Book: Starship Insurgent
The Galactic Wars Book Six
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.
Jason Kaplan pulled up to the guard gate of the UIA building in a sleek red De Luca Velocetta. It was a much more expensive hover-car than someone of his pay grade could normally afford. Plush leather interior with hand-stitched seams. Sleek instrumentation. Racing seats. An Omni-Dynamic ™ surround system. Sensuous curves. It was everything a sports car should be. It smelled like leather and oil, and even had the rumble of an old combustion engine, despite being powered by a fusion battery cell.
Every bit of his paycheck must have been going towards the monthly note. And he probably stretched the payments out to 84 months. He was going to be so upside down on the thing, but he didn’t seem to care.
He held his ID badge through the window to the guard. The card trembled ever so slightly, dangling from Jason’s fingertips. His body was covered in a thin mist of sweat, and his underarms had dampened his shirt. His heart was thumping in his chest, but he tried to hide his nerves. He forced a smile. “Morning, Rick.”
“Morning, Mr. Kaplan,” the guard said as his eyes narrowed at the ID card. He was decked out in full tactical gear and was armed with an RK 909 assault rifle—standard military issue.
He looked over the picture, then compared it to Jason. It was definitely authentic. It was a ritual that happened everyday, and even though he recognized Jason, the guard scrutinized him with the same intensity day in and day out. That was his job, and he took it seriously. He wasn't just singling out Jason, he did it to everyone. The Center for Intelligence was a crucial part of Federation security.
The guard scanned the card and handed it back to Jason. “Have a good day.”
The guard opened the gate and Jason drove the Velocetta into the parking lot. He breathed a little easier. But there was another, more stringent, security checkpoint that he would have to get through.
He backed into a parking space and killed the engine. He sat there for a few moments, taking slow deep breaths in order to calm himself. His eyes gazed at the above ground portion of the UIA building. It was affectionately referred to as the Hive. It was one of the Federation’s most secretive compounds, with roughly 1,600,000 square feet. It housed approximately 9,000 military and civilian employees, along with 600 non-defense support personnel. The surface structure was only four stories tall, but there were nearly 20 stories of underground offices and facilities. The complex sat on roughly 250 acres and was surrounded by a lush forest. Beyond that was a high electric fence ringed with razor sharp concertina wire. There were guard towers on each corner.
The compound wasn’t an easy place to gain access to. It was one of the most heavily fortified buildings in the galaxy. Even to set foot in the parking lot, you had to pass extensive background checks. To become an employee of the UIA, the company would dig so far into your past that they were sometimes known to interview delivery nurses, or so the rumor went.
Jason was just an average guy. Short brown hair and brown eyes. Born on New Earth in Arivada. Graduated the top of his class at Vanden. He finished UIA recruit training with high marks and had been working at the agency for about six months. By all accounts, he was living the Federation Dream. But the bomb hidden in the briefcase on his seat told a different story.
The briefcase itself was made of an explosive compound called Metamite. It was a combination of a metal, a fuel, a primer, and a metal oxide. When triggered, it would undergo an exothermic reduction-oxidation. The amount contained in the briefcase was the equivalent of a 1 megaton nuclear blast, but without the fallout. More than enough to obliterate the UIA building.
Metamite was virtually undetectable, and could be formed into almost any shape. It was expensive stuff. Certainly not easy to come by. The amount of Metamite in the briefcase easily cost upwards of 4,000,000 credits on the black market. Much more than Jason could have afforded on his own.
He snatched the deadly briefcase from the supple leather seat and stepped out of the car. He closed the door behind him. It shut with the solid click of a well-crafted vehicle. It gave the sensation that the car was engineered to perfection. It was a shame. If all went according to plan, the entire compound would be incinerated. The Vellocetta probably wouldn’t survive the blast.
Today was the worst day of Pete Carver’s life, but it sure didn’t start out that way.
Casey slinked in the doorway of the bedroom wearing skimpy lace lingerie that accentuated every breathtaking curve. If the price was blindness, you’d still look… twice. Casey was a sight to behold. She looked like a model straight out of the pages of the Valeria’s Secret catalogue. A black bra made her ample endowments seem even more so. Her crystal blue eyes smoldered. Her raven black hair danced at her shoulders. Her plump lips were inviting. This was a woman who could make a dead man take notice. The kind of woman that could make a man’s IQ drop. The kind of woman who never heard the word no. How Pete Carver ended up marrying her was still a mystery.
Pete Carver was just an average guy. Handsome, but nothing special. He wasn’t the kind of guy you’d see modeling designer underwear. He didn’t have pecks carved of stone and scalloped abs. He was an affable guy with a forgettable face and shaggy brown hair. Kind of a dork. Soft around the mid-section. He was funny though, and quick with his wit. He could make Casey laugh. And, perhaps, laughter is the best aphrodisiac.
Today, Casey didn’t need an aphrodisiac. She was primed and ready to go.
Pete wiped the sleep from his eyes and tried to focus on his wife. He was just as enamored with her as the day they met. But what the hell was she doing, he thought? He squinted at the clock—shit, it was 6:45am. He needed to be at the office at 7:30.
“I have the day off. We can stay in bed all day. Be really, really naughty.” With each word her voice grew more breathy and seductive.
Pete’s heartbeat rose, and his pulse pounded. He cringed with regret. “I can’t,” he stammered. “Got a briefing with the Directorate of Intelligence.”
“Brief him later.” Casey wasn’t about to give up. Her velvety words slid from her luscious lips. “I need you to brief me now.”
“It’s a matter of Federation security,” Pete stammered.
Casey huffed in mock indignation. “Fine. I’ll just have to call my boyfriend.”
Pete scowled at her. His face turned red. The veins in his neck started to protrude. He knew she was teasing him, but the thought of her with another guy made his stomach turn. He tried to play it cool. “Please, if you had a boyfriend, I’d know about it.” He grinned.
She arched an eyebrow at him. “You don’t know everything.”
“I kind of do. It’s my job.” He grinned again. Pete was a signals intelligence analyst with the United Intelligence Agency. He’d been working with the counter-terrorism unit for the last two years. The UIA had a massive database of all electronic communications that passed through Federation networks. Voice communications were automatically transcribed and were keyword searchable. It wasn’t exactly legal. Without a warrant, the data couldn’t be used in a court of law, but it sure could pinpoint people who might need further scrutiny. Pete got many requests from friends to snoop on spouses with suspicious activity, but Pete always declined, citing UIA regulations about unauthorized use of a government database. He always told anyone who asked him to spy on their spouse the same thing—if you think your wife is cheating on you, she probably is.
“You better enjoy this body while it lasts,” Casey said, getting down to brass tacks.
Pete’s face twisted up, perplexed. “What does that mean?”
“See, there are some things you don’t know.” She crawled onto the bed and straddled him.
“Like…?” His curiosity was certainly peaked.
She hesitated for a moment, then decided to just blurt it out. “I’m pregnant.” She smiled, hoping he’d smile back.
Pete’s eyes went wide, and he had a blank look of terror on his face. He was speechless for what seemed like an eternity. Then he stammered, “How do you know?”
“My daily bio-monitor detected a change in hormone levels.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m so excited. This is what I’ve always wanted. I love you,” she mocked. “Those would all be appropriate responses right now.”
Pete swallowed hard. “Yes to all of those statements.” He smiled. “I love you. This is amazing!” He took a second to catch his breath. “I was just a little stunned for a moment.” He paused. “Is it a boy, or a girl?”
Casey shrugged. “I want it to be a surprise.”
“Okay. But we could plan better if—“
Casey’s scowl shut him up.
“Okay. Surprise is good.”
She kissed him. Her plush lips felt like heaven. She practically moaned the words, “Are you sure you can’t call in sick.”
Casey had his full attention. She nibbled at his ear, and he could feel her steamy breath on his neck. It was getting hard to focus on anything else.
“There’s… been… a lot of… chatter—”
“Shhh.” She planted her lips on his, shutting him up. “Maybe it’s the surge of hormones, but I’m really horny.”
Pete could feel his willpower caving in. But he tried to muster his resolve. You didn’t just skip meetings with the Directorate of Intelligence. “Something really big is about to go down,” he stammered distractedly.
Casey slid her hand down his torso, gripping the thing she was after. Her eyes lit up with a lascivious glint. “Really big?”
Pete’s IQ was already dropping. He could barely form a coherent sentence. “We’re expecting a major terrorist attack within the next few weeks.”
This got Casey’s attention. “Where?”
“We don’t know for sure. Probably a high value military or government target. Maybe a large civilian crowd. Hard to say.”
“Here in town?” Casey’s face filled with worry.
“We think so. Look, this is all classified stuff, so don’t go talk to your friends about this.”
“Aren’t you going to warn the public?”
“We don’t want to send people into a panic. But the President is going to make a statement that the terror watch is on high alert.”
Casey rolled off of him and flopped onto her back, frustrated. “I don’t understand these people. What do they hope to accomplish?”
Pete shrugged. “I guess they think we shouldn’t be here, inhabiting this section of the galaxy.”
“But these are Federation born citizens. They are sympathizing with the Verge. Explain to me how a human being can take sides with an alien race that’s bent on destroying us?”
“I don’t get it either, but I have a feeling this isn’t going to stop anytime soon.” Pete rolled over and kissed his wife on the cheek. “I’m thrilled and excited and overwhelmed with joy. I mean it.” His voice was filled with the utmost sincerity.
“Can I have a rain check for later?” His sad eyes pleaded with her.
He smiled and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I got to go, babe. I can’t miss this meeting.”
“Be careful out there. Go find bad guys.”
Pete winked at her and and rolled out of bed. “You know it.”
His eyes found the clock again—6:57am. No time for a shower, shave, or breakfast. He doubled up on deodorant, threw on a suit and tie, and dashed out the door. The UIA building was only 15 minutes away. But with traffic, the drive time could easily double or triple. Pete’s late start was putting him right in the middle of the morning commute.
He was only in the car for a few minutes when he got a call from his boss, John Graham. The car’s automatic control took over as Graham appeared on the view screen. He was probably mid 40’s but it was hard to tell a person’s true age with all the medical advancements and age delaying technology available. He had a square jaw and dark hair. He looked like an agent out of a spy movie, and had the swagger to go with it.
“I'm glad you called,” Pete said. “There's an accident on 35. It has got things delayed a bit, but I should be on time.
Graham wasn’t buying it for a second, but he didn’t really seem to care. “Actually, I was going to give you a heads up. I’m paring you with a new partner. Emma Castle. Do you know her?”
“Yeah. Vaguely. The brunette in counter-terrorism, right? New recruit.”
“That's the one.”
“My wife's not going to be happy about this.”
“Just tell your wife Emma’s beauty challenged.”
“Emma Castle is anything but ugly. Look, I don't need a new partner. I like working by myself. I’m an analyst so I can avoid interaction with other people.”
“She’s a solid agent. Former combat veteran. Marine infantry. Did two deployments in Razurvan. Graduated college in 2 years on the GI bill. Finished top of her class from the Farm. She’s one of our best and brightest.”
Pete sighed. “Alright, but you have to explain it to my wife. She’s the jealous type, and I suspect I’m going to be dealing with some increased emotional highs and lows over the next 9 months.”
Graham perked up. He caught on instantly. “Congratulations. You’ll make a great dad.”
“Thanks.” Pete wasn’t as sure. He was still feeling overwhelmed. “I’m going to have to read a dozen parenting manuals.”
“You’ll be fine. Raising kids is only slightly more difficult than diffusing nuclear bombs.”
Pete chuckled nervously.
“Emma will be at this morning’s meeting. It will be a good opportunity for you two to get acquainted. There’s been a lot of chatter lately, and I’m getting pressure from the new administration to ramp up the anti-terrorism efforts. I’ll see you shortly.” The transmission ended.
It was 7:27am by the time Pete made it through the security gate and pulled into the parking area reserved for UIA employees. Three minutes to spare. He’d still have to get through the main building security and down into the Vault. The underground complex was virtually impenetrable. Composite steel blast doors and walls. It could, theoretically, survive a direct nuclear hit. And there were enough foodstuffs and medical supplies to last 10 years of confinement within the Vault, if need be.
As Pete raced up the steps to the main entrance, he caught sight of Emma Castle dashing out of the building. His face crinkled, perplexed. Where was she going? “Emma… Pete Carver.”
He extended his hand and the two shook.
“I think we met briefly at the Christmas party,” she said.
“Yes, I think you’re right.” Pete paused awkwardly. “I hear we’ll be working together.”
“Yes. Looking forward to it.” She smiled with eager eyes.
“Have they started yet?”
“No. The directorate isn’t even in the building yet.”
Pete slumped. “Of all the days I could’ve been late.” He shook his head.
“I left a data drive in the car,” she said sheepishly. She started toward the parking lot. “I’ll see you inside.”
Pete stepped inside and got in line to pass through the security scanners.
Emma ran down the steps and through the parking lot toward her car. She was running as fast as she could in heels, trying not to turn an ankle. Her heels clacked against the concrete as she weaved between the parked hover-cars. She was starting to sweat, and her white silk blouse was sticking to her skin. She had on a navy blazer and slacks, and wore dark aviator sunglasses. It was essentially the standard uniform for UIA agents.
She reached her car and rummaged through the center console. She found the data drive. It looked like a small piece of smart glass. She smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. She thought for a moment that she might have left it back at her apartment. That would not have gone over well. She closed the car door and clicked her alarm button.
Emma caught sight of Jason Kaplan leaving the building in a hurry. He was on the counterterrorism team and was supposed to be in the meeting. Maybe he had forgotten something in his car as well? “Jason…”
He didn't respond.
“Jason!” she shouted again.
He didn’t even look in her direction.
Emma shrugged it off. As she turned back to face the Hive, the building exploded in a violent eruption. A brilliant amber ball incinerated the structure. Bits of concrete and rebar showered from the epicenter. Plumes of smoke billowed into the sky. The explosion was deafening. The earth rumbled, and the blast overpressure knocked Emma to the ground. One of the most secure structures in the Federation had been compromised.
Emma couldn't hear a thing, except for the ringing in her ears. She pushed off the concrete and staggered to her feet. Her body felt numb and was vibrating from adrenaline coursing through her veins. Warm blood trickled down her forehead. She wiped her brow, coating the back of her hand with crimson blood. Bits of concrete and debris were scattered everywhere. The ruins of the UIA building crackled with flames. Black smoke billowed into the sky. Glowing orange embers floated with the breeze. The cars in the parking lot were coated with dust and grime.
Emma was dazed. It took her a moment to process the event. She glanced around the parking lot and saw Jason Kaplan sprinting toward his car. She took off after him—pain rifled through her leg. She glanced down to see her navy slacks drenched with dark blood. Her exposed skin was dotted with lacerations from the shards of exploding glass that blew out of the building.
“Jason,” she shouted.
He glanced back over his shoulder to see her hobbling after him. This time he responded. He pulled his service pistol from his shoulder holster under his coat.
POP! POP! POP!
The muzzle flashed as he fired several rounds. The bullets snapped past Emma's ears, pinging off the panels of nearby cars. One of the bullets shattered a passenger window, spraying shards of glass.
Emma took cover and drew her weapon. She crouched down and angled her 9mm over the hood of a hover-car and fired back.
Jason ducked into his Velocetta and cranked up the engine. It had survived the blast. It roared to life and he flew out of the parking space.
Emma blasted off several more rounds until the magazine was empty. She pressed the mag release button, dropped the magazine out, and clicked another one back into the well. Her action was smooth and precise. She kept firing at the Velocetta, webbing the windows with cracks.
Jason barreled toward the guard gate. Automatic gunfire erupted as the guard peppered the Velocetta with bullets. But the car didn't slow down. It rammed through the gate, mowing over the guard. The car banked onto the access road then disappeared.
Emma could hear the engine rattle into the distance as her vision began to fade. Her legs felt weak and gave out from underneath her. She had lost a lot of blood. She collapsed in the parking lot amid the broken glass and debris. Her 9mm clattered against the concrete. She’d taken a shrapnel wound to the leg, and was probably suffering internal bleeding from the blast overpressure. She needed immediate medical attention if she was going to survive.
“Madam President, we need to get you to the Situation Room immediately," the White House Chief of Staff, Robert Glassman said. “There’s been an incident.”
Aria Slade’s body tensed. Her focused, ice blue eyes narrowed. “What is it?"
"I'll brief you on the way down."
They marched out of the Oval Office with urgency, barreling down the hallway past the Roosevelt room, to an elevator which took them underground to the Situation Room.
The White House Two was an almost exact replica of the original back on Earth. It had been refurbished since the robot invasion had practically destroyed it. There were still some areas that were under construction. And there were rooms that needed paint and new flooring. But the West Wing was fully operational.
Slade hadn't been a week in office yet, and already a major catastrophe had happened. But she wasn't about to take this lying down. She was running the Federation like she had run her ship. There was no margin for error. Slade was a hero of the first Verge War. She had saved New Earth countless times since then. The former Admiral had won the Presidency by a landslide. She was entering the Oval Office with an unprecedented amount of public support. But at this moment, she couldn't help but wish she was back in the CIC of a star destroyer. Watching the action on a monitor from a secure underground operations center wasn’t exactly her style.
Slade was in her mid-40s, but looked much younger. She was attractive, but stern. Fit and athletic. Equally comfortable with an assault rifle and battle armor, or wearing an elegant evening gown and heels. Though, being out of her service uniform was taking a little getting used to.
The awe and reverence that the Oval Office inspired was nothing short of humbling. But still, it was a far cry from racing through space and saving the galaxy. And while she didn’t regret her decision to go into politics, she couldn’t help but miss the Navy.
Slade and Glassman descended through layers of concrete and blast proof shielding. Even farther underground was the presidential bunker—an emergency operations center, capable of sustaining the President for an almost indefinite amount of time.
The Situation Room was bustling with activity. The Joint Chiefs of Staff huddled around the conference table in their service uniforms, their metals dangling from their chests. The Secretary of Defense, the head of the Department of Federation Security, and the Federation Security Advisor were also present.
Several large monitors mounted on the walls displayed the destruction. An aerial view of the Hive captured the entirety of the disaster. It was still smoldering, and black smoke billowed into the air.
But that wasn't the worst of it.
“It seems it was a coordinated effort,” Art Westgate, the Federation Security Advisor, said. “Not only was the Hive destroyed, but Raptor Stadium was taken out. We are estimating 42,000 civilian casualties.”
Slade's heart sank.
“They hit us during a time of transition,” Lisa Pollock, the Secretary of Defense, said. “We can also thank the lax policies of the previous administration. This looks like it was an inside job.”
Slade clenched her jaw. “Do we know who is responsible?”
“We’re not sure about Raptor Stadium,” Pollock said. "But this man, Jason Kaplan, is the suspect in the Hive bombing.”
Jason’s picture appeared on the screen.
John Graham entered the Situation Room. His eyes flicked to Kaplan's image. He seemed rather embarrassed about it. “I got here as soon as possible. Rest assured, we will get to the bottom of this, Madam President."
"It should never have happened," Slade said, trying to restrain her anger.
“Ragza Vin Zalcor is claiming responsibility,” Graham said. “Born Mike Wagner, he’s a Federation citizen who’s taken a Saarkturian name. He is a Verge sympathizer, and his group Saav Krava, which means Holy Warriors in Saarkturese, are demanding the exit of all human life from this sector of the galaxy.”
“How long have you been tracking Ragza?” Slade asked.
Graham seemed uncomfortable. “He’s been a person of interest since before the Decluvian invasion. He's been's vocally outspoken, but his group had never taken any action or claimed any responsibility until now.”
“Can you explain to me how one of his people infiltrated your organization?"
“I'm looking into it,” Graham said. “But as far as I can tell, there was nothing in his past to indicate a threat. Of the known members of Saav Krava, they are all Federation born citizens. Though, we highly suspect they are getting funding and support directly from the Saarkturians.”
“This is clearly a matter that needs to be under the direction and control of the Department of Federation Security,” Pollock said.
Graham gave her a sharp look. “This is a UIA matter, and we’ll handle it.”
“Clearly, your organization has been compromised.” Pollock’s words cut deep.
Graham’s face tensed, and his cheeks were turning red. ”If we hadn't been hamstrung by the previous administration, maybe we could have evaluated our new hires a little better.”
“Always shifting blame," Pollock said.
“Enough!” Slade shouted. “I will not abide inter-agency rivalries. I want cooperation across the board. And you will share resources. Is that understood?"
“Yes, Madam President." They answered in unison.
Nothing about Slade’s presidency was going to be business as usual. She was going to get things done, and she was going to eliminate bureaucracy wherever she could.
“I’ve got more bad news,” Graham said, sheepishly. “Dr. Hans Metzger has gone missing. We fear he may have been kidnapped.”
“The physicist?” Slade asked.
“Isn’t he responsible for—“
Slade deflated. “Great. Could today get any worse?” she muttered to herself.
“Probably,” Graham said.
“In light of the current situation, I think it’s wise if we move the President to a more secure location,” Glassman said.
“I have no desire to govern my entire term from an underground bunker,” Slade said.
“A star destroyer is the most mobile and heavily defensible position,” Glassman said.
Slade tried to hide the subtle grin that was curling up on her lips. "I agree.”
“JPOC is already operating out of the USS Revenant,” Glassman suggested. “That seems like a logical choice, for now. If that meets with your approval, Madam President, we can begin the transition immediately.”
“The USS Scorpion is currently undergoing renovations,” Glassman added. “We can begin retrofitting it to meet Presidential specifications. I anticipate that craft being able to serve as Navy One within six months.”
“Outstanding,” Slade said. She took a moment to look over the team of high-level officials assembled in the Situation Room. She leaned into the table, and with a voice that had commanded countless sailors into battle, she made her intentions clear. “I want these terrorists brought to justice with swift and decisive action. If I have to get out there myself and do it, I will.”
Nobody in the room doubted her.
“I want to be able to reassure the citizens of this great Federation that they are safe. We've been through enough already, and we don't need attacks from within by these insurgents.” Her steely eyes grew even more fierce. “Now you go find me this Ragza Vin Zalcor.”
After the robot occupation had ended, the streets of New Earth had been filled with celebrations. There was an optimistic outlook for the future. People had hope. The war was seemingly over. Ryan Hunter couldn’t help but feel like he missed his chance.
He was 17, and all through high school he had planned to enlist as soon as he graduated. He wanted to serve the Federation. He wanted to make a difference. It wasn’t a guns and glory type thing. He just felt a deep calling to serve, like his brother and father had done before him.
But it was quickly becoming apparent that the war wasn’t really over—just the battlefront had changed, and the type of war. There was no identifiable enemy this time. It was going to be a slow grind, rooting out insurgent terrorists among Federation citizens. His opportunity to serve the Federation was just beginning.
Ryan watched the smoldering ruins of the Hive with wide eyes as reporters scrambled to update the public with slivers of information. It was all conjecture at this point. Ragza and his organization, Saav Krava, had claimed responsibility, and there were scant details emerging about Jason Kaplan. Some reporters were still hesitant to label it as terrorism. One going so far as to claim it could have been a malfunction of some advanced Defense Department weapon.
“Shit,” Colton said. “I bet they cut my leave short.” He sat on the couch next to Ryan.
“That’s it, I’m signing up,” Ryan said. The attack had him worked up. He was red in the face and the veins in his neck were bulging. He wanted some payback.
“Slow down, hothead. There’s no need to rush. Take your time and enjoy being a kid.”
“I’m not a kid.”
Colton was Ryan’s older brother. He was a Navy Reaper. The best of the best. They were an elite special operations force under the Naval Special Warfare Command, which in turn was a component of the Joint Planetary Operations Command (JPOC). Operators usually worked in small teams, or alone. Their primary focus were missions of strategic importance to the United Planetary Defense Force. Capture and kill missions to neutralize enemy forces. Assassinations, extractions, and diversions. Offensive strikes, often using guerrilla warfare tactics, like raids, ambushes and assaults. And, of course, counter-terrorism.
They had earned the nickname Reapers, and they lived up to their namesake, bringing death wherever they went. They were like ghosts. You never saw them, or heard them, until it was too late. When you wanted the job done, and done right, you called the Reapers.
“I’m just saying,” Colton advised. “You’ve got plenty of time to decide what you wan to do with your life.”
“I know what I want. I want to be a Reaper, like you.”
“You’re going to college, and that’s final,” Ryan’s father said as he stepped into the living room, picking up on the tail end of the conversation—one he’d heard many times before, in some form or another.
Bill Hunter was a tough man. He had served in the first Verge War and retired as a Command Master Chief. He had seen more than his fair share of blood and carnage, and that was the last thing he wanted for his children.
“I’m almost 18,” Ryan objected. “It’s my decision.”
“Listen to Pops,” Colton said. “Go to college. If you still want to join, you can go in as an officer. Hell, do that, and I might even have to salute you some day.”
A slight grin curled up on Ryan’s lips. “I’d make you scrub toilets.”
“Shit, that’s if you’ve got what it takes to make it. Not everybody gets accepted to Biscuit. And even fewer make it through.”
Biscuit was slang for BSCT (Basic Space Combat Training). But there was nothing basic about it. It was the Reapers’ specialty school, after recruit training. Only about 6% of applicants met the requirements. Of those, only about 20% completed the training. It was, hands down, the most grueling and physically demanding specialty school in the UPDF military. Not to take anything away from Ranger school, or X-Force training, but to become a Naval Special Warfare Operator, you almost had to be superhuman.
Ryan puffed up. “I’ve got what it takes.”
“We’ll see,” Colton said with a smug grin.
“I think you both need to have your heads examined. There are plenty of things you can do with your life that don’t involve people shooting at you.”
“It’s not always people,” Colton said.
Ryan’s eyes lit up. “What were the Verge like?”
“This is your fault,” Pops said. “You fill his head with this stuff.”
“Ruthless and smart,” Colton said. “The short ones were 7 feet tall. Pale skin, dark eyes, and teeth like razors.”
“How many did you kill?” Ryan asked like a little kid in awe.
Colton shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot. How many did you kill, Pops?”
“See, this is exactly what I’m talking about,” Pops said.
“Alright, no more war talk,” Colton said. “I promise.”
Colton winked, letting Ryan know he’d tell more stories later. He had seen multiple combat deployments. The war may have been over, but Colton had several years left on his contract. And with all the terrorist activity, they were keeping the Reapers busy. Colton had every intention of re-upping when the time came. He was going to make a career out of the Navy. It was everything the recruitment videos said it would be. He got to see the galaxy. He went on great adventures. It sounded crazy, but he was having the time of his life. He hesitated telling people that because they never understood. There was a certain glamour in war. The magnificent destroyers. The heavy gunships. The spike of adrenaline every time you made contact with the enemy. It quickly became an addiction. Sure, there was death and danger, but Colton couldn’t imagine living life as a civilian. He had seen things that most people would never get to see. Travel to interstellar planets was common, but the average civilian usually only traveled within the colonies. In the Navy, Colton had been to the far reaches of the galaxy, seen uncharted worlds, met new and exotic species—and he got paid on top of it all.
How could Ryan not want to be a part of that? He looked up to Colton. And they had always been intensely competitive. Whatever Colton did, Ryan was going to try to do better. As it stood, Ryan was about to shatter Colton’s high school record for most passing yards and most completions. A fact that Ryan never tired of reminding him about. He was never going to let him live it down.
“You still haven’t beaten my points per game record,” Colton said.
“Only a matter of time.”
At 6’2”, Ryan was already 2 inches taller than Colton, and easily carried an extra 20 pounds of lean muscle mass over him. He was a big guy and put the hours in at the gym. Sports were his thing, and he was being heavily scouted by the colleges for football. The idea of playing pro ball bounced around in the back of his mind, but it always seemed to lose out over the thought of joining the Navy.
“Keep talking trash,” Colton said. “I’m going to laugh my ass off if you ring the bell at Biscuit.”
Reaper candidates could drop upon request (DOR) at any time. All you had to do was ring the bell, and you were out.
“Never going to happen.”
Ryan had never quit anything in his life. He figured he’d let Reaper training kill him before he rang the bell and quit. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and Ryan was never one to back down from a challenge.
The hospital room was antiseptic—a stark white room with a minimalist design. Bio monitors flickered with vital signs. Emma Castle lay in bed with a bandage around her head and an IV dripping into the vein in her arm. The outer hallway bustled with the continuous activity of nurses as they scurried about the intermediate care unit.
Emma’s eyes finally peeled open. The room was fuzzy as she looked around. She looked perplexed, not quite sure where she was, or how she got there. But it didn’t take long for the memories to come flooding back. She tried to sit up just as a nurse entered the room.
“Just relax,” the nurse said in a soothing voice. “You’ve suffered a mild concussion. The doctor wants to keep you overnight for observation. They pulled a pretty big chunk of shrapnel from your leg.”
“No. I’ve got work to do.” Emma tried to get herself out of bed but the nurse stopped her.
“Not anymore you don’t.”
“You can’t keep me here against my will.”
“If you want to walk out that door, I can’t stop you. I’ll get the paperwork to check you out, but please wait until the doctor comes to see you. Can you do that for me?” It wasn’t the first time the nurse had to deal with a combative patient.
“I get it, honey.” She lifted her brow at Emma. “You think I like spending my life in this place?”
“I pulled two 12 hour shifts. Believe me, I’m ready to go home.”
“Are there any other survivors here?”
“Do they know what happened?”
“I only know what the news tells me,” the nurse said. “You people are tightlipped.”
“It goes with the job.”
The nurse started out of the room, then she turned back, remembering something. “Oh, Mr. Graham was here to see you. He said he’d be back shortly.”
“That’s my boss.”
“He was very worried about you. Cute too.” The nurse smiled and darted out of the room.
Emma found the remote and clicked on the TV. It didn’t matter what station she turned to, all she could find was news about the attack. Lots of aerial views of the smoldering rubble.
Emma waited for what seemed like an eternity. She was getting restless. She wasn’t a woman who liked to sit still. Every second that she was lying in this hospital bed was a second that she could be tracking down leads. She lived alone. She didn’t have family in the area. She didn’t have a boyfriend—there was no time. Work for the agency was all-consuming. It took a special person to put up with the long hours and extended absences. It took a relationship with a lot of trust. And it’s hard to establish trust when you can’t tell your significant other the intimate details of your workday because they are classified. Emma was a rule follower. She went by the book. She was a damn good agent.
It was well into the evening by the time Doctor Patel arrived. He looked over her chart as he entered the room. “Miss Castle, how are you feeling?”
“Fine. When can I get out of here?”
“Well, it seems you’ve suffered a concussion. I took a piece of shrapnel from your thigh, but you got lucky. No major veins or arteries were involved.”
“That’s what the nurse said.”
“Your vitals are all excellent. But your scans did reveal something a little… troubling.”
“I feel fine. I don’t even have a headache. And my leg doesn’t feel like anything more than a scratch.”
Dr. Patel just blurted it out. “Your scans indicate the presence of a glioblastoma.”
“It’s a cancerous brain tumor.”
Emma’s face went pale.
“It’s location makes it inoperable. Median survival time is 14.6 months. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
Emma was speechless.
“Have you had any headaches, nausea, vomiting prior to today?”
She shook her head. “What are the treatment options?”
“Each case is different. We’ll have to do further genetic testing. We have a multiplicity of treatment protocols.”
“What are the odds?”
“I’ve had patients go into full remission. Others didn’t make it six months.”
Emma deflated. “It’s 2385 and we haven’t solved this yet?”
“It’s a challenging diagnosis.”
Emma looked dazed. “Do me a favor. Keep this between us. Do not let my employer know.”
“I am bound by oath to keep your medical records private. Only the hospital and the insurance provider will have access to the information. But knowing your employer, they will find out eventually.”
“If you’ll agree to stay overnight, I can run further tests and we can establish a game plan for treatment.”
Emma reluctantly nodded.
“Keep your chin up. There are many possible outcomes.” Doctor Patel left the room.
The news was no easy thing to hear, and it left Emma numb. But she wasn’t going to let a silly thing like cancer get in the way of her finding the terrorist cell responsible for this heinous act.
She took a deep breath and tried to think about things rationally. Everybody has to die sometime, she thought. It was just going to be a little sooner than she expected. She tried to put a positive spin on it. She had been given a gift. She probably should have died in the UIA building. She would go about her life like every day was a bonus—only now, she had a time limit to bring the terrorists to justice.
A few hours later John Graham came to visit her. “Well, you look…” he fumbled for words, “better than most people who were at the Hive.”
“How many did we lose?”
“The good news is that most of the staff were out for the holiday break. Otherwise, the death toll would have been a lot higher.”
“Right now right, the death toll is at 7325. But we expect that number to rise over the next few days. There are several people here in critical condition that don’t look like they will make it.”
Emma looked crestfallen.
“By now I’m sure you’ve heard the news about Raptor Stadium.”
“This is the worst terrorist attack in Federation history. We lost a lot of good people today.” Graham gave a solemn pause. “You are now the senior agent in CTU. If you’re up to it, I want you to nail this scumbag. You find this Ragza Vin Zelcor, and you bring me his head on a stick.”
Emma’s face turned hard with determination. “I’m up to it, sir.”
The scoreboard wasn’t at all what Ryan was used to, especially at this point in the game—23 to 20, with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. For the first time all season, the Spartans were losing. And they were in their own house. The Darrell J. Sully Stadium held 22,000 people. Not bad for a high school football game. But a hell of a crowd to lose in front of. They had been kicking ass and taking names all season. But so had the West End Wolverines. This was the Federation championship.
Both teams came into this game with undefeated records. The Wolverines were notorious for dirty play, and they had been getting in cheap shots all night. Their boys were big. There wasn’t one of them on the field that was under 6’2”. They hit hard. The only thing you could do was try to hit harder. The Wolverines had the highest percentage of players that transitioned into the Professional Football League of any high school in the Federation. If you were serious about playing pro ball, you did everything you could to get into the West End High School. Parents bought houses within the district just so their sons could attend. Scouts from the PFL were a common site at Wolverine games.
Ryan didn’t care who they were, he didn’t like to lose. The odds were against the Spartans. The Wolverines were favored to win this game by 20. That didn’t sit well with Ryan. It was third-down and seven and the Spartans were on their own 26 yard line. All they needed to do was score once, then let their league-leading defense do the work.
The lights of the stadium were blinding. Ryan looked out at the crowd—they were on their feet, cheering. They chanted Spartans, Spartans, over and over again. It was almost deafening. Kendall was out there somewhere. She didn’t much care for football, but she had never missed one of Ryan's games.
Ryan's eyes darted back to the scoreboard. In the back of his mind, the terrorist attacks still loomed large. An event this size could be a target. Everyone in the stands knew it, but they tried to go about life as if nothing had happened. The odds were slim that a high school football game would become a terrorist target. But still, the thought was there.
The offensive coordinator called the play over the comm system. He was a short, stocky, bald man with a mustache. Probably about 35. He had a look on his face like he was perpetually constipated. His vocal cords were frazzled from continuous screaming. “I Double Right Bootleg Pass Lima Romeo F 32 Slam, on two.” His angry voice blared through the in-helmet speakers as he repeated the play.
There was no need for a huddle. The entire game was analyzed and fed into a predictive modeling algorithm in real time. The limited AI would spit out the next play based on its probability of success. Football games were basically two computers playing each other, with the only variables being the human element. Computer assisted coaching had been banned in the PFL, but it was still legal in high school, for the time being. Though, it didn’t seem to make the game any less exciting.
The Spartans got into formation, and Ryan prepared to take the snap. He surveyed the defensive formation—a bunch of angry snarling giants ready to crunch him into the ground. “Ready. Set. Hut. Hut.”
The clack of helmets and pads crashing into each other filled the air. There were grunts and groans. A symphony of chaos. As soon as Ryan felt the leather ball in his hand he dropped back and play faked a handoff to the fullback. Then he hid the ball and rolled right. His eyes scanned left then right. The tight end, Noah Denver, had a lead on the defensive cornerback.
Ryan’s arm sprang back, then launched a perfect spiral down the right side of the field. That was the last thing he saw. A defensive back wrapped him up and took him to the ground. Ryan felt like he had been hit by a Mack truck. It was bone crushing, and he felt a sharp pain in his left forearm as something snapped. The wind was knocked out of him, and he gasped for breath. He got a face full of dirt and grass in his helmet, and he was seeing stars. He rolled onto his back and saw a few of his teammates hovering over him.
“You okay, buddy?” one of them asked.
Ryan grimaced with pain. “Did we get a first down?”
Before long, the team trainer was attending to him. “Where does it hurt?”
“I think my arm is broken.”
The trainer evaluated his forearm. After a few moments, with help from some teammates, Ryan made it to his feet. The trainer ushered him off the field. He crossed paths with Chance Nichols, the backup quarterback. It was his first time on the field for the entire season, and Chance couldn’t totally hide his glee.
“Give’em hell,” Ryan said.
“I will,” Chance called back as he trotted to the line of scrimmage.
Ryan heard the offensive coordinator begin to call the next play. He pulled off his helmet and walked down the long hallway to the locker rooms. His cleats clacked against the concrete floor as the roar of the crowd echoed down the hallway.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed up,” the trainer said.
In the locker room, a diagnostic scan revealed a simple fracture of the ulna. The trainer was able to set the bone and apply a cast. He injected Ryan’s arm with pain medication and a regenerative compound that would speed up the healing process.
“You will be as good as new in a few days,” the trainer said.
“I don’t have a few days. We’ve got a few minutes.”
“I can’t recommend you return to play right now.”
Ryan glared at him.
“But I’m not going to stop you if you want to get back out on the field.” The trainer gave him another shot of pain medication. “How does that feel?”
“I can’t feel a thing.”
“Just be careful out there.”
By the time Ryan returned to the field, the Spartans were down by 10.
There was 2:30 left on the clock. The special team had returned the kick to the 33 yard line. Ryan was going to have to drive the field twice. The crowd roared as he stepped onto the grass.
The wide receiver, Curtis Mitchell, greeted him on the field. “I’m beating my coverage deep every time. He’s tired.”
The offensive coordinator’s voice crackled over the comm system. “Split Pro 48 Sweep Right, on one.”
Ryan’s face tensed. He didn’t like the call. He yelled for a quick huddle. It was an unusual move, to say the least. Ryan changed the play slightly. “Split Pro Right, Go - Go - Go, on one.”
“What about coach’s play?” a lineman asked.
“Do you want to win?” Ryan said confidently.
They sure as hell didn’t want to lose.
“We don’t have time to run the ball,” Ryan said. “And could you guys provide some pass protection this time?”
“Sorry about that,” Dean Oslick said.
“Split Pro Right, Go - Go - Go, on one,” Ryan repeated. “Ready, break.”
The team hustled to the line of scrimmage. Ryan glanced to the sidelines.
The offensive coordinator’s face twisted up, perplexed. His voice crackled in Ryan's ears, “What the hell’s going on, Hunter?”
Ryan ignored him. He surveyed the defense. “Ready, set, hut.”
The ball snapped into his hands. Ryan dropped back into the pocket. Curtis streaked downfield. The offensive and defensive lines collided. The split offensive backs blocked the pass rushers. It was like titans smashing into each other. The crunch of shoulder pads and clacks of helmets filled the air.
Like a slingshot, Ryan heaved the football downfield. It arced gracefully through the air. So flawless it almost seemed mechanical. Curtis was two steps ahead of the defensive cornerback. The football fell perfectly into his arms like a guided missile. Curtis snatched the ball and sprinted toward the end zone, outpacing the defensive cornerback. He strode into the end zone untouched.
The crowd was on their feet, screaming.
Ryan trotted off the field with a confident smirk. But that was quickly erased when the offensive coordinator laid into him. “What the hell are you doing, Hunter?” He was spraying spit as he spoke. His face was red, and his veins were bulging. “You think you know more than the goddamn computer?”
“We scored, Coach."
"I don't care. You follow the plays I give you. Do you understand me?"
“I can’t hear you!” Coach looked like his head was going to burst.
“Now you’re gonna sit on the bench until you learn some discipline. I don't care if it costs us the game.”
“Don’t but me. Sit your ass down.”
Ryan clenched his jaw. "Yes, sir."
Ryan took a seat and watched the team score the extra point. They were now within three points. Ryan hoped the defense would hold.
The kick off launched the ball deep into the end zone. The Wolverines receiver caught the ball and sprinted out of the end zone, dodging and weaving down the field, slipping past defenders with ease. He was finally brought down at the 42 yard line.
There was 2:07 left in the game. The Wolverines couldn’t just run out the clock. The two minute warning stopped play, and the Spartans had used their timeouts. They needed to keep the Wolverines from getting a first down. At 3rd and 1, it wasn’t looking good. The Wolverines had a powerhouse of a running back—#34, Big Earl Redding. His legs were as thick as the average man’s torso.
Ryan watched as the quarterback took the snap and handed off to Earl. He barreled through the defensive line, bowling over defenders. The game was all but over. With a new set of downs, the Wolverines could run out the clock. But a well-placed helmet by a defensive back knocked the football free.
A Spartan pounced on the fumble. A massive pile-on ensued. By the time they pulled the stack of players off, it was anyone's guess who was in possession. Somehow, the Spartans managed to hold onto the ball. It was 1st and 10 on the Spartan’s 47 yard line.
Ryan put on his helmet, buckled his chinstrap, and headed for the field.
“I told you,” Coach Barnes yelled. “You’re sitting this one out.”
“Come on, Coach!”
“Nichols is the starting QB now.”
Ryan’s whole body tensed. He was beyond pissed. He stood on the sideline and watched the rest of the team take the field. Barnes called the play, and the Spartans got into formation.
Chance Nichols took the snap and dropped back into the pocket, but somebody missed their blocking assignment. A linebacker, #89, plowed in and smashed Nichols to the ground. A loss of 3 yards on the play.
Nichols peeled himself from the ground and staggered back to the line of scrimmage. He looked dazed, as anyone would be. He had just gotten hit by a freight train.
Barnes called another play. Another snap, and Nichols was back in the pocket. Curtis was open on the right side of the field and Nichols lofted the ball in the air. Just as the the ball left his fingertips he was steamrolled again by #89.
The ball arced through the air, but came up short—intercepted by the Wolverines. That was it. They ran out the clock, and the game was over.
Ryan slammed his helmet against the ground. The team sulked off the field. There goes the undefeated season, and the championship, Ryan thought. He glared at Barnes.
“This one’s on you,” Barnes said as he strolled toward the locker room. "Maybe you'll learn to follow the plays I call."
Ryan bit his tongue. Going off on the coach wasn't going to do any good. He looked at the scoreboard one last time—the sight of it burned in his mind. He knew he could have won if he had just gotten back on the field. You can win a hundred games, but it’s the one loss that sticks with you.
Ryan ambled to the locker room with the rest of the team. The mood was somber and hardly a word was said by anyone. The entire coaching staff ripped into the team about discipline and tenacity. About what an embarrassment they were.
Afterwards, Ryan showered and changed into street clothes. Kendall was waiting for him outside the locker room. She was gorgeous. Everything you’d want your high school girlfriend to be. Perky, smart, and fun. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and olive skin. Mesmerizing curves. She excelled at academics and she knew exactly how she wanted her life to unfold. She had plans for her life with Ryan—nothing was going to derail her idea of what their future would look like.
Kendall gave Ryan a hug and kiss on the cheek. “Are you okay? I was so worried about you."
“I'm fine.” He held up his cast. "You like my stylish accessory."
“Casts were so last year," she joked.
“I only have to wear it a few days. Then I'll be good as new.”
Ryan was too preoccupied with Kendall to pay attention to the man lurking behind him, following him into the parking lot.
“Excuse me, Ryan Hunter?"
Ryan craned his neck back at the man following behind him.
“Mike McMahon,” the man said, extending his hand. He was wearing a suit and tie, and had a beaming smile.
Ryan shook his hand. His eyes lit up as he recognized the name. “You used to play for the Vipers.”
“Guilty as charged.” Mike smiled.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Great game. Too bad you got taken out at the end. I have the utmost confidence that you would've pulled out a victory."
“Can you tell my coach that?”
Mike chuckled. "He was just probably trying to protect his star athlete."
"Do you have a minute to talk? I'm a recruiter with the Citadel Ravens.”
Ryan shrugged. "Yeah, sure.”
He handed Ryan his card. It was a translucent piece of smart glass. All you had to do was swipe the card to activate it, then press the connect button on the display and it would call Mike.
“Are you hungry? I bet you worked up an appetite after a game like that. How about a real steak dinner, my treat?”
Ryan exchanged a glance with Kendall.
“No obligation. Just hear what I have to say.”
“Yeah, sure. I guess,” Ryan said.
"How about Marco’s? It's just around the corner."
Ryan's eyes went wide. Marco’s was one of the premier restaurants in the city. And it wasn't cheap. "Yeah, Marco's is good."
Mike smiled. "I figured you'd find that acceptable. You got a car here?”
“Great. I'll meet you there."
Ryan and Kendall strolled through the parking lot to Ryan’s car and drove to the restaurant. It was an old Predator that he had restored to perfection. A pure Federation muscle car.
Kendall tried to bite her tongue, but it didn’t take long for her to speak her mind. “We talked about this.”
“What? It’s just dinner.”
“You need to get your education.”
“What are you, my mother?”
Her eyes narrowed at him. “I’m just trying to look out for us. 78% of all PFL players are either broke, or commit suicide, within 2 years of leaving league.”
Ryan scoffed. “Not going to happen to me.”
“That’s what they all say.”
They pulled up to the valet stand at Marco’s. An attendant opened their doors and took the vehicle.
Parked up front, by the entrance, were exotic cars that cost a fortune. De Lucas, Königs, Bianchis. Mike was waiting for them inside, and the maître d' escorted them to a special table that Mike had reserved. He had clearly planned this in advance. They didn't have to wait at all, even though there was a sizable list.
The lighting was dim and the hushed murmur of quiet conversation filled the air, along with glasses clinking and silverware against ceramic plates. Everything about the decor screamed expensive. A wonderful aroma filled the air. Ryan caught a whiff of various meals as he walked through the restaurant. Tenderloin, roast chicken, grilled salmon.
“Everything here is real. Nothing is artificial or synthetic,” Mike said.
Real food was hard to come by. Most of what you ate on a daily basis was synthetic food from processors. Even if you could get real beef, it was likely grown in a genetics lab. But not at Marco's. They only served real, certified, 100% Angus. And the cost of a steak was more than most people made in a month.
A waiter handed out menus and went over the specials. Ryan's eyes bulged at the price list. He came from a family of modest means and had never eaten in a restaurant of this caliber.
“Like I said, anything you want. I'm buying," Mike said.
“If you say so. I’ve gotta warn you, I have a healthy appetite.”
Mike smiled. “Trust me, I know how many calories it takes to sustain a football team.”
Ryan looked over the menu and ordered a bacon wrapped filet, medium rare, with a side of herb roasted potatoes and sautéed mushrooms. Kendall ordered the same, but she wanted her steak medium, no bacon. You couldn’t come to Marco’s an not get a steak. They we’re known for it. Of course, if you were vegetarian, they had a synthetic steak made of vegetable product that was almost indistinguishable. Almost.
The sumptuous meal was cooked to perfection. Ryan and Kendall ate their fill. It felt like they were bursting at the seams.
“I know you’re getting scouted by various colleges right now. But I want you to consider skipping college, for now, and playing for the PFL.”
Kendall seemed a little thrown by the suggestion.
“My dad’s pretty sold on the whole college thing.”
“By all means, go to college. I'm not suggesting that you don't go. I'm just suggesting to switch the timing.”
Ryan took a deep breath.
“Just hear me out. So you go to college and play ball. That's four years. Anything can happen in four years. You can get an injury that sidelines you for the rest of your career.”
“We think you've got what it takes to make it in the league now. And we want you to come play for the Ravens.”
“I thought you couldn't jump straight from high school to the pros?" Ryan said.
“There's been a rule change this year. You'd be eligible as soon as you turn 18.”
Ryan pondered this for a moment. "I'll be honest, the thought of playing pro ball is appealing. But I've kind of got my eye on joining the Navy.”
Kendall’s face twisted up. It was clear she didn't like either idea very well, the Navy least of all. "He's going to college." Her tone was absolute and final.
Ryan arched an eyebrow at her, almost wondering when he lost the ability to speak for himself.
“You don't want to join the Navy. Nothing against serving the Federation, but an athlete like you doesn’t need to be stuck aboard a ship patrolling the outer colonies. Were talking the PFL here. We've got fans all across the galaxy. You would be a superstar."
Ryan couldn’t help but grin at the thought.
Kendall’s narrow eyes and tight lips betrayed the fact that she didn't like the direction of this conversation. Not one single bit.
“I was thinking about joining the Reapers.” He knew saying it was going to piss Kendall off even further. They had numerous conversations about it and none of them ever ended well.
“Those guys are bad asses, no doubt,” Mike said. “But the pay isn’t quite the same, now is it?”
“And no one shoots at you in the PFL. Just something to keep in mind.”
“He’s going to college,” Kendall reiterated.
Mike smiled. “Nobody’s asking you to make a decision today. Take some time, think about it. I can have a formal offer to you Monday. Look it over and weigh your options.”
“We need to have a serious talk about the direction this relationship is going in,” Kendall said on the ride home. Her arms were folded and she had a look on her face like she smelled something bad.
“I think it’s going in a good direction,” Ryan stammered, “don’t you?” He hoped he could play dumb and diffuse the situation.
“No, I don’t.”
Ryan sighed. “Do we really have to do this now? I mean, we lost the game. I’ve got a broken arm. I don’t feel like arguing.”
“This isn’t an argument. It’s a discussion.” Kendall huffed. “What kind of relationship is this if we can’t have a discussion?”
“Okay. Fine. Let’s talk.”
“What happens if you get hurt?”
“I’m not going to get hurt.”
“You don’t know that.”
“The doctors will fix me.”
“Players still get career ending injuries.”
“I like your optimism.”
Kendall scowled at Ryan's sarcastic response. “Let’s talk about your other career choice. You want to run off and kill bad guys, but what if you get killed.”
“You keep focusing on the negative.”
“I’m trying to look at all the angles. Have you even taken a moment to think about how certain scenarios might affect me?”
Ryan fumbled for words and finally just shrugged.
“I’m trying to get you to think this through. I don’t want our kids to grow up without a father.”
“You’re not preggers, are you?” Ryan looked panic stricken.
Kendall huffed again. “No. But what if I were?”
There was a long silence.
“Look, if you want to play pro football, or join the Navy, fine. Go do it. But you’re going to do it without me.” She dropped the bomb just as they pulled up to her house.
“I’m serious. I love you, Ryan, but you’ve got to decide what’s more important to you.” She flung open her door and stepped out. She slammed the door shut, rattling the car. Ryan watched her stroll up the walkway and slip inside. He felt like he had been punched in the gut.
“Are you up to this?” John Graham asked.
Emma nodded. But her face betrayed a hint of trepidation. It had been several months since the bombing. Her leg had healed, but every now and then she’d get a twinge of pain and lose strength in the leg. It was probably an injury that would haunt her for the rest of her life. But at this rate, that wasn’t going to be very long.
She was decked out in full tactical gear. Black helmet, armor, and fatigues. She gripped an RK 909 assault rifle. Emma was surrounded by a squad of Navy Reapers. They huddled in the stairwell of a luxury high-rise apartment complex, weapons in the low ready position. The slightest sound echoed off the white antiseptic walls. They were at the East 37th floor landing. The black metal staircase seem to spiral down to infinity.
A few days after the initial attack, Jason Kaplan had been found in a seedy motel. He was face down on the bed in a pool of blood with two, 22 caliber rounds to the back of the head. It seemed someone didn’t want him talking.
“This your first breach?" one of the Reapers asked Emma.
“First civilian breach. This was old hat in Razurvan.”
The Reaper’s eyes lit up, impressed. “You were in Razurvan? Hard core. So you’re already addicted?” He had a sly grin on his face. From the glint in his eyes, you could tell he just loved this shit. Petty Officer Buck Shaw was from New Arkansas and had a slight southern twang in his voice. He was early 20s with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. Never met a stranger. To look at him out of uniform, you’d never think he was a stone cold killer.
“I’m Buck Shaw,” he said, pointing out the team. “That’s Colton Hunter. Short stuff is Bobby Romanko. The LT is Scott Logan.” One by one they nodded at her.
“Pleasure to meet you all, gentlemen.”
“Prepare to be shocked and awed,” Buck said with a grin.
Emma rolled her eyes.
The UIA worked closely with the Reapers on covert operations. The UIA would dream up the mission, and the Reapers would execute. They were the go to Special Operations Force. This mission clearly fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal Security Bureau, but the UIA never liked to share jurisdiction or deal with inter-agency politics. Plus the suspect was considered an enemy combatant—he was no longer a citizen in the eyes of the UIA.
Graham gave the signal.
Lieutenant Logan, whispered into his comm link, “Echo 2-2, this is 2-1… GO. GO. GO.”
“Copy that,” the 2-2 squad leader replied.
Logan had dark hair, dark eyes, and a square jaw. His eyes were focused. Dead serious. He pulled his tactical smart-goggles down from his helmet and pushed through the steel fire doors, spilling into the corridor. Emma and John followed after the team. The Reapers advanced through the art deco hallway with tactical precision. From the west stairwell, 2nd squad flowed down the hallway. The two teams met outside room 3719.
The tac goggles gave the Reapers the option of multiple viewing modes—night vision, digital zoom, and thermal imaging, among others. The goggles were networked and could exchange information between users. You could switch views and see through the eyes of your teammates, if need be.
On thermal, Logan could see two figures inside the apartment.
Colton Hunter placed a small charge around the door’s locking mechanism. Logan gave the signal, and Colton detonated the charge. A thunderous bang, and a blinding flash. The Reapers kicked open the door and tossed a flash-bang grenade down the entrance foyer. They stormed through the swirling smoke and haze into the apartment. It was a standard breach and clear operation.
It all happened in a flash. The two occupants were sitting on the couch. A young woman leapt up and grabbed an assault rifle. She slung the barrel around, taking aim.
Logan pumped two silent rounds into her chest. Crimson blood spewed from the holes in her torso. The woman tumbled back to the ground. She managed to squeeze off two rounds on the way down. She crashed to the floor and gurgled as her lungs filled with fluid. She gasped for her last breath and her body went limp.
As she fell, her weapon clattered against the floor and discharged once more, shattering a glass coffee table, spraying shards of glass over the hardwood floors. She was a pretty young girl and couldn't have been more than 22 or 23. She wasn’t the primary target.
It was hard to say which bullet hit Colton Hunter. whichever one it was, it had bad luck written all over it. The copper round snapped across the apartment. It missed Colton's vest, skimming over the protective collar piece. It drilled into the left side of his neck, ripping open his carotid artery. Chunks of flesh and blood spewed across the room. With each heartbeat, Colton's life force poured out of him. He had bled out within seconds of hitting the floor.
The man on the couch produced a black Bösch- Hauer pistol. But before he got a shot off, Clint shot the man in the forearm. The bullet impacted the man’s radius, shattering it. Bits of blood and bone splattered. His median nerve was severed, and the pistol fell from his hand, clattering across the floor.
He screamed in agony as blood spurted from the gaping wound that had turned his forearm to hamburger. White bone protruded through the gnarly flesh.
The Reapers quickly surrounded him. Angry gun barrels stared him in the face.
Lieutenant Logan saw that Hunter was down and called the corpsman. Hospitalman Eric Anthony dashed to Hunter. He put pressure on the wound and checked his vitals, but Colton had already slipped away. The corpsman’s blue nitrile gloves were coated in dark blood that almost looked like chocolate syrup.
The suspect was still screaming in agony.
The corpsman peeled off his gloves and slipped on a new pair and attended to the wound. He placed a tourniquet around the suspect’s arm, then applied GS gel (a biopolymer foam that excelled at plugging gunshot wounds in the field). The gel contained an antibiotic, a numbing medication, and a regenerative compound. Once the wound was sealed, the corpsman removed the tourniquet and gave the suspect a shot of pain medication.
The mood in the room was grim. A cloud of gun smoke hovered in the air.
A Reaper slapped some flexible cuffs around the suspect’s wrists, causing extreme discomfort. The perp’s face crinkled as he winced with pain. His eyes filled and he wept, partially from pain, partially from the sight of the dead girl’s body lying on the floor in a pool of dark blood. The suspect’s name was Tim Barton, and his world had suddenly collapsed.
2nd squad cleared the rest of the condo. “Jackpot,” one of them yelled upon entering a spare bedroom. “We’ve got assault rifles, RPG's, and thermal grenades.”
“Police up the contraband and tag it as evidence,” Logan said.
The room was still hazy with smoke as the Reapers dragged Barton from the room. The apartment was in shambles. It had once been an impeccably decorated luxury high-rise. Now it looked like something out of a horror movie. The sharp smell of gunpowder filled Emma’s nostrils. It brought her back to Razurvan. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her solemn eyes fell on the body of Colton Hunter.
Two Reapers bagged the body and carried him out of the apartment.
Emma couldn't help but think of the horrible news that was going to be told to some unsuspecting parent that their son wasn't coming home.
“You alright?” Graham asked.
“Yeah.” Emma looked dazed. It was nothing she hadn’t seen many times before, but it never seemed to get easier.
“Where is the next target?” Agent Graham asked.
Several months ago Tim Barton was just an average college student. Now he was being questioned by the UIA in regards to the Hive bombing and links to the insurgent terrorist, Ragza Vin Zelcor.
The interrogation room was dim. Acoustic foam lined the walls in square panels—each one had a different geometric pattern. The room was dead silent. So much so that you could hear your own pulse. None of the walls were at right angles. Everything was a little askew. It was partially to further dampen sound, but also to make the suspect feel uneasy.
Tim Barton was feeling pretty uneasy at the moment. Especially with the gaping wound in his forearm. He was probably going to lose the hand if he didn't get medical attention soon. But that was all part of the UIA's bargaining power.
“Tell us what we want to know, and we’ll see that you get adequate treatment,” Graham said. He sat across the table from Barton. Emma was sitting next to him. “There's still a chance you could get full function of the hand back."
"I am a Federation citizen, and I demand to speak with my attorney.” Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his skin had gone pale. His shirt was soaked with perspiration. He was terrified, and in a little bit of shock. You could almost smell the fear in the room.
“I'm afraid you're incorrect," Graham said with a little bit of a smirk. “You are an enemy combatant. That makes you a non-citizen. You don't have any rights." Graham leaned back in the chair and folded his arms and flashed a sly smile.
“This is bullshit. You can't do this. You people murdered my girlfriend. When the rest of the Colonies find out about this, you guys are going to be in deep trouble.”
“Newsflash. Nobody knows you're here,” Graham said. “If you don't cooperate, you're not going to get out of here. Ever. And I'll happily go on the news and tell the galaxy about how we killed two terrorists that were involved in the Hive bombing, and how we are one step closer to apprehending Ragza Vin Zelcor.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about."
“Of course you don’t," Graham said with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“Were you not roommates with Jason Kaplan your freshman year in college?" Emma asked.
“You’re seriously going to hassle me about who my roommate was in college? A random assignment in the dorm?”
“We’ve got numerous communications between you and Kaplan as recently as the morning of the bombing,” Emma said.
“I had nothing to do with the bombing. Kaplan acted completely on his own.”
“In your communications with Kaplan, the two of you make some very incriminating statements,” Emma said.
"I don't know what you're talking about.”
Emma eyed him.
“Even if I did say something incriminating over a comm line, hypothetically, our communications were encrypted.” Barton called her bluff.
“You're assuming we haven't cracked the encryption,” Emma said.
“Not in this lifetime." Barton had a smug grin on his face. “Besides, even if you could crack the encryption, we both know you can't use the database without a prior warrant."
Emma exchanged a glance with Graham.
"Maybe you haven't been keeping up, but you're never going to see the inside of a courtroom,” Graham said.
Emma's eyes scanned Barton's file on her PDU. “You made three trips to Aldebaran Minor within the last year. A non-federation colony known for its terrorist ties.” She continued to look over the call logs. “Almost weekly encrypted communications over the last year, doubling in the week before the Hive bombing.” She looked up from the PDU and stared him in the eyes. "Who were you talking to?"
“I don't recall."
“Roughly 75 transmissions and you don’t recall?” Emma arched an eyebrow at him.
“You come from a good home. You've attended the finest private learning institutions. You’ve had every advantage in life. So, tell me, how does an upper-class kid like you turn into a Federation hating terrorist?”
"I'll say it again. I'm not a terrorist.”
Emma glanced down to her PDU. “In college, You staged multiple protests on campus, and have openly advocated against the Federation settlement of the colonies in this sector.”
“How arrogant you people are. You think humans are the only species that matter. This is sacred Saarkturian space. We don't belong here. And last time I checked, speaking your mind wasn’t illegal.”
“No. But aiding an attack that killed over 40,000 people is.” Emma's nostrils flared, and her face started to flush. She took a moment to calm herself down. “Maybe you haven’t been paying attention in history class, but the Saarkturians attacked the colonies, unprovoked, and killed millions of Federation citizens during the war.”
“Not unprovoked. We settled in their holy space.”
Emma was getting tired of going around in circles with this guy. “We know that you helped Kaplan acquire the explosive device that destroyed the Hive.”
“I intend to.” Emma's eyes blazed into him.
“Alright, I've had enough of this. I’m gonna ask you one more time, nicely. Then I'm going to resort to enhanced interrogation techniques. And I can assure you, you won't find them pleasant.” Graham was exasperated. "Where is the next attack?”
Barton didn't say anything.
"That's a fancy condo you live in,” Emma said, casually. “Must be expensive.”
Barton glared at Emma.
“According to my records, your parents pay for the apartment."
"See, my boss here just wants to beat the crap out of you. I lost a lot of good friends in the Hive bombing, so I kinda want to beat the crap out of you too,” Emma confessed. “But I’m holding myself back. I’ve been meditating a lot. I’m trying to be a calmer, more peaceful person. Practice restraint. But who knows? I could snap.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to see her angry,” Graham said.
“I’m sure the Navy Reapers would like to get five minutes alone with you right now as well.”
Barton swallowed hard.
“Rest assured, I will dig through the evidence until the proof is insurmountable,” Emma said. “I’m sure you realize you’re facing murder and felony weapons charges based on the items we found in your condo alone. With the amount of weapons stockpiled, one could make a compelling case that there was intent to distribute. Since your parents are owners of the condo, it wouldn't be unimaginable to implicate them as well. While you may not care about your life and liberty, I'm sure you care about theirs. So if you don't want your parents to spend their remaining years in a jail cell, you'll start talking.”
“You people make me sick.”
The house just felt different. There was an eerie stillness about it. Ryan knew something was wrong the moment he walked in from school.
Bill Hunter was sitting on the couch, staring at the TV in a daze—but it wasn’t on.
“What’s going on?” Ryan asked hesitantly. He saw that his dad’s eyes were red and puffy and slick with tears. The only time he’d ever seen his father cry was when their mom had passed away.
Bill broke from his trance and stood up. He staggered over to Ryan and gave him a big hug.
Ryan knew what had happened without Pops having to say anything. Ryan's heart sank. His eyes welled up, and it took everything he had not to burst into tears. Ryan's throat burned.
“He’s gone, Ryan.”
Bill struggled not to breakdown completely. Both of them had a hard time getting words out.
“They’re not saying much. Just that he was killed in the line of duty.” Bill’s voice finally broke as he finished the sentence. Tears began to flow.
“Once they release the body, they’ll transfer him to the funeral home. I figure we’ll use the same place we did for your mother.” Bill was trying to occupy his mind with necessary details. Anything to mitigate the pain. “I’d like you to help me plan the service and get in touch with his friends—when you’re up to it, of course.”
Ryan had such a lump in his throat he could barely speak. “Sure.”
“I love you, son.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
“I need you to stay strong for me.”
Bill let Ryan go, stepped back, and tried to regain his composure. “Colton wouldn’t want either one of us to fall apart.”
But not falling apart was easier said than done.
“It’s going to be okay,” Bill said. “We’re going to get through this.” He said it as much for himself as he did for Ryan.
Ryan nodded. He sat down on the couch and his head fell in his hands. He tried to remember the last time he spoke with Colton. But he couldn’t. He just drew a blank. He had a hard time even picturing Colton in his mind. It was like he’d been erased from the Universe. Ryan felt numb.
It was hard to say how long he sat there for. Time seemed to blur. It didn’t seem real. It was like a bad dream. Ryan felt hollow inside, gutted like a fish. He finally stood up on weak knees and staggered to his room.
He flopped on his bed and stared at the walls. There was a poster of the movie star Sean Finn on the wall, dressed in full battle armor. It was the key art for Devastator 3, Return of the Reapers. It was one of Ryan’s favorite movies, and arguably the best of the franchise. It was about a team of Reapers that went deep into alien space to rescue Federation POWs.
Ryan knew what he was going to do next. It was like an involuntary response. He didn’t have to think about it. The next morning, he skipped first period and stopped at the Navy Recruitment Center.
Badass Navy recruitment posters lined the walls. Images of destroyers and carriers. Reapers in full battle gear. It made life in the Navy seem like one big action movie. Slick Hollywood style videos played on monitors—epic space battles, ground invasions, and plasma cannons.
“Why don’t you think about this for another day?” the recruiter said.
“No. I’ve made up my mind.”
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s in my best interest to get you to sign your life away.”
Chief Petty Officer Stubbs sat at his desk. There was a half eaten box of donuts on the desk, left over from breakfast, and a two liter bottle of soda. Stubbs had a round, affable face and a charming demeanor. He was everybody’s best friend once they walked in through the door. He looked like he hadn’t done a minute of PT since basic. For most prospects, he tried to sugar coat things and make the Navy seem easy. But Ryan’s situation made him a little empathetic. “You just got a heap of bad news. You probably shouldn’t be making a major life decision today.”
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. It’s what I want to do,” Ryan said.
“I can give you an enlisted contract, and you can be on the bus to Biscuit as soon as you graduate. But, with your grades and aptitude, I’d go to college, or the Naval Academy, and get on the officer track.”
“I don’t want to wait for years.”
“Are you sure you want to be a Reaper? Biscuit is no joke. You’ve got to want it. I mean, really want it. I can tell you, when you’re out there freezing your ass off in the middle of hell week, and you haven’t slept in 96 hours, the truth is going to come out.”
“Trust me. I can hack it,” Ryan said, determined. “It’s what I want.”
Stubbs paused, then tried another tactic to dissuade the impetuous youth. “I’ve already met my quota for the month, so I’m just going to say it. Joining the Navy ain’t gonna bring your brother back. And if you run off and get yourself killed, what do you think that’s going to do to your parents?”
Ryan sat a moment in silence, pondering the Chief Petty Officer’s words.
“What were you planing on doing with your life before all of this happened?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan shrugged “My girlfriend wants me to be a doctor. I got an offer to play pro ball.”
The recruiter’s eyes widened. “Then what the hell are you doing here. Go play ball. They make a helluva lot more money than Reapers. And nobody shoots at them. Not to mention the other perks that come with the job.” Stubbs leaned into the desk. “Have you ever seen a pro ball player with an ugly wife?”
Ryan smirked. “You’re really terrible at this recruiting thing, you know.”
Stubbs chuckled. “You’re catching me on an off day. Usually, I’d have your life signed away by now.” Stubbs sighed and shook his head. “You’re not going to leave until you get a contract, are you?”
“You have any special skills? If you can speak a foreign language, you become a lot more valuable.”
“I’ve been studying Saarkturese for the last four years.”
Stubbs grinned. “Impressive. Enlist now, and I can give you an enlistment bonus of 60,000 credits.”
Ryan perked up. It seemed like a lot of money.
“You can always mustang over later if you want to become an officer. But between you and me, you don't want to become an officer.”
“A minute ago you were just telling me to go the officer track.”
“I know.” Stubbs shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely perks to being an officer. But… you'll do three OIC deployments, then they’ll put you behind a desk. You'll be dealing with paperwork and politics. If you stay enlisted, you will be in the fight longer. Which is, I think, what you want?”
“I want a guarantee that I’ll go to Reaper training.”
“I can give you a Reaper Challenge Contract. If you don't make it through BSCT, you don't have to join the Navy.”
“It’s the best of both worlds. If you ever decide to become an officer, you'll know what it's like to be enlisted, and you'll have their respect."
“You’re bluffing,” Barton said.
On her PDU, Emma pulled up a surveillance camera image of Barton’s parents in another interrogation room. She showed Barton. His eyes went wide. Then he clenched his jaw.
“They are innocent. You can’t do this!”
“Then tell us where the next target is,” Emma said.
“I don’t know.”
“Who is your contact on Aldebaran Minor?” Emma asked.
Barton hesitated. “I want complete immunity for myself and my parents.”
His request hung in the air for a moment.
Emma and John exchanged a glance.
“If your information pans out, I’ll see what I can do,” Graham said.
“I want it in writing.”
“You give me good intel that leads me to Ragza, you’re a free man,” Graham said.
Barton paused for a long moment. “Aknar Suspa. At least, that’s what he said his name was. I don’t know his real name.”
“Is he human?” Emma asked.
“He’s part Saarkturian. He arranged the financing for the operation. You find him, he can lead you to Ragza.”
Emma and John exchanged a look.
“So, when can I get out of here?”
“When we have Ragza in custody,” Graham said.
The look on Barton's face was hopeless.
Emma felt light in her seat as the VXR-7 Vantage left New Earth’s atmosphere. Her safety harness pressed against her shoulders and thighs. She returned to the Revenant with the team of Navy Reapers, minus Colton Hunter. The normally raucous platoon was sullen. Not a word was spoken among them.
The UIA had relocated operational command to the Revenant shortly after the attacks. She had plenty of experience with shipboard life during her time in the Marine Corps, so there wasn't much of an adjustment phase. Other than re-acclimating to the cramped quarters and constant buzz of shipboard life.
The Revenant, and the Scorpion, were the last of the Avenger class heavy destroyers built during the first Verge war. Considered obsolete by many, these battle hardened ships had endured where modern warships had failed. They just didn't build them like this anymore. But all of that was about to change.
President Slade was committed to rebuilding the fleet with the finest warships the Navy had ever seen. One of her first actions as President was to commission the construction of a new class of destroyer and super-carrier, built with the craftsmanship and attention to detail of a bygone era.
Emma studied her PDU as the Vantage approached the Revenant and cleared for landing. She tabbed through the pages of Aknar Suspa’s dossier. His last known image appeared on the screen. He was a bald man in his mid-50s, according to his birth date. But his appearance made it hard to tell. He was part Saarkturian, and that dominated his features. He was a big thick guy, with pale skin, though not as alabaster as the typical Verge. His eyes were dark, but still human looking, and his teeth were somewhere in between the the vicious razor like teeth of the aliens.
He didn’t look like the friendly sort.
“Can you believe this,” Emma said to Graham, sitting next to her. “He's worth over an estimated 4 billion credits. Amassed his wealth with a small Vilmantium mine.”
"Nothing surprises me anymore," Graham said.
She continued reading through the dossier, astonished. “Born on Aldebaran Minor. He applied for, and was granted, Federation citizenship.” Her eyes snapped back and forth as she scanned the text. “Suspected of arranging financing for multiple insurgent activities. But there seems to be no concrete evidence of wrongdoing."
“We stay on him like a hawk until we have something to go on.”
“That’s going to be rather difficult from here.”
“That’s why you’re going to Aldebaran Minor.”
Emma's eyes widened. “They are not going to let a UIA agent on the planet.”
“You won’t be going as a UIA agent.”
Emma gave him a quizzical look. “What am I going as, a tourist?”
The Vantage touched down on the flight deck with a slight jolt. The back ramp disengaged and the hydraulics whirred as it lowered. The platoon filed out of the ship. Emma released the buckle on her safety harness and stood up.
“The Federation has an embassy in Mosaav. You’ll be posing as a guard in the regional security office. You’re fluent in Aldebarani, aren’t you?”
Emma nodded. “And Saarkturese, Razurvani, Decluvian, and Xyngalish.”
“Great, you’ll fit right in.”
“When do I leave?”
“How fast can you get your things together?”
Emma rummaged through her compartment, trying to pack economically. She didn't have a lot of stuff on board. Most of it was back at her apartment on New Earth. She just brought the essentials to the Revenant. A few self-cleaning suits, tactical gear, two Bösch-Hauer X229 pistols, extra magazines, ammo, boots, heels, laptop, automated makeup applicator, earbuds, personal grooming and hygiene items, and the most indispensable of her possessions—her cat, a Taura Cepheus short hair named Oscar.
Emma picked up the furry gray feline, and hugged him.
"You've got stay here, you little troublemaker. I wish I could take you with me, but I don't think you'd like where I’m going.”
Oscar purred in her ear.
She held onto him for another moment and sat him down on the bunk where he promptly made himself comfortable. It was his bunk now. If you asked him, Oscar would probably say the Revenant was under his command.
He may have been the ruler of all he surveyed, but Emma was still going to have to find someone to look after him.
Emma tabbed through the messages on her PDU. There was one message she didn’t want to listen to. She debated whether or not to press play, then finally hit the button.
“This is Sarah, with Dr. Patel’s office. We haven’t heard from you, and Dr. Patel would really like for you to come in and discuss treatment options.”
“Welcome to Indoc at Basic Space Combat Training at Black Rock Island, South Coravado. I am Chief Petty Officer Dugan.” His gruff voice filled the transport. He stood at the front of the shuttle surveying the fresh meat. “You will refer to me as Chief, or Instructor. Is that clear?”
Nintey-Five Reaper candidates responded in unison. “Yes, Chief!” Their voices boomed with authority. RTC (Recruit Training Command) had already turned them into sailors. But if they wanted to be a member of the elite, they’d have to survive BSCT.
Dugan wasn’t a meathead, but he was solid muscle. An athlete. Optimized to perfection. Keen eyes and sharp witted. He was here to make Reapers and weed out the ones who couldn’t hack it.
Indoc, or Basic Orientation, is the first real taste of BSCT, and a high percentage of recruits drop during this section. Indoc typically lasts 3 to 5 weeks while candidates wait to class up. The lack of PT in RTC is made up for during Indoc. By the end, the candidates that survive are ready to take on the first phase of Biscuit.
Ryan was eager to begin the challenge. So far his military experience had been less than stellar. At MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), He was investigated for cheating, and interrogated for a few hours. MEPS is the place you go before you ship off to bootcamp. They put you through a battery of tests—eyesight, colorblindness, hearing, etc. You get up close and personal with a lot of people you’d rather not get up close and personal with. You’ll smell body odor on some recruits the likes of which you’ve never smelled before. Not everyone holds themselves to the same hygiene standards. Welcome to the military.
Ryan didn’t miss a single question on his ASVAB (Armes Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). The NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer in Charge) had never seen a score so high and was convinced that he had access to the answers in advance. But after 2 hours of intense grilling, and a review of Ryan’s academic history, the NCOIC finally relented.
Ryan also scored a perfect 4 on his C-SORT (Computerized Special Operations Resiliency Test). The test assesses the recruit’s ability to handle stress. It’s used to evaluate mental toughness. It tests performance strategies, psychological resilience, and personality traits. Those who score 3, or above, have a higher probability of making it through BSCT and becoming Navy Reapers. If you score lower, you could still get into BSCT, but you’d better have high scores on your PST (Physical Strength Test).
Boot camp (Navy RTC) was designed to take the average fat-body off the street and turn them into sailors. You’d learn the basics, like general orders, how to fold your underwear into a 6x6 square, how to put out a shipboard fire. But for a Reaper candidate, it was just an opportunity to get out of shape. There just wasn’t enough time for PT (Physical Training).
The PST requirements for BSCT were as follows: 500 yard swim (in either the combat sidestroke or breast stroke) in 11 minutes. 50 push-ups within 2 minutes. 60 sit-ups within 2 minutes. 10 pull ups, no time limit. And a 1.5 mile run within 10 minutes, or 10:30 in boots and pants.
These were the minimum requirements.
It’s recommended that you surpass these. The PST wasn’t a challenge for Ryan. He was already in great shape. For a special operator, RTC is boring and stupid. The real task is to make it through with your fitness level, and sanity, intact. The real training begins at BSCT.
“When I give the command, you will exit the vehicle in a quick and orderly fashion and take a position on the white footprints. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Chief,” the recruits responded.
“GET UP! GET OFF MY SHUTTLE! MOVE!”
The recruits sprang into action and scampered off the shuttle. Several rows of white flippers were painted on the asphalt, heels together, toes at 45° angles. It was an homage to the old days of Navy Frogmen.
“Move, move, move!” Dugan chased the last of the recruits off the shuttle, shouting in their ears. They filed into position and stood at attention. Dugan paced back and forth surveying the new candidates. It was 0500 hours, and the sun wasn’t even up yet.
The air was brisk. Ryan could hear the surf crashing against the beach somewhere out there in the darkness. Before this was all over, he was going to be intimately familiar with the cold water of Black Rock Island. The toughest military training in the galaxy was located on one of the most beautiful islands on New Earth. A few miles up the main highway was a posh resort area. It was loaded with nightlife, tourists, luxury condos, yachts, and svelte bikini-clad women. The beachfront barracks of the Reapers would be worth a fortune in the commercial market. But they weren’t for sale. You had to earn your residency.
“You have taken the first steps toward becoming part of the UPDF’s most elite fighting force, the Navy Reapers. The Reapers success depends on teamwork, and teamwork will be an essential part of your training here at BSCT. You will live, eat, sleep, and train as a team. Most of you standing here will not make it. But those of you who do will carry on the proud tradition of the Navy Reapers. My job is to find out who deserves to be among the best of the best.”
Of the 95 Reaper candidates standing at attention, all of them were fit and capable. They ranged in size from 5’4” to 6’6”. Physical strength and endurance were key, but mental toughness and discipline was the true secret to success at BSCT.
“This is high risk training. Make no mistake about it. Some of you will get injured. Some training evolutions have the potential for loss of life. We will do everything in our power to keep that from happening. This is dangerous training for a dangerous job. Despite how it may seem, we are not trying to hurt or kill you here. If you see an unsafe condition, you must report it to one of the instructors, or class leaders. Is that understood?”
“Everything you do here at BSCT reflects on you, your class, and your instructors. You build your reputation in the Teams from day one. That reputation will follow you throughout your entire career. You put in 200% in everything you do. You don’t slack off. You pull your weight. If you don’t, you’re going to get a shit reputation. And let me tell you, it doesn’t wash off. Is that clear?”
“It is my job during this block of instruction to get you acclimated to life in the Teams, and to get you in the physical condition it takes to make it through First Phase. Some of you are already wondering if you have what it takes. If that thought is bouncing around in your mind, let me tell you… you don’t. You might as well drop now. Less than 20% of you will make it to graduation. For those of you who do graduate and earn your Reaper pin, life and the Teams can be incredible. Filled with adventure, travel, excitement, and a chance to serve with the finest warriors in the galaxy. But to be a Naval Special Warfare Operator you’re going to have to pay your dues. The price of admission is steep, and not all of you will be willing to pay it.” Dugan grinned. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”
“You had a cracked thermal exchanger," a mechanic said. He was wearing a green shirt and vest that was stained with grease and oil. He stood beside the Vantage, perched on the flight deck, as he showed the broken part to a newly minted Ensign Chloe Johnson.
Flight deck crews were easily identifiable by the color of their uniforms, broken down by task. Air wing maintenance personnel wore green. Handling officers wore yellow. Landing Signal Officers wore white. Ordinance men wore red. Plane handlers and elevator operators wore blue. The flight deck was alive with multicolored shirt crews scurrying about.
“I've seen a lot of these lately. You're lucky. It could cause the whole vehicle to explode."
Chloe’s eyes went wide. “It didn't show up on any diagnostic checks."
"I think the sensor is malfunctioning within the part. Probably a quality control issue at the factory. They just don't make these things like they used to."
“But it's fixed now, correct?"
“Oh, sure. I got a new part in there. But since these are all coming out of the same batch, who's to say how long it's going to last?” The maintenance technician shrugged.
It wasn’t very reassuring.
“Just keep an eye on it, Ensign. Check it visually after every flight.”
“This bird has less than 30 flight hours on it. It’s brand-spanking-new.”
The mechanic shrugged. “It's a highly complex piece of machinery. Things break.”
“You’re not really instilling confidence.”
“You'll be fine. We haven't lost one of these birds yet. Most of these vehicles are held together with duct tape and bubble gum. Be glad you’re flying something that was made in the last 20 years, sir.” It was easy to see he was getting tired of babysitting the Ensign. "If that's all, I've got other birds that need attention."
“Yes. That's all. Thank you."
The mechanic trotted across the deck to another vehicle.
Chloe shook her head. She caught sight of Emma lugging her gear to the flight deck, marching toward the Vantage.
“Ensign Chloe Johnson. I’ll be your pilot,” she said with a bright smile.
Emma had a quizzical look on her face. She looked over Chloe’s baby-soft skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. She looked straight off the cheer squad. “You look like you're barely out of high school.”
"I am. There's a shortage of pilots since the war. Admiral… I mean, President Slade gave me a field commission. I just graduated cadet training.”
Chloe could see the uneasy look on Emma's face. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing.”
Emma flashed a courteous smile and extended her hand. "Special Agent Emma Castle. Nice to meet you."
The two shook hands.
“Well, I’m ready if you’re ready.”
Emma nodded and followed Chloe up the ramp.
“The entire cargo area is yours, or you can ride shotgun with me,” Chloe said.
"Better view upfront."
Emma stowed her gear and strapped into the copilot's seat.
Ensign Johnson powered up the Vantage and went through her preflight checks. She pressed buttons and flicked switches. Displays and gages came alive. After a few moments, the onboard computer gave the all clear.
The Air Boss crackled over the comm line. "Rockstar, you’re cleared for takeoff.”
Emma raised an eyebrow. “Rockstar? The squadron must think highly of you?”
Chloe smiled. "I pulled Captain Walker out of a tight spot in the Robot War.”
“THE Captain Walker?”
“Do you know him?”
“I know of him. He's a legend in the special operations community. He’s currently heading up JPOC.”
“When you get back, I can introduce you if you like?”
“You’re pretty well connected for an Ensign.”
“My father served under Captain Walker in the Teams.”
Chloe engaged the thrusters. The Vantage lifted from the deck. The massive Hughes & Kessler engines rumbled. Heat from ion exhaust distorted the air behind the thrusters. The craft lumbered forward and cleared the edge of the bay. The view of New Earth was nothing short of stunning. The blue orb hung amidst the flickering stars. The sun was cresting on the horizon.
“I’ll have you to Aldebaran Major in less than 9 hours.” Chloe began programming jump coordinates. “You've made a slide-space jump before, haven't you?"
“Good. If you need to hurl, there's a bag under the seat.”
“No worries. Four years in the Marine Corps. Never once had a problem."
Ensign Johnson activated the quantum drive. The bulkheads bulged and warbled. Emma’s stomach twisted in the usual way. There was always an uncomfortable moment of transitioning into slide-space. It felt like being pushed and pulled and squeezed and twisted all at the same time. Like you had reached the top of a roller coaster and were plummeting down. Some people never got used to it.
Chloe leaned back in her seat as the ship’s automated controls took over. “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
“Is this what you do most of the time? Ferry people around?”
Chloe sighed. "Yes. It's not very glamorous. Lots of downtime. But I’ve applied to Advanced Fighter Weapons School. I want to fly Stingrays.”
“You seem like a driven young woman. I’m sure you’ll be flying a Stingray by the next time I see you.” Emma smiled.
They weren’t halfway into the journey when an alarm sounded indicating an equipment malfunction.
Despite the Reapers carrying out few aquatic operations in the age of intergalactic warfare, pool training was still an essential component of BSCT. It was one of the most effective ways to get a candidate acclimated to operating in a zero oxygen environment.
After the class had stowed their gear in the barracks, they hit the pool deck for their first training evolution. They were wearing boots, combat pants, and white T-shirts. This would be their standard uniform for the next several weeks, until they got to wear the coveted brown shirts of Second Phase. Wearing a brown shirt signified that you made it through Hell Week. If you could make it through Hell Week, the odds swung dramatically in your favor that you could become a Navy Reaper.
As Chief Dugan arrived, Yates did the call out, yelling, “Instructor Dugan!”
The class responded in unison, “Hooyah, Instructor Dugan!”
Yates was a medical rollback from a previous class. He had been waiting for his shoulder injury to heal so he could class up and start First Phase again. There were a few other rollbacks in the class, so they knew the drill.
At BSCT, officers trained alongside enlisted. Men and women trained together as well, though there were few women. They were held to the exact same standards, no exceptions. For obvious reasons, extracurricular activities between the sexes were strictly prohibited. And if the instructors found out, both parties would be kicked out of training.
There was one female in Class 276. Piper Parkes. She wasn’t your typical Reaper candidate. She looked like she belonged on the cover of the swimsuit edition. She was a fitness trainer in the civilian world, and was in better shape than most of the guys. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and abs of steel. Why she joined the Reapers was anyone’s guess. A girl like that could have skated through life on her looks alone. She was an engineering major in college and had come to Black Rock on a challenge contract from OCS. The newly minted ensign had caught the attention of the entire male population.
“Give me a report, Mr. Parnell," Dugan commanded.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Parnell took the muster board from Lead Petty Officer Griffin, then reported to Dugan. "Chief, class 276 is formed. I've got 95 assigned, and 94 present. One unauthorized absence."
Dugan smiled. "So, one of you pansies couldn't even make it to the first evolution. That might just be a new record here at Biscuit. Any other quitters?"
The class shouted, "no, chief."
The class hit the deck.
"Give me 20. Push’em out!”
The class counted off 20 push-ups. “1,2,3…”
Dugan marched up and down examining their form. After they completed the task, Dugan yelled, “Recover!"
The class jumped back to their feet and stood at attention.
“Let’s try that again. Drop!”
“Drop!” the class echoed and hit the deck.
“Give me 50. Push’em out.”
Dugan prowled through the class again, looking for anyone struggling. It didn’t take him long to find someone to harass. “My God, Milton, you’re weaker than my sister.”
Milton’s form had gone to shit, and his mid section was sagging.
“All the way down and all the way up, scumbag!” Dugan screamed at the top of his lungs, millimeters from Milton’s ear.
He continued to scour the class for slackers. It wouldn’t take Dugan long to size up the group. By the end of the day, he’d be able to guess, with good accuracy, who was going to survive First Phase, and who wouldn’t.
Ryan stared at the concrete as he pushed out the reps. He could see Dugan’s boots approaching out of the corner of his eye.
“What the fuck is this?” Dugan said with his eyes bulging out of their sockets. He was hovering over Spaceman Gavin Kirby. He was pushing out reps next to Ryan. The two had met during RTC and had become fast friends, and they were bunking together.
Gavin was an outgoing guy, good sense of humor, always quick with a joke. Always had an angle on things. Cocky, but not in a douchebag kind of way. He was a strong Reaper candidate. A little impulsive though, and sometimes that got him into trouble.
Dugan squatted down beside him and lifted up his shirt sleeve to see his tattoo. Dugan’s face tensed with anger.
After a night of drinking, Gavin had decided to get a Skull & Scythe tattoo on his arm. It was the Reaper logo. It was a no-no for recruits. Only people who had earned the title deserved to wear the logo.
“You are one dumb son-of-a-bitch. You know that tattoo is against regulations. I can have you dropped right now.”
Ryan cringed because he had one too. They had gotten them at the same time.
Dugan’s eyes were drawn to Ryan’s tattoo like a magnet. “Holy shit, we’ve got two imbeciles.” He got in Ryan’s face. “You trying to pass yourself off as something you’re not?”
Ryan could feel Dugan’s spit spray on his cheek as he yelled in his ear. “No, Chief!”
“You’re gonna look real silly with that stuck on your arm when you wash out of here.”
“I’m not going to wash out, Chief.”
Dugan burst out into laughter. “Let me guess. You two morons got those after graduation from RTC?”
“Yes, Chief,” Ryan said as he pumped out push-ups.
“Went out and got drunk and did something stupid. I’ve got half a mind to take my knife and cut the skin right off your arm.”
“If that’s what it takes to become a Reaper, do it, Chief.”
Dugan pulled his tactical knife from its sheath. He taunted Ryan with it. “You’ve got six months here at BSCT. Then you’ve got another six months of Reaper Qualifying Training. If you get through that, then you get your pin. Then you can call yourself a Reaper.” He paused for a moment. “I think I’m going to leave you with your tattoo. It’s going to be more painful for you to keep it. Every instructor here is going to be gunning for you because of it. You just made the impossible even harder for yourself.”
Ryan cringed with a heavy sense of dread.
“From now on, I’m gonna call you two Dipshit and Dingleberry. You like that?”
“It’s got a nice ring to it, Chief,” Gavin said.
“I can’t wait to hear you ring out.” Dugan sneered and stood up. He continued prowling.
Gavin was trying not to laugh.
“This is your fault,” Ryan muttered.
“I didn’t make you do it,” Gavin said with a grin. Nothing seemed to rattle him. “You want to get mad, get mad at the tequila.”
“Recover,” Dugan shouted after the class had pushed out 50.
The class launched to their feet again.
“Except for Dipshit and Dingleberry,” Dugan pointed to Ryan and Gavin. “Drop, and give me another 50. You know what, give me 100.”
They hit the deck and started pushing.
Dugan let the rest of the class watch to add insult to injury. Then he moved on to the next evolution. "Because I'm in a good mood, we're going to start out with something easy. 500 yard swim in 11 minutes. It's something all of you should be able to do."
Ryan had no problem with the swim portion of his PST. He didn't think this was going to be a big deal until Dugan pointed out the part about making the swim in boots and pants.
Soaked with water, the extra weight of fatigues and boots made the experience considerably more difficult. Most of the candidates knew there was going to be a lot of water training and had spent time in the pool before arriving at BSCT. But those who hadn't conditioned themselves were already struggling.
Ryan had done some competitive swimming in high school, so he was comfortable in the water. Even still, it was difficult. And the added push-ups hadn’t helped. He could tell he wasn't going to make the swim in the 11 minutes allotted. He had practiced the combat sidestroke before he left for boot camp. He thought he had gotten pretty good at it.
Dugan didn't think so.
"That's pathetic, Dingleberry. You look like a wounded sea gull flopping around in the sand!” Dugan shouted from the edge of the pool. “I’ve seen rocks that swim better than you.”
Ryan kept pulling himself through the water. He wasn't breaking any speed records, but he wasn't the worst in the class either. He figured Dugan was just trying to ride him a little, see how he'd handle the pressure.
“Don't drown, Dingleberry. That would be a tragedy.” Dugan harassed him for a few more moments, then moved on to another candidate. "What's the matter Forsyth? You trying to drown on purpose so I'll give you mouth-to-mouth? Think again, scumbag. From now on, you’re name is Pansy. You like that?“
“No, Chief,” Forsyth gurgled.
“How about Dick Sucker? That suits you.”
Forsyth learned quickly his nickname would only get worse if he protested.
There were safety divers in the pool ready to rescue anyone that was in real trouble. But you weren’t considered in real trouble until you were lying on the bottom of the pool with your lungs full of water.
Some swimmers were obviously failing the swim portion and couldn’t hack it. They weren’t ever going to hack it. Dugan didn’t even waste his breath on those candidates.
Ryan finished the swim in 12 minutes and 15 seconds. Faster than most, but not fast enough. The entire class got a healthy ass-chewing.
"Feet!" Dugan yelled.
The waterlogged class stood at attention.
"That was embarrassing. I know Girl Scouts that have more endurance and stamina than you. You realize we're training you for actual combat, right? This isn’t paintball. We don't hide behind computer screens and send drones to do our dirty work. This isn’t a fucking video game. Tell you what, I think all of you should just walk across the Pulverizer right now and ring the bell. Save yourself a lot of pain."
The Pulverizer was the well-deserved nickname for the asphalt square in the center of the complex. It was where Reaper candidates spent an inordinate amount of time doing PT. If it ever became too much, all you had to do was ring the bell and you were out. If you came to BSCT from the fleet, they’d send you back and you’d have to wait 18 months to try again. If you came in on a Reaper Challenge Contract, you went home.
"Do I have any quitters?”
Dugan smirked. "Give it time."
There was a sense of dread among many in the class. Sometimes the anticipation of the next evolution was worse than the evolution itself.
"Because you have put me in a bad mood with your horrendous performance, our next evolution will be something I like to call Water Bonding.” Dugan had a devious glint in his eyes.
It was an insidious evolution where you positioned yourself on your back at the edge of the pool deck, tipped your head back into the water, then flooded your dive mask. Water swamped your eyes and nose. At this point, you probably got a rush of fluid down your nostrils and started to choke, letting even more water down your esophagus. If you were still alive and hadn’t drowned yet, you pulled your head out of the water and did flutter kicks on the side of the pool with your mask on. Trying to breathe and keep water from flooding into your nose was a challenge. And even in this stage, it caused many to panic.
But this was just the beginning.
After twenty minutes of poolside flutter kicks, Dugan ordered the candidates into the water. They were instructed to form a circle and pass a cinderblock between them, all while treading water. The fluid-filled mask limited vision, and you were almost certain to get a lung of water. This was where the real panic set in. Waterlogged, and unable to breathe through their noses, candidates began to flail about, making the situation even more chaotic. The pool was filled with splashing, gurgling, and gasping. It sounded like the class was drowning, and many of them were.
Three more candidates dropped during the evolution. It wasn’t even 0700 hours yet. They had a full day ahead of them.
Two Marines stood guard outside the President's quarters, as well as two Secret Service agents. One of the agents stopped Captain Walker before he could get within 10 feet of the hatch.
“I'm here to see the President.”
“You have an appointment?"
Walker sighed. He was getting tired of going through this ritual every time he wanted to see Aria. “No. I don't have an appointment.” He leaned into the agent and spoke in a low snarl. “I'm probably never going to make an appointment to see my fiancé.”
Walker was an imposing man. 6’4”, 250 pounds, and solid muscle. A Navy Reaper. A trained killer.
The agent gulped, then stammered, “Sorry, Captain. Just doing my job.”
Walker’s eyes narrowed at him.
“I'll let her know you're here." He tapped his earbud. "Madam President, Captain Walker is here to see you. …Yes, Ma’am.”
The agent stepped aside. “The President will see you now.
Walker scowled at him and marched to the hatch. He pressed a button on the wall and the hatch slid open. When he stepped into the compartment, the agent followed behind him.
Walker clenched his jaw.
Slade's eyes lit up when she saw him. She could instantly see his frustration with her security detail. Thanks Edward. I'll be fine. You can wait outside.”
“Yes, Madam President." The agent slipped back into the hallway and shut the hatch behind him.
Slade slung her arms around Walker and planted a fat kiss on his lips.
“You know, I like dating the most powerful woman in the free galaxy… But can you get these guys to give it a rest?”
Slade smiled. "They're just looking after me."
“You and I both know you don’t need anyone to look after you.”
"True. But it makes them feel useful. Come on, it's only for four more years. Maybe eight,” she said with a wink.
"We should've gotten married before the inauguration."
“Yes, but then would I be President Walker? President Slade-Walker? President Slade?” She was teasing him.
Walker rolled his eyes.
“And what would they call you? The First Gentleman?”
“You’re not getting cold feet are you?"
“My feet are very warm, thank you very much.”
“Just checking. It's not too late to back out.”
“Nobody is backing out. A deal is a deal. Let me get through this transition period, then we can set a date and make this thing official.” She gave him another kiss.”
Her full lips felt like heaven. The scent of her strawberry shampoo filled his nose. Walker's pulse began to rise. "Don't start something you can't finish.”
“I’m the President. I can do anything I want.” She had a sultry glint in her eyes, and her words were like velvet.
"I just don't want the Secret Service breaking down the hatch if things get a little… crazy.”
“I’ll let them know that if they hear me screaming, you’re not trying to kill me.” She planted her lips on him again.
Just as things were heating up, Glassman’s voice crackled in her earbud. “Madam President, we need you in the Situation Room.”
Slade pulled away from Walker and sighed. “What is it now?”
“We’ve had another incident.”
“I’ll be right there.” She tapped her earbud and ended the communication. Her concerned eyes found Walker’s. “Rain check?"
“Come with me."
Slade stormed out of her quarters and marched down the hallway to a makeshift Situation Room. The Secret Service agents guarded in front and behind.
“I really wish you’d take a position in my administration," she said to Walker.
“I’m up to my ears in paperwork as it is. And I hate sitting behind a desk. I'm tempted to punch a superior so I can get busted down in rank and get back in the field. But since I keep getting promoted, I'm running out of superiors.”
Slade would have chuckled if the situation weren’t so grim. She knew bad news was waiting for her in the Situation Room, and indeed it was. The room was chaotic when she entered.
“There's been another attack," Glassman said in a panicked voice.
Slade’s face tensed. Her eyes flicked to the monitors that displayed the carnage. Black smoke and smoldering ruins. Blood-soaked survivors screaming and whaling. News anchors pontificating and postulating.
“The Thomas D. Sparling Spaceport. We don’t have a death toll yet, and no one has officially claimed responsibility. But we’re picking up a lot of chatter indicating Saav Krava. We’re expecting Ragza to make a statement soon.”
“Where are his transmissions coming from?” Slade asked.
“He delivers pre-recorded statements to media outlets.”
“Can we lean on them to reveal the source?”
“He’s likely hacked into UPDF transmitters, then routing through multiple relays,” John Graham said. “That’s what I’d do. Use the system against itself.”
“You find this ass-clown, and I’ll lead a team myself to take him out,” Walker said.
All eyes darted to him. The room was silent a moment as his words hung in the air like smoke.
He said what everyone wanted to hear, but it was the official policy of the United Federation and the UPDF not to target specific individuals for assassination—though it had been happening covertly for decades. It was something that was usually discussed in ways that afforded everyone plausible deniability. But Walker had just thrown it out there.
“I’ve got an agent in route to Aldebarn Minor as we speak,” Graham said. “We believe there is a high probability that Ragza may have his base of operations there. The minute my agent reports back with a concrete lead, perhaps we can revisit this topic?”
“I consider these attacks an act of war,” Slade said. “I am willing to pursue any and all means necessary to bring them to a halt and the perpetrators to justice, provided we stay within the confines of the Galactic Convention.”
“Get wet and sandy,” Dugan yelled.
Cold wet and sandy was a condition that the trainees would spend most of their time in. Every evolution had to be executed with violent action. There was no lollygagging around. You did everything as fast as you possibly could. Upon hearing the command, the class raced toward the surf.
The crystal blue water at Black Rock Island looked like something from a postcard. But this time of year, the water was freezing. Ryan felt like his heart was going to stop when he hit the water. Goosebumps instantly rose on his skin. He felt like a plucked chicken. He darted out of the water and sprinted across the white sand to the berm. He, and the rest of the class, rolled around covering every inch of their body and uniform with the sand, then ran back to Dugan.
He eyed them like a hawk, making sure they had covered every inch of themselves. His eyes went wide at the site of Forsyth. “What the fuck is this?”
Forsyth had a spot of clean skin on his cheek.
“When I say wet and sandy, I mean cover yourself from head to toe. Is that clear?
“Try it again.”
Forsyth sprinted back to the surf and dove in. He ran back to the berm, rolled around in the sand, and made extra certain to cover every inch. Then he fell back in line with the rest of the team.
The wind was gusting off the surf, sending an icy chill down Ryan’s spine. He wasn’t a particular fan of being cold, but he was going to have to get used to it. And quick.
“Okay, dirtbags. 4 mile timed run. You have 32 minutes. Last one runs it again.”
“Hooyah, Chief,” the class shouted in unison.
“What are you waiting for? Go!”
Ryan took off running with the rest of the class. He wanted to start out strong, but was mindful to pace himself. The wet sand was finding every nook and cranny. It felt like sandpaper against his skin.
Ryan tried to find that perfect sweet spot between the surf and the fluffy dry powder of the berms. Finding solid sand to run on was the fastest path, and the way to expend the least amount of energy.
Dugan climbed onto a hover bike and trailed behind them. He shouted insults at the stragglers through a megaphone.
Ryan quickly emerged at the front of the pack. Forsyth was hanging toward the front as well. He was a skinny little guy, maybe 5’6” in boots. He was proving to be a stronger runner than he was a swimmer.
The extra exertion was offsetting the cool air, and the run actually felt good. Ensign Parkes was breezing through it, putting most of the guys to shame. Ryan watched her stride past him. He increased his pace to keep up, running side by side. She intentionally picked up her pace and pulled a few steps away.
Ryan matched her.
“Don’t burn yourself out too early trying to keep up,” Piper said.
“I won’t. Don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
Ryan could hear Dugan in the distance, shouting. “Pick’em up and set’em down, Spencer. One foot in front of the other. I’ve seen turds run faster than you.”
Spencer was the last of the class. Not even a mile in, and he was easily trailing the next man by a hundred yards.
Dugan was thoroughly enjoying himself. “Are you ready to quit? I’ll give you a ride back to the Pulverizer. You can take a hot shower, wash off that gritty sand. You can be on your way back to blowing junior officers in the fleet in no time.”
Spencer had done okay in the pool, but he was falling flat here. Some of the guys just didn’t take the preconditioning seriously. Ryan couldn’t figure what they were thinking. Every candidate coming into Biscuit knew what was expected of them. Still, it seemed some of them didn’t prepare adequately.
They were almost two miles into the run, and Ryan was still keeping pace with Piper. She was too hot not to try and talk to. He had no intention of doing anything to get kicked out of Biscuit, but he could at least talk to her. Flirting wasn’t against regulations. “So, are the rumors true?”
She furrowed her brow and gave him a sideways look. “What rumors?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Probably just talk.” He was making it up. He hadn’t heard any rumors. But it certainly piqued her interest. Ryan paced up.
Piper matched him.
“I don’t think we’re really supposed to be talking during runs. Maybe I’ll tell you later.” He pulled away again.
Piper’s face tightened with frustration. She ran faster. “Don’t make me pull rank on you, Spaceman… Hunter,” She said, reading his name stenciled on his shirt.”
“If you two have enough energy to jabber, then you’ve got enough energy to run this twice,” Dugan shouted through his megaphone.
Piper clenched her jaw, furious.
Ryan was amused by the whole situation, but he didn’t let Dugan see his smirk.
“I’m actually impressed, Dingleberry. I didn’t think you liked girls. If you can call Booby McBooberson here a girl.”
Piper’s face flushed.
“What’s the matter, McBooberson. Have I offended you?”
“You can file a formal complaint, if you’d like. I’m sure the board would be amused.”
Dugan laughed and fell back to harass someone else.
Piper glared at Ryan and ran faster.
Ryan finished the run not far behind her.
Dugan called out the time, “33:20.”
Ryan’s brow crinkled. It didn’t make sense. He knew his pace was good. It wasn’t the fastest he’d ever run 4 miles, but he was absolutely sure he did it in under 32 minutes.
“You’re going to have to work harder than that around here, Dingleberry.”
Piper’s hateful gaze found Ryan again. He had definitely gotten off on the wrong foot with her. Any hopes he had of hooking up after BSCT were out the window.
Dugan made Ryan and Parkes do push-ups until the rest of the class straggled in. Then he made them run the 4 miles again with Spencer, who had come in last.
“This time I want it in under 30 minutes,” Dugan shouted. And if you can’t do that, you’ll run it again. Maybe you’ll learn to keep your mind on task.”
Ryan sprinted down the beach.
Piper ran past him. “Listen jackass. I worked hard to get here. I’m going to become a Reaper, and I’m not going to let anything derail me. You stay away from me. You got that?”
Ryan wasn’t quite as amused anymore.
Piper ran faster, leaving him in the sand.
“I take it that’s not a good sign?” Emma said.
The alarm continued to buzz. The flashing orange light on the display, and the blinking word malfunction, made it clear this wasn’t going to be a routine trip.
Chloe gritted her teeth. “He told me he fixed it.”
“Is it something serious?” Emma asked.
Chloe pulled up a navigational chart on the display. “Alexandria Station isn’t too far away. I think it’s best if we change course.”
“My mission is priority one. We don’t change course.”
“I can’t guarantee this malfunction won’t result in a catastrophic failure. If you want to complete your mission, I recommend we stop and seek repairs.”
Emma pondered this a moment, then exhaled. “Okay. Fine. But keep in mind, this is a top-secret mission. Where we're coming from, and where we are going is not to be discussed. Understood?"
Chloe nodded. She plotted in new jump coordinates for Alexandria Station. The Vantage had to drop out of slide-space for a moment before altering course. They emerged in the middle of nowhere. The inky blackness of the infinite expanse was dotted by the flickering lights of distant stars. There were no nearby planetary systems.
“It's so calm and peaceful out here,” Chloe said as she prepared to make the next jump. “That is, until someone comes along and shoots at you.”
“You get shot at a lot on these missions?”
“It’s mostly pretty quiet, but you do find insurgents out here looking to ambush a transport. And there are always scavengers looking for a ship to raid. They monitor the shipping routes and look for quantum distortions, distress calls, etc. They target supply ships mostly. They tend to stay away from gunships.” Chloe grinned. “We shoot back.”
Chloe engaged the slide-space drive and the Vantage left the empty abyss behind. It was a short jump to Alexandria station. No more than 15 minutes. It hovered in orbit around Kronos 7—a desolate moon that contained a surprising wealth of ore.
The station was dotted with lights and viewports. There were multiple levels and docking bays. Multiple antennas and subspace receiving dishes lined the roof deck of the main structure. The station rotated gently on its axis. About the size of a small city, it was essentially a truck stop in space. There were repair facilities, recreational activities, a large selection of restaurants and hotels, and they even had their own sports teams that played in the intergalactic league.
Chloe opened a comm channel. “Alexandria Station, this is Ensign Chloe Johnson of the United Navy, flying a VXR-7 Vantage. Request permission to make emergency landing.”
“Roger that, Vantage. Proceed to docking bay 34. Do you need emergency medical technicians standing by, over?"
“Negative. But we will need mechanical assistance.”
“Copy that. Look for docking bay 34 on tier 2, 025, your vector. Please confirm when you have a visual, over."
Chloe banked the Vantage around, aiming for bay 34. The bay doors were sliding open. She could see the brilliant lights of the Optical Landing System. “Alexandria, Vantage. Roger ball.”
The Vantage floated toward the landing bay. Chloe gripped the controls, making subtle adjustments. She was on a perfect glide to the flight deck. She managed the transition from Zero G to full gravity flawlessly as she crested the edge of the bay. The skids of the Vantage touched down on the flight deck almost imperceptibly. It was a perfect landing. A far cry from her wobbly, erratic first landing on the Revenant. She had come a long way in less than a year.
“Okay. I'll admit it. You're not bad at this.”
“You can judge a lot about a pilot from their takeoffs and landings.”
Emma unbuckled her safety harness, and Chloe activated the loading ramp. As they exited the vehicle, they were greeted by a station liaison.
“Welcome to Alexandria station. I’m Fritz Müller. I'm told you are experiencing mechanical troubles? I'm sorry to hear that. Have you been to the station before?”
“Excellent. Then you know your way around.” He handed Chloe his card—a thin piece of smart glass. “If I can be of any assistance during your stay, do not hesitate to contact me. We here at Alexandria Station appreciate your service, and will do anything to support the military.”
Fritz slipped away into the corridor.
“Let's get to the MRO and see if they have a spare thermal exchanger handy.” Chloe strolled out of the bay and Emma followed behind her. They marched down the corridor to the maintenance repair office.
Behind the counter was a gruff, round faced man who hadn't shaved in a few days. His matted brown hair curled from underneath his baseball cap. His jumpsuit was smeared with grease stains. Chloe could smell his coffee breath. Despite the caffeine, his eyes were droopy, and he looked like he hadn't slept in days. "Can I help you?”
"I need someone to take a look at my Vantage. I think I've got a bad thermal exchanger, but it was just replaced."
"I can take a look at it, but I can tell you right now I don't have a part.”
“You can’t be serious?"
“Look, butter bar, if I had a part to sell you, I would."
Chloe clenched her jaw. Butter bar was a pejorative term used to denote new ensigns. The term was derived from the single gold bar of their rank device. It was clear the mechanic had prior military service, and had a disdain for authority.
”When can you take a look at it?"
"I could probably get to it in a few days.”
Emma’s eyes went wide. "A few days?"
“Did I stutter, lady?"
Emma dug into her pocket and flashed her UIA credentials. "This is a matter of Federation security.”
"I've got 23 other ships in the queue before you that I have to take a look at and repair. It's first-come, first served around here.”
“Perhaps you didn't understand me…” Emma’s eyes glanced to his name tag, “…Bob. People's lives are at stake. We need to get that bird back in the air as soon as possible."
The man's eyes narrowed. He didn't like being pushed around. “Maybe you didn't understand me. I’ll get to your bird in three days. If you don't like it, feel free to take it to the next station."
Dugan was a tough instructor. But he looked like an angel compared to Instructor Norfolk. The candidates would be leaving Dugan behind as they classed up. Norfolk was just a tyrant. Or, so Ryan had heard from some of the rollbacks. He even remembered stories Colton had told him.
Norfolk was pure hard-ass. He wore the standard blue shirt that all the instructors wore and camouflage pants. Dark hair poked out from underneath the blue Reaper ball cap on his head. Black sunglasses covered his eyes, and a dark mustache filled his upper lip. He seemed like he had a deep-seated hatred for the candidates. As far as he was concerned, Class 276 was just a bunch of losers trying to weasel in on his elite fraternity. And for the most part, he wasn’t wrong. Every Reaper had worked hard to earn their status, and they didn’t want just anybody joining the Teams. Norfolk was desperately fighting to protect the Teams from unworthy outsiders. A slacker in BSCT is one thing. A slacker in combat gets Reapers killed. There was only one way onto Norfolk's good side, and that was through effort. Give it your best. All the time.
It was almost 0500 hours and Ryan was marching with Class 276 to the Pulverizer for Day 1 of First Phase. They had moved into new barracks closer to the First Phase offices. They were going to be under the microscope now. Indoc was for conditioning. First Phase was for making Reapers.
There was an air of apprehension among the candidates. The class had already been whittled down to 75 during Indoc. Lieutenant Parnell was gone, and so was LPO Griffen. Ensign Parkes was still hanging tough. Though Ryan had kept his distance. The two hadn’t spoken since they exchanged words on day 1 of Indoc. It was probably for the best. He didn’t need any distractions. But he did steal the occasional glance, and she seemed to work her way into his dreams from time to time. But the notion of real sleep was about to be a thing of the past. Fantasies of Piper Parkes served as inspiration and motivation for many of the male candidates. A little something to get them through the torturous evolutions.
Day 1 of First Phase had one purpose, and one purpose only. To make as many candidates quit as possible. The class knew they were going to get hammered, and that was messing with some of their heads already.
Ryan stayed calm. He tried to embrace the challenge. Other men had survived BSCT—he could too. Whatever pain and hardship he would endure, it would only be temporary. Once you became a Reaper, no one could ever take that away from you.
Three weeks of Indoc had taught the candidates a multitude of necessary skills. It seemed hard to fathom that keeping your boots polished to perfection with parade gloss had anything to do with military competency. Or covering the seams in your uniform with clear nail polish to keep the threads from coming loose. Or keeping your barracks spotless and free from the smallest grain of sand (which seemed to get everywhere). But it was all part of the exacting attention to detail that the Reapers demanded. It was the little things that could mean the difference between life and death in the field.
Ryan kept two sets of inspection uniforms just in case one got unexpectedly wet and sandy. It was preparation like this that was going to make First Phase a lot easier—relatively speaking, of course.
Over the past three weeks, the candidates had become intimately acquainted with the O-course—a grueling, high risk challenge course that had injured many trainees and even killed a few over the years. It wasn’t just a confidence course. It was specifically designed to build muscle, endurance, and the athletic ability needed to complete missions. Many Reapers who had earned their pin frequently returned to use the course to keep in the proper condition.
The recruits had gotten a glimpse of the Combat Space Simulator. It was a state-of-the-art facility where they would spend more time during Second Phase, if they made it that far. If there was any part of Indoc that you could call fun, it was the CSS. A massive anti-gravity chamber that simulated the weightlessness of space. It was every bit as dangerous. With no oxygen or air pressure, an equipment malfunction, or operator error, could and often did result in death. Ryan was looking forward to spending a lot more time in there.
Bay swims in freezing water had become routine. Water so indescribably cold, you couldn’t feel your arms and legs, and your whole body would lock up. Four mile beach runs had become familiar. Candidates almost got used to feeling like wet sandpaper. They had formed boat crews, been assigned swim buddies, and were learning to function as a team. They had been introduced to the joys of Land Portage—carrying an IBS (Inflatable Boat - Small) on your head. Running up and down berms with a rubber boat filled with water and sand on your head inspired more than a few quitters. McPherson herniated a disk in his neck and got rolled back. Many recruits couldn’t see the connection—how was this relevant to space combat? The Reapers were never going to use amphibious insertion techniques. But they were learning teamwork. Almost every evolution in BSCT fostered teamwork.
You couldn’t make it through BSCT alone.
Recruits also learned that it sucks to be last. It pays to be a winner.
One of the rollbacks yelled, “Instructor Norfolk.”
The rest of the class responded, “Hooyah, Instructor Norfolk.”
Ryan hoped that with a new instructor he might lose the old nickname and get a new one. Or at least go back to being Ryan Hunter again instead of Dingleberry.
The bell rang 3 times, followed by a second round of 3 rings.
Ensign Parkes was now the OIC, and she gave the class muster to Norfolk. “Chief, Class 276 is formed. I've got 75 assigned, and 73 present. Two unauthorized absences.”
The class had lost two candidates on the way to the Pulverizer from the barracks. Metcalfe and Rogers had dropped.
Norfolk's angry eyes scanned the class. He could smell weakness. He was going to root it out and eliminate it. He stepped to Ryan, hovering inches from his face. Ryan could smell the coffee and donuts on his breath. “Well, if it isn’t Dipshit and Dingleberry.”
Ryan cringed inside, but didn’t let it show.
“I’ve heard about you two. I’m going to make it my personal mission to see both of you ring the bell. I never fail my missions. So why don’t you two do yourself a favor now, step out of formation, and go ring out.” He pointed across the Pulverizer to the First Phase offices and the shiny bell.
“Negative, Chief,” Ryan and Gavin said in unison.
“Are you sure?”
“There’s no shame in admitting to being a pussy.”
“I’ll never quit, Chief.”
“It’s inevitable. Just save yourself a lot of pain and do it now.”
Norfolk smirked. “You’re gonna wish you had.”
Ryan clenched his jaw, steeling his resolve.
Norfolk stepped to the front of the class. “You’ve got ten seconds to get wet and sandy!”
The class sprinted toward the surf. There was no feasible way to make it to the beach, role in the berm, and get back to the Pulverizer in 10 seconds. Norfolk knew this. It was indicative of everything that was going to follow during this block of training. Impossible tasks with unrealistic time frames.
The class made it back to the Pulverizer looking like wet sand monsters. The class stood in formation on the white footprints.
“Drop!” Norfolk yelled.
“Drop,” the class repeated. They hit the deck and waited in the leaning rest position, arms extended, ready to do a push-up.
The class began to count off the reps.
“Give me 50.” Norfolk stalked through the class like a tiger waiting to pounce. He honed in right away on the slackers. “You’re sagging, Clark. Straighten up.”
“Hooyah, Chief.” Clark sucked in his gut and tried to keep his back straight. He pushed out another 10 reps while Norfolk hovered over him. He seemed satisfied with Clark’s form and moved on to another candidate. But a few moments later, Clark was sagging again, and Norfolk was up his ass.
“You think you can slack when I’m not looking? Do you?”
“Start over!” Norfolk squatted down to the deck. “I got my eyes on you, Clark. Don’t let me catch you slacking again.”
There were multiple instructors, and they were all getting in the candidates faces, yelling and screaming. It wasn’t long before they pulled out the hoses and started spraying the candidates down as they were doing their PT.
After 30 minutes of PT, Ryan’s pecs and shoulders were burning. His arms were like rubber. It happened faster than he thought. He had done so many push-ups he could barely hold himself up. But he made sure not to loose his form. Come hell or high water, he wasn’t going to give Norfolk anything to find fault with.
Finally Norfolk had the class move to abs. They lay on their backs doing flutter kicks until their abs and hip flexors were on fire. Instructors continued to spray them down.
Getting a mouthful of water while doing push-ups sucks. Getting a mouthful of water and having it run down the back of your nose while doing flutter kicks is even worse.
“Don’t give into the pain,” Norfolk shouted. “Push through it.”
Ryan’s heart was pounding. His face was beet red, and he grimaced in agony as he kept kicking his legs up and down. How long can this possibly go on, he wondered? The PT in Indoc was nothing compared to this.
After the flutter kicks, they did jumping jacks. Then they ran through the whole routine several more times. The evolution lasted about an hour. Thousands of pushups and flutter kicks.
Norfolk had a look of disgust on his face. "You are the sorriest class I've seen yet. I can tell you right now, ain’t a one of you going to make it. You don't have any guts. The first sign of pain and you want to quit. You're going to have to get out of your tiny little heads and suck it up. Most of you have decided to quit before you even started."
Norfolk threw his hands in the air. "I wonder why I'm even here. I feel like I'm just wasting my time." His heartless eyes surveyed the class. "Fassbender you look like you're about to cry. Do you want to go home to mommy?"
"Are you sure?”
Norfolk sighed. "I was going to PT your sorry asses for another hour, but you don't even deserve to train on my Pulverizer. Instead, you're going to learn the joys of Surf Appreciation."
What the instructors called Surf Appreciation was really Surf Torture. There were a lot of things that sucked at BSCT, and it was hard to say what sucked the most. But if Surf Torture wasn't the worst of the evolutions, it was a close second.
Emma caught sight of the mechanic’s UFMC tattoo—the eagle, globe and anchor. “You serve in the Corps?”
“’56 through ’76.”
“You a Devil Dog?”
“Enlisted in ’76. Infantry. Went to MCRD at Omaha Island.”
The mechanics face softened. “Gunnery Sergeant Robert McKay. Why didn't you say you were a leatherneck? I'll get your ship looked at today.”
“Anything for a Marine.”
“You say you got a Vantage?”
“Yes, bay 34,” Emma said.
Bob wrote up a work order and made a few notes. Let me get your mobile number. I'll call you after I see what's going on. In the meantime you can grab something to eat, hit the bar, whatever.”
They exchanged information, and Emma and Chloe left the MRO to find some chow. There were a plethora of dining options to choose from. Various styles of cuisine from all over the galaxy. But it all came from food processors. None of it was fresh. But then again, only the finest restaurants served real food. When in doubt, stick with the basics. Chloe and Emma both scarfed down a burger and fries. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it wasn't bad.
The restaurant was packed. Silverware clinked against plates. The air was filled with constant chatter. The diners were mostly interstellar freight crews, miners, or contractors working on interstellar construction projects.
Emma sat back with a full belly and tried to relax. Every second that she sat on the station was a second that Ragza could plot, plan, and execute terrorist activity. And she was always painfully aware that her own clock was ticking. She had always taken the attitude that her entire life was ahead of her. That she had plenty of time. But now, in her mid-20s, the majority of her life was probably behind her. It was a tough pill to swallow. The reality of it hadn't fully sunk in yet.
The rumble of an explosion somewhere in the station jolted her back into reality. The restaurant shook violently. Plates, glasses, and silverware clattered to the ground. People scattered, trying to take cover. Alarms blared through klaxons. Emergency hatches sealed. It was chaos.
Emma leapt from her chair. The deck felt like it was wobbling. It was hard to stay upright. The shockwave rippled through the structure, then subsided.
“What the hell was that?” Chloe asked.
Emma had a grim look in her eyes. “Let's find out."
Emma weaved her way through the sea of people to the main entrance hatch. A station security guard tried to calm the frantic denizens of the station. Emma displayed her credentials. “I need to speak with the head of security.”
"I'm sorry, ma'am. The station is on lockdown until the threat has been assessed, and the structural integrity confirmed.”
“Get on comms with your supervisor now.”
“Ma’am, it's a station-wide lockdown. I can't open that hatch, even if I wanted to.”
“I'll say it again. Get me in touch with your supervisor. If you don't comply with my request, you will be in violation of Federation law. And I will seek the maximum penalty."
The security officer grimaced. He tapped his earbud. “Uh, command… this is Pearlman. I’ve got a UIA agent here that needs to speak with Ferguson.”
A moment later, Emma was patched into the security network. The head of security filtered through her earbud. “This is Ferguson. Go ahead.”
“This is Emma Castle, UIA Counter Terrorism Unit. I’m gonna need access to all of your surveillance footage. And I need you to keep the station on lockdown until I give the okay. I also need to get out of the chow hall and into the security office.”
“I can assure you, we are following strict emergency protocol, and we have the situation under control. You are just going to have to stay put until we determine it’s safe and reset the system.”
“I’m going to tell you what I told your officer. This station is under Federation jurisdiction. If you don’t comply, I’ll charge you with obstructing a Federation investigation. I’m assuming command of the investigation. Now give me the override code for the hatch, and send a schematic of the station and damage to my PDU.”
Emma could hear Ferguson grumble under his breath. No local official ever liked to give up command to a Federation agency. But there wasn't much he could do. He gave the override code to Emma. A few moments later, the schematics of the station appeared on her PDU. She studied the layout and examined the structural integrity of the station. Then she plotted a route to the security command headquarters.
“You’re going to have to keep the crowd at bay while we slip out of here.”
The guard nodded and brought his assault rifle into the firing position.
Emma drew her pistol and punched in the 6 digit code into the keypad, and the hatch slid open. The crowd rushed for the opening.
“Stay where you are," the guard shouted. "It's not safe for you to leave this area."
Emma slipped into the hallway and closed the hatch before the mob could storm out. The poor guard was going to have a hard time keeping the restaurant patrons under control if they had to stay confined in the area much longer.
Each section of hallway contained people restricted to the area. They all wanted their mobility restored. It was a challenge to move through the hatches without getting rushed, but she managed to keep the denizens at bay—with the help of her Bösch-Hauer P229. She navigated the maze of passageways, moving from compartment to compartment until she and Chloe reached the security office.
Ferguson greeted them with a less than enthusiastic look on his face. He led them to a control terminal with multiple displays. Chloe viewed the footage leading up to the explosion from multiple angles. A civilian Spacemaster™ CV120, small cargo vehicle approached bay 64. As the landing skids touched down, the vehicle exploded. The display screen went white from the bloom of the explosion, then turned to static.
“What do we know about this vehicle?" Emma asked.
“Supposedly in route from Proxima Hydra 5. Looking to charge their power cell and stretch their legs.”
“What about the pilot?”
Ferguson pulled up an image of a man in his early 30s. He had long brown hair that fell into his eyes and a goatee. “Pilot’s name is Max Blomberg.”
Emma ran Blomberg through the UIA database. “No priors. No convictions. He's got a wife and kid back on Beta Pegasi 3. Doesn't fit the profile of a suicide bomber."
“Maybe he had a malfunction within his fuel cell that caused the explosion?" Ferguson said.
“That explosion was far too big for a fuel-cell. You’re going to find explosive residue in the exposed structure. My guess is that ship was loaded with blutrovium nitrate.”
“It doesn’t add up,” Ferguson said.
“Yes it does.” Emma had a troubled look on her face.
Another wave came crashing over him. Ryan got a mouthful of seawater. It flooded his nostrils. His lungs filled with fluid. He coughed, trying to hack out the liquid. Salt and sand filled his eyes, scratching his cornea with every blink. They burned like fire.
Norfolk had marched the class out into the ocean until they were waist deep. They were instructed to interlock arms, sit down, and lay back against the sand while the surf crashed upon them. Over and over again they were pummeled by the waves.
Their feet were facing the open ocean. At least in this position, Ryan could see when the waves were coming, and could time his breath holds.
This was Surf Torture.
This was the part where many recruits said I’m done. It was bad. It sucked. It had no discernible point, other than to make recruits quit. Who in their right mind would want to spend the next six months freezing their ass off, getting abused like this? It was evolutions like this that filled some recruits’ minds with the dread of Hell Week. If day one is this bad, how much worse is it going to get?
It wasn’t even 0700 hours on Day 1 of First Phase, and the bell had rung 10 times. Every time Ryan heard the bell ring it was an affirmation—he was that much tougher than the guy who quit.
The sun was cresting the horizon on Black Rock Island. Norfolk finally ended the Surf Torture. Ryan’s teeth were chattering, and his whole body felt numb from the cold.
“I can make things hard, or I can make things impossible,” Norfolk said. “Keep slacking off, keep putting out less than your best, and you’re going to find your time here unbearable.” His narrow eyes surveyed the soggy class. “Our next evolution will be a 4 mile timed run. Those who cannot complete the run within 32 minutes will be performance dropped.”
“Is he for real?” Silva muttered under his breath.
There was no way that Norfolk could have heard the comment. The surf was crashing, the seagulls were chirping. Silva had barely vocalized the words, yet Norfolk was on top of him. “Yes, Silva. I’m for real. DROP!”
“Push’em out. Give me fifty.”
Silva pushed out a little more than 10. His belly sagged, and his arms quivered.
“You’re not going anywhere until you knock out these push-ups,” Norfolk grumbled. He pulled a stopwatch from his pocket and clicked the starter. “Time starts now. Get running.”
The class took off while Silva struggled to push out more reps. Norfolk began shoveling heaps of sand on his back with an ore to make it harder. Silva could barely handle the added weight. Somewhere around the 20th rep, he stood up and staggered over the berm toward the Pulverizer.
Norfolk laughed. “That’s it. Go ring the bell. Pussy!”
Exactly two miles down the beach, Instructor Finnegan waited in a white hover-truck. As recruits reached the halfway mark, they tossed their white T-shirts into the truck bed. With the candidate’s name stenciled across the front of the shirt, it made it impossible to cheat the run.
Watching Ensign Parkes peel off her shirt and finish the run in a sports bra was the highlight of the day for many recruits. It almost made the Surf Torture worth it. She was definitely motivation to increase your pace.
Ryan finished the run in 31:29. He came in second, 10 paces behind Ensign Parkes.
“Congratulations,” Norfolk said. “You’re the only two that finished in time. “Catch some rest on the berm. You earned it.” Norfolk wasn’t going to performance drop the entire class. Not yet, anyway. But he was going to give them a thorough ass-chewing.
The two sat in the soft sand and watched the others trail in. Ryan didn’t pay her any attention. He stared at the ocean, watching the blue waves crash against the white sand. The waves were big and would make any surfer’s heart race. But Ryan dreaded them. He knew what was coming next.
They were going to have to race the boats against the crashing waves. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but paddling a seven man boat against towering swells was anything but easy. It took coordination, timing, and teamwork.
Ryan’s brief rest ended all too soon when Norfolk yelled, “Prep your boat crews. Rig for sea.”
Boat crews were organized by height, and changed frequently as recruits dropped from the program.
The class scrambled to don their lifejackets and grab their paddles. The boat crews rushed into the surf, paddling out to sea. The small waves foaming against the shore were easy to overcome. But it didn’t take long for a 7 foot swell to topple one of the boat crews, scattering red lifejackets everywhere. Soon, the surf was filled with chaos. Some boats were upside down, some were sideways. Crews struggled to right their boats and get back on track.
Ryan’s crew was in the lead and they were paddling strong. But their boat began to list to the port side. One of the recruits wasn’t pulling as hard. A wave slammed the boat, toppling it over. It felt like a brick wall. Ryan felt a sharp crack against his skull—an ore gashed his head.
Blood flowed, mixing with the saltwater. You could see all the way down to the white bone of his cranium. His vision faded as he blacked out. The power of the wave forced him below the water, even with a life-vest. The chaos of the surface faded way.
Parkes and Freeman dragged Ryan to shore. Corpsman Lambert attended to him.
“Parkes, Freeman… Get back to your boat crews,” Norfolk shouted.
The two recruits headed back to the surf.
Lambert administered CPR, pumping Ryan’s chest repeatedly. Ryan coughed up a mouthful of water. Lambert checked Ryan’s pupils. They were responding properly. Lambert cleaned and disinfected the gash in Ryan’s scalp, then applied a liquid suture gel and sealed the wound.
“What’s your name?” Corpsman Lambert asked.
“Dingleberry,” Ryan said groggily.
The corpsman chuckled. “Where are you at?”
Lambert laughed again. “Not yet, recruit. That comes in a few weeks.”
Ryan managed a weak grin.
“Can you stand?”
Ryan nodded. He quickly found out it hurt to do that. Lambert helped him to his feet. He swayed initially, but regained his footing. His head was throbbing. His neck was stiff and sore, and the pain radiated into his cheek. The impact had forced his neck back and pinched a nerve.
“How do you feel?” Lambert asked.
“Like I got hit by a truck.”
“Do you want me to take you in to see the doc, or do you want to finish the evolution?”
“I want to finish the evolution,” Ryan said without hesitation. He jogged back out to the surf to regroup with his boat crew.
Norfolk watched with approval. Ryan had scored some points. He was exactly the kind of candidate the Reaper Teams were looking for.
"I need you to send someone to check on Max Blomberg's family," Emma said. "His ship was either hijacked, or his family was threatened. He doesn't fit the profile of a terrorist.”
"I'll put agents on it immediately," Graham said. "How long are you stuck on the station?"
“As soon as we get repaired, we're heading out. I don't think there's much to do here. You might want to beef up security on the shipping lanes. I think we’re going to see more hijackings.”
“Security is as tight as it can get at the moment. Everyone is short on manpower and resources." Graham frowned. “We’ve been picking up chatter… something about a Project Starshine. Does that mean anything to you?"
Emma looked perplexed. "No."
“It's something big, but I have no idea what. Could be a target… could be something else.” Graham paused. “Contact me as soon as you reach Aldebaran Minor.”
The transmission ended. Emma addressed Ferguson. "A Federation Criminal Investigative team is in route. No one leaves the station without an exit interview. Are we clear?"
"We’re clear. If it's all right with you, I'm going to take the station off lockdown and allow movement between compartments that have maintained their structural integrity." It was clear to see that he hated to ask for permission regarding policy on his own station.
“I think if you don't, you're going to have massive riots on your hands.”
“I agree.” He forced a smile. “If there's anything you need from me to help expedite your departure, please don't hesitate to ask."
“I will certainly let you know.” Emma smiled back at him.
Emma and Chloe left the security office and went down to the MRO. Bob McKay was waiting for them. “Found your problem.”
“Is it good news or bad news?” Emma asked.
“Depends on how you look at it. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with the part. It’s working fine. But the sensor is malfunctioning, giving false readings.”
“So, we’re good to go?”
“Yeah, just keep an eye on it. You’ll have no way of knowing when its about to fail, except visual inspection.”
“Thank you. What do we owe you?”
Emma smiled. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
McKay shrugged it off. “Ah, really, it was nothing. You be safe out there.”
Emma frowned. “I don’t think anywhere is safe at the moment.”
"Vantage, I have you cleared for takeoff," the traffic control operator said.
“Copy that," Chloe said.
The bay doors opened, and the landing pad rotated until the Vantage was facing open space. Chloe's eyes scanned the glowing instrument panels—all systems green. She engaged the thrusters and the Vantage lifted from the flight deck. It slid forward and crested the edge of the bay.
“Circle the station. I want to take a look at the damage from outside."
“Aye, Agent Castle.”
Chloe banked the Vantage around, orbiting the station. The damage wasn't as extensive as Emma had anticipated. Several bays on either side of the explosion were demolished, and the immediate areas of the decks above and below. The exterior bulkhead was twisted and shredded. Support beams bent outward. Piping and conduit were frayed. The area was charred black.
Emma surveyed the damage. It made her seethe with anger. The attacks were going to spread across the colonies. There was no way to contain them.
Chloe swung the Vantage around the station and engaged the slide space drive. The bulkheads warbled, and the dropship vanished. A ripple of space distorted in its wake.
Several hours later, the Vantage arrived at Aldebaran Minor. It was a brownish red planet, devoid of lush greenery. From space, you could see patches of water here and there, but it was predominantly a desert wasteland. As they approached the planet, they were met by a small squadron of Aldebaranian fighters. The Vantage was quickly surrounded.
The squadron leader’s voice crackled over the comm line. “You have entered sovereign Aldebaranian space. Please state your purpose.”
“I’m Emma Castle with the United Federation embassy in Mosaav.”
“State your position.”
“Part of the regional security office.”
“Is there anyone else aboard?”
“Just me and my pilot.”
There was a momentary pause. The squad leader was presumably checking her credentials.
“My squadron will escort you to the spaceport in Mosaav. From there, you will be processed through customs.”
“Thank you,” Emma said.
“Do not deviate from our escort.”
Emma and Chloe exchanged a look.
“They don’t like visitors, do they?” Chloe said.
“Hell, I’m surprised they even let us have an embassy here.”
The Vantage rumbled and shook as they descended through the upper atmosphere. The turbulence finally settled as they dipped down below the clouds. The average precipitation of the planet was less than 100mm per year. Frequent high winds picked up dust and sand storms on a regular basis. And while not the hottest planet in the system, the plus 100 degree temperatures made it unpleasant. It was far from a tropical paradise.
The Vantage approached the spaceport at Mosaav. It was a sprawling city that seemed to go on endlessly, fading into the desert. The center of the city looked like any modern developed metropolis. But the farther out you went, the more primitive the structures. Slums in the outskirts of the city, with homes that were barely more than clay huts.
Chloe engaged the vertical thrusters and lowered the Vantage onto the landing pad. The exhaust kicked up a haze of dust.
“Well, I guess this is it.”
“Thanks for the lift,” Emma said with a smile.
“Do you want me to stick around until you make it through customs?”
“They’re not going to let a Federation gunship sit in the spaceport for long.”
“I can take off, hang out just outside of their sovereign space. That way I’m close by if you need me.”
“That’s really not necessary.”
“What if you don’t make it through customs? What if they send you right back? If I split, you’ll be waiting a day for another ride.”
“Okay. Fine. If you don’t hear from me within an hour or two, head back to the Revenant.”
“Deal.” Chloe smiled.
The two shook hands.
“Really great to meet you. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed you get into Advanced Fighter Weapons school.”
Chloe’s eyes lit up. “I hope so.”
Emma unbuckled her safety harness and grabbed her gear. She slung her duffel over her shoulder and marched down the back ramp. The wind was whipping dust and debris. It felt like sandpaper scratching against her face. She rushed off the tarmac, into the structure.
An armed guard pointed to the customs processing area. Emma marched down the corridor and got in line. There were at least 60 people in line ahead of her, and things were moving slow.
Emma pulled out her mobile and dialed her contact at the Federation Embassy.
“Special agent Anderson speaking."
“Mr. Anderson, it's Emma Castle. I've arrived in Mosaav. I'm about to go through customs.”
“Great. I'll send someone to pick you up. It should take you about three hours."
"Perfect." Emma frowned, then she hung up the phone.
By the time she reached the customs agent, 2.5 hours had passed. Three hours was starting to seem optimistic. Emma showed the woman her bogus embassy credentials as a security guard.
"State your business.”
"New hire with the embassy. Security detail."
"Do you have any weapons to declare?"
"Yes, I have two service pistols."
“You’ll have to register those.”
Two more customs agents appeared at the counter.
“Please go with them to a processing room.”
The two new customs agents escorted her to a small room. There was a table, two chairs, and what looked to be a two-way mirror.
"Set your weapons and gear on the table,” one of the agents said.
Emma put her service pistols and duffel on the table. One of the agents examined the weapons and logged the serial numbers, while the other agent rummaged through her bag.
“How long are you planning on staying in Mosaav?”
"Until my boss reassigns me.”
One of the agents pulled out his PDU and scanned her biometrics—fingerprints, retinal scan, breath analysis. Then he took a three dimensional photograph of her, and entered her information into the database. He glanced over at the other agent who had finished rummaging through her bag. The other agent gave a nod of approval.
"You'll have to check in with the immigration office every 90 days to renew your work permit. Wait here for final authorization."
The two agents left her in the room. She took a seat and waited. The white walls were dingy. And the overhead light cast a green hue to the room. It constantly buzzed and occasionally flickered. Spending any length of time in this room was enough to drive a person mad.
About an hour later, a supervisor entered. “Emma Castle?”
He handed back her passport and other documentation. "You've been approved for entry into the territory. I would advise you to be mindful of the local laws and regulations. We do not make exceptions for tourists, or diplomatic personnel. You will be held to the same standard as local citizens. And regional magistrates tend to sentence harsher terms on convicted foreigners."
"I'll keep that in mind." Emma grabbed her weapons and gear and left the customs area. She headed through the bustling terminal towards ground transportation. There, she saw a man holding a cardboard sign with the name Castle on it.
He was in his late twenties wearing a navy suit and a cornflower blue tie. He had short dark hair and a day or two worth of stubble on his face. Physically fit. Dark sunglasses covered his eyes.
“I'm Castle,” she said as she stepped to him. She felt a slight flutter in her stomach—he was a good-looking man. She instantly pushed the thought out of her mind. The last thing she needed was to get distracted. Especially in an environment like this.
“Kevin Anderson," he said extending his hand. "Nice to meet you. I hope you had a good flight?"
"Not bad. Technical malfunction. A terrorist attack. The usual.”
“I heard. I spoke with John Graham not long ago. Let's get you back to the embassy."
Emma followed him through the parking lot to his hover-car. She climbed into the passenger seat, and Anderson fired up the engine. They pulled out of the parking garage and into the busy streets of Mosaav. It was a chaotic mess of traffic. Anything with an engine was on the roadway, and some things without. There were old-style cars with wheels. Motorcycles, hover-bikes, hover-cars, trucks, and other commercial vehicles. No one seemed to be paying attention to street lanes or traffic signals. The air was filled with exhaust and the rumble of engines, screeching horns, and the shouts of angry drivers.
"If you're willing to drive in Mosaav, you’re either incredibly brave, stupid, or need psychiatric counseling.”
“Which one are you?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Emma buckled her safety belt and hung on for dear life as Anderson weaved through traffic, driving like a local.
The sidewalks were lined with pedestrians. There were vendors hustling merchandise here and there. The city was alive with energy.
"Watch yourself when you are outside of the embassy compound. We lost two agents last month."
“Saav Krava is targeting our operatives. They were ambushed on the highway by insurgents. Two vans pulled along either side of the vehicle they were traveling in and opened fire." Anderson’s face tensed. "They were good people with lots of experience. All it takes is to get complacent for a moment. Let your guard slip up… boom… it's all over."
Everything hurt. Ryan’s muscles were sore, and his joints were stiff. It was hard to even move. The last thing he wanted to do was get out of his rack and do another day of training at BSCT. But Biscuit was all about doing things you didn’t want to do.
Ryan climbed out of his rack and tried to stretch his tight muscles. His head was black and blue from where he had been clobbered with the ore. There was a lump the size of an asteroid on his noggin.
There was a line of helmets on the ground underneath the bell by the First Phase office. Each one had the class number 276 stenciled on it, along with the recruit’s name that dropped. The line of helmets was growing, and by the end of the day it would be even longer.
Day 2 of First Phase started with the famed O-course. The recruits had gotten the opportunity to familiarize themselves with it during Indoc, but they hadn’t faced a time challenge yet. Today, they would have to complete the course within 10 minutes, or suffer a severe beating and risk being performance dropped. Skilled instructors could do it in as little as 5 or 6 minutes. They made it look easy. It was anything but.
Ryan stood in line, waiting his turn. There were 62 candidates remaining in Class 276. Hollis was the first one through the course. He was a short, stocky guy. So far he had been pulling his weight, and it didn’t look like yesterday’s torture had affected him much. He was tearing up the course until he got to Hell No. His hand slipped when he grabbed the rope. He fell several hundred feet to the ground. Ryan could hear bones crunch from across the course.
At first glance, the O-course looks like an overgrown playground in a giant sandbox. It’s not a playground. It’s a punishing torture chamber designed by sadists. The only way to master it is to attack it with violent aggression. It does not favor the timid. Or the reckless. Like everything the Reapers do, it requires focus and precision, combined with explosive action.
There are multiple stations, each one presenting its own challenge. First up is Parallel Pain—a set of sloped gymnastic dip bars that must be traversed without your feet hitting the ground.
Then there are the Terrible Tires that you have to high-step through. They are excellent at tripping recruits up, and almost seem to reach out and grab you. Perfect for snapping ankles.
Two posts that act as incremental steps lead up to the Low Wall. The best way over is to attack the steps and leap using your momentum to help carry you over. The High Wall has a thick rope on either side to facilitate climbing up and lowering oneself down. It’s tough when it’s dry. It’s a nightmare in the rain.
The Crawl of Death is a shallow pit with logs and low powered lasers over the top. The depth of the pit can affect the difficulty of passage. The trick is to keep as flat as possible and burrow your way through, if need be. The lasers aren’t going to kill you, but they’re going to hurt like hell and blister your skin.
Next up is Charlotte’s Web—a cargo net stretched between two towering poles. It’s an easy up and over, just don’t look down. It’s staggeringly high, and the sandy bottom isn’t going to save you from a fall. The key is to focus on the task at hand. Don’t get distracted by the potential hazard.
There are a set of balance logs that need to be traversed. Then a transfer climb where you climb up one rope, swing and grab a gymnastic ring, then swing to another rope and climb down. A faulty grip will risk a serious case of rope burn, ripping flesh all the way to the bone.
Then there is the Mother Fucker—a set of incrementally higher vertical logs that look like a sadistic version of the uneven parallel bars in gymnastics. They’re spaced just far enough apart so you have to leap from one to the other. The key is to hit the second log around your midsection, balancing on top, then swing your leg up and over and lower yourself down. Quite often, recruits will misjudge the leap and crack several ribs against the top log. That will earn you a medical rollback, unless you keep it a secret and decide to muscle through it. The most common phrase that is uttered around the obstacle is Mother Fucker, hence the name.
The next three obstacles are classified and can’t be described in any detail.
Hell No is the final, and perhaps most difficult obstacle. This is where Hollis fell. Recruits must climb an outrageously high tower with four platforms. By this time in the course, your arms and legs are mush. If you can reach the top, there is only one way down. A long rope stretched at a 30 degree angle to the ground that terminates at a crossbar that you must touch before dismounting. The most daunting part is mounting the rope face first, resting your torso over it and hooking one foot around, leaving the other dangling for balance. It’s not for the faint of heart. Many a recruit has stood atop the tower, looked down and said, “Hell No.”
If you’ve survived thus far, there are a few balance logs, monkey bars, another set of tires, an incline wall, and a short jog to the finish.
Two corpsmen rushed across the course to attend to Hollis. They stabilized his spine, and carted him off the course with a stretcher. Ryan would later learn that Hollis cracked three vertebrae and broke his femur. He was getting a medical rollback, there was a chance his Reaper career was over.
A somber mood fell over the recruits. It was the first serious injury of BSCT, and hammered home the point that people can, and do, die here. Gardner dropped after seeing Hollis fall. He didn’t want any part of the O-course anymore.
Ryan wasn’t going to let anything get in his head. He attacked the course. He pushed aside the pain and gave it everything he had. He made Parallel Pain look simple. He stabbed his feet through the Terrible Tires with precision. His biceps burned on the High Wall, but he didn’t slow down. He slithered through the Crawl of Death. His heart was pounding by the time he reached the top of Charlotte’s Web. He could see the entire island from up there. It was an amazing view, but the high wind made it precarious. Ryan hoisted one leg over the top, then the other, and climbed down. He was moving through the course at a methodical, yet explosive pace. He didn’t cuss on the Mother Fucker. By the time he reached Hell No, his chest was heaving, and his biceps were barking. But he didn’t slow down. Atop the tower, he climbed onto the rope without hesitation, despite the dizzying height. He slid down the rope like he’d been doing this course his entire life. He finished the last few obstacles and crossed the finish line, knowing he’d put in a good time.”
“5:59, Dingleberry,” Norfolk called out. “Unacceptable.”
Ryan’s eyes went wide. “But that’s under 10, Chief?”
“Your brother holds the course record at 4:42. You’ve got big shoes to fill. As far as I’m concerned, you won’t pass if you don’t take that record.”
Ryan hadn’t been sure if Norfolk had put the names together. He hadn’t said anything about Colton until this point. Colton went through BSCT three years prior. As competitive as the brothers had always been, there was a part of Ryan that didn’t want to beat Colton’s record. He wanted to let it stand. He wanted Colton’s legacy to live on.
"So, technically, I guess you're my boss," Anderson said.
Emma looked at him and raised a curious eyebrow.
"Graham is putting you in charge of the operation here.”
"I like being in charge."
Anderson chuckled. "Just watch out for Pinford. You may be in charge of counter-terrorism, but it's his embassy. And he can be a challenging personality to deal with, at times.”
“There’s always one in every office, isn’t there?”
Anderson continued to give her the scoop on Mosaav and little tips and tricks on how to make life more bearable. It took about 25 minutes to get from the spaceport to the embassy. Anderson displayed his ID at the security gate and pulled into the compound.
"We've got on-site housing. It's not much, but better than living outside of the embassy. Well, maybe not better, but safer. I'll show you to your room and you can get settled in. Then I'll take you to the office and introduce you to everyone.”
Emma settled into her new digs. It wasn't much to speak of—it reminded her of her college dorm room. It had a bedroom, small kitchen area, and a bathroom. The view outside the window was nothing spectacular. It offered a glimpse of a dirty alleyway and the grungy neighboring building.
She flopped on the squeaky bed, and stared at the ceiling. There was a brown water stain, and the paint was peeling slightly. It was a rather depressing little room. You’d think the Federation could have sprung for nicer accommodations, but the embassy was built shortly after the first Verge War. At the time, Mosaav wasn't considered an area of much political importance.
She could get used to the crappy little room, she thought. She was there for one reason, and one reason only. To find Ragza. Emma pulled herself out of bed and headed to the embassy.
It was appointed in a much nicer fashion than the dormitories, but still nothing to write home about. Anderson introduced Emma to the rest of the staff. Pinford greeted her with a smile that looked somewhat forced. He was a tall, thin, bald man with wire-rimmed spectacles. It was a rare sight, since most eye conditions could be easily corrected. Retinal transplants, corneal implants, and even synthetic eyes were common place.
"Welcome to our little oasis," Pinford said. He gave her a firm handshake.
"It's a pleasure to be here."
“For a UIA agent, you don't lie very well.”
They both chuckled awkwardly.
"Well, if I can be of any assistance, please don't hesitate to ask.” His tone wasn't exactly sincere. His smile quickly faded, and the next words out of his mouth were deadly serious. “And try not to piss off the locals. This may be a temporary assignment for you, but I'm stuck here for the foreseeable future. And I'm not too keen on getting ambushed the minute I step outside of the compound. If it were up to me, you UIA agents wouldn't be in my embassy."
Emma smiled. “Don't worry, Mr. Pinford. You won't even know I'm here."
He scoffed. "We shall see, won't we?"
Emma watched him walk away. "Is he always this friendly?"
"I told you. He’s an acquired taste."Anderson sighed. "The death of Rodgers and Wilson has everyone a little spooked around here. This place has modest fortifications. We don't have the capability to defend against a full on assault. The thought of getting overrun looms in the back of everyone's mind. A couple of terrorists out there with RPGs, and it's game over."
“The sooner we find Ragza, the sooner we can all sleep a little easier. What leads have you got for me?"
Anderson displayed an image of Aknar Suspa on a monitor in Emma’s office." As you know, he's one of the chief financiers of Saav Krava. We believe he has direct ties to Ragza. All communications pass through Aknar. We find him, we can find Ragza.”
"And you think he's here in Mosaav?”
"I'm almost positive. I've been analyzing all of the intercepts between Suspa and Barton that you sent over. We haven't been able to break the encryption yet, but each transmission has a unique data packet identifier added by the transmission tower at the point of origin.”
Emma looked perplexed. “But the communications were routed through multiple different networks."
Anderson grinned with pride. "We put a virus in the communication network in Mosaav. It surreptitiously adds a data packet to every transmission that goes through the network.”
"The Aldebaranian government will consider that an act of war."
"I make one phone call, push through a code, and the virus will eat itself."
"Does Pinford know about this?”
"Nobody knows about this except for you and me, and the agent who wrote the program—and he’s dead.”
Anderson saw a concerned look wash over Emma’s face. "Hey, do you want the intel, or don't you?”
Emma took a deep breath. "I'll take it anyway I can get it. Are you sure you can erase all traces of the virus?"
"Positive,” he said with confidence. Then he pursed his lips and shrugged. "Well, there are always unforeseen situations, but I'm 99.9% certain."
“So, how do we get to Aknar?”
Anderson swiped the screen and pulled up an image of another man. He looked to be about mid 20s, dark hair, olive skin. “This is Edward Rocco. He’s been communicating with Suspa every few days.”
“Can we bring him in for questioning?”
“We’ve got no legal grounds to do so here. So, we either make a snatch and grab, or we recruit some help from local law enforcement. What do you want to do, boss?”
Forty-three recruits were left in Class 276 at the start of Hell Week. Everything had been leading up to this moment. It was going to be 6 days of pure torture. It was all about who wanted it bad enough, who was willing to do anything to become a Reaper. Perhaps the most common question Reapers get asked, next to, “How many people have you killed?” is about Hell Week. “Is it as bad as they say?”
Most Reapers would say, “No. It’s worse.”
A recruit had died during Hell Week in each of the last four classes, despite every attempt to keep the event safe. Recruits had to go through a medical pre-screening to be cleared to participate in Hell Week. Many of the trainees were pushing through injuries. Some had lung infections. Others had superficial wounds that had gotten infected. If they hadn’t been cleared for Hell Week, they would get a medical rollback. Five days with no sleep and infrequent medical care and a small infection could spiral into something life-threatening. Still, many recruits tried to hide their injuries for fear of missing their opportunity.
Glover had developed a nasty anti-biotic resistant infection around his waist due to excessive chafing and exposure to bacteria in the water. The corpsman didn’t feel comfortable letting him proceed with Hell Week and rolled him back. This was his second medical roll, and he had to go back to the fleet for 18 months before he could try again. He was devastated.
Weeks two, three, and four of First Phase were similar to week one. Recruits did timed runs, Surf Passage, the O-course, Gravity-Log PT, Rock Portage, and lots of Surf Torture. But somehow it seemed easier than week one. It was probably because the candidates were growing more accustomed to it, as well as developing cohesion as a team. But along with medical evaluation, week four brought performance review. The board had to approve each recruit for Hell Week. Those that were lagging in performance, or hadn’t acquired the proper attitude or motivation, were either rolled back or sent to the fleet.
Forsyth never seemed to be able to make his swim times, or master the O-Course. He was a team player, and had a great attitude, but he lacked the physical ability. He was rolled back and given another opportunity to work on his deficiencies. He’d class up in a few months to try again.
Like many evolutions, it was the anticipation of Hell Week that tripped many recruits up. The bell seemed like it was ringing constantly throughout the day leading up to Breakout. As with most evolutions, recruits were kept in the dark about the specifics. Hell Week could start anytime Sunday evening after 1700 hours (5 PM civilian time).
Over the years, Hell Week had constantly evolved. It was never the same twice. The instructors were always changing the curriculum. This class, the instructors ordered them to form their boat crews and wait on the beach until the festivities began.
During the calm before the storm, Ryan reclined against the IBS, trying to sleep. It would be the last opportunity for the next 5 days. But he was too amped up. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, causing his body to vibrate. Gavin Kirby, on the other hand, was sawing logs. He didn't have a care in the world. He could sleep anywhere, anytime. Even standing up. He could fall asleep before his eyelids closed.
Ryan wished he could let go as easily. He tried to take the time to meditate. The Reapers were big on self talk, mindfulness, and other strategies to control their emotional response. Slow deep breaths are one way to counter the body’s fight or flight response. Ryan focused on his breath and breathed slowly. In for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts. But his mind continued to wander.
About the time he was beginning to doze off, Breakout started. It was an explosion of chaos. Automatic gunfire filled the air. The instructors detonated explosive charges that seemed way too close for comfort. The event was live fire. Everything was real, or so they were told. It was a sensory onslaught of bright lights and harsh sounds. The air was filled with smoke, making it difficult to get your bearings. The sharp smell of gunpowder filled Ryan’s nostrils. Hell Week had officially begun.
A cadre of inspectors weaved about the class like angry hornets. Norfolk ordered the class to go on a Base Cruise. It was anything but leisurely. The crews hoisted there boats atop their heads and raced around the compound. Of course, the crew who came in last would have to run it again.
When the instructors got bored with boat races, it was time for Surf Torture. It must have gone on for about an hour. There was no way to tell time. Recruits weren’t allowed to wear a watch during Hell Week. The instructors wanted to keep them disoriented.
The water seemed colder than it had been in previous days. There were corpsmen standing by to check body temperature to make sure the recruits weren’t going into hypothermia. Ryan was shivering uncontrollably. He couldn’t feel his hands or his feet.
The waves kept crashing down, giving the class a beating, almost drowning them with each swell. Some of the guys got so cold they lost control of their bowels. Other guys were puking on themselves from swallowing too much saltwater. You never knew what you were going to get a mouthful of the next time a wave crashed on top of you.
It was absolutely disgusting.
The Surf Torture was followed by more boat runs, then timed 4 mile runs. After that, it was Gravity-Log PT. They were thick metal posts about the size of a telephone pole. They contained a gravity generator inside, and the instructors could remotely vary the weight between 150 pounds and 500. There were multiple exercises the 7 man boat crews could do with the logs. Overhead presses, curls, sit ups, squats, berm runs. They were excellent for destroying shoulders and herniating discs. The only limitation to the variation of exercises was the sadistic imagination of the instructor. The crews had to work together. If anyone was sandbagging, the whole crew would suffer.
It was an insidious evolution. If the instructors were feeling generous, they’d keep the weight steady. But during Hell Week, Norfolk liked to slowly ramp up the weight. The more fatigued your muscles became, the heavier the log. And when Norfolk was feeling particularly devious, Gravity-Log PT was done in the frigid surf. Like many of the evolutions in BSCT, the game was rigged. All you could do was grin and bear it, and give it your best.
The two-mile bay swim in the middle of the night was a killer. It was so cold, some guys forgot their name. Instructors taunted the swimmers with hot coffee and doughnuts back at the base, and many succumbed to the temptation.
The recruits were little more than a few hours into Hell Week, and already many of the them had doubt creeping into their minds. You could see it in their eyes. That little voice in the back of their head that said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
That kind of self talk was the beginning of the end. The recruits weren’t going to get a moment’s rest for the next 5 days. Biscuit was one big psychological operation. You had to keep your head in the game and not do something stupid. In a moment of disorientation and sleep deprivation, with their bodies past the point of what any normal person could endure, many recruits quit before they realized the finality of their actions. Many regretted it the instant after they DOR’d.
If you are going to maintain your strength for an entire week, you needed to eat well and hydrate properly. There were recruits pushing through stress fractures, pneumonia, stomach bugs, you name it. Skin was chafed raw from the sand. Joints were swollen and achy. Tendonitis was rampant. Pain was a given. The discomfort had to be accepted.
As the days rolled on, many recruits weren’t able to eat enough calories. They either couldn’t keep the food down, or couldn’t get it down in the first place. Those were the guys that were going to fall flat. Those were the guys who weren’t going to make it.
Time in the chow hall was the only moment of rest you got. But like anything else, to get to the chow hall was a race. Whatever the evolution was, you had to finish first in order to get to eat. Once Ryan got to the chow hall, he tried to make the most of it. He stuffed himself with as much food as he could force down his throat. He used every minute of time to rest and recuperate, before stepping back out into the fray.
Hell Week was living up to its name, and they hadn’t seen the worst of it yet.
“Why the hell would I want to do that?” Adam Laurent asked. He was a sergeant with the Mosaav Police Department. His face appeared on Anderson’s mobile.
“Come on, the guy has a ton of outstanding warrants,” Anderson said.
Laurent’s face twisted up. “How do you know that? Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
The sergeant pulled Rocco’s file up on his computer. He raised his eyebrows. “You can’t be serious?”
“What… He’s a serious criminal.”
“The only thing he’s got are 15 unpaid parking tickets. I can’t arrest him for that.”
“Surely there’s something else you can dredge up on him?”
Laurent sighed. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this.”
“We’re just having a friendly conversation,” Anderson smiled. “I’d like you to meet my boss, Emma Castle. She’s putting a lot of pressure on me to get results.”
Anderson tilted his mobile to include Emma in the frame. She waved at Laurent. “It’s nice to meet you, Sergeant Laurent.”
“The pleasure is all mine, ma’am.”
Emma smiled and laid on her charm as thick as possible. “It would be so helpful if we could just question Mr. Rocco for a short time. Is there anything you can do?” Her blue eyes sparkled.
Laurent contemplated this a moment. “All right, I’m going to need you to transfer 50,000 credits into the following numbered account.”
Emma’s eyes went wide. “Did I hear you correctly?”
Laurent shrugged. “I don’t know. Did you?”
Emma looked dumbfounded.
Anderson whispered in her ear, “It’s how things get done here.”
Emma reluctantly agreed.
“I’m transferring the specified funds to the account now,” Anderson said, tapping out the transaction on his mobile device.
“Excellent,” Laurent replied. A few moments later, his eyes filled with glee. His demeanor became much more agreeable as he looked over Rocco’s file again. “It seems I missed a more serious offense listed on Mr. Rocco’s records. It seems he’s wanted for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Would you two like to tag along when we pick him up?”
“Absolutely,” Emma said.
“Great. I’ll be in touch as soon as I coordinate the tactical team. It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Castle.” The transmission ended.
Emma scowled at Anderson. “You realize we are breaking about a dozen local and Federation laws?”
“We can play by the rules and keep chasing these guys indefinitely. Who knows how many more Federation citizens will be killed in the process? Or we can bend the rules a little bit and get things done.”
Emma knew he was right, but it was so contrary to the way she had operated back on New Earth.
Anderson’s piercing eyes surveyed her. “Look, I get it. You’re a rule follower. You’ve been following orders your whole career. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… nobody in this game plays by the rules. You need to be like water—go with the flow.”
“Stay here,” Sergeant Laurent said. “And whatever happens, don’t get involved. I'm already going out on a limb for you. It's not going to look good if one of you gets shot, God forbid kills someone."
Anderson and Emma huddled in an alley way just across the street from Rocco’s apartment. It was in a crappy part of town, and for Mosaav, that was saying a lot.
Laurent was in full tactical gear along with a squad of special response team police. It was the ass-crack of dawn, and the city was just coming to life. Pages of old newspaper blew around the alleyway with the warm breeze. The dumpsters were overflowing. The alleyway smelled like stale trash. The sanitation department had skipped last week’s pickup. There were two weeks’ worth of fish bones and chicken carcasses and rotten eggs stewing in the dumpsters.
Laurent readied his team, and the squad marched across the street toward the apartment building. It was 50 stories of low rent housing. You were taking your life in your hands just walking into the lobby.
All Kevin and Emma could do was wait and watch. Emma fidgeted and paced back-and-forth. “I hate this part."
"You're a control freak, aren't you?"
"No. I just like things to be just so. I like to be in the thick of the action."
"Like I said, control freak." Anderson smiled. "Remember… Go with the flow."
Laurent’s squad filed into the building. They were professional, but a far cry from Navy Reapers.
Emma kept her eyes fixed on the building. Carson's apartment was on the 37th floor. His window faced street side, two from the left. Anderson scanned the street and the alleyway, intermittently. Traffic was beginning to pick up.
About three minutes into the raid, Emma heard the muffled rattle of gunfire. Her palm clutched the grip of her pistol. She was about to unholster it and charge towards the apartment building. But Anderson put a gentle hand on her shoulder, holding her back. "This isn’t Federation territory. You heard Laurent. We can't get involved."
Emma clinched her jaw and watched Rocco’s window with the eyes of a hawk. Suddenly, the glass shattered. Shards of debris plummeted down to the street along with the body of an officer. He tumbled end over end, screaming in abject terror until he splattered against the concrete. The impact was hidden from Emma’s view behind a parked car, but the audible squish was enough to vividly paint the picture. She didn't have to see it first hand. There was a dark crimson stain on the concrete that would likely remain there long after the body had been removed.
A moment later, Rocco leapt out of the window on a hoverboard. He looked like a competition surfer as he rode the board’s exhaust to the ground. He carved turns on the wind like they were giant waves.
One of the officers blasted at him with an assault rifle. The officer gave no regard to possible civilian casualties. Rocco’s zigzagging descent made him a difficult target to hit. Bullets streaked through the air, whizzing past him. The bullets impacted the concrete, spraying chips of debris.
Rocco carved a turn and aimed his pistol back toward his apartment. He squeezed the trigger several times. A flurry of rounds ripped through the air, one of them exploding the skull of an officer. It was an incredible shot. Either Rocco got lucky, or he was one helluva marksman.
The officer’s body slumped over the windowsill, oozing blood from his cranium. It looked like the body was just going to hang there, but a moment later, his top-heavy mass pulled him over the ledge.
Emma heard another, bigger squishing sound as the officer’s body slammed against the sidewalk.
Rocco had reached street level and was heading east.
Before Anderson could say anything, Emma was sprinting after Rocco. Horns honked as she darted into traffic, crossing the street. She almost got mowed over a few times by hover-cars.
She sprinted down the sidewalk after Rocco, weaving through pedestrians. There was no way she was going to catch up with him. He was moving much too fast on the hoverboard. Her chest heaved and she was sucking wind. Her quads burned with lactic acid. She wasn't going to quit running until her legs gave out from underneath her.
Rocco ducked into an alleyway, heading north. By the time Emma reached the turn, Rocco was at the other end of the alley, making a left. He disappeared around the corner.
"Get in!" Anderson yelled through the window of his hover-car as he pulled alongside Emma.
Emma leapt inside. Anderson punched it before she could even close the door. He blazed down the street and took the first right, then the next left.
"Well, that could have gone better,” Anderson said. They were going to be in a world of shit if this got back to Pinford.
Emma caught sight of Rocco weaving through pedestrians on the sidewalk. “There!”
Anderson accelerated, pulling up to Rocco. They raced along the roadway. There were rows of parked cars in between them. At the next corner, Anderson turned the wheel and drove the hover-car onto the sidewalk, cutting off Rocco. He smacked into the right quarter panel with his knees, and tumbled over the hood, smacking the concrete in the middle of the intersection.
The impact slammed all the air out of his lungs. By the time he realized what hit him, Emma was hovering over him with her pistol in his face. Rocco was wailing in agony. His kneecaps were shattered. His eyes glossed over, and tears of pain were seeping from the corners. Emma could see his desire to reach for his gun, but that was lying next to the curb by the storm drain, 20 feet away.
It was Thursday, and Ryan was having a hard time. His stomach was roiling. He couldn’t keep anything down. Even when his stomach was empty, his body was trying to hurl. He felt weak and shaky. He had maybe gotten a half hour of sleep in the last four days. He was lightheaded and dizzy, and he had the cough of a 20 pack a day smoker.
He was in the chow hall, trying to stuff some food down his throat. But it didn’t want to go down. It was like his body had forgotten how to swallow. And what he did get down came right back up the minute he stepped out of the chow hall onto the Pulverizer. The green chunky fluid splattered on the asphalt. By this point in Hell Week, it wasn’t an uncommon sight.
After each meal, the recruits were required to stop by the medical facility and get evaluated by the corpsman. Ryan was dreading it. He was sick enough for a medical rollback. He sucked it up and put on his best face as he entered the facility.
“How you feeling?” Lambert asked.
“I feel great.”
“You eating okay?”
Lambert did a bio scan with his PDU. He passed the device over Ryan’s chest and it gave a 3-D image of his thoracic cavity. All of his vital organs and bones were visible. The corpsman could zoom into particular areas and see indications of infection, edema, stress fractures, herniated discs, etc.
He scanned Ryan’s entire body. After he was finished, he gave Ryan a grim look. “You’ve got a serious case of pneumonia. You’ve got stress fractures in both your legs.”
“You’ve also got a particularly nasty strain of Norovirus. Have you been experiencing any vomiting?”
Lambert’s skeptical eyes surveyed him. “With this stage of pneumonia, and the viral load you’re carrying around, you ought to be incapacitated.”
“I feel fine. I swear.” Ryan looked like he was about to spew, but he held it back.
“I don’t feel comfortable letting you go back out there.”
Ryan’s whole body tensed. “I’m going back out there. Give me a shot or something.”
“I’ve already given you a heavy dose of antibiotics and antivirals.”
“Give me more.”
Lambert pursed his lips, pondering what to do.
“Come on, Lambert. You can’t med-roll me. Not now.” Ryan pleaded with him. “It’s two more days. I can make it two more days.”
Lambert was silent for a long moment. “Alright. I’m going to give you something for the nausea and dizziness. You won’t be able to throw up, even if you wanted to. I’m also going to give you a long-acting regenerative compound. That will help your body recover faster. I’m giving you one more dose of antibiotics and antivirals. But that’s it. If you don’t show improvement by your next scan, I’m pulling you.”
Ryan grinned. “You’re the best, Lambert.”
“That’s why I get paid the big bucks.”
The two chuckled.
Lambert gave Ryan a series of injections in his arm, then sent him on his way.
Ryan dashed into the brisk night air and sprinted down to the beach to regroup with his boat crew. The class of 43 was down to 21 now. Boat crews had been reorganized several times due to the attrition. Gavin and Ensign Parkes were still hanging tough. They had been consolidated into the same boat crew with Ryan.
The instructors rotated out every eight hours, so there was always a fresh crew to harass the recruits. Instructors from all phases of BSCT were involved. Dugan was waiting for the recruits on the beach. "Well, reunited at last.” Dugan grinned. "Push’em out."
The recruits dropped to the sand and did push-ups with their feet up on the boat. After they had sufficiently worn out their upper body, Dugan made them go on the Base Cruise—racing around the base with the boats overhead. But this time they had to do it taking lunge steps, bringing a knee all the way to the ground.
Ryan’s quads, hips, and knees ached. With each step, his kneecap smashed against the ground. It didn’t take long to tear through his fatigues, and his outer layer of skin. The uneven height of the boat crew added an additional layer of difficulty. Boat crews had been originally assigned by height, now there was a miss-match of short and tall recruits in each crew.
The winners of the race, if you could call them that, got to stay on the beach doing PT while the others raced again. There were no real winners during Hell Week.
After several races, Dugan put the recruits into the surf for more torture. The water was 55 degrees. At that temperature he could keep them in there for roughly 12 minutes. For the recruits, it seemed like an eternity.
By the end of the Surf Torture, Ryan was chilled to the bone. His arms and legs were numb, and his body was shaking uncontrollably. The medication had stopped his vomiting, but he was still hacking up green goop from his lungs. One more of the trainees decided that he had enough. Stu Atkins staggered out of the surf and shivered his way to Dugan.
“Are you sure?” Dugan asked. “You’ve only got two days left.”
“I can’t take another two minutes.”
“This evolution is almost over. The O-course is next. Get through that, then make up your mind.”
Atkins stood there for a long moment. He was a good recruit. Dugan hated to see him go.
Atkins finally stammered out an answer. “Okay.” He trudged back into the surf and finished the evolution.
By the time Ryan got to the obstacle course, his arms and legs felt like wet noodles. He tried to attack the course again with violent aggression, like he had done in the evolutions leading up to Hell Week. But he, and the rest of the recruits, lacked the strength and energy. What had seemed relatively easy for him was now a slog.
Parallel Pain lived up to its name. His legs felt like mush as he scaled the Low Wall. His biceps burned on the High Wall. By the time he reached Hell No, his heart was pounding in his chest, and the world was spinning. He looked up at the towering structure. There was no way he was going to be able to make it to the top. His upper body strength was gone. The terrible seed of doubt creeped into his mind.
A crowd of onlookers were starting to gather. Emma rolled Rocco over and cuffed his hands behind his back and searched his pockets for contraband. She took his mobile device, a pair of keys, his wallet, and some loose change. Then she grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into the car. She threw him in the backseat and crawled in alongside him. She kept her pistol aimed at his head. She pulled her door shut and Anderson sped away.
"Who are you people? " Rocco asked. "You're not cops."
"Shut up," Emma barked.
"I need medical attention."
"If you don't shut up, you're going to need a lot more of it.”
Anderson raced through the streets of the city, weaving in and out of traffic. He pulled his mobile from his pocket and dialed Laurent. It rang a few times and went to voicemail. "Call me when you get a chance. We have the package."
"Oh, so I'm a package? Who do you people work for?” Rocco’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the two of them. "You guys are intelligence. But you're not from Mosaav.” His eyes lit up as he had an epiphany. "So the UIA sent agents all the way to Aldebaran. That's interesting. I know you're not getting cooperation from our government. So, what's your connection to the MPD?"
"You seem like a smart guy," Emma said. "I'm sure you realize by now that we're not taking you to jail."
"That's good. I hate jail. I hate cops for that matter."
"We are taking you somewhere much worse.”
Anderson glanced in the rear view mirror at Rocco. "We're not supposed to be here. So that means we don't have to play by any rules."
"You're not going to get shit out of me."
Anderson grinned. "We’ll see about that."
"What happened back there in the apartment?" Emma asked.
"Bunch of dead cops, that's what happened." Rocco had no remorse.
"Under my seat there's a black bag,” Anderson said. “Place it over the scumbag’s head."
Emma leaned forward, keeping her pistol aimed at Rocco. She felt underneath the seat until her fingers brushed across a fabric bag. She pulled it out and draped it over Rocco’s head.
Anderson drove to a UIA black site. It was an unacknowledged location. Pinford didn't know about it.
It was an old warehouse in an industrial district. The perimeter was lined with a tall concrete wall topped with concertina wire. A faded logo was painted on the side of the beige wall that read M&J Fabrication. The paint was peeling and cracking.
Anderson pressed the remote attached to his keychain, and the front gate slid open. He pulled into the compound and parked in front of the structure. From the street, it was impossible to see inside the compound. The main structure looked abandoned. Broken, milky windows were scattered about.
Emma and Anderson dragged Rocco inside the building as fast as they could. It was dark and dusty, and there were still old invoices littering the floor. One of them was dated 2367. This place hadn’t been operational in quite some time. There was an office area with modern computer terminals and communication equipment. It stuck out like a sore thumb against the rest of the dilapidated interior. The place smelled like mold and rust. Toward the back of the building, there were makeshift holding cells that lined the walls. Anderson had used the site to interrogate suspects on more than one occasion.
"Is this the part where you beat me until I tell you something useful?" Rocco asked.
"No,”Anderson said. "I have no intention of using primitive, barbaric methods of torture.” He pulled the black bag from Rocco's head.
Rocco's eyes frantically darted around the room, trying to get his bearings.
Anderson held up a neural ring so Rocco could see it. “I don’t need to explain to you how this works, do I?”
Rocco’s eyes grew wide with fear.
Anderson placed the ring on his head. The connection points rested against his temples. "I find this method a much easier form of torture. And it doesn’t leave any marks.”
Rocco swallowed hard. The neural ring could stimulate the brain directly, flooding the body with pain signals. You could dial in the most extreme pain a person had ever felt, all from an app on your mobile device.
"You're in a lot of trouble right now,” Anderson said. “If we just let you walk out of here, you think the MPD is going to go easy on you after you killed several cops?” Anderson scoffed. “Not a chance. My money says you end up in a dumpster somewhere. You won’t even go to trial.”
“If you cooperate, we might be able to get you off the planet,” Emma said.
“I can take care of myself. And both of you are dead the first opportunity I get.”
“You really should learn better negotiating skills,” Anderson said as he activated the neural ring. He dialed in the pain intensity on his mobile.
Rocco shrieked in agony. His body twitched and convulsed. He flopped to the grimy floor. His eyes rolled into the back of his skull, leaving nothing but the scleras visible. He looked like a zombie.
Anderson let him writhe on the floor for about a minute, then he pressed a button on his mobile and discontinued the pain impulses.
Rocco gasped for breath.
Anderson knelt down beside him and smiled. “That was a 1 out of 10 on the pain scale. How high do you think you can go? I’ve never had anybody make it above five without dying. Most people talk by the end of the second setting. You can save yourself a lot of pain by just telling us what we want to know.”
Rocco looked like his brain was fried already.
“Where is Aknar Suspa?”
Fuck it, I’m not letting this evolution beat me, Ryan thought. He summoned all his determination and strength. He refocused his mind. One challenge at a time. One evolution at a time. All he had to do was jump up, grab the wooden plank, swing his leg over, and pull himself up to the first platform. Nothing else mattered—just getting to the first platform. He’d worry about the rest when he got there.
He moved up the tower from platform to platform, taking it one step at a time. When he reached the top, he was exhausted. His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest. He was gasping for air. His lungs were still filled with fluid. But there was a surprise in store for him.
The platform at the top of Hell No had been loaded with goodies. Candy bars, exercise recovery drinks, anti-inflammatories, Revitalize™ regenerative pills, PowerMax™ performance enhancing energy boosters—everything a Hell Week candidate would need. There was enough there for all 21 members of the class.
Ryan smiled. It was a gift from the heavens. He wasn’t sure if Dugan had put it there, or some sympathetic Reaper had taken pity on the recruits. Since his visit to the medical facility, his stomach had been feeling a little better, and his appetite was increasing. He guzzled down the recovery drink, and chewed down a candy bar. Then he popped the pills out of their blister packets, and washed them down.
The Revitalize was a good booster to the regenerative shot he’d been given by Lambert. And the PowerMax was a staple of Reapers in the field. It boosted mental, physical, and visual acuity. It was fast acting. Within minutes you could feel the surge of energy. It was jitter free and didn’t have a harsh come down.
Technically, it wasn’t allowed during Hell Week, but the instructors often turned a blind eye. Reapers were notorious for running covert ops during Hell Week to support the recruits, stashing goodies like this in random locations.
Ryan grabbed the rope atop the tower, and began the treacherous slide down. By the time he reached the ground he was feeling pretty good.
After the evolution, it was back to the water for more Surf Torture. Then it was time to go on an Island Cruise. The boat crews would have to paddle out beyond the surf, dump the boat and flip it back over, then paddle all the way around Black Rock Island.
Ryan’s boat crew consisted of Parkes, Kirby, Matthews, Alvarez, Cimo, and Burns. While the thought of paddling around the island sucked, they quickly realized they were going to be spending large swaths of time away from the watchful eyes of the instructors. There were checkpoints at various locations around the island where they would have to stop and get harassed by an instructor. But in between the checkpoints, they were on their own.
They paddled past luxury mansions and high-rise condos. Ocean Avenue ran along the beach and circled the island. From 6th to 18th Street was known as the Strip, and there were dozens of nightclubs on the beach. Music echoed onto the water. Girls were drinking and dancing. Revelers watched trainees paddle by from the various piers.
It seemed unreal. Here were all these people partying and having a good time, and the trainees were going through hell. All the boat crew would have to do was pull onto the shore, stroll into a bar, and grab a beer. Ryan figured the primary purpose of the Island Cruise was another PSY-OP to get you to quit.
But it wasn’t all bad. As they passed one of the piers, revelers tossed them bottled water, candy bars, and somebody even tossed a couple bottles of beer. Ryan and the rest of the crew knew better than to drink alcohol during Hell Week. They were already fighting dehydration. Alcohol would make it worse.
A few of the girls pulled off their tops and jiggled for motivation. But it was probably counterproductive. All it did was inspire thoughts of quitting.
“I say we stop here,” Gavin Kirby said with wide eyes, almost breaking his neck as the boat drifted past the pier. The two scantily clad blondes were enticing. “This is a checkpoint, right?”
“No, Kirby, this is not a checkpoint,” Parkes said. “Keep paddling.”
The instructors knew civilians often assisted the trainees, and as long as it didn't cross the line they let it slide. If someone had pulled up in a speedboat and tossed out at towline, that would have been a different story.
Matthews was passed out in the center of the boat. The crew had been taking turns catching cat naps.
Ryan's boat crew was the first to arrive at the first checkpoint. Like everything else during Hell Week, the Island Cruise was a race. Instructor Hanson ordered them out of their boat for a little Gravity Log PT.
Ryan shoulders were aching from paddling the boat. The overhead presses with the gravity log wasn't helping anything. Instructor Hanson set the weight so high on the log that the seven recruits could barely lift it. Their faces were red, and their veins bulged as they pumped out reps.
Another boat crew reached the checkpoint, and Instructor Hanson let them pass without any PT. It didn't seem fair, but nothing during Hell Week was.
Rocco didn’t last a minute into the second pain setting. “Okay. Okay. I will set up a meeting with Aknar.”
“I knew you were a reasonable individual,” Anderson said. He looked down at the pathetic hunk of meat Rocco had become. He was curled into a ball on the floor. He was drooling from the pain. His face was flush, and his skin was dripping with sweat.
“Hey, don’t I get medical attention now?”
“After you setup the meeting,” Anderson said.
“I’m supposed to meet with him Friday.”
"You're going to call him, and set something up now,” Emma said. She knelt down beside him and pulled the phone she had taken from him out of her pocket. She scrolled through the contact list until she found Aknar's information.
"If I change the details of our meeting, he'll get suspicious."
Emma’s eyes flicked to Anderson. She could see he didn't like the idea of waiting until Friday, but Rocco had a point.
"If you’re lying to us, it's not going to end well for you," Anderson said.
"I'm not lying. I swear."
Emma pulled out her mobile device and tabbed through a few screens and launched a voice stress analyzer app. ”I’m going to ask you several baseline questions. What's your name?”
The application recorded his voice, and the digital waveform appeared across the screen like a mountain range. It was bright orange in color. Emma marked the answer as truthful, and the waveform turned green. “What city are we currently in?"
Again, she marked the answer as truthful.
"Did you kill, or cause any police officers to be killed today?"
"I'm going to need to consult with my attorney before I answer that question." He was partly being a smart ass.
"If you want to keep breathing, you’ll answer the question."
"Yes." His cold eyes glared at her.
“I want you to tell me again when you’re meeting with Aknar.”
"Like I told you. I meeting with him Friday. Noon. At the Plaza Drakuur.”
The program analyzed his speech. After a moment, the peaks and valleys of the digital waveform turned green.
“Looks like he's telling the truth,” Emma said. “Probably a first for him."
“I’m an honest guy,” Rocco said with a smile. But his eyes told a different story.
“What is Project Starshine?”
Rocco’s face went blank. “I don’t know.”
The waveform on Emma’s mobile stayed orange, and the display flashed inconclusive.
“What do you know about Project Starshine?”
“I don’t know anything,” Rocco forced another innocent smile.
The waveform turned red. The display flashed probable false statement.
Emma glanced to Anderson.
“Do you want to try out level 3?” Anderson threatened.
Rocco’s face was slick with sweat. Fear was creeping into his eyes. “I’m telling you, I don’t know anything about it.”
Emma saw the red waveform on her mobile and nodded to Anderson. He activated the neural ring. Rocco squealed in agony. His body contorted, and his hands seized up like a decrepit old witch.
“Alright, alright,” Rocco gasped.
Anderson deactivated the device.
Rocco tried to catch his breath. Then stammered, “I don’t know details. It has something to do with the scientist.”
Emma looked at the green waveform on her mobile. Rocco was telling the truth. “Metzger?”
“What’s your involvement?”
Emma glanced to Anderson again.
“Okay, okay,” Rocco yelled, trying to avoid more pain. “Suspa wants me to find weapons grade Urontium.”
“Dirty bomb?” Emma asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not in the loop.”
The waveform was green.
“Doesn’t make sense,” Anderson said. “There are easier ways to make a dirty bomb. And I can guarantee Saav Krava doesn’t have the capability to fully utilize Urontium. That’s high level shit.”
“Maybe that’s what Metzger is for?”
“The yield on a Urontium bomb would be incredible. But still, there are better weapons available.”
Anderson reached down and grabbed Rocco. He pulled the terrorist into a holding cell. He backed out of the room and pressed a button on the wall, activating the force shield. A glowing blue beam sealed the chamber.
Anderson’s eyes glanced to Emma. “You hungry? I’m starving.”
“I know a great little Bosatrian restaurant in the financial district.”
“What about him?”
“He’ll be fine,” Anderson said without a trace of concern.
“I’m hungry,” Rocco said.
“I’ll leave you with a bowl of dog food.”
Eddie’s face twisted up. “Oh, hell no. You can’t leave me in here like this with no food or water.”
“Get water out of the tap.” Anderson pointed to the small sink next to the toilet.
“This is inhumane.”
“So is blowing up civilian buildings.”
“I didn’t do shit, man.”
“I ain’t never killed no one who didn’t deserve it.”
Emma arched an eyebrow. “Really? I suppose those cops today got what they deserved?”
“It was their fault for hassling me,” Rocco said casually.
Emma scoffed, then looked to Anderson. “Let’s go eat.”
Rocco continued to moan and complain as Anderson and Emma left the building.
“Are we really just going to leave him in there until Friday?” Emma asked as she opened the passenger door.
“If you’ve got a better place to keep him, let me know.”
Emma slid into the passenger seat, and Anderson cranked up the engine.
“Don’t worry,” Anderson said. “I’ll bring him some takeout and send Hudson and Dixon to look after him.”
Anderson pulled out of the compound and drove to the financial district. The restaurant was a small little sidewalk café, and judging by the way the hostess greeted Anderson, Emma could tell he was a regular. She led them to his usual table. Anderson didn't even look at the menu, he already knew what he wanted.
"What's good here?"
"Everything," Anderson said. "Best restaurant in the city, in my humble opinion."
"You order for me. I trust your judgment."
"You must be feeling mighty brave today."
"Well, you know, chasing bad guys emboldens me."
Anderson ordered for both of them, and the waitress returned momentarily with their drinks.
The restaurant was crowded and had a constant inflow of patrons. Light chatter filled the air, and the sounds of the city filtered in through the open air patio. It was hot and dusty, but that was just something you learned to live with in Mosaav. But Emma hadn't quite gotten used to it just yet.
"How long have you lived here?"
"Little over a year," Anderson said. "I'm not going to say you'll grow to like it, but you'll learn to tolerate it.”
"It's certainly an adjustment." Emma kept scanning the restaurant, as well as the sidewalk. She made sure to make note of the entrances and exits. She kept an eye on the front door. She was formulating a contingency plan in case something went wrong. It was what all good field agents did on a constant basis. Anderson was probably doing the same thing. She knew exactly where she was going to go, and what she was going to do, if bullets started flying. She wondered if she would ever be able to sit in a public space and not automatically go through those defensive contingencies.
“Why were Rodgers and Wilson killed?"
"They were targeted when Saav Krava discovered they were UIA."
"And you think coming to the same restaurant on a regular basis is a good idea?”
"Okay. You got me. Maybe this isn’t the most brilliant of ideas. But most of the food in this town sucks. And I get tired of what they try to pass off as a meal in the embassy.”
"So the food here is worth dying for?"
Anderson shrugged. “It's pretty damn good."
Another boat crew came and went, and now Ryan and his crew were doing sit ups with the gravity log in the surf. It was hard to tell if instructor Hanson had a personal vendetta against someone in the boat crew, or if he was just trying to see if he could break their spirit for good measure.
After what seemed like an eternity, Hanson yelled, “Recover!"
Ryan and his crew secured the gravity log on the beach, then paddled back into the surf. They had a lot of ground to make up. They were in last place now and the threat of being forced to paddle around the island again, or worse, loomed large.
Ryan wasn't sure what time it was. He guessed somewhere around 0400 hours. The wind had picked up and thunder was rolling among the clouds. It wasn't long before the rain was coming down hard, filling the boat. The water was increasingly choppy, and the crew was pulling with all their might. Ryan figured the instructors were probably grinning. The only thing worse would've been to go through Hell Week during a hurricane. If the instructors could have figured out a way to control the weather, they would have.
At the second checkpoint, Davidson and his crew were doing PT on the beach. Instructor Erickson gave Ryan’s crew a pass, and they were able to regain some ground. Perhaps the random harassment was all part of the plan.
Ryan's crew pulled up to the lead boat. They were in some kind of trouble. One of the recruits had fallen overboard, due to exhaustion. He was flailing about in the surf, and the rest of the crew was trying to pull him back on board.
"You need a hand," Ensign Parkes said.
"We've got it under control," Yarborough responded. "But you can slow down if you feel like it."
"Not a chance."
Ryan’s crew kept paddling, re-taking the lead. There was still one more checkpoint, and Ryan was hoping they weren't going to get tripped up there. But the instructor made them do 15 minutes of Surf Torture. Fortunately, none of the other crews were able to avoid it either.
It was miserable. The rain was pouring down. And the water seemed even colder, although it probably wasn’t. Three more recruits quit. Ensign Busby, Petty Officer Kavanagh, Spaceman Whittaker. All solid guys. All of them had achieved passing scores on their timed evolutions. They weren’t at risk of being performance dropped. They didn’t have any obvious medical issues. It didn’t make any sense, they were so close to the end of Hell Week. It demoralized the rest of the recruits. If they were quitting, it meant anybody was at risk of quitting. But they were cold, wet, tired, sick, sore, and sandy. The realization finally hit home that this was what it was going to be like for the rest of their time in the Teams.
The situations here on Black Rock Island were tame compared to what a Reaper might encounter in the far reaches of the galaxy. Frozen ice planets. Scorching desert wastelands. Deep space operations that took place so far from a star that temperatures dropped to -455 degrees. It wasn’t always going to be like the recruitment commercials. You couldn’t just quit when you were out on a mission. That’s why the instructors did everything they could to push you past your breaking point. Quitting in the middle of the mission could cost lives.
Ryan’s crew was paddling out to sea while the other crews were still suffering in the surf. They arrived back at base a little after sunrise. It had been a grueling paddle around the island, but the crew was invigorated. It was Friday. All they had to do was make it until 5 PM, and Hell Week would be over.
Norfolk waited for them on the beach with a devious grin. He was drinking a cup of coffee and chewing on a jelly donut. “Impressive. I hear the class is down to 18 now. I don’t have any quitters in this crew, do I?”
“Hell no,” they shouted.
“Hit the chow hall and fill up. You’ve got a long day ahead of you.”
Ryan and the rest of his boat crew raced toward the chow hall. He could smell the aroma of bacon as he hit the Pulverizer. The chow hall was like an oasis in the middle of the desert. A sanctuary filled with bacon, scrambled eggs, blueberry pancakes, maple syrup, toast, butter, and strawberry jelly. All of it real. The instructors may have abused the recruits during BSCT, but they fed them well. Ryan had regained his appetite and dished up a little bit of everything, then went back for two more rounds.
Ensign Parkes took a seat next to him. She shoveled a few bites into her mouth and forced them down. She looked terrible. Her eyes were red and puffy. Her hands were blistered and swollen, like most of the recruits. Her voice was raspy. “You hanging in there?”
Ryan had a surprised look on his face. It was the first time she had spoken to him in a civil tone throughout the entire First Phase. Ryan grinned.“Piece of cake.”
Parkes smiled back at him. “Yup. Piece of cake.”
The two ate the rest of their meal in silence. But Ryan was happy to get a smile out of her.
They had been given a half hour for breakfast, but it seemed like 30 seconds. It was difficult to stand. Ryan's feet were achy and swollen. His legs and hip flexors were stiff. His low back was sore. There wasn't a part of his body that wasn't in pain. All of his nerves were screaming. He felt like a 90-year-old man.
He hobbled out of the chow hall, each step getting a little easier. Sitting still caused everything to stiffen up. The best thing to do was to keep moving. He did his best impression of a sprint down to the beach. The boat crew regrouped, and Instructor Norfolk made them do push-ups again with their feet on the boat. After he was satisfied, he ordered them into the surf for more torture. He paced up and down the row of recruits as the surf pounded them. The crashing waves nearly drowned the exhausted candidates.
"You all will be excited to know that since you’ve done so well, we've decided to extend Hell Week by one more day."
There was a collective groan among the recruits.
"He's full of shit, isn't he?" Matthews said.
"Have you ever known Instructor Norfolk to be full of shit?" Ryan said. He could see that Matthews was crushed. His eyes were filled with doubt. He was pretty sure he couldn't make it another day.
“They can't do that," Matthew’s said. "I mean, they can't just change the rules."
"There are no rules in war," Ryan said.
“What's the big deal?" Gavin said. "I could do two more days if we had to." He wasn't lying either. He was eating this shit up.
"You hang in there, Matthews.” Ryan said. "Don't you fucking quit. Don't you fucking quit on me now."
His teeth were chattering and his whole body was shaking from the cold. "I'm not quitting. No matter what, I'm not quitting. I might die out here, but I'm not quitting."
Ryan grinned. “I think we all feel the same way."
Emma's cautious eyes kept flicking to the side mirror during the ride back to the embassy. Something had gotten her attention. There was a hover-car following behind them. It was just far enough away not to be obvious, but close enough to be suspicious—zigging and zagging through traffic, trying to keep up.
“I think we've got company."
"I see them." Anderson sped up and made a few quick turns, trying to lose them.
Emma unholstered her pistol. She craned her neck back, looking to the rear window. The tail was gaining on them. It was a black, late model Vextra sedan.
Anderson mashed the pedal to the floor and accelerated through the chaotic streets. The engine revved, filling the cabin with the distinct whine of a hover-car, mixed with the synthetic sound of a combustion engine. Manufacturers added the sound because consumers had complained the vehicles were too quiet otherwise. There was something missing from the whole experience. Testing had showed that cars with an engine rumble were perceived to be faster, and they outsold non-modified versions. The sound was also added to reduce auto-pedestrian accidents. In the early days, pedestrians were getting mowed over left and right after stepping into traffic without hearing oncoming cars.
Anderson was whizzing past traffic at a blistering pace. Buildings blurred by. A white hover-van launched from a side street. Anderson swerved, but there was nothing he could do. The van slammed into the front left quarter panel of his car. Metal crumpled. Anderson plowed forward, and the van’s front bumper scratched against the side of the car, etching the paint and squealing. It was hard to tell if the van had just run the light, or if they were a blocking vehicle—part of the chase.
The black Vextra quickly caught up to them.
Anderson barreled away.
The dark tinted windows of the sedan rolled down, and a submachine gun emerged, spitting bullets and muzzle flash. The attackers were almost side by side with Anderson’s car.
Emma looked right at the driver as he pelted rounds in her direction. Her heartbeat skyrocketed. The bullets impacted her window, leaving crater like impressions, surrounded by webbed cracks. The flattened copper bullets had embedded in between the layers of ballistic glass.
Emma wanted to fire back, but the bulletproof window was the only thing standing between her and certain death.
The attackers continued to pepper Anderson's car with bullets, quickly making the company vehicle look like the surface of a crater-filled moon.
When the driver of the Vextra realized his bullets weren't going to penetrate the target vehicle, he swerved and rammed the car repeatedly.
The two cars looked like lineman in the PFL charging each other. The cars weaved between slower traffic, and when they had a clear shot, rammed each other again.
“Are all the locals this friendly?" Emma asked.
“Just think of it as a welcoming committee." Anderson smiled. “It means they think you are important enough to kill." Anderson turned the wheel and rammed the Vextra again. The quarter panels locked into each other. Anderson slammed the pedal to the floor and drove the Vextra toward the curb.
There was a city bus stopped in the far right lane. Parked cars prohibited access to the sidewalk. The Vextra tried desperately to push back, but Anderson's car was more powerful. The driver finally slammed on the brakes, but was too late. The driver tried to pull up and fly over the top of the bus, but the Vextra couldn’t separate from Anderson’s quarter-panel. Emma could see the driver’s eyes grow wide, realizing there was no avenue of escape. The black sedan plowed into the back of the bus.
The hood crumpled. Windows shattered. Glass and debris sprayed everywhere. Bits of metal spewed onto the roadway. The twisted carcass of the Vextra sat by the curb as the attackers jumped out of the vehicle, shaking their fists and cursing in anger.
Emma watched them through the rearview window as Anderson sped away.
“Not bad for your first day.”
“You keep drawing attention to this operation, you’re going to get us all killed,” Pinford said. “Most of us here didn’t sign up for this spy agent crap. We’re diplomats.”
“I think it was just an incidence of road rage, sir,” Anderson said.
“That was an embassy vehicle. Who’s going to pay for it?”
“You’ll be reimbursed by the UIA, rest assured,” Emma said.
“I’m going to personally contact the Secretary of State and voice my displeasure with the UIA. The point of this embassy is to maintain amicable diplomatic relations with the Aldebarani government.”
“I’m operating under direct authority of the Office of the President,” Emma said. “By all means, contact Secretary Morris. I think you’ll find his full support behind the UIA.”
Pinford sneered at her and stormed away, grumbling to himself.
Anderson chuckled. “I love it when he gets his feathers ruffled.” His piercing blue eyes found Emma’s. “I’m going to run some food over to Rocco and check on him. You want to grab a drink after?”
Emma wasn’t exactly sure if he was flirting with her or not. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”
“You and I both have after action reports to write.”
Anderson pulled out his mobile and started clacking on the keys. He muttered to himself as he typed. “Ambushed by black Vextra while returning from lunch. Escaped unharmed. Car, not so much.” He smiled. “After action report—done. Let’s drink.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Come on. I know this great little bar down on Voostal Street.”
“We got ambushed after the last establishment you recommended.”
He gave a cavalier shrug. “We’re still alive.”
Emma’s eyes narrowed at him. She started heading toward her office.
Anderson followed after her like a puppy dog. “Don’t make me drink alone.” His sad eyes pleaded with her.
“I seriously doubt you’d have a hard time finding a suitable drinking companion.”
“Have you taken a look around this place?”
"I'm sure you'll be just fine."
"Okay. Suit yourself. But all this…" He made a circular gesture with his hand, “Mosaav… The terrorists… They are not going anywhere. They're all going to be here tomorrow."
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of.”
“Upboat,” Norfolk yelled.
The recruits hoisted the boats overhead.
Norfolk instructed them to race to the Land Warfare Zone. It was several acres on the east side of the base filled with pits, trenches, culverts, and berms. It was a low lying area, and was a mucky pit of hell on a good day. On a rainy day, it was an outright swamp.
It was located next to the island’s sewage processing facility. During times of flooding, the plant’s pumps would sometimes backup, spilling into the Land Warfare Zone. It made it a toxic, sludge-filled nightmare. One whiff was enough to turn your stomach inside out. In the summer months, it was filled with mosquitoes, snakes, rats, and other undesirable critters.
The recruits had to navigate a course from one side to the other. The pits were topped with barbed wire. Automated turrets were strategically positioned throughout the course that fired paint pellets. The goal was to complete the course without a paint stain on your fatigues. Not an easy task.
The recruits donned their helmets and hit the dirt. They crawled on their bellies through the muck, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Paint pellets whizzed overhead. Simulated artillery rounds exploded all around them, spraying dirt and muck. The instructors were stationed throughout the zone, firing RK 909 assault rifles for added effect. Smoke filled the air.
Ryan crawled into the first pit. A sharp barb gouged his low back. It was so shallow, it was a almost impossible not to snag the barbed wire. He had to fully submerge in the sludge to get through. His eyes were burning from days of sand particles grinding between his lids and cornea. The muck wasn’t helping anything. He came out the other side, gasping for breath.
The only way to avoid the paint pellets was to keep your ass down. Ryan inched across the ground to another muck filled trench. This process repeated over and over again until he reached the end of the zone. He was caked in mud, and the recruits smelled like big turds.
“Alright, listen up,” Norfolk yelled once the last recruit had completed the course. “We are going to do a graded 4 mile run. If you can’t complete it in under 32 minutes, you will be performance dropped from the program.”
The faces of the recruits dropped. Some of them had knees so swollen they could barely walk. All of them were hobbling around. It would be an impossible evolution. The news was soul crushing.
“This may be the first BSCT class in history in which we have no graduates.”
That statement just made Ryan mad. He clenched his jaw and scowled at Norfolk. To have come this far, then get dropped because of some bullshit rigged evolution?
Panic washed over the faces of the weary recruits.
“But before we do that, we’re going to spend a little time appreciating the surf. Hit the beach!”
The class staggered to the surf. They looked like the living dead and left a trail of mud behind them. By the time they reached the beach, the heavy rain had washed most of the sludge away.
The recruits lined up on the beach and interlocked arms. Alvarez looked strung out. “I can’t take any more of this.”
“Yes, you can,” Ryan said.
“I can’t take another second of being cold and wet.”
“Suck it up, Alvarez,” Ensign Parkes said. She barked with such ferocity, that Alvarez cowered and started to march into the surf even before Norfolk commanded. The recruits charged into the water until they were waist deep. The rain was finally starting to let up.
"About-face," Norfolk shouted.
The recruits turned around, facing the berm.
“You know what, I'm tired of surf torture. How about you?"
Ryan was dreading what kind of devious evolution Norfolk had planned next.
Norfolk looked at his watch. Then he glanced back out over the ragged recruits. “I’ve decided to cancel the run. I hate to say this, but… Class 276 is secured. Hell Week is over!”
There was a moment of silence as his words sunk in.
"Are you messing with us, Chief?" Matthews asked.
"If you want to continue, I'm perfectly happy to dream up another evolution."
“No. That's okay, Chief."
The recruits howled with joy. They screamed and jumped up and down, congratulating and hugging one another.
Hell Week was really over.
The recruits staggered out of the water and gathered around Norfolk.
"Congratulations class. You've accomplished something few people will ever do. You still have a lot of training ahead, but 90% of you will now go on to become Reapers. You should be very proud. No matter what happens in your future, this accomplishment is something that no one can ever take away from you. When you face challenges in your life, you will know that you can overcome them. There is nothing you can’t endure. You have the will and stamina to triumph in the face of any adversity. I’m proud of all of you. It has been an honor to be your instructor.”
“Get on the shuttle and we’ll take you back to the center.”
The recruits staggered to a shuttle that was waiting on Ocean Ave. Ryan climbed aboard and fell into one of the cushy seats. Hot air blew from the overhead vents. The warmth was a welcomed relief.
In each seat, there was a rehydration drink and a nutrition bar. Ryan peeled open the packaging and wolfed the bar down in a only a few bites. He guzzled the fruity drink down in seconds. It barely did anything to quench his thirst.
“We’ll have more food and drink waiting for you after you get through medical,” Norfolk said.
Some of the recruits were passed out on the shuttle by the time they got to the med center. It was less than a 5 minute drive. The corpsman meticulously went over each recruit, inch by inch. They were checked for areas of infection. Lacerations and abrasions were treated. Vital statistics were monitored. And they underwent a full body scan to detect any skeletal abnormalities or soft tissue injuries.
Several of the recruits had knee damage, ranging from mild ligament sprains to cartilage tears. Joints were injected with a powerful anti-inflammatory, as well as a regenerative compound. Many were suffering from stress fractures, bacterial and viral infections, and dehydration.
Once they were all treated, Lambert addressed the class. “I know you’re all feeling pretty crappy right about now, but trust me, you’re going to survive. The main thing is that you keep fed and get a lot of rest this weekend. I’m going to be here all weekend along with several other corpsmen. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to come down here. Also, we’ll be checking on you periodically. I’m going to give each one of you my direct mobile number. Call me in case of emergency.”
The recruits staggered out of the med center and headed across the Pulverizer toward the barracks. Their eyes lit up with surprise. There was a keg of beer, hamburgers, barbecue ribs, brisket, and plenty of soda, recovery drinks, and water. They had been thrown a party—one that they weren’t really going to be able to enjoy. There were several current and retired Reapers in attendance.
Captain Walker greeted the recruits with a smile. “Congratulations. Eat and drink as much as you want, though I don’t expect too many of you to stay on your feet for too long. I just wanted to come down and thank you all personally for the commitment and sacrifices that you’ve made to this organization. Since the war, we’ve had a shortage of qualified Reapers. And I’m always looking for a select few to lead into battle. Keep up the good work.”
“Hooyah,” they replied with enthusiasm. They all knew who Captain Walker was. He was a bona fide hero, and for an aspiring Reaper it was like meeting an idol.
He shook their hands and mingled a little. But the recruits were barely able to stand. They chowed down and drank a beer with instructors who were tormenting them only moments earlier. Then they staggered off to the barracks to pass out. Some were too amped up to sleep right away, but for most of them, no mattress was ever going to feel as good, and they would never sleep more soundly in their entire lives than they did that night. They had the weekend to themselves, and would be back at it Monday morning.
The weed out period was over. The real training was about to begin. Everyone in the class had proven they had what it took to become a Reaper. Now they were about to gain the space combat skills, and the weapons tactics, that would make them the finest fighting force in the galaxy.
The microphone looked like a circular piece of clear tape—about the size of a small button. Emma affixed it underneath Rocco’s collar. “Give me a signal check.”
“Testing 1, 2, 3…”
Anderson watched the audio levels on his mobile. He nodded to Emma, letting her know the mic was transmitting loud and clear.
The three of them were huddled in a surveillance van a few blocks from the Plaza Drakuur. Their faces were lit by the glow of multiple monitors and equipment. Lights flashed and flickered on the rack-mounted gear.
Emma took Rocco’s hand and sprayed a clear liquid onto his palm. It dried almost instantly.
“Tracking gel. When you shake Suspa’s hand it will bond to the oils in his skin. We’ll be able to track him, and you, for 24 hours. So, if you have any funny ideas about taking off, we’ll find you.”
“Thanks to you guys, I don’t walk so good anymore.” Rocco was still limping from the hoverboard crash. “I’m not planning on doing any running.”
“Just act natural. Go about your meeting as usual. We’ll do the rest.” Emma’s eyes narrowed and her voice took a low, ominous tone. “If you tip him off, or in anyway blow this operation, it will be the last thing you do. Are we clear?”
“You know, if they find out I led you to Suspa, I’m a dead man.”
“You misunderstand,” Anderson said. “You died already. You do this, you’ll be reborn.” He flashed his trademark smile.
“I want full immunity from Federation prosecution. And I want to be relocated to a Federation colony of my choosing.”
“You’ll get everything we agreed to,” Emma said. “Provided this leads us to Suspa and gets us to Ragza.”
Rocco’s face tightened. “No. The deal was for Suspa. Its out of my control whether or not you bring down Ragza.”
“Take it or leave it, dirtbag,” Anderson said.
Rocco scowled at him. He didn’t have a choice.
Emma looked at her watch. "Oaky, it's time to go." She unlatched the back door of the van and pushed it open. "Don't fuck this up."
Rocco hopped out of the van and stepped onto the sidewalk. He disappeared into the crowd.
Emma launched several mosquito drones. They were small insect like aerial vehicles, no larger than their namesake. They could either be flown via remote, with pre-programmed flight plans, GPS coordinates, or by object tracking.
The drones buzzed into the air, and four different views appeared on the surveillance monitors.
Emma closed the van doors and crawled back inside. She watched the monitors. The drones identified Rocco by facial recognition and proceeded to track him.
Emma was glued to the monitors as he weaved through the pedestrians on the sidewalk. The view was perfect. The drones had optical image stabilization to keep from nausea inducing picture quality. The image was as smooth and level as anything out of a New Hollywood movie.
The drones followed Rocco down the avenue and into the hotel lobby. The plaza Drakuur was a high-end luxury hotel. It was about as fancy as you could get in Mosaav. It was a far cry from the opulent suites in Nova York, but compared to some of the roach traps in the city, it seemed like the Taj Mahal.
The lobby had marble floors and pillars that towered to the vaulted ceiling. It was alive with people coming and going. New travelers checking in, bellboys slinging luggage onto hover-carts. The sultry voice of a soft jazz singer filtered out of the piano bar. It was one of those hotels that even if you weren't staying there, you went for the food, drink, and entertainment. The bar was a popular night spot.
Rocco hobbled to the restaurant. He exchanged words with the maître d' who ushered him to a table where Suspa was already seated. Two armed bodyguards hovered near his table. They were big thick guys whose necks disappeared into their shoulders. One was a taller brunette with curly hair and a little bit of a mullet. The other was blond with a crewcut. Between them, they were probably struggling to break 100 IQ points. But that didn't really matter. They were good at their job—keeping undesirables away from Suspa.
The mullet held out his hand and stopped Rocco before he got close to the table. He patted him down, checking for weapons and listening devices.
In the van, Emma watched, hoping the mullet-head wouldn’t discover the clear microphone under Rocco’s collar.
The curly-haired brunette patted Roccos ankles, then gestured for him to move to Suspa’s table.
Emma breathed a sigh of relief and adjusted Rocco’s microphone to filter out the background noise. The drones positioned themselves around the table. Emma watched as Rocco took a seat at Suspa’s table. But it didn't look like the photographs of Suspa at all. He was either using prosthetics, or had facial reconstructive surgery to alter his appearance. It was the reason the UIA hadn't been able to pick him up with facial recognition tracking.
Suspa was already halfway through a steak. He barely acknowledged Rocco. The two didn't shake hands.
"You're limping. What happened?"
Emma looked at the waveform of Suspa’s voice on one of the monitors. The system checked it against the database—it came back as a reasonable match for Aknar Suspa.
"Hoverboard accident. Traffic in this city sucks."
"You should look into other means of transportation." There wasn't a hint of concern or sympathy in his voice.
Emma could see that Rocco looked nervous. She hoped that Suspa wouldn't pick up on it.
“I tried to get a hold of you yesterday. You didn't answer. Anything wrong?"
"I, uh, did a little day drinking that led into some extended night drinking, which in turn led into more day drinking.”
"It is your lack of discipline that jeopardizes our mission.”Suspa focused on his meal and hardly looked at Rocco.
"I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
"I can always find others who are better suited for the job."
"That won't be necessary."
"Do you have good news for me?"
"Yes. I have found a source that can supply what is needed."
"And you have been discreet in your inquiries?”
"Our operation is under increased scrutiny as of late. And this will continue to intensify as operations ramp up.” Suspa paused. "Are you sure you weren't followed here?"
"I am taking a big risk meeting you in public like this."
“But this is a conversation best kept outside of network traffic. Even with encryption, I fear certain entities may be listening."
"That is a wise assumption."
"When can your connection deliver the material?”
“When would you like me to set it up?"
"Day after tomorrow. You say the shipment will be coming from Tor Epsilon. That should be enough time for your contact to arrive in Mosaav.”
Rocco slipped a folded piece of paper across the table.
Emma's heartbeat elevated. She tried to zoom in the opticals of one of the drones to see what was written on the paper. But none of the drones had a clear view.
Emma clinched her jaw. "Son of a bitch. I think he’s tipping off Suspa.”
Ryan woke up around 2 o’clock the next afternoon. His legs felt like lead pipes, and he could barely bend his knees. He had never been so stiff in his entire life. He forced himself to get up and get out of bed. The bathroom was only a few steps away, but it might as well have been a mile. He hobbled across the room like an old man. His bladder felt like it was about to burst. He hadn’t so much as moved since he crawled into his rack.
The end of Hell Week was a little foggy. He didn’t even remember how he got back to the barracks. He had a vague recollection of meeting Captain Walker, but most of yesterday was just a blur. The only thing he knew for certain was that he had finished Hell Week.
“I say we head down to the strip tonight,” Gavin said, still lying in his rack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me?”
“You survived a week of torture. Now you’re telling me you can’t survive one night of partying? After all, I think we deserve a little bit of fun.”
Ryan didn’t want to think about anything other than eating and getting back in bed.
“Come on. We’ll just go out for an hour. One beer.”
Ryan crawled back into his rack. “I’m never leaving this bed again.”
“Do you want to lie around here all weekend when we can have some hotties nursing us back to health?”
The idea sounded enticing. “Okay. One hour.”
Ryan fell back asleep and didn’t wakeup until Sunday. He peeled his eyes open thinking it was still Saturday for a moment. Gavin didn’t look like he had moved from his rack either. It was probably for the best because first thing Monday morning they were back at it again with PT, timed runs, and boat drills. Norfolk went a little easier on them, knowing they needed time to recover. They were still at risk of getting performance dropped if they didn’t pass their graded evolutions.
At the end of the week, they would finally get a chance to blow off some steam. The instructors threw them another party on the Pulverizer.
“Congratulations,” Norfolk said. “You’ve all made it through First Phase. You’ll be moving on to LWD, Land Warfare & Demolitions, with Instructor Remington. If you thought I was a mean son-of-a-bitch, you better brace yourself. Remy is no-nonsense.”
The recruits exchanged wary glances. An instructor tougher than Norfolk? It didn’t seem possible.
“Go out. Have some fun. You’ve earned it. But stay out of trouble.”
Live music filled the air. Hammerhead was a popular bar on Ocean Avenue. 3D projections of sharks floated around the bar. The back deck had a pier that went all the way to the surf. Ryan and his crew had paddled past it during Hell Week. The band was playing classic rock. Stuff from the early 2370s like Star Child, Jupiter’s Creation, The Rolling Asteroids, and more. It was mostly tourists, with a few locals and BSCT recruits. The Team guys hit bars like NCR’s, Dirty’s, and the Rusty Anchor. But the recruits had been instructed early during First Phase to stay away from Team bars. It was only asking for trouble. Invariably, some recruit would try to pass himself off as a Reaper to pick up chicks. That didn’t sit well with the Team guys.
Ryan and Gavin hit the bar and ordered. A moment later, the bartender slid over two golden shots rimmed with salt. They clinked glasses.
“To First Phase,” Ryan said.
“Fuck First Phase.”
They tossed the first one back. The tequila burned on the way down. Ryan grimaced for a moment, followed by a smile and a “Hooyah!”
They leaned back with elbows against the bar and took in the scenery. There were a plethora of pretty girls in painted-on dresses. Plunging necklines, short skirts, toned thighs, and stiletto heels. After the grueling torture of First Phase, it seemed like a hallucination.
“Target acquired,” Gavin said, spotting a gorgeous brunette. She was with an equally stunning red head. Gavin made a beeline for the ladies. “Watch and learn,” he said with a confident grin.
Gavin strolled right past them, then at the last minute turned back to ask a question “Hey, do you know where Fitzpatrick’s is?” It was total bullshit. He knew where Fitzpatrick’s was.
“Yeah, it’s about a mile down the Strip,” The brunette said.
“Is it any good?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes. It usually doesn’t get happening until late.”
“My name’s Gavin. This is Ryan.”
“I’m Hannah. This is Sophia.”
Sophia had emerald eyes and creamy skin. She looked like the girl next door, but there was a naughty glint in her eyes that let you know that she wasn’t all that innocent.
“Are you two recruits?” Hannah asked.
“Is it that obvious?” Gavin said.
Hannah’s eyes narrowed at him as she sized him up. “Let me guess. You just finished First Phase?”
Gavin looked perplexed. “How did you know?”
“When you’ve lived in South Coravado long enough, you learn to spot the weary. Besides, you still have sand behind your ears.”
Gavin self-consciously rubbed his finger behind his ear—there was no sand there.
Hannah and Sophia chuckled as they strolled away. “Come see me if you actually become a Reaper.”
“Nice work, slick,” Ryan teased. “Is that how it’s done?”
Gavin glared at him. “I’m just warming up.”
Ryan caught sight of Ensign Parkes across the bar. She was with a girlfriend. Ryan hit Gavin on the shoulder and pointed her out.
“Oh no. Leave it alone. That’s nothing but trouble.”
“We’re just going to go talk to them. Law of scarcity, my friend.”
“Social proof. It will be easier for us to score women if we’re already with women.”
It seemed like a reasonable concept to Gavin. He followed Ryan over to their table.
“Mind if we join you?” Ryan asked.
“You spent the last five weeks with me, don’t you want to spend your time with somebody new?” Piper said coyly.
Ryan looked to Gavin. “I guess that means we’re not welcome.”
Ryan started to walk away, but Piper interrupted. “I didn’t say that.”
Ryan tried to hide a smirk. “I guess we can sit with you for one beer.” Ryan pulled up a bar stool and sat at the tall cocktail table with the two ladies.
“This is my friend, Katie,” Piper said. “She lives in San Angeles. She came down to visit for the weekend.” Introductions were made and handshakes were exchanged.
“What are you drinking?” Ryan asked.
“A round of shots,” Gavin suggested.
“Oh no,” Piper said. “I’ll stick with beer.”
“I’ll take a shot,” Katie said, her eyes glimmering at Gavin.
He was quick to pick up on her enthusiasm. He flagged a waitress down and ordered a round of tequila for them, and beer for Ryan and Piper.
The drinks were flowing, and Gavin and Katie seem to be hitting it off. Everyone was having a good time. Even the typically stone-faced Ensign Parkes seemed to be having a good time. Her wall came down just a little. For an instant, BSCT didn’t exist. It was like an average weekend back home.
It wasn’t long before Gavin and Katie were out on the dance floor. He wasn’t much of a dancer, but he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. He made fun of himself, exaggerating his lame dance skills. It made Katie laugh, and that scored him more points than any smooth talking could have done.
Ryan and Piper watched with amusement.
“So, why the Reapers? Why are you doing this?” Ryan asked.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I asked you first.”
Piper pondered the question for a moment. “I wanted to serve the Federation. I wanted a challenge. Isn’t that why we all signed up for this?”
Ryan nodded. “Okay, serious question.”
Piper arched an eyebrow at him, not sure what was coming next.
“If you could live to be 300 years old, would you rather keep your mind, or keep your body?”
“That’s a tough one. I want both.”
“For the sake of argument, you have to pick one.”
“Think about it. I’m going to go make a head call.” Ryan pushed away from the table and weaved through the crowd toward the restroom.
A guy wasn’t looking where he was going and slammed into Ryan.
“I’m sorry. Was I in your way?” Ryan said, his voice thick with sarcasm.
The man stared at him for a moment and kept walking into the club. He had wide, crazy eyes. His skin was coated in a thin mist of sweat, even though it was cold out. He was wearing a long coat.
Ryan blew it off and headed to the restroom. He didn’t think much about it, other than the guy was an asshole. There was a sizable line in the restroom. An automated attendant dispensed hand towels and cologne.
Ryan was midstream when he heard the muffled gunshots filter in from the bar.
Suspa surveyed the note.
"That's the account number where you can transfer the funds," Rocco said.
“You can tell your contact once the material is in my possession, funds will be transferred. "Suspa swallowed the last bite of a steak and motioned for the waiter to bring the check. Suspa took a sip of water and wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin, then set it on the table. “I believe that concludes our business here today. For your sake, I hope your contact delivers as promised."
"He will," Rocco stammered.
Suspa pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. His bodyguards ushered him through the restaurant into the lobby.
"He's Oscar Mike," Emma said, watching the monitor. It was a military term that meant on the move. “And they didn’t shake hands.” She frantically tried to readjust the drones to track Suspa, but they wouldn’t target him. Emma had an epiphany. “His glasses… They must be emitting some type of ultra frequency deflection beam. That’s why we’ve never been able to pick him up on facial recognition. Pull the van around. We’re going to have to tail him.”
Anderson threw the van in gear and stomped the accelerator. Horns honked as the vehicle lurched into traffic. Anderson rounded the corner, approaching the Plaza. Suspa was on the sidewalk, stepping into a black luxury SUV. His blond bodyguard held the door for him, then closed it behind him. Then the meathead ran to the front passenger seat and hopped in. The SUV zipped away from the curb and weaved through traffic. Anderson struggled to keep them insight as the SUV raced away.
“Don’t lose them,” Emma said
“I’m trying not to.”
“But don’t get too close. We don’t want them to make us.”
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Anderson said.
Emma could tell he was getting a little frustrated with her constant instruction. “It sucks that we don’t have air support.”
“That’s what happens when you’re running illegal ops in foreign jurisdictions.”
The SUV drove even faster.
Anderson hammered the accelerator, trying to keep up. He zigged and zagged across multiple lanes of traffic. Cars and buildings blurred by. Anderson angled the controls and moved vertically up to the top tier of traffic. The SUV stayed on the ground level.
Anderson had a good view from above, and was beginning to gain ground on the SUV. It suddenly streaked across four lanes of traffic to make a quick left on 52nd Street. With the high-speed traffic, Anderson couldn’t get over in time and missed the turn.
Emma was furious. Her eyes bulged, and the veins in her forehead started to protrude. “What part of don’t lose them did you not understand?”
Anderson didn’t respond. He caught the next left, then turned left again, then right on 52nd Street.
The van was nowhere to be seen
"Do you think they spotted us?" Anderson asked.
Anderson grimaced. He swung the wheel hard and took the next left. Emma slammed against the side of the van from the inertia. Anderson took another left, then another, putting them back on Hawthorne Avenue.
"What are you doing?" Emma asked.
"I think they spotted us and went full circle." Anderson accelerated through the swarm of hover-cars. Several larger trucks ahead of him obscured his view. He climbed up two levels to get a better vantage point. He caught sight of the SUV five blocks ahead.
The synthetic rumble of the engine could barely hide the whine of the thrusters as Anderson pushed the engine hard. He dropped back down to level one, weaving in and out—it looked like he was practicing his slalom technique.
Anderson brought the van within three car lengths of the SUV. All pretense was shrugged aside—this was a chase, and everyone knew it.
“I think it's safe to say that you’ve successfully blown our cover."
"Well, we move to plan B."
"What's plan B?"
"We capture Suspa and lean on him until he tells us where Ragza is."
"That’s just brilliant," Emma said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Because Ragza’s not going to get suspicious when his number one man goes missing."
Anderson didn't say anything. He focused on the roadway and the SUV. His driving grew even more frenetic.
"He's going to change his whole method of operation.” Emma was steaming. “Probably move locations. It's going to compromise every bit of intel we have."
"When did you become so optimistic?"
Emma scowled at him.
The windshield webbed with cracks as several bullets impacted the ballistic glass. One of the bodyguards had rolled down the back window of the SUV and was firing a fully automatic machine gun.
Brilliant muzzle flash flickered. A flurry of copper rounds turned the windshield into a frosted disaster area. Visibility dropped to almost zero. Anderson had to duck his head and find a clear section of glass in order to see the roadway.
“We’ve successfully trashed another vehicle,” Anderson said.
Emma climbed from the back of the van to the passenger seat.
"At least Pinford can't bitch. The UIA owns this one.”
Emma didn't seem particularly amused. She rolled down her window and hung her pistol outside. She fired back at the SUV but it was haphazard at best. Her bullets pinged off the metal body work, leaving indentions, but they didn't penetrate the metal.
The SUV was armored. So was the glass.
Bar patrons dove for cover. Some close to the exit tried to make an escape, but were gunned down. Muzzle flash and gun smoke filled the club. It was pure pandemonium as two gunmen randomly mowed down people with semi-automatic fire.
Ryan bolted out of the restroom and crept down the corridor to the main area. Several patrons were cowering in the hallway. It hadn’t been targeted yet by the gunmen.
Ryan hugged the wall and peered around the corner. He could see the gunman that was close to the door. He was little more than 15 feet away. The other terrorist was deeper into the club. It was the same man who had bumped into him earlier. He was moving through the club, shooting people that were hiding under tables.
DAK! DAK! DAK!
Adrenaline coursed through Ryan’s veins. His heart thumped in his throat. Every second he hesitated, someone died.
The gunman by the door looked nervous. His eyes frantically darted from one side of the club to the other. Someone tried to run for the door, and the gunman spun to his left and opened fire.
Ryan charged him from the right, slamming him to the ground. It was almost like he was back on the football field again.
The gunmen didn’t know what hit him. He wasn’t well trained.
Ryan stripped the weapon with ease and cracked the dirt bag in the face with the stock of the rifle. It was an Aldebaranian made AM-6 assault rifle. They were cheap knockoffs of the Koslov AM-6. It had a 30 round banana magazine, composite body, and fired 7.62mm rounds. They were indestructible and almost never jammed—even the cheap ones. Ryan recognized the weapon from his intro to weapons & demolitions course in First Phase. The AM-6 was popular among insurgents, militia, pirates, and other paramilitary types. Parts were easy to come by, and they were light on the pocketbook.
Ryan heard the snap of several bullets whiz past his ear. He spun around to see muzzle flash from across the bar. The other ass-clown was unleashing a flurry of rounds in Ryan’s direction.
Ryan moved with lightning speed. He brought the weapon into the firing position and lined the gunman up in his sights. It seemed to happen in slow motion. Ryan held his breath and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet rocketed across the club, penetrating the perp’s forehead. Bits of brain and bone blasted out of the back of the terrorist’s skull. A haze of crimson mist hung in the air as the man’s body crumpled to the ground with a wet slap. The AM-6 clattered against the dance floor.
Smoke wafted through the air as the crowd of terrified people began to emerge from hiding.
Ryan’s heart was pounding. His whole body trembled. He never killed anyone before. Everything had been paper targets until this point. He hadn’t shot a rifle since weapons qualifications at RTC.
Ryan’s eyes scanned the club. He caught sight of Ensign Parkes. She seemed to be okay, but she had a horrified look on her face. Ryan’s eyes flicked to the dance floor. He saw Gavin and Katie—their bodies were lying in a pool of blood, along with several other deceased patrons. Ryan’s heart sank, and he clenched his jaw with fury.
The gunman by the door was starting to regain consciousness and Ryan kept him on the ground—the barrel of his weapon never deviating from the dirtbag’s chest. Ryan could hear approaching sirens in the distance.
“Oh, my God. Thank you,” a mortified woman said, emerging from her hiding place. “You’re a hero.”
Ryan didn’t feel like a hero.
The sirens grew louder, and flashing red and blue lights filtered in through the front door. Local police filed into the building in full tactical gear, weapon’s in the firing position. They secured the suspect, and two officers immediately pulled Ryan aside for questioning. He cleared and safetied the weapon, then handed it over.
Several EMTs rushed into the bar and attended to the victims. There were a total of 33 dead, and another 57 wounded.
After Ryan finished with the officers, he was checked by the EMTs and released. He reunited with Piper. She gave him a hug and sobbed against his chest. “I can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe Katie and Gavin are dead.”
Ryan wrapped his arms around her and tried to console her. He felt numb.
The news media had descended like vultures on fresh roadkill. Lights bathed the exterior of the bar in a brilliant glow, and dozens of cameras captured the tragedy for posterity. The images were transmitted to every colony in the Federation. Ryan squinted as he stepped into the harsh light. He gripped Piper’s hand, and they tried to weave their way through the chaos.
“There he is,” a reporter shouted. The horde of reporters swarmed Ryan, shouting questions and sticking microphones in his face. News of his gallant act had leaked, and the news outlets were leading with the headline Reaper Trainee Thwarts Terrorist Attack.
“Can you tell us what happened?” one reporter asked.
“What was going through your mind?”
“Have you been trained for this kind of thing?”
“Were you afraid?”
Their questions jumbled together, and Ryan certainly didn’t feel like talking. He kept his mouth shut and pushed through the hoard with Piper in tow. The Reapers were quiet professionals—they didn’t like drawing attention to themselves.
“Whatever you do, don't stop," Emma yelled. She was hanging halfway out the window, firing back at the SUV.
The red and blue flashing lights Anderson saw in the rearview mirror weren’t a good thing. The MPD weren't going to take too kindly to their activities.
“Wasn't planning on it."
It was pure chaos—three vehicles weaving through the tumultuous streets of Mosaav. Bullets flying everywhere. Horns honking. Anderson had scratched a few paint jobs and broken a fair share of side mirrors during the chase. This wasn't going to end well, no matter how you looked at it.
The chase rambled on for several more minutes. The cars pinballed off vehicles and ran red lights. Police sirens wailed behind them.
Suspa’s luck ran out when his driver ran the light at 34th Street. A garbage truck plowed into them, spinning the SUV toward the sidewalk. It was traveling in the second tier of traffic at the time. It clipped a streetlamp which spiraled the vehicle and sent it crashing to the ground. Metal crumpled and squealed. It smashed several display windows of shops that line the street. Shards of glass showered the sidewalk. Half a dozen parked cars were trashed. It was a miracle that no pedestrians were killed.
Anderson pulled along side the accident, and Emma leapt from the van. She dashed to the wreckage with her weapon drawn. Her eyes searched the twisted carcass for Suspa.
His body lay in a pool of blood with a piece of metal sticking through his neck. The blond bodyguard had been thrown from the vehicle and was subsequently hit by another car in the roadway. He was just a grease spot now. The driver’s skull was partially through the front windshield, and his neck was snapped. Crimson blood painted the supple leather interior of the SUV. The mullet-headed bodyguard crawled from the wreckage and staggered to his feet.
"Freeze! UIA!" Emma shouted as she aimed her pistol at him. "Get your hands where I can see them."
Mullet-head gritted his teeth and scowled at her. "You idiot!”
Police sirens wailed. Emma could hear car doors open and close and boots march toward her.
"Drop the weapon now," one of the police officers shouted to Emma.
"I'm with the UIA. I'm taking this man into custody."
"You’ve got no jurisdiction. Drop the weapon, now!"
Emma’s face was flush with rage. She had no choice but to comply. The barrels of angry weapons were staring her in the face.
She knelt down slowly and set her pistol on the concrete. The moment she did, an officer kicked her to the ground. She felt a sharp stab of pain as the officer’s boot cracked against her back. It knocked the air from her lungs. She crashed against the pavement and gasped for breath. The sidewalk was hot and gritty. Her face smashed against the concrete as an officer put a knee in her back and wrenched her arms behind her. He slapped a pair of cuffs on her wrists, then pulled her from the ground.
The MPD had Anderson, and the mullet-headed bodyguard, in cuffs as well. They were all thrown into the back of a paddy wagon and taken to the central jail.
The interior of the vehicle was dirty and grimy. It smelled like stale body odor, vomit, and urine. It was hard to determine when, if ever, it had been cleaned. There were small slats toward the ceiling for ventilation, but they weren't doing much to augment the stifling, muggy air. The heat was oppressive, and it was hard to breathe. The dappled rays of sunlight shined through the slats, flickering as they raced through the tall buildings of downtown.
Emma sat on a bench across from Mr. Mullet. His eyes blazed into Emma. "Six months.”
She looked at him perplexed.
"Six months I've been trying to work my way inside this organization. Six months I've been guarding that fat ugly bastard. You think I like living in the city? You think I like his fucking hair?"
Emma deflated. She realized what he was getting at.
"Federation Security Bureau. I was this close to finding Ragza’s location.” He held his thumb and index finger about a millimeter apart.
"Maybe if your agency had shared information with ours this wouldn't have happened." Emma said.
"Your agency hasn't exactly been forthcoming either."
Anderson sat back and watched the two bicker.
"You are operating outside your jurisdiction."
"So are you. Do you have any idea what they're going to do to us? We are never going to see daylight again. I don't know if you've ever been to a Mosaav prison, but they're not pleasant. And no amount of diplomatic wrangling is going to get us out of this one."
“The family of one of the terrorists has filed a civil wrongful death suit,” Rear Admiral Jenkins said. He was the CO of the Naval Special Warfare Center at South Coravado, and he didn’t look happy. His office was decorated with awards, pictures with dignitaries, old platoons, and even a photograph with President Slade.
Ryan sat in a chair before his desk as the Admiral paced.
“The police report also stated that you had been drinking. Is this true?”
“Yeah, I had a few,” Ryan said. “The guy would have killed everyone in the club had I not done something.” He was incensed.
“I know. You did the right thing. It’s what we trained you to do. I’m just telling you what’s going on. There are going to be some out there that are going to try and paint you as reckless.”
Ryan looked at him in dismay. “That's ridiculous.”
Jenkins shrugged. “That's the galaxy we live in.” He paused a moment. “I’m sorry about Spaceman Kirby. I know you guys were close.”
Ryan nodded, and his eyes grew misty. “He was my swim buddy.”
“I’m assigning you to Ensign Parkes. You are the two top candidates in the class. Since you’re entering Second Phase now, she’ll be your space buddy.”
Jenkins peered through the blinds. His face tightened at the sight of news crews camped out at the entrance to the base. “I’m going to set up a few select interviews. You tell it exactly like it happened. But stay away from the rest of these vultures. You need to keep your head down and focus on your training.”
Jenkins sighed. “I’m wondering if we should roll you back to another class until this dies down.”
Ryan’s eyes went wide. “No, sir. It won’t be a distraction.”
“What you have to realize, son, is that my first priority here is to train Reapers. This kind of disruption could not only affect you, but the rest of your class. If I have reporters hopping fences and disrupting evolutions, I will pull you out of the class.”
“I understand, sir. But I’d like to finish with Class 276, if at all possible.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Hunter. Dismissed.”
Ryan stood up and snapped a sharp salute. Jenkins returned the gesture, and Ryan left the office. He marched across the Pulverizer to the barracks. The news media caught sight of him and began yelling his name, trying to get his attention. Ryan didn’t acknowledge them.
The room he shared with Gavin seemed incredibly empty now. He fell onto his rack and tried to process everything that happened over the last 24 hours. Now, more than ever, he wanted to complete his training and become a Reaper.
He was about to doze off when there was a knock on the door.
Ensign Parkes poked her head inside. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“No. Come on in.”
She stepped into the room, but purposely left his door open. She didn’t want anybody getting the wrong idea. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay. How about you?”
Parkes nodded. But she couldn’t hide the sullen look on her face.
“We no longer have the luxury of becoming affected by death. It’s just something that happens to everyone. None of us get to pick the time, the place, or the means. And something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of it before our time in the Navy is done.” Ryan was trying to convince himself.
Piper agreed. There was a long silence between them. “Well, I just wanted to check on you.”
“Careful. I might think you care.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “Keep dreaming. I need my space buddy in peak mental condition. We’ve got a lot of training left ahead of us.”
“I am instructor Remington, and I will be your tour guide through Second Phase. By the end of this block of training, you will all be able to shoot like Mr. Hunter.”
The class chuckled. They sat in the Second Phase classroom, eager to get started. This was why many signed up. To shoot guns and blow stuff up.
Remington was a little older than the other instructors. He had a square jaw, steel blue eyes, and graying hair, even though he was barely in his 40s. He had a deep scar down the left side of his face that he often referred to as his beauty mark. He was somewhat of a legend among the teams. He had altered his records and joined the Navy at 15 to fight in the first Verge War. By the time he was 18, he had racked up more confirmed kills than just about anyone.
“You have all proven you have what it takes to be here, but physical conditioning will remain a major part of this training block. If you slack off, or come up short, you will be performance dropped. You have invested a lot to get this far, and we have invested a lot in you. There is a lot of classroom time during this phase, and a lot to be learned. If you have any trouble, come to me. I’m here to help you get through this block of training. Remember, safety is our number one priority here.”
Remington was tough, no doubt about it, but he seemed genuinely concerned about the trainees.
In the early days of BSCT, Land Warfare & Demolitions used to be Phase Three. It became more practical to move it to Second Phase, then focus on Space Combat in Phase Three with the use of the simulator, then finally outer space.
Half the recruits had never fired a weapon until RCT. By the end of BSCT, they would all be expert marksman. Reapers needed to be familiar with every type of weapon systems, both alien and domestic. Second Phase would give them the skills necessary to maintain and repair almost any weapon they would encounter. Countless hours were spent disassembling and reassembling weapons, naming the parts as they went along. These reassembly evolutions were timed and graded.
The Reapers’ weapon of choice was the RK 909 assault rifle. It fired polymer cased smart rounds. Propellant charge could be adjusted on the fly, enabling subsonic velocities. Combined with built-in suppressor technology, this allowed the weapon to be virtually silent. In full rock’n roll mode, the weapon was as loud and intimidating as any other. Early models had issues with jamming, but that had long been sorted out. The RK 909 was lightweight, durable, reliable, and fired readily available 5.56mm rounds.
LWD was divided into several training sections. The recruits spent time at the base in South Coravado, a week at the Marine base at Camp Angleton on the rifle range, honing their marksmanship, and time in the mountainous region of San Duarte Island.
Along with the classroom, the first week was filled with conditioning swims and runs—though now, the recruits were carrying 50 pound rucksacks on their backs. They were familiarized with their infantry gear, and the Advanced Ultralight Battle Armor. They learned repelling techniques, radio communications, and land navigation.
At San Duarte, they learned patrolling and camouflage techniques, breach and clear tactics, short and long-range combat, demolitions tactics, and a host of other specialty skills. Proficiency drills and pistol qualifications were also held at San Duarte. Rifle qualifications were held on the standard Navy Reaper course at Camp Angleton.
For most of their time at LWD, the recruits were sleeping out in the bush. Rarely were they afforded the luxury of sleeping in the barracks. The air was frigid, and the 6000 foot elevation made conditioning runs, and mountain marches, especially taxing. They were fed a steady diet of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). They were wonderful for your digestive system, and were often referred to as constipation in a can, even though they came in packets.
Despite the unpleasant conditions, San Duarte was a welcomed break from the Naval Special Warfare Center and the chaos surrounding the terrorist attack. Reporters weren’t going to hike into the mountains to track Ryan down for an interview.
The class didn’t lose a single recruit during the entire phase. Ensign Parkes finished with the highest marksmanship, followed by Ryan. It was something she was never going to let him live down.
“Mosaav is different,” the detective said. “You don’t have the same rights and privileges here as you do in the Federation. Especially as a foreigner.”
Emma stared at him and said nothing.
He was a thin man with dark hair, dark eyes, and had a mustache that seemed a little too big for his narrow face. He was probably in his 50s. He was holding a manila folder full of paper. He set it on the table, but didn’t open it. "I have the right to keep you in custody until you are formally charged. We have up to three years to bring official charges."
Emma’s eyes widened.
"Like I said. It is much different than the Federation.” He surveyed her for a moment. “As it stands, three upstanding Aldebarani citizens are dead because of you."
Emma scoffed. "Upstanding?"
"Do you have evidence to suggest otherwise?"
Emma remained silent.
“Not to mention the destruction of property that is ranging into the hundreds of thousands of credits.” The detective leaned in and stared into Emma’s eyes. "Why are you here, Ms. Castle?"
“I’m part of the regional security office.”
“I can read your documentation. I want to know why you’re really here.”
“To protect our diplomats and embassy staff.”
“So, that’s why you were racing through the streets, discharging your weapon? Can you enlighten me as to why you were chasing these individuals with reckless disregard for the safety of our citizens.”
Emma said nothing.
“You know what I think? I think you are not a regional security officer. I think you are a UIA agent looking for terrorists without the consent of our government.”
“Sorry. I’m just a security guard.”
The detective smiled. “You might be fascinated to know that we have our own intelligence agency here on Aldebaran. The Planetary Security and Intelligence Bureau. Sure, we don’t have the budget or the resources of the Federation, but our agency does a pretty good job.”
He opened the manila folder and slid it across the desk. It was Emma’s complete dossier. It contained every detail of her military background and UIA service. It had her college and high school transcripts. A list of friends and associates, along with her entire family tree.
Emma glanced at the documents and tried to act unimpressed. The detective studied her eyes for any sign of acknowledgment.
“Clearly your intelligence agency isn’t very good,” she said. “This information is incorrect.”
“Hmm. Interesting. Well, you can tell the PSIB that directly when one of their agents arrives.” He reached across the table and closed the folder, then pulled it back across the desk. He stood up and strode toward the door. He craned his neck back just before he left the room. “You’re in for a very long and unpleasant stay. I suggest you take this time to think about telling the truth to the PSIB.”
Emma grimaced and muttered under her breath. She knew she was in a lot of trouble, and this little escapade of hers was going to bring the heat down on Graham and the agency. The Aldebaranian government wasn’t going to start a war with the Federation—they were just one planet. But this was exactly the type of thing that could make cold relationships even colder.
Aldebaran seceded from the Federation almost a decade prior. The planet was just outside the region that the Saarkturians had deemed their Holy Land. As such, they had no qualms with the Aldebaranians. Because of their neutral position, they were able to establish trade agreements and avoid military conflicts with the Saarkturians. It had become a haven for those who shared an anti-Federation sentiment.
Emma knew that Federation citizens didn’t do well in Aldebaranian prisons. She was tough, and could handle herself in a fight. But the odds of making it past the first week were slim.
A burly guy in the corner was eyeing Emma. He was 6’3”, 260 pounds, and solid muscle. He had a crazed look in his eyes, and seemed quite at home in a correctional facility. He was covered in prison tattoos that extended to his neck, and even his face. All of the other inmates kept their distance from him. He looked like he could snap at any minute.
Emma had been transferred to a holding cell with a dozen other inmates. It was probably a temporary situation until the PSIB agent arrived, but nothing about her future was certain at this point.
It was like any other holding tank in a big city. There was a hodgepodge of assorted characters. There were the two teenage girls that were in for shoplifting, despite having enough money to pay for the goods. The happy drunk, the belligerent drunk, and the kid busted for possession. There was the car thief. The two bar room brawlers, a guy arrested for breaking and entering, and the big burly guy. Rumor had it he was out on parole for aggravated assault when he got picked up again. Apparently he had beaten a guy who died later.
Emma learned all of this information from Charles who had been in the holding cell for almost a month now. He had fallen through the cracks. He should have been moved out of the holding tank to a housing pod by now. No charges had been filed, and he hadn't even spoken with his attorney yet. There was no telling when he was going to go before a judge. He wasn't even sure what he was going to be charged with. And like everyone else in this entire prison system, he was innocent.
Charlie was a gruff old man with stark white hair and a narrow face. He had bags under his eyes and rosy red cheeks from the broken capillaries under the skin. His eyes used to be blue when he was younger, but they lost their vibrancy and were more grayish now. Despite not having a drink in almost a month, he looked a little hung over.
The cell was contained by a glowing red beam. It pulsed slightly. In her experience, that was indicative of cheaper quality force shields. Emma probed it for weaknesses. Most beams excelled at stopping blunt forces. But occasionally, slow steady pressure could permeate the membrane. Attempting such a feat wasn't without its risks. You might be able to wedge a finger through the beam, but an abrupt move could activate the quantum shield, severing a digit.
"Don't waste your time,” Charlie said. "You're not getting through it. Trust me. Even if you do, you're not going to make it past the guards in the hallway.”
Emma craned her neck over her shoulder to look at him. Charlie was sitting on the grimy floor, leaning against the wall. "Can't blame a girl for trying."
The burly guy’s eyes were still glued to her. She knew he was going to be trouble.
Emma finally gave up with the force shield and took a seat next to Charlie against the wall. The thought of sitting on the grungy floor made her cringe. But she had been in worse places. The burly guy finally stood up and marched toward Emma. She sprang to her feet, anticipating the worst.
The rest of the inmates grew silent. All eyes fell on the two as they squared off.
Emma shrugged. "What's up with you?”
The two locked eyes with each other, like two predators sniffing each other out.
"You don't look like you belong in a place like this.”
"Neither do you," Emma said in a dry sardonic voice.
The big guy let out a booming chuckle. “If you need protection in here, just let me know. I’m sure we could work out some type of arrangement.” He had a lascivious glint in his eyes.
“Thank you, but I think I can take care of myself.”
He looked skeptical. “I don’t know. It can get pretty rough in here.”
“I like it rough.”
The big guy chuckled again. “Now you’re just teasing me.”
Emma smiled. She was good at diffusing situations.
"I like you. You've got spunk. The name is Vynx. You let me know if you need anything." He strolled back to where he was sitting.
Emma breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn't really looking forward to getting in a fight with a guy of that size. But she was never one to back down either.
"Well, aren't you the charmer," Charlie whispered. "I damn near pissed my pants when he walked this way. He got in a fight yesterday. One punch sent the other guy down to medical with a traumatic brain injury.”
"I'm not worried about him. He's all talk. It's the quiet ones you've got to watch out for."
The force field turned from red to orange, and the guards pushed in a new prisoner. As soon as he cleared the shield, it turned back to it's glowing red color. When the shield was orange, it allowed a one-way passage. A green rectangular portal opened up in the force shield, and the prisoner pushed through his wrists. The guards removed his cuffs, and he pulled his hands back through the opening. The green portal turned orange, then red. The new inmate was quick to clear his hands of the shield. He knew that if he left them in the path of the beam when it turned red he would lose his hands. That action alone let Emma know this wasn't his first time in prison.
He had long scraggly hair and narrow beady eyes. He scanned the holding cell as if he was looking for someone. Emma studied him. He wasn't a particularly large man, but he was solid. Carved of stone. He had a dagger tattooed on his right cheek, next to his sideburns. It was a common symbol among Aldebaranian assassins, though most were more discrete about placement.
It almost seemed like he was put in the cell to do a job. Prison guards in Mosaav were notoriously corrupt. The man had a focused intensity about him. Every other inmate in the cell had a look of terror hidden somewhere in their eyes, uncertain about their future, wondering when or if they would get out of prison. But this man didn't have that. It was like he knew he wasn't going to be in this holding cell for very long.
Emma saw the tip of a shank barely poking out of his shirt sleeve. It confirmed her suspicions that he was there to kill someone.
Third Phase kicked off with intense classroom training, introducing the recruits to the War-Tek™ T-6000 Advanced Tactical Battle Armor. It was a self-contained suit, offering protection in the most extreme environments. It was fully networked, had active camouflage, the advanced optical warfare interface, multiple Hughes & Kessler mini thruster ports for ease of navigation in Zero-G environments, advanced atmospheric processing technology that provided days of oxygen, and composite plating that could withstand direct hits from small arms fire.
Over the course of Third Phase, the recruits would have to become proficient in using, maintaining, and repairing the suit. They would learn how to precisely navigate in open space—not just for short walks, but for long insertions. It was not uncommon for Reapers to travel several thousand kilometers in open space during an operation. Hitting the target would require pinpoint accuracy. Because of their stealth capability, the T-6000s were excellent for recon missions.
Despite having made it thus far, Third Phase often saw a few DORs because some recruits couldn’t overcome the claustrophobia. Spending long durations in the confined suit proved too much for some to handle. It was like getting sealed inside a coffin—and for many Reapers, the suit would serve as one if things went wrong. A malfunction in the thrusters could send a Reaper spiraling into space for all eternity. Failure, or insufficiency, in the atmosphere processing system could result in hypoxia, and asphyxiation.
When the suits were connected to the network, and in range, they could be remotely controlled in case of emergency. But on long distance operations, the Reapers were on their own.
The Naval Special Warfare Command fell under the jurisdiction of the Joint Planetary Operations Command. As such, they reported directly to the Secretary of Defense and the President. They were answerable to no one else. They had their own line of funding as well. The Reapers had an almost unlimited budget for new toys and gadgets. Anything that might give a competitive advantage on the battlefield was approved. The Reapers never had to suffer through the budgetary constraints that the Marines and other branches of the service had to deal with. There was no congressional oversight. And due to the top-secret nature of operations, budgets and the inner workings of Naval Special Warfare were never made public. It afforded luxuries like the Combat Space Simulator. A massive training facility that could replicate the weightlessness and deep cold of space. And while the T-6000 had thermal regulators, the recruits were going to learn a new definition of cold. All of that training in the frigid water had a purpose.
Ryan latched his helmet on, and the heads-up-display came to life. A status bar gave a readout of vital statistics, location, status of the suit, power and oxygen capacity, and a multitude of other pertinent information. The front visor also served as an optical interface for access to computer data, videoconferencing, or to see the feed from other members of the team. The suit also offered protection from cosmic radiation.
The recruits marched from the dressing area into an airlock of the CSS. Instructor Duke was suited up with the class. He pressed a button on the bulkhead, and the oxygen was sucked out of the airlock. He pressed another button, opening the hatch to the simulation chamber. Then Duke did a back flip off the platform and somersaulted three times, then came to a perfect stop, floating in the air. He had the precision of an Olympic gymnast. The suit was operated by neural activity. It was like an extension of your body. Maneuvering the T-6000 was going to take practice, just like any other type of highly athletic skill.
“This evolution is going to be simple,” Duke said. “All you have to do is navigate to the derelict ship, deploy the hull mine, and return to the airlock. You will have 5 minutes to complete the evolution. Remember, always stay within 6 feet of your space buddy. If you get in trouble out there, you don’t want to be alone.” He surveyed the class. “Hunter… Parkes… you’re up."
Ryan and Piper exchanged a glance, then leapt into the simulation chamber. They glided toward the derelict ship that was hovering in the center of the cavernous expanse. The thrusters on the bottom of their boots pushed them forward as they flew like super heroes.
Duke had made it look easy. But it was far more challenging to fly straight than it looked. Ryan and Piper began to drift apart.
Dukes voice crackled over the comm system. "Tighten up. 6 feet!”
“Aye, sir," Ryan replied.
He used his palm thrusters to adjust his vector and narrow the gap between them. As they neared the derelict ship, he used his palm thrusters again to decelerate. He somersaulted around and activated his mag boots and clamped onto the hull. He pulled a dummy det-charge from his pack, knelt down and affixed it to the bulkhead.
Ryan’s eyes glanced at his HUD—they were right at the two minute mark. He set the timer, armed the device, then launched back toward the airlock.
Ryan and Piper completed the evolution in 4:47.
"Not bad," Duke said, almost sounding impressed.
There were no slackers left in Class 276. Everyone that was here was more than qualified, and all the recruits completed the evolution within the allotted time frame.
Duke had a devious grin on his face. "I told you that would be easy. Now let's try something difficult. I want you to do the same exact thing, but without optics. You will complete the evolution with no visual reference, using instrumentation only. That means you need to be able to place and set the charge by feel."
The T-6000 had sensors in the gloves which provided tactile feedback. But it was like screwing through a condom. It didn't quite feel the same.
"How long do we have for this evolution?" Ryan asked.
Ryan looked shocked.
"Don't tell me you thought the hard part was over, Hero?”
Emma felt her heart jump in her chest. She was certain this man was there to kill her. She was a nuisance in the eyes of the Aldebaranian government.
"Charlie, I think something is about to go down,” Emma said. “Watch yourself."
"Don't get involved with other people's drama. That's the first rule of prison politics."
"Unfortunately, I think this is my drama." Emma slowly stood up, trying not to draw attention to herself. The new inmate hadn't made eye contact with her yet.
The other inmates sized him up, and most decided to keep their distance. His dark eyes and stone face gave off a disquieting vibe. He slithered through the cell and leaned against the wall for a moment. Then he waited for everyone to get comfortable with his presence. It didn't take long—people have short attention spans. But Emma kept her eyes fixed on him, and the makeshift knife he was hiding in his shirt sleeve.
The air felt electric, and Emma’s skin tingled with anticipation. The new inmate was like a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike.
There was a common toilet in the holding tank. There weren't any privacy barriers. The toilet was just sitting there in plain view for all to see. There was a small sink above the toilet that provided the only water spigot in the entire cell. If you got thirsty, that's where you had to take a drink. It was particularly unpleasant if someone had gone nuclear in the bowl.
Like most intergalactic prisons, there was no segregation between male and female populations. It simplified things, especially for Xerflucian populations who had both male and female reproductive organs. Criminals were criminals, and they were all thrown in together. For the most part, prison officials didn't care what the inmates did to each other. Though, if an inmate died, it did affect the amount of funding the facility received. So that was a slight incentive to keep prison population alive and well.
Vynx stood up and ambled toward the toilet. He made it a few steps when the assassin lunged for him. Like a magician adept at the art of sleight of hand, the makeshift blade dropped from the assassin’s sleeve, into his palm. The blade glimmered in the harsh light as he swiped at Vynx. The big guy grabbed the assassin’s forearm, blocking the strike.
The rest of the inmates backed away and circled around the two, watching them fight.
Vynx swung a hard right cross. He had fists like a sledgehammer. If he would have connected, you’d have been able to hear bones crunching in the next precinct. But the assassin blocked the blow. With lightning speed, he kicked Vynx in the groin. The big man doubled over, and the assassin finished him off with a knee to the face.
Vynx dropped to the ground with a thud, stunned. Blood trickled from his nose and lips, splattering on the dirty concrete floor. This holding tank had been host to countless brawls in the past. Vynx’s blood was just another stain on the well-traveled surface.
The assassin raised the shank high overhead. His face tightened, and he snarled as he stabbed down with both hands. The blade sliced through the air, heading straight towards Vynx’s back. A precise hit could sever the spinal cord, rendering Vynx immobile. At the least, it would puncture a lung.
Emma wasn't sure why she did it. Instinct took over. She bolted across the cell and put a shoulder into the assassin. He tumbled to the ground. The shank missed the target and clattered to the floor. As the assassin staggered to his feet, Emma dislocated his jaw with a round house kick. Bones cracked, and blood spewed across the cell. The opaque crimson fluid glimmered in the stark overhead light. It ended up splattering one of the shoplifters in the face. She squealed as her face twisted up in disgust.
But Emma’s kick didn't stop the assassin. He charged her. But a flying front snap kick gave him something to think about. The impact jolted his head backwards. His nose shattered, spraying a fine mist of blood that hung in the air like a cloud. His body crashed to the ground, along with his two front teeth that clattered against the concrete. He wasn't getting back up after that one.
By this time, Vynx had regained his composure and grabbed the shank. Rage boiled on his face. He bared his teeth like a rabid dog as he charged for the dazed assassin still loitering on the floor. Vynx held the blade high overhead, ready to stab down.
Emma stepped in his path and held him back. "Think about this. You'll never see the outside of a prison cell if you do this."
Vynx looked at her like she was crazy. This tiny girl had dropped this assassin like it was nothing. And now she was standing in his way, holding him back. His face was dripping with sweat, and blood was still drooling from his lips and nose. He was still filled with rage, but you could tell he was impressed by Emma. He lowered the weapon and backed away. He tossed it in the opposite corner as eight Special Emergency Response Team officers flooded into the holding tank.
“Up against the wall! All of you! NOW!” the SERT leader shouted. They were dressed in black tactical gear with helmets and face masks. They carried nonlethal energy wands that would fill a person with enough volts to knock them on their ass.
Most of the inmates knew the drill and took a position with their hands against the wall and their legs spread. Emma followed suit.
"What the hell is going on in here?" the team leader asked.
Nobody said a word.
Emma felt an officer grab her wrist and ratchet her arm behind her back. He slapped a pair of cuffs on her wrist and dragged her to the center of the room and shoved her to the ground. He jammed the tip of the wand in her back, between her shoulder blades. He grinned. "Give me a reason to light you up."
The team leader scowled at Emma. "I don't like it when inmates beat the shit out of other inmates. Sort of makes it look like we're not doing our job."
"This individual was assaulting another inmate, Officer,” Emma said.
“Then you call for a guard to remedy the situation."
“You’d have a homicide on your hands if I waited for a guard to intervene."
The team leader hovered over her. "I don't like smart asses either."
One of the officers found the shank in the corner and showed it to the team leader.
"Now what do we have here?” The team leader had a devious glimmer in his eyes as he took the primitive knife and held it up, surveying it from all angles. "This type of contraband will get you 30 days in lockdown, and another year added onto your sentence."
“That’s not mine.”
"You remember what I said about smart asses?"
One of the officers attended to the assassin. He was still wallowing on the ground, incoherent.
"Get him down to medical ASAP," the team leader said.
Two guards hefted him from the ground and dragged him out of the holding cell.
"Review the surveillance footage,” Emma said. "You'll see everything that happened here. He came in with a knife. He was trying to kill inmate Vynx.”
"I don't like it when people try to tell me how to do my job either."
"You don't like much, do you?"
The team leader’s face tensed, and his eyes narrowed. "Take her down to the dungeon. That will break that attitude of yours right quick."
Two of the guards pulled Emma from the ground and escorted her out of the cell.
Vynx craned his neck over his shoulder and watched them take Emma away. His face tensed and he looked conflicted. It was common knowledge to keep your mouth shut in situations like these. Don't stick your neck out for anyone. Don't rat on anyone. Just shut up and mind your own business. But Emma had saved his life. "She didn't have nothing to do with this, man. This was my fight. He came after me."
The team leader glared at him. "I don't remember asking you a goddamn thing." He strolled toward Vynx, and an almost imperceptible smirk curled on his lips. He was enjoying his power trip. "You just earned yourself a trip to the dungeon with her."
After two weeks of proficiency drills, written exams, and qualifications, the recruits moved into the final section of Third Phase. In less than 4 weeks, they would graduate BSCT.
“Listen up,” Duke shouted. “This is the real deal. From here on out, all of your training will take place in space. There are no safety nets. There is no margin for error. If you make mistakes, you will die. Worse, you could cause a teammate to die. Any screwup, or safety violation, and you will be dropped from the program. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Instructor Duke,” the class responded in unison. They were standing in formation on the Pulverizer. It was 0500 hrs. A Vantage was prepped and ready for takeoff on the landing pad nearby.
The class hustled to the Vantage in full battle rattle, with RK 909s. They looked like Reapers ready to deploy into the field. It was like they were never coming back to the barracks.
They loaded up the back ramp and took their seats. Duke brought up the rear and strapped in alongside them. The ramp whirred shut. The pilot flicked switches and did preflight checks. A moment later, the Vantage lifted from the ground. The pilot banked around and throttled up, ascending to the upper atmosphere. Within moments, they were gliding above New Earth. For many recruits, this was the first time they had left the planet.
The Vantage coasted toward the USS Revenant. They were cleared for landing, and soon the skids were touching down on the flight deck. In less than 15 minutes, they had arrived on what would be their new home for the next 4 weeks, if not more.
Instructor Duke, and the rest of the class, descended the ramp and were greeted on the quarterdeck by Captain Walker and Ensign Carr.
Duke snapped a sharp salute. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”
“Permission granted,” Walker replied.
“Captain, you may remember some of these fine trainees from Class 276.”
“Indeed. Welcome aboard. Congratulations on making it this far. It’s exciting to witness the creation of the next generation of Reapers. Ensign Carr will escort you to your quarters and give you a basic orientation to the ship. If you need anything while you’re on board, don’t hesitate to ask.”
The recruits followed Ensign Carr with wide eyes, taking in the sights and sounds of an active destroyer.
Walker pulled Duke aside. “How are they coming along?”
“They are a strong class. I think they’ll all make fine Reapers.”
“We may need to bump up their timeline.”
“They still have another few weeks until graduation. Then there is Reaper Qualifying Training.”
“I need new Reapers now. Not in another six months.”
“You know as well as I do, Captain, Reapers are like a fine wine—it just takes time.”
“The UIA is experimenting with an accelerated learning protocol. These recruits have proven themselves physically. What if they could learn all of their advanced training skills within a week?”
“I’d say that would be an impressive task.”
“I’d like to run this group through as a test case.”
“You’ll have to get approval from Rear Admiral Jenkins. You may run JPOC, but Naval Special Warfare Command, and BSCT is under his control.”
It wasn’t the worst solitary confinement in the galaxy, but it was far from a day spa. It was where they put the troublemakers. As such, it was almost never quiet. Somebody was always hollering and screaming. Inmates often took to banging their heads against the wall, trying to commit suicide, or harm themselves in some way. And the guards didn’t really seem to care. The inmates would stop up the toilets and try to flood the section. Anything for attention or entertainment. 40% of the population had some type of mental disorder. And most inmates were pushing double digit IQs. There weren’t many with their doctorate degrees.
The cells were 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. There was a slim rack to sleep on with no padding and no pillow, and the standard toilet/sink in the corner. This was where an inmate would spend 24 hours a day. They were supposed to get an hour break outside the cell to stretch their legs and exercise, but such luxuries were rarely afforded to inmates in a prison like this. It didn’t take long for most people to go mad. Hardened criminals would break down in tears within a few days, sobbing like little girls.
Emma was placed in cell number 16. There were still bloodstains on the wall from the previous occupant. Emma could only imagine what had transpired.
Emma heard Vynx’s voice boom through the air vent that was located near the ceiling. He was in the cell next-door. “Hey…”
“Hey,” Emma replied.
“I owe you one. You saved my ass back there.”
“Well, it’s a rough place. If you need protection. Just come to me. I’m sure we can work out some kind of arrangement.”
Emma could hear Vynx’s thunderous chuckle rumble through the vent.
“I’ll say it again… you don’t seem like you belong in a place like this. How the hell did you wind up in here?”
“I work for the Federation government. I had a little disagreement with the MPD about the extent of my jurisdiction here.”
“So you’re a cop?”
“No. Special Agent.”
“You remind me of that actress… what’s her name… does all the spy movies… damn, it's on the tip of my tongue… Harper Logan."
"I'll take that as a compliment.”
"Except you're better looking."
"You're a real charmer, aren't you Vynx?”
"You know it, sweet thing."
Emma shook her head and grinned. "What about you? What's your story?"
"Not much to tell."
"That's not what I hear?"
"And what do you hear?”
"All kinds of things."
"Lies and exaggerations. I am absolutely, 100 percent not guilty."
"I've heard that before."
"You want the truth? I pissed off the wrong people. I was set up, now I'm here.”
“That’s what they all say.”
"So, you didn't kill anyone?” Emma said, skeptical.
"Is this a confidential conversation? Because I don't need my reputation getting tarnished."
"I pinky swear, I'm not going to tell anyone your dirty little secret."
"No, I didn't kill anyone. I mean, not here. I killed in the military, but that was different. I'm an ex pat from the Federation.”
"And you expect me to believe you?"
"Believe whatever you want to believe. It doesn't really matter to me.”
"What branch did you serve in?"
"United Federation Marine Corps. Ooh rah!”
"So what brought you to Mosaav?”
"It's a lot cheaper to live here than it is in the Federation." Then he said sheepishly, “And I may have gotten in a little bit of trouble back on New Earth."
"It's not my fault. I just keep making poor life decisions. It's something I need to work on. I'm seeing a therapist about it now."
Emma chuckled. Without looking at his face she wasn't able to tell if he was pulling her leg. But it sounded plausible. Anybody who ended up in here was making poor life decisions, and Emma felt like she was no exception.
"In all seriousness, if there's ever anything I can do to repay the favor, let me know."
"Can you get me out of here and help me find Ragza Vin Zelcor?” Emma said it in jest, not expecting an answer.
Vynx’s deep voice boomed back through the air vent. "I might know a way to find him.”
Emma's eyes widened. “You're kidding, right?"
"Do I sound like I'm kidding?”
"What's your connection?"
“Absolutely not. There’s a reason we make Reapers the way we do, we don’t change things without good reason,” Jenkins said.
“I understand, Admiral,” Walker replied. He stood at attention in the admiral’s office back at the Naval Special Warfare Command Center on New Earth. “But we have a pressing need for more trained Reapers.”
“The keyword here is trained.”
“The Teams are down to a handful of men. Sir, if we can make better warriors, faster, I think it’s worth trying.”
The admiral looked constipated. He didn’t like the idea one bit.
“I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the organization. I don’t think the standards should be altered for anyone. But continual refinement and improvement of processes and procedures is one of the things that allows the Reapers to excel.” Jenkins pondered this. “I’m well aware of your special relationship with the President. I suppose I don’t have a choice.”
“To the contrary. The Reaper organization is bigger than you, me, or even the President. Every decision should be made with the best interest of the Navy and ultimately the Federation.”
Jenkins was silent for a long moment. “You’re right. We either adapt or die. I’m going to authorize this new training method for class 276. But I want every metric tracked and performance evaluations every step of the way, as well as a long-term study.”
“Now, how exactly is this going to work?”
Walker paused for a moment. “Going forward, there are a few things you should know.”
The Admiral tensed, expecting something unpleasant.
“Everything about this project is classified.”
“It goes without saying, Captain”
“Don’t get upset, but—”
“Out with it.”
“A recruit, during Class 274, was implanted with a neural recorder.”
The admiral’s eyes widened, and his face turned beet red. The veins in his neck protruded.
“The device captured every aspect of this training. The recruit, who will remain anonymous, has gone on to demonstrate exemplary performance in the teams. His experience in RQT will be implanted into the trainees of 276.”
“Why wasn’t I informed of this?” The admiral tried to remain calm.
“I had no prior knowledge of this, sir. The project was only recently brought to my attention.”
“Who authorized it?”
“I can only assume the authorization came from the head of the UIA, John Graham.”
“I don’t like spooks meddling in my organization.” Jenkins had a love/hate relationship with the UIA. They kept the Reapers busy with covert operations. They’d say jump, and the Reapers would ask how high? Most of the time the Reapers would be glad for the opportunity. A chance to do what they trained to do. But Jenkins was starting to feel like he wasn’t getting his due respect.
“I understand, sir. I’ve had brief interactions with Graham. From what I can tell, he’s a good man.”
“I don’t care. Naval Special Warfare is my responsibility. Nothing happens without my approval.”
“I’ll relay the message.”
“No need. I’ll speak with Mr. Graham directly.”
Walker could tell Jenkins was going to give him an earful.
There was a strong chance this was all going to go wrong. But if it worked, there would be no arguing with the results. If it failed, it was going to be a black eye on the stellar reputation of the Reapers.
The recruits took positions in the neural programming stations. They looked like elaborate surgical tables that were fully adjustable and padded. The trainees were hooked up to IVs to maintain proper hydration, as well as administer any necessary medication. Xanafex™ Was used during the procedure to keep the subjects calm, and keep vital functions from exceeding a certain threshold. Neural transfers could be dangerous due to the high amount of stimulation. The body would sometimes overcompensate and pump out an immense amount of adrenaline. Cardiac arrest and stroke weren’t unusual complications during neural transfers. Xanafex was a new drug developed specifically for this purpose. In test subjects it had done an excellent job of regulating stress response.
Vital signs for each recruit were displayed on a nearby monitor. Peaks and valleys blipped on the screen—heart rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure.
Technicians in white lab coats placed the neural rings around each of the recruits. There were multiple contact points on the rings, terminating at the temples. Each of the recruits were warned of potential complications, and release forms were signed. They’d already signed their life away when they joined the Navy—the release forms were just an added protection in case a family member attempted to sue the Navy or UIA for wrongful death.
Dr. Holly Noble was heading up the project. She was considered by many to be the greatest mind of her generation, on par with the likes of Einstein. She was the total package of brains and beauty. Though she wasn’t infallible. Her last project had less than stellar results.
“Take a deep breath and try to relax,” Dr. Noble said. “As we discussed previously, you will be receiving a high influx of sensory input. Multiple areas of the brain will be stimulated simultaneously. I know each and every one of you is accustomed to challenging situations, so I believe you will all be able to handle this physically. However, you may find the transfer process overwhelming. Try to stay calm, and absorb the information. We’ll be closely monitoring your vitals, but if at any time you feel uncomfortable, please let the technicians know. You may feel flush, experience high heart rate, increased respiration, mild perspiration—”
“Kind of like sex,” Alvarez shouted.
Dr. Noble rolled her eyes. “It will have the sensation of mild physical activity. But should you become dizzy, or short of breath, then we have a problem.” She gave a final check on the recruits.
There was a technician manning each station, and they all gave the thumbs up.
“We’ll start out with a very low signal at first, and gradually ramp up.”
The technicians activated the devices, and the neural stimulation began. This session lasted for 30 minutes, with no adverse events. There weren’t enough devices to accommodate the entire class at once, so the class was divided into three groups. Space buddies were kept together. The groups resembled boat crews from First Phase.
Dr. Noble was still optimizing the process, but it seemed like the best absorption rate resulted from no more than four sessions per day. The brain needed adequate recovery time. Otherwise it was like pouring water into an overflowing cup.
Three days into the protocol, they had their first complication.
"So, an old army buddy of mine calls me up with an opportunity,” Vynx said. ”It's a good gig, he says. Easy. Pays well. Just my kind of thing. But don't ask too many questions, he tells me. Okay, fine. I know it's probably not 100% legit. But the money is green. I don't know, don't want to know. All we have to do is run security on a cargo ship. Keep it from getting raided in open space. Make sure nobody jacks us in port. And keep our mouths shut about it. Not a whole lot different from special ops. So I take the gig."
Vynx was doing his best to whisper through the vent. Emma had climbed on top of the bunk and put her ear to the louvers.
"The first couple of runs were no big deal. I figured they were just testing us out, making sure we were trustworthy. Then things start to get a little shady. I figure we’re probably guarding shipments of drugs, or something like that. But I keep my nose out of it. Plausible deniability. Then we make a run to Epsilon Reticula 5. One of the crew drops a crate as they're loading it into the cargo bay and it cracks open. I catch a glimpse of the UPDF markings. They’re Perseus II nuclear warheads.”
Vynx’s words hung in the air like smoke.
"A few assault rifles would be one thing, but a fucking nuclear warhead?” Vynx said. "So I started asking questions. And these people don't like questions. I was told to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business. And when I said I didn't want to work for them anymore, they told me I didn't have a choice. Keep working, and keep quiet, or they're going to find my family and kill them. I thought they were bluffing until they kidnapped my sister."
"Who were you working for?"
"A guy named Aknar Suspa.”
Emma grimaced. She didn't say anything for a long time.
"What's the matter?"
"Suspa is dead. He was my path to Ragza.”
"How do you know he's dead?"
"Because I saw it with my own eyes.”
"Are you sure?"
"We set up a meeting with an informant. We were going to tail him, and keep tabs on him until he led us to Ragza.”
"No. That doesn't sound right. Suspa doesn't meet with low level operatives. He rarely leaves his home. He's got a double that handles all of his public transactions. My guess is he's still alive. And I can lead you to him. That is, if we can get out of here. I know where he lives.”
Emma was standing on her tiptoes atop the bunk, listening through the vent. She slid down the wall and took a seat, deflated. She felt the odds were slim of ever seeing the outside of her cell. She curled up on the hard plank and tried to get some rest. But it was impossible to sleep with all the noise going on in the section. Her mind was racing, going over the events of the day, and trying to solve the puzzle of how to move forward. She examined everything she had seen since she entered the prison, hoping to find a flaw or weakness in the security.
Without windows or a clock in the cell, she lost all track of time. It was hard to tell whether it was day or night. The only clue was the schedule of the guard rotation. It was a little heavier during the day. And a single meal was served during the day. It wasn't much to speak of, just some type of indiscernible slop shoveled onto a tray. It had a chalky taste and dried out her mouth. It was hard to swallow, like paste. After meals, she would hover over the sink, slurping from the tap to wash it down.
The days blurred into one another, and Emma wasn't sure how long she had been locked up. A week? A month? Maybe more? She was partially delirious and thought she was dreaming when the guards deactivated the force shield. She stared at them blankly for a moment.
"If you really like it here, you can stay. Otherwise, you've been sprung.”
"What?" It still wasn't registering with her.
"You can go."
She stood up on the bunk and shouted into the vent. "Hey Vynx, I'm out.”
"That's fantastic. Good luck out there."
"I'm going to see what I can do for you."
"Today," the guard yelled.
Emma hopped down from the bunk and exited the cell. The guard let her out of lock up to the exit processing area. She collected her personal belongings, minus her weapons, and stepped out into the exhaust-filled dusty air of Mosaav. She took a deep breath and filled her lungs. It was better than the musty smell of solitary confinement, which was ripe with the smell of body odor and other unpleasant aromas.
Pinford was waiting for her at the curb. He didn't look happy.
"Boy am I glad to see you,” Emma said.
Pinford glared at her. "You have no idea the trouble you’ve caused. You almost started an intergalactic incident. I had to pull a lot of strings for you. Get in the car."
Emma hopped into the passenger seat of Pinford’s car that was parked at the curb. Pinford slipped behind the wheel and issued a voice command. "Take us to the Mosaav Intergalactic Spaceport.”
Emmas eyes widened as the car pulled away from the curb and entered traffic. "Why are we going to the spaceport?"
"Because, as a condition of your release, you must leave Aldebaran immediately. And you are no longer an employee of the UIA.”
"No. You can't do that. I know where Suspa is.”
"The order comes directly from Graham and the Aldebaranian government. If it were up to me, I would have let you rot in that prison forever. And in case you haven't heard, Suspa is dead.”
No he’s not. It was a double. I know where he is. We can find Ragza.”
"That's not your job anymore. You should count your blessings.”
"What about Anderson?"
"He was released earlier this morning. I personally saw him leave on a transport."
Emma slumped, defeated. "What about my stuff?"
"I'll have it shipped to you." A snide grin curled up on Pinford’s lips. "Good luck finding a job after being fired from the UIA.”
Emma clinched her teeth. It was like getting a dishonorable discharge from the military. It was a negative mark on your record forever. But that didn't bother her near as much as the fact that Ragza was going to slip through her fingers, and the terrorist attacks were going to continue .
Ryan’s vitals elevated and he began to convulse. He was dripping with sweat. Monitors beeped and buzzed. White lab coats fluttered as the technicians rushed to him. They discontinued the neural transfer and gave him another dose of Xanafex. After a moment, he stopped twitching.
Dr. Noble examined Ryan. He lay motionless on the table. His eyes were fixed and dilated. It was indicative of serious brain trauma. She injected him with Platrivox™, an anti-platelet that would help minimize blood clotting. She wasn’t sure if he had a stroke or not. With her PDU, she did a quick brain scan. The device analyzed the results, and within seconds, concluded no physical trauma had occurred. But Ryan was still non-responsive.
Dr. Noble’s face was bathed in worry. Not only was she concerned for Ryan’s well-being, this could be the end of the project.
“Continue to monitor him. I’ve got to notify Captain Walker,” Holly said to one of the technicians.
“What about the others?”
“Let’s discontinue the sessions until we know how to proceed.”
One by one the technicians began ramping down the transfers on each of the recruits.
By the time Walker arrived in the testing center, Ryan was alert and responsive. He was sitting up on the table. “I’m fine. Put me back in, coach.”
“We need to run some more tests and see what exactly happened,” Dr. Noble said.
“It was just more information than I could process. It was like a brain freeze. That’s all. I’m fine. Really.”
“I’m inclined to agree with Dr. Noble,” Walker said. “Let’s halt the program, keep him monitored, and re-evaluate in a few days.”
Ryan deflated. “Look, I want to get out there and start contributing as soon as possible. I assume the rest of the class feels the same.”
“Hooyah,” the rest of the group replied.
“Jenkins is going to need to be informed of this,” Duke said.
Walker nodded, but cringed slightly.
“I’m pulling the plug on this,” Jenkins said. “I will not allow anything to compromise the viability of our recruits.” His face flickered on Walker’s PDU.
Walker was regretting not taking this meeting in person. A video call was much easier for the admiral to dismiss. “I understand, Admiral. But so far, the recruit in question is exhibiting no ill effects. It seems to have been a transient sensory overload that put him into a catatonic state.”
“We don’t know what the long-term effects of this is going to be. You could be scrambling these recruits’ brains. And what happens if they freeze up on the battlefield?”
“I spoke with Dr. Noble. She suggested reducing the amount of transferred data per session. How about we continue to monitor Mr. Hunter, and put him through some performance evaluations with cognitive tests to see what skills, if any, he’s acquired thus far during the protocol?”
Jenkins paused for a long moment. He let out a long sigh. “All right. I’ll allow it. But proceed with caution. One more of these incidents, and I’m terminating the program.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Ryan was put through a range of cognitive testing. The results were compared to his pre-protocol tests. There was no significant deviation in cognitive ability, memory recall, or motor skills. Brain scans continued to be normal.
All of the recruits were then tested for absorption—how much had they actually learned from the neural transfer process?
After BSCT, officers attend the Junior Officer Training Course where they learn to be effective leaders. After which, they are sent to jump school. Enlisted members attend Army Airborne training directly after completing Biscuit. Jump school is a regimented three-week program where they will learn both static line and free-fall training. Trainees will progress to night HALO ( high-altitude, low opening) jumps in excess of 10,000 feet. They learn to do these jobs with both the Advanced Ultralight Armor as well as the heavier T-6000s.
Once completed, both officers and enlisted must go through Reaper Qualifying Training (RQT). A grueling 26 week course that instills the advanced core tactical knowledge it takes to join a Reaper team. They learn things like advanced weapons training, close quarters combat, small units tactics, and advance space combat tactics. They also learn to evade and resist capture, as well as torture endurance strategies. Additionally, they are trained in explosive ordnance disposal, and advanced battlefield medical procedures. It is a long, classroom intensive process, and only upon completion are the students awarded their Reaper pin—the Skull & Scythe.
The prospect of shortening that training cycle was certainly enticing.
The results of their absorption testing proved encouraging. The recruits had only undergone a few days of the neural protocol, so their knowledge at this point was limited to the rest of Third Phase and the first week of Airborne training, or JOTC if the trainee was an officer.
Duke ordered group 1 of the recruits to engage in a Third Phase evolution with the T-6000s that required a high degree of technical proficiency.
“There’s a Navy cruiser on the far side of Eupona. The USS Bunker Hill. You’re mission is to infiltrate the vessel undetected and deploy a dummy charge in the reactor room, then exfiltrate back to the Revenant. You have 4 hours to complete the mission, starting now.”
Eupona was one of several small moons orbiting New Earth. The Bunker Hill was running drills of its own, practicing Marine infantry landings on the surface of Eupona.
The Reaper recruits prepped their mission, donned the T-6000s, and launched from the 2nd Deck airlock.
The continuation of the neural protocol was going to depend upon their performance.
"He's pulling your chain," Graham said. There was a lot of digital distortion on the transmission. His image broke up occasionally on the screen of Emma's PDU.
"I think he's telling the truth.” Emma sat in a deportation area in the spaceport. Guards were posted at the entrance. From where she was sitting, she could see the tarmac.
"I'm sorry, but an inmate in solitary confinement is not a credible source that I can go on. Especially after your recent fiasco. Diplomatic relationships with Aldebaran are at an all time low.”
"At least check him out. His name is Vynx Malar. Former special forces. I’m completely locked out of the system and can't access the database."
"My hands are tied here. I'm sorry.”
"Just look into it.”
Graham reluctantly agreed. “Now get on that shuttle when it arrives. I need to debrief you on your return.” He ended the transmission.
Pinford paced around the room. "It's going to take years to undo the damage you've done." Emma's departure couldn't come soon enough.
"At least now you might actually have to work for a living.”
He scowled at her.
The two sat in silence for the next hour until a Vantage descended on the tarmac. The air rippled and distorted below its massive thrusters. The landing pylons compressed under its massive weight as it touched down.
"Looks like your ride is here." Pinford escorted her across the tarmac and saw that she boarded the vehicle.
Chloe waited for her at the top of the loading ramp with her ever pleasant smile. “Mission accomplished?"
"Far from it."
Chloe's smile faded. “I'm sorry. They don't give me any details. They just said to come pick you up.”
Emma looked back at Pinford and gave him a smile and a wave that said fuck you.
Chloe pressed the button on the bulkhead and the back ramp whirred shut. She slipped into the pilot seat and powered the Vantage up. The preflight checks all came back green. The control tower gave her clearance to take off, and she throttled the engines up. The Vantage lifted from the tarmac and ascended into the upper atmosphere. They were escorted by a squadron of fighters to the edge of Aldebaranian space.
"I take it you're not welcome back?" Chloe asked.
"They didn't seem to find my personality very charming.”
Emma didn't want to waste any time. As far as she was concerned, her mission was still to find Ragza, even if she wasn't officially employed by the UIA. “What kind of surveillance capabilities do you have on board?"
"My instructions are to return you to New Earth as soon as possible, without deviation."
"It was just an innocent question.”
"The Vantage is equipped with high-resolution optics, but from this distance they won't prove very useful."
Emma lost herself in thought for a moment. Then her eyes brightened. "I've still got a set of mosquito drones in Mosaav. Standard protocol is to go into hibernation mode when they can't return to their point of origin. If I can establish communication, I might be able to reactivate them."
"Please don't put me in an uncomfortable situation. I have my orders.”
Emma pleaded with her. "Just give me five minutes to try to establish a connection. We can deploy a relay buoy to extend the range. This could be the deciding factor in stopping the terrorist attacks.”
Chloe bit her lip. “Okay. Five minutes. I’m going to take this time to plot jump coordinates. What you do during that time is your own business." She smiled.
"Thank you." Emma pulled out her PDU and tabbed through the applications until she found the drone controller. She launched the program and selected the squadron of mosquito drones that she had deployed to surveil Suspa. The screen displayed the message attempting to connect. The status bar spun for several minutes. It didn't look like it was going to work. Probably too far out of range, she thought.
A moment later, the screen read: device found, connection established. The screen was split into four distinct views from the drones, with flight controls and commands displayed below. The drones were still in the restaurant, perched in hibernation. She entered the coordinates of Suspa’s home that Vynx gave her. The drones took flight and buzzed through the city. It was going to take a considerable amount of time for them to travel to the location. They weren’t the fastest things in the galaxy.
"Deploy a relay transponder and set the encryption to 21176.235.”
Chloe punched the data into the keypad, then launched the transponder. It was a small orb that hovered in space, about the size of a softball.
Emma tested the transponder to make sure it was working. She switched her PDU to route through it. The signal was crystal clear. "Let's hope this thing has the range to transmit back to New Earth."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I didn't see or hear anything.” Chloe winked.
Chloe engaged the slide-space drive. The bulkheads bulged and warbled as the Vantage disappeared, leaving a wake of quantum distortion.
“With all due respect, Admiral, I don’t appreciate your recruits utilizing my ship as some kind of training toy.” Captain Burke of the Bunker Hill was livid, yet he was trying to maintain a respectful tone of dissent to a superior officer.
“I can understand your frustration, Captain. But it was crucial that these trainees performed an operation in as realistic an environment as possible. I apologize for any inconvenience it caused you.” Jenkins had a slight grin on his face. He was sitting in his office at the Naval Special Warfare Center. He shrugged. “The needs of the Navy.”
“Yes, the needs of the Navy,” Burke grumbled. It was a phrase you heard with frequency every time you got screwed over by the Navy. He realized the conversation wasn’t going to end to his satisfaction. “Thank you, Admiral. Good day.”
Jenkins ended the transmission, and Burke’s angry face vanished from the display on his desk. Jenkins looked to Walker. He was sitting across from him.
“It seems the recruits accomplished their mission undetected.” He held back a chuckle. “Discovery of the dummy bomb sent Burke into a tizzy. He called in an EOD team. It took them four hours to figure out it wasn’t live.” Jenkins couldn’t stifle his laughter any longer.
Walker grinned. “The recruits are operating at a very high level, and have retained the knowledge transferred during the protocol.”
“I’ll admit, I’m beginning to see the potential value in this program. I’m anxious to see more. But proceed with caution.”
The Pulverizer had been transformed. Once host to grueling PT sessions, it was now ready for a celebration. Flags of the Federation ringed the area. Centerstage was a riser with a lectern against the background of Federation flags. Rows upon rows of folding chairs were laid out across the blacktop of the Pulverizer. Several hundred guests would be in attendance. T-shirts, keychains, koozies, pennants, and other memorabilia, all emblazoned with the Reaper logo, were for sale. There were refreshments including beer and wine, as well as appetizers and hors d’oeuvres. The weather outside was magnificent. You couldn’t ask for a better day to graduate from BSCT.
The neural transfer process allowed the students to complete six months worth of Reaper qualifying training within three weeks. Class 276 had reached the end of training.
They had been put through final qualifications, passed their physical evaluations and readiness tests, and were ready to be anointed as new Reapers. It was a day Ryan thought would never come. Though, there were many older Reapers who were grumbling about the shortcut this class had taken.
Captain Walker took to the podium and addressed the crowd. “Good afternoon. I’d like to thank Rear Admiral Jenkins, all of the Naval Special Warfare Center instructors and staff, our esteemed guests, friends, and family, and of course, Class 276. I am honored to give this commencement address. I remember my Biscuit graduation like it was yesterday. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. But that moment pales in comparison to the sense of pride I feel today in Class 276, and the entire Special Warfare community. It is the selflessness and sacrifice of men and women such as yourselves that will allow this great Federation to remain a beacon of freedom and integrity throughout the galaxy.”
The crowd cheered.
“This is also the first BSCT class that will not only graduate, but will also receive their Reaper qualification. Due to the tireless work of Dr. Holly Noble, we will be able to award these recruits their Skull & Scythe six months ahead of schedule. After today, they will be ready to begin their life in the Teams.”
The crowd cheered and hollered again.
“This class started with 95 recruits. Today, 18 are graduating. It is a testament to your tenacity and dedication that you are still here. Unfortunately, there is one recruit who should be standing among you today, but is not. I asked all of the recruits to list other recruits in order from highest performer to lowest performer. Spaceman Gavin Kirby was at the top of everyone’s list. It is a rare occasion that we do this, but Gavin Kirby will be named as an honorary graduate of Class 276.”
“Hooyah!” the recruits shouted.
“Without further ado, welcome to the Teams.”
The Pulverizer erupted with applause. The whistles and cheers were deafening. When the chaos died down, Walker called up the newly minted Reapers one by one to bestow them with their coveted Reaper pin.
Ryan accepted his badge and shook Walker’s hand with a wide smile. He stepped off the stage and found his father who was beaming. The two embraced.
“I’m proud of you, son. Your mother would be too.”
“I wish Colton was here to see this.”
His father returned a grim smile. “He’d be proud of you too.” There was a somber moment of silence between them. Then he tried to lighten the mood. “I see that Colton’s O-course record still stands.”
Ryan shrugged. “I didn’t have the heart to take it from him.”
Bill smiled. “I don’t think anybody ever will.”
“Come on. Let’s grab a beer. I want to hear all about BSCT. I want to know how much it’s changed.”
“It’s way tougher than when you went through, Dad.” Ryan was teasing him.
“I’m not so sure about that. We didn’t have all this technology.”
“You had to rub two sticks together to make fire back then, didn’t you?”
“Watch it now.”
“Spaceman Hunter,” Walker said, approaching Ryan. “I’d like a word with you, if you have a moment.”
“Absolutely, sir. I’d like you to meet my father, Bill Hunter.”
“Bill, it’s nice to meet you.”
Bill shook his hand. “Likewise, Captain. You’ve got quite the reputation throughout the Teams.”
“As do you, sir.” Walker smiled. “I’ll just keep him for a moment.”
Ryan and Walker stepped aside.
“You and Ensign Parkes are at the top of the class in just about every metric that’s tracked.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ve worked hard.”
“You two get along well?”
“Not at first. But we’ve since cultivated a… mutual respect.”
“Is there anything… extracurricular going on between you two?”
“That would be against the rules, sir.”
Walker wasn’t born yesterday. He had seen them interact. He knew full well they were attracted to each other. “I trust you’ll keep things professional.”
New Reapers were like college football players entering the PFL draft. The various Reaper teams were always scouting for new guys who might be a fit within their platoons. Each platoon was a close-knit, cohesive group that didn’t let just anybody in. You needed the right mix of skills and personality. OICs wanted new guys to blend seamlessly with the existing culture established within the platoon.
“I’d like you to join my team.”
“I’d be honored, sir.”
“This class is going to come under a lot of scrutiny during their first deployment, and possibly beyond. You’ll be expected to perform at, or above, the level of the existing Reapers.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
“Good.” Walker extended his hand. “Welcome to Team Punisher.”
The Revenant was a sight for sore eyes. Emma felt dirty and grimy, and her hair was flat and matted. It was like being a grunt in the field all over again. She was sure she smelled like garbage. Emma felt sorry for Chloe who had to suffer through it for 9 hours on the ride back to the destroyer.
"A hot meal and a shower sounds really nice right about now," Emma said.
Chloe made her approach to the flight deck.
The LSO's voice crackled over the comm system. "Rockstar, I have you on approach. Call the ball."
"Bravo two-one-one, Vantage ball, 5.8."
Chloe was in the groove. The Vantage crested the edge of the flight deck and made a perfect landing. Chloe flipped switches and powered down the vehicle.
"Thanks again," Emma said.
"What are you going to do now?”
"Meet with Graham and beg for my job back.”
"What if that doesn't work?"
Emma shrugged. "Assemble a team of mercs and try to do the job myself."
Chloe smiled. "I think they're making a mistake letting you go."
"I hope my boss thinks like you."
Emma climbed out of her seat, and strode down the ramp to the flight deck. She didn't have any gear to grab. Everything had been left behind. All she had were the clothes on her back. She marched through the maze of corridors to the UIA office.
Her security clearance and privileges had been revoked. She wasn't even allowed into the compartment the UIA was occupying. She was escorted by two Marines to a waiting area. 15 minutes later, Graham arrived. She couldn't totally read the expression on his face. He didn't look as angry as she expected him to be. But he didn't look particularly happy either.
"Your guy checked out."
"Former special forces. Did two tours in Razurvan. Medical discharge after a piece of shrapnel lodged in his spine.”
“I told you.”
“He got himself in a little bit of trouble. He's a fugitive from the Federation. Armed robbery. He and six other former special operators hijacked a shipment of medical supplies en route to Arcturus Vega."
“Doesn’t mean his intel is not good. He led us right to Suspa. I’ve set up a drone network on a relay. You should be able to monitor the feed."
Graham grimaced. "You've already caused enough trouble. Do you know what kind of shit storm it's going to cause if the Aldebaranian government discovers an unauthorized surveillance network?”
"They're not going to find it. They’re mosquito drones. Just watch the feed. If it is, in fact, Suspa’s residence, he will lead you to Ragza.”
"How can you be so sure?"
“Ragza does not allow any type of electronic communication to emanate from within his compound. He knows these devices can be tracked. Mobile devices aren't even allowed on the premises. He meets once a week with Suspa to relay commands. From there, Suspa disseminates the communications to the rest of the cells."
Graham surveyed her. She could see the conflict in his eyes.
"Just follow this lead and see where it goes. No harm no foul.”
"I've already taken a lot of heat on this."
"And you're going to take even more the next terrorist attack."
Graham exhaled deeply. "Go back to your compartment and lay low for a while."
Emma didn't like that suggestion one bit.
"Look, I can't get you reinstated right now. This incident has gone way beyond me."
"I don't need to be reinstated. Work with me off the books. We do it all the time. If this lead pans out, I’ll put together a black ops team myself. We’ll work like contractors, and you can deny any involvement if things go south."
Graham pondered this for a moment. "Go get yourself cleaned up. You stink."
Emma smiled. "That's not a no,” she said in singsong.
"That's not a yes either.”
Emma took a long, hot shower and changed into some fresh clothes she had grabbed from the ship’s store. She headed down to the 2nd deck mess hall to grab some chow. Even though the food was coming from a processor, it was far better than anything she had back on Aldebaran.
She took a seat at a table and dug into her meal. She had been craving bacon and eggs for weeks. She didn't care what time of day it was, she felt like breakfast. The crispy bacon was divine. After the chalky sludge she was fed in solitary, this tasted like the best meal she had ever had. It was almost worth spending time in the dungeon just to have the pleasure of this moment. Almost.
"Mind if I join you?" a familiar voice asked.
Emma looked up to see Anderson's piercing blue eyes. "I don't see any harm in two former secret agents having lunch together,” she said with a smile.
Anderson set his tray on the table and took a seat. "Yeah, that was a raw deal. You make out okay in prison?"
"Piece of cake."
Anderson chuckled. "Right."
"What about you?"
"We train for that shit. I don't think anything could be as bad as the Advanced Prisoner Survival Training back at the Academy."
Emma agreed. APST was a grueling 30 day simulation where new recruits were pushed to the breaking point. It was the closest thing to a real POW situation that you could get. It was modeled after the APST Navy Reapers went through.
It was good to catch up with Anderson. He was the only other person that could relate to exactly what she was going through. Plus, she had to admit he was easy on the eyes.
“Since neither one of us are employed, how about we grab that drink now?” She felt the butterflies in her stomach flutter a little as she waited for a response.
Anderson gave her a skeptical look. “I don’t know. Might not be such a good idea.” He was playing hard to get and spitting her words back at her.
“Come on. Don’t make me drink alone?”
“I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding a companion.”
“Okay. Suit yourself.” Emma pushed away from the table and picked up her tray.
“Well, I guess I can make an exception. Just this once.” Anderson flashed a devilish grin.
The day after graduation, Ryan transferred to the Revenant. He was settling into his new quarters when there was a knock on the hatch. “Come in.”
The hatch slid open, and Ensign Parkes hung in the doorway. “Wow, your quarters are so much smaller than mine.”
Ryan frowned at her. “Rub it in, why don’t you?”
She stepped into the compartment and glanced around. “How many people do you share this with?”
“Four. The joys of being enlisted,”
Parkes grinned, flaunting her officer status. “And where are your roommates now?”
“Down in the chow hall on 2nd Deck.”
“It’s going to take me forever to learn my way around this ship.”
“At least we got the same platoon assignment.”
Parkes scrunched her lips up. “I was kind of hoping we wouldn’t.”
Ryan looked confused. “Why?”
“Cause I’ve been wanting to do this.” She planted a fat kiss on his lips.
Ryan’s eyes went wide. But he wasn’t going to argue. Her plush lips felt silky smooth. His heartbeat elevated.
Piper muttered in between pecks, “I know this is a prohibited relationship. Officer/enlisted in the same platoon.” She nibbled on his ear. “But I’ve wanted you since Second Phase.”
Her voice felt like velvet in his ears, and her steamy breath tickled his neck. Her skin was smooth, and her hair smelled divine. His hand traced the supple curves of her body. He knew this was going to be trouble. But six months of zero action, and an overload of testosterone, and there was no stopping.
Ensign Parkes pulled on her clothes in a hurry. She had a satisfied glimmer in her eyes. “Next time, we’re going to have to find a bigger space. That rack is way too tiny for both of us.”
Ryan arched an eyebrow at her. “So, there’s gonna be a next time?” There was a hopeful tone in his voice.
Piper was suddenly insecure. “Well, I mean… you want a next time, don’t you?”
“I don’t know about you, but I could go again right now.” He had a cocksure grin.
“Believe me. It’s tempting.” She growled with frustration. “Ugh, what am I thinking. This is insane.”
They finished pulling on their clothes just as Spaceman Phillips entered the room.
Piper’s sultry voice instantly changed to an authoritarian tone. “Well, thank you, Spaceman Hunter. I will take that under advisement. I’ll expect a full after action report by tomorrow.” She spun around and marched out of the compartment.
“After action report?” Phillips asked.
Ryan shrugged. “Classified.”
Phillips looked a little perplexed, but shrugged it off. He didn't seem to put two and two together.
Ryan's mobile buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and glanced at the display screen. The call was from the last person he expected. He accepted the call and Kendall’s bubbly face appeared on the screen.
"Congratulations! I'm so excited for you!”
Ryan was a little confused and proceeded with caution. He hadn't heard a word from her in months.
She read his expression. "News travels fast. Nothing happens in the galaxy that I don't know about."
"Who told you?"
"I have my sources."
"I didn't think you approved of my Naval career."
"Is there something wrong with one friend offering congratulations to another?"
"Oh, so we're friends now?"
"Don't be that way. Of course we’re friends."
"Why the sudden change of heart?"
"I'm just trying to support your accomplishment. I'm very proud of you."
Ryan hesitated. "Well, thank you."
There was an awkward silence.
Kendall fumbled for something to say. "I would have tried to make your graduation, but I've got exams."
There was another awkward pause.
"I saw you on the news. You're kind of like a celebrity around here now."
The phone call was starting to make sense now.
“I’d rather not talk about that."
Kendall kept rambling like he hadn't said anything. "That wrongful death suit is just crazy. I can't believe they're doing that. I mean, anybody who attacks the Federation deserves whatever they get."
"The case got dismissed."
Ryan couldn't think of anything to say to her.
"So, what was it like?"
"What was what like?"
"You know, killing somebody?"
"What part of I don't want to talk about this wasn't clear?"
"Did the Navy take away your personality?"
"No. My personality is very much intact, thank you very much."
"You might want to check on that."
There was another awkward silence.
"I'm sorry. I'm just trying to make conversation. And I'm a little nervous." She paused. "I haven't talked to you in so long, and I'm not really thrilled with the way we left things." She looked at him with those big blue eyes of hers. "I missed you."
Ryan didn't say anything.
"Okay… This is the part where you say, I missed you too."
"It seems like a lifetime ago."
Kendall sighed, disappointed. “Fine. Forget the little people when you become big and famous."
Ryan let out a slight chuckle.
“A smile. Finally!” She paused. “Well. It was nice talking to you. Even if you didn't say much.” Her voice softened. "Take care of yourself out there. Okay? And you know how to get ahold of me if you ever find that life just becomes unbearable without me." She smiled, and cut the transmission.
Ryan just shook his hand. Kendall was never going to change.
Anderson and Emma stumbled into her compartment, locked at the lips. They couldn’t peel their clothes off fast enough. Emma’s shirt hit the floor, revealing her perfect endowments. Anderson slid his hand over her creamy skin, finding her bra strap. His fingers expertly unhitched the clasp, and the fabric of her lace bra went slack.
“So, you’ve done this before,” Emma said with a grin.
“I’ve had a little practice.”
Their lips melted into one another. Emma slid the straps from her shoulders, and her bra hit the deck. Anderson slid his hands down the curves of her torso. His fingers slipped into her waistband and unbuttoned her pants.
Emma’s heart was pounding. Her cheeks were on fire. Her body was misting over with the sweat of desire. Anderson’s muscular body pressed against her skin fed the flames. This had been building up for weeks. After everything she’d been through, she deserved a little fun, she thought.
Her pants pooled around her ankles, and she stepped out of them. Anderson’s jeans were on the floor in a heartbeat. They both marveled at each other’s physiques, then collided again, passionately discovering each other. They staggered to her bunk. It was narrow, but it would get the job done. Within moments, her frilly lace panties were bunched up on the deck. Just as things were about to get interesting, Emma’s mobile rang.
Emma tried to ignore it, but it kept distracting her.
“Ignore it,” Anderson mumbled between kisses.
“What if it’s something important?”
“What could be more important than this?”
She grinned. “Is this a trick question?”
The phone kept ringing.
“I’ve got to answer that.”
“No you don’t. You’re not with the UIA anymore. You’re not on call.”
“I’m just going to see who it is.”
“Come on. I’ve wanted you since I first saw you at the spaceport in Mosaav.”
“Then waiting another few seconds isn’t going to kill you.” Emma reached down and grabbed her phone. Her eyes perked up when she saw the name on the ID. “This is Agent Castle…”
Anderson decided to have a little fun. His tongue traced the subtle curves of her body, licking down her torso, gliding down below her belly button, finally reaching the promised land.
Emma was having a hard time concentrating. She struggled to maintain a normal tone of voice, but inside she was exploding with ecstasy as Anderson worked his magic.
“Really… That’s great news, sir,” she stammered. “No, I’m fine… You just caught me in the middle of something. Yes. Yes, I can be there right away. Okay. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Emma hung up the phone. She was grinning from ear to ear.
“Was that a phone call worth taking?”
“Yes and no. Graham wants to see us ASAP.”
“Pack that bazooka up, big boy. We’ve got work to do.”
“I want a raincheck.”
“Trust me. You’ll get it,” she said with a lascivious glint.
The monitor displayed an aerial view of a sprawling compound in the Aldebaranian desert. At this distance, the signal was highly degraded. It was filled with drop-outs and digital distortions.
"We caught a break," Graham said. “Turns out the intel from your prison buddy was good. The drones picked up Suspa and tracked his movement. He traveled to this complex an hour outside of Mosaav.”
Emma felt vindicated.
Graham pointed to the screen. “As you can see, the transmission isn’t the highest quality. And we've lost the ability to control the drones. They're not receiving our signal. So I can't get a look inside the compound. As it stands, they're in a holding pattern above the complex until Suspa leaves. They’ll pick up on him again and follow his movement. We’ll lose this view of the complex when that happens.”
“So we've got no way to get confirmation Ragza is in that compound?” Emma said.
"Correct. And we're going to lose this feed any minute."
“But the drones spotted something else that is interesting." Graham pointed to the screen. "See this man?"
The figure was barely discernible. He was standing in a small courtyard, pacing back-and-forth. The walls of the courtyard were rimmed with concertina wire. There were armed guards surrounding him. From this view, it looked like he was a prisoner.
"Facial recognition identified this man as Dr. Metzger.”
"The physicist?" Anderson asked.
Graham nodded. "Whatever Project Starshine is, I think they're developing it here, using Dr. Metzger."
“Suspa was trying to acquire large quantities of weapons grade uplonium,” Emma said. “Do you know why they would want that? It's not the most efficient fissionable material out there. And besides, according to Vynx, they've got access to nuclear weapons."
Graham shrugged. "I haven't figured that out yet." He paused. "I'm going to push this up the food chain and see what kind of authorization I can get for further investigation. I know the President wants to nail this scumbag as much as we do."
"Does this mean we're back on the team?" Emma asked.
"This means you don't exist. And this conversation never happened."
Anderson smiled. "I guess that means we are back on the team."
The meeting was interrupted by the blaring sound of an alarm. Klaxons sounded throughout the ship. Captain Zoey Bryant’s voice boomed over the 1MC. "General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations!”
Several ships appeared on the LRADDS display (Long Range, Direction, Distance, & Speed). It was a holographic display that indicated contacts in 3D space. The ships didn't have an IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) signal.
"Sir, I've got five unidentified gunships that just jumped into the vicinity," the tactical officer yelled. They're not responding to communications.”
Captain Zoey Bryant stood at her command console in the CIC of the Revenant. She was a stunning brunette with emerald eyes and high cheekbones. Her lips were full and pillowy soft. She had model good looks, and a low velvety voice that inspired many fantasies among officers and enlisted. Her body was as sleek and curvaceous as the attack fighters she used to fly. Zoey had always dreamed of having her own command, but in times like these there was always a part of her that missed being in the cockpit of a Stingray. "Target them with the Mark 25s, and launch the alert fighters!“
The massive turrets of the Mark 25 cannons swiveled into action. They unleashed a torrent of super-sabot rounds. The projectiles raced across the star field as the nimble enemy gunships tried to evade their destructive might. The turrets fired M79 HVAP-DU (Heavy Armor Penetrating, Depleted Uranium) super-sabot rounds. Their titanium composite penetrating rods had an incendiary liquid gel core, S9, that when oxidized, burned at upwards of 4000 degrees.
The LRADDS lit up again. Multiple red triangles streaked across the display.
"Sir, I've got multiple inbound nukes."
The auto targeting system of the Mark 25s locked on to the incoming warheads. They were capable of spitting out 200 armor piercing rounds per minute. The staccato rattle of the cannons echoed throughout the ship. They eviscerated most of the incoming nukes before they even got close.
One of the attacking gunships erupted into a ball of flame as the sabot rounds tore through its fuselage. The craft splintered into a million pieces. Shredded metal spiraled into the abyss of space. Fragments of polycarbonate glass, composite steel, avionics, and body parts tumbled into the void. The remnants of the ship would add to the ring of debris that was orbiting New Earth. It was loaded with space junk from the massive battles that had previously ensued with the Decluvian and Robotic invasions.
Before the stingrays could even clear the flight deck, the remaining gunships vanished into slide-space. It was clear this was just a small guerrilla attack designed to harass. If they caused serious damage, that was just an added bonus. But it proved the insurgent terrorists were getting bolder. This was the first time they had directly engaged a military target that could fire back.
The assault was just a diversion geared to focus everyone’s attention away from the real attack. A small stealth drone had emerged from slide-space precisely in between the ion exhaust of the four rear thrusters of the Revenant—it was a blind spot on the sensors, and the drone was able to swoop in undetected. In a normal situation, someone may have noticed the quantum distortion of the drone’s appearance. But in the chaos of battle, it was just a momentary blip.
The drone flew inches from the exterior hull. It glided to the center of the ship. It affixed a shaped charge to the bulkhead in the area of the Situation Room and the intelligence offices.
"I'll be right there," Graham said. He held his mobile to his ear. "Yes, they're with me now." He glanced to Emma and Kevin. "Are you sure? Alright, I’m on my way.” He hung up the phone.
Both Emma and Anderson had a quizzical look on their faces.
"That was the Secretary of Defense. The President wants to see you both in the Situation Room."
Emma’s eyes widened. They followed Graham out of the compartment and marched down the corridor to the Situation Room. It was only a few sections away. The JPOC offices, the UIA, and the Situation Room were all in the same vicinity.
Graham introduced Kevin and Emma as they entered.
"So, these are the troublemakers," President Slade said.
Emma wasn't sure how to take the comment. She was well aware of Slade’s reputation as a no nonsense leader. But the comment came off lighthearted.
"I take full responsibility for the incident, Madam President,” Emma said. “And I sincerely apologize for any grief I may have caused. Agent Anderson was acting strictly on my authority. I would request that you please re-evaluate his discharge from the agency. He's proven himself to be a valuable asset.”
“Relax, Agent Castle," Slade said. "We could use more agents like you."
Emma was stunned. She was expecting to get thoroughly chewed out.
"I've read your reports, and I’ve watched the surveillance video of the compound. I believe it warrants further investigation. I want you to work with Captain Walker here on coordinating some additional reconnaissance, and perhaps a strike team."
"It would be my honor, Madam President."
"If we can cut off the head of this organization, I think the galaxy will be a much safer place.”
"Madam President, if I may…” Secretary of State Joe Donaldson began. “Reinstating these two would prove very detrimental to our relationship with Aldebaran.”
"Mr. Donaldson, these two agents have brought us the only actionable intel we have,” Slade retorted. She glared at him, and Donaldson looked like he wanted to crawl under the table. "As far as I'm concerned, if the Aldebaranian government is hosting terrorists and taking a blind eye, I consider them complicit in the attacks. In my view, it's tantamount to an act of war, and we will respond appropriately." Slade glanced back to Emma, and her stone face regained a soft smile. "Ms. Castle you will have the full support of my office. If there's anything you need to further your investigation, please contact my office directly."
"Thank you, Madam President."
Emma stepped out of the Situation Room with Graham and Anderson after the meeting.
"I'm going to reinstate your security clearance," Graham said.
"Thank you, sir. I won't disappoint you again."
The President and The Joint Chiefs of Staff began to filter out of the Situation Room.
"Emma, I'd like you to meet Captain Walker," Graham said. "He's heading up JPOC. You'll be working closely with him from here on out."
The two shook hands.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Emma said.
"Likewise. I hear good things about you."
Emma arched an eyebrow at Walker. "I was beginning to think I was persona non grata around here."
"I’d have done the same thing,” Walker whispered aside.
"If you've got a minute, I'd like to discuss Aldebaran and get more details about this compound."
"When you finish up, come see me in my office," Graham said.
Emma nodded and strolled down the corridor toward the JPOC offices with Walker.
"What does your gut tell you?" Walker asked.
"It tells me that Ragza is at that compound. It is the central hub for all Saav Krava activity."
“And what about Project Starshine?”
“Whatever it is, I think they are forcing Metzger to develop it.”
A blinding explosion tore through the bulkhead like it was plastic. The overpressure knocked Emma and Walker to the ground.
The blast ripped through several decks. Metal twisted and bowed. Shrapnel spewed everywhere. Fire engulfed the compartments, searing the flesh of anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the area. The burn only lasted for an instant as the oxygen was sucked out into the vacuum of space.
Emma was far enough away from the fiery blast to survive unscathed. Her fingertips wedged into the grid-like depressions in the floor, holding on for dear life as the air sucked the contents out of the compartment. Anything that was loose flew through the air.
The ship’s emergency procedures automatically sealed the affected compartments. The gale force winds died down abruptly as hatches slammed shut.
Emma’s ears rang. She could barely hear a thing. She pushed herself off the ground in a daze.
Walker staggered to his feet.
Emma’s heart was pounding. Her face was pale with terror. She raced down the hallway toward the Situation Room, stopping at the sealed hatch. She peered through the polycarbonate viewport. The area where Graham and Anderson had been standing was gone. All that remained was a gaping hole, and twisted bits of metal and wiring.
Emma’s throat went dry and her eyes welled with tears.
Bodies and bits of debris flowed into space from the gaping breach in the hull. Emma could see the stars through the hole in the hull.
The focused shape charge had concentrated the blast. A relatively small section of the ship was damaged, but the force penetrated through multiple levels.
Walker stood behind Emma, looking through the view port. His eyes wide with concern. Nothing ever scared Walker—but this did. He tapped his earbud. “Aria, do you copy?”
There was no response.
“Aria, do you copy?”
Nothing but static crackled back over the line.
“Can anyone give me a status on the President?” He was frantic.
A few terrifying moments went by, then he heard her soothing voice. “I’m fine.”
“Thank God you're all right."
“Are you okay?”
“We’re fine here. But we lost some good people.”
“I want these scumbags to pay for this.”
Emma tried to hold back her tears, but couldn’t. They streamed from her red, puffy eyes and rolled down her cheeks. There was no way Graham and Anderson could have survived that blast.
She felt her knees go weak. She leaned against the bulkhead and slid down to the deck. She stayed there in a stupor with her head in her hands. She was filled with a mix of rage and sadness. It felt hard to breathe, like an elephant was standing on her chest. The fight was more personal now than ever.
Ragza appeared on the display in the CIC. It was a pre-recorded transmission. "By now you realize that no place in the Federation is safe. These attacks will continue until all Federation colonies have left the sector. Formally announce your plans to evacuate, or I will release the most destructive power the galaxy has ever seen. You have two days to make the announcement."
The transmission ended.
Slade’s whole body tensed. Her face was red, and the veins in her neck were bulging. "I've had enough. The gloves are coming off." Her eyes darted to Emma. "Agent Castle, I'm giving you operational command of the UIA. Bring me this man, alive or dead."
"Yes, Madam President."
There wasn’t much left of the UIA at this point.
"I want to know how this attack was carried out. They clearly exploited a weakness in our defenses. This won't be the last time they try something like this, and next time the damage could be worse.”
"I take full responsibility, Madam President," Captain Bryant said.
"Taking responsibility isn't going to bring anyone's life back. Just make sure doesn't happen again."
"Yes, Madam President."
"I'm going with you," Emma said.
"That's really not necessary” Walker replied. "There's no need to put yourself in harms way. My men are fully capable of handling this."
"I did two tours in Razurvan. I can take care of myself, and I won't get in your way. One thing you need to know about me, Captain Walker, is that I'm not the kind of agent to sit back and watch things happen on a monitor. If I can put a bullet in that dirtbag’s skull myself, I will.”
Walker could see that she wasn't going to relent. "Okay. If you insist.”
The two sat in Walker's office, studying a map at Ragza’s compound on a display screen. Walker’s dog wasn't about to be left out of the planning. He sat on a chair, observing the display.
"What's his name?" Emma asked as she pet him.
"That's Gunnery Sergeant Bailey," Walker said.
Emma scratched his chin. “You like that, don't you, boy?"
Bailey barked in agreement.
"Careful. He out ranks you. You'll be doing that all day long."
“I'm sorry about Agent Anderson,” Walker said.
Emma flashed a grim smile and tried not to let her emotions get the best of her. "I've always tried not to get too close to anyone. It seemed safer that way. I thought I'd have more time.”
"That's a mistake we all make. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed for anyone.” Walker studied her for a moment. "I don't want your emotions affecting your judgment on the ground."
"You grieve, you do what you need to do, and you get it out of your system. I know you want to go in there for some payback, and I can certainly relate. But I need you focused and detached. We need to go in and strike with surgical precision. I don't need any hotheads throwing caution to the wind, trying to settle a vendetta."
"You don't need to worry about me. I'll have my shit squared away. You can count on it."
Walker gave her a nod of approval and focused his attention back on the map. "I'd like to know more about the interior of this structure. Is there anyway we can get eyes in there before the raid?"
"The drones aren't responding to commands. We can try to re-establish control when we get closer, or deploy more if need be.“
“We're not going to get any cooperation from the Aldebaranian government. We are going to have to move in and out undetected.”
“A pair of SV-120s might do the trick,” Emma said. "We had them specifically designed for covert insertions. They are virtually invisible on sensors. They can carry a total of four troops, and they're heavily armed. We've got two prototypes at our disposal"
Walker raised his eyebrows. "You want to take that compound with 8 troops?”
“We don’t really have a choice.”
Ragza’s compound appeared on the display at the front of the Ready Room. Captain Walker stood at the podium. The room was full of Navy Reapers, including Ryan and Piper. Emma leaned against the wall at the front of the room.
"We’ll have roughly 15 minutes once we reach the compound." Walker said. "That’s if everything goes according to plan. Once our presence is detected, that's about all the time we’ll have until fighters from the nearest Aldebaranian air base arrive."
"It's easy. We just don't get detected," one of the Reapers said. His nickname was Iron Heart. He was a thick guy with a curly brown beard and hair. He wore black sunglasses. The entire squad had grown out their beards. They weren’t held to the same grooming standards as the rest of the military.
The squad chuckled.
"If we can get in and out undetected, I'm buying you all a case of beer," Walker said.
"I think that's worth a little bit more than a case of beer, sir," a Reaper named Butterscotch replied. He was 5’9”, 160 pounds, and tough as nails.
“Alright, what do you suggest?"
"Jack Corrigan whiskey," a voice said from the back of the room.
It was a rare aged whiskey from Earth. It was extremely hard to come by, and they weren't making any more of it. If you could find it, a bottle would set you back about 2500 credits.
"In and out in 15, undetected, and you'll have your bottle of Jack Corrigan,” Walker said.
"We're operating on extremely limited intel. But my gut tells me that there is an underground complex here. The number of vehicles at the compound tells me we could be dealing with 30 to 40 occupants."
"Piece of cake," one of the Reapers said.
"We have two primary objectives." Walker put an image of Dr. Metzger on the display. He was a middle-aged man with balding gray hair, and a thick mustache. He wore wire rimmed glasses that were so thick they distorted the appearance of his eyeballs. “We believe they are holding Dr. Metzger captive and forcing him to develop new weapons technology. We also believe they may be holding his family hostage and using them as an incentive to comply, but there is no indication that they are at this location."
The faces of the Reapers tensed.
“If Dr. Metzger is present at this location, we will extract him. It is imperative we keep him alive at all costs." Walker put up another image of Ragza. "I'm sure all of you are aware of who this is. It is priority one that he be captured, or terminated. Positive identification must be ascertained. In the event of a kill, you will take pictures of the deceased target, collect DNA samples, and evacuate the remains."
"Is there bonus pay for the operator who tags this shit ball?” a Reaper nicknamed Flack asked with a grin. He was joking, but he’d take the pay if someone offered.
"If you people want to start a pool amongst yourselves, I have no objections,” Walker replied. “But I'm not springing for a bottle of Jack Corrigan and bonus pay.”
"I'm sure the UIA can put up a little prize money to the man, or woman, who gets Ragza intimately acquainted with a 5.56 mm round." Emma said. "How does 5000 credits sound?"
The Reapers hooted and hollered.
"We’ll operate in two, four person teams, designated Alpha and Bravo. As usual, if something goes wrong, no one is coming to save us. We are the cavalry. Alpha team will advance, while Bravo takes overwatch. Anyone have any questions?" Walker asked.
The room was silent.
"We move out at 0700 hrs. tomorrow."
The SV-120 Specters were sleek black ministers of death. Not only were their radar cross sections almost non existent, their quantum wakes were virtually undetectable. They could slip in and out of slide-space without so much as a ripple. It made them a lot easier on the stomach. Two of the black beauties sat on the flight deck of the Revenant, prepped and ready for takeoff. The day of reckoning had come.
Captain Walker led his platoon of Navy Reapers across the deck. They were outfitted in the War-Tek ™ R7 Advanced Ultra-Lite Battle Armor. It provided protection for the chest, shoulders, arms thighs, shins, and groin, and was paired with the Viper Command-Tech XR-9 helmet. The armor wasn’t as bulky as the War-Tek T-5000, or even the Reaper’s specially designed T-6000.
The Reapers needed to be fast and nimble on missions like this. Their emphasis was on speed and stealth. The armor weighed less than 5 pounds, and had active camouflage that adapted to the terrain.
“Good morning, Agent Castle,” Walker said as he greeted her. She was waiting next to one of the Specters.
“Morning, Captain Walker.” She was decked out in the War-Tek battle armor as well. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in uniform. I kinda missed it.”
“This is Punisher platoon.” Walker pointed to the team as he introduced them. “You met them yesterday. That’s Butterscotch, Flack, Kraken, and Iron Heart. The two new members don’t have nicknames yet, but they’ll earn them soon, I’m sure. This is Spaceman Hunter and Ensign Parkes.”
Emma gave a nod.
“Let’s move out,” Walker commanded.
The teams split into two squads and filed into the Specters. Ryan and Piper flew with Walker and Emma. She had specifically requested that Chloe pilot one of the Specters.
"You’ll have to forgive me, I'm still getting familiar with the layout. I spent all day yesterday in the simulator." Chloe flipped switches and pressed buttons. The preflight checks all came back green.
Walker looked concerned. He knew she was a great young pilot—she had already proven herself on several occasions. Walker had become a father figure to her, and couldn’t help but feel responsible for her well-being. If something happened to her on one of these operations, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. “This is your first combat mission in one of these?"
"There isn’t a pilot in the fleet that's logged more than a few hours on these things," Emma said. "Besides, she knows the area."
"Don't worry, Captain Walker. You're in good hands." Chloe smiled.
“It’s not me I’m worried about.”
The Air Boss cleared them for take off, and Chloe engaged the thrusters. The Specters lifted off the flight deck, and glided into space. Chloe programmed in the jump coordinates and engaged the quantum drive. The stealthy Specters slipped into slide-space without so much as a ripple. It was like an Olympic diver slicing into the water from the 10 meter platform.
They emerged 9 hours later on the far side of Triton 3 (one of Aldebaran’s moons).
Walker was stiff from sitting in the cramped cargo area. It was barely bigger than an old Huey helicopter. He stretched his arms and arched his back. “See if you can establish communication with the drones.”
Emma searched for a connection on her PDU, but she couldn’t access the drones. She frowned and shook her head.
“Chloe, did we get in undetected?” Walker asked.
“So far I’m not picking up any unusual activity on LRADDS.”
“Take us down to the planet surface.”
“Aye, sir.” Chloe engaged the thrusters in the ultra stealth mode.
Walker activated his comm link. “Specter 2, this is Punisher, over?”
“Specter 2, go ahead Punisher.”
“We’re making our descent to the planet surface.”
The Specters emerged from behind the dark side of Triton 3 like sharks stalking their prey. The bright sun of Aldebaran was blinding. Chloe squinted and pulled down her visor. As she neared the planet, the sun became obscured behind the crest of the horizon. They were entering under cover of darkness.
No fighters greeted them as they descended into the upper atmosphere. So far they hadn’t been detected.
The Specter shook as they dropped through the turbulence. The ride smoothed out as they broke through the clouds and angled toward the surface. The Specter was virtually silent. Little more than a slight hiss. With active camouflage, they were almost invisible against the night sky.
“2 minutes out,” Chloe said.
Walker’s eyes found Piper and Ryan. “You nervous?”
“No, sir,” they responded in unison.
He knew damn good and well they had an abundance of adrenaline coursing through their veins.
“Don’t worry. Trust your training. You’ll be fine.”
I’ve got a visual on the compound,” Chloe said.
“I want to size this place up before we go in,” Walker said.
Chloe pulled into position and hovered 1000 feet over the compound, using high-resolution cameras to gather intel. The images were fed into the PDUs of the entire team. The compound looked quiet. There was no detectable movement.
"Run a thermal scan," Walker said.
A moment later, Chloe responded. ”It looks like they have some type of shielding. I'm not getting much of a reading."
“We're not going to learn anything from up here,” Walker said. “Chloe, take us down. It's time to rock 'n' roll."
The compound was surrounded by a perimeter wall rimmed with concertina wire. The main structure was two stories with a large second floor terrace.
Walker pulled down his tactical goggles and switched to night vision. Unlike the green illumination of older NVGs, his field of vision was in full color. The goggles amplified the available light to such a degree it made the terrain look like an overcast day. He pressed a button on the bulkhead, and the side door to the Specter slid open. The warm Aldebaranian air flooded in. He launched a second set of mosquito drones. Then, he tossed out a rappelling rope. It unfurled to the terrace. "Go, go, go."
One by one, Alpha squad filed out of the Specter. Ryan grabbed the rope and rappelled down. His heart was pounding in his chest. In a way, it felt just like an evolution at BSCT—only this time, the stakes were life and death.
Within seconds, Alpha team was on the terrace, gathering around the door. Bravo team was in the courtyard, doing the same. Flack took an overwatch position with a sniper rifle atop the garage. The two Specters pulled away to a secure position high in the sky.
Both doors to the compound were made of armor plated composite materials—this wasn't your average home.
Walker placed a breaching charge around the locking mechanism. He whispered into his comm link, “Bravo 1, this is Alpha 1, copy?”
"Go ahead, Alpha 1.”
"Are you in position?"
"Prepare to breach and clear on my mark.”
"In three, two, one, mark. "Walker detonated the charge—it erupted in a brilliant flash, blasting the door inward. Alpha team filed in with weapons in the firing position.
Muzzle flash lit up the dark room.
DAK! DAK! DAK!
It was the distinctive sound of an AM6. It was a sound Ryan was all too familiar with. He heard bullets snap past his ear. His heart was thumping. Adrenaline was racing through his veins. But he responded just as he’d been trained.
Alpha team answered with a flurry of whisper silent rounds. Brass shell casings pinged against the tile floor. The man who fired at them fell to the ground, blood oozing across the tile from the multiple holes in his torso.
Alpha team moved with precision. Ryan and Piper looked like seasoned professionals.
“Clear,” Ryan whispered into his comm link.
“Confirm his ID,” Walker said.
Ryan rolled the dead man’s body onto his back. The facial recognition system in his goggles quickly identified the man and cataloged his image. It wasn’t Ragza, but a known associate. They were definitely in the right place.
The team pushed into the hallway. A shadowy figure streaked across at the far end. Seconds later, more muzzle flash erupted. The team responded with swift and decisive action. Bullets streaked down the corridor, piercing the drywall of the corner the man was hiding behind. His body collapsed, and his weapon clattered to the ground.
The team advanced down the hallway, clearing each room as they went along.
Ryan saw a small camera in the corner, dangling from the ceiling. He blasted it to pieces with a single shot. ”Keep an eye out for surveillance cameras.”
Flack surveyed the grounds, looking for cameras. He found a few and shot them out as well. The report of his sniper rifle was little more than a click from the trigger. The loudest sound was the shattering of the camera’s optics, and the debris falling to the ground.
Alpha team met up with Bravo on the first floor. They had left an equivalent pile of bodies in their wake. The two teams gathered at the top of a stairway that led down to a basement.
“Any target matches?” Walker asked.
“Negative. The house is clear. None of these guys are Ragza.”
Walker frowned. Either the mission was a bust, or their target was hiding in the basement.
At the bottom of the stairs was a reinforced blast door. It was designed to withstand nuclear explosions. Judging by the looks of it, it was probably several feet thick and weighed approximately two tons. It was made from a thermal protective composite, similar to the stuff re-entry tiles of spaceships were made out of. There was no cutting through this door.
Walker pulled out a thermal shape-charge from his rucksack. He fixed it to the door and set the timer.
"Do you think that's going to work?" Emma asked.
The teams fell back and took cover outside the structure, behind two parked hover-cars.
The air was still and eerie. A moment later, the blast rumbled through the ground. The overpressure shattered the windows in the house. Shards of glass sprayed onto the ground. Dirt and debris flowed out of the open windows.
When the dust had settled, the two teams snaked their way back through the rubble and down the basement steps. There was little more than a dent in the blast door.
"You got a Plan B," Emma asked.
Flack’s voice crackled over the comm line. ”Hey guys, we have a little bit of a situation."
Walker grimaced. “What is it?"
“I've got five inbound fighters," Flack said over the comm line. "ETA 12 minutes."
Walker studied his PDU. He scanned the aerial view of the compound he had acquired from the drones. "There's never just one way into a bunker. There’s got to be an exhaust port, air intake vent, maybe even an emergency exit.”
Emma's face was buried in her PDU as well, Looking for another way in.
“Just FYI, I’ve got 20 armor piercing Hades II missiles with incendiary cores on board,” Chloe said.
“I’ll mark the target,” Walker said. He used his PDU to relay range, azimuth, and elevation data to the Specter’s targeting computer. The Reapers fell back and took cover outside the structure and waited for Chloe to work her magic.
"You may want to stand back as far as possible," Chloe said. "This one's going to be big."
The Hades II missiles were specifically designed to bust bunkers. Emma hoped they’d be powerful enough to pierce the thermal resistant composite door.
Ryan crouched down behind one of the parked cars and held his ears.
“We’re all clear,” Walker said.
The Specter swooped into position. Chloe locked onto the target and squeezed the trigger. Two rockets streaked through the sky, spitting fire and propellant. They punched through the structure and the entire compound exploded in an amber glow. Bits of wood and concrete showered the ground. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the night sky.
The blast was deafening, and the heat from the explosion was almost enough to scorch the hairs from your arm. The once covert operation had announced itself to the entire planet, it seemed.
The air was filled with a thick haze. The front half of the structure had been ripped away.
Walker and his team advanced through the rubble. The staircase was just a pile of concrete. The blast door was a thing of the past. Walker tossed a flash bang grenade into the basement, followed by a smoke canister. The team descended into the dark pit.
They were met by muzzle flashes as they carved their way through the milky smoke.
DAK! DAK! DAK!
The clatter of AM 6 fire filled the corridor.
Walker zipped off a flurry of rounds, dropping the terrorists in their tracks. The team pushed through the basement, clearing rooms, looking for Dr. Metzger, and their ultimate target.
Through the smoke, Ryan saw a man appear at the end of the corridor. He had an RPG slung over his shoulder. Ryan squeezed the trigger, double tapping the man. He fell to his knees, but not before he fired the RPG. The rocket raced down the corridor, spewing a trail of fire and smoke. It whizzed just past Walker's head as he dove to the concrete. The grenade slammed into the far wall. Chunks of concrete sprayed out.
The explosion tore Iron Heart in two. His blood painted the walls.
Kraken was on the ground, screaming in agony. Multiple pieces of shrapnel had ripped through his body.
Ryan couldn't hear a thing. He was dazed and disoriented. He felt like he was bleeding from his ears.
Butterscotch rushed toward Kraken and administered first aid. But there wasn't much he could do. Kraken was dead within seconds.
The team was taking more fire. Bullets streaked overhead. Emma and Walker returned fire, taking out two more terrorists.
Emma advanced to the corner. She angled the barrel of her weapon around and shot two more men. Walker advanced to Emma’s position, then to the next doorway. The two leapfrogged ahead, clearing rooms. They came across a locked holding cell that contained Dr. Metzger.
Walker yelled through the poly carbonate window on the door. "Stand back!”
Metzger moved to the corner of the holding cell.
Walker placed a breaching charge on the door and blasted it open. The door shredded, and Walker kicked the remnants off its hinges. He stormed into the room with Emma and collected Dr. Metzger.
"Captain Walker, UPDF Reapers.”
Metzger coughed from the inhalation of dust from the charge. "I'm glad to see you."
"Do you know if your family is at this facility?" Emma asked.
Metzger shook his head.
"Parkes, Hunter… escort Dr. Metzger to the ex-fill point and wait for extraction."
They snuck out the way they came, disappearing into the thick haze with the doctor.
Walker and Emma pushed forward. They found Metzger’s lab. It was loaded with high-tech equipment. A partially completed prototype missile took center stage.
“Can you make heads or tails of this?" Walker asked.
"This must be Project Starshine," Emma said.
Walker glanced at his watch. "We've got seven minutes to find Ragza and get out of here."
He moved out of the lab into a massive storage area. There were rows and rows of semi-automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenades, surface to air missiles, and even a few nuclear warheads.
"What do they need Metzger for if they’ve already got nuclear weapons?"
"I think Project Starshine is something more than a nuclear weapon."
Gunfire suddenly interrupted their conversation.
Walker and Emma took cover behind some weapons crates. Ragza was at the far end of the storage room, firing from behind some crates. This was going to be his last stand.
"Don't come any closer, or we all die.” Ragza said.
"I'm holding a thermal grenade on a dead man switch,” Ragza yelled. “If anything happens to me, it's not going to work out well for you."
"If it means taking you down, I'm fine with that," Emma said.
Walker pondered the next move. He crouched behind a row of crates with Butterscotch and Emma.
“Why don’t you two clear out,” Emma said. “No sense in all of us dying here.”
Walker looked at her like she was crazy. He had never run from a fight, and he wasn't going to start now. “We'll take him down together."
“I can handle this scumbag.”
Walker wasn't having any of it.
"I don't have much time left anyway. And I can't think of a better way to go out than like this.”
Walker snarled at her. "I've already lost all the troops I'm going to lose. Nobody else is dying today. Unless it’s the target.”
“Okay. I’ve got an idea.” Emma reached into her pack and launched 4 mosquito drones. They flew into the air and quickly took a position surrounding Ragza. Emma could see his exact location on her PDU. “Last chance to clear out. This could end badly.”
Walker wasn’t going anywhere.
Emma issued several commands to the drones. A moment later, one of the synthetic mosquitoes swooped in and stung Ragza. Within seconds, his body was completely paralyzed. His muscles stayed in a state of contraction. This was the tricky part—if his muscles relaxed, the grenade would detonate.
The paralysis was only going to last for a minute.
Emma sprinted across the storage room to Ragza’s location. He was on the ground, seized up and contorted, still clutching the grenade. She kicked aside his weapon, then knelt down and delicately took the grenade from his hand. She made sure to keep the dead-man switch depressed until she could disarm the device.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the display turned green and read: disarmed.
Ragza began to regain control of his body.
Emma jammed the barrel of her weapon in his face. “Give me a reason,” she snarled.
Walker knelt down and rolled Ragza onto his stomach. He wrenched his arms behind his back and cuffed the terrorist with flexible restraints. Then he pulled Ragza to his feet. Walker shoved the dirtbag toward the exit.
"Butterscotch, recover our wounded and prepare for evac.”
“Aye, sir." Butterscotch scurried out of the room.
"You have accomplished nothing, my friend." Ragza had a smug tone. "Someone just like me will pop up to lead the insurgency. You can do little to stop it."
"Keep moving," Walker grumbled.
Emma cringed. She knew there was a degree of truth to what he was saying. "I'll keep hunting people like you down until there aren't any of you left."
Walker ducked into the lab and set thermal charges to detonate in 15 minutes. He didn’t want to leave any traces of Project Starshine behind for someone to continue. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it wasn’t good.
They moved through the ruins of the basement, then climbed up the rubble that was once a staircase. They emerged from the dilapidated structure and regrouped with the remaining members of the squad in the courtyard.
"Chloe, get us out of here,” Walker said.
“We’ve got 30 seconds until contact," Flack said.
“Make it snappy, Chloe,” Walker added.
An instant later, the two Specters emerged from the night sky. They descended toward the courtyard.
The Specters were silent. But Walker heard something ripping through the air. It was the unmistakable sound of an air to air missile. It slammed into one of the Specters, blossoming in a brilliant amber glow. The craft shattered into a million pieces. Bits of black stealthy material showered down. The smoldering carcass of the Specter careened toward the squad. They dispersed in all directions like roaches in the light.
The fuselage plowed into the ground, taking out Butterscotch.
Walker’s eyes went wide with terror. "Chloe? Chloe, do you copy?"
There was a long silence.
Walker’s heart was in his throat.
A moment later, Chloe responded. “I copy."
Walker exhaled with relief. Chloe was still alive. But the mission had turned into a huge Charlie Foxtrot.
Ragza had disappeared in the chaos.
Chloe landed in the courtyard as Aldebaranian fighters circled overhead. They sliced through the air, banking around to make another run.
Walker and Emma ran for the Specter. She scanned the grounds for Ragza, but she didn’t see him anywhere.
Ryan and Piper pulled the bodies of their fallen comrades into the Specter. Flack had climbed down from his overwatch position and was arriving at the craft at the same time as Emma and Walker. They climbed inside and Chloe lifted off the ground.
Emma gave a last look around and saw Ragza running across the courtyard toward the main entrance of the compound. She was sitting in the side door of the Specter with her feet hanging over the edge, touching the skids below.
She cringed. That son-of-a-bitch was getting away. Soon the compound would be a distant memory, and Ragza would live to terrorize again.
Emma brought her weapon into the firing position and lined Ragza up in her sights. It was an impossible shot from a moving vehicle. She held her breath and kept steady. Then squeezed the trigger twice in quick succession. Two silent rounds streaked across the courtyard. This was her only chance to take him down. She wasn't going to get another shot. The moment seemed like an eternity as the bullets flew through the air. She waited impatiently to learn the accuracy of her shot.
A plume of red mist erupted from Ragza's head. It was a good indicator that she had been spot on accurate. Bits of brain and skull spewed out. The terrorist’s body crumpled to the ground, his hands still cuffed behind his back.
Chloe arced the Specter around, throttled up, and ascended toward the upper atmosphere.
A proximity alert sounded. Several fighters were on her tail.
"I need proof of death," Emma said.
"They're just going to have to take your word for it," Walker said.
"I may have the shot on our flight video recorder," Chloe added. She was as cool as could be and didn't seem rattled by the fighters on her tail. She weaved the Specter through the sky, avoiding the stream of bullets that were blazing at the vehicle.
The Specter had a 30 mm machine gun turret mounted under each of the sub-wing pylons. They had a 360° range of movement, and an auto targeting system. Multiple camera systems around the Specter gave Chloe a 360° view in her visor. It was like flying an invisible craft—she could see through bulkheads in all directions as a result of the camera feed. She could also switch her visor to display the rearview.
"What's the ROE here?" Chloe asked. "Can we fire back?"
"That's a negative," Emma said. “Not unless you want an intergalactic incident."
Chloe kept spiraling the Specter through the sky, evading the gunfire from the Aldebarani fighters. The Specter had a slight edge on speed, but once she disappeared into the clouds the stealthy craft was impossible to find.
Chloe programmed in jump coordinates, and the Specter vanished into slide-space as soon as they reached escape velocity.
Emma breathed a sigh of relief. She was flooded with mixed emotions. Finding Ragza had been her obsession for the last several months. But now that he was dead, she almost felt aimless. His haunting words echoed in her mind. She knew he wasn’t going to be the last terrorist to attack the Federation. But she hoped she had made the galaxy a somewhat safer place.
It was a long jump back to New Earth. It gave her plenty of time to debrief Dr. Metzger, and learn all about Project Starshine.
“It is a unconventional type of weapon. And one that can wreak greater havoc than any other in the history of the galaxy,” Metzger said.
“And you built it,” Walker said.
“I had no choice. They were going to kill my family. And, because of this rescue, they are probably dead.”
“We are going to do everything we can to find your family,” Emma said. “I can assure you of that.”
“Do they have a working prototype?” Walker asked.
“No, not yet. I was stalling to complete the project.”
“Explain to me exactly how it works,” Emma said.
“The device accelerates the consumption of hydrogen fuel within a star. When that happens, the star will begin to collapse under its own weight. Depending on the size of the star, multiple different things can happen. But eventually the star will begin to fuse helium. When helium is gone, it will fuse carbon, and so on until the core turns to iron. Eventually, if the star is large enough, the star will collapse upon itself and explode in a supernova. The whole process normally takes billions of years.”
“Normally?” Emma said.
“This device could accelerate the process to take place within a few years. Theoretically.”
“If my calculations are correct.” Metzger paused for a moment. “And my calculations are always correct.”
“Something like that could force the colonies to relocate,” Emma stammered. The magnitude of it all was stunning.
“Now I know how Oppenheimer must have felt when he created the first atomic bomb.” Metzger’s sullen voice was barely audible. “I should never have started down this path.”
“At least you didn’t complete it,” Emma said.
“Yes. But someday, someone will.”
I can’t express my appreciation enough that you’ve read this far, and that you’re still reading. I’ve had so much fun writing this series. I hope you’ve had fun with me. There are a lot of stories left to tell in the Galactic Wars, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride. Stop by and say hello on Facebook (I’m there more than Twitter.) I’m going to get back to writing now. Again, thank you.
If you’ve enjoyed this book, 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!