Episode 27 – When Destinies Unwind
Previously on Animus…
Many fates now hang in a tender balance of the decisions made by each member of our story. Admiral Dyson has locked out all LOPO operations aboard his flagship, using a special Alliance regulation code. Now, the flagship is en route to a major LOPO operating facility in Earth’s orbit, where Dyson means to confront General Vereor and take custody of the Coalition prisoner he holds there.
In the Wexel System, Baron Admiral Drake has captured the Lilith’s Omen. It’s acting Captain, Jenice Murray, has performed valiantly in her attempts to delay Drake while waiting for Coalition reinforcements to move in and strike. However, her role as bait has cost her dearly. Admiral Drake, in a fit of vengeance, has tortured Jenice and brutally maimed her hand.
As for Jacob Kale and his time-traveling companions, Kale has pulled off the impossible – manipulating time while trapped inside a vergence with otherspace. They arrived precisely where they meant to – in the skies above Sydney on September 21st, 2193. Now, they make their way for the very same orbital platform where Admiral Dyson is going to confront General Vereor.
Worlds are about to collide, and fates are no longer secure…
Y.S.S.C. Crusader, Wexel System, Terran Region
September 21st, 2193
Vapid anger filled Rashid’s blood with every heaving breath. The bridge beneath Jenice gradually went red as she cradled her maimed and bleeding hand against her chest. Lifting his eyes, Rashid glared at the back of Admiral Drake’s head. The Admiral simply walked toward the mag-lift bay, as if nothing significant had happened.
Fighting back could mean certain death. However, Major Grisham had two platoons of marines crammed aboard the Lilith’s Omen. He wasn’t sure how many actual soldiers that meant, perhaps as many as eighty men. There were so many marines squeezed aboard the corvette that Rashid and his engineering team had found it difficult to keep the life support systems operating. Taking quick stock of his surroundings, he counted roughly fifty Legion soldiers lined up in the docking bay. Grisham’s men were among the best; the odds were in their favor.
The enemy soldiers advanced, stepping over Murray’s body before leveling their weapons at Rashid and the marines behind him. Sorek and Napine were good, reliable men. They were members of the 10th Battalion’s B-Company, and had been stationed aboard Lilith’s Omen since 2190. He knew them well, and knew that they would follow his lead.
With eyes like fire, Rashid seethed at the advancing soldiers. He stayed absolutely still until they were close enough that he could smell the metal of their armor. Then, he made his move. He wasn’t much of a fighter, but Sorek had shown him a few things over the years. When one of the soldiers reached out to grab him, Rashid pivoted to the side and threw an open-handed strike into the soldier’s nose.
Struck by a sudden flight instinct, Rashid threw himself down. Behind him, Napine and Sorek had pulled their sidearms and started firing right over Rashid’s head. Caught off guard, the enemies were both struck at once and toppled over the side of the bridge, screaming. As they fell through the magnetic force field, their bodies were shredded into dust and left to float away into space as skeletal corpses.
The docking bay came alive with weapons fire. Coalition marines began pouring out onto the Omen‘s boarding ramp, engaging the Legion soldiers who protected the docking bay in a rank and file grid.
Heart pounding, Rashid crawled unarmed across the bridge toward his wounded friend. Supercharged bullets streaked by overhead, sizzling as they whipped through the air. He kept his head low and grabbed for her shoulder.
Jenice had lost a lot of color. Trembling fingers cradled her injured hand, where beyond the wrist, all of her flesh had been ripped free. Exposed, the skeletal bones had been charred black by the ordeal, and were now stained a liquid red by spurts of blood that came through exposed arteries. She was too weak to speak, but her eyes rolled over toward Rashid, blinking helplessly.
“Come on, Jenice, we’ve got to move!” Rashid hooked his arms beneath her shoulders and started dragging her back toward their ship. She reached around with her left hand and clenched tightly to his arm with what little strength she had left.
Sorek had advanced out onto the bridge, with Napine not far behind. Their rifles strayed back and forth, spewing fire to cover Rashid’s withdrawal. Though crouched down, Sorek was still fully exposed to enemy fire. A moment after Rashid had drug Jenice past him, one of the enemy incendiary bullets struck him fully in the chest. It blew apart against his armor and knocked him off-balance. Sorek’s boot slipped from the edge as he tried to regain himself and he fell, tumbling toward the force field.
“NO!” cried Rashid.
It was too late. With Jenice slumped against him, there was nothing he could do. Sorek let out a scream just before his body fell through the force field. Like the others, it ripped his flesh, armor and clothes to pieces, leaving behind an open-mouthed skeleton that drifted away into space.
For a moment, Rashid stared at the drifting corpse in shock. He felt his world spinning and feared he was about to black out, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him out of it. It was Napine! He’d rushed out, grabbed Rashid and Jenice alike, and was dragging them both toward the boarding ramp on his own. One after the other, marine reinforcements leapt past them, guns blazing as they made for safe ground across the bridge.
Finding strength again, Rashid ignored the tears that snuck from his eyes and instead made to help Napine with Jenice. As they scrambled into the safety of Lilith’s Omen, Rashid breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed against the bulkhead. To take rest was dangerous, but he needed at least a moment’s reprieve, if only to recover his strength.
C.S.D. Triumphant, Praxis Staging Area, Praxis Region
Standing in the Triumphant‘s bustling bridge, Captain Crosley watched as his vessels prepared for the Wexel jump.
Space Fleet Forces Command had tried many times to promote him. Typically, a Rear Admiral would be in command of special task groups, such as the one that had been assembled for Operation Pearl Island. However, Crosley was stubborn and bull-headed. He preferred to be in command of one ship, his ship, and had refused promotion three times already. The Triumphant was his home, and he felt most effective sitting in her command chair, career be damned.
Command had broken protocol by putting him in charge of Operation Pearl Island, rather than diverting it’s direction to one of those Rear Admirals. He carried himself like one of them, but he was not one of them.
A strategic prodigy, Crosley had put together this task group by hand. Dozens of smaller ships circled about in space, taking up positions around the larger, capital-scale vessels. Triumphant and Churchill were the largest warships employed, but there were many cruisers, gunships and smaller corvettes that formed their flanking vessels. Crosley had broken the task group into individual units that would each serve a specific purpose during the assault. The smaller, more maneuverable vessels would break apart enemy starfighter patterns, forcing them to engage the Coalition Marine starfighter screens directly. The mid-sized vessels would serve as escorts for the larger ships, whose firepower posed the most significant threat to Drake’s warships.
Their greatest difficulty would be the inbound jump. They had deployed twenty remote jump nodes, but these were linked to a scant five nodes located inside the Wexel System’s campaign sphere. They had to coordinate each jump with the strictest timing, in order to maximize speed and avoid catastrophe on the other side. The entire operation relied upon this element of surprise, and hinged upon Murray’s success at luring Drake into the campaign sphere. Otherwise, there was no possible victory.
Maj. General Ahnbar and Lt. General Hätälä of the 1st Marine Starfighter Corps were also present. From the Crusader‘s bridge, they would be able to coordinate marine operations most effectively when the battle clock hit zero. Raquelle Prawley lingered near the back of the bridge, with access to a special comm channel she could use to contact local fringers. Lastly, Command had lent Commodore Junichi Chan to serve as strategic coordinator for the operation.
A young woman working one of the Hunt Link terminals raised her voice over the general chatter. “Captain!” she announced. “Packet received from Lilith’s Omen!”
Crosley replied with a calm gesture. “Let’s have it.”
A tactical plot appeared over the Triumphant‘s massive forward window. It depicted four enemy vessels; the Crusader, escorted by the strike cruisers Halifax, Relinquish and Watershed.
“Three Cutlass-class cruisers, one Khopesh.” General Ahnbar’s Ghanaian accent was littered with surprise. “They won’t stand a chance.”
“That may be, General,” answered Crosley, “but I’ve never trusted Drake. He’s a snake. Commodore Chan, how soon can we move out?”
“All vessels accounted for and in position,” answered Chan. “Ready on your word, Captain.”
“Very well. Slingshot the Churchill through first.” Crosley folded his arms and walked forward, as if advancing on the forward window would bring him closer to the fleet.
The C.S.F.C. Churchill was a massive starfighter carrier. Its engines roared to life, sending the lumbering beast on a slow approach to the largest of their jump nodes. Meanwhile, a series of smaller corvettes formed up alongside of her and launched magnetic grappling cables at her hull. Serving as tug boats, they pulled the beastly Churchill through space, augmenting her acceleration. At the last possible moment, these corvettes released their grapplers and pulled away, essentially sending the Churchill into her jump node like a slingshot. Crosley had invented this strategy himself. It gave the largest and slowest vessels a head start through otherspace, and a strategic advantage over their adversaries on the other side.
Bright flashes of light erupted all about as each vessel moved through the jump nodes and departed for the Wexel System. Triumphant would be the last to go through.
“This is it, ladies and gentlemen,” announced Crosley. “I expect flexibility and vigilance. Drake will not go down easily. Adaptation is the only way we will succeed. Follow my lead and we will live to fight another day.” He looked at his helmsman with a grin. “Miss Reyn, let’s jump.”
Orbital Platform L-200, Earth, Sol System
Jacob set a black helmet over his head, clicking it onto place against the oddly strong, flexible fabric covering his neck. As part of the LOPO uniforms they’d found aboard L.M.V. Praetor, these helmets worked like an extension of the human nervous system. An internal targeting and sensor system tracked the very motion of his eyes and imposed data relevant to what he was looking at onto the tinted glass protecting his face. A built-in comm system linked his helmet with the others, letting him communicate with his teammates in complete secrecy. From the outside, their helmets were tinted black. Nobody could see in; their identities were completely anonymous.
Their self-fashioned monitor implants were working flawlessly. They had no trouble docking with Orbital Platform L-200. As they emerged from the access tube and stepped aboard the orbital platform, they were greeted warmly by passing LOPO officers, Legion soldiers, and the like. Nobody seemed to mind their presence, but it didn’t make any of them feel at all more comfortable.
Riles’ voice sounded in Jacob’s ear. “Man, this place gives me the heebie jeebies.”
“Let’s find a terminal and get this over with,” agreed Metler.
As they travelled the corridors, they looked for signs of an available access terminal. They passed enemies all about, none bothered by their unfamiliar helmets or armor. So long as their fake monitors reported clearance, they went unbothered. LOPO’s security protocols were perfected to a fault.
“This is too easy,” muttered Metler. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Eventually, Jane stumbled upon a small security access room. Just as they passed by, its door slid open to dispense a lone LOPO agent. Nonchalantly Jane ducked inside and let the door slide shut behind her. Jacob and the others pretended to stand guard. A few moments later, Jane’s voice came breathing over the comm, each syllable laced with anxiety. “Bastards have this place locked down too tight.”
“Can you get through without attracting attention?” asked Metler.
“Wait a moment,” she answered. “I have something… it’s not Agent Troy, but look at this.”
An image appeared across the inside of Jacob’s helmet. It was the schematic of a facility labeled “SOCEPOM 1″. A series of dots indicated human signatures, with small names next to each.
“Vereor, Dyson, Fleming,” said Jane. “All in one location. Level twenty.”
“That’s where he is,” answered Metler.
“Something else,” Jane continued. “Dyson has activated some protocol. General Order 400.2. I don’t get it, sir, but he’s somehow locked out LOPO operations aboard his ship, the Benedict.”
“That’s odd,” replied Metler. “This may play to our advantage. Plant the data on Kale, now.”
“It’s already done,” answered Jane.
A series of red lights began flashing along the corridor, as if cued by Jane’s words. A soft, eerie siren joined, and soon, LOPO agents began appearing out of the woodwork, dispersing throughout the space station like a swarm of flies.
“We better get to that facility ‘fore they realize it’s a hoax,” remarked Riles.
The door nearby opened and Jane’s enigmatic form slipped out. Metler motioned for Riles to take point. Jane moved toward him while messing with a small wrist computer, and a map of the orbital platform flashed to life inside Jacob’s helmet. Shaded areas showed them how to get to level twenty, where the SOCEPOM facility lie hidden in mystery.
As they followed Riles down the corridor, Jacob glanced over at Captain Metler. “What’s going on, Captain?”
“General Vereor, Director Fleming, Admiral Dyson. Three very important enemy leaders,” explained Metler. “I suppose my ‘bad feeling’ was accurate.”
Admiral Dyson scowled as the robotic arm ejected itself from the monitor port in his temple. He eyed the security interface outside of SOCEPOM 1 with distaste as it announced his clearance.
“Access granted. Thank you, Admiral Dyson.”
Benneth was not surprised to see Director Fleming inside. His tall and lanky stance found benefit in a brooding stare, but Benneth was not intimidated by him. Vereor, on the other hand, was designed to intimidate. The General was more machine than man, perhaps the most cybernetically and genetically enhanced human in the galaxy. He stood gregariously next to Fleming, looming over both of them with his synthetic height.
“Admiral Dyson.” Fleming’s tone was condescending, echoed by the glare in his eyes. ”How wonderful of you to join us.”
“Spare me your platitudes, Director.” The door slid shut behind Dyson. “I’m here on an errand of the utmost importance to Proper Society.”
Vereor remained chillingly silent. Benneth wondered what, exactly, his genetically enhanced eye could see. Thought patterns? Heat signatures coming from his skin? Benneth tried to keep his cool but it was not easy.
“Ah yes,” answered Fleming. “General Order 400.2. I must confess, Admiral, your actions are most suspect. Perhaps you’d care to explain yourself to me? Of course, I could just have you detained on grounds of deviancy.”
“Deviancy,” spat Dyson. “You’re a hypocrite, Fleming. I don’t believe Maiyao would have kept from you the facts surrounding the 804 Project.”
“You’re not supposed to know about that, Admiral,” he warned.
“And why is that, Fleming?” Dyson met his opponent’s challenge by taking a step closer. He had to remain on the offensive, or else Fleming might destroy him with serpentine words alone. “Perhaps she fears Proper Society being destabilized beyond her control. Tell me. What happens if she cannot fix the damage that’s already been done? What happens when the truth comes out?”
“You challenge not only the Source Director but me as well,” seethed Fleming. “Your words themselves are criminal. They dare to suggest that LOPO cannot preserve Loyalty and Order.” He cocked an eyebrow. “That is treason, Admiral.”
Benneth raised a warning finger. “Stop right there, Fleming. I know my rights. Regulation 400.2 protects me, and all of those in my subordinate, until a ruling can be made by the Triumvirate. Not, arbitrarily, by you.” He turned then and glared at Vereor, the monster of the Legion Armies. “What about you, Supreme General Vereor? What do you think Warlord Brecke would say about your actions? But wait, no, you can always claim deniability. The 804 Project, I’m sure, was concealed from you as well.” His words were layered with sarcasm and his eyes were flooded with fervor. “If anyone here is committing treason, it is you!”
Vereor’s computerized voice finally spoke. “Acceptable loss.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Dyson.
“That will be the grounds upon which your argument fails, Admiral,” continued the General. “Acceptable loss has been a part of our government from the moment of its genesis. And look at what we have created.” He motioned about. “Safe, secure, prosperous civilization. We’ve kept many truths from the people, and it’s always been for their own benefit. Progress has a price, Admiral. It’s a shame you fail to see it.”
Their conversation was interrupted when a priority alert began flashing on one of the consoles. Fleming went to inspect it, then stood stock upright and blinked. “Jacob Kale has been spotted on the Mother Planet.”
“What?” asked Dyson.
“LOPO has confirmed the intel,” he continued. “He’s evaded capture and murdered seven agents.”
Dyson stepped forward vigorously. “We need him. He can stop what’s happening on Earth. We could save millions of lives!”
He was answered by Vereor’s cybernetic hand, which clamped around Dyson’s neck like a vice. He had no idea how the General had moved so fast, but before he could process the surprise, a ferocious pain crippled him. He gasped, but was unable to cry out in pain. Arcs of blue energy were coursing all over his body, and his muscles had begun to seize. He was powerless to resist the General, and with each passing moment, his life energy drained in a flood of blazing torment until Vereor released him.
Benneth collapsed to the floor, paralyzed.
“General, detain him,” purred Fleming. “Send your Viper Units. I want Kale in my possession before the hour is up!”
“With pleasure.” Vereor motioned for the LOPO agents nearby, and they came upon Dyson’s prone form with plasmashackles in hand.
Unexpectedly, the door slid open once more. A man stood in its frame, garbed in black armor that resembled those worm by fellow LOPO agents. A black helmet concealed his identity until, after drawing everyone’s attention, he unsealed it from its resting place.
It was none other than Jacob Kale.
YSAD Crusader, Wexel System, Terran Region
Rashid was crouched next to Jenice when Napine called for a marine field medic. He’d already ripped a piece of cloth from his uniform and was wrapping a tourniquet around her wrist. “Stay with us, Commander.”
The summoned medic slipped between a group of marines that were headed down the ramp and crouched next to Jenice, opening up his field kit. He checked her pulse for a moment, then began loading a capsule of medicine into his hypospray.
“Will she survive?” asked Rashid.
“We see these injuries all the time.” The medic pressed his hypospray into her neck. It clicked and hissed, injecting the drugs right into her bloodstream. “She’s lost a lot of blood, but she’ll pull through.”
Nearby, Lieutenant Agney was barking orders into his wristcomm. Napine had moved over to the ramp’s entrance, directing the marines as they came in and out of the ship. Without warning, he spun about and snapped to attention, for Major Grisham had come storming into the cargo bay.
“As you were,” barked Grisham. A half-lit cigar teetered between his teeth. “Lieutenant, we need to secure this docking bay now.”
“We’re on it, sir,” answered Agney. A series of loud thumps joined the sound of battle from outside; Lilith’s Omen was firing her ventral turrets inside the docking bay. A dangerous move, but likely to throw the enemy off balance. “If we don’t lock down those maglifts, we’ll be stuck here.”
Rashid was struck by an idea and leapt to his feet. “Major, I believe I can deactivate those lifts.”
Grisham and Agney turned and looked at Rashid in disbelief.
“I might even be able to gain access to Crusader‘s primary functions,” he continued. “There are access terminals on that far wall, but I need your men to get me there.”
Grisham pulled the cigar from his mouth, chewing on his cud while studying Rashid hesitantly. “Napine?”
“Take first squad and cover the Lieutenant Commander.
“Agney, have Omen pave the way with those ventral guns.”
Agney resumed barking orders into his wristcomm, and Napine shoved a spare pistol into Rashid’s hand. ”You’ll need this.”
Rashid checked the clip, took a deep breath and nodded. “Ready.”
“First Squad, return to position two.” Napine lowered his wristcomm and motioned for Rashid to follow. “Come on.”
Chasing Napine fearlessly down the ramp, Rashid was led into the fray. A thick haze of smoke-filled the Crusader‘s docking bay, which was littered with fire and debris. The second squad of marines was positioned behind a Legionnaire shuttlecraft, using it as cover while firing at a line of Legion soldiers that protected the far wall where Rashid needed to go. The third squad of marines had been ordered to advance on the wall inside the wake of a ferocious onslaught from the Omen‘s ventral turrets. The first squad was running back toward the ship, where they met Napine and Rashid at the edge of the platform.
A deafening ruckus of weapons fire surrounded him. Napine shouted orders to the squad leader while incendiary bullets streaked by. They were dangerously exposed; Rashid hunkered next to Napine until they moved out. Bright flashes from enemy plasma weapons tracked them as they made way for the far wall. Driven by instinct, Rashid barreled after the marines with his head held low. Two marines fell to enemy fire, then a third as they came upon a large support column halfway to the target wall. There was nothing Rashid could do; this was war.
Napine directed his men with hand motions alone. The squad was split into two smaller fire-teams. One stayed behind, pressed back against the column for cover. The other ran out and strafed the bay, trying to draw enemy fire. Napine pulled Rashid with him behind the column, then reached for a plasma grenade that was hooked to his belt. His marines followed suit, and Rashid reached up to cover his ears with a preemptive wince. Pins were pulled, arms were slung, and the grenades flew through the battle toward their foes along the wall.
Four explosions deafened the docking bay, and a blast of fire came scorching toward them. Rashid opened his mouth and cried out in terror as the shock wave passed, broken by the column protecting them. He was almost left behind when the marines darted out and made a final sprint toward the lift bay.
Gasping for air, Rashid flung himself from behind the column and raced for the wall. Their plasma grenades had blown right through the enemy soldiers, leaving a carnage of rubble and body parts sprinkled about. Napine leapt over a pair of shredded, bodiless legs, and spun about moments before striking the bulkhead. He leveled his rifle and began firing right over Rashid’s shoulder.
He dared not look behind him to see who Napine was shooting at. Spotting an access terminal, Rashid scampered to a halt and starting working on it, flinching when bullets ricocheted off the wall nearby. The terminal kept denying him, again and again. Blood was pumping so fiercely that he feared the explosion of his emboldened heart. Every time he saw ‘Access Denied’ on the terminal, he doubled his efforts out of increasing fear. When at last the terminal flashed blue and displayed a directory of command functions, a fresh hunger gripped him like the talons of a predatory beast. He was in!
As the chorus of violence smothered him, Rashid locked out the mag-lift system to cripple the enemy’s movements. He encrypted access with a multi-decimal code of complex numbers, and set the code to cycle on a rotating equation. Then, he programmed a link between the Crusader‘s command functions and his own touchpad.
When the wireless link was confirmed, Rashid disconnected his touchpad and spun around to Napine. ”It’s done!”
Napine flung his hand into the air and signaled a withdrawal. He spun Rashid around, putting the engineer between himself and the rest of the fire-team as they moved out.
The sound of battle melted away until Rashid only heard the beating of his heart, the pounding of his boots, and the labored breathing of his lungs. The tumult about him disintegrated into a blur of color and noise. He ran with all of his might, focused only on the marine ahead of him and the steadily growing Omen. Relief escaped him until he leapt over the threshold and into the vessel’s cargo bay.
Once inside, Rashid collapsed against a nearby bulkhead and tried to steady the buzzing of his head. One of the medics was dragging an injured marine up the ramp, and on the other side of the bay, the vessel’s field surgeon was tending to Commander Murray. He had encased her maimed hand in some kind of black glove, which clamped into the skin above the point of injury at her wrist. A bag filled with blood hung above, attended by one of the field medics.
Napine joined him, rifle slung over his shoulder. “Talk to me, Commander.”
Jerking his eyes to the marine, Rashid drew himself from the brink of shock and retrieved his touchpad to double-check his work. He spun it about to show Napine as a toothy smirk found its way to his lips.
“We’ve got them now, Sergeant.”
From the Crusader‘s bridge, Admiral Drake watched with ire as Coalition vessels began flashing into space around them. He walked over toward Captain Roberts’ chair patiently, with a smirk growing on his face. “Look at that,” he mocked. “The fools. They’re bringing their entire fleet to engage us. They have no idea that the rest of the Atlas Fleet is waiting to strike.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Roberts. “This will be a grand day for the Triumvirate.”
“Signal the shadow forces. Arm weapons and prepare to engage them.” Drake’s smirk slowly turned into a sneer. “Let’s give them a moment to revel in victory before we summon the reinforcements.”
C.S.D. Triumphant, Wexel System, Terran Region
Captain Crosley blinked to clear his head after the Triumphant arrived in the Wexel System. From their vantage point, he could make out the movements of each starship. The outer vessels were already moving to trap Drake’s craft on multiple angles. Churchill was disgorging its starfighter compliment. War was upon them.
There were 45 ships under his command that day. In addition to Churchill and Triumphant, three other capital-scale cruisers constructed their primary engagement unit.
“Should we hail the Crusader, Captain?” asked his comm officer.
“Offer them terms of surrender, you mean? Drake wouldn’t give us that luxury. He deserves no such thing.” He punched up the Hunt Link. “All vessels, this is Triumphant. Proceed with Vector One engagement action.”
Through the soles of his feet, Crosley felt the deck vibrating when the engine powered up. General Ahnbar looked over at him and said, ”Godspeed to all of us, Captain.”
“God won’t help us out here, Ahnbar,” he answered. “Tell your marines to fight as if hell were upon them.”
SOCEPOM Facility, Orbital Platform L-200, Earth, Sol System
Jacob Kale stared at the men before him with resolve. These were his true enemies, and he was meeting them now for the first time.
On the left was Fleming. His brooding stare sent a chill down Jacob’s spine that he simply couldn’t ignore. On the right, however, was something of a technological masterpiece. The creature’s legs were like those of a robot, fully mechanical and extending his height by at least half a meter. Cables ran along his torso, some terminating in his neck and chest, while others coiled down his right arm into a dastardly cybernetic weapon that replaced his entire forearm. The left side of his face was encased in machinery, culminating in a glowing red scanner in place of his eye socket. His one natural glowed a bright silver color. This one was General Vereor.
Nobody said a word. The three of them simply stared at each other for a prolonged moment.
Movement caught the corner of Jacob’s eye when two LOPO agents reached for their guns. On instinct, he leapt high into the air, hearing the discharge of weapons behind him. He sprang off the wall like a ninja and landed right next to one of them, snapping the agent’s neck in a flash. As the agent fell, Jacob snatched the weapon from his dying hands and fired it at the other’s neck. It only took one killing shot; Jacob was most efficient.
Vereor was on the move. He’d whipped about and was punching commands into a console behind him, but a female voice from the doorway stopped him cold.
“Don’t bother, General. We’ve locked out your bloody comm grid.”
Jane, Riles, and Metler were standing in the open doorway. Metler had taken off his helmet, and all three of them had their rifles drawn and aimed at their opponents.
“You assholes ready t’ do some kissin’?” spat Riles.
Vereor glowered at them. A thin red beam from shot out from his cybernetic eye, scanning them while the other fell on Metler. “Alan Metler, Captain of the Lilith’s Omen. I’m surprised you’ve come this far.”
Metler’s response was loathsome. “In the name of the Freedom Coalition, I order you to surrender yourselves and hand over your prisoner.”
Jacob looked behind Fleming and Vereor for a brief moment. There, upon a series of display screens, he could see the prisoner Metler was referring to. Troy was strapped onto a table, body encased in some kind of form-fitting bodyglove with cables and wires attached to it in many places. His head was covered by a gruesome looking, spindly device. Every so often, his body went through a violent bout of uncontrollable spasms.
“We do not recognize your authority, Captain,” answered Vereor.
“Well, I don’t give a damn,” answered Metler. He took another step forward, followed closely by Riles. Jane remained behind, seemingly distracted by an older, white-haired navyman who lie prone on the floor. “Now, disengage your weapons and stand down!”
A silence lingered, in which nobody dared to move for a few heavy seconds. Then, Jacob noticed Fleming sharing a brief glimpse with Vereor. Captain Metler noticed it too.
Jacob darted out to grab Fleming, but he scampered out of the way and ran for the corner. Before Jacob could make chase, he saw a violent torrent of electrical energy lashing out from Vereor’s right hand. The General swung his arm in a slashing motion and threw the bolts of energy across the room, catching both Metler and Riles in their burning fingers.
The colorful discharge lashed over Jacob’s comrades, lifting them into the air while they screamed in agony. The force of the attack sent them spiraling into the wall behind them, where the snarling Vereor held them suffering in his proverbial grasp.
Seething, Jacob fired his stolen weapon at Vereor’s mechanical hand. The bright energy bolt splattered against it, disabling the weapon with spats of smoke and sparking failure. Riles and Metler fell to the floor; Jacob couldn’t tell if they were dead or barely alive. The weapon had seared their armor, and tendrils of smoke rose from where they lie in a heap together.
Vereor lowered his broken weapon-arm and turned. “Very brave of you, Subject 804.C. But you are fighting the wrong fight, my friend.”
From the corner of his eye, Jacob noticed that Jane was dragging the unconscious Dyson out of the room. She still had her helmet on. He couldn’t be sure if Dyson was on their side now, but he’d clearly done something to anger the General. He needed to distract Vereor, and quickly.
“Friend,” spat Jacob. “They are my friends. Not you.” He aimed the weapon at the General’s head, but something about his face caught Jacob by surprise. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it kept him from pulling the trigger.
“You’re just like me, Jacob,” answered Vereor. “It’s unfortunate you were never given the chance to realize it.”
“Bullshit,” answered Jacob. He felt oddly comfortable using the term now that his friends were dying on the floor. It felt appropriate.
“Jacob Kale,” continued Vereor, “you belong to the Triumvirate. To me.” He slowly extended his natural hand in a gesture of peace. “Now stop this charade and come back to those who have given you purpose.”
Jacob had all but forgotten Director Fleming, who was lurking in the shadows behind him. No longer hesitating, he squeezed the trigger and sent another bolt of supercharged plasma straight at Vereor’s face. However, the General was far too fast. He swung his right arm into the air with unnatural speed and caught the bolt in the palm of his mechanical hand. The device may have been disabled, but it was constructed of some compound that made it otherwise impervious to Jacob’s weapon. He blinked, surprised that he hadn’t anticipated this.
Just then, Jacob felt a pair of hands on him. It was Fleming!
Fleming tried to pull Jacob to the floor. He swung his weapon, missing Fleming’s face by less than an inch. Snarling, Fleming intercepted Jacob’s hand and smashed it against the side of a nearby console. With a yelp, Jacob’s fingers lost the weapon and it clattered to the floor. Disregarding it, he flung forth his head and smashed it into his opponent’s face.
Fleming backpedaled, momentarily disoriented. Taking advantage of him, Jacob leapt into the air and swung his boot across Fleming’s face. There was an ugly crushing sound and Fleming fell to the floor. Jacob turned to face Vereor, who was advancing on him. Thinking fast, he tore the disruptor pistol from its holster at his side and took aim as the weapon charged up.
But Vereor was too fast. His mechanical hand snapped up and made a grappling motion. Something invisible tickled the hairs of Jacob’s hand and the pistol was ripped clean out of his fingers, soaring across the room and right into his enemy’s outstretched hand. A targeted magnetic beam.
How could I be so stupid?
Now weaponless, Jacob backed up and raised his arms. He felt his center of gravity stabilizing as his body adopted a kung fu stance. Emotion drained from him, much as if he’d prepared for this moment through countless months of intense meditation. A sense of inner energy, something he vaguely recognized as his qi, came to wash through his bones and muscles.
With the grinding of servos, Vereor’s mechanical hand twisted and transformed into a three-pronged weapon of razor-sharp metal. His boots pounded the deck twice, before a glowing blue energy field formed and extended up his torso.
Jacob lowered his face and locked eyes with the General. His words were filled with resolve. “I belong to no one.”
With a roar, the General vaulted into the air and came at Jacob with deadly accuracy. Jacob leapt back, flinging his leg to block the weapon before it could strike.
The match had begun!
Wexel System, Terran Region
“Churchill, this is Wraith Leader. Engaging enemy fighters at sector three five.”
Major Raison sat inside the cramped cockpit of his Hornet-class starfighter. The most commonly used marine vessels were the Osprey-class fighters and Eagle-class bombers. The Hornets had been developed two months ago by the Coalition Corps of Engineers at the Sentry Shipyards in the Animus Cluster, and this marked the first day they’d been used in actual combat.
This small starfighter had a streamlined design, with a wedge-like shape resembling archaic stealth fighters used by the United States in the 21st century. It incorporated the Coalition’s most advanced technology. The primary weapons were a pair of P.C.B. guns mounted on the fighter’s nose, connected to an automatic target tracking computer. Four banks of EM flack dischargers were mounted on its wings. The small capsules fired by these weapons would detonate in space, creating a small electro-magnetic pulse effect that could scramble the sensors of enemy starfighters during close-quarter dogfights. They were specially calibrated to avoid screwing up friendly vessels. Beneath the vessel were housed an array of compressed hydrogen torpedos and gravity bombs.
It was the fastest, most agile starfighter the marines had access to. Its hull was utterly crammed with mechanisms, ammunition, and fuel. Major Raison’s small cockpit was essentially surrounded by combustibles; it was a flying, lightly shielded death trap.
Wraith Squadron was one of two marine starfighter groups using the Hornets. Their orders were to make first contact with the enemy starfighters and cause as much havoc and damage as was possible, before running out of ammo. They would rotate in and out of battle with Ghost Squadron, so that while one squadron was engaged, the other would be docked with Churchill for refueling and reloading.
“Alright, boys, this is it.” Raison ignited the vessel’s particle shields. “Set attack pattern Zulu Niner.” He looked to his left and saw half of the squadron forming a wedge-shaped pattern around him. His wingmate, First Lieutenant Kim, looked over and shot him a thumbs up.
A massive spread of enemy starfighters came into view. His targeting computer began highlighting them upon the helmet’s HUD with glowing red squares. The contact lenses he wore were equipped with a tiny sensor, which would determine which target he was looking at whenever he pressed the target lock. Choosing one, he locked on and fired. The response time was even faster than it had been in the simulators. With a mere slip of his hands, the Hornet rolled to starboard and reversed throttle, sliding through space as enemy starfighters swam past. EM flack filled space in his wake with the press of a button, exploding into small spheres of blue electromagnetic energy.
The rest of Wraith Squadron broke formation in pure astrodynamic brilliance. Their enemies were thrown into chaos, not expecting this kind of attack. Many of them simply spun out of control into space when the EM flack shut down their internal mechanisms.
Raison centered his starfighter and reclaimed his target. The main guns blasted protonic bullets into space, but his opponent danced about and avoided him.
“Come on, you sonovabitch.” Raison feathered the joystick, refusing to leave his opponent’s tail. Stray fire glanced through his shields, leaving tracers of red as the bullets were absorbed.
There were significant differences between each faction’s approach to starfighter combat. Many Legionnaire fighters were not equipped with shields, instead relying on sheer numbers to swarm their opponents. In contrast, the Coalition valued its pilots as much as its equipment, and spent far more time and money investing in creating stronger, more powerful starfighters. In an engagement like this, Raison could rack up well over fifty kills. He’d have to. So would everyone else.
He tracked his opponent until spurts of steam and smoke exploded from the enemy’s hull. Grinning, Raison twisted the fighter about, and landed a shot on the enemy’s fuel cells. The resulting explosion sent a sphere of shrapnel and wreckage into the fray.
“One down, a thousand to go.” Raison whipped the Hornet around and carried on with his hunt.
The battle opened up before them as the Triumphant drew closer. Coalition and Alliance starfighters were tangled in ferocious dogfights with each other. Space was filled with streaking bullets, slashing lasers, and exploding torpedos. Coalition escort craft were breaking apart to engage the first wave of enemy starfighters, which bore down upon the larger Coalition vessels like swarming gnats. Captain Crosley, however, had his eyes locked on one object out there… the Y.S.A.D. Crusader.
“Helm, be on your guard,” warned Crosley. “If they use antimatter torpedoes, we’ll have to go with the Jallaq Maneuver before we get swallowed up.”
“Incoming starfighters,” reported the tactical officer.
“Straight and steady, helm,” answered Crosley. “They won’t break our shields.”
As enemy starfighters streaked by the Triumphant, their onslaught blazed against the flagship’s shields with little to no effect. Coalition starfighters gave chase, ducking and diving between the escort craft as they tried to lure enemy fighters into the deadly crossfire.
“Enemy cruisers in attack range,” reported tactical.
“Fire all forward batteries,” barked Crosley.
There was still a healthy distance between Crusader and Triumphant when they began to fire on each other. Their weapons soared through space, leaving bright blue ion trails as they sought to meet each other in the shrinking gap between.
“She’s heavy on ventral lasers,” said Crosley. “Bring us across the dorsal side. Target their shield emulators, focus heavy along the docking bays. General, get your teams ready.”
General Ahnbar wasted no time contacting his marine commanders. The Zero-G teams were small, but outfit with vacuum suits that were resistant to magnetic shields. If all went to plan, the Zero-G marines would conduct a space-leap as Triumphant passed underneath the Crusader, then infiltrate the vessel through her primary docking bay.
However, the whole operation was interrupted when an alarm blasted to life. ”Captain!” cried the tactical officer. “I have enemy ships jumping in!”
“More?” asked Crosley, confused. “On screen!”
Releasing his crash harness, he stood up and read the tactical overlay. A slew of Alliance starships were flashing through the jump nodes, one after the other. Crosley counted up to twelve, before he resigned to the sobering realization that his fleet was in dire trouble. Somehow, Drake had sniffed out their operation and planned a trap much larger than anyone could have expected.
“Damn it all,” Crosley cursed. “It’s a goddamn trap!” He slammed his fist onto the comm, activating the Hunt Link. “This is Triumphant. All craft pull up! Engage enemy reinforcements at vector seven nine!”
He sat back into his seat as the flagship began a lumbering climb, pulling way from her assault on the Crusader. When the stars and carnage of battle stopped spinning, he was greeted by a horrific sight. One after another, bright flashes of light signaled the constant arrival of enemy vessels, both large and small alike.
Their intel had been a trick. Drake couldn’t have possibly gathered this many ships if they’d truly been spread out throughout the galaxy, locking down trade and travel routes. He, Jenice, even the entire Coalition Council had been outsmarted.
They were all going to die out here.
Peter Drake rapped the ceremonial baton against his hand as he paced among his loyal bridge officers. The Atlas Fleet had just arrived, and their reinforcements were moving to block the Deviant scum from escaping. The enemy ships had pulled away to confront these new challengers, but there was no way out. He’d outsmarted them, and now, victory lingered on his lips like the taste of sweet honey.
“Look at them run.” Drake paused nearby one of the munitions officers. “Let’s give them a real scare, shall we?” He motioned toward the fleeing Triumphant, then swept his hand to encompass the Churchill as well. “Prepare the antimatter torpedos.”
“Admiral,” countered the young officer. “We still have a lot of starfighters out there.”
“And their sacrifice will be greatly honored,” answered Drake. “You have your orders!”
Drake turned and walked back toward Captain Roberts, who’d looked at him with a frown. “What is it, Captain?”
“Just a small issue, sir,” he answered. “The deviants are causing us problems in the docking bay.”
“How could they possibly cause us any trouble?” growled Drake.
“They’ve locked out all mag-lifts below Deck C! We can’t send reinforcements.”
“Then send soldiers through the maintenance tunnels and kill them,” barked Drake. “They can only squeeze so many marines into that small ship. I want Murray and her faggot-loving pawns dead! Now!”
“At once, Seigneur!” answered Roberts.
Drake faced the forward window once again and resumed rapping the baton behind his back. Bloodlust surged through his veins like poison. “This will be a day for the generations.”
SOCEPOM Facility, Orbital Platform L-200, Earth, Sol System
Vereor and Kale were engaged in a most ferocious duel. Korynn Fleming watched them for a few short moments, impressed at how well Kale handled himself against the fearsome General. As part of the 804 Project, Jacob’s brain had been injected with volumes of knowledge, including every martial skill and combat technique known to mankind. He’d be more than a match for General Vereor, but Fleming wasn’t concerned with that.
There was no way that Jacob Kale could escape from Earth. He might be able to defeat Vereor; he might even be able to escape from platform L-200; but Fleming would see to it that he went no further.
He quietly slipped out of the SOCEPOM control room and into the corridor beyond. Eyes darting about, he spotted a black-clad LOPO agent hovering over Admiral Dyson’s body. He would not be fooled by this impostor; she was one of the deviants who’d accompanied Kale.
The impostor looked up, frozen for a moment when she spotted him. She moved to grab the rifle that lay nearby, but Fleming was swifter than her. He brought his pistol to bear, charging it with a snap and a whine.
“Don’t move.” He advanced upon her, carefully. “Remove your helmet.” When she hesitated, he darted his weapon-bearing hand forward threateningly. “Do it!”
Jane Veston, the woman behind the helmet, raised her hands in surrender. She removed the helmet and revealed herself, eyes pensive behind strands of raven hair.
“Against the wall,” Fleming growled. “Slowly.”
Jane did as she was told, though her lips curled into a derisive scowl.
“Hands against the wall.” Fleming advanced on her, kicking the discarded rifle down the corridor and out of reach. He grabbed her by the shoulders, spun her about, and slammed her into the wall.
Jane shrieked and hissed at him. “What do you want?”
Fleming curled his hands around her neck and pointed the pistol at her eye. “You’re the one who disabled the comm system, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” she answered daringly. “Surprised, Fleming?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. And now, you’re going to re-enable it for me.”
Jane stretched her neck, trying to put her face closer to his. “Go to hell.”
Fleming swung his pistol across her face, connecting with a horrible crack. She cried out in pain, then turned back to face him with a broken and bleeding nose. “I said,” she repeated, “go to hell, you filthy bastard!”
Snarling, Fleming lowered his body and swung the weight of his elbow into her torso. Jane cried out and fell to her knees, defeated. Weapon still held at her face, Fleming hastily searched through her utility belt until he came across the touchpad she’d hidden there. He eyed it with a rueful smirk, then kicked her square in the gut, putting her down for good. Moving away as if she were little more than slime, he crept over to Admiral Dyson, who was stirring from slumber. Kneeling down by the Admiral’s head, Fleming began slowly petting the aging shock of white hair matted atop his sweat-stained head.
“Who… who’s there?”
“My dear Admiral,” whispered Fleming. “You’ve betrayed the Triumvirate. You’ve betrayed us all.”
Dyson’s eyes flickered open and shifted to stare up at Fleming in cold fear.
“Such a pity, a man of your stature.” Fleming shook his head, then leaned in close, his lips but a hair’s length from Dyson’s ear. ”You will pay dearly for this betrayal, Benneth Dyson.”
Dyson grunted and stirred, trying to catch Fleming with his weakened hand… but Fleming was already gone.