The Nimrods and the Starcluster

CHAPTER ONE – A Missing AO

Gemix City – Pavilion State
Elite Command Centre (ECC)

 The EV shut swiftly behind the female operative as she stepped decisively out of the sleek, tubular elevate and, into the stark white corridor that led to her office. Commander Kathleen Keila undeniably unimpressed at being planet bound again. Given a choice, she would choose the wide-open freedom that space and interplanetary travel offered anytime. For her, it did not get any better than that. Nevertheless, she and her team were answerable to the Elite and, they had summoned the special force operatives back to Lokteh and back to the Elite Command Centre much to the squad’s intense dislike.

  The Nimrod team had captured and put an end to a black marketeer on Tradon, a dangerous, opportunistic man called Berentz. They should have stayed and persisted with the cleanup. Tradon continued to smolder and fester; the operatives had only touched the surface. Unfortunately, here they now were, back at Elite headquarters, a multibuild designed specifically to project a sanitary, efficient environment to its employees and visitors. In reality, a shady representation of impeccable flawlessness and, uncompromising order. Considered a major plus in your career if you worked at the ECC, there were more than a few egos traversing these floors. This Commander on the other hand, had no illusions about the Elite Command Centre, its creators or indeed some of its occupants. Peculiarly but strangely expected, firm boot imprints left behind, disappeared as swiftly as they had been made. Small rows of lights ran ankle height along the corridor beaming powerfully up the walls like tiny beacons. The light bounced off the ceiling and reflected back forcing her eyes to adjust to the artificial glare that pervaded intrusively into ones’ optic nerves.

  A few more turns and Kathleen reached her outer office. Her reflection caught in a pair of shimmering glass doors. Tall, dark haired and athletic, an olive-skinned woman in a black uniform, captured for a split second in a seemingly perfect photographic moment. As she neared closer, the doors reacted instantaneously, sliding silently and smoothly into the shiny white walls, the image immediately vanquished. Entering the outer office, she glanced at the unoccupied console with some surprise. Mega, Kathleen’s Assistant Operator visibly not at his station at this hour as expected. She found that odd and then recalled it was now the second day his workstation had been unattended. Highly unusual, she made a mental note to contact him.

  When Kathleen operated off world, Mega remained and, assigned to other Commanders. The Assistant Operator handled their duties efficiently, with a hidden reluctance. Mega viewed Commander Kathleen Keila a highly, unique individual, there was no comparison. It had been a week and Mega had settled back into office domesticity with the Commander, bestowing on her, his usual dedication and aplomb. His non-attendance accordingly, an uncharacteristic absence.

  A yellow circular panel the size of a large dinner plate stood out conspicuously on the wall of the Commander’s office. The panel receded as she approached. Kathleen placed her right hand on a metal plate for DNA analysis, cold to the touch. As the scan passed under her palm, it produced a warm sensation. Upon completion, the panel returned to its original position. A gridded   laser  scanned her face followed by a  monotone voice exclaiming dully, “Identification confirmed, access granted Commander Keila.”

  As the voice faded, a door to her left slid open. Her inner office bathed in darkness. The Commander passed through the open doorway setting off movement sensors. Ceiling lights lit up, cheerfully generating life to the room. In addition, tiny fibre optics displayed hidden voice activated panels within the walls. Thankfully, unlike their sister lights in the corridor, these lights were of a lower brilliance and therefore less pervasive. The expanse of space seemed to grow as Kathleen reached her desk. A white metallic counter with a console and a chair offered a no frills, businesslike atmosphere. This like the outer office had little ambience to speak of. The chair however, not your average Elite Centre allocation. Kathleen grasped the leather seat firmly, swung it around and sat down.

  The black chair bore a tint of dark red that striped almost undetected throughout its well-built frame. Made of the purest, luxurious Goltarian leather specially imported from Goltar, another trade planet. A generous and uncommon endowment from the Elite, a reward for a succession of completed and successful assignments. Being in debt to the Company not where she craved to be, however, she had to admit the chair presented spectacularly. Soft, comfortable and well deserved. It squeaked noisily as her body moved within the seat, as only worn leather can do. She swivelled around facing the wall behind her.

  “Beverage.” She ordered. A voice-activated panel within the wall slid up revealing a small cubicle.

  To say the office portrayed minimalism an overstatement in itself. Each office designed the same, a simple case of mass repetition.

  “Casarian coffee, black.” Ordered Kathleen. She desired a caffeine hit badly and spicy Casarian coffee the perfect answer to that. She eyed the cubicle with some impatience. Reps were fast but at times not fast enough. Although, the food and libation not always a gourmet delight, availability proved useful, one might as well benefit from it. The only other real problem with a replicator, the device had a limited period of usage and needed constant replacement. Naturally, it all depended on the size of the unit and the program within it. For the moment, however, the Commander’s worked like a charm. Gratefully, within seconds, a low fricative sound announced the beverage had arrived. A steaming cup of black, rich spicy caffeine loaded Casarian coffee, popped up from the centre of the unit. Kathleen reached out and plucked the small cup from the replicator recess. The panel closed immediately. She returned the chair to its original position, relaxed and crossed her long legs in front of her.

  “OB,” she instructed, sipping the coffee, “Open.”

  For once, the simulated coffee had a pleasing effect on Kathleen and she settled back more comfortably in the chair. A thin, translucent ice blue screen slid down the bare white wall opposite. The Elite icon of a broad hand firmly holding a phaser called an ordy, a derivative of ordnance. The weapon appeared defiantly in the middle of the screen. This military styled image appeared on all operating boards. It symbolised power and allegiance, deliberate in its design, a warning to anyone who had ideas of being anti-establishment.

  “Good morning Commander Keila,” drawled the artificial voice of the operating board.

  “Messages?” She prompted, not wasting a human greeting on the manufactured apparatus.

  “Yes Commander,” the operating board replied efficiently. “Your first message received at 06:00am from Commander Tighe, there is a meeting scheduled for 11:00am today. Commander Keila your presence is required as a top priority.” The OB advised. Kathleen let out a small grunt. She and her team had debriefed to some insignificant minion of the Elite two weeks ago, and then allocated one week of R and R. She recalled the sparkling  waters  of Sersia Bay  and  the  ancient  bohemian décor that had enticed her there, being back on the planet had some good points, but a meeting with Tighe definitely not one of them. There had been no direct communication from her superiors or any interest shown on their latest escapade on Tradon. She was more than dissatisfied, it had been a week since Kathleen and her team had arrived back in the Pavilion State and, there still had been no indication of a new assignment from the Elite.

  Her annoyance had not diminished. Tighe’s meeting perhaps, would provide an answer and, why the recall back to Lokteh. Her team logically expecting a plausible new assignment. She wondered however, that Tighe had used his position to summon them back to the home planet, having no specific reason other than to prove to Kathleen that he had the power to mess her about.

  Extremely unprofessional, personally motivated and typically Tighe, it had happened before. The man had an unusual drive in causing problems for Kathleen and her team. This latest smuggling operation originally designated as an ostensibly, negligible mission, expected to conclude in two months was nevertheless yanked from them.

  Although Berentz, their main target now successfully captured and incarcerated by the team, Kathleen had seen a necessity for her and the Nimrod operatives to remain on Tradon. Their request denied, they had dutifully returned to Lokteh.

  Upon their return and their merger back with the planet’s population, the team had become aware of rumours of an anti-elite rebel conspiracy. That had only been mostly bar talk they had heard in around the more notorious parts of the Pavilion State, namely its infamous city Be-zac. Not the kind of place one would like to frequent but it had its rough charms for some.

  The Commander largely more interested in facts than gossip, on the other hand, she surmised it worthy to keep one’s eyes and ears open. The sound of the operating board prattling on made her realise she had stopped listening. Kathleen ordered the OB  to go back to the end of Tighe’s message. It continued to dispense various messages, a mixture of boring and irrelevant data that Mega could handle. Kathleen’s thoughts once more returning to her AWOL Assistant Operator.

  She finished the beverage and placed the cup into a metal bin to her left, vaporising it in an instant. As she stood up, she rubbed the back of her neck, being inactive having its negative effect. The Commander wandered over to the large, oval inset windows of her office, her face a mask of concentration. Specially made, layered tempered glass used in all multibuilds hid the noise and vibration of the high winds outside. Inside her office, it was cool and quiet.

  An occasional shadowy flash would strike the glass as a security skivvy one of many, speedily wound its way through the controlled maze of white and grey structures. Pedestro trains streamed in and around the high rises with only a number of skivvies and other similar craft visible. Near the ECC, a cautionary invisible line kept air traffic movement to a minimum.

  Krezac’s airway in the distance presenting the only other break in a scene governed by these multibuilds and, the snakelike tubular pedestro transports. Kathleen could just make out a colourful assortment of sky vehicles as they buzzed each other jostling for right of way. She re-focused and turned her attention back to the communication board.

  “Has Mega called in?” Kathleen questioned.

  “No.” It replied without emotion.

  “Contact Mega on his home line,” she instructed.

  A meeting with Tighe, a missing AO definitely not a great way to start the day.

  “Commander Keila, Assistant Operator Mega’s line is not responding,” interrupted the operating board.

  “What do you mean not responding?” Kathleen asked thoroughly irritated by the OB’s monotonous tone. “Is it off-line or is it damaged?” She pressed impatiently returning to her chair.

  “It  appears  to  be out  of  order  Commander;  the  data I am receiving indicates the connection is damaged.” The operating board answered. Finally, a straight answer. Kathleen decided to go out, her commband read 07:36am plenty of time to check on Mega and get back in time for Tighe’s meeting. Kathleen closed down the communication board. She launched herself out of the chair and exited the office, the sensor lights going out one by one, returning the office once again to darkness and obscurity.

  A lack of personnel on Kathleen’s floor, coupled with the early hour meant the corridor had been devoid of movement. Reaching the EVs, Kathleen waved a hand in front of one of the icons. Nobody touched anything where public traffic occurred in this building. Unfortunately, in the poorer regions of Lokteh operating systems were still not as advanced. This lack of advancement perpetrated disease according to the Elite.

  The truth; no-one cared enough to offer these areas any improvement. Out of sight, out of mind. Centuries on nothing had changed, the rich got richer and, the poor remained poor.

The EV hummed into place and as Kathleen entered the cubicle, the inbuilt audio burbled away with company propaganda. The ride swift, thankful she had requested express. It came to a smooth halt announcing her arrival in the foyer.

  The lobby of the Elite Command Centre extremely sizeable. The expanse of steel and glass dwarfed its inhabitants. From the floors above, personnel scurried about like pockets of tiny ants. The foyer, installed with a magnificent, massive glass dome ceiling. It hung above the floor like a giant crystal lens. Kathleen glanced upward. The morning sunlight filtered through from the outside, hitting the glass and splashing a decorative pattern all over the walls and floor. To this Senior Operative it represented yet another costly example of the Elite wasting more of the population’s credits.

  One day they would become accountable  for  their  continued extravagance and arrogance. She felt sure time was coming for a massive change of direction for the Elite. The Nimrod Commander  walked  through  the  mass of  arriving  uniformed employees reaching the entrance to a wide cavernous tunnel complete with a travelator that led outside. Kathleen, oblivious to the stares she invoked from men and woman alike. This female Commander a walking advertisement for the lineage of an exceptional gene pool that, coupled with the special force uniform she wore presented those who saw her with a mixture of captivating appeal and wary apprehension. When she moved, people moved too, out of her way.

  As Kathleen emerged, Lokteh’s sun nipped brightly, she pulled out a pair of black trimmed shadlars. They buzzed lightly as they fitted the contours of her face, automatically re-adjusting their filters to suit Lokteh’s current UV and light rating. Satisfied, she made her way to the closest city pedestro-tube.

  Another lengthy travelator took her to the underground station now filled with people going about their business. Kathleen forced her way through the crowd as the wide, tubular shaped transport glided virtually noiselessly into the station, coming to a halt. The glass doors of each compartment rolled back simultaneously as a bright yellow light filled each one. A sign for passengers inside to exit. As the yellow light morphed into green, people from the platform began to enter the compartments.

  A few minutes were allotted for transfers in and out. This colour-coded system ensured a speedy safe transfer of passengers. An efficient controlled pedestro transport system. In travelling within the pedestro, passengers were offered two choices either a seat, or a pillar, whichever was available.

  Kathleen stepped into the nearest compartment, the seats filled; she stepped back into a pillar a clear rigid body mould fixture that ran down the centre. Two rows of centre pillars existed back-to-back in each compartment. Her forearms rested on the automated supports that activated upward shortly after access. The arms of a pillar automatically dropped down at each station unless, you pushed a ‘stay on board’ button advising your wish to continue with the transport. People with children used rear

compartments, seats only.

  Unfortunately, if a seat or pillar were unavailable then one had to hang onto any appendage they could find. A handrail, a square bar on each end of the pillars at least, offered something to hold onto for excess passengers. Chaotic excess in reality, had never been a factor in the pedestro’s overall design.

  The passengers looked strange as the pale green light enveloped them. Within minutes, a flood of red light covered the platform. The red glow on the platform signified the doors were about to close and departure from the station was imminent. An automated voice would declare no-one could enter or leave during the red phase. As the glass roller doors closed and normal lighting again filled the compartments, the pedestro moved off from the station. Located away from the entrances, seated passengers faced inward toward the row of pillars in the centre. A short, stubby man in a tasteless blue imitation leather jacket smilingly offered to swap his seat for her pillar. Kathleen declined with a cursory shake of her head. The man could not see her eyes through the shadlars she still wore. He felt at once intimidated, his face dropped, and he buried himself back into the small tablet he had been using.

  Inside the pedestro, the glass windows lit up entertaining passengers with running Elite recruitment imagery and weird holiday destination advertisements. Locked in, people viewed the Elite adverts with dull uninterested, blank expressions.

  The transport slowly, snaked its way efficiently and smoothly to the next stop. A woman and a man sat nearby, embedded in a deep argument. The man apparently overwhelmed at the Commander’s statuesque presence, appeared to be apologizing profusely for his attraction.

  The woman scowled in Kathleen’s direction. Ten minutes in, the silver framed,  pedestro-tube slid into the  next  station  and the compartments again filled with a yellow hue as the transport came to a stop. The roller doors opened promptly. As the  arms dropped  on Kathleen’s  pillar, she stepped out,  forcing her way past the still bickering couple and headed toward the parking bay where she had left her transport.

  An exit travelator led to a large bay of vertically held rotating skivvys. Kathleen turned her wrist and passed her commband across the face of the tall solitary parking kiosk. A purple light confirmed recognition. She looked up as a drop down skivvy elevate nearby activated, delivering her vehicle.

  It transitioned the craft’s positioning from vertical to horizontal and pushed the vehicle out. Kathleen activated the door and it opened upward, she climbed into the VQAD. Neither the latest skivvy, nor the most expensive but compact, fast and comfortable enough, hence the full description Vehicle – Quaint Addition.

  “Good morning Commander Keila,” greeted the onboard Navcom. “Automatic or manual?” It enquired.

 “Auto,” Kathleen replied. “Destination Mega’s residence and take the Delta Airway.” She added hurriedly.

  The seat closed perfunctorily around her body for extra security and comfort. The skivvy hovered a few inches above the tunnel causeway moving off at a fast pace integrating whilst avoiding, rapidly advancing subway traffic. The VQAD sped down the tunnel suddenly surging out into the sunshine rising higher and higher joining a steady stream of air traffic. Kathleen reactivated her OB. It responded quickly.

  “Yes Commander Keila?” The OB answered.

  “Have you heard from Mega?” She asked re-adjusting the audio.

  “No Commander that line is still damaged,” the OB replied.

  Kathleen ended the communication. Within thirty-five minutes, she had arrived at her destination, the small craft sliding sideways into the parking bay, touching down gently. The door of the skivvy opened upward, she climbed out removing her shadlars and tucking them in the left thigh pocket of her pants.

   Kathleen  glanced  around  at the double-parking bay, only one skivvy.  A    red  battered   and  junky  looking  vehicle,   Mega’s. She strolled around the craft examining it, apart from its sorry appearance; she could find nothing troublesome there. Kathleen made her way to the entrance of Mega’s apartment. Deklar Apartments where Mega lived considered a small multibuild of fifty levels. His apartment situated on the forty-sixth floor. Kathleen had visited there on a number of occasions. The split-level apartment consisted of a small kitchenette and living area downstairs, one bedroom and one-bathroom upstairs. The only window in the apartment was located in the kitchenette. Mega had installed Kathleen’s voice and face on his crystal cam and personal operating board should she need to access him at any time.

  The sliding door stood in a dark alcove, garishly overdone with a surrounding framework of thick, beveled glass paneling on both sides. A small ocular, security device mounted directly above the doorway looked down on the Commander. Another security camera looked toward the parking bay. Kathleen waved her hand in front of the visitor pane. There was no response from inside. She resorted to manual means and knocked loudly, that too proved unproductive. Pulling herself up, the Commander checked the eye of the security device above the doorway. The crystal inside also showing no sign of life. Equally, the door on examination appeared to have suffered slight damage. Upon closer inspection, she noticed significant burn marks around the keypad and it crumbled as her finger touched it. As she bent down to examine the damage more closely the door unexpectantly started to slide open.

  Kathleen promptly stood up unclipping her ordy from its holster on her right thigh, calmly setting it for maximum stun. Carefully she began sliding the door open further with her right boot, her right shoulder hard against the corner of the doorway.