Previously on Animus…
Mysteriously zapped through time into the year 2241, Jacob Kale and his companions have found their way to the secret Coalition listening post, Echotran. There, they learned that the past they’ve abandoned has led to a horrific future. Anomalies, such as the one that took them hostage at the Polari Mining Colony, have been wreaking havoc on the galaxy. Earth has been destroyed, billions killed. The Coalition has been completely wiped out. However, in order to maintain control of Proper Society, the Triumvirate has blamed the continuing existence of catastrophic anomalies on what they call “Racial Deviants.” These people, essentially everyone without caucasian or asian descent, have been rounded up and murdered for years, culminating in the worst genocide humanity has seen.
Jacob Kale offered a possible solution. Rather than staying in the year 2241, Jacob proposed that it may be possible to reverse what was done, if they could go backwards in time. The plan, wild in nature, had seemed to become their only option.
With the help of an aged, tortured Johnny Wilco, the freedom fighters were starting to get an idea of just where, or when, they must go in order to stop this terrifying future from becoming a reality…
Echotran, Twinsom Delta Prime.
February 12th, 2241
The whole story had been laid out before them, like the spread of a Departure Feast. Johnny Wilco had referred to September 21st, 2193, as the day when everything changed. Under the command of Captain “Bear” Crosley and Major General Jomas Ahnbar, the Coalition had mounted their second major offensive against the Yellow Star Alliance. Much like the Centauri War, the operation had been a disaster. However, unlike that first operation, the Coalition did not fight back to survive.
At first, the operation had looked hopeful. General Ahnbar had managed to pull off an astounding feat – the successful interrogation of traitor Ven Friedhoff. Friedhoff had provided Ahnbar with some of LOPO’s most guarded codes and frequencies, which provided the Coalition access to a bounty of valuable information. Using these frequencies, Captain Crosley’s team had leaked falsified information into the LOPO networks, which they hoped would mislead Drake into believing that their task force was much smaller and weaker than it actually was.
However, Drake had been much more cunning than they might have guessed. The Legionnaire Navy had launched a galaxy-wide effort to lock down trade routes, garrison fringe colonies, and hunt down the hidden Coalition forces. The Society Feed had reported that this was a direct reaction to a catastrophic weather incident, which had decimated the eastern half of the Australian Province on Earth. Predictably, they had blamed the incident on the Coalition, which of course was altogether untrue.
The enemy’s movements had been swift and impressive. Warships loaded with Legion soldiers were deployed into almost every charted nook and corner of space, while garrisoning colonies with an astounding volume of troops. Within hours, it had become virtually impossible for travelers and traders to move about the galaxy, without being boarded and inspected by Yellow Star and LOPO security forces. Fringer operations were all but shut down. The Coalition had been backed into two corners – those hiding at Animus IV, and those planning the operation against the Atlas Fleet in the Praxis Region.
The Alliance’s abrupt mobilization had presented one critical weakness: in order to provide so much artillery and manpower, many of their core planets were suddenly left under-defended. Had the situation been different, it may have opened the door for heavier strikes against Triumvirate resources.
Regardless, moving freely about the galaxy had become impossible. Captain Crosley’s forces were barricaded in the Praxis Region. They were left with only one option: to lure Peter Drake there. A retreat to Animus IV had become too dangerous.
Peter Drake, thinking much along the same lines as Crosley, had leaked false intelligence into the very LOPO networks that Coalition Military Intel was monitoring. The compounding confusion was ultimately overshadowed by the sheer power of Peter Drake’s Atlas Fleet. Crosley and his task force was utterly annhialated. None were left alive.
This news alone was difficult for many of them to hear.
Riles face had gone blank; his bravado a shell of what it once was. No longer were his eyes vibrant and ornery; they now stared listlessly at the smoldering cigarette between his fingers, lost in thought.
Jane Veston had taken to picking at the hem of her uniform, her feet curled in against each other, her body hunched. She stared at the floor in absence, with naught but the soft glimmer of unshed tears to show the emotion the tale had stirred.
Captain Metler had leaned back into his seat, his legs spread awkwardly while his left arm hung draped over its armrest. There seemed to be little strength left in him. He just stared at the wall, defeated, his mouth curled into a laconic frown.
As for Jacob, he had no idea how to react to this news. He listened closely as Johnny Wilco continued to tell his garish tale; how the Triumvirate had dug through the wreckage at Praxis, and eventually uncovered the location of Animus IV. Johnny Wilco had bravely stayed at his post the entire time, trying desperately to coordinate an evacuation, but there was nowhere for the refugees to run. It was the moment the Triumvirate had been waiting for; the serpent had finally struck. When they found Animus, they commenced a furious orbital bombardment, and burned the planet to slag. The fleeing refugee ships were picked off like gnats. Finally, they went for the Echotran. As if to prove a point, they hooked Wilco up to that dastardly device, and forced him to watch the ongoing horrors of the Society Feed for 48 years. It was a testament to Wilco’s strength of will that he hadn’t been driven mad by the ordeal.
Emotions such as horror, fear, and loss were unlike anything Jacob had ever felt before. He didn’t know how to process them. He could recognize anxiety in his blood, but it was more of a clinical thought, a recognition of what was happening to his blood pressure and why. He felt the knot in his throat, but equated it to a byproduct of tension. He resigned to quietly observing his new friends while they digested the news, studying their faces, their hands, the way they stood or sat in response. Throughout it all, he tried to decide exactly how he should react, and came up with nothing.
He just felt empty.
At long last, Captain Metler broke the chilly silence of the room. “We have two choices.” His voice was barren, softspoken and hoarse. “Either we stay here and try to start over… or we listen to Kale.”
Johnny blinked, then shook his head a bit. “Wot d’you mean, listen to Kale?” He leaned forward and waggled a finger at Jacob. “You sods honestly think you can just zap yourselves back to bleeding 2193?”
Metler’s response came fast. “If we can stop this from happening, then its worth the risk.”
Riles piped up next. “Ain’t a bit a’ squawk makes me think Jakey here can actually pull this’n off.” He leered at Jacob. “No offense, rabbit.”
“That’s because it’s not bloody possible,” quipped Jane. “You’ve all seen the Feed. These anomalies are entirely unpredictable!”
Jacob shook his head. “We don’t know that for certain,” he defended.
“Oy,” interjected Johnny. “Easy peasy, right mate? You just…” He swooped his hand into the air, miming the launching of a missile. “Go find yourselves a space-time anomaly, then zip on back home before the smeg starts to rot!” He stood up and turned away from them. “You’ve all cracked, that’s wot.”
“I could tell you where we’ll find one.”
“Yeah?” Wilco asked. “Where’s that, mate?”
“Polari V.” Jacob turned to look at Captain Metler. “Those flashes of light. I’ve been going over the mathematics in my head, and I don’t think they’ll be going away any time soon.”
Metler gave Jacob a curious look. “What are you suggesting, Kale?”
Jacob spun about to face Metler directly. “Re-calibrate our sensors to operate as if they are in Otherspace. The laws of physics are different there. If we can somehow figure out what is happening when those flashes happen, we might be able to find a way to reverse it.”
“But how would we-”
Before Metler could continue, an alarm began to chirp. Jane darted to her feet, rushed over toward the chirping terminal, and tapped some commands into the touchpad.
“Shit!” she cursed. “Incoming vessel. Looks like a bloody intercept ship!”
“Fuck,” cursed Riles. “LOPO. We been ratted!”
Captain Metler rushed over to Jane’s terminal. “Raise the station’s defenses.”
“I can’t,” hissed Jane. “They’re completely fried!”
Meanwhile, Riles was already feeding incendiary bullets into the quad-loaded shotgun he’d found. When he cocked the weapon, it made a surprisingly loud thumping sound. Johnny Wilco had rushed for one of the repaired terminals, and began punching commands into the machine at a desperate speed.
“This presents a unique opportunity,” said Jacob, calm in spite of the others reactions. “If we can take that ship, we could go anywhere we want.”
Riles looked over at Jacob and smirked. “There’ll be thirty HP ridin’ in that thing, at least. Think we c’n vape ‘em all ‘fore they fix us with them doser’s rings?”
“I don’t think we have another choice, Riles,” answered Jacob. “Captain?”
Captain Metler thought about it for a second. “If we take the ship, it’s a significant advantage. We’re trapped here otherwise. Colonel?”
“I’m on it,” answered Wilco. He tapped in a few more commands. “There. Echotran’s schematics have been piped over to your touchpads. Oh, and Captain.” He withdrew a small memory crystal from the terminal and tossed it to him. “If this cock-headed idea works, you’ll need this.”
Metler snatched the memory crystal out of the air and gave Wilco a curious look.
“Arright, mate?” he insisted.
Metler finally nodded his understanding and tucked it away. “Jane?”
“Looks like they’re landing right next to our ship,” she reported.
“Riles, you’re on point with Kale. Veston, I want you on tactical with those schematics.” Metler cocked his pistol. “Let’s move.”
The entry corridor was designed to be readily defendable from intruders. It wound through the station’s infrastructure, with hatches and service corridors branching off into its various satellite arms. These were the perfect places for them to defend the control center; they had ample cover from enemy fire, and could draw off their attackers into the maze-like service corridors.
Jane still had Riles’ standard issue Renegade Mark II pistol. Jacob and Metler were similarly armed. Riles, however, had finished pouring incendiary bullets into his quad-loaded shotgun. As they rushed into the entry corridor, Riles directed them to take up their positions, and retrieved some protective gear from his kit. He put on a set of spec-ops goggles to protect his eyes from flash bombs, and fixed a multi-purpose rebreather mask over his mouth and nose, to filter harmful gasses. Lastly, he inserted a pair of sonic dampeners into his ears. These hi-tech devices fit snugly into the ear canal, and offered instant, automatic gain control over incoming sounds.
When he motioned for the others to do the same, Jacob reached into his field kit and found that he also had been outfit with these protective devices. Captain Metler’s team had truly been well-prepared.
Jane was doing something with a small comm unit hanging from her hip. Riles voice was soon heard, whispering into his ear. “Test. One two. Team report, are we linked?”
“Copy.” Jane’s voice. The rebreather masks had clearly been outfit with small microphones, and the sonic dampeners served as comm units.
Metler’s voice was next. “Copy.”
“Copy,” reported Jacob in turn.
Using hand motions, Riles directed Jacob to climb into a service tube, which climbed away from the corridor at a forty-five degree angle. Once inside, he pinned himself in a concealed location and cocked his pistol. From here, he had a solid vantage point from which he could attack the enemies when they came.
“Where we at, Veston?” asked Metler over the comm.
“Dunno,” she answered. “They’re jamming us. Can’t pick up a read.”
“Visual scanning,” whispered Riles’ voice. “They’ll start with flash bombs ‘n nerve gas. Stay cool ’til they’re in sight. Aim for the neck.”
LOPO Halo Protectors, or HP’s, wore flexweave body armor. Their only weakness was a small area below their combat helmets, where the neck was exposed. It was a tough shot to make, but a lethal one. Somehow, Jacob knew this without needing an explanation.
Time stretched for a few moments. Jacob listened to his own breath, he focused on his pulse as it beat against his eardrums. He felt strangely calm, even when it began. At peace.
Two small cannisters rolled down the corridor. One after the other, they ignited into blinding flashes of light. Flash bombs. The spec-ops goggles immediately darkened his vision to protect him from blindness. Seconds later, a thick plume of white smoke began filling the corridor. Jacob stayed alert, trusting his protective gear and waiting until the first of the Protectors made their appearance.
One by one, the HP’s poured into his line of sight. Their figures were blurred by the haze of nerve gas, but Jacob felt instict taking over. He aimed, squeezing the trigger again and again. The cracks from his pistol were joined by the heavy thumping, presumably from Riles’ shotgun. Every bullet sent forth from his pistol found its mark. Protectors fell, grasping at bleeding necks. Those who didn’t returned fire, sending bolts of bright yellow, superheated plasma toward Jacob’s hiding place. Jacob, however, was too quick for them. He alone dropped six of the enemy soldiers, forcing them to fall back and regroup.
“Riles, I’ll draw them out,” Jacob shifted his footing. “Cover me.”
“Copy that, rabbit.”
Jacob dove fearlessly into the corridor. He rolled his body into a ball before striking the deck, and tumbled across the floor until he struck the wall. Streaking plasma bullets sprayed the room behind him, but he was still too fast. The ploy worked – a group of Protectors were drawn out and immediately faced with the thunderous eruptions of Riles’ shotgun.
Two of the enemies went down, but there were more pouring into the corridor toward Jacob. He came up into a crouched position, discharged his weapon three times, then scampered down the hallway toward a bend where Riles was hidden.
“Riles, double back!”
The marine dashed out from his hiding place, discharged another heavy-guage, flaming shell from his shotgun, and scampered around the corner. Jacob crossed against the fleeing marine, squeezed off another two shots, then dove into the same hatchway Riles was using for cover.
Jacob flung himself through a turn in the accessway, spun about, and waited for the first of his pursuers. As expected, one of the armored Protectors came lurking around the corner, carbine drawn. Jacob leapt out from a shadow and unleashed the fury of his martial arts training. Within seconds, he had subdued his enemy and crushed his windpipe.
Jacob ripped the plasma carbine free from the choking man’s hand. Just in time, he whipped the dying body around to use it as a shield. The soldier’s flexweave body armor absorbed the burst of incoming plasma bolts, revealing that more Protectors were coming after Jacob. When the enemies broke, Jacob returned fire, turning the exposed necks of his attackers into smoldering holes.
One after the other, Jacob put down his enemies while re-approaching the main corridor. He drug the human shield before him as long as he could, before snatching a fresh clip from the enemy’s belt. Throwing the body aside, he exchanged the smoking clip in his stolen carbine, then dove out into the corridor.
He landed right in the middle of the enemy reinforcements.
Visibility had gotten better, for Johnny Wilco had vented the gas from the safety of Echotran’s control center. Here, Jacob proved he was even more the ferocious killer when in close quarters. Swirling about, his legs and arms a mere extension of his will, he began disarming and killing his opponents. The thunderous boom of Riles’ shotgun occasionally reminded him that he wasn’t alone; otherwise, his mind had gone into a haze of methodic fluidity.
Finally, there was a break in the defense. Crouching amidst a scattering of bodies, Jacob took a moment to scan his surroundings. The Protectors had retreated, leaving behind exactly twenty-two dead.
Metler’s voice spoke over the comm. “Regroup at the control center.”
“Copy,” said Riles.
Jacob began snatching up anything he could from on the bodies of the dispatched. He tucked two plasma carbines under his arm and began stuffing flash bombs and plasma grenades into his belt. “On my way,” he whispered, then made a dash down the corridor.
When he reached the control center, he found that Riles had done the same, and was already handing out munitions to the others.
“Good thinking, Riles,” said Jacob.
“Ain’t m’ first rodeo,” Riles answered.
“Christ, Kale,” Metler muttered. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”
“You’d better go after them,” Jane snapped. “They’ll take off and nuke the whole station!”
Metler snapped his head over to Wilco. “Close the emergency bay doors.”
“On it…” Johnny was already punching commands into one of the repaired terminals. After two failed attempts to get through the jury-rigged system, he scowled and punched the terminal. “Fuck!”
Jane was already rushing over. She tore the mask from her face, and shoved Wilco away. “Out of the way, you tosser.” Her fingers danced across the touchpad, eliciting angry beeps and buzzes as she forced her way through the terminal’s jury-rigged circuitry.
Finally, it chirped positively at her. “Done, doors sealed and locked.”
Jacob was already rushing for the door, after tossing a free plasma carbine to Colonel Wilco. “C’mon, Riles!”
“Keep yer pants on, Jakey, I’m comin’!”
Riles and Jacob went sprinting down the main corridor, hopping over the dead in a mad dash for the landing bay.
“Goddamn crazy suicidal bastards,” Riles was growling. “I ain’t bitin’ it t’day, ‘specially in some nuke-ular fireball, y’hear me, Jake?”
Jacob skidded to a halt outside the landing bay doors. He pressed his back against a wall and grinned at Riles. “I hear you.” He grabbed three flash bombs, held them up toward Riles, and motioned toward the bay beyond. “Aim for each corner,” he whispered. “Confuse them.”
Riles slowly nodded his head and withdrew four of his own bombs, clustering two in each hand.
“Ready…” He armed the flash bombs with a click of the safety button.
Jacob and Riles moved in perfect tandem. They launched their flash bombs into the docking bay, creating such maelstrom that even with their protective helmets, the LOPO Protectors were caught off guard. The two warriors rushed into the bay, dashing about to find cover when possible, and sprayed the area with bright yellow plasma bolts. They dispatched their foes with chilling accuracy.
Sparing no hesitation, they ran past the fallen and into the LOPO intercept ship. There, they were faced with automated laser defense grids and their final opponents. These soldiers, complete with augmented cybernetic weapons, proved to be their greatest foes yet.
Regardless, the freedom fighters fought valiantly. They made quick work of the laser defense grids; blasting the powerful emitters before the solid lasers could slice them into pieces.
Quickly, they moved upon the cybernetic defenders. Jacob went in first. He unleashed such a flurry of strikes that the defender actually felt, for the first time in his life, actual fear. It was a brutal engagement, with the opponent meeting Jacob’s speed with augmented strength and exotic, implanted weaponry.
The defender suddenly broke through Jacob’s defenses, landing a blow strong enough to send him spiraling to the deck. Roaring, the defender came down upon Jacob with a weapon built into his left arm – a ring of sharpened spikes that arced with blue energy.
Jacob caught his breath and scampered away just before the weapon struck him. Instead, the defender’s arm became lodged into the deck, sparking and grinding against its servos. Jacob spun about and planted his foot into the defender’s head. He struck again and again, until he felt something snap beneath his boot.
As for Riles, he rushed his opponent full on, while unloading all four barrels of his shotgun. Every shell exploded upon striking the enemy’s armor, sending him staggering backward with each incendiary strike. Tossing his massive weapon aside, Riles tore his boot knife free and came upon the staggering soldier with a roar. He leapt, tackled the soldier into the wall behind him, and dug his knife deep into the opponent’s neck. He grabbed the defender’s head with his free hand, forced it back, and continued digging his knife through the enemy’s flesh.
Riles leaned close to the defender’s head. “Say hello t’ yer mama for me,” he growled, then tore the blood-stained knife free. The defender fell to the ground, leaving a trail of blood on the wall.
They rushed into the cabin of the intercept craft next, both driven by the sum of their adrenaline and dedication to succeed. Their bodies moved with such precision that to both, it was more methodical than intentional. One by one, they dispatched their enemies until the only indigenous occupants of the LOPO vessel were the corpses they’d left behind.
Jacob took control of the central computer on the vessel’s bridge. Again, sheer instinct guided his actions. The console was unrecognizable, but he recognized the technology. He started programming a series of backdoor codes that were just there, in his memory, as if he’d learned them yesterday. The first few didn’t work, but with each system error, he began noticing clues that led him in the right direction.
Riles sauntered over, shotgun slung over his shoulder, face soiled with dirt and blood. “Doin’ alright there, sparky?”
Jacob didn’t turn to acknowledge Riles, but he did feel a smirk forming on his face. “Almost there, I think.”
“Som’n tells me this here computer wasn’t made in 2193.”
“Yeah, well…” More keystrokes, more denials. “Similar tech. Just have to lock out native functions… re-route the security programs… make it… loop its processing parameters against itself…”
“Mighty fine pillow talk you got there,” Riles remarked.
“Re-route all control functions…” He bit his lower lip nervously, then keyed in the final commands. When the screen went blue and chirped a confirmation, he stood back and slapped the edge of the console happily. “Done!” He looked at Riles. “The ship is ours.”
“Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch.” Riles smirked and put a hand to his ear, re-activating the comm. “Cappy?”
“We’re clear. All aboard!”
C.S.D. Triumphant, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
September 20th, 2193
“They can’t do this.” Jenice turned to Rashid, her eyes glistening. For all of her strength and anger, the sight of those children bound and gagged was too much to stomach. She reached out to grab Rashid by the arms. “They can’t do this, Rashid!” she hissed.
“I know, Commander.” He tried to retain his cool and hopefully calm her down. “I know. Just give me a moment.” He turned and approached one of the techs who were preparing the video feed. “Excuse me, I-”
One of the marines abruptly came and stood in his way. “Commander. Please don’t disturb the technician.”
Rashid turned to face the marine. “I beg your pardon?”
The marine pointed his gloved hand at Rashid and demanded, “Sir, back away from the technician, now!”
Rashid’s face tightened with defiance, but he dutifully backed away, giving the marine a dirty glare.
Jenice, however, did no such thing. Her anger restored, she turned and made for the secured cell door, which was guarded by the other marine. “Stand down, marine.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“I said stand down, that’s an order!”
“I’m under orders from General Ahnbar. You cannot enter, I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” she scoffed. “This is murder!”
“I’m under orders, Commander.” He reached for his rifle and readied it, cocking a round into the chamber. “Step away from the door. Now.”
The marine’s weapon was still aimed at the ceiling, but Jenice could tell in his eyes that he would not hesitate in pointing it at her if she persisted. Disgusted, she turned and walked away.
She tried to leave the room, but she found herself unable. She had to see what was going to happen, she had to see if Ahnbar would truly go that far. She didn’t want to see it happen… but she had to know.
She slowed to a halt, rubbed fingernails through her tightly bound hair, then turned and faced the two-way mirror and the terrible scene beyond.
General Ahnbar was walking ubiquitously in a circle around Friedhoff. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back.
“Ven, there is something that I want you to see.” Ahnbar turned and nodded his head toward the two-way mirror.
The technicians activated the video feed. Friedhoff’s wife and youngest sons were suddenly crackling to life inside the projection ring, bounded, gagged, and terrified.
It took Friedhoff a moment to recognize what it was he was seeing. Then, his smirking, surly expression changed. His eyes widened, his skin grew red. He began struggling viciously against his restraints, growling and biting against the gag in his mouth angrily.
Ahnbar swooped down upon Friedhoff, grabbed him by the hair, and yanked his chin up so that he couldn’t look away from the feed. He put his face right next to Friedhoff’s ear, his accent making a demanding voice all the more intimidating. “I swear to you and your Proper Society,” he growled, “If you don’t give me the codes I want, I will kill your youngest son!!”
One of the black-garbed men in the video feed turned and moved toward the youngest of the boys.
Friedhoff’s shuddering face turned against Ahnbar’s grip. Panting and drooling, his bloodshot eyes raged at the General. Incoherent, spit-laced words were mouthed against the gag with vehement hostility.
Ahnbar yanked Friedhoff’s head again. “Don’t make me do this, Friedhoff,” he pleaded.
Turning, he clenched Friedhoff’s face with both hands, met the traitor’s eyes at close range, and recognized the defiance in them. “FOR GOD’S SAKE,” he shouted, “DON’T MAKE ME DO THIS!!!“
In respone, Friedhoff merely closed his eyes and began sobbing lamely into his bindings, as if he had no strength left.
Was it possible? Had they actually managed to break a LOPO agent?
Ahnbar stood up and yanked the gag from Friedhoff’s mouth. He turned and walked around behind him, his own dark face beaded with sweat. “Give me the codes, Friedhoff,” he breathed. “Give me the codes, now.”
Friedhoff, still sobbing, opened his eyes and looked at the images of his family. Then, fresh tears spilled forth, and he craned his neck just enough to pick out the General in his peripheral.
“No…” Friedhoff whispered. Strength and resolve suddenly came to his voice. “Go to hell, you Deviant fuck!“
Ahnbar’s back straightened. He stared at Friedhoff for a few seconds, then looked toward the video feed. He closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. A prayer of forgiveness, perhaps.
“Do it, General.” The cooing voice came from that of Raquelle Prawley. Still perched at the back of the room, her voice was soothing and provocative. The disturbing images had no ill affect on her. “It’s the only way.”
Ahnbar shook his head, incredulously, at Friedhoff. “You son of a bitch,” he whispered. “You’ve brought this upon yourself.”
Turning away, Ahnbar walked over to the two-way window and pointed a shaking finger toward the techs sitting on Jenice’s side of it. “Kill the youngest.”
Too shocked to speak or move, Jenice stood there and watched it happen. She could only curl her arms around each other for comfort.
The assassin stood right in front of the youngest boy. The boy looked up, his eyes spilling forth salty tears of abject horror. The assassin stared at him for a moment, then lifted his leg and kicked the boy’s chair over. It toppled over backwards as the assassin lowered his side arm, aiming it toward the boy’s head.
A piercing scream came from Friedhoff’s wife.
A sharp clap from the gun made Jenice jump. She gasped, and stared wide-eyed as the assassin lowered his smoking gun. She could only see the boy’s feet, sticking up motionlessly from where they were tied down to the legs of the toppled chair. Though his head was hidden, a pool of blood came into view and confirmed her worst fears as it slowly spilled across the floor.
Friedhoff’s reaction was similar to that of his wife. A cry formed in his neck, which developed into a roar of anguish. He cursed loudly in German, his accent so thick that nobody could make out the words as he thrashed against the restraints.
Still, Ahnbar refused to let up. He turned and raised his strong voice so that it overpowered Friedhoff’s choking cries. “Your youngest son is dead!” he shouted. “Alexandir is next! Then I will kill Avril, then Jeremy. Then, I will lock you in a cell for the rest of your life, to reflect on what you’ve done!” He approached Friedhoff, grabbing the prisoner by his face again. He released one hand and smacked Friedhoff across the face, hard enough to draw fresh blood. “GIVE ME THE CODES!”
Friedhoff sputtered and continued spewing nonsense from his drooling, bleeding mouth.
“GIVE ME THE CODES, NOW!”
“NO!” Friedhoff cried between gasps of air. “I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THE CODES!”
“GIVE THEM TO ME, OR ALEXANDIR DIES!“
Jenice turned away and reached for Rashid. She grasped his arms and pulled herself into his chest for comfort. Tears spilled forth and she began to weep, no longer finding strength in her soul to stop what was happening.
Meanwhile, Friedhoff thrashed against his bindings. He glowered at General Ahnbar with unadulterated malice. “I WILL NOT BETRAY THE TRIUMVIRATE! YOU ARE THE MURDERERS, ALL OF YOU!! DEVIANT SWINE!!!”
Ahnbar threw Friedhoff’s head aside and turned back toward the two-way mirror. “Proceed,” he growled.
Knowing that another of Friedhoff’s children was about to be killed, a stubborn and invincible strength surfaced in Jenice’s heart again. She squeezed her fingers into the fabric of Rashid’s uniform. “No,” she whispered, then suddenly pushed herself away from him and screamed.
She rushed one of the technicians, grabbed him by the shoulders, and flung him from his chair. When the other technician scrambled to get away, she reached out to grab at him, but before she could, the marines had her.
“NO!” she shrieked again, thrashing helplessly against strong hands. She tried to kick them, but they were too quick, too strong. They were Coalition marines!
At the same time, the assassin had just kicked over Alexandir’s chair and leveled a pistol at the boy’s head.
Friedhoff’s voice abruptly stopped the whole thing.
“NO!” he cried. “DON’T! STOP, PLEASE STOP!”
Ahnbar threw a halting hand toward the two-way mirror. Seconds later, the assassin stepped back, raising his pistol into the air. Ahnbar slowly returned to Friedhoff’s side and crouched down near his face.
“Are you going to tell me the codes, Friedhoff?” he growled.
“Yes,” Friedhoff panted. Tears streamed uncontrollably. His fingers and body were now flacid, weak, defeated. “Yes,” he panted, “Yes, I swear, just… just don’t hurt my boy, please!”
Meanwhile, in the control room, the marine held Jenice pinned against the wall. “Stay right here, Commander, or you will be arrested. Are we clear?”
She looked deeply into the marine’s eyes. She thought, for a moment, that she saw a flicker of apology. Perhaps regret. Otherwise, the warning was very real. She felt Rashid’s hand on her shoulder, and it gave her the comfort to settle herself down. She nodded wordlessly and closed her eyes, retreating.
“Get him out of here.” General Ahnbar motioned for Friedhoff to be taken away.
The marines left the control room at his order and entered the cell, moving to secure Friedhoff.
“Record his deposition and have it sent to my touchpad.”
“Yes, sir,” answered the ranking marine.
As they secured him, Friedhoff merely sank against their waiting arms, sobbing in broken defeat.
In the control room, Rashid took Jenice and turned her away from the two-way mirror. His words were soft and comforting. “Commander, we should leave. Come on.”
She nodded and began to follow him out, but a noise from the cell door caught her attention. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Ahnbar leaving the chamber. He was wiping his sweating brow with a handkerchief.
She was fueled with a burst of rage. How dare he walk out of there, wiping his brow as if he’d just finished a morning jog? She pushed away from Rashid, ignoring his plea for her to stop, and made for the General.
“You son of a bitch!” she cried.
General Ahnbar’s eyes went wide. He reached a hand out to stop her. “Commander…”
Skidding to a halt, she found the sense not to assault him. Instead, he raised a hand and slashed an accusing finger at him.
“How could you do this?” she yelled. “How could you?!“
“Commander!” the General countered, and pointed intently at the video feed, which was still live on the consoles nearby. “The boy is fine!”
Slackjawed, Jenice shook her head in confusion. “What? I don’t-”
“Look!!” Ahnbar gestured forcefully toward the video monitors.
Confused, Jenice turned and looked at the feed.
The black-clad men had removed their masks, and were quickly removing the gags and bindings around Friedhoff’s family. To her surprise, they were also undoing the bindings around Thomas, the one they had presumably shot. One of the men lifted him to his feet and ushered him out of view. He seemed completely fine, if not a bit shaken.
It dawned on her, then, what had happened. His head and body were concealed when they had kicked the chair over. The pool of blood must have been some kind of theatrical booby trap.
The whole fiasco had been staged.
She found herself too shocked to offer any sort of response. Too shocked to even process the incident. She only put her hands up to show the General that she wasn’t going to attack him, and backed away.
“Commander.” Rashid had come up behind her. “We are leaving. Now.” He looked briefly toward the General, giving him an affirming nod, as if to suggest that he would take care of it. Then, he looked back at Jenice and beckoned for her to leave with him.
She turned around, met his concerned and demanding eyes, and nodded. Without a word, she followed him out of the control center, too shocked and numb to do anything else.
Echotran, Twinsom Delta Prime.
February 12th, 2241
Captain Metler, Ensign Veston, and Colonel Wilco had joined Jacob and Riles aboard the bridge of their captured LOPO intercept ship. A detailed study of the ship’s central database had revealed a bounty of information.
The vessel was designated L.M.V. Praetor. With Jane’s help, Jacob had managed to bypass the security functions, and install what Jane called a “phantom subroutine” that she had personally designed for moments like these. Jane’s program essentially faked normal LOPO codes, encryptions, and digital protocols – the processes by which LOPO’s central computer network monitored the activity of all operatives and assets.
As far as LOPO’s central computer was concerned, L.M.V. Praetor was still operating under normal protocols.
The anonymity of LOPO’s agents was now being used against them. Using Jane’s program, falsified reports had been sent in regard to the Echotran operation. Echotran was off the grid, so to speak; the normal LOPO networks did not exist there. Because of this, the LOPO central computer was forced to rely on reports from the Praetor. These falsified reports said nothing about the fact that all of Praetor‘s crew were now dead.
To support this ruse, Jane and Jacob had programmed her phantom subroutine to synthesize the human signatures of the dead. Human signatures were data packets, exchanged continuously between the LOPO central computer and each citizen’s monitor.
They had completely tricked their foes, and were now free to operate the stolen vessel on their own.
“I won’t pretend to understand what you two have done here,” said Captain Metler. “Veston, your word is good enough. Just let me know if there are any problems with this program, alright?”
“Yeah,” quipped Riles. “Much as I like shootin’ up HP, I’d fancy a little down time. A nice drink, maybe some sex…”
“Secure your shit, Riles,” Metler snapped. “Save it for the barracks where it belongs.”
Taken off guard, Riles bit his lip and slapped a salute toward the Captain. “Yes, sir.”
“This is good progress,” said Metler, “but it does limit our options.”
“Aye,” offered Wilco. “you get within, say, point five AU from any ship, probe or comm array? You blokes’ll drop a clanger so heavy they’ll hear it in the bloody re-brain camps.”
Riles looked over at Wilco and shook his head. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Jane rolled her eyes. “He’s trying to say that there’s a heavy chance we’ll blow our cover. He’s right, too. This vessel has a standard compliment of forty-five crew and protectors. If we get too close to other enemy vessels, their sensors will pick up that there’s only five of us.”
“Six of us,” replied Riles. “Don’t y’all forget ’bout ol’ Jameson.”
“Okay fine, six of us,” Jane spat. “Anyway, there’s another problem. Once we leave the Echotran, the ship will automatically connect to the LOPO central computer, we will have to report on what has happened here.” She looked between Wilco and Metler, frowning. “We’ll have to destroy the Echotran.”
“Then just where the bloody hell am I supposed to go?” asked Wilco.
“I suppose you’ll have to come with us,” answered Metler.
Wilco looked very confused. He reached up to scratch his head. “Well… right… but, I’m… already… there…”
Riles smirked. “Well, that sure is a mind fuck.”
“This is your cockheaded idea, Jacob,” interjected the Captain. “Where are we going now?”
“Well…” Jacob turned to look at Jane. “Is there any chance we could get to the Polari System without being spotted?”
Jane resumed her rapid tapping, with fingers dancing across the terminal. “Not a chance. Way too many patrols.”
“Can you use the computer to plot safe courses to any of the registered spatial anomalies?” he asked.
“Sure,” Jane nodded. “Once we’ve taken off and connected with the central computer. Then we can access all of LOPO’s patrol grids and narrow down the search.”
Metler replied, “That’s the plan, then. Jacob, take the helm. Riles, I want you on tactical. Jane, navigation. Johnny, do what you can with the remote link for the engine room.” He clapped his hands and moved toward the command chair. “Let’s get this over with.”
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
September 20th, 2193
Jenice had gone straight back to her small quarters aboard the Lilith’s Omen. She needed some time alone, both to prepare for the upcoming mission, and to collect her thoughts.
Stretched out on her cot with a cup of hot tea, she closed her eyes and tried to still her anxiety-ridden body. What they had done to Friedhoff’s family was a terrible thing. The fear they must have experienced was unlike anything she could imagine. She’d seen war, but she’d never had a family, and never really given much thought to the emotions that come with parenting. Even with Alan in her life, she couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to fear for your children.
Regardless, the plan had been a success. Somehow, Friedhoff still cared enough for his family that he wouldn’t sacrifice them. She had to admit that Ahnbar and Prawley’s plan was well played, and if they hadn’t been bold enough to go as far as they did, then the operation might have been destined for disaster.
Only now, she feared that policy changes might come about within the General Command. Nobody could deny that torture was an effective way to acquire intel from an enemy agent, but to what lengths would Gen-Com go? On that slippery slope, would it only be a matter of time before they might actually consider sanctioning murder?
War was ugly business.
It was just past 2300 hours operation time when her door-comm chirped. With a sigh, she left her desk and opened the door to find Rashid standing in the corridor.
“Rashid.” She smiled slightly. “Is there something wrong?”
“Well, no,” he answered. “And yes.”
She stared at him for a moment, her mind sluggish. The seconds caught up to her, and she blinked. “Oh. Well, come inside, please.”
She beckoned him in and pulled over an empty chair, before sitting down at her own desk.
“I’ve been reviewing situation reports,” Rashid said. “Military Intel has already begun leaking false information into the LOPO networks. The preliminary formations are scheduled for 0900 hours, and we are to be ready for jump by ten.”
“It would be good for the crew to get a good night’s sleep,” she remarked.
“I doubt that will happen. The crew is on edge. Too nervous.”
She nodded her head slowly, thinking about some way she might help to fix that. “I suppose I could address the crew before midnight. Encourage them to rest and be prepared.”
“I think that is a good idea.”
She studied her acting first officer for a moment, then leaned forward and folded her hands. “That’s not what’s bothering you, is it?”
“Of course not,” he answered. “Commander… I find myself impressed with the General’s performance today, but the actualities of it have me very concerned. Concerned about our future.”
“I don’t imagine it was an easy decision for him either,” she offered.
“I hope not.” Rashid sighed deeply. “But I have this feeling. What if this becomes common practice?”
“I’ve had the same thought, Rashid. When we get back from this operation, you have my word, this will be addressed before the Council. For now, we have got to focus on the task at hand.”
“What exactly will our role be in this?” he asked.
Jenice leaned back and draped an arm over the desk nearby. “Bait and capture. We’ll be the bait. Preliminary intel from the LOPO feeds have shown that the entire Legionnaire Navy is mobilized to find us. With that in mind, we are going to allow them to find us, and surrender. Crosley’s force will come in and take them by surprise.”
“I would hate to be trapped aboard Crusader, waiting for rescue by the marines.”
“You and I both. I’ve reviewed Crosley’s initial strike plan. It’s well thought out, but we have to be prepared for capture, should it come to that.”
“War is ugly business,” remarked Rashid.
Jenice’s lip curled into a mirthful grin. “You know what Riles would say.”
Rashid also grinned, and turned his face into something stupid before doing a terrible impression of their MIA marine. “Ain’t my first rodeo.”
Jenice stood up, cueing Rashid to do the same. “Get some rest, Rashid,” she said, and clapped him on the shoulder. “And thanks for stopping by.”
“Of course, Commander.”
Echotran, Twinsom Delta Prime.
February 12th, 2241
The L.M.V. Praetor‘s new crew stood iconically aboard her bridge as they looked upon the spawling arms of Echotran. They were all waiting to see something that should never happen, and hopefully never would again.
Riles looked up from his tactical terminal, and spoke with an uncharacteristically sober voice. “Nuke-ular warhead armed (he always had a penchant for mis-pronounciating the word ‘nuclear’). Ready for launch, Cappy.”
Captain Metler didn’t hesitate. “Fire.”
They all watched as a long and slender torpedo was released, propelling itself toward Echotran on the glowing blue flame of a tiny ion drive. It grew smaller and smaller as it flew toward the abandoned space station.
Suddenly, a brilliant flash of blinding light splashed against L.M.V. Praetor‘s particle shields and filled the bridge with a nuclear glare. The foreward window, automatically tinted, protected their eyes from the harsh light, and the advanced shields held the intense radiation from the shock wave at bay.
The Echotran had been instantly consumed by a massive, spherical ball of fire. The blast wave rushed toward them, a perfect sphere carrying debris, smoke and flame. In the near-vacuum of space, the flames dissappeared long before reaching the Praetor, with no oxygen to consume. Most of the wreckage, smoke, and decimated remains of Echotran were hurled into space away from the self-consuming nuclear fireball, leaving behind only a few larger pieces that were sucked back into the destruction.
Jacob had never witnessed the power of nuclear energy like this. His immeasurable knowledge about nuclear physics still couldn’t prepare him for the spectacle of destruction.
There was a brief shimmer of gold and white, as passing shrapnel from Echotran was absorbed by the particle shields. The silence following this was humbling.
And yet, if their plan was successful, then this plane of existence, this slice of space time, would simply disappear. It would have never happened.
“Rest in peace, bonnie,” murmured Wilco, breaking the silence at long last.
“Veston,” asked Metler, “do we have that list of potential anomalies?”
“Aye, Captain,” she answered.
“Put it up.” He motioned toward the foreward window.
At Jane’s command, a chart of the galaxy flickered to life upon the foreward window. Four flashing dots were spread throughout the galaxy. The map split itself into four smaller windows, each one zooming in on the designated locations.
There was one in particular that caught Jacob’s eye.
“Captain.” He turned from his post at the helm and eyed Metler surreptitiously. “Option three.”
Captain Metler stood up, slowly, and walked toward the helm and navigation stations. He stopped between Jacob and Jane, frowning. “Option three.” He looked down at Jacob. “You’re serious?”
Option three happened to be a big flashing dot, indicating the area of space housing the scattered remains of Earth.
“I am.” He nodded. “Think about it. LOPO still has jump nodes there, and we can plot a cascading jump to get there.”
Cascading jumps were dangerous. Typically, a starship would pause between jumps for a short period, say, thirty seconds or less. This provided time for a full re-calculation of the next jump. It also provided recovery time; most humans either blacked out during jumps, or otherwise came through with significant disorientation. With cascading jumps, the calculations were all made prior to the first jump. A starship would stay docked in the receiving jump node for little more than a second or two, before making the next jump. If not timed perfectly, there was the risk of creating an unstable, inter-dimensional flux – and everything within the flux’ diameter would be destroyed.
The benefits of a cascading jump, of course, was secrecy. Ships making a cascading jump were typically very hard to track.
Jane looked over at Jacob and cocked an eyebrow at him. Jacob would have to manage the timing, but it was her who would have to manage the programming.
Jacob peered at her. “You think you can handle it?”
A fiery look shot its way into her eyes. “You’ve got a bloody cheek. Of course I can handle it. Can you?”
Jacob swiveled back around to face his console. “Port over nav control to my console, then link your schedules from the LOPO network into the navigational program.”
Working in tandem, Kale and Veston punched commands into their consoles. They spat updates back and forth at each other. Piece by piece the straight lines appeared on the charts, drawing a course from Twinsom Delta Prime to Earth. Each time Jane shot a warning to Jacob, an area of the map would flash red, and Jacob would adjust the course to avoid LOPO or Alliance patrols.
“Is sector five clear?”
“Looks that way. Mind the Renald System though. Heavy Alliance activity.”
“I think I can route past it by using the jump nodes here, and here.”
“Edge of the Bosh’tu Expanse to the Perseus?”
“Brilliant!” hissed Jane. “Wouldn’t've thought of that one.”
“It’ll put us right here,” Jacob said, and tapped his console one final time. The map zoomed in to show the chart of debris, which was once Earth, the Mother Planet. Their final jump routed them into one of the top-secret, government-only jump nodes closest in orbit to the debris.
“And you think that this is where we will be able to go back in time.” Captain Metler again showed his skepticism verbally.
Jacob spun about, feeling exhasperated. For some reason, an idea burned in him, as if he couldn’t take many more steps away from this route, from this precise course of action. “Yes, yes, absolutely, Captain!” He stood up, desperation manifested for the first time in his short-lived memory. “I can’t explain it, but we have to go there. We have to go to Earth!”
Metler also stood, so as not to have his authority challenged by Jacob. “If this plan actually works, it’ll put us in the goddamn belly of the beast.”
“That’s right,” answered Jacob. “Do you think we have a chance of stopping all of this?” He motioned about. “By jumping into a battle doomed to fail?” He didn’t give Metler a moment to reply, for the response would have been redundant. “The first incident took place on September 20th, 2193. It wrecked havok over Eastern Australia well into September 21st, which is precisely where we need to be. When we need to be. We could either sneak around the galaxy, trying to find some other way in, or we could put our chips on Earth, and end up exactly where we need to be.”
“Y’know, Cappy?” Riles eyeballed Jacob closely from across the room while addressing the Captain. “He’s got a fair point. Gonna be lots of mayhem happenin’ there. Perfect cover for us to slip in. Stir things up.”
Captain Metler began pacing the bridge, neck bend in consideration. His hand began rubbing at the stubble on his face, but he said nothing.
“Captain.” Jacob spoke much more quietly now, hoping to encourage his new friend. He took a few steps to close the distance between them. “We have to do something. We can’t just run and hide. Earth may be the most dangerous place for us to go, but it also provides the greatest advantages.” He lifted his hand and formed a fist. “We could actually strike at the heart of the beast.”
“It’s certainly the least place they’d expect you wankers to show up at,” mused Johnny.
“I’ve hacked into LOPO networks before,” added Jane. “I’m quite certain I could have another go, sir.”
Metler looked around the bridge, meeting the eyes of each and everyone one of them. At long last, they fell on Jacob. “And you’re sure you can reverse the effects of the anomaly, to send us back in time.”
“Look…” He took a step closer to Metler. “Like I said. I don’t exactly understand how. I couldn’t give you details. I just know it’s possible… just like everything else.”
When Metler saw the determination in Jacob’s eyes, he finally let out a sigh and nodded curtly. He took his seat in the command chair again. “We all know what’s at stake.” He looked back over at Jacob, and a smirk curled his lips. “Let’s fly this bitch back to 2193.”
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
September 20th, 2193
The time was 2330 hours operation time – the standard 24 hour period within which the Coalition Military most often operated. It was a bit late for a general crew broadcast, but Jenice had decided it was necessary.
She straightened her hair in the mirror, then walked over to her desk to activate the video-com. With the press of a button, an alert chimed throughout every corner of Lilith’s Omen. Then, her voice and face appeared on every speaker and console in the ship.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Commander Jenice Murray, acting Captain of the Lilith’s Omen. I want to extend a hand of gratitude for those of you who volunteered for this mission. Also, to our fellows in Tech Ops, who have worked with much speed and efficiency to prepare us for tomorrow’s operation. You all have my promise that when we get through this, the shots will be on me.”
She paused, as if to give everyone a moment to grin and relax a little.
“By now, you’ve reviewed your mission outline. You know the risks. You also may be wondering why so much is being asked of you, while command withholds the goal of this operation. I too, have been in the same place as yourselves. Too many times I have obeyed the commands of my superiors, without knowing which goals they have in mind. These phantom goals are a constant in spec-ops. Once again, I and my colleagues in Command are asking you to risk your lives, without knowing what for.
“What I can assure you of, is that our success will be pivotal for the Coalition. In the coming hours, our great sacrifices will become the stories of legend; the ones you’ll bore your grandchildren with in your old age. So remember this. When fear shows itself; when hesitation tempts you; when indecision slows your hand… remember that your deeds in this hour will never be forgotten. You have my word.”
She lifted her chin a bit, letting her pride show through the video screens, just as it was echoed in her voice. “Godspeed to us all.” Then, she grinned. “Now go get some rest. That’s an order.”
Previously on Animus…
“Bear” Crosley, Captain of C.S.D. Triumphant, has arrived at the Coalition’s staging area at Praxis Zone 25. His arrival marks the cornerstone of an operation designed to take out Peter Drake, feared commander of the Triumvirate’s Atlas Fleet.
Drake, tasked with the pursuit and capture of Lilith’s Omen, has devised an outrageous plan designed to fool the Coalition into staging an attack that they are sure to lose. A trap which, unbeknownst to Commander Murray and “Bear” Crosley, they are bound to fall right into.
Tensions have grown between Jenice Murray and her stand-in first officer, Rashid Jallaq, over the treatment of the traitor Ven Friedhoff. Their superior officers have mandated that Friedhoff be interrogated and broken, by any means necessary – an idea that Jenice radically opposes. She can only hope that Raquelle Prawley is able to come up with some way of motivating Friedhoff that will save him some suffering.
Meanwhile, a catastrophic weather anomaly continues to destroy the capital of the Australian Province, Sydney. Consumed by fear for his family who are trapped there, Admiral Dyson has turned his flagship back around, and is headed for the Mother Planet…
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Sol System, Earth.
September 20th, 2193
Blackness turned to the brilliance of light. The flagship Benedict jumped back into her proper dimension through the brilliance of a jump node orbiting Earth. Benneth Dyson blinked his eyes to clear the fog, and found himself looking through the massive foreward viewport upon the glimmering Mother Planet. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, basking the bridge and all inside with a bright, warm yellow haze.
Benneth squinted at the brightness, and waited for the computers to automatically dim the fused silica glass. Once the glare subsided, he leaned forward and took quick stock of his crew. One by one, they stirred from their dazed slumber and recognized their arrival into reality again.
His fingers curled against the armrests of his command chair, then pushed him onto his feet. The string of islands making up Indonesia was easy to see, as was the stretch of Asia barely visible on the upper horizon. Australia, however, was masked by thick clouds, which were visibly piled into the stratosphere. It was an astounding mass, unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“Report,” demanded the Admiral.
“Systems green,” reported the tactical officer.
“Distance to Australian Province, 7.5 thosand kilometers,” reported the navigator. “Increasing speed to full velocity, initiating deceleration countdown.”
“Very good,” answered Dyson. “Analyze atmospheric conditions and download incoming data to Tactical and Science. I want to know how deep into the atmosphere we can take Benedict without compromising hull integrity.”
“Right away, Sir,” replied a woman operating one of the sensor stations.
“Comm, what’s happening on the emergency channels?”
“One moment, Sir,” answered the communications officer. “There’s a lot of chatter to filter through.”
The bustle and chatter of his crew seemed to fade against the throbbing sound caused by Benedict‘s massive engines. Beneath those piles of erratically formed clouds were his beloved wife and oldest son. Anxiety tickled his skin as he pictured their faces.
The comm officer’s voice disturbed Benneth’s straying thoughts. His reports came broken as he clicked through key channels to get updates. “The anomaly has spread… as far west as Port Lincoln and north through Mackay… all civilian air and space traffic has been grounded…”
“What about the evacuation efforts,” interrupted Dyson.
The comm officer silently clicked through a few channels. Frustration filled his eyes with each attempt. “Sir, the evacuation efforts… they seem to have been halted. Nobody can get in or out of the affected regions. The atmospheric conditions are just too dangerous.”
Dyson strode over to his tactical officer. “Did you get that report from Science?”
The tactical officer looked up at Dyson and nodded. “Yes, Admiral. We can get into the lower mesosphere above the western region, as low as sixty kilometers. However, if you mean to position us above the anomaly, I wouldn’t go any deeper than ninety kilometers above sea level.”
“Good enough,” answered Dyson. “Helm, take us over Western Australia, descend to sixty kilometers above sea level and hover.” He immediately turned back to his tactical officer. “Find me the closest LOPO staging area and prep my shuttle. I’m going to find out just what the hell is going on down there.”
The tactical officer nodded. Dyson turned and walked back toward Commodore West, who had stood and was hovering near Dyson’s command chair.
“Admiral…” murmured West. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“I’ll see to this personally, Stephen,” answered Admiral. “I understand the risks.”
West nodded slowly. “I’ll continue to move forward with the emergency protocols we discussed.”
“Very good, Commodore. Keep Benedict stationed at the drop point, as long as possible. I want her as close as she can be.”
“I understand, Admiral.”
Dyson turned around and faced the viewport once more. Their approach was deceptively slow, for he knew that her massive magna-thrusters were forcing the flagship toward the drop point at exponential speeds. He turned to address the crew.
“Alright, gentlemen and ladies. Our priority is to remain as close as possible to Sydney. Offer any assistance to rescue and evac ops as warranted. I also want tactical and Legion soldiers on stand-by. If the deviants behind this show themselves, be ready to strike. Remain vigilant; this is unexplored territory. I will send updates as soon as they are available to me.”
He briefly examined the attentive eyes of those who weren’t too busy working at their stations. He had a fine crew, perhaps the finest one he’d ever gathered. It made him proud, and gave him some hope that with their help, he might be able to put an end to the tragedy taking place below them.
“Glory to Proper Society!” he announced, and was answered with a resounding, unified answer.
Sydney, Australian Province, Earth.
An hour had passed, maybe more. Helen Dyson was still trapped in Subterran Tunnel 47-B with the injured LOPO agent. There had been no sign of rescue. The periodic tremors were a harsh reminder of the catastrophe taking place above them.
Helen kept a close eye on the LOPO agent. He was not doing well. The bleeding from his crushed legs had stopped, but it was only a matter of time before his injuries took the best of him.
Helen crawled over to the man, and kneeled down to touch his hand. “Hey,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
The agent looked up at her, and provided a weakened smile. “Smashing, thanks,” he answered.
His sarcasm brought a grin to her face. “Tell me your name,” she asked.
“Agent… Agent Cygnus.”
His hand felt cold. She gripped it more tightly, hoping that she might warm it. “No,” she shook her head. “Your real name.”
The agent blinked his eyes and frowned. “You know I can’t do that.”
“There’s nobody down here to find out,” she pressed. “Come on, tell me.”
There was a long silence. The agent met her eyes hesitantly, glowing with both fear and hesitation. Then, at long last, he looked away and sighed. “It’s Kristopher. Kristopher Glosten.”
“Kristopher.” She nodded her head slowly. “Thank you.”
“For what?” he asked.
“For being honest with me,” she answered. “For taking care of me.” She looked away to glance briefly at their surroundings. “I’m so scared.”
The agent’s fingers found strength and squeezed back, a small sign of gratitude. “You’re welcome,” he answered. “It’s only a matter of time, Doctor Dyson. They know we’re here. They know we need help.”
“Please, it’s Helen.”
The agent looked up and met her eyes. The fear and hesitation was back. She understood that she was pressing him to break the rules, to disregard the mask of anonymity demanded of LOPO agents.
She shook her head. “Don’t do that. We both know that you might not make it, Kristopher.” She squeezed his hand again. “You deserve a bit of humanity in this moment, not the cold anonymity of ‘Agent Cygnus’.”
He smiled again, then allowed his eyes to drift closed. A touch of relief seemed to spread across his face. “It’s not something I am used to, Doctor.”
“Well, get used to it,” she answered. “I’m a very stubborn woman, Kristopher.”
“I’m sure the Admiral appreciates that,” he answered. The last of his words were choked off by a sudden bout of violent coughing.
Helen, worried, reached for the corner of her blouse. She untucked it from her skirt, ripped a piece free, and dabbed at the blood he had coughed up.
“I’m not doing so well, am I?” he asked.
Helen, her eyes watering, shook her head. It was so difficult, facing death like this. It was something nobody was conditioned for. Proper Society had all but wiped out sickness and disease; when a man or woman grew so old that they could no longer contribute to Society, they simply went to their designated Departure Center. Departure was not considered death. The departing would plug their monitors into the Altar of Conclusion, their memories downloaded into the archives, and their brain functions were quickly and painlessly shut down. Death was reserved for the heroic, those who served to protect Proper Society from the deviants… and, of course, the deviant slime themselves.
“No, Krisopher.” Her voice shook. “I’m afraid you aren’t.”
The agent closed his eyes again and took a few deep, steadying breaths. “Helen… there’s something I need to tell you.”
She was struck, at first, by the fact that he’d used her first name. Similarly unexpected was the way that his voice took on a pleading tone. She’d never heard a LOPO agent speak like that. Not knowing how to reply, her silence beckoned him to continue.
“It’s… it’s no coincidence that I found you up there. I’ve been watching you, keeping you close.”
Helen gasped, struck by a sudden fear. There was only one reason for any LOPO agent to ‘watch’ someone… they must have suspected her of something! Deviance? Treason? It was preposterous! Her work demanded that she deliver honest results to LOPO, she couldn’t be blamed for the times her research had delivered bad news!
Her fingers, trembling, began wringing against the hem of her blouse.
“It’s not that,” pressed Glosten. “You’re important to us. So very important.”
Helen shook her head, confused and frowning. “I… I don’t understand.”
“I had hoped to have told you in better conditions,” he continued, “but I’m afraid I don’t have a choice now.” He looked up from where he lay, legs crushed, eyes boring into hers with such a visceral desperation. “What’s happening in Sydney is not the Coalition’s fault.”
Slackjawed, Helen didn’t know what to say. She began shaking her head as the tendrils of denial crept upon her.
“No. I…” she stammered, “I don’t understand. It has to be.”
Glosten shook his head. “The Triumvirate doesn’t want the truth to come out. If it did, the effects it could have on the fabric of society would be… devastating.”
“How do you know this?” she whispered.
“A communiqué,” he explained. “It was sent to me, six days ago. What’s happening to our planet cannot be stopped without the help of one man. His name is Jacob Kale.”
The name was unfamiliar to her. “Who… who is Jacob Kale?”
Glosten made a weak motion with his hand, dismissing her concerns before coughing up more blood. “Please… just listen,” he begged. “Without Jacob Kale, the entire galaxy could be thrown into turmoil.”
“Kristopher, I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“You will understand,” he wheezed. “You have my word, but you must promise me something.”
Helen shook her head, fixing him with a perplexed look. “What?” she asked.
The agent reached down into his utility belt, which had been spared a crushing blow by the cave-in. With a grunt and a couple of painful gasps, he wrestled free a small device from one of the belt’s pouches. With beleaguered breaths, he stretched out his hand and offered the device to her; a small metallic object with what appeared to be a monitor port on one side.
“This is a sub-transfer,” he explained. “When you plug it in, it will download a packet into your monitor’s reserve memory. LOPO can’t see that it’s there; the reserve memory is designed for emergency reboot of the implant. It’s never scanned.”
Helen took the device with a trembling hand. She was gripped by an invasive fear of what it could do. She stared at it with uncertainty.
“The data packet can only be unloaded one way. Find a data-mining terminal. Plug in. Then, speak the code, ‘Seven Four Five Omega’.”
Tears were now welling up in Helen’s eyes. Her breaths came in quick, anxious bursts. “Seven Four Five Omega,” she repeated, her words trembling as much as her limbs.
Glosten nodded and smiled. “That’s right, Helen. Speak the code when you are plugged in. The verbal cue will activate the reserve memory, and download the data packet into the terminal. Find your husband, find a safe place, and show the data packet to him.”
Helen looked from the device to the agent’s face again. “Why are you asking me to do this?” she breathed.
“Because you’re the only person we can trust right now,” he answered.
Helen looked again at the device in her hand. His words had somehow presented an idea, an idea that she had the strength to see this through. Her finger gradually stopped trembling. She went over the plan again in her mind, nodding her head as she recounted the steps.
Plug the device into my monitor. Find Benneth, find a safe place with a data-mining terminal. Plug in, and speak the code. Seven Four Five Omega.
“What then?” She looked back at Glosten, her eyes studying him closely.
“Everything will be explained when you do what I’ve asked,” he answered. “You have to trust me, Helen!”
She nodded again, and met his eyes. Though his face was stained with sweat and blood seeped from his mouth, there was such a bravery in his bright eyes. “Okay,” she whispered. Looking one last time at the sub-transfer in her hand, she mustered her own will and raised it toward her temple.
The device plugged into her monitor with a quiet click. For a second, she felt a strange warmth invading her temple, beneath the skin. Otherwise, there was nothing. No shock of electricity, no sudden rush of thought, none of the freakishly surreal feelings she had imagined. Only a quiet beep when it was apparently finished downloading.
“Good,” said Glosten.
Helen unplugged the sub-transfer from her monitor. “Now what?”
“Now… I have to ask you to do something much more difficult.” He took a weak breath and explained, “There can be no trace of what has taken place here. I’m dying, Helen. They will find my body, they will scan my brain, they will rip free my most deeply embedded memories.”
Helen tried to understand what Krisopher was suggesting. LOPO’s methods and protocols were a mystery to her, in most cases. The thought of ripping memories free from a dead brain was a haunting thought. As soon as she realized the implications, she also recognized what it was he was suggesting.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “No, I can’t.”
“Helen, you must.”
Fresh tears began spilling from her eyes. She reached over to the agent’s face and caressed it with her free hand. “Kristopher… there must be another way.”
“There is no other way,” he growled. “All you have to do is plug the sub-transfer into my monitor. I… I just can’t do it myself.”
Helen felt trapped, her limbs like jelly. The sub-transfer dangled from her fingers, nearly falling onto the dirty ground. It was only when Kristopher met her eyes that she found herself thinking again. In his eyes was a sense of resolve unlike anything she’d ever seen. In that moment, she found the faith to trust him completely.
With a morose nod of her head, she crawled toward him. “Okay,” she whispered, voice hoarse with grief.
He smiled at her, and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Helen.”
Helen curled her fingers around the sub-transfer in her hand and closed her eyes. “You’re one of the bravest men I’ve ever met, Krisopher,” she whispered. “Depart in peace.”
Reaching forward, she plugged the sub-transfer into his monitor. Suddenly shaking with uncontrollable tremors, she curled away from him and waited for it to happen.
It began with a quiet buzzing sound, resembling an electrical current. Kristopher’s body went rigid, his fingers clenched, his teeth grinding together in seizure. His forehead began to turn an ugly red color, as if his skull were cooking itself beneath his skin.
Then, it was over almost as soon as it began. Kristopher’s body went limp, and he was suddenly at peace. The sub-transfer had burned to a blackened crisp where it was plugged into his temple, leaving behind ash and a small plume of smoke.
Helen backed into the tunnel wall behind her. She curled her arms around her legs, and began to sob quiet bursts of grief and trepidation.
She needed Benneth, now more than ever.
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
Five hours exactly. That’s how much time had passed since Captain Crosley had dismissed Jenice from his Battle Arc aboard C.S.D. Triumphant.
Try as she might, she was unable to simply shut out her concerns over the situation with Ven Friedhoff. She couldn’t bear imagining what General Ahnbar was putting him through. It lingered at the back of her mind like a parasite.
She had kept busy, out of necessity. Crosley’s arrival at the staging area also brought a massive amount of resources and reinforcement. Those members of Murray’s crew who had been killed or lost were now replaced. She had taken great care to review the dossier’s and military records of each, and found that Crosley had specifically chosen seasoned service-people with experience in direct assault operations.
There was Lieutenant Christopher Charles, who defected during the Centauri War, now at the helm. A brilliant Junior Lieutenant from the Middle Eastern Province on Earth named Evren Bāhir; she would man the comm and science stations in place of Jane Veston. A young man from Animus, Ensign Bobby Skyles, who would manage sensors and tactical. These were just a few of those who made up her new command staff and crew.
Crosley had also prioritized the re-fitting of Lilith’s Omen. The halls were bustling with mechanics and technicians, who were cleaning up the mess made by their escapes from Klius Station and the Polari Mining Colony. By the time they were done, there wouldn’t be a single strip of wire left untouched. Every one of her torpedo banks would be recalibrated. The shield generators would be operating at 120% efficiency.
It was altogether a good feeling, knowing that such care was going into the ship. A part of her was happy that Crosley hadn’t merely replaced her as acting captain. While she was anxious about commanding Alan’s vessel during a coordinated strike operation, she also knew the ship better than any other commander in the fleet.
Alongside these feelings, she was still terribly worried about Alan. She had to face these fears and keep them from affecting her decision-making process. She also had to face the cold fact that without people like Jane Veston and Danny Riles, the mission would be much more challenging.
General Ahnbar had moved Ven Friedhoff to the Triumphant, where he had access to the resources necessary to conduct a proper interrogation. Jenice was happy that it was no longer happening on her ship, but even with a myriad of distractions, it was still bothering her. As she walked into the engine room to get updates from Rashid, it crept into her mind once again.
She couldn’t hold Rashid fully responsible for what was happening to Friedhoff. He was only doing his duty as first officer, and it was a natural thing for two officers to see things differently at times. How many times had Alan put up with a bickering command staff? She had to remind herself not to hold it against him. Even so, she noticed a certain distance in the way she interacted with him.
Rashid turned away from the main generator’s control interface to acknowledge her. She noticed a slight pause before he came to attention.
“Is everything on schedule?” she asked.
“So far, Commander. Final repairs will be completed in three hours, then a Tech-Ops team from Triumphant is scheduled to retrofit our armaments and defensive systems for the operation.”
“How long is that supposed to take?”
Rashid reached for a nearby touchpad. As he did, Jenice noticed that he seemed guarded around her. They had grown close as friends in the past few months, and she’d found herself trusting him more than many of the others. He’d called her out on her relationship with Alan. She wanted to trust him, very much so, but the matter with Friedhoff was making it difficult.
“Twelve hours at minimum,” answered Rashid. He scrolled through reports on his pad. “Tech-Ops is hoping for a full twenty-four. Crosley wants us fully prepped and ready for go-status in no less than sixteen hours.”
Jenice nodded. “We won’t be going anywhere too quickly unless Raquelle Prawley can produce some results,” she noted.
Rashid studied her for a moment, his expression hesitant. Noticing this, Jenice took a step closer, only to take the touchpad from Rashid. She began studying it, only paying half attention to the figures as they scrolled past. However, once the silence grew too awkward, she broke it.
“Our marine contingent will board once the retro-fit and loading of ammunitions is complete.”
It was irrelevant, really. She’d just quoted one of the most basic marine protocols, the kind cadets learn in their first year at the academy. She abruptly, and albeit embarrassedly, handed the touchpad back to Rashid.
“I have to deliver something to Prawley,” she quipped. “Keep up the good work, Commander.”
Rashid nearly cut her off with his response. “Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”
She stopped halfway through turning, closed her eyes for a moment, then rounded back to face him. “Speak your mind,” she urged.
“Commander…” Rashid drew a long pause, clearly considering how to place his words. “I never intended for the Friedhoff situation to develop so quickly. I simply felt it was my duty to you, as acting first officer, to recognize all possible alternatives.”
“Torturing enemy spies isn’t officially approved by military regulations, Jallaq.”
“But the regulations also do not prohibit it,” he countered. “Men like Ahnbar have been doing this for a while.”
“Then I’ll officially recommend a review by the General Command.”
Rashid took a reactive step forward, and lowered his voice a little. “Yes, and what if Ahnbar and Prawley produce results?” He perked an eyebrow at her.
“The Council should decide on its ethical values,” she defended. “Not us, not them, and certainly not Gen-Com.”
Rashid nodded slowly. “The Council would certainly consider the ethical implications with more centrality than Gen-Com.”
“Look, Rashid.” She softened her tone and met his eyes. “I may have been upset with you for making the recommendation, but you did the right thing by presenting multiple options to me. That’s what a good first officer is supposed to do.” She offered, at long last, a smile. “Don’t stop, alright?”
A similar smile manifested slowly on the engineer’s face, and he nodded his head. “Thank you, Commander.”
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Australian Province, Earth.
The Benedict‘s ancillary shuttle bay was tucked away at the flagship’s ventral aft end, three decks below the primary power generators and between two massively large vertical thrusters. Thus, it was constantly filled with a throbbing sound that reminded one of the power the vessel could harness. When Admiral Dyson entered, the noise was almost deafening; the vertical thrusters were being used to maintain the Benedict‘s hovering position over the Australian Province’s western coast.
Admiral Dyson covered his ears as he rushed toward the open boarding ramp of his shuttle. Two Regent Guardsmen followed after him. Their brilliant blue battle armor set them apart from other Legion soldiers, and signified them among their most elite counterparts.
Once inside the shuttle, Dyson marched past two lines of soldiers, who immediately jumped to their feet at attention. He acknowledged them with a short nod of his head, before entering the command compartment. His Regent Guardsmen took posts outside the door.
The pilot and command crew stood to acknowledge his entrance as well.
“As you were,” Dyson said, and took one of the empty passenger’s seats while addressing the pilot. “Lieutenant, I expect launch in sixty seconds.” He pulled crash webbing over his shoulders and fastened the safety latch across his chest.
“Yes, sir,” the pilot answered. Immediately, the crew sat back down at their posts, pulled their own crash webbing, and scrambled the launch procedure.
“Orders, Admiral?” asked the pilot.
“The closest LOPO staging area we have contact with is at Canberra, one-hundred seventy eight miles from Sydney,” he answered. “You’ll find coordinates under template HUX-7, file 107-45-Victor.”
Fearlessly, the pilot turned back to his controls. “Acknowledged.”
“All systems ready, Lieutenant,” reported one of the crew.
A voice on the comm came on next. “Shuttle Olympus, you’re cleared for launch.”
“Acknowledged,” repeated the pilot. “Here we go.”
The shuttle rose and began tilting toward the launch bay doors and the open maw beyond. The harsh, brown landscape of the Australian outback was visible, with a dark shadow hewn over it in the shape of a convex curve. As the shuttle dropped out from beneath the ship, Admiral Dyson saw a pile of corkscrewed clouds that marked the edge of the mysterious weather system.
Dyson and the others were suddenly pressed into their seats when the shuttle’s thrusters came online. The pilot navigated a steep descent, headed below the cloud formations. The ground rushed closer and closer, until he began leveling the shuttle’s descent with a shift in the roar of the engines.
“Descent stabilized,” reported the pilot. “Firing boosters in three, two, mark.”
A deafening boom rattled the cabin when the shuttle’s emergency booster rockets exploded in fury. Dyson was suddenly pinned against his seat as the barren landscape roared past beneath them. After a few minutes, the boosters had spent their fuel, and the shuttle’s racing approach hit an even speed.
Their journey lasted approximately an hour before they ran into any kind of trouble. The cloud formations roiling overhead grew ominously dark as they approached Canberra. Status updates and reports flew back and forth among the crew, like a ribat match. Dyson could make out a thin haze of dust through the blackened sky. It hovered between the ground and the horrendous clouds as they blotted out the sun.
“Decreasing speed,” reported the pilot. “Program the A.T.C.”
They were activating the automated turbulence compensation computer. This device would scan the surrounding air patterns and fire the maneuvering thrusters as appropriate, to help stabilize their flight.
“Time to target?” requested Dyson.
“Five minutes,” reported the pilot. “Initiating rapid deceleration. Augment navigation.”
With visibility near zero, the co-pilot activated a multi-view overlay. External cameras capturing infra-red, VNIR and other spectrums naked to the human eye processed and imposed an overlay across the main window. The images projected were colorful, detailed, and allowed the pilot to fly in near blindness. However, the dust and debris filling the air splattered the overlay with distortion. Reacting quickly, the copilot also brought the vectorscope online. This somewhat antiquated technology used cross-referencing radar scans to cast a digital graph-like image of the terrain below onto the overlay. Now, the pilot could see the building structures and terrain ahead of them through a series of angular, green lines.
They were racing toward Canberra at breakneck speed, and the reverse thrusters created a rush of noise outside the shuttle. Debris spiraled around and smacked against the window; remnants of trees, structures, and living things. Buildings started coming into view as the shuttle descended. Many of Canberra’s taller buildings had toppled, splaying wreckage all about. There were scant few emergency lights visible in the city, as the region’s primary orbital power coupling had been disabled. It was a haunting sight.
“Transponder locked,” reported the navigator. A blinking white dot appeared on the vectorscope.
“I’ve got it,” answered the pilot. “Hot landing in thirty seconds.”
The comm officer immediately got on the emergency broadcast channels and began issuing warnings. “E.L.A Canberra. Repeat, E.L.A Canberra. Y.S.S. Olympus, emergency landing alert in twenty seconds, mark!”
“All hands, brace for impact!” shouted the pilot.
The engines were screaming as they fought against a dangerously fast approach. Alert klaxons howled above the din. Debris, fog, and heavy raindrops formed a vortex of blinding destruction ahead of them. If not for the vectorscope, they would be completely blind!
Admiral Dyson dug his fingers into the armrests, and watched with detached fascination as the LOPO staging area came into view. Its perimeter was outlined by an extensive and powerful plasma force field, which protected it from debris and forced entry. It glowed a bright and powerful blue-white, a level of power flow that could disintegrate titanium upon contact. The force field created an all-enclosing screen, but was interlocked by a series of field emitters that powered the device. Each emitter was distinguished by a bright spot of white-hot light.
As they closed in, a segment of the force field was deactivated, and revealed the emergency landing strip beneath. As the shuttle whipped through the window, the pilot reared back on the controls. The ship leveled out and hovered over the landing strip, before the pilot nudged her forward into a scraping emergency landing.
Dyson and the others were slammed forward against their crash webbing as the shuttle barreled and screeched along the runway to an eventual halt. As one, they were thrown back against their seats, and left in a sudden silence touched only by the chirping of computer consoles.
Benneth found his voice hoarse when, after a few seconds of shock, he could speak again. “Report.”
“Minor damage to emergency landing pads,” murmured the co-pilot. “Boosters drained. Otherwise, all systems go.”
“Signal LOPO,” ordered Dyson.
“Admiral, they’re already here,” interjected the pilot. He pilot pointed out the window. The entire area was cast in a glimmering blue-white glow, an effect of the powerful force fields above them. That same eerie light illuminated a group of black-clad LOPO agents, garbed in protective helmets and bearing large, hi-tech plasma rifles. They jogged toward the shuttle in a diamond formation.
“Well,” grunted Dyson, “let’s go meet them.” He ripped the crash webbing free and stood to leave.
Sydney, Australian Province, Earth.
Helen wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It had grown very cold inside the tunnel, and there had been no sign of rescue. She’d cursed her choice of clothing… a thin blouse, designer skirt, sheer hose, open toed heels. It was the perfect combination for a warm Australian day, but no good when trapped in a secret underground tunnel. Regret filled her for not grabbing the jacket from her office during the evacuation.
Fortunately, she’d been able to remove the black coat from Agent Glosten’s upper body after he’d passed. Curled against the unforgiving cold stone, the coat provided at least some relief from the dank, chilly air; but it still crept at her like the fingers of a wraith, threatening to drown her with its desolation.
She realized, after some time, that it wasn’t just the cold that made her shiver like a child. It was the solitude, the feeling of being cut off, no longer attached to the hive of Proper Society. There was no promise that she would ever see her family again. No promise that she’d ever talk with Samantha over vodka and caviar. No promise that she’d ever enjoy the magnificent performances of Maestro Navi Ali and the Unified Loyalists Choir.
Her thoughts had become consumed with wanting and jealousy; jealousy for those who were not trapped in Sydney, those who were free of the horrible things happening above. Constantly she was reminded of it. Each time the tunnel shook, or the emergency lights flickered, or the rock behind her vibrated and threatened to collapse. Her blood ran with anguish for her unwarranted prison. Her dry lips wanted little more than to touch the warmth of her husband’s mouth. Her trembling hands, to feel the strength in his body. Her desperate and fearful eyes, to become lost in the security of his.
As much as she wanted the rage to take her, it found no true foothold on her spirit. The fear was much stronger. With every noise, every breath, she felt even more crippled by it. She was utterly alone, and the time wore on like an eternity.
However, there was something else. Something stronger.
Over and over again, she kept remembering the words of Kristopher Glosten, the LOPO agent who had rescued her and was now her neighboring corpse.
There’s no coincidence that I found you. I’ve been watching you, keeping you close. So very important. You’re important to us.
Important, because of the task he had charged her with. To deliver a message, a packet of info, to her husband.
What’s happening in Sydney is not the Coalition’s fault.
That thought alone, if true, was enough to shatter the very fabric of her reality. Everything she was, everything she was taught, had led her to believe that nothing bad could possibly come from the Triumvirate; that Proper Society was the epitome of humanity’s perfection. If the tragedy gripping Sydney was not the Coalition’s fault, then who? Fringers? Impossible.
It led to only one conclusion.
I had hoped to have told you in better conditions, but I’m afraid I don’t have a choice now.
A LOPO agent, admitting to her, albeit vaguely, that the disaster was somehow linked to the Triumvirate.
The Triumvirate doesn’t want the truth to come out. If it did, the effects it could have on the fabric of society would be… devastating. It can only be stopped with the help of one man; Jacob Kale.
Jacob Kale. Who was he?
Without Jacob Kale, the entire galaxy could be thrown into turmoil.
If it were true, then she had a duty to Proper Society to fulfill this charge. She had to see it through. Somehow, no matter how impossible, she had to find Benneth Dyson and deliver the agent’s message. If there was something the Triumvirate knew that could threaten the fabric of society, then it was her responsibility to bring it to Benneth’s attention. He would know what to do.
Her thoughts lingered on and on, playing the agent’s words over and over in her memory like that of a corrupted missive, skipping and looping every few seconds.
This is a sub-transfer. It will download everything into the monitor’s reserve memory. LOPO can’t see that it’s there.
She had begun to wonder, at long last, if this was why the rage she so wanted to embrace wouldn’t take hold. Why, just hours earlier, she had daydreamed about the “faggots”, the ones Samantha and others had tortured, maimed, and killed during her last hate session. Even now, with how vile she’d been conditioned to think of homosexuals, she couldn’t find a shred of hatred toward them in her soul. She was only consumed by the words given to her.
It can only be unlocked one way.
“Seven, four, five, Omega.” She whispered the words quietly, hearing her weakened and trembling voice bouncing off the closeness of the tunnel walls.
That’s right, Helen. Speak that code. Seven-four-five-Omega. Because you’re the only person we can trust now.
Helen sighed, and curled herself up until she could feel her feet pressing against her bottom, her toes digging against themselves for some fleeting warmth.
It was about then that she heard a remarkably close noise. It reminded her of an exploding firecracker, but much closer and somehow muted. The tunnel rattled, and a burst of fresh air blew her hair over her face.
She yelped and scrambled back toward the corpse nearby, as if even in death, Agent Glosten could keep her safe. Her breath started to come in short, quick bursts, blowing fog into the dusty air. She was too gripped by fear to speak.
Then, a voice found its way into her prison. It was muted, and very small, but clear enough for her to understand.
“Doctor Dyson? Doctor Dyson, can you hear me?”
She felt a surge of excitement as it suddenly spread throughout her body. A rescue party! A rescue party had come!
C.S.D. Triumphant, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
Jenice Murray had cleared the bridge of Lilith’s Omen at Tech-Ops’ request. They needed to re-fit the bridge for the mission at hand, and it was simply easier if nobody was present. The corvette was still safely docked aboard C.S.D. Triumphant, so leaving the bridge unattended was within regulations.
She and her new command staff, a mixture of old friends and new faces, had gone to Captain Crosley’s Battle Arc to familiarize themselves with each other, their mission, and the retro-fit Tech-Ops was imposing.
They had completed the mission overview, and were almost done reviewing Tech-Ops protocols, when her touchpad chirped.
The notification read:
INCOMING MESSAGE – M.GEN AHNBAR 14672.02
A lump formed in her throat. General Ahnbar was responding to her inquiry on Friedhoff’s interrogation.
Rashid noticed, and stole her attention with a worried look.
“Ladies, gentlemen.” She stood, and her staff followed suit. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cut this short. Please finish your reviews and have reports submitted by twenty-two hundred hours. Dismissed.”
While the others departed, she reached over and briefly touched Rashid’s elbow. “Lieutenant Commander, if you don’t mind.”
Rashid looked back at her with a short nod and sat back down.
Once the room had cleared, she sat and let a frown manifest on her face. “Incoming message from Ahnbar,” she explained.
Rashid nodded his silent acknowledgement, then reached forward to activate a holoprojection unit built into their meeting table.
A computerized voice spoke. “Provide access code.”
“One-six-nine-four-nine, mark zero-one,” she said.
The empty projector field flickered, then came to life with an image of the dark-skinned General from the neck up.
“General Ahnbar.” She greeted him with as civil of a voice as she could. “Thank you for returning my communiqué.”
“Of course, Commander,” he answered.
Jenice folded her arms and did her absolute best to keep a scowl from her face. Perhaps the holographic link would distort her face enough to keep the Ahnbar from noticing?
There was a brief pause before Ahnbar continued. “Lady Prawley and I have created an interrogation protocol based on the records you’ve provided.”
Torture protocol, she thought to herself.
“How confident are you that this protocol will be effective?” she asked.
“Very confident,” answered Ahnbar. “Ven Friedhoff enlisted in the Coalition Military at the age of seventeen. He was born and raised on Animus. He has a family; a wife and three children. We suspect that at some point after his assignment as an officer in the fleet, LOPO operatives contacted him and found leverage against him. Something motivated him to serve as a double agent.”
Jenice gave this news some thought. She knew that Friedhoff had been born on Animus, but he had never spoken of his wife and children.
“Other than that, we have a perfectly flawless record. No red flags. Nothing to suggest why LOPO would have enlisted him, or what they used to motivate him. No profile marks to suggest he would have ever become a traitor.”
The lump in her throat grew heavier, and her fingers started clenching the rough hem of her uniform. She had a bad feeling about what she might hear next.
“Go on,” she murmured.
“If we’re going to get him to spill anything,” he said matter-of-factly, “we’re going to have to use the family.”
Rashid reached up to scratch at his head uncomfortably.
“Use the family?” she bristled. “What exactly does that mean, General?”
“We are out of options, Commander,” he replied, without missing a beat. “Unless you’d like to recant your request to Gen-Com and forfeit this entire operation?”
She had to forcefully remind herself that she was a subordinate. She didn’t fancy spending the entire operation in Triumphant‘s brig, so she managed to refrain from biting General Ahnbar’s head off… barely. She inhaled a long, deep, and steadying breath.
“No, General.” There were the subtleties of a snarl in her tone. “The operation must go forward.”
“Will there be anything else, then, Commander?” asked Ahnbar.
“No, thank you sir. Murray out.”
She slashed her hand across the touchpad, disconnecting the transmission hastily. Then, turning toward Rashid, she let loose her boiling anger.
“That shell-headed bastard,” she spat. “He’s pushing the responsibility right back on me.”
Rashid was frowning and wrinting his hands. “You don’t think that he-”
“I don’t know what he would do,” she quipped. “How far he’ll actually go.” She stood up, grabbed her touchpad, and made hastily for the lift car bank.
Rashid jumped up and scurried after her, calling, “Commander…”
Ignoring him, she rushed into the waiting car and jabbed her finger against the control pad.
Rashid had broken into a run, and slipped through the doors just before they closed.
“Commander,” he breathed, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Of course it’s not a good idea!” she growled.
“No, I mean…” Rashid seemed to be bumbling over his words. It was unlike him to be so tongue-tied. “I mean, I don’t think you should go. Don’t interfere with General Ahnbar!”
“What else should I do, Rashid?” she yelled, turning to glower at her first officer. “I’ll not let him punish innocent people over this!” She slammed her first into the wall of the lift. “I won’t!”
“Commander.” Rashid lowered his voice, as if trying to calm the air between them. “Please, just listen to me.”
“No.” She shook her head, and looked back at Rashid, resolve having found a home in her green eyes. “No, Rashid, I won’t just stand by and let this happen.”
She turned back around as the lift car came to a halt. A sign above the door blinked to life with the words, “Deck 4: Detention, Security” displayed in bright red.
“You may not have a choice, Commander,” he warned her, just before the doors whisked open.
Ignoring him again, Jenice barged into the reception area on deck four, and walked right up to the security chief. She flashed her military ID card, then leaned one hand on the sleek metallic desk.
“In which room is Lieutenant Ven Friedhoff being held? Mil-ID one-five-five-two-nine mark seven-five.”
The security chief punched Friedhoff’s military ID number into his terminal, then answered, “Interrogation wing, room fourteen.”
“Room fourteen,” she acknowledged, then flashed the security chief a syrupy smile. “Thank you.”
As she turned, the security chief added, “Commander, you’ll need clearance from General Ahnbar if you-”
“I’ll get clearance,” she called back without turning.
Rashid chased along behind her, keeping up with her in spite of his shorter height. He didn’t speak a word.
As determined as she was, she was beginning to realize that Rashid was right. There was little she could do to stop what was about to happen.
They soon reached Interrogation Room 14. It was guarded by a large, thick, black door, devoid of any markings. Only a security pad with backlit numbers and identification provided entry. Having originally been a Triumvirate warship, Triumphant shared many of the minimalist, utopian design standards seen across the galaxy in “Proper Society.” The security pad itself was of Coalition design.
Her access code was accepted with a buzz, and followed by the muted sounds of the door’s complex locking system as it disengaged. The keypad’s colors changed from red to green, and the door began sliding open at a painfully slow pace.
Gradually, the control room behind the door was revealed. This gadget-and-computer-filled room separated the hallway from the interrogation chamber itself (and it was eerily similar to the room Alec Troy had been interrogated in aboard Dyson’s ship, Y.S.A.D. Benedict). Two marines stood at either side of the room, and two men from Tech-Ops were operating the consoles inside.
None of them acknowledged Jenice and Rashid as they entered. This was not unusual; regulations did not mandate the acknowledgement of senior level officers during a live operation such as this.
Her blood still boiled, but her motions slowed. Looking for Ahnbar or Prawley, she eventually found them, visible through a two-way mirror that separated them from the chamber beyond.
They had stripped Friedhoff to his underclothes, and strung him up against a solid piece of metal at a steep angle. His hands were bound behind his back and secured to a long chain which disappeared up and out of sight. His chest and legs were tied by thick metal chains, which wrapped around the slab of metal to which he was bound. His mouth was gagged, his body bruised and bloodied; Ahnbar had not treated him well.
General Ahnbar stood between Friedhoff and a large, rectangular-shaped ring; a two-dimensional field-projector. Prawley stood at some distance behind Friedhoff, near one of the chamber walls. On her face was a devious smirk that sent a shiver down Commander Murray’s spine.
The field-projector was emitting a blank transmission; a barely visible field that occasionally flickered with static. They clearly intended to transmit something that Friedhoff was supposed to watch. Curiously, Jenice searched the control terminals until she found what she was looking for.
All warmth drained from her skin and bones when she saw it. There, upon one of the consoles, was a live video feed. A woman and two young boys were there, all of them having been tied to chairs and gagged. They were in a residence; a home or apartment somewhere. Tall men wearing black clothes with black masks stood around them, armed with guns and rifles.
Another one of the consoles displayed a young man, similarly bound, but the camera capturing his face was too close for her to make out where he was or who was with him.
He has a family; a wife and three children.
General Ahnbar’s words echoed through her mind as her worst fears were realized.
Dedicated in loving memory to Christopher P. Glandorf, 1969-2011.
A reader, friend, and musician. We miss you, Glando.
Previously on Animus…
A catastrophic weather anomaly has formed over Sydney, Australia. LOPO, unsurprisingly, blamed the incident on the Freedom Coalition and ordered a city-wide evacuation. Little do they know that it was, in fact, the first of many catastrophic events that would re-shape the known galaxy for many years. This apocalyptic future was revealed to a small group of Coalition fighters, who had mysteriously traveled forward in time to the year 2241. Among them was the enigmatic Jacob Kale, who convinced their commanding officer, Alan Metler that they must find a way to travel backward in time and somehow divert the future from this dark chaos.
Meanwhile, in the year 2193, Commander Jenice Murray was neck deep in forming a special Coalition task force. Their mission: to find and rescue the captured intelligence agent named Alec Troy. Troy, who might be their only chance of answering the many questions facing them.
Deep Space, Praxis Region.
September 20th, 2193
The Coalition’s Military General Command had designated the location “Praxis Zone 25.” It was off the grid, located at the far edge of the Praxis Region, easily no less than four hundred light years from the nearest settlements. Forward scouting vessels from the Third Fleet had deployed three remote jump nodes, providing access to Zone 25 from multiple routes.
This was a common practice. Typically, the Coalition Space Fleet would amass its task forces in remote areas of the galaxy. By using deployable remote jump nodes, the space vessels could gain quick access to these gathering places, while staying out of enemy eyes.
It was always dangerous, of course. Military Intelligence could never fully guarantee that these regions were not watched by the Triumvirate. LOPO’s probe drones constantly scoured the fringes of explored space for signs of jump activity.
Jenice Murray paced back and forth on the bridge of Lilith’s Omen. Rashid Jallaq and Sergeant Napine were poring over preliminary astrographical data. One by one, other Coalition warships flashed into existence in space around them. She turned to look out the viewport when a flash of light caught her eye; the C.S.D. Triumphant had just emerged from one of the jump nodes. The sight of Triumphant brought a rush of hope to her soul, for it was one of the Coalition’s largest and strongest warships.
If they were going to succeed, it would surely be on the heels of the mighty C.S.D Triumphant.
“Rashid.” She turned and approached the middle-eastern man who had essentially become her first officer. “Hail the Triumphant.”
“Right away, Commander.” Rashid punched in some commands, then smiled. “I have Captain Crosley.”
“Put it on.”
The man who appeared was familiar to Jenice, and certainly the rest of the Coalition Space Fleet. Frederick “Bear” Crosley was Captain and commander of the C.S.D. Triumphant, and hailed as one of the Coalition’s best military leaders. Had it not been for his quick thinking at Alpha Centauri three years ago, the disastrous campaign may have turned out much worse.
Crosley was easily ten years older than Alan Metler. He had an abrasive personality that matched his weathered face, and his designs were articulated by a voice thickened from years of barking orders.
“Commander Murray.” He gave a quick nod of his head. “Good to see you. I only hope we don’t create a new graveyard in space with this operation.”
Jenice turned to face the polarized image, which hovered an inch or so from the viewport itself. Somewhat transparent, she could glimpse the Captain’s massive destroyer behind his digitally reanimated face.
His sudden and sharp disapproval of the operation took her off guard. “That’s why you’re here, Captain. I can’t express how thankful I am that-”
Crosley huffed. “Kill the pleasantries, Commander. Has the entire task force arrived?”
“Almost everyone,” she answered. “We’re still waiting on a few cruisers, and the carrier Churchill. We’ll open a hunt link.” She turned and nodded at Rashid suggestively.
“There’s space for Lilith’s Omen in my port side docking bay,” answered Crosley. “I want you and your command staff in my Battle Arc. Fifteen minutes.”
“Of course, Captain.”
The communique was immediately cut off. It wasn’t like Crosley to burn time. He valued efficiency.
“He does not sound happy,” noted Rashid.
Jenice turned around and began walking toward the lift. “He’s never happy. Come with me, Rashid. Napine, you have the bridge. Make it a soft landing.”
Y.S.A.D. Crusader, Polari System, Zeta Region.
New orders had come to Peter Drake from the Admiral of the Fleet. No longer was he tasked with finding Subject 804.C; he had been ordered to track down the rogue Coalition corvette that had kept evading him.
Drake did not like being beaten. He had come to despise the deviants he chased. General Vereor’s control battalion had arrived and was quickly putting the Polari Mining Colony under martial order. He now had no choice but to leave the colony behind and resume his hunt for the C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen.
He was seeing red.
The voice came from Herrera, Drake’s latino tactical officer.
Drake turned to face Herrera. “Report.”
Herrera left his terminal and briskly approached the Admiral’s command chair. “Sir.” He presented a quick, customary half bow. “Com-Screen has found the remains of a jump node hidden inside the planetary rings of Polari V. It’s not on record with Transit Control, and I doubt we’ll be able to salvage any data from the wreckage. Lilith’s Omen is out of sight now, but I may have a recommendation.”
“What is it?”
“We correlate the spatial coordinates of that wreckage against our star charts, to create a list of potential jump routes.”
“I’ve no interest in wasting time with guessing games, Commander. There could be hundreds of routes to search.”
“Then I see one option,” replied Herrera. “We make them come to us.”
Drake glowered at Herrera. He didn’t want to sit around and wait. He wanted to hunt. “You test my patience, Commander. We have nothing the deviant slime are looking for.”
“Yes, but they don’t know that for certain,” replied Herrera. “We aren’t the only ones who lost something here.”
Drake began to realize where Commander Herrera was going. He had lost Subject 804.C… and so had the Deviants. They couldn’t possibly know that Jacob Kale had not been captured by his unit.
“You suggest we lay a trap.”
“Yes, but we have to be clever,” pointed out Herrera. “We sit and wait for a while. Then, commence a galaxy-wide assault protocol. Garrison territories with suspected Coalition ties, tighten security on heavily traveled routes, and leak clues through the LOPO networks. Make them think that we not only have Kale, but that he’s helping us.”
“They will start looking for a way to get him back. That’s when we’ll start heading back for Earth… slowly, and with an unexpected lack of support craft. They’ll think they have a fighting chance, but the leaked intel will be false. They attack, and…” He brought up a hand and closed it into a fist. “We crush them.”
Drake stood from his chair, slowly, as Herrera’s advice sunk in. His eyes glowered like those of a predator whose nose had tasted the distant smell of blood. “Strategic thinking, Commander.” He pointed a gloved finger at Herrera. “Put together a deployment protocol.”
Herrera nodded and stood as well. “My pleasure, Admiral.”
“I’ll be in my ready room.” Without hesitation, Drake turned.
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Sol System, Terran Region.
Y.S.A.D. Benedict was cruising through the Sol System on its way to a bank of long range military jump nodes beyond Neptune. Jupiter and its cluster of moons were visible outside the window of Benneth Dyson’s command wing, inching along at a deceptively slow pace. Commodore West was the only member of his staff who remained after the daily briefing. The others had been dismissed, so that they could receive a secret report from Atlas Fleet.
The report had come from Drake himself. He had conjured a plan that could lure Lilith’s Omen into a well-spun trap.
“Oh, I agree, sir,” West was saying. “I have no doubts that LOPO will approve Drake’s plan, but we should find a way to support their efforts. We don’t know how strong the Coalition’s intel is. We need to make absolutely sure that they can’t see through the lies.”
“Hmmm.” Benneth rubbed his chin and considered the situation. “We should join one of the forward operations.”
West cocked his head to the side, curiously.
“If the flagship of the fleet is engaged, it should help to support the ruse.”
“I can see that, but what about the economic impact on the trade lanes? The weakening of key defenses around Earth?”
“The economic impact will be blamed on Deviants. The weakening of our defenses is a calculated risk that I’m willing to take.” Dyson leaned forward with a cunning expression. “A special directive will glean units from specific System Defense Fleets along a pre-determined area of space, an area where Drake and his escort will be traveling. The Coalition will not only be surprised by a sudden, chaotic change in our fleet movements; they will also see a potential opportunity to hit Drake.”
West nodded his head slowly as he followed along. “We bait them, then spring the trap.”
“Precisely.” Dyson fixed West with a most severe frown. “Stephen, this is beyond Level 15 classified. Maiyao has demanded that all matters related to Jacob Kale extend no further than myself and Peter Drake. She has also tasked us with locating and apprehending the Lilith’s Omen and her crew, at whatever cost. I’m taking a great discretionary risk bringing you in, but I can’t do this without you.”
West met Dyson’s stare evenly. “I understand, sir. As far as the rest of the fleet goes, these are legitimate orders handed down by the Admiral of the Fleet, in response to recent Coalition activities.”
Dyson nodded, and was about to say something else, when a comm device in the table chirped. Opening the channel, he said, “Dyson.”
“Admiral, I have William Dyson for you.”
Benneth was shocked. He jerked his head to the comm, blinking. Anger quickly set in; William knew better than to contact him this way.
“Put it through,” he growled.
“William! What the hell are you-”
Commodore West stood and made to excuse himself, but Dyson waved for him to stay put. He repeated the question with less ferocity.
“What the hell are you doing, son?”
“Dad, I’m, I’m sorry… there’s a problem in Sydney.”
Benneth’s anger began to cool. He looked over at West, lifting an eyebrow. “What do you mean, what problem in Sydney?”
West was already moving toward one of the touchpad terminals and calling up the Society Feed.
“I don’t have much time, LOPO is evacuating Port Macquarie as well.”
“William, what the hell is happening at Sydney?”
“They’re saying it’s a Coalition attack, dad. Strange weather patterns, impossible ones, like nothing I’ve ever seen. At first we didn’t think it was a big deal, but… dad, they’re tearing Sydney apart.”
West caught Dyson’s attention and nodded his head toward the center of the table, where a holoprojector sat. Dyson nodded, and the Society Feed flickered to life.
The images at first were haunting. From a wide and distant angle, the feed showed masses of clouds, which had bunched together over Sydney. Bright blasts of lightning were flashing all about, and funnel clouds had descended in multiple areas, ripping down everything in their paths. A haze of debris hovered over the city, blotting out any sign of what was happening on the city streets. Fires burned. Buildings leaned and toppled. Hoverships and airplanes were visible as tiny dots in the air, braving the maelstrom in their efforts to do what they could to help. A feedcaster continually spouted off updates about the catastrophe, the evacuation, and reports of Coalition activity in the area.
Helen was there, and from the sight of it, she was in severe danger. When had they initiated the evacuation of Sydney? Had she gotten to safety in time?
“My god,” muttered Dyson.
“There’s something else,” said William’s voice. There was a pause. “I’ve lost contact with mom.”
Dyson’s blood ran cold when his fears were realized. A sudden and unfamiliar tremor condensed in his soul, unlike anything he’d ever felt.
None of this made any sense. A Coalition attack on Earth was unthinkable – they couldn’t possibly have enough firepower or the technology to manage something of this scale. Beside that, his beloved wife and oldest son were now in very real danger, something that was also unthinkable on Earth. His mind swam with thoughts of confusion, fear, and anger. The sheer rush of emotion had his fingers shaking.
William’s voice brought him back to reality.
“Dad? What should I do, dad?”
Dyson looked back at the comm and answered, “You do exactly what they tell you to do, William. You know this. Get to safety and don’t do anything stupid, do you hear me?”
“Yeah.” His voice paused again. “Dad, I’ve gotta go. They’re evacuating the station.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this William, I promise.”
“I know, dad. Glory to Proper Soc-”
“Glory,” Benneth interrupted. “See you soon, son.” He shut off the comm. Never before had he heard such fear and confusion in William’s voice. He collected his thoughts while staring at the ongoing Society Feed, then looked over at Commodore West.
“Turn it off.”
Commodore West’s eyes were glued to the images, horrified at seeing such a travesty taking place on the Mother Planet.
“Turn it off, Commodore,” repeated Benneth.
Startled from his horror, West reached over and killed the feed. Silently, he met the Admiral’s gaze.
“Turn the ship around,” he said at long last.
Dyson jumped to his feet with sudden urgency. “I said turn the ship around!” he growled. “We’re going back to Earth.”
Nothing from West.
West jumped to his feet, similarly shaken back to reality, and nodded curtly. “Of course, sir! Right away, sir.”
As West rushed for the bridge, Benneth was once again flooded with concern for his wife and family. He took a deep breath and held the emotions in check, because he had a duty to perform. He realized, in an aberrant way, that this turn of events might actually play to their favor. It further supported responsive action from the Yellow Star Alliance. Much as he might be tempted to stew over the incident at Sydney, he had to begin issuing orders to the Baron Admirals, before it was too late.
He took one quick moment to whisper a silent prayer for the safety of his family, before joining West on the bridge.
C.S.D. Triumphant, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region.
Captain Frederick “Bear” Crosley was a tall, lean, and oddly shaped man. His somewhat gangly frame suggested that he deserved a heavier build, but a life in space had robbed him of that.
Most military-grade starships of this size followed a general set of guidelines in the way that they were constructed – guidelines whose origins could date back to the early days of naval militaries on Earth. Located somewhere nearby the bridge of a vessel would be a designated area where commanders could gather, discuss situations, and develop tactical plans. Some referred to it as a ready room; others, a command center.
Crosley referred to his as the “Battle Arc.”
Triumphant was originally a Triumvirate ship, a massive and well-armed space destroyer that was stolen from the enemy during the Centauri War. Crosley, during the campaign, was in command of a corvette-scale vessel similar to Lilith’s Omen.
The Coalition had been blocked in by Legionnaire forces in space, while the marines on the ground were being decimated. Their retreat was severely hampered by Triumvirate fighters, who hassled their progress in both the skies and upper atmosphere of Centauri III. The campaign had degenerated; Coalition leaders feared more than simple defeat.
That’s when Crosley had stepped in. He’d tasked his communications officer with creating a real-time link, one that could be used to coordinate simultaneously with every Coalition vessel in the theatre. Until then, their comm network was so heavily encrypted that efficiencies of this type had been sacrificed. Calling this his “hunt link”, he roused the remaining vessels into a coordinated push. He believed that secrecy was no longer more important than efficiency. He also believed that their only way out was to capture one of the enemy’s largest and strongest vessels.
He was right.
Capturing the Curtana-class attack destroyer Equity was the turning point at Centauri. Crosley’s forces had pushed every ounce of firepower against the shield generators protecting her massive docking bays. The retreating marines busted through and, hungry from defeat on the ground, slaughtered the unsuspecting Legion soldiers waiting inside.
Equity was re-christened Triumphant, and in the hands of Crosley, provided a battering ram for the retreating Coalition forces.
The Battle Arc was unique to Curtana-class destroyers. Much as its nickname suggested, the tactical area spanned a long arc which overlooked the bridge below, separated from bridge activity by a wall of bullet-proof glass. Crosley’s Battle Arc was spotless, polished, and filled with technological tools that gave him an upper hand over most other warships, both friend and foe.
Stepping into the Battle Arc, Jenice Murray felt a sense of power that she rarely felt aboard Lilith’s Omen. Alan’s ship was all about speed, stealth, and an absurd amount of firepower for a ship of her size. It was all about cramped quarters, modified power systems, and a constant state of repair and upkeep. Triumphant, on the other hand, was about strategy, efficiency, and might. Here, with a wide view of the bustling bridge below, the wide and efficient corridors, and an expansive view of space beyond, she felt powerful.
Rashid, who had never been aboard such a vessel, whistled quietly as they entered. “I now know where I wish to serve when they decommission the Omen.”
Jenice smirked. “Don’t hold your breath, Commander. You’re the only person in the fleet who can handle the Omen and all of her tricks.”
They both slowed and came to attention when Captain Crosley came about from behind one of the terminals. He was accompanied by a tall and burly marine; a well-decorated Major General whose name patch read “Ahnbar”.
“As you were,” said Crosley.
When they stood at ease, Crosley began to glare. “Where the hell is the rest of your command staff?”
“Riles and Veston are with Metler,” answered Jenice. “MIA at Polari V.”
Crosley began folding his arms, clearly disatisfied with the answer.
Jallaq spoke up next. “Friedhoff is in our brig. You’re welcome to speak with him about treason.”
“Treason!” Crosley looked taken aback. “I don’t believe it.”
It was Jenice’s turn to glare. “He’s a LOPO sleeper agent. Tried to take me hostage and gain control of the ship.”
Crosley scowled. “You should have spaced him when you had the chance.”
“We agreed that would be essentially illegal,” she countered.
“Essentially. You haven’t seen enough people killed yet, Murray,” replied Crosley. “So, your plan is to hunt down Peter Drake and the Atlas Fleet?” He cocked an eye at Jenice, with an undeniable sarcastic twist to his words.
She liked “Bear” Crosley. Really. He’d turned down a promotion after the Centauri War, so that he could keep command of the Triumphant. He had his heart in the right place. If it weren’t for that, she might have been short with him. It was his attitude that made him such a strong commander, and she had to respect it, even if it was somewhat obnoxious.
She also knew that the best way to communicate with him was to avoid wasting words.
“We have fringer help. Raquelle Prawley of Polari V.”
The Marine General spoke up. “Mining Colony?”
“That’s right,” she nodded. “We were in a bind. We negotiated her help in exchange for a captured Triumvirate ship if we succeed.”
“That was nice of you,” quipped Crosley. “What kind of help can she give?”
“She’s well connected,” answered Jenice. “Fringers have a lot of working knowledge that we don’t. They’re plugged in but ignored, because their efforts have never really supported ours.”
“Right,” agreed Crosley, “they don’t care about morals, only money.”
Jenice shrugged. “It was a necessary arrangement at the time.”
“Well. Let’s get started.” Crosley turned and made way for the terminal he’d been working at. “This is Major General Jomas Ahnbar, First Spaceborne Division.” He motioned toward Ahnbar. “We’ve been looking over the orders from Gen-Com. A direct assault is worthless.”
“We don’t even know if the targets are on board,” added General Ahnbar. He spoke with a distinctly african accent; Jenice suspected he was originally from Ghana. “I have proposed a bait and capture op.”
Jenice was hoping for firepower, surrender, and negotiations; the opportunity to show them that they were getting both stronger and bolder. Ahnbar had a fair point though. Drake was not a negotiator. He could only be out-smarted and beaten. At his heart, he was a warrior; the kind who would go down with his ship if necessary. It would be a bloody engagement.
Crosley went on. “We have intel on most of Drake’s ships. Strengths, weaknesses, speed and maneuverability, design flaws.” He glanced toward Rashid, who seemed surprised. “We’ve been watching them for a while.”
“I would say so,” replied Rashid.
“The trick is getting him alone,” Crosley explained. “Or as close to it as possible. We don’t stand a chance next to the whole Atlas Fleet. We must outmaneuver him before we engage.”
By this point, Jenice had folded her arms, and was sharing glances between Crosley, Rashid, and the terminal. It was flat, about the height of her waist, which provided a clear view of the graphic that Crosley had called up.
The graphic depicted three potential locations for the operation, each one shaded in different colors. The touchpad interface could be manipulated by the user’s fingers to rotate and spin through the three axis of space.
“We have selected these potential theaters, each with multiple entry points accessible through the jump nodes we’ve deployed in Zone 25. Once our bait ships have maneuvered Drake into one of these regions, and we have determined an acceptable level of vulnerability, the primary force will strike.” Crosley nodded to Ahnbar to continue.
“The primary target will be Drake’s flagship, the Y.S.A.D. Crusader.” General Ahnbar punched in a new command, which brought up a graphic of the vessel. “The Khopesh-class Attack Destroyer. Its weakest assets are here.” He pointed at the image. “Primary shield generators, located adjacent to the port and starboard fighter bays. With a majority of its offensive batteries forward facing, it creates a significant weakness in the aft approach vectors.”
“Designed for mass-scale assault and planetary bombardment,” noted Captain Crosley. “Not incredibly versatile otherwise. Escort craft typically protect the generators, but I’ll find a way to draw them off.”
General Ahnbar continued tapping at various locations, causing the graphic to zoom, rotate, and highlight the various features of Drake’s flagship. “We come in from the rear, assault those shield generators, and open a way into those fighter bays, where the First Spaceborne will board.”
“Sounds familiar,” noted Jenice.
“Sounds risky,” countered Rashid.
“Not really,” said Crosley. “We have the firepower for it. The escort ships will be the real nuissance. Hell of a lot of work for our support craft and fighters.”
“How do you plan to lure Drake into this trap?” asked Rashid. “From what I understand, he is not one to be easily tricked.”
Crosley narrowed his eyes a bit. “That one has me stumped, too, Commander. My tactical officers are still working on it. So far, the best option is to bait him by using smaller vessels, such as yours.”
Jenice blinked. “We can’t afford to lose too many of our surgical ops craft.”
Crosley shrugged. “You have another alternative, I’d love to hear it.”
Rashid, who had developed a thoughtful expression, raised his hand and pointed a finger into the air.
“There is Prawley,” he offered. “She may have more resources we can use.”
Crosley shook his head. “I’m not ready to trust fringers with such much military collateral at risk. Plus, frankly, I don’t want to have to promise her another ship.”
“Then what about Friedhoff?”
Jenice turned abruptly and looked at Rashid. She was shocked at his suggestion. “Rashid, you and I both know he won’t talk.”
Rashid held up his other hand in debate. “I know what everyone says. No LOPO agent has ever talked. But I don’t care what conditioning they are supposedly put through. Everyone has a breaking point.”
Jenice shook her head in disbelief. She trusted Rashid, perhaps more than anyone, but to suggest that they resort to torture? It was unthinkable, at least to her.
General Ahnbar interrupted. “Even if you’re right, Lieutenant Commander, I am not sure we have the time it might take.” He exchanged looks with a pensive Crosley, and Jenice, who was still surprised at the suggestion. “I have had success conducting interrogations of enemy captives… but never with LOPO.”
Jenice held her hands up, and took a step back. “I will not support this. It’s a waste of time, and it goes against everything we stand for!”
Ahnbar settled his emotionless eyes on Jenice. “This is war, Commander. I appreciate your ideals, but it’s been done before. It’s worth trying, even if we are short on time.”
“I can’t believe I am hearing this.” She turned and stared at Rashid with a plaintive look. How could he have suggested such a thing? So upset was Jenice that she completely missed the apologetic expression in Rashid’s eyes. “I will not support this!” she repeated.
Crosley finally interrupted. “Your position is noted, Commander, but it’s not your decision to make.”
Jenice turned back to glower at Crosley. “Fine.” She pointed at him. “Have it your way, but I want no part in this.”
“As you wish,” answered Crosley. “You can handle Raquelle Prawley, Commander. The General will deal with Friedhoff.”
Crosley turned and nodded to General Ahnbar, who took the cue and made to depart.
“Commander, your orders are to find out what realistic help Prawley can give us in baiting Peter Drake. Bring her aboard the Triumphant if you have to, let her see what resources we can offer.”
Jenice tried everything she could to ignore the thought that was forming in the dark corners of her mind. She suspected that Ahnbar was on his way to Lilith’s Omen to begin the interrogation. Friedhoff may have been a traitor, but he had also been a friend and comrade for many years. She wanted justice, but not this way.
Crosley’s demanding voice brought her back to the moment. She looked back at him, and nodded her head obediently. “Right away, sir.”
“You’re dismissed. Both of you.”
Jenice met Rashid’s sobered gaze, then turned to walk back toward the lift that brought them here.
Neither of them shared a word.
Recycling Chamber, C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen.
It was unpleasant, to say the least. General Ahnbar had never quite enjoyed the recycling chamber that was a necessary part of any spacecraft. The one aboard Lilith’s Omen was small, cramped, and filled with the machines necessary for the recycling of air, water, and waste. Regardless of how sophisticated the machinery, there was always a particular odor; a mixture of humidity, human waste, and rotting garbage.
Ven Friedhoff had been bound to the water recycling machine by a few lengths of flexible plasma tubing, most likely borrowed from Rashid Jallaq’s store of spare parts. The prisoner was hunched on the floor, with just enough slack to let him reach a bowl of water they had left for him. His service jumpsuit was dirty and sweat-stained, like his face.
Friedhoff looked up as Ahnbar came in, scowling. “Just who the hell are you?” he asked.
“Major General Jomas Ahnbar, Commanding Officer, First Spaceborne Division, Coalition Marine Corps,” he answered coldly.
“How nice, Coalition Marine Corps,” answered Friedhoff. “How many of your boys have been split open by Legion soldiers, General?”
Ahnbar did not answer. He took a chair that had been left in the corner, and drug it around to place it in front of Friedhoff. He sat down, folded his hands, and leaned forward to study the prisoner closely and silently.
After a while, Friedhoff began to smirk. “So, what is today’s special, hmm? I really enjoyed the cold grits Napine brought me, but you know what would really hit the spot? Some good German food. Knockwurst and kraut, with a bit of warm potato salad on the side.” He inhaled poignantly, and grinned. “Make the kraut very pungent, if you would. It might blot out the smell of Deviant shit that fills my nostrils.”
“You aren’t like most LOPO agents, are you?” asked Ahnbar.
“Oh, you mean the drones?” Friedhoff scoffed, and sat back against the recycling machine to which he was bound. “Special Surveillance Division. Believe it or not, General, we are trained to think like swine, because we are supposed to blend with swine.” He sniffed twice again, then made an offhand remark. “I must say, Deviant feces smells an awful lot more like pig shit than I ever expected.”
“Ven, I am going to give you an opportunity,” Ahnbar answered, all the while ignoring Friedhoff’s attempts to elicit an emotional response.
“Oh, an opportunity,” answered Friedhoff, who continued to carry his sarcasm as a shield. “And here I thought you were the marines’ most well paid chef.”
“You’re in a unique position, Ven,” answered Ahnbar. “Our laws provide a chance for you to find a new life on Animus. All we need is a little help right now, and a signed agreement to enroll in one of our criminal rehabilitation programs. A second chance to engage in a proper society-”
“Schweinehund,” interrupted Friedhoff. “You have no idea what a Proper Society should be.”
“No, I understand it all too well.” Ahnbar pointed at the scar tissue on his forehead, from where his monitor used to be. “I understand that the Triumviriate had the best of intentions, but they have taken things much too far, Ven. They only deal in absolutes. I am giving you a chance to start over.”
Friedhoff went eerily silent. His sarcastic stare slowly melted into a glower of hatred. His hawklike blue eyes drilled at Ahnbar, with a slowly building sense of disgust.
“I’ll not tell you anything, General. You won’t break me.” He lifted his eyebrows. “Your second chances disgust me.”
General Ahnbar waited for a moment or two, then stood. He looked around the room, and spotted something lying in the corner; a spare bit of plasma tubing, most likely left behind when Friedhoff was tied up. He walked over and took the item, while brandishing a knife from his belt.
“I’ve always been fascinated by technology,” said Ahnbar. He began to shave away at the edge of the tubing. “This plasma tubing, for example. A very strong, resilient compound, and yet, flexible and easily cut by something as sharp as my standard issue marine corps field knife.” As he spoke, he began to cut off small shards of the tubing, and collected them in the palm of his hand. “It doesn’t crumble, it doesn’t shatter. It almost reminds me of bamboo.” He looked over at Friedhoff, and motioned toward him with his knife. “Have you… ever seen bamboo, Ven?”
Friedhoff smirked. “I hate chinese food.”
“According to legend, the chinese once used bamboo as a unique form of punishment. You see, they’d shave off little pieces, kind of like these.” He held up one of the shards he’d formed, to show it to Friedhoff. “They would insert these shards underneath the fingernails. Quite painful by itself. However, when soaked, the shards would… swell up. I’m told it was almost unbearable to witness.”
Friedhoff didn’t seem shaken by the General’s story. “You seem to think pain frightens me.”
“I’ve interrogated many of your people, Ven. I’ve never broken a LOPO agent.” He gave Friedhoff a rather intimidating smile, coupled with a change in his tone of voice that suggested he was not bluffing. “You, however, you’re different. You yourself said, Ven, that you’re not like one of those ‘drones’. You’ve been trained to live amongst us. You’re weak. You have a breaking point, and I promise you… I will find it.”
Friedhoff, still unshaken, simply grinned at the General, as if daring him to try. “Do your worst, Deviant pig.”
Ahnbar holstered his knife, and with his free hand, he rushed Friedhoff unexpectedly, grabbing the prisoner by his head.
Friedhoff tried to struggle, but was powerless in his bound position. Ahnbar bashed Friedhoff’s head into the thick tank of water behind him, just strong enough to disorient him. Then, he grabbed one of Friedhoff’s wrists. Ahnbar, being much stronger than the prisoner, was able to pry Friedhoff’s fingers open.
Slowly, Ahnbar began to force a shard of tubing between the fleshy skin and dirty fingernail of Friedhoff’s thumb. The prisoner’s body tensed, and released a howling scream of agony. Ahnbar continued to force the piece of tubing in, deeper and deeper, until his grip slipped on the fresh blood that seeped out.
Friedhoff’s screaming subsided just long enough for him to gasp a few breaths of air, before Ahnbar began to work on his index finger. Again, his body convulsed, and he let out a harrowing scream of anguish.
Once Ahnbar had finished with Friedhoff’s middle finger, he gave the prisoner a break. Friedhoff’s face now dripped with sweat and was tense with agony. His eyes, however, glowered with an embattled rage, a sign of his resistance training.
“You’re doing quite well, Ven,” spoke Ahnbar with a calm voice.
Friedhoff, on the other hand, replied through gasps of heated breath. “You… can go to hell… Deviant pig…”
“Please, Ven. Your people don’t really believe in hell.” Ahnbar glared at his subject. “Not yet.”
Friedhoff went into another bout of screaming when Ahnbar began to drill a particularly longer shard of tubing beneath the prisoner’s ring finger. This one took a while; Ahnbar could feel the tubing bend when it reached Friedhoff’s first knuckle.
When Friedhoff’s screaming died down, Ahnbar leaned very close to his ear, so as to whisper his next intimidating message. “The curious thing is… this flexible plasma tubing also expands, just like bamboo, when it comes into contact with water. And you know what?” He reached over and rapped on the water recycling tank with his fist. “I’ve plenty of that at hand.”
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, Praxis Zone 25, Praxis Region
“Here she is, Commander, as requested.”
Two marines, one of them Napine, had escorted Raquelle Prawley from the cargo bay to meet Commander Murray. She was still cooperating with them, but the near-rioting of her mercenary escort had altered Murray’s trust.
“Commander Murray.” Prawley’s voice hadn’t lost its silken edge. “Your hospitality could use improvement.”
“This is a warship, Prawley, not a cruise liner.” Murray nodded her head to the marines, who released their hold Raquelle’s arms.
She slipped a glowing purple wink at the marines, then looked back an Jenice with narrowed eyes. “Pity. I had hoped to enjoy some sight seeing.”
“Come with me,” answered Jenice. “We need to talk.”
“Fantastic,” purred Prawley. She followed Jenice down the entry corridor and toward the mess hall. As they went, they happened to pass by the closed hatch separating the corridor from the recycling chamber, where Ven Friedhoff was being tortured.
Slowing her steps, Prawley’s eyes seemed drawn to the muffled screams. She slowly licked her lips, then turned to Jenice with a sparkle in her eye. “Commander, I never took you for the type.” A smirk crawled across her dark skinned face. “I’ve misjudged you.”
Napine stepped up and nudged Prawley with his hand. “Keep moving.”
Prawley looked over her shoulder and blew a kiss toward him. “How fast?” she asked.
“That’s enough, Prawley,” interjected Jenice. “They’re just doing their jobs.”
“Not the job I would have done,” she cooed, and finally resumed her pace. “Is your engineer the one torturing the traitor?”
“I and my crew have nothing to do with it,” answered Jenice. “It wasn’t my call.”
“Do you honestly think he’ll talk?”
“LOPO never talks,” she answered. “However, those who have authorized it think there’s a chance.”
“You might reconsider your whitewashed ideals,” answered Prawley. “I’ve made agents talk before.”
Jenice wasn’t sure whether she could take Raquelle at her word, but the idea of Friedhoff spilling information gave her pause. She met the exotic woman’s mirthful eyes, and seemed to consider it for a moment. Choosing not to reply, she motioned instead to the mess hall’s open hatchway. “This way.”
Jenice poured two glasses of tea, setting one before Raquelle Prawley before taking a seat across from her. The marines stood guard at the door, which clearly had Prawley upset. Jenice noticed, however, that the fringer was quite talented at letting her feelings be shown, while keeping herself under control. She couldn’t say the same for Prawley’s men.
“As promised, Madame Prawley, I have gained approval from our General Command to reward you with a stolen enemy vessel, should this operation be successful.” She held up a hand to stop Prawley before she could reply. “I am going to ask your help with something. We need to balance the equation. To do that, we want to make an attempt to bait Peter Drake into a trap.”
Prawley’s eyes glimmered. She set down her drink, and began toying with one of the many gems that hung from bangs which she’d recently re-braided. “You want to bait one of the Triumvirate’s most cunning Admirals into a trap.” Her lips curled. “Commander, I have seen many things, but this one borders on insanity.”
“I don’t care, Prawley,” snapped Jenice. “Can you help, or can’t you?”
Prawley sat back in her chair, and crossed her legs. Her foot began bouncing slowly, her responses stretched out and intentional. “What kind of trap?”
“A strategic one. We need to trick his intelligence and scouting efforts into believing that our combined task force is significantly weaker than it really is.”
Prawley pointed a finger at her and asked, “How?”
“Ideally, we would sneak false intel into the LOPO secured channels, while you do the same with your fringer contacts.”
Prawley finally began to frown. “You’re asking a lot of me, Commander.”
Jenice nodded slowly. “I know.”
“My clients may be many things, including liars and thieves, but they trust me. That trust is not easily earned, Commander. If I tell them lies, they may operate on those lies. That will cost them lives, capital, and equipment.”
Jenice could appreciate those concerns. “You could tell them its a lie.”
Prawley shook her head. “You don’t understand fringers, Commander. Some of them will play along, yes. Others would take the lie straight to LOPO for reward money that I couldn’t possibly compete with.” The smile returned to her face. “I’d be much more interested in approaching this from the angle of Ven Friedhoff.”
Jenice’s frown deepened. “He won’t cooperate,” she pressed. “I promise you.”
“Tell me, Commander… was Ven Friedhoff born on Animus?”
Jenice hesitated. She was uncomfortable discussing personal information with Prawley, even if it was related to a traitor. He had rights, and those rights involved being treated with basic respect until proven guilty by the courts. It was this reason why she so adamantly had opposed General Ahnbar’s order of torture.
“No,” she answered. “Biofuel Colony at Mathis Two.”
“Mathis Two,” echoed Prawley. “There are fringe operations there, you know.” She nodded her head slowly. “Triumvirate territory, of course. I also understand it is a heavy recruiting area for the Coalition.”
Jenice was increasingly unnerved by how much information Prawley seemed to have. She was realizing that fringers could indeed make powerful allies. Her reservations, however, were built on solid ground. Any time one deals in illegal activities, the word of law and loyalty has no meaning. Money is king; everything else is secondary.
“That’s right,” she answered.
“I want you to provide me with a complete history on Ven Friedhoff,” Raquelle stated. “Educational records. Legal records. Military service records. Access to his personal log and computer files. Everything you, your military intelligence and civil agencies have. I want it, immediately.”
So boldly did Raquelle make her demands that Jenice found herself slackjawed and speechless.
“Is that so hard to make happen in our digital age, Commander?”
“No, it’s entirely illegal. I can’t make that happen.”
“Yes… you can.” Prawley set down her tea and smiled smugly.
The two of them stared at each other for a very long time. Jenice didn’t know what to do; she was a military commander and a talented strategist. She followed protocol. Decisions such as these were usually left to Alan, who was much better at it. She couldn’t dare try to think of some way to make this work, not to mention the potential repercussions of such an action.
“You have a superior officer who authorized the torture of Ven Friedhoff, yes?”
Jenice nodded. “That’s correct.”
“Then certainly this officer has the power to garnish the information.” Prawley folded her fingers thoughtfully. “Use him. You will not regret it.”
Jenice leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. “What will you do with the information?” she demanded.
“Don’t worry, Commander,” Prawley said, seeming to brush Jenice’s concerns off with the manner of her reply. “I’m not going to sell the information on the black market, or use it against you and your precious Coalition.”
Jenice’s silence suggested her answer wasn’t good enough.
“Just tell your superiors this. If you want Ven Friedhoff to talk, you will provide me with the information.”
The resuming silence made Jenice’s skin crawl.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she murmured.
Then, with a quick nod to the marines, Prawley was forced to stand. She didn’t say a word as they escorted her out of the mess hall.
Friedhoff’s screams reached Murray’s ears as a muted howl from around the bend. Once again, she was feeling backed into a corner. Reluctantly, she reached for her comm.
“Go ahead, Commander.”
She swallowed and tried her best to settle the feeling in her gut. “Find me the Intel attaché for General Ahnbar.”