reasonable, logical woman, fair in her dealings. She killed anyone that would dishonor her by saying otherwise. Though few reports were ever released on the Band, those that were, revealed Sharok would parlay any indebted. What happened afterward was a private matter, but it was said any debt could be repaid with service to the Band.

The Intranet exploded suddenly after I began training my company. Vids of Verbero armies training by the hundreds, as we were, were led at the front of each company by a single person, a single, red band at each of their right biceps. We knew then that this war would become more than our mere simulations could handle. The vids never reached Gal-Net. The Council had barred them from releasing the evidence. The reason was obvious; if the Federation’s general populous learned they would be fighting Band-trained enemies, the number of defectors would reach new heights. Our army would be unsustainable.

Secret talks began then between the Officers, myself included, positing that the Federation might seek out Sharok to attempt to reason with her. I still remember my own disbelief that such an action would merit the desired effect: with all of their indifference, they were still weapons for hire to the highest bidder, and held their contracts to the highest honor. Perhaps then, some said, The Federation could buy-out Lord Verbero’s. This too was a futile notion, I knew. The matter of coin was substantial, but Verbero had undoubtedly promised much more than Sharok would willingly speak of. Thus she would hold a silent card against us in negotiations, its face impossible to read. Inevitably, she bluff to gain more than she Verbero had offered. The only possible course then, would be to engage the Band-trained men in combat.

But again, this was only so simple to the non-combatants. I was not one of them. I saw the path the war was taking, and it appeared to have more than one phase. In the first, battles had occurred in space over contested regions of the Mustela system. But everyone, the Band included, knew this was our field. There was no way to level it unless a paradigm shifted. I saw phased two before it ever began.

The battles would turn from space to ground fighting, as the Band and Verbero’s military would place the system’s planets in a foothold not easily dislodged. This speculation ran rampant through the Officer’s ranks until it broke free, reached Gal-Net’s civilian forums, then its vid-casts. Many from the Federation and Mustela’s support circle silently withdrew there support. Rumors of private conspiracies abounded. One-time loyalists now hoped to bring about the downfall of The Federation and the Mustela, and end the war altogether. The reason was obvious; fear.

Coupled together, the fear and rumors led the The Federation to conceive of a special military unit for one purpose alone: To infiltrate the Band of the Red. When it leaked from the Intranet that a new, classified unit had been formed for an even more secretive purpose, outcry flooded the civilian and military sectors alike. Though the unit’s soldiers were unknown to all but a few, they had been hand-picked for a certain set of specialties. Espionage would be their tool, subterfuge within the Band’s ranks their game. As I speak now in confidence, I have no reservations in saying that I was part of this unit.

3.

The Einheit

To those allowed to know of it, it was called the Einheit. There were only five of us as too many attempting sabotage or subterfuge is easy to discover. As a precaution, each of us was to join the Band of the Red through separate systems. We required the utmost secrecy, our role vital to the survival of Billions. It was a harsh thing for spirits, but there was little choice in the matter. Our only Commanders were the needs of the Federation. But we received orders through dozens of hidden channels, forced to decipher layers of code.

Only as a group could we decode a full message, but our messages were our own. It forced us to work in shadow, hone our evasion, and disregard the whole for the sake of our own progress. We were one men splinter-cells.

This is where the Einheit’s infamy was gained. Nobody, save a select few that cobbled together our orders, knew our identities. Everyone we met as individuals assumed we were green, draftees, inexperienced in combat. It was a dangerous ruse to uphold considering our skill.

When the first of the Einheit infiltrated the Band, he held himself well. Though never discovered, he was highly suspected of treason. Such was his skill that he could disappear and reappear with the wind, but even still the Band distrusted him.

The reason? From the start, we had one, crucial piece of information to be used against us; we were known, Federation draftees. Anyone could find our names in public records over Gal-net, see that we had once been pulled to the fray, but we each used it to our advantage. If questioned, the rebuke was simple; we had families we wished the best for, and were willing to do whatever it took to protect them and end this damnable war. It was clever, obvious, but enough to allay suspicion. There was no shortage of former-loyalists– defectors from the Federation and Mustela’s militaries– that begged ging for aid or surrendered en-mass. Only five of us however, were under orders.

Reluctant to bestow First his Acolyte status, The Band assigned him several tasks to prove his worth; sabotage shipments of D-335 and shipbuilding facilities, while reporting extensively on the movements of the Federation and Mustela’s militaries. The Gal-Net could not report the latter of these, it surely showed the vids of Federation facilities exploding from afar as they took possession of D-335 shipments from Mustela freighters. Ignorant to the greater scheme of things, the vids called the attacks “monstrous,” “atrocious,” all the while unaware that their own Council had ordered it.

I remember watching the approach to Mustela-Four on the Intranet during chow. Mustela-four is a simple moon of the systems home-planet, but with an ionosphere that regularly exudes nebulous, electrically charged gas. I smelled the hint of First’s leaks to the Band in that attack: the way the Federation’s cruisers approached Mustela only to be met with an entire fleet flanking them from the rear. Verbero ships had come from the far side of the moon, so close to its powerful ionosphere that they’d been cloaked to the Federation’s sensors. They never saw the Verbero coming.

When the Verbero fleet took position, they unleashed batteries of particle-beams that lit space with waves that no ship could avoid. The fighting was over in moments, every ship flanked, destroyed. It was the first time an entire, Federation squadron been eliminated en-route. And it was First that had done it– on orders from the Council.

The massacre proved First’s loyalty, and Sharok bestowed him the title of Acolyte. She trained him herself, sensing his promise. It was this personable nature that eventually led to a cataclysmic event, of which I will speak later, as well as the Band’s suspicion of First.

With First as an Acolyte, Second made her way to a recruiter in the Mustela system. Her ruse was the most clever of all, mired in a lore of the people whom did not directly know her, but rather stories that she took claim to. It was, therefore, easiest for her to infiltrate.

She was known as a defected draftee, but then came the lore: Many defectors had hidden themselves on the planets of the contested-zones, knowing that they would be secure until the Federation began its ground wars. Until then these defectors, were willing to sell information to the Band and the Verbero to remain out of harm’s way.

Second’s information was highly-valued, though none of us were aware of its contents. Her reward, and the only way she would hand over the intelligence, was to join the Band at Sharok’s side. She wished to strike against the order’s oppressors with a vengeance fueled by past sufferings of prejudice. Either this attitude struck a soft spot in Sharok, or Second’s information was so valuable as to warrant it, that she was recruited outright.

Now, both first and Second had joined Sharok’s ranks. And it seemed, were perfectly poised to decimate the Band. However their orders seemed, unequivocally, to be watch, learn, and wait.

It then came time for Third and Fourth to join, but they took a rather foolish approach. It was summarily rewarded with some of the greatest atrocities witnessed by the Einheit.

Third and Fourth allied themselves with the Verbero fleet, staying close to one another, but not so much as to garner suspicion. The Verbero fleet immediately engaged in attacks and raids on Federation planets the savagery of which we knew not could exist. Gal-net soon revealed what little civilian footage they could of countless bombardments, but the Intranet showed it all.

The Verbero fleet directly targeted defenseless planets for hit and runs, with no more aim then to decimate morale. I remember the distant flames of Vermeer-six as the particle-artillery rained like white-rain, only to meet the ground with immense explosions of black and red. Just before the civilian vid cut-out, deathly wails of mourning and pain stung our chests. The screen surged white, then went black. We all knew then what had happened.

But for Third and Fourth, the worst had yet to come. What became known as the Blackmane Massacre took place, and the Einheit simply sensed Third and Fourth’s involvement. It began with Verbero’s fleet positioning themselves upon the surface to seek out companies in need of assistance in gaining a foothold. Blackmane, once a mining colony, had been terra-formed to an industrial world with several metropolises once its mines ran dry.

As the Verbero landed, nearly the entire planet was immediately overwhelmed by sheer barbarism. In training, the Band of the Red neglected to pass over their style of honor to the Lord’s army, and the result was the literal rape of the planet’s settlements. The Verbero slayed any one they found, advanced a burning trail across the planet, and stood up the ruins to rape women and children. In the middle of it, Third and Fourth were forced to were forced to join, hoping in time they would find sanctuary in the Band.

Stories surfaced from the Einheit’s classified-files regarding Third and Fourth’s time in with the Verbero, but most are too horrific to repeat. But for the usual coded, exchanges I have had little contact with them, and as such, can neither confirm nor deny anything. Of Third and Fourth’s journey, I know only what I have told until their appointment within Sharok’s ranks. I do, however, know that no war before or after could damage a man as this one has undoubtedly damaged them.

Finally there is but one Einheit member whose introduction into the band I have yet to; my own. Elements of this story may appear plagued by embellishment. This is not true. I have no use for lies outside of the Einheit, and will impart the most detail admissible to the events of my recruitment in the Einheit, and training with the Band.

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.

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.

 

6.

The Grinding Halt

When First returned, Second and I met secretly with him. He detested our ideas; he was a Federation soldier through blood and soul. After hours of convincing, and more than a few blade-wielded threats, he listened to the story of Sir’s betrayal. At the idea that his beloved Federation would murder to cover its misdeeds, he relented.

Regardless of his loyalties, he admitted a serious reticence to the Federation and Mustela’s handling of things. “The Federation has too much power now,” he said. “Those in command are now hungry for more, unsure of how to handle the problems they’ve created. All of this began over a simple matter of coin, and now it has escalated to full, galactic war.”

Second reassured him, “And that was never what the Federation, nor the Council, were given power to do.”

It was true too, neither of these entities had been created to allow minor factions to cause chaos through-out the Galaxy. In point of fact, the opposite was their purpose– to swat down those that attempted to and preserve peace. Instead, The Federation’s politics had ensured their resources could one day lead the Mustela to victory. Unfortunately, war does not end with one side proclaiming victory. It takes years of devolution to skirmishes, hit-and-runs, and feuding systems before it fades for good. And that is if it does not flare up again. What we needed was an abrupt resolution, the grinding halt as it were.

We approached Sharok carefully, at a time when she would be most docile– just after a victory from some of First’s most recent intelligence. It seemed the most fitting; we had given her something and now she would honor us with the gratitude of an audience.

Second gave word to the guards to dismiss them. We waited for them to join the festivities down the hall from Sharok’s door, then entered single-file. Sharok sat in the middle of the room at her desk, her feet up, and a glass of liquor in her hand in triumph. Second and I waited beside one another as First closed the door behind us.

She sipped lightly, motioned us forward in good humor, “Either there is to be a coup, or the three of you have something to say.”

Second stepped forward to speak– she was, after all, Sharok’s right hand. She glanced at First, “Lock the door, please.”

“Something on your mind, Kadè?” Sharok asked with Second’s nickname.

“Yes, my friend, you need to know of a deception against you.” She paused for a reaction. Sharok gave only a sip from her drink. Second hung her head, as if ashamed. In truth, I believe she was preparing herself for battle. She spoke with that same gentle comfort I had heard in her quarters, “We three have been sent here.”

“Sent, Kadè? By who?” Sharok asked, her tone never changing.

“The Federation,” I replied.

Khie’Yen!”

In one lightning move, she had leapt and flipped through the air. Her glass hit Second’s face, her blades drawn at First and I. We anticipated her, dodged to either side. We each grabbed a wrist as she landed and disarmed her. She lifted a leg to kick First, jolted me sideways. Second was on her with a hard kick to the back of her knee. First and I followed through to force her arms ’round, and Second shoved her to the floor.

She pinned Sharok’s head against the ancient stone, whispered as a snake might, “If I had come to kill you, my friend, I would have done so whilst you slept. Your show of strength has been bested, and now you will adhere to the code, and listen.”

Sharok spit obscenities against the floor, but relented, “Then release me and speak.”

First and I retrieved Sharok’s blades from the floor. Second released her. They were both immediately up. A tense silence fell over the room. Sharok’s arms crossed at her chest. First and I stood firm with her blades in-hand, while Second began to tell of the Einheit; our elaborate hoaxes, our mission, our recruiters and their betrayal, and our present plans.

Sharok took it at first with the snarl that one who has been betrayed might, but it soon faltered. In truth, none of us had ever put the Band in any danger, and for her to believe otherwise was to dishonor us. Moreover, for her to believe the Band could truly be endangered dishonored its ways as a whole. It was with this creeping realization that she began to settle.

She sank against her desk, leaning with her arms crossed, to take things as a strategist might. Second emphasized that our orders were never to harm herself nor the Order, and that we had in-fact, brought about many more deaths to our own side in order to protect it.

She then relayed the perceived failure of the Einheit, “Only two of us returned with the training; Third and Fourth. Both are now imprisoned and under investigation. No-one within the Federation nor the Mustela has received instruction. If Sir’s betrayal is an inclination of things to come, none should ever receive it.”

Sharok asked a sensible question then, “What do you seek of me then?”

First relayed our feelings, “An end to this war, a just end.”

I added, “Where no side has any more advantage than the other. Until now you have not dealt in sides, only coin. But you have the resources to end this.”

“I did not start this war,” she reminded.

“No,” I agreed. “But your honor is at stake because of it.”

This gave her cause for alarm.

You see, when the Lord Verbero’s army began their hit-and-runs, her own people were aboard the ships to provide protection for the intervening trade-routes. While we in the Einheit knew they were unconnected with the attacks, the Galaxy at-large did not. The reason for their neutrality was even simpler than honor; Sharok took no-sides and her people followed her orders alone. It was the sole reason why much of the ground-fighting had ended in stalemate; the Band members refused to fight. However, only the most perceptive of Galactic citizens could ever recognize this. As such, the Band’s honor was at stake if Sharok did nothing.

At this she sensed that, though we needed her, she needed us more.

This revelation was clear in her face as she spoke with stratagem on her tongue, “In order to bring about our way of end to the war, several things need to happen. Each of the factions involved must become leaderless. This means Lord Verbero, the Mustela representative and The Federation’s Council must all be eliminated at once.” This was the simple part, we all knew, and she continued to this effect, “Lords and politicians sleep in grandiose rooms with high-walls and windows. It provides a false sense of security. These designs are perfect for well-trained Band assassins.”

We agreed. She immediately sent word for her best assassins to be assembled in her quarters. It became cramped in the room. I have no hesitation in admitting discomfort in a roomful of assassins. These men and women might as well have been eunuchs; everything but their eyes were shrouded by black cloth, the only color that of the Red Band on their biceps and the sheathed blades at their back.

Sharok spoke in great detail, but with paradoxically few words; the assassins would preform their jobs on a single night, synchronized across systems to cause a unanimous chaos among the three factions. None of them would recover fast enough for the next phase of our plan to begin. New lords and politicians could arise in time, but the rest of us would ensure their impotence.

I watched Gal-Net’s reporters, in terror, relay the mass of assassinations that had taken place. The remaining Einheit members sharpened our blades beside Sharok. As it stood, the Band had more than enough members to carry out the next phase with similar synchronicity. However, allowing them adequate time to return home seemed near-impossible.

We would render the largest fleets, and most dangerous ships, inert. Or, in other words, blow them out of the sky. It could be done, Sharok assured us, but it would have to be done right.

The Mustela were the easiest target with the fewest ships. At that they had but a handful of cruiser-class ships– mid-range escorts with fighter-defense weapons. The Verbero too had few cruisers, but countless frigates. These cargo haulers were no match for any skilled pilot in an attack-class fighter. Fortunately, the Band occupied most of them, and only a single command was needed for their crews to be eliminated and the ships commandeered.

The main brunt of the Band then, would have to target the Federation’s ships– invariably the largest concentration of cruiser-classes. The greatest obstacle would be the flagships. These were six times the size of a normal cruiser with the capacity of roughly a metropolitan city. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to destroy them along with the others, but it seemed a waste. Sharok and I agreed on this point, but First and Second questioned what to do with them.

We take three,” Sharok said with confidence. “All at once. Destroy the rest.”

“How do you suppose we do that?” First asked, dumbfounded.

“Sneak aboard the Bridge, seal it off, and vent the ship into space.”

It was cold, elegant, and simple. Getting aboard and taking the Bridge wouldn’t be difficult for any Band-member, let alone the four of us. Even venting the ship wasn’t too bad an idea.

Second spoke, “It seems a needless waste of life, my friend.”

Sharok revised her assessment, “Then seal the Bridge with a five minute-warning to the crew.”

It was settled. We had the plan in place. All that was left was to tie-up loose ends.

“What about territory?” Sharok asked.

“Leave it,” I said. “We don’t want control, just peace. If any side tries to chase us down, we take it piece-by-piece until they calm themselves.”

Sharok agreed.

For one, single moment, the stars were like fire-flies in our hands. We executed the plan with over a thousand Band-members. In one hour the Band of the Red altered the entire course of the Galaxy. Frigates were emptied of Verbero, their bodies torn asunder by blades while blood splattered their cock-pits. Cruisers detonated remotely from triggers in Band-members hands as they made for safety. Flagships burned over the skies of dozens of planets with nary a fighter launched. And in the chaos, Sharok and the three of us claimed our three ships.

We gave our five minutes of warning, then with reverie in our eyes, vented the ships. I stood a the large command console with that reverie, and entered in the course on the holographic display. Even at the jolt of hyper-jump, I stood firm, staring out on the emptiness before me. Each of us began the long series of jumps back home as whatever bodies did not escape were blown out into space to drift forevermore among the stars.

Such was the way it went; simple, elegant.

When the time came for Gal-Net’s daily reports, the death tolls were astounding, but the war was ended. A single act of defiant honor was carried out with professional skill, and moral conviction. And without the Council, the Mustela representative, or Lord Verbero to guide them, the three factions were in utter despair. With no fleets left to launch in anger or retaliation, the systems went silent. The Band lost not one person, and not a single soul was truly certain who had caused it, but the war came to a grinding halt.

The factions remain equally powerless even now, our flagships ready to smite any whom would attempt to replace war-fleets. We’ve since kept our eyes on them, but there is not much to see. No-one who might have truly wished revenge was left alive to seek it. There are still civilians, and their ships, disagreements and skirmishes, but there is also peace.

I suspect, and others agree, that this was a welcomed incident– a way out of the battle for those many draftees and would-be defectors. None of them wanted this war, and those that did now lay dead with their gold-laden pockets to weigh them down.

Sharok remains in power over the Band of the Red, its reach greater than ever, but she is no longer concerned with coin. We three, remaining members of the Einheit stand by her, policing the space around the Band’s planets with our flagships manned by skeleton crews.

Where we began seems so far away now, that it is almost anti-climactic in the eyes of one who has lived it. But this is simply my story– my ascension through The Band of The Red.

We have since taken all military ship-building plants in pieces aboard the flag ships, dividing them as best we can to set down to build our own fleet. Presently, Second and I share a special place with one another in this endeavor, while First heads up the creation of a new Galactic government. His virtues are true, as are the Band’s: No more will the want of a few coin-fixated men and women, determine the fate of billions. The Band of the Red will forever be in charge of the galaxy. With its resources, and code of honor from eons past, it will be a fine flag of peace for the masses; this in spite of its former, treacherous dealings. But at least now, the Galaxy’s people know to question their leadership.

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