Skywatch search and rescue protocol was relatively similar to marine recon in its meticulous emphasis on location and distance. After all, an effective search pattern was difficult if not impossible if location and distance weren’t agreed upon in advance. Commander Doverly had ordered her Nightwing SAR corvette to set down at Point Zero a little more than 40 clicks outside Mycenae Ceti Four’s second-largest settlement. Commander McGrath had her fighters land in a nearby wash where the combination of low-leaf foliage and geography made them difficult to see beyond a short distance.

Battle computers in both of the fighters were set for automatic dust-off in the event unauthorized personnel breached either of the Superjacks’ command zones. All Skywatch vessels were programmed to respond to the personal transponders of their pilots and crews and any other authorized member of a landing party. On this trip, even Sable, Sergeant Alexander’s K-9, had such a device. Any other obviously intelligent life form without such a transponder would trip the battle computers in the F-90 fighters.

During re-entry and the evasive atmospheric course to Point Zero, Doverly had also ordered the launch of three autonomous stealth look-down probes. One was programmed to track the landing party. One was programmed for a circular patrol pattern around the three spacecraft and the third was sent to a high altitude to keep an eye on the other two. Arianne, Sergeant Alexander’s reconnaissance computer, had been integrated with the Nightwing’s threat board in order to provide the landing party with fully capable navigational and ground combat coordination in addition to the rest of their defensive systems.

During the eight minutes following set-down of the Nightwing, Arianne used the integrated LIDAR capabilities of the three probes to produce a topographical three-dimensional map of the surrounding six hundred square miles. The land was measured to a depth of more than 200 feet to gather information on any subterranean features of interest. Up-to-the-second air temperature, pressure, wind direction and atmospheric element levels were broadcast to all the team’s ground stations at regular intervals along with any potential hostile ground targets.

Skywatch Criminal Investigation Command Master Sergeant Alicia Dupree was the only member of the group with official jurisdiction over civilians. She was a military police officer, and while she had no authority outside of Skywatch on worlds governed by the Core Council, on frontier planets without embassies, her law enforcement powers included jurisdiction over most humans including Alliance citizens. Theoretically, at least, humans on the surface of Mycenae Ceti Four were considered de facto Core Alliance citizens even if they were on a foreign planet. The problem, from a diplomatic standpoint, was that the separatist Sarn government on M-Ceti Four wasn’t recognized by the Core Worlds or the Sarn Star Empire. Any legal dispute would be difficult to untangle without conventional official diplomatic channels, so Skywatch, at least, sometimes left it up to SCIC to sort out.

“Good thing we didn’t run into that Kraken weapon on the way in,” Dupree said.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t show up while we’re down here,” Alexander added.

“Our high-altitude probe is integrated with the orbital network. If anything gets in range of the planet, we’ll be notified,” Doverly replied. “Okay, here’s the plan. We are a civilian archaeological team operating out of Saint Petersburg University on Core Five. Everyone has their Alliance electronic IDs and academic credentials. We heard Shea Baines was here and we would very much like to show her some of our research. ATMAS and pistols only. Keep your weapons inside your anti-reactive cases so they don’t trip the detectors.”

“Understood,” said combat nurse Ensign Julia Tyran as she checked her own gear. All the members of Doverly’s team were dressed in rugged civilian clothing. Insignia and designators were removed along with the Skywatch utility belts, backpacks and covers. Each member of the group was equipped with civilian equivalents to better blend in with what were almost certainly going to be crowds of Sarn, human and possibly Proximan citizens. The Sarn were also likely to be from at least two and possibly more hostile political factions.

“Whatever you do, don’t say or imply anything that takes sides when it comes to the dispute here. If asked, you never heard of it. If pressed, you’re just a doctor or a teacher and you’re looking for indigenous relics to take back to the museum on campus, affirmative?”

The last of the preparations looked to be complete. “Commander McGrath, you will lead Beta Team. I’ll take Alpha Team. I want you and your group to move to the northern part of the settlement and see if you can gather any information from representatives of the local government. There are rumors at least one or two members of each local council are appointed from non-Sarn races. Start with them. My team will investigate the air terminal. If my guess is correct, someone will remember Shea and her group traveling to or from this part of the region recently. Perhaps we can use that information to track her down first.”

“What kind of entourage does she normally travel with?” Ensign Ahearn asked.

“There should be at least four bodyguards from the Special Services Division,” Dupree replied. “They’re well trained and capable, but if there’s a concerted effort to go after her and they have the manpower and the element of surprise, four bodies might not be enough, even if they are well-trained.”

“My standing order here is for all of you to presume the worst. I want us all operating under the assumption there is a concerted effort to go after her, and I want everyone frosty and at the top of their game.” The look on Annora’s face left no room for misinterpretation. “If something goes off down here, we’re it. There’s no reinforcements. I’m fairly certain none of you wants to be the reason Captain Hunter has to break the bad news to the president of the Core Alliance. Understood?”

There was general nodding and agreement.

Doverly activated her TK10 and holstered it. “Then let’s move out.”

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