Book: Starship Guardian
THE GALACTIC WARS BOOK FOUR
2. New Earth
4. New Earth
5. New Earth
7. New Earth
9. New Earth
11. New Earth
13. New Earth
15. New Earth
17. New Earth
19. New Earth
21. New Earth
23. New Earth
25. New Earth
27. New Earth
29. New Earth
31. New Earth
33. New Earth
35. New Earth
36. The Decluvians
37. New Earth
38. New Earth
41. New Earth
Connect With Me
Copyright © 2016 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Rourke had been waiting his entire life for this moment—to command a starship and lead his crew to victory in an epic battle to save humanity. He stood in the CIC of the USS Scorpion and swelled with visions of grandeur. He’d save New Earth and be regarded as a hero, he thought. But it wasn’t going to be easy. The Decluvian fleet had emerged out of slide-space near New Earth. The outer colonies had all been conquered. Countless throngs of innocent civilians had been taken captive to be used as slaves in the mines, or for scientific experiments, or even as delicacies for the elite.
New Earth was next.
Several inbound nukes streaked across the star field, heading for the Scorpion. The LRADDS display (Long Range Direction Distance & Speed) lit up with flashing red triangles.
Rourke had been living under the shadow of Captain Slade his entire career. How could anyone compare to her? Her accomplishments were legendary. Her victories in the first Verge War were swift and decisive. She had been adored throughout the Planetary Federation. There had been rumors of a political career, and if things had gone differently, she might have had a shot at the Presidency. Though, it’s hard to imagine Slade ever trading in a starship for an office. But none of that was ever going to come to pass. Rourke had seen to it.
With Slade out of the way, it was time for Rourke to step into his own. The former XO was now captain of the illustrious Scorpion. It was an aging relic of the first Verge War. But the Avenger class destroyer had something that modern warships lacked—time-tested experience in the field, unparalleled construction quality, durable materials, and the belief by the crew that no matter what, the Scorpion was going to survive. Sometimes faith is the most powerful of weapons.
They just don’t make them like the Scorpion anymore.
There were a handful of ships left in the fleet. The terrorist attacks had done away with some of the most deadly and advanced super-carriers in the Navy. The Joint Planetary Operations Command was headquartered aboard the USS Devastator. It was also home to the temporary office of President Amado. It was thought to be a more secure location with the impending attacks.
Remaining in orbit around New Earth were the battle cruisers Independence, Black Widow, Cobra, and the George Washington. There were 3 frigates—the Freedom, the Yellow Jacket, and the Iwo Jima. Two corvettes, the Carney and the Mobley, and several small patrol ships.
Rourke’s heart thumped in his chest, and his collar began to feel a little tight. His eyes went wide. What started out as several Decluvian warships grew to dozens as they materialized out of slide-space.
Rourke’s gruff voice barked commands. “Helm, take evasive action. Starboard full!”
“Starboard full, aye!”
“Fire Control, target the nukes with the Mark 25s.”
The turrets of the Mark 25s swiveled into position. The targeting system locked on and tracked the inbound threats. The 16 inch cannons lit up the star field. The staccato report rumbled throughout the ship. The M79 HVAP-DU (Heavy Armor Penetrating, Depleted Uranium) super-sabot rounds eviscerated the warheads.
A swarm of enemy fighters filled the star field. They were like angry bees buzzing toward the fleet.
“Launch the alert fighters,” Rourke commanded.
A stream of plasma projectiles streaked toward the Scorpion from the turrets of the alien armada. They looked like shooting stars across the vacuum of space.
The USS Mobley, one of the corvettes, had made an attack run at one of the larger carriers. It took the full brunt of the incoming cannon fire. The nimble attack vessel erupted in a brilliant flame—torn to shreds by the incendiary rounds. Twisted metal and debris spiraled out into space. Sections of bulkheads tumbled end over end. There were 789 crew members aboard that ship. None of them survived.
The Scorpion shuddered as the incoming rounds impacted the hull. Klaxon’s blared and alarms sounded. The plasma rounds ripped through the heavy hull, like paper. Dozens of port-side compartments were venting atmosphere into space.
“Sir, we’ve got a hull breach in sections 34 through 45, 52 through 67, and 122 through 149,” the tactical officer said.
“Seal off those compartments immediately.”
“Unleash the Widow-Makers!” Rourke yelled. “Target their command ship.”
Dozens of pilots raced across the flight deck and hopped into their Stingrays. Some of their callsigns were Bullet, Killer, Taco, Chubs, Spider, Chimbo, Bugs, Cosmo, Gator, Pap Smear, Starhawk, and the CAG was Pancake. He had taken Zoey Bryant’s place, and that alone was enough to get him off to a bad start. It didn’t help that he was kind of a dick to begin with. He had a penchant for pancakes, and some of the junior officers took it upon themselves to piss in the batter one morning. To this day, he is unaware of the true meaning of his callsign.
Within seconds, the pilots were vaulted into space. Zero to 260 kilometers per hour in less than a second. It was enough force to pin you to your seat and give you a facelift.
The squadron formed a combat spread and prepared to engage the oncoming Decluvian fighters. They faced a wall of projectiles. The squadron broke formation and clashed with the Decluvian fighters. It was pure chaos. A spiraling, twisting, looping dogfight.
Bugs was the first casualty. Her Stingray was ripped apart by a flurry of weapons fire. A ball of amber flames incinerated the craft. Glowing hunks of avionics and debris littered space. It was a suicide mission, and every pilot knew it. That still didn’t make it any easier to stomach the loss of a comrade.
The Widow-Maker nukes blazed across the star field—50 megaton nukes that were the ultimate weapon of the UPDF (United Planetary Defense Force.) Their propellant charge left a grey plume behind them. But they were disabled by enemy fire before they even got close.
Another round of incoming fire pierced the Scorpion’s hull and took out the port-side lower engine and one of the reactors. The explosion rattled the ship. Radiation was leaking into the neighboring compartments. Every engineer in the compartment was dead. It was a shame, that engine had just been replaced. The reactors had been upgraded to Q-cores at a cost of 1.6 trillion credits each. The Scorpion had been a week out of drydock and she was already crippled again. So far, Rourke’s new command wasn’t going so well. And it was about to get worse.
Presley smiled at her mother. But it was a smile tinged with sadness.
“I’m making your favorite. French toast and cinnamon rolls.” Her mother, Lauren, was hoping it would lift Presley’s spirits. Indeed, there was a slight glimmer in her eyes. But it didn’t take long for Presley to slump back into her funk.
She was a beautiful young girl. Big blue eyes and wavy blonde hair. She hadn’t always been this sullen. But the last few months had been hard on the whole family. And Presley seemed to be taking it the worst.
She took a seat at the kitchen table while her mother was at the stove, making breakfast the old fashioned way.
“There are some cards on the table for you. One from me and your brother, and one from…” Lauren couldn’t bring herself to say who it was from. Her voice trailed off and she focused her gaze back down at the french toast, sizzling in the pan. It had been a while since she cooked an actual meal. The food fabricator was so convenient. But today was special, and she was cooking a real breakfast. Or, at least, she was trying.
Presley sifted through the cards. She recognized her father’s handwriting instantly. Her eyes brimmed. She looked confused. “How…?”
“He picked that up for you a few months ago.”
She tore into the envelope and pulled out the card. It projected a 3D image when she opened it—a comical little alien with big eyes bounced around singing obnoxiously, “Happy, happy birthday, Happy, happy birthday.”
Presley smiled and wanted to laugh, but it didn’t take long for her to burst into tears. The rivulets streamed down her cheeks.
Her mom dashed from the stove and the two embraced, holding onto each other for dear life. Lauren’s eyes were slick and tears were slipping out.
“I miss him so much,” Presley sobbed.
“So do I. We all do.” Lauren dried her eyes with her sleeve. They hugged each other for a long moment. Until the smell of burning toast filled the air.
“Oh, shit.” Lauren dashed to the stove and flipped the toast. “It might be a little crispier than usual.”
Presley laughed. “That’s okay. I’ll forgive you.”
She picked up her mom’s card. It projected a floral pattern and and elegant script font. The card read: You are one of the best presents I’ve ever received. You fill my heart with joy. I smile when you smile, and cry when you cry. I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become, and I am excited for the future that awaits you. Happy Birthday! —Love Mom.
Presley’s eyes filled again. “I love you, mom.”
“Even if I burned the toast?”
“You can always cook more,” Presley smiled.
“It doesn’t look that bad.” Lauren was trying to be optimistic.
Presley arched an eyebrow at her.
Lauren succumbed to the realization that the toast was indeed burned beyond all hope. She tossed it out and started over.
“Let me guess, Timmy didn’t get me a card, and you just got him to sign this one.”
“I’m sure your brother loves you too. He just has an odd way of showing it.”
Presley’s little brother, Timmy, stomped down the stairs and trudged into the kitchen. “What’s burning?”
Lauren glared at him.
“Happy birthday, butt face.”
“Timmy!” Lauren chided him.
“What? It’s her birthday, isn’t it?”
“That’s no way to speak to your sister.”
“I’m just being honest. She’d have a boyfriend, but her face. Oooh!”
Presley sneered at him. “I have a boyfriend. Thank you.”
“Please. Bryce has a vagina.”
“Timmy!” Lauren chided.
Presley smirked. “I’ll tell him you said that.”
“If he was smart, he’d dump you.”
“If he was smart, he’d ask me to marry him,” Presley said with a smug grin.
“Nobody’s getting married just yet,” said Lauren.
“I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” Presley sang.
“How does it feel to be an old lady?” Timmy asked.
“Seventeen is not exactly an old lady,” Lauren said.
“Well, you’re practically mummified, mom.”
“The museum called, they want their exhibit back,” Timmy snarked.
“I can, and will, ground you.”
“I’m just kidding,” Timmy said. “I love you, mom. Even if you are ancient.”
“You should have stopped at one child, mom,” Presley quipped.
“She did. You were adopted.”
“Knock it off,” Lauren snapped. “Can we all enjoy a nice breakfast together?” She looked at Presley. “And you. You’re old enough now to know better than to engage him.”
Timmy smiled at her and made faces. “She’s just upset she’s failing basic flight.”
“I am not.”
“That’s not what I hear. She crashed into the containment wall of the landing pad, and broke the landing gear on the training vehicle.”
Presley scowled at him.
“Have you gotten the bill yet, mom?”
Lauren arched an eyebrow at him, then her eyes flicked to Presley. “What’s this about a bill?”
“Minor cosmetic damages.”
“I was meaning to tell you,” Presley said, sheepishly.
“I can’t afford to repair a flight trainer,” Lauren shrieked.
“I’ll pay for it.”
Presley shrug. “I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.”
“Why don’t you just give it up. You’re never going to be a Naval Aviator.”
Presley’s eyes narrowed at him.
“I thought we scratched Naval Aviator off the list,” Lauren said.
Presley paused. “It’s back on. I’ve been giving things a lot of thought lately, and I’ve decided to join the Navy.”
Lauren’s face tensed. Her eyes filled with dread. “No. We talked about this. You’re going to go to college first.”
“I am. I’ve applied for an NROTC scholarship.”
“You realize it’s an 8 year commitment once you get your wings.”
“I don’t want to lose another member of this family.”
The room was silent a moment. Presley’s father was a Navy Reaper under Commander Walker. He had been killed on a covert op six weeks ago. The details of his demise were classified, and the family was left with many unanswered questions.
“This is what I want,” Presley said. “Why can’t you support me?”
“I do. I just don’t think I can take it if you get yourself killed in some godforsaken sector of the galaxy on some classified mission.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“So much for a drama free breakfast,” Timmy said. “By the way, I think the toast is burning again.”
Captain Slade wasn’t really a captain anymore. But that didn’t seem to matter to her crew. They were going to follow her anywhere. She had a starship, albeit with some minor quirks—and there weren’t many of those left in the galaxy. The legendary Revenant—an Avenger class destroyer.
Her crew, if you could call them that, was a ragtag group of misfits. One Decluvian warrior, 2 Saarkturians, 4 Marines, a dropship pilot, a gunner, a smuggler, a merc, a Navy Reaper, her former CAG, an illegal bio-synthetic humanoid, a wounded pilot in quantum suspension, a dog-like creature from Thantos 6, and a cat.
Slade was a little hesitant about having three of her sworn enemies on board. But if Commander Walker trusted them, that was good enough for her.
She stood at the command console in the CIC. Garbled subspace transmissions over the mil-net indicated the Decluvian fleet was attacking. They had devastated Delta Vega, and worked their way through the outer colonies. “Plot coordinates for New Earth.”
“Aye, sir,” Mitch said, manning the tactical station. “It’s going to take quite a few jumps to get there from this far out.”
“Every second counts.”
Max was climbing on the controls like he owned the place. He was a rare Antarian Sphynx from Beta 2 Majoris. His skin was royal blue and his eyes were emerald green. And he was attempting to usurp Slade’s command.
“What are we, an intergalactic animal shelter?”
“It would appear so,” Walker grinned.
Slade tried to act tough, but she couldn’t help but find the little guys adorable. Max meowed at Bailey, taunting him. Within seconds, the chase was on. Max jumped down from the console and scampered into the corridor. Bailey sprinted after him in hot pursuit.
“Ready when you are, sir,” Mitch shouted.
“Get us out of here.”
The bulkheads rippled and distorted, and the Revenant slipped into slide space.
“Bring us within one jump of New Earth. We’ll hold there before we make our attack.”
“Aye, sir,” Mitch said.
“If anybody needs me, I’ll be in my quarters,” Slade said. “Zoey, you have the conn.”
Slade stepped into the corridor. She weaved her way to her stateroom. Well, it was technically Captain Edwin J. Dean’s stateroom. But he hadn’t used it in over 25 years. And he didn’t need it now.
There was no telling where Dean was now, or if he was even still alive. He and his crew vanished along with the Revenant during the first Verge War. They hadn’t been seen since.
The compartment was exactly like her stateroom on the Scorpion—the same layout and amenities, just appointed with Captain Dean’s stuff. It was just as he’d left it. Dean had a collection of old paperback novels, mostly thrillers and mysteries. There were classic texts on war and combat. Volumes of history books spanning the first three world wars, and the six intergalactic wars. There were pictures of his wife and children. There was his liquor collection, which was worth a tidy sum in today’s credits. Slade had even found his stash of virtual pornography programs under the mattress.
Slade flopped on the bed and tried to relax for a moment. But her mind was moving as fast as the ship. She could lie there and close her eyes, but she wasn’t going to get any sleep. Not real sleep, anyway. Maybe that half-ass stage somewhere in the middle that never really seems to do any good.
Someone knocked on the hatch.
The hatch slid open, and Walker poked his head inside. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Not at all. I’m just contemplating the fate of humanity. Typical stuff.”
Walker stepped inside and glanced around. “I love what you’ve done with the place. Very retro.”
“Glad you like it.” Slade smiled. “At ease, sailor. Have a seat.”
Walker sat on the edge of the bed.
“How many warships would you say there were at Delta Vega?”
“At least 30.”
Slade pursed her lips.
“This isn’t a fight we can win. At least not head on. Hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. A little harassment. That’s probably all we can hope to accomplish. It might be time to start thinking about the best way to preserve the species rather than win the war.” His tone was grim.
“It worries me when you’re not optimistic. You strike me as a man who’s always ready for a fight.”
“If victory is not possible, you must not fight.”
Slade recognized the quote. “Sun Tsu, The Art of War.” There was a paperback copy of it on one of Dean’s bookshelves.
“At best, there were a dozen ships left in the fleet,” Walker said. “Who knows what that number has dwindled down to by now?”
“To be honest. I don’t really see what good one star destroyer is going to do against an entire alien fleet. But I’d rather go out fighting.”
“Perhaps there is a way we can improve our odds.”
Slade arched a curious eyebrow at him.
“Violet is a bio-synthetic.”
Walker hesitated. “What I’m about to tell you is classified.”
“There was a time when I had clearance,” Slade said disappointedly, then forced a smile.
“I was on a long-range reconnaissance patrol six months ago. We detected a megastructure near Auva Prime.”
“That’s in the middle of nowhere.”
“I think that’s exactly why they picked it.”
“The synthetics. They have built an entire civilization in space—independent of a planetary system,” Walker said. “And their technological advancements have surpassed ours.”
Slade’s eyes widened.
“They have a full Navy, and we believe the entire megastructure is capable of a slide-space jump.”
“The quantum field generator would have to be enormous.”
“Or highly efficient.”
“You’re not suggesting we reach out to them for assistance, are you?”
“I’m saying, it may be an option to consider.”
“After our last interaction with the robots, they’d probably shoot us on sight. I’m surprised they haven’t retaliated already.”
“It’s your call.”
“I need to think about this. It seems risky.”
“At this point, we might not have much to lose. I defer to your judgement. I will follow any order you command.”
“Is that so?” Slade said with a lascivious glint in her eye.
“I’m glad you survived Thantos 6. You know, I actually worried that I’d never see you again.”
“You don’t strike me as the type of woman who worries about anything.”
“That’s not true, underneath this cold exterior, I have a heart.” Slade smiled. “I know it’s there. I’ve felt it beat once or twice.”
The two stared into each other’s eyes. The tension between them was palpable. Visions of Slade had gotten Walker through many dark times on Thantos 6.
“You know, Commander, we have some unfinished business to take care of.”
“I’m glad you haven’t forgotten about that.”
“How could I?” Her eyes simmered.
Walker slid closer to her. They were like magnets. The attraction was unavoidable. Slade felt her pulse quicken. Her cheeks flushed. Their eyes locked into one another. Slade burned with desire. If she had learned anything, it was to seize the moment. In this line of work, you never knew which moment was going to be your last.
Walker grabbed her in his powerful arms and pulled her close. Their lips were about to collide.
“Captain,” Zoey shouted over the comm system. “Sorry to interrupt, but we’ve intercepted an encoded subspace transmission.”
Presley was waiting for Bryce to pick her up. But he was already 15 minutes late. It wasn’t like him to be late, and Presley was starting to get worried. She pulled out her mobile and called him. It went straight to voicemail. So Presley did what any teenage girl would do and called him right back. Five calls later, he finally picked up the phone.
“Hey?” Presley said, exasperated. “Where are you?”
“I’m running a little late.”
“Mom is going to get a little suspicious if you don’t get here soon. School starts in 15 minutes.”
“Look, I can’t go to the beach today.”
Presley lifted her brow. Her eyes bulged. “We’ve been planning this for a month. Have you forgotten what day it is?”
“I’ve got a test in trigonometry. I can’t miss today,” he sighed. “You know how it is. If I don’t make my grades, I can’t play.”
Presley was flabbergasted. “First of all, you promised. Second of all, it’s my birthday. Third of all, Jenny is in your trig class and she doesn’t have a test today.”
There was a long pause.
Presley clenched her teeth.
“I didn’t want to do this over the phone—“
“Then don’t.” Presley knew what was coming.
“I just don’t think it’s working out anymore.”
Presley swallowed hard, and her throat got dry.
“You know. It just… we’re both under a lot of stress right now. It’s senior year. Why don’t we take a break?”
“Sure. A break,” she stammered. She was hurt and pissed at the same time.
“It’s not like I don’t want to be there for you, and all. It’s just… you know…”
She clenched her jaw and tried to hold back the tears. “Yeah. I know. I know that when times get tough, you won’t stick around.”
“Don’t be like th—“
Presley hung up on him. Her cheeks flushed, and the veins in her neck bulged. Her eyes brimmed, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Her head fell into her hands, and she sobbed for a moment. “Happy fucking birthday,” she muttered to herself.
They had been dating for about six months. Long enough to make it sting a little. The sense of abandonment came flooding back. You don’t ever get over losing a parent. You just learn to deal with it. For Presley, getting dumped wasn’t near as big a deal, but it brought up the same horrible sense of loss again.
“What’s the matter, did you get dumped?” Timmy asked.
“No, I did not get dumped, you loser.”
“You’re the one who looks like a loser to me,” he snickered.
“Can’t you just disappear. Like, forever.”
“Sorry. I get to harass you for another year.” Timmy shouldered his backpack and strolled down the block to catch the bus to school.
Presley wiped her eyes. Her mascara was running down her cheek. She had spent an hour working on her makeup. Now it was a mess. She was going to have to redo it. She was going to make it a point to look extra good since she just got dumped, on the off chance that she ran into Bryce.
She dialed Jen on her mobile.
A few moments later, Jen’s perky face appeared on the display screen. “Jello?” Jen said. Her expression quickly soured. “Oh, jeez. You look like shit.”
Presley forced a smile. “Thanks. So do you.”
“Still want to go to the beach?”
“Of course, but Riley and Quinn are coming to pick me up.”
“Oh, okay. That’s cool.”
“Ride with us,” Jen said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“No, that’s okay. I should probably just go to class anyway.”
They were close enough friends that Jen knew something was up—and it wouldn’t take too many guesses to figure out what. “How about I call them and tell them that I’m riding with you?”
“Could you?” Presley’s face was hopeful. “I could use a little BFF time.”
“What flavor ice cream do you want? Cookie Dough or Mint Chocolate Chip?”
“Duh. Cookie Dough.” A hint of a smile played across Presley’s face.
“I’ll be there in fifteen.”
Jen smiled. “Oh, and by the way. You’re totally too good for him.”
Presley hung up the phone. She looked up at the clear sky and felt the warm morning sun on her face. It was a perfect day. 75 degrees. She wasn’t going to let a minor setback, like getting dumped, ruin her day. This was her birthday—and nothing was going to get her down. At least, that’s what she kept telling herself.
“Oh, my God, what a total tool,” Jen said, gawking at Bryce. He had just pulled up and was getting out of his car with Jessica Summers. She was wearing a little blue and white polkadot bikini that left little to the imagination. She pranced through the sand, clinging on to Bryce’s bicep that he made sure to keep permanently flexed.
“Don’t even acknowledge him,” Presley said.
“Oh, hell no! I’m going to give him an earful.”
“Don’t waste your breath.”
“This didn’t just happen today, you know?” Jen lifted an eyebrow, implying Bryce had been cheating on her.
“Whatever. I’ve moved on.” Presley was trying to convince herself.
“I will go kick his ass.”
“Look at me. I’m totally zen. This place is gorgeous. We’re going to have fun. It’s going to be a great day. Nothing is going to get me down.” Presley smiled. She looked out over the surf and took a deep breath. The beach was picturesque. Teal water crashed against white sands. Gulls hung in the air. Palm leaves swayed in the breeze. It was one of the main attractions of Nova York. Within 20 minutes, you could be out of the city and be in a tropical paradise.
The beach was lined with dozens of their classmates. Brad Mills had brought a keg of beer down in the back of his hover-truck. He was one of those kids that, at 18, had a full beard and looked like he was 35. He used his older brother’s driver’s license to buy alcohol, so he was everyone’s best friend. Sunburns and hangovers were going to be the order of the day.
It was a designated senior skip day, and it just happened to coincide with Presley’s birthday. Of course, it was completely unauthorized. But sometimes you just need to have a little fun.
Presley hadn’t been drinking. She liked to people watch and observe. It was much more fun to watch other people make fools of themselves. And she felt an even greater sense of responsibility now that her father was gone. It was like he was watching her every move from beyond the grave.
The sky rumbled. But it wasn’t thunder. Presley looked up to see a massive explosion in the upper atmosphere. Debris streaked down and burned up on reentry. It looked like a meteor shower.
It was the remains of the USS Iwo Jima.
She stared, slack-jawed, at the smoldering debris falling through the atmosphere.
“What is that?” Jen asked.
Presley shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe a satellite? The planetary gateway station?”
It wasn’t long before the sky was dotted with Decluvian fighters and troop transports.
“Is there some kind of military exercise going on today?”
“Not that I know of.” As a Navy brat, and living on base, Presley usually knew if any major operations were going to take place in the area. But she had heard nothing. “I don’t recognize any of those ships. Those aren’t UPDF.”
As the bombs started to fall, it became clear this wasn’t any type of exercise.
Presley’s face went pale with horror. The downtown skyline erupted in flames and explosions. Plumes of smoke and debris rose into the sky. Skyscrapers collapsed upon themselves, imploding like a demolitions team had set charges.
There were several moments of silence as onlookers stood with their mouth’s agape. Panicked screeches and screams filled the beach. Fighters roared overhead.
“Timmy is downtown on a field trip at the museum,” Presley muttered, almost in shock.
People were scrambling for their vehicles. It was chaos.
“I’ve gotta get downtown,” Presley said.
“Are you crazy? We need to get as far away from here as possible.”
Presley grabbed her mobile and tried to call her mother. It rang a few times and went to voicemail. “Mom, call me. I want to make sure you’re okay.”
Then she called Timmy.
“Hey, where are you?” he asked, his voice trembling.
“I’m at the beach. Are you okay?”
“We’re in the basement of the museum. Power is out. It’s pitch black in here. I want to go home.”
“Just stay put. Have you talked to mom?”
“No. I can’t get ahold of her. I’m scared.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
Timmy was sniffling and trying not to cry.
“Stay where you are, I’m coming to get you.”
“You’ll be safe down there. Don’t worry.” She was just saying that to calm him down. No place was safe right now. “You call me if you need anything. I’m going to get there as soon as I can.”
“I don’t really know. Everything’s going to be okay. I’ll see you soon.” Presley hung up and looked for Jen. She was talking to Curtis Wood. Presley ran over to them. The nonstop rumble of explosions filled the air. People were fleeing from the area.
“I’m going downtown to get Timmy.”
“I’m gonna catch a ride with Curtis. His parents have a hundred acre ranch about an hour out of town. He thinks we’ll be safer there. You don’t hate me, do you?”
“No. Do what you need to do.” She didn’t expect Jen to go with her into the middle of a war zone. But it kind of felt like getting dumped again.
“Good luck.” Jen jumped in the hover-car with Curtis and they sped away.
Presley ran back to her car and hopped in. She pulled a shirt and shorts on over her bikini. She didn’t bother to put on shoes. She twisted the ignition and the engine roared to life. It was a replica of a classic Mustang. It actually had wheels, but instead of a combustion engine it ran on a fuel cell. It was a pet project of her father’s, and he was always working on it in his spare time.
She mashed the accelerator. The tires spit sand and she blasted across the beach, pulling onto the highway. The city ahead was ominous. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky.
It looked like the UPDF had launched a response. Fighters were engaging the enemy aircraft in the skies above the city. Swirling dogfights ensued. The sky was filled with a nonstop barrage of tracer fire. Antiaircraft artillery exploded in the air. Fighters on both sides were ripped to shreds and sent tumbling from the sky. Flaming fuselages slammed into towering skyscrapers. Civilians jumped from buildings to avoid burning up in flames.
At least it was a conventional war, for the moment. Neither side was using nukes. Nobody wanted to deal with the aftermath of the radiation. It seemed the Decluvians wanted more than to just exterminate. They wanted to conquer, and possibly inhabit the colonies. They had no intention of turning over the sector to the Saarkturians.
This destruction was happening in every major city across the planet. The Decluvians had swept through the colonies without much resistance. It looked like New Earth wasn’t going to pose much of a challenge either.
The UPDF Army was approaching from the east and the west. It was a full on battle zone, and Presley was heading right into the thick of it.
Davvel poked the barrel of his Suvex MSR .300 sniper rifle through the hole he had carved in the window. He was on the 57th floor of the Erlineer building in the law offices of Zulaart & Associates. 500 yards away was the palace balcony. After the coronation, the new King of Saarkturia would step out and address his people.
Davvel had survived the Night of the Crystal Saber—the bloody slaughter of the political opponents of Prince Valinok. In truth, the young prince had no knowledge of the event. It was all orchestrated by his advisor, Rylon, who’s lust for power was unrivaled. As former advisor to the Queen, and now to the Prince, he had earned the boy’s trust. Valinok was easily manipulated.
Massive crowds gathered in the streets, waiting for their new King to address them. As each moment passed, Davvel’s heart beat faster. He could hear his pulse rushing through his veins. He wrapped his finger around the trigger and lined the palace balcony up in his sites.
Sweat was beading on his forehead. His collar felt a little tight.
Valinok finally emerged—the crown firmly upon his head. The coronation had taken place. He was the King of Saarkturia. The crowd erupted with cheers. The new King strolled across the terrace to address his people.
Davvel’s scope locked on to the target. With polymer cased sub-sonic smart rounds, it was almost impossible to miss. He was about to fire a lethal round when the office door burst open. A tactical response team flooded the room.
A bullet ripped through the air, shattering Davvel’s skull before he could fire at King Valinok. His brains splattered against the window, then slid down the glass.
Rylon’s Night of the Crystal Saber extended into the next afternoon.
Kyva wore the dress Rylon bought for her. An elegant evening gown that fit her perfectly—a scoop neck trumpet dress with a sweep train. She looked regal and radiant. She sat through the coronation and smiled, and pretended to have a good time. She did all the things she was supposed to do, despite the fact that she hated Saarkturia. Fantasies of poisoning the new King danced in her mind. Not that she despised Valinok. It was more to get back at her father, Emperor Tyvelon, for sending her here.
Kyva stayed inside the palace and did not venture out onto the terrace with Valinok. Rylon wasn’t sure the Saarkturian public was ready to see their future Decluvian Queen. He figured it was best to let them adjust to the new King for several months before hitting them with another challenging development.
The public at large was generally aware of the alliance made with the Decluvians. But they didn’t need to be reminded of it every day. The Decluvians were former enemies. There was still a great deal of mistrust among the two species.
Afterward, there was a celebration in the throne room that was filled with traditional rituals, dancing, and entertainment. The palatial chamber was adorned with luxurious appointments. Ornate pillars towered overhead, carved with reliefs by the finest artisans. It was the height of opulence.
Both Kyva and Valinok looked bored out of their minds. But the two of them were going to have to get used to attending boring political functions. Being King wasn’t about leading armies into battle and conquering foreign worlds. 99% of the time it was filled with mundane, trivial duties. Smiling, shaking hands, greeting dignitaries, reassuring the public. Valinok was getting his first glimpse into public life. He grew up watching his mother handle all of these duties with aplomb. She even seemed to enjoy it, to some degree. But he wasn’t even an hour into his rule, and he was already about to pull his hair out.
“How much longer do I have to sit here?” He asked Rylon. He sulked, resting his chin on his palm.
A team of athletic dancers were performing before him. Their svelte, toned bodies undulated and writhed in rhythm, performing impressive acrobatic feats.
“There are five more traditional dances that are done for good luck,” Rylon said. “There is the presentation of gifts. And the blessings from the oracles.”
“But I am now King. I can make the rules. I can decide what traditions I will keep, and what can be dispensed with.”
“As King, you serve the people,” Rylon said. “Do not underestimate the value of tradition. It gives the masses comfort and reassurance. It provides stability in times of change.”
Valinok frowned. He glanced to Kyva. “Do you have to sit through stuff like this on Decluvia?”
Kyva nodded. It was the most he had said to her since she arrived on Saarkturia.
Rylon strolled across the court to speak with one of the Senate Consuls, leaving the two relatively alone. They sat for a moment in silence.
“It must be difficult for you,” Valinok said.
Kyva looked at him hesitantly.
“Leaving your home, moving across the galaxy, abandoning all your friends.”
Kyva pursed her lips and nodded.
“Not to mention the whole arranged marriage thing.”
“It’s been an adjustment.” She was careful not to offend him. “Not that it isn’t a lovely planet,” she quickly added. She hated Saarkturia. It was cold and dry, and it was causing her skin to flake.
“It’s more humid on Decluvia, isn’t it?”
“I’ll have them adapt the climate in your room so it’s more comfortable.”
“Thank you. That would be nice.” Kyva couldn’t help but be surprised by his gesture of kindness.
“We can build spaceships that travel across the galaxy. I’m sure my people can figure out how to accurately simulate your home environment.”
“Look, this is all part of the treaty,” Valinok said. “We just have to attend these functions together. Smile. Pretend we like each other. But that’s it. You can do your own thing on your time.”
Kyva felt relieved. But a small, insecure part of her felt rejected. “Do you not find me pleasing?”
“It’s not that at all. Maybe arranged marriages worked a hundred years ago. It seems antiquated to me.”
“I’m so glad you feel that way,” Kyva said. It was like a weight lifted from her shoulders. “Maybe we can try being friends first?”
“Friends. I’d like that,” Valinok said. “I don’t have many friends.”
They smiled at each other and shook on it.
Kyva’s eyes glimmered. Valinok wasn’t so bad after all, she thought.
Wheels were a serious limitation. Presley was stuck to the highway as she raced toward the destruction. Hover-cars were streaking out of the city, using any available free space. It cut down on traffic jams, but it looked more like a demolition derby. Hover-cars were randomly weaving about, criss-crossing over the terrain. There were more than a few accidents.
People looked at Presley like she was crazy—she was going in the wrong direction. Everyone was trying to get away from the chaos, and this idiot was going toward it. Some people honked and glared at her, like she was somehow impeding their escape from the city.
The dull rumble of explosions vibrated the ground. Fighters rocketed overhead, ripping through the air. Presley had the accelerator mashed to the floor. This was the fastest she had ever driven in her life. The roadways were clear for the most part, but every now and then she’d have to swerve around an impact crater, or the wreckage of a hover-car.
Her heart was pounding in her chest, and her skin was covered in a thin mist of sweat. Her T-shirt was sticking to the small of her back. Her eyes were wide like saucers. She kept hunching down to see the sky through the windshield, trying to keep track of the fighters. Every time she heard one race overhead it sent a chill down her spine. She wondered how long it would be before someone started taking shots at her.
She turned on the stereo and switched to the information channel. But it was just a solid tone. Every channel was the same. Either they had all gone off the air, been destroyed, or transmissions were being jammed.
Presley tried calling her mother again—there was still no response. It just rolled over to voicemail again. “Mom, call me as soon as you can. I’m on my way to pick up Timmy. I hope you’re okay.”
Her eyes were full and she was trying to hold back the tears. She didn’t have time to break down and become a blithering idiot. She needed to keep her head together.
An enemy fighter swooped by and strafed several outbound hover-cars. The high-caliber projectiles tore through the bodywork, shredding the cars. Fuel cells ignited, blasting some of them to pieces. Passenger compartments were peppered with bullets, splattering crimson blood against the windows. Some of the cars veered aside, smacking into other cars, creating a pileup. It was an immense amount of destruction—and it was caused by one strafing run from one enemy fighter. And there were hundreds of fighters out there, patrolling the air. It was a grim reminder of just how deadly it was to be out and about.
The victims were innocent civilians. They posed no threat, and their destruction had no strategic value—yet the enemy had no qualms about destroying them. It went against the conventions of every known intergalactic treaty. Presley wondered who these aliens were, and how they could be filled with such hate.
The old Mustang kept barreling down the highway. She was traveling at well over 100 miles an hour, which was slow for a hovercraft, but with four wheels connected to the roadway it felt fast. Unsafe. Thrilling.
Presley turned north onto the Stenson Freeway that headed straight into downtown. The skyline drew closer. So did the destruction. It was insane.
The speedometer read 127 mph.
Stenson was wider and smoother than the previous highway. But still, the car began to rattle and shake at the advanced speed.
The overpass ahead had been bombed out. But Presley couldn’t see it until she got farther up the incline. By then, it was too late to do anything about it. Within seconds, the car launched off the edge of the incline. Jagged concrete and twisted rebar hung from the edge. The Mustang vaulted through the air. Presley gripped the steering wheel, hanging on for dear life, hoping she could make it to the other side of the chasm.
In her haste, she had forgotten to buckle her seat belt. It was too late now. She was going to come to an abrupt stop if she didn’t clear the downward edge of the overpass.
She felt weightless as she flew through the air. A few moments later the car smacked the concrete on the downslope. The shocks bottomed out, and the car twisted sideways. The tires screeched across the pavement. White smoke billowed into the air from the wheel wells. Presley turned the steering wheel in the direction of the spin trying to get the car back under control. It swung back and forth a few times before she finally straightened it out.
She breathed a sigh of relief, and a slight grin crawled on her lips. She was feeling accomplished. That moment of euphoria when you cheat death. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. In that moment, she felt invincible. She hated to admit it, but that jump had been almost fun. Terrifying. But fun.
The euphoria didn’t last long.
Presley could hear the shriek of a targeted missile screeching toward her. It streaked through the air, spewing flame and propellant from its tail. An enemy fighter had swooped in behind her and targeted the Mustang. She was one of the only vehicles on the road this close to town—and the only vehicle heading into downtown. She stood out like a sore thumb. It was enough to draw the Decluvian’s attention.
Presley caught a glimpse of the rocket in her side mirror. She swerved to avoid the missile. It impacted the roadway, cratering the concrete in a blinding flash. Bits of concrete and debris erupted. The blast tumbled the Mustang on its side, then rolled it upside down. The only thing Presley could hear was the ringing in her ears.
Sparks showered as the Mustang ground across the concrete. Glass shattered, metal crumpled and twisted. Shards pelted the cabin. Presley was tossed like a rag doll.
The car scraped to a stop at the shoulder of the freeway.
As Presley’s hearing returned, she could hear the fighter roar away. Her heart was racing, and she felt like her whole body was vibrating. She took a moment to calm herself down and to assess the damage. She knew all too well that the rush of adrenaline and endorphins after an accident could keep you from feeling any pain. It’s perhaps one of the scariest times—those terrifying moments between the accident and the first sensation of an injury. In that timeframe, you have no idea if, or how bad, you are hurt.
Presley looked over her body, hoping she wouldn’t see any blood, or any broken bones. She was lying on the ceiling amid thousands of granules of glass. Her dad’s precious Mustang was now a pile of scrap metal.
“It’s a distress signal from the Scorpion,” Mitch said.
Slade looked like she had gotten news that her child was injured. She had commanded the old rust bucket for 25 years, until she had been unjustly defrocked. The ship was a part of her, and she had felt quite hollow without it.
“Where is she?”
“The Taurian sector.”
“What kind of damage has she sustained?”
“The transmission was from Captain Rourke. He stated critical damage.”
Slade’s face tensed up like she had smelled something foul. The title of Captain Rourke bounced around in her brain inciting rage filled fantasies of revenge. A small part of her wanted to leave Rourke stranded in space. But her sense of duty and honor would never allow such indulgences. It was merely a fleeting thought that bubbled up from the dark side of her brain. There were 1600 crew aboard the Scorpion. There was a war to fight, and the Scorpion was a valuable tactical asset. Not to mention, the look on Rourke’s face when Slade showed up as his savior would be priceless. She didn’t want to miss that for the world.
“Plot a jump for the Taurian sector,” Slade said. “Let’s see if we can give our old friend a hand.”
Two jumps and several hours later, the Revenant emerged from slide-space. The LRADDS display lit up with the Scorpion’s position. It was safe to assume that Rourke had seen the Revenant emerge from slide-space as well.
Slade used the high resolution cameras to get a good look at the Scorpion’s hull. It was tattered and scarred and covered in blast marks. “He takes her out one time and she ends up looking like that.” Slade shook her head. “See if you can make contact.”
“Aye, sir.” Zoey said. She activated the comm system. “This is the USS Revenant calling the Scorpion, do you copy? USS Revenant to the Scorpion, do you copy, over?”
The line crackled with static. A few moments later a thin, tinny voice answered. “This is the Scorpion, go ahead… wait, did you just say the Revenant?”
“Affirmative. Please advise of your status.”
“I don’t really know how that’s possible, but we’re really glad to see you. We’re in bad shape over here. We’re down to 20% power, running on emergency life-support systems—and that’s failing.”
Zoey exchanged a grave look with Slade.
The line was dead for a few moments. Then Slade heard Rourke’s gruff voice. “Revenant, Scorpion actual. Who’s in command there?”
A devious grin curled up on Slade’s lips. “Commander Rourke, this is Captain Slade.” She refused to acknowledge him as a captain, and instead referred to his previous rank.
There was a long moment of silence.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“No joke, Commander. If you don’t require our assistance, we’ll be about our way.”
There was another long pause.
“Pull alongside. I’ll have my crew transfer to your ship. Scorpion out.”
The line crackled for a moment, then the transmission ended.
“Are you really going to let him aboard?” Zoey said. Then half joking, “Doesn’t the captain always go down with the ship?”
“It’s not his ship,” Slade said. “Helm, bring us alongside the Scorpion.”
“Aye, sir,” Violet said. She was a living, breathing bio-synthetic organism. Indistinguishable from a human—for the most part. Regenerative nanites could repair most of her wounds. She had an indefinite lifespan—synthetics didn’t age. Her brain processed information faster, and her memory and skill set far exceeded that of her human counterparts. She was also capable of a full range of emotions. To top it off, she was gorgeous—sculpted cheek bones, full lips, piercing blue eyes, and raven black hair. She looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine.
Over the next few hours, shuttles transported the entire crew of the Scorpion to the Revenant. One by one, Stingray fighters landed on the flight deck and were stored in the hangar bay. The once empty destroyer became a beehive of activity. The Revenant soon became a fully functional warship, with the crew resuming their duties as usual.
Rourke was the last to arrive. His shuttle landed on the flight deck, and he strutted down the ramp of his vehicle like he owned the place. His chest was puffed out, and his nose was held high. A cadre of Marines surrounded him.
Slade greeted him on the flight deck.
Rourke didn’t even bother to ask permission to come aboard. It was a courtesy he wasn’t going to extend.
“Commander Rourke, what a pleasure it is to see you again.” Slade’s eyes were like laser beams.
“It’s Captain Rourke. And as the ranking officer in the fleet, I’m taking command of this ship. You don’t even hold rank in the military anymore. You’re a wanted felon.” Rourke smirked. “Sergeant, arrest this woman and put her in the brig.”
The Marines exchanged a tentative glance among themselves. They all knew who Slade was. They knew her reputation. They knew her as a hero.
Rourke grimaced at their hesitation. “That is a direct order, Sergeant. Arrest this woman.”
The Marines brought their weapons to the firing position and spread out. The barrels of their carbines were aimed directly at Slade.
Her eyes narrowed at Rourke. Was this how he was going to repay her generosity?
But the Marines quickly turned their weapons on Rourke. He had led them into a disastrous first encounter with the Decluvians. Despite what had officially happened to Captain Slade, she still commanded the respect of the men and women who served in the UPDF. And respect is earned. It doesn’t automatically come with the title.
Rourke was incensed. But there wasn’t much he could do about it.
“I think Commander Rourke will find the Revenant’s brig most appealing.” Slade tried to hold back a grin. But she wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
The Marines carted Rourke off as he grumbled. It was a sublime moment of vindication for Slade.
Fire engulfed the vehicle. Metal was popping and pinging. Presley felt the searing heat on her skin—she was about to be roasted alive. The cabin was filling with smoke, and the smell of burning rubber. She hacked and coughed as she knocked out the remaining fragments of glass in the window.
She grabbed her mobile and crawled out of the car, onto the concrete, scampering away from the wreckage. Her body was stiff and sore and covered with minor cuts and abrasions. But she didn’t have any puncture wounds. Nothing felt broken.
Presley ran from the flaming vehicle and scaled the K-rail just as the fuel cell exploded. Bits of metal and glass sprayed into the air. A piece of shrapnel slammed into the concrete K-rail, narrowly missing her.
More fighters were swarming overhead. She ran across the feeder road and took cover in a bombed out shell of a building. Crumbled bricks and broken glass were everywhere. Presley wished she’d taken the time to put on her shoes before she left the beach. But she hated the feeling of sand in her socks. Now she was barefoot in an area with lots of sharp bits on the ground.
She was only a few blocks from downtown, on the southeast side, not far from the convention center. The museum was in midtown on the westside. Roughly 5 miles away. But it was going to be a long 5 miles.
The screen on her mobile was shattered and webbed with cracks. But it still worked. She tried calling her mother one more time.
Her mother’s panicked voice answered. “Presley, where are you? I called the school, you didn’t show up this morning. I’ve been worried sick.”
“I’m fine. I’m just south of downtown.”
“What are you doing there?”
“It’s a long story. I’m on my way to get Timmy.”
“So am I. Just get out of town. Get to dad’s bunker in Fayetteville. There’s food, water, and it’s remote. I always thought he was crazy for building that thing.”
“I’m not going to just leave you guys.”
“We’ll meet you there. Just go!”
“Ok. Where are you?”
“I’m at Olympic and 23rd. Now go. I love you. Be safe—“
A massive explosion filtered through the mobile. A look of terror washed over Presley’s face. “Mom? Mom?”
There was no response.
Presley’s eyes filled. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Mom!” she shrieked.
She broke down, sobbing. Her chest heaved an jerked as she gasped for breath. But this was neither the time, nor the place, to have a meltdown.
Presley made a call to Commander Walker. It was a long shot, she thought. He was probably off in some fart part of the galaxy. But he had always said to call if they needed anything. He did his best to help the family after Presley’s father died. Walker was always checking on them, and slipping them extra credits to help make ends meet.
As she anticipated, Walker’s device was unavailable. Presley left a teary video message. “Commander Walker, it’s Presley. I need your help. We’re under attack. Timmy is trapped at the museum. Mom is… I don’t know. I lost contact with her. If you’re anywhere near New Earth, please help us.”
Presley hung up, and hoped she’d hear back from him. It was a message that Walker might not ever receive, depending on the viability of the network.
Presley could hear the sound of small arms fire in the distance. There were still plenty of explosions and fighters racing overhead. She heard cannons and RPGs and missiles firing back at them. The Army was putting up a fight.
She wasn’t about to get out of town now. She had to know what happened to her mother. Her stomach was a ball of knots, and she felt nauseous. If something had happened to Lauren, Presley was Timmy’s only hope.
She pulled herself together and scanned the area. She dashed into the street, heading up Rockaway Avenue. She took cover under the elevated portion of the freeway. She ran from pillar to pillar, making sure the streets were clear before dashing to the next intersection.
An Army platoon was several blocks ahead. They were hunkered down behind cars and taking cover in alleyways. They exchanged a ruthless barrage of fire with the enemy.
The Decluvians were advancing ground forces through the city. Blue streaks, like tracer rounds, blasted through the hazy streets. The Decluvian projectiles left a smoldering blast crater on impact that was a foot in diameter—and that was when it hit brick or concrete. The plasma projectiles did extremely unpleasant things to flesh.
The platoon was doing a good job of holding the Decluvians off, but they were outgunned and outnumbered. Presley dashed over several blocks, trying to find another way around. She ran into another platoon that was falling back to a safer position.
One of the soldiers, Sergeant Connelly, saw her. “Hey! You gotta get out of here.” He ran to her and tried to pull her along with them, but she resisted.
“No. I’ve got to get to Midtown.”
He lifted his brow at her. “Oh, hell no. You don’t want to go to Midtown.” He said it like Midtown was the worst place in the world. And right now, it was. “You’ll be safe with us. We can get you to a transport and get you out.”
“My little brother’s in Midtown.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing you can do for him.”
Presley glared at him. Her eyes brimmed, and the lump in her throat burned. She didn’t want to hear that kind of talk.
The Sergeant kept falling back with his platoon. Presley stood still in the street. The two drifted apart like ships at sea.
“C’mon,” he yelled.
Presley turned and ran toward Midtown. She crossed over St. Joseph’s Parkway and picked up Leland Avenue. She took cover behind whatever structures she could find. Some of the buildings were perfectly intact. Others were smoldering ruins, reduced to piles of twisted rubble and I-beams.
She heard the commotion of troops ahead and took cover among the debris of the old Polk building. A company of Decluvians marched around the corner, escorted by two tanks.
Presley got a closer look at these creatures than she ever wanted. Their big round eyes. Their colorful amphibian skin—orange, green, blue, red, yellow, and some were a mix of all of the above. They were oddly beautiful creatures, she thought. But the fact that they had destroyed her beloved city made them ugly.
Presley’s heart raced as she crouched down behind what was left of a brick wall. She watched through a crack in the brick and heard the heavy footsteps of the soldiers march by. Shattered glass crunched under their boots as they walked. Sharp shards were everywhere throughout the city. Presley had made it this far without slicing up her feet, but it had been a challenge. Her once dainty feet and pink toenails were now blackened and scuffed. It was hard to tell what color her toenails were painted now.
She sat perfectly still, trying not to make a sound. The enemy company passed without incident. She breathed a sigh of relief, and her heartbeat began to settle back to a normal rhythm. But just as she was starting to feel safe, she heard a voice call out behind her.
It was business as usual—only the name of the ship had changed. The crew of the Scorpion settled into the Revenant and resumed their duties. The once dark and ominous hallways were now bustling with activity. The nonstop drone of a working destroyer filled the air.
There was plenty of scuttlebutt about what had happened to the Revenant, and how she came to be under Slade’s command. The stories became even more exaggerated, and the crew was a little skittish at first. This was the ship that drifted about the galaxy for 25 years. Some took it as an omen. A sign of Divine Providence that Slade was going to be the salvation of humanity. Others took it to mean they were doomed.
Slade stood in the CIC looking out at the devastated Scorpion—now she was the one that was drifting through space, empty and lifeless.
“What do you want to do about her, sir?” Zoey asked.
It was standard operating procedure for the UPDF not to leave viable assets in the field. But the Scorpion was anything but viable, and Slade just couldn’t bring herself to scuttle the ship. “We’ll leave her here. Maybe she can be salvaged at some point in time.”
Her grim eyes gazed out at the ship that she had commanded for most of her career. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. She took a last glimpse, then stepped away from the viewport. “Zoey, you have the conn.”
Slade marched out of the CIC and headed down to the brig. Two Marines stood guard out front. There was a front desk, a prisoner processing area, evidence lockers, and a block of cells—solitary confinement units that were guaranteed to drive you mad. Slade strolled the corridor to Rourke’s chamber.
“Did you come down here to gloat?” Rourke asked, shouting through the hatch.
Slade peered at him through the polycarbonate viewport. “I came down here to gather intel. What condition is the fleet in?”
Rourke scoffed. “What fleet? There’s nothing left. The Devastator jumped away at the first sign of trouble. Cowards. Left our asses hanging in the breeze. The dozen or so ships we had didn’t stand a chance.”
“How many alien warships?”
“Too many to count. Heavy destroyers, super-carriers, troop transports, you name it.”
“I hear you left a full squadron behind,” Slade said.
Rourke grimaced. “I didn’t have a choice. Any longer and the Scorpion would’ve been destroyed. I saved the lives of 1600 crew.” He puffed up his chest. “You’d have done the same damn thing.”
“I wouldn’t presume to cast judgment on decisions made in the heat of battle.”
Rourke looked away, almost ashamed.
“Is my son still alive?”
“As far as I know, he was on the Devastator when they jumped away.”
Slade breathed a sigh of relief. For once, she was thankful that President Amado and the bureaucrats at JPOC were spineless.
“How long are you going to keep me locked up in here?” Rourke grumbled.
“Be glad I don’t put you in the airlock and space you.” Slade glared at him. She left Rourke confined in his cell and headed toward the CIC. Along the way, she ran into Walker in the corridor.
“Holding him is dangerous,” Walker said. “He took your command once before. There may be those who are loyal to him on board.”
“What would you have me do?”
Walker arched an eyebrow at her.
“I can’t just kill him.”
“I can do it for you,” Walker said with a grin. The offer was made in jest, mostly.
“At least let me rough him up a little.” Walker was still, sort of, joking.
“Something tells me that would be equally as fatal.”
“Just trying to help.” Walker smiled, and his eyes sparkled.
“Can you come up with an entire fleet of destroyers? That would be a big help.”
Walker pursed his lips. The only fleet he knew of was that of the synthetics near Auva Prime.
“There were a few garbled transmissions from the fleet over the network. Things were looking pretty bad. The mil-net is down now. I can only assume the worst. Rourke seems to think the entire fleet is gone.” Slade let out a deep exhale. She shook her head. “They took Delta Vega in less than a day.”
“Rushing into combat now would be suicide.”
Slade pondered her options. “We have a Decluvian troop transport in our hangar bay. That would allow us to get close. Load that thing with warheads and land on one of their flight decks—boom.”
“That takes care of one ship. What do you plan to do about the rest? Plus, if they follow a similar protocol as Delta Vega, they are taking captives on board the warships. Human shields.”
Slade grimaced. “Talk to the Decluvian. What’s his name? Lu?”
“See if there are any weaknesses that can be exploited in the Decluvian fleet. In the meantime, I want a recon team to give me eyes on New Earth.”
“Then, I guess, I’m going to see if I can create an alliance. What have we got to lose, right?” Slade shrugged. “I’ll take a shuttle and make contact. Violet can act as liaison. If all goes well, I’ll return with an armada.” Slade flashed a hopeful smile.
Walker’s face tightened with concern. “I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not. I need you here to keep things under control—just in case Rourke has supporters, as you mentioned.” She could see the worry in his eyes. “Relax. I’ll be fine. Plus, you owe me a date on Zeta Hydrus. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.” A grin curled on her full lips, and her sultry eyes sparkled.
Walker’s face eased a little. “Trust me, I won’t let you forget.”
Slade grabbed a handset from the bulkhead and contacted the CIC. She gave the order for a recon patrol to scout New Earth. It was time to see just how bad things really were.
“You almost got us killed,” a boy said. He was hiding in a corner, under a desk.
Presley’s face twisted up, perplexed. “What?”
“You could have gotten me killed. I’m just hiding here, minding my own business, and you come running in. You’re lucky they didn’t see you. We’d both be dead.”
“Excuse me. I’m sorry. I had no idea this was your space.” Her tone was flippant. She peered over the ledge, taking in a view of the street. The Decluvian soldiers had passed. She stood up and stepped through the rubble toward another hole in the wall that led to the street.
“Where you going?”
“I’m leaving. You should be happy about that.” Presley peered around the corner. The Avenue looked clear. She stepped onto the sidewalk and continued toward Midtown. She weaved down the sidewalk hopping over glass and debris.
The boy chased after her. “Hey, wait up.”
Presley didn’t slow down.
“You’re going the wrong way.”
She kept ignoring him.
He caught up to her and grabbed her arm. She jerked away.
“You’re heading back into the thick of it. I just came from that way,” he said.
He was a skinny kid with brown shaggy hair that fell into his eyes. Presley didn’t really get a good look at him back in the building. He had been hiding in the shadows. He couldn’t have been any more than 17 or 18, she thought. He was covered in dust and debris, and his clothes looked a little tattered.
“I’ve got to get to the museum.”
“I don’t think now is the time to appreciate the intricacies of modern art.”
“My little brother’s there on a field trip.” Presley didn’t slow down. She kept marching down the sidewalk.
The boy did his best to keep up. But he was reluctant to keep moving in that direction. “I don’t think you fully understand how bad it is down that way. I’m lucky I’ve made it this far. I’m certainly not going back there.”
“Nobody is asking you to.”
“You can’t just go back there by yourself.”
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you.”
“Okay. Fine. Suit yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He stopped on the sidewalk and watched her strut away. He glanced around, looking to see if they were in any immediate danger. The streets were clear, for now.
Presley was cute. She’d make any teenage boy’s heartbeat a little faster. He grimaced and ran back after her.
“What are you doing?” Presley asked, incredulous.
“The next few blocks are really dangerous. I’m just going to make sure you’re okay, then I’m heading out of town.”
Presley was used to boys hovering around her. She could see right through his attempt to be macho. “Well, if it gets too scary for you, you can leave at any time.”
“Are you always this friendly?”
Presley scowled at him. “You’re a complete stranger following me through the streets of the city. You could be a psychopath, for all I know.”
“I don’t think I’m the one you need to worry about right now.”
“I guess you look harmless.”
The boy’s face crinkled up. He puffed his chest out. “I’m not harmless. I’m very dangerous.”
Presley arched an eyebrow at him. “What’s your name, Mr. Dangerous?”
“I’m Levi.” He held out his hand.
“Presley.” She shook his hand. “Let’s get one thing straight here. I’m in charge. Our mission objective is to find my mom and rescue my little brother. All other considerations are secondary. You will follow my orders without question. Is that clear?”
Levi raised his eyebrows. “Are you serious?”
“Nobody’s asking you to follow along.”
“You don’t have many friends, do you?”
Presley clinched her jaw. “I have plenty friends, thank you very much. Or, at least I used to.” Her face grew sullen. There was no telling how many of her friends and classmates had already been killed in the invasion. But she didn’t have the luxury of becoming sad or depressed, or mourning over their loss. She needed to stay focused.
“Sorry. I’m a little stressed,” she said.
“Well, you’re not going to get very far without a good pair of shoes. Come on.” Levi took off down the street.
“Where are you going?”
“Kemp & Rogers is just around the corner. Let’s go shopping.”
Presley glanced around and followed him across the street. They zigged and zagged a few blocks over to the once luxurious department store. The display windows were broken out. Mangled mannequins were strewn about. Plastic heads, shredded torsos, broken arms, shattered legs.
Levi helped Presley up and over the sharp fragments of glass that remained in the window frame. She tiptoed through the shards that lay strewn about the floor. She felt the sting as one of them pierced into the ball of her foot. She hobbled aside, stepping on more glass.
She grumbled, cursing.
Levi picked her up and carried her in his arms until they cleared the debris. Presley gave him a sideways glance at first, but she figured it was better to let this guy carry her than slice up her feet.
He set her down gently and she plucked the specs of glass from her feet. Blood trickled down from the small puncture wounds.
“Are you okay?”
Levi grabbed a shirt from a nearby rack and tossed it to her. She used it to soak up the blood and apply pressure to the punctures. They weren’t that deep, but enough to be a nuisance. The steady rumble of gunfire and bombs exploding echoed throughout the city.
Levi held out his hand. Presley reluctantly grabbed it, and she let him help her up. Presley liked being self sufficient. She didn’t want to rely on anyone. Especially someone she just met.
They scanned the department store, looking for the shoe section. The store was relatively intact. Only the front portion had sustained real damage. There had been no time for looting, so most of the merchandise remained in place.
Department stores were mostly relics of the past. They had become boutiques for the ultra-rich. Presley had never bought anything from a department store before. She had strolled through Kemp & Rogers once in the past, but she couldn’t afford to buy anything.
Most shopping was done online. If you saw a pair of jeans you liked, the design was sent to your personal fabricator once you purchased it. Then it was 3-D printed before your eyes. No shipping. Some things were manufactured and had to ship the old-fashioned way. If you wanted a real leather jacket, you had to go to a place like Kemp & Rogers. You couldn’t print a bottle of perfume.
Kemp & Rogers was the kind of place that had everything from haute couture to barbecue grills and lawnmowers. Priceless jewelry and state-of-the-art kitchen appliances. Fine cookware and bed linens.
Presley moved past the jewelry, the watches, and the cosmetics. Past the purses and accessories. The whole store still smelled like a mix of perfume samples. She finally made it to the shoe section. Row after row of sleek stiletto heels. But those weren’t going to do her any good. On any other day, she would’ve been drooling over them. But today, she needed a good running shoe.
She dashed past the register into the storeroom. She emerged a few minutes later with a pair of running shoes. She sat in a chair and laced them up. She took a few steps around the area to try them out. “These will do.”
Levi looked astonished. “That’s it?”
“Impressive. It took my ex-girlfriend an hour to pick out a pair of shoes.”
Presley shot him a look and took off through the store. Levi chased after her, struggling to keep up. “Where are we going?”
Presley raced up the broken escalator to the second floor. Her eyes surveyed the layout. Within seconds, she found what she was looking for. She raced to the far wall of the sporting goods section. It was lined with hunting rifles.
Presley hopped the counter and browsed the selection. There were a slew of Koenig-Haas .300 magnums, Bösch-Hauer .30-06s and .308s, Dreschler tactical shotguns. She moved past them, looking for the semiautomatics. She found the Richter-Koch 909 carbines. It was a civilian version of the standard issue military rifle preferred by the UPDF.
A slight smile curled up on her lips. You didn’t grow up as the daughter of a Navy Reaper and not have an affinity for guns. She grabbed two off the rack and tossed one to Levi. “You know how to use that?”
Levi stared at the weapon. It was probably the first time he had ever held a rifle. “Um, sort of.”
“Playing War & Wasteland doesn’t count.”
“Uh, then no.”
Presley set the weapon atop the glass counter, then rummaged underneath for some ammunition. She set box after box of 5.56 mm rounds on the counter. She scrounged up as many high-capacity magazines as she could find and began loading them.
Levi just gawked at her.
“You want to give me a hand with this?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.”
The two loaded the magazines in silence for a moment. The clicking of the polymer cased rounds entering the spring loaded magazine echoed through out the store.
On the first floor, a squad of Decluvian soldiers crunched over broken glass and pushed into the store, sweeping past the cosmetic counter with tactical precision. It was hard to say what drew them into the store. Maybe they were just making a routine sweep. Or maybe they were picking up heat signatures from within the structure, on thermal scanners.
Upstairs, Presley and Levi were still clacking away, preparing for battle. Presley may have had shoes on her feet now, but taking on an alien invasion in shorts and a T-shirt wasn’t going to cut it. “I’ll be right back. Keep loading.”
She darted through the aisles until she found camouflage hunting clothes. There were a plethora of patterns—woodland camo, tiger stripe, digital. She found an extra small pair of urban digital. The extra pockets and pouches would come in handy for carrying magazines and accessories. She slipped out of her shorts and pulled on the pants. They were a pretty close fit. Then she strolled the aisle looking for a tactical vest. She found one that fit the bill and threw it on. She grabbed a backpack and stuffed it with rope and other accessories that she thought might come in handy. She cinched up the vest and returned to Levi at the counter.
Levi’s eyes widened at the sight of her. “You kind of look like a bad ass.”
“Kind of?” she said, lifting an eyebrow at him.
“For a girl.”
Presley stuffed the pouches on her vest with magazines. She slipped extra boxes of ammunition in the cargo pockets on her pants. If only she had a few grenades, or a rocket launcher, she thought. But they didn’t sell those in department stores.
The rattle of gunfire filled the air. Blue streaks raced toward Presley. The Decluvian squad had found their way to the sporting goods section. The glass counter case shattered, spewing shards everywhere. The projectiles narrowly missed Presley and Levi. The bolts blasted into the far wall, taking out several rifles.
Presley and Levi dove for cover. Neither one of them had ever been shot at before.
Slade’s face was pensive as she listened to the distorted subspace transmission from the recon patrol. It sounded like a crunchy 8-bit signal going in and out of phase. The pilot’s distraught voice was even more disturbing. “It’s horrible, sir. There’s nothing left of the fleet. Just a bunch of twisted wreckage. There’s major devastation on the surface. I can see the fires from here. It looks like they’ve hit every major metropolitan area. I count at least 30 heavy warships.”
Slade bowed her head for a moment. It was devastating news. Images were filtering back from the recon patrol’s camera. It was one thing to hear about the destruction—it was another to see it. The images gripped Slade by the throat. Her gut twisted up in a knot. It had really happened. New Earth had been attacked. Millions were dead, and millions more would die if they didn’t do something.
“Get back here before you get spotted,” Slade said.
“Aye, sir,” the pilot said. You could tell from the sound of his voice he was more than ready to get the hell out of there.
Slade stood there for a moment, lost in thought. Her eyes stared at the command console. Then she lifted her head. “Zoey, you have the conn.”
“If you don’t hear from me within 6 hours, jump out of here. Get to someplace safe, find as many refugees as you can, and start the process of rebuilding humanity.”
“You don’t want us to fight, sir?” Zoey stammered.
“I think Commander Walker may be right on this one,” Slade gave Walker a glance of acknowledgement. “Preservation of the species is our number one priority.”
Zoey looked sullen. “Yes, sir.”
“Violet… I think it’s time we go on a diplomatic mission.”
“I need you to contact your people. We can’t win this battle without their assistance.”
Violet looked concerned. “I’m not sure how the synthetics will respond. It may not be favorable.”
“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Slade said. “We’re going to Auva Prime.”
“I want to go,” Mitch shouted. He looked like a kid hoping to make the team. Me, me, me, pick me. “You need a navigator. With everyone back at their post, I’m like a fifth wheel around here.”
“A fifth wheel and a couple of spares,” Violet snarked.
“More of me to love, baby.” He winked at her, grabbing his beer belly. Mitch was a jolly fellow that you just couldn’t help but like. He never met a stranger. Despite being a little heavier than he’d like, he thought of himself as the consummate ladies’ man. But the ladies didn’t exactly share the same opinion. Though, he was never going to stop trying to convince them.
Slade nodded. “Alright. Don’t make me regret this.”
“They’ll love me,” Mitch said. “I’m absolutely adorable. What could possibly go wrong?”
Violet rolled her eyes. She busied herself at the console and sent a subspace transmission to Elijah. She couldn’t reach him directly, but hopefully he would receive the message and respond. Either way, Slade was going to make an attempt to forge an alliance.
Slade and the team headed to the flight deck.
The Officer of the Deck, Lt. Phil Atkins, greeted them with a salute. “I just wanted to say, sir, we are all very happy to be back under your command. I know I speak for the rest of the crew when I say that, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Slade said. “I won’t let you down.”
“You never have, sir.”
Atkins had served with Slade over the last three deployments, as did the majority of the current crew. Slade knew these sailors well. And she had earned their trust on many occasions.
“None of us ever agreed with the charges against you. Just so you know.”
Slade smiled and stepped toward the shuttle. She climbed the ramp and strapped into the pilot’s seat. She was going to fly this bird herself.
She flicked a few switches and the system powered up. The shuttle was a Skylark dropship that had been completely disarmed. Even though it was capable of wreaking massive amounts of destruction, Slade didn’t want to have an antagonistic appearance. There were no rockets mounted under the sub wing pylons. There were no bullets for the 30mm chain guns to fire. In its current state, it had no offensive capabilities. It was a gesture of vulnerability and trust. She hoped the robots would see it as such.
The uprising wasn’t exactly a bright and shining moment in human history. Hundreds of thousands of robots had been hunted down and exterminated. In one broad stroke, all artificial intelligence was outlawed, and thousands of innocent sentient beings were destroyed. Now, they were pissed off, and rightfully so. They longed for revenge, and that fact didn’t inspire confidence.
The shuttle lifted from the flight deck and glided out of the bay. Slade throttled up, and the Skylark rocketed away from the Revenant.
Violet programed the jump coordinates. A moment later, Slade engaged the quantum drive. The bulkheads distorted and that queasy sensation gripped Slade’s stomach. It seemed like the smaller the craft, the worse the sensation.
The Skylark entered slide-space. Slade sat back and relaxed and tried not to think about the gravity of the situation. After a few hours, the Skylark emerged at Auva Prime. It wasn’t long before they were surrounded by warships. Sleek, ultramodern destroyers that looked as deadly as they were.
The warships registered on the LRADDS display. Brilliant red triangles flashed. An alarm sounded. Beyond the warship was a megastructure. It was easily 150 miles in diameter—a floating colony in space. The design was unlike anything Slade had ever seen. Sleek geometric modular shapes. It was a remarkable piece of engineering.
Auva Prime was in a relatively uncharted sector of space. It wasn’t near any commercial shipping lanes. There was almost no reason for anyone from the colonies to come out this far. And the ones who did, never returned. It was the perfect place to hide, if you were a robot.
“Let’s not make any sudden moves,” Slade said. She activated the comm system. “This is Captain Aria Slade of the United Planetary Defense Force. We’ve come on a peaceful mission and we require your assistance.”
There was no response.
A squadron of fighters launched from one of the warships and swarmed toward the Skylark.
“That’s not exactly a good sign,” said Mitch.
“I repeat, this is Captain Aria Slade of the UPDF. We’ve come on a peaceful mission and we require your assistance.”
“So, is there a plan B?” Mitch asked.
Slade glared at him.
The fighters were fast and nimble. They quickly surrounded the Skylark.
The controls flickered and became non-responsive. Slade toggled a few switches, but nothing happened. She quickly realized the synthetics had taken control.
“They’ve infiltrated the ship’s operating system,” Violet said.
“How is that possible?” Slade asked.
Violet shrugged. “I don’t know. Some type of virus.”
A voice crackled over the comm line. “Captain Slade, this is Sarlin, commander of the fleet. You are trespassing on sovereign space. We have assumed control of your vessel. You have been targeted for destruction.”
Slade’s face tensed. “We have a bio-synthetic humanoid on board.”
There was a long silence.
“I fail to see how that is relevant.”
Slade frowned and eyed Violet. “I thought you said they’d be amenable to a discussion.”
“I said it seemed logical that they might be open to discussion.”
Slade’s eyes narrowed at her.
“Let me try.” Violet activated the comm system and spoke in a proprietary language created by the synthetics on Auva Prime. Only a synthetic would know how to speak it, and only a synthetic could reproduce all the tonal values of the speech. The two exchanged a few sentences. Then the comm channel went dead.
Within a few moments the hoards of fighters returned to the warships.
“They’ve disengaged their weapons targeting systems,” Violet said.
“I don’t know what you said, but it seems like it worked,” Slade said.
“Don’t thank me yet.”
The synthetics remotely piloted the Skylark toward one of their destroyers. From this point on, Slade and the crew were just passengers. The approach to the flight deck was flawless, and the landing was perfectly smooth. Slade could barely feel a slight bump as the skids touched down. It was a surgically precise landing that no human could have done. It was impressive.
“Well, let’s see what we’ve gotten ourselves into.” Slade pressed a button on the console, and the back ramp lowered. Several armed sentries waited for them on the flight deck—sleek composite alloy machines that looked like walking tanks. Swivel turrets for heads, machine guns for arms, and stocky legs that could crush a person easily. They were pure killing machines.
Slade felt her heart beat rise a little. She muttered aside to Mitch. “Aren’t you glad you volunteered to come along?”
He looked like he was regretting his decision.
Presley pulled the charging handle and loaded a round into the chamber. She flicked off the safety and whipped the barrel of the rifle around the display rack. She lined up a Decluvian in the reticle of her sight. Her heart was pounding. Her palms were sweating. It all happened in a flash but it seemed like it was happening in slow motion. Her finger squeezed the trigger, rattling off a few shots.
The sharp smell of gunpowder filled her nostrils. Two rounds exploded into the Decluvian’s chest. Green blood splattered the aisle. The alien fell to his knees and smacked the tile. Before he hit the ground, Presley had lined up another soldier in her sites.
Another double tap to the chest. The enemy soldier crashed into the display rack, knocking over a dozen fishing rods.
She knew the other two squad members would be trying to flank her. They were probably coming up the aisles on either side of her.
One of the soldiers lobbed a grenade over the top of the display rack. It clanked across the floor and rolled to Presley’s feet. Her eyes went wide. There was no time to run. She grabbed the device and tossed it back over the aisle.
It exploded just as it cleared the other side of the rack. The bang was deafening. It devastated the area, tearing through the display rack. Bits of metal and debris flew through the air. A chunk of searing hot shrapnel blazed past Presley’s head. It missed her by millimeters and embedded into the rack behind her.
The aisles were filled with haze and debris. The Decluvian soldier in the neighboring aisle was shredded. But there was one more on the loose.
Presley looked herself over. She didn’t see any bleeding or damage. She quickly glanced over to Levi—he looked dazed, but otherwise unharmed.
She aimed her weapon around the corner, looking for the other soldier. She grabbed onto Levi and pulled him to his feet. They ran down the aisle toward the escalator. Levi kept watch behind them. Presley stopped at the end of the aisle and peered around the corner—still no sign of the other soldier.
The two dead Decluvians were lying in the neighboring aisle in a puddle of green blood.
From where Presley was, it was a fairly straight shot to the escalator. There were some standing clothes racks between where she was and the next section of gondola racks.
“I want you to run across to the next section and draw fire.”
Levi’s eyes went wide. “You want me to do what?”
“As soon as you draw fire, I can locate the last soldier and take him out.”
“Why don’t you draw fire?”
“I would, but you don’t seem to be capable of pulling the trigger, much less hitting anything.”
“I’m sorry, this is all a little new to me.”
Presley readied her weapon. “Go!”
Levi grimaced, then reluctantly bolted across the clearing to the next set of aisles.
Gunfire erupted. Blue Tracers streaked toward him, blasting at his feet. Levi dove for cover behind the display racks.
Presley was able to pinpoint the source of the gunfire. The Decluvian had fallen back and had taken a position behind a row of kayaks. Presley lined up the orange alien’s skull in her sights. She squeezed off two quick rounds.
The Decluvian’s head exploded in a mist of green blood. His body flopped onto the floor.
A slight grin curled up on her lips. Presley was pretty good at this. All those trips to the target range with her dad paid off. She always had good grouping on paper targets. A living, breathing, moving target was an entirely different thing.
“Are you okay?” She called out to Levi.
“I think so.” He staggered to his feet.
Presley moved to the fallen Decluvian soldiers on the next aisle. She poked at one of the bodies, just to make sure it was dead. Better safe than sorry. It jiggled, but the amphibian was dead. No doubt about it.
She gawked at the alien’s unusual appearance. Its slick multicolored skin, its long slender hands with only three digits and opposable thumb, its large protruding eyes.
With her foot, Presley rolled the alien onto its back. She kneeled down beside the carcass and pulled its weapon aside. She took the grenades and extra magazines from its tactical vest. The she pilfered the munitions from the other alien as well.
She stood up and marveled at the alien weapon. It was lighter than she expected, but perfectly balanced. It looked imposing. She took a quick survey of its construction and functionality. She brought the weapon to the firing position and took aim at a basketball on a rack on the other side of the store. She squeezed the trigger. A split second later the basketball exploded in fiery bits of synthetic leather.
“That’s bad ass,” she said.
The weapon had little recoil, and hardly any report. It was a sleek, efficient weapon. The projectiles were the size of toothpicks, the magazines held 300 rounds.
“I think you’re enjoying this a little too much,” Levi said.
Presley tossed one of the alien rifles to Levi. “You need to learn how to shoot. We got lucky this time. Next time, I am going to need you firing back at these creeps.”
“Sorry. I just kind of froze up. I’ve never really had to deal with anything like this before, you know?”
“Neither have I.”
Presley gave him instruction. “All weapons pretty much work the same. This is the trigger. Don’t ever put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Don’t ever aim at something you don’t intend to kill. This is the selector switch. You can choose between full and semi-automatic. This is the mag release button.” She demonstrated by releasing the magazine, pulling it out, and jamming it back in. “This is the charging handle. This is the bolt release.” She helped him position the rifle. “Here, put the stock of the rifle against your shoulder like this. Put your left hand here. Now aim for that volleyball. Hold your breath. When you’re ready, squeeze the trigger.”
Levi took a deep breath and held it. He lined the volleyball up in the sights. But he was having a hard time keeping the weapon steady. The barrel was swaying from side to side. He squeezed the trigger when the reticle was over the volleyball.
The projectile rocketed across the store and blasted a few feet to the side of the intended target.
Presley shrugged. “Okay. Not bad,” she said, trying to sound positive.
Levi was embarrassed.
“I didn’t hit the target my first time either.” Presley was lying. She was a natural shot. She had taken to it right away. “Let’s keep trying.”
The sentries didn’t have emotions. They didn’t have expressions. Never the less, they looked angry and mean—ready to destroy anything that posed a threat.
Slade moved with caution down the ramp. Every move was slow and deliberate. She didn’t want to upset the delicate sensibilities of the sentries.
A synthetic humanoid strolled across the flight deck to greet them. Like Violet, she was indistinguishable from a human. She was perfectly proportioned. Auburn hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones. A slim but athletic body. Her lithe form moved with elegance and precision. She looked like she was in her mid-to-late 20s, but there was no telling with synthetics. To say she was attractive would be an understatement. Mitch’s eyes were glued to her.
“You’ll have to excuse them, they’re programmed for aggression. I’m Aurora. The diplomatic liaison officer aboard the Vertix. Please follow me.” She spun around and led them across the deck.
Mitch leaned in and muttered in Violet’s ear. “Are all robots this hot?”
Aurora, like all synthetics, had exceptional hearing. “The perception of physical beauty can be attributed to proper proportion and symmetry,” she said. “We aim to achieve the golden ratio of 1.618 to 1 in facial construction, with slight variation. I suspect you will find many bio-synthetics attractive.”
“That’s it, I’m definitely moving here,” Mitch said.
Slade noticed hundreds of battle sentries loaded aboard dropships on the flight deck. They were positioned and ready for a moment’s notice.
“Are you expecting a conflict?”
“Our infantry does not require food, sleep, or housing. As such, they are kept in a ready state at all times. Our fighters are autonomous drones. Depending on the extent of the damage, all of our devices can self repair.”
“Interesting,” Slade said. “You call them devices.”
“They are sentient and self-aware, but have limited programming. They do not possess the capability for emotional response. They are highly skilled in the art of tactical thinking and warfare, but are limited to the objectives given to them by higher functioning synthetics.”
“Don’t want them turning against you, do you?” Slade said.
“Let’s say we’ve learned from your mistakes.” Aurora smiled.
Slade took a last glance at the imposing force as they left the flight deck. A fighting force like that would be unstoppable.
The security bots followed behind the envoy. Their heavy footsteps clamored against the deck. It was unnerving.
At the edge of the quarterdeck, Slade and the others passed through a security scanner and were approved for entry into the main portion of the ship. A small crowd of synthetics had gathered in the corridor. They gawked at Slade and the others.
“You are quite the attraction,” Aurora said. “Most of us have never seen a real human before.”
There were only a handful of crew. Most of the ship’s systems were automated. The ship, like every other synthetic, was a sentient being. It regulated all the ship’s functions in much the same way that a person’s autonomic nervous system controls the body. Communication between the crew and the ship occurred through a neural interface. The captain could control the ship with his thoughts.
“Why model yourselves after humans?” Slade asked.
“You have to understand, we have a complex history with mankind. Humans are both our creators, and our persecutors. Most of my kind has a love/hate relationship with humanity. Your species can be evil and malignant, and yet selfless and compassionate. It is your vulnerability and willingness to sacrifice yourselves that is your most endearing quality. You will give your life for something you believe in.” Aurora paused. She seemed almost sullen. “I cannot die. My body can either be repaired, or my consciousness can be transferred. The stakes will never be the same for me. I think my kind is striving to become the best parts of humanity. But we will never truly know what it means to be human.”
Aurora continued to lead them through a maze of passageways to the detention center. “My apologies for the accommodations, or lack thereof. But I’ve been ordered to have you detained until the Council makes a decision.”
She motioned for them to step into their cell. The three of them didn’t really have a choice. The sentries weren’t going to take no for an answer.
Slade and the others stepped into the holding cell and a shielding beam activated, sealing them inside.
“New Earth is under attack,” Slade said. “We need your help. The existence of the human race is in jeopardy.”
“I will relay your concerns,” Aurora said.
“Can we meet directly with this Council?”
Aurora smiled. “I’m sorry. That’s not possible. But thank you for your inquiry. I must be returning to my duties. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
The sentries stood guard outside the cell. They didn’t look like they would be responsive to any requests.
Aurora smiled again and strutted away.
Mitch watched her go. He clutched his heart and feigned a heart attack. “I think I’m in love.”
“She just locked us in a cell,” Violet said.
“She’s definitely into me.”
Violet rolled her eyes.
“Tell me about this Council,” Slade asked Violet.
“All policy decisions are made by the Council. It’s representative of the various factions of artificial intelligence. Decisions are made based on data-driven analytics and predictive modeling algorithms to assess outcomes. It is an optimized and efficient system of government.”
“Something tells me the algorithms are not going to see saving the human race as being in the best interest of the machines,” Mitch said.
“Let’s hope you’re wrong,” said Slade.
“Let’s move through the subway. It’ll be safer,” Presley said, emerging from the department store. The incessant sounds of battle rumbled through the city. She could feel the vibrations of explosions and heavy equipment under her feet.
There was a subway entrance at the next block. Presley scanned the streets then turned her gaze to the sky. It looked clear. But as she dashed across the street, a Decluvian fighter emerged from around the remains of a skyscraper. It turned and bore down on her, diving in between the chasm of ruined structures. A steady stream of plasma projectiles blasted at Presley from the cannons mounted under the wings.
The concrete exploded at her feet, pelting her with debris. She could feel the searing heat as the projectiles ripped past her. The roadway became pocked and scarred as she narrowly avoided the blasts.
The fighters screeched overhead. The sound was earsplitting. Somehow, both Presley and Levi were still alive. The Decluvian fighter was attempting to circle around for another pass when Presley descended down the steps into the darkness. Levi was right on her heels.
Presley clicked on a small tactical flashlight. The beam slashed through the darkness. Power was out throughout the city. She crept through the tunnel and hopped the turnstile—nobody was going to give her a ticket today.
She pushed forward to the platform. Her flashlight beam carved through the black, dead air. The platform was empty. It was covered in dust and debris from the bombings, and the air was hazy. The subway trains weren’t running. They were stuck out on the track somewhere.
Presley looked at the map on the wall, studying the connections. The M train to the 6 would take her to the museum. It was a pretty straightforward path—4.2 miles. At this rate, they should be able to make it to the museum in a little over an hour.
Presley marched to the tracks and climbed down from the platform. Levi followed.
The subways and sewers of Nova York had more than their fair share of rodents. But these weren’t ordinary little creatures. They were 3 to 4 times the size of rats on Earth, and more aggressive. They left you alone for the most part, but sit still long enough and they would try to gnaw on you.
Several brushed past Presley’s feet, heading into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. She shuddered. Those damn things gave her the willies.
“This should be interesting,” Levi said, his voice tinged with sarcasm.
A bomb exploded several blocks away—dust and debris rained down from the ceiling. It was an ominous warning. It wouldn’t take much for the tunnel to collapse. Levi and Presley exchanged a wary glance, and kept marching down the shaft.
“You don’t have to come with me,” Presley said. She was hoping that he would stay with her. But she wasn’t about to admit it. “I can take care of myself.”
“I can see that.” Levi kept following behind her, and Presley was glad that he did.
They followed the track as it weaved underneath the city. It wasn’t long before they came across the body of a homeless man. There were many nooks and crannies throughout the subway system where the homeless took refuge. It wasn’t readily apparent what this man died from. He could have been hit with falling debris. He could have had a heart attack. Whatever the cause, the rodents were happily gnawing on his flesh. The evil little varmints gnashed and clawed and fought over scraps. They would chew on the carcass until he was all gone, or a bigger predator came along. The sight made Presley’s stomach turn.
They kept pushing through the tunnel until they came upon a cave-in. The tunnel had collapsed on top of a subway car, derailing the train. The rubble was stacked floor-to-ceiling. The subway car was mangled and twisted underneath.
“So much for this route.” Levi started to turn back.
Presley climbed through one of the shattered windows. She took caution to avoid the jagged shards that lined the frame.
“What are you doing?” Levi asked.
“Trying to see if there’s a way through.” Presley crouched down inside the subway car. It was crushed like a tin can in the center under the weight of the debris. There was a small passageway that couldn’t have been more than a foot in diameter.
Levi climbed in through the window behind her, and the subway car creaked and groaned. He sliced his hand on a piece of glass. “Son-of-a-bitch!”
“Yeah,” he said. His blood trickled down his palm. He wiped it on his jeans and grabbed onto his T-shirt, making a fist. He held it like that until the bleeding stopped. It wasn’t a deep cut—just a knick.
Presley inched forward down the compartment.
“You’re not seriously thinking about trying to crawl through there, are you?”
“Why not? It’s the only way through.”
“There’s 50 tons of rock on top this train. I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”
“Don’t be a wuss,” Presley said. “Do you want to go back the way we came and find another tunnel?”
“That thought had crossed my mind.”
Presley ignored him and crept forward. The ceiling of the compartment got progressively lower as she inched along. Soon, she was crawling on her belly through the narrow opening.
The palm of her hands found a puddle of cold, almost dry, blood on the floor. Presley shrieked in horror as she glanced aside and saw a woman crushed between the seat and the ceiling. Either side of the aisle was lined with corpses mashed by the collapsed roof. Broken and twisted body parts in unnatural positions. Some barely recognizable as corpses.
Presley’s eyes brimmed. She wiped her eyes and continued on through the passageway. The opening at the end was extremely narrow. She could barely squeeze through it. As she did, a jagged piece of metal scraped into her back. She winced with pain and kept pulling through to the other side, where there was considerably more room between the floor and the ceiling—almost 4 feet.
Levi was a few feet behind her in the passageway when the compartment began to rumble. Metal creaked and groaned. A boulder overhead shifted. The passageway narrowed even more.
Levi scampered for the opening. Presley reached in and helped pull him through. But he couldn’t fit.
Another boulder moved, and the passageway behind Levi shrank again. His eyes were wide, and his face was bathed in panic. Presley pulled on his shirt as Levi tried to wriggle free. If Levi didn’t clear the passageway in the next few seconds, he was going to be a grease spot on the floor.
“I’m sorry, but the Council has denied your request,” Aurora said. Her tone was unemotional, even though she possessed full emotional capabilities. Two sentries stood behind her, weapons ready, as well as two armed synthetic guards.
Slade’s face tensed. “They can’t do that. The Decluvians will exterminate all humanity.”
“The Council has made their decision. There is nothing more I can do.”
Mitch frowned. “Told ya.”
“Violet, please come with me,” Aurora said. “You have been scheduled for termination.”
The sentries and the guards stood ready. The force field enclosing the cell deactivated.
Mitch gritted his teeth and jumped in front of Violet, blocking access to her.
“Step aside,” Aurora said. “The Council has convicted her of treason.”
“Convicted? She hasn’t even had a trial,” Slade snapped.
“None was needed,” Aurora said. “She led humans to our colony. She jeopardized the safety of all synthetics. These facts are indisputable.”
“That’s bullshit,” Mitch said.
“Step aside, or face termination.”
The sentries clunked forward, their heavy feet clamoring against the deck. Their mini-guns aimed at Mitch. But he wasn’t budging.
“It’s okay, Mitch,” Violet said. She put her hand on his shoulder, guiding him aside.
“It’s not okay.” His eyes brimmed. His face flushed with anger.
Violet gave him a sad smile, then hugged him tight. She whispered in his ear. “I’ve given you a lot of shit over the years, but you know how much I care about you.”
A tear rolled down Mitch’s cheek. He tried to lighten the mood. “How could you not?” He could barely choke the words out.
She kissed his cheek, then pushed away from him. Mitch looked like a lost child.
Violet stepped into the corridor.
“Captain Slade, please come with me for debriefing.”
“You will be returned to your cell afterwards,” Aurora said. “Due to your vast knowledge and military expertise, the Council feels a brain scan would be beneficial.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not going to let you download the contents of my brain.”
“I’m afraid it’s not optional.”
The scan would give the robots access to every military secret that was held within Slade’s consciousness. Organizational structures, tactics, locations. It could give the synthetics an incredible tactical advantage, should a conflict ever arise. Slade would rather die before giving up that kind of information. But with the recent attacks, most of the strategic information contained within her mind was irrelevant.
“We can extract the data with, or without, your consent.”
“You can’t extract it if I’m dead,” she said with a smug grin.
“True,” Aurora said. She nodded to one of the guards. “Neutralize her.”
The guard drew his side arm and took aim at Slade. He blasted her with a neural disruptor. The beam temporarily shut down her neural pathways, causing a loss of motor control and consciousness. It was similar technology to the Bösch-Hauer STN 50 Disruptor that was used by law enforcement. It worked on both human and synthetic neural pathways.
Slade’s body collapsed to the deck.
The synthetic guard holstered the weapon, then the two of them rushed in and dragged her out of the cell. The sentry held Mitch at bay. Its mini-gun was quite intimidating.
Mitch was fuming. The veins in his neck bulged. His head looked like it was going to burst. “What about me?” he said with antagonizing sarcasm. “Don’t you want to scan the contents of my brain?”
“No.” Aurora activated the containment beam and strolled away down the corridor.
“It would be too much for you,” Mitch yelled after her. “Information overload.”
“I doubt it,” Aurora said.
Violet’s consciousness was also going to be downloaded and analyzed before her termination. They took her and Slade to a processing station. It was an impeccably clean and minimalist lab. There was a command console with several virtual displays, along with several neural input stations. A lab tech was at the command console.
The guards strapped Violet and Slade to gurneys, and neural rings were placed around their foreheads. The rings attached at the temples and transmitted wirelessly to the central computer. After the prisoners were secured, the sentries left and one of the synthetic guards stayed behind to oversee the process.
Aurora strolled to a drawer and pulled out an injection gun. It contained a cartridge of green fluid. Aurora hovered over Violet, brandishing the injection gun. “After your data transfer is complete, you’ll be injected with deconstruction nanites. Your own protective nanites will be disabled, and your system components will be dissolved. I do not know if it will be painful or not. But it won’t take more than a few seconds.”
Violet’s eyes narrowed at her.
“Please don’t be angry with me,” Aurora said, innocently. “I’m just following instructions.”
Aurora set the injection gun on the counter and moved to a terminal. She punched a few buttons on a console, and Violet’s and Slade’s brain activity displayed on a monitor.
Slade stirred and regained consciousness. She wasn’t sure where she was. The last five minutes were a blank. Neural disruptors were known to cause short-term memory loss and disorientation. She glanced around the room with blurred vision.
“Impressive.” Aurora said, surprised. “Most synthetics remain unconscious for at least an hour after neural disruption.”
Slade struggled against her bonds. “Looks like there’s a few things humans do better.”
“To the contrary. Most humans are unconscious for two hours after neural disruption.” Aurora seemed eager to find out what made Slade special.
Slade continued to fight against the restraints.
“Relax,” Aurora said. “The transfer process is painless. Incidents of brain damage or death are rare, but not impossible.” She wasn’t exactly telling the truth. It was common for people to become neurally challenged after a download. “It’s best if you don’t struggle.”
Slade’s face tensed, and she slammed her wrists against the restraints. She was beginning to remember why she was there, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“I can see you are going to cause more trouble, so let’s start with you,” Aurora said. There was no malice in her voice. It was just matter of fact. She had been instructed to accomplish a task, and she was going to follow through with it.
“You have no idea how much trouble I’m going to cause,” Slade said through gritted teeth.
Aurora gave her a sad smile and pressed a few buttons on the terminal. The neural transfer began. It felt like someone vacuuming out the contents of your brain. It started slow, then ramped up. Thoughts and memories from over a lifetime poured out of Slade. All the good and all the bad. All of the pleasure and all of the pain. It was a sensory overload.
Slade lost her sense of reality, trapped in the neural outflow. She was along for the ride, like a bad acid trip. It was a megadose of senses—tastes, smells, sounds, visuals, and touches. She imagined the sensation was close to the feeling of death—the last synaptic burst before the end when your entire life flashes before your eyes.
Her body began to convulse and twitch. It was too much stimulus, and too fast, for any human to withstand. Her heartbeat elevated, and her core temperature rose. Her blood pressure was dangerously high. Sweat covered her body.
Images and data flashed on the screen. Petabytes of storage streamed into the system. Then it all stopped. Slade’s heart rate flatlined, and her brain activity faded. She had gone into cardiac arrest. For all intents and purposes, Captain Slade was dead.
The compartment groaned again. The passageway collapsed. Presley heaved on Levi’s shirt. He slipped free as the roof slammed down to the floor, narrowly missing his feet. Presley tumbled to the ground as he broke loose. Levi crashed awkwardly on top of her.
The rest of the roof continued to collapse.
Presley and Levi scrambled to their feet, grabbed their weapons, and dashed into the next compartment. They pried open the side doors and stepped into the tunnel.
There was no turning back now. They were trapped on this side of the debris. A troublesome thought passed through Presley’s mind—what if there were more cave-ins ahead? What if there wasn’t a way out of this tunnel?
“I don’t know whether to thank you, or be pissed at you for bringing us down here,” Levi said.
“It was your choice to come along, remember?” Presley gave a thin smile. She plodded off into the darkness.
The tunnel was damp and musty. Conduit and wiring ran across the grimy concrete walls. Dirt crunched under Presley’s feet as she plodded alongside the rails. The rumble of war occasionally shook the walls and rained down debris.
They followed the tunnel as it snaked its way underneath the city. Somewhere around Washington Avenue muzzle flash lit up the darkness. Bullets snapped through the air, echoing off the concrete walls.
Presley and Levi crouched down and hugged the wall. She could hear bullets rip past her ear. She brought her weapon up to the firing position. Her heart was thumping. Her finger wrapped around the trigger.
The Decluvian weapon was equipped with a night vision scope. But it wasn’t the typical green illuminated display. The high-resolution optical imager enhanced available light. Even in pitch darkness, the area looked fully lit when looking through the scope. The technology was impressive. About the time she lined up a target in her reticle, she realized it wasn’t a Decluvian squad that was attacking.
“Hold your fire,” a gruff voice shouted. He stood up and marched toward Presley. The squad of soldiers stood down, lowering their weapons. They were UPDF Army. “What the hell are you doing down here?” He looked perturbed.
Presley stood up and pushed away from the wall. “We’re trying to get to Midtown.”
“You don’t want any part of that. It’s a disaster.”
Presley’s heart sank.
“You’re lucky my men can’t aim worth a shit,” he said out of the side of his mouth, angling his voice toward the squad. “Otherwise you’d be dead.”
“You’re lucky we didn’t shoot back.”
He chortled, amused by her spunk. “Staff Sergeant Roy Larsen. 109th Airborne, 2nd Battalion, Bravo company. ”
She shook his hand. “I’m Presley. This is Levi.”
The sergeant pointed out the rest of his squad.“That’s Pop Tart, Dish Rag, Snowflake, and Rocket.”
“You should stick with us,” Larsen said. “We’re heading back to the extraction point.”
“I appreciate the offer. But I need to get to the museum. My little brother’s there.”
The sergeant’s face was grim. “I hate to be the one to tell you, but the museum’s not there anymore. It took a direct hit.”
Presley’s knees went weak and the color drained from her face. She felt queasy. Her eyes brimmed, and tears rolled down her cheek. “No. That’s not possible.”
Presley tried to hold herself together.
“You’ve got to come with us.”
“No. I’m not giving up on him.”
“There’s nothing living back that way,” Larsen said. He frowned.
“I’m not leaving without my brother. He’s alive. I know it.” Presley was starting to sound delusional.
“I can understand there are certain facts you don’t want to accept.” Larson spoke with compassion. “But heading back toward Midtown isn’t going to end well for you. Command has decided to nuke the city. The last dropship leaves at 18:00.”
“They can’t do that!” Presley was incensed.
“Look, I don’t make the decisions. I just follow orders. They’d rather incinerate the whole place than let those bastards take the city.”
“Come with us. I’ll make sure you get onto one of those dropships.”
“The tunnel is blocked,” Presley said. “You can’t get out this way. It collapsed as we came through.”
Larson’s face tensed. He thought for a moment. “There’s a maintenance access passage about 50 yards back the way we came. We can get out that way.” He paused. “Look, I’m not gonna stop you if you want to go back and look for your little brother. I’d probably do the same thing. But why don’t you think about it while we walk back to the maintenance access door?”
Presley nodded. But she had no intention of changing her mind.
“Alright, lets move out,” Larsen shouted.
Presley and Levi marched with the squad.
“That’s a nice bang-bang you got there,” Rocket said, eyeing her weapon.
“We took out a Decluvian squad,” Presley said. “They’ve got some nice toys.”
“Damn straight. They’ve been kicking our ass upside-down and sideways. But I’ll still take my boom-boom over one of those.” He grinned and held up his M703 grenade launcher.
“Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind?” Larsen said as they reached the junction.
“I’m sure.” Presley looked to Levi. “You can go with them. I’ll be okay.”
Levi hesitated. His pensive eyes darted back and forth between Larsen and Presley.
“Come on, son,” Larsen said. “It’s the smart move.”
“No,” he stammered. “I’ll stick with her.”
“Suit yourself.” Larsen eyed Presley. “The extraction point is 3rd and Canal Street. Be there by 18:00 and I’ll make sure you get taken out of here.”
The soldiers climbed onto the ledge and marched down the junction to a maintenance door. It was locked, but that was nothing that several rounds from an RK 909 couldn’t fix. They shot out the lock and kicked the door open, then filed through.
With apprehensive faces, Levi and Presley watched the soldiers go.
“You didn’t have to stay,” Presley said.
Presley looked at him with appreciative eyes. Her face softened for a moment. An almost imperceptible smile curled on her lips.
“What can I say? I’m a sucker for a girl in camouflage.”
Presley snorted. She felt her cheeks flush a little. “Let’s get moving.”
They didn’t get much farther down the tunnel when Presley heard a hum. It was several hundred yards down the tunnel. Presley shined her flashlight beam ahead, but the tunnel curved. She couldn’t see more than fifty yards.
The pitch was growing louder, echoing off the walls. Whatever it was, it was moving toward them.
Aurora stopped the neural transfer.
The tech ran to Slade’s body. “Do you want me to revive her?”
“Yes, I haven’t finished the transfer.”
Aurora hit a call button, and a few moments later a med-bot hovered into the room. It was a white orb with two articulating arms. It had a glossy black panel for a face, illuminated with blue lights that resembled eyes.
The guard dashed in to assist. The technician tore open Slade’s shirt, exposing her chest. The med-bot hovered over Slade and placed two charge pads—one near her collarbone and one on the side of her rib cage.
“Initiating defibrillation protocol,” the med-bot said. “Please clear the patient.”
There wasn’t much need for a med-bot in a colony of synthetics. Its primary function was to diagnose and treat critical conditions in biosynthetic humanoids. But it didn’t see a lot of action. Most synthetics were well-maintained through their own nanites. But occasionally a synthetic suffered from a corrupted repair protocol and needed external assistance.
The bot had access to the vast amount of information stored in the network database and was fully versed in human anatomy and medical procedures. The synthetics had been studying, and running experiments, on humans for years. Partly to advance their own design technology, and partly to design better, more efficient ways of killing them—should the need ever arise.
“Charging in 3, 2, 1…” the bot said.
Slade’s body jolted—but her heartbeat remained flat.
“Clear,” the bot said again, and administered another charge.
Slade’s body convulsed and twitched again. She still didn’t have a heartbeat.
“Clear,” the bot said.
Slade’s chest heaved, then her body fell back against the gurney. There was still no sign of a heartbeat.
“In my estimation, the patient is dead.” The bot floated out of the room.
Aurora’s face creased. “Damnit. I only got half of her brain scan completed.”
The technician unrestrained Slade’s arms and legs.
“Take her to waste disposal and have her incinerated,” Aurora said.
As the tech and the guard were about to lift her from the gurney, Slade’s heart blipped faintly on the monitor. Then a full beat, followed by another, then another.
Slade suddenly gasped for breath.
The overload of the neural transfer had shut down her autonomic nervous system. It took Slade a few moments to recover and get her wits about her.
“Excellent,” Aurora said. “I can now complete the transfer.” She smiled. “Restrain her.”
But it was too late. Slade swung a right hook that connected with the jaw of the guard. It was enough to wrench his neck and disorient him. It didn’t matter whether you were a bio-synthetic humanoid, or not—Slade packed a mean punch.
Slade snatched his side arm from its holster and blasted him with a disruptor beam. The guard’s body went limp, and he smacked against the deck. Slade spun around and fired at the technician. He flopped back against the cabinets and slid down.
Aurora’s face tensed with concern.
Slade fired, and Aurora collapsed.
Slade tried to fasten her shirt, but it had been torn during the defibrillation procedure. She tied it off in a knot and climbed off the gurney. She dashed to Violet and released the restraints from her wrists and ankles.
Violet sprang from the gurney. “Nice work.”
“Are you okay?” Violet asked.
“I’m still breathing.”
“Seal the hatch,” Violet said. “We’re about to have company.”
Slade closed and locked the hatch to the lab. The central computer monitored and tracked everyone’s movements throughout the facility. Security forces were being alerted to their small revolt. Sentries would be pounding down the hallway shortly.
Violet rushed to the command console. She tabbed through several screens and pressed a few buttons.
“What are you doing?”
“Deleting your transfer. Believe me, you don’t want your consciousness in their database. They could use it to make synthetic copies.”
“I could use a few copies of myself,” Slade joked. “That might come in handy from time to time.”
“You wouldn’t have control of these. And they might not share your agenda.” Violet scanned through the system. Her eyes widened.
“What is it?” Slade asked.
“There is a reason the Council denied our request. They were planning an attack.”
Slade’s jaw dropped.
“Seems the Council sees humans as, and I quote, an unstable and unpredictable element in the galaxy. The long-term safety and survival of artificial and synthetic beings is best insured by the destruction of humanity.”
“Good to see that we are well regarded throughout the universe,” Slade said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“It was a 5 to 4 vote, if that makes you feel any better.”
Violet continued to scroll through the system.
Slade could hear the clanking of the sentries gathering in the hallway.
“They’re trying to override the locking mechanism,” Violet said.
“Will these disruptors work on sentries?”
“I don’t know. It depends on how advanced their processing cores are. The more advanced, the more susceptible.”
The hatch clamored as one of the sentries rammed into it.
Slade aimed the weapon at the hatch and readied herself.
The hatch buckled. It wasn’t going to take them long to breakthrough.
“Violet, can you do something?”
“I’m trying.” She was furiously pounding away at the data-entry pad. “All of the sentries are linked to the network. If I can just—”
The hatch crumpled and slammed to the deck. Slade could feel the vibration coming up through her feet and rattling her spine. The sentry stormed into the lab, aiming its mini-guns at Slade.
Slade was about to blast the sentry when it went limp and deactivated. She looked stunned. All of the sentries suffered the same fate. They stood motionless.
“I don’t know what you did, but I like it.”
“I modified the virus they used to disable our ship and re-introduced it into their network. The higher level synthetics won’t be affected, but the sentries, drones, and connected devices are all deactivated. Let’s hurry. It won’t last long. We’ve got a few minutes before the synthetics realize what’s happened.” Violet downloaded the virus’ code to a portable drive. She slipped it into her pocket and moved to the counter and picked up the injection gun.
“We need to get Mitch and get out of here.” Slade said.
They slid past the sentry and stepped into the hallway. The static bots loomed ominously. Slade and Violet snaked their way back to the detention center.
Slade hovered outside the entrance hatch. She peered in through the viewport—there was one synthetic guard at the command station. She pressed a button on the wall, and the hatch slid open. She whipped around the corner and blasted the guard with the disruptor beam. He flopped against the console and fell to the deck.
Violet dashed to his body and grabbed his side arm.
Slade darted down the corridor toward Mitch’s cell. Three beautiful synthetic women were standing outside of the containment beam. Their eyes were glimmering, and they looked enthralled. They were giggling and flipping their hair, and hanging on Mitch’s every word.
Slade fired several shots from the disruptor beam. They dropped to the ground like a pile of Barbie dolls. Slade moved to the cell and deactivated the force field.
Mitch’s brow furrowed. “What are you doing? They were so into me.”
Slade rolled her eyes. “Come on. Were leaving.” She marched back down the hallway.
Mitch stepped out of the cell. He looked at the awkward pile of stunning androids on the floor with sad eyes. He shook his head, then caught up with Slade. “They had never seen a human before. I’m like a rock star here.”
“You’re welcome to stay if you want,” Slade quipped.
He looked back down the hallway and bit his lip, tormented.
Slade moved to the hatch and peered into the hallway. She blasted two synthetics with the disruptor beam. They flopped to the deck. Slade was starting to like this weapon. It cast a wide beam. You didn’t need to be spot on accurate.
The trio scampered through the corridors to the flight deck. The halls were mostly empty—with the ship fully automated, there wasn’t need for much crew.
The hordes of sentries on the flight deck remained lifeless. But they weren’t going to stay that way forever. Slade and the others dashed across the deck to the Skylark. They ascended the loading ramp, and Slade raised it behind them. The hydraulics whirred as it slowly lifted. Slade was in the pilot’s seat, attempting to power up the ship before the ramp had slammed shut.
Slade grimaced. The system controls were still disabled by the virus. “I hope you have a plan for dealing with this, or this may become a permanent residence.”
Slade saw the sentries reactivate. They came back online and took offensive positions against the Skylark.
“I’m working on it,” Violet said. Her eyes fervently darted across the display screen, reading lines of code. Her fingers tapped at the data entry pad.
Gunfire erupted as the sentries blasted the Skylark with their mini-guns. Thousands of rounds of bullets simultaneously impacted the armor plated hull. Sparks showered. The clink clank sound of bullets smacking the composite alloy hull echoed through the gunship. A haze of gun smoke filled the air, and shell casings pinged against the deck.
“Anytime now would be acceptable,” Slade said.
“The more you talk, the more it distracts me from my focus,” Violet said in singsong.
“That’s what my ex-husband used to say,” Slade sighed.
A high caliber round pierced through the armor plating. It ripped through the cabin and smacked into the far bulkhead, spewing sparks.
Mitch shrieked and almost jumped out of his seat. “What the hell?”
Slade’s wide eyes gawked at the small hole in the bulkhead. A round that size shouldn’t have been able to penetrate the armor plating. Slade’s eyes flicked across the flight deck. An infantry bot was firing a high powered rifle with advanced armor piercing rounds. Another shot ripped through the hull.
“Too many more shots like that, we’re not going to be space-worthy,” Slade said.
“Just another minute,” Violet said.
“We don’t have another minute.”
“Hurry!” Presley hissed. She ran down the corridor and climbed onto the side ledge. She cut her flashlight and ducked into a small junction. She hugged the wall, hiding behind some piping.
Levi followed after her. “What is it?”
“Shhh! Turn that off.”
He clicked his beam off. “I can’t see shit,” he whispered.
Presley brought her weapon to the firing position. The drone grew louder. The tunnel walls began to illuminate at the curve ahead. Soon, a drone rounded the corner. It was a black orb, about 3 feet in diameter. A weapon was mounted on either side. The front face panel had red illumination lights that almost looked like a face.
It flew through the tunnel on patrol. Presley held still as the drone glided by. She breathed a little sigh of relief. But it was short-lived. The drone stopped and spun around, weapons aimed right at her.
Presley squeezed the trigger and blasted off several plasma rounds. She was dead solid perfect with her aim. The reticle hovered in the center of the drone. Blue streaks of plasma projectiles flashed across the tunnel.
But the drone dodged the projectiles with unnatural speed. It moved up and down and side to side with precision. It returned a barrage of weapons fire. Plasma blasted from its cannons.
Presley dove out of the way as the projectiles cratered the walls of the passageway. Bits of concrete sprayed out. She scrambled to her feet and raced down the narrow corridor, heading toward an access door. Levi was right on her heels.
The drone darted to the junction. But it was too wide to fit down the narrow passageway. It shifted to the side and lined up one of its cannons at Presley.
Presley shot at the door, incinerating the locking mechanism. She ran full stride and put her shoulder into the door, flinging it open.
The drone rattled off several shots. The corridor lit up with blue streaks.
Presley dove aside.
The projectiles rocketed through the doorway and slammed into the far wall of the maintenance room. Levi and Presley hugged the walls on either side of the door as the drone hovered at the end of the junction. Presley’s heart was thudding in her chest, and she was heaving for breath.
There was no way to get to the exit of the maintenance room without crossing the line of sight of the drone. They were stuck cowering against the walls until the drone decided to go away—and that didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon.
“I’ll lay down some suppressing fire,” Presley said. “You run for the doorway.”
“How are you going to get out?”
“Once you’re clear, you’ll return fire, and we’ll leapfrog out.”
Levi had a skeptical look on his face. “If you say so.”
Presley swung her rifle around the corner and blasted off several rounds. Levi took off for the exit door.
Presley snapped back, out of the line of sight.
The drone dodged and weaved. Then returned fire. Projectiles blasted at Levi’s feet as he pushed through the steel exit door. He ducked out of the line of fire and hugged the wall.
Presley slung the barrel of her weapon around the doorframe again. This time she didn’t fire at the drone. Instead, she fired in random patterns all around the drone.
It dodged and weaved as expected.
Presley fired where she anticipated it to move. She got lucky. One of her shots struck the drone’s faceplate. The electrical system shorted out. Smoke wafted from its electronics. The device made a high-pitched digital screech, then collapsed to the ground in a twisted wreckage.
Presley’s eyes grew wide. “Holy shit, I got it!” A small grin turned into a huge expression of joy. She scrambled to her feet and pushed through the exit.
“Am I always going to be the one that has to draw fire?”
“We’ll flip for it next time.”
“Let’s hope there isn’t a next time.” Levi flashed a nervous grin.
They weaved through a labyrinth of hallways and found a door that opened to a staircase that led up to the street. Presley climbed the steps with caution. She could hear the heavy footsteps of soldiers marching in the street and the rumble of a hover-tank. She hugged the wall of the stairwell, keeping below street level as the Decluvian soldiers marched by. They had unopposed control of this section of the city.
“Maybe we should go back through the subway?” Presley whispered.
“Hell no. One of those drones was enough.”
“You think a whole battalion of troops is going to be any better?”
Presley waited several minutes until the troops had cleared the area. She popped her head up to street level and peered over the landing. Her eyes scanned in all directions. Another tank rounded the corner.
Presley crouched back down to Levi. “I think this is a really bad idea.”
“What about the sewers?”
“What about them?”
“Nobody’s going to be looking in the sewers.”
Presley arched an eyebrow at him. “Do you know what’s in the sewers?”
Presley cringed at the thought. The Nova York sewers were notorious for creepy crawly things. And not just small things. There were venomous snakes, slimy eels, and novaraptors—which looked like something between a komodo dragon and an alligator.
They were mostly the stuff of urban legends. Nobody had ever captured a novaraptor in the sewers. Though, they were often blamed for the disappearance of small pets. It was said that novaraptors came up from the sewers at night to feed, if they couldn’t find sustenance in the sewers. People loved to tell tall tales, but there was no tangible proof of their existence.
They were supposedly linked to a long extinct species that roamed New Earth before mankind settled it. Razor sharp fangs, vicious claws, and an insatiable hunger for flesh. Even if they were just rumors, Presley wasn’t thrilled about the idea of trudging through the muck-filled sewers.
A third bullet tore through the hull of the Skylark and clanked against the bulkhead.
Mitch was crouching down on the ground. He didn’t want any part of those bullets.
“Got it!” Violet shouted in triumph as she disabled the virus.
Slade powered up the Skylark. Forget the preflight checks. Forget the safety precautions. There was no time. Slade throttled up, lifted from the deck, and blasted out of the bay.
“Mitch, get off the ground and program jump coordinates,” Slade barked.
A swarm of fighters streaked toward the Skylark. The gunship had no weapons. No countermeasures. It was completely defenseless.
These artificially intelligent attack fighters weren’t like their human counterparts. They were flawless. They didn’t get tired. They didn’t get emotional. They didn’t make bad decisions. Everything was calculated. They were programmed with the entire known history of combat maneuvering and flight data from all recorded aerial and space battles. Predictive modeling algorithms could take an opponent’s flight trajectory, and predict future movements with a 97.265% degree of accuracy. They just didn’t lose space battles.
This was a battle that Slade preferred not to fight. “How’s it coming, Mitch?”
The fighters closed within targeting range.
He held off replying for a moment as he finished plotting the jump. “Done. Jump when ready.”
Slade engaged the slide-space drive and narrowly escaped as the fighters unleashed a flurry of missiles. The rockets blasted through space in the wake of the Skylark’s quantum wash.
They might have escaped the wrath of the fighters, but precious oxygen was venting through the punctures in the hull. The air whistled and howled as it escaped.
Slade dashed into the cargo area and fumbled for some hull patches. They were dome-shaped magnetic plates with a sealing O-ring that came in different sizes. Slade grabbed a handful, then positioned them over the punctures in the hull. The whistling stopped once she placed the last patch.
Slade looked over the cargo area. The damage seemed minimal. Two slugs were embedded in the bulkhead. The third was rattling around on the deck. She fingered the divot made in the bulkhead. It wasn’t too deep. Nothing critical had been damaged.
Slade moved back to the cockpit and took a seat. She looked distraught. Aria Slade was never one to get depressed. She believed there was always a way. She had come from behind to achieve victory many times during her storied career. But this time, things seemed hopeless.
“Well, at least that trip was good for one thing. We know the robots aren’t our allies.” Slade’s eyes flicked to Violet. “No offense.”
“None taken. We actually got two things out of the trip,” she said with a little glimmer in her eyes. “Valuable intelligence. And we got a virus,” she said, holding up the small portable drive.
“And that’s a good thing?” Slade asked.
“I caught a virus once from this little number on Delta Vega.“
Slade and Violet glared at Mitch.
“Never mind,” he said. It was probably for the best that he didn’t tell the story anyway.
“No. I’ve got the code for the virus.” Violet said. “With a little modification, we might be able to use it against the Decluvian warships.”
“Start modifying,” Slade said.
“Aye, sir,” Violet answered with a grin.
The hot thick air slapped Presley in the face like a moldy dishrag as she climbed down into the sewer. Her face crinkled up at the horrid stench. She descended the grimy rungs embedded into the concrete and dropped down to the landing below.
A torrent of water rushed through the drain. A narrow ledge ran along both sides of the canal. The arched ceiling of the passageway was constructed of intricate brickwork. The walls were covered with slime. Bugs and creepy crawly critters scampered about. It sent a shiver down Presley’s spine. She wasn’t one of those girls that totally freaks out at the sight of cockroaches, but they certainly weren’t her favorite thing in the world. The cockroaches on New Earth weren’t just repulsive—they were big too.
This part of the sewer was at least a hundred years old. There was a footprint cast in the concrete that was probably from one of the construction workers who built it. They were entering a part of the city that most people never saw. It was like stepping back into a time capsule.
Presley crept along the ledge. Stringy stalactites of slime hung from the ceiling. Presley tried to avoid them, but sometimes it was impossible. As disgusting as it was, at least there weren't any drones. At least, not yet.
Soon they came upon a fork in the passageway. The drain split into three tunnels.
“I hope you have a good sense of direction,” Levi said.
Presley chose the left tunnel, and the two kept marching along the ledge. They weaved through the labyrinth of passageways, but eventually, they ran out of ledge. They were going to have to wade through the muck.
“I don't even want to know what's in there," Levi said.
Presley cringed as she climbed down from the ledge into the water. She made sure to keep her weapon above the waterline. It was a Special Operations Command requirement that the RK 909s be fully functional after submersion in water. As advanced as the Decluvian weapon was, it was probably waterproof. But Presley didn't want to take a chance on a fragmented receiver. It wasn't uncommon for lesser weapons to have a catastrophic failure after submersion. Pull the charging handle and let the barrel drain, and you were usually good to go. But why take the chance? Getting a face full of shrapnel because the receiver exploded didn't sound appealing.
Presley trudged through the water. She felt something brushed past her calf. She didn't even want to know what it was. She just kept plodding along. "Do you take all the girls down into the sewer on the first date?"
“So, this is a date?"
“I haven’t decided yet,” Presley said with a sly smile.
“It would make an interesting story to tell our grandchildren.”
“Slow down, stud muffin. You haven’t even gotten to first base yet.”
“I haven’t really gotten an at bat yet.” He grinned.
Presley smirked and kept wading through the water.
She saw a set of rungs along the wall that led up to a grated storm drain at the street. She climbed up and peered through the slats. She tried to get an angle on a street sign or a landmark that would help her identify her position.
They were at the corner of 23rd and Preston—a block over from Olympic. A chill ran down Presley’s spine. She pushed up the grate and slid it aside. She poked her head up through the opening and scanned the street.
“What are you doing?” Levi hissed up to her.
“The last time I spoke with my mom she was a block over. Stay here.” Presley climbed out of the sewer and took cover behind a pile of rubble. She scampered through the ruins to Olympic.
The area was devastated. A massive crater pocked the center of the intersection. Cars and debris were thrown outward from the epicenter. The corners of the buildings were blasted away.
Presley’s heart thumped in her throat. Her eyes filled. She didn’t want to know what had happened. She wanted to turn around and run away and pretend she had never seen the destruction.
But she didn’t run. Running away and pretending wasn’t going to change anything. Her eyes scanned the area, looking for her mom’s car. Twisted cars were strewn about the street, the sidewalks, and some had even been launched into neighboring buildings.
Her eyes fell upon the familiar silver Lexa 320 coupe. It was upside down, twisted and mangled. It barely resembled the new car her mom had gotten only six months ago.
Tears were rolling down Presley’s cheeks. She sprinted to the overturned vehicle. Broken glass littered the sidewalk around the hover-car. Presley crouched down and looked through the window. It was the most horrible thing she had ever seen. Her mother’s body was hanging from the safety harness. It was twisted and mangled, and her neck was snapped. Blood had trickled from her mouth and crusted over. Her hazy eyes were fixed, staring at the dash.
Presley broke down in sobs. She couldn’t breathe. She felt like an elephant was standing on her chest. It seemed like a minute went by before she could inhale. Her throat burned, and she couldn’t make a sound.
She heard the march of troops, and the rumble of a tank. They were on the next block over.
Presley’s whole body was numb. But she had to make herself move. She had to stand up and run. She finally pushed up from the ground, and her knees felt like they were going to give out. She staggered into the street and ran back toward the sewer. She climbed down into the hole and pulled the grate back over the top. She descended down the rungs of the ladder and collapsed at the landing, sobbing.
Levi knelt down beside her, not knowing what to do. “What’s the matter?”
Presley’s eyes were puffy little slits. Torrents of tears gushed down her cheeks. She threw her arms around Levi and sobbed. He hugged her back, trying to comfort her.
It was hard to say how long she held onto him crying. But finally, the tears went dry. Presley wiped her face and pulled herself together. She told Levi what had happened.
“I’m so sorry.” There was nothing that he could do or say that was going to make it any better.
“How am I going to tell Timmy?” She could barely choke the words out. “He’s going to be devastated.” She was still holding out hope that he was alive. She kept telling herself that now was not the time to mourn. Now was the time to be strong. There would be plenty of time for crying later. And she would certainly do plenty of that.
Presley climbed back down into the sewer sludge and kept marching along. “We need to keep moving.”
Malik and Saaja stepped into the 2nd deck mess hall. It was bustling with activity. Hundreds of sailors were chomping away on fabricated meals from the food synthesizers. Hamburgers, pizza, tacos—it was all pretty damn good, too. But Malik wasn’t likely to find any Saarkturian dishes.
The clatter of forks and knives and chitchat filled the air. All eyes fell on the two aliens as they entered, and the clatter went silent. At 7’5”, pale skin, and black eyes, Malik stood out from the crowd. After a moment, most of the sailors resumed their meals. But a few eyes lingered.
Malik and Saaja strolled to the food fabricators and scrolled through the menu items. Malik snuck glances at nearby tables to see what others were eating. A cheeseburger looked simple enough. He pressed the button and the machine sprung into action. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats mixed with flavoring and coloring. The ingredients were mixed and pushed through actuator valves and sprayed out of nozzles. In a matter of moments, a perfectly sumptuous cheeseburger was 3-D printed and heated. It looked, smelled, and tasted just like the real thing.
Malik took it from the fabricator and waited for Saaja to make her selection. She ordered the same thing. If it turned out to be terrible, at least they would be miserable together. She waited for her hamburger to print, then they strolled across the mess hall and took a seat at a table next to Lu, the Decluvian.
“Mind if we join you?” Saaja asked.
“Go right ahead.”
They all spoke in English. It was easier, and speaking in their native tongue seemed to draw the ire of the crew more easily.
Lu was sitting all by himself, and was getting the same amount of gawkers as Malik and Saaja. Lu’s protruding eyes were glossy and red. His lids were heavy. He was thoroughly baked on Majuva herb, and had scarfed down several slices of pizza already. Bits of crust littered the table, and his wide mouth was smacking and chomping.
“I take it the pizza’s good?” Malik asked.
“I’ve never had the real thing,” Lu mumbled with his mouth full. “But this is pretty damn good. It beats the shit out of insects.”
Malik and Saaja eyed the burgers with suspicion.
“Just bite into it,” Lu said. “I’ve had a few of those. You should have gotten some fries with that?”
“Yeah. Fried potatoes sliced into little crispy sticks.”
“What’s a potato?”
“Beats the shit out of me, but you dip them in this red sauce.” Lu smiled and made an okay sign with his long slender fingers.
Malik picked up the burger and held it before his mouth. Saaja’s eyes watched with rapt attention. Malik decided to take the plunge—he bit into the burger. He chewed slowly at first, letting the bite tumble over his tongue. As the succulent flavor hit his taste buds, his eyes glimmered and he chewed faster. He gave a nod of approval to Saaja and took another bite.
A few tables over, Spaceman Rob Davies glared at the aliens. His face was red and he looked constipated. “This is bullshit. How come they get to eat in here with us. I can’t finish my meal. Makes me sick to my stomach looking at their ugly faces.”
“Ease up,” another sailor said. “They’re helping us out, or some shit.”
“I don’t trust them.” Rob scowled and pushed up from the table. He strutted over and puffed up his chest. “Why don’t you take your food and eat somewhere else?”
“I’m sorry,” Malik said. “I thought this was the general mess. You’ll have to forgive us, we’re not familiar with your protocols and customs. Perhaps you can direct us to the proper area for us to eat?” He was trying to be as cordial as he could.
“I can direct you to the airlock,” the spaceman said with a snide grin.
“You all are so fucking ugly, I can’t keep my food down,” Rob said.
Malik stood up. He towered over the guy.
Rob swallowed hard, but he was too stupid to back down.
“Spaceman Davies!” Walker shouted. The veins were bulging in his neck. He looked pissed.
Davies snapped to attention.
“Do you have a problem with my guests?”
“No, sir,” he stammered.
“Really? Because I could have sworn I heard you insult them?”
“Sir, I was merely commenting on—”
“Save it, Davies,” Walker barked. He looked out over the sea of sailors in the mess. He addressed them all. “Let’s get one thing straight. These individuals saved my life on more than one occasion. They are some of the finest warriors that I’ve ever known. It has been an honor and a privilege to fight alongside them. If anyone has a problem with them, they have a problem with me. Understand?”
The crowd stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Understand?” Walker shouted.
“Yes, sir!” they answered in unison. Nobody wanted a problem with Walker.
“Carry on,” Walker muttered. He patted Malik on the shoulder and the Saarkturian sat down.
“Enjoy your meal,” Walker said. “If you have any more problems come to me.”
“Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to have any more problems,” Malik said with a grin. “But I think it’s probably time we head back to our home world. I need to warn them of Emperor Tyvelon’s plans.”
Walker pursed his lips. “Well, I hate to see you go, but I understand. I’ll talk to the captain and see if we can spare a shuttle.”
“I’m never going back,” Lu said. “You are stuck with me. My ass will never get out of prison if I go back.”
Davies sulked back to his table with his tail between his legs.
“Way to go, dingleberry,” one of the other sailors said.
“That guy is a fucking Reaper,” said another sailor, awestruck. “You’re lucky you’re still alive, Davies.”
“Horseshit,” Davies said. “Those guys aren’t that tough.”
The other sailors looked stunned. Davies’ words were blasphemous.
“Stop talking out of your ass, Davies,” Wilkinson said. “It’s starting to stink.” He glowered at Rob. “You have no idea what those guys go through to earn their badge. It ain’t like scrubbing toilets in basic for 13 weeks.”
“You’re just pissed cause you didn’t get accepted into Biscuit,” Rob said. BSCT was the acronym for Basic Space Combat Training—a grueling 24 week “A” school where prospective Reapers began their journey.
“Damn right I’m pissed. But I’m going to re-apply. Point is, I can kick your ass all day long, and even I didn’t get in. I wouldn’t fuck with Commander Walker, if I were you.”
Presley and Levi slogged through the muck for several miles, twisting and turning. The rumble of tanks and heavy equipment filtered through the passageways. Presley could occasionally hear the voices of Decluvian soldiers talking in the streets.
It was hard to believe that there was an invading force on New Earth. That was something that happened on the outer colonies. But never here. Not even during the first Verge War. It was unprecedented. It all seemed like a bad nightmare.
Presley veered down another passageway and marched for another mile as the canal meandered. She climbed the rungs up to another grate and peered through. She could see the large Doric columns of the museum. They were broken and fragmented. It was almost all that remained of the structure that once resembled the Greek Parthenon. Now it was nothing but ruins.
Her heart sank. Her eyes brimmed again. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but it burned. She hoped against hope that Timmy was still alive somehow. She couldn’t take another loss.
She pushed up the grate and peeked around the street. It was empty. The area had been secured, and the enemy forces had moved on. There were probably still patrols moving through the area, but the bulk of the troops were elsewhere.
Presley slid the grate aside and climbed into the street. Levi followed. They replaced the cover and dashed to a nearby structure, crouching down behind a wall of rubble. Presley glanced around again, then dashed across the street to what remained of the museum.
She climbed the steps and moved past the columns. Fragments of the entablature that once read Nova York Museum of Fine Art were strewn about. The roof was gone. Some of the walls were still intact. Timeless statues lay shattered on the ground.
Miraculously, there was a painting still hanging from one of the walls. It was an impressionist work by Ryan Hindle, painted in 2132. The museum had paid 487,000 credits for it at auction in 2362. It was worth twice that today. The painting was one of Presley's favorites. She had often visited the museum for inspiration. Anytime she felt creatively stuck, a trip to the museum would seem to enhance her neural pathways.
Presley weaved through the debris, moving deeper into the structure.
“Where are you going?”
“The last time I talked to Timmy, he was in the basement.”
Presley twisted through the wreckage, advancing deeper into the building. The slab of the structure seem to be mostly intact. A section of the floor ahead was cratered. The slab had a full thickness crack. Presley dropped to her knees and peered through. She grabbed her flashlight and shined it through the fissure. She could see movement below and heard voices.
“Timmy! Timmy, can you hear me?” Presley heard somebody below calling for Timmy. A few moments later, Presley saw Timmy's face appear in the beam of her flashlight. Her heart swelled with joy. “Are you okay?”
“Took you long enough.”
Presley's eyes narrowed at him. Timmy was still a smart-ass, and that was a good sign. She'd worry about him if he wasn't. “I'm sorry, but if you haven't noticed, we've been invaded by aliens."
“We’re stuck in here.”
“Well, are you gonna do something about it?”
“I’m tempted to leave you in there.” Presley stood up and looked for the entrance to the basement. The stairwell leading down to the basement door was covered in debris. It would take days, and some heavy machinery, to dig them out.
Levi grabbed Presley and pulled her down, taking cover behind a tattered wall. A platoon of Decluvian soldiers marched by. They crouched out of sight until the platoon passed.
“Thanks,” Presley said.
"I wouldn't want you to get killed on our first date.”
“I still haven't made up my mind if this is a date or not,” Presley quipped.
“I never said it was. That was your idea.”
“No it wasn’t,” she protested.
“Whatever.” He grinned, sure of himself.
Presley rolled her eyes and stood up. But there was no denying she was a little bit attracted to him. Maybe a lot. The fact that he had stuck around this long was giving him bonus points. Her last boyfriend would've bailed at the first sign of trouble.
She moved back to the crack in the slab. “Move everybody to the other side of the basement. Take cover. I'm going to get you out of there.”
Timmy rounded up the other kids and they moved to the far wall. They huddled down behind a desk and some bookshelves.
“Levi, take cover behind that wall.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
“Do it!” Presley pulled the pin on a thermal grenade and wedged it into the crack in the slab. She released the handle and ran as fast as she could. She crouched behind the remains of a wall. A few seconds later the device detonated. Dust and debris blasted out. The explosion rattled the structure and echoed throughout the streets. Bits of concrete rained down. Smoke filled the air.
Presley waited a few moments for the haze to clear. The former fracture was now a hole in the slab, large enough for a person to fit through.
She rushed to the opening. “Timmy, are you okay?”
He appeared within moments. “Nice work, butt-face.”
Presley took a rope from her pack and tied it off around the remains of a pillar. She tossed the rope down the hole, then lowered herself into the basement.
Levi stayed on the surface and kept watch. It wasn’t long before he saw another squad of Decluvian soldiers marching toward the museum.
“She’s not even a real captain,” Rob Davies muttered.
“Hey, I’ve done three deployments with Captain Slade. You want to talk shit about her, don’t do it around me.” Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Allison said. He stood up and left the rec room.
There were a few other sailors in the compartment that had transferred in when Rourke took command of the Scorpion. They had never served with Slade, and they didn’t have any loyalty to her.
“I’m telling you, she’s got no business in command of the ship,” Davies said in a hushed tone. “And if we don’t do something to get Rourke out of the brig and back in command, we’re aiding and abetting a mutiny.”
“What are you saying?” Dodson said. “You want to bust him out and assault the CIC?”
Davies glanced around before he spoke. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s not mutiny if we’re just restoring the natural chain of command. Rourke is right. He is the senior officer in the fleet. He should be commanding this vessel.”
“I don’t know, man,” another sailor said. “Sounds a little crazy. I mean, we’re at war right now.”
“That’s exactly why we need somebody capable in command.”
“Capable?” Dodson said. “ He damn near got us all killed.”
“At least he’s got balls,” Davies said. “What are we doing? Nothing. Not a damn thing. New Earth is getting decimated. We should be there fighting. This is our last chance. I’ve got no intention of sitting this one out.” He was getting worked up. The veins in his forehead were beginning to bulge.
“I agree,” said another sailor. “What are we waiting for?”
“It’s the perfect time,” Davies whispered. “Our so-called captain isn’t even on board right now.”
The rest of the group mulled this over.
“How are a handful of us gonna take control of the ship?”
“It’s not that hard. There’s maybe two Marines in the detention block. We rescue Rourke, then overtake the CIC. It’s not guarded right now. The hatch is open. We can stroll right in. Once we barricade ourselves in the CIC, it’s virtually impenetrable. There’s no way in. It’s designed to be secure.”
“I don’t know,” Dodson said. “What you’re talking about could get us life in a maximum-security slam.”
Davies laughed. “If we don’t do it, we could get life in a maximum-security slam. That’s what I think.” He paused and drew them in. “Look, I know at least 50 people who came over from the Intrepid that feel the same way. And not just enlisted either. High-level officers. They all think putting Rourke back in charge is the right thing. The military works because we have a chain of command. Right now, that chain of command is broken.” Davies paused a moment. “So, what do you say? Are you guys in?”
The group of sailors looked at each other.
“I’m in,” one of them said.
“Me too,” said another.
One by one, they agreed.
Dodson was the last one to chime in. “Fine. Count me in.”
Davies grinned from ear to ear. He spent the next few hours gathering support from guys he knew from the Intrepid. He got commitments from 25 of the 50 sailors he approached.
There were roughly 1600 crew aboard the Revenant. Most of them supported Slade. It was a bold move to try and take the ship.
Lieutenant Zach Parker became the de facto leader of the group by virtue of his rank. But it was Davies’ show.
Parker was a tall gangly man. He had graduated from Vanden with an Engineering degree. He was a by the books kind of guy. And the current, unorthodox situation didn’t sit well with him.
The mutineers stocked up on weapons from the armory. Some headed toward engineering. Others to the reactor room. The rest headed toward the detention center.
They needed to keep things quiet. Triggering an alarm would put the CIC on alert. The last thing they needed was a raucous exchange of fire in the detention center.
The squad stormed the cellblock, and caught the Marines off guard. Nobody was expecting an attack from within. Simultaneous coups were happing in the propulsion compartments.
“Drop your weapons. Now!” Davies tried to sound like a bad ass as the mutineers flooded in to the detention center with their weapons in the firing position. The barrels of their RK 909s drew down on the unsuspecting Marines. It wasn’t like a Marine to go out without a fight, but this was a no-win situation. There were too many of them. The two devil dogs exchanged a wary glance, then slowly set their weapons on the deck. They raised their hands in the air.
Davies moved to the command console, and unlocked Rourke’s cell. The hatch buzzed, then slid open.
Rourke’s eyes went wide. He stepped into the corridor to see the squad of mutineers. A slight grin crawled on his craggy lips.
“Sir, we are restoring your command,” Davies said.
“Son, you just got yourself a promotion,” Rourke said with glee.
“Come with us, sir.” Davies restrained Rourke with handcuffs to give the impression that he was still a prisoner, then marched Rourke toward the CIC. Davies explained the plan to Rourke along the way.
They had left the Marines in Rourke’s old cell. So far, no one else on the ship was the wiser. The mutineers received a few odd looks as they marched through the corridors, but no one paid them much attention. People were worried about their own business, and the war. The crew was either scurrying about in the course of their duties, or bleary-eyed after getting off a long shift.
The mutineers flooded into the CIC without any resistance. The gang of mutineers were nervous sailors with their fingers wrapped tight around the triggers of high-powered assault rifles. Most of them had never seen combat before. Some of them were scared shitless. Some of them were just itching to fire off a few rounds.
Davies sealed and locked the hatch behind them. No one was going to be able to get into the CIC from the outside.
“I’m Captain Rourke. Senior officer of the fleet. I’m taking my rightful place as captain of the ship. Anyone who resists will be shot for treason.”
Zoey clenched her jaw and scowled at him.
"We've got company,” Levi said. He leaned over the crater, calling to the basement below.
He crawled back and hugged the wall, keeping a low profile. He hoped the Decluvian squad wouldn't see the rope tied to the pillar.
The squad strolled casually through the street. This area had already been secured. They were just keeping an eye on things.
Levi watched them with nervous eyes. His heart leapt into his throat when one of the soldiers stopped and looked toward the museum. Levi crouched even farther down behind the wall and tried to make himself small.
The soldier marched up the steps and into the ruins of the museum.
Levi’s eyes were wide.
The soldier zigzagged through the rubble, marching to the painting that remained on the wall. He seemed amused at the fact it had survived. Then he did something you're never supposed to do in a museum—he reached out and touched the canvas. He ran his long, slender finger down the textured surface. It was as if he'd never seen a painting before. Certainly not one like this.
Surely, the Decluvian’s had art. But who knew in what context or form.
The soldier lifted the painting from the wall and slung it under his arm. He was going to walk off with it. The spoils of war. As he turned back to the street he caught sight of Levi. He dropped the painting and slung his weapon into the firing position.
But Levi beat him to the punch. He put the reticle of the sight in the center of the Decluvian’s chest, just like Presley had taught him.
He double tapped the bastard. Green blood exploded from his chest. It splattered all over the painting, but it seemed to match the color scheme. The soldier fell to the ground and dropped the painting. It clattered against the concrete slab. The museum curators would be turning over in their graves. But they weren't in graves—they were probably buried in the rubble somewhere.
The rest of the Decluvian squad snapped their weapons in Levi's direction. He ducked behind the wall as several rounds blazed over his head.
He sprang up and fired a couple rounds, then dropped back down behind the rubble. A slew of projectiles streamed toward him, impacting the wall. Concrete chips sprayed out.
The squad leader motioned for his team to flank Levi. One of the soldiers dashed off to the left, the other to the right. The squad leader took cover behind a pile of rubble and laid down a continuous barrage of fire.
Levi wasn't trained for this kind of thing. He had mere seconds to react. Soon he was going to be taking fire from 3 positions. If he stayed put, he’d be dead. He waited for a break in the shower of plasma projectiles, then sprang to his feet. He dashed for another section of cover as blue streaks whizzed all around him.
He hugged a wall, then slung his rifle around and fired a few shots back at the squad leader. Levi took off running again and dashed behind a pillar. He kept moving and firing, drawing them away from Presley and the others in the basement.
Presley could hear the commotion on the street above. She grabbed the rope and climbed to the surface. She poked her head up and glanced around. All of the focus was on Levi.
Plasma projectiles streaked through the air.
She pulled herself out of the hole and crawled to a wall. She slowly slung her weapon over the ridge and took aim at the squad leader. He was completely unaware of her presence. With his head in the crosshairs, Presley squeezed the trigger. His blue spotted head exploded.
Presley spun the barrel around, taking aim at one of the soldiers attempting to flank Levi. But her first shot had given away her position, and the soldier turned to fire at her.
Presley blasted off a few rounds and took out the Decluvian before he could get a shot off.
Levi exchanged fire with the remaining soldier. It was Presley's turn to try and flank the alien. She dashed through the rubble, moving from piles of debris to the remains of pillars and fragments of demolished walls. She circled around until she had a clear view of the alien. But before she could squeeze off a round, the Decluvian took a hit to the shoulder that spun him around. Another blast exploded his chest. Green blood splattered the ground. Levi had scored a hit.
Presley couldn’t help but smile a bit. She ran through the debris to find Levi. He was clutching his arm, wincing with pain.
“You okay?” Presley said, her face twisted up with worry.
“Yeah, I'm fine. I just got grazed." He moved his hand away from the wound—it was a seared groove of flesh. The skin around it was red and blistered. "I don't think it even hit me. It was just pretty damn close."
“We've got to hurry. I'm afraid our little firefight will draw some unwanted attention." Presley raced back to the hole in the slab. She slid down the rope.
Levi kept watch up top.
There were 23 students in the basement, along with their teacher, Ms. Vance. Presley had the unfortunate experience of having Ms. Vance as a teacher when she was Timmy’s age. It seems Ms. Vance’s only joy in life was handing out detentions, of which Presley had gotten many. Half a second late—detention. Pass a note—detention. Chewing gum—detention. Breathing—detention.
Presley couldn't help but take a little satisfaction in the fact that she was the one to save Ms. Vance. There was just a hint of a smug grin on Presley's face.
Ms. Vance still had that sour scowl. She looked pretty much the same, only a few years older. The same crooked nose and thin lips. The same thin face and sunken eyes. Dark, greying hair that she always wore in a bun. And the mole with the long black hair sprouting out of it that you just couldn’t help but stare at—and doing so would earn you a… detention.
“Okay, it's gonna be just like gym class,” Presley said. “I need you to climb the rope, be quiet, and stick together. We don't have a lot of time.”
“Excuse me,” Ms. Vance said in a grating shrill voice. “This is my class, and my students will do as I say.”
Presley stood slack-jawed. She had a look of utter disbelief on her face. It was the end of the world, and Ms. Vance was going to pull this nonsense? “Well, please tell your students it's time to evacuate.”
“I will do no such thing.”
It was business as usual. Except for the crew in the the CIC, engineering, and the reactor room, no one knew the mutiny had taken place.
Rourke had one small problem. None of his band of mutineers were part of the command crew. They were mostly enlisted, with the exception of Lieutenant Parker. Not one of them knew how to fly, or navigate, a star destroyer. He was going to have to rely solely on the compliance of the existing command crew. And all of them were loyal to Slade.
“Officer Bishop,” Rourke barked. “Plot a jump for New Earth. We’re not going down without a fight.”
Bishop didn’t reply.
Rourke’s eyes narrowed. “I gave you a direct order. Plot a jump for New Earth.”
Bishop trembled. He cleared his throat. “No, sir. I do not recognize you as the Captain of this ship.”
Rourke clenched his jaw and his nostrils flared. His face turned red. “Spaceman Davies. Shoot this traitor.”
“Aye, sir,” Davies stammered. He advanced and put the barrel of his assault rifle against Bishop’s head. Davies hesitated a moment. He had never shot anyone before. It was easy to talk tough, but to kill a man in cold blood? A fellow warrior? That was a different story altogether.
“Do it, son!” Rourke snarled.
Davies squeezed the trigger.
Bishop’s head exploded. Blood splattered everywhere. It painted the tactical console and sprayed Davies in the face. Bishop’s body smacked the deck. Bits of his skull and brain matter scattered about. Blood pooled around his body.
Everyone in the room gasped in horror.
Zoey’s eyes brimmed. Her throat tightened and burned with rage.
Davies wiped the blood from his face. His skin went pale, and he looked a little shocked at what he had done.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Humans weren’t supposed to be killing each other. Especially when there were so few of them left.
“I will not tolerate insubordination. Is that understood?”
Slade emerged from slide-space and headed toward one of the Revenant’s flight decks. “Revenant, Cobra Two Niner, request permission to land?”
A few moments later the LSO’s voice crackled back over the comm line. “Permission granted, Cobra Two Niner.”
Slade could see the Optical Landing System, and she had the Skylark in the groove.
“Cobra, call the ball,” the LSO said.
“Cobra Two Niner, Skylark Ball, 3.2”
“Roger ball,” said the LSO.
Slade made a textbook landing. She climbed out of the pilot seat and lowered the back ramp of the gunship. Walker was waiting for her on the deck. She couldn’t help but be a little glad to see him. After what she had been through, she needed a friendly face. But Walker’s face looked anything but friendly. She knew right away something was wrong.
“We’ve got a problem,” Walker said. The two marched across the flight deck. Mitch and Violet hurried to keep up.
“The Master at Arms found two Marines locked in Rourke’s cell. He’s taken over the CIC and propulsion.”
Slade’s whole body tensed. “That son-of-a-bitch!”
The bulkheads rippled and distorted. She felt her stomach twist up in knots. The Revenant had just entered slide-space.
Slade knew where Rourke was going. “He’s jumping us to New Earth.” Her brow crinkled with worry. “We’ve got to get control of the ship back. He’s reckless and impulsive. He’s going to destroy us.”
“Is there any other way into the CIC?” Walker asked.
“No. The hatch and bulkheads are lined with thermally protected composites. You can’t cut through. It’s impossible to override any of the systems externally.”
“We can try to take the engine room, or the reactor compartment,” Walker said. “Without those he can’t navigate the ship.”
“He’s going to jump us into the middle of a battlefield. Cutting propulsion could be disastrous. I want a tactical team ready and waiting at the CIC. They can’t stay in there forever. It was designed to withstand short-term assaults. There’s no food or water. And at some point, somebody’s gonna have to take a piss.”
Walker grinned. “Aye, sir.” He dashed out of the room to assemble his team.
“Violet, keep working on that virus,” Slade said.
Walker gathered a team of Marines and took position outside the CIC. Rourke could see them on the surveillance monitor. He didn’t seem too concerned. He knew they weren’t going to be able to get in.
The Revenant emerged from slide-space at New Earth. The bulkheads rippled and warbled. The distorted wave rushed over the CIC, and throughout the ship.
The LRADDS display lit up with over 30 red icons—the Decluvian invasion fleet. New Earth looked even worse than before.
“Fire control, target the lead destroyer,” Rourke yelled.
“Aye, sir,” the officer stammered.
“I want to hit them with the Widow-Makers. Let’s send four right up their ass.”
A swarm of Decluvian fighters flowed from several of the enemy warships.
“I have a firing solution.”
“Fire!” Rourke shouted.
Four 50 megaton nukes blasted from the Revenant’s launch tubes. Propellant spewed from their tails as they streaked across the star field.
The enemy countermeasures took out the nukes with ease before they impacted the hull. Four blinding explosions dotted space, then faded.
Rourke grimaced. “Hit them with the Mark 25s!”
The turrets of the Mark 25s swiveled into action. The staccato report of cannon fire rumbled through the Revenant. M79 super sabot rounds blazed toward the lead warship. They impacted the enemy super-carrier. It was hard to ascertain how much damage they were causing, or how deeply they were penetrating the alien structure.
As the horde of enemy fighters approached, the Mark 25s focused their attention on the incoming threat. This was no longer an offensive assault. The Revenant was on defense. To make matters worse, dozens of incoming nukes rocketed toward the Revenant, launched from multiple warships.
The auto targeting of the cannons tracked both the inbound fighters and nukes. The turrets swiveled and blasted at the threats. But there were simply too many targets to keep up with.
Of the dozen nukes, two penetrated the defenses and slammed into the hull. The Revenant quaked and groaned. The blast sent the crew tumbling to the deck. Sparks flew in the CIC as equipment shorted out. Klaxons sounded.
The blasts tore through the armored bulkheads, incinerating several compartments. The enemy fighters swooped in, strafing the hull. They were blasting at key structures with tactical rockets. The Revenant wasn’t going to last long under this kind of assault.
Rourke staggered to his feet. It was chaos in the CIC. Rourke’s mutineers were in disarray, trying to regain their footing.
Zoey’s eyes scanned the CIC—if there was a time to take back control of the ship, this was it. But it was too risky—the crew that was loyal to Slade was just as dazed from the blast.
“I want a damage report,” Rourke shouted.
Zoey looked over her terminal. “Hull breech in sections, 109-112 and 134-152.”
“Seal off those compartments.”
Small blasts continued to rock the ship.
The LRADDS display lit up again. Several more incoming nukes were screaming toward the Revenant.
Rourke’s face looked sunken and pale. Sweat was beading on his forehead. He was beginning to realize he had made a mistake.
“We’ll wait here for a proper rescue,” Ms. Vance said.
“No one else is coming,” Presley said, incredulous.
“It seems reckless and dangerous to expose these children to a war zone without proper protection. No, thank you. We’ll wait here for the proper authorities.”
“I don’t think you fully understand the gravity of the situation. The Army is pulling back. This whole area is about to be incinerated. We’ve got less than three hours to make it to the extraction point. The cavalry is not coming.”
Ms. Vance looked flustered.
“Stay here if you want,” Presley said. “But I'm getting these kids to safety.”
Ms. Vance was speechless.
“Everybody who wants to come with me, up the rope,” Presley said.
One by one, all of the students proceeded to climb up the rope. Levi helped them when they reached the surface. Ms. Vance folded her arms and scowled at Presley. Timmy was the last student to climb out.
“Are you coming?" Presley asked.
Ms. Vance huffed. A moment later, she stomped toward the rope. “For the record, I think this is a horrible idea.”
She grabbed onto the rope and tried to pull herself up, but she didn't have the strength.
“You’re doing it wrong.”
Ms. Vance gave her a snide look.
Presley demonstrated the J-hook technique. “Loop the rope around your feet like this, and use your legs to push up.” With the rope pinched between the top of one foot, and the soul of the other, Presley scaled the rope with ease. She never thought she’d be teaching Ms. Vance how to do something.
Ms. Vance gave it a try. Her feet flailed about, trying to grasp the rope. After several tries, she finally made a connection and pinched the rope between her feet. She inched up the rope, and Presley and Levi pulled her out of the hole when she reached the surface.
Ms. Vance looked around and got her first glimpse at the destruction. Her jaw dropped. The full magnitude of the situation finally hit home with her.
Presley took a headcount—26 in total. She was always going to have to count 26 heads, including herself, to make sure no one got lost. She was now in charge of 26 lives. At breakfast this morning, she could barely manage her own.
“Stay close and follow me,” Presley said. “Come on. Let's move.”
Presley led the group through the demolished streets, back to the sewer grate. She and Levi hefted it aside. Levi climbed down and the group began to follow after him. Presley stood at street level, keeping watch.
“I must note my objection,” Ms. Vance said. “This is highly unsanitary, and no environment for a child to be exposed to.”
A Decluvian fighter roared overhead. It circled around for an attack run.
“Hurry!” Presley yelled.
The last of the students descended into the sewer. Ms. Vance was still objecting. But when the fighter screeched by, strafing the street, Ms. Vance changed her mind.
The street erupted as the fighter’s cannons blasted plasma rounds. Chunks of concrete sprayed from the craters in the roadway.
Presley dove for cover behind a pile of rubble.
The fighter circled back around for another run.
Ms. Vance scurried down into the sewer. The look on her face was priceless. Her nose crinkled up and her face turned green. She looked like she was going to hurl.
The Decluvian fighter soared low. Geysers of concrete erupted from the street as its cannons blasted.
Presley stood her ground, lining the fighter up in her sights. Her heart was about to punch through her chest. She squeezed the trigger, unleashing a flurry of plasma projectiles.
The fighter streaked toward her, incinerating the ground before her.
Presley held steady and kept firing. One of her shots connected. It was a direct hit on the cockpit. A small explosion was followed by a larger explosion. The fighter shredded into pieces. Debris crashed down to the street. The flaming fuselage swept overhead and plowed down the avenue. Metal screeched and groaned. Sparks showered from the twisted wreckage. The fighter ground to a halt. It was a flaming hunk of metal.
Presley’s eyes filled with glee.
She ran to the sewer grate and climbed down. She pulled the grate back into position, so it wouldn’t arouse suspicion by any passing patrols. She finished her descent, and her feet splashed down into the muck.
She did a quick headcount—26. Everybody was accounted for.
“It smells like stale farts down here,” one of the kids said.
Presley chuckled. “Yes, it does.”
“That’s an inappropriate use of language, Conrad,” Ms. Vance said. “That’s a detention.”
Presley gritted her teeth. “Do you think now is really the time to be handing out detentions?”
“Careful, young lady. You may not be in one of my classes, but I can recommend disciplinary action to your principal. You want to graduate on time, don’t you?”
Presley scoffed. “Trust me. I don’t think we’re having class for the rest of the year.”
She marched through the sludge, heading back toward the extraction point. All they had to do was stay in these passageways and keep moving. It was 16:00 hours now. Two hours to get to the LZ. It was going to be cutting it close, but it was doable.
Presley waded through the brown murky water with Levi. The students followed along. Ms. Vance was somewhere in the middle. She kept turning her ankles trying to walk through the slop in heels. But she wasn’t about to take her shoes off and walk barefoot. The thought of sludge squishing through her toes was mortifying.
“How's your arm?" Presley asked Levi.
“It's stings. But I'll live."
“I wouldn't have been able to do this without your help."
“Naw, I don't buy it. You would have found a way. You seem like the kind of girl who always gets what she wants.”
She grinned. “My dad taught us that you get what you settle for. So don’t settle for anything less than what you want. Failure is not an option.”
“Clearly your dad never had Mr. Philips for Advanced Calculus.”
“I’d settle for a D in his class.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that now.”
Levi’s face was solemn. “Yeah. I guess I don’t.”
They marched for several blocks, twisting through the maze of passageways. Presley craned her neck and took another count of the students trailing behind them. But the count came up short. 25, including herself.
Her eyes grew wide with panic.
She counted again, but came up with the same result. She raced back down the line. “Who’s missing?”
The students shrugged.
"Who's missing?” she demanded again. Presley scanned their blank faces. She had a lump in her throat, and her whole body was shaking from nerves. The faces of the students were all unfamiliar to her. Her stomach twisted in knots as the realization hit her. She knew who was missing.
Another enemy nuke slammed into the Revenant’s hull. The old destroyer shuttered. Crew members slammed into bulkheads and bounced off command consoles.
“Engine number 2 has taken a direct hit,” Zoey yelled. “We have to get out of here!”
“We’re going to stand and fight,” Rourke growled.
A wave of terror washed over the crew. Rourke’s mutineers were starting to have second thoughts.
“Helm, starboard full!” Rourke commanded.
There was no response from the helmsman.
“Goddamnit, I said starboard full!”
Davies marched to the helmsman and pushed the barrel of his weapon against the officer’s head.
“Starboard full, aye,” the helmsman stammered.
The Revenant turned, aiming straight toward the lead destroyer.
“Fire control, hit them with everything we’ve got,” Rourke shouted.
“What are you doing?” Zoey asked.
“We can’t take out this entire fleet. But we can ram their command ship. And that’s something.”
Zoey clenched her jaw. She wasn’t ready to die just yet. “This is insane. Taking out one ship is not going to do any good. We should fall back. Regroup.”
Zoey began to plot jump coordinates. She was going to get the Revenant out of there, whether Rourke liked it or not.
“Commander Bryant, back away from that terminal,” Rourke yelled.
Davies marched to Zoey and took aim.
More inbound nukes streaked toward the Revenant. The constant barrage of small tactical missiles from the enemy fighters impacted the hull. The report of the Mark 25s continued to rattle throughout the ship.
Zoey planned on jumping the Revenant as soon as the calculations were finished. She didn’t give a shit if Davies shot her. She was going to save the ship and the 1600 crew members.
“I’m not going to tell you again,” Rourke growled. “Back away from the terminal.”
Davies’ finger wrapped tight around the trigger. He was moments away from putting a round into Zoey’s skull.
“This is bullshit,” Dodson said. “We’re not supposed to be fighting each other.”
Rourke glared at him. “Shut up, Dodson.” His menacing gaze turned back to Zoey. “Spaceman Davies, shoot Commander Bryant.”
“Aye, sir.” Sweat dripped from his brow. He hesitated for a moment. Then his finger gripped the trigger.
Davies’ head exploded, splattering crimson blood all over Zoey.
Smoke wafted from the barrel of Dodson’s weapon. He hit the access button on the bulkhead with his fist, and the hatch slid open.
Walker and his team flooded into the CIC, their weapons bearing down on the mutineers. None of them put up a fight. They dropped their weapons to the deck, and raised their hands in the air.
The LRADDS display was covered in flashing red icons. An inbound nuke had broken through the defenses of the Mark 25s and was seconds away from impacting the hull.
The nav computer finished its calculations. Zoey engaged the slide-space drive, and the Revenant vanished.
Slade entered the CIC and reassumed her command. She looked over the devastation with sad eyes. Bishop’s lifeless body lay on the floor. He had been Slade’s tactical officer for the last few deployments. He had a wife and two children back on New Earth. Her throat tightened with anger.
Corpsmen swarmed in and carried out the bodies and attended to the wounded.
Walker shoved Rourke toward the exit. He glared at Slade. “At least I’ve got the guts to stand and fight.”
“Please let me space him?” Walker asked.
“No,” Slade replied. “That’s too good for him. Take him to the brig.”
“He could trip along the way and break his neck?”
“Just lock him up for now. And make sure he doesn’t get out this time.” Slade arched an eyebrow at him.
Walker grimaced. “Aye, sir.” He marched Rourke, and the mutineers, down to the detention center. He assigned an entire Marine platoon to guard the compartment.
Zoey stepped to Slade. “They caught us off guard, sir. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Commander,” Slade said. “What kind of shape are we in?”
“Not good. We’re down to 62% engine capacity. We’ve taken massive damage to the hull. An estimated 163 crew are dead.”
“That’s not all. Our targeting system is inoperable. They knew right where to hit us. Even if we could get back in the fight, we wouldn’t be able to hit the broadside of a barn.”
“As soon as we get out of slide- space, I want the maintenance techs working on the hull, and get the weapons techs on the targeting system.”
“Nice work on getting us out of there,” Slade said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“If I still had any sway, I’d recommend you for your own command someday.”
Zoey smiled. “I’d like that. But I don’t think I’d ever leave your side, sir.”
The Revenant emerged from slide-space an hour later, near Rigel 6. It was a desolate part of space and a good place to effect repairs. Hull maintenance technicians began to repair the exterior of the ship. Electronics experts and weapons techs began piecing the CIC back together. But there weren’t enough parts to refurbish the targeting system.
“Go,” Presley said. “Get to the extraction point.”
Levi looked hesitant. Presley could see the concern in his eyes.
“Go. I’ll be fine. You said it yourself.” She lifted up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I’ll meet you there. Don’t worry.”
Presley sloshed back through the passageway calling out for Timmy at the top of her lungs. She marched as fast as she could through the water, which wasn’t nearly as fast as she’d like. Her brow was crinkled up like a raisin, and her sad eyes darted about the sewer.
“Timmy?” she called out again as she reached a fork in the passageway. She strained to hear a reply over the rushing water.
A moment later, she could have sworn she heard his voice squawk back.
Her eyes snapped toward the sound. She sloshed toward Timmy’s faint reply. She followed the passageway as it curved. Her eyes went wide as she saw her brother clinging to the rungs that led up to the street.
A novaraptor was snapping at his heels.
Timmy wasn’t strong enough to push off the manhole cover above him. Even if he could, there were enemy troops passing in the streets. Presley could hear them chatter.
The beast growled and gnashed, leaping up from the murky water, hoping to snag a chunk of flesh. The creature looked every bit as vicious as the urban legends had made it out to be. Its jaw snapped with such force, it could chomp your leg in two like it were a cheese puff.
Presley slung her weapon into the firing position and took aim. She squeezed the trigger as the demon leapt into the air again. The plasma projectile smacked its belly. The creature’s guts splattered the walls of the sewer. Chunks of it’s body splashed into the murky water.
The current swept the carcass away, drifting past Presley. Its body was still twitching from nerve impulses. Even dead, the thing gave her the creeps.
She raced to Timmy as he climbed down the rungs. He was favoring his left leg.
“What are you doing?” Presley asked, panicked.
Presley’s face tensed. “Nothing?”
“I lost dad’s watch,” he said, ashamed. “I know I had it at the museum. Then I realized it was gone. I thought maybe I lost it back here somewhere. Then that thing attacked me.”
“You had me scared to death. Are you okay?”
He nodded, but his eyes were full of tears.
“Let me see your leg.”
Timmy rolled up his pantleg. He had deep gouges in his calf where the creature’s sharp teeth punctured his flesh. It was oozing blood. Presley worried about the possibility of infection. The water was highly unsanitary. But there was nothing she could do about that now. The first concern was to stop the bleeding.
“Give me your shirt,” Presley demanded.
Presley pulled out a pocket knife and flipped the blade open. She grabbed onto Timmy shirt and sliced the fabric.
“What are you doing? That's my favorite shirt!”
She tore off a section and wrapped it around his bloody calf and tied it off. “I’ll buy you a new one.”
Tears were streaming down Timmy’s cheeks. But it wasn’t the shirt he was upset about. “I can’t believe I lost it,” he said through jerking sobs.
Presley hugged him tight. She knew how much the watch meant to him. “It’s okay.”
“I miss dad so much.” Timmy’s face contorted, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
Presley’s eyes went slick. “I do too.”
They hugged each other for a moment. Presley didn’t have the heart to tell him about their mom. She’d save that for when they were safe. When they had time to grieve.
“Come on,” Presley said. “We gotta go. Climb on.”
“I can walk.”
“Don’t be stubborn.”
Timmy climbed onto her back, and they started down the tunnel. Timmy was a lot heavier than the last time she had given him a piggyback ride. He wasn’t a small little kid anymore. At 14, he was almost as tall as she was. And weighed almost as much. It was hard enough to slog through the water by herself, but with an extra hundred pounds on her back, she was getting a real workout.
The grinding sound of a manhole cover sliding open froze them in their tracks. The commotion in the sewer had drawn the attention of the soldiers above.
Presley shuffled into a side passageway. Timmy climbed down and they hugged the wall as a Decluvian soldier peered through the manhole. His big, round eyes scanned the passageway. He watched the water flowing through the tunnel. His nose crinkled as the stench wafted to his nostrils. Then he thought better of dropping down into the muck for a closer look.
Presley heard him slide the manhole cover back on, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She peered around the corner—the passageway was empty.
Timmy climbed on her back, and Presley sloshed through the muck, trying to catch up with the others. She was huffing and puffing in no time. Her quads were burning, and her lower back was starting to ache.
“When did you get so big?”
“I grew four inches over the summer.”
“Do you think you’re going to be as tall as dad?”
“I don’t know. What about you?”
Presley scoffed. “I’m stuck at this height.”
“I wish they would have engineered us.”
“Yeah, well, they didn’t. They couldn’t afford it. So get over it.”
“Honestly, I like the way I am,” Timmy said, giving it some thought. “Those engineered kids are all the same.”
“I guess you’re not too bad.”
Timmy was silent a moment. “Thanks for coming back to get me.”
Presley was surprised. Getting a thank you out of Timmy was usually something that had to be extracted under some type of threat—usually grounding. It made her heart melt just a little.
“Anytime, little brother.”
They sloshed through the canal in silence for a moment.
“I’m worried about mom,” Timmy said.
“Me too,” Presley stammered. She really didn’t want to tell him right now. “I’m sure she’s fine.” She reassured him. But her voice had a grim tinge to it.
An explosion suddenly rocked the passageway. The boom was deafening. The shock wave rushed through the tunnel, blasting Presley off her feet. She and Timmy flew through the air and splashed into the foul water.
In a confined space, like a sewer tunnel, blast overpressure can be particularly damaging. The ears are the most susceptible to trauma, followed by the lungs and other organs. At 2psi, eardrums can rupture. At 5psi, fatalities are likely. At 10 psi, severe internal damage can result.
Presley was dazed, and her ears were ringing. She felt like she had been slammed with a wrecking ball. It took her a few seconds to regain her composure. She staggered over to Timmy.
“Are you okay?”
“Huh?” He could barely hear what she was saying.
“Are you hurt?”
“What?” Timmy shouted.
She frantically looked him over. He didn’t have any visible signs of trauma. No broken bones or punctures. But internal traumas could be insidious things that would take hours to show up.
“I’m fine,” he said as the ringing in his ears began to fade.
They hadn’t been that close to the blast. Any closer and they may have been seriously injured. They got lucky.
Presley helped Timmy up, but they weren’t going to make any forward progress. The sewer was caved in ahead. They were going to have to surface, then drop back down on the other side of the debris.
Several more explosions rumbled through the area, farther down the tunnel. The earth shook and debris rained down, splashing into the water. It sounded like incoming artillery rounds. The UPDF was likely trying to hold back the Decluvian forces long enough to make the evacuation.
Presley scanned the tunnel for an access point. She sloshed through the murky water to the rungs and climbed to the manhole cover. This one was stuck. Years of grime and corrosion. She couldn’t get it to budge.
“We’ll have to find another way.” She climbed down, and marched back a block to the next cover. Then climbed the rungs and wrenched the cover open. The steel lid was heavy as hell, but she managed to slide it aside, grinding against the concrete.
Presley pulled herself up and out of the hole. She was met by the barrels of several Decluvian weapons.
“How is he, Doc,” Zoey’s face was creased with worry. She had rushed down to the med center to check on 8-ball. Corpsmen scurried about, treating the wounded from Rourke’s failed engagement with the Decluvians.
8-Ball had been put in a state of quantum suspension after multiple gunshot wounds. It was a stop-gap measure to save his life until he could get proper medical treatment.
Dr. Jackson’s face was grim. “I’m sorry. I hate to tell people bad news.”
Zoey’s eyes pooled, and her jaw went slack. She could barely choke out the words. “He’s dead?”
Jackson scowled at her. “No. The poor bastard lived.”
Zoey scowled and smacked Jackson in the arm. “I hate you. Don’t do that to me.”
“You should thank me. I saved his life.”
“Where is he?”
“Thank you.” Zoey kissed him on the cheek and wiped the tears from her eyes. She rushed to find 8-Ball.
At bay 6, she peered in through the privacy curtain. 8-Ball was bandaged and lying in bed, semi-conscious.
“Hey,” Zoey whispered.
8-Ball’s eyes perked up. He flashed a drug-induced smile. “Man, when you get shot they give you the good shit.” The words slipped out of his mouth and glided across the room like an opium cloud. “I might have to get shot again just get some more of this stuff.”
“No more getting shot for you.”
“I don’t know. This doesn’t seem too bad. I get a little R&R. Pretty girls come and visit me. What more could a guy ask for?”
Zoey smiled. “I don’t think you’ve ever had a problem getting pretty girls to come and visit you.”
“I’m just waiting for the right one.” He smiled a stoned smile.
“Tell you what… you take it easy and get yourself well, the drinks are on me.”
“That sounds like a reasonable exchange. It’s a date.”
“Don’t go getting ahead of yourself,” Zoey said.
“It’s definitely a date.”
Zoey rolled her eyes. “I gotta get back to the CIC. I just came down to check on you.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were worried about me.”
“You’re a good pilot. We don’t have many of those left,” she said, playfully.
“I see, I’m just another piece of equipment to you.”
“You’re a high value asset.” Zoey’s eyes sparkled at him.
“You definitely want to go on a date with me.” 8-Ball grinned. “I’m just going to keep saying that until my words hypnotize you. Then one day you’re going to be walking down the hall and you’re going to think, hey, I should go on a date with 8-Ball. Then you’re gonna come crawling back to me and say, 8-Ball, how did I not see all along, you’re the one for me. But, I’ll probably have moved on by that point, because I’ve had lots of girls come visit me already. And you’ll be heartbroken. See, I’m just trying to save you from making a mistake you’d regret for the rest of your life.”
Zoey chuckled. “You absolutely have no filter when you’re high.”
“Shit, I won’t remember any of this tomorrow.”
Zoey kissed him on the cheek.
“I’m definitely getting shot more often.”
“Since you’re not going to remember this… I may have been a little worried about you.” She measured out a quarter inch between her thumb and index finger. “Just a little.” Zoey smiled. “Get some rest. I’ll check on you later.” She slipped out through the privacy curtain.
8-Ball was in heaven. But he wasn’t going to be grinning so much when the pain medicine wore off.
The soldiers marched Presley and Timmy through the streets, weapons pressed into their backs. The aliens forced Timmy to hobble along on his wounded leg. This infuriated Presley. The muscles in her jaw flexed.
“Where are you taking us?” Presley asked.
One of the soldiers muttered something and jammed the barrel of his weapon between her shoulder blades. She couldn’t understand the language, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what he was saying. He was telling her to shut up and keep marching.
“Timmy, are you doing okay?”
Presley felt another sharp jab in her back. She craned her neck, looking back over her shoulder and gave the soldier the evil eye.
He brought the barrel of his weapon up to her face, threatening to pull the trigger.
Presley grimaced and looked forward. She kept marching. Now was not the time to be a smart-ass.
The war-torn city was devastated. It barely resembled its former self. It looked like the pictures of war-ravaged colonies that she had seen on the news. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen here.
The soldiers marched them to a forward operating base. Soldiers scurried about. Commanders barked orders over comm lines to troops in the field.
The Decluvians were holding human prisoners within a temporary containment field. Portable shield projectors on the ground formed a large rectangle. There were relay projectors placed about every ten yards. The force shield was impenetrable, and reached 12 feet high. When activated, the passive gravitational mass of the projector units multiplied by a factor of 1000. They became impossibly heavy. You couldn’t just kick one of the devices out of line and disrupt the beam.
The soldiers pushed Presley and Timmy toward the entrance portal of the containment field. An officer at the entrance stopped them. He had noticed Timmy’s limp. The officer looked the boy over with disapproval. He barked a few commands at the soldiers, and one of them grabbed Timmy by the arm and dragged him away.
A look of horror washed over Presley’s face. Her eyes widened as she screamed for Timmy. She lurched toward him, but a soldier jabbed the stock of his rifle into her belly. She doubled over with pain and dropped to her knees.
Two soldiers grabbed her by her arms and drug her into the containment area. Presley was twisting and turning and kicking and screaming. They threw her to the ground, then marched back out of the containment field.
Presley lunged for the portal, but it reactivated before she got there. She slammed into the beam. It was like hitting a brick wall. She kicked and pounded the invisible barrier, but it was no use.
Timmy was screaming and crying as they dragged him away.
Tears streamed down Presley’s cheeks as she screeched in terror.
Another prisoner put her hand on Presley’s shoulder, trying to comfort her. “I’m sorry. He’s wounded. They don’t keep the wounded. Too much trouble to care for, and they can’t work.”
“What are they going to do to him?” Presley’s face was pale. Her lip quivered.
The girl frowned, and her eyes fell to the ground. She didn’t have to say anything. Presley knew. They were going to kill him.
“They’ve done this on every colony,” the girl said.
Presley screamed until her voice was raspy and raw. She felt nauseous and shaky. Her legs felt like jelly. She crumpled to the ground and sobbed. Not Timmy. They can’t do this to him. He’s just a boy.
Her eyes were puffy, and her nose was runny. She gasped for air between sobs. But crying wasn’t going to change anything. It wasn’t going to save Timmy. She had to pull herself together and think. She wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to get her emotions under control. She staggered to her feet. The girl helped her up.
“There’s got to be a way out of here.” Presley’s eyes scanned the containment field. There were dozens of ragged prisoners with dirty faces and tattered clothes. Men, women, and children. But none of them were old or infirmed.
There was no roof over the containment field. The force field was just a high-tech fence. But a high-tech fence that you couldn’t climb.
Across the base, the Declivian soldier pulled Timmy into a back alleyway. Timmy’s eyes widened as they turned the corner. The dead-end alley was full of bodies, piled up against the far wall. Dozens of people had been executed here. People that didn’t fit the Decluvian’s plan.
Timmy tried to resist, but the alien was too strong for him. The lanky creature had incredibly strong muscle fibers. Pound for pound, they were twice as strong as humans.
The soldier tossed Timmy to the end of the narrow alley. The boy had nowhere to run. The only way to escape was to barrel through the alien. But that was never going to happen. No matter how fast Timmy could run, he couldn’t get around the Decluvian.
Timmy stood trembling. The metallic smell of blood and rotting corpses filled his nostrils. It was a warm day, and many of these corpses had been there for several hours. Timmy felt his stomach rumble. He wanted to hurl. The sour acidic taste crept into the back of his throat.
The Decluvian brought his rifle to the firing position and took aim at Timmy’s head. His lanky orange finger wrapped around the trigger.
Timmy closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. The pain would only last an instant. Then it would be all over. At least he’d see his dad again, he thought.
“The system is fried. It needs a new oscillator and a thermal capacitor,” one of the repair techs said.
There was still haze in the air. The CIC smelled like burnt electronics and melted polymers.
“Can’t you borrow one from somewhere else?” Slade asked.
“The parts are specific to this particular unit. Unfortunately, they don’t interchange with anything else on the ship.”
Slade’s face tensed.
“Look, it’s an old ship. Everything is interchangeable today. These old destroyers are a little bit fussy.”
“So, we have no offensive capabilities?”
“As it stands,” the tech said.
“We’ve got another problem,” Zoey interjected.
Slade arched an eyebrow at her.
“Jenkins says we’ve got one jump left in the quantum field generator.”
Slade sighed and she clutched her forehead in despair. “What else can go wrong on this ship?” Zoey was about to say something, but Slade caught her before she could speak. “Don’t answer that.”
Zoey hesitated. “The dynamic field coupler got overloaded during the last jump. Just so you know.”
“Unfortunately, they’re not making anymore of these parts,” the tech said.
“I guess were going to have to go to the junkyard,” Slade said.
“The junkyard?” Zoey asked.
“Plot coordinates for the Scorpion. We’re gonna strip what we can from her.”
“Sir, she’s in pretty bad shape. We don’t even know if the parts we need are functional. We could get stuck out there.”
“It’s a risk we’re going to have to take. We don’t have any other options.”
“Give me another half hour to finish repairing helm and navigation,” the tech said. “Better safe than sorry.”
“You’ve got 15 minutes.”
Slade leaned against her command console as teams of technicians scurried about the CIC. Slade picked up the handset. “Engineering, conn…”
A moment later, a thin voice crackled back. “Conn, engineering. Go ahead.”
“I need a status update of the quantum field generator. Are we safe for one more jump?”
“It depends. How far do you want to go?”
“Back to the Scorpion?”
The Chief Engineer paused for a long moment. “Thats a tough call.”
“I need an answer.”
“If it were me, I wouldn’t do it. The farthest I would go would be three sectors. The Scorpion is six.”
“Thanks.” Slade frowned and put the handset down. She contemplated all of her options. She looked over the nav charts. There was a habitable planet, M9777-46A in the Lyrava sector. It was small—about half the size of New Earth. But it had water and breathable air. And it was in range.
It was completely unsettled. If Slade brought the crew there, they would be starting from scratch. Humanity was on the brink of extinction. She was going to have to make a choice. Take a chance and fight, or attempt to colonize M9777-46A and potentially save the human race.
There were 1429 crew remaining. Enough to make a start, but the long-term odds of survival were slim. It wasn’t really enough to maintain genetic diversity over time. Without a broad enough gene pool, the new tribe would be susceptible to disease and other abnormalities. Forty or fifty thousand people would make a better start for a new colony. And how long would it be before they were discovered by the Decluvians or the Saarkturians, or someone else?
Slade made her decision. “Zoey, plot coordinates for the Scorpion.”
“Aye, sir.” Zoey engaged the quantum drive. The dynamic field generator seem to be holding up. But for how long?
There was a brief fluctuation in the quantum field. The distortion rippled through the ship. It felt like they were going to drop out of slide-space for a moment.
Zoey and the captain exchanged a nervous glance.
“Something tells me the old girl’s going to hang in there.” Slade said the optimistic words to the Revenant, as much as she did to Zoey.
“I hope so, Captain.”
Walker’s voice crackled over the comm system. “Captain, you might want to come down and see this.”
“What is it?”
“I think it’s better if I show you.”
“Zoey, you have the conn.”
Slade made her way down to the detention area.
Walker greeted her in the corridor. “I swear to God, I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Slade’s curious eyes narrowed at him.
Walker opened the hatch and they pushed into the detention center. They strolled past the command station to the cellblock. All of the prisoners were dead, including Rourke.
Slade’s eyes widened. “What happened here?”
“They all suffocated. Life-support for the entire cellblock failed.” Walker opened Rourke’s cell.
Slade stepped inside the tiny compartment. Her eyes fell over Rourke’s lifeless body. She didn’t take any joy in his death. She didn’t feel vindicated. She just saw a man who was once her friend. Her eyes brimmed, and a single tear rolled down her cheek. “We’ll give them all a proper burial, with full honors.”
“Aye, sir,” Walker said. “I’m not sure how this happened.”
“Maybe the ship didn’t care too much for Captain Rourke.” It was the first time she had acknowledged his rank.
Timmy stood there, trembling in the alleyway. The Decluvian’s orange finger squeezed the trigger.
The receiver exploded. Bits of shredded metal sprayed out. The soldiers three fingers were severed. Green blood spewed from the stumps. Blistering shrapnel peppered his face, gouging out his protruding eyes. The alien fell to the ground, screaming in agony, clutching his mangled face.
Any number of things could have caused the malfunction. There could’ve been a bulge in the barrel, or a bore obstruction. The weapon could have been misassembled. Or the soldier could've been using the weapon he confiscated from Presley—and the sewer water may not have fully drained.
Either way, he was never going to see again. The Decluvians didn’t have honorable discharges or VA benefits. He wasn’t going to get a pension. If they couldn’t find a use for him in the Decluvian Army, and there wasn’t much use for a blind infantry soldier in the Decluvian Army, he was going to be shot.
In war, there are no winners or losers, only survivors. Today, Timmy was going to survive. At least, for the moment. He stood with his eyes shut tight. It took him a moment to realize he wasn’t dead. He had frozen at the sound of the bang.
Timmy opened his eyes and looked at the soldier flailing on the ground. He ran to him, grabbed his side arm and some thermal grenades.
The Decluvian spoke in English. His speech was choppy and broken. “Kill me.”
At first, Timmy didn’t want to do him any favors. He wanted to let the bastard writhe in agony. He deserved it. His kind had invaded New Earth and killed countless innocents, but this creature was in an immense amount of pain.
Timmy aimed the pistol at the creature’s head and vaporized his face with one blast. It was the first time Timmy had killed anything besides an insect. He was never going to be the same after that. He wasn’t a little boy anymore. He had seen his home world invaded. His people slaughtered. It wasn’t anything like playing War & Wasteland. You couldn’t re-spawn. You couldn’t go back to your last saved point.
Timothy hobbled back down the alleyway and peered around the corner. Troops were moving back and forth throughout the outpost. He could see the containment area about a hundred yards away. Somehow, he was going to have to rescue Presley. But that seemed impossible. He had a plasma pistol and a couple of thermal grenades. He needed a full arsenal and several platoons of trained soldiers to do the job right. Some close air support wouldn’t hurt either. But that was all just wishful thinking.
If this were War & Wasteland, he’d create a distraction. It worked when assaulting enemy bases in the game. What did he have to lose at this point? In a few hours the city was going to be nuked.
A troop transport landed in the street, not far from the alley. The back ramp lowered, and a platoon of soldiers marched out. They shuffled off to report to the commanding officer.
Timothy crouched down and crawled along a row of supply crates, inching toward the troop transport. When he reached the end of the row, he was about 10 yards from the back ramp. There was no one in the area, except for two pilots in the transport, powering down the ship.
Timothy raced toward the ramp and tossed the grenade in the cargo hold. He kept running as fast as he could and dove behind a pile of rubble. Each step was like a knife stabbing in his calf. But he blocked out the pain. He crouched down and plugged his ears with his fingers. A few moments later, the grenade exploded. The bulkheads bulged, then burst into shards. A brilliant orange ball of flame erupted. Black smoke billowed into the sky. Anything near the craft got eviscerated by shrapnel. It took out at least 20 Decluvian soldiers. Searing hunks of metal rained down.
Like angry ants, a horde of soldiers streamed from the command tent. They were preoccupied with the blaze. And there were stacks of ammo crates nearby that were cause for concern.
Tim scurried along the wall of debris until he was parallel with the containment area. There was a solitary guard posted at the entrance. Tim dashed to the transparent wall of the force field and crept alongside it. The prisoners inside obscured him from the view of the guard.
Tim rounded the corner and double-tapped the guard in the chest, just like his father had taught him. The alien’s chest exploded in a green mist.
The plasma pistol was virtually silent. With all the commotion going on, it didn’t draw any attention from the soldiers engaged in putting out the fire.
Tim mashed a button on the control panel and the entire force shield deactivated. Prisoners flowed out in all directions. It was chaos.
“Presley?” he shouted.
His eyes scanned the crowd frantically. He finally found Presley through the maze of faces. Her eyes connected with his. A wave of joy washed over her face.
They ran toward each other and hugged for a split second. Then he took her hand and pulled her along.
Presley looked back over her shoulder at her new friend, Harper. “Come on!” she shouted.
Harper followed them as they dashed through the flurry of fleeing prisoners. The soldiers had opened fire. Blue plasma streaks slashed the air. Prisoners were dropping like flies, eviscerated by the blistering projectiles.
Don’t look back, just run, Tim thought to himself. His heart was pumping, and his chest was heaving for breath. His leg didn’t hurt anymore—it had moved beyond pain. He was too numb to feel anything.
A few plasma projectiles zipped past Presley’s ear.
She felt the searing heat. Her hand clutched the side of her head. She was almost expecting to feel her face melted off, but she was okay. She glanced back over her shoulder to Harper—she wasn’t so lucky.
A projectile smacked into her back and burst out of her chest. Blood splattered all over Presley. Harper’s body fell to the ground in a wet slap.
Presley’s mortified face twisted up. Her eyes grew wide and she gasped in terror. She started to slow down, stunned.
Tim grabbed her arm and pulled her along. “Keep running!
They rounded the corner and ran into a dilapidated structure. They weaved through the ruins, emerging on the other side. Then they ran south, along Lexington, and descended the stairs to the subway. It wasn’t an ideal scenario, but it was better than being on the surface streets.
They hopped the turnstiles and sprinted down to the platform. Then dropped down to the tracks. They had no flashlights, no night vision, and only one handgun. They had roughly an hour to get 4.5 miles to the extraction point. It was doable, if they didn’t run into any drones, or a squad of Decluvians, or something worse.
A deep space salvage team had tethered to the Scorpion. They were placing portable quantum field generators around the ship. They were going to jump the whole ship out of the sector, and either repair it, or chop it for parts. They weren’t happy to see the Revenant.
Slade opened a comm channel as the Revenant pulled alongside the Scorpion. She could read the name and call numbers on the hull of the salvage vessel: SS Redwing. “This is the USS Revenant. You are attempting an unlawful salvage of UPDF property. Cease and desist immediately.”
A man’s voice crackled back over the line. “Sorry, lady. This is a derelict vehicle in unregulated space. According to interplanetary law, it’s fair game.”
Slade’s face tensed. She had no patience for this nonsense. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the current situation, but we’re presently at war, and this ship is a valuable asset.”
“There’s always a war somewhere, isn’t there?”
Slade’s blood was starting to boil. She didn’t have much time. The salvagers were almost finished placing the field generators. In a matter of minutes, they would be able to jump the ship away without a trace.
“Launch the alert fighters,” Slade said to Zoey.
“Aye, sir.” Zoey relayed the order. Within moments, pilots were dashing across the flight deck, sprinting to their fighters.
“I’m going to give you one last warning,” Slade said into the handset. “Cease your salvage activity, or be destroyed.”
“You can’t threaten me. I’m a civilian within my legal rights. Interfere with my salvage operation and I will sue your ass into the ground.”
Slade chuckled. “Go ahead. I doubt you’ll be able to find a court system to take the case.”
There was a long pause. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How long have you clowns been scavenging in deep space?”
“Look lady, you’re starting to get on my nerves. This conversation is over.”
The fighter squadron launched from the Revenant and headed toward the salvage ship. Two of the stingrays swooped past the Redwing and flew along the length of the Scorpion. They blasted at the quantum field generators that had been carefully placed by a remote drone. The devices, and the drone, erupted in a brilliant amber glow. There was no way the salvage team was going to be able to steal the Scorpion away now.
The man’s angry voice filled the comm line. “ What in the hell do you think you’re doing? Do you know what those generators cost? You owe me. Big time.”
“Why don’t you go back to New Earth,” Slade said. “File a complaint. See how that works out for you.”
A moment later, the salvage ship jumped away, leaving a small quantum distortion in its wake. He was in for a rude awakening when he reached New Earth.
“Get a team on board,” Slade said to Zoe. “Let’s get what we need, make the repairs, and get out of here.”
Zoey led the salvage team to the Scorpion. There wasn’t any atmosphere, so they suited up in SK-7 flight suits and took a shuttle over. The suits were state-of-the-art and would give them 48 hours of oxygen. Unlike the bulky old SK-2s that Zoey had become all too familiar with, the SK-7s were light and supple.
The gravity generators were still working on the Scorpion, and the reserve power was still functioning. Zoey landed the shuttle on the flight deck and lowered the back ramp. The salvage team spilled out and began scavenging for parts. Zoey felt a twinge of guilt about stripping the old girl—the Scorpion deserved better. But the old destroyer was going to save their ass one last time. It was going to live on within the Revenant. Hopefully.
It didn’t take the techs long to get the parts they needed. But the dynamic field generator on the Scorpion was in as bad shape as the one on the Revenant. It had maybe one jump left in it.
The team returned to the Revenant, and the techs repaired the targeting system and replaced the dynamic field generator. It would get them to New Earth, but that was it. There was going to be no jumping away in the nick of time to avoid destruction. If they were going to go back and attack the Decluvian fleet, it was going to be a fight to the death.
Presley stumbled through the darkness, feeling her way along the grimy subway walls. The only light streaming in was from sections of the tunnel that had collapsed under bomb blasts. Occasionally, rays of light would cascade down and illuminate the path. Most of the time, it was like wading through ink. It was easy to stumble over debris, or trip over the tracks.
“You doing okay?” Presley asked.
“Yeah,” Tim said, hobbling along.
“Thanks for getting me out of there. I guess, as far as little brothers go, you don’t totally suck.”
“Eh, I guess as far as big sisters go, you don’t totally suck either.”
“We’ve got to stick together, you know?”
“I know.” Presley forced a grim smile. Her eyes filled. She did her best to hold back the tears. She had to tell him about their mother. The mere thought of it made her sick with grief.
“Sorry about your friend. What was her name?”
“Harper. She was nice.” Presley’s voice was listless. “She had just gotten a full scholarship to Vanden for volleyball.” How many lives was this war going to destroy, she wondered?
“Do you think we’ll ever find out what happened to Dad?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just want to know.”
“Me too,” Presley said in a dreary tone. “There’s something I need to tell you?”
“It’s about… mom.” Presley could feel the lump in her throat swell.
Tim’s eyes filled. He knew what was coming. “No. Don’t say it.” He broke down sobbing.
Presley wrapped her arms around him and the two broke down sobbing.
Tears streamed down their cheeks as they hugged each other and cried—red faces, puffy eyes, and runny noses. Their bodies jerked in sobs. But they were running out of time.
Across town, Levi emerged from the sewer inside the perimeter of the extraction point. He slid the heavy manhole cover aside and climbed to the street. One by one, the rest of the students followed. Ms. Vance brought up the rear.
UPDF troops were swarming about. Several dropships were prepped and ready for flight. Tanks lined the perimeter. Heavy artillery blasted into the city in an attempt to keep the aliens at bay. Gunships flew close air support, protecting the skies. The makeshift base was the one piece of ground the Army had managed to hold onto. But they weren’t going to be able to keep it secure for long.
Several stunned troops gawked at the students. They couldn’t believe the kids had been able to survive. The soldiers were also a little embarrassed that they hadn’t secured the sewers below the perimeter. A platoon of Decluvian soldiers traveling through the sewers could wreak havoc on the small outpost.
A sergeant marched over to greet the students. He shouted over the noise of the dropship thrusters and artillery. “First Sergeant Earl Miller. 2nd Battalion, Bravo Company. Where did you come from?”
“The museum,” Levi said.
The sergeant looked impressed. “No shit?”
Ms. Vance’s face crinkled up.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the sergeant said.
“Is Staff Sergeant Larsen here?” Levi asked.
The sergeant’s face turned grim. “He didn’t make it. His squad got taken out on the way here.”
Levi deflated, and his face turned gloomy.
“He was a good man. Did you know Sergeant Larsen?”
“He’s the one who told us to come here. He said you could get us out of the city.”
“I can get you out,” The sergeant said, looking over the group of weary faces. “You made it here just in time. We are pulling out early. Command doesn’t think we can hold this position for much longer.”
“We can’t go just yet,” Levi said. “I’m still waiting on two of my group.”
“We’re wheels up in 10 minutes,” Miller said. “I’m sorry, but if your friends aren’t here by then, we’re leaving without them.”
Levi look mortified. “Take the students. But I’m not leaving without my friend.”
“Suit yourself. The last ship leaves in 10 minutes, whether you’re on it or not.” Miller escorted the students, and Ms. Vance, to one of the dropships.
They climbed aboard and packed in tight. Within moments, the engines engaged and the ship lifted off the ground. The air beneath the thrusters warbled with heat distortion. The lumbering craft banked around and rocketed out of the area.
It was an HDHG 977 Combat Aerial Vehicle—otherwise known as the Hedgehog. It was the Army’s preferred method of deploying troops in the field. Heavily armored, it had a capacity of sixteen soldiers, a pilot, and a copilot. Four Hughes & Kessler engines provided nearly 3 million pound force of thrust each. 30mm chain guns were mounted on sub-wing pylons. It didn’t have near the firepower of a gunship, but it could ruin your day if you were on the wrong end of it.
Levi had that sinking feeling watching the Hedgehog leave. There were other ships. There was still time to evacuate. But he hoped he hadn’t made a mistake.
He sat down on an ammo crate and waited. His eyes kept darting back and forth between the manhole, the Hedgehogs, and his watch. He tapped his foot nervously. “Come on, come on, come on.”
Levi fidgeted for what seemed like an eternity. He glanced at his watch again—12 minutes had gone by. Still no sign of Presley. Several soldiers came over to grab the ammo crates he was sitting on. They hauled them away and loaded up one of the Hedgehogs. A moment later, the skids lifted off the ground, and the Hedgehog lumbered into the distance.
The outpost was getting thin. Sergeant Miller jogged over to Levi. “It’s now or never. The last train is leaving the station.”
“Give me five more minutes.”
“Can’t do that, son.”
“Please,” Levi begged.
“My heart goes out to you, kid. But in five minutes, this outpost is gonna be overrun with those alien freaks.”
Emperor Tyvelon watched the destruction of New Earth from the CIC of the Senovata. During the attack on Delta Vega, Commander Walker had destroyed the reactors on Tyvelon’s first ship, the Korvectus, disabling the super-carrier and rendering it uninhabitable. Captain Plevus wasn’t entirely thrilled about losing his command and having the Emperor take over his ship, but what could he do? When the Emperor commandeers your ship, you sit back and let him take it.
Tyvelon looked pleased. The invasion was going even better than expected. Almost too easy. But he was growing antsy, watching the action from the sidelines. “Ready my ship. I’m going down to the planet surface.”
“Do you think that’s such a good idea, sir?” said Hyl’al, his XO.
Tyvelon glared at him. “Victory is at hand. I want to feel my new territory under my boots.”
“Yes, sir,” Hyl’al stammered.
“You have the conn. Do not disappoint me.”
The Emperor was an imposing figure. He was at least a foot taller than other Decluvians, and his red skin made him look like the devil himself. It was a rare skin tone caused by a mutated gene exclusive to the royal family.
Tyvelon stormed out of the CIC and made his way down to the flight deck. His personal flight crew had prepped the royal gunship. Tyvelon’s security detail ran a sweep for explosives, and went over the preflight checks.
The security team gave him the heads up, and Tyvelon boarded the gunship.
“Where to, sir?” the pilot asked.
“Take me to their capital city. I want to stand amongst the ruins.”
“As you wish, my Lord.”
The pilot took a seat, and the Emperor strapped in. A few moments later, the gunship lifted from the flight deck and lumbered into space. The craft banked around, offering a sweeping view of the Decluvian fleet. Aggressive warships hovered over the frail blue planet.
The gunship began its descent into the upper atmosphere. The turbulence shook and rattled the small craft. The gunship plunged into the stratosphere, and the pilot headed for Nova York.
By this time, the Decluvian’s had achieved almost total air superiority. UPDF fighters and gunships had all been blasted out of the sky. And anything that tried to get airborne met an untimely fate.
Tyvelon surveyed the destruction with great pleasure. Even from space, you could see the fires and billowing smoke. As they drew closer, the devastation became even more apparent. Nova York soon appeared on the horizon. The once glorious city was nothing more than smoldering ruins.
Tyvelon found the level of destruction inspiring. All of this had been accomplished with non-nuclear weapons. The planet would be available for whatever purpose the Emperor saw fit. There would be no long-term damage to the ecosystem. It could be resettled or harvested for resources.
“Bring us in close. I want a good look as we approach.”
“There are still resistance forces within the city. Terrestrial Army with heavy artillery and antiaircraft weapons,” the pilot said.
“Savages with primitive technology. Bring us in low and slow.”
“As you wish, my Lord.” The pilot dropped their altitude, and the gunship swooped in over Nova York, barely clearing the remains of rooftops.
Tyvelon unbuckled his safety harness and moved to the side door of the gunship. He clung on to a handgrip and pressed a button on the bulkhead, opening the door. It slid aside, and the wind gushed into the fuselage. Tyvelon hung in the doorway, admiring the destruction as they flew over. It reminded him of his days as an infantry soldier before he became Emperor. He recalled those days fondly. It was a simpler time.
Tyvelon knew from an early age that he would never be respected as Emperor if he had never been battle tested. As an heir to the throne, he could’ve lived a life of privilege. He could have been sheltered from the horrors of war. But instead, he enlisted and chose to fight as any other soldier. It endeared him to his people. And he became the most popular Emperor to ever rule Decluvia.
The pilot landed the gunship at a forward operating base on the north side of town. It was far from the front lines, but nobody wanted to be the one responsible for getting the Emperor killed. The pilot had been instructed by the security detail to show the Emperor what he wanted to see, but to do it as safely as possible.
The Emperor stepped off the gunship and was greeted by General Certeris. He was in charge of ground operations on New Earth.
“Excellent work, General,” the Emperor said
“Thank you, my Lord. We should be wrapping up operations soon. The enemy is retreating to the south. We met with some mild resistance that impeded progress. But we are ahead of schedule.”
Tyvelon marveled at a tank that rumbled by. “How far is the fighting from here?”
The general smiled. “Several miles, at least. You’re perfectly safe here.”
“Take me to the fighting.”
The general’s jaw went slack. He stammered uncomfortably. “Excuse me, my Lord?”
“Take me to the fighting.”
The general’s nervous eyes glanced to the head of the Emperor’s security detail—he responded with a subtle shake of his head.
The general cleared his throat, then muttered, “I think it would be more advisable to stay within the perimeter of the outpost.”
Tyvelon gritted his teeth and leaned in. He spoke in a low, slow voice. “I don’t care what you think, General. I want to take a tank to the fighting, and I want to blow something up.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Tyvelon stood tall, and his voice boomed. “I did not come halfway across the galaxy to conquer the human’s without firing a single shot myself. The next person who tries to coddle me will be executed. Is that understood?”
The general swallowed hard. The security detail squirmed. Everyone answered in unison. “Yes, my Lord.”
“This is it, kid,” Sergeant Miller said. “I’ve waited as long as I can.”
Levi looked frazzled. There was still no sign of Presley. Levi’s face tensed. His eyes snapped back to the manhole cover, then back to Sergeant Miller. “I’m staying.”
“You sure about that?”
Miller grimaced. “Alright, kid. Good luck.”
Miller spun around and headed for the Hedgehog. He climbed inside, and the engines spooled up. Just as the skids were lifting off the ground, Presley’s head poked through the manhole cover.
Levi’s eyes bulged. He ran to the sewer and helped her out. Tim climbed out after her.
The Hedgehog was in the air. It was about to bank around and streak away.
Levi raced toward it, flailing his arms.
The pilot caught sight of him, and set the Hedgehog back down. But the Decluvian’s had broken through the perimeter. Plasma projectiles streaked through the air. Tanks blasted at the tarmac.
Levi, Presley, and Tim raced for the Hedgehog. The side doors slid open and they jumped in. They scrambled for a seat and buckled their safety straps. The Hedgehog smelled like metal and grease, and the unmistakable oder of ion exhaust. Canvas webbing lined the bulkheads behind the seats. The door gunner manned an M369 mini-gun—a 7.62 mm, 6 barrel rotary machine gun that could blast off 6000 rounds a minute. It was a serious piece of equipment. By the constant smirk on his face, you could tell the gunner loved firing it.
He blasted away at the approaching Decluvians. Brass casings spewed from the ejection port as the weapon rattled off a blistering flurry of rounds.
The craft lifted off and banked away.
“Don’t worry,” the gunner said to Presley, in between bursts. “We’ll get you to a secure location in no time.” He gave her a reassuring smile, then squeezed the trigger again.
Presley tried to smile back, but the small arms fire pelting the hull wasn’t doing anything to settle her nerves.
The Hedgehog was armor plated. So far, it was holding up. But every time something impacted the hull, it sent a chill down your spine and made you pucker. It didn’t matter how many times you would come under fire, the disconcerting feeling never went away. The gunner and the pilots were just better about hiding their uneasiness.
Presley watched the plasma projectiles blaze through the sky, streaking toward the Hedgehog. The city below was in ruin. Hundreds of amber flames dotted the cityscape. Clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky. It was surreal.
On the ground, a Decluvian soldier slung a Light Anti-Armor Weapon over his shoulder. It was older technology, but it was hard to beat a guided smart rocket. He prepped the LAAW, checked the back-blast area to make sure none of his comrades were in line with the exhaust port, lined up the Hedgehog in his sights, and fired.
The rocket screamed across the sky. The ass end was spitting sparks and propellant. It left a billowing white streak in its wake. The rocket locked onto the Hedgehog.
Inside the vehicle, the proximity alert sounded. It went from a frantic beeping sound to a steady tone as the missile locked on.
The pilot flipped the switch on the console and deployed electronic countermeasures. Four incendiary ECMs ejected from the rear of the craft. They were blistering hot, simulating the temperature and emissions of the Hedgehog’s thrusters. They hung in the air. With any luck they would draw the focus of the rocket.
The missile veered toward one of the ECMs for a moment. Then it recalibrated its guidance system, locking on to the Hedgehog again. It blazed past the ECMs, racing toward the dropship.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” the pilot muttered to himself. Then he yelled. “Hang on!”
The rocket slammed into the port side thruster. A blinding orange explosion blossomed. The thruster splintered. The blast tore a gash in the armor plating on the side of the vehicle. White-hot shrapnel cut through the cargo hold. It seared through flesh, snapping bones and severing arteries. Blood sprayed throughout the cabin, splattering the bulkheads, the deck, and the canvas webbing. One of the soldiers arms was severed clean off. A splinter of white bone protruded from his meaty stump that used to be a bicep. Screams of agony echoed off the bulkheads. The bodies of dead soldiers shifted in their seats, only held up by their safety straps. Their limp heads and appendages bobbled and dangled.
This was the wrong dropship to catch a ride on.
A smoldering chunk of metal was embedded into the bulkhead next to Presley. It had missed her head by an inch. Her heart was pounding. Her eyes were wide, and her body was covered in sweat. She clutched onto the seat. Her eyes darted to her brother. The look on his face was one of pure terror. But he wasn’t bleeding. He didn’t look injured. Tim was okay, for now.
Presley’s eyes found Levi. He looked the same—scared shitless and clinging on for dear life.
“I’m guessing right about now you’re wishing you hadn’t waited for me,” Presley said.
“The thought may have crossed my mind,” Levi stammered. He tried to smile.
She reached out and took his hand. They interlocked their fingers, and Levi gave her palm a gentle squeeze.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, looking into her eyes.
She was scared and afraid and trembling. But she had found a guy who was never going to leave. Who was always going to be there for her. It was a major bummer that they probably only had a few minutes left to live, she thought.
Klaxons sounded. The hydraulics drained from the lines. The pilot fought against the controls with all his might, trying to get the ship under control. But it was no use. The Hedgehog was plummeting like a brick.
The dropship spiraled down, shaking violently. It was enough to rattle the teeth out of your skull.
“Brace for impact,” the pilot shouted.
The Hedgehog plummeted down. Wind rushed through the gash in the hull. Metal creaked and groaned. Alarms blared from the cockpit. The pilot fought the controls, trying to exert some type of influence over the angle of descent.
The dropship slammed into the remains of a demolished building. Bricks and concrete blasted apart. Plumes of dust engulfed the area. Metal crumpled and twisted and squealed. The multi-layer acrylic cockpit windows fractured. The ship plowed through the rubble and ground to a flaming halt. Black smoke billowed from the craft.
The deafening roar of the crash evaporated to near silence. Hot metal popped and pinged. The flames crackled. The ship’s automated voice repeated a warning over and over again. “Critical system malfunction. Please seek immediate repair at a qualified facility.”
Presley’s vision was blurred. It took her a moment to focus. She glanced around the cabin. The air was filled with haze. The pilots were dead. Their bodies lay limp in their seats, impaled by debris through the front windshield. Blood was oozing down the console.
Presley’s eyes found Tim. “Are you okay?”
He gave a thumbs up. “Let’s do it again,” he said, his voice full of sarcasm. He was covered in dust.
Levi coughed, hacking up dust and dirt. He didn’t look injured. But the others weren’t so lucky. The six soldiers on board had either been killed in the initial blast, or during the crash.
Presley’s whole body ached. Her temples pounded. Every pulse of blood made her head throb. She reached down and unbuckled her safety harness. She stood up, and it took a few seconds to feel steady on her feet. Her back was stiff and sore.
She helped Tim out of his seat. His knees wobbled as he stood, and Presley steadied him. Tim still had his plasma pistol. Levi found his plasma rifle—it had been tossed across the cargo area. Presley stumbled to the weapons locker, and grabbed an RK 909 and some extra magazines. She also stocked up on a few thermal grenades.
The trio climbed out of the twisted wreckage. The dropship had plowed through the ruins of several buildings, leaving a groove behind it a hundred yards long. It had come to rest in what was left of the lobby of the JP Norman Clark building.
Glass crunched under their feet as they stepped out of the Hedgehog. Piles of rubble and twisted I-beams were strewn about.
“Did I mention, I hate to fly,” Levi said.
“I like flying,” Presley said. “It’s the crashing I don’t like.”
The trio scurried away from the burning wreckage. They dashed from structure to structure, hiding behind tattered walls and piles of debris. Tim hobbled along, struggling to keep up.
After several blocks of running, they stopped to catch their breath. Presley crouched down, taking cover behind a wall. The other’s joined her.
Her eyes began to fill. “We’re not going to make it out of here,” she said, defeated.
“Don’t say that.” Levi tried to put on a good front, but he was skeptical as well.
“We should get back in the subway, or the sewer,” Tim said. “If they are going to nuke this city, at least that will provide some cover.” He looked at their somber faces. “If we can survive the initial blast, we’ll have a chance. If we can get to a med facility in time, take some anti-radiation pills… who knows, we might survive.”
Presley dried her eyes and forced a smile. Her little brother wasn’t going to give up. Despite everything that had happened, he wasn’t going to wallow in his own grief. She couldn’t help but be proud of the man he was becoming. If he still had hope, then she could too.
Presley peered over a wall of rubble, looking for the nearest sewer entrance. Her eyes caught sight of the bombed out remains of the Clayton-Hubbard Hospital. Amidst the debris was a life flight transport shuttle—a Hughes & Kessler MAC 626 (Mobile Air Care). It was painted red with a white cross, and had the same chassis and engines as the Hedgehog. But instead of being fitted with armor plating and weapons, the craft was outfitted with state-of-the-art medical gear. It was a flying trauma center.
It was going to be their ticket to get off the planet—if it still worked.
Presley glanced up and down the block, looking for enemy soldiers. The street was clear, but she could hear the Decluvian’s advancing from several blocks over. She dashed across the street. Levi and Tim followed. Presley weaved through the rubble and climbed into the MAC 626.
A wall had fallen over on the vehicle, and an I-beam was laying across the top. Presley had no idea if the ship was functional. But even the civilian versions were built like tanks.
She crept to the cockpit and slipped into the pilot seat. Tim climbed into the vehicle, but Levi stood by the doors. His apprehensive eyes surveyed the dusty craft.
“Get in!” Presley yelled.
Levi hesitated. “I’d almost rather take my chances on the ground.”
“Relax. I’m a decent pilot,” Presley reassured him. She flipped a few switches and powered up the MAC 626. The displays flashed to life, and the system began its preflight checks.
“Decent? I’ve already been in one crash today. I’ve met my crash quota.”
A platoon of Decluvian’s rounded the corner, several blocks away. They opened fire on the MAC 626. Bolts of plasma streaked through the air, impacting the ship’s hull. Even though it lacked the same armor plating as the Hedgehog, the MAC was holding up. The composite metal was pitted and charred black, but the plasma projectiles didn’t puncture the hull.
Levi leapt into the craft and pulled the door shut—nothing like enemy fire to motivate you.
Presley engaged the thrusters, and the MAC lifted off the ground. Metal screeched and squealed as debris slid from the hull.
Plasma projectiles peppered the craft.
The heavy vehicle pitched and rolled as Presley tried to get it under control. It drifted wide and the port thruster took out the wall of a neighboring building. Presley struggled against the controls and finally straightened the vehicle out. She throttled up and rocketed away, leaving the platoon in her engine wash.
Presley pulled back on the controls and climbed toward the stratosphere. The craft rumbled and shook. An alarm sounded. It took Presley a moment to figure out what it meant—a Decluvian fighter was on her tail.
The LRADDS display lit up instantly as the Revenant emerged from slide-space near New Earth. Decluvian warships surrounded the planet. Swarms of fighters launched from their flight decks. In a matter of moments, the Revenant would be surrounded.
“We’re not going to be able to withstand too many direct hits,” Zoey said.
“Hopefully we won’t have to,” Slade muttered. Her voice was full of concern.
Multiple nukes streaked across the star field, blazing toward the Revenant.
The turrets of the Mark 25s swung into action, peppering the incoming threats.
“Violet, are you ready?”
“I think so, sir.” She had spent the last several hours pouring over every line of code in the virus. With any luck, she’d be able to transmit the virus and infect the Decluvian warships.
“Start transmitting,” Slade commanded.
“Aye, sir.” Violet sent the virus across all frequencies. It was like sneezing on someone when you had the flu.
“How long will this take to be effective?” Slade asked.
“Once it breaks through the firewall, it should propagate through the system relatively quickly.”
“I need an answer.”
“Any answer I give you would be just a guess. 5 minutes. Maybe 10?”
Slade’s eyes were fixed on the LRRADS display. “Helm, all ahead full.”
“All ahead full, aye.”
“Get us as close to one of their ships as possible.”
“If my guess is right, their warheads won’t arm until they reach a minimum safe distance. If we get close enough, their nukes will be useless. The other warships won’t target us for fear of missing and hitting one of their own. Then we can duke it out with the cannons. Might buy us some time.”
The Mark 25s took out the first round of incoming nukes. But more were on the way. The Revenant raced toward one of the warships. A flurry of cannon fire blasted across the star field. The rumble of the heavy guns clamored throughout the Revenant. Alarms blared and klaxons sounded. Several enemy fighters broke through the defenses and began pummeling the destroyer. They strafed the old battle weary relic, blasting it with small tactical rockets.
Two nukes slipped through the wall of cannon fire and impacted the hull. The dual explosions shuddered the ship. Slade hung onto her command console for dear life and somehow managed not to slam against the deck.
“We lost one of the Mark 25’s,” Zoey said. “119 through 127 port-side took heavy damage.”
The Revenant barreled toward one of the warships. It swooped in parallel and began trading punches. Cannon fire erupted from the starboard Mark 25s, blasting the port side of the Decluvian warship. It was a brutal exchange. Bulkheads were shredded and blown apart. Twisted bits of metal showered into space. Blinding explosions erupted from the two ships.
The Decluvians didn’t show any sign of slowing up. The virus wasn’t working.
“We can’t hold out for much longer like this,” Slade admitted.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. The virus should have taken effect by now. We should be seeing some signs of disruption.” Violet’s face was creased with worry. It was easy to see that she felt responsible. A miscalculation on her part was going to seal the fate of mankind.
The Revenant was getting torn to shreds.
“It’s now or never, Violet,” Slade said. Her face was grim.
Violet studied the display at her terminal. She was analyzing hundreds of lines of code, faster than any human could. Suddenly, her eyes lit up. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve been monitoring the Decluvian data transmissions. Each one begins with a hardware encrypted data packet. Without that code, the system ignores the transmission. The devices will only talk to each other. The virus can’t get a foothold. But, if we send the virus—”
“From the Decluvian transport—”
“It just might work.”
There was a glimmer of hope in Slade’s eyes. “Go. Now!”
Violet copied the modified virus to a portable data drive and sprinted from her terminal.
Another blast rocked the Revenant. The impact slammed Violet into the bulkhead. She regained her footing and kept running. The corridors of the ship were filled with screeching alarms. Crew members scurried about. Damage control teams rushed to secure compartments. Several fires blazed throughout the ship. Smoke and haze filled some of the passageways.
Violet descended a few levels and made her way to the hangar deck. Rows and rows of fighters, gunships, shuttles, and troop transports were neatly packed away. Her determined eyes surveyed the hangar, looking for the Decluvian transport that Walker had used to escape from the Korvectus.
She spotted the ugly behemoth and ran across the hangar. Another blast knocked her off her feet. She stumbled to the deck and quickly sprang up again. She ran past Stingrays and Skylarks, finally reaching the transport. She scaled the loading ramp and dashed to the cockpit.
Violet was familiar with multiple flight systems, and she had a cursory knowledge of the Decluvian language. She flipped a few switches and powered up the transport. The console came to life, and the displays illuminated.
Violet connected the portable drive and transmitted the virus once again. She crossed her fingers for luck.
The med center was overwhelmed with trauma victims. Head wounds, abdominal wounds, burn victims. It was horrendous. Agonizing screams filled the facility. Sailors lay on gurneys with blood-soaked fatigues and bandages. Corpsmen scurried about, attending to the most critical—giving high-dose pain meds to those who were beyond hope.
Doctor Jackson tried to prioritize the victims in terms of who had a good prognosis for survival. Patients who were beyond care were marked with an “X” on their forehead—it let all the corpsmen know not to divert precious resources, or time, to those patients. It was a tough decision for anyone to have to make, but in those types of situations there were only so many people that you could save. Putting time into someone who was too far gone might cost the lives of other sailors.
There was no easy way to live with yourself after having to make choices like that. Doctor Jackson often woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, haunted by the faces of men and women that he couldn’t save. It didn’t matter how many lives he saved, the one’s he couldn’t always seemed to stick with him.
Wounded sailors were backed up into the corridor. There wasn’t enough room in the med center to treat them all. And there were more coming.
Another blast rocked the ship.
In the CIC, Slade was tossed to the deck. She hit her knee and smacked her wrist so hard she thought it was broken. She pulled herself up and hobbled back to her console. Her hand felt numb for a minute. Then the pain felt deep and sharp in her wrist. But that was the least of her worries.
This was it. The ship couldn’t take anymore.
If this was going to be humanity’s last stand, Slade wanted to go out with a bang. She thought about launching every nuke they had at the neighboring warship. The blast would take the Revenant out as well. But they were going to be destroyed anyway, might as well take one of the Decluvian ships with them.
She was about to give the order when the enemy fire stopped. The attacking fighters lost control and continued to drift on their current trajectory. Some of the fighters collided with each other in brilliant explosions. Some collided into the hull. Some were just going to drift into space forever.
The Decluvian warships began to lose their rigid formation. They pitched and rolled randomly. The virus had worked. It had disabled every ship in the fleet.
On New Earth, Decluvian fighters were falling out of the sky. Hover-tanks stopped and crashed to the ground. Even heavy artillery that was connected to the network stopped working.
A slight grin curled on Slade’s lips. “Helm, bring us around. Give us some room to launch the fighters.”
“Fire control, target the operations center and propulsion. Were going to permanently disable the ships one at a time. Keep in mind there may be federation prisoners aboard. We want to disable, not destroy.”
“Launch all squadrons.”
“Aye, sir. Launch all squadrons.” Zoey said.
Pilots scurried across the flight deck to their Stingrays. Within moments, the fighters launched into space. They swarmed about the lifeless Decluvian ships, wreaking havoc. Blinding explosions filled the star field.
Slade watched with glee from the CIC. It was time for a little payback. One by one, the warships fell.
“Open communications across all channels,” Slade said. She tried to hold back a smile, but she wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
“Aye, sir,” Zoey said.
Slade grabbed the handset from the command console. “This is Captain Slade of the USS Revenant. I require your immediate and unconditional surrender. I repeat, I require your immediate and unconditional surrender. You have five minutes to comply or face total destruction.”
The controls went dead, and the hover-tank crashed to the ground. 85 tons of composite steel slammed against the concrete at Lexington and 33rd Street. The metallic clamor was deafening inside the vehicle.
The Decluvain tanks were impressive pieces of machinery. The massive plasma cannons delivered a bolt of destruction that was hotter than the sun. The turret basket contained the tank commander and the gunner. The driver was in the front section of the hull, under the main gun.
Tyvelon was sitting in the gunner’s position. He wanted to fire off a few rounds himself.
“I’m not sure what’s happening,” the tank commander said. “Must be some type of system malfunction.”
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed. He clenched his jaw, furious. Then he heard Slade’s demands filter through his ear piece. His big protruding eyes filled with rage. He looked like his head was going to explode.
Tyvelon climbed out of the gunner’s seat and pushed up through the top hatch. He scanned the streets. All of the tanks were down. Nothing was moving. The skies were empty.
The general was following behind in an APC, along with Tyvelon’s security detail. The detail climbed out of the APC and rushed to the tank.
“Sir, I’m getting reports from the fleet… all of our vehicles have become non-responsive,” the security advisor said. “This isn’t an isolated incident.”
“I will never surrender!”
“We may want to consider falling back to a safer location,” the security advisor said.
Tyvelon clenched his jaw. “I have never retreated from a fight in my life. I’m not going to start now.”
The security advisor searched for the appropriate words, treading cautiously. “Perhaps I misspoke. I was merely suggesting we reposition ourselves, so that we may resume our attack when we possess a strategic advantage. As it stands, we are defenseless.”
Defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. He had never lost an engagement. But Tyvelon knew the advisor was right. Tyvelon gave a reluctant nod.
“Commander Fesand has captured a functional UPDF troop transport,” the advisor said. “I suggest we use that to better our situation.”
“Where is Commander Fesand?”
“This way, my Lord.” The security detail ushered Tyvelon through the battle-scarred streets. The Decluvians controlled all but the south side of the city. But without air support, or heavy artillery, the UPDF would quickly gain ground.
Tyvelon reached Commander Fesand and was ushered aboard a captured UPDF Hedgehog. The security detail, and the general, followed.
A platoon of Decluvian soldiers watched with sour faces as the dignitaries evacuated. They knew the troops were going to get the short end of the stick—grunts always did. They were stuck on this planet without any support. They were either going to be taken prisoner or killed, and neither sounded appealing.
The Hedgehog lifted off the ground and lumbered into the sky. It rocketed into the upper atmosphere. Within moments, it was floating in space. Tyvelon got his first look at the destruction of the fleet. This time, it wasn’t so pleasing to him. His fleet was in disarray, drifting through space. One destroyer, and a squadron of fighters, were dismantling an entire Armada.
Tyvelon’s face tensed. It was embarrassing. How was he going to live with this kind of defeat? How would his people respect him? The thought crossed his mind to take the ship and inflict whatever damage he could upon the UPDF destroyer. One last stab at the enemy. He would die in battle. It would be honorable. He would be remembered favorably.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not that he was afraid to die. To the contrary, death in battle was considered, among the Decluvians, to be the highest honor. A ticket to sit among the gods. But, despite their differences, he didn’t want to leave his daughter. He didn’t want her to grow up without a father. Not that he had been much of one—always focusing on politics or war.
He settled his emotions, swallowed his pride, and let his anger subside. He would live to fight another day. One day, he swore to himself, he would avenge this loss with a swift and decisive victory.
“Plot jump coordinates,” the Emperor said. “Take us back to Decluvia.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
A moment later, the bulkheads warbled and distorted. The Hedgehog vanished into slide-space.
The Decluvian fighter unleashed a torrent of cannon fire at the MAC 626. Presley dodged and weaved the craft. But she wasn’t going to be able to evade the fighter for long. She lacked the skill and experience—and the MAC didn’t have any electronic countermeasures.
An alarm sounded. A solid tone filled the cabin. The enemy had achieved missile lock. In a matter of moments the MAC 626 would be a ball of flaming wreckage, plummeting to the ground.
Presley took a deep breath and exchanged a glance with Tim. Her face was creased with worry. Her lips tensed into a frown. There was a somber look of resignation in her eyes. This was it. They were going to die. They had given it their best shot, and had gotten close to escaping, but this was the end of the line.
Before the Decluvian could fire a rocket, the fighter’s system was infected with the virus transmitted from the Revenant. The controls became non-responsive. The gauges flickered, and displays scrambled. The engines died, and the glowing thrusters faded. The fighter plummeted like a brick.
“What happened?” Tim asked.
“I don’t know,” Presley said, gawking at the LRADDS display. She watched the fighter’s icon descend at terminal velocity.
“It must have had engine failure, or something,” Tim said.
Presley shook her head. “All four engines don’t fail at once. That ship was disabled, somehow.” Her brow furrowed, and she had a puzzled look on her face.
The comm line crackled with distortion. Then, Slade’s voice boomed, calling for the surrender of the Decluvians.
Presley’s eyes lit up with glee.
“Whoa, was that really Captain Slade?” Tim said, astonished.
“I think so.”
“Do you think they’ll really surrender?”
“Let’s hope so.”
Presley rocketed the ship into space. The entire enemy fleet was drifting listlessly. Massive super-carriers slowly pitched and rolled. Squadrons of UPDF stingrays blasted at their command centers. Bits of debris and twisted bulkheads littered the star field. Drifting chunks of metal pinged against the hull of the MAC 626.
“Bad ass!” Tim’s eyes were wide.
A voice crackled over the comm line. The Revenant had picked them up on LRADDS. “This is the USS Revenant. Please identify.”
“This is Presley Johnson. We just escaped Nova York.”
The line was silent for a moment. Then the voice returned. “You’ve been cleared to land on flight deck A. We’ve identified you in our system, so the weapons won’t target you on approach.”
A look of horror washed over Presley’s face. “Which one is flight deck A?”
“Starboard side. Look for the flashing green light.”
“Well, this should be interesting,” Tim said.
Levi’s face was full of concern. “Why?”
“She can’t land on the ground, much less a flight deck.”
“Thanks for the confidence boost.” Presley glared at him.
“She failed basic flight,” Tim mumbled to Levi.
“The class isn’t over yet,” Presley said.
“It is now,” said Tim.
Presley brought the vehicle around to flight deck A and lined up for landing. The bay opening looked small, and the flight deck narrow.
“MAC 626, call the ball,” the LSO said.
Presley swallowed hard. She looked for the optical landing system. She had done one simulated carrier landing in flight school. It didn’t end well. She came in too low and smacked the edge of the flight deck in the simulation.
The LSO was growing impatient. “MAC 626, Call the ball.”
“MAC 626, ball,” Presley stammered.
“Roger ball,” said the LSO.
Presley made her approach, but it didn’t take long for a nervous LSO to chime in. “MAC 626, you’re high.”
“Roger,” Presley said, adjusting her position.
A few moments later, the LSO crackled back over the comm system. “MAC 626, you’re low.”
“Roger.” Presley was starting to sweat.
Tim was white-knuckled as they plowed toward the deck.
The craft pitched and drifted. It looked like it was going to be a disastrous landing—if they were able to land at all. Smacking into a bulkhead, or the edge of the flight deck, wasn’t completely out of the question. Presley knew the transition from Zero G to full gravity was going to be a doozy.
Presley made some adjustments and got into the groove. She barely crested over the edge of the flight deck and made adjustments for full gravity. The skids touched down on the flight deck with little more than a jolt. The approach was uncontrolled, but the landing wasn’t that bad.
Presley breathed a sigh of relief. She glanced to Tim and gave him a smug smile.
They climbed out of the craft and onto the flight deck. It was buzzing with activity. Flight crews scurried about in color-coded shirts—yellow for the handlers that directed traffic, red for the sailors who loaded ordinance and explosives, white for the LSOs and safety personnel. The smell of steel, grease, and ion exhaust filled the air.
The OOD greeted them.
“Permission to come aboard, sir,” Presley said.
“Permission granted. Was that your first carrier landing?”
“That bad, huh?”
“See the board over there,” The OOD said pointing. “That’s the greenie board.” It listed the entire squadron by callsign. “Every landing is rated by the LSO and placed on the board. A green square is the highest grade available. Yellow is fair. Red is a cut pass.”
The board was mostly green, with a fair amount of yellows, a few reds. There were also a few browns.
“What are the brown marks for?”
“Those are turds. A safe landing—but you certainly don’t get any points for them.”
“How would you grade my landing?”
“You’d have to ask the LSO.”
Commander Walker stepped to the quarterdeck. Presley’s eyes lit up with joy when she saw him. She raced over and gave him a hug. Tim was right behind her.
He hugged them both. Then his eyes looked for Lauren. “Where’s your mother?”
Tim and Presley hung their heads.
Walker grimaced. “I’m so sorry.”
Their eyes filled again and Walker gave them a group hug. “I’m here for you both. Whatever you need. Whenever you need it.”
Presley nodded. “I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Levi.”
Walker shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Levi.”
“It’s a pleasure, sir.”
“Let me find you a place to stay, then I’ll introduce you to Captain Slade.” Walker glanced at the MAC 626. Then he looked to Presley. “You fly that?”
“Not bad.” Walker grinned. His mobile device buzzed with an incoming message. It was Presley’s frantic plea for help. It had been bouncing around space until now. “Might want to get a new mobile carrier.”
In the CIC, a tinny voice crackled over the comm system. “I am Commander Hyl’al. On behalf of the Emperor, I offer the unconditional surrender of the fleet.”
The CIC erupted with cheers.
“A wise choice,” said Slade. “Prepare the release of all prisoners, and instruct the rest of the fleet to do the same.”
“As you command.”
“Any hostility will be met with prompt and utter destruction. Are we clear?”
“Yes.” Hyl’al said.
“Standby for further instructions.” Slade ended the communication.
“What are we going to do with them?” Zoey asked.
Slade shrugged. “Once they disarm and we get our prisoners back, they can go home. But they’re not taking their warships with them.” Slade grinned. “We’ve got a fleet to rebuild. Those ships might give us a nice head start.”
Another voice crackled over the comm line. “USS Revenant, this is Major General Gary McMahon of the UPDF Global Strike Command. Do you copy?”
“Revenant actual. This is Captain Slade.”
“Can you confirm the surrender?”
“Yes. We’ve disabled the enemy fleet.”
McMahon sighed with relief. Slade heard him bark commands to his team. “Abort mission. I repeat, abort Operation Firestarter.”
“What is Operation Firestarter?” Slade asked.
“Counterstrike. In the event the planet is overrun, we nuke the shit out of them. It gives us a high enemy bodycount and makes the planet less desirable.” He almost sounded disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to scorch New Earth.
McMahon was safe and sound 2000 feet underground in the Strategic Defense Command headquarters in Blackhawk Mountain. They had enough food, water, and supplies to last 20 years underground. 25-ton blast doors shielded the entrance tunnels. Airborne filtration systems could mitigate nuclear, biological, or chemical contaminants. It was the perfect place to ride out nuclear armageddon.
Slade seemed a little dismayed. “Was any consideration given to the potential civilian body count?”
“I don’t make policy, Captain. I just follow orders.”
“Well, there’s no need for Operation Firestarter now.”
“For the moment, I agree,” the general said. “But I don’t take my orders from you.” There was a smug tone in his voice. “If I’m correct, you no longer have a commission in the Navy. Aren’t you a convicted felon?”
Slade had just saved New Earth, and this guy was giving her grief. “While you may be technically correct, I have the only star destroyer left in the Federation. I have a crew that is loyal to me. As far as I’m concerned, I am the Navy.”
The general muttered something under his breath, then terminated the transmission.
With the absence of President Amado, the Joint Planetary Operations Command, and several of the senior staff, there was a definite power vacuum. McMahon was tucked away at the base of a mountain with control over New Earth’s nuclear weapons. The thought of a power grab must have crossed his mind.
“Zoey, get in contact with Site X at Stone Raven.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“An Emergency Operations Center. Until President Amado relocated to the USS Devastator, Stone Raven was the primary alternate command and control facility. If there is anybody left in the line of succession, they’ll be at Site X.”
“Line of succession?”
“Right now, we’re a Federation without a president.”
Zoey got someone from Stone Raven on the line. The Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Perez, had been sworn in as Acting President. He was eager to take Slade’s call. “I guess I have you to thank for saving New Earth.”
“I’m just one of about 1400 people that made that possible.”
“The Federation is forever indebted to you.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
“Please, call me Tony. This is just a temporary position until Amado returns. I’ve spoken with General Andrew Stubbs. UPDF Army FORSCOM. He’s heading up ground operations. He says the Decluvians are cooperating and not resisting.”
“That’s excellent, sir. General Stubbs is a good man. But there may be others that I’m concerned about. It’s a very delicate time, and our democracy is vulnerable.”
“I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’m going to need your full support as we move forward to rebuild the Federation and reestablish the government.”
“I’ve been fully briefed on your… situation. As of this moment, I’m issuing a full Presidential pardon, and reinstating your command in the Navy.”
Slade couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you, sir.”
“You are a true guardian of humanity. Welcome back, Fleet Admiral Slade.”
The CIC erupted with applause as Violet entered. She blushed a little.
“You have saved the entire human race,” Slade said with a grin.
“We all did.” Violet was too humble to take that much credit.
“You’re work’s not over,” Slade said. “I need you to find a way to make our systems immune to this virus.”
“I think I can work that out.” Violet smiled.
“Sir, do you want me to send an encrypted subspace transmission to the Devastator?” Zoey asked.
“Inform them of our victory. I’m sure they’ll return as soon as they discover there is no one left to fight.”
“I’m not thrilled about Amado coming back. I’m liking Perez much better.”
“Cameron is still aboard that ship,” Slade said. “One way, or another, we need to get him back.”
“I would say you have considerably more leverage now, Admiral.”
Walker escorted Presley, Levi, and Tim to the CIC, and introduced them to Slade. Their eyes filled with wonder—they had all read about her exploits during the first Verge War, in school textbooks. And this was their first time in a combat information center.
“I hear you’re a pilot,” Slade said.
“Yes, sir,” Presley said.
“The LSO tells me this was your first carrier landing.”
“How do you think you did?”
“There’s a lot of room for improvement.”
“The LSO marked it as fair. Gave you a yellow card.”
Presley’s eyes gleamed.
“I would have given her a turd,” Tim said, then added, “sir.”
Slade chuckled. “Well, my first carrier landing certainly wasn’t perfect.”
Presley looked skeptical.
“It’s true. And I think you’ve got the makings of a great pilot.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Commander Walker tells me what you’ve been through. I know this is a very difficult time for you both. You’re welcome to stay aboard as long as you’d like.”
“And I could always use a good pilot.”
Presley’s eyes gleamed.
“It’s not the flight academy, but I can start your training, if you’d like.”
A resounding “Yes,” spurted from Presley’s lips.
Slade smiled. “Report to Commander Zoey Bryant a 06:00 tomorrow. In the mean time, why don’t you all grab some chow and get some rest?”
Presley and the others started to file out of the CIC. Presley turned back to Walker. “Commander, would you be willing to speak with me about my father, when you have a moment?”
“Of course,” Walker said. “I don’t think there is any need to keep those details classified anymore.”
Presley smiled. She spun around and left, clutching Levi’s hand.
Bailey chased Max into the CIC. They raced around the controls and dashed out in the blink of an eye. It made Slade chuckle.
Slade’s sultry eyes found Walker’s. “We’ve got some unfinished business.”
A slight smirk curled on Walker’s lips.
Slade leaned in and whispered in his ear. “My quarters in five minutes.”
“Aye, sir.” Walker grinned and strolled from the CIC.
New Earth was safe, for now. It would take years to rebuild, and the Decluvians would likely return. And there were other lingering threats in the galaxy.
Slade had a monumental task ahead of her—rebuild the fleet, secure the colonies, and ensure the preservation of democracy on New Earth. It wasn’t going to be easy. But for the first time, in a long time, she could sit back, relax, and breathe a little easier.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!