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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Veil of Shadow - 18. No Second Chances

After the morning exercise routine, Lucas was back to continue his latest case investigation. His department's superiors were very hands-off, allowing the solitary and individualistic personalities of their particular field a high degree of autonomy. It wasn't so common in any branch of the armed forces to get much leeway, but the sort of work he did was very sensitive and the servicemen doing it highly trusted. There were a number of active jobs that Lucas was expected to focus on, but he had prioritised one in particular.

Yakutsk.

The rogue use of nuclear weapons was extremely serious, and the civilian investigation of who bore responsibility had targeted more than a dozen different groups. All were potential transportation vectors for setting up the terrorist strike, but since the initial clamour and finger-pointing at the Brotherhood, no links had been found proving their guilt. After the military succession, the prevailing view quickly became centred on CorpSec's probable responsibility, with many wishing for Konstantin Andropov's accusations to have full concrete evidence. This, too, had so far been unconfirmed. Still, four of the military's Yakutsk investigations were continuing. Conveniently, one involved a fringe realist group trafficking in high-yield materials and ordinance parts through the Ukraine.

For Lucas, that was close enough.

Expanding the search parameters allowed him to include CorpSec-registered craft, and enlarge the geographic contact zone to Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia west of the Urals. It took only the smallest reasonable pretense to include the new variables as potential leads and have them accepted by Containment's probability assessment.

The system was allowing him to do as he pleased.

So far, so good.

Immediately, Lucas was able to identify the craft, with a very high degree of certainty. It was owned by one of CorpSec's European branch managers, and had departed from Wroclaw late afternoon on the same day the raid occurred. Aerospace records had it moving at maximum legal speed through Belarus, though near the border with Russia, the trail turned indistinct and the craft effectively vanished from sight, its position lost to official record.

Bryansk, Saratov, Izhevsk, Kirov.

Of those areas, Lucas immediately knew it could not have made it to Kirov. The pulsicopter travel vector had an extremely low probability of branching out of Belarus to the northeast, requiring an odd junction through Smolensk and past Moscow in Kirov's direction that would have attracted attention. Similarly, Saratov looked very unlikely too; most routing private travel took a more southerly tangent if it were headed there. That left Bryansk and Izhevsk. Both were in the right direction. Both were plausible destinations, given the scant evidence presented. Bryansk was right close to the Belarusian border, with Izhevsk much further east.

Too far east.

It didn't make a lot of sense to head into the less corporatist-friendly Russian hinterland. Remote, perhaps, but also exposed and not so defensible even for CorpSec's authoritarian security personnel. Though Lucas knew it was possible, he had to focus on likelihood first. The trail seemed obvious. It looked like CorpSec had taken Lindani directly to Bryansk itself, but then where? It had to be somewhere relatively close, within reach of the places Kenji named. More exacting information was required. Once again, he summoned the Russian aerospace's transfer registry, to see if any suspicious movement was conducted around the time the pulsicopter would have landed at Bryansk.

There were seven departures from the municipal airport, in that little window of time.

Four were commercial passenger transports, bound for locations across the globe.

Two were semi-orbital gravity shunts, with surface-to-space clearance.

Last but not least, one air freighter, departing ten minutes after Lindani's arrival and owned by a parts manufacturer that was a subsidiary of AMSCOR, MFM's primary founder. The transportation manifest listed 'consumer electronics' and a regular crew complement. However, it left ahead of schedule to another destination within Russia, instead of the originally stated commercial liaison in Seoul, Korea. Instead, it proceeded to the southeast a short way, to a specific Russian city, only to be redirected last minute to land at a private airfield. The airfield was at a facility a few kilometres outside that same city, and owned by Planetary Mining & Industrial Shipping, another MFM founder.

An inconspicuous and unobtrusive freighter that nobody had given a second thought to.

No-one was looking for it.

No-one suspected it was doing anything out of the ordinary.

Yet, corporatist fingerprints were all over what he was seeing, and he knew this was it.

Success.

Quicker than he was expecting, Lucas had found it. CorpSec had not bothered with a deception more complex, because they simply did not believe anyone other than the Brotherhood would be searching so closely. Secure in their anonymity and strength, they had abducted this 'terrorist' free of interference. Also, they probably did not much care about prying eyes. The corporatist machine operated as a law unto itself when it could get away with it, and here was yet another example of that brashness in action.

He would have to smuggle this information to Kenji. That wouldn't be easy, but compared with what he had just learned, it would be child's play. The hardest part was done.

This was where CorpSec had taken Lindani.

Kursk.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The morning briefing had only just finished, when Konstantin received a call from the station's commanding officer. It was early in the day to receive any sort of request from the orbital administrator, who tended not to need direct communication with the higher command. Only specific matters required it, so the Russian answered the call with some curiosity. The man saluted smartly, the standard formality. He was sitting in his own office with another fleet officer present next to him, of lower rank and wearing flight gear.

"Sir."

"Good morning, captain. What's the trouble?"

"None, sir. In fact, it's the opposite. We've had a stroke of very good luck. At least, it seems that way, though I should leave that to your assessment."

"Now you have my attention," rumbled Konstantin. "Please explain."

The captain nodded to the officer next to him. The man repeated the salute, and began to speak. "Lieutenant Sykes, sir. I am assigned to the Sixth Squadron, Fourth Fleet. Days ago, the Mars command's outer-system sensors picked up a weak incoming signal from what we thought was the orbit of Jupiter."

A signal?

"Initially, it was assumed to be an old scientific buoy left over from 21st century space exploration that had begun to malfunction and transmit degraded junk data. This has on rare occasion happened before. However, the signal was low power and heavily encoded. The transmission functionality did not match the type used from the older era. In fact, it is a modern type that is used today, so the case was referred to Admiral Kerensky. He ordered a procedural investigation of the signal's source."

"Go on," Konstantin encouraged.

"I was to lead the reconnaissance effort to locate and identify that source, and to confirm no xenomorph deception was responsible. My flight wing maintained mission protocol and was able to complete the investigation as ordered. The admiral is still occupied at the Mars command, but he sent me here to brief you on our findings. The source in question was a human-made probe in orbit of Jupiter's moon Callisto." The holo-screen split in two, the right half opening onto a schematic view of the object, the video link continuing on the left. The probe was a compact rounded blob a little larger than a basketball; a bundle of metal and electronics crammed inside a cosmos-proof metal casing. "It is a ParaTech model industrial space-communications device, and it was set in a stable orbital pattern over Callisto less than two weeks ago."

"Who left it there, and what is it communicating?"

"Data, sir. We broke the first level of basic encryption into the data store." The lieutenant's posture stiffened, and Sykes straightened even more, pride showing on his face that he was the one that got to deliver this news to the supreme commander himself. "It is metrics for xenomorph numbers, location and capability. There is more concrete intelligence in this information than we have collected in two centuries of defending Earth."

Intelligence.

"Who?" Konstantin asked it, a little breathlessly, leaning forward in his chair without realising he was doing it. "Who sent this?"

"There are two video recordings included with the data. The first video is not encoded and is addressed to the military leadership. Because of this, no-one has viewed it, not even Admiral Kerensky. He instructed it was for your eyes only, until stated otherwise. The second video is protected by world-class corporatist encryption. It is addressed to you, specifically, by name." Sykes paused a moment, and grinned. "I do not think the people responsible know that you are the military leadership, or they would not have wasted two separate messages to the same person. The second video also has a password, which I can only assume is something you might know, sir."

A password?

"Lieutenant, you and your flight wing are to be given commendations. Your professional service is a credit to your squadron." Konstantin gave an appreciative tilt of the head to Sykes, who did not change expression and kept his posture, a loyal officer of the fleet. "Captain, thank you for delivering this information promptly. I will review it now. Please have it all available for my evaluation immediately."

"Yes sir. It will be accessible in a moment." The captain and the lieutenant both saluted together. "Thank you sir."

The communications window closed. All of ten seconds later, holo-screen split into two fresh views. On one side was a listing that contained everything Sykes had just mentioned. Information on different types of alien ship, potential combat roles, capability, estimated numbers, a data analysis that could be used to plot movement patterns, and more. On the other side, a prompt asking if he wished to play the first video record.

"Play." Konstantin commanded it.

It opened to show a face that was familiar and unexpected, though the moment the Russian saw it he was not surprised. He knew that the man was out there, after all.

"Hello, military commander person, whoever you are." Ayize's country-bumpkin grin was presented to the camera in high-definition, the distinctive scars and crooked nose leaving his identity beyond question. "I'm sure you recognise me, the 'terrorist' leader of the Brotherhood's paramilitary arm. Hard face to forget, am I right? Well, I want you to know that I have broken the law another dozen times to rescue the two Andersen boys, the Lucere refugees. You remember them, right? Good!" He was speaking easily and conversationally, much like someone sitting at a bar, recounting a funny tale over a cold drink after work. "See, reason I did it is because CorpSec nuked Yakutsk and blamed me and my brothers for doing it! Blowing up cities really isn't my MO, just for the record. While that was going on, they sneaked one of those boys to a hidden lab in Australia and the other to an outpost on the planet Berchande. All of it happened right behind your backs. RDA was doing scientific experiments on them without, y'know, permission or the law interfering. So we stole a CorpSec shuttle and left Earth to perform a rescue op. Just thought you might want to know what those mass-murdering bastards are guilty of.

"There's another thing. After that, we ran into some of the aliens. It's all a bit complicated to explain, but I want to tell you: we escaped alive and managed to find their staging ground. You wouldn't believe me if I told you how. It's a hell of a tale. Don't have to trust me, just trust the facts. Look at the data I'm sending. Their base camp is at Librae Arctis IV. There are thousands of ships there. If you have a way to beat their invisibility, then you gotta use this data to cause some serious damage. Think whatever you like about my 'terrorist' reputation, but this? It's about survival and I want our species to win this damn war. So you need to do to them what they did to us. Oh, and, um," he paused for a second, looking impish, "I'm not expecting a hero's welcome, but, uh, please don't arrest me if I make it back to Earth alive, nor shoot me. Appreciated. Thanks."

Konstantin blinked. The African certainly seemed the same as ever, with a folksy irreverence that just wouldn't quit. Though, if the first video was Ayize, maybe the second video was from-

He stopped himself, abruptly. There was no desire to complete that thought, to give himself false hope. He didn't want to make wrong assumptions. He wanted to know and see it with his own eyes. A prompt for the second video appeared, and with his nerves jittery, he told it to play too. Another prompt followed, asking but a single question; 'Password access required: where is Lily Parker's final resting place?'

Lily.

It was somewhere only Konstantin and two other living people knew.

It had to be.

"Alcubierre, Lucere." His stomach knotted, his fists clenching with fearful anticipation.

The second video opened, and there he was.

Shay.

A tear ran down his cheek at the sight, from the profound relief and gratitude that he felt. Shay, the boy he loved as a son, was safe. He was unchanged; still skinny and pale, with mussed hair and that reserved, shy demeanour. Scholarly and wise beyond his years, as Konstantin judged it, yet most importantly: safe.

Lord, thank you.

"Hi." The boy bit his lower lip and frowned, his brow crinkling slightly. "How do you start a message like this? Um, I guess by saying that Ayize found us and I'm okay. So is Mira. I hope the same goes for you too, wherever you are now. I miss having you around. It's so hard to believe what anyone says, so that's why I've passworded this recording, to make it difficult to get into. I've got more to tell you though, and I trust you'll do what you need to with this knowledge, so we will all have the best chance of surviving."

Shay took a deep breath and a moment to compose his thoughts, then he went on. "We ran into the arbiters again. Before I killed one of them, it gave me a ... vision, I guess. It showed me four planets in this vision. Lucere, Earth, Librae Arctis IV and Taiqing. There has to be a good reason for why it chose these four. Earth and Lucere are obviously significant, and we figured out Librae Arctis. It's just that ... I don't get Taiqing. It's one of our ruined colonies. What's there? Why do they care? Why does Taiqing matter? There has to be a reason for it, too. If there's any way for you to tell the military, they should investigate it.

"Okay, what else? Oh, yeah. The alien ships. Ayize has sent loads of data for the authorities to use, so I don't need to tell you anything else about that, but you should know something very important about them. Maybe the most important thing of all. How do I put this?" He paused for a moment, trying to formulate a description. "I want to use a comparison to explain my point. So, uh, humans can use radar to detect things and see what's going on. You know, for following ships and vehicles and the weather and all of that stuff, right? Okay, now take that idea and say it's gravity instead of radio waves. Except there's no lag time and it's instant detection. If there's a source of gravity, or something gravitational changes, they know about it straight away. Also, the detection range is ... really really big. They can sense from light-years away. Hundreds of light-years, actually. Do you get how serious that is?"

For Konstantin, 'serious' was nowhere near strong enough for this news.

"Every single time we use a singularity to travel anywhere, whether it's through a gate or on a ship, they know about it as soon as it happens. They can feel it from so far away. Combined with invisibility, that's why they beat us so badly in 2104. They've pinned us on Earth like animals in a cage. They won't let us leave until they're ready to deal with us, or we try to fight them. All they need to do is wait, because their advantage is that big. It's also a weakness, though. They think they are so superior, that it's inevitable we will lose, but ... they are wrong." Shay smiled grimly, a slightly bitter expression that seemed to be drawing on memory of a recent encounter. "We know how they operate now, what their strategy is, and because of that, we can predict how they will behave. They think we're just prey, but we can be the hunters instead. Convince the military as well, if you can."

No convincing was required.

"There's one last thing. I've learned more about the aliens that made the aqumi network on Lucere. Some of them are still alive and out there, somewhere, and I just ... know they'll help us. Mira and I, we're going to find them with Ayize's help. We're going to ally with them, and together we'll end this. We have to, or ... everyone will die." He smiled, small and sad. "It's so melodramatic, right? The apocalypse, nothing but dust left. The stupid part is it's true. There won't be second chances, just .. the end of everything." Shay sighed, rubbing his forehead and then running a hand through his hair. "We might be gone for a while, but we'll be back. Believe me, okay? We're gonna meet again, and life- ... life will go on."

The boy paused a moment, giving a little wave for the camera, uncertain and nearly timid. It was as if he wanted to say something; a farewell, a wish or a promise. Still, he did not speak further, and the video simply ended, the holo-screen going blank.

Well, this changed things.

"Shay, my boy; my wonderful, brilliant, clever boy." Konstantin sat back, whispering to himself, a thousand thoughts dancing through his mind, new threads of possibility turning the future uncertainty toward hope. "You are providence in the flesh, and we will win this war yet."

Summoning a communication window, he called the captain again. "Contact Mars. I want Admiral Kerensky back here by tomorrow, Tuesday at the latest."

The planning phase was about to begin.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"Who is responsible?"

Like clockwork, there it was. The three lights, blinding bright. The question. The suppression field, constricting and suffocating. The strange off-key music that never repeated itself and had no discernible rhythm; a constant ambient discord.

Make it stop.

Make it go away.

"Lindani Mthembu, acting-commander Europe, 46731554."

He clung to the words, blinking, the glare terrible and his retinas burning from it. The music continued, the lights continued. Seconds passed, maybe minutes? It was so hard to tell time any more.

So hard to concentrate, so hard to think.

Then, the lights were gone and the music stopped. Utter darkness and total silence, along with a heightened sense of terror. It was a chemically-enhanced phobia that he knew was not real, but he could not escape. He shut it out, he pushed it away, but the choking isolation was attacking him, clawing into his weakened body everywhere. Digging into his flesh, it was going to eat him alive.

No. No no no. His arms shook, his limbs locked in place. Brothers won't forget me. Kenji won't forget me.

"Who is responsible?"

Again, the lights. The question. The suppression. The music.

The words. Say the words. Only the words.

"Lindani Mthembu, acting-commander Europe, 46731554."

Again, the cycle repeated.

Then again.

Each time, his weariness grew, the stress multiplying. Each time, it was a little harder to respond, a little harder to remember. Each time, he came a step closer to cracking.

"Who is responsible?"

Lights.

Question.

Suppression.

Music.

Kenji will come. Kenji won't forget.

"Lindani Mthembu, acting-commander Europe, 46731554."

Was it days or weeks?

Months?

Time was an illusion.

Then, it stopped.

He thought maybe it was the habitual switch in technique, at a random unpredictable time. The interrogators would try another of their mindfuck games on him before switching back to the staple, but there was no segue into a new incalculable torture. The suppression lightened somewhat, the lights adjusting to a regular contrast. The complete dimness of the outside was disabled, and beyond his perch was a much more pedestrian obstruction; an opaque projected barrier, the room visibly muddied beyond where he sat. It was like viewing something underwater, and the two regular attendants of his captivity were just barely apparent but still present; the doctor and the technician, revulsive avatars of CorpSec's control. Right now, there was a third person too, a superior, who was speaking with them.

"I was notified, yes, but this is not on time," said the superior. "The Kursk energy relay isn't being upgraded until this evening. I will contact the project manager from operation control. Disruption of our schedule is not acceptable."

"Sir?" The technician's query doubled as a prompt for orders.

"Just keep him secure in the event of any temporary outages. This shouldn't take long."

"Of course."

There was the muted sound of an outer door opening and closing, and then the superior was gone.

"Their timing is horrible," the doctor lamented. "His neural pattern was becoming evenly distributed. Won't take much more."

"Does it take anyone much more?" Snorting, the technician sat down behind the controls. Though the visibility outside of the little pool of light that defined his prison's limits was poor, he knew their eyes were back on him. "You really think this guy will last? Only seen one hold out longer. Some Kyrgyz religious nut they had in detention at Lahore. Took a full month, but at the end, he was bawling like toddler."

"Well, if you want my professional opinion-"

Before the sentence could finish, the lights above faded completely, switching off. The suppression field fully deactivated, all pressure gone, and the privacy barrier vanished with it. Outside sound came in clear, and when the technician began to speak, it was with a definition that Lindani was not accustomed to, his voice rich and full, the clarity making it seem overly loud.

"Uh, we just went to auxiliary power?" The man scratched his head. "Okay, now that definitely shouldn't be happening. Something screwy going on with our internals, I think."

The doctor shrugged. "Wait for maintenance to get here?" He cast a glance to Lindani, not lingering for more than a second. It seemed neither of the men cared that he was actually free to move, not regarding him as any danger in his current condition. "He did say it wouldn't take long."

"Yeah, well, there's a converter down the hall. I can hard-reset it and get us connected again in like ... four minutes, tops." He looked at Lindani now too, a little longer, before addressing the doctor again. "You make sure he doesn't move. I'll be back shortly."

The doctor's look was as humourless as his smile, cold and clean. "Oh, don't worry. He won't travel." He waved a hand to the door. "Go fix it. I want to resume business soon as possible."

"Right." The technician stood, grabbing a multi-tool and datapad off the control console before he walked out. Relaxed, the doctor strolled over to the edge of where the 'cage' would have been, the emitters just visible in the floor. He had an anti-grav tray table next to him, the platform hovering at waist height. A bunch of medical implements were lying on it, and the man took one, then walked right up to Lindani. With a light push, he was pressed upright in his seat, offering no resistance, feeling so disoriented and physically incapable that he did not raise his head to look the doctor in the face.

"Yeah, you aren't going anywhere, are you?" The doctor's voice was soft, the device pressed to Lindani's neck, where it gave a strange buzzing vibration as it performed some kind of measurement. "Weak as a kitten. You better enjoy this little breather, because it's the last one you're gonna get." The device gave a beep, and the man grunted in satisfaction. "Yep, you'll be done soon, and I do mean done."

No.

Brothers won't forget.

Kenji ... won't forget.

The doctor turned and walked off, continuing to talk as he did. "Wonder what sort of fantasies you're harbouring to keep it together? Revenge, maybe? A saviour?" He reached the larger trolley across the room, one that had an array of liquid solutions, stored in neat rows, and a medical holo-library terminal with a smattering of data open on it. "Everyone tries to find a place they can defend themselves, hold off the inevitable. You know the funny thing about inevitability? You can't escape it. That's the whole point."

Must try.

Stand.

He could do it.

His knees shook. Every time he tried to exert his limbs, they would shake, not wanting to comply. The broken bone in his left arm was excruciating, and the pain in his head, his eyes, the knotted muscles of his shoulders, his torso, was horrific. He was standing, upright for a second, and unused to the verticality. Dizzy, nauseous, struggling to keep it going. His legs wavered, and he took one agonising step, the doctor's back still turned, a half dozen paces away.

"You're just next on the list. Doesn't matter how special you think you are, the same thing will happen to you that happens to everyone. Information, then termination." He chuckled. "Oh, I know. Of course you don't want to die, but you'll reach the point where talking is better than not talking, and then, after that? As I said: inevitability. It's not just a prediction, it's a psychological conclusion."

A second step.

Keep standing.

Try.

The muscles in his back and legs were screaming, robbed of strength. The third step was a trial unlike anything he'd known, such a simple task but so very hard, and he failed it. Faltering, Lindani stumbled, his arm colliding with the floating tray table. Various implements clattered to the floor, the broken limb so harrowing that he curled up, scrabbling fitfully through the mess of spilled junk in a fruitless protest against the hurt.

"What are you doing?" The amused exasperation was obvious. "Apart from throwing my tools around. You can't go anywhere, idiot." Footsteps, then Lindani was being hauled semi-upright by his jumpsuit's scruff, though he couldn't straighten properly, his good right hand still nursing his churning stomach while he hunched over. "Come on, up with you. Back in the chair."

The doctor shifted position to deposit his human cargo into the seat, and Lindani grabbed the man's shoulder, trying to brace himself so he didn't fall again. Annoyed more than surprised, the doctor made to shove him forward, but Lindani forced himself fully vertical. The pain of the action was worth the confused irritation of the man's response as they made full eye contact for the first time in days.

Look at me.

"What s-"

The scalpel was already wet with his own blood, his palm sliced from gripping it too tightly. His fingers were still shaking, but he pushed the blade right into the neck, the move so calm and deliberate that the doctor never realised what he was doing until it occurred. The man's eyelids fluttered, and he froze, his eyes wide, voice halted by traumatic paralysis and complete shock. Losing his footing, the doctor fell backward, Lindani on top of him. Ignoring the renewed pain, he slid the scalpel back out, and then he stabbed the man again.

"Fuck you." Lindani whispered hoarsely, his eyes bulging, anger and fear emerging to the forefront. Tears added to the visceral slipperiness, and all the anguish and pressure and deception, everything he had been through, was concentrated into that little bit of metal in his hand. It was bitter justice. He stabbed the man in the neck a third time, the wet squelching sound extremely morbid but still, the sweetest thing possible in that moment.

"Fuck your torture."

Stab.

"Fuck your conclusions."

Stab.

"Fuck CorpSec."

Stab.

Again, and again.

Kitten has claws.

Fatigued, suffering from fresh waves of physical pain, he rolled off the blood-soaked corpse, the neck a weltering shredded mass of puncture wounds. Blood was all over him, spattered and smeared on the implements and the emitters, pooling around the doctor's head and flowing lazily over the floor. He had only managed to sit up, repressing the urge to vomit, when the door opened and the technician walked back in. "The central override was flipped, we'll have to wait for- ... son of a bitch!"

He reached for his gun, Lindani unable to do anything more than stare. The technician hadn't finished raising it when a barrage struck him in the back, a refrain of plink-plink-plink silenced shots echoing from the outside corridor. Blossoms of red appeared all over his chest, the technician falling over forward with a heavy thud.

Who?!

Four men stepped into the room, weapons ready.

At the front: Kenji.

"Brother! Oh god, Ken- ... it's you!" He choked it out, not sure if what he was seeing was real, or simply another cog in the corporatist machine, another elaborate trick to drag him back into the maze. He shuddered, his voice wavering, terrified and disbelieving. "Jesus, get me out of here. Please, we gotta go. Please."

"'dani! I got you." In a heartbeat, Kenji was next to him, helping him up, and then everything transformed into a blur of adrenalin and movement. He barely knew what was happening for the next couple of minutes; first exiting the room, then a rush of hallways and corridors, then the facility's exterior, through a smashed-in service access that led straight to the liftpad. Two CorpSec patrol craft were burnt out husks riddled with bullet holes, while a Brotherhood pulsicopter was a vengeful raptor crouched between the wrecks, keeping sentry. Unsuppressed gunfire was coming from inside, and Kenji spoke on a comm link to the other teams involved.

"Roger that, we've got him." The pulsicopter began to lift off, and in moments they were powering over field and forest as the speed began to pick up in their flight from Kursk. "Everyone to pull back and get out of the hot zone." A medic began to clean Lindani up, administering a painkiller, but Kenji was belligerent, unsatisfied with what was happening. "Mason," he called to the pilot, "are we getting through to the other two teams? I'm not hearing them, and their ping is absent."

"Negative, sir." The pilot told him. "Oversight confirms their signal has stopped."

"Switch to the secondary range and try ag-"

Kenji did not finish speaking, and the pulsicopter's primary holo-display initiated with an incoming call from one of the other Brotherhood pulsicopters. The relief at the familiar symbol and credentials was shortlived, mostly because of who was sitting at the other end.

Martin Quân, the head of CorpSec.

He was in the pilot's chair of the craft, and he gave a curious little half-smile when the call connected. "Oh, it does work. Hard to tell with this second-rate hardware." His smile broadened. "It's Kenji, right? I think I remember you. You were the one at the San Bernadino hacking trial. What a pity you decided to put your talents to waste with these criminals."

"Criminals?" Kenji stared at Quân's smug handsome face, the image of him sitting in a Brotherhood craft extremely disturbing. "Everyone knows you're the criminal. The word is out that you engineered Yakutsk for MFM."

Quân laughed, derisive and cruel. "I run the planet's largest private army and the government's enforcement agencies are as feckless as the premier himself. What do I have to fear from the law?" He shrugged. "No, it's you who should be thinking about consequences. I'm sure you're so pleased with the 'rescue' you just pulled off. Very creative. You're tenacious, I'll give you that. Was it worth it?"

There was no chance to ask what Quân meant before the camera angled to the right to show two men, hands bound and kneeling.

Oskar Heinrich and John Shearer.

"Now I'll save us both the trouble," Quân continued, "since I know the next words out of your mouth will be 'what do you want' along with the assumption that I'm here to negotiate over their release. The problem is I doubt you're going to return Mr Mthembu to our rightful custody. He holds a very specific value to me, and I wasn't done with him. These two? Well, not so much."

Pausing mid-conversation, in one smooth movement, Quân drew a pistol and shot both Heinrich and Shearer in the head.

In the blink of an eye, two of the longest-serving European agents; good, honest, dependable men ... gone.

Just like that.

"See?" The CorpSec boss grinned; manic and ice-cold. "Consequences."

"You SON OF A BITCH!" Kenji was yelling at the apparition on the holo-screen, the evil that had just executed two friends. "I don't care what it takes. I will fucking kill you! I will send you to hell, where you belong!"

The laughter was a repetition, only now prolonged and with homicidal verve added; a garnish of psychotic vigour. "You peasants don't get it. The world is on the cusp of an empire unlike anything before, and you simply do not understand how futile your rebellion is about to become," Quân managed, his voice coming between chuckles, "but you will find out."

He gave one last grin and a wave, before the call ended.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"I have summoned you here today because I wish to inform you all of what is planned, and to let you have direct access to speak your mind."

Konstantin was speaking to the senior officers of the fleet, assembled in the commander's conference room at Majesty. All of the important flag officers were present, plus additional admirals and captains that merited inclusion. Also present was Jason Accioli and two of his senior men, the leadership of CorpSec-Space.

"But first, on that note," he continued, "I have heard rumbles of discontent the last few days. Whispers of unhappiness from commanders and captains, yet none of it brought directly to me. I may be new to this job and to Earth, but I will not have my authority undermined." His voice hardened slightly, taking on a notable edge. "So, if you have something to say ... say it."

For a few moments, no-one said a word, not wishing to challenge the supreme commander in front of their peers, but then one began it

"Sir." Captain Foley put himself forward. "The elephant in the room needs to be addressed. What's happening on the surface; we can't just leave it."

Vice Admiral Rambiphol followed quickly on this. "He's right. The senate isn't dissolving, and the premier isn't stepping aside. CorpSec is fighting with the feds. Actually fighting. We all know it's happening."

"No." Konstantin was emphatic, though he did not raise his voice. "We will not be intervening."

"Sir, we exist to protect the state," Foley insisted. "How can you-"

"Captain." Beaumont's disapproval was acidic as always, never one to suffer indiscretion. "You heard the commander. Did you forget your oath? Our duty is here. The state faces no existential threat from within."

Another officer joined in, Captain al-Said. "With all due respect admiral, government security and law enforcement have been engaged in open combat in many places with MFM's private army."

Jiang was the next to come to his defence. "What would you have the commander do? Is the 'state' the senate or the executive? This is politics and we do not interfere, and you are flirting with insubordination!"

"Politics? It's not politics!" Rambiphol spat the word. "It's a step away from a civil war! You mean to say he," the vice admiral pointed to Accioli, "isn't pushing for this to be a full coup against Premier Guiterrez?"

Accioli smiled lazily. He was a tall lanky Italian American, as guarded as Quân had been, tending to alternate between passive-aggression and open combativeness when it didn't suit him to be diplomatic. "Oh, am I on trial now?" He shrugged. "Guiterrez is moronic, and hardly legitimate. It's too bad terrorists killed the real premier. At least she had a brain."

"Enough! All of you!" Konstantin banged a fist on the conference table, then gestured to his fleet officers. "We will respect the Concordat. Unless there is an imminent threat to the fundamental integrity of the state, this will not change. End of discussion." Then he turned to Accioli. "You. CorpSec destroyed Yakutsk and Martin Quân is a criminal in all but name. If I see even a hint you or CorpSec-Space is involved in what is going on down there, you will be facing unpleasant consequences."

"Why commander," murmured Accioli, "is that a threat?"

"It is a promise," Konstantin told him, soft and sure. "I am a man of my word."

"Yes yes, I'm sure." He waved dismissively. "Whatever you want to call it, I'm not intimidated. CorpSec isn't CorpSec-Space. You know it, I know it, everyone here knows it. I'm not Quân, either. Nor am I part of your chain of command, so I don't need to kiss your boots and make nice. Don't kid yourself, this is an alliance of mutual need. You need me. Unfortunately, I also need you."

Regardless of how much he disliked Accioli, the man was correct.

"Then let us get to business," Konstantin's words were cool and crisp, daring the CS-Space head to say something inflammatory. "Unless you have anything further to add?"

"No, commander," purred Accioli, the cynicism barely disguised. "To business."

"Very well." He nodded to Kerensky, who had been observing the meeting without speaking so far. It was something he noticed the admiral do a lot for less private gatherings; listen more, gauge responses and not speak unless required. His approach was minimalist, deft and wise; all things Konstantin appreciated.

"Recently acquired intelligence has given us the location of the enemy marshaling point. Along with this, we have a detailed account of their space capability and numbers. Those numbers will make engaging them at that point, the planet Librae Arctis IV, too dangerous."

"What of their largest advantage: invisibility?" Jiang queried. "This needs a counter first."

"Mr Accioli has graciously agreed to help with the problem of their embedded stealth." Kerensky nodded smoothly to the CS-Space boss.

Accioli was back to a more subtle cageyness. "We have also made a recent breakthrough. Our research into anti-cloaking technology has successfully identified a method of detecting their craft that can be used on both stationary and mobile forces. With Commander Andropov's permission, the retro-fitting and installation of this technology has begun on a mass scale. It is actually a more simple job than it sounds. CorpSec-Space was preparing for this eventuality before it occurred, so our hardware division has produced a stockpile of the components required for the task. The entire fleet should be fully equipped inside a week."

"Then what?" Jiang directed the question to Kerensky again.

"Well, we know something else too. The world of Taiqing has strategic importance to our enemy. It is there we will lure them," the admiral nodded sagely, "and it is there they will fall."

-o-0-O-0-o-

Once again, Lucas could not believe it.

Three days ago, he was washing his hands of problems with the Brotherhood. He had given them the means to recover their lost officer, and with it, eliminate any chance of his own culpability being brought to light.

He wanted to be distanced from that peril. Even though he cared about the political future of Earth, his job was beyond that and his duty was to stay out of that fray.

Then, yesterday happened.

Midway through his regular duties, Lucas' direct superior had arrived in person at his workspace and told him, with no ceremony, that he was to immediately leave for the Alpha 3 orbital, commonly known as 'Majesty', the fleet headquarters.

No explanation, no elaboration.

He did as ordered, and once there, Lucas came before none other than the supreme commander and his old mentor.

"Mr Thessaloniki, I presume?" Konstantin Andropov's first words to him were that of a stranger speaking to another stranger, though the gleam in his eyes spoke volumes. It was all code, a thoroughly different sort from Kenji's subterfuge. This was a pantomime for the sake of procedure and precedent; the appearance of no acquaintance. "Admiral Kerensky and I were searching for an acceptable candidate to perform a very valuable service. Your name was recommended to me."

"Sir?" It was all Lucas could manage.

"Sub-lieutenant Thessaloniki," Kerensky spoke, "you are receiving a promotion to lieutenant, and with it the chance to perform vital reconnaissance that could lead to a watershed in our war effort."

"The admiral describes what can be more loosely called a ... very unique employment opportunity." Konstantin's dry humour was present and tangible. "In fact, should you accept it, it could well be the greatest honour of your life. You will be the first in more than two centuries to travel to an ex-colonial world."

A ruined world?

"Why, sir?"

"Knowledge." Andropov's look was keen, confident. "There are secrets still kept in our past, and we must recover them."

Now, here he sat, in the cockpit of a Valkyrie SSF-14B.

Before him lay the cosmos: the Milky Way, the untold number of stars and other phenomena; an endless array of possibility and mathematical uncertainty that was the universe unexplored.

Next to him, his flight wing.

Is this real?

Truthfully, there was never a way he could say no.

In many ways, he knew his greatest flaw was that he could not refuse the call when it came. He was a young man, but one willing to give his life in service of humanity's silent celestial war even while a bloody conflagration edged ever closer on Earth's surface.

That schism did not matter.

What mattered was the future.

Ultimately it came down to something more primal: the survival of his family, his friends, and his species.

No, Lucas could never refuse the call to arms.

"Swan-1, you are a go." Alpha 3's clearance approval was the final word from the command. "Godspeed and good hunting."

"Lieutenant, PFS is completed." His secondary's recommendation followed the clearance, crystal clear over the fighter's comm system. "We are prepared to jump."

"Aye, Swan-2," Lucas responded, "parameters are transmitted. Initiating jump in ten."

"Confirmed. All units receiving."

The countdown happened in silence.

When it hit zero, the world Lucas knew blurred and vanished.

Here we go.

The jump was nothing like the simulation. Lucas felt distinctly ill as they reappeared in space above the new world, but that feeling vanished quickly as he mastered his fear. What was about to happen deserved all the apprehension and concern, but what he kept in mind was simple.

Focus, stay calm, and do your duty.

There were only a few dozen seconds of lucidity, a lifetime's worth of introspection crammed into that snippet of time, before the alarms sounded.

It worked.

The enemy ships jumped in, the newly installed detection array on each fighter revealing the xenomorphs exactly as they arrived. The cloaked formation of fifteen ships was right there, in a detailed rendering that was, to Lucas' eyes, magnificent.

The disadvantage was gone, and for the first time ever, it was a fair fight.

This was justice.

There was a window of only two seconds available before the enemy normalised and situational reaction began, but the fighter pilot augments activated instantaneously. All twelve Valkyrie craft separated into a twisting hydra of attack vectors, engines blaring, reflexes unnaturally sharp and clean. Lines of glowing rail-fire stabbed through four of the scout-destroyers on the third second of their arrival, the targets splintering into pieces, while the remaining eleven ships had scrambled with incredible speed in all directions.

His pulse was pounding, attention flicking between a dozen things; sensor output of his flight wing's status, the spatial tac-map, weapon target acquisition and the agility with which the Disciples were evading attack and counter-positioning themselves.

It was by far the most terrifying few seconds of his life.

They spiraled and rolled, a shoal of marauding indigo that was horribly elegant; all lit up by weapon fire and human technological revelation. Constantly changing positions, the enemy was so fast that Lucas' enhanced reactions were barely enough, stretched to the maximum. The Valkyrie's propulsion adjusted his course at the blistering speed of the closest enemy, the manoeuvring aided by the AI and his own ultra-quick tweaks.

The virtual sphere of the tac-map swirled in time to the acrobatic insanity, and Lucas fired again and again, the targeting index's prediction as flighty as the quicksilver foe he chased. Streams of burning fire jabbed at it, missing by tiny margins, the Disciple juking endlessly in the most maddening slippery way, refusing to allow a concrete chance. The rest of the flight wing were doing their duty too, everyone already engaged in an interconnected series of dog fights. Doubling and tripling back in ridiculously tight curving loops, his target rounded on Swan-7. His compatriot's fierce avoidance of two more Disciples was ended in a single burst of adamantine biosteel from Lucas' errant mark, Swan-7 exploding in the same moment Lucas nailed the Disciple.

It took nine seconds for the first human death.

The room for error was minuscule, and the casualties mounted, the icons on the map vanishing as each fight was won or lost.

Two more Disciples followed.

Then Swan-5.

Another Disciple.

Swan-9.

Swan-12.

Three more Disciples in quick succession.

Swan-8.

The last five were eliminated without loss, and then the battle augmentation eased back, the frenzy slowing. The mission timer told him the entire confrontation had taken 47 seconds from start to end. Of the twelve Valkyries, seven were unhurt, five destroyed.

"Proceed with mission." Lucas was able to keep his voice steady, the psychological stress-repression being aided by the chemical inhibitors stabilising his mental state. "Extract and copy all active com-sat data stores."

Regrouping, the flight wing cruised in closer to the planet in question, the order undertaken promptly. Each pilot began numerous digital extractions, both forced and voluntary, from the remaining functional satellites. The data was distributed between the entire wing in real time, ensuring no possibility information could be lost.

Beneath them, the glowing curve of early evening on Lucere.

"I wish you to understand this, Mr Thessaloniki." Konstantin's voice echoed in his mind. "Given our new awareness of Librae Arctis IV, and the absence of the military's auxiliary gate at Lucere, there is likely information about the early spread of the aliens that is of critical importance to our future plans. Many of Lucere's orbital systems have survived to present day, and they hold the key."

Nearly all of the civilian data being leeched was worthless, and also much of the military's. Lucas was skimming it as it arrived, still tense and focused, not letting his guard down. He had the distinction of tapping the only functioning military deep-scan observational satellite, and while the rest of the flight wing continued their work, he performed a time-select on the scan results.

What he saw was startling: in 2104, Lucere's own military had destroyed the covert auxiliary gate. That was surprising enough, but there was more. From 2105 to late 2318, not a single occurrence worth mentioning. Finally, a month ago at the beginning of October, a military shuttle departed the planet. It was the same that delivered Konstantin and his boys back to Earth.

Less than a week later, a large object had appeared in orbit over Lucere.

Lucas stared at the data-visualisation in front of him, for a moment doubting he'd read it correctly.

A second examination told him that 'large' wasn't close enough.

This object was an alien vessel, and it was gargantuan.

There was nothing humanity had created that came close to the size of it.

Less than an hour after that, a number of smaller vessels had been released from within. They descended through Lucere's atmosphere, heading for a specific location on the planet's surface. The tac-map painted the route taken down on the visual overlay, the arc touching a spot on the smaller northern continent of Aurum. Shortly after, they rose once more, rejoining the behemoth.

Then, it jumped away from the world.

The timing could not be coincidence.

Earth had to learn of this.

"Objective completed. No extraction targets left, sir." Swan-2 informed him.

Lucas opened his mouth to reply, but his words never came. The nearest Valkyrie to his, Swan-11, exploded, a hail of armour-piercing shards tearing through it. A half-second later, Swan-4 followed suit, the fighter wiped out in a volley launched from an undetected invisible foe.

His reaction was instinct, faster than any of his fellow pilots, and it was this alone that saved his life. He squeezed the thrust booster as hard as it would go, the augments roaring back to life. His fighter kicked into overdrive, from stationary to top speed in a breath. The friendly dots on the tac-map were all eliminated in less than three seconds total, before he hit Lucere's upper atmosphere, and then it was empty but for him.

Alone.

The re-entry buffer was screaming at him, warnings sounding as fire engulfed the fighter; too fast, too close, too hot, but he would not drop the speed. The planetary surface was rising at a very alarming rate. A numbness had filled him, crossed with a profound distress over the brutal inhuman efficiency of the enemy. It was an impossible surreal absurdity, an incomprehensible perversion of what war and combat was.

No rules, no second chances.

A fiery halo of friction encased the Valkyrie, the landscape unnoticed as he swerved and dodged, the trajectory flattened so he was skirting the ground at a breakneck rate. Lucas mindlessly followed the trail on the tac-map, clinging to the last thing that made sense. The route cut across Aurum's expanse to a point in the evergreen forest. Still going far too fast and still much too close to the ground, the fighter's engines throttled almost to nothing, the crash-avoidance AI seizing control. Plunging the remaining distance to earth, the AI landed gracelessly, the buffers absorbing the worst of the damage. The fighter planed and skidding across the haphazardly chosen landing zone, a small grassy field within the forest.

Lucas came to a minute later, blacked out from the crash. Cool early evening air was coming in from above, the cockpit release triggered. The Valkyrie was upright and at least intact, with the pilot's control apparatus disengaged from his flight suit. Frantically he pulled himself up, heaving his body onto the hull's outer edge. It was still very hot, and he half-rolled half-fell off the side of the craft onto the ground.

"AHHH!" The shooting pain in his right ankle was crippling, and his left shoulder was nearly as bad, a pulled muscle at the minimum. Forcing himself to stand, he immediately threw up, staggering a couple of metres away from the crashed fighter. Lucas wiped his mouth and straightened. There wasn't even time to get his bearings when he saw them.

Creatures; mutated slavering humanoid killers. Long limbs, ironclad skin, razor claws, bestial and hungry.

He had never seen them before like this, but he knew exactly what they were.

Sharpelings.

There was a little more than a dozen and they were running towards him across the open.

"Oh, FUCK NO!"

Fear, fury, desperation.

Sidearm. Drawn. Loaded.

"I am NOT going to die here!"

Backwards stumble, scorched grass, hot metal at his back.

Breath coming in rapid gasps, sharpelings closing in.

"As to thialo!" One in the head.

Two.

Three.

"AS TO THIALO! You bastards!"

Four, five.

Bodies fell, but they advanced still.

Reload, fingers flying.

New mag.

"AHHHHHH!" Lucas yelled an enraged battlecry, and kept firing, aim switching from head to head.

Six, seven.

Brain splatter, bone splintering.

Eight, nine, ten.

Reload again.

The last three were only a dozen feet away when he reoriented the weapon onto them.

He emptied the entire chamber, the final sharpeling tripping and sprawling right at his feet as it died. Lucas had dived awkwardly out of the way, sliding along the heated metal to land heavily on the ground.

It still wasn't over.

Striding confidently, fearlessly, in the wake of the sharpelings was an apparition as black as night, burning dark and demonic. It was ripped directly from some ancient human mythology, a creature of the underworld itself; six feet tall, drenched in terror and wrath.

No ...

The arbiter's approach was steady and brisk, death incarnate coming for his very soul. He feverishly reloaded the gun yet again from where he lay by the hull, then raised it up and took aim.

He shot it, over and over and over, but the pistol fire glanced off its skull, was brushed away, ignored.

It didn't slow.

Click, click, click.

Empty.

Too close, no time.

Three metres away.

Two.

One.

Arms flicked wide, claws raised, ready to harvest his life.

Lucas Thessaloniki glared up at the alien that was about to kill him.

"Go to hell, you fuck," he growled.

The reaper's scythe swung.

It stopped mid-air.

Between them, a figure shimmered into existence.

The left hand held back the bladed arm, death intercepted.

The right hand reached out, grasping the arbiter's face, fingers in its eye sockets.

Nether flame coursed from it to her, sucked through the skull, receding until doused. The ebony skeleton dulled, black fading to brittle grey. Drained, it fell apart, crumbling to nothing, the breeze scattering the dust upon the blasted soil of Aurum.

Well, it's been a very complicated few days for Lucas. Wonder if he regrets his choice of profession now? :blink:
Never fear, readers. Shay, Mira and Yugan aren't featured in this chapter but you will see plenty of them in the next two -- of this you can be assured.
Please let me know if you're enjoying the story. Commentary, likes and reviews are always welcome!
Copyright © 2017 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Chapter Comments

Yes, I think Lucas has had a busy week. The final scene with the Arbiter was
wicked. Elia at large? -I'm not sure though, since there are other possibilities.
I know that I'll just have to wait and see. Of course I still have my suspicions.

 

Konstantin is doing well in his off-the-cuff manner. He's proving to be a capable
commander. The CorpSec ghouls are as evil and sadistic as ever and I actually
enjoyed their bloody, visceral deaths. More of that is welcome. I'm getting to
like some of these Brotherhood guys too. Here's hoping you don't kill them off
too soon...

 

It sounds like Shay and Mira will be meeting Yugan next. I'm looking forward
to that, and the next chapter!

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On 11/09/2016 01:44 PM, Stephen said:

Yes, I think Lucas has had a busy week. The final scene with the Arbiter was

wicked. Elia at large? -I'm not sure though, since there are other possibilities.

I know that I'll just have to wait and see. Of course I still have my suspicions.

 

Konstantin is doing well in his off-the-cuff manner. He's proving to be a capable

commander. The CorpSec ghouls are as evil and sadistic as ever and I actually

enjoyed their bloody, visceral deaths. More of that is welcome. I'm getting to

like some of these Brotherhood guys too. Here's hoping you don't kill them off

too soon...

 

It sounds like Shay and Mira will be meeting Yugan next. I'm looking forward

to that, and the next chapter!

Elia is no longer on Lucere, because she was captured and taken by the Herald, but ... there are indeed other possibilities for the identity of that person ;)

 

Konstantin has always been a capable person, with the sort of personality well suited for leadership. He might not have intentionally sought it out, but he is very able to manage where he has found himself.

 

CorpSec is doing what it does! That is to say: doing the bidding of MFM's elite and making things happen -- mostly unpleasant things to their enemies. Writing that scene was rather satisfying, I won't lie; though poor Lindani had to suffer for it.

 

Shay, Mira and Yugan will feature the most in chapter 20, though they will be back for chapter 19.

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On 11/09/2016 07:22 PM, mutch71 said:

WOW, great chapter, great story!

Thanks for kind words, and I'm glad you're enjoying it! :)

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On 11/13/2016 10:51 AM, Cinnamon said:

Sooo not Elia, is it Nyx? Thank you for another wonderful Installment.

Nyx is indeed a much safer guess ^_^

 

Thanks for reading!

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On 11/27/2016 11:54 AM, Kren said:

I love this story,thank you

I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading! :)

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