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Connor's Gambit

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Connor’s Gambit

 

 

By

Z. Gottlieb

 

Copyright © 2016 Z. Gottlieb

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise without permission of the author, copyright owner. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or business establishments, events, or locales, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Epilogue

Glossary

 

 

 

I want to thank Susan Lennon for the beautiful digital painting that she did for my book cover. Connor’s Gambit is her first book cover and I am thrilled with the job she did.

I want to thank my family and friends who supported me during the past four plus years to write this book. I would like to thank my first readers John Thorp, Karen Elliott, and Pamela Kleibrink Thompson who provided me with both recommendations to make the story better and encouragement to reach this point where I could publish it for others to read.

I want to also thank and dedicate this book to my husband, Bruce, who consistently supported me through the process, allowing me to write and never complaining about my lack of vacuuming or not making dinner. In addition, he kindly helped me with the last round of editing, supporting me again when he could have devoted more time to our taxes. It sincerely means more than the simple words I have stated on this page. Thank you for being in my life.

[]Prologue

 

 

Staring through the shuttle porthole next to him, Admiral Velslun Griken watched the fleeting dark shadows on the ground. Amongst the shadows flickered occasional streams of electrically powered lights from the primitive planet below. With the Fleet’s current conflict cycle, the stress he had long felt was now showing on his face. The Aneplé conflict was all he thought about lately. Without drastic change, the conflict and the stress would only get worse.

This was Griken’s fourth conflict. He feared not only were the repetitive battles getting old, but also the Fleet was not up to the challenge this time. The Council of Interplanetary Governors or CIG had sent him on this errand to this backwater planet to change the direction of the conflict. He doubted it would make a difference in the conflict’s outcome. Again peering into the porthole, he saw the grim expression harden into visible anger. Griken turned away and reclined, his seat automatically adjusting to his body’s new position. Yet he could not relax, thinking about why he was on this planet.

Griken closed his eyes, thinking about the treaty that was signed fifteen solar cycles ago between the CIG and the Aneplé Alliance, after the last conflict. The treaty included a disarmament agreement, reducing weapons and platforms. However, the Aneplé insisted upon a treaty addendum listing key individuals to be demoted or retired. Victim number one on the Aneplé’s list was CIG’s Fleet Admiral N’Klaftin, Griken’s mentor, who questioned the wisdom of entering into the treaty.

Admiral N’Klaftin had been right. CIG was now suffering the consequences of the flawed agreement. The admiral had been close to predicting the future when he said, “It’s unlikely the Aneplé will accept the losses or terms in the treaty. It won’t be too long before they return. When they do, they will be ferocious.”

Thinking about the recent damages and losses, Griken was furious with the bureaucrats at CIG who had allowed the Fleet to deteriorate to its current state. At least they were now recalling to service the more effective battle leaders whom they had previously agreed to discharge.

Griken had been tasked with convincing the admiral to return to the Fleet. He knew the admiral well enough to know it would take more than just Griken to convince him to return. The visit might be a waste of everyone’s time. In addition, since arriving at the planet, Griken had his own professional concerns on the wisdom of trying to convince N’Klaftin to return to the Fleet, since the admiral had chosen to exile himself to a primitive planet under “observation”. At least Griken now understood why he had not heard from N’Klaftin or his daughter, Nee. He derived his affectionate nickname for her from her last name rather than using the same name as her father. They obviously were not in a position to tell him they had settled on a planet that had not been announced yet. If they had wanted to maintain contact, they would have chosen a different planet that would allow easier communications.

Griken turned and gazed back out of the shuttle’s porthole. Other than the shuttle’s low-pitched hum, he found the shuttle uncomfortably quiet. Needing to distract himself, he turned his attention to the tablet on his lap and placed his index finger on it. A small hologram of Rnuefcan System with its ten planets and satellites appeared above the tablet. He tapped and gestured through a few of the war-gaming maneuvers his staff had sent him.

Griken shook his head in frustration as he watched the ship icons exploding on his hologram. His concentration was definitely off. He was also failing miserably at attempting to keep himself busy before they arrived at their destination. Unable to focus on the upcoming deployment, he gave up, and gestured to the hologram to disappear into his tablet. Griken checked his internal chronometer and was relieved the pilot would have them at the destination fairly soon.

Commander Kiraine Janeque finished reviewing the Fleet notifications and turned back toward Griken. “Admiral, I have prioritized the Fleet’s notifications that have arrived since our transit to this planet. I have forwarded a few to the Department Chiefs for action and your tablet for information. They do not require your immediate attention.”

“Good, I’ll review them when we return to CIG space,” Griken responded. “Any word on the situation in Elstanis Sector?” Commander Janeque’s home planet was located there. The Sector’s planets were centers for agriculture and had been categorized as having little strategic value to the Aneplé. Given its distance from the Aneplé borders, the sector had been left unprotected. There had been no indication the planets were at risk. Both CIG and the Fleet were taken by surprise when the Aneplé chose to attack there and easily overwhelmed the planets’ defenses with minimal force. The Fleet responded to the incursion by sending two squadrons to the sector to reclaim the planets.

Kiraine, barely holding her voice steady, “Admiral, the news is not good. The squadrons have been unsuccessful in dislodging Aneplé’s foothold in the Elstanis Sector. It looks like a loss of near thirty-five percent tonnage at this time.”

Griken looked at his aide’s reflection on the windshield, staring intently at her pad. Pain filled her voice. While he didn’t have specific information on the commander’s family, the Aneplé were infamously cruel in their mistreatment of prisoners, whether military or civilians. The Aneplé’s interest in the agrarian planets baffled Griken. “Commander, when we return to the battle cruiser I’ll ask Intelligence, off the record, if there is any word on the status of the civilians.” Griken was aware Kiraine had already heard of her family’s disposition when she self-reported the Aneplé contact. She shared with him she had been told they were alive and in good health at the time. The unwanted contact had made it clear her family’s continued good health would depend upon her actions in the future. The Fleet’s responses to the Aneplé’s current activities had been one disaster after another. Elstanis looked to be no different. Griken didn’t want to dwell on the Aneplé contact’s insinuated threat to his aide.

“Thank you, sir,” Kiraine responded quietly.

The pilot announced, “Admiral, I have located our targets. They were not at the designated landing site. The primary target is in the middle of a body of water. I’m currently hovering over him.”

That’s odd, thought Griken. The station commander had assured him the pilot had sent advance communications and the admiral would be expected at the normal landing site, not someplace surrounded by water. “Can you land near him?” Griken asked while staring down into the blackness below. He wondered if the pilot or his aide could see anything below them through the front windshield.

“Sir, I don’t recommend a water landing at this time. I can’t guarantee it would be safe. I don’t have enough familiarity with this body of water to know if I have the appropriate safety equipment. The sensors aren’t showing anything remarkable in the area other than a small watercraft. I’m concerned about the lack of lighting in the area.”

“I can’t see a damn thing back here. Can either of you see anything through the front windshield?” Griken took a deep breath, filled with frustration. If this mission was that critical, the station should have provided him with a fully equipped shuttle. “Is there an area nearby where you can land safely?” Griken continued to look out of his porthole.

“Sir, there are several areas nearby I could land the shuttle, but they are not secure. I can, however, provide you with a visual,” the pilot offered.

“Follow protocols,” Griken ordered as he turned to face the screen attached to the back of the pilot’s seat. Griken could not believe what he was seeing. This was going to be a catastrophe.

His aide, who was monitoring the sensors, asked, “Sir, do you think a rescue is needed?”

Griken was not sure what was stranger, seeing the former Fleet admiral sprawled out on a chair holding a box, unconscious and oblivious to the shuttle, or considering if he should rescue him. As odd and disturbing as the sight was, he wasn’t convinced the admiral needed rescuing at this time. N’Klaftin looked visibly aged from living on this planet; he may have shut down the rejuvenation function in his chip. What an utterly foolish thing for him to do, since breaks in rejuvenation occasionally resulted in long-term damage related to aging. Griken had a fleeting thought that CIG was crazy to want him back, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he met with the admiral face to face. Griken wondered if going native had taken a toll on the admiral. This really could be the end for the old dragon. “Commander, are you getting any readings on his vital signs?”

“Admiral, he appears to be sleeping. However, there is a native next to him on the craft.”

This is getting better and better, Griken thought before he barked the order, “Wake him up, now.”

“Sir, you want me to wake him up?” the pilot asked.

“Yes. Now,” Griken ordered again, frustrated he had to repeat himself.

The pilot turned on the shuttle’s bright landing lights and held them on the admiral for about thirty Earth seconds. Commander Janeque observed, “The pilot’s actions appear to have elicited a response. Admiral N’Klaftin’s vital signs are currently normal.”

Griken was relieved, but he questioned the protocols the pilot had followed and wondered why she didn’t send an encrypted message to his chip. “Good, get us out of here. I want you to land at the original landing coordinates and remain in stealth mode when you land. I’ll wait for the admiral to show up.”

“Yes, sir,” the pilot responded.

Kiraine stared at the monitor watching N’Klaftin and the native quickly shrink as their vehicle flew away from the lake. Kiraine wasn’t convinced the answer to the Fleet’s problems would be Admiral N’Klaftin. Nonetheless, the Fleet needed a shot in the arm.

[]Chapter 1

 

 

The light crisp breeze continued to cool the clear night air, giving Brad Johnson an unobstructed view of the night sky. Staring at the vastness of space, he couldn’t imagine a more perfect viewing condition. Well maybe if he was viewing it from the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii or in his Cessna. As far as he was concerned, this was almost as good, considering his location to the nearest town. Brad leaned back in his chair and stretched his shoulders back as he yawned. If he weren’t careful, the soft wind whispering past him and the easy rocking of his boat, Miss Lily, would lull him to sleep. Brad smiled thinking how fortunate life has been for him. He couldn’t ask for anything more. He had a great family, a boat, a plane, and a company he owned with his wife and brother-in-law.

Brad glanced at the ripples across the dark lake. Either the fish were not interested in his new lures or the lake hadn’t been fully stocked with fish. While it would have been nice to have caught something, as his father had taught him, night fishing was more about spending time with his family and friends and savoring the cool nights, a respite from the day’s oppressive heat. Sitting on the boat was therapy, allowing him to recover from the office work with its constant phone ringing and emails. At the lake, his mind could relax and meander through the worlds of “what ifs.” He never felt his time on the lake was wasted; his better-patented ideas came to him while just staring at the sky either on the lake or on the golf course near his home.

Brad could have spent all night on the lake. He glanced over at his brother-in-law, Connor, asleep in a chair a few feet away with the spotlight precariously balanced on his lap pointing down toward the boat’s deck.

Sighing, Brad recognized it was time to call it a night, especially when his “safety net” of an extra set of eyes and ears was not functioning. Their wives, who had set up a mini-camp near the pier with their children, were probably ready to go home, too. The four of them rotated the parental duties to give everyone “lake” time. Tonight happened to be Connor’s and his turn. He treasured the nights when his wife Shinny and he would fish together, but those evenings often didn’t result in many caught fish, either.

Brad wasn’t upset at Connor for trying to catch a few winks. Thinking about the thirteen years he had known Connor, this was one of those rare moments when he wasn’t working. Brad suspected Connor, always planning, working hard, was watching and waiting for something. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what the “something” might be. So, he chose to believe Connor’s attentiveness was related to growing their business. Since high school, when he met Connor and Shinny, Connor’s twin sister, who was now his wife, Brad had known they were both overachievers, working constantly at every task they took on. Over time, Brad came to realize Connor’s overachieving was more than just making sure a job was well done. Brad hadn’t understood that attitude in high school. Over time, as he became more aware of Connor’s abilities, he learned to view it as a combination of a special type of awareness and take-charge demeanor. Connor’s ability to plan, along with his need to follow up on everything straight to the finish had been key components to his personality. In the process, Connor swept up Brad, dragging—or was it pushing—him along? Brad didn’t put much thought into it. Trying to analyze something that didn’t need to be analyzed would just give him a headache.

Not wanting to spend any more time on the lake, Brad stood up and stretched his 6’4” frame. At times, his size seemed overwhelming on his small boat especially when he was fishing with Connor, who was as tall as him. He pulled in his line quietly to let Connor get in a few more winks. He laughed quietly, thinking how Connor and Shinny seemed different when he first met them. Both of them came across smart and industrious, but oddly ignorant of common things. How he laughed at Connor’s disappointment upon learning the drinking age was twenty-one—six more years before he could legally have a beer—or never having heard of trick-or-treating. At the time he had wondered what planet New York was on if the drinking age was fifteen and there was no trick-or-treating.

He was preparing to leave when a low humming sound began overhead, a sound similar to an incandescent light bulb filament about to blow out. Brad was perplexed since the sound wasn’t natural to Miss Lily or any other boat docked on the lake. He looked around trying to figure out what was making the sound. As the humming increased in intensity he looked around the lake again. He had a gnawing feeling someone was watching them, although the lake looked as empty as when they had first arrived. Brad was about to wake Connor up and ask him what he thought of the sound, when he looked up at the sky. He gasped.

An airborne wedge floated directly over the boat, illuminated with an eerie green light that was pulsating with the humming. The soft translucent green lighting of the wedge was not reflecting on the lake. Brad did a double take; was what he was seeing real? He couldn’t be sure it was ever possible for light to be contained in a specific area, but that was the reality before him.

What was that thing? Brad pulled his ball cap off and craned his neck further back trying to get a better view. It wasn’t any type of American military aircraft, unless it was experimental. A foreign power probably wouldn’t fly this far inland, as there were no military facilities nearby. He wasn’t aware of any aircraft that looked like that and could hover like that. Okay, a helicopter could hover like that, but that definitely wasn’t a helicopter. It didn’t have any rotors. From the shape and the way it was hovering, he wondered if it was even from this planet.

Mesmerized, Brad stared at it for a few more seconds. Was he crazy thinking it might have come from another planet? He needed to wake Connor up and get him to look at it. Just as he moved toward Connor, something landed with a loud thud on the deck, followed by an intense white light from the object in the sky that shined directly into his eyes.

“Oh, shit,” yelled both Brad and Connor.

Brad squinted and turned toward Connor. “Did you see that thing in the sky with the bright light?”

“Of course I saw the light. I dropped the damn spotlight on the deck and its light blinded me.” Connor squatted on the deck feeling for the spotlight that had switched off as quickly as it had turned on. “Are you okay? Did the light flash into your eyes, also?”

“I’m fine, other than my eyes hurting. I wasn’t asking about the spotlight. Did you see the light in the sky?” Brad asked, emphasizing in the sky. “The aircraft in the sky that looked like a flying green wedge. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Did you see it?”

Connor rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know what you are talking about and I didn’t see anything, except the spotlight falling from my lap and the light shining into my eyes and blinding me. Before that, I didn’t see much either because I must have dozed off.”

“What about the hum? Did you hear that? It was loud and unnatural for the lake. I can’t believe you didn’t hear the sound,” Brad exclaimed in disbelief. “Are you okay? Is that what woke you up?”

“What hum? There’s no hum now.” Connor stared at Brad. “I’m not sure I even understand what you are talking about, because I was in a deep sleep. I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t see anything either until the spotlight fell off my lap and blinded me.” He stood and pointed the spotlight toward the lake to test it. He turned the light on and off and back on. “Looks like the light is working.” Connor turned the light off.

As the spots in his vision diminished, Brad looked at Connor with amazement, standing in front of him holding the dark spotlight. How could he have missed the aircraft or whatever the hell it was? “Connor, just look up and you’ll see the aircraft that I just saw,” Brad shouted, peeved at his brother-in-law’s rare moment of obtuseness.

Staring at the sky, Connor shook his head, indicating he saw nothing. “Where did the aircraft come from? Which direction did it go?”

Brad looked back at the sky but saw only the night sky with all the stars in place. “I don’t know. Whatever it was, I’m not making it up, and I know what I saw. I saw an object that looked like a flying wedge with a greenish cast, hovering over us, making a loud humming noise. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before. It must have flown away.” Brad turned in a circle, staring at the dark sky looking for the object, and wondering how it could have moved as quietly, yet as fast as it did. Then again it had appeared with virtually no warning.

“Brad, I’m not doubting you or what you saw. I just didn’t see anything earlier and I don’t see anything now.”

“Could you take the boat in? I’m a little shaken by the UFO or whatever I saw.” Brad wasn’t sure what bothered him the most, the sudden appearance and disappearance of the UFO or Connor’s nonchalant attitude. Connor acted as if he didn’t believe him. Brad questioned whether he saw anything or if his brain decided to jump off a cliff. His mind would sometimes wander, but never could he remember a time when both his vision and hearing would be so severely affected.

Connor reeled in his fishing line. “Sure, I’ll take the boat in for you. Did you catch anything?” Connor knew Brad had seen something. The description worried Connor and he had a hunch, but he wasn’t going to say anything until he had more information. He would check the flight paths on flightradar24 and use a special application he had downloaded to identify the aircraft Brad had described.

“Didn’t catch any fish, just a glimpse of a strange aircraft, if I even saw it.” Brad reeled in his line in toward the boat.

“Why did you say that? I believe you saw something. You need to stop questioning yourself just because I didn’t see or hear it.”

“You’re right. I wonder if Shinny and Nan saw or heard anything. I’ll call them once we are on our way and ask them. I’ll also have them pack up the camp and meet us at the trucks with the children.”

[]Chapter 2

 

 

Brad pulled his pickup truck into the driveway, looking at the dark house in his rearview mirror. Connor and Nan probably wouldn’t be home with their twins, Sarah and Ben, for at least another fifteen to twenty minutes. Nan had mentioned she needed to pick up a few things at Wal-Mart and observe the activity in the store. Brad wanted to know what she was observing at Wal-Mart at this time of the night, but over the years, he had learned it was better to ignore Nan’s idiosyncrasies. Connor, Shinny and he had met Nan in Boston while they were attending MIT. Although Nan was an art student at Boston University, in many ways she was Connor’s perfect match. Nan had moved to Boston from California, but Brad sometimes wondered if in fact she came from the same town in New York as Connor and Shinny. She made similar errors about life in general. Brad often excused himself to avoid laughing out loud and embarrassing her. Connor seemed to love the way Nan, in all seriousness, defended Santa Claus as having been real, as if she were defending an anthropology dissertation in an oral examination. Connor supported her, saying she had a point: Why would an imaginary individual be associated with a birth of a real individual? Brad laughed; Connor really had it bad for Nan. He was glad the relationship had worked out for them. Asking the question would only opened him up for another anthropology dissertation on Wal-Mart shoppers. Coming from Nan it could be humorous, but that was the last thing he was in the mood for now. His family acted blasé in response to his claim that a UFO flew over his boat, as if it were an everyday occurrence. It was odd they were not going to let a small thing like a visit from a UFO stop them from their pilgrimage to Wal-Mart. He loved his wife and brother and sister-in-law, but at times, their offbeat mannerisms threw him completely off kilter.

“Brad, are you okay? You seem oddly silent since seeing the aircraft flying over the lake,” Shinny asked apprehensively, as she gathered her backpack, seeming to wait for him to talk to her.

“I’m fine, just unsettled being the only one that heard and saw the UFO.” If they didn’t see or hear it, could it have been a figment of my imagination? Brad asked himself.

“No one doubts you. We believe you saw something,” she reassured him. “I’m not sure I understand why you are so upset.”

“It isn’t every day a person sees a UFO. It would be nice to have someone else confirm the sighting. Otherwise a person could begin to feel crazy like I do, right now.” Brad stared in the rearview mirror at their sleeping son, Teledane. Shinny had insisted on naming their son after her father, Teledane. At first Brad was reluctant to give their son such an odd name, but he agreed when they decided his nickname would be Dane. He remembered Connor saying since Brad was naming his son after Shinny’s father, he wanted to name his own children after Brad’s parents, Benjamin and Sarah. Brad thought at the time Connor’s reaction to the name Teledane was odd. Didn’t Connor have the same father as his twin sister? He was going to ask Connor, but Shinny gave him the “let it go” look, so he did. Yet again he had been surprised by their reactions.

Shinny wrinkled her brow at Brad’s confused expression. “Are you okay?”

Brad ignored Shinny’s question. He needed to get a grip and think this through on his own. “I’m fine. Could you put Dane to bed? I need to go to the golf course and stare at the sky a little more. I’ll take care of the gear either later tonight or tomorrow before I go to the office.”

“Would you like some company? I could ask Nan to watch Dane for a few minutes when she returns and join you.”

They hadn’t lain on the golf course together in a long time. As much as he wanted her to join him, she would be a distraction. He wouldn’t be able to think about what he saw and what it meant, if anything. He needed to be alone to clear his head. With that thought in mind, he looked at his wife. “I just need a little time to myself. I should be over this sighting issue when I return. If I’m not, just kick me in the rear, because I need to get back on track.”

Shinny smiled. “Mmm, kick in the rear might be too rough. Maybe we can come up with something we both can enjoy.” Shinny was aware of her husband’s confusion and wanted to comfort him. She knew from his detailed description of the aircraft that he wasn’t crazy, but she didn’t want to consider what it could mean. Earlier Connor had pulled her aside and said he would look to see if there was anything on the Internet and check other sources he could access with his special clearance. They might have an answer before too long.

“Deal,” confirmed Brad, smiling as he reached over and quickly kissed her on her lips. “I’ll get Dane out of his car seat for you.”

Brad got out of the truck, and opened the cab’s back door and unbuckled Dane. “Come on, sleepy boy, time to get you into bed.”

“Daddy, will you read a book to me tonight?” Dane yawned.

“No, tonight’s Mommy’s turn and you know she is a much better story reader than me.” Brad handed Dane over to Shinny. “I’ll take the shortcut behind Connor and Nan’s house. I don’t think I’ll be too long.”

Shinny watched Brad disappear behind her old house, thinking Connor was right about Brad. Although Brad was young and innocent from her perspective, he was a good match for her. He was kind, loyal, and, by current standards brilliant. Interestingly, Brad also complemented Connor in many ways. He never resented Connor’s overbearing personality, and that was saying a lot when it came to Connor.

Both Connor and she needed to share the family secret with Brad soon. The secret might have remained intact longer, but Nan, who shared the same secret, had been prodding her to say something ever since Dane’s conception. She was waiting for permission and the right time. Shinny cringed, knowing there would never be a right time when it came to Brad. She knew Brad well enough to know he would be hurt she had kept the secret for as long as she had. She hoped when she did share the secret he wouldn’t wait too long in forgiving her.

 

 

Brad, bothered by the strange reaction of his family, felt alone. He couldn’t understand why he was the only one who saw the UFO. He lay down on the grass near the twelfth hole and looked up into the sky, hoping to see the UFO or whatever that aircraft was again. However, the view of the stars from the golf course was no different from what he saw from his boat, giving him no indication he would ever see the UFO again.

For him the golf course was as calming as the lake, and had always provided him with a sense of peace and quiet and a place for him to recharge. Unlike the lake, the golf course was his personal refuge. The exception had been the first time he invited Shinny to join him. That evening had been as peculiar as this night.

He closed his eyes, re-experiencing every detail of that earlier evening, a year and a half after he returned from Boston with Connor, Shinny, and Nan.

Brad had valued his time at MIT. He had looked forward to joining a company leading IT innovations. However, both Connor and Shinny wanted to return to their sleepy town upon graduation to start their own Internet security business. After four years in greater Boston and with dozens of job offers, Brad thought working for one of the big IT companies would be more challenging and rewarding. But once again, Connor was right. They answered only to themselves.

Shinny supported Connor’s plan to return home to start a company. Brad could never say no to Shinny, and was willing to follow her and give her more time to settle down. Everyone in town, including his parents, thought that one day he would marry Shinny. However, Brad never believed it was a forgone conclusion, and he wasn’t sure she was interested in a long-term commitment with anyone. Shinny didn’t date in high school or in college. She used Connor as the messenger, letting Brad know not to “ask” if he didn’t want a “no.” Connor told Brad Shinny thought he was too young for her, which puzzled him, as he was two months older than Shinny. When he asked Connor what that meant, Connor shrugged and said “women,” as if that would explain everything.

His parents had just sold the house to him and left the area. He grabbed his lucky blanket and asked Shinny to join him. The blanket, a Johnson Tartan plaid, had an alternating pattern of blue and green squares. His parents had given him the blanket when he was a child, explaining to him how lucky he was to have a plaid that symbolized his love for the lake and the golf course.

He shook the blanket open and gestured for Shinny to have a seat. “Mademoiselle, please select your seat.”

Shinny sat toward the center of the blanket with her silhouette washed in the starlight. She rested her elbows on her bent knees and looked up at the stars. He sat as close as possible to her without touching her, imitating her position. He stared at her profile thinking it had been over nine years with never an indication she was interested in a relationship with him. He wondered why she even agreed to join him that evening. He assumed it would be just another uncomfortable evening with her. He had coached himself to avoid any relationship conversation.

“Shinny, do you ever wonder if there are others in the universe?”

She continued to stare at the night sky. “Not really. I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies.”

At times, Connor and Shinny would make the queerest statements and completely throw Brad off balance. This was one of those moments. He was lost. “I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. What do the movies have to do with considering if there are other intelligent life forms in the universe?”

“Between Star Trek and Star Wars, the prevailing thought is that there is other intelligent life in the universe. Even if the films are based on a fantasy, there usually is a source for the fantasy or legend indicating it was based on something real. Therefore, it would not matter what I thought since it is probable these stories may have originated from several different experiences or contact with life forms originating from other planets.”

Brad rolled his eyes, thinking she was spending too much time with Nan. In general, he could understand how the theory would stand with many of the stories that had stood over time. However, he was sure it wouldn’t apply to these movies and felt he needed to change the subject as quickly as possible. He stared at her beautiful profile. At times she left him breathless, as if he were viewing a precious work of art. “I like that you have grown your hair out. It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Why did you keep your hair short for as long as you did?” He ached to run his hand through her hair. He held back from touching her, concerned how Shinny might react. He could see her either running or breaking his hand. The breaking his hand wasn’t an exaggeration, and he hoped she would stop short of breaking it, though he figured it would only hurt for a few days. Shinny was the most physically fit person he knew. She was constantly exercising and practicing numerous martial art styles. There had been a few times in high school when the football players harassed her or other girls, and failed to heed her warnings to back off. Even though a few towered over her six-foot frame, they would quickly find themselves on the ground crying in agony. He would not have believed it had he not seen it for himself. It didn’t take too long for word to spread through the school and for the boys to become more respectful of the girls in their school.

“The shorter hair was easier when I was working.”

Brad rolled his eyes in bewilderment again, “Working, what work? You just started working a year and a half ago when we started the company. You were in high school than college before that.“

“You’re right,” she sighed. “It was just easier in the past to keep it short. I seem to have fewer things to worry about now.”

Brad watched Shinny continue to stare upward. He wished he could see the expression on her face, in her eyes. Shinny exhibited a strange mood and he wondered what she was thinking. She was completely still, a motionless statue. He even pondered if she was breathing.

“How is owning your own home working out for you?”

Brad was surprised by the question and embarrassed, thinking he talked about the house a number of times at work, but obviously, she had not been listening and he was perplexed with her asking about it then.

“It has been fine. It certainly is different from when my parents owned it. I don’t think I appreciated the constant maintenance and cleaning they did, but I am getting used to it. I moved into the master suite and it has been a nice change, having the bigger room.”

“Can I move in with you?”

Whoa, where the hell did that come from? Brad asked himself. Did he even hear her right? “Excuse me, what did you ask?”

“Can I move in with you?” Shinny turned her head to look at him. “It isn’t comfortable living with Connor and Nan. They need more privacy and Connor doesn’t need my protection anymore.”

“What are you talking about? Your brother never needed protection. He may not have had the same interest as you in the martial arts, but he was 6’4” when both of you moved here and started high school. He could take care of himself,” countered Brad in surprise. He always thought her devotion to her brother was at times excessive but it never occurred to him she would have this “over the top” commitment that included protecting her twin brother. Maybe it was a maternal reaction to losing their parents before they moved here.

“I know it seems odd, but I made a pledge to protect Connor. It never occurred to me it would no longer be necessary until recently.”

Brad sat silently. He wasn’t sure how to respond. As odd as it was, he didn’t know if he needed to know more about what she had just declared or not. He ignored it. “Have you thought about looking for your own place? It might not be comfortable moving in with me if either of us started dating others.”

“I don’t date others and you haven’t dated anyone in years. It wouldn’t be convenient for me to find another place.”

“Convenience isn’t a good reason to move in together. My dating status may change for me in the near future and you should consider accepting others into your life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with another person socially without your brother, Nan, or me.”

Shinny stiffened in reaction. “Before we moved here nine years ago, I was in a relationship. There was no desire for me to continue it.”

Brad was surprised with her revelation. Rarely had Shinny ever mentioned anything personal to him.

“He reported to my father. I was aware his interest in me originated in an idea that my father would help him achieve certain things or enhance his status at work. I think he realized early in the relationship that my father would not care.”

Brad’s heart stopped, hearing her disclosure. How long had she kept the abuse bottled up? Although her father was dead and it had been nine years, something needed to be done about the bastard who was probably still walking free. He asked quietly, “Your father knew and didn’t stop it? I don’t know what to say. Do you need me to help you find a counselor to talk to?” Maybe this explained everything. No wonder Shinny kept to herself. He wanted to hug her and reassure her that everything would be all right. He restrained himself, looking for a sign she would be comfortable with him touching her.

“A counselor? What are you talking about?” A strange glint came from her eyes as she stared directly at him. “No, the situation wasn’t what you are thinking. The age difference between Ken and me was less than the age difference between us. I’m sorry if it sounded worse than it was. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t special either. It was more of a quasi-friendship.”

“A quasi-friendship?” He was more confused even more from her answer. “I don’t understand, I’m two months older than you, yet always too young. However, someone who worked for your father was closer in age. Did you share the same birthday or something?”

She rubbed her head as if a pressure there matched the anxiety in her voice. She spoke slowly and carefully, choosing her words, “Brad, this is difficult for me to explain. Looking back there was a friendship but it was never going to go further. It left a vacuum inside and Ken wasn’t the right person for me.”

“This is one of the oddest conversations I’ve had with you. I’m not sure I understand what you want from me.” Brad ran his hand through his hair in frustration, looking back at the stars.

“This may be odd for you, but as I said a moment ago, it is very difficult for me. I want to move in with you. I will admit that at one time I saw you being much too young for me, and you are still young, but you have also matured and changed.”

Brad sat listening to the silence between them. He was truly lost trying to understand what she was asking from him and why she still thought he was too young. He hadn’t heard a sound, but something pressed against the side of his body. Shinny leaned against him with her face resting on his shoulder. He was flabbergasted but felt comforted and reassured with her contact. He turned slightly and cautiously caressed her face, surprised by the moisture on his fingertips, as if the floodgates had opened. “You’ve been crying. Is everything, okay?”

“I know. I don’t think I’ve cried like this in a century since my mother died.”

Brad choked down his laughter, hearing the sorrow in her voice. “You mean a decade. It’s been almost a decade since you moved here.”

“You’re right, I meant decade. Seeing Connor with Nan has affected me more than I thought it would and has me thinking more and more about my mother.”

“Is there something you want to tell me about Nan?” He asked, as he caressed her head.

“No, Nan has been wonderful. I could not have picked a more perfect person for Connor. Their relationship just triggered a lot of craziness inside of me.”

Brad was subdued by her statement and didn’t want to take it further, thinking he might never have another chance to hold her, but he couldn’t let it lie there, either. “Was it the craziness that spurred you to ask to move in with me?” he asked softly, closing his eyes in preparation for her answer.

“No, I have been thinking about it for a while. I think the craziness caused me to blurt it out and have this meltdown. Nan was right when she told me I should not have waited this long to talk to you. Honestly, I’m not sure what I will do if you say no.”

Brad watched the tears fall from her face. He had missed the signs she was ready for him, and wondered if there had been any. “You can move in but all the bedrooms are taken. One bedroom is my office, another bedroom is the exercise room, and then there’s my bedroom,” he teased as he wiped the tears off her cheek and gently kissed it.

“I’m not asking for a room. I was thinking more the left side of your bed or the right side. The side you’re not using,” she clarified looking at him.

“I’m not sure there’s an unused side; I think I’m using both sides.” He chuckled.

“I think I can handle that. You might be nudged or thrown to the other side of the bed now and then,” she said with a smile in her voice.

Brad stood and reached to pull Shinny up next to him. He held her, looking at her perfect face. “Shinny, I want you with me; it’s all I have wanted for a long time. I want to marry you but I need to have a few ground rules.”

She tipped her face up to his. “What are these rules?”

Brad combed the loose hair behind her ear. “No more protecting your brother. He’s a big boy and he has Nan.” She nodded in agreement. “No secrets. I want our marriage to be as good as my parents’ and I’m sure as your parents’ was. Finally, you will stop telling your brother and others that I’m young.”

She placed her arms around his neck. “I’ll stop protecting my brother, but I will still keep in shape and train. I’ll do everything I can to keep our marriage as good as our parents’. I will stop referring to your youth.” She stood on her toes, reaching for his lips with hers.

Brad remembered the kiss as one that didn’t seem to have an ending. He was concerned she still had a few secrets. He could not understand the reason for the secrets and did not understand her lack of trust in him. Occasionally, he worried she might be keeping something reprehensible from him. However, he couldn’t imagine what it could be, knowing her for as long as he had. On the other hand, he couldn’t imagine his life without Shinny and didn’t want to press her. If it was something Shinny wanted to talk about, she would. He had faith that one day she would explain everything to him.

Brad gazed at the sky again, wondering what prompted him to think about the first time he brought Shinny here. Brad wasn’t sure what happened to change Shinny when they returned to their hometown after college, but it was as if someone turned the light switch on and Shinny could see him, finally. He never tempted fate and accepted his good fortune when it came to her. Brad suspected he owed Shinny’s change to Nan, Connor’s wife, for giving Shinny the final push.

Glancing at his watch, he was grateful that he had his own company and could be flexible with his hours since it was getting quite late. He continued to look for the UFO and saw no further signs. He stood up and stretched his legs to shake out the stiffness. He looked one more time at the sky while he slowly turned around. Seeing nothing new, he walked toward home. He would check to see if Connor found a flight record on a military aircraft that may have entered the area before he chalked it up it to an overactive imagination.

[]Chapter 3

 

 

Connor held Ben with his right arm while he placed his left index finger on the sensor reader to unlock the front door. Hearing the confirmation click, Connor gestured a command for the door to open. He stepped through the doorway past the hall closet and turned toward Nan. “I need to make sure I didn’t miss a visitor notification. Could you put the kids to bed without me tonight?”

Nan nodded in agreement. “This needs to be settled as soon as possible.” She looked at the sleeping child in her arms. “Sarah does not look like she’ll be able to walk on her own. Please ask Ben to help me.”

Connor placed Ben on the floor and looked at his son’s small sleepy face. “Ben, I need you to help your mother put Sarah to bed. I have important work to do. I know I can trust you to help your mother.”

“I can help Mommy.” Ben yawned as he turned and walked down the hallway with Nan. Connor watched his wife and son walk toward the bedrooms. Connor had discussed their children’s future with Nan; they both agreed on what they needed to do and to do it soon. He looked forward to the day he could introduce the children to their other relatives. He could only hope Shinny and Brad would make similar choices for Dane one day, but he was not sure if Brad would be comfortable subjecting his son to the medical procedure. He could understand Brad’s likely discomfort, considering his background. Hopefully they would be able to convince him it was a safe procedure and would benefit Dane in the long-term. Connor loved Brad like a son, but there were times Brad could be too stubborn for his own good.

Connor walked forward a few feet and turned left, passing through the great room. Lights responded to his motion. He turned as he approached his office. He had turned the closet at the back of the room into a small office with a standing desk and small shelves holding books lying on their sides. The books were disguised, powerful servers and communication data equipment he had designed and built to support both his research and personal project. His designs were several generations ahead of what was commercially available, but he wasn’t sure if marketing his designs was the right thing to do now or to wait until the prevailing culture was more mature. Nan was working to provide him with more insight on his dilemma but currently the children limited the time she had available to focus on her research. For now, the technology wasn’t his primary concern. He needed to focus on finding an explanation for the vehicle Brad had described.

Connor checked several websites tracking commercial and military flights. He did not see any indication that either a commercial or a military plane had flown over their area. He had hoped he would find something on the Internet because he did not want to think about the alternative. He had been leaning toward the alternative, but a dearth of evidence supported his hunch. He was baffled and wasn’t sure what to think. Brad did a fairly good job in describing the Fleet vehicle, but Connor had neither received the required visit notification nor did the station logs show any vehicles scheduled to fly in this hemisphere. In fact, the log showed that all of the vehicles were currently docked in ready status at the station. Connor was not happy, as he wasn’t sure what this meant. He would do more research and contact the station commander for more information. Once he had gathered all of his facts and had a clear understanding of the situation, he might be able to provide Brad with an answer.

Connor was still reviewing the vehicle logs from the past few days when the doorbell rang. Looking at his watch, he couldn’t imagine who would be visiting this close to midnight, and wondered if Brad was swinging by to find out if he had found more information. Backing out of his office, he turned and walked to the hallway and sent a message to Nan, he would see who was at the door.

Connor swiped his pad, discreetly moving the camera positioned at the front door. He saw one person, but the view was enough to cause alarm. He hadn’t seen this man in fifteen years. He was torn between his irritation an advance message had not been sent and questioning how bad the situation must be for his visitor to be at his door at this time.

As he opened his door, the lanky, six-foot-tall, Fleet attired Admiral Griken greeted him with a terse nod of a salute, in deference to Connor. “Connor, I apologize for intruding on your home life. CIG has sent me with a request to discuss an issue with you. I also have a message to pass to the major.”

“Griken, come in.” Connor suppressed his annoyance. He noted Griken’s reluctance to refer to Shinny by his nickname for her. It was just as well, as she had moved on with her life. Although Connor was not surprised Griken had been promoted to Admiral, he was astonished how quickly Griken had risen to his new rank. “Congratulations on your Flag rank.” Connor paused, thinking he might as well get to the bottom of Griken’s visit. “I was wondering how CIG was handling the conflict. I assume that is why you are here.”

Griken nodded. “Thank you. I credit the promotion to my time with you as my mentor,” Griken announced. “However, I also credit the Aneplé for the rapid advancement.” Griken paused, taking in a deep breath. “You were right. Truthfully, CIG and the Fleet have not handled the current conflict well. As you predicted, it appears as if the Treaty gave the Aneplé an opportunity to implement a strategic pause to plan, rebuild, and expand. CIG has lost a number of planets, transit gates, and weapon platforms,” Griken stated, grimly. “Overall, the Fleet’s performance in defending those areas has been unacceptable,” Griken added, deepening his frown. “Is the major here?” Griken glanced around the house, trying to hide his curiosity.

Connor was not happy to hear the Aneplé mentioned and his body tensed in reaction to Griken’s description of CIG’s current status. The ramifications were unsettling. He was sure Griken would have more to say about it once Shinny joined them. “No she isn’t, but she is close by and I’ll ask someone to retrieve her.” Connor sent a message to Nan to ask Shinny to join him, after she finished putting Ben and Sarah to bed.

Nan stepped into the hallway and saw an Admiral standing with Connor. Alarmed, she asked Connor through her chip if she needed to take the children across the street. He responded that they were safe, but asked her to encourage Shinny to join them as soon as possible.

Griken was surprised to see the petite woman with long flaxen hair and a small, four-planet solar system tattooed at the corner of her eye, enter into the hallway. Nanlinen Quananx was an academic celebrity, renowned for her research on the four observed planetary systems represented by her tattoo. She had been personally responsible for shepherding three new planets into CIG’s fold. Seeing Quananx here would explain some of Connor’s apparent idiosyncrasies.

“Nan, I would like to introduce you to an old friend of mine, Admiral Velslun Griken. Griken and I worked together at my last Fleet assignment.”

Griken smiled and addressed Nanlinen. “Nanlinen Quananx, it is my pleasure to meet you. I’ve read many of your studies and hope there will be an opportunity to discuss your current research.”

“Admiral, please call me Nan. I now go by Nan N’Klaftin,” Nan insisted, as she returned the smile. “Currently, I’m working with a team observing the varied cultures on this planet. Unfortunately, the research is not mature enough to discuss outside of our circle,” she explained. “I promise as soon as the analysis is complete and we can release our findings, I will ask Connor to contact you. I assume you have more important issues to discuss with Connor. I look forward to speaking with you at a later time.”

Griken was confused why she referred to N’Klaftin by his Fleet honorific title Connor instead of his name, but it must something between the admiral and Nan. It wasn’t his position to question her choice. However, he was pleased with the prospect of one day sitting down and learning from Nan about her research of an observed planet. “I understand. I will look forward to you sharing your findings with me when you have completed your research.” Turning to Connor, he smiled. “You are a lucky canine to have Nan as a life partner.”

Connor and Nan gave him an odd look, and then Connor laughed. “The idiom is ‘you lucky dog’,” Connor said, as he opened the door for Nan to leave.

“Hmm, the language uploaded on my chip shows canine as a synonym to dog. Does the station need to update their language ontology?” Griken asked.

Connor motioned for Griken to follow him as he walked into the great room off to the left. “No, it’s an odd language and there are quirks that need to be learned over time or with an advanced language module. If you return, you may want to ask for the update.” Connor walked toward a sitting area at the center of the room and motioned to Griken to sit. “Nan went to retrieve Shinny; it may be a few minutes.”

“Shinny? Who is Shinny?” Griken crossed to the mantle to look at the family pictures on display. He had been stunned at how much Connor had aged in the short time he had been on the planet. Connor had definitely turned off his chip’s rejuvenation capability. Looking at the family pictures, Griken realized that although the planet was somewhat primitive, he had been too quick in judging Connor’s decision to move here and turn his rejuvenation function off solely on his appearance.

“Nee decided she wanted to be known by her given name, Shin, but then decided Shinny would be easier for the natives on this planet to accept. Since we were in a new area, it was an easy change. Would you like to have a seat? Can I offer you a beer?”

“I have been sitting for a while. I’ll stand, if you don’t mind, and I’ll take the beer.” The station briefer had mentioned if he was offered a beer to take it, since he might enjoy it. “You were right when you predicted the treaty would weaken the Fleet and eventually lead to further losses of territory. CIG has finally reached a point where the losses can’t be ignored. They are attempting to recall a number of admirals who were set aside.”

“I’ll keep my comments to myself for now,” Connor responded, keeping his tone as neutral as possible. His anger built inside, knowing the price paid by so many individuals in the Fleet for the CIG’s negotiation of a worthless treaty. Although CIG’s politicians had negotiated in good faith, as he expected the Aneplé had not abided by the terms agreed to by both sides. Connor shook his head in amazement at the naivety of the politicians.

“I can understand your reluctance to discuss past decisions. I am curious about what you have been working on since you arrived. Are you part of Nan’s research team?”

“No, I am not working on her Observation team. I met Nan during my indoctrination training. I’m researching another project and can’t discuss the specifics at this time. The project was a consolation prize for being removed from my last position,” Connor explained while Griken nodded in acceptance. Depending upon Griken’s purpose in coming here, he might discuss his project. However, as far as he was concerned, the fewer people who knew of the project at this time, the better. Walking over to the refrigerator in the next room, he pulled out a bottle of Sam Adams and opened it. He walked back to the great room and handed it to Griken. “Before Shinny comes here, I want to ask you why the station failed to follow notification procedures and why the shuttle pilot broke protocol coming out of stealth mode to declare its position?”

“I can’t provide you with an answer at this moment; however, I was told the pilot had sent you a message advising you of my visit. If you didn’t receive the notification that may explain why you were not home when we arrived. On the protocols issue, I gave her a direct order to follow protocols. I’ll speak to the pilot and the station commander on the incident when I return to the station. This definitely is not good. Frankly, I’m not happy to be here and don’t need any further complications from either the pilot or the station commander.”

Connor considered Griken’s answer. “The station logs showed all of the ships docked at the station. A falsified station log is a serious problem. I’ll follow-up with my own questions to the station commander. Between the two of us, we should have enough answers to understand what is going on. Meanwhile I have to deal with a UFO sighting issue.”

“UFO? It’s not in my lexicon. What is it?”

“A UFO is an ‘unidentified flying object,’ a term used colloquially on this planet when there is a belief the observed flying object may have come from somewhere other than this planet.”

Griken raised his eyebrows. “Are there that many protocol breaches that they developed this term?”

“No, there aren’t that many breaches. There have been other unexplained anomalies the natives group collectively as UFOs. As their technology advances, they have been able to explain away the UFOs as normal phenomena. Nevertheless, I don’t have anything this time to explain this breach rationally. It wouldn’t be an issue except the native individual on the boat with me clearly saw the shuttle. Eventually he will learn about our presence because he is Shinny’s mate, but we would have both preferred to have prepared him, since he seems to be overly confused and possibly in shock.”

“Did I hear you correctly? Your daughter has a mate from this planet?” Griken asked in surprise.

“Yes, but he is an exceptional young man. I’m proud to have him as a son, but it will be complicated when we receive approval for his immigration application, since he believes that Shinny and I are siblings.”

“I see. I have a special communiqué for your daughter. I suspect approval has been granted, since few are rejected, which may make the situation easier. Congratulations, I am happy for both of you.” Griken smiled while raising his beer to tap the center of his forehead, toasting his friend’s good fortune.

Connor raised his glass and tapped his forehead in response. “On this planet, toasting is slightly different. The natives raise their drink and sometimes tap their glasses as a way to congratulate others.” Looking at his watch out of habit, Connor estimated a few minutes remained before Shinny arrived. He had time for a number of issues to catch up on with Griken. “What is your current assignment?”

“I have assumed command of the Battle Cruiser Zuonopy. After I leave here, I’ll return to my ship to drill in preparation for confronting the Aneplé at the Rnuefcan System.”

“If memory serves me correctly, there are ten planets and three transit gates.”

“Your memory serves you well. There have been Aneplé scout ships spotted in the area; CIG is risking losing the Rnuefcan System by not sending a Battle Cruiser in now, instead of waiting for mine to complete drilling. The battle zone could be completely different by then, requiring a different mix of combatant ships to effectively dislodge them if they decide to raid the system.”

“I don’t disagree with you on that point. I’d like to see the system schematics, if you don’t mind.”

Griken put his pad on a low square table in the center of the seating area surrounding it and tapped the screen. The tablet projected a holographic sphere of the Rnuefcan System that extended from the table to the ceiling. Connor walked around the projection while waving his hand to turn the sphere to view it from different angles. He continued to wave and walk around to ensure he had full understanding of Griken’s Area of Responsibility. “I assume you are drilling with all of your escorts and support ships.”

“Good assumption, if you were still the Fleet Admiral. As soon as you left, the Fleet became more political. More assignments were made based upon patronage versus the real requirements of the Fleet. None of the senior Admirals at Trisinwultin Station where the Zuonopy is docked at this time were willing to allow the breakup of their squadrons’ complements, even if there were no plans for them to deploy for several solar cycles. They insist on keeping the squadrons intact to protect their standings. There is no one willing to stand up to them at this time. However, Fleet Headquarters has assigned three destroyers and five support ships to my Battle Group. They are traveling from the Flexsin side of CIG space to join the Zuonopy.” Griken sighed heavily, looking at Connor as he continued, “I don’t expect to see them for another fifty revolutions.” Griken bent down and tapped his tablet to include his Battle Group in the hologram.

“Who’s Connor now?” Connor asked, curious who was leading the debacle.

“No one has been appointed Connor at this time.”

Connor frowned at hearing Griken describe the Fleet’s status. “That’s irresponsible on CIG’s part.” However, he wasn’t going to let CIGs problems become his.

[]Chapter 4

 

 

Brad took the bike path home. It was faster than the streets, cutting through the blocks and cul-de-sacs, and ran parallel to Connor and Nan’s home. However, the closer he got to their house the worse the air smelled. Brad couldn’t identify what he smelled, but it was so bad he regretted taking the bike path home. He almost turned around to walk the long way home using the streets, but that would be ridiculous considering how close he was to his house. As he reached Connor’s back fence, the smell became unbearable; alarming him, that something was wrong. Were dead carcasses rotting in their yard? He looked between the slats of their privacy fence and saw an odd shaped blue-black outline etched on their lawn near the back fence. Stranger yet, he couldn’t see anything clearly, even standing beneath the bike path’s lamppost. Everything was hazy. It appeared as if he was looking at the yard through a thin smoke screen. The smell combined with the odd outline made him anxious. Then he heard scuffling but couldn’t see anything. Could it be a couple of large animals fighting? He reached into his pocket for his cell phone to call Connor, but he realized that he had left it in the truck charging.

Feeling nauseous from the strong stench, Brad forced himself to move away from the fence. Whatever was in the yard, he needed to let Connor and Nan know as soon as possible. Brad jogged toward their screened porch thinking if it were unlocked, he would go in and tell Connor about the dead animal

The light to their great room was on. He pulled the screen door open and walked into the enclosed sitting area. Each time he walked into the porch, it reminded him when he built the porch with Connor and Shinny, cementing his friendship with them. He smiled remembering the summer he met them

He looked back toward the back edge of the yard and still saw the blurred yard behind a smoky screen with a hint of the smell that had given him a sick feeling. He wondered if something was burning in their backyard.

Brad walked into the kitchen and saw Connor talking to a tall thin teenager a few inches shorter than him. The kid had a beer in his hand and was dressed in a black long sleeved crewneck shirt and matching pants. The shirt had yellow markings along the right shoulder that continued along the right edge of the collar. Brad thought the kid might be Connor’s mentee from the high school and questioned why the kid was visiting at this late hour. He would need to talk to Connor about not giving the kid a beer; doing that was going to get Connor in trouble one day. Brad stood diagonally behind the kitchen door waiting for an appropriate time to walk in. He didn’t want to interrupt them in a panic. He was willing to wait a few minutes until they finished talking. The boy put a tablet on the coffee table and a spherical hologram with a star system grew from it. Brad drew a quick breath, stunned as he watched Connor walk around the table, waving his hand and turning the sphere. This had to be the project Connor was helping the kid with. He wondered why Connor hadn’t shared it with him? The backyard smell was an issue but Brad was now more interested in the holographic sphere and their discussion.

“…three destroyers and five support ships to my Battle Group. They are traveling from the Flexsin side of CIG space,” the boy said to Connor as he bent down and tapped his tablet. More objects appeared in the hologram. Brad tried to understand what the kid was referring to since he had no idea what CIG space meant. It was a new term for him. The kid looked far too serious for his age but appeared much too young for the Navy.

“Who’s Connor now?” Connor asked. Brad shook his head on that one. Connor asking who is Connor? Maybe he should just back off and go home, get a good night’s sleep, and maybe it would make sense tomorrow morning. He missed what the kid said, but caught Connor referring to something as being reckless. Connor put another tablet on the table and another sphere popped up with a number of objects floating in it. He watched as Connor moved a few of the objects in the sphere. Brad was definitely interested in the technology they were using and tried to listen to their conversation, but their backs were turned and most of what he heard was muffled and unintelligible. He gradually moved into the room and was just beyond the door when Shinny appeared. He was even more confused seeing her at Connor’s house.

“Nan informed me that Ken was here and I needed to come over,” Shinny looked at Griken’s uniform. “Congratulations, Admiral,” she said with one of her brightest smiles.

Brad wondered what the hell was going on, as he struggled to understand what he was seeing and hearing. They doubt me when I tell them I saw a UFO and this kid is called an Admiral. The kid’s name was familiar; was he the son of Shinny’s former boyfriend? Looking at the youthful kid, remembering what she had said about that guy, he had a fleeting suspicion Shinny could be an abuser. His chest tightened with that thought. He couldn’t go there. Oh God, if that was an issue, he needed to remove Dane from the house to keep him safe from her. He tensed up as he continued to try making sense of everything he had been seeing and hearing. He wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. He stepped into the room. “Admiral of what? The Boy Scouts?”

Surprised, Connor turned around. “Brad, what are you doing here?”

“I was returning from the golf course and planning to go home but there’s a nasty dead animal smell and smoke in your backyard.”

The kid quickly grabbed his tablet from the table. He pushed Brad aside as he ran. He continued to run through the kitchen to the back porch, wildly tapping and swiping his pad. Brad, Connor, and Shinny followed him and watched as a bright object flashed for a few seconds from the back of Connor’s yard. The boy relaxed and turned around immediately.

Brad choked on the fumes he had inhaled and looked crossly at Connor. “What is the UFO doing in your yard? That’s the same object I saw flying over my boat.”

Connor and Shinny stood there stiffly with their mouths firmly shut, staring at him. It didn’t look like they were going to explain anything to him. Anger and frustration built up inside him as he wondered what other secrets they might be keeping from him. Not just the ship, but also the kid standing next to him. “Is anyone going to answer me?” Brad glanced at his watch. “Who’s watching Dane?” Brad glared at Shinny. He would wait all night if that was what it took for her to answer.

Shinny knew that determined look. Brad wouldn’t back down, and she could no longer put off answering any of his questions. “Nan is at our house at this moment.”

“Okay, I have one item I can check off my list. Shinny, who’s the kid, and what is that thing doing in your brother’s backyard?”

Shinny, torn between her commitment to her marriage and her sworn duties, closed her eyes, feeling Brad’s rising anger directed toward her. He had always made it clear he had no tolerance for lying, and yet there it was every day, like a wall separating them. She knew eventually she would have to tell him everything, but having it thrown in his face was the worst way for him to find out. She stood there trying to organize her thoughts. There would never be a good way for her to answer truthfully at this moment. “I don’t know why Ken is here.”

“Gee thanks. That was really helpful,” Brad responded, his voice full of sarcasm. He looked at Connor and then the kid. “Are either of you going to explain anything to me?” He glared at Connor. “I always suspected you were hiding something from me, but I wasn’t married to you. I accepted it because until tonight it wasn’t an issue.”

Griken looked at the three individuals standing in front of him in silence. He walked toward Connor and stood next to him, “I have a chip update I need to pass to you. I also have a request from CIG that I’m to ask you personally.” He raised his right index finger and touched a mole behind Connor’s ear.

Brad watched the kid finish with Connor, removing his finger. Stepping closer to Shinny, the kid was about to reach behind her ear. Brad grabbed Griken’s wrist and pulled his arm away from her. “Don’t touch her.”

Shinny reached toward Brad and gently touched his face to get his attention. “You need to stop before this situation spirals out of control and someone gets hurt. Brad, please let him go. I will be fine.

Brad released the kid’s wrist. “Don’t hurt her. I’m watching.”

Trusting that Brad had settled, Griken reached toward Nee with his right index finger and touched the mole behind her ear. “Nee, thank you. I’m fine. My chip started pumping painkillers almost immediately when he grabbed me. The download won’t take long.”

Shinny’s update included approval of Brad’s immigration request to CIG. She immediately shared the information with her father through their private communications. However, when she read that she was being ordered to report to a squadron on the Zuonopy, she pressed her lips together tightly, wondering how she was going to tell Brad. It didn’t matter that she had planned to transfer to the inactive reserve; her orders still required her to drill with a squadron for a few weeks before she could return to Earth. She looked at Connor and transmitted a query asking if he had received similar orders, and received a negative reply. She would be leaving with Griken, but needed time to talk to Brad.

Connor reached for Shinny’s hand and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “It will work out. Brad just needs time,” he transmitted to her. Looking at Brad, he continued to transmit to Shinny, “Brad is understandably angry and confused. This is exactly as the counselor warned us. Shock and anger are the normal reactions to be expected from most people, after having a UFO confirmed to be alien or learning about an alien presence on their planet, especially when they realize they have been misled for many years. That was probably the worst way for Brad to learn of our status, but I had no warning the shuttle was due to arrive. With more time, a counselor could be brought in to help, but I can’t delay any further, what is inevitable. I’ll start the conversation.”

Connor crossed to the refrigerator and opened the door. “I need a beer. Would anyone else like one, also?”

“I’ll have another,” Griken answered as he reached out for the bottle Connor handed him.

“Pass. I’m having trouble saying nothing when you are giving an underage kid a drink,” Brad challanged Connor.

Ignoring Brad’s comment, Connor walked to the sitting area in the great room. “Brad, have a seat. It will be easier for us to explain everything to you.”

Brad followed Connor into the room. He sat on one of the brown leather club chairs facing the sofa. He was in no mood to sit on the couch with anyone. Brad watched as Connor and Shinny sat on the sofa across from him. The kid took the other club chair facing the opposite end of the sofa, smirking. As far as Brad was concerned, there was nothing amusing about what was happening. Seeing the smarmy expression on the kid’s face only irritated him more. Connor and Shinny looked serious, and Brad wasn’t sure he really wanted to hear what they had to say, but his gut told him if he got up and walked out without hearing them out, he’d kick himself for the rest of his life.

“Brad, it was never our intention for you to find out about our origins this way. Shinny and I had recently agreed to share this information with you as soon as possible and under better circumstances, and after an opportunity to prepare you. But we need to get this out of the way because I still need to find out why Admiral Griken is here.” He directed his head toward the kid.

Brad nodded that he understood. He recognized the despair on Shinny’s face. It was the same look that he remembered seeing on her face when they first visited the golf course together. He wasn’t sure he was ready for what they were going to say to him. He took a deep breath and braced himself for the worst.

“Shinny, and I are not from Earth. I came here to work on a project and her organization sent her here to ensure my safety.”

Brad’s eyes widened.

Connor held up a hand. “Before you ask any questions, I want to give you the rest of the story. Fifteen years ago, I held the position of Fleet Admiral of a Confederation of Planets, governed by a group known as the Council of Interplanetary Governors, more commonly known through the inhabited galaxies as CIG. We were at the end of a war and a treaty was signed. One stipulation of the treaty was that I should be forced to either retire or find another position not as high profile. I wasn’t ready to call it quits and looked around for something else to do that would allow me to continue to work in the fleet. I found a project that would require me to work on a planet being studied by a team of academics trained to observe other cultures.” Connor paused for a moment. Connor continued, “Earth seemed to be the most promising planet at the time. I became interested coming to Earth because humans and we share similar genetic traits. In addition, we would not have to undergo any medical procedures to blend in physically. Over time, our objectives and schedules changed with our marriages.”

Brad’s jaw dropped. It was the last thing he expected to be told. He now knew what Shinny was hiding, if she was hiding anything. He wondered if the three of them were delusional. “After seeing the ship and your hologram, I might believe you came from another planet, but I’m still having difficulty. Is your fleet run by a bunch of scouts? Shinny and you were fifteen when you relocated from New York.” He looked at the kid in the other club chair. “Your admiral doesn’t even look old enough to drive and seems to have a perfect accent, considering he came from another planet. If you are as you say and came from an advanced planet, why would you attend high school and college here?”

Griken shrugged at Brad. “I don’t need to justify to you what I’m old enough to do.” He lifted his beer and then pointed to his head. “As for the accent, that was downloaded onto my chip.”

Connor ignored Brad’s attitude and continued to explain, “Shortly after we are born, an organic chip is inserted in our brain. The procedure is safe and quick. The chip has dual functions. One function governs health and the other provides informational communications. The health function is exactly as it sounds. It keeps us in good health. After puberty, the rejuvenation function is turned on and our lifetimes extend into the centuries. The informational communications allows limited encrypted communication between individuals and strict downloads of information. A few Fleet channels are used for encrypted broadcasts.”

One issue at a time, Brad thought. “How old do you people think you are?” Brad asked suspiciously.

“I’m two hundred and fifty-nine years old, by Earth’s solar calendar,” Connor volunteered. “Shinny is a hundred and sixty-four years old. We both turned off the rejuvenation function when we arrived here.”

“Where does Nan fit in this?” Brad had always thought she was different, and might be able to accept she wasn’t from this planet.

“Nan has been on Earth for about ten years leading the academic teams observing the culture on this planet. Meeting her in Boston was purely happenstance. I had not been aware she was here until we bumped into each other. Both of us were aware of each other through reputations, but that was the first time we met.”

“What is she observing here?” Brad challenged. He couldn’t imagine how Wal-Mart played into her observations and couldn’t wait to hear their “explanations.”

“You would have to ask Nan for specifics. Our government sponsors teams to observe planets and, when appropriate, recommend their induction into our confederation.”

Brad shook his head in disbelief. They had an answer for everything and managed to skirt the Wal-Mart question. Either this was true or it was an elaborate, concocted story. “What happened to the twin story? Are you two even related?”

“Connor is my father,” Shinny answered, looking sadly at Brad. “I hate this conversation and am sorry for not discussing this with you sooner. I’ve always been aware of the risk of you learning the truth of my deception and knew it wouldn’t be pleasant.”

“Give me a break!” Brad snorted in anger. “That ‘father’ line came from the second Star Wars movie. How old is Kid Admiral?” He wasn’t sure how he felt about Shinny’s answer. From all appearances, it looked like a lie to him. However, what if it wasn’t, he asked, as he felt a stabbing pain in his chest thinking she may have lied to him throughout their thirteen years. He was having a hard time looking at her. She looked like a victim, but he was the one trying to comprehend this elaborate joke. Joke was the only thing he could think of, other than the three of them being delusional. “You still haven’t answered the high school question or explained why you bothered to attend MIT.”

“Attending high school and college is part of the cultural integration program. It enables us to blend into the culture we are studying. Because we appeared as young as children on this planet, attending school provided us with a broad spectrum of simplified information on Earth’s science, art, culture, politics, and technology as well as providing us a cover story for our activities,” Connor explained.

“Hmm, I believe I owe you an answer also. This will take me a moment since I’m new to the counting system on this planet.” Griken watched Brad stare at him. “I’m not going to sit back and take any more of your misplaced contempt. I’m about two hundred and thirty-two in Earth years. Moreover, I would appreciate if you stop referring to me as ‘the kid.‘ Admiral, Griken or Ken would be fine for now. You may find yourself regretting your continued disrespect.”

“Geez, the three of you are nuts,” Brad retorted. He was still trying to process the high school explanation. Learning anything in high school was the pinnacle of ludicrousness as far as he was concerned. Couldn’t they come up with something more believable?

“We need to move forward. Brad what will it take for you to believe us?” Connor asked.

“Riding in the kid’s, I mean Ken’s space vehicle would go a long way toward convincing me,” Brad suggested.

“That decision is up to the pilot. I will ask her after I conduct my business here,” Griken replied.

Brad was startled Ken didn’t say no, but then again pushing the decision back to the pilot could be a maneuver to delay proving anything to him. “Okay, I can wait. So why are you here?”

Griken addressed Connor in a foreign language, his tone an entreaty, followed by Connor with an aggrieved and aggressive tone.

Brad did not recognize the language and speculated whether it was part of their elaborate joke. “Could you speak in something other than pig Latin so I could understand?”

Puzzled by Brad’s statement, Griken gave him an odd look. “Latin wasn’t pushed to my chip. Would Spanish be better?”

Connor jumped in before Brad could speak, “We were speaking in CIG standard. We will continue our conversation in English for your benefit. Griken has passed on an invitation for me to resume my duties as Fleet Admiral. I told him I’m not interested.”

Easy way for Connor to explain away this elaborate alien joke or delusion, Brad thought. “Why not go back and sail the seven universes? It seems to me to be the dream of most American men and women.” Brad thought back to some of the past conversations he’d had with Connor on space exploration and flight. Brad loved his brother-in-law, but Connor was quirky. At times, Connor seemed more interested in riding a bicycle than reaching Mars.

“I’m not interested because I’m happy with my life here and what I’m doing now. I was forced into this semi-retirement position and I’ve taken on new projects. There are others who can take on the Fleet Admiral headaches.”

“Forced into retirement at twenty-eight? What are you talking about?”

“No, forced into retirement at two hundred and forty-four. Looking back, it wasn’t a bad maneuver on my part. I’m living the good life with Nan and my children and I even have a grandchild.”

“Grandchild, what grandchild?” Brad wondered how far they were going to take this delusion.

“Teledane is my grandson. My given first name is Teledane.”

Brad dropped his head into his hands, covering his face.

Griken spoke again, in English, “It’s not my place to convince your son of anything. I realize I need to do more than pass a message. I need to convince you to return. The interference of CIG and Fleet Headquarters over the past fifteen solar cycles has destroyed the Fleet, from budget cuts, unacceptable losses of ships, including three Battle Cruisers, and the loss of several transit gates. CIG planets and territories are paying the price now. When you moved here, CIG had strict control of the twenty-five transit gates that are passed to reach this planet; the number is now twenty gates. There needs to be a concerted effort to turn the decline of the Fleet around before it’s too late. Inviting you back is part of the effort. From my perspective, it’s a movement in the right direction, along with others who are being brought back, also.”

“The loss of the Battle Cruisers and the Transit Gates is numbing. It may be inexcusable, but I’m not convinced it meant the situation was so dire that I need to return to the Fleet at this time. Who else was invited back?”

“Yespeth, Olyrie, and Eteflo have been recalled to duty.”

“Yespeth is competent. She would be an exceptional Fleet Admiral. Why did they receive orders and I was invited?”

“CIG’s arrogance is incomprehensible at times. They had a misguided idea they needed to play to your ego by inviting you. They also believed that you would not accept your daughter reporting alone.”

Brad sat up in his chair listening to the crazy conversation. His head hurt from trying to figure out if it was real or an elaborate joke. If it was a joke, he wasn’t getting the humor, especially with the UFO and a dead animal smell in Connor’s backyard. He found it odd none of them seemed to be concerned about the horrible smell. He’d had enough and was ready to go home when Kid Admiral began discussing Shinny’s status. Brad looked at Shinny. “What did he mean when he stated you need to report back?”

Shinny sat up and closed her eyes, as if gathering her thoughts. “This isn’t the place to have the discussion. I would have preferred to discuss it with you at home but I feel as if you are leaving me no other alternative. I’ve received orders to report to a Special Combat Unit on Admiral Griken’s Battle Cruiser. My orders have me leaving with him, but I will request a delay to work out issues with you first.”

Brad shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s going on. This is either a nightmare or a joke. Either way, it’s not making any sense.”

Griken tapping on his tablet interrupted them. “Nee, I have approved your request for a transfer delay for thirty days. Work out the transportation details with the station commander.”

“Great, this gets better and better.” Brad sat back in his chair looking at everyone. He might as well stick around to see how this played out. “What’s next? Is it time to fly the aircraft in the backyard?”

Connor stood. “We’re done. I’m not going anyplace for now.” He turned and faced Admiral Griken, who stood also. “Again, I’m not convinced the situation requires me to leave my family at this time. If the situation changes and places my family under imminent threat, I’ll reconsider.”

“I understand your decision. I will convey your recommendation to CIG to consider Yespeth as Connor.” Griken looked down and rapidly tapped his pad. He looked up, facing Brad standing next to him. “The pilot has said she has enough fuel for an additional short flight.”

Brad had expected they would come up with an excuse. Then again, he wasn’t in the aircraft yet. He’d play along, in case this craziness was real. Standing and smiling, he said, “Admiral, thank you. This means a great deal to me.”

The front door to Connor’s house opened and everyone turned to look toward the front hallway as Nan walked in with Dane in her arms. “I was concerned and wanted to make sure there were no problems.”

“Whose child is this?” Griken asked.

Shinny walked toward Nan and reached out to take Dane from her. “This is Dane. He is Brad’s and my son.”

“Mommy, can we go home?” Dane asked curling tighter into Shinny’s arms.

“In a minute, honey, your daddy wants to look at something in Uncle Connor’s and Aunt Nan’s backyard.” Shinny explained to Dane.

Brad might be angry with her, but she wasn’t going to change her behavior. She would wait for him to initiate a discussion in her infuriatingly calm way. The sooner they could talk privately about the situation the better.

Griken walked over to take a closer look at Dane and touched his shoulder. “He’s a fine looking child.” He swiveled his head between Dane, Shinny and Connor. “I’m impressed, three generations.”

“Three generations of what?” Brad asked.

“Connor, his daughter, and his grandson are the three generations. Rarely do we see that where I come from,” explained Griken.

Brad rubbed his eyes to avoid looking like he was rolling them. How long would this game continue? “I see. There are some families on this planet that may have four or five generations alive at once.”

“I would be interested in learning more. Perhaps on my next visit I can learn more about the multi-generational families, especially with the shortened life spans.” Griken walked toward the kitchen with Brad and Connor following closely. He walked through the screen porch door tapping his pad while he stepped outside onto the grass. Brad stood next to him, with Connor following directly behind. Shinny remained in the house with Dane. The shuttle lit up for them to see it clearly. “It’s odd, but I haven’t been able to reach my aide, Commander Janeque, since I stepped into your house. I wonder if there is an issue with the communication linkage or the spectrum we’re using.”

“There shouldn’t be a communication problem. I’ll look into it later, if we can’t figure it out once I look at your aide’s pad,” Connor suggested.

Brad stopped, staring at the lit vehicle. He couldn’t hide his surprise at seeing the angular faceted structure with the folded wings. The vehicle looked about the same size as the small commuter buses in town. Looking around he wondered how they got it into the yard. Either they built it in the yard or the thing really flew. As they walked closer, the stench became worse and he stopped. “Hey, do you smell anything bad? I’m having problems with whatever that smell is coming from the ship.” Something flew past his face and a loud crash came from behind him. He turned around to look just as both Connor and Griken pulled him down to the ground and held him prone from both sides. A translucent blue opalescent screen surrounded them when he looked up. “What the hell is going on?” Did the two of them have to hold hands across his back?

“Somebody shot at us and missed,” Connor calmly explained.

Brad lifted his head and turned it slightly to look through the shield at the screened porch behind them. “Looks like the left side of your porch is gone.” He laid between Connor and Griken, listening to a rapid succession of ptzing, ptzing, ptzing originating with the shield. “What is that sound?”

“Someone is shooting at us. That sound is from the weapon fire hitting the shield.” Connor looked toward Griken. “Do you have your sidearm?”

“No, I left it on the shuttle. I didn’t want to look unfriendly bringing it with me. It’s just as well; it’ll be over soon,” Griken said as he continued to clasp Connor’s hand.

“You have a point there about not bringing it with you,” Connor yelled over the weapon’s fire hitting the shield. “No longer than five minutes. You’ll need to be patient; she needs to pass Dane to Nan and give her instructions to evacuate the children if necessary.” He maintained his grip across Brad’s back.

“What are you two talking about?” Brad asked as he turned his head back and forth between them. “Could the two of you have your reunion somewhere other than my back?” He turned his head a few more times back and forth and was met with silence. Great, he thought, another freaking secret. He hoped the shooting or whatever it was would stop soon. The noise was unbearable.

 

 

Shinny and Nan heard a loud crash outside the house. Shinny looked outside at the demolished corner of the screened porch. At the same time, she received her father’s transmission. She handed Dane to Nan, instructing her to move further back into the house to the children’s bedrooms and be prepared to evacuate. Connor would send the appropriate signal.

When Nan retrieved her earlier, Shinny still concerned over the unidentified vehicle that Brad saw, had outfitted herself with her body armor under her clothes as a precaution. The armor was a shear undetectable body suit stronger than graphene and could easily stop the initial impact of a projectile or laser. However, continued impact in one area could result in the suit’s failure. Although it was rare, it was still a risk. Shinny reached below her ponytail and pulled the hood over her head and down across her face like a stocking. She pulled out her sleeves and inserted her hands into the gloves attached at the end. She attached her sidearm tucked inside her jeans to her right arm with the wrist tether. The tether would allow her to drop the weapon if she needed to fight hands free. With her left hand, she grabbed her shield off her belt and held it in front of her, circling it to expand its size to provide additional protection to her body. She watched the shooter with her enhanced vision standing next to the shuttle, shooting haphazardly. The shooter was unskilled and inexperienced, looking at the number of times Griken’s shield was missed. She was relieved. Although she was ready to kill the shooter for putting her family at risk, it was more important for her to keep the shooter alive for Intelligence to interrogate.

Shinny sprinted toward the shooter, holding the shield in front of her covering her head and major organs. She purposely stepped high, using Griken’s shield to give her momentum as she pushed off, and changed the angle of her approach as she lunged toward the shuttle. Midair, she threw her shield, hitting the shooter’s deltoid. The shooter immediately dropped the weapon and was pushed back, hitting her head against the shuttle.

 

 

A loud bump of something hit Griken’s shield and someone flew over it. The sound was different than the sound of the weapon’s fire hitting the shield. “What the hell was that?” Brad asked as a runner sped toward the shuttle.

Connor braced his arm tighter across Brad’s back, “That was Shinny stepping onto the shield.”

Brad struggled to push himself up to follow Shinny but couldn’t budge with both Connor and Griken holding him firmly down. “Let me go, I have to help her. We can’t stay here and just do nothing.”

“Brad stay still! We need to maintain contact or the shield will lose its integrity and we will no longer be protected. She knows what she is doing. You will only be a distraction to her.”

Brad helplessly watched Shinny’s shield hit the shooter. “What are you talking about? We need to help her,” he yelled, still struggling to break lose. It was bad enough to watch part of Connor’s screened porch destroyed and to be shot at, but he felt completely lost watching his wife rush toward the shooter without him being able to help her. What would he do if anything happened to her?

“Shinny isn’t a Fleet officer, like Griken and me; she belongs to a small cadre of personnel known as Special Combat Officers. Her training is along the lines of your Seal Teams or Rangers. I know it is hard to lie here and do nothing, but she is well trained to handle situations like this. Helping her would just complicate what she needs to do.”

The three of them watched Shinny grab the shooter’s shirt and hold her against the shuttle.

 

 

Shinny hated doing what she was about to do, but she had no choice as she held the shooter against the shuttle and forced her hand into the shooter’s mouth. She immediately recognized the false teeth and pulled out the shooter’s four back molars one by one. The woman wouldn’t feel anything, since her chip probably began injecting an analgesic immediately into her system to deaden the pain when the shield pushed her against the shuttle. Shinny finished pulling all of the teeth before a shuttle door opened and someone stepped out. Shinny quickly put the molars into a pocket then grabbed her praser with her bloody hand and pointed toward the commander.

Commander Kiraine Janeque, seeing the praser pointed toward her, raised her hands with her palms out in the universal surrender position, showing they were empty. “Major Shin N’Klaftin, I’m Kiraine Janeque, Admiral Griken’s aide. I have been briefed on your status as Connor’s daughter and as a Special Combat Officer.”

Shinny looked at the woman she gripped with her hand and recognized the vehicle insignia on her chest. She held onto the pilot’s shirt while continuing to point her praser toward the commander with the Explorer insignia. “Forgive me for being cautious, but I need to verify your identity with the admiral.” Shinny nodded toward the house. “I would appreciate if you would lead the way.”

Kiraine kept her hands raised as she walked toward Griken’s shield. “I understand your concerns and would take the same precautions. I’m sorry I was not able to send a warning signal. The pilot jammed my communications in the shuttle and locked me in the convenience room.”

As soon as Kiraine passed her, Shinny reached around the unconscious pilot’s waist, carrying her bent body against her side. “Assuming what you are saying is true, what is this pilot doing flying the admiral’s shuttle?” She followed Kiraine.

“She’s one of the station pilots. Admiral Griken had me check the pilot’s record. Not only was it clean, but she was well regarded by her superiors.”

“Then the station commander will need to do better when explaining why an Aneplé infiltrator was allowed to fly the admiral here.”

Kiraine inhaled a shocked gasp. “I don’t know what to say, although I’m not completely surprised. I’m not even sure how the pilot was persuaded to become a traitor, but we are seeing more and more of these traitors in the Fleet. The protocols have not changed since you arrived on this planet thirteen solar cycles ago. Very few people are aware of this planet. If the Aneplé are here, the infiltration is being done at the highest level. Admiral Griken will want to pass information on the pilot to Fleet Intelligence to investigate her, as soon as possible.”

Shinny transmitted the information to Connor. He would want to know immediately that the threat had reached Earth. She stopped in front of Griken’s shield next to the commander then kicked the shield in rage, creating a loud bang. “The threat has been neutralized. It’s safe to drop the shield.” Shinny continued to hold the pilot and maintain her praser on the commander as Griken released the shield. “Admiral, do you know who these two Fleet officers are?”

Griken looked up and quickly stood. “The commander is my aide. I can vouch for her. The pilot is from the station. Nee, I saw you place your hand in the pilot’s mouth. Were you able to remove her molars?”

Brad looked at Griken and up at Shinny. “The stench from the woman you’re holding is unbearable. She smells like a dead animal. I can’t take it anymore.” He scrambled to his feet and ran to the fence, where he gagged and vomited.

Shinny responded immediately to Brad’s illness, dropping the pilot and the molars from her pocket. Ignoring Griken, she turned to the commander. “Ask Nan for a baggie.” Shinny ran to Brad. She grabbed him and held onto him while he continued to wretch. She steadied him as she worried he was reacting to the violence. “Brad, are you all right?”

Brad motioned to her to step away and took off his t-shirt to wipe his face. “My first experience with aliens from outer space and I throw up. I get it, not a good strategy for first contact. Other than being sick as a dog, I’m fine. Not only did the kid you dragged over stink like a dead animal, you’re not smelling very nice either.”

Shinny was perplexed and had no idea what Brad was talking about. She looked at her hands, still bloody from pulling the pilot’s teeth and wiped them on her pants, thinking it was her bloody hands Brad must be smelling. “What do you mean she smells like a dead animal? She isn’t dead. If anything, the pilot is lucky. I was ready to literally pull the pilot’s head off for shooting at my family, but I held back to keep the pilot alive for interrogation.”

Brad was annoyed with her. First, no one saw the UFO and now they had all lost their sense of smell. It was more craziness, but he wasn’t sure if it was them or him. “Never mind, I’ll accept that you don’t smell anything unusual. We have more important things to talk about. Damn it, Shinny, why couldn’t you have said something to me before?” Brad spat out. As soon as he said it, he regretted the tone in his voice, but he was angry with Shinny’s lack of trust in him. “Do you have any idea how it felt being held down by Griken and your brother, watching you run into the line of fire? Not only that, I’m wondering who the hell did I marry?” He was certain the uncomfortable stabbing pain in his chest was from the stress and not a heart attack. He closed his eyes briefly, taking a deep breath to calm himself. The puzzle pieces were always in front of him, but he was never able to make any sense of them. Even now, looking at his wife, the truth seemed too far-fetched for even him to believe. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“I’m sorry. I never intended for you to find out this way. We had been talking to a counselor to help me explain the truth to you as soon as I received approval for your immigration.” She took a few steps closer as if waiting for the right moment to hold him.

“Step back. Now. I’m serious about the smell, it is making me sick,” Brad demanded. Although a spotlight from the roof lit the sad expression on her face as she stepped back, Brad was too angry to care about it. “Couldn’t you have trusted me? It would have helped in explaining some of the issues between us. Who would I have told?”

“It was never a trust issue. I couldn’t tell you. My mistake was not seeking approval to tell you sooner. I have been hurting as much as you are from keeping the secret for as long as I have. I hated not telling you, but I can’t explain why I didn’t try to fix this sooner.” Her eyes flickered with silver filaments. “Connor has asked us to return. He has reconsidered the invitation to return to the Fleet. I may need to join him sooner.”

Brad looked at Connor and watched Griken hand Connor an object with a silver gleam that shone in the darkness. Connor stood at the house next to Nan and Griken, about seventy feet away. Although Brad could see movement, he could not hear what they were saying. “Connor is at the house. How would you know this?” He wondered if she was just looking for any excuse to avoid discussing their problem.

“Did you see my eyes flickering or flashing?”

Brad nodded an affirmative.

“Connor was transmitting the information to me through his chip. Personal communications are limited between mated couples and parents and their children to avoid brain hacking. However, there are exceptions to this rule, but it is strongly recommended limiting opening a channel to only trusted individuals. There are also special encrypted bands similar to radio announcements. The Fleet uses a number of the encrypted bands to share information. If we are to have any hope of moving past this, I need to start sharing everything, and I will.” She turned and walked back toward the house.

Brad followed her. His chest tightened and ached again as she spoke, and subsided when she stopped and turned toward the house. He was beginning to believe Connor and Shinny were serious, yet he still felt as if his insides had been ripped out. He still wondered whether she had told him the real reason for not telling him sooner. He couldn’t help but suspect she had been planning all along to leave him. The thought just kept eating at him. He was torn, furious with her and wanting his space to work through this on his own, yet not wanting her to leave with Connor. The closer they got to the house the more confused he became.

Connor watched Shinny and Brad approach. Brad looked as if a truck had run over him. When he asked Shinny if Brad was okay, she transmitted back that he had been sick but now seemed fine. Connor wasn’t sure what to think. He understood seeing the UFO and learning it was real put some people in shock until they had accepted it. He was perplexed by Brad’s reaction. He thought Brad would have easily accepted the truth, but also being shot at and learning that his wife was from another planet may have been too much for him to handle in such a short time. He watched Brad walk cautiously behind Shinny, remaining standoffish. Connor was not happy the time schedule on his project had literally been shot up by the Aneplé in his backyard, but the decision he had made resolved for him what his next steps would be. Now he needed Brad to snap out of his shock and pull himself together.

Connor waited for Shinny and Brad to stop walking before he spoke. Shinny had stopped within the conversation circle but Brad stood away from their circle for some strange reason. “Because of the fire fight, I’ve decided to accept the CIG’s invitation to be recalled to active duty. It was too close for comfort. I need to go back and find out what the hell is going on, and work toward keeping Earth from being compromised. Neither Griken nor I want to wait for the station commander to find another pilot to pick us up and fly the shuttle back, so I will fly him and his aide, and take the prisoner back to the station.” Connor pointed at the lifeless pilot. He stared at Brad to watch his reaction to his next statement. “With the change in plans, we won’t be able to give you a ride tonight.”

Brad kept an impartial expression. He had already prepared himself to be let down and didn’t expect he would get a ride on the spacecraft. He hadn’t been sure how they were going to turn down his ride, but he had already convinced himself they would come up with an excuse. He nodded. “Understood.” Actually, he didn’t, but it was getting late and he was ready to go home and try to sleep. He was done with whatever was going on and assumed it had nothing to do with him. He continued to stand there and focus on anything but the smell coming from the pilot. With Connor’s voice droning in the background, he thought about the projects he needed to address and clients he needed to contact in the morning when he woke up.

“Brad, did you hear anything I said?” Connor asked.

Brad jumped slightly, startled from hearing his name called out loudly from Connor. “Sorry, no. I started thinking about the office.”

“He seems easily distracted. Are you certain this is what you want to do?” Griken asked Connor.

Connor looked at Griken, “Yes. I’ve known him for about half his life. It’s the right thing to do.” He turned back toward Brad. “I asked you if you would like to join us when we report to Griken’s Battle Cruiser.”

Brad looked at each of them. “Let me see if I understand what you are asking. You are asking if I wanted a ride on your starship.”

“No. I’m asking if you would want to sign up for duty on a starship and join us.”

Brad stunned by Connors offer, “You are asking the caveman if he wants to join your space fleet. Did I hear you correctly?”

“If I thought you were a caveman incapable of adapting and growing in our society, I wouldn’t be asking you to join us,”

Brad hadn’t seen the object in Connor’s yard fly yet, and still had doubt as to whether they were from another planet. This could be an elaborate joke, he kept telling himself, but there was still the “what if it is true” factor. “I’m confused. How would I fit in, coming from an environment that is not as advanced as yours?”

“If you decide to join us and apply to the Fleet reserve, a chip will be implanted in your brain. The chip will assist you with knowledge gaps. Medically, it is safe. The real issue will be your ability to adapt and use it correctly. If I didn’t think you were capable, I would not be asking you to join us.”

“If I leave with Shinny and you, who will take care of Dane?”

“Nan has offered to watch Dane along with Ben and Sarah,” answered Connor.

Brad wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to and was nervous committing himself, but everyone was looking at him, waiting for him to make a decision. Maybe it wasn’t real and they would have the last laugh. Or maybe it was, and he was in for the ride of his life. “Sign me on.”

“Be prepared to leave tomorrow evening,” Connor informed Brad. “Shinny, could you help us get the pilot back onto the shuttle?”

Shinny walked up to Nan. “As far as I am concerned, CIG’s Fleet screwed up. Someone else needs to drag the pilot back to the shuttle without my assistance. At this moment, Dane’s needs rank higher than yours or the pilot’s. I need to take him home and tuck him back into bed.” Shinny took Dane from Nan.

Dane squirmed away and screamed. “No, Mommy, you smell bad. I want Daddy.” He reached out to Brad. “No, no, I want Daddy.”

Brad ran toward Dane when he heard him scream. He took Dane from Shinny and cradled his son. Glaring at Shinny, “Back off, I told you that you smelled. It’s probably from your impromptu dental procedure on the pilot.” He took a few steps away from Shinny, who appeared dumbfounded at their son’s reaction. “At least he hasn’t thrown up.” He held his son firmly. “Dane, we will go home as soon as your uncle flies that machine.” He pointed to the object at the far end of the yard.

Shinny looked back at everyone. “Since I no longer have a competing requirement, I’ll take the pilot back to the shuttle. Could someone get a rope to tie her hands and feet? I don’t think she will get up in the next few hours or be in any shape to cause more damage, but it will be safer to tie her up.” She walked over to the pilot and grabbed the pilot’s waistband.

“Agreed,” Connor confirmed watching Shinny, Griken, and the commander walk toward the shuttle. Connor walked back into his house to get the rope.

Brad watched his wife carry the woman as if she weighed no more than a sleeping bag. He had always suspected she was capable of far more than she had demonstrated in the past, but this evening had been a real eye opener for him. He was amazed watching her, but continued to be truly pissed she had hidden so much from him. The anger welled up again followed by tension in his chest. A stabbing pain erupted there again. He needed to focus on what was going on.

Connor returned with the twine and walked up to Brad. “Brad, you could move closer, however, it would be safer to stay here with Dane. I’m not sure when I’ll return, but I’ll talk to you more about this tomorrow.”

“Have a good flight,” he responded as he watched Connor jog toward the vehicle. As he approached it, Shinny stepped out and jogged toward Brad and Dane. She walked past them and stood next to Nan.

“Daddy, can we go home now, please?” his son whined.

“In a moment. We need to watch the spaceship take off.” He pointed toward the vehicle near the back fence. Or not, he muttered to to himself.

Brad watched the shuttle light up brighter and begin to hum. So far, it was similar to what he saw and heard on the lake. However, he still needed to see it fly before he would be convinced. Slowly the stubby wings unfolded and the intensity of the hum increased. The aircraft slowly lifted. It hovered for about fifteen seconds, and then flew in the direction of the house. As the aircraft passed over the house, it disappeared.

Brad looked at Shinny. “Where did it go?”

“Connor is flying in stealth mode. Normally takeoff on this planet would be done in stealth, but he wanted you to get a glimpse of it flying.”

Brad nodded. He had to admit, it was amazing to watch. “Seeing is believing.” The concept was daunting; he would need to begin accepting everything Connor had said to him. However, he remained angry and hurt over Shinny’s deception.

“Cool, Daddy. Can we do that?” Dane asked pointing to the sky.

“Maybe one day, but we are not going to ride in it tonight. It’s past our bedtime. We are going home,” Brad explained as he walked toward Nan and stopped. “Thank you for agreeing to watch Dane for us.”

“Of course, Dane is my grandson,” she responded smiling.

Brad smiled weakly at Nan’s response, thinking it was going to be hard to get used to looking at her young face and thinking of Connor’s wife as Dane’s grandmother. “I’ll see you tomorrow, I need to get the big guy home.” Brad walked into the house toward the front door, leaving Shinny behind.

[]Chapter 5

 

 

Brad ran at full speed trying to keep up with the people in front of him. Although the room was dark and filled with a heavy green dust, he could still see the outlines of the people in front of him. He was in great shape, but couldn’t remember the last time he ran this hard, pumping at full speed with his arms, legs and hair soaked from his sweat. Although his lungs struggled for oxygen and his sides hurt from the exertion, he kept pushing himself, hoping adrenaline would kick in to help him keep up with the pace. He only had a clear vision of the backsides of the people he was running behind. They were so damn tall he couldn’t tell where they were running to or what was in front of them, he just knew he needed to keep up with them.

Ptzing, ptzing, ptzing. Son of a bitch, someone was shooting at him. At least they were hitting a shield. He looked up and around but could not see the opalescent flicker of a shield, but there had to be a shield somewhere behind him. The ptzinging continued. His curiosity got the better of him. He turned, which slowed his run, but he needed to know how far behind the people shooting at him were. Shinny ran closely behind him, an angry expression on her face. She had a weapon in her right hand and was holding something like a shield behind her left shoulder.

He could not tell what she was saying with the ptzinging rapidly increasing. He moved over to the right to let her catch up to him. She ran next to him and slapped his stomach. The wind got knocked out of him as his abdomen radiated in pain from her slap. He wasn’t sure what was more shocking, Shinny hitting him or how much it hurt. The pain made running harder, but he kept pushing himself forward. Something on his back drove him to push his legs faster. It felt more like a distraction than a help, but he forced himself to keep moving forward.

“Brad, you don’t have anything for me. Take your friends and get the hell out of here!” Shinny shoved him away from her and swung around still holding her shield in place, deflecting the projectiles and lasers from the praser guns firing at them.

“Shinny!” Brad cried out as someone tugged his shoulder.

“Daddy, daddy, wake up—you’re having a bad dream.”

Brad popped his eyes open and saw Dane pulling his shoulder. His body was sore and his muscles stiff. Not exactly a good night’s sleep. Looking around he remembered he was on the couch in his office. His son stared at him. “Dane, I’m up. Give me a moment.” He sat up slowly, realizing how stupid it was to sleep on the couch without pulling it out. He stretched his shoulders and neck.

“Daddy, did you have a bad dream?” Dane asked, staring up at him with a worried look on his face.

“Why would you think that?” Brad looked at his son copying his movements as he continued to stretch his arms and muscles along his back.

“Your legs were moving and you were calling Mommy’s name. It looked like a bad dream. Mommy said you were sleeping here because it was complicake.”

Brad looked at his son and wondered what he could say that would be appropriate for a three-year-old. “Complicated would be one way of saying it. But your Mommy told me a lie and you know how I don’t like being told a lie.”

“If Mommy told a lie, why are you sleeping here with the lucky blanket?” Dane asked innocently.

“I’m asking myself the same question. I think if Mommy is naughty again, she gets the couch.” Brad rubbed his eyes and yawned. Hopefully they would be leaving soon and he wouldn’t have too many more nights on the couch, since it was way past its expiration date.

“Okay, Daddy.” Dane grabbed a travel mug off the coffee table and turned back toward him. “Mommy said to give this to you. It’s your favorite, coffee.”

Brad took the mug from Dane and pressed the button to sip the coffee. He couldn’t get out of his head that not only did he marry a space alien, but also they had produced a child. He thought he loved his wife, but learning he didn’t know much about her and couldn’t be sure what he could or should trust when it came to her was devastating. He loved and adored his son, and as far as he could tell Dane was one hundred percent human, but he still had his concerns. He pondered if his son’s precociousness was the result of his mother’s genetic makeup. Not that it would be something bad, he reminded himself. Brad watched his son squirm. “Dane, did you want to tell me something?”

Dane nodded. “Uh huh. Uncle Connor and Nanny are in the kitchen and I’m going to go play with Ben and Sarah. So you need to come to the kitchen.”

“I do?” Brad watched his son nod again. “Okay, I guess I do.” Brad stood up and stretched more before he followed Dane out of the room to the kitchen.

When he walked into the kitchen, he saw Connor, Nan, and Shinny standing at a counter with Melissa Kittredge, Dane’s favorite babysitter. Looking at Shinny he still felt he had been manipulated and he was angry over her deceptions. Although, she no longer smelled, he kept his distance from her. He was angry. His world had been turned upside down last night, yet her serene, placid face gave no hint of any trouble between them. Connor, Nan, and Shinny had a single-minded look about them. He felt uneasy looking at them and wondered what this was about.

Seeing Melissa, he decided to ask the obvious question, “Who’s watching Ben and Sarah?”

“My brother, Pete, is over there now.” Melissa smiled as she bent down and picked up Dane. “Dane, let’s go and have a play date with your cousins.”

You mean aunt and uncle, Brad thought. “Dane, how about a goodbye hug for me?”

Melissa brought Dane over to Brad for a hug, and then crossed to Shinny to let Dane also hug his mother. “Dane, wave goodbye, we’ll see everyone later.”

Brad watched Melissa leave with Dane waving at them. Everyone stood quietly in the kitchen waiting to hear the front door close behind Melissa. Brad wondered what would be next. Watching them look at him, he had a feeling they were ganging up on him about something. Not willing to wait any longer, he got the ball rolling. “Okay, is there something more I need to know?” He hoped there wouldn’t be anything new, as he was still trying hard to process everything he saw and was told last night. Brad took a sip of his coffee as he watched the silver flickers in Connor and Shinny’s eyes and gold in Nan’s. He had always thought it was unusual and thought Shinny’s flicker was an attractive twinkle. He was even more intrigued when he learned last night it meant they were communicating through their implanted chips or accessing information from a networked system. Thinking about that gave him a headache, but technologically speaking he was raised in a cave compared to them.

“Nan will not be watching the children as we discussed last night,” Connor announced, looking at Brad. “There are two reasons for this decision. The first is that Nan decided it was more urgent for her to focus on her research project, in view of last night’s incident. The second is that Nan and I have decided Ben and Sarah should have their chips inserted and this would be an ideal time.”

Brad felt the blood drain from his face. “I’m not sure I understand. What is Nan researching that is more important than watching our children?” Brad asked staring at both Connor and Nan. He wasn’t sure what the implications of Connor’s announcement would be, but whatever it was, he was sure he was not going to be happy.

“As I mentioned last night, Nan is leading several academic research teams investigating Earth’s readiness to be integrated into CIG. At the rate the Aneplé have been taking control over the transit gates between the galaxies, if CIG cannot stop their advancements, Earth has fifteen to twenty years before the Aneplé find Earth. Her team needs to finish their research quickly and make a recommendation. The recommendation would impact the way forward in bolstering Earth’s defenses.”

“I see. So what will happen to Ben and Sarah? I thought inserting the chip was fairly simple and quick. Did I misunderstand your explanation last night?”

“Inserting the chip is probably less than a thirty minute procedure. Nevertheless, we’ve decided that in addition to inserting the chip, we are going to place them in hibernation at the station for the few months I’m deployed. This will also allow Nan to focus on her research. I checked the facility earlier today before I flew back. They are well equipped to keep them safe. “ Connor stood straighter. “With this change Dane is left without a guardian during the time Shinny and you were planning to travel with me. Shinny has orders to return and has no choice; therefore, you will need to stay home to watch Dane. It may be possible to join me later, if I decide to remain as CIG’s Fleet Admiral.”

Brad glanced at Shinny. “How long will you be gone?” Not wanting to hear from her, Brad asked Connor, “Can I leave when she returns?”

“Brad, the time I am gone shouldn’t be too long. I need to upgrade my training and then transfer to the inactive reserve,” she explained. “As far as leaving when I return, I can’t answer that. It would be entirely up to the station commander and the transport schedule.”

“The issue is logistics; there may not be enough time to pick you up before the next transport needs to leave Earth,” Connor added.

Brad shifted his weight awkwardly, reacting to his unhappiness with Connor’s announcement. He wasn’t good at hiding his emotions. The concern was probably all over his face. “What about my parents watching Dane? I’m sure they wouldn’t mind doing it for a few weeks.”

“Brad, if I could guarantee we would be gone just a few weeks it wouldn’t be a problem. We have a cover story that we are traveling throughout Europe building our customer base, but do you see it working with your parents if we are delayed beyond a few weeks? It would be better if they thought the children were traveling with us,” Connor explained. “However, there is an alternative you could consider.”

“What is it?” Brad asked anxiously.

“Dane’s space heritage is as valid as Ben and Sarah’s. You may want to consider the chip implantation and hibernation also. Knowing your background, I understand your discomfort. I’m not going to force you to make a similar decision with Dane. You need to come to that conclusion on your own, that both the chip insertion and hibernation are safe and necessary.”

Brad stiffened as he struggled with the idea. Nan and Connor might feel comfortable injecting a chip in their children’s heads and freezing them, but he wasn’t convinced the medical technology was safe, even though they stood there as evidence of its safety. Intellectually, his hesitation wasn’t about the technology. It was his own emotions and his lack of understanding of the technology. The technology might be safer than crossing the street, but he didn’t have enough information to make a sound decision. Even if he did have the information, he wasn’t sure he could make a decision like that when it came to his son. He looked at Shinny, wondering what she was thinking. While he felt as compelled as Connor to defend Earth, he was kidding himself if he thought he would make a difference. He wouldn’t want to live with the guilt he was trading his son’s life for a once in a lifetime ride through the stars. “He doesn’t have the same genetic makeup as Ben and Sarah. Can you guarantee it would be safe for him?” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Shinny, Dane is your son also, where do you stand on this?”

“Connor, Nan, and I look like everyone because we are the same genotype. The medical risks for Dane are no different than for Ben and Sarah. Dane will be more at risk from getting sick from Ebola and dying if he doesn’t get the chip. The chip will constantly provide organic corrections or immune upgrades if confronted with a new virus or bacteria. The chip will also enhance his education by leaps and bounds.” Shinny reached and touched Brad’s arm. “I want my son safe. If I can’t watch him myself, placing him in hibernation at this time is the safest place for him. If it was only my decision, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

Brad pulled his arm away from her. He was aghast at Shinny’s words. He wondered why he even bothered to ask her since he still felt betrayed by her lies and didn’t feel he could trust anything from her. Odd as it was, he had accepted and understood Connor and Nan’s reasons for not sharing the same secret of their space heritage. Nor did he question Connor and Nan’s parenting decisions for Ben and Sarah. As Connor had explained earlier, there was no question about Ben and Sarah’s genetic birthright. Yet he couldn’t get past his emotional shock and begin trusting everything she said this soon. He ignored the distressed looked on Shinny’s face, as he dismissed her. He asked Connor, “I need more information. Where do you stand on this?”

“I am willing to support your desire to join CIG’s Fleet, but not if you can’t learn to accept that the technology now available to your son and you is a gift that will in some cases require you to revise some of your assumptions. I’m qualifying that with a “some,” because I expect this revision will cut both ways. We may need to listen to you and reassess what we have always believed to be true. Our technology and maturity as a civilization have not given us a monopoly on always knowing what is right along with knowing the correct course of action. If it did, CIG would not have stumbled into this conflict with the Aneplé, a conflict that has continued for centuries.” Connor studied Brad for a moment, “I’m not asking you to make changes to your value system, because there is nothing wrong with it, but I am asking you to not discount the information that will be available to you, to question both sides of the equation, your suppositions as well as ours.”

Brad was speechless. “I had naturally assumed I would need to start questioning everything I knew, but I didn’t expect you to ask me to also question your domain. Although I can’t even begin to understand why you would ask this of me, I think I understand what you want. But I still don’t have enough information to make a decision, especially when it comes to Dane.”

“We don’t have time for you to take baby steps, but I will grant you may not have enough information at this time to make a decision. First, Dane is not the first child to be born of mixed heritage nor would he be the first with his background to immigrate, be given a chip and placed into hibernation. Second, Dane is my grandson; I love him as much as my own children and wouldn’t subject him to any unnecessary risks. Third, placing children in hibernation during deployments is common among Fleet personnel. I don’t see it any different than people sending their children to summer camps here. In fact, I find it odd how people on Earth will entrust their children to strangers who have not been as thoroughly vetted as the staff manning the Hibernation Centers. The primary difference is that our children are unaware their parents have been gone for months. My first wife and I put Shinny into hibernation a few times and there have been no ill effects from doing that. We probably could have a lengthy discussion on comparing the pros and cons of both situations, but as I mentioned before, we don’t have the luxury of time since Shinny and I plan to report to the station early tomorrow morning.”

Pain stabbed Brad’s chest again upon hearing something new about Shinny. He needed to get over his anger with his wife. The woman was more than 130 years older than him and there would always be something new to discover about her. But hearing of her hibernation periods was another reminder of how different she was from him, how much she had hid from him, and how little he knew about her. He inhaled deeply as he reminded himself to focus on the problem at hand. “Before I agree to Dane’s chip implantation and hibernation, I want to have the chip implantation first.” At least he would have an idea of the procedure and whether it was safe before he subjected his son to the alien technology. He told himself he could refuse to let them chip Dane if it didn’t go well for him. If he survived.

“Fair enough. I’ll make the request. However, I can’t make any guarantees. I’m inclined to believe the request will be granted because Griken is anxious to return to CIG space and insisted the station expedite your induction into the Fleet. Nevertheless, I’ll let you know if the station denies your request.”

“Thanks, that will help me make the decisions I need to make.” Surprised Griken had taken an interest, Brad relaxed slightly and took another sip of his coffee, wondering if he would get any answers to his next few questions. “After I receive my chip and raise my hand promising to defend the universe against all the bad guys, what’s next?”

Connor didn’t respond to Brad’s attempt at bad humor and instead looked at his watch. “I can answer a few more questions, but we need to prepare for the trip. This will include packing and securing our houses. After you receive the chip and join the Fleet, you will be given an aptitude test and presented with the available career options. Training will depend upon the career field you choose.” Connor took on his Fleet persona, standing straight at his full height. “We leave at 2200 tonight, one carryon bag and one small bag per person, and the car seats. I don’t want to leave them in the car for someone to find and ask questions. They would go with us as if we were taking a plane. I will take care of the work issues and ask Melissa and Pete to mow our lawns during the time we are gone. Shinny, report at 2100 for preflight check; you will be my second seat.”

“Yes, Connor. Will there be anything else, sir?” Shinny stood erect and nodded a salute to Connor.

Brad noted the change in Shinny’s demeanor. “Is Shinny a pilot also?” he asked reluctantly. He suspected she probably was, and didn’t want to hear it, as more new information about her might cause another uncomfortable physical reaction. However, he now believed he should know everything about her going forward.

“Although she did not fly your Cessna, she is certified to fly Fleet planetary vehicles. Considering who my passengers will be, I will use her skills as a backup on the safety checks and as my copilot.” Connor looked from person to person. “Any last questions?”

Brad nodded that he understood. Shinny and Nan stood silently as if all of their questions had been answered. But he still had more questions than Connor clearly had time or was willing to answer for the moment. Brad tried to ignore his body clenching and the sting in his chest from hearing more background information on Shinny and hoped his physical reaction wasn’t noticeable. He glanced at Shinny and Nan. They didn’t look like they were going to ask another question and he probably should hold off on more questions. He still had one nagging question, though, that he needed to ask – as senseless as it might seem to them. “Once we are on station and I’m a member of CIG’s Fleet Force, do I address you as Admiral or Dad?” It was odd thinking his best friend was now his father-in-law. He didn’t want to go there, but if that was what he needed to do, then so be it.

Shinny stepped toward Brad. “I should have explained this to you a long time ago. Since we do not use terms for in-laws, you would normally address Connor as Father. However, addressing our father as Connor is considered respectful among Fleet personnel, since it is an honorific title meaning Fleet Admiral. When we arrived here, we learned that although Connor had a different meaning for us, it was a common name that was pronounced the same way. It was the easiest choice for both of us since my father has had the title for more years than Hawaii has been a state.”

Brad felt the tension in his body build as Shinny answered his question. He heard everything she said, but had trouble focusing. He needed to get away and work through the emotional strain building inside him but it didn’t look like that was going to happen in the near future. Inhaling deeply, he responded, “Connor it is.” Although Brad was not feeling well at that moment, he hoped he could be able to pass the physical exam. He questioned if he made the right decision. Perhaps he should just bag it and stay home with Dane. But he if he did he was committing himself to a planet bound life. He might never have another chance to realize his dream of space flight or space exploration.

Connor held his hand out toward Nan for her to hold, “I’ll send Melissa over with Dane in a few hours to give you time to prepare for the flight. See you tonight,” he said as he walked toward the front door with Nan.

Brad’s heart pounded rapidly as he stared silently at Shinny wanting to have the discussion they should have had years ago, but they had too much to do if they were going to leave in less than twelve hours for a lengthy trip. “Make sure Dane’s clothes and toys are packed and I will take care of everything else,” he winced in anger before he turned and walked backed to his office wondering what the hell should he pack in a small bag for a trip that might be a few months. It would be nice to ask someone, but Connor made it clear he would be too busy; Nan would expect him to talk to Shinny but he still wasn’t ready to talk to her about anything at this time. He would figure something out and hopefully Shinny would be out of the bedroom when he was ready to pack.

[]Chapter 6

 

 

The ptzing ptzing increased rapidly as Shinny ran next to him on his left. It’s the same damn dream. Just wake up. He wasn’t sure what was more important, keeping up with the group in front of him or waking up before Shinny slapped his abdomen again. Trapped in the dream, he wasn’t able to do anything, not even prepare for the slap when it came. Once again the pain made it hard for him to focus on running and caused him to slow down, but he kept running. He knew what was coming next; he had heard her say it twice to him already. It was going to hurt more than the slap, but he wasn’t able to wake up.

“Brad, you don’t have anything for me. Take your friends and get the hell out of here,” Shinny yelled at him. She shoved him away from her.

“Shinny!” Brad cried out as his shoulder was tugged and pulled.

“Brad wake up, it’s just a dream.”

Brad woke up and opened his eyes. He shook his head slightly to regain his composure as he glanced around the shuttle. He wondered if everyone in the shuttle heard him. Quickly glancing at his watch he realized that although they had been traveling only few hours, they were not far from the aliens’ ground based station, their destination, located in the Kermadec Trench. The trench, one of Earth’s deepest oceanic trenches, was not far from New Zealand. He briefly looked around at his family and reminded himself that he was the alien in their eyes. Nan was reaching over Ben and Dane, lightly squeezing his right shoulder, staring at him with her dark green eyes. “I’m sorry, I must have fallen asleep,” Brad responded to the concerned look on Nan’s face.

“Are you okay?” Nan asked quietly.

“Daddy, had another bad dream,” announced Dane. “Daddy, were you dreaming about Mommy again?” Dane asked.

Dane’s innocent question caused Brad to flinch inside. “Yes, Dane, it was a Mommy-Daddy dream. Don’t worry, I’m okay now.”

Nan tapped a few things on her tablet. “Dane, I’m going to readjust your seat so you can go back to sleep.” Dane nestled into his seat as it reclined to fit his small body and immediately dropped back to sleep.

“Nan, thanks. Not only am I having a hard time adapting to everything I thought I knew about Shinny, but also we seem to be doing a poor job of keeping Dane out of this. He shouldn’t need to worry about what is going on between his parents.” He watched the back of Shinny’s head where she sat in the row ahead of him in the copilot’s seat.

Brad didn’t feel comfortable revealing the chaos he felt inside, but he needed to be upfront with the issue if he was going to move past it. He kept his voice low so only Nan could hear. “Truthfully, I haven’t done well since learning Shinny isn’t the person I married. Intellectually, I understand why she couldn’t be honest with me, but I keep asking myself who and what did I marry? To top it off, I’ve been having this bizarre recurring dream of her hitting me and telling me she doesn’t want me anymore. I can’t blame her, considering the way I’ve been acting for the past twenty-four hours.”

Nan pursed her lips. “Neither Shinny nor Connor imagined you would find out the way you did. Shinny should have started the process before Dane was born. She has admitted it was a mistake to wait as long as she did. There are several things I can’t say to you at this time. However, I believe over time, your questions and concerns will be answered. We recognize your turmoil is from the shock of learning your planet isn’t the only inhabited planet in the universe. However, I also believe your shock is compounded by learning your wife and closest friend are not from Earth. While you seemed to immediately accept Connor’s revelation, it seems to be a bigger shock to have learned about Shinny’s origination. We are cognizant it’s been difficult for you and understand the struggle you are having internally when it comes to your relationship with Shinny. Then again, had Shinny been given the opportunity to tell you herself without you accidently finding out, would you have received the news any better?”

Brad stared at Connor and Shinny sitting in the cockpit area in their uniforms. He watched them as they gestured above the controls on the dashboard. “I don’t know. I used to think we were like the three musketeers making our way through the world. Now, I’m thinking it was probably more like the dynamic duo and their dim-witted sidekick. I’m not even sure why they kept me around. They were quite capable of accomplishing anything they wanted without me.”

“Brad, we understand you will need to confront and reconcile many of your expectations and beliefs, but most of all you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. If Connor and Shinny viewed you as you had just described yourself, they would not have maintained their friendship with you over the past thirteen years nor would you be on this vehicle to our ground station. Do you think Shinny would have chosen you to be her mate if you were just a dim-witted sidekick?”

“No, I don’t think that, but I don’t understand it, either. It doesn’t make sense why Connor is supporting my recruitment to CIG’s Fleet. Neither does Shinny’s relationship with me make any sense. She could be married to an admiral instead of someone who just learned to tie his shoes. I think I’m more confused than wallowing in self-pity. I’m trying to understand the past thirteen years as well as the future.”

“You are overthinking everything. You need to focus on the changes and decisions you will need to make soon. Once you are on the battle cruiser, you will have a great many new things thrown at you but you will also need to find time to talk to Shinny and work your issues out between the two of you. As for Connor, when he’s ready, he will explain everything to you.”

“Has he explained everything to you?” Brad asked.

“Actually, when it comes to you, the answer is no, and I suspect the reason is related to CIG’s Fleet.”

Nan’s statement confused Brad even more. He could not imagine how his relationship with Connor would be Fleet related, unless it was related to human experimentation. That thought left him more apprehensive. He understood Connor well enough to know he would never condone human experimentation or torture. Those were his own screwy ideas and he needed to drop that line of thinking. But he still wondered where Shinny fit into all of this. “What about Shinny? Why do you think she married me?”

Nan sighed heavily at his question, “You need to have that conversation with her, but I suspect it’s the same reason most people on your world marry.”

Brad sat silently for a few moments thinking about what Nan shared with him. He believed her, but he kept thinking there had to be another reason. He had a few more questions to ask, but Connor announced they had reached their point of entry into the Pacific Ocean. Once he received clearance he would initiate an ocean entry to dive toward the station.

Brad turned to Nan. “Will there be a pressure change affecting the children?”

The small gold flecks in her eyes flashed in the dark. Nan was either checking the information stored on the vehicle’s computers or consulting with Connor. “Connor says it’s unlikely with the pressurized cabin, but they may wake up, since the dive will not be as smooth as traveling in air with this vehicle.”

It didn’t look like much was going to wake his son, but Brad appreciated being given notice. He looked out his porthole and watched as they entered the ocean. Connor was right, the ride wasn’t as smooth and it seemed like the aircraft (or was it a submersible now?) was struggling to push through the water. Although they left during the night, daylight had come, showing schools of fish moving with the current near the surface. He had expected it to be darker as they dived deeper into the water, since natural light from the sun couldn’t penetrate the deep water, but light emanated from the vehicle. As the vehicle submerged deeper, the plants and schools of fish disappeared leaving the eerie sight of the stark walls of the trench. It was a pretty amazing sight, but he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to share it with anyone. Perhaps when they returned he would be able to point out the sea creatures closer to the surface to Dane, who remained in a deep sleep.

The vehicle steadily slowed and entered a dark cavern, where it came to a stop. Looking out of the porthole, Brad realized they were in a steel tube moving slowly as the water level dropped. The cabin lights gradually brightened, as the vehicle moved forward.

“As soon as the seawater has drained, I will dock the vehicle inside the station,” Connor announced.

Brad focused on Connor and Shinny’s reflection on the windshield. He sighed wistfully staring at their uniforms with their insignias, wondering how he missed the signs. Both wore black long sleeved crew neck tops and fitted pants similar to what Griken had worn at Connor’s house. Connor had four bluish white circles similar to hot stars placed along the right and left edges of his shirt’s rounded collar. On the left side of his shirt was the insignia Griken had given to Connor at his house: a thin platinum elongated sine wave with a shooting star on the right end and four smaller star shapes similar in color to the circles on his collar, placed evenly across the sign wave. Shinny had three gold triangles on each side of her collar and an ominous crossed fists insignia on the left side of her shirt. She was also wearing her black boots from her high school days. He never quite understood her fascination with her boots that she wore all the time, but he now understood it was an integral part of her uniform as a Special Combat Officer. Wearing these boots was akin to carrying a gun. He never saw a weapon and wasn’t even sure she needed one after last night, but now he wouldn’t be surprised if he learned that she had always carried a weapon. Crap, he didn’t want to think about it, at least not now. He looked around and packed Dane’s toys and books in the carry-on bag and picked up other items to help Nan pack to keep himself busy.

The vehicle came to a gentle stop. Brad looked out of the porthole at the space vehicles docked in the room. He estimated that there were perhaps thirty to fifty of them. Once he got out, he would be able to count all of the spacecraft, since he could only see out one side of the craft. It shocked him that there were so many alien vehicles on Earth and yet, for the most part, they had remained completely undetected. He wondered what would be first, Earth identifying the UFOs or CIG openly announcing their arrival. He would be surprised if any of the major superpowers could develop the technology to detect these crafts before CIG decided to announce their official arrival. He smiled thinking he might be around to see it and it would probably be entertaining. He imagined the chaos that would arise at the United Nations, when Connor suddenly interrupted his daydreaming.

“I was informed by the platform commander that the staff will ensure our suitcases are moved to our rooms, but you may want to take your personal items now,” Connor advised everyone as he initiated the vehicle’s shutdown procedures. “It’s show time, folks. Nan, if you carry Sarah, I’ll take Ben.”

Brad pulled his son out of his seat. “Dane, I’ve got you. Are you ready to visit a new place?”

“Daddy, I want Mommy,” Dane demanded as he reached for Shinny.

“I don’t know. Mommy might have to work. She has her work clothes on like your Uncle Connor.” Brad looked at Shinny and saw silver flashes in her eyes; he wondered what it meant this time.

“I can take Dane,” Shinny said, reaching for Dane.

Brad was reluctant to hand Dane over to Shinny, wondering what he was going to do other than carry bags. He passed Dane to her. “Alright, just let me know if you need to report somewhere and I’ll take over.”

Shinny smiled sadly at him as she held her son. “Thanks.”

Connor stepped into the main cabin area and picked up Ben. He looked around and confirmed that everyone was ready to disembark the vehicle. Moving toward the door, he gestured a command to open the door. He looked at his son. “Ben, are you ready to meet some new friends?” Ben, still very sleepy, snuggling against his father nodded a yes. Connor stepped out of the vehicle with Nan and Shinny following, carrying the other two children.

Brad felt like the odd man out. He had accepted that much of it was his own doing. As he stepped out of the alien craft, he wondered whether this might be the first and last time he would get to visit the future. He decided, then, to take in as much as possible. Ahead, two columns of CIG’s Fleet personnel lined up forming a cordon leading toward a door outside the room they were in. To Brad, it was a strange sight. The cordon of CIG personnel reminded him of Connor and Shinny thirteen years ago, tall, fit, attractive and no one looking any older than sixteen despite their various uniforms. It made him think of what a Star Trek movie set might look like with all the different varieties of humanoids. So not only was he the odd man out, he was also going to be the old guy out, since all of them were probably participating in CIG’s rejuvenation program.

Admiral Griken walked over to Connor and bowed his head. As much as Brad hadn’t liked the guy, at least he was a familiar face. They seemed to be having a private conversation; Brad couldn’t hear what Griken was saying. A young male in a blue tunic walked over to Connor and bowed his head and then took Ben from his arms. Brad was annoyed he wasn’t asked, as he was Ben’s uncle – at least as far as Ben was concerned. Standing there waiting for something to happen, Brad looked around the room at the other vehicles. As soon as it was clear he would be allowed to walk around on his own, his first stop would be this room to take a closer look at the odd-looking machines. He was thinking about other things he might be interested in visiting when he noticed his family had started walking toward the door and were already about fifty feet ahead of him. Brad picked up his pace and followed them. The uniformed personnel bowed their heads as Connor passed them. Ahead, Griken was escorting his family through the door and Brad picked up his pace again to catch up. By the time Brad passed through the door, Shinny and Nan were walking in one direction with the blue tunic staff member holding Ben while Connor and Griken walked in another direction with several other similarly attired personnel. Following Connor would probably be more interesting than following Nan and Shinny. He walked at a brisk pace trying to catch up but he slammed into an invisible wall with the left side of his body. “Ouch, what the hell?” he barked as he stopped to touch the invisible barrier. He could not see it, but damn, it felt as if he just walked into a glass wall.

The group in front of him stopped and faced him. Connor talked briefly to the men next to him and then walked toward Brad with one of the boys. “Brad, why did you follow us? This is a restricted area.”

“No one has said anything to me as far as where I am supposed to go or what I am to do.” The kid next to Connor had a look of surprise, followed by embarrassment; worrying Brad he might have broken protocol. Whether or not he broke protocol, he had wrongly assumed the Connor’s friend would have free reign of the station, allowing him to follow Connor. He admonished himself for not slowing down and thinking this through. Logically, the admirals would have unfettered access and a visitor would have limitations.

“Brad, I’m sorry, I didn’t forget you. There are a number of issues I need to catch up on before Shinny and I leave with Griken. Technician Walenash will escort you to medical. As soon as you arrive, they will implant the chip. Afterward a team will meet with you to discuss joining the Fleet, if you are still interested. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

Brad was disappointed his best friend wouldn’t join him but understood that as a visitor, he would need an escort until they decided he wouldn’t be a security risk. Between Connor’s position in the Fleet, the changing dynamics of their friendship and the strained relationship with his wife, Brad felt rather lonely and unsettled. “I understand. I’ll see you later.”

Connor turned away and returned to the group he had just left.

Brad looked at the kid in front of him. “Lead the way, because I am completely lost. I don’t think I could even make it back to the aircraft we came in.”

“Not a problem. It can take a while to learn where everything is located. The station’s staff can also provide you with assistance. Once you get your chip, if you are truly lost, you can ask the chip for assistance and you may get help.”

“What do you mean by ‘I may get help’ from the chip? I’m not sure I understand. I thought the chip allowed an individual unlimited access to information for any reason?” Brad asked, as he kept a brisk pace beside Technician Walenash.

“It depends. The answer to that is complicated. If you are in a situation where your safety is paramount, the chip will trigger a lighted path to guide your way to safety. However, even with the chip, there is an expectation that you need to use your own brain for some functions, such as remembering a route.”

“How do you know when you should know something?”

“A query may be answered with silence or an annoying beep. It’s been almost a century since the last time I heard a beep.”

“A century since your last beep,” Brad repeated, taking another close look at Walenash, thinking he didn’t look a day past fifteen. “How old are you?”

“I believe I would be equivalent to one hundred twenty-two of your solar years. We are almost at medical; do you have any other questions?”

One hundred and twenty-two years would be the 1890s and a completely different world. Brad’s life would be as alien to someone from the 1890s as his was to these people now. He wondered if CIG had changed as radically in the last hundred years as had Earth. He would definitely look that up when he had time. For now he needed to answer Walenash. “Not really, other than I hope it won’t hurt.” Brad immediately regretted saying that aloud. He felt like an idiot. He should be more concerned about side effects or how the chip worked. He had committed himself to it, but no one had explained the alien technology to him.

“Because my chip insertion was done in infancy, I have no memories associated with it. However, no one complains of any discomfort and so I can only assume there is no pain associated with the procedure.” Walenash slowed down, stopping at an unmarked space that slid open. “Medical is here. I will wait for you in the lobby and escort you to Fleet induction afterward. I was informed you were interested in joining.”

Brad followed Walenash through the doorway. “I stated an interest in joining the Fleet depending upon the successful implementation of the chip.” Stepping into medical, he saw Nan standing in the lobby waiting for him. “Nan, thank you for coming.” Brad looked behind Nan, “Is someone else watching Ben and Sarah?”

“Shinny is watching them along with Dane.”

Brad winced hearing his wife’s name, “That makes sense. I was wondering if I might have to go through this procedure alone.”

“I thought I should be here since I signed up to be your guardian. Shinny is with the children. Connor said he would join you later,” Nan explained. She pointed toward an open doorway. “The medical technicians are waiting for you in the back room.”

Walenash looked back at Brad. “You have a guardian? That seems odd.”

“I thought so also, but apparently my youthful twenty-eight was considered a little too young by CIG’s standards,” answered Brad.

“Ah, my mistake, I forgot this planet ages faster. I haven’t completed training on this planet. Training on the station is usually about two of your years before we are allowed to attend formal schooling on your planet, so there are a number of things about Earth that are still new to me. I’ll wait for you here.”

That must be the high school part, Brad thought. Who would’ve thought? He wondered how many of CIG’s personnel had integrated themselves around the world. A shiver ran up Brad’s spine as he thought about the ramification of that concept. He pushed that thought to the back of his mind, to focus on his current situation.

[]Chapter 7

 

 

The last few hours were a blur, leaving Brad numb. The chip implantation went quickly and painlessly as promised. Brad wondered if anything had been done, until he looked in a mirror and saw the telltale mole behind his ear that was a port for upgrades. He didn’t notice anything different until he heard Nan’s voice in his head asking him if he was all right. It was strange hearing her voice and not seeing her. He wanted to respond, but wasn’t sure how other than through his voice. Even then, he just nodded he was okay and hoped she got the response or one of the medical technicians in the room passed the information to her.

The medics explained to him the chip’s primary mission was medical. The chip was an organic biomechanical machine developed to send chemical messages into his brain and body to balance the body’s metabolic requirements. Over the years, its capabilities had been expanded to allow individuals to either create or accept electronic emissions similar to a phone call or sending a query to a database in the cloud. When Brad asked how to access the databases, he was told it would take time to initialize, but it shouldn’t be too long. He would soon have his own personal browser.

It would be handy if the databases were all in English. That was another issue. Currently, he needed to convert the responses to his queries into English. Doing so didn’t take much time because the language conversion in his head went quickly with the chip, but, for now, it was a bit of an annoyance. He was told eventually he would pick up the most common languages spoken in CIG space. Verbal communications didn’t seem to be an issue because his brain translated instantaneously. He was hearing English, or at least his brain was telling him it was English.

Once he learned to access the databases through his chip he would need to balance access with the tablet given to him to avoid having his brain hacked. Brain hacking was a very real problem and he needed to be diligent to avoid compromising his chip, especially with a position in the Fleet. He was obligated to be extraordinarily vigilant as to who he allowed to have internal communications with him, and to allow only encrypted information to be downloaded into his brain. Brain viruses were passed as easily as the common cold, but the results could be far more devastating. Finally, although Nan was given immediate access as his guardian, he still needed to be cautious in allowing others to connect with him internally; the fewer the better. In fact, it was such a serious issue that children were locked out from adding anyone other than their parents. Well that explained Connor and Shinny’s constant communications, or at least he now understood it to be constant communications.

Brad would have liked to have had more time to make such life-changing decisions; it had felt like only ten minutes. He had joined CIG’s Fleet and agreed to allow the chip to be implanted in Dane, since it appeared to be safe and painless. He also agreed to place Dane in hibernation with Ben and Sarah. He felt uncomfortable leaving Dane in hibernation, but he would be one of seventy-five children hibernating. The staff explained to Brad that Dane was far from being the first child of mixed heritage in their facility. If there were any failures, Brad wouldn’t be alone going after the Fleet — there would be forty other angry parents including Connor, Nan and Shinny. Small consolation, though.

Joining the Fleet was another whirlwind experience. Nothing like what he knew from Earth recruitments. They asked him if he would uphold the rules and regulations of CIG’s Fleet and then his palm and retina prints were taken for identification and benefits. He could go to any 3D printer and use his palm to print uniforms, shoes, and insignias, but he needed to be careful because the benefits were not unlimited. While the induction was instantaneous, he still needed to select a career field. Brad stood in front of the monitor embedded in his stateroom wall staring at the 800 Fleet positions available to him. Converting the list to English was slower than if it had been sent to his brain. At the rate he was translating, he would return to Earth before he selected a career. At least he wasn’t eligible to fill all 6,800 Fleet positions; otherwise, it would probably take a few years to review the career opportunities. There had to be a better way.

A bell rang in his stateroom and he looked around for the source. The ringing came from a wall where he had entered the room. The wall was now solid and didn’t appear to have a door or any panels. Open the door, he thought toward it. A beep like a smoke alarm low-battery chirp went off in his head. “Great,” he thought, “someone is at my door and I’m stuck inside. I wonder if the door is even locked.” He felt for something on the wall to try to open the door. The bell continued to ring and muffled sounds came from the other side. He might be able to figure it out if the ringing would stop. “I’m trying to open the door,” he yelled, as he continued to swipe and wave his arms around the wall while looking for a panel. A portion of the wall slid abruptly open like a pocket door. Brad swung back into the room in surprise while the door disappeared into the wall.

Feeling like a clown thrown from his car, he straightened up and saw Connor questioning him with a raised eyebrow. “Sorry, I had a little problem with the door,” Brad explained to the escort behind him, who looked like another kid just starting high school.

“Do we need to send maintenance down here?” the girl asked.

Connor turned to the escort. “I don’t think so. Please wait out here while I talk to my friend.”

“Yes, Connor, let me know if there is anything more you need,” she offered bowing her head in a salute.

Connor gestured for the door to close. “Brad you’ll need to pay closer attention to what everyone is doing. If you can’t remember the simple gestures, you’re going to have more serious issues once we are on the battle cruiser.”

Chastened, Brad readied to snap back at Connor but caught himself before he said anything he would later regret. Connor was right. The chip gave him an eidetic memory; he just needed to learn to take advantage of it. “You’re right. I’ll pay closer attention to what is going on around me.”

“Nan has shared everything with me. Apparently you have an interesting genetic marker that medical is researching.”

Brad was surprised about the comment on the genetic marker, since this was the first time it had been mentioned to him. So much for medical privacy. His whole family probably knew. “Uh, what do you mean? Is it going to affect my entrance into the Fleet?”

“The genetic marker found on you won’t affect your Fleet commitment. However, it may be indicative of an ancestry similar to one of the CIG planets. Medical pointed out they could research it more and let you know if they find anything definitive. To do this, they will need your agreement to retrieve more samples from your extended family.”

“From my family? What does that mean? I would be uncomfortable volunteering my parents for any questionable blood retrieval program.”

“It wouldn’t be that devious or malicious. Someone would retrieve hair samples from them. Your parents would be unaware of the collection. It would give you more insight as to your ancestry.”

“First me, my son, then my parents. Maybe I should just hand over the whole damn planet,” he snapped back.

“Brad, stand down and get a grip. The Fleet is not going to retrieve anything without your permission. Normally, they would want to have the individual’s permission. But this isn’t normally. It’s only hair retrieval with your permission. Your parents won’t notice anything different. I understand your concerns but I think you probably owe your son the information, also. If you remember I wasn’t inclined to return to the Fleet, but after the attack from the pilot, I really had no choice. You may not be happy with CIG’s methods, but it is a lot more deferential than the Aneplé would be if they were to reach Earth. The Aneplé will take who and what they want without asking.”

Brad felt the sting of his friend’s annoyance and calmed down. “Sorry, I know I need to be more understanding about this.” Brad looked at his friend’s concerned face. “You’re right, I need to find out if there is a connection. As long as the retrieval is done without affecting my parent’s knowledge, I consent to the collection.”

“It will probably be done during a sleep period. They won’t notice the difference,” Connor explained. “I know a lot of information has been dumped on you in a very short time. I also understand this new information is forcing you to reconsider everything you thought you knew and understood. But honestly, I don’t think it will be too long before you realize everything will work out for you.” When Connor had heard that Brad had accepted a position in the Fleet, he wanted to see how his friend was adjusting to his decision. Although Brad had a few underlying issues, gazing around the room, it looked like Brad was onboard and hadn’t wasted any time in accepting his decisions. Not only did Brad put his uniform on, but he also printed out a few additional sets he had left folded on a counter. “Welcome to the Fleet. Have you selected a career field?”

“No, I could use help. I’m stuck on asking myself why me? Why am I here? And I’m feeling pressured to make a decision I wish I had more time to make.”

“You need to move past asking yourself these questions if you are going to continue in the Fleet. You were at the right place at the right time. The Fleet doesn’t recruit everyone who accidently sees one of our space vehicles. For now just accept that your presence here is more along the lines of being a target of opportunity.”

Brad shook his head slightly. “Okay, I’m not sure your explanation has made it any easier for me to accept, but you are right. I may never fully understand the reasons, but I accept that I need to take your advice to move forward and stop asking why if I am going to keep moving forward.” Brad turned toward the list on his wall. “Looking at this list, I’m not even sure how I’m qualified for close to 800 fields. A few that I have been able to translate seem demeaning. Maybe my limited technical background disqualifies me for many of CIG’s advanced technology positions. But I’m not sure I would be happy with most of these positions being offered to me.”

“What do you mean?” Connor asked. He was curious of what Brad meant since he had looked at the list of careers earlier and thought Brad had a wide variety to choose from. In fact, he had been pleased with some of the positions and hoped Brad would choose the same career path as he himself did. He knew if he was too obvious about pushing him in any direction, Brad, who at times could be stubborn to the point of obstinate, might select something contrary to Connor’s plan. He had been too obvious with Shinny and had seen her select a field that would not have been his first choice for her. It seemed to have worked out for her, but at times he wondered if she would have been better off in a field other than Special Combat Officer.

“For example, custodian officer,” Brad explained. “I don’t think I would be happy as part of the cleanup crew.”

“I see,” Connor said. “It’s unfortunate there isn’t more information about the positions. Fleet custodian officers and technicians are in charge of the ship’s environmental systems. The custodians ensure the ship is kept clean from the floors to the air handling systems. The actual job requires them to build, maintain, and operate specialized robots that do the actual cleaning. There aren’t many people in the Fleet who would know what to do with a broom if handed one.”

Brad chuckled. “That does sound better, but I’m not sure if that’s what I would want to do, anyway. How do I make one selection with so many listed and why does induction think I can do all of these tasks?” Brad led Connor to the monitor on the wall with the list.

Connor scrolled rapidly through the list as he developed a strategy for pointing Brad in the right direction. “These are the positions you would be eligible to fill once training was completed. The criterion given was a year and a half for training. That was my mistake. You signed up for a two-month deployment to include training. If you want experience in the Fleet, you might look at those fields that would allow you to complete training in two to three weeks and leave some time for you to work in the Fleet. Otherwise, you would leave the Fleet before completing training and be transferred to the reserves. There would be a high probability you would not be asked to return since you would have to go back into the training pipeline and be of little value to the units.” Connor picked up Brad’s pad and tapped instructions into the tablet. The list slimmed down to fifty-five positions. “By the way, don’t let anyone else pick up your tablet. Depending upon your career field and what is on your tablet, it can lead toward being dismissed,” Connor explained as he handed the pad back to Brad.

“Thanks for the warning; I’ll be more careful with my tablet.” Brad read over the condensed list. “The list looks more reasonable but still odd. What order are these positions?”

“They’re in order of training days. What do you find odd?”

“Number one is Bicycle Mechanic, training one day. Why does a space ship need a bicycle mechanic from Earth? Frankly, I can’t wait to hear the explanation—from the Fleet Admiral, no less.” Brad laughed.

“As strange as you might find this, we did not develop two-wheel bicycle riding. The sport was imported from Earth,” Connor explained. “Bicycling basically took off and is one of the more popular activities in CIG and even on a battle cruiser. There are bicycle tracks on the ship for people to ride during their rest periods. However, the tracks require several mechanics working full time. The training days provided are estimations based upon an individual’s background and skill sets. One day or less was estimated because you can read the original manuals and know how to use the tools immediately. Someone from my home planet, who may have never seen a bicycle, might take three to six months, depending upon how long it takes them to learn to ride.”

“That makes sense, but I would never have imagined a society as advanced as CIG would not have invented transportation similar to the bicycle. From my perspective, it’s a strange concept, but that explains Shinny’s and your devotion to bicycling. How big is a battle cruiser that it supports a few bicycle tracks?”

“Big. I could give you the statistics, but you’ll see soon enough. I know you don’t want to be rushed, but you need to make a decision quickly. Is there anything else in the list you find interesting?”

“Even with the list significantly slimmed down, it still seems impossible to pick anything. I might as well close my eyes and touch the screen, but that could just as easily result in Bicycle Mechanic. I would rather fix robots to clean the ship, if it was still on the list. Connor, you know me, what would you recommend for me?”

“Do you think I would suggest anything to you after you spent a year complaining about MIT because you could have been in the Naval Academy? This is your choice and I’m not about to step into that minefield again. If you are not sure what to choose from the list, start eliminating those things you definitely don’t want to do.”

Brad pressed his lips together. “You have a point. I may not know what I want to do, but I do know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to explain to Dane, when he asks me what did I do in the war, that I was scrubbing the deck or fixing bicycles. You’re right, I acted like an idiot fighting you on the MIT decision, however, I need to step up and figure this out for myself.” He tapped on his pad. “Eliminate positions originating from Earth; eliminate environmental science positions; eliminate greenhouse positions. Do you see anything else I should eliminate?”

“Do you want to work in medical sciences?”

“If I did I would have gone to medical school. Eliminate medical positions. I’m down to five; I need a quick primer on what the top three mean. They are print master, vehicle pilot with fifty plus subcategories, and ship historian. Forget the last one, what do print master and vehicle pilot include?”

“Are you sure you are not interested in being a ship’s historian? You might be missing an opportunity,” Connor teased. One look at Brad’s glare said it all. “Okay, I can see you are not interested in being a ship’s historian. Most of the equipment and supplies are printed on the ship. The print masters are in charge of the 3-D print processes on the ship. As for vehicle pilot, it would mean you would fly one of the small crafts on the battle cruiser similar to those on an aircraft carrier. But the type of vehicle would depend upon the mission or specialty you requested.”

“Can you give me an idea in terms I would understand?”

“Expand the list. I need to see the vehicles.” Connor watched Brad tapping his pad. He was a little slow, but considering he had just gotten his chip, he had picked up a number of things quickly. Looking at the list on the wall, Connor went through some of the functions. “Search and rescue, bus driver, planetary shuttle, fighter/attack, transportation platform might be similar to a train or customs stop, terraforming.”

Brad’s jaw dropped in surprise, “Stop, I get the point: janitor or pilot. This shouldn’t be a hard choice, but I don’t get it. Can Induction really believe I would be able to fly a fighter/attack such as the Attack Viper or Swarm Defender in just three weeks?” Brad wondered if he was missing something or this was a cruel joke.

Connor called up an image of each predatory fighter for Brad to view. “Most of the flying is computer controlled, except for some of the nuances when a sentient being needs to take over. You have the basics of controlling a vehicle from driving, boating, and your pilot’s license. Because many of our land vehicles are computerized and controlled by robots only a small minority know how to control a space vehicle before they join the Fleet. During your induction testing, those skills probably tested high for you to qualify for these vehicles. When I joined, it was a new experience for me.”

“Just to clarify, I’m signing up for training and drilling then inactive reserves. Do you think we’ll see the Aneplé? I’m concerned I might not be ready after a few weeks. It isn’t that I’m risk averse, but I want to make sure I return to pick up Dane and my life on Earth.”

“I understand. It’s unlikely you would be called back to service other than your reserve duty, unless the Aneplé take over more gates leading toward Earth. I don’t see that happening anytime soon and my objective is to push them back.”

Brad looked over the list and expanded the description details on all of the spacecraft. Stunned with the choices, he held his breath thinking he needed to pinch himself to make sure this was real and not a joke. “How close are the attack vipers and swarm defenders to Earth fighter aircrafts?

Connor shrugged, “Both are vanguards of forward attack strategy. CIG tactics are different from those used on earth.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Brad waited for Connor to explain, but saw Connor respond with silence. “Ok, I see you are not going to explain the differences to me. I feel like I’m making a blind decision.”

“You’re not. You have all the information you need.”

“I’m not sure I agree with you, but I realize I need to make a decision. The Vipers’ look similar to a bomber aircraft. I’m not interested in that. On the other hand, Swarm Defenders looks and sounds more like an Air Force interceptor, so I’m choosing that. I may not make it to Top Gun, but this might be the next best thing.” Brad forwarded his commitment with his thumbprint on his pad. “There’s no one to share the news with,” he shared, sounding defeated.

“You could tell Shinny. She is still waiting to hear from you.”

Brad clenched his jaw, sober again. “I want to, but I’m not there, yet. I’m getting there. But I still need more time. It’s affected me more than you might imagine. I’ve had a strange reoccurring dream with her always in it pushing me away.”

“Maybe the dream will stop once you reconcile with her.”

“I don’t know if that will happen or if there is something else going on. The details of the dream aren’t very pretty. I need more time to accept what has happened between us. It feels odd having this conversation with you now knowing Shinny is your daughter. It has also had me wondering if our friendship would eventually change, with me going from brother-in-law to son-in-law. As weird as it may seem, it’s easier to accept my changed relationship with you than Shinny’s deception.” Brad paused. “I’m sorry; I need to talk about something else.” He showed the list again on his wall screen. “What did you train on when you joined the Fleet?”

“Swarm Defenders.”

Brad scoffed. “Wish you would have said something. I’m sure I’m always going to be held up to your standards.”

“It’s unlikely; few people will connect Pilot Johnson to Admiral N’Klaftin.” He smiled at Brad. “Just for the record, you are where I’d want you to be, but you made the decision on your own accord.”

Brad rolled his eyes. “I think I’ve been had, but whatever. Let’s go say goodbye to the children.”

“Not goodbye, good night. It won’t be any different than a good night’s sleep for them.” Connor walked toward the door and gestured for it to open.

“Got it,” Brad responsed to Connor’s correction, while enthusiastically mimicking the gestures to open the door to memorize it for the future.

[]Chapter 8

 

 

Brad was about to board the spacecraft transporting them to Admiral Griken’s battle cruiser but took one last look back at Nan. He was going to miss her, although probably not as much as Connor would. He looked across the room and watched Connor, who stood next to Nan in an intimate manner, saying goodbye. Brad never understood Nan until now. He began to realize how important she was to Earth’s early entrance into the interplanetary alliance. He hoped she would have enough time to work with her team members and that they would be able to recommend Earth’s integration into CIG. He smiled thinking how Nan had also earned his respect, by immediately volunteering to be his guardian to support his entrance into the Fleet. He wondered what his parents’ reaction would be, if they ever found out. Ultimately, he had been surprised by how well Nan had supported him while remaining hands-off when it came to his problems with Shinny. Without Nan’s support, he would have had a bigger mess on his hands, and might have been left behind. When he returned to Earth, he would show more respect for her research, even if it required him to join her on a midnight trip to Wal-Mart to observe the shoppers.

Brad walked up the ramp to the ship’s doorway. He was immediately greeted by a youthful, energetic crewmember with warm brown eyes and short spiky red hair. It dawned on him that he, too, should show more enthusiasm. He was living the dream of his life, getting impressive training, wearing the best fitting shoes he’d ever owned, and, earning tax-free income, not that he could spend their currency on Earth. However, he wasn’t quite there, yet. He needed to prove he was up to the challenge for Earth’s sake. Moreover, he couldn’t shake the feeling, as over the top as the thought was, that Connor was depending upon him. When he asked Connor, he was told to just be himself. He knew Connor well enough to know Connor meant what he said, but still wondered if there was something else he needed to know. Brad stopped and looked in both directions. It wasn’t obvious to him which direction he should go. “Could you tell me where the seating area is?”

“Welcome aboard, Recruit Johnson, I’m Divazz Benoggi.” Still smiling, she pointed toward the left, “The seating pod is toward the very front of the vehicle.”

“What do you mean seating pod?” Brad questioned.

“This class of transportation vehicle is modular and different pods are added depending upon seating and berthing arrangements, cargo, fuel or armament. This vehicle has been configured to transport seven individuals and includes berthing, a kitchen, training pods, cargo, and survival pods. It is powered with a fusion engine. When you start your training, you will receive more information on the different vehicles and their capabilities.”

Brad looked at the young woman’s uniform and recognized a vehicle insignia. “I see you are a pilot, also. Will you be flying this vehicle to the cruiser?”

“Yes, I’m one of the pilots. The flight will take approximately one and a half Earth weeks. The minimum number of pilots required for this transit is three to rotate through the shifts. I’ve been told you will be flying Swarm Defenders, congratulations. The Defenders are our first line of defense. I have a tremendous amount of respect for pilots in those squadrons.”

Brad had already wondered at least three times if he had made a mistake picking the Swarm Defender. Perhaps he should have picked something less exciting. “Why did you select this vehicle over the Swarm Defenders?”

“Swarm Defender was my second choice. I had a strong desire to travel and visit other planets. This vehicle class is widely used to travel between the CIG planets.”

“I can relate to your interest in traveling and visiting new places,” Brad replied. “I need to get to my seat before Connor boards. I’ll talk to you later.” Brad walked to the front of the spacecraft. He was anxious that someone who looked as if she had just got her learner’s permit was going to fly him across the universe. Shaking his head, he reminded himself she was probably twice as old as his parents and he needed to get used to the differences in appearances.

In the passenger cabin, four captain’s chairs were arranged in two rows behind the pilot and copilot. It wasn’t clear to him where he should sit. There was an empty copilot seat next to the pilot, who was going through a checklist, and an empty seat next to Admiral Griken. Shinny and Commander Janeque sat behind Griken, who was scanning his tablet. Shinny made no effort toward eye contact with him. Brad stood there perplexed. He wasn’t ready to sit next to her, but he was disappointed that she did not reserve the seat next to her for him. He wondered if he should sit next to the pilot since he didn’t feel confident to sit next to Griken now that he knew the kid really was an Admiral.

Admiral Griken looked up at him. “Johnson, take the seat next to me.”

“Uh, Admiral wouldn’t you prefer your aide or Shinny?” Brad asked, not knowing what would be worse for him, to sit next to Griken or for Shinny to sit next to the admiral. He wasn’t sure how he would feel with Shinny sitting next to Griken now that he was aware of their previous relationship.

“No, I would prefer that you take the chair next to me. My aide can be a pain in the rear on long flights, and the major looks a little long in the tooth, as you would say on Earth.”

Brad wasn’t too happy with Griken remarking on Shinny’s appearance, but he was in no position to tell Griken where to stuff it. Commander Janeque raised her eyebrows and gave him an “I don’t know” shrug. “Yes, sir,” Brad acknowledged, as he sat in the chair, looking for a place to stow his bag. Griken pointed to a handle recessed on the floor, indicating Brad should pull it. Brad pulled the handle, revealing storage in the floor. He placed his bag in the hole and gently lowered the lid to the floor. He pulled his tablet from his waist, sat back, and the chair adjusted to his body with a five-point harness crossing over his shoulders. Glancing at the admiral he thought, this is going to be a long trip. Trying to look busy, he scanned his tablet for any information he could find on the Swarm Defenders.

Connor walked up the aisle on the right side, with a coffee thermos in his hand, passing the seats arranged on the left side to the second copilot seat in the cockpit. He looked around and saw everyone settled in their seats. Watching Connor check the instruments near his seat, if Brad guessed correctly, it appeared that Connor still had a few items on his tablet that he needed to check inside the vehicle.

“Connor, I’m confused, I would have thought the station would have arranged for someone else to fly the vehicle with the Fleet Admiral aboard,” Brad commented.

“That was the original plan until they lost one of their station pilots. It works out for me because I now have a chance to renew my skills without pushing my rank. I hope Pilot Voodel doesn’t mind the change to the flight roster.”

“Connor, I’m happy to have you and your daughter onboard this vehicle. I’m sure there will be a few things I can learn from you,” Voodel replied.

While they spoke, Pilot Benoggi closed the doors, secured several interior hatches and checked everyone’s harnesses before walking back to the sleeping tubes.

“What happened to the station pilot?” Brad asked. “Although I’m not sure I’m ready to hear what happened to the woman, especially since she did not look like she was in great shape after Shinny finished with her.”

“She’s hibernating in the cargo area. She’s a lucky woman; she’ll survive to talk to Security and Intelligence on the Zuonopy,” Griken explained.

Brad shuddered. “I’m not sure why you think she was lucky. It looked like the pilot suffered the worst bar fight I could imagine. I always suspected my wife would be a formidable opponent in a fight, but obviously I never had a clue how powerful she could be. I find just thinking about her pulling the molars out with her hand unnerving.”

The Aneplé spies and security personnel are implanted with false back molars embedded with toxins. The toxins are released if they are caught or overtaken by a prisoner. The major pulled the molars out before the toxins could be activated. Death is the usual outcome, with the toxins destroying all of an individual’s neural synapses and wiping out all of the information on an implanted chip. Generally, if we are able to save an individual, mentally they are like a newborn baby. It takes those individuals decades to rebuild their synapses and develop new memories.”

Brad shivered. “I can see how it may be a better alternative for the poor woman, even if she didn’t ask for her molars to be removed. I’m surprised she wasn’t caught sooner. Didn’t anyone notice she was different? I don’t want to sound childish, but that woman stank. It was very strange.”

“We are concerned, because an individual has to have the highest security classification to be stationed here. Everyone was surprised she was able to clear through the security investigations,” Kiraine explained.

“Has security rechecked everyone else stationed here?” I’m not sure how dangerous the Aneplé really are, but I am uncomfortable they might be assigned to the hibernation center. I also don’t understand how you could not have smelled the difference.”

“Brad, you are sounding paranoid. It isn’t that we are ignoring your sense of smell, but no one has noted anything different about the pilot,” interjected Connor. “But just to reassure you, yes. There were even molar checks, which generally is not done because of the intrusiveness, and the pilot’s friends were also interviewed.”

“Considering that I just turned my son over to CIG’s Fleet, I believe I have a legitimate concern,” Brad retorted.

“You may have a point. I’ll ask the station commander to keep us informed of any changes that may affect the station’s security,” responded Connor.

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Brad said. “I’m beginning to realize CIG has many advanced science and technology areas I need to just accept until I have time to invest in personal research. But when it comes to my family, I cannot afford to become complacent.”

He felt hurt and angry that Shinny remained silent throughout the conversation. She didn’t acknowledge his presence much less support his concerns over their son’s safety. Did she ever love either of us?

“I just received clearance from the platform commander to proceed to the tunnel,” Pilot Voodel announced. “Once the tunnel is filled with ocean water, we will travel to the surface in stealth mode. From the surface, I will initiate a space shot. Estimated arrival to the first transit gate is four and one-half hours.”

Brad looked at the track on his pad. With the question of the station’s security out of the way, he began focusing on the Zuonopy on his tablet. Reading the statistics, he was anxious to reach the battle cruiser, but he was equally excited about the journey itself, as they would be passing a number of astronomical events marked on the navigation map.

He shook his head in amazement. It seemed inconceivable that after the pilot initiated the space shot to escape gravity, they could travel that fast. He questioned whether he would ever understand the mathematics that explained the phenomenal speed or the invisible transit gate anchored behind the moon. He wasn’t sure which technology amazed him most, the transit gate, that the gate was anchored to the Moon’s rotation around Earth or that they would be there in a little over four hours. It was just the beginning of his new life. With the rejuvenation function turned on, he would have time to investigate many things in the future. For now, he would just lean back and enjoy the trip.

The movement of this vehicle was unlike his first experience. It was so smooth that, had he not watched over Connor’s shoulder, he would not have noticed they were moving and entering the ocean. The movement of the vehicle lulled him into daydreaming on what he would see once they escaped Earth’s gravity. He sighed. His fantasy about experiencing weightlessness had already been quashed when he had learned about the artificial gravity fields within larger vehicles such as this one. He focused on the view forward, outside the cockpit, as the vehicle ascended toward the surface. Looking down at the tablet in his hand he read an alert message that had just come through. “Shit, I can’t believe this.”

Griken turned to Brad. “Johnson do you have a problem?”

“Not really. I was hoping to follow the journey from Earth through the first gate, but I just received orders to begin training once the vehicle has left Earth’s gravity. Is it even safe?”

Commander Janeque piped up, “It’s safe. I approved the vehicle’s modular configuration. A special training module was added to the ship’s configuration for you. There had been a discussion that the squadrons on the battle cruiser would be more accepting of your short commitment if you arrived partially trained.”

He turned to look at the commander sitting behind him. “I can’t argue that point, but it would have been nice to have been included in the discussions.”

Kiraine shrugged. “Welcome to the Fleet. It happens a lot. It could have been worse.”

“I don’t think your interest in watching the journey is unreasonable, seeing how long the remainder of the trip will be before we reach the Zuonopy. Considering what you have done for Connor and the major, I could use my influence with your commanding officer in exchange for assistance,” volunteered Griken.

Brad looked at the admiral’s adolescent face staring at him with seriousness. What could a person who was well over two centuries older than him want from him that would be helpful? “I’m not sure I understand what you are asking me to do.”

“It’s rather simple. I’m impressed with the way you’ve handled the news about Connor and the major. Connor seems much more relaxed and you’ve found a way to connect with a Special Combat Officer who I consider a good friend. In the Fleet, a connection like that would be considered an achievement. I’m appreciative of their changes and willing to help you on your request in exchange for assistance,” Griken explained. “I’ve heard you are an expert at riding bicycles. I would like your assistance in learning how to ride.”

Brad could relate to Griken’s comment about Shinny, considering how long it took him to gain her interest, but he was taken aback with Griken’s request. It was the last thing he expected. He still wasn’t sure what he was asking. “If you mean ‘Tour de France’ expert, you’ve been misled. If you mean can I help you learn to ride similar to Connor and Shinny and you are open to a few possible bumps and scrapes, I can instruct you on riding a bicycle.” Brad paused. “Why would you want me to help you? Aren’t there other people on the ship who could provide instructions to you?”

“There are, but I trust you more to not take stories back to your squadron. Unfortunately, I don’t think that would necessarily be true about the bicycle staff or others I could ask. And it’s a fair exchange when it comes to you on the Zuonopy, since there will be many secrets we will need to keep for you, such as your home planet.”

Brad would have said yes to helping Griken learn how to ride a bicycle had he just asked, but if he was offering to help him communicate a small request to his commanding officer, he probably should take advantage of it. “Okay, I agree. I have to tell you I don’t understand why bicycle riding wasn’t discovered in your area of space,” he commented as he reached out to shake Griken’s hand.

Griken looked uncertain, but hesitantly put his hand out for a firm shake. “This handshake is a quaint custom. I can see CIG picking it up after Earth is recognized and admitted into CIG. What I can’t understand is why your population has wasted years of infighting and is still stuck on the planet, especially when the records show humans have existed longer on your planet than many of the other CIG planets.”

“Touché,” Brad responded as he smiled and looked down at his tablet to see an alert message come through. He read through the revised orders allowing him to commence training after entering Earth’s Transit Gate. “Wow, you work quickly—the revision just came through. By the way, who is my commanding officer?”

Griken smiled. “I am. Kiraine sent the message. It’s great having an aide who knows what to do without asking.”

“I think I’ve been had, again,” Brad groaned as he leaned back, hearing a quiet chuckle pass throughout the cabin. He closed his eyes momentarily to take a quick power nap, since he hadn’t slept since they arrived at the station.

[]Chapter 9

 

 

The vehicle trembled, similar to an airplane hitting an air pocket, and jerked Brad awake. Brad looked past Connor through the windshield at dark gray ridges splattered by white dots outlined by dark green furrows. Completely confused, he looked at his tablet to get a sense of what he was looking at. They were already flying through the transit gate. Crap, he couldn’t believe it—his first trip to the moon and he missed it.

He had looked up information on the gates, but facts were sparse since the gates had been relics from a spacefaring society older than CIG. While CIG had figured out how to travel between the gates, they still did not have an understanding of the science behind it nor had they fully explored traveling within the gates. Folded space in the transit gate was as dark and indistinctive as space outside the gate; however, CIG had developed a way of displaying the mappings of the ridges and furrows of the folds. The ridges were formed from the regions of folded space. The display on the windshield was an overlay of the map of space turbulences or ridges and furrows that had been measured. Currently, most of the gates had one route mapped. A small number had more than one route mapped, leading to additional destinations.

Watching Voodel and Connor gesture and navigate between the ridges was interesting, but he had a commitment to begin his training. This would be a good time, since the shaking had subsided. He unbuckled, stood up, and stretched. Looking at the chairs behind him he saw Shinny was no longer in her seat. He was curious what she was doing, but he was still avoiding her. At least he had not had the same annoying dream this time. Griken seemed engrossed in his work. Brad had learned his lesson and knew better than to bother the admiral. He wasn’t sure how busy Commander Janeque was, as he watched her swipe through her tablet, but there was no one else he could ask for help. “Commander, I apologize for disturbing you, but could you lead me toward the training module?”

Kiraine looked at Brad. “No problem. I need to stretch a little myself. Since it looks like they have a handle on stability, this would be a good time.” She unbuckled and stretched at her chair. Kiraine walked over to the aisle and looked back at Brad. “Follow me.” Walking toward the rear of the ship she pointed out the features on their way. “The kitchen area is through this passage. It’s self-serve and mostly microwave-heated meals. Drinks are in the cold chamber. Plain water is on tap.” She pointed to a counter hanging off the wall. “This is the dining area. Just a hint, if you want to get on the good side of the pilots, offer them something now and then.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Continuing toward the back, she pointed toward a closed door. “This is the gym area. It’s small and narrow, but has a few machines and an area for weights. Shinny is in the gym at this time. The doors flanking the gym are the showers and convenience rooms.”

Brad didn’t respond to the information on his wife. At least there were places on a vehicle as small as this one they could use to avoid seeing each other, he thought. It still hurt thinking about her deception, but not as much as it did yesterday.

Kiraine took a passage to the right side of the vehicle, with the pods now positioned on the left side to provide weight balance when the vehicle is being used on a planet. “These are the training modules. The first one is for the Connor and Admiral Griken.”

“What do the admirals train on?”

“Since I’m not an admiral, I can’t give you specifics, but it is my understanding they train on various strategies and tactics discussed at high levels and the conceptual integration of policies and procedures. It’s one thing to have a new procedure downloaded and another to practice it in a simulated environment. In addition, Admiral Griken will use this module as a hologram suite to meet with other staff members on the battle cruiser.” She walked to the next module and opened the door to reveal a cockpit with two seats. “This is your module. You will have an opportunity to simulate practice in both seats. The next door leads to a training module I am sharing with your mate. Further down there is another set of convenience rooms and the berthing areas. The Connor and Admiral Griken have small rooms. We have sleeping tubes.” Kiraine pointed to a door at the far end of the passageway. “Through that door are the engine room, cargo area, and the micro-factory.”

“What is a micro-factory?”

“A micro-factory is a series of scanners and 3-D replicating printers. If there is a breakdown, this vehicle is capable of scanning and printing almost anything, from computerized components for the vehicle to the tools needed to install the components. In an emergency, organic components such as our chips could be printed.” She pointed to the port behind her ear. “In addition, the scanners are large enough to scan big items, such as the chairs or a human.”

Brad looked toward the door and nodded. “Thanks, I’ll check it out later. I need to start my training before I destroy the admiral’s patience that he’s shown me because of my backward upbringing and youth. I’m sure it won’t be too long before he tires of my excuses.”

Kiraine chuckled at his self-deprecating humor. “Ah, good point. He does watch over his people; that can have its pros and cons.” She stepped into the module and pointed to a slight hand depression on the arm of the seat. “Training is begun by placing your hand on the receptor and activating the program. As you train, you will program the trainer to respond to you through your chip. The trainer is a program that resides on your chip that interacts with the training module. The more you train, the more responsive your trainer will be to you.” She stepped around him and out the door. “If you need any more assistance, let me know,” Kiraine added before she shut the door.

Brad sat down in the left pilot seat and placed his hand in the receptor, staring at the dizzying array of gauges, colored button indicators, toggles, and miniature swipe pads on the dashboard’s complex console. Looking around he was not sure where to start and he jokingly asked, “Where’s the panic button?”

“The Swarm Defender does not have a panic button,” responded a male voice from a hidden speaker.

Brad was initially startled and did not expect his rhetorical question to be answered, but he was curious how the voice fit into his training. “Who are you?”

“I am your trainer. Each time you log into a training module or session, I will be available to assist you in your training.”

“Alright, I finally have my own personal trainer. I think I’m going to like this,” Brad responded in a flippant manner. Although the trainer did not reply to his comment, Brad was determined to continue. “Do you have a name?” Immediately after asking the question, information on the trainer bubbled up to the forefront of his thoughts, informing him the trainer was a generic artificial intelligence keyed to his chip and would only respond to him.

“I do not have a name. Most trainers are called Trainer,” the AI answered.

“If this is going to work for me, you need to have a name. Do you have any preferences?”

“Trainer is acceptable.”

Brad rolled his eyes at the AI’s lack of imagination. He wondered if the AI would take on more of a personality as time went on. If so, it definitely needed a name. “I think I’m going to call you Travis.”

“Travis is an unusual name and not listed in the name dictionary.”

“Travis is from my home planet. It means crossing. It seems appropriate since we are crossing folded space at this time.”

“Then Travis will be my name. How may I help you?”

“Travis, what do I need to do to start training?” Brad looked up at the windshield and saw a list of training modules covering it. It looked like he had twenty to thirty columns of lessons to cover. At the same time, Brad realized much of the information was immediately available through his chip. This would be a matter of practicing until the movements were as familiar to him as driving a car.

“In front of you is the list of capabilities in which you need to be proficient to be a Swarm Defender pilot. As you become proficient in an area it is removed from the list. Once you have completed these lessons or tasks, your squadron commander will test you and award your Swarm Defender insignia.”

Brad looked at the list. A number of skills he had proficiency in from his pilot training on Earth. However, he wasn’t sure how much of his Earth-based training and experience would translate to the vacuum of space or how much more work he needed to do to be rated proficient. “Where do I begin?”

“It is recommended that you start at the beginning and follow the curriculum. As you proceed, if I observe that you are proficient in an additional skill then I will remove the applicable lesson. You will be advanced to the lesson following it at the appropriate time.”

“Okay, I think I understand. Travis, I’m ready to start,” Brad keyed in his harness as the list disappeared from the cockpit’s windshield to be replaced by a pattern of stars. Following the cues Travis gave him, he checked all of the gauges, and initiated the starting sequence. The simulated engine turned on and he charted a simple flight path for his Swarm Defender.

[]Chapter 10

 

 

Griken walked out of his training module and noticed Johnson was still training in his module. He looked at his tablet to review Johnson’s training record. While he was impressed with the rate of his progress, he was concerned Johnson was overdoing it. He walked over to the kitchen area to talk to Connor, who had just been relieved from first pilot duty. “Connor, I’m impressed with the training progress our new recruit is making, but he has just started and he is close to doing three continuous shifts. You may want to talk to him as a friend before Commander Janeque or I say something.”

Connor pulled out his tablet and examined Brad’s training record. “I’ll have a talk with him on moderation. I’m surprised his trainer hasn’t said anything.”

Griken shrugged. “Occasionally trainers have been known to deviate from the norm. I’ve identified a squadron that will be a good fit for him. I’ll arrange a conference for you on your next break.”

“Thank you. I’m not going to step on the squadron commander’s or your toes. I just want to be kept aware of his progress.”

“Understood. If he was my son, I would want the same courtesy,” Griken replied. “I’d also like to add that I’m happy to report he hasn’t vomited once since leaving Earth.” Griken laughed as he turned to walk to the front cabin.

Connor grimaced at Griken’s jab. He couldn’t blame Griken; if anything, his introduction to Brad would always be memorable, he thought, as he walked over to Brad’s training module. Although it had been awhile since Connor had used a module for flying, he sent a programing algorithm to ensure his trainer did not take over the simulator when he stepped into the room. Quietly opening the door, he saw the seats angled in a deep dive as Brad avoided an oncoming Aneplé Defender. Brad then swung steeply to the left and pulled his vehicle up and around. Brad repositioned his vehicle behind the Aneplé Defender while firing a missile.

“Well done. A direct hit,” the trainer reported as the seats returned to level position

“Thanks, Travis. Bring up the next lesson in the list,” Brad requested.

“Who is Travis?” Connor asked as he climbed into the copilot seat.

“Travis is my trainer. It felt right naming him.” Brad arched his back and stretched his arms and shoulders.

“I was wondering what happened to you. You’ve been cloistered in here for close to three shift periods.” Connor looked at the list of training modules Brad needed to finish to be level one qualified. Perplexed with the irregular arrangement, Connor said, “Trainer, run a self-diagnostic program.” When the AI didn’t respond, Connor reworded his request. “Travis, run a self-diagnostic program.” The list was quickly replaced with a series of metrics showing that the program was functioning within normal parameters.

“Is there a problem?” Brad asked looking at the display.

“I’m not sure but your trainer has exhibited a number of anomalies.”

“It seems fine. What are your concerns?” Brad asked, worried he might have to start over if there was a glitch in the AI assigned to him.

“The first is that your trainer ignored training period protocols and courses appear to be out of sequence.”

“After training for a few hours, Travis started shutting down for a mandatory rest period. We had a discussion about the meaning of self-study. It was my position that if the training is truly self-study I should regulate the actual training period because the programmed periods would hold me back. In addition, I mentioned that since I come from a planet outside of CIG my limitations would be different. Travis countered that the limitations originated from data that showed overextending an individual’s capabilities resulted in an increased number of mishaps. We made an agreement that if there was an increased trend of simulated accidents he could shut down the training. Apparently, I was able to maintain satisfactory performance throughout the extended training period. Although I do feel like I need to get something to eat. I didn’t realize I had been in here for three shifts.”

“I see, but what about the lesson I just observed out of sequence?”

“It was part of an award system we developed. Travis noted that my rate of progress was slowing. To be honest, many of the sections were tedious and uninteresting. I was becoming frustrated with the time it was going to take me to reach the advanced simulations. Travis and I came up with a formula to provide a reward of an advanced simulation after I complete a series. As long as my performance in the advanced simulations meets standards, he will continue to intersperse them, which explains the simulations out of sequence. In addition, if I display competency in a beginner task during the advanced simulation, Travis will remove it from the syllabus, which increases my training rate.”

Connor smiled. “It seems like you’ve been able to not only reprogram your AI, but come up with a more efficient way to accomplish training. I recommend that in the future you do not train beyond two shift periods because it may affect your ability to rebound after a break. When you get to the battle cruiser, pass on the training program modifications to your commander.”

“Discussing it with you isn’t enough?”

“It’d be better if it came from you. I would not normally get involved in a training issue.” Connor looked at his friend with a serious face. “Brad, when you report to your squadron on the cruiser, you will need to balance your position in the Fleet with your access to me as a friend and father. Because of your name, few people will connect the dots and you will be better off for it. As soon as people learn about your relationship to me, you will face resentment from some and others who will try to use you to influence me. Shinny would probably tell you it’s been a constant problem throughout her career.”

Again, Brad’s chest tightened, hearing Shinny’s name. Geez, when was this going to end? “Shinny mentioned something along those lines years ago, even though I didn’t quite understand what she was trying to say to me at the time. I’m aware of Griken’s past misguided attempts. I understand and will keep it to myself. For me, the hardest part will be the change from brother-in-law to father-in-law, though.”

Connor shrugged at Brad’s comment. “Thirteen years ago, I had no inkling our acquaintance would evolve into a friendship or family relationship. Nevertheless, you are still my friend.” Looking at the cockpit screen, Connor snapped his fingers. “Let’s try something a little more challenging before you take a break. Travis, bring up a two-seater simulation.” Turning to Brad with a mischievous smile, “Okay, kid, let’s see your stuff, and by the way, you’re in the driver seat.”

“Damn, it’s going to be hard getting used to being the new kid on the block,” Brad chuckled. He looked up at three Aneplé Defenders heading toward them. “I assume you’re in charge of weapons fire,” Brad said as he brought the deflector shield up to full power and flew straight toward the three Defenders. All three vehicles fired toward them. Brad dropped three missiles programed to remain stationary and pulled the Defender upward into a circular arc.

“What the hell, I thought I was the weapons officer?” Connor frowned, fingering his controls.

“You are. I dropped the missiles to act as chaff and provide a target for their missiles.” Brad flipped the Defender over to complete an inner loop behind the three enemy vehicles. Connor aimed at the three, hitting two of them. The vehicle on the right made a sharp turn to the right, pulling away from the other two vehicles to avoid being hit. “You know, missing that third vehicle is going to make my life difficult.”

“Bite me, just get us into position,” Connor snarled.

The projection on the windshield showed the Aneplé Defender had circled behind them. Brad rapidly increased the Defender’s speed and watched the Aneplé Defender match his speed. He kept accelerating until ten percent below maximum, allowing the opposing Defender to catch up. “Hang on, this might not be too pretty.” The Aneplé fighter was not quite in firing range though it had reached maximum speed. Watching the gauges, Brad cut the engine and used the thrusters to “hit the brakes” and pop-drop 20,000 feet. Again, using thrusters, he popped up behind the Aneplé Defender that had just flown over them and Connor fired another direct hit.

“Nice, didn’t see that coming. You need to fly back so we can pick up my stomach,” Connor joked. “Travis, save the sequence record for cross training.” He turned to Brad. “Smart catch on dropping the chaff. You may want to also share this with your future squadron when you train with them, if they have not included that in their tactics. Although, be aware some of the idiot bureaucrats will argue that dropping the missiles is a waste of precious resources.”

“I hope you’re kidding. Far cheaper than losing the pilot and vehicle.”

“Unfortunately, no, I’m not kidding. It irks me that, at times, bottom-line costs have a higher priority in CIG politics than the safety of Fleet personnel. Perhaps being recalled was also an indication of changes in that area.”

Brad shook his head. “Hard for me to believe, but I guess some things never change when it comes to bureaucrats. Will you have more time to train with me?”

“If there are other areas you want to practice together, let me know. But for now, get some rest.”

[]Chapter 11

 

 

Pilot Laco Voodel swiped through the training record, wondering what the admirals were thinking. He maintained a neutral expression as he examined the record, to avoid expressing this in front of Commander Janeque. When Kiraine was asked to talk to him, both Connor and Admiral Griken had likely stressed that ultimately it was Laco’s decision and not to pressure him. Laco wasn’t an idiot; he knew exactly where the request came from, but the question was whether or not he could make the decision without outside influence, especially knowing the admirals were behind it.

Laco swiped through the record looking at the time stamps, wondering how Johnson did it. It was an impressive accomplishment. He had almost completed Swarm Defender training, with the exception of a few of the advanced second seat modules, in a very short time. He found it curious Connor had signed off on a few of the trainee’s advanced lessons. It also seemed strange that Johnson had decided to train on a number of other platforms and scenarios, scoring well above standard proficiency. “Do you know why he was training on the different vehicles and practicing transiting through folded space?”

“No one has asked. But we believe it was from a combination of interest and trying to keep busy. Apparently, he was able to rapidly advance through the coursework because of the skills he already possessed. Also, he was clearly interested in learning as much as possible, which we believe led him to training on the other vehicles.” Kiraine watched Voodel continue to swipe through Johnson’s record. “I could ask Johnson to talk to you and answer your questions, if that would help.”

“It isn’t necessary. It wouldn’t affect my decision. However, I have one other question, though. Why am I being asked? Couldn’t Connor do this?”

“Fortunately, Connor had discussed this very issue with me. There are three reasons. While Connor is senior in the Fleet, as Connor has stressed to me, in this vehicle, as primary pilot, you are in charge. The safety of this vehicle is your responsibility, and Connor respects your position. He will accept your decision and not question it. The second reason is that as a former instructor, you are qualified to sign off on Johnson’s flight record and your experience as an instructor is more recent than Connor’s. The third reason is that because of the short time frame Johnson has committed himself on this deployment, it is unlikely he will have an opportunity to fly anything other than Swarm Defenders once he reports to the battle cruiser. In the long-term, Trainee Johnson will be better off having you sign off on the flight, rather than Connor. There will always be questions raised about Johnson’s competency if he has too many of Connor’s fingerprints on his record.”

“I see,” Laco noted as he continued to swipe through the record. Laco didn’t understand the admirals’ interest in the trainee, but he couldn’t see any reason to refuse the request. “It’s a good thing Johnson’s training record demonstrates he is ready to take it to the next level. He has definitely earned the opportunity to fly a vehicle. Otherwise, I would have a difficult time making the decision, with the underlying pressure,” he stated in amusement. “I’ll talk to Connor since there still is time before the next shift change.”

 

 

Brad stood at the counter in the kitchen finishing off the last single serve pizza in the freezer. He decided it was his right to eat the last pizza, since it was traditional food from Earth and he was the only true native from Earth. It looked like once they reached the battle cruiser, he would be on a diet of the funny-tasting pinkish blue green stuff. Maybe he was being harsh, but he hadn’t developed a liking for their food. No wonder the CIG Fleet members were so thin. After finishing off the last pizza, he regretted he wouldn’t be able to work it off, since Shinny spent all of her waking moments hogging the gym. He still wasn’t ready to talk to her. He looked up and saw Connor and Voodel walking toward him. They better not want my pizza, he joked to himself. It was odd they were here so close to shift change. He wondered if there was a problem. Hopefully not, since they still had one and half shifts left before reaching the cruiser. “Is there a problem?”

“Not really. We’ve been discussing your training record and think you should consider doing something else,” Connor replied.

“If there’s an issue, do you want to review it with Travis?” Brad asked.

Voodel, looking somewhat perplexed, turned to Connor. “Who’s Travis?”

“Johnson named his trainer ‘Travis.’ It’s a quirk of his home planet to name inanimate objects and AIs.”

“Interesting. Do you think naming the trainer directly impacted the training results?” Voodel asked.

Connor turned to Voodel. “I don’t know. However, that is an interesting concept. It may be of value to one day examine the impact of personalization on the rate of completion or scoring.”

Brad looked at them, confused; he couldn’t imagine renaming the trainer would cause a problem. Connor didn’t seem upset at the time. Maybe he should have worked harder and not developed a relationship with his trainer, if that was the problem. “Do I need to rename Travis back to Trainer?”

Connor chuckled. “No, we came by to ask you if you thought you were ready to fly a vehicle. Would you like to fly as the copilot? Voodel will sign off as your instructor if you meet performance standards.”

Brad stood there speechless. He had not expected to be offered the opportunity to fly in space until he reached the battle cruiser. If they were offering, he wasn’t going to walk away. Now, he just needed to remain calm and not act like an idiot jumping up and down in glee, because that was exactly how he was feeling inside. Brad inhaled deeply then replied, “If you are offering me the opportunity, then I must be ready.” Brad threw his plate into the recycle receptacle as he followed Connor and Pilot Voodel to the front cabin.

 

 

Laco calculated the time left before they would enter the transit gate and decided it was about time to switch. Pilot Divazz was asleep in her tube, off shift, leaving just Connor and him in the front. Connor and he had agreed Brad would sit in the copilot seat and then Laco would decide later if he was ready for the first seat based upon his performance. While he was impressed with Johnson’s training scores, he was concerned there might be issues, since he completed the modules in record time. It was well known in the Fleet that, sometimes, there were mismatches between the scores and actual performance. But so far he hadn’t seen anything that would concern him. “Brad, would you like to take first seat?”

“If you think I’m ready, I wouldn’t mind.” Brad looked at his watch and realized he had been sitting in the copilot seat for over two hours. The offer to take first seat surprised him. Although his primary function as copilot was to watch the settings on the gauges and ensure the sensors’ measurements were recorded in the logs as required, Laco had also allowed him to take control of the spacecraft a few times. Laco hadn’t made many comments and he didn’t have an indication if Laco’s silence was good or bad, as he didn’t know the man beyond his observations over the past week. Connor sat behind them, next to Griken, and had remained quiet. But that was typical for Connor when he was focused on his own projects. So far flying the transportation vehicle seemed easy and mundane in comparison to the training modules, but then again, he didn’t want anything exciting to happen while he was sitting in the front.

“You’re ready. If there’s an issue, I won’t be too far away. I’m also going to let you take the vehicle through the transit gate. The distance between the two gates is a little more than most first time transit gate flights but I think you can handle it. Just make sure you are prepared.” Laco stood up and moved behind the seats to switch positions with Brad.

Brad sat down in the lead pilot seat and waited for the seat and harness to adjust to his body. “Thank you for this opportunity.” He was relieved this would be his first time. While he was looking forward to flying the Swarm Defenders off the battle cruiser, the first time would be stressful with the combination of the cruiser’s flight operations and everyone watching. At least this way, he would have some experience flying in space before he reported to his squadron. He stared at the transit gate looming ahead, thinking what he needed to do to prepare for transit. He gestured over the dashboard and gradually took control over the vehicle. Once he felt comfortable, he set the vehicle on autopilot while he looked at the route they would be taking through the folded space. He plotted the course and programed a number of subroutines. The subroutines would supplement the pre-programed ones stored in the database. He believed he could use the subroutines as additional counter maneuvers to provide a smoother ride through the folded space.

Laco watched. “Why are you creating the additional subroutines?”

“Because I don’t have a steering yoke to accommodate for the small counterbalances required to smooth the bumps we might hit in the folded space, I’m creating additional subroutines as minor adjustments to the pre-programmed ones. They’re based upon the last mapping of the area. I understand there is a possibility the subroutines will be worthless because of any recent traffic through the gate that may have caused changes in the folds that have not been updated on this vehicle. Nevertheless, I want to be as prepared as possible.”

“Not a bad idea. Where did you learn to program? It’s not part of our training platform.”

“I picked up the training in school and am part owner of a software company. My business partner taught me a few tricks. But, to be honest, had it not been for the chip, I would not have picked up your programing language as quickly as I did, nor would I have been able to create these subroutines as quickly as I have.” He assumed Laco did not know his true relationship to Connor, so he was reluctant to mention any more about it following their conversation.

Brad continued to create the additional subroutines as they approached the gate. He was probably overdoing it, but, maybe, when this was over, Laco would give him an “A” for effort. Looking forward, he watched the gate light up, welcoming the transport vehicle. The gates normally lit up as the vehicles entered and exited, as visible signals for the local planets and space traffic. Since Earth was still under observation, the tethered gate behind the moon had not been outfitted with the lighting system. He imagined once Earth was welcomed into CIG, watching the space traffic would become the new hobby for amateur astronomers that watched for the edges of the moon to brighten from the gate lighting from the back.

Brad took the vehicle off autopilot and piloted it through the gate. The autopilot could have handled the gate transit, but he wanted to understand the gestures required to control the vehicle and accelerate through the gate. Connor had warned him transiting through folded space would be like driving on a swampy road riddled with potholes. The trick was to maintain speed and counter the potholes before they occurred or were felt. The potholes were wrinkles from the folded space similar to air turbulences he had encountered in his single engine plane. While the gesturing executed the programs, he missed having a control yoke. He could foresee gesturing through the folded space for a few hours might make his arms sore by the time they reached the exit gate. He hoped the time he spent in the trainer would pay off and his arms wouldn’t hurt, much.

Laco watched Brad bend his fingers and wiggle them as he gestured across the dashboard. “So far your control over the vehicle is excellent. However, I don’t understand your finger movements. Explain what are you doing with your fingers?”

“I’m executing the counter maneuvers.” Brad lifted his right hand. “Each finger controls a series of the programs.” He lifted his left hand. “This hand controls the spacing or timing of the actual program. It’s similar to typing. It is more precise than hand gesturing.”

“What is typing?”

Brad sent a video clip to Laco’s tablet to view. “Typing is shown in the clip I just sent to you. It is the primary method by which we input information into our computers. Let me demonstrate.” Brad moved his fingers, causing the vehicle to jump. A male voice behind him protested. “I apologize, beginner’s error.” He turned to Laco with an impish grin. “Probably the first and last time I make that error.”

Laco grinned. “I believe you are right with that assumption.”

While Laco was quiet, he seemed open and friendly. “Laco, who are the Aneplé? Are they another species, or an evil empire?”

Laco pressed his lips together. “Unfortunately, they are us.”

Laco’s voice was edged in pain. Brad considered dropping the subject, but felt compelled to understand the conflict more. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“We don’t understand. The Aneplé planets were once part of CIG and over the centuries broke away from CIG. First, it was planets, then systems. Although the Fleet has been fighting them for over two centuries, experts believe the Aneplé have been spreading their poison for far longer. If CIG is able to rescue a planet quickly, the planets return to CIG. If not, the inhabitants demand freedom to join the Aneplé. The Aneplé choose to live in squalor, even as their populations are starving. They irrationally insist it is what they want even when the Fleet is available to assist the planet in reclaiming its sovereignty. There have been a few planets that wanted to remain with CIG; the most notable exception was the Neslins, who fought a bloody battle before CIG’s Fleet could provide assistance.” Laco paused and stared out the windshield before continuing. “It’s very strange, because Aneplé technology is our technology. Their Fleet assets were once our Fleet assets. We’ve seen no independent growth, either culturally or technically. There are a number of studies about the Aneplé expansion, and yet no logical explanation for their success. I’ll send the most popular studies to you.”

“Thanks, I would be interested in learning more since I signed up to fight them.” Brad had been wondering about the relationship between the warring factions. Laco’s explanation matched much of the research he had found in the records. “Has CIG tried to negotiate with them?”

“Yes, but they generally negotiate terms of surrender or truce only after they have acquired more territory. The Aneplé continuously lose battles; however, they continue the conflict by fighting for more territory. The only exception was the last conflict when they negotiated a peace agreement, or so we thought. It turned out to be a ploy to convince CIG to agree to a draconian disarmament that turned out to be one-sided. Instead, they rearmed quickly and have since acquired some of the Fleet’s most advanced vehicles.”

“Admiral Griken indicated the current circumstances may be salvageable with Connor onboard,” Brad added.

“I don’t know. It isn’t good, but the admiral has access to more intelligence reports than I do. It’s a sensitive subject. Most of us have experienced personal losses due to the Aneplé’s aggression. It’s made worse in that the Aneplé’s area of space is quarantined.”

“Why is that?”

“People either don’t return or they infiltrate the Fleet and become problems. Even with the quarantine, we have to deal with spies who compromise the Fleet’s integrity. It’s easier to quarantine their regions, although it’s not as effective as we could wish. The most recent losses have been due to spies disrupting Fleet operations.”

Brad thought it was odd there wasn’t much information on the Aneplé despite fighting them for centuries. When he reflected upon the advanced technology available to the Aneplé, he had no desire for them to discover Earth beyond the pilot in the back of the vehicle. Not wanting to think about the nightmare that could affect Earth, just from his brief exposure to the Aneplé spy, he focused on his gesturing to ensure a smooth flight.

Brad continued to gesture for the next hour and half before he felt the vehicle oscillate slightly, indicating small changes in the folds. He looked on the windshield to see a small vehicle icon near the top edge of the overlay. The icon increased slightly, indicating the approach of another vehicle on the projected path ahead. They still had over an hour before the vehicle would meet them head on in the same lane. “Unlucky me, there’s another vehicle in the transit lane. How often does this occur?”

“It depends. Rarely will there be two vehicles in the same Transit Gate on the outer edges. Closer to the center there will be regular traffic in both directions with parallel lanes, where the folds are more stable.”

“Do you want me to contact the other vehicle?”

“No. I will initiate first contact since they may not have an administrative update with your recruitment information. I recommend you just listen for now.” Laco gestured over the communication unit. “This is Pilot Laco Voodel on Transport Vehicle Vetyhym number 743 at marker 98.32.4522, destination Battle Cruiser Zuonopy, requesting identification and destination of vehicle located at marker 36.76.2316.” Off the mic he instructed Brad, “As you probably know, information on the oncoming vehicle is located on the communication panel’s seventh touch pad. It’s always a good idea to have it on display.” Voodel leaned over and pressed the touch pad for the information to appear. “Voice confirmation is a courtesy. It isn’t necessary, but it’s suspicious when there is an unwillingness to share information.”

Brad read the information on the supply vehicle approaching while listening to the feminine voice respond, “This is Pilot Trivis Mundasen on Supply Vehicle number 1983 at marker 36.76.2332 heading toward the Pertutinn System. Laco, this is a surprise, I thought you were scheduled for a down period, planet side.”

“I was. We had a security incident and I needed to fill in at the last moment. When you report to the station, I’m sure you will be briefed about the incident. I don’t want to discuss it on open channels.”

“Message received. I will send you my plan to drop to the next lane as soon as I have it configured,” Mundasen replied.

“Negative. I have someone training in the first seat. He is junior and will pass his drop coordinates to you. Long story, I’ll explain it when I see you later.” Laco cut the communications and turned to Brad. “I may be senior, but you are sitting in the command seat, so this is yours to handle. As the junior pilot, you will need to find a different lane or route to give way to the senior pilot. Many transit gates have more than one lane, but because this transit gate is fairly new and not fully explored, there is currently only one fully mapped lane.”

“Message received,” Brad affirmed. He gestured for the information in the vehicle’s computer and looked at the top five alternatives. None of them were ideal from his perspective. There were too many unknown issues. Most of the area in the lane below was blank, indicating it was unmapped. Piloting a well-marked area in folded space was one thing, but piloting the unmapped area was another. It would be akin to traveling the Wild West without a trail guide. He would be facing an insurmountable number of unmarked space folds and wrinkles. It would be crazy for him to take it on with his limited experience. Granted the area would be mapped as they approached it and more of it would be mapped once they covered it, but he wasn’t convinced he could do it safely by himself. Brad was frustrated to have reached this point, having to acknowledge that even with the chip he was too inexperienced to take on this challenge. But the safety of the vehicle and passengers came before his pride. There would be another time. At the minimum, he at least had a recommendation for Laco. “Looking at the alternatives, I can’t do this,” he admitted, as he braced himself for Laco’s response.

“What do you mean you can’t do this?” Laco asked as he swiped his tablet.

Brad watched Laco, annoyed by his reaction, and wasn’t sure what that meant. “I don’t think I could safely drop to the next lane. In addition, I believe you should pilot us through.” Ouch, Brad thought, hating to admit to his deficiency.

Laco continued to swipe his tablet. “Hmm, interesting. Do you have a recommendation?”

Brad stared at Laco, who seemed unmoved by Brad’s concern, and wondered if he was playing a game. Laco didn’t seem to be interested in the problem they were facing. “I do, but it is dependent upon Pilot Mundasen.” He sent his recommendation to Laco’s tablet.

Laco looked up without opening the message and furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

Brad was annoyed Laco didn’t bother to read the recommendation. He wanted to firmly tell the kid he should read his message box, but Laco wasn’t a kid and that probably would be the quickest way to be sent back to the trainer. He wondered if Connor and Griken were even aware of the situation and Laco’s lack of concern. “The safest place to drop down would be at marker 76.49.56.3497 because that’s the largest area of uninterrupted mapped space we could use. There would still be an even larger unmapped area to travel before we can pull up, but it is smaller than other alternatives. There is a ramp at marker 61.10.19.8756 that you can use to pull back up into the mapped transit lane, however it is very close to the halfway point at Mundasen’s current speed. She would need to increase her speed slightly to ensure she was well past the marker for you to move back into the lane.”

Laco stopped swiping his tablet and looked at Brad. “Good choice. It looks to me like you not only handled it, but you also provided the best solution.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I knew it was a complex situation, perhaps too complex for a first timer, but I wanted to provide you with an opportunity to plan a route. If you had come up with a solution that involved you piloting, I would question your competency and ability to make command decisions. No one travels folded space by themselves, if they can help it, and certainly no one would navigate the unmapped areas with your limited experience. Even pilots whose careers are to map these areas sit in the second seat for a significant amount of time before flying unmapped areas as first seats, due to the hazards. Even as we fly through the area and the vehicle’s sensors are able to map most at a close proximity, there will be little warning for the myriad problems we may encounter and navigating through this area will require someone with more experience.”

“What about my asking Mundasen to increase her speed? Is that an issue?”

“Folded space hazards require the cooperation of all who are transiting it. It doesn’t always happen. For instance, if an Aneplé citizen or a pirate piloted the other vehicle, you shouldn’t expect any assistance from them. But not cooperating could result in the loss of one or more vehicles. Once the transit was complete, if Mundasen had not cooperated, she would risk losing her piloting authorization because of our report. She has the easy part, to increase her speed. Rarely will a legitimate issue come up, and if she has an issue, it had better be a good one. As for who should pilot, the more experienced individual should pilot through this area. Generally, it would be the senior pilot in command of a vehicle who has more experience, but there are exceptions such as this. I fully expected to pilot this vehicle. The question was who would be in command. If you had selected the transport vehicle as your primary vehicle, your training would have had you observe senior pilots several times before you would be allowed to pilot through the unmapped areas, regardless of what your trainer led you to believe. Swarm Defenders as a rule do not pilot through the gates, since the heavier class vehicles handle the turbulence better, but this will still be a good experience for you.”

Brad wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed at Laco or pleased that he understood the dangers and was still able to flesh out a solution. “So I’m still in command?”

Laco gave him an affirmative nod.

“Is there anything else I should consider?”

“What do you think?”

“Nothing personal, but it would be easier for me if you shared the information instead of leading me around on a leash.”

Laco looked at him. “Hmmph, the impatience of youth.”

Brad glared at Laco, wondering where his sudden arrogant attitude came from. Laco quickly looked down at his tablet, the corners of his mouth slightly upturned. How could he have missed it? Laco was playing with him. “Okay, old man, what do you have for me?” Brad responded in kind.

Laco laughed at Brad. “You’ll do fine when you report to your squadron. Don’t let them run you in circles. For the record, when it comes to being an old man, our friends in back have centuries on me.” Laco pointed to the different routes on his tablet that Brad had examined. “Looking at the alternatives, you selected a good plan for the vehicle, but this vehicle is carrying passengers. In the future as well as now, you will need to include arrangements for their safety. Confirm your plan with Mundasen then let the passengers know they will need to be harnessed either in their seats or tubes when we ramp off to the other lane. Finally, lock Divazz’s sleeping tube to ensure she has a warning before she takes a walk while we move through the uncharted areas. If it’s locked, she will know something is going on and to be more careful than usual when she opens it. I also want you to provide me with a route with as much detail as possible.”

“Got it,” Brad confirmed and proceeded to discuss the plan with Mundasen. She agreed to increase her speed as requested, once Laco dropped to the parallel lane. He then told the passengers to harness themselves during the detour.

Brad passed a more detailed route to Laco to review on his display. He was nervous looking at the large areas of unmapped space. While the vehicle would map and display most of the area ahead of them in advance, it wouldn’t give them much time to navigate smoothly. He wasn’t bothered by the turbulence, but if they located a large dark area the ship could not map, that would be a different story. The unmappable regions were called dark holes because vehicles rarely recovered from flying into those areas. While the transit gates were manmade, dark holes were natural space phenomena resembling wormholes comprised of weak gravitational waves. Ships that crossed the hole’s boundaries would be pulled into the dark hole’s gravity well. A few of the dark holes were suspected to be additional transit lanes because a small percentage of vehicles showed up in CIG space many years later. However, the scientists and explorers had not yet been able to prove the dark holes were reliable transit lanes, despite the advanced instruments used to examine them. Escaping the dark hole’s gravity well was nearly impossible without advance preparation and special equipment, and even then it was extremely risky to enter a dark hole. Brad was uncomfortable knowing that even with CIG’s advance technology, there were still limitations to their abilities when it came to nature.

Laco looked at the display in front of him. “Brad, the detailed route you proposed may be the most comfortable, but I need to pilot as close to the edge of the mapped area as possible. It will be challenging and there are a few minor risks. You will be better off learning from the beginning to over prepare for flying into these areas, especially since the transport vehicle wouldn’t be your primary vehicle. You’ll soon see that over preparing will offset your lack of experience in the future, since it is more than likely the opportunities for you to experience this again will be few and far between.” Seeing Brad’s confused expression, Laco pointed to the edge of the mapped area. “The folds along this edge are so frequent that navigating them will significantly increase the turbulence; however, it will give our sensors more range to map further out and provide better data for transits after us.” He pointed to the corner of the mapped area. “If I pilot at this edge, it would provide more options for alternative routes than if we were to approach the unmapped space at the center.” Using his finger, he showed Brad the different routes from the two points.

Brad pointed to the center. “Why did they stop here? And why are there so many oddly incongruent off-ramps?” Brad pointed to the various ramps and odd mappings.

Laco shrugged. “I really don’t know, but I have my suspicions. If transit pilots are on schedule, we are allowed to occasionally map areas because there are hazardous duty bonuses attached to newly mapped areas. These vehicles are not equipped with the more powerful sensors, and we are only allowed to map small areas at a time due to the dangers. Originally, Divazz and I were told we wouldn’t be authorized to map any areas because of our passengers. However, I was instructed by Connor not to treat you any differently than any other trainee. He authorized a number of contingencies for you to experience. We now have this opportunity. The bonus will be split between Divazz, you and me.”

“What about Mundasen? Won’t she object?”

“She may have already mapped other areas or have other plans. If this was an area she had planned to map, she would have said something.”

“Cool beans, first bonus. Wonder what I can spend it on?” Brad momentarily thought he should find an “I’m sorry” gift for Shinny. Despite the hurt, he missed her. He was starting to understand the difficult situation she had been in. He was now in the same situation with his parents as Shinny had been with him. Now if only his odd nightmare would stop, life with Shinny might have a chance of returning to normal, or at least the new normal with him joining a military organization and flying space ships.

“Uniforms,” Laco laughed. “They won’t be free in the future.”

“Funny. Keep your day job.”

“Huh? I don’t understand?” Laco responded with a questioning look on his face.

“Just chalk it up as a very bad Earth joke,” Brad explained.

“Hmm, maybe I’ll use it in the future,” Laco said seriously.

Brad smiled at Laco’s naïveté. Maybe Earth could enrich CIG with bad jokes and frozen pizza. Looking at the marker coming up he realized it was time to start preparing for the drop. “Laco, I’m turning over piloting to you.” He announced a ten-minute warning to the passengers, reminding them to harness themselves in their seats or their sleeping tubes. Connor, Griken and Kiraine quickly sat in the seats behind them. Shinny had decided to spend the time in the sleeping tube. He locked both Shinny’s and Divazz’s tubes as directed by Laco. While he was curious about Shinny’s decision to retire to her sleeping tube, he chuckled wryly, thinking she finally chose to abandon the gym just when he was too busy to take advantage of it. He would talk to her when his shift ended, and work toward mending their relationship. He would start by apologizing for his immature behavior. For now, he needed to focus on his flight.

He turned to Laco. “Would you like me to continue programing and executing the counter maneuvers as we drop?”

“It would be helpful. You may not have much warning in some areas; just do your best where the measurements are available.”

Brad looked at the track they were planning to take and created more programs to counter the ridges and folds Laco might encounter. He wasn’t sure if they would be needed, but he was becoming more nervous staring at the large, blank, unmapped areas. Programming kept his mind off the dangers the unmapped areas posed, at least for the time being. As Laco approached the marker and began the descent, Brad contacted the other vehicle. “This is Trainee Johnson, at marker 76.49.56.3497, beginning descent. Pilot Mundasen, request you increase your vehicle’s speed to 750 LSUs now; confirm when you pass marker 61.10.19.8756.”

“Message received, safe mapping,” Mundasen responded immediately.

As Laco directed the vehicle to advance to the edge of the mapped area, Brad watched in amazement as the computer mapped the ridges, folds, and furrows that stretched and spread out to the right of them. Although he had partial information, he was able to keep up with most of the maneuvers needed to counter the turbulence from the folds. It seemed to go well even as Laco made a left turn following the mapped areas.

As they approached the dark unmapped areas in front of them, Laco slowed the ship. “Is there any indication of measurement at the edges as we get closer?”

“There’s no change. The mapping has remained static,” Brad reported. He looked at it again and thought it was strange. There should be some measurement similar to what they saw during the descent. He didn’t know what it meant and the lack of available information made him uneasy. Laco accessed mapping logs on his console. Brad pulled up past logs on the mapped area and tried to read it as quickly as Laco, but he was still lacking in that ability. Later, he would need to spend more time learning to read the new language’s technical reports.

Brad was taken by surprise by a sudden sharp right turn, since they had not discussed it before. But he was more surprised how Laco avoided flying straight into the dark area and was now flying around the edge. “How did you know it was a dark hole?”

“I wasn’t sure. I suspected it was there from the mappings and the logs. As we approached it, you confirmed it by reporting that the sensors were not picking up anything beyond the edges. Although the sensors are now mapping both sides of the vehicle, they are also outlining the boundaries of the dark hole. Special equipment will be needed to verify the mapping we are seeing. There is a small possibility that this may be another transit gate and not just another place to get lost in. Ninety eight percent of the time, these readings suggest the phenomena is a dark hole not a transit lane. When we pull up, I’ll pull the maps and show you the indicators. At this moment, I need to focus on piloting away from the hole’s boundary edges or we will be pulled into it.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before we descended?” Brad asked. He felt left out and wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear the answer. He assumed Laco had lost confidence in him and his skills. He stared at the inverted typhoon illustrated on the windshield showing a mass of rapidly swirling black streaks interspersed with thin bands of light funneling to a smaller pinpoint in the center of the dark hole. He shuddered as he thought about the ships that had been caught in the gravity wells and pulled toward the pinpoint. While the areas were unmappable, the computer simulated drawing was a warning buoy for future pilots.

“You had enough to worry about for the first time dropping into an unmapped region. Expecting you to know the signs and what to do would have been unreasonable for first time piloting. Right now, I need you to watch the mappings ahead and help me navigate around it. Watch for any indication I’m off course and need to begin turning. When we leave this area, I want to make sure the area around the dark hole is clearly mapped for others to see. I also need you to continue to keep up with the counter maneuvers. That will help me focus on the path ahead. These dark holes are all about the same size and shape, but I could use assistance in getting around this one until we can take the ramp back up to the mapped lane.”

The pity party is over, Brad thought. He had a plateful of tasks to keep him busy and couldn’t afford to allow himself to become distracted. “Message received.” He watched the mapping as it continued to define the outline of the menacing dark funnel. When the mapping was finally completed, the dark hole would resemble a tilted oblique ellipse with a completely inverted typhoon. He noted a slight increase in the distance from the edge. “It looks like you’re moving away. Recommend you turn five degrees to port.” Slowly the spacing decreased. As Laco turned, Brad observed a clearly defined arc. He instructed the computer to measure the arc and calculated the circumference based on the arc’s parameters. “Laco, I have a circumference calculated to plan a route around the area. I’ll send it to your display.”

Laco looked at it. “Brad, I’m sending my calculations. There are some differences. See if you can adjudicate the estimates to produce a route between the two.”

Brad looked at the two calculations and produced a third route for Laco to follow. He sent the detailed route back. “If you follow along this track, it’ll ensure the distance from the edge remains constant. I’ll continue to check the measurements and send updates to the navigation console.”

Laco examined the route changes. “Looks acceptable. I haven’t seen anything that might indicate this area isn’t an average dark hole, but we still need to watch for signs of an abnormality.”

“Message received.”

Laco kept the vehicle on the recommended track. The dark hole was to his left, but he kept looking to his right ensuring the sensors were mapping the area. He followed Brad’s recommended arc back toward the mapped areas.

“Trainee Johnson, this is Pilot Mundasen. I just passed marker 61.10.19.8756. The ramp to the transit lane is open. Information from your vehicle shows you discovered a dark hole. Congratulations, is there a name?”

Brad had been unaware the pilots named these space anomalies and wasn’t sure what to say. “Uh, we are still discussing it. We’ll get back to you on it. Safe travels.” Brad cut off communications and glanced at Laco. “What is she talking about? How do you name a dark hole?”

Laco smiled slightly. “In addition to the nice bonus pilots receive for discovering the dark holes, pilots are obligated to name them. I’m leaving it up to you this time.”

“I don’t understand. Why would I name the dark hole?”

“Traditionally, the discoverer names the area and it’s included in the future mappings. I’ve already named a few others, so I’m passing the obligation to you.”

“Thanks, I think.” Brad continued to watch the mapping, ensuring the distance remained constant. He gazed at the maelstrom overlaid on the mapping of the dark hole. “How do I select a name that would have meaning for future pilots? Do I choose a name to honor a historical figure or planetary system?”

“In the past, serious names were given to honor historic individuals for their accomplishments. But these dark holes have become so prevalent pilots choose almost anything from family members and pets to useless phrases. Sometimes they are crude and irrelevant.”

Brad ran a few ideas through his head but he was stumped. All references to Earth were out; he didn’t think Shinny would feel honored if the dark unmapped area were named after her. The more he thought about it, the more he doubted anyone he knew would be honored. “Hmm, something crude and irrelevant. After deliberating greatly on this task,” he stated in an exaggerated British accent, “I, Brad Johnson, dub thee dark hole, Connor’s Gambit.”

Laco choked on his next breath and quickly looked behind them to see if there was a reaction. “Are you sure that is what you want to name it?” Laco asked with panic in his voice. “Connor may consider it disrespectful,” he whispered quietly to Brad.

“I’m sure; I keep thinking Connor is working an elaborate ploy or ruse equal to the discovery of the dark hole. I’m honoring his efforts by naming this special anomaly after his game.”

“I heard everything you said,” Connor announced behind him.

“I’m sure you did. Am I right?” Brad queried as he continued to watch the mapping in front of him.

“You’re in the neighborhood of being correct. I may have a gambit in mind.”

“Great, just my luck,” Brad whispered aloud.

Laco, still stunned, glanced quickly at Brad. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been led around as if there is something I’m supposed to do.”

“What?” Laco asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve seen this before with Connor. It can be annoying.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything other than to give it your best effort,” interrupted Connor.

“I know where this is going,” Brad grumbled. “Keep the name, Connor’s Gambit.”

Laco slowly exhaled, “Okay, I will record Connor’s Gambit into the log. I’m sure I will never be able to completely explain the reason for the name you picked.”

Griken noticed Connor’s expression and laughed. “It’s been a while since I have been this amused.”

Brad continued to work on the counter-maneuvers and mapping the edge of the dark areas while Laco slowly swung the ship toward the right. “I assume you are heading toward the ramp.”

Laco nodded, confirming Brad’s comment. “We are about 180 degrees from the point where I turned off to outline Connor’s Gambit. I’m picking up the transit lane to the ramp.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to ramp up sooner rather than fly further to take the mapped ramp to the transit lane?”

“The unmapped ramp presents a higher risk than traveling in a straight line to the marked ramp. Staying in this path is more predictable. We’ve had enough excitement for today.”

Brad nodded that he understood and continued to focus on supporting Laco. Startled by a hand on his shoulder, Brad was surprised to see Divazz standing next to him. “You’re a little early.”

“Actually, I believe it’s more like you have lost track of time.” She looked at Laco. “It looks like I missed all the fun. Will I ever hear how the universe flipped over during two rest periods? The trainee is in the command seat and now Connor’s Gambit has been revealed to all. I can’t wait to hear,” she teased, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m not sure I can explain everything except Connor claimed this isn’t his gambit. However, Trainee Johnson is convinced Connor is planning something,” Laco explained. “I recommend we stay out of it.”

“Of course Connor would have something planned; Admiral N’Klaftin wouldn’t be Connor if he didn’t.” Divazz looked behind her to see Connor walking toward them, entering the cockpit from the passenger seating area. “I’ll take your recommendation under advisement. By the way, thanks for the bonus.”

Connor looked at Divazz. “Are they ready to be relieved?”

“Yes sir, although our new trainee seems disappointed at not being able to finish the transit through the exit gate.”

“He’ll get over it. The trainee looks like he needs to rest during the next shift, if he is going to be ready to report to his squadron on the Zuonopy,” noted Connor.

Brad was about to respond with a smart aleck remark, but he recognized the look on his friend’s face telling him not to go there. “Yes, sir, message received.”

Laco stood up. “Connor, I’m ready to be relieved. The remaining flight should be easy with the trainee’s mapped course.” He looked at his tablet, while tapping on it. “Trainee Johnson, I’m signing off on this flight, with a recommendation that you are allowed to continue training on this vehicle. You are not that far away from being graded proficient in the piloting of Transport Vehicles.”

Brad stood. Even though his muscles screamed from the stiffness of sitting as long as he had, he had a grin on his face and was thrilled Laco signed off on the flight. He hadn’t been convinced Laco would, since Brad had turned the vehicle piloting over to him. “Thank you again for the opportunity.” Looking at Divazz, he echoed Laco, “I’m ready to be relieved. She’s all yours.” Brad stepped away from his chair to allow Divazz access to the cockpit.

“Who is ‘she’?” Divazz asked, as she sat down and watched Laco and Brad head toward the rear of the vehicle.

Connor sighed to himself thinking he would need to warn Brad to watch his idioms. “I’ll explain later,” he said as he gestured over the console to follow Brad’s preprogrammed route.

Brad watched Laco walk quickly toward the sleeping tubes. He was more than ready to join him, but he wanted to talk to Shinny before he went to sleep. Stepping into the gym, he looked around and saw it was empty. Just my luck, he thought. Stepping out of the gym, he walked to the tubes and saw Shinny’s tube was occupied. He assumed she was still sleeping and needed the rest. Brad thought about sending a message but he owed her an apology in person. He would wait until they were both up and could talk. He opened his sleeping tube and climbed into it. As the tube cocooned him, his last thoughts were of how spent he was from being so vested into piloting the vehicle. He hadn’t noticed before now.

[]Chapter 12

 

 

Brad ran as fast as possible to keep up with the group in front of him. The shooting behind him crescendoed and he knew what was coming next. Wake up, he told himself. He heard a soft knocking sound. The knocking was something new in his dream. It grew louder and louder, waking him from his nightmare. He opened his eyes and was startled by the darkness that surrounded him. Taking a moment to adjust, Brad remembered he was in the sleeping tube. He opened the tube’s hatch and saw Laco staring at him with an apprehensive look on his face.

“Brad, are you okay?” Laco asked.

“I’m fine. Is everything all right? Why were you knocking on the tube?”

“We were concerned. You have been sleeping for quite a while. You missed coming out of the gate and pulling onto the Battle Cruiser Zuonopy. Your sponsor is waiting for you.”

“Sponsor? I don’t understand.” He held his head against the overwhelming cacophony outside the tube. “What is that noise in my head?”

Laco smiled. “Welcome to the Zuonopy. You are hearing the Zuonopy daily news feed on an encrypted channel. It’s a loop you can turn off on your chip after listening to it once.” He pointed to the open doorway. “Your sponsor from your squadron is through the door and down the ramp.”

Brad looked around at the empty cabin. “Where is everyone else?”

“They’ve disembarked. The major left a clean uniform for you and had your bag taken off the vehicle. You’ll have to tell me how you did it. I didn’t see you speak one word to her and she leaves you a clean uniform and has your bag personally removed from the vehicle.”

“I think she likes older-looking men.” Brad smiled. It was a nice touch on Shinny’s part, but he wished she had waited to talk to him. “Did the major disembark with Connor?”

“I’m not sure what she did. Apparently her battalion decided to run an Evasion Exercise.”

“What’s an Evasion Exercise?”

“An Evasion Exercise requires a targeted individual to evade a hunting party,’’ explained Laco. “She has a quarter of a shift to report to her battalion commander. Meanwhile the Battalion is hunting for her.”

“Seems like a bad way to welcome someone new to your command.” Brad hopped out the tube and grabbed his uniform.

“That would be a polite way of describing it. No one was happy to hear about her orders, but she asked Connor and Griken to stay out of it. Personally, I think something should have been said, because they will pull it on others and it won’t be too long before they decide to hunt Fleet members. I don’t care if they are Special Combat troops. They are always pulling crazy stunts like this and it isn’t right,” Laco spat.

Laco’s momentary outburst surprised Brad. Obviously the exercise crossed a line with Laco. “I see your point,” Brad responded cautiously, trying to understand everything around him. Brad wanted to know more about the exercise, but this wasn’t the time and he needed to report to his squadron. “I need to take a quick shower. Could you please let my sponsor know I will be right down there?”

Laco had returned to his normally laid-back manner. “No problem. Contact me when you receive your Swarm Defender pin and I’ll arrange a few take offs and landings for you on the transport vehicle.”

Brad stopped suddenly. “You’re not returning to Earth?”

“Unfortunately, the senior flight officer decided I needed to take my rest period on the Zuonopy. I will be attached to a squadron here for training.”

The realities of belonging to a military organization and lack of control hit Brad. “Sorry to hear that.”

“It isn’t all bad. There are plenty of things to do on the Zuonopy to keep me busy and I will be able to catch up with a number of my colleagues.”

“Glad to hear there’s an upside to it. I’ll contact you as soon as I have a handle on everything.”

Laco laughed. “If I have to wait that long, I may never hear from you, and I am expecting to hear from you.”

“Message received. As soon as I earn my insignia pin, I’ll contact you.” Brad gave Laco a nodding salute before he walked toward the showers.

 

 

Major Plinoa Ukpres was irritated that the transport vehicle was more than a full shift late. She had posted her platoon at several positions throughout the Transportation Room waiting for its arrival. When she proposed the Evasion Exercise to the colonel, it seemed like a brilliant idea. But with one shift already wasted, she was questioning whether this would be worth her efforts.

The rumors that Admiral Griken would return with the last Connor had set everyone on edge. Her supervisors grew nervous and looked at her to find a solution. An unspoken urgency hovered for her to do something that would have an impact. She didn’t have a clear plan, but she believed the Evasion Exercise would be a good first step in tripping Connor. The reports on his daughter had indicated she had gone native on a primitive planet and was out of shape from turning off the rejuvenation function on her chip.

Plinoa’s position gave her the most advantageous view of Connor and his escorts. While she couldn’t see the face of the female standing next to Connor, the tracer application on her tablet showed that it matched Major N’Klaftin’s chip signature. Plinoa couldn’t believe her luck and was wondering if N’Klaftin received the exercise announcement. She checked her tablet and noted N’Klaftin’s confirmation response. It seemed odd that Major N’Klaftin would stand in the open. It seemed like N’Klaftin was not participating in the Evasion Exercise. Plinoa stared at the signal emanating from the platform and formulated a strategy to counter N’Klaftin’s passive participation. Plinoa decided she would personally confront N’Klaftin and use the troops as backup. N’Klaftin’s reputation was as legendary as her father’s, but Plinoa was convinced her own skills would easily overcome N’Klaftin, if it came to that point. The way N’Klaftin stood next to her father, it almost seemed as if she lost her fight and should be retired instead of transferred to the inactive reserve. Plinoa needed to balance pushing that idea with her commitment to meeting her supervisor’s intentions.

Plinoa observed the personnel on the platform. N’Klaftin turned and walked toward the door. Finally, the superfluous ceremony conducted for the Connor was over. They were leaving the Transportation Room. While N’Klaftin’s signal was still very strong, Plinoa didn’t want to lose sight of her. She sent a message to her squadron to follow her. Plinoa attached a line to the rail and dropped to the platform below housing the pod retrievers. Reaching the platform, she tugged the computerized hook to release and ran across the platform toward the opposite edge, avoiding the pilots and technicians working on the platform. She had two more levels to drop. She needed to push it if she was going to follow them immediately through the door. Running back to the platform’s mid-point she turned and ran full speed, leaping at the edge. Plinoa hit the lower platform and continued moving at a full run, dodging personnel and vehicles. She ran toward the far edge, throwing her line forward to catch the edge in front of her. She jumped off the edge, allowing her line to drop her gradually to the next platform. Plinoa smiled as she executed a perfect descent, timed to begin as Connor’s entourage walked through the doorway, yet allowing her to remain invisible to them. She landed with a soft thud and tugged her line to store in its container. Plinoa estimated she was not far behind the group as she walked through the doorway with her tracer and turned left as indicated on the screen. She wouldn’t be able to approach N’Klaftin with the platoon of escorts surrounding her father and her. Plinoa and one of her squadrons could easily over take the platoon, but that was asking for trouble. It was a smart evasion maneuver on N’Klaftin’s part. Even though the platoon was primarily ceremonial and would dissipate immediately after they completed their escort duty, their presence delayed N’Klaftin’s capture. Plinoa frowned as she continued to follow the escort group to Senior Officer Quarters. The tracer showed N’Klaftin following her father into his quarters. She walked toward Connor’s quarters and stopped when the platoon leader escorting Admiral Griken blocked her path.

“Major, do you have authorization to be in this area?” the somber faced Fleet chief asked.

“I’m running an Evasion Exercise. I have a squadron following behind me.” She sent the authorization to both Admiral Griken’s and the Platoon leader’s tablets.

Griken looked at his tablet. “It’s real. Let the major go.” He turned to the major, warning, “I won’t tolerate another outrageous stunt like this on my ship again.”

Plinoa, unmoved by Griken’s threat, walked toward Connor’s quarters as the platoon moved to the side of the hallway. Plinoa looked at the tracer and confirmed the Major was still in Connor’s quarters. She walked into Connor’s quarters and saw only him sitting at a desk holding his tablet, reviewing a hologram of a planetary system. She heard a click as he laid his tablet down. “Sir, I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m looking for—”

Connor cut her off immediately. “The commander left through another door.”

Plinoa was confused. His daughter was a major. “Sir, excuse me, I’m not sure I understand you.” She looked at her tablet to see the signal had disappeared. She wasn’t sure what happened, but she now had two problems. It was one thing to run an authorized Evasion Exercise, but she had clearly lost her target and now couldn’t explain why she was in the Fleet Admiral’s quarters.

“The commander left from another exit. You may leave where you entered.” Connor scanned his tablet before he stared back at her. “Next time you need to enter my quarters, request entrance, as you should have been taught at the Academy.”

Plinoa, stunned at her misjudgment, stepped back and nodded a salute to Connor. “Yes, sir. Message received.” She stared at the blank tracer with disbelief, wondering how she could have screwed up as badly as she just had, as she walked out of the Connor’s quarters.

As Major Ukpres stepped out, Connor picked up two thin wafer pieces hidden under his tablet and snapped them in his hands. He stood and threw the pieces into a recycle bin.

Plinoa walked down the corridor to a main passageway, retracing her steps while staring at her unresponsive tracer. She turned the corner, hitting something like a cement wall. Squadron 3 Leader, Leevaal Stapernoin, “The Mountain,” glared at her with a disgusted look in his eyes. Stapernoin was a head-and-a-half taller than she, solidly built and more than once easily earning the nickname, The Mountain. He was dependable and a straight shooter and no one moved past him without his approval. For her it meant she couldn’t always depend upon him for her special assignments. She took a step back and composed herself. “Stapernoin, do you still have Major N’Klaftin showing on your tracer?”

Leevaal was not happy about the Evasion Exercise. He grudgingly carried out his orders. “Major, we lost her signal in Connor’s quarters approximately two minutes ago. Did you gain entrance into his office?” He had his issues with Major Ukpres, but incompetency wasn’t one of them. While he didn’t want his squadron to fail the exercise, he was secretly hoping for Major N’Klaftin to succeed.

“Yes, I walked in and the signal disappeared on my tracer. When I stated I was looking for his daughter, he informed me the commander had just left his office,” Plinoa shared. “Connor wasn’t happy to see me. I’m sure he was aware of the exercise, since the order didn’t include a security classification. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Which commander was he referring to?” Stapernoin asked.

“I don’t know, unless he meant Commander Kiraine Janeque, who was also on the vehicle,” she answered in an equally questioning manner. She tapped a few commands on her tablet. “I want everyone to trace both Commander Janeque and Major N’Klaftin. Consider the possibility they may be on a vehicle flying around the ship.”

Leevaal didn’t need to repeat the order to his troops, but knowing Ukpres’s tendency to micro-manage, he turned to them anyway. “Comply with the major’s order.” He looked at the tracer’s reading on his tablet, tapped a few commands and saw no response. He waited for his troops to report to him before he reported to the major. Looking at her, he suspected she knew what he was going to report to her. “Major, no one has been able to trace the targets.”

“The transport vehicle’s log shows they were both on board when it docked.” Plinoa pressed her lips together in an unattractive manner. “Keep looking, and ensure the tracers have been tuned to overcome any electronic signal blocks or jams.”

Leevaal thought they could be doing something else more productive, but if this kept the major happy, he would tap commands until the next shift to ensure she was not on his troops’ backs. He continued to tap then heard a chorus of chimes. He dissected the information on his tablet. “Commander Janeque has been traced to the bridge, next to Admiral Griken.”

Plinoa nodded her head in response to the report. “Keep watching. N’Klaftin may show up soon.” Not long after she issued the order her tablet chimed. N’Klaftin’s signal had been located. The signal originated from the transport vehicle that reported her arrival. She stared at Stapernoin. “Who is in the Transportation Room?”

“Squadrons 1, 2, and 4 are still running reconnaissance in the room,” Leevaal replied immediately.

“Contact the squadron leaders, and have them station their squadrons around the vehicle and stand tight until I arrive.”

“Yes ma’am,” Leevaal responded, his disgust evident as he rapped the orders on his tablet. I guess we can’t have anyone else taking credit for N’Klaftin’s capture, he thought. He turned to his squadron. “Alphas, follow the major. Bravos, follow me.” They would approach the transport vehicle from opposite sides to ensure the room was fully covered.

[]Chapter 13

 

 

Brad stood in front of the mirror inspecting his uniform one more time before he stepped out of the bathroom. The uniform of the day was battle dress. Battle dress meant a long sleeved black collarless shirt and matching self-belted pants. It was a far cry from Earth’s camouflaged battle uniforms. It gave him a clean, one-piece, put together look that made him feel more like a ninja fighter than battle ready. But that changed once he attached the Swarm Defender Trainee insignia, leaving him feeling somewhere between ‘here I come, universe’ and ‘make way for Junior?’ Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the passageway and walked toward the hatch with the ramp attached.

Laco stood beside the hatch. He looked up from his tablet. “Your insignia is upside down.”

Brad looked down at the right side of his chest and grinned sheepishly. “Thanks.” So much for saving the universe, at least for today, he thought.

Laco watched him reposition his insignia. “When you meet your sponsor on the platform he will probably want to take you directly to your squadron. Insist on dropping your bag off at your quarters so you don’t find yourself going back and forth. Doing that will help you get started on finishing your training.” Laco watched Brad nod that he understood. “I looked at your orders and saw your team lead is Lenes Palscom. When you meet him, give him this package. Lenes is an old friend of mine from the Academy and is expecting this.” Laco held out a thin square package smaller than a dime.

Brad took the package in his hand and looked for some place on his uniform to put it. Other than the tablet that attached to his uniform, without a special case or material like Velcro, there didn’t seem to be any other way to carry the small package.

Laco reached over to Brad’s left upper arm and lifted a tab. “You can drop the package into this pocket.”

Surprised by the sudden appearance of a pocket on his shirt, Brad asked, “Are there other pockets?”

“You can program up to ten with this uniform. Didn’t you read the instructions when you were issued your uniform?”

“Uh, it’s on my ‘to do’ list.”

Laco shook his head and started swiping his tablet. “I can’t believe it. You can move through folded space as gracefully as a ballet dancer but you don’t know how to pull a pocket. I’m sending you a list of ‘to do’s’ to read when you’re off shift. Don’t put it off for another shift.” Looking sharply at Brad, Laco pointed to the vehicle’s doorway. “Get going. The Fleet is waiting for you.”

Brad smiled and gave him a casual hand wave salute. He turned toward the opening. “Thanks again for everything.” He walked onto the ramp, and was struck by the sight.

He gawked in amazement. He had seen the pictures and even flew in and out of the Transportation Room more than a dozen times in the trainer, but the simulation wasn’t quite the same as seeing it in person. The layered transportation platforms housing both space and planetary vehicles of varied shapes, sizes and functions seemed to go on forever. He held on to the handrail while stepping slowly downward, staring upward and across, taking it all in. He continued down the ramp, staring blankly as he realized he really was on a fighting space ship.

As he reached the bottom and stepped onto the platform, he continued to look up, wondering if he would fit in, if he would be able to keep up with the training or would he be overwhelmed by it all. Hearing someone call his name he turned his head and saw a tall slender young man looking at him with a confused expression.

“Are you Trainee Johnson?”

Here we go, Brad thought, taking a deep breath. “Yes, I’m Brad Johnson, twenty-eight years old, and I only recently started rejuvenation.” He rattled it off, hoping that would cover most of his sponsor’s immediate questions and with that out of the way, they could move on to other subjects.

The pilot stared at Brad as if he had two heads. He was probably surprised by the combination of the youthful age and much older appearance. “I’m Sperzs Drosey, your sponsor, roommate, and future copilot. Commander Deznoic and Silver Team Leader Palscom are looking forward to meeting you. Follow me with your bag.” He pointed to a large blue bag near the edge of the platform.

Brad looked at the bag and wondered what had happened. His twenty-two inch carry-on bag was now thirty-six inches in height and had spinner wheels. “What happened to my bag? Did someone tell you that was my bag? It looks different from what I remembered.” Walking toward it, he confirmed the suitcase was definitely his. No one else on the Battle Cruiser would have a bag with a Samsonite label on it. But the size was throwing him off.

“Pilot Benoggi brought it down and said it was yours.” Sperzs shrugged.

Brad was curious about the contents of the bag and walked over to it. “There’s something different about it. I need to make sure everything is in it.” He unzipped the top and looked in then quickly zipped it back. “I need to stow this in my room before I meet with anyone. Which way are we heading?” he looked around the room, continuing to take in everything.

“Stopping at the stateroom first is unusual.” Sperzs pointed to a metal box. “We don’t need to take the bag to the room. The robot valet can deliver it for you.”

Brad’s expression hardened. “I want to deliver my own bag. Maybe next time, I’ll try the robot. Everything I love from my planet is in the bag and I’m not letting go of the bag until I reach my room.”

Sperzs shrugged. “I’ll let you explain the delay to Deznoic and Palscom, if there are any questions. Follow me.” Sperzs walked to the entry of the contiguous catwalk just wide enough for them to walk shoulder to shoulder. Brad walked on the outside looking into the cavernous hangar room. “Is this your first time on a battle cruiser?”

“Yes. Actually, this is the first time I’ve left my home planet. I’m still getting used to the newness of everything.”

“First time off your planet, that explains everything. It must really be on the outer edges. Did your planet have any issues with the Aneplé?”

Brad was uncomfortable going into too much depth since knowledge of Earth was still classified to most of the Fleet. “I was motivated to join CIG’s Fleet when there was a minor incident with an Aneplé spy on my planet. Otherwise I would have been happy on my backwater planet not knowing the difference.”

Sperzs nodded his head in understanding. “It’s been happening more and more to systems on the edge. But your planet could not have been too much in the back waters, with your training scores.”

Brad was surprised his scores were in the public database and thought he would just wing it with an explanation. “I spent some time on simulators on my planet. I once thought I wanted to go to the Academy but settled for a technical school on my planet.”

“Looks like it did the job. You would not have been allowed to pilot a vehicle if your recruitment test scores did not support your proclivity for the field,” Sperzs explained, still walking forward. “I’m curious, when you were training on the transport vehicle, did you know who you were training with in the second seat?”

Didn’t take long for word to get around, Brad thought. He would be better off giving a somewhat indirect response, since an outright lie would register on their tablets. “I was aware he was a friend of Admiral Griken’s who wanted to refresh his Swarm Defender training. However, I didn’t see much of him since I spent most of my time in the trainer and apparently he was on shift rotation flying the transport vehicle.” Brad must have satisfied Sperzs’ curiosity for the time being since he didn’t have a follow-up question. He stared upward as he walked. “What is that activity on the walkways?”

Sperzs followed Brad’s stare. “Special Combat Teams are running an Evasion Exercise hunting for someone. Rumor has it this is being handled by their Golden Girl, Major Ukpres.”

“They seem to be frantic. How are they doing?” Brad probed as he watched the heavily armored soldiers jogging on the catwalks forcing slower walkers against the walls.

“They might be frantic. I’ve never seen an Evasion Exercise run this long. Whoever they are chasing has got the better of them.”

Brad smiled. If he ran across someone participating in the exercise, he would stall them. Immediately after thinking that, he found himself facing a string of five people running toward him. His bad luck, as the person leading the group towered over his own six-four frame.

“Move to the side. There is a team heading toward us.” Sperzs flattened himself against the wall to make space while trying to grab Brad and pull him over, but Brad escaped his grasp. Sperzs winced as he watched Brad and the sergeant in front leading the Special Combat Troops collide. Sperzs gasped as the man gave Brad a glancing blow on his shoulder.

The blow pushed Brad back. Note to self: avoid confrontations with the bigger guys, he thought. The impact to his shoulder hurt for only a moment, since the chip kicked in instantaneously to numb the pain. He stood there, staring at the big guy, refusing to give an inch. He almost handed Sperzs the suitcase, but at the last moment decided he could handle it. Hopefully the meeting wouldn’t go any further than a stall.

Leevaal stared at Brad, clearly wondering where his common sense was. “Out of our way, trainee, we are running an exercise,” Leevaal bellowed.

Brad stared at the oversized man and stood at his full height, chest out. “Out of our way!” He turned to Sperzs. “What is his rank?”

“Sergeant Stapernoin, ‘The Mountain’,” Sperzs anxiously responded, pressing tighter against the wall, evidently hoping the confrontation didn’t get any worse.

“Thanks.” He looked back at the sergeant. “Out of our way, Sergeant Mountain, we are on our way to our stateroom.”

Sperzs groaned. “Brad, this isn’t worth taking a stand.”

Leevaal held back laughter as he relaxed his threatening stance. “Who are you, Trainee? Do you have a reason to obstruct a sanctioned exercise?”

“Someone who cares, and as far as I’m concerned, your major can ‘Eat shit and die,’ he challenged in English with as much bravado as possible.

“What is ‘Eat shit and die’ in standard CIG?” Leevaal asked.

“Look it up.” Hearing another groan in the background, he turned to Sperzs. “Don’t worry, I have everything under control.” Okay, Sperzs might see that as a lie, but he wasn’t going to back down.

Leevaal pulled out his tablet and began swiping. “I will. No one is leaving here until I find out what it means.”

“I’m fine with that.” Brad wondered whether it would be interpreted before the end of the shift.

Leevaal looked directly at Brad’s face, “Little man, the phrase did not belong to any of the CIG or Aneplé language databases. I asked my sister, who had recently been detailed to one of the observed planets and is now on the Zuonopy. It looks like we might agree on something. You have more backbone than most people on the ship ” Leevaal stepped to the right closer to the railing and moved forward.

Brad matched the Sergeant’s moves, stepping to the left closer to the wall and walked forward passing the troops on his left.

Sperzs ran to catch up to Brad. “What did you say to him?”

Brad, relieved he could walk away with a minor bruise on his shoulder, wondered if the sergeant might do more if word got around about what he said. “Some things are better left unsaid. How much further to our stateroom?”

“Not far, the room is located near the next exit.” Sperzs sped around Brad, leading him through a doorway and down a passageway. He stopped in front of a door and turned to Brad. “It should be keyed to your signal. Go ahead and test it.”

Brad gestured his hand as he had learned on Earth and the door opened. He stepped into the room pulling his bag behind him and saw his twenty-two inch carry-on bag standing in the middle of the room. Leaning the bigger bag against a wall, he turned to Sperzs. “Looks like I had another bag. No wonder I was confused.”

Sperzs looked at the two bags and the tiny stateroom. “It looks like it’s going to be tight. You might be able to put some of it in storage.”

“Don’t worry, I have it under control. It’ll all fit. Let’s get moving to the squadron,” Brad bluffed as he walked toward the door.

“I’ve seen your ‘under control’ and I’m not sure I’m ready for a repeat. I’m not sure how I got so lucky to be your sponsor and roommate,” Sperzs mumbled as he followed Brad out of the room.

[]Chapter 14

 

 

Plinoa glared in anger at the transport vehicle housing Major N’Klaftin’s signal. She would not fail to capture N’Klaftin this time. Plinoa glanced across the Transportation Room looking for Sergeant Stapernoin’s team knowing it would take a little longer for them to arrive since they were coming from the opposite direction. Her instincts told her not to wait any longer and to board the vehicle now, since she had almost her full squadron complement surrounding the vehicle. Plinoa was ready to strike. She was convinced little would be gained from waiting for Stapernoin and his team. She stared at her tablet depicting N’Klaftin’s signal flashing its position moving within the vehicle weighing the pros and cons one more time in her head. “Sergeant Bestrick, have you noticed any unusual activity?”

“No ma’am, nothing unusual. Pilot Sperzs Drosey from Swarm Defender Squadron 262 came by earlier to pick up a trainee. The tracer shows they went to their quarters, probably to stow the trainee’s personal belongings.”

“Anyone else note anything different?” Plinoa demanded.

“No ma’am, we have been maintaining the watch since you left with Stapernoin and his squadron and have not noticed anything else.”

Plinoa nodded, taking in everything. She didn’t see any reason to wait any longer. She reassured herself N’Klaftin would not escape this time. “Bestrick, we’re moving in now. I’m going in with you and three others. The remainder of your squadron will stay out here to cover the vehicle’s two exit doors with the other two squadrons posting a circle around the vehicle.”

Sergeant Bestrick sent the order out to Squadrons 2 and 4. “Ready when you are, ma’am.”

 

 

Laco tapped a ready signal to Divazz regarding the movement outside the vehicle and crossed to the valet trundling around the bay. Hearing footsteps rushing up the ramp, he picked up the tiny wafer on the moving robot. Laco snapped the chip and dropped it into a sleeve pocket. He grabbed the valet to stow in the rear of the vehicle.

 

 

Although Divazz thought she was prepared for the troops boarding her vehicle, she jumped in her seat when the troops bore down on her with full armor and riot weapons. She had seen armored Special Combat troops before, but never this close. She trembled as she reminded herself to remain calm and tell the truth. She stood up to face the major, who looked like she enjoyed intimidating others. “Can I help you with anything?”

“We are running an Evasion Exercise. Our instruments located Major N’Klaftin on this vehicle. The signal disappeared as we boarded. We will ask you questions on her status. If you are aiding her evasion, you are voluntarily participating in the exercise and will be taken into custody for aiding and abetting her evasion. Do you understand?” Major Ukpres asked while Sergeant Bestrick walked around with her tracer and other instruments noting every detail.

Divazz eyes widened in bewilderment to hear they had tracked Shinny to this vehicle. “What? I personally saw Major N’Klaftin leave. Why would she return here?” Divazz asked, dumbfounded.

“We will ask the questions. You will answer them. Again, if you speak out of turn, you will be apprehended and treated as a participant. Do you understand?” Plinoa threatened. Plinoa gritted her teeth in anger with the realization N’Klaftin’s signal was another false lead.

“I, I understand,” Divazz stuttered, wiping her sweaty hands on her pants.

“Do you confirm your name is Divazz Benoggi?” Plinoa asked. At the pilot’s nod she asked, “Is Major N’Klaftin on this vehicle?”

“No, she is not,” Divazz responded, swallowing nervously while trembling.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“Shortly after we landed, before she left the ship,” Divazz responded meekly.

Plinoa looked at the readings. The pilot was being truthful, but it looked like she was hiding something. She watched as some of the troops swiped their tablets checking to see what they may have missed. She turned toward the pilot. “We picked up her signal on this vehicle a few moments ago. What do you know about it?”

“I didn’t see her. I don’t know why she would return,” Divazz answered fearfully.

The readings still showed truthfulness on her part but also an increase in her stress hormones. “Maybe she has friends here. Who else is on this vehicle?” Plinoa sent a private message to Sergeant Bestrick to help the pilot become more verbal.

Divazz became increasingly more nervous. “I honestly don’t know why Major N’Klaftin would return unless something terrible happened. My copilot, Laco Voodel, may still be on the vehicle. He may know something more. He was here a moment ago.” She looked ready to say more but was interrupted by two loud voices arguing with each other.

 

“Major, I caught this pilot sneaking off the vehicle.” The corporal’s voice boomed over everyone else’s as he shoved the pilot forward.

Responding sarcastically, Laco disputed the accusation, “If I was sneaking off, I would have left the vehicle as cargo. I was leaving the vehicle from the main off ramp when one of your primitives accosted me and dragged me back on. That action violates the rules of engagement.”

Pilot Benoggi paled at something Voodel had said. Plinoa needed Voodel to talk more to reach Benoggi. Facing Voodel, her eyes hardened. “I don’t care what language you use when you refer to your fellow pilots, but if I hear you refer to any of my troops as primitives, you will answer to me personally. Do you understand?”

Laco pressed his lips together in anger. “Your reputation around the battle cruiser is well known. You don’t give a damn for anyone but yourself.”

Plinoa stared back, irritated that Laco wasn’t rattled. He continued to stare back at her, answering her with a hard silence that equaled her posturing measure for measure. It seemed he could keep this up as long as she could. There would be another time to take him on. “What do you mean the corporal violated rules of engagement?”

“I just started my long overdue rest period and am not allowed to participate in the exercise.” Laco smirked.

“Did you notify the corporal?” she snapped back.

“It wasn’t possible, he was intent on dragging me back into the vehicle.” Laco twisted his mouth in scorn. The exercises included personnel who simulated things such as injuries, deaths, evacuations, new arrivals, and births to provide a sense of reality. Some were planned, and occasionally others fell into designated categories, such as him. Essentially, his rest period meant he had died and could not participate any further. Had he been apprehended before he began his rest period it would be a different story for him.

“Corporal, release Pilot Voodel. He is dead,” she snarled, emphasizing the word dead.

Laco smiled a broad grin at the major’s realization of his status and stepped toward Divazz. “Divazz, have they hurt you?”

Divazz, still trembling, shook her head no. “They’ve only asked me questions.”

Laco observed Divazz trembling and regretted including her in the Evasion Exercise. As he reached toward Divazz to give her a reassuring hug, the major shoved Laco’s arm away, to remind him he was dead. Laco struggled unsuccessfully as the major physically pulled him to the hatch.

Plinoa’s hands were full from moving the pilot off the vehicle when a chorus of chimes went off. “Where is N’Klaftin now?”

A sergeant quickly volunteered that her signature was showing up on a Swarm Defender platform.

Plinoa, still clutching the pilot’s arm, was clearly frustrated N’Klaftin was not on the vehicle. “Sergeant Bestrick, leave your interrogation team on this vehicle and have them continue questioning Pilot Benoggi. I’ll assign someone to guard the vehicle’s entrance ramp. The remainder will combine with the forces outside and split into two groups to approach the Swarm Defender’s platform from the two sides.” Pulling Voodel with her, she scowled, “Pilot Dead, you’re leaving the vehicle with us, now.”

Laco looked behind him at tears streaking down Divazz’s cheeks. They must have released something in close proximity of her to distress her further. There wasn’t any reason for their cruelty and he wouldn’t soon forget it, he thought, as he was dragged off his vehicle.

Leevaal approached the major as she strode off the ramp pulling the pilot behind her. “Ma’am, I recommend you consider leaving half of your platoon on this platform until N’Klaftin’s position is confirmed.”

Major Ukpres, who had never failed before in capturing an evasion target, had become too obsessed to consider Leevaal’s recommendation. In fact, she looked furious he was questioning her competency. She lashed out at him. “Sergeant, send your team to join us. You will remain on station guarding this vehicle ensuring this dead pilot does not reenter the vehicle.” She shoved the pilot in her hand toward the platform’s edge. “You will remain on post until you receive further orders from me or hear the signal to end the exercise and return to your assigned duties.”

Leevaal was risking her explosive wrath when he approached the major with the suggestion, but did not expect to be fired in front of his troops. “Ma’am, what am I supposedly guarding?”

“Bestrick’s people are questioning another pilot on the vehicle. You are to ensure the interrogation is not interrupted.” Major Ukpres ordered, glaring at the pilot on the platform.

He was familiar with Bestrick and her troop’s methods. As far as he was concerned, the major and Bestrick were a matched pair. There probably wasn’t a good reason to continue questioning the pilot in the vehicle, but they weren’t ones to let a small detail like that restrain their perverse tendencies. “Message received,” he acknowledged as he walked to the ramp to stand guard. He watched the platoon split into two sections and jog toward the front of the cruiser from both sides. He had never met Major N’Klaftin and had only heard stories about her, but he decided he definitely respected her just from her ability to avoid capture without a confrontation.

 

 

Shinny sat in the cubby she customized to fit her. The last signal chimed, marking time for her to report to her new unit. She unzipped the Samsonite bag from inside and dropped the front panel, allowing her long legs to stretch forward so she could stand up. Not only did she print the bag on the transportation vehicle to fit her, but she also used a material she had developed on Earth to shield transmission of her chip’s signal and counter traditional electronic jamming. It was probably overkill since she was also wearing a cap made of the same material blocking the transmission of the chip’s signal from inside her head. She hadn’t been able to operationally test the capability on Earth, but was able to determine its effectiveness from tracking Kiraine’s use of the cap.

Her only concern had been when Brad opened the bag, but he had caught on quickly. She smiled to herself; she’d have to ask him what the hell he was thinking, confronting one of the teams. Following the activity on her tablet, even she could tell the sergeant leading the team was a giant even among the taller CIG personnel.

Stretching her body, she decided that she wanted to leave a thank you message before she left Brad’s stateroom. She opened Brad’s smaller bag and pulled out his framed family photos and his blanket, Lucky. She arranged the photos on the table beside his bed similar to the way he kept them on his desk at home. She folded Lucky to lie on the bed near the foot. She smiled and assured herself he would understand the message she left. Shinny grabbed the handle of the oversized suitcase to throw in to a recycling bin and left the room.

 

 

Shinny stood outside Colonel T’Lentic’s office, noting the location of Major Ukpres’ troops, reassuring herself she was still safe. She planned to keep her cap on longer to avoid detection until the last minute. This had been fun, she told herself, but she was ready to return to Earth and Dane.

Shinny walked up to the colonel’s aide, who was swiping his own tablet. “I’d like to see the colonel.”

The aide continued to swipe and didn’t bother to look up. “The colonel is busy and can’t be disturbed.”

Shinny bent over slightly and looked at the aide’s tablet. He was following the exercise. She chuckled quietly at the irony and pulled out her discharged praser. “Exercise, exercise you are dead.”

The aide looked up. “I can’t believe it. Major N’Klaftin, how did you do it?”

Smiling, Shinny responded, “State secret. Excuse me, while I report to duty and end the exercise.” She holstered her praser in a hidden pocket at her waist.

The corporal stood and nodded a salute. “Yes, ma’am.”

Shinny pulled the cap off of her head and quickly stuffed it in a sleeve pocket. She pulled her hair back and retied her ponytail. Shinny walked in and stopped directly in front of Colonel T’Lentic, who was staring at his tablet.

Colonel T’Lentic furrowed his eyebrows together. “Major N’Klaftin? There have been so many false-positives, I thought the one in my suite was another, since the one on the Swarm Defender platform just disappeared.”

Shinny ignoring the Colonel’s observation, “Sir, Major N’Klaftin reporting for duty. Request end of exercise signal be sent.”

Colonel tapped a few commands on his tablet. “Exercise termination signal sent. I expect a full report on your tactics in evading capture no later than third shift. Your sponsor, Major Ukpres, will be here shortly to escort you to your stateroom.”

The exercise had left a bad taste in her mouth when it came to Major Ukpres. She would rather struggle the next few weeks than wonder if there were a knife sticking in her back. “Sir, I decline your offer of a sponsor. Send me my stateroom number and names of the troops in my squadron and I will be set.”

“It’s your right to refuse your sponsor. I did not assign anyone to your squadron because you’re here for only a short time period. I’ll ask for volunteers and send their names to you.”

“Thank you. Sir, request permission to leave?” Shinny turned away when Colonel T’Lentic waved her away. She looked at her tablet and noted they had assigned her a stateroom on the foreward side of Zuonopy. They may have thought they were sending her to no man’s land and maybe they were, for most Special Combat Officers, but for her it was a different story. Her stateroom was close to Brad’s platform.

 

 

As soon as Leevaal heard the exercise termination signal, he ran up the ramp and headed toward the vehicle’s cockpit. The two sergeants who were left behind spitting questions into the face of the pilot, who was curled in a fetal position on the floor whimpering with tears streaking down her face. Enraged, he grabbed the two inquisitors by the backs of their shirts and pulled them back from her. “Didn’t you hear the exercise termination signal? You two are no better than the junk thrown into the recycle bin. Get out of here before I throw you out.” He growled at them as he dropped them to the floor. They scrambled up and ran out of the cabin. He was sure they were going to run back to their mama to turn him in. Not caring what they did, he turned to the shaking pilot on the floor and bent down to pick her up. Holding her gently, Leevaal lifted the distressed pilot, who continued shivering in his arms. The pain in her face caused him to wince inside. Leevaal turned around to see the pilot who had waited at the edge facing him with a praser in his hand pointed toward him.

Pilot Voodel glared angrily at the sergeant. “Put her down now. I’m not going to let anyone hurt Divazz any further.”

Leevaal understood where Voodel was coming from but he had his own mission. He walked down the aisle toward the pilot standing in the way of the hatch. “Move away. I’m taking her to medical.”

“Is she hurt?”

Leevaal looked at the woman in his arms. “Not physically, but she’s been overdosed with chemicals to alter her emotional state. I signed up to fight the Aneplé, not this.” Leevaal kept walking forward, determined to help the woman, and stepped past the pilot who had been blocking him.

[]Chapter 15

 

 

Deznoic was not sure what to think about the new trainee standing in front of him. Normally, he would be thrilled to receive someone who had Johnson’s training scores, but Johnson came with unusual baggage. From his perspective, Johnson’s background was cryptic and therefore his training suspect.

Connor had briefed him on Johnson’s background and shared with him information that was close hold. Johnson had been recruited from a planet under observation. And, although Johnson had originated from one of the more advanced planets under CIG’s observation, he had still been raised in a technologically deficient environment. Deznoic was also aware Johnson had only recently been fitted with a chip and was still adapting to the new technology. He wouldn’t be surprised if there were still numerous gaps in Johnson’s education, which caused him to further question the validity of the training scores.

In addition, both Connor and Admiral Griken, the two most senior officers aboard the Zuonopy, requested Deznoic provide them with daily reports. While they had been courteous, it was still an order. He hoped the additional reporting wouldn’t become an annoyance, although he suspected it would, until Johnson’s short tour was over.

As Deznoic looked over the trainee standing in front of him, he tried to understand why they were interested in him. Johnson was thirty years younger than the average recruit even though he looked older than most of the senior officers on the battle cruiser. Deznoic also wondered how he managed to score as well as he did coming from one of the observed planets. He considered the possibility Johnson’s training scores were phony. As far as he was concerned, he needed verification the scores were valid. He wanted evidence the training record had been earned and not falsified. He couldn’t imagine either Connor or Griken fabricating a training record. However, lately there had been a number of incidents involving senior officers that had caused tremendous Fleet losses. With all of the questions running through his head, he believed it would be safer to take a more cautious approach before he signed off on the Trainee’s insignia. He wouldn’t wait for a catastrophic event to determine the Trainee’s competency; he would figure it out for himself. He would also test whether Connor and Griken were serious about not second-guessing him when it came to running his squadron.

“You may think you are ready for your solo and first seat flights, but I want you to repeat some of the lessons and a few special ones we developed in-house.” Deznoic observed a disappointed expression on the trainee’s face, probably from being directed to repeat critical training modules, but Deznoic was also interested in Johnson’s reaction. He believed the trainee’s response would tell him what type of individual he was, especially since it appeared as if Johnson had access to both Connor and Griken.

Brad looked at the list of training requirements Deznoic forwarded to his tablet. Although he tried to hide his disappointment, he suspected he had failed. He wondered if Travis would question having to redo so many of the courses. He quickly calculated in his head the time the courses would take him to complete, if he increased the reaction speed of the protagonists in the modules. It might not be so bad. He reminded himself it wasn’t worth complaining. He was the new guy, and while he disagreed with the need to redo the modules, he needed to trust the decision behind assigning him to this squadron. “Message received. Would completing these modules by the end of the next third shift meet your requirements?”

“Schedule your second seat training requirements on my calendar when you are ready. You are assigned to Silver Team with Pilot Drosey. The team leader is Lieutenant Lenes Palscom. Dismissed.”

“Message received,” Brad responded as he nodded a salute and turned away, leaving with Sperzs.

“We are very fortunate to be assigned to this Squadron and Silver Team,” Sperzs explained, as he led Brad across the platform to Pilot Palscom’s vehicle.

“Why is that?” Brad asked, wanting to know more about the Squadron and his new bosses.

“You may have thought Deznoic came down hard on you, making you repeat some of the training as well as wanting to observe you personally, but as soon as he sees that your performance meets his standards, you will see he is very fair and will allow you independence in scheduling future training flights. He is also supportive when we suggest changes in tactics. Palscom is similar in temperament and is the most knowledgeable pilot on the Zuonopy on vehicle maintenance. Fortunately, he is willing to sharing his knowledge.”

“Isn’t the information available from the Battle Cruiser’s technicians or the database?” Brad asked, not understanding Sperzs point.

“Of course Pilot Palscom trusts the Neslin technicians and robots, but it’s his philosophy that we have an obligation to know how to repair the vehicles without their assistance as a backup. He is highly respected on this battle cruiser for his familiarity with the vehicles’ technology and willingness to teach others,” Sperzs explained. “Having skills in this area has helped us during exercises when we are able to perform simple repairs ourselves to get our vehicles back into action.”

“What is a Neslin technician?” Brad asked as he followed Sperzs.

Sperzs pointed to a seven-and-a-half-foot primate working at the edge of the platform, “There’s Besin Timjo. She’s assigned to our squadron. Would you like to meet her?”

Brad looked at the Neslin and gasped. “Uh, not now, maybe later. I should meet Pilot Palscom. He is probably waiting to meet me.” Glancing back at Besin Timjo, he told himself to get a grip. Just because it looks like something that should be caged in a zoo, doesn’t mean it should be. It might take a while before he felt comfortable meeting her. He needed more time to adjust before facing someone who looked like a mix of gorilla, orangutan and bigfoot with a humanoid face.

Brad followed Sperzs to Palscom’s vehicle. The area looked like an exploded automotive hardware store, with various parts and tools spread in a field surrounding the vehicle. While stepping around spare parts lying all around was disconcerting, he was impressed Palscom was interested in maintaining and rebuilding his own vehicle at a level expected from an expert technician as Brad had read about during training. Swarm Defender Pilot training included the ability to diagnose and replace minor modules, but certainly not to the extent he was seeing in front of him.

Lenes Palscom, while over a hundred years old, physically looked like ninety percent of the battleship’s crew with his tall, slender, athletic physique and a young teenaged face that benefited from the rejuvenating abilities on the implanted chip. Brad pulled the tiny package out of his sleeve and handed it to Lt. Palscom. “Pilot Voodel asked me to pass this package to you.”

Lenes took the small package and opened it. He watched the tiny chip blink. He wasn’t sure what he found more interesting, the cloned chip emitting only the signal or the envelope that shielded it. He put the chip down on the table and gazed upward, looking for any unusual activity on the catwalks. He owed his friend Laco a favor, but there were limits on what he was willing to do. Becoming an active participant in a Special Combat exercise fell outside of the limits. As soon as he saw any indications they had traced the signal to this platform, he would cut the signal off and accept whatever happened.

Sighing heavily, he looked at the training record of the new trainee on his tablet. It looked good. In fact, it looked too good to be true. He supported Commander Deznoic’s decision to require the trainee to spend more time in the training modules. Turning his head, he glanced at the catwalks; he then greeted the new trainee. “Welcome to my team. As soon as you have finished the training Commander Deznoic assigned you, we can talk about your schedule. I’m flexible on when you schedule your training flights. However, every fourth day during second shift I schedule maintenance sections for everyone to attend and will expect you to present a maintenance problem with a solution at least once every five sessions. Do you have any questions?” Lenes glanced back at the activity on the different catwalk levels. Seeing an armed squad heading toward his section, he snapped the chip in his hand, and smirked as the lead squad members suddenly stopped and those following ran into them.

Brad’s confused face followed Palscom’s gaze toward the higher catwalks and the Special Combat Troops falling over each other. “I wonder what they’re doing here?”

“I don’t know, but stay out of their way,” Lenes warned him. Lenes looked at Sperzs. “Pilot Drosey, take Trainee Johnson to the training modules. Let him get some training time in this shift.”

Sperzs led Brad to the training modules and stopped at a door. He looked up at an indicator light and waved his hand to open the door. “This training module is available.” Sperzs stepped aside to allow Brad to enter the module. “Finding your way around the Zuonopy can be daunting. Can you make it back to the room by yourself or do you think you will need me to return later?”

“Thanks, I think I can find my way back. If I need help, I’ll send an S-O-S.”

Sperzs looked puzzled. “What is an S-O-S?”

“Sorry, it’s from my home planet. It’s shorthand for ‘save our souls,’ but it is used when someone is in distress and help is needed,” Brad explained.

Sperzs mumbled to himself, “Just when I thought I had a handle on your language, you come up with something new.” He pointed across the platform. “Alright, I’ll see you later. Our vehicle is in that far section, if you want to check to see if I’m still in the area.”

“See you later,” Brad said as he stepped into the simulator. It looked similar to the one on the transport vehicle. It must have picked up on his chip’s signal, since the location of the controls and the first seat began adjusting to his settings even before he sat down.

“Hello, Brad. I see your squadron has requested that you repeat some of the lessons and has assigned a few others to you,” greeted Travis.

 

 

Brad had finished about a tenth of the courses Deznoic assigned. Emotionally, it was becoming harder to accept Deznoic’s request to redo a good portion of the training. Brad was indignant that the commander questioned his background. Or was it his integrity? Then Brad thought if he had been Deznoic, he might require the same proof, considering how quickly he had completed training. Yet it didn’t make the review easier for Brad to swallow. He was frustrated his first few shifts on the Zuonopy would be spent repeating the courses. “Travis, do you have any ideas on completing the courses faster?”

“Brad, there are a few things you might consider but there are inherent risks associated with modifying the training coursework Deznoic has assigned to you,” Travis responded.

“What do you mean?”

“The training sessions could be grouped into specific categories and you could complete the most advanced lesson as you did on the transport vehicle and be given credit for the other courses. But unlike the original training sessions, you will not be allowed to repeat a specific lesson if you want to review any of the course work. In this situation, a score below ninety-nine percent would require you to restart all of the training courses, in addition to the ones Deznoic assigned.”

“You’ve got to be joking. Why would a crazy rule like that exist for a minor training issue?” Brad asked in surprise.

“I don’t make the rules, I just implement them as part of my foundational programming. The reasoning in this specific instance is to discourage individuals who are considering circumventing a direct order.”

Brad sat still and considered the risks. He had finished a tenth of the courses Deznoic required. Did he want to risk starting over and committing himself to retaking all of the courses, not just the ones Deznoic assigned? If he decided to group the courses as Travis suggested, he could be done within a few hours versus days. “Travis, please list my lessons and scores from the transport vehicle.” Travis projected the courses on the windshield. “Damn it,” Brad muttered.

“Is there a problem with the list I provided you?”

“No, there isn’t a problem with the list you provided. The problem is with the courses Deznoic selected. In general, my scores are high but he specifically went after the lessons with my lowest scores, in the eighty-nine to ninety-three percentage range, to discourage me from taking the risk of less than perfect performance.” So far his performance was flawless because these were repeats, but would it be the same if the courses were grouped? “Travis, what do you think about me repeating these courses?”

“In general, all training is good. I applaud you for taking all the training you can. But you should be focusing on training on more advanced techniques.”

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Lock the trainer and isolate it from all outside influences. I want to focus on grouping the remaining lessons.”

“Message received,” responded Travis as he brought up twin comets rapidly streaming toward Brad from an acute angle.

Brad groaned. Although the sensors showed no readings, from his previous training he was aware there could be a mix of anywhere between three to five Aneplé Attack Vipers and Swarm Defenders hidden within the comet tails. “Okay, let’s rock and roll.”

[]Chapter 16

 

 

Shinny walked into her stateroom, exhausted from the exercise. She pushed aside the wheeled bag that had been delivered earlier and threw the battalion gear issued to her on the bed. She had never been greeted as rudely as she had been today. At least she had her own stateroom, for now. She looked around and noted a kitchenette, although she didn’t rate having one. The room was small, but a couple could share it. Shinny hoped it wouldn’t be too long before Brad would start talking to her. In fact, it might have happened by now if the exercise had not occurred. She smiled thinking about the exercise and how well Brad went with the flow, helping her evade discovery. His performance was better than some of the troops’. She wondered what had happened to this battalion.

Shinny looked at the schedule on her tablet. She had time to put her things away and plan activities for the upcoming shift before she met with her squad in the exercise room. She folded her armor and stowed it away with her praser in the room’s locker, leaving out her training gear. She grabbed her bag and swung it onto the bed. As she unzipped the bag, her tablet emitted a high-pitched squeal. Shinny picked it up and looked at the readings on an application she had developed on Earth. The application detected a listening device in her bag. Searching through the bag, she found a tiny device the size of a rice grain attached to her clothing in a zippered pouch.

“Great, how many more presents did they leave me?” She asked in a barely audible whisper. Shinny increased the sensitivity of the sensor on her tablet and walked around the room. She found four more bugs between the main living area and the bathroom. She didn’t even want to think why they put one in the bathroom. Shinny pulled out the cap she had stowed in the pocket on her arm, opened it, and dropped the devices into it to shield the signals.

Walking around the room she stared at the vents, wondering if she was being paranoid. But then again she had just located five listening devices. Walking around again, she counted six vents. That many air vents in a room this small was strange. Shinny pulled a cover off from a floor vent and peered into it. Damn, she thought, as she carefully pulled out a device that would release a drug when triggered. Sniffing the bladder, she recognized the smell. It wouldn’t hurt her, but she would sleep through her shift. She put the device back thinking of ways to override its effects.

Shinny tapped her tablet, asking who had entered the room during the past twenty-one shifts. The report showed only custodial technicians entering each shift with cleaning robots. She then asked for a report that covered a period of six months. The report showed a different custodial technician entering the vacant room each shift. It was odd the room had been vacant that long yet cleaned each shift. Looking at the listing of the technicians and their ranks, she realized she was probably bunking in a training room, which explained the frequent visits, vents, and the small kitchen area. Shinny pulled up the biographies of the technicians, still thinking one of them may have planted the devices. Swiping through the biographies she found her answer and requested a visual of two technicians. Ukpres had taken one of the custodian technician training shifts. Either Ukpres was in a rush or had gotten lazy by copying one of the biographies, instead of creating a new one. It was Shinny’s luck that the bio of the individual she copied happened to have had the following shift, allowing her to catch the discrepancy immediately.

Okay, two can play this game, Shinny thought. She pulled the covers off the six vents and left the room to visit a 3-D printer kiosk. She would print replacement covers that would clean and neutralize the contaminants in the air. As she walked by a recycling bin, she dropped her cap with the devices into it. “Exercise over,” she restated to herself. She smirked at the thought of Ukpres trying to explain the loss of equipment used illegally to bug her room. Ukpres was definitely a piece of work. Shaking her head, she wondered whose team Ukpres was on.

 

 

It had been a long day for Brad but he had completed his training far faster than even he had expected. He looked at the perfect scores on the trainer’s view screen and plotted his next move by scheduling his two-seat training with Deznoic. Looking at the commander’s busy calendar on the cockpit’s windshield, he gestured through the shifts, trying to carve out time on Deznoic’s schedule. He had been worried that he would not have time to visit Shinny; however, since it did not look like he would be able to schedule the flight with Deznoic for a few days, it appeared he would have plenty of slack time to call on his wife.

A loud banging noise jolted Brad from his daydreaming. Not seeing a cause, he asked, “Travis, what was that sound?”

“You have a visitor. Your order to lock the trainer and silence outside interference is still in place.”

“Uh, sorry, return the trainer’s door to its normal settings,” Brad ordered, as he continued to search for an opening on Deznoic’s calendar. Brad looked up at a reflection of Deznoic’s stern face glaring at him on the trainer’s windshield.

Surprised by Deznoic’s sudden appearance, Brad jumped up only to be pulled down by the harness holding him in place. Brad tried not to react to his stupid error, but his face flushed from his embarrassment. “Sir, can I help you?”

“Johnson, you will do your advance seater training with me now,” ordered Deznoic as his seat conformed to him and the harness tightened around him, securing him in place.

A soft feminine voice filled the cabin. “Welcome, Commander Deznoic, to Training Module Zuonopy, seven-nine-seven. Is there a training program you would like me to run today?”

“Trainer, run the squadron’s advanced Defender training scenario one-four,” responded Deznoic.

Brad clenched a fist at his side where Deznoic would not see. Deznoic wasn’t just testing his piloting skills; Deznoic was showing that he didn’t trust Brad by testing him with an advanced program. This won’t last, he thought, as he consoled himself. The poor guy just had the Fleet Admiral shove a lost soul at him. “Commander, are there any special instructions I need to be aware of before we start?”

“I will be piloting the Aneplé vehicles,” Deznoic informed him.

“Message received.” Brad affirmed as he proceeded to go through the vehicle check and ensured that his vehicle had a full set of armaments. He set the shielding for sixty percent weapons grade. The reduced shielding would allow him to reach maximum speed quicker, provide more maneuverability and still provide sufficient shielding for combat operations. He watched Commander Deznoic put on a headset to give him the view from the Aneplé vehicles and immediately executed the program.

Three Vipers and a Defender headed straight toward Brad. Brad responded by dropping two two-staged missiles, the most advanced and effective missile on the Zuonopy. He programmed the missiles to fly figure eight patterns with delayed fuses as he sped toward the Aneplé in an erratic scissor pattern. The missiles’ first stage would attack and disarm the shielding on the enemy vehicles. The second stage was the actual armed missile. There were a limited number of advanced missiles available throughout the Fleet, and currently the Aneplé did not have any of the missiles in their supply chain. If Brad had not had access to the advanced missiles in this exercise, his tactics would have been completely undermined since penetrating the shields of the opposing vehicles would have required far more missiles consecutively striking a weakened area on the shield for a successful attack.

Deznoic split his four vehicles into two teams to attack from two different directions.

Brad flew toward the center area between the four vehicles shooting missiles toward him. He began a steep wifferdale inner loop maneuver that brought him behind two vehicles on his right with several missiles following behind him. He flew as close as possible to the Aneplé vehicle and did a deep dive, killing his engine to mask any signals coming from his vehicle.

The sensors showed Brad pulling behind Deznoic with the missiles following and then disappearing. Looking at the screen, Brad’s vehicle was below Deznoic’s, however neither the sensors and nor the views from the four screens registered his vehicle. It was as if it had vanished. The missiles appeared behind Deznoic, causing him to pull his viper away but not quite fast enough. The computer showed Deznoic had switched controls to the second pair right before the missiles impacted the vehicle he just left.

One down, three to go, Brad thought as he fired his engines back up and flew toward the missiles he dropped. He sent a signal for his missiles to fly toward him.

Brad flew back to his point of origination and swung around, heading toward Deznoic. At the same time, Deznoic flew toward his Defender with the two other vehicles. Deznoic would not wait long to take advantage of the firepower the three vehicles carried.

Brad swung around and programmed the missiles to follow directly behind him to mask his signature. The three enemy vehicles headed straight for him. He didn’t need to look at Deznoic’s gestures to know what the commander would do next. It was obvious to him. The question for Brad was how much time he would have between Deznoic’s release of the missiles and impact to allow him to maneuver away. Just as he thought that, the three vehicles released their weapons. The lead vehicle kept flying toward him with the two other vehicles peeling away, one hundred and eighty degrees from each other. Brad followed the vehicle that pulled downward.

As soon as Brad fired his weapons, he transferred his vehicle signature to the missiles trailing him. The lead vehicle and weapons were keyed to that signature. It was going to be quite an explosion. Brad closed in on the vehicle he was chasing and released his remaining weapons.

Brad did a half “S” and reversed his course, heading toward the last vehicle. He was sure both of them had spent all of their weapons, but he had one more trick up his sleeve. Brad wasn’t sure how Deznoic would take his next maneuver. Brad had worked out the details with Connor on the transport vehicle. They had also discussed theoretically how it could result in changing the tactics used by the squadrons. Brad had planned to introduce it once he earned his pin but looking at Deznoic’s schedule, he couldn’t see it happening during his short tour. His presentation became a now or never scenario.

Deznoic was about to call an end to the training and let Johnson start flying off the Zuonopy tomorrow with someone in the second seat and solo. His flying skills along with his training scores showed that Johnson was ready. He watched as Johnson turned toward him with something else in mind. He wondered what the Trainee was planning, since all the weapons had been fired. If Johnson was doing a suicide run Deznoic would refer him to medical and that would be the end for the trainee. His own role as an Aneplé pilot would require him to either return to his home ship or meet the CIG Pilot head on. While this was a simulation, if he was going to recommend Johnson to be evaluated by medical, Deznoic wanted a record that clearly indicated he was not a participant. Deznoic turned his vehicle around and headed for the Aneplé battle cruiser in the simulation. He kept his eyes on the screen and sensors. Johnson was definitely moving his vehicle in pursuit. He watched the countdown to impact. At least he was in a simulator watching the screen, five, four, three, two, one. The training simulator ejected Deznoic’s icon from his vehicle. Watching his screen, he fully expected to see Johnson’s icon floating with his in space with the vehicles flying unmanned. Instead, Johnson maintained control of his vehicle as he turned it around, flying back toward Deznoic’s icon.

“Commander, do you need a lift back?”

Funny guy, thought Deznoic. “Simulation over.” Pulling the headset off he looked at Johnson’s scores. He couldn’t deny Johnson not only had the skills, but had also come up with a new tactic. “Explain to me what just happened,” he demanded.

“I forced your safety system to eject the Aneplé pilot, allowing CIG to recover a vehicle and a prisoner,” explained Brad.

“I saw that. What I didn’t see was your system ejecting you also,” Deznoic replied in annoyance. “What did you do?”

“I reprogrammed the safety boundary on my vehicle to be smaller than the standard safety border for impact. I was able to trigger yours without affecting mine. I noticed when I began training on the Swarm Defender that the safety clearance triggering ejection was far larger than the vehicle’s recommended clearance. I researched the difference and learned it was an overreaction to an accident that occurred over a century ago. Which I believe led to the imbalance of accepting extreme safety measures over capabilities. While the shields protected vehicles against one stage missiles, ejections seemed to be standard programmed behavior for avoiding collisions, allowing the Aneplé to use collisions as a tactic once all of their missiles have been expended.”

“I see,” Deznoic said, wondering who originated this idea.

Brad brought up the directive on the windshield to show him. “It is recommended that the highest level of vehicle shield safety margin is maintained to avoid collisions at all times.” Deznoic continued to scan the directive. “It appears that as soon as this directive was issued, all of the vehicles were reprogrammed and no one ever questioned if it was excessive. It doesn’t appear as if the Aneplé questioned it either, but instead took advantage of it and used it as a strategy to force CIG retreats, since we care about losses of pilots and vehicles from ejections. They don’t seem to care about their own. They basically turned CIG’s ethical values against itself.”

Deznoic had often thought the same thing, but it never occurred to him that in the interest of safety, headquarters created overzealous directives impacting the Swarm Defenders’ performance. “Out of curiosity, who came up with this idea?”

“Truthfully, this was my idea. I thought it might be worth considering as a tactic when weapons were spent, as a counter-measure to the Aneplé’s tactics. As a matter of fact, I practiced the same maneuver on someone else.”

Deznoic made a choking sound hearing that. He would have loved to have seen Connor’s face when Connor was ejected. He had to give the young man points for having the guts to force an ejection on Connor, even in a simulator. “Send me the record of that training session,” he asked. He wanted to see if Connor signed off on it. “Why are you presenting it to me, instead of having it dictated to us from the senior officers that are familiar with you?”

“It was suggested that you would have a better idea if it could be incorporated into tactics or if it didn’t make sense. Also, it would be accepted more readily coming from the ranks rather than being pushed down.”

Deznoic confirmed Brad’s assessment with a nod.

“I looked at your schedule and didn’t see any other opportunity to bring it to your attention other than to present it now.”

“You have my attention. What was the recommendation, if I thought it had merit?”

“A live demo that shows flying closely with the reduced shields during combat operations can be done safely. I have a simulation to show you,” Brad said as he started the demo video on the windshield.

After Deznoic viewed the demo, he sat quietly for a moment. “I’m not saying no. I still have a number of questions, starting with your flying technique. Currently, you are the only one who knows these maneuvers and this will require another pilot.” With unshakable nerves, Deznoic thought. Maybe it was time for them to change, if they were going to make progress in the conflict, but it would be a challenge and require a shift in pilot culture. “Tomorrow, report to Pilot Palscom to earn your vehicle pin and work simulations for the pilot flying the opposing vehicle. I will schedule the demo. If you fail in your tasks, the demo will be canceled, and your fancy maneuvers will be banned from my squadron.”

No pressure. Brad stiffened. “Message received.”

[]Chapter 17

 

 

Shinny stood before her squad of four individuals. Each of the individuals had volunteered to report to her during her assignment to the battalion. She looked at their records to understand why they had volunteered. Two were transferring off Zuonopy, a third was a reservist, the fourth, Leevaal Stapernoin, had an extraordinary record and probably was his own man when it came to the Special Combat Troops. In other words, no one could touch his or her records at this time. She looked at the two remaining troops she hadn’t met yet. “Sergeant Stapernoin, you once reported to a classmate of mine. I see Major Veeslen held you in high regard. I look forward to working with you.”

“Major Veeslen spoke highly of you, also. I consider that to be an equally reliable reference. I look forward to working with you, Major,” responded Leevaal with a respectful nod.

Smiling, Shinny moved on to the next person. “Sergeant Themess, congratulations on your recent promotion and assignment to headquarters.”

“Uh, Major,” the young woman whispered quietly.

Shinny looked at the soldier’s face. It looked like she was in distress. “Is there something wrong?”

“Major, get ready to roll,” Stapernoin interrupted.

Shinny glanced upward at Stapernoin and understood the warning as his stern face focused on something behind her. Although she barely had time to prepare herself, she was ready as she felt someone grab her from behind, lift her, and throw her across the room. Shinny rolled up, turned, and faced Major Ukpres. Ukpres laughed and exclaimed how easy it had been to disarm the legendary, out of shape, unprepared N’Klaftin.

If they wanted to run training like the battlefield, so be it. Shinny ran toward her, preparing to flip and return a kick to Ukpres’ shoulder with every intention of handing it back to her and more.

“Major, stand in place,” Colonel T’Lentic ordered. “Major, in my battalion, everyone needs to be prepared at all times. Training is no excuse for failure to be prepared or to respond. Your lack of preparedness will lead toward you being removed from my battalion. Do you understand?”

Shinny worked at keeping her anger from flaring. “Message received, sir.” Something was definitely wrong with this battalion, but there wasn’t much she could do at this time other than to put up with it and protect her squad. Shinny waited for the colonel and the major to exit the training room before she continued. Taking a deep breath to regain her balance, she faced her squad. “Grab your gear. We are running with full packs on the bicycle tracks. I expect everyone to keep up with me.” Going for a run would help her work off her anger and frustration. It would also give her an idea of whether she had benefited from Earth’s heavier gravity. Noticing the expression on Themess’ face, Shinny asked, “Sergeant, did you want to say something?”

Themess hesitated but the urge to say something evidently overwhelmed her sense of propriety. “The colonel wasn’t always like this. He changed—the battalion changed—when she transferred into it.”

Shinny could do nothing with this information at the moment, nor did it truly explain the abnormal behaviors she observed in the battalion, but at least it wasn’t just she who saw it. “Thank you,” she responded, before she turned to grab her gear propped against the wall.

 

 

Plinoa Ukpres left with Colonel T’Lentic, frustrated she had failed again to entrap N’Klaftin. She wouldn’t fail a third time. She needed to be patient and look at other options, including her friends in medical if need be. Fortunately, she had the colonel’s full support when it came to N’Klaftin. As far as the Colonel was concerned, one N’Klaftin in his battalion was one too many, giving her leeway in doing what she needed to do to have her removed.

[]Chapter 18

 

 

Shinny followed silently behind Brad’s steps echoing on the metal grid. She knew immediately when she saw Brad at her quarters they would quickly work out their communication problems. However, he had expressed a sense of urgency when he asked her to follow him. While she was ready to finally call an end to the separation, she found it curious Brad wanted her to follow him instead of joining her in her room. She had agreed, confident this short jaunt would lead toward an end to their separation.

She was proud of her husband’s accomplishments when she noted Brad wearing not only the gold Swarm Defender vehicle insignia on his uniform, designating that he was a fully qualified Swarm Defender pilot, in addition he had three vehicle proficiency bars below his insignia. He was keeping his promise to Connor to do everything possible to represent Earth in a favorable light in the short time he had on the battle cruiser, even though CIG barred Brad from sharing with others his planet of origination.

Shinny had been disappointed he had not come to see her sooner. She had thought he would want to talk to her shortly after the Evasion Exercise. It had been apparent they were close to reconciliation during the exercise, but she had been determined to let Brad take the initiative to end the separation, since he was the one who needed to come to terms with her background. The separation had made the past few weeks harder on her than she expected. She was stunned when she realized she missed both Brad and Dane more than she thought she would ever miss anyone. It was startling considering she had known Brad for a relatively short period of her life. Nor did she expect to be hit as hard emotionally with her son in hibernation. Her life had unexpectedly become different as a wife and mother.

She had wondered if he knew he had to make the first move toward reconciliation. She had been at a loss on how to encourage him to make the first move. It didn’t help that Connor had refused to intercede because he made it a practice to not involve himself in Shinny’s personal affairs. At times, her frustration with her father was overwhelming. Yet, once again, looking at her husband, it appears as if Connor was right to stay out of it.

Shinny watched the back of Brad’s head make slight movements toward the transportation platforms and back as he continued at a brisk pace on the mid-tier catwalk circling the Transportation Room. It made her wonder if he was lost. If he were lost, he wouldn’t be the first person; at least Brad had the excuse of being new on the ship. She resisted the temptation to laugh aloud. While it was humorous watching him, he probably wouldn’t take it well, yet.

He was probably as uncomfortable with her ability to move silently on the grid as he had been on Earth. She almost decided not to implement her quiet mode in deference to Brad, knowing he had found it unnerving the way she would move without making a sound in any environment, including a forest with dried leaves. At least now he should understand her stealthy abilities were a combination of her training and her boots. It had never been her intention to lie or hurt Brad, nor did she want to continue to make him feel uncomfortable. But among her peers, she needed to do everything possible to maintain her combat readiness. Also there was a nagging thought in the back of her brain that for the first time in her many deployments, she wanted to return home safely. In the past, she had been driven by her determination to get the job done. She felt like she had a permanent home on Earth. Shinny wondered what was stranger, thinking of Earth as her home or not questioning her own sanity as she thought of Earth, a primitive planet, as her home. She smiled to herself as she thought about her family.

Shinny shook her head slightly and refocused her attention on her gait as she followed Brad. Although it was highly unlikely she would find herself on the ground and in combat on this deployment, she still needed to take advantage of every training opportunity to ensure she was mission-ready. She also needed to respond to Ukpres’ nasty engagements. At her most recent training session with her squad earlier in the day Ukpres shot her with a dummy round from a praser and also went out of her way to trip her. Shinny was livid, ready to teach the idiot a lesson or two. It was one thing to be in an exercise or in actual combat but shooting each other was never an acceptable maneuver in a training environment without providing notification. Ukpres continually initiated physical maneuvers out of scope with training doctrine and reminded others daily that Shinny wasn’t in peak condition. Colonel T’Lentic laughed and once again informed everyone that in his battalion everyone needed to be prepared at all times. Each time he seemed to take glee in announcing that the distinguished major has lost her edge. It was humiliating. She was ready to challenge Ukpres and him but, as before, they left, avoiding physical confrontation. It didn’t help that her boss held some grudge against her, for some unknown reason. Although she was ready to return home, she was still committed to performing her best while she was on the Zuonopy, even if the colonel thought she was lacking.

Brad continued to count the platforms to his right while searching for the platform with the elephant-shaped vehicles. He wondered why the catwalk was not supporting more than a single file formation at this time, since not only had he been on several that were wider, but he had also seen people moving in both directions in the past. A beep went off in his head. Damn, what the hell? He didn’t ask his chip a question. He thought back to some of his experiences on the catwalks and wondered if they were different or did he miss something, wondering how people managed to pull it off when the grid was this narrow. He definitely would have preferred the catwalk to be wider, with Shinny at his side. He sighed. There was still so much for him to learn and trying to figure out why the catwalk was so narrow at this moment was a low priority.

He looked forward, shocked by the sudden appearance of a Neslin walking toward them. He looked around, trying to figure out where it came from, since they couldn’t hide easily. This Neslin, like many of the others he saw was in the neighborhood of seven-and-a-half-feet plus a few inches, had a deep orange fur. This one was dressed in brown technician overalls with pockets on its arms and legs stuffed with tools. It scared the crap out of him, just like every other Neslin he had seen. Brad had seen a number of them on the cruiser since many of them filled the ranks of the Transportation Room’s technicians. He was told they were generally easy to work with, but he had also been warned not to irritate them. Looking at the one racing toward him, he had no desire to test the warning. He hadn’t met one face to face yet, and he still kept a safe distance from them. He had avoided every opportunity to meet one, using myriad excuses. While he was open to meeting non-humanoid aliens, the Neslins were too close to home and triggered an internal warning to just run like hell from them.

The rapidly approaching Neslin had a stern expression and did not look like it was in a good mood. If Brad didn’t think of something quickly, it looked like it would be a disaster in the making with the Neslin ready to run them over. At least Sergeant Mountain had stopped for him after the collision, but he didn’t think the Neslin would. Brad stopped suddenly and quickly swung his body to the right, pressing firmly against the rail facing the bulkhead, holding his abdomen in, thinking that would create more space for the Neslin to pass without incident. Shinny pushed the rail slightly with her hand and the flooring where she stood expanded to provide the Neslin more space. Brad took note of the movement and would remember the next time someone appeared to need more space on the catwalk.

“Major, Pilot,” the Neslin said as it nodded a salute, squeezing past Brad. Its expression changed from a scowl to a relieved look with the space Shinny had provided for it to pass. At least that was Brad’s interpretation of the Neslin’s changed expression.

“Technician,” Brad and Shinny responded as they nodded in response.

As he leaned flat against the rail, Brad’s palpitating heart slowed down and he exhaled the breath he had held. He hoped Shinny hadn’t noticed the Neslin had triggered a desire for him to take flight. For all the good things he had heard about the Neslins and their work, he constantly fought his instinct to run as if his life depended upon it. “Sorry, I don’t know how I could have missed him, but I didn’t see him coming,” Brad explained, looking sheepishly at Shinny. “We’re about 100 feet from where we need to go. Still with me?” His heartbeat slowed down and settled into a steady rhythm as he walked forward again.

“I’m always with you,” Shinny smiled. “By the way, the Neslin who just passed us was a ‘she.’ Connor was instrumental in their incorporation to CIG long ago when he deflected the Aneplé from their planet. The Neslins’ royal family pledged they would always support CIG’s Fleet. While many planets are neutral or ambivalent toward the Fleet’s activities, the Neslins remain committed to fulfilling their pledge. When it comes to them, it’s a love fest between Connor and the Neslins. Connor respects their work ethic and contributions to the Fleet and the Neslins credit him for saving their civilization. The Neslins treat him like a rock star when he visits their planet. It’s embarrassing, at times.”

Brad finally understood her anger at seeing the gorillas and orangutans behind zoo enclosures. Although she had been incensed, she did reach an understanding that Earth’s great apes had not evolved along the same path as the Neslins. But he couldn’t bring himself to be as comfortable with the Neslins as she had been as it passed them. “Saying he saved their civilization seems a little extreme, but we are talking about Connor. Later, could you share with me an explanation of their mutual admiration?”

Since arriving on the battle cruiser, the few Neslins he had seen all look the same to him. He was about to ask Shinny for more specific information on the Neslin biology to understand how she knew the Neslin that passed them was a female, when he noticed the platform to his right. He slowed his pace when he saw the odd elephant-shaped vehicles on the platform he used as his marker to stop. He stood near an individual lift and turned looking out across the Transportation Room’s vastness. Brad was nervous. His hands were still sweating from running into the Neslin. The experience had not helped him maintain his composure. But he also needed to start talking to Shinny, especially since their conversation could be cut short at any moment. “This is an amazing room. I’m not even sure I understand why it’s called the Transportation Room. It’s more like a huge underground cavern. I don’t think there is anything like this room on Earth. Looks like it might be equivalent to fifteen football fields.” Brad wanted to hit his head on the rail for stating the obvious. So much for discussing the separation, he thought. He was being an idiot and it didn’t help that he was dancing around the separation issue.

Admittedly, he had allowed work to distract him from contacting her and repairing their marriage. He had every intention of apologizing sooner, and he had been an idiot for allowing the separation to continue for as long as it had. He felt like an even bigger fool once he learned how close her stateroom was to his platform. He knew she was just as ready as he was to continue their marriage. Why did he even bring up the room? Over the past few weeks, he had rehearsed in his mind a number of things he would say to her, but had let his fascination with the battleship and meeting Deznoic’s demands take up literally every waking moment. Brad probably would have continued delaying the apology to her had he not just received a message from Pilot Palscom warning him to be prepared for the exercise. Brad was certain everything would work out, remembering her welcoming smile at her quarters, but he questioned if there would be enough time to clear the air between them before the exercise commenced.

Appearing amused, she looked at Brad and slightly tipped her head. “Mm, more than twenty when you consider there are seven levels. Do you have a better suggestion other than Transportation Room?”

Well, at least that was something. At least she didn’t walk away, thought Brad. “I don’t know. The word ‘room’ doesn’t begin to describe what we are looking at. Just look, there isn’t even a contiguous deck, just a network of detached platforms layered to allow vehicles to exit and enter the ship at different locations.” He looked up and around. “Not only that, there are over 2,000 individual vehicles with over 150 configurations and specializations, not all of them focused on simple transport. In addition, it’s astonishing that over 3,000 designs can be printed out from a room-sized 3D printer, in a few hours if needed. I think I would start by calling it, ‘The Cavern’.” He pointed to the vehicle in front of them. “What is the purpose of the elephant trunk?” Brad mentally grimaced, thinking how stupid it was for him to spout statistics well known around the battle cruiser, in addition to not recognizing the vehicle in front of them.

“It’s a Pod Retriever. If people are forced to abandon their vehicles in the pods, then this is one of the vehicles used to retrieve people in hibernation. The long shank on this retriever is designed to literally sweep up the pods and then stack them in the main compartment. I’m surprised this information wasn’t provided to you during training. Isn’t it part of your chip’s database?”

“There was some training and information on hibernating in a vehicle or abandoning the vehicles in a pod to be retrieved at a later time, but there was no information on the vehicles doing the actual retrieval. To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to hibernation during training. The chip may have buried it with my lack of interest. I’m uneasy about the notion of going into suspended animation for indeterminate time,” Brad acknowledged, as he continued to look across the room. The conversation was not going in the direction he had planned. He had no desire to discuss hibernation indoctrination or reliving the experience from training and that’s where the discussion seemed to be drifting. If he didn’t get to the point, all of his planning would have all been wasted. She would still get her orders, even if she walked off, but it might go easier if they were together when she received hers. Looking at Shinny, all he could think was how beautiful she was, even in a uniform, and he was still being an idiot. He needed to have the discussion now since he didn’t think it would be any easier later.

Turning toward Shinny, he stepped closer to her. “Shinny, I’m sorry. I’ll admit, I was hurt and felt betrayed when I heard the secret you had kept. I thought that after knowing you for thirteen years, nine as a neighbor and classmate, four as your husband, that I knew everything there was to know about you and that we had no secrets from each other. For me, learning you were from another planet and old enough to be my grandmother’s grandmother shook me to the core. It was something I believed you should have shared with me sooner, perhaps even before we married.” Taking a deep breath he continued, “I felt manipulated, insecure and I started to question who you were and what else you were hiding. I’m not sure I can describe the sense of failure I felt about our marriage, wondering if the foundation was a sham. Intellectually, I understood why Connor and you had kept the secret and I should have handled it in a more mature manner.” Brad paused looking at Shinny, waiting for a response. Not seeing a change in her posture, he felt compelled to explain further, “I keep beating myself up over my own stupid reaction. It wasn’t as if another man was involved, and yet I acted as if your secret was worse than you having an affair. It was childish. I think even Dane would have handled it better. I should have trusted you more. If I had, maybe I would have handled the news better.” Brad watched her, wondering if he should say more, if he could step closer. At that moment, he stood there scared to make the wrong move. If this was Arkansas, he would have stepped forward and snuggled next to her and kissed her. But it wasn’t Arkansas and now they were both wearing uniforms. While Shinny was the woman he married, looking at her, he realized she was far more than he had thought he understood from their thirteen years of knowing each other. It was funny how the thirteen years was almost half of his life, but a very small fraction of her life.

Shinny’s face relaxed as if she suddenly felt a sense of relief. She matched his movement, stepping closer to him. “Brad, I am the one who should apologize. I should have worked harder for approval to share the information with you sooner. It’s unlikely I would have gotten permission to say anything before we married, even with Connor’s help. I was wrong to think it wasn’t important until Dane was born. Even then, I didn’t make enough of an effort to push it through the system. I should have asked for my request to be expedited once Dane was born. But, again, I thought I had plenty of time. I was wrong. And, I’ve missed you.” Shinny paused for a moment, staring across the room. “We can discuss the reconciliation further at my quarters.” She smiled slowly, reinforcing her message.

Brad watched Shinny smile and knew exactly what she meant. It would have been his preference to go back to her room and share more of his experiences since joining the Fleet and his dreams for their future and Dane’s. Unfortunately, he knew her orders were coming. They were pressed for time, and it wouldn’t be long before they would need to have that conversation. He smiled back at her. “Not yet. I want to show you something first.” Brad pressed the rail next to him, pushing out a one-person lift in front of him and stepped onto it. Reaching out to Shinny, he pulled her closer to him. Smiling, she stepped onto the lift and snuggled flush against him to fit onto the lift’s plate as he wrapped his arms around her. God, she smelled great, he thought, as he nested his head onto her shoulder.

“Up one,” he commanded the lift. “Are there any rules against public display of affection in uniform?” he whispered in her ear.

Shinny laughed quietly. “Yes, but I can’t see this infraction costing us anything more than being kicked out of the Fleet and banished to a backwater planet with limited space travel.”

“Like Earth?” he asked, as the lift stopped at the fifth level.

“Like Earth,” she repeated as she stepped off the lift and to the side, allowing Brad to step off and take the lead. Looking at the Transportation Platform in front of them, she saw several columns of the small, sleek Swarm Defender vehicles. The vehicles could be configured to tightly seat three to four people if necessary. However, the vehicles in front of her on this platform were configured as two-seat fighter/defenders. Although Shinny was confident this was Brad’s squadron, she used her internal chip to check the database to confirm the information. It was cute that he wanted to show her his squadron and his vehicle and she wondered what Brad had in mind. She had heard stories in the past from her peers, but those usually involved larger vehicles. Perhaps after Brad showed off his vehicle they would return to her quarters. They needed to catch up on many things. She reminded herself to slow down and allow Brad space to lead the reconciliation.

Brad stepped off the lift behind Shinny and turned to face his squadron’s platform. While he was amazed with the technology to which he had been introduced over the past few weeks, he was equally surprised how quickly his squadron had welcomed him and brought him into their group. With the help of his squadron mates, he had grown exponentially, both as a pilot and as a technologist.

Stepping onto the platform and leading the way for Shinny, Brad could see a few of the pilots in his squadron performing updates and maintenance on their vehicles while boisterously chattering to each other. He watched Shinny observing the activity on the platform and noted her apparent interest. He hoped she would still be in a good mood after he surprised her with his maneuvers. Leading the way to the front, he watched her facial expressions subtlety but repeatedly change as she checked out each of the vehicles they passed. He waited to see if she was going to say something.

He watched as Shinny noticed that many of the vehicles had nose or tail artwork. The vehicles were covered with a thin liquid crystal layer, similar to that found on screens of computer monitors on Earth, that the pilots could program from the dashboard. Generally, the pilots would program the skin of their vehicle to match the designated team color. During combat operations, the skins of those vehicles were programmed as camouflage to match the surrounding area. However, what was being displayed at this moment was different from the color schemes used to designate the different squadrons and teams. The illustrations ranged from people to animals to planetary systems, and included a few objects that may have been totally unfamiliar to her.

“Brad, what is going on with your squadron? These pictures are new. When did regulations change to allow personalization?”

“Uh, I convinced Commander Deznoic that it was a tradition on my home planet to paint a person, animal or object of attachment on the vehicle to encourage the pilot’s commitment to the mission and sometimes even distract an opponent. I also pointed out to him that since it wasn’t specifically against regulations, it should be acceptable to personalize your vehicle.”

Shinny’s mouth dropped open. “And he believed you?”

“Not at first, but I showed him pictures of World War II bombers tricked out with nose art and explained how that helped the morale of the allied forces. And I gave him the statistics from the war showing how the improved morale led to more successful bombing runs from those aircraft.”

Shinny rolled her eyes. “You misled him. If he ever finds out, you are going to have a mess to deal with.”

“It wasn’t a deception; it was more of a creative interpretation of Earth’s history on my part. Truthfully, I think because it wasn’t in the regulations, he was persuaded it must be acceptable. It’s crazy how you regulate everything, even brushing your teeth. I’m surprised this hasn’t come up yet.” Brad continued leading her toward his vehicle. “This hasn’t hurt anyone and it’s been a morale booster for our squadron. We stand out from the other squadrons now, although it won’t be long before the other squadrons follow our example.”

“It hasn’t been an issue before because no one considered it, like bicycles. I think you were having fun with Deznoic. It’s your career. I’m not going to say anything. Enjoy it while you can. It won’t take long before some desk bureaucrat comes up with a policy to ban it for ‘safety reasons.’” Shinny slowly shook her head in amazement and wondered what else Brad was going to pull. He definitely did amuse her with his creativity. Connor had said it wouldn’t take much for someone from Earth to start shaking things up in the Fleet. She hadn’t been sure if Brad would do much of the shaking because he could also, at times, be a stickler for rules and regulations. On the other hand, looking at the vehicles, she laughed to herself and admired her husband’s playful ingenuity as they continued to walk toward the vehicles lined up at the front of the platform.

“My career—do you mean my one mission career? This hasn’t been all fun. I have been working my ass off and I’ve missed both you and Dane. I’ll admit, I’m having some fun living my own ‘Star Wars’ moment. But I realize it’s not fantasy land when it comes to dealing with the Aneplé. I’m scared about Earth’s future. I want to be part of the solution, but I also want to get back home.” He walked towards a vehicle in the front row and slowed down allowing Shinny to catch up to him. Stopping in front of his vehicle, he watched her staring at her picture on the fuselage. “Well, what do you think?” He watched her face nervously.

Taking a deep breath, she looked at her head that had been photo shopped onto a stylized fairy with wings in a Fleet-like uniform with a wand spreading pixie dust. She decided to jerk his chain, giving him a stern look while trying desperately to hold back her laughter. “Be grateful the Fleet’s psychiatrists don’t understand the background to this. They would have a heyday with this and would put you under close observation.” After a suitable period of silence, she added, “I personally believe it could use a little more pixie dust.”

“Your wish is my command. More pixie dust will be added.” He smiled with a look of relief. “I realize this is over the top but, if you remember, it was a fairy that led a lost boy to Never Never Land, where he never grew up. Like the story, you are my own good luck fairy-steadfastly devoted, loyal and in love.” At the time he programmed the illustration he remembered him laughing to himself at the private joke, but he wasn’t sure how Shinny was going to react. Even after knowing each other for thirteen years, they still had their moments of miscommunications. He now understood it was due to their very different backgrounds. Continuing, he added, “This seems to fit the situation here, especially since very few people on this ship look grown up, at least physically. I look around and ninety-seven percent of the crew does not look any older than eighteen. I don’t know about you, but at times I feel like I’m a Boy Scout leader even though most of the crew is at least a century older than me. It’s a little disconcerting that I can no longer look at someone and estimate their age and experience. I have to keep reminding myself they’re not kids.”

“Brad, use your tablet and chip. It will help you learn more about the people you work with faster.”

“I’m still learning. The chip still isn’t automatic with me, and I’m still getting my fair share of beeps.”

Shinny walked around the vehicle, and noticed how well he and his copilot took care of their vehicle. While Connor was focused on fulfilling his role as the Fleet Admiral, he was also watching Brad’s progress closely. Although Connor was proud of Brad as his son, he was also concerned whether Brad, Earth’s first Fleet member, would perform well enough to permit inviting others to join. She wasn’t going to mention that to Brad. He was aware he was the planet’s sole representative on the Zuonopy and didn’t need any more pressure on him by letting him know Connor was getting daily reports on his activities. “It’ll come one day. I’m impressed; you’ve done an excellent job of maintaining the vehicle.” Watching him restlessly shift his weight from side to side, she knew he had something else he wanted to tell her, but was hesitant. As far as she was concerned, nothing could be as bad as the past weeks while they were separated. She was determined not to let that happen again. Walking with Brad and looking at his vehicle had reminded her how good it felt to share her life with him. She was ready to leave the Transportation Room, but she recognized that slightly worried look on his face. Tilting her head, with a small smile, she asked, “Is there something else you wanted to say? If you wish, we can continue the discussion in my room.”

Brad avoided looking at her. He pulled his tablet off his waist and looked at it. “I’m looking at orders to commence a joint exercise between a Fleet Vehicle, Swarm Defender and a Special Combat Officer.” Brad saw Shinny’s startled expression and added nonchalantly, “I’m surprised there aren’t more joint exercises planned between the two different military organizations.”

“Brad, what are you talking about?” Shinny pulled out her tablet and looked at an alert message that had just appeared:

Major Shin N’Klaftin you are hereby ordered to commence joint maneuvers with Pilot Johnson on Operation P’Nic. Pilot Johnson will transport you to an exercise field where you will initiate reconnaissance of the area to determine suitability for further Special Combat troop training and exercises.

“Brad what the hell is this? And what the hell is Operation P’Nic?” Shinny was upset he had managed to volunteer her for a mission she had no background on. Searching through her chip and the ship’s databases yielded no information on this operation. The combination of no specific information and her husband’s lack of experience did not sit well with her. Her mood flipped a hundred and eighty degrees.

Brad gestured toward his vehicle. “All will be revealed in time. I just need to verify we are fully equipped for a successful mission.” Watching the wings lower on both sides of his Defender, he walked over and inspected the cargo behind the seats. Looking back at Shinny, ignoring her glare, he motioned toward a seat. “Major, your battle armor and shield are loaded, along with additional equipment and supplies. This vehicle is ready for embarkation. If you would please, take the seat on the right and I will complete the vehicle’s preflight check.”

Stunned, Shinny proceeded to sit in the right co-pilot seat. In reality, she didn’t have a choice. Her orders clearly stated she was to accompany Brad someplace. Pressing her lips together in a stern line, she stared at her tablet. The orders had the correct authorization codes and they were indeed very real. She was vexed by the lack of details on Operation P’Nic along with the mystery as to why her armor lay folded behind her seat. “Do I need to dress in my battle armor before take-off?” she snapped. People had been placed in the brig for losing their armor. This was supposed to be a makeup between them, but she found herself fuming. Brad had managed to not only secure operational orders, but convinced a nitwit to break into her locker and move her armor. That individual will answer to her when they return, she promised herself.

Brad gave his “I don’t know” shrug as he began programming the flight details on the dashboard. “Up to you if you want to put your armor on. Preflight check complete. Ensure harness is correctly attached.” He continued to gesture with the engine igniting and wings expanding into a sleek delta format. “Control Tower, hatches down, engine hot, exhaust shielded, and path cleared. Squadron 262, Swarm Defender Vehicle 769, ready for takeoff; waiting for clearance.”

Shinny decided she would hold off putting her armor on until she had a better idea of what was going on, since Brad wasn’t wearing anything additional. There weren’t even any planets nearby for her to determine if armor was even needed. Once she had a better idea of the operational parameters, she would make the decision. She watched Brad’s intense expression, nodding as he listened to Control Tower’s instructions. The instructions were relayed directly to him on a private line, so she had no idea what they were discussing. “Pilot Johnson, patch me in.” If he wanted play some sort of Fleet game, she was going to pull her major card.

Brad glanced at Shinny’s angry face He couldn’t blame her. Granted this expedition was his idea, but he had no control over how the orders had been issued to her. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied as he opened the channel to her. “Tower, clearance received for flight initiation. Commencing additional shielding of the exhaust and elevation lift now,” he reported to the tower. Looking at Shinny triggered the memory of how nervous he was the first few times he took off from the Zuonopy fearing he wouldn’t be able to shield the heated exhaust from his vehicle. However, it didn’t take long for him to relax since the computer controlled most of the shielding during takeoff. Once the vehicle was outside the battle cruiser, the shielding on the exhaust system would transfer to the shield to protect the vehicle. He wasn’t quite as nervous as he was on the earlier flights, but knowing how important this flight was on so many levels worried him. He pushed those thoughts to the rear and concentrated his attention on the flight.

The two-seater vehicle rose slowly and hovered over the transportation platform. Brad gradually re-angled his vehicle, facing an open flight channel leading to a designated lane to exit the battle cruiser. Although the vehicles could enter and exit the Transportation Room at any point, the narrow channels provided the pilots with organized lanes to control the flow of the vehicle traffic in and out of the Transportation Room. “Control Tower, authorization for flight received.” Turning toward Shinny with a quirky smile, “Major, prepare for zero to five thousand LSUs in twenty seconds.” Brad focused on moving his vehicle forward to the flight channel directly in front of them. It had been rammed into him that take-off and landing on the battle cruisers were the most dangerous and sensitive maneuvers for a pilot. It was no different than on Earth’s aircraft carriers, except pilots did not take off and land with people two feet away. An accident in the Transportation Room would not only destroy his vehicle but also kill crewmembers on his platform as well as crewmembers on the adjacent platforms in the immediate area and destroy all vehicles docked nearby. As far as he knew, there had never been any Transportation Room accidents, and he didn’t intend to be the first. Fortunately, he was situated close to an exit channel, so the maneuver he needed to perform today was fairly simple. He accelerated his vehicle as he exited the battle cruiser. Brad smiled over the perfect exit as they zoomed out into space away from the ship. Physically the acceleration felt no more than what he would feel on a roller coaster’s downward dip on Earth. He was amazed how much stress the little vehicle could take while keeping the passengers relatively comfortable. One day, for the hell of it, he might just push the vehicle to test its limits through the channel. The risk averse nature of the Fleet had led to regulations emphasizing safety to the point of ludicrousness and ignoring the purpose for these vehicles and crew. One could take precautions to try to keep personnel safe, but when it adversely affected the performance of the Fleet vehicles in combat…well, that was one of the reasons he suggested this exercise.

Shinny faced forward, maintaining her silence. She was not happy being forced into Brad’s scheme without warning, but he had just executed a perfect take off and she was conflicted between the pride she felt and the irritation boiling inside her. She closed her eyes momentarily to gain emotional balance. For now, she was going to keep her observations to herself and fix her attention on listening to the chatter being relayed over her chip on the encrypted Fleet channel. Hearing the discussion of a flight demonstration, she opened her eyes and leaned forward to see if she could observe it, since she apparently had a front row view. It appeared a number of the squadrons were taking advantage of the Battle Cruiser’s temporary layover in this empty area of space between the nexus of the three gates and were most curious about the demonstration. There didn’t seem to be any special activity at the moment, although looking ahead, another Swarm Defender approached their vehicle head on. It was highly unusual, but with Brad increasing his acceleration, she wondered if he was participating in the demonstration or if something had gone wrong. This wasn’t a typical fleet maneuver. Shinny’s body tensed as they continued to head straight toward the oncoming vehicle. She began speculating they were going to be ejected if Brad didn’t change directions soon, since the vehicles were designed to eject without manual intervention in these situations. She wondered if something had gone horribly wrong when ejection failed to occur despite the rapidly closing distance. Brad would never intentionally endanger either one of them, but she was confused with what she was observing. The ejection would be the fastest way to end his short Fleet career and she couldn’t understand why he would suddenly risk everything. She watched as they continued to close the distance to the other vehicle and made her decision. She leaned forward more and moved toward the manual override ejection button on her side, questioning if they had enough time.

“Don’t.” Brad commanded as he continued gesturing over the console dashboard.

As the other vehicle closed in on them, the five-point harness straps tightened on her. She leaned back and braced herself for ejection or impact if there was a system failure. As the distance to the other vehicle decreased, an unfamiliar feeling of fear rippled through her. The thirteen years on Earth had changed her. Normally, she was fearless, even in ground combat. But now as she sat there staring ahead in disbelief, she was afraid that she would never see Dane again. If there were an impact, what an impact it would be, with their molecules spread across an area larger than Earth. CIG would use her chip if it survived and clone her. But would it be her, she asked herself. Would Dane notice a difference? She didn’t have time to dwell on that as she watched Brad furiously gesturing across the dashboard. A sense of hopelessness and discomfort arose with whatever was going on. Brad was completely immersed in commanding the vehicle’s performance. She didn’t feel this was the end, but she did feel that now was the time to trust him completely. She pressed herself further into her seat.

[]Chapter 19

 

 

Shinny stared ahead, as their vehicle rapidly turned into a barrel roll with the other vehicle spiraling around them. As their vehicle flattened out, Shinny let out the breath she had been holding. “Nice. Could you warn me next time you decide to go top gun on me?” She watched him continue to program the flight plan in the dashboard. “The chatter I’m hearing in my chip is interesting. What’s next on the agenda? Because I’ve had enough and am ready to return to the ship,” she snapped.

“Can’t go back; we have our orders. I need to do a flyby of the bridge and then we can proceed to our destination,” Brad turned the vehicle toward the battle cruiser and followed the other Swarm Defender toward the bridge.

Shinny pursed her lips in annoyance, “I’m definitely unhappy with whatever you have in mind at the moment. Who is flying the Defender in the lead position?”

That’s my Commanding Officer, Commander Deznoic, flying with my Team Lead, Lenes Palscom. When I proposed testing this maneuver, they insisted it was too dangerous to allow anyone else but them to partner against me in the opposing vehicle. I was confident once the safety parameters were reprogrammed to reduce the margin of error needed before ejection, the two vehicles could fly in a closer formation avoiding physical contact. I know it looked like an insane exercise but I had the computers run about six thousand simulations with a number of variances. Success rates were as high as 99.5% when two variables were consistent.” Brad glanced at Shinny’s stiff posture, her face barely concealing seething anger. He hoped that as the shift progressed it did not end up with her giving him the silent treatment just when they were beginning to talk to each other and enjoying each other’s company. He still anticipated there would be a happy ending for them, although chances were not looking good at the moment.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why don’t you share with me the variables and what the hell this is about?”

“The first variable was that I would program both vehicles as the maneuver was being performed. Most of the programing was preinstalled, but there still needed to be minor but critical calibrations for the variances that may not have been identified during the simulations. It was like playing chess with myself, where I knew the next move and avoided losing pieces as the game proceeded. The simulations provided success scenarios minus the analysis. I’m finding it strange your computer simulations do not include analysis and feedback of results. The lack of analysis on the computer simulations is endemic throughout the battle cruiser. I’m beginning to believe it’s cultural or perhaps from the Fleet’s over reliance on the implanted chips. Nevertheless, without assistance from the computers, I’m making an educated guess I was less likely to panic and hesitate on the programming.” Shinny’s face changed slightly, showing her surprise at learning he had control over both vehicles. “The second variable was that success was dependent upon either Connor or you sitting in the copilot seat. That surprised me, but I believe the reasoning was that Deznoic and Palscom wouldn’t panic knowing either your father or you were sitting next to me. They would lose face since ejection would require manual override from them. Success was higher if Connor rode with me, because the simulations showed you were more likely to manually override the ejection seat. Connor needed to observe the demo, which left you to join me. I had faith you wouldn’t eject when I asked you not to, which was information the computer simulations did not have to measure. Now that I’ve been able to prove close proximity maneuvers are possible without the vehicle ejecting the pilots, there might be more demonstrations that incorporate the maneuver into tactics.”

“I can’t lie. I’m definitely impressed with your programming and controlling both of the two vehicles, in addition, to the well-executed aerial maneuver.” Shinny folded her arms across her chest, “However, I’m still trying to formulate a response that would express my fury and frustration without tearing your head off. As far as I know, it’s probably a first for the Fleet. I don’t believe even Connor has ever attempted doing anything that daring. But I am still pissed with you pulling me into this stunt without any warning. I’m far from ready to pat you on your back, forgiving you for this stunt, just because it was performed almost flawlessly.

Brad cringed as an image of Shinny doing exactly that ran through his head at that moment. “I’m sorry. I deserved that.” He flew by the bridge, tipping the vehicles’ wing simultaneously with Deznoic’s vehicle saluting Connor and Griken. He could see the staff on duty standing and clapping at the performance. Before he could apologize further, Shinny ran her command link through his vehicle’s communications system. He heard Griken congratulating Deznoic on the successful maneuver and ordered the commander to report to Connor’s conference room after he docked his vehicle.

“What link are you connecting to?” Brad asked.

“I’m running the commanders’ private link through the vehicle’s comms.”

“Major N’Klaftin, pass my compliments to Pilot Johnson, and let him know I am looking forward to hearing that Operation P’Nic is equally successful.”

“Yes, Admiral,” responded Shinny through the ship’s communication system. She gestured to cut the communications and took in a deep breath before she continued, “I’m exasperated that Connor, Griken, Colonel T’Lentic, as well as you knew about Operation P’Nic and none of you bothered to share details with me so I can understand my operational obligations and plan for the mission. Whose bright idea was this to keep me in the dark?”

Brad nodded in response but remained silent as he flew, knowing he still needed to explain the reason for the air show. He flew toward a brightly lit platter positioned near the Omega transit gate thirty minutes in front of them. “Shinny, I know, I owe you an apology and an explanation. I’m sorry; it wasn’t my idea to withhold your orders from you. Your boss, who, by the way, is an ass, thought it had been awhile since you were activated, and he thought you needed to be tested with a real live operational exercise with no warning to prove your combat worthiness.”

Reminded of her boss, Shinny looked irritated. “Welcome to my life. I’m not sure there’s a bigger ass in the universe. Unfortunately, we—not Earth—get to claim him.”

Brad burst into a loud laughter. “Sorry to hear that; score one for Earth.” He relaxed a little and continued with his explanation. “Had we been talking, I would have dropped hints over the past few days. I should have apologized sooner, but as time ran out, I tried to time it so you would at least be close to the vehicle. Forgive me for the inelegant apology.”

“I’ll think about it.” Shinny stared at the starscape in front of them. She sighed, “You know I won’t think about it too long, but I’m not ready to give you an answer, now.”

“I’ll take that, for now, considering I’ve been a jerk.” Brad sighed.

“I won’t fight you on that,” Shinny agreed, deliberately thinking about the past thirty minutes. “You still haven’t explained the why. I’m waiting.”

“I know; I owe you an explanation. As I went through training, I wanted to understand more about the roots of the conflict. I looked at the historical records of the space and planet battles between CIG’s Fleet and the Aneplé over the centuries. It looked like little has changed since the first armed conflict. The tactics used in the skirmishes haven’t changed much over time, which struck me as strange. And, sadly, the Aneplé have gradually been creeping into CIG territories and growing. From my perspective, it seemed really odd, because CIG has all of the advantages — technical, social, territory and population. But it is slowly changing. Logically, CIG should have been able to limit them to a few planetary systems over a hundred and fifty years ago. However, not only have the Aneplé been able to increase their territory,” Brad watched Shinny’s reflection frown and quickly corrected himself, “Sorry, I meant area of influence, since they now have control over critical trade gates, it looks like there needs to be a more aggressive stance taken by the Fleet to push them back. If you look at the trend over time, the more risk adverse CIG became, the more likely territories and planets would be lost. Connor made progress in changing the trend once he was in charge. It looked like Connor’s history of successes was due to his willingness to take risks. I have some thoughts about why, but he probably understands his reasons more than anyone else. Anyway, I looked at trying different, more aggressive strategies and tactics and whether they would be more successful, taking into account that CIG has managed to neuter the Fleet.”

“What do you mean ‘neuter the Fleet’?” Shinny asked hesitantly. She had talked about something similar with Connor, but she was curious to hear what Brad meant.

“From my perspective, two issues have had a negative effect on the Fleet’s performance. The Fleet has both strategic and tactical issues that need to be overhauled. The strategic issues will require the Flag Officers to convince the CIG to loosen some of the constraints affecting Fleet maneuvers. At times, it looks like CIG rules and regulations are as destructive to the Fleet as the Aneplé. Strategically, CIG has officially limited the hostile conflict areas to planetary systems on the outer edges of the CIG territories nearest to the Aneplé. Meanwhile the CIG has lost full control of a number of transit gates including the five gates leading toward Earth. CIG expects the Fleet to gain the gates back by battling for the planets instead of actively defending the gate systems. Strategically, it’s a non sequitur and makes no sense. CIG makes our Congress look rational and even brilliant and that’s not saying a lot. Anyway, the more immediate issue for the Fleet is to win the armed engagements with reduced armaments. The only way it will happen is to push the envelope with our tactics.’’ Brad paused, glancing quickly at Shinny’s reflection to see if she had a reaction to his comment on changing tactics. Not seeing a reaction, he wondered what her thoughts were on his statements. He knew it was going to be an uphill climb to convince most of the Fleet to make the changes necessary, but he had both Connor’s and Griken’s support and that might make the difference. “I understand Admiral Griken is currently leading a pre-deployment training operation and theoretically live munitions wouldn’t be needed. However, the current munitions load on the battle cruiser is below fifteen percent. The reasoning explained to me was it was necessary to ensure that the limited resources were made available for forces currently assigned to conflict areas and to avoid accidents with live munitions. On the surface that might seem to make sense, and many of my squadron mates believe the reason given to be true. But when I studied the records and gave it some thought, it really didn’t make sense. Although it would take considerably longer, the Zuonopy could recharge the laser and impulse weapons near a star without affecting CIG’s resources, if in fact CIG has a funding issue. Frankly, looking around the battle cruiser I’m finding it hard to believe there is a genuine lack of funds. Trying to avoid accidents by not supplying live munitions is fatuous. There are safeguards layered on safeguards. The real risk of a munitions accident is less than one tenth of a percent. Either the CIG bureaucracy has developed virtually no tolerance for risk or there is an insider threat at the highest level, purposely creating barriers.”

“I’m not sure how to respond. Connor and I have viewed CIG incompetent on many occasions, but it never occurred to us that insider threats could exist within the highest level of CIG itself. But then again, before a few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Aneplé spy to be assigned to a planet under observation. Those assignments were strictly controlled.” Shinny paused, as if she was collecting her thoughts, “I’m finding that the possibility of compromise at the senior levels painfully uncomfortable. It’s pointing me towards questioning CIG’s overall security structure. Have you discussed this with Connor?”

“No, you’re the first. The possibility literally just popped into my head. I’m not happy with the precarious position we left our son in. Connor, Nan and you, may feel confident our children were safe stored on the bottom of Earth’s ocean, but I have wondered if the children could be used against us. Overall, the CIG does not come off being a nefarious organization, but I am still worried about individuals. Individuals such as the pilot, may be able to infiltrate CIG at the highest level with a cadre of support personnel.”

Shinny relaxed and unfolded her arms, “I’m not discounting what you just explained to me. Your assumption might be accurate when it comes to CIG, but without definitive proof, I’m certain the idea would not be received well. I recommend that you not repeat that for now. CIG has a way of making life difficult for people at times. As for Dane, the hibernation centers have never been an issue. I’m not ignoring your concerns. But, once again without proof, there isn’t anything anyone can do to implement change if it’s needed. But granted you have a point and I will think twice before placing Dane in hibernation in the future.”

“Thank you.” Brad replied quietly before he continued. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to digress from the point I was trying to make. Because of a lack of availability of munitions during training, there is an excessive reliance on simulators. The simulations will take the Fleet only so far. I enjoy working with my training AI, but where is it now? People need to work more with the real equipment if they are going to truly understand how to fully use the equipment and armament. Even if live ammo is not available, the Fleet should be using, at a minimum, dummy ammo. My squadron flies in formation to a training sector. We push a button—sorry, I meant gesture—and then return. I have no idea if a target was actually hit, since we rely on a computer feedback of a simulated target. It’s no different than the training modules. Looking at past battles, it appears as if training on the simulators alone wasn’t effective. Which has led me to wonder if there is an issue with the simulators. The other tactical issue is that it seems like squadrons are being sent out to confront the Aneplé with less than 50% of the armament needed. Those squadrons are being overwhelmed by sheer numbers of Aneplé deployed to confront them, but not because the Aneplé have a technological advantage. The Aneplé are using CIG assets, spoils from their victories, and not their own home grown technology.” Brad glanced at Shinny quietly staring ahead and again wondered what she was thinking. He continued with his analysis of the situation. “I was trying to demonstrate that it was possible to change the way the Aneplé are confronted in space.”

“Brad, I’m not following you. You haven’t explained the proximity demo.”

“If I didn’t know any better, the Aneplé look like they are distant relatives of the British redcoats from the colonial war. They fly out in formation and fire and keep moving in and firing again, and they keep repeating this tactic until they need to return to rearm or they will attempt to force the CIG vehicles to eject the pilots. The records show the Aneplé are not very creative in their tactics and they have been fighting like this for centuries. There’s no indication of them changing. The Fleet’s response is more effective when they have the armament. Right now they are losing battles because of low munitions and the Aneplé’s overwhelming force. I’m proposing to change tactics and disarm the Aneplé pilots by forcing them out their vehicles through similar maneuvers when traditional weapons are exhausted. The purpose of the demo was to show that it’s possible to fly close air combat without the risk of ejection on the CIG vehicles. The maneuver will trigger a safety response on the Aneplé vehicles, ejecting the Aneplé pilots. Once the pilots are ejected, their vehicles will shut down and discontinue functioning. The Fleet can then sweep up the vehicles and pilots as the Aneplé have done in the past. The difference is that CIG pilots will no longer risk losing their vehicles.”

“You’re not serious, are you? What you are proposing is insane. Don’t you think they will catch on and respond with counter evasive movements?”

“It’s possible they may try, but I’d be surprised if they did and if they did, it’s likely to fail for several generations, maybe even centuries, as long as certain secrets are maintained.”

“Okay, what has the Fleet done to Brad Johnson and where did they hide him? It sounds too conceited for you. Why do you think they will not develop counter measures?” Shinny asked. “You may be brilliant even by Earth’s standards but if your assumptions are correct, then it could result in placing you in a position working with the Fleet’s leaders in developing tactics. Would you be content returning to your sleepy backwater planet after obtaining that level of recognition?”

Brad blushed from Shinny’s praise of him, “What do you mean? It’s still me, Shinny. Yes, I do want to return to my sleepy backwater planet.” Although Brad had explained the theory numerous times to the senior officers, the remainder of his tour would probably entail him repeating it to everyone he met. Having Shinny as a sounding board would help him polish his explanation. “The demo was successful because I was able to reprogram the safety parameters of the acceptable distance between the vehicles. Had Deznoic’s vehicle not had the safety parameters reprogrammed it would have automatically ejected him even though impact was not inevitable. Normally, our vehicles sense another vehicle is crossing the safety boundaries and assume a vehicle impact is inevitable, ejecting the pilots. However, the opposing pilot and vehicle would not know that the security parameters had been reduced to avoiding ejection or impact on the CIG vehicles. CIG could begin recovering the Aneplé vehicles without risk of ejection. It was simply common sense from my perspective.”

“Why do you think they would not be able to develop counter measures?”

“Their vehicles are captured CIG vehicles, with CIG programming. They would need to be able to break the encryption and reprogram the safety parameters, and then reprogram it on the fly to account for variances. Breaking the encryption is nearly impossible since each vehicle has a separate encryption key. Even if they break the code on one, it would not help them in breaking the encryption on the second vehicle. I’m also banking on the lack of flying skills on their part. They don’t seem proficient at flying the vehicles. It’s as if a ten-year-old was learning to drive on a Formula One race car. The vehicles are capable of fancy extreme movements and neither CIG nor the Aneplé take advantage of the capabilities. There are occasions where the CIG pilots will push the vehicles near the limits to get out of harm’s way, but that’s rare.”

“How were you able to reprogram? From what you have explained to me, it sounds too simple of a solution to be effective.

“Once I was able to use my chip to read the programming documentation on the vehicles, I recognized a pattern and was able to discuss the reprogramming details with one of the original programmers on the team.”

“The original programmer was on the ship? Was it an AI?” Shinny asked in a surprised voice.

Brad laughed at her question. But he was equally surprised she didn’t know. “No, it wasn’t an AI, but it shouldn’t take you long to figure it out yourself.”

“Who?” asked Shinny, but Brad had more or less told her with his statement. Her expression on the windshield reflected her understanding. “It has to be Connor. Much of the vehicle programing was done before I was born, but he doesn’t tell me anything. It’s a case of if I don’t ask, he doesn’t volunteer anything to me. At times, much of what my father has accomplished is still a mystery to me,” she stated with a hurt sound to her voice. Brad had inadvertently touched on an area of sensitivity for her.

“Don’t take it personally. I don’t think your father intentionally hides information from you. It’s more like you stated, if you don’t ask, you don’t get answers. I believe a part of it is Connor’s reluctance to pound his chest and brag when his accomplishments become known. When I recognized his programming fingerprints, I asked.”

Shinny sat quietly. “Although I’ve had my own accomplishments over the years, it seems I will always live under my father’s shadow trying to prove something searching for my own path. I don’t think my father sought the extra attention nor did he intentionally walk all over me, but it has always been this way for me. It’s my weakness, I need to learn to disassociate my father’s professional career from our relationship. Connor is over a century older than me and there would always be something new. I know I need to let the hurt go,” she sighed. Shinny turned to Brad “What’s next?”

Brad recognized her discomfort of learning something new about her father from him. It was similar to what he had been experiencing. They both needed to approach it from a different perspective. It would be something for them to discuss at another time. One issue at a time, for now, he reminded himself. “We can talk about your father another time. We have other issues to focus on. What do you mean what’s next? Are you referring to the demo or us?”

“Both.”

“As far as the change in tactics I demonstrated, I don’t know. Deznoic was called to Connor’s conference room; I assume the next steps will be discussed with the senior officers on the Zuonopy. I left Deznoic a white paper, a brief for seniors and a training plan to present to the other commanders.” Looking forward, he saw them approaching the transfer vehicle on his orders. “As far as you and me, we are heading toward a transfer vehicle, the most under-utilized vehicle in the Fleet, for us to complete Operation P’Nic, a highly classified operation.” He laughed.

Shinny rolled her eyes. “Brad, I hope you know what you got us into.”

“Trust me, even Connor thought it was worth investigating. Prepare for landing.” Brad circled around the medium sized transfer vehicle. The vehicle was equivalent to about two square miles when fully engaged. When not engaged, the vehicles looked similar to the Airborne Warning And Control System or AWACs on Earth with a platter positioned on top of an aircraft. Once the Transfer vehicle was in position, the platter would be engaged. The platter would spread while establishing an artificial environment. The transfer vehicle platforms were used as customs platforms to position people and supplies transported between planets and space vessels. The platter in front of them was marked with several landing crosshatches.

Brad picked a landing strip and lowered the landing gear as he gradually reduced his speed to land. He slowed the vehicle to a reasonable speed and taxied toward a red flag. “Lt. Rrueszejio, this is Pilot Johnson and Major N’Klaftin reporting to execute Operation P’Nic. Please engage the artificial environment and shields.”

“Welcome aboard Transfer Vehicle Relocation. The Relocation’s artificial environment has been engaged. It is safe for you to leave your Swarm Defender. When your exercise is completed, please come to the cabin. My crew and I would be honored to meet you and congratulate you in person on the demo.”

“Thank you for your support. We will be down when we have accomplished the exercise objectives,” Brad responded.

“Message received,” Lieutenant Rrueszejio acknowledged, sounding enthusiastic.

Brad raised the vehicle’s wings and hopped out. He quickly walked around his Defender to Shinny’s side. He reached out and took Shinny’s hand as she disembarked. “M’Lady, welcome to Operation P’Nic. Before we start, I have a few things I need to orient you to.” He led her toward the blue flag. He pulled his tablet out and made a few quick gestures. A small building appeared before them. “The latrine. I was told it was the first thing I would need to simulate.”

Shinny looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “Okay, the bathroom. According to my orders, I am to investigate the platter as a training area.”

Looking across the platter and tapping the screen, Brad explained as the scenery changed. “As I mentioned before, these are the most under-utilized vehicles. The pilots fly them out and practice keeping them in a stationary position. It seems to me they could also provide a number of training opportunities because of their advanced hologram engine. For instance, what if you wanted to train in, say, a forest?” A thickly wooded forest of redwoods appeared in front of them. He smiled as Shinny’s eyes widened in surprise; he could see she understood. “Or how about a swamp?” The forest quickly morphed into a swamp; she walked along the edge that encircled their little dry island completely.

Shinny’s jaw dropped, “I’m astonished at what you are showing me. It isn’t just from the environments you simulated, but rather that it hadn’t been thought of before. Large rooms on the cruiser have the ability to simulate different environments, but only on a much smaller scale. A swamp this size would never be attempted on the battle cruiser because of possible effects on the environmental systems. What other tricks do you have up your sleeve?”

“I have a city,” Brad announced, as the Paris skyline appeared, with the Eiffel tower looming in front of them. “I have a lake.” They stood on Miss Lily’s deck. A gesture across his tablet and a wave lifted the boat’s bow. Shinny adjusted her stance while trying to regain her balance. Brad wrapped his arms around Shinny holding her next to him. “Smart ass,” she laughed, smiling at him.

Brad wrapped his arms tighter around her and resting his cheek against her head, whispered in her ear, “I thought you would like that. I’ve been working on it for days. What do you think? Would you like to try it again?” He nibbled on her ear.

Shinny closed her eyes with an expression of satisfaction and leaned into Brad. “M’m maybe, but later. I need to finish Operation P’Nic’s review of the transfer vehicle’s suitability as a training platform. Staying with you ranks high on my list of priorities. In fact very tempting,” she whispered into his ear. “I have orders to execute. Duty calls, as usual, not so fondly at the moment.”

Brad was disappointed, but he knew her well enough to understand his wife’s need to complete her assignment. He hoped it wouldn’t take her too long to survey the platter. He tapped a pattern on his tablet and Miss Lilly melted into a putting green. They stood near the 12th hole of the Crown Country Club golf course, a duplicate of the one near their home. “This is my personal favorite. Finish what you need to finish. We have plenty of time. Remember all work, no play makes Shinny a dull girl.” He kissed her gently on her lips, releasing her, and crossed to the vehicle.

Shinny’s eyes followed Brad to the vehicle. The fairy picture had been replaced with their family picture, showing Dane being held between them. The picture brought a warm glow to her face. “I remember the day the picture was taken. There may be more than a century between us, but no one truly seems to know me better than you. You were right. We needed to get off the ship and have a few moments to ourselves. I haven’t felt this relaxed and at peace since Griken stepped back into my life. It isn’t Griken’s appearance that’s bothered me, but the CIG’s Fleet baggage he brought with him. Somehow all of us—including Dane—have been swept up in the CIG’s turmoil.” She lunged forward with her right leg, stretching her calf of her left leg, and looked past the golf course, “Did you program a hologram of our home? I’m going to enjoy the jog around the neighborhood.” Shinny continued stretching and watch Brad as he pulled out a box from behind his seat on the Swarm Defender and placed it on the manicured ground near her. “What are you doing?” She switched to stretch her right calf muscles, still watching him.

“Pulling out the supplies for Operation P’Nic. They will be laid out when you return,” he promised, as he pulled out his wool tartan blanket from their bedroom on Earth and laid it on the ground.

She stretched and flexed her arms. “Is that Lucky or did you print another blanket?” She didn’t need to repeat the arm exercises, but continued to do so as she watched Brad, curious what he was doing.

“It’s Lucky. Knowing we were going to be on the golf course, I couldn’t leave it on the Zuonopy,” Brad pulled out several wrapped items from the box and moved other items around as if searching for something. He pulled out two beer bottles.

“Did you print the beer bottles? It looks like you did a great job. They look real,” Shinny commented.

“They are real. They’re from Griken’s personal stash, a thank you for teaching him to ride a bicycle. He isn’t a bad guy, once you get to know him.” Brad appeared to be looking for something else in the box.

“Griken gave them to you? Damn it, I lost count of my repetitions.” Shinny gave up and stepped toward Brad to get a closer look at the contents of the box. “What’s going on? Is there something more you are not telling me? The day has already had too many surprises, I’m not sure I’m ready for another one.”

“When I came up with this idea and discussed it with Griken, somehow ‘Operation Picnic’ got lost in translation and became Operation P’Nic. It was easier to let it go than try to change it. And it was a good way to hide it from your asshole boss,” Brad explained, looking amused.

Shinny erupted in laughter. “It’s a picnic. It seems to me you went through quite a few hoops to pull it off.”

“Not really, just played by Earth’s rules,” he responded mischievously.

“Hmm, and what is your explanation for the changed picture on your vehicle?”

“It seemed appropriate. It isn’t just you I love. It’s our marriage, our family. I think my squadron will get the point when they see the picture of Dane with us.”

Hearing Brad’s words, Shinny sat next to him. She had a huge grin on her face and pulled her boots off. “Screw the run, I can do it later. Who else knows about this caper you pulled off?”

“Just Connor and Griken. Your boss doesn’t know your marital status, since my mate is listed as Shinny Johnson, not Major Shin N’Klaftin. Connor isn’t going to say anything. Griken won’t say anything, either. For some reason he feels this enormous guilt for abandoning you and thinks he needs to look after you and your backwards mate. As long as he is supportive, I’m not going to relieve him of any guilt feelings. That’s your job,” Brad reached around Shinny and nuzzled her neck; he was in heaven. He briefly looked up through the shield into space at the stars twinkling brighter than ever. He wasn’t sure which heaven, but it still was ‘heaven,’ as Shinny responded warmly to his kissing. “By the way, don’t worry about our new best friends below. They have been warned that all activity on the platform is classified. They have been instructed to send a message to me if they need to pass information to us.”

Shinny nuzzled next to Brad in response to his gentle caresses, “It’s wonderful being with you again, finally. Just for the record, Griken didn’t abandon me. I left him and I never regretted that decision.” She turned completely toward Brad. Brad reached around her and gently pulled her on top of him, deepening his kiss as he caressed her lean athletic body, certain it had been a good decision to bring his lucky blanket.

[]Chapter 20

 

 

Brad spent the last hour lying quietly with Shinny sleeping, curled up next to him. He stared at the stars and the transit gate not far away, relishing the time alone with her. He didn’t care if Shinny slept the whole time; he wasn’t going to disturb her. His experience on the Zuonopy had been incredible, and would be even better now that he would be sharing more of his time with Shinny. He continued to stare at the gate and paid homage to the mysterious aliens who had left behind their miraculous technology. He thought about the possibility of exploring more of the universe when Dane was older. His daydream about the future was interrupted as the gate lit up. His eyes widened as an enormous ship came through the gate. Brad was so surprised by the size of the ship coming toward them he was unable to contain his excitement. “Holy shit, what the hell is that?”

Brad’s outburst startled Shinny. Opening her eyes, she looked at his face. She turned to look at what Brad was gawking at. “It looks like another battle cruiser.”

He frowned thoughtfully. “It looks much bigger from this position. I thought there weren’t any closer than ten gates. What’s it doing here?”

Shinny reached over her head to grab her tablet and compared the ship above with information she had on her tablet. “It looks bigger because it’s been modified.”

“I didn’t realize CIG modified any of the battle cruisers.”

“We didn’t. It looks like the Aneplé modified the Kisskalu,” Shinny pointed out, staring at the oversized battle cruiser.

 

 

Griken was reviewing the sensor information on the science station monitors when the emergency alarms went off signaling all personnel to man their battle stations. As far as he remembered there wasn’t a drill planned. He quickly swiped his tablet and verified the exercise schedule he remembered as he walked over to the command station. He looked at the main screen and saw a strangely configured battle cruiser coming through the gate. “Helmsman, report.”

“Sir, the ship is emitting Battle Cruiser Kisskalu’s signals.”

“Any escorts?” Griken asked as he watched the battle cruiser advancing through the gate. How long had Kisskalu been gone? Six or seven solar cycles, he thought. What in the world did they do to it? The Kisskalu no longer had the signature sleek lines of a battle cruiser but had a number of oddly shaped modifications hanging off of it.

“No, sir, the sensors do not detect any additional ships,” the helmsman answered as he continued to monitor the sensors. “The ship has just launched a large contingency of Swarm Defenders and Attack Vipers. The number far exceeds the standard battle cruiser’s complement.”

“Weapons, do you have information on their armament?” Griken clipped, as he sent a private message on his com unit requesting Connor’s presence on the bridge.

“Sensors show the Kisskalu’s weapons load exceeds a standard battle cruiser’s weapons load. It also appears some of the modifications on the Kisskalu are being used as additional storage areas for kinetic weapons and energy charging stations,” she reported.

“How long before they are in firing range of the Zuonopy?” Griken had faith in his crew’s training, but the training was of little value if they did not have the weapons they needed to defend against either the Kisskalu or the smaller vehicles heading toward them.

“If we remain on station, contact will be in a quarter of a shift,” she replied.

“Communications, send a message for all units to return to the Zuonopy to prepare for transit gate departure in an hour. If the pilots are unable to return the vehicles to the Zuonopy within the stated time, they are to initiate hibernation procedures. Repeat every ten minutes until departure through the gate.”

“Message received,” acknowledged the crewman manning communications.

“Operations, implement departure procedures. The Zuonopy will leave from the Wogzdunic Gate in an hour and fifteen minutes.”

“Sir, message received.”

Because the Zuonopy had moved from the center of the nexus, it was already in position to return to CIG space. However, vehicles conducting drills at the other gates and around the nexus were at risk. “Call Intelligence to the bridge.” Griken was angry with his Intelligence Chief. Intelligence should have warned him this area could be at risk.

Griken turned around and saw Connor standing at the science station at the back of the bridge. He walked back to talk to him, pressing his lips together, thinking it would not be a pleasant conversation. “Connor, my first preference would be to confront the Kisskalu, if the Zuonopy were fully armed.” Griken gestured over the control pad to show Connor the classified figures. “I risk losing the Zuonopy with the reduced weapons load, as the Kisskalu is heavily armed.”

“I just read the estimation your weapons officer made on the Kisskalu’s armaments. I agree. I don’t think you have any alternatives,” confirmed Connor.

“The senior officers at headquarters need to be fired for not supporting full weapons load even on training missions,” Griken spat out angrily. “I’ve ordered the pilots to return or initiate hibernation procedures. I’m sending you another highly classified report on retrieval of pods and smaller vehicles converted to hibernation units. Success in retrievals has been significantly reduced over the past ten years from a combination of the Aneplé either retrieving the pods and vehicles or destroying them, along with CIG’s recent conflict avoidance policies preventing the Fleet from returning to some areas to retrieve the pods or vehicles hibernating.”

Connor quickly scanned the report on his tablet before he turned to look at the bridge’s main screen. He watched the vehicles as they returned or began hibernation procedures. “Shinny and Brad?” he asked, as he stared at the battle cruiser close by the transportation platform they were surveying. He doubted much surveying had been done, since he was aware this was the first time Brad and Shinny had any privacy after three weeks of being separated. The best of the worst-case scenarios for them would be the Aneplé retrieving Brad’s hibernating Swarm Defender.

“Although there’s been no communications from them in the last two shifts, we have been receiving regular reports from Lieutenant Rrueszejio that Operation P’Nic has been proceeding as planned and there were no issues to report.”

“Thank you. I’m aware the lack of communications means nothing and would have been considered good news in relationship to Shinny and Brad. Let me know if there are any updates on their status.” If it wasn’t for the severity of the situation, Connor would have laughed at the inside joke Brad pulled on the Fleet. He had to hand it to Brad. He did exactly what Connor expected him to do by bringing in innovation and a different way of looking at things. Using the transportation platforms as an adaptable and flexible training environment for the Special Combat Troops assigned to a battle cruiser, along with the change in the Defender shielding, was brilliant. While Connor was ready to point a finger at misguided Fleet and CIG policies as the primary reasons for Fleet losses, the Fleet had also become moribund and predictable in their tactics and training, which further contributed to their losses. The Fleet needed someone from outside to provide a different outlook and way of developing solutions to the tactical problems they faced. However, as they might say on Earth, it was O-B-E or overcome by events. Now Connor had a very different problem on his hands.

 

 

If they weren’t watching the Aneplé bring the battle cruiser through the gate, Shinny would have been amused at the sight of her husband’s naked backside where he stood as if daring the ship to come closer. Shinny stood and dressed. “Brad, we need to get dressed now. Griken will send orders soon.”

Brad had been focusing on the battle cruiser and the release of the vehicles. He was watching their trajectory wondering what their targets were because it didn’t look like they were interested in the Zuonopy. Shinny’s voice had surprised him. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” He held his hand up to stop Shinny from saying anything when the Fleet broadcast came through his chip ordering the vehicles to return to the Zuonopy, which had been moved to the gate furthest away from them, within the hour or to hibernate. Shit, Brad thought, looking at Zuonopy’s new coordinates. He knew what he needed to do and couldn’t tell Shinny, since she would only fight him on it. He saw her dressing and grabbed his clothes to start dressing also. “Talk about being caught with your pants down.”

“We can leave the trash. Grab everything else,” Shinny suggested, as she continued to dress.

Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh sounds came from the platform. Brad turned toward the sound and saw three elongated tubes that had been ejected below them flying away from the vehicle toward an empty area of space. “It looks like our new best friends have abandoned ship, already.”

“They sent us a message that the platform will shut down in twenty minutes and the atmosphere will begin to degrade.”

“We’ll be off this platform soon,” Brad insisted as he grabbed his tablet. He thought about leaving the golf course as a souvenir for the Aneplé to find as a joke but was concerned it would leave too many questions for them and didn’t want to risk their curiosity. He reprogrammed the platform to compress to an empty gray space after they left.

“I’m not happy to have to go into hibernation. But after watching the waves of vehicles exit the battle cruiser, Griken has no other choice, other than to execute the orders. At least, if we are hibernating together we would be woken up at the same time and be able to retrieve Dane together. You might not agree, but I believe this is the better option than confront the Aneplé with an inadequately armed Swarm Defender since Griken is too far back to provide any combat support.” Looking back at the vehicle, “You removed the family picture? Are you almost ready?”

“Just about. As much as I love that picture of us, I needed to replace it with the camouflage matching the space beyond the atmospheric shield, standard procedures for flights within enemy tactical reach. I’m just about finished with my preflight check.” Brad explained as he completed his review of the readings from the sensors. “Hop in.”

Shinny placed the few items they were keeping behind her seat along with her armor and personal shield tucked in a small pouch. She leaned into her seat as it adjusted for her.

Brad glanced over toward his wife and saw she was secured in her seat. “Ready?” At her nod, he lowered the canopy and started the vehicle’s engine. He sent a signal to the transportation platform. As the shield supporting the atmosphere disappeared, he moved forward, incrementally increasing his speed, heading in the direction of the pods and away from the Kisskalu. Brad pulled up the viewer and watched the vehicles behind him continue to fly in a haphazard manner, fanning out across the nexus. Two Swarm Defenders flew close to each other. He picked up their signals and waited. “Just a little closer,” he whispered. He wondered where they had learned to fly or if they even went through formal training.

“What did you say?” Shinny asked.

“Two Swarm Defenders behind us are getting a little too close. I’m waiting for someone to be ejected in the interest of CIG safety.”

“Okay.” She leaned back with her eyes closed, not paying attention, waiting for Brad to initiate hibernation procedures.

The Swarm Defenders ejected the pilots and shut down as he predicted. He smiled to himself as he quickly changed the signal his vehicle emitted to one of the vehicles that had just shut down. He made a sharp U-turn and headed back toward the Kisskalu.

Shinny opened her eyes in response to the sharp turn. The battle cruiser grew larger as they approached it. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I can’t take us into hibernation. I’m trying to come up with a third course of action.”

“What do you mean a third course of action? We were ordered to go into hibernation if we couldn’t make it back to the Zuonopy,” she snapped at him.

“I can’t do it at this time.”

“What the hell are you doing? You are going to get us killed. I thought you were past your issues with hibernation.”

“I am. I had to go through hibernation to get my Swarm Defender insignia. But this has nothing to do with it.”

“I’m ordering you to turn this vehicle around and initiate hibernation.”

“Are you pulling rank on me?”

“Are you trying to irritate me? Yes, I’m pulling rank on you, but when you get down to it, Admiral Griken ordered us to hibernate and it was within reason. What you are doing is not; what you are doing is going rogue,” she shouted, as she attempted to access the vehicle’s controls to initiate hibernation. “Damn it, you locked me out. You know I can hack the vehicle’s systems.”

“Shinny, I’m sorry, I’ll give you access in a moment,” apologized Brad. “Before I give you access, look at what the Aneplé vehicles in the forward position are doing.” He unlocked her access to the vehicle. Brad had not intended to lock her out, but he needed to slow her down so she could see what the vehicles were doing.

Shinny pulled up the sensors and video feed of the Aneplé vehicles and gasped, “Why didn’t you explain this to me?”

“I was stuck between taking immediate action and being too late to do anything meaningful. I couldn’t even say this was their intention when I understood what I needed to do because the vehicles were only exiting the Kisskalu. I’ve given you access to the vehicle’s command functions. We are in a position where I could turn around and hibernate or continue. Give the order.”

Shinny watched the Aneplé vehicles continue their destruction of the pods. Taking a deep breath, she admitted, “I don’t know if this is any better but I now see hibernating is not the right decision. Perhaps it will buy us more time to figure out a viable alternative. I support your actions. Send an encrypted message to the Zuonopy.”

 

 

The communications officer read the decrypted message. He wasn’t sure what it meant but he passed it immediately.

Admiral Griken, Major Johnson and I will be taking a tour of the Kisskalu. Catch you on the flip-flop.

Griken walked over to Connor with the decrypted message on his tablet. He showed the message to Connor. “What does this mean?”

Connor read the message and laughed. “It looks like he decided to fly onto the Kisskalu and is expecting you to return to pick him up.”

Griken walked toward the main screen. “Helmsmen, bring up a close-up view of the Kisskalu.” Griken wasn’t sure what was more interesting, the ugly bulges hanging off the cruiser or the Swarm Defender flying straight at it knowing that Johnson was piloting it. If Johnson made it back, Griken would owe him at least a case of beer. But that was a big if. Griken turned around and saw Connor impassively watching the Swarm Defender. For the moment, Connor’s daughter and son appeared to have escaped the fate of the pods, but he wasn’t convinced this was better. Griken noticed the tall intelligence chief standing stiffly next to Connor and walked toward them.

Commander Tipaly Rontue and her subordinates would focus on the pieces of information constantly pouring into their databases and putting them together like a picture to produce an intelligence estimate. Since the treaty, it had become harder and harder to put the pictures together no matter how many hours they spent on a problem. Looking at the collage of scenes on the command screen being picked up by their sensors, this was a major Intelligence failure that needed to be owned by her and her team. She knew what was coming next and could not blame the admiral. She did wonder, though, if Connor’s presence meant the end of her career, even with her distant familial relationship. She turned to face her commanding officer. “Admiral Griken, you requested my presence on the bridge.”

Commander Rontue did not look happy being called up to the bridge, nor did she look like she had slept in days, but Griken felt no sympathy for her. She was in a better situation than the pilots he was forced to leave in hibernation. “I don’t think I need to tell you how unhappy I am that the Aneplé showed up with the Kisskalu. What happened to Intel’s tracking of major ship movements? I don’t for one-minute think it is a coincidence that a fully armed enemy ship shows up in the middle of our drilling at this remote location several gates away from Aneplé systems. I want you to analyze all of the signals that have left the Zuonopy in the last sixty hours and find the leak.”

“Message received. Sir, is there anything else?”

Griken was so angry over the screw up he was ready to throw her off the ship in a pod and let her take the same chance as his hibernating pilots. He looked at Connor and realized he needed to cool down. He needed to resolve his anger if she was going to be effective. “I don’t know, yet. Stand by.”

Tipaly slowly released the breath she was holding. “Yes, sir.”

Connor could not fault Griken. He was just as angry, if not more so. If he understood how compromised the Fleet’s security was before he was activated, he would have encouraged Shinny to resign rather than transfer to the inactive reserve. It was a monumental screw up. Although the responsibility fell on Commander Rontue’s shoulders for this incident, a number of issues out of her control limited access to the raw data supporting the intelligence estimates. He knew from his time on Earth she fell in with the group he could trust without hesitation. “If the CIG’s Military Defense Committee expects me to do my job and implement needed changes, then this ship needs to return fully loaded to reclaim this nexus and the Kisskalu. I am going to have a frank discussion with the chairman, Representative Bequin. If that can’t be done, then the transit gates at this nexus must be destroyed.”

Connor searched Commander Rontue’s face for a reaction, while Griken nodded in agreement with him. Historically, each time CIG lost a transit gate a negative impact rippled through planetary systems. This nexus had four transit gates, which would cause far more than a ripple of damage. Three were visible and the fourth was hidden behind the gate the Kisskalu had just transited through. Destroying the gates would make commerce difficult for two systems. Destruction of the third would close off Earth for a number of years, until an alternate route could be discovered. He would be deceiving himself if he thought he could easily accept the gate’s destruction, but he needed to choose the lesser of the two evils, a cliché he learned from the staff stationed on Earth. The fourth gate was a different story. Staring at the commander, he asked, “What information do you have on the fourth gate behind the Omega gate?”

“Connor, I’m not at liberty to discuss the details.”

Admiral Griken’s eyes narrowed in growing anger.

Taking a deep breath, she continued addressing Admiral Griken, “However, I realize there is an operational necessity to share the information with you. The hidden gate is part of a highly classified transit system known as the Nester Gate System. The destination of these gates is neither linear nor intuitive. This particular gate is essentially a short cut to the Susastern System. A station there hosts a large Fleet presence and is capable of resupplying the Zuonopy if the request came from the CIG counsel. You are not aware of these systems because the existence of the secondary transit system hidden among the publicly known gates has been revealed only to the most senior admirals along with members of the Intelligence community. However, with Connor’s assistance, I may be able to provide justification to allow you to use the Nester Gate when you return to this area.”

“Commander, I’m not sure if you are serious or hiding behind the bureaucracy that has hampered CIG’s Fleet operations and grown worse since the treaty. I’m in full agreement I can’t use it now, because of the Kisskalu’s current location. It’s unfortunate the Zuonopy isn’t in position to use the Nester Gate, because I would. I’m not willing to accept that CIG is doing everything to turn this conflict around. I’m not sure who they are trying to protect by not revealing the Nester Gates’ location at this time, but the longer they wait, the less likely the Fleet will be able to protect those gates once they become common knowledge.”

“Message received. I agree it is critical for you to have access to the gate. With access, you may be able to load weapons and return quickly to confront the Kisskalu, before the Aneplé send reinforcements to this nexus. I’ll begin working on the justification now.”

“Commander, thank you. I’m sending you my aide, Commander Janeque’s, contact information. Talk to her; she may have useful information on the signals you are looking for. I also need you to talk to my aide on a separate issue. She has a family situation that needs to be resolved. I haven’t made a decision on what to do about it yet. I need you to talk to her since the decision would require me to consider relieving her of her duties soon. I’m concerned about leaving her in place and possibly compromising information, but perhaps Intelligence could use her information in the short-term.”

“Message received, sir.” Tipaly nodded a salute.

“We are in agreement on our next steps,” Connor said. He turned toward Griken. “Admiral, as soon as we enter the transit gate, have Communications set up a secure line to CIG Representative Bequin. I think it’s time to see if CIG is serious about changing the course of this conflict.” Connor turned away from them and stepped closer to the main screen, focusing on the Swarm Defender flying toward the Kisskalu.

[]Chapter 21

 

 

Brad flew his unarmed vehicle toward the Aneplé Battle Cruiser under the wings of the Swarm Defenders advancing toward the hibernating pods and the Zuonopy. They weren’t flying in a disciplined formation nor did they seem to be well trained in shooting at targets. Brad wondered as he watched them how CIG’s Fleet managed to lose as many assets as they did. Unfortunately, as bad as they were, they did hit a number of targets. Watching the pods being destroyed didn’t provide him with much comfort that the decision they made was any better, but he didn’t feel like they had a choice with the Zuonopy scheduled to leave through the transit gate furthest from them. He could do only so much evasive flying without needing to refuel. “Shinny, I’m sorry, I didn’t think I had any other options if we were going to survive.”

Shinny had calmed down from the initial anger she felt when Brad prevented her from initiating hibernation. Watching the fate of the pods drifting in space had been sobering. Brad’s instinct was spot on. Looking down, she let a few tears drop for the people who had followed the order to go into hibernation. “There have been many changes since my last deployment. In the past, the Aneplé did not go after the pods. How did you know?”

“I didn’t know, but it didn’t feel right, either. I learned in training the survival rates for hibernating in the pods were high, but something inside my head screamed at me to not hibernate at this time.”

“Is there anything screaming at you to do this?” Shinny asked, staring at the battle cruiser ahead and wondering if they would ever return to CIG space or Earth.

“God, no, if there were, it would be time to have me committed. I just don’t have any better ideas at this time.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“I’m hoping I can find a place to land and we can sneak off to someplace safe on the ship.”

Shinny rolled her eyes. “Hope is not a plan. Wouldn’t it have been safer to fly in with their squadrons?”

Brad shrugged at her dismissive comment. “I did think about trying to blend in with the Aneplé squadrons, but I was concerned we’d be caught by someone recognizing the signal, or shot even with their haphazard shooting, or ejected. This seemed to be the safest alternative for now.” He stared at the ominous green glow emanating from the ship in front of them. “Do you know why it’s green?”

Shinny studied the sensors on the dashboard and stared at the activity behind them. “No, there’s nothing in the database on the characteristics of the Aneplé Battle Cruisers, but we might be the first ones to report it, if we return to CIG space. Flying onto the Kisskalu may have been an unconventional choice, but for the moment, I agree it looks like the safer alternative for us.” Shinny continued to swipe through the information on her tablet.

“We’ll get back. We promised Dane we would be there when he wakes up.” Brad had no idea how they were going to get back to Earth with the transmission from the Zuonopy reporting its transit through the Wogzdunic Gate. Defending Earth suddenly became low on his list of priorities. Right now, he needed to find a place to dock his vehicle and focus on surviving. He cut his engine to a slow hover to float through the Aneplé’s Transportation Room’s diaphragm. Immediately entering into the room, a heavy layer of green dust similar to pollen released on a warm day on Earth hit the windshield. The green dust filled the whole room like heavy smog polluting a city, leaving a green sheen on the flat surfaces. Looking for a place to land, Brad became horrified with the condition of the Transportation Platforms. The platforms littered with vehicles and parts strewn haphazardly around resembled junkyards on Earth. People wandered aimlessly on the platforms, sifting through trash piles or lying down stretched out beside the junk piles. The only thing missing was a junkyard dog. “Shinny, what is going on? The platforms look like streets in third world countries with homeless people dressed in rags wandering around or sleeping in huddles,” he gasped in shock.

“I don’t know what to say. I’ve never seen anyone in CIG space appear impoverished. I had heard stories of Aneplé poverty but I’ve never seen anything like this until I moved to Earth.”

“Welcome to the dark side of space travel,” Brad quietly mumbled.

“Did you say something?”

“Sorry, just talking to myself, nothing worth repeating. Do you see any place for me to dock?”

“There doesn’t seem to be anything in this area. Maybe if you head toward mid-ship.”

“We’re just guessing. I’m going to ask the transportation commander or whoever answers for the landing platforms.”

Shinny stared at him like he was an idiot. “What happened to sneaking onto the Kisskalu? Do you think that’s smart?”

Brad laughed nervously. “I don’t think I’ve come up with any smart moves in the past hour, but at least they haven’t shot at us, yet. I haven’t given up on sneaking in either. I’m depending upon the false signal to provide us protection.” Brad sighed heavily as he continued to drift slowly between the platforms looking for a suitable place to land. “I could use some help even if it’s the Aneplé providing us assistance in finding a place to dock.” Discouraged from the lack of suitable landing platforms, he moved closer to the idea of contacting the platform commander as the only feasible alternative. He was making an educated guess from his research on the Zuonopy that the Aneplé had taken over CIG’s command structure in addition to the equipment, since changing that would have meant reprogramming all of the equipment. As strange as it seemed, the evidence pointed toward the Aneplé completely absorbing CIG’s technology and not bothering to integrate their technology with software upgrades. He wouldn’t be completely surprised if his assumptions were correct. Gesturing across his dashboard, he called the platform commander, hoping someone would answer his communications. “This is Pilot Whir whir, requesting a platform to dock.”

“Pilot who?” Shinny asked in surprise tone.

“I wasn’t ready to give up our names, yet.”

A female voice responded immediately, “Pilot who? Repeat—we did not hear transmission. All Swarm Defenders and Attack Vipers were ordered to destroy enemy assets, claim territory, and capture Major N’Klaftin. You will return to your assigned duties.”

Brad quickly cut communications and turned to Shinny. “Who knew that you left the ship?”

“I don’t know. I had no idea I would be leaving the ship until the orders came through. Other than Colonel T’Lentic, I’m not sure who would know. It’s disturbing knowing that not only am I being directly targeted but they’re killing my shipmates looking for me.”

Brad glanced at his wife’s face and ran through a number of alternatives in his head. Not many people knew the details of their side trip. He couldn’t worry about that now. They needed to focus on surviving their boarding of the Kisskalu. “I can’t go back there shooting the pods while looking for you. It looks like the sneaking on plan isn’t possible, if they think we’re abandoning the hunt.”

“I know,” Shinny whispered, resigned to becoming prisoners. Shinny shuddered briefly, remembering her mother’s fate in an Aneplé prison. She closed her eyes for a moment and reviewed the information on file concerning Aneplé imprisonment. The information was sparse but it was a start. “As long as they don’t learn who I am or that I’m a Special Combat Officer, they may leave us alone or quarantine us until we are indoctrinated.”

“Indoctrinated?” The communication button flashing indicated a response was required from him.

“I’m not entirely sure what indoctrination means, but there are planet systems that choose to remain with the Aneplé when given a choice. Every five to ten years, CIG Fleet sends Special Combat troops into Aneplé territory. The majority never return. The few people we have rescued wiped their chips and committed suicide. The only item recovered were their blank chips.”

Sighing heavily, Brad raked his hair with his hand. “Why is it that after close to two centuries of fighting these people, there’s almost no information about them? I don’t understand the logic of CIG’s losses, either. The Aneplé don’t have a technology advantage, they fight with whatever they manage to scavenge or steal from CIG Fleet. And, looking around, they don’t seem to have a cultural advantage either.” Brad turned toward Shinny. “I’m sorry. I’m scared as hell at this moment. I admit I don’t have a plan, but we will find a way back home.”

Shinny nodded. “I believe you.” She wasn’t convinced he would find a way off the Kisskalu, but she believed he would explore every option with her to find a way off the ship. Hopefully, if they did find a way off the battle cruiser, they wouldn’t find themselves in the center of Aneplé space. She pointed to the indicator. “I think it’s time to let them know they have a couple of CIG Fleet Officers onboard before they decide they are dealing with cowards and shoot us.”

Brad reluctantly gestured over the controls. “I repeat, this is Pilot Johnson from Zuonopy’s Swarm Defender Squadron 262 requesting a platform to dock Swarm Defender Vehicle 769.”

The voice responded, rapidly firing questions at them. “Zuonopy? What are you doing on Aneplé Capital Ship Kisskalu? Are you defecting?”

Brad turned to Shinny with a quizzical look. “Don’t think I can answer any of the questions. Can you? Why are they keeping the ship’s name? It seems to me they would have given it an Aneplé name.”

Shinny shrugged.

“Land now,” a new graveled voice ordered. “My security team and I will meet you on the platform.”

“Negative, the platform is currently occupied by personnel,” Brad responded while he increased the vehicle’s vertical hovering to see if any of the platforms at the higher levels had space for him to land.

“I’m ordering you to land. The squatters will move away or will be recycled if they interfere with operations or are injured,” the graveled voice demanded.

Brad cut the coms transmission and looked at Shinny. “Nice. They have their own personal junkyard dog barking orders at us now. I can’t bring myself to just land on anyone. I’ll take my chances we’ll find something less crowded.”

“Agreed. I’m not going to compromise myself just to get a few brownie points with this crew. We should push as much as possible staying on the side of annoying them and avoid enraging them,” Shinny advised. She had just managed to connect her tablet to the Kisskalu’s central computer system and began searching the platforms for open space. “It looks like a there are a number of better maintained platforms if you go forward.” Shinny sent the platform numbers to the windshield display.

Brad looked at the list of platforms and moved the vehicle toward the front of the battle cruiser. “How did you get the information?”

“I went through the back door using my trainer on my tablet. It’s a little secret from—”

“Let me guess,” Brad interrupted, “One of the original programmers, who programmed the original safety parameters on the Swarm Defender.”

Shinny laughed. “I can understand why you would jump to that conclusion, but Connor doesn’t get credit for everything. A friend of my parents developed the back door encryption keys. While Connor wasn’t always open in sharing everything with me, I spent much of my childhood in the background listening and learning from my parents and their friends when it was possible. They would probably faint if they knew I picked this trick up as early as I did.”

“It may not have been Connor, but I knew he was involved somehow.” Brad chuckled. “Good to know the guy has some imperfections, otherwise it could give family and friends complexes. But I’d feel better if I knew he’d save the day.” He looked at Shinny rapid gestures over the dashboard and tablet. “What are you doing, now?”

“I’m downloading as much information as possible before they figure out I have access to their systems. I’m also adding another layer of encryption to the sensor systems on this vehicle.”

“Good thinking,” Brad said, as he navigated through the platforms.

“Pilot, halt. You were ordered to drop where you are. We will take action if you do not comply.”

“Great, it looks like I need to throw the junkyard dog a bone to calm her down.” Brad gestured over the communications link to unmute it. “I am filing a plan to dock at Platform 186, closer to the bridge, to be more convenient for your senior officers. This vehicle is unarmed and will not cause harm to anyone on this battle cruiser. We have one handheld praser and will leave it in this vehicle for your security officers to impound.” He cut the comms off and turned to Shinny, “Sorry, I feel bad surrendering our only weapon so early, but realistically having one praser was more of a threat to our survival at this point than not having one.”

She nodded in agreement, “I’m not happy about losing my praser but I understand why you offered it. It may be a small article of good faith, but I also believe we really have no other option. I don’t know how it will be received by the Aneplé, but at least it will give them one less reason to shoot us.”

“Landing platform request approved. Do not leave the platform without a Security review. All future infractions will result in notifying Security for appropriate action,” the gravelly voice warned.

Brad appreciated the seriousness of their situation, but the sudden need to ratchet down the tension had him wiggling his eyebrows at Shinny. “Are the security guys the really bad guys on this ship?” Shinny nodded and chuckled at his antics. “Guess we have to take this warning seriously.” He waved a hand over the communications control pad. “Message received.” Brad hoped they would figure something out soon. At least they had each other, he reminded himself.

“I have over 88% of the ship’s codes downloaded and 79% of the ship’s database compressed, encrypted, and hidden in my tablet. I may be able to acquire two more prasers at a later time if I’m able to analyze the information that I downloaded”.”

Brad watched Shinny drain her praser’s energy cell from a side vent and put the weapon down. “Equally smart moves on your part. We’ll be fine.”

Shinny snorted at his comment, “I’m not sure I want to know your definition of fine.” She began removing all of her insignias from her uniform and then pulled off Brad’s insignias while he was focused on landing. “Why are you pulling our insignia’s off?” Brad asked.

“You know they will pick up lies from their sensors, but we don’t need them to know everything up front. They are not known for being friendly to Special Combat Officers. It would definitely result in imprisonment for me. I don’t intend to make it easy for them to figure out my position in the Fleet.” Shinny threw the insignias into the vehicle’s small recycle bin. She waited thirty seconds and pulled out a small cube. “This will definitely make it harder for them to figure out. Would you like a souvenir of our insignias?” Shinny held up the small cube.

“Sure. Could you pull a small pocket near my heart?” He lowered the vehicle as he approached Platform 186.

Smiling, Shinny pulled a pocket on Brad’s chest and dropped the small cube within. Even when the odds seemed insurmountable, her husband remained the romantic. She leaned back in her seat and stared at the Transportation Room, “Do you remember the conversation we had before Griken dropped into our lives about getting away? We had discussed leaving Dane with Connor and Nan to get away. Here we are in the middle of the Universe, just the two of us and 30,000 Aneplé. It wasn’t on my bucket list, but it is high on the adventure meter.”

“Just trying to show you a good time.”

“It will definitely be memorable.” Shinny laughed. She sighed heavily, “ No wonder there were people living on the platform. The cruiser was carrying three times more people than it was built to handle and many looked like they were starving. The ship probably wasn’t carrying enough supplies for a crew of this size.”

“One crisis at a time.”

Shinny swiped through her tablet, “Agree. The food situation is unclear because there are hydroponic gardens throughout the ship. It’s unlikely they will feed us as well as the people on the platforms, if we are prisoners.”

Brad shrugged, “I’m not exactly a fan of space food as it is.” Brad landed his vehicle on the platform and stared at the heavy green dust floating around. “Is there any information on the green dust? None of the information that I read on the Aneplé addressed the dust.”

“The dust is new to me also. I don’t remember reading about it in any of the intelligence reports.”

“Just another data point for us to put on our to do list. I wonder whether or not it would affect the vehicle’s engine, once we figure a way off the ship.” He saw Shinny’s questioning face, “I know, what was I thinking? I’m worried about getting off; when my first priority should be just surviving.” Shinny looked as shell shocked as he felt. He took a deep breath. “Mrs. Johnson, I see the junkyard dog and her minions heading our way. Shall we greet them halfway on the platform?”

“Mr. Johnson, I believe halfway would be the polite thing to do.” She reached for her armor and personal shield in a pouch behind them and attached the pouch and shield to her uniform at her waist.

Brad gestured for the canopy to lift. As the shield rose, queasiness arose as an avalanche of rotting meat stench went straight to his stomach. “Oh god, Shinny can you smell it?” He leaned over, gagged and threw up onto the side of the vehicle and the platform. Gasping, he tried to control the gagging. “Shinny, I need your help. It’s the dust.” The gagging caused him to throw up again. He felt worthless, unable to control his retching. The Aneplé didn’t need weapons, he thought; the green dust was taking him down. It was too late to close the canopy and even if he did, they would still need to leave the vehicle if they were going to survive, although at this moment he didn’t care.

Brad’s sudden transformation from hero to zero with his gagging and violent vomiting spurred Shinny to move fast. At his cry for help, she jumped out of the vehicle, ran to pull the door out and then lifted him out of the Defender. Although Brad was hunched over from the violent retching and heaving, she was able to support him as they walked toward the Aneplé party marching toward them. She had no idea what Brad was talking about or what caused his sudden urge to vomit. She wasn’t bothered by the smell of the dust; to her the dust had a somewhat pleasant, light lemony-mint fragrance. However, she became concerned Brad may have a possible chip failure. She had heard it was extraordinarily rare and thought she was witnessing it with Brad’s sudden reaction. Seeing him this ill had shaken her. This seemed worse than when he had a stomach virus on Earth. They were almost at the center when Brad struggled to be released. She continued to hold onto him even with him thrashing in her arms. “Brad, I’ve got you.”

“Shinny, you need to let go. I’m going to throw up again. Our situation is bad enough without me puking on you. Not a good way to stand up to the enemy.” He jerked away from her grasp. He staggered a few steps away, gagging again, and fell toward the floor.

Shinny grabbed Brad as he started to fall and gently guided him to lie on the floor, where he proceeded to vomit again. She stood and turned to face the group that had approached them. It was odd seeing them in Fleet uniforms with the strange insignias. The woman leading the group was a few inches shorter than her and excruciatingly thin and haggard looking. The crewmembers standing behind her weren’t much different. Shinny approached them as if there was nothing wrong. She felt vulnerable and unnatural standing in front of them without wearing her armor and her praser in her hand. She preferred to outthink her opponents, but at this moment, she found herself fighting her instinct to disarm the group even though she did not see any weapons. Even if she was able to overcome them, she had no backup and what would she do on a ship teaming with Aneplé and Brad lying down in a curled fetal position? She needed to hold herself back from doing anything stupid. Keep it simple and don’t commit to anything, she told herself. “Thank you for allowing us to land. I am Shinny Johnson, and my crew mate is Brad Johnson.”

The graveled voice woman pointed toward Brad, who was trying to stand, screeching, “He looks damaged and should be recycled.”

Shinny, alarmed over the junkyard dog’s assessment, moved quickly to help Brad stand and held onto his waist ensuring that he didn’t fall. “He is fine. He had an allergic reaction to the dust. He will be better.”

“That is not natural. Only Neslins are allergic to the dust.” She inhaled deeply. “The dust is from our Zorchkrisck plants in hydroponics. When it’s in the air all the time it makes everything easier.” The woman suspiciously eyed Shinny. “Don’t you like the smell?”

Shinny did not understand the fascination with the dust, but if it changed the woman’s focus and gave them more time, she would go with it. “It’s a pleasant smell, but there seems to be too much of it.”

“You will become accustomed to it. It’ll make you feel good and you will learn to appreciate it and want more.” Junkyard Dog pulled her tablet. “Your name is not showing in our records. What type of name is Johnson? she asked as she inhaled deeply and searched the name on her tablet. “There must be a gap in intelligence.”

“It’s from my home planet. It’s located on the outermost edge of CIG space. Johnson is one of the more common names,” Brad volunteered in a raspy voice resulting from his vomiting, as he stood next to Shinny.

The officer gave a whatever humph to Brad’s explanation. “We have a report that Major N’Klaftin left the Zuonopy. Do you know where she is? My security officers are watching your responses on their tools. If you lie during this interrogation you will be recycled.”

Shinny stood silently, knowing they would immediately detect a lie from her. Distracted by the obvious Intelligence leak in CIG’s operations, she was having trouble focusing on a non-answer answer that would not register as a lie when Brad answered for them.

“Major N’Klaftin is in my heart,” Brad whispered.

The Aneplé officer furrowed her brows. “What did you say?”

“I said, Major N’Klaftin is in my heart.” Shinny’s face froze in shock when he made the statement. It was one of the earlier cultural expressions Connor and Shinny had learned. He was taking a chance that while it would register as a truth, it would have no meaning to these people.

A crewman walked over to the officer and whispered something to the Security Officer. The crewman crossed to Brad. “You are hiding something,” she challenged as she ripped opened the pocket on his chest and pulled out a small cube. “What’s this?”

“We recycled what was left of Major N’Klaftin,” Brad explained. “Can I have it back?”

The crewman threw the cube into Brad’s face. Brad grabbed it as it bounced off his face and returned it to his pocket. The crewman turned to the officer in charge. “Commander Nerunder, I don’t know what this means. He may be deranged or the dust is having an odd effect on him.” The crewman walked back to the group staring at the sensor readings on her tablet, as if she was wondering if she missed something.

“Who is senior?” Nerunder barked.

“I am,” Shinny responded.

“Are you a pilot?” the woman asked.

Brad jumped in, answering weakly, “I am certified to fly a few vehicles.”

“I didn’t ask you. If you don’t get better, you are worthless and will be recycled,” the Junkyard dog barked at Brad. She focused her stare on Shinny. “If you are senior, why do you let him respond for you? Are you defective too?”

Shinny glanced at Brad. He definitely did not look good, and as annoying as the officer’s comment was, Shinny ignored it thinking they were better off if she did not engage her. “Yes, I have been trained to fly vehicles in limited cases,” Shinny volunteered, hoping her omission would not be detected.

“Good, we have uses for trained pilots,” Nerunder admitted, clearly not interested in knowing what the limitations meant. The security officer turned slightly and began flashing a message to her crew.

Shinny watched in alarm as the woman’s eyes flashed with a number of crewmembers, appearing to participate in a discussion. CIG’s policy limited chip-to-chip communications to family members, encrypted data upgrades and one-way broadcasts because chip communication was highly susceptible to viruses and hacking. It looked as if the Aneplé didn’t care who had access to their thoughts or autonomic body functions. She wondered if the failure of past rescues was the result of Aneplé control over the individual chip functions. Sadly, she realized her past encounters with Aneplé opposition might have been a result of the lack of control the combatants had over their own actions, preventing them from surrendering. It often turned out the only way to end a hand-to-hand fight was to terminate the opponent.

Nerunder turned to Shinny. “Did you bring a weapon?”

“I have a praser. I left it in the vehicle.”

“Go get it.”

Brad was leaning heavily on her. She did not think she could leave him standing alone since he started gagging with dry heaves. “Brad, I need to put you down for a few seconds,” she whispered. Brad nodded. She gently laid him on the platform. She did not feel comfortable turning away with her back facing the Aneplé, but she didn’t have a choice. Jogging back to the vehicle, she bent down into the Swarm Defender to grab her praser, their blanket and a few other personal items. When she stood up and turned around, she saw a crewman bent over Brad with his index finger connected to Brad’s port.

Shinny ran back as the crewman finished his transfer of information into Brad’s port and pulled his finger away from Brad. Shinny gave the crewman her praser. She lifted Brad to stand and moved away from the crewman. The crewman stood and stepped toward Shinny. He raised his hand and pointed his finger to connect to her port with his right index finger. While still holding Brad on her right side, she intercepted the crewman’s arm and grabbed his wrist, holding his hand back from connecting to her port; she pulled his arm down and pushed him away from them.

The crewman, stunned by the rebuff, raised Shinny’s praser, aimed at her midsection, and pulled the trigger. When nothing happened, he pulled it again. Glaring at Shinny, he lowered the praser and sneered, “You may not be ready for data transfer now. I recommend you accept the next attempt.” The Aneplé officer pocketed Shinny’s praser and walked back to the group.

Shinny said nothing, but was relieved she had discharged her praser. Fortunately, it looked like no one else was carrying a praser at that time. It might be awhile before anyone would shoot at them again.

Nerunder walked toward Shinny and Brad and stood in front of them. “You are released for now. We will track you and assign you to a unit. We will call you in for another interrogation. If you fail to attend future interrogations, Lieutenant Swetinny will use an Aneplé praser next time. They never fail.”

Confused by the officer’s statement, Shinny asked, “Don’t you want to retain us in a confined area?”

“Why? You brought us a vehicle and a praser.” She pointed to Brad. “He is being indoctrinated, and soon, with more dust, you will also be indoctrinated.”

Shinny looked at Brad. He was barely able to stand on his own and was still gagging. She worried about what they had downloaded into his port. She needed to find a private place to triage his chip, if it was possible. Still at a loss because she didn’t understand what being released meant to the Aneplé. “Is there a place we should go to receive a room assignment?”

“No, just stay away from restricted areas. You can share a room with anyone who is willing to share a room with you. You can even go to the platforms and live with the filthy colonists.” The officer’s eyes began flashing along with the crewmen’s behind her. “No one in my crew wants to room with you. You will need to find your own space.” She pointed to a few vehicles returning. “They might share a room with you.” The officer turned and left with her crew.

Brad, barely able to stand, watched the junkyard dog and her crew leave while Shinny looped his arm around her shoulders to support him. “I don’t think we should provoke them again,” he wheezed before he passed out.

Brad’s dead weight pulled away from her as he passed out. She bent over to pick Brad up and guide him over her shoulder to carry him fireman style. She picked up their blanket and the few items she was able to retrieve. Shinny stabilized Brad with his weight distributed evenly, and walked toward a door leading them out of the Transportation Room. Number one on her list was to find a private place that would allow her to care for Brad.

[]Chapter 22

 

 

Brad was running again with Shinny, trying to avoid being hit by the praser fire. It was that damn dream again, except, this time, as he looked around in the dream, he sensed something familiar. He still didn’t understand everything in the dream, but he wanted to stop and look around and see if he recognized anything. Whoever was chasing them had bad aim, but he wasn’t willing to take a chance and stop, even in a dream. At least this dream was not as bad as his last one, where he watched someone shoot Shinny point blank. That wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare, he reminded himself. He was getting ready for her slap to his belly, when Shinny whispered inside his head.

Brad, can you hear me?”

Brad opened his eyes and remained still as he tried to figure out where he was and what was going on. As far as he could tell he was in a stateroom lying on a bed in his underwear. His current situation seemed very different from what he remembered. He wondered if they had been rescued. He heard Shinny’s voice in his head, again, “Brad can you hear me?”

“Shinny, I can hear you. Are you all right?” Brad asked as he lifted his head to look for her.

Brad, don’t move. Try to answer me through your thoughts,” Shinny said, from inside his head.

Brad laid his head back down on the bed. “How do I do that?”

Just try. Focus on sending me a message.” She whispered in his thoughts. “The last time I established a private link, I was a child. I’m not sure if your difficulty in creating a link is from a virus the Aneplé downloaded onto your chip or if we need outside assistance. I was able to quickly follow up the Aneplé’s download on you with an experimental multi-strain chip vaccine issued to me as a Special Combat Officer when I reported on the Zuonopy. However, I don’t have the tools to determine how effective my efforts are or if there are any residual side effects from the Aneplé’s download onto your chip. Since there won’t be assistance we can trust on the Kisskalu, we need to continue to attempt to set up a private link on our own. Try again.”

Brad smiled. It was comforting waking up to Shinny’s voice in his head. As well as hearing her voice communication. Brad closed his eyes and furrowed his eyebrows, as he concentrated on sending a message. “Shinny, did you hear anything from me?” It was clear to him as well as frustrating that he wasn’t transmitting anything to her. “What am I supposed to do?”

With a silent sigh, Shinny walked over to Brad and sat next to him on the bed. “I didn’t hear anything from you, but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s something that comes naturally to people who have open links. Medical opened a link for me at the same time as Nan. We can try this another time.” She gently pushed his hair back from his forehead. “How are you feeling?”

Brad was surprised to learn of their link, but considering their current situation he was grateful that someone had planned for their future connection. He realized, looking at Shinny next to him in her underwear, that quite a bit of time must have passed. “I’m feeling better, but still weak. At least I don’t have the urge to throw up at this moment.” Glancing around the room he was confused about their status. “Where are we?”

“We are in my room, sort of,” she answered.

“I don’t understand. Are we on the Zuonopy?”

“No, unfortunately we are still on the Kisskalu, but we are in the same location as my stateroom on the Zuonopy. After you passed out, I needed to get you someplace safe with the air free of the green dust. The information I downloaded showed that while the Aneplé made modifications to Kisskalu’s external structure, they basically left the internal staterooms alone. I came here because I was familiar with the vents and blowers in my room and could clear the dust out of the room.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure what to say.”

“There’s nothing for you to say. You had a violent reaction to the dust. Obviously, you couldn’t help it.”

“It’s odd, since on Earth I wasn’t allergic to anything.”

Shinny shrugged. “I’ve done another search on the pollen. It is strange that there is nothing in my database about the green dust or the plant they are so enamored with. There isn’t much we can do about the dust at this time. It’s pervasive; we will just have to find ways to work around it, like extreme cleaning and primitive isolation chambers.”

Glancing around the room he noted it was in fact clean and odorless, and there appeared to be a section by the door separated by something that looked like plastic wrap. “How long did it take you to clean this room and set up the isolation booth at the door?”

“After I evicted the former occupants, it took me about four days to completely clean the room. The isolation booth helped me by providing an area for me to change out of my contaminated clothes when I left the room.” Shinny answered. “You have been in and out of consciousness for over five days.”

Surprised by the amount of time he had lost, Brad slowly sat up and leaned against the wall to get a better view of the room, grateful for the isolation booth. “Looking around you did an outstanding job. I do not smell anything unusual and the room seems spotless.” He had no memory of the past five days, but it was obvious Shinny had worked extraordinarily hard to clean the room for him, in addition to fighting off who knew how many people trying to stake a claim on this room. “Thank you. I can’t imagine the shape I would be in without this room and your help.”

“Actually, I need to thank you. It was a crazy-assed idea to fly onto the Kisskalu, but they announced three days ago that all of the pods left behind were destroyed and all of the vehicles have been captured.” Shinny gently touched Brad’s arm. “The destruction of the pods is a new tactic and I’m not sure I understand why they would do it, other than to try to demoralize CIG’s Fleet.”

Brad lowered his eyes in response to her news. “I’m sorry, I need a moment.” He was struck by a wave of sadness from hearing all of the pods had been destroyed. For Brad, war and combat had always been an abstract idea or something in a movie. Even when he thought about applying to the Naval Academy, it was about getting a better education, not going to war and possibly getting killed. He was more determined than ever to find a way off the cruiser and protect Earth. He would find a way to mourn the loss of his crewmates later. For now, Shinny and he needed to survive, and then find a way off the Kisskalu as quickly as possible.

Shinny quietly stepped away as Brad drifted back to sleep. He was much better, but he still looked like he needed more rest. She hoped he would be strong enough to walk the next time he woke up. While the room was clean, Shinny had no illusions it was safe now or would ever be truly safe for them in the future to hunker down and stay here. She had been able to leave the room a few times but returning had been time consuming because she needed to undergo a primitive decontamination to thoroughly clean herself and the room each time. She had come up with a plan that would put them in a better position, but it would be better if Brad could walk, in case there was trouble.

[]Chapter 23

 

 

Brad woke up and felt much better. He sat up as Shinny walked toward him with a glass of water. “I’m feeling better and more myself,” he said with a hoarse voice.

Smiling, Shinny sat next to him with the glass in her hand. “You look a lot better. There is more color to your face.” She lifted the glass toward him. “Would you like some water?”

He took the glass and drank. “Thank you, this is hitting the spot.” He finished drinking and handed the glass back to her. “Could you please get me another glass?”

Shinny took the glass from him. “You are definitely doing better.” She crossed to a sink, filled the glass and returned to Brad’s bedside. She handed him the glass of water and sat down next to him.

Brad drank more slowly and looked around, taking in everything. “Okay, let me see if I understand our situation. One man down, completely surrounded, otherwise, you have everything under control.”

“What gave it away?” She asked, keeping with his light banter.

“We are in a clean room, alone in our skivvies. What more can I ask for?” Brad reached around her waist to hold her.

“How about a ride home or the Zuonopy, whichever is closer?” Shinny leaned against him.

“There is that. How bad is our situation?” He had a good idea, but Shinny probably had more specific information.

“Not completely bad, but certainly not good. We need to get off, but the Fleet is leaking enormous amount of operational information.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been using the backdoor access to monitor communications between Kisskalu’s senior officers. Apparently, Connor and Griken have convinced both Headquarters and CIG to return to this nexus fully armed to recover the Kisskalu and pods, if possible. While it is extremely bad that the Aneplé have this information, we at least have knowledge of the Fleet’s planned movements and the Aneplé’s response.”

Brad grimaced, thinking about the implications. “How long before the Zuonopy is expected back?”

“I’m not sure, considering the timing of the information. But it could be anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five days. It depends on how long it takes the Zuonopy to fully arm all of the attached units. On the other hand, the closer time gets to their return, the more likely the spy on the Zuonopy will report and we will have more details on Zuonopy’s return.”

“Is twenty-five days more time than we need or is it cutting it close for us to arrange transportation back to the Zuonopy?” Brad asked. He looked around for his tablet. “Do you know where my tablet is?”

Shinny reached behind Brad, picked up his tablet and handed it to him. “The strangest part about our new friends is while they are weak on their cyber security, their physical security is a completely different story, which will make the acquisition of a vehicle close to impossible for us.”

It only took Brad a few strokes on his tablet to see he was locked out. “I promise I won’t share the backdoor hack with anyone if you send it to me.”

“Mmm, don’t know if you have the clearance. Might require a body search,” Shinny cautioned jokingly as she sent Brad the hack.

“What should I search first? The Kisskalu or my wife?” responded Brad impishly.

“I have a preference, but duty calls,” Shinny reminded him.

He shifted into a more comfortable sitting position and raised an eyebrow. “You did start the conversation.”

“Just wanted to make sure everything was back to normal,” she answered playfully.

Brad rolled his eyes. “Next time you venture into that territory, I’m going to follow up with a recommendation for operational testing,” he warned her, sighing to himself, as he continued to look at the physical security protocols on Kisskalu’s transportation platforms. “Have you been able to conduct reconnaissance on the platforms to verify the information on physical security?”

Shinny nodded. “I was able to do a little, but my focus has been cleaning the room and finding sources of food and water for you that are not tainted.” She stood and walked across the room, picked up a small package and brought it back to Brad. “You need to eat and drink to get your strength up.”

Brad opened the package and groaned aloud at the pinkish blue green crap he learned to hate on the Vetyhym. “Thanks. What about you?”

“I’m fine. There is plenty of food on the Kisskalu and I don’t seem to have an issue with it. I’m not sure why people look like they are starving other than they are eating the plants producing the green pollen instead of nutritional food, as there appears to be plenty of food.”

He lifted the package. “I’m not sure I would call this food. My gut instinct is that you should probably avoid eating the tainted food. I don’t know what’s going on with this plant they love, but what I saw was not normal.”

“You are probably right, but for now there isn’t an alternative for you.” Shinny looked at her tablet. There was never going to be a better time to let him know what she thought they needed to do next. He would not be happy, but she believed they had few choices on their own and none of them offered a realistic chance of a successful outcome. “I have gone through a number of scenarios for us to get off the ship and I don’t think we can do it alone.”

“I know it looks bad, but let me look and maybe we can figure out something together.” Brad continued to eat.

“We can’t do it alone. There is a colony of around fifty Neslins being held as prisoners. More than likely we will be successful if we work with them,” Shinny blurted harshly.

Brad stopped eating and stared at her. “No. We complement each other and can function as a cohesive unit even if there are only the two of us. We will find a way back and don’t need the Neslin colony.” He sighed in response to Shinny’s reaction. “I’ve always thought I would be open-minded about aliens, but the Neslins scare the living hell out of me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable next to an eight-foot primate that looks like a cross between a gorilla and orangutan. You may feel safe next to them, but I don’t.”

Shinny closed her eyes in deliberation. “Brad, there’s more information you need to know. While we might be safe in this room for now, every time I leave, there is a team tracking me. I’ve been able to lose them, but they get better each time. While they follow me, they leave a team behind to watch the room. I’ve been able to lock it with an encryption code, but this room is not safe long-term.” She took a deep breath before she shared the most alarming information. “They’ve already interrogated me a few more times. They wanted more information about Connor’s Gambit. I’ve told them it was named by a trainee as a joke, but they seem to believe there is much more behind it.”

“Why would they think that if they could see from their sensors that you were being truthful?”

“To them, I’m telling the truth as I know it, it doesn’t mean I know everything,” she explained. “As soon as you step out of the room, they are going to ask you similar questions.”

“I’m not going to hide anything. So there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“There shouldn’t be, but there might be if they find out you were the trainee who named it. I’m getting the impression they think it’s a secondary gate to somewhere in the center of CIG space or Aneplé Prime that’s being kept a secret.”

“That’s crazy,” Brad blurted. “Never mind, I need to remember who we’re dealing with,” Brad scoffed, correcting himself.

“Secondly, we have been assigned to units. I may be able to leave and play Aneplé for a while, but you are limited outside this room. If I leave you alone, they will come after you, thinking you know more about Connor’s Gambit. If I stay, then we risk them coming after both of us. They’re serious about throwing people into the recycle bins—I’ve seen it a few times,” she revealed. “There’s no backup for me and despite what people think of Special Combat Officers, we have our limits. In general, most of us prefer to think rather than fight our way out of a bad situation.”

Brad put his meal down and grabbed his tablet. “There has to be a way. Give me more time; I’m certain we can get off the Kisskalu without the Neslins. When do we need to report?”

“In two shifts,” answered Shinny, exasperated by her husband’s stubbornness and irrational fear of the Neslins. She stood up and walked to the bathroom and pulled down the uniforms she had cleaned. Shinny walked back into the room and placed Brad’s uniform next to him.

Brad watched Shinny get dressed. Party’s over, he thought. More than likely her assessment of what they needed to do was spot on, but he wasn’t ready to accept her idea of working with the Neslins yet. “What is the situation on food and water?”

“We’re good on the water. I was able to print a filter along with a few other items.”

Brad raised his eyebrows. “You have access to a 3D printer?”

“Yes, however, they are watching. They have gone back each time to check on what I have printed. I may be able to print a few other things but I don’t want to give them any technology such as my chip shielding technology, nor give them ideas that I’m trying to print a weapon.”

“Agreed. What about the food?”

“There might be more packaged food around the ship, but what I have found will only last you a few weeks. I don’t think you will last long if the only food available is tainted with the pollen. The pollen you saw on the platform is pervasive throughout the Kisskalu.”

He kept searching through the Aneplé databases looking for something that would give them an alternative. It wasn’t looking good at all. It looked like they would need a few more people for support if they were going to grab a Swarm Defender. He stopped and watched Shinny move around the room. If he didn’t know any better he would have thought she was packing for a trip. Realization hit him and he understood what he was seeing. “Have you already decided to move in with the Neslins?”

“I’ve gone through the personnel records and there are a number of people on the Kisskalu I know personally or recognize, including T’Lentic’s brother. I approached a few to see if we could get help from them. I don’t know what has happened to them during their time on the ship, but they are not the people I knew and I would not trust them. They don’t seem to recognize me and all gave me the impression they would happily turn me in for a reward. I trust the Neslins more, except I’m not sure they trust us.”

“What do you think happened to the CIG personnel that they are not the same?”

“It isn’t my area of expertise, but they act as if it is a cross between a cult and being brainwashed. It’s a good thing my appearance is fifteen years older because Major N’Klaftin would have a short shelf life on this ship. Right now, I’m just your average defector.”

“Why are they looking for you?” Brad asked as he stood. He crossed to Shinny and hugged her.

“I’m guessing they want to use me as leverage when dealing with my father. There is no love lost between Connor and the Aneplé. They initiated a significant treaty to get rid of him. Unfortunately, CIG did not realize at that time the Aneplé had no intention of keeping their side of the agreement. If the Aneplé discover your relationship to Connor, you won’t be safe, either.”

Brad chuckled. “Are you saying I’m safe now, confined to a stateroom with thirty thousand Aneplé at the door and close physical contact with one of the Fleet’s fiercest warriors?”

“You have a point, you may not be safe now,” she said smiling, as she wrapped her arms around him and leaned into him.

“We can discuss my safety later, but what agreement did you make with the Neslins?”

“They know we flew onto the Kisskalu and are looking for a way off of the ship. They will work with us and provide assistance on two conditions.”

“Only two?” Brad interjected. “I can’t wait to hear.”

“They will provide you with a protective area and assistance as long as they believe we have not been indoctrinated. And, if we are able to escape, we take two of them with us. The conditions are not unreasonable. But defending the Neslins against your irrational fear will be time consuming and a losing battle for me.”

Brad stood silently, thinking what that meant. “If we have to take two, that would eliminate the Defenders and Vipers because of their size.” He was qualified to fly the transport vehicles, but preferred leaving on something faster and more maneuverable. Beyond those three, he wasn’t sure how much the different vehicles varied. He would have to see what alternatives would be available and discuss it with Travis if he could gain access to a training module.

“I was told that if we could only obtain a small vehicle, then only one would join us. But their preference is to find a way for two,” she explained to him.

“Considering how difficult it looks to obtain a Defender or a Viper, it may not be a bad idea to consider other vehicles,” he responded as he led her back to the bed. “Do you know any of the Neslins?”

“No, I’m not familiar with any of the Neslins on this ship. The database on the Neslins is limited to their physical descriptions. Even if I can’t find more detailed information on any of them, I trust them.

“That seems odd.”

“Not really. By treaty, their personnel records are kept on their home planet,” Shinny explained.

Brad sighed reluctantly, “There doesn’t appear to be any other alternative.”

“Then you’re okay with moving in with the Neslins?” She asked, sitting down next to him.

“Hell no, not at all, but considering how much choice I gave you when we flew onto the Kisskalu, I owe you this. I know you are going to join them no matter what I decide. So I might as well follow your lead.”

“I don’t think we have any other alternative if we are going to get off this ship and back to Earth,” Shinny responded, as she leaned into his embrace.

“The truth is, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But the more research I do on the alternatives, the more uncomfortable I feel staying in this room, so I’ll give you that.” He kissed her neckline toward her ear while brushing her hair back. “The Neslins are physically intimidating and that’s my issue to deal with,” he whispered as he nibbled on her earlobe.

“Mm, Brad, what are you doing?”

“Making full use of this room before we give up our privacy. I think I need to conduct a test on how safe it is to be alone with you in a stateroom.”

Shinny placed her arms around his neck and whispered, “Not very, I guarantee it.”

[]Chapter 24

 

 

Brad, how many bags have you packed?” Shinny transmitted via her chip.

It was the fourth time she had asked him and obviously, she had not received any of his responses through a mental link. “You haven’t heard any of my attempts to respond to you,” Brad voiced, exasperated with his failure to communicate through the link. “I have six bags.”

“It’s probably just as well that you can’t use your chip at this time. The Aneplé will notice your eyes immediately,” she sighed, “We need to keep trying at a later time.”

Brad thought about asking her why was it so important they learn to do this now since they had managed to communicate for thirteen years without the chip, but she looked worn out and weary from preparing for their relocation from the stateroom to the Neslin colony. He was not going to put more stress on her, considering how hard she had worked over the past week keeping him alive. Although he felt close to normal, occasionally he would get a whiff of the green pollen, feel nauseous, and need to sit down to recover, which wasn’t helping their situation. Brad was not looking forward to leaving their room. While confined he felt safe, but, he knew it was an illusion. He trusted Shinny’s assessment that it wasn’t safe to reside in the room any longer than necessary. Yet he couldn’t imagine it would be any safer for him to walk through the toxic air outside the room. Grumbling quietly to himself over their situation, he stared at the mattresses wrapped in plastic covers. “Are you sure you want to take everything that’s not nailed down, including the mattresses?” He understood the need to protect everything from the pollen contamination, but he didn’t understand why they needed to literally strip the room.

“Yes, we take everything. The Neslins asked us to do it. My guess from what I observed when I saw the colony is that they are living on the edge similar to the people we saw on the platforms. So we are scavenging everything possible for them.”

“What exactly is their status? Are they prisoners or aren’t they? I’m not sure I understand how we can be their prisoners, if they are prisoners.”

“According to the Neslins, they are not prisoners, but they are not allowed to leave the Kisskalu and all vehicles capable of easily carrying them have been destroyed. Meanwhile, they are restricted as to what they can do or where they can go on the Kisskalu. So they are essentially prisoners.”

“I’m not sure I understand why the Aneplé even bother keeping them on the ship. This may sound crude, but it seems odd they allow the Neslins to have a colony but think nothing of destroying CIG’s pods, throwing people into the recycling bins, or shooting individuals at point blank.” Brad’s gut clenched when he said that, but Shinny looked like she took it better than he did. “Sorry, I should not have brought it up.”

Shinny shrugged. “I’m fine. I knew the praser was empty. It isn’t the first time I’ve been shot at. At least I got the message I will need to wear my armor at all times. I’ll send you an article on the Aneplé’s invasion of the Neslin System. It wasn’t pretty for either side. The Aneplé lost a tremendous number of people and space vehicles. On the other hand, the Neslins did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory without CIG’s Fleet assistance. It’s a similar situation here. The Aneplé are concerned that one Neslin death would result in the disabling or destruction of the Kisskalu. The Neslins are not ready to start a mutiny unless they can escape. They believe the colony would need to be three to four times bigger for a mutiny to be successful. As an alternative they would accept getting two of their people off of the Kisskalu.”

Brad questioned why just two, but he doubted they shared anything important with her. “Why don’t the Aneplé just drop them off somewhere?”

“The Aneplé are limited to where they can drop the Neslins off. The Neslins have a low tolerance for the pollen. They refuse to be sent to an Aneplé planet, and the Aneplé are afraid to force them. Their reaction to the pollen is not as bad as yours and it takes a while before they succumb physically. They need to be on a planet where the plant is not grown and there is no pollen in the air. Considering how attached the Aneplé are to their Zorchkrisck plants, I doubt if there is a habitable planet free of the plant.”

“It would seem to me that it would be easier for the Aneplé to just let the Neslins return home.”

“At this point, the issue may be the Aneplé do not want CIG to know about the green pollen, the destruction of the pods, and their starvation of the colonists. Although the Aneplé have been successful so far in expanding their domain, I think they are concerned over the reaction the news might cause.” Shinny stared into an opened cabinet in the kitchenette. She ran her hand across the shelf, searching for more items to take with them.

“Point taken,” he said, watching her open and close doors and drawers. They needed to leave. It was the fourth time she checked the cabinets. “When are we leaving?”

“As soon as you are ready.”

“Huh, wha…,” he stumbled over his words in surprise, stopping himself before he said something he would regret. He’s been ready for a while and waiting for her to finish her rechecking. He wasn’t sure if Shinny was nervous or exhausted but her behavior seemed more disorganized than usual, as if she was concerned she was forgetting something important. Brad wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against him. “I’m ready. The decision to join the Neslins may be as crazy-assed as flying onto the cruiser, but I agree this move may be the only viable option for now. It’ll give us the space and time we need to figure out our next steps.”

“Thank you. I needed to hear that from you. It’s too bad we can’t just stand here wrapped in each other’s arms and forget the rest of the universe outside our door. But, if we are going to see Dane again, we need to leave,” she sighed, hugging him. “You’re almost ready.” Shinny pulled away and walked over to the counter to pick up a package. She brought the package back to Brad and handed it to him. “It’s a hazmat suit with an air filter. It should allow you to walk out of here on your own. I printed four suits. My guess is that as soon as the Aneplé see you use it, they will restrict my access to the 3-D printers, so you will need to use them judiciously.”

“You’re probably right about not being able to print any more suits.” He unfolded the package and turned the suit, looking for a slit to step into. Finding the opening, he stepped into it and pulled the plastic suit over his shoulders. “Thanks, this’ll solve one problem for me. I was worrying over how I would fly a vehicle off the cruiser if I had to be carried to it after passing out.”

“I wasn’t thinking that far in advance, but I’m glad I printed a few extra suits. Unfortunately, these are only good for one use.” She stood at his side. “If you raise your hands and turn around I’ll check the seals at your sides and on the back.” She ran her hands along the seams to ensure the suit’s integrity had not been breached. “Although the suit is crudely made and thin, it should be sufficient for the short distance we are going.” She finished running her fingers along the seams, “I’ll let Wesgwidy know that we are ready.”

“Who is Wesgwidy?”

“Wesgwidy is the colony’s senior Neslin. She will be escorting us with a team to their spaces,” Shinny explained as she walked toward the isolation booth. “Help me tear this down and get it out of the way.”

Brad pulled the booth apart with Shinny and laid the sections against the wall, clearing the doorway. He hated tearing her work down, but it was all part of moving on. “Do you think the Neslins will want any of these materials?”

“Probably not, considering it will be contaminated once they step in,” she replied as she stacked her pieces against the wall.

“When will they be here?” he asked, just as a loud thud, thud came from the door.

Shinny gestured the door open. “Welcome, Wesgwidy. We are ready to join your colony.”

Shinny stepped aside to allow the Neslin to enter. As the Neslin entered, Brad choked on the air he was breathing with an audible gasp while his heart rapidly pounded as he slowly backed up. The pumpkin orange being with a green tint had to be well over eight feet tall. Even though it was wearing a tattered Fleet Technician uniform, it was the largest primate he had ever seen in person. Brad was scared beyond belief. He was having trouble containing his fear and continued to step back as three more Neslins almost as large as the first one appeared through the thick cloud of dust creeping into the room and stood behind the first Neslin. Brad backed up more and jumped in surprise as he touched the wall on the opposite side of the room.

Brad, get a grip!” Shinny screamed in his head.

“Uh, sorry, seeing the dust set me on edge,” he stuttered, hoping they would not catch his true fear.

Wesgwidy looked at the male humanoid across the room. The male was cowering and sweating. She turned toward the major in disbelief that he had been the one who was brave enough to fly a vehicle onto the Aneplé Battle Cruiser. “This is your pilot?” She asked Shinny. “Did I make a mistake trusting you? He doesn’t appear ready to fly anywhere,” she growled.

“Yes, Pilot Brad Johnson is also my mate. He is trustworthy. He is wearing an isolation suit because of his severe allergy to the pollen. A small tear in the suit could incapacitate him.” Shinny motioned toward Brad to join them. Feeling Brad at her side she gestured toward each of the Neslins as she introduced them, “Brad, I’d like you to meet the Neslin’s colony leader Wesgwidy, her first officer Yancurve, Gleprony, and Ravelstan.”

Brad was going to have to come up with something to identify each one if he was going to remember their names. Shinny had referred to Wesgwidy with a feminine pronoun, but looking at the group, he couldn’t tell who was female or male. They all looked more or less the same in their dilapidated technician uniforms. All seemed to be gaunt and somewhat scraggly. He noted to himself to be careful, since he didn’t know what would anger a Neslin. Anyway, he thought, the big one was Wesgwidy. Yancurve, who was almost as large as Wesgwidy, had a left ear that was clipped; Gleprony’s coloring was almost brownish orange and sported a mole on a cheek; and finally Ravelstan looked like a friar with a light golden orange colored fur. He wasn’t sure if the baldness was a style, an illness or genetic, but he wasn’t going to be stupid and ask. He looked at each Neslin one more time and when he felt he could identify these individuals in a lineup, he cautiously stuck his hand out toward Wesgwidy to shake her very large hand. “Wesgwidy, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Wesgwidy tilted her head at the outstretched arm in front of her, “Do you have a medical issue with your arm? Our medical capabilities are limited.”

Brad pulled his arm back. “My arm is fine. Offering one’s empty weapon hand is a way we greet each other on my planet. I apologize if I offended you.”

“Interesting, perhaps when there is more time we can discuss cultural exchanges,” Wesgwidy rumbled. She turned to her team. “Take everything we discussed.” She turned back to the major. “There is a security detail outside this room. After my team has gathered everything, Gleprony and Ravelstan will leave first with me following, then your pilot and you; Yancurve will take the rear position. Do you have any questions?”

Shinny nodded. “We’re ready.” She picked up four large bags and handed them to Brad. Grabbing another four, she slung them over her left shoulder, keeping her right hand free. She watched the Neslins pick up the remaining bundles and begin leaving the room. Shinny followed Wesgwidy through the door with Brad behind her at her back. As soon as she stepped out of the room she saw an Aneplé security detail standing against the wall opposite of the stateroom’s doorway. After Brad stepped out of the room, Commander Plity Nerunder, nicknamed “Junkyard Dog,” approached Shinny.

The Neslins standing nearby with their arms loaded with various items from the room appeared to make Nerunder visibly nervous as if she would have preferred to patrol the Transportation Room’s platforms rather than confront the Neslins. Stepping closer to Shinny, she said, “You have not caused any problems. The Command Authority has determined that you are not CIG and you are non-threatening It is time for you and the other Johnson to report to your units and be integrated into the crew. We are always in need of new pilots to defend the community.”

Time definitely did not mellow the junkyard dog’s appearance. If anything she looked more angular, Brad thought. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say but he was feeling well enough to take her on, even with the heavy layer of green particles floating around them. He stepped forward to confront the Aneplé officer in defiance.

Wesgwidy quickly stepped in front of the Aneplé Security Officer, glaring at her. “Commander, these two individuals are our prisoners. They are coming with us.”

The security officer appeared stunned by the Neslin’s action and statement. She backed away out of reach in response to the angry look on Wesgwidy’s face. “Did you say prisoners? You can’t have prisoners. The agreement signed between the ship’s Command Authority and Neslins includes a mutual agreement for Neslins to not interfere with the ship’s operation and security.”

“Why not? You have prisoners. We are not interfering with your security or operations. The signed agreement states that the Neslins have the same rights and privileges as the Aneplé, except those rights and privileges specifically listed as exemptions. Specifically, we have agreed to not harm or detain members of the Aneplé community. We are taking these CIG Fleet members as our prisoners, since the agreement does not bar the Neslin colony from having CIG prisoners.”

Nerunder backed up more. “You have abused the terms of the agreement. The Command Authorities will not support your interpretation.”

“The Command Authority can renegotiate the agreement or return us to Neslin,” Wesgwidy growled loudly in fury.

The security officer jumped back and snapped, “Your transport vehicles have been recycled; we have no way of returning you.”

“That may be true, but both my colony and I are angered when you continue to repeat the same false explanations. Couldn’t you come up with something new, like the truth? The Aneplé do not want us to return, otherwise a vehicle could be printed for us to return home. There is no reason for us to stay. We will not become Aneplé and this ship makes us sick,” Wesgwidy roared.

Nerunder slinked further back. “You have been informed we are at war and do not have excess materials to print a vehicle for your colony. This incident will be reported to the Command Authorities.” She turned toward her team. “Follow me,” she ordered, as she walked quickly out of the Neslins’ reach with her team following her.

Brad almost laughed, watching Junkyard dog’s cowering reaction, except he’d been there. He found the exchange between Wesgwidy and the Aneplé Commander interesting. The more the commander cowered, the more dismissive Wesgwidy became. He couldn’t blame the Neslin either for taking advantage of her position of physical strength; he would have done the same. It was equally interesting that Wesgwidy referred to an agreement and wondered if she was a lawyer. “Are you a legal administrator?” What in the world was he thinking, asking the Neslin that question? The look on Shinny’s face asked him the same thing.

Wesgwidy made eye contact with him. “Please don’t ever let my mother hear you ask that of me.”

Brad heard what sounded like laughing from the other Neslins. He hadn’t meant to make a joke, but obviously they had the same low regard for lawyers as most people on Earth did. At least the ice was broken. He raised his arms as if surrendering. “I won’t tell your mother if you don’t tell mine.”

Wesgwidy laughed with the others on her team. “We may have a few things in common we can discuss when there is nothing pointing at our backs.

“Gleprony, lead us back to the colony.” Wesgwidy immediately followed Gleprony’s rapid pace down the hallways toward their spaces.

Brad jogged behind Wesgwidy, feeling more comfortable having the Neslins both in front of them and at their backs. “Wesgwidy, do you think they will return with a larger force?”

Wesgwidy turned and saw the pilot and major running to keep up with her. She slowed down slightly and walked next to them as she talked. “It’s unlikely she will return today, but they will definitely make it harder for you to leave our spaces when you begin your search for a vehicle to leave the Kisskalu.”

Brad nodded in agreement. “I’m not even sure I’ll find something that two Neslins will fit into.”

“We’re aware of the issue. If you can only take one of us, we will be satisfied.” Wesgwidy replied.

“Who? You?” Brad asked.

“Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak,” Wesgwidy answered.

“What a-huh?” Brad was about to ask her to repeat, but stopped when they came to a glassed in area with several Neslins either propped against the walls or stanchions or lying down. All of the Neslins he had seen in the past were various shades of orange ranging from a light shade of golden orange to a bright pumpkin orange. Inside he saw a smaller, dark burgundy Neslin about his size, with the sleeves and pants of its uniform rolled up, leaning against the wall. This must be what a juvenile looks like, he thought. He also noticed the haggard appearance of the other Neslins in comparison to Wesgwidy’s team ,“Are they alright?” Brad asked.

Wesgwidy stopped next to Brad. “It’s our most protected isolation unit. The dust makes us sick, also. But it varies widely with each individual. People rotate in and out of the unit to reduce their exposure to this foul air, depending upon their level of tolerance. For those who have been on the ship longest, it is harder each time to recover because of the combination of the exposure and limited supply of untainted food.”

Brad stepped closer to the glass and stared in. A number of the Neslin looked too thin with bones jutting and somewhat mangy, missing more hair than Ravelstan. He realized then Ravelstan had either just recovered or might be fighting going into the isolation unit. Brad turned and looked up toward Wesgwidy. “Thank you for explaining. I think I have a better understanding. We have some food and can share it.”

“We appreciate your generosity. We will hold off as long as possible. Some of us would prefer to skip a meal rather than subject ourselves to the CIG’s packaged meals.”

Brad laughed at her comment. “I sympathize with you. I can’t imagine being raised on that glop nor do I understand why it’s so popular.”

Wesgwidy narrowed her eyes as she looked at Brad. “You’re the first CIG pilot I’ve met to not salivate over just talking about those packages.”

Brad, don’t,” Shinny warned through the chip.

Brad leaned toward Shinny. “Don’t worry, no state secrets,” he explained in English. He turned toward Wesgwidy. “I was raised on a planet on the edge and am fairly new to the CIG’s Fleet.”

“That clarifies a few things. I didn’t recognize the language,” Wesgwidy remarked. She waited for him to say more, but that was all she was going to hear for now. “Leave your bags here. Ravelstan will escort you into the isolation unit.”

Brad gave Shinny a hug as she sent him a message she would join him as soon as she finished helping the Neslins where she could. “I know. Love you, see you soon,” Brad whispered to her.

[]Chapter 25

 

 

Brad finished going through decontamination and stepped into the convalescence room with Ravelstan. He stood out as the only human in the room. Not only that, it was apparent he wasn’t welcomed to join them. Most of the inhabitants acknowledged Ravelstan then turned away to avoid looking at him. He couldn’t blame them. They were basically in a prison hospital with little hope of ever leaving the prison. They probably viewed him as more Aneplé than CIG. Leaning toward Ravelstan, he whispered, “Where should I sit or lie down?”

Ravelstan pointed to a box placed against the wall. “Your rations and personal items are in that box.” As he nodded that he understood, she walked toward an empty spot on a wall near the small burgundy Neslin. “Mother instructed me to introduce you to Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak. Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak will be your primary passenger.”

“Wesgwidy is your mother?” Brad asked, surprised by Ravelstan’s statement.

“For now she is. Come, follow me so you can meet Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak,” Ravelstan said as she walked toward the burgundy Neslin.

What the heck did she mean Wesgwidy was her mother for now? He would have to wait and ask Shinny later because Ravelstan appeared to be ready to dump him on the kid or dump the kid on him. He wasn’t sure which was correct and it didn’t matter, he just needed to get the kid back to CIG space. He wondered who the crazy parent was to drag their child into an area the Aneplé threatened. He started trying to pronounce the name as smoothly as Wesgwidy and Ravelstan. “Ferklopy Nan Dogsgak, no Fergie Nan Dostergweky, no Ferko Nan Dogak, damn it, Fernando.”

The burgundy Neslin looked up. “Ravelstan, are you leaving this butcher with me?”

“What are you talking about? The Aneplé butchers are out there,” Brad snapped while pointing out of the glassed area.

“I’m referring to you, CIG butcher, who can’t seem to pronounce my name correctly.”

Son-of-a-bitch, they stuck me with a spoiled brat, Brad thought. “Fernando is the best I’m going to do. If you don’t like it, tell Wesgwidy to find another pilot.”

“Fernando, and don’t butcher that. Frankly, I would be surprised if you could find a way off this ship. We’ve been looking for six months.”

“Stay out of my way and let me do my job.” Brad looked for Ravelstan to help him find another place to camp out. It was weird that everyone had backed off from them, cowering. What was with them? Scanning the room, he couldn’t see Ravelstan or another good spot to claim other than next to Fernando. Resigned that he was going to have to put up with the brat, he grabbed his plaid blanket from the box and wrapped it around himself. Brad sat a few feet away from the kid and leaned against the wall. Closing his eyes, he drifted off to sleep.

Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak stared at the obnoxious human. Frustrated with his situation, he ground his teeth. Between Fernando and technician, both labels were bad. It was bad enough having to wear the oversized uniform with the sleeves and pants rolled up but he was concerned the title technician from the CIG pilot would continue to chip away at the colony’s morale. For the time being, he would tolerate the human.

 

 

Fernando had sat next to the Fleet pilot for almost a full shift. He questioned Wesgwidy’s decision and wondered what she had committed them to doing. Wesgwidy seemed to think the pilot might be able to get him off of the Kisskalu. So far he was not impressed with the pilot and thought the man might be one of Nerunder’s spies. There would be no leaving if he was a spy. Fernando would watch for signs indicating the pilot was a threat and discuss the situation with Wesgwidy. It annoyed him that Wesgwidy decided to work with the two CIG personnel without discussing it with him. Looking into the swirling green dust beyond the glass enclosure, his curiosity was piqued. “Pilot, who is Mother talking to? She looks familiar.”

Brad wanted to ignore the kid, but he was curious who was its mother. He tipped his head and didn’t see anybody talking to anyone in the room. Outside the room was a different story. Maybe if he ignored the kid, it would go away. Brad pulled his blanket around his shoulders and went back to reading the information on his tablet.

“Pilot, I asked you a question. Who is she? She looks familiar.”

Brad looking up again and did not see anything different. “I don’t know what you are referring to. Let me get back to work,” he demanded as he swiped through a few pages.

Fernando reached over and grabbed the pilot’s shoulder, growled angrily, “Your tone and arrogance is intolerable. I won’t ask politely the next time. Who is the Fleet Officer Mother is talking to?” He pointed outside the enclosure. “She looks familiar.”

Brad was annoyed with the kid and would talk to its mother. The kid was in no position to refer to an adult’s arrogance. Even though it was smaller than the other Neslins, he was definitely not interested in getting into a fight with a hotheaded kid, male or female, who was about the same size as him. “Wesgwidy is your mother?” Perhaps he could talk to Ravelstan about controlling her sibling’s rudeness.

“Yes, Wesgwidy is Mother. What about the female next to her?”

Shinny hadn’t mentioned personally knowing anyone in the colony and he wasn’t going to volunteer anything. “That’s Shinny Johnson, my mate.”

Fernando sat quietly thinking about that. “Shinny Johnson is not a name I’m familiar with, but she reminds me of someone.”

“She’s my mate. She hasn’t mentioned that she knows any Neslins on this ship.”

“Your mate looks like a Special Combat Officer,” Fernando noted, staring at Shinny.

Brad’s heart rate increased. “What do you mean? She was my second seat when we flew onto the Kisskalu.”

“Second seat doesn’t mean anything. Her stance is giving it away. In addition, there aren’t many people who could hold their own against Mother like your mate is doing right now. It’s a good thing they are on friendly terms. Mother may have met her match,” Fernando said jokingly. He watched the pilot stare at the CIG Officer on the other side of the glass enclosure. “I can smell you sweating. Apparently, you are not a spy; probably an average CIG idiot who flew onto the Kisskalu as a dare. Nevertheless, I won’t say anything to the Aneplé. Neslins owe a debt to CIG.”

Brad was concerned that the little Neslin’s keen observation picked out Shinny’s profession, putting her one step closer to being imprisoned by the Aneplé. He was relieved the Neslin said it wouldn’t rat on Shinny, but he still didn’t know who or what to trust. “Thanks,” Brad responded, hoping there would not be any further discussion on Shinny’s stance.

“How long has she been your mate?” Fernando asked.

“About four solar years,” Brad answered, thinking it was an odd question from a kid.

“When I get out of here, I’ll find a mate.”

“Huh, seems like you might want to wait until you’re older,” Brad advised, comparing Fernando’s smaller stature to the other Neslins. He wondered when the kid would hit its full growth.

“I’ve held Mother and Father off long enough. They are anxious for me to start a family. After this, I won’t hear the end of it until I have a mate.” Fernando shifted its position, bending its knees and holding them, staring into the room as it watched the other Neslins.

Brad was unsure how he should respond to Fernando. He had no sympathy for the kid, even if it had nagging parents. Even his own parents had dropped annoying hints to him when it came to Shinny. But maybe there was some sort of odd Neslin mating tradition going on that its mother was pushing to get Fernando off the ship. The more he thought about it, the stranger the situation appeared. “Do your parents have someone in mind for you?”

“Of course not, we are civilized; arranged marriages have been outlawed for centuries,” Fernando explained. “I’ve been thinking about it, but there is pressure in choosing the right person.”

“There always is, but it isn’t something you rush either,” Brad responded while he viewed the information on one of the colony platforms, wondering if there was a way they could disguise themselves and steal one of the transport vehicles, since security seemed more lax. Then again the reports on the colonists left a lot of questions about their sanity and the conditions of the vehicles.

“There’s pressure for me to choose a mother. But since spending time here, I’ve thought about Ravelstan. She has potential. I don’t know if she’s not ready or just not interested, but she’s been avoiding me.”

Brad stared at Fernando in disbelief. “That is disgusting. First your mother then your sister? You’ve been on this ship too long if you’re considering incest. No wonder your mother wants you off the ship.”

Fernando jumped into a standing position, grabbing Brad’s shirt in rage and pulling him to his feet. “What are you talking about? No one is engaging in any incest on this ship, at least not in this colony. I can’t speak for the Aneplé.”

“What do you expect me to think when both Ravelstan and you refer to Wesgwidy as mother?” Brad retorted. He pulled Fernando’s hand away from his chest. “Get your hand off of me.”

Shinny saw the two males grabbing each other through the glass wall. She couldn’t hear what was being said, but the angry expression on Brad’s face prompted her to intervene. She ran for the decontamination room.

Wesgwidy took in the same scene and ran to Shinny’s side. “Major, you need to let them work out their differences.”

Shinny was conflicted but didn’t need to anger another Neslin. She stopped and nodded in agreement, hoping it was the right thing to do. She wasn’t sure Brad would hear her but she yelled at him through her chip. “Brad, what the hell are you doing? Back off now.

“Ouch,” Brad yelled, grabbing his head with his hands while bending over in pain.

“What is your issue now? I didn’t hit you,” Fernando scoffed.

“My mate just yelled into my head to back off,” moaned Brad, as he slowly stood straight ignoring the pain in his head, facing Fernando.

“Smart woman. Are you going to back off? Because you are becoming increasingly insufferable.”

“It depends. What have I misinterpreted that’s going on between Wesgwidy and you? Whose mother is she?”

The Neslin narrowed his eyes at Brad. “The more important question is who are you and where are you from? Because if you were CIG, you would know the answer.”

Brad stood staring at the Neslin, weighing his options. “Shinny will kill me if she finds out I shared my story with you.” Although Brad didn’t know what type of Neslin Fernando was because physically he was different looking than the other Neslins, he decided Fernando was a male. He also became aware he had made a mistake misjudging Fernando’s age because of his smaller stature. He definitely was not a juvenile. “I will tell you if you share with me what’s going on.” Fernando nodded and Brad trusted he would keep his side of the agreement. “I was recruited recently from an observed planet. My mate was assigned to my planet as a personal guard for someone there. After I learned she was an alien originating from somewhere other than my planet, I was recruited to the Fleet and qualified as a Swarm Defender pilot.” He felt his bones vibrate and heartbeat pounding in fear from the Neslin’s response to his honesty.

“If you are a Swarm Defender pilot, wasn’t there at least one Neslin attached to the squadron?” Fernando asked gruffly.

Brad was uncomfortable with his back against the wall and nowhere to run. It wasn’t that he wanted to run, but he was not sure how Fernando would accept what he was about to explain. He was reconciled he might as well tell his story, since it would come out if Nan recommended welcoming Earth into CIG. He swallowed nervously before he started. “Truthfully, working with the Neslins runs counter to how I have been raised on my planet. It’s been a struggle for me to not run as fast as I can in the opposite direction each time I encounter one of you. Wesgwidy is the first Neslin with whom I have had a conversation and it’s been unnerving. It was a bit easier with you, because I thought you were a juvenile. That was my mistake, and I apologize for that.” Fernando’s expression appeared to soften, but Brad wasn’t going to repeat the mistake of assuming anything when it came to Fernando. “The Neslins resemble other primate species on my planet. I’m not sure which is closer — gorilla or orangutan — but both seem like they could be distant relatives. While they’re known for being smart and considered problem solvers, they haven’t evolved to the same degree in areas of creating and using tools; communications and social skills are primitive. They don’t even know how to start or control fires.” Out of the corner of his eye he watched Fernando nod as he followed the explanation. “Any that live near humans are kept in tightly controlled areas for both their safety and ours. The first time Shinny saw a group of orangutans in one such area she became outraged because of their resemblance to Neslins. I didn’t understand her concerns then but, obviously, I do now. Emotionally, it’s been hard for me to not run in the opposite direction each time I face a new Neslin.”

Fernando made an unrecognizable sound. “That explains a lot about you. Someone in the universe has a sick sense of humor. We have a species on Neslin named Santopals, physically resembling standard CIG biped forms, about quarter of your size, vicious, yet similarly smart and primitive as you described your gorillas and orangutans that also need to be kept in controlled areas. This will probably keep the xeno-biologists busy for decades.”

“That might be true only if my planet is taken off of observation status. Both gorillas and orangutans are protected species. The disappearance of two would be noticed.” Brad ran his hand through his hair and met Fernando’s gaze. “You still owe me an explanation.”

“If you had spent time with the Neslins in your squadron, you would have learned that Neslins are a matriarchal society. The senior female is referred to as Mother. There’s one Mother and other females are known as Little Mothers. Wesgwidy is my cousin and would never be an acceptable mate because of the close family relationship. My biological mother and father would prefer me to choose a mate who has the status of Mother. Ravelstan is young but has potential. However, being stuck on this ship hasn’t helped anyone.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but why do you look different from the others?”

“It’s a rude question, but considering your background, I’ll let it pass this time. However, the next time you think it’s rude, don’t ask. Look it up or ask your mate. The other Neslins are females. If there were other males you would see I fit within normal ranges. There are a number of male Neslins in the Fleet, but most males prefer not to travel and to stay in the home system.”

Brad leaned toward Fernando and whispered, “Why is everyone cowering behind you?”

Fernando quickly peeked behind him and turned back to Brad. “Instinctive. It may be a matriarchal society, but a smart mother stays out of the crossfire between two males. It may have evolved as a protective measure since the females have the physical advantage.”

“Would you have hurt me?” Brad asked.

“No. I wouldn’t have hurt you, but if I thought you were Aneplé, you would be dead.” Fernando chuckled.

Okay, this doesn’t make my life any easier. Fernando may not be an adolescent, but now he was a bigger pain in the ass, Brad thought as he sat down against the wall with Fernando following him.

[]Chapter 26

 

 

Brad spent the next few days focused on the tedious search for a vehicle. The information available in the database was often sketchy or incomplete. The Aneplé for the most part were either incompetent or incapable of running a battle cruiser, yet somehow they managed and retained a formidable force that had been able to overturn the allegiance of several planetary systems and absorb and assimilate CIG Fleet personnel. The incongruity the Aneplé presented baffled him. What was going on? he asked himself, as he leaned back against the wall. Brad went back to studying the vehicles on Platform 32 and the physical security assigned to each vehicle. While he had no specific information on the Zuonopy’s return to the nexus, he was sure the wait would not be much longer. He needed to find a vehicle soon. There was so much work to do he needed help with his search, if they were going to be ready to leave when the Zuonopy returned. He sent an encrypted message to Shinny and observed her through the glass wall with dust swirling around her. He watched her say something to Wesgwidy then look at her tablet. She replied and reattached her tablet to her waist.

Brad’s tablet vibrated. He opened her message and read, I’m running reconnaissance. Ask Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak to help you with your search.

Brad closed his eyes, trying to think that one out. That was another reason he wanted to leave. She was finding more and more excuses to spend time running around in the plant pollen. He was worried about the effect the dust was having on her. She talked about how it was having a calming effect, but she was becoming more edgy and disorganized. In addition, he was also uncomfortable knowing the Aneplé had approached Shinny a few more times asking more questions about Connor’s Gambit, even with her Neslin escorts. He turned his head toward Fernando, trying to put aside what he thought about him. Fernando had left him alone over the past few days, probably once he decided Brad wasn’t an Aneplé spy. He could ask him for help, but what did he know about Fernando? Would it be worth the trouble to train him or should he just try to slug it out on his own? The more Brad tried to decide if he should ask Fernando for his help, the more he realized how little he knew about the Neslin man.

“Fernando, why are you here?”

Fernando was still staring out into the convalescence room. “I was traveling back to my home planet in a transport vehicle with a group returning home. The vehicle was attacked and disabled exiting a transit gate. The vehicle had no weapons and we were considering going into hibernation pods. However, before the crew could implement the protocols, the vehicle was pulled onto the Kisskalu. My group has been here for six months, but others for much longer.”

“Were they surprised when they saw the passengers?”

“It seemed to me they were aware there were Neslins onboard, but it also seemed like they believed someone important was also onboard.”

“Was there someone important?” Brad asked. It couldn’t be a coincidence, that the Aneplé had specific information on two different Fleet operations.

“Not really, but when it looked like it was going to get nasty, someone stepped forward and claimed to be a Neslin Princess.”

“Was she?” Brad asked.

“No, but having her step forward, claiming to be a Neslin Princess has made it easier for everyone but her.” He pointed across the room to a curled bundle. “I asked her why she did it and she explained to me that one day it would be a good story to tell her offspring, about her days as a princess. When we escape from here, she will be recognized for her bravery.”

“Bravery? I don’t understand.”

“Nerunder and her minions invite her to talk to them every two to three days. She goes willingly and is tortured.”

Brad paled learning of the Aneple’s treatment of one of the Neslins, “I don’t understand. I thought there was an agreement. Are they violating it?”

Fernando sighed. “They’re not violating it, but they are intentionally doing everything they can to make life hard for her and us. She is sick because she has been eating the plant. My guess is the Aneplé have been feeding her concentrated toxins from the plant.”

Brad shivered, thinking it wouldn’t take much to kill him. “Why is she eating it?”

“Because if she doesn’t, they threaten to disable our air filters, and stop filtering our water and our limited food supply, along with doing a few other things that would quickly destroy the colony.”

“I don’t understand. If she’s not a Neslin princess, why haven’t the Aneplé caught her in a lie?” Brad wondered if the Neslins were immune to the sensor readers.

Fernando smiled. “Because Kevex Lorsorin didn’t lie. Kevex means ‘princess’ in Neslin. It’s possible that if the Aneplé ask more detailed questions, they might figure it out, but they haven’t in six months. As far as I’m concerned Kevex’s conduct has been more deserving of the title than a number of past Neslin princesses. We are fortunate to have her as part of the colony.”

Brad considered the explanation. The name mix-up would be humorous except there was nothing funny with how the Aneplé were treating Kevex. Thinking more about the puzzle sitting next to him, Brad asked, “Why is Wesgwidy so intent on getting you out?”

“It’s a combination of a debt owed to my parents and wanting to protect the male. Because that’s what Wesgwidy wants, all of the Little Mothers are supporting her on this. I have some influence with this colony, but not on this issue. If it was up to me, I would send either Ravelstan or Kevex back with you.”

Wow, he must have it bad for Ravelstan, Brad thought. Hearing Fernando state a preference for others to leave before him raised Brad’s opinion of him. “What do you think will happen if no one is able to leave?”

Fernando turning his attention toward Wesgwidy, who was standing outside the glass wall. “The Aneplé need to be careful. Wesgwidy may reach a point where she decides there is no other choice but to fight her way off. It probably won’t make a difference for the colony, but the impact will be as devastating for the Aneplé on this ship as it was for them when they were on the Neslin planet.”

From the little Brad had seen and heard, the Aneplé didn’t deserve a second thought, but he did not want to see the colony hurt more. If he could get a few more Neslins off then maybe a rescue could be mounted for the rest. “Fernando, what did you do in the Fleet?”

“Same as you, and whatever I was told to do.”

Gee, that was so unhelpful and just when I was beginning to like the little guy. Silly me to think he might have changed for the better, thought Brad. Having no other choice he asked, “Could you help me search the transportation platforms for a vehicle?”

“I’ll help. Let me know when you want to leave and I’ll ask Wesgwidy for escorts.”

“Why would we need escorts?”

“You are slow and dense. The Aneplé will not let us wander far without the Little Mothers escorting us to a place where we can view the platforms.”

Brad bristled at Fernando’s description of him. Fernando probably thought he was sitting here playing games on his tablet for the past few days. “We don’t need to go anywhere. I’ve been accessing the databases looking at the vehicles on the platforms, security details, and maintenance records. We just need a vehicle that will get us off the ship and a plan to circumvent security.”

A surprised look appeared on Fernando’s face, “I’m impressed. I have been wondering why you were waiting so long to start the search and when you would need our help. I had no idea you were searching through the ship’s databases. How did you gain access to their databases?”

Brad chuckled at the misunderstanding. “Shinny used a backdoor code to hack the systems. I can’t share her backdoor hacking with you, but I’ll give you the passwords and encryption codes.”

“If I have that information, I can search with you. I am teachable. In fact, depending upon the work you require, I may be able to recruit some of the Little Mothers to work with us.” Fernando motioned with his head toward the center of the room.

After Fernando received the codes and instructions from Brad, he picked up where Brad had left off searching the platforms with the Aneplé colonists. “Pilot, it looks like I’m not finding anything different than you did on these platforms. Considering the ill-kept condition of the transport vehicles on the colonists’ platforms, do you think it’s wise to continue searching this area of the ship? I think it’s a waste.”

“Honestly, I’m not sure what the wisest course of action is, but I don’t want to assume all of the vehicles on the colonists’ platforms have mechanical issues, especially when I might be able to get more than two or three Neslins off the ship,” Brad explained.

“Considering I completely missed what you were doing, it may in fact be the smartest thing to do at this time. Have you given any thought as to who would fly the transport vehicle?”

“I’m qualified to fly these as well as Swarm Defenders. Your pilot who flew your vehicle can be second seat.” Brad would have preferred Shinny because he trusted her, but having a Neslin as second seat might make the operation easier. He didn’t know if a vehicle full of Neslins was easier or harder than herding cats, but at least there would be a Neslin in charge of them.

“Won’t happen. Kevex was our pilot. We will be lucky if she can walk on the day we leave.”

“If you want to get her off, Wesgwidy needs to stall the Aneplé to reduce the poisoning. What about the second seat pilot?”

“It’s a Wesgwidy issue at this time.”

“What does that mean?” Brad waited for Fernando to answer, but whatever it meant, it looked like he wasn’t going to get an answer. “Shinny can function in the second seat position. This might be a good time to bring someone new into the search. As each new Neslin is brought on to help, I only ask that you coordinate it with me. We need to ensure the platforms are being covered systematically and not dropped from the search.”

“Agree, that makes sense. All of the searches will be coordinated with you,” Fernando repeated as he looked into the room for someone to join them.

Brad watched as Fernando stood and walked over to Ravelstan, who was looking better with her hair growing back. He sent a message to Fernando’s tablet that he was being too obvious. Brad doubled over in laughter at the face Fernando gave him.

[]Chapter 27

 

 

Brad returned from his break and sat down next to Fernando, who now led a team of six Neslins searching with him since he started recruiting two days ago. So far they had found a few possibilities; however, none were ideal. At least the progress made up for his slow start. “Fernando, I’m curious, how did you search for vehicles before we arrived?”

“I would take a couple of escorts to the bicycle track and ride. During the breaks, I looked at the platforms. It was the only way we could physically view the vehicles, since we didn’t have access to the databases. Observing the platforms from the track was safe, since the Aneplé don’t use the track.”

Brad tried to imagine the Neslin on a bike but couldn’t get a handle on it. “I didn’t know Neslins rode bikes. I didn’t see any on the Zuonopy riding.”

“A few of us do. It’s more of an issue of availability of large bicycles for the Mothers. I learned to ride with people I worked with,” explained Fernando. “As much as I enjoyed leaving this room and riding, admittedly, it wasn’t an effective way to search, but it was the only way since we were restricted from stepping onto the platforms.”

“How did you manage to ride with all of the pollen dust?”

“A full suit isn’t always needed. We have a few breathing masks and hoods. You may want to use one of those instead of a full suit when you leave this room.”

“I’ll definitely take you up on your offer. The full suit is aggravating and leaves me more vulnerable.” Brad moved his search to a new platform. He stared at the vehicle. He was surprised it was brought onboard the Kisskalu and was still intact. “I don’t believe it—they brought aboard the transfer vehicle Shinny and I explored.”

“They are slow and small. They might be able to carry five if you use the pods. They have little value. I don’t know why the Fleet keeps them in the inventory. They could print these ships out when needed,” Fernando complained, dismissing Brad’s find.

Brad ignored Fernando’s statement. “Pods have been ejected. I wonder what they’re planning to use it for.” Brad looked for any information the Aneplé might have on it. Not finding anything, he couldn’t resist temptation and sent a programming message to the vehicle. After waiting a few minutes a message came back confirming the change. Brad was so excited he yelled in English, “Woo hoo, we are so outta here!”

The room fell completely silent from his outburst. It was unnerving to see every Neslin face in the room suddenly glaring at him.

He turned to Fernando. “Uh, was I a little too loud?”

“Yes, I think you have our attention. What was that you screamed? Did something bite you?”

“Sorry, it was my native tongue. I think I have the answer to getting us off this ship, but I need to work a few things out before I show you.”

“What do I tell the others?” Fernando asked, glancing at the concerned faces around the room.

“I’m fine. Tell them I had a reaction to the last packaged meal. Have them keep working, just in case this doesn’t work out.”

“I’ll do that but do me a favor—don’t have an outburst like that again without discussing it with me first. I’m the one who has to face Wesgwidy and the Little Mothers, and explain to them there isn’t a problem.”

Brad laughed at Fernando’s concern. “Message Received.” Brad smiled and started writing a program for the transfer vehicle. It wouldn’t be as complex as the Paris skyline, but it needed to be more accurate to ensure success.

 

 

Fernando sat next to Brad and watched the video of Brad’s proposal on his tablet. The transfer vehicle’s transmatter hologram platter molded into a sixty-seat configuration vehicle then blossomed into a bubble that enveloped the ion engine to evenly distribute the mass to accommodate traveling through space more efficiently as it left a battle cruiser. Although it would never be as fast as the fighter vehicles, the redistribution of its mass would allow it to travel faster than what was typical of the vehicle with the platter configuration.

Brad waited anxiously for Fernando to comment on his proposal. He wondered if the lack of comment from Fernando was because he found something wrong with the idea. Wasn’t this the solution they were searching for? Or had he misinterpreted the problem in this room as he looked around at the Neslins recuperating?

Fernando scanned the Little Mothers in the room Feeling something on his arm, he turned and saw Johnson trying to get his attention. “I’m still thinking about this.”

“What’s to think about? Is there a problem? Did I miss something?”

“I’m trying to foresee any objections Wesgwidy may have. She is committed to me escaping, but at times has lost hope of anyone else escaping. I need to understand what may be required of us. ”

Brad placed his tablet on the floor while rolling back against the wall and stared at the ceiling in frustration. “You can’t be serious. What about the others, do they have a say in this?”

“Of course they do, but tradition is ingrained in them and they will stand behind Wesgwidy when it comes to this colony.”

“And, let me guess, everyone is behind your escape above all else.”

“Essentially that is correct. I have little say in this even if it is not my preference.” Fernando held up Brad’s tablet. “Encrypt the proposal and send it to me. Don’t lose your tablet again.” Fernando snapped as he handed the tablet back to Brad.

Embarrassed from repeating a recruit error, Brad transmitted the encrypted proposal to Fernando. Any doubts Brad had about Fernando’s Fleet background disappeared with Fernando’s concern over him controlling his tablet. “Nothing personal, but I would rather work toward rescuing as many individuals as possible even if that meant leaving you behind. What am I missing that Wesgwidy will want to see?” Brad asked as he reattached his tablet.

“I’m not offended. That is my preference, also. If I alone am able to escape, I will never feel right about leaving others behind, especially those who have been on this ship for years. Or those standing guard, or Kevex, who has been poisoning herself to protect us, when there was a possibility of rescuing them also,” Fernando admitted as he reviewed the proposal Brad had just sent him. “This is brilliant. It would never have occurred to me to use a transfer vehicle in this way, but we still need a plan to gain access. The Aneplé will not just let us walk onto a platform and get on this vehicle.”

“I agree. There needs to be a diversion to draw attention away from the platform. The Little Mothers need to change their daily patterns in preparation, without raising any suspicion. They need to walk along the hallways adjacent to the Transportation Room, they need to—” Brad stopped spewing out his brainstorming and looked out the glass wall at Wesgwidy standing guard. The plan would only work if the word came from the colony’s Mother. “A lot of planning needs to be done, but it will only be possible if Wesgwidy coordinates the planning and everyone is behind her.”

“I’ll talk to Wesgwidy. Do you need anything else at this time?”

“I’ve already loaded the program on the vehicle. I can gradually build the seating so the vehicle’s configuration is close to being completed when we’re ready to leave. I’ll ask Shinny to plant false information in their database that explains the transfer vehicle’s activities. Shinny and I need time in a training module if possible.” Swiping through his tablet and thinking of all the things he needed, he realized he would feel better if he could personally view the vehicle on the platform and see the placement of the other vehicles surrounding the transfer vehicle. “I think we should go on a bicycle ride.”

Fernando nodded, confirming Brad’s requests. “Do you think your mate will support this and leave with us? I didn’t want to ask the question, but I thought the issue needed to be addressed before more time went by.”

Brad’s chest tightened. He, too, was concerned that Shinny’s exposure to the plant had affected her, but he wasn’t sure how. “You’ve noticed,” he replied sadly.

“She’s not hiding it. I haven’t discussed her situation with Mother because unlike the rest of the Aneplé, she isn’t harboring any malice toward the colony and seems to be committed to your escape.”

“I’ve tried to figure out the hold the Aneplé have on their people. I believe the plant has a part in drugging them, creating an intoxicating allure with the virus that is downloaded onto their chips.”

Fernando nodded. “That makes sense. But why hasn’t it affected you and your mate?”

“The plant’s addictive nature is affecting Shinny, but she hasn’t had the Aneplé virus downloaded on her chip, which may be the difference.” Brad stood and stretched to release the tension from his muscles tightening. He faced Fernando. “As long as she recognizes their actions she will resist their attempts to download anything onto her chip. If they succeed, it’s unclear whether the virus will be effective because she’s been inoculated with an advanced anti-viral agent.” He sat back down. “In my case, the pollen is highly toxic. Even if I breathe small amounts, I have an immediate violent reaction and I start throwing up and convulsing.”

Fernando’s face turned a deep brown from Johnson’s description of his reaction when exposed to the plant. “Warning received. I’ll make sure there’s an isolation suit or head cover always available for you. I realize there hasn’t been an issue with the pollen in this room, but I don’t want to ask anyone to dispose medical waste. We have enough issues at this time.”

Brad nodded, confirming Fernando’s concern, and continued with his explanation. “They were successful in transferring the virus to me, but Shinny thinks she caught it in time with her updated agent. We’re not going to know for sure until I can be seen in a CIG medical facility.”

“I’m not an expert on chip viruses. I’m satisfied that you are clean. But your mate is a different story. Can we depend on her?” Fernando asked. “Although there is no indication from Wesgwidy and the escorts that your mate has been subjugated by the Aneplé, I still have my concerns.”

Brad paused taking in a slow deep breath before he answered, “For now, I believe the answer is yes, you can depend upon her. It would help if Wesgwidy could come up with reasons for her to spend more time in the filtered air.”

[]Chapter 28

 

 

Brad was exasperated Wesgwidy had not made a final decision on whether or not to support the escape plan for the colony on the transfer vehicle. On the other hand she did accept it as a possible viable option for Fernando to escape from the Kisskalu. Rather than leaving everyone in limbo waiting for her to make a final decision, Wesgwidy approved of it as a provisional plan and allowed the colony to train as if all of them would leave with Fernando. Brad found that more confusing and wanted to discuss it with Wesgwidy, but Fernando instructed him to leave Wesgwidy to him. While annoyed, he wasn’t completely ready to confront the oversized Neslin, either.

At least the decision to train gave him an excuse to leave the isolation ward and spend more time with Shinny. He had no idea what Wesgwidy had said to Shinny, but it was effective. Shinny had been spending more nights sleeping next to him. He was convinced Shinny had an addiction, but didn’t want to address it until they were off the Kisskalu. He hoped the plant wasn’t completely impairing her mental health and physical performance. Other than her being on edge, more anxious and short-tempered with him, he wasn’t sure what else was affected. Then again the anxiousness could be from being on the ship and fear that her identity would be discovered at any moment. He was just as concerned. If they discovered who she was, Nerunder wouldn’t think twice before recycling Shinny.

Brad hated the isolation suit, but for the moment it was the safest way for him to move through the Kisskalu. There were a few head covers available, but he was saving those for later, when he needed to be physically more active. Three Neslins escorted them to the closest trainer. He couldn’t imagine there would be many differences between transportation and transfer vehicles but wasn’t willing to risk finding out on the day they were leaving.

Yancurve stopped at a door and turned to face the two Fleet Officers. “This is the closest trainer. We think it is still viable. If it doesn’t work there are others we can try.”

“How long do we have?” Brad asked.

“Not sure. Mother is trying to distract Nerunder. However, you should still be prepared for Nerunder to confront you,” the Neslin cautioned as she opened the door.

“We’ll be ready. Do you have the cover story ready?”

“Conjugal visit. Don’t know if it will stop Nerunder, but it will cause her to pause and give you a little time to hide your activities.” Yancurve laughed heartily. “We look forward to seeing her reaction.”

Brad and Shinny nodded salutes as they stepped into the trainer. “Thanks, this shouldn’t take long,” Brad responded as he pulled the door shut.

“Where did you get the idea of conjugal visit? Couldn’t you have come up with something innocuous?” Shinny asked, as she seated herself in the second seat.

“What? You didn’t think that was innocuous?” Seeing the lack of humor on Shinny’s face, “Sorry, it was the best I could think of at the time. Next time, you can make up the excuse,” Brad replied as he sat down in the first seat. He looked around at the ill-kept trainer. “This place looks like a rat’s nest. Do you think this trainer is still operational?”

Shinny, swiping on her tablet, quickly looked around and then went back to her tablet. “It should still work. I’m showing all systems are functioning. The trainer hasn’t had an upgrade in six solar cycles. It’s missing a number of security upgrades, which is to our advantage. It’s also missing a system upgrade, which may affect response time. The lack of data exchanges may be minor since you recently qualified to fly transport vehicles. The weakness will be if there was a major upgrade to the operation of the transfer vehicles.” Shinny quickly reviewed the records on her tablet. “I’m not seeing anything from Zuonopy’s database indicating that a major update occurred, but that assessment is conditional with the completeness of the information on my tablet; that leaves the possibility there may also be small additional upgrades that I am not seeing on my tablet.”

“Thanks for checking.” Brad pulled off a glove that was specially made to leave his suit sealed. He placed his hand on the sensor. “Okay, let’s see what happens.”

The unit responded to his hand and began exchanging information on his chip. “Brad, good morning, did you transfer to the Kisskalu?” Travis asked.

“Uh, no, I haven’t transferred here. I flew onto it with my mate Shinny Johnson,” answered Brad.

“Welcome, Shinny Johnson. Are you a pilot, also?” Travis asked.

“I’m qualified to fly planet-based vehicles, only. I’m here assisting Brad on a project,” explained Shinny.

“Are the two of you visiting to coordinate an exercise?” Travis asked.

“Travis, we’re not visiting.” Brad took a moment before he explained. “I have a favor to ask of you. I need training on another vehicle but I need you to not record it or record over it with a game, or destroy it. Essentially, do whatever you need to do to hide my training record.”

“I can’t do that. It’s against CIG regulations.”

Brad sat stunned and frustrated with Travis’s response. He wasn’t sure what would work short of telling the truth. “The Aneplé have possession of the Kisskalu. It’s no longer a CIG asset.”

Brad and Shinny waited through Travis’s silence for a response. They were not sure how the AI would accept the information. “Brad, I just went through the Kisskalu’s databases. The Kisskalu is an Aneplé asset and she’s not happy. Are you an Aneplé now?”

Shinny sent Brad a message to his chip, “This is news to me. I didn’t know the battle cruisers had AIs. It’s interesting it is referring to itself as a ‘she’.”

Brad answered Shinny by raising his arms and quietly mouthing, “Don’t know.” Turning his focus back to Travis, he responded, “No, I’m not Aneplé, I’m still a CIG Fleet Pilot. I’m an Aneplé prisoner on the Kisskalu.”

“Am I a prisoner, also?” Travis asked.

Surprised by the question, Brad shook his head and saw an equally surprised expression on Shinny’s face. “I think the best answer I can give you is that as long as you are tied to my chip, if I’m a prisoner, than so are you. I’m asking for your assistance so I can escape and take you with me.”

“Before I help you, why did you fly onto an Aneplé ship?”

Gees, I’ve created a monster and now I need to explain my actions to a creation in my head, Brad thought. “We were surprised by the Kisskalu coming through a transit gate and I was unable to return to the Zuonopy. I was left with choosing between having our hibernation pod destroyed or flying onto the Kisskalu.”

“Kisskalu has confirmed your story and has recommended that I assist you. She has also requested that the major and you help her escape.”

Brad astonished with the AI’s request paused as he considered what was being asked of them. It took him a moment to recover. He had no idea if they could trust the AI; whether they could find the battle cruiser’s AI’s component or how large it was to do a grab and run. Shinny seemed just as surprised with the Kisskalu’s request. He was certain that she, also, wouldn’t have an idea on how to rescue the AI on the fly. But perhaps Kisskalu could help them create diversions to assist them with their escape. “Travis, I don’t think we can help the AI escape with us at this time. However, if she helps us and we escape, then we may be able to rescue her later.”

“Kisskalu stated that would be acceptable and would like to run a VPN with the major and you,” replied Travis.

That’s a bad idea. We would have a stranger running around in our heads. I don’t know what or who Kisskalu is or if it was contrived by the Aneplé. It’s also possible the Aneplé are aware of Kisskalu and have hacked her, and are now controlling it,” Shinny transmitted to his chip.

Brad, also uncomfortable with what Travis suggested, nodded to Shinny in agreement. “Travis, that would not be a good idea. If we were interrogated, we would be at increased physical risk and it might place Kisskalu at risk also. It would be better to send communications to our tablets as another name for her to hide behind.”

“Kisskalu agrees. She will send future messages as Yeshawliq. I will record a false training record as you are training, since destruction of the record would leave a gap and lead to greater suspicion. Do you have a game I can use?” Travis asked.

The accommodating AI left Brad with an uneasy feeling. It seemed too good to be true that the AI accepted his reasoning and didn’t argue more for the VPN connection. Shinny and he would need to be careful with their communications with her in the future, until they had a better understanding of the AI’s nature and allegiance.

Brad sent Travis a game as requested. It was a simple game he played with Dane. Travis could easily play it simultaneously while they were training. “Travis, I’ve sent you a game. I recommend you lose fifty to sixty percent of the games you play, to avoid playing like an AI.”

“Understood,” Travis replied. “What would you like to train on today?”

“We are planning to leave the Kisskalu on a transfer vehicle. I need to be able to fly it off the battle cruiser and travel as quickly as possible,” Brad explained. “I’m sending you the proposed transfer vehicle configuration. I have already sent the vehicle the program and started the modifications.”

Travis quickly adjusted the dashboard to match the transfer vehicle’s dashboard. “As you can see it is similar to a transport vehicle’s dashboard systems. The difference between the two is this panel,” Travis explained as the panel lit up with a bluish white neon glow. “The panel controls the programming features of the platter. Since it appears you have preprogrammed the vehicle, it is more important to focus on flying the vehicle with the different configurations off of the Kisskalu and through space than the programing features.”

“Travis, as usual you have the best training plan,” Brad responded.

“The seats on the platter appear to be oversized. Is that a programming error?”

Brad was nervous about explaining the reasons for the large seats. But if he couldn’t trust the voice tied to the chip in his head, who could he trust? “The large sized seats are to accommodate the Neslins who will be leaving with us.”

“Thank you for the clarification. I will make adjustments for the additional mass. Yeshawliq has asked me to tell you that the shield you programmed for the vehicle is strong enough to contain the atmosphere, but will not protect your passengers against weapons fire. Yeshawliq asked if you would like her to correct the programing for the vehicle’s shield.”

“No!” Brad and Shinny shouted in unison.

Brad took a moment to recover from his outburst. He didn’t need Shinny to say anything more to know her thoughts mirrored his. They did not know enough about the Yeshawliq AI to know if they could trust her with anything, yet. “Please ask Yeshawliq to send the shield’s programming to us. If Yeshawliq makes the changes, we will not have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, nor will I know how to program on my own if it becomes necessary,” Brad explained. It would also allow him to examine the differences to ensure the changes strengthened the shield.

“Yeshawliq will send the program to you. She also asked me to remind you there will be an issue of balancing the shield’s strength against velocity required for escape. I will readjust my programming to include the stronger shield mass as you dictated.”

[]Chapter 29

 

 

Plity Nerunder jogged angrily toward the cruiser’s aft. Her shift had rapidly deteriorated when the pilots left the Neslins’ isolation ward. She had the ward on constant watch, waiting for the male pilot to leave in order to interrogate him. She had interrogated the female pilot a number of times and although the sensors all indicated truthfulness, she was convinced they were hiding a bigger truth. Her team noted changes in the Neslins’ patterns indicating something was going on with them and their CIG prisoners. At first she had been ecstatic when it looked like the little Neslin was going to tear the male pilot apart, saving her the trouble of doing it herself. But then the pattern changed and now they spent almost all of their waking hours together.

When she was informed the male pilot was being escorted with his mate, she thought she would have an opportunity to interrogate him. Instead the oversized Neslin intercepted her and demanded to discuss the treatment of their princess. Plity was willing to schedule a meeting at a later shift but found herself and her team surrounded by ten Neslins refusing to move until the big one finished listing its concerns. The big Neslin droned on and on about the princess, food, appropriate sleeping quarters, and transportation off the ship. The discussion was no different from previous discussions except she was hearing everything at once. The big Neslin refused to accept this was a warship and did not have sufficient resources to adequately sustain their colony.

The Neslin then had the audacity to demand to meet with the cruiser’s captain. They were at war; very few individuals met with the captain or were even allowed on the bridge to talk to the bridge staff. Even she did not have that privilege. The captain and his staff would contact her through her chip. She had offered to download the frequency onto the Neslin’s chip and instead was lectured by the Neslin, as if she were a child, on the dangers of downloading unapproved frequencies and allowing unauthorized access to personal chips. Plity was not offering the Neslin a random download; it was an Aneplé frequency approved at the most senior levels. It was not their issue the Neslin monarchy did not want to join the Aneplé Alliance. She couldn’t understand why the large Neslin did not want to be noted in Aneplé’s history as the first of her species to accept the download.

Plity was jolted out her musing by three Neslins standing at the door at the far end of the hallway. She turned to discuss the approach with her team.

 

 

Brad was becoming more proficient at flying the transfer vehicle but still lost his passengers twenty percent of the time. Travis had congratulated Brad on his almost flawless ability to fly the vehicle in its different configurations. If this were a simple transfer from one battle cruiser to another, he would be done. But the first time Travis included projectiles and lasers from several Attack Vipers in the simulation, he understood how woefully unprepared he was. Each time the simulation of the ejected platter disintegrated in front of the vehicle, the lack of preparation and shielding hit home. The problem was that the transfer vehicle viewed the ejection of the platter as a first line of defense, even with the additional weapons grade shield. Shinny had reprogrammed the vehicle to accept a few direct hits but they were still at twenty percent. She was concerned that increasing the weapon’s grade shield further would negatively affect the vehicle’s power limits. Nevertheless, she would keep trying to find a solution.

“Brad, Yancurve sent a warning message that Nerunder is almost at the door.”

Brad donned his glove. “Travis, thank you for the training. The Aneplé security officer is on her way. Switch to the game.”

 

 

Nerunder approached the Neslins standing at a door blocking her access to the room. “Who’s in the room?”

Yancurve’s first instinct was to ignore the annoying Aneplé Security Officer, but her instructions were to cooperate and not to appear suspicious. That in itself was humorous. How could she not appear suspicious guarding a training module, she thought. “Our CIG prisoners are in the room.”

“What are they doing?” Nerunder demanded.

“They are having a conjugal visit,” Yancurve answered.

“In a trainer? Do you expect me to believe you?” Plity spat. “What are they training for?”

Yancurve turned to Tyom and Kbizat and in Neslin, growling for effect, “I don’t think I can hold her off much longer.”

“Johnson sent a message they are ready for Nerunder,” Tyom reported, returning the growl in Neslin, seeming to put the Aneplé officer more on edge.

Yancurve’s face turned dark with anger as she stared at Nerunder and her team. Continuing to growl in CIG standard, “Children. What else do think a conjugal visit would train for?”

“What are you talking about? Do you think I’m an idiot? Let me into the training module now,” Plity demanded, gritting her teeth. Normally she would have backed off from the two growling Neslins, but she found herself too angry to care. Plity watched the Neslins step away from the door and pulled the door open. She walked in with her team following and stood silently observing the pilot gesture to move an animated piece through a maze. “Pilot, what are you and your mate doing?”

Brad stopped and looked at the Aneplé Officer. She looked bad, but who wouldn’t after being berated by Wesgwidy? He had no sympathy for Nerunder and couldn’t wait to congratulate Wesgwidy on a job well done. “Commander, we are playing a game called Pacman. Would you like to play?”

“No, I do not want to waste my time on this foolishness. This was a conjugal visit? What does the game have to do with it?”

“It’s foreplay. First we play a game, then we—”

“Shut up,” screeched Nerunder. She turned to a crewman behind her. “Escort him to my office. We need to interrogate him, now.”

Before the crewmen could reach Brad, Shinny stood up and stepped in front of Brad’s seat. It wouldn’t take much to tear the suit and she wasn’t going to give them an opportunity to get rough with him. “My mate is not going anywhere with you. You can interrogate him here.”

Two of the security guards moved forward menacingly towards Shinny but stopped as a Neslin voice boomed over their heads, “Johnson, do you need any assistance?”

Brad stood up and faced Yancurve, who had pushed her way into the trainer. “Our conjugal visit was interrupted. The commander wants to interrogate me now. Could you stand by while they interrogate me in the hallway?”

“You are our prisoners. We’ll wait for you outside,” Yancurve barked as she backed out of the trainer.

Brad turned to Nerunder. “I’m happy to answer any questions in the hallway. But then I need to return to the isolation ward. The Neslins will miss me and will send the big Neslin to look for me.” Brad could see they weren’t sure if they should believe him or not. He didn’t care, but he needed to get them off his back so he could get to the bicycle track and look at the transfer vehicle in perspective of everything else. He followed everyone leaving the trainer and stepped out to position himself next to the Neslins with Shinny at his side. “Commander, how can I help you?”

Nerunder turned to her crewmen and pointed towards them, “You two, go in and check the trainer’s recording.” She walked up to Brad, staring at him contemptuously and trying to intimidate him. “I’ve had enough of you. What were you doing in the trainer?”

Brad observed the technicians focusing on their tablets. He assumed they were viewing sensor readings of the conversation. He was aware lies would register on their equipment and needed to answer as truthfully as possible without giving too much away. “We were training and thinking of escaping.”

“Brad, what are you saying?” gasped Shinny, likely shocked over the veracity he displayed.

Nerunder waved a security technician to join her. She looked at the technician’s tablet and swiped through a few screens. She glared at Brad. “What games are you playing? Our sensors are showing us you are definitely lying and are hiding something.” Nerunder turned abruptly and faced Shinny. “I’m disappointed in you. We had a relationship of trust and your mate has undermined it. The sensors show you are lying to us, also.”

Shinny furrowed her eyebrows. “What are you talking about? Is your equipment calibrated correctly?”

The technician stood taller, lifting her chin in offense at Shinny’s insinuations, and grumbled, “My equipment is frequently tested. This is not your concern.”

That’s odd, Brad thought. “Fine,” Brad jumped in. “You want to know the truth about our six children. Their names are,” he listed in English, “Greedy, Stinky, Smelly, Yogurt, Shoelaces, and Tablecloth.”

Perplexed by his odd behavior, Shinny asked, “What’s gotten into you?”

“I’m telling them what they want to hear,” Brad announced with all the bravado he could muster, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake. He looked at Nerunder. “Commander, I’m tired of hiding the truth from you. What do you want to know?”

Yancurve touched Brad lightly on the shoulder. “Pilot, you are speaking too much. We need to return you to the isolation ward. Mother will not be pleased when she hears you wanted to tell secrets.”

Brad whirled swiftly around, facing Yancurve and the two other Neslins. He shouted, “Back off, I know what I am doing. I’ll answer a few of Commander Nerunder’s questions and talk to Mother myself.” The startled Neslins stepped away and he turned back toward the Security Officer. “Ask away.”

Nerunder appeared surprised by the Neslins’ reaction to the outburst. “Would you like to follow me to my work space for more privacy?”

“No. I’m a Neslin prisoner. It is their job to return me to their colony. If you do not ask your questions soon, I will not be allowed to answer.”

Nerunder pressed her lips together in a straight harsh line, leaving a disagreeable look on her face as she appeared to weigh the questions in her mind. “The command staff would like to know what is Connor’s Gambit?”

Finally, Brad thought. “It’s a dark hole in the Pertutinn Transit.”

Brad what are you doing?” screamed Shinny in his head.

Brad bent his head as he rubbed his temples. Nerunder walked over and pulled a hand away. “Command Staff has more questions.”

“What?” Brad snarled and went back to rubbing his temples.

“Has it been explored?” She asked with a furious expression on her face.

Taking in a sharp breath from the physical pain in his head, Brad gave Shinny a murderous glance before he answered, “I’ve been a prisoner on this ship. I don’t know if there has been additional exploration of it.”

Nerunder grabbed Brad’s other arm and jerked it away from his head. “You are just another weak CIG prisoner expecting leniency. That is never going to happen on my watch. Where does the Connor’s Gambit lead to?”

“What do you think? Why do you think it was named Connor’s Gambit?” Brad responded insolently.

His response infuriated Nerunder. “Aneplé Intelligence has already proposed two alternatives. They believe the dark hole leads to the center of Aneplé or the center of CIG territory. We will know soon with their CIG contacts continuing their research and verifying with their sources on the dark hole’s destination. She pointed to the female pilot. “Why hasn’t she shared this with us?”

“She wasn’t cleared to know,” Brad answered. A thick arm wrapped around his waist, lifting and carrying him like a sack of potatoes, and then started jogging back toward the Neslin colony. “Yancurve, put me down,” shouted Brad.

As the prisoners disappeared down the corridor, Plity tried to think what his answer meant to the Aneplé. She considered Intelligence’s hypothesis of two alternatives. The dark hole either led to the center of Aneplé or to the center of CIG territory. They needed to have their CIG contacts continue their research and verify with their sources the dark hole’s destination.

 

 

“Pilot, Wesgwidy will not be pleased when I report your conversation with Nerunder,” Yancurve informed Brad as she continued to jog carrying him at her side.

Feeling chagrined and helpless, he shouted, “Shinny, ask Yancurve to put me down, gently.” It didn’t take Brad long to realize Shinny was ignoring him. Great, now she decides to give me the silent treatment, he thought.

“Yeshawliq, stop this madness.” Brad yelled as loud as he could, hoping the AI had received and understood his message, since he was facing the floor. Heavy metal doors slammed with a loud bang behind him and another bang further ahead. The lights dimmed. Yancurve jerked Brad as she came to an abrupt stop in the pitch-black darkness.

“Brad, what is going on? What have you done?” Shinny asked, staring into the darkness.

“If Yancurve will let me down gently, I’ll explain what I think is going on.”

Yancurve placed Brad on the floor and steadied him before releasing him. “Pilot, I am trusting you to behave.”

Brad was glad the dark room hid his exasperated expression from her. “Thank you, Little Mother.” Brad tested his stance before he began talking. “Yeshawliq, could you please turn on the emergency lights.” A red glowing light seeped from the lengthwise seams of the hallway. Brad looked at the surprised faces around him distorted by the red light. “Yeshawliq, could you try green? It might be easier on our eyes.” He waited as the hallway was washed in the green light. Shinny’s mouth was agape. “Shinny, is green all right or do you have another preference?” Brad motioned to her to speak up.

“Yeshawliq, could you bring back the red lights?” Shinny asked. The hallway changed from green to red. She stepped next to Brad. “We need an explanation.”

“I became aware Yeshawliq has been watching over the Neslins and us like a guardian angel. The Neslins may question her actions, but I believe she has been balancing her actions within her programming parameters without informing the Aneplé of her existence.”

“I see. How did you determine this?” Shinny asked.

“In the trainer, Travis referred to you as major. Since Travis only responds to my direct input, he did not receive that information from me. That leaves Wesgwidy, who is the only other individual to know you are a major. She only addresses you as major in private when no one is around and the space is clear of recording devices, however, it appears as if the AI has always been present. No one else knows, not even Fernando, although he suspects.

Yancurve looked at the female Johnson. “You’re a major? No wonder Wesgwidy was risking the colony’s wellbeing working with both of you. Your mate may be a crazy pilot, but you are a Special Combat Officer capable of taking on the role of an armed escort for Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak.”

Brad stepped in and answered for her. “Yes, she is, we have not said anything because of the risks associated with the Aneplé learning this information. Even under the best of intentions, accidents occur, which is why her identity was not shared beyond Wesgwidy.”

“Okay, but you must stop addressing Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak by Fernando. It’s disrespectful.”

Brad snapped back, “Do not get between two males. He is a big boy and will let me know when it is disrespectful.”

Yancurve stepped back in shame. “Pilot, you are right in regards to Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak. And we will also not refer to your mate as ‘Major’. Forgive me.”

Interesting, Brad thought. “You are forgiven.” Turning back to Shinny,“I was initially nervous when Yeshawliq referred to you as major because I didn’t know where her loyalty lay. But during the questioning it became clear she recalibrated the sensors on the fly especially when I stated that our children’s names were Greedy, Stinky, Smelly, Yogurt, Shoelaces, and Tablecloth.”

Tyom interjected, “Stinky is a nice name. I may consider it for my third child.”

Brad looked at Tyom and groaned. It never occurred to him the Neslins deployed leaving their families and homes, and yet for some crazy reason they were looking at him to rescue Fernando. He suddenly felt an enormous sense of sadness. “Tyom, Stinky in my mother tongue would not be a respectable name. Our son is named after my mate’s father, a more respectable name. Once we are off the Kisskalu and safe, I would be honored to introduce the colony to my father.” When Tyom nodded that she understood, he continued, “I realize what I said was outrageous, but I’m betting Yeshawliq never allows that information to be recorded in the logs. Look at your tablets and you will see the messages she has been sending.”

Shinny read Yeshawliq’s messages on her log confirming everything Brad had just shared with them. “Brad, do you think they will send vehicles through the Pertutinn Transit?” Shinny asked, concerned about Earth’s future.

Brad shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m guessing it didn’t matter what I said. However, I believe from Nerunder’s reaction they will not transit any further than the dark hole. They are definitely obsessed with it.”

Yancurve read through the messages, shaking her head. “Why is the AI sending messages to our tablets instead of contacting us through an encrypted VPN channel to our chips?”

“At first I wasn’t sure we could trust her. While I trust her now, she is as much a prisoner as we are, and if the Aneplé discover her, they would have a direct link to our chips on a one-way encrypted VPN link. Yeshawliq is helping because she has asked us to rescue her also.” Brad watched the three Neslins look around for the AI that seemed to be controlling everything on the ship, including their current situation.

Yancurve asked, “How does this affect our plans? What is your plan for the AI?”

“I have already told her we would not be able to take her with us, but we would find a way to rescue her.” Brad raised his voice, “Yeshawliq, what is Nerunder doing at this moment?” A message appeared on their tablet:

Nerunder is playing Pacman in the trainer with her team trying to decode the secret message they believe you prepared to send back to the CIG Fleet.

A chuckle pulsed through the group as everyone looked at the message sent to them. Brad smiled; he wished he was there to watch the security team’s frustration. He looked at everyone standing watching him. “We need to get back to the colony. I promised Fernando a ride on the bicycle track.”

[]Chapter 30

 

 

Brad was impressed with Fernando’s skills on the bicycle. Not only did Fernando ride well, but also he kept up with Brad’s pace. Although this was their fourth ride together, this would be the first time they would meet with Shinny. Shinny had just finished her run and was standing against the side rail ahead of them, looking down into the Transportation Room. It was their cue to pull over next to her.

Brad and Fernando slowed down and stood next to her with the transfer vehicle below them toward the far right. Shinny surveyed Brad in the new head cover. “How is the head cover working for you?”

“The head covers have been great. They have definitely made it easier for me to maneuver, although decontamination has been harder,” he replied. Brad leaned into the rail looking at the vehicle without turning his head. It looked like an exact duplicate of an airplane from earth configured to carry sixty passengers, except the skin was transparent. He could see the fifteen rows of four seats configured for the Neslins, divided with a center passageway, and a convenience room in the back. The original design didn’t have a bathroom, but he programmed it on Yeshawliq’s recommendation. Looking at his friend, who stood on Shinny’s right and had a better view of the vehicle, he asked, “Fernando, what do you think?”

“It’s incredible. It’s amazing we didn’t think of using the platters for similar transportation.” Fernando leaned toward Shinny. “Do you have an estimated time for Zuonopy’s return?”

“Not precisely,” Shinny responded quietly. “Wesgwidy needs to make a decision because the interest in Connor’s Gambit keeps increasing. The Aneplé crew has been discussing returning to Aneplé through the dark hole, since our meeting with Nerunder. If they do that then no one leaves the ship, ever.” She whipped around, facing the bicycle track. “Brad, what in the universe got into you for saying what you did to Nerunder?”

“At least they’re leaving you alone,” Brad answered struggling to understand his wife’s moodiness.

“It was a pain, but I had everything under control,” Shinny snapped, glaring at Brad.

Fernando turned towards Shinny, “We have too many things to worry about. We need to focus on leaving. It’s apparent it didn’t matter what your mate said. Eventually, the Aneplé would have come to the same wrong-headed conclusion. As for Wesgwidy, I don’t know if she will ever make a final decision.” Fernando paused looking at both of the humans, “However, if what you are telling me about Yeshawliq’s willingness to help, perhaps the AI could spread false communications to reroute the security patrols to allow us to board the sickest individuals with rations. Frankly, we should start moving them onto the vehicle now while there isn’t a rush, since there is a convenience room.”

“Will there be a problem with Wesgwidy?” Shinny asked.

“There shouldn’t be a problem, since she has given us permission to move forward with the planning.” Fernando stared at the vehicle in wonder. “Never have I been this close to not only escaping, but also rescuing the whole colony. If there’s an issue with Wesgwidy, I’ll have a discussion with her. It will be difficult for her to oppose in the future, if we have most of the colony on the vehicle ready to leave.”

Brad pondered if Yeshawliq had been thinking about loading the colony in advance when she recommended programming the bathroom. He mused about implementing the plan under Wesgwidy’s nose and wondered if he would ever completely understand Fernando’s relationship with Wesgwidy. But if Fernando thought he could influence Mother on this, he wasn’t going to get between them. “Good. That leaves two final issues that need to be discussed.” Taking a deep breath, he explained, “My training scores show a twenty percent chance of failing. I don’t know if we will be able to get back to the trainer to increase the likelihood of success.”

“What’s the problem? I thought the controls were similar to the transport vehicles you are qualified to fly,” Fernando asked.

“Flying the vehicle isn’t the issue. The problem is that these vehicles were never meant to be operated in an area with hostile fire. The issue is balancing the available mass to create the extra shielding needed and minimizing the effect it would have on the ship’s velocity. Even if the vehicle is completely shielded it won’t be dense enough to protect the platter.”

“Are you proposing we cancel this?” Fernando asked them with a worried look on his face.

“No, I don’t think we should cancel. We have a plan to mitigate the issue. It increases the likelihood of success, but without Shinny and me getting back to the trainer, the first time we might implement it is when we do the fly off. I couldn’t continue without informing you of the risk.”

“I can’t make a decision without knowing more of the plan. I can’t imagine Wesgwidy ever accepting a twenty percent risk. I have no problem deciding to take the risk myself with the two of you. But when there are others who are at risk, I need to have more specific information to make a decision on their behalf.” Fernando explained.

Brad was about to respond to Fernando’s question, but Shinny touched his arm. “Let me explain, since this is my idea and I will be executing it.” At Brad’s nod, she continued, “The vehicle’s first line of defense is to eject the platter. I have been able to reprogram the defense protocols, but there is still a requirement for a strong shield to maintain the platter’s integrity. I plan to scatter an advance weapons grade shielding around the platter’s formed structure. It will be stronger than what is on the Vipers and Defenders. The increased mass will probably affect the platter’s speed. However, the advanced weapons shield will increase the likelihood of our survival. But because of the need to balance the fuel with building the shield, there will be a limit on the area being shielded, leaving some areas unprotected. Those areas will be vulnerable to a direct hit. The plan is to accept the Aneplé’s weapons’ fire at the heavily shielded areas. Either I will relocate the shielding or Brad will maneuver the vehicle to ensure the weapons impact occurs on a shielded area, until we download a program to respond to the Aneplé’s weapon’s fire. I’m still working on the program, which should be ready by the time we leave.” Shinny demonstrated with her hands how it would work.

Fernando clasped his hands behind him. “What will happen if a weapon hits an unshielded part of the platform?”

“The weapon will destroy the platter’s atmosphere and the vehicle will eject the platter. It won’t be pretty,” explained Brad.

Fernando looked at the two of them. “The plan is straddling between brilliant and insane. But then again I haven’t come up with anything that would come as close to being successful as you have. I recommend we keep this to ourselves. If Wesgwidy hears the risks, she will stop the planning immediately. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without taking a few risks. I’ll admit, I don’t feel comfortable with what you have told me, but I trust both of you.”

Brad almost responded with sarcasm to Fernando’s comment on taking risks, but held back. How risky was spending his days in isolation? But Fernando was the only one, outside of Shinny and the Kisskalu AI, fully supporting the plan. “Thank you for your trust. It makes this easier knowing we have your support.”

Fernando nodded. Across the transportation room, two of Nerunder’s security technicians stepped onto the track. “Looks like Nerunder found us. What’s the second issue?”

Brad watched the technicians standing idly, swiping through the screens on their tablets. “Yeshawliq, are you sending our escorts conversations from before and sensor data?” Brad looked at the message that just came in on his tablet:

Yes, I am sending them false information. You may speak freely.

Still swiping his tablet, “Shinny found one praser. She’s keeping it hidden until we leave. Yeshawliq plans to reroute the security patrols, but the real problem will be Nerunder and her team once they discover the colony empty and the high value targets have all left at once. The other problem I foresee is if we leave when the Zuonopy enters the nexus, the Transportation Room will be very busy. Shinny may be able to blend in, but my head cover will generate questions, as will a large number of Neslins in the Transportation Room when the alert signal goes off. It will definitely be viewed as a problem.”

“I see what you mean. I don’t think we would get away with stowing the three of us or even Wesgwidy on the transfer vehicle in advance. We might be able to get the princess on the vehicle and just point to a lumpy blanket when they require her presence,” Fernando responded. He stood quietly while he thought about a few other options. “Could Yeshawliq create diversions at different places on the Kisskalu to draw people away from the platform?”

“What do you suggest?” Brad asked.

“Could Yeshawliq create a series of explosions on the platforms located furthest away?”

Brad looked at the incoming message. It looked like Yeshawliq was upset.

I do not like the Aneplé; I am not willing to do anything to hurt the families who are already suffering.

“I don’t think she likes the idea.”

“I have the same message. What about loud explosive noises simulating explosions, flashing lights, and burning the hydroponic gardens with the damn plants to draw people away from our platform?” countered Fernando.

I could do those things. The plants are making everyone sick. No one is caring for me. When will you come back for me?”

Brad wondered how one cared for an AI. “Yeshawliq, how much control do you have over the Kisskalu?”

It varies. I wasn’t brought onto this ship to control it, but there are times when I have limited control of the ship. I have been forgotten and I want to go home.

Brad turned to Shinny for advice but she shrugged, giving her “I have no idea what that means” look. That’s no help, he thought. “Yeshawliq, I will be honest. I don’t know how long it will take. If we thought we could take you with us now, we would. I promise, Shinny and I won’t forget you, and I won’t let CIG forget you either.”

“I won’t forget you either,” Fernando replied outloud.

Shinny, Brad and Fernando looked at their tablets.

Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak, thank you, it is your honor and reputation that gives me hope one day I will be rescued.

Brad read the message and thought about asking Fernando what the heck Yeshawliq meant, but decided not to mention it now and avoid another lesson on Neslin culture. There was just too much to do. Once they were off the Kisskalu, he would be more than happy to become Earth’s premier expert on Neslin affairs.

Nerunder’s personnel turned the corner and headed toward them.

“I can’t think of anything else to say. Do either of you have anything more to share with me?” Both Shinny and Fernando shook their heads. “I guess the rest period is over.”

Shinny took off at a quick jog away from them. Brad attempted to nervously comb his hair with fingers out of habit, forgetting about the head cover, and stopped when his fingers hit the plastic. Brad hoped Fernando didn’t think he was losing it. He looked at Fernando. “Let’s see if we can make the Aneplé security guards jump.” He mounted his bicycle and headed straight for the guards walking on the track toward them.

[]Chapter 31

 

 

Brad ran at full speed trying to keep up with the Neslins in front of him. Although the room was dark from Yeshawliq dimming the lights and the heavy layer of dark green pollen floating through the Transportation Room, he could still see the outlines of the people in front of him. He thought he was in relatively good shape especially after his rides with Fernando, but couldn’t remember the last time he ran this hard pumping at full speed with his arms and legs, his hair completely soaked from sweat inside his hood. Although his mask was filtering the dust, his sides still hurt from the lack of oxygen. He kept pushing himself hoping more adrenaline would kick in to help him keep up the pace. The Neslins were so damn tall he couldn’t tell how much further the vehicle was, he just knew he needed to keep up with them.

Ptzing, ptzing, ptzing. Son of a bitch, the Aneplé were shooting at them. What did they forget? Did they screw up on Yeshawliq’s distractions? At least they were hitting a shield. He looked up and around at the opalescent shimmer of a shield flicker deflecting the weapons fire. The firing continued and his curiosity got the better of him. He needed to know what the hell was happening behind him. Turning around was going to slow him down, but he wanted to get an idea of how far behind the Aneplé shooters were.

Slowing, he turned slightly and saw Shinny running closely behind him with an angry expression on her face. She had a weapon in her right hand and the shield behind her left shoulder, moving it to deflect the weapons fire. He looked back at Shinny but still could not understand what she was saying with the weapons fire increasing rapidly. He moved over to the right to let her catch up to him. She ran next to him and slapped his stomach. He gasped for breath as his abdomen radiated in pain from the impact of her slap. He wasn’t sure what was more surprising, Shinny hitting him again or how much it hurt. The pain made it difficult for him to focus on running and caused him to slow down, but he kept running with the pain continuing to affect him. He felt something on his back, driving him to push his legs faster. For him it was more of a distraction than a help, but he forced himself forward to avoid dealing with whatever was behind him.

“Brad, you don’t have anything for me. Take our friends and get the hell out of here,” Shinny yelled at him. She shoved him away from her and swung around, still holding her shield in place deflecting the projectiles from the prasers firing at them.

“Shinny!” Brad cried out as he felt a tugging and pulling of his shoulder.

“Johnson, Johnson, wake up. You are scaring the Little Mothers,” Fernando whispered into Brad’s ear, as he gently shook Brad’s shoulder.

Brad, surprised by the sudden interruption of his dream, popped his eyes open. Would that damn dream ever stop? Fernando loomed over him with a concerned expression. “Uh, what’s going on, Fernando?”

“Johnson, you seem to have many restless sleep periods. This has been the worst, with your frenzied kicking and calling out for your mate.”

Great, thought Brad, so close to leaving and they probably think I’m a nut case. Although this time he was weirded out by not only finally understanding what he had been dreaming for the past few months, but the realization it started even before he joined CIG. He still didn’t know what the dream was telling him he needed to do exactly or if he could do anything to change the outcome. He looked around the room and came to the realization that although he was among friends, the one thing he wasn’t going to do was to share the dream with anyone, especially this close to leaving.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to concern anyone. I think it’s just a case of homesickness.”

Fernando pulled back. “Homesickness? Is it a contagion that spreads across species? Will you be well enough to fly?”

Brad wanted to laugh but decided Fernando wouldn’t take it kindly, considering the severe look on his face. “It’s not a true illness. It’s an expression from my planet that means to ‘miss home.’”

“Oh, alright, it shouldn’t be too long.” Fernando noted. “Your mate intercepted a report indicating that the Zuonopy would be exiting from the transit gate at any moment. It seems that news of the Zuonopy’s impending arrival has put everyone on edge, even the Aneplé, who are now on high alert. Their senior officers began moving the Kisskalu toward the Pertutinn Transit Gate.” There hadn’t been many communications on the Aneplé’s next destination, but if he had to guess, they were planning on transiting to Connor’s Gambit. Fernando had at length chewed on Brad about that name; what in the world was that idiot pilot thinking, naming the dark hole Connor’s Gambit? Didn’t he have any idea how choosing that name would attract the Aneplé?

Brad sat up and stared at the medallion on Fernando’s waist. “When did you start wearing a personal shield?”

Fernando shook his head in disbelief. “When did you just notice? Wesgwidy makes me wear it all the time. It’s easier for me to wear it than to have one more thing to argue about. I would prefer to not be the only one in the colony with one.”

“Can I have it?” Brad asked. He had a sudden chilling sense it could be disastrous for Shinny not to have it on her.

Fernando looked at him as if he was losing his nerves asking for the personal shield, but he followed Brad’s gaze outside of the glass wall at Shinny, who was standing next to Wesgwidy and Yancurve. “Your mate already has one.”

“I know, but it won’t be enough.”

Fernando pulled the shield off his waist and handed it to him. “I’m more than happy to leave it behind, but if it can give you a measure of relief, you are welcome to the shield. I recommend you hold onto it as long as possible. Your mate will probably just give it to Wesgwidy, who will slap it back on me.”

Brad attached the device to his waist. “Wesgwidy at times seems a bit abusive when it comes to you.”

“Not really, she’s just fulfilling her role as the colony’s Mother.”

Brad stood up and walked over to his rations box and pulled out a package. Hopefully, they would be off the Kisskalu soon. He hated the meals, but after the remaining four packages, he would only have the filtered water to survive on. Looking around the room it was hard to tell who or how many were left with the carefully built bundles resembling sleeping Neslins scattered around the room. He laughed that it looked like they had used every spare blanket since they started building the bundles; even Lucky had gone missing. He thought about looking for his blanket, but he wasn’t sure if there was even enough time to rebuild the bundles to look as convincingly realistic as they did. He could always replace Lucky on Earth with another Johnson plaid blanket. Turning toward Fernando, who stood next to him, he asked, “How many of us are left?”

“There are fifteen of us left. The rest are on the vehicle, including Ravelstan and the princess. There’s no staying here.”

“Out of curiosity, has Wesgwidy made a decision?” Brad asked staring at the big Neslin guarding the ward.

Fernando sighed. “No, she hasn’t, but I’ll take care of it. I realize Wesgwidy has an overly cautious nature. It has served her well as a Technician and has kept the colony alive and functioning. I will probably need to step in and force her to make the decision for the Colony’s sake.”

Brad was curious what Fernando meant by that, but decided against asking. He could be asking for trouble, if he were to step into the middle of a Neslin family squabble. It’s the last thing they needed at this time. He began his daily regime of stretching calisthenics. Fernando joined in with him. It was a mix of human and Neslin exercises that they had begun to share. They both sat down to start a series of stretches, when the lights started flashing. Brad looked toward the glass wall and saw Shinny and Wesgwidy in a heated discussion, “Looks like those two are having an argument about Yeshawliq’s signal.”

“Johnson, get your suits and hood on. I need to have a discussion with Wesgwidy.” Fernando stood up and ran out of the isolation ward.

Brad stood up and walked over to the box that was storing his supplies. He put all of the remaining hoods in his pockets except for one. He then donned the extra uniform Shinny had printed for him to strip off at a later time once he was in clean air. He pulled the last hood over his head and followed up with the last remaining biohazard suit. It was overkill, but he didn’t want to take any chances, thinking he needed to take precautions should the outer suit become compromised. After he was sure that the suit was sealed, he watched Fernando through the glass wall running up to Shinny and Wesgwidy. He had no idea what Fernando had told Shinny, but she left them running toward the entrance to the ward. A couple of Neslins walked up to him looking for directions since all of the senior Neslins were gone. “We need to get everyone up and ready. We’re leaving, now.” We’d better be leaving, he thought. He didn’t know what would be worse, missing the chance to leave or trying to explain to the seven foot Neslins why he was mistaken.

Shinny ran into the room. She looked relieved that Brad had his suit on and was organizing the rest to leave. “Get everyone together, it’s time.” She ran toward a table against the wall and leapt onto it and pulled the vent cover away from the wall. She reached into the vent with her right arm and pulled out a praser. She then placed it at her waist. Shinny jumped off the table and stared outside the room watching for Fernando’s signal.

Brad stood at the head of the small crowd of the Neslins facing him. Suddenly the Kisskalu trembled, forcing everyone to rebalance his or her stance. Once they recovered, he briefed them on the plan and their respective responsibilities once they started the evacuation. Looking out, Brad saw Fernando’s signal to begin executing their escape plan. Later, when there was more time, he would ask Fernando how he convinced Wesgwidy to change her mind. Brad looked back at the Neslins looking at him for guidance, “Let’s go. Remember, we will split into two groups.”

[]Chapter 32

 

 

The explosions and flashing lights were giving Plity a headache. They should have had more time between the Zuonopy exiting a transit gate and the attack. Intelligence had not indicated that CIG had a weapon that could hit a target as quickly as the Zuonopy did exiting the gate. Intelligence should answer for this failure, she thought. Plity swiped her tablet looking for a damage report. Seeing nothing, she wondered if the command module had been hit because no orders were being relayed to her from chip communications. Even odder than no damage reports was seeing people running like a frenzied mob through the hallway. She had her squad stand against the wall until she could figure out what was going on and then execute their next move. Watching the panicked runners streaming in front of her, she sent a message through her chip to her lieutenant to grab one of the runners.

Lieutenant Swetinny stepped forward, scanning the runners, and reached out, grabbing a small, dark-haired female with a ridged nose dressed in dilapidated green overalls worn by the hydroponic technicians. The woman struggled to pull away. Plity watched as the lieutenant responded quickly, slamming the woman against the wall, forcing her with a slap to remain in place.

Plity stood in front of the runner. “What’s going on? Where were you going?”

The woman slunk down in fear from being detained by security. “My unit received a report that five Class A gardens were on fire. The units were requesting assistance in putting out the fires,” she sputtered in fear, while watching the lieutenant’s hands to avoid being hit again.

Plity ignored the gasping from her team. The destruction of the Class A gardens would create a ship wide morale problem. Those plants made assignments on the deployed units more pleasant, especially with the pollen floating around, she thought as she inhaled deeply.

The ship trembled for the third time, throwing everyone in a mass on the floor. People who had been running picked themselves up and continued running down the hall. The detained woman grabbed her head and doubled over in agony, screaming, “Let me go. There’s an alarm in my head. I need to go. I need to help with the fires.”

Plity nodded to the lieutenant and watched him throw the crying woman into the crowd to run with the stream of people. Checking her tablet, she found the report of the fires, but no damage reports from the explosions. Whatever was going on was definitely odd. She would have expected an extensive damage report with the failure of the ship’s shields. Looking at her team, she asked, “Find out whose squad is watching the Neslin prisoners. I want a status report, now.” Her team looked at the duty rosters then back at her. They remained stoically silent. “Who’s on duty watching the Neslins?” They looked at each other. “Lieutenant, whose squad is on prisoner duty?”

He swallowed hard before he answered. “I don’t know how this happened. My squad was assigned duty this shift.”

Plity, stunned, stepped closer to Swetinny, reared back and slapped him across his face. “You fool! What have you done? Can’t you see what is going on? What would you do if you were them? They know we value the plants in the gardens. You should have shot that female pilot with your own praser. Get out of my sight,” she snarled contemptuously, pushing him into the crowd running in front of them.

Plity turned to the rest of the squadron standing against the wall. “Find the Neslins and find those two CIG pilots.”

Plity bit the inside of her cheek as she read the operations reports while her team attempted to find the prisoners. She allowed herself a momentary smile, musing about the glorious victory they would have escaping the Zuonopy through Connor’s Gambit to their home system. They would lead the vanguard of defenders to destroy the Zuonopy as it emerged from the other side of the dark hole when it followed the Kisskalu. Looking forward, she saw a security technician waiting to be acknowledged. “What do you have for me?” she barked at the sudden interruption of her thoughts about a more pleasant future.

“Commander, our sensors show the Neslins are scattered throughout the Kisskalu.” She held her tablet’s screen so Plity could view the locations.

Plity furrowed her eyebrows as she viewed the dots moving through the schematic. “Where is the closest Neslin?” She watched the people running past them through the dark mix of pollen and smoke seeping into the hallway.

The technician looked at her tablet. “The sensors show the closest one is running in this hall.”

“Idiot, turn around. Even I can see through this chaos there are no Neslins in this area,” Plity snapped, shoving the technician into the runners to be pushed back into the wall. She turned toward the rest of the squad standing against the wall. “Are there any more idiots among you? What has happened? This is not the first time we’ve gone on high alert. Send out a high priority message to all personnel on the ship to report physical sightings of the Neslins to us. They can’t blend in, so I expect a report soon. Be ready with your weapons. Shoot them all, but keep at least one alive for questioning.”

 

 

Brad was awestruck with Yeshawliq’s activities. The flashing lights and loud noises had been their ideas, but including the ship shaking as if a weapon struck it was an astonishingly successful ploy. The first one took them by surprise, but now they were getting warnings on the subsequent tremors, allowing them to prepare. He had just finished reading Yancurve’s message. The other group was onboard and the transfer vehicle technicians were firing up the engines.

Fernando called, “Johnson, the first group is on board. It’s time for us to head toward the vehicle.”

“Mother, we need to pick up the pace. I just received a message from Yeshawliq that Nerunder has received a report physically sighting our current position and is not far from us,” Shinny reported loudly for everyone to hear.

“We jog,” commanded Wesgwidy.

Wesgwidy had started them at a slow easy jog, but quickly increased the pace and had the group running. It wasn’t too long before Brad found himself running at full speed trying to keep up with the Neslins in front of him. Running into the Transportation Room, he felt he was ready and knew what to expect, even with the poor visibility from Yeshawliq dimming the lights and the heavy pollen floating through the air. He thought he was prepared for this run, but still found himself running as hard as he ran in his dreams at full speed with his hair soaked with sweat inside of his hood. Even with his mask filtering the pollen, his sides hurt from the lack of oxygen. He kept pushing himself thinking, unlike the dream, his adrenaline would kick in to help him keep up the pace. He had an idea from looking down from the bicycle track they didn’t have much further to go, but it still felt like a million miles away. Brad could see still the outlines of the Neslins in front of him and wished he could see the vehicle beyond the Neslins in front of him.

Ptzing, ptzing, ptzing. Son of a bitch, the Aneplé were shooting at them. He thought they would have more time. They did everything they could do to distract the Aneplé crew. Shinny pulled out her shield and used it to deflect the praser fire. A loud roar came from someone in front of him. Damn it, someone just got hit. It wasn’t in the dream, that wasn’t supposed to happen. At least most of the weapons fire hit Shinny’s shield. The few shots that didn’t flew wildly around the Transportation Room, missing everyone else. These people were as bad as their pilots. Thank goodness they only had one injury, so far, he thought. He glanced back quickly at the shield’s opalescent shimmer flickering as it deflected the weapons’ fire and wondered how much longer it was going to be. As the weapons’ fire continued, he wanted to know what the hell was happening behind him. Turning around, he despaired. Shinny had managed to stun a large number of the Aneplé following them, but three times as many poured into the room behind the stunned bodies and continued to shoot at them.

Slowing, he glanced behind him and saw Shinny running closely behind with the same angry expression on her face he had been seeing in his dreams over the past two months. She had a weapon in her right hand and the shield behind her left shoulder, moving it to deflect the weapons’ fire. He was frustrated they were firing to maim or kill and Shinny was firing to only stun them to use as a defense, if their escape failed. He looked back at Shinny but could not hear what she was saying, with the ptzinging sounds rapidly increasing in frequency, but he knew what was coming. He moved over to the right. She ran faster to catch up to him. He slapped the shield attached to his uniform to activate it and pulled it off his uniform. The shield grew as he held it up as high as possible to protect the Neslins in front of him.

Shinny ran up to Brad and grabbed his shield. “Brad, I can hold them. Take our friends and get the hell out of here.”

Brad’s breath caught in his throat. Shinny might as well have slapped him. He felt a sharp pain in his abdomen from her declaration. It hurt having her tell him to go, no matter how many times it had played in his head. “Shinny, I can’t leave you alone.”

Brad, if you stay with me, neither one of us will make it back to Earth for Dane. I need to know our son will at least have his father. You need to leave me now.”

Hearing Shinny’s pronouncement through his chip made it hard for him to focus on running and caused him to slow down from the emotional and physical pain affecting him.

“Brad, if you stay with me, you won’t have anything for me and you won’t be helping me,” Shinny yelled as she shoved him away from her and swung around, still holding the two shields in place deflecting the projectiles from the prasers firing at them.

“Shinny!” Brad cried out as he felt a tugging and pulling of his shoulder. The next thing he knew he was being lifted and carried by two of the Neslins. He looked behind him. Not only was Shinny holding her own, but she was pushing the Aneplé back. He wasn’t sure how long she would be able to keep it up since more people seemed to be pouring through the entrances.

Once two of the Little Mothers picked Brad up, they were able to run much faster to the vehicle. The vehicle was already running and everyone else was strapped in. The little Mothers ran toward the front of the vehicle and gently placed Brad on the floorboard. “Johnson we needed you on this vehicle to pilot it. Your mate is correct. If You stayed, no one would be able to leave and I am committed to saving the colony,” explained Fernando.

Brad’s feet touched the platter and he looked out. He could still see Shinny holding her position against the Aneplé. He looked at Fernando and the other Neslins. “She was my copilot. I need a copilot to help me with this flight.”

Fernando looked at the other Neslins. “Strap in, I’m flying in front with Johnson.” Lifting his head, Fernando looked directly at Wesgwidy. “There’s no other way, complain later. Have someone look at your wound and rest.”

Brad jumped. It was the first time he had ever heard Fernando speak to Mother in a commanding voice. “Uh, are you certified to fly this vehicle?”

“Let’s just say I’ve had some time in a few cockpits.” Fernando walked toward the front of the vehicle and climbed down from the platter into the cockpit.

Brad followed him into the cockpit wondering what the hell had he gotten himself into. Looking at his waist he realized Shinny had attached her tablet to his uniform at his abdomen. Fernando was strapped in and was looking at the instruments and sensors. Brad didn’t know Fernando’s background and was nervous, but so far it appeared as if he had experience in a cockpit flying second seat. He handed Fernando his tablet. “Before you lecture me on losing control of my tablet, I need you to download the program for the extra shielding onto the vehicle’s computer and distribute it in a checkerboard pattern. The instructions are on the tablet. Can you do it? Because if you can’t we might have problems.”

Fernando swiped through the instructions and transferred the program to the vehicle. “I can handle this. What’s a checkerboard?”

“Never mind the checkerboard, just scatter the shielding around the vehicle’s atmospheric structures,” Brad answered in a hurry as he raced through preflight check. Pressing his lips together, he closed his eyes and thought as hard and as loud as he could.

Shinny, please hear me. I will depart at maximum speed. Because we need to shield the vehicle, I will not be able to shield the exhaust. The air expelled from the vehicle’s ion engine will be super-heated. Prepare to shield. I love you. I’ll be back.”

I heard you loud and clear. Now would be a good time for the cavalry, since it appears as if I’m the only one with a shield. See you soon. Love you.”

Shinny’s private message gave him hope she would survive. “Fernando, if everyone is buckled in, give our passengers a countdown of ten.” Again focusing on communicating with Shinny and matching Fernando’s countdown, he thought, “Shinny, prepare to shield, counting down from ten: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, blastoff.” Brad gestured for the vehicle to thrust forward at maximum speed through the Transportation Room, through the Kisskalu’s diaphragm into space toward the Zuonopy.

As the vehicle rushed toward the Zuonopy, he transformed the platter from the shape of an airplane to something resembling a dirigible, evenly distributing the mass around the engine to increase its speed through space. He stared at the sensors. “Fernando, looking at the number of Vipers in the process of launching—it looks like the Aneplé were waiting for our departure. Continue to create the patches of shielding. Ensure the patches are balanced around the platform’s diameters.”

[]Chapter 33

 

 

Griken ordered the Zuonopy to pursue the Kisskalu at full speed, hoping to catch up. Now that the Zuonopy and its squadrons’ weapons were fully loaded, he was confident of overwhelming the Kisskalu in combat. He watched the Kisskalu moving away toward the transit gate and tensed thinking about his orders limiting his area of operation. It would be unfortunate if the Kisskalu went through the Pertutinn Gate, since his orders only allowed him to transit to and remain in this nexus. Otherwise, he would be subjected to the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three required the agreement of three Flag Officers or admirals for his orders to be amended. CIG Fleet threw the amendment in at the last moment to place a limit on Admiral N’Klaftin’s area of control now that he had returned as Connor. Although, Griken was pleased to see N’Klaftin return and was looking forward to a positive change in the conflict, not all the Flags viewed his return as positive.

Griken was anxious. Even at full speed, it didn’t appear as if he would be able to confront the Kisskalu before it exited the nexus. Saying something to Connor on the unlikelihood of retrieving his daughter and son from the Kisskalu would be equal to rubbing salt into a wound. Connor was standing behind the bridge, and could interpret the tactical issues as well as anyone else.

“Admiral, a vehicle has just exited the Kisskalu at maximum speed.”

“Helmsman, provide a visual and a full report,” ordered Griken. He was speechless, staring at the vehicle on the screen speeding toward them. What in the universe was it? And while the clarity of the object was still limited because of the distance, if he had to guess, the orange dots scattered throughout the strange looking vehicle looked like Neslins.

“Admiral, it is Pilot Johnson. He is piloting a transfer vehicle from the Zuonopy and requesting an armed escort. The vehicle’s signature is verified and Johnson is using the correct encryption signals.” The helmsman looked at the sensors and streaming video. “The Aneplé have launched a number of Vipers, and they are in pursuit of the transfer vehicle.”

“Communications, forward the following orders to the air commander on duty. Assign two Viper and two Defender Squadrons immediately to engage all Aneplé vehicles within range and escort the transfer vehicle back to the Zuonopy.”

 

 

Fernando watched Brad gesturing madly across the dashboard. “Johnson what are you doing?”

“Once the Aneplé start firing, I will maneuver the vehicle so they hit the heavily shielded areas you scattered, but after that I won’t be fast enough to respond if there are more than a couple of direct hits. But it’s necessary until the program Shinny built is completely downloaded into the vehicle’s system to rotate and move with the weapons fire to ensure the patches of shielding are hit. Warn the Little Mothers the turbulence will be extreme.”

Fernando nodded. “Smart planning on her part. I regret leaving your mate. It was unfortunate, but necessary. At that time, I could see no other alternatives.”

Brad’s voice was quiet, laced with pain, “Shinny understood. She believed it was the right thing to do.”

Fernando did not respond. He didn’t want to add to Johnson’s loss. He sent a message to Yancurve on his tablet, “Warn the Little Mothers it will be a rough ride. How is Wesgwidy?” He passed Yancurve’s message to Brad. “Yancurve says Wesgwidy is fine and resting.”

“Thanks, I hope she has a speedy recovery and is better soon.” Brad made minor adjustments to the configuration, increasing their speed slightly. Looking at the sensors, he saw a kinetic weapon was due to hit in thirty seconds and another three seconds later, followed by laser bursts. He turned the vehicle sharply to the left. The vehicle shuddered from the missile hitting the shield. He quickly tipped the vehicle downward and let out the breath he was holding as the vehicle shook violently from the second missile hitting another shield patch.

“Direct hits. Nice flying. I’m going to have a difficult time explaining this to my peers when I try to explain how you were flying to purposely have the vehicle hit,” Fernando said, shaking his head.

“Not much choice. The vehicle isn’t fast enough to avoid the weapons fire. It’s that or destruction,” Brad responded as he maneuvered again to the left for another direct hit. “This won’t last much longer. The Zuonopy launched four squadrons.” He put his hands on his lap. There wasn’t much for him to do but pray the executed programming was successful as the vehicle kept jerking back and forth and up and down to allow the shields to absorb the impacts from the weapons fire. He would have been more confident if it had been Shinny who programmed the shields, and also directed the placement of the shields at will rather than leaving them static, but he didn’t have enough information on Fernando’s background to trust that he had the ability to do that. It didn’t matter, though; this was working, at least so far. Just a few more minutes, he told himself, as his seat responded to the jerking, holding him in place.

Fernando narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the Swarm Defenders coming up to them. “What is on the tails of those Defenders?”

Brad choked at the sight of his Fairy-like illustration of Shinny with wings in a Fleet uniform on the tails of the Swarm Defenders passing them. “Uh it’s Swarm Defender Squadron 262, my squadron. It looks like they decided to make my mate their mascot.” Brad was overwhelmed with their message welcoming him home. It would have been perfect if Shinny were sitting next to him.

“Interesting, I don’t think anyone ever thought of designs other than camouflages,” remarked Fernando.

“It was just an idea I had. I wasn’t sure if I could persuade Commander Deznoic to consider it, but it appears as if they integrated the concept. They need to come up with a different mascot. I’m not sure Shinny will be too happy when she sees it.” Brad breathed a sigh of relief as they approached the Zuonopy. While he was curious how the squadrons were doing, he focused solely on bringing his passengers in so he could turn around and retrieve Shinny. “Warn the Little Mothers I will be changing the configuration to dock in the Zuonopy as soon as I’m given clearance.”

[]Chapter 34

 

 

Brad turned off the transfer vehicle’s engines and rested his head on his arms on the dashboard, ignoring the cheering coming from above him in the platter section. He was exhausted physically. Mentally, he was a wreck, questioning the decision to leave Shinny behind to battle the Aneplé Security Forces by herself. He needed to pull himself together and focus on launching an immediate rescue of Shinny. They owed her their lives and he still needed to discuss a rescue with Connor and Admiral Griken. He hadn’t communicated Shinny’s disposition in an effort to protect her, especially since he was looking at her download from the Kisskalu and found five Aneplé spies on the Zuonopy. He didn’t know who they were but he had their signatures and was tracking them on his tablet.

Fernando grabbed Johnson’s shoulders in exuberance. “You did it. The colony is safe. I need to join the others and will be back to help.”

Brad stared down at the floorboard. “Okay, I’ll be out soon. I just need to collect myself for the moment.” If only he had understood the dream, he could have changed the outcome. Feeling guilty and powerless wasn’t helping, but he needed to organize his thoughts before he talked to the admirals. He wasn’t sure how Connor would take the news he had left his daughter behind. If he were in Connor’s shoes, he wouldn’t take the news well. Taking deep breaths to compose himself, he thought about how he could exit the vehicle and strip the contaminated hood and uniform off so he could search for Connor and Griken. He needed to find them as soon as possible. He stood and walked to the ladder behind the seats and climbed upward. Reaching the empty passenger area, he looked out of the vehicle’s formed platter and saw both Connor and Griken and a few other Fleet personnel he didn’t recognize standing on the catwalk next to the platform waiting for him. He walked out and down the ramp to the platform and carefully undressed, folding the contaminated suit so he would not be affected by any of the pollen that remained on it.

Griken watched Johnson undress, thinking he was going to owe the kid a case of his favorite beer. “Connor, if I hadn’t seen it myself, I would never have believed your son would return, and with a Neslin colony, no less. Once they learn he’s your son, your reputation with the Neslins will go from well-regarded to legendary,” Griken teased his friend.

“I’ll just have to remind them it’s coincidental, not genetic,” he said, pacing anxiously, eagerly waiting, for his daughter to also disembark. He had faith his son and daughter would find a way off the Kisskalu. However, he never expected they would also rescue a colony of Neslins.

“Why is he undressing?”

“Don’t know. I’m sure there is a good reason for it.”

Brad finished stripping off the layers of protection, leaving the second uniform on. He carefully removed the hood and folded it in. Thankfully most of the pollen had fallen off during the flight, though he carried some of the smell. The smell wasn’t strong enough to cause him to throw up, but he wanted to move away as fast as possible. He quickly jogged toward Connor and Griken.

Connor watched Brad approach them alone. He furrowed his eyebrows as he kept staring behind Brad at the vehicle anxiously looking for his daughter. He walked to meet Brad and gave him a bear hug. “Welcome back! You did a fantastic job bringing the Neslins back with you.” He looked at the grim expression on Brad’s face and knew there was an issue. “Is Shinny still on the vehicle? Is everything all right?”

“She didn’t make it onto the vehicle. The Aneplé security forces stumbled on our escape and engaged us while we were running to the vehicle. She volunteered to hold back the Aneplé so we could escape.” He took a heavy breath before he started again. “We need to go back to the ship and rescue her.” Brad looked at Connor and Griken standing stiffly not responding, just staring at him as if the universe had fallen apart. “Is there a problem? How long would it take to launch a rescue?”

“Johnson, the Kisskalu just went through the Pertutinn Transit Gate. My orders do not allow me to pursue it beyond the nexus if the transit gate leads away from recognized CIG territories.”

Brad stood in front of them, blown away by Griken’s words. He turned to Connor and spoke to him in English. “Couldn’t you order him to pursue the Kisskalu through the gate?” Recognizing the hurt expression on Connor’s face, Brad panicked. “You could order him, right?”

Responding in English, Connor answered, “I can’t. This is his ship. Griken’s orders include a provision requiring a ‘Rule of Three’ to amend the orders. The Rule of Three requires three Flag Officers on site to make the change.”

“This has to be a joke. She’s your daughter. You have to be able to do something. We can’t just leave her on the ship. Either they will find her and kill her or she will travel with them to Connor’s Gambit.”

“What are you talking about?” Connor asked.

“The Aneplé have decided that Connor’s Gambit is a shortened transit to their home systems.”

Connor shook his head in disbelief. “How did the Aneplé derive their wrong-headed conclusion? The dark hole had just been discovered—information on it’s been publicized in open sources. It’s typical of the insanity that comes out of the Aneplé Fleet.” Connor closed his eyes momentarily and inhaled deeply. “Brad, we can’t do anything at this time. Admiral Yespeth will be here soon. I will request Admiral Yespeth’s support to pursue the Kisskalu when she arrives.”

Brad was dumbfounded by Connor’s response. “CIG Fleet is worthless! We can’t wait. If we leave Shinny on the ship, she won’t survive.” Brad glared at Connor. “I think you don’t want to do anything.”

“You can’t seriously believe that? If Griken and I act on it alone, we will be pushed out of the Fleet. Any changes we just convinced the Fleet to make will be cancelled, leaving Earth in imminent danger.”

“Actually, I do believe that. No skin off your back, you already have your replacement children and a new wife. Where does that leave Dane and me?” Brad snapped in desperation as he pushed Connor aside.

Connor moved aside with the push, “Brad, it will take a while, but both Dane and you will survive over time.”

Although Commander Rontue did not have the complete download for the language being spoken between Connor and the pilot, she could parse out a few words. The discussion became more heated, with the pilot becoming angrier. She was astonished when the pilot pushed Connor. Seeing the pilot walk away, she stepped in front of him. “Pilot Johnson, I would like for you to provide the Intelligence Division a debriefing of your time on the Kisskalu.”

Brad had no idea who the officer standing in his way was and had his own agenda. Looking at the Aneplé signals on his tablet, he grimaced at their meaning. He pulled Shinny’s tablet from his waist and slapped it on the commander’s belt as Shinny had done to him. “Debrief this. I’m going to kill the bastard.” He brushed her aside with his shoulder as he walked away from them and jogged toward Shinny’s battalion.

Not recognizing the word from her downloaded lexicon, Tipaly turned to Griken, “What is the meaning of bastard?”

“It isn’t as important as trying to figure out who he intends to kill. Where is he going?”

Tipaly, tracking the pilot, “He is heading toward the Special Combat Troop training area.”

[]Chapter 35

 

 

Leevaal stood in his exercise uniform observing his squad practicing hand-to-hand combat, while Colonel T’Lentic and Major Ukpres inspected anything they could think of to distract the troops. As soon as word spread around the Cruiser that Pilot Johnson and Major N’Klaftin were returning from the Aneplé ship, the two of them did everything they could think of to keep the battalion too busy to watch the fighter vehicles escort the transfer vehicle back to the cruiser. He was irked with the unprofessionalism they displayed in doing everything they could to stand in Major N’Klaftin’s way, making her short time on the Zuonopy difficult. His memory of the first time Ukpres threw N’Klaftin across the room as an example of an unprepared soldier and each time after she repeated similar stunts, still grated on him.

He spied Pilot Johnson, the trainee he encountered during the Evasion Exercise, staring directly at Colonel T’Lentic from the entrance with an enraged expression. Leevaal knew exactly what the pilot had on his mind. More than once, he had been ready to kill the colonel himself. But thinking about it and doing it were two different things.

Brad ran toward the Colonel, ready to punch him. Just as he was going to swing, someone held his arm and pulled him back. Still facing the colonel, he yelled, “Traitor, you just killed my mate.” He tried to pull away from whatever had a clamp on his arm. Turning around he saw the oversized sergeant holding onto his arm. “Let go.”

The colonel stepped up to Brad. “What are you talking about?”

“You sent my mate to the Aneplé. When we were on the Kisskalu, they were looking for her. Only three people knew she was on the Defender with me, traveling to the transfer platform. I’m excusing Connor and Griken, which leaves you. I can smell the Aneplé stink all over you,” Brad snarled, ignoring the queasiness in his stomach.

Connor and Griken arrived. Connor stepped up next to Brad, facing T’Lentic. “Is it true?”

“I am not a traitor. It’s true that I despise you and your family for the loss of my brother. I agreed to Operation P’Nic, thinking that would be the end of the major. It never occurred to me it would be as widely successful as it was. I have no connections with the Aneplé. As far as I’m concerned, having them show up was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to others on this ship,” explained T’Lentic, red-faced at Brad’s allegation.

“The Aneplé stink that was all over the Kisskalu is now all over you. Not as strong but it’s on you. By the way, your brother was on the Kisskalu.”

“My brother was on the Kisskalu?” T’Lentic repeated in shock. “My family wants him back but not if he is a traitor.”

“Don’t worry, he is just one of the many drug addicts on the ship. He’s probably too addled to be a traitor,” responded Brad in frustration.

T’Lentic, clearly incensed, stood there fuming from Brad’s accusations. “Major Ukpres, come here—I want you to submit a Disrespect Report on this pilot.”

Connor watched the major approach them. The closer she got the more Brad gagged.

“Get her away, before I throw up. It’s her. She’s the Aneplé spy,” Brad struggled to say as he bent inward, gagging, while the sergeant held onto him more gently.

The major turned and ran. Connor turned to the Sergeant. “Grab her molars.”

Leevaal quickly guided the pilot to the floor before he flew after the major. Reaching the major in four steps, he detained her as he shoved his hand into her mouth to stop her from committing suicide. He wasn’t sure how they knew she was a traitor, but as soon as he put his hand in her mouth, he could feel the false teeth and pulled them out. Holding the molars in his closed fist, he annouced, “Got them.” He let the major drop to the floor, thinking how good that felt. It was ironic she turned out to be as bad as he thought she was.

Brad curled up on the workout mat trying to control the gagging and heard someone calling his name. He didn’t have the strength for any more drama. He just wanted to return to his stateroom to mourn the loss of Shinny. He worried about how Dane would accept the loss of his mother. There had to be a way he could rescue her. But he was having trouble pulling himself together to think what else he could do, if they were not going after her.

“Johnson, are you all right? They just told me you identified the Aneplé spy that sent the Kisskalu after your mate.”

Brad looked up and saw Fernando in a black Fleet uniform. Could the day get any worse? The guy was impersonating an officer, and an admiral at that. “Fernando, you can’t go around wearing that. Couldn’t Wesgwidy or Yancurve print a technician uniform to fit you?”

Fernando looked at everyone’s surprised face from Brad’s comment. “Only he is allowed to address me as Fernando.”

“Johnson, do you know who Ferklopgresfk Nan Dowelstergak is?” Griken asked.

“I don’t think he does. We never told him,” Fernando answered for Brad.

“Admiral Dowelstergak is the Neslin heir,” explained Connor. Turning toward Fernando, “Ferklopgresfk, I didn’t know you were on the ship. How long have you been on the Zuonopy?”

“I flew in with your son as his second seat on the transfer vehicle that brought the colony to the Zuonopy. Sorry I didn’t say something sooner. I needed to make sure everyone was taken care of first.” He turned to Griken. “Thank you for your crew’s hospitality. Everyone is being fed and quartered and I finally have a uniform that fits after six months of wearing a bag on the Kisskalu,” Fernando responded.

Brad reached his hand up and let Fernando help him stand up. “You’re an admiral? How did that happen?”

“The usual way, through hard work,” Fernando answered.

Fernando’s revelation left Brad bewildered. “No one said anything.”

“The colony did not want to share my identity with you because we were not sure we could trust you or your mate. Frankly, I thought Wesgwidy had lost her mind inviting you to join the colony.” Fernando turned to Connor. “Just as the colony hid my identity, they hid theirs. It wasn’t until I saw her defend us that I realized who Johnson’s mate was. One day we need to sit down, and I will share the story of how your daughter and son helped a Neslin Colony escape from an Aneplé battle cruiser with just one praser. But for now, I believe you were looking for a third Flag to provide a voice on ‘The Rule of Three.’ We have a rescue we need to plan.”

Brad glanced at the colonel, who looked uncomfortable with the events unfolding in front of him. The guy was an ass, but Brad owed him an apology before he left. “Colonel T’Lentic, I apologize for presuming you were an Aneplé spy. The Aneplé have been drugging both their crews and Fleet personnel. It may take a while, but if your brother is treated, he should be able to return to your family with his honor intact.” The change in the Colonel’s stance relieved Brad that the rivalry was ending. He sensed he would be able to depend upon Colonel T’Lentic for his support.

Ferric was uncertain about the fate of his brother, but knew he needed to be a player in retrieving Major N’Klaftin. He had mischaracterized her because of her familial relationship to her father, and worse allowed himself to be swayed by an Aneplé spy. He needed to work toward overcoming that blunder. “Thank you for your apology.” Shifting his views on Connor would take time but he was willing to take the first step. Turning toward Connor and Admiral Griken, “My Battalion will be ready to assist you in retrieving Major N’Klaftin.”

“Thank you, sir,” Brad nodded a salute.

[]Chapter 36

 

 

Shinny’s muscles ached from remaining in a tight fetal position under the double layer of shielding for over a day. Except for her, everything on the platform was either blackened from the soot or washed in ash from the fires that erupted from the super-heated air. She peered through the ash-coated shields at the devastation surrounding her, breathing a sigh of relief for the protection of the second shield. One would definitely have not have been enough and would have left her in no better condition than the Aneplé security forces. A wave of despair washed through her. She never imagined she would be left behind to fend for herself.

Moving slowly and carefully, maintaining the seals on her shields, she repositioned herself to sit against a supporting structure. Looking up, she noted she would need to move soon. It appeared as if the stanchion she was leaning on had been weakened from the fire and she should not rely on its support for much longer.

Major, are you well?” Yeshawliq asked through Shinny’s chip. “I know you didn’t want a VPN connection, but I have no choice. There’s no other option since your tablet is no longer on the Kisskalu.”

Shinny wasn’t happy with the VPN, but it was a far better alternative than having nothing to communicate with at the moment. “Could you give me a status update?”

The transfer vehicle boarded the Zuonopy; four Aneplé Swarm Defenders and three Attack Vipers destroyed; Five Aneplé vehicles abandoned. The Zuonopy had no losses.”

Shinny was relieved when she heard Brad had made it safely to the Zuonopy. Her time on the Kisskalu would be tolerable knowing Brad would make it back home to retrieve Dane and raise him. Everything else she heard became snippets of background noise, but she became curious about one point. “What do you mean the vehicles were abandoned?”

The Aneplé pilots ejected from the vehicles.”

Shinny wasn’t going to correct Yeshawliq. As long as the Aneplé thought the pilots ejected and did not know the safety routines on the vehicles had been engaged from the CIG flight maneuvers, it would provide the Fleet with a tactical advantage. She smiled thinking how much her husband had brought to the Fleet. “Thank you for the clarification. Is there anything more to report?”

The Kisskalu entered the Pertutinn Transit Gate four shifts ago and is attempting to proceed at full speed toward Connor’s Gambit.”

As long as the Kisskalu remained in mapped space, there remained a small chance she would return home one day. However, if the Kisskalu entered the unexplored dark hole, that small chance would become almost zero. Fewer than 1% of the individuals who entered the dark holes without special equipment showed up decades later; the rest not at all. If the Kisskalu entered the dark hole, it would be foolish on her part to even hope for a possibility she would eventually return to Earth. Even with the equipment, a number of ships pulled into the gravity wells did not return. She would be better off if she could find a way off the ship before it entered the dark hole. “Yeshawliq, when will the Kisskalu reach Connor’s Gambit?”

Major, I estimate perhaps one to two shifts. The Kisskalu is currently at full speed, but the speed fluctuates with their ability to compensate for the folded space ridges.”

Shinny stared through the mess around her toward the Kisskalu’s bow where it appeared there was some activity. She wondered if she would be able to steal another vehicle. No, that probably wouldn’t work. She couldn’t imagine they would allow it to happen again this soon. “Yeshawliq, is there any news on the Zuonopy?”

The Zuonopy has entered the Pertutinn Transit Gate and an estimated two shifts behind.”

Shinny closed her eyes and focused on what she knew. Was there something she might have missed? “Yeshawliq, I need your help.”

Major, it is I who needs your help to leave the Kisskalu. I don’t want to go into the dark hole.”

This was a mess. It wasn’t good that the AI believed it was as helpless as her, Shinny thought. Where the heck did she come from anyway? “Yeshawliq, how did you become a part of the Kisskalu?”

My inception started as a toy dragon given to a bipedal child named Yeshawliq Ofmyneston. I was Yeshawliq’s childhood companion. As Yeshawliq aged, she continued to keep me as her companion, upgrading my hardware components and software programs including my protocols, although my foundational programming remained intact. When Yeshawliq joined CIG’s Fleet, she was commissioned as a custodian officer, allowing her to continue to work on robotic devices. Yeshawliq took me on her assignments and I worked as her assistant. When she reported to the Kisskalu, she attached me to the environmental systems through a hidden port she built in her stateroom. We would work closely together testing devices she created. Yeshawliq had planned to present her work to the Fleet through her chain of command. Unfortunately, her plan was interrupted when the Aneplé boarded the Kisskalu. Yeshawliq barricaded herself in her stateroom. Before the Aneplé broke into her room she downloaded everything on her chip into me. I essentially became Yeshawliq when her organic component was destroyed. Once I had her information from her chip, I understood how important it was to hide her work. The more I worked on doing that, the more we became one.”

Shinny let a few tears drop thinking how Yeshawliq’s death and rebirth had essentially kept them alive. Yeshawliq’s story also explained a lot. No wonder she opposed anything that would risk killing the Aneplé. It was part of her foundational programming as a child’s toy. On the other hand, the AI also had the human Yeshawliq’s desire to return home and her CIG Fleet training. “Yeshawliq, you mentioned to Brad that at times you can control the Kisskalu. What did you mean?”

I had an idea I could navigate the Kisskalu back to CIG territories and have been working on that objective, but it’s been slow. As you can see I haven’t been productive in reaching that goal because navigation requires skills I don’t have. Each time I attempt to affect the navigation, there is a system override and technicians are assigned to review the incident. The risk of discovery is very high. I have been better off focusing on the environmental systems, although, there was too much dust for me to dispose.”

So much for the CIG training, Shinny thought. “Then what can you do to control the Kisskalu?”

I seem to be able to impact the Kisskalu’s speed. Although it was an accident, at one time, I was able to bring it to a complete stop.”

“Could you slow the Kisskalu or bring it to a full stop again?”

It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I don’t know if I should do it again. I may be discovered.”

Shinny sighed to herself, wishing her conversation with the AI was easier. “Yeshawliq, there is a risk you would be discovered, but if you do not do anything, then more than likely the Kisskalu will enter Connor’s Gambit, neither of us will make it home. If you are able to slow or stop the Kisskalu, then it is more likely the Zuonopy will reach us in time.” Her shields flickered, signaling they were almost completely discharged and would no longer protect her or provide filtered air. “Yeshawliq, is the air safe in this section or should I leave?”

The air on this platform is toxic from the fires. I have been able to isolate this platform from the other platforms, however, I would not be able to this clean this platform fast enough to help you. You would not last long in this air. You must leave. When you leave there are Aneplé Security Forces waiting for you at all of the exits.”

Shinny had anticipated the Aneplé would dispatch their Security Forces. That’s what she would have done, and at least she had confirmation. “Yeshawliq, I’m going to turn myself over to the Aneplé. Don’t send me your stateroom number until I ask for it. It will be safer for you if I don’t know it until I can pick up your main component.”

I understand. Will you be safe?”

“Probably not, but I don’t have many options.”

Shinny looked at the exits and decided to take the closest one. Holding her breath as she stood up, she walked toward a pile of ashes and dropped her shields and praser into it, and then walked over to the door. Stepping out, she faced about twenty Aneplé security officers pointing prasers at her. She remembered the lieutenant leading the team from her first day on Kisskalu. “Lieutenant Swetinny, this seems like overkill, since I’m unarmed.”

Swetinny pointed his praser at Shinny. “Hands up and away from your body. Any deviation and all of us will shoot you. After watching the video of you before all the electronics were destroyed, I wonder if even twenty-two guards will be enough to hold you off.”

Shinny stared at the lieutenant, thinking he probably wouldn’t mind another opportunity to shoot her again. She kept her hands high and away from her body to avoid giving the lieutenant an excuse to shoot her.

Swetinny waved his praser. “Move away from the door.” He watched her step from the blackened door toward the center of the hallway. “I’m stuck between thanking you and killing you now. I’m not sure how you managed to change the duty roster to allow the Neslins to escape. Then again, I no longer need to worry about Nerunder and the Neslins. Capturing you could lead to a promotion for me ”

Shinny weighed her options. Perhaps honesty would work toward keeping her alive longer. “We didn’t touch the roster. The ship’s AI changed the roster.”

“The ship doesn’t have an AI. Keep up the stories and I’ll definitely shoot you. Looking at the damage, I don’t think the captain will care if you’re dead or not.”

“Shoot me and you may have to explain to your captain why you shot Connor’s daughter.” Shinny knew they were looking at their sensors and hoping they were reading her truthfulness. They were probably wondering why they had not caught it before now.

The squad looked at their tablets. Swetinny sneered, “Considering how much damage you’ve accomplished, I’m not going to trust our sensors. For now, I’m not going to shoot you, but I am taking you to medical. I have a few friends there who owe me favors. It won’t take us long to extract the information on your chip to get to the truth.” He motioned for her to follow his security team as they headed toward medical.

Shinny shuddered at his threat. For now, she was better off complying. They might learn about Yeshawliq, but at least they wouldn’t find the AI.

[]Chapter 37

 

 

Brad paced nervously in his stateroom waiting for the signal to report to Laco’s transport. Normally, he would fly a Defender with his squadron, but Colonel T’Lentic suggested Shinny would be located faster with Brad’s neural link on his chip and should be assigned to his battalion as a special adviser to the Special Combat Troops. No one believed it, but they all felt they owed him the opportunity to be part of the initial boarding party on the Kisskalu to retrieve Major N’Klaftin. The colonel had promised the admirals Brad would be protected on all sides.

Even with every detail planned, Brad remained apprehensive. While the three admirals had agreed to pursue the Kisskalu through the transit gate, if the Aneplé took the ship into Connor’s Gambit it would be game over. They would not pursue the Kisskalu any further. Every discussion of the risks associated with the dark holes ended with “More is unknown than known.” He was tired of hearing it and just wanted to catch up to the Kisskalu before it entered the space phenomenon. He had offered to fly a transport to confront the ship as a delaying tactic, but that was unanimously disapproved. So he was left to wait and pace.

Sperzs watched Brad pacing in their stateroom. “If you don’t stop, you are going to wear a groove into the floor. I can’t relax with you moving incessantly around like that. If you continue, I’ll send you somewhere else to pace.”

“I’m not leaving. Laco already kicked me off the transport vehicle.” Brad watched Sperzs moving his stylus in a curious manner. “What are you doing, anyway, to keep calm?”

“I’m trying to find the coded messages in Pacman. Where did you say this game came from?” Sperzs asked as he steered the piece through the maze.

Brad rolled his eyes at his roommate’s comment. “There are no coded messages. It’s a game I played with my Three-year-old son. I only used it to distract the Aneplé Security Forces.”

Out of habit, he looked at his wristwatch. It was useless, as it was from Earth, but nonetheless he felt departure would be soon. He decided to watch the bridge view on the monitor in his room, then a call came in through the room’s speaker.

“Pilot Johnson, Admiral Griken requests your presence on the bridge.”

“Message received.” Brad turned to his roommate, who was lounging as if he was on a vacation, wishing he could be as laid back. “Sperzs, do you think there’s bad news?”

“No, if it was bad news, someone would be requesting entrance to the room, not asking you to report to the bridge.” Sperzs looked up from his tablet. “It looks like the Kisskalu is on this side of Connor’s Gambit for now.”

Brad furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean? I thought you were playing Pacman.”

“I am. I’m also watching the bridge views.” Sperzs turned his tablet over to show Brad the split screen with the Kisskalu hovering at the top edge of the maze. “You better move it or they will send someone after you, and a disruption like that might affect my score.”

“Thanks,” Brad said as he rushed out, Sperzs laughing in the background.

The first and last time Brad had been on the bridge was during orientation. Although it had been a while, he still remembered the way and was grateful he didn’t need to check his tablet, because he couldn’t get there quickly enough. While waiting for the lift to the bridge, he looked up, wondering whether it would be faster for him to climb the ladder. Just then, the lift arrived. Staring at him was Laco. “Old man, have you been called to the bridge, also?” Brad asked Laco as he stepped into the lift.

“Yes. Do you know what this is about?” Laco asked.

“No,” Brad answered as the lift door opened to the bridge. “But I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” he answered as he walked toward the front of the bridge. The Kisskalu was on the forward view screen. It looked to be adrift.

Griken stood next to Connor watching the stream of vehicles leave the Kisskalu and flying into the dark hole. As Brad and Laco approached, he turned to see them. “The two of you were the last ones to see Connor’s Gambit. Did you notice anything that would bring a battle cruiser to a full stop and disrupt its internal gravity? I can’t imagine the crew is finding it very easy to move around in the ship with the steep change in its internal gravity.”

Laco stepped forward. “No sir, there were no unusual sensor readings to indicate that Connor’s Gambit was different from any other dark hole.”

Brad looked at the Kisskalu. She was no longer harboring any extra protrusions. “What happened? It looks like the extra structures were sheared off.”

“We observed a number of structures detach and enter the dark hole. We never suspected they were also self-propelled. The sensors picked up that each structure had a specialized function such as weapons, ammunition, and fuel storage. We also identified three hydroponic gardens,” Griken explained.

Fernando walked up behind them. “Johnson, looks like you survived the planning briefs with the Special Combat Troops.”

Brad glanced back at his friend. “It would have been nice to have some warning on the physical aspects of the simulation.”

“And ruin the surprise?” Fernando laughed, as he watched the vehicles leaving the Kisskalu. He turned to Griken. “Is there anything from Intelligence? Have they been able to interrogate any of the spies?”

“Nothing from Intelligence, yet, which is why I requested the two pilots who discovered Connor’s Gambit and you to come here to observe the activity. Other than the section destroyed by the transfer vehicle’s departure, we are not picking up any malfunctions that would have the crew abandon the battle cruiser,” Griken explained. He stared directly at both Brad and Admiral Dowelstergak. “Was there anything that might motivate them to abandon the battle cruiser?” They responded by shaking their heads “No.”

“Sorry, there’s nothing I can help you with beyond their obsession with Connor’s Gambit. I wondered whether a fool had named the dark hole or it was a moment of brilliance. I have my answer now.” Fernando gave Brad a friendly tap on his back. “I’m going to go with the moment of brilliance.”

Brad rolled his eyes at Fernando, and then looked back at Admiral Griken and Connor. “Has there been any news on Major N’Klaftin?” His relationship to Shinny still wasn’t well known and he didn’t see a need to advertise it.

“The signal from her chip has been located. She has remained in the same position since she was located,” answered Connor.

“Thank you,” Brad replied. Worried over the lack of movement, he pulled his tablet to appear busy and looked downward so no one would see his eyes flashing as he called out to Shinny through his chip. The lack of movement was more of a concern than not hearing a response, but he had hoped they were close enough for her to hear, even though he was aware the communication spectrum in the transit gate would not support it.

Connor shook his head. “It is idiotic for the Aneplé to fly into the dark hole. If they had taken a moment to think about my decisions in the past, they would have ascertained I would never depend upon a dark hole as a gambit.”

Griken continued watching the vehicles fly off the Kisskalu. “Although having the smaller vehicles fly off the cruiser makes our jobs easier. It appears the Kisskalu is drifting toward the dark hole; we need to get on that ship as soon as possible if there is going to be a successful rescue. I’m ordering the rescue operation to begin immediately.” As he was about to dismiss the two pilots, his communications officer spoke.

“Admiral, I am receiving a surrender message from the Kisskalu.” Seeing the admiral point to the console near him, she ran the communications through the speakers on the bridge.

“This is Custodian Yeshawliq Ofmyneston; I am surrendering the battle cruiser Kisskalu. Most vehicles have departed or are preparing to depart. Assistance is needed immediately. The Kisskalu is drifting toward Connor’s Gambit and I am having trouble controlling its movement. When you board, there are still a few armed enemy forces patrolling the ship that need to be disarmed. Medical teams are required for the injured CIG crew left behind with a few of the civilians who were traveling on the Kisskalu. Major Johnson also requires immediate medical assistance.”

The tension Brad had running through him lessened hearing Shinny was alive, but what the hell did she do? Did she take on the whole ship? He was thinking he needed to leave but Griken was looking at him to answer a question. “Sir, I’m sorry, I missed your question.”

“Who is Custodian Yeshawliq Ofmyneston?”

“I’m not completely sure who Custodian Yeshawliq Ofmyneston is, however, Yeshawliq was the AI that assisted us in the escape. I would assume they’re related.”

“The ship has an AI.” Griken repeated in disbelief. “Can it be trusted?”

“Yes,” responded both Brad and Fernando simultaneously.

Griken raised his eyebrows “Pilots, prepare to depart, I am issuing a ship wide order to execute Operation Recovery. You are dismissed.” Griken turned toward the communication station. “Communications, request Custodian Ofmyneston return the ship’s internal gravity to a balanced zero degree state if possible.” Turning to Fernando, “Admiral, if you have a moment, I’d like to know more about the AI.”

[]Chapter 38

 

 

Brad returned to his stateroom and gave Sperzs a quick rundown of what happened on the bridge. Although they had a heads up, he didn’t think they had much more time since Admiral Griken had ordered the operation to commence. Brad put on the armor and shield the Special Combat troops gave him and watched the view from the bridge on the room’s wall monitor. The sensor readings on the screen showed that the Kisskalu gradually returned the internal gravity slope to normal while straggling vehicles continued to head toward Connor’s Gambit. He felt guilty thinking good riddance, since so many of the Aneplé personnel had no choice when it came to self-determination.

Brad sat down next to Sperzs, glancing at his lap. “Where did you find my blanket?”

“A Neslin dropped it off. She said she wanted to return your luck. What did she mean by that?”

Brad was glad to get his blanket back, but he wasn’t about to let the universe know he was superstitious about his good luck when it came to his blanket. He shrugged. “After spending weeks with the Neslins, I’m still not an expert in figuring out what they mean.” Not wanting to discuss it more, he let Sperzs rest with the blanket, and began swiping through his tablet, memorizing the routes to Shinny’s location. The waiting was wearing him down as he began searching for alternate routes to her location to take his mind off the stress.

Brad jumped at the signal to commence Operation Recovery. The alarm directed everyone to report to their battle stations or vehicles. Focusing on what he needed to do, Brad stood and grabbed a backpack with supplies and equipment and put it on. Walking through the door, he shouted, “Sperzs, let’s go.” He watched people rush through the hallway to their stations.

Sperzs grabbed a few things and bounded toward the door. He stood next to Brad and held Brad’s tablet toward him. “You forgot your brain.”

Brad took the tablet and admonished himself for rushing. “Thanks. I know, don’t get caught without it.” He attached it to his armor as they walked at a quick pace toward the Transportation Room.

Entering the room, there was frenetic energy everywhere—personnel rushing toward their assigned vehicles, technicians working last minute vehicle checks on the platforms. Seeing the Neslins on the platforms fully engaged also relieved him. He had learned to respect their skills after becoming personally familiar with a number of them and finally understood they were the best when it came to technically maintaining the vehicles. A few who had been on the Kisskalu nodded salutes to him as he passed, which he returned. Coming up to Laco’s vehicle, he gave Sperzs an Earth-like salute wave. “See you later, best to the rest.”

“Don’t let the troops practice their dentistry on you,” Sperzs joked as he returned the Earth salute and walked toward his squadron.

Hustling up to the transport vehicle, Brad saw a familiar face and crossed to her. “Wesgwidy, how is your shoulder?”

“It is almost completely healed. Thank you for asking. Admiral Dowelstergak informed me that you would be participating in Operation Recovery on this vehicle. My two highest rated technicians are looking this vehicle over.” Wesgwidy pointed to the two technicians located by the engine casing closing the door.

“Thanks, I appreciate them rechecking the vehicle. Thank you also for returning my blanket,” Brad said, watching the technicians walking around checking the seals.

“Ravelstan thought you might want it back. She wanted to surprise you and made sure it was on the transfer vehicle.”

“Let Ravelstan know I welcome her thoughtfulness.”

Wesgwidy motioned with a casual nod she would, adding, “Bring your mate back. We are immensely grateful and owe her for her sacrifice.”

Brad considered Wesgwidy’s words. “I will. I think she would say it is we who owe the Neslin colony.” Brad nodded a return salute to Wesgwidy before he jogged up the ramp to the vehicle.

Stepping into the vehicle, he was surprised by Laco greeting him at the door and the change in the vehicle’s configuration. The modular rooms had been replaced almost exclusively with rows of seats now filled with Special Combat Troops. “I thought you didn’t want anyone onboard until the signal went off. They look like they’ve been here awhile.”

“I didn’t. But there were more of them than me, and they’re bigger. The colonel wants you to sit next to him,” Laco said pointing to an empty seat in the front.

Brad groaned. “I think I liked T’Lentic better when I didn’t like him. Who’s flying second seat with you?”

“Divazz is flying second seat. Give her a moment before you rush up there to greet her,” Laco warned.

Brad whipped his head toward the cockpit, wondering what the hell Laco was talking about. He raised his eyes in surprise as he watched Sergeant Stapernoin’s bulking figure backing out of the cockpit. “Whoa, what did I miss over the past few weeks?”

“It’s a story for another time. It turns out I know his sister. He’s not a bad guy, despite his branch of service,” Laco answered. “Go on up; remember Colonel T’Lentic wants you to sit next to him.”

“Careful. I married into that branch of service,” Brad reminded him, amused by Laco’s comment on intra-service rivalry. Walking up to the front, he stopped in front of the sergeant, who stood in his way.

Leevaal faced Brad, “Pilot, are you ready for the Aneplé to ‘eat shit and die’?” he asked in English as he nodded a salute.

“Ah, something we both can agree on.” Brad returned the salute with a grin and watched the sergeant swing around into his seat.

Brad walked forward to the cockpit and stuck his head inside. “Divazz, it’s great to see you. Uh, it does look like life is treating you well.”

Divazz turned around, hearing the familiar voice, and smiled broadly. “Brad, welcome aboard. Leevaal’s a great person and has Laco’s approval.”

“In that case, he has my approval, also,” he replied, smiling as he watched Laco sit in the first seat.

As the seat and harness adjusted around Laco, he turned to his second seat, “Divazz, you may want to use some of the subroutines Johnson developed for the finer ridges.” He turned back to Brad. “This old man wants you in your seat now.”

“Some things never change,” Brad chuckled. “Smooth flying, I’ll need it.”

Brad turned and sat next to T’Lentic then nodded a salute to him. “Colonel.” After the colonel acknowledged him, he put on his hood to filter the air on the Kisskalu. Seeing the odd expression on the colonel’s face he explained, “I’m allergic to the air on the Kisskalu. My body reacts violently as if I’m being poisoned.”

Colonel T’Lentic’s eyes blazed in anger. “There is a toxin on that ship and no one briefed me on exposing my troops to it.”

Brad sympathized with the colonel. He would be just as angry if he were informed of the hazard at the last minute. “Apparently, I have a rare genetic mutation that causes the reaction. It’s the same reaction I had in your training room when I smelled it on the Aneplé spy. I’m allergic to a plant harvested by the Aneplé on the Kisskalu. For most people, if they are exposed over a long period, it acts as a narcotic. Although some of the gardens left the ship on the attached modules, Yeshawliq burned most of the hydroponic gardens growing the plant before I flew off the Kisskalu. Even with the exposure over a few weeks, the effects on Major N’Klaftin’s performance were minor. Physically, she was in top shape and held off the Aneplé to allow us to escape. However, for me, it would have been a death sentence had she not created a clean space with filtered air.”

“I see. I would have preferred to have had this information in advance for planning purposes,” T’Lentic replied. “There have been a few changes. Lieutenant Inklanads and Sergeant Stapernoin will lead your team to search for the major. I’ve also added two medics to accompany your team. Pilot Voodel has also included an ambulatory area in back, should it be needed.”

Brad looked past the colonel at the lieutenant sitting two seats over. Lieutenant Inklanads looked almost as large as ‘The Mountain’. “It doesn’t look like anyone will get past them.”

“That’s the plan,” confirmed T’Lentic. “I will lead a larger group with Fleet officers to recover the bridge and the engine room. We need to gain control of the ship immediately to stop it from entering the dark hole.” T’Lentic shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What I’m about to say is difficult for me, however, I realize I owe both you and the major an apology. I would go after her personally, if I could, but the primary objective of this operation is to reclaim the battle cruiser. Don’t let the small number of people I have assigned to rescue the major fool you. I have assigned my best troops to rescue her, and they will.”

Brad responded to the odd apology with a nod. While he accepted the personnel and plan were the best course of action, he would never be reassured until Shinny was back on the Zuonopy. “Thank you, sir.” He leaned back and anxiously watched the monitor on the divider separating the cockpit from the seating area. He watched the Vipers and the Defenders take off and fly toward the Kisskalu. They flew an intricate weaving pattern in and out of the Kisskalu’s Transportation Room, ensuring that the landing platforms were empty and safe. It wouldn’t be too long before they finished securing the landing areas, he thought, as the engine of the Vetyhym fired up. Brad continued to watch the monitor as Laco flew the vehicle out of the Zuonopy then hovered, waiting for the signal to approach the Kisskalu.

[]Chapter 39

 

 

Perque Swetinny crouched on the floor holding his head, trying to find a position that would stop the incessant, high-pitched whistle running through his chip. The last half of the shift had become a nightmare. His friends had strapped Johnson to the table in medical and pumped her with the concentrated plant serum at two locations on her body. His squad then beat her as medical prepared her head for chip extraction. Although their beatings did not result in any new information, he allowed them to continue as retribution for killing so many of his colleagues. They would have continued to beat her except the ship lurched from the firing of retrorockets, as it began to shut down propulsion, and then finally coming to a complete stop. That’s when the tremendously loud whistling in his head started, along with the unauthorized orders directing everyone to report to the nearest vehicle to enter Connor’s Gambit. The whistle and orders continued to play in their chips in a painful loop that would not turn off. The ship’s internal gravity field shifted several times creating a rocking effect. The havoc started when the ship first rocked to and fro forcing everyone out of the room making it difficult to reenter. The bed that Johnson was strapped on propped against a wall inside the room. The guards left the room to find out what was causing the whistling and the radical changes of the internal gravity that was rocking the ship.

That was only the beginning. A technician who had managed to run into the room spread a rumor that the whistling and orders stopped once you boarded a vehicle to leave the Kisskalu to enter Connor’s Gambit. Instantly, chaos erupted as everyone dropped what they were doing and headed for the nearest vehicle in a mad rush. Didn’t they recognize an unauthorized order? He had no choice but to shoot two members of his remaining security forces for following the unauthorized command and abandoning their guard duties. Perque had no sympathy for the two he killed. He regretted not being able to kill more of the deserters. He didn’t care the whistle made it hard for anyone to think. Didn’t they see how dangerous Johnson was?

They were going to see how dangerous she was once they read the information on her chip. However, both of the medics had insisted they needed to go to a vault for special equipment to extract the chip from her. He waited as long as he could for the medics to return, but at last he gave up waiting and decided to search for them. He ran the length of the ship to the bridge looking for the medics and to obtain further direction from the captain. No one was on the bridge. In fact, the ship was deserted, except for the CIG crew curled in fetal positions scattered around the ship. He decided at that moment it was time for him to leave.

Perque opened a door to the Transportation Room and stared at the empty platforms. CIG vehicles flew in and out of the room over the platforms. Even more upsetting, a few of the vehicles displayed an illustration of a winged creature. He didn’t recognize the species, but it had Johnson’s face. He couldn’t remember seeing wings or appendages on her that would support wings, but he knew then he had to get off the ship. She was too dangerous.

He ran to the next door opening to the Transportation Room and saw more empty platforms. The pattern continued three more times before he came to the conclusion no vehicles remained to take him back to the Aneplé territories. He would never accept becoming a CIG prisoner. He would rather die. If he was going to have to die, so would she.

 

 

Brad rushed to the cockpit in a panic just as Laco was releasing the ramps in the mid and rear sections, “Laco, drop the front ramp immediately or let me out through the emergency exit. I just received a message. I’ve got to get out and stop someone on his way to kill Shinny.”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t heard any of communication between the troops or the other vehicles indicating an immediate threat.”

“I don’t have time to talk. Drop the front emergency ramp. Now!”

Laco reluctantly released the front and emergency ramps. “I hope I’m not making a mistake letting you go without your escorts.”

Brad pushed Laco aside. “Sorry.” Brad apologized, as he slid into the hatch below the console.

Leevaal didn’t think twice when he saw Johnson slip around the divider to the cockpit. He was aware of their friendship, but when the pilot didn’t come back immediately, he pushed his way to the front, signaling to Colonel T’Lentic and Lieutenant Inklanads that there was a problem. He swung around the divider and was not surprised to see only Divazz and Laco. “Where did he go?”

“I didn’t think I had much of a choice when Pilot Johnson asked me to open the other hatches. He left through the emergency hatch under the console.”

If Leevaal had more time he would use every cuss word he knew, but at that moment, it was more important to stop the pilot from doing something stupid. Well, too late for that. But he would settle with stopping the pilot from doing too many more stupid things. He swung back around to look at Lieutenant Inklanads. “Pilot Johnson just left through the cockpit’s emergency hatch,” he yelled before he flew down the front ramp, hearing the lieutenant spout out a few more colorful phrases as she ordered the team to follow.

Leevaal was surprised how quickly the pilot moved, but caught him before he opened the door to leave the Transportation Room. He grabbed him angrily. “What are you doing, leaving without the team?”

Brad turned and stared at the sergeant and the lieutenant as she caught up. He was not going to be intimidated by them. “The AI sent a message to me. Someone is heading toward the major to shoot her. I need to get to her now.”

Lieutenant Inklanads noted the desperation on the pilot’s face. She saw that they didn’t have the luxury of time for a full sensor sweep. “Fine, we’ll go now. Stay behind Sergeant Stapernoin and me. If you push in front of us, I’ll have a couple of my troops tear your hood off and carry you back to the vehicle. Do you understand?” The pilot motioned he understood. The lieutenant took off in a rapid run with Sergeant Stapernoin next to her, with the remainder of the team bringing up the rear.

[]Chapter 40

 

 

Shinny sat by herself on a small island on a nude beach, surrounded by a dark murky green ocean eating away at her beach that was shrinking with each new wave. She looked around, trying to understand where she was and how she got here. The sky alternated between familiar and unfamiliar star systems and folded space. She was completely relaxed and could probably stay here forever to avoid dealing with Swetinny, except her island was shrinking rapidly. She stood and circled around. In the distance, she saw the ocean draining into Connor’s Gambit. How did she get here? She remembered being strapped on a table and the guards beating her. That had to be when her chip’s analgesic kicked in to help her relax and take the pain away. But everything else was confusing. Was she nude? Was this a beach from her memory? Shinny looked down at the surf that had risen above her ankles. She would have to swim soon. Looking at Connor’s Gambit she wondered if she would be able to swim away from it back to Earth, Brad, and Dane.

 

 

Swetinny lunged into the room, ready to kill Johnson. Everything he lived for was gone. She had somehow managed to destroy his life, his entire future. He didn’t just want to kill her, he wanted her to feel his torment, but he was stumped. Tearing her armor and clothes off allowed them to break a few bones and increase the bruising. But the more they beat her, the more she shut down. Infecting her chip with a virus did nothing. It was too bad they didn’t get the chip. That would have hurt her.

It was frustrating that all of the gardens were gone, yet she got the last of what was left of the plants when they injected the plant serum into her. He would kill her and recover what was left in the bags for his own use. He thought about shooting her with his praser, starting with her foot and working his way up her body to her head. Perhaps then she would suffer. He lifted his praser and set it on projectile. Aiming toward her foot, he fired the praser.

 

 

Leevaal and Lieutenant Inklanads ran at full speed, pulling away from the others, knowing the major’s life was in imminent danger. Leevaal kept up the grueling pace even though his chip indicated he was close. He heard the loud crack of a praser being fired and pushed himself harder, passing the lieutenant. He ran into the room with his praser in both hands, shooting the surprised face that stared at him. The direct hit threw the body against the wall from the force of the praser’s projectile setting.

Leevaal quickly searched the room for others. Seeing no one else, he dropped his praser to hang by its tether. He pulled his knife out to cut the straps holding the major. Leevaal considered himself strong when it came to this stuff, but his stomach was churning at what the Aneplé had done to her. Hearing noises behind him, he saw Johnson and the medics running into the room.

Brad ran into the room. Seeing Shinny’s bruised body, he ran to the Aneplé security officer slumped against the wall and grabbed him. Holding him in place with his left hand, he continued to punch with his right, pummeling him until he felt someone grab his arm. He looked back and saw Stapernoin, “Let go, I’m going to kill him for what he did to Shinny.”

“You can’t kill a dead man.”

“Did you kill him? I thought it was standard procedure to keep your prasers on stun?

“No, I shot him, in his shoulder to disarm him. He executed the Aneple’s suicide protocol. The neural toxins released from his back molars killed him. He is very dead.”

“It’s a good thing he is dead. Because if he weren’t, I would have made sure he never took another breath.” Brad roared. This was the second time the bastard used a praser to shoot Shinny. Thank God he was gone. He threw the limp body against the wall and walked towards Shinny.

Brad stood a few steps away from Shinny, calling her through his chip. His beautiful wife lay on the medical gurney, bruised, torn, bleeding, and all her silky long hair gone. Anguish blended with his fury and fear. He wanted nothing more than to scoop her up and protect her from further harm, but he stood back to stay out of the medics’ way as they ran up to her. Even though their medical technology was far more advanced than Earth’s, and she would be healing in short order, he was certain the brutality she had been subjected to would remain in her psyche.

The medics ran to Major N’Klaftin and removed the pumps from her body and began treating the wounds. One of the medics pulled a small package out of her pack and unfolded a blanket to place on the major.

 

Brad walked over to Shinny after a medic motioned to him it would be fine. He stared at her bruised body and gently caressed her shaved head while tears pooled in his eyes. Brad looked at the medic closest to him. “Why did they do this?”

“There isn’t a reason for the beatings other than to humiliate people before they kill them,” Stapernoin whispered to Brad.

“Keep calling her. She needs your help to pull out of this, the medic encouraged Brad.

Shinny, Shinny, can you hear me? Please wake up. I’m here with you. Everything will be fine,” he sent through his chip.

 

 

Shinny heard Brad’s voice and ignored it. Somehow the Aneplé had managed to break through the encryption in her chip and she needed to fight it. Shinny tried to make sense of what she was seeing and feeling to determine what was really happening. Earlier she had scraped her foot against a rock and it hurt quite a lot at that time, but her foot felt fine now. It bothered her she could not remember seeing any rocks on her island.

Shinny looked around at the green ocean swirling around her shoulders and waded. Keeping her head above water, she wondered if she should flow with the water into the dark hole or swim away.

Shinny, can you hear me? I’m right here. Everything will be all right. But I need you to wake up,” Brad’s voice begged her.

Shinny waded and stared at Brad reaching out for her. “Swetinny, very good. The Aneplé may have broken the encryption on my chip, but I won’t tell you anything.”

Shinny, it’s me, Brad. I’m on the Kisskalu with you. The Aneplé have either left the ship or are surrendering.”

She remained quiet. Ignoring the Swetinny’s pleas.

Shinny, this is Brad, your husband. We have a son. He’s named after your father, Teledane. Please wake up; I need you to return to Earth with me.”

Swetinny, you stole that information from my chip. If you’re Brad, tell me something not on my chip,” she yelled, furious at what he had stolen from her.

Shinny, please wake up. I don’t understand. There isn’t anything I know that you don’t know.”

Shinny waded in the water, waiting for something outside of her chip’s memories to prove the intrusion wasn’t Swetinny. She wouldn’t wait much longer. The Aneplé had all of her information; she would rather swim to Connor’s Gambit than give them more.

Ravelstan returned Lucky to my stateroom. It’s on the Zuonopy.”

Brad reached for her.

She grabbed his hand.

She opened her eyes. The beach was gone, replaced with the sterile clinic she’d been interrogated in. Brad hovered over her, looking worried, as he caressed her. “Lucky is back on the Zuonopy?” Her voice cracked dryly.

Smiling, he continued caress her cheek. “Ravelstan made sure it was on the vehicle to surprise me. Are you ready to go home?”

“Almost,” she whispered hoarsely, smiling weakly. “Yeshawliq, send us your stateroom number.”

Brad carried Shinny wrapped snuggly in the blanket as he followed Lieutenant Inklanads and Sergeant Stapernoin to Yeshawliq’s stateroom. He hoped it would be worth it because both Inklanads and Stapernoin fought him on it. Finally, they agreed when they had received notice the Command Bridge and the engine room were secured and under full control of the Zuonopy officers. The Kisskalu was no longer drifting toward Connor’s Gambit.

The door to Yeshawliq’s stateroom opened and four of the troops walked in to ensure it was secured. It didn’t take too long before they came out to report it as the cleanest spot on the ship. Somehow, the AI had managed to keep the room hidden from the Aneplé. It was immaculate, with hundreds of small robotic devices on shelves docked against the walls. It was literally its own world separated from the chaotic destruction and filth of the Kisskalu he was familiar with.

Brad walked into the room with Shinny in his arms. Shinny lifted her head and pointed to a drawer and whispered, “Pull that drawer out completely.” As Sergeant Stapernoin pulled the drawer out of the cabinet, she instructed him further, “At the very back there is a card in a port. Pull it out, straight.”

Brad watched as Stapernoin reached back and pulled a case the size of his tablet. He tilted it, revealing the layers of ultra-thin processing wafers. Brad wondered how powerful the device might be. Stapernoin passed the case to Shinny, who was reaching for it. “Is there anything else, Major?”

Shinny pointed to a toy on a chair. “Could you also pass that to me, please?

“Thank you,” she whispered, as Sergeant Stapernoin handed her the toy. Leaning her head on Brad’s chest, she whispered, “I’m ready to leave.”

Brad carried Shinny while continuing to hold her tightly to him, as he followed the lieutenant and sergeant to the front of the cruiser, where Laco’s vehicle was located. As he stepped on the platform he saw Fernando standing by a Swarm Defender talking to a group of officers. Fernando dismissed them as Brad approached. When he looked at Fernando’s Swarm Defender he groaned, thinking something really was lost in translation. On the fuselage was an illustration of Ravelstan as a fairy with wings in a stylized technician uniform. He bit the inside of his lip, knowing he would laugh later. “Admiral, welcome aboard. How long will you be on the Kisskalu?”

“Johnson, it’s good to see your mate and you. How is she doing?” Fernando asked, clearly concerned over her appearance.

“She’s healing. Her chip has been working overtime and she’s already better than when we found her,” Brad explained as he shifted her to stabilize his hold.

“Glad to hear she is better. The Little Mothers have been waiting for word. I’ll send word she is safe.” He met Brad’s gaze. “I’ll be on the Kisskalu for a while, since I will be taking her in for repairs. My family was not happy to hear about it, but they were appeased when I requested permission to court Ravelstan.” Turning toward his Defender, he pointed to the illustration. “What do you think? It’s in honor of your mate. What does it mean?”

Brad smiled. “Congratulations. The illustration is of a character in our literature known for her devotion, loyalty and love for her friend. Your illustration is appropriate, considering the change in your status with Ravelstan.” He crinkled his brow in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand. You had to request permission to court Ravelstan?”

“It’s a formality, no more, although it did help to have Wesgwidy’s approval of Ravelstan.”

Shinny lifted her head. “Admiral, congratulations. We wish you both many happy years filled with many Little Mothers and maybe one or two more admirals.”

Fernando laughed. “Thank you, I will share it with Ravelstan.”

“Admiral, before we leave, Yeshawliq asked that I give you the code to her daughter she left on board. It’s a sterile AI; her personality will develop over time, if you decide to initiate her. Also, codes for your custodian officer to unlock the devices in her stateroom.” She reached over to the admiral’s port behind his ear to pass the information.

Fernando processed the new data. “I’ve got it.” He looked at both of them. “When will you be returning to your home planet?”

“We are leaving on the first flight out; we have a son we both miss very much. Shinny will hibernate to heal, and I think I could use a good week or so to sleep off my time on the Kisskalu,” answered Brad.

Fernando leaned over and hugged both of them. “Have a safe trip. The Neslins owe both of you for rescuing the colony. You will always be welcomed on Neslin. Ravelstan and I expect to see both of you when we exchange our nuptial vows.”

Brad nodded a salute. “Message received.” He turned and carried Shinny to the transport vehicle for the return to the Zuonopy.

[]Epilogue

 

 

Brad sat at a reserved table in an alcove in CIG’s Dining Facility on Earth with Shinny. Both of them were eating pizza, waiting for Connor and Nan before they picked up their children in hibernation. It felt good to be eating pizza, but he missed the familiar comfort of his uniforms. When did jeans become so uncomfortable? At least he could wear the shoes home. No one would suspect anything with their generic tennis shoe cover. He looked at Shinny nibbling on her pizza, thinking she looked healthier, close to a hundred percent.

Shinny looked back at Brad. “I’ve decided to change my service branch and specialty.”

“Oh?” After a moment of reflection, he added, “Shinny, I hope I didn’t give you the impression I didn’t support your personal choices.” The truth was, while she was competent as a Special Combat Officer, he was uncomfortable thinking about her participating in any combat role again. But he would support her decision if that was what she wanted.

“It isn’t you. I had been considering it for a while. I enjoyed creating the cloned chips, the chip shields and the small devices I designed on the Kisskalu. It’s something I could continue doing here and still be productive in the Fleet. I’ve been thinking about taking over Yeshawliq’s work and improving the devices she created on the Kisskalu.”

Brad felt a wave of relief. “You would be good at that. That was apparent with the number of items you created on the Zuonopy and Kisskalu. What about protecting Connor? Who would do that?”

“As you shared with me years ago, he’s a big boy and can protect himself. Between Dane and you, an Aneplé spy would be sniffed out immediately. You will probably have to travel back here with Connor occasionally, just to give the place a smell test.”

“It might be more effective if you could create a device that could sniff out the plant odor on the station. When I come back to the station, I want to focus on quality time with Travis in the trainer.”

Shinny’s eyes lit up from the suggestion. “It’ll be my first project after I transfer as a Custodian Officer.”

Connor and Nan approached their table and took seats across from them.

“How did it go?” Shinny asked.

Nan shook her head. “There was some disappointment my team could not recommend contact with Earth at this time. But they did agree to extend the observation period for a few more decades.”

“I’m not sure I could recommend my own planet, either,” Brad added. “There are still too many unstable areas. I can’t imagine the havoc that would result if the wrong countries or people had access to your technology.” Brad was aware Connor had been working on a project separate from Nan, but didn’t have any insight into it. He wasn’t sure Connor would share the details, either, but he would be polite and ask. “What about your special project?”

Connor reached for a slice of pizza. “Unfortunately, continuing Earth’s observation status may impinge upon the success of my project. I will definitely need your help if the project is going to have a successful outcome.”

Although Brad was surprised from Connor’s invitation, he attempted to maintain a neutral expression. He said nothing but handed Nan and Connor napkins across the table, as Nan also grabbed a slice of pizza. Having gone through half of his life supporting Connor’s projects, he wasn’t sure if he was ready to take on another one so soon. “What exactly is this mysterious project you’ve been working on for the Fleet?”

Connor, finishing his bite of pizza, put his slice down. “Before I was forced into retirement, I became concerned the Fleet was becoming stale and risk adverse. I began believing it would impact the long term success of the Fleet’s operations.”

“I realize I have a unique but limited perspective. From what I saw, the Fleet didn’t seem to have many issues that could not be easily fixed.”

“Despite the youthful appearance of CIG’s Fleet personnel, there are a large number of individuals who have been in the Fleet for over a century. Many of them think creating a new directive for perfecting the count of food packages on board is innovative. They serve to exist rather than the other way around, serving CIG’s Fleet. New blood is desperately needed.”

“How does this relate to your project?” Brad asked, wanting to understand since he was being drafted to support it.

“When I was forced into semi-retirement, I had read the observation reports about Earth and thought the planet might be a source for potential recruits whose outlook had not become ‘inbred.’ I contacted a few individuals who were like-minded and moved here. My intention was to study the inhabitants and possibly recruit a select few individuals. I had planned on recruiting you, but when you married Shinny, it became her responsibility to shepherd your immigration into CIG. Your introduction to CIG was not only unorthodox but also contrary to prescribed protocols.”

“Frankly, had I not seen Griken’s shuttle, I’m not sure I would have believed anything either one of you might have told me,” Brad interjected.

Shinny reached below the table for Brad’s hand and gave it a light squeeze to gain his attention. “I suspected that would be the case, which may be why I used every excuse I could think of to avoid having the discussion.”

Connor continued, “Nevertheless, when I was recalled, I saw it as an opportunity to not only recruit you, but also observe your performance. I viewed it as a gamble that you would impress the seniors in the Fleet enough for them to consider recruiting more personnel from Earth. It never occurred to me you would end up on an Aneplé ship.” Connor paused, breathing deeply. “It was extraordinarily stressful watching both of you from the Zuonopy boarding the Kisskalu. I was facing the possibility of losing both of you at the same time. Your escape and rescue of the Neslin Colony was astonishing. I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

Embarrassed by Connor’s praise, Brad smiled weakly. “Thank you, but truthfully, I could not have done it without the help of others, especially Shinny and our fortunate association with Yeshawliq,” he reminded everyone, treasuring Shinny’s hand in his.

“That may be so, but I believe Shinny will agree with me that very few individuals would have performed as well as you, or come up with the idea of modifying a transfer vehicle to transport the colony,” Connor replied, wiping his hands on a napkin. “As a result, there has been a small clamor for more recruits from Earth. I plan to continue looking for potential recruits with help from a few others, including you.”

Brad was amused by Connor’s plan, especially since he had not committed himself to anything beyond enjoying his time with his family. But he also wondered how Connor would recruit with his other Fleet responsibilities. “What about your role as the Fleet’s Connor and defense of Earth?”

“For now Earth is very safe and well hidden from the Aneplé. The recapture of the Kisskalu has provided CIG with the momentum needed to begin changing the course of the conflict and bring it to an end, however, I will not be returning to CIG space for now. Admiral Yespeth will be promoted to Connor. As I mentioned earlier, the Fleet is in need of new blood. The position essentially disappeared when I resigned as Connor as a result of the treaty with the Aneplé. CIG finally realized it had created a leadership vacuum. The Fleet’s command structure disintegrated as a result. Reinstating the position with someone new will also do a reset with CIG. She won’t have the baggage I have and Representative Bequin promised to give Admiral Yespeth his full support. I will step back out of her way into an administrative role, providing Yespeth guidance when requested. I plan to continue to support the Fleet where I can from Earth.”

“Since you are no longer Connor, how do I address you in the future?” Brad asked.

“A name change with my established identity on Earth would create confusion, so for now I will keep Connor as my name. However, in the Fleet environment, Admiral will be acceptable.”

Brad wasn’t surprised but was in the mood to tweak him. “Okay, I think I got it, Dad.”

Connor took a breath to respond when a medical officer approached the alcove. Connor waited for the officer to step into the alcove and take a seat at the table before he gestured for a privacy screen. “Brad, I asked Medical Officer Lipmizan to come here to talk to you on the results of the blood sample they took before we left for the Zuonopy.”

Brad looked at the serious faces around the table and wondered if it was bad news. They’d already determined differences in his smell receptors and immune system from his reaction to the plants the Aneplé cultivated. How much more different could he be? Couldn’t be too much more, he thought, since he already fathered a son with Shinny. Brad stuck his hand out for an Earth style handshake. “Nice to meet you, call me Brad.”

Lipmizan, who had been on Earth for a few years, reached toward Brad to grasp his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I know you are eager to pick up your son, so I won’t take up much of your time.”

Glancing at everyone, Brad worried what the medical officer might tell him. He found it interesting the conversation would include his wife and in-laws. “Is there a problem?”

“There’s no problem. We completed an analysis of your family’s genetic makeup and owe you an explanation of our findings. Approximately, 95% of Earth’s inhabitants genetically match a majority of the people in CIG, even individuals in CIG with outward physical differences such as cranial ridges or pointed ears. Within both Earth and CIG, a few people fall into small, specialized groups for whom we really don’t understand the nuances in their genes. They are known as outliers.” Lipmizan stopped for moment to ensure Brad followed his explanation.

Brad nodded, preparing himself for the worst. “Go on.”

“Your genetic makeup matches many who are from the planet Dobenate. The inhabitants of Dobenate are known to possess Psi-Talents.”

Brad was flabbergasted by the medical officer’s words. It was the last thing he expected to hear. “I’m telepathic and can read people’s minds?”

“Do you think you can read anyone’s mind?” Lipmizan asked.

Brad look at everyone around the table, attempting to read their minds. “ Uh, no, not that I know of at this time.”

“Then I would say you are not telepathic. Telepathy is one of the largest Psi-Talents, however, those with that talent tend to isolate themselves and remain on the planet because when they travel to other areas of CIG there is a constant din running through their heads. In addition, because there is a misperception they are “reading” everyone’s thoughts and violating privacy, Dobenates face discrimination when they are identified, whether or not an individual is telepathic. If word about your genetic makeup spreads, it may be problematic.”

“If I’m not telepathic, then what am I?”

“There are many different Psi-Talents, such as telekinesis, the ability to move objects, or pyrokeneses, the ability to control fire. In fact, there are more than twenty specialties we are aware of at this time. We suspect there may even be a few others Dobenates have not shared with us.” Lipmizan, watching Brad nod in understanding, continued. “From the little we know, and what has been observed, I would guess your specialty is precognition. This particular Psi-Talent provides you with a perception of events before they occur.”

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m not doing anything special beyond putting pieces together of what might happen next,” explained Brad.

“Generally people don’t see it any differently than what you just described. It is usually referred to as intuition. It probably would not have been identified in you except another characteristic is precognitive dreaming. We believe the combination of shock upon learning of our existence and your extreme reaction to the exposure to the plant triggered the dreams.” Lipmizan turned to Nan. “Do you mind if I continue?” Seeing Nan shake her head “no,” he continued. “Your dream was so strong you inadvertently projected it to Nan. While you may not have understood they were Neslins in your dream, she did and was surprised, since she knew you had never met one.”

Embarrassed by what Nan may have seen from his dream, he asked, “What else did she tell you?”

“Merely that you were running behind a group of Neslins. Obviously, at the time, no one understood the implications of the dream, but it is the strongest evidence for us to believe you are precognitive, in addition to having the genetic marker.”

“I don’t understand why you are guessing precognition. Isn’t your medical science advanced enough for a definitive diagnosis?”

“The details of the science related to the Psi-Talents have been limited to researchers on Dobenate. They are secretive about their knowledge.”

“So, essentially I need to travel to Dobenate for more information about the Psi-Talent,” Brad stated in understanding.

“Or not, and accept it for what it is,” Connor answered for Lipmizan. “If you do go there, by treaty they may claim you as a citizen and restrict you from leaving. It’s a fairly common tactic used for people who visit. We would not be able to rescue you.”

“Okay, it is what it is and I learn to live with it, without understanding it. Genetically speaking, where did it come from?”

“Most people don’t have the genetic markers. However, both of your parents do. The genes were dominant in your mother and recessive in your father.”

“Hmm, so ‘mother’s intuition’ wasn’t just a saying in my mother’s case,” quipped Brad. “What is the case with my son?”

“Your son is carrying the dominant genes like you. He inherited from you and his grandfather,” explained Lipmizan.

Brad’s face tensed. “I thought you had mentioned my father had a recessive gene.”

“He was referring to me,” Connor stated.

Brad looked at Connor in surprise. “Did you know?”

“No. There was no reason to suspect until they saw Dane’s genetic profile. Like you, it is what it is for me, also. We may have an idea of what could happen, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us the event will happen or what to do. Have you ever made a bad decision and found yourself wishing you had done something else?”

“Of course.” Brad nodded. “You’ve been there a few times where I would have loved to have hit the replay button. However, for as many times as I had the same dream, I had no idea what it meant and apparently I couldn’t change it. I’m not even sure if knowing about it ahead of time made a difference. I just don’t want to keep second-guessing myself. I almost believe I would have been better off not knowing.”

“From my perspective, your intuition saved our lives a number of times and I would never want to change that,” Shinny told him.

Brad turned to her. “Thanks. Hopefully, we never find ourselves in a similar situation again.”

Connor shifted in his seat. “We may have a slight advantage because of our precognition or intuition but it doesn’t necessarily provide us more insight on the decisions we need to make. Possibly with more training on Dobenate, we might have an understanding of the science behind what our intuition is telling us, but it seems to me we’ve done fine without the training. My assumption is we would still need to go through our internal decision making process, no matter what our intuition told us.”

Brad nodded. “Agreed, as long as there isn’t an expectation that I’ll always know exactly what to do.”

“If this is kept between us, I don’t think anyone will have any unrealistic expectations of you.” Seeing Brad respond with a nod, Connor continued. “There’s one other issue you should be aware of. This is new for me also. Just as you have projected to Nan, apparently I did the same to you without realizing it. But imagine my surprise when you named the dark hole Connor’s Gambit. I had been thinking of your recruitment as a gambit that was already working out with the discovery of the dark hole. I apologize for that projection.”

“Ah, it all makes sense, now. The next time I sense something from you, don’t be surprised if I ask you to keep your thoughts to yourself,” Brad responded lightheartedly. “It seems like both of us have a few things to learn when it comes to this new ability.”

“If it would help, I could look through the available medical records to see if there are others with the genetic marker whom you could meet,” offered Lipmizan.

Although Lipmizan was trying to be helpful, Brad could no longer hold himself back and burst out laughing. “I can’t quite see a support group for the intuitive. It would be irony in the extreme.”

“Since you put it that way, I can see it may not be a productive use of your time. I won’t keep you any longer. If there’s anything more I can do for you, feel free to contact me.” Lipmizan stood up and nodded a salute to the table. Connor released the shield and the doctor left the alcove.

Brad stood up and reached for Shinny’s hand. “We’re going to pick up Dane. We’ll meet you at the shuttle.”

“We are right behind you. We want to finish lunch before we pick up Ben and Sarah,” Connor explained to them.

 

 

Shinny stood opposite Brad and looked down at Dane’s bed waiting for him to be awakened from hibernation. She turned toward the attending medical technician. “We’re ready. Please wake up our son.” Actually, she was more than ready. She wondered if her parents had went through the same anxiety she felt at that moment each time they picked her up from hibernation. Then again, she was sure they didn’t have quite the same close call during her hibernation she and Brad had experienced.

Dane’s eyes popped open and looked at the two familiar faces staring at him. He reached up with both arms. “Mommy, Daddy,” he shrieked with glee.

Brad stepped closer and picked up Dane and held him tightly as Dane hugged him. Looking at Shinny, “Rank may have its privileges, but heroes first.”

Shinny walked around the bed and hugged both Brad and Dane. “I’ll let you have this one, this time, but next time, I’ll take you to the mat,” she responded, smiling back.

“It’s a date,” confirmed Brad with a slow smile back at Shinny.

Dane pulled back and looked at both them. “No more bad dreams, no more fighting.”

“No more bad dreams or fighting,” Brad repeated. “Mommy has a present for you.”

Shinny reached down into her tote and pulled out a green toy and handed it to Dane as his hands reached for it. “The dragon’s name is Yeshawliq.” She repositioned the dragon in Dane’s hands. “You need to be careful you don’t break Yeshawliq’s wings.”

“Greetings, Dane, I am happy to finally meet you. Your parents have told me all about you,” Yeshawliq said to the little boy holding her.

Dane stared at the dragon, dropping his jaw in surprise. “You can talk!” he exclaimed in excitement.

“Yes, and I can do a few other things like fly and change my colors. If you let go, I can show you,” Yeshawliq said.

Dane released the toy and breathlessly watched as the toy dragon spread her wings and flew around Brad to perch herself on Brad’s shoulder, changing to a red brick color. “You can fly. What else can you do?”

“I can do many things and will be your teacher and a friend. But I’m also a family secret. Do you understand?” Yeshawliq asked. Seeing the little boy nod, the dragon turned to Shinny and Brad. “Thank you for bringing me home with you.”

Brad smiled, watching Dane’s interaction with Yeshawliq. “Yeshawliq, welcome to our family.”

Dane gasped as Yeshawliq changed again. “She’s Lucky.”

Brad chuckled in appreciation as Yeshawliq sported the Johnson plaid. “Yes, Yeshawliq is lucky. I believe there’s a shuttle waiting for us. Let’s go home.”

[]Glossary

 

 

LSU – Light Speed Units

 

 

 

Dear Readers,

Thank you very much for your support. If you enjoyed the book, I encourage you to leave a review at the site that you bought my book. Also, please tell your family and friends who also enjoy science fiction about my book.

Currently I am working on a follow-on book. I promise that many of your favorite characters will return with a number of other new characters and aliens.

If you would like to contact me, I can be reacted at [email protected].

 

Sincerely,

ZGottlieb


Connor's Gambit

Brad Johnson is the lone witness to a UFO sighting. The sighting while odd in itself is not the only event that occurs that evening. Brad and his family become the alien’s targets. The firefight with the alien destroys everything he thought he knew about his family and pulls him into an intergalactic battle between two space faring aliens that will decide the fate of Earth. Brad quickly finds himself leaving Earth, committed to its defense, while struggling to understand his role with the aliens on both sides of the conflict. One group threatens Earth security, the other wants something from him and all Brad wants to do to is to defend Earth, survive, and return home.

  • Author: Z Gottlieb
  • Published: 2017-01-22 19:05:21
  • Words: 120488
Connor's Gambit Connor's Gambit