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Star-Crossed

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“Please state your identification number.” 

The instruction emanated from the pedestal to Blake’s left, the only landmark to be spoken of in the circular room with screens covering every wall.

“Badge one-six-five-eight.”  

As she spoke, the numbers appeared on the screens in front of her, illuminating the room in the process.  The intelligence system accepted the number, took a facial scan, and matched both to her record before displaying the details for her to see.

“Welcome, Lieutenant,” the voice greeted her.  “You’ll be connected to the meeting shortly.”

Once her badge disappeared and the room fell silent, she took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and tried not to show her nerves.  But she had every reason to be nervous.  Her commanding officers had deemed her uniquely suited for this mission, and it was an important one.  After months of rigorous training and knowledge tests, the time had finally arrived.  All she needed was Command’s final blessing, and she would be on her way.

She was ready - she knew it.  The only question was...would they see it too?  As the screens flickered to life, she took a deep breath and prepared herself for that answer.

Along the bottom of each panel appeared a name, location, and title - all generals, the highest-ranking members of the Intergalactic Space Alliance.  Their images appeared above their names moments later, comprising an assortment of races from across the galaxy.

And they were all looking at her.

“Lieutenant,” one of them began, drawing her attention to the right.  “We’ve been informed that you’ve completed your training and are ready to embark upon your mission.”

“Yes, sir.”  She spoke clearly and nodded crisply, which she hoped impressed upon them that she was truly ready.  

“And you’re prepared to accept this assignment?” another voice asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Blake replied, nodding to the woman on her left.  “I’m ready and willing to accept this mission.”

“Please re-state the objective.”

“Infiltrate the terrorist group known as the Blackguards,” she said in one breath.  “Become one of them, gain their trust, and learn how they operate.  Ultimately, collect enough evidence to bring their leaders to justice and enough knowledge to prevent rival groups from emerging.”

Those goals had been hammered into her head over the last few months, making them easy to recite on a moment’s notice.  But, as her trainers constantly reminded her, the hardest part wouldn’t be remembering what she was there for.

“Good,” one of the generals murmured with a tilt of his chin.  “We need to know what they’re doing and why.” 

“Their actions are disrupting the system,” another added.  “Diplomats don’t feel safe traveling alone.  Many request entire armadas to accompany them, destroying their freedom of movement and stirring unease within governments.”

“Without repercussions, their actions grow more brazen…”

“Lieutenant,” someone said, calling Blake’s gaze to the left.  “We expect you to uphold ISA’s standards of integrity, but it’s paramount that you gain their trust.  Do whatever it takes to maintain your cover until you’re confident that your mission is complete - do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” she answered with a firm nod.  She knew what he meant, and she knew what was expected of her.  These missions weren’t taken lightly, and the crimes she might witness or be forced to participate in could go against the fabric of her moral being.  All for the greater good, all to save lives.  

“It’s a fine line to walk...” someone mused.  

“Your mission comes first,” another added.  “No matter what, you mustn’t lose sight of your goal.”

“By learning what’s made them successful, we can prevent future groups from following their example -”

“And make our planets safer.”

“Most importantly,” one of the leaders said while meeting Blake’s gaze. “Taking down the Blackguards will serve as notice to the rest of the system.  Their behavior can’t and won’t be tolerated by planets aligned under ISA order.”

With each subsequent comment, Blake nodded.  She agreed with all of it.  If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be here.  She wouldn’t have volunteered to risk her life for this goal.

“Are we in agreement?” someone to the far right finally asked, and Blake held her breath in the moment of stillness that followed.

“Yes,” the general at the very end of the line said.

“Yes,” the woman to his right added.  The word quickly moved through the entire line of commanders, each of them approving the mission one last time.

“All in agreement,” the giant man in front of Blake said before meeting her gaze with a stern one of his own.  “We’re counting on you, Lieutenant.  Good luck.”

“I won’t let you down.”  

After giving a half bow to the men and women tasked with keeping ISA’s many planets safe, she turned and left the room behind.  How she felt right now was impossible to describe, but she kept her head held high while walking into the hall and nodding to the Alliance agent waiting to meet with Command next.

They agreed.  Her training was over.  Her first mission had just begun.  Her success or failure would have a profound impact on the future of ISA, its allied planets, and every living being she’d sworn to protect.  

She couldn’t fail.

Only steps from the room, a shadow appeared by her elbow and fell into step by her side.

“Are you ready?” Sun asked while they headed towards her room.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”  

From what she’d been told, no amount of training could prepare her for what came next.  She would be thrown into a world where she would either adapt or die.  Where she would be forced to play her role to perfection or die.  Where any mistake could result in death - if not hers, then someone else’s.

“I can’t believe you’re going undercover...”  

“Someone had to do it.”

“And they picked the best.”

Blake wouldn’t call herself the best, but she shook her head and didn’t argue.  What made her perfect for this mission wasn’t her skill - it was her anonymity.  Her lack of experience meant few records of her involvement with the Alliance, and even fewer publicly available ones.  That limited past was easily erased and replaced by something much more sordid.  

Now, her greatest challenge would be living up to the history created for her.  Physically, she could accomplish everything on her list of known crimes.  Mentally...she would learn on the fly.

“Man...things were so easy in training, weren’t they?”  After following Blake into her room, Sun hopped up onto what used to be her bunk, which would be reassigned to another agent later today.  “All we had to do was run faster, do push-ups faster, puke on our shoes faster…”

“Speak for yourself.”  Most of her belongings had already been sealed for long-term storage, leaving her with only a small travel bag to sling over her shoulder before smiling at Sun.  “I never threw up.”

“Right, right.  How could I forget?  You only remind me all the time.”

“Because you bring up puking all the time.”  Hearing that statement out loud, she shook her head and left the room before she dwelled too much on the familiarity being left behind.  “Why is that?”

“It’s my schtick!”

“What?”  She gave him a curious look before nodding to a pair of officers passing by.  She nudged Sun so he did the same, preventing him from committing yet another breach of conduct.

“My schtick!” he said after sending the officers a quick salute.  “You know - some guys have sports.  Some have intelligence or whatever.  I have throwing up and devilishly-good looks.”

When he swept a hand through his perpetually-windswept hair, she laughed and lightly shoved his shoulder.

“No wonder you’re eternally single.”

“Hey!  You know we haven’t had any time for relationships.  Other than the...short variety...”

Between training and being immediately thrown into active duty, he was right.  The Alliance recruitment process didn’t leave time for pursuing anything outside of serving one of the largest policing bodies in the universe.  Few were accepted, even fewer made it through basic training.  The ones who did were the most skilled and most dedicated to ISA’s mission - keeping the peace and protecting the Alliance at all costs.

“And you really won’t have time for a relationship now,” Sun added with a chuckle.  “I mean, maybe you’ll have time, but the pickings will be...slim.”

Even though Blake rolled her eyes, she was grateful for his banter.  It distracted her from the reality that soon she would leave the planet that had been her home for the last couple of years.  Not only was she losing that sense of familiarity and comfort, but she had no idea when she would return, if ever.  And...she would be on her own.

While she had always been more of a loner, she had grown accustomed to having Alliance agents beside her at all times.  Most of them she could live without, but Sun...

“What’d Command say?” he asked, drawing her away from that thought as they walked through a more-crowded area of base.  

“Typical stuff.  ‘Do your best,’ ‘don’t fail,’ ‘try not to die.’”

“That last one’s pretty important,” he mused before looking around the towering atrium serving as the hub of this ISA command center.  “Where’re we going?”

“To pick up my gear from the lab.”  Heading that direction, she nodded to two more officers and smiled when Sun did the same without prompting.

“You’ll have to behave yourself while I’m gone.”  When he scoffed at the response, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.  “What?”

I’m the one who has to behave?” he said before shaking his head.  “Please.  I’ll get in less trouble without you here.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“We both know you have a bit of a problem with authority...” 

“I do not.”  When his brow rose, she sighed and shook her head.  “I only have an issue when they’re wrong.”

“Our supervisors must be wrong a lot…”

“They are.”  When he laughed at the blunt response, she smiled.  “You know it’s true.  I don’t know how some of them keep their jobs.”

“Eh...at least they’ve forgiven you.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have given you this mission.”

“That, or this is my punishment and we just don’t realize it.”

“Could be!” he replied with another laugh.  “But that would suck…”

“It would.”  

Opening the door to the technology lab, she motioned Sun in first before walking into the small, cluttered room.  For an institution tasked with protecting dozens of planets and the space between, ISA’s tech department was always a mess.  Somehow, they made it work, but a little organization wouldn’t hurt.  

“Hey Joren,” she greeted their resident expert, a Microre from Vyria-2 with a propensity for accidentally shocking people when he got excited.

“Lieutenant.”  Pushing away whatever he’d been working on, he stood and shook her hand - thankfully, no shock involved this time.  “You’re off?”

“Just got final approval,” she replied while he and Sun exchanged handshakes, which Sun flinched away from.  “I’m picking up whatever they’re sending with me.”

“Ah, your package of goodies.  I got them right here.  Somewhere...”

While Joren rummaged around the disorganized space, Blake glanced at Sun and held back a smile when he inconspicuously shook his hand.  Apparently, shaking Joren’s hand first had been the right decision; the last thing she needed was for her fingers to tingle for the rest of the day.

“Ah.”  Finally finding what he was searching for, Joren pulled a small box from one of the shelves and set it on the counter.  Blake’s name was written across the top, and he quickly scanned his badge to unlock and remove the lid.

“Alright, we set you up with a standard kit,” he explained while removing the first item from the box.  “Standard comm - pre-loaded with some messages between you and your ‘ex-colleagues’ and equipped with an emergency beacon should the shit hit the fan.  Should be pretty unhackable.” 

Should be?”  Accepting the small, silver device that fit easily within the palm of her hand, she clicked it on and off before slipping it into her pocket.

“You never know,” he replied with a shrug.  “If someone got their hands on it, they might be able to break it.  But I don’t think so.”

“Reassuring,” she mumbled before motioning for him to carry on.  

“Camera.”  Next, he held up a thin device that looked like an enlarged hairpin.  Definitely easy to conceal.  “And some empty drives for you,” he added while spreading a few microdrives on the counter.  “Or mostly empty.  I threw a few docs and photos on them to make ‘em look real.” 

“Any you-know-whats on there?” Sun asked, and Blake rolled her eyes while accepting the camera and drives.

“If I find pictures of naked women on these, I’m bringing the entire Blackguard back here to kick your asses.”

When both of them laughed at the threat, she narrowed her eyes.  She wouldn’t put it past either of them to pull a prank like that, which meant she needed to check those photos sooner rather than later.

“Best part,” Joren continued while removing a phaser from the box and handing it to her.  “Untagged but works like a dream.” 

After giving the weapon a quick once-over, she nodded and stuck it in the holster at her side. 

“And?” she prodded, only to sigh when Joren gave her a blank look.  “Come on - I’m not leaving without a blade.” 

As soon as he smiled, she realized he was only pretending to send her off without her favorite form of protection.

“Got a nice one for ya,” he said while pulling a combat knife from the box and sliding it across the counter to her.  

Picking it up, she held it in the palm of her hand to get a feel for the weight.  A good knife, based on her personal preferences, distributed the weight equally from tip to heel.  And this was a good knife.

“Oh.”  Spotting symbols along the bottom of the hilt, she flipped it over to take a better look.  “Nilivian too.  Perfect.”

“Is it?” Joren asked while Sun chuckled and poke her in the side.

“Showing off your language skills again,” he teased.

“You could’ve learned too.”

“Please.  I’m not smart enough for that.”

Rather than argue the obvious, she shrugged and smiled when he laughed.  Satisfied with her means of protection, she spun the knife in her hand before slipping it into the sheath Joren set on the counter.  She would have preferred to bring her own, but Command insisted that everything she took with her be new, down to her knife.  

“Last but not least.”  

When Joren set a series of cards on the table, Blake scooped them up and flipped through them one-by-one.  Recalling her training, she read the names and made sure each means of identification matched her aliases.  Once she confirmed that the cards checked out, she slipped them into her pocket with a nod.

“How many credits do I have?” 

“Little over seventy thousand.  So don’t go crazy, but that should be plenty to do whatever you need to do.”

With another nod, she stored the number away in case she needed it.  She didn’t plan any big purchases, but seventy thousand credits meant she didn’t need to worry about money.  The value also matched what someone with her history should have accumulated by now.

“Is that it?” she asked, and Joren showed her the now-empty box.  “Alright,” she said before giving him a small smile.  “Thanks, Joren.”

“Anytime.  Good luck out there!”

Accepting the encouragement with a small wave, she headed back into the hall with Sun on her heels.

“If you need anything else, I’m sure they can get it to you,” he said while following her away from the lab.

“Don’t think I’ll need anything else.”  

With her gear in hand, her time on base was officially over.  Her next destination took her far from this world...and far from Sun.  As they neared the ship port and his pace slowed, she realized that the inevitable conversation had finally arrived.  After avoiding the topic for months now, they had to say goodbye.

“Will you be alright?” she asked, glancing his way.

“Me?” he replied before giving a forced scoff.  “Of course.  I’m an Alliance lieutenant!  I’m fine at all times, really.”

Reaching the doors leading to the giant concrete pad used by the ships taking off and landing at base, she turned around and waited for him to lose the false bravado.  He always did, eventually, because he knew it didn’t work with her.

“I’ll be fine…” he added a little less assuredly.  “Just...don’t turn on me, ok?”

“Sun…”

“You know it happens.”

“I know, but that won’t be me.”  If that was his biggest worry, it wouldn’t come to pass.  No matter what the Blackguards subjected her to, she wouldn’t lose sight of who she was and who she wanted to be.  “Hey,” she added, lightly tapping his shoulder.  “You’re my closest friend, ok?  No matter what.”

He was still worried - whether about the possibility of her switching sides or for her general wellbeing, she wasn’t sure - but eventually nodded and attempted a feeble smile.

“Don’t do anything stupid, ok?”  

“You act like I’ll be out there looking for trouble.”

“I know you won’t, but...you know trouble finds you.”

As her training partner for the past few years, he knew her better than most.  And his worry did nothing to ease her budding nerves.

“And I can take care of myself,” she assured him and, when he reluctantly accepted the words, she pulled him into a hug.  

Where she was headed, she wouldn’t have a source of friendship or comfort like him.  She would miss that the most, but as long as she remained focused on her mission...she would make it through.  She didn’t have another option.

“I’ll be careful,” she added while moving away and patting his shoulders.  “But if I need help, I know you’ll warp in with the cavalry.”

“You know it,” he replied with a smile that disappeared when the doors slid open to admit several pilots.  “Guess you should get going…” he mumbled, running a hand through his hair and taking a small step away.

“I should…”

“Ok, then uh, I’m...I’m just gonna watch from here.”  

When he cleared his throat and motioned towards the door, Blake gave him one last hug - whether more for herself or him, she wasn’t sure.

“I’ll miss you too,” she said before pulling away.  Spotting the tears in his eyes, which made her feel like crying too, she squeezed his shoulders and backed away.  “I’ll message when I can.”  

With a wave and wavering smile, she turned around and walked outside.  Hearing the doors close behind her, she looked up at the sky, took a deep breath, and kept walking.  

Whether or not she was ready didn’t matter anymore; the time had come.  The Blackguards had terrorized the solar system for a long time, but their recent increase in violence had pushed them from constant nuisance to a legitimate threat.  They were no longer ‘one of’ the many mercenary groups traveling amongst the stars - they were the mercenary group.  They were consolidating power.  They were wiping out or demanding allegiance from rival groups.  If there was a war amongst the stars, they were winning.  

Their growing wealth and power demanded a response.  Tracking them down and wiping them out was a possibility, but ISA wanted to know how they had survived - and thrived - for so long.  Plenty of gangs, pirates, and mercenaries traveled the not-so-friendly universe.  What made the Blackguards different?  Blake’s job was to find out.

“Lieutenant,” one of the port officers greeted her before motioning to his left.  “This one’s for you.”

The small ship was nothing special but, most importantly, unmarked.  The vibrant blue and white of the Intergalactic Space Alliance was nowhere to be found.  Instead, the dull metal exterior suggested better days had long since passed; hopefully, not an allegory for her life.

“Thank you.”  

When he lowered the entrance ramp for her, she gave him an appreciative nod and headed aboard.

“Good luck,” he added as the ramp closed behind her, sealing her into the ship alone.

From here on out, the only person she could rely on was herself.  Alliance would try to help if needed, but there was no guarantee they could reach her fast enough.  It was just her, her training, this ship, and the bag of supplies she brought with her.

After storing her belongings in one of the cargo containers, she moved to the front of the ship and sat in the pilot’s seat.  Once there, she powered up the engines and ran through her mental checklist prior to takeoff.  The familiarity of the process calmed her, but her hands fumbled with the controls as her nerves grew.  It wasn’t long before the engine hummed and the thrusters reached the edge of liftoff, but she took a deep breath before radioing the control tower.

“This is officer one-six-five-eight,” she said while double-checking the ship’s status.  “Requesting permission to launch.”

“Officer one-six-five-eight,” a voice replied to her.  “You’re clear for launch.  Good luck.”

With permission granted, she began the launch sequence and leaned back in her seat when the thrusters sprang to life.  

“Let’s go find some bad guys…” she mumbled as the rockets roared to life.  The next second, the ship lifted off and shot towards the atmosphere.