TOUCH OF CELESTIAL TEMPER – Act IV
“Touch’d lightly, for no falsehood can endure the touch of celestial temper.”
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost
Xinjao O’Reilly stared blankly at the screen it as shuffled through images of men, women, and animals in compromising positions. On some level, the pictures registered in his mind. On another level, he didn’t even see them. His fingers drummed restlessly on the keyboard. It was always like this the night before a big battle.
What if they know were coming?
He hadn’t been able to sleep. Never could before a battle. There was really no point in trying, but he at least tried before giving up. So now he sat, absently flipping through his porn collection, trying to get his mind off the suicide run tomorrow and wishing desperately that he could get laid one more time before he died. How many years had it been? God, what a depressing thought…
What if a ship moves into our flight path?
He turned off the console and stood up, shrugging into his uniform. He’d made a valiant attempt to distract himself with enormous cocks and heaving tits, but ultimately he know only one thing would set his mind at ease. He left his cabin and began the engineer’s pilgrimage, the endless journey around the ship checking and double checking consoles, coupling, relays and readouts for the one tiny thing that was overlooked and destined to blow out at the worst possible moment in battle.
What if the fusion cannon jams?
The ship’s massive acceleration had provided enough simulated gravity for O’Reilly to walk with some semblance of competence along the dark and creaking corridors of the ancient Benedict. Everything he inspected was too old, too worn, the cobbled-together repairs inefficient and unpredictable. Nothing he inspected was satisfactory… but the night before a battle, nothing ever was.
What if they hit our engines? What then?
It wasn’t really the drive-by bombing of the Jutland the next day that worried him, he thought as we walked toward engineering. Appearing in the system by surprise (will it be a surprise?) at their speed, they’d be in and out before the enemy could fully respond. Either the Benedict would be home free, or it’d be blasted from the sky in an instant. Either way, their fate would be determined quickly, and then it would be over. No, what worried him was not the attack, but the escape.
What if the Jutland has moved to the other side of the planet?
After the attack, the enemy would be pissed. They would start chasing them right at the time the Benedict started to slow down. What if they had a ship fast enough to catch them? What if there was already a ship out there to intercept them? If it came down to a standard battle, outnumbered by superior ships, what chance did they have? If the Benedict’s engines even got nicked during the run, they’d be sitting ducks for the enemy to destroy at their leisure… assuming the ship’s speed didn’t tear it apart. And after the run, the Benedict would be dead in space with no fuel. Their pick up assumed an Earth Fleet victory -- what if the EF lost? Who would come for them then? Would anyone come?
The captain seems pretty confident the plan will work, O’Reilly thought as he examined some cracked power cables, but he wasn’t so sure. There were too many variables, so many things that could go wrong, almost no margin for error… It might work… maybe…if. If the enemy didn’t pick them up on a scan. If their aim was perfect. If there were no malfunctions. If they didn’t crash into something in their flight path. If their intelligence was correct. If the fleet was still there. If the Jutland was as damaged as they hoped. If it hadn’t moved. If the battle stations hadn’t changed orbit. If every fucking enemy ship was on the same side of the planet neatly lined up and spaced out for slaughter along the Benedict’s flight path and didn’t fire back, then… maybe… possibly… it might work. But the odds were against them.
Only because Erich Von Shrakenberg had conceived and overseen the plan did O’Reilly have a glimmer of hope. That man had a knack for crazy plans and pulling them off somehow - more or less. He always did what the enemy least expected… maybe that was his secret. That and balls the size of cannon shells.
The hatch to the engine room rolled aside and Xinjao stepped through. Aside from the few people on night shift, it was quiet and deserted. O’Reilly began to relax as he pulled up reports and examined the machinery - the constant humming of the drives always had a calming effect on him. The condition of the engines also gave him heart. The equipment was old and worn and full of modifications, but it was all clean and well maintained. It was all one could hope for on this relic, really…
Suddenly his nose caught a wisp of smoke… alarmed, he looked all around and sniffed the air, following the trail to its source….
The look of guilty surprise on Chief Bertram’s face was priceless as the cigarette she had been sneaking flew from her fingers to the floor and she stomped it out, hiding it from view. Instantly, however, her expression transformed from guilt to anger as she turned toward O’Reilly. Just great, Xinjao thought, here we go again…
“Mr. O’Reilly, I believe you are off duty,” she said with dry fury, “the engines will run fine without your supervision.”
Xinjao waved her off with dismissive toss of the hand. “Don’t worry, chief, no one’s going to get court-martialed the night before a battle. Besides, we’re both off duty.”
“Exactly. So you don’t need to be in my engine room.” Bertram answered briskly. “What exactly are you doing here, may I ask?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” O’Reilly shrugged. “Never can before a big battle. I end up wandering the ship double-checking things. Gives my mind something to do.” For some reason, the bitch queen from hell wasn’t getting under his skin nearly as much as usual. The sense of impending doom heavy upon him made the squawking woman less important somehow.
“There is nothing you’ll find that I haven’t scanned and cleared, O’Reilly,” she retorted. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t insult my competence.”
Xinjao felt strangely distanced from this conversation. He let silence hang uncomfortably in the air for a few seconds. Just as Bertram opened he mouth to continue, O’Reilly cut in. “It’s not about the equipment, Bertram. You know that.” Bertram closed her mouth, not sure how to respond.
The commander shot her a sideways glance. “You’re off duty, too. Why are you still up? You couldn’t sleep either?”
“No,” she lied, “I’m just… just working late. Trajectory calculations.”
She struggled with that one, a deep-seated refusal to admit weakness was conflicting with telling a transparent lie. “A little,” she conceded.
“I’m fucking terrified.” O’Reilly volunteered, leading to an uncomfortable pause. “Finish your smoke, if it’ll relax you.”
“Smoking’s not allowed in the engine room,” Bertram said evenly, not falling into that trap.
“Suit yourself,” Xinjao said, turning away. “You run a tight ship, Bertram, I’ll give you that much.” It was true: she was a hard worker and a good engineer… just a lousy non-com and a first-class bitch.
“What was that supposed to mean?” she shot back.
O’Reilly looked back at her with a puzzled expression. “It means exactly what I said. You run a tight ship.” He could tell from her guarded look that she still wasn’t buying it; so he elaborated. “Sure, the equipment’s ancient and worn out,” he said, turning and walking along the main drive. “But it’s all working. Organized. Upgraded. Considering what you have to work with, it’s pretty impressive.” She was now following him as he walked, and for once, she was silent.
O’Reilly stopped, looking upward. “The new chem laser, for example. Brand-spanking-new. Installed a month ago, great weapon. Only it’s not compatible with a century-old power reactor like ours.” He turned and looked at the chief petty officer.
“I made a few modifications,” she admitted with a nod.
“And the upgraded engines?”
“Same thing,“ the chief said… then after a pause, “You get to know power converters pretty well on this ship,” she said with a sigh. “It’s a mechanical quilt!”
“Exactly. You run a tight ship.” Xinjao scratched his frizzy red hair absently as he gazed around the engine room. “I can see why this is the flagship. Compared to the other Archers, it’s running pretty well. And we’re going to need every advantage we can get tomorrow.”
Bertram barked out a scornful laugh. “Do you really think it’ll make a difference?”
“It might,” O’Reilly was firm. He hadn’t given up the hope that they might live through it.
“We’re not meant to come back from this mission, O’Reilly.” Bertram said darkly. “This is an execution. We might get a few ships if we’re lucky, but otherwise we’re just cannon fodder. Do you really think there’s any way we can pull this off?”
O’Reilly took a deep breath. “Don’t underestimate the Captain. If you’d lived through the last few weeks on his ship, you’d know what I mean. He took out half a Jurvain fleet with a single ship. So if he says he can sink a battleship with a rowboat, maybe he can. And Gergenstein’s good, too. He’s a… well, he’s got a sixth sense with his guns. If anyone can see us through this, it’s them.”
There was a sudden lull in the conversation, born of weariness, as both contemplated the battle tomorrow, fighting off dread. Xinjao finally broke it.
“I’m giving you and Gergenstein top priority tomorrow, chief. I want to be able to fight, and I want to be able to run. You need more power, you need more men, you let me know… whatever it takes. And for God’s sake, stay alive! You’re the only one who knows how this crate is holding together, understand?”
“Perfectly,” Bertram said, the ice returning to her voice, telling that she didn’t really believe him. “I just hope you can deliver.” With that, she walked away. Probably after another smoke, he thought. O’Reilly didn’t really care as he walked toward the hatch, already mentally prepping for his first battle as executive officer, only a few hours away. He already knew that he was going to feel out of place on the bridge, helpless and frustrated at being outside of the engine room. Only his trust in the captain kept him from despair. O’Reilly hoped God was on their side tomorrow. If he wasn’t, Von Shrakenburg would have to do.
Task Force 23.4 coasted silently through space, far above the ecliptic of the New Madrid system. They had jumped into normal space two weeks ago, a full light-week from the star. After two days of boost from the grav drive of the EFS Vanguard, and several days of high-thrust burn from the destroyers themselves, they were zooming along at just over half the speed of light, on an intercept course with New Madrid itself. All the preparations had been made, all the pieces were in place; it was time to go into battle.
"Coming up on 30 million kilometers to target," announced Lt. Patel at the helm. They were about to reach the maximum range of the sensors on the New Madrid battlestations.
"Activate the whisker masers," ordered Commodore Adams. "Tell the other ships, Weapons Free." Tight-beam masers flickered out, carrying his message to the other destroyers in the task force. Radar and Lidar targeting systems powered up to standby mode, not emitting yet, but ready to illuminate the targets at a second's notice.
"Picking up active emissions from the battlestations," Lieutenant Radovic called from the sensor panel.
"They see us yet?" asked Captain Von Shrakenberg.
"Negative, still below detection threshold," replied the sensor officer, "but the stations are still in the predicted orbits."
"Excellent," Erich concluded. "Any emissions from the orbiting ships?"
"Hang on a sec," said Radovic, furiously working at his panel. "Check. Reading two active search radars, Type 2011, probably a pair of dreadnaughts. No sign of the Jutland yet."
"Got her," interrupted Lt. Gergenstein at the weapons console. "Faint readings of her station-keeping radar, she's in low orbit between Battlestations Alpha and Beta."
"Good, she'll be in our target sector," answered the captain. "Get a targeting solution, and prepare to fire all lance torpedoes." While they spoke, the ships coasted another seven million kilometers closer.
"Almost there…passive locks on stations Alpha and Beta, they’ll be hit by the fusion shells," announced Gergenstein, very satisfied with himself. The destroyers had each fired forty fusion cannon shells at one of the battlestations a week ago. Now the shells were still moving, only thirty seconds ahead of the destroyers.
"Get a passive lock on the Jutland and prepare to light up the radar," Erich ordered. Any ship that wasn't actively emitting would be invisible on passive sensors, and if the Benedict didn't see a ship, it would survive the pass and be able to fire at the destroyer as it flashed past.
"Battlestations do not have defense grid radars online," announced Lt. Radovic.
"That's it, stay fat, dumb, and blind…"
Aboard Battlestation Alpha in orbit around New Madrid, a junior sensor tech was studying his terminal intently. "Captain, I’ve got some unusual readings here."
The station commander drifted over. "What is it, ensign?"
"I don't know. There’s some unusual radiation readings above the ecliptic."
"Above the ecliptic? Nothing should be there." Incoming spaceships normally came in along the ecliptic to minimize fuel costs as they matched orbits. Asteroids and micrometeorites sailed along the ecliptic as well, although eccentric orbits far above were not unheard of. "Man-made?" asked the commander.
"It's very faint… looks like ionizing radiation, like a bow wave from a ship, but much too faint for that." Ships traveling at high fractions of the speed of light slammed into stray hydrogen molecules in the near vacuum of space, causing sub-atomic components to be sprayed out at high speed from collisions with the hull.
"A sensor probe?" Sensor drones were often used for high-speed reconnaissance.
"Nope, too large," concluded the sensor technician. "Could be a micrometeorite shower, but I've never heard of them coming in fast enough to create a shock wave like this."
"A ship in stealth mode?"
The sensor tech looked worried. "No, that would be much stronger. It could be a salvo of lance torpedoes, but at that range?"
"Better safe than sorry," decided the station commander. "Bring up the defense grid radars, but don't release firing control yet."
"Defense grid powering up, Sir."
"Battlestation Alpha powering up defense grid," shouted Gergenstein.
"Crap, the meteor grid picked up the shells," Erich cursed. "Go active!"
"Active, aye!" Even at the speed of light, it would take over a full minute for the radar pulses to reach the battlestations, and another twenty seconds before the destroyers would receive the echo of the radar pulses. By then, they would have moved three million kilometers closer.
The battlestation’s sensor tech felt like he’d been bit on the ass. "Picking up another shock wave, looks like a ship!"
"Range and vector?"
"Inbound, range… 15 million kilometers, velocity…one-half lightspeed!"
"Shit! Cee-fractional strike," yelled the station commander. "Power up all systems, release firing control to the computers!"
"Too late!" At that speed and range, the battlestation saw where the destroyers were fifty seconds before. It was far too late.
"M. Gergenstein, you may fire when ready," ordered Captain Von Shrakenberg.
"Firing, sir. Torpedoes away!"
Twenty lance torpedoes salvoed out of the box launchers mounted above the main body of the destroyer, propelled out at several hundred gee's by powerful magnetic mass drivers. The fusion cannon in front of them chucked out nuclear shells at a rate of forty-five per minute. All the projectiles carried the full momentum of the launching ship, half the speed of light, plus their own boosters. At two million kilometers, they'd impact in fifteen seconds.
"Defense grid online, under computer control," reported the sensor tech.
"What are we facing?" demanded the station commander.
"Four ships, destroyers." replied the sensor tech.
"Alert all ships in orbit!"
"Defense grid firing!"
The battlestation's large numbers of particle phalanxes opened up at a range of half a million kilometers. The high-velocity streams of protons and electrons smashed into the incoming fusion cannon shells at just short of light speed. One nuclear shell after another vanished in a cloud of expanding plasma. The point defense mounts managed to intercept thirty-eight shells, but two shells got past, impacting the battlestation. The kinetic impact alone released an energy of many megatons, cracking the orbital fort open like an egg. Tons of structural plasteel were converted into white-hot plasma by the energy of the impact, flashing through decks and bulkheads as if they were paper. As the satellites swung into view, two more stations died similar deaths, impacted from the shells from the other destroyers. Battlestation Delta escaped by pure luck, only taking a glancing blow from one shell, ripping off a docking arm and scorching the hull. As the orbiting ships struggled to bring their engines online, the salvoes of lance torpedoes and additional fusion cannon shells fell upon them.
The star control ship that once was the EFS Jutland was blown in half, its back broken by a lance torpedo hitting amidships. A second torpedo turned the forward half into another cloud of plasma and debris. The surviving after half careened wildly out of orbit, impacting into the sea below, causing a vast tidal wave as four million tons of metal splashed down in New Madrid’s largest ocean.
An Electra-class assault dreadnought suffered a similar fate as it received three lance torpedoes each. A Niteroi-class light cruiser and a Mandela-class destroyer also joined its fiery death.
The four destroyers of Task Force 23.4 flashed past the planet twenty seconds later, stuck in their speedy course, unable to dodge the ships still surviving as well as the ships coming in from outer positions. Caught in a terrible crossfire, the EFS Doyle and Richardson were blown into the void by lance torpedoes from the rebel Akagi-class heavy cruiser appearing from the behind the planet, while Battlestation Delta recovered quickly and burned the Hatcher with a grav laser.
Now it was the Benedict’s turn. As the ship flashed past the planet below the ecliptic, the other Electra-class turned from its outer position, and fired with its heavy grav lasers. One beam sliced through the lower pylon holding the destroyer's lone chemlaser, slicing the pylon neatly off and breaching the hull. The other would have finished the ship off if it hadn’t been for its speed. The glancing blow still ripped open the port hull opening the port hull to space.
"Seal off the lower Pylon," screamed Von Shrakenberg.
"Compartments 17 through 34 open to space," reported Commander O'Reilly. "Power’s out through scattered parts of the ship." Xinjao scanned through his screens, “We’ve lost all four port particle phalanxes, sir.”
"Roll ship to shield affected flank," ordered the captain.
"Aye!" The EFS Benedict spun on its longitudinal axis, turning the dead point defense mounts away from the incoming fire.
Lieutenant Radovic sat back in his seat. "Now leaving effective weapons range, sir."
The captain looked up. "Any ships following us?”
"Negative, we made a clean break."
"Not quite," corrected the commodore. "Status of the other destroyers?"
Herbert looked over at them. "All three ships destroyed.”
"Gott in Himmel," cursed the captain. "Damage report?"
"It’s bad, sir." the exec reported. "We’ve lost over half our armament, including the chemlaser, as well a quarter of our hull." O’Reilly sighed. “The good news is that they missed our fuel tanks and engines.”
"We're also out of lance torpedoes and down to 20 rounds for the fusion cannon," added Lt. Gergenstein.
"So, we're toothless, but running too fast for them to catch us," concluded the captain. "Fuel status?"
The helmsman turned toward his CO. "We still have enough fuel for breaking, with a little maneuvering reserve, but not much else."
J.J. Adams opened his helmet and wiped his brow. "All right," the commodore sighed, "We took our licks, but we just bagged a couple battlestations, a star control ship, and God knows what else. It wasn’t pretty for us, but it was a damn fine trade-off. Now keep your eyes peeled for rebel ships on deep patrol, and get us to the rendezvous as fast as this broken crate can fly." The flag officer looked over at the captain, gave a nod of respect, then left the bridge.
Malachi eyed the package eagerly. He already knew what was inside it, but he didn't have time to check, so he dropped it off at his quarters. Spyder had to meet up with his platoon in the cargo bay. Unlike his other meetings, this time he had a clear purpose; it would be short.
Once he entered the cargo bay, the entire platoon was already at attention. Malachi didn't find it as surprising as he had before. After all, this is how troopers were supposed to act. "All right, people,” he began, “we're not gonna be here very long, since we got some time reserved in the VR room. We’ll be meeting there at eighteen hundred hours for a small training scenario. Do I make myself clear?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" the platoon called out.
Malachi smiled; from what he could tell, only a few of his men were problems, the rest were very good at their jobs. It figured. They were assault recon; when you’re the first to encounter the enemy, you had to be good. "Good, then I'll expect to see you there. Sergeant?" He stood there as Elly went through the drill. As soon as the platoon finished the litany, he went back to his quarters; he had some inventories to go through.
Once there, Spyder ripped open the package, and pulled out the contents. The sight of the weapons held him in awe. He knew he could get two or three handguns through without the Fed Post Office noticing; he’d done it before and they only checked packages so far. They almost never noticed the shielding layer, sending back a false image to their scanners. In those civil service jobs, if it didn’t look dangerous, they usually didn’t care.
The lieutenant picked two interesting candidates; the improved, government issue, Class IV plasma revolver and .52 caliber Piccone hand cannon. He delighted in their weight, then he decided to push his luck and went for two of each. They'd be nice for post-combat cleanup; after all, they couldn’t be in power armor ALL the time. He also took a moment and read Bob's and Hope's letters, made a quick response, then included his "shipment request" in his letter to Bob. He couldn't emphasize enough how fast he needed them. After which he hid the rest of his package, he put a few pain-killers in his packet, for when they landed. Just in case…
Once he finished, he headed to the ship's mess hall. The food was horrid but he was too hungry to care. It was fourteen hundred when he was finished. He turned around to see Elly and Private Klawien sitting at a table nearby.
Elly had been doing her best to get her ready for combat. If she could get her ready, they they'd be fine. Jennifer Klawien had good aim, really good aim; now they had to make sure she would shoot at the rebels.
Before he could head over to the table, a hand stopped him. "Lieutenant Spyder?" Malachi looked over and saw Captain Kraai staring at him.
"Get your platoon ready, we’re dropping. Briefing’s in four hours."
At eighteen hundred hours, the 137-122nd Assault Reconnaissance Battalion stood at attention in one of the larger cargo bays of the EFS Vishnu. Spyder had told Ragdowski what was happening the second he heard. She spread the word quickly and had them in the Mark 77’s before he could get in his own. Of course, they didn’t have the same problem that Malachi did. In the crumple zone behind the rear armor plate, he managed to fit his illegal handguns snuggly. The nanotech cover did the rest; once the suit enveloped him, it was hard to feel them at all.
So the entire battalion stood there, all dressed in the same weak scout armor. Standing in front of his platoon beside Elly, he saw Jada Kraai appear out of the door, her face plate lifted up to see her command with her own eyes. “At ease.”
The unit took a more comfortable stance and she eyed them with a careful glance. “You are the eyes and ears of this army. I want you to remember one thing down there. You see trouble, you let the heavy suits do the dirty work. Your job is to observe, report, and analyze the situation.” The captain lifted up one arm and pointed to her head. “Use this,” then lifted up the other hand, “not this.”
The battalion sergeant-major activated a large holoproj above her. There was the red circle of the landing zone and several white dots encircling it. “We’re dropping in pods before the first shuttle hits the LZ.” Unit designations appeared next to the dots and the suit computers quickly detected their places. “We’re flanking for the entire First Division, so that means, we’re spread pretty thin. Our objective” the holoproj zoomed out to show a city to the top of the map, “is Talavera, an important supply center and connection point. Now, the entire legion’s job” the map zoomed out even further, showing that Talavera was a land bridge between the two major continents, “is to secure this area.” Division symbols appeared around the isthmus. “If we can accomplish this, the rebels will be cut off, and we can cut them down piecemeal. Therefore,” she closed her faceplate, the nanotech grey slithered over her helmet. “good hunting. Sergeant-major, move them out.”
“You heard the lady,” the NCO barked out in suit-amplified tones, “MOVE IT!”
They filed out by platoon and went toward their assigned tubes. Lieutenant Spyder hated pods; he didn’t like not being in control of things around him. They bundled you up, sent you through the atmosphere, and if you were lucky, didn’t get shot down. All you had to do is be scared.
Rolling himself in a ball, the officer fit himself into the pod, feeling, not really seeing, the pod close around him. He had to go in first; command staff were always fired first, in order to keep the chain of command intact, just in case the ship was destroyed in combat. So there he sat in the pitch darkness, waiting to get shot out of a giant gun. Malachi went through his suit computers, trying to familiarize himself with the mission specifics, the maps, all it had on New Madrid’s condition… anything to take his mind off where he was.
Then the insertion pod holder clicked. Here it comes, Spyder thought, and forced himself to look out his faceplate. Suddenly, click… BOOM! His little pod was thrown forward into the blackness of space. A relief went through him as he saw the big blue ball get closer and closer. Planetary defenses were blazing away but there didn’t seem to be any fleet fighting going on. The white, yellow, and blue flashes of light firing all around him were like a deadly fireworks display, put on just for him.
“LT? You all right?”
Elly’s voice snapped him back into reality. His suit computer was tracking his platoon’s pod, still firing the last of them from the Vishnu. He bit down on his dentcom and answered her. “Yeah, everything’s fine. We’re on target for the LZ.”
“Confirmed, sir. ETA till arrival, 14 minutes.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” Malachi clicked off the circuit and watched his descent into the blurred madness beneath him.
The pod hit the atmosphere, beginning to shred off pieces of his heat shielding as it passed through; the chaff would serve to fool the sensors below. Soon enough, he saw the small isthmus, the strip of land getting closer with each minute. Finally, the pod coasted lower in the atmosphere, shredding a second layer of transparent fabric to slow him down. Then as trees and jungle became recognizable, it opened, and Spyder jumped out, using his suit’s thrusters to make a landing… a hundred feet above the surface. Finally his feet touched the mucky ground; he never felt so good to be on a planet in his whole life.
Malachi had landed about 300 meters away from his planned position. Oh well, he thought, and did what the TI did best; marched. In a Mark 77 Scout Suit, it didn’t take long to reach his coordinates, although the thick jungle and the sudden rain didn’t do much to favor it.
He checked his suit computer. It was tracking his platoon getting into position, spreading out around the northeast sector of the landing zone. “This is Spyder. 2nd Squad get in position, on the double. Activate passive sensors and keep a steady eye.” Pause. Short comm signals made it difficult to triangulate. “Whatever you do, don’t send up a active flare. The rebels don’t need much to hit us with.”
“1st Squad on line.” Corporal Proctor said, his troopers appearing around Spyder with a cat’s stealth.
“Conserve your power. Don’t use the chameleon circuits until we’re engaged.”
“2nd Squad on line.” Sergeant Ragdowski’s voice came over the comm channel.
Once the other two squads were in position, he called the captain. “3rd Platoon on line.”
“Confirmed. Shuttle ETA, two minutes.”
The rain came down in sheets of lead. Although he was dry and comfortable inside the suit, his visibility slowly ramped down to zero. The survivability counter dropped from 85.6% to 70.2%; not exactly designed to inspire confidence. The suit was supposed to take over if the expected possibility of survival dropped beneath a certain level. Of course, by that time, you might be dead. The programmers had hidden that number cleverly among all the other little displays throughout the faceplate screen. However, his eyes always wandered back it, no matter how hard he tried.
Even through the monsoon rains, he could hear the shuttle’s engines, whirring their way toward a quick and safe landing. Everything was going according to…
A red beam of light lanced across the sky so bright it seemed to split the heavens. The next thing he saw was the massive explosion; he dropped down to ground, his chameleon circuits activating immediately.
“What the fuck was that?!” someone screamed out on the unit comm.
“Pipe down!” Ragdowski shot back. She switched to the command channel. “What happened, sir?”
“Stand by.” Malachi contacted the captain. “Ma’am, what happened?”
“God damn pig-fuckers got our backup, THAT’S what happened!” Captain Kraai screamed into the channel. “Spyder, someone’s out there with a lance cannon. Take your platoon and take them out.”
A lance cannon versus a platoon of under powered armor? Suicide! Even if they could sneak up to it, it had to have some escort, and they were going to be better armed then they were. “Ma’am?”
“That’s an order, lieutenant!”
“But there’s no way…”
“Spyder, we’re out here alone. First Division’s already moving to the secondary LZ. Now if you don’t take that out, they’re going to burn us all. You’ve gotta take that cannon out!”
Malachi sighed as his mind cleared like a man on the way to the gallows. Your thoughts become amazingly clear when you know you’re going to die. “Yes, ma’am.”
There was an explosion in the middle of nowhere. Orange swirls and white-hot flames danced as an antique ship appeared from the colored void; the fusion reaction fading into sub-atomic particles.
On board the Lonely Heart, Ken Krawcyk adjusted the controls and brought up a holoproj of the system. “Welcome to Wilke’s Star, shithole of the galaxy, and capital of the Rebellion.” The old man stared at Andrea. “You couldn’t have picked a worse spot to jump into. Our jump sent out a flare so large you could see it without sensors!”
Treschi just sat there, drilling holes in Kraw’s face with his eyes. “I told you. Everything will be fine.”
“How come I believe you less then when we jumped from New Paris?”
“Because you’re a little shit who can’t find the way out of his ass!”
“Shut up, BOTH OF YOU!” Danika yelled from her seat. “I am sick and tired of putting up with your SHIT! Now you,” she pointed to Kraw, “shut up and fly this crate. And you” pointing to Andrea, “better know what you’re doing!”
The comm button started blinking. “Time to find out.” Kraw muttered, looking at his unwilling companion. “You wanna take this call?”
“Punch it up.” Treschi looked at the holoproj, watching it change from the pleasant dance of planets to an obscenely ugly fleet officer.
“This is Captain Brizendine of the EFS Ticonderoga. I have two squadrons of fighters tracking your ship right now. Identify yourself quickly or be destroyed.”
Andrea stared at the holoproj and began to speak. “This is the merchant ship Lonely Heart. We’re in-bound from New Paris and wish to speak to your superior.”
“You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“The Prinz Eugen and the Musashi are your escorts, yes?” Treschi smiled, exploiting the information he downloaded from Cornelius after their conversation. “I’m pretty sure the Lancaster is covering your rear. Now can I talk to your superior?”
Captain Brizendine was shocked. Once the color returned to his face, he growled, “Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”
Once they reached the permanent gray of Wilke’s Star, Andrea was shuttled off toward a luxurious room inside the rather hastily constructed base outside the main city. Although the room was tastefully decorated, the furnishings were few; cot, desk, chair, hologram projection unit, heavy-duty comm unit, galactic map with tons of markings on it, and a flag of the Earth Federation standing behind the desk.
Treschi heard the rumble and patter of rain falling. The mage was amazed it had stopped; the constant cloud cover prevented this from becoming the vacation spot of the galaxy. It was the first world made habitable by a atmosphere condenser; the prototype must have had faults.
Suddenly the door burst open and a person appeared from the rain-soaked mud streets. He couldn’t tell if it was human or not; wrapped up in a thick long coat and a poncho, it ripped off its shoes, throwing them off to the side of the door before closing it. The stockinged feet certainly seemed human… and small. The coat came off and the uniformed figure underneath was definitely female. Finally, the poncho revealed a short mass of brown, slightly gray hair, framing a face that was once beautiful. Once she looked at him, Andrea finally realized who she was. The leader of the rebellion and former commander-in-chief of all Federation armed forces, Marshal Sarah Dunmeyer.
“I don’t have a lot of time, M. Treschi, so please make it fast.” She blurted out, that gruff tone she usually gave orders in. Making her way over to her desk, Sarah sat down, allowed herself a second to relax in the chair, and glared at him. “Well?”
“I’m… at a loss for words. I didn’t expect…”
“…to see me? Well, the fleet boys were scared shitless when you started naming off their formations. Since you wanted to talk to their superiors, here you are. Now tell me, why shouldn’t I hang you for being a spy?”
Because rope’s too expensive, he thought, then quickly dismissed it. “In exchange for entering your space, I want to make a deal.”
“A deal? This ought to be a laugh. A man shows up on a spaceship that should be thrice condemned and he wants to offer something to the Fed.”
Treschi ignored her derision. “I represent a group of individuals who work… well, outside the law.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“We lost a shipment of weapons in the Rios System. Now they’re perfectly usable but they’re floating out in space. They could come in real useful… I’m sure you put them to good use, but without my help, you’ll never find them.”
“And how do I know these ‘guns’ exist?”
“Because you’ll be able to confirm that they do before I leave this system. All I want is your word of honor that I can leave under my own power.”
“What if you give me their location and they don’t exist?”
“Then you can blow me out of the sky.”
Dunmeyer gave an evil grin. “What makes you think I won’t anyway? After all, I can kill you and still take the guns.”
“You would have to break your word,” Andrea responded coolly, “and I’m betting that that is still important to you. Besides, you’ll know that I can jump in and out of Fed…” Treschi quickly corrected himself, “…Grand Council space, something that might be very useful to you later.”
Sarah was about to speak and then stopped herself. After staring at him for a minute, she started writing on a datapad and smiled. “All right, M. Treschi, I’ll do it. You have my word that you will not be harmed and I will give you free passage through our space.” She finished writing and handed it over to Andrea. “Satisfied?”
Treschi nodded, took out a piece of paper, and handed it to the marshal. “Yes. Here are the coordinates where you can find the merchandise. I think we’re even.”
“Very well.” Dunmeyer looked closer at him, trying to figure something out. “Have we ever met, M. Treschi?”
“I was in the Tech Infantry, ma’am.”
“Yes, of course.” She looked again, but finally accepted the answer. “Very well. I have several things to do that I’ve already put off too long. Dismissed.”
Andrea began to walk out the door as the marshal got up to look at the map. Before he left, he saw her move a marker out of New Madrid.
On his way back to the shuttle that brought him here, he was getting soaked on the ground. The mud seemed to suck you down and was thick as plastcrete. Finally, wet and dirty, he made it back to the craft. Sloshing over to a seat, he collapsed on the seat, tired from the effort of traipsing through Wilke’s Star. God, what a shithole.
The shuttle powered up, but before the door closed, a man with a thick coat rushed in and sat down. Slumping down in the seat across from him in the empty craft, he wiped the water from his face. “My God, what a shithole!”
Treschi smiled. “Almost missed the flight, eh?”
“Almost missed you, M. Treschi.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I know many things about you. I know who you work for, who you’re travelling with… I know you’re on your way to the Hadrian System and some place called… oh, what was it, New Sparta?”
Andrea jumped up and lifted him by his coat out of the chair. “How do you know that?! HOW?!?!”
“Calm yourself, M….”
Treschi threw him on the floor. The metal ringed with the collision. “What do you want?!”
The man sat up, brushing the dust off his coat. “I think the better question is who I am. What I want will follow naturally.”
“Then who are you?”
“My mind is open, M. Treschi. Why don’t you read it?”
Andrea’s eyes widened in shock, but quickly recovered, narrowing with the mental training he’d learned. The man knew how to defend himself against a casual scan, but he left himself open on purpose. Once he scanned him, his eyes flashed again, as he realized who he was. “You can’t be…”
The man smiled. “I think we need to talk.” Standing up on the moving shuttle, he looked right into Treschi’s eyes. “We need to discuss the future.”
Hex dropped the burger onto the patchwork metal table and stared in disbelief at the little girl standing in front of him. Nudges at the sides of his mind seemed to be constant. Through all of this, she had called him brother. He had no sister or any siblings of any kind. Although he felt he knew her from somewhere, he replied, “I think you have me confused with someone else.”
The girl stared at him closer out of politeness, but she knew him. “No, you’re Kiddo, all right.”
“That’s not my name.”
“That’s what Doctor Xaktos called you. I remember that clearly. You’ve grown, but…” she smiled like a supernova, “so have I.”
How the hell did she know the doctor’s name?! Hex bolted out of his chair at her words. Who the hell was she?! Instinctually, he reached for his guns…
The three men behind the girl rushed forward to protect her. The boy opened his hands, keeping them off his weapons; inwardly he was amazed at their training. Then it came to him; they were scanning him. Hex could feel them slithering around in his head.
The girl pushed them away cautiously and walked toward Hex. The boy had to use all his self-control not to run at the sight of her. He was confused more than anything else. Why would one little bit of skirt scare him out of his wits?
“This is not the
best place to talk. Maybe we could go back to your shuttle?”
Hex stood up and agreed. After all, it would be disconcerting to kill her here. Too many witnesses; not enough escape routes. In the shuttle bay, all he had to do was knock her out, then open the outer hatch. However, this girl knew something, and before anything else, Hex wanted to know what that was.
"Kiddo... do you know who I am?"
Alone in the shuttle bay together, she looked like she had been waiting for a long time to see him. It could have been an act, but Hex wasn’t sure; either way it didn’t matter. He didn’t know her. "I know that either you or one of your friends is a very powerful mage, and I’m supposed to think that I know you from somewhere. You said I'm your brother. I'm not, so let’s cut the crap. Who are you and what do you want?"
"My name is Cerise, but I think the only way you would remember me is by the name Pint. You're memories are all here,” she tried to touch her forehead, but Hex moved away. She sighed as she continued. “They're there, but they’re all covered up... what have they done to you, Kiddo?"
He felt the tug at his mind and grabbed her hand. "My mind’s not a playground, kid! It's a war zone; you don't belong there."
Somehow, the physical connection made her stronger. Pint grabbed his hand back and she started riding it into his mind. Images blurred past his eyes, many strange and unfamiliar, as they rushed past.
-- “You’ll have to remember, Kiddo…”
-- “…look back and admire the work. It’ll be a wonderful ship…”
-- “WE CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS!!!”
-- “…you will only know me as Xaktos. See my image, it is the only one with that name…”
“Get out of my head!!! “ Hex screamed, the flood of images crashing through his mind, real and conflicting with what he knew. It was wrong, he knew… it had to be wrong, yet the memories flowed like a tidal wave through his mind.
-- “…how powerful you’ve become. Don’t laugh at any…”
-- “She’s just a little baby…”
-- “…My God, don’t shoot! You have everything…”
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD… NOW!” Hex screamed again, taking his other hand to throttle her neck. The second he touched her throat, the boy’s hand burned, and his body was thrown through the air, landing on the hard metal floor some fifteen feet away.
The pain in his back was what did it. The sounds of Cerise rushing over to him were distant in his mind. He heard the shuttle bay door opening with the falls of more feet. All of these were too far away to matter. The images, the… memories, they were all true. Everything had been a lie.
Pint finally reached him, breaking away from the mage (he had to be a mage) that was holding her. Something was happening to him, Hex knew, but it was so strange. His body felt like it was on fire. The walls around him seemed to fade; the solid objects around him weren’t really real. He started to shake. It was too much all at once. Nothing was real.
Cerise’s protector pushed them back. “Can’t you see it? He’s awakening!”
The change came upon him like a second birth; screaming in pain.
She killed the holoproj and switched to a map of the complex. "It's a raid!"
"I thought you said this place was safe?!" Steve Jupedus shot back.
"Not now, please not now…" Shannon muttered as she pointed to something on the map, "Yes…"
"What are you doing? What about the raid?" Mark Smith asked.
"You want to go out there? Go ahead! If you want to live, on the other hand, listen." Both men went silent as she took one more look at the holoproj. "We’ve overstayed our welcome. We need out… quick. Follow me."
The three of them walked through a door that wasn’t there. Beyond that, there was a narrow service tunnel that stretched out for all directions. They said nothing as they walked for what seemed like an hour. Finally, the tunnel stopped at a pressure door, and Shannon turned around.
"I’m sorry about that, but King seems to be closing in on our operations. That’s the third raid this week. That’s the reason why we want him so badly. Of course, with you guys on the loose, it seems they’re pushing even harder. They shouldn’t have found us that easily."
"What? You’re blaming us for that?” Mark yelled back, his voice echoing down the tunnel. “We did nothing! You brought us there!”
She motioned for him to be quiet. “Calm down.”
“They couldn’t find us that quick, I don’t care if they are InSec!” Smith whispered back. “We just left the hotel, came here, and all of a sudden, they raid you. If they were after us, they would have had more men."
"You aren’t that good… and they don't need that many men. I think they had trailed you somehow, biding their time, seeing what you were really planning to do. They weren’t ready for me to find you first.” Shannon started unlocking the well-oiled pressure door. “All those people… just so we could make it out. They were my friends and they died so that we can complete our mission." As she finished opened the door, a dark quiet came over the three of them, as if those friends of hers had died in front of them. "We’re losing time. Let’s go.”
The door opened up a long flight of stairs. Another small door at the top entered into a small shop. Mark looked around and quickly saw they a couple blocks away from the bar; they just eluded InSec again. Now it was time to think… Smith tried to put the pieces together, before everything happened so fast.
If the girl hadn’t made it to them, he thought, they would have been dead. It is a funny universe we live in. At first, she was bad luck, then she saves their lives. Now that she thought about it, HOW IN THE WORLD did she dodge Steve's plasma bolt AND disarm him… without even trying? She was good; she didn't even flinch. All of it was really weird.
As they walked out the store, then down the street, Steve was getting annoyed. "Where are we heading?"
"We are almost there.” The little girl replied. “Don't worry so much."
"That is not what I asked! Answer my question, you dumb bitch!"
Mark put his hand on Jupiter’s chest, trying to intervene. "How will King’s death help you? I mean, InSec is just going to get someone else to take over, and then they’ll chase you down again."
"King is more than the head of InSec. He’s the right hand of the Chairman. If he falls, some of the pressure is taken off us, and we can catch our breath before we strike again.”
"Tell me this, at least. Why are you using us? It would be smarter to use your own people, wouldn’t it?"
"We did," was all she replied, before a hovercar stopped in front of them. “Here’s our ride.”
Shannon went in first, then the other two followed cautiously, getting into the small car and the taking off down the streets of Cornell. It didn’t take long for them to feel lost; after all, they didn’t spend that much driving around Avalon. Sitting in the moldy seat, Mark’s shoulder brushed against the hidden sword in his coat. If it was not for that sword, he thought, I would be dead now. To think, I used to think of it as a rusty piece of metal, but it’s saved my life. Now someone really wanted me dead. King was waiting for him and Pax wanted me to know it. Someone is tipping King off; Smith quickly resolved not talk to anyone, not even his employer, General Willard.
Mark traced his memories back since they landed on this planet. He was hoping for something that would lead him back to them that gave away their plans. Instead of finding out who, he quickly realized the why; King wants me alive. His memories took him back quickly as Smith sorted them in his head. When I entered his room, he remembered, his men could have shot me, but they didn't. Everything seemed so out of place. He knew it was true, but couldn't understand why; if King knew he was trying to kill him, why did he want him alive?
Right then, the car came to a stop in front of a warehouse. As the young girl got out, she motioned towards the building. "You’re to meet with my father. From there, he’ll tell you what you need to know to get King."
"Fine with me," Mark replied, still trying to grasp what was happening around him. As Shannon approached the warehouse, the door opened automatically for her, and she disappeared into the pre-fab structure. They followed cautiously, watching her movements as she made a beeline for the office nearby. As the office door opened, her cold exterior seemed to melt as she ran, screaming out, “Daddy!”
The tanned-skin man with the rumpled hair picked her up in one bound, taking her daughter in his arms. “Hello, Shannon. I see you brought them to me.”
“Just like you said.”
“All right, why don’t you go to Mom? She’s got lunch for you.”
“Okay.” She replied, then got down, and ran off out of the office.
The proud father looked at his new guests. "Hello, boys. Did my daughter treat you well?"
"Fine," Mark answered, “but we’re still a bit confused…”
"You’ve had a lot to deal with. My name is Kash, please sit down."
Both of them sat down in the chairs next to them as Kash leaned against the wall. “We were raided again. We lost everyone… except you three, of course. It was stupid; we should have seen that coming."
"What is going on?”
“A war, M…?”
“Smith.” Mark looked at him more closely. “I think you knew that already, though.”
Kash smiled. “So I did.”
“It’s a 200-year resistance, M. Smith. We’ve been fighting the Federation since the Bugs dropped on Rio de Janeiro.”
“And this Resistance… it gives you special powers?”
Steve put it plainly, “How the fuck can your daughter dodge bullets?! And don’t tell me that was magic… I’ve seen magic.”
The man was shocked for a moment and then realized what he was talking about. “My daughter and I are the last of our kind… well, one of the last. There’s fewer than a thousand of us left.”
“Who… what are you?” Mark asked.
“Names… I could say one name, and you wouldn’t believe me. I could give you several and you wouldn’t know which to choose from. Let me just say that we’re… not quite human.”
“That’s not much of an answer.” Steve growled.
“I’m afraid we’re not much of a race… not anymore, anyway.” Kash stared at them closer. “Yes, I’m glad Shannon brought you to me, despite what happened. We’ve finally found Colonel King’s home.”
Both of them perked up. “Where?” Mark asked.
“I’ll show you… tonight. If you’re still willing?”
“What, no threats?” Steve shot back.
“We’re not the TI, M. Jupedus, we believe in the freedom to do what we please. We fight to be free and force no man to join unless he wants.”
Mark nodded. “Then you got a deal.”
The home of the commandant of Internal Security was rather disappointing. A small little house, looking like it dated back to colonial days, less than an hour away from the center of the capital city. The overgrown grass and the puke-green paint gave the impression of its being abandoned or housing a shut-in. It truly was the last place someone would look for the second most powerful man in the Federation.
The scanner that Kash brought with him went off the scale when it detected the large amount of detection equipment all around the place. There was no one in view, but that didn’t mean there weren’t InSec troopers in camouflaged power armor. It paid to be cautious. “What’s the plan?” Mark asked the strange man, feeling for his sword.
“We’ve got men closing in all around the building. Once we’ve interrupted the detectors, we’ll strike, hitting the top and ground floors with various levels of…”
Smith’s mind wandered as his thoughts returned to those in the hovercar. King wanted him alive. The idea was unbelievable and all this… seemed too easy. This little house had to be a trap. Had to be; there was no other explanation in his mind. In the middle of Kash’s plotting, Mark suddenly stood, drew his sword, and walked toward the house.
“Mark, what the fuck are you doing?!?!” Steve screamed after him, but Smith paid it no mind. Soon enough, he was at the door, and without another move, the Sword of Kuar sliced through it. Two slices, two steps, and he was through, looking at the smug face of Colonel Rashid King, lighting up a cigar in his recliner. “Ah, M. Smith. Do you smoke? I have some fine…”
“SHUT UP!” he screamed, walking toward his target, sword in front, ready to strike.
“Bringing a sword to a gun fight? Not very smart, wouldn’t you say?”
“I want some answers NOW… or I’ll cut your fucking head off!”
Rashid’s eyes shifted off to the side for a moment and then he smiled. “I doubt it, M. Smith.” Behind him, Mark heard the whirr of a plasma revolver charging. His head slowly turned.
Steve Jupedus stood there in the doorway, revolver drawn and charged, pointing right at him. “Drop the sword, Mark. M. King has a few things to say to you.”
Captain Dimiye walked into the reception area and was greeted by the general's aide.
"Good morning." The clerk said, not bothering to look up from the work she was doing.
"Good morning. I was ordered…"
"You're expected, captain. His Royal Highness will be with you in a few minutes."
His Royal Highness? He was hoping that only a tenth of what he's heard about General Fabin was true. From all the stories that circulated in the ranks, he sounded more like a lunatic than an officer. He sized up the General's buxom secretary, wearing the stripes of a corporal; so what if he takes liberties with his staff, that doesn't make him… His eyes froze on the small sign displayed on her desk. It was a picture of a Scottish piper with the phrase 'Pipers do it with Amazing Grace.' Oh shit, Alistar thought.
After a few minutes, the clerk chimed in, "Lord Fabin will see you now." Dimiye walked through the door, fearing what awaited him on the other side. His thoughts became a prayer; Great Buddha, deliver me.
He walked into a small museum. The office was covered from top to bottom with various antiques from Scotland. Shields and claymores covered the walls alongside tartans and bagpipes. Behind his large wooden desk hung the blue and white St. Andrew’s Cross of the Scottish Flag. Below that was the pale form of Brigadier General Joel Thomas Fabin.
He leapt up from behind the desk to shake his hand. "Hey Dimiye, nice ta meet ya!" Fabin said, wearing a shit-eating grin. "Heard all about how ya tuned up them slants down on Hadley."
"Well, thank you, sir."
"Very proud of ya!" The general said sarcastically.
"Thank you, sir." What an asshole! Dimiye thought.
"Listen, I know how stiff the other brass can be. Anyone gives you any problems", He made a gesture of punching someone in the face, "you come to ME!"
"Yes, sir, I'll keep that in mind."
"So, did you meet your brigade commander yet?"
The general's smile widened. "And ah…what'd you think of her?"
The image of Major Vanderpool appeared in Alistar's head. Words like cold, unyielding, and curmudgeon sprang to mind. So, he lied. "She seems like a very capable officer sir."
"She's a BITCH!" The general bellowed. "But she's MY bitch and she's good at what she does!"
"Yes sir." World… Class… Asshole!
"Have a seat there, Al." The general said as he pushed him down into the chair. "Al, do ya mind if I call ya Al?"
"I don't see why not, s…"
"Al," he said cutting him off with a raised hand. "We've got a problem here." His one hand went to the side of his head, the other on his hip. "Hmm… well, Al,” he said in a high pitched nasal voice. "We got just about every single yellow, slant-eyed, slope in God's creation out here in Federation territory. We've busted up their little ships and sent them home running to their little yellow mommies. But we've still got thousands of em on Epsilon pushing' around the white folk." He leaned in closer to Dimiye. "Al, I need you. I need some guys who'll go down there and kick some ass. What I've got is a bunch of bookworms who'd rather fight it out on a computer! These little officers got their heads full of schooling, running around like they know what they’re doing. They got no real life experience. Al! Are ya following me!?"
"Al," He grabbed Dimiye by both shoulders, "Look over at the big board." The big board was a tree list of the officers and units in the 86th Legion. Every name and unit had a number next to it counting the kills that unit had, and under both were nicknames bestowed by the general. Next to Captain Dimiye 613, was a zero. Underneath it were the letters FNG.
"Sir, what does FNG stand for?"
"Fucking New Guy." The general replied. "Right now, you got no name, and a big fat goose egg for kills. But I have faith in ya. I know you're gonna give me what I want. You go out there and kill every gook on two legs!
"Yes sir!" Dimiye said while standing to salute.
The general returned the salute. "And if ya screw up," he slammed his fist into the palm of his hand, "It's your ass!" Dimiye could tell he wasn't kidding.
He quickly walked out of the office into the reception area when the clerk called to him.
"Oh, captain? Before you leave, I was wondering if you'd like to join the general and I for a private lunch?" She said, licking her lips seductively.
Alistar never remembered walking away faster in his life.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Dimiye answered, looking at the list of requisition and change of command forms.
Lieutenant Stacy Johannes smiled as her commanding officer looked down the list. “Yes, sir. Standard operating procedure for command of a new unit.”
Alistar muttered, straining his eyes over what would look like days of paperwork. “I thought we broke away from the Federation for just this reason.”
“Not my place to say, sir.”
“Well, we’ve got a day or two in hyperspace before we hit Epsilon. I might finish these before we drop.” Maybe it would be easier to die, he pondered, and save myself the red tape.
“No need.” Stacy answered, pulling out a stack of datapads, looking smug as she handed them over. “This is the top half of this list. We’ll get the rest done before you drop.”
He put the pads down on the table and took the first one. Scrolling down, it was obviously complete and ready for his signature. “When did…”
“When the press was on board, I was assigned my new unit. ‘The job of a headquarters unit is the completion of administrative duties,’ according to regs, sir. Besides, I had to get Sergeant Lee to get my boys ready for the drop. A few days with these and they’ll be begging for action.”
“Sara Lee’s a sergeant?” Dimiye’s eyes went wide, then narrowed again. He should have guessed. If Benjamin and Johannes had been bumped up, why not the rest? “God help us all.”
“Actually, she’s doing pretty good. She’s getting Corporals Yeager and Collins up to speed and the other two are keeping up.”
“Seems like you got everything well in hand.”
Johannes winced for a moment then replied. “Almost.”
Before he could reply, the door to the battalion office opened. The woman who entered was a strange collection of opposites. Athletic with a chubby face, dark-skinned with blonde hair, prim and proper but mad as hell; the combination was ugly and disturbing at the same time. “Sir? We need to talk.”
“Who are you?”
“Lieutenant Kromminga,” Stacy answered for her, “commanding your third platoon.”
“FIRST Lieutenant Tamara Kromminga,” the woman corrected, “and I want to talk to the captain… alone.”
Johannes glared for a second then nodded, walking out the door, leaving her commanding officer in the strangest of positions. Alistar had been shuttled around so much that he was only now getting in touch with his command. Even though he didn’t know his own tribe, he smelled that Tamara had Black Fury blood running through her; great warrior, bad for conversation. “Can I help…”
Kromminga didn’t bother waiting on pleasantries. “Sir, I am the most senior platoon leader in this unit, I’ve served in the TI for eight years, earned my citizenship and re-upped. I think I deserve a little consideration!”
Dimiye leaned back against the wall, feeling the blood inside him begin to boil. “For what, lieutenant?”
“That… that GIRL has been made XO over me!”
“You mean Lieutenant Johannes?”
“Yes, sir! She has no right, NO RIGHT to be giving orders to me! I’ve sweated my service out in shit pits so deep you would need a hovertank to blast me out! And now, all hell’s breaking loose, and I’ve gotta take orders from the likes of her?! Hell, no!”
The beast stirred inside him but it kept it down. “Are you finished?”
She sighed and finally nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“I don’t know your service record, lieutenant, but I do know Lieutenant Johannes. She has proved she is competent, she’s calm under fire, and she can lead the troops.” Alistar stood up and got right in her face. “On the other hand, you’ve proved to me that you’re unstable, conceited, and insubordinate. Now if you’re in my shoes, who would you rather have as your executive officer?”
Tamara said nothing, just puffing away, breathing heavily to control her temper. Dimiye backed off slightly and glared at her. “Is there anything else?”
It took her a few seconds for her to be able to speak. “No… sir.”
“Remember, lieutenant, that you are my second officer, as well as one of my platoon leaders. I need your advice and your support. I expect you to follow my orders as well as those under me. Do we understand each other?”
“Good. Now get out of here.”
As the blonde-haired black woman left, Alistar found himself a chair. Picking up the datapad, he looked at it with envious glee. Maybe forms aren’t that bad after all, he thought, signing the first form.
At the legion briefing, Dimiye finally got his orders. So his battalion was to be in the first wave after all… figures. With all the propaganda and logistics work, he hadn't gotten a chance to address his new unit. That figured too. He'd met his lieutenants and his superiors, but not his men. Better late than never, he thought as his battalion was lined up before him. Now, on with the show.
"Men, in a few minutes, we’ll be dropping down to Epsilon to clear a path for the rest of the legion. You all know your jobs, I expect them to get done." He paused to examine the faces of his troopers. Most were younger than he was, a glint of childlike awe in their eyes; after all, they were in the presence of a war hero. Some looked scared, others… the more seasoned veterans, looked disappointed. It can't be this guy, their faces said to him.
Sorry, Alistar’s face responded, this is the best I can do. "Sergeant Major, prepare to move out the battalion."
"Yes, sir. BATTALION, move out!" Benjamin barked with the ease of a seasoned non-com.
Dimiye smiled. Hmmm, the kid has been paying attention. The doors to the shuttle bay opened for him and he stopped dead in his tracks. He didn't know why he did it. Weeks later, he would still be asking himself why he did it, but at that moment he turned to face the 86-613th Battalion, and spoke. "I am Alistar Soldati Dimiye, a son of the Northern Star. And from this moment on, I am dead, as are all of you."
The entire battalion stared at him in fascination. He could feel every eye on him. "Everyone of us who passes through this doorway forfeits their life. The only thing that can resurrect us… is victory. No matter what happens to these fragile shells we inhabit, victory will bring us life anew." He looked across the sea of faces that were in his thrall. "We will fight, we will overcome, and we will conquer; so that we can live to fight another day. And we must do so willingly." The bay was so quiet you could hear the vacuum sucking on the ship's hull.
"Do the condemned understand!?"
"SIR YES SIR!!!" The battalion cried out. Alistar was stunned. He'd heard troops cry out before with the same volume, but this time it had a certain quality to it that was foreign to him. Was there a tone of zeal in those voices? He thought as he made his way to a shuttle.
From the shuttle, he heard Benjamin barking at the troops to move faster.
"Hurry up, you dead boys! Get your asses in that flying coffin!"
As the last man entered his shuttle, a thought occurred to Dimiye. Dead boys? Dammit, that's gonna stick. Why the hell did I do that?
Three days after their attack, the EFS Benedict cut its velocity to less than five percent of light speed, as her captain anxiously awaited the arrival of the battlecruiser to take them home. The ship did not have sufficient fuel to kill the remaining velocity, much less turn around and reach one of the jumpgates in the New Madrid system. The rebel fleet had been routed back to Rios, a shattered hulk of what it had been, but the fight on the ground was still going on.
"Jump point forming in front of us," announced the sensor officer.
Erich Von Shrakenberg smiled. "Excellent, that will be the Vanguard… five minutes early." Not bad for a rendezvous, he thought, especially since it was scheduled two weeks ago.
“Sir,” Gergenstein interrupted his thoughts, “I don't think that's the Vanguard."
"What?" The captain bolted upright in his command chair.
"It's a Jurvain battlecruiser!"
The distinctive rounded shape of a Jurvain warship swam into view on the main viewscreen. The four bulges of its gravitic drive system along the sides and the larger bulge of the heavy Hellbore cannon at the prow made it look a little like a giant, flying turtle.
"Oh, Schizen," cursed the captain.
"Sir, the Jurvain are hailing us," announced Lt. Radovic.
The picture on the main viewer changed, showing a Jurvain captain sitting on the bridge of the warship, his three eyes were glaring behind the faceplate of his skinsuit. The translated words that he… she… it spoke came over the speaker without emotion.
"Greetings, Gatecrasher. You will surrender your ship and board our vessel. Once here, you will be taken back to Sahlmeen to stand trial for war crimes."
Erich managed to stand, holding onto his chair for support. "And… why should I do that?"
The answer sounded angry. Once the computer translated it, the answer came back in a deadly monotone. "If you don't, I will blow your egg-killing soul and your ship out of this universe. You can either come now or take your chances in the next world. The choice is yours."
Captain Von Shrakenberg made a quick cutting gesture with his hand below the pickup range of the viewscreen, and turned to his exec. "Commander O'Reilly, you and I both know that the instant I set foot on that ship, he'll kill the Benedict anyway."
The exec nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The captain continued, keeping his voice low. "So we’re dead anyway.” He allowed himself a sigh, then turned back to Xinjao. “Do we have enough fuel left to ram them?”
END OF EPISODE TWO
Andy (Hex): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 personality + 5 good orders = 35 pts.
Chris (Treschi): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 good orders = 30 pts.
Ed (O’Reilly): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 personality + 5 good orders = 35 pts.
Frank (Dimiye): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 personality + 5 good orders + 5 early turn-in = 40 pts.
Josh (Spyder): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 early turn-in = 30 pts.
Martin (Von Shrakenberg): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 good orders + 5 early turn-in = 35 pts.
Matt (Smith): 5 pts per act orders x 4 = 20 pts + 5 story + 5 early turn-in = 30 pts.
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.