Previously on Animus…
Jacob Kale has finally begun to understand more about his unique abilities, discovering he could bend and manipulate time in his mind’s eye. During a dangerous cascading jump to Earth, Jacob slowed time so that he could adjust a mis-calculation, saving them from certain death in causing into an inter-dimensional flux. Reaching the remains of Earth in the future, they began preparing for the next leg of their journey… to travel backwards through time.
Meanwhile in 2193, Jenice Murray has launched Operation Pearl Island – the dangerous move against Admiral Drake and his feared Atlas Fleet. While they waited for Drake to strike, Helen Dyson was reunited with her husband, Benneth, on Earth. In the safety and secrecy of Benneth’s quarters, she revealed to him secrets given by the martyr and LOPO agent, Kristopher Glosten. This file was a secret recording made by LOPO Director Lei Maiyao, and uncovered the details behind LOPO’s 804 Project. Now, Admiral Dyson knows that the catastrophe striking Sydney was a result of Marso-Deka Corp. experiments, and could arguably be blamed on the Triumvirate itself. Maiyao’s recording implicated Jacob Kale as the man could control, or even stop, these vergences with otherspace from growing more frequent and deadly.
However, before Dyson was able to make a decision, the LOPO Agent monitoring them broke into his quarters. Fearing for their lives and the safety of Proper Society, Helen made a definitive choice, and killed the agent with his own disruptor baton. The decisions made next by Admiral Dyson could determine the fate of the galaxy…
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Australian Province, Earth.
September 21st, 2193
Admiral Dyson stepped out of his quarters with swift silence. He tugged his shell-shocked wife along with a firm hand. The facts that had just been revealed to them were clearly intended for secrecy, or Director Maiyao would have disclosed them to him personally. Perhaps the LOPO agent named “Glosten” had special orders that somehow involved his family; perhaps he was operating rogue. Either way, Dyson had to think fast.
The entire situation had changed. Helen may have made the right choice when she killed Agent Aero, but it was entirely against protocol. A loyalist would have reported it to LOPO, and let them sort it all out.
Benneth Dyson had no love for LOPO. He did, however, love his wife.
There was one avenue left, but it would only buy them scant time. A special clause existed within Yellow Star Alliance regulations. Regulation 400.2 stipulated that a temporary lock down of LOPO assets would be warranted, but only in the case that LOPO assets aboard a starship or series of starships proved to be inoperable or deviant. This regulation’s existence was only known by those with a Level-14 classification or higher.
Right now, that meant him.
Enacting General Order 400.2 was a stupendous risk. It would draw the crosshairs of the entire Civil Triumvirate onto him. If it turned out that Benneth had made the right move, he would be at the very least rewarded. However, if anything else… his career, his life, even the lives of his family, would all be forfeit.
Helen, however, had already forced his hand. Benneth no longer had a choice.
Once outside, he took a good, hard look at the security keypad on his door. Then, he shared a glance with Helen, frowning. “Helen,” he whispered, “you need to trust me now, and keep quiet.”
She looked back at him, nodded her head, and began wiping her tear-stained face clean.
Benneth pressed a red key, and heard a confirming chirping sound. “Computer, Admiral of the Fleet, authorization code one zero zero alpha zero.”
“Voiceprint confirmed,” spoke a mechanical voice.
“Activate General Order four-hundred point two, effective immediately.”
A chirping alert sound came from the keypad. The mechanical voice spoke again. “General Order four-hundred point two. Please confirm you wish to proceed, Admiral.”
Dyson nearly cut the voice off. “Affirmative. Proceed with General Order four-hundred point two, immediately.”
Suddenly, the halls were filled with a quiet, eerie alarm. It sang with a tune unlike anything he’d heard in decades of service to the navy. The neutral lighting in the hallway, and even across the entire flagship, was replaced by a soft and foreboding blue glow, with flashing yellow strobes lining the corridor.
“Come on, Helen.” Benneth took his wife by the hand and led her down the hallway, back toward the flashpads.
“Benneth! What on earth is happening?”
“I’ve locked down all LOPO operations for the time being,” he explained.
“Can you do that?” she gasped.
“Only in extreme circumstances,” he explained. “It’s very risky.” He turned a corner and motioned toward the flashpads. “I need you to come to the bridge, stay in my ready room, and do not speak with anybody. Do not answer any questions. Do you understand?”
Helen nodded nervously at him, and stepped up onto one of the empty flashpads. Benneth stepped up next to her, then turned and took her hands in his. He took a moment to look deeply into her eyes, trying to channel his own strength into her.
“It’s going to be okay,” he whispered.
“I hope so,” she replied. Her eyes started to glisten again, and her voice trembled. “Benneth, there… there were… bodies, coming out of the clouds.”
If he didn’t know her better, he might have thought she’d gone mad. However, she looked at him with such conviction that he knew she was telling the truth. He squeezed her hands gently and nodded without a word, before letting go.
“Computer. Command level, bridge.”
The world flashed around them. Benneth saw the familiar sight of his bridge, and heard one of the officers announce his presence. The bridge, like the rest of the ship, had been cast in blue lighting, signifying the activation of General Order 400.2
“Admiral on deck!”
Benneth stepped off the flashbay. He ignored the strange looks some of the officers gave to the woman accompanying him. Instead, he motioned toward one of the Legion soldiers standing near the flashbay. “Sub-corporal, escort Doctor Dyson to my ready room.”
The Commodore rushed over to him, with a pensive look drawn across his face. “Admiral, Sir.”
“Take us to Orbital Platform L-200.” Benneth glanced to the side, watching as the Legion soldier escorted his wife toward the ready room. She was watching him as she walked, with lips drawn into a thin line.
“Aye, sir,” said West, and turned to pass the order along with a wordless motion.
Benneth approached the now vacant command chair. From the corner of his eye, he noticed two LOPO agents, who’d collapsed on the deck in the corner of the bridge. These were the agents assigned to monitor bridge operations. When he’d enacted General Order 400.2, their monitors had shut down all but their primary motor control functions, placing them into a closely controlled coma.
“I want a full status update,” demanded Benneth with a strong voice. “What’s going on out there?”
Commodore West followed. “Admiral, we’ve received reports of similar atmospheric incidents forming across the planet. None of them nearly as severe as what’s happening over Eastern Australia. However, sitreps from the ground indicate that…”
Dyson sat down in the command chair and fixed his Commodore with a stern eye. “Out with it, Commodore!”
“Sir,” he faltered. “We’re getting reports that, well… corpses are falling from the clouds.”
Benneth’s eyes darted up, and fixed the Commodore with a cold look. “Corpses? Are you certain?”
“Yes, Admiral. Corpses, debris, large pieces of unfamiliar structures. I wouldn’t believe the reports if LOPO hadn’t certified their-”
“I believe the reports, Commodore,” Dyson interrupted. “I’ve acquired sensitive intel suggesting these incidents are the result of MDC experiments.”
“But, sir,” West replied, “LOPO claims it’s the Coalition.”
“It’s not the Coalition, Stephen!” Dyson barked. “My intel is confirmed. This is worse than I thought. Get this ship to platform L-200 on the double, and make sure the woman in my ready room is not disturbed!”
Commodore West snapped to attention. “Right away, Sir!”
Dyson punched a button on his chair, triggering a ship-wide broadcast. “All hands, this is Admiral Dyson,” he declared. “We are condition blue, battle stations. This is not a drill. Repeat, we are condition blue, all hands to battle stations.”
L.M.V. Praetor, Earth’s Remains.
February 13th, 2241
In a small ready room located just aft of the Praetor‘s bridge, Captain Metler called a meeting with Jacob and Riles. They’d spent the better part of an hour discussing strategies, presuming that Jacob was able to get them back to 2193.
Captain Metler had gone over the ship’s database, studying the futuristic technology now available to them. The ship’s hull was constructed of a compound none of them had ever heard of before, not even Jacob. Called ‘rhyofene’, this compound was apparently discovered in 2229. It was virtually impervious to all forms of attack, save some of the super-powered lasers developed by the Marso-Deka Corporation. The ship would be nearly invincible in 2193, unless they came face to face with a ship like the Y.S.A.D. Benedict. Even then, the weaponry aboard Praetor was significantly advanced. Most likely, the Marso-Deka Corporation hadn’t even begun developing some of it’s advanced munitions in 2193.
Riles had tested some of the LOPO armor they had found aboard the stolen interceptor. It was impervious to almost every type of weapon the enemy employed in 2193. The personal weapons they’d found were similarly advanced, mostly plasma-laser munitions and disruptor pistols.
“The way I figure,” Riles said, “Long as we don’t get too close to the bastards, we oughta be able t’ take on an entire army just by ourselves.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” answered Metler. “Advanced armor or not, I’d rather not find myself at the center of an orbital bombardment.”
Riles smirked. “Dunno, Cappy. Might put some hair on yer chest.”
“Let’s talk about strategy, objectives,” Metler went on. “The best way to distract Drake is to draw all eyes to Earth. We have access to LOPO history files claiming that on the target date, a series of weather anomalies began striking Earth. We can expect general pandemonium on the Mother Planet; Proper Society hasn’t dealt with disasters like these in over a hundred years. Our first order of business will be to locate a LOPO access point, and have Jane hack into it.”
“Steal intel?” asked Riles.
“That,” replied Metler, “and plant something. A virus, a message, something to make them realize that he is here.” He nodded his head toward Jacob, indicatively.
Riles leaned over and slapped Jacob on the shoulder. “Ya’ smell like bait too, rabbit.”
Jacob sneered at Riles for a moment. “Thanks, Riles.”
“We’re also going to look for our missing intel agent, Alec Troy. If he’s alive, LOPO will have him locked up somewhere extremely secure.” The Captain looked between Jacob and Riles, a dire expression on his face. “This is secondary to diverting the engagement with Drake, but while we’re there, we might as well go for him.”
“That’ll tickle Ivanov’s panties,” quipped Riles.
“Show some respect, Riles,” said Metler. “The Klius Op. was supposed to be about exfiltrating Troy. If we come home with him in tow, all the better.”
Captain Metler turned to study Jacob for a moment next. “You think you’re ready for this, Kale?”
“Yes, sir,” Jacob nodded. “I’ve finally figured out what I need to do.”
“What, exactly is that, Jacob?” asked Metler.
Jacob leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the table between them. “Colonel Wilco helped me put together some arithmetic. We’ve agreed that these anomalies are linked not only in location, but also across time. There are historical data files to prove it. The equations were pretty heavy, but, we believe that if the ship enters one of these echoes at a specific point in space, we can travel backward through time and end up on Earth, during the first incident.”
“Sydney, September 21st,” Riles remarked.
“2193,” added Metler. “Sounds plausible, but I’m still lost on how the hell you’re gonna do it.”
“To put it bluntly,” Jacob answered, “I think I’ve discovered how to manipulate space and time. I will attempt this while we’re trapped inside the original anomaly’s echo.”
Riles smirked, and leaned back into his seat. “Bullshit.”
“It’s not ‘bullshit’,” answered Jacob. It felt odd to use vulgarity the way Riles did, for it hadn’t been built into his natural lexicon. “During the cascading jump, Jane’s calculations were off by less than one hundredth of a degree. It would’ve caused an inter-dimensional flux, but I went to her station and corrected it during the seventh jump.”
Captain Metler shared a look with Riles that was unmistakable. They didn’t believe him, because technically, what he was saying was physically impossible.
“Check the navigational records,” Jacob said, and sat back into his seat. He motioned toward the table before Captain Metler, where a touchpad interface sat idling. “Go on.”
Scowling, Metler reached out and keyed a few commands into the touchpad. A few moments later, he looked up incredulously. “How in the hell…”
“Like I said,” Jacob answered. “I seem to be able to manipulate time.”
“Must be what they were testin’ on him in that monkey room,” Riles told the Captain.
Metler took in a deep breath and cleared his screen. “Well, then.” He looked over at Jacob with a sense of hesitant approval, eventually nodding his head after a long silence. “I think that’s it.” He stood up. “Let’s get to it.”
Jacob stood as well, but as Riles left and Metler headed for the door, he remained. Before leaving, Metler turned and looked back at him.
“Jacob?” he asked, curiously.
Turning, Jacob looked across the room at Captain Metler, frowning. “Captain…” He was about to attempt something that had always been considered impossible, and he wasn’t even sure why he was doing it. All along, an odd mixture of logic and emotion had driven him. Every motion, every decision, he’d calculated like a computer; and yet, the only reason he did any of it was because of the strange empathy and feelings of trust that had been developing in his soul. Feelings for these people, which he assumed were as close to ‘friends’ as he’d ever find.
“Can you tell me about Animus?” he asked.
Captain Metler seemed surprised to hear the question, but after giving it a moment’s thought, a look of understanding came to him. He started walking back toward Jacob at a slow, casual pace.
“Well, it’s one of the most beautiful planets you’ll ever see,” started Metler. “The sky there, it’s different than on Earth. It’s brighter, more colorful.” Reminiscence filled his face and echoed in his voice, like that of a lover who’d not seen his partner in far too long. “Dusk there is the most fascinating thing, Jacob, especially at Weatherly Canyon. There are forests, vast forests… tall mountains, broad oceans…”
Jacob felt emotion swelling in his chest. The way Captain Metler described Animus made him feel weak inside, as if he might need to sit or fall to his knees. “Was it terraformed?” he interrupted.
“No,” answered Metler, quickly. His eyes brightened as a smile transformed his pensive face. “It’s one of, I think, seven known planets in the galaxy that did not require terraforming. There are creatures there, Jacob. Strange creatures unlike any we’d ever seen before. Many of them are dangerous, but we’ve domesticated quite a handful. And the cities! Our architects have created a whole new realm of visual artistry, unlike anything they’ll spew under LOPO restrictions.”
Jacob tucked his hands behind his back, to hide clenching fingers from the Captain. He nodded his thanks with a smile. “Thank you, Sir. I just… wanted to know what I was fighting for.”
“Keep fighting, Jacob. One day, you’ll see it with your own eyes.” Metler motioned for the door. “Alright Lieutenant, move your ass. We’ve got a train to catch.”
C.S.C. Lilith’s Omen, Wexel System, Terran Region.
September 21st, 2193
Nearly the sum of an hour had passed, and the wait was vexing to say the least. A Yeoman, too young to be serving on this kind of mission, had stopped by moments ago to relieve Jenice of her empty coffee cup. She smiled politely as the young man turned and rushed off, collecting some other spent items from her bridge staff.
Leaning forward, Jenice wrapped her hands together and watched. Her eyes danced between the forward window and the tactical plot, which was etched into a 2D display on the arm of her command chair.
Still no sign of Drake.
Another ten minutes went by. Perched on pins and needles, Jenice sat and waited for any sign that Drake had arrived. She didn’t doubt for a second that he’d come, but had begun wondering if he were intentionally taking his time. For what reason, she wondered, to sweat them? If so, it was working. She could tell that her staff was growing more anxious by the moment. Something needed to happen, soon.
At long last, an alert siren wailed. Ensign Skyles darted over to his console, and called out a report. “Incoming vessels! Sector five, two-sixty mark fifteen!”
Jenice sat upright. “Activate shields! Charge all weapons and prepare to fire. Mr. Charles, full reverse, move into attack position.”
The bridge became alight with activity. Crewmembers called out updates as they carried out her orders. With a rumble of the engines, Lilith’s Omen was spun about in space, stars streaking past the window, until the incoming vessels appeared as small, growing dots ahead. It would take time for the corvette to reverse her momentum through the vacuum, so they soared backward through space, facing the enemy vessels in a head on, mock retreat.
“I read four enemy cruisers,” called Ensign Bāhir. “Three Cutlass-class, one Khopesh.”
“It’s Drake!” replied Jenice. “He’s here.”
“They’re launching fighters.” Ensign Skyles leaned forward, peering closely at his tactical display. “Um, all of them, I think!”
“Ten minutes to full reverse velocity,” reported Lieutenant Charles.
“We’ll just have to fight them this way,” answered Jenice.
“Commander,” interrupted Bāhir, “He’s hailing us.”
Jenice stood up. Everyone else had gone quiet. She observed her crewmates quietly for a few moments, before acknowledging Bāhir. “Put him up.”
The polarized viewfield came alive, and they were treated with an ugly picture of Admiral Drake’s pockmarked face. A white Legionnaire Navyman’s cap concealed his hair, but a vicious sneer stared at them via eyes so hazel they presented themselves a sickly yellow.
“You must be Jenice Murray,” he declared. “The deviant strumpet who eats from Alan Metler’s hand.”
A flicker of hatred crawled up her spine and nestled itself in her neck. He had a way of trimming his words with such distaste and abhorrence that she felt them etched with malice, nibbling at her soul like those of a vampire. She despised men like Drake the most; these brainwashed fanatics who carried out the Triumvirate’s orders without question or hesitation.
“And you must be Drake,” she countered. “The Butcher of Di’Amadè.”
“Is that what they call me now?” Drake cocked his head curiously. “Di’Amadè was a grand day for the Triumvirate. Over ten-thousand deviants abrogated.”
“Filthy braggart,” Jenice spat. A part of her was just putting on a show, hoping to provoke Drake and distract him for as long as possible. She knew that Ensign Bāhir had already reported Drake’s arrival via the Hunt Link; Captain Crosley would be along soon. However, a part of her truly hated his face, even his existence. It wasn’t hard to present herself as such. “I hope you enjoy being little more than a pawn of Warlord Brecke. What do you want with us?”
“Jacob Kale is aboard your ship,” answered Drake. Leering at her through the connection, his yellow eyes became a hollow tunnel to a dirty soul. “I want him.”
Jenice quickly fired back with a blatant bluff. “Jacob Kale, who’s that?”
“Do NOT insult me, you waste!” he growled, and leveled a threatening finger at her. “If you don’t hand Kale over, I will take him from you!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, then pointed an accusing finger right back at him. “I will not stand here and be insulted by you, Drake! If you attack us, I promise it will not go well for you.”
“Commander Murray,” Drake leered. “My vessel alone is powerful enough to crush you like-”
Jenice turned to Bāhir and made a slicing motion across her neck. Bāhir obeyed, cutting off the transmission at once.
“That went well,” murmured Skyles.
“Commander,” reported Charles, “I’ve calculated their approach. Fighters will be in attack range in two minutes.”
“They’ve locked weapons,” reported Skyles.
“Defensive pattern Sammy Six!” shouted Jenice.
“Incoming torpedoes, full spread from each cruiser!” answered Skyles.
“Mother of Christ,” cursed Jenice. “Skyles, return fire, keep unloading until we’ve used one quarter munitions!”
“Aye,” cried Skyles, who immediately began sending commands to the armory.
From far away in space, it was a sight to see. Drake’s massive vessel bore down on Lilith’s Omen as she backpedaled away through space. Small, glowing dots closed the distance between them; as they collided in the shrinking gap, tiny but furious explosions erupted.
Lieutenant Charles was putting Lilith’s Omen to the test. He twisted and thrusted her about, evading many of the incoming torpedoes as they broke Skyles’ defenses and soared dangerously close. Ensign Bāhir, ignoring everything else, was furiously updating her sensor screen in an attempt to keep throwing off Drake’s scans.
Flames exploded across the forward window when incoming torpedoes began striking the Omen‘s shields. The ship was rocked back and forth, and the crew shouted updates rapidly over the cacophony of battle. The lights flickered and a few terminals were temporarily knocked offline, but otherwise, they were handling Drake’s initial assault well.
“Down one quarter munitions,” reported Skyles. “Shields destabilized, seventy percent!”
“Comm, report that as twenty percent,” shouted Jenice. “Skyles, keep firing until you hit exactly half of our munitions.” She was momentarily cut off as a torpedo blast knocked her sideways. “Then, cease fire!”
Jenice worried about the ship. She needed to keep the vessel at least nominally operational, while tricking Drake into believing they’d been disabled. Most of this rested on Ensign Bāhir’s talents, but Jenice had to make the right calls. Everything depended on timing. If Drake suspected that something was out of place, he might take a more definitive action.
“Fifty percent!” cried Skyles. “Ceasing fire!”
Jenice darted forward, adrenaline spiked. “Helm, cut all engine activity. Kill all running lights.” She punched her comm channel to the engine room. “Rashid, take the engines off line, now! Full shut down!”
Leaning back into the chair, she tried to maintain an air of calm, but her fingers were gripping the armrests so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. The rumble quieted fast as the engines were taken offline, and when Lieutenant Charles ceased corrective motions, the stars began floating about listlessly outside. They were playing dead.
Two more explosions detonated nearby the ship, but the last few torpedoes spun off harmlessly into space, disengaged. Clearly, Drake wanted them alive. An apprehensive silence gripped everyone, until soft sounds from the computers became their only soundtrack.
Ensign Bāhir broke the silence. “Commander. The Crusader is hailing us again.”
Jenice stood up at once. She straightened her tunic and nodded to Bāhir. “Open a channel.”
There was a chirping sound before Peter Drake’s ugly face filled the screen again. “Commander Murray,” he sneered, “Like a little girl, you’ve been spanked for throwing such a tantrum. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”
Without turning away from the image, Jenice ignored the remarks. “Munitions status,” she requested.
Ensign Skyles piped up. “Commander, we only have two torpedoes left.”
Good work from Skyles; he’d picked up her cue, and played along with her bluff.
“Target the Crusader‘s bridge and prepare to fire on my order.”
Drake leaned back into his command chair and began laughing. “Commander, Commander. You’ve proven yourself so valiant! Do not waste your last two torpedoes on me! Save them for the fringers, who’ll feed their inbred children from the scraps of your derelict ship.” His singsong mockery changed and he leaned forward, adopting the malicious voice she was most familiar with. “Where’s Alan Metler?”
Jenice didn’t know if Alan was aboard Crusader or not, but Drake’s question posed a significant challenge. Intel they had gleaned from the LOPO networks had clearly stated that Alan, Jacob, Jane and Riles were not in Triumvirate custody, but intel was not always reliable. Drake would assume that wherever Alan Metler was, Jacob Kale would be there also. She had to convince him that Alan was aboard Lilith’s Omen, and for some reason, not sitting at the command chair. during such an important moment. This was the biggest risk she was about to take. It would buy them time, hopefully enough for Crosley to arrive and shake things up. However, the moment Drake found out she was lying, he’d kill them all. She had to stall him for just a little longer.
Jenice took a defiant step toward the viewscreen. She poured her heart into it, acting almost as if the lie was in fact true. “He’s dead now, you son of a bitch,” she hissed. “Engine room. Hull breach. Check your scans!”
Jenice said a silent prayer for the talents of Evren Bāhir. This bluff was a long shot, and she knew it.
Drake stared silently at her for a horribly long moment. Then, at long last, he spoke up. “Another triumphant day.” A smirk took Drake’s face and he leaned back into his seat. “Commander, as you can see now, you have no choice. Surrender your vessel and hand over Jacob Kale at once.”
Jenice pretended to consider Drake’s proposal, even going so far as to rub her chin with a thoughtful gesture. After a few moments, she posed a hesitant question. “If we cooperate, Admiral… what will you give us in return?”
A power-hungry grin took Drake, revealing teeth too perfect and white for his ugly face. “Well, I suppose we can waive the death penalty,” he mused. “I’ll recommend re-assimilation to Admiral Dyson. I’m sure we can find some way for you to contribute to Proper Society.”
“To hell with that,” she spat back. “Mr. Charles, get us out of here!”
“We only have reserve power, Commander,” bluffed Charles.
She overheard Drake, who had turned and was speaking to someone on his ship. “Prepare the grapplers.”
“I don’t care,” she spat. “Give me whatever you can!”
Lieutenant Charles spun back over to his console. “Aye, Ma’am.”
“There’s no escape, Deviants!” Drake declared. “You’re a stain on humanity and I will eradicate you!”
“Shut him off!” Jenice swiped her hand toward Bāhir, and breathed a sigh of relief when Drake’s image disappeared. “Excellent work, people. I think he’s taken the bait. Tactical, he’ll capture us and drag us into forced dock with his grapplers. Go ahead and fire two torpedoes, but program them for indirect detonation.”
“Commander?” asked Skyles, who’d turned to look at her with a perplexed face.
“We need to stall him as long as possible, which means getting captured,” she explained. “Make it look good, Mr. Skyles.”
“Aye,” Skyles answered, and turned back around to comply.
“Comm, I want you to wait until the last possible second before transmitting your packet to the Triumphant. He may have reinforcements hiding out, and I want to draw them out if possible.”
“Yes, Commander,” answered Bāhir.
Lilith’s Omen had spun about and was now fleeing on ion thrusters alone. The significantly larger Triumvirate vessels were closing. Crusader had deployed a trio of grapplers – these guided devices would seek out a starship and latch onto its hull with powerful magnetic couplers, connected to the host vessel by long, gilite-fused cables.
Commander Murray walked back to the command chair. As she said, the Crusader‘s grapplers latched onto the Omen‘s hall with a series of muted thumps.
Everyone on the bridge lurched forward for a moment. The inertial compensators, which helped to create a somewhat Earth-like gravity experience, had the unfortunate effect of over-compensating during turbulent moments like these. Jenice scowled, then watched patiently as Ensign Skyles fired two torpedoes from the aft launchers.
The torpedoes soared out into space and exploded, each one very close to the grappling cables. However, the cables came through unharmed, as she’d ordered.
Jenice folded her arms. “Good work, Ensign. Now, we wait until he has us.” She activated her comm panel. “Major Grisham, prepare your troops. We’re being captured by the Crusader.”
Y.S.A.D. Benedict, Earth, Sol System.
A hazy blue wash from the Earth’s atmosphere dropped away, leaving orbital platform L-200 in view from the YSAD Benedict‘s massive forward windows. The platform extended into space from its moorings in the snowfields of the Soviet Province far below. At this distance, the disc-like, angular structure seemed so very peaceful, but Admiral Dyson knew better. The platform housed one of LOPO’s major facilities in the Sol System. It was well defended, and concealed many of LOPO’s most opprobrious operations. A slew of large starships hovered in the platform’s vicinity; vessels under Dyson’s own command in the Mother Fleet. There was no doubt that they were positioning themselves appropriately – to escort and protect his vessel, unless otherwise ordered to attack. The bridge remained preternaturally quiet; the command staff was clearly on edge.
“Launch fighters,” directed Dyson. “Escort formation.”
“Aye, sir,” answered Commodore West. “Launching fighters.”
“Bring us to boarding platform five,” continued Dyson. “Inform Director Fleming that I wish to speak with General Vereor in person.”
Hundreds of starfighters came pouring out of the behemoth at Dyson’s command. These small, one- or two-man spacecraft circled the Benedict until they’d taken up their escort positions, then matched the flagship’s speed as it approached the platform. A tactical plot flashed briefly across one of the forward windows, indicating that the various starships of the Mother Fleet were positioning themselves in what could only be described as a gauntlet, lining their approach at periodic intervals.
The platform grew larger as they approached, until the intricacies of the massive structure became clear to the naked eye. Like most orbital platforms, it was wider in diameter near the planetary edge, and tapered into a smooth, smaller upper deck. The utilitarian contour of its outer hull was peppered by circular portholes that glowed with color from the inside. Running lights, positioned strategically, flashed ice blue and white, wherever the sun’s rays weren’t glinting bright orange off the dutanium hull. Various communication arrays stuck out from the top, stretching toward space and the stars beyond.
Commodore West turned away from the spectacle. “Admiral, I have a response from Director Fleming. He’s… understandably perturbed.”
“I’m sure he is,” answered Dyson. “Has he arranged for my request?”
“Yes, sir,” answered West. “He says that General Vereor is conducting a highly classified interrogation, at the-”
“The SOCEPOM facility,” interjected Dyson. His tone was intentionally forceful; he had to maintain the upper hand as long as he could. “Have Fleming inform the General that I will be arriving at the facility in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes, very good, sir.”
“Continue with the docking procedures.” Admiral Dyson stood up. For a moment, he watched as a series of umbilical docking tubes snaked out from the platform, reaching for his massive vessel. They would clamp the Benedict in place, fill with pressurized air, and provide safe passage from his ship to the platform.
“Commodore, your orders are to keep the Benedict on lockdown until you hear from me directly. Execute comm silence otherwise. Understood?”
“Yes sir.” Commodore West seemed uncomfortable, but he nodded his head curtly nonetheless. “Understood, sir.”
L.M.V. Praetor, Earth’s Remains.
February 13th, 2241
There was energy in the air. Jacob wasn’t sure if it were his imagination, or if some mysterious force had supercharged the molecules his body swam in. Superimposed on the forward window was a large clock. It counted down to the moment when, by his calculations, the next aftershock would occur.
“Two minutes ’til game time,” remarked Riles, who’d strapped in at the tactical station.
“Is it me,” asked Jane, “or are things starting to feel a bit prickly?”
Jane rolled her eyes and quipped, “Shut it, laser-brain.”
Captain Metler interrupted their typical banter by calling up the engine room. “Colonel? How are we down there?”
Johnny Wilco’s voice snapped over the comm. “Oh, she’s buzzin’ alright, Cap’n. Havin’ a hell of a time figuring out how this reactor chomps, but she’s purrin’ like a puss.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” replied Metler.
“Take her easy, alright mate? I am getting some cracked readings on the EM meters.”
“We’ll do what we can from up here. Stay sharp.”
They waited. Each ticking second of the clock seemed to stretch rancorously onward. The vessel was in position. Jacob had calculated their spatial coordinates, based on astrographical data built by the computers to compensate for fluxuations across the span of time. While the vessel floated now between two of the shattered planet’s largest pieces, they would presumably arrive in the heart of the vergence striking Sydney on September 21st, 2193.
The imagery from between the gargantuan pieces of decimated planet was astounding. They could see the crags and divots that once were seabed, submerged canyons, and the spill of continents into an airless sky. Pieces of the late Mother Planet now floated about as asteroids, lit harshly by rays of sunlight that pierced the spaces between.
“T-Minus thirty seconds,” murmured Metler.
Jacob fought to keep his hands from shaking, to focus on the task at hand and ignore fears of the great unknown. As well programmed and immaculately trained he was, he simply couldn’t ignore the near-paralyzing fear that grappled at him with every ticking second of the clock.
It happened slowly at first. Shimmering, sparkling flashes of blue and white began appearing around the ship. Rapidly, they became more frequent, until the bridge was blinded by a constant wash of flashing light.
Jacob was thrown, without warning, into his crash harness. A deafening noise filled his head, threatening to blot out all of his other senses. A surge of adrenaline blasted his body. His eyes, which had slammed shut on instinct, were pried open by shock and awe.
Through the window, Jacob could only at first see a haze of blue and white, swirling about the ship in erratic patterns. He could distinctly hear the alert sirens, which were blasting about the bridge, warning the vessel of imminent danger.
The choices he made came to him purely on instinct. Just as before, in his quarters, he imagined his life playing in reverse. This time, the memories flashed by so fast, they became a blur. At the same time, he felt everything around him slowing down. Slowing, and slowing.
Remembering what had happened in his quarters, Jacob bent his mind against the inevitable darkness. He did not give in to it; he refused it. He loathed it; he overpowered it. He felt his mind ripped free from the body hosting it, relieving himself from anxiety and the feelings of gravity as the vessel spun about in limbo.
He felt nothing; he merely existed.
He saw the Earth being put back together, reformed by a bright shear of light that ran away from it into the recesses of space. He saw the skies darkening with the blackness of pollution. He saw the globe gradually covering itself with ice, then melting away to a lush mixture of green and brown. Eventually, the blue of water took over, covering nearly the entire planet in its grasp.
When the planet began to melt before him, he started to worry. The rick blues and bright greens became cloud and rock. Soon, both melted into a globe of red, protoplanetary magma.
How is this possible? Have I gone too far?
The thought only lasted a moment. Flashing like distant memories, the red ball began splitting apart into millions of pieces. He thought of the Earth, being formed out of a massive, protoplanetary disc by accretion; he was seeing it in reverse. Rocks split apart into a maelstrom of chaos, until only dust was left. There were two blinding flashes of light, and then, Jacob felt something incredibly massive beginning to pull him toward its center.
The masses of dust began spiraling toward some infinite point in the distance. Jacob felt certain that the LOPO vessel was being pulled toward it just the same. He opened his mouth as if to scream, but in that moment, everything was deafened by an impossibly loud sound. The glare outside became so blindingly bright that Jacob was forced to close his eyes, and even then, he felt a searing heat piercing his eyelids and cutting right into his mind.
Everything slowed to a crawl. Time felt as if it might slow down so much that they’d all become trapped in a state of absolute zero. Light became nothing, and they were left in utter darkness.
Unable to open his eyes, Jacob stretched his mind, just as he did during their cascading jump, when he saw Jane’s navigational console without even laying eyes on it. The vantage point of his mind’s eye seemed to leap light years beyond his self. He saw a glowing spectrum of color filling his vision, only for a few brief moments, before those colors were sucked into one definitive point in space. Everything roiled into a ball of fiery red and white, before all that he knew was replaced by a brilliant flash of energy.
Sheer, ultimate power.
When the light faded, colors of every shade were expelled into the blackness of space once more, then faded into blackness.
Did I just witness the big bang? Is this the formation of the universe that we know? The end? Is this even possible?
Panic struck him as quickly as the thought materialized; as quickly as his mind witnessed the formation of the universe around him. Flashes of light formed around him, and soon, he could perceive clouds of dust, which seemed to materialize out of nothingness. A familiar, searing heat pressed against his eyelids like the unforgiving flames of solar fire.
Another fleeting series of thoughts danced through his mind, like leaves being blown by cosmic winds.
Space-time. Infinite possibilities, dictated only by our perception of the world around us. The expanding and contracting of the universe. Time travel. The big bang. Have we traveled to the formation of everything? Are we traveling back through the formation of everything? Is this how we get back to 2193? How do I pull us out? How did I put us in? Did I do any of this at all, or am I God?
Against his better judgment, Jacob pried his eyes open. He recognized the angular steel and titanium making up the Praetor’s bridge; the oval-shaped curve of the forward window; the brilliant colors of a protoplanetary cloud surrounding them. He saw pieces of rock being bashed together at speeds so fast they seemed ironically angelic. Then, a breathtaking curve of red-hot magma formed beneath the ship, flowing with destructive explosions. The red matter began to cool into rock; steam exploded from fissures in the ground; eventually the brilliant blue of water took its place. The Earth, created before his very eyes.
Jacob wasn’t sure what happened next. He only felt his heart being filled with some desperate desire to get back to where they meant to be. He wanted to arrive at Sydney. Sydney, in the Australian Province, September 21st, 2193. No sooner, no later. He merely blinked, that’s all. He blinked, and there they were, surrounded by debris, lightning, ferocious winds and violent rainfall.
Jacob sucked air into his lungs with violent gasps, as if he’d never breathed before. He lurched against his crash belt and spewed vomit onto the deck. Still gasping for air, he looked to his right. Jane was having a similar reaction; she’d opened her eyes, gasping for air, and grabbed at her harness as if it were strangling her.
“C… Captain!” he cried, unable to turn his eyes any farther. “Captain Metler!”
Relief flooded him when he heard Metler’s voice.
“Kale! What the-“ A violent cough cut off Metler for a moment. “What the hell, status, now, damnit now! Where the hell are we?”
Collecting himself, Jacob rapidly examined his console amid the ship’s violent rocking at the hand of ferocious winds outside. The readouts lifted his heart, a welcome feeling to the paralyzing fear he’d suffered. “Location, Sydney!” he cried. “Chronometric readings are off the charts!”
“Get us out of here!” shouted Metler. “Veston, get the scanners online! Find us a way through this mess!”
Unable to speak, Jane flinched and instinctively dashed her hands across the console before her. Her lips opened, but no sound came out at first. She gagged quietly, before finally finding the strength to speak. “Ja… Jacob… set zero three seven, ascend point seven to three thousand meters!”
“Copy,” answered Jacob. Grabbing the ship’s controls, he began turning against the violent maelstrom to 37 degrees, while engaging the interceptor’s thrusters. “Zero three seven, aye. Ascending to three thousand.”
Visibility was completely shrouded by the ferocious storm. There was lightning, debris, thick clouds of smoke and streaks of water, but they could see nothing else. They had to trust the vessel’s proximity sensors to warn them of any obstructions, such as stratotowers or other ships. Fortunately, they encountered no such deadly obstacles.
What they did encounter brought reactions from them all.
A human corpse came out of the fray, smashing against the window with arms and legs prostate. Jane shrieked, Riles cursed, Metler yelped. Jacob stared at the body for a moment; its skin was scorched black, with dead eyes glaring at him through the window. He couldn’t tell if it were one man or a woman, but it was knocked away when another body glanced against it and spun off into the maelstrom.
“Jesus Christ!” cried Metler.
“Hold on!” Jacob fired the vessel’s emergency boosters, and the whole lot of them were slammed violently into their seats. Two more bodies glanced against the window, leaving behind a smear of blood. Jacob grit his teeth and held his ground, unwavering from their flight until they were clear of the destructive storm.
As the clouds parted, the darkness of a dusk sky was unveiled. The Coral Sea stretched out beneath them to the right, with the curve of Australia’s northeastern shore before them. They could barely make out the Australian Province’s northern peninsula and the island beyond in the distance.
“I reckon that there’s Australia, folks,” murmured Riles.
“Yes, but when,” replied Captain Metler. “Kale, is that chronometric reading up?”
Jacob tried again to calibrate the chronometric scanner. It took a moment to calculate the Earth’s position against recorded solar cycles, but when it was finished, he breathed a sigh of relief. They had arrived.
“Aye, Captain,” he answered. “September 21st… 2193.” He released his crash harness and spun around to look at Metler. “Right on time, sir.”
Releasing his harness as well, Metler stood and stared outside, dumbfounded. “I don’t believe it,” he whispered.
“Believe it or not, sir… we’re here.”
Jane, who’d been tapping at her console, nodded her head and spun around as well. “Confirmed, Captain.” She turned to look at Jacob, and shook her head. “What did you do?”
Jacob looked back at her. “I… I don’t know.”
“Listen, folks.” Riles was already walking toward the space between Metler’s command chair and Jacob’s station at the helm. “I hate to break up the reunion, but now that Doctor Who here’s gotten us back in time, we might wanna fry up a game plan.”
Captain Metler smirked at Riles. “Good point.” He sat back down and punched up the engine room on his command console. “Wilco, what’s your status?”
Colonel Wilco’s voice answered. “My head’s buzzin’ and the engine’s acting like it just got off, but all systems are nominal. What the bloody hell happened out there?”
“Never mind that,” answered Metler. “Run diagnostics, then get your ass up here.”
“Fair enough,” answered Wilco.
“Jacob?” Metler motioned forward. “Take us northwest, to the Soviet Province. Locate LOPO platform L-200. That’s where we’re headed.”
“Aye, sir,” answered Jacob. He turned around and began plotting their route.
“Mind explainin’ why we’re walkin’ right into the shit hole of the galaxy, Cappy?” asked Riles.
Captain Metler leaned back into his seat. He began to smirk, and glanced over at Riles with an ornery look. “Because, Riles, that’s where we can cause the most damage.”
SOCEPOM facility, Platform L-200, Earth.
September 21st, 2193
Korynn Fleming, Director of Deviant Control, called orbital platform L-200 his home. From his expansive office atop the platform, he could see the facility’s roof, the curve of the Earth beyond, and hundreds of stars in the distance. Right now, the sun was moving toward the western horizon, casting a brilliant glow across the rooftop. It also glinted off the warships that had lined up to escort YSAD Benedict as she approached from the southern hemisphere.
Fleming had just been informed that Admiral Dyson had enacted General Order 400.2, and was on his way to meet General Vereor at the SOCEPOM facility. His hands were tied; Regulation 400.2 would essentially cripple the efforts of LOPO, at least locally, until the Civil Triumvirate could make a resolution. While he thought, briefly, about escalating the matter to Lei Maiyao immediately, he felt it more prudent to confront General Vereor first.
Taking his personal mag-lift car, Fleming made way for the SOCEPOM facility. It was buried deep inside the security maze that kept his operations in check, but his mag-lift car bypassed all of those checkpoints. He valued efficiency, after all.
The car stopped at the reception foyer in Detention Area E. He stepped out with a terse frown drawn across his lips, ignoring the fact that the LOPO agents around him had snapped to a sudden and brisk attention. He walked through the corridors to the SOCEPOM facility’s control room and came to rest at the door. A robotic arm extended, plugged into his monitor, and briefly conducted a scan.
“Access granted,” spoke a computerized voice. “Thank you, Director Fleming.”
The door slid open. General Vereor was hovering over one of the many consoles in the control room. Fleming stepped right in and walked fearlessly over toward the General’s side.
“Prisoner 1955-D is not doing so well,” rumbled Vereor’s mechanically altered voice.
“Yes,” answered Fleming, “because you lack finesse, General.”
Fleming’s voice was distinctly British, and spoke of a wealthy, privileged upbringing. His journey to the upper echelons of LOPO was not without sacrifice, however. He’d lost a fair bit of hair for his age, disassociated himself from his family, and all but lost the ability to feel love or happiness. His soul was one of blackness and death.
“Forgive me, Director Fleming,” answered Vereor. “I haven’t the time to ‘finesse’ the prisoner.”
“Perhaps you should learn to make the time,” answered Fleming. He leaned over and punched up some of the prisoner’s medical scans. “You see this?” he asked, motioning to the readouts as they cycled through. “You’ve already caused minor damage to his cerebellum here, and here. Plus, the activity registered across most of the cerebral cortex is far beyond advised limitations.”
“And?” replied Vereor.
“You’ll risk damaging his memory retention, perceptual awareness…” Fleming shook his head, scowling. “You might as well have conducted a full-wave brain-scan, ripped what you could before his neurons turned to toast.”
General Vereor turned slowly, rising to his full, augmented height. He stared unblinking at Fleming with his cybernetic eye; the other squinted derisively. “Perhaps you’d like to take over the interrogation, Director.”
Fleming made a dismissive gesture. “Admiral Dyson is coming to visit you, General. I felt it prudent to inform you personally.”
Vereor withdrew somewhat. “Dyson?” he asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” answered Fleming, “but he’s activated General Order 400.2.” He nodded his head toward one of the idling consoles. “Perhaps if you paid more attention to your comm panel, you’d have noticed the alert.”
Seething, Vereor hissed at Fleming and spun about, jabbing his mechanized fingers into the controls. He keyed in a few short commands, then opened a comm channel. “All units, this is Vereor. Initiate code Memory Delta. Stand-by for further instructions.”
“He’s on his way, right now,” remarked Fleming. “I could remain if you’d like.” He lifted his chin defiantly.
Vereor glared at Fleming. “That might be warranted, Director.”
Y.S.S.C. Crusader, Wexel System, Terran Region.
The Class-Three Corvette was never a particularly attractive vessel in Peter Drake’s opinion. They were first developed by the Marso-Deka Corp. in 2155, and were outlawed by the Triumvirate after a number of them had been spirited away by fringers and Coalition operatives.
Drake watched with ire as the Lilith’s Omen was brought into the Crusader‘s primary docking bay. She was a small vessel in comparison to his strike cruiser; 37 meters in height, three decks, 150 meters in length. He could fit three of these vessels in the Crusader‘s bay, even with its entire fighter compliment in dock. Regardless, up close and personal, her size was at least impressive.
The magnetic force field shimmered gold as Lilith’s Omen was brought in. The massive grappling cables tugged her up, revealing more of the corvette’s intricate details. The hull was scarred by countless battles, but here and there, fresh panels had replaced the damaged ones. Various maneuvering thrusters stuck out here and there, like inglorious additions as an afterthought to a primitive design. The ventral turrets stuck out from either side of the ship in an ugly fashion; the dorsal ones at least had some class to their design.
Drake sneered at the vessel. “Protonic Cannon Burst turrets,” he remarked, glancing momentarily at the Crusader‘s captain, who’d accompanied him. “How quaint.”
“Indeed, Admiral,” answered Captain Roberts, a dark-skinned man of the utmost composure.
Docking clamps extended from the floor, latching onto the Lilith’s Omen and securing her in place above the magnetic force field. The grapplers released, withdrawing up into the high, vaulted ceiling. A passenger ramp extended from the portal into space, drawing across the magnetic force field to provide a safe walking pathway between the captured vessel and the deck. Then, with a snap and a hiss, the corvette’s boarding ramp opened.
Four people began walking down the ramp. As soon as the docking bay’s brilliant lights found them, Drake recognized the woman as Jenice Murray, the corvette’s acting Captain. There was a man alongside of her, middle-eastern, and two Coalition marines accompanying them.
Drake walked toward them with a virulent sneer. “Commander Murray,” he greeted. “What is this, parley?”
Commander Murray answered curtly. “I would hope that we could discuss the terms of our surrender as adults, Admiral Drake.”
Drake walked toward her, stepping out onto the passenger ramp as she approached. Two Legionnaire soldiers followed him at once, their rifles wielded and ready for use.
“Adults,” he scoffed. “Commander, we don’t even consider you people as humans.” He stopped as they came close, leering at the woman as if she were some sort of leper. “You’re deviants,” he seethed. “Filthy.”
Commander Murray had the nerve to smirk at him. “Filthy is a word that embodies you, Admiral.”
The words ignited a fire deep within Drake’s soul. For a moment, he glared at the woman in silence. Then, he lashed out and grabbed her by the neck. Though she gasped and choked, she did not resist him. With a growl, Drake threw her to the floor, and pinned her against the passenger ramp with his knee in her stomach.
“How dare you speak to me this way,” he hissed.
The middle-eastern man took a step forward, but immediately stopped when Drake looked up at him, and the Legionnaire soldiers leveled their rifles at him.
“Rashid,” choked Jenice, “don’t!”
Drake looked back at the her, snarling. “Yes, Commander. Ward off your rat like a good little girl.” He held her there with his hand, choking her just enough to keep her silent. He didn’t want to kill her; he wanted her to suffer.
When she reached up to try and stop him, he caught her hand with a fierce grip. Raising his eyebrows in a warning manner, he tightened his fingers and began forcing her hand toward the edge of the passenger ramp, where the magnetic force field shimmered gold.
Certain purified solids, such as what coated the ramp’s bottom edge or the hull of a spacecraft, would pass through a magnetic force field without issue. However, the force field was designed to block liquids and gasses, which was why they were most commonly used in space, keeping a vessel’s synthetic atmosphere locked inside.
Porous materials, however, such as the human body, were both solid, liquid, and gas combined.
When she realized what he was trying to do, her fight intensified. Daring eyes turned fearful and desperate, flicking over to watch her own hand as he forced it down.
“Ssshhhh,” he shushed her, like a father would to a crying infant. He was, quite simply, stronger than her. He forced her hand downward, until her trembling fingers came in contact with the magnetic force field.
The skin and flesh around her fingers was ripped free by the force field, and floated away into space. A horrific scream worked past her strangled neck, and filled the docking bay with the pained sounds of torture.
“Commander!” Rashid cried. He made a move to advance on Drake, but one of his own marines reached out and grabbed him, holding him back.
Drake felt a thrill of excitement filling him as he pushed the woman’s hand farther into the force field. He watched with sick fascination as she suffered. The meat around her bones was torn apart, and the bones left behind began to sizzle and blacken. The blood was exsanguinated from exposed arteries, spewing into dust. Adrenaline coursed through Drake’s body, and for a moment, he considered simply casting the bitch aside, throwing her body through the magnetic force field and into space as a withered, skeletal lump.
With a gasp, Drake pulled away and stood to his feet. Jenice pulled her arm out and curled it close to her, cradling her blackened and skeletal hand with pathetic sobs. A trickle of perverse pleasure crawled down Drake’s spine as he watched the woman writhing on the floor in agony.
Finally, Drake managed to pull his fascinated eyes away from Jenice, and turned to address the soldier behind him. “Lieutenant, have these cockroaches arrested,” he ordered. “If anyone resists, throw them into space.”
“Understood!” barked the Lieutenant.
“Welcome to the Crusader, Commander,” Drake murmured, before turning and walking away.
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.