WORLD OF MY DEVISING – Act II
“I shall make this world of my devising, out of a dream in my lonely mind,
I shall grasp the scepter of peace, above me, stars shall I find.”
-- Sara Teasdale, “Stars Shall I Find.”
The boy was no stranger to fear, but he had never been struck by terror like this before. His mind was filled with one question: Where is she? The child and the machine joined together as one, scanning the Sol system for transports as they rushed for the Wolf jumpgate. He had found his sister a nuisance many times before, but the thought of losing her scared him more than fighting Arthur Clarke had.
Moving at .5c brought him to the gate quickly, but there were so many transports heading his way that he didn’t know which one Cerise was on—or if she was even still in the system. Turning off the jamming shield and sending short-range transmissions to every ship heading for the gate, the boy desperately called for his sister. “Cerise! Where are you?”
It took a few moments before anything happened, but once the ships read the massive energy emissions the All-Father gave off, they started going evasive. Not a single one of them said anything back. Where are you? An image of Cerise in a corridor on-board a transport suddenly filled his mind, a look of confusion, anger, and happiness painted on her face.
“Kiddo? How did y—“
“Cerise, are you okay?!”
“Yeah, Da—I mean, Kash takes good care of me. As soon as the fleet appeared, he told Shannon and me to get on board the next transport for the Wolf system. Shannon didn’t listen, though. She was being bad. I told her she would get in trouble if she stayed, but she kept saying she was too big and Dad needed our help.”
“Is Wolf safe?”
“For now it is. It won’t be for long, though. Kiddo, didn’t you see the fleet?”
“No, I was only looking for transports. What’s going on?”
“The Fed’s here. They’re demanding surrender, and they’ll drop the moon on Earth if we don’t. They’ll do the same to every planet in every system until we surrender, but we won’t surrender. They’ll just put us into camps or kill us or—“ She was sobbing uncontrollably now.
They’ve gone too far this time, the boy thought to himself. “Don’t worry, Cerise. I’ll stop them.”
“How? And how are you getting this transmission onto the ship map display in this without anyone noticing? Where are you? Are you in hyperspace, too?”
Ugh. Too many questions. “Look, I’ve gotta go take care of some stuff. I’ll catch up with you soon.” I think… The boy cut the transmission, but the image of his sister still remained in his mind. “Goodbye, Cerise.” He then felt himself let go of something, and the image disappeared. Was that magick? I didn’t even feel it.
The transports were still zig-zagging their way towards the gate, but the boy in the machine ignored them now. He turned the shield on and started heading back to Luna, but it was too slow. The mobile stopped dead, and after a few seconds, a large correspondence portal appeared before it, which the mobile promptly stepped into. It didn’t come out the other side, though. Instead, it came out into cold nothingness. The shock of the cold told the boy that he wasn’t where he wanted to be, and the voice he heard told him exactly where he was.
I’m back, Hex. I’m almost disappointed that you have not made better use of this time, but I expected as much.
Oh? Well what have you done?
I’ve started unraveling your existence—and mine, too. Now that the Auschwitz has been removed, the void is your rightful place more than reality. You’ll have to consciously will yourself to stay there from now on, just as I have had to do for years. So will Cerise, in time.
What have you done to her!
I’ve taken away another part of your history, boy. Without the Auschwitz, Project: Zeus doesn’t go well and is cancelled. Atkins, Xaktos, and everyone else involved in the project are killed, including you. Eventually, the time-line will correct itself, and you will cease to exist. However, you are already strong enough to resist it if you wish. You might not realize it yet, but you don’t have to follow any of the artificial rules that reality has set for you.
You bastard! What are you doing?!
Fulfilling your destiny. You’re just one step away from realizing your full power.
Hex woke up screaming. Everything had changed in the moment between heartbeats. Suddenly he awoke in a comfortable bed, light pouring in through the windows, in a warm, comfortable room, a silver collar around his throat. Where am I? the boy wondered. Is this just another illusion by the gray man? It wouldn’t be his first.
The door slammed open and a middle-aged woman rushed into the room. She was whisper-thin and wore the traditional high-collar, long skirt of women in the Christian Federation. She looked worried as her eyes turned to the boy. “Are you all right?”
The boy was still confused. “Where am I?”
“New Jerusalem… on San Angeles.”
“How did I…”
“Your… mobile suit? Is that the word for it?” Hex nodded. “Anyway, your mobile suit landed yesterday at the spaceport, but you were unconscious inside it. You were taken here and I… I was told to look after to you until you got better.”
“What… what’s today’s date?”
Five days? Have I been asleep for five days? he wondered. “If I’m here, who are you?”
“My name’s Constance. I put you my son James’ bed. I hope you slept all right.”
“Mommy, Mommy!” A little girl rushed through the door to grab hold Constance’s skirt. “Peter’s been…”
“Later, Hope. We have guests.”
“Oh…” Hope turned to look at the boy in the bed, “Hi!”
She’s only a little bit older than Cerise, Hex thought as he stared at her, if she still exists. Perhaps the gray man was only playing with me. “Hello.” he managed to reply, finally getting a good look at her face. I know that face from somewhere…
Suddenly, a door slammed somewhere else in the house. The two women suddenly froze; fear seemed to rise through them. Then a man’s voice broke the tense silence. “Connie?”
“In here.” the woman called back. Hope seemed to lean back towards her mother, as if she was hoping she could hide herself in the long skirt.
Then a clean-cut photogenic man appeared through the open door, his eyes instantly focusing on the boy. Hex even unconsciously sat back as he realized he was sitting in the presence of Andrew Tremont. “Ah, Brother Ehud. It seems you have decided to join us. You performed your mission beautifully, but you’ve left us with a… problem.”
“Problem?” The boy reached up and felt the collar around his neck.
The Commander of the Faithful pulled out a datapad and showed it to Hex. The words flowed across the screen as the boy read them aloud. “There are times when wars are necessary to stop injustice. It was so when the…” Suddenly, he stopped; he was reading his own words, sent in a letter to Lieutenant Weiss before he left for Earth.
“Yes, you begin to understand our little problem.” Andrew replied, turning off the datapad. “You have asked to submit yourself before the church and civil government due to your objections to our beliefs. Normally, a soldier in His Cause has no right to challenge the authority of his betters. You should have read your Erasmus as well as your Bible. The soldier fights in deference to his liege lord out of duty, but he should fight with honor and respect in deference to God.”
“A man cannot serve two masters, sir.” Hex answered. “He will either love one and hate the other, or…”
Tremont interrupted him by taking a seat on the bed, his glare full of anger. “Don’t challenge me in my own home, brother. My family is watching you… and I have not finished.” The older man sighed, closed his eyes, and rubbed them. “You’re a hero of the Christian Federation, Ehud, but instead of the honors that are due you, we are forced to deal with this,” he slammed the datapad next to Hex on the bed, “farce. You wish to be tried by sacred scripture? Then so be it. Your trial will take place at noon, that’s…” he looked at his chronometer, “three hours from now. We will answer your questions, brother, and if you do not submit to the teachings of the church, you will be named as a heretic, and a danger to the assembly of believers. Then, in accordance with the tradition of the Righteous Army, you will be shot by firing squad.” A slight grin formed on his face, then quickly disappeared. ”Unless you recant, brother, I suspect you’ll be dead by sunset. Now… do you wish to repent and rejoin His Cause, or do you wish to continue with this foolish trial?”
Hex swallowed the fear rising up within him from the monster that sat only inches from his body. He tried to read his mind, but he couldn’t summon anything within him. That collar must be stopping me from using my abilities. “I will submit myself to trial by sacred scripture, sir.”
Darkening clouds seemed to shadow his face in rage. With one motion, he stood up from the bed, and went over to his wife. “Get him ready and take him to the church at noon. You got that, Connie?”
She nodded, bowing her head. Tremont just rushed out the door; the front door could be heard slamming in the distance. Constance finally looked over at the boy. “Come now, Ehud, it’s time to get up for the day.”
Hours seemed to pass like centuries as Hex stood there in the dining hall of the main sanctuary in New Jerusalem, facing the entire administration of the Christian Federation. Andrew Tremont presided over the impromptu assembly. Calton Reks, with his scarred face, sat at his right, and hadn’t said a single word throughout the verbal inquisition. At his left was Ira Weiss, in his function as Minister of the Faith, who seemed embarrassed at what Hex had done. Then along either side of the long table were the other seven ministers, and the aging vice-president of the Christian Elder Assembly. It reminded the boy of the phrase they taught the kids in the CF schools: “How is the Christian Federation maintained? Through war and peace, our health and wealth, with our mind, soul, and body, united in faith.” It was simple enough saying; it taught the kids how the government was run by naming each of the eight departments.
“Is there a problem, brother?” Andrew spoke up.
The question drove the boy out of his woolgathering. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“The minister asked you a question.”
“I’m sorry, sir, could you repeat it?”
The Minister of Soul cleared his throat and replied, “I asked you, brother, that how do you know that ours is not a holy crusade, not blessed by God, to convert the heathen to His service.”
“God commanded us to make disciples of all men, not to force them by gunpoint.”
“Then tell me, brother,” Ira Weiss spoke up, “when God commanded Joshua to retake the Promised Land, and kill all the unbelievers… I said, kill, brother, as He was rather upset when the Israelites didn’t a couple times, what was that? A mistake? Joshua just heard the orders wrong? Remember, Ehud, that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no difrerence between the Old Testament and New Testament God.”
Hex sighed. “Sir, when Joshua led the people of Israel to Jericho, they did not attack it by conventional means. The Lord himself commanded them to walk around the city seven times. On the seventh time around, they all blew their trumpets and shouted as one, and the walls fell down. When God leads us, not man, nothing is impossible. When they relied on their own means, instead of God’s, at Ai, they were defeated.”
A silence came across the table and Calton Reks finally stood up. “I have a question for the accused.”
“Go ahead, Cal.” Tremont replied, wondering what was going on in that mind of his
“Brother Ehud, you believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ?”
“You believe that Paul saw Him on the road to Damascus?”
“Do you believe that God calls us today as he called his believers in ancient times?”
“So, if our Commander said that God called to him to win the universe to Christ, would you believe that?”
“I suppose so. But I do not believe that He meant for us…”
“Your opinion is meaningless, brother!” Reks interrupted. “You serve as a soldier in the Army of the Lord! Whether our cause is just or not is not for you to decide, is it? We believe that Andrew Tremont is acting in the best interests of His Cause. If we serve His Cause, what does it matter if we follow what could later be a flawed order?”
Hex closed his eyes. “In the end days, there will be many prophets who will distract you from the Way.” He opened his eyes again. “A true prophet can be tested by his actions. M. Tremont does not pass the test.”
The scarred werewolf looked like he wanted to leap across the table and kill him now. Andrew put his hand on the sword’s shoulder and compelled him to sit down. “Brother Ehud, you are asked one last time. Will you repent and serve under the instructions of this church and your betters?”
Tremont sat back down and leaned back in his chair. “Do you have anything to say before your sentence is read?”
“What I speak is not heresy, it is His truth. We would be fools to disregard it. If you seek to end my life, then this is not a Christian Federation… and I will not recant.”
The commander was unaffected. “The Righteous Army finds you unfit to serve your duties, an adversary to the faith, and we will deal with this accordingly. Ehud… Hex, you will be taken from this place to Fort Charity, brought before a firing squad, and shot until you are dead. This session is adjourned.”
Hex stood there in front of the firing squad in the courtyard of the blank Fort Charity. His faith seemed to abandon him at the crucial moment, lost in the hopelessness of the situation. It’s been so useless, he thought, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood undger her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
“Ready your rifles!” came the command. The line of teenage troopers lifted their plasma rifles with difficulty.
Hex, it’s time to go…
The boy looked and he saw the gray man standing there before him, holding out his hand. For the first time, Hex realized who he was looking at, who tormented him all this time.
“Aim!” the rifles started pointing at him.
Take my hand… please.
You’re… me? Have you been me all this time?
I exist out of time, and now, so must you.
Hex reached out and grabbed the hand of the gray man… his own hand, and stepped forward.
The plasma bolts passed through the empty space where Hex had just occupied; his anti-magic collar dropping to the ground, ringing against the rocks with a dull twang.
“Will you all just shudd’up for a second!” screamed the man at the dock counter. Hyperion Spaceport had been hectic all day, ever since the offer of free transport to a new colony was offered last week. The mass of humanity struggling to get on the colony ship slowly grew silent. “Good! Now don’t worry, all the people registered for Outremer Enterprises, Incorporated will be granted access to the ship. Everyone else will be served on the basis of your skills rating and called up by name to the counter until all seats are full! If you don’t have a skills rating, line up, single-file, at the rating counter, which is set up at Dock 15. Remember, Outremer is not responsible for anyone who volunteers to resettle in the T7 System. Now those who are registered, form a line here, everyone else, take a seat!”
As the mob dispersed, a couple sat along the wall, with their few possessions packed up in two boxes. The woman, her head covered by a shawl, looked over at her husband. “Are you all right?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” he managed to speak through parched lips.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get on the ship. I bribed the guy at the ratings desk. We’re both qualified agricultural specialists.”
“Farmers, honey. We’re going to be at the front of the line.”
“Then we go to T7.” he said in a bored tone.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Yeah… but what are we going to do there? We were both soldiers. That’s all we know.”
“We have a chance for a new life. A chance to be together.”
“A normal life?”
“On an uncolonized planet? Hardly. And we can have children and…”
“Yes, dear. We can raise a family together. Make a new future.”
He smiled as he touched her hand. “Sounds good.”
The last of the registered passengers got aboard and the clerk called out, “Al and Tess Benjamin?”
She stood up and grabbed one of the boxes. “Time to go, Alistar.”
Zechariah McNeilly hurried Shannon onto the shuttle. Jessica Martel quickly climbed into the pilot’s seat, placed her hands on the control ball, and started it up. As they rose towards space, following the rest of the evacuees, they broke off and met at the appointed coordinates. The ship suddenly appeared before them, but it was noticeably damaged. As Jessica quickly got them into the shuttle bay, Zech placed his hand on the wall, using his soul web to interface with the ship, establishing a com link between him and the mother ship.
As he closed his eyes, he saw Vin Dane, several scars covering his body, already healing, and his clothing was wrecked. "Vin,” he asked, “w-what happened?"
"Did you get Shannon?"
“But, Vin… what…”
“Did you get Shannon?!” Dane barked back at him.
"Yeah, yeah! She's right here. Now what happened to the ship?"
"The humans.” Vin spat in anger. “Their simple minds came up with a simple trick… but we escaped. We can repair the damage and the danger is passed.”
“Zech, there are more important things to be concerned about. When you get back on board, come see me at once. And don't forget the girl." The connection went black.
Shaking off the uncomfortable feeling of the communication, McNeilly walked over towards the pilot’s seat, but Jessica stared at him, bobbing her head towards Shannon. Zechariah turned to find Shannon a petrified white.
“What is it? What’s wrong, Shannon?"
She stared at him with a terrified look. “You don’t understand. I know what he wants."
McNeilly moved closer to calm her down but she backed away. “We don’t harm our own, Shannon.”
"But I’m not one of you, don’t you understand?! I’m something else! He knows this and he wants to use me and…”
“You’re wrong about Vin…”
“You can't just take me to him! You said you wouldn't hurt me!"
As the shuttle eased into the ship, Shannon was a step away from going frantic. Zech was finally able to step forward and touch her, using his shaman ability to calm her. However, when he touched, he began to understand Dane’s fascination with her. She’s Hodraida… and yet she’s not. There’s another presence inside her. And the power… immense power, power she’s only beginning to use. What will Vin do with her?
“You mean you don’t know?” Shannon replied.
“Vin hasn’t told you what he’ll do to me, has he?”
“How did you…”
“I read your thoughts when you touched my shoulder.”
“But… but that’s impossible.”
Shannon shook her head no as the shuttle suddenly stopped. The door gelled open as four horadrim were standing outside, ensuring that Shannon would get to Vin Dane. It didn’t take long before they reached a small empty chamber. The four escorts filed off down the hall, leaving only Zech, Vin, and Shannon in the room, as the door closed behind them. Dane looked ecstatic. “Ah, Shannon… I’ve heard so much about you.”
She leaned back against McNeilly. “Stay away from me.”
“You have nothing…”
“Liar!” she screamed as lightning burst from her outstretched hands. They hit Vin Dane like a wave and slammed him against the wall. Zechariah unconsciously stepped away from the girl, frightened by the terrible power that was bottled inside her.
Vin peeled himself off the wall and smiled. “Use your tricks against me, will you?” He outstretched his hands and fired the same bolts back at her. Shannon shot her own back, the flickering plasma interlocking, fighting against each other in the small enclosed space. They both started to glow as the fight intensified. McNeilly finally gathered his wits and rushed Shannon. Knocking her off her feet, the bolts broke off suddenly, and Dane stepped forward. “Leave us.”
confused. What is Vin doing? She’s one of us?! “What’s…”
“LEAVE US!” he shouted, filling McNeilly with a fear he had never known. Scrambling to his feet, he opened the door, stepping out. When the fear finally left him, several feet down the corridor, all he could her was Shannon’s scream.
The void was suddenly ripped apart by the orange swirling fire of a jump point opening on the edge of the Wilke’s Star system. It was an old-style hyperdrive, designed before the creation of jumpgates, and phased out over the years due to the danger involved.
For Andrea Treschi, the trip was worth the risk. The Christian Federation had gladly granted their Naval Chief of Chaplains one of their old antiques; the frontier was full of them, since jumpgate technology took a while to get to them. He wasted no time in making the jump from San Angeles to Wilke’s Star, even though it was a dangerous three-day jump. Everyone knew that the longer you stayed in hyperspace, the less likely you were to reach your target. Short jumps were preferred thanks to the strange, inaccurate distortion of the orange dimension.
The former smuggler wasn’t a pilot, but he was a gambler. The odds looked good in his favor so he took the risk. Besides, he knew, if I can get to General Fargus with the offer of a TI-CF alliance, things will start looking up… in my favor. Treschi resented what he had had to do in order to get back in the great game. Everything had finally been set up at Avalon. His troops were in position, his allies were ready… then the rebels decided to attack the capital system. That was rather disappointing, but still feasible, if only Samuel Wall hadn’t…
Dad. Andrea corrected. All these years living a lie… he never bothered to find me. Never lifted a finger; forced me to learn it all for myself. Without connections or… hmph, maybe I’m more like him than I thought.
The general’s eyes looked at the lidar screen. Something’s wrong with that sensor, he thought, then checked the readings. Suddenly, he snapped back in his chair at what he saw. Before him, he saw the entire K’Nes fleet encircling the capital planet of the TI Rebels, massive debris cluttering space all around.
Oh, shit… Treschi couldn’t believe that the cats could have moved that quickly, but the readouts were correct. If the newsvids could be believed, the Eastern Bloc had already occupied the western systems, so the entire Rebel fleet had to have been wiped out. They had nowhere else to go; they had to fight. With any luck, he hoped, they took a good chunk of the cat fleet with them, but…
Andrea forced the thoughts out of his mind. There’s no time for sentiment. If the plan fails, move on to the next one. Clarke… Clarke’s holding all the cards now, and with the Rebels gone, once that weretiger takes out the Resistance and the Fundies, his power in human-controlled space will be absolute.
Or would it? Treschi patched up the star charts and made a guess at the current boundaries. With any luck, the EB’s have only reached Jennifer’s Star. If I can make Port Arthur, I can get there before the colony surrenders. The Jackals have some connections out on the western frontier. Maybe I can even get in touch with Wall’s old network, given enough time…
The mage smiled to himself. Time? The war’s almost over. Borders will stabilize soon and there will be opportunity everywhere once the heat’s off. Time? I have all the time in the world.
Treschi programmed the hyperdrive for Port Arthur and tried to consider the new possibilities rolling around in his head. Someone will be have to be the connection between the new Fed and the Bloc. Wall… my father was the link before. There’s no reason why I can take up the family business. The hyperdrive console blinked out a warning as it finished its calculations. Another three-day jump… risky. Andrea allowed himself a smile. The game wouldn’t be worth playing without a little risk.
The craft shot out a package from the beaked front. It exploded, opening up the portal into hyperspace, in brilliant orange colors. Another second passed and the ship jumped away, passing beyond the cares of this system, waiting for a new plan to unfold.
Damien stepped out of the growth tube, Dr. Shiro standing in front of him.
Error in records, Dr. Shiro is dead.
"We must get off this planet as soon as possible, they will find me now that they are looking for me." Shiro was in a hurry, the mainframe running compression programs on it's many contents and the doctor otherwise gathering many small tools into bags. "Damien, please mix up as large as a high energy explosive as you can from the supplies we have.
Previous order still in effect. Intelligence requested for recording purposes.
Going onto full burn, he slammed Shiro down onto the floor and restrained him. The doctor did several magical attacks, the strange black armor on Damien noticeable quivering and absorbing it each time.
"I require knowledge. You will give it to me."
"Release me, Damien! I order you!" The machine was unable to come up with a clear answer, the nature of Shiro's old order to kill him invalidating future orders. Referring his mind, the algorithm influenced the decision.
"Order invalid." Accessing his files, the machine found a large section on interrogation and an even larger medical section. "Beginning torture procedures." Grabbing Shiro by the head, the mage was unable to fight against the machine's hydraulics. Pulling a metal probe from a nearby table, the machine made it descend slowly towards his pupil. "Are you Dr. Shiro?"
"Yes damn it!"
"Why are there two instances of your biological processes being terminated yet you continue to function?"
“Fuck you! You'll kill me after this anyway, I wrote the fucking file on it."
Without pause, the machine slowly touched the probe to the doctor's eye, the eye scratching itself in desperation before the machine stuck the probe in so far that the muscle only twitched as the probe passed through. As Damien pulled it out, the inner fluids of the eye drained, his eye looking as a deflated balloon.
"Please answer the question."
Begin first aid to keep subject alive during interrogation.
With that the machine got up, grabbing a the first aid kit. Pulling out the hydrogen peroxide, the machine doused the eye liberally and then stuck a cloth rag into the hole to slow the bleeding.
"Please answer the question..."
Several hours later, the machine looked back onto the slightly living body of Shiro. All his limbs lay more or less next to him, very little left of them after the machine filleted off slowly areas containing large nerve counts and then cut them off as they were then useless. Many of the doctor’s organs had been reworked to recreate many painful diseases. Unfortunately, the doctor. had not given much good information and would soon die, limiting further interrogation.
Interrogation files incomplete or ineffective. Searching for alternative...
The machine turned to the growth tube, throwing Shiro into it with ease. Setting it to map the doctor's cellular alignment with memories, it would be only a matter of time before conversion programs could pull the information directly from the electronic representation of his mind. Compressing a copy of the mainframe's contents onto one of his chips, Richter studied the doctor's progress while his machine side cleared Shiro's authority out of his control protocols.
The machine walked out of the slum building, the doctor's office having been on top of a cheap apartment building. The machine did not look back as the building combusted, the oxygen burning incendiary device frying everyone inside, followed shortly thereafter by a the top of the building exploding off from a secondary high energy charge.
Sensitive information and equipment destroyed.
Analysis black armor from Shiro's mind and files: Adaptation of early light Horadrim armor. Design pre-dates human interaction with Horadrim species. Modified by Dr. Shiro to join to organisms without soul webs. Armor acts on instinct at a decreased level of effectiveness until soul web is gained. Can currently shield most magic, with soul web provides complete immunity. Provides a 25% boost to defense against most physical weapons, with no strength increases. Internal Security files on adding soul webs to humans included. Soul web plans must be modified to be used on any level of cyborg.
Damien tried to shift the armor like any Horadrim could, but was unable. His mind finished with the information which Shiro compiled, the machine in him continued to analyze it.
Dr. Shiro: Name given to 1 of 4 unauthorized clones. 3 clones confirmed dead, 1 living in unknown area. A constant mental link was kept between all 4, a complication when the original Dr. Shiro tried to multiply himself by use of a growth tube; mind sphere refused to split. Status: 1 instance of Dr. Shiro presumed living, to be considered an extreme threat. Action: If located, Dr. Shiro should be eliminated.
Damien kept to the shadows, the trenchcoat hiding the thick black armor that covered all but his face and hands. It was a strange substance, he could seemingly reach through it to grab the weapons that it enveloped and held.
The machine entered the Avalon's main subway system, walking unopposed into the train. Its internal clock place the time at around 2200 hours, a fair amount of people also getting onto the train. It calmly watched as a street gang stood up, drew their weapons, and began mugging the other unarmed people. Finally, one of them turned to him.
"Give me your money, NOW!" The machine had not been impressed with their skills, they seemed unable to concentrate on one target at a time and left unarmed targets living, targets that may at some time become a threat. Carrying no money on it, the machine recognized the usefulness that that many IDs and that much money could provide it.
"Off'im, Jerry!" said one of the other boy's gang members. The boy looked to his friend, and before he could look back at the cyborg he felt the gun removed from his hand. His eyes focused for only a split second before the slugthrower blew a hole between his eyes. In a split second Damien shot the other members of the gang, their heads flying back violently as the massive chunk of lead sprayed everything behind them with deep red blood.
"Anyone who moves will be killed." Richter finished addressing the passengers, then sat down and rummaged through the wallets and purses.
As the train neared its stop for the Von Einstein Shuttle Transfer Station, Damien pulled out a grenade he had taken from Shiro's lab. Setting the fuse, the machine went invisible with it as the train slowed to a halt. Only milliseconds before the military explosive ignited, the machine threw itself through a window, the blast catching but not injuring the cyborg. The invisible cyborg made his way out of the subway and towards Von Einstein. Behind him, the fire blazed in the train, the burning corpses bearing no witness to the events that had just conspired.
Outside the machine found the automated ticket purchasing machine, scanning a stolen chit card and ID through the slots. Jacking into a nearby wireless comlink, the machine hacked its way into the Von Eisenstein computer network, breaking through the security clearance, and connecting to the console. Instantly the machine received the information it needed, allowing him to select a ticket to Minos. Walking into an alley, the machine pulled out the Bowie knife, cutting at it's face. With only the distance between his eyes now uniform with his past appearance the machine walked confidently into the station. The nanotech stopped the bleeding instantly, and got to work healing the scabs.
Cloaking again, the machine walked into the building and around the detection devices. Finding the next shuttle to the Ark, the machine boarded still invisible. When it landed, Damien had plenty of time to plan his next move several hours later.
"Earth Fleet Command Center, this is pilot John Redman of the commercial freighter Hachimoto. Requesting clearance to Minos." the pilot and his copilot sat at the helm of the huge commercial vessel, one of the first civilian craft to be equipped with a grav drive, on the conditions that the loss of any federation fleet could mean it's conversion into a heavy cruiser size weapons platform.
"Roger, Hachimoto, access granted."
As they listened in their headphones to the messages of the solar space traffic, they heard a strange muffled sound coming from the cabin. They turned in time to see a Fleet marine fall dead in front of a deeply scared man carrying a large vacuum sealed box.
"You are to proceed to TI-controlled space."
The co-pilot spoke up. "What? They'll blow us out of the sky!"
The machine shot him quickly, the predictable burn of the plasma pistol not dirtying the controls. The machine turned the gun quickly back to the pilot, and jacked himself into an interface port. Although the ship was never meant to be controlled by a port designed for the pilot's access to system internets, the networks were connected and the machine was quickly learning to fly from the ship's autopilot and the actions of the pilot.
"To Babylon." The pilot did as ordered, turning the ship around. "Enter hyperspace."
Dade glanced out at shuttles collecting crewmen evacuated off the Israeli gunboats, and hailed the Jehovah’s Wrath. “You ready, Captain Ronsheimer? Got your crew off the ship?”
“Ready to go.” he answered, “I’ve talked three other gunboat captains into this crazy suicide plan of yours. We’re all just waiting for the go-ahead.”
“All right, here goes nothin’.” Dade said. “Switch to autopilot, eject, and hit the engines!”
“You think the autopilot can handle this?” Ronsheimer laughed. “You’re asking me to detonate nuclear bombs and skip out of blast range, Lieutenant! No, I’m staying at the helm. We need a skilled pilot to pull this off. With any luck, I’ll meet you on the other side of the minefield!”
“What?” Dade asked in disbelief. “Damn it, Captain, don’t be an idiot! Get off that ship!”
His only answer was the flash of the gunboat’s ion engine as it surged forward.
“Damn stupid fool…” Dade cursed, guilt tugging at him over Ronsheimer’s inevitable fate. “All right, team!” he yelled to his fighters, “We got one shot at this, make it count… punch it!”
Dade was slammed back in his seat as the Crusaders shot forward, pouring into the minefield behind the jump gate at top speed, following in the gunboats’ wake. He watched Jehovah’s Wrath duck into the range of the first mine’s proximity trigger, dart away as the bright sphere of energy erupted, head straight for the next mine…and then Dade was lost in blinding clouds of white light, thrown by shockwaves, barely able to see the gunboat blazing a path ahead of them.
He forced himself to stay loose at the controls, guiding his fighter expertly between nuclear blasts at top speed, not even looking at his controls, one with the machine, flying at the speed of thought. Ahead of him the gunboat ducked away from an explosion… and another… then suddenly Ronsheimer was too slow, his ship caught in the blast and crushed like an eggshell as it vaporized. Instantly another gunboat zoomed in to take its place, speeding ahead to trigger the mines. Dade flew stubbornly after it, riding turbulent shockwaves around lethal nuclear blasts. Suddenly the explosions stopped, and the lingering white glow faded into a field of stars.
Dade gasped in relief as the fighters and gunboats burst out of the minefield unscathed. For a moment he was still. Then he let out a triumphant cry, thrilled at having survived.
“Try again, Fundies!” he yelled, shaking his fist. “You can trick Captain McChink, but you ain’t takin’ me down! All right, aces, regroup into squadrons! Jestine -- find us the nearest target!”
Even a million kilometers away, Richard York, Lieutenant of the Faithful, could see the bright flashes ripple out to the edge of the minefield from his position on the bridge of the Sacre Coeur, the patrol frigate serving as the flagship for the Righteous Navy’s tiny Centauri Fleet.
“Well, Rosemary,” he said, tuning to his secretary, a gray-haired black woman in modest black dress, “I’d say this definitely counts as something suspicious, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, you didn’t really expect them to surrender after only losing one ship, did you, sir?” The gray-haired black woman said simply, nodding and smiling mysteriously.
“Of course not,” York conceded. “Better take out a second. York to Centauri Fleet,” he said opening a channel, “all ships, fire torpedo salvo! Target the Assault Ship in the minefield, fire when ready.”
“Lieutenant!” his sensor deacon cried out, “The enemy’s fighters and missile boats are moving out of the minefield!”
“How many?” York asked sternly, his face darkening.
“Uh… thirty-five fighters, eight missile boats!”
“Rosemary,” he said pensively, “I think we may have a problem… remind me again, what was my backup plan for a fighter breakout?”
Rosemary pretended to search through files on her datapad, trying to think up a tactical response to the fighters while their torpedoes sped down on the helpless Fleet vessels.
Wild cheering erupted on the bridge of the Schaumburg as the crew watched the fighter squadrons break out of the minefield on the main view screen. It was the first thing that had gone right in this totally screwed up battle, and a lifeline of hope had suddenly appeared for the trapped ships. O’Reilly watched the fighters regroup silently, fuming. I don’t know if I should congratulate or strangle whoever pulled off that off… They should’ve at least told me what they were planning! Yeah, the fighters are free now, great, but they were the other ships’ only real defense against-
“Incoming torpedoes!” Lt. Higgins cried. “Twenty-one missiles on, um, six vectors!”
“DAMN IT!” O’Reilly yelled, slamming his fist down, “I knew it! Ensign! Can the particle cannons and plasma howitzers shoot them all down?”
“I…don’t think so, sir,” his tactical officer replied nervously. “The cannons are in fixed mounts -- we’d have to reposition the ship for each shot… I don’t think we have that much time.”
“Situation’s the same for the plasma howitzers, O’Reilly,” General Horton radioed in. “They’re capital weapons. They’re not designed for point defense.”
“Damn!” he cursed. “Gene! You found the clear frequency for our guided missiles yet?”
“Um, well, no sir -- but I’m trying, really!” Lt. Higgins pleaded.
“Just keep working at it. Everyone’s counting on you -- don’t let us down. Okay, team, this is what we’re gonna do,” O’Reilly said, stalling, staring at the tactical map on his cyber-optic display. Think, THINK!! “Get the ships turned around! Concentrate plasma and particle cannons on the mines around the escape tunnel the fighters blew open! If we get it wide enough for our ships to get out, we might have a chance!”
The ships of Task Force David spun around on maneuvering thrusters an opened fire. The Schaumburg’s particle cannons swept across the field leaving a line of nuclear blasts in their wake, while the heavy cruisers Samson and Goliath poured balls of super-heated plasma into the field, detonating mines. O’Reilly watched his optical display tensely as the mines slowly blinked off the map while enemy torpedoes closed in. It was obvious they wouldn’t clear the field in time.
“Redirect all defensive fire from particle and plasma phalanx to the minefield!” O’Reilly ordered, speeding up the process. “Gene, you getting anywhere with that missile frequency?!”
“Enemy torpedoes closing!” the tactical officer said, “They’re converging on the Galilee!”
“Excuse me? They’re targeting my ship?” The captain of the assault ship asked dubiously. “Oh no. We can’t have that, can we? No, not at all,” she said briskly. Suddenly the Galilee fired its ion drive and pushed up next the Schaumburg, charging weapons.
“Captain Zivanit, what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” O’Reilly yelled furiously. Why can’t these people just follow fucking orders?! Or at least tell me what they’re doing?!
“Opening the door, dear.” she replied cheerfully as the Galilee suddenly fired its mass drivers. Hundred-ton spheres sped down the tunnel, detonating a dozen mines and soaking the blasts before finally disintegrating. The Galilee fired again, and again, clearing a path to freedom.
Brilliant, O’Reilly thought, watching the path melt before them on his tactical display, but will it be enough? Xinjao breathlessly watched the torpedoes closing in on them, waiting as long as he could before he finally gave the order.
“All right, that’s enough. Captain Zivanit! Captain Sheelein! Get your ships out of here!”
“The tunnels not wide enough yet, O’Reilly!” General Horton chided him.
“Not enough for the cruisers.” Xinjao argued, “but the two smaller ships can get out! The torpedoes are targeting the Galilee, anyway -- if we move it out, it might draw off some of the fire. Now do it! That’s an order!!” There was a slight delay as the two captains hesitated before abandoning the rest of the task force, but then the assault ship and the destroyer turned and carefully maneuvered down the mine-free corridor to the safety of empty space.
“So what are we going up against here, Jestine?” Dade asked as his swarm of fighters and gunboats bore down on the nearest Righteous Navy target.
“Uh, looks like… a crappy War Freighter… two Warhawk fighters… and HOLY SHIT IT’S A FUCKING HEAVY CRUISER!!” Jestine yelled, suddenly alarmed.
“A… heavy cruiser?” Sloth asked over the com link, confused. “We’re in its weapons range - why isn’t it firing at us?”
“How many fighters did you say, Jestine?” Dade asked doubtfully.
“Two, both Warhawks!” she answered.
“It’s a decoy!” Dade alerted the others scornfully. “Approach carefully, but don’t break off!” he directed as they closed in on the enemy squad. “Engage the enemy and take ‘em down!”
The horde of Fleet fighters swept down upon the tiny squadron. The enemy fighters fought frantically, dodging missiles and laser beams as the executed desperate maneuvers to get the better of their opponents, but they were simply overwhelmed. The unarmored war freighter never stood a chance, destroyed before it could kick off even a single torpedo from the box launchers bolted to its hull.
“Well, that was good for some exercise.” Dade jeered, blowing the unarmed decoy drone into atoms just for kicks. “Okay, Jestine, what else do the Bible-thumpers have hiding out there?”
“Five squadrons surrounding the minefield,” his wing mate answered, “about ten hundred thousand klicks apart -- pretty spread out. We got two squads heading for us on opposite vectors, the rest are all heading for the planet - probably to regroup.”
“Hell, that’s nothing!” Dade declared. “How many ships in each squadron?”
“A war freighter, two fighters, and a capital ship guarding them - cruisers, destroyers -“
“And I’ll bet ya dimes to dollars those capital ships are decoys, too!” Dade swore. “All right, team, break into five squadrons, seven fighters each, choose an enemy squadron and take ‘em out! Take a gunboat with you, we’ll need the ship-killer torpedoes. If you see any big, scary escorts, just ignore them -- they’re probably drones. And remember, if you let these guys hurt you… when we outnumber and outgun them… well, then you’re just goddamn pathetic, and you can buy my beer! Okay, move it out!” The Fleet fighters paused briefly, maneuvering into formation, then shot toward their enemies like sharks in a swimming pool.
“Okay, boys, we won’t have enough time to clear a path though the mines for our cruisers before the torpedoes hit.” O’Reilly broadcast to the remaining ships stuck in the minefield as enemy missiles streaked in mercilessly on them, “so redirect phalanx fire to your defense grids and brace for impact!” He cut the channel. “Higgins, you found that damn missile frequency yet?”
“Well, uh, no, but…”
“Well, uh, remember that guy who, y’know, told us to surrender and stuff? Well, we could, uh, try using his communication frequency for our missiles… it obviously wasn’t jammed…”
O’Reilly smacked himself in the forehead. Of course! Why didn’t I catch that? “Damn it, Gene, why didn’t you say so earlier?!”
“I - I dunno,” Higgins stammered defensively. “I wasn’t sure if, y’know, if it would work…”
“Who cares?” O’Reilly asked, transmitting the frequency to his ships. “It’s the best shot we’ve got!” A minute later, the three cruisers unleashed a massive barrage of missiles and fusion shells at the incoming torpedoes. Each crewmen held their breath in anticipation, watching the defensive fire race toward the missiles that threatened them… staying on target… and when they finally connected, shooting down the enemy torpedoes, the wild roar of relieved, ecstatic cheering was deafening.
Dade rolled out of the way as the Righteous Navy’s pathetic freighter converted into a makeshift missile boat burst into a sphere of white energy behind him. “Well, so much for that squadron!” Dade said triumphantly. “Anyone take any damage?”
“Yeah, I lost a stabilizer,” Sloth said grumpily.
“Sloth!!” Dade scolded. “You know better that that!”
“I know, I know,” Sloth grumbled. “And I’m gonna buy your beer. Now shut up!”
“All the squadrons check in, Jestine?” Dade asked.
“Yup,” she answered, “all but delta squadron - they were heading after an enemy squadron guarded by a decoy imitating a frigate!” she laughed. “Can you believe that?”
“These guys are idiots!” Dade jeered. “Why would they bother making a drone imitate a frigate… unless… oh, shit!” Dade exclaimed in sudden realization. “Delta squadron! Sound off!” Only silence greeted him at the other end of the com link. “Damn it!” he swore, opening a channel to all fighters. “All squadrons! We’ve got a real capital ship out here - a Nike-class escort frigate! Everyone converge on delta squadron’s last know position - and we’re gonna need some gun boats to take this thing down, too!” The four aces sped off the help their comrades, praying it wasn’t too late.
Dade could tell instantly that the pilot at the helm of the enemy frigate was good. More fleet fighters were joining the battle every minute, but they still didn’t have the number to overwhelm the enemy’s defenses. Moving fast in an erratic evasive pattern, small enough to be extremely agile, the frigate dodged the fighter’s missiles and soaked up their weak laser blasts, all the while breaking up fighter formations with fusion cannon shells and striking down fighters like flies with powerful lasers. What few missiles the Fleet fighters could get through to the Frigate were shot down by its defense grid. Dade knew the battle was going badly and victory would be costly, if there was to be victory at all…
“God damn it, get your asses over here!” he yelled at the fighter pilots over the com link. “We need backup!”
“We’re the last squadron, Dade!” someone shot back, “There is no backup!”
“Yes there is.” an older woman’s voice came over the com link. “This is Captain Keren Zivanit of the Galilee,” she said. “We and the Disraeli broke out of the minefield. Pull your fighters back to help with our point defense.” she ordered firmly. “If you can get us with fifteen hundred kilometers of that frigate, it’s ours.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Dade answered. “I never argue with folks that got bigger guns than me!”
The two Israeli ships, aided in their defense by the fighters, advanced fearlessly on the tiny frigate. The destroyer, the Disraeli, lay down suppressing fire while the assault ship swung out and around the frigate, trying to cut it off in a pincer movement. Within minutes, the Israeli fleet had their enemy’s flagship on the run, slowly advancing on it. As they drew with close range, the twin prongs of the Galilee’s transit beacon shimmered briefly and a distorted ripple flew out and struck the frigate.
Lieutenant York was thrown off his feet by a blast of wind as a thunderclap of displaced air filled the bridge. “Don’t move!” a harsh voice cried. “Put your hands in the air or we fire!” York turned around to see two platoons of short, stocky Israeli Marines standing on his bridge, clad in combat fatigues and high-density plastic armor… and pointing plasma rifles at them.
Slowly… reluctantly, York raised his hands and hissed out the order for his crew to stand down.
O’Reilly closed his mental link to the Schaumburg’s computer and pulled the cord out of his brain. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag to calm his frazzled nerves. He had almost died. He had almost led hundreds of people to their death. And he had failed to save them. Only by the quick thinking of several of his crew - Lieutenant Dade, Captain Zivanit, General Horton - had they narrowly escaped death. Vorheis is going to love this, he thought dismally, probably give me another damn medal.
“All right, Schuyler,” he said finally, dreading the answer. “How many did we lose?”
“Thirty-eight fighters, half our gunboats, and the Samarian,” General Horton answered pain and anger in his voice.
“And what did the enemy have?” Xinjoa asked darkly.
“A frigate, six war freighters, and a squadron of fighters.”
O’Reilly didn’t want to ask the next question, but he had to. “Casualties?”
There was a long pause.
“You don’t want to know, O’Reilly,” Schuyler answered. “You don’t want to know.”
O’Reilly squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his artificial hand. Waves of guilt and self-loathing swept over him. What the hell was I thinking? he wondered. I should never have led us into battle. I’m not a warrior… I’m an engineer.
Lieutenant John Walters made his way slowly down the corridor. He still could not get over how white his arms were. Re-grown skin always looks like that John, it will tan… eventually. As he approached the briefing room the butterflies returned to his stomach. What do they have in store for us? I had hoped to get a couple more weeks to think before getting back to the unit, but the order was very explicit that I be here.
Walters reached the door to the briefing room, paused momentarily then walked in.
“Ahhh, Lieutenant Walters… good to see your back with us,” stated General Irene Weirimu. “Now that the Lieutenant is here we can get started. You men may wonder why I have called you here today. As you all know we took heavy losses during the defense of Avalon, especially amongst our scout officers. That final order to make contact with the rebel troops, coupled with that orbital bombardment, resulted in almost total decimation of the scout cadre. You gentlemen are all that is left.”
John took the opportunity to gaze around the room. Damn, so many missing faces.
“Unfortunately,” the general droned, ”war does not allow us any time to step back and take a breath so we must move forward at the pace it applies. We have been given a golden opportunity. While I cannot brief you on it at this time, it will involve a heavy effort from the scouting elements. In order to complete this assignment, we must bring our battalions back up to full strength, we will take the first step towards that goal today. Lieutenants Abrams, Stuart, and Walters please step forward.” The three men glanced at each other with inquisitive looks then moved to the front of the room.
“In recognition of your service as platoon commanders during the defense of Avalon, it is my pleasure to present the three of you with the rank of captain,” stated General Weirimu. She pinned the new insignia on each man in turn and then stepped back allowing the rest of the room to applaud.
Abrams turned to Walters and said, “I would feel a lot better about this promotion if we weren’t the only three platoon lieutenants to survive…”
“No kidding, Abe,” replied Stuart, “who are they going to put in our shoes? Losses amongst the non-coms where just as high.”
Walters who had been concentrating on the general turned towards the two of them and declared, “I think we are about to find out.” He motioned to Weirimu who had moved back towards the podium.
“Gentlemen, with those pleasantries complete lets get back to business,” declared Weirimu. “Due to the heavy losses sustained on Avalon we have been forced to consolidate men from other, even more heavily devastated, units into our own. Men from both the 23-7 and the 36-4 Infantry Divisions will be filling out our ranks as those units have been placed on the inactive rolls. If you will turn your attention to the board behind me you will see how the new command structure will work.”
“Ma’am,” came a voice from the back, “our division seems to made up completely of scouting elements. Can that be right?”
“Yes, you are correct… in fact, what you are about to hear cannot leave this room. This division is going to go in advance of a full invasion force. We will be operating completely on our own for at least two weeks in a hostile environment. Our insertion will not allow for heavy support units, and because of that I requested, and was granted, a group of people who are acquainted with just such a mission. My aid will now be passing unit rosters to each of you. You will notice there is an assembly zone notated on the first line of the document. That is where your men are now gathered waiting on you. The particulars of the meeting will be revealed to you on board your transports. We leave in twelve hours. I suggest you take care of any last minute details now.”
The room erupted as each man tried to voice his concerns, questions, or outrage to the general. Walters noticed almost none of it. Twelve hours? I haven’t even been out of the hospital that long and now we are going back in. Captain, Jesus, now I have even more men to kill off. Will this never end? Where the hell are we going? How can I ask men, who do not even know me, to follow me to a location I do not even know myself…
His mind full of unanswerable questions, Walters hurried from the room and headed back towards the barracks. As he entered the barracks he noticed Sergeant Links waiting outside Walters’ quarters.
“How can I help you, sergeant?”
“Sir, we got us a hell of a mess.” replied Links.
“You’re telling me about it, they just dropped a bomb on us over at that briefing.”
“Looks like you had more than a bomb dropped on you there… captain. I guess congratulations are in order.” stated Links as he noticed the insignia on Walters’ uniform.
“Hell, sarge, they gave these to everyone who lived… I bet you would have some, if it wasn’t a well known fact that you would jack-slap anyone who tried to promote you past… well, where you are now.”
A smirk appearing on his face the older man stated, “A man outta to know his limits, and the way I figgir it, I’ve reached mine.”
“Lets get back to the problem you wanted to tell me about… no, let me guess, we have replacements?”
“Yessir, you can say that again. We got us troopers from just about every damn recon unit in this here army. Only four of them have served together before and they is a bunch of damn injuns!” replied Links not even attempting to hide his disdain. “Hell, most of ‘em are fresh outta basic. The few vets we do have look like they were in worse shit that we were, sir.”
“What about the Injuns, you said they had served together before? I assume that means they have seen some combat,” replied John. “Tell me about them.”
“I tell ya sir, they are some odd ducks. Three of them are covered head to toe in animal tattoos and jewelry. The fourth one, a Lieutenant Stormcloud, seems a bit aloof for my tastes, a real proud one that. As for their service records, personnel gives that to the battalion commander. Which, judging from the new shinies on your shoulders, is you.”
“Hah,” came the semi-startled reply, “I guess you’re right. Well, let me get my gear and lets get on over to the men.”
“I tell you sure as shootin we had those Dead Boys right were we wanted them. The LT had us runnin all over creation driving those rebs nuts. Just about the time they would think they had us we would slip free and hit them in the ass. I tell ya that LY is sumtin!” the disembodied voice of Corporal Lear floated out into the corridor.
Captain Walters started to turn into the doorway but Sgt. Links stopped him. “Let’s listen to this, sir, might be fun.”
“You had them right were you wanted them, huh? Then why the hell do you need us to fill in your ranks,” another voice responded.
“Well you see, the LT figured out that the commander of the DB’s was havin’ himself a command problem. So he came up with this plan for us to take advantage of it. We got us some mind mage types from command…”
“You didn’t have any mind mages in your outfit?” another voice interrupted.
“Hell, why would we need them, way I figure it, they is just bigger head for someone like me to blow off!” Laughter at this response brought smiles to the two “spies” in the corridor. “Like Lear is somtin else, captain, ain’t he?” whispered Links.
As the laughter subsided Lear launched back into his story. “Anyway, the LT has the mages make it look like there is a lot more of us than there really is. We came charging out of the woods and shit-fire if the strangest thing didn’t happen. The DB’s started killing each other. Seems the LT guessed their command problem bang on! Well anyways, after the fight we get this order to try and make contact with the enemy in order to git them to quit fight’in. So the LT crawls up the hill the DB’s are occu-pi-an and makes contact with their colonel.”
“He did it? Why didn’t he just order one of you to do it?” came another voice.
“Well, the LT is a good joe, he aint gonna make any one of us do sumtin he aint willing to do to himself.”
“How did it end out, did he fuck up and the Dead Boys kick your ass?” Stated a mocking voice from the back of the room.
“No this is when it gets fucked up. Seems some Fleet puke decided we were more dangerous to them than the enemy and the bastards shelled us from space. Hell only Sarge, the LT, and me survived, and the LT just got out of the hospital today.” stated Lear, anger obvious in his voice.
With that announcement, the room broke into bedlam as other men began to describe how their units had also been decimated. Walters sensing that any cohesion in the room was rapidly slipping away chose to make his entrance. Links felt the captain begin to move, then stepped forward into the doorway, shouting. “TEN-SHUN!”
A silence broke across the room as Walters entered behind the Sergeant. “At ease, men… I would like to take the time to introduce myself but we don’t have the time. Sergeant, could you please begin placing the men into there squads. Corporal Lear, Lieutenants Stormcloud, Munson, and Suhs please follow me into the ready room. That is all.” With that Walters turned and moved towards the ready room that was on the far side of the assembly area. Lear, with a confused look on his face, beat the captain into the room.
“What gives LT… holy smack… I mean, captain,” beamed the corporal.
“Well, corporal, I guess we are both sporting new ranks. Besides, they need to see you down at the armory, something about a new toy they are issuing snipers before this next mission. Something they do not want everyone to know about.”
“Well I’ll be, a new toy you say….mmm what could that be. With your permission, sir, I will go check that out!”
“I doubt I could stop you if I wanted to, git outta here.”
Lear turned and half ran out of the room almost knocking over Lieutenant Munson in his haste to exit.
“Ahhh, gentlemen, nice to meet you.” Walters said as he closed the door behind them. “I do wish we had more time to get to know one another, but it seems we will be shipping out in lets see…” Walters glanced at his watch and stated, “about 9 hours.”
Munson and Suhs’ faces showed perceptible shock as their minds registered what the Captain had just said. Stormcloud looked completely unfazed and was the first too speak.
“Captain, if you do not mind me asking, was is it that we are going?”
“To be honest, they haven’t told me. I assume we will be briefed once we are under way. As for now I would like to get to know each one of you. I have your service records, but that only tells me what the army thinks of you. Please, starting with Munson, tell me what you believe you can bring to our team.”
Lt. Munson began to speak and the four men began.
Erich Von Shrakenberg surveyed the chaos that just minutes before had been his fleet. "All right… pick up any survivors,” although I doubt there are any, he knew, “and move the fleet into defensive formation. Get every ship we have ready… we're going to need them."
He looked at the damage display at his console, and it depressed him. His flagship was crippled. "Inform Admiral Adams that I am transferring my flag to the Temujin. The Zeus is too badly damaged to serve as flagship for this battle. Launch all fighters, and take up a defensive position, guarding the Temujin. We can't afford to lose our only surviving Gravitic Ram, we still have over six hours of bombardment to complete." With that, he swept off the bridge, heading to the undamaged starboard landing bay.
Once ensconced on the Flag Bridge of the EFS Temujin, Erich asked for a report. The lieutenant who had been tasked with preparing for his arrival stepped forward with a datapad in his hand. "Sir, the Resistance fleet has been boosting at a constant four gees ever since they broke Mars Orbit. They didn't make turnover at the halfway point, so they're not going for a low-speed intercept. They can make a low-level cee-fractional strike in approximately twenty minutes, with a passing velocity of around fifteen PSL."
Erich digested this information. "They will only be able to launch about three salvoes of torpedoes before they flash past us, plus maybe two shots per mount from beam weapons, and it will take them several hours to turn back around for another pass. We should be able to weather that bombardment without too much trouble." Despite losing four ships, his other vessels were essentially undamaged, and he still had most of his fighters. Erich was confident that he could survive the coming battle with minimum losses.
"Sir, the enemy ships are launching torpedoes," interrupted the sensor officer.
Erich's expression went from relief to a puzzled frown. "At that range?" Firing from so far away, the torpedoes would have burned out their engines by the time they reached the fleet, and thus would be on purely ballistic trajectories, easy pickings for the fleet's point defenses and fighters, despite their high velocity.
"Sir, enemy torpedoes are not accelerating, just coasting." the sensor officer continued. "Now also picking up fusion cannon shells."
"What are they doing," Erich asked aloud. "Get me a secure link to Coppinger back on the Zeus." The resistance commander's face appeared on the viewscreen, seated in the brig. "Admiral Coppinger, I expected more from your subordinates. They're firing from well beyond effective range. Any thoughts on why they are not up to your level of expertise?"
Coppinger laughed. "You have no idea how much they hate the Federation, Admiral. You cannot subjugate a free man, you can only kill him."
"What the devil are you talking about," Erich asked.
"They know they can't beat you in a fair fight," Coppinger explained. "But you can't maneuver much, trapped in the moon's shadow like this. If you try to dodge, you'll move out from behind the moon, and the battlestations will cut you to ribbons."
"But your ships are light on torpedo tubes," Erich protested. "Our point defense can easily handle such small salvoes."
"You aren’t going to be facing a couple dozen torpedoes," Coppinger stated gravely. "I have never been more proud of my comrades than at this moment. I look forward to congratulating them in the afterlife."
"Start making sense!"
"I have nothing more to say on this matter." Coppinger shot back. "If you will excuse me, I'd like to say my final prayers. If you're a religious man, I'd suggest you start as well." He nodded to his guard to cut the signal, and silently bowed over the console, his hands clasped together beneath his chin. The image blinked off the viewscreen, replaced by a projection of the sensor trace of the incoming ships, now dotted with the icons of dozens of projectiles.
Erich stared at the approaching flotilla for a moment, then understanding dawned on his face. "Mein Gott…activate gravitic shields! Move the unshielded ships into the shadows of the grav shields! Now!"
"Admiral!" The sensor officer shouted out a warning, as nearly every single Resistance ship suddenly exploded. Bright points of light stabbed out on the display, as over a dozen ships self-destructed at once.
"What the hell are they doing," asked Johanna Ingolfsson in a shocked voice. "They killed themselves!"
"They killed themselves to get at us," Erich explained in a small voice. "Those ships are now nothing but fragments, but every single piece of wreckage still has the momentum of the ship's last velocity. Those fragments are now bearing down directly at us, at almost fifteen percent of the speed of light." As comprehension slowly dawned on Johanna's shocked face, Erich continued in an almost admiring tone. "Instead of a handful of lance torpedoes and fusion cannon shells per ship, we're now facing a couple million fragments, each moving at 45,000 kilometers per second. A grain of salt at that speed will go through the hull of a starship like a white-hot knife through a piece of paper."
"Oh my god," Johanna breathed.
"Exactly," Erich confirmed. "And, like Coppinger said, we can't even dodge out of the way. The shadow of the moon no longer is our shield, it's trapped us here, like in the muzzle of a shotgun. And all we can do is stand here and take it."
"Can't we do ANYTHING?"
"Perhaps," Erich answered. "Weapons officer, order all ships to fire fusion cannons and lance torpedoes at maximum rate of fire. Build a wall of shells in front of us like a breakwater. Time the explosions to coincide with your best guess as to the arrival of the wave front of debris. If we're lucky, we can knock aside enough of the fragments to let a few ships survive." As he looked around at the shocked faces of his crew, he went on. "Don't worry, people. This ship has a gravitic shield. Our shield will absorb the smaller debris, and our chemlasers and particle phalanxes should be able to handle the few larger fragments."
Erich turned back to watch the cloud of death on the viewscreen. They'd commit suicide just to get to me. They'll all die rather than surrender. He snorted. They're even more fanatical than I am. And that scares me…
The wave front of streaking debris washed over Erich's task force like a tsunami. The pitiful bursts of exploding fusion shells poked brief holes in the cloud, but the roiling mass of scrap metal quickly closed again around the gaps. The weakened grav shield of the EFS Zeus failed under the strain of absorbing over a thousand impacts, and the mighty star control ship was shredded like a paper target struck by a point-blank blast of buckshot. The battlecruisers Tannenberg and Brittany, sheltering behind the larger ship, quickly followed, torn to shreds by the onslaught of kinetic projectiles. The grav shields of the dreadnoughts Draco and Theseus sparked like lightning as hundreds of fragments flashed brilliantly into plasma upon hitting the walls of concentrated gravitic energy. The light cruiser Coventry was too close to one of the lance torpedoes that snuck through the point-defense fire, and was blown in half. Even in such close confines, however, the individual ships were still hundreds of kilometers apart, and the vast majority of the fragments spun harmlessly past, hurtling through the void, on their way out of the solar system forever.
The three Resistance ships with gravity drives followed closely behind the storm of fragments. As they flashed past Erich's reduced fleet, they deactivated their shields to unmask their weapons mounts. Grav lasers and more torpedoes flashed out at the huddled Federation ships. The Draco and Theseus dropped their shields in response, and fired back at the rapidly moving targets. A grav laser tore through the destroyer Ataturk, vaporizing the small ship. The destroyer Cavite met a similar fate from a fusion cannon shell.
The lost Federation ships did not die alone, however. A grav laser from the Theseus nicked the battlecruiser Valley Forge, and the damaged ship was almost immediately struck by a torpedo from the Botha, blowing off the after third of the hull. Two chemlaser shots from the Draco tore into the Berkshire, gutting the Resistance ship like a fish. The largest Resistance ship, the Racinante III, was turned into an expanding ball of plasma by a torpedo hit from the Drake, but not before one of its chemlasers raked along the flank of the Draco, carving a trench over a hundred meters long in the hull and opening dozens of compartments to space.
Following the three Resistance capital ships was a swarm of fighters. They charged in on suicide runs, since they did not have the fuel to kill their forward momentum and reach any friendly base. The Federation fighters that had survived the debris storm dashed out to meet them, and dozens of craft on both sides died in spectacular collisions. Hundreds more Resistance fighters were killed by railgun and missile fire from the Fed fighters, or from the point defense mounts on Erich's surviving warships. Several got through the defenses, however, and rammed into the cruiser Drake and the destroyer Rabaul, destroying both ships. Others futilely smashed into the grav shield still up and protecting the Temujin.
When the last Resistance fighter flashed by, never to be seen again, Task Force Foliage Gear was a shambles. The fleet of sixteen ships was reduced to three Dreadnoughts and a single Mandela-class destroyer with empty torpedo tubes. Less than a hundred Federation fighters survived to defend the ships, and half of them had taken damage from microscopic fragments of debris or nearby fusion blasts. Less than five hundred crewmembers had escaped the destroyed ships in survival pods. In all, over thirty thousand Federation spacers were dead, and a comparable number of Resistance personnel.
Von Shrakenberg surveyed the damage from the flag bridge of the Temujin, his right hand shaking slightly. "Mein Gott…I've lost my fleet…"
Johanna put a placating hand on his arm. "You did what you came to do. The Resistance fleet is destroyed."
"I lost my fleet," Erich repeated. "I failed."
Johanna took her hand of his arm and stepped away. Erich stared at the viewscreen for a full minute, then turned to the weapons officer. "Lieutennant Valentine, resume the bombardment of Luna," he ordered in a near whisper. He turned and faced his cousin. "Captain Ingolfsson, please see to the recovery of all survivors. I will be in my ready room." With that, he turned around and stumbled off the bridge.
The bombardment was complete. A tunnel two hundred kilometers wide was bored through to the core of Earth's moon. Dust choked the cavernous mouth of the crater, temporarily suspended in the thin wisp of nitrogen that passed for an atmosphere on the nearly airless satellite. Erich Von Shrakenberg returned to the bridge, more composed than before, but still somewhat shell-shocked. "Hail the Resistance leadership," he ordered curtly. "Inform them that this is their last chance to surrender."
The communcations officer worked her panel. She looked up at the Admiral and shook her head. "No response, sir."
"I was afraid of that," Erich replied in a resigned tone. He turned to face Johanna. "I had hoped that they would see reason. I never intended to actually go through with this, figured that such a spectacular threat would be enough to scare them into surrendering. But now I have no choice."
"We should use the Draco," Johanna offered. "It’s slightly damaged, but the gravity drive is still operational at 90% of capacity." There was no ore freighter inbound, that had been a ruse. The idea was that the Resistance might waste ships trying to intercept a non-existent freighter instead of attacking the fleet en masse. Now, it was just one more part of the plan that hadn't worked.
"All right," Erich said calmly. "Send shuttles over to take off the crew, and program the autopilot. Move us out beyond the hyper limit." The remaining Federation ships were in a low enough orbit around the moon that even its small mass was enough to prevent jumping to hyperspace. If they headed out in normal space from the moon for the long run-up of accelleration to impact velocity, then they would enter the torpedo envelope from the Earth battlestations.
"Shouldn't we go to Mars first?" Johanna asked. "The battlestations there may be reduced, but we will still need every ship when we face them." Neither Phobos nor Deimos were large enough to hide their ships behind, so they would have to defeat the orbital defenses before they could attack Mars.
"We can't face them as it is." Erich stated flatly. "Our only hope at this point is to prove to them how serious we are, perhaps then they will finally see the light." He turned to walk off the bridge, and Johanna followed him.
"Or we could go home and come back with more ships," Johanna offered. "Just a couple more should be enough, and they should have more ships out of the repair yards by now. It's not like they can fill in that hole we shot in the moon anytime soon."
"No, something like this only works due to shock value," Erich retorted. "We can't give them time to evacuate any more people." He paused for a second. "Mein Gott, how'd I ever get so callous? They are people, human beings, members of our own species down there." He looked Johanna in the eyes, his own eyes almost pleading. "They are Federation citizens, even if they don't want that honor. How did we come to this? Where did we go wrong?"
"We have our orders." Johanna reminded him.
"Yes, we do," Erich answered with a sigh. He continued down the corridor, with a more purposeful stride. "We have our orders." Johanna watched him go, then turned back to the flag bridge.
Erich took the turbolift to the Temujin's small docking bay. We have our orders, and orders always come with a price.
The surviving ships of the task force jumped back into normal space almost a hundred million kilometers from Earth. The last crewmen were taken off the Draco, and the other three ships moved to cover its automated death dive down towards the moon. Johanna Ingolfsson looked around the flag bridge of the Temujin. "Where's the admiral? I'd think he'd want to be here for this, even as distasteful as it is."
A quick search of the ship revealed that Erich Von Shrakenberg was not on board. Nor was he on the other two ships of the fleet. A search of computer records revealed that he had boarded one of the shuttles heading to the Draco to ferry off its crewmembers, and a panicked Johanna hailed the doomed ship.
Erich's face appeared on the viewscreen. "Don’t try to stop me, Johanna," he immediately barked. "I lost my fleet, I failed in my mission."
"Don't do this, Erich!" she practically screamed at the viewer. "I can't allow you to do this!"
"I lost my fleet," he reminded her. "A lot of good men died today. A lot more are about to die. A price must be paid… I must pay that price." As Johanna stared open-mounted at the screen, Erich continued. "I know what I'm doing," he stated, "and you can't stop me." With that, he cut the connection. The tactical display that replaced his image on the viewscreen showed the Draco beginning its acceleration towards the moon.
Johanna stared at the screen, a single tear slowly moving down her right cheek. She turned to the communications officer. "Order the other ships to escort him in.” The officer just stared at her confused. “At least… at least we can make sure he reaches his destination."
The EFS Draco dove down towards the moon. Particle phalanxes stabbed out at the lance torpedoes launched around the moon by the desperate battlestations around Earth, yet still the ship plunged onward. The lone surviving destroyer was destroyed by a torpedo that leaked through the defenses, but still the Draco plunged onward. Erich Von Shrakenberg sat on the bridge, with the main viewer set to show the feed from a camera mounted in the bow. The image of the moon, blueshifted slightly by the speed of his approach, filled the screen, with a small readout at the bottom of the screen giving a countdown to impact.
The readout slowly ticked away the last seconds of Erich's life. Thirty seconds. Twenty. The readout seemed to slow down as it ticked inexorably down. Eighteen. Seventeen. Erich held his breath. Sixteen. Fifteen. Erich slowly turned around and saw he was alone on the bridge… and the moon was getting closer.
Thirteen. Twelve. “A price must be paid…”
Nine. Eight. “…I must pay that price.”
Five. Four. Three.
In those final moments, the admiral smiled. As he was born, so would he die… on Earth.
END OF EPISODE TEN
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.