TOUCH OF CELESTIAL TEMPER – Act II
“And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod / The high unsurpassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
-- 2/LT Gillespie Magee, 412nd Squadron
Malachi checked over the document once more before Elly yelled again, "Did you know about this?!"
Spyder couldn't believe how fast Treschi worked. He already had him transferred before they'd even finished the conversation. "Somewhat,” was all he managed.
"Somewhat?! What do you mean, somewhat?!"
"I knew we wouldn't be here for long."
Elly fumed. In a low growl, she replied, "Continue."
"The Schaumberg is going to be in spacedock for a long time. Why do they need us?"
"So you mean this was all on their own? I don't buy that."
"I only had a hunch, but I was sure I wouldn't be staying."
"That YOU wouldn't be staying?"
"Look, I didn't ask to lead a ground assault!" He held down a grin; it wouldn't be good to laugh at his own reply. After all, he DID ask for the transfer.
"So they did this on their own?"
"Must have." Spyder began to notice that Hope and Bob were starting to get impatient. "Look, I'll be up in a few hours we can discuss this then, okay?"
"Well hurry it up, damn it!" With that, she slammed down on the comm unit and ended the conversation.
Malachi only had so much time before he'd have to get back to the ship so he'd have to wrap up yet another conversation as quickly as possible. "I need to be going," he said once he entered the other room.
"Why?" They answered simultaneously.
"I've received my orders."
"Really?" Hope said; Bob was too frightened to talk. "Where will you be? What will you be doing?"
"Advanced recon." The other two turned pale white. "Bob, we're going to have to stop by the storage facility."
"W-What for?" he stuttered.
"No questions. Let’s just go, okay?"
"Look, I’m sorry you two didn't get the stories you wanted, but I'll keep in touch this time."
"We're going to hold you to that." Hope sneered.
"And if I don't respond, you'll come after me?"
Her head fell to the side. "Probably not."
"All right, we’ll drop it then. Besides, we have to go." That was his goodbye as Bob and him hurried along.
A little while later, Bob and Malachi arrived at the warehouse. It was easy enough to buy one and seldom did anyone bother checking these huge buildings. Malachi was hurriedly looking through boxes and crates. Bob finally managed to ask, "What are you doing?"
"Where are the pain-killers?”
"I plan on taking a few drugs with me, just in case."
“In case of what?” Bob pushed, but was answered with a cold stare. "Well, I suppose it’s not that bad an idea."
Soon they were gone and a few new shipments showed up for the following day. It didn’t take long to get back to the ship. Elly was waiting for him, looking much calmer than last night, but a murderous gleam still twinkled in her eyes. "Well?" she asked.
"I don't know how it happened, Elly. These things just happen."
“Just happen,” she snorted, boring holes in his face with her eyes.
“Yes, these things just happen. I can’t help it, all right?”
"Yes, sir." She settled for his explanation, but Malachi knew she was still upset.
"We’ll need to be leaving soon. You better get your gear packed and ready to go."
"Right." She stormed away, without another word, back to her quarters.
Malachi went to his own quarters to pack up his stuff. After he was finished, he decided that Elly and him should report to the Vishnu early… as early as possible. They needed to become familiar with their new unit as soon as possible; they wouldn’t have much time.
Once he arrived on the star control ship, it was hard for the lieutenant not to be overwhelmed. The sheer size of the floating thing was gargantuan! Yet despite his awe, something was bothering him. Spyder had expected Ragdowski to appear within a few minutes of his own arrival… but she was late. After waiting for two hours, she still hadn’t arrived. All of a sudden, he felt rather alone, cradled inside this metal monstrosity.
She still hadn't arrived when he received a comm signal at his bunk. “Lieutenant Spyder?”
“Yes?” he asked wearily.
“General Prescott, CO of the 137th Legion, would like to see you immediately.”
“I’ll be there.”
He waited a few more minutes before he left to report to the legion commander. He tried the comm for the thirty-seventh time, and after receiving no response, he went to the general. On this ship, he had only the vaguest idea where the general was. However, thanks to a few helpful crewmen, he only walked for a few minutes before he found her.
"Welcome aboard." the general said, looking preoccupied with her own thoughts. "I'm Brigadier-General Amanda Prescott, commander of your new legion. You must be Lt. Spyder."
She handed him a datapad and continued. "Here are the standing orders and… where is your platoon sergeant?"
"I don't know when she'll be getting here, ma'am, but I told her to get here as soon as possible."
"Well, when she gets here, tell her that she’ll need to report to me as well. I need to know when my people are here or when they're somewhere else."
"I'll inform you as soon as I hear from her."
"Good, now you are with…” she checked her datapad, “ah, assault recon. You have experience in recon, lieutenant?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve been on ship duty for the past year.”
“Well, you’ve landed a tough assignment. Assault Reconnaissance is the eyes and ears of the Tech Infantry. The battalion you’re attached to will be responsible for reporting tactical information for the entire 1st Division. You’ll probably pull Mark 77 Scout Armor for your unit. It’s faster than the Centurion and has greater communication equipment. You’re familiar with the 77’s?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Yes, Malachi thought; light, fast, and pitiful. Great, just what I need to get myself killed.
“Well, you’ll get first hand experience with them, that’s for certain. This is going to be a big drop; a chance to bash the Rebels in for good. Once we’re ready, your division will have a briefing on the situation, and you’ll be given your orders. That's all I need to tell you for now. Dismissed."
He saluted and walked out into the hallway. He was too tired wait for Sergeant Ragdowski any more. He glanced over the datapad as he walked towards his quarters. Once he got there, he again tried the comm unit for Elly; still no answer. He figured she'd stayed on the ship one more night and was already asleep so he gave up and went to sleep himself.
Alistar sat alone in his dark quarters aboard the EFS Ariadne, staring at the report he had just written. His eyes floated over to the brandy bottle the ship's captain had given him. “Sergeant, if you would so honor me?”, the captain had said. The half-empty bottle mocked him now. He threw it across the room, the pieces shattering on the floor. Liquor never helps, it only makes you think it does.
He thought about the faces of the ship's crew when he came aboard. Quiet awe greeted him everywhere he turned, like he was the angel of the Lord… or some damn thing. The colonists had that look in their eyes too, those that hadn't lost a loved one. I'm sorry, he thought. If my death could bring them all back… he couldn't finish that thought.
He went back over his report for any errors that he might have made. He tried to ignore the content; he failed. The events of the previous day came flooding back.
Dimiye looked at the sensor screen in front of him; four ships were making planet fall. Four troop transports, each carrying a division each; that made the odds forty to one. He chuckled to himself, I really pissed them off, haven't I?
"You sure must have pissed them off something awful, Sergeant." The sensor operator said.
Dimiye couldn't think about that now as the EB troops were already leaving those transports. They had landed where he guessed they would; that area would offer the best protection for the transports while giving them a fairly direct route to the settlements. On this rock-choked hellhole of a world, it was the best you could do. "First squad", he said over the comm, "commence with Operation Market Square in five".
In advanced tactics training, you were required to fight historic battles in a VR simulator as the losing side. Certain battles were mandatory for graduation; others were just to tough to demand victory. This situation reminded him of one of the later, one that he fought for weeks before finally beating. Come on, boys, he thought; let’s go replay the Alamo.
The Bloc Marines walked in columns through the jagged rocks of the narrow valley, just two klicks from the Hope settlement. Visibility was normal for Hadley. The fog obscured everything a meter beyond wherever you were. If it wasn't for thermal optics, you couldn't see the man in front of you. None of them were using chameleon circuits. Jumping was impossible due to the high winds, which also meant no air support. This was to be a battle for the infantry.
A soldier in the middle of his line heard the sharp report of a gauss rifle behind him, which made him spin around. The two soldiers behind him were down. Men in Bloc power armor were advancing towards the fallen. They had all been briefed on the fact that the foreign devils had stolen power armor to infiltrate their ranks before, but he couldn't believe it. Now he knew that it was true. He cut loose with his rifle at the enemy within advancing towards him.
Nearly the same thing happened in another location within the brigade's formation. In a heartbeat, entire columns started firing at each other. Then the one next to it, and then the one next to that one… the entire brigade was cutting itself to pieces. Dimiye watched the confusion as best he could from a nearby hill top, the soldiers appearing as nothing but red blotches to him. Paranoid little guys, ain't they, he smiled. Suddenly, two green blotches appeared to his left.
"Sir!" one of the blotches said.
Dimiye looked at the two. "Where's Collins?"
"He got caught in the crossfire, sir. Jackson got the wind knocked out of him, but he's okay, sir. They're really tearing each other up in there!"
"That's the plan." He went to his dentcom, "C quad, what's your status?"
"Nominal. We got a little nipped but we’re OK."
The sound of the carnage was deafening. As it let up, Dimiye could see the tattered remnants of what was left of the brigade fall back. Red blotches filled the valley below. That'll buy us some time. He had his suit's sensors do a quick count of the bodies below. The number was staggering; Alistar smiled.
"B Quad re…" His words were silenced by a massive explosion from the East. The other, wider valley; Market Square they called it, led to Patience. Now, it was nothing more than vapor. Jesus, Sara, the sergeant thought. When she saw what the colonists had in the way of explosives, she nearly feinted out of sheer joy. Now he saw why. Almost a klick away, he felt the blast's shock wave. Moments later, the comm came alive.
"I am one satisfied woman, sarge." Sara Lee reported.
Dimiye tried not to chuckle. "Mission accomplished, people. Parker, find Collins. The rest of you, get back to base. I'll take Jackson."
"I can walk." Jackson said.
“Fine. Let’s move out.”
They found Collins' body and hustled back to base. On the way back to Hope, Alistar thought, that's one division down, three to go. At least we bought some time. He looked at the limp body in his arms. "Thanks, Collins."
The swarm hit the settlement’s defenses like a brick wall. The sergeant knew they'd hit with everything they had once they regrouped. He didn't figure it'd take so long, though. Once their advance had been halted at Hope and Patience, the three remaining divisions turned their attention to the main settlement. Stupid bastards didn't even open up with an artillery first. He marched up and down the long perimeter line.
"They keep coming, sarge! How long can they keep coming?" A militiaman shouted out, desperately trying to reload.
Dimiye remembered the Eastern Bloc's philosophy towards human life. "As long as they have men left, soldier. Keep it hot!"
He walked down the line. The outer perimeter was holding well, but they couldn't hold out all day. Men took shifts at their firing slots and murder holes, reloading weapons, doing sensor sweeps, killing. The enemy bodies were stacked waist high in some spots, making their advances difficult. Good, Alistar thought, before an explosion burst only a few meters away. The sergeant was knocked to the ground as others followed a split second later. The artillery barrage had finally come.
"All units, back to the interior defenses NOW!" Dimiye bellowed. The shells fell upon their position like rain. Here and there he saw his men engulfed in explosions, horribly mutilated by the plasma fire. The bombardment didn't discriminate against friend or foe. The many wounded Bloc troopers and the few still advancing would never see the light of day again. Shrapnel dinged off his armor all the way back into the settlement. Once everyone was back, he did a quick count of his platoon; more than a few were missing. The cannonade had taken its toll. The noise of it alone was threatening to break his men.
"Settle down people, we’re safe in here. I want everyone at their ready positions. Look for troops spotting for the artillery out there. And keep sharp, we can't afford any breakthroughs."
He saw that his words had had a calming effect on his troops, rushing now to man their positions. As they got set up, Dimiye went on the comm. "Benjamin, any activity over on the North?"
"In that case, move out a little and anchor our flank, but do NOT draw fire. Do you here me?"
The forces of the Eastern Bloc came again and again during the entire day. Eventually night fell, but the advances kept right on coming.
"Sergeant!" Captain Jennings burst on the command channel. "We've got a breakthrough in Gamma section!"
"Plug the hole! Plug that hole, damn you! Go hand to hand if ya have to!" Dimiye rushed towards the breech that the Bloc’s soldiers were pouring into like water. Weapons were fired point blank, men were grappling, Dimiye scythed through their ranks only to find more enemies waiting for him. The mining chem lasers blasted away, vaporizing most of the enemy, as they still tried to penetrate the defense perimeter. In a few minutes, the breech had been sealed; inert enemy power armor now served as a makeshift wall. Dimiye turned to see who had fired the chem lasers so well. He smiled at Corporal Tess.
"Well done, corporal." he said.
"Why, thank you, sir." she answered sweetly.
His voice went over the com. "All teams, this is Dimi…" His words were stopped by the dozens of micro missiles and grenades that came over the make shift wall and detonated. His vision narrowed as he and his entire team were engulfed in fire. As the plasma flames erupted around him, he picked himself up and took a position on the wall, seeing the enemy soldiers advancing. He fired and howled like a madman, two plasma rifles blasting at the hip.
"Naaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!! Delta and Epsilon teams! REPORT TO GAMMA NNNNOOOOWWWW!!! The beast within was awake and it was hungry. Within seconds, men rushed to fortify his position. "BENJAMIN!? FLANK THEM NOW!"
"WE’LL ROLL THEM UP LIKE CARPET! DO IT!!!"
Dimiye forced himself to calm down. "Listen up, all teams; were gonna flank from the North all along the line. This has got to be their last advance. Shoot at red only! When you see green overtake the enemy, you pop out and join the flanking maneuver. You got it!?"
"Yes sir!" came the echoed reply.
The Bloc came for their final push and they came on strong. The men next to the sergeant went down as reserves took their places. Not a moment too soon, the EB forces started taking fire from the north. Later on, the militiamen would swear they saw one suit of armor jumping in the Hadley atmosphere, laying enfilade fire on the enemy. Dimiye knew who that man had to be. One by one, the Eastern Bloc was pushed farther south as the flank increased in size. After half an hour, they retreated for good. The official reports would count their losses at over 92 percent. Still, the enemy would not leave quietly. The few artillery units they had left fired on the civilian structures of the colonies, killing eight hundred and seven non-combatants; eight times as many casualties as the militia took.
Dawn came soon after and the people of Hadley cared for the dead and wounded.
Among them was someone Dimiye held dear. He looked at the angelic face of Corporal Tess and stroked her strawberry blonde hair. Her face was all that was recognizable; below her upper chest was nothing but air. The beautiful little girl who had been a model as a teenager was now just a small chunk of flesh. She was luckier than others had been this day; many would be identified by single cell DNA analysis.
He dropped Tess and went to walk among the enemy's dead. He stumbled many times along the way. "This doesn't have to happen." He said. "GODDAMMIT! THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN!!!"
His world went blue and white from the star at the center of it. The light spoke. "It is because of things like you that these things happen. Don't tell me you've lost your taste for it already, my son. This is your life. This is all you will ever know… all you are capable of knowing. This is all your doing."
"Fuck you!" Dimiye bellowed. He seldom cursed and had never in the presence of his totem. "I never wanted this! It's not my fault!" He screamed, face full of impudence.
A force like a hurricane slammed down on him, knocking his very soul to the ground. "Ungrateful little pup! You would damn me for this? I, who have watched over you with more love than any parent could?" Dimiye was lifted up and slammed back down again. "You are mine! You will do what I say, when I say! Your kind serves only one purpose in this world and it was served here today. Do not pretend to take the high ground with me, pup! You will fight till you can fight no more and then you will fight again. THAT is your destiny. THAT is why you serve ME!"
Dimiye awoke among the mangled bodies of his enemies. Lucky bastards, he thought.
He was about to send his report to command when a knock came at the door; Dimiye didn't care who it was. "Enter," he said.
He turned to see who it was. PFC Peter Benjamin was standing there with tears welling up in his eyes. Alistar stood up and the two men embraced. They were like brothers now, consoling one another in their arms, silently. It was peaceful; it was the calm after their storm. They let go of each other and Benjamin left his quarters without saying a word. Words would only have tainted that moment; it was prayer-like. Any sound would have shattered its meaning: I love you brother and I would die for you.
Dimiye went back to his screen and sent his report on. As he did so, the date of the report flashed before his eyes. "Happy birthday, Alistar," he said out loud, "welcome to twenty-one."
“Clarke, you son-of-a-bitch!” Treschi declared, once he regained his composure. Normally, he would be concerned about making such a statement to a man who had blood dripping from the sides of his mouth. However, for the second time in his life, he wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries… even at the cost of jeopardizing his own self-preservation.
Even after defeating several werewolves in combat, Arthur Clarke had barely broken a sweat. His eyes narrowed. “Do you have anything else to say? You won’t be able to talk once I rip your balls off and shove them down your throat!”
“Look, Clarke, I just had my vessel… with a shipment of your weapons, mind you… blasted by InSec, then flown halfway across the galaxy under the scrutiny of an extremely annoying captain, and NOW, I’ve just lost my best bodyguard! So maybe, you can cut me a little SLACK!”
The general said nothing as Andrea continued. “You know our major arms cargo is now floating with a dampening device somewhere in the Rios system. Unrecoverable, because I don’t know anyone well enough in the TI faction to sell it to. How did InSec known where to intercept us? Was there a leak in the Jackals? I don’t think so. We both know that that organization is too small for them to waste their time with. No, the leak had to come from somewhere else. That means it was obviously in the Raptors…”
“All right, Treschi, that’s enough. If there is a leak in the Raptors, I will look into it. As far as the Fearless’ cargo is concerned, hmmm… I should be able to make some arrangements. Some of the Rebel officers owe me a few favors from the Bug War. I should be able to at least salvage some of its value… use it as a bargaining chip to get you through their space.”
“Through their space?”
“I have another arrangement in mind. There is another piece of cargo that I would like you to personally deliver to the Hadrian system. You must not fail on this delivery.”
“What’s the cargo?” asked Treschi, a quizzical look creeping onto his face.
“She is.” Clarke nodded toward Danika, as she approached the table, several pitchers of beer and glasses on her tray.
“Yes, M. Treschi. Her. Leave now, she’ll inform you with the details of this arrangement. You can either go along with it and reap its rewards or… well, you get the idea.”
“What about Thrasher?”
“Who?” Clarke asked. Andrea pointed toward the unconscious were-rhino. “Oh, don’t worry, they’ve got a trauma team here. He’ll be all right… in a couple months.” The general turned toward Danika, “You understand what you’re to do?”
She snorted and poured herself a glass of beer. “Yeah. I know what to do, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Danika downed the glass and looked over at Andrea. “Are you going to move or not?”
Treschi stood up and followed her back up the stairwell. Before the door closed behind him, he caught a glimpse of Clarke jumping back into the pit.
It didn’t take long to catch a taxi and be on their way towards the monorail station. The driver was this white man in thick flannels who smelled like day-old cheese. He tried to start a conversation with “What ‘bout those Eagles?” and “How ‘bout this weather, huh?” but they steadfastly ignored him all the way to the depot.
After paying him the twenty credits, Danika led him over to through the sensors and gates, until they reached the platform. “Okay, the next train heading for central Avalon will arrive in a couple minutes. I’ve got a transport for New Paris waiting for us at the Ark.”
“What? The Ark?”
“Archimedes Orbital Station. God, do I have to spell out everything for you?!”
“No, but you need to stop treating me like a child.”
“Stop acting like one and I will. I didn’t ask for this assignment, M. Treschi. I’ve gotta get to Hadrian and I’d rather go by myself, rather than have to drag you along with me.”
“Now you wait just one second. One, I didn’t ask for this either, so maybe we act like civilized people and work this out.”
“Ha!” Danika shot back, “Mages being civilized? Tell me another joke. Tell me how they enslaved my people in…”
“Shut up!” Andrea barked. “Let me finish. Now I want to know a few things. For instance, why the hell are going to the frontier?”
“We’re going because…” the woman’s eyes shifted for a second, then back to Treschi. “Shit. I didn’t think they’d be on to us this fast.”
“No, the Salvation Army…” she muttered before glaring at Andrea, “…of course, fucking Internal Security, what do you think?!” Just then, the monorail train swooped into the station, as people filed toward the doors. “All right, mage, get on the train and keep moving. You got me?”
It didn’t take long to get on the train. As they moved from compartment to compartment, Danika was convinced that their tail was on them. Treschi saw nothing. Finally, in the plastic connection between train cars, she pinned him against a wall, and kissed him on the lips. Andrea was stunned, but he made no attempt to break off the kiss. Someone walked in after them. Before the short man could talk, Danika kicked her left leg behind her, and jabbed her boot into the man’s groin.
She pivoted around, whipping her hand, catching the man in the side, knocking him down. In the small space, he managed to recover his stance, then threw his arms out at her, knocking Danika against the other wall. As the man reached inside his coat, Andrea reacted, projecting pain into his head. The agent screeched in torture, dropping the plasma revolver as he fell to his knees.
Meanwhile, the woman regained her composure, and proceeded to pummel the InSec agent. The black plastic covering the outside between the cars rattled every time Danika punched him against it. Finally, with one good kick, the short man went through the plastic, his screams stopped once he bashed his head against the outside guardrail.
With the wind whipping around them, Danika gave him one more kiss, then slapped him across the face. “You saved my life, but don’t ever, ever hesitate to act! You hear me?!”
Treschi rubbed his bruised jaw. “Clear.”
“Good! Now let’s go find a seat.”
It didn’t take long to reach the Von Eisenstein Shuttle Transfer Station by monorail. From there it was a quick trip up to the Archimedes Orbital Station. Neither of the grandiose titles for these places seemed to fit the shitholes they truly were. Travelling from the trash bin on the planet to the slum in space, Andrea didn’t notice much difference. These were the kind of places he had spent his entire life avoiding. As if she could feel his disgust at the structure, Danika explained, “People here don’t care what you do, as long as you pay your bills, and keep your mouth shut.”
“And we’re going to New Paris from here?”
“Yes…” she answered, stopping in front of a docking tube. As she pointed out the thincris window, the warrior said, “…in that.”
The old-style small freighter looked worse than the building around it. “You’re kidding.”
“Look, this has already been arranged. That might not look like much, but it has an old-style hyperdrive, which can come in handy entering into TI space. Come on, get aboard.”
The only crew aboard was an old man who had enough wrinkles around him to circle the planet below. He scratched his balding gray hair and stared at them. “Who’s the meat, Danika?”
“None of your business, Kraw. Is this thing ready to go?”
“We already got clearance. As soon as you stop yapping and sit your asses down, we can go!”
Danika pointed to a moth-eaten chair off to the side. Treschi said nothing, his thoughts laughing at the old style safety belts flopped uselessly to the side, and sat down.
The old man shut the hatch and started hitting buttons. “Lonely Heart to Avalon Control. We are leaving Archimedes en route for the digital gate.”
“Identify yourself, Lonely Heart, and give destination.”
“This is Kenneth Krawcyk, captain of the merchant ship Lonely Heart, bound for New Paris. Transmitting ship authorization code…” the old man pushed a cartridge into a console slot, “…now.”
There was a short pause, then the comm signal came back. “Avalon System Traffic Control to Lonely Heart. SAC approved. You are slated as Number 14 for the digital gate. Please hold position until the military craft have cleared the gate.”
“Confirmed, control. Out.”
“Military craft?” Treschi asked as he checked the holoproj next to him. On the sensor screen, he watched as the mass of red military blips passed by, entering the digital gate to New Paris.
As the two men made it to their hotel, they sat down, trying to analyze what just happened. "Well, let’s see,” Mark Smith paced around the room, taking a sip of water as the adrenalin rushed out of his body, “I was trying to get close to the colonel, but they were waiting for me. So, I was put into this huge trap, which was supposed to kill me! I think we were set up. Someone out there wants us dead." Fancy that, he thought as he took another sip, someone out there wants us dead.
"You’re right,” Steve Jupedus muttered, “and I understand that, but you didn’t even get the target. What happened?"
"Let's see… um… that’s right, now I remember.” Lunging toward my prey, I jabbed my sword into the helpless victim again. Something wasn’t right, though; Rashid didn’t even react. There was no blood flowing out of him. “He was not even there. I stabbed a fucking holoproj, not him! The place was laced with power armor just waiting on me. That is what happened."
"Well then,” Steve moaned, putting his feet up on the other chair, “what do we do now?"
"I think that we should lay low. It’s going to be real hard to keep out of their reach, after all, they know who we are now, but I think some other part of town will be nice.” Smith smiled, trying to make light of the situation. “See some new places."
"Given, but what about the mission? What do you want to do? Keep with it or should we walk away before we lose our lives?"
"I didn’t come this far just to give up now. They are expecting us now, though. So… we’re going to have to come up with a new way. Just leave it to me. I have plans for M. King, and I think he’ll like it."
It didn’t take long to reach Cornell, one of the first suburbs of Avalon to be sucked in by the urban sprawl. The place was a dump… literally. Half the town, mostly consisting of abandoned buildings and condemned little hovels, was leveled, allowing room for a new “waste disposal facility” to be built there. The few rats who still hung out in this concrete wasteland mostly left. However, there were still a few holes into which to bolt. This particular little bolthole was called the Regal Inn, and despite the classy atmosphere or peeling, stained wallpaper, the inconsistent water pressure, and the wonderful view of the dump from the room, it didn’t live up to its name. However, it was the last place that InSec would look.
“Find anything yet?” Jupedus asked.
Mark continued to pound away through the wastes of the Galactic Net, looking for any information they could dig up on Rashid King. He was hooked up to his cybermodem (through goggles, not an implant), looking around for anything he could find, but he wasn’t getting much. He was an assassin, not a hacker. Although he looked through bulletin boards and different sites, Smith had failed to find anything useful about his elusive target. “I downloaded some stuff from InSec’s web site. Basic bio stuff, nothing real useful.”
Steve hooked up his datapad to the modem and transferred the files to it. “Hmmm, yeah, you’re right. Nothing too interesting. Former Tech Infantry service, graduated from the Academy…”
“Which one?” Mark asked, looking through the University of Deseret’s abandoned site.
“Doesn’t say. I guess Internal Security has their own. Let’s see, no family, steady career in the hit squads…”
“It doesn’t say that, does it?”
“Doctrinal fugitive squad… you figure it out.” Steve scrolled down. “Ah, he’s a member of the Friends of Islam.”
“Black Muslim. According to this, he’s pretty devout.”
“Yeah, now if we could only get on the inside…” Smith finally disconnected. “Forget this. I think we’ll need to hire a data pirate. I can’t keep searching like this; I’m getting nowhere!”
“Well, now what…” Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Mark and Steve whipped out their plasma revolvers in tandem, moving to the sides of the walls. “Who is it?”
“M. Jones? M. Park?” the voice said meekly behind the door. The woman’s voice repeated the names they gave the hotel clerk.
“I need to talk to you, please. It’s about an associate of yours.”
“I really don’t think this is the place…”
“M. King. Can I come in?”
Steve opened the door slightly. Outside was an elven-looking wisp of a girl. She couldn’t be more than 13 years old; completely out of place with this part of town. “Who are you?”
“I really can’t explain out here. May I come in?”
Jupedus opened the door carefully, letting the girl come in. Although Mark kept his revolver aimed at her head, she didn’t seem to be phased in the least. She stared at Smith for a second then asked, “Do you mind if I scan the room?”
She reached carefully into her pocket and pulled out a convoluted piece of circuit boards and nanotech. Moving the thing in a circle around the room, the girl looked at it, seemed content, and put it back in her pocket. “M. Smith, correct? If that is your true name?”
“One learns to be careful in our line of work. And yours?”
“Shannon.” The girl looked over at the werewolf. “You must be M. Jupedus. Former lieutenant in the Tech Infantry, correct?”
“Yeah. How the hell did you find us?”
“You happen to be in one of my employer’s safe houses. You’ve made your presence… known here on Avalon. Naturally, my employer was interested in contacting you.”
“Who’s your employer?”
Mark and Steve stared at each other in amazement. This little girl worked for the Resistance? “THE Marko Vitek?”
“There’s only one I know of. He knows you’ve had a little trouble lately. We can help.”
The sudden knocking at his cabin door made O’Reilly jump. He instantly shut off the holographic projection of Lieutenant Jerez toweling off in the shower room. “Just a minute!” he called, cursing under his breath, pulling on his pants as he dashed over to the door.
“Hey, Commander, I just heard. Too bad - bum deal, huh? Do you know when you leave yet?”
“Leave?” O’Reilly was puzzled.
“Yeah, your new assignment. Most of the senior officers are being reassigned while the Schaumburg’s in dry dock. I just heard you’ve been reassigned. Didn’t you see the memo?
“What memo?” Xinjao faintly remembered hearing the notification of a new message an hour ago, but he had been… otherwise occupied at the time. Now he strode toward the comm unit, accessed, and opened the communication. His eyes flew across the screen, stunned. It was true: Due to the duration of the extensive repairs to the Schaumburg, the Bureau of Personnel has determined that your expertise can be more effectively utilized on another craft. You are hereby transferred to a destroyer (to be determined at a later date) for the duration of repairs, effective… O’Reilly was dumbfounded… how could he leave the Schaumburg? He had to be around to help with repairs, organize the engineering team, coordinate the -
“Still working on the bug problem?” Chief Tran said in a low voice, looking at O’Reilly’s terminal.
“I didn’t know they had a dossier on Lt. Jerez…” he said, reaching for the keyboard.
“STOP!” Xinjao bellowed. Tran froze, hand in mid-air, throwing a questioning glance at O’Reilly.
“Chief Tran…” O’Reilly began, mind racing for an explanation. “Those surveillance files contain very… sensitive information. The naked truth about the members of the crew.”
“Oh,” Tran said, nodding his understanding. “I see. Privacy issues.”
“How do you deal with that, Commander?” Tran asked. “Compile the crew’s files and still respect their privacy?”
“Oh, I just look at the bare facts,” O’Reilly said, “Who, when, where. I try not to look into anything private. Although sometimes I do stumble across some of the more intimate details of certain crew members.”
“Like Lt. Jerez,” Tran said, looking back at the terminal.
“Obviously,” Xinjao said with a sad nod. “Unfortunately, I caught an aspect of Lt. Jerez she usually keeps covered up from her coworkers. But don’t worry, Tran -- I don’t tell a soul if I find something exciting or scandalous, not even the Captain. We’re not InSec, for God’s sake.”
“You’re a good man, commander.”
“I just do my job,” O’Reilly said, the picture of honest innocence.
“Which is actually why I came by. Since your leaving soon, the junior officers and the engineering staff wanted to know if you’d like to stop by the enlisted mess for a few beers… sort of a send off.”
“Oh…” said O’Reilly, caught off guard and a bit embarrassed. “Uh… yeah, sure. Thanks! But don’t start throwing a party yet ‘cause the boss is gone,” he said, exaggerating his sternness. “I’m not going anywhere until I talk to the captain about this transfer!”
"Ah, hell," grumbled Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg, awakened from a sound sleep by the insistent chirping of the fleet comm line. "Receive transmission, audio only." He struggled out of bed and towards the wall-mounted pickup. He had been in spacedock for almost a week, overseeing the repairs to the EFS Schaumburg. The wrangling with the dock workers, repair technicians, and supply office bean-counters made him long for a nice, clean battle in space, say, taking a lone destroyer against an entire fleet of dreadnoughts.
"Captain here, go," he announced to the wall pickup.
"Captain, incoming transmission from Fleet Command, Gold priority, net encrypted," replied the voice of the comm tech on duty.
"Put it through, I'll take it here," Erich answered, pulling on his uniform tunic. "Receive encrypted transmission, add video pickup."
"Hello, captain," said the woman on the viewscreen, "this is Admiral Vorheis."
Von Shrakenberg's eyebrows arched involuntarily. "Hello, ma’am. I apologize for keeping you waiting on the comm, but as you can see," he gestured to his darkened quarters behind him. "What can I do for you?"
"You can pack your things," she answered. "You're being reassigned."
"Yes, captain. Report to Dock 19. Your shuttle to the EFS Vanguard departs in 90 minutes."
"You're giving me the Vanguard?" asked Von Shrakenberg incredulously. A Revenge-class Battlecruiser was a plum assignment, but not entirely unexpected for a captain with his recent battle record.
"No, captain, you will not be in command of the Vanguard," the Admiral winced, "you're reporting there for final briefing before departing with Task Force 23."
"Oh," answered the captain. "Where will we be going?"
"All will be explained at the briefing," replied the admiral. "But I can tell you made quite an impression on the Admiralty in Rios. It was a waste of your talents having you sit on your hands in spacedock."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"Let me finish," Kristen interrupted. "You also made quite an impression on certain other parties recently. I think you know who I mean, no need to mention any names."
"They decided, for other reasons, that the best use of your talents was to put you back in combat as soon as possible."
"Exactly," she stated with a thin-lipped smile. "I apologize for having to do this to you, it wasn't my idea. But you're a good officer, I know you will make the best of it." She paused a second, searching for the right words. "Good luck, Captain Von Shrakenberg. I hope you can prove wrong those people who don't appreciate your loyalty. CNC out."
Erich stared at the blank screen for a long time, then called the duty staff on the bridge, informing them of his new orders, and started packing his things. As he left his quarters for the last time, he said a single phrase. "Be careful what you wish for."
The second he opened the door, Lieutenant Commander O”Reilly was waiting for him. “Is there a problem, commander?” Von Shrakenberg stared right into O’Reilly’s eyes. To his credit, he did not look away.
“Sir.” Xinjao began, “why am I being transferred?”
“You’re being transferred?” the captain kept staring at him. “What is going on here?”
“You don’t know either?” The engineer paused for a moment, then continued. “I know the Schaumburg inside and out. Repairs will be much more efficient if I’m able to…“
“Don’t you trust Chief Tran?” Erich asked, cutting him off.
“Tran?” O’Reilly repeated, caught off guard. “Yes, of course, he’s a good chief, but…“
“But he’ll never have a chance to shine,” the captain interrupted again, “if you’re constantly eclipsing him.” Xinjao was quiet for a second, not entirely sure how to respond to the backhanded compliment. “Besides, your rather… hands on approach to your ship’s repairs is somewhat infamous.”
“What do you mean, sir?” O’Reilly was confused. “I have an excellent record of…“
“Meaning,” the captain kept interrupting, “that the foreman of the shipyard crew specifically asked that you be “kept on a leash” and let them do their job… their way.”
For the second time, O’Reilly was speechless. He had only tried to make sure repairs went efficiently it the past… sure, he had adjusted a few schedule and time tables… and the yard dogs needed his guidance to get the repairs just right… but it had never occurred to him that…
“Which is fine with me,” Von Shrakenberg said, “because I need you with me on this new ship. I don’t like flying in blind so I’ll need a top engineer, wherever I’m being assigned.”
“Captain, I appreciate your faith in me, but with only six months on the new ship, I’m not sure how effective I’ll be in engineering. I’ll probably just get to know the ship’s systems really well in time to leave.” O’Reilly explained.
“You sell yourself short, Xinjao, and frankly, you could use the new experience. I’m sure it’s only for six months.”
“Commander, you have your orders... and so do I. Is there anything else?”
Xinjao stood in front a him for a few seconds, still mentally spinning from all that he had been told. Finally he said something that seemed safe.
He threw a salute and left the hallway. He was glad the junior officers where waiting for him in the mess. He could do with a stiff drink.
Erich Von Shrakenberg walked into the shuttle docking bay, carrying his meager possessions in a single duffel bag. After checking in with the departure desk, he sat down in the departure lounge to wait the last few minutes until his shuttle began boarding for departure. A pair of familiar figures strode in and took the seats on either side of him.
"Hello, Commander O’Reilly, Lieutenant Gergenstein," said a surprised Captain Von Shrakenberg. "Don't tell me, lieutenant, you got surprise transfer orders, too?"
"Apparently," answered the weapons officer. "Any idea what all this is about?"
"No, but apparently they’ll tell us when we get wherever we’re going."
"Anyone else find this more than a little bit creepy?”
"Lieutenant," admonished the captain, “You should know better than to ask a superior officer if he is frightened."
"Even when he is, he won't admit it," added O'Reilly.
"That would be a breach of military discipline," continued Von Shrakenberg. "And we don't want to give the brass any more excuse to be pissed off at us."
"There are worse things than battlecruisers out in the middle of nowhere," Xinjao rambled on. "They could ship us off to the prison colony on G2."
"Or garrison duty in the Bug Quarantine Zone," concluded the captain.
"All right, all right," protested the lieutenant. "As long as we don't get stuck on some old rustbucket that doesn't even have gravity. My stomach still has nightmares from when I served on the EFS Dart.”
“The Dart?” O’Reilly asked.
“It was a few years ago… I don’t like talking about it."
"Don’t worry, M. Gergenstein," the captain said in a placating tone. "I'm sure we didn't annoy the Admiralty enough to stick us on a moth-eaten destroyer."
The chief in charge of the docking bay came over to them. “The shuttle’s ready to board, sir.”
"Don't worry, lieutenant," needled the captain again. "The shuttle may not have gravity, but at least the ride will be short."
"Oh, yeah," continued O'Reilly. "I'm sure it’s not more than five or six hours out to the Vanguard."
Gergenstein was clearly not enjoying the ribbing. "You two are really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Rank hath it's privileges, Lieutenant."
The shuttle approached the battlecruiser EFS Vanguard, moored at a docking buoy in the asteroid belt orbiting between Vega 4 and Vega 5. Gazing out the viewport of the shuttle, Captain Von Shrakenberg caught a quick glimpse of the shadowy forms of several other warships and support vessels also floating, dead in space. Before he could make out the outlines of any of the other ships, the shuttle turned and entered the battlecruiser's landing bay.
Ten minutes later, Erich, Xinjao, and Herbert were ushered into a briefing room on C Deck. As soon as they entered, the senior officer announced, "Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg, reporting as ordered."
The grumpy looking officer didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Stubble covered his sun-burnt, stubbled face, clenching a cigar in his mouth. “You’re late. Take a seat," the flag officer said, "the briefing is about to begin."
The three officers took their seats quickly alongside over a dozen other more junior officers. The cigar-chewing officer took his place behind the podium in front of the oversize viewscreen.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Commodore J.J. Adams, and I’m the sucker who was picked to lead this mission.” His tone didn’t inspire confidence among his senior officers. “Earth Fleet, in its divine wisdom, has decided to finally kill me off,” the flag officer gave a razor-toothed smiled, “and you’re all coming with me.”
The viewscreen behind him came to life, displaying an image of the New Madrid system. Commodore Adams continued. "Tomorrow, Task Force 23 departs for the New Madrid system. Destroyer Squadron 15 and the EFS Vanguard, that’s you, in case you haven’t been paying attention, are the lead elements in an attack that is surely to go down in the history books as the worst blunder in history. We're going back on the offensive, and we're going back on the offensive with a vengeance."
Every eye and ear in the room was focused on the commodore now. "Our squadron, will be ferried into the system by the Vanguard, using it's gravity drive to avoid using the rebel-controlled jumpgate." He looked at Captain Von Shrakenberg with disgust. "Captain Von Shrakenberg, you will take command of the Benedict as my flag captain. Lieutenant Commander O'Reilly will be your exec."
Lieutenant Gergenstein buried his head in his hands, moaning slightly. "Not an Archer, oh, crap…"
The flag officer didn’t seem to notice the interruption. "I realize that the captain is too senior to command an Archer-class destroyer, but he has been chosen for this romp through hell very carefully. You might even say he planned it." As all the officers’ eyes shifted toward Von Shrakenberg, he explained. "DesRon 15 will carry out a cee-fractional bombardment of the rebel warships in orbit around New Madrid 2, as well as the orbital defense stations. Apparently, the operational plan you will use is based on Captain Von Shrakenberg's senior thesis at the Academy."
A course vector line appeared on the viewscreen, starting far above the ecliptic of the New Madrid system, and arcing past the system's sole inhabited planet. Commodore Adams indicated the planet with his pointer. “Naval Intelligence… heh… believes that Admiral Frankel, the CO in New Madrid before the Rebels took it, was able to self-destruct the sensor net in the New Madrid system before his fleet was destroyed, so they shouldn't be able to pick up our jump point or our acceleration burns. At least some of the orbital defense stations are likely to be operational, although they do not think they have experienced crews for them. However, the defense stations are not the primary target."
The display zoomed in on the planet, and a disturbingly large icon appeared, indicating an orbiting ship. "This is the primary target. The ‘insurgents’ are believed to have captured Admiral Frankel's flagship intact, although it was reported as heavily damaged. They don’t believe they have had time enough to complete repairs. If they complete repairs and can throw it into combat, the invasion fleet will get roached. The fleet could handle the defense stations… it cannot handle a Coral Sea-class Star Control Ship."
One of the lieutenant commanders in the briefing room spoke up. "You can't be serious! Four Archer's and a Revenge against a Star Control Ship?!?"
"That’s what I said! Little Krissy wants us to… let me read the official orders, ‘destroy or incapacitate the EFS Jutland, at any cost. If there are any other heavy warships in New Madrid orbit, you must also take those out.’ That’s right, it gets better. Naval Intelligence also believes that at least two Rebel dreadnoughts survived the Battle of Rios and may be in New Madrid for repairs. At your closing velocity of just over half the speed of light, the only good news is that you’ll have less than two minutes to acquire your targets, lock on, and fire. Of course, the enemy has the same problem, but they don't know we're coming. Assuming we can take out any grav-drive ships in New Madrid orbit, we’ll be able to escape below the ecliptic. The EFS Vanguard can pick us up 3 days later after the battle. Fun, isn’t it? Any questions?"
"Yes," answered a lone voice from the back. "What extra weapons systems will we be carrying in our modular bays?"
“In order to provide the maximum maneuvering reserve, all four ships will be carrying extra fuel tanks in the modular bays. Your ships also will be provided with a special strap-on fuel/particle shield module attached to your ships, providing just a touch more fuel and protection from induced cosmic rays during our run." A ship travelling at half the speed of light turned any random floating hydrogen molecule into deadly particle radiation, which the normal shielding on the Archer-class ships wouldn't be able to handle.
"What happens if we don't succeed in destroying the Jutland?"
"Then the Rebels will very likely destroy the invasion fleet when it jumps into normal space an hour later. That’s right, we’re screwed if we succeed, and screwed if we don’t. And if they do destroy the fleet, there will be nobody left to pick us up, and not enough fuel to turn around and reach the jumpgates, even if the Rebels would let us go through them. That’s it, people. One big shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite. Report to your ships. We leave tonight for New Paris through the digital gate. Can’t wait around to die, after all."
“So whadaya say? One hand? We got five minutes.” Herbert pressed as he shuffled the cards.
Xinjao O’Reilly rubbed his burning eyes and ran his fingers through what was left of his hair. Fatigue weighed his body down. At that moment, he would have been estatic to just sit in the chair and stare at the wall for a while.
“Gotta get back, Herb,” O’Reilly shook his head. “Gotta fill out all those facility requests, and I still want to get down to Ops to check out the plasma tubes on -“
“We’re on break, Chin.” Herbert stated firmly, sliding his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with a long thin finger. “We’re both working round the clock, we get half an hour for dinner, and I, for one, intend to relax with last five minutes of my break. After all, in an hour, we go through the gate.”
That did sound tempting, O’Reilly had to admit. His first day as Executive Officer had been grueling. A backlog of work was waiting for him, and he was slowly chipping away at it. It took time to learn the job and he hated being inefficient and slow. The maze of paperwork and authorizers and proper channels made no logical sense to him. He kept making mistakes and he HATED being wrong. He hadn’t even really had a chance to check out the ship’s engines or operational systems, where his interest really lay. All in all, he found his “promotion” exhausting, frustrating, and unrewarding. Thank God Herb was on board - they both needed someone to vent to. And Shrakenberg… the Old Man always had a calming effect on him.
“Alright. One round. Then I gotta go,” Xinjao said as he sipped a warm flat liquid through a straw. The lack of gravity prevented using a real glass. “Ack… awful beer here. Sex in a goddammned canoe.”
“Fucking close to water,” Gergenstien finished for him with a grin. “Game is five card stud, aces high, suicidal kings are wild.” Gergenstein recited as he hand flew threw an expert shuffle and deal born of years of practice. He swooped up his cards, fanned them, and looked down. Silence dominated the table for several seconds.
When he and Gergenstein first boarded the EFS Benedict, Xinjao had been filled with the kind of horrified fascination one has when witnessing a shuttle accident. He had served on older ships before - the Valiant had been sixty years old - but nothing like the Benedict. It wasn’t an “older model” - it was an antique! At a full century old, it could have been in a museum. And what was worse, the ship showed its age, badly. The ship was dark and full of shadows, illuminated by maybe half of the original low-power amber lights in fashion a century ago. O’Reilly wondered if they even still built replacement parts. The ship was permeated by the smell of dust and a hundred chemicals, which hissed constantly from cracked hoses or dripped from rusted couplings, echoing through he decks. All that and the lack of gravity to boot. It was an engineer’s nightmare and his dream. O’Reilly couldn’t wait to start work on it. That was before, of course, he realized he would effectively be banned from engineering.
“Well, I got a crappy deal.” Xinjao commented.
“Me too,” Herb griped. “But ya gotta do something with the cards your dealt, I guess.”
“Four?” O’Reilly echoed as Gergenstein dealt the cards. “Jeez, Herb, you must be desperate.”
“Bidding starts at one plastic fork.” Herb announced, studying the cards.
“I’ll see your fork and raise you a foil butter wrapper.” Xinjao put his fork and wrapper above the table, hovering in the zero-gee.
“See the wrapper and raise you a spoon.”
“Oh really?” O’Reilly cocked an eyebrow. “Must be feeling pretty lucky.”
“So match the spoon and call, or fold.” Herb shot back.
“I fold,” O’Reilly said, throwing his cards on the table in disgust. “Plastic cutlery’s too rich for my blood.”
“Never fold, Chin,” Gergenstein advised, “Especially when ya got nothing to lose. I’m sure you could have beaten a high card ten.”
“High car --! You hustler!!”
“Ya gotta learn to bluff sometimes, Chin. You should be good at it. You’re great at turning nothing into something.”
“I’m no good at bluffing. People always see through it,” he commented dryly.
Silence hung in the air for a second or two.
“You’re not talking about poker, are you, commander?” Herb asked, knowing the answer.
“I guess not. Some people… ” Xinjao went back to rubbing his burning eyes. Food always made him sleepy.
In an instant, Herbert knew exactly what he was refering to. A suddenly weariness descended over him as he thought of the mutual thorn in their side. “Chief Bertram tell you off again?”
“Yeah. Practically chased me out of the engine room! Christ, I’ve never seen an engineer so protective of their turf.” O’Reilly said, exasperated.
“Oh, I have. It was this fat old Asian guy who was Chief Engineer on the EFS Schaumburg...”
“Seriously, Chin, I know what you mean. She’s doing everything he can to keep me from modifying the targeting array.” Gergenstein suddenly switched to a high-pitched voice with a stuffy accent. “‘The lasers are quite capable a firing accurately without the help of your voodoo gadgets!’”
“Yeah. She doesn’t like magic. Well, fuck her, I need the crystalline sensors to do my job.” Herbert hesitated for a second before continuing. “I’m thinking I might have to pull rank.”
“Ooo, that won’t go over well, Herb,” Xinjao advised. “She’ll take it to the Captain.”
“The Old Man’s on our side.”
“Exactly. That’ll piss Bertram off more than anything. You’ll make an enemy for life.”
Gergenstein signed, picked up the desk and began absently shuffling again. “No win situation. I hate those.”
“Just a bad draw, I guess,” O’Reilly offered, seeing the weariness in his friend’s face.
“Yeah,” Herb said, staring blankly at the deck. Suddenly he chuckled. “I’ll take four new cards, please.”
“Yeah, me too.” O’Reilly agreed. “Well, it’s that time again,” he said, glancing at the clock.
“Back to the grindstone,” Gergenstein said as he forced his thin, weary frame out of the chair. “I won. You get the trash. See you tomorrow, Chin?”
“Certainly hope so,” O’Reilly said, scooping up the ante pile out of the air.
----- "I think she'll turn out a lot like you...”
----- “...necessary, but never in cold...”
----- “...how powerful you become. Don't laugh at any...”
----- “...call her Pint, Kiddo...-------"
The voice was Dr. Atkins', another doctor who had worked with Hex, but he didn't remember much about him. Almost nothing at all, really; he just had a vague impression that
Atkins was bad. The voice he was hearing in this dream certainly matched the face in his memory... but something wasn't right about Atkins...
"She's just a little baby, Dr. Xaktos," his eight-year-old voice replied. It sounded so small and innocent... Wait-- wasn't I just talking to Atkins? Hex thought. Something definitely wasn't right. Hex's mind started to focus on this dream of fleeting conversations. Hex usually paid little attention to his dreams (he always knew when he was dreaming), but this one seemed worth listening in on. Or did it? Suddenly, it made less sense to believe this than anything else he’d heard before. Then there was that beeping sound…
Hex bolted awake. There was a quiet beeping coming from a panel on the wall. He jumped out of the medical bed right over to the panel a few feet away. A flashing button on the interface played an audio message from the computer and brought up a transcript of the audio on the screen.
"Beacon detected. Adjusting course. ETA fourteen minutes. Next flash anticipated in eight hours." Flash? He checked the time of the message; flash of what? The message was made fifty minutes ago. They should've been back at the Center by now. Where was he, anyway? He went up to the front of the shuttle to try to figure out why he wasn't back... home? He questioned whether or not the Center was really his home again, but something inside of him was very sure that it was. Yes, the Center was home. The console up front told him... well, not much. Since leaving New Paris, the shuttle had been heading for what he guessed was a location somewhere near Proxima Centauri. Of course, in hyperspace, it was hard to tell where anything was.
He took a minute to remember what he saw when he left the Center. It didn't take long for him to think about it; he hadn't really seen anything. All he knew was that his... home... was on a ship. Then he remembered the button... the burning... or... did he? Was that just part of his dream? It must have been. What was he thinking about?
For some reason, he suddenly found himself going over everything he had done since he left the Center. He went over his meeting with Brigette in the shuttle twice... then found himself getting very tired. He glanced at his shoulder. Through the gaping hole in his just slightly oversized shirt, he saw that there weren't any noticeable marks from the wound anymore. No scabs-- not even scarring. Damn, that's a good bed, Hex thought to himself. He was still a little
stiff, though. He sleepily cleaned up the medical bed and pushed it back into the wall of the shuttle. Why am I so tired? he wondered. "I must have slept for at least a good ten hours..."
Before he could move another step, he found himself desperately needing sleep. He flopped into the nearest chair and drifted quickly to sleep.
He awoke to the computer beeping again. He couldn't remember what had happened since he left New Paris; he knew he was close to the Center, though. He got up out of his be… what was he doing in a chair? Over at the helm, he figured out that they had left New Paris over a day ago. There was a counter on one of the consoles, counting down from five minutes. The shuttle was moving incredibly slow, as if expecting something to pop up in front of it.
"Computer, where are we?"
No answer. He examined the counter, curious as to what it was counting down to. It wasn’t a self-destruct command; maybe it was the time until the next course correction. The computer counted down the last few seconds. “Five... four... three... two... one...”
A beacon came on in front of them. Suddenly hyperspace revealed a large amount of objects in the distance. The shuttle turned around and Hex saw a small fleet of ships centered around... the Center? He had memorized the shapes of the Earth Fleet ships in younger days. He picked their class names out of the orange glow. A Sydney-class destroyer, several Rotas... both Nike-class frigates... a Long Beach heavy cruiser toward the rear with a Prince of Wales on the other side. In the center of the formation was a huge ship; he assumed it was the Center, it didn't have any weapons of its own... wait... apart from a few small point defenses weapons, nothing. The shuttle headed for its home. Hex knew now that it was his home, too. It was good to be back.
Hex went to the rear of the shuttle again and got his equipment together... there were still some things that he hadn't able to use on his mission. His katana-- well, the Center's katana, actually. He wished it was his own. Gathering the clips for his-- er, the Center's-- MP5 (he had brought five, but only used one), he put it all neatly into a case to give Dr. Xaktos to show him his ammo efficiency. When he finally met Dr. Xaktos just outside the shuttle bay, the look he gave told him he wasn’t concerned with Hex's efficiency.
"Good work, Hex. We received confirmation that Miss Obanye was killed in an explosion in Maine City."
"Thank you, Doctor Xaktos."
"Now, you're probably tired from you little quest, so..."
Hex felt his eyelids getting a little heavier, but they suddenly were made light again. "I've slept for the past two days, actually."
Xaktos looked a little frustrated at that. Hex felt like there was something missing... something wasn't quite right... Was it the Center? "...then perhaps you would like to have a training session?"
That's what it is! Hex thought to himself. He hadn't done a session in a week. This was going to be fun.
The room was empty except for him. He had picked the type of mission, but Dr. Xaktos insisted on choosing the weapon this time. The doctor had handed him a loaded Desert Eagle and two extra clips before Hex walked into the training room. He stood in the middle of the room for a minute while the virtual reality/holoproj warmed up. Then a speaker came to life in the corner of the room. Xaktos was going to give him a briefing… as though he needed one. He'd
done this mission several times.
"We've made some minor changes to the mission profile, Hex. I think you'll find this a little more challenging. First of all, you're not shooting at normal targets. These targets are very small. Also, these targets don't just move in random patterns. They're moving toward you. If they get within five feet of you, you have failed the mission. There are fourteen targets. Shoot them all within forty seconds without them getting inside your bubble. Have fun."
The speaker crackled and the room suddenly came to life. It was a fairly empty room, but much larger, and there were little black dots frozen around him. He could tell because the whole room was a bright white.
"Begin session," Hex announced, and the dots started moving. There was a faint buzzing. Hex took the safety off of the weapon.
He took aim at the first dot that he saw and fired. He missed by about an inch. Hex had only handled the Desert Eagle twice before, but he was a fast learner. He fired again. Missed. He fired a third time. The dot disappeared. He heard a buzzing coming closer from behind, turned, aimed, and fired. The second dot disappeared. He saw three more dots near where he
just fired. He shot three times, and three of them disappeared. He changed the magazine quickly. The buzzing from behind him was getting louder. He turned and saw five of the dots within fifteen feet of him. He emptied the clip, but he took them all out. The buzzing was very quiet now. He reloaded. There were still four targets left. He took two out with three rounds, then aimed at the second to last target. The room suddenly changed colors. Hex quickly fired, and the room finished changing from white to blue. The buzzing from the dot stopped. He couldn't see it anymore. He turned toward the buzzing and fired blindly. The buzzing was still there. He looked closely and tried to aim again... he fired, and the buzzing stopped. The program didn't end, however. He turned around and saw what his target was. A housefly-- missing a wing. Suddenly, the room changed to black. Hex couldn't see it anymore. He walked
over a little closer to where he thought the fly was, and the program ended. The time must have been up.
"Hex, please meet me outside the training room," Xaktos ordered over the booming speaker.
Hex moved for where he knew the door was (he had a pretty good sense of direction), and as the simulation shut down, the doors appeared before him and opened. Xaktos looked pleased with the way things went.
"Did that really take me forty seconds, doctor?"
"Why didn't you let me finish then?"
"Come with me, Hex. We have a new mission for you."
He led the boy to a large conference room. Hex had only been in here a couple times and usually only to wait until the doctor got done. The glossy black table in the middle was a perfect mirror. Xaktos touched the table and a holoproj activated, shedding its glowing light across the surface of the table. It was a flat projection at first, but it didn’t take long for Hex to realize what it was. He had memorized it a long time ago… it was a star chart of the known systems. “Hex, your next mission will test the limits of your ingenuity. This will not be an as easy task and I’m not sure you can even manage it on your own. Do you think you could do it?”
Hex nodded enthusiastically. The doctor sighed and focused in on the Draco System. “Draco is a military outpost, run by forces loyal to the Grand Council. However, we’ve recently received information that it may have been penetrated by outside forces.”
“Maybe. We can’t determine that for certain. However, we don’t believe they’ve been able to penetrate their data base. We cannot allow that information to fall into the wrong hands.” Xaktos took out a strange looking silver device. “This is a super-condensed data crystal. You’ll need to break into the system, download their files into this crystal, and then destroy the main computer. The crystal should be able to handle all the information in there.” The doctor looked at the map again, then back at Hex. “You can take the shuttle to Avalon, but we have no way of getting you to Draco. The security will be tight, the journey long, and the enemy will stop at nothing to prevent your mission. Can you do it?”
All that Hex could do was smile; finally, a real challenge.
END OF ACT II
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.