Episode 28 – Challenge of Wills
Previously on Animus…
Operation Pearl Island has begun. Rashid Jallaq and the Coalition Marines have taken the Crusader‘s docking bay, and intend to move on the bridge. However, Peter Drake’s reinforcements have just jumped into the Wexel System, trapping the Coalition Fleet and etching out their defeat. If something does not shake Drake’s forces free, our time-traveling heroes will live to see the very future they are trying to change.
Meanwhile, Jacob Kale has led his freedom fighters to a fateful encounter with General Vereor and Korynn Fleming, the Director of Deviant Control. General Vereor has dispatched Kale’s friends and engaged him in a most ferocious duel. The ever-elusive and conniving Fleming has snuck off in secrecy, after stealing Jane Veston’s touchpad and making a definitive threat to the incapacitated Admiral Dyson.
The Freedom Coalition has this one opportunity to change the course of history, and the window is closing…
SOCEPOM Facility, Platform L-200, Earth, Sol System.
September 21st, 2193
Jane groaned and pulled herself up from the floor, using the wall nearby to steady herself. Gingerly, she touched her throbbing nose, and her fingers came away stained with blood. ”Hog-headed bastard,” she muttered, thinking about her encounter with Fleming.
Gasping, Jane rummaged about on her utility belt. Her fears were realized when she came up empty handed. He’d taken her touchpad after all! Panic came at her like a flash flood. With her touchpad, Fleming could undo her strangling of the platform’s communications grid. Then, he’d surely bring down every LOPO and Yellow Star Alliance asset on them in the blink of an eye.
Noticing the wounded Admiral Dyson lying nearby, she felt a shred of hope. She crouched beside him and found a weakened pulse. He was still alive, but his skin was clammy and his uniform blackened by Vereor’s weapon.
A series of heavy thumps rattled the wall beside her. Startled, Jane shrieked and stared at the wall for a moment, then at the security device protecting the SOCEPOM room. It’s robotic arm hung off to the side, dead; most likely Fleming’s doing. She was trapped out here until one of them opened the door from the inside, but she wasn’t sure she wanted that to happen.
Remembering the field medkit they’d all been given, she fumbled for it. “Christ, this is why I hate field ops!” Inside were a series of tiny hypospray needles, filled with compressed drugs that were, fortunately, color coded. She didn’t know much about field medicine, but she knew that her best bet was to use the adrenophine shot, a small vial filled with a dark blue serum. Riles had told her it was one guaranteed way to, as he put it, ‘wake any grunt up from zombie land.’
Wasting no time, she injected the Admiral in his neck. Almost immediately, his eyes darted open. He gasped for air and set panicked, fervent eyes on Jane. Lips curling, he tried to back away from her, hands and feet scrawling against the floor.
“Whoa, hey!” She threw up her hands in a sign of innocence. “It’s alright, I’m a friend!”
“You’re no friend of mine!” he growled.
“I’m not LOPO, for Christ’s sake, I’m with the bloody Coalition!”
In response, Dyson’s eyes grew even wider. He snarled at her and she immediately regretted telling him the truth.
Another loud noise came from behind the Admiral. Whatever was going on inside that torture room, it wasn’t pretty. Jane reached out and grabbed him forcefully. “Listen to me, you old git! I’d just as well leave you here, but it looks like you’ve run out of friends. I’m all you’ve got! Now get your ass up and help me open this door!”
No sooner had she spoken when a deafening blast erupted from the SOCEPOM facility. It’s door was blown clear open, slamming into the opposing wall hard enough to embed itself in the bulkhead.
Shrieking, Jane flung herself forward and fell on Admiral Dyson, protecting him from flying shrapnel and flames. She peeked out to see Jacob Kale bursting through the hole with a large plasma-pike in hand as he fended off violent advances from General Vereor. The General loomed over Jacob like a primordial giant, throwing ferocious blows at him without reprieve. Jacob, however, spun himself about with such acrobatic finesse that even when the General struck him, the blows glanced away much like a rock skipping over water.
“Come on!” Jane cried and drug the Admiral into the SOCEPOM control room. Riles and Metler were still lying near the wall, incapacitated. Many of the facility’s consoles had been smashed. There were dents in the wall and debris everywhere. However, one flickering screen showed the cell’s interior, with Troy still strapped down in his mental prison.
“Get the prisoner,” barked Jane. While the Admiral made for the console, she scrambled to her fallen comrades and snapped open her medkit. There were two more vials of adrenophine inside. With a sigh of relief, she removed Riles’ helmet and administered the injections.
Jarred to life, Riles instinctively grabbed his rifle and helmet, scampered to his feet, and made for the hallway outside. Metler was a bit more sluggish to respond, instead looking at Jane and coughing hoarsely. Looking past her, he noticed Dyson coming out of the cell, with a naked Troy in his arms.
“Veston,” he drawled. “Is that…”
“Dyson, yes, and Troy,” she answered. “Be nice, Vereor took him out too.”
“Where the hell is Jacob?” growled Metler.
A massive ball of flame suddenly exploded in the hallway outside. Riles spun back into the control room and pressed his back against the wall, while shrapnel and torn fibre optics followed the blast wave. He jerked his thumb toward the hallway and answered, “He’s out there, Cappy!”
“Go on then!” barked Metler. “Give Kale a hand!” He pushed himself to his feet and approached Dyson, reaching out to offer some help with Troy. The rescued prisoner was mumbling incoherently under his breath, driven to lunacy by LOPO’s mistreatment. Handing the prisoner off to Jane, he turned and gave Dyson a quick once-over. “Metler. Captain, C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen.”
“I’ve heard of you.” Dyson met Metler’s face with a conflicted scowl. They were enemies, to be sure, but given the circumstances, the Admiral was clearly considering all of his options.
“Listen to me carefully. Right now, Peter Drake is engaging Coalition forces in the Wexel System. He needs to be stopped, and we could use your help.”
“What do you think-”
A loud alarm blasted to life, interrupting their rushed conversation. One could only guess at what it meant, but it most likely involved Alliance soldiers being alerted to their presence.
“No time to waste!” Metler decidedly stuck out his hand, offering it to Dyson. “Admiral?”
Dyson stared at Metler’s hand for a prolonged moment. His lip curled with disgust, but he eventually grabbed and shook it once, forcefully. “We’ll be safe on the Benedict,” he urged. “Come on!”
“Veston! Riles!” Metler grabbed his helmet and made for the door. “Move out!”
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, docked inside Y.S.A.D. Crusader.
Blackness slowly found the swirling of colors, mingled together in a motley array of confusing blobs and clouds. A thought molecularized in Jenice’s mind that she might have discovered the afterlife. She didn’t recall Drake kicking her into space, but if he had, would she have even remembered her slow, agonizing death?
The images were moving. Slowly, she began to recognize the bustling of men and women. The colors were mostly gray, some brown. The colors of the Coalition! A shock of awareness jolted her; it was the grayscale camoflage worn by Coalition marines and the brown jumpsuits worn by her fellow officers in the fleet.
Urgency flooded her like a narcotic and sharpened her vision. Coalition Marines were indeed running back and forth, rifles and grenade launchers hefted over their shoulders while carrying wounded from the battlefield outside. Oddly enough, there were scant sounds coming from the Crusader‘s docking bay beyond, as if the melee she’d expected was over.
Something clinked on the deck next to her. A metallic sound. Looking, she saw that her entire right hand had been encased in some kind of immobilized black glove, which was clamped right into her skin above the wrist. She was immediately gripped by an insatiable urge to scratch at some place just beneath the edge of the gauntlet, which frustrated her immensely.
So, her horrible experience with Drake hadn’t been a dream.
The world seemed to close in around her. She sat up and hugged her legs against her body, noticing for the first time that she’d been placed onto a makeshift medical cot. There were other marines here in the cargo bay as well, lying on the floor in injury. A triage center.
Just before her world collapsed, she felt two hands grabbing her by the shoulders.
Rashid’s voice scourged her defeated soul with renewed strength. Cradling her injured hand, she gazed half-heartedly at it before meeting her acting first officer with a smile. “We made it.”
“So far, yes,” he answered. “Thank God you’re all right.” He brought a touchpad to bear, showing it to her. “The marines have taken the docking bay. We’ve locked out the Crusader‘s mag-lifts below Deck C, and gained access to many of the central control functions.”
Surprised, Jenice leaned forward and took a closer look at the touchpad. Rashid had fed one of the Crusader‘s security feeds onto it, and she could see the back of Peter Drake’s head while he paced among his bridge staff. She could even see through the Crusader‘s forward window, where a myriad of vessels were engaged in tangled warfare.
“Wait a moment.” Jenice raised her right hand and made to tap a command into the touchpad. Then, she remembered the black metal glove, which immobilized her fingers. She looked at it with a sigh, then shifted to operate the touchpad with her left hand. The video feed was replaced by the Crusader‘s tactical scan.
According to the Pearl Island operation overview, there were forty-five Coalition starships under Captain Crosley’s command. With Crusader and her three strike cruisers as escort, that made forty-nine vessels toal. This tactical view, however, displayed well over 200 starships, and the vast majority of them were Alliance vessels. Most of the ships had encirled the campaign sphere, trapping the Coalition vessels between Drake’s original group of four, and the much larger enemy armada encamped between the jump nodes.
Warmth left her, leaving her face pale and cold. “Oh no,” she whispered.
“It doesn’t look good, no.”
“There’s no way we can escape through that.” Turning the touchpad over to him, she no longer felt concern for herself or her maimed hand. Her thoughts now rested on the thousands of men and women serving aboard their sister ships. “Rashid, we must do something!”
“There is one option, Commander.” Tapping on the touchpad again, he turned it around to show her the Crusader‘s root command functions. “I’ve made significant progress. We have a choice; which functions do we want to change or delete, before Drake’s countermeasures lock us out?”
Jenice stood up at once. A blast of weakness threatened to topple her and she had to grab on to Rashid’s arm to keep from falling, but the weakness could not shake her resolve. “I don’t want to shut him down,” she snarled. “I want to re-program his targeting computers. Let them fire on their own ships and see how LOPO reacts to that kind of deviancy.”
Rashid’s eyes widened… he hadn’t considered the idea. “With pleasure, Commander!”
Orbital Platform L-200, Earth, Sol System.
Leaving the control room, Riles found himself sandwiched. Jacob and Vereor’s ferocious duel took up the corridor beyond, and Alliance soldiers had just come running around the corner behind him.
“There they are! Open fire!”
With a growl of battle lust, Riles threw himself into the wall and spun about, leveling his weapon at the incoming soldiers. The rifle’s compact power cell was capable of delivering 1,046 super-charged plasma bolts at a rate of 24 bolts per second. Each of these were powerful enough to punch through most of the armor worn by Yellow Star Alliance soldiers, which was but one benefit of returning to 2193 with weaponry so advanced. The enemy soldiers didn’t know what hit them. Each ball of brilliant green energy tore right through their armor and dug smoking holes through their bodies; they fell like dominos.
Metler emerged and pressed himself against the opposite wall, joining in the assault. With the first wave of soldiers decimated, he directed Riles to help Jacob with a simple motion of his hand.
Spinning, Riles caught Vereor in his sights. Kale had lead Vereor further away, and was still locked in a heated conflict that pit his plasma-pike against Vereor’s mechanical arm and it’s myriad of weapons. At such a distance, Riles had no safe shot; no way of knowing with absolute certainty that he wouldn’t strike Kale by accident.
Creeping down the hallway, Riles advanced on them as if there were no symphony of noises filling the corridor; no fresh enemy reinforcements coming around the corner behind him. He put his trust in Metler, who would have to hold off the incoming reinforcements by himself.
Fingering a small button on the rifle activated an advanced targeting system that was linked between the rifle and his helmet. Mindful of his surroundings, Riles twisted a knob on the rifle that magnified the images passing through his helmet. He started scanning the General from his head down, looking for anything that might resemble a power source. The face was a no-go; neither were the wires and cables that riddled his torso and mechanical legs.
“Sum-bitch,” he muttered. “C’mon baby, show me somethin’…”
Had Vereor not spun about at the right moment, Riles might have missed it. There, buried in the small of his back, was a small box-shaped object that was literally implanted into his skin. It had a tiny grid of LED’s that seemed to represent a power source. Without thinking, Riles squeezed his trigger twice, then ripped his faceplate open to watch the result.
Vereor’s entire body was convulsing, as if caught by some kind of epileptic seizure. Waves of blue and white power surges were coursing over an energy shield that protected his body. His left arm was bent, but the small box was just out of his reach. He let out a horrible scream of anguish before collapsing on the floor.
“Take that you mechanized piece of shit!” Slamming the faceplate closed, Riles slung his rifle and grabbed a tiny ball of putty-like material from his belt. He smacked it into the wall nearby, then scampered back to meet Metler and the others, who were holding their ground against fresh Alliance reinforcements.
“Fire in the hole!”
The explosive detonated, blowing a gaping hole in the wall. Grabbing the rifle from his shoulder, Riles ushered the others into a retreat. “Move out! Move out!” he shouted, then turned back and began covering their escape with rapid fire, green fury.
Metler went first, followed closely by Jane, who guided their reclaimed intelligence agent with forceful motions and shrieking commands. For a moment, Riles felt incredibly attracted to her; for all of their bickering, she had a damned good way of getting the job done. Once Dyson was out of the way, he backpedaled down the hallway behind him.
One by one, his compatriots leapt through the hole he’d created and into a neighboring room. When Jacob met him at the exit point, Riles stole a glance at his rifle. The ammo counter was steadily approaching zero.
“Watch this, rabbit.” Riles ejected the power cell and pressed a red button, causing an energy buildup to begin. He lobbed the overloading power cell down the hallway, then leapt through the hole behind Jacob a mere moment before the hallway was encompassed by a brilliant white flash. Riles cackled maniacally and began chasing after the others, while smacking a fresh power cell into his rifle. “They didn’t see that comin’, did they?!”
Riles’ voice echoed throughout the room, fading into an uncomfortable silence. They’d left the hallway strewn with burnt corpses and entered an expansive place that seemed to have no end. Stacked to an intimidating height were row upon row of storage units, each filled with a myriad of objects. Paintings and sculptures of every size, countless books and ancient tomes, data storage devices and more, all protected by a gridwork of security lasers that provided the only soft blue illumination to an otherwise darkened chamber.
The group slowed, struck by an overwhelming sobriety that settled over them. One by one, they realized what it was they’d stumbled upon.
Captain Metler’s voice broke the silence, like a knife cutting through the vacuum of space. “This must be where they keep outlawed works of art. Silenced history files.” He looked about in wonder, eyes flooded with so many ideas. “Books… data files… famous pieces of art from centuries past.”
“The stuff they don’t want Proper Society to know about,” remarked Jane. She remembered when she first saw Animus with her own eyes. The Coalition operative who’d rescued her from Earth had told her all about the Triumvirate; their crimes against humanity, not the least of which was their irreverent razing of artwork that did not uphold the carefully fabricated reality spun for the citizens of Proper Society. Humanity’s entire history prior to the Territory Wars had been utterly cleansed from existence. On that day, when she first saw the colorful skies of Animus, she wondered what it would feel like to spend days, even weeks, learning all of those things that were kept from her as a child. The emotion of it all was almost too much to bear; she reached out and grabbed Riles’ nearby hand, clinging to it with both anxiety and stupefaction.
While these thoughts and feelings weren’t lost on the marine, his response was quite different. Feeling Jane’s trembling hand in his, he was reminded in a visceral way exactly why he fought so fervently in the corps. To Riles, any man who could commit such a crime deserved nothing more than an incendiary bullet between the eyes. A venomous urge crept into his soul, much like the footholds of a demon. Being in this place made him see red, it made him taste the bitterness of anger. He stroked Jane’s hand, finding the comforting gesture the only bulwark between his heart and the way of murder.
Jane’s words struck Jacob with a fresh understanding of the galaxy around him. The stuff they don’t want Proper Society to know about. He didn’t need anyone to explain it to him. For the Civil Triumvirate to fabricate such a reality, they would have to employ such an extreme measure of censorship that their loyal citizens would simply plug along, daftly unaware of the truth concealed from them by this web of deceit. With no memory of history beyond what he’d already lived out, he felt gripped by an insatiable urge to stay; to shut down those cursed lasers and pore through every book, every datafile, every piece of knowledge that he could cram into his mind.
“Unbelievable,” he whispered.
“Believe it or not,” answered Metler. He held a different perspective than any of them, for he’d been born on Animus IV. Brave men and women had gone before him, many of whom were tasked with uncovering pieces of history the Triumvirate had secreted away. There were libraries on Animus, certainly none so large, but bits and pieces of Earth’s history had been pieced together over the years, and he’d grown up studying what little they knew in school. He wasn’t hit by the same lust for knowledge that was gripping Jane and Jacob, nor was his response so violent as that which was held so secretly by Riles. He felt regret, yes… regret that they couldn’t tarry. He felt wonder, to be sure… but he was the commanding officer, and they had a mission to accomplish. With a smoldered sense of duty, he raised his voice again.
“We’ve got to keep moving. Which way, Admiral?”
Dyson motioned for them to take a left turn ahead. “Down there. Auxiliary bulk mag-lift.”
Dutifully, they pressed on. Dyson led the way, past six rows of data storage banks, before he turned right down a narrow aisle-way lined with objects that resembled ancient tools and mechanical devices. Alec Troy was still mumbling incoherently under his breath; the Triumvirate agents had clearly put him through an unspeakable ordeal. He didn’t even seem to care that he was being exfiltrated from one of the Triumvirate’s most secure facilities with nothing covering his body. They just didn’t have time to find him anything to wear. Fortunately, he’d built up enough awareness that he no longer needed someone’s guiding hand to point him in the right direction. They hadn’t stripped him of his most basic instincts.
Ahead of them sat a line of large doors, embedded into the wall with blinking status lights above them. These were the bulk mag-lifts, most likely used to import the largest of artifacts stored in the library. Dyson ran up to one of the control panels, but it denied his access with a bright red alert.
“Damn!” he cursed. “It’s Fleming. He must have locked out my security clearance.”
Jane elbowed past Dyson and dribbled her fingers across the unit’s touchpad interface. Passing through the library had filled her with a renewed sense of vigor, which manifested in her own unique way. “I can get through that dung-sniffer’s security,” she spat.
The distant sound of bootsteps reached them, paired with echoing voices. Riles’ exploding power cell trick had bought them some time, but that time was running out. Alliance reinforcements were coming.
“He must fancy himself a clever dick,” muttered Jane. “Triple-layered automatic bypass with a piss-poor multiplier.” She punched in the last command with a smirk, and the lift doors slid open.
Dyson looked curiously at Metler once the car began its descent. “I’ve never seen weaponry like yours before, Captain.”
Metler couldn’t help but grin. “I’m not surprised.”
“Secrets will not help this partnership.” Dyson folded his arms indignantly. “How do you know I won’t turn you over to LOPO when we get aboard my ship?”
“Call it an act of faith, Admiral.” He met Dyson’s accusing stare. “You do not want Drake to win at Wexel.”
Admiral Dyson looked away with a scoff and rested his eyes on Jacob. “You’re Kale, aren’t you.” He didn’t want for Jacob to answer. “They say you can stop what’s happening on Earth.”
Jacob perked a curious eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Trust me, Kale, you’re more important than you realize.”
Dyson’s accusing expression softened when the car began slowing down. “My compliment of Legion soldiers have secured an area fifteen meters out from this lift car. Once there, we will have amnesty for a short time. Do not tell anybody who you really are. You are LOPO agents, loyal to the Triumvirate, and working directly with me on a Level-14 classified operation. Got it?”
One by one, each of them nodded their heads in affirmation.
“Then, I’ll expect some real answers to my questions.”
When the doors slid open, Admiral Dyson strutted confidently out of the lift car. They were deposited into a long terminal, which appeared to encircle the outer edge of the orbital platform. The slightest of concave curves was visible by the way the expansive terminal bent as it stretched into the distance. Along the outer wall, long, stretching windows revealed space outside, and the vessels that were docked just beyond. From their vantage point, the massive spread of Y.S.A.D. Benedict took up a huge portion of the immediate window, with the bright colors of the Earth below reflecting blue against the hull.
A mass of Alliance soldiers had formed a square, protecting the retractable docking tube that lead into the Benedict. Others were converging on either side with weapons drawn.
“Give ‘em a warning shot, Jakey.”
Jacob heard Riles’ voice beneath his helmet. They moved to flank their comrades on either side, and turned upon the approaching soldiers. Jacob charged his rifle and began spraying the deck in front of them with bright green plasma pellets. Each impact threw red-hot debris up into the air and stopped the advancing soldiers cold.
Jacob felt it odd that none of the soldiers returned fire. Perhaps they weren’t permitted to fire on their own people. Surely Fleming would have alerted the troops that there were Coalition spies concealed as LOPO agents aboard the platform. As they passed into the protective custody of Dyson’s troops, he began to feel that their escape was too easy.
Dyson quickened his pace when they entered the docking tube. His voice broke a chilled silence. “We haven’t much time. Fleming will be on us soon. I’m going to take control of the Mother Fleet, but I don’t expect all of my commanders to remain loyal.”
“We will do what we can to help.” Metler had removed his helmet and activated the secondary comm unit on his wrist. “Colonel, this is Metler. Undock and rendezvous with the Benedict.”
“The Benedict, sir?” Colonel Wilco sounded bewildered.
“You heard the order.”
“Get us out of here, Admiral,” said Metler, “and I’ll answer every question you have.”
Y.S.A.D. Crusader, Wexel System, Terran Region.
The Atlas fleet had just struck their first kill. Gunships from the shadow forces had disabled one of the Coalition corvettes. When she listed to port, she’d run right into one of the Coalition’s gunships. Both erupted in violent explosions.
Drake watched with pleasure as the vessels burned, spewing wreckage into space. He rapped the ceremonial baton against his hand a few times, then turned about to face Roberts. “The time has come, Captain. Launch your antimatter torpedoes. I want to chew up these vermin and spit them out on the-”
Drake darted his head toward a young comm officer, who had so rudely barged in on his moment of triumph. The young man’s hand trembled against the small earpiece held against his left ear.
“I have an urgent communiqué from Director Fleming. It says… Subject 804.C has been spotted on Earth?” The comm officer looked confused, as did Captain Roberts. Neither of them knew who Jacob Kale was.
Drake, however, did. He glowered at the retreating form of Crosley’s flagship, the Triumphant. For many years now, he’d yearned to make Captain Crosley and the vessel he’d desecrated burn. However, his orders from the Triumvirate were to hunt down and reclaim Jacob Kale. No other operation could interfere with that task. As it were, he spun around and barked out new orders with loathsome regret. ”Cease fire! Send all ships back to Earth!
Captain Roberts looked at Drake with uncertainty. “Admiral?” He threw an accusing hand toward the retreating Coalition vessels. “We are upon them!”
“JUST DO IT!” bellowed Drake. “NOW!”
Roberts flinched, frightened by the insatiable malice in the Admiral’s tone. He eyed his bridge crew, who seemed just as confused as he, before swallowing his pride. “Divert all power to forward shields. Helm, punch through their numbers. We make for Earth!”
C.S.D. Triumphant, Wexel System, Terran Region
“Corsair reporting fatal damage.”
“Corsair, this is Salamand. We’re in conflict, pull up!”
“Corsair, reporting negative helm control!”
Chatter from the Hunt Link preceded the first disaster of the day. Captain Crosley watched with a frown as the C.S.C. Corsair listed to the left and collided with C.G.S. Salamand.
Touchpad in hand, he stalked amongst his officers, punching commands into the device while issuing orders. “Teams Bravo and Charlie, attack pattern Foxtrot Five. Helm, thirty degree axis turn to port, z-minus 12 pitch. Power double to dorsal shields.”
“Captain!” cried his tactical officer. “Look!”
The tactical officer had jumped out of his seat and was pointing at the battle. The enemy reinforcements encircling them had suddenly ceased their attacks and were turning about.
Lowering his touchpad, Crosley scowled at the forward window. “What are they doing?” he growled.
One by one, Alliance vessels docked with the jump nodes and flashed out of existence. The Hunt Link came alive with chatter as commanders tried to figure out what was going on, what actions to take. Alliance starfighters were swarming toward their mother vessels, not wanting to be left behind.
Crosley spun about and flung a demanding hand toward his sensor and comm officers. “Find out where the hell they’re going! Commodore Chan, issue a cease fire and regroup at sectors five and six!”
One of the sensor operators stood up and raised his voice over the chatter around him. “Captain, residual echo from enemy jumps points to Earth.”
“Earth?” asked Crosley, utterly confused. “Confirm with the science teams. Tactical, put Crusader on viewer.”
Polarized, one of the forward windows displayed the Crusader and her escort craft. All four had ceased firing, and were swallowing up their starfighter contingents while accelerating toward the Coalition task force. Crosley considered moving to block them; his ships could do some critical damage to Drake before his ships reached the jump nodes. Then, he thought better of it; if something important was happening on Earth, it could be more beneficial to find out what. Crosley was then faced with a quick decision; should he take out Drake, or risk a far more valuable operation at Earth?
“Shall we open fire, sir?” asked the tactical officer.
“No! Let them pass through.” Crosley folded his arms and watched as the Crusader passed right by, unhindered. “That’s right, you worthless rat. Run back to the Mother Planet.” He walked over to his helmsman, putting a hand on her chair. “Miss Reyn, lay in a pursuit course.”
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Earth, Sol System.
As they entered the Alliance flagship, they were greeted by a young Legionnaire serviceman holding a visitor’s jumpsuit. Riles took it and began helping the disoriented Alec Troy into it, one leg at a time.
“Is this room secure?” asked Metler.
The airlock had deposited them into a receiving room, complete with a shielded window into space. An open doorway sat to the right, which led into a banked corridor and the rest of the vessel beyond. Once the young serviceman had departed, Admiral Dyson checked something on a computer pad by the door, then spun about as the door slammed shut. “Yes. LOPO operations are still locked out. We’re secure.”
Sparing no haste, Metler motioned toward Alec Troy. “My team’s original mission was to exfiltrate this man from Klius Station.”
“Drake chased you all the way to the Polari System,” Dyson acknowledged. “I gave him the order, but you people disappeared at the Polari Mining Colony.” He squinted at them with curiosity. ”How did you slip through our fingers?”
“It certainly wasn’t intentional. We were being chased through the mines by mercenaries, and something happened. A flash of light that deposited us forty eight years into the future. Same location, different time.”
At first, Dyson seemed awestruck by the idea, but doubt quickly took its place in the form of a sneer. ”Don’t take me for a fool, Metler. That’s easily the stupidest story a deviant has ever-”
“Ain’t no damn story,” interjected Riles. “You see this, big guy?” He hefted his rifle, then smashed it into Jacob’s armored chest. “How ’bout this?” He bashed it into Jacob’s chest again for good measure. “This kind of hardware ain’t been invented yet. Know how we got it? Stole it from a bunch’a future spooks in the year 2241.”
“These incidents are all linked, Admiral,” added Jacob. “The flash at Polari sent us forward in time. The disaster happening over Australia is in alignment with another catastrophe that will obliterate the Mother Planet in the year 2235.”
Captain Metler had already withdrawn the tiny memory crystal that Johnny Wilco had given to him in 2241. The multi-faceted gem glowed with a soft orange glimmer from deep inside. He inserted it into a tiny port on his wrist-computer, and a holographic data interface sprang to life above his hand. Using his fingers, he twirled through the menu system as he walked toward the window.
Dyson had gone silent for the moment, considering the explanations provided by Jacob, Riles, and Metler. Though vague and lacking significant details, his mind was spinning nonetheless. Indeed, the weapons they carried were unlike any he’d ever seen. So was the holographic computer interface Metler was toying with. Mankind had been using touchpad and fibre-optic data systems since… well, as far back as history recorded. Holographic technology had never achieved such sophistication, nor could it be compacted into something so tiny as Metler’s wrist-computer.
Calling up a specific file, Metler activated video playback. It was a recording from the Society Feed, captured by Echotran in 2235. The commentator’s voice was muted, but text imposed across the feed was clear.
‘Tragedy strikes Mother Planet. Deviants have claimed responsibility.’
The recording showed a brilliant knife of light, which sliced through the Earth’s moon and cut deeply into the Mother Planet herself. When the news feed cut to a different angle, it showed the swath of light cutting a gash right through the Russian Province and into the southern hemisphere through Australia.
Metler’s voice trigged the playback to stop. The flash of light was already gone; the video was frozen in the immediate aftermath. Huge chunks of rock were being expelled into space, and a bright glow from deep inside the crack gave them a glimpse at the Earth’ core. Reaching out, Metler tapped his finger along the planet-wide laceration, causing the crack itself to be outlined in bright blue. Then, he angled his arm until the holographic image was lined up with the actual planet, visible beyond the curve of the shielded window to space.
Dyson’s breath was caught cold. The presumed damage to Earth in 2235 was strangely matched by the weather patterns gripping the planet below. In fact, the blue outline drawn by Metler seemed to echo, in exact detail, the piles of thick clouds filling the atmosphere below them.
“My God,” muttered Dyson. “That’s not possible.”
“You’re looking at it, Admiral,” answered Jacob. “These incidents are all linked through time. The arithmetic is complex, but you can expect this to happen every six years, seven times, starting today and culminating with the catastrophe of 2235.”
“This?” asked Dyson. He looked away from Jacob, frowning. “Vergences with otherspace,” he mused, recalling the recording locked away in his wife’s monitor. It made some sense. Time existed differently in otherspace, so it was entirely plausible that incidents like these would be linked through time.
“Beg your pardon?” asked Jane.
“The Triumvirate already knows about this.” Dyson turned around to face them, ashen. “My wife delivered the intel to me. Mister Kale is part of a Marso-Deka experiment called ‘The 804 Project’. It’s true, this is all our fault.” He looked at Jacob in wonder. “And you’re the only one who can fix it.”
Jacob was startled. This was the first time he’d gotten any clue about his origins, and it filled him with a childlike rush of excitement.
“The bodies?” asked Riles.
Metler offered a hasty response. “Probably flashed through time, just like us. From the catastrophe in 2235.” He stepped forward, putting himself closer to Dyson. “We have to move. Kale and Troy must get to safety, they can’t fall into the hands of LOPO!”
With a short nod, Dyson unlocked the door and activated his wristcomm. “Commodore West.”
“Undock from the platform. Take a flanking position between the Shiv and the Breckham.”
“Also, clear a vessel named Praetor to land in our hangar bay. I’m on my way to the bridge, Dyson out.”
Dyson led them along the corridor. As they walked, he continued. “I hope you appreciate my candor, Captain. I’ll do what I can, but I there are no guarantees. Not with Fleming out there, goddamn conniver.”
“You’re taking a great risk, Admiral. I’ve learned a lot about your Proper Society, and this is treason.”
“I know,” he scowled. “But I won’t go down without a fight.”
“Admiral on deck!”
They arrived in the Benedict‘s bridge as one. At Dyson’s instruction, Jane and Riles escorted Troy to his ready room to wait the arrival of a medical team. Commodore West had stood to acknowledge Dyson; a pensive expression illustrated his discomfort. He watched as the others, still concealed as LOPO agents, assumed their positions. Then, he studied the LOPO agents who still lay across the deck, out of commission. His eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“Commodore. What’s our status?”
West turned to stare at the Admiral, but he didn’t say a word. A horrible frown sat on his face, which was met by Dyson’s expectant glare. Neither of them spoke for a tense moment.
“I’d like a status update, Mister West,” Dyson repeated.
The Commodore’s chest rose and fall with a silent sigh. He turned away from the Admiral, so that he might press a few keys on a nearby console. “The Benedict has been released from softdock. We are moving toward the flanking position at your request.”
Jacob could sense a clear tone of disapproval in the Commodore’s voice. He looked at Dyson, concerned, but the Admiral’s expression was hidden from him. The tension was palatable, even separated as he was from the confrontation by the helmet concealing his identity.
“Between the Shiv and the Breckham?” clarified Dyson.
“Then what is the problem, Stephen?” Dyson took a step closer and lowered his voice. The two men locked eyes with challenging untertones. Another long silence lingered, before Dyson repeated himself. “Is there a problem, Commodore?”
“There have been more than a few problems today, sir.” West turned around, which was an entirely disrespectful move; Dyson had not released him to do so.
The reason became utterly clear when a harrowing sight came to life, interrupting every console and visual monitor on the bridge, and casting itself across the entire polarized viewscreen.
It was the face of Korynn Fleming.
“Hello, Admiral Dyson. I see you’ve found your way back to the flagship.”
Dyson approached the polarized viewscreen with ire. “Fleming.“
“I wish for you to see something, Admiral.” The cold-hearted LOPO Director turned his head just slightly, perhaps to press something on a console just out of the transmission’s view. His face was then replaced by a video feed, which showed two young men and a teenage girl sitting in a row of chairs. Their ankles had been bound beneath them, their wrists behind, and crude strips of cloth gagged them into an uncomfortable silence.
Dyson’s hands balled into fists as a smoldering rage began to fester in him. Jacob could almost sense the hatred as it spilled forth in silent protest.
Fleming’s voice carried on in the background, listing through each word as if he were conducting a eulogy. “William Dyson, twenty-one years old, serving at the MDC Meteorological Survey Facility, Port Macquarie, Australian Province. His younger brother by one year, Patrick Dyson, studying at the Aleman Institute; and your teenage daughter, the lovely and brilliant Melissa Dyson.”
“Fleming, you reproachful bigot!” Dyson’s anger seeped like fire through his snarling complaint. “You have no authority to be doing this! None!“
“Oh, but I have every bit of authority that I need.” Fleming’s face returned, replacing the image of Dyson’s children. He was smirking. Jacob was struck with a sense of paranoia; it almost seemed as if Fleming took pleasure in the suffering of others. “You must have forgotten, Admiral; I am the Director of Deviant Control.”
Dyson aimed a threatening fist at the image. “We are not Deviants! We are preserving the future of Proper Society!”
“That is not up to you to decide!” Fleming leaned forward, glowering at Dyson with a dark and twisted malice. “You take your rank and privilege too far, Admiral.”
The image of Dyson’s children returned. He approached the viewscreen, as if he might have leapt through the window and somehow been transported to their location. “Melly! Melly, don’t be afraid, my precious little girl.”
The girl, Dyson’s youngest daughter, had begun to weep. She and her brothers were unable to move, and the gags in their mouths prevented them from answering in any intelligible way. Their muted moaning and wailing was a torment to not only Dyson, but to Jacob and Metler, who stood by helplessly.
Tears welled up in the Admiral’s eyes, and his voice trembled with anguish. “I’ll always take care of you, do you understand?”
Melissa looked upon her father with tear-stained, helpless eyes.
“Your mother and I, we will always be there. Do you understand? We will always-”
Dyson’s words were caught cold when his children were abruptly stricken by violent spasms. Their eyes rolled back into their heads and began to blacken, as if burned by something from the inside out. Smoke poured out of their ears and monitor ports, and their bodies seized against their restraints. They were dying.
Dyson reached out for them, fingers scrawling helplessly. A scream of protest came from deep within, so horrific that it made Jacob and half of the bridge crew shudder with fear.
Finally, the children fell forward, released from what terrible machination Fleming had wielded to kill them. Jacob looked on in grief, unable to bring them back to life, unable to console the Admiral. He’d never seen such senseless violence, and it shook him to the core.
Without warning, Admiral Dyson spun about and ran across the bridge, headed straight for his ready room. Jacob and Metler shared a glance, then made to follow him.
Dyson slammed his hand into the identification pad. When the doors slid open, he burst through and looked for his wife.
Helen sat on one of the Admiral’s couches. Alec Troy was nearby. The medical team had not yet arrived, so Jane and Riles were keeping him company, along with the Admiral’s wife. She had gotten a glass of water for Troy, and poured one for herself as well. When Benneth entered, a smile replaced her stricken expression, but it was short lived. The furious look on his face chilled her, and she curled against the cushions behind. “Benneth? What’s wrong?”
Rushing over, he took his place at her side and embraced her face with trembling hands. Her eyes were filled with terror, and she began to cower. “Benneth, you’re frightening me!”
As Jacob approached, Dyson snatched her glass of water and set it side. “He’ll do it, I know he will.” He looked up at Jacob with a pleading expression. “Can you stop it? Please, tell me!”
Jacob shook his head, confused and dumbtruck. The entire ordeal had set him so off guard that he felt crippled. “I, I don’t…?”
Jane elbowed Jacob out of the way and brandished a monitor interface. She gave Dyson a comforting look while attaching a cable to her wristcomputer, then reached to replace one of his hands that was cradling Helen’s head. “Hold still,” she whispered, and tilted Helen’s head just a bit before inserting the interface into her monitor port.
Helen looked at Jane with terror, then back to the eyes of her husband. “Benneth, what on Earth is going on?” she whimpered.
The Admiral shushed her, trying to recover himself in spite of the anguish in which he suffered. She didn’t know about William, Patrick, Melissa… she couldn’t know. “Let the agent work, Helen. You’ll be alright.”
Helen took Benneth’s hand, gripping it fiercely. Their eyes met in silent dialogue for a moment, as if sharing memories of a life well-lived. After a few moments, she whispered again. “I’m so scared.”
“I’m right here,” he answered. “Helen, you know I won’t let you go. You know I love you.”
Meanwhile, Jane was desperately working on her wristcomputer, trying to stop the sequence Fleming would use to cook her brain. Her eyes were secretly fearful, and her fingers began to shake.
“Jane…” Jacob looked at her with a question in his eyes. She looked back, stricken, and shook her head from side to side. Still, she worked, in spite of a settling knowledge that she was failing. Jacob lowered his head, suppressed a sigh, and walked away to give them some privacy.
Tears had begun to spill from Helen’s eyes. Benneth gently brushed them away, then leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
“Benneth, what ever happens to me, promise you’ll keep the kids safe.”
Resigning, Jane gently unplugged the interface from Helen’s monitor. She’d tried valiantly, but the LOPO code was just too complex. It couldn’t be stopped, even with her sophisticated wristcomputer. She turned away, like Jacob, with tears glistening in her eyes.
Benneth pulled her close. “I will, Helen. I promise.” He rested her head against his chest, unable to look her in the eye as he lied to her. He crunched his eyes in agony, tears streaming down his face. “You’re so brave, Helen,” he whispered. “You’ve always been so brave. So brilliant… so beautiful.”
It finally happened. Helen’s body seized and shook, her quiet sobs choked off by constricted muscles. Benneth wrapped his arms around her and rocked her back and forth. He wept quietly while his nose was tormented by the scent of burning flesh that spilt forth from her ears. When it was finally over and her body slackened, he let out a harrowing moan of grief. He drew her lifeless body away from his chest and closed her blackened eyes with trembling hands. Then, he lay his lips upon her forehead, bidding her farewell at long last.
They all looked upon him as a tremendous transformation took place. They’d observed a strong, honorable man, weeping like a child as he held his dying wife. They had all been awarded a most intimate look into his heart. Now, as he stood up amongst them, they saw the grief dripping away, like ice melting in tongues of fire. His bloodshot eyes filled with a glare of vengeance, drilling holes in the wall as the strength came back to him.
Korynn Fleming’s voice echoed in his soul.
You will pay dearly for this betrayal, Benneth Dyson.
With a sudden snarl, he spun and made for the door, bolting through as it opened. The voice lingered, turning his vision red as he stormed back into the bridge.
Fleming’s face was still plastered on every viewscreen. He was sneering. ”Now, Admiral, you understand the breadth of-”
“Shut him off!” growled Dyson. There was no response at first; the entire crew was in a state of shock at what they’d witnessed.
The feed went silent.
Dyson turned his vengeful eyes upon Commodore West, who swallowed nervously as he faced his seigneur.
“Admiral,” sputtered West. “I had no choice. The security of this vessel was at risk, and I felt it only necessary to bring Fleming into the picture. I had no idea he-”
With an unforgiving roar, Dyson struck West across the chin, hard enough to send him reeling into a nearby console. Its touchpad screen shattered. West threw up a series of blocks, but Dyson, fueled by insatiable malice, overpowered him. He struck again, and again, then grabbed West by his neck with an iron grip.
Choking and gasping for air, Commodore West stared at Dyson through constrained, bulging eyes. He grabbed the Admiral’s wrist, but his strength waned with each strangled moment. Dyson didn’t speak a word. Pressing his advantage, he poured his revenge upon West, the only person he could blame, He glared without remorse into his first officer’s eyes while squeezing the last remnants of life from him.
There was nothing any of the Coalition fighters could, or even should, have done. It was not their place to interfere. It was neither their law, nor their vessel. They were guests, and the decisions made by Admiral Dyson were his own. Each of them, in their own way, felt empathy for the Admiral. They had all lost friends, some of them had even lost family.
For Jacob, it was different. He’d never loved, and he’d never lost. He couldn’t comprehend the feelings that boiled inside the Admiral’s soul. Oddly enough, the empathy in his heart overflowed. He’d seen the Admiral’s face, he’d felt his pain and anguish. He wasn’t sure that, if it were him, he wouldn’t have done the same thing.
At last, a numbness flooded Dyson’s body. He uncurled his fingers, and Stephen West fell to the floor, lifeless. A hushed silence had taken the entire bridge. Dyson rose, straightened his tunic, and began to walk amongst them. They were all frozen, shocked at what had transpired.
“Out of respect for your service and loyalty, I will give each of you this one chance to leave. Find an escape pod and seek safe haven wherever you will.” He pointed a strong, warning finger toward the ceiling. “For those of you who stay, understand this. We no longer fly under the banner of the Civil Triumvirate. Not until sanity and reason has been restored to the governing process.”
The choice Dyson had given them was something entirely unfamiliar; freedom. One, then two, then three older members stood up, looking silently at the Admiral before accepting his offer and turning to leave.
The rest remained.
Satisfied, Admiral Dyson took the command chair and spoke. “Signal the Mother Fleet. They are to form a barricade around Earth. No ship, friend or foe, is to go past this blockade. Any vessel who disregards our warning should be fired upon with intent to disable or destroy.”
“LMV Praetor has requested docking clearance,” reported a shellshocked comm officer.
“Give them priority vector.”
Captain Metler approached the Admiral’s chair and laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. Dyson turned to look at him, his expression cold and devoid of emotion.
“Admiral… how can we help?”
Dyson offered no response. He wasn’t used to gestures of friendship. He turned to meet Metler’s gaze, then directed his attention to a tactical officer when a chirping alert filled the bridge.
“Admiral, I have friendly vessels coming in.”
“Sir, it’s the Atlas Fleet!”
Dyson started and burst forward in his seat. “The whole fleet?”
“Drake.” Dyson stood up, watching as Drake’s vessels flashed into existence. “He won’t take these formations lightly. If he doesn’t stand down, it will be treason on his part!” He spun about and looked at Captain Metler. “I presume this Praetor is also from the future.”
“Then get aboard and form up alongside my starfighters. Today, Captain, we have become allies.”
Metler turned and stole a glance from Jacob. Their eyes met with a sense of resigned satisfaction. The plan had worked, though fraught with sacrifice; the Coalition would not be defeated at Wexel.
Metler turned back to the Admiral and bowed his head respectfully. “With pleasure, Admiral.”