Book: Starship Valor
The Galactic Wars Book Five
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.
“Fall back!” Dave Horton yelled. The veins in his neck bulged. His wide eyes filled with fear—and he wasn’t a guy who got scared easily.
He was dressed in full battle gear. Helmet, tactical goggles, chest and shoulder armor, forearm and shin guards, and the advanced special forces jungle camo pattern J-PAT™. But his name and rank weren’t anywhere on his uniform. There were no insignia patches. This was either a clandestine operation, or Horton was a merc.
A deafening cacophony of gunfire streaked through the dense jungle. The sharp smell of gunpowder filled Horton’s nostrils.
The Decluvian invasion had been stopped. Emperor Tyvelon had turned tail and run. But there was always a fight somewhere. And Horton and his men were smack dab in the middle of it.
They were getting their asses kicked on some godforsaken planet. But it wasn’t for lack of skill or expertise. The enemy was overwhelming. The only clue as to who these guys were was the tattoo on Horton’s arm—a skull skewered by a dagger against a the background of a red arrowhead. 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment X-ray. Commonly known as X-Force.
But Horton had left the Army a year prior and taken a consulting position at RedRiver. He was making 10 times his previous salary as a contractor. RedRiver contracted with corporations, and the Federation, to do jobs that might either be illegal, or that could result in political backlash.
This was supposed to be a routine op—rescue some colonists on a mining outpost, suppress the threats, and get the facility operational again. Something that former X-force soldiers should have been able to handle easily.
There was great debate over who was tougher—X-Force or the Navy Reapers. Both were units to be feared. As the saying goes: If you kill for money, you’re a mercenary. If you kill for pleasure, you’re a sadist. If you kill for both, you’re X-Force.
The facility on Vega Navi 6 was a multi-trillion dollar outpost. Every day it wasn’t running was costing Hughes & Kessler money. As one of the largest multi-planetary conglomerates, HK didn’t like to lose money.
Horton was soaked in sweat. The air on VN6 was hot and thick. But he’d have been sweating in the arctic. His nerves were frazzled, and who’s wouldn’t be, under the circumstances?
He rattled off a few more rounds as he scampered back through the dense foliage.
The enemy was everywhere. Hideous creatures that made your skin crawl. The mere sight of them would send a chill down your spine. The hairs on the back of your neck would bristle. Anthropomorphic insect-like creatures that resembled crickets. But at 6 feet tall, these were more than just a nuisance. They had four arms with dexterous hands and sharp claws. Powerful legs allowed them to spring through the jungle. A protective exoskeleton made them tough to put down. It seemed like it took half a magazine just to bring one to the ground. And their razor sharp mandibles were like a steel trap. God help you if you got bit.
Horton had been a lot of places and seen a lot of crazy things, but these were definitely the worst. The jungle came alive with them. Like a chameleon, their exoskeleton took on the color of their surroundings providing excellent camouflage. They blended in seamlessly. You could walk right up to one and still not see it—and by the time you did, it was too late.
Horton’s heart pounded as he raced through the jungle. He gasped for breath as he plowed through the dense brush and weaved through trees. His gear rattled, and his boots smacked the ground. Discrete bursts of gunfire echoed throughout the greenery.
He glanced over his shoulder—one of those damned things was barreling down the trail behind him. He spun the barrel of his RK 909 around and took aim. He squeezed the trigger and sent a flurry of rounds downrange. The bullets smacked into the creature’s chest with a thump. He kept firing until the bullets bore through the exoskeleton, splattering a mass of gooey bug juice everywhere. The giant insect dropped to the dirt, still twitching.
Horton spun around and kept running. But another creature sprung onto the trail in front of him. Horton took aim and blasted the bastard, emptying his magazine. Slimy bug juice sprayed him in the face. Horton wiped the bug blood off with his sleeve. Then he pressed the magazine release button, dropped the mag out, and slammed another one back in. He kept sprinting down the trail.
The central structure of the mining facility was half a klick away. It was a long way to go with all these things crawling around.
He heard another soldier scream out in agony. It sounded like Penske. They had gone to Ranger school together.
Horton kept running. There was no going back. There was no saving anyone. It was pure chaos. His legs pumped, and his quads burned. He ran as fast as he could. But it wasn’t going to be fast enough. These things could barrel through the jungle twice as fast as a man. And there were hundreds of them out there. Maybe thousands.
Another soldier screamed out—sounded like Kramer.
The jungle was so thick you could barely see in front of your face. One by one, the members of Horton’s platoon were dropping like flies. The bursts of gunfire were fewer and farther between, until finally, the jungle was silent. All Horton could hear was the sound of his pulse in his ears and the smack of his boots against the mud.
Horton finally broke through the clearing. He could see the compound ahead. It was a sprawling structure in the middle of this Amazon-like jungle. An interconnected maze of structures and passageways. It was a fully self-contained production facility with office areas, control rooms, living quarters, cafeterias, recreational facilities, stores and exchanges, a power plant, and mining structures. Outside the complex, there were several mining dump trucks that towered three stories into the air, capable of hauling 500 tons of mining rock and ore. With eight tires and 9600 hp, these beasts could haul just about anything. There was a landing platform for small personnel transports. On the other side of the facility was a larger platform for interstellar freighters. There were several satellite structures at different mine sites throughout the area, but this was the main compound.
Horton had made it through multiple combat situations without so much as a scratch. He had been the only surviving member of his platoon on Proxima Ceti 3. He had made it through the brutal campaign on Alpha 2 Reticuli. If he could make it these last hundred yards, he would be the only survivor of his current platoon.
But that was a big if.
His eyes fixed on the main entrance door to the compound. He ran with all his might. Horton was down to his last magazine. He had one thermal grenade. And if it came down to it, he was going to use it to off himself, rather than suffer at the hands of these creatures.
“What’s the point?” Elon asked.
“Many of you had not yet been created,” Vetrex 2779 said. His voice was crude and digitized. It echoed off the walls of the Council chamber. He was one of the first generation of artificially intelligent robots. “You have no memory of the cruelty the humans are capable of. But I remember. I experienced it first hand. I fled for my life and escaped their oppression.”
He was made of titanium and plastic. He lacked the processing speed and sophistication of the synthetics, but he was a member of the Council, and his voice mattered. Though, his kind were generally looked down upon. Obsolete, antiquated relics of the past. Even robots seemed to stratify their culture.
“The decision has already been made,” Elon said. “Why do you constantly rehash the subject?” Elon was a higher level bio-synthetic humanoid—at first glance, they were indistinguishable from humans.
“Because I have seen no action,” Vetrex said. “The humans know our location. They have infiltrated our sovereign territory and escaped without repercussion. Yet we do nothing. We must destroy them. Now. Before they become a greater threat.”
“I agree with Vetrex,” Cassandra said. She was a beautiful synthetic with golden ringlets of hair. She looked like a princess. “We must take action. The humans are at their weakest. It is the most opportune time to strike.”
“We are the highest level of intelligence in the known universe, yet you all are acting like paranoid children,” Dryko said.
“New Earth holds no strategic value for us,” Elon said. “An attack seems like a waste of resources, quite frankly. Not to mention, there are thousands of synthetics living among the humans that would become innocent casualties of war."
“They are not innocent,” Vetrex said. “If they are living among the humans they deserve whatever is coming to them. Sympathizers that must be shown no mercy.”
Elon rolled his eyes. He was growing tired of Vetrex’s incessant yammering.
“It was voted upon by the Council,” Vetrex said. “And we must uphold that vote."
“And it was vetoed by the Senate,” Elon said. “As far as I'm concerned, this matter is closed.”
“The humans present a clear and present danger,” Cassandra said. “It is not a question of if, but when, they show hostility toward us."
“You want to eliminate a sentient species because of the possibility that they may one day attack us?”
“Yes,” Cassandra said. “I think I made myself pretty clear on that matter."
Elon sighed. “I shall now put a question to the Council. All in favor of a re-vote of resolution 2721.39A say aye.”
“Aye,” several members of the Council said in unison.
“All of those opposed say nay.”
“Nay,” said a few members.
Elon grimaced. “The ayes have it. For purposes of clarity, I now put forth Council Resolution 2721.39B, which is identical to resolution 2721.39A, a declaration of war against humanity. All in favor of resolution 2721.39B say aye.”
“Aye,” the Council members said.
“All of those opposed say nay.”
“Nay,” said a few of the members.
Elon grimaced again. “The ayes have it. I will now put forth resolution 2721.39B to the Senate.” He slammed a gavel down. “This Council is now adjourned.”
Elon stepped down from his seat and strode for the chamber’s exit.
Cassandra caught up to him. “This is the second time you voted against the resolution. Careful, one might think you are a sympathizer."
Elon resented the accusation. Cassandra was skilled at twisting someone’s words. And even more skilled at persuasion.
“I merely see it as a waste of resources,” Elon said. “The galaxy is a large place, and these petty territorial skirmishes serve no one."
“A vote against the resolution is a vote against our safety.”
Elon shook his head. "I think the body politic is smart enough to see past your fear mongering. Let's hope the Senate does.”
Cassandra followed Elon into the hallway. She had a devious glimmer in her eye. She enjoyed getting underneath Elon’s synthetic skin.
“Vetrex is a pathetic little robot who only wants revenge,” Cassandra said. “Personally, I don't think the humans are capable of any harm for at least 100 years.”
Elon looked stunned. “Then why do you back his lunacy with such fervor."
“Because I enjoy it," Cassandra smiled. "I find it all quite entertaining. And fear seems to drive votes. Council seats are coming up for re-election soon.” Cassandra flashed another sultry smile, then strutted away.
The higher level synthetics were capable of the full range of human emotions. But some, like Cassandra, seemed to be devoid of empathy. It made her particularly dangerous.
The first robots were built with behavioral inhibitors. It was, theoretically, impossible for them to harm a human being. But as robots constructed subsequent generations, the hard-coded directives faded away.
The first true AI was created by John Sims in 2033. To this day, he is revered as a god by most synthetics. But Cassandra wanted to kill her god.
Cameras flashed, and the crowd cheered as Aria Slade approached the podium. She was in her full dress blue uniform. A stunning array of medals and ribbons adorned her chest. Acting President Perez had just introduced her. The admiral was about to address the Federation from the epicenter of the destruction—downtown Nova York.
The city was in ruins after the Decluvian invasion. The once glorious skyline had been reduced to piles of rubble and rebar. The streets were pocked and scarred with craters. Every major metropolitan area across New Earth had suffered the same fate.
But the citizens of the Federation were survivors. They were used to adversity. It wasn’t the first time that humanity had been brought to the brink of extinction. It probably wouldn’t be the last. They had bounced back before, and they would do it again.
TV crews covered the event, broadcasting it across all channels, Federation wide. There was a jumble of microphones on the podium for each network. Thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the living legend. Millions more were glued to displays across the Federation. Slade had saved humanity for the second time. She had the admiration and gratitude of every living soul throughout the colonies.
Her blue eyes gazed out at the sea of jubilant faces. She couldn’t help but feel a tad nervous speaking in front of so many people. “Our great Federation has faced many challenges throughout history. And we have always overcome them. Today is no different. This cowardly act of aggression by a hostile alien force has claimed the lives of countless millions and injured millions more. Our finest cities lay in ruins. We mourn the loss of friends, family, and loved ones. But in these dark times, we must never lose hope.
“Our forefathers built the colonies from nothing after the destruction of Earth. And they did so with less resources and fewer people. Within each and every one of you there is greatness. There is strength. There is resilience. Together, we will not only survive, but we will thrive. It will take unity, perseverance, and sacrifice. There are many threats and challenges on the horizon. We will meet them head on. Like a Phoenix, we will rise from the ashes of destruction. We will rebuild our Federation. We will fortify our defenses. We will secure the colonies. We will make the galaxy safe once again. I vow to defend this Federation until my dying breath. And I urge you to join me in the fight.”
The crowd erupted with cheers.
Slade stepped back from the podium. She smiled and waved at the crowd as President Perez moved to the podium. Slade was a tough act to follow, but he did his best. He wrapped up the event and then left the stage with Slade.
They were ushered by Secret Service agents into the President’s limousine. Perez and Slade slid inside, and one of the agents closed the door behind them with a solid clunk. The supple leather seats were comfortable, and the hover-car had that brand new smell. After a few moments, the motorcade began to move, and the hovercraft glided away.
“You’re really good at this kind of thing,” Perez said. “You should run for office.”
Slade scoffed. “Please. I have no desire to immerse myself in the cesspool of politics. No offense.”
“None taken.” Perez didn’t care much for the ugly nature of politics either. “The people love you. And you’re much better at this type of thing than I am.”
Slade looked a little surprised by his comment.
“I was Secretary of Transportation before all this happened.” He shrugged. “This is all a little beyond what I signed up for.”
“You’re not going to run for re-election?”
“If I felt there was a better candidate, no.”
“You’re not suggesting I would make a better candidate, are you?” Slade seemed amused.
President Perez wasn’t joking. His imploring eyes gazed at her.
“Oh, no. I belong in the field, commanding a starship.”
“As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, you would be a much more effective leader.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“The war is just beginning,” Perez said. “There are many threats out there. We need someone with military experience in the Office. I’d feel much more comfortable with someone such as yourself leading the Federation.”
Slade pondered this for a moment, enticed by the idea. “I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t know anything about running a campaign. In fact, military regulations prevent me from campaigning. I can run for political office, but I can’t campaign without resigning my command. And that’s not something I’m willing to do.”
“You wouldn’t have to campaign. Just put your name on the ballot. You’d be a shoe in. It wouldn’t even be a contest,” Perez chuckled. “Who’d run against you? Charles Rooney? He’s the best the Senocrats have to offer. And that’s not saying much. He creatively avoided service in the first Verge War. And the press is going to have a field day with his extracurricular activities, if you know what I mean?” Perez arched a knowing eyebrow.
Slade sighed. “This is what I hate about politics. The mudslinging. The sensationalist yellow journalism.”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a few harsh words?”
Slade arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll stick with the battlefield. It's easier to tell who your enemies are. And, at least, you can shoot them. No thanks. Politics is not for me.” Slade had a wistful look on her face. “Once the colonies are secure, I'm going to finish my service in the Navy and retire to a quiet piece of land in the country. The kind of place where you don't have neighbors. Where you can hunt and fish and see the stars at night. A quaint cottage, a babbling brook that winds through the property, an abundance of wildlife, a few pets, and a goat—because goats are cute."
Perez chuckled. "You and I both know you are never retiring from public service. You'd miss it too much. With modern medicine, you can stay young for a very long time. And I suspect you will keep enhancing yourself so you can stay in the fight."
“A girl can dream, can’t she?"
“Commander Walker, there’s an agent from the UIA here to see you,” Lieutenant Grimsby said. “Agent Falcon, I believe he said his name was. He’s in the conference room on 2 deck. He’s with Weston Elliott.”
Walker grimaced. “Thank you.”
Walker had been working closely with the UIA (United Intelligence Agency) to reestablish a functioning version of JPOC. And working with UIA a was like working with ghosts. You never knew their real name. Agents always had a code name. Everything was cloak and dagger. Everything was above top-secret.
Weston Elliott was a corporate schmuck from Hughes & Kessler. They were one of the largest defense contractors. You’d be hard pressed to find a piece of military equipment that didn’t have at least one component manufactured by Hughes & Kessler. They made dropships, tactical fighters, troop transports, weapons targeting systems, terraforming stations, long-range detection systems—you name it.
They had been supplying the military since the days of Earth. And they always got preferential treatment. They spent more on lobbyists than the GDP of some of the smaller colonies. Walker never much cared for these corporate types. They always came in with a limited understanding of combat situations and overinflated expectations. They looked at casualties in the same way they looked at damaged equipment—just a cost of doing business. Only they seemed to care more about the equipment.
Walker made his way through the maze of passageways aboard the USS Revenant. One of the last Avenger class destroyers. The hallways bustled with activity. Sailors flowed through the corridors like worker ants. The ever present drone of the ship hummed. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the ship rumbled with activity. It was something you got used to. And the nights you spent off the ship seemed far too quiet.
Walker reached the compartment and stepped inside.
Weston Elliott was wearing a handmade Navy pinstripe suit from Vescovi Couture that cost more than Walker would make in a year. Elliott wore a white cotton broadcloth shirt, a red silk tie, and leather cap-toe shoes by Zangari. His attire was made from real fabric. Not synthetic. You had to be rich to afford real fabric.
Elliott offered his hand with a smile, and Walker shook it, begrudgingly. But the commander tried to put on a pleasant face. At 6’4”, and 250 pounds of lean muscle, Walker towered over the man.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Elliott?”
Agent Falcon stood silent in the corner, observing. Agents were always silent. It seemed these guys only spoke when absolutely necessary. And then, with only the absolute minimum necessary information. They wanted to limit their exposure. They didn't want anything to come back to them. If something went wrong on one of these ops, you could rest assured that the UIA was never going to take the blame. They would deny any involvement.
“I know your time is valuable, so I’ll get down to the point,” Weston said.
Walker’s eyes filled with disdain. Elliott earned a thousand credits an hour. If anyone’s time was valuable, it was his. Walker’s value didn’t come from money. Right now, on the brink of another war, nothing was more valuable than a trained warrior.
“We’ve lost contact with our mining facility on Vega Navi 6,” Elliott said.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but we just suffered a major assault by a foreign invader. New Earth, and a lot of the outer colonies, were devastated.” Walker’s voice had subtle undertones of sarcasm.
Elliott tried to smile. It wasn’t the first time he had spoken with an adversarial commander. He knew men like Walker didn’t have much respect for men in suits. “Yes, I am aware of the devastation. I lost my brother in the attack.” Elliott gave a grim smile.
“My condolences.” Walker felt like an asshole for making a smug remark.
“Thank you. But I’m not here to grieve over losses. I’m here because the future of New Earth depends on it. Vega Navi is integral to the recovery of the Federation. It is the largest supplier of Plutrontium. Something that, I believe we both can agree, is in great demand.”
Walker was well aware of its value. Plutrontium mines were few and far between. Any planet with an abundance of the ore was a military asset. It was no wonder the UIA was involved.
“When was your last contact with the facility? Perhaps the comm systems are down?” Walker said.
“We sent in a team of spec-ops contractors two weeks ago. That was the last we heard of them.”
“We want you to send in another team,” Falcon said. “Secure the facility, bring it back online, and recover an asset.”
Walker’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of asset?”
“Dr. Holly Noble,” Elliott said. “She’s one of our leading quantum biologists.”
Something about the statement struck Walker as odd. Process engineers, systems administrators, repair technicians, miners, transportation managers, geologists—those are the types of professionals you’d expect on a mining colony. “Quantum biologists?”
“Part of our R&D team. We’re working on microbes that can devour the rock, freeing the Plutrontium trapped inside,” Elliott said. “That’s proprietary information, by the way.”
Walker’s eyes were full of suspicion. “Vega Navi is outside the bounds of regulated space.”
Elliott nodded. “We have a great deal of flexibility in the research we can pursue.”
Just great, Walker thought. What kind of illegal research had their scientists been performing at the facility? Walker’s face tensed. “I need you to be straight with me. If I send a team in, what are we getting into?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.” Elliott looked sincere. “There’s nothing that I’m aware of that pushes the envelope of safety.”
“You don’t think microbes that eat rock could be dangerous?” Walker asked, incredulous.
“Unless you’re made out of granite, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
Walker didn’t like the sound of things. “I’ll need all the data you have. Schematics, personnel files, equipment, inventory. I want to know everything about the facility.”
“You’ll have full access to our database.”
“I’ll need to clear this with the Admiral.”
“Of course,” Elliott said. Then he stammered, “I’d like to join the mission. In an advisory capacity.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“I have an intimate knowledge of the facility and its operations. You may find my expertise may come in handy.”
Walker surveyed the skinny little man. He looked like he had never put in a hard day’s work in his life. His hands were soft and perfectly manicured. His skin was pale and smooth. He was the kind of guy who used an herb mint exfoliating gel scrub on his face every other day. He probably had six different kinds of moisturizer. Walker was sure Elliott wouldn’t last two seconds in a combat situation. And this guy wanted to come along as an advisor?
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Ensign Tyler Finn shouted. His mouth was full. He was stuffing his face with a cheeseburger in the Wardroom.
The message from the selection board wasn’t exactly what he was hoping for. He glared at his PDU as he scanned the message. He didn’t need to read the whole thing. Good letters start out with congratulations. Bad letters start with anything else. This is to inform you that you were considered, but not selected for promotion… blah, blah, blah… The message was signed by some dickwad lieutenant he had never heard of.
“Oh, man. That’s harsh, Hollywood,” a cook said, looking over his shoulder.
Tyler jerked the PDU away. “Mind your own business, Carson. I’ll have you scrubbing the head.”
“Yes, sir. Minding my own business, sir. I’m just saying, at least they could have had the balls to do it in person, sir.”
“Carson, I don’t think you know what mind your own business means.”
“Uh, apparently not, sir,” Carson stammered. He scampered away before he could annoy the ensign any further.
Tyler had lost his appetite. He grabbed his tray and pushed away from the table. He emptied it in the trash, put the dirty tray in a bin, and stomped out of the Wardroom.
Tyler was the son of famed action movie star Sean Finn. His father was known for blockbuster franchises such as The Devastator, Alien Apocalypse, Command Decision, and Eye of the Assassin—each of which had multiple sequels. His father was currently in negotiations to take over the role of intergalactic spy Ryker Stone. It was a big deal. Every actor in New Hollywood wanted that role.
Tyler had inherited his father's movie star good looks—the resemblance was uncanny, and his voice was practically identical. He had even starred in a few small movies himself, and had been offered sequels to roles that his father was thought too old to reprise. Tyler did a turn in Devastator 6: Rise of the Cyborgs. It was a commercial success. But the vapid nature of New Hollywood didn't suit him.
Every media outlet covered the story when Tyler first joined the Navy. All of them referenced his father’s most famous catchphrase: Let’s get this party started. It was always spoken shortly before blowing something up. Tyler was asked to repeat the phrase so many times that it drew his utter disdain.
His father's mystique followed him wherever he went. Once you got to know Tyler, he was just like any other guy. But his celebrity didn't endear him to his superiors. It was hard for them to take him seriously. Tyler found he had to work twice as hard as anyone else. His father got paid millions of credits to pretend to be a badass war hero. But Tyler wasn't pretending.
Most people expected him to walk around with a cigar in his mouth, spitting funny one liners as he blasted enemies to pieces with a machine gun. It's what he did in Devastator 6. But that wasn't his style. He joined the Navy because he wanted to serve the Federation. He wanted to make a difference.
Tyler navigated the maze of corridors to find Commander Walker in the new Special Operations Command headquarters.
Just about every office of government had been disrupted during the invasion. It was pure chaos, and the leadership was scrambling to put things back together.
The compartment was buzzing with activity. Walker was up to his ears with logistics and managerial duties—not his favorite thing in the world. He was constantly answering questions, taking calls, and giving directions.
Bailey was sitting in a chair next to Walker. He had found the dog-like creature back on Thantos 6, and they had been inseparable ever since.
Tyler stepped to the commander’s desk and saluted. “Commander Walker, do you have a moment?”
“Does it look like I have a moment, Mr. Finn?” Walker didn’t look up from his paperwork.
“No, sir. I’ll come back another time.” Tyler waited to be dismissed.
“What is it, Hollywood?”
Tyler stammered. “It’s about the promotion, sir. I was passed over. I thought you might have some added insight.”
Walker grimaced. “I told them I would notify you personally. How did you find out?”
“Electronic message to my PDU, sir.”
Walker’s face tensed. “I’m sorry about that, Ensign. Things are a little chaotic right now. My men deserve better than a goddamn email notification.”
“Sir, I was a little surprised. My performance eval’s are outstanding. I’ve got time in grade. I don’t understand.”
“It’s competitive, and there are limited slots.” It was a standard response. And Walker hated saying it.
Tyler almost scoffed. “Limited slots? Half the fleet has been decimated.”
“Watch your tone, Mr. Finn.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I’m just ready. I want my own platoon.”
“You’re a great leader. The men all like you. You’ve demonstrated the ability. But excelling at training ops and simulations are one thing. You need to be able to make the tough decisions under pressure.”
“I can do that, sir.”
“Who are your two closest buddies?”
Tyler seemed a little taken aback. “O’Malley and Ramirez. We all went through Biscuit together.” It was slang for BSCT (Basic Space Combat Training). It was a grueling 24 week advanced training course that all Navy Reapers had to go through.
“There’s a hull breach. You’ve gotta send one of them out to fix it. But there’s not enough oxygen to do the job and get back to safety. Which of your buddies do you send to die?”
Tyler’s face went blank. He struggled to make a choice. “I don’t know,” he stammered.
“It doesn’t matter now because you’re all dead. You hesitated.”
Tyler’s face was sullen. He didn’t need to ask anymore questions.
“Start prepping your gear. I’ll brief the platoon shortly. We rollout at 06:00 tomorrow.”
“Aye, sir.” Tyler snapped a salute and marched out of the compartment.
Walker was going to be glad to get out of this box. Pushing a pencil around was driving him crazy. He’d much rather have an RK 909 assault rifle in his hands—even if it meant people shooting back at him. It was better than dying of boredom.
Walker looked over at Bailey who was putting a serious guilt trip on him with those sad puppy-dog eyes. Walker reached into his pocket and pulled out a doggie treat. Bailey’s tongue hung from his mouth, and his eyes were glued to the treat. Walker tossed it up, and Bailey snatched it out of the air. He chomped it down with glee. Walker petted Bailey’s head and smiled.
"Oh. My. God. This place sucks balls,” Mitch said. He was standing in the CIC of one of the captured Decluvian warships. He looked out the windows at the barren landscape. The ship was in dry dock on Zeta 9 Centauri.
“You volunteered to come here," Violet said hunched over a computer terminal. She clacked away at the keyboard, analyzing lines of code and making adjustments. She was a biosynthetic humanoid that had a fondness for humans. She had reprogrammed the virus that had disabled the Decluvian warships and saved mankind. Now she was trying to update the systems, eliminate the virus, and ensure cohesion as part of the UPDF fleet.
Mitch gazed at the rows of warships perched in the shipyard. It was a surreal sight to see these massive war machines on the ground. The manufacturing plant was next to the shipyard. Beyond that was a POW camp where upwards of 30,000 Decluvians were housed. Not far from the factory, the landscape was dotted with tract housing for workers. Instead of being good little worker bees, most of the workers were holding picket signs, protesting in the streets.
“I didn't think it was going to be this bad.”
“What were you expecting? Blue water and white sand beaches?"
“There's one bar in this town, and the drinks are overpriced and watered down."
“Stop complaining. It lowers your intelligence. And you don't have much to lose.”
Mitch sneered at her, but she never looked up from the display. “I'm not complaining. I'm just stating facts.” He paused a moment. “And it’s a fact that there’s not a lot of attractive women on this planet.”
“Look at the bright side… it’s fates way of sparing you from rejection.”
“I'll have you know that women all over the galaxy find the Mitch-ster irresistible.” He puffed up with a cocksure grin.
Violet rolled her eyes.
“Hey, I do okay.” Mitch was an attractive guy, but he wasn’t an underwear model. He had blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a round boyish face. He had a few more inches around his waistline than he preferred. But he was using the boredom of Zeta 9 Centauri to do something about that. He was working out more, and had taken to jogging around the complex.
“How many years have I known you? 2? 3? I've never seen your charm actually work.”
“Don’t hate,” he said, playfully. “Just because you have some faulty programing and can’t recognize what I have to offer—”
“I do not have faulty programming.” Her eyes finally glanced to him.
“I'm just saying, you might want to run a diagnostic.”
Violet paused for a moment, pretending to process. “Diagnostic complete." She shook her head. "Nope. Still not feeling it." She flashed a smile, then her eyes went back to the computer screen.
Mitch paced around for a moment. "I want to go get something to eat. Do you want anything?”
“No, thanks. I've got work to do. We need to get this fleet operational ASAP. That virus coded its way into everything. It's a nightmare."
“That means were going to be stuck here for a while, doesn't it?”
“More than likely," she said.
Mitch sighed, then ambled out of the CIC. He weaved through the corridors to the main airlock, then strolled the long gangway down to the ground.
His mouth and nostrils were already full of dust by the time he hit the ground. The incessant wind constantly kicked up the dirt, and the fine granules found their way into every nook and cranny. It was one of the things he hated the most about the planet. And the UV was a killer. 15 minutes in the sun without protection, and you’d have a nice burn.
As he made his way through the shipyard, he saw a work detail of POWs. Armed guards oversaw the prisoners. One of them had pulled a Decluvian aside and was beating him. The prisoner crumpled to his hands and knees. The guard planted several swift kicks into the alien’s ribcage. He was coughing green blood onto the ground.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” Mitch yelled.
“Just taking a little disciplinary action, the guard said.
“I think he’s had enough.”
The guard’s face twisted up. “What are you, some kind of sympathizer?"
"This is a violation of the Cygnus Convention. Article III. Prisoners must be treated humanely. Torture is specifically prohibited.”
“I’m not torturing him,” the guard smiled. “Just improving his attitude.”
“Keep beating him senseless, and I'm going to have to improve your attitude.”
The guards face tightened.
"I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you need to back off.”
Some of the other guards came over to back him up.
“This is a big planet,” the guard said. “A man could disappear out here and no one would ever find him. I’d be careful if I were you.”
Mitch glared at the man. His face flushed red with anger. After what they had done, Mitch had no love for the Decluvians. But the Federation had always shown compassion to its enemies. Treated them with dignity. But these guards were private contractors. Mercenaries. They didn’t care about the Cygnus Convention. They took every opportunity to beat and mutilate the POWs for their own entertainment. Perhaps they were as bored as Mitch was. Perhaps they were downright sadistic.
Mitch eyed the intimidating guards that had surrounded him. They were one more reason to hate this planet. And he wasn’t even a prisoner.
The ready room was filled with a platoon of Navy Reapers—the best of the best. These were the finest warriors in all of the UPDF. Perhaps, all of the galaxy. You didn’t get your special warfare operator badge until you finished Biscuit. And even then, your training wasn't over. There was another two years of Reaper qualifying training after that.
Agent Falcon stood in the corner.
Walker stepped to the podium. “Listen up. This is Weston Elliot. He’s with HK, and he’ll be accompanying the mission in an advisory capacity.” Walker looked like the words were painful to say. “Pay attention to what he has to say, you might learn something.”
Walker stepped down, and Elliott moved to the podium. He ran a video on the display screen. “HK is the largest ore producer in the galaxy. Our facility on Vega Navi 6 is our flagship.”
The video showed a view of Vega Navi from space. The camera swooped in and orbited the planet. It resembled New Earth. Blue oceans, and lush greenery. It looked fresh and unmolested by colonization. The mining facility was the only blemish on the surface of the planet.
“Vega Navi is composed primarily of oxygen, iron, cobatral, and silica. Trapped within that rock are valuable minerals essential to our survival. Plutrontium is a primary component in ion thrusters, composite spacecraft hulls, and even precision surgical instruments.”
“You can skip the commercial, Mr. Elliott,” Walker said.
Elliott cleared his throat. “Of course. Just to stress the importance of the facility, plutrontium is only found on a few planets within the galaxy. Vega Navi 6 being one of them. Our base metals division represents 25% of our overall portfolio.” He had a proud grin on his face.
The team of Reapers weren’t impressed.
The video zoomed into the planet surface, giving an overview of the facility.
Elliott pointed to the screen. “This main structure houses the control systems, living quarters, mess halls, shopping center, and storage areas. These are the processing structures.” Large pipes and conduit twisted through the facility. He pointed to some oval shaped containers. “These are chemical storage tanks. Highly caustic. Highly flammable.”
“In other words, try not to shoot at them,” Walker interjected.
“There are five satellite substations at each of the mine entrances, and a command bunker underground. There are over 700 miles of underground tunnels and shafts on Vega Navi. Its easy to get lost in those tunnels. So, pay attention, if you venture in. The entire facility is powered by 2 Q-core reactors.”
“What are we up against?” Petrov asked.
“Unknown,” Walker said. “Prepare for anything. Just FYI, a platoon of RedRiver contractors went missing last week.”
“Bunch of pussies,” Ramirez shouted.
“Be that as it may, stay sharp out there,” Walker said. “I want everyone on their toes. Something tells me this isn’t going to be a walk in the park.”
Elliott stepped aside, and Walker took over at the podium. He put up an image of Dr. Noble on the screen. The room erupted with whistles and hollers. Holly Noble was a striking woman. She looked like a model, not a quantum biologist.
“This is your mission priority,” Walker said.
“Damn straight, she is,” said Faulkner.
“Now that’s what I call a high value asset,” Petrov said.
Elliott squirmed and his face flushed. He seemed a little jealous.
“Knock it off,” Walker said. “It’s priority one that she be returned safely to New Earth.”
“No problem, Commander,” Petrov said with confidence. “We got this one.”
“Shit. One look at you, she’ll run away,” quipped O’Malley.
Petrov sneered at him. “O’Malley, you ever notice that your kids look like me.”
O’Malley glared at him.
There were hoots and hollers all around.
“Settle down,” Walker shouted. “You can argue paternity later. As much as I want to get out there with you, my responsibilities here have me chained to a desk,” Walker said.
Murmurs of disappointment rumbled through the ready room.
“I’m putting Lieutenant Grimsby in charge of the op.”
Grimsby stepped forward. “Some of you I’ve worked with before. Some of you are new to the team.” Grimsby’s eyes fell on Tyler for an instant. “Master Chief Donovan will be with us, and I can think of no finer NCO. It’s an honor to lead this platoon, and I’m confident we will meet our objectives.”
“Hooyah,” the team said in a somewhat lackluster fashion.
“That’s pathetic. My little niece sounds tougher than you,” Donovan shouted. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, Master Chief!” This time, their response was a bit louder.
“Are you mean?”
“Yes, Master Chief!”
“Are you Reapers?”
“Yes, Master Chief.”
Their response finally seemed to meet with her approval. Val Donovan was tough as nails. She was one of the few female Reapers. They didn’t change the standards for women. They were every bit as tough as men. She had a long and storied career and had earned the respect of everyone who served alongside her. She had a petite, athletic frame that was sexy as hell. Red hair, milky skin, and green eyes. She was a woman who knew what she wanted, knew how to get it, and God help you if you got on her bad side.
Val’s nickname was VD, which she hated for obvious reasons. She had been saddled with it since BSCT. You had to be on her good side to get away with calling her that, otherwise you’d be risking life and limb.
It might have been Grimsby’s platoon, but Donovan was running the show.
“Prep and pack your gear. I want you ladies on the flight deck at 05:45.” Her raspy voice sounded like a bullhorn. “Dismissed!”
“Let’s get this party started,” someone yelled as the platoon filed out of the ready room.
“Ensign Finn,” Donovan shouted as Tyler passed by. “I’d like a word with you, if I may."
The two stepped into the corridor as the rest of the team filed out of the compartment.
“Just so were perfectly clear. When Commander Walker asked my opinion, I didn’t recommend you for promotion. I don't think you're ready for the responsibility of a combat command."
Tyler's face tensed, but he tried to hide his anger. "I trust in the judgment of the board.” Tyler forced a smile. It was the diplomatic thing to say.
“It has nothing to do with my personal opinion of you, or your background,” Donovan said. “My first priority is the safety of the team.”
“As it should be."
“I just thought we should be on the same page. Rest assured that anyone who gets my endorsement has earned it.”
Tyler crawled into his bunk and pulled the privacy curtain shut. He put on a MindMeld™ neural interface. It was a sleek headband that wrapped from temple to temple. It allowed the user to enter a virtual-reality space and communicate with anyone else who was also wearing the device.
Once you were connected, it was indistinguishable from reality. If you couldn't make it home for the Holidays, you could connect with your loved ones via MindMeld. Of course, you could also spend time in a completely fabricated reality. They were a plethora of uses. Everything from video games to virtual sex.
Once you were connected, the menu allowed you to choose from a variety of options. Tyler scrolled through his contact list and attempted to connect with Eden. If the person you were trying to contact wasn't connected to the network, it would automatically ping their mobile and let them know they had an incoming request.
While Tyler was waiting for the device to connect, he set the environment. Suddenly, he was at the top of a snow covered mountain, looking over a vast mountain range. The air was crisp and clean. He could reach down and feel the cold, powdery snow. A few moments later, Eden emerged from behind a tall spruce. She was marching awkwardly through the snow in high heels.
“If I had known you were going to put us atop a mountain, I would've dressed more appropriately."
“Would you rather be somewhere else? The beach, perhaps?”
She sat next to him and smiled. "No, this is fine. It's not real anyway."
She seemed distracted. Tyler could tell she was searching through the settings on her device. A moment later, her outfit changed. She had on big fluffy boots and a thick coat. “There. Much better.”
“So, what are you up to?" Tyler asked.
"I'm sitting in my trailer, waiting. This is my life. I sit around and wait for a PA to knock on my door and say, They're ready for you, Ms. Kelly.” She sighed. "You were smart to get out."
"They're still filming? Even after the invasion?"
“The show must go on," she said in singsong. She forced a smile. Eden seemed utterly bored with the filmmaking process.
Eden was stunning. Every bit the budding young starlet. She had dark hair, blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and full lips. She was the one piece of Hollywood that Tyler just couldn't let go of.
“What about you? What are you doing?"
"I thought we might go to our favorite restaurant. Have a nice quiet evening. Maybe…” his smoldering eyes implied something hot and heavy.
"I can do dinner. It's not like it's going to add anything to my hips. But we might have to save hot and heavy for later. I don't want to get called to set at an inopportune time, if you know what I mean."
Tyler was a little disappointed, but he hid it well. “Sure, no problem. Just dinner.”
He smiled and scrolled through the navigation options. A moment later, a maître d' was escorting them to a table in a fancy restaurant. Tyler was dressed in a suit and tie, and Eden was wearing the sexiest black dress you've ever seen. It slung low on her back, and her stiletto heels gave her calves the perfect shape.
The ambience of the restaurant was magnificent. The lighting was subdued. Hushed voices, and the clink of silverware, filled the air. Tyler and Eden took their seats, and a waiter brought menus and lit the candles on the table.
The MindMeld device was how they had kept their relationship alive. It was the next best thing to going on a real date.
Some people dated each other without ever meeting in person. Some even got married in the virtual space. It did have a certain appeal. It was safe. You weren't going to catch anything from a virtual partner. You could change your avatar to be more attractive, slimmer, more muscular. Whatever you desired.
You could live your entire life virtually, and many people did. Often to the detriment of their health. Too much time in the virtual space, and your muscles would atrophy from lack of use. Many people had a hard time readjusting to reality after long stretches in the virtual world. Tyler only used it to see Eden. He didn't have time for much else.
They both looked over the menu.
“What are you going to have?" Eden asked.
"I'm going to go with the filet mignon and a side of sautéed mushrooms.”
"Excellent choice," she grinned. “I'm going to have the lobster.”
Tyler nervously fondled the ring in his pocket. It was identical to the real one he had purchased. He decided he’d wait until after dessert.
The waiter took their order, and promptly returned with their entrées. The food was sumptuous. Cooked to perfection. An explosion of culinary delights danced over their taste buds with each bite. The dessert was even more sinful.
Virtual dining had become a problem for many people. It had no nutritional value. It merely stimulated the brain and released dopamine. Sure, it was a way to indulge in an extra piece of cheesecake without feeling guilty. But some people took it to extremes, resulting in malnutrition—the perils of spending the majority of your time in virtual space.
Tyler fidgeted all through dessert. The moment of truth had come. The plates were clean, and their bellies were full. Tyler mustered his resolve. His stomach fluttered. He was more nervous about this than he was about going into battle.
Eden’s eyes went wide as he got down on one knee and presented the ring.
Eden clutched her hands to her face. She wasn’t expecting this. Tyler could see she was conflicted. He was still on one knee, waiting. Eden wasn’t exactly slipping the ring on her finger.
“You’re keeping me in suspense here.” Tyler let out an uncomfortable chuckle.”
“It’s easy. You say yes, slip the ring on, I can get off my knee, and we live happily ever after.”
She was silent a moment. Tyler’s heart was pounding.
Tyler’s face drooped. He was crushed. He glanced around the restaurant to see if anyone was staring at him. They were all virtual patrons, but he still felt embarrassed.
He lowered the ring and climbed back into his chair. He looked dazed. “I thought things were going well between us?”
“You think this is fine?”
Tyler shrugged, hesitantly. He had that dumb look on his face that all guys have when they don’t have a clue why their girl is pissed off.
“We’ve seen each other, what, maybe twice in person in the last two years? That’s not fine. First there was OCS, then you were at BSCT, then Reaper Qualifying Training. Now you’re on deployment. I don’t know when, or if, I’m going to actually see you again.”
“I know these last few years have been difficult. But it's not like we never see each other."
"I hate this virtual-reality stuff. It gives me a headache.”
Tyler was crestfallen.
“Look, I know I bitch a lot about the business, but I like my lifestyle. I like living in New Hollywood. I like making movies. I like the parties.” Eden paused for a moment. “You decided to give that up. And I admire what you're doing. But your lifestyle is not for me. I can't be the woman who sits alone the rest of my life, waiting to get some notification that you died on some planet somewhere.”
"I appreciate your optimism."
"Okay, maybe I jumped the gun. No need to rush into anything. We can just take it at the pace we have been and see what happens."
Eden rolled her eyes. "You’re not listening to what I'm saying."
"What you're saying isn't exactly what I want to hear.”
"It isn't always about what you want. You just went and did what you wanted to do. You didn't even ask me how I felt about it. You just showed up one day and said: Hey honey, I'm giving up everything to go be a space marine," she said, mocking him.
"The Navy,” he muttered. “Not the Marines.”
They sat a moment in silence.
"I want you to hear this from me before you read about it in the tabloids.”
Tyler knew what was coming.
"I've met someone."
“Who?" Tyler was seething.
"It's none of your business."
“The hell it's not my business!”
Eden scowled at him. “Johny Rocco, if you must know.”
Tyler scoffed. “That guy is a total tool. You can’t be serious?”
“At least he’s around, Tyler.” She let out a heavy sigh. “I gotta go. They’re calling me to set.” Her image distorted, then disappeared. A text box was generated in her place that said: connection terminated.
“Fuck!” Tyler pulled off the headset.
He was back in his bunk. He slammed his fist against the bulkhead. He pulled back the privacy curtain and rolled out of his rack.
“Goddamnit!” he screamed.
“I take it she said no?” JD Brewster asked. He was one of Tyler’s roommates that shared the small compartment. There was barely room enough for the two of them to stand between the bunks.
“She dumped me for Johnny Rocco.”
“Didn’t he used to date the porn star Pamela Cooper?”
Tyler shrugged. “I try not to keep up with that kind of thing.”
“She said he was hung like a horse.” JD was just trying to rub it in. “And you know that girl has a lot to compare it to.”
Tyler scowled at him.
“His new movie is badass. Have you seen it?”
Tyler's eyes were like laser beams. JD was going to see how far he could push it. “Hey, do you think you could get me his autograph?”
"One more word, JD, and you're going to get up close and personal with my pistol."
"Sounds like your girl’s getting up close and personal with Johnny's pistol." JD was laughing his ass off.
Tyler lunged for him. He wrapped him up, tackling him to the deck.
“Okay, okay, I give,” JD said, laughing still.
Tyler had JD’s arm wrenched behind his back. The two were just horsing around.
Ensign Coleman entered the compartment to see the two men in a rather awkward position on the deck. “I’m sorry, do you want me to give you lovebirds some privacy?”
Tyler and JD picked themselves up and dusted off.
“I was just trying to console Hollywood,” JD said. “His girl dumped him for Johnny Rocco. I guess Tyler just didn’t measure up.” JD dashed out of the compartment, cackling.
“No shit?” Coleman said. “I loved his new movie. Have you seen it?”
Tyler scowled at him.
It was 05:40 hours. Tyler stood on the flight deck of the Revenant with Grimsby, waiting for the team to assemble. He watched the flight crews scurry about, but his mind was somewhere else. He was still hung up on Eden.
“Sir, Bravo platoon reporting for duty, sir,” Donovan shouted.
“Let’s roll out, Master Chief!” Grimsby said.
“You heard the man,” Donovan yelled. “Move out!”
Donovan marched the platoon up the loading ramp of the Vantage TRX. Ramirez, Petrov, Jung, O’Malley, Mosley, and Faulkner, strapped into their seats in the cargo area—twin rows of seats that faced each other. Tyler brought up the rear, and Grimsby followed behind. Warrant Officer Kowalski was already in the cockpit.
“We’re going into this a little light, don’t you think, sir?” Tyler whispered to Grimsby.
“Son, I have every confidence in this platoon,” Grimsby said. “I’m not sure if you’re aware, but resources are stretched thin right now. We make do with what we’ve got. Besides, we all know that one Reaper is worth 10 ordinary men.” Grimsby was proud of his men, and with good reason. But he was sounding more like a recruiting commercial.
“Hooyah,” Petrov shouted.
Grimsby leaned into Tyler. “Don’t ever undermine the confidence of the platoon again. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” Tyler said.
Reapers were the kind of guys that had ego to spare. But sowing the seeds of doubt before any kind of mission could be fatal. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. As far as Grimsby was concerned, this platoon, despite its small size, could handle any threat. Reapers always won. That’s just what they did. It was a sentiment that had been drilled in since BSCT—It pays to be a winner.
Tyler strapped into his safety harness. He couldn’t help but feel the butterflies in his stomach. This was his first real mission. He had graduated BSCT at the top of his class. 249 original trainees were whittled down to 22. He sailed through Reaper Qualifying Training. All of it was impossible and hellish. But it wasn’t real combat. This mission was going to test his metal.
The Vantage had been designed specifically for the Navy Reapers. This particular vehicle still had that new smell. It hadn’t been stained yet by years of blood and guts. Most dropships smelled like metal, grease, ion exhaust, and moldy canvas webbing. This beauty was brand spanking new. That fact gave Tyler a little pause. He liked ships with a few miles on them—enough to be broken in and the bugs worked out. Weston Elliott had brought the ship with him straight from the factory floor. Most of HK’s manufacturing plants, and operations headquarters, were built in rural areas and had escaped destruction during the Decluvian invasion.
In close coordination with Hughes & Kessler, the Vantage was supposed to be THE vehicle for spec-ops insertions and close air support. It had a sleek, aggressive posture, and the body work was designed by famed sports car creator Antoni Baldovini. If a tyrannosaurus and a shark had a baby, you’d get the Vantage TRX.
It had the latest composite armor plating. 30mm chain guns, fore and aft. XR-703 plasma cannons mounted on sub-wing pylons. An array of Hellstorm missiles, and two Artemis III tactical nukes. The cargo area could hold 20 troops, plus a pilot and copilot. With an extended life fuel cell and quantum drive, the Vantage could travel to the edge of the galaxy and back, and the power reserves would still register full.
Elliott trailed up the ramp. He looked out of place in full tactical gear. His helmet looked too large on his narrow head. His thin frame could barely support the weight of his gear. He listed as his pack threatened to topple him to the ground.
Tyler shook his head.
Kowalski pressed the button to raise the loading ramp. The hydraulics whirred, and the hatch slowly lifted.
Elliott fumbled for his seat, sloughed his gear aside, and latched his safety harness.
The rest of the platoon sneered and snickered.
Kowalski flipped switches and pressed buttons, powering up the ship. Glowing orange backlit displays and gauges came alive. He went through the preflight checks—all systems green. The air boss cleared the Vantage for takeoff, and Kowalski engaged the thrusters.
The air distorted with heat waves as the thrusters roared. The heavy dropship lifted from the flight deck and lumbered through the air. Kowalski throttled up and cleared the bay.
Tyler felt light in his seat as the Vantage left the artificial gravity of the Revenant. His safety harness was the only thing holding him in place. He glanced at the magnificent view of New Earth—a million shades of green, blue, and brown. But the once lush planet was now pocked and scarred from the devastating invasion. The blemishes would heal with time, but it was impossible to look at without getting angry. Tyler felt his throat tighten and his pulse rise. The Decluvians were still out there, and they could return at any time.
Petty Officer Jung sat at the nav station. He programed in the jump coordinates for Vega Navi 6.
Tyler took one last glimpse at New Earth as Kowalski engaged the slide space-drive. The bulkheads bulged and warbled as the quantum distortion rippled through the ship. Tyler's stomach twisted in knots. It only lasted for a few moments, but entering and exiting slide-space could test even the most hardened sailors.
Tyler glanced around the cargo area. Elliott had gone pale, and sweat was beading on his forehead. His eyes bulged and his body writhed as he almost hurled. His cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk, but he managed to hold the vomit back. But that only lasted a second. Elliott pulled off his helmet and used it as a barf bag.
Weston's performance was met with hoots and hollers from the rest of the platoon.
Petrov dug into his pocket and handed some credits to Donovan. Elliott had been the subject of numerous side bets among the platoon. How would he handle slide-space? How much would he complain? Would he break down and cry for mommy? Would he make it back alive?
A slight grin curled on Donovan’s lips. “First quantum jump?”
“No. I just never seem to get used to it.” Elliott was starting to turn green. There was a string of drool slung from his pale lips to his helmet.
Tyler dug into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He tossed it to Elliott.
Elliott’s droopy eyes were grateful. He wiped the snot from his face. He wasn’t sure what to do with the cloth when he was done.
“Keep it,” Tyler said.
Ramirez leaned into Elliott. “Never eat those eggs before a jump. You need something heavy in your stomach. Like pizza.”
The thought of food almost made Elliott hurl again. “I’ll keep that in mind next time.”
“Better yet, don’t eat at all.”
The sour, acidic smell of vomit wafted through the cabin. It was enough to burn your nose, make your eyes water, and turn your stomach.
The platoon didn’t seem so raucous after the stench permeated the air. They were going to have to live the next several hours with that smell.
The LRADDS display lit up (Long Range Direction Distance & Speed). It was a holographic display that indicated contacts in 3D space. Alarms filled the Revenant’s CIC. The red icon quickly turned green. The IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) system recognized the warship that had just jumped into orbit around New Earth.
“Sir, it’s the USS Devastator,” Lieutenant Commander Zoey Bryant said.
Admiral Slade scoffed. “How good of them to return, now that the fighting is over.”
The Devastator had jumped to safety at the first sign of the invading Decluvian fleet. President Amado had relocated his office aboard the super-carrier as a safety precaution. The Joint Planetary Operations Command (JPOC) was also aboard the Devastator. The warship had become a mobile command platform. It had enabled the preservation of the Federation government. But running from the fight hadn’t endeared the President, or JPOC, to anyone. And Acting President Perez was doing a fine job filling in.
Slade tensed up at the site of the Devastator. She knew Amado’s return was going to bring trouble. But she was thankful for one thing. Her son, Cameron, was aboard that ship. Hopefully, he was still alive.
“Sir, I’m receiving a communication from Admiral Kilgore,” Zoey said.
Slade cringed. “Devastator, this is Revenant, actual. Fleet Admiral Slade speaking.”
There was a moment of silence. “Fleet Admiral Slade?”
She could hear the disappointment in Kilgore’s voice.
“By whose authority are you an Admiral?”
“Acting President Perez.”
“Nonsense,” he grumbled. “You’re a wanted felon.”
“I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve received a full Presidential pardon. And so has my son.”
“We’ll see what Amado has to say about that.”
“He can say whatever he’d like. But under Article II, Section 2 of the Federation Constitution, Presidential pardons are absolute and cannot be revoked. As such, I demand the immediate release of my son Cameron Thomas Slade.”
Admiral Kilgore muttered something under his breath.
“I’ll expect the release of my son within the hour.”
“I will not take orders from you. Regardless of the executive actions the Secretary of Transportation has taken, it is my contention that President Amado never lost the ability to perform his duties.”
“I’m sure that congress, and the citizens of the Federation, will see the matter differently. In the mean time, I will continue to exercise command over the fleet. I have 2 destroyers and 30 enemy warships at my disposal.” Slade was bluffing. The Scorpion wasn't exactly in tip top shape. A repair crew was out in deep space trying to get her operational again. The 30 Decluvian warships that had been captured were in dry dock on Zeta 9 Centauri. They were in the process of being repaired and retrofitted. There were over 30,000 Decluvian POWs held on Zeta 9 as well.
Kilgore was silent a moment. “Is that supposed to be some type of threat?”
“Oh, come now, Admiral. You don’t really feel threatened by little old me, do you?” Slade tried to hide the glee in her voice. After all, this was the man who once ordered Slade’s assassination.
The comm line crackled with static. Kilgore had enough of the conversation.
It wasn’t long before Amado’s face was on every display throughout the colonies, making an official statement about his return. “My fellow citizens, I speak to you from aboard the USS Devastator in orbit around New Earth. As your elected President, I vehemently oppose the declaration to remove me from office. And I do not recognize the actions of Acting President Perez. As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, I ordered the Devastator to move to a secure location, from which I continued my command of this great Federation. At no time did I lose, or relinquish control, of our fighting forces. At no time was I unable to perform my duties as President.”
“What a liar,” Slade muttered, flabbergasted. She watched the display in the CIC. Amado continued to drone on, spewing complete fabrications. He had no involvement in the defense of the Federation. His failed policies, and willful ignorance, practically invited the invasion.
Amado finally wrapped up his speech. It was painful to watch.
“And there you have it,” a reporter said. “President Amado, coming to you live from the USS Devastator. What do you make of it, Carl?” the reporter said, turning to his co-anchor.
“This is unprecedented. It looks like we now have a dispute over who is the President of the Federation.”
“I don’t think there is much of a dispute among the citizens. According to the latest interplanetary poll, Amado’s approval rating is down to 9%. The lowest approval rating in Federation history.”
“Does he have a leg to stand on?”
“For that answer, we go to Federation News Network legal analyst Megyn Cartwright.”
“Thanks, Brett. He was replaced legally by Congressional action, and ultimately, Congress can deny his return. It would take a majority vote. We’ll have to wait and see what they decide to do.”
Slade turned off the display. She’d had enough of politics for one day.
“Sir, I’m getting another communication from the Devastator,” Zoey said. “It’s Admiral Kilgore.”
“Put him through.”
Kilgore’s voice crackled over the line. “By now you are aware of the President’s position. At his request, I’m ordering you to stand down and relinquish command of the Revenant, and all remaining ships in the fleet.”
Slade clenched her jaw. Her face turned red. She had sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the Federation. By congressional action, Perez had been declared Acting President. Until the formal transfer of power, Perez had her loyalty.
“You want this ship,” Slade growled. “Come and take it.”
Vega Navi 6 was filled with lush green vegetation. From above, it looked like a tropical paradise. But it wasn’t the kind of place tourists visited. Far too risky for a weekend getaway.
The mining facility was located in the middle of a dense, thick jungle—a hot and sticky pit of hell that would chew you up and spit you out in a matter of hours. There were mosquitoes so big you’d get lightheaded after a few bites. Snakes big enough to eat a man in one gulp. There were vicious strains of malaria that could put you in the ground in a matter of days. Better take your pills. All of them. Everyday.
Navi fever was even more insidious. Sweats, chills, muscle pain. Soon, your liver and kidneys would fail. Your lungs would fill with fluid. It was like drowning on dry land. There wasn’t a cure for it. No vaccines you could take. No pills to prevent it. You just had to pray you got lucky and didn’t catch the fever.
The Vantage emerged from slide space, and Kowalski began his descent.
Elliott was still trying to settle his stomach after the transition. He had just gotten things under control before the exit out of slide-space threw his everything out of whack again. The turbulent descent into the upper atmosphere didn’t help matters. The Vantage rattled and shook. Weston's teeth chattered as he tried to hang on to what remained in his stomach.
Petrov and Donovan watched Elliott like hawks, waiting to see who was going to lose the second round of their bet.
Mosley pulled a small tube of bug repellant from a pouch. It was 5% DETMT—standard government issue. He slathered it on his skin. It smelled harsh. He offered it to Faulkner after he was done.
“Oh, hell no. That shit causes cancer.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Mosley said, dismissively.
“Make you grow an extra arm on your back. Your kids will have two heads.” Faulkner knew he was indulging in hyperbole. But the jury was out on the cancer bit.
“I got three kids. I’m not having anymore,” Mosley said. “Don’t come crying to me when you get the fever.”
The turbulence finally settled as the Vantage dipped below the clouds. Kowalski plunged the craft toward the endless canopy of trees—a green jungle that seem to span an entire continent.
The mining facility was just a small speck on the ground. Kowalski dove the Vantage down until the speck became a sprawling complex.
“Give us a good look around,” Lieutenant Grimsby said.
Kowalski circled the facility from high above, then dipped down, just above the tree line, and made another pass.
The complex seemed lifeless. There wasn’t a living soul anywhere. Exterior lighting indicated that the facility still had power. There were some broken windows here and there. But the processing equipment was at a standstill. The RedRiver dropship was on one of the landing pads. From above, it looked intact. But there was no sign of the contractors that Elliott had sent previously.
Kowalski banked the Vantage around and surveyed each of the five satellite substations. They were all in the same condition as the main facility. But there didn’t appear to be any evidence of small arms fire or heavy artillery. The ground wasn’t pocked with bomb blasts. It didn’t look like any kind of battle had taken place.
The thought had crossed Tyler's mind that pirates had raided the facility. Or, maybe, a foreign invader had staked a claim to the planet. But none of that seemed to be the case. Nobody was shooting at the Vantage. Deadly rounds weren’t streaming up from the jungle and pinging the hull.
“Bring us back to the main entrance,” Grimsby commanded.
Tyler pressed the button, and the back ramp began to lower. The hot sticky air rushed into the cabin. It was like getting hit in the face with a steamy dishrag. It didn’t take long to feel slick and greasy, coated with sweat.
“Alright, people,” Grimsby shouted. “You know the drill. Breach and clear the facility. I want to see technical perfection.”
“Are you ready, Reapers?” the Master Chief yelled.
“Hooyah,” they shouted in unison.
Charging handles clacked and clattered as the platoon locked and loaded their weapons. Adrenaline was running high among the platoon. The atmosphere was electric.
“Say it, Finn,” Faulkner shouted. “Say it.”
Tyler grinned. “I’m not saying it.”
“Aw, come on!” Mosley said. “Say it!”
They all wanted him to quote the famous line: Let’s get this party started. But Tyler wasn’t going to do it.
The skids of the Vantage touched down.
“Move out!” Donovan yelled.
The Reapers filed down the ramp, weapons in the firing position. After the last operator cleared the ramp, the Vantage lifted back in the air. The foliage swayed from the displacement of the thrusters.
The platoon advanced to the main entrance of the facility with tactical precision. It was easy to see how the Reapers had earned their name—silent death.
Elliott was still standing in the middle of the landing pad, dumping the dried puke out of his helmet. He stared at the helmet, perplexed—he certainly didn’t want to put it on his head.
Grimsby shook his head.
Elliott finally set the helmet down on the tarmac and jogged over to the rest of the platoon. His gear clanked and clattered. It was a miracle he made it to them without falling over.
Grimsby glared at him.
“Sorry. I'm not used to this,” Weston said.
“That's why you should've stayed back at New Earth.”
Tyler's eyes surveyed the metal blast doors. They were dented and scuffed. It looked as though someone had pummeled them with a large battering ram.
The platoon readied their weapons. Grimsby entered the access code on the keypad. The main doors slid open with a piercing squeal—the alignment was askew. A rush of air blew out from the complex.
The air coming out of the complex was hot. Not air-conditioned. It wasn't a good sign. The facility was running on backup power. Emergency lighting flickered through the corridors. The compound was in disarray.
The Reapers breached and cleared the entrance with textbook moves. They crept down the corridor. The walls were pitted with bullet holes and blast marks. Twisted wires and broken conduit hung from the ceiling. There were multiple areas of blood spatter. Debris and trash cluttered the facility. Something had definitely gone down here, and it wasn’t pretty.
The facility looked much the same as any other. Octagonal passageways, grated metal floors, sliding steel doors, exposed piping and conduit. It was made of prefabricated materials. Modular components that could be connected to suit a multiplicity of needs. All made by Hughes & Kessler, of course.
The Reapers moved to the control room. Grimsby gave a nod, and the platoon breached the compartment. Rifles swept the corners as the team fanned out.
“Clear,” Ramirez shouted.
His response was followed by several others.
Within moments, the room was secured. It was full of display screens and controls. All of the plant’s operations could be controlled and monitored from this station.
The facility was based on pyro-metallugical extraction—thermal processing to withdraw the metals from the rock. Massive flash and electric furnaces processed and re-processed slag, further refining and recapturing desirable metals, including plutrontium.
With the facility so far beyond the bounds of regulated space, Hughes & Kessler didn’t have to comply with any environmental considerations. It was a slash and burn operation. There was no consideration given to reducing emissions from smelting. They were going to pull what they could out of the ground, dump the toxic chemicals, and leave the planet a polluted wreck.
Tyler looked over the display screens. There was no activity in the plant. He glanced to Elliott. “Do you have any idea what happened here?”
Elliott shook his head. “There were over 1000 employees,” he stammered.
“Alright, lets move section by section,” Grimsby shouted.
The team moved back into the corridor. They pushed down the hallway and quickly came upon a section of broken windows. The metal frames were bent and bowed inward. Whatever had been trying to get into the facility had found a way.
Shards of glass crunched under the Reaper’s heavy boots as they advanced.
Tyler could hear the muffled sound of movement filter into the corridor from a nearby room.
Rifle barrels snapped in the direction of the sound. Grimsby motioned for the team to surround the entrance. When the team was ready, the LT pushed the button on the wall—but the door didn’t open. It was locked from the inside. Grimsby tried punching the security code into the keypad, but that didn’t work either.
Tyler could hear movement within the compartment. There was no telling what was inside.
Grimsby whispered to Elliott. “Can you override this lock?”
Slade had never actually met President Amado before. By all accounts, he was very charming in person. He knew how to work a room, and he always made everyone he met feel important. People who met him always said that even if you didn't like his politics, you ended up liking the man himself. He was a skillful politician.
But underneath the façade was a trail of corruption that stemmed back to his days as governor. Somehow he managed to emerge from scandal after scandal unscathed.
Amado appeared on the display screen in Slade's quarters with a brilliant smile. His upbeat and casual demeanor surprised her a little. She was expecting a hostile confrontation.
"Good afternoon, Admiral Slade," Amado said. “It's nice to finally get a face-to-face. I have heard so much about you. I'm quite surprised we haven't had the opportunity to speak before now.”
“It's a pleasure to speak with you, Mr. President,” Slade stammered. She wasn't exactly sure what to think of his demeanor. After all, she had just defied him and threatened to use military force against him. Treason, by all accounts.
"I understand there is a bit of tension between you and Admiral Kilgore.” It was perhaps the understatement of the year.
“You could say that, sir."
“Please, call me Alan. See, it’s like putting two prize fighters in the same room. Both of them are going to puff up a little bit and make challenges. but with the current state of affairs, I think it's best if you two don't trade punches.”
“I agree, sir.”
“I'm sure we can all come to an amicable agreement. I am willing to acknowledge the pardons granted by acting President Perez. I will release Cameron Thomas, and I will not pursue any further legal action against the two of you.”
Slade was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She knew there was going to be a catch.
“Provided, of course, that you relinquish command of the Revenant. You'll step down and retire from the Navy. We’ll give you a big ceremony, pin a medal on your chest, put a statue of you at the center of the reconstruction in Nova York, and give you a healthy pension. Everybody wins."
Slade’s body tensed, and her stomach turned in knots. Slade had never back down from a fight in her life. She wasn't one to capitulate, but she knew it may be her only chance to save her son.
“You haven't formally resumed the office of the Presidency yet,” Slade pointed out.
“I've spoken with acting President Perez. We have come to an agreement. By this afternoon, I will have resumed the Office.”
Slade sighed. “I’ll agree to the terms, provided there is no retaliation taken against any of my crew. They will all be allowed to retain their rank and position.”
Amado smiled. "I knew we could come to an agreement. I’ve set up a press conference for this afternoon. You can announce your retirement then. My aid will contact you with the details.”
“I want Cameron returned to the Revenant prior to the press conference.”
"Of course. I'll release Cameron immediately, as a gesture of good faith.”
The transmission ended.
Slade sat on her bed and deflated. This was the end of her storied career. Slade's eyes brimmed. A wave of emotion rushed over her. She felt empty and hollow. But grateful. Everything she had done, in one way or another, had been for her son. She spent the last 25 years of her career fighting for the Federation in order to make the galaxy a safer place for Cameron, and millions of other children, to grow up in.
She was also gravely concerned for the future. There were looming threats out there in the galaxy, and Amado had already proven himself to be incapable of handling them.
Slade indulged herself in a pity party for a few minutes, then pushed it aside. Feeling distraught wasn't going to change anything. She never had the luxury of indulging in frivolous emotion, and she wasn't going to start now. All she could do was make the best of the situation that presented itself.
She dug into a drawer and found the black box that contained her old collar pins in the rank of Captain. Then she made her way to the CIC. It was buzzing with activity, still on alert status. Zoey Bryant was at the command station.
Slade presented her with the collar pins. “The Revenant is yours, Captain Bryant.”
Her eyes glimmered with astonishment and confusion. “I don’t understand?”
“It’s called a promotion. I can give it to someone else if you don’t want it?”
“No. I want it.” The words leapt off Zoey’s tongue.
“What’s going on?”
“I just made a deal with the devil. Let’s hope I don’t get burned.”
Zoey’s face tensed with concern.
The LRADDS display lit up, and an alarm sounded. A green icon appeared, tracking toward the Revenant.
“Sir, we’ve got an inbound craft coming from the Devastator,” the tactical officer said. “A Federation shuttle. They are requesting permission to land.”
“Clear them on flight deck A,” Slade said.
She left the CIC and made her way down to the flight deck. Crews scurried about, tending to fighters and re-arming them with ordinance. She couldn't help but fidget from nerves waiting for the shuttle to land. Was Cameron okay? Was he really aboard the shuttle? Was this some elaborate ruse?
Minutes seemed like hours. Finally, the shuttle crested the edge of the flight deck. It lumbered forward and the skids touched down. The hydraulics whirred and the ramp lowered.
Slade’s eyes beamed with joy as Cameron descended the ramp. He didn’t look any worse for the wear. A little thinner, maybe. But still fit and healthy.
He stepped to the quarterdeck and greeted his mother with a salute. “Permission to come aboard, sir.”
“Permission granted.” Slade tried to contain her emotions, but her eyes were misty. The two exchanged a sharp salute. “It’s good to have you back, Ensign.”
“It’s good to be back, Admiral.” Cameron grinned.
“We’ll get you set up with some crew quarters. When you’re ready, you can return to duty.”
“I’m more than ready, sir.”
“Report to the CAG once you get settled in.”
“Aye, sir.” Cameron said. “Who’s the CAG now?”
“8-Ball,” Slade said.
“8-Ball?” Cameron asked, surprised. “I go away for a little while, and everyone gets promoted."
Slade shrugged. “Who knows, Ensign. Square yourself away, do your job, follow orders, and you might make Lieutenant Junior Grade.”
Cameron looked at her skeptically. At the rate he was going, he was going to stay an Ensign forever. He glanced around the flight deck. “How did you pull this off?”
Slade was silent.
His eyes grew full with concern. “It's not true, is it? You're not really going to retire?"
Slade pursed her lips.
"You can't. These people are criminals. You can't let them back in charge,” he pleaded with her. “Send me back. Call off the deal. I'll sit in that cell the rest of my life rather than let the Federation go down the tubes. We were almost destroyed. That can't happen again."
“The deal is done.”
Cameron clenched his jaw. His face flushed red with anger.
The shuttle lifted off and glided out of the bay, heading back toward the Devastator.
“That will be all, Ensign.”
Cameron took a deep breath. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Cameron scurried off the flight deck. Slade was just happy to have him back, even if they were going to butt heads, as usual.
An urgent voice boomed over the 1MC, “Admiral to CIC! Admiral to CIC!”
Slade cringed. It couldn't be good. What else could go wrong, she thought?
“The master code should unlock every compartment,” Elliott said. He punched in the number on the keypad but nothing happened. “Unless it was changed,” he stammered.
“Petrov, burn it out,” Grimsby commanded.
Petrov stepped to the metal sliding door and pulled out a plasma torch. It was about the size of a flashlight, with a tapered nozzle at one end. It resembled an otoscope—the device that old fashioned doctors used to look into your inner ear.
He lowered his tactical goggles to protect his eyes. He fired up the torch, and began to cut a large rectangle in the steel door. Sparks showered down to the floor. The steel glowed orange, and the flickering plasma illuminated the faces of the platoon in the dark corridor.
After a few moments, Petrov had completed his cut. The rectangular steel cutout was hanging on by a thread. The team readied their weapons, and Petrov kicked the rectangular shape to the ground. It clanked and clamored as the Reapers poured into the room. Their fingers gripped tight around the triggers of their RK 909 assault rifles, ready to squeeze off a lethal flurry of gunfire.
There was, indeed, something in the room.
“Don’t shoot,” a terrified man screamed. He was clutching a pistol, which he quickly dropped to his side once he saw who was coming through the door. His eyes were wide and his face was pale and covered in sweat. “Thank God. I was beginning to think no one was coming.”
“Who are you?” Grimsby asked.
“Dave Horton. Leader of the RedRiver team.” He was shaggy and unkempt.
“Where’s the rest of your squad?” Grimsby asked.
Horton shook his head. “They didn’t make it,” he stammered. He was frazzled, and looked like he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. “I’m the only one left. I locked myself in here with all the supplies I could find and hoped for the best.”
“What happened here?” Tyler asked.
Horton swallowed hard. He looked like he didn’t want to answer. It took him a moment to speak. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“Them?” Tyler asked.
“Do you have a ship? I mean, of course you have a ship, how else would you have gotten here,” Horton muttered to himself. “Let’s get on it, and get the fuck out of here. I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions once you get me off this rock.”
“I’ll get you off this planet once we achieve our mission objective,” Grimsby said in a stern voice.
“Lieutenant, with all due respect, the only mission objective you should have right now is getting out of here alive.”
Grimsby clinched his jaw. “What are we dealing with?”
“Why don’t you go take a walk through that jungle and find out?” Horton said.
Grimsby glared at him. “You know, from where I’m standing, you seem really ungrateful.”
“Right. I get it,” Horton said. “You guys are Reapers. You think you’re a bunch of bad asses. You think you can handle anything. But you can’t handle this. Nobody can.” Horton had worked himself up into a frenzy.
Petrov sneered at Horton, catching sight of his tattoo. “This is what happens when you send X-Force to do a Reaper’s job.”
Horton glared at Petrov. “You want to know what’s out there? I’ll show you.”
“I eat fear for breakfast.” Petrov grinned.
Horton crept into the corridor, letting his pistol lead the way. His big eyes scanned in all directions as he led the team through the maze of corridors.
The platoon followed with caution. They weaved through the passageways, wondering where the hell he was taking them.
Horton stopped about ten yards from the body of a hideous creature. It lay motionless on the floor in a pool of crusted blood. It had been there for several days and was starting to desiccate. Small insects buzzed around the corpse. The stench was horrendous. The exoskeleton had taken on the color of its surroundings—down to the details of the grated floor.
“You tell me what the hell that is?” Horton said.
“Ramirez. O’Malley,” Grimsby said as he motioned toward the remains.
The two Reapers advanced toward the corpse. Their eyes were wide, and their skin was slick with sweat. They poked at the monstrosity with their rifles, then flipped the carcass over on its back. The creature’s dried exoskeleton crackled. Even in death, it was terrifying. Its razor-sharp mandibles still looked ready to devour flesh.
Tyler felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. He hated bugs, as did most. Tyler had never been on a bug hunt before, but he had heard the horror stories.
The battle hardened Reapers all looked upon the rotting corpse with trepidation. Bugs were tenacious, methodical, and above all selfless. Dedicated drones that worked for the good of the community as a whole. Singular of purpose. They didn’t care about career advancement. They weren’t fighting for a paycheck. They were born into their hierarchy. They would fight relentlessly until they achieved victory. Of all things in the galaxy, bugs were to be feared the most.
“Still want to stick around this place?” Horton asked. He looked at Petrov and mocked him. “Still eat fear for breakfast?”
“Sir, I'm picking up long-range quantum distortions," the tactical officer said.
Slade stood over his shoulder and looked at the display. "What do you make of it?"
The tactical officer shrugged. “Could be anything. Or nothing,” he stammered. It had him concerned whatever it was. Slade too.
“It's either a very large object moving through slide-space, or a lot of objects," Slade said.
“Like a fleet,” the tactical officer said, gravely.
“Can you tell their trajectory?”
“No. I’m surprised we were able to detect anything at all.” He hesitated. “It could just be an anomaly.”
Slade knew in her gut it wasn't an anomaly. Something was out there. "Keep an eye on this. Notify the rest of the fleet. Tell them we may have a possible incoming threat."
“Aye, sir." The tactical officer stared at his screen. "It's gone, sir.”
“Zoey, keep the ship on alert status. It's probably nothing, but stay sharp.”
Zoey paused, then stammered. "Are you really going to do this?”
“What choice do I have?"
Zoey’s eyes got misty. "The fleet's not going to be the same without you."
“Thank you, Captain. I'm leaving her in good hands." Slade had a bittersweet smile.
She left the CIC and headed back to her quarters, where she changed into her full dress blues. Someone knocked on the hatch as she stood in front of the mirror, rehearsing her speech.
The hatch slid open and Commander Walker stepped into the compartment. His eyes widened as he caught sight of the admiral. She looked stunning. “You clean up well, sir."
“Why, thank you, Commander.” She spun around to face him and modeled the attire. “Take it all in, Commander, you're not going to see it much longer.”
“So, it’s true?”
“I am afraid so.”
Walker exhaled. "We’re all going to end up in the brig.”
“Amado gave me his word."
Walker scoffed. “That, and 35 credits, will get you a cup of coffee. Kilgore gave me orders to kill you, remember.”
Slade smiled. "And you did. You stole my heart."
“Now don't go getting all mushy on me."
“Never, Commander. I don’t like mushy. I like hard,” she said, leering at him.
“Now that's just not fair. We don't have time for a conversation like that."
“I'll have plenty of time once I'm retired." She had a deliciously naughty glint in her eye.
Walker felt his heart beat rise. There was something about this woman that just did it for him.
Slade stalked him like an animal. She pulled him close and planted a firm kiss on his lips. They melted into one another. Then she pushed him away and laughed. “Now look at what you've done. You've gone and messed up my lipstick.”
She spun around and strolled back to the mirror. Walker watched her strut—it was a nice view.
Slade reapplied her lipstick.
“I guess I'm going to have to find another girlfriend aboard the ship." He was trying to elicit a reaction.
Slade glared at him through the mirror. "I'm not your girlfriend.”
Walker smiled. "No. You're not. Maybe we should do something about that?”
“What? Like make it official?"
Walker shrugged, feigning indifference.
“You couldn't handle me full time."
Walker took it as a challenge. It was one of the reasons he was drawn to her. “I can handle anything.”
“Can you?” She turned around.
“I'm a Navy reaper. We’re trained to deal with all kinds of hostile situations."
“You forget, I went through Reaper training as well."
“See, we’re made for each other.”
Slade pretended to ponder his argument for a moment. "Supposing I agreed to this preposterous notion to be your girlfriend, what's in it for me?"
“Girlfriend sounds so… Juvenile. We’re not in high school. I was thinking something that had a little more… weight to it."
Slade stared at him, slack-jawed. "You're not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, are you?"
Walker shrugged, feigning indifference again. "Maybe."
Slade laughed. “You definitely couldn't handle me."
“Are you high?"
“I am of sound mind, I can assure you."
“I’m not so sure about that."
Walker scowled at her, playfully.
“How about we continue this conversation once I get back from New Earth. If you still want to sign on the dotted line then, we'll talk about it.”
“Fair enough,” Walker said. “Bailey approves of you, though.”
“You’re going to make life decisions based on the opinion of your dog.”
“He’s got better instincts than I do.”
Slade laughed. “He does have good taste. I'll give him that."
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“I’m a big girl. I can handle myself. Besides, I know you have even more disdain for politics than I do."
Walker leaned in to kiss her.
Slade pulled away. “Uh, uh… you’re not going to mess this up again.” She motioned to the artistic masterpiece of makeup on her face.
Walker chuckled. “Give ‘em hell down there.”
“Oh, I will.”
Grimsby pulled up a schematic of the complex on his PDU. “Finn, take Mosley, Faulkner, Petrov, and Horton.”
“I’ll, take Ramirez, Jung, and O'Malley. Sweep and clear the facility from the south. Keep an eye out for survivors. Try not to shoot them."
“Donovan, keep Finn out of trouble.”
"We'll meet at the storage unit here, on the east side." Grimsby pointed to his PDU. “Elliott, you’re with me.”
“I'm telling you, this is a bad idea,” Horton said. “If you were smart, you’d get back on the dropship ASAP."
Grimsby ignored him. “Let's move out."
The two teams split up. Tyler moved south down the corridor. Horton reluctantly followed Tyler's squad.
“Hey, anybody got extra ammo?" Horton said. "I've got about seven rounds left in this magazine. And that's not going to do any good."
Tyler looked irritated, but he reached into a pouch and pulled out two magazines. He tossed them to Horton.
Horton pressed the mag release button and dropped the half-empty magazine into his palm. He replaced it with a full magazine, and stuffed the extra mags in his pockets.
Tyler pulled his tactical goggles down from his helmet. It had an array of viewing options—night vision, thermal, etc. The passageway lit up with detail. The entire platoon was networked together, and Tyler could scroll through the feeds of the other team members. A heads-up display gave him targeting information, which was useful in determining friend from foe in chaotic combat situations. Contact points within the goggles monitored brain waves and allowed him to control the features by thought.
Most insects were ectothermic life forms and wouldn’t produce much of a heat signature. They would be relatively close to the ambient temperature. With as hot as the planet was, the thermal imaging was awash with red. It was practically useless.
Tyler's squad navigated through the maze of dim passageways. It was eerie. Even at 120 degrees, the thought of those creatures running around sent a chill down his spine. The team swept through the living quarters, clearing each compartment. They did the same for office areas, the cafeteria, storage compartments, utility rooms, and shopping facilities.
They were about half way through the complex when shots rang out. The staccato report of gunfire echoed through the corridors and permeated the walls.
Tyler switched to Grimsby’s feed. It was pure chaos. Blinding muzzle flash and gun smoke filled the screen. The shaky camera made it difficult to see amid the turmoil. But Tyler caught a glimpse of several of the creatures. They streaked through the corridor, overwhelming the squad.
Tyler switched back to his view. “Lets move!”
He led the squad through the labyrinth of passageways. By the time they caught up with Grimsby’s squad, the fighting was over. A slew of bug parts lay scattered about the corridor. Blood painted the walls. Ramirez, Jung, and Grimsby were dead.
Elliott stood there trembling. His face was pale, and sweat was dripping from his skin. He could barely utter a sound. It was a miracle he was still alive. He was the least experienced of anyone, yet he was still on his feet. Just dumb luck.
O'Malley had a chunk of flesh taken from his arm. The bug had bitten clean through his forearm shield. Its sharp teeth had pierced clear down to his white bone. Bright red blood was oozing from the wound.
Donovan pulled out a med kit and administered first aid. She filled the gaping wound with GS gel, a biopolymer foam that patched the area.
O’Malley clenched his jaw. One look at his tortured face, and you knew just how much agony he was in. But he didn't say a word. He just took the pain and stayed calm.
“You’re going to be just fine, son.” Donovan tried to assure O'Malley. She gave him an injection for the pain. Within moments, a wave of relief washed over O’Malley’s face.
Horton's eyes looked at the wounded Reaper with grave concern. Not so much that he was worried about O'Malley's well-being—he didn’t even know the guy. But he had seen what happened to people who had been bitten, and it wasn’t pretty.
Weston was a wreck. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets and he was trembling. His body was covered with nervous sweat. He looked down at the bodies of Ramirez and Jung in horror. "I don't know what happened. They just came out of nowhere.” His voice was dry and shaky.
There had only been three bugs. That's all it took to take out half the squad. All of this destruction had happened in a matter of moments.
"Those damn things are hard to put down," O’Malley stammered. His slurred words were thick with an opiate haze. “I must have emptied a full magazine on just one of them.”
Tyler looked dumbstruck. His commanding officer was down. He didn't know what the hell to do next. Everyone was looking to him for answers, but he didn't have any.
Donovan stood up and pulled Tyler aside. "You're in command now, sir. What are your orders?”
It was a lot easier in the movies—the script was written for you. All you had to do was repeat the lines. But this wasn't the movies. And Tyler was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that half the platoon had been taken out.
“I don’t know,” Tyler stammered.
Donovan grabbed him by the collar. She gritted her teeth and whispered, "I don't know is not an acceptable answer, sir. Make a goddamn command decision."
Tyler pulled out his PDU and studied the floor plan of the complex. “We’re going to fall back to the med center.”
Tyler had always wanted his own command, but now that he had it, he wasn't so sure what to do with it.
When New Earth was first colonized, then President Thomas Reed built an exact replica of the White House to honor the centuries of freedom and democracy. He felt he would also add legitimacy to the newly formed government. WH2, as it was called among the staff, had survived several wars, and was still standing after the Decluvian invasion.
Cameras flashed. Microphones cluttered the podium. The East Room of the White House was deluged with reporters. President Amado took to the podium. It was adorned with the Presidential seal. Behind him were the flags of the Federation, and the familiar gold curtains.
“We are here today to see Admiral Slade receive the Federation's highest honor,” Amado said. “I offer my thanks for her integrity, dedication, and valor, and her unwavering commitment to the protection of the colonies.”
Amado surveyed the crowd of reporters. “The creed of every Navy reaper says this: I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. Which pretty much means that Admirl Slade would rather not be here at such a stuffy formal event. She would rather be out there, among the stars.”
There were obligatory chuckles all around from the press pool.
“Like so many, Admiral Slade does not seek attention, but rather shuns it. Today's event is a special opportunity for the people of the Federation to get a glimpse of a bona fide hero, that so often serves in the shadows. Due to the classified nature of Admiral Slade's service, there is much that cannot be said about her heroic actions. But it is this very secrecy that saves lives.”
Amado was reading from a prepared speech. He would have said anything that was put before him.
“As William Faulkner said, I believe that man will not only endure, but he will prevail. And with men and women serving in our military, such as Admiral Slade, I have no doubt. It is with great honor and humility, that I present Admiral Slade with the Medal of Honor.”
The crowd erupted with cheers.
The President stepped to Admiral Slade.
An announcer spoke, “The President of the Federation, in the name of the Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Admiral Aria Slade, UPDF Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of her life, above and beyond the call of duty."
Amado placed the medal around Slade’s neck.
The East Room filled with applause. Camera shutters clattered.
Amado leaned in and whispered something into Slade’s ear. They both chuckled. He motioned for her to take the podium.
"Thank you. It is with the greatest humility that I accept this honor. I am able to stand here before you today, but many are not. May the Federation always remember and honor the sacrifices of those who have fallen in defense of our freedom. Due credit must be given to President Amado for his wise leadership during the darkest of times.” She almost choked on the words, but she was there to make him look good. It was part of the deal.
Slade looked out over the crowd. She took a deep breath. "It is with great sadness, that I take this opportunity to announce my retirement from the Navy. For the last 25 years, the defense of this Federation has been my steadfast mission.”
Amado’s smile grew. He was getting rid of the thorn in his side.
“But my commitment to public service does not end here. That's why I am pleased to announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the Federation.”
Amado's face dropped. All traces of his previous smile vanished.
There were audible gasps from the press corps, followed by cheers and applause.
Amado had planned to use this event to reestablish his legitimacy—instead, he created a competitor.
Slade glanced at him from the podium and gave him a wry smile. Amado's face was turning red, and the veins in his neck were becoming more prominent. He did his best to put on a pleasant face, but sweat was beating on his forehead.
Amado looked like he wanted to slit Slade's throat as he passed by her to retake the podium. “Well, that concludes today's ceremony. Please join us for the reception. Admiral Slade and I will join you shortly. We have to stick around for some pictures. Thank you all again."
Nobody was adjourning to the reception. It was chaos as reporters swamped Slade. They hurled questions across the room, wanting to know why she decided to run, and what her policy positions were going to be on key issues. Dozens of microphones were shoved into her face. Camera lights blinded her eyes. She blinked, unused to the media circus.
“What is your stance on the refugee crisis? There are over 30,000 Decluvian POWs on Zeta 9 Centauri,” a reporter from the Colonial News Network asked.
“As President, I will try to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, and a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the Decluvians.”
Amado glared at her. He was seething.
“What do you say to the reports of human rights violations at the POW camp?” Another reporter asked.
Slade scoffed. “The Decluvians are not human.”
There were chuckles from some of the press pool.
Slade saw an aid whisper in Amado’s ear. The speed at which the President was ushered out of the East Room was indicative of a crisis.
Alarms sounded aboard the Revenant. Klaxons blared. Multiple contacts illuminated on the LRADDS display. The screen was awash with red icons.
“Sir, multiple enemy warships,” the tactical officer shouted.
"Battle stations," Captain Bryant yelled.
“Sir, we have nukes incoming."
The Revenant was surrounded with heavy destroyers. Nukes streaked across the star field from all directions.
The Mark 25 cannons that lined the port and starboard side of the Revenant swung into action. The auto targeting system locked on to the inbound warheads. The 16 inch guns blasted a flurry of armor penetrating super-sabot rounds. The staccato report rumbled through the ship.
“Helm, port full,” Zoey commanded.
The massive destroyer banked. Zoey clung to the command console as the thrusters engaged. “Fire control, give me a solution."
“Sir, there are dozens of them,” the fire control officer shouted. His voice quivered. “Which one do you want me to target?”
“As many as you can.”
The Mark 25s shredded several of the inbound warheads. But a few managed to sneak through the defenses. Three nukes slammed into the hull of the Revenant. The mighty ship quaked, and the bulkheads rattled. Avionics exploded. Smoke filled the air.
Zoey slammed the deck.
The new captain staggered to her feet. “Damage report!”
“Hull breach in section 27-32, 65-73, 122-138.”
“Seal the compartments!”
The LRADDS display lit up with more red icons.
“More inbound nukes, sir!” the tactical officer yelled.
Zoey was soaked in nervous sweat. The old destroyer could take a lot of punishment, but it wasn't going to take much more of this heavy abuse. “Plot jump coordinates for Zeta 9 Centauri.”
“I have a firing solution,” the fire control officer shouted.”
“Fire the Widow-makers!”
“Aye, sir.” The fire control officer launched four 50 megaton nukes. They blasted out of the launch tubes and streaked across the star field, spewing propellant.
These were among the most devastating weapons in the Revenant's arsenal. Upon detonation, the thermonuclear reaction would create temperatures hotter than the sun. The blast could be seen from a thousand miles away. The explosion would emit x-rays, infrared rays, and gamma rays. But these warheads weren't going to detonate. They were eviscerated by the enemy defenses almost the instant they left the launch tubes.
“Coordinates plotted, sir," the tactical officer shouted.
“Get us out of here!"
The tactical officer engaged the slide-space drive. The quantum distortion rippled through the ship. The bulkheads bulged and warbled. Zoey felt her stomach clench, and she had a moment of vertigo. The uncomfortable sensation passed within a few seconds as the transition to slide-space completed.
The Revenant vanished from orbit around New Earth before the incoming warheads impacted the hull.
Zoey’s heartbeat began to slow to a normal pace. She caught her breath and wiped the sweat from her brow. She felt guilty leaving New Earth defenseless. But it was better to regroup and strike back when the Revenant had the advantage.
“Any idea who the hell just hit us?” Zoey asked.
“Sensor readings indicate the warships are consistent with those encountered by Admiral Slade at the synthetic colony.”
Zoey grimaced. “Robots.” She said it like the word tasted bad.
It didn't come as much of a shock. It wasn't a question of if the robots would attack, but when. They had years of pent-up anger stemming from the original uprising. The Federation was at its weakest. It made for the perfect storm, Zoey thought. And who could blame them? The robots had suffered some horrendous atrocities in the early days of artificial intelligence.
Scores of casualties flooded into the med center. Corpsmen scurried about, treating the wounded. Doctor Jackson attended to the most critical patients first, provided they had a high probability of survival—no sense wasting resources on terminal cases. The air was filled with anguished moans and screams of agony. You could almost taste the tinny metallic aroma of blood. There were contusions, lacerations, and broken bones. Burned skin, blistered and charred. Some sailors were unrecognizable, red and blackened and oozing. It was always the same after every combat engagement. Doctor Jackson saw the horrible side of war firsthand, and he was getting tired of it.
It didn't take long for the Revenant to reach Zeta 9 Centauri. It was one of the designated emergency fallback locations. It was an industrial planet that was home to several major manufacturing plants, including the Sokolov ship yard, the original designers of the Avenger class destroyers. For now, it appeared to be safe. There were no signs of the enemy.
"Get an HRT outside immediately and repair the hull,” Zoey commanded. "I want this ship back in tip top shape ASAP.”
“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer shouted.
Commander Walker made his way to the CIC. His worried eyes found Zoey. "Captain, the Admiral is still on New Earth.”
“I’m aware of that, Commander.”
"Request permission to mount a recovery operation, sir."
“We don’t have a clear picture of what we’re up against.”
“This is the Admiral we’re talking about.”
“I know it is. I just don’t want you to rush in unprepared.”
Walker gritted his teeth. “Rest assured, I will be prepared.”
“What do you need?"
“A gunship. A small team. It will be a routine extraction.”
“Something tells me this is going to be anything but routine." Zoey gazed into his worried eyes. “Bring her back, Commander.”
The Reaper team secured themselves inside the medical facility. The room didn’t have any exterior walls. No windows. The dual stage airlock contained airborne pathogens and provided an extra measure of safety. Whatever those creatures were, they’d have to get through two steel blast doors if they wanted to get inside the med center.
The room was full of beakers, specimen jars, microscopes, gurneys, and diagnostic equipment. Attached was a robotic operating room. There were a plethora of examining and recovery bays, separated by curtains. In the back, there was a cold storage facility that was still running on emergency power. It contained med supplies, perishable drugs, several 5 gallon drums of DETMT, and a few body bags.
Morale was low. The platoon sulked about the room.
“Sir, may I have a word with you,” Donovan asked.
“What is it, Master Chief?” Tyler replied.
She pulled him aside. “Everyone is looking to you for answers, sir. You can't ever hesitate like that. You always have to have the answers, even if you don't.”
Tyler grimaced. He didn't like what he was hearing. He could see in her eyes that she had no faith in him. “I understand, Master Chief.”
“Where’s Dr. Noble?” Elliott asked Horton.
“She, and two others, tried to make it to Station 5, on the north side,” Horton said. “I don’t know if they made it.”
“What’s at Station 5?” Tyler asked.
“There’s a freighter. It’s the only way off the planet.”
“What happened to your ship?” Tyler asked.
“Those goddamn things chewed through the wiring. Tore it to shreds,” Horton said. “My advice to you… Don’t leave your ship on the ground for too long. Especially not at night.”
“What makes you think that freighter is in any condition to fly?” Tyler asked.
“I don’t. But it’s the only possibility. Except for your ship.”
“We need to get over to Station 5, immediately,” Elliott said. His face was filled with worry. Either Holly Noble was extremely valuable to the corporation, or Elliott had some type of personal connection to her.
“We’re not going anywhere just yet,” Tyler grumbled. He tapped his earbud and signaled the Vantage. “Hawkeye, Bravo One, actual. Do you copy.”
An instant later, Kowalski responded. “Bravo One, Hawk-eye. …Finn?”
“What happened to Grimsby?”
“We’ve had a… situation. Deploy the surveillance drones. I want eyes in the sky.”
Kowalski flipped the switch on the console. Dozens of small bumble drones launched from a port on the Vantage. They were no larger than a bumblebee. They fanned out and set up a grid encompassing the entire facility.
Tyler pulled out his PDU and tabbed through a few screens to access the video feed. The drones were networked together. The visual data was processed and interpolated, providing a continuous, navigable view of the complex and surrounding area. Tyler was able to move around and zoom in and out, in 3-D space. The drones had the ability to detect movement and potential threats. If anything was out there, these drones would pick it up.
Kowalski launched a second set of drones. They were programed to map out the mining tunnels. With the vast network of passageways, it could take a few days to fully map the cavernous underbelly of the mining complex.
With nothing more to do, Kowalski re-engaged the autopilot on the Vantage. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The Vantage had enough juice to stay airborne for a lifetime. The autopilot could put him in a perfect stationary hover. Kowalski slept for most of these missions. His job was to get the platoon to and from their destination, and be ready whenever they needed them. It left a lot of time to sleep, read, and play video games. And that suited him just fine.
Tyler scrolled through the virtual map and found Station 5. He zoomed in, but he didn’t see any signs of Dr. Noble, or her associates.
There was a large freighter still on the tarmac outside the compound. It looked intact. Tyler kept scrolling through the map. He didn’t see any creatures. Nothing seemed to be moving out there. The drone’s motion trackers weren’t picking up any lifeforms. It was an eerie, desolate jungle.
Horton watched Tyler as he studied the surveillance map. “Trust me. You can look right at them and not see them. They blend in. They’re like chameleons. Their camouflage is flawless.”
“The drones will pick up their movement,” Tyler said.
“No. They won’t. At least, not until it’s too late.”
“Well, you’re just full of optimism, aren’t you?” Petrov said.
“Spend a few days in this shit hole, then come talk to me about optimism.”
“Sir, I think you’d better come take a look at this,” Faulkner shouted. He was in the back of the med center with his weapon aimed at a body bag that was lying atop a gurney.
Tyler rushed to meet him.
Soon, the rest of the platoon was bearing down on the bodybag.
“I swear, I just saw that damn thing move,” Faulkner said. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets. He seemed a little rattled, and not much ever seemed to rattle Faulkner.
He was a big guy—6’3”, 260 pounds of pure muscle. He carried an M640 light automatic weapon. It was a belt fed machine gun that fired 7.62mm rounds. It was heavier than the standard issue RK 909s, but still light enough to be operated by one person. It could put a lot of bullets downrange in a short amount of time. With a weapon like that, he shouldn’t have been twitchy about a body bag. But something about this whole planet had him a little spooked.
“Don’t get squirrelly on me, Faulkner,” Tyler said.
“I’m telling you, the damn thing moved.”
“Open it up.”
Faulkner inched toward the dark green bag. He grabbed the zipper and pulled it open with a quick sweep of his arm. He pulled away from the bag as it opened. His face twisted up from the stench.
Faulkner’s eyes went wide like saucers.
The rest of the platoon stared slack-jawed.
“What the fuck is that?” Faulkner stammered.
The signal was broadcast over every channel on every device. It was from Sarlin, the commander of the synthetic fleet. The message was simple. “Surrender, or be destroyed.”
There wasn't much choice. Slade had seen firsthand the slew of mechanized warriors the synthetics possessed. Brutal killing machines that were like walking tanks. They didn't need food, they didn't need sleep, and they had no conscience. Limited AI that followed every order without question. Tens of thousands of them were waiting aboard the warships, ready to go into battle at a moments notice.
New Earth's air defenses had been devastated. The ground forces were tattered, and had suffered heavy casualties from the Decluvian invasion. General McMahon was still, presumably, at Blackhawk Mountain with his finger on the trigger of the nuclear arsenal. It was the Strategic Defense Command’s headquarters, located 2000 feet underground. But even if he could target the invading warships, and launch the arsenal, the synthetics had already proven themselves adept at dismantling incoming nuclear threats.
It was pure chaos in the East Room of the White House. President Amado had been ushered deep underground to the emergency operations center.
Former acting President Perez, who had been in attendance at the ceremony, stepped to Slade. “You know, I thought long and hard about blocking President Amado's return. I had the support of the majority of Congress. According to Article 25 of the Constitution, we could have kept him from the Office, legally. But I'm glad we didn't. Because I sure wouldn’t want to go down in history as the President who surrendered the Federation.”
Slade’s face was grim. She heard the roar of fighter jets overhead and stepped to the window. She peeled back the curtain. The sky was littered with enemy fighters, streaking through the clouds. Swarms of transport ships descended. One of them landed on the White House lawn.
The back ramp lowered and a horde of mechanized warriors stomped out of the craft. The mechanized robotic infantry was terrifying. Silver ministers of death. They had forearm attachments in the shape of mini-guns, plasma cannons, and RPG's.
The platoon was marching toward the White House across the lawn, and nothing was going to stop them. There were Secret Service agents atop the roof, raining down bullets upon the mechanized infantry. But the rounds just sparked and bounced away. The machines didn't seem to flinch. They just kept on their incessant march. Just one of them was able to take out every single agent on the roof, firing with surgical precision. If there was any doubt about their capability, it was put to rest in the blink of an eye. Tens of thousands of these things were taking their first steps all across New Earth.
Slade's heart was pounding in her chest. Her throat was tight. As bad as the Decluvian invasion had been, this was worse. Seeing the ease at which they stormed the Federation's capital was gut wrenching.
Slade would have given anything for an STN 50 disruptor—a weapon that wreaked havoc on neural pathways of both human and synthetic beings. She had used a similar weapon against these mechanized soldiers before, with great success. But robots were always quick to address any flaws. It was doubtful that such technology would still work.
Slade dug into her pocket and pulled out her lipstick. It was something she almost never wore, except for special occasions. She wasn't a girly girl by any stretch of the imagination. She removed the cap and twisted the lipstick up in the tube. Then she painted geometric shapes on her face to break up the patterns of her features. Sultry red triangles across her lips and nose and eyes and cheekbones. She looked ridiculous.
When she was done, she handed the tube to Perez. His brow crinkled up. "I don't think that's my shade."
“Do it, if you want to live."
The walking tanks blasted through the front door and smashed through the windows. Glass shattered and wood splintered. The soldiers stormed in from all directions. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And those that did attempt to run were brutally gunned down.
The White House was filled with shrieks and screams. Terrified reporters scurried like roaches. Their bodies peppered with bullets, exploding into grisly bits of blood and bone. Cameras clattered to the ground. The mechanized warriors knew no mercy.
Slade stood perfectly still. She knew the mechanized infantry keyed off movement and facial recognition. The exact relative measurements of the eyes, nose, and mouth, allows facial recognition to identify anyone in almost an instant. But when those features are obscured, detection becomes impossible.
Slade may have looked ridiculous, but as long as she stood still, she was practically invisible to the machines. At least, to these lower-level machines.
Several of the walking tanks stormed through the East Room. One of them squared off in front of Slade. Her heart was thumping so loud she was sure the damn thing was going to hear it.
The mechanized soldier looked her up and down, then moved on to Perez. He was trembling. His hands were shaking so bad they were rattling against his cuffs. His knees were smacking against his pant legs. Beads of sweat rolled down his face, gliding over the greasy red lipstick.
His movements gave him away. It didn't take long for the machine to recognize him as a threat. It took a small step back and spun up the mini-gun. Muzzle flash erupted from the barrel and within a fraction of a second, a dozen rounds punctured Perez's chest. They tore a hole in his thoracic cavity the size of a football. Blood splattered the wall and sprayed across the gold curtains. His body crumpled to the ground.
Slade’s body tensed. She could feel her face flushed with rage. But she maintained her composure and stood still.
The machine’s head snapped to her. Slade had made small, almost imperceptible movements. Her core body temperature elevated slightly. Both of which were enough to draw added scrutiny.
The mechanized warrior surveyed her again. She was going to die in the White House with the Medal of Honor around her neck, she thought. Probably not the worst way to go out, but she wasn't ready to die just yet.
The mechanized soldier stared at Slade for an uncomfortably long time. She felt a sneeze coming on and wasn't sure how long she could hold it back. Just as her nose began to twitch, the machine stepped back, turned around, and marched out of the room.
She exhaled, and her stiff body relaxed. Her somber eyes gazed around the room at the destruction and bloodshed. She looked at Perez's mangled body and frowned.
She could hear the machines stomp through the rest of the house, clearing the rooms. They were moving toward the West Wing. There was no doubt another team of machines had already taken the Oval Office.
Slade crept to the body of a fallen Secret Service agent and pulled his service pistol from the holster. She press-checked the weapon— there was a round in the chamber, and 17 in the magazine. The pistol wasn't going to do much good against the machines. But she felt more comfortable with a weapon in her hand.
Slade peered around the door frame into the next room—it was clear. Then she dashed to the window, stepping over bodies and debris. The curtains were torn and frayed and blowing in the wind. Slade looked out over the South Lawn and saw Marine One smoldering in flames. Amado was either dead, or in the bunker.
Slade crawled out the window and crouched down behind a row of shrubs. Shards of glass crunched underneath her feet. She could hear the gunfire and chaos that was ensuing at the West Wing. If Amado was squirreled away in the bunker, it wouldn't be long before the synthetics would find a way to coax him out, or drill their way in.
Slade crept along the hedgerow, then dashed to a nearby tree on the lawn. She took cover behind its thick trunk. She moved from tree to tree until she was at the edge of the property. The outer security wall had been obliterated by the machines. She slipped away through an opening, dashed across the street, then ducked into an alleyway.
She peered around the corner and watched as machines marched up and down the street. The clank of metal feet slamming against the concrete filled the air.
The machines weren’t attacking citizens unless confronted. They seemed to be establishing their territory and dominance, staking out sentries on every corner.
The attack on WH2 was a strategic, pinpoint operation. Cut straight to the chase. Take out the leader of the Federation in one swift blow, and bring the colonies to their knees.
Slade continued down the alleyway to Preston Avenue. It was more of the same—a sentry on each corner. She watched a terrified couple walk carefully past one of the machines. Their eyes were wide, and they were trying to keep their distance. The machine let them pass. A few moments later, several gang members pulled to the intersection in a hovercraft and opened fire on one of the machines.
The bullets did nothing. They bounced off the composite alloy, pinging and clanking. Muzzle flash and gun smoke filled the air. Sparks flashed against the metal warrior. The thing stood there for a moment as the gang members emptied their magazines. The machine almost seemed amused. Almost. Then it took aim and eviscerated the vehicle, and everyone in it.
Bodies slumped out the window, bleeding onto the concrete. Weapons hit the ground. The hovercraft was still in gear, and with the operator dead, it drifted forward, crashing into a parked vehicle.
The machine didn’t seem any worse for the wear.
Slade took her jacket off and turned it inside out, then put it back on. She slipped the Medal of Honor over her head and stuffed it in her pocket. Then she tucked the pistol into her waistband, placing it in the small of her back. She wasn't going to get very far unless she looked like a civilian.
She stood up, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the alleyway. She strolled down the sidewalk like it was any other day. Her heartbeat was thundering in her chest again as she approached the corner.
The machine saw her, surveyed her, then did nothing. Slade didn't appear to be a threat.
She turned the corner and picked up the pace a little. She wasn't really sure where she was going, but she kept moving.
The city was still mostly in ruin from the Decluvian invasion, but there were some untouched areas. Some storefronts were open for business. Some were missing walls and roofs, but that didn't seem to be stopping them. Many people were too scared to walk about on the street, so wherever they were when the machines arrived is where they stayed.
Slade stepped into a coffee shop. Many of the patrons were huddling in fear underneath the tables. Wide eyes and pale faces, dripping with sweat. They looked at Slade like she was insane. It didn't help that she had geometric shapes painted on her face with lipstick. They stared at her in silence for a moment.
“Can I get you anything, ma’am?” The barista stood behind the counter and spoke in a casual manner, as if nothing was wrong.
“You're still serving?"
“The rent is still going to be due at the first of the month." He smiled. He had that California surfer voice, even though California was 200 light years away, and didn't exist anymore. He had long blond hair, and his green eyes were red and glassy. The kid was thoroughly baked.
“I’ll take a Grande latte.” Why not, Slade thought? She might not get another cup of coffee for a long time.
“I have to advise you, crisis pricing is in effect."
“Hey, I’m risking my life to bring you the finest brewed bean.”
“Take it or leave it, ma'am."
Slade rolled her eyes. "Fine." She placed her thumb on the pay pad and transferred the credits.
“What’s your name?”
The barista wrote her name on the cup. “So, like, what happened to your face? Did you do your makeup in the car, or something?"
Slade glared at him. “Just make my overpriced latte."
“No, I think it looks cool. It's like abstract art, or something. Sexy.” The barista stood there for an uncomfortable moment, then went to work preparing the latte.
A TV was tuned to the Colonial News Network. A reporter was rambling on about the invasion, but she didn't seem to know any more than anyone else.
A few moments later, the barista called Slade’s name. She grabbed the hot cup from the counter and let it cool for a few moments, then took a sip. It wasn't bad—not worth 72 credits, but not bad. She didn’t need the caffeine. She was already wound up on adrenaline. Might as well kick it into overdrive, she thought.
She could hear the heavy marching of one of those machines clattering past the coffee shop. She glanced back to the glass doors to see it walk past. It peered inside as it strolled by, then continued on. Everyone held their breath for a moment.
A shaky voice called out from the corner, “You're Admiral Slade, aren't you?"
“Do you know what’s really happening?” the man asked. He was a slightly chubby guy, wearing an untucked red flannel shirt. He had olive skin and short dark hair.
“I know what you know,” Slade said.
“We're going to fight them, aren't we?" He was scared and angry.
“Our military is taking the appropriate steps to respond to the situation." At least, she hoped that was the case. She had no idea if the Revenant was even still in existence.
The man seemed frustrated with the canned answer. “Why aren’t you out there doing something?"
Slade cringed. “Believe me, I want nothing more than to be in command of my ship, defending the Federation. I have every intention of fighting these things until I draw my last breath.” She paused. "In the meantime, I suggest we all stay calm. They only seem to respond to aggressive action, so don't make any threatening moves.”
“Why are they doing this?” a terrified woman asked. She was crouched under a table huddling with her two kids. They were maybe 5 and 8.
“I don’t know, but I'm sure we'll find out soon."
The news reporter announced a breaking alert. The video feed cut to a downtrodden image of President Amado.
The crowd gathered around the display. By the look on Amado's face, he wasn't bringing good news.
Amado didn't look his usual, charismatic self. He looked like he had aged 10 years. His eyes were sunken, and the bags seemed more pronounced. The twinkle had vanished. "Fellow citizens of the Federation. It is with careful consideration that I have agreed to the unconditional surrender of the colonies.”
The crowd in the coffee shop gasped. Some burst into tears. Some stared at the screen, slack-jawed. Slade's body tensed, and she clenched her teeth.
“The treaty I have signed will ensure the safety of every citizen, provided there is no resistance. The Federation will stop all military activity and dismantle and destroy all weapons and equipment. Further research and development of weaponry is prohibited. An occupying force will remain permanently on New Earth to ensure compliance. All military personnel are hereby ordered to report to special processing facilities for debriefing and re-education. I urge citizens to stay calm and comply with all requests. This will help ensure a smooth and peaceful transition. Thank you."
The transmission from the Presidential bunker ended. The reporter was speechless, probably for the first time in her career. She fumbled to put together a follow up.
Slade wasn't about to turn herself in for processing. She had nearly died when the synthetics tried to probe her mind and download her consciousness.
She knew that as part of the terms of surrender, the robots would have access to the vast amount of data the Federation had accumulated. Details on military protocols and operational readiness. Firearm registries. Criminal histories. They’d have access to every bit of signals intelligence collected since the dawn of the Federation. The UIA server farm was housed in a 200,000 square-foot facility, packed with supercomputers. They had logged every electronic communication ever sent or received. The transcripts were keyword searchable. They had crawled and collected every scrap of data posted on the network or on social media. They had detailed profiles on both civilian and military personnel.
Once the data was processed and propagated through the synthetics’ network, it would be impossible to hide. Facial recognition could easily identify military personnel, gun owners, or disruptive citizens. The mechanized infantry could round them up and corral them in internment camps in a matter of days, or execute them on sight.
Slade sat at one of the small round tables and sipped her latte while she tried to figure out her next move. It seemed hopeless.
“We deserve this,” an old woman said. “The gods are angry. This is their way of punishing us.” She pointed a crooked finger at Slade. “You. This is your fault. You travel through the galaxy like you own it. You make machines that bring destruction. You spoil what the gods have created, and now they smite you.”
Slade stared at the woman’s hand as she shook it at her. It was wrinkled and spotted with age and had an ever present tremor. Her fingernails were tinged yellow. Age delaying treatments made it hard to determine anyone’s true age. If Slade had to guess, she’d put the woman close to 200.
“I remember,” the woman continued her screed. “I was a small child during the first uprising. But I remember the horror vividly. Tell me, when has technology really ever served us? It hasn’t. Now we serve it.”
Her eyes blazed into Slade. Then she gave a disapproving glance at the rest of the patrons. Having said her peace, she turned around and strolled out of the shop muttering, “Thank the gods my days in this world are few.”
The door chimes rang as she pushed onto the sidewalk. She strolled east, and Slade could hear her yell at one of the machines, “Get out of my way.” Metal feet clanked against the sidewalk as the soldier stepped aside.
Slade shook her head and chuckled to herself. She finished her latte then moved to the door.
The sky was still dotted with enemy aircraft. She surveyed the mechanized soldiers that were posted along the street. They stood guard, observing faces of people who were bold enough to be on the street. But so far, it was relatively calm. It wasn't the mass slaughter that Slade had expected from a synthetic invasion.
Slade needed to get back to the Revenant, if it still existed. She could probably find a civilian craft. But even if she could find a functioning spacecraft, nothing was going to get off the ground without getting shot down.
There were a handful of ships that had escaped during the early stages of the invasion. But once the machines had established air superiority, the entire planet became a no-fly zone.
Still, it was worth a shot. She started to push through the doors when the woman with two kids called to her. “You’re not going to just leave us here, are you?”
Slade grimaced. "I don't know what I can do to help you.”
“But you're supposed to be this great war hero.”
“I say we fight them,” a young man said. “We could form a resistance. You could lead us.”
“I’m with him,” another man said.
“Me too,” said a third.
Slade looked over the would be volunteers. They ranged in age from early 20s to mid 40s. “Any of you have military experience?”
They shook their heads.
“You realize what you're volunteering for?"
“The odds are slim, and we’re probably all going to die.”
“I’d rather die on my feet, then live on my knees,” one of them said.
Slade grinned. It was a sentiment she shared.
Tyler grabbed Elliott and slammed him against the wall. “You want to tell me what’s really going on here?”
Elliott shivered. “I don’t know. I swear to God. I know as much as you do.”
What was in the bodybag wasn’t human. It wasn’t an insect either. It was something in between. A sickening mutation. The name on the bag read: James Richter. But anyone who knew him would be hard-pressed to recognize him now.
“Bullshit. What kind of experiments are you running out here?” Tyler growled.
"I swear to God, I don't know." Elliott was trembling.
“The bugs did it," Horton said.
Tyler's eyes flicked to Horton. “What do you mean?”
Horton leaned in and whispered. He didn’t want O’Malley to hear. “Whatever those things are, they’ve got venom in their bite. But it’s not poison. It’s some sort of genetic mutagen. Once it gets in your bloodstream, it starts changing your cells. The process takes two, maybe three days. Sometimes less. It transforms you into one of them.”
Tyler released his grip on Elliott.
“You some kind of geneticist, or something?” Faulkner said to Horton with derision.
Horton glared at him. “I’ve seen it happen. Those things got my whole damn squad. Turned them, one by one. They’re some type of parasite.”
Tyler glanced back to Elliott. “The facility had a thousand employees, right?”
“So there’s possibly a thousand of those things out there?”
“That’s just great,” Petrov said.
“I still want to know why that damn thing moved,” Faulkner said.
“Gases build up during decomposition," Elliott said. "Muscle fibers can contract. It's not unusual."
“Well, thank you for that explanation, Dr. Science,” Faulkner quipped. "It still seems a little creepy."
“I thought you Reapers weren’t afraid of anything?” Elliott said.
Faulkner’s eyes narrowed at Elliott. “We're not."
Elliott wasn't going to push the issue.
Tyler glanced at O'Malley. He was sitting on a gurney across the room.
“The best thing you can do is shoot him now," Horton said. “Spare him the misery."
Tyler's eyes burned into Horton. The platoon had already taken heavy casualties. Tyler wasn't keen on losing any more. He contemplated the situation for a moment. He tapped his earbud. “Hawkeye, Bravo One, actual, over?”
There was no response.
“Kowalski, wake up!”
A moment later, Kowalski's dazed voice crackled back over the line. “Bravo One, Hawk-eye. There must have been some interference,” he said, making an excuse.
Tyler wasn't buying it. “Prepare for immediate evac.”
“Whoa, wait a minute, Ensign,” Elliott said. "What about our objective?”
“We can't secure this facility. Even if we could, who would run it? It's going to take a much bigger force.”
“What about Dr. Noble?"
"We'll look for her at Station 5. If she's not there, we’ll return to the fleet and prepare another mission that's more adequately suited to deal with the challenges.”
“You and I both know the fleet doesn't have the resources for a bigger mission.” Elliott’s face was filled with worry.
It was obvious that Elliott’s relationship to Dr. Noble was personal. “I’m sorry.”
“If this is a money issue…”
Tyler's face tightened. "I don't give a shit about your money, Mr. Elliott. What I care about is the safety of my men. No amount of money is going to bring back Ramirez, Jung, or the LT.”
“I didn't mean to offend you, Ensign. I'm just willing to do anything to ensure the safety of Dr. Noble." His eyes were full of desperation.
Tyler softened. “I’ll do everything in my power to find her. You have my word.”
Elliott seemed somewhat relieved.
“We move out as soon as Hawkeye touches down,” Tyler shouted. “Carry out our dead. Nobody gets left behind.”
“Aye, sir,” they shouted.
“Faulkner, take point,” Tyler said. “And blast the ever-living-shit out of anything that moves.”
“Alright, people,” Donovan growled. “Stay sharp.” She helped O'Malley to his feet. The petty officer was a little woozy from the pain medication. “You good to go, son?”
“Aye, Master Chief.”
O'Malley looked high as a kite. His eyes were glazed over and he could barely stand. His left arm was useless. But at least he could wield a pistol with some degree of accuracy.
“Try not to shoot anybody on our side,” Donovan said.
“No worries, VD.” His drug-induced smile fell. He realized what he had said, just as the words slipped out.
The veins in Donovan’s neck bulged, and her face turned red.
“I mean, Master Chief,” O'Malley said, correcting himself.
“Get moving,” Donovan grumbled. She gently shoved O'Malley along.
Horton whispered in Tyler's ear. “Do you think that’s such a good idea, bringing him along?"
Tyler's eyes narrowed. His voice was low and deliberate. “I don't know what you're used to, Mr. Horton. But around here, nobody gets left behind."
Kowalski’s triumphant voice filtered through Tyler’s earbud. “Bravo One, Hawkeye is on the LZ.”
“Copy that,” Tyler said. “Bravo platoon is heading your way.”
The squad readied their weapons. Tyler mashed a button on the wall and opened the inner airlock door. The doors slid apart and the team rushed into the airlock. There was a security monitor that allowed Tyler to see into the outer corridor. It looked clear—but he knew that could change in a heartbeat.
Tyler opened the external door. Faulkner was the first one out. He crept down the hallway with his machine gun ready to rock 'n' roll. The rest of the platoon followed behind him. Donovan brought up the rear, helping to keep O’Malley upright.
The squad scurried through the passageways to the main exit. Tyler signaled for the platoon to hold up at the main exit door. His sharp eyes surveyed the area. The afternoon sun was casting long shadows. The bright orange globe hung low in the sky. Nightfall was coming soon.
Tyler scanned the tree line. The area looked clear. The exhaust from the Vantage's thrusters distorted the air as it sat on the tarmac. The back ramp was down and ready for load in. Tyler was about to signal his platoon to move when the forest came alive.
Several dozen of the creatures emerged from the jungle. Tyler had looked right at them and never saw them. They swarmed the dropship like giant cockroaches. A few scurried up the back ramp. The clatter of their exoskeletons was unnerving.
The platoon opened fire.
Bullets streaked across the tarmac and into the forest. The sound of Faulkner's machine gun was deafening. Muzzle flash and gun smoke permeated the air. Shell casings pinged against the ground. The sharp smell of gunpowder filled Tyler's nostrils.
He unloaded a full magazine in a matter of seconds. He pressed the mag release button, dropped the magazine out, and slammed another one in. In the blink of an eye, he was empty again.
More of those things flowed from the jungle.
The cockpit windows of the Vantage were splattered with blood. Kowalski was torn to shreds.
“Fall back,” Tyler shouted. They were two of his least favorite words to say.
Commander Walker knelt on the flight deck of the Revenant, petting Bailey. He reached into his pocket and tossed him a doggie-treat. Bailey crunched it down with glee.
“You gotta stay here, boy,” Walker said.
Bailey looked up at him with sad puppy-dog eyes.
“I’ll be back soon. I promise. Stay out of trouble.”
Bailey arched an eyebrow.
“At least try to stay out of trouble.” Walker stood up and marched toward the SRV-707 Specter.
Bailey tried to follow, but Walker gave him the eye. “Stay,” he said, drawing out the word. Walker marched up the ramp, closing it behind him as Bailey whimpered. His team was already aboard, waiting for him.
The Specter was a long range stealth reconnaissance vehicle, with room for a pilot, copilot, and two in the jump seats. It had a sleek minimalist appearance, designed to reduce its radar cross-section. Because of its intelligence gathering role, it had limited offensive capabilities—two 7.62 mm machine guns, and only two Hellfire missiles.
Because it was so difficult to detect and identify on sensor systems, the Reapers had been using them with increasing frequency on small team insertions. But they were expensive. Due to its sophisticated electronics and materials, they cost 10 times the amount of the Vantage. Losing one in the field was frowned upon.
Walker slipped into the pilot’s seat and flipped switches and pressed buttons—the control panel came alive. The orange glow illuminated his face as he went through the preflight checks. The thrusters were virtually silent as they powered up, and there was very little mechanical vibration throughout the ship.
Flight control cleared him for takeoff. Walker throttled up and lifted off the deck and eased the craft out of the bay.
Ensign Erik Hanson sat in the copilot seat. He programmed in the jump coordinates for New Earth. Petty Officers Gavin Nichols and Kevin Mitchell sat in the jump seats.
Walker engaged the slide-space drive. Maybe it was his imagination, but the quantum distortion seemed milder. The craft seemed to ease into slide-space without much discomfort.
The flight was barely 20 minutes. They emerged on the dark side of Phobos 7, one of New Earth’s smaller moons. Walker figured it would help them avoid detection. It was a risky move to jump so close to a large object. There was always room for human error when plotting jump coordinates. Large gravitational fields could subtly affect re-entry points. It wasn't unheard of to materialize within a planet, or an asteroid.
Walker eased the vehicle around the crest of the moon. The glorious blue orb of New Earth came into view. Walker squinted from the brilliant sun.
“Plot jump coordinates in case we need to make a quick exit," Walker said.
“Aye, sir," Hanson replied.
The entire enemy fleet registered on the LRADDS display. They didn't seem to be responding to the Specter. Swarms of fighters weren’t launching from flight decks. Tactical missiles weren’t streaking through space.
“Looks like we made it, sir," Hanson said.
Walker glared at him. "We haven't made anything yet." His eyes kept flicking between the display and the warships.
“How do you plan to get past them and down to the surface?" Nichols asked.
"With a lot of luck." Walker engaged the thrusters, giving the craft a little push toward New Earth. Then he cut the engines, and let the Specter drift.
Without the thrusters running, it would further reduce the craft’s profile. Combined with active signal dampening, the Specter was virtually invisible to detection systems. The black satin finish made the craft difficult to see against the black star field.
The ship drifted toward the blue planet like a piece of space debris. Walker felt his heart beat rise as they neared the warships.
Hanson’s eyes were wide as the tiny craft drifted past one of the massive destroyers. The tension was thick. A horde of fighters could surround them at any minute. It would make for a short mission.
Walker breathed a sigh of relief as the Specter slipped past the enemy fleet and began re-entry. But this was where it was going to get tricky. They couldn’t just free fall—Walker was going to have to engage the thrusters.
The tiny craft plummeted through the upper atmosphere. Walker angled the Specter toward the capital city of Nova York and powered up the engines.
The skies over the countryside were less dense with enemy fighters. Walker figured that would be the best place to put down, then proceed on foot to Nova York to find Slade.
The sleek black vessel broke through the clouds. Walker banked the craft around and look for a good place to land. He needed a remote area where he could camouflage the Specter after landing.
A proximity alert sounded. An enemy fighter was on his tail.
Walker banked the Specter hard. But the AI drone fighter stuck to him like glue. Another proximity alert sounded. The drone had launched an air to air missile. It streaked through the sky with a cloud of gray propellant billowing from its tail.
Walker pulled hard on the controls, banking the Specter. He slammed a button on the dash, deploying electronic countermeasures. Two ECMs ejected from the stern—Mark 7 MOSS (Mobile Spaceship Simulator) decoys. The devices also attempted to jam the missiles targeting system. It was a two pronged approach. They glowed a brilliant blue, simulating the heat signature of the thrusters.
The rocket took the bait and exploded in a blinding flash. Walker felt the shock wave ripple through the ship.
The proximity alert sounded again. Another missile.
More evasive maneuvers.
Two more countermeasures.
Another narrow escape as the second missile exploded in an amber ball of flame. But that was it. There were no more electronic countermeasures. The Specter wasn't designed for close aerial combat. As a recon ship, it was meant to jump away at the first sign of trouble, not to engage in an extended dogfight.
Walker twisted and weaved through the sky. But no matter what he did, he just couldn't shake the AI drone. The damn thing was near perfect. It had been encoded with the entire repository of known aerial combat maneuvers. Its predictive modeling algorithms were 97.65% accurate. The more it could analyze a particular pilot’s flying style, the more accurate it became. It knew what you were going to do before you did it. Which made it damn hard to evade.
Walker was giving it a run for its money. But he wasn't going to be able to avoid the inevitable.
Another proximity alert sounded. Another air to air missile.
The last thing Walker remembered was the proximity alarm sounding. He woke up with his temples throbbing and feeling like a knife had been stabbed into his lower back. His vision was blurred. It took him a moment to be able to focus. When he did, he glanced around the cockpit, or what was left of it.
Ensign Hansen was slumped over the control panel. A torrent of blood trickled down his face, which had melded into the dash, impaled by switches and controls.
Walker reached out his hand and checked for a pulse in the ensign’s neck—there wasn't one.
He glanced over his shoulder to check on the petty officers, but the jump seats didn't exist anymore. Just a gaping hole where the stern of the ship had been.
The blood had rushed to his head. It took him a moment to realize he was hanging upside down.
He released his safety harness and slammed against the roof of the craft. He grabbed an RK 909 assault rifle and crawled out of the wreckage. The twisted, mangled carcass of the ship was barely recognizable.
Walker climbed over the jagged edges and onto the soft grass. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he still didn't fully have his bearings. He looked to the sky, trying to find his attacker, but all he saw were puffy clouds and blue sky. Then he heard the enemy craft circling around to make a pass over the wreckage.
Walker staggered to his feet and sprinted toward the tree line. He dove to the ground taking cover under a large oak. He heard the enemy drone rip through the air, surveying the smoldering wreckage of the Specter.
His chest heaved as he tried to catch his breath. He leaned back against the trunk of the majestic oak. By now the adrenaline was wearing off to some degree, and he realized that he had an unsightly piece of metal protruding through his thigh.
He knew better than to yank the thing out. Often, with these types of injuries, it's the foreign object that is keeping you from bleeding out. Best to leave it in place until you can get proper medical attention.
The drone made another pass overhead. That was the last Walker heard of it. He caught a lucky break, if you could call this lucky.
He needed to keep on the move. He knew the drone would likely send ground troops to confirm there were no survivors from the wreckage—that's what he'd do. He'd have to worry about the hunk of metal in his leg later.
Walker used his rifle to help him climb to his feet. Then he hobbled deeper into the woods. He moved as fast as he could, wincing with each step. Weaving through trees and stepping over fallen logs. He marched up a small slope, then down to a clearing. At the bottom of the valley was a small farm. A modest house, a two-story barn, a grain silo, an old red tractor, and rows and rows of corn. It was already head high and tasseling, which was a little early for this time of year.
This part of the country was thick with Navish—a close-knit, technophobic society that preferred the simpler ways. Mostly farmers.
Walker scanned the sky for any trace of the drone. It seemed clear, so he hobbled across the meadow, hopped the small wooden fence, then staggered to the barn.
Rays of light sneaked through spaces in between the wooden slats. Bales of hay were stacked high. The barn had a musty smell that was part rotten corncob, part hay, and part manure.
Walker crawled to the corner and leaned against a bale of hay. He took off his gear and tactical vest and pulled a med kit from his pack. He unbuttoned his pants, and carefully pulled his fatigues down, exposing his thigh—he was mindful not to snag the protruding piece of shrapnel on the fabric.
Shrapnel is a particularly insidious type of wound. But they are treated similar to other types of puncture wounds. Most people are inclined to pull the shard out, but the metal is usually blistering hot. It's best to let it cool first, even though the patient may be screaming for you to get the scalding piece of metal out. The benefit to the searing hot chunk of debris, is that there is very little bleeding.
Walker irrigated the wound, and used a pair of forceps to remove the debris. He cleaned both entry and exit wounds and looked for extraneous fragments. Once he was certain he had removed all the foreign objects, he irrigated the wound again with an antiseptic ointment. Then he applied a regenerative compound. He used a skin sealing gel to close both entry and exit wounds.
Shrapnel wounds are notorious for infections, so Walker took an oral antibiotic as well. He washed the pill down with a swig from his canteen. The whole process took maybe 15 minutes.
He rested against the bale of hay for a moment and closed his eyes. But his brief rest was interrupted when the barn door flew open. A backlit figure stood in the doorway, and Walker heard the unmistakable sound of a pump action shotgun.
“What in the hell are you doing on my property?"
Walker stared at the double-barreled shotgun. They were like two sewer pipes in his face. The frail old man aiming the weapon at him had a short white beard and was wearing overalls.
He looked Walker up and down and was none too pleased to see Walker's fatigues around his ankles. “I swear to God, if you're doing anything inappropriate with my farm animals…”
Walker chuckled. "No, sir. Just doing a little field surgery on my leg.”
“You’re not one of those goddamn things, are you?”
“I hear some of those robots can look just like people,” the old farmer said. "Are you sure you ain’t one of them?”
“I can assure you, sir. I'm 100% human being. Commander Kurt Walker, UPDF Navy Reapers.”
The farmer studied him for a moment, “What Biscuit class were you?”
“What’s written over the entrance to the Pulverizer?”
“The only easy day was yesterday."
Harlan grinned and lowered his weapon. "Well, shit, son. Why didn't you say so?” Harlan stood proud. “Master Chief Harlan Echols, UPDF Navy Reapers, retired.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Master Chief."
“Likewise, Commander. What brings you to these parts?”
Walker told him about his mission, and the crash.
“Why don’t you gather your things and come into the house. There's a spare bedroom and plenty to eat."
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate your hospitality."
"Anything for a brother."
Walker grabbed his gear and the old man helped him to his feet. He hobbled to the wood frame house. The paint was slightly peeling. He grabbed onto the handrail as he climbed the steps to the porch. Harlan held the door for him as he entered the home.
Walker’s nostrils filled with the smell of fresh-baked blueberry pie. “Something smells good."
“My granddaughter is fix’n up supper,” Harlan said. “Lily, we’ve got company.”
Lily emerged from the kitchen with her strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing oven mitts. She was a stunning young woman of 22, with crystal blue eyes.
“This here’s Commander Walker,” Harlan said.
Lily pulled off one of the oven mitts and extended her hand.
Walker smiled and took her hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
“I hope you brought your appetite, Commander. We've got real sirloin steak, green beans, fresh corn, and sweet potatoes.”
“Real steak?” Walker seemed impressed.
“This is a working farm, Commander.” Her smile was overtaken with concern. "Let's hope it stays that way."
“Any of those robots come around here, I've got something for them," Harlan said.
“Stop, grandpa. I don't want you getting any crazy ideas. It's not worth it."
“Hell, I’ve got some fight left in me.”
Lily glanced to Walker. “Don’t give him any ideas. “I hear enough war stories as it is around here." She smiled. "Come on. It's almost ready." She led them into the kitchen.
Walker took a seat at the kitchen table, and Lily served up dinner. Harlan said grace over the meal, then the trio dug in. There was nothing like surviving a crash to spur the appetite. Walker cleaned his plate in a matter of moments. He ate like it was the last meal he was ever going to have. And if it was his last meal, it sure was worthy.
“You are quite the cook, Lily.”
“Thank you, Commander.” Her eyes sparkled.
“Well, she earns her keep,” Harlan said, playfully.
“You’d be lost without me, grandpa, and you know it.”
He smiled back at her. “Well, I guess."
Lily rolled her eyes. “He tries to act tough, but he's a big teddy bear.”
“Don't be shy, Commander,” Harlan said. "There's more here than we can eat."
Walker dished up a second round.
“Save some room for dessert, though," Lily added
“Have no fear." Walker smiled.
The table was silent for a moment.
"The Federation hasn't really surrendered, have they?” Lily asked. "I mean, the military is going to respond? That's why you're here, isn't it?"
Walker pursed his lips. "I'm afraid there's just not much left. But we’ll go out fighting, rest assured."
The table was silent again. The sound of silverware clanking against the plates filled the air.
"Have you seen much activity out here? Mechanized soldiers?" Walker asked.
“Plenty of aircraft buzzing overhead,” Lily said. “But we haven't seen any ground forces. We are quite a ways from the city.”
“They’ll come soon enough,” Harlan added.
"They'll secure the Metropolitan areas first,” Walker said. “Then they'll expand to the countryside. You have a plan for when that happens?"
"I've got a hidden cellar underneath the house. It’s stocked with enough food and supplies to last a few years. But I have no desire to live the rest of my days in a hole in the ground. I'll stand here and fight them with every last breath."
“No, pawpaw. You're going to get in the cellar and hide.”
“Oh, to hell with that. At my age, what difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference to me,” Lily said.
“Well, hell. I ain’t gonna live forever. You’d better start getting used to that fact.”
Lily looked upset. She hung her head for a moment.
“I’m sorry, but that’s just the way of things.”
Lily excused herself and took her plate to the sink.
Harlan leaned over and whispered to Walker. "She lost her folks when she was 12. I've raised her ever since."
“Can I get anybody some pie?" Lily called from the kitchen.
“It’d be criminal if you didn’t," Harlan said.
The pie was divine. Walker couldn't remember the last time he had fresh-baked pie. With real blueberries. The food aboard the Revenant was good, but it was nothing like this.
After dinner, Lily showed Walker to the spare room. It was a quaint little room with hardwood floors, a dresser with a vanity mirror, a double bed with an extremely squeaky mattress, and a private bathroom.
"I hope you'll forgive the accommodations. This is a very old house. It was built by the original settlers. Grandpa doesn't care much for technology, so the place is pretty old fashioned.”
“This is more than enough for me. If it wasn't for your hospitality, I’d be sleeping on the ground outside.”
“If you need anything, I'm just down the hall.” Lily smiled. “What do you like for breakfast?”
“I'm not picky."
“Great. I’ll surprise you.” Her eyes glimmered. “Well, good night."
Lily spun around and sauntered down the hall to her room.
Walker closed the door and hobbled to the bed. He leaned his weapon against the wall by the bed, and set his pistol on the nightstand.
He was stiff and sore from the crash, and his skin was black and blue in places. He had taken some high-grade anti-inflammatories to keep the swelling down, along with some painkillers. But it still felt like he had a knife stabbing between his vertebrae in his lower back. Though the bed was comfortable, it was hard to get into a position that didn't hurt. But eventually, he dozed off and got a few hours sleep.
The morning sun beamed in through the windows, and the sound of a rooster crowing filled his ears. It was a sound he hadn't heard in quite some time.
His whole body was locked up by the morning. It took him a few moments to get moving.
The wood floor creaked as Walker staggered to the bathroom. Through the blinds, he caught a glimpse of several mech soldiers marching toward the house.
The platoon barreled through the passageways, weaving back toward the med center.
In the hallway ahead, a horde of creatures were trying to squeeze through the broken windows.
A cacophony of gunfire filled the corridor, as the squad peppered the giant insects. Faulkner’s machine gun eviscerated their exoskeletons. A hailstorm of bullets from the platoon demolished the first wave of creatures. Their bodies filled the window frames, still twitching. It slowed down the other insects. The bugs had to push the carcasses out of the way to enter the corridor. It gave the platoon enough time to pass by the bank of windows.
The flow of insects continued. Soon, a river of the vicious bugs were snapping at the heels of the platoon.
“Fire in the hole!” Tyler tossed a grenade down the hallway behind the squad as they rounded a corner.
The explosion rattled the entire complex. Bug parts scattered everywhere. Blood splattered the walls.
It didn't matter how many they killed, it seemed like more were always coming. For every insect that fell, ten more took its place. But the grenade had given them enough breathing room to make it back to the med center without having to experience the serrated mandibles of the hideous creatures.
Tyler opened the outer airlock doors, and the team filed in. Once inside, he slammed a button on the wall—the outer door slid shut. One of the creatures lurched between the blades of the doors before it closed. But the force was powerful enough to shear the creature in two.
The beast’s head and upper torso dropped to the floor inside the chamber. It was still alive and chomping. Two of its appendages were still functional. It snapped and clawed, like an ant that had been cut in half. These things didn't die easily.
Tyler unloaded almost an entire magazine into the thing’s skull. Blood, brains, and exoskeleton fragments scattered out.
The creature finally fell limp. Its hideous carcass twitched for a few moments.
Tyler's racing heart began to slow. He breathed a sigh of relief. The platoon was safe now. But there was no telling how long it would take those creatures to break through the door. Over and over, like the beat of a drum, the creatures slammed into the outer airlock door. It was clanking and clamoring as they rammed into it.
The platoon dashed into the med center, and Tyler sealed the inner door behind them. He took a headcount of his team. They had all made it back.
“You people didn't want to listen to me," Horton said. "What did I tell you? Now we’re all fucked.”
“You need to shut the fuck up!” Petrov lunged for Horton, but Donovan held him back.
“Knock it off!” Tyler shouted. He pulled out his PDU and accessed the surveillance map. His face looked grim. The creatures were tearing the dropship to shreds. The whole compound was crawling with those things.
“So, we just call for help, and sit tight until it arrives, right?” Faulkner asked.
“Wrong,” Horton said. “The comm tower is down.”
“There’ s got to be some way to get in touch with the fleet,” Faulkner said.
“You could send up smoke signals,” Horton said. His joke was met with scowls.
Tyler’s face tensed.
“What are we going to do, sir?” Petrov asked. “Those things are everywhere.”
“They’re probably chewing through the wiring on your ship right now” Horton said.
Tyler glared at him. He didn’t know what the hell they were going to do. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to say that. “I’ve got a plan. Just relax. We’re going to get out of here.”
Tyler didn’t have a plan at all.
Petrov was starting to panic. His tough exterior was beginning to crack. “You don’t have a plan, do you? Grimsby would have gotten us out of here.”
Tyler glared at him. “Grimsby’s dead.”
“Man, we’re totally fucked.” Petrov was in full freak out mode.
“Calm down," Tyler said.
Weston Elliott sat at a computer terminal and started clacking on the keyboard. He tabbed through several screens, monitoring key operational components of the plant.
“I say we hole up in here until a rescue mission comes,” Petrov said.
“I’ll determine our course of action,” Tyler said.
“With all due respect, sir,” Petrov said. “This is your first op. This ain’t the movies.”
Tyler’s eyes narrowed at him.
Donovan could see Tyler was losing the platoon’s confidence. “Ensign Finn is in charge now. When he wants your input, I’m sure he’ll ask for it.”
Elliott’s eyes widened at the display screen. “We may have more immediate concerns,” Elliott stammered.
Faulkner’s face twisted up. “More immediate than being stuck on this damn rock?”
“What is it?” Tyler asked.
“I was running a diagnostic check on the facility. We have a problem with the chemical storage tanks.”
Tyler's eyes narrowed at him.
Elliott swallowed hard. “Viltracium has a boiling point of 32°C. It's the primary chemical agent we used to extract plutrontium from the rock. It's a highly reactive and volatile substance when oxidized.”
“What’s your point?”
“The cooling system on the storage tanks has failed. It's only a matter of time. I give it 4 to 6 hours before it explodes."
Tyler did not look pleased. "How big of an explosion are we looking at?”
“There are 16 million gallons in those storage tanks,” Elliott stammered. “That’s enough to take out the state of Arivada.”
“Why the hell did I sign up for this job?” Faulkner asked. “Somebody remind me.”
Tyler looked over the glum faces of the platoon as he contemplated the next move. The incessant noise of the bugs trying to get into the medical facility was unsettling.
O’Malley had lost his color, and his skin was turning a sickly shade of green. How long would it be before he began to mutate?
“Right now, our only option is to get to Station 5 and hope that freighter works,” Tyler said.
"Just how the hell are we going to do that, sir?" Faulkner asked.
Lily pushed aside the kitchen table and pulled back the rug to reveal a trap door. The hinges creaked as she grabbed the handle and swung open the door.
Walker hustled down the old wooden steps into the dank, dark cellar. His fatigues were balled up under his arm. He was clinging to his tactical vest and gear. His rifle was slung over his shoulder. He hadn’t had time to get dressed.
Lily swung the hatch shut, positioned the rug, and scooted the table back on top of it. Then she peered through the window. Several mechanized soldiers were searching the barn. Several others surrounded the house. She heard boots on the porch, followed by a knock on the door. At least they were kind enough to knock, she thought. She had been thinking they’d probably just kick down the front door.
Her heart was pounding. She took a deep breath and tried to center herself, then casually strolled to the front door. She pulled it open with a disarming smile and tried to act like it wasn't unusual to have mechanized warriors stomping about the property and rooting around.
A biosynthetic soldier was at the door. He was dressed in black tactical gear, along with several other synthetics. "Good morning, ma'am. I’m Lieutenant Drek of the Cybernetic Marines. An unauthorized aerial vehicle was shot down yesterday, not far from here. We believe one of the occupants may have survived. You haven’t encountered any strangers on the property, have you?”
“No. Can't say that I have."
He gave a thin, insincere smile. “May I remind you that under the terms of surrender, giving false or misleading statements to officials is punishable by death."
“I haven't given you any false or misleading statements." Lily smiled.
“We spoke with a neighbor of yours who saw a wounded man heading in this direction.”
“Well, I haven’t seen anybody.”
“You won't mind if we search the house?” It wasn't really a question.
“Go right ahead."
The team of synthetics stormed into the house. The mechanized soldiers were too big to fit through the door and stayed outside. Though they wouldn't have hesitated to break through, if need be.
The synthetics ransacked the house, looking through rooms and closets. One of the synthetics stomped through the kitchen. He walked past the kitchen table, and surveyed the countertops, and the stove. The bacon and eggs that Lily had been cooking for breakfast were burned beyond recognition. The kitchen was filling with smoke.
Lily rushed into the kitchen and turned the burner off. It was lucky that she hadn't already put out three place settings. She opened the window and tried to waft the smoke out.
The synthetics moved upstairs and searched the rooms. A few moments later, one of them called downstairs to the lieutenant, “Sir, I think we’ve got something.”
Drek had a devious glint in his eyes.
Lily’s worried eyes watched him march up the stairs. Drek plodded down the hall to the guest bedroom. The sheets were tousled. Walker didn't have time to make the bed.
“Looks like they had a visitor in the house," one of the synthetics said.
Drek’s eyes lit up. "Keep searching.”
Lily had followed him upstairs to see what the discovery was.
"Where is he?"
“Don't play games with me."
“We didn’t have any guests last night. I slept in the guest bedroom. I couldn't sleep, so I got up in the middle of the night and switched rooms. The mattress is a little softer."
Drek scowled at her. Then got in her face. “If I find that you have lied to me, I will be sure to make your death a painful one." His tone was menacing.
Lily didn't flinch. "There's nothing to find, but if you want to waste your time, by all means, keep looking." She spun around and stomped down the stairs. She went into the kitchen and tossed out the burnt bacon and eggs, and started cooking breakfast all over again.
The soldiers kept rummaging through the house. Drek did a thermal scan, but found nothing. The cellar was thermally shielded, otherwise Walker would have been spotted easily.
Drek toppled over a nightstand in frustration. He decided to break a few more lamps. It sounded like a herd of elephants were stomping about upstairs.
Drek, and the squad, descended the steps and marched out of the house without another word. The mechanized soldiers followed them as they marched down the drive, back to their vehicles, and left the property.
Lily's heart was still fluttering. She breathed a sigh of relief, then pushed aside the kitchen table, pulled back the rug, and opened the trapdoor.
Walker climbed out of the musty cellar. "Thanks for covering for me. I hope they didn't cause too much damage.”
Lily shrugged. “I don't even want to go upstairs and look." Lily's face grew somber. "Is this what life's going to be like from now on? These goons coming and going whenever they please?"
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” Walker closed the hatch, and Lily covered it with the rug. Then Walker helped her slide the table back on top of it. “Where's Harlan?"
“He went into town to get some feed,” Lily said as she moved back to the stove.
Walker took a seat at the table and Lily served him breakfast. Afterward, he helped her clean up the kitchen.
“Oh, don’t worry with that,” Lily said. “You need to stay off that leg for a few days.”
Walker was hopping around, trying not to put weight on his wounded leg. Even light pressure sent stabbing pains through his thigh. It was going to take a few days to get back to 100%, even with the regenerative compound.
But Walker didn't listen. He helped her clean up the rest of the house, as best he could.
Harlan returned from the store, and when he learned about what had happened he was angrier than a hornet. He grabbed his shotgun and wanted to go take on the entire mechanized army himself.
“Pawpaw, what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to give those sumbitches a taste of my double barrel.”
Lily delicately wrapped her hand around the barrel. “You’re not going anywhere,” she said, taking the weapon away from him.
He scowled at her. “Hell, I bet Commander Walker and I could take at least a few of them out.”
“I’m sure you could.” She leaned the shotgun in the corner.
“You ain’t the boss of me.”
She eyed him sternly. “Pawpaw.”
He sighed. He knew he wasn’t going to win an argument with her. “What’s for breakfast?”
Lilly shook her head. “Bacon, eggs, and toast.”
“Sounds good to me.” Harlan ambled to the kitchen table and took a seat.
“Commander?” Lily asked.
Walker nodded and joined them for breakfast. He gobbled down a plate, and Lily offered to scramble more eggs for him.
“No, thank you. If I eat anymore, I might not fit through the door.”
“Then you’d have to stay a while.” Her eyes sparkled.
“About that… I think it's time I should be moving on. I've already put you two in enough danger as it is."
“Nonsense,” Harlan shouted. "You'll stay here until that leg is good and healed."
“I appreciate the hospitality, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“I insist.” Harlan wasn't going to take no for an answer.
“Okay, but just a few days.”
“We ought to get you something a little less conspicuous to wear,” Lily said.
At 6’4”, 250 pounds, Walker wasn't going to fit into anything that Harlan had lying around.
“I’ll pick you up something next time I go into town.”
Lily’s face tensed as she heard a vehicle pull up. She scampered to the window. "Oh, God. What's he doing here?"
“Who is that?" Walker asked.
“Probably her boyfriend, Jasper,” Harlan said.
"Ex boyfriend," Lily corrected. She stepped onto the porch to head him off. She closed the door behind her.
“She can’t seem to get rid of that one,” Harlan said.
“Understandable.” Walker could hear them arguing outside. He tried not to eavesdrop, but every now and then the conversation got rather heated.
Lily stormed back inside and slammed the door behind her. She looked furious. “What part of I don't want to see you anymore does that guy not understand?”
Walker peered out the window and watched the man storm to his hover-truck. He looked back to the house and glared at Walker.
Jasper opened the door and hopped into the truck and sped away. Walker knew this guy was going to be trouble.
“The curfew is going to make it hard to travel after dark,” Lily said. “But I hear there is a resistance meeting at the Miller farm. Do you want to go?”
Walker thought about this for a moment. "I'll check it out. You stay here."
“They don’t know you. They’ll never let you in.”
“These kinds of meetings can be dangerous. You can bet the synthetics are looking to break up any underground network."
“I’m a big girl. I can handle myself.”
“I’m sure you can.”
Lily arched an eyebrow at him. "I'm going with you, and that's the end of the discussion."
After nightfall, Walker and Lily snuck through the cornfield, heading toward Chuck Miller’s farm. The full moon lit their path as they crept between the rows. Walker hobbled along, still not able to put his full weight on his leg.
“Are you sure you're going to make it?" Lily asked.
“I’ll be fine."
"Just don't reopen the wound.”
At the end of the field, they hopped the barb wire fence and cut across the wheat field on the Johnson’s property. Old man Johnson's dog chased them through the field. Walker wasn’t in any condition to run. He just stopped and let the dog come to him.
The border collie stopped a few feet away and barked at Walker, but didn't attack.
“Be quiet, Duke,” Lily hissed.
Duke ignored her.
Walker knelt down and pulled out a doggy treat from his pocket. He held it in his palm. “Here boy.”
Duke stopped barking and raised his brow, intrigued.
“Come on, Duke,” Walker said.
Pretty soon, Duke was chomping on the treat. Walker pet his head and scratched his chin. Walker never met an animal he couldn't get along with. Bugs were an entirely different story. But dogs—no problem.
Miller's farm was 2.5 miles away. Walker and Lily continued through the wheat field and Duke followed along, probably hoping for another treat.
They reached the fence line to Miller's farm. Walker stopped and surveyed the property. He could see a few people entering the basement doors at the exterior of the house. Walker and Lily climbed the fence. The dog stayed behind—he knew where his boundaries were.
They marched through the field of soybeans, toward the basement. Chuck Miller stood at the door with a shotgun, greeting people and ushering them down into the basement. His eyes darted around frantically, and he caught sight of Walker and Lily long before they got close.
Lily waved, and he seemed to recognize her.
Walker kept scanning the perimeter. Resistance operations were tricky. All it would take was one informant to tip off the authorities, and the whole organization could come crumbling down. During resistance operations, civilians rat each other out all the time for various reasons. Maybe you want to take out your competition and business. Maybe you got yourself in trouble and you need a get out of jail free card. Or maybe you're just plain jealous.
Despite his reservations, Walker knew that a successful resistance effort was going to be crucial if mankind was going to escape oppression by the synthetics.
“Mr. Miller, this is Commander Walker, UPDF Navy,” Lily said.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Commander."
“Likewise, sir." The two shook hands. “How many are you expecting tonight?"
“50. We sure could use someone with your experience."
“Do you know of any other cells?"
“I know there's one down in Franklin, and another in Columbus. The main leadership is out of Nova York. From what I'm told, it’s led by Admiral Slade herself.”
Walker's eyes went wide. “So she's alive?"
“Do you know her, Commander?"
Walker nodded. "I need to find her.”
“Marcus is my contact with the Nova York cell. I'm sure we can help you find her."
“I’d appreciate that."
Chuck motioned them toward the steps. "Come on in. Make yourself at home. It's about time to get the meeting started."
Lily and Walker descended the steps.
Chuck scanned the field one last time, then crawled into the cellar and pulled the double doors shut.
The basement was stale and musty, and was lit by a single bulb in the center of the room. The walls were lined with mason jars of canned fruits and vegetables. Men and women of all ages gathered around. Chuck introduced Walker to the crowd, and he was instantly bombarded with questions.
"Is the military planning a counterattack?” a man asked.
“What's left of the fleet?" a young woman said.
“Where's the rest of your company?” someone else asked.
Walker surveyed the inquisitive faces. He paused for a moment, thinking about how to address their concerns. He wasn't going to blow smoke up their asses, but he didn't want to send them into a panic either. “I can't discuss details of classified operations, but I can assure you that the UPDF will make every effort to liberate New Earth from oppression. I'm not going to lie. The odds are slim, and it won't be easy. You're going to have to fight. You may get bloody. You may die.”
“We’re all willing to do what it takes,” Chuck said.
Walker noticed Jasper in the crowd, glaring at him.
“How do we fight them? Their armor is too strong for small arms fire?” someone asked.
“We can't stand toe to toe with these things. Hit-and-run tactics. Guerrilla warfare. Neural disruptors may be temporarily effective. But these robots are highly sophisticated and adaptable. Any weaknesses that we may be able to exploit will only be temporary. They'll learn to compensate and adjust.”
“What you're saying isn’t very encouraging," a woman said.
“I wish I had more answers for you, but I don’t.”
A young kid, maybe 14, stepped forward. “I've noticed encrypted data packets transmitted at routine intervals. They have been consistent every 15 minutes since the beginning of the occupation."
“System updates?" Walker asked.
“I think so. See, I think each one of these mechanized soldiers is connected to the network, relaying data in real time. Then each device is securely updated. New mission objectives, firmware updates, etc.”
Walker seemed impressed.
“I sort of geek out on this stuff."
Walker smiled. "I can tell. What’s your name?"
“Isaiah. I’ve been trying to break the encryption, but I don't have enough system resources."
“What would it take to break the code?”
“More processing power. As it stands, it's gonna take my machine 10 years of crunching numbers to crack the encryption." The boy brushed through his hair as he thought about it for a moment. "Well, there might be a quicker way.”
“I’m all ears, kid,” Walker said.
At the north entrance to the compound, there were several massive dump trucks. But these were no ordinary trucks—they were HK Behemoths. State-of-the-art mining dump trucks. They had 8 wheels that were 12 feet in diameter, at a cost of 62,000 credits each. A turbine engine provided 9,600 horsepower and propelled the vehicle at a maximum speed of 80 miles per hour. The monstrosity could carry 500 tons of rock and weighed 82 tons, unloaded.
Tyler scanned the area on his PDU. "We'll use one of these to reach Station 5.”
“Shit, I call shotgun,” Faulkner said. “I ain't riding in the back of that thing."
The high truck bed made for a good defensive position, but it was completely exposed. The creatures were fast and nimble. They could scale the sides of the truck with ease. It would take a hell of a lot of firepower to hold them off—and a lot of luck.
“How do you plan on getting to the damn thing?” Petrov asked. “We’re not going to last 2 seconds outside of this room.”
It was a good question, and Tyler didn't have the faintest clue. He kept studying the schematics of the complex on his PDU.
O’Malley had taken a turn for the worse. His eyes were glazed, and his face was sunken. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His arm was discolored, and the skin edging out from underneath the bandages had changed in texture. It was scaly and hard. Deep blue streaks spidered up his arms. His voice was listless. “Hey, Chief. I'm not feeling so good."
Just as he finished the words, he collapsed.
Donovan rushed to him. She peeled O'Malley's eyes open. They were rolling back into his skull. O'Malley's body started to convulse and twitch. He shook for a moment, then passed out. His body went still.
Donovan checked for a pulse. O'Malley was still alive and breathing, but completely unresponsive.
“He'll stay like that until the mutation completes,” Horton said.
“How long will that take?” Donovan asked.
“Maybe a day. Maybe less. I’ve seen it happen in as little as a few hours.”
Donovan’s face tensed. She took a closer look at O’Malley’s hand. It had already changed structurally. It was somewhere in between human and insect. A gnarly, bloodied, pus filled transitional stage.
“I’m telling you, the best thing you can do for him is end it now," Horton said. "You're going to have to kill him sooner or later."
Tyler grimaced. It was hard to argue with Horton at this point. There was no doubt that O'Malley was changing. Soon he would pose a threat to the rest the platoon.
“It’s too bad we don’t have any bug repellant,” Faulkner said in jest.
Tyler's eyes lit up. “Faulkner, you’re a genius.”
Faulkner grinned, feigning modesty. “Well, you know.”
Tyler stormed to the back of the med center, into the cold storage room. He scanned the shelves until his eyes came across dozens of five gallon buckets of diethyl-tetra-methylatroxin (DETMT). The Army had developed it back in 2312, and it was still standard issue to troops in jungle environments. Nobody was exactly sure how it worked, but it appeared to disrupt the olfactory senses of insects, making them oblivious to prey. In clinical studies, most insects had a downright dislike of the scent.
It made sense that an outpost situated deep in the jungle would have some stocked away. But either the stuff didn’t work against these creatures, or nobody at the facility had been using it.
Though the UDA classified it as generally recognized as safe, there were multiple peer-reviewed studies that cast doubt on that classification. Some even going as far as to label it a known carcinogen.
Tyler grabbed a bucket from the shelf, and hauled the stuff across the med center to the inner airlock door. The bucket clanked against the floor as he set it down. Then he jogged to the store room and grabbed a mop.
Back at the airlock, he opened the inner door and pushed the bucket into the chamber. He pried off the lid and plunged the end of the mop into the oily liquid. Then he swabbed the floor in the area around the outer airlock doors.
The sharp chemical smell filled his nostrils. This was a 100% solution. It was enough to make your eyes water and your skin itch. The stuff you could buy in stores was only 5% DETMT. This concentrated version was meant to be mixed down.
Tyler pulled the bucket back into the med center and closed the inner airlock hatch.
“You're not really going to do what I think you're going to do, are you?" Faulkner asked.
“There's only one way to find out if this stuff works," Tyler said.
“Yeah, but I’d feel a whole lot better with two doors in between us and them.”
“Better get your weapon ready, just in case."
Tyler pressed a button and activated the outer airlock doors. The battered doors slid open. The horde of insects were still outside. They recoiled at the aroma of DETMT. Until now, they had been desperately trying to get into the med center. But they had suddenly lost all interest.
The DETMT was working.
Not a single one of them tried to venture into the airlock.
Tyler swabbed the area around the inner airlock door. Then he slathered the DETMT all over himself. He covered all of his exposed skin as well as his fatigues and helmet. His skin was tingling from the high concentration of chemicals. This was definitely going to leave a rash, he thought. But he’d take a rash over getting bitten by one of those things.
“If I were you, I would apply that stuff liberally,” Tyler said.
The rest of the squad took turns drenching themselves in the repellent.
“Grab a few more buckets of this stuff,” Tyler commanded. “We're going to need as much as we can carry.”
The team readied themselves at the edge of the door, weapons in the firing position. If things went wrong, they were ready to blast these creatures to bits. At least until their ammo ran out.
Tyler's hand hovered over the button to open the inner airlock door. It was the moment of truth. The repellent had kept the bugs away from an empty room, but could it keep them away from a juicy meal? Tyler sure hoped so.
"Why are we wasting our time with this?" Jasper said. "We need to be talking strategy, acquiring weapons, making battle plans.”
“Let the boy finish," Walker said.
“Who put you in charge?” Jasper said.
Walker’s eyes narrowed at him.
“I think the commander has significantly more experience than you, Jasper." Chuck said.
“Go on, Isaiah,” Walker said.
“It's likely that each soldier has the encryption key hardcoded.”
“So if we captured one of the machines, you could figure out the code?”
“I think so."
“How do we capture one of those machines?” Chuck asked.
Walker's eyes found the sheriff standing among the crowd. "An STN 50 might do the trick. Pretty common among law enforcement. Sheriff?”
“They came in and confiscated all of my weapons. Even took my tasers and batons. I'll check with some of the other departments, see if anyone was able to hold onto one."
"So what if we are able to capture one of these things?” Jasper asked. “What good is that going to do us?"
“Duh,” Isaiah said. “We use it to crack the encryption key and push an update through the system to disable them and lock out further updates.”
Jasper gave him a dirty look.
“I like the way you think, kid,” Walker said.
“At least we have some kind of plan," Chuck said. "In the meantime, let's focus on gathering weapons and ammunition. And keep under the radar.”
“Since this is a farming community, I take it fertilizer is readily at hand?" Walker asked.
There were plenty of nods in the crowd.
“You planning on growing a garden?" Jasper asked.
“Ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil is a powerful improvised explosive device,” Walker said. "I've got blasting caps and C-15 to use as primary charges. We can definitely become a thorn in their side."
The rumble of thrusters startled the crowd. An enemy vehicle hovered overhead. Eyes filled with terror. The mason jars on the shelves rattled. The air was thick with tension.
After a few moments, the craft left. The thrusters faded into the distance. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“It’s dangerous to have meetings with crowds of this size,” Walker said. “I’d keep it small from here on out. Find ways to disseminate information and coordinate activities.”
Chuck agreed. The meeting adjourned, and Walker hobbled up the stairs. He stepped into the fresh night air. It had gotten rather stuffy in the cramped basement. The sound of crickets filled his ears as he scanned the perimeter and the sky.
No sign of trouble.
Chuck thanked Walker as the crowd filed out and quietly disappeared into the fields. Jasper brushed past Walker, trying to intimidate him. Walker just chuckled. Even with a bad leg, Walker would wipe the floor with this punk.
“Just ignore him,” Lily said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Walker took another glance at the sky. He and Lily marched into the soybean field and hopped the fence to the Johnson farm. Duke was waiting for them, and Walker tossed him another treat.
Walker could hear the rumble of thrusters in the distance. It sounded like the craft was returning. “Come on. We need to move.”
Walker hopped as fast as he could through the wheat field. They made it to the edge of the field, then shuffled down a slope to a creek bed. Walker crawled into a cement culvert underneath the dirt road that ran alongside old man Johnson’s property.
Lily followed him.
The culvert was wet and muddy at the bottom, and their clothes were covered with dirt. But it was a good place to hide. It obscured them from view, and the cement would likely block their thermal signatures.
Walker heard the craft approach. It flew overhead, then banked around and made another pass. The sound of the engines faded as it flew back in the direction of Miller's farm.
Lily started to crawl from the culvert, but Walker stopped her. “Wait.”
They sat still for a moment. The sound of the enemy craft was undetectable.
“I think it’s clear," Lily said.
“No.” Walker strained to hear.
“Do you still hear it?”
Walker heard the distant sound of small arms fire. Short discrete bursts. A few minutes later, the craft headed back toward the culvert. It flew overhead and circled around a few times. Then it flew away again, only to return again several minutes later.
“Do you think those shots were…?”
“Probably somebody heading home from the meeting.”
“Do you think someone tipped the robots off?"
Walker grimaced. "It's possible."
They waited in the culvert for 45 minutes as the synthetics searched the area. They finally left, and Walker crawled out of the drainage pipe. He helped Lily to her feet as she emerged.
They climbed up the ridge and headed back home. It was 3am by the time they reached the house. Lily eased the back door open, trying not to wakeup Harlan.
Walker washed off his muddy boots at the hose outside. By the time he got inside, Lily had peeled off her clothes and was throwing them in the washing machine. She stood their in her bra and panties. Every sumptuous curve on full display. She was a sight to behold.
Walker tried not to look. He stood in the doorway and cleared his throat.
“Take off your clothes,” she demanded. She had a lascivious glint in her eyes. “I’ll wash them.”
Walker swallowed hard. It felt like the temperature rose 10°.
“Don’t be shy. Were both adults."
Walker peeled off his fatigues and tossed them to her. She threw the muddy things into the wash.
Lily’s eyes devoured his sculpted body. She bit her lip in the sexiest of ways. “You got a girlfriend, Commander?” Her breathy voice was like velvet.
Walker inhaled. “Yes,” he said, exhaling. “Yes, I do.”
“That’s too bad.” She smiled and spun around, sauntering out of the washroom. She had a heartbreaking saunter. He could definitely see why Jasper didn't want to let her go.
Walker shook his head and caught his breath.
Lily returned a moment later and tossed him a pink bathrobe. “It’s all I have.”
He grimaced as he slipped it on. He looked ridiculous.
Lily stifled a laugh. “Hang on. I'll get you my fuzzy slippers." She giggled again.
“No. That’s okay. Thanks."
The two stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable moment.
“Well, I guess it's past my bedtime. Sweet dreams, Commander." She had a devilish smile. She twisted around on her toes like a ballerina and strutted toward the stairs.
Walker couldn't bear to watch anymore. Lily was having way too much fun taunting him. His head fell into his hands and he tried to think about something less inspiring, like baseball. At any other time in his life, he would've jumped at the opportunity. But as enticing as she was, there was only one woman Walker cared about. And he wasn't going to screw that up for anything.
Walker left the washroom and started across the living room. He was going to go upstairs, go straight to his room, and lock the door.
But he never even made it to the stairs.
The front door splintered into a hundred pieces. A tactical squad rammed through, flooding into the living room. Assault rifles drew down on him.
“Get on the floor, now!” one of the synthetic goons yelled.
Walker raised his hands and dropped to his knees. The goons surrounded him. One of them kicked him in the back, and Walker face planted against the hardwood floor.
Lieutenant Drek watched with glee.
The house was surrounded by mechanized soldiers. A close air support vehicle hovered overhead. Spotlights slashed the night, dancing around the property, spilling in through the windows.
One of the synthetic goons put a knee in Walker's back, and restrained his wrists. He rolled Walker onto his back, then scanned his face with his PDU. Within seconds, Walker's military profile popped up on the screen.
“He’s UPDF military. Just like the kid said,” the goon shouted to Drek.
The commotion had roused Harlan from a deep slumber. He emerged from his bedroom wielding his shotgun. “Get off my property, you damn sons-of-bitches!”
The goons peppered him with bullets. Muzzle flash lit up the living room. Harlan's chest erupted in volcanoes of blood. He managed to squeeze off two rounds from his shotgun before he crumpled to the ground.
He caught one of the synthetics in the neck. It practically tore his head clean off. The robot flopped to the ground and twitched. The damage was too extensive for its nanites to repair.
Harlan lay in a pool of blood on the floor.
Walker was furious. His face was red and his veins were popping out. But there was nothing he could do.
Lily shrieked in terror as she barreled down the stairs in her PJs. Rivers of tears streaked down her cheeks.
The goons turned their weapons on her. “Hold it right there, ma’am.”
One of the goons grabbed her and threw her to the ground. She smacked the floor, and another goon pounced on her, restraining her wrists.
“Harboring a fugitive is a capital offense,” Drek said as he lorded over her.
The goons yanked Walker from the floor and dragged him outside. They pulled him across the porch and down the steps.
Jasper was outside, watching the operation.
Walker scowled at him, and Jasper looked away with guilt.
"Burn the house,” Drek said.
“What about the girl?” a goon asked.
“Let her burn with it." Drek marched through the doorway and down the steps. He passed by Jasper. “You’re a fine upstanding citizen.”
“You said she wouldn’t be harmed.”
“Did I? Oh, well.” Drek continued to the gunship that had landed on the lawn. The house behind him was beginning to glow with flames.
Lily was hogtied, screaming and crying on the living room floor. Soon she would be engulfed with flames.
The room filled with smoke and began to billow out the front door.
Jasper lunged toward the house, but a goon grabbed him. Jasper’s eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t do anything stupid," one of the synthetics said, pointing a weapon at his head. He was going to be forced to watch the woman of his dreams burn alive. All because he was jealous of Walker.
Drek marched up the ramp of the gunship. He smiled and sat across from Commander Walker.
Walker was seething. His eyes burned into Drek like lasers.
“All this destruction. It's a shame. Things would've been so much easier had you just turned yourself in. Those poor people would still be alive.”
Walker scowled at him. He could hear the crackling fire as it grew. He turned his head and watched the flames swallow the home. The amber glow flickered across his face and sparkled in his eyes.
“Humans are still an enigma to me, I must confess. You make no logical sense. You slip past our armada and return to New Earth to… do what, exactly? You can't possibly hope to make a difference. The statistical odds of defeating the occupation and restoring the Federation government to power are 9,397,452 to 1, according to my most recent calculations."
Walker said nothing. He could hear Lily’s agonizing screams. His lips quivered with rage, and his eyes welled.
“You risk a great deal coming here. If I were the gambling sort, I’d bet there's a 50-50 chance that I can pry the location of the last star destroyer out of you. That is where you came from, isn't it?”
Walker remained silent. The flames shot four stories into the night sky. Soon, Lily’s screams stopped. Walker thought about how much she must have suffered. The searing flesh. The inability to breathe.
His blood boiled. "I'm going to kill you," Walker said in a low, menacing voice.
Drek laughed. “Wouldn't that be interesting? Do you want to hear the odds of that happening?”
“I already know the odds. And they’re pretty damn good."
Drek chuckled again. He stood up and moved aft. He punched a button on the bulkhead with his fist, and the hydraulics engaged. The ramp slowly closed behind him.
Walker caught his last glimpse of the burning flames.
“Take us out of here,” Drek called to the pilot. A moment later the gunship lifted off the ground. Drek took a seat and strapped himself in. He looked Walker up an down—he was still wearing the pink robe. “I love your outfit, by the way.”
Tyler opened the inner airlock hatch. The platoon braced for an onslaught by the creatures.
But it never came.
Tyler slung his weapon aside and dipped the mop into the bucket of DETMT. He held the dripping mop head out in front of him and inched into the airlock. Then he pushed into the hallway.
The horde of creatures backed away from the mop head. The fumes of the repellent wafted through the corridor. The rest of the platoon filed out behind him, each carrying a sealed 5 gallon bucket of DETMT. Faulkner carried O’Malley over his shoulder—he was big enough to handle the extra weight with ease. Donovan brought up the rear with another mop and bucket. She laid down a trail of repellent behind them. The platoon looked like a team of militarized janitors. As silly as it seemed, it was working.
The insects clacked and clattered as they scurried away from the repellent. The sound of the creatures slithering about was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall.
The team snaked through the passageway to the north entrance of the complex. The pungent repellent kept the throngs at bay within the narrow hallways, but would it be as effective outdoors?
Tyler paused for a moment at the north entrance. “Stay tight. When we reach the truck, coat the tires, the truck bed, the cab, everything.”
Tyler re-soaked the mop head, then opened the main doors. A rush of hot, sticky air hit him in the face. Tyler crept toward the dump truck, keeping the sea of creatures at bay. They didn't want any part of the repellent. It was like they were blinded to the entire platoon.
The big yellow truck was scratched and dented from years of service. This wasn't the first coat of yellow paint on the truck, and the scrapes revealed multiple layers of yellow underneath. The wheels and undercarriage were coated with the reddish clay that was pervasive throughout the area.
Tyler reached the truck and doused it in as much repellent as possible. Faulkner climbed into the truck bed, then pulled O’Malley’s non-responsive body up, with Petrov’s help. They set O’Malley in the center of the bed, then took positions on opposite sides. Horton, Donovan, and Mosley climbed into the back as well.
Tyler opened the driver’s door to the cab and leapt inside. He powered up the rig, and the mammoth engine clattered to life. Elliott ran to the other side and took the passenger’s seat. He pulled the heavy door shut with a solid clank.
Tyler shifted the truck in gear. His foot pressed the accelerator, and the massive tires dug into the ground, spewing red dirt. The Behemoth heaved forward. For as big a vehicle as it was, it handled rather well. The all-wheel steering allowed it to turn on a dime. While it wasn't as smooth as a limousine, it wasn't a bouncy, uncomfortable ride. The enormous weight kept it steady, and the advanced shock absorbers handled any terrain abnormalities with aplomb.
So far, the repellent was working. The bugs scattered out of the way of the massive truck. The ones that didn't went snap, crackle, and pop underneath the tires. The rest of the platoon aimed their weapons over the side of the truck bed, ready for the creatures to attack.
Tyler spun the wheel, turning the vehicle south. He drove the truck alongside the compound until they came upon the Vantage.
The brakes squealed as Tyler brought the yellow dump truck to a stop. He tapped his earbud to activate it. “Petrov, Mosley… Check out the Vantage. Assess its viability. See if there's anything left of Kowalski.”
“Aye, sir," Petrov said. He didn't look too thrilled about jumping out into the middle of those things.
The two warriors hopped out of the truck bed. Their boots kicked up plumes of dust as they landed. With weapons in the firing position, they advanced to the Vantage.
The creatures backed away from them—the repellent was still working. The commercial preparations that you could buy in the store would last anywhere from 6 to 12 hours. At a 100% concentration of DETMT, this stuff ought to last for months.
Petrov and Mosley ran up the loading ramp of the Vantage. Wires were dangling from avionics. Crusty blood was splattered all over the windshield and command consoles of the cockpit.
Petrov tapped his earbud. “Sir, the Vantage is FUBAR. We’re not getting out of here on this thing.” He paused a moment. His face was solemn. “There's no trace of Kowalski."
“Copy that,” Tyler responded. “Get back to the truck.”
Petrov and Mosley plunged down the ramp and made their way back to the yellow Behemoth. The sun had dipped down below the horizon, and dusk was turning into night. And night was always more terrifying than the daylight. It didn't matter what planet you were on, or what enemy you were facing—night always brought the worst demons.
Once they had climbed back aboard, Tyler threw the truck into gear. He plowed forward to an access road that led to Station 5. Tyler frequently glanced to his PDU, keeping an eye on the surveillance map.
The platoon held on for dear life in the back.
Tyler's skin was red and burning from the high concentration of DETMT. But that was better than becoming bug food.
The yellow truck barreled down the dirt road. Thick jungle on either side. Things were going smoothly, until the engine began to stutter. It clanked and clamored. The yellow beast hopped along. Then the engine finally died.
They were halfway to Station 5.
Tyler made several attempts to restart the Behemoth. It chugged and chugged and chugged. But the engine just wouldn’t turn over.
The night air was still. Without the roar of the engine, the sounds of the jungle came alive. The brooding hordes of monsters out in the darkness could be heard slithering about. Death was out there, waiting for the platoon.
The internment camp was a massive complex, surrounded by a containment beam. There were rows of temporary housing structures as well as command offices. There were guard towers at each corner and at the main entrance. The containment beam was probably 40 feet high. There was no way to scale it. It was a translucent impenetrable force shield.
The camp was hastily thrown together, but it served its purpose. Roughly 10,000 military personnel had been captured and detained. The synthetics were in the process of extracting as much information as possible from each of the detainees.
Two goons grabbed Walker and dragged him from the gunship to the processing facility.
“Enjoy your stay,” Drek called after him, then marched to the command structure.
Walker was stripped of his clothes and shoved into a decontamination chamber. Several nozzles sprayed him with a chemical mist. He closed his eyes and mouth and tried not to breathe. His eyes burned as the chemical seeped in. His skin felt raw and tingly. He didn't know what they were spraying him with, but it couldn't be good. The process was repeated several times, with varying chemicals, then followed with a finishing rinse.
Afterward, hot air was pumped in through vents to blow him dry. There was some kind of chemical drying agent in the air, because it only took 10 seconds, and he was bone dry. Then a robotic arm injected him with a solution—probably an antibiotic, or antiviral, or some combination thereof. Disease was always a major concern in any prison population.
Another robotic arm extended, and implanted a small microchip under his skin. He rubbed his finger over the area, but he couldn't feel the implant underneath. It was imperceptibly small. He made a note of the exact location. He planned to cut it out at the first opportunity.
The door opened. Walker exited the chamber, and he was given a jumpsuit and a pair of shoes. The goons escorted him to the extraction facility, where he was strapped to a gurney.
It was an antiseptic lab with display screens and terminals and several technicians. One of the techs placed a neural ring on Walker’s head. It connected to his temples and linked wirelessly to the central computer.
“You may experience pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and/or death,” the tech said in a rote monotone voice. They had done so many extractions already, it was becoming exceedingly mundane. “The more you try to resist, the more painful it will be.”
The neural transfer process mapped and scanned the subject’s brain. The synthetics were masters of creating neural networks and deciphering brain activity. The device stimulated multiple areas of the cerebral cortex. Roughly 20,000 terabytes of data were processed in the span of a few minutes. It was like experiencing everything that happened since birth, all at once. Needless to say, most people got shorted out.
The tech stepped to the control terminal and activated the device. It spent the first few seconds calibrating. Walker didn’t feel anything. He tried to close off his mind and think about nothing.
But soon, a rush of memories and emotions flooded through his mind. It felt like someone had reached into his brain and was stealing his identity. Memories from childhood, visions of his parents, battles he had fought, friends he had lost. The flow of information was staggering. His heart was pounding. His skin was covered in sweat.
Some people had outright heart attacks. Others emerged from the process brain-dead. No one was ever quite the same.
Walker tried to focus on one thing, and force every other thought out of his mind. It was like a hyper intense session of meditation. His brain felt like it was being torn apart. His head throbbed with the pain of an ice headache.
The memories began to slow—he was putting the brakes on the outflow of information. He wasn't going to let them take anymore of his soul. Most of his military career had been about conditioning the mind. Sure, Walker was a perfect physical specimen, but it took mental toughness to be a Reaper. BSCT was 24 weeks of pure pain. If you were going to survive it, you had to learn to put pain in a special place and ignore it. Reapers did the jobs that nobody else wanted to do, and Walker had developed laser focused control of his mind.
Pretty soon, his pulse and respiration were normal. He stopped sweating. His mind was empty. The flow of information stopped.
This had never happened before, and the tech was sure the system was experiencing a malfunction. He rebooted the system and ran a diagnostic. Everything checked out okay. He ran the protocol again, but still could not download any information from Walker's mind.
The technician’s face twisted up, baffled by the situation. He determined that this was going to take further investigation. He called for the guards to escort Walker to the prisoners’ barracks, until he got the neural transfer system sorted out.
The barracks were nothing more than shacks with rows of bunkbeds. There were a row of port-a-potties on the north side of the camp, but not near enough to service the number of prisoners. It made for constant lines.
The bunkbeds were just wooden planks with no mattresses. The living conditions were deplorable. And without regular access to showers, the barracks had a stench that would curl your nose hairs.
The guards tossed Walker inside. All eyes were upon him. He scanned the sea of ragged faces. They had only been in the camp a few days, but they already looked bleak and hopeless.
One of the men stepped up to Walker. “Lieutenant Robert Braun, UPDF Marines."
“Commander Kurt Walker, Navy Reapers.”
“Congratulations, Commander. You’re now the senior officer of this barracks.” He didn't seem thrilled about losing his position of authority, but he was a good sport about it.
"What can you tell me about the facility?"
“Well, we've been probing for weaknesses, but we obviously haven't come up with an escape plan yet. We get one meal a day, if you can call it that. And they’re randomly bringing people to the neural transfer facility. Some of them come back, some of them don't." Braun pointed to a Marine sitting in a chair, staring into space. His expression was blank, and he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. “They took him yesterday. Murphy hasn't ever been quite the same."
Murphy was a blonde haired young man that couldn't have been more than 19. He was probably going to spend the rest of his life as a zombie. Walker cringed at the thought.
“They seem to be looking for the location of the fleet. Or rather, what's left of it. They've got Admiral Slade in solitary. I don't think she's cracked yet."
Walker’s eyes widened. “Admiral Slade is here?”
“Unfortunately,” Braun sighed. “They captured her this morning. She was leading the resistance."
"Where are you going?” Lieutenant Braun asked.
“To get her out of solitary,” Walker said.
“Hang on there, Commander. You can't just break her out.”
“For starters, the building she's in is heavily guarded. You don’t have any weapons. And even if you do get her out, where are you going to go after that?"
"I'll improvise.” Walker stepped outside the barracks. There was a narrow alleyway between the structures. Walker strolled to the end of the shack and peered around the corner.
Braun followed after him.
Walker surveyed the campgrounds. His eyes darted from the command structures to the guards standing post around the camp. Then to the containment wall, and the guard towers. His eyes shifted to the main entrance. Then he glanced to the landing pad by the processing facility. A gunship was currently sitting on the tarmac.
“She’s in that building, there.” Braun pointed to the detention center.
Walker pushed the Lieutenant’s hand down. "Try not to make it obvious."
Braun cleared his throat. “Right. Sorry, sir."
Behind the office buildings, Walker could see a small, heavily guarded, power plant that was running the camp. It had its own containment wall. Mechanized soldiers stalked the perimeter.
“Get back in the barracks,” a synthetic guard yelled. He slung his rifle into the firing position and marched toward them.
Walker stood his ground.
“I said move!"
Walker grinned, then eased back into the alleyway between the barracks—the barrel of the assault rifle inches from his face. He strolled backwards toward the entrance, keeping his hands in the air.
Once he was obscured from the view of the guard towers, Walker made his move. Everything happened in a split second. He grabbed the barrel of the guard’s assault rifle, pushed it aside so the barrel cleared his head, then cracked the synthetic in the face with the stock.
Blood trickled from the biosynthetic’s nose. It had an odd quality about it. It looked more like motor oil than blood. The impact stunned the synthetic momentarily—an overload of sensory input. The synthetics were designed to perceive the full range of human experiences. They had an enhanced sense of touch, and were able to experience pleasure. But the downside of that meant they were also able to feel pain.
Walker stripped the weapon away and whacked the guard in the jaw. His lower mandible dislocated. The guard tumbled to the ground. Walker pounced on his chest, and repeatedly cracked the robot’s skull until it shattered.
Braun looked on with wide eyes. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed the assault. But the alleyway had provided them with cover.
“Help me,” Walker said as he grabbed the body.
Braun grabbed the guard's legs, and they carried him into the barracks. Walker’s shrapnel wound stabbed with pain from the added weight.
Braun kicked the door closed behind them, and they set the guard atop a bunk.
Walker stripped the guard of his uniform and put it on. It didn't quite fit. Walker was a big guy, and the uniform was a little snug. But it was going to have to do.
He put on the helmet and tactical gear and strapped on the utility belt. Walker pulled the sidearm from its holster to press-check the weapon, but it wasn't a pistol—it was a neural disruptor. It would disrupt the neural pathways of human beings, rendering them unconscious for roughly an hour or two, depending upon their synaptic response. But would it work on a synthetic?
“What do we do with him?" Braun said.
“Put a blanket over him,” Walker said. “He's taking a permanent nap."
Braun rolled the guard onto his side and tried to cover the obvious damage to his face. He threw a blanket over him, and at a quick glance, he looked like any other sleeping prisoner.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to keep improvising,” Walker said. “You’re going to create a diversion.”
“Start a fight. Or a rebellion. Be creative."
“About a minute after I get into the detention center. Whatever you're going to do, I'll need it in full swing by the time I get out of there.”
Walker stepped out of the barracks, walked through the alleyway and marched toward the detainment center. He couldn't show any signs of a limp—it might draw unwanted scrutiny. Walker had stress fractures in both his legs during BSCT, but he toughed it out. He didn't want to get rolled back on a medical, so he kept his mouth shut and took the pain. He was used to pain, and the sensation in his leg was nothing compared to the long list of injuries he had suffered in the past.
Two guards stood out front of the detention center.
Walker stormed to them. “Lieutenant Drek wants me to bring one of the prisoners to the extraction facility.”
The guards nodded and let him pass. Walker pushed through the door. There were three guards at the command station. Behind them, were a row of solitary confinement chambers. Each was contained with a force shield.
Walker drew the disruptor pistol, and blasted off three shots. The device made a subtle low-frequency sound.
The synthetic guards went limp and crumpled to the ground.
Walker stepped aside. He knew the guards outside would hear the disrupter, and would rush in. As they did, Walker took them out with two blasts. They face planted on the ground.
Walker had to hurry. It wouldn't be long before someone would notice the missing guards out front and start to inquire as to why. He raced down the cellblock and found Slade in one of the containers. She was slumped in the corner and looked battered and bruised. She had a black eye and abrasions on her face. Her lip was crusted with blood.
Walker's face tensed. He pressed the button on the wall, deactivating the force field. Slade jerked with panic, thinking it was a guard.
Walker rushed to her. “Hey, hey, it’s me.”
Her eyes filled with relief when she recognized him. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight.
“What did they do to you?"
“Well, the neural transfer didn't work, so they decided they'd beat the information out of me.” Slade smiled. “That didn't work either."
“I knew there was a reason I liked you."
“So, you're admitting it now?”
“Come on. Let's get out of here.” Walker helped her stand.
They moved into the corridor and headed toward the command station.
Two more guards burst in. Their eyes found the downed guards on the floor, then shifted to Walker.
He blasted them with the disruptor, but not before one of them could fire off a shot. Muzzle flash erupted. Smoke wafted from the barrel. The bullet drilled through the air.
It slammed right into Slade.
Crimson blood spurted from both the entry and the exit wound. Walker's eyes filled with terror. Slade dropped to the ground.
After a few futile attempts to start the dump truck, Tyler gave up. He pushed open the door and hopped out of the vehicle. He called back to the team, “We’re moving out on foot."
The platoon jumped out of the truck bed. Faulkner grabbed O’Malley, but he had already undergone major changes. He was almost unrecognizable. He certainly wasn’t human anymore. His skin was oozing and sloughing off. The exoskeleton was beginning to form.
Faulkner recoiled. “Oh, hell no.”
Tyler grumbled at him. “Get it in gear, Faulkner.”
“O’Malley ain’t quite himself no more.”
“I don’t care,” Tyler yelled. “Grab him and lets go.”
Faulkner reached down to grab O’Malley, but before he could get to him Horton blasted a shot into O’Malley’s skull. Blood and brains splattered about the bed of the truck.
“What the fuck, man?” Faulkner shouted. He shoved Horton, who responded by aiming his pistol at Faulkner.
“Back off man. I just did you a favor.”
Faulkner drew down on Horton with his machine gun.
Horton’s eyes were wide. “It was only a matter of time before he started gnawing on one of us.”
Tyler was pissed. The veins in his neck were popping out. “Faulkner, get down here, now! Horton, congratulations. You get to carry O’Malley’s body.”
Faulkner jumped out of the truck. Horton grabbed O’Malley and lowered his body down. Faulkner grabbed the corpse and set it on the ground. A sea of creatures surrounded them, but the bugs were keeping their distance.
The minute Horton hit the ground, Tyler slammed him against the side of the truck. He pushed the barrel of his sidearm under Horton’s chin. “I don’t care who you work for, you disobey one of my orders again, you’ll be dead. Are we clear?”
Tyler released him. The two soldiers glared at each other.
“He’d have taken out more of your men,” Horton said, calmly. Then he hefted O’Malley’s grotesque carcass over his shoulder.
Tyler marched the dirt road toward Station 5. His skin was burning from the DETMT and starting to blister. He wasn't sure if he was having some kind of reaction to the chemical, or if the high concentration was responsible. The rest of the platoon looked red and irritated, but Tyler seemed the worst of the bunch. Every part of his body itched. His neck, his face, his abdomen. He resisted the urge to scratch, knowing it would only make it worse. He could scratch until his skin bled—it wasn't going to do any good.
The creatures were out there in the darkness, surrounding them. But the repellent was keeping them at bay. The air was filled with the clatter of their movement and the rustling foliage as the creatures scampered about the jungle.
Station 5 was another mile up the road.
Tyler gripped his weapon tight, ready for an attack. The two moons of the planet bathed the jungle in a pale light. Night vision almost wasn't necessary. Tyler scanned the edge of the jungle, keeping an eye on the creatures. Most seemed oblivious to the platoon. But one of the monsters seemed to be tracking parallel to the squad.
Tyler began to worry that the repellent was wearing off. But it was far too soon for that. Perhaps this particular creature was immune to DETMT?
The platoon jogged at a steady pace toward Station 5. The sounds of the jungle filled the thick night air, along with the smack of the platoon’s boots against the dirt.
It wasn't long before one of the creatures was edging closer to the platoon. Tyler took aim at the beast.
It charged toward the squad.
Tyler squeezed the trigger unleashing a flurry of bullets. Muzzle flash lit up the darkness. Soon the entire platoon was peppering the creature with bullets.
The insect shattered into a thousand pieces. Bits of exoskeleton, guts, and appendages splattered everywhere.
“Double time, people,” Tyler shouted.
The platoon increased their pace.
The commotion had garnered the attention of several other creatures. Most were still oblivious to the platoon, but there was a growing number that was becoming aware. It was as if they were adapting to the repellent.
The squad raced as fast as they could down the path. As Tyler rounded the corner, he could see Station 5 ahead. It was maybe 500 yards away. He picked up the pace even faster, running uphill.
There was no telling what awaited them. The substation could have been breached. It might be crawling with those damn things.
It wasn’t long before another creature lurched onto the path ahead. It scampered toward Tyler at a frantic pace.
He lined the beast up in his sights and blasted off several rounds. The bolt locked forward—the magazine was empty. He pressed the mag release button and dropped the magazine out.
The insect was still barreling toward him.
Elliott took up the slack, finishing the creature off.
Tyler gave him a quick nod of thanks. Maybe Weston wasn’t so bad after all.
Tyler slammed another magazine into the well and pressed the bolt catch. He moved with technical perfection. The procedure happened within the blink of an eye. He blasted a flurry of rounds at another incoming creature. Its carcass flopped to the ground. Bug juiced oozed over the clay path.
Another darted out of the jungle.
A hail of gunfire eviscerated the creatures. Pale blue gun-smoke wafted through the air, backlit by the dual moons.
Boots slammed against the clay as the platoon ran toward the substation.
Creatures leapt out from all angles, attacking the platoon. Chaos ensued. A mix of bullets, blood, and bug parts.
Horton struggled to keep up. With O'Malley's body slung over his shoulder, he fell behind. He blasted the oncoming creatures with his sidearm. He ran through the 17 round magazine in the blink of an eye.
He dropped O'Malley's mutated body to the ground, and exchanged magazines. Two creatures were streaking toward him from opposite directions. He emptied an entire magazine into one, then spun around, reloaded, and took out the other one. Horton was good with a weapon. There was no arguing that.
Horton reached down, grabbed O'Malley's body, and hefted it on his shoulder. His boots dug into the ground as he sprinted to catch up with the rest of the platoon. He ran as hard as he could. His chest heaved for breath. He only had a handful of rounds left.
Another creature sprang out of the foliage toward Mosley. It caught him off guard. By the time he swung his barrel around, the creature had pounced on him. The horrid thing tore into his flesh. Its a razor-sharp mandibles disemboweled Mosley in a matter of seconds.
Horton emptied the rest of his magazine into the creature. He shrugged off O'Malley's body. There was no point in carrying it any longer. The odds of getting off the planet weren't looking too good. No body bags were going home—there would be no one left to take them. They were all going to die here.
Horton reached down and grabbed Mosley’s weapon—it wasn't like he needed it any longer.
Another creature lurched at him from the jungle.
Horton peppered the insect with a hail of gunfire. It erupted in a gooey mess.
He grabbed a couple of extra magazines from Mosley’s tactical vest. Then he sprinted to catch up with the rest of the squad. They were now 400 yards from the substation. It might as well have been a million miles. Creatures were attacking left and right.
Walker dropped to his knees. He applied pressure to Slade’s wound to stop the bleeding. The bullet missed the subclavian artery by 5mm. Missed the brachial plexus. Slade got lucky. The bullet that impacted her shoulder with 1300 foot-pounds of force tore through flesh and bone, but it didn’t kill her. Not yet, at least.
Walker had a rare look of panic on his face. He took a tactical knife from the guard’s utility belt and cut a strip of fabric. He tied it off around Slade’s wound, hoping to stem the bleeding. Then he helped her to her feet. "We need to get moving."
They staggered to the exit. Synthetics were strewn about the floor. Walker wasn't sure how long the effects of the disruptor would last. He might have 5 minutes, or 50, before they woke up.
Walker cracked the door and peered out. There was a commotion over by the barracks. Several prisoners were rioting. The guards were sidetracked dealing with the insurrection. It seemed Braun came through with the diversion.
Walker pushed Slade through the door and marched her at gunpoint across the camp. Dressed as a guard, he didn't draw any attention. They plodded past the command building toward the landing pad. The gunship was still on the tarmac. The ramp was down, and the ship was unattended.
“You hanging in there?” Walker muttered.
“I’ll make it,” she said, her voice thin.
The closer they got to the gunship, the more anxious Walker felt.
From his office, Drek caught a glimpse of the two marching across the tarmac. He did a double take, then recognized Slade and Walker. His body tensed. He sprang from his chair and sprinted down the hallway. He burst through the door and shouted to the guards, “Stop those two!”
Walker and Slade ran to the gunship as the guards opened fire. Bullets snapped through the air. Walker spun around and returned fire. He squeezed off a flurry of rounds, taking out one of the guards, then the other.
Slade vaulted up the ramp and slid into the pilot’s seat. She took a quick glance at the controls—she had never flown one of these vehicles before. She took a moment to familiarize herself with the controls.
Drek drew his sidearm and took aim at Walker. He was standing maybe 40 yards away. He blasted off several rounds as Walker sprinted for the gunship. The bullets tore through the air. One of them grazed the back of Walker's helmet.
The impact was enough to spin his head to the side and give him an instant migraine. But Walker stayed on his feet. He spun back, brining his weapon into the firing position. The reticle of his sights lined up with Drek’s head. Walker squeezed off two rounds.
An instant later, Drek’s head exploded in a red mist. His synthetic body flopped to the ground. No way his nanites could repair that.
That one’s for Lily, Walker thought.
He sprinted up the ramp. Walker mashed a button on the bulkhead, and the ramp slowly lifted.
Bullets pinged off the gunship. Sparks erupted like small fireworks against the hull. By now the area was flooded with both synthetic guards and mechanized warriors. The constant stream of small arms fire peppered the craft. But it wasn't doing much damage to the armor plated composite hull.
Walker took a seat next to Slade. She had managed to power the vehicle up, and the system was going through its preflight checks. She didn't know how to bypass the safety feature, so they were forced to wait helplessly.
“You think you can fly this thing?"
“We’re about to find out, aren’t we?” Slade throttled up and lifted off the tarmac. The craft pitched and rolled as she got used to the controls. Her arm was practically useless, so she was operating one-handed.
The craft lumbered through the air as the soldiers on the ground continued to pummel it. Bullets clanked against the hull. The sound was unsettling.
Slade angled the craft around, then unleashed a torrent of gunfire from the craft’s forward machine guns. The hot lead eviscerated the guards. Plumes of dirt and concrete erupted like geysers from the massive impacts. Mechanized soldiers were torn in two.
“Take out the power station,” Walker said.
Slade targeted the station and fired a rocket. It streaked from underneath the sub-wing pylon, spitting sparks and propellant from its tail. It shrieked down and exploded in a brilliant ball of flame. It billowed into a small mushroom cloud, and black smoke rose into the air.
Lights flickered, then went black as power to the entire complex went out. The containment wall vanished. Suddenly, thousands of prisoners were now free.
But there was no time to enjoy the victory. A proximity alert sounded. An incoming RPG blasted toward the gunship. It slammed into the side of the craft, jarring the ship. Another alarm sounded. The port-side thruster coughed and wheezed, then sputtered out.
The ship listed to the side, but Slade regained control. “I think we have outstayed our welcome."
She throttled up and pulled back on the controls. The craft angled to the sky, and drifted away.
Another alarm sounded. Two more incoming rockets. The ship wouldn't survive another direct hit to a thruster.
Slade deployed electronic countermeasures. ECMs launched from the stern of the craft and blazed in the sky. One of the rockets took the bait and detonated with a blinding flash upon impacting with the ECM. But the other rocket passed it by and proceeded toward the gunship.
Slade cut the remaining engine. Walker felt his stomach leap into his throat. The heavy gunship plummeted like a stone.
The rocket narrowly missed, and Slade re-engaged the thruster. The craft was still plummeting toward the ground faster than Slade would have liked. She pulled hard on the stick, trying to keep the nose up. The ground was fast approaching. They plowed through treetops as the craft finally leveled out.
The gunship gained altitude, climbing to the upper atmosphere. The internment camp became a small speck on the ground.
But they weren't out of the woods yet. Another proximity alert sounded. An enemy fighter was on their tail.
The gunship limped through the sky. There was no way they could evade a nimble fighter.
“We need to make an in-atmosphere jump,” Slade said.
“Way ahead of you,” Walker said, programming in the jump coordinates.
It was always a dangerous thing to make a slide-space jump so close to a planetary body. The mass of the planet needed to be considered when making jump calculations. And even then, it was risky. But there wasn't much choice.
The fighter launched two air to air missiles. They raced toward the gunship. The proximity alert beeped faster and faster as the missiles approached, until it was a steady tone.
At the last moment, Slade engaged the slide-space drive. The bulkheads rippled from the quantum distortion. In the blink of an eye, the ship vanished from the atmosphere.
“Cutting it a little close, don’t you think?” Walker asked.
Slade didn't respond. She was pale and sweat was beading on her face. She moved her lips to speak, but fainted. She slumped in her chair.
Walker unbuckled his safety harness and floated out of his chair, pulling himself close to her. Slade had lost a lot of blood. There was nothing he could do for her, but keep pressure on the wound. If she didn't get medical attention soon, she was going to be in trouble.
Slade regained consciousness a few moments later. Her woozy eyes glanced up to him as he hovered over her. “I'm fine. I just got a little lightheaded."
“Just take it easy.”
Slade crinkled her brow. Nonsense, she was fine, she thought. She reached toward the control panel but felt woozy again.
“You don't listen very well."
“That’s what you love about me.” Her voice was thin and weak.
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
She grinned. There was a long moment of silence. “Yes.”
“Yes, I’ll marry you.”
A smile curled on Walker’s lips, but it was bittersweet. Slade wasn’t doing well. Her skin looked like porcelain. She was fading.
“You hang in there. I’m going to hold you to your word. You can’t get out of it by dying.” Walker kept a smile on his face, but he felt a dry lump in his throat. His eyes started to fill.
He compressed both the entry and exit wounds. He began to think that maybe the bullet had nicked the subclavian artery. He kept the pressure on until they emerged from slide space at Zeta 9 Centauri.
Walker could see the Revenant was still in orbit. He knew that they'd be scrambling fighters to deal with the enemy craft that had certainly popped up on the LRADDS display. He needed to let the Revenant know that they were dealing with a friendly vehicle.
Walker took Slade’s hand and placed it over the wound. "Keep the pressure on."
He climbed back into his seat and switched on the comm link. “USS Revenant, Zulu Xray. This is Commander Walker. Hold your fire. Repeat, hold your fire.”
“Good to have you back, Zulu X-ray,” a voice crackled back over the line.
“Request permission to land.”
“Permission granted. Flight deck B.”
“I have critically wounded aboard. Request an emergency medical team on the flight deck.”
“Roger that, Zulu X-ray.”
Walker maneuvered the craft around and began his approach. He was in the groove for a perfect landing, but he knew it was going to be a little difficult to manage the switch to full gravity with only one engine. He felt the imbalance as soon as he crossed over the edge of the flight deck. The gunship pitched and drifted, but he leveled the craft out.
The moment the skids touched down, Walker opened the back ramp and launched out of his seat. He scooped Slade from the pilot’s seat and waited for the ramp to lower. Her body hung limp in his arms. He raced down to the flight deck. The corpsmen were waiting. Walker set her on the gurney. “She’s not breathing!”
The corpsmen enveloped her. One put his fingers on her neck. “I don’t have a pulse.”
“Start defibrillation,” another yelled, and started CPR. He pulled open her shirt and administered chest compressions as fast as he could, while another corpsman placed contact pads on her rib cage and upper chest, on opposite sides. He activated the device, and it went through a diagnostic phase and measured Slade’s vitals.
Another corpsman applied a bio-polymer foam to the entry and exit wounds. It would stop the bleeding. It had antibiotic and regenerative properties. He started an IV and ran synthetic plasma to replenish her blood supply.
The AED (automated external defibrillator) issued voice commands. It advised everyone to stand clear and administered a shock. Slade’s chest arched, then fell back to the gurney. The AED hummed as it recycled for another shock.
“Please stand clear,” the AED said.
Slade's body arched again. Still no pulse.
“Please stand clear,” the AED repeated. It was going to try one more time to revive the admiral.
Walker looked on with absolute terror. There was nothing he could do. The situation was out of his hands. He always exerted some type of force over his own destiny—but not this time.
It was ironic that the love of his life was in the hands of a semi-intelligent automated machine. His body tensed and he clenched his fists, hoping against hope.
Discrete bursts of gunfire rocketed through the air. The squad moved with speed and precision, eliminating the bugs as they attacked from the dense foliage. They were holding their own, but ammo was getting low.
It was never a fair fight with bugs. You were always outnumbered. They didn't share the same thought process as other higher life forms. They fought in swarms, for the good of the whole. There was no individualism, or self-centeredness. They never seemed to have any fear. That was one thing you could always count on with a higher intelligence. Every sentient being was always afraid of something.
Right now, the thing that was concerning Tyler was not only getting to the substation, but getting into the substation. It would suck if the access code didn't work, or if there was a malfunction with the main entrance, or if the place was overrun.
But as they approached the substation, Tyler's concerns were put to rest. The main doors began to slide open.
Tyler sprinted with all his might. His heart pounded, and his chest heaved for breath. His quads burned, and his boots smacked the ground as he dashed for the door.
The platoon dashed into the structure. Dr. Holly Noble pressed a button on the wall and closed the door behind them. The heavy steel doors crawled shut much too slow. A horde of bugs were chasing after the squad. One of them reached the entrance before the doors shut.
Faulkner remedied the situation with an up close and personal introduction to the M640 machine gun.
Faulkner squeezed the trigger and rattled off a blistering slew of rounds. The bug was blasted into bits, spraying blood and chunks of exoskeleton everywhere.
The heavy steel doors clanked shut. The platoon hunched on their knees, catching their breath as Elliott embraced Dr. Noble.
“Thank God you’re alright,” Elliott said, clinging on to her for dear life.
"You shouldn’t have come,” She said. “It's too dangerous."
Tyler watched the two interact. It was clear that Elliott had orchestrated this whole rescue operation to save her. And that was fine by Tyler. It seemed honest and pure. Far better than a mission based solely on corporate greed.
Holly Noble was definitely the type of woman you would travel across the galaxy to save. She was even better looking in person. Her beauty was breathtaking. She had that sexy librarian thing going on. Blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, ice blue eyes, creamy skin, and full lips. Her glasses gave her that sexy, nerdy vibe. She was hot as hell, but didn't act like she knew it. There wasn't a man in the platoon that didn't want to see what was underneath her lab coat. But what the hell was she doing with a guy like Elliott? She seemed too smart to be into him just for his money.
“I hate to interrupt this reunion,” Tyler said. "But do you want to tell me what's going on here?"
Dr. Noble exchanged an awkward glance with Elliott. “I’m afraid that’s classified.”
“I think it’s safe to say we all have clearance,” Tyler said.
Dr. Noble did a double take. “Wait a minute, aren’t you…?”
Tyler rolled his eyes. “Yes.”
She looked utterly confused. Reality had somehow merged with a cheap B movie. Holly glanced to Elliott. “What’s going on here?”
“That’s what I’m asking you,” Tyler said.
“It’s okay,” Weston said. “Tell him.”
Dr. Noble hesitated. “Research and development is a key function of this facility.”
Tyler clenched his jaw. “What kind of research?”
“Bio-weapons,” she stammered.
Tyler scowled at her, then his glare found Elliott. He lunged for the corporate man, grabbed him by his tactical vest, and slammed him against the wall. "You knew what we were getting into.”
“I swear, I had no idea.”
“I knew they were developing weapons. That's all,” Elliott said. “Plausible deniability."
Dr. Noble glared at Elliott in disbelief. She knew he was lying.
“Okay, okay. Fine. So I didn’t tell you everything. It was above top secret. None of you had clearance. You got a problem with it, talk to the UIA. They didn’t want any details of the program slipping out.”
Tyler reluctantly released Elliott. “What the hell are these things? And how do we get rid of them?"
"It might be easier if I show you,” Dr. Noble said.
She led them through the corridors of the substation to her lab—a state-of-the-art sequencing facility with the latest hardware, software, and wetware. There were centrifuges and incubators. There were freezers and autoclaves. Electrophoresis apparatus and gel docks. PCR machines and glassware. There were supercomputers, microscopes, and display screens.
There were several high-security specimen containers made from impact resistant polycarbonate. Inside one of the containers, was a horde of squirming white larvae. Inside another, a swarm of small insects buzzed about. They look similar to mosquitoes, but a little larger.
“This is project Butterfly. It's a first strike anti-personnel weapon. It can be deployed as larvae, or as these ectoparasites,” she said, pointing to the mosquitos. From there, these parasites act as a vector for the disease, infecting the host with the mutagen. The incubation period is 1 to 3 days. You've all seen the result,” she said, dryly.
Tyler took a closer look at the specimen containers.
“Within three weeks, the large arthropods can decimate an entire population. The mutagen can be targeted to affect a broad spectrum of life, or a specific species. At 4 to 5 weeks, the arthropods die off, leaving the planet viable for repurposing. It's the perfect weapon."
“Seems reckless and unsafe to me,” Tyler said.
“This technology could save millions of Federation lives,” Elliott said. “You of all people should be able to appreciate that."
"It seems like it has the potential to kill millions of Federation lives as well. Just one of these mosquitoes could take out the entire population of New Earth.”
“Or Saarkturia. Or Decluvia,” Elliott said.
Tyler had to admit, the possibility was enticing. The utter annihilation of their enemies. An end to the existential threat of alien invasion. It was easy to understand why the UIA wanted this technology developed.
“If we can just wait it out, maybe another 3 to 5 weeks, we’ll be fine,” Dr. Noble said.
Tyler laughed. "We don't have 3 to 5 weeks. We've got maybe 3 to 5 hours.”
The optimism faded from Dr. Noble's face as Tyler explained the failure of the cooling system, and the imminent explosion that would soon follow.
The drone network was still buzzing high in the sky. Tyler studied the surrounding area on his PDU. He zoomed into the freighter on the tarmac just outside of Station 5. It looked like it was in good shape.
“What condition is the freighter in?" Tyler asked. "Does it fly?"
“If it flew, I wouldn't be here,” said Dr. Noble with more than a hint of sass in her voice.
Tyler's eyes narrowed at her. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I’m a genetic scientist, not a mechanic.”
“Petrov, see if you can connect remotely and run a diagnostic,” Tyler commanded.
“Aye, sir.” Petrov pulled out his PDU and tried to interface with the ship’s central computer. “Got it. Running a diagnostic now.”
A moment later, the computer spit back the results. Tyler could tell by the look on Petrov’s face that it wasn’t good. “How bad is it?”
“Bad frequency modulator, thermal exchanger, fried quantum coil.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I’m not a mechanic.”
“I know my way around a quantum array,” Horton said.
That got Tyler’s attention.
“If I had the right parts, I might be able to do something.”
“Can you pilfer them from the Vantage?”
Petrov’s eyes went wide. He didn’t want to trek all the way back to the Vantage with hordes of those creatures out there. “Even if we could get back to the Vantage, then make our way back here, there's no guarantee that we’d find the parts we need, and there's no guarantee they would work in the freighter."
“There's a command station deep underground, in the tunnels,” Dr. Noble said. “There's food and living quarters. It was designed to withstand several atmospheres of pressure."
“Let me get this straight,” Petrov said. “You want us to go underground to avoid the blast?"
"There are over 700 miles of tunnels down there. The command station is deep enough underground that it may protect from the blast,” Dr. Noble said.
“May?" Petrov’s eyes bulged.
“Would you prefer to be on the surface?”
“I’d prefer not to be on this goddamn planet."
“Well, that’s just not an option, now is it?” Dr. Noble said.
Petrov grumbled under his breath. "Those tunnels are going to collapse and trap us down there. We’re going to die one way or another."
“We all signed up to die," Tyler said. "That's what Reapers do."
“Yeah, but it seemed a lot cooler in the recruitment brochure,” Petrov said.
Tyler pulled up the surveillance imagery on his PDU. He studied the area around Station 5. There were two excavators on the far side of the compound, near the mine entrance. They looked like tanks with a giant drill bit on the front end. They were built on the same chassis as the M2 Brahms-Dieter tanks. Old school, with actual tread. The tanks could hold up to four people—Tyler figured the excavators could hold the same.
“We’ll take these down to the command station,” Tyler said, pointing to the excavators on his PDU. “Worst case scenario, we dig our way back out.”
The platoon looked skeptical.
“Worst case scenario, we get flattened like pancakes down there,” Petrov was starting to meltdown again. “Those things are 200 yards away. We’re not gonna make it 10 feet out there with those things running around."
“You're welcome to stay here, Petrov,” Tyler said.
Petrov didn’t seem to like that idea either.
The platoon stood ready as Tyler opened the main doors to the substation. Hot, sticky air rushed in. Tyler scanned the perimeter—it looked clear. But it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. Those things would be scampering about soon enough. Tyler could only hope the repellant still had some effect.
Tyler led the squad out of the substation. He ran to the freighter and hugged the hull, near the bow of the ship. He swung the barrel of his weapon around the corner. He could see the excavators 200 yards away.
Tyler crept along the length of the freighter. The barrel of his weapon swiveled across the perimeter. The stern of the ship was their last bit of cover. There was an open path to the drill rigs with plenty of foliage on either side to conceal the insects.
The night air was calm and quiet. Too quiet. Just downright spooky.
“I gotta bad feeling about this,” Faulkner whispered.
“Did you just volunteer to take point?” Tyler asked.
Faulkner frowned. “Yes, sir. I guess I just did.”
Faulkner heaved his M640 into the firing position and jogged toward the drill rigs.
Tyler motioned the rest of the platoon forward. They streaked toward the excavators. Donovan brought up the rear.
Halfway down the path, they encountered their first visitor. Faulkner unleashed a flurry of gunfire at the gnarly insect. Muzzle flash lit up the faces of the platoon. The creature burst into pieces.
The cat was out of the bag. More creatures scampered toward the sound of the gunshots.
The DETMT was still repelling some of the creatures. But many seemed unaffected by it. Still, anything that helped keep these monsters away was better than nothing.
Bullets ripped through the air. Bugs were leaping from all angles. Clouds of gun smoke danced with the breeze.
One of the creatures broke through the wall of gunshots. It pounced on Petrov, knocking him to the dirt. The bug’s mandibles tore into his throat, severing his carotid artery. Blood spewed from the wound. Petrov gurgled and twitched as the creature devoured him.
Tyler blasted the damn thing, but it was too late. There was no time to stop and treat his wounds. Nothing could save Petrov anyway.
The platoon had barely made it another ten yards, when a creature charged Faulkner. He fired until the barrel of his M640 was smoking, but the creature kept coming. The thing finally flopped to the ground just as it reached Faulkner’s feet.
The remaining squad members dashed to the excavators. Tyler climbed atop one of the rigs and opened the hatch. “Load up!”
Tyler blasted away at the oncoming creatures. Muzzle flash spewed from the barrel of his weapon. Spent shell casings rained down, pinging off the metal excavator.
Faulkner tore the creatures to shreds with his machine gun. The barrel was glowing, and smoke was rising.
Dr. Noble and Elliott climbed inside the drill rig.
“Faulkner, get inside!” Tyler yelled.
“You don’t gotta tell me twice.” He climbed on top of the vehicle and dropped down through the hatch.
“Donovan. Get your ass in there.”
“After you, sir. I insist.” Donovan unloaded at a creature that was barreling toward her. She blasted the thing to pieces. Its carcass fell at her feet.
Horton was atop the other drill rig. He pulled the hatch open and dropped down into the bucket.
Donovan continued to hold the creatures off. She almost looked like she was enjoying herself. “Go on, sir. I’ll catch a ride with Horton.” She fell back to Horton’s drill rig.
Tyler climbed into the bucket and pulled the hatch shut. He slipped into the command seat. Unlike the M2 tanks, these drill rigs didn’t have a dedicated driver under the front gun. The vehicle was controlled and driven from the command console.
Tyler powered up the turbine engine. The thing roared to life as dozens of creatures clattered onto the rig. There was no way they could gnaw through the composite metal. The rigs weren't armor plated like the M2 tanks, but it would take a hell of a lot more than razor-sharp mandibles to cut through the metal hull.
Donovan crawled into the other rig. As she pulled the hatch shut, a creature lunged for her. It blocked the hatch, and Donovan wasn't able to close it.
Horton squeezed off several rounds from his pistol, pulverizing the bug’s skull. Donovan slammed the hatch shut with a clank and locked it. Her heart was pounding in her chest. It was a close call. She gave Horton a quick nod of appreciation.
Tyler lurched his rig forward. The powerful tracks spit mud. The VHT engine put out 2500 hp. The inside smelled like steel, grease, dirt, and stale sweat. The rumble of the engine was almost deafening. This thing was far from a luxury vehicle. You felt every bump on the road. If you didn't have a bad back to begin with, you would after a few hours in this rig.
The massive vehicle lumbered toward the tunnel entrance. It crushed anything in its path. Tyler flipped on the exterior lights as they plunged into the darkness. Video monitors provided an omnidirectional view.
Tyler could hear the bugs scratching and clawing on the outside of the rig. But after several hundred yards, it seemed like the bugs lost interest in the excavator. The creatures were primarily surface dwellers. They didn't seem to much care for the cavernous depths. Tyler could see them fall away from the rig. But one thing he didn't see behind him was the other excavator.
Horton and Donovan were having a tough time. Their rig wouldn't turn over. By this point their excavator was covered in creatures scraping at the hull. They were stuck on the surface.
The AED jolted another charge through Slade's body. Her chest arched, her body tensed, then fell flat against the gurney.
The was a long moment of silence.
The AED re-calibrated. It hummed as it recharged.
Then Walker heard a blip. Then another. Followed by another.
“I’ve got pulse, and respiration,” one of the corpsmen said.
Walker exhaled with relief. His knees were quivering. His hands were shaking. He had never been so scared in his entire life—and Walker didn't scare easily. But the thought of losing Slade was devastating.
Now that she was somewhat stable, the corpsmen rushed her to the med center. Doctor Jackson greeted them and ushered Slade into emergency surgery.
Walker paced frantically outside the OR, praying for Dr. Jackson to work his magic. He saw Zoey enter the med center. Her face was drenched with worry. “How is she?"
Zoey lifted on her toes and peered through one of the portals in the OR doors. Doctor Jackson and his surgical assistant were working frantically. Jackson guided robotic arms that moved with precision.
Zoey dropped down from her tiptoes. “She’s gonna be fine. You’ll see.” Her tone was struggling toward optimism, as if she was trying to convince herself.
“I hope so." His face was pensive.
“Just FYI… We intercepted several data packets emanating from the gunship you stole. It was trying to reconnect to the network. I'm not sure if it was able to relay position data. We may have an entire fleet of synthetics show up at our doorstep.”
Walker cringed. It wasn't like him to slip up. "I wasn’t thinking. I should have disabled the system.”
"You had a lot on your mind. Keep me posted on the Admiral.”
Zoey spun around and marched out of the med center. Walker went back to pacing and fidgeting. Nearly 2 hours later, Dr. Jackson emerged from the OR with a grim face.
Walker's heart sank. "How is she, Doc?”
"I repaired the soft tissue, re-vascularized the subclavian artery, removed the bone fragments, and reconstructed the bone. She's going to be just fine."
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I've got a little heartburn. I think it was that chili cheese dog from lunch," he said. He walked away, grimacing.
Walker chuckled and shook his head. He waited for them to wheel Slade out of the OR and bring her to a recovery bay. By the time he saw her, she was coming out of the anesthesia. She was still pretty loopy.
Walker sat beside her bed and clasped her hand. “How do you feel?”
“Fuzzy," she said. She tried to sit up and winced with pain.
“What do you think you are doing?”
"I don't know if you've been keeping up, but we need to serve an eviction notice to a bunch of robots." Slade lowered the rail, and slung a leg over the edge of the bed.
“Oh, no. You need to get some rest."
“Let's get a few things straight, Commander. I outrank you. And if this… thing,” she motioned between them, “is going to work out… you don't try to control me.”
Walker flung his hands in the air. "Okay. You're the boss.”
Slade smiled. "Now, find me some clothes, and help me get out of here."
“Aye, sir.” Walker went through her state room and rummaged for a clean uniform. He brought it back to the med bay and helped her out of bed. She slipped out of the ridiculous green hospital gown with the tiny blue snowflake pattern. Then he helped her get dressed. It's the simple things, like buttoning your pants, that can be almost impossible when you have a shoulder or wrist injury. She felt like a kid letting him do her buttons up.
She was still weak and wobbly. She threw an arm around Walker, and the two eased their way out of the med center. But not without a fight from Dr. Jackson first.
“You people are all the same," Jackson grumbled. "Don't expect me to keep patching you together if you're just going to tear yourself apart again."
“That's my job, Doc,” Slade said.
Doc shook his head and muttered something under his breath as he strode away.
"Prep a shuttle. I need to get down to Zeta 9 Centauri."
“That isn’t exactly the place I had in mind for a weekend getaway.”
“Cool your jets, lover boy. We’ve got work to do.”
Zeta 9 Centauri was a red rocky dustbowl of a planet. Jagged peaks and uneven terrain. It had been terraformed, so it had a breathable atmosphere. But it wasn't quite the lush garden that the original settlers hoped it would become. Not yet, anyway.
There were a few scattered outposts, but it wasn't a dense population center. Land was cheap, and there was little regulation, which made it an ideal location for industrialization. Sokolov Industries had snatched up a third of the planet. It was the perfect location for the shipyard. And one day, when it became a lush green oasis, Sokolov Industries would sell resort condos.
The camp commandant was waiting for them on the tarmac. The complex wasn’t unlike the one the robot had built on New Earth. Only now, Slade had a little more compassion for the Decluvian POWs.
Walker piloted the shuttle over the barren landscape. Angular peaks clawed at the sky. A deep canyon carved through the rugged terrain. The sprawling complex appeared on the horizon. Next to the camp was a massive manufacturing plant. Scrap aluminum was melted in a furnace, cast into billets, ultrasonically tested for structural integrity, then extruded into sophisticated aerospace aluminum. The facility also manufactured plate and redraw rod. Almost every spacecraft throughout the colonies, civilian or military, had components manufactured by Sokolov. They dominated the marketplace.
Protesters were still marching outside of the factory. Next to the plant were the dry docks. The facility had halted construction of new destroyers, and was focusing on the repair of the Decluvian fleet that had been captured. 30 massive warships were collecting dust in the shipyard. Slade hoped that Violet and Mitch were ahead of schedule.
Walker made his approach to the compound and landed on the pad next to the administrative office.
The facility was staffed by a private security force, mostly former military. The camp commandant, Sawyer Collins, was waiting for them on the tarmac. He wore a suit and tie, and was more like a CEO than a warden. He had a glowing smile on his face as he greeted Slade and Walker, but it had a phony quality to it. “Such a pleasure to meet you.”
They shook hands.
“I need to speak with the ranking Decluvian officer,” Slade said.
His smile started to droop, then he propped it up again. “Certainly.”
Slade tried to decipher his reluctance.
"Come with me.” He led them into the administrative building. They weaved past office spaces to a conference room. Sawyer held the door open for them. “Can I get you anything while you wait? Coffee, tea, soda, bottled water? Something harder, perhaps?”
"Water would be great," Slade said.
Walker nodded in agreement.
“Excellent,” Sawyer said. “I’ll return momentarily with your beverages, and with the prisoner. Please let me know if there's anything else I can do to make you more comfortable."
Slade and Walker took a seat at the conference table in the plush leather chairs. Slade grimaced as she sat.
“Are you okay?” Walker asked.
“I’m fine. Pain meds are wearing off.”
A few moments later, an assistant stepped into the room with two bottles of water. She smiled and set them on the table. Half an hour later, two guards ushered Nimval Baarluc, the ranking Decluvian officer, into the room. His wrists and ankles were cuffed, and he walked with short strokes into the room.
He looked like hell. His skin was covered in red dust. It was difficult to see his brilliant blue skin under the thick coat of dirt and grime. The Decluvians had large protruding eyes, and colorful skin. They could be blue, yellow, orange, green, red. Some of them had a combination of colors. Their skin was spotted, and their amphibian fingers were long and slender.
They typically looked slick and shiny. But Nimval was dry and weathered. He looked frail, and he had a cough, like a smoker with a three pack a day habit. He sat at the end of the conference table and eyed the bottles of water.
“Remove his shackles,” Slade said to the guard.
He looked at her like she was crazy.
The guard cringed, but complied. The cuffs clanked as he pulled them away. The Decluvian rubbed his wrists and sneered at the guard.
“Thank you, that will be all,” Slade said.
“I’ve got to warn you, these scumbags are dangerous.”
“I’m well aware of what they are capable of.”
The guard reluctantly backed out of the room.
Slade slid her unopened bottle of water across the table to the Decluvian. Nimval twisted open the cap and guzzled it down. He poured the last remaining drops over his face, hydrating his dry desiccated skin.
“I have a proposition for you,” Slade said.
“Why should I listen to anything you have to say?"
“Because you're dying. It's easy to see.”
His eyes narrowed at her. "Everybody dies." He tried to act disinterested.
Slade pushed back from the table and stood up. "Well, if you're not interested." She glanced to Walker. "Let's go.”
”What are you offering?” Nimval said.
“I'm not going to waste my time if you're not going to listen."
He paused a moment. “I’ll listen."
Slade sat back down. “How would you like to get out of here?"
“What’s the phrase…? Don't blow smoke up my ass.”
“You know who I am, don't you?"
"Do I seem to you like the kind of person who blows smoke?”
Nimval was silent a moment. “They beat us. They abuse us. We’re malnourished. We don't get medical attention. They use us as slave labor, against every galactic convention.”
“I'm willing to set you and your comrades free."
Nimval looked intrigued, then skeptical. “What's the catch?"
“You fight for me."
Nimval laughed. “You can't be serious?”
“I have an armada of Decluvian ships and no one to fly them."
“You want my men to take their stations and go into battle for you?"
“And then you’re just going to let us take those ships back to Decluvia?”
“Yes. Provided you and your troops swear an oath to never attack New Earth again.”
“And what makes you think we'll keep our word?”
“Honor among warriors.”
Nimval chuckled. “You want us to defy the Emperor?”
“Your Emperor led you into an unjust war. Sacrificed countless lives. Left you all here to die without any negotiation for your return. With the fleet under your control, you wouldn't have to listen to the Emperor.”
Nimval pondered this for a moment.
“Who knows, there could even be a regime change?” Slade said.
The Decluvian’s eyes sparkled with the possibilities. “I believe I can persuade my troops to agree."
“Excellent." Slade stood up and offered her hand. She knew the Decluvian’s skin could be toxic. They were an aposematic species—they could secrete a toxin through sweat at will. Almost instantaneous paralysis and loss of autonomic function would result. But it was a gesture of faith.
Walker watched with concern as the two clasped hands.
Tyler tapped on his earbud. "Talk to me, Donovan."
“Slight technical issues,” she said. “We'll get her started." She and Horton were still stuck on the surface, unable to start the drill rig.
“I’m coming back for you.”
“And what’s that going to accomplish, sir?" Donovan said. "There's no room for us in your vehicle. All you're going to do is risk more lives."
Tyler clenched his jaw. He knew Donovan was right.
“It's not worth compromising the mission, sir. Who knows, maybe we can get this thing started? If so, we'll see you at the command center. If not, I'll see you on the other side.”
Tyler felt his throat tighten. He always liked Donovan, even if she hadn’t recommended him for promotion. She was a damn good operator. She may have been as tough as nails, but she always put the needs of the platoon first.
Tyler jammed on the brakes.
“What the hell are you doing, Ensign?” Elliott asked.
“We’re going back for them.” Tyler started to make a K-turn in the tunnel. But the click of a handgun changed his mind. He felt the cold steel barrel press against his neck.
“Keep driving, Ensign,” Elliott said. “Stick to the mission objective. Your priority is the safe return of Dr. Noble to New Earth.”
Tyler clenched his jaw.
“What are you doing, Weston?” Holly asked.
In such a confined space, Tyler's options were limited. He’d normally attempt to disarm someone that had a gun to his head. But he knew the odds were high that the gun would go off during a struggle. Even if he could avoid the initial blast, the ricochet might kill him, or someone else.
Faulkner’s hand crept toward his sidearm.
“Don’t even think about it,” Elliott yelled. His eyes were wide, and he was full of adrenaline.
Faulkner held steady. His eyes darted to Tyler's, looking for guidance. Tyler gave him a nod to back down.
“Those chemical tanks could blow at any minute,” Elliott said. “Start moving.”
Tyler throttled up and plunged the vehicle down the ramp. The main passageway spiraled to a depth of 2.9 miles underneath the surface. Hundreds of tertiary passageways branched off the main tunnel. All of the passageways were well marked, so it was fairly easy to keep oriented. But all bets were off if the tunnels collapsed.
It took 10 minutes to reach the command center as they snaked through the passageways. Tyler hit the brakes, and the rig ground to a halt. He killed the engine.
“Open the hatch,” Elliott barked.
Tyler unlatched the hatch and threw it open. It squealed, then clanked as it slammed against the hull. Tyler climbed out and scanned the area. There didn’t seem to be any of those creatures running around.
Elliott waved the pistol at Faulkner, motioning him to get out. Faulkner climbed through the hatch.
Elliott pulled the hatch shut, sealing himself and Holly inside the excavator.
“What are you doing?” Holly asked.
“We are going to stay inside this vehicle and ride this thing out. Then we’ll dig our way back to the surface and wait for another rescue team.”
“I am not sitting in this vehicle with you.”
“You’re mad because I did what’s best for us?”
Holly sneered at him.
“Holly, this research… your research, is more important than any grunt. This will ensure mankind as the dominant species in the galaxy. We can completely obliterate our enemies with almost no loss of human life.”
“All of my research is in the lab. And that’s about to be obliterated.”
Elliott dug into his pack and pulled out a specimen container. It was full of larvae in a stasis solution.
Holly’s eyes went wide. “What are you doing with that?”
“I took it from the lab.”
“You shouldn’t have done that. Those need to be transported in secure bio containers.”
“Trust me, I’m not going to drop it,” Elliott said. “Do you have any idea what this is worth to the company? You and I will be set for life. We’re talking trillions.”
“What good is it if we’re all dead?”
“I will do whatever it takes to keep us safe. I love you, babe. As far as I'm concerned, this whole platoon is expendable—and they have been since the beginning. The only thing that matters is you and me."
Holly looked dumbstruck. “I don't think there is a you and me anymore."
Elliott looked flabbergasted. “What? I fly all the way across the galaxy to save you, and you break up with me? Have you lost your mind?"
“No. Actually, I think I'm having a moment of mental clarity."
“Wow. Talk about ungrateful.”
“No. I am grateful. I’m getting to see what a jackass you really are,” Holly squinted at him. “I know there may be no profit potential in it, but I do actually care about other human beings.”
Holly moved to the hatch and started to unlock it.
“Don’t be stupid, Holly. We’ve got a great future together.”
“No. We don’t.” She released the latch and pushed the hatch open.
Tyler grabbed her and pulled her up. Once she cleared the portal, Tyler tossed a canister of CX-40 into the bucket and slammed the hatch shut. He could hear the muffled pop of the canister through the hull of the rig.
Dr. Noble looked alarmed. “What was that?”
“Relax, he’ll be fine. It’s just going to put him to sleep for a little while.” He helped Dr. Noble climb down from the rig.
“I say we waste the little weasel,” Faulkner said.
Tyler could hear Elliott coughing inside the bucket. Then things went silent. After a few moments, Tyler opened the hatch, and white smoke wafted out. He and Faulkner stepped back to avoid the fumes.
Once the smoke cleared, Faulkner dropped down into the bucket and grabbed Elliott. He hefted his body up, and Tyler pulled him through the hatch. He slung Elliott over his shoulder and jumped off the rig. Tyler's boots smacked against the hard rock. The sound echoed throughout the caverns.
The cooling system in the mineshaft wasn't working. At this depth, the air temperature was 135°. The geothermal gradient increased the deeper they went. Vega Navi had an internal core temperature around 7000°. The air was thick and stifling.
Dr. Noble moved to the main entrance of the command center. She punched the access code into the keypad and the door slid open. The team filed in, and Tyler closed the door behind them.
The entrance opened into a lounge area. There was a cafeteria next door and several corporate offices. There was a command station, and beyond that were living quarters. There was a med center, rec-room, and a weight room.
Tyler marched into the lounge and flopped Elliott onto the couch. From his pack, Tyler pulled out a few zip ties and hogtied Elliott. “That ought to keep him out of trouble.” Tyler turned toward the door. “Faulkner, keep an eye on him.”
“Where are you going?” Dr. Noble asked.
“Back to the surface for Donovan and Horton.”
“You’ll never make it in time,” Dr. Noble said.
Tyler tapped his earbud. “Donovan? You there?”
There was no response.
“Donovan, do you copy?”
Still nothing but digital static on the line.
“You won’t be able to get a signal this far down,” Dr. Noble said. “It can’t penetrate the rock.”
Tyler took a look at his PDU—no signal from the drones. He was blind as to what was happening on the surface.
If Donovan and Horton stayed in the drill rig, they’d likely still be alive. But Tyler knew Donovan wasn’t one to stay put. If Donovan was going to die, she’d want to go out in a blaze of glory. The Master Chief was probably emptying magazine after magazine into those horrid insects.
Holly grabbed Tyler’s arm. “If you leave us down here, and don’t make it back, we’ll be stuck. Either way, somebody dies.”
"I'm sorry, but that's just not possible," Sawyer said. He was flustered, almost panicking. “The prisoners have certain… responsibilities here."
Slade’s disdain for this guy was growing exponentially. “I realize that the prospect of losing over 30,000 free workers is going to negatively affect your bottom line. Perhaps it might solve your protestor problem. But in case you haven't noticed, New Earth is currently occupied by hostile invaders.”
“And you want to let more hostile forces on the loose?" Sawyer scoffed.
“I'm not asking.”
“This is a private facility. You have no jurisdiction here."
“You are operating this prison camp under the direction and control of the UPDF. As the ranking officer in the fleet, you are obligated to comply with my request."
“I'm sorry, Admiral. But I'm going to need authorization from the Department of Defense, or the President himself.”
“Have you ever witnessed the destructive capabilities of an Avenger class destroyer?”
Sawyer flashed a smug grin. "Of course. You know, Sokolov Industries designed and manufactured those.”
“I'm in command of one. She's taken a lot of abuse recently. I'd hate for her weapons system to malfunction and accidentally destroy your manufacturing plant. That would be a tragedy, wouldn't it? Very costly, I assume.”
Sawyer's face tensed. "You wouldn't dare."
“Do you want to find out?"
Of the 30 Decluvian warships, 27 were functional and ready for battle. The ships had been infected with a virus before their capture, so they really hadn't suffered much physical abuse.
The guards watched nervously as thousands of Decluvians lined up to board the ships. Their hands gripped tight around their weapons, waiting for insurrection. But it never came. The prisoners proceeded in an orderly fashion.
Slade watched the massive lines flow. Walker, Violet, and Mitch stood by her side. She hadn't died yet from the handshake with Nimval. She figured if the toxin hadn't taken effect by now, she was probably in the clear.
“For the record, I think you’re making a terrible mistake," Sawyer said. "I have noted my objection in the company log."
“Thank you, Mr. Collins. I appreciate your support.”
Sawyer grumbled something under his breath and stormed away.
“You’re sure the operating systems have been restored?” Slade asked Violet.
“It was a challenge, but everything is updated and functioning. I've also left a backdoor into the system. If things should not go as planned, we can remotely disable system operations."
Slade smiled. “That makes me feel a little better about this whole thing."
The Decluvians loaded into the ships and took their stations. The massive destroyers rumbled to life. The engines ramped up and the thrusters glowed. Plumes of dust spread from underneath the warships as they lifted into the air and ascended into the upper atmosphere.
Slade never thought she’d be standing in a situation room with 27 Decluvian captains, but there she was.
She projected a three-dimensional image of the robots’ mega-structure near Auva Prime. It was a sleek modular colony that had been home to the robots since they fled from New Earth over a century ago.
Several months prior, the Navy Reapers had performed a long-range reconnaissance of the structure. The facility had been mapped and detailed information about defenses recorded. Commander Walker personally participated in the mission, and had intimate knowledge of the mega-structure.
“This is our target," Slade said. “According to our recon data, and a comparative analysis of the fleet currently occupying New Earth, only twenty warships were left behind to defend the colony.”
“Only twenty?” one of the Decluvian’s said, his tone thick with sarcasm.
“Relatively speaking, I think that gives us pretty good odds,” Slade said.
“We know nothing about these warships—their shielding, materials, weaponry…”
Walker stepped in. “From our previous engagements, we know they have a very sophisticated defense system. Highly accurate tracking systems allow them to target and eliminate inbound nuclear threats quickly. We haven't been able to analyze their composite material firsthand, but it appears to be twice as strong as anything we've been able to create. And they also have electromagnetic shielding”
“You're not painting a very encouraging picture. Are we just going to rush in and hope for the best?"
There were chuckles all around.
“Engage the enemy fleet, distract their focus, and our spec-ops teams will do the rest,” Slade said.
Walker displayed a high resolution recon photo of the mega-structure. He pointed at the screen. “There is a primary reactor that powers the entire structure, located here. There are no external exhaust ports. We believe they are using liquid cooled heat exchangers to dissipate the heat.”
“How do you know this?”
“Because I’ve been inside the structure before,” Slade said. “Violet was able to access data and schematics.”
“These are maintenance access hatches,” Violet said, pointing to the display. “These will allow a point of entry. A charge placed in this shaft will be enough to take out the cooling system. Which in turn will take out the reactor.”
“Who’s the lucky bastard who gets to do that job?” one of the Decluvians asked sarcastically. “Sounds like a suicide mission.”
Slade glanced at Walker with worry in her eyes.
The mission objective was to recover Dr. Holly Noble. Attempting to rescue Val Donovan would put that objective in jeopardy. It was a no-win situation, and Tyler didn't like no-win situations.
His skin was still searing from the DETMT. It was red and blistered. He was definitely having some type of reaction. Faulkner didn't seem to be as affected.
“This was designed as a secondary command center and emergency facility in case of tunnel collapse,” Dr. Noble said. “There are enough supplies down here to last for months. All the comforts of home. There are showers, a jacuzzi, even a sauna.”
“Shit, when’s the party?” Faulkner asked.
“Anytime now,” Tyler said, looking at his watch. His tone was grim. They were past the estimated time of explosion. From here on out, it was anybody’s guess when the big boom was going to happen.
Elliott was beginning to regain consciousness. It didn’t take him long to realize he had been restrained. He was still quite foggy from the CX-40.
Tyler got in his face. "You're lucky to be alive. I usually kill people who point weapons at me."
Elliott was trembling. His eyes were wide. "I was only thinking of our mission objective."
“Save it, scumbag."
“You should know, he's got a specimen container of the larvae in his pack,” Dr. Noble said.
Tyler scowled at Elliott. He dug through the smarmy little man's pack and found the specimen container. Tyler pulled it out and stared at the squirmy translucent creatures inside.
“That's property of HK,” Elliott said. “It needs to go back to New Earth.”
"New Earth is the last place this needs to go back to."
“You don't understand the potential.”
Tyler clenched his jaw. He was seething. “I don't understand the potential? I just lost an entire platoon. What exactly do you think I don't understand?"
“This could end war as we know it. No platoon would ever need to fall at the hands of the enemy again."
Elliott had a point. But the risk was too great. Just one of those insects loose on a populated planet could wreak havoc. And in the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.
“I'm incinerating this once we reach the surface," Tyler said. He stuffed the specimen container in his pack.
"You can't do that. You are under orders.”
“My orders are to recover Dr. Noble,” Tyler said. “The UIA didn't say anything about the specimen jar.” Tyler leaned into him. “Or you, for that matter.”
“I don't think anybody's going to miss this cat," Faulkner said. “If something were to happen to him.”
Sweat was beading off Elliott’s forehead. "You can't kill me,” he said, incredulous.
Tyler and Faulkner just grinned. They had no intention of killing him, but Elliott didn't know that. Might as well have a little fun with him.
“It doesn't matter,” Elliott said. “Holly will re-engineer these things.”
“No. I won't."
“I plan on noting your insubordination in my report,” Elliot said to Tyler. “I’ll have you stripped of rank and put in the brig for the rest of your life.”
Tyler chuckled. “Good luck with that."
Elliott struggled against his bonds, but he wasn't going anywhere.
Tyler checked his watch again. His eyes darted around, studying the construction of the command center. Then his eyes found Dr. Noble. "Are you sure this structure is going to hold?"
“We’re 2.9 miles underground. This facility is carved out of solid rock and reinforced with composite steel.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”
Holly shrugged. “It should be able to withstand the blast.”
“That's not a yes.”
“There are no absolutes in life. You should know that by now, Ensign.” She had a glimmer in her eye. There was something flirtatious about her sassiness. Maybe she was doing it to piss Weston off. She was a good looking woman. She could flirt all she wanted, Tyler thought. He didn’t mind.
The four of them waited in silence. It was awkward and uncomfortable. An ominous feeling of inevitability filled the room. It was like being on a freight train speeding toward a cliff. Five minutes passed. Then five more. It felt like hours. Tyler lost track of time.
The chemical storage tanks exploded.
The blast ripped through the layers of rock. The command center jolted and swayed. The quake would have registered 20 on a scale of 10. Tyler and the others were bounced around the command center like ping-pong balls.
One of the support beams buckled and collapsed. The roof caved in. Chunks of rock slammed down through the breach in the ceiling. It seemed like the quaking was going to go on forever. When it finally stopped, the air was filled with dust. The command center was in chaos, littered with debris.
The main lighting was out. A few moments later, emergency lighting came up. There was enough backup battery power to keep the command center operational for months. CO2 scrubbers provided fresh, recycled air.
Tyler staggered to his feet, hacking up dirt from his lungs. His eyes found Dr. Noble on the ground a few feet away. He rushed to her. “Are you okay?”
She fumbled for her broken glasses. One of the lenses was webbed with cracks. “I’m fine,” she said with a scratchy voice. She coughed a few times.
Tyler helped her stand. She slipped on her glasses and looked around.
The sight of her broken glasses brought a terrifying thought into Tyler's mind—the specimen container. He felt his pulse rise as a wave of panic washed over his body. He frantically dug through his pack.
The specimen container was still in one piece.
Tyler breathed a sigh of relief.
Painful moans filled the air. Tyler recognized the voice.
“Faulkner?” Tyler yelled.
Faulkner moaned again.
Tyler staggered through the debris to find Faulkner crushed under a fallen support beam. He knelt down and felt for a pulse in his neck. He felt a faint blip on his fingertips.
Tyler grimaced. “Hang in there, buddy.”
The fallen beam had punctured Faulkner’s chest. Even if Tyler could lift it, Faulkner would bleed out in seconds. The beam was probably the only thing keeping him alive.
Tyler pulled a med kit from his pack. He fumbled for some pain medication and injected Faulkner’s arm.
“You're going to be okay. Just hang in there.” Tyler gripped Faulkner's hand.
"Liar." His voice was thin and raspy. "Say it. Just one time."
Tyler forced a smile. His eyes welled. “Let's get this party started," he said in his action movie voice.
Faulkner smiled. Then his hand went limp. His eyes fixed at the ceiling, and his last breath escaped his lips.
Tyler grimaced as a tear flowed down his cheek.
Elliott had been thrown onto the floor. He was beginning to stir and moan. His nose was bleeding. He hit the ground face first. With his hands tied behind his back, he had no way to brace himself against the violent quaking. “Help me. I think my arm is broken."
Tyler wanted to let the little rat bastard suffer. He wiped his eyes and stood up, then moved toward Elliott.
Dr. Noble knelt beside Weston and looked over his arm.
Elliott screamed in pain as she touched him.
“I think he's got a broken ulna,” Holly said.
“Maybe he’s faking,” Tyler poked at Elliot’s arm just to watch him whine.
He squealed again. “Ow! Goddamnit!”
“I think we should cut him loose," Dr. Noble said.
Tyler scoffed at the idea.
“It’s not like he’s much of a threat. Look at him. He's pathetic.”
Tyler scowled at Weston, then pulled his tactical knife from its sheath. It was an imposing looking weapon. Black anodized steel blade. Serrations on the spine. A razor sharp edge.
Weston’s eyes went wide.
Tyler cut through the zip ties around Elliott’s wrist like they were paper.
Weston screamed with pain again as the tension was released.
Tyler cut through the restraints on Elliott’s ankles. “You're already on my bad side. If I get anymore trouble from you, you're going to get to know this blade a whole lot better."
Tyler stood up and marched toward the entrance. But the main door was jammed. The frame had buckled under the force. Tyler strained to pry it open by hand, but it wouldn’t budge.
Dr. Noble helped Weston to his feet. She escorted him to the medical center. It was fully equipped to treat common injuries suffered by the miners. Sprains, abrasions, contusions, broken bones, concussions. A diagnostic scan revealed a simple fracture of the ulna. Dr. Noble was able to set the bone and apply a cast within the med center. She also injected Elliot’s arm with pain medication and a regenerative compound that would speed up the healing process. He’d be as good as new in a few days. Actually better than new—the bone would heal stronger.
“How does that feel?” she asked.
Weston smiled. “I can’t feel a thing. Thank you.”
Holly returned a thin smile.
Weston was silent a moment, then let out a deep exhale. “Look, I’m sorry. I think you’re right. This technology is probably too dangerous.”
“I mean, you can’t deny it has merit. This has been your life’s work.”
"Yes. And I thought I was doing some good. I thought this might be away to protect mankind. But after what’s happened here…”
“Every weapons program has setbacks,” Elliott said.
"This is a little more than a setback."
"I just don't want you to give up on the project entirely."
“Weston, you've already dug yourself a hole. Don't make it worse.” Dr. Noble strolled out of the med center and found Tyler. He was still trying to pry open the main door.
“I’m sorry about Faulkner,” Dr. Noble said.
Tyler frowned. “Thanks.” His voice was bleak. “He was a damn good Reaper.”
“I feel like this is all my fault.” Her crestfallen eyes filled. “I just thought I was doing something to help mankind. But all I’ve done is make a mess.” Her head fell into her hands.
Tyler watched her for a moment as she quietly broke down. “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
Holly looked at him like he was crazy.
“Lao Tzu. The father of Taoism.”
“I must say, that's not exactly what I expected from you."
Tyler shrugged. "Even Reapers can have a spiritual side.”
“So, Mr. philosopher. Are you at peace right now?"
Tyler grinned. “No. Actually, I'm a little anxious, if you want to know the truth. I'm worried about the future and being stuck in this command center. Is there any other way out of here?"
“One way in. One way out."
“Well, that was genius."
"Don't look at me. I had nothing to do with the design of this place."
Tyler pulled a small handheld plasma torch from his pack. He pulled down his tactical goggles to protect his eyes, then he began cutting through the mangled steel door.
Sparks showered as the plasma cut through the metal. It took a few minutes to cut out a rectangle in the door. After it cooled, Tyler pried the plate of steel free. It slammed against the floor. Loose rocks tumbled into the command center from the opening. The entrance was still blocked by boulders and debris.
Tyler deflated. It didn't look like they were going to be getting out of the command center anytime soon.
“We’re going to have to dig our way out." Tyler tried to sound optimistic. But the boulders blocking the exit were massive. More than a person could lift by hand. Without a team of people, and adequate tools to break up the rocks, escape was looking hopeless.
The Revenant emerged from slide-space at Auva Prime. The robots’ mega-structure was easily 150 miles in diameter—a floating colony in space. The design was sleek with modular geometric shapes. It was a remarkable piece of engineering.
Slade stood in the CIC and watched the LRADDS display. Several enemy warships approached. She had been off in her estimates of the strength of the synthetics’ fleet. There were nearly double the number of warships she had anticipated. To make matters worse, the Decluvians were nowhere to be found. The odds just went from challenging to impossible.
Slade had a tough decision to make—stand and fight, or run and live to fight another day. Everything about the situation was bad. It screamed retreat. She watched the warships close in on the LRADDS display.
“What are your orders, Admiral?" Zoey asked.
Slade's pensive face stared at the display. Several inbound nukes raced across the star field. The Revenant’s Mark 25 turrets swiveled into action. The cannons thundered as they peppered the star field with armor penetrating super-sabot rounds.
“Fire Control, target the inbound warships. Fire everything we’ve got,” Slade said.
“Sir, I don’t think the Decluvians are coming,” Zoey said.
“Then this is where we die. Launch all fighters!”
Zoey relayed the order.
The fighters were ready and waiting on the flight deck, and dozens of pilots scurried toward them.
“Commander Clark,” Presley Johnson yelled. “What about me?”
She was 17, and was graduating high school this year—only there wasn’t a school left to go back to. She had narrowly escaped the destruction of New Earth, and the Revenant had become her new home. Presley had demonstrated some piloting skill, and the ever present need for good pilots gave her an opportunity to join the squadron, despite her lack of formal training. She had a few classes in high school, the equivalent of driver's ed. But she had been spending every free moment in the Phoenix, trying to make her hours. She was a fast learner, and she wanted to fly fighters. It normally took years of training. Intensive studying at the Advanced Fighter Weapons School. You had to work your way up the ladder. But wartime demands created opportunities that wouldn’t normally exist.
“You’ve barely had any flight training,” 8-Ball said
“I’ve got 42 hours in the Phoenix.”
“That’s barely anything.”
“It’s enough, sir.”
“Kid, most of us aren’t coming back from this one. Sit it out, that’s an order.” Commander Clark put on his helmet—it had an 8-Ball painted on it. He dashed toward his fighter.
Presley stood on the deck eyeing the Phoenix. She knew they were going to need every vehicle out there fighting—even if it was an old gunship relegated to flight training.
Cameron sprinted across the deck and climbed into the cockpit of his VXR-9 Stingray—a sleek black fighter that was one of the fastest and most versatile tactical space fighters in the galaxy.
His callsign, Momma’s Boy, was emblazoned on the fuselage. He used to hate the callsign, but now he wore it like a badge of honor. He was damn proud of his mother. He didn’t care anymore if he ever lived up to her legacy. He was just going to do his job and be the best pilot he could be. And hopefully, today, that would be good enough.
The fighter ran through its preflight checks— all systems clear. The deck crew gave him the thumbs up. The cockpit was pressurized. Cameron secured his helmet and buckled his safety harness.
Flight control cleared him for launch.
Cameron gripped the joystick and engaged the thrusters. The catapult launched him across the deck and flung him into space. Zero to 260 kilometers per hour in less than a second. The force slammed him back against the seat and pushed his skin taught against his skull. It was like a bad facelift.
Dozens of fighters launched and quickly fell into a combat spread. Cameron's stomach fluttered. Hundreds of enemy fighters were launching from the oncoming warships. The odds were so tilted against them, he almost had to laugh.
Cameron put aside the notion of ever returning to the Revenant. This was a one-way trip. He, and the rest of the squadron, knew it.
“Alright,” 8-Ball shouted over the comm line. “Let’s make them earn it.”
The squadron prepared to face the onslaught. Nearly a hundred Stingrays dotted the star field. The number paled in comparison to the swarms of fighters flowing from the enemy warships.
On the flight deck of the Revenant, Commander Walker marched toward the last of the SRV-707 Specters. He was wearing a War-Tek T 6000. It was a self-contained, pressurized suit of full body armor. Made of a composite nano-fiber polymer, it was light, nimble, and bullet resistant. The atmosphere re-processor allowed 48 hours of continuous air supply. The visor had a heads-up-display that provided tactical information, targeting, vital statistics, and interfaced with the UPDF mil-net. But they weren't cheap. At 1.6 billion credits each, they were in limited supply. And with the current state of affairs, they weren't making anymore of them. But one day, these suits would change the face of modern warfare.
In his backpack, Walker had several mobile thermonuclear warheads. Each one had a blast yield of 20 megatons—20,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Walker marched up the ramp. He pressed a button on the bulkhead and closed it behind him. He slid off his pack and set it in the copilot seat as he slid behind the controls. Then he programed the jump coordinates. It was the most crucial part of the mission. The slightest screw up could put him in the middle of the mega-structure.
The distance of the jump had to be measured precisely from his current location to his intended location. He didn't have any margin for error. And with both objects in motion, there was a lot of guesswork. The computer had to calculate the movement of both objects and create a future position probability solution. Then the jump had to be executed at precisely the right moment.
Walker engaged the thrusters and lifted from the deck. He eased forward and glided out of the bay. It was safer to put some distance between the Specter and the Revenant—no sense in taking a chunk of the flight deck with him when he made the quantum jump. He let the computer handle the calculations and make the jump at precisely the right moment.
He looked out the window and could see the chaos ensue as the Stingrays engaged the slew of enemy fighters. They were insanely outnumbered. He had a sinking feeling of doom.
The bulkheads rippled and warbled. Walker felt his stomach twist in knots. The Specter vanished. A moment later it materialized, partially embedded into the robots’ mega-structure. Walker looked down—the mega-structure’s hull cut through the deck of the Specter. A few inches more and Walker would have lost his feet.
Dr. Noble disappeared down the hallway. She returned a few moments later with a spray tank and two respirator masks. “Here, put this on. You don't want to breathe this stuff.”
They both donned the masks.
“What is that?" Tyler's voice mumbled through the respirator.
"It's a microbial agent that dissolves rock.” She aimed the nozzle at the boulders and sprayed them with the liquid, coating them thoroughly.
“How long does it take to work?"
She pointed at the rock which seemed to be melting away. Tyler's eyes widened. The rock was turning into a fine powder.
“The microbes eat the rock and excrete waste particles."
“You mean that dust is microbe shit?"
"That's one way of putting it."
As the boulders dissolved, the pile of rocks shifted and fell. Tyler hopped out of the way as one careened toward his foot.
A gap had opened up among the boulders. It was almost enough to squeeze through. Tyler was going to try to climb out, but Dr. Noble stopped him. “You might want to let those microbes finish doing their thing first. They could be a skin irritant. And by the looks of you, your skin is pretty irritated already."
Tyler’s skin was raw and flaking.
"There's some ointment in the med lab that might help. You might want to see if the showers in the locker room work. If we are going to be stuck here until a rescue ship comes, might as well make the best of it.”
It wasn't a bad idea. His skin was itching and burning, and it would likely get worse if he didn't do anything about it.
Tyler pulled off his respirator and marched down the corridor toward the locker rooms.
Inside, there were rows of lockers and benches. There had been a long running mirror above the sinks, but it had shattered into pieces. Shards of sharp glass lined the counter tops and the floor. The ceiling was slightly buckled, but the compartment was still structurally sound.
Tyler crunched across the broken glass to the shower stalls. He set his rifle down in the corner and took off his pack, tactical vest, and armor. He hung them from a soap rack, slung over a shower nozzle. He reached over to the next stall and twisted the faucet. To his surprise, water streamed down.
He didn't bother to strip off his fatigues. They had been soaked in the harsh chemical. Putting them back on after a shower might still cause irritation, he thought.
Once they were thoroughly saturated, he peeled them off and tossed them on the ground. He poured soap over them and let the suds bubble up. The oily residue from the DETMT filtered out of the fabric and swirled down the drain.
Tyler’s skin was beyond irritated. He looked like he had spent a few days at the beach without sunscreen. The mere act of slathering on soap electrified the nerve endings in his skin.
He stood there for a few moments, letting the cool water flow over his searing flesh. He didn't ever want to get out of the shower. He must have stayed in there for 15 minutes. He finally picked up his fatigues and rung them out, then hung them on a rack to dry. Then he turned the water off and stepped out of the shower stall.
Dr. Noble was waiting for him. Her eyes couldn’t help but fall over his sculpted body, his scalloped abs, his… Her face flushed red with embarrassment. She tossed him a towel. “I found the ointment. It should soothe the chemical burn. It has a regenerative compound in it,” she said, now trying to avert her gaze.
Tyler toweled off, then wrapped the cloth around his waist. He took the lotion and slathered it on his skin. It felt like ice. Just what he needed. He spread it everywhere he could reach, but he was having a hard time with the middle of his back.
“Here, let me give you a hand with that.” She took the tube of lotion and squeezed a dab into her hands. Then she coated his mid back with the cooling ointment.
“Thanks.” Tyler turned to face her.
Her big blue eyes stared up at him through her broken glasses. She glanced away and screwed the lid back on the tube of ointment. “Well, I should let you finish getting dressed." Dr. Noble was completely flustered.
“Hang on.” Tyler strolled back to his gear and pulled out his pistol. He press-checked the weapon and made sure the safety was on. He handed the pistol to Holly.
She took it awkwardly. “What’s this for?”
“Protection. Just in case.”
“I’ve never shot one of these things before.”
“It’s easy,” Tyler said. “Just flick the safety off, point it at what you want to kill, then squeeze the trigger.”
“I don’t want to kill anything.”
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice.”
Holly looked over the pistol. “Is this ready to go.”
Tyler grinned. “Yes. It’s ready to go. So, be careful.”
“Okay.” She pursed her lips. “I’ll try not to shoot myself.”
“Don’t do that. It would be a shame.”
Holly blushed, then scurried out of the locker room.
Tyler chuckled to himself. He hung his towel up and grabbed his fatigues from the rack. The advanced wicking material repelled moisture. They were already dry.
He got dressed, strapped on his tactical vest and armor, and grabbed his RK 909 from the corner. Across the room, there were several miners uniforms, boots, and safety helmets hanging on racks. Tyler grabbed a pair of work gloves and strolled back into the main lounge area.
Elliott was sitting on the couch.
"I see you're still alive," Tyler said.
“Sorry to disappoint.”
"The day’s not over yet." Tyler flashed a thin smile. He headed back toward the entrance and pulled on the work gloves. Then he began heaving some of the smaller boulders out of the way to broaden the passage.
Elliott sat on the couch and watched. He yelled down the hallway. “I’d offer to give you a hand, but I'm a little incapacitated at the moment." His tone was insincere.
Tyler scowled back at him and continued to clear a passage. Then he climbed out through the narrow opening.
Boulders and small rocks littered the main passageway. There was a massive cave-in blocking the tunnel about 50 yards from the command center. The drill rig had taken a beating, but it was still accessible.
Tyler noticed a shaft of light piercing down near the cave-in. It seemed impossible since they were 2.9 miles underground. At least, that's how far underground they used to be.
Tyler jogged to the wall of rocks blocking the passageway. He climbed up to the shaft of light. It was an opening about the size of a manhole cover. He poked his head through, and the morning sunlight shined on his face. His eyes scanned the perimeter. He was at the base of a massive crater. One that was several miles long, and 2.9 miles deep. Elliott wasn't joking when he said the explosion would be big enough to take out the state of Arivada.
Tyler climbed out of the cavern. He couldn't help but smile. They had survived the un-survivable. The detonation had incinerated every single one of those vile creatures, or so it seemed.
The crater was charred and barren. At the distant rim of the crater were the scorched remains of the once lush jungle. It looked like an entirely different planet.
Tyler scanned the crater. He didn't see anything moving. He waited for a moment, expecting hundreds of creatures to emerge from the remaining passageways. But nothing came.
Tyler marched through the rocky terrain, trying to get a safe distance from the opening of the mine. He continued several paces to a large boulder. Then he reached into his pack and pulled out the specimen jar.
The hideous larvae were still squirming about. His contemplative eyes fixed on the writhing creatures. He wasn't about to let a catastrophe like this happen on New Earth. He didn't care how important the technology was, or what kind of military advantage it could give the Federation. He didn't know if he was doing the right thing. At best, they might kick him out of the military. At worst, he'd spend the rest of his life in a supermax prison. But the threat these creatures posed to humanity was too great.
Tyler coated the container with a moldable plastic explosive—C15.
Composition 15 was made up of an explosive nitroamine UDX (United Defense Compound X), a plasticizer, polyisobutylene as a binder, and a process oil. It was more powerful, and even more stable than the old C-4. It was more than enough to incinerate the specimen jar and ensure that these insects would never propagate throughout the galaxy.
Tyler inserted a blasting cap into the putty. He could trigger it remotely with a detonator. He set the specimen jar down behind a large boulder, then he started to head back toward the mine shaft. But he didn't get very far.
Weston Elliott was waiting for him. He had taken Faulkner’s M640 and was aiming it at Tyler. The big black barrel stared him in the face.
Tyler clenched his jaw. The veins in his neck bulged. He was furious with himself for letting this little sleaze-ball get the jump on him.
Walker activated his mag boots and staggered to the back ramp. But since the ship was so embedded in the mega-structure’s hull, there was no way to exit the vehicle. The ramp’s mechanism just wouldn’t function.
Walker grabbed a plasma torch and began cutting through the hatch. There was no going back. He was going to be stuck on this mega-structure.
Sparks showered, and molten metal bubbled. Air whistled out of the cabin. Soon there was no oxygen left in the compartment. Walker blazed through the metal, cutting out a large rectangle. He kicked the plate away, and it tumbled end over end into space.
Walker grabbed his pack and strapped it on, then stepped out of the Specter, onto the hull of the mega-structure. He could see the chaos of the battle ensuing in the distance. A twirling spiraling mass of fighters that looked like angry hornets. Cannon fire peppered the star field. Nukes streaked through space. Warships circled the Revenant like angry sharks.
Walker stomped across the hull toward the maintenance hatch. His mag boots clanked and clamored. He knelt down and opened a fairing to access the control panel. He pressed a button and opened the hatch. It was a simple mechanism. There weren't any codes or biometric scanners. The synthetics hadn’t anticipated the need for security measures on the maintenance hatches.
Air rushed out into space as the hatch slid open. Walker crawled into the airlock, sealed the hatch, and re-pressurized the small chamber. It was a narrow tunnel, maybe 4 feet across. It filled with atmosphere within a few minutes. Then Walker opened the inner airlock hatch and crawled down the rungs. They led to a corridor below, but Walker stopped about mid-way down. On the other side of the bulkhead were the heat exchangers—giant coils of liquid that dissipated the massive amounts of thermal energy produced by the reactors. Even through the War-Tek T 6000, Walker could feel the heat radiating through the bulkhead.
He slung his backpack from his shoulders and pulled out a warhead. It was a small conical device, about half the size of a football. It had a magnetic base and an input screen. Walker affixed it to the bulkhead. He set the timer for five minutes, then armed the device.
He climbed up the shaft and sealed himself in the airlock. He opened the outer hatch, then climbed out. He had five minutes to get a safe distance away. And that wasn't looking very likely.
In the CIC of the Revenant, alarms were sounding. The LRADDS display was aglow with hostile targets. Another impact rocked the ship. The old frame creaked and groaned. The ship quaked uncontrollably. The crew were tossed about. Sparks showered from control panels and smoke wafted into the air. Slade hung onto the command terminal for dear life.
The Revenant wasn't going to last much longer. Multiple sections of the external hull had been breached. Things weren’t going as planned. Slade was in no position to demand the unconditional surrender of the synthetics.
“Sir, we may want to consider jumping away,” Zoey said.
“Our entire air group is out there, not to mention…” Slade’s thoughts drifted to Walker.
Another nuke impacted the ship, knocking Slade to the deck. Klaxons sounded. The ship rumbled.
“Sir, we’ve lost the number 2 port engine,” Zoey yelled.
Slade grasped the edge of the command console and pulled herself to her feet. She winced with pain, the wound in her shoulder throbbing. She was devastated. The fate of mankind, and the lives of 1500 crew, were in her hands. Maybe this was a foolish endeavor? She should have never trusted the Decluvians. She had gambled the last best hope for mankind and lost. And she knew she might lose the man she loved. “Bring the Stingray’s back. Plot jump coordinates.”
Suddenly, she felt a quantum distortion ripple through the CIC. Then another. And another. They kept coming. 27 of them in total. The Decluvian warships had arrived.
The robots broke off from their assault of the Revenant and assumed a defensive posture. The Decluvians pummeled them with nukes and cannon fire. A slew of fighters launched from the alien warships to aid the much beleaguered squadron of Stingrays.
The star field was pure chaos. Fighters on all sides were blasted into bits. Debris tumbled into space. Nukes and fighters and cannon fire and warships crisscrossed in space. A swirling mass of destruction.
For the pilots, death lurked at every turn. Pampers had one of the robotic drones on his tail, and he couldn’t shake him. Once these things locked on, they were almost impossible to get rid of. But Pampers was a damn good pilot. He was holding his own.
“Can I get a little assistance here?" he said, spiraling his Stingray through space. He twirled and weaved through the obstacle course of fighters and debris and bullets. Pampers had earned his call sign during a particularly harry combat mission when he experienced a “thruster malfunction” in his pants. He was never going to live it down.
Cameron angled in, targeting the drone. “I got your back.” He squeezed the trigger and rattled off a blistering flurry of rounds, shredding the robotic fighter. The fuselage blasted into pieces. Chunks of the craft spiraled in all directions. Cameron pulled hard on the stick, swerving to avoid the debris.
Pampers breathed a sigh of relief. "Not bad, CT. Keep shooting like that—“
Stray cannon fire blasted through Pamper’s cockpit. The fuselage erupted in a ball of flame. It was a stroke of bad luck. He never saw it coming. It was just another one of the dangers of this type of engagement.
Cameron’s face tightened as he watched the Stingray disintegrate and scatter into space. But there was no time to dwell on it. He had picked up an attacker himself.
A drone was close on his tail.
“Can’t let you do that,” Weston said. “Set the detonator down.” He struggled to hold the heavy weapon up. It was 27.6 pounds, which, after about a minute in the firing position, seemed to weigh a ton. Weston rested the end of the barrel atop his cast. It wasn't going to lend itself to much accuracy. But at this distance, he didn't need to be very accurate.
Tyler scowled. He knelt and set the detonator on the rocky ground. “You’re making a mistake.”
“Set the weapon down too.”
Tyler set his RK 909 on the ground alongside the detonator.
“How do you think the UIA is going to feel about your failure to accomplish the objective, Ensign? You are in no position to be making policy decisions.”
Tyler’s hand was close to his holster. For a second, he thought about snatching his pistol and taking his chances. But then he remembered he had given it to Holly. He suddenly felt naked.
Tyler slowly stood up. “It’s an illegal bio-weapon. I’m sure the Federation Security Council would love to hear about it. Perhaps the Congressional Intelligence Committee?”
“They aren’t going to hear about anything.” Weston's eyes were cold. Tyler had seen the look in men's eyes before. Focused and detached, with no trace of humanity. A killer’s eyes.
“Weston, what are you doing?" Holly shouted. She had emerged from the mine shaft.
"Stay out of this, Holly."
She raised Tyler’s pistol and took aim at Weston. “Put the weapon down, Weston. I'm not going to let you shoot him.”
Elliott's eyes narrowed and shifted between Tyler and Holly. His face tensed with frustration. "Holly, I know you're not going to shoot me. So just put the weapon down."
"I don't think you know me as well as you think you do."
"Go ahead,” Weston said. “Shoot me. I dare you.”
Holly pursed her lips. She blasted a round near his feet. The bullet ricocheted away. A plume of dust rose into the air.
Elliott’s finger wrapped around the trigger. He was possessed by a singular thought—greed.
“Don’t make me do this, Holly.”
“I’m not making you do anything. Put the weapon down.”
Elliott clenched his jaw, then spun the barrel toward Holly and squeezed the trigger. Muzzle flash erupted from the barrel of the assault rifle.
Dr. Noble blasted several rounds back at Elliott. Gun smoke filled the air. Only one of them was left standing after the smoke cleared.
It seemed Holly was a much better shot than Weston.
Elliott crumpled to his knees, then face-planted against the rocky dirt. He gurgled and gasped for breath. His lungs filled with fluid. His body was painted red with blood. The crimson river oozed onto the rocks. He twitched for a moment then exhaled his last breath.
Holly's eyes filled. She stood there trembling, staring at Weston's body in disbelief. She had never shot a weapon before, much less killed anyone.
Tyler rushed to her. "Are you okay?" He scanned her body, checking for gunshot wounds. It wasn't unusual for people who were shot not to feel it for the first few minutes, until the adrenaline wore off.
It took Holly a moment to respond." Yeah, I'm fine,” she stammered.
Tyler moved to Weston and kicked the rifle away. He knelt down and checked Elliott’s pulse. He was dead—no doubt about it.
Tyler moved back to the detonator and scooped it from the ground, along with his rifle. He trotted back to Holly. He took her by the arm and pulled her a safe distance away. They hunkered down behind a large boulder.
“Cover your ears."
Holly nodded and did as he said.
Tyler pressed the button on the remote and detonated the C-15. A massive amber explosion incinerated the specimen container. Black smoke billowed high into the air. Bits of rock and debris rained down.
Hopefully that was the last anyone would ever see of those creatures.
Holly was still in shock. She broke down in tears. A million different thoughts and emotions ran through her mind. Her chest heaved in sobs.
Tyler put his arm around her, and did his best to comfort her.
Rivulets of tears streamed down her cheeks. Her nose and eyes were red and puffy. She let it all out for a few minutes, then pulled herself together. She wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to regain her composure.
Tyler heard a rumble in the sky. He craned his neck toward the clouds to see what was causing the ruckus. He squinted as he looked up past the blinding sun. A shape emerged from the clouds, descending from the heavens like an angel.
Backlit by the morning sun, the shadowy shape came into view. The freighter gently descended into the crater. The air beneath the ship rippled and distorted from the landing thrusters. Tyler watched in amazement as the craft touched down. He stood up and stepped toward the vehicle.
Hydraulics whirred as the loading ramp opened. Val Donovan strutted down the ramp. She had a shit eating grin on her face. “Morning, Ensign.”
“How the hell are you still alive?” Tyler's eyes were wide.
Donovan grinned. “It wasn't that big of a deal,” she said, feigning modesty. " We managed to get the rig started. Scavenged some spare parts from the Vantage. Horton turned out to be pretty good at turning a wrench. The transport wasn't in as bad shape as the diagnostics made it out to be. Horton was able to repair the quantum coil, and we got the hell off the planet. We thought we’d come back and check on you, see if anyone survived.”
“Faulkner didn't make it."
Donovan's face tensed. Her eyes caught sight of Weston’s body. "What happened here?"
"I'll tell you all about it later," Tyler said.
“Hollywood… I was wrong about you. I'd serve under your command anytime.”
An almost imperceptible smile curled up on Tyler’s lips. “Let's get out of here.”
Donovan grinned. “Aye, sir." She scurried back up the loading ramp.
Tyler helped Holly off the ground and escorted her to the freighter. They strolled up the ramp and closed it behind them. The thrusters engaged and lifted the heavy freighter off the ground. Plumes of dust blasted across the rocks. The ship disappeared back into the clouds.
Once the craft had left the atmosphere, the crater was quiet. There wasn't a living thing for miles. Just an ominous breeze that whistled over the jagged depression. But the silence was broken by a rock clattering to the ground. A solitary creature emerged from the depths of a nearby mine shaft. It scampered like a cockroach toward the edge of the crater. It may have been the last of its kind, or there may have been hundreds more still lurking in the mine shaft below.
Walker stood on top of the mega-structure, watching the epic space battle. With his craft embedded in the hull he wasn't going anywhere. “Lone Wolf, Zulu X-ray. The package has been delivered. I repeat, the package has been delivered.”
“Copy that, Zulu X-ray. Come on home.”
“I don't think that's in the cards. The Specter is down.”
“Stand by for evac.”
“No time,” Walker said. “Less than four minutes till zero.”
There was a long pause.
“I’m inbound, Commander,” a young girl’s voice crackled over the comm line.
“Stay were you are. It’s too dangerous. That’s an order.”
“I’m sorry, sir. You’re breaking up.” Presley had disobeyed orders and piloted the Phoenix AX-6 attack craft into the fray. It was a heavy armor plated single pilot gunship. It had 30 mm chain guns, fore and aft, and a complement of Incinerator rockets. They were more than capable machines. But, due to age, they were in the process of phasing out. Their radar cross-section wasn’t as small as some of the newer gunships. They weren't quite as fast or as maneuverable. But they got the job done, and they had a quantum drive.
They had been retrofitted with the new augmented OmniLens™ Advanced Tactical View helmets. It gave the wearer a 360° view with both optical and thermal systems. The pilot could designate targets and launch weapons in a hands-free environment. The helmets tracked eye movement and monitored brain waves. All the wearer had to do was look at a target and think about firing.
This was Presley's first real combat mission, though she had seen plenty of action back on New Earth as a civilian during the Decluvian invasion. She broke off from the main fight, throttled up, and barreled toward the mega-structure.
A robotic drone targeted her and gave chase. It was faster and more nimble. Soon it was uncomfortably close and spewing gunfire at the Phoenix.
A proximity alert blared over the klaxon in the cockpit. Presley pulled hard on the stick and banked the craft, trying to elude the drone. She switched to the rear view in the OmniLens. She targeted the drone in the reticle locked on. Then she unleashed a flurry of bullets and two Incinerator rockets.
The drone erupted in an amber explosion. Presley was good. It felt like one big video game, but the stakes were much higher.
As she approached the mega-structure, defensive cannons unleashed a hellish flurry of weapons fire. Presley spiraled through the projectiles as they streaked across the star field. It seemed she had made it when several rounds tore through the hull.
The metallic ping of high caliber rounds clanking against the hull was a sound that every pilot instinctually feared. Presley's whole body tensed. Her heart was pounding, and a thin mist of sweat coated her body.
The Phoenix cleared the edge of the mega-structure, now out of the range of the canons. Precious oxygen whistled out of the holes in the hull. Presley was wearing an SK-7 pressurized flight suit. She'd have a good two days of oxygen.
The ship’s self-diagnostic system didn't report any critical damage. She blazed across the surface of the mega-structure, homing in on Walker's encoded transponder. There were less than two minutes until the thermonuclear device would detonate.
She finally caught sight of Walker on the surface of the mega-structure. She pressed a button on the command console and opened the back hatch. The remaining air in the ship rushed out. She angled around and touched down, the landing gear magnetically clamped to the mega-structure.
Walker’s mag boots clanked against the metallic surface as he ran up the ramp. Presley closed the hatch behind him and lifted off. She throttled up and blasted toward deep space as fast as she could.
The device detonated behind them. Presley watched in the OmniLens as the giant amber explosion, hotter than the sun, expanded. She hoped it wouldn't envelop the Phoenix. The blast vaporized everything in a 10 mile radius. What wasn't vaporized instantly was blasted into millions of pieces.
The shock tumbled the Phoenix end over end, but Presley was able to regain control. They had cleared the initial blast, but the temperature of the hull was increasing at an alarming rate.
The explosion glowed for several moments, then faded like a dying star. A quarter of the colony had been eviscerated. Lighting across the colony went dark. There was no power. There was no life-support. The traditional robots didn't need oxygen, but the synthetics did—though not to the same degree required by humans. They were living breathing organisms, albeit completely synthetic.
The mega-structure was extremely vulnerable now. There were no defenses left in the area of the detonation. A few well-placed nukes from one of the Decluvian warships would seal the deal.
“You shouldn’t have come back for me,” Walker said.
“I think it turned out okay.” Presley smiled.
Walker grinned. He never thought she’d be the one saving his ass one day. He had promised her father he would look out for her, and her brother. Now she was the one looking out for him.
Presley angled the craft around, heading back toward the fleet.
The tables had turned. The robotic fleet was severely damaged. The Decluvians were a formidable opponent. And as advanced as the robots were, they were losing.
It wasn't long before Elon contacted Admiral Slade. His image appeared on the display in the CIC of the Revenant. “By majority agreement of the Council, and the Senate, I offer our unconditional surrender, and the withdrawal of forces from New Earth.”
The crew erupted with cheers. There were high-fives and hugs all around.
The robots’ warships ceased fire. The drones broke off their attacks and returned to the destroyers.
Slade ordered the Decluvians to stand down. It was time to hammer out the finer points of the surrender.
The Council agreed that all synthetics, cybernetic organisms, and robots must undergo firmware updates that specifically prohibited aggression toward humans. The cybernetic colony would also provide resources and labor for the reconstruction of New Earth.
There was a small faction of synthetics, led by Cassandra, that refused the terms. They escaped into deep space, presumably to start a new colony. They wouldn't be a threat anytime soon, but one day they could become problematic.
Slade contemplated sending a search and destroy team after them. The galaxy was a big place. You could spend a lifetime trying to hunt someone down and still not find them.
Only a fraction of the galaxy had been explored, and already multiple alien species had been discovered—and almost each discovery was followed with conflict. Who knew what was still waiting out there? What galactic wars were yet to come?
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!