The emptiness felt much like an eternity to him. His world was shrouded in darkness; a deafening silence pressed against his existence. As if the void of deep space had merged with him, he drifted alone to contemplate his fate.
And contemplate he did. Details could only be guessed at, to be sure. Was he born like a normal man, spilling forth from the womb of a nameless mother, unclaimed or perhaps sacrificed by an unknown father for the betterment of society? Had he been created, fabricated by some genetic mastermind in the bowels of some corporate lab? Or had he simply come to be, like the spawn of some creature created by an entity, god or alien lifeform?
He knew, indeed, that something had gone terribly wrong. There was a plan for him and the plan had been broken. Be it at the hands of his own breaking free at MedLab 4, or the fateful mission that brought Captain Metler and the others to Klius Station, everything had gone wrong.
It was a synthetic sound, repetitive and soft, though strangely loud there in the void of utter silence.
They had dome something to him, that much was certain. He knew not what, but they had made him more than human. He wasn’t like Riles, whose talent for battle was both natural and earned through years of training and experience. He wasn’t like Jane, who’d found a place to foster her intellect and shine it to brilliance. He wasn’t like Metler, who had seen countless years of war and acted on so many challenging decisions.
No… he was like them. Like Vereor. Like Fleming. Like the Asian woman who so softly and strongly evangelized him of his purpose.
It was a synthetic sound, repetitive, though ever so slowly earning clarity.
Jacob fought to open his eyes, but they refused to obey. He fought to breathe, but his lungs sought not to answer. Not once did he suspect that he was dead; the others, he knew, believed in some sort of afterlife, but he simply believed in science. In knowledge. The way things worked, as nature had said them to be.
But then, there was otherspace. The other realm, the other dimension, where he’d ridden some sort of temporal glitch like a daredevil, having witnessed the very beginning and end of the universe merged into one single moment.
It was a synthetic sound, but he finally remembered what it was. It reminded him of the sound created by a medical device; a machine designed to monitor his vital functions.
The darkness was promptly flooded with shearing color. It shocked his wandering mind into sharp awareness. His eyes were tired, drooping as they tried to obey his commands and pry themselves open. He had to stay strong, for he feared what might happen if he let himself drift into the void once more.
A female voice spoke his name, urging him. He recognized its British accent, and a great feeling of relief came about. With a deep sigh he listed his head toward the voice, but try as he might to speak her name, his voice merely croaked, dry from underuse.
“Jacob!” Jane grabbed the armrests of her chair and bolted to her feet, flush with happiness. She flipped her wristcomm open. “Captain, he’s awake!”
Though his vision was still blurry, Jacob noticed other shapes coming into the room, joining the pale face and raven hair that he recognized as Jane’s. She’d stepped back, only to be joined by another woman. He blinked to clear his eyes and recognized her as Jenice Murray, Captain Metler’s X.O. Riles and Metler came next. The Captain had a broad smile on his face, something Jacob wasn’t quite sure he’d ever seen.
He finally managed to form words from his hoarse voice. “Captain, sir…”
“Rabbit!” Riles darted forward and grabbed Jacob by the shoulders, shaking him happily. “I’ll be dipped in fringer shit!”
Jacob coughed violently, but his lungs were trying to form laughter. Laughter! He looked up at Riles, chuckling through the fit of coughs until he finally settled himself and grinned. “That… that’s disgusting, Riles.”
“Damnit, Kale, you lil’ rat! I’m losin’ a bet ’cause you took so long, you sumbitch!” There was genuine joy in the marine’s words, in spite of the ribbing he was giving Jacob.
Jacob laughed a bit harder, then reached a weary hand to grab Riles by the wrist. “How long?” he muttered.
Riles grew suddenly serious, and the toothy grin faded from his face. He looked upon Jacob earnestly. “Two months,” he answered drily. “Give or take. Too long, too damn long.” He gave Jacob a nod, then backed off.
Jacob scooted back against the medical cot upon which he lay. With a grunt, he drug himself up until he was sitting, then breathed an exhausted sigh. The room he was in didn’t remind him of the cold, utilitarian Triumvirate spaces he’d witnessed. The walls were a soft blue, the floor made of some kind of tile. He noticed a trio of strange plants, rooted in bright orange pots near the corner. Unlike anything he’d ever seen, they each had three rust-colored trunks that reached toward the ceiling. Spindly vines curled around these trunks, their skins translucent and shining with a myriad of glowing, pastel colors. Spindly, needle-like objects jutted out from the trunks, upon which were growing a bounty of brilliant, blue leaves. They swayed gently back and forth, as if their genome were half animal in nature.
It was comforting.
It was a hospital of sorts. To his right there was another patient, a dark-skinned man, still asleep. Then he noticed the long, curved rectangular window before him, beyond which were visible the pinpricks of distant stars and the hazy glow of purple and pink celestial gasses. A brilliant, white, main sequence star glowed against the backdrop some distance away, casting bright contrast though the nebulous cloud that filled the view.
“Where am I?” he asked.
Captain Metler stepped forward. “Station Five in the Animus Cluster.”
“The Animus Cluster?” Jacob felt a surge of joy that strengthened him. They had survived! There wasn’t a single shred of doubt or regret in the eyes of his friends. Surely his awakening wasn’t the only thing that filled them with such happiness.
They had succeeded. He knew it, more than anything else.
“It’s one of our primary military staging zones,” explained Metler. He motioned about. “It also sports one of our best medical facilities,” explained Metler.
“We had to keep you here for security reasons,” offered Jane.
Jacob relaxed, his lips bent into a soft smile. “I thought I’d died,” he whispered.
“Well, you didn’t,” said Riles. “Came damn close, though! Got yerself caught out there when ol’ Fleming’s platform went nuke-ular!”
Jane scowled and elbowed Riles. “Nuke-lee-ar,” she corrected him.
The small group laughed, and Jacob joined in. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, fending off the terrible memories that seemed to have been trapped in his mind not so long ago.
“You alright, rabbit?” asked Riles.
“Yeah, I’m alright.” Jacob opened his eyes and frowned, abruptly captured by an insatiable curiosity. “What happened?”
“All in good time,” answered Captain Metler. “You should get some rest. We will tell you everything, soon.”
Twenty-four hours had passed, during which medical specialists from the Naval Medical Corps at Station Five had conducted physical and psychological tests to determine if it was safe for him to leave the wardroom. When the time had come, Metler and Commander Murray joined him again. He was reminded of their encounter in the Lilith’s Omen medical bay, and remembered how striking her green eyes were. He offered her a somewhat dumb smile, and immediately felt awkward at greeting her that way.
She smiled back and greeted him with a friendly touch to his forearm. “Jacob. You’re well?”
“Well as I can be, I guess,” answered Jacob. He presented Metler with a nod. “Captain.”
“Walk with us, Jacob.” Metler turned and began leading them out of the wardroom. “I’m sure you have many questions.”
“That’s an understatement, sir.”
They entered a long, oval-shaped corridor. Various doors marked the left side of the corridor as it bent in a slight curve to the right. Jacob had been provided with a standard issue naval uniform, complete with collar insignia representing his rank of Lieutenant junior grade. He felt proud to be wearing the uniform, as proud as he’d felt when Metler had granted him the officer’s rank.
“Peter Drake had tracked us to the Polari Mining Colony,” Metler explained as they walked. “Jenice lost contact with us after we flashed forward, so she forged an alliance with the colony’s proprietor.”
“We didn’t know what had happened to you,” added Jenice. “I was worried you might be captured, so we felt it prudent to lure Drake away, make him believe you had escaped with us.”
“She made the right move,” said Metler. “Drake was convinced that we were all still hiding aboard Lilith’s Omen. It paid off in the end.”
“I ordered Corporal Jameson to stay behind and keep an eye out for you. That’s why he was still there, when you emerged from the vergence with otherspace.
“Vergence?” asked Jacob, squinting his eyes curiously at the Commander. He recalled Dyson having used the term when they met.
“That’s what they call them,” she explained. “The Triumvirate. Apparently, the project you were a part of had some unexpected side effects.”
“The 804 Project,” added Metler. “Marso-Deka scientists had been working on it for a while, Jacob. They found a way to transfer your subconscious into otherspace, without actually sending your body there. The resulting difference in space-time enables your brain to think and operate at unnaturally fast speeds. They trained you to comprehend both dimensions as early as your fetal stage.”
Jacob felt the color draining from his face. Metler may not have intended it, but the explanation was cold and to the point. He reached his hands up to warm his arms, feeling decidedly uncomfortable.
“That… explains a lot,” he murmured.
“The incidents at Polari V, Earth, the future, they’re all linked together within these vergences with otherspace, which were caused by the MDC experiments.”
“I see,” answered Jacob. He looked over toward Jenice, perking an eyebrow.
“Lady Prawley and I came to a mutually beneficial arrangement,” said Jenice. “She led us to a region of dead space, where we could commence damage control and regroup. We then devised a plan to strike back at Drake and his Atlas Fleet.”
Jacob shook his head, not following her reasoning. “Why?” he asked. “That’s…”
“Suicide?” she answered. “Not quite. The information we’d received from our intelligence agent was vague, but suggested that he had uncovered something critical to the survival of the Coalition. With our limited knowledge, we had to assume that you were key. As it turns out, we were right. Using the Echotran, we tracked Drake’s movements. He was still in orbit over the Polari Mining Colony, no doubt trying to find you. We couldn’t let him do that.”
“So, you moved against him,” Jacob realized aloud. “To draw his attention away.”
“And to make him think that you were still aboard the Omen, yes,” she nodded.
It all began to make sense to him then. He, Metler and the others had seen the outcome of Murray’s actions when they had traveled to the Echotran in 2241. Jenice had made the most logical move, but it would have ended in disaster had Jacob and his companions not managed to come back to 2193 and intervene.
“What happened next, well, is very complex,” said Metler. “Best described as an unpredictable game of chess. The Mother Fleet, Drake’s armada, the task force formed by Captain Crosley of the Triumphant, they were all trying to throw off each other. It could have ended badly.”
Jenice nodded her assertion. “We had used stolen LOPO intercept codes to leak false information to the enemy, but Dyson and Drake had done the same. When we finally confronted Drake, we thought we’d led him into a trap, but he’d outsmarted us.”
“Crosley’s task force would have been decimated at Wexel five, just like we saw in the future, Jacob,” said Metler.
“But… we changed all of that,” noted Jacob.
“Not quite.” A mirthful grin came across Metler’s face. He reached out for Jacob’s shoulder, guiding him down a turn in the corridor that sent them toward the presumed center of the space station. Jenice turned and followed, a knowing grin coming across her face as well. “As it turns out, our intelligence agent was much more resourceful than any of us could have imagined.”
“One of the smartest men I’ve ever met,” Jenice agreed. Her words were spoken with such a great sense of respect and gratitude. “Alec Troy was a military intel agent. He spent four years infiltrating Proper Society. A year ago, he was granted a Level-6 LOPO Security Clearance and assigned to the Marso-Deka Corp’s cellular research division at Klius Station. He was the one who discovered the 804 Project.”
“When he learned about you,” said Metler, “he knew that it would only be a matter of time before LOPO silenced him. He gathered what information he could and transferred it to another covert agent, a man by the name of Kristopher Glosten. Glosten locked the data file inside his monitor’s reserve memory; a memory packet designed to re-boot the monitor in the case of failure. In there, it would remain completely hidden from LOPO’s scans.”
“The only hole in an otherwise impenetrable social monitoring network,” added Jenice.”
“Once he transferred the information, Troy erased the memory from his own cerebral cortex; an incredibly risky move. If he hadn’t, LOPO would have surely discovered it when they interrogated him. They might have found and silenced Glosten.”
“Instead,” said Jenice, “Agent Glosten transmitted the information to none other than Helen Dyson.”
Jacob stopped again and looked at them, awestruck. “The Admiral’s wife?”
“Yes,” nodded Metler. “He told her to bring the information to Admiral Dyson. She had no idea that he was one of us… that he was a Coalition spy who’d infiltrated LOPO’s ranks.”
Jacob shook his head in wonder. “Incredible,” he whispered. “Why did he choose to trust Mrs. Dyson?”
Metler shrugged. “Fate? Intuition? He’d found himself assigned to security at the Ministry of Societal Structure in Sydney. That’s all we know… why he chose Helen will remain a mystery. Glosten is off the grid, presumed dead.”
“The packet Agent Troy had sent to the Coalition was mostly bogus,” explained Jenice. “He only wanted to make us act. By showing up at Klius Station, trying to rescue him, we destabilized everything. We drew the eyes of the enemy away from the real threat, which was buried inside Glosten’s monitor the whole time.”
“I don’t think he knew we’d end up with you in our hands,” offered Metler. “Another trick of fate.”
Metler had led them to a bay of maglifts at the center of Station Five. After they stepped into an open door, Metler keyed one of the upper levels, and the maglift began to rise. Meanwhile, Jacob was stewing on the tale as it was pieced together for him.
“So, this information, it was delivered to Admiral Dyson…”
“And Dyson felt it imperative to shut down LOPO’s operations while he investigated it himself,” answered Metler. “That’s why his vessels were squared off against Drake and the Atlas Fleet at Earth. Dyson used a special protocol that shut down LOPO until he could bring his case before the Triumvirate. He felt that the MDC should be held accountable for their actions, and he was right. By forcing the Triumvirate’s hand, MDC would have no choice but to try and fix the damage they’d done. But men like Drake and Fleming sought not to let Dyson see it through.”
The maglift slid to a halt, and the door opened to reveal a similarly decorated hallway. Jacob and Murray followed Metler as they led him down a new hallway.
“Ultimately, we owe the victory to Jane and Riles, not to mention yourself,” said Jenice.
“It was Riles’ idea,” explained Metler. “Goddamn marine acts like a fool, but he’s far from it. He had Dyson download the recording from Helen’s monitor and transmit it to the Praetor. When they had you distracting General Vereor, they were embedding the recording into the Society Feed.”
“Now, the entire galaxy knows just how deeply their Civil Triumvirate has betrayed them,” said Jenice.
Jacob slowed to a halt and looked between them, so dumbfounded that he couldn’t speak. They had tasked him with holding off Vereor so that they could find time to locate a link to the Society Feed, which was watched every day by the billions of brainwashed citizens in Proper Society. That sort of knowledge, revealed, would have done significant damage to their pacification efforts.
“Proper Society was thrown into absolute pandemonium,” said Metler. “We’ve gotten reports of uprisings, revolts, rioting across every colonized world.”
“Crosley had chased Drake to Earth, but the battle ended almost as quickly as it began,” explained Jenice. “Those warships still loyal to the Triumvirate made for their own shores, hoping to crush the uprisings before they got out of control.”
“But there were others, others who came with us,” said Metler. He turned with a knowing smirk and motioned toward a closed doorway at the end of the corridor.
The door whisked open, and they led Jacob through. He found himself in a large reception hall of sorts, filled to the brim with soldiers and officers from the branches of the Freedom Coalition military. The marines were formed into an immaculate grid, as were the brown-clad naval officers and the grey jumpsuit-wearing men and women of the Marine Starfighter Corps. The sight of so many servicepeople, lined up within the well-decorated hall, nearly took his breath away.
Beyond the gathering of soldiers and officers, there was a line of officers wearing full dress uniforms. On the left stood Rashid Jallaq, the Lilith’s Omen‘s chief engineering officer. His chest had been adorned with a fresh series of medals, and Jacob noticed that he proudly held the rank of Commander. Beside him, there was an unfamiliar man, tall and lanky, bearing the same rank insignia as Captain Metler, but significantly well decorated.
On the right, there stood two Coalition Marines. One was a rugged looking individual, the other much taller and brightly decorated.
Standing there in the center, however, was a man Jacob recognized. Much to his surprise, it was Benneth Dyson, the commander of Y.S.A.D. Benedict.
Awestruck, Jacob followed Metler and Jenice as they led him toward this honor guard. He could barely breathe, and felt his face going flush with an unexpected shyness. He exchanged a look with Admiral Dyson first. There was a comfortably resigned expression on the Admiral’s face, and a softened smile that was quite different from the grief-stricken anger Jacob had witnessed after the brutal killing of his family.
“Commander Jallaq, I believe, you’ve already met,” said Metler. “This is Captain Crosley of the Coalition Destroyer Triumphant.”
Jacob pulled his eyes away from Dyson and approached Captain Crosley.
“That’s ‘Bear’ Crosley,” was the Captain’s gruff reply. He shoved a hand out toward Jacob while a smirk curled the left edge of his lips. “I understand we all owe you our lives.”
“Not just me, Captain,” answered Jacob. The Captain had a strong grip, and the brightness of his calculating eyes restored Jacob’s confidence and made him smile. “But, thank you.”
Crosley shook his hand once more, then dropped it back to his side.
“And these men,” continued Metler, “are Major Grisham of the Coalition Marines’ 10th Battalion, Company B, and Major General Ahnbar of the 1st Spaceborne Division.”
Major Grisham greeted Jacob with a strong handshake and a rueful smirk. “Hell of a job, Kale. Well met.”
As for General Ahnbar, he looked down at Jacob from his tall height, a strong sense of pride emulating from his soul. “Mister Kale.” He bowed his head, then reached for his hands in a brotherly way. “On behalf of the 1st Spaceborne Division, we owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Jacob bowed his head to each of the marines, feeling both humbled and honored to be in their presence. Then, he stepped up toward Benneth Dyson. He couldn’t help but show the insatiable curiosity that rested in his heart. Turning to face Dyson, Jacob tilted his head just so. “Admiral…?”
“Mister Kale. You seem surprised.”
Jacob shook his head, too confused to voice the question forming in his mind. Instead of answering, the Admiral reached out and took Jacob by the shoulder, guiding him closer to an expansive window behind him. As he approached, Jacob saw a spread of starships hovering in the beyond. He saw the Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Admiral Dyson’s flagship. All around it were escort craft of every shape and size, but they all were of Triumvirate design, the vessels of Dyson’s Mother Fleet. Then, in the distance below, he saw a brilliant planet, covered in rich colors of brown, green and blue, with white clouds spotted purple and pink from rays of light that passed through the Animus Cluster.
It was the safe haven of Animus IV, the home of the Freedom Coalition.
“Many things have changed, Jacob,” said Captain Metler, who had come up to Jacob’s other side. “The Triumvirate has finally opened diplomatic dialogues with us. Admiral Dyson has defected with a fair portion of their Mother Fleet.”
Dyson smiled softly. “We are no longer in a state of open war,” he explained. “It would seem that the exposure of 804 Project has turned their eyes back to their own borders… and opened their minds, at least a little.”
“We’ve had time to celebrate already,” offered Jenice, who stepped up to join them. “But, Jacob, without your brilliance, none of this could have happened.”
Dyson turned and stood up straight. It prompted Jacob to straighten as well, as if he was born for this kind of military life. He noticed that the honor guard had spun about and snapped to attention as well.
“With the responsibility vested in me by the Freedom Coalition Council, it is my distinct honor to present you with this Medal of Valor.”
General Ahnbar approached, producing a small box from behind his back. He opened it to reveal a small medal, made of a gold star backed by an oval of pure silver. It was attached to a ribbon of white and blue, the colors of the Coalition Space Fleet. Admiral Dyson took the medal and pinned it to Jacob’s chest with a smile.
Jacob looked into the Admiral’s eyes, blinking owlishly. “I… I don’t know what to say,” he murmured.
“Well, usually you say, ‘thank you’.” Admiral Dyson smirked, then smacked Jacob jovially on his shoulder, breaking the pomp and circumstance in the uncharacteristic way that Jacob would soon learn was the way of the Coalition. Duty and honor, with a sprinkle of informality mixed in.
Jacob hesitantly joined the Admiral in earnest laughter, which was soon drowned out by the applause of those who had gathered. Staying his laughter, Jacob flashed a sloppy salute, which was answered in turn by Admiral Dyson.
“Congratulations, Mister Kale,” said Dyson.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much!”
Jacob turned and looked at those gathered. He smiled broadly, and began to exchange handshakes and words with those who were closest to him. He’d found his place, and couldn’t wait to explore the life that he’d discovered.
A week passed, during which the doctors had put Jacob through rigorous physical therapy and cellular reclamation. It had been the longest week of his life – even though, technically, his damaged memory provided only six days worth of conscious recollection. Every time he’d come close to a window, he yearned to see the brilliantly colored planet of Animus IV. As Station Five circled the planet below, its gentle rotation occasionally gave him a glimpse of its beauty, but it never lingered long enough to satisfy his curiosity.
He counted down the days. Once released, they would send him to the planet. For the first time, he would breathe real air; not the recycled oxygen-nitrogen mixture of spacecraft or the fabricated air spat forth en masse by terraforming structures. When the day came, he found himself on pins and needles. There wasn’t much to pack, for he had no belongings save for the letters and artifacts his friends had brought for him.
Riles had brought him a weapon from the 20th century, which he affectionately had called a “Forty-Four.” It was an antiquated projectile weapon of which the ammunition was no longer made. However, according to Riles, it was the kind of gun that could “blow an elephant’s brain to the other side of Mars”, which was clearly an exaggeration.
Jenice had provided Jacob with a small datachip, upon which was contained the full book of regulations for the Coalition Space Fleet. Considering that she fully expected him to serve as their new helmsman, she claimed that he’d better start reading it quickly. And he had.
Jane had modified a small wrist computer, containing some of her best hacking and surveillance software, and given it to him a couple of days before he was scheduled to depart. “Lose this,” she’d threatened, “and I’ll have your bloody head.”
Oddly enough, it was the gift given by Rashid Jallaq that he found the most interesting. Jallaq, who’d not had more than a few scant moments’ encounter with Jacob, had presented him with an angular, crystalline statue, no longer than two inches in length. It was a tricarbonite-xyron crystal, carved with a rapid-pulse laser, and had a way of capturing and refracting light in a manner that seemed almost hypnotic. According to Rashid, within the crystal was a place where true serenity and focus could be found. He had claimed that it would become important to Jacob one day soon.
Jacob had already spent hours gazing into its seemingly endless facets, and in doing so, had already begun to understand its power.
He tucked the crystal away in his jacket’s inner pocket, then grabbed his rucksack and made to depart. As he left, he noticed the dark skinned man who lay motionless in the bed beyond. This was Alec Troy, one of the masterminds behind the destabilization of Proper Society. He knew so little about Troy, except that he’d been through the most extreme psychological trauma. Every so often, the nurses had come for him. He would go away for hours, then come back in a slightly lucid state, only to quickly lie down and fall back asleep. Not once had he looked at Jacob, but in the dark hours of the night, Jacob had heard him muttering quietly to himself, incoherent and disjointed phrases that made no sense.
“It will be some time before Agent Troy is returned to health.”
Jacob turned. Captain Metler had entered the room, and was looking upon Troy with a subdued sense of loathing.
“What happened to him?” asked Jacob.
“Vereor. Fleming. The worst sort of torture LOPO can bring.”
Jacob frowned. “He’s paid a steep price.”
“Indeed. But with hope and time, he’ll come around. We have good facilities, the best doctors, we can help guide him back to himself.” The Captain turned to Jacob and raised his eyebrows. “Your transport is ready.”
Jacob took a deep breath before turning to follow Metler. The Captain led him through Outpost Five, a short distance from the medical facility to the shuttle bay. Neither of them spoke until they were aboard, with Captain Metler at the helm and Jacob at the co-pilot’s station.
“Shuttle Five, you are cleared for departure.”
“Confirmed.” Captain Metler guided the shuttle out of its berth, and flew her around the circumference of the space station. Animus IV revealed itself, resting snug amongst the clouds of gas that filled the sector.
“I understand that my senior officers have all provided gifts for you,” he said.
“That’s right,” answered Jacob. “They’re good people.”
“They are.” Metler was silent for a moment, his eyes studying the tactical map as their approach vector was calculated. “We’ll be landing at the Military Headquarters in Sera City. I’ve arranged citizen’s quarters for you. You’ll live there while becoming acclimated to our way of life.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Jacob. He couldn’t hide the excitement in his voice, nor could he keep from leaning forward, eyes dancing as the planet grew larger. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
“Given your memory lapse, such a short time might feel like an eternity.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“The coming weeks may be difficult for you.” Metler looked away from the viewport for a moment, studying Jacob meticulously. “But you have an ear any time you need it. You’ve earned my trust. That is a hard thing to do.”
Metler’s words made Jacob’s skin crawl. He had such a small idea of how large the galaxy had become, and he couldn’t have even guessed at the miracles that were about to happen. Still, he felt impossibly important, swirling amidst the trepidation of an uncertain future. He felt small and alone.
“Thank you, sir,” he whispered.
The cockpit jostled when the shuttle broke through the atmosphere. Clouds swam past at blazing speeds, but when the braking thrusters fired and slowed the descent, it sank beneath the clouds and revealed the spread of the planet below.
Jacob’s breath was stolen.
Below them, there appeared the broad expanse of an ocean, shining brilliantly against the colorful sky. Its rippling waters glinted with sunlight in the most vibrant blue Jacob had ever seen. Cutting into the deep was a mass of land; the edge of a continent that spilled abruptly into the ocean by way of towering cliffs stretching higher than he thought possible. A thick, green jungle covered the land as far as he could see. It glimmered in an odd way, speckled with colors that he could swear were glowing. Before long, Jacob realized that the jungle itself was peppered with luminescent plant life, similar to that which had grown in his wardroom. It was fantastic and breathtaking; an unearthly miracle of nature.
Sera City lay nestled in a broad, curved valley that had been carved by natural winds and erosion into its fortressing cliffs. A waterfall fell from a twisting river in the jungles above, cascading into the city and disappearing into its landscape. As the shuttle grew closer, the city became more detailed. A complex metropolis of immense size was realized. Its buildings and pathways were laid out in a manner that could only be described as brilliantly sensible, without sacrificing the creativity that could be found in the design of such a city. There were no drab, blocky grids, such as what one might find on a Triumvirate colony, or the sprawling, suburban ghettos left over on Earth during the Exo-Terran era. Instead, the magnetic railways and pedestrian platforms wound through the buildings, gardens, and plazas in a swirling manner that was sensible, efficient, and beautiful all at once.
The city kept growing closer, and Jacob’s heart kept beating faster. He could make out buildings of all shapes and sizes. There were massive, towering ecocentres, with spindly comm towers stretching just above the top of the cliffs that barricaded the city. Multi-purpose developments that looked like small villages lay nestled between the towers, intertwined with expansive parklands and centers for art and learning. All of them were linked together in such a way that those who lived in Sera City could easily and quickly gain access to everything the settlement had to offer, whether on foot, by magnetic rail, or floating airtram.
Most of the city’s oceanside was devoted to parkland and beaches, paired with the bright lights and tall platforms of an entertainment district. The city had also worked its way into the towering cliffs themselves. There were walkways, tunnels, developed outcroppings, and lift cars that peppered and striated the walls in an organic manner, never once infiltrating upon the natural formations our vegetation that grew along the towering rock walls.
Extending from the city were thin railway lines, similar in design to the maglev trains that operated within the city, but designed to operate at much higher speeds. Jacob could see three of them stretching out over the ocean, and another five that peeked out from the cliffs and ran through the jungle in other directions.
“Sera City.” Metler introduced the settlement with warmth in his voice. “Capital to both the planet and the Freedom Coalition.”
With every kilometer gained, the city became more vast and impressive, until the shuttle was flying right over it. Jacob began wondering about the millions of people who likely called it home. Free people, unfettered, able to make their own decisions and live their own lives.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Jacob. “It’s unbelievable.”
“Mmm,” agreed Metler. “There is much you must see.”
The shuttle banked to the left, joining a line of other military vessels as they followed the rim of the valley, circumventing Sera City so as not to interfere with civilian traffic, which unlike in Proper Society, took precedence at Animus IV.
Captain Metler motioned forward. In the distance but growing closer was the Freedom Coalition’s military headquarters, which lie in the jungle above Sera City. The base was sprinkled with control towers, bunkers, and expansive landing pads, which were bordered by five large strips designed for those capital-scale warships with landing capability. Frigates that had been damaged during the battle at Earth occupied two of those strips.
“Military Headquarters,” said Metler. “It may look big up here, but there’s even more substructure beneath the forest floor, which connects to Sera City through the surrounding cliffs.”
“I thought you said the General Command was at Weatherly Canyon.”
“That’s the General Command,” said Metler. “They are kept separate from HQ, for accountability purposes. It’s a widespread belief that it’s far too easy for a military to become entrenched with itself. Weatherly Canyon is remote, and it helps our leaders to make clear decisions.”
Jacob shook his head in wonder. “Fascinating,” he whispered.
The Captain didn’t answer, but he did glance over at Jacob with a knowing smirk.
The shuttle was given clearance to approach the headquarters compound, which was named “Centauri Island” in homage to the severity of war. As it settled down upon the tarmac, four jumpsuit-wearing enlisted from the marine corps ground crew came rushing over, to help refuel and prepare the shuttle for a future departure.
One of the enlisted, a freckled young woman with her auburn hair tied back into a strict ponytail, unlatched and pulled the airlock open. Jacob greeted her with a smile, but was immediately taken by surprise when an unfamiliar scent drifted into his nose, carried by a cool breeze.
It was fresh, naturally created air, expelled from the teeming plant life surrounding the planet and carried upon the wind to fill the lungs of its inhabitants. There was something musky, which he easily recognized as the smell of engine grease and the sweat from workers, but beyond it was something clean, fresh, and almost pungent about the scents that floated in from the jungle beyond.
He wondered how often the people of Animus IV took it for granted.
Overcome, Jacob stepped out onto the tarmac. There were other shuttles landing and departing, and in the distance, he could see a pair of corvettes similar to the Lilith’s Omen curving away toward the northern horizon. Then, a squadron of starfighters soared past, headed southeast and toward the vast ocean beyond. Everywhere he looked, he could see the jumpsuited ground crew, patrolling marine soldiers, and the brown-white uniforms of navy men and women moving about amongst the ships.
When a silent tram car approached, Captain Metler motioned for him to board. As he did, a pair of marine pilots glanced over and nodded their heads in greeting, before returning to their quiet conversation together. The tram immediately sped off, headed for one of the maglev trains that ran through the base. Rather than stopping to allow its passengers to disembark, the tram and maglev train actually matched speed, and the tram merged onto one of the train’s empty fixtures. It was a most efficient method of travel, which spoke highly of the Coalition’s evolution as a society.
The train sped off, winding through the jungle for a few moments. The foliage whipped past too quickly for Jacob to make out any of its detail, but there were flashes of luminescence that piqued his interest most fantastically. Before long, the train dipped down into a tunnel, lit by a stream of soft glowing lights. It wound down and around, slowing steadily until it reached a comfortable pace. Jacob had to pry open his mouth to keep his ears from popping.
“Animus IV is a large planet,” said Metler. “Approximately one and a half times the circumference of Earth. However, its core is hotter, the structure less dense, causing the effect on gravity to be similar. You’ll find that the gravitational pull on Animus is slightly more than that of Earth, but we’ve mimicked this on our starships to create a consistency amongst our people.”
Now that he thought about it, Jacob did recall feeling a bit light-footed while aboard the Triumvirate’s spacecraft. “That would arguably make us stronger, faster.”
Metler nodded. “Something the Triumvirate does not know.” Metler turned abruptly and looked toward the window nearby.
Jacob followed Metler’s gaze just in time to watch as the train emerged from its tunnel. It had descended significantly, putting them near the tops of the smaller high-rise buildings yet still deep within the crater-like valley. The track followed the curve of the canyon wall as it dropped toward what could be referred to as “street level”. Everywhere Jacob looked, he could see buildings of every size, with an equal measure of foliage and green space peppered throughout the city’s walkways and elegant maglev tracks. There were birds in the air and people everywhere, trains running to and fro, floating aircars and shuttles soaring past.
Sera City was not the humble, secretive place Jacob had imagined. It was teeming with life and activity. It had its own vibrancy, an energy that pierced the glass of his coach and tickled his inner child. He pressed his hand against the glass and stared, awestruck, as the curving path of the train gave him a most impressive tour.
And yet, he had a sense that it was only the beginning.
After some time, the train tilted away from the cliff wall and descended into the city. It came to rest in an elevated maglev station and opened its doors to let the passengers disembark. Jacob stepped out and closed his eyes for a moment, simply to let the natural breeze wash over him and the sounds of the city fill his ears.
Then, he looked out upon Sera City, its towers and streets glistening in the ethereal sunlight of the Animus star. He breathed a soft sigh of relief and whispered quietly to himself.
Previously on Animus…
War has come.
Having traveled backward in time, Jacob Kale and his companions have infiltrated a heavily secured LOPO facility orbiting Earth. They have bravely faced the fearsome Supreme General Vereor and the cunning Director of Deviant Control, Korynn Fleming. Having rescued the captive Coalition agent named Alec Troy, they struck an unlikely alliance with their enemy, Admiral Benneth Dyson, who gave them safe passage to his flagship, the Benedict.
Meanwhile, Coalition forces under the command of Captain Frederick “Bear” Crosley have engaged the enemy Atlas Fleet in the Wexel System. This ferocious engagement came to an abrupt halt when Triumvirate Admiral Drake withdrew his forces and ran back to the Mother Planet, after having been alerted by Fleming that Jacob Kale was spotted.
Hidden aboard Drake’s flagship, Commander Murray and the brave marines aboard the Coalition corvette Lilith’s Omen have taken control of the Crusader‘s docking bay. The ship’s engineer, Rashid Jallaq, has successfully hacked into the Crusader‘s core systems, and now, they wait for the right time to take control of the ship and turn it against Drake’s own escort craft.
Aboard the Triumvirate flagship Benedict, the heroes are forced to stand by and watch as Korynn Fleming uses the power of LOPO technology to murder Benneth Dyson’s wife and three children. Fully aware of who Jacob is, and now fueled by betrayal, Benneth Dyson has formed a blockade with his Mother Fleet, and is prepared to take out any Triumvirate vessels who dare to confront him.
The Battle for Mother Planet has begun.
Earth, Sol System
September 21st, 2193
Y.S.A.D. Benedict sported an expansive bridge, designed with an elevated, oval-shaped command platform. It was elevated above the mundane duty stations, and allowed the Commanding Officer to pace amongst the primary posts without interfering with their operations. Every crewmember was given an easy view of the angular forward window and the large tactical projections hovering across it.
Admiral Dyson’s blood ran hot with betrayal as he paced along the walkway. One by one, Drake’s vessels jumped into the Mother Planet’s vicinity and began adopting themselves into an attack formation. With every movement of those ships, Dyson saw an echo of his children in their final moments; with the lumbering approach of Crusader, the memory of his dying wife flooded him like the deafening roar of an apoplectic opera. He would have seen the skies of Earth filled with his rage, were Drake to turn against him; he would have spilled Drake’s blood across the upper atmosphere like the cascades of light upon a solar dawn.
“He’s not answering our hails, Admiral.” There was a certain trepidation that hung upon the words of his seasoned comm officer.
“Admiral Drake is a bloodhound. Fleming’s web of deceit will have caught him. He will not back down.” Surrendering to fate, Dyson turned to his senior strategic officers, who were hovering in silence behind the command ring. They remained loyal to him, at least for the time being. “The flanking vessels will protect the Arctic and African sectors. All others are to adopt the Centauri Formation. I don’t want any of our starfighter screens falling into friendly fire.”
There was hesitation in some of their eyes. He was asking them to coordinate fleet movements designed to fire upon one of the Alliance’s most important battle groups. There couldn’t be any space to question his judgement. Without breaking pace, Dyson opened a channel to the entire Mother Fleet.
“This is Admiral Dyson. Many of you have questions about what is happening today. Unfortunately we are short on time. Suffice it to say that the Atlas Fleet and other elements of our own sovereign government are caught in an act of treason, and must be dealt with. Should any of these Deviant elements move against us, we will do what we must to keep the Mother Planet safe. We will preserve our Society. That is all.”
As he switched off the comm unit, Dyson peered at the array of vessels facing them. Much to his chagrin, Drake was still advancing. Within moments, he’d cross into the no-fly zone established just beyond the range of Earth’s massive orbital defense platforms.
Suppressing a sigh, Dyson straightened his tunic. “So be it. The moment he crosses into the no-fly zone, commence firing.”
Peter Drake’s eyes were ratcheted upon one object alone; The Benedict. There she was, the largest, most heavily armed destroyer the Alliance had developed. Her size alone dwarfed the Crusader and her escort cruisers combined. Somehow, Dyson had retained control of his Mother Fleet; hundreds of vessels were squared off against his full armada, like smaller insects hovering beneath their behemoth queen.
He watched with ire as they flew between Earth’s orbital defenses. These massive space stations were created to keep the Mother Planet impenetrable. They had no engines, no propulsion systems, and were permanently anchored in a geosynchronous orbit over the home planet of mankind. Outfit with hundreds of heavy weapon emplacements, they could create a web of destruction that was considered impenetrable by enemy spacecraft. No deviant force had ever moved upon the Mother Planet in the history of mankind, and it was due to the terror these defense platforms were capable of unleashing.
As they broke through the web of platforms, Dyson’s vessels opened fire. Brightly colored dots shot forth, reaching through space in an agonizingly slow crawl toward his vessels. As they grew closer, their perceived speed would increase. War was upon them.
Drake approached Captain Roberts at the command station. He rapped his ceremonial baton behind as he walked, and a scowl was painted across his pockmarked face. “Return fire, all vessels. Ready for evasive maneuvers. Unleash all of our starfighter groups.”
Captain Roberts leaned forward and began disseminating Drake’s orders. Torpedoes and missiles of varying type departed from his ships, leaving blue ion trails in the thin atmosphere behind them. Beneath the return volley, Drake’s starfighters began pouring forth, forming up into triangular shaped strike groups.
It was civil war, and when the first wave of munitions intercepted each other, the skies were filled with enough carnage that the citizens of the European and Asian continents could see it taking place above, filling the night sky with the bright flashes of war and a glowing hue of destruction. It was almost as if space itself had been filled with fuel, and the two Admirals had struck a match in divergence.
The vessels closed on each other, joining a mass of warring starfighters who exchanged blows in a torrent of death. Casualties mounted as the smaller flanking vessels of each side took each other out, like pawns in a vicious match of wit and will. Drake, ever growing angrier with each report, issued an order to have his flanking vessels advance on the Benedict. The Hallifax and Relinquish shifted forward, offering protective fire while firing their strongest weapons upon Dyson’s flagship.
Dyson and Drake were likeminded in their battle strategies, with Drake having trained under Dyson for many years. Both commanders made to have their vessels fly through each other’s lines, so that they might pit strength against will with close range, broadside attacks. Drake breathed heavily as the Benedict approached, and he counted down the moments until his vessel was to be rocked by the Benedict‘s powerful starboard batteries.
But it would not happen. Captain Roberts came out of nowhere, grabbing Drake by the shoulders to get his attention. “Admiral!” he cried, and turned to point at one of the tactical projections. “Deviant vessels jumping in from sector thirty-seven!”
Sure enough, Captain Crosley and his Coalition warships were flashing into existence, and were quickly forming up alongside of each other.
They’d been tracked!
“Deviant slime!” snarled Drake. “Change of plans! All vessels, regroup at sector six. Signal the orbital platforms!”
Shoulder to shoulder with Commodore Chan, Captain Crosley watched as Drake’s warships turned hard to port. They were headed toward Earth’s orbital platforms, having lured Dyson’s vessels far enough away that, with luck, they’d fall under the protection of the platforms before Dyson’s armada could win the battle. They left behind a field of wreckage, some of it still burning in the thin haze of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
“Drake versus Dyson?” asked Crosley, legitimately surprised. “Look at the patterns of destruction. Dyson must have set up a blockade, and Drake engaged them. Look, he’s letting Drake go, and returning to sector 1-A over the African continent.”
Commodore Chan took out a stylus and began navigating through a three-dimensional holo-scan that hovered nearby. His motions tracked the movements of Drake’s fleet with ease. “He’s positioning himself between their primary defense platforms here, and here. Dyson won’t follow them, those platforms would tear even the Benedict to pieces.”
Crosley nodded. “They know each other well. It’s a stalemate, for now. Everything depends on our next move.” Crosley folded his arms, and scowled at Chan. “What I want to know is, why in the hell were Drake and Dyson exchanging fire over their own skies?”
“What do we do, Captain?” asked Chan.
Crosley considered the question for a few long seconds. The Coalition task force had formed up in a standard escort pattern upon emerging from the jump nodes, but there was still a healthy distance separating them from Drake’s armada. Much worse, Drake’s movements had put the civilian transit corridor between them. Because Earth’s immediate vicinity was so heavily militarized, civilian vessels were only permitted to travel to and from the Mother Planet within a narrow sector of space. Drake had shown the audacity to use it as a shield. Should Crosley send his ships around the transit corridor, they would be dangerously exposed to powerful fire from the defense platforms. There was no way that they could gain the upper hand using that strategy.
Chan filled the silence with a thought. “He won’t use antimatter torpedoes, not this close to Earth.”
Crosley nodded, but another idea had struck him. “He wants us to go around the civilian corridor, so why don’t we go through it?”
“What if he fires on his own vessels?”
“He won’t. Look, the way he’s positioned.” Crosley pointed at the small dots that signified the Atlas Fleet. “He expects us to go around. He’s guessing that we expect he’d fire on his own vessels, but he would never do such a thing. It would be treason!”
Commodore Chan stood back a bit, hesitation in his eyes.
“I haven’t come this far to let that space slug outsmart me,” growled Crosley. “Punch up the Hunt Link. Dispatch all corvettes and frigates equipped with tow cables, and haul out the largest cruise-liners and mass-transit ships. As soon as they’re clear, we move through the corridor. If I’m right, we’ll catch him with his britches down.”
It was a risky move. Crosley was relying on a hope that Drake dared not be so cold as to fire into the civilian transit corridor. If he did, he would undoubtedly destroy civilian vessels, where the Coalition ships would have nothing but enemy ships to target. It would give them the upper hand, at least for a few precious moments. Crosley didn’t have time, however, to hope on a prayer. This was war. As a commanding officer, he had to make quick decisions like these, and let the chips fall how they would.
Once his orders were dispatched, Crosley’s corvettes and frigates moved off toward the largest of the civilian ships. They began firing tow cables, engines flaring as they fought to haul the largest ships off course and out of the way. With a fools hope, the plan would work, and they would sneak through the fleeing vessels, catching Peter Drake by surprise.
And so it was that Captain Frederick “Bear” Crosley, a man who held no love for God or any other power in the universe, began to pray.
The stolen L.M.V. Praetor burst forth from the underbelly of Benedict, ejected from her primary docking bay. She was immediately surrounded by Alliance starfighters as they accelerated to meet their foes.
Captain Metler felt incredibly nervous. He’d never been surrounded by so many Alliance starfighters, and the mere fact that they were flying at his side was a stretch to comprehend. He could sense trepidation from the others, especially Jane and Riles. Having served with them ever since the Centauri War, he could almost read their thoughts.
Jacob had manned the helm station again, with Jane at comm and sensors, Riles at tactical. The mass of starfighters were forming into squadrons of eight. Above them, the Benedict and her flanking warships had opened fire on Drake’s battle group with every weapon available. They were so close that the torpedo launchers were visible, dropping their warheads from the destroyer’s many launch points. Even the massive laser emitters could be seen rotating and charging, moments before cutting into the void.
“Let’s not show our hand too quickly,” said Metler. “Cut weapons power to ten percent and engage enemy starfighters. Veston, monitor enemy chatter. Keep on the lookout for any surprises from Drake.”
Brilliant colors flooded the Praetor‘s bridge as the opposing volleys collided. Within moments, a mass of enemy starfighters came upon them, with red and gold tracers preceding them. An eerie silence had taken the bridge, clashing oddly with the maelstrom beyond. The Praetor‘s advanced weaponry ripped through the starfighters like cardboard, and her powerful shields absorbed every attack with ease.
Through the bedlam, the Crusader and her escort vessels kept spewing volley after volley toward Dyson’s flagship. Riles was getting grumpy. “C’mon, Cappy. Lemme at ‘im!”
“Not yet, Riles! Not yet!”
Captain Metler sat forward as they punched their way through the swarming fighters. After a few moments, he motioned toward one of Drake’s escort vessels. “Alright, Riles. Target Hallifax, twenty percent power. Disable their lasers and torpedo…”
Metler trailed off when Drake’s vessels ceased fire and pulled hard to port. As they took for a new heading, the enemy starfighters broke off their ferocious dogfights and raced for their berthing warships.
“What in the name of,” said Jacob.
“Benedict is calling off the attack,” interrupted Jane. “Drake is headed for the defense platforms!”
“Follow them!” Metler leapt to his feet. “Belay that fire order, Riles. Form up alongside Drake’s fighters. Veston, make us look friendly!”
Riles grumped and sat back, frowning. Jane worked hurriedly at her station to mimic the transponder signals of Drake’s starfighters, while Jacob guided the Praetor into an escort formation. They were, once again, playing friend to the enemy.
“Drake wouldn’t call off the attack so quickly,” said Metler. “That means Crosley’s here. Jane?”
“He’s right,” she replied. “Christ, he’s brought the whole Coalition fleet!”
Metler seethed. “Damnit, Bear! His heart is bigger than his brain.”
“Crosley’s armada is blocked by the civilian transit corridor,” she added.
“Not for long. He’ll either go around them or he’ll go through them.” Metler came back to his command chair, both enraged at Crosley’s boldness and enticed by the scent of his prey. “Riles, keep a close bead on the Hallifax. If I’m right, Crosley won’t break off. As soon as he comes through that corridor, give her hell.”
“Full power?” asked Riles.
“Try not to get too excited, Riles,” quipped Jane.
“You ain’t seen me excited, sweetheart. Not yet!” Riles cracked his knuckles and focused on his targeting system, smirking. “Y’all ‘r about to see some motherfuckin’ fireworks.”
From his position between Earth’s orbital defense platforms, Admiral Drake had given himself one disadvantage; he wouldn’t be able to anticipate Crosley’s next move. The mass of civilian ships scrambled his sensor abilities, and the Coalition warships were jamming LOPO’s surveillance satellites. Regardless, Drake didn’t consider it a problem. He was confident that Crosley would come around the civilian corridor one way or the other, especially when he realized that Dyson might turn and fight at his side. He doubted that Crosley would let the encounter turn into a stalemate.
He did not, however, expect for the Hallifax to come under attack.
He came upon Roberts’ tactical officer in a fury, demanding an explanation. The officer scrambled at his station, eventually pulling up an external view of the Hallifax. It was being assaulted by a form of weaponry he didn’t recognize; tiny blue globes of energy that pierced her shields with ease and were ripping chunks from the hull. The camera tracked these incoming weapons and focused on the vessel releasing them. It was small, resembling one of LOPO’s intercept craft but flying with the speed and maneuverability of a starfighter.
“Port batteries, target that vessel!” snarled Drake. “Scans?”
“Negative, Admiral! All our scans are being reflected back!”
“Concentrate all port batteries! Stop that ship!”
The Crusader poured forth bloody retaliation, but the vessel’s shields absorbed the onslaught with ease. Drake had never seen anything like it before. Even his lasers, which were powerful enough to slice clean through a vessel of that size, simply disappeared in curved flashes against the ship’s impervious shields. Relentlessly, the small ship maintained its onslaught, in spite of coming under fire from other Legionnaire vessels nearby.
“I want that ship wiped out!” he screamed.
Halifax listed to port, her systems failing. Other warships joined in the onslaught, but the pestering vessel seemed to be indestructible. Like a wild dog, Drake’s eyes danced between the external view and the civilian transit corridor.
What he did not expect was to see Crosley’s warships, piercing through holes in the civilian corridor and opening fire upon emerging. He’d been outsmarted.
Eyes widening, Drake snarled. “That irreverent, deviant bastige. Alert all commands! New targets at 125 mark three. I want those ships lured into platform range, at once!”
“Kiss my grits!” cried Riles. The thrill of battle excited him so; Praetor‘s weaponry, when fully unleashed, had made quick work of Y.S.S.C. Hallifax. They were soon the target of Drake’s warships, who were concentrating their fire upon the rogue vessel.
Colonel Wilco’s voice cried over the intercom from the engine room. “Shields down to sixty percent! What the bloody hell is going on up there?”
“Kale, get us out of here,” ordered Metler. “Make for the platforms and head for the Benedict. They won’t fire on each other at that range, and the platforms batteries are too slow. Riles, target the Crusader‘s ventral guns as we pass.”
They began a pass beneath the Crusader. Riles had begun firing on the flagship’s powerful laser batteries, when something terrible happened. The bridge was filled with an ear-splitting noise, and an entire section of the starboard bulkhead was torn clean into space.
Metler instinctively slammed his restraints closed as the air violently rushed out into space. He fought not to scream when, of all people, General Vereor began climbing through the hole and onto the bridge. His lungs were empty, and a burning pain filled his chest and ears. He reached for the weapon at his side, only to find that it had disappeared, likely drawn out into the void. They were sitting ducks; Vereor’s mechanical legs were clamping into the deck as he approached, a sneer on his half-machine of a face.
As Metler fought not to black out, he saw Jacob releasing himself from the helm console. He’d snatched a helmet from mid-air as it rushed toward the opening, and threw it over his head while the vacuum drug him toward the hole. Twisting about, he collided violently with Vereor and wrestled him off balance. They spun out into space mere moments before an emergency force field came to life and sealed the opening. Air rushed back into the bridge, re-pressurizing it in seconds.
Jane was the first to find her voice, and she shrieked in anguish. “Jacob!!”
Gasping for air, Metler released his harness and ran forward, taking the helm.
“What the hell is he doing?” cried Riles.
“Jane!” shouted Metler, his voice hoarse from the torment. “Keep a bead on Kale, damnit.” He grasped the controls and spun the Praetor about to continue its journey past the Crusader‘s stern. “Riles, give me that damned volley!”
“People!!” he shouted.
Metler steadied his nerves and watched as the orbital platforms tried to track his flight, but their batteries were too slow at this close range. As they broke between them, the whole spread of Dyson’s armada came into view.
“Captain,” breathed Jane. “I’ve got Jacob, but… sir, we can’t leave him out there!”
“Tow cables, Cappy,” cried Riles. “I can lock onto ‘im with the tow cables!”
Metler, however, had his eyes locked upon Dyson’s armada. An idea formed in his head, and he began to smirk.
“Hold on, Riles. I’ve got an idea. Veston, hail the Benedict. We’re going to need her help.”
Jenice Murray paced the length of the Lilith’s Omen cargo bay, watching impatiently as the marines ran to and fro, treating their wounded and preparing for another deployment. When Rashid Jallaq emerged from the maglift, she came upon him hurriedly.
“Rashid, report. What’s going on out there?”
“Crosley’s ships have broken through the civilian corridor and are engaging the Atlas Fleet. Drake’s maneuvered to let the orbital platforms open fire. They’re taking heavy damage!”
“It’s now or never.” Jenice grabbed Rashid by the shoulder and gestured toward his touchpad. “Is it ready?”
Rashid gave his touchpad a quick glance, then resignedly nodded. “I think so, yes.”
“Do it. Give us fifty seconds to prepare the marines.”
Rashid keyed a series of commands into the touchpad, then looked back at her with a dutiful nod. “It’s done. Fifty seconds.”
Jenice spun about with a fire in her soul. “Major Grisham, it’s time!”
Grisham spat out his half-chewed cigar and flashed Jenice a salute. “Company B!”
“Tenn-hut!” cried the company’s sergeant. With those words, the marines under Grisham’s command stopped everything they were doing and came to abrupt attention.
“Marines, we move on the bridge!” growled Grisham.
The sergeant stepped in front of Grisham with fire in his battle-hardened eyes. “Alright, ladies, you heard the man! Get those clips out of your assholes and form up! Move! Move! Move!”
The marines formed into squads and charged down the boarding ramp, ready for blood. They were soldiers of the 10th Battalion; “The Bandits” of the 1st Specialized Brigade. Grisham had every reason to be proud. He walked up beside Rashid and Jenice, grinning. “I’ve never seen a finer collection of marines in my years. Brutal, precise, efficient.”
“Indeed, Major,” agreed Rashid.
“No sense hanging back, Commanders.” Grisham withdrew two spare Renegade Mark II pistols, handing them over along with two spare clips. “Don’t let me get to Drake first, it won’t be pretty.”
Jenice took the pistol, cleared the chamber, and smacked a fresh clip into place with her iron hand. “Don’t worry, Major. He’s got a debt to pay.”
Jacob’s mind went numb to the dizzying swirl of stars and the maelstrom of battle that surrounded him. Vereor came at him from every angle imaginable, viciously striking with intent to kill as they spiraled through the vacuum. Like acrobats they danced, somehow avoiding stray weapons fire that would have been powerful enough to vaporize them both.
On and on they went, for what felt like an impossibly long time. Jacob began wondering if he could outlast Vereor. There was nowhere to run. Vereor actually had small jets built into his mechanical implants, which let him maneuver in the vacuum. Kale had nothing to control his flight aside from the defensive strikes against his foe, and the way each blow diverted his free motion through space. His only choice was to persist.
Unexpectedly, Jacob felt something latch onto his armor. Looking down, he saw a large, magnetic grappling cable, which had secured itself to his utility belt. He reached for it angrily, thinking it must be some tow cable from one of the enemy ships; but then, his eyes tracked the tether and saw none other than the Praetor raging past. He realized what they were doing moments before being yanked along behind the ship. Riles must have targeted him with the grapplers, and now, whomever was at the helm was piloting the ship to help him maneuver through space.
Praetor led him at mind-razing speeds through the explosive battle. Vereor gave chase, jets blazing from his cybernetic boots. The Praetor jerked to the side, and Jacob was sent spiraling toward the General. He screamed a furious battle cry and aimed his boots at Vereor’s midsection. When they collided, Jacob struck his foe hard enough to knock Vereor’s thrusters offline. The General flailed off into space, defeated for the moment.
“Jacob?” Jane had patched into his helmet’s comm.
“Jane!” he closed his eyes to catch a moment’s relief from the mind-warping spin of stars and spacecraft. “What the hell is going on!?”
“Are you bloody mad!?” she cried back.
“You need to get out of here!”
Her voice sounded reluctantly defiant. Panic crept upon him. “What do you mean, not yet?” he cried. “I’m gonna get vaporized out here!”
“Would you shut up and listen to me?” Jane snapped. “We’re coming upon Platform L-200. Once we blow a hole in it, we’re going to slingshot you aboard.”
Jacob gulped. “Have you gone bloody mad?”
“We’ll have five seconds to get through before the emergency shields come online.”
“Yes, we” answered Jane. “Just shut up and get ready!”
Jacob swallowed nervously. “This was Riles’ crazy idea, wasn’t it!?”
“Shut up and hold on!”
The Praetor banked about and aimed herself at the very same orbital platform they’d been aboard, not so long ago.
“Hold on, Jacob!” repeated Jane.
Jacob grabbed hold of his tether, as if it could help to stabilize his flight (or rather, his nerves). The space station grew closer, and small streaks of red a blue came forth. The Praetor extended her shields, blocking the weapons fire and keeping him from a most unfortunate encounter with a plasma missle. Breathing deeply, Jacob released his grip and stretched out his body, preparing for a free flight toward the hole that didn’t yet exist.
“For the record, I don’t like this!” he cried.
The Praetor fired. A hole was blasted in the platform’s hull, and the Praetor banked hard to port. With a click, the grappling cable unlatched itself, and Jacob was sent on a death-flight toward the platform.
He cried out uncontrollably, but set his eyes upon the opening, determined to make it through alive.
The battle had opened up once again. When Crosley and Drake’s forces had faced off, Dyson had finally brought the Mother Fleet to bear. Crosley’s ships attacked from below, Dyson from above, forcing the defense platforms to cease fire. It would have spelled certain doom for Drake and his warships, but he had one trick left up his sleeve.
Throughout the battle, Korynn Fleming had been secretly gathering warships from the System Fleets spread throughout the galaxy. These battle groups were tasked with defending their native planetary systems, and were only summoned away in the most extreme conditions.
Such as a flashpoint war over the Mother Planet.
That was why Drake, even though his Atlas Fleet was facing slaughter, could pace confidently amongst his bridge crew. It was only a matter of time before the reinforcements began to arrive, and when that happened, he would finally prove his superiority in battle.
Unfortunately for Peter Drake, he never had the chance to revel in victory.
An alert siren came to life, and the Crusader‘s bridge crew clambered about in confusion. Drake glowered at the sudden activity, and came upon Captain Roberts with ill intent. “Captain, what the hell is going on?”
He needed no explanation. The Crusader, in all of her glory, had begun firing upon her own escort craft. She’d targeted the Relinquish, battering her shields and scalding the hull.
“Roberts! Explain this!”
“I… I can’t!” stammered Roberts. He punched at his console violently, but the computers were unresponsive. “We’ve lost fire control, helm control, everything… Admiral, we are firing on our own vessels!”
“It’s Murray!” Drake seethed. “Find out how the hell she got into our systems and lock her out! Now!”
Before Captain Roberts could respond, a A bullet whistled through the air and pierced his hair. He slumped forward, and with a tiny explosion, the incendiary bullet splattered bits of Roberts’ skull and brain across Drake’s ugly face. Shocked, Drake spun about and looked at the maglift doors, which were open. Instead of a lift car, there were a handful of Coalition marines, leaping from grappling cables in the empty shaft with weapons blazing.
Everything happened so fast. The marines took out Drake’s security teams with the utmost efficiency, then moved upon the bridge crew without remorse. Shocked, Drake simply watched for a few short seconds, utterly crippled by his hubris. He finally thought to whip about his ceremonial baton, but before he could use it, a familiar face was upon him. He threw up a defense, but she swung a metallic hand through the air and caught him square in the temple. Drake saw stars, and grabbed hold of Roberts’ corpse to keep from collapsing.
“Remember me, you son of a bitch?”
Jenice Murray grabbed Drake by his shoulder and threw him to the deck with all of her might. His head bounced against the cold steel, and he groaned in agony. He saw her push the dead Captain from his command chair, then she came upon him once again. He raised a weakened arm to try and block her, but it was no use. She came down upon him with a pistol in her hand, and with a crack, his world went dark.
Jacob skidded across the deck and slammed against the interior wall with a painful thud. Jane and Riles followed, wearing the same LOPO armor that had kept him alive in the vacuum. Emergency shields flashed to life and stopped the decompression as they skidded to a halt nearby.
Their maniacal plan had worked.
Jacob ran over toward them, joining Riles in helping Jane to her feet. “Jane?” he asked, incredulously. “Riles? What the hell!?”
Riles pulled a spare rifle from behind his back and shoved it at Jacob. “Keep yer shirt on, Jakey. We got work to do.”
“He’s fine!” answered Jane.
“Listen, rabbit, we need you t’ stay here and distract Vereor.”
“You have to hold him off, okay?” pressed Jane.
Jacob looked between them stupendously. They were so rushed, he didn’t want to waste any of their time. He chose, albeit reluctantly, to trust them. It had worked so far, after all. “Alright, fine.”
“You got yerself fifteen minutes ‘fore this place goes nuke-ular,” said Riles. “If yer shiny ass ain’t off this platform…”
“I’ll make it.” He smacked Riles on the shoulder with confidence. “Just make sure your asses are out too.”
“Ain’t my first rodeo, Kale!” Riles motioned for Jane to follow. “Come on, sugar.”
Jacob glimpsed a scowl beneath Jane’s helmet a moment before they departed, running at full speed down the terminal corridor. He had no idea what they were planning, but whatever it was, it most likely involved setting the station’s fusion reactor to go critical. That would be messy. They also expected Vereor to follow, which made sense. Vereor seemed bent on confronting him, and if he could distract the General from his friends, then whatever hairbrained idea they’d come up with just might work. And so he waited, struck by an odd feeling, as if he were meant to be there; meant to encounter the fearsome General one more time.
He was correct.
One of the terminal’s many airlocks slid open. Vereor stood inside, silhouetted in darkness. The expansive terminal remained empty, as if Vereor wanted to confront Jacob alone. After a few moments, Vereor stepped out of the airlock, bringing color to his mechanically altered body.
“Very brave of you, Jacob Kale.”
Jacob kept his cool. He spoke evenly, without letting emotion taint the rhythm of his response. “What do you want with me?”
As Vereor approached, his footfalls struck the deck with resounding thumps. “Your friends have misguided you.”
“That’s not something you get to decide.”
“You must learn your place, Kale.”
“I have,” challenged Jacob. “I’ve learned many things, General, the least of which is that your senseless violence is an abomination! What of those children? Do your motives warrant the punishment of the innocent?”
“Innocent,” scoffed Vereor. “For Benneth Dyson’s betrayal, many more die needlessly. Is that what you wanted, Jacob? So disappointing. The foolish escapades of Dyson and your deviant friends will cost thousands of lives. Is that what you were created for, Jacob?”
“You and your people hold no power over me,” answered Jacob. “Not any more.” He triggered the faceplate to recede, so that he could look his opponent in the eye. “You have failed, General. I no longer belong to anyone but myself.”
“You don’t know yourself,” he retorted. “You can’t hardly begin to understand who you are; what you are capable of.”
“Then tell me,” Jacob challenged. “Enlighten me once again of my importance to your filthy Triumvirate!”
“Look inside of yourself. You will see.”
Vereor’s response confused him, to be sure. Caught off guard, he quickly became entranced by something that glowed yellow inside Vereor’s cybernetic eye. It felt strangely familiar to him. Without warning or provocation, Jacob’s mind expanded beyond its natural scope, much like when he’d guided his companions through a time warp from the future. His perception and awareness extended beyond himself, until he looked upon the terminal from some nearby distance.
He was shaken, concerned. A seed of paranoia sprouted in his soul, for what power could Vereor possess, if he were able to force Jacob into this state of mind? He backed away, but he could not turn his eyes from the yellow glow in Vereor’s eye. He was caught, like the fly inside a spider’s web. Vereor’s words began to echo in his mind, as if they were his own thoughts manifested.
Look inside of yourself, Jacob. Look inside…
He no longer stood in the docking terminal of Orbital Platform L-200. Instead, he saw himself in a room, a facility not unlike MedLab 4 on Klius Station, but larger and more extensive. He was naked inside some sort of capsule, but he was not alone. He was one member of an entire grid, capsules bearing similarly unclad humans of varying shape, color, and size. Their bodies were pierced with intravenous tubes, and crown-like devices rested upon each of their heads. Men and women in white lab coats walked to and fro, inspecting these devices with fascination as they shot yellow beams of energy into their foreheads. The color was not unlike that which glowed inside Vereor’s eye. In fact, it was one and the same, entrancing them just as Vereor’s glare entranced Jacob.
Knowledge coursed through him at impossible speeds. Complex mathematical equations, the grammatical structure of ancient languages, submarine nautical physics, the exact construction of a solar power coupling array. Just like those compressed streams of raw energy, this vast knowledge was being injected into his brain like a common medical serum.
His memory flashed again. This time, he stood free of the capsules, clad in an enigmatic white gown. A short, cleanly dressed woman stood before him, smiling with a soft, mirthful grin upon her asian face. She was speaking in eloquent Cantonese, but he understood her perfectly. He was created by them. Created to be the utter perfection of a human being. He was created to be loyal… he could never stray from his servanthood to the Great Triumvirate, else he would simply cease to exist. He believed it, then, as if this truth were a part of his being. He believed that should he ever stray, should he entertain even the slightest thought of Deviancy, he would cease to exist. He would become meaningless… no Jacob Kale, no Subject 804.C.
He was meant to serve them. Nobody else.
As if released from a tightly drawn bow, his mind was thrust back into the docking terminal where he stood. He gasped, and grew dizzy with a pervasive pain not unlike a migraine. Vereor caught him as he staggered forward.
Looking up, Jacob saw that he was being held against Vereor’s armored chest, like a wounded child leaning upon a father for comfort.
“You understand now, don’t you?” Vereor murmured. “I… can’t let you go.”
Jacob was flooded with grief and closed his eyes. So much had happened in his short life; far too much for one man to bear alone. Vereor would bear it with him. With a rush of comfort, Jacob slackened his muscles and rested against the General, surrendering his guard.
He was home, at last.
The battle had spun into a senseless brawl. Reports of vessels disabled and destroyed came in faster than Crosley would have hoped. Had Dyson’s forces not joined in the effort to pin Drake, the battle might have already been decided. On the contrary, their combined strength had done terrible damage to Drake’s flanking warships, and they had even destroyed one of his starfighter carriers. The battle wasn’t without loss. When the orbital platforms had opened fire, two of Crosley’s most critical frigates were crippled. C.S.F.’s Bravery and Steadfast now drifted aimlessly amongst the rubble, having shut down their reactor cores to avoid a catastrophic breach.
The engagement had taken a surprising turn when the Crusader began firing upon her own vessels. Crosley recognized the way she moved and engaged her escort vessels; they were battle protocols of his own design. That meant that Jenice Murray had taken control of the Crusader, and with a quiet smile, Crosley began to think that they might have a chance to win.
No battle of such a scale had taken place since the Territory Wars. With Dyson’s Mother Fleet in alliance with his, Crosley realized that the operation would officially mark the Centauri War as the second most important battle in the Coalition’s history. It would later be called The Battle for Mother Planet, and it would mark the first Coalition victory against the ruthless Civil Triumvirate.
The conflict had not been without its fair share of twists and turns to be sure, but Crosley could never have expected what came next.
All throughout the Sol System, Alliance reinforcements flashed into existence, filling the jump nodes that linked Earth with the explored galaxy. They couldn’t have been vessels from the Bonded Fleets, for they were all present and accounted for. No, the enemy had prepared for this, either deliberately or by some manner of decisive thinking. These vessels had undoubtedly been withdrawn from the Sector Units and System Defense Fleets, whose sole mandates were the defense of Triumvirate star systems. According to Alliance protocol, they did not belong here, but they had come nonetheless.
With a great sense of loathing, Captain Crosley signaled the retreat. Just like the Centauri War, they had been overpowered. They would run back to Animus IV, licking their wounds and praying for the sustenance of secrecy. Nothing could stop the might of the Yellow Star Alliance.
Nothing… save for a miracle of fate.
“Engine’s holding,” answered Johnny Wilco, who’d come to the bridge when Metler had proposed his lunatic idea. He’d taken Jane’s station at comm, and Jameson had taken command of tactical. The smell of war seemed to have brought his senses back in full. ”Shields nominal at forty-five percent. I’d avoid those platforms if I were you.”
“We’ll go after the Crusader,” decided Metler. “Target their engines.” He guided the vessel through space, knocking debris away with her powerful shields as they screamed through the fray. It was then that Metler realized the Crusader had turned and was firing on her own vessels. Beyond that, he recognized the way Drake’s flagship was adjusting course and engaging its own ships.
They were Coalition attack patterns. Maneuvers he had designed with Frederick “Bear” Crosley. It could only mean that somehow, Jenice had taken command of Drake’s flagship. She was alive!
“Do you see that?” he cried.
“What?” asked Wilco. He wouldn’t have known the attack patterns; they were traded by hand, never via the Coalition’s information network.
“Crusader. She’s using our own goddamn attack patterns. Jenice is aboard that ship!”
“Blimey!” cried Wilco.
“Move into an escort formation,” cried Metler. “Target anything that gets close to that ship!”
They were so thick into the midst of battle that he’d no idea of the Alliance reinforcements that were jumping in all around them. It didn’t matter. His heart soared, for Jenice was not only alive, but she’d accomplished a task that just might save the Coalition and turn the tide of the battle. He could smell victory as strongly as he imagined the sweet scent of her flesh.
Grinning, Metler spun the Praetor into a tailspin and hunted, now, with renewed vigor.
“For Christ’s sake, they’ve designed this place like a bloody maze!”
Jane led Riles on a maddening chase through the twisting, confusing corridors of Orbital Platform L-200. Rifle held aloft, he scanned the corridors as they ran, but they encountered few enemies, and they were easily sniped. Following the same schematic she’d stolen during their earlier visit, she’d had no luck locating a link to the Society Feed.
“Fleming runs this place,” remarked Riles. “Director of Deviant Control? Reckon there’s some way t’ access the feed somewhere.” He spun around a corner ahead of her, checking it out before motioning for her to go ahead. “This place gives me the creeps!”
“There’s nothing on this blasted map,” Jane answered. “And why are there no soldiers? Anywhere? I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Fuck!”
“Don’t get yer panties knotted, sweetheart,” quipped Riles. “We’ll find somethin’.”
“That’s what I’m telling you, there’s nothing here! How much longer until the core goes critical? Are you sure Dyson was able access the reactor controls?”
“Six minutes, forty five seconds,” answered Riles. He grew frustrated with her rambling, and was finding it difficult to remain calm himself. “Dyson’s confirmed it twice now, Jane.”
“And I’ve got the recording,” she went on. “You’ve got the backup?”
Riles didn’t answer. He’d stopped short, staring at a door nearby, but Jane kept on walking.
“I mean, maybe if I could find a bloody comm interface of some sort, but they’re all closed-circuit channels, no outbound links…”
“…worthless to crack into something that self-cycles every three bloody seconds…”
Stopping abruptly, Jane glowered at him from beneath her helmet. “Riles!” she hissed. “Hurry up!”
“Maybe y’ ought’a slow down there, precious!” He pointed his rifle at the door. “Central Communications Interface.”
With a gasp, Jane doubled back and skidded to a rest near the door. She looked at it, then reached out to grab Riles’ elbow. “Riles, you’re a genius!”
“Aw, shucks. Genius?” He scuffed his foot in jest while she hacked into the security pad. “You sure know the way to a marine’s heart, sugar.”
Before Riles could clear the room, Jane had rushed in and began searching the computer terminals inside. Riles thought of a few choice words, but he kept them tactfully to himself. They were on the brink of something huge, and he dare not distract Jane now. As she went to work, he searched the room for any signs of trouble.
The central communications interface was complex, consisting of multiple relays that fed into a single terminal. Cracking the rigorous security was a tough job, even for Jane Veston. She’d never encountered such detailed protocols, and her nerves were spiked. She felt much like her childhood self, a waif, hiding from LOPO’s ever-watching eyes throughout the European Province. Only this time, so much more than her own life hung in the balance of her next move.
Jane’s efforts went awry when she accidentally triggered a security program, buried so deep inside the code that she’d completely overlooked it. Not only did the room go dark, but a series of red lights came to life, and the relay terminals began shutting down, one after the other.
“Ssshit!” she hissed.
“What?” asked Riles. “What is it?”
“The relay terminals. They’re shutting down, I’m locked out!”
“What can I do?”
“Pull the black cables, plug them into the green ports!” answered Jane. “Hurry!”
Riles went for the nearest relay terminal. There were a handful of black cables, and he fumbled through them for a moment. “Which black cable?”
“The big one!” she cried.
There were different sized cables amongst the spaghetti of wires, but Riles quickly guessed which ones seemed to be the largest. “You do like ‘em big,” he joked.
“Jesus Christ, Riles!” she hissed. “You have to do this in a specific order! Terminal five first.”
Riles circled the cluster of computers until he found terminal five.
“I got it, I got it!” Quickly unplugged the largest black cable, Riles replaced it into a bright green port. “Done.”
“Six, got it.”
Following her instructions, Riles worked without retort as she directed him to each terminal. When at long last they were finished, the central access computer came back to life.
“Good! Riles, good!” she breathed.
“Hurry up, Janey, this place is gonna get real hot if we don’t scoot!”
Driven by fear and desperation, Jane’s fingers danced. Line upon line of code scrolled past. Halfway through, she inserted a small data crystal and resumed. The code was so heavily encrypted it appeared as complex glyphs scrolling past faster than Riles could make sense of. Anxiously he checked the timer on his wristcomputer and began to sweat. They were running out of time.
“Uh, Jane? We got four minutes ’til this place goes nuke-ular.”
“It’s nuclear, you berk,” she spat. “Not ‘nuke-ular’, nuclear.”
Angrily, Riles pounded his first into the nearby wall. “Alright, that’s it, we’re going!” He grabbed at Jane, but she shrieked in fury and shrugged him off.
“Damn it, Riles!!”
Riles backed off, blinking. He was about to jump out of his skin; it would be preferable to having his atoms vaporized by a nuclear blast.
“There!” she cried. “It’s done!”
Shell-shocked for a moment, Jane stared at the computer terminal. It began to display the LOPO insignia, before flashing to an image of Source Director Lei Maiyao. They had done it! She’d planted the very recording that had been buried in Helen Dyson’s monitor. Dyson had extracted it and transmitted it to them while they’d searched for Jacob in the fray, not long ago. It would broadcast itself across the entire Society Feed… every man, woman, and child in Proper Society would know what their leaders had done.
Riles grabbed her fiercely and drug her to the door. “Come on!”
Jacob wasn’t sure how much time had passed, for his mind had gone utterly numb. Vereor led him down many corridors, keeping one hand on Jacob’s shoulder in a manner that struck him as brotherly. He couldn’t recall ever having a brother or a father, but it was comforting to him. Weary and worn, he no longer remembered why he’d come there in the first place. The only thoughts echoing through his mind were those of the visions he’d experienced. The mechanism that filled his mind with knowledge. The words of the asian woman, indoctrinating him with a kind of loyalty that he simply couldn’t ignore.
A loyalty he was powerless to ignore.
General Vereor led him through an airlock. They boarded a small, three-man craft, with a pilot waiting inside. As soon as the airlock sealed up behind them, the spacecraft ejected itself from its berth and soared downward, headed for the Mother Planet.
Jacob gazed lazily at the bright darkness below him. The sun was just starting to rise over the planet’s horizon, sprinkling the dark grey clouds and clusters of metropolitan light with beams of orange and white. Thin, glowing lines, extending from the solar power couplings to the metropolitan centers they powered far below, were slowly muted as the sun’s rays infiltrated their mark against the peaceful black. A soft sigh escaped his lips and he leaned against the bulkhead, wanting nothing more than to sleep. So desperately he wanted to dream, for he’d never dreamed before. He wanted to dream about the Triumvirate, about Proper Society; about all of those things he knew so little about, but yearned so desperately to understand. He’d been created by them, for them; he understood it at last, and was but a breath from accepting his inheritance in full.
Before he was fully defeated, a voice interrupted his reverie like the the obnoxious buzzing of a gnat. It flickered about inside his helmet, forming syllables and structure. He made to swat it from his ear, but the General had left his helmet on and he was too tired to remove it himself.
“..read? I repeat, critical mass in thirty seconds. Jacob, do you read me?”
He recognized the voice. He recognized his name. Like waking up in his glass prison by the unforgiving cry of a siren, his mind was flooded with a sharp awareness of his predicament. The pain that raped his head on that not so distant day was so terrible. He could have chosen to ignore it. He could have choosen not to spill forth, released from his prison amongst a thousand shards of glass. He could have just resigned once more, content to sleep.
But that is not what happened.
“Critical mass in twenty seconds! Goddamnit, Kale, respond!!”
Jacob suddenly pictured Jane Veston in his mind. He could see her face, bloodstained, red from stress, hair disheveled as she shouted at him. “KALE, RESPOND!!!”
There was such raw fear in her voice that it shook Jacob to his deepest place. The dreary wanderlust fell away, and his body jolted. With a gasp, he pushed himself from the wall and made for the airlock. All he had to do was turn that large, red lever, and he’d be free.
With a reluctant hiss, the airlock released, and the hatch was blown. Jacob let himself go, spewing out into space as the escape pod sped away. His head buzzed incessantly and his vision blurred, while the Earth spun about around him. Stars, fire, and debris from a hundred vessels littered the expanse, threatening to shut him in at last.
Finding a last bit of strength, he closed his eyes and forced words to form in his dry throat.
He reached blindly to his belt, activating the homing beacon that would show them his location. Then, a blinding light eclipsed all that he knew, and an unbelievable heat spread across his body.
The darkness took him, and he was finally at peace.
Book One will conclude in Episode 30: “The Epilogue”
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.”