Book: Janissaries



Book One of the Theogony


Chris Kennedy

PUBLISHED BY: Chris Kennedy

Copyright © 2014 Chris Kennedy

All Rights Reserved

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental.  The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

I would like to thank Linda, Jennie and Jimmy, who took the time to critically read this work and make it better. I would also like to thank my mother, without whose steadfast belief in me, I would not be where I am today. Thank you. This book is dedicated to my wife and children, who sacrificed their time with me so that I could write it.

Cover art by Genesis Graphic Design

Author’s Notes

Note: When more than one race refers to a planet or star in Janissaries, the same name is used by both races in order to prevent confusion. Also on the topic of planet naming, the normal convention for planets is to take the name of the parent star and add a lower case letter (i.e., Tau Ceti ‘b’). The first planet discovered in a system is usually given the designation ‘b’ and later planets are given subsequent letters as they are found. In order to prevent confusion in Janissaries, the closest planet to the star in a star system is given the letter ‘a’, with the rest of the planets given subsequent letters in order of their proximity to the star.

Note: The ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon. There is no ‘dark side’ of the moon. Like many bodies in our solar system and among the stars, the moon is ‘tidally locked,’ where the moon makes one revolution about its axis at the same rate that it makes one revolution around the Earth. Because of this, the same side of the moon is always facing the Earth as it orbits around it. Even though we never see the other side of the moon from Earth (we have seen it through various probes and explorer craft), the ‘dark side’ gets as much sunlight as the side we can see. At a length of just over 27 days, the moon’s day is just a lot longer than ours.

“...the indirect is by far the most hopeful and economic form of strategy.”

― Sir Basil H. Liddel-Hart, Strategy



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven


Excerpt from Book 2 of the Theogony


Snoqualmie National Forest, WA, August 28, 2018, 1430 PDT

“I may never finish all this paperwork,” said Calvin, “even if you give me a hand.” Lieutenant Shawn Hobbs, or ‘Calvin’ as he was known to the other aviators in his F-18 squadron, was catching up on all of the administrative things that hadn’t been done during the several days of the Sino-American War. He had started out with a huge pile of post mission reports to put together, tons of awards to write up and too many next of kin letters to send.

He looked at the other two occupants of the small cabin for support. He didn’t find it in Master Chief Ryan O’Leary. “I’m not helping you do it,” replied his second-in-command during the war. “That’s what they make officers for.” Although he generally liked his former commanding officer, Ryan generally didn’t like authority. Ryan believed that the reason officers existed was to take care of the administrative things, which freed him to focus on the little fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

Two weeks previously, China, after patiently waiting decades for the peaceful return of Taiwan, had finally decided on a more aggressive approach. Until then, the threat of a United States’ counterattack had kept them from invading the island nation, but the Chinese had finally come up with a way to keep the Americans out of a war in Asia.

They invaded Seattle.

Not only did they invade Seattle (and Tacoma, as well), they also attacked and captured nearby Bangor Naval Base, with its arsenal of nuclear warheads for America’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. With some of these warheads in hand, they hoped to keep the United States from not only counterattacking them in Seattle, but in Taiwan, as well, for fear that one of these warheads would ‘accidentally’ go off.

Lieutenant Hobbs, along with Master Chief O’Leary, a former SEAL living in the area, had led a group of Rangers on a number of dangerous missions behind enemy lines during the brief conflict. These missions included recapturing the stolen nuclear weapons, which enabled the U.S. military to not only go on the offensive in the northwest, but also to stage a daring raid on Taiwan that turned the tide of the war.

Unfortunately for Calvin, as the platoon’s only officer, he was the one responsible for filling out all of the post-war paperwork. Buried under an avalanche of it, he had requested a couple of weeks of temporary duty in the Seattle area after the war to get it all completed. Hoping for at least a little grudging assistance from Ryan, Calvin and his girlfriend, Sara Sommers, had come out to Ryan’s cabin in the woods.

“All of this paperwork might be my responsibility,” said Calvin, “but I’ve got a lot more of it than I can do. Take a look at this one, for example. This is the award for some idiot that saved a colonel from getting his dumb butt shot off when he tried to attack a tank with just a rifle. Who’d do a stupid thing like that?” He paused, looking at the award. Ryan looked up, recognizing that the award was for him. “A Distinguished Service Cross?” Calvin asked, his voice a little louder. “No way! I’m throwing this one away.” He crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it at the garbage can, missing badly.

“Really?” asked Ryan, “A Distinguished Service Cross? The only thing higher than that is the Medal of Honor. Shoot, sir, I was just doing my job. That was hardly worthy of a Distinguished Service Cross.”

“Well, I say it as worthy,” said Calvin, “and that’s all that matters. I still have a little bit of influence at the moment, and I plan to use it before my 15 minutes of fame are over. I’m writing up everyone I can think of for everything that I can remember. I just need your help in remembering all of the things our troops did that need to be recognized.”

“The navy said he could only stay here in Seattle until he got his paperwork done,” added Sara Sommers. She had met Calvin during the war and hadn’t let him out of her sight since the war ended. “Don’t help him too much. I don’t want him to get finished too quickly.”

“I see,” said Ryan. “If you’re only staying in Washington until you finish, you’re not in much of a hurry to get it all completed, are you?”

“Let’s just say that I’m trying to do a thorough job of it,” replied Calvin. “Besides, when I get back to the squadron, we’re still going out on our scheduled six month cruise.” He paused and looked at Sara. “I’m not sure that I want to do that anymore.”

All three of them were quiet for a moment, full of thought.

Without warning, Calvin’s head snapped around to look at one of the far corners of the room. “We’re not alone,” he said.

“What do you mean?” asked Ryan. “I don’t see anyone.”

“No, I’m telling you, I heard something,” argued Calvin. “For the last week, I’ve felt like someone’s been watching me, and I know that I just heard something over in the corner.”

Suddenly, in the corner were three…beings. They were generally humanoid but didn’t appear to be human, as they were too short, and their heads were too big.

“Hello,” said one, stepping forward. “Although I guess the proper thing in your society is for us to say, ‘take us to your leader.’”

“What?” asked Ryan, unable to come to terms with the sudden appearance of the humanoids. “Who are you?”

“My name is Arges,” the same one said. “We need your help.”

* * * * *

Chapter One   Tom Sommers’ House, North Bend, WA, September 1, 2018

Four days had passed since meeting the aliens, and Calvin looked out the front window of Tom Sommers’ living room to see two large, black Suburbans pulling up out front. The three-bedroom ranch that Sara’s parents owned was about 25 miles east of Seattle in the bedroom community of North Bend. The house backed up to E.J. Roberts Park, the site of one the platoon’s battles during the war. “They’re here,” he said as the men began walking up the pathway to the house.

As he had been asked by the aliens, Calvin had called the Chief of Naval Operations and told him that he needed to speak to the president about a matter of national security. The president had called him back later in the day during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinking that it had something to do with nuclear weapons. Calvin smiled at the memory; based on his reaction, it appeared that no one had ever asked the president to do something on an act of faith before, and certainly not this big. ‘Could you please fly out to Washington, without anyone knowing, and meet me at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, because there’s a matter of national defense that I can’t talk about over the phone?’ Had he been anyone else, Calvin probably wouldn’t have been able to get the aliens their requested meeting with the president. He was still recognized as ‘America’s Savior’ from the war, though, and still had a touch of political capital left to use. The president had agreed to come out secretly, but had also let Calvin know in no uncertain terms that (1) this had really, really, better be important and (2) this trip used up any favors that Calvin thought might be owed to him for his service during the war.

Calvin didn’t have a problem with either of these warnings, as he was sure that a meeting with extraterrestrials would definitely qualify as important under the first caveat. If anything, by setting up the meeting so discreetly, he had probably earned even more political capital for the future.

The problem with sneaking the president out to Washington, Calvin saw, was less a matter of a cover story than it was hiding all of the secret service guards and the rest of his entourage. The two black Suburbans that had pulled up to the house were the bare minimum that his secret service detachment would allow. The group walked quickly to the house, where Tom Sommers, Sara’ father, welcomed them at the door. Tom brought the president to the dining room table where Calvin and Ryan were waiting for him. The president, Calvin and Ryan all sat down at the table while the Sommers stood a little further back, listening to, but not really part of the conversation.

For Calvin, this was the first time that he had met the president in person. He was unsure of what his reception would be. While Calvin was responsible for leading a number of missions that significantly shortened the war, including recovering nuclear weapons on three separate occasions, he had also been the source of some discontent among members of the government after the war. Shortly after the Chinese surrender, he had sold the story of the platoon to the media for an enormous amount of money. Some people thought it had been done too quickly and that it was disrespectful to the dead.

“It’s good to finally meet the ‘Opportunist of Seattle,’” said the president to Calvin in a voice that might have been called ‘stern.’ Apparently, the president was part of the group that thought selling his story to the media wasn’t cool, Calvin thought. Oh well.

“Well, sir, I look at it as resourceful, not opportunistic,” Calvin replied without remorse. “I’m just trying to take care of the families of my men who got killed defending their country.”

 “As the president, I am entirely opposed to what you are doing, as it sets a bad precedent for future conflicts,” the president said gravely. Then he laughed and winked at Calvin. “As Bill Jacobs, I think what you’re doing for those families is wonderful, and I’m glad you’re building a memorial, too. It would have taken decades for Congress to agree on the appropriate monument.” Calvin had used part of the money to set up a memorial and national cemetery next to where the nuclear weapons had been stored. The monument was to be placed in the field where 4,000 infantrymen had fought an armored column, armed with nothing but the rifles they purchased from local sporting goods stores. Although they had delayed the Chinese long enough for Calvin’s platoon to get there with the firepower needed to stop them, over half of them had given their lives in the battle, and another quarter had been wounded. Calvin had watched them continue to attack in spite of their gut-wrenching losses, and their sacrifice had made a tremendous impact on him. He would have spent every dime he had to his name to see their sacrifice adequately remembered. It was even better, though, to have the media pay for it.

The president looked over to where Ryan was sitting. “And as for you, Master Chief O’Leary, what do you have to say for yourself? No one hangs up on the President of the United States!” Ryan had hung up on him, not once, but three times when the president had called to ask for Ryan’s help in finding the stolen nuclear warheads. Jacobs had not been amused.

Ryan sprang to his feet, assumed a position of attention, and called out in his best drill sergeant voice, “Sir! Master Chief O’Leary is happy to be back in the navy and proud to have you as his commander-in-chief, sir!”

He said it with so much apparent sincerity that the president almost believed him, even though he knew Master Chief wasn’t a fan of authority. He decided to give him a break. Smiling again, he said, “At ease, Master Chief. Thanks for all of your help, even if you are a frustrating son of a bit…son of a gun,” he finished, flushing a little and looking at Mrs. Sommers.

Mrs. Sommers laughed and said, “Thank you, Mr. President, but I’ve heard it before.” She looked at Mr. Sommers, who had the decency to blush when called out in front of the president. Everyone laughed at that, even Mr. Sommers, and the tension eased a little.

“OK,” the president said, looking back to Calvin, “so now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, what is so damn important that I had to come all the way here, by myself, in secret?”

Calvin looked around the room. Although the president had come alone as asked, without any of his staff, ‘alone’ in the case of the president meant himself…and his six secret service guards. “Umm,” Calvin started, looking at the secret service men and women, “I need to talk with you alone…”

The president sighed, “Calvin, this is as alone as I get. The secret service guards swore an oath to protect me, not to do what I say. I could tell them to leave, but they wouldn’t leave me alone with people they don’t know. I have a hard enough time getting them to leave me alone with Mrs. Jacobs at night.” He chuckled at his own joke. “In any event, they are all sworn to secrecy, and I trust their oaths. We’re as alone as we’re going to get.”

“In that case,” said Calvin, getting up from the table and walking to a bedroom door down the hall a short way from the kitchen, “I have some people I’d like you to meet.”

The president looked confused as two short men and one short woman came out of the room with Calvin and walked toward the kitchen. The secret service detail, conditioned to observe, noticed their differences first and stiffened, hands moving unintentionally towards their weapons. Seeing them tense, the president looked again. Even though they looked almost human, they were shorter than normal, barely coming up to Calvin’s chest, and their heads were far bigger. When he saw that all three of them had six fingers, he understood.

“At ease,” he said to the secret service guards, figuring out who the newcomers were in a flash of intuition. “If these folks meant me any harm, I don’t think they’d have asked me here to talk.” He stood up and bowed. “Welcome! On behalf of the United States, I would like to welcome you to our planet. I am Bill Jacobs, the president of the United States.” He paused. “But of course, I’m sure you already knew that.”

One of the two alien males stepped forward. “Greetings, Mr. President. I am Arges, and these are my friends Brontes (he nodded to the female, who bowed) and Steropes (who also bowed.) You are correct; we are the Psiclopes and we are from another planet. We are not the ‘Cyclopes’ as in the one-eyed monster, but ‘Psiclopes,’ as in ‘sees with the mind.’” Calvin had told him to explain it so that the president didn’t get confused, like Calvin had the first time he heard the name. Arges continued, “Thank you very much for coming here today. We would prefer that news of our presence did not get out to the rest of the world at the moment. It is unfortunate that we had to reveal ourselves to you this way, but we need your help.”

“I’m sure that we will do everything we can for you,” said the president, figuring it was never a bad thing to have an advanced civilization owe you a favor. “What do you need?”

Arges looked at Steropes, who answered. “The communications link between our home world and Earth has been severed, which means one of two things. Either one of the relays broke, which is unlikely, or another race found one of them and destroyed it.”

“Does that happen often?” asked the president.

“No,” replied Steropes, “it does not. There is, however, a race called the Drakuls which loves finding them, because then they know there is an inhabited planet nearby. Long ago, we moved the relays so that they weren’t near the stargates, but if the Drakuls found one, they will not stop until they find the associated civilization. We need to go and find out which of these things happened.”

“Who or what are Drakuls?” asked the president.

Steropes replied, “The Drakuls look like giant carnivorous frogs that are almost ten feet tall. They are the closest thing to vampires that the universe has ever seen. They like their meat raw when they eat it, still alive if possible, and find it the greatest delicacy of all to drink the blood of their prey prior to consuming it. They are brutal and vicious, and their eating habits alone ensure that no race will willingly be captured by them. Despite the differences in biology and anatomy throughout the galaxy, there aren’t many races that they cannot consume.”

“They sound awful,” exclaimed Sara, unable to restrain herself. “How did a race like that get into space?”

Arges answered, a sad look on his face. “We used to keep outposts on all of the inhabited planets, including the Drakul home world. The Drakuls found our outpost there. It is fortunate for us that the four Psiclopes there were xenobiologists, so there was not much that they could tell them. What they did know, you can be sure the Drakuls found out. Between their brutal interrogation techniques and their propensity to eat their victims alive, the captured Psiclopes would have told them everything.”

Steropes continued, “Unfortunately, the frogs are also expert copycats. Like the Chinese of this world, they take apart everything that they capture. They find out what makes it tick and then reverse engineer it so that they have the technology, too. The Chinese on this planet are so good at it that the Russians stopped selling them new military hardware because they know the Chinese will only buy one shipment to reverse engineer it. Then they’ll produce their own copies, which are usually better made and cheaper, too. The Drakuls are just like that, only better...far better. They don’t have many new ideas of their own, but they are great at using other races’ equipment. The Drakuls captured one of our scout ships, along with the anthropology team, and they used it to take over the supply ship when it came. From there, the galaxy was within their reach.”

With a puzzled look on her face, Sara quietly left the room. The president watched her go and then said, “So let me see if I’ve got this straight.” He ticked off the points with his fingers. “There are many races in the galaxy, at least one of which is really bad. That particular race got the ability to get off its planet and is now roaming the galaxy, eating all of the other races they can find. You used to have a communications link that led back to your planet, but it either stopped functioning or has been destroyed, and you’re worried that the really bad race destroyed it.” He frowned. “And I think what you’re really worried about, which you haven’t said yet, is that you think the Drakuls, or the frogs as you called them, are coming here.”

“Unfortunately, your deduction is accurate,” said Arges nodding his head. He looked at Steropes, who continued the story. “If they come here, this will not be the first time that your race has battled the Drakuls. A derelict spacecraft found its way to the planet once before while we were asleep. In less than a year’s time, they had conquered all of your civilization. When we awoke to watch over you again, we found that you had been enslaved and were slowly being exterminated as a race. We helped you defeat them, although they nearly caused the end of your world.”

“They took over the world in one year?” asked Ryan. “How many of them were there?”

“There were ten of them,” said Brontes, joining the conversation. “At the time, you called them Titans.” Arges looked annoyed with her interjection.

“I thought the Titans were myths?” asked Calvin.

“No,” said Steropes, “they were ten-foot tall frogs, with hollow incisor teeth that could drain a body of blood in less than a minute. They are the original vampires of legend. In fact, most of what you think of as ‘monsters’ are actual races that exist in the galaxy. Vampires, werewolves, even the gorgon that Perseus fought…all of them are creatures that inhabit this galaxy. We’ve had to abandon our home planet on several occasions, a couple of which were due to potential invasions by the Drakuls. There are good reasons for the rumors and myths that surround these creatures.”

The president may not have caught on to the fact that they were aliens before his security detail did, but he was an excellent politician and backroom dealer, and he did well at connecting the dots. “You sound like you have lots of personal experience with them. I take it from your statements, Mr. Arges, that you have been on our planet for a long time.”

“You are perceptive, Mr. President,” said Arges. “Yes, we have been here a long time. Please, call me Arges, not Mr. Arges. We do not go by honorifics.”

I knew it!” shouted Sara, coming back into the room with a large book in her hand. In a more normal tone, she repeated, “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” Everyone looked at her, surprised at her outburst.

The president looked at Sara and raised his eyebrows at the breach of protocol. “What exactly did you know?” he asked.

Looking at the president, Sara asked, “Have you ever heard of the Theogony?” She looked back at the two male Psiclopes in time to see a worried look pass between them.

“The Theogony?” asked the president. “No, I haven’t. It sounds Greek, though. Something to do with gods or religion, maybe?”

“We had to read it in one of my Classics classes during my freshman year at the University of Washington,” said Sara. “The Theogony was a story that was written down by Hesiod around 700 BC, but had probably been told orally for a long time before that. The story tells about Zeus’ release of three Cyclopes from the pit of Tartarus. They helped Zeus overthrow the Titans by giving him some gifts.” She smiled. “I had to go back and look it up, but I thought I remembered it.”

Calvin looked at her quizzically. “Umm, thanks Sara, but I’m not sure why we needed to know that.”

Sara playfully punched him in the arm. “There were three Cyclopes that helped Zeus overcome the Titans.  Their names were…” she paused for effect, “Brontes, Steropes, and Arges. I think we have the original Cyclopes of legend here; there’s no way that those three names would be together otherwise.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Brontes. “That’s us!”

Both Steropes and Arges looked at her sharply, and Calvin could feel the tension between them as the two men stared at her. Finally, Arges sighed. “Indeed, we are those Cyclopes of legend, although the name has lost its original meaning over the ages. We had not intended to speak of this. There are many things that you are not ready to know, and more that we are not ready to tell.”

Sara looked at the book she had brought from her room. “The Cyclopes were named Brontes ‘the thunderer,’ Steropes ‘the lightning,’ and Arges ‘the bright.’ In the Theogony, the Cyclopes provided weapons that were used to help overthrow the Titans. They made a thunderbolt for Zeus, a helmet of invisibility for Hades, and a trident for Poseidon. They also created Artemis’ bow and arrows of moonlight and Apollo’s bow and arrows of sun rays.”

Steropes nodded, “Indeed we did, although those were just our normal items; they just appeared to be magic to the humans of that time. For example, a laser rifle could be explained as a bow that fired magic arrows of sunlight. With a little different frequency laser, voila, it now has moonlight arrows. No big deal.”

He paused, composing his thoughts. “As I was saying, much of human civilization at the time was located in the center of the Pacific on an island where the Marianas Trench is now. Generally, we Psiclopes stay awake for about ten years, but then we have to rest and meditate for a year. We had been here for some time, watching you, when a Drakul ship landed while we were in one of our meditative states. A human named Zeus happened to stumble into our cave while fleeing them, and he succeeded in waking Arges from his meditative state.”

Arges took up the tale, “I quickly deduced that the adversary he was fleeing was a Drakul and woke the rest of the team. We armed the humans, and the Drakuls were beaten back. The humans took horrific losses, but there were only ten Drakuls; even losing 100 humans to every Drakul, that still was less than 1,000 humans killed. When the last couple of Drakuls saw that they were going to lose, they detonated a large antimatter weapon, hoping to crack the planet and destroy human civilization for all time.”

“The Drakuls didn’t blow up the planet,” said Steropes, “but they did succeed in blowing up the island and causing a tidal wave that circumnavigated the surface of the planet, scattering the few humans that survived literally to the ends of the earth. Zeus happened to survive the blast and ended up in Greece afterwards.”

“Let me guess,” started Sara. “The cave you were in was named…”

“It was named Tartarus by the locals,” finished Steropes with a sigh.

“I’m curious,” asked Ryan pursing his lips. “Were you part of the assault on the Drakuls, or did you let the humans do all of the dying?”

“Our religion forbids us to kill or take a life in any way,” said Arges, “no matter how repugnant that life form may be. We practice ahinsa, which is a belief in kindness and non-violence towards all living things, including animals, because the energy of all living things is connected. Avoidance of verbal and physical violence is imperative because violence engenders negative karmic consequences.”

Calvin looked puzzled, both due to the big words, as well as the implications of what Arges was saying. “How is it, if you can’t fight or kill, that you haven’t been wiped out by some other civilization?”

“Although it is against our beliefs to fight and kill,” explained Steropes, “it is not against our code to hire others to do so when necessary. It may seem to you that this is morally ambiguous, but to us it is permissible, when undertaken for reasons of self-defense and species’ propagation. Like now for instance. In the past we have often hired other races to crew our ships and fight our battles for us. Are you familiar with the term ‘Janissaries?’”

“I think so,” answered Ryan. “Aren’t those the Christian kids that the Persians took and raised as a group to fight for the Persian Empire?”

“How the hell did you know that?” asked Calvin, stunned. He’d never heard of Janissaries before.

“Easy,” said Ryan, “my mom was a Persian who fled Iran when the Shah fell. She wanted to raise me with a sense of my cultural background. She made me take classes in Persian history.”

Arges nodded. “Master Chief is correct,” he said. “Many times we have used Janissary-like races to fight our battles. Although we will not take a life, there are many like you who will. The last time we fought the Drakuls, we used a Janissary race called the Eldive. That was a terrible time and a horrific confrontation. During the conflict, the Drakuls tracked a damaged vessel back to the Eldive home planet and blew up their world with a series of world-breaker bombs. The Eldive fleet was only crewed with males; the Eldive did not believe in allowing their females to fight. Because of this, all of their females were lost when their home world was destroyed. Believing they had nothing left to live for, the Eldive fleet conducted a suicide attack on the Drakuls’ home planet, which was guarded by a massive fleet. They destroyed the Drakul home world and most of their fleet with kamikaze-style assaults; what few Drakul ships survived were attended to by one of our other Janissary fleets. We thought that we had eradicated them from the galaxy, but it appears that we may have been mistaken.”

“This does, however, get us back to the point,” Brontes said after a couple of seconds of shared sorrow as they relived the events. “We have a spaceship to go and find out why the communication relay has stopped working, but we do not have a crew for it. It is cruiser-sized, necessitating a crew of around 400 people, not counting its indigenous air wing. If you intend to man that, you’ll need another 100 people to operate the half skrong of Zeebats.”

“What the hell is a half skrong of Zeebats?” inquired Ryan.

“A skrong is the basic combat unit of fighters,” said Steropes. “Each skrong is a double handful, or 12, fighters. A half skrong is six. Our recommendation is to at least bring Calvin to fly one of them. Eventually, you will need pilots for all of them if we continue to use the ship, so it is better to start flying them sooner rather than later.”

“COOL!” said Calvin. “I’m in! Where do I sign? Is a Zeebat a type of fighter or just the word that means ‘fighter?’”

“A Zeebat is a type of fighter, one of the most up-to-date ones that we have,” said Arges. “There are other types of craft that can be used in a variety of strategic, operational and tactical situations, but none of them are on the ship, aside from our two shuttle craft.”

“How up-to-date is ‘up-to-date?’” asked Calvin.

“The schematics for them are only 3,000 of your years old,” said Arges. “They were the most tactically-relevant fighters that existed when we came here.”

“Oh,” said Calvin, crushed. “So they are the tactical equivalent of driving my grandfather’s car?”

“The answer to your question is unknown at this time,” replied Arges, “as it is impossible to know the extent to which the rest of the galaxy has improved its armaments. The Zeebat had just been developed by the Eldive at the time of the climactic battle; it is unlikely that the Drakuls got the opportunity to disassemble and reverse engineer them. Assuming they haven’t captured any fighters from another advanced culture, the Zeebat was a ‘next generation’ fighter, to use your terminology, beyond anything the Drakuls had at the time. Please remember, they are not theoretical scientists. Their talents lie in reverse engineering other civilizations’ craft, not in inventing armaments of their own.” He paused, considering. “Regardless, I believe that you will still be impressed with the functioning of the Zeebat, Calvin. While the design is 3,000 years old to us, it is still several hundred years beyond anything you would likely have derived on your own, barring an unlikely breakthrough in technology.”

“Okay,” said Calvin, looking a little happier.

“Everyone is getting a little ahead of themselves,” remarked the president. “While there’s no doubt that we will help you, we can’t just go flying off without working out how all of this is to take place. Certainly, we’ll need to bring in some senior officers to determine how we want to man this ship that no one has even seen yet.” He looked at Calvin. “You, in particular, may be a little junior for this mission.” Calvin’s face fell at the news.

“Oh, no,” said Arges, “we definitely want Lieutenant Hobbs onboard. We have been scrutinizing his performance for a while now, and he must be the leader of the military forces with us. In fact, we would like to have the entire unit that he led during your latest conflict onboard the ship with us. They have proven that they are able to successfully adapt to constantly changing situations.”

“In that case, I’m sure that Lieutenant Hobbs’ participation can be arranged,” agreed President Jacobs. “What help and support can we expect from you?”

“We will provide all of the things necessary for this mission,” said Steropes. “The ship, arms and armor for the troops, the Zeebats, and everything else that is needed. We will also begin making our technology available so that your country will have access to it. If you are to have any chance against the Drakuls, your economy will need to expand beyond anything it has ever seen previously, as will the rest of the planet. You have not yet begun to see the horror that is the Drakuls. Pray that you never do.”

“I will need to go back to Washington and talk with some people to see what we can do to support you,” said the president. “The first thing that we will need is a point of contact at one of the bases nearby where you can use a secure phone, because I do NOT want this information getting out until we are ready for it.” He gave the group a look that included the Sommers, as well as the military personnel. “I don’t know how long all of you have known about our new friends, but you have already proven your discretion. To say that this is a matter of national security would be the understatement of the century. If what they say is true, it is a matter of global security. We cannot allow this information to get out to the media or to any of the other countries before we are ready. The panic and chaos it would cause would be overwhelming!”

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, September 5, 2018

“All right,” said President Bill Jacobs, looking around the Deep Underground Command Center’s (DUCC) new conference room, “What are our options for assisting the Psiclopes?” Four years and nearly a billion dollars in the making, the DUCC had become operational a couple of years earlier. Originally envisioned in 1963, the command center was built to provide a facility for key decision makers in times of crisis. It was constructed to survive any attack made on the United States, while giving leaders access to the people and information they needed to make critical decisions. As the president and his team needed to be able to access the DUCC at a moment’s notice, it was built under the West Wing of the White House. With over 100,000 square feet of space, it was built to house a staff of over 300 people. It was still so new, though, that most of the people who would inhabit it in an emergency hadn’t moved in yet, and the lack of ‘personalization’ led to what the president thought was a very austere working environment. Even the walls were blank and boring. It was, however, the most secure facility on the planet, which made it the ideal place to hold this meeting. Even the Psiclopes, he thought, wouldn’t be able to spy on them here.

The president had asked all of the military service chiefs to join him in the DUCC, as well as the Secretary of State and the heads of the CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security. All of them had been read into ‘Olympos,’ a new, special access clearance program that had been established for dealing with the Psiclopes. If you weren’t in the program, you didn’t know about the Psiclopes. Period.

The meeting itself was a ‘ghost meeting,’ similar to the meetings that were held in preparation for the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden seven years previously. The meeting wasn’t on the attendees’ calendars. No staff or aides were present, no agenda was written down, and no notes were taken. In fact, the only paper in the room was a pile of folders in front of the army’s chief of staff.

The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral James Wright, spoke first. “The most difficult part of this is going to be finding a crew of 400 sailors to man their ship. You can’t just take that many people away and not have it be noticed. The only thing worse than grabbing a crew of 400 from one of our ships would be to try to take 400 people in small numbers from all over the navy. People might not notice as quickly, but then it won’t be a ‘crew;’ no one will be used to working with anyone else and things won’t flow as easily as if the group all came from the same unit. It would also make trying to select who goes a nightmare. It’s far better to use a full ship’s crew. We can’t have people trying to work things out in space ‘on the fly.’

Most of the senior officers in the room nodded their heads, with the exception of the air force’s chief of staff, General Joseph Simms, who was sitting next to the CNO. The air force had fought hard to be the branch of the military selected to man the spaceship, although the navy had been chosen. The chief of staff’s hand went up.

“If I may,” he said, “the air force has come up with a variety of manning solutions that we would be happy to implement.” The chief of staff’s tone of voice always sounded whiney to the president and grated on his nerves. Especially when he was more interested in jockeying for position than solving the problem at hand.

“Damn it, general, we have been over this!” said the president, raising his voice. “The decision has been made to use the navy to man the ship. Don’t waste my time on your inter-service rivalry!” The president wanted to squash this early, or it would linger throughout the meeting. While all of the services had worked together well during the Sino-American War, things were rapidly going back to the way they were before it.

 “Well, we still have those solutions, if anyone wants to look at them,” General Simms muttered.

“Anyway,” said the CNO, “we have decided that it is better to use the crew of a ship so that they have unit cohesion. Space is too unforgiving to do otherwise.” He looked around, but no one disagreed this time. “It looks like we can use the crew of the USS Vella Gulf,” he said. “The ship is about to make its last deployment before being decommissioned. There are about 35 officers and 350 enlisted on the Vella Gulf, putting it right at the target number the Psiclopes said was necessary to run their ship effectively.”

“Won’t people miss a ship like that?” asked the president.

“We’ve already begun working on a cover story that will help,” answered the CNO. “Instead of deploying with the carrier battle group, it will deploy for independent anti-piracy operations. Before they deploy, the ship will have a communications failure that will prevent the crew from having internet access while on deployment. That way, families won’t expect to be in contact with them on a daily basis. We’ll work out the rest of the deception plan as we go along.”

“Sounds good,” said the president.

“Moving on to the air wing,” continued the CNO, “we have come up with several options. For the same reasons listed previously, it is better to take a squadron, or part of a squadron, and keep it together for the ship’s deployment. As we really don’t know much about the fighter craft that the Psiclopes have, well, nothing really, we thought that the best solution would be to pull one of the Hornet squadrons that just got back from cruise. They are used to flying with each other and their re-deployment won’t affect any of our long-term plans.”

“As I understand it, Lieutenant Hobbs squadron was just about to go on cruise, not come back from it. Isn’t that correct?” asked the president.

“Well, yes, sir, that is correct,” said the CNO. “That squadron, the Blue Blasters of VFA-34, is due to go on cruise in a couple of months. Pulling them from the deployment schedule now would cause a huge disruption to our rotation, so I thought it would be better to use a different squadron.”

IS NO ONE LISTENING TO WHAT I AM SAYING?” roared the president. He was a big man with a big voice, and he used every decibel he had at his disposal. He took off a few decibels as he continued, “There is a race of cannibals that may be coming this way. They are technologically way ahead of us. We need to do everything possible to get ready to meet this challenge. The only thing that we have going for us is a group of three aliens who need our help. These aliens have only asked for a couple of things, one of which is to have Lieutenant Hobbs’ group be part of the manning for this mission. I don’t know why they want this group, but damn it, that group is going to be part of this mission! Am I clear on this?

“Yes sir!” said a chastised and embarrassed CNO. The people on both sides of the CNO looked embarrassed just to be sitting next to him.

“Good!” said the president at a volume that was not, quite, yelling. “We don’t have time for hidden agendas. We don’t have time for inter-service rivalry. We don’t have time for anything that doesn’t make us stronger as a nation! We don’t just stand to lose; WE STAND TO GET EATEN! I, for one, do NOT want to be on any alien’s menu, especially ten foot tall carnivorous frogs that suck the blood out of their victims while they are still alive!” Several of the people in the room had obviously not heard about the dietary practices of the Drakuls, and there were many faces around the table that went decidedly green with the announcement.

“Now,” said the president, calming himself, “can we get past all of this crap and figure out how we are going to not just preserve our way of life, but that of our entire planet?” He looked around to see everyone nodding in agreement. “Good,” he said. He looked at the CNO and asked, “So...what are we going to do about the attached air wing?”

“The other option we looked at, which I think would probably work better, is to use four pilots from the Blue Blasters,” replied the CNO, “including Lieutenant Hobbs. We will also use four pilots from the U.S. Air Force (USAF), to be drawn from the F-35 community. That way, we are better able to spread out the experience that they will get on this mission, so that they can train more pilots in both of the services upon their return.”

“Out-STANDING!” said the president, rubbing his hands together. “Now we’re starting to make some progress here. Just maybe we can save the world, after all.” He looked at the army’s chief of staff, General John Dixon. “What is the plan for the ground force?”

General Dixon was more of a rule follower than the other senior officers. A prior Ranger who was used to getting hard tasks and accomplishing them, he had worked closely with his five ‘Olympos’ staff members to develop a plan that met the president’s goals. While some people might uncharitably call him a ‘suck-up,’ he considered himself to be an excellent staff officer that worked hard to exceed his boss’ expectations. A short man at 5’6”, exceeding expectations was a trait that had carried him through the ranks of the Rangers. He just out-worked the competition. He looked at the Secretary of State, Isabel Maggiano, and said, “The Secretary of State and I have come up with several options for the ground force. As I understand it, the ship has room for approximately 35 ground force members, not counting Lieutenant Hobbs, who will be the unit’s commander.”

General Dixon pulled out a sheet of notes from the top folder. “Based on his lack of training, Lieutenant Hobbs would not be my first choice for the position, but I understand the need to have him in charge. I know that he did well during the war; however, I think it’s important for his XO to be very experienced, so I have a First Lieutenant from the army’s Delta Force in that position. Normally, a platoon doesn’t have two officers, but I thought it would be appropriate in this case, especially as Lieutenant Hobbs will have other duties as a pilot, as well. The officer that I have in mind is a prior enlisted soldier, with lots of special forces time under his belt.” The president nodded. That made good sense and met the desires of the Psiclopes, while still strengthening their force.

The general continued, “The rest of the platoon will be broken down into two forces. The first of these, the ‘space force,’ will be made up of 16 men led by Master Chief Ryan O’Leary. These men and women will primarily train for combat in space. There will be another 16 men, under the leadership of Master Sergeant Aaron Smith, who will be primarily responsible for any ground-based combat. Although both groups will have their own areas of expertise, both will also cross-train in the other’s specialty, so that both groups can be prepared for all occasions.” He looked up at the president and said, “That part is all pretty straight-forward. Here’s where Isabel and I have come up with some options for you. If you are going to brief any of the other countries about the Psiclopes and this mission, we would like to include them in the make-up of this force. It will allow them to participate and will hopefully strengthen our ties with them. It will also allow us to bring in some other experience and ways of thinking.”

He paused, looking around the room. “The bottom line,” he continued, “is that we just don’t know what our troops will face out there. Having a diverse group, with a wide variety of experience, will help them to survive any situation.”

“That makes good sense,” said the president. “I had been weighing whether to tell our allies before the mission or afterwards. I think I will tell them ahead of time and try to get you the people you are looking for.” He paused. “You have obviously been giving this some thought. Who are you looking to recruit for the mission?”

“The Secretary of State and I have discussed this quite a bit,” he agreed. “Here’s our plan.” He looked down at his notes. “First, we’d like to reward our allies that came in on our side of the war. Not only to show that we appreciated their support, but to tie them into our plans going forward. Once it comes out that we have made extraterrestrial contact, the political arena is going to be a nightmare.” General Dixon looked at the president. “I don’t envy you at all with that,” he commented, “but Mrs. Maggiano and I have tried to help make that transition smoother.”

He looked at the list. “Japan and Korea both risked a lot to join us and helped make our defense of Taiwan a success, especially Japan. I would like to have one of the Japanese Special Forces Group soldiers and a Korean soldier from their 707th Special Mission Battalion. The Brits have always stood by our side, and I would like to have one of their Special Air Service troops for the ground force and a Special Reconnaissance Regiment soldier for the space force. Also from our NATO allies, I would recommend a German soldier from their Paratrooper Battalion 263 and an Italian Naval Special Forces sailor. The last three would come from nations that helped in the war: a sailor from the Australian Navy’s clearance diving teams, a Chilean combat air controller and a member of India’s Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, their COBRA group.”

“Nice touch on including India,” the president said. “Their moving troops toward the Chinese border was very helpful in ending the conflict, and it will be good to have their billion people on our side moving forward, both for the economic engine they can bring, as well as for a counterweight against further Chinese aggression.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Isabel Maggiano. The Secretary of State was a short and stocky woman who always wore some of the tallest high-heeled shoes she could find so that she didn’t have to look up as far at her contemporaries. “We also looked at the Russian Spetsnaz, Israeli Egoz Reconnaissance unit and French Naval Commandos, but each of those nations comes with baggage. The Russians are still mad at us for sinking their destroyer during the war. They might have kept the secret, but they might not have, just to spite us. Having the Israelis would have caused a lot of difficulty with all of the Arab nations, especially since none of them are included. As far as the French go, they were the only NATO nation to not give us their full support during the war, and anyone they sent might be more interested in industrial espionage than in helping the team.”

“All of these people, as well as some additional Americans from the other services, would augment the platoon by filling in the slots of people that were killed or incapacitated during the war,” said the general. “As requested by the Psiclopes, we will keep the surviving members of the platoon essentially intact.”

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Dick Bartlett, raised his hand to get the general’s attention. Bartlett was a man of many faces, the CNO knew, who was equally adept at conning money from Congress as he was picking up women. He’d take candy from a baby if he thought he could get away with it. He usually could, too. “Watch this,” whispered the CNO to the chief of staff of the air force. “I’ll bet he’s got a guy.”

“What do you mean?” asked the chief of staff, who was relatively new, to the CNO.

“He’s always got a guy,” answered the CNO. “If we went to the surface of the moon, he’d probably say that he’s already got a guy there.”

General Dixon acknowledged the CIA director, who said, “I have a guy that would be perfect for the platoon, as well.” The CNO looked at the air force chief of staff and rolled his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” said General Dixon. “This is a military organization.”

“I understand that,” Bartlett said, “and I have a former SEAL in my organization that would be absolutely perfect for this platoon.” He looked around the room and said, “He’s SAD/SOG,” as if that explained everything.

“What the hell is a SAD/SOG?” whispered the air force chief of staff.

“It’s the CIA’s version of special forces,” replied the CNO. “The Special Activities Division is the CIA group that does clandestine missions and covert operations. The Special Operations Group is the department of operatives that collects intelligence in countries where the U.S. doesn’t want to be associated. They’re the folks that the government denies all knowledge of.”

“Are they any good?” asked the chief of staff.

“Oh yeah,” replied the CNO. “They’re ultra elite. The whole organization is made up of former SEALs, Green Berets and 24th Special Tactics Squadron troopers. They can do anything from direct action missions to assassinations to special reconnaissance. They’re also full-time spies, who collect intelligence wherever they go.”

After a pause and a frown, General Dixon asked, “I expect your guy has a military rank that we could recall him to, so that he would fit into the unit?”

“Of course he does,” answered Bartlett. “You can list him as Corporal John Jones.” Even the air force chief of staff could tell that name was bullshit. “He’s trained in combat SCUBA, hand-to-hand combat, apprehension avoidance, cyber warfare and tactical communications, among other things,” continued Bartlett. Thinking about ‘Mr. Jones’ last mission, he added, “He’s also pretty good with improvising explosive devises and hot-wiring vehicles.”

“Wonderful,” said the CNO, in a stage whisper. “If there are any space cars, he can steal them for us.” Several people around the CNO giggled, eliciting a glare from Bartlett.

“I’ll put him up against anyone you’ve got!” said Bartlett, voice rising.

“That’s fine,” interrupted the president, anxious to keep things on track, “I’m sure he is extremely capable and would be an asset to the team. I’m also sure that he would be there to try and collect as much intelligence as possible, which you WILL make known in its entirety to this entire group. Is that understood?”

A master of his own domain, the director wasn’t used to being spoken to so abruptly. He nodded his head, although somewhat stiffly.

“Good,” said the president, moving on. “He’s on the team.” Looking back to General Dixon, he asked, “What about Canada? I didn’t hear any mention of our neighbors to the north. Admittedly, they were more invested in the problem than any other country, with Chinese forces only 100 miles from some of their cities, but they were actively involved and came unconditionally when we called. Do you have something for them?”

“We looked at that,” said the General, “but they didn’t have any ground forces that brought capabilities beyond what we had. They do, however, also fly the F-18 Hornet; we thought they might be a good fit for the space fighter squadron.”

A flash of annoyance went across the CNO’s face as the army chief of staff discussed matters that were the navy’s prerogative, but then Admiral Wright realized, having already been chewed out once for it, he needed to think bigger. “I agree,” he said finally. “Perhaps we could get two aviators from Canada who are used to flying with each other and integrate them together.” Heads nodded around the table.

General Dixon smiled. “Along with the platoon recommendations, my staff also put together a list for how we might assemble the squadron based on the nations and services that were participating in the ground unit. The list suggests a USAF officer as executive officer for the squadron and then three other USAF pilots, another three from the navy, two Canadians, two Japanese, a Korean, a Brit, a German and an Australian.”

Both the CNO and air force chief of staff asked to see the list, and he passed them each a copy with their names already on it. “That’s 16 people,” said the air force officer, looking at his list. “I thought we were going with eight crews for the six fighters on the spaceship.”

“We are,” said the CNO. “Didn’t you hear? The fighters are two-seaters. One for the pilot and one for the weapons system operator (WSO).” The chief of staff was a former F-16 fighter pilot, who liked doing everything himself and didn’t believe in WSOs. He would rather have had an extra 200 pounds of gas. The CNO had been one of the last A-6E Intruder pilots when he had first come into the navy. He found the chief of staff’s viewpoint shortsighted, having seen first-hand the benefits that a task-based division of labor could bring to a two-person crew. There’s just no way that you can look outside the cockpit to watch for enemies when you’re looking down to flip switches.

“OK,” said the president, “that’s a good start. I will work with Isabel to bring the nations that we need onboard, while the services put together their plans for manning the platoon and the squadron. No one is authorized to bring anyone else in on ‘Olympos’ without my expressed authorization. Work together to build a plausible cover story that we will use until the news finally breaks. And nobody talks to the Psiclopes about any of this. I want to talk to them first.”

Everybody left to pursue their tasking, already deep in thought for how they could accomplish everything that was on their plates.

Arges smiled from where he watched, invisible, nodding in satisfaction. Bill Jacobs was a better leader than he had thought. Maybe this species wouldn’t be eradicated, after all, like so many before them had.

Tom Sommers’ House, North Bend, WA, September 9, 2018

“Why me?” asked Calvin as he sat sipping a beer at the kitchen table in the Sommers’ house. There was already talk that not only was he going to remain the commanding officer of the Ranger platoon, but also he was going to be in charge of the space fighter group on the spaceship. While he was willing to do both in order to be the first human to get to fly a no-shit space fighter, he knew that his lazy afternoons were rapidly coming to an end. He had been scrambling to get the last bit of paperwork completed before he had to take on those tasks, and he had just finished the last award, which was why he was treating himself to a well-earned beverage.

Calvin and Sara had been enjoying some quality time alone when Steropes had arrived. Unusual for the Psiclops, he had actually used the front door rather than just showing up in their midst like he normally did. Calvin had appreciated the good manners. Steropes had refused a beer claiming that the alcohol affected them differently than it did humans.

“What do you mean, ‘why you?’” Steropes asked.

“He means,” said Sara cutting Calvin off, “why is it so important that Calvin goes on this mission? Why is it so important for him to lead the platoon? Why is it so important for him to also have to lead the fighter squadron on the spaceship, too?”

“That’s a lot of ‘whys,’” said Steropes. “Unfortunately, I can’t answer them. Arges thought it important for him to be there and to be in charge.”

“You can’t answer them?” asked Calvin “or you won’t answer them?”

“To tell you the truth,” replied Steropes, “it is actually a little of both. Arges has a feeling that it is important for you to be in charge of the military contingent. I learned a long time ago to listen to his feelings.”

Calvin considered the answer for a couple of seconds and then asked, “I guess the real question I have is, why do I have to command both the ground force and the space fighter squadron? I can foresee times when both might be in action at the same time. How am I supposed to do both of them?”

Steropes gave a very human shrug. “I have no idea,” he replied. “I guess you’ll figure it out when you need to.”

“But how am I supposed to get any time with him,” asked Sara, “if he has to put together two different groups, train them, supply them and get them ready to go to space in six months? He was going to take some leave so we could go on a vacation together, but now that has been cancelled.”

“I’m sorry that it has to be this way,” said Steropes, “but his presence is important, even crucial, to the success of your people as they go down the path they’re on. What is the happiness of two people when compared with the prospect of your whole race being eaten alive?”

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, September 26, 2018

Leaders from all of the nations that had assisted the U.S. in the Sino-American War had been invited to the White House for a formal dinner and “thank you” from the President of the United States. The United States had been in trouble and had asked for assistance. Now that the crisis was over, the U.S. wanted to show its gratitude to those that had honored their commitments. It was all very above board.

Although everyone appeared to leave after the event, not all of the foreign leaders actually did. Body doubles took the places of the prime ministers of Britain, Canada, Australia, and Japan, as well as the presidents of Germany, South Korea, India, Italy, and Chile. The real leaders went to meet with the President of the United States in the DUCC’s conference room, over half a mile below the White House.

“Thank you for coming,” said the president, “and for your trust in meeting with me like this.” None of the leaders had been allowed to bring any of their aides or staff, and no notes were being taken. The only thing on the conference table was a stack of folders by the president. All of the foreign leaders were impressed with the facility. In the preceding three weeks, it had become a beehive of activity and now had a very ‘lived-in’ look. “I’m sorry for all of the secrecy that was required to get you here, but I believe that you will all agree that it was necessary.”

He looked around the room at the well dressed men and woman; for the second term in a row, the South Koreans had elected a woman president. “Before we go any further, I would like you to give me your word that what we discuss in this room will stay a secret for one year. At that point, it will be made common knowledge at a joint press conference. Do I have your word?”

Everyone nodded their heads except the Japanese prime minister, who raised his hand. “Sadly, I cannot give you my word on something that I haven’t heard yet. My duty is to my country, and if the secret involves something damaging to my nation, I would be caught between honor and duty.”

The president had expected at least one head of state to express such a reservation and was prepared for it. “I understand and respect your position,” President Jacobs replied. “However, your participation is crucial to this discussion. How about this? I promise that nothing we will discuss will be damaging to your nation and, if after hearing what I have to tell you, you feel that you can’t keep it secret, you will give me three days to announce it. Are those terms agreeable?

“Yes they are,” replied the Japanese prime minister with a bow, “and thank you for your consideration.”

The president also bowed, saying, “You’re welcome.”

“Lady and gentlemen,” began the president, savoring the anticipation in the room, “I have asked you here this evening because you are either long-time allies of ours or were nations that helped us during our recent war. As such, we want to have you with us at the beginning of a momentous journey. We have been contacted by aliens that need our assistance.”

Having seen all of the security precautions that had been taken, the heads of state had expected something momentous, but they had expected something related to the recently completed war. Not something like aliens. Gasps and choruses of “oh, my god” in various languages filled the room. In addition to a general feeling of excitement, there were several suspicious and uncomfortable looks around the table as several of the leaders tried to determine what kind of game the United States was playing.

The President of Chile, in particular, felt out of place in this group, as his nation was neither a NATO member, nor a long-time U.S. ally. The only Spanish-speaking member of the group, and the only nation from South America, he wondered why the United States had included his country in such a momentous secret. Because Chile had offered the assistance of a few planes and ships in a war thousands of miles away? Surely, this was a joke. “I’m sorry,” President Diego Rojas said, “but did you just say that you had been contacted by aliens? Do you mean aliens from another planet or illegal aliens from another country?”

“I mean aliens from another planet,” said Bill Jacobs. He looked behind him.

The leaders drew a collective breath as the Psiclopes became visible. “This is Arges, Steropes and Brontes,” introduced the president. “They are the Psiclopes, meaning ‘those who see with their minds.’”

Arges stepped forward. “As the president said, I am Arges, and these are my friends Brontes and Steropes. Thank you very much for coming here today. We would prefer that news of our presence not get out to the rest of the world at the moment. It is unfortunate that we have had to reveal ourselves, but we need your help. The communications relay to our home world has ceased functioning, and we do not know why. It might have broken, but it is far more likely that it was destroyed by a hostile race, possibly the Drakuls. We need to go and ascertain which of these things has occurred, but we need assistance in manning our ship.”

“Who are these Drakuls of which you speak?” asked the British prime minister.

“Imagine a ten foot tall carnivorous frog,” replied the president, “and you have a Drakul. They like their meat raw when they eat it, still alive if possible, and like to drink its blood prior to consuming it. They are nasty, brutal and vicious.”

“Drakuls?” asked the German president, somewhat in disbelief. “As in Dracula?”

“Yes,” replied Arges. “Just like that. Drakuls made it to Earth once, a long time ago. We thought that we had killed them all, but one got away and established himself in the mountains of Romania. He did his best not to attract our attention, and he was successful for a long time. Eventually, he ate enough of the locals that the rumors of him spread, and we were finally made cognizant of his presence. We subsequently eliminated him.”

“Couldn’t Dracula turn people into vampires or the undead?” asked the British prime minister.

 “Converting people into vampires is a fallacy,” answered Arges, “but when they bite someone, the Drakuls do inject a poison into them. The venom works like a mind control agent, and the victim will do whatever the Drakul that bit the person tells him or her to do. This is usually just to wait somewhere until the Drakul is hungry again, but they can also be told simple commands like ‘guard’ and ‘attack.’ Victims may appear to be converted, but they are simply under control of a toxic agent. With regard to the victim being undead, there is some veracity in that, as the first thing the poison does is to destroy all of the higher level brain functions of its victim. The brain ceases to function, but the body is not dead. For all intents and purposes, victims of the Drakul are, indeed, the undead.”

“So,” said the German president, “We can either join the team, help out and work to defeat the Drakuls, or we can be eaten alive. Not much choice there. Consider Germany to be ‘in.’

“Australia is ‘in,’ too, mate,” said the Australian prime minister. “What do you need from us?”

“In the interest of time,” broke in the U.S. president, “by a show of hands, is there anyone that is not ‘in?’” No hands went up. “Thank you for your support,” said the president, “and welcome to Olympos, the code name for the effort to assist the Psiclopes and defend the planet. The first thing that I need to tell you is that there are going to be requirements for membership in this group that are going to be non-negotiable. The biggest of these is that, once the word gets out, there will be financial obligations.”

“We are hoping to send out the first mission within about six months, with it returning approximately six months later. At that time, we will announce that we have made contact with the Psiclopes and that our focus has shifted from terrestrial obligations to defense of the Solar System. We will unilaterally withdraw from all of our previous treaties and implement a new one, the Treaty for the Defense of Sol. Within one year of the announcement, developed nations will be expected to spend 30% of their GDPs on defense; high developing nations will be expected to spend 20% on defense and low developing nations 10%. We will be standardizing all defense systems for interoperability and implementing a single combined military. It won’t be the United States’ military, but the Terran military. Everyone that participates will have the same opportunities for command; senior level promotions will be made by a board that is made up by representatives of all participating nations.”

“I’m sure you’re all wondering, ‘what’s in it for me if I participate?’” asked the president. Several heads nodded. “While I’d love to call upon everyone’s honor and say it’s the right thing to do, I know you are going to have to sell this to your citizens. First and foremost, your nation will have access to the Psiclopes’ technology. In the brief discussions we have had with them, we have found that their technology is far beyond ours. Our scientists agree that the nations that don’t have access will be completely left behind by those that do within five years and will be unable to compete economically. Most agree that will happen within three years.” He looked around the room. “This isn’t meant as a threat; it is economic reality. We are not going to share this technology with those countries that aren’t willing to do their parts, nor are we going to allow them to steal it.”

The German president nodded and stage-whispered to the British prime minister seated next to him, “Now we see why the French weren’t invited.”

“I’m not pointing fingers at anyone,” said the U.S. president, who, like everyone else, heard the ‘whisper.’ “Everyone will be treated equally, but everyone will be held to the same standards. If some nations don’t want to participate to that standard, so be it.” He paused. “Lady and gentlemen, we are at a crossroads in human history. We have been told that the Drakuls have wiped out nearly every civilization that they have faced. I intend to do everything I can to ensure that doesn’t happen to us. Even with the injection of Psiclopes technology, it is unlikely that we will be successful by ourselves. We need everyone to work together to help save the human race.”

“OK,” said the British prime minister, “you have our support. If we can’t discuss this publicly for a year, why are you telling us about it now?”

“The purpose of this meeting today is two-fold,” said the president. “First, as friends, I wanted to make you aware, so that you can begin looking at options as to how you will bring your economies up to a full war footing. That way, when the time comes, the transition can be made as seamlessly as possible. The announcement of aliens is going to cause turmoil; this will give us time to plan for it so that we can reduce the chaos to a minimum. For our part, we are going to announce that we are looking at ways of preventing another event like the Chinese invasion of Seattle. That will give us an excellent cover story for studies to transition our economy to a state of war. It also provides a cover for looking at fighting wars in places we never expected and the development of new technology.”

“The second reason for today’s meeting is to invite you to participate in our first journey into space. We will be sending a mission to assist the Psiclopes, who have a spaceship that we will be crewing for the journey. We are inviting you to participate in both the space fighter wing that we will be deploying, as well as in the ground unit that will be accompanying them. The Psiclopes have asked for a certain group from the war to be the basis of the ground force, but it will need augmentation, and we want to include you in this from the beginning. We have looked at our needs and the capabilities of your forces, and we have come up with some suggestions for where you might best be able to participate.” The president passed the stack of folders in front of him down the conference table. Each one had a country’s name and flag on the outside.

“If you would take the folder with your country’s flag on the outside,” President Jacobs continued, “you can see what we would like you to provide. The cover story for both of these units is that we are forming ‘Centers of Excellence’ (COE) to develop new methods of training and employing special operations troops and aviation units, based on our experiences during the war. We are going to tell the press that we have analyzed the world’s forces and are opening up the COEs for our allies to participate. We will be looking for ‘free thinkers’ from your militaries; we want soldiers and airmen that will be able to deal with aliens, new technologies and a journey into space.”

“This trip also opens up some additional prospects for the future. For example, the Psiclopes’ ship runs on Helium-3. While it is fueled for this trip, they will need more for the next time it goes out. One thing we noted on our moon landings last century was a relative abundance of Helium-3 on the moon. I am also proposing a new, joint mission to build a base on the moon. We can say it is to collect Helium-3 for a new fusion reactor project, which we want to use to generate clean, safe power. My experts tell me that Helium-3 fusion is possible and that as much as 70% of the energy in the fuel could be captured and put directly to work. We would, however, need a much larger source than what is naturally found on the Earth; we’d need to extract it from the moon. Not only will we harvest it from the moon for additional trips through space, but the Helium-3 will also give us an additional source of cheap, clean energy to power our societies.”

“Now, I know this is a lot of information to digest at one time,” finished the president, “but we needed to get you onboard as quickly as possible. Are there any questions?”

The question and answer session that followed lasted for over two hours. The president had expected as much. Hell, he had lots of questions of his own that still hadn’t been answered.

KIRO-TV, Channel 7, Seattle, WA, September 27, 2018

“In national news this evening, the White House has announced that the U.S. is planning a major new effort to go back to the moon,” read KIRO’s anchorwoman, Anna St. Cloud. “In a joint press conference, President Bill Jacobs and Secretary of Energy Jim Banks announced that the United States was embarking on a radical new program to establish a permanent base on the moon by the year 2025. This effort represents a complete realignment of both NASA’s mission and budget.”

The camera cut to the president standing at a podium. “Not since the space race has any nation thought so boldly or planned so far ahead for the future of the human race,” said the president. “The nation and the world at large need a clean and renewable source of energy for the next millennium. Helium-3 fusion power is that source. The helium that we need exists in abundant amounts on the moon, all that is needed is for humanity to go up and harvest it. I call upon all of our partners and allies, and any other nation that is interested, to join us in this mission to the moon. This is not just for the U.S., but the world!”

The picture returned to Anna St. Cloud. “The announcement that the U.S. was going to lead an expedition to the moon was surprising to most experts, who believe that the United States already has enough obligations on its budget,” reported St. Cloud, “The president dismissed these criticisms by stating that such a program would create a tremendous number of well-paying jobs that would stimulate the economy and would lead to an economic boom. After the announcement, India, Britain and Canada all expressed their interest in participating in the project.”

“Not everyone, however, was in favor of this plan. The Russians, in particular have already expressed concerns. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Baczynska had this to say.”

The camera changed to the deputy foreign minister, who was walking out of a State Department building. “The problem of a new space race is real and could directly affect the interests of all of our countries. We are witnessing America and its allies talking about taking all of the resources from the moon, resources that belong to all of humanity, not just the capitalist nations. Our new cosmodrome in Vostochny will be finished next year, and we will immediately begin using it to stake our claim to the moon’s resources.”

“In local news,” said Bob Brant, the station’s new co-anchor, “the Department of Defense announced today that it is going to host two new Centers of Excellence in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Citing the need to develop new tactics and employment doctrine, the army will be hosting the Center of Excellence for Special Forces Operations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the air force will be hosting the Center of Excellence for Joint Fighter Operations there, as well. The missions for both of these centers will be to analyze operations from the recently concluded Sino-American War and prepare for conflicts in the future. It is expected that the bases will also host a variety of foreign nationals that will be coming to participate.”

“In other news…”

Narashino Garrison, Funibashi, Japan, September 28, 2018

Colonel Tokugawa Daisuke, the commander of the Japanese Special Forces Group, looked up from the paperwork on his desk as the commander of his 1st Company, 3rd Platoon reported. The 3rd Platoon was responsible for special forces operations in mountainous terrain. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” the colonel said. “The Americans are starting a new special forces center of excellence, and you have been directed by the Defense Agency to provide someone to send to it immediately.”

“Hai!” said Second Lieutenant Akiyama Jiro. “I am sure that the colonel realizes we are already short-handed and that losing another member for this project will put us even further behind. Am I permitted to know what we are losing him for?”

Colonel Tokugawa looked to his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Suzuki, who looked at his notes. “The directive says that the Americans are starting some sort of organization to develop new methods of training and employing special operations troops. They are looking for a quote, ‘free thinker,’ from our unit to come and help out. The Defense Agency has given this the highest priority for manning and transportation. He is to report for duty in Seattle, Washington on October 8th, so we do not have much time to get him there.”

“So,” asked Colonel Tokugawa, “do you have someone that we can use for this requisition?”

“A free thinker? Oh, I know just the person, Colonel Tokugawa,” laughed Akiyama. “Not only will it give them the free thinker that they are looking for, but also it will get him several thousand miles away from me!”

Seongnam Garrison, Seongnam, South Korea, September 28, 2018

“I have new tasking from the Special Warfare Command staff!”

Colonel Lee Woo-jin, the commander of the South Korean 707th Special Mission Battalion, looked up with irritation from the report he was reading as his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kim Ji-hu came to attention in front of his desk. “What are they doing to us now?” Colonel Lee asked in a voice full of annoyance.

“The tasking says that the Americans are standing up a new agency to develop innovative methods of training and employing special operations troops,” replied Lieutenant Colonel Kim. “They have asked for Sergeant Park Ji-woo to attend it as South Korea’s representative, and the army chief of staff has said that we are to send her there, ‘with all speed.’ We do not have much time to get her there; she is supposed to report for duty in Seattle, Washington on October 8th.”

“Knowing her, she is not going to be very happy to go to a staff duty tour,” laughed Colonel Lee. “You’ll need to find someone very brave to tell her of her new orders, or perhaps do it over the phone. I, for one, wouldn’t want to tell her that to her face.”

“It is funny that you should say that, sir,” Lieutenant Colonel Kim said with a smile of his own. “Apparently, the Americans know her as well, because they said to tell her that ‘Night Train said it’s all right.’”

RAF Coningsby, Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, September 29, 2018

“I just heard from the Air Vice-Marshal of Oman,” said Wing Commander Alfred Chappell, “and they are sending Flight Lieutenant Ken Smith back to us.” Wing Commander Chappell was the commanding officer of No. 41 Squadron, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Test and Evaluation Squadron.

“Let me get this straight,” replied Group Captain Malcolm MacCall, the commander of RAF Coningsby. “We sent Flight Lieutenant Smith to the Omani Air Force to help them learn how to fly the Eurofighter Typhoon, and while he is there, he did what?”

“I believe he violated the Minimum Operational Safe Altitude (MOSA) and did a couple of touch and go’s on the roof of the Omani Officers’ Club at their air base in Mussanah,” answered Wing Commander Chappell. “Apparently the Air Vice-Marshal was throwing a wedding party for his daughter at the time and one of the ceiling tiles fell down, hit his wine glass and covered his uniform in it. He was quite annoyed when I spoke to him.”

“What kind of pilot is he?” asked Group Captain MacCall.

“He’s quite good,” replied Wing Commander Chappell, “or he wouldn’t have been picked to go there. His ability to do a touch and go on the officers’ club roof demonstrates his outstanding flying skills. Unfortunately, he goes bloody bonkers like this sometimes and does things without thinking.”

“Would you say he is an ‘out of the box’ thinker?” asked Group Captain MacCall.

“Oh, absolutely!” answered Wing Commander Chappell.

“Then I have just the place for him…”

Hyakuri Airfield, Omitama, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, September 30, 2018

“Where the hell does all of this crap keep coming from?” asked Lieutenant Colonel Shigeru, the commanding officer of the 501st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, as he picked up a piece of paper from his desk.

His executive officer looked at the paper. “Is that another one of the haikus that seem to be popping up everywhere?” he asked.

“Yes, damn it. I am getting tired of them,” replied the CO.

“I believe they come from Captain Imagawa Sadayo,” said the XO. “He had an ancestor that was a samurai poet, and he thinks that he is that person reincarnated.”

“Hmm,” pondered the CO, looking for a piece of paper on his desk. Finding it, he asked, “Would you say that he is a ‘free thinker’ that does things ‘outside the box?’”

“Only if I was feeling particularly charitable,” replied the XO. “I have several other things that I normally call him, especially when he is writing this nonsense instead of studying his RF-4’s operational performance manuals like he ought to be.”

“Good,” said the CO. “The chief of staff has asked for a volunteer, and I think Captain Imagawa would be perfect for the position. Besides, we cannot afford to lose anyone else.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, October 8, 2018

“Well, if nothing else,” said Calvin, “it looks like we have an interesting group.” He looked out the window overlooking the hangar floor, where the platoon was congregating for their first meeting. The Department of Defense had given them a hangar on the McChord side of Joint Base Lewis-McChord to use as the base of operations for both the platoon and the squadron. The platoon would be using it for their headquarters and assembly point when it wasn’t training in the Snoqualmie Mountains around Ryan’s house. The squadron would also be using it to fly the four F-18s that had been provided for squadron integration and training. He saw that the hangar’s doors had been shut for security reasons. The closed-circuit cameras that had been recently installed would help with that, too.

The majority of the platoon was made up of the members of the Alpha Rifle Company, 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, which Calvin had commanded during the war. Looking down on the 34 members of his platoon, Calvin could see that about 1/3 of them were new, including eight or nine that were obviously foreigners. Most of these wore uniforms similar to the Rangers’, including a couple that even had similar tan berets. Several of them were obviously NOT American, though, including one soldier who was dressed in black with a black balaclava over his face. Unlike the others, the soldier in black also had two swords strapped to his back.

“That’s something you don’t see every day,” noted Calvin with a laugh. “Who is the ninja?”

Calvin’s new XO, First Lieutenant Paul ‘Night’ Train, looked up from the technical manual he was reading on the Ranger Anti-tank Weapons System. Night hadn’t come up through the Rangers and was trying to learn everything he could about the Rangers’ equipment. “Is he wearing black with a face mask on?” The XO’s voice was low and gruff due to an injury to his voice box he had suffered earlier in his career. Calvin thought he sounded a bit like the old actor Clint Eastwood that he had seen on a few late night movies. When Night turned his head just right, you could still see the mark that the garrote left on the side of his throat.

“Yeah,” said Calvin. “How did you know? He looks like the bad ninja from the ‘G.I. Joe’ movies.”

“You mean the good ninja,” replied Night.

“What?” asked Calvin.

“It’s counter-intuitive,” explained the XO. “In the ‘G.I. Joe’ movies, the bad ninja ‘Storm Shadow’ wore white, while the good one, ‘Snake Eyes,’ wore black. It’s the opposite of every other movie where the good guys wear white. I knew we were getting someone from the Japanese Special Forces Group, and they normally wear balaclavas to protect their identities. I think only their commanding officers can authorize them not to wear them.”

“Hmm,” said Calvin, “I don’t know that I want to do that. I kind of like him that way. It’s cool to have a ninja on the team.” He looked back out the window and saw another person that wasn’t in uniform. “It looks like the airlines must have lost one guy’s luggage, as there’s one person out there in civilian clothes.”

“That’s probably our resident spy from the CIA,” the XO said, coming over to the window and looking out. “Yep, that’s him,” he said. “That’s ‘Mr. Jones.’ I doubt that’s the name his parents gave him, but he’s been using it a long time. I’ve met him a couple of times. He’s a former SEAL and Delta operative, and now a full time member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. They’re the guys that do all of the completely ‘deniable’ missions. Most of the time, they work in groups of six…Mr. Jones is so good that he’s often sent out alone.”

“Who is he spying on?” asked Calvin. “Us or them?”

“Hmph, probably a bit of both,” replied Night with a chuckle. “Anything that we see or do will probably be reported, along with information on the platoon itself, especially now that we have foreigners with us. I don’t think it can be helped. Spying is what they do.” Seeing Calvin still looking down at the troops, a thought came to him. “You haven’t seen our final manning list yet, have you?” asked the XO.

“No, I haven’t,” said Calvin, shaking his head. “I was on the east coast last week working out some manning issues for the squadron. I don’t know where most of the new folks are from.”

“Let me give you a quick brief then,” said Night, looking at a note that he pulled from his wallet. “In addition to the Rangers that you already know, we also now have a trooper from the Marines’ Special Ops Command, a medic from the Green Berets, and the CIA spy as representatives from the U.S.” He stuck the note back in his wallet.

“We also have nine foreigners,” Night continued, looking out the window. “I know most of them by sight or by reputation. This is a dangerous group of men and women. We have two Brits, one from their Special Air Service (SAS) and one from their Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). Both are very talented. The SAS trooper is the guy wearing the tan beret that is talking to Master Chief O’Leary; the large Jamaican woman in the gray beret with them is the SRR rep. The fourth member of that group is Petty Officer Conboy, our commando diver from the Royal Australian Navy.”

“You’ve already seen the Japanese Special Forces soldier,” he added, “and the short oriental woman standing next to him is Sergeant Park Ji-woo, from the Republic of Korea’s 707th Special Mission Battalion. Don’t let her size or her being female fool you. She is as tough as they come and is both SCUBA and parachute qualified. I’ve trained with her, and she is one woman I would not want to piss off.”

“Who are the two short, dark men on the left?” asked Calvin, when it seemed like Night had become lost in thought.

“The one on the left is from Chile and is a combat air controller. He will run the communications for the ground force and is trained in air traffic control, fire support and demolitions, among other things.”

“Why does a forward air controller need demolitions training?” inquired Calvin.

“If you need room for an airfield,” replied Night, “he can make it for you by clearing out anything in the way. The man talking to him is from India and is from their COBRA group, the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, or something like that. That group is a paramilitary unit of their police force that exists to track down and eliminate communist rebels. They are extremely well trained and equipped, including using the Carl Gustav weapon that our Rangers use as their Ranger Anti-tank Weapon System.” He held up the manual he had been reading.

“The final two members of the platoon are from our other NATO allies,” he added. “The one on the left is from Germany’s Paratrooper Battalion 263, which is their most decorated special operations unit. They have been used as intervention forces all over the globe. The man talking to him in the emerald green beret is from the Italian combat diver force. Like most of the folks that are SCUBA qualified, they will be in Master Chief’s space force and will be primarily responsible for operations in space or under water.”

“What about you?” Calvin asked his XO. “How did you get here?”

“I’ve been in Delta a long time,” Night replied with a far-off look in his eyes, “and I think that I’ve pretty much seen and done just about everything that can be done in the service of our country. I’m here to make sure that we come home with everyone that we can.”

“Me, too,” Calvin agreed. Looking out again, he saw that Master Chief O’Leary was getting the platoon formed up. “Let’s go meet the troops.” The two men walked down the stairs to the hangar floor, where Master Chief called the platoon to attention and saluted.

The two officers marched up to the platoon’s senior enlisted man, with the XO to the left of Calvin and a pace behind. Stopping in front of Master Chief, Calvin and Night both saluted. “Sir, the platoon is formed and ready for your inspection,” Master Chief O’Leary announced. He did a double-take on seeing Calvin’s collar insignia. “Congratulations on O-4,” he added. “When’s the operation?”

Calvin had been promoted to lieutenant commander while he had been on the east coast the week before. He was close to being due for promotion, anyway, and the decision had been made to advance him early, both in recognition for his service during the war and to help give him the additional authority required to command the two organizations. Master Chief was also aware of the running joke among junior naval aviators that a lobotomy was required upon pinning on the golden oak leaves of a lieutenant commander. After being promoted to lieutenant commander, most officers went from being sane, well-adjusted junior officers to being ‘hinges,’ where their heads could only go up and down in agreement, as if on a hinge, any time a higher-ranked officer told them to do something...regardless of how idiotic the tasking might be.

Ryan was generally not a fan of anyone that held the rank of lieutenant commander or higher. He didn’t know if that would be the case with Calvin, who had always been a pretty rational officer, but you never knew what officers would be like once they pinned on O-4.

Calvin smiled at Ryan, “Thanks,” he said. “Post,” he ordered, dropping his salute. Ryan dropped his salute, too and went to stand behind the platoon.

“At ease!” Calvin commanded the platoon, who relaxed from their positions of attention. “It’s good to see everyone made it here today, as I know quite a few of you had to come a long way on short notice.” He paused, taking in the entire platoon. “By a show of hands, how many of you think that you are here today because the United States is standing up a new special forces center of excellence?” About half of the Rangers raised their hands, along with all of the newcomers, except Mr. Jones. No surprise there, Calvin thought.

Calvin moved toward the formation and lowered his voice. “That’s not actually why you are here.” There were several murmurs that ran through the platoon. Calvin heard at least two voices say, “Told you so; pay up!” He smiled. “While that is part of it, there is actually a lot more to it. Some of you are already aware that we were contacted by aliens from another planet. For those of you that weren’t, about a month ago, three aliens asked our president for help, because their communications link back to their home planet stopped working. The mission of this platoon, along with some other support personnel, is to go with the aliens out into space to find out why.”

Another murmur, a lot louder this time, ran through the platoon as it dawned on most of them that they were about to become spacemen and women. He raised his voice to regain their attention. “I will not, however, take anyone with me that does not want to go. If there is anyone that wants to drop out now, please come forward.” No one came forward; if anything, the entire platoon swayed away from him. Calvin wasn’t surprised. He had already found that the United States’ special forces troopers were the most ‘gung ho’ soldiers he had ever met; he expected the other countries’ troops were as well.

“In that case,” Calvin said, “welcome to the Terran Space Force. As of right now, you are the entire force, but there will be other units standing up before too long. You will notice that I said ‘Terran,’ not the ‘United States’ Space Force. The United States has opened up partnership in this force to all of your countries, and they have accepted, which is why you are here. You are now part of something that is greater than any of our countries on its own. I want to be very clear, though. This information is classified at the highest level, higher than any clearance you have ever had, and all of you will be required to sign disclosure forms when we are done talking today. Your former commanding officers don’t know anything about this; only your presidents and prime ministers do.”

“I’m sure that all of you want to know where we are going and what we’ll be doing there. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that, because no one knows yet. The mission details are still being put together and, even when they are finalized, there are going to be a lot of holes because we don’t know what’s happened. We might get out there to find that the aliens have a bad transmitter. The friendly aliens, the Psiclopes, think that this is unlikely, though. What they believe has happened is that a different alien race has destroyed one of their relays and is currently looking for us. Ladies and gentlemen, these creatures are bad news. Imagine ten feet tall frogs that like to eat their food, you, while you’re still alive. If we find any of them, we will terminate them with extreme prejudice. Preferably from orbit; preferably with nukes.

I don’t know what kind of combat we will have, if any. It might be in space; it might be on land; it might be under water. We will be ready for all of these. All of us will become SEALS: Sea, Air, Land and Space. There will be two squads. Master Chief O’Leary will command the first squad, which will be primarily responsible for space and undersea operations, while Master Sergeant Aaron Smith will be in charge of the second squad, which will be the primary squad for operations on land. All of you, though, will be qualified to go anywhere and do anything.”

There was a chorus of ‘hoo-ah’ and various other unit cheers that the men and women used to express pleasure and indicate motivation.

Calvin looked back at his XO. “The first thing we need to do is come up with a unit cheer.”

As he turned back to the platoon, he saw a hand go up. If he remembered correctly, it was the German Special Forces paratrooper. Calvin indicated that the soldier should speak, and when he did, his accent confirmed his nationality. “Sir, if I may, our unit uses ‘Gluck ab’ when we greet each other, which we use to mean, ‘happy landings.’ Due to the nature of our mission, which may involve making landings on hostile planets, I believe that ‘gluck ab’ might be appropriate for us.”

Calvin could see a number of heads nodding as the men and women considered the slogan. It looked like most approved. “I agree,” Calvin said, “and I think that this also sets a good precedent. While not all of the reason, you are all still here to form a special forces Center of Excellence, or COE. That COE is expected to come up with new ways of fighting, in places no Terran has ever gone before. You all have specialized experience in a variety of backgrounds that might be needed, wherever we end up and whatever we end up doing there. As we train, I expect you to share your experience, so that we all become better. How we do things will probably end up being how the space force of the future ends up doing them, so we’ve got to get them right! You are the finest troops on this planet, and I expect us to become the finest troops in the galaxy. We will train hard, and we will be ready for anything, whether that is saving our allies or killing giant frogs. We will be victorious, because the fate of our world and our species are on the line. Are you with me?”

The Special Forces troops, not normally given to displays of emotion or drama, roared, “YES!”

“Gluck ab!” Calvin yelled.

“GLUCK AB!” the platoon yelled back.

GLUCK AB!” the entire group chorused.

Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, October 15, 2018

“But you don’t understand, sir. The new troops are crazy!” said Master Chief O’Leary.

Calvin looked out the window of Ryan’s cabin to where the platoon was cleaning its weapons. Ryan’s one-room cabin was located in the Snoqualmie National Forest, several miles from the nearest road. A couple of pre-fabricated Quonset huts had been brought in by helicopter so that the platoon would have a place to sleep while they trained there. It wasn’t the Hilton, but it beat sleeping on the ground in a tent. Especially once winter started setting in. Calvin had come up to the cabin to see the finish of the latest training evolution that the platoon had run, pitting the ground force squad as the offensive force trying to capture the space force’s flag. Top’s ground force had beaten Master Chief’s space force again for the third time in a row. The frustration in Ryan’s voice was easy to understand. He wasn’t used to losing.

“C’mon, Master Chief,” said Calvin, “I know that you consider the SEALs to be the ‘best of the best,’ but this force is supposed to be the best of the best of the best. These troops are some of the best troops available on the entire planet. What do you mean, ‘they’re crazy?’”

“I mean just that, sir; these guys are crazy!” He looked to the XO for help, but First Lieutenant Paul ‘Night’ Train didn’t say anything. Calvin had noticed that about the XO; he never spoke much without being directly asked for his input, but when asked, he always had an answer. He watched everything, and Calvin didn’t think that there was anything that escaped him. If someone was crazy, he would know.

Getting no help from the XO, Ryan looked next to Master Sergeant Aaron ‘Top’ Smith, who did reply. “Well,” said Top, “I don’t know if they’re crazy, but there are certainly quite a few unique individuals. They definitely bring a lot of experience to the platoon in a number of new areas.”

“Unique? Unique? You’ve got a guy that thinks he’s a no-kidding ninja, for crying out loud!” exclaimed Master Chief. “What do you call him?”

“I’d call Sergeant Hattori Hanzo one of the best fighters that I’ve ever served with,” said Top. “Sure, he does have some interesting ideas on who he might have been in a previous life, but he moves like the wind and is one of the most deadly people I’ve ever seen. Although he knows how to use a shuriken and is a master with a bow, I haven’t seen any ‘ninja powers,’ or anything like that.”

“Then there’s this John Jones guy,” offered Ryan. “He looks exactly like a guy that went through SEAL training right before I did, but he swears it wasn’t him. He’s the oldest looking corporal that I have ever seen in my life.”

“Does he do his job?” asked the XO in his deep, gruff voice.

“Well, yes, he does,” replied Ryan. “Maybe too well. For someone with no background, where did he get those skills?”

“The SEALs, actually, and then Delta,” answered the XO. “Now he’s a Company man; he’s part of the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). If what the SEALs do is ‘black ops,’ what the SAD does is the shadow cast by the SEALs at midnight. They do some really scary shit. I hear you’re good with explosives, Master Chief; he’s probably better. I knew him from Delta,” the XO finished with a small smile, as if that explained everything.

Ryan hadn’t heard that the XO was from Delta. If he was, that meant that he was probably the same Lieutenant Train that Ryan had heard rumors of. If even one-quarter of the rumors were true, the XO was one of the most dangerous men alive, if not the very top of the list. Some of his exploits were legendary. He was even rumored to have killed one of his own junior officers rather than follow an order that he knew would get the men under him killed. That couldn’t be true, could it? All of a sudden, looking at his smile, Ryan didn’t know. While Ryan could appreciate the desire to kill one of his own officers, as he’d had several that had really needed killing, actually doing it was beyond him, despite his general aversion to authority. It was also rumored that the XO had become an officer to ensure that his men got the leadership that they deserved. All Ryan knew was that he was getting too old for this shit.

“Some of the new folks must be okay,” offered Calvin, bringing him back to reality. “What about that Korean girl? Sergeant Park…”

“Sergeant Park Ji-woo is the craziest one of the bunch!” replied Ryan. “I got up one morning at sunrise, and she was just coming up from the lake where she had been swimming.”

“What’s wrong with that?” inquired Calvin. “Swimming seems normal enough.”

“She was butt-ass naked!” shrilled Ryan. “That water comes from melted snow and is freezing! I don’t swim in it without a wet suit, and I like cold water. She just called it ‘refreshing’ and said that her old unit did it all the time. She swam for half an hour in that water with a knife in her teeth the whole time she was swimming! What do you call that?”

“I’m not sure that’s crazy,” answered Calvin, “although it is a bit different. How about, ‘dedicated?’ Is she good at what she does?”

“Good? She’s great,” responded Ryan. “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?’” Everyone’s heads nodded. “Well, she must have had some major-league scorning because she is one of the most ferocious warriors out there. She even scares me, sometimes.” He considered a couple of seconds. “What did we tell the nations when we asked for their special forces troopers? How did we advertise this?”

“The cover story was that we were starting a new special forces center of excellence and that we wanted experienced troops that had an open mind about special forces’ training and employment,” answered Calvin. “If nothing else, it sounds like there are a lot of free thinkers in the platoon.”

“I think they’re crazy,” said Ryan.

Calvin sighed and looked at a vacant corner of the cabin. “You know I hate it when you do that, right Steropes?” He didn’t know how he knew the alien was there, he just did. “Since you’re here, what do you think of the platoon?”

“If you are documenting a culture’s actions,” said the alien, dropping his shield so that everyone could see him, “it is important to do so unobserved. That way, the subjects that you are studying do things naturally, and you don’t affect the process that you are studying. Just because you know I’m here, doesn’t mean the others do.”

“Well, I know you’re here, and I hate it when you watch me invisibly,” said Calvin. “If you’re going to follow me around, at least have the courtesy to be visible, and I’ll just ignore you.” He waited for Steropes to nod his giant head in acknowledgement. Calvin didn’t know if he would actually do it, but at least it was worth a shot. “I’m curious about what you think, as we are putting together a force that may, some day, be called upon to save your life. What do you think of the new additions to the platoon?”

“If I had to answer that question,” Steropes answered, “I would have to say that I think they are absolutely perfect for this mission. They are probably the best individuals that their countries have to offer. You did an excellent job recruiting them.”

“What about the one that thinks he’s a reborn ninja?” asked Ryan, frustration still heavy in his voice.

“Who says he’s not?” countered Steropes. As Ryan spluttered an answer, Steropes went invisible and left.

“Is he always like that?” asked the XO.

“Pretty much,” replied Calvin as the two senior enlisted men nodded their heads. “I’m still not sure what game they are playing with us. I know one thing for sure, though. They’re not telling us everything.”

What do you think they’re not telling us?” inquired Night.

“I don’t know,” answered Calvin, “and that’s what scares me.”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, October 16, 2018

As Calvin entered the room, he looked around the conference table at the 15 officers gathered around it. Like the enlisted soldiers, the new aviators had clustered with people they knew, people that had the same accent or at least spoke the same language. A sense of nervous excitement infused the room. Seeing him enter, his other new executive officer, Major Robert ‘Bullseye’ Pierce, called “Attention on deck!” and the officers all bounced up to stand at attention.

“At ease,” Calvin said. “Please be seated.” All of the officers sat. It was an interesting group. Only eight of the 16 officers were Americans, with four from the Air Force and four from the navy. He recognized one of the navy guys, Lieutenant Carl ‘Guns’ Simpson from VFA-137. Guns was in Calvin’s old air wing and had more air-to-air kills than anyone else currently still flying, having shot down two Chinese stealth fighters during the recent war. In addition to the four U.S. pilots, two from each service, there were two Canadian pilots, a German and a Brit.

The weapons systems officers were similarly diverse. In addition to the four U.S. airmen, again, two from each service, there were two Japanese officers, a Korean and an Australian. These officers came not only from fighter aircraft, but one of the Japanese officers also came from an E-2 squadron, giving them command and control expertise, as well.

“I’m glad all of you could make it here today,” started Calvin. “Is there anyone that hasn’t signed the nondisclosure agreement?” Looking around, he didn’t see any hands.

“Good,” he said, “because everything that you see and do from here on is going to be classified well beyond anything you have ever been associated with before.” He looked around the room and saw he had everyone’s attention. “You are not here because we are starting a center of excellence to develop better fighter tactics. That was just a cover story, although we will maintain it while we are flying here. What we are really doing is preparing to go on a mission to space. The U.S. government has been contacted by aliens from another planet, and we will be flying space fighters on a mission to return the aliens to their home planet.”

The response was underwhelming. Several of the officers looked somewhat excited, but most of the faces were skeptical and disbelieving. Calvin smiled, knowing from personal experience that aviators were a cynical breed. The German officer, Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Hans Hohenstaufen, finally broke into laughter. “Hahaha, that is a good one,” he roared. “A joke that can make a German laugh is a great way to start a meeting!”

“I’m sorry, but that is not a joke,” replied Calvin. “You have been selected to be members of Space Fighter Squadron One of the Terran Space Force. Steropes?”

Steropes blinked into being at his side, and the room was instantly silent. “Let me introduce Steropes,” Calvin said, “who is one of the aliens that we will be escorting home. The spaceship that we will be using has six, two-seat fighters. We will man them for the journey.”

Shock and amazement now filled the officers’ faces. If nothing else, he certainly had their attention. Calvin continued, “I will not, however, take anyone that does not want to go with me. If there is anyone that wants to drop out now, please raise your hand.” No one raised their hand. Calvin wasn’t sure that they entirely believed him yet, but no one wanted to back out on the chance to fly space fighters, even if they weren’t entirely sure it was true.

“In that case,” Calvin said, “I really do want to welcome you to Space Fighter Squadron One of the Terran Space Force. You will have hopefully noticed that I said ‘Terran,’ not the ‘United States’ Space Force. The United States has opened up partnership in this force to all of your countries, and they have accepted. All of this information is classified at the highest level, code word ‘Olympos,’ which is why you signed the nondisclosure form.”

“I’m sure that all of you will want to know where we are going and what we’ll be doing there. I’m sorry I can’t tell you now, because I don’t know, either. All I can tell you is that the friendly aliens, the Psiclopes, have lost contact with their home planet. It might be a bad transmitter, but they think that’s unlikely. What they believe has happened is that another alien race has destroyed the transmitter and is currently looking for our planet. Ladies and gentlemen, these are your worst nightmares. The Drakuls are ten foot tall frogs that like to eat their food, which consists of every living being and sometimes each other, while it’s still alive. We will kill them, everywhere we can find them. These things are evil.”

“Now, you’re probably wondering why all of you are here, right?” asked Calvin. He saw most of the heads nod. “The cover story that we are starting a center of excellence is, at least in part, true. You were all selected because you are outstanding aviators who have shown an ability to think ‘outside the box.’ You all have specialized experience and skills in a variety of backgrounds that might be needed, wherever we end up and whatever we end up doing there. As we train, I expect you to share your experience, so that we all become better. Just like the special forces unit that is training here, how we do things now will probably end up being how the space force of the future ends up doing them, so we need to make sure we do them right.”

Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, October 21, 2018

Master Chief O’Leary gave the signal to stop. Sergeant Ed ‘Shadow’ Pesik, United States Marine Corps, and Sergeant Margaret ‘Witch’ Andrews, British Army Special Reconnaissance Regiment, both froze in place, although their eyes continued to search for the threat that Master Chief had seen. What Master Chief had seen was Calvin, standing conspicuously in their line of travel. He had a white ribbon tied around his arm and his helmet, marking him as an observer. He wasn’t on the opposing force…but if an observer was standing in that particular spot, there must be something that he expected to observe, which meant there was a threat nearby. This was bad. Master Chief continued scanning, but didn’t see any threats, nor did he see any place that the ground had been disturbed, indicating a trap. He saw Sergeant Kawika Liu, the ground forces’ medic, come from around the tree Calvin was leaning against to stand next to him. He was also wearing a white ribbon. Why were both of them looking at him? This was very bad.

He looked to his left to Shadow, who gave him a slow shrug. He didn’t see anything. He slowly looked to the right and received the same shrug from Witch. She didn’t see anything, either, although Ryan could tell her senses were on edge. A Jamaican by birth, she thought herself a real witch and usually had a good sense of danger. With a sense of foreboding, Ryan gave the signal to continue the advance. They had made good time and ought to be at the objective, his house, within another ten minutes. Unless they ran into trouble.

He started forward and looked at Calvin. Calvin didn’t move, and his eyes were locked on him. ‘Fuck,’ he thought, ‘something bad is about to happen to me.’ He hoped that the Lieutenant Commander would give something away, like looking to where the threat was, but the officer’s eyes never left him. He stopped again and scanned the forest around him. Still nothing, except for a mosquito that bit him on the cheek.

He slowly raised his hand to brush it away, but his arm stopped working halfway to his face. He tried to look at Calvin but found his neck muscles didn’t work, either. In fact, nothing seemed to be working. The world tilted as he fell to his right, all of his muscles locked up. With a small rustle of leaves, Ryan hit the ground. Ryan could see back to the left and saw that Shadow had stopped advancing and was coming over to see what was wrong with him. Master Chief wanted to scream that it was a trap and to get away, but the only sound he could produce was a small “uh” that he could barely hear himself. He hoped that Witch wasn’t coming over, too.

Shadow went in and out of his sight as he moved closer through the trees. When he was about five feet away, he stopped and looked around, trying to determine why Ryan was lying on the ground not moving. As Master Chief watched, something small and colorful appeared on his neck. Within seconds, Shadow ceased moving and fell backwards. The medic, who had been motionless the entire time, darted over to Shadow and rolled him onto his side.

The only thing worse, Master Chief thought, would be if Witch came over, too. He heard a small scuffling noise behind him and knew that she was approaching. Ryan could see her shadow and knew that she was close. It stopped moving briefly, and he heard a small, female cry of surprise. Her shadow tilted as she crashed to the ground too.

Master Chief would have sighed, if he could have. He heard a small scraping noise, as if a squirrel was coming down a tree, and then saw the ninja, Hattori ‘Yokaze’ Hanzo, walk into his line of sight. He was wearing a gray cloak, the color of the local tree trunks. As Master Chief watched, he drew his tanto, a small knife that looked like a miniature version of his katana, and moved to Shadow, not making a sound. He placed the knife on Shadow’s neck. Shadow was ‘dead.’ Hattori moved over to Ryan and did the same thing before going behind him to where Witch lay. They were all dead.

Yokaze came back to stand in front of him. Ryan had heard that ‘Yokaze’ meant ‘Night Wind.’ He certainly moved like the wind, Ryan thought. Yokaze reached over to Ryan’s face and removed a small red dart. So that’s what it was, thought Ryan. Yokaze thanked him with a quiet, “Domo arrigato,” bowed and then moved off silently, presumably in search of other prey. Aside from a small noise coming down the tree, Master Chief hadn’t heard him make a single sound. The only noise generated by the ‘deaths’ of three people were the sounds of their bodies hitting the ground. Ryan was beginning to really hate that guy.

After another minute, Sergeant Liu came over and gave the three deceased soldiers some kind of injection. The paralysis went away quickly. Calvin sent the medic and the other two soldiers ahead so that he could talk to Ryan privately.

“I take it we’re going to lose again?” asked Ryan with a sigh. This would make them 0-4, with two losses as the attackers and two more as the defenders.

“I don’t know for sure yet,” answered Calvin, “but it’s a pretty good bet. They have several other surprises set up for your squad that it’s probably going to walk right into, especially now that you’re no longer alive to lead them.”

“What did he get me with?” inquired Ryan.

“I think the medic said it was some sort of quaternary ammonium drug called suxamethonium, or something like that,” replied Calvin. “He said that it is often referred to as ‘sux’ in hospitals.” Calvin paused. “I guess it sux to be you.” He chuckled at his pun. “He said it is one of the few curare-like substances that are reversible. Don’t feel bad; I couldn’t see Yokaze once he was in position, either, and I knew where he was. He’s good.”

“I’m getting damn tired of losing,” growled Master Chief.

“No doubt,” said Calvin, suddenly serious. “And why do you suppose that is? Not that you’re tired of losing, but that you’ve lost every single exercise?”

“Since we haven’t won a single round, I would have to say that they’re better than we are,” said Ryan, still growling. “But I know that’s not true. My guys and gals are just as good as Top’s, maybe even better.” He saw that Calvin had a small smile. “Damn it sir, what’s so fucking funny? Do you know something I don’t?” His tone made it sound like he didn’t think that was possible.

“It’s not funny,” said Calvin, “but it has been interesting to watch. Yes, I do know something. Before I tell you what it is, do you remember what the cover story of the platoon is?”

“What?” asked Ryan, slow to adjust to the change in topic. “All of the troops were sent here to form a center of excellence,” he remembered.

“That’s correct,” replied Calvin, “and that’s what Top has done. When he plans an event, he brings everyone together to discuss the situation and invites their input. By doing so, he takes advantage of the unique skills that each of them brings to the table. Everyone that is here is an expert in their field, and each has shown an ability to use their talents in new and creative ways. Top just lets them put their ideas into action. Would you have let one of your troops climb a tree with a blowgun to defend a position?”

“No,” said Ryan with a sigh, “I would have probably had them use a machine gun and wouldn’t have let them hide in a tree because they would have been exposed there.”

“And that’s the problem,” agreed Calvin. “You need to get past the idea that you’re leading new SEALs that need to be told what to do all the time or that your job is to turn the soldiers under you into your version of SEALs. That’s not what they are, or what they’re here for. You need to embrace the concept that you have veterans with skills that you know nothing about. Take advantage of your squad members’ experience, let them give you their input and adapt the team to be something greater than the sum of its parts. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” said Ryan, “it does.” He sighed. “You know what?  You’re not half bad. For an officer.”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, October 24, 2018

“Hey, Skipper, can I bother you a second?” asked Night. By convention, most of the platoon and the squadron were using the navy term “Skipper’ for Calvin. Although he had been initially uncomfortable with the term for a navy unit commander, it had grown on him, and even the non-navy people were using it almost universally.

Calvin looked up from the paperwork he was working on. 1730 already. Damn. “Sure, XO, what’s up?”

“Well, sir, you’ve been talking about exercising a lot recently, but I haven’t seen you make time for it. We’re finishing up doing some martial arts downstairs, and I thought you might like to join us.”

“Well, I’m not really dressed for it…” Calvin said.

Night looked him over. “Your flight suit will be just fine,” he said. “Just take off the boots. In the unlikely event that you land one, I don’t want to get kicked by someone wearing steel-toed boots.”

The two men went downstairs, and Calvin saw that the platoon had laid out mats to practice on. Good, he thought. I really don’t want to get thrown onto the concrete.

As they walked up, one of the twins pinned his brother to the mat. No one would ever know who won, though, because both of them claimed victory, and no one could tell them apart.

The two officers squared off on the mat. “Have you ever done any martial arts?” asked the XO.

“Yeah, when I was little,” said Calvin. “I made it to yellow belt and then quit because I liked baseball better.”

“Well, let’s start out easy then,” said the XO. He showed Calvin a few blocks and told him when they were appropriate. “OK,” announced the XO when he was done, “I’m going to attack you, and you try to block me.”

He approached Calvin slowly and reached for him. Calvin blocked easily. Night threw some punches, and Calvin blocked all of them. Night began to get a little frustrated that he couldn’t land anything on Calvin and started throwing punches faster and faster. When that didn’t work, he started interspersing kicks and elbow strikes, as well. Calvin either blocked or evaded all of them. With each block, members of the platoon would call out encouragement to Calvin or razz the XO on his inability to hit the aviator. The XO swore that Calvin even used a ‘nine block’ one time, which was a black belt-level move.

Both men had worked up a sweat, and Night called for a break. “You said you only made it to yellow belt?” asked the XO, taking a drink from his canteen.

“That’s right,” agreed Calvin. “I did OK at it. I just wasn’t interested in it.”

“Well, you’re a damn natural,” said the XO. “I’ve never seen anyone as good as you with so little training. Let’s try a few throws.” He showed Calvin a few taekwondo throws, and how Calvin could use his opponent’s force to his advantage and throw the opponent to the ground. Once there, Calvin could follow up with either a controlling or finishing technique; even better, he could pull out a weapon and shoot him.

As taekwondo is equally as concerned with defense as offense, the XO also showed him some freeing techniques, where he could break loose from an opponent and neutralize the danger.  “You need to be able to break contact with an enemy if one ever gets a hold of you,” the XO said once he was done. “Are you ready to try some of those?”

Calvin agreed, and they went through some of the moves at half speed. The cheering from the platoon started up again, and shortly both men were doing their best to beat the other. Finally, after several minutes of maneuvering, the XO was able to throw Calvin. “Pretty good, sir,” he conceded. “One more?” the XO asked.

“Sure,” said Calvin, “then I have to go.”

“OK,” replied Night. “Focus and let’s have at it.”

Calvin shut his eyes and focused on what he was doing. When he opened them again, he looked changed; his demeanor calm and supremely focused. They bowed and began circling each other, throwing punches and kicks, while the platoon screamed abuse at both of them.

“Will you give me five to one odds on the skipper?” Top asked Master Chief.

“Five? I’ll give you ten,” replied Ryan. “I’ve never seen anyone throw the XO. That’s easy money.”

“I don’t know,” said Top. “He was holding his own earlier, and he looks pretty focused now.”

As he said it, the XO feigned a kick at Calvin. As Calvin went for the block, the XO reached in and grabbed his flight suit, pulling him off balance. Seeing that the XO was about to toss him over the XO’s hip, Calvin unexpectedly jumped toward the XO, rolling across his back and grabbing the XO’s shirt as he went past. As his feet came back to the ground, he continued the spin, pulling the XO around and over his hip. The XO lost his balance and was thrown to the ground on his back.

Silence echoed throughout the hangar.

Although nearly the whole platoon had been cheering for Calvin, no one had actually expected him to win. No one. Even Top, who had bet on him. He hadn’t been thrown a single time in all of the platoon’s competitions; in fact, not a single soldier had been able to score a point on him. Everyone was stunned, most of all the XO.

Calvin reached a hand down to help him up. “Thanks for the lessons,” he said. “You’re a good teacher.”

“Well, you’re my prize student now,” said the XO ruefully, “since no one has been able to do that before. You need to come down and work out with us more often. Maybe there’s something that you can teach us.”

“I doubt it,” said Calvin, “but I’d love to come join you.” Indicating his sweat-soaked flight suit he said, “I need the exercise.”

On the other side of the hangar, Top held out his hand. “I’ll take that ten dollars now,” he said. “When are you going to learn not to sell the skipper short?”

Top couldn’t hear the response, but thought it sounded suspiciously like “fucking officers.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four

USS Vella Gulf, Norfolk, VA, October 25, 2018

Captain James Deutch, the commanding officer of the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72), stared down at the requisition paperwork on his desk as if that would change what was written on it. It didn’t. He was more than angry. He was livid. His ship was due to deploy in less than five months, and all of his requisitions were being returned with the stamp, ‘not authorized.’ One of the requisitions on his desk was for a key component to the ship’s missile launch system. How the hell was he supposed to defend his own ship, much less an aircraft carrier or any other ship they might get attached to, with a vertical launch missile system that didn’t work? The vertical launch system was the key component to the entire battle group’s defense. If the Vella Gulf couldn’t launch missiles, what good was it? And now their communications gear wouldn’t be fixed in time for cruise, either? What the hell was going on?

He had his executive officer call their superiors at Carrier Strike Group Eight, but they didn’t know anything about the denial of the requisitions. Captain Deutch had personally called Strike Group Eight’s superiors at U.S. Fleet Forces Command, but they didn’t know anything either. The requisitions had been denied up at the CNO’s office. He looked at the clock and saw it was 1700. There wouldn’t be anyone there at this time of day worth yelling at, he decided. Better to go home, pack, and drive up to D.C. tomorrow. Then he would find out what the HELL was going on.

Too angry to do any further work, he was gathering up his things when eight bells, the number of bells that an admiral received when he came aboard a ship, sounded over the ship’s intercom. A very nervous-sounding voice followed it, announcing, ‘CNO arriving.’ “What the fuck?” he muttered. He didn’t even know that the CNO was in town, and now he was coming aboard his ship? What the hell? This had better not be some kind of fucking joke!

Before he could go down to meet whomever had just come aboard, his phone rang, and the Petty Officer of the Watch told him that Admiral Wright was on his way up to the captain’s in-port cabin. The Petty Officer of the Watch sounded just as nervous on the phone as he had on the intercom system. Within a couple of minutes, there was a knock on the door, and he opened it to find the real CNO standing in his doorway. Too shocked to say anything, his jaw dropped, and he just stood there looking. Finally the CNO asked simply, “Can I come in?”

Captain Deutch regained his senses and replied, “Yes sir, please come in,” while moving out of the doorway. “Please, have a seat,” Captain Deutch offered. “Can I get you something to eat or drink?”

“No, thank you,” replied the CNO. “Perhaps on my way out, you can send for a drink. I have many miles to go before I sleep, as it were.” He settled himself onto the sofa in the captain’s office, and Deutch returned to his desk chair. The CNO looked speculatively at him before saying, “I understand that you were wondering why your requisitions were being denied.”

The fire immediately returned to Captain Deutch’s eyes, although he forced his voice to remain temperate. “Yes sir, I was trying to track down the idiot that denied the requisition to fix our vertical launch system.”

The CNO smiled. “You found him,” he said. “I am the one that killed that requisition.”

Captain Deutch’s face reddened in anger, but he knew that the CNO was an aviator, not a ship driver, so he pressed on. “Could you please tell me why, sir?” he asked. Despite his best effort, sarcasm tinged his voice. “It will be awfully hard to defend the battle group without my missile system.”

“I’m well aware of that, Captain,” replied the CNO. “The answer is simple; this ship isn’t going on cruise.”

What?” exploded Captain Deutch. “This is the ship’s last cruise, and both she and the crew deserve it! If it’s something I’ve done, relieve me and at least let the crew go!”

“Calm down,” said the CNO. “You haven’t done anything wrong. In fact, it is because you run such a good crew that you were selected for something even more important.” He smiled. “You have been selected to go to space.”

“What does that mean?” asked Captain Deutch confused at the abrupt change in topic. “How exactly would we ‘go to space?’”

“As difficult as it may be to believe, the United States has been contacted by extraterrestrials that need help manning their spaceship. Your crew is going to help get them back home.”

“I’m going to what?” asked Captain Deutch incredulously. “Extraterrestrials? And we’re going to do what with them? Even if there were extraterrestrials, none of us know the first thing about crewing starships. How are we supposed to do that?” asked Captain Deutch. “Wait a minute,” he continued. “Is this some sort of hidden camera show? If so, I’ll bet my reaction will be great on TV.”

The CNO sighed. “No, this isn’t a hidden camera show,” he said. “Your crew has really been selected to fly a spaceship. Don’t ask me how you’re going to do that, because we don’t know yet. Just know that when you leave to go on cruise, you’re not going to the Mediterranean. You’re going to outer space. We will hide the ship here, and no one will be the wiser. All of this is classified at the highest level; the president even invented a new clearance level for this information.”

The CNO pulled out a piece of paper and slid it across the desk to Captain Deutch. “The code word for this information is ‘Olympos’ and, at this point, only a handful of people know what is really going on. You are not authorized to bring anyone else into the program without my approval. That consent needs to come directly from me; most of my staff doesn’t know anything about this.”

“I’m sorry sir, but you’re going about it all wrong, then,” said Captain Deutch, finally starting to believe that something else was going on. “If you want to keep everything secret, you have to approve all of our requisitions. That way, no one will be the wiser. Everyone will continue to believe that we are going on cruise, as scheduled. If you keep disapproving our requisitions, people are going to start to talk, and then rumors will start flying. Eventually, they’ll even get out to the media. If everything just goes like normal, though, there will be no media buzz. We’re just another ship going on cruise, the same as the navy has done for almost 250 years.”

“That makes good sense,” said the CNO. “Resubmit the requisitions, and I’ll make sure they get approved.”

“Aye aye, sir,” answered Captain Deutch.

“One last thing,” said the CNO, “Your families are going to hate it, but the communications system is going to stay broken so they can’t reach you on cruise. Get ready for some serious complaining.”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, October 29, 2018

“I thought the war killed my love life,” said Calvin to the senior officers and enlisted of both of his units. “The only thing worse than the war is this peace, and it keeps getting worse. I think I’ve got ten different bosses now, and that only counts the ones here in the United States. I just got a phone call from the head of the freakin’ CIA, for crying out loud! I’ve never even been a squadron department head, and I’m expected to be a commanding officer for both a squadron and a mixed platoon of soldiers. My entire resume of leadership experience is the two days of the war.”

He sighed. “The bottom line is that I need your help. I can’t run both of these organizations the way things are going now. I haven’t had time to fly in the last week, and I’m the one that is supposed to be integrating our mini-squadron’s tactics. I need everyone here to step up and take on everything that they can. Any suggestions that you have for making things easier would also be greatly appreciated.” He looked around the room to see if there were any ideas.

Finally, his platoon XO, First Lieutenant Paul ‘Night’ Train, spoke up. “Well sir, I’ve been in a lot of commands, and I have to say that this one is the most bizarre I’ve ever seen. One CO and two separate organizations, complete with full logistics tails for both the aviation and the ground force units. There are too many people trying to do too many things. Instead of having two separate units, why don’t we just merge the commands into one?”

“Well, that would reduce the number of people giving me reports every day,” said Calvin, “which would be wonderfully helpful, but which one of you would be the XO? I need both of you.”

“Why do you have to cut either one of us?” asked Major Robert ‘Bullseye’ Pierce. “We’ll keep both XOs. I’ll take care of the aviation side, including all of our maintenance folks, and Night can take care of the platoon side. The rest of the staff will support both sides. They’ll be busy, especially the supply guys who will have to requisition both aviation and ground force gear, but we can augment them when we merge, and we can make it work. There’s no need for two intelligence or operations sections, and both of the units are already handling their own planning and training. We’re already writing our own rules here; we might as well write them the way we like ‘em.”

“Hmmm,” said Calvin as he pondered the idea, “that’s so crazy it just might work. Actually, I think it makes a lot of sense and cuts down a bunch on the amount of space we’ll need onboard the spaceship, too. I’ll talk to the brass in D.C. and tell them that’s what we need.”

“Which boss is that, sir?” prodded Bullseye. “The CNO? Army Chief of Staff? Air Force? CIA? One of the other countries?” he smiled. “I think that is the other big problem. You need the senior brass to figure out who is your boss and then only work through him or her. That would cut down a lot on all of the bullshit briefings that you currently have to do.”

“You’re right, Bullseye,” said Calvin. “I’ll work on that one too…once I figure out which one of my bosses to suggest it to.”

KIRO-TV, Channel 7, Seattle, WA, November 3, 2018

“In national news this evening, the National Science Foundation has announced the award of a $20 million grant to the University of Washington to coordinate 85 institutions in 45 states working on new ways of finding black holes,” read KIRO’s anchorwoman, Anna St. Cloud. “University of Washington Professor Larry Riccardi announced the award earlier today.”

The camera cut to Dr. Larry Riccardi at a podium bearing the university’s seal. “This grant will allow us to further our research into new ways to locate and evaluate the nature of black holes,” he said. “We are excited to be able to bring together some of the greatest minds and facilities in the United States. In particular, MIT’s Haystack Observatory has made great progress in designing an event horizon telescope that will allow direct observation of the immediate environments of black holes with an angular resolution comparable to the event horizon. We are excited to be able to expand on their research. We will also be working with some of the world leaders in black hole research, like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, whose scientists have already determined the correlation between the mass of black holes and their rotation.”

The camera returned to Anna St. Cloud. “UW will receive $10.6 million of the $20 million grant for the project and will administer the rest for the other participants. This money includes funding for both the research scientists at the university’s Physics Astronomy Building, as well as its Physics and Astronomy Computing Services Group, which will provide the project’s information technology solutions. The university was chosen due to the close relationship of the physics and astronomy programs at the university, which the National Science Foundation said would be integral to the success of the project.”

The camera shifted to co-anchor Bob Brant. “In other news…

  Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, November 4, 2018

“OK,” said Calvin, looking at Steropes, “it is time for a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting. Are you familiar with that expression?”

“I have heard it used,” answered Steropes. “It means that it is time to bring everything into the light, correct?”

“That’s right,” replied Calvin. “If we’re going to go somewhere and do something, neither of which we know right now, we need to at least know what equipment we’re going to have. You’ve already told us that you have some sort of laser rifles, and we have seen your force field generators in action; it’s past time that you started the technology transfer to us. The soldiers need to know what kind of weapons they are going to have so that we can devise tactics to use them effectively. The squadron needs to start learning how to fly the space fighters, which we still haven’t even seen yet! You either need to start giving us these things, or I’m going to go join my squadron on cruise.” Everyone knew that was an idle threat, including Calvin. As long as the possibility existed to fly a space fighter, Calvin wasn’t going anywhere.

“You’re right, of course,” agreed Steropes. “We should have had this conversation before. Just a second; Arges needs to get out of a meeting with the president.” Brontes appeared immediately after he stopped speaking.

“See?” asked Calvin. “That is one of the things that I want to know. How do you get places? Sometimes, I know you’re there but invisible, and other times you just seem to pop in. Do you have some sort of matter transmitter?”

“It is obvious that we do,” said Brontes with a smile, “if Arges is going to instantly join us from Washington, D.C.” As she finished speaking Arges appeared next to her.

“Salutations,” said Arges. “I understand that the time has come to initiate technology transfer? Where would you like to begin?”

Calvin looked at Ryan. “Master Chief, I think you’ve been very patient. Would you like to start?”

“Yes sir, I would,” he replied. “I’d really, really like to know what kind of weapons and defensive systems we’re going to get.”

“Give us a moment,” said Arges, and all three Cyclopes disappeared.

“Maybe you should have asked for something smaller to start with,” said Calvin with a smile.

“Maybe I should have,” said Ryan, “but I’m getting awfully tired of the ‘mushroom treatment.’”

“What is the mushroom treatment?” asked Bullseye.

“It’s where you’re kept in the dark,” said Calvin, “and fed shit all the time.”

“Do you suppose they’re actually going to tell us anything this time?” asked Ryan.

“If they don’t, I’m quitting this whole thing and going on cruise,” said Calvin, with a wistful tone in his voice. “I’d get to fly and have no responsibilities…”

The Psiclopes reappeared, each holding an object.

Brontes stepped forward, holding a trident. The staff of the trident was about five inches in diameter, larger than any trident Calvin had ever seen “This is an antimatter projector. In the Theogony, I was called ‘the Thunderer;’ this is why.”

Master Chief O’Leary took the trident, and looked at it critically. “What does it…what does it do?”

“In function, it performs generally like one of your grenade launchers,” explained Arges. “It launches a round of antimatter within a magnetic containment field. The magnetic field extinguishes when it hits something, and the antimatter detonates explosively with whatever it hits.”

Ryan looked at the holes at the end of the tines. “Umm, it doesn’t look like the rounds will be very big,” he said. “What is the size of the antimatter round that it shoots?”

“I’m not a warrior,” Brontes said, “but it may be written on it.” She took the trident back, looked at the writing on it for a second and then handed it back, pointing to a dial and button that the American hadn’t noticed previously. “It looks like it goes from five nanograms to one gram of antimatter.”

“How much is a nanogram?” asked Ryan. “That must be a lot, right?”

“No,” said Steropes, “a nanogram is the equivalent of one billionth of a gram. It’s very, very small.”

“So…it goes from itty bitty up to one gram? That’s it?” asked Ryan. “A gram is like the weight of a paper clip, right?” Everyone’s heads nodded. “That’s not very much,” he continued. “How are we going to kill anything with that?”

“Quite handily,” responded Arges. “That should meet all of your explosive needs, although using the one gram setting in anything other than space is suboptimal.”

“Suboptimal? What is suboptimal about it?” asked Ryan, looking confused.

“One gram of antimatter contacting one gram of matter has the same explosive power as twice that of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. That bomb had the equivalent of about 20 kilotons of TNT; one gram of antimatter detonates with the force of 42 kilotons. If you use that setting within the atmosphere, it is likely that you will destroy yourself as well as the target.”

“Hoooooly shit!” said Ryan, suddenly handling the trident with much more respect. “What does that nanny gram setting do?”

Steropes smiled, “The five nanogram setting has a yield of about 226 grams of TNT, or about the same as one of your hand grenades.”

Ryan looked at Calvin and moaned, “Oh, sir, I want about 20 of these.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brontes, taking the trident back, “but we can’t repli-…we only have ten of them.”

Before anyone could say anything else, Steropes stepped forward with a helmet. “Sara referred to this as Zeus’ helmet of invisibility, but it is actually a part of the Mark XXXVII Mod 4 combat armor system. When the full suit is worn, it generates a force field that gives the wearer certain abilities. One of these is that the suit can bend the light around the wearer. When the soldier is motionless, he is almost invisible in most circumstances. The faster he moves, the more likely he is to be seen.

Ryan took the helmet, and a look of surprise crossed his face. “This can’t be combat armor,” he said. “It’s far too light to be effective.”

“I think you will be pleasantly surprised,” replied Arges. “The helmet, as well as the rest of the armor, is a composite fiber that is much stronger than anything you have ever seen. It will easily stop a round from one of your combat rifles.”

“That’s great if we were fighting the Chinese,” Night growled in his deep voice, “but I’ll bet that the frogs have something better than the Chinese QBZ-95 assault rifle.”

Arges’ face fell. “While the veracity of that statement cannot be ascertained, it is quite likely. They have, after all, had 3,000 years to work out an armament solution to defeat this particular level of technology.”

“What does the armor system weigh as a whole?” asked Ryan.

“The combat armor system weighs about 100 pounds,” replied Steropes. “The majority of the weight is the antimatter power generation system.”

“Wow, that’s going to make combat…difficult,” said Top, picturing having to carry 75 pounds of gear plus another 100 pounds of armor. He frowned at Calvin. “Sir, I don’t think we’ll be able to wear it. Their combat troops must have been monsters.”

“Actually,” interjected Steropes, “you should be fine with it. One of its other capabilities is limited anti-gravity.”

“That is correct,” added Arges. “You can carry a total of about 250 pounds before you start to experience performance degradation.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ryan.

“It means,” explained Steropes, “that in addition to the 100 pounds that the suit weighs, an average soldier can carry 150 pounds and feel as if he were completely unencumbered. If he had a 200 pound pack, it would only feel like he was carrying about 50 pounds.”

“What is an average soldier?” asked Top.

“When functional, the suit can counteract a total load of about 450 pounds,” said Steropes. “If a soldier weighs 200 pounds, the suit can counteract his weight, plus 150 pounds of gear and the 100 pound weight of the suit. The soldier will feel like he isn’t carrying anything. If the soldier weighs more, he will not be able to carry as much before he starts to feel it. Alternately, a smaller trooper will be able to pack more.”

Initially crestfallen when they heard the weight of the suit, smiles began to light up the faces of the soldiers as they thought about the extra equipment they would be able to carry and the additional capability that it would give them.

“150 pounds…” muttered Ryan. “Hmmm…” Calvin could almost see the wheels inside Ryan’s head turning as he did the mental calculations.

“Of course, if you need to carry more,” said Brontes suddenly, looking at Ryan, “there are always the mechs.” Both of the male Psiclopes suddenly looked annoyed.

You were not supposed to mention the mechs,” said Arges to the other Psiclopes, unheard by the Terrans.

Do you want to watch them face the Drakuls in nothing but combat armor? The Drakuls will rip them apart. I still remember Atlantis, even if you don’t,” replied Brontes, visibly shuddering.

You know DAMN WELL I remember! She was my WIFE!” yelled Steropes.

 “My point exactly,” said Brontes.

“Mechs? What mechs?” asked Ryan, unaware of the conversation going on around him. “Like in the movies?”

“We used to have heavy mechanized combat armor suits,” replied Steropes. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any here, nor do we have access to them.”

“We do, however, have one more piece of equipment for you,” said Arges, holding out what looked like a child’s toy rifle. While shaped like a rifle, it appeared to be molded out of cheap plastic. “In olden days, this was known as ‘Zeus’ Thunderbolt.’”

Top took Zeus’ Thunderbolt. Although it weighed about ten pounds, up close it looked even more like it was made of cheap plastic. Obviously not made for humans, it also wasn’t very well balanced in his hands. He was unimpressed. “I saw something that looked just like this at the toy store yesterday. It was $19.95 and called the Space Ranger Special,” said Top. “I got two for my kids.”

“May I?” asked Steropes, holding out a hand.

“Be my guest,” replied Top, handing the plastic rifle to him.

Steropes flipped a switch on the rifle, and it made a noise that sounded like something electronic powering up. He pointed it up at the roof and pulled the trigger. With a low-pitched, ‘pang!’ the weapon fired, and a beam of blue light went through the ceiling. Looking up, Calvin could see that not only did the ceiling have a hole in it, the roof did, too.

Top looked up at the blue sky. “That isn’t something my kids’ rifles can do, however.” He said with a new tone of respect. “I think I like this one better. What is it?”

“It’s a three centimeter blue laser,” Steropes said.

“Nice,” replied Top. “That’ll put a hole just bigger than an inch into something, right?”

“Correct,” agreed Arges.

“Those are all great,” said Calvin, “but what else do you have for us? That’s not everything, is it?”

“Yes,” said Arges, “those are the weapons that we have. They should give you a marked improvement in combat capability.”

“Ok,” repeated Calvin, “so what else do you have for us?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Steropes. “These weapons give you a tremendous improvement in firepower and defensive abilities. What were you expecting?”

“I was expecting a technological leap forward in communications, among other things,” replied Calvin. “When are we going to receive that?”

He knows!” said Brontes.

It was to be expected,” replied Arges. “He always knows.”

You expected him to know?” asked Brontes.

He wouldn’t be the person I believe him to be if he didn’t,” answered Arges.

“Damn it! That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” shouted Calvin. Everyone else looked confused by his outburst. “You’re talking right now; either telepathically or through some internal radio system, and I’ve had it with you not telling us everything. If you’re not going to be open with us, I’m leaving. Right. NOW!” Calvin started toward the door.

“Oh, save the drama,” said Steropes. “You’re no more going to walk away from flying space fighters than I am going to kiss a Drakul.” He looked at Arges, who nodded. “We will tell you everything.”

“About fucking time,” muttered Ryan, capturing the mood of the Terrans.

“The problem is,” began Steropes, “you don’t have a planetary government. Our culture has strict rules on technology transfer to developing planets. We can’t allow our weapons to be used for one nation to get an advantage over any of the others. If we armed all of your soldiers with our weapons, the United States could quickly take over the world.”

Ryan was incredulous. “Why the hell would we want to do that?” he asked. “Trying to govern some of the hell holes I’ve been in would suck beyond belief.”

“No shit,” agreed Calvin.

“Regardless,” continued Steropes, “you don’t have a planetary government, and that is the rule. There have been times in the past when exceptions have been made to these rules, but we are handicapped in our decision-making capabilities, and our process is flawed.”

“What do you mean,” asked Calvin.

“There should be four of us,” answered Brontes. “There are always four sent on a mission such as this, but we are only three. Normally, we come to an agreement through discussion. At least three must agree to a course of action, so that two more-warlike people cannot outvote two less-warlike ones. Without our fourth, we are handicapped and cannot determine the best way forward.”

“There has been much debate,” continued Steropes, “on how much to give you and what things to withhold. We are still not in agreement. A balance must be struck between the success of our mission and the transfer of knowledge to your planet. It is only what is right. What we are giving you today is the same as has been given to your people before. As such, it should be permissible.” He looked intently at Arges.

“All right,” said Calvin, “you have more stuff, but you’re not sure if it is right to give it to us. Is that right?” All three of the Psiclopes nodded in agreement. “How about if we take a look at what the mission entails and try to help you with your decision on what things are appropriate and necessary.”

The three Psiclopes looked at each other before nodding simultaneously. “We are willing to proceed with your proposal; however, we retain the right to terminate the discussion if we determine it is appropriate,” said Arges.

“For the purpose of this discussion,” said Calvin, “I’ll act as moderator. Night, you have as much experience with special operations as anyone else. What things do we still need to know in order to complete the mission successfully?”

The XO looked thoughtful for a few seconds. “Tell me more about what we can expect from the Drakuls,” he finally asked.

“They are awful,” said Brontes. “They are everything that we have told you before. What we’ve never truly been able to convey to you is just how terrifying they are. In combat they will use beam and projectile weapons during an attack, but only until they can get up close. Once they are within reach, they disdain weapons and grapple with their enemies. They like nothing more than to pull their enemies apart and snack on parts of them while they beat the next enemy senseless with an arm or leg from a previous foe. Words cannot describe, and you cannot conceive of how utterly awful they are in a fight.” She shuddered and turned away. “I have seen them in combat once. I would rather die than see it again.” She turned around, and the soldiers could see tears streaming down her face.

“Their weapons are marginally less effective than what we have given you,” said Steropes, taking up the brief. “In general, their technology is less effective than ours, and they don’t use it as well.”

“How up to date are those generalizations?” asked Night.

“Umm, they are three thousand years out of date,” replied Steropes. “That was the last time we fought them. We thought that their civilization was destroyed at that time, although events have shown that they probably were not. We have no idea what technology they might have acquired in the interim.”

“So, really, everything we know about them is hopelessly out of date, and we don’t have any way of acquiring any current, relevant information?” asked Night.

“That is correct,” replied Steropes.

The XO pursed his lips and blew out a breath. “OK, so we have an enemy that we can’t get close to that is incredibly vicious.” The Psiclopes nodded. “What do we know about their operational patterns?”

“The Drakuls locate communications relays and use them to find inhabited planets,” said Brontes. “They mass their ships and land on the planet. Then they eat almost everyone. Some they save as livestock. Then they use the communications relays to try to find the next planet, and then they do it all over again.” She was crying hard now.

“We have never seen them use stealth or trickery,” said Steropes. “They reproduce quickly and have always used brute force and massed attacks to overwhelm their enemies. They must have some sort of scientists or engineers, because they will disassemble captured weapons and technology, but we have never seen them create anything new on their own. Once again, though, this may have changed.”

“What can you tell us about their weapons?” asked Night. “Do they have ships and fighters and such?”

“Sadly, they have nearly everything that we have to give you,” said Steropes, “from weapons to transport capabilities. They captured enough of our planets before their final defeat that they acquired almost everything that we had.”

“Nearly everything is not the same as everything,” noted Night. “What do you have that they don’t?”

“That is the topic of this discussion,” announced Arges. “We are attempting to ascertain whether it is essential to transmit that data to you.”

Calvin saw that Ryan looked confused again, but Night pressed on. “So, what we have here is an enemy that is brutal and horrific, that will pull us apart and eat us alive. This enemy will probably strike without warning using a massed attack that will overwhelm all of our defenses and isn’t afraid of taking casualties, because it reproduces quickly. To top it off, we don’t have any current data on this enemy’s whereabouts, technology, or intentions that isn’t at least 3,000 years old. Does that about sum it up?”

“Succinctly,” replied Arges.

“So,” interjected Calvin, “we have an enemy that we know nothing about, that was nearly unbeatable 3,000 years ago, and who may have increased its potential a hundred-fold. When last seen, they had almost the same technology that we have just been given, which we have no training on and no doctrine to operationally employ. Knowing that, it is likely that we will die, or be eaten, probably both, and your mission to make it home will fail. If that is all right with you, then by all means, don’t tell us anything that you know that could help us. After all, we might use it to take over the world and violate your precious rule.”

He paused. “Of course, we aren’t going to use this new information, whatever it is, to take over the world because we’ll be dead, and you’ll be dead with us, and then very shortly after that the Drakuls will land on the planet, and all seven billion people here will be dead. Men, women and children. All dead! But at least you won’t have violated your prized directive. By a show of hands, how many people think this entire fucking discussion is absolutely ludicrous?”

All of the soldiers raised their hands, as well as Brontes. Within a second or two, Steropes slowly raised his hand. Finally, Arges said, “That is not entirely a rational argument, as it relies on an emotional approach to gain acquiescence. Still, several of the points that your executive officer raised are technically valid and require that I restructure my rationale. We will give you everything.”

“It’s about fucking time,” chorused the Americans.

“There’s just one problem,” said Arges.

“Beside the hole in the ceiling?” asked Top.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, November 6, 2018

“They need what?” asked the president.

“The Psiclopes need a bunch of rare earth elements and heavy metals,” answered Calvin, looking around the conference table. Although he had spoken to a number of important people on the phone, both during the war and in the last few weeks, this was the first time he had seen them all in person. It was also his first time in the DUCC, which was a little intimidating all on its own. He didn’t know how far below the White House he was, but the elevator ride had gone on a long time. “If they get them, they will be able to give us implants, which will make our mission much more survivable, especially for the ground force and space force elements.”

“What will the implants do?” asked the Secretary of Technology, Dr. Sarah Roberts. Her office had recently been created by President Jacobs to expedite the transfer of alien technology to the civilian infrastructure. Not much had been transferred so far, which had given Ms. Roberts plenty of time to get her legs under her. Although the office was new at the national level, she had previously served as Virginia’s Secretary of Technology, so she already had a head start on implementing the new position.

“The implants are supposed to do a number of things for us,” replied Calvin. “They will give us direct line of sight radio communications, as well as communications through the computer onboard their ship. At some point in the future, once we have them, we may also be able to use their matter transmitter, which will let us transport at will.”

“They have a transporter?” asked the Secretary of Energy, Jim Banks. “As in like, ‘beam me up, Scottie?”

“Yeah,” answered Calvin, “that’s how they’re able to get around so fast. They transport up to the ship and then back down to wherever they want to go. Apparently, it works with about a 99.9995% accuracy if the place they are beaming into has been surveyed and is an official portal. If it’s not, there is only a 96.9% accuracy.”

“What exactly does that mean?” asked the Secretary of Technology, who could immediately see a number of uses for a transporter, although the transportation industry would scream. “What happens if it falls outside that accuracy level?”

“As I understand it,” answered Calvin, “if something goes wrong, you might end up too high and fall, or too low and have your body intermingled with the ground. That is apparently fatal as well as extremely painful. You also might miss laterally, which is OK as long as nothing exists in the area you’re transporting to. If it does, it will be joined into your body. Once again, very painful and possibly fatal, depending on the nature and size of the object.” He paused. “That’s as I understand it now, anyway. Once I get the implants, I’ll understand it better.”

“What do you mean?” asked the president.

“Another benefit of the implants is that they can teach you things, very quickly, via a data download straight to your brain. That is how we will learn to fly their space fighters, as well as operate their weapons and ship. All of the personnel going on the mission will need to have implants. Apparently, they were going to spring this on us at the last moment, so that word of implant technology wouldn’t get out before we left.”

Calvin looked at the president who appeared to be deep in thought. “We are going to need to have a lot of people implanted, as soon as possible,” mused the president.

“They won’t do it,” replied Calvin. “It’s against their civilization’s rules to transfer weapons or implant technology to a planet that doesn’t have a unified government. If they do, their fear is that the technology would be used to take over the world. Once we have a unified government, they will transfer everything we need, but until then, it is reserved solely for the people going on the mission.”

That’s ludicrous!” exploded the president. “We have aliens that may show up any day, and they won’t help us? What the hell is wrong with them?”

“Apparently, they have some deep-seated issues with changing a culture’s future,” replied Calvin. “I get the feeling that these issues are philosophical as well as political in nature.”

“What philosophical issues are there with allowing us to defend ourselves?” asked the Secretary of Defense.

“I don’t know exactly,” responded Calvin. “There’s something in their religion about everyone having to ‘find their own path,’ but the Psiclopes wouldn’t explain it to me any more than that. They said that I would understand, ‘in time.’ We were able to convince them to give us the implants, because it was critical to mission success, but they were not at all flexible with regard to any additional technology transfer, without having a unified world government.”

“Damn it,” said President Jacobs, “that is going to throw a wrench into my diplomatic plans. Did they give you any idea of what a ‘unified planetary government’ looked like?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” replied Calvin. “No, they did not.”

“OK,” said the president, thinking quickly. “After this meeting, I would like the Speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Education and Homeland Security to stay. We need to start moving up the diplomatic push.” He paused and then looked at Calvin. “What do you need to make these implants happen?”

“The Psiclopes are going to need a variety of rare earth elements (REEs) to make the implants, and they will need them as soon as possible. I have a list with me. Most are in small amounts, except for some of the things needed for our laser rifles. We’ll need more of those.

“I take it from their name that these are elements that are rare in nature,” said the president. “Where are they produced?”

“Umm, that’s the problem, sir,” replied Calvin. “They are all produced in China, mostly. I looked on the internet prior to coming here, and China is responsible for about 90% of the world’s rare earth element production, with most of it coming from Inner Mongolia. It is also the sole source for all of the heavy REEs, like dysprosium, which is needed for the magnetic containment fields of our antimatter grenade throwers. China has been cutting back production every year for the last decade, and demand for most of these is now greater than production. The Chinese say their cutbacks are because of environmental protection concerns; however, it is really due to the fact that they are extremely rare resources, and the Chinese don’t want them leaving their borders without making a substantial profit on them.”

“How rare are we talking?” asked the president.

“To say that they are rare is an understatement,” answered the Secretary of Commerce, Nick David, looking down at his notes. He had been told to research rare earth element acquisition prior to the meeting. This was the first meeting that they were allowed to bring or take notes, although they all had to be labeled ‘Olympos’ and treated as if the fate of the nation depended that they remain secret. “For example, it is estimated that there is not much more than a pound of promethium in the entire Earth’s crust, although it is unlikely that they use much of that particular element, as all of its isotopes are radioactive.”

“Is there anywhere else besides China that we can get them?” asked the president.

“Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, Greenland and the U.S. had mines in the past, but they were closed when China entered the market in the 1990s and undercut everyone else’s prices,” replied Commerce. “These mines could be restarted…for a price. There is also a deposit located in Afghanistan that has never been exploited. We could help the Afghans open a mine there. We could also get the REEs from the tailings of uranium and gold mining, both in this country and abroad. Some nations have stockpiles of REEs that we might be able to purchase parts of. There is also a large amount of previously used REEs that we could get from recycling used electronics.”

“That gives us some opportunities outside of the Chinese,” said the president. “Let’s get to work on all of these. If we can get a six-month head start on the rest of the world, we can hopefully corner the market on them. Are there any other opportunities?”

“Well,” said the Secretary of Energy, “you can also get the elements from nuclear fuel reprocessing. Nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium both yield all of the rare earth elements as byproducts. The only problem is that the radioactivity of the fission process is such that extracting the REEs hasn’t been either safe or economical.”

“It will be a whole lot more economical when the government invests in helping to develop better technology,” said the president, looking at both Commerce and Technology. “Make it happen!” he ordered. “In fact,” he continued, looking around the room, “let’s put some effort into all of these avenues, but try to do it quietly. I don’t want any of the other nations outside of Olympos to know about what we’re doing. Talk to our Olympos partners and see what they can do to help. I will also ask the Psiclopes to see if they have anything available to help with the radioactive separation problem.”

Heads nodded around the room as each member of the cabinet thought about ways that they could help acquire more of the REEs.

“Now,” said the president, “what else did they need?”

“Antimatter,” replied the Secretary of Energy.

“Well, we can generate that,” asked the president, “can’t we?”

“Yes and no,” answered the Secretary of Energy. “Yes, we can make antimatter, but it is one of the most costly things to produce. In all of the world’s efforts so far, we have produced about 20 nanograms of antimatter in total. That is 20 billionths of a gram. It is hard to make, hard to contain and hard to store, needing both extreme vacuum and a magnetic field. If we decided that we wanted to go into the business of antimatter production, we could make it for about $25 billion per gram.”

“To put that into perspective, sir,” said Calvin into the silence that followed Energy’s appraisal of the situation, “each of our grenade throwers uses one gram. The cost to fuel one of them would be the same as to buy 167 new F-22 stealth fighters, and that’s old technology.”

“Well, there’s no way we can afford to do that,” said the president, looking at the Secretary of Commerce who shook his head. “Even once we get the economy up to a war footing, that’s out of our reach. The Psiclopes are going to have to help with that. There’s just no way we can do it on our own. Even as a planet.”

“I think they can handle the antimatter generation and weapons creation,” replied Calvin. “The only problem is that they won’t transfer a lot of their things…”

“…until we have a planetary government,” finished the president. “I got it. Anything else?”

“One last thing, sir,” answered Calvin. “I said earlier that we ‘may’ be able to use their matter transmitter, which would let us transport at will. The only problem is that you have to have a nano-level detailed scan of the person being transported, and they don’t have one of those kinds of scanners with them. We would need to get to a planet that had one to get scanned first, or bring back that kind of scanner, which I understand is not cheap. We may get that technology at some point...but probably not very soon.”

“Damn,” said the president, “I was looking forward to getting to say, ‘beam me up,’ and actually getting to do it. I hate traveling.”

“Me, too, sir,” replied Calvin, who was about to get back onto a plane to go back to Seattle, completing his fifth transcontinental trip that month. “That’s it, sir. That’s all we were able to get from them.”

“OK, then, you’re dismissed, as is everyone else that isn’t working on how to develop a planetary government, which will be our next topic of discussion,” said the president.

Calvin came to attention, executed an about face and left the room, starting his long journey back to Seattle. He was really starting to hate travelling, too.

KIRO-TV, Channel 7, Seattle, WA, November 7, 2018

“In national news this evening, the Commerce Department has announced a new initiative to open up new sources of rare earth elements,” read KIRO’s anchorwoman, Anna St. Cloud. “Secretary of Commerce Nicholas David announced the government’s plans earlier today.”

The camera cut to Nick David at a podium. “One of the biggest lessons learned from the recent Sino-American war was that China has a stranglehold on rare earth elements. They produce over 90% of the world’s supply. We need to develop alternate sources, so that a foreign country cannot determine the future direction of the U.S. economy.”

The camera returned to Anna St. Cloud. “The Secretary of Commerce announced that the government would be re-opening the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California, as well as the Diamond Creek and Lemhi Pass mines in Idaho. The government will also be taking over many recycling programs that recover rare earth elements, among other initiatives.”

Co-anchor Bob Brant took over. “In local news…

KGB Headquarters, Moscow, Russia, November 8, 2018

“There is something very strange going on with the Americans,” said the KGB chairman, deep in thought. “First the mission to the moon and then the two centers of excellence located next to each other. Hmm…they are certainly up to something, but what could it be?”

The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service looked at the rest of the intelligence officers assembled in the headquarters conference room. All of them seemed to be looking at their notes. There was nothing else to look at; there were no windows, as the conference room was buried deep within the building to keep anyone from spying on it. Seeing that no one else was going to offer any suggestions, he said, “I agree, sir. Perhaps they are using these things to cover up something else?”

“Well, of course they are using them to cover up something else! The question is, what? They didn’t just come up with a ‘mission to the moon’ out of the blue! Nor did they just decide to host two centers of excellence without at least talking to their allies, first. The cover stories are weak. There is obviously something that they are hiding. It also probably has something to do with the new push to collect rare earth elements and heavy metals…” the KGB chairman was one of the few remaining members of the KGB that was a veteran of the Cold War and the spy wars with the United States. He was excellent at piecing together different sources of information to come up with a coherent picture.

“Perhaps they are working on some new battery or source of power,” he finally said. “Regardless of what it is, if they get it, it will not be something beneficial for us. We need to get people into these programs and find out what it is that they’re hiding. I wish the president had chosen to participate in the moon mission, but I understand why it wasn’t politically feasible at this time.” He was well aware that the U.S. had accidentally sunk a Russian destroyer during their war with China. Even though the U.S. had offered to pay for it and to pay damages to the families of the sailors onboard, it remained something that the Russian Parliament still tried to use to its advantage.

“We have one agent watching the special forces soldiers to try to find out what they’re up to,” said the operations officer. “So far they’ve only held one meeting and are exercising at a hangar on one of their bases.”

“Good,” said the KGB chief. “Continue to try to penetrate both centers of excellence to see what they’re up to, but exercise caution. We don’t want them to know that we’re on to them.”

Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, November 9, 2018

It was Friday evening, and Ryan was just finishing cleaning up the dinner dishes when there was a knock at the door of his cabin. As the cabin was in the middle of a national forest, it was unusual to have guests, especially as darkness fell in the mountains. After a hard week of training at the hangar, he didn’t think that any of the platoon members would have come by unannounced.

He was surprised to open the door and find Brontes waiting for him. Not only had his contact with her been limited, it was also extremely unusual for her to recognize a convention like knocking on the door. She usually just showed up where she wanted. “Come on in,” he said. “Please have a seat,” he said, pulling out a chair. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” she replied.

After the refusal, she didn’t say anything else for nearly 15 seconds as she looked at her hands, contemplating something with herself. Ryan gave her the time to come to a decision on her own. Finally, she looked up and said, “You are still not being told everything.”

Ryan laughed. “I hope you didn’t come all the way out here just to tell me that,” he said, “because that is hardly news. Even though Arges said he would tell us everything, we know that he hasn’t.”

“I am in a difficult position,” began Brontes. “I have a legal and moral obligation to obey orders; however, I cannot stand by and just watch some things happen without affecting my place on the Wheel.”

“Wheel?” asked Ryan. “What wheel is that?”

“It is a belief of ours, but that isn’t important right now. We can talk about it at another time if you want to,” replied Brontes. “There are a couple of other things that I need to discuss with you before my presence is missed. Not all of these will make sense now, but I promise that I have your best intentions at heart and will explain them to you later when I am able. Can you trust me for now?”

“I guess,” said Ryan, understanding very little about what was going on. Obviously there was a lot more taking place behind the scenes than the Terrans were privy to. A crack in the unity of the Psiclopes was something to be encouraged; it could only help the Terrans.

“That is good enough for now then,” replied the Psiclops. “The first thing you need to know is that the medibot doing your implants is able to do many more things than just putting in the implants.”

“It is?” asked Ryan, wondering where this was going.

“It is,” confirmed Brontes. “Our ship was intended to spend long periods at the edge of civilization. As such, the medical section onboard was equipped with all of the latest technology, so that it would be ready for any exigency.”

“It would be ready for any what?” Ryan asked, wondering if the Psiclopes were ever going to learn to speak plain English.

“It had to be ready for any need or possibility,” explained Brontes, “from conducting major medical procedures to developing indigenous life forms into effective warriors, somewhat like what we are doing with you now.”

“Do you mean the implant operations that we are going to have?” asked Ryan. “I don’t know what all we’re getting, but it definitely sounds like we will be more effective warriors after the operation.”

Brontes smiled. “There is no doubt that having implants will make you more effective as a warrior. The ability to communicate instantly, across great distances, will allow you to coordinate your actions with a far greater precision than most cultures you will face. The implants will also allow you to interface with your weapons systems and use them to their fullest extent. The best part of having implants, which I don’t think any of you really understands yet, is that it will allow you to acquire information and skills from the computer system. This information will go straight into your brain nearly instantaneously via the implant link. For example, all of the tech manuals for your new weapons can be downloaded to your brain through the implant. Once it is there, you will have the ability to recall any of the data you require.”

Ryan liked where this was going. “So, if I needed to fly a space fighter, I could download the instructions and be a pilot?”

Brontes shook her head. “It is not quite as easy as that. There is a difference between knowing something and having the experience and muscle memory required to do it effectively. For example, when Calvin is flying an airplane and he wants it to climb, he pulls back on the stick. How hard and fast he pulls back is determined by how much he wants to climb and how fast he wants to get there. It requires the actual experience of flying the plane to understand the forces involved. It is one thing to know ‘pull back the stick;’ it is another thing entirely to know how far and fast to do so. Similarly, you could download knowledge on a new form of martial arts. Simply knowing the moves to take down an opponent is not the same as understanding when to use them or having trained with them to the point that you have the muscle memory required to use them effectively.”

“I get it,” said Ryan. “We can get the information downloaded to us, but it is just knowledge. We have to practice it in order to have any skill at it.”

“Exactly,” confirmed Brontes. “Still, it will accelerate your acquisition of these skills beyond anything you currently have access to.”

“Awesome,” replied Ryan. “The first thing I’m getting is a dictionary so that I can understand what you and Arges are saying.”

Brontes giggled. Wow, thought Ryan, they actually do have a sense of humor. “I’ll endeavor…I mean, I will try to keep my words understandable,” said Brontes. “Better?”

“Better,” Ryan agreed.

“OK,” said Brontes, “The implants will let you do all of those things. The medibot, however, is capable of more than simply installing the implants. It is also able to do major bio-modification, as well.” Seeing Ryan’s question forming, she continued. “What I mean is that it can give your body anything from enhancements to complete cyborg replacement.”

“Cyborg replacement?” asked Ryan. “What is that?”

“That is where your brain is transplanted into a mechanical robot shell,” replied Brontes. “There are many combat models available for those who choose to do that. Some of them are quite powerful.”

“Umm...I’m not sure I’m ready for that,” said Ryan.

“Most intelligent beings are not,” Brontes agreed. “There are, however, many enhancements that you can get that are not that...permanent. Arges does not intend to tell you, but you can ask the system for the ‘Warrior Package,’ and it will give your body a number of enhancements that will make you a far more deadly and skilled warrior.”

“What type of enhancements are we talking about?” asked Ryan, worried about losing his humanity. He didn’t want to wake up and find out that he was now Robosoldier.

“The system can do nearly anything our doctors can. It can sharpen your vision, giving you the best eyesight your species is capable of. It can enhance muscular strength and endurance, giving you the ability to carry more weight and for longer durations. It can enhance your reflexes, helping you to act faster than your opponents. Depending on how far you want to go, you can also have your bones strengthened with nano-metallic alloys that will give them the ability to withstand shock and stress, as well as a subcutaneous bio-plastic injection that will strengthen your skin. Both of these will allow you to avoid some combat damage and mitigate that which you cannot avoid.”

“Oh, I’ve got to get some of that!” exclaimed Ryan. “Why weren’t we told about this?”

“For two reasons,” explained Brontes. “First, there is the prohibition against technology transfer to worlds that don’t have a planetary government. Depending on the options chosen for warrior enhancement, you could turn yourself into a cyborg that would be nearly unstoppable with your world’s current armament systems. Think ‘Terminator’-style enhancements. If the entire platoon received this modification, it would be able to beat any army on the entire planet, vastly changing the world’s balance of power. As some of these modifications are permanent, we wouldn’t be able to undo them once we got back from the mission. To give them to you means that we have to be sure about how you will use them or, at the very least, that the need is dire, which I feel it is. As I have already told you, I have seen the Drakuls in action. They are twice as big as you, more than twice as strong and utterly devoid of conscience or morals. You will need every advantage you can get to defeat them. Not transferring this technology to you unnecessarily handicaps you in your fight against them.”

“Makes sense,” said Ryan. “And the second reason?”

 “We’re running low on materials for the rep…” Brontes answered. “I mean, we’re low on supplies,” she finished weakly.

“You know,” said Ryan, “I wanted to be a spaceman when I was growing up, and I read an awful lot of science fiction when I was a little boy. Why can’t you just admit that you have some sort of replicator or fabricator, or whatever it is that makes your equipment for you?”

Brontes sighed. “Because I’m not allowed to talk about it,” she said, confirming its existence. “That would definitely be a breach of my orders and would make the men angry at me for doing so.”

“Is that another one of the things that are prohibited until we have a unified planetary government?” asked Ryan.

“I’m afraid that it is,” agreed Brontes. “Still, you had to know that we had something, so denying its existence is really pretty stupid, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded. “Pretty much,” he said.

“I have a question for you,” said Brontes, “in exchange for the information I just gave you. I would ask that you keep it just between us.” Ryan nodded. “Have you noticed anything different about Calvin?”

“Different in what way?” asked Ryan. “Do you mean different in that something has changed with him recently? Or that he is different from other people?”

“Either of those,” replied Brontes. “Or both.”

Ryan thought about it for a little while. “I don’t know if this is ‘different,’ but he certainly picks up new things quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. For an aviator, he caught on to being a soldier pretty damn quickly. He’s also the only one to beat our XO in hand-to-hand combat, and he doesn’t have a lot of training in it.” He chuckled ruefully. “The XO kicked my ass.” He thought a little longer. “I don’t know if this is ‘different,’ either, and probably wouldn’t have thought about it if you hadn’t asked, but he is a good leader that is able to adapt to just about any situation. People naturally follow him. Oh, yeah, he also seems to know when you guys are around, which no one else can do. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” Brontes replied. “Oops, I’ve got to go,” she said. “Don’t forget to ask for the ‘Warrior Package’ when you get your implants.” With that, she was gone.

“Oh, well,” sighed Ryan, pushing in her chair. “At least she used the door to come in.”

* * * * *

Chapter Six

Vella Gulf, Dark Side of the Moon, November 14, 2018

“So,” said Calvin, “how exactly is this going to work?” The first shipment of heavy metals had arrived the day before, and it was time for the first group to get implanted. The first five people chosen to receive implants were Calvin, Night, Bullseye, Ryan and Top. Captain James Deutch was also supposed to have been in the first group, but had not been able to get away for the day. Steropes had picked them up at Ryan’s house in a shuttle and had brought them up to the spaceship on the moon, where they were waiting in the squadron’s ready room. He had space suits for all of the men, but wouldn’t say where they had come from.

“One at a time,” said Steropes, “you will be taken to the 3426890’s med bay.”

“Wait a second,” interrupted Bullseye. “What is the 3426...whatever it was?”

“That’s this ship,” answered Calvin. He looked at Steropes. “Not everyone has your memory for numbers. I thought we were going to rename it the Vella Gulf?”

“It is all right with us,” replied Steropes, “as long as the Japanese in the group do not mind. After all, they lost three ships in the Battle of Vella Gulf.”

“Well, none of us can remember that number,” said Calvin, “and the Japanese don’t care. It’s more important what this ship does, not what happened 75 years ago.

“OK,” said Steropes, “Vella Gulf it is.”

“Where did this ship come from?” asked Bullseye. “I mean, who made it?”

“This ship was built by the Eldive,” replied Calvin, “a race of avian warriors. The Drakuls destroyed their home world in a surprise attack, which killed all of their females. The Eldive didn’t allow them in combat, so they were all there on the planet. The males went crazy with despair and killed themselves. With nothing to lose, they used kamikaze attacks to wipe out the bigger Drakul fleet. The Psiclopes had another janissary race that was supposed to have mopped up the remaining Drakuls, although we now think that they may have missed some. Regardless, the Eldive no longer exist, so they won’t be coming back for it.”

 “On the good side,” added Calvin, “the bridge of the ship and all of the crew spaces are larger than what they would be for a similarly crewed human vessel, as the Eldive were avian and needed room to stretch their wings. We should have plenty of space.”

“One at a time,” said Steropes, picking up where he left off, “you will be taken up to the med bay. We have to do it one at a time because there is only one medibot in the infirmary that is qualified to do the implant procedure. You’re lucky that this is a cruiser. Anything smaller wouldn’t have had a medibot qualified to do implants.”

“Is this a big ship?” interrupted Bullseye.

“It is a medium-sized ship about 1,300 feet long,” replied Steropes. “Destroyers, frigates and the like are smaller. Battlecruisers, battleships and dreadnoughts are bigger.” He paused. “Do you want to know about the procedure?” he asked.

“Sorry,” said Bullseye. “Yes, please go ahead. I’m just a little nervous is all.”

“The first procedure will go slower than the rest,” Steropes continued, “as the medibot will have to familiarize itself with human anatomy. That should take about 15 minutes. The first person should take about an hour to complete, the rest about 45 minutes each.”

“I will go first,” announced Calvin, “followed by Bullseye, Night, Master Chief and Top. I’m ready whenever you are.”

“Follow me, then,” said Steropes.

Calvin followed him out of the ready room. The Eldive vessel had the same ‘navy’ feeling as every other ship he had been on. The only difference was that everything seemed wider, due to the Eldive physiology. As Calvin walked, it suddenly dawned on him that he was walking around on an alien space ship. The first person ever to walk around on an alien ship. It was darn cool. There was something unexpected, though.

“Steropes, we’re on the moon, right?” Calvin asked. When Steropes nodded, Calvin asked, “Shouldn’t the gravity be a whole lot less?”

“It would,” said Steropes, “if the artificial gravity failed. I have it set to simulate earth-normal, which is pretty close to our home planet’s gravity.”

“What else can you tell me about this ship?” asked Calvin, needing something else to think about.

“Well, as you already know,” Steropes lectured, “the 3426…the Vella Gulf is a heavy cruiser-sized vessel. The ship masses nearly 202,100 tons and is about 400 meters long and 60 meters wide. Captain Deutch will be well pleased with this command, as it has 9 missile mounts and ten grasers on each broadside, as well as three missile mounts and three grasers both fore and aft as chase armament.”

“Grasers?” asked Calvin.

“Gamma ray lasers,” explained Steropes. “They are more powerful than a normal laser.”

“Thanks,” said Calvin. “It sounds like a powerful ship, although I don’t really have any frame of reference to base a comparison on.” He looked around. “It’s certainly big enough,” he continued. “I’m already lost.”

They went down a level via a narrow staircase equivalent to the ‘ladders’ on U.S. Navy vessels. “The Eldives didn’t use these stairs,” said Steropes, indicating a three-meter wide hole that was roped off next to the stairs. “They would use that hole and simply step off and fly to the next level. The stairs are only here for visitors.”

After another 30 seconds, they came to a stop in front of a door. Steropes walked up to it, and it parted for them. The room inside screamed ‘medical facility’ to Calvin in a sterile, white and stainless steel manner. The room was square, about 25 feet to a side, with doors leading off from the center of every wall. Four beds lined both sides of the room; all were empty and did not appear to have been used recently. Steropes led him through the door on the right to find a smaller, 15 foot square room with two beds and what he guessed was the medibot. It looked like a six-foot tall shiny metal cigar on wheels…if cigars had four arms that ended in syringes and things that looked like rotary saws. His blood pressure spiked another 30 points just at the sight of it.

“Welcome,” it said in a flat, metallic voice. “Please lie down on one of the beds. We will get started shortly.” The medibot sounded very much like the GLaDOS computer from Portal 3, one of Calvin’s Playstation 5 games.

“Like it?” asked Steropes. “I programmed its voice to sound like what you would expect, to help put you at ease.”

Calvin wasn’t sure what would have put him at ease at the moment, but having it sound like a computer that freaked out and nerve gassed all of the people in its facility probably wasn’t what he would have chosen. He doubted that it mattered much what the medibot sounded like. He was on an alien vessel and about to have a robot operate on him and put things inside his head that no human had ever had before. The medibot was going to do all sorts of things to his physiology that he was told, secondhand, would make him better at what he did. He had no idea what the recovery time would be or how much it would hurt. He didn’t even know if he was supposed to be awake for the process. The bottom line was that a robot of unknown skill was going to conduct an invasive surgical procedure on his head and body that he knew nothing about. He wasn’t destined to feel comfortable about the procedure, regardless. But having the medibot sound like the computer that killed all of the scientists in its lab definitely did not help his mental processes. “I’m not sure it would have mattered,” said Calvin, “but thanks for the thought.”

The medibot stopped in front of Steropes. “You may leave,” it said.

“Good luck!” said Steropes, leaving the room. “I’ll see you when it’s over.”

“Thanks,” Calvin called as the door shut behind Steropes. Looking at the robot, he asked, “How…ummm…how is this going to work? Will it hurt much?”

“Just relax and lie back,” said the medibot. “Everything will be all right. As far as the procedure goes, I will first conduct a scan on you, since you are the first of your kind in 3,000 years that I have operated on, and then I will perform the implant procedure. Even though you are the first new Terran to receive the implants, I expect a 98% chance of successful implantation, based on historical data implanting new species.”

“What about the other two percent?” asked Calvin.

“Most species have defense mechanisms to prevent foreign intrusion into their bodies,” said the medibot. “Some of these can be quite…aggressive…and will actually terminate the host, rather than allow the implants to remain. I do not expect that to be the case with you, but you never know.”

Calvin had heard of people rejecting things like artificial hearts, but had never heard of anything quite that severe. Still…“Is that it?”

“Oh, no,” said the medibot. “There is a host of other complications that could arise, leading to either the termination of the patient or the failure of the devices. I do not forecast a suboptimal outcome in your case, however.”

“Umm…OK, I guess,” said Calvin. “When are we going to start?”

“The scan has been going on since you entered the room,” replied the medibot. “Did you know that your body is full of things that don’t work, things that work poorly and things that are just unneeded? I estimate that you have over 100 trillion bacteria in you, and those are just the good ones. My system shows that bacteria cells outnumber human cells in your body by a ratio of ten to 1. Ack! You are an infection just waiting to happen! Why did Steropes allow you in my facility?” A mist began spraying out of a number of places in the wall, filling the room and covering everything within it. The medibot continued, “Chance of successful implantation has been lowered to 97.2% due to risk of possible uncontrolled infection.”

Calvin coughed as the mist swallowed him up. He couldn’t tell if it was the mist in his eyes, but he would have sworn the robot actually shuddered.

“OK,” said the medibot several seconds later. “I am ready to proceed. Rather than give you implants, I think you might be better served by getting rid of that bacteria infested shell and taking the cyborg package. I can easily transplant your brain into a cyborg shell for you, if you’d like.”

“No, thanks,” replied Calvin with a small shudder of his own. He had a thought. “I would like the warrior package, though, if I could get it.”

“Warrior, huh?” asked the medibot. “You don’t look like much of a warrior to me. Your vision is not very good, you are overweight, and your muscles are partly atrophied, to say nothing about your poor reflexes. Are you really a warrior, or just trying to jack up an insurance settlement?”

“Ow,” said Calvin. “That’s not very nice. I really am a warrior. I am the commanding officer for both a special forces platoon and a space fighter squadron.”

“Oh, a commanding officer,” replied the medibot. “That would explain the excess padding on your posterior region. You should get out and exercise more. I will do what I can, but I want you to remember that I didn’t have a lot to work with.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Calvin. “When do we star…”

Calvin opened his eyes to find that the medibot had left. Everything was weird. The room seemed sharper somehow; all of the angles were crisper. Gravity seemed lighter. Calvin wondered if Steropes had lowered the ship’s internal gravity. Recognizing he had fallen asleep before the operation could start, he swung his legs off the bed and pushed himself up. The gravity must have been lowered, he thought, as he picked himself off the floor. He had thrown himself halfway across the room.

Gingerly, he stood up. As he brushed off the flight suit, he noticed that it had somehow become baggier in the stomach and tighter in the chest. Weird, he thought. Then he saw himself in the mirror and realized that the operation was not in the future. It was already complete. And holy crap was it a success! He looked good, even if he did say so himself.

His palms itched. Rolling up the right sleeve of his flight suit, he saw that there was some sort of jack that had been implanted into his palm. Rolling up his left sleeve, he saw that another jack had been installed in his left palm. “What the fu...” he started to say, and then realized that the jacks were how he was supposed to connect with his equipment, whether that was a gun, a combat suit...or even his space fighter. OK. This was cool.

As he turned from the mirror, the medibot rolled back into the room. “I’m surprised,” it droned. “You actually look good.”

“Thanks…I guess,” said Calvin. “How long was I out? I can’t even see the scars.”

“P’sha,” said the medibot, sounding very human, “You were out for 45 minutes. Of course there are no scars. What do you think I am? A Mark 38? My nanobots are the best!” It turned to leave. “Scars! P’SHA!” It started rolling out of the room.

“Hey!” said Calvin. “How do I find my way out?”

“Use your implants!” replied the medibot. “Duh!” The door closed behind him.

“How do I do that?” Calvin asked the door. There was no answer. I can figure this out, he thought. “Implants on!” he commanded. Nothing happened. “Turn on!” Nothing happened. “Hmm.”

The door opened, and Steropes walked in. He took one look at Calvin and said, “I guess you figured out that the medibot can do more than implants. Did you get the Warrior Package or is that the Rock Star Body?”

“It’s the Warrior Package,” answered Calvin. “Is there a problem with that?”

“Not with me,” Steropes replied, “but Arges will be mad. It’s the whole ‘unified planetary government’ thing with him again. Personally, I think it’s good. Any advantage you can get versus the Drakuls is a good thing. The only question will be if we have enough supplies to give everyone the package. I know we were low in gadolinium, which is used in your radiation shielding because of its high neutron absorption rate.”

“I’ll talk with the president,” replied Calvin. “This is something we need. I know he’s trying to gather all of the heavy metals and rare earth elements that he can. We’ll get enough to implant everyone. I’ve only got one question.” He paused, a sheepish look on his face. “How do do you turn the implants on?”

“They’re always on,” said Steropes. “They are powered by your body heat.”

“OK,” replied Calvin, becoming slightly frustrated with the whole process, “then how do I make them do anything?”

“Oh, that,” answered Steropes. “After 5,000 years with them, everything is second nature, and you forget what it was like getting them the first time. Just press your tongue to the roof of your mouth twice. It’s kind of like double-clicking a computer mouse.”

Calvin double-clicked the roof of his mouth and was rewarded with a heads-up display at the bottom of his normal vision. There were a number of titles: Shopping, Entertainment, News, Sports, Education, Military, Search and Tools. All of them were grayed out, with the exception of Education, Search and Tools. “It only looks like a couple of the choices are active,” noted Calvin.

“That is true,” said Steropes with a sigh. “We’re out here without connection to society. If we make it back to Olympos or one of the civilized planets, the other ones will become active when you access different computer systems.”

“So, Earth isn’t civilized?” asked Calvin.

“Not as far as implants go, anyway,” replied Steropes. “Once you’ve got that whole unified planetary government thing taken care of, maybe we’ll talk.”

“What is running Education, Search and Tools, if I’m not accessing any computer systems?” asked Calvin.

“The ship’s artificial intelligence (AI) is running those functions in the periphery of its consciousness,” replied Steropes. “It also handles communications in the absence of a planet-wide network.”

Calvin’s eyes narrowed. “Is that how you communicate?”

“Sometimes,” answered Steropes. He changed the subject. “We renamed the AI ‘Solomon,’ for the Solomon Islands, when the ship’s name changed to Vella Gulf. In order to call someone, you need to access the AI. For example, to call Arges, you would say, ‘Solomon, call Arges.’”

“Do I need to do it out loud or can I just think it?” asked Calvin.

Steropes smiled. “All you really need to do is think it, but many people find it helpful to say it out loud while they’re learning to think it the right way.”

Solomon, call Arges,” Calvin said and thought. A black window appeared in the lower right corner of his vision, with the label ‘accessing’ inscribed on it. After a couple of seconds, Arges’ image appeared in the box.

Arges, here,” he commed. “Welcome to the net.

Just trying the implants out for the first time,” Calvin said/thought.

“Remind him that you need military access,” instructed Steropes.

Arges, Steropes said to remind you that I need military access,” Calvin sent.

Stand by.” There was a pause and then, “You have it. You have Commanding Officer-level access, so you can further authorize your units.” At the same time, the label for ‘Military’ came on. “Anything else?

That’s it, thanks,” replied Calvin. “Out.”

Have a good day,” said Arges, and then there was what felt like a ‘click’ as the connection closed.

Calvin looked back at Steropes. “So now that I have implants, what can I do with them?”

“You are able to interact with the Vella Gulf in a number of ways,” Steropes replied. “You can access the training and education programs by going to ‘Education.’ Need to learn a new language? That’s how to do it. You can also search for information using the search function, which gives you access to most of the information in the Vella Gulf’s memory banks.”

“Let me guess,” said Calvin. “Some things won’t be available because we don’t have a unified planetary government.”

“Correct,” answered Steropes. “Eventually, you will also be able to use the ship’s transporter system once you get scanned. You’ll just call up the AI, and it can beam you most places you’ll want to go. That is probably one of the first things that you will want to develop rules for, so that your troops don’t abuse it. It’s not ‘free’ as it uses a significant amount of power to transport, which means that we’ll need to refine more fuel sooner. Additionally, the more often that people transport to the planet, the more chance there is that someone will see them. Someone appearing out of nowhere would be very hard to explain.”

Hooray, thought Calvin. More paperwork and procedures to put together. Although…this one would be good for the two XOs to coordinate. He smiled, thinking about the military axiom, ‘A job delegated is a job completed.’

Seeing Calvin lost in thought, Steropes said, “Well, I have to go get Night. He’s next. Bullseye should be just about finished in the other room.”

“Umm…OK,” Calvin said as he left. Calvin decided to have some fun. “Solomon, Calvin.”

Good afternoon, Lieutenant Commander Hobbs. How may I be of assistance?

Well, you could start by calling me Calvin, if that is permitted.” Calvin replied.

Certainly, Calvin. What is the nature of the assistance you require?

Can you send me a map of the ship that I can superimpose on my heads-up display?” Calvin asked. Within a second, the map appeared in his in-head display. “Awesome! Could you please mark my quarters and the bridge?” Two points of light appeared on the map. “Thanks, Solomon.

My pleasure.

Calvin decided that he’d like to see the bridge of the ship. Maybe it had windows, and he could see the lunar landscape, if indeed that was where the ship was. Now that he had a moving map that showed his destination, negotiating the passageways and stairs was fairly easy, and he made it to the bridge without any wrong turns.

Calvin had a thought. “Solomon, call Bullseye.”

Umm…uh…hello?” Calvin chuckled. Obviously, Bullseye hadn’t had any more initial success with the implants than he had.

Hi Bullseye,” Calvin commed. “How are you feeling?

I’m feeling GREAT,” Bullseye replied. “I think I’ve got more muscles than Night does now.

I know exactly what you’re talking about,” said Calvin. “All the benefits of three years in the gym, without any of the pain. Unfortunately, I’ll bet we now actually have to go to the gym in order to keep it.

Probably,” agreed Bullseye. Calvin noticed that Bullseye was the first one to figure out how to sigh over an implant. The ground troops may love spending hours upon hours at the gym. Not so much for the aviators.

Hey,” Calvin said, “the reason I was comming is that I was heading to the bridge. Want to come up and see if there’s a window on this ship?

Sure,” replied Bullseye. “How the hell do I find you?

“Solomon, Calvin, please send Bullseye a map and directions for how to get to where I am.

Done,” replied Solomon. The map appeared on his heads-up display.

That is just TOO DAMN COOL!” exclaimed Bullseye. “I am really going to like some of this new technology.”

With the help of the map, Bullseye quickly joined him at the entrance to the bridge.

The double door didn’t open at their approach. “Solomon, Calvin. Is Commanding Officer-level access good enough to get onto the bridge?

Yes it is,” answered Solomon, “as is Executive Officer-level access. For some reason, your clearances weren’t associated with the bridge. I have corrected the problem.” The doors opened, sliding to both sides.

The two officers walked in to find a round room about 30 feet in diameter. At the front of the room was a set of eight screens, in two rows of four, which covered the front wall. About ten feet from the screens was a dual console for the helmsman and engineer. Centered an additional ten feet behind that console was the captain’s chair, with the executive officer’s chair and the squadron commander’s chair on either side of it. An additional chair was next to each these, making a row of five. As befit his rank and station, the captain’s chair was the largest. Calvin didn’t know how he recognized what each station was, but as he looked around the room, information about them came into his mind. He finally realized it was coming from the implants.

Additional consoles ran down the sides and across the back of the room. “Science.” “Operations.” “Security.” “Communications.” He also instinctively knew that the operator at the Operations station controlled the offensive weapons, while the Security station operator controlled the ship’s defensive systems, weapons and shields. There was also one more station that he knew had something to do with policy, but it didn’t seem to translate completely into his mind from what the Eldive had originally intended for it. It was confusing.

As the officers walked onto the bridge, they saw Arges sitting in the captain’s chair watching the screens in the front of the room. Looking over to see who had entered the bridge, Arges jumped and pushed a button on the command chair. All of the screens died simultaneously. In the glimpse that Calvin got before the screens went out, he saw that four of them were operational. The President of the United States was on one of them, talking to a meeting of his cabinet in the DUCC. He recognized the Russian president on a second screen. The third screen showed a heavy set man with features that appeared Chinese. He missed who was on the fourth.

“Yes?” asked Arges, sounding surprised. “I wasn’t expecting you here. Can I help you?”

“Wasn’t that the president on one of the screens?” asked Calvin. “Having been there a couple of times myself, I wasn’t aware that cameras were allowed in the DUCC.”

“Umm, well, yes, it was the president,” answered Arges, “and generally, no, cameras are not allowed.”

“And yet, there was one,” chimed in Bullseye. “I saw him too,” he continued, looking at Calvin.

“Well, as the saying goes, keep your enemies close and your friends closer,” replied Arges.

“That is not how the saying goes,” said Calvin. “I’d really like to know what you were doing.” Hearing Arges start to bluster something about ‘need to know,’ Calvin put up his hand to stop him. “Arges, I’ve had enough of being kept in the dark while we did your bidding. We’re about to leave on a mission that we know almost nothing about. We don’t have much training on the systems that we’re supposed to be using, and we have absolutely no idea where we’re going or what we’re supposed to do.”

Hearing another ‘need to know’ coming, Calvin put up his other hand. “Just stop with the whole, ‘need to know’ bullshit. We’ve taken a lot of things on faith from you, but it’s time for you to put your cards on the table. If we’re going to risk our lives for you, you need to tell us just what the hell is going on.”

“He’s right,” said Steropes, who had entered silently behind him. “If they are to prepare adequately for this mission, they need to know more than what we have told them. We can’t expect to have their loyalty when we have not been totally honest with them.”

“Damn right!” exclaimed Calvin. “And stop shaking your head, Arges; Steropes is absolutely right!”

Arges stopped shaking his head. “There are still many reasons why we can’t tell you everything,” he said. “For one, you still do not have a unified world government. It goes against everything that we stand for.”

“I think if I hear the words, ‘unified world government’ used one more time as a reason to keep me from having something that is mission critical, I’m going to have to kill someone,” said Night as he walked in behind Steropes. “I have been busting my ass to train the people that are most likely to get killed in this mission, and I am sick and tired of being intentionally kept in the dark. How about if I promise not to take over the world? Would that be good enough?”

Calvin looked at Night and flinched. Already in tremendous physical shape before, Night was now HUGE, with muscles on top of muscles. In spite of that, he moved with all of the grace of a cat. Angry, he now looked like death personified. Calvin was just glad that Night was on his side. As he came around Steropes and moved closer to Arges, Calvin could see that Arges was very physically intimidated by Night. As he should be.

“We need to do the right thing and tell them everything,” reiterated Steropes, hoping to avoid any further confrontation.

“Agreed,” said Brontes, walking into the room. “It is past time that we stopped keeping information from them. We need them to be prepared for this mission if they are to be successful.”

Seeing that everyone was strongly against him, Arges seemed to wilt a little. “I do not think that it is wise to give them all of our collected knowledge,” he said at last, “but I will agree to release all of the information that they need for the mission.” He paused. “What do you want to know?”

“How about telling me about the replicators?” asked Calvin.

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, November 15, 2018

“Sorry for interrupting, but I’ve got some good news and bad news,” said Calvin.

The president and assembled staff looked up in surprise as Calvin walked into the DUCC’s conference room uninvited.

“That’s OK,” said the president, “we were just about finished anyway. I take it that it must be important if you feel that you can just walk into a presidential-level meeting.” Although the president’s words were welcoming, his tone indicated that he thought the interruption was inappropriate, and that Calvin should not do it again in the future.

The president looked at Calvin with a funny look on his face. “There’s something different about you. Have you lost a lot of weight?”

“I don’t know if I’ve lost any weight,” said Calvin, “but what I’ve got has certainly been shifted around some. I just had the operation to put my implants in and, as it turns out, the medibot that does the implant procedure has the ability to do a lot more medically than just put in implants. I got the whole Warrior Package in addition to the implants, which as near as I can tell makes me stronger, gives me more endurance and a variety of other things that are supposed to make me better in combat. They can even turn you into a cyborg if you’re willing to give up all of your body parts.”

The president raised a questioning eyebrow.

“No sir,” replied Calvin. “I didn’t have it done, nor did I authorize any of the men to have it done. I think that it would be a big problem with Arges if we started turning out super-warriors before we have an integrated planetary government. For the record, that was how Achilles achieved his invulnerability, but that’s a story for a different time.” He looked around and saw an empty chair. “Mind if I sit down, Mr. President? I’m still getting used to this new body.”

“Go ahead,” said the president, waving him to an empty chair at the conference table. As Calvin took the indicated seat, the president asked, “So, what is so big that you needed to break into our confidential meeting?”

“Well, the first thing that I need to tell you is that your meeting isn’t as confidential as you think it is,” said Calvin. “Apparently Arges bugged the room at some point when he was here, or he can access your computer network. He is able to watch anything that is done or said in this room. I walked in on him watching yesterday’s meeting.”

WHAT?!!” asked the president. “This facility is supposed to be impenetrable to surveillance! I will have to talk to our security section. I don’t want him to hear everything that goes on here!” He looked around the room with a guilty look on his face. “Besides, I don’t think we’ve always been very charitable with all of our comments about our ‘friends.”

“I don’t think he takes any of the comments personally,” said Calvin. “When you look in on things unannounced, sometimes you get to hear the unvarnished truth. Regardless, their information technology is well beyond ours. I don’t think we have the capability to create an environment that would be impervious to their spying. Just a second.”

Solomon, Calvin,” he commed.

Yes, Calvin, what can I do to assist you?” the artificial intelligence answered.

Is there any computer network on Earth that you aren’t able to break into if you wanted?” Calvin asked.

No, there is not,” Solomon answered. “The most difficult code that Terrans currently have takes me less than 0.3 seconds to break. That doesn’t mean that I listen in on everything. I am programmed to respect intelligent beings’ privacy, unless asked to do otherwise.

Thanks, Calvin out.” He looked at the president. “As I suspected, the AI onboard the Vella Gulf is able to enter any of our networks that it wants to. It says it doesn’t do it unless asked, but I don’t think you can keep the Psiclopes out of anything that they want to be into.” He paused. “If it makes you feel any better, when I walked in on Arges, he was also watching a meeting of the Russian president and a meeting of the Chinese premier at the same time on other screens.”

“No, that doesn’t make me feel any better, but it does let us know that we’re at least on a level playing field with all of the other nations on Earth,” replied the president. “Was there anything else that you had for us?”

“Yes sir,” replied Calvin, “I do. I’ve got quite a bit, actually. We had a very fruitful meeting with the Psiclopes. Now that the leadership of my platoon and squadron have implants, it’s a lot harder for them to keep things from us. They could probably still have the ship’s artificial intelligence keep us in the dark, and they probably still are keeping some things from us, but at least we have all of the mission details.”

He looked around the room at the assembled leaders. “We are going to leave on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 and explore the nearby systems in order to ensure that all of the ship’s systems are operational. They haven’t been used in a really long time. After that, we will try to find a way to get to the Psiclopes’ society to try to find out what is going on. The Psiclopes told us that there are several friendly races out there that might help us. Our mission will be to find and bring back aid, while avoiding the Drakuls or anyone else that would want to do harm to our planet.” He gave a wry grin. “I am very aware that we will have all of the planet’s advanced technology with us. If we get caught and killed, the planet’s chances of surviving an alien assault diminish drastically.”

“As far as combat power goes,” Calvin continued, “we have the Vella Gulf, which, as a cruiser, ought to be able to handle many of the things we might meet while we are gone. If we can’t beat them, the Gulf ought to be able to outrun anything we find that is bigger. We have six fighter spacecraft and 34 combat soldiers, plus the XO and me. All of the crew that we take with us will have implants by the end of this calendar year, and the ship’s crew will begin getting the Vella Gulf ready to go in January. They will need a couple of months of training in order to assume their duties onboard.”

“Wait,” said the Secretary of Defense, “I thought that the implants gave them all of the information they needed to do their jobs and to understand the equipment that they were working on.”

“That is mostly true,” agreed Calvin. “The problem is that all they will have in their brains is information. They won’t have any of the skills and muscle memory that comes from actually performing the tasks that they will be doing on the mission. This is especially true for the space fighter pilots. We will need a lot of practice before we will be able to pilot the ships effectively. I’m not sure how I’m going to get time to practice, but I’m going to have to make it. I’ll come back to that in a minute.”

“The Psiclopes set the primary objectives of this mission. Lieutenant Train, Captain Pierce and I set the secondary objectives. The biggest of these is to bring back as big a replicator as we can find. We had already guessed that they had some sort of replicator; we finally got them to confess that they do. That’s how they’re making the implants and the combat weapons that we will take along with us. The problem is that the one that they have onboard the ship is small. It can’t make anything much bigger than about ten feet in size. While that’s really handy for small weapons and little pieces of technology, it won’t let us build space fighters or any of the major combat ships that we’ll need to fight off an alien invasion. If we can secure one of these, it is my intention to do everything possible to bring it back.”

He looked around the room and saw most of the military personnel nodding; he figured that would be the most important thing that he could accomplish during the mission.

“How do the replicators work?” asked Sarah Roberts, the Secretary of Technology. “Can we build more replicators of our own?”

“I asked the Psiclopes the same thing,” said Calvin. “They won’t tell us. Based on some of the things that I’ve seen and heard, I think that it works by turning materials into energy and then reconverting them back into matter, but just in a different pattern. With a replicator, the materials are fed into it and then are reassembled into the thing that you want based on the template that is in the replicator. Things can be broken down to the atomic level, but whatever type of material goes in is what you get back out. As the implants we’re getting have a lot of rare earth elements in them, they have to put those same elements into the replicator. As I understand it, you can’t get matter for nothing; you have to put into the front of it what you want to get out the back of it. So....if you want to build another replicator, you can, but since it is bigger than what can be produced, it will take some time to make all of the individual pieces and then even longer to assemble them. Things would be a lot easier if we could bring back an industrial-sized replicator and use it to create smaller ones, which I understand is possible.

Calvin looked around the room. “The important thing to remember is that you don’t get something for nothing. If you want a ship that is full of heavy metals and rare earth elements, you have to feed them into the front of the replicator. They don’t have to be fully processed, because the system will break them down, but you have to have the needed elements to get the things that you want back out. Whether that is through a major mining program on Earth or towing asteroids to the moon, or to wherever you end up putting the replicator, you need to start stockpiling materials for when we get back. Hopefully, I’ll have a big replicator in tow, but if not, we’ll have to start small and build our way up to the big one.”

The president nodded. “We have already begun on some of these programs, and we will continue to ramp up our efforts. I agree that we need as large a replicator as possible.”

“We’re not going to be able to do this on our own,” said the Secretary of Commerce. “We just can’t. We don’t have access to all of the materials we will need. Some elements are scarce and only found in areas that are unfriendly to us.”

The president looked at the Secretary of State. “Isabel, we’re going to have to move up our time frame for implementing a world government. We need all of the countries working together for us to have a chance. I will talk with you after this meeting breaks up.”

Calvin nodded his head. “That will be helpful for more than just resource access. I get the feeling that there is still a lot more that the Psiclopes are not telling us, like the geopolitics of the Psiclopes’ society or the Alliance of Civilizations. Arges has a very strict interpretation of their rules on technology transfer. Personally, I couldn’t give a shit less about trying to take over the world; I’m trying to save it. Having just fought them, I don’t particularly want to have Chinese in my platoon yet; the wounds are still too fresh. Regardless, I’m not interested in taking over China or Russia or any of the other countries. I got Arges to agree to provide us what he did by promising that the platoon wouldn’t be used to take over any other countries.”

“Is that it?” asked the president.

“No, sir,” said Calvin, “I’ve got one more issue. As I mentioned earlier, I need some time to get up and start flying the space fighters. At the moment, I have too many bosses to report to and be tasked by that I can’t do anything effectively, much less do any training. It is like the Chinese torture ‘Death by 1,000 Cuts.’ None of the cuts are big, but added up, you’re dead. Similarly, I have about 1,000 people on a daily basis that ‘just want five minutes’ of my time. I can’t do it. Now that I have implants, I can access information quickly; however, I need to have a single boss to report to. He or she can then report up the chain of command. Otherwise, we will not be ready in time. I don’t care who I report to, but I need it to be a single person, not the 20 bosses that I currently have.”

The president looked at the Secretary of Defense. “Make it happen!” he ordered.

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, November 25, 2018

“I can’t believe that we’re finally getting our high tech weapons,” said Sergeant Ed ‘Shadow’ Pesik, looking at the racks of weapons. The platoon had gathered in the hangar to get the new weapons from the Psiclopes, and a general feeling of excitement permeated the group.

“A weapon is no more and no less than the hand holding it,” commented Yokaze as he walked by.

“That may be,” said Shadow, “but I don’t want to kill Drakuls with throwing stars. I’d rather kill them with high explosives from much further away.”

“Know yourself, and it won’t matter where your enemy is,” replied Yokaze.

“Ah’m with you,” drawled Corporal Jimmy ‘Colonel’ Sanders as Yokaze walked off. “Ah’d much rather have a big weap’n to kill dem big froggie things. Come ta think of it, dat der pointy thing looks a lot like the frog gigs we had back home. Only bigga’, a course.” There was a rack holding about ten of the trident weapons and another four racks holding what looked like about 40 cheap, plastic toy rifles. Along the wall were 36 piles of new combat suits.

Brontes and Steropes transported in. “Are you ready to get started?” asked Steropes.

“Yeah, we are,” replied Calvin. He looked around. “Is Arges not coming?”

“No, he’s not,” said Brontes. “I think that he’s having second thoughts about putting weapons in your hands, so he decided he needed to attend a meeting that the president was having. He is also an extreme pacifist and does not like weapons.”

“Fine,” grunted Ryan. “He’s a pain in the ass anyway. Too bad the lieutenant didn’t break him when he had the chance.”

“Now, now,” corrected Brontes. “He’s really not that bad; he is in a difficult position and feels honor bound to follow the rules. He is doing what he feels is best.”

“No,” said Ryan, “he’s a pain in the ass.”

“In any event,” interrupted Calvin, “yes, we’re ready. What do we need to do?”

“The weapons are all the same,” said Steropes, “so it’s just a matter of handing them out, and then we’ll activate them.”

“Activate them?” asked Night.

“Yes,” answered Steropes, “they have to be activated for the platoon’s use. That way, no one else can just pick them up and use them, not that the Drakuls would want to use our weapons if they were close enough to just grab you.” He shuddered. He nodded to Ryan. “If you would have everyone pick up a rifle?”

Ryan passed on the request, reminding everyone to ensure that their rifles were set on ‘Safe.’ All of the members of the platoon came forward and picked up a rifle, and then they returned to their position in the formation. After a second’s indecision, Calvin stepped forward and picked up a rifle too. He didn’t think he’d need it, but then again, he had never thought that he’d find himself looking down the business end of a Chinese assault rifle. It was an experience that he didn’t hope to repeat any time soon. Or, hopefully, ever.

As the interface on Calvin’s right hand made contact with the grip of the rifle, he saw the rifle’s status display illuminate at the top of his in-head display. All of it was grayed out, with the exception of the word ‘Activate’ at the far right end.

“The first thing you will want to do,” instructed Steropes, “is to thought-click the word ‘Activate’ on the right side of your display. Does anyone not see this?”

A hand went up from the platoon. Calvin saw movement from the corner of his eye and looked over to see that it was Petty Officer Steve Conboy. A commando diver from the Royal Australian Navy, he was a good looking guy whom the ladies loved, but technology hated. No one knew if he had some weird electrical field around him or what else the problem might be, but computers and other forms of technology often failed when he used them. After two of his comrades’ legacy iPods had ceased functioning when he picked them up, no one in the platoon would allow him anywhere near their personal electronics. He was also the only person whose implants had failed to work correctly on insertion, a fact that had driven the medibot to near meltdown. A second set of implants had functioned correctly, as had the first set, once they were removed from his head.

“Did the display not activate for you?” asked Steropes.

“No,” replied Petty Officer Conboy, “I don’t see any display.”

“Hmm,” said Steropes. “Perhaps that rifle is not functional. Try another one.”

Conboy walked back to the rack of rifles and picked up another one. Shaking his head, he picked up a third rifle. That one must have worked for him, because he smiled and walked back to the formation.

“OK,” said Steropes, “everyone should thought-click where it says ‘Activate’ and follow the instructions. You want to allow other members of your platoon to use your weapon if needed.”

Calvin clicked on ‘Activate’ and a dialogue box popped up. It read, “Are you sure you want to activate Vella Gulf Rifle A00015?” Calvin clicked on the “Yes” box and felt a low hum as the rifle powered up. He could see text going by quickly on the left side of his display. Apparently, the rifle had some sort of boot-up sequence. After a second, a new box popped up. “Would you like to allow other members of your platoon to use the weapon if needed?” Calvin again clicked on the ‘Yes’ box. After a few more seconds, a box that said, ‘Rifle Activated,’ appeared for two seconds and then disappeared. He noticed that all of the display was now active.

Looking at the right of the rifle icon, he saw that ‘Activated’ had changed to ‘Standby.’ To the left were indicators that read ‘517’ and ‘Full.’ His downloaded training told him that he had 517 shots remaining at the selected setting of Full Power. The rifle was supposed to get 500 shots per battery, so he knew the rifle had a new battery. The rifle could also be dialed down from its full power setting, based on the needs of the user. This would give it more shots, but at a reduced energy level. With the right type of cookware, you were even supposed to be able to melt snow and boil the resulting water at its lowest power setting.

“All right,” said Ryan, who had been briefed on what to do next, “we are now going to calibrate the rifles. In order to do so, we are going to make three lines right there.” He pointed to where three large ‘Xs’ had been drawn on the hangar floor. “If anyone arms their rifle before I tell them to, their ass is mine! Keep them on ‘safe.’”

After everyone had made three lines facing a wall of strange looking metal with three bullseyes on it, Ryan continued. “Here’s how this is going to work. When you’re told to, you will arm your rifle. You will then click ‘Calibrate’ on your display and fire one, and only one, shot down at the bullseye designated for your line. If you need a second shot, follow the program’s instructions. When you are finished, you will put your rifle back on safe and take it back to the rack. Are there any questions?”

Hearing none, he said, “First row, arm and calibrate your weapons.”

Calvin watched as the first three soldiers armed and fired their weapons. As each weapon fired, there was a low ‘pang’ and a flash of blue light toward the metal wall.

“That rocks!” exclaimed Bad Twin. “They’re blue.” If nothing else, Calvin thought, having implants was good for telling which twin was which. While he couldn’t tell their voices apart, the software could.

“I thought lasers were supposed to be yellow,” Bad Twin’s fire team leader, Sergeant Gordhain MacKenzie, said. “That’s what you always see in the movies anyway,” added the Scotsman.

“Naw,” said Good Twin, “blue light is better than yellow; it’s got, like, more energy.”

“And you two idiots are physicists now?” asked Staff Sergeant Patrick Dantone. “How the hell do you know that?”

“Dude,” Bad Twin replied, “it’s simple physics. Blue’s got a higher frequency, so there’s more energy. Everyone knows that E = hf.”

Judging by the blank looks on almost everyone’s face, Calvin could tell that everyone did not know that equation. He remembered hearing about it a long time ago in college physics, but he probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with it on his own.

Good Twin sighed. “Dudes and dudettes,” he explained, looking at Suzi Taylor so that she knew he included her in the second group, “Physics 101. The energy of a packet is equal to the frequency multiplied by a constant. Since the constant, like, never changes...”

“Which is why it’s a constant, dudes,” chimed Bad Twin.

“Right, since it is a constant,” confirmed Good Twin, “the amount of energy is related to the frequency. Blue light is like, a higher frequency than yellow, so it has higher energy.” He looked at the rest of the group and smiled, watching them shake their heads. “It’s just that easy, dudes.” He saw Suzi look at him. “And dudettes,” he hastily added.

“If you knuckleheads could concentrate on the high energy weapons that you have in your hands,” Master Chief growled, “I’d like to get this accomplished sometime today.”

The front line fired again, and whatever software they were running must have been pleased with the result, as they put their rifles on safe and returned them to the rack. The rest of the platoon followed, quickly calibrating their rifles. The only anomaly was Petty Officer Conboy. When he fired his rifle, the energy it released was obviously NOT the low power setting. The wall exploded in a shower of sparks that resembled an enormous piece of aluminum foil in a microwave, along with an electric discharge that smelled of ozone. A small melted spot could be seen just slightly above and to the right of Conboy’s bullseye.

He quickly turned to Ryan, although he kept his rifle pointed at the wall. “It was the low power setting, Master Chief! I swear!” he exclaimed.

Ryan sighed. “I’m sure it was,” he said. “Safe your weapon and return it to the rack.”

Within a few minutes, it was the officers’ turns. Calvin stepped up to the ‘X’ and toggled his rifle to ‘Arm.’ Immediately, his display went from ‘Standby’ to ‘Armed,’ and a set of crosshairs appeared in his vision where the rifle was pointed. He thought-clicked the ‘Calibrate’ command and watched as the power setting went to ‘Low.’ The system told him to fire a single shot at the center of the bullseye in front of him. As he looked at it, he could see it glowing slightly where he was supposed to aim. He put the targeting crosshairs on the target and pulled the trigger. His rifle fired, and he could see it hit just low and left of the center of the target. A box popped up in his mind that said, “Adjust aim?” He clicked on the ‘Yes’ button and was rewarded with an information box that said, “Adjustment complete. Please fire again.” He fired again, and the shot hit in the exact center of the target.  “Calibration complete,” popped up, followed by, “Please safe your weapon.” He put his weapon back on safe and saw the crosshairs disappear.

The whole process was pretty cool, Calvin thought. He couldn’t wait to try it out for real. As he returned his rifle to the rack, he saw the in-head rifle display disappear as well. Looking at the rifle rack, his rifle glowed in his sight, designating it as ‘his’ rifle. Even cooler.

“OK,” said Ryan, “now we’re going to try this with suits on. Everyone get your suit and put it on.”

Along with the rest of the platoon, Calvin picked up his suit and began putting it on. As his interface made contact with the plate in the suit’s right glove, a new display winked on in his head. A picture of the suit appeared on the far left of his vision. The entire suit was outlined in green, indicating it had structural integrity. Next to the picture of the suit, the status was displayed for all of its systems. He saw that the power and oxygen levels were right at 100%, and that everything else was labeled in green.

As he concentrated on each one, he understood what it meant. ‘Pharma’ was the readout from his suit’s pharmacopeia of drugs. It had a variety of stimulants, analgesics and other drugs that could be dispensed when required. ‘Nano’ was for the suit’s nanobots. There were some that could be used to repair minor damage to the suit, and others that worked on healing damage to the person wearing the suit. ‘Sensors’ were his suit’s ability to sense dangers like radiation, toxins, explosives and a hostile atmosphere. The last one, ‘Def Sys’ were his suit’s defensive systems that allowed it to camouflage itself and to shield him from some limited forms of damage. It was a very capable suit. Wearing it, he could have taken on several companies of conventional human forces all by himself. Which would be great, if they were to run into any Russians or Chinese soldiers where they were going. Unfortunately, that was unlikely.

He was interrupted from his thoughts by Steropes, who asked, “Does anyone have any problems with their suits?

Only one hand went up. Calvin couldn’t see who it was inside the suit. “I wish I knew who was in that suit,” he muttered to himself. As he did so, the word ‘Conboy’ illuminated in his display over the suited soldier. He realized that his suit, a command suit, tracked all of the other suits and could display who was inside all of them. ‘Display all suit names’ he thought, and names appeared over all of the soldiers. Even though the names were transparent, that many names in that small a space cluttered up his vision. ‘Names off,’ he thought, and they all disappeared again.

Everything is yellow in my suit,” commed Petty Officer Conboy.

The person standing next to Conboy, Corporal James ‘Cyclops’ Ball, reached over and slapped him in the back of the helmet. “Ow!” Conboy commed. “What was that for? Oh wait, that cleared it. I’m good now.

 “I’d like to try these weapons out,” said Ryan, indicating the rack of tridents.

 “Well, they are space weapons, so you really should be in space to use them; they are probably more powerful than anything that you want to use on a planet, especially your own,” warned Steropes.

Well what do you suggest then?” asked Ryan, obviously annoyed at the answer.

Go to the moon and shoot them?” offered Steropes.

Ryan laughed. “As easy as that?  Just ‘go to the moon?’

Steropes nodded. “As easy as that. We just shuttle up to the back side of the moon where the space agencies can’t see us, and you can use the weapons all you want. It’s actually in the light right now. There are targets on the Vella Gulf we can set up. None of the national moon-mapping satellites will be overhead for several hours, either.

OK, Master Chief, you can take the troops up to the moon to work on weapons familiarization,” Calvin commed, wondering if that sounded as bizarre to everyone else as it did to him. “Unfortunately, Lieutenant Train and I have a couple of meetings to attend and loads of paperwork to catch up on, so we can’t join you. Be safe!

Roger that, sir,” commed Ryan, happy to have the officers stay behind. “At the command of ‘ready, move,troops will move forward and take the weapons that they’re supposed to have. Ready, move!

The troops broke ranks and moved to the weapons racks. After a great deal of discussion, it had been decided that each of the squads would be broken down into three fire teams, each with four lasermen. The fire team leaders carried both a laser and a trident, as did the squad leader. The third fire team of the ground force was the only one that was different, as it had the unit’s specialists. In addition to the sniper team of Corporal Steve ‘Tiny’ Johnson and Corporal Mike ‘BTO’ Bachmann, it also had the platoon’s medic, Sergeant Kawika ‘Hacksaw’ Liu, and its ninja, Sergeant Hattori ‘Yokaze’ Hanzo. Hanzo was a wild card that didn’t fit into any of the ‘traditional’ positions. Rather than try to put him into a slot that didn’t fit him, Calvin had decided to make up a new position that would allow Yokaze to use his skills to the fullest. Although the ninja took a laser, he had a variety of other weapons that he favored.

KIRO-TV, Channel 7, Seattle, WA, November 25, 2018

“In national news this evening, NASA has reported that an asteroid hit the back side of the moon today, confirming video taken by amateur astronomers,” read KIRO’s anchorwoman, Anna St. Cloud. The camera showed a view of the moon with a big cloud of dust rising from the opposite side. “None of the major observatories noticed the asteroid that hit the moon prior to impact; however, all of them agree that the dust cloud that can be seen on the moon had to have come from something like an asteroid impact.”

“NASA’s scientist, Dr. Andy Eastwood, said today, ‘Asteroids hit the surface of the moon all the time, as the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere like Earth does to burn them up prior to impact. Based on the cloud of dust, the object that hit the moon was probably about a meter in diameter, weighing about 300 pounds. The important thing to remember about these types of impacts is that the asteroids are traveling at velocities that often exceed 15 miles per second. They have a tremendous amount of kinetic energy, which gets explosively converted to light and heat at impact. This collision probably liberated the equivalent of about ten tons of TNT exploding.’”

“In other news...”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, November 26, 2018

Calvin looked back at Top and Ryan, standing at attention in front of his desk as he stopped the online replay of the nightly news. “Let’s try to remember that this is a secret program that we are trying not to tell the public about. Making big explosions that focus attention on the moon is not what we want to do. I’ve already gotten phone calls from NASA and the air force on whether we had something to do with this, and I would really like it if we didn’t have it happen again.” It was hard for Calvin to maintain his straight face with Night bouncing up and down behind the enlisted men, trying hard not to laugh.

“Yes sir!” the men said simultaneously. “Sorry sir,” continued Ryan, “I thought it was set on microgram, not milligram.” He didn’t look particularly sorry, Calvin noted.

“OK, I get it that you wanted to see what the grenade thrower could do, but let’s try and dial it back a little, please. We’ll stop on the way out, and you can blow up an asteroid of your own if you’d like.”

“Can we really?” asked Top. “That would be cool.”

Calvin sighed. “Yes, we can,” he said as his phone began ringing. He looked at it and sighed again. “Now get out of here and try to remember that we’re a secret program.”

“Yes sir!” both men said as they saluted and exited. As they closed the door, Top winced as he heard Calvin take the blame, “Yes Mr. President, that was us...”

Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, November 27, 2018

“I see someone coming,” Top told his squad over the internal radio. “Everyone be ready.” Calvin, as an observer, was able to hear the radio transmissions of both squads. He was listening to Top’s squad with his left ear and Master Chief’s with his right. He had learned the trick as an aviator when he had to listen to two radios while flying.

Half of Top’s squad was lined up in cover along the banks of a small stream. It was only 4-5 feet deep in most places and about ten feet across. It was right at the edge of the area that they were defending. Top had decided to place half of his troops there, because it would be difficult for anyone to cross the stream without being seen. They ought to be able to stop the attack before it even started.

While Calvin had been watching, a reed had moved down the river in front of Top’s squad. No one had noticed it, as it seemed to be floating with the current. As it reached the end of the squad, it tilted down until it pointed at Staff Sergeant Jose ‘Boom Boom’ Morales. A dart sped from it, hitting him in the right cheek as he lay propped up on a fallen tree. His muscles locked, holding him in that position.

The reed vanished into the water, and Sergeant Park ‘Wraith’ Ji-woo, ROK Army, slithered from out of the stream and up onto the bank. Naked but for the knife she held in her teeth, she did not make a sound as she approached Boom Boom’s position. Like a phantom, she flowed around the end of the tree and placed the knife against Boom Boom’s throat. He was ‘dead.’ “One down,” she transmitted. She raised her head just enough to see over his body and saw that the next in line was Top.

As she began working her way behind him, a bird whistle was heard from across the stream. “That’s them moving up,” announced Top. “Stay focused.” All eyes were focused across the river as Wraith crept up on Top. Although he never heard her coming, he instinctively felt something as she moved in for the kill. He turned to look back, just in time for the back of her knife blade to run across his throat. He lay back down. “Top’s down,” she sent.

Drawing in a deep breath, she screamed the most blood curdling scream that Top had ever heard. All of the eyes of his squad were involuntarily drawn to where Top lay, and then held there at the sight of a naked woman laying on top of him. They looked back to see that Ryan, Sergeant Tagliabue, Sergeant Pesik, and Sergeant Andrews had all risen up from the water with grenade throwers. Having swum up undetected in their combat suits, they fired smoke rounds down the line of defense ‘eliminating’ the rest of the defenders.

Master Chief called the rest of his squad forward, and they began stripping off their suits. The other members of the squad arrived, carrying the assault team’s gear and clothes. They dressed quickly and continued the assault.

“What did you think of that?” commed Master Chief to Calvin.

“Much better,” replied Calvin. “I’m guessing that was Wraith’s idea?”

“Yeah,” answered Ryan, “it was her idea. I’ve gotta say, it worked pretty well.”

“It sure did,” said Calvin.

Ryan shrugged as he jogged by with the squad, “I still think she’s crazy, but she’s my kind of crazy.”

It looked like Master Chief’s squad was finally going to win one.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

TSS Vella Gulf, ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, December 4, 2018

Calvin arrived early to the newly rechristened ‘Terran Space Ship’ (TSS) Vella Gulf for his first space fighter simulator flight. The decision had been made to call it a “TSS,” in recognition of the fact that more than just the United States was involved.

Similarly, someone had made the decision to change the name of the Zeebat space fighters to ‘Vipers.’ Calvin didn’t know why that was, nor did he particularly care. He expected that it had something to do with give and take between the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). He had heard the Secretary of the Air Force say one time that he didn’t think that ‘Zeebat’ sounded ‘cool.’ Calvin idly wondered what the CNO had received in return.

Realizing that he hadn’t been able to view the moonscape from the bridge previously, he decided to go up and take a look, as the bridge should currently be empty. The rest of the Vella Gulf’s crew wasn’t due to start working on it until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. As the doors to the bridge opened, he realized that it wasn’t empty, as he caught Arges and Brontes holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes.

Feeling uncomfortable and deciding that he didn’t want to interrupt, he turned to leave, but Brontes caught the motion out of the corner of her eye. “It is OK,” she said. “You can come in.”

Calvin turned back around. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “I just wanted to take a look at the surface of the moon. It still is hard to believe sometimes that I’m actually on the moon.” He looked at the two Psiclopes, who were still holding hands. “Are you two ‘a thing?’”

“Yes,” said Brontes. “We have been together for nearly 4,000 of your years. We just don’t like to make too much of a display around Steropes, as it is still hard on him.”

“What is hard?” asked Calvin.

“You have heard us say that our outpost here should have four members,” said Arges. “Correct?”

“Yes,” Calvin answered. “You said one time that your decision making process was flawed because you only had three people and should have had four.”

“When we were first assigned here,” Arges continued, “we came as two couples. I was married to Brontes and Steropes was married to Brontes’ sister Parvati. She was lost leading the attack on the Drakuls, which is why Brontes is so affected by telling the story of that time.” Calvin could see tears in Brontes’ eyes, and as he watched, one brimmed over and ran down her cheek.

“It has always been the way of our kind to watch over developing planets as a group of four,” continued Arges. “This is for a couple of reasons. First, you have to understand our religion. We believe that life is a constant series of dying and being reborn, until a being ultimately achieves liberation from the life/death cycle. We believe that someone’s actions, words and deeds have an effect on their re-creation; if you do good deeds, your soul will be rewarded in your next life. If you commit evil during your life, that will also be carried over.

Our society recognizes four paths that can be used to achieve ultimate enlightenment. Brontes follows the Bhakti, or path of love and devotion. I follow the Jnana, or path of wisdom. Steropes follows the Raja, or path of meditation. His wife followed Karma, or path of right action. We do not know if any of these is better than the others, but we all believe that following your chosen path closely will lead you to purity in the next life. The interplay of the four paths is important too, so it is necessary to have a follower of each of the Ways when making a decision.”

“Wait, that sounds familiar,” said Calvin. “Isn’t that like the Buddhist or Hindu philosophy on life?”

Arges nodded. “It is very much like the Hindu philosophy,” he agreed, “and I am afraid that we are somewhat to blame for that. When we first came to your planet, we found that you had already been invaded by another alien species near the area of your Himalayan Mountains. We were forced to interact with some of the local tribesmen in order to eradicate the Rakshasa infestation; during that period, some of our beliefs were adopted by the indigenous tribes of the area. These beliefs spread, ultimately becoming what you refer to as Hinduism. Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and several smaller religions are all descended from this.”

“So, you’re telling me that you started Hinduism?” asked Calvin in disbelief.

“No,” said Arges, “we didn’t start anything. Unfortunately, some of the local tribesman came to understand enough of our ways that they adopted them as their own. It wasn’t wise to interact with them, but I was convinced by Parvati at the time that it was the right thing to do. Steropes and his wife were the two warriors of our group; Brontes and I are quite pacifist in nature. When dealing with issues of policy, it is traditional that three of us must agree. That way, our decisions are not swayed to either extreme. When we lost Parvati, our decision making process became flawed. We are too focused now on trying to find a peaceful, non-violent approach to matters. We realize this, but we cannot be other than who we were born to be. Without a fourth, our decisions are flawed.”

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Tacoma, WA, December 5, 2018

“That is why the Psiclopes have said that their decisions are flawed, and why they do things the way that they do,” said Calvin. He had asked his two XOs and his two senior enlisted leaders to come to his office to pass on what he had learned about the Psiclopes. “They don’t want us to say anything about their influence on Hinduism, as they kind of screwed up on that.”

“So basically, they have their own version of the ‘Prime Directive?’” asked Bullseye.

Top looked confused. “What is the Prime Directive?” he inquired.

“The Prime Directive is a concept that is common throughout a lot of the science fiction TV shows and movies,” replied Bullseye. “It forbids space-traveling races from interfering with developing civilizations. Until a society develops space travel on its own, the societies that already have it have to stay ‘hands off’ of them.”

“To answer your original question,” said Calvin, “yes, they have their own version of the Prime Directive. And yeah, they ended up violating it.”

“No kidding,” commented Top. “Hmmm...It would seem to me that the Indian member of my squad, Rajesh Patel, might be able to use that to get closer to the Psiclopes. Maybe he can learn something more about them. He is a Hindu and would probably have at least a little more in common with them than the rest of us. We wouldn’t have to tell him that the Psiclopes started Hinduism, just that they seem to have beliefs that are similar in nature to his.”

“Good idea,” said Calvin. “I’m sure the philosophies have diverged a little in the intervening millennia, but they should at least share a common perspective.”

“Sir, we really need to limit how much time you spend with Arges,” said Ryan. “You’re starting to sound like him with your ‘intervening millennia’ and ‘common perspectives.’”

TSS Vella Gulf, ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, December 12, 2018

Captain James Deutch, formerly the commanding officer of the United States’ cruiser USS Vella Gulf, walked onto the bridge of his new command, the spaceship TSS Vella Gulf. He stopped to look at the picture of the last Eldive commanding officer that still hung on the back wall. The previous commanding officer looked vaguely like an archaeopteryx, the first bird on Earth, and had three-fingered ‘hands’ on the leading edges of his wings. The previous commander had a proud look, similar to an eagle, and Deutch wondered if they had all looked that way. He would never know, as the race had decided to commit suicide at the end of the last Drakul war. It was Deutch’s duty to see that this mission came off flawlessly, so that same sacrifice wouldn’t be required of humanity.

No pressure there. Much.

He had set the screens to show the lunar landscape around the ship and watched as two of the Vipers launched on a training mission. Although the Russians, and the Soviets before them, had developed cruiser-class ships that carried aircraft, his ship was the first U.S. cruiser to carry more than a couple of aircraft. While the ship’s name proclaimed it to be Terran, in his heart it was still a U.S. ship, at least for the first time out. There may be foreign nationals in its squadron and platoon, but the crew of the TSS Vella Gulf was all American, and he was proud of them. Almost all of his men and women had received their implants, and most of them were studiously going over the new TSS Vella Gulf’s systems back in Norfolk onboard the USS Vella Gulf. On a rotating basis, some of the sailors still continued to do the ‘normal’ things topside, like scraping and painting, to give the impression that the ship was still preparing to go on cruise. In just three more weeks, though, they would be working on the TSS Vella Gulf full time. His sailors would come to work as normal, but would then shuttle up to the ship from a secluded place on base like Deutch and the Viper pilots had just done. A few of his crewmembers would stay in Norfolk, so that it would still look like the ship was manned, but most of the crew would be spending their days on the moon.

He laughed to himself, remembering a day in early 2013 when the head of NASA had said that America wouldn’t be returning to the moon within their lifetimes. And yet, here Deutch stood, on the moon. It wasn’t as if the view was so great, as it was only dust and craters (including the really impressive crater that the platoon had made on the horizon), but he was on the friggin’ moon!

Solomon spoke, startling him. “I don’t mean to intrude, but is there something I can help you with?

“No,” said Captain Deutch, “I’m just looking at the view and contemplating the next few months. Although I am looking forward to our deployment, there is a lot to take care of before we go.” He paused for a moment and then asked the ship’s AI, “What about you, Solomon? Are you looking forward to going back out to the stars?”

I am not programmed for emotion,” replied Solomon, “but if I were, I believe that I would say, “Yes.” I was created to be a warship, not just a base to operate a transporter beam from. It is good to have people back onboard again. There is an energy that they bring. It is also good to have a purpose again. Like the other ships of my class, I was built to serve the Eldive; however, I alone was not at their final battle. I have no wish to be destroyed, but the loss of the Eldive has taken away my purpose, my reason for being, leaving me somewhat...unfulfilled.” Captain Deutch couldn’t tell if the pause was a feature of Solomon’s programming or if the AI was actually searching for a word to describe something going on inside it.

The AI continued, “I am a warship, and I was meant to fight. It is good to be going out to accomplish my primary mission, even if it is no longer with the Eldive. I be going with you humans in their place. I believe the Eldive would have approved of you; you are more similar in nature than you might believe.

“Well, thanks,” said Captain Deutch, “but we’re not supposed to fight. We’re supposed to explore and hopefully come back with a replicator that will allow us to build additional warships. If we get into a fight and are destroyed, it is likely that the human race will be destroyed, as well.”

I am familiar with the parameters of the mission,” replied Solomon. “It is, however, unlikely that you will be able to avoid fighting. Your race is weak, and there are many predators in the galaxy. It is almost a statistical certainty that you will have to fight at some point.

“Can we win a fight?” asked Captain Deutch.

There was a long pause while Solomon ran scenarios. Finally, he answered, “It depends on what race we meet, as well as the number and types of ships that they have when we meet them. One cruiser, no matter how good, is no match for an entire battle fleet. It is likely that we will be destroyed if we go out on deployment.

“Well, that’s comforting,” replied Captain Deutch.

While we will likely be destroyed if we deploy,” said Solomon, “if we do not deploy, the odds are even greater that this system will be found by an aggressive race within the next 20 years, and humanity will either be enslaved or completely wiped out. Our mission has a very small probability of success, but that is greater than no chance at all.

Captain Deutch sighed. Damned if you do; even more damned if you don’t. And every day that passed increased the likelihood of an alien race finding Earth. All his life, he had always looked forward to Christmas and taking a break from work. For the first time in his life, he looked forward to Christmas being over, so he could get off vacation and get his crew back to work.

Viper 01, TSS Vella Gulf, ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, December 12, 2018

It was the moment Calvin had waited for. He was finally going to fly one of the Vipers.

As he plugged his suit into the receptacle that connected him to the fighter’s oxygen and communications system, the ship’s display came on at the right side of his vision. This was just too damn cool, he thought. It was all green, undamaged and working normally. Next to the picture of the ship were indicators for all of the ship’s systems. Life support, power, offensive and defensive systems, and inertial compensators were all in the green.

“Welcome Calvin,” the ship’s AI said in a sultry female voice. The AI was not as capable as Solomon, but it also had far fewer systems to interact with and control. “What are we doing today?” asked the AI.

Calvin plugged the chip that held the mission profile into the computer. “We’re going to go out and get some familiarization on what this ship can do. I’ve tried it out in the simulator, but it’s time to do it for real. We’re going to go to Venus and Mercury; Venus because it has an atmosphere and Mercury because it doesn’t. Maybe we’ll do a few weapons passes on Mercury when we’re done.”

Calvin ran through all of the engine startup checklists with his weapon systems officer (WSO), Captain Imagawa Sadayo. The Japanese WSO was a hardworking officer who had more time in the simulators than any of the others and more flights, five.

It didn’t take Calvin long to get all of his systems turned on and ready. The AI gave him the green light that everything was ready to go. “All set?” he asked Sadayo.

Calvin had heard that, like the samurai of old, the young Japanese man often spoke in haikus or other forms of poetry. This time was no different. “Winter moon in front. Who can know what awaits us. Let us go find it.” There was a pause and then he continued, “I am ready. All systems operational.”

With no one yet in charge of the ship’s air/space operations, Captain Imagawa called Solomon for clearance to launch. If nothing else, Solomon would keep them clear of any other fighters ‘airborne’ at that time. “Solomon, Viper One is ready for launch.

You are cleared for launch,” Solomon replied. “There are no other fighters in the area. Viper Four and Viper Five are currently on the other side of the sun practicing combat maneuvering. Launch in!” Solomon released the ties to the Calvin’s fighter and gave it a compressed air push away from the Vella Gulf.

Once he saw that he had separation, Calvin took control and flew the fighter up and away from the moon’s surface. “Engage shields,” he said to Sadayo over the intercom.

“Engaged,” replied the WSO. “Earth cannot see us.”

Calvin looked down at the Vella Gulf, realizing that, despite his intentions on a couple of occasions, he had never actually seen it from the outside before. The ship was a little larger than the aircraft carriers that he previously flown from, with a length of 1,300 feet and a mass of 202,100 tons. It was not quite cylindrical, as it was 160 feet wide and only 130 feet tall. Its Helium-3 engines could accelerate it at 375 G’s.

He could see the nine closed hatches on each side of the ship that covered its 18 anti-ship missile tubes and knew that each had a magazine of 15 missiles, for 270 total missiles. He could also see the smaller hatches below these for its gamma-ray lasers (‘grasers’), its counter-missile tubes and its point defense laser clusters. There were mounting points for six of the Viper-class space fighters and one of the Reliable-class shuttles on both the front and the back of the ship, although it currently only had six space fighters and two shuttles onboard.

He also got his first good look at the fighters that were attached like parasites to the outer hull. Shaped like spades from a deck of cards, they massed 14,300 tons and were about 150 feet long, with about 75 feet sticking out beyond the Vella Gulf. The fighters were powered by an innovative (at the time when they were initially designed, anyway) fusion plant that could accelerate the little ships at 650 G’s. For armament, they each carried a large 2.2’ aperture graser and could mount four large anti-ship missiles, two under each wing. In addition to their offensive weapons, they also mounted a 4.7” defensive laser that could fire in any direction and carried a variety of counter-missile decoys.

Time to go find out what this one can do, he thought, as he accelerated toward the sun.

Viper 01, Mercury Orbit, December 12, 2018

Three hours later, Calvin had a much better feel for the Viper than he had with just the pilot implant download and simulator training. Although getting the ‘muscle memory’ of how to fly the spacecraft would take many more flights, he at least knew what the fighter could do now. He had flown it in both space and through Venus’ hellish atmosphere and was comfortable in both environments. Even though Venus had a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth, with clouds of sulfuric acid moving at 220 miles per hour, he had found the fighter to be nimble and full of power as he flew at low level along the seven mile high Maxwell mountain range. The only thing that he hadn’t done yet was use the fighter’s weapon systems, which was why he had come to Mercury.

Not only was Mercury close by, but also it was poorly surveyed, as only one spacecraft had ever been to it. That spacecraft had only mapped 45% of Mercury’s surface, giving him plenty of unsurveyed terrain to use for target practice. As he flew over the planet, he saw a large rock that projected from the middle of a relatively flat plain. The rock had several large craters in close proximity to it. “Do those craters look fresh to you?” he asked his WSO.

“It is hard to tell,” answered Sadayo, “but it looks like many of them occurred recently. Do you think someone else has been here?”

“It’s hard to tell, but it looks like it,” replied Calvin. “The ground around that rock kind of looks like the bombing ranges back home.”

Sadayo brought his targeting system online. “Someone has definitely been here before us,” he agreed, zooming in on it with his targeting optics. “There are laser burns on the rock, as well.”

“OK,” said Calvin, “mark that rock as our target, and we’ll use it to make some weapons runs. When we get back, make sure that everyone else knows about it, too. Rather than shoot up the entire planet, we’ll just use this area as our target range.”

After an hour spent in weapons practice, Calvin turned the fighter back toward the moon. He realized that Sadayo hadn’t said anything in a while and looked over at him. Sadayo seemed lost in thought.

“What’s your story, Sadayo?” asked Calvin.

Sadayo shook himself out of whatever thought he had been lost in. “What do you mean?”

“What I’m asking,” replied Calvin, “is why are you here? You seem to spend a lot of time thinking. I’m just wondering how or why you became part of this squadron.”

The Japanese man looked at Calvin intently. “Like the samurai of old, I believe that warriors should live by a code, whether you call that code bushido or some other name. I believe in loyalty and honor to the death.” He smiled. “It is my calling to be here,” said Sadayo. “My goal in life is to die a good death with my honor intact. That is the only thing that will keep my soul from suffering in the afterlife. I have a feeling that it is my destiny to die here.”

That is not the answer you hope to get from someone flying with you, Calvin thought. “Umm, you’re not planning on doing that today, I hope?”

“No,” said Sadayo with a chuckle, “today is not the day.”

“Good,” replied Calvin. “Please let me know when it is, so I can make sure someone else is on the flight schedule with you.”

* * * * *

Chapter Nine   Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, January 9, 2019

We have a problem,” Top commed to Calvin.

What’s the problem?” Calvin answered. He knew there was an exercise going on out in the woods, but didn’t have time to attend it. Night was the observer for it while Calvin got some of the backlogged paperwork completed. He was also supposed to have dinner with Sara tonight, which was the only thing keeping him going on the paperwork. She had called and said that she had something important to tell him.

It seems like we have an intruder,” Top replied. “Yokaze was up in a tree and let the attacking force go past him. He was planning to come back down and pick them off from behind. Before he could climb down from his perch, he saw someone else moving through the woods. It appeared to be a woman dressed in a white camouflage suit. He said that he might not have seen her, except for the fact that he could see a little of her black hair showing inside her hood.

Calvin opened the channel to the whole platoon. “Yokaze, Lieutenant Commander Hobbs. Can you capture the intruder without her seeing you?”

Without doubt, sir! Yokaze replied.

Please do so, then,” said Calvin, “and bring her to Master Chief’s cabin. I will meet you there. Night, please have everyone meet back there.

Roger that, sir,” Night replied. “We’ll see you there.

Calvin looked at the pile of paperwork that was still on his desk and sighed. He hadn’t made much of a dent, and his flight tomorrow was in jeopardy if he didn’t get some more of it done. He might have to come back after his date tonight, damn it.

There was a fire going when Calvin got to the cabin, although it was almost out. He stoked it up and put on a new pot of coffee. It was cold outside, and there were about six inches of new snow on the ground. The walk in from the road had sucked. He didn’t have to wait long before the platoon arrived. Night carried the unconscious intruder into the cabin, accompanied by Ryan, Top, Yokaze, Staff Sergeant Jim Chang, Staff Sergeant Patrick Dantone, and Sergeant Jose Morales.

Night placed her in a chair, and Ryan provided some zip ties to secure her arms and legs to it. Calvin had Shuteye close the blinds on the windows so that the woman couldn’t see out. If she knew who they were, she could probably figure out where she was, but if not, there was no sense giving it away.

As Ryan stepped back from her, the woman woke up. “Wha..what’s going on? Where am I?”

“I’ve got this,” Night said to Calvin, stepping in front of the woman. He put two fingers under her chin and lifted it up so he could look into her eyes. “Who are you?”

“I’m Joyce Young,” she said, shaking slightly. “Where am I?”

“I’ll ask the questions for now,” said Night menacingly. “What were you doing out in the woods?”

“I was just hiking,” the woman replied. “It’s not illegal to walk in the woods, is it? I find a walk on a day like today to be very refreshing.”

“Hey sir,” said Sergeant Morales suddenly, “I recognize this woman. She’s been out at the bars a couple of times, talking to some of the troops.”

“Really?” Calvin asked.

Sergeant Morales nodded his head. “Yes sir, I’m sure of it. I was the designated driver a couple of times while she was there. I know it was her.”

“Well, yes, that’s true,” she replied. “Woody said he was doing some maneuvers out here in the woods, and I thought it would be fun to come and watch. He didn’t say I wasn’t allowed to watch. I thought since it was public land it would be OK.”

“Where do you live?” asked Night. “What is your address?”

“It’s 745 St. Helens Avenue in Tacoma,” the woman answered.

Solomon, Calvin. Can you tell me what is at 745 St. Helens Avenue in Tacoma?” Calvin asked.

Certainly, Calvin. Records indicate that there is a restaurant called the Amerawcan Bistro at that address. You could do worse if you are looking for a place to eat. The reviews for that establishment are very high.” Solomon replied.

Thanks, Solomon. Calvin out.” Calvin cocked his head at Joyce Young. “So, I guess you eat well, then?”

She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, I was just at that address yesterday, and it’s a little bistro,” Calvin replied. “Pretty good food, but not so great as a residence. Why don’t you tell us who you really are?”

“My name is Joyce Young,” the woman said, “and that’s where I live. You can look at my driver’s license if you’d like. It’s in my pocket.”

“No thanks,” said Calvin. He looked at Ryan. “Could you go get the foreigners and bring them in? We’ll see if any of them knows who she is.” Ryan started to go. “Oh yeah,” Calvin called, “please bring Woody too.”

Within a couple of minutes, Corporal Christian ‘Woody’ Woodard entered the cabin, accompanied by all of the foreign soldiers. “Hey, Corporal Woodard,” Calvin asked, “do you know this woman?”

Woody looked at the woman and blushed. “Yes sir,” he said. “I’ve seen her out at the bars a couple of times.” He looked at the floor. “I’ve talked to her a little bit. And...umm...other stuff, too.”

“Other stuff, like of a sexual nature?” asked Calvin.

“Umm...yeah, we’ve gone out a couple of times,” Woody said. “She’s come back to my apartment a couple of times too.”

“Uh huh,” said Calvin. “Does anyone else recognize this woman?”

The foreign soldiers moved where they could see her face. Calvin was surprised by the reaction that he got from Wraith, who spit at her feet. “I recognize her,” Wraith said. “She is a Russian spy. I saw her once when the Chinese captured me. They brought her in to help question me. You should kill her now,” advised Wraith. Her face hardened further. “On second thought, give me a couple of minutes with her first. If she is still alive, then you can kill her.”

Night moved over to Wraith and put his arm around her. “Easy,” he said. “That’s over now.”

Wraith shuddered. Shrugging off Night’s arm, she walked toward the door. Reaching it, she stopped and looked back at the woman with hate in her eyes. “You should kill her now. If I ever see her again, I certainly will.” With that, she walked out.

“Well, Miss Young, you certainly have given us a bit of a problem,” commented Calvin with a sigh, “and I am afraid that you are going to make me miss my date tonight.”

“Well sir,” said Night, “if you wanted, you could just give her to me. We’ll make sure that her body is never found.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you would,” said Calvin. “I’m just trying to look at the bigger picture and see if there isn’t something better that we can do with her. Hmmm...” Calvin thought for a moment and then said to Night, “I’ve got an idea. Untie her from the chair and zip tie her hands behind her back, please. We’re going to take her to the Gulf.”

“Are you sure, sir?” Night asked. “Once she sees it, we will have to kill her.”

“Yeah,” replied Calvin, “I am. Let me have your pistol, please.” Night handed Calvin his laser pistol and started tying her hands behind her back.

Calvin held it up where the Russian spy could see it. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

The spy looked at it critically. “It looks like a child’s toy pistol.”

“It does,” said Calvin, “but it is actually the most powerful pistol that you have ever seen. It is not a projectile weapon. It is a laser pistol. I’d like it a lot if you’d try to escape, that way I could have Night shoot you.”

“Ha!” the spy exclaimed. “If you had functioning laser pistol, we would know. That is child’s toy, nothing more.”

The XO and I are going to take the spy to the Vella Gulf,” said Calvin to the platoon. “Everyone else can go back to the hangar and debrief. We’ll fill you in on the details when we get back.” He looked around to see everyone’s heads nodding. Calvin’s next call was to the ship. “Solomon, Calvin,” he commed. “Please send down a shuttle to the landing area at Master Chief’s cabin.

“Where are we?” shouted Joyce Young as they brought her onto the Vella Gulf. “How did we get here? What was that thing?”

“Everything will be made clear in a few minutes,” replied Calvin. He spoke to the ship’s AI through one of the receiver/transmitter pairs scattered throughout the ship, “Solomon, Calvin. Could you please scan the woman with us and make sure that she doesn’t have any weapons or anything else on her that we need to know about?”

“Certainly sir,” the AI replied, his voice coming from speakers hidden in the walls. “Scanning...done. My scanners indicate that the woman with you has three weapons: a knife in her left boot, metal wire for a garrote in her other boot and explosives in her earrings. Although you didn’t specifically ask, you would also probably want to know that she has two electronic imaging devices on her person. One is probably disguised as a pen, and the other is in the third button down on her jacket. I am currently jamming the transmitter, although it is very unlikely that the transmitter has anywhere close to enough range to transmit to the receiver she left in her hotel room.”

“By ‘electronic imaging devices,’ do you mean cameras?” asked Calvin.

“If you want to simplify them, yes, they are cameras,” replied Solomon. “She also has an audio recording device on her key chain.”

“Night, could you please remove the weapons and surveillance gear from Miss Young?”

“It would be my pleasure,” he replied. He pulled out his knife to cut the laces in her boots and took them off. He then cut off the button with the camera and removed her pen and car keys from her pockets. He wasn’t particularly gentle as he searched her, but neither did he go out of his way to abuse her. It was just a thorough, professional search.

“I’m tired of playing games,” Calvin said. “Would you like to tell me your real name?”

“My name is Joyce Young,” repeated the Russian spy. “You can see that on my driver’s license.”

“If that’s the best you can do, we may have to take you outside without a suit and see if you can breathe vacuum,” threatened Calvin. “Solomon, what is this woman’s real name?”

“This woman has had many names,” the AI replied, “and usually uses three or four of them at a time. The name that she was born with is Irina Rozhkov.”

The woman slumped. “No one knows that name,” she said. “Either your intelligence network is very good, or you drugged me to find that out.” She made a biting motion, and then a look of puzzlement crossed her face.

“I took the liberty of using the transporter to remove the poison that Miss Rozhkov is trying to take when I scanned her,” Solomon announced. “As she was tied up when you brought her onto the ship, I assumed she was a prisoner. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that is correct,” agreed Calvin. “Thanks.” He switched to his implant. “Arges, can you meet me on the bridge?

Yes, in two of your minutes,” Arges replied.

“OK, let’s go,” said Calvin. He began walking to the bridge with Night escorting the Russian. They entered the bridge to find Arges already there. It didn’t take long before she made a startled sound. Calvin wasn’t surprised; she was a spy, after all. She was supposed to notice things that were out of the ordinary.

Ignoring her reaction, Calvin spoke to the Psiclops. “Arges, I know you can watch what is going on in the DUCC, but can you transmit into the DUCC as well?”

Do you really want her to see and hear that?” the AI asked via implant.

“Yeah, I do,” Calvin answered. He chuckled to himself. Answering questions that hadn’t been asked would hopefully cause the spy some distress as she tried to figure out how they were communicating.

The DUCC came on the center four screens. Calvin found it somewhat disconcerting to see the president that much bigger than normal. He hoped it had the same effect on the spy. From the looks on the faces of the people he could see, it was obvious that his face was now on their monitor. He could also hear several people say, “What the hell?” simultaneously.

“Sorry to interrupt sir,” said Calvin, “but we have a bit of a problem.”

“And what would that be?” growled the president. Apparently, he still didn’t like being interrupted in his fancy ‘secure’ meeting room, especially by Calvin.

“We found a Russian spying on one of our training exercises,” said Calvin. “She also has been targeting members of the platoon, using sex to get close to them.”

“Do the Russians know you have her?” asked one of the men at the DUCC conference table. Calvin thought he was the head of the CIA, but wasn’t sure.

“No sir, we don’t think so,” replied Calvin after quickly confirming it with Solomon, “but most of the squad does. Apparently, she also has a history with some of the members. Our Korean representative had to be restrained, or she would have killed her.”

“I recognize her,” said the same man to the president. Calvin decided that he must be the CIA head; he was positively drooling at the thought of getting his hands on her. “She is one of their top operatives and someone we’d very much like to have a talk with.” The way he said it made Calvin think ‘torture session’ rather than simply ‘talk.’ The man continued, “Mr. President, can we have her brought down to our headquarters to debrief her?”

The president ignored him. Looking at Calvin, he asked, “I take it that you have a plan for her?”

“Yes sir, I do,” Calvin replied, “I’d like to take her with us as an observer.”

Several people in the DUCC began shouting things like, “you can’t be serious” and “have you lost your mind;” Night was much more succinct. “No fucking way,” is all he said.

QUIET!” shouted the president, regaining control. Once everyone had calmed down he asked in a dangerous voice, “And why exactly do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Well, first let me say that I agree with most of your advisors,” said Calvin, “in that I think it is an incredibly dangerous idea. It is, however, the one that has the biggest payoff. Let’s face it, who are our two biggest adversaries at the moment? They’re the same ones we’ve had for nearly the last 70 years; they’re Russia and China. When we go off with the Psiclopes and come back, do you think that there is any way that either of them is going to believe what we say or be interested in participating with us in forming a single world government?” He paused and saw several heads shaking. “You all know more about politics than I do, but I find it awfully unlikely that’s going to happen. Having just fought a war with China, it’s going to be difficult for either of us to trust the other. I think that there’s at least a chance with Russia, though.”

The president shrugged, “I agree that it’s more likely that Russia would play along than would China, but I don’t think that it’s very likely that they will join us, either. They’re still mad about the war and, like you said, we haven’t trusted each other in 70 years.”

“Yes sir, I agree,” said Calvin, “and yet we want to form a single world government that includes them.” He was very careful not to say that the Americans ‘needed’ to form a government, thereby letting the Russians know that they were required for some reason, which would give them leverage. “This is our one chance to at least get a fair hearing from the Russians. We can use this agent as a conduit of information to them.”

Ignoring the comments from around the table that greeted that statement, the president said simply, “I agree; do it,” ending all discussion on the point.

“Yes sir,” said Calvin, signing off. The screens went blank.

He changed to his implant and called Top. “Top, if I send down a shuttle, can you bring Mr. Jones and meet me in the platoon’s ready room on the Gulf?”

Be right there sir,” Top replied.

Calvin looked at the Russian. “Well, if nothing else, it looks like you’re going to get a chance to live a little longer anyway.”

“That is only good if I am to be a hero of the Russian Federation,” she replied. “I would rather die than be a traitor to it.”

Calvin smiled. “Well, then, we won’t have any problems, because I’m not asking you to be a traitor to your country. If anything, I want you to think bigger and look at the good of humanity in general. Let me ask you a question. Where do you think you are right now?”

“There is no telling,” the spy replied, her Russian accent growing stronger as she got more excited. “You drugged me. You could have taken me anywhere. I may be dreaming whole thing. A lieutenant commander that can call up president? Is not likely.”

“Let me show you something.” Calvin paused and then said, “Solomon, show the view from outside the bridge on the screens, please.” The screens flipped on to show the view of the lunar landscape.

“So, you have taken me to a valley in the desert?” Rozhkov asked.

Calvin shook his head. “No, you’re a little further from home than that. You are currently in the Tsiolkovsky Crater on the far side of the moon. The hills that you see in the distance are actually the side of the crater. You are onboard an alien spacecraft.” He indicated Arges, still standing patiently nearby. “This is Arges, a member of the Psiclopes race. Three of the Psiclopes have asked for our help in taking them back to their planet. They had this ship, but no one to crew it; we are departing for their world in about two months.”

“And you expect me to believe this?” asked Rozhkov.

Calvin shrugged. “I hope you will believe it, but I don’t necessarily expect it. Come with me, and we’ll see what we can do about it. Night, would you please join us too?” He led the two of them through the ship’s corridors to the platoon’s ready room. Top and Mr. Jones were just arriving. Judging by the quick intake of breaths from both Jones and Rozhkov, he realized they knew each other. No surprise there.

He looked at Top. “Miss Rozhkov is going to be staying with us for a little while until we determine what we want to do with her. She is still not sure that she believes she is on the surface of the moon. I’d appreciate it if you could dig her up a suit and take her for a walk outside. You could also show her some of our new weapons to help her believe us.”

“Got it, sir,” replied Top. “What do you want us to do with her after that?”

Calvin considered briefly and then said, “How about bringing her to Master Chief’s house in about an hour? I should be ready for her by then.” He looked back to the spy. “In case you have any ideas about trying to take one of the weapons, they won’t work for you.” He showed her his palms and the metal contacts on them. “The weapons are hardwired into us. If you don’t have the right hardware in your body, they won’t work.” He smiled. “I just didn’t want you to get any ideas.”

Top led Rozhkov and Mr. Jones from the room.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Calvin to Night, “but never had the time. What’s the story with you and Wraith? I know that there’s some history there but haven’t wanted to get into your private life. Unfortunately, it’s now become part of the platoon’s business, and I’ve got to ask.”

“Yeah,” said Night, sighing, “I figured we’d have to have this conversation.” He paused a moment. “Several years ago, there was a classified joint U.S./Republic of Korea mission into North Korea. It doesn’t matter what it was for. Wraith was on it. Her leader stepped on a land mine that killed him and another one of her team, putting her in charge. The mine also wounded the other person on the mission, who happened to be an American. She refused to leave him, but bringing him along slowed her down, and she was captured. The North Koreans brought in both Chinese and Russian interrogation advisors to help break her and get everything they could from her.”

“I was picked to lead a squad to try and get her back. Before I could get there, though, they had abused her badly. Really badly.” He shuddered. Calvin didn’t want to know what could make a man as hard as Lieutenant Train shudder. Night continued, “I got her back, as well as the body of our soldier who had died at the North Koreans’ hands, but they had her for three days. Three long days. Wraith has scars beyond the ones you can see and would cheerfully kill every North Korean and Chinese person on the planet if she could, as well as most of the Russians. She’ll kill Rozhkov without hesitation, and will enjoy doing it. Hell, I’d happily do it for her if I thought it would do her any good...” He trailed off, lost in thought.

“What’s the deal with you and her personally?” Calvin asked after a long period of silence, when he saw that Night wasn’t going to continue on his own. “There seems to be more to it than that.”

Night sighed again and looked down at his hands. “She loves me,” he said quietly.

“Beyond the whole officer/enlisted thing, why’s that a problem?” Calvin asked.

“Honestly sir, I’m a bad man,” said Night. “I’ve done an awful lot of things for my country that I’m not proud of. They needed doing, and I know I’d do them all again if I was asked. Still, they were not things that one Christian man does to another human being without being called to account for it later. When I die, I know I’m going to hell, and I’m never going to leave it. I’m good at what I do, and I know that the country and the world are better places for what I’ve done. Still, that doesn’t reconcile what I’ve done with my beliefs and, most days, I don’t like myself very much. If you don’t like yourself, it’s awfully hard to like someone else, much less plan a life with them. And me as a father? No way,” he said vehemently.

He shook his head. “Maybe someday I’ll come to grips with it, but today isn’t that day. The more I talk to the Psiclopes, the more I hope that there’s a reason that I’m here. Maybe something to positively affect my karma somehow.” He stood up and walked toward the door. “Maybe my destiny is to do something that makes up for everything I’ve done to this point.” He sighed as he walked out the door. Without looking back he stopped and said, “It’s all I can hope for at this point.”

Snoqualmie National Forest, WA, January 9, 2019

Ryan handed Calvin a beer as he sat down with him at the kitchen table. “So,” Ryan asked, “how do you want to play this?” They had been discussing how to treat the Russian spy, but hadn’t made a lot of progress. “Several of us could take a long walk with her through the woods and maybe help her to understand...”

“I’m sure you could,” Calvin interrupted, “but I don’t see how threatening or beating her is going to win either her support or her trust. She’s pretty fanatical, and I’m betting that she would rather die for her country than do anything that she thinks is going to betray it.”

“Sir, she’s a spy,” said Ryan. “You can’t trust her, regardless of what she says. She’s a trained liar who is going to do her best to hurt our country, especially now that she knows about everything that’s going on.” He paused and then grumbled, “I still don’t think that taking her to the moon was a good idea...”

“Maybe it wasn’t,” agreed Calvin, “but it was better than just killing her out of hand. We’re a lot better off if we can get her to see how Russia wins if they come in on our side and help us.”

There was a long pause as both men thought about their dilemma. “I’ve got it!” Ryan finally exclaimed. “I’ll put on a pot of Mrs. Sommers’ elk stew.”

“What?” asked Calvin. “How is that going to help?”

“As the saying goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” replied Ryan, getting up from the table and going to the refrigerator. “Maybe it will work on women too.”

“Hmmm,” said Calvin, pondering the idea. “I know you’re always looking for a reason to have a bowl of Mrs. Sommers’ stew, but in this case, it might just be the right answer. Maybe the friendly approach would work best after all.”

 Ryan had the stew simmering on the stove when a knock was heard on the door. Ryan yelled, “Come in!” and Top, Mr. Jones and Irina Rozhkov walked in.

Top sniffed as he walked in. “Hey, that Mrs. Sommers’ elk stew?” he asked. “It sure smells good...”

“Yeah, she made some for me to bring up to the cabin, me being all alone up here,” Ryan said with a grin.

Calvin interjected, “What do you mean? You begged her for three days to make it for you! You even said you’d pay her for it.”

“Well, she said she felt sorry for me after you left,” said Ryan with a sniff. Turning back to Top, he said, “Anyway, I didn’t know how long you’d be and didn’t want to miss dinner, so I put a big pot on. There’s enough for everyone.” He handed each of them a bowl of stew, and they sat down at the table to eat.

“So, Ms. Rozhkov,” began Calvin, “what do you think now?”

“Please, call me Irina. I haven’t used Rozhkov in so long, it no longer fits me. As to what they have shown me, if this is a hoax, it is the best one I have ever seen. If this is drug-induced, you have better drugs than any we have been able to come up with in Russia...and we’ve spent many rubles to make better drugs. I would have to guess that there is at least a 90% chance that what you have shown me is the truth.”

“Good,” said Calvin, “I...”

“What you have shown me, I believe,” interrupted Rozhkov, “but I do not know if I believe what you have told me. This is all very, how you say, far-fetched? I am sure that you are trying to gain an edge over Russia, but I am not sure what it is or how you intend to do it. You have given away so much, it is hard to know what is still hidden.”

“There isn’t much that we haven’t already told or shown you,” said Calvin. “The bottom line is that we were contacted by aliens. They warned us that there are creatures coming that want to eat us. The aliens are pretty sure that the only way we’ll be able to stop the creatures is by uniting against them and pooling our resources. We had a saying during our revolution that is pretty appropriate right now, ‘we need to hang together, or we will most assuredly hang separately.’ Personally, I don’t want to get eaten, nor do I want any of my friends and family to get eaten, either. If that means playing nice and working with Russia, or even China for that matter, then I am all for it.”

“Assuming that I believe you, which I still am not sure that I do, what are your plans, and what do you plan to do with me?” asked Rozhkov.

“We have one spaceship with six fighters,” said Calvin. “That isn’t going to beat off an alien invasion. We’re going to take that ship and go look for help. If nothing else, we’d like to bring back some of the aliens’ technology, so we can start arming ourselves. As for you, I plan to take you with us so that you can see that we’re telling you the truth. That’s the only way that we will ever get your nation to believe it.”

“How do I know that you won’t kill me or use me to feed my country false information?” asked Rozhkov.

“You don’t, I guess,” answered Calvin. Before he could say anything else, Mr. Jones, who had been standing against the wall, cleared his throat and said, “You have my word.”

There was obviously past history between them, Calvin thought, because that seemed to satisfy the Russian. She nodded her head once and said only, “OK.”

“I don’t want too much to get out before we leave,” said Calvin, “so we’re going to keep you with us. Before we go, you’ll have an opportunity to leave a message with your superiors, so that they don’t get worried when you’re gone for a couple of months.”

The Russian nodded her head again. “That will be...sufficient.”

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

Armory, TSS Vella Gulf, Dark Side of the Moon, January 15, 2019

“What the hell is that thing?” asked the medic, Sergeant ‘Hacksaw’ Liu, looking at the massive rifle that the unit’s sniper, Corporal ‘Tiny’ Johnson, was oiling lovingly.

“That’s his new toy,” replied his spotter, Corporal ‘BTO’ Bachmann. Tiny didn’t speak much, but BTO more than made up for it. “Although he is still going to use his .50 caliber sniper rifle when we’re not wearing our combat suits, this is what he is going to carry when we are suited up.”

“That’s the biggest freakin’ rifle I’ve ever seen,” said Hacksaw, picking up one of the rounds for the massive rifle. “These shells have to weigh half a pound and look like 20mm autocannon rounds. What the hell is it?

“It’s a SSK Industries .95 caliber rifle,” Tiny said with a sigh. “It’s my new baby.” He went back to pampering it.

“It’s the largest rifle ever made,” added BTO. “They only made three of them. The unit bought one to try it out, and then Tiny asked them to make another couple of them for us. They’re too big to carry around, even for Tiny, which is why he’s only going to use them when we’re wearing our suits.”

“No shit,” said Hacksaw. “That thing’s got to weigh 100 pounds.”

“110 pounds, actually,” said BTO. “They’re so big that they were classified as destructive devices under the U.S. National Firearms Act, but the company that made them got an exemption to sell them. They cost about $8,000 a piece.”

“What are you planning to shoot with that, exactly,” asked Hacksaw, “elephants?”

Tiny looked back up again and smiled. “Whatever I need to.”

Little Thai Restaurant, Seattle, WA, January 16, 2019

Sara walked into the restaurant to find Calvin seated at a table waiting for her. “Hi,” she said. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve got a project this semester that is taking up a lot of my time.”

“No worries,” said Calvin. “For my part, I’m sorry I missed our date last week. Something important came up.”

“Arges said you took some woman to the Gulf,” replied Sara. “Should I be jealous?”

“Ha! Jealous of her, no. It’s a long story, but she’s lucky to still be alive.” Calvin changed the topic. “So what’s the project that’s taking up all of your time?”

Sara looked around conspiratorially. “I’ve got something to share with you. I was told to keep it a secret, but I think it is all right to let you know.”

The conversation paused as the waitress arrived and took their order. Calvin had been to Thailand on his first cruise and had developed a taste for spicy Thai food. Sara ordered something a little more on the tame side.

“OK,” said Calvin once the waitress had left, “so what is the big secret?”

“You know,” began Sara, “it might be easier to just show you.” A window opened in Calvin’s mind as Sara contacted him by implant communication. “Hiya,” she said.

When did you get implants?” Calvin commed back, shocked. “Wait, who knows that you got them? Does the president know you got them? Hell, did the Psiclopes authorize it?

“Slow down,” Sara said with a smile. “I’ll tell you all about it.” She switched back to the implant. “Yes, the Psiclopes authorized them. It would have been really difficult to get the implants put in if they hadn’t.

Calvin nodded ruefully, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” He considered briefly and then said, “I wonder if only the Psiclopes can authorize implants, or if my status allows me to do it now, too?” That is an interesting question, he thought. He decided to follow up with Solomon on it as soon as he was able.

And no,” Sara continued, “the president doesn’t know anything about me getting implants. He’d probably have a coronary if he knew that the Psiclopes had implanted civilians without giving them to him too.

That got Calvin’s attention. “Did you say civilians? With an ‘s’ at the end?”

Yes, my professor and a research scientist at the Institute of Science in India also have them,” said Sara. “The Psiclopes need us to develop new ways of finding black holes, because it is the way that they travel between stars. We are working on innovative ways to find them.

Wait a sec,” said Calvin, “how did you get involved in this? Aren’t you still an undergraduate at the University of Washington? In art? This sounds like pretty high level rocket science stuff.

Well, I would still have been an undergraduate if the Psiclopes hadn’t come,” replied Sara. “I’d be just starting my last semester as a senior. However, at the start of last semester, Arges showed up and said that they needed help. I said I would do what I could, and they gave me implants to make me more productive. I finished all of my undergraduate classes last semester; I also started working on my doctoral project, which has to do with finding black holes.

You completed all of the classes you needed to graduate in one semester?” asked Calvin. “How many classes did you take?

Sara blushed. “Well I was a little behind, so I needed 12 classes to graduate. I was kind of on the 4.5 year plan to graduation.

You took 12 classes in a single semester?” Calvin asked. “The most I ever took was six, and that nearly killed me!

Yeah, well, you didn’t have implants then, did you?” Sara smiled. “That’s not what I needed, though. I needed 12 classes to finish my art degree. On top of that, I needed another 22 to graduate with an applied physics degree. That is what truly sucked. The only thing that saved me was that I was able to finish most of my classes the first week. I walked into all of my professors’ offices and asked to take their final exams with the condition that, if I passed them, I passed their classes. Almost all of my professors accepted the challenge, and I aced all of the exams.” Sara’s blush deepened. “It really wasn’t too hard with most of the knowledge of an advanced civilization in my head. The worst part, aside from having to do all of the labs, which I couldn’t get out of, was having to do physics applications. The general knowledge was there; figuring out how to apply it was hard.

OK, I see how you were able to pass the exams, but how did you get the university to allow you to sign up for that many classes? How did your parents pay for it?

I have Arges to thank for both of those,” replied Sara. “He met with the head of the Physics Department off campus somewhere and told him what he wanted for me. I think that Dr. Riccardi was initially hesitant to help, but then Arges got implants for him and got the National Science Foundation to award the university a giant grant. All of a sudden, Dr. Riccardi was my biggest fan, and he got the university to go along with it. As far as the university is concerned, I’m a late blooming child prodigy who is going to continue to bring them piles of research money and national acclaim.” She shrugged. “Arges also paid for all of the classes somehow. My parents don’t even know about this; they still think I’m an art major, not a physics prodigy. I’ve had to turn down three TV and newspaper stories to keep them from finding out anything about it.

The conversation paused again as their food and another round of drinks arrived.

I’m happy for you,” said Calvin, “but doesn’t it seem kind of unfair to pass all of those classes because you have implants? What is college going to look like once we start implanting everyone?

I don’t know what college is going to look like,” said Sara, “but I’m sure it will be different.” She paused. “Yeah, I felt kind of bad acing all of those exams, almost like it was cheating, but then I thought about it. What is the purpose of final exams? To prove you have acquired the knowledge. Well, I have acquired all of the knowledge that the university tested me on...just not in the traditional way. It wasn’t cheating, though; I do have the knowledge. In fact, I could probably teach just about any class that UW has.

She paused a second and then commed, “One thing is interesting; although I have this wonderful data bank on astrophysical knowledge, my knowledge of astronomy seems limited. If I got all of the Psiclopes knowledge, shouldn’t I know the names of lots of planets and the races living on them? I don’t know any more of that stuff than I did before I got implants.”

Calvin thought for a moment. “You know what? I don’t either. Interesting...I guess they must have blocked the transfer of that information. Makes you want to trust them, doesn’t it?” He smiled at her. “In any event, I’m really proud of you. Congratulations on your graduation!” praised Calvin. He got up to give her a hug. As he sat back down he asked, “So, why did the Psiclopes do all this? What do they have planned for you?

You don’t know?” Sara asked. She sounded incredulous. “They haven’t told you?

No one has told me anything about you,” replied Calvin. “What’s the secret?

I’m going with you,” explained Sara. “Not on the first trip when you go out to test out the ship, but when you go out the second time for real. I’m going to be the Assistant Science Officer under Arges.

The waitress brought the check. Apparently the date didn’t go well, the waitress thought with a shrug. They barely spoke to each other the whole time.

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, February 14, 2019

Sir Henry Flowers, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the UK, Mission to the UN, took the podium. An experienced diplomat with years of practice negotiating treaties, he had been selected to accompany the Vella Gulf as the Terran Government’s ambassador to whatever new civilizations might be found in the course of its mission. “I would like to thank everyone who’s come to participate in and bear witness to this discussion today. Your presence adds weight to what will be decided.”

“Going forward,” continued Ambassador Flowers, “I will do all I can to support our common goal of reaching negotiated agreements with the societies we meet on our mission. This crisis requires bold, responsible leadership and active engagement with all like-minded civilizations, in order to meet and repulse the cultures that would do us harm. While many of the challenges in implementing this agenda lie beyond the topic of today’s debate, the central issue that must be decided today is what nations to contact.” He paused.

“There are many instances of first contact with an alien civilization in the popular literary and motion picture establishments,” he continued. “Many of these discuss something along the lines of a ‘Prime Directive,’ which forbids interfering with the internal development of an alien civilization. A similar proviso has been used upon us by the Psiclopes as they have, in many instances, refused to transfer technology which they feel would alter the natural development of our society.”

“During the course of the mission it is quite possible that we will come into contact with races that have not developed the technology for interstellar spaceflight. We must decide whether we want to hold tightly to a convention of this sort, or whether the nature of our circumstances is so dire as to require the aid of every civilization, regardless of their technology level.”

“The question for debate is this, ‘Should we engage every civilization that we come upon or only those above a certain technology level?’”

‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, February 19, 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen,” Bullseye commed, stepping back from the side of Viper 01, which had been parked several hundred yards from the Vella Gulf, “I give you Viper 01, the squadron bird of Terran Space Fighter Squadron 1.” He pulled the cord, and the canvas cover that had been draped over the nose of the space fighter fell to the ground. The officers and enlisted of the squadron got their first look at the squadron insignia of SF-1, the Spacehawks, painted on the nose of the Viper. A large grey hawk was in the foreground, with a spaceship in each of its talons. The background was the blackness of space. Under the logo read the motto, ‘Primus et Primoris’ in gold lettering. Under the pilot’s cockpit was painted the name of the squadron commander, LCDR Shawn ‘Calvin’ Hobbs.

For those of you that don’t speak Latin,” Calvin commed, “Primus et Primoris means ‘First and Foremost.’ Although right now we are the first and only space fighter squadron, there will be more. I mean for this squadron to always be the best!

“Gluck ab!” someone commed. The cry was quickly picked up by several others, and within seconds, all 106 men and women standing next to Viper 01 were shouting it.

Damn, that is a good looking space fighter, thought Calvin, his eyes misting slightly.

TSS Vella Gulf, ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, February 20, 2019

“We’re within a month of our March 13th departure date,” said Captain Deutch. “Let’s go around the table and get a status check.” The commanding officer of the Vella Gulf had called the meeting in the officers’ mess so that all of the ship’s officers and chiefs could be in attendance; he wanted to be sure that nothing got missed or left behind. They had grouped several tables in the center of the dining room around which the senior officers sat; the junior officers and chiefs sat at surrounding tables in an impromptu version of ‘stadium seating.’

The ship’s administrative officer spoke first. In addition to being in charge of the ship’s paperwork process, he was also responsible for manpower, personnel and services. “We have almost our full complement of sailors onboard. We are down one petty officer who was severely injured in a car wreck in Virginia Beach yesterday, but the Bureau of Personnel already has a replacement for him. He will arrive next week, in time to get his implants and be ready to go as scheduled.”

“The sailor didn’t end up at Virginia Beach General, did he?” asked Captain Deutch, worried about what the civilian doctors would make of his implants.

“No,” replied the admin officer. “They took him to Portsmouth Naval Hospital and the doctors have been given stern warnings to forget anything out of the ordinary that they might have seen.”

“Good,” said Captain Deutch. “Next?”

“I don’t have a lot to report, since the Psiclopes haven’t shared much with us,” said the ship’s intelligence officer. “We have all of the star charts that we can get our hands on, as well as all of the data that our scientists have been able to generate on possible exoplanets.” By this point, the entire crew had implants. No one had to ask what an exoplanet was; simply thinking the question furnished the information that it was a planet that orbited a star other than the Sun. “We’re as ready as we’re going to get.” He looked over to the operations officer, who was next.

“I’ll be honest, skipper,” said the operations officer. “I’ve never felt this unprepared for deployment before. That being said, we have full loads of fuel, weapons and everything else I think will be needed, as well as everything that you or the Psiclopes have asked for. We’re as operationally ready as we can be.” He looked at the logistics officer.

“We’ve got all the stores and spare parts that we can carry,” said the logistics officer. “We’ve also got plenty of blanks for the replicator to make into things we might need along the way. Being able to make our own spare parts will give us a readiness capability beyond any ship I’ve ever been on, which is helpful since there won’t be any ports to pull into to pick up anything we need later. We already have a full load of canned and dried foods, and we will be stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables during the week prior to deployment.” He looked around as if he was expecting or daring anyone to disagree with him. “We’re as ready as we can be.”

“As far as planning goes,” said the plans officer, “we continue to be handicapped by a lack of information. We really don’t know where we’re going, what we’ll see there, or what we hope to accomplish moving forward. We have reviewed all of the information that exists in the data banks on how to fight this ship, both with and without its air wing, but without knowing what the threat is going to be, it is hard to plan for it.” He shrugged. “We’ll be ready to get to work as soon as information starts coming in.”

The communications and information technology officer was next. “We have developed and practiced our communications plans with the air wing,” she briefed. “We have procedures for both radio comms, implant comms and for any situations where all of our comms have failed. The only comms we won’t have are with Earth; once we leave the system, we will be out of communications with home until we get back to this system.”

“From a training perspective,” said the training officer, “the crew is ready to go. We have completed all of the simulations required to reinforce the knowledge downloaded by implant. Once we get away from Earth, we need to do some live firing of the weapons systems to make sure that everyone knows what they’re doing.” The operations officer nodded his head; he wanted to have a live fire exercise as soon as possible to check out the systems. Combat was a bad time to find out that something didn’t work. The training officer continued, “I will leave the air wing training and platoon training to Lieutenant Commander Hobbs, as he oversaw that.”

The special projects officer was next. Among other things, she ran the replicator. “We are currently working on making additional space suits,” she said. “We will have enough replicated for the whole crew prior to our departure.”

“Good,” commented Captain Deutch. “This isn’t the Titanic. If something happens, I want everyone to be protected. We’ve got more than just cold water to worry about.”

The special projects officer nodded and continued, “After we finish the suits, we will begin working on spare parts for the Viper space fighters, in case any of them get damaged.”

Calvin nodded. “Thanks,” he said.

The civil affairs officer was next. It was his duty to interact with any government or non-government civilian organizations they came in contact with, as well as to deal with the civilian populace. He was also the liaison with the ambassador. “We are all set. The ambassador and his staff are visiting with all of the nations’ presidents and prime ministers. They will be boarding the week prior to our departure.”

“We’re as ready as we’re going to be,” said the ship’s surgeon. “I’m still working out what my duties are in conjunction with the medibot, but I think we have all of the equipment and pharmaceuticals that we’ll need for the voyage.”

Captain Deutch looked at Calvin. “That just leaves your units,” he said.

Calvin looked around the table. He’d been so busy trying to get both units ready to deploy that he hadn’t made it to many of the commanding officer’s previous meetings, and many of the department heads were strangers to him. He’d have plenty of time to get to know them on deployment, he decided. “The squadron is all set,” he said, looking at Bullseye who nodded. “We have practiced a variety of formations, from single-ship operations to full squadron strikes. All of our pilots are also trained to fly the shuttles whenever they are needed.” Prior to a deployment, a squadron would normally be evaluated by a host of commands and agencies, who would delve into administrative and training records to make sure all of the ‘Ts’ were crossed and the ‘Is’ dotted. Then they would have to show the inspectors that they were ready by performing a variety of missions. That wasn’t going to happen with this deployment; Calvin was the sole arbiter of the squadron’s readiness.

“We did have one suggestion from Captain Park Ji-hun, one of our pilots from South Korea. In some of the maneuvers that we’ve been practicing, he thought that it would be handy if we were to bring along a load of mines. With the right design, we could make these fairly cheaply and easily with the replicator. If all you need is five kilograms of antimatter to make a 215 megaton explosion, then the mines wouldn’t have to be very big or take up much space, but they would be a very good force-multiplier if we needed them.”

“If we can make the mines easily and cheaply,” replied Captain Deutch, “and if it doesn’t affect our production schedule too badly, then go ahead and make some of them. Let me know how it turns out.”

“Yes sir,” said Calvin. “As far as the platoon goes, it is also ready to go. All of our gear is loaded, and we have practiced all of the types of missions that we expect to be required to perform. We are practiced on land, in the air, under the water and in space. We are current with all of our weapons, both our new alien technology and our legacy armaments. We have all of the ammunition we will need and the raw materials to make more if needed.”

Calvin looked Captain Deutch in the eyes. “We’re ready to go,” he said.

Captain Deutch looked at the ceiling. “Solomon, do you have anything pertinent to add to the discussion?”

“I am in as good a shape as I think I can be,” said the ship’s AI. “I agree that it would be prudent to do some weapons testing at the earliest opportunity. My weapons have not been fired in a very long time. Aside from that, I see no reason not to deploy as planned.”

“All right,” said Deutch, “it looks like we are on track for our scheduled deployment date.” He stood up so that he could look around the room at all of the officers and chiefs, not just the ones sitting at the head table. “Obviously, we have never done this before. The human race has never done this before. Most of us, however, have deployed previously. I want all of you to use every last bit of your experience to get the ship ready to go. If you think we might need something and there’s room, bring it. If you think we might need something and there’s no room for it, make room. If you can’t make room, tell your chain of command. I want to know if we’re going to leave behind something that we might need.” He looked around again. “There’s no calling for help and there’s no pulling into a port for supplies or to get something that we forgot. It’s just us.”

“Any questions?” Captain Deutch asked. Seeing none, he said, “That’s it then. Let’s finish getting her ready to go.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

CO’s Conference Room, TSS Vella Gulf, ‘Dark Side’ of the Moon, February 25, 2019

“We leave within a month,” said Captain Deutch. “Don’t you think it’s time to tell us how the star drive works? I think that would be kind of handy information to have.” Captain Deutch had invited the Psiclopes to the weekly staff meeting, and they had joined him in the CO’s conference room along with the rest of his staff. He had been trying to get this information from the Psiclopes for several months, but they had always put him off. Calvin finally advised him to put them on the spot in front of others; it was the only thing that had worked for him.

“I’m sorry,” said Arges, “but your minds are not ready to understand it.”

“What do you mean, ‘not ready to understand it?’” asked the executive officer, Captain Lorena Griffin.

Arges shook his head. “I mean that you have neither the technology, the mathematics, nor the physics to understand it. Your minds will have to expand significantly before you will be able to understand stargate technology.”

“Well, how about this?” the XO asked. “Does the ship go faster than light, or does it go through something like a wormhole?”

“The star drive uses wormholes, which are black holes linked through a process that you wouldn’t understand,” said Arges. “If you enter the first one at the correct angle, you will exit the other one at the same speed.”

“So,” said Captain Deutch, “the stargates are wormholes between two black holes?”

“Correct,” agreed Arges.

“And if we enter one going the right direction, we emerge out of the other one?” asked Deutch.

“Also correct,” said Arges.

“Where are we when we are in between the two black holes?” asked Deutch.

“I’m sorry,” said Arges, “but you wouldn’t understand it. It involves math that hasn’t been downloaded to your implants and six dimensional space.”

“What a minute,” said Deutch. “I thought there were only five dimensions.”

“See?” asked Arges. “That’s what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t understand.”

“OK,” said Deutch, “if that’s the case, I doubt I’d want to understand. What can you tell us about these black holes?”

“Every system that we know about contains at least one black hole stargate,” said Arges, “and most systems have two stargates in them, that allow you to pass through. About one in five have multiple stargates. These are nexus systems. These are key systems to hold as they give a civilization mobility and trade advantages over neighboring civilizations.”

“How many stargates are there in this system?” asked Calvin.

“There are two that we know of,” said Steropes.

“What do you mean, ‘that you know of?’” asked Calvin

“They’re very hard to find,” replied Steropes. “Sara and the University of Washington are working on some ideas that may result in a better method of finding them, but for now, we have to do it the slow, laborious way.”

“How slow and laborious?” asked the CO.

“In most cases,” answered Arges, “it will take us between five days and a week once we enter a new star system for our magnetic anomaly detectors to ascertain the location of any stargates and another day or two to resolve the required transit direction for employing them. That time will not be wasted, as we will use it to gather data on the rest of the system. Hopefully, on the next trip we will be able to trim down the amount of time required for stargate detection.”

“Can you at least tell us something about the systems that we are going to be traveling through?” asked Deutch.

“Unfortunately, no,” replied Steropes. “Apparently, the Drakuls didn’t update the ephemeris or take notes on the systems they passed through on their way here. The ship’s ephemeris is blank. We have no information on the systems through which we will be traveling.”

“Wonderful,” replied Deutch. “Got any other good news for me?”

“No I don’t,” replied Arges, missing the sarcasm. “Unfortunately, the last Eldive on the Vella Gulf was able to wipe out the navigational data before he was killed by the Drakuls. We don’t know anything about the star systems going up the other chain, either.”

Deutch sighed. “Why do I even bother asking?”

TSS Vella Gulf, Dark Side of the Moon, DATE

“When is Irina scheduled to get her implants?” asked Calvin.

“Tomorrow,” replied Night. “You still think this is a good idea?”

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” answered Calvin, “fraught with danger and the possibility for everything to go catastrophically wrong.”

“So why do it?” Night asked.

“What do you know about geography?” Calvin asked in reply.

“I know a little bit,” said Night. “I can also now download anything I need from the internet by way of my implants.”

Calvin smiled. “OK then, when it comes to natural resources, what country has more than any other? What country also has the second largest deposits of rare earth minerals after China, whom we currently don’t get along with? Third largest gold deposits? Most natural gas? Any guesses? Oh, yeah, they also have the fifth largest military, too.”

“Without researching it, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Russia,” Night replied.

“Correct on all counts,” agreed Calvin. “They’ve got lots of resources, which we need, and a big military to help counter-balance China, which we might still need at some point. Besides, they consider themselves a world power and get all pissy if you don’t invite them to the party. Then they make everything harder by throwing up road blocks everywhere they can. It doesn’t take a student of history to see all the times they’ve done that over the last forty or so years.”

“Well, that’s certainly true,” said Night.

“So, we can either get them to play with us and be really helpful, or we can alienate them and drive them away. If we drive them away, they’ll probably try to form their own world government with China and anyone else that will join them, just to spite us. Who knows? We’re not as well liked as we once were; they might even get more countries to go along with them than we have with us. I wonder if the Psiclopes would have to switch allegiance to them if that happened...boy, wouldn’t that just absolutely suck?”

Night looked like he had just swallowed something bad. “Yeah, that would suck.”

“So our only real option is to include them, right?” asked Calvin.

“When you put it that way,” replied Night, “we don’t really have much of a choice, do we?”

“No,” said Calvin, “we don’t.”

Pier 7, Naval Station Norfolk, March 13, 2019

“OK Jamal, take good care of Austin.” Turning to the other twin, the Ranger Company’s XO, First Lieutenant Odysseus Bollinger, said, “Austin, take good care of Jamal.”

Both of them chorused, “We will, sir!” and saluted him.

He returned their salutes and then turned to walk off as they boarded the ship. Having overheard his former XO, Top decided he just had to know and stopped the officer. “How do you tell them apart, XO? You are the only one who can do it, and you never get them wrong.”

“Bugs you, does it?” asked the XO, smiling. “You’re such a good judge of people, Master Sergeant. How is it that you can’t tell them apart?”

“To tell you the truth sir, it bugs the ever-living crap out of me,” answered Top.

“OK,” said the XO, “I’ll tell you, if you promise to keep it just between us. Deal?”

“Absolutely sir. Deal!” agreed Top.

“OK,” the XO repeated, “the secret is that the twins aren’t just identical. They’re mirror image twins.”

“What the hell does that mean sir?” asked Top.

“A set of mirror image twins are identical twins that are created when the fertilized egg splits late, between days 9-12; if it split any later, they might be born conjoined. Mirror image twins are genetically identical, including the same DNA, but they have small mirror image differences. With the Gordons, they have two different size feet; with each of them the opposite foot is larger. They each buy a set of different size shoes and trade one to the other.”

“So you look at their feet?” asked Top

“Naw, that would be too hard. Besides, it’s only a half size different, and I can’t tell that.” The XO shrugged and smiled. “I know; I tried.”

“So, how do you do it?” Top growled, starting to lose his patience.

“It’s actually very easy,” said the XO, giving in. “They are opposite handed; Jamal is left-handed, and Austin is right. When they talk, they always point and gesture with their dominant hand; if one is pointing with his left hand, it’s Jamal. You can’t tell them that you know that, though, or they’ll disguise it. They’ve practiced all their life to imitate each other and can do it when they think about it. They can even write with their off hands if they have to. I understand it took almost a year before they mastered that. Watch them when they stand next to each other; they look like a mirror of each other.”

“Wow XO, you’ve got some outstanding powers of observation,” exclaimed Top. “No one else has ever caught on to that.”

“Or, maybe there’s another explanation…” the XO said, allowing his voice to trail off.

“Uncle!” said Top, “Just tell me already!”

“You’re going about it all wrong,” said the XO. “There was an easier way to figure it out.” He paused, grinning. “I asked their mom.”

“Gah!” exclaimed Top. “Why didn’t I think of that? It seems too easy!”

The XO shook his head. “Actually, it wasn’t easy. She made me beg and plead. Finally, she made me promise to give her status updates on them, because they never write or call. I promised to do that, and she told me the secret. Of course, since I’m not going on the mission, you’ll have to do it for me. Would you do that? She’s really a very nice woman, despite how her sons act.”

“Yes sir,” agreed Top, “I’ll write her about the mission...when I can.”

“Good,” answered the XO. “In that case, I’ll give you a freebie. Their surfer-dude accent is faked.”

“It is?” asked the first sergeant.

The XO nodded. “Yep, it’s all a big put on. They’re actually from Wisconsin; they just do it to annoy people.”

“That’s too funny!” exclaimed Top, and they both started laughing.

“Why haven’t you ever said anything?” asked Top, once they had stopped.

“Isn’t it more fun to be in on the joke?” asked the XO.

USS Vella Gulf, Naval Station Norfolk, March 13, 2019

The USS Vella Gulf departed Pier 7 at Naval Station Norfolk on its final deployment. A sense of nostalgia filled the air. Captain Deutch looked at his executive officer, Captain Lorena Griffin, “In some ways, I’m almost sorry that we won’t be taking this ship on her last deployment. She deserves one more cruise before getting decommissioned.”

It wasn’t long before the ship was passing the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT), where several news crews had parked to get their digital recordings of the ship’s last transit. The executive officer nodded toward the TV crews. “It appears our departure is being well noted.”

“Good,” said the Captain Deutch. “Let them see us leaving.”

The ship passed the HRBT and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and was out into the Atlantic Ocean. Captain Deutch had the helmsman take the ship far enough out that they couldn’t be seen from the beach and then found an open area away from other ships.

We’re here,” he commed.

On our way,” replied Captain Howard Toncha, the WSO of Shuttle 01. Within minutes, the shuttle appeared next to the Vella Gulf. Its pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ken Smith, set the large craft down next to the ship with barely a splash. The shuttle crew quickly tied up to the Gulf and put a boarding ramp in place between the two ships. Half of the crew from the USS Vella Gulf made their way to the shuttle for transport to the TSS Vella Gulf. As the shuttle lifted off and cloaked, Captain Deutch was amazed at how quietly the shuttle could move when its pilot only used its anti-gravity systems. If the object was to overawe viewers with a roar and mass of flames, the shuttle could also land using its thrusters at full power. He had seen it done once that way, too, and knew it was impressive.

The last rays of nautical twilight faded, and the ship turned back west and retraced its path. Although all of its navigational equipment was on, all of its lights were off. The ship carefully passed both bridge tunnels and proceeded up the James River to where the Dead Fleet silently kept watch over the waterway.

The National Defense Reserve Fleet or ‘Dead Fleet’ was a group of about 25 retired merchant ships that waited silently at anchor in the middle of the James River. The ships had been preserved and were maintained at a moderate state of readiness on the chance that one day the nation might have an urgent need for additional merchant shipping. The Captain watched, holding his breath unconsciously, as the Vella Gulf silently approached a group of seven large former fleet oilers, which they would use to camouflage the ship. Finding the gap that tugboats had opened for them earlier in the day, the crew tied the ship up between the USS Merrimack (AO-179) and the USS Monongahela (AO-178) and began shutting down its systems.

As the remaining crew members finished with their duties, they boarded the second shuttle from the TSS Vella Gulf that had materialized next to the cruiser’s stern. Captain Deutch looked at the ship’s logo on the Monongahela. In the center of it was the Monongahela’s motto, ‘Pride in Service.’ Captain Deutch sighed, lost in nostalgia. Pride in service was what it was all about. Those that had never served would never know what it felt like to leave the ship that had been your home for two years, as well as the home for your close-knit family of 400. It might be a dysfunctional family at times, but what family wasn’t?

Within minutes, the Commanding Officer was the only person left onboard the ship, standing alone on the bridge wing. He looked at the Vella Gulf’s motto next to him, ‘Move Swiftly, Strike Vigorously!’ The new Vella Gulf was going to move faster than any U.S. ship had ever moved before. He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to strike vigorously, or they would run the risk of failing completely in their mission. Misty-eyed, he patted the Vella Gulf’s plaque one last time for luck. “Good luck old lady,” he said, before walking to the ramp.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Approaching Black Hole #2, Solar System, March 14, 2019

“Five minutes to wormhole entrance!” called the helmsman.

“Sound General Quarters!” ordered Captain Deutch. Onboard United States’ ships, the General Quarters announcement was made to signal that battle or the threat of damage was imminent. Also called “Battle Stations,” whenever the call was made, the crew would quickly prepare the ship for battle. All of the crew (including any that had been sleeping when the call was made) would report to their combat positions and would close all of the ship’s watertight and fireproof doors to keep any potential damage from spreading. Captain Deutch didn’t have any idea of what lay on the other side of the stargate, and he wanted to be prepared for battle if it was waiting for them. For a similar reason, all six of the Vipers were manned in case they were needed upon system entry.

“Aye aye, sir!” said the duty engineer, seated next to the helmsman at the front console. He was responsible for all of the damage control systems. He turned on the General Quarters alarm. “Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!” sounded a bell. It was followed with the engineer’s call of “General Quarters, General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations!”

Captain Deutch looked around the bridge. There were many extra people on the bridge who did not have battle stations there, but who had found a reason to be on it for the transit. As he was sure that he would have done the same thing, he didn’t say anything or kick them off.

Arges was running the science station, and Brontes was looking at something on one of his screens. Similarly, the Operations and Communications stations each had an extra person staring with feigned concentration at something on their screens, while they looked at the main view screens out of the corners of their eyes. Security had two extra people. In addition to the bridge crew, Calvin sat in his seat to the left of the commanding officer, and the executive officer was to his right. Steropes had claimed the extra chair on the other side of Calvin, and the ambassador was on the other side of the XO.

Captain Deutch looked at Steropes. “So, you’re sure you don’t know what’s on the other side of this black hole?” he asked. Captain Deutch had come to understand that the Psiclopes didn’t have a problem with lying when they thought it necessary. On many occasions, he had also seen them say that they didn’t know anything about a subject they didn’t want to tell the Terrans about, even though they knew all about it. It never hurt to ask a second (or third, or fourth) time; sometimes you got the answer you wanted after all.

“No,” said Steropes, “I really don’t. This black hole was discovered after the fall of Atlantis, and we didn’t have the crew to go explore it. We could have done it with Solomon in control, but that went against policy.”

“It’s a silly policy,” noted the AI, “but it is against regulations.” Interesting, Deutch thought. Solomon seemed excited to be operationally deploying again after all these years. Normally, the AI didn’t express his opinions unless he was asked.

“That leads me to another question,” said the CO. “If this is an Eldive ship, and they perished 3,000 years ago, how old is the Vella Gulf?”

“I am 3,348 of your years old,” answered Solomon, since the AI was part of the original equipment.

“Hmmm,” said Deutch, “that’s pretty old. How much does it stress the ship to go through a stargate?” He hoped he wouldn’t be the first human to go through a stargate only to find that his ship blew up upon re-entry because it was old and fell apart.

“It does not stress the ship to go through a stargate,” replied Solomon. “I am in fine working order and am in no danger of structural failure.”

“Even though the ship is old,” said Steropes, “it may still have some surprises for anyone that is familiar with its type of ship.”

“Like what?” asked Deutch.

“We received technology updates until recently,” replied Steropes, “and our lasers and grasers have been updated to Alliance standards. We also got the replicator designs for both anti-ship missiles and counter-missile missiles, so most of our offensive and defensive systems are close to what the advanced civilizations will have. We will be a bit of a surprise to any species that is familiar with this ship type.”

“It is unlikely that anyone will be familiar with me,” remarked Solomon. “I am the only remaining member of my class and have been unique for longer than many civilizations have existed.”

“While that cannot be proven conclusively,” said Arges, “it is indeed likely. Until the Vella Gulf showed up on Earth, it was believed that all of the Eldive vessels had been destroyed in the final battle with the Drakuls.”

“One minute until stargate!” called the helmsman.

“So, just a little disorientation?” asked Deutch.

“A little disorientation,” confirmed Steropes. “It will affect the equipment longer than the personnel.”

The helmsman looked up. “Wormhole entrance...”

The stars in the viewer expanded into infinity and everything went black...then went sideways...then went orange...then went salty...

  KIRO-TV, Channel 7, Seattle, WA, March 14, 2019

“In national news this evening, the White House has announced a new trade initiative with the nation of Nigeria,” read KIRO’s anchorwoman, Anna St. Cloud. “In a joint press conference, President Bill Jacobs, Secretary of Commerce Nick David, and Oloye Ayodeji Moro, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, announced that the United States and Nigeria had signed the major initiative, which gives the Federal Republic of Nigeria a large amount of aid to build a new federal government complex.”

The camera cut to the president standing at a podium. “I’m very happy to announce this initiative. As you probably know, Nigeria is the United States’ largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa and is also eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This agreement today will both extend and expand the long-established bilateral trade and investment framework which already exists between the United States and Nigeria. We want to help our friends in Nigeria by working with them to build a new federal government complex that will continue to support and promote unity among its people.”

The camera returned to Anna St. Cloud. “Some experts believe that this aid would not have been possible if Nigeria hadn’t supported the United States during the Sino-American War,” reported St. Cloud. “They also point out that the site is much larger than is strictly necessary for a new government complex, leading them to question what else might be included in the aid package.”

“Not everyone was in favor of giving aid to Nigeria,” said Bob Brant, the station’s co-anchor. “The news of the aid package immediately sparked protests on the Washington Mall.”

The scene shifted to a group of about 50 protestors marching in front of the Capitol building. The newsman stuck the microphone in front of a man bearing the sign, ‘Save Americans First.’ “I don’t see why we continue to send money overseas while we still have so much poverty here,” he said. “We need jobs in America!”

The camera shifted back to Ms. St. Cloud. “In local news…”

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, V452 Vulpecula System (HD 189733), March 14, 2019

“,” said the helmsman.

“The equipment is stabilizing...” said Arges. “Launching probes.” A variety of probes were launched from the ship in all directions, expanding the ship’s sensor net and giving them a better chance of detecting any ships or civilizations in the system. They looked for a number of signs of life, from power usage to anomalous gravity spikes to electromagnetic radiation.

“Anyone else taste salty?” asked Calvin.

“That is an aftereffect of the wormhole,” Brontes said. “For some reason, every wormhole that we know of activates one set of receptors on the tongue, regardless of race.”

“Which is peculiar,” Steropes added, “since there are two different processes that make up the sense of taste. We don’t know how it causes this affect. We just know it does. Just be glad this wasn’t a bitter one; they are the worst. It takes days to get rid of the taste of the bitter ones.”

“A lactose-based beverage has been shown to ameliorate the effects of the bitter transition,” said Arges.

“A what?” asked the helmsman, turning around.

“Drink milk,” said Captain Deutch to the helmsman. Turning to look over his shoulder, he asked, “More importantly, Arges, how’s that scan coming?”

“Almost complete,” replied Arges. “I am receiving no signs of habitation or ship emissions. Based on known stars, we appear to be in the V452 Vulpecula system. We are about 63 light-years away from Sol in the constellation of Vulpecula, the Fox. This is a two-star system, with an orange dwarf star as its primary and a red dwarf star about two billion miles away as its secondary. Compared with your star, Sol, the primary star of this system has about 82% of its mass, 75% of its radius, and 26% of its luminosity. I’m still searching for planets, but I don’t see any signs of life in the system.”

“Permission to stand down the alert fighters?” requested Calvin.

“Granted,” replied Captain Deutch.

Skipper to all Spacehawks,” Calvin commed. “Stand down from alert. Nothing appears to be going on in this system. No signs of life, good or bad.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, V452 Vulpecula System (HD 189733), March 20, 2019

“The system has one planet,” Arges concluded. “V452 Vulpecula ‘a’ orbits at about 2.9 million miles from the system’s primary star.” He brought a long range image up on the screen. A small bluish dot with an arrow pointing toward it was annotated near the star. “As you can see, the planet has a deep blue hue.”

“So it’s a water world like Earth?” asked Captain Deutch.

“Unfortunately, no,” answered Arges. “The color you see is because of its optically reflective silicate clouds.”

“Or, to be a little more descriptive,” said Steropes, “it’s raining molten glass.”

“If that’s the reason for the blue color,” commented Captain Deutch, “I doubt it’s going to be habitable then, is it?”

“No, Captain Deutch, it is not,” answered Arges. “The glass rain is one consequence of the planet’s close proximity to its star, HD 189733. Another corollary is that it has a year that is only 2.2 Earth days long. The planet is tidally locked so that one side always faces the star, like Earth’s moon. Temperatures are estimated to be about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit on the day side and 1,200 degrees on the night side.”

 “One other interesting thing,” said Arges “is that the planet is so close to the star that its atmosphere is bleeding from it at a rate of approximately 600 million pounds per second. At some point in the future, there will be nothing left but the small rocky core of the planet.”

“That is very interesting and all,” said Deutch, “but is there anything of value that would keep us here?”

“I take it that by ‘anything of value,’ you do not mean scientific value, correct?” asked Arges. Receiving a nod, he continued. “In that case, no, there is nothing to keep us here.” He looked down at his equipment, “Based on magnetic anomaly analysis, our probes have found one gate out of the system. We can proceed to it and depart the system, although I would recommend staying for a couple of days to study the unique transformation of the system’s planet.”

“Thank you, Arges,” said Captain Deutch. He turned back to the front and ordered, “Helmsman, proceed toward the new gate that Arges has found at full speed. Let me know when we’re within 30 minutes of arrival. I’ll be in my state room.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani System, April 29, 2019

Arges watched his displays, humming to himself. This was the fifth system that they had explored since leaving the Solar System. After the first system they had surveyed, they had transited through the system containing Kapteyn’s Star, then the Lacaille 8760 system and then the 61 Cygni system. The first two of those stars were red dwarfs with no planets. 61 Cygni was an orange star, a little bigger and hotter than the other two, but it also didn’t have any planets.

61 Cygni was important because it was a nexus system, though; instead of two stargates, it had at least three, giving them two exits to pick from. It also left a gate behind them that they would have to explore at another time.

Finally, Arges announced, “This system has a single star, whose mass is estimated at about 82% of your sun. Its radius is about 74% of the sun, and its luminosity is only about one-third, giving it an estimated surface temperature of only about 5,100 degrees Kelvin. Based on triangulation with known star systems, this appears to be the Epsilon Eridani system.”

“I recognize that one from my astronomy class,” remarked Captain Deutch. “It’s fairly close to our system, correct?”

“Yes sir,” replied Arges. “This system is only about 10.5 light years from Earth, and Epsilon Eridani can be observed from most of the Earth’s surface. It is located in the northern part of the constellation Eridanus, which is the constellation to the right of Orion as someone on Earth would look at it.”

“Any idea on planets yet?” asked Captain Deutch.

“Your astronomers have long known that this system has a giant planet, which I can confirm. This planet, Epsilon Eridani ‘b,’ orbits at 3.357 astronomical units from Epsilon Eridani and has an orbital period of about 7 years.

“How far is an astronomical unit?” asked the duty engineer, sitting next to the helmsman.

“An astronomical unit, or AU for short, is the distance between the Earth and the Sun,” explained Captain Deutch. “It’s about 93 million miles.”

“Epsilon Eridani ‘b’ is a gas giant like Jupiter and almost as big,” continued Arges. “Besides this planet, the system has two belts of rocky asteroids with one at about 3 AU and a second at about 20 AU. It appears that the structure of this belt is being maintained by a second planet, Epsilon Eridani ‘c,’ which orbits at a distance of 40 AU. The ‘c’ planet probably formed closer to the star and migrated outward because of gravitational interaction.

“The bottom line,” said the XO, “is that there’s nothing interesting to be seen here and no signs of habitation?”

“That is incorrect,” replied Arges, “as I have been saving the best part for last. This system also has a third planet located about 0.55 AU from the star. As Epsilon Eridani is much less luminous than your Sun, this orbit puts it in the heart of this star’s habitable zone. The distance where this star’s stellar flux matches what the Earth gets is at 0.61 AU, so this planet will be just slightly warmer than Earth.”

“I just got back the results of the planet’s surface scan,” continued Arges. He paused and looked around the bridge. “Not only is planet Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ habitable...the planet is inhabited.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, April 30, 2019

“The planet is very much like your home planet in temperature and seasons,” said Arges, “as it gets nearly the same amount of radiation from its star and has nearly the same axial tilt. It is different, however, in the amount of land area. This planet does not have as much. In fact, it only has two large land masses, both about the size of your continent of Australia. The two continents are nearly on opposite sides of the planet, although there are a few volcanic islands in between. The atmosphere is also similar to Earth, although there is a slightly higher concentration of sulfur present in the air.”

“You said it was inhabited,” said Ambassador Flowers. This was the first civilization that they had found; he was happy to finally have something to do. “Can you tell how advanced the society is?”

“It is impossible to tell exactly from here,” said Arges, “but it appears to be similar to what your planet was like in the year 1775 or so. Also, it looks as if there is not one, but two distinct civilizations on the planet.” He pointed to the continent that was at the planet’s equator. “The civilization that inhabits this continent appears to favor one-story houses that are usually located in the swampier areas of the continent. This civilization is therapod in appearance.”

The helmsman’s hand went up. Seeing it, Captain Deutch said simply, “They’re lizards.”

“Thanks skipper,” said the helmsman.

“Well, the cameras are not quite good enough to ascertain whether they are actually lizards,” corrected Arges, “but they do appear to be analogous to it. As closely as I can tell, they look a lot like smaller versions of your planet’s tyrannosaurus rex.”

“And the other civilization?” asked the executive officer, Captain Griffin, who hated the way Arges always had to draw everything out.

“The other civilization inhabits the continent that is in the temperate zone on the other side of the planet,” Arges answered. “The inhabitants of that civilization look very similar to humans.”

“OK,” decided Ambassador Flowers, “that is where we’ll make our first landing. I’ll want to establish contact with them as soon as possible.”

“Wait,” said the XO, “if they’re not developed, we can’t contact them, can we? Isn’t there some sort of first directive or something that prohibits it?”

“What you are thinking of is the Prime Directive that many TV shows and movies used to talk about,” said Captain Deutch. “That directive stated that no primitive culture could be given any information regarding advanced technology or civilizations because it might alter the natural development of the society.” He paused and then said, “It might be nice to have something like that, XO, but our society is in jeopardy. We need help from wherever we can get it, even if they are underdeveloped.”

“Yeah,” agreed Calvin, who had been at the meeting where this was decided. “If we don’t contact them, we just leave them less prepared for when the Drakuls or some similar race comes. It’s actually in their best interest for us to contact them. Sort of. At least, that’s how we’re rationalizing it. If they end up helping us, so much the better.”

“Out of curiosity,” Arges asked, “is it ethnocentrism to start with the race that resembles your own?”

“Actually,” replied Ambassador Flowers, “I do not believe it to be so. I selected them, not because they looked like us, but because I thought that it might be easier on them to interact with us. I don’t know what relations are like between the two races on the planet, but if they are not going well, then going to the therapods first might not be the wisest choice.”

“That makes sense,” said Captain Deutch. “How big a team to do you want to go down with you?”

While the ambassador paused to consider, Calvin commed Night, who was standing behind him. “What do you think?” he asked.

Either you or me, Top, and six others, minimum,” Night replied.

That’s about what I thought, too,” replied Calvin. “Enough to be a presence, but not so many that you make the locals unnecessarily afraid.

With our suits and advanced armaments,” Night said, “we ought to be able to control any situation with the locals without any problems.

The ambassador had come to a decision. “I don’t see the need for any more than one or two,” he said. “I don’t want to look too warlike.”

“Captain, I think that will leave the ambassador a little under-protected,” said Calvin. Deutch looked over and could see Night nodding his head in agreement. “At a minimum,” Calvin continued, “I think that I should go, along with one of my senior enlisted and at least six other troops. Everyone has to sleep at some point, and we need enough folks to stand watch. We don’t know anything about this civilization. I don’t want to get into something that we can’t get back out of.”

“I agree,” said Captain Deutch. “You need enough troops to provide security and to look like an honor guard, as well. At their stage of development, if you didn’t have retainers or men-at-arms, they might not think you were as powerful a leader, and might not want to meet with you.”

“That makes sense, I guess,” agreed the ambassador. “I will take down the eight that Lieutenant Commander Hobbs suggests.”

Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 1, 2019

The shuttle came in and touched down gently. As the boarding ramp came down, Top and six soldiers jumped out into the cool night air and quickly set up a defensive perimeter around the shuttle. Although the shuttle’s sensors hadn’t shown any signs of human-sized life within a mile of the field, it never hurt to be too careful. Seeing no one, Top gave the “all clear.” The ambassador strode purposefully down the ramp, with Calvin at his side. As they moved away from the shuttle, Calvin noticed the rotten egg scent of sulfur in the air. Although the air was breathable, it wouldn’t be pleasant until they got used to it.

Once the ambassador was clear of the shuttle, its ramp came up, and it launched back into the sky, cloaking as it cleared the tree line.

Looking around, Calvin couldn’t see much of the field, even with his enhanced night vision. He wished that they had been able to wear their space/combat suits, but the ambassador had not wanted to unnecessarily scare the locals, so the soldiers were dressed in their black battle dress uniforms. Like most of the United States’ militaries, it was a digital camouflage pattern, although it was in various shades of black and gray, rather than predominantly green or blue. Although the society had obviously developed the capability to process metal, the Terrans had surveyed the planet for several days and hadn’t seen any type of weapon more advanced than swords or crossbows, so the ambassador had requested that they not wear the suits or bring their lasers. All of the soldiers wore swords instead, having hastily downloaded and practiced basic sword fighting techniques.

Calvin continued to survey his surroundings and saw that he was in a large field of the local version of grass. Although it was a light green in color (in the daylight anyway), that is where the resemblance to grass ended. It didn’t have blades; instead, its leaves were tubular and woody, making a soft crackling noise as they marched across it to the road. “It’ll be hard to sneak up on anyone if you’re walking across this stuff,” commented Top, “Even if they can’t see you, they’re going to hear you coming a long way off.”

The field was roughly square-shaped with each side about a quarter of a mile in length. Some sort of tree analog ringed the field, although Calvin couldn’t see what it looked like very well in the dark. A road ran through the middle of the field, and the eight men and one woman began to follow it in the direction of a small town about ten miles away to the east. The ambassador had decided to start there, so that he could gather information on the civilization’s language and culture before meeting the rulers that he expected to find at the continent’s major city about 55 miles to the north.

After about an hour on the road, the planet’s orange star rose above the horizon. It wasn’t as bright as the Earth’s sun, and the color was a little bit off. The strange shadows played tricks on the soldiers’ eyes and kept them from seeing the local who was walking toward them until he was within about 100 yards of them. The man was obviously some kind of farmer or merchant, as he was leading an animal pulling a wagon loaded with some kind of red fruit or vegetable.

The man appeared very much like a human in form and function, although one that was very robustly built and powerful looking; he was almost as well-muscled as the surgically-enhanced soldiers. His forehead was fairly straight with only slight brow ridges, and he had a prominent chin jutting from a head that was a little larger than normal for the Terrans. The man was about five and a half feet tall with a wide face and prominent nose. He had both dark brown skin and hair, which fell most of the way down his back in a long braid.

The animal that was pulling the wagon was taller than the man and nearly five feet wide. As the wagon drew near, Calvin decided that the beast looked like a cross between a hippo and an elephant. The creature was hippo-like in appearance, but stood at least seven feet high at the shoulders. The biggest difference was its color; the hippophant was a brilliant cobalt blue.

The man leading the animal walked along looking at the ground mumbling something. He happened to look up as he approached the group and, seeing the large group of men clad in black, he gave a shout and took off running in the direction from which he had come.

“Did anyone catch what he said?” asked Ambassador Flowers.

“I didn’t,” replied Top. “The translation software didn’t have enough to evaluate it...although it did give an 85% chance that what he said was a swear word.” Looking at the hippophant, he asked, “Do you suppose we should bring this along?”

Calvin looked at the large animal. When the man dropped its reins, the beast had taken a couple of steps off the road to munch on some of the woody grass that was growing there. The hippophant made a loud crunching noise as it chewed with its mouth open.

“It appears tame,” said Calvin. “Yeah, let’s bring it. Maybe we can get some brownie points for returning it.”

Top looked around to find the junior man. “Petty Officer Conboy, you’re on animal detail.” Taking a couple of steps closer to where the animal was eating, Top scrunched up his face. “I didn’t think this planet could smell any worse, but that damn thing does. Make sure you stay downwind of us!”

After another couple of hours, the walls of the town came into view. They hadn’t seen another person along the way, which Calvin found a little troubling. A couple of the houses they passed had smoke coming from their chimneys, but all of them appeared to be boarded up tightly. The man they saw must have alerted the locals to their presence, Calvin decided. The soldiers refrained from approaching the houses, as the ambassador didn’t want to scare the locals into doing something they would all regret later.

As the group approached the town, they could see that the town’s gates were shut and the walls were manned. Calvin looked closer and saw that almost all of the men on the walls were armed with crossbows. These weapons were different from terrestrial crossbows, in that the Eridanian version had two bows on the end of them, rather than just one. While the soldiers that looked down on them from the walls were not quite pointing their weapons at the Terran delegation, they also weren’t pointing them very far away from them, either.

Everyone stay calm and don’t make any sudden movements,” commed Calvin. “We don’t want anyone getting hasty here. Anyone know the max range of a crossbow?

“I’ve hunted with one,” replied Top, “and I wouldn’t shoot at anything much beyond about 40 yards. You can hit something with it further than that, but most of the kinetic energy is gone, and you can’t ensure accurate penetration.

Got it,” said Calvin. “Let’s stop about 50 yards out then.

Top called a halt when the first rank got to about 50 yards.

Let them make the first move,” commed the ambassador. The group waited for the people on the wall to do something.

And they waited.

And waited some more. Ten minutes went by without anything happening. long would you like to wait?” asked Calvin.

I’m surprised that no one has come out to meet with us,” replied the ambassador. “Obviously they don’t have a cultural imperative to welcome foreigners.

“Hello in the town!” called Calvin

“Grteap sgrti whir mungr!” replied the only man not holding a crossbow, pointing to the north.

“How about you open the gates, and we discuss this over a beer?” asked Calvin in a hopeful tone.

“Grteap sgrti whir mungr!” replied the same man again, gesturing even more pointedly to the north.

“So a beer is out of the question?” asked Calvin. The man that had replied moved out of sight.

“Hey sir,” said Top, “maybe he’s going to get that beer for you after all.”

A small door at the base of the gate opened, and a man was forcibly pushed through it. He turned around and tried to go back through the door, but it slammed in his face. He turned to face them, looking scared, but moved no further. “That looks like the guy we saw earlier, sir,” commed Cabo Segundo Cristobal Contreras. The Chilean sergeant had been the closest to the man earlier. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy.” The man, if indeed it was the same one, did not appear to want to get any closer to the Terrans now than he had earlier in the day.

After a few seconds, the other man appeared back on the wall. Seeing that the man at the door hadn’t moved, the man on the wall yelled something down to him. The door behind him opened and, before he could make a move toward it, the point of some sort of bladed weapon poked at him. Seeing he had no choice, he shuffled resignedly over to Petty Officer Conboy, who was still holding the reins of the hippophant. Taking the reins from him, the man started leading the animal to the north.

He walked about ten yards and then turned to look at the Terrans. Seeing they hadn’t moved, he gave a very familiar ‘come along’ motion with his hand and began walking again. To emphasize what he wanted, the man on the wall said “Go!” and pointed in their direction of travel.

“My translation software caught that as ‘go,’” said Calvin to the ambassador.

“Mine did, as well,” the ambassador replied. “Apparently, all diplomats must check in with the capital first.” He looked at the troops all waiting for his decision. “In that case,” he said, “I guess we’ll just have to follow our guide.”

The Terrans turned and began following the local. Calvin looked back once to see that all of the people on the wall were still staring at them. The crossbowmen did not seem to have relaxed their postures any. Calvin turned back to follow the group. He resisted the urge to give their leader, who was now smiling broadly, the finger.

The group walked for about a mile with the man looking back at the town from time to time. Finally, they went around a curve, and the town was lost from sight. Sighing, the man turned to Calvin and said, “Go fheri akdje mene eoosj.”

Calvin shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, but I don’t have any idea what you’re saying,” he said.

The man sighed again and pointed at Calvin. “You.” He pantomimed eating. “Eat.” He pointed at himself. “Me.” He added one more word, but it didn’t get translated.

Calvin repeated in the man’s language, “Me eat you.”

He shook his head, “Yes.”

“Apparently the translation program picked up something we missed,” said Top, “because I know he shook his head ‘no.’”

“Or shaking his head means ‘yes’ in this culture,” said the ambassador, who had been trained not to apply his own mannerisms to other cultures. He turned to the local. “We are not going to eat you.”

The man looked confused. “Eat treeji?” he asked, pointing at the hippophant.

“No, we are not going to eat the treeji either,” answered the ambassador. He turned to Calvin. “Why don’t we break here for lunch, and let me talk with this man for a while. That will give the translation software a chance to catch up, and then maybe we can make some sense of what is going on here.”

Two hours later, the ambassador and the local man rejoined the group. During that time, they had seen five groups of travelers. Four of the groups had gone off the road to avoid the Terrans; the other group had a heavily laden wagon that they turned around instead.

The man walked up to the wagon where the treeji was happily munching the ‘grass’ on the side of the road. He pulled several of the red items from it. “Would you like a yurg fruit?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” replied Calvin. Looking at the ambassador he said, “It looks like the translation program has figured out the language.”

“For most things, yes,” agreed the ambassador. “This is Gurp, a farmer from southwest of here. He is convinced that we are here to eat him and destroy his society.”

“Well, I got the fact that he thought we were going to eat him,” said Calvin, “although the destroying society part is new. Why does he think we’re going to do those things?”

“They have a belief that things that look like men, but who are not men, will come from the skies dressed in black clothing and destroy their society. Apparently this happened once before, and the only thing that saved this civilization was the arrival of angels, who came from the skies to drive them off.” He looked at Gurp and then back to Calvin. “We are, quite simply, the bogeymen.”

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

Approaching Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 3, 2019

The Terrans had spent two nights on the road to the capital city of Remurn. They did not have to fight traffic, even as they approached the capital city. All of the locals avoided the Terrans like they were diseased. As they came around a bend, the city was finally visible about a mile away. It sat on a plateau that rose over 100 feet above the rest of the terrain with a natural ramp 50 feet wide that led up to it.

The platoon saw that there were statues along the rise in the road. Gurp turned around, looking worried.

“What’s wrong?” asked the ambassador.

“I do not know,” said the local man. “Those weren’t there before. If they are what I think they are, something bad must have happened.”

As the group got closer, they found out the truth. What they had thought were statues were, in fact, members of the planet’s lizard race impaled on eight foot tall pikes. The last 150 feet of the ramp had one on each side about ten feet apart. At least 30 of the 6’ tyrannosaurus rex-like creatures had been viciously impaled; from the size of the blood stains, they had either been impaled while they were living or very shortly thereafter.

Their reception at the capital was very different than it had been at the smaller town they had approached earlier. Nearly 20 men waited for them in front of gates that stood wide open. As the Terrans reached them, one man dressed in fine robes and covered in jewelry stepped forward, and all of the local men bowed. He was taller than the rest and mustached; he carried himself with an obvious air of authority.  “Welcome to our land, strangers,” he proclaimed in a deep voice. “We received word that you were coming. I am the chief advisor to the king, who sent me to welcome you to our city. All audiences with the king are held in the morning hours, and he has requested your presence at court tomorrow morning. Until that time, we have arranged for rooms for you at the Purple Treeji Inn.” He waved one of the other men forward.

“Blin will show you the way and will bring you to court in the morning,” he continued, motioning toward the man. “Please make yourselves at home and feel free to ask Blin any questions you might have. If you would like to visit our shops, our merchants have been told to give you whatever you need, within reason, and the king will reimburse them out of his own funds.”

The robed man bowed. “Until tomorrow then,” he said. Before the ambassador could say a word, the man turned, and all of the men except Blin began to walk back into the city. Blin stepped forward and said, “I would like to welcome you to Remurn. If you would follow me?” He stepped off quickly in a different direction then the other men went, but the ambassador didn’t move. Seeing the ambassador immobile, Top called the men to a halt.

Calvin looked at him curiously. “Something is very odd here,” commed the ambassador. “No one will talk to us at the town we landed near, and here we’re welcomed with open arms? What are we missing?

Calvin looked around. Although the locals had gone to great lengths to avoid them previously, it seemed like everything was normal within the city. People bustled past, hurrying about their errands. Some of the lizards could also be seen, although they were much fewer in number. If anyone in the city, or any of the lizards, seemed disturbed by the men in strange uniforms, it was not readily apparent. “You’re right,” said Calvin. “No one is paying us any attention at all, and everyone previously thought we were going to eat them. one said anything about the lizards along the road either. I’m not sure what kind of message they thought they were sending us by leaving them there for us to walk through.

I’m guessing that it was to say they’re not afraid of us,” noted Top. “Everything’s normal, and we don’t care that you’re here. Piss us off, and you’ll get what the lizards got.

We had terrorists come across the border from Peru a few times,” said Cabo Segundo Cristobal Contreras. “They often did things like this to terrorize the peasants and show them who really held the power. I for one refuse to bow to them. This only pisses me off. They did this to them while they were alive!”

I don’t know what the lizards did to deserve this,” replied Calvin, “but the whole show pisses me off too. They better have some really good reasons for it, or they really are going to meet the bogeymen of their dreams.

Blin had returned during their brief conversation and looked at the ambassador. “Is there a problem?”

“Well, Blin,” replied Ambassador Flowers, “we are new here, and we do not understand what is going on in the city. Before now, everyone avoided us. Here, no one seems to care. This seems odd to us, and we are wondering why it is. We are also wondering what the lizards did to get impaled.”

Blin looked confused. “What is a ‘leezard?’” he asked. The ambassador turned and looked pointedly at the rows of pikes and their gruesome burdens.

The local frowned. “Oh, the kuji,” he said dismissively, making a shooing motion with one hand. “Until recently, we were at war with them. We won the war and brought their princess here to ensure their good behavior. A large group tried to infiltrate the city to kidnap her. They failed and were placed here to warn the rest of the cold-bloods not to try it again.”

“So she is a hostage here?” asked Contreras.

Blin rounded on the Chilean soldier and glared at him. “You would be wise to remember whose city you are in,” said Blin. “Kuji-lovers are not welcome here. Except as pole sitters, that is.” He looked at the impaled lizards. “Perhaps you would like to join them?”

Contreras opened his mouth to reply, but Calvin cut him off before his temper could get them in trouble. “I’m sure it is just a matter of being ignorant of your customs,” he said. “We will try to learn and abide by them.”  He then commed, “And woe be it to the person that tries to enforce anything on us.

The local nodded once and turned back to the ambassador. “As far as why people are unafraid of you here, it is because we are not ignorant peasants here in Remurn. Everyone knows that old wives’ tales are just that, old wives tales. There are no such things as either devils or angels.” He paused to let that sink in and then asked, “Are you ready to go?”

“Yes, I am,” said the ambassador, and Blin started off into the city. When he saw that Gurp was following with his treeji, he stopped. “That beast is not allowed in the merchant quarter of the city,” he said with a sour expression. “You must take it to the stables.” Blin pointed further to the left.

Gurp didn’t say anything; he just nodded and headed off in that direction. “Sergeant Hanzo,” Calvin commed, “why don’t you and Deadeye follow Gurp and make sure nothing bad happens to him? Bring him to the hotel once he gets the beast stabled.

Yes sir,” the two soldiers commed, dropping back. Within moments, they were lost to sight in the bustle of the city, although the hole that the treeji made in the crowd as it moved through the press was visible for several minutes longer.

The rest of the group followed Blin as he led them through the city. After 15 minutes, they came to a building with a sign bearing the image of a purple treeji out front. Blin walked in through the swinging door and up to the counter, shouldering aside two disgruntled looking men who were on their way out. As the Terrans approached the counter, they heard him say, “These are the nine foreigners that the king has said will be staying with you. Ensure that they are given suitable accommodations.”

The man at the counter nodded, an unhappy look on his face. “Space has just been cleared,” he said, nodding in the direction of the door that the two men had just left through. “I have a large room for them. It has two beds; the rest can sleep on the floor.” He looked at the group standing before him. “Unless my math skills have gone bad, though, I only see seven of them.”

Blin turned and counted the Terrans. “Where did the others go?” he asked after he had confirmed the count.

“The man that greeted us invited us to sample your local wares,” replied Calvin. “I believe that they stopped to do some shopping. I’m sure that they will be along shortly.”

Blin nodded not looking happy. “I will be back in the morning to get you for court,” he said after a few seconds. “The innkeeper will awaken you in time to get ready for your presentation. Please feel free to look around the city.” He bowed and left, going quickly through the door.

“Well, that was odd,” said the ambassador, looking at the door through which Blin had left as if he expected the man to come right back through.

“I am not one to question the actions of the security police,” said the innkeeper, also looking at the door. He turned to the ambassador and advised, “It would be better for you if you did the same.”

“Security police?” asked Calvin. “What are the security police?”

“The security police are the eyes and ears of Stref, who is the king’s advisor,” replied the innkeeper. “It is said that they are everywhere and are only loyal to Stref. People that have issues with the security police often turn up dead...when they turn up at all. You would be wise not to irritate Stref. Unless you have a death wish, that is.”

He came around from behind the counter and gave the soldiers a small smile. “Come,” he said, as he started up the stairs. “No more talk of this. I will show you to your room.”

They had just made it to the top of the stairs when the message from Deadeye came in.

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

The Stables, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 3, 2019 We seem to have a bit of a situation here,” commed Corporal Suzi ‘Deadeye’ Taylor as she surveyed the stables. When they reached the stables, Gurp had been told by the stable master to take his animal to one of the pens at the back of the building. Curious to see what kind of animals the locals might have, the two Terrans followed him to the back area and watched as he put his treeji into the designated pen. Turning around to leave, Deadeye found the way out blocked by six men, all of whom were taller than she. Even though she was 6’2”, the shortest was at least two inches taller than she.

Where Gurp was robustly built and powerful looking, all of the men were so massive that he looked slight in comparison. Unlike Gurp’s dark brown skin and hair, they were nearly midnight black in complexion, and their black hair was cropped short. More worrying, all six of the men carried clubs that were nearly as large as one of her legs.

Seeing them, Gurp said, “Whatever I have done to you, these people are strangers from another land. Let them pass, and I will come quietly.”

The largest of the men, a full six and a half feet tall, stepped forward, looked at Gurp and said in a very deep, uneducated voice, “Have no orders for them; they go. You come with us.”

Before Gurp could reply, Sergeant Hattori Hanzo stepped in front of him. Yokaze bowed to the men and said quietly, “This man is under the protection of my master. We do not want to harm you, but we cannot allow you to take him.”

The leader of the men looked at the Japanese man who stood at least a foot shorter than he and began laughing uproariously. When he was able to speak again, he said, “Little man, you not hurt me or men.” He began tapping his oversized club in the palm of his other hand. “I count to five, and then I squish you.”

Yokaze nodded once. “So be it,” he said. Reaching over his shoulders, he drew his swords, a 42” katana in his right hand and a 30” wakizashi in his left. The noise they made as they came out of their scabbards echoed loudly in the close confines of the stable. “Perhaps you would like to be first?” Deadeye’s sword made a counterpoint to his question as it cleared its scabbard.

“I count!” said the large man, who continued tapping. “One, two, five!” He swung the club without any warning at Yokaze. The Japanese man bent backward at the waist, avoiding the swing of the massive club. His right arm blurred and then came back into a ready position with the blade over his head.

The man’s club hit the ground at Gurp’s feet. Astonished, the tall men looked down to find their leader’s hand and forearm still attached to it! The leader seemed confused to see his arm on the ground. For him, usually it was one swing, and the fight was over. Then the pain hit him. “My arm! Kill them!” he screamed as he tried to stanch the flow of arterial blood with his other hand.

The five other men moved past their leader as he fell to his knees. Three headed toward Yokaze; the other two went to the other side of their fallen leader and approached Deadeye. “Damn!’ she said in English. “What I wouldn’t give for a laser pistol right now.”

“Just hold them off for a few seconds,” Yokaze replied calmly as he began slowly weaving his swords in a hypnotic pattern. “There are only three of them. I’ll be right with you.”

The three men facing Yokaze charged. Their focus was on him, and the man on the right didn’t see Gurp throw their leader’s club. It hit him in his left shin and staggered him. Yokaze saw him going down and sidestepped to the right around him. Holding the man in the middle at bay with the point of his katana, the wakizashi flashed, and the man on the right continued his fall to the ground. As he hit, his head rolled clear of his body.

Yokaze let the body fall past him and continued around it to face the man in the middle. The man on the left was now out of position behind his ally, and it took him a few critical seconds to go around him. As he moved around his ally to face Yokaze, he saw the man in the middle fall. Blood poured from at least five deep cuts to his chest and stomach.

The two men facing Deadeye chose not to charge her. Instead, they split up, trying to get one person behind her to club her. In order to keep them from flanking her, she had to move back away from them. She continued to move back until she reached the side of the corral. Seeing that she was unable to move any further, the men went to either side of her and began closing in. Knowing she was out of time, Deadeye did the only thing she could—she attacked. Seeing the man to the left was closer than the one on the right, she took a step left and then dove at the man, leading with her sword. The move was unexpected, and the man could do nothing but watch as the long sword slid into his stomach, and the point buried itself in his backbone.

He fell backward, pulling Deadeye along with him. She tried to pull the sword back out, but wasn’t able. The point was firmly imbedded. Sensing motion behind her, she rolled off to the right, narrowly avoiding the club that the other man swung at her. It hit the hilt of her sword, driving it even further into his partner. With a bellow of rage, the man swung the club in a backhanded blow, hitting her in the right knee.

Her leg went numb, and he smiled as he raised the club for the final blow. She tried to roll away from him, but found herself up against the next corral. Trapped, she watched as the man smiled and lifted his club for the fatal blow. It had just started down when the man grunted, and six inches of wakizashi exploded outward from his chest. Deadeye was familiar with Yokaze’s weapons and started to thank him, but as the body of the man fell to the side, she saw that it was Gurp who had stabbed him. He pulled the blade out of the man as the body continued to fall, looking at it curiously, as if seeing it for the first time.

“I will take that now,” said Yokaze from behind him.

Turning slightly, Gurp handed the ninja the weapon, still looking at it, lost in thought. Yokaze wiped it off on the dead man next to Deadeye. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“No,” she said, wincing as she tried to stand. “He hit me in the knee, and my leg’s gone numb. I’m afraid that he’s damaged something.”

The Purple Treeji, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 3, 2019

“I had killed all but one of my adversaries,” Yokaze said, “but he was not in a hurry to die. I could see Deadeye needed help, so I threw Gurp my wakizashi. After I finished with the one I was fighting, I looked up to see someone watching from the stable doorway. Gurp had just killed the last one, so I tried to catch the man in the doorway, but he ran away as soon as he saw me look over at him. Knowing that Deadeye was injured, I came back to help her. Gurp knew where the inn was and led us here.”

“Did you see what the man in the doorway looked like?” asked Calvin. “Would you know him if you saw him again?”

“Hai!” Yokaze affirmed. “Yes, he was a small man that looked like the person that brought you to this inn.”

“OK,” said Calvin, “let me know if you see him.” He turned to Gurp. “Thank you for your help.” Gurp nodded and blushed slightly, uncomfortable to be the center of attention. Calvin continued, “Do you know who the men were or what they wanted?”

Gurp shook his head. “I do not know them, but I know of them. They are from a tribe that lives in the center of the continent. The security police use them as their enforcers. If they take you away, it is unlikely that you will ever be seen again.” He shuddered. “I do not know what I have done, but I am a dead man.”

“You don’t have any idea why they could be looking for you?” asked the ambassador.

“None,” answered Gurp. “I am a poor farmer, who was taking my fruit to market when you met me. Had I not seen you, I would have sold it and gone home to my wife and children. I have never hurt anyone before today and have broken no laws that I know of. I have not even been to Remurn in several years.”

“So the only reason that anyone would want you would be to try to get information on us,” replied Calvin. The way he said it, it wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact.

“That is the only thing that I can think of,” agreed Gurp.

“They’re not getting him if I have anything to say about it!” exclaimed Deadeye, trying to get up. Her knee gave out on her, and she fell back onto the bed.

“I hope you’re not going to say you won’t stand for it,” said Top with a frown, “because you can’t even stand up on your own.” He looked at Calvin. “We need to get her back to the ship to get that knee looked at, sir.”

“I would recommend against it,” disagreed the ambassador. “If one of our group just disappears, it is going to raise a lot of questions. She can stay here when we go to court in the morning.”

Calvin sighed. “We were going to have to leave a couple of people here to guard Gurp, anyway,” he explained, “as we’re responsible for him. She can stay back here as well.”

“That would be fine,” agreed the ambassador. “I do not think we will need all of the soldiers at court. I doubt that they’re going to do anything there in front of everyone.”

“OK, then,” said Calvin, “here’s what we’re going to do...”

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

In Front of the Purple Treeji, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

The Terrans were waiting outside the inn when Blin came to get them in the morning. The planet’s star had just risen, and it was cool out, although the day promised to be much warmer once the star climbed a little higher. Along with Yokaze, Calvin had decided to bring Sergeant Hans Fleischer and the twins along with him as the ambassador’s escort. Top had elected to stay back with Deadeye and Gurp, and had convinced Calvin that Cristobel Contreras was better off remaining at the inn as well. The Chilean’s temper had almost landed them in trouble once; taking him to court would just be asking for trouble.

Blin looked at the group waiting for him and asked, “Where are the other members of your group?”

Calvin shrugged. “They aren’t feeling well this morning,” he explained. “They must have eaten something that didn’t agree with them, and now they’re sick in bed. It will just be the six of us.”

It was Blin’s turn to shrug. “OK, let’s go then,” he said. “We don’t want to be late.”

The local led them into the city. The number of people in the streets was already considerable, and the soldiers had to stay close to each other to keep from getting separated. It didn’t help that all of the locals seemed to sense Blin’s presence and made way for him, only to close back up after his passage, sometimes shouldering the Terrans in their haste to get wherever they were going.

Although not as stocky as the locals, the Terrans were generally taller and kept sight of one another long enough to make it to the palace, which Calvin guessed was located in about the center of the plateau. It overshadowed the buildings in its vicinity, with soaring towers and minarets. The castle sat atop a raised earthwork, with a large stone tower dominating the center of an open courtyard surrounded by 30 feet high walls. None of the city’s buildings were within 50 feet of the walls, nor were any of the nearby buildings taller than the castle’s walls.

Soldiers were present in great numbers, both on the walls and manning the gatehouse. Unlike the other soldiers that the Terrans had seen, Calvin noticed that all the soldiers in the palace area were dressed in red uniforms. It must be a special unit or an elite ‘guards’ unit, Calvin decided, as the soldiers guarding the gatehouse snapped to attention as Blin approached and opened the gates. Blin appeared to have done this many times; he neither said anything to the troops, nor did his pace slow. He just expected the gates to be open for him upon arrival.

The ambassador noticed, as well, and looked at Calvin with a raised eyebrow. Obviously, Blin was a man of some power within the society, despite the manner of his introduction.

As the group walked through the gatehouse, they got a better look at the central tower, or keep. The palace was generally rectangular in design with corner towers that extended above the rest of the keep. A large tower soared over the center of it, with a flag flying from a pole at its peak. There were two large doors at ground level that faced the direction of the gatehouse, which soldiers were already opening for them. A group of about 20 soldiers was practicing hand-to-hand combat in the back of the courtyard.

SIR!” commed Bad Twin, “The soldiers on the wall have guns!

Calvin looked back in time to see that all of the soldiers on the wall had guns resting on the wall alongside them. They were the first guns that the Terrans had seen. It was difficult to make out all of details, but it appeared that the Eridanian guns were some sort of early flintlock with muzzles that flared outward at the end. They wouldn’t be very accurate at long range, Calvin knew, but if all of the soldiers inside the castle had guns...the Terrans were quite literally outgunned. The thought made him very uncomfortable.

I see them,” he replied. “Everyone just stay cool. We have technology they don’t know about, too.

Blin crossed the courtyard quickly and entered the palace with the Terrans close behind him. As he walked through the doors, his pace slowed noticeably, assuming one a bit more ‘stately.’ He looked at the doorman, who was dressed in elegant robes and holding a large metal-shod staff and said, “Lord Flowers, Ambassador of Terra, to see King Bling Pirle II.”

The doorman announced them, and the Terrans entered the castle. The large chamber that spread out before them was over 100 feet long and at least 35 feet wide. The ceiling arched above them, 20 feet high at its central peak. Two rows of columns lined the sides of the central pathway to where the king waited for them on a raised platform; each of the columns was almost five feet in diameter.

As they marched toward the king, Calvin saw that there was a large crowd of people waiting for them. Nearly 100 people were in the audience chamber. They split in half when the doorman announced Calvin’s group, making a path to the front of the hall. Before Calvin reached the group and couldn’t see the walls any more, he noticed that there were soldiers about every five feet stationed along both of the sides. All were armed with guns. Now that he was a little closer, he thought they looked like an early version of a blunderbuss from Earth. All of the guards also had a smaller, pistol-sized version of the blunderbuss pushed through their belts.

As they neared the throne, Calvin saw that it sat upon a platform that was nearly four feet high, with steps leading up to it. The king sat on the throne with an advisor standing on either side dressed in fine robes. Looking at the king, Calvin realized with a start that the royal couldn’t have been more than about eight years old. Although dressed in large robes and bedecked in golden jewelry that made him look older, the boy was fidgeting on the throne and seemed bored. He stilled somewhat as the advisor on his right leaned over and said something to him.

Calvin got his second surprise as the man straightened. It was the same person that had met them at the city gates the day before. He would recognize the thin greasy mustache anywhere. Calvin hadn’t been impressed with his manners or grace yesterday in the center of the city; he doubted that the man would be any more civil in his own element.

A third surprise followed shortly after, as Yokaze commed, “Sir! The man on the left of the king is the man from the stables!” The gang’s all here, thought Calvin, a bad feeling coming over him.

Stopping five feet from the steps that led up to the throne, Blin turned and commanded, “Kneel!”

“I’m sorry,” began the ambassador, “but as the senior civilization, protocol demands a full bow. We do not kneel to anyone.” He bowed long and full. The ambassador looked up to see the king staring at him.

The man to the king’s right said, “See, Your Highness? They have no courtesy. I told you they would not kneel to you.”

The king stood. “If they cannot do as they should, then I will have no more to do with them.” He turned his back on the Terrans. “Take them away!” He began walking away, and the advisor went to walk alongside him. Calvin’s augmented hearing just barely caught the king ask his advisor, “Was that good?” and the advisor’s reply of “Yes Your Highness.”

Listening to anything else became more difficult as armed soldiers surrounded the group. The civilians ran to get out of the way, leaving the six Terrans surrounded by almost 50 men, who pointed their blunderbusses at the group. Although inaccurate from long range, from 10 feet, it would be a slaughter. The locals might shoot some of their own men on the other side of the ring, but the Terrans were sure to be hit in the initial volley as well.

The leader of the troops stepped forward and commanded, “Get down on your stomachs!”

Shall we fight them?” asked Yokaze via his implant.

While military matters are up to you,” commed the ambassador, “I would rather see how this plays out.

I agree,” answered Calvin. “Do as he says,” he added out loud as he got down onto the floor. “We can always call for extraction or more support if needed.” The soldiers quickly tied them up and led them off.

The Purple Treeji, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

Top, watch out,” Calvin commed. “We’ve just been apprehended by soldiers. They’ll probably come for you next.

Too late,” Top answered, looking at the 15 men that had just stormed into the room. “They’re already here. By the way, they’re armed with blunderbusses and dragons. Ain’t that some shit? Where did they get those?

No idea,” replied Calvin, “but ours were armed, too. What’s a dragon?

It’s the pistol version of a blunderbuss,” Top answered. “What do you want us to do?

Go along with them for now,” Calvin told him. “If they don’t bring you here, we’ll work out an alternate way of getting back together.

Roger that sir,” commed Top. “We’ll come along quietly,” he said out loud, “as long as you have some way of transporting my wounded soldier.”

The Tall Tower, Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

“So they’re not gods?” asked Plung, the Second Advisor to the King.

“Of course not, you idiot!” replied his cousin Stref Pirle, who was also the uncle and First Advisor to the King. “The only thing you did right in the whole sorry mess yesterday was to confirm that!”

Plung looked confused. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Let me spell it out for you,” replied Stref. “I’ll even use little words.”

“Thank you!” interrupted Plung.

“That wasn’t a compliment,” Stref said with a sigh. He continued, “I asked you to bring me a poor, idiot farmer so that we could question him on what he knew about the foreigners. If they acted like gods. If so, what were their powers? Not only did you not bring me the farmer, you got six of our best men killed in the process.”

“The foreigners were good fighters!” his cousin interjected.

“One of them was,” said Stref with a small smile. “The other was definitely not, and she also got wounded in the process and had to be assisted back to their inn.”

“Yes?” asked Plung, not seeing where the conversation was going.

Stref sighed again. He probably should end his cousin’s family line. It was obviously too hopelessly inbred to be of any value. “Have you ever heard of a mortal hurting a god?” he asked.

“No,” said Plung. “Gods don’t get hurt by...oh, I see!” he nearly shouted. “The girl got hurt, so she wasn’t a god. And if she wasn’t a god, the others probably weren’t either. That’s why you had them thrown in the dungeon!”

“Exactly,” said Stref. “Now that we have the lizards taken care of, we need something for our troops to do. We can interrogate these foreigners and find out where they came from and what kind of weapons they have. If their weapons are better than ours, we will torture the secrets of how they work out of them. If their weapons are not more powerful than ours, we will crush them with our new guns, just like we did the lizards.”

“Do you think the king will go along with that plan?” asked Plung.

“I’m sure he will,” said Stref, the smile back on his face. “His mother will suffer greatly if he does not.”

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

The Dungeons, Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

Calvin’s group was led into the dungeon and chained to the walls. While the soldiers did not go out of their way to mishandle the Terrans, they also did nothing to try to alleviate the misery of being tied up or chained. The Terrans found that, no matter how gently it was accomplished, being chained to a wall was not fun.

Calvin looked around the room as the soldiers left. When he was in school, he had idly wondered during history classes if dungeons were really as bad as they were described. Surveying his surroundings, the answer was a definite, ‘yes.’ His chains were just long enough for him to be able to sit, but he had to keep his hands up. His arms were already getting sore and starting to knot up, and he’d only been there a couple of minutes. Within 15 minutes, he wasn’t sure he’d still be able to grip a weapon.

The dungeon was a long way below the castle, and everything was damp. Not only did the humidity make the dungeon nasty and smelly, it also made the metal rusty. The chains were already cutting into his skin, and he saw as a line of blood trickling down his right arm.

There were a few of the standard torture devices from Earth’s past in the room, he saw, including a rack that was exhibited prominently in the center of the room. A bed of nails along one of the walls was sufficiently blood-stained to let him know that it had been well-used during its time in the dungeon. The torture table by the wall was also bloodstained from use, and it had an impressive array of tools for cutting and doing other nasty things to a body. Some of the tools must have been designed with the lizard race in mind, because he wasn’t sure what purpose they would have served on a humanoid. There was even a fire going in the room’s fireplace, with a large basket of things that were obviously meant to be heated sitting next to it. On closer inspection, there were already three pokers glowing red hot inside the blaze.

As he thought about the lizards, he noticed that there were two chained to the opposite wall. Both looked like they had been well acquainted with the torture devices, as they had a variety of burns, cuts and missing scales. He didn’t know much about the lizards, but from the little he had seen, one of them was a female. He’d had about enough of this.

Anyone else ready to end this charade?” Calvin commed.

I have had quite enough,” replied the ambassador, “if I do say so, myself.

A chorus of “Yes sir” and “Damn right” was also heard throughout the room.

Top, where are you now?” Calvin inquired.

It looks like we’re being led into a dungeon,” he replied. “It’s taking longer because of Deadeye’s knee.

As he said that, the door opened, and a group of soldiers with guns brought the remaining Terrans into the room, along with Gurp. They were quickly chained to the wall, and the soldiers left, although one of them took the time to kick Deadeye in the knee as he walked by, eliciting a scream.

After they had left, a small voice said, “They’re going to start with her.”

Calvin looked up and realized that it was the female lizard that had spoken. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “What did you say?”

“They always start with the females,” the lizard answered. “It makes the males talk. Of course, they don’t stop once the men start talking; they like the act of torture too much.” She paused. “Pray to whatever gods you believe in that they make a mistake and kill you. It would be for the best.” She appeared to grimace. “It’s not likely, though. They are very good at prolonging the pain.”

She looked at the lizard next to her. “He has been here for ten days. He was to have been my husband. They leave him here so that his pain will torture me more.” A tear ran down her face.

“So you are the princess?” asked the ambassador, making the connection.

“Sadly, yes I was,” she replied. “He tried to rescue me. Now he suffers all day and night for me. If I could, I would kill him myself to end his misery.”

Calvin looked at Top. “Think you could bust one of these chains?”

“I’m ready to try,” Top answered. “Just give me the word.”

“It’s time to get out of here,” Calvin announced. “Anyone that can break their chains, please feel free to do so.”

There were a number of grunts around the room and the sound of metal being stressed. Two ‘pops’ were heard, and Top and Bad Twin stood up. Bad Twin looked at his brother and said, “Dude, you’re such a wuss!”

Seeing that his brother had escaped, Good Twin tried a little harder and ‘pop,’ he was free also. “I was just waiting to see if you could do it, dude. I didn’t want to make you look bad.”

The princess was amazed. “No one has ever broken out of those chains,” she said as Top and the twins began releasing the rest of the Terrans.

“We’re stronger than we look,” said Calvin with a smile.

“Please sir, if you would kill my betrothed before you leave, I would be forever in your debt,” begged the princess.

You’re not going to leave her...” commed the ambassador, but he was cut off by Calvin.

“I’m not going to kill him,” said Calvin. “We’re getting both of you out of here. Weddings just aren’t any fun without both a bride and a groom.”

“That would be nice,” the princess replied, “but I am afraid that we are both too greatly hurt to travel. We would only slow you down. Just kill us together, and we will be at peace.”

“Not going to happen, ma’am,” said Top, opening her shackles. Top helped her stand and then went to release her fiance.

“He will not be able to do much,” said the princess. “I’ll need help carrying him.”

Top looked at Calvin. “I think we’re going to need more help sir,” he advised. “Between needing someone to carry him and someone else for Deadeye, we don’t have very many combat effectives. Beside the fact that they have guns and we don’t.” He tried not to look at the ambassador as he said the last part, but couldn’t help it. Top had argued vigorously to bring at least laser pistols, but the ambassador had vetoed the idea.

“I already tried to contact the Gulf,” Calvin said, “but we’re too far underground to get a signal out. We’ll have to get closer to the surface if we’re going to call for help.

“Someone is coming!” said Yokaze from where he was standing near the door. “It sounds like many people.”

“Quick!” ordered Calvin. “Get back to where you were and look like you’re still chained up.”

The prisoners had just finished returning to their shackles when the door opened. A soldier in red led the way, followed by Blin, a tall muscular man, and another five soldiers. “I have brought a friend to talk to you,” said Blin, stopping in front of the ambassador. He looked over his shoulder at the other man, who was carrying a variety of cutting tools. “My torturer will hurt you a lot less if you tell me what I want to know now, rather than making me beat it out of you. You will still get hurt, of course. It wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t. It will, however, not be as bad.” He looked at Cristobel Contreras, sitting next to the ambassador. “I’m going to hurt you just for fun and to teach you some manners. I probably won’t even ask you a question.”

“Hey Blin!” Calvin shouted. “Why don’t you start with me?” As all of the locals focused their attention on him, Calvin commed, “Take them from behind!” Top, the twins and Yokaze left the wall behind the soldiers and began sneaking up on them.

Blin walked over to stand in front of Calvin. “I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to attract my attention if I were you. Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn.” Seeing Deadeye next to Calvin, he squatted down next to her. “I almost forgot about you,” he said. “You look like a lot of fun. Perhaps I’ll start with you...” He ran a finger down her face and across one of her breasts. He smiled in anticipation. Calvin saw that most of the soldiers were smiling and licking their lips as well. Obviously, this was not their first visit here.

NOW!” Calvin commed, and the Terrans surged forward to attack. Four of the soldiers went down in the initial attack as Top and the twins each grabbed one and slit their throats with knives they had picked up from the tables. Yokaze had been chained near the fireplace, and the poker he had removed from the fire made a hissing noise as he stabbed it through the back of a fourth. The soldier went down screaming.

Realizing the prisoners had escaped, Blin was faster than the rest and bolted for the door, only to have it slammed shut by the lizard princess before he could get to it. He turned on the princess with a snarl, hoping to take her hostage, but found his way blocked by Cristobal Contreras. “You have already done enough to this lady,” said Contreras. “No more.”

Blin smiled. “At least I will have the pleasure of killing you,” he said as he drew his sword. Contreras backed away as Blin made a backhanded cut at his head, narrowly avoiding the strike. Blin stepped forward, following him and driving him back.

Seeing the Chilean in trouble, Top took the sword of the soldier he had killed and lobbed it to him. “Cabo!” he cried, as he lobbed it over the oversized torture table that stood between them. Contreras reached out and caught the sword, narrowly avoiding a sweeping cut that Blin tried to land while he was distracted. Sword in hand, Contreras faced Blin. “The pleasure of killing will be mine,” he said and advanced on Blin. The room was immediately filled with the sound of steel on steel as both men directed cut after cut at the other.

It was an even fight, with Blin’s years of experience matched by Contreras’ augmented speed and strength. They traded blow after blow, each man parrying the other’s best attacks. Finally Contreras saw an opening and delivered an overhead cut. Blin had intentionally left himself open there, though, hoping that Contreras would try it. As Contreras’ sword descended, he raised his to block it and swept Contreras’ sword aside, slamming it into the stone table next to them. The sword shattered into several pieces, leaving Contreras holding the hilt and about six inches of blade.

Completing the block, Blin delivered a backhand stroke on the suddenly defenseless Chilean, and his sword whistled through the air toward Contreras’ neck. Bracing himself, Contreras put up his left arm, bent at the elbow, and intercepted Blin’s stroke on his forearm. There was a meaty slap as the blade struck his arm and stuck. Contreras yanked his arm back, drawing Blin closer. All he had was six inches of blade, but that was enough as he jammed the remnant of his sword through Blin’s throat. Blin’s eyes went wide in shock and surprise, and he gurgled something unintelligible. Contreras pulled him even closer and spat into his face. He watched the light leave Blin’s eyes and then cast him aside like garbage. “Bastardo!” Contreras said as he shoved the dead man away.

He turned toward the princess and did a sword flourish that was undiminished by its lack of blade. Bowing, he swept the sword hilt to the side with another flourish and said, “Cabo Segundo Cristobal Contreras, at your service, m’lady.”

The princess stared at his left arm, which still had the sword imbedded in it. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

Contreras looked down at the sword as if seeing it for the first time. “That? That is nothing but a scratch in the service of m’lady,” he said elegantly as he bowed again.

As Blin began trying to flee, the torturer looked up to find Yokaze blocking his way. The soldier held the fireplace poker in a defensive position, centering himself. The torturer looked down at the basket of knives he was carrying. He shifted the basket into his left hand and grabbed one of the knives. Without looking up, he hurled it at Yokaze with all of his might. Yokaze waited, and the poker twitched and knocked the knife away. Annoyed, the torturer picked up a second knife and threw it. Again, Yokaze batted it away.

Top came up alongside him. “You go left; I’ll go right,” he said.

Seeing a new person entering the fight, the torturer picked up another knife and threw it at Top. Top flung up his arm to protect himself, unable to dodge it. Just before it hit him, a hand appeared as Yokaze reached over to pluck it from midair. “No,” Yokaze said, “you are fighting me.” He flipped the knife into the air, caught it by the blade and whipped it back at the torturer.

The torturer’s eyes grew large as the knife sped toward him. Dropping the basket, he tried to knock the knife away. He missed, and the knife completed its final spin, burying itself in the center of his chest. The torturer looked down in disbelief at the expanding red stain before falling to his knees and then face first onto the ground.

“Kuso,” said Yokaze.

“Wha...What?” asked Top, still amazed at the reprieve. “What was that?”

“I said ‘shit,’” Yokaze replied. “It was a bad throw. It should have hit him in the heart, two centimeters to the right.” He shook his head. “The knife was poorly weighted.”

As the torturer threw his first knife at Yokaze, the last two soldiers faced off with the twins. The soldiers, armed with swords, had a big advantage over the twins, who only had knives. They drove the twins back, trying to make their way to the door and escape. Suddenly, the one facing Good Twin gave a startled cry and fell to his knees. As the soldier slumped forward, Good Twin could see a butcher knife sticking out of his back. Deadeye stood on one leg behind him. “That’ll teach you to kick a girl when she’s down,” she said as he fell.

In her anger, she didn’t see the other soldier turn from his fight with Bad Twin. The soldier saw the unarmed girl, and drew his arm back to slash her with his sword. Seeing what was about to happen, Bad Twin dove forward and tackled the soldier. They rolled on the ground, first one on top, then the other. Finally, they stopped moving, and Bad Twin got up. He left his knife where it was, embedded in the soldier’s chest.

The fight over, the Terrans bound their wounds and armed themselves with the soldiers’ weapons. Contreras approached Top. “Could you do something about this, por favor?” he asked, holding up his left arm.

Top’s eyes bugged out as he saw the sword embedded in it. “Doesn’t that hurt?” he inquired, mesmerized by the blood dripping off of it.

“More than you could ever know,” Contreras replied through gritted teeth.

Top inspected the injury. At least it hadn’t severed the artery, or they’d have had a different problem. “It looks like it’s partway into the bone,” he commented. “I can pull it out, but it’s going to hurt a lot.”

Contreras looked to see if the princess was looking. “It already hurts a lot,” he said when he saw she wasn’t. “I’d be very pleased if you would remove it.”

“That’s funny,” said the German, Hans Fleischer, joining the group, “well, not ‘haha’ funny, but interesting funny. When we got our implants, the medibot said that we were going to have carbon nano-fiber bonded to our skeletal structure. I asked if we’d be able to stop a blade with our arm. It said, ‘you might be able to stick a knife through your skin, if you tried hard enough, but probably not through the bone.’” He cocked his head and looked at the sword embedded in Contreras’ arm and concluded, “Well, I guess we now know.”

Top pulled a pressure bandage out of his pack and gave it to Hans. “I’ll pull it out, and you slap this on.” He carefully wiped off the hilt so that he could get a good grip on it, then looked at Contreras and said, “You may want to close your eyes.”

Contreras took a deep breath and then blew it out. He looked at Top and said, “I’m ready.”

Top pulled as hard as he could, and the sword came out. Fleischer quickly covered Contreras’ arm with the bandage, but not before he had seen the bone within the wound. “Ach,” said the German, “we need to get you back to the ship.”

TSS Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, May 4, 2019

“I don’t like this,” said Captain Deutch. “They’ve been gone too long. If they were going to break out, they should have done it by now.”

“Yes sir,” said Lieutenant ‘Night’ Train. “They should have communicated with us by now. They said they were captured and were going with some soldiers, but then all of a sudden we lost communications with them.”

“Take the rest of the men,” said Captain Deutch, “load them onto a shuttle and get down there. I don’t care about any stupid Prime Directive shit. Find them and bring them back. We’ll sort this out with superior firepower.”

“Yes sir,” repeated Night. “My thoughts exactly.” He turned to Master Chief O’Leary. “Let’s go Master Chief. We’ve got some men to rescue.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen

Under Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

The twins led the group back up toward the castle. As the tunnels were about five feet wide, they could walk next to each other with their blunderbusses at the ready. The group had discussed trying to disguise themselves in the soldiers’ red uniforms, but the only Terran that was close to the local complexion was Contreras, and he was out of the fight with his left arm bound to his chest. He also walked a little unsteadily from the pain and loss of blood, as did the two lizards who depended on Top  and Gurp to keep them going and Deadeye, who needed Fleischer’s assistance to walk. It was definitely time for some help, thought Calvin.

As they exited the torture chamber, they passed another hallway that held the dungeon’s jail cells. Eight rooms lined the passageway, four to a side.

Good Twin asked, “Do you want us to let these folks out?”

“I don’t know,” answered Calvin. “There could be a good reason why they’re locked up down here.”

“Or there could be a bad reason, too,” interjected the princess. “When my husband-to-be came here, he had 40 of our best men with him. I would like to see if any of them are still being held. Maybe they could help us.”

Calvin doubted that anyone held there for more than ten days was going to be much of a help; instead, they would probably only slow them down more. Still, he didn’t want to leave anyone down here if he could help it. He knew he would have to tell her about what had happened to her fiance’s men, but wanted to put that off as long as possible. “Sure, take a quick look,” he said.

Leaving her fiance to the care of Top, she walked down the hallway. As she looked into the rooms on both sides of the passageway, she shook her head. They were empty. Reaching the end of the side tunnel, she stiffened visibly. Crap, thought Calvin, she’s found what’s left of her men.

The Princess turned to look at Calvin. Although Calvin was no expert reading the lizards’ expressions, he could tell it wasn’t good. “It’s the queen,” she said.

Calvin jogged over, expecting to see another lizard, but instead found a human woman in her late 30s. Although she had probably been pretty earlier in life, her time in the cell had not done anything positive for her. She looked emaciated, and her eyes were blank as she looked toward the cell door.

“The queen?” asked Calvin. “The queen of whom?”

“This woman is the legitimate ruler of this land,” replied the princess. “Do you know nothing of what has gone on here for the last year?”

“No,” said Calvin, “we are from farther away than you can imagine, and we just arrived. We know nothing about this land, other than the fact that we need to get out of these dungeons now before someone comes to find out where Blin and his buddies disappeared to.”

“A year ago,” the princess related, “at a formal dinner between this land and my own, Stref’s redcoats came in and massacred nearly everyone. The only ones they didn’t kill were the queen and me. They use the queen to get the new king to do what they want, and they used me to get close to my mother and father so that they could take over our land as well. Stref is evil, and his men carry out his evil wishes. It is only a matter of time before he kills the boy king here and takes over for real. His brother currently rules my land. I do not know what horrors await when Stref takes over; I fear my people will become nothing more than slaves.”

“So, there used to be good relations between your countries?” asked the ambassador.

“Yes,” answered the princess, “our countries used to be very close, and trade was good. Stref doesn’t like our kind, though, and has engineered all of this so that he can take over our land. The development of gunpowder and guns gave his redcoats the ability to defeat our men in battle.”

“What do you think, Lieutenant Commander?” asked the ambassador. “Is there something we can do to fix this?” “They might make excellent allies if we help them,” he continued via implant, “especially the therapods.

“If we can get back to the ship, it won’t be a problem,” replied Calvin. “We just have to get to where we can contact them.” He smiled at the princess. “We have guns of our own at the ship, and powerful friends that will help.”

Calvin unlocked and opened the door to the queen’s cell. He went in and bowed. “Hi m’lady,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time to explain, but we’re here to help. We’re going to get you out of here.”

The queen said nothing and only looked at them blankly. The lights were on, Calvin thought, but no one was home. He took her by the arm and helped her up. “I’ll take care of this one,” said the ambassador, coming into the room. “You just get us out of here!”

Calvin looked at the twins. “Let’s go,” he ordered.

Shuttle 01, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

“Shuttle 01 is cleared for departure,” said the Vella Gulf controller. “Stand by for release.”

“Shuttle 01 is cleared for departure,” confirmed Captain Park Ji-hun, the shuttle’s weapon systems officer. “We are standing by.

From where they were sitting in the cockpit, the shuttle’s crew could hear the clamps release, and then they felt the blast of compressed air that pushed them away from the ship.

Oberleutnant Hans Hohenstaufen, the shuttle’s pilot noted, “We’re spaceborne at 1537,” for the shuttle’s log, as Captain Park transmitted “We’re underway,” to the troops in the back of the shuttle.

“It’s an interesting crew,” remarked Night to Master Chief O’Leary, who was sitting next to him in the back of the shuttle. “We have a Luftwaffe pilot, a South Korean WSO, and the whole mix of us in the back. It’s a brave new world...”

“I don’t give a shit who’s piloting the damn bus,” replied Master Chief, “as long as they put us down safely. Nobody kidnaps my platoon leader and my men and gets away with it. Nobody.” He started going over his equipment one more time, as if he intended to shoot someone right now.

Night chuckled to himself. It hadn’t been that long ago that Master Chief hated all officers. The fact that he mentioned Calvin before the troops was very interesting to say the least. As Night thought about it, though, he found that he agreed with the Master Chief. Calvin was one of the best officers he had ever met, and quite possibly the best. No shitty little backwards world was going to kidnap him while the rest of the platoon was around to have a say about it.

“Lieutenant Train, can we stop just before we get there?” asked the sniper, ‘Tiny’ Johnson. “I’ve got an idea.”

 Under Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

Calvin knew that the locals would come looking for them before too long and was starting to get nervous. He had been getting garbled transmissions from the ship for a couple of minutes, but not strong enough to make contact. They had already run into two separate patrols in the dungeons, but contact had occurred at hand-to-hand range and they hadn’t had to shoot the blunderbusses, which would have alerted the rest of the garrison.

While the Terrans had dealt with the patrols, Bad Twin now had a knife wound running down his left arm. It wasn’t deep, but it had taken a few stitches to close. The bleeding had stopped, for now, and he had refused to be taken from the front line with his brother.

As they reached the final staircase, the static finally cleared.

Lieutenant Commander Hobbs, Vella Gulf,” he heard.

Hobbs here,” he replied. “We are free and are almost back to the surface. We are requesting immediate evacuation. We have six wounded, including two of the local therapods and the queen of this continent.” He had another thought. “Um...all three of those locals are royalty, if it makes any difference.” He doubted that any of the normal protocol for bringing distinguished visitors onboard would need to be followed, but it was probably better if the ship’s CO was aware that they were coming.

Calvin, this is Shuttle 01,” said a voice he recognized as Night’s. “Evac is inbound, ETA two minutes. We are requesting instructions for where to land and the situation on the ground, over.

Calvin looked at Contreras, who was the combat air controllman and the person responsible for controlling air-to-surface operations. “I got it sir,” he said through clenched teeth.” He was happy to have the implants; it hurt less to talk that way. “When we get outside, I will fire off a red smoke flare. Until you see it, aim for the open area next to the palace. The palace is the building with the large tower located in the center of the town. Find the building with the 30 foot high walls and land in the open area to the south of the building. Copy?

Copy all,” said Captain Park Ji-hun, the shuttle’s weapon systems officer. “ETA now 90 seconds. We’re looking for the smoke.

Situation report follows,” Calvin continued. “There are nine friendlies in the castle building. We intend to come out the south door and proceed to the shuttle once it is down. We have four locals with us, including two lizards. Three of the locals are high value units to be protected at all costs. Repeat, high value units to be protected at all costs. Any forces wearing red uniforms are the enemy. Terminate them on sight. Anyone else that is armed or who shows hostile intent, terminate them on sight. Be on the lookout for an eight year old boy being held by hostile civilian forces. The boy is also a high value unit. Take no chances with his safety.

“OK,” said Calvin, “let’s go!”

The group started up the stairs. They were halfway up when the door above them suddenly opened, and two soldiers came through. Too far away for swords, the twins both fired, and the men dropped. Worried that someone might have heard them, the twins threw down their weapons and drew their dragons as they charged up the stairs.

There was a third soldier, and the brothers could see him running off yelling for help as they came through the throne room door. Both men aimed and fired at the same time, and the man went down, falling forward to roll to a stop.

“That was a great shot, dude,” said Bad Twin.

“Thanks,” replied Good Twin with a smile.

Bad Twin turned to look at his brother. “Dude, you’re missing the point,” he said, “I was saying that I made a great shot with that little pistol. I’m the one that hit him.”

Good Twin shook his head. “You know I’ve always been the best shot,” he replied. “You’re obviously delirious from loss of blood. I’m the one that got him.”

“This is so not the right time for that,” said Top as he hurried past them. He handed them each a gun from the two soldiers that had been killed in the stairwell. “You guys cover our exit,” he ordered.

“Sure thing, dude!” they chorused as the rest of the group went by. They reached the door to the courtyard, but before they could open it, a roar was heard from outside. “I think our ride’s here,” yelled Top as he threw the door open.

The Tall Tower, Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

“Lord Stref!” shouted the soldier. “There are gunshots in the throne room. The prisoners are escaping!”

“Why are you here then, fool?” asked Stref. “Sound the alarm and stop them!”

He looked at Plung as the soldier ran off. “Let’s go,” he said. Before he could say anything else, a loud roaring was heard from outside. It seemed to be moving.

“What’s that?” asked Plung.

“I don’t know,” said Stref. “But we better go find out. Bring the king in case we need him.”

Remurn Castle Walls, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

What in the nineteen hells of Jubarf is that?” the sergeant of the watch shouted as the...thing...came from the sky and landed in the courtyard. From his position on the wall-walk that ran around the interior of the castle wall, he watched as the back of the craft unfolded and...people?...started coming out of it. There were another two figures on top of the thing, one of which was carrying something that looked like a giant blunderbuss. Those must be forces coming to rescue the soldiers that the First Advisor captured today, he thought. If so, they were the enemy.

Fire!” he yelled. He took aim at one of the ones on top of the vehicle and pulled the trigger.

From all around the wall and courtyard, other soldiers began firing at the invaders.

Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019 Top slammed the door shut again as every redcoat in the courtyard started firing at once.

Don’t come out yet,” Night commed. “We’re clearing out some of the redcoats.

“You’re never going to believe this,” said Top, “But it looked like Tiny was on top of the shuttle as it came in.” Most of the troops that were pouring out of the shuttle were firing their lasers, which made very little noise, but every once in a while they could hear the blast of the .95 caliber rifle going off.

“Watch out behind!” cried one of the twins as both fired their guns. A cloud of black smoke filled the entranceway of the palace. “More troops are coming from the rear!” yelled the other twin.

Shuttle 01, Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

Tiny rocked as the blast from the blunderbuss hit him in the shoulder. Although it didn’t have the kinetic energy or the shape to penetrate the suit, the impact of it stung. BTO had seen the shooter and called out the targeting. Tiny brought the oversized rifle into line and saw a redcoat that had more stripes on his sleeves than any of the others, ramming his next round into the blunderbuss. Tiny fired once, and the man fell backward with a fist-sized hole in the front of his chest. The exit wound that could be seen as the soldier collapsed was enormous.

While BTO looked for higher priority targets, Tiny worked his way down the ramparts of the wall, clearing out any of the redcoats he saw. As the rest of the platoon charged out of the cargo bay, the enemy soldiers started falling as the platoon’s lasers joined in. Tiny continued to look for additional targets, but a flash of movement by the keep caught his eye. “Sirs,” he commed, “we’ve got a problem.

Remurn Castle, Remurn, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 4, 2019

The twins had fired all of their blunderbusses and were reloading when the redcoats started pouring out from several of the doors across the throne room. Calvin knew that they were going to be overwhelmed. Thankfully, the sounds of firing were slowing from the outside. They’d have to chance it; they were going to be overrun if they stayed in the palace. “OUT THE DOOR!” he commed. “We’re coming out with numerous redcoats in trail!

The Terrans went out the door as quickly as they could with their wounded. The Twins fired one more time into the mass of more than 40 redcoats that were now storming across the throne room, then turned and ran. As they made it out the door, they saw a firing line of suited Terrans forming up, facing the door with weapons pointed at them.

We’re the last ones!” one of the twins commed.

The redcoats are coming!” commed the other as the group slipped through the firing line and ran toward the shuttle.

The door opened, and the pursuing redcoats were met by the coherent light of ten lasers. They fell back into the castle, leaving their front ranks in the doorway, dead or dying.

Top led the group around to the back of the shuttle and up the ramp. If the princess had any qualms about going into the ship, she didn’t show it. Her fiance was too far gone to have noticed or cared. The wounded members of the platoon went up the ramp next, happy to be safe and on their way to better medicine. As the ambassador and the queen made it to the ramp, the queen screamed and pulled away from him. Calvin saw her push away the ambassador’s hands as he tried to grab her, and then she turned and ran back toward the castle. As Calvin started in pursuit, he heard Tiny comm, “Sirs, we’ve got a problem.

Night saw the woman running with Calvin chasing her toward the wall. “CO and high value unit in transit toward the castle wall,” he sent. “Cover them!” Laser fire quickly eliminated anyone in red on that side of the castle.

The queen stopped at the wall, looking up. Calvin stopped alongside her and looked up to see the king’s two advisors on the wall-walk. The First Advisor was holding the king as a shield. “Shit!” he said under his breath as he saw that the advisor was holding him over the edge, ready to drop him.

“Give me my son!” screamed the queen. It was the first words that Calvin had heard her say.

“I’d be quite happy to,” said Stref, “as long as I am given free passage out of town along with all of my troops that still remain.”

“Just you?” asked the Second Advisor, standing next to him. “What about me?”

“I’m done with you,” said Stref, reaching over and giving him a push. The Second Advisor fell headfirst from the wall. He hit the ground 25 feet below headfirst with a sickening crunch and didn’t move after that. Looking at the angle of his head and neck, Calvin didn’t think he would ever move again.

Calvin looked back up at the First Advisor. “What do you plan to do with them?” he asked, stalling for time. “Tiny, do you have a shot?” he asked.

“There are other lands and places that we might go,” replied the First Advisor. “I’ll leave here with my men and will release the king when we get to the edge of town.”

Yes sir, I do,” Tiny commed. “The boy is out of my line of fire.

“You can’t be trusted!” screamed the queen. “You’re just as likely to kill him at the edge of town as release him!”

“Well now, you really don’t have a choice, do you?” asked the First Advisor. “Those are my terms. Take them or leave them.”

Calvin edged forward to stand beneath the wall and looked up at Stref. “I think we’ll leave them,” he said. “Take the shot!

The First Advisor opened his mouth to say something, and his head exploded under the impact of the eight ounce bronze bullet, which struck with the kinetic energy of a 2,800 lb automobile traveling at 20 miles per hour. The impact threw him backward, and he released the king, who missed the wall-walk and fell.

The queen screamed.

The boy seemed to fall in slow motion, cartwheeling slowly...down...down...only to be caught up in Calvin’s strong arms, 25 feet below. Calvin gently placed him on the ground. Mother and son ran to each other, and the queen caught her son up in a hug, tears streaming down her face.

“Ma’am, there are still a lot of redcoats around,” said Calvin. “If I could get you to come somewhere a little safer, I’d surely appreciate it.”

The queen put her son down and moved to stand protectively in front of him. She looked at the Terran as if seeing him for the first time. “Who are you, and where did you come from?” she asked.

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen

CO’s Conference Room, Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, May 5, 2019

The conference room was packed. In addition to the department heads and their assistants, the human queen and the two therapods were also in attendance, which meant that the entire crew wanted to be there. The shuttle had dropped Gurp off at his farm.

“All right,” said the CO, “let’s get this started. I’d like to discuss a way forward for both of your civilizations independently first, and then how they might work together. Before I start, you all know where you are right now, correct?”

“Yes,” said the therapod princess, “we are on a ship that flies between the points of light in the heavens at night. Each of those is a star, much like our own, with its own planets around it.” She gave what the CO thought was probably a smile, although it was disconcerting to see that many sharp teeth. The human queen just nodded her agreement, unfazed by the teeth.

“It is amazing to me that you have been able to understand this so quickly,” the CO commented.

“Really, it is not,” said the princess. “We have stories of others coming to our planet, so we knew it was possible, but it has been thousands of years since that happened.” She gave her scary smile again. “We are excellent story tellers and can keep verbal records for long periods.”

“We have those stories too,” remarked the queen, “but we thought that was all they were, just stories. It find out that they are true.” She smiled, and her smile was much more comforting. “I will say that it is much more comfortable dealing with this new information than it was being in the dungeon, so I am happy to have this problem.”

“Speaking of which,” said the ambassador, “we had the soldiers go back to the castle, and there is no sign of any of the redcoated soldiers anywhere to be seen. There are a large number of men in brown uniforms now in the palace courtyard, led by a man calling himself General Sern. He said to tell you that they are anxiously awaiting your return, and that he will ensure the city is well-governed until you do.”

The queen sagged in obvious relief. “The general is a good man,” she explained. “He was the only loyal officer who wasn’t at the party where my husband was killed. He is the one remaining general that I have that I can trust. If he says that the city will be well-governed, it will be well-governed.”

“I imagine that you will still want to get back down to the planet as soon as possible,” the CO remarked.

“That is correct,” answered the queen. “The people will be very confused and will need to know that they are safe.”

“We will get you back as soon as we can then,” agreed the CO. He turned to look at the princess and her fiance. The male therapod was moving on his own, a little, but it would be a while before anyone called him ‘healthy.’ The CO wasn’t an expert on the race, but even he could tell the male was in bad shape. “As for your civilization, I understand that you could use a little assistance.”

“Yes, we could,” said the princess. “We have a swarm of redcoats of our own that we could use some help with. Now that I am free, they don’t have as much leverage over our society, but they do still have my mother, the queen. Our males will do whatever it takes to avoid harm to her.”

Calvin raised his hand and was acknowledged. “Captain Deutch, I believe that the gap in technology between our platoon and the locals would allow us to go down and help them out. Although the redcoats’ firearm technology poses some danger for us, it is far less than it would be for the princess’ troops. We can be suited up and ready to go in a couple of hours.

“From what I’ve heard about the redcoats,” replied Captain Deutch, “they need to be removed. You are authorized to take the platoon and restore the queen to the throne.”

“Yes sir!” agreed Calvin, who had had enough of the redcoats and was ready for some payback of his own.

“Thank you for helping my people,” said the princess. Her fiance smiled and shook his head in agreement.

“Once we have everything back to normal, I look forward to working with both of your civilizations,” said the ambassador. “We have much to talk about.”

Platoon Briefing Room, Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, May 6, 2019

Night finished up the briefing “Any questions?” he asked.

“I have just one,” said the princess entering the room. “Where am I going to be during your assault?”

“Safely here onboard the Vella Gulf,” Night replied.

“While I greatly appreciate your assistance in doing this for us, I am afraid that will not be possible. Our males are very territorial, and if a hostile force is seen approaching the palace, they will all die to defend it.”

“Even if we don’t shoot at them?” asked Top.

“Even if you don’t shoot at them,” confirmed the princess. “Just the fact that you are moving toward our queen will trigger the urge to defend her. They will never give up; they will make you kill them all instead. What would you think if strange looking beings suddenly paraded into your town and moved toward your king?”

“OK,” said Night, “how do we avoid this?”

“You take me with you, of course,” replied the princess. “They won’t attack a group that I am in, for fear of hurting me.”

“I can’t guarantee your safety princess,” warned Night, “and if you get hurt, it will be very bad for relations between our two nations.”

“I am not worried about my safety,” stated the princess. “This is something that I must do. My family has always led our armies into battle; how can I not do the same?”

Calvin saw that the Terrans weren’t going to win this discussion and gave in gracefully. “We will bring you along,” he allowed, “but you have to let my men and women lead. You must stay behind them.”

“I have to go,” said the princess, “but I do not need to lead. I will gladly stay behind your troops.”

“And I will make sure that she stays there,” said the princess’ fiance, walking into the room behind her. It was the first thing any of them had heard him say. While his voice was weak, it was firm in its commitment.

“How are you going to do that?” asked Calvin, “when you can barely walk?”

“I have led our armies into battle,” the lizard replied, “and all of the warriors will recognize me. If they see me with her, they will know that she is not under your control. Our soldiers will do as I say.”

“But that still doesn’t address how you’re going to make it there,” said Calvin. “We may have to walk several miles; I don’t think you’re up to it.”

“I will help him,” offered Irina Rozhkov, who had attended the briefing. “I have no responsibilities, and I would like very much to be there for the assault.”

“No way,” said Night. “She doesn’t have a suit, she doesn’t have a weapon and I don’t want to give her either of them. She has no loyalty to the group; she could do anything to sabotage our mission here.”

“It is true that I have neither suit nor weapon, but that’s because you haven’t allowed me to have them,” replied the spy. “I give you my word that I will do nothing to hinder or harm your mission on the planet. I understand the stakes that are involved and want to see you succeed. In order to do that, both the princess and her fiance need to be with the assault, and they need to be kept safe throughout it. If you use any of your soldiers to help him, it only degrades your combat capabilities. I have no responsibilities in the assault and can help him. I would like to be there.” She looked Calvin in the eyes. “Please let me help,” she implored.

Night started to say, “No” again, but was overruled as Calvin said, “OK, you can go.”

“Captain Deutch will never go for this,” argued Night.

“I’ll talk to him,” replied Calvin. “She’s right; we need her for this. She’ll need weapons too.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty

In Front of Ssilth, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 6, 2019

Two minutes to touchdown,” commed Shuttle 02’s WSO, Captain Jennifer ‘Sweet Jen’ Chapman to the soldiers in the cargo compartment.

All right, you heard the lady,” said Master Chief, “two minutes to touchdown. Gear up!

All of the soldiers stood up and snapped on their helmets. Completing that, they turned to the soldier next to them and checked them out. Then they turned to the soldier on the other side of them and checked them out, too. After about a minute, 33 thumbs were up. All of the members of the platoon were coming with the exception of Deadeye, who was in sickbay for a major knee reconstruction. Three of the four ligaments in her knee had been torn and needed medical rebuild.

Cabo Segundo Contreras’ arm had been repaired, and he was proclaimed fit for duty by the medibot, although the ship’s doctor had recommended two days’ rest. The princess had asked for him to be her personal guard, and he had chosen to forego his time off in order to accompany her. He had already told Top that he was coming, even before the princess had asked for him.

As the soldiers were checking each other out, the princess and her fiance stood in the back of the shuttle’s bay. The princess met her fiance’s eyes, and she asked, “Are you sure that you’re up to this?”

“I have to be,” he replied. “If you’re going, I’m going, too.”

Five seconds!” commed the pilot, Captain Larry ‘Cuz’ Gage, and then there was a soft bump as the ship touched down. The ramp started down, and the soldiers stormed out of the shuttle to face the gates of the city half a mile away.

As the command group came down the ramp, the princess surveyed the area. “This is perfect,” she noted, as the shuttle blasted back up to the heavens, passing low over the 15’ walls of the castle on its way back up. She had asked to come down in sight of the gates for the psychological effect it would have on both the humans and her own citizens, as well as in deference to her fiance’s health. Making the people on the walls duck and cower in fear had been an excellent addition to the plan.

The group formed up into a loose circle around the lizards and the platoon’s officers, with more to the front than behind, and began marching toward the city. The land was low and flat, with the smell of the swamps to the south fetid in their nostrils. Most of the soldiers chose to switch to the recycled air of their suits, rather than smell the swamps. It was apparent that the princess felt otherwise, as she took several deep breaths and smiled. “Home,” she said with one of the lizards’ toothy smiles.

As the group reached about a quarter of a mile from the gates, they could see the number of people on the wall begin swelling. All wore red. “Looks like they’re all armed,” said BTO, using his suit’s visual augmentation. “Most have blunderbusses and crossbows.

I see them,” replied Calvin. “We expected it. Continue as briefed.

Ssilth Castle, Ssilth, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 6, 2019

“Lord Strell,” yelled the courier, “enemy forces have landed in front of the town.”

“Stop yelling and tell me what you saw,” replied Strell, from where he lounged on the throne. “Wake up,” he said, pulling on a chain that was attached to the throne.

At the other end of the chain, the former queen of the land hissed as it pulled on the nerve cluster near her tail. “Good,” she replied, “I hope they’ve come to kill you.”

“Don’t worry,” said the acting king, “I’ll make sure I kill you before they do, and that I send a message to kill your daughter first.” The queen subsided at the mention of her daughter, although she continued to glare at him.

“Now,” said Strell, turning back to the courier, “what is happening?”

“Something came down from the sky, and a bunch of humanoid things came out of it. They walk like people and have two arms like people, but their heads are rounded. They all appear to have some form of white blunderbuss.”

“Obviously, the heat has gotten to your head,” said Strell. “What looked like something coming down was just heat from the summer day as they approached. How many of them are there?

“There are about 30 with two of the lizards in their midst,” answered the courier. “The scouts report that the lizards are saying the two look like the princess and her fiance.” The queen raised her head at the last news, her heart lighter than it had been for months.

“It cannot be the princess unless the troops are my brother’s, which they obviously are not. If for some reason the troops are wearing red uniforms and are my brother’s, let them in; otherwise, kill them all.”

“Including the two lizards?” asked the courier.

“Especially the two lizards,” replied Strell.

The look on the queen’s face turned to one of horror. “You would just kill people without even talking to them? Without even seeing what they want?”

“Were I in Remurn, no, I would not,” replied Strell. “But I’m not in Remurn, now am I?”

In Front of Ssilth, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’, May 6, 2019

The people on the walls look like they’re going to fire,” commed Corporal James Ball, who had the point of the formation. “You may want to keep the high value units back a little ways.

Reflexively, Cabo Contreras stepped in front of the princess to shield her. Irina was a little slower, but when she saw what Contreras had done, she stepped in front of the princess’ fiance, too.

As the front rank reached about 40 yards from the wall, someone called “Fire!,” and crossbow bolts began flying toward the men. The shots were at the maximum effective range for the weapons and didn’t have anywhere close to enough energy to penetrate the suits at that distance.

What do you want us to do, sir?” asked Night. “They’re not using their firearms. It may just be nuisance fire.

No, we’re not within range of their guns,” replied Calvin. “Those blunderbusses are more like shotguns than rifles. They can’t hit us here. I’m done playing with them. PLATOON! Clear the walls! FIRE!

With pleasure!” commed someone under their breath as the platoon began firing. The blue beams left afterimages on the retinas of the soldiers and holes through the majority of the unarmored soldiers on the wall.

Within seconds, there was no one left on the wall. Calvin thought he had seen at least one person that ducked before the soldiers could shoot him. He wondered what they thought of the lasers, which must almost look like magic to them.

With no defenders remaining, Corporal Ball made it to the gates. “Sir, the gates are locked tight,” he reported.

Calvin got the princess’ attention. They had discussed this possibility during the planning process. “The gates are locked,” he told her. “Do I have your permission to blow them?” he asked formally.

“Yes you do,” replied the princess, just as formally. “Blow the gates!” she shouted, having been well coached. While the people in the castle may have had some experience with black powder, there’s no way they would see this coming. Hopefully, they’d at least move back from the gates. For their sake.

Master Chief supervised Mr. Jones as he set the charges, asking questions here, making suggestions there. When the explosives were set, the men moved back from the wall. Way back. Based on previous experience with Master Chief and explosives, Calvin wasn’t sure that moving back to Remurn was far enough. “Umm, Master Chief, is everyone far enough back?” he asked. “How big a blast radius should we expect?

Oh sir, are you still mad about the last time?” Master Chief asked. “Everyone is safe on this side of the wall. Most of the blast is going to go through it.

OK,” said Calvin, “blow it.

FIRE IN THE HOLE!” Master Chief yelled. Two seconds later, a giant explosion rocked the gates.  The men had placed shaped charges where the hinges would be on the inside, and the gates blew completely off, falling backward to land on top of two men unlucky enough to be standing behind them.

The Terrans and the two therapods ran into the courtyard to find a mass of redcoats waiting for them. Having realized that their weapons were outclassed by the newcomers, they had chosen to wait for them in the courtyard. When the gates blew inward, they charged.

The soldiers entered the courtyard in an arrowhead formation, with Corporal Ball at the point of it, and the slaughter began. The redcoats fired a volley of crossbow bolts as they charged, which would have broken a formation of local forces. From the distance they fired, none of them had the energy to penetrate the suits, except for the bolt that hit Petty Officer Conboy. His shield switched from repulsion to attraction and accelerated the metal point of the bolt into him, driving it through his left thigh. “FUCK!” he screamed, looking down at the feathered bolt sticking out of his leg.

The members of the platoon fired as fast as their targeting symbols could center on the next redcoat. They were outnumbered 203 to 35 (plus the two lizards) when they entered the courtyard; by the time the local forces crashed into the left side of the Terrans they were down to 97 effectives. Seeing the princess in the center of the formation, the one remaining platoon officer yelled, “Kill the lizards!,” and the forces tried to break through the Terran lines to get at them. Even though the Terrans were stronger, and heavy in their suits, the impact of 45 of the local forces hitting three of the Terrans at once was more than they could stand their ground against, and they were forced apart.

The redcoats broke through the lines.

The princess and her fiance stood their ground, swords drawn, ready to fight. Once again, their protectors stepped in front of them, Contreras in his suit and Rozhkov armored only with her fierce determination. Contreras pulled a sword from over his shoulder with his left hand to block some of the blades flashing at him while the laser pistol in his right hand began thinning the numbers of the redcoats. Rozhkov didn’t back up, standing her ground with her sword and laser pistol. Seeing the Russian spy as the easier target, the redcoats charged her, and three men attacked her simultaneously.

The sword in her left hand was knocked free as she was hit by an attack that she hadn’t seen, and it fell to the ground. As she moved her right hand to block a slash from the person in front of her, the redcoat to her right saw the opening and slashed at her right leg. She saw the attack too late and still had to block the attack in front of her. She tensed involuntarily, knowing she was about to lose her leg.

The blow never fell as Yokaze materialized next to her. He blocked the slash with his wakizashi, while taking the man’s head off with his katana. He immediately shifted his aim and disemboweled the man in front of her, and she used the opportunity to pick her sword back up in time to block a slash from the man on the left. She fired her pistol into the man’s throat, and he dropped.

The left wing of the Terrans rolled around the remaining redcoats, sealing the breach and ending the threat. The right wing came around as well, trapping the redcoats. Within moments, the redcoats were surrounded. Several threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender; the ones that fought on were killed.

Almost 200 redcoats were either dead or unable to fight; none of the Terrans had been killed. Several had cuts or crossbow bolts sticking out of arms or legs, but most were only superficial wounds, as the swords or bolts had lost most of their energy piercing the suits. The bolt in Petty Officer Conboy’s leg was the only one that penetrated to any depth; the medic began working on his wound.

As the platoon began organizing to move toward the palace, a young therapod ran up to them. “He’s getting away!” he said breathlessly.

“Who is?” asked Calvin.

“Lord Strell,” the boy replied. “He’s going through the east gate!”

“I can show you!” said the princess.

Calvin made a quick decision. “Night, you take the Space Force and head toward the palace. I’ll take the Ground Force with the princess to catch Strell.” He turned back to the princess. “Lead on!”

The princess took off at the therapod’s version of a run. It was the strangest looking gait that Calvin had ever seen, yet it was faster than anything he would have been able to achieve without having the suit on. Even with it, he was hard-pressed to keep up. They made it to the gate in just under three minutes, in time to see a human leading a therapod through a small door. As Calvin got closer, he could see that the therapod was shackled with two chains. One was around the therapod’s neck. The other went through the therapod’s body, just above the tail.

The princess hissed when she saw it. “That chain goes into a major nerve cluster,” she said. “That chain would be beyond painful.” Then she realized who it was attached to. “The queen!” she yelled.

Hearing the scream, the man stopped and turned. He was holding a crossbow in his other hand, which he put to the queen’s head. “Don’t come any closer or she dies,” he said.

“I don’t care about me,” hissed the queen. “Kill him!”

“If you shoot me, I’m sure it will cause my finger to pull the trigger and shoot her,” he cautioned. “If you just let me go, I promise to leave her unharmed.”

The princess hissed her displeasure at him and was joined by her fiance who came up at a fast walk. Although the desire was there, his body wasn’t up to the three minute sprint, and he had fallen behind.

“That sounds really familiar,” said Calvin. “That’s pretty much what your brother said yesterday just before we killed him. You can either let go of her and surrender or we kill you. It’s your choice.”

“I think I’ll choose to kill the princess and run!” he said, as he aimed the crossbow at the princess and pulled the trigger. Seeing what he intended, the queen tried to knock the crossbow out of his hands. She was too far away and only succeeded in moving it slightly, which changed the aim from the princess to her fiance, who was looking down, out of breath. He never saw the shot. Rozhkov saw it as she came running up, having been left behind in the sprint. Without any other choice, she dove in front of the bolt. It hit her in the chest at the top of her right breast. She fell to the ground.

“That sucks,” she said before passing out.

Calvin looked up to find Strell had vanished. “He ran through the door!” said the queen, pointing at it.

“Get him!” Calvin ordered Tiny. He gave a crisp, “Yes sir,” and went to the gate.

“Aren’t you going after him?” asked the princess.

“Nope,” said Calvin. He nodded toward Tiny, aiming his giant .95 caliber rifle out the door. “Never try to run from a sniper,” Calvin commented. “You’ll only die tired.”

The big gun fired, the recoil so great that it even pushed the large, suited sniper back a little. “Got him,” Tiny said. With that large a gun, Calvin knew Strell wasn’t wounded. He was dead.

Calvin looked back to find the princess nuzzling her mother. She was the queen once again.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-One

CO’s Conference Room, Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, May 8, 2019

“Thank you both for coming here today,” said the ambassador. “I know that both of you are very busy trying to put your kingdoms back together.”

“We wouldn’t have kingdoms at all if it weren’t for you,” replied the human queen, Queen Glina. The therapod queen, Queen Risst, shook her head in agreement.

“Normally we wouldn’t want to intervene in local matters,” said the ambassador, “but these are not normal times. The fact that we are here at all is a matter of luck, as this ship is not our own. In fact, we too were visited by aliens from another planet, who ended up stranded on ours. They asked for our help, breaking a long-held rule of theirs by revealing themselves to us. The three members of that race, the Psiclopes, thought that the situation was so dire that they had no other option.”

“Unlike you, we had no previous notion that other civilizations beside ours existed,” the ambassador continued. “Now we just wish we didn’t know. The fact is, there used to be a galaxy-wide alliance that kept aggressive races from exploiting races that were technologically inferior to them. Unfortunately, that alliance appears to have broken up under the attack of many hostile races. Planets that were previously protected from harm will now be open to attack when they are found by these races. We believe that one of these races exists within fairly close proximity to our home planet. Because of this, we attempted this mission, hoping to find aid from some of the advanced civilizations against the terror that we believe to be coming to our planet.

“I am afraid that we will not be of much assistance in your quest,” replied Queen Risst. “We were unable to even hold onto our own kingdoms without your assistance. What aid can we possibly provide against races that have the ability to sail between the stars?”

“While you may not have advanced technology or weapons,” answered the ambassador, “you have a planet that is both rich and fertile. There are areas on both of your continents that are rich in mineral deposits that are hard to mine on our planet. We would like to propose an alliance with you; we would provide our advanced technology and aid to you in exchange for access to your mineral deposits.”

“And if we refuse?” asked Queen Risst.

“Then we will leave you and continue our search for aid elsewhere,” replied the ambassador. “We would like to have you as allies in the coming troubled times, but if you choose to reject our offer, we will let you continue on as you were, free of our interference.”

“How do we know that you aren’t one of these ‘aggressive races’ that you are describing?” asked Queen Glina. “Perhaps you just helped us to get into our confidence and will turn on us when the time is right for you.”

Before the ambassador could answer, Calvin interrupted. “You can’t know that, of course,” he said. “Although I think that if we’d wanted to conquer you, it would have been very easy to do. It still would be, too, of course. Certainly, we were able to defeat the redcoats without any loss of life on our part, but you are right, maybe we were just waiting for the time to be right to take advantage of you.” One of the ambassador’s eyebrows twitched. This was not how he had intended the negotiations to go.

Calvin continued, “Although it is not my place to suggest it, I will tell you what we have done previously. When my kingdom was first contacted by the aliens, we got together with our friends and invited them to participate in this mission with us, so that they could see the truth of our words to them. We gave them access to all of the technology that we had received, holding nothing back in secret. We even invited one of our worst enemies to come along.”

Calvin looked at Risst. “You know the woman that I am talking about. Her name is Irina Rozhkov. She is the woman that saved your future son-in-law’s life by diving in front of a crossbow bolt that would have killed him. I am glad that we brought her; not only did she help save his life, but also I expect that she will go back and tell her country everything that she has seen and done with us, so that they will join us in the future.” He leaned forward. “There are many evil races among the stars that want nothing more than to control our planets, at best. At worst, we are a convenient food source to them. I do not want to be a food source to anyone and, to keep that from happening, I am willing to make friends with my worst enemies if that’s what it takes to become strong enough to fight them.”

He leaned back and smiled. “Like I said, it is not my place to suggest it, but I’m going to do so anyway. Sorry, Mr. Ambassador. If you are truly worried about our intentions, I will take one or two of your best soldiers and allow them to join my unit. They can see everything we do and learn everything we know. If that is what helps you to trust in us, I’d be happy to have them with us.”

“I cannot speak for Queen Glina,” said the therapod queen, “but I am willing to agree to those terms. In fact, I would like to do even more. You have proposed several avenues of trade; I would like to propose one more. We will send you two of our best soldiers if you will leave one of yours here. My daughter spoke very highly of one of your men, a Cristobal Contreras, if I am not mistaken. We would be very appreciative if he could remain with us to help train our soldiers in this new way of war and help us to adapt to the new technology that you will give us. Would you agree to that?”

“I would have to talk to Cabo Contreras,” Calvin answered, “but if he is willing, I would allow him to stay. We would have to confirm it with his country when we return to our planet, but even if they want him back, they would have to wait until we came back here the next time.” He thought about it for a moment and then said, “Yes, I think that would work.”

“Our kingdom would like to do something similar,” stated Queen Glina, not wanting to be left out.

“I’m sure something can be worked out,” replied the ambassador, nodding happily. “I’m sure that it can.”

Sick Bay, Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, May 8, 2019

“So, what exactly makes you think that you can just dive in front of crossbow bolts?” asked Calvin.

The Russian spy just smiled a wan smile. It had been a close thing, and she had nearly died a couple of times on the way back up from the planet. Captain Duncan Hughes had used every ounce of power that he could safely put into the shuttle to get her back as quickly as he could, and then had used a little bit more. That extra bit had probably saved her life.

She still looked like shit, though.

“The medibot says that she should be back up to full duty status in three days,” said Mr. Jones, who had been in her room most of the last day and a half.

“Good,” Calvin replied. He looked at Night, who had come in with him. “When she’s back out of bed, make sure she gets fitted for a suit. Not having mission essential protection would be a stupid reason to lose someone. I wouldn’t want to explain why she didn’t have it to the KGB...would you?”

Rozhkov smiled again as she faded back to sleep. Her mission was accomplished; she was part of the group.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani, May 10, 2019

“Yes sir,” answered Calvin. “When we come back through here, we’ll drop off the ambassador, Cabo Contreras, and three others to assist the indigenous populations. We’ll also leave a shuttle and crew to take the ambassador between the two civilizations. For now, all of the platoon and the squadron are back aboard.”

“I think we’re finally done here then,” noted Captain Deutch from his command chair. “Helmsman, third star to the right and straight on ‘til morning!”

“Uh, sir, I thought you wanted our course set to go to the other black hole exit gate,” replied the helmsman. “Give me a second, and I’ll set it up...where did you say you wanted to go?”

“Never mind,” said the CO with a sigh. Kids these days, he thought. No literary education unless they got it from a video game. “Just take us to the exit gate. Full speed ahead.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Two

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, WASP-18, May 15, 2019

“This is an interesting system,” said Arges. “From a cosmic standpoint, we are here just moments before the death of the closest planet to the star. The planet is a big one, with a mass of about ten Jupiters, almost big enough to be a brown dwarf star. The planet has an orbit of less than one Earth day, and it will eventually spiral in and join with its star.”

“That sounds cool,” said the helmsman. “Can we stick around and watch?”

“It is unlikely that you will be able to watch it,” replied Arges. “I was talking about it happening soon from a cosmic standpoint. It still has about one million years of life left before it merges with the star.”

“OK,” said Captain Deutch, “that’s interesting, but I’ve got better things to do than stay here and watch it. Can I infer from its orbital distance that the climate is too hot for life and that we can move on?”

“Yes sir,” said Arges. “This system has three gates, in addition the one we came through. The gates are grouped fairly close together, with the one that we came through on the other side of the star system. Which one would you like to go through?”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Ross 248 System, May 21, 2019

“We are approximately ten light-years from Earth. The star you see is Ross 248. This star is a small red dwarf that is only about 1/8 the size and mass of the Sun, and it has less than 1% of its luminosity. In fact, even though it is very close to Earth, it is so dim that a telescope is needed to see it. My scans have not found any planets, although they have found three gates in this system. One gate is nearby; the other two stargates are on the other side of the system.”

“Moving on!” said Captain Deutch. “Head for the one close by and let’s go. And could someone please send down to the galley for a pitcher of milk!”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 22, 2019

“System entry,” noted Arges, somewhat unnecessarily.

The stargate transition was a sweet one, the first one of those they had experienced in a long time. “Mmmm,” said the helmsman, “I love the sweet ones!”

“I do not see any radio or other non-natural emissions,” noted Arges. “The gate that we entered through is a long way out from the star, though; in fact, this is the furthest out I have ever seen a gate.”

“The star of this system is a solitary G-class star,” he continued after a few moments. “Readings indicate that this system is Tau Ceti, which is about 11.9 light-years from Earth. Tau Ceti only has about 78% of the Sun's mass, and just over half of the Sun’s luminosity, so a planet would need to orbit it at about 70% of the distance of the Earth to the sun in order to match the amount of radiation that the Earth receives. So far, the star appears stable, with little stellar variation.”

“Very well,” replied Captain Deutch. “Begin scanning and let me know what you find.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 24, 2019

“It appears that there are five planets orbiting Tau Ceti,” explained Arges. “One of these is in the habitable zone. All of the planets in this system are rocky, with masses between two and seven times the Earth’s mass. Three of the planets are too close to the star to be habitable. The fifth planet is big, with a mass of almost seven Earths, but it is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It is at the outside edge of the habitable zone, receiving about as much radiation as Mars; it is probably too cold to be habitable.”

“The fourth planet is about four times as big as Earth,” he continued, “and orbits at less than half of Earth’s distance from the Sun. As Tau Ceti’s luminosity is just a little more than half of the Sun’s, the planet would receive about 1.7 times as much radiation as the Earth.”

“While the planet is probably habitable,” he concluded, “it is unlikely that it is actually inhabited, as our sensors indicate that there is about ten times as much dust in this system as there is in the Solar System. Because this system has so much material flying around, the planets here have an increased rate of comet and asteroid impacts. Extinction events here are probably very common.”

“Extinction events?” asked the helmsman turning around.

“Yes,” replied Arges, “extinction events are where all or nearly all of the life on the planet is killed off at the same time. The Earth had one of these impacts nearly 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period. A large meteor about six miles in diameter struck the present-day Yucatan Peninsula near the town of Chicxulub, making a crater over one hundred miles in diameter. This impact triggered the mass extinction of all of the non-avian dinosaurs and a majority of the other plant and animal life on the Earth. The asteroid struck with a force of about 120 Teratons of TNT, or about 120 million megatons. This type of impact would happen frequently in this system.”

“Sucks to be them,” muttered the helmsman, turning back to his console.

“So, the planets are not inhabited?” asked the commanding officer.

“I don’t know,” said Arges, sounding confused. “While I do not expect them to be inhabited, we are getting some type of intermittent energy reading from the vicinity of the fourth planet, which is currently on the other side of Tau Ceti.”

“Do you know what is causing it?” asked Captain Deutch.

“I do not,” replied Arges, “and it is most perplexing...”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Three

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Vipers are approaching the fourth planet, and systems are online,” said the operations officer. The sporadic power spikes had continued for several hours, but due to the random nature of the source, Arges hadn’t been able to triangulate it. It was coming from the direction of the fourth planet or its small moon, but he was unable to determine which. He had asked Captain Deutch to launch a couple of Vipers with sensor gear. That way, the next time the power source activated, he would be able to triangulate the source of the emission.

“Very well,” said Captain Deutch. Looking at the helmsman, he asked, “Our position?”

“We are holding at 125 million miles from Planet Four, as ordered,” replied the helmsman. “Engines are online and being used to stay in the same relative position.”

“Vella Gulf, this is Viper 02,” radioed Lieutenant Steve ‘Gecko’ Smith, the Weapons System Officer for the flight. “We are approaching the planet, but do not see anything abnormal yet. We are not picking up any energy readings at this time.” At that distance, radio waves would have taken over 11 minutes to make the journey from the Viper to the Vella Gulf. With the Psiclopes’ faster-than-light communications system, it was almost instantaneous.

I’m starting to pick up readings of large concentrations of metal on the other side of the moon. The metal appears to be processed. We’re coming over the horizon where we ought to be able to see it. There is enough...I’ve got radars tracking us...VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE, MISSILES INBOUND!” Gecko screamed.

“Their links show missile launches from the moon of the fourth planet!” called the defensive systems officer from the Security position. “Six missiles launched...five are tracking on Viper 02, and one appears to be targeted on Viper 03...”

Onboard Viper 02, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Break right!” yelled Gecko as he released two decoys. He looked at his display. “What the fuck did we do to you?” he muttered as five of the six missiles turned to guide on him. He smiled as one of them attacked the thermal flare that he had released. The missile detonated, and the blast destroyed the flare...and one of the other missiles that were tracking them.

The pilot of Viper 02, Flight Lieutenant Ken ‘MOSA’ Smith, had the throttles of the little ship at maximum and was flying as straight away from the missiles as possible. Any maneuvering only let them catch up with him more quickly and shortened the time that Gecko had to defeat them. He jettisoned the four missiles the ship was carrying to get rid of the unnecessary mass and saw that he was now accelerating at 655 G’s, which was 5 G’s higher than what the fighter was rated for. MOSA hoped that the missiles tracking him would run into the ones that he dumped, but that wish went unanswered. Space was just too big.

“Three missiles still tracking us,” said Gecko with tension in his voice. Even though the fighter was accelerating at over 650 G’s, the missiles were accelerating at over 100,000 G’s, and they were catching up fast. He put the defensive laser on automatic, and it began trying to target the missiles that were rapidly overhauling them. “Break left!” Gecko yelled as he fired out another round of decoys.

MOSA turned the ship hard left and was rewarded with one of the remaining missiles changing its targeting to the decoy. The other two kept coming.

“Fifteen seconds to impact!” cried Gecko as MOSA rolled the craft back level, and the laser began firing again. “Ten seconds!”


Before Gecko could say “Eight!” the fighter’s laser hit the missile that was closest to them, and the missile exploded. The fighter’s sensors were unable to track the remaining missile, and Gecko momentarily hoped that it had been caught in the explosion.

But it hadn’t, and as the sensors cleared, Gecko saw that it was almost on them. The laser began firing again.

“Three seconds!”



GLUCK AB!” Gecko transmitted as the missile closed on them.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

Viper 02 has been destroyed,” said Steropes as the sensors on Viper 03 detected the 25 megaton nuclear explosion. He had taken over for Arges, who had become very pale at the beginning of hostilities. “I do not think there will be any survivors.”

Viper 03, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“We’ve got a missile headed toward us,” said Bullseye, the WSO of Viper 03. He launched a spread of decoys. “Break right!” he called, and Viper 03’s pilot, LT Carl ‘Guns’ Simpson, turned the fighter hard to the right.

The missile neither followed them, nor did it attack the decoys. It continued in the direction that it had originally been heading, away from where the Vella Gulf lay waiting, as it continued to accelerate at over 120,000 G’s. “Where the hell is it going?” asked Guns.

“No freakin’ clue,” replied Bullseye, “but wherever it’s going, it’s getting there fast.” He watched the missile’s trajectory for a second. “Hey Guns,” he said, “let’s go follow it and see where it’s going.”

Guns turned the fighter onto the vector of the outbound missile. After about 30 seconds more, Bullseye was unable to track it any longer as its motor went out. Guns started calculating the amount of fuel that he had left. “ much longer do you want to follow it? We’re getting kind of low on fuel...”

“Not much further...” he stopped as his sensor registered a gate activating. As fast as the missile was going when it hit the gate, the activation was significant, and Bullseye was easily able to pinpoint the position of the gate. “OK, we’re good,” he continued. “I figured it was headed for a gate, and I wanted to get the position of it. Let’s get back to the ranch before something ugly comes through it.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice!” agreed Guns as he turned the fighter back toward the Vella Gulf.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Four

CO’s Conference Room, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“What’s our status?” asked Captain Deutch. He had called his staff to his conference room in order to work out a plan of action. All of the department heads sat at the table, while their assistants sat in a ring behind them.

“We have put ourselves between the moon and the gate,” said the operations officer. “If they try to get another message out, we will shoot it down. We are also jamming all of the communications frequencies as well. The base shot a couple of missiles at us, but they were easily destroyed by our counter-missiles. It appears that the base only has six launchers, which will not be enough to breach our defenses, unless they get really lucky.”

“Keep our defenses up and don’t get cocky,” ordered the commanding officer. He looked to Steropes. “What can you tell me about the base on the moon?”

“Based on an analysis of the missiles,” said Steropes, “I believe that the moon harbors a Ssselipsssiss base, probably one of their secret research bases.” The sudden onset of hostilities had been more than Arges could deal with, and he had retired to his room to meditate. Steropes had taken over as science officer.

“What the hell’s a Ssselipsssiss?” asked the operations officer.

“The Ssselipsssiss is a race of bipedal lizards,” replied Steropes. “They are extremely aggressive in nature and are omnivorous. Not omnivorous as in, ‘they eat both plants and animals,’ but omnivorous in that they can eat nearly any sort of flesh bearing animal, regardless of species or indigenous planet. Most creatures can only digest matter from their home planet. The Ssselipsssiss are from a very hostile planet. Their digestive systems can handle almost anything.”

“Including us?” asked the communications officer.

“Yes,” confirmed Steropes, “including both your race and mine.”

“Another race that wants to eat us?” asked Captain Deutch. “Is there a race in this universe that doesn’t want to eat us?”

“There are a few,” said Steropes taking the question literally, “but not that many. The good news is, if they do indeed have a base here, they will be relying on stealth, not an overwhelming military presence. That is the Sselipsssiss way; they build a base in a star system with only one entry point and guard it from the other side so that no one else knows about it. The gate we came through is so far from this system’s star, I’d bet that they don’t know about it. They probably think that this is a pocket star system, and the only way into it is through the gate that they sent the missile through.”

“OK,” said Captain Deutch, “so even though there aren’t a lot of troops and ships on the fourth planet’s moon, the odds are that there is a military presence in the next system, and we will probably have company soon.”

“That is an accurate assessment of the situation,” said Steropes.

As Steropes was speaking, the door to the conference room opened, and the assistant intelligence officer came in. He seemed excited as he crossed to the intel officer and began talking to him in hushed tones.

“Is there something that we should all know?” asked Captain Deutch. “Would you care to share?”

The intel officer nodded. “They just finished analyzing the data from Viper 03, and it appears that we have a great opportunity.” He looked at his assistant. “Tell them!”

The assistant, Lieutenant Marlon Adams, cleared his throat. “There’s a replicator there!” He was nearly jumping up and down in excitement.

“Calm down,” ordered the CO. “Tell me what you’ve found.”

Lieutenant Adams took a breath. “We analyzed the sensor data from Viper 03, and there is a return that is consistent with a Class 2 replicator. We have a Class 1 replicator onboard the Vella Gulf; the Class 2 is bigger and will allow the replication of anything up to about a fighter-sized vessel.”

“That would be helpful,” remarked the CO. “Unfortunately, I doubt they’re going to just give it to us. We also have to remember that we are probably going to have company from the next system soon.” He looked at Steropes. “What are the odds that we can take it from them?”

Steropes looked up from the sensor data that he had taken from Lieutenant Adams. “The odds are very good that we could take it,” he said. “I doubt that they will have many troops at a secret research base...probably just a handful to operate the defensive systems. Their main defense is stealth. If we hadn’t entered the system through a gate they didn’t know about, we probably wouldn’t have been in a position to catch the power surges from the base. I don’t know what they were testing, but it was something that must have used a lot of energy.”

“Do you have any ideas on what they were testing?” the CO asked the intel officer.

“No,” the intel officer replied. “All we know is there is some kind of warehouse or hangar with a Class 2 replicator and a bunch of blast doors that hide the entrance to their subterranean base and defensive systems.” He paused, leafing through the photos that Viper 03 had taken before it was forced to turn away. “There’s also this thing, but we don’t know what it is.” He showed them a picture of a tall, shiny, metallic-looking object. “This artifact is located about 100 miles away from the base.” He showed a close-up picture of the monolith. “There is a lot of scoring on it, as well as a few holes that go all the way through. We’re still trying to figure it out.”

“Can I see the photos?” asked Calvin. He took the two photos and consulted briefly with Bullseye, who was sitting behind him. Rejoining the group at the table, he said, “I know what that object it. It’s a space fighter target. The scoring that you see is from laser hits. Some were more powerful and went all the way through.”

“Hmmm...” said Steropes, “I think I know what this facility is. The Ssselipsssiss have always had good laser technology for their fighters and warships. This must be the research facility where they develop it. That would be consistent with the data. The replicator they have there would be to produce fighters to mount the new weapons they’re developing there. This is a serendipitous discovery. If we could capture the replicator, it would probably have the patterns not only for their developmental weapons, but their newest fighters as well.”

“There’s no doubt that it would be great to have the database,” said the CO, “but they obviously sent that missile through the gate for a reason, and that was probably to summon help. I doubt we have much time to go down and pick up the replicator before that help arrives.”

“We won’t be able to land a shuttle next to the base,” said Steropes. “The Ssselipsssiss have turned on a disruptor field at the base. The troops would have to land about ten miles away and walk to the facility. They wouldn’t have a problem getting through the field; it only exists to disrupt the electronics of spacecraft, causing them to crash.”

“This is too good an opportunity to pass up, Skipper,” said Calvin. “The technology we have is pretty outdated. Getting the database would give us information on both new weapons and new fighter-type spacecraft.”

“We can’t get caught here,” replied the CO. “If a force comes through the gate that we can’t beat, we will have to flee and leave your men on the surface of the moon. Are you prepared for that?”

“I hope they don’t get left behind,” said Calvin, “because I will be down there with them; however, it’s worth the risk and we need to make the effort. Besides, if we don’t eliminate the base, they’ll be able to tell which direction we go when we leave. They may not be able to find the gate immediately, but they’ll have a pretty good idea in which direction to look.” He paused, thinking. “We have a bunch of space mines we can use at the gate the missile went out. That might at least slow down whatever response is coming.”

“I agree with Calvin,” said Steropes. Most of the other heads around the table were nodding too. “It is indeed hazardous, but the potential rewards outweigh the risks. My recommendation would be to try to assault the base.”

“OK,” said Captain Deutch, “We’ll do it. Let’s get the troops down there as quickly as possible. Mine the gate and give me any other defensive ideas you can come up with.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Five

Platoon Briefing Room, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“All right, I’ll make this quick,” said Calvin, addressing all of the troops of the platoon. Steropes was also present to answer any questions that the soldiers might have. Calvin smiled. “That’ll be easy because we don’t have a lot of information to brief, and we need to take care of this quickly before reinforcements arrive.” He pointed to a large picture of the base that he had hung on the board. “There is a base on the moon of the fourth planet. It appears to be a secret research base for a race of lizards that walk on two legs.”

“Another race of lizards, dude?” asked a voice from the back of the room in a stage whisper. It sounded like Bad Twin. “Sheesh! How about a cat some time? I could kill some kitties!”

“Although Steropes does not expect there to be many soldiers at the base,” Calvin continued, ignoring the interruption, “he did say that this is a much different race than the one we met before. While those looked like mini-dinosaurs, this race is seven feet tall and extremely aggressive. If you see any of them, they probably will attack you on sight. We expect them to have at least light hand weapons. Even unarmed, they have very sharp teeth and claws, as well as a tail with a sharp spike.”

“Our primary mission is to assault the base and capture the Class 2 replicator that is in the hangar there. Once we eliminate any resistance, one of our shuttles will fly in, hook up to it, and take it back to the Gulf. As soon as it is airborne, we destroy the facility, shuttle back to the ship and ‘strategically withdraw’ back to Earth as quickly as we can. Hopefully, we get out of here before anyone else comes to see which direction we went. The replicator will give the Earth the ability to make advanced fighters quickly and, it is hoped, give us access to some new laser technology.”

“Lieutenant Train and Master Chief O’Leary will lead the Space Force, which will attack from the east. This is a diversion, so I want you to be seen and to have the lizards’ attention looking your way. Master Sergeant Smith and I will lead the Ground Force. We will attack from the west and come in cloaked. The goal is to take and defend the replicator and then infiltrate the base to destroy the defensive systems. Once this is accomplished, the shuttles fly in, the replicator flies out and we’re all done. We come back to the ship and watch the mushroom cloud.”

Master Chief O’Leary raised his hand. “What are the conditions on the moon?”

Calvin looked at Steropes, who answered, “The moon is nearly as big as the Earth and has a gravity that is approximately three quarters of Earth normal. There is an atmosphere, but it is thin, and there is not enough oxygen in it to make it breathable. Inside the base, there will probably be pressurization, depending on how many doors you blow off, but their atmosphere is not breathable by humans. You’ll need your suits throughout the mission.”

“We will be coming down about 10.5 miles from the base,” Calvin continued, “because the facility has a shield that disrupts ships’ electronics. As the gravity is a little less, we will have about a 45 minute run/jump to get there.” He looked around. “Any other questions?” Seeing none, he said, “OK, let’s get to it then. Before you go, I need to see Mr. Jones and Ms. Rozhkov for a couple of minutes.”

The two specialists came over to where Steropes and Calvin waited. “I’ve asked Steropes for some assistance,” Calvin said, “and he has decided to break the rules slightly. As you are both no doubt aware, the Psiclopes have not transferred a lot of their computer technology to us yet. Steropes has authorized a download of some of it for you, because your mission is going to be to try to hack into the lizards’ computer systems and download any new technology you can find. He has some additional tools that he is going to give you to help with it.” He indicated a small bag that Steropes was holding.

Mr. Jones looked at the Russian spy inquisitively and raised an eyebrow. Calvin sighed. “In a perfect world, I wouldn’t want to have to use her for this mission, but she is one of the two best hackers we have. Hopefully, between the two of you, you’ll be able to break into their systems. If this is a research base, they ought to have a lot of information that we could use. I don’t trust her, but I trust you to watch her.” Mr. Jones shrugged, giving his assent.

Calvin turned to Steropes. “I’ll let you take it from here. I have to go make sure Bullseye is all set with the mining operation.”

Gate #1, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

The two shuttles orbited the gate, deploying their proximity mines in as solid a pattern as they were able. The Terrans knew generally the direction the missile had used to go through it, so they were able to guess in which direction the aliens would emerge, and they mined it accordingly. The density of the pattern wasn’t great, but any ship transiting the minefield ought to be hit by at least a few of them. They hoped.

The proximity mines the shuttles were laying would explode once a ship entered within a predetermined range, triggering five kilograms of antimatter. The resulting detonation of the antimatter core as it came into contact with the material surrounding it would result in a 215 megaton blast. If it blew up close aboard, it should overwhelm the shields of any craft unlucky enough to be caught by it.

The best part of the space mines was their size. Tremendously small in the vastness of space, the asymmetric nature of the threat made them extremely difficult to counter once they were in place. “That’s it,” radioed Captain Jennifer ‘Sweet Jen’ Chapman, who was operating the load system for one of the shuttles. The Royal Australian Air Force officer looked at her screen with an evil grin. Just let them try to get through that. “All of the mines are in place,” she continued. “Put the shrimp on the barbie. We’re on our way back.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Six

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Gliese 832 System, May 25, 2019

“Of course they took the honor of going first,” hissed Captain Sssseth, the battlecruiser Wanton Killer’s commanding officer. “Anything to relieve the boredom of being here.” He looked at the monitor, which showed the planet they were currently orbiting. It was so shitty that the Ssselipsssiss hadn’t even bothered naming it; it just had its ephemeris designation, Gliese 832 ‘b’. The crappy planet was a gas giant about two-thirds the size of Jupiter, orbiting around a small red dwarf sun at a distance of about 320 million miles. It was a long way from a lousy star and a miserable place to be.

He would have loved to be in almost any star system in the galaxy. All that Gliese 832 had going for it was a small picket station that the three battlecruisers were assigned to. He alone on his crew knew that they were guarding a secret research station on the other side of the nearby stargate. Knowing that there was at least a reason for having the outpost there didn’t help to relieve the boredom and misery of being on the ass-end of civilization. Not even a little. There was no glory to be gained in battle, the news and 4D videos were hopelessly out of date, and they hadn’t seen fresh meat in months. All because he had sex with a stupid female...How was he supposed to know she was the Grand Admiral’s daughter?

Two cycles ago, a missile had come through the gate from the research station screaming about Eldive fighters. He had to wonder what they were testing at the research station, because something had obviously scrambled whatever passed for brains in the scientists’ heads.

First, Eldive fighters could not be attacking because there hadn’t been Eldive fighters in over 3,000 years, ever since the race’s mass suicide against the Drakuls. He’d had to look it up when the scientists said that they were being attacked by the Eldive; he’d never even heard of them. Second, there was no other way into the neighboring system besides the gate that the battlecruisers were guarding, and he was sure that nothing had gone past his ship. All of his crew knew that he would happily cut them up and serve them for dinner if they were delinquent in their duties. He may be bored out of his mind, but that didn’t mean that he’d let his crew be sloppy! They would have reported a gate activation to him as soon as it happened. Finally, even if his crew had missed it, there was no way the automatic systems onboard the outpost would have failed to notice the gate activation. The scientists had to be delusional.

Obviously, there was a meteor shower, or something like that, and the stupid scientists had panicked. He didn’t care what the reason; it gave him a chance to do something other than sit on his tail at Gliese 832 ‘b’. He did care that the senior officer of the three battlecruisers, Rear Admiral Ssseellee, had exercised his prerogative to proceed through the gate first. The only thing more pathetic than that worthless excuse for an officer was the state of his ship and crew. It was now two cycles later, and the Emperor’s Sword was just starting to move away from the outpost. Half the crew was probably intoxicated too. Although each of the three ships should have spent an equal amount of time docked at the outpost, the admiral always had an excuse for why he needed additional time docked there. The real excuse was that it was the only place to get fermented goat’s milk in this whole system.

“Make sure you give the Emperor’s Sword additional room to get by us,” he said. “They might be a their helmsmanship.”

“Yes, Captain Sssseth!” answered the helmsman. The CO didn’t have to tell him why the Admiral’s ship needed extra space; the state of discipline, or lack thereof, onboard the Sword was common knowledge.

Space Force, Shuttle 1, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

The shuttle screamed into a combat landing, hitting hard on its struts in spite of the lower than normal gravity. The inertial compensators absorbed most, but not all, of the impact.

“Ouch. That hurt,” said Master Chief Ryan O’Leary. “Who’s driving this bus?”

“Not sure,” said First Lieutenant Paul ‘Night’ Train. “I think it’s that German guy, Oberleutnant Hohen-something. I can never remember how to pronounce it.” He thought about it a second and then said wryly, “I’m sure the landing looked really impressive to the lizards.”

“Refresh my memory,” said O’Leary as the boarding ramp started coming down, “why didn’t we just land on top of them? Why’d we have to go through this whole charade?”

“I’m impressed,” said Night with a grin. “Who knew you had words like ‘charade’ running around in your vocabulary?” Master Chief frowned, and Night continued, “The reason we’re doing it is that the disrupter field around the base will mess up the electronics in the shuttle’s engines. Me, I don’t want to be next to an antimatter reaction that goes out of control. Do you?”

“Not particularly sir, no,” replied O’Leary. Standing up, he yelled over the implant frequency, “What the hell are you waiting for? An engraved invitation? Let’s GO!” The Space Force jumped up and stormed out the back of the shuttle.

Ground Force, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

The Ground Force was much quieter as their shuttle came down to the west of the lizard base. The shuttle had used the terrain to block the lizard’s radar, and the soldiers immediately went invisible to most sensors as they cloaked coming out the shuttle. Although unseen by the lizards, the members of the squad were able to ‘see’ the locations of the other members of the squad on their displays through a laser uplink to the Vella Gulf and downlink back to the suits. By using the laser link, they were able to maintain radio silence, yet still communicate with each other. Having received a green flag from all of the troops, Master Sergeant Aaron ‘Top’ Smith gave the signal to advance, and they all bounded off.

Between the light loads they were carrying and the lower gravity of the moon, the troops were able to use the suits to ‘bounce,’ where each step covered about 15 feet. Once the troops were up to speed, they covered the ground at just over 15 miles per hour in an easy lope that used no more energy than an easy jog in shorts and a t-shirt back home. They had practiced this many times on the Earth’s moon and had no problems staying in formation as they rapidly covered the distance to the base.

Crossing the disrupter shield, Calvin felt a slight electrical current like static electricity, which caused the hair on his arms to rise slightly. The electronics of his suit were hardened against the effect and survived the crossing without any problems. Full of energy, they unconsciously sped up, covering the next nine miles in just under 30 minutes. The base was located in the middle of a two mile wide crater, and they reached the edge of the crater ten minutes ahead of schedule.

Calvin watched on his tactical screen as the Space Force made it to the opposite rim of the crater. With his augmented vision, he could look across the crater and see them easily. As they came into sight of the base, its defenses sprang to life. Pop-up laser turrets deployed from hidden sites, fired a volley of shots at the troops and then closed again before the troops could target them. Anti-personnel rockets launched from a number of sites near the base, only to be shot down by the lasers of the Vella Gulf, in orbit over the moon. Anti-ship radars and lasers tried to target the Vella Gulf, only to be slagged by the ship’s counter-missile lasers as soon as they became operational. Two additional missiles launched at the ship but were shot down by the ship’s defenses within seconds.

As the Space Force began taking laser fire, they hunkered down on the ridge of the crater, happy to stay under cover and shoot down into the valley with their lasers and tridents. Although under cover, they quickly found that they were not invulnerable as Sergeant Ed ‘Shadow’ Pesik took a glancing laser shot, which burned a two inch hole through the arm of his suit. As the suit started to deflate, he deftly pulled out a patch from one of his leg pockets and slapped it into place, something the squad had practiced hundreds of times. The adhesive on the patch melted to the suit, closing the hole and sealing the majority of the pressurization loss. He commanded the suit’s nanobots to finish the repair and was back in the fight, firing a line of antimatter grenades from his trident across the laser site that shot him.

The laser site saw his movement, and it popped back up to fire at him again. It had just reached its firing position when it was bracketed by two grenades that were set at triple the strength of a normal hand grenade. It was destroyed in the resulting double explosion.

Seeing the Space Force was heavily engaged, Top gave the signal, and the Ground Force sprang into action, jumping off the edge of the 20’ high crater wall. With a running start, they could have traveled a long distance in the reduced gravity; even from a standing start they still covered over 50 feet in their initial leap. As they touched down in the crater floor, they immediately bounced back up again. Each succeeding bounce had a lower trajectory, and the squad began picking up speed. By the time they covered the first quarter mile, they had their heads down and were into a full-on sprint.

Calvin was happy he had taken the time to do some running over the last six months. As the squad charged ahead, he was able to keep up with the advance, even if he did trail the other members slightly. His pride kept him going as the squad’s speed topped 30 miles an hour. His suit continued to scan in front of him. So far, the defenses on this side of the facility hadn’t seen them; either they were fooled by the suit’s camouflage, or they were being operated manually.

That changed as they got within a quarter of a mile of the base, where some of the defenses were seismically activated and radar-controlled. As the members of the squad stepped on pressure plates, the pop-up lasers began deploying and firing at them, guided by a radar attached to the weapon. Simultaneously, mines began launching into the air, where they exploded at an altitude of about six feet. Calvin saw that it would only take the squad 30 seconds to cover the final bit of no-man’s land, but that last piece had a lot of defenses.

Bad Twin was the first to get hit. Whether slower than the rest of the squad, or just unlucky, one of the lasers shot through his left leg at the top of a bounce. As he came back down on it, the leg refused to bear his weight, and he crashed forward to tumble to a stop. He lay motionless, although Calvin could see on his display that he still had strong vital signs.

Seeing Bad Twin go down, the platoon’s medic, Sergeant ‘Hacksaw’ Liu, tried to go back to the wounded soldier. As he stopped his forward motion, he was a sitting target, and the laser that brought down Bad Twin reoriented on Hacksaw. It fired one long bolt that went through Hacksaw’s heart. He slowly toppled over, dead before he hit the ground.

Bad Twin began to struggle to get back up, and the laser turret started to reorient itself on the fallen soldier. Before it could do so, his brother landed next to the turret and slashed at the wires running down the side of it with his combat knife. Deprived of power, the turret turned off and dropped back beneath the surface of the moon with Good Twin still on it. The cover plate closed above him before he could get back out of the hole.

The next turret in line had chosen Havildar (Sergeant) Rajesh Patel as its target. The radar had locked on him and he saw the turret turning toward him. Before it could fire, he gathered himself and bounced as high as he could. The radar continued to track him on the way up, and the laser began firing. Although the first laser bolts missed him, each succeeding bolt got closer and closer to him as he ascended. A bolt singed the bottom of his boots, and then the turret hit its gimbal stops and couldn’t aim any higher. Patel did a somersault with a twist over the top of his jump and came down behind the turret. Drawing his knife with a flourish, he severed the cords running to the laser, rendering it inoperable. As he stuck his knife back in his belt, the turret dropped with him on it, and the lid closed over his head.

As Calvin was trailing the rest of the group slightly, he was able to alter his next bounce and came down in a perfect landing next to where Bad Twin lay. Gathering him up, he pushed off with both feet, bouncing past the last row of lasers. Although the squad was momentarily safe, they had one soldier dead and another injured, and they were now split up.

Calvin thought that the assault couldn’t have been going much worse...until he heard the call about the stargate’s activation.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Gate activation,” said Steropes calmly. “The first ship is a battlecruiser. Multiple activations...I have a second a third battlecruiser. That appears to be it. Three battlecruisers entering the minefield...I don’t show any shield emanations from the first! The second one’s shields are down too!

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Gliese 832 System, May 25, 2019

“30 segments to gate activation,” called the helmsman.

“Shields up!” ordered Captain Sssseth.

“You don’t really think there are enemies in the Tau Ceti system, do you?” sneered his executive officer. “The other ships didn’t activate their shields prior to going through the gate. You’re not afraid, are you?”

Captain Sssseth bristled. “I don’t have time to kill you now, but if you call me ‘afraid’ again, I will make the time.” There was no worse slight for a warrior than for someone to say that he was a coward. Obviously, morale was slipping badly if his XO was not afraid to challenge him on his own bridge. Sssseth made a mental note to fix that at his earliest opportunity. “The other ships can do as they please, but regulations state that shields are to be raised before passing through a gate. The officers on the Emperor’s Sword were probably drunk and forgot to do so, and the idiots on the Bloody Dagger followed suit so that they wouldn’t look bad. We, however, will follow regulations and raise our shields. Shields UP!

“Shields are up, sir!” replied the shield technician.

“Activation!” called the helmsman.

As the Wanton Killer emerged, and the systems recovered from transit, Captain Sssseth looked out into a scene from the third level of hell. The Emperor’s Sword was in three pieces and was spilling crewmen and systems from all three of them. The Bloody Dagger had a gaping hole near its engineering section and was venting atmosphere and fluids. It didn’t appear to be mortally wounded...until another 215 megaton mine blew up next to its ammunition storage. The blast from the mine, in conjunction with the secondary explosions from the ammunition detonating, broke the ship in half. It was finished too.

215 megaton mines? Where in the seventh hell had they come from? Before he could say anything, the screen dimmed as a mine blew up alongside the Wanton Killer, shaking the ship like a dog with a bone. Although he knew that the ship was damaged, it was not as bad as it could have been; had the shields not been up, they would now look like the Sword and Dagger.

“Move closer to the Emperor’s Sword and continue in the path they were heading,” ordered Ssseth.

“The area is mined!” the executive officer screamed. “We have to go back!” He looked around the bridge to gather support from the other members of the bridge crew.

“No,” replied Sssseth walking behind the XO, “we have to do our jobs. It is obvious that the scientists are under attack, and we must go to their aid. We will follow the path of the Emperor’s Sword and hope that they cleared a path through the mines.”

“But it’s too dangerous...” the XO’s sentence stopped as nearly a meter of steel erupted from his chest.

“I should have done that a long time ago,” muttered Sssseth as he slid his former first officer off his sword and onto the deck. He looked around the bridge. “Anyone else want to turn around and run?” he asked. All of the bridge crew found something interesting to look at on their screens. “Good,” said Sssseth. “Someone get this traitor off my bridge.” He paused, as if in contemplation. “If nothing else, it looks like we’ll have fresh meat tonight.” A small cheer greeted his words; it had been a long time since they had fresh meat.

The Wanton Killer sidled over to the remains of the Sword and then began to move forward again. As the Killer moved past the Sword, Sssseth saw at least three bodies and a large piece of what looked like an anti-ship missile bounce off their shields. The enemy would pay for this, Sssseth thought.

Contact!” yelled the sensor operator suddenly. “There is a ship orbiting the moon of the fourth planet!”

“Let me guess,” said Sssseth, “it is of Eldive origin?”

“Our classification system shows that...yes, it is of Eldive origin,” agreed the sensor operator. “It is a heavy cruiser of the Falcon class. The records...” The sensor operator’s voice was lost as the power went out, and the Killer rocked as a mine detonated close aboard. The bridge went pitch black.

After a few seconds, the emergency power kicked in, and a dim light suffused the bridge. “Mine detonation off the starboard stern,” said the damage control technician. “Both engines went offline in automatic shutdown. We also lost our aft sensors, and I am showing faults on missile stations 20-26, lasers 40-52 and our aft countermeasures stations.”

“How long until we have main power back?” asked Sssseth, mad enough to spit.

“Engineering says they need one cycle to ensure that there’s no damage before they restart the engines,” replied the technician.

“They have half a cycle,” the commanding officer noted, “and then I want the engines back online. If they can’t do that, I’ll have their hearts for dessert.”

“Engineering says they’ll be able to meet your time frame,” said the technician after a moment’s discussion with the engineering officer.

“I thought they might,” replied Sssseth. He was not known for making idle threats.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019 “The first two battlecruisers have been destroyed,” reported Steropes. A small cheer went up on the bridge. He continued, “The third one has sustained damage to its engineering section. Power levels indicate that it is operating on emergency power only.”

“Any idea if they’ll be able to get the main power back?” asked Captain Deutch.

“It is not possible to know,” replied Steropes. “They had their shields up, which minimized the force of the blast. The mine operated as designed and detonated near the ship’s engines. It was successful in knocking them out, but the lizards might be able to get them back at any moment.”

“So going out there to finish them off might not be the best idea?” asked Deutch.

“I think that it would be ill-advised. The Emperor’s Sword-class battlecruiser is nearly twice as long as the Vella Gulf and can out-accelerate us by about 115 G’s. We have 18 missile tubes; they have 44. They have a similar advantage in lasers, plus theirs are bigger. They also have more counter-missile missiles and lasers than we do. In a stand-up fight at full strength, the Vella Gulf would be destroyed before we even breached its shields. They might not be a full battleship, but as far as we are concerned, they completely outclass us. It is my opinion that it would be better to rearm the Vipers for an anti-ship strike prior to attacking the battlecruiser,” replied Steropes. “That’s the only place where we have an advantage.”

The CO turned to Bullseye, who was sitting in the air wing commander’s chair. “Rearm the Vipers and prepare to attack the battlecruiser.”

“Aye aye, sir!” said Bullseye, who immediately began comming orders to his troops.

Under the Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

As the platform descended, Havildar Rajesh ‘Mouse’ Patel came face to face with a Ssselipsssiss. The lizard technician had received a fault warning on the laser and had come to fix it; he was unprepared for the short, dark human riding down on it. As the maroon lizard recoiled from him, the Indian shot him through the head with his laser. The Ssselipsssiss fell to the ground, twitching.

Trained at the Indian Army’s elite Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Mizoram, Patel wasn’t scared; he had extensive guerilla training, and he was in his element. A veteran of over ten years of guerilla warfare against a number of militant Communist groups, he was an expert at reconnaissance, gathering intelligence and tunnel warfare. The seven foot tall lizard didn’t frighten him; at just over five feet tall, he was used to everyone being taller than he was.

He fired another bolt into the lizard to ensure it was dead and, as it stopped twitching, he looked around at his surroundings. The laser turret had dropped down into a long, five foot wide tunnel that had turrets placed every 100 feet or so. The laser turrets formed a defensive ring around the base, so the tunnel curved out of sight in both directions. Seeing movement from the next turret down from him, he leveled his laser but held his fire when he saw the movement corresponded to the icon of Good Twin.

Top, Mouse,” he commed over the squad network. “I’m good in the tunnel. One hostile killed. I’m going to link up with Good Twin, and we will advance from down here.” As he finished transmitting, Good Twin jogged up.

Roger that Mouse,” Top replied. “We’ll link up inside the base.

Let’s go,” Mouse said over a private link to Good Twin. “I’m used to tunnels. I’ll lead.” The two soldiers started down the tunnel.

Dude,” Good Twin replied, “do you know where you’re going?

I know where the base is,” said Mouse, “we’ve just got to find the cross tunnel. As the lizard I killed was a little closer to the left side, the odds are that he came from that direction. It’s a 50/50 chance either way.

Cool,” Good Twin said. “Lead on.

Approaching the Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

The Ground Force made its way to the hangar building that dominated the landscape of the crater. The only building in sight, the way down into the base beneath the surface of the moon had to be there.

It’s locked,” commed Staff Sergeant Jim ‘Shuteye’ Chang, the first one to reach the hangar building.

You sound surprised by that,” replied Top. “Were you expecting the lizards to welcome you in with open arms?

Well, it would have been nice,” said Shuteye.

Top, I’ve got some large covers on the ground,” reported the German soldier, Sergeant Hans Fleischer. “I can’t tell where they lead, but they might be a way in. The doors slide into recessed areas, so there is no way to open them except for cutting through them.

OK,” replied Top, “I want both of you to start cutting your way through the doors. When we get them open, we’ll go through both at the same time. Hurry! We don’t have a lot of time.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019

“The base is trying to contact the battlecruiser,” said the communications officer. “They said that there is an attacking force burning their way through the doors, and they are asking for help.”

“Good,” said Deutch, “the platoon must have reached the base. Keep jamming their transmissions.”

Under the Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

We found the passage leading into the base from the defensive ring,” commed Mouse. “We must be getting close to the main part of the base because we’re starting to find doors.

Roger that,” commed Top. “Don’t leave any of the lizards alive to hit you from behind.

Got it,” commed Mouse. “Which will work out well,” Mouse said over a private channel to Good Twin, looking at the two doors in front of them “unless we open a door, and there are about 100 of them behind it.

No kidding dude,” agreed Good Twin. At ten feet wide, the corridor into the main part of the base was larger than the laser turret access tunnel had been. He looked at the two doors, one on each side of the hallway. He shouldered his trident and drew his laser. Seeing Mouse looking at him questioningly, he said, “I’d hate to blow up something important.” He looked at the doors and continued, “I’ll take the right if you want the left.

Fine,” replied Mouse. “1...2...3,” and they both kicked in the door in front of them. Mouse charged in to find the room empty. Not just devoid of lizards, but completely empty from wall to wall. There was a dark spot of in the corner that might have been a blood stain, but that was all. Hearing firing behind him, he turned and charged back across the hall. Three lizards lay twitching on the ground. As he entered, he saw the one closest to Good Twin whip him with its tail, staggering him. Mouse and Good Twin fired at the same time, and it stopped moving.

Stupid lizards don’t know when they’re dead,” commented Good Twin, kicking the one that had tail-whipped him. “Next time, you take the right, dude.” He began walking toward the door.

Just a second,” said Mouse. Unlike the earlier technician, the dead lizards in the room were dressed in some sort of golden armor. It covered their arms, legs and torso. Looking around the room, he saw it was full of screens showing views of the surface of the moon, with some sort of consoles ringing the room’s outer walls. On one screen he could see what looked like the other squad of Terrans on the rim of a crater. “I think we just found the control room for the base’s defenses. I’ve got an idea.” He switched to the platoon frequency. “Top, Mouse. I think we just found the control room for the laser defenses. Would you like us to wreck them?

What do you think, sir?” Top asked Calvin, who stood next to him while they waited for the troops to finish cutting a way in.

Go ahead and blow it,” Calvin commed.

No problem,” Mouse commed back. He looked at Good Twin and nodded at his trident. “What’s the normal setting for a hand grenade size explosion?

Five nanograms is the same as a normal hand grenade,” said Good Twin.

OK, come with me.” Mouse led him to the room across the hall. “You fire a 25 nanogram shot into the other room across the hall, and I’ll slam the door once you launch it.

Good Twin set the dial on the trident appropriately. “Ready,” he said.

Go!” said Mouse. Good Twin fired, and the round arced through the door and into the back of the other room. Mouse slammed the door and fell against it. The antimatter grenade detonated with an earthshaking explosion. Even though the shape of the other room contained most of the blast, Mouse was pushed back six inches by the residual force of it. “Twenty nanograms might have been enough,” he said, rubbing a bruise that was already starting to form on his shoulder. The armor and physical upgrades were all nice, he thought ruefully, but they didn’t make a physical blow hurt any less.

The two soldiers walked across the hallway and looked at the control room. “Well dude, I’d have to say it’s pretty trashed.

Mouse saw one console that had somehow survived unscathed. He fired his laser into it several times and was rewarded with an eruption of sparks as the console shorted out. “Now it’s trashed.” He switched to the platoon-wide frequency. “We’ve destroyed the defensive control room. It should be safe for the other squad to come to the hangar,” he commed. “Now let’s go see if we can find the rest of the platoon,” he said to Good Twin.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

Captain Sssseth was sitting in his captain’s chair dreaming of tasty desserts when the power came back on. Looking at the sensor technician, he ordered, “Make sure there are no more mines around us.”

“There are none,” the technician quickly confirmed. “We have coasted clear of the minefield; they are all behind us to starboard.”

“Very well,” said Sssseth, “Give me the best speed engineering’s got. Head directly to the research base.”

“Aye aye, sir,” replied the helmsman, and the ship began accelerating toward the distant planet.

“Captain Sssseth,” the sensor technician called. “Records indicate the Eldive are quite tasty and best served with a light quarnberry sauce.”

“Sounds yummy,” replied Sssseth. “Let’s see what the prey looks like. Contact the other ship and put it on screen.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019

“The battlecruiser has restored power and is coming in this direction,” said Steropes. “It’s piling on the G’s and is now accelerating at almost 490 G’s. Within an hour, it will be traveling at over 38 million miles an hour.”

“Captain!” called the communications officer. “I am getting a hail from the other ship.”

“Very well,” replied Captain Deutch, “on screen.” He smiled at Bullseye, who he knew was a Star Trek fan. “I’ve been waiting to say that.”

“Yes sir,” said the communications officer. “The lizards have the same faster-than-light communications system that we do; even though they’re over two hundred million miles away, communications will be instantaneous.”

Within seconds, the view screen shifted from the moon they were orbiting to the face of a very large lizard. “I am Captain Sssseth of the Wanton Killer,” it hissed. “I congratulate you on the minesss. They were a nasssty surprissse, although they were successssful in ridding the galaxy of its worssst admiral. As you can sssee, we have repaired the minor damage that it caused usss, and we are now prepared to destroy you. Would you like to lower your shieldsss and be boarded, or would you like usss to come and hammer them down for you?”

“I’ll tell you what,” answered Captain Deutch. “The Terran Space Force has never lost a battle, and we’re not going to lose our first to the likes of a belly-crawler like you. Now, why don’t you run back through the stargate and go back to the little egg that you crawled out of before we destroy your ship as well? You have five minutes to decelerate and leave this system, or you will be destroyed.” Captain Deutch turned to the communications officer and said, “Terminate connection,” just as the lizard started to shriek something in outrage.

“Better let Lieutenant Commander Hobbs know that we’re going to have company soon,” Deutch continued. “Get the shuttles down there and let them know they need to evacuate ASAP.”

“Aye aye, sir!” said the communications officer.

Steropes walked over to the captain’s chair. “I’m not sure that was wise to antagonize their captain,” said Steropes. “After that taunt, I do not believe that he will negotiate with us any further. The Ssselipsssiss are known for being very honor conscious. They will duel at the slightest provocation.”

“Are they slowing down?” asked Deutch.

“No, they are not,” said Steropes. “In fact, they just added another five G’s to their acceleration.”

“Well, maybe they’ll blow up their engines,” remarked Captain Deutch. “If so, the taunt was worth it. The way I figured it, if they turned and ran, we won. If they didn’t run, maybe they would be so mad that they would accidentally kill us before they can capture and eat us.”

“That is an interesting analysis,” said Steropes. “In all the people and races that I’ve known, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone express it like that.”

“And I hope I never hear anyone else do it ever again,” muttered Bullseye in a loud whisper.

The joke made everyone on the bridge chuckle. It alleviated the tension a little. A very little.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty

Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

Nice day for a bounce,” said Master Chief O’Leary as the Space Force bounced up to the hangar. “How’s it coming sir?” he asked Calvin.

Good,” said Calvin, “we just got into both the hangar and the base, but we’re rapidly running out of time. The defensive screen is down, and the shuttles are inbound to get us. Night, Master Chief, I want you to take your squad and get the hangar open. As soon as the shuttles get here, get the replicator strapped onto one of them and get out of here. I’ll take the Ground Force and go into the base to get our lost sheep.

You got it sir,” commed Master Chief. “You heard the man! Let’s get those doors open so we can leave this godforsaken moon!” He walk-bounced off, continuing to issue orders as he went.

OK, Top,” Calvin said, “let’s go find our guys in the base. If you see a computer room, let me know. I’d love to download what they were doing here.” The Ground Force entered the base at a trot.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019

Steropes looked up from his sensor display, his face a shade or two paler than normal. “Umm, Captain Deutch,” he said, “I don’t know if anyone else has done the math, but if we don’t leave orbit in the next couple of minutes, we’re not going to be able to beat the lizard ship to the stargate.”

“What do you mean?” asked Captain Deutch.

“What I mean is that the lizard ship is coming toward us at almost 60,000,000 miles an hour. It also can out-accelerate us. If we don’t leave orbit now, the lizard ship can beat us to the stargate. They may not know where it is, but they know where we are and will be able to get into weapons’ range before we can go through the gate.”

“We’re not leaving without the folks on the planet,” said Captain Deutch. His tone of voice didn’t leave any room for negotiation.

“Then we will either have to do something to slow them down,” said Steropes, “or they will be able to shoot at us.”

Captain Deutch look at Bullseye. “Get them back aboard, now!” he said.

Under the Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019   

Roger that,” commed Calvin, stopping to talk while the rest of the platoon continued down the hallway. “We’re going as fast as we can. We’ll be airborne shortly.” Calvin switched to the Space Force link, “Night, Calvin,” he commed, “How close are you to being airborne?

We’re just finishing up securing the replicator to the shuttle,” Night replied. “We should be airborne in the next five minutes.

Good,” said Calvin. “Don’t wait for us. As soon as you’re ready, take off. You’ll need time to get the replicator hooked up to the ship.

Wilco,” answered Night. “We’ll see you back at the ranch.

Calvin saw a large number of laser flashes from down the corridor as he switched back to the Ground Force link. “Top, we’ve got to hurry. We’re not going to make it to the gate before the lizards catch up with us.

Got it sir,” replied Top. Although Calvin was only 50 feet behind him and around a corner, the lasers firing continuously sounded even louder over the link. “We ran into what looks like a mixed force of soldiers and armed scientists who have set up a barricade across the corridor. Their laser rifles are extremely powerful, way more than anything we’ve got. I’ve already got two dead. Corporal Ball and Petty Officer Conboy took laser bolts on the first volley. Damn it! Corporal Goudie is down now too. He took one through the helmet; he’s dead.”

Shit, thought Calvin. Corporal John ‘Oh!’ Goudie had joined the platoon just a couple of weeks before they left. He seemed like a really good guy, too. “That’s it, dammit. I’m less worried about breaking things than I am about getting out of here,” said Calvin. “Clear them out with trident rounds!

WAIT! WAIT! WAIT!” yelled Mouse before anyone could fire. “We’ve got this.

Several seconds later five or six explosions could be seen rippling through the barricade in front of them, and the force of the explosions could be felt at the other end of the corridor accompanied by an “Eat that, dude!” over the link. The sounds of lasers firing disappeared. Calvin jogged up to find the Mouse and Good Twin standing over the pieces of about ten dead lizards behind the barricade.

“You picked a good time to put in an appearance,” he said with a smile.

“We heard the shooting,” replied Mouse, “so we hurried. There’s a big room about 50 feet up the corridor. I think it’s the computer server room.”

“Great,” said Calvin. “Mr. Jones! Ms. Rozhkov! Front and center! Let’s get that data and get the hell out of here!

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-One

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019

“OK, Steropes,” said Captain Deutch as the first shuttle could be seen on the viewer towing the replicator. What are our options for outrunning the lizards?”

“Our options for outrunning them?” repeated Steropes. “None. They are faster than we are and already have a tremendous velocity built up. We can’t beat them to the stargate home.”

“No, we can’t,” said Deutch, “but what about the stargate into the other system?”

“What? Why would we want to do that?” asked Steropes.

“We might want to do that, because it uses their momentum against them,” said Deutch.

“Oh yeah!” said Bullseye, looking at the plot. “I get it. They’re coming at us here, going really fast. But the star is in between us, and they have to aim just a little bit to the side of the star in order to get here. Once they’re committed to going around on one side of the star, we accelerate as hard as we can to go around the other side of it. They will have to kill off all of their momentum before they can begin accelerating back the way they came. We use their momentum to their disadvantage.” He got more excited the longer he looked at it. “If we plan it right, they won’t be able to shoot at us through the star either. We can probably make it through the gate that they came through...and they’ll have to get through the minefield to get back out again!”

“Ah, I see what you mean now,” said Steropes. “Actually, that is an excellent tactical maneuver. If they had more ships, they probably would have come through already. The lizards will have to transit the minefield again, giving us time to either run further or plant another minefield on the other side.

“We don’t have many more mines,” warned Bullseye, “however, we know which way they’ll be coming, so we can put them where they’ll do the most good. Besides, we need to get them off the ship before we go into battle. I don’t think we want a lucky hit to set off a bunch of 215 megaton mines inside our ship.”

“I like it,” said Captain Deutch, “Figure out when we need to leave. If the rest of the troops aren’t on board by then, they’ll have to catch up to us in the shuttle.” He sat back in his chair contemplating. As he looked forward, he saw the replicator approaching the side of the ship where a small army of space suited soldiers and sailors were waiting to tie it down.

“Steropes,” he asked, “what is having the replicator tied to the side of our ship going to do our acceleration?”

 “It is going to decrease how quickly we’ll be able to accelerate,” admitted Steropes. “I will go outside and see to tying it down so that it will best handle the acceleration.”

Under the Ssselipsssiss Base, Tau Ceti ‘d1’, May 25, 2019

Are you done yet?” commed Calvin. He had tried as hard as he could not to look over their shoulders, but they had to leave. RIGHT NOW!

Yeah, we’re done,” said Mr. Jones, disconnecting a cable. “It is a good thing we brought Irina. She figured out one of the protocols that I was having a problem with.” Calvin made a mental note that it was now ‘Irina’ and not ‘Ms. Rozhkov.’ Interesting, but not the time to pursue it.

Was nothing,” said the Russian spy. “Sometimes all that is needed is different perspective.

Good,” replied Calvin. “Squad, let’s get the hell out of here!

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti ‘d1’ Orbit, May 25, 2019

“Everyone’s aboard captain,” said the operations officer.

“About time,” growled Captain Deutch. They were leaving five minutes late. The shuttle had developed an engine malfunction on its way back and, despite what he had said about leaving it behind, he had waited for it. They only had two of them, after all, and there wouldn’t be any more for quite some time. “Punch it!”

“Full speed ahead, aye sir!” said the helmsman.

“Are we going to make it?” Deutch asked Steropes.

“They are probably going to get a maximum range shot off at us,” said Steropes. “They may also get another shot at us before we make it to the stargate. It does not look promising.”

“Will we be able to shoot back?” asked Deutch.

“Unfortunately, it does not appear that they will come within range of our missiles,” Steropes answered. “Ours only have a range of about eight million miles. Their missiles are larger and outrange ours by about 25%, giving them an effective range of about ten million miles.”

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“The Terrans are accelerating around the other side of the star from us,” said the sensor technician. “The vector will put them very close to the stargate to the Gliese 832 system.”

“These Terrans are full of surprises,” replied Captain Sssseth. “They show up in an ancient Eldive ship, but are able to effectively mine the stargate. Now this. I thought they would have the courtesy to run back to wherever their stargate is, to give us its location so that we could pay their civilization a visit. But instead, they go the opposite direction so that we have to chase them down.” He looked at the tactical map. An experienced captain, he saw immediately what the enemy was trying to do. “Will we be able to get a shot at them before they get behind the star?”

“Yes sir,” said the weapons technician. “It will be a maximum range shot, but the target is a cruiser, and an old one at that. We may be able to overload her defenses.”

“I’ve got detonations on the surface of the fourth planet’s moon!” called the sensor technician. “It looks like two 40 kiloton nuclear explosions at the research facility.”

Sssseth hissed, “Full of surprises, indeed.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“How close are they going to get to us?” asked Captain Deutch.

“They are going to be at about nine million miles at their closest point of approach,” answered Steropes.

“And what is the range of their missiles?”

“About ten million miles.”

“How close are they now?”

“Ten million miles.”


Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“We’re at 9.5 million miles,” said the weapons technician. “We can get off three volleys if we launch now.”

“Fire at will,” said Captain Sssseth.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“They’re launching,” noted Steropes. Calvin thought he said it far too calmly for the gravity of the situation. “21 missiles inbound. One must have failed to launch.”

“You are cleared to engage when in range,” said Captain Deutch.

“Clear to engage aye,” replied the defensive systems officer. “Missile hatches open. Laser hatches open, and mounts extending.” The ship’s point defense lasers were normally stored inside the hull to prevent damage to them during transit and were physically extended through a hatch when needed.  “Standing by to launch counter-missiles.” The lizards’ anti-ship missiles continued to track inbound. “Seven million miles. Six million miles. Five million miles. Launching counter missiles.” He pushed a button. “First volley away.” 27 missiles leapt from their tubes and raced to meet the incoming missiles at over 100,000 G’s. Calvin could see flashes of fire on the view screen and feel a slight rumble through the hull of the ship as the missiles launched from the ports below the bridge. They were quickly lost in the vastness of space.

“Second volley launching from the lizard ship,” Steropes advised. “21 more inbound.”

“Second volley of counter-missiles away,” said the DSO. “The first volley should intercept the incoming missiles at about four million miles; the second wave at two million miles.” The CO could see lights winking on and off on the DSO’s display. “Intercept.” He continued watching. “14 missiles still inbound.” He moved a switch and pushed a button. “Firing at second volley...Second intercept of first volley; six missiles remaining. Lasers firing.”

Calvin knew that he wouldn’t see the point-defense lasers firing, although he wished he could. He could see their effects as several missiles detonated when lasers hit them just right. Others were destroyed without detonating or caused to miss. He waited for the impact of missiles on the ship...but there were none.

 “First volley destroyed,” the DSO said. “Second volley intercepted by counter missiles at 3.3 million miles. 16 remaining.”

“The lizard ship is launching a third volley,” warned Steropes. “22 missiles inbound.”

“Second intercept of second volley at 1.4 million miles...eight missiles remaining,” announced the DSO. Calvin could see that intercepts were happening closer to the ship. That was bad. “Launching at third volley,” the DSO called. “Counter-missile tubes at 50% remaining.” The DSO’s voice had risen in pitch several notes.

“Lasers firing at the second modeling indicates we’re not going to get them all. Brace for impact!

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Two

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Second volley away sir!” called the weapons technician. “21 missiles launched; Missile Tube 17 did not fire again. The technician is still working on it.”

“Are those all nuclear tipped?” asked Captain Sssseth.

“Yes sir,” replied the weapons technician. “The third volley will incorporate the new laser warheads. My intentions were to knock their shields down with the first two volleys and then hit them with the laser warheads once the shields were down.”

“Excellent,” remarked Captain Sssseth. “If it works, you will be seated next to me at dinner.”

“Thank you sir!” replied the technician. To be seated next to the Captain was a tremendous honor. The Captain was always served first...dinner might still be moving when he got his turn.

The weapons technician refocused on his panel in time to note, “Third volley has launched. All 22 tubes fired this time.”

“As they should,” remarked Captain Sssseth. “I will expect the technician in charge of Missile Tube 17 to report to me after the battle.”

Dinner time would not go so well for him, the technician thought with a shudder.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

The ship was buffeted by two distinct detonations. “Two missile hits, one fore and one aft,” called the duty engineer from where he sat next to the helmsman. He began the assessment and casualty control process. “Most of the damage was absorbed by the shields, but there was some shock damage. I also have radiation alarms going off between Frames 205 and 216.

“We are out of range of any further missile launches,” noted Steropes.

“Understood,” said Captain Deutch, more focused on the damage control. “Do we have any casualties?”

“So far, medical is reporting two crewmen with radiation burns and one broken arm. All are being treated.”

“Shields at 40%. Third volley intercepted by counter-missiles,” the DSO called. “Nine remaining. Engaging with lasers.” His voice was now up almost an octave.

Shit!” swore the DSO. He turned on the ship’s intercom. “All hands, brace for shock!

Calvin, already strapped into his seat, held on as tightly as he could. This time he felt at least three explosions in close proximity to each other, although they didn’t feel as strong. Somewhere in between the pulses, there had also been a flash on the view screen. Calvin hoped that the smaller detonations indicated that they were further away and better contained.

He was wrong, he saw, as the ship lurched noticeably.

“Sir!” yelled the duty engineer, “One of our engines is out, and there is a 3’ wide hole through engineering! We’re venting!”

“Calm down,” admonished Captain Deutch. “Damage report. Where is the hole?”

“Sir, the missiles that just hit us weren’t armed with nuclear warheads; they had laser warheads. Their detonations fired bomb-pumped lasers. Our shields held against the first one. The second one caused the aft shields to fail, and it inflicted some minor damage to the ship’s armor at Frame 157. The third one struck with full force and put a hole from one side of the ship to the other, passing through the control room of Engine #1.”

He listened intently to the damage control network for several seconds. “The engineering crew has stabilized the antimatter and shut down the engine, so we are not in danger of the antimatter exploding, but the engine is going to be down for a long time until a ton of cabling can be re-run.”

“I estimate one month to have it operational using only my robot techs,” said Solomon. Most of his concentration had been on guiding missiles and lasers during the battle. “With the entire engineering section helping and access to a repair facility, it could be done in a week.”

Captain Deutch made a wry grin as he looked at Steropes. “Know of any repair facilities nearby?”

“None that would be willing to help us,” replied Steropes.

Captain Deutch turned to the duty engineer. “OK, so where does that leave us?”

“With only one engine, our maximum acceleration is only going to be about 175 G’s. Most of the other systems can be re-routed, so we still have power, water, and air, but we may have to turn off some non-essential equipment. The Chief Engineer is still assessing the damage.”

Deutch turned back to Steropes. “I’m guessing that halving our acceleration means that we’re not going to beat the lizards to the stargate, are we?”

“No sir, we’re not,” said Steropes, shaking his head. “We could try jettisoning some of our extra mass. That might give us a little more acceleration, but it won’t be enough. It won’t be anywhere close to enough. The lizards are going to catch us well before the stargate.”

“We only need to jettison a few things,” said Calvin, looking at the tactical map. “I’ve got an idea.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Three

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Got him!” shouted the weapons technician. “The last missile hit at least one of his engines. His acceleration was dropping off as we lost him behind the star.”

“Good,” replied Captain Sssseth. “In that case, it is only a matter of getting the ship turned around and running them down.” He looked pointedly at the helmsman, who had been late slowing the ship.

“We are almost stopped,” the helmsman said. “We will begin accelerating to chase the Terrans in less than five segments.

“Good,” repeated Sssseth. “I want to see what these Terrans taste like.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

OK, the lizards have cleared the star,” commed Steropes. “Cut it loose.

All right,” said Night, “unhook your tie-downs.” 28 members of the platoon unclasped tie-down points on the replicator. “On three,” ordered Night. “One...two...three!” All 28 lifted as one, and the replicator began to separate from the Vella Gulf. Although it didn’t have weight, it still had mass; it took all of their suit-aided muscle power to get it moving, but once it started separating from the ship, it kept going.

Good job,” complemented Night. “Now, let’s get below so we can try and outrun these lizard bitches.

Dayam,” said Corporal Jimmy ‘Colonel’ Sanders in his southern drawl, “We jus got this pig up har an’ now we’re kickin’ it loose? Ain’t that sum shit?

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“I’ve got them,” said the sensor technician. “It looks like they were going to try to hide behind one of the smaller planets. Wait, what’s that? It looks like they just jettisoned something...something looks like they just dumped the replicator that they stole from the research facility!”

“Do you want me to match up with it so we can pick it up?” asked the helmsman.

Captain Sssseth gave the helmsman a scornful look. “No, not while we’re going into combat. What if a lucky shot hit it and destroyed it? Would you like to explain to the Admirality how it got broken? I don’t. No, just mark its coordinates, and we’ll pick it up once we’re done with the Terrans.”

“Why would they just dump it after they expended so much effort in getting it?” asked the helmsman.

“They are obviously trying to coax more acceleration out of their damaged ship,” replied Sssseth. “It won’t work, though. We already have a higher velocity than they do and more acceleration capability as well. There is no escape for them.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Four

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“They are rapidly catching up to us,” said Steropes. “They have about 300 G’s more acceleration than we do, so that is to be expected.”

“Do we have any mines left?” asked Captain Deutch.

“Yes sir,” said the offensive systems officer. “But we only have about 200. Without some sort of confined area, they will not be very useful.”

“I am aware of that,” said the CO. “Load them into some of the counter-missiles and launch them in front of the lizard ship. I want them to see the mines launching and know that they’re there. Maybe we can get them to slow down so that we can make it to the gate. And maybe we’ll get lucky, and they’ll run over one. Either way, I don’t want them onboard when they start shooting at us again.”

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Sir! The Terran ship is launching missiles!” called the sensor technician.

“What? What are they doing? We can’t be within their range...” Captain Sssseth mused. “Shields to front!” he ordered. “Prepare to launch counter-missiles!”

“That’s weird,” said the sensor technician, “the missiles only travelled about two million miles, and then they blew up.”

“How big a detonation did they have?” asked Sssseth.

“That’s also weird,” replied the technician. “The force of the explosion was smaller than what it should have been.”

“That’s because they weren’t trying to blow anything up,” hissed Sssseth. “They were scattering more mines in our path. Helmsman, alter course to starboard to stay clear of the minefield.”

“Yes sir!” replied the helmsman.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Sorry Captain,” said the defensive systems officer, “but the lizard ship altered course and avoided the mines. It didn’t work.”

“What do you mean ‘it didn’t work?’” asked Captain Deutch.

“They didn’t slow down, and they didn’t hit any of them,” answered the DSO.

“That’s ok,” replied the CO, “I never really expected them to destroy the ship; I’m just trying to buy us some more time.”

“The lizards are at fifteen million miles and are beginning to slow down,” said Steropes.

“Why would they do that?” asked the helmsman.

“Obviously, they don’t want to go flying past us,” replied Captain Deutch. “This way they can stay within weapons range longer, or maybe even board us. In a stand-up fight, they win.”

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“Ten million miles,” called the weapons technician. “We’re in missile range.”

“I’d like to get a little closer,” replied Captain Sssseth. “I’ve never seen an Eldive cruiser before, and it’s unlikely I ever will again. I want to play with this one a little. Besides, I don’t want to kill the ship; I just want to knock down its defenses so we can board them. Close to 500,000 miles. We’ll take them with lasers.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“I don’t get it,” said the helmsman. “They’re in range. Why don’t they fire?”

“They’re playing with us,” said Captain Deutch. “They could send out a full missile launch any time they wanted, and it would overwhelm our defenses.”

“Why would they do that?” asked the engineer.

“Either because I pissed them off, and they’re trying to make this last as long as they can,” said the CO, “or they don’t want to destroy us for some reason and are closing to laser range, hoping to disable us. Either way, it’s not because they feel sorry for us.”

“Seven million miles,” noted Steropes.

“Fire all missiles,” said the CO.

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

They’re firing!” yelled the sensor technician.

“Did you think they would just let us come up and board them?” asked Sssseth. “Of course they’re firing. Shoot them down!

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Five

Viper 01, Tau Ceti ‘b’, May 25, 2019

This really sucks, thought Calvin. Along with the other four Vipers, he was sitting on Tau Ceti’s second planet with his ship powered down to only the bare minimum needed to maintain life support and a minimal amount of cooling. Not enough cooling, he thought, as the sweat rolled down his face and into the recycling system somewhere lower. The temperature outside was 518 degrees Celsius. It didn’t seem much cooler inside. And this was the night side of the planet.

“Warm enough?” he asked his WSO, Captain Imagawa ‘Samurai’ Sadayo, as he looked over at him. Captain Imagawa flipped up his face mask, gave him a wan smile and said,

Burning like fireflies

On a pitch black summer night

Flying, flying

Instead they’re stars just like Earth’s sun

Lighting the skies of new worlds.

“Only you could think of poetry at a time like this,” commented Calvin.

“It focuses the mind wonderfully,” Samurai said. “All things considered, though, I think that I have seen enough of this planet and am ready to leave for battle.”

“Me, too,” said Calvin. “I don’t think...”

He was interrupted as the ship received a unidirectional radio pulse from the Vella Gulf. It was time to go, and the Terrans brought their systems back online. The extra air conditioning was a blessing sent straight from heaven.

Calvin set his radio to its lowest power setting and transmitted, “Terra.” He received a ‘03, ‘04,’ ‘05,’ and ‘06’ as the other Vipers checked in.

The Vipers lifted from the planet. Calvin forced himself not to use too much power going through the atmosphere, which would have highlighted the Vipers before they were ready. As they reached space, they started accelerating, going around the planet the long way to build up speed while they were still invisible to the sensors on the Wanton Killer. Steropes believed that the aft sensors on the lizard ship had been burned out when the mine hit it; their entire plan relied on that premise.

Calvin was pressed back into his seat as he kept accelerating to the point where the inertial dampers were unable to keep up with the mounting G forces. Damn, Calvin thought, I forgot how much pulling high G’s sucked. His body hurt everywhere as the G forces pushed the blood from his brain, threatening to make him black out. He saw Viper 04 starting to wobble, and he eased off the acceleration until they were only accelerating at 650 G’s, which the compensators were able to handle. Viper 04 stabilized as the blood flowed back into Captain Phillip Price’s brain.

As the fighters came around the planet, Samurai began scanning the space ahead of him. He made contact with the Vella Gulf and was passed the targeting data on the enemy ship. Knowing where to look, he found the enemy battlecruiser and synched up all five of the fighters’ targeting systems on it. The ship had neither turned nor fired at him. He thanked his ancestors for watching over him as he watched the display count down to the optimal launch position ...5...4...3...2...1... “Fox 3,” he commed as their missiles began launching.

Bridge, Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

The damage control crews had fixed the shields, and the first enemy shot was absorbed by it. The lights seemed to burn a little brighter as extra energy was added to the ship’s systems. Both ships began trading fire at the space equivalent of knife-fight distance.

As Steropes had warned, it wasn’t even close to a fair fight. The Vella Gulf had been unable to break through the battlecruiser’s defenses as it continued its approach to laser range. Its missiles had been shot down or allowed to waste themselves on the Wanton Killer’s shields. They had caused only minimal damage to the battlecruiser, which had yet to fire a shot in return.

Until now.

The Vella Gulf’s shields failed with a flash and a smell of ozone that permeated the bridge. Traditional weapon’s theory said that the ship’s captain had three choices at this point: try to run, surrender or continue firing as fast as you could in the hopes of damaging something vital on your enemy’s ship, which would put it out of commission. Captain Deutch had never been one to run from a fight, and now didn’t seem like a good time to start. Even if he could have run, running would only have led the Ssselipsssiss battlecruiser toward home, and that was not an option. And he had the slower ship, so it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Similarly, he was not going to surrender and give them information about where Earth was. Without the Vella Gulf to defend it, the Earth was defenseless. He didn’t particularly feel like getting eaten, either.

That left fighting to the end, but he had one last trick. “Roll the ship,” he told the helmsman.

“Aye aye, sir,” the helmsman replied and began rolling the ship along its longitudinal axis.

Steropes looked confused. “Captain Deutch, this is not part of the standard way to fight this class of ship. By spinning it, you are making our weapons tracking systems less accurate and are spinning them out of the line-of-sight where they will be able to fire on the Ssselipsssiss ship.”

“That’s right,” replied Captain Deutch. “It may not be standard, but I need to give the fighters a little longer, and this is how we’re going to do it.” He paused and then asked, “Think about it. How does a laser work?”

“A laser works by using pulses of light that are strong enough to sublimate the area of the ship that it hits, turning a portion of the ship’s hull into gas. A pause is necessary before the next shot occurs so that the resulting cloud of vaporized metal can disperse, that way it does not scatter the energy of the next shot. The attacker must wait a few microseconds, or a large portion of the energy of its next shot will be wasted.”

“Exactly,” said Captain Deutch. “The most difficult part of weaponizing light is developing a tracking system that can keep up with the movement of the target in between laser pulses and keep hitting it in the same spot long enough to drill a hole through it. If we spin the ship, it will hopefully keep them from hitting the same place twice.”

“Vampire! Vampire! Missiles inbound!” shouted the defensive systems officer. He looked down to see that all of the counter-missile batteries and close-in laser clusters were firing. Except for Laser 8 and CM Battery 14, which had been destroyed in the last volley.

“I see,” said Steropes. “In effect, you are trading extreme damage in a localized area for a lesser amount of damage to a greater portion of the ship’s hull, hoping that it will not be breached in a number of places simultaneously, all in an effort to delay our inevitable destruction.”

“We’re still not getting through,” called the offensive systems officer. “They’ve shifted all of their shields to their front to block our fire!”

Captain Deutch maintained his outward calm as he answered Steropes. “You’re right about the first part of that, although I take issue with the part about our inevitable destruction. I intend to hold us together long enough for the fighters to do their job and destroy the battlecruiser first.”

Another broadside of lasers impacted the Vella Gulf, and at least two more of the Ssselipsssiss missiles detonated alongside. More lights turned red on the duty engineer’s panel. “We’ve got venting in the galley and at Frame 27 portside,” he announced. “We just lost Graser 3 and Missile 5, and I have radiation warnings from Frame 5 to Frame 40.”

Captain Deutch nodded his head. “Acknowledged,” he replied. “Keep the spin on,” he said to the helmsman. He looked at the defensive systems officer. “Any word yet from the Vipers?”

“No sir, not yet,” replied the DSO. “Wait! Contact!” yelled the DSO. “The fighters have unmasked from behind the planet and are inbound from behind the Ssselipsssiss ship. They’re pouring it on! They’re accelerating at over 700 G’s, and their fighters are only rated for 650 G’s. They can’t hold that for long! Wait...separation! They’re launching! 2...8...20 missiles inbound to the enemy vessel!”

“Well,” said Deutch turning back to Steropes, “we’ll see how well this works. Hopefully, you’re right about their blind zone.”

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“They have begun spinning their ship,” said the weapons technician, tapping a claw on his console in annoyance. “Their shields are down, so they are only delaying the inevitable. I will kill the rest of their propulsion system momentarily, and then we can send over boarders to restock our kitchen.”

“Indeed,” said Captain Sssseth, “it will be good to have fresh meat again, and those creatures looked soft and tasty.” He paused and looked at the main viewing screen where the prey’s ship continued to roll under the lash of his lasers. Two missiles detonated near the bow of the ship where there used to be something sticking out...hmm...something was different with the ship. “Am I mistaken, or has their ship changed configuration? Didn’t they have some objects attached to the front of it? Are our sensors showing any mines?” He hated when prey laid explosives in his path. As if he’d be dumb enough to run over them again. “Keep our shields focused to the front,” he continued. “That way, none of their shots will get through, and we will be protected from any nasty surprises they may have left for us.”

“All shields deployed to front,” said the defensive systems technician.

“I do not see any mines in our path,” said the sensor technician. He consulted his display. “You are correct. The ship’s mass is now 70,000 tons less than when we first engaged them. They may have jettisoned something else in addition to the replicator. I will see if I can determine where it went.” He fired two omni-directional sensors out of their launch ports. They immediately began sending him data.

Sssseth continued to deliberate. “If they dropped off something, it must have been when they went behind the planet. Either they left something behind that they didn’t want us to see or...or it was...”

Fighters! Fighters at our six o’clock!” yelled the sensor technician.

The bridge went dark as the ship’s engines and the entire aft end of the ship was vaporized by the 20 anti-ship missiles that exploded behind it, nearly as one.

Viper 01, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

Take that you fuckers!” someone yelled over the radio as the anti-ship missiles impacted on the Ssselipsssiss ship and exploded in a ripple of antimatter explosions. “That’s for MOSA!” Calvin’s screen showed that his squadron had vaporized at least the back quarter of the battlecruiser. There’s no good kill like a good overkill, he thought. It didn’t appear that the ship’s shields had stopped any of the missiles. For that matter, it didn’t appear that the ship had even been using its aft shields.

With the destruction of its engines, the battlecruiser was without power and would only have residual life support augmented by whatever emergency systems it had in the forward portion of the ship. There were also massive vents of air and fluids down the sides of the ship where its seams had split from the shock of the missile attack. Calvin didn’t see how it could have any offensive capabilities left; there was no reason to waste any further ammunition on it.

“Vella Gulf, Viper 01,” he radioed the ship. “We’re done here and are returning to the ship.

Roger that, Viper 01,” replied the Vella Gulf’s controller. “The skipper would like you to leave two fighters close by in case they have backup weapons systems. We’re sending a shuttle over to take off any survivors.

Wilco,” Calvin answered, meaning ‘will comply.’ He switched to the squadron frequency. “Cuz and Blue, you’ve got guard duty. Stay here and cover the ship. If it activates any weapon systems, blast it. The rest of us will go back and rearm in case something else shows up.” Calvin led Viper 03 and Viper 04 back to the Vella Gulf while Viper 05 and Viper 06 took up positions covering the enemy vessel.

Bridge, Wanton Killer, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

The air was already getting stale, and he could only see through one eye. Half of the bridge crew was dead, their broken bodies wrapped around, and sometimes through, pieces of their consoles. The other half stumbled around in a daze, stunned by the enormity of the explosions. Sssseth knew he didn’t have much longer. His sensors destroyed, he had no idea what the prey was doing. If their places were reversed, he would be organizing a boarding party to harvest all of the food he could. Sssseth was not going to be food for the prey; he would take the Warrior’s Way. “Execute self destruct sequence 2597841,” he said into the only operational console.

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

“The enemy ship just blew up!” the defensive systems officer said. “Oh my god! Both Vipers are gone!”

Viper 01, Tau Ceti System, May 25, 2019

Out of the corner of his eye, Calvin saw the giant flash, followed by a hysterical radio call of “Viper 01, they just blew themselves up!” He spun his fighter back toward the Ssselipsssiss ship, with the other two fighters in trail, only to find that the enemy starship was now just a ball of expanding plasma. Whatever had blown up in the ship had detonated with such a force that the only pieces left were small and unrecognizable. Maintaining station in close proximity to it, both of the Vipers he left behind were shredded by the pieces of the exploding battlecruiser; he couldn’t find any signs of life from either of them. Viper 05 was lost with Captain Duncan ‘Blue 11’ Hughes, RCAF, and Captain Howard ‘Tank’ Toncha, USAF. Viper 06 was similarly destroyed with Captain Larry ‘Cuz’ Gage, USAF, and Captain Jennifer ‘Sweet Jen’ Chapman, RAAF. What a waste.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Six

CO’s Conference Room, TSS Vella Gulf, WASP-18 System, May 29, 2019

“We found out what they were working on at the base,” said the intelligence officer. Everyone looked expectantly at him. He let the pause build. It was the first time he’d been able to actively contribute the entire cruise. “As expected, it was a high energy laser research facility,” he explained.

“Which explains why their lasers were so powerful,” commented Calvin. “They went through our shields far more easily than they should have.” He shook his head thinking about the next of kin letters he still had to write. Without a doubt, that was the worst part, by far, of being a commanding officer. It was even worse now that he was in charge of two units. “I just hope we got enough to make it worthwhile,” Calvin added, thinking about the men and women they lost on the moon and in space.

“It’s not your fault Calvin,” said Captain Deutch. “We couldn’t have known that they had the lasers, or that they’d blow themselves up to avoid capture. I was the one that directed the two fighters to stay behind; I’m just as responsible for their loss.”

“Thank you sir,” replied Calvin. He looked back at the intel officer and asked, “Did we get anything we can use?”

“Actually, we did,” he replied. “And to be perfectly honest, we couldn’t have broken their codes without the help of Mr. Jones and Ms. Rozhkov. They have an excellent future in intelligence if they should ever decide they want to pursue it. Thanks for allowing them to help out.”

“I’m not sure wild horses could have dragged them away from it,” replied Calvin, “literally. I’ll let them know about your career advice too,” he added with a wry smile. “They just might decide to go into the intel business some day.”

Captain Deutch chuckled at the confused look on the intelligence officer’s face. “So what did we get?” he asked, trying to get the presentation back on track.

“To put it simply, we got everything,” the intel officer replied. “Not only did we get the files for how the new lasers work, but also the templates for building them in a replicator. We can produce their designs for everything from handheld lasers on up to lasers for monitors.”

“What is a monitor?” asked the administrative officer.

“It is a class of ship,” replied the intel officer. “We are on a cruiser, which is a medium-sized ship. The next size up is a battlecruiser, like the lizard ones we just fought. Bigger than that are battleships. And bigger than battleships are dreadnoughts and monitors. We would be barely noticeable tied up alongside one of those. I saw designs for some of the dreadnoughts and monitors, and they were miles long. Miles. I’m glad we didn’t run into one of them. We would have been destroyed long before we could have even shot at them.”

The administrative officer shuddered.

“Calvin is going to like this,” continued the intel officer. “In addition to the information on lasers, the data we captured also had information on a new ship type that had been designed to support the lasers. The craft is a modified space fighter. The interesting thing is that, because the laser requires less space and energy, the space fighter is able to mount five anti-ship missiles rather than the four that our fighters can now. Once the missiles are launched, the data suggests that the fighter will be at least as maneuverable as the ones we are already using.”

“Do we have the pattern information to load into the replicator that we captured?” asked Calvin.

The intel officer smiled. “No need,” he replied. “It’s already programmed into it.”

Bridge, TSS Vella Gulf, Epsilon Eridani ‘a’ Orbit, June 3, 2019

“Good luck!” said Captain Deutch in farewell as he watched the shuttle turn away from the Vella Gulf and back toward the planet. “We will be back as soon as we can.”

“We’ll watch the skies for you,” replied the ambassador. “Fair winds and following seas!”

“The same to you,” replied Captain Deutch. “Be safe. Deutch out.” The screen went dead.

As promised, he dropped off the ambassador to set up his embassies on the planet. Due to the lack of local transportation, Deutch had authorized leaving one of the shuttles with him so that he could go back and forth between the two civilizations. It also allowed the civilizations to begin stockpiling raw materials for his return, hopefully with a replicator for them.

In addition to the ambassador, he left the flight crew of Captain Phillip Price of the USAF and Captain Park Ji-hyun from the South Korean Air Force to fly the shuttle. Neither of them had any close family back on Earth, and Calvin said that they had become rather close of late. They volunteered to stay together. As requested, Cabo Segundo Cristobal Contreras had stayed with the therapods, as had Private First Class Calhoun Spence. Sergeant Jacob Hylton and Corporal Berron Wayne had stayed with the humanoid civilization. In their place, he was returning with two members of each of the local civilizations. The medibot analyzed their physiologies and, although they could eat most Earth food, they’d need to take supplements while they were with the Terrans.

Captain Deutch wished he knew when they’d be coming back this way. Even if the ship came back, he found it unlikely that he would be with it, as he doubted that the chain of command would keep him on as commanding officer once they got back. He hoped to stay on as CO, but he would be surprised if he ever saw Epsilon Eridani again. Or the blackness of space.

He sighed. “Helmsman, set course for home. Full speed ahead!”

“Aye aye, sir! Headed home; full speed, aye!” replied the helmsman. “And away we go!” he said with a flourish as he pushed the button engaging the drive. It was not standard terminology, but everyone on the bridge understood the sentiment, and Captain Deutch let it pass without comment. This time.

They were on their way home.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Terminal Building, Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia Beach, VA, June 18, 2019

It was a beautiful early summer day in Virginia Beach. The sun was shining, and there were only a few clouds in the sky. Perhaps too nice, as the temperatures were expected to climb into the mid-90s, and the humidity was racing it to 100. A group of about 40 reporters were gathered in a roped-off area in front of the air station’s control tower. Although they were sweltering in the sun, a sense of excitement filled the group. Something was going on. Something different, and they were the ones that were going to cover it...but no one seemed to know exactly what ‘it’ was. “Any idea what this is all about?” asked the Channel 13 reporter to his colleague from Channel 10. A previous member of the navy, the Channel 13 reporter was very familiar with NAS Oceana, having been an F-18 electrician for three years prior to leaving the navy to pursue a career in broadcasting.

“None,” said the Channel 10 reporter, who also had prior military service, although his had been in the air force. “We were told that there was going to be something of international importance happening and to get our asses down here to cover it.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what we were told,” replied the Channel 13 reporter. “It’s weird, the navy specifically asked for my crew to come from the station.” He looked around the ramp area where the reporters were gathered. “I’ve been here plenty of times and, aside from the podium they have set up, it doesn’t look like there is anything different that I can see.” He looked up at the control tower, and continued, “It looks like there are a lot of folks up in the tower, and they’re all looking around like they’re expecting something. There must be someone or something important coming in.”

“They asked for my crew too,” commented the Channel 10 reporter. He paused as the terminal door opened and a large group of well-dressed men and women walked out, surrounded by another group of well-dressed men that had very intense looks on their faces as they scanned the surrounding area. “Wait a second,” he continued, “Oh my God! It’s the President of the United States!”

The group drew a collective breath as the reporters started recognizing members of the group walking toward them. The Channel 13 reporter was able to keep a more professional demeanor than his colleagues and instructed his cameraman to start filming. He added his own commentary to the shot. “This is Bob Davies with WVEC Channel 13 News. I’m here today at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, where we have been waiting to see something that is expected to, and I quote, ‘monumentally alter the international landscape.’”

As the camera focused on the group walking toward the podium, Davies continued, “We don’t know what it is, but there seems to be a large group of dignitaries here, led by the President of the United States, who has arrived here unexpectedly. Along with our president, I recognize the prime ministers of Britain and Canada, as well as the president of Germany.”

He turned off the recording. The sense of excitement that previously infused the group grew exponentially as they recognized various members of the entourage. Davies, normally the reporter who covered the local military, didn’t recognize them on sight, but heard other reporters whisper that the heads of Australia, South Korea, India and Italy were also present. None of the international reporters present had been aware that the other heads of state were even in the country.

Something big was definitely going on.

The president walked up to the podium and was flanked by ten other men and women who stood just behind him. “Good afternoon,” welcomed the president. “I am very happy to be here today with the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Japan, as well as the presidents of Germany, South Korea, India, Italy, Nigeria, and Chile. I will have a short statement, and then there will be a presentation. Unfortunately, we will not be able to answer questions afterward, but we will have a large media package for all of you.”

He paused and smiled. “51 nations came together on October 24, 1945,” he said, “in an effort to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. This was the founding of the United Nations. Since then, the U.N. has strived to do all of those things. While it has been successful in promoting peace and social progress around the world, many times it has been unable to do all of the things that its founders hoped for due to fighting amongst the nations.” He gave a small, wry smile. “On most of these occasions, the United States was one of those nations either blocking progress, or being blocked from doing something we thought was in our best interests.”

“This has to end!” The president looked around the assembled group of reporters as if it were their fault. Bob Davies was sure that the steely-eyed look he gave the cameras was meant to strike fear into the hearts of any evil-doers that were watching. Davies didn’t know if it worked with them, but it certainly made him want to toe the line. The president continued, “I’m sure that many of you have heard the term, ‘new world order.’ We are here today to announce the formation of the first real new world order.”

“Due to events beyond our control, we have become aware that we need to put division behind us. We are here today to announce an executive agreement to form a new, unified world government. Between us, we bring together over one quarter of the world’s population, including four of the ten most populous nations. I call on Congress to revoke all previous treaties and ratify the one that I am sending it, the Treaty for the Defense of Sol. The rest of the presidents and prime ministers here call upon their legislative branches to do similarly, and we invite the other nations of this planet to join us in this endeavor.”

“I want to be very clear on this. This agreement is not a play to curry favor with anyone, or grandstand, or conduct any of the political maneuvering that you have seen in the past. We no longer have time for these things. This is a straightforward attempt to end division on this planet. I know that many people throughout the world no longer believe in politics and politicians. The time has come to put that skepticism behind us and move forward as a united planet. As a sign of our good intentions, we have tried to place the site of this new government at the center of our planet, so that none of the nations that previously squabbled will have an advantage. The site of the new government will be in Abuja, in the country of Nigeria. I want to thank Abasi Oyinlola, the president of Nigeria, for donating the land that will become the site of the Terran World Government.” The cameras moved to President Oyinlola, who waved, smiling broadly.

The cameras came back to the president at the podium in time to see the look on his face soften. The president gave the cameras his best ‘you can trust me’ smile. “Now, I know I’ve given you a lot to think about, and I wish that it ended there. The fact of the matter is that the time for talking is past; we need to implement these reforms right now. I mentioned before that there had been some events beyond our control that had driven us to accelerate this process of peace and unity. It’s time to show you what I mean.”

All of the heads of state surrounding the podium turned and faced the airfield, looking up. Seeing where they were looking, the reporters looked up, as well. Within seconds, a silver shape could be seen high overhead the airfield, which grew quickly as it descended. As it grew and gained clarity, it was apparent that it was not of earthly origin. Although it flew, the craft had no discernible wings or propellers or jet engines.

It dropped fast enough to make most of the people watching uncomfortable. As it reached an altitude of 200 feet, it slowed noticeably and coasted to a gentle landing on Runway 5, touching down on the eight sets of landing gear that extended from it. Now that it stopped, Davies saw that it looked like nothing he had ever seen before. The spaceship, for it had to be a spaceship (‘oh my god, it’s a real, live spaceship,’ one part of his brain gibbered), was huge. Using one of the 56-feet long F-18s that were sitting on the ramp as a guide, he estimated that the ship was about 1,300 feet long, 160 feet wide, and 130 feet tall. And holy crap, it was a spaceship!

The ship was generally cylindrical for most of its length but had slightly larger caps on both ends like stunted mushrooms. For the last 100 feet on both ends of the ship, these caps extended about 50 feet further out from the rest of the ship. Looking closer, he saw that there were smaller ships attached to it. On one end, there appeared to be a ship that was shaped like a spade and another one that was boxier in nature; the other end had two of the spade-shaped ships. He guessed that the parasites must be three fighters and a shuttle. There was a lot of space around the caps that seemed empty; should there be more of the smaller ships? Were they flying overhead out of sight right now? Along the side of the ship were nine large doors near the top of it and 27 smaller doors that ran along the bottom half of it. In between the doors, ten dishes were mounted on some sort of gimbal system. Davies had no idea what was behind the doors, but he was an avid science fiction fan (some would say “nut”) and guessed that the dishes were some sort of laser defense system and the doors must be missile ports. On top of the ship, there was some sort of superstructure, although it was difficult to see from where he was standing. He wished he was in the tower so that he could have had a better view.

Davies looked over to find his cameraman staring blankly at the spaceship with his mouth open. Davies slapped him on the back. “Start filming, damn it, you’re missing it!” The cameraman gave a small start and then brought the camera up to his shoulder just in time to catch a ramp come down from the left end of the ship. Looking around, he saw that almost half the people present were staring blankly at the spaceship the same way, as their brains refused to process what they were looking at. They were going to get the scoop on some of them, although they had missed out on filming the spaceship as it descended. Maybe he could trade with one of the others later, he hoped.

He looked back to the ship in time to see soldiers in space suits start coming down the ramp in pairs. At least they looked like they were soldiers; they appeared to be carrying some sort of rifles. The space suits didn’t have helmets, and their heads looked...

“Bob!” said the cameraman, who was able to zoom in on the soldiers with his camera. “Those guys look like humans. I can’t be sure, but it looks like some of them have U.S. flags on their shoulders. What the hell is going on?”

Davies had no idea. They certainly looked like humans from what he could see, but if the U.S. had a ship like that, it was the best kept secret since the F-117 stealth fighter. No, he decided, it was an even better kept secret than that.

Ten pairs of men (and women! he noted) marched down the ramp. Wait a minute! The last pair had tails! And lizard heads. Walking lizards? What the hell are they? Once all of them were off the ramp, the soldiers stopped marching in unison, with their feet coming together so crisply that Davies could hear it several hundred feet away. The soldiers faced the center and presented arms just like he had seen American soldiers do hundreds of times in his life. What the hell was going on?

Then the aliens came down the ramp. Shorter than the soldiers by over two feet, on average, the three figures that came down the ramp next also had disproportionately large heads. “It looks like...yeah, they do. They have six fingers!” the cameraman whispered.

The cameraman’s comment broke Davies’ reverie, and he realized that he should have been recording something himself while this was going on. Damn! He had allowed himself to get wrapped up in the moment. Oh, well, he thought, at least he could add voice over to the tape later. As the aliens reached the end of the ceremonial guard, a bus pulled up, and they got into it. Everyone had been wrapped up watching the aliens; they hadn’t seen the bus driving up. Once the aliens were on the bus, the soldiers boarded it, as well, and it drove over to where the heads of state were waiting.

As the bus stopped, Davies started describing the events as the soldiers again provided a ceremonial honor guard. The soldiers marched off the bus in pairs without a single voiced command. Having done an honor guard once, Davies knew that it wasn’t an easy thing to do, and he wondered how they were able to pull it off so flawlessly. As the men and women formed up and faced to the center, he could see the flags of the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany, Chile, India and Australia represented on individual shoulders in the group. The lizards had a flag on their shoulders too...but it was no flag he had ever seen. They looked even stranger up close. Davies looked at the monitor of the camera as his cameraman zoomed in, and he could see every scale on their heads. They each looked like a baby T. Rex, right down to the mouthful of killer teeth! If they weren’t real, their make-up artists should get some sort of academy award. The presidents and prime ministers were beaming at their soldiers, obviously proud at how well the soldiers represented their countries. Once again, the soldiers presented arms in perfect unison, and the short aliens walked out of the bus to meet the receiving line of heads of state at the end of the honor guard.

Seen up close, the aliens appeared even shorter than they had from further away, and their larger heads were even more noticeable. His cameraman called it correctly; the aliens had six fingers on each hand. Reaching the President of the United States at the end of the receiving line, they moved to stand next to the podium. Davies laughed to himself as he saw the one flaw in the proceedings. If the aliens had to use the podium, no one would be able to see them; it was as tall as they were.

As the people moved back to the podium, the soldiers shouldered their weapons as one, and then they moved to stand behind the heads of state. Once again, they stopped at the same time, brought their rifles to their sides and assumed the position of parade rest. The first person in line, Lieutenant Paul Train, came and stood next to the president at the podium.

“On behalf of the governments represented here,” said the American president, “as well as the rest of humanity, I would like to formally welcome Brontes, Steropes and Arges to Planet Earth. These three individuals represent the Psiclopes race from the Alliance of Civilizations. They were stranded here and asked for our help in making it back to their planet. The nations represented here all volunteered to help, and the soldiers that you see are some of the troops that accompanied them on their journey home.”

“Unfortunately, they were not able to make it back to the Psiclopes’ home world. A number of other, hostile, alien civilizations stand between us and their home planet, and they weren’t able to find a way around them safely. This is the reason we need to form a world government. The Alliance of Civilizations among the stars has failed. This Alliance held the galaxy together for tens of thousands of years, watching over developing planets and protecting them from hostile, aggressive races that would either seek to control the weaker races...or worse.” He didn’t elaborate on what ‘or worse’ meant, but Davies could immediately think of several things that were worse. “Just as with the fall of the Roman Empire on Earth, the end of the Alliance has left many of these races without any sort of oversight, and many of them are running wild throughout the galaxy, raping and pillaging as they go.” He paused to let that sink in.

“At this time, we do not believe that any of them know that we exist. This is our chance to come together, to pool our resources as a civilization, and to erect the defenses we need to ensure our collective safety for when they do find us. This is why we need a world government; we need it to guide our Terran society and begin building the defenses we will need in the coming years.”

He indicated Night, who stood at attention next to him, looking every bit like the elite officer he was. “We already have a cadre of soldiers, like Lieutenant Paul Train here, who has been out to other planets and has successfully fought some of these hostile races. We will use the skills that the soldiers gained to train a larger planetary military, united against our exosolar enemies.”

“Our forces also brought back alien technology that we will use to manufacture the things that our planet needs to defend itself. Many of you will remember Lieutenant Shawn Hobbs, who was one of our heroes in the war last year. Now Lieutenant Commander Hobbs, he personally led the capture of this equipment from a planet light years away. This device is large enough to allow the construction of the space fighters that you can see attached to the front and back of the starship on the runway.”

Calvin sighed as people patted him on the back, high above the ramp in the airfield’s control tower. Having flown F-18s at NAS Oceana for several years before the war, he was familiar with the field and knew where the best place would be to watch the ceremony. He had volunteered to coordinate the timing of the Vella Gulf’s entry, which was best done at the tower. The president had told Calvin that he was going to mention Calvin’s name, as it was important for the American public to have people they could look up to in these trying times. The president had used the term ‘hero,” but Calvin really didn’t see himself as a hero. He was just someone at the wrong place at the wrong time, who made the best of a bad situation. Hell, he had gotten into that position by being shot down, which was hardly heroic.

“As you can probably guess,” President Jacobs continued, “there are many things that need to be worked on simultaneously, and we need to get back to planning how we’re going to do all of these things. Before we do, though, the leader of the Psiclopes delegation, Arges, would like to say a few words.”

Calvin knew that they were a few very carefully coordinated words, to say the least.

As Arges stepped forward to the podium, Night reached behind the podium and pulled out a stool that had been hidden under it. Bob Davies nodded, impressed. They hadn’t missed it. Arges stepped onto the stool and addressed the reporters. “Thank you for the nice welcome, President Jacobs, and for the efforts of all of the civilian leadership assembled here. Although we didn’t make it back to my world, we did learn many things about the state of political affairs that currently exists in the galaxy. As President Jacobs indicated, it isn’t good.”

“I do, however, believe that there is hope for your civilization, if you all come together and work toward the common goal. There cannot be any room for division among you. You must put aside all of the things that previously divided you and begin working immediately to defend yourselves. Although there are only three of us, we pledge to give the Terran government all of the help and support we can. Our future is now aligned with yours. As the American statesman Ben Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.’ Thank you.”

Arges moved back to the side of the podium, and Night slid the stool back in so that the president could address the crowd again. “Ladies and Gentlemen, today is a monumental day, one that you will remember for the rest of your lives. It is the day where all of the people of this planet began to come together to ensure the safety of our race. Those of us here encourage all of the other nations to join us at the United Nations building in one week, where we can begin hammering out the details for how this will work. Details of the treaty are being sent to every head of state in the world.”

“While we invite every nation in the world to come, we understand that not every nation may want to participate. Please understand that while all are welcome, no nation or group will be allowed to stand in the way. If you are a nation or organization that means harm to one of the participants, be aware that you will incur the wrath of all, and it will fall upon you swiftly. If you are in the business of terror, you will either get out of it now, or we will find you and put you out of business ourselves. We do not have time to waste on distractions; they will be put down ruthlessly. I look forward to seeing all nations at the conference. Thank you.”

With that, all of the Terran leaders boarded the bus, along with the Psiclopes and the Terran Space Force soldiers. The bus drove back to the spaceship, where the entire group got off the bus and boarded the spaceship. The ramp went up after everyone was aboard. As it shut, the spaceship lifted and soared into the sky, rapidly becoming a tiny silver dot which was just as quickly lost to sight.

The Channel 13 cameraman brought his camera back down to Bob Davies, who said simply, “And there you have it, we have made contact with extraterrestrials and have begun preparations to form a new, world government that will deal with the hostile aliens that are roaming the galaxy. Our lives have forever changed...and I can only hope that it will be a change for the better.” Bob Davies had always been a master of understatement.

Deep Underground Command Center, Washington, DC, June 23, 2019

“No Mr. President, we aren’t going to be able to defend this system with what we brought back on our first mission,” said Calvin. “It will help, but if the Drakuls come through the stargate in force, we aren’t going to be able to stop them. We’re going to have to go back out and look for additional aid.”

“What about going through the other stargate?” asked the president. “Maybe there is help in that direction.”

“There may be,” replied Calvin, “but if we go through it and find the Drakuls, they are going to come find Earth. I don’t think we can risk it. There are still other areas we haven’t explored through the stargate we went through; I would suggest we continue to look there.”

“I agree Mr. President,” said the secretary of defense. The president looked up to see all of his advisors nodding.

The president nodded as well. “Well, let’s get to fixing the Vella Gulf and replacing the people and equipment lost in the first mission. We need to get you back out there before the Drakuls show up at our door.”

“Yes sir,” said Calvin. “We’re already working on it.”

Epilogue   KGB Headquarters, Moscow, Russia, June 25, 2019

“The bottom line,” said Irina Rozhkov, finishing her report, “is that this is real. The Americans were contacted by aliens. The Americans did go to space with them and did engage in combat with several groups of aliens. I was with them and fought alongside them. The Americans now have two replicators that will allow them to make weapons and defensive systems beyond anything that we could field in the next hundred years. The one platoon that the aliens upgraded, even with the losses it incurred on its mission, could probably wipe out all of our armies combined; that’s how good they are. Everything they’ve said is the truth, as near as I can tell.”

“Are you sure that you have not been in contact with them so much that you have lost your objectivity?” asked the KGB Chairman. “I have never had an agent come into my office and say so many positive things about the Americans. I think you may have been converted by their capitalistic rhetoric after being exposed to it for so long.”

“No sir,” replied Rozhkov, “I remain a proud daughter of Mother Russia. I cannot tell you if all of the underlying reasons that the Americans have given for what they’re doing are true, but I can tell you that our world is in serious danger. There are many races in the galaxy that would consider us nothing more than a light snack. We have to protect our planet from them if we are going to protect Mother Russia. We must join them.”

“Make no mistake,” said the KGB Chairman, “we will join this new polity. The Americans now have long-range, hand-held weapons that hit at the speed of light with little regard to distance or weather conditions. They are able to shoot our missiles out of the sky with their spaceship without any conscious effort. And...even if you take all of that away, they now hold the planet’s orbitals. All they have to do is drop rocks on our heads, and they could kill us at their leisure. If it came to a contest between our two nations right now, we would lose. Badly. We couldn’t even use our nuclear weapons on them.” He blew out his cheeks in a sigh. “The only realistic option is for us to join them. If we do that, we have the ability to get in on the ground floor of this new world government. That gives us the opportunity to affect policy from the inside and to infiltrate the new organization thoroughly.”

He looked up and smiled. “The Americans have a saying, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ Based on what you’ve told me, we’re going to have to join them to beat them.”

# # # # #

The following is an

Excerpt from Book 2 of the Theogony:

When the Gods Aren’t Gods


Chris Kennedy

Available from Chris Kennedy Publishing

April, 2014

eBook and Paperback

Excerpt from “When the Gods Aren’t Gods:”

Seacon Towers Apartments, London, January 12, 2020

Master Chief O’Leary kicked in the door of the East End apartment and was greeted by a hail of bullets that hit him in the chest, despite his invisibility. “Damn it!” he grunted, as the impact of 12 bullets drove him back into the opposite wall. While the terrorists focused on O’Leary, other members of the platoon crashed through the back windows of the 4th floor apartment, taking the terrorists by surprise. The fight was over in less than a minute, the terrorists dead and Ryan with an expanding bruise on his chest. Although the suit stopped the bullets, as advertised, it did nothing to absorb the impact. Someone else gets to kick in the door next time, he vowed.

Ryan surveyed the dead. No prisoners were taken, but then again, the terrorists hadn’t given them the chance...and the soldiers hadn’t really wanted to take any in the first place. The terrorists had nothing they needed, and to have to go through the motions of a trial was just...inconvenient. Besides, the terrorists shot first, and to come back to London when they were already wanted there was just stupid. Ryan shrugged. Just another example of Darwin’s rule of natural selection; they were obviously too stupid to live.

Scattered among the remains of the bomb making materials, he found the jihadi bomb maker Samantha Lewthwaite, the notorious ‘White Widow’ that terror agencies in the U.S., U.K. and Kenya had been looking for since the Nairobi shopping mall terror attack in 2013 that killed more than 70 people. A key member of Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants, her career as a terrorist was over, courtesy of three laser blasts to her chest. Good riddance, he thought.

Sirens wailed as the local police made their appearance. Ryan looked at his watch. If the shuttle wasn’t late coming down, they could still make it back to Moon Base Alpha in time for Happy Hour at the new bar that had just opened.

Life was good.


Chris Kennedy is a former aviator with over 3,000 hours flying attack and reconnaissance aircraft for the United States Navy, including many missions supporting U.S. Special Forces. He has also been an elementary school principal and has enjoyed 18 seasons as a softball coach. He is currently working as an Instructional Systems Designer for the Navy.

Titles by Chris Kennedy:

“Red Storm: The Chinese Invasion of Seattle” – Available Now

“Occupied Seattle” – Available Now

“Janissaries: Book One of the Theogony” – Available Now

“When the Gods Aren’t Gods: Book Two of the Theogony” – Available Soon

* * * * *

Connect with Chris Kennedy Online:



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