Book: The Last Mission

The Last Mission

The Last Mission

Book of the Guardian: Part Three

By Ben Winston

Copyright © 2015 Ben Winston

Published by Blue Space Publications, LLC.


Copyright Page



Chapter 21 Frisen Day (Fifth day)

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24  Stven Day (Seventh day)

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30 Moon Day (Eighth Day)

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40 Turen Day (Ninth day)

Chapter 41 Turen Day (Fifteenth day, a week later)

Chapter 42

Chapter 43 Frisen Day (Thirty-first Day)

About the Author

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This work is humbly and reverently dedicated to all of our brothers and sisters, parents and children that have served in the armed services - past, present, and future. Without whom we would not have our many freedoms.

Chapter 21 Frisen Day (Fifth day)

"Clan Leader, I believe perhaps that the message of the Jal-Haraad may have been misunderstood," John said, holding up one hand palm outward. "I mean no disrespect in this. At the best of times it is difficult to understand the will of the Goddess." He quoted a common Tammerain saying. "Other than physical composition, there is no difference between my unenhanced brethren and myself. Both of us are composed identically, with the exception of my having a few extra items. It is also recorded fact that all of my brethren that have become as I am have done so by choice. If we do not use our enhancements, there is simply no way to tell us apart. How can this be considered a splitting of the race? As a point of clarification, Clan Leader, do you consider me to be an enemy at this time?"

"As you know, Major, we have not had the opportunity to examine members of your two races. So we have no way to know if we have misunderstood the will of the Goddess in this. We can only act in the hope we are serving her. However, you are correct, the will of the Goddess is difficult at the best of times, however, you forgot to add 'but for the righteous there is only to serve'." The large being cocked his fur covered head to one side. "Major, regardless of what anyone tells you, you and all those like you, will forever be enemies of the Tammerain."

John nodded calmly, and seemingly pointed casually off to one side. When he pointed at her, it was a prearranged signal to ask for the launch of the missiles; Chloe was surprised. The talks seemed to be going very well. She signaled the Gladiator to launch the missiles, as per John's orders.

"I understand, Clan Leader. If I am considered an enemy, we are not speaking as equals, am I incorrect?" John said.

"You have indeed learned much of our ways, Major Aster. That is correct, we cannot speak as equals, yet only as teacher to a student, parent to a child," Clan Leader Jehereed replied.

John nodded, and kept an eye on the flight time counter for the missiles in the lower left of the screen. "Yes, I do understand, Clan Leader. Know then that we have tried to deal with you as equals, to find resolution through understanding. If I am then your enemy, this is not possible at this time. Am I not correct?"

"You are," the large being said, but seemed suddenly wary of John. "What are you about Major?"

"Clan Leader Jehereed, by the order of my King, Marcus the First, acting for the will of the people, I am hereby ordering you to return to your own space. If requested, and welcomed by the Clans, we can arrange for one who is not your enemy to speak for us in council," John said formally.

Now Jehereed knew something was amiss. These human demons were tricky and wise in the ways of the Tammerain. It sensed a trap.

"We do not recognize a border any longer as there is no need for one. We will not return to that which no longer exists," Jehereed replied pushing the issue. The demon had one small ship, what could he do?

"Clan Leader, I do not consider you an enemy, and I have tried to accept you as an equal. You have refused this honor. You have thirty seconds to turn about, or I will begin killing your Clan," John said in a very stern and strong voice, so the being on the screen would know John was not bluffing.

Jehereed stood staring at the Human Demon. It had been rumored that they had abilities, yes, but the Clan was here in force, there was simply no way that small ship could do that much damage, that quickly. "You are bluffing Major. You have to know that any hostile action on your part will result in your immediate destruction."

"I did not say I would use this ship, Clan Leader, you now have fifteen seconds," John replied. "As a warning, I will only destroy the four smallest of your fleet. If you do not heed then, you will be next."

Just as Jehereed was about to answer, the four smallest ships in his fleet, none of them close to each other, suddenly exploded.

John watched the look of surprise spread on the large being's face. "You have been warned, Clan Leader. Do you wish me to destroy your flagship next?"

"Impossible! You did not fire any weapons!" Jehereed yelled.

The next salvo had already been launched, and John could see the flight timer counting down. Added to it was a reload and missiles remaining counter.

"Withdraw Clan Leader, or this will be your end," John added. "You have forty seconds."

"Shields!" Jehereed screamed. "Fleet to battle configuration! Destroy that demon!"

John activated the ship's cloak and moved it ten thousand klicks laterally, leaving a comm relay drone at their location.

"I am saddened we could not speak as equals, Clan Leader. When you meet the Goddess, please know that you do so with the respect of your enemy," John spoke sadly. "I am pleased I got to speak with you again, before the end."

Jehereed glared at John. "How are you doing this?"

Chloe sent John a message; several of the fleet ships have reversed course and are preparing to jump. It seems to be turning into a general rout.

John indicated to her to tell the Gladiator to cease fire.

"Just because you do not understand a thing, does not make it evil Clan Leader. Until you made your intentions clear, I had no quarrel with you. Good-bye, Clan Leader Jehereed," John said, sadly.

A moment later, the missiles from the Gladiator arrived and blew the entire engineering section into atomic particles. The reactors of the huge starship, now freed of their control, went critical and detonated, destroying the ship utterly.

John spoke over the open channel. "Ships of Clan Al-Jehereed. It is not our wish to end more journeys this day, heed our warning and return to your space, we urge you to continue your return journeys. Only destruction lies on this path."

Although no picture was received, a voice replied. "Do not destroy more of us, Demon. We are departing as you direct. We must mourn our losses and elect a new Clan Leader."

"I will honor your wisdom, and you may depart in peace. Please reflect on this; we are not your enemy until you turn us into one. Once that happens we are ones that will not end our journeys easily," John replied.

"We will do as you ask," with that, the channel was closed.

"That was nasty!" Chloe said.

"Gladiator, this is TG Flyer. Thanks for your assistance, we just created another myth about Guardians!" John called.

"You're telling me! I don't think you're aware of it, Major, but Al-Jehereed was simulcasting it to the entire Tammerain Force. All of them are retreating, in all theaters! I think you just prevented a war!" Admiral Surry replied. "Damn good work! Even I'm starting to believe you have super-powers!"

"Yeah, well this superman has had enough fun for one day. I need to file a report on this, before I retire for the evening. Thanks again for the assist, Admiral. Please tell your people they did very well," John replied.

"Will do, rest well, Major. Gladiator out."

John turned to Chloe. "Would you set course for Centauri Prime while I do the report? I'll meet you in our quarters."

"No problem, John. How did you know when to fire? I didn't detect any hostility in his voice at all," Chloe asked.

John gave her a small smile. "If a Tammerain officer ever admits to considering you an enemy, that's it. The discussion is over. Nothing you will be able to say or do will change his mind, at that point, fighting is unavoidable."

"What about what he said about us forever being enemies of the Tammerain?" she asked as she began plotting the course back to the capitol.

"That's the most troubling part of the entire discussion. Because we are 'enemies', lying is permissible, however, most officers rarely do. By stating it the way he did, he committed the Tammerain Empire to the total destruction of every enhanced soldier, everywhere, forever." John replied. "Because he was a Clan Leader, their entire clan would have to be destroyed before his declaration could be rescinded. We didn't just avoid a war, Chloe, We only witnessed its declaration. The Tammerain has to follow through on those words, or destroy the Clan to remove them."

"How big is the Clan?" Chloe asked.

"Sizes vary widely. It could be as small as a million beings, or as large as several hundred million or even larger." John replied.

"Skip the report, John, we got it all," Mark said as his hologram materialized. "The situation is far more dire than you know. Two things; first, the new 'mouth of the divine' Al-Jehereed spoke of was his seventh daughter. Which means that the nominal Empress of the Tammerain is a member of the declaring clan."

John nodded. "That's not good, there is no way they would purge the clan of the Empress."

Mark nodded. "Agreed, the second thing is that the Tammerain have discovered cloaking technology."

Chapter 22

"John, I think we might be in for a nasty war. I'm going to move our fleets into their defensive positions. I've already briefed the senate about what's going on, and I'll be talking to them again in a few minutes. Could you consider calling your advocate and activating your resort ships? I can't help but think we are going to need them very soon," Mark replied.

Chloe looked confused, but John nodded, "You know all you need to do is ask, Mark. I'll have each commander report to Medical Command as soon as they're ready."

Mark nodded understanding. "As per your original plan, that'll work John and thank you."

"No problem, Mark, just remember, it's up to you and your people to make sure they are staffed and the equipment is what is needed," John replied.

"They will be. I'll issue the orders to the Medical Command after we get done here," Mark said.

"Okay, I'll issue the orders. I had Chloe set course for the capitol. I imagine Mary will want to know where we are the second she gets there," John replied.

"That's fine. I'll need you here anyway, but don't count on sticking around. The Flyer has an appointment for upgrades, so you might be stuck with a destroyer for a few months. If things go the way they appear to be heading, we're going to need you folks now more than ever,"

"You named us knights of the realm, Mark," Chloe said. "Why don't we just try to stay mobile and go to where we are needed? After all our mandate, now more than ever, will be to protect the people. I think we can do that much better if we are free to jump to trouble spots as soon as we know of them."

Mark grinned. "That's actually what I've tried to set up. One of the reasons the Flyer is returning to port is so her design specs can be downloaded and more ships built for you. When the smoke clears from all of this, I see you as being a semi-autonomous reactionary force. You will have your own ultra-secure section in the Xanadu facility, with priority access to the newest toys and gadgets, as well as a say in how they are deployed and how your ships get built."

"Actually Sire, I want more than that," Chloe said.

"Excuse me?" Mark said, taken aback.

"The people of the realm will be our primary responsibility. The ones most at risk, currently, are the ones out here on the frontiers. When you're building that facility on Bethel's Anvil, I want the construction team to rebuild that Lizard base into the Guardian's new headquarters," Chloe replied.

Mark looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'd be a little leery of having that much advanced tech in a base that close to the Tammerain."

"Mark, you're going to have a full enhancement center there! You can't be that worried about it!" Chloe replied grinning. "Besides, we can build our own self-destruct systems into it."

Mark sighed. "You're right, I was just hoping you'd pick a spot closer to the core of the realm."

John weighed in on the discussion. "We would still patrol that area, Mark, after all they are part of our responsibility as well. But I agree with Chloe, the base should be out here."

"Well, we can hammer this out once you get here. Until then, my friends. Be safe," Mark said and ended the call.

"I'm tired and I've got a nutrient warning," Chloe said. "Let's swing by the galley and grab some food before heading back to our quarters, okay?" Chloe asked.

"When do we jump?" John asked.

"In about four hours. Lieutenant Carmichael is coming to take over up here," she replied. She had no sooner gotten it said than the petite woman arrived and saluted her two superiors.

John took Chloe's hand and headed for the Galley. "What was Mark asking you to call an advocate for?"

John chuckled. "I've invested some of my money over the years. As a result, I own a couple of resort stations."

"How many is a couple?" Chloe asked, "And why haven't you taken me to any of them?"

"Actually, I've only been to one of them myself. Always seemed like we were too busy to take a vacation for very long," John said.

"Well, they must not be all that much, which ones do you own?" Chloe asked.

"Guardian's Honor, Shield United, and Common Comforts," John replied.

Chloe stopped him in the middle of the passage way. "John that isn't a 'couple of resorts', those are the top three, five-cluster, resort hotel lines in the whole fucking realm!"

John nodded. "Yeah, they've been doing really well. But now they’re going to be the finest emergency hospitals and refugee relocation ships in the realm. When I bought out the lines, I made sure each facility could be switched over to an emergency transport if the need ever arose. I also made sure each one was equipped with hyperspace drives, armor, and shielding. None of them are armed past asteroid defenses and none of them have Tammerain medical personnel on board. There is a clause in every rental contract that states any and all contracts can be canceled without notice in the event of a Kingdom emergency. Since Mark asked me to activate them, it is considered an emergency. All current guests will be transported to the closest port to await transport back to their planet of origin."

"Who provides the transport?" Chloe asked.

"Mostly Windsor Limited, but if needed other transports from other companies can be called," John explained.

"Wow that has to be expensive. Who pays for all of it?" Chloe asked.

"The corporations have been asked to absorb as much of the cost as possible, and the crown will try to offset the remainder of the cost," John replied. "In this case, there is only one corporate entity involved."

"No! You own Windsor Limited too?" Chloe asked. "You know, one of these days, we're going to have to sit down and compare portfolios. At least that way, we don't end up in competition!"

"Why?" John said. "That's most of what I own."

Chloe smiled. "I own FTL Westfield, you're primary competitor for Windsor Limited."

They got some food from the Galley and returned to their quarters where John called his advocate. When he finished, Chloe did the same and ordered him to have the company notify the Royal Emergency Management Agency or REMA of their ship's availability to transport refugees or those stranded because of the resort closings by John's companies. When John asked her about it, she shrugged. "It's the right thing to do, I just wish we would have talked about it sooner, so I could have been better prepared for it."

Chapter 23

On Bethel's Anvil, scouts from the Gladiator, assisted by a few engineers, were given the task of exploring the whole of the underground lizard base with the exception of the area where the self-destruct device was being worked on.

Bethel's Anvil, because of its position as one of Bethel's moons, was heated by geothermal energy, and was very seismically active. As such, it made most underground construction impractical, at best. However, the lizards had not only built a very extensive base, they apparently had a complex, underground transit system that could be used to travel over most of the world.

The task of mapping the whole base had not occupied the scouts very long, so they moved on to the transit station the Guardians had found. Despite the centuries since the transit system had been sealed off and abandoned, it was remarkably still intact.  Major seismic activity had been recorded over the years, yet not only were the tunnels still intact for the most part, but also the system itself was still able to function in most areas.  This meant that the Tammerain had a method of building that was very resistant or very adaptable to seismic activity.

The tunnel leading from the old base had been an end stop. The scouts followed it and found that it led to another station that was under the city of Threshold. When Threshold was being built, no one had found the old station because of the amount of damage that had been done during the fighting to take the planet.

The initial survey before the last battle had listed a city in that location, but there had been only the remnants of the spaceport, and one other building remaining. The rest had been unrecognizable, slightly radioactive rubble; not even foundations had remained to mark where buildings had stood.

The scouts did discover that the lizards tended to build underground as much, if not more, than they did above ground. Once the Scouts found the Threshold station, a major hub from the looks of it, they also discovered the remains of an abandoned underground city. The floor closest to the surface had collapsed and been destroyed in the battles, but the deeper structures had remained surprisingly intact. As the scouts uncovered more of the hidden city and discovered more hidden ruins all along the underground tram network, Bethel's Anvil would eventually boast a thriving archaeological business.

The tram system itself was an engineering marvel. It used a form of anti-gravity to move trains from one place to another. Trains could even pass each other in tunnels simply by the precision manipulations of the gravity fields. Admiral Surry finally had to make the tram system off-limits from her engineers who clamored to learn its secrets. Others could learn those secrets; the Admiral and her fleet had a mission, and that had to take priority.

Many light years away, in the area of the realm furthest from Tammerain space, in an isolated, and very well protected system, several hundred new warships had moved to the system boundary and were ready to jump out. These ships represented the latest advances in kingdom defense technology.

Included in their number were fighter carriers, battleships, dreadnoughts, and a few ships never seen before in modern warfare; a smallish frigate sized craft whose prow was marked by an unusual amount of missile tube openings. This ship had one mission, to seek out and destroy capitol class ships. The missile boat was armed almost exclusively with the new hyperspace missiles. All of her brethren in the fleet had improved computer systems capable of receiving targeting hand-off from the small ship.

The missile boats had larger companions that were little more than heavily armored, medium freighters. These were ammo litters, and carried a missile supply twice that of the launching vessels. Each launcher had two of these ships that stayed with them until their missile supply was emptied, at which time they would return to a supply base to reload.

Another new class of ship was for the support of the fleet, lacked every type of weapons save for point defenses; a flying engineering vessel that could surround a damaged ship and begin repairs. The damaged ship could either remain in the fight, or the gantry itself could jump them both back to a dry-dock facility capable of repairing it.

Loaded on the carriers and larger ships were new fighter craft, these new ships had improved power units, computer systems, and more powerful weapons including small mass drivers that fired tritainium coated antimatter rounds. The tritainuim had a property that allowed it to maintain the antimatter in a magnetic containment for a set amount of time without a power unit. If a round missed its target, the antimatter would destroy the round when the magnetic field degraded.

A newly discovered technology that was just finishing development would give the small fighters, as well as the hyper-missiles, a major advantage. It had not been included simply because time had not permitted it. The scientists that developed it, called the new drive system a spatial/temporal fold drive. The techs called it a 'jump' drive. The military called it instantaneous interstellar travel.

Depending on the mass of an object, this drive could move it to almost any point in space-time with little to no transit time. For vast distances, there was a resultant transit time measured in femto-seconds, or trillionths of a second. The drawback of the drive? Mass and density. Although not yet clearly understood, this type of travel dealt with an entirely different set of physics.

The scientists that developed this new type of science had built a set of 'jump gates'. They placed one gate in polar orbit of the second planet in the system, and moved the other gate a hundred light years away, in uncharted space. It took the cruisers towing the gate almost two years to get it in position and activated. It took them less than a second to return to the gate at Xanadu. No other drive technology had needed to be installed on the ships.

Plans were under consideration for placing the new transit gates all over the Kingdom, and several new gates had been built, but they remained in a storage orbit, except for the one that had been sent to Centauri Prime, and 'hidden' in the system. Currently the gate could only link with the other active gate in Xanadu, (the distant test unit had been remotely deactivated shortly after the test jump) and was to be used as a bolt-hole for the king and as many of the congress as could get to it in an emergency. As a safety precaution, a ship could only use a gate if had a recognized IFF signature. One drawback to the system was that a gate could only 'link' to one other gate, and then only if that gate was not already 'linked' to another gate. The gates themselves did not like to be close to one another when they were active, so multiple active gates could not be set up within a light-hour of each other.

In the Xanadu system, two hundred of the new ships were standing by near the resident gate waiting for the transit order. The gate had already been linked to Centauri Prime, and all that remained was for each of the ships, one at a time to fly into the gate's event horizon. The gate did not look like a big ring, nor did it look like a huge pulse rifle, it was simply a smallish, (compared to a capitol ship, or a station) device that seemed to sit placidly in whatever gravity well it had been placed in. However, if you were in a ship, within about fifty miles of the unit when it was activated, you would be sent to the receiving unit instantly. You would appear in the same place relative to the gate unit in the distant system.

Multiple vessels could be sent at once, but that could get problematic very quickly from a navigation stand-point, so a safety protocol had been included. Only one ship at a time, and the transit would not occur if there was a ship within the receiver's event horizon. In the event of an emergency, that could be over-ridden.

Once linked, transit was one way. If Xanadu linked to Centauri Prime, then transit could only be from Xanadu to Centauri Prime. To travel back to Xanadu, the Gates would need to disconnect and reconnect with the Centauri gate initiating.

The Centauri gate had been added to the existing System SATC(Space/Air Traffic Controller) facility so the gate could be controlled from that facility. When it was first brought online and tested the link formed, but transit refused because there was more than one ship in the event horizon. It took the bright boys days to figure out the gate was detecting the station itself, as well as the small shuttles that were either docked with it or stored in the station's internal landing bay. The multiple ship protocol was rewritten in order to allow the controller to select the transiting ship, and to allow for 'never transit' tags to be added to IFF signals.

The order to begin transit was given, and while the ships at the outer edge of the system began making their normal hyperspace jumps that would eventually get them to their assigned duty stations, the ships of the new Centauri Fleet began the four-hour long operation of transiting the fleet to the Capitol World that normally would have taken them much longer.

Chapter 24  Stven Day (Seventh day)

"Major," Lieutenant Carmichael called over the comm. She was the nominal 'pilot' of the TG Flyer, but the Guardians and one other 'pilot' took turns with her during long flights.

Jon opened his comm. "What's up Carmichael?"

"Astrometrics is predicting the formation of a transit point that will drop out very close to Centauri Prime. It'll take a few hours to get there, but we can make it before it closes. Are you interested?" The pilot replied.

"Sure, go ahead and change course, are you comfortable with it, or would you like Chloe to come up there?" John asked. Using a transit point was very different than flying in normal hyperspace. Transit points were the natural formation of what 'The Gates' were created to mimic. However, in the naturally occurring ones, there was a potentially hellish navigational computation that most computers simply couldn't deal with. Luckily, the Flyer wasn't equipped with one of them.

"I think I got a handle on this, but if you would like her to take a look at my plot before we transit, I'd be a little surer of it," Carmichael replied.

"Okay, I'll let Chloe know. Good work by the way; you just cut three days off the trip!" John replied. Hearing the comm close, he got back to the 'paperwork' involved in becoming the leader of the new knights.

Four hours later, John and Chloe were in the cockpit with Lieutenant Carmichael as they approached the outer marker for the Capitol system.

"Centauri Control, this is the TG Flyer requesting permission to enter the system," Chloe called.

"You're very early, My Lady," the controller replied. "With respect, can you explain this?"

"Sure can, I'm sending you our logs for verification, but the short version is we jumped a transit point," Chloe replied, typing for a second on her keyboard.

"Receiving." The man said. A few moments later, he came back on. "Verified. Sorry for the delay Flyer, can't be too careful. Permission for entry is granted. What is your destination?"

Chloe chuckled, "He must be new." The she rekeyed her mic. "Royal Palace, Control. We should have a Royal Summons in the system."

"Oh! Uh, Stand-by, My Lady. I'll arrange an escort for you," the controller replied.

Chloe smiled sweetly. "Control, please tell your trainer to quit messing with you! We don't need an escort. We have a standing invitation and clearance for the Royal Palace!"

"My apologies, My Lady. He's been doing very well for the last two days, when you arrived I saw the opportunity to trip him up. It almost didn't because this trainee is pretty good," a new voice replied.

"Understood, Control, I'd say you owe your charge a beer for that!" Chloe replied.

The original trainee controller came back on then. "Proceed on vector one-nine-two by three-four, speed point four. We are really busy today, so I may need to alter your approach. Thanks for the beer, My Lady, we'll toast you while we drink it."

"Understood and not a problem, Control. Just holler if you need to," Chloe replied. "Good luck, and good work. TG Flyer out."

Chloe chuckled. "Everyone has to start somewhere!"

"At least he didn't lose his cool and get frustrated, he'll make a good traffic controller," Lieutenant Carmichael added.

"Wow, I'm surprised they're training today! Take a look at the scanners!" Chloe replied. "There's got to be a thousand ships out there!"

"Yeah, there's a hell of a lot more ships out there than there should be," John replied and keyed up his own communit. "ATC this is T-Gaurd One, over."

"Main Control on-line. What can we do for you Lord Aster?" a no-nonsense sounding female asked.

"A couple of things actually; First off, what's with all the ships? This isn't normal." John replied.

"Secure comm activated," the woman said. "The Sentinel fleet is being replaced. The new ships have been arriving for almost three hours. When they all arrive, the old fleet will withdraw to be upgraded."

"Okay, I can understand that, but why is everyone still crowded around the planet? It almost looks like the planet is under siege," John replied.

"In all actuality My Lord, Admiral Thomes has refused to move any of his ships out until the replacement fleet is in position," she said flatly, telling John that she was not very happy with the intransigent Officer.

"Can you add him to this call, and maybe I can help sort this out for you," John replied.

"I would appreciate it, My Lord. I'm about ready to pull my hair out over this. Please give me a moment to add him in," the ATC officer said.

"Good afternoon, My Lord Aster! Welcome to Centauri Prime! What can we do for you today?" Admiral Thomes said as he joined the channel.

"You can clear something up for me, Admiral. Since entering the system a few minutes ago, I've noticed an unusually high number of ships in orbit of the planet. In fact, I've personally witnessed several near collisions. The ATC is telling me you are refusing to move until the new fleet is in position, is that correct?" John asked reasonably.

"Yes it is, My Lord," the Admiral replied. "We are in a state of military emergency, and I will not leave my post until the incoming fleet can properly protect the planet."

"I see. Tell me Admiral, did you have basic physics in primary school?" John asked.

There was a short pause before the Admiral answered. "Of course I did, what does that have to do with the ATC not being able to do their jobs?"

"It is a simple and widely known aspect of physics that two separate objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time unless one of them is out of phase. So tell me, if you will, how can the incoming fleet take position if you are still in it?" John asked reasonably.

"Now see here, Major! I will not..."

"Admiral Thomes, you will move your fleet in accordance with instructions from the ATC as that is her job. If you continue to refuse the instructions of the ATC, I will hold you personally responsible for every single loss of life and materiel incurred in the accidents that will happen. I will also make it my personal mission to ensure you are imprisoned for those deaths. Currently, I will be filing a formal suggestion with High Command recommending you be removed from fleet command and reassigned to a desk someplace since you obviously no longer have a clue as to how to command a fleet!" John said, no longer sounding reasonable, but rather firm and resolute. "Why am I not seeing any ships moving Commodore Thomes?"

"You have no RIGHT!" the Admiral began only to be interrupted by John.

"You better check your laws again, Thomes. Military emergency gives me all the authority I need. I'll be in orbit in forty-five minutes. If you haven't moved your fleet to where the ATC tells you, I will board your ship and shoot you in the fucking head. Do you understand me now?"

The former Admiral disconnected from the comm channel. John saw the ATC was still on though. "ATC, has any of the old fleet begun moving yet?"

"Not yet, Sir," the woman replied, sounding much less formal.

"Chloe, could you see if His Majesty has a moment for me?" John asked, glancing over at her.

"Sure!" Chloe said, and got busy on her comms. Very shortly a somewhat rumpled looking hologram of Mark was standing with them. He was wearing sweatpants, and it was clear he had been sleeping.

"What's up, John?" he replied and yawned.

"I'm very sorry to wake you, Your Majesty, but I have a problem with former Admiral Thomes," John replied.

Mark cocked his head to one side. "Former Admiral? Maybe you should tell me everything."

John told him about the last few minutes, and when he finished, Mark was pissed. He turned, and seemed to speak to the ceiling. "Who's on duty?"

"Ford, Majesty. How may I serve?" a man's voice replied.

"Thanks Ford, could you please get me former Admiral Thomes, priority two," Mark asked.

"At once Majesty." Ford replied.

"I'm sorry you had to deal with this shit first thing when you get back here, John. This was supposed to be finished by now. Considering the efficiency of our ATC folks, I'd bet my crown we are about to deal with the reason it hasn't been," Mark replied.

"Uh, Majesty, I have Main ATC on another channel," John said.

"Good! They should know I think they're doing a great job, and that I know none of this mess is their fault!" Mark said.

"Thank you Sire! We were worried that this nightmare might get blamed on us," the woman said.

“The shame of it is, if John hadn't gotten me involved, it probably would have. We've been collecting far too many connected politicians here lately. Maybe I can do something about that," Mark replied.

"Majesty, Admiral Thomes was on the comm with Senator Jenkins, and had put our call on hold to end his other call. Considering it’s the middle of the night for you, I thought you might like to know that." Ford said.

"Ford, you are a devious saint, and I'm glad you work for me. Good Work," Mark replied.

"Admiral Thomes for you, Majesty," Ford announced.

"Thank you, Mr. Ford. Please put him on," Mark replied.

"Majesty! I appreciate the honor, but you need not have contacted me directly. The matter is already being handled," Thomes replied.

"Call your Senior Captain into your office, Commodore," Mark said in a flat voice. When the man looked confused, Mark let his irritation show and raised his voice. "Now Captain! Or would you like to try for Commander or lower?"

The man must have quickly called in the officer, because he arrived rather quickly. When he saw Marcus, he bowed.

Mark told him to rise. "Captain, have two marines escort your former Admiral to a shuttle and have him brought down here to the palace brig. Then contact the system ATC and very nicely request her forgiveness for the intransigence of an old fool. Then I want you to follow their instructions to the letter, and to the best of your ability. Is this understood?"

"Of course, Sire. Do you wish us to proceed to our recall point when the switch over is completed?" The man asked.

"Yes, if you don't have a replacement for this idiot by the time the ATC releases you, proceed to your refit station. I'll have another Fleet Commander for you by the time you're finished getting worked on." Mark replied.

"As you command, Sire," The Captain said.

The former Admiral looked pole-axed. "Sire?"

"Thomes, during peacetime, you were a good commander. However, this little exercise showed how totally unprepared you are for an active command. I'm just really grateful to any deity that happens to be awake and listening that we discovered this without someone getting killed because of your incompetence. Gentlemen, you have your orders. Dismissed." Mark said and closed the channel and turned back to John. "Madam Controller, if you have any more issues with the fleet, please call my aide immediately. You don't need to put up with shit like that on top of everything else."

"As you command, Sire. Thank you very much for your intercession in the matter. My name is Stephanie Howe, Majesty," the woman replied.

"Thank you for all the good work, Controller Howe. You shouldn't have any more problems. Now, John; is there anyone else you need me to scare the shit out of, or can I get back to sleep?" Mark finished.

"Nope, that'll do it, Sire. Thanks for the assist, rest well." John replied, grinning.

"I'll try, see ya in a few hours," Mark replied and closed the channel.

John noticed that the ATC was still on line. "Controller Howe, is there something else?"

"Yes My Lord, you said there were a couple of things I could help you with, may I ask what the other was?" the now much less stressed woman asked.

"Oh! I did say that, didn't I? I was going to ask what's up with all this 'My Lord' and 'My Lady' crap. You've dealt with us before, it was always Major Aster, not all this super-formal crap. What's up?" John asked.

"Since His Majesty declared that all of you are knights that makes you Lords and Ladies. That means a change in title, My Lord. The paperwork has already made the rounds," She explained.

"Uhg! Just when I was starting to get used to being called Major, they go and change it!" John said. "Thank you, Controller Howe. I'd like to add my compliments to that of His Majesty on the good work you and your people are doing. Thank you."

"It's all part of the service, Sir. Now, with your permission, I'll get to work getting this mess straightened out," the woman replied.

"Certainly! Thank you for the assistance, Main ATC. TG Flyer is out," John replied and closed the channel.

Chloe snorted. "Just further proof human idiocy is still alive and well."

"That man should be placed under a mandatory procreation restriction!" Lieutenant Carmichael said.

"He's pushing retirement anyway, so I imagine if he were to have children, he already has. Mark will probably just quietly retire the man to some meaningless desk job where he can't actually hurt anyone," John replied.

Chapter 25

"I think I'm going to make a new law that if I get woken in the middle of the night, the person responsible will be shot!" Mark yawned. His aide, Ford, was still on duty, and sat a steaming cup down next to the King.

"Will that be all, Sire? Hanna is about to come on duty," Ford asked.

Mark shook his head after taking a sip of the hot beverage. "No, thanks a ton, Ford. Go get some rest."

"I have weapons recertification later this morning, Majesty," Ford replied smiling. "Somehow, I don't think the Weapons Master would accept a Royal Order to get some rest as an excuse."

"That’s the truth!" Mark replied, "That man is worse than the drill instructors I had before I was enhanced!"

"Don't forget, Sire, you have recertification coming due yourself. I left a note for Hanna to schedule it for you," Ford replied.

"Oh, that should be fun!" Mark replied sarcastically. "Even though I'm his King, that man still makes me re-qualify on every one of the weapons I've been trained for!"

"Good!" John said, and nodded thanks to Ford for the drink. "You may be our King, Marcus, but you're also still a soldier. You need to maintain your certifications just like the rest of us."

"I don't know; if I remember correctly, you weren't all that good of a shot, Mark!" Chloe added. "Have you improved yet?"

Mark snorted. "After three thousand years, you'd think I could score better than eight-hundred on the range!"

"You did once right after we were trained on the Breckett Mark Twenty sniper rifle, remember?" John said.

"Yeah, but that was because the Mark Twenty had an independent targeting system. All anyone has to do with that rifle is point it in the general direction of the target and pull the trigger!" Mark replied.

"Don't the standard issue assault rifles have the same system now?" Chloe asked.

Mark nodded. "The point of qualification is to evaluate the soldier, not the weapon. So, the system is disabled during qualifications. It was deemed that it gave the soldier too much of an advantage during qualification. The way things are going, very soon all a soldiers will have to do is push a button, or just hold the weapon and try to not get hit in return."

"Yeah, Mary was yelling at us for not staying upgraded," Chloe replied. "She does have a point, but some of that new crap they come out with sounds like it was designed by an insane chimpanzee!"

Mark chuckled. "I'll be sure to tell the folks in R and D you said that! Seriously though, she does have a point, by and large, all of us older soldiers have a tendency to avoid controller upgrades. You all do need to upgrade to at least the Delta series controller. There have been a lot of advances made since the last upgrades."

"I just don't want to have to go through the whole dying thing again," John replied casually. "That was not a pleasant experience."

"I don't imagine it was. John you know they simply switch you over to a remote controller while they replace the outdated one. You won't have a terminal error during replacement. No seriously, you're missing out on a lot of improvements and really cool toys," Mark replied.

"Like what?" Chloe asked.

Mark lifted his arm and accessed the implanted holographic control panel. Suddenly, he was covered in a grayish materiel up to his neck. "Meta-Materiel Armor. The techs call it 'Hardskin'. It doesn't replace the standard armor you wear into combat, but it'll work with a suit of armor to cover wounds, and begin healing. With the optional helmet device, it can function as an EVA suit for a short period. Also, this is always with you, for example, if the palace was attacked right now, this would give you at least light armor to cover you until you can either get to the armory, or back to the Flyer. It'll stop most projectile weapons, and even absorb two or three energy weapon shots.

"John, if you had this when you fought that Lizard on Bethel's Anvil, it couldn't have even scratched you. It is a function of your enhancements, so it works with the strength and speed boosters you already have," Mark explained. "That's in addition to the upgrades Mary told you about, and is the reason Gunny Skarsgaard got to play decoy for you."

"Fighter flight suit?" Chloe asked.

"For enhanced pilots, yes," Mark replied. "We have several projects in the works to try to allow our soldiers to be able to stand against the forces of the Tammerain without being enhanced to the point that they are now. So far, every system we've come up with still has the soldier being enhanced in some way, We are working on it, but the fact is we just haven't been able to get past that requirement." Mark looked at his two visitors. "Say, Mary wanted to talk to me when she gets here, do either of you have any idea what she has planned?"

John shrugged and shook his head, but Chloe answered him. "I don't know, but it has to have something to do with enhancement, since she asked to have Manny here at the same time. Are they still on schedule?

Mark nodded. "Yeah, they didn't get a transfer point like you lucky fuckers did. No, they're still on course, and should arrive here around five tomorrow night."

"Speaking of Gunny, did you get that list I sent to you?" John asked Mark.

"Yes I did. The soldiers you requested will be sent to you. Once you do your thing with them, I'll make it official here, and you'll have new Guardians. What are you going to do about the rest of the older Marines?" Mark asked. "You can't make them all Guardians or you'd be the largest force we have."

"I know, I'll be sending out invitations to those that have excelled in some way. If they accept, we'll take them in and foster them for a while, then decide if they should join us, or not," John said. "I'm looking for a specific type of personality as well as a proven dedication to our people. I noticed you didn't say anything about the one controversial name on that list."

"No, I didn't." Mark paused to think about his words. "John, I'm refusing the honor. I don't want the Guardians to become a 'Royal' thing. I'm not an active member of our forces, so I don't believe I should be considered for a posting. When I started this, I wanted it to be something special, and just for you. No amount of gratitude can repay any of you for all the years of hell you have chosen to go through for the rest of us." He held up his hand to stop John and Chloe from objecting. "I know I'm still enhanced, and technically a Marine, but I'm also the 'youngest' marine on that list by at least five hundred years. Perhaps if I am ever allowed to step down, and I'm still qualified, maybe then I'd accept, but not now. Not while I'm still the King."

"Okay, also, I wanted to talk to you about this whole 'My Lord' crap that everyone is doing now. Mark, is all of that really needed?" John asked.

"Well, the official declaration doesn't specifically say you have to be addressed as 'My Lord'. The person saying has a choice, but you are to be addressed with an honorific. For you they can choose 'My Lord', 'Lord-General', 'Captain-General' or 'Knight-General'," Mark replied. "I would imagine they are simply using the one they feel the most comfortable with using."

John groaned. "You made me a General?"

Mark shook his head. "No, the Senate did. I was fine with leaving you at the rank you were because I know how you feel about it. I even argued with them on your behalf, but they insisted that the leader of the new force should be at the least a General. They actually wanted to go the whole royalty route, you were all to be given holdings, and made Dukes, Barons and the whole gambit. I did get them talked out of it, and this was the compromise reached. Sorry, John, I did what I could for you folks."

John nodded. "Okay, you were right, it is better than becoming a noble. I'm a soldier, not a politician."

"You're a leader, John. One of the best we have," Mark said reasonably. "I had to drop my request to abdicate because the only way I could do it was if I named one of the Temporal Guard as my successor."

"That's ridiculous!" Chloe said. "Why does the King have to be enhanced? Up until recently, they didn't even want us to be free among them."

"Mary has a theory that our enhancements triggered an evolutionary advancement in us, and that's the reason we cannot be decommissioned. The people tend to see us as a form of demi-god because of our abilities, and while that's good for ruling them, it's not so good to have as a next door neighbor," John said.

Mark shook his head. "Your decommissioning produced a lot of data, John. We discovered that your body did change, but it changed only so far as to not be able to function without the assistance of the enhancements. In all other ways, you are still just as human as anyone off the street from a medical stand point."

"I think she was speaking of a meta-physical advancement, Mark. I don't know if I can credit her theory though, because I really don't feel any different now than I did when I was still on Earth, living with my folks on the farm." John replied.

"John, you are only one of two people that remember Earth. Very soon, you will be the only one out of five hundred billion souls that has even set foot on that planet," Mark said quietly. "Parliament named you as my successor a thousand years ago, for that very reason. If I were to step down, you would be called to become King."

"Why didn't you ever tell me, Mark?" John asked.

Mark chuckled and finished his coffee. "I didn't think you really wanted to know, and I was afraid you would talk me into staying here if you did."

John shook his head. "No, I would still try to help you, but don't they realize they can't simply force someone to become King?"

"I do not believe it's that simple, My Lord-General," a young woman entered. "Sire, would you or your guests like more coffee?"

"That would be wonderful, Hanna. Could you see if there is any cream cheese Danish? I'm feeling a bit peckish," Mark asked. "But first, could you please explain what you mean?"

Hanna bowed. "I do not wish to presume knowledge where I have none, but I believe the issue is simple yet complex. Simply put, everyone knows that long serving, enhanced soldiers do not have their own agenda. If you did, then you would not be a Marine, not a living one anyway. The same cannot be said of a non-enhanced candidate. There is also the simple fact that you have been alive for so long. You actually remember the past, you didn't learn it from a computer. You were there, you understood the circumstances and the situation of the time. That is a quality that is simply not possible for an unenhanced person to have. Lord Aster is actually the only living being that helped to rebuild our history and our knowledge of Earth and pre-fall times.

"The current members of the Temporal Guard remember the times before and immediately after the fall. They remember them, and they understand them. Many historians of today would love to be able to sit down with any of you in a setting just like this one and discuss history. There is a group of historians that have called certain sections of recorded history into question because our actions at the time don't make sense to them. The fact is, they live and understand a completely different society then what we had back then, and they refuse to believe that it ever was any different than it is now.

"The people believe in the Guards. You remember our past, and we believe it will be you that will keep us from reliving it. You have the experience to see, long before most of the rest of us, when we are making a mistake. A prime example of that is happening right now. Four hundred years ago, there was a strong movement to reduce our military and the funding and materials we were putting into it. It had become the belief that, if we destroyed our arms, the Tammerain would leave us alone.

"You all knew that was a mistake, and that the Tammerain would be back, in force. You knew that the treaty with the Tammerain would last only as long as it took them to rebuild their military into something they believed would finally destroy us. Now they're back, and we are again threatened with extinction." She poured fresh coffee for all of us from a carafe she got from a cabinet. "Not one person believes that they would stop with simply killing all of our enhanced soldiers, which would leave us completely at their mercy. However, the disarmament faction has again reared its head. Although small, they are gaining followers." She smiled. "But the point I was trying to make is that you all knew they would be back, and you knew that destroying our weapons would have been a huge mistake. Those disarmament folks may get some followers, but they won't get very far."

"In the Guard we trust, huh?" John said. "They're still deifying us."

"Not intentionally, General, but that is the basic motivation for wanting one of you to hold the crown. You serve the people; politicians serve only themselves and those that could pay to get them elected," Hanna finished.

John chuckled. "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"

Chapter 26

Chloe's comm beeped at her, and she answered it.

"My Lady, the ATC has assigned us a transit time of fourteen hundred hours. Is there anything you need from the ship before we go in for upgrades?" Lieutenant Carmichael asked.

Chloe looked at John who shook his head. "I brought all my stuff with me."

Chloe nodded and replied to the pilot. "We're good, Lieutenant. Are you sure you'll be okay taking her home by yourself? Two days alone in a ship that big might be unnerving."

Carmichael chuckled in reply, "It won't be two days, My Lady. The transit point has been installed. All I have to do is fly her out and land in her birth. I'll catch a shuttle back to Prime and be home before bedtime."

"Dammit! Now I want to go with you!" Chloe said. "Be safe, Lieutenant."

"Will do, Ma'am" the Lieutenant replied before Chloe closed the channel.

"It's really pretty neat. We have people that commute to work now," Mark replied. "That was supposed to be a surprise for you, Chloe."

"I wonder if the ATC folks would give me a tour," Chloe asked rhetorically.

"Sire, you have court in an hour, and a meeting with the defense consortium afterward," Hanna replied.

Mark sighed and rose. "Thanks Hanna. I need to get a shower before work, guys. Thanks for coming over this morning, I really enjoyed just being able to talk to someone."

"It was our pleasure, Mark," Chloe replied as she stood.

"Thanks for all your help on Bethel's Anvil by the way, I know you didn't have to do that personally," John said.

"You're welcome. You guys should go see the city; there's been a lot of new stuff built since your last visit," Mark recommended as he left the room.

"I know it's still a little early, but maybe we can still get reservations for dinner tonight. We haven't went out to dinner for a while," John suggested.

Chloe chuckled. "Somehow, I don't think that's going to be much of an issue."

"Huh?" John asked. "Why?"

Chloe held up her hand and curled her fingers in a countdown. When her hand made a fist, Hanna entered the room from her office. "My Lady, My Lord, I hope you don't mind, but I made reservations for you at Nuyork Grill for eighteen hundred. I also made arrangements for Lady Diamond and yourself to tour the transit facility, the shuttle is waiting for you on pad four."

John grinned at Chloe. "You've either developed psychic abilities, or you had that one figured out!"

Hanna seemed to look a little confused, and Chloe took pity on her. "I anticipated that you would make these arrangements. Thank you, Hanna. You're too kind!"

Hanna grinned. "No, I just tried to think of what I'd like to share with my own love, and here you are."

"You want to take a tour of the Transit Facility?" John asked, grinning.

"Well, no, but considering Lady Diamond's hobby, I didn't think you'd mind," Hanna replied smiling. "I can cancel the tour if you would like?"

John shook his head. "No, don't do that; she'd skin me alive if you did!"

"You bet your ass I would! I knew they were working on them, but I hadn't known they had gotten any built!" Chloe replied.

"Well, come on, Sparkle, let's go take that tour," John said using Chloe's nickname.

"John, you know I hate that nickname!" Chloe replied. "I suppose we could start calling you 'Lazarus'!" Chloe replied.

Hanna looked confused. "What's a Lazarus? Something to do with lasers?"

John chuckled. "No, Lazarus was a poor man that another man supposedly raised from the dead. The man that did the resurrecting later became a central figure in an old Earth religion. Actually, I'm really surprised even Chloe knew of him."

"You're not the only one of us that knows how to read," Chloe replied as she made her way to the door with John. "Thanks again Hanna, have a good day!"

"The same to you both, Milady," Hanna replied.

Chapter 27

Mark had no more than gotten sat down on his throne to begin court than a courier from the Ministry of Intelligence arrived. He all but ran up to the throne and bowed.

"Sire, please forgive the interruption, but Minister Gadfries has sent you an urgent message. He apologizes for sending it via courier, but he felt it was too important to be sent over a comm," the young man said. He was panting and sweating profusely.

"Did you run all the way here, young man?" Mark asked, as he motioned a guard to take the message and hand it to him.

"Yes Sire, I was told that it was very urgent."

"Well sit down there on the steps. Rest for a moment, you deserve it after a run like that," Mark ordered. The Ministry was almost five miles away across the Royal Menagerie that was used to separate the Palace from the rest of the city.

However, the man was forgotten as soon as Mark opened the missive.

"Sire, we have received the most astounding information from a group of traders that were allowed to travel very deeply into the Tammerain Empire. Based on their sensor readings and testimony, we believe we have found the capitol world of the Tammerain Empire!" was all the message said.

Mark stood, getting the attention of every one of the courtiers in the room. "Ladies and Gentlemen, an urgent matter has been brought to our attention and must be investigated immediately. My apologies, but Court is canceled this day. Until the morrow, I bid you all, Good Day!" He was already heading for the door while he finished speaking and didn't even see the entire room bow in response.

He sprinted down the hallway leading back to his quarters, using his comm implant to call ahead. "Hanna, I canceled court. Something has come up. You might want to delay the defense consortium for a couple of hours, too."

"Understood, Sire. I will have your transport readied and notify your guard," Hanna replied.

"Do you even know where I'm going, Hanna?"

"The Ministry of Intelligence and Information Sire. It's where you always go in this type of situation," Hanna replied logically.

He opened the door to his quarters and was now in the same room as Hanna, so he closed the comm and simply spoke to her. "What would I ever do without you, Hanna?"

"Flounder about helplessly. Go put on your armor, I'll handle the rest," the woman said and nodded over her shoulder to the door to his inner quarters.

Mark winked at her and went to change. When he came back out, Hanna was ready to go, she had a satchel over one shoulder and an energy bar in one hand for him. Two armored guards were also there waiting for him. He grabbed the energy bar, and led the procession out the door, down the hall to his private landing pad, and to the transport waiting there.

Minister Gadfries was waiting for him when they landed at the Ministry Pad. Mark was the first down the ramp. "How certain are you about this, Jed?" Mark asked.

"Very, Sire. However, the information is somewhat troubling as well. Come, I'll show you what I mean," the old man replied. "I think we should do something for these traders as well, Sire. They went to extraordinary lengths to get this information back to us."

"Oh?" Mark asked. "How so?"

"Well, they started out as a group of five ships carrying food stuffs and agro-machine parts. Once the Tammerain figured out that they had gotten too close, they sent out warships to hunt them down. They lost three of the ships and crews. One of the other ships was badly damaged, but managed to make temporary repairs sufficient to continue. It took them almost two years to get back to Human space. Sire, they had to jump laterally to get out of Tammerain Space, and completely circumvent the border. They went into inter-galactic space by almost five hundred light years in order to lose the pursuit vessels. Their navigator then plotted a reverse course jump, adjusting for distance, to bring them back into our space. They arrived last evening and are still in medical."

"Medical?" Mark asked.

"They are all suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. A few of them had other wounds suffered earlier in battles. They knew how important this information was to us, and they did the impossible in order to make sure we got it. I should mention that they were all unconscious when we boarded them. It had been a close thing for them.

"We are still going through their logs, and what information we've gotten has come from the Captain's logs, as well as other messages left for us in the computer systems of the ships," Gadfries reported.

They had arrived in the main operations room, and Mark could see a few of the people working on what had to be the logs of the trading ships. "So what's troubling about this, Jed?"

The older man led him into a smaller room that still had terminals in it. He stepped up to one of them and began typing. "This is the world we believe is their Capitol, There isn't a lot of detail, because of the distance. However, if we compare the astrometric readings from the same time period, there doesn't appear to be a planet located there. As you can see, we have the rest of the planets in the system showing up and all is well except for this one world; it appears to not have a gravity well and is not affecting the other large bodies in that system."

"Jed, that's just not possible. Any object that size would have gravity, even if it were artificial, it would still have gravity. The sensors have to be wrong. Look, it isn't registering an atmosphere either. How could this be the Capitol?" Mark asked. He knew there was more to this story, these people didn't make mistakes like this.

"We believed the same thing, Sire. Until we saw the rest of the information about this system." He began typing more, and the view backed out to one of the system and icons began appearing for warships; thousands of icons. During the time the recording ship had been in range, there had been considerable shuttle activity to the 'dead' null-gravity world. As well as the amount of recorded data being sent and received, the messages themselves hadn't been recorded, the computer didn't have the capacity for it. As it was, just recording that they took place was straining its capacity.

"The engineer of this ship had to build six more memory units in one of the holds to record all the data. Luckily, this was one of the ships that survived, or the data would have been lost. Although the traders didn't have the decryption software we have, we have been able to decode some of the message tags in the literally millions of messages. They are clearly imperial," Jed replied.

"Could the planet be hollow? Basically a shell built to keep atmosphere in? Perhaps it's only one of the Tammerain shipyards? That would explain the absence of gravity," Mark asked.

"Possibly Sire, but there is one more thing that is troubling. Most of that load of comms traffic was directed deeper into the empire, to the far side," Jed asked.

"Far side; ancient Promethean Space?" Mark asked.

Jed nodded. "We can't decode any of it. It's just a jumble of data to us."

Mark activated his Comm again. "John?"

"I thought you had Court, Mark?" John replied, teasingly. "Get bored already?"

"Something else came up, I need your help at MIIO as soon as you can get here," Mark replied using the abbreviated title for the Ministry of Intelligence, Information and Operations.

"Gonna try to turn me into a spook, Mark?" John replied. "Chloe and I have reservations at a restaurant in Capitol City tonight, do you need us to cancel them?"

"I don't think it'll take that long, John, I just need you to take a look at something. You should be able to leave right after," Mark replied.

"We just finished a tour of the Transit Facility, we're on our way now," John replied.

"Good, I'll see you when you get here," Mark replied and closed the comm. He turned to one of his guards. "Pass the word that Captain-General Aster will be arriving; be sure he and Knight-Commander Diamond know where to find us."

"Of course, Sire," the guard replied and began making the arrangements over his suit comm.

"I asked John Aster to stop by because he's been studying the races of the Tammerain since the armistice was signed. He might be able to help us with this," Mark told his Minister.

The old man nodded, "His knowledge of the Tammerain races is well known, Sire. I should have though to ask for him sooner."

Chapter 28

When John and Chloe arrived at the ministry, he expected to have to go through all the security bullshit that visiting such a facility entailed. Instead, John and Chloe were ushered right in to where the Mark and Minister Gadfries were still puzzling over the strange symbols their computers were producing.

"Sorry it took so long, Sire; traffic sucked," John said sarcastically, it had taken them only minutes to land.

Mark snorted and Minister Gadfries chuckled. "I have a shorter distance to go, and it takes me twice as long to get here!"

"What did you need, Sire?" John asked.

"This data stream was captured from a previously unknown Tammerain World. It appears to be directed towards Promethean space, but we can't make heads or tails of it," Mark said.

John stepped up to the terminal, and looked at it for a moment. Nodded, and typed an instruction into the terminal. The stream changed, and John nodded to himself again. "It's definitely a Promethean code, but it's an old one. I can barely recognize it."

"How old, and do you know what is says?" Mark asked.

John snorted. "Old as in pre-ancient. As for telling you what it says, I have no idea. It's a control code for an ancient Promethean computer system. I think it has something to do with environmental settings." He paused. "You said this comes from a world? It must be terraformed, and the computers are still online. See this part here," John highlighted a portion of the code. "Deals with maintaining ambient temperature."

Mark looked puzzled. "Jed, please show him everything."

When the minister finished his explanation, John nodded. "That's not a planet, it's an ancient Promethean artifact."

"Excuse me?" Mark said.

"Prometheans were, by many, considered to be the original architects of the Empire. They built massive computer systems, and have even been rumored to have developed an AI, although no one has been able to prove it. Like the rest of the Empire, they eschewed violence and held the quest for knowledge as a racial goal. They built massive fleets for exploration and research. Terraformed entire planets, and had even seeded them with different forms of life; some of those life forms are now part of the Empire. They reached a pinnacle that was so technologically advanced that they no longer needed ships to travel between star systems."

"You keep talking about them in the past tense. Aren't they still a member race of the Tammerain?" Mark asked.

John shook his head. "No, there is a race that moved into their space and are now inhabiting their worlds, and they claim to be the Prometheans, but there is evidence to the contrary. Most Promethean artifacts that we have seen indicate the race was very tall. The current 'Prometheans' average four feet."

"So what happened to the original Prometheans?" Minister Gadfries asked.

"Again, this is speculation, but it is believed that one of their experiments turned on them. Quite possible a sentient AI or one of their genetics experiments. The area is so far away, I doubt we'll ever know for certain. However, I would say you've stumbled across something that will freak out a number of our archaeologists," John replied.

"Why is that?" Gadfries asked.

"This is the first Promethean artifact discovered that is still functioning, it also indicates that there is more than one. From the looks of the data streams here, there has to be a Promethean AI that is still functioning on whatever that is supposed to be," John said looking a little troubled.

"So why does that trouble you?" Mark asked.

"If the Minister is correct, and I'm starting to agree with him about this being the Tammerain Capitol, then the Entire Empire is being led by a million-plus-year-old, Sentient AI," John replied. "Agrarian civilizations or not, if that machine decides we need to die, it'll mobilize the entire Empire. Let's just hope it doesn't have access to the ancient Promethean shipyards or transportation equipment."

"Minister, Highness, can I have a copy of that part of the data?" Chloe asked. "Maybe I can make something of it."

"I'm sure I don't mind, Chloe, but the fact is that all of this is still highly classified. Considering the lengths the Tammerain went to just trying to prevent it from getting back here, it wouldn't surprise me if this doesn't trigger the war all by itself," Mark said. "As it is, we're going to have to report the ships as derelict hulks that arrived with all hands dead and all but fried computers."

"Does that mean I can get a copy or not?" Chloe asked.

"That means you can examine a copy as long as the data doesn't leave this facility, Dear," John said.

"Oh, well in that case, I know you'll be talking for a while, so can I borrow a terminal Minister?" Chloe asked nicely, and indicated another terminal in the room.

Gadfries chuckled and shook his head. "Of course, Milady,"

"So, if that is indeed the Capitol, and there is at least one AI there, what does that mean to us?" Mark said. "We have no proof that this AI is the one actually giving the orders, we only suspect it's there, and we have no way to prove it."

"We could take the Flyer and go find out." John said. "We have its spacial coordinates"

"I'm afraid it would be a one way trip even in that craft, My Lord. There are several fleets protecting that... uh, facility, and it has sensors we can't even begin to imagine," the Minister replied.

"Why is that, Jed?" Mark asked.

"According to the Captain's log, several of those warships immediately jumped to intercept them. Even though they were almost three light years away, that monstrosity detected the trader ships, and sent the warships after them. Later on, in his logs, the Captain reports the arrival of the warships. They questioned the Captains over the comms, and shortly after receiving a signal from that facility, they dropped back into attack position and fired on them," the man answered. "Our ships jumped away, and the Tammerain responded by sending an entire fleet after them. They hunted them for the next six months, destroying three of the five ships. Whatever this is, the Tammerain do not want us to know about it."

As they stood there talking, John noticed something happening out in the main room. Suddenly, the lights took on a red hue. "Red alert!" the intercoms broadcast. "Red Alert, the Tammerain is attacking the Kingdom. All personnel to war status. This is not a drill."

Minister Gadfries opened a channel via the terminal he had been using. "This is Gadfries, report!"

"Minister, a Tammerain fleet has arrived in the Haven system! Reports are of two battleships, four carriers, six frigates, and escorts, they are approaching the farming world of Haven in battle formation," a man replied.

"Keep us apprised!" Mark ordered and moved to another terminal. "Minister, can I get Ms. Halstead in here?"

Gadfries nodded and made the arrangements, in less than a minute there was a polite knock followed by the entry of a plump, dark-skinned woman that wore glasses and a very flamboyant dress. "You called for me, Minister?"

"Actually, I did, Gabby. I need your magic," Mark replied. "Please?" he asked and indicated the chair in front of a terminal.

She grinned. "I knew you couldn't live without me!" she said and quickly took the seat. "Whatcha need first, Your Handsomeness?"

"Current fleet distribution for this sector, local force readiness, and border status with the Tammerain, if you please, Gabby," Mark replied.

John stood close to the Minister and asked in a low voice. "Who's she?"

"His Highness's personal analyst-slash-computer specialist-slash-hacker-slash-computerized magic worker. She's one of the best code breakers we have. But her skills really shine in data acquisition and collation," Gadfries replied just as quietly. "Whenever he works from here, she's the one running his computers."

Mark turned around. "I'm sorry about your dinner reservations, John, but I need you out there. I'll order the Destroyer Hades to pick you up in orbit. Jump immediately for Haven," Mark ordered. "I'll brief you on the rest in transit."

John kissed Chloe, and she winked at him. "You still owe me dinner. Hurry back."

"You're going with him, just on a different ship. The destroyer Clandestine will be for you," Mark replied. "I'll find something for Carl and Alice and get them out there as well."

John activated his comm. "Carl, Alice! Put your clothes back on and grab your gear. The balloon's going up. Where are you so we can pick you up?"

"Fuck! John how do you know when to call? I was just about to there and you called again!" Alice bitched.

"Officer’s quarters, Palace Marine barracks, Boss. Don't worry about Alice, she's just getting a mad worked up to take out on the Tammerain," Carl replied.

"Damn straight! How dare those assholes interrupt my sex time!" Alice replied.

"No need to dress, we're looking at a four hour transit." John replied.

"Four hours? How the fuck did they get so close?" Carl asked.

"Obtuse angle," Alice replied. "They didn't come through the border space. We have no way to detect that."

"Be ready in five, kids, Chloe and I are in route," John replied.

"What about Will?" Carl asked.

"Mark didn't say anything, but I'll handle that, now scoot," John ordered.

John turned to Mark. "Sire, I'd like you to order Will to your flag ship. We can't leave him out of this."

"Actually, I've got a better job for him. Go get the rest of your dilettantes and get out of here," Mark replied. "Good hunting Guardian."

"Die well, Sire." John returned the parting phrase as he and Chloe ran back the way they'd come. "And take as many of those fuckers with you as you can!" Chloe shot back over her shoulder.

Chapter 29

True to his word, Mark did indeed have a better place to assign Will. The tired Guardian was now in the planetary defense control center advising operations for the defense of the Capitol and Centauri system.

The shuttle dropped John off at his ship before continuing on to drop the rest at other small ships detached from the planetary defense fleet. John was met by the XO and another officer. "Captains compliments, Lord Guardian, he apologizes for not meeting you himself, but he wanted to make sure we got underway as soon as your shuttle left the bay."

John nodded. "I agree with him, we really don't have time for niceties. Lead on Commander."

The man nodded and turned. He hurriedly introduced his companion. The small woman seemed to be slightly in awe of John. "Sir, this is our chief engineer, Lieutenant Dupree. Lieutenant, Guardian-General John Aster."

"It's a pleasure Chief," John replied.

"Very much so, Sir. It's an honor to meet you," the Lieutenant replied. "Sir, the Captain wanted me to fill you in on the new additions to the destroyer class."

John raised an eyebrow and looked at her. "New Additions?"

"We're fresh out of Xanadu Sir. This is an entirely new ship design, we have a couple extra weapons, and what we have is much more powerful than the old class. We have some stealth systems to prevent missile lock, as well as a new form of reactive armor. Energy weapons hits will make our armor and shields stronger up to a point. We have mass drivers and small lasers for point defense, an anti-missile missile pod mounted between our engines aft, two additional heavy pulse cannons, and an entirely new gadget called a hyperspace disruptor," the woman said, obviously proud of her new ship.

John nodded, "I followed you up until that last item, Chief. What's a hyperspace disruptor?"

"A nasty trap for enemy ships." She replied. "When activated, the disruptor prevents any ship within ten light seconds from jumping into hyperspace."

"That could go either way, Chief. I understand the use, but we'll have to be careful with it. How long does it take to activate and deactivate?"

"The effect is light speed, Sir. So, about four seconds. The device itself is a switch flip," she explained.

John nodded. "With the new weapons, that should almost put you on par with a Tammerain light cruiser. I'm sure she'll do great, Chief. Thanks for the answers."

Destroyer class ships simply aren't that big, so by the time they had finished talking, they had arrived at the bridge. The Chief excused herself to return to Engineering. "Attention!" the XO called as John followed him onto the small bridge.

"As you were," John replied and approached the smiling Captain. The woman was actually the same rank as her XO, but since she was the person in charge of the ship, she held the title of Captain.

"Welcome to the Hades, Guardian-General. I'm Commander Dione Stilts, Captain," she said and offered her hand.

John shook her hand nodded his head. "Good to meet you, Captain. What's our status?"

"Course out of the system is set, and the jump to Haven is laid in. We're just waiting for our sister ships, and we'll be on our way," Dione replied. "Can you tell us what's going on, General?"

"Sure, a Tammerain task force just dropped out of hyper at Haven, and we're going to go kick their asses," John said with a slight smile.

"Four Destroyers against a task force?" the woman asked.

"Well, you have four Guardians too," John replied grinning.

"More than enough then!" the XO replied laughing, which caused the Captain to laugh as well.

"John? You on the Hades yet?" Mark called.

"Excuse me a moment, Captain," John said and put his hand to his ear to let everyone know that he was on the Comm.

"Yes I am Mark, but I don't think the others are ready yet." John replied.

"Won't matter very much, have Captain Stilts head out, I need you there ASAP. Those fuckers are twenty minutes from orbit of Haven," Mark said.

Turning back to the Captain, John said. "Captain, head out now. We can't wait for the others. Fast as possible if you please."

The woman nodded to him and turned back to her bridge crew and started giving orders. The XO pointed John to a chair with straps, as he took his own station.

John sat down and strapped in. "We're on our way, care to tell me what kind of help we're going to have? This seems like a good crew, and I don't want to lose them."

"I've managed to redirect the Fourth Russian Task force to Haven for you. They should arrive within ten minutes of you. They'll be coming in on the far side of the system from you. However, they are equipped with the new missiles. Feel free to terrify the enemy all you want. Uh, John..." Mark said.

"Yeah?" John asked.

"They have violated our space. None of them leave. Understand?"

John sighed. "Yes Sire. None will."

"Thanks, keep me in the loop. Contact Commodore Rostov for the missiles," Mark replied.

"Mark, who named the fleet? There hasn't been a 'Russia' in five thousand years," John asked.

"Heh, I did, actually. I named them all after different countries from old earth."

John chuckled. "So what is the name of the Capitol guardian fleet?"

"The First North American Guards, or first NAG for short. I thought it would be fitting considering they'll tell me when to get the hell off the planet," Mark replied.

John laughed at the name. "It's a good name. I need to go calm the Captain a little, I told her we were going to kick ass on a task force, and she paled a little. I'm going to talk to her and see what she thinks of my strategy."

"What is your strategy?" Mark asked.

"Muerte invisible" John replied in an old Earth language. "Invisible Death,"

He could hear the grin in Mark's reply. "I get it! Sounds like a good plan to me, just try to keep them from attacking that planet."

"Well, if they do try to hail the planet, make sure it gets piped through to me. Maybe I can keep them talking until we get there," John said.

"Okay, go talk to the Captain so she doesn't get her knickers in a knot. I'm sure she'll love your idea!" Mark said as he closed the connection.

John looked over at the Captain. "Captain, do we have time for a talk?"

Chapter 30 Moon Day (Eighth Day)

John had time during the trip to brief the other guardians as well as put in a call to the Commodore. Everything was in place to give the Tammerain fleet a warm reception to the Kingdom. The fleet itself didn't try to contact anyone, they settled into orbit of the planet, and began intensive scans of the surface, it was very obvious they were looking for something.

Twenty minutes from arrival, the being in charge of the fleet finally hailed the nervous colony. As per their instructions, they set up a subspace link to route the call to John.

After making sure there was nothing behind him to betray his location, John opened the channel, and bowed. "Greetings Fleet Commander, you are orbiting a planet that is mine to defend. I seek knowledge of your intentions?"

The large being just sat for a moment and stared at John. Finally it spoke. "I am Fleet Commander H'drean. We have tracked a group of Kingdom spies and terrorists to this system. We seek knowledge as to their current location."

"Fleet Commander H'drean, two solar cycles ago, two freighters arrived in this system. Both crews had expired due to dehydration, and the computer systems of the ships had been destroyed by what looked like battle damage. As for any spies aboard either ship, I'm afraid you know more about that than I do," John replied.

"Come now, Demon, you know as well as I do that those supposed trading ships are little more than spy vessels sent to deceive the faithful. These ships you claim to have been destroyed, where is their current location so we may verify their status ourselves?" H'drean asked.

"They were taken away, we do not know by whom. I assume they were taken to be analyzed as to because of the battle damage, so we could discover who murdered them," John replied.

"Murdered is not the word used for the termination of spies, Demon. You will learn this soon enough. You will provide us with the location of the ships or we will destroy this colony. No more games will be played with you," H'drean replied.

"Fleet Commander H'drean, I feel I have to point out a few things to you, since you have overlooked them. First, you are orbiting a world in Kingdom Space, not Imperial. This world is not yours to destroy. Second, if so much as one child on that planet is harmed by your presence here, I will not allow any of your ships to return to your own space. Third, again you are not in the Empire, you are in the Kingdom, you are surrounded by forces that will destroy you utterly if you do not surrender immediately.

"Lastly, the planet you are threatening is unarmed, and has no defenses. By your own imperial law, as well as the laws of your Goddess, this would be an act of terrorism thus resulting in the same punishment you wish to inflict upon those already beyond this world. Such an act, in itself has been condemned by your own Goddess as well as the Jal-Haraad. You would destroy your own soul and the souls of those that follow you for no gain?" John replied.

They were five minutes out now, he had to buy enough time to get in range of the fleet so they could target them.

The large being narrowed his eyes and glared at John. "You will not use your demon tricks on us! We are defended from the likes of you. Our Goddess has directed us to destroy the spies at any cost, and we will not be denied. She will not allow our souls to be forfeit if we must destroy this world, since it is not us that does this but you that forced our hand."

John nodded. "H'drean, five thousand years ago, there were people that used those very same words to justify the wholesale slaughter of millions of innocent people that had no direct link to the events in question. Just as these people on this world have no idea what you are speaking of. You would be killing the truly innocent, and it would be you that has done it, since it is by your hand that you guide your weapons, it is by your voice that the order for their deaths is given. How can it be seen as anything else?"

John saw that they had indeed exited hyperspace, and he was showing the ships of the fleet as targets. The Captain and her crew had put them right where he needed them to be. The Commodore had also signaled that the missiles were ready whenever he needed them.

"You have only one last choice for salvation, Fleet Commander, surrender, and allow us to repatriate you back to the Empire," John said marking both of the Battleships for multiple strikes and pressing the firing command for the hyper-missiles.

The being nodded at John. "So be it. Weapons officer, target the largest city, and destroy it."

Before anything else could be done, the two battleships in the task force blew up. John quickly began targeting the rest of the ships he could see, and sent a fire as ready command.

"Computers nearing maximum, Captain!" the Engineer said via the comm.

"If this locks them up, then it does, we have to destroy them before they can bomb that world, Captain!" John replied.

"Engineering, shut down everything but life-support and the reactor, even if it costs this ship, we have to do this!" the Captain ordered.

"The other destroyers are exiting hyperspace, Captain!" the weapons officer replied.

"Hand off as many targets as we can!" Stilts ordered.

"Ma'am, there are several of the smaller ships entering the atmosphere of the planet, they are out of range for the missiles!" the Navigator called.

"Reset all systems, Helm ahead full! Battle stations! Spin up the weapons, Mr. Eisle. Raise our shields and rig for atmospheric! Strap in tight Sir, this is where it gets bumpy!" The last she said to John. "Sir, could you ask the Fourth to join us for clean up?"

Chapter 31

"I will, if you have any Marines on board, please get them suited up for planetary assault. I'll be joining them," John said. "Captain?"

"Yes?" the woman turned back to him.

"No mercy, Captain. They are attacking an unarmed, undefended, and innocent planet. Even by Tammerain Law their lives are automatically forfeit. They know that they will be killed for their actions. Give no quarter and accept no surrender, Captain. If any of them try to surrender, it will be a trap," John said.

"I understand, General. Good hunting!" Captain Stilts replied grimly. "Marines are assembling in the landing bay, Sir. We're fifteen minutes from atmosphere."

John nodded and headed for the landing bay. He'd already put on his armor, as had the rest of the crew, before they arrived. When he arrived in the small bay, he found a platoon of Marines gathered around a small holo -display of the area the Captain was going to drop them in. John nodded when he saw that it was the largest city.

"Welcome aboard Sir," the lieutenant said when he saw john had joined them. During combat operations, the usual protocol of announcing the officers was foregone, much to John's relief.

John nodded. "Thanks Ell-tee, (Ell-tee is short for Lieutenant; 'LT' pronounced) I don't know if the captain told you, but we're going up against religious zealots that believe they have nothing to lose. These guys are not your normal imperial troops. From their markings, they are Imperial Guards which means they not only fight dirty, they do not surrender. Their goal will be to spread chaos, terror and destruction before they are killed."

"Sir, I thought the Tammerain didn't attack civilians?" one of the troops asked.

"Normally, they won't. They believe to do so would destroy their soul and deny them an afterlife with their Goddess. If the Civilians take up arms and join in the fight that's a different matter. The simple fact that there are units like this one should be proof that the Tammerain will not stop until every human is dead. Expect these troops to be pathological killing machines. Leave none alive, and you will live, and you won't get shot in the back."

"Are you ordering us to slaughter them, Sir?" the Lieutenant asked in disbelief.

John sighed. "Lieutenant, these fuckers are fanatics in every sense of the word. If they can pull the trigger with their tongue they will do it in an effort to kill at least one more human. Yes, I am ordering you to slaughter them. I have a sinking feeling that you'll understand why all too soon."

"Four minutes to atmosphere! Marines Assault drop positions! Drop in two minutes! Landing Zone is hot, I say again LZ is hot!" the Captain announced. "People, these animals are firing on anything that moves. Men, women, children... even the animals are being shot! Four of these snakes hit a hospital and are going from room to room, killing the patients!"

John opened a com to her. "Hold it together, Captain. We'll stop them, but you have to hold it together."

"Yes Sir, but how can they even do this?" Dione Stilts asked.

"Long ago, on Earth, there were people that believed it was their duty to kill or destroy those they had deemed the enemy of their God. They would go to any lengths to do it. They even strapped bombs to their own bodies, went to a crowded place, and detonated it. Dione, these people actually believe by doing something like that, it will ensure their place with their God while making life better for their people. These Tammerain are like that. They have been conditioned to believe that any action they take will help their Goddess. Killing humans is something they know to be a holy sanctified action."

"That's twisted!" the Captain replied.

"Yes, it is. But it is also what we are dealing with," John explained. "That was the reason I gave you the no mercy order."

"I understand much better now Sir, thank you."

John had entered his drop pod while he had been talking to the Captain and had secured his weapons. He felt the ship bucking as she entered the atmosphere as it evaded fire from the ships still in orbit above them. It was a really rough ride until everything stopped and became smooth. The pod had been ejected from the ship.

John brought up the data feeds from the sensors on the hull of the pod so he could see the area they were dropping into. The Captain had dropped them over a large park in the center of the city.

Assault pods were fired from a ship usually in orbit and directed to a spot on the surface by their own guidance computers. Even though they had been 'dropped' ten thousand feet over the city, this would be considered a 'low' drop. The retro thrusters fired almost immediately in order to slow them down enough to land without killing the occupants.

Right away, John could see which direction the Tammerain killers had gone and let the platoon leader know they had to move in that direction. In his mind, John knew that the Tammerain had most likely dropped more 'troops' than they could chase down, but he was determined to do as much as he could with what he had.

A shuddering impact and he was down, the hatch blew off, and John was out, taking a position to help cover the troops that had grounded near his position. On the inside of his visor, his display automatically tracked the positions of the troops near him as well as the rest of the platoon. The Ell-tee and five other troops had grounded closest to the direction the Tammerain had gone. John directed 'his' people to head in that direction.

In the park around them lay the bodies of dead civilians, over by a path through the park, John saw the dead bodies of a man and his dog. The dog had obviously tried to protect his master before it was blown apart by a Tammerain pulse weapon.

"Ignore it people! The only way we'll be able to stop this is if we keep it from getting to us. The rest of the people here are counting on us to protect them! We have to stop the bastards that did this! Use these images! Use the feelings it creates in you! Use them to stop these butchers before they hurt more people!" John told his troops.

"There aren't any wounded, just dead." One of the troops said quietly.

"Captain Stilts, could you request an armed medical unit to land at our LZ to search for wounded and police the dead? This is going to be a hard day," John asked the Captain of the destroyer.

"Affirmative, General. The other Destroyers are dropping their teams in different areas around the City, so there will be friendlies in the area. Direct any survivors to go to the park you landed in, and I'll make sure a medical support shuttle gets there. I'll let you know where the aid station is as soon as we know," the Captain replied sounding harried.

"Thanks Dione," John replied as they linked up with the rest of the platoon. Switching channels, John spoke to the Ell-tee over the platoon channel. "We gotta catch up the bastards, Ell-tee. Direct any survivors we find to the park; Stilts is going to set up a medevac (medical evacuation) point there. Let's get moving."

"You heard the man, ladies! Use your scanners to check the buildings as we go, but we need to move!" the Lieutenant ordered.

The platoon spread out and ran toward the park exit, following the path of destruction left by the Tammerain force.

The attackers hadn't been on planet very long, and taking the time to kill everyone in every building had slowed them down considerably. John's platoon caught up with them three blocks from the park.

"Movement forward!" the point soldier reported. "Tammerain troops are checking the aircars in the park for that apartment building on the left."

"Take 'em out Corporal! We're coming up behind you. Sampson, Hernandez, get over to the building and get a scanner on it!" the Lieutenant ordered. "Don't get shot in the process, you don't have permission to die today!"

As he looked up at the building, John saw a Tammerain soldier through a window on the second floor. "Belay that! They're in the building! Hostile sighted on the second floor! Take out the hostiles and move into the building ASAP! Watch for snipers, that'd be a wicked crossfire!"

The Tammerain had been too focused on killing civilians to post a sniper for cover, and the platoon killed the four Tammerain troops in the park so quickly they hadn't been able to get a call for help out. The platoon entered the building and their scanners told them the first floor was clear.

"How do you want to do this, Sir?" the Lieutenant asked.

"Urban assault protocol, Ell-tee. You take first squad and clear the first floor, second squad; second floor, third squad; third floor. I'll take fourth squad and clear the fourth floor. Once you clear your floor, move up three floors until we can't, clear the top, and regroup down here. Move out!" John ordered, and the teams ran for the stairs.

"It looks like a squad size unit, General. Two or three troopers per floor up to the fifth. I'm not showing any more above that," John's squad leader reported.

John nodded. "Did you get that, Ell-tee?"

"Affirmative, General. We show the same," the young officer replied.

"Okay, I'm going to send four of my people up to clear them out, then do a floor by floor scan to make sure. Regroup in the lobby," John ordered.

What followed was a harrowing, nerve-wracking search for the killers. The Lieutenant, showing he was a good officer, ordered two troops from each squad to go up to assist the ones John had sent to the fifth floor.

Two of John's squad rushed into a corner apartment and killed the Tammerain trooper that had just kicked in the door to the master bedroom. They shot the big beast in the back of the head just as it was raising its rifle to kill the family hiding there. The two Marines had just checked the small family when one of them dove on the children, yelling 'rocket'! The other trooper flipped the bed over them and pulled the parents close to him before turning his back to the blast.

When the building shook, John and his team ran for the apartment. Entering the room, his optics sighted the enemy trooper that had fired the missile. It was reloading the launcher for another shot. John raised his rifle and shot it in the head. Another trooper rushed into the room and tried to shoot John. Another of John's team killed it before it could fire another shot.

The room was destroyed. One of the two children suffered a broken leg when he was crushed by the Marine that was shielding him. The little girl was scared, but healthy. The Marine was also unharmed because of the bed that had been thrown over them. The Marine that had tried to cover the parents hadn't fared as well. He was still alive, but his armor had been blown apart. The father of the kids was missing his left arm, and the mother was bleeding from a large wound on her right leg.

"Medic!" John called. "Forth Floor, corner apartment! Ell-tee, there are bandits in the building to the north. They fired a rocket in here."

'Fuck!" Okay boys and girls, no one said this was going to be easy! Erikson, finish clearing the upper floors! Second and third squads; status?"

"Second floor is clear, heading for the lobby."

"Third floor, give us a sec. This last one is trying to hide from us."

The medic arrived followed by several civilian men. The medic immediately got to work on the wounded, and two of the other of the civilians helped him. One of the civilian men walked up to John.

"My Lord General, Corporal Hayle," he indicated the medic. "Said there was a medevac at the park. We'll help with the wounded, you go kill these fuckers," the man said.

"You are?" John asked.

"Captain Peter Goring, late of the Royal Lancers. I was a Marine for six hundred years, Sir. I think I let them retire me too early," the man replied.

John handed him an earbud comm unit. "Thank you for your service, Captain. We have hostiles in the building to the north, if you can help by getting the wounded back to the park we would really appreciate it.

"For now, we'll use our personal vehicles to get these folks to the park. We can pick up a delivery van or something so we can carry more. We'll try to follow you, but we'll stay back far enough to stay out of your way," Goring replied. "We have a couple of medics with us, too."

"Thank you, Captain," John replied and put an armored hand on the man's shoulder in gratitude.

"Ell-tee, some of the civilians have volunteered to help with the wounded. As soon as the upper floors are clear, we need to move north," John said.

"First and second squads are already in the lobby of that building. They're sticking together, and working their way up. No wounded yet," the Ell-tee replied.

"Understood, keep them together until the rest of us can come play too," John ordered. "This is a fucking nightmare."

Chapter 32

The proof that these had not been normal Tammerain troops lay before him. John looked out at what was left of the city of Sanctuary on the planet Haven. Even after the destruction of their capitol ships, the smaller ship dove into the atmosphere to kill as many humans as they could before they were destroyed themselves.

There had been no reason for it; just the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Of the Tammerain forces that had attacked, none of them survived. To the last being they fought with mindless abandon, killing anyone and everyone they could see. The thing that bothered John the most about it was that there had been no reason for it. The battle was over, and they had lost, so why had they done this? It made no sense.

"John, Mark wants us back on Centauri," Chloe said to him softly, and lightly touched his arm.

He had been standing there staring out at the destruction, tears falling freely down his cheeks. When she interrupted him, he almost rounded on her for disturbing him. "They counted on us, Chloe. They trusted us, and we let them down."

"I know love, I feel the same way," Chloe replied. "Come on, we have to go now."

He let her lead him back to the Hades. The destruction had been so bad that Captain Stilts had set the destroyer down as close to the city as she could so her Marines and medics could render what aide they could. The fleet was handling the rescue and aide operations now, and the four small destroyers had been recalled back to the Capitol world.

John was oblivious to the salutes from soldiers and sailors alike that had been working around him while he stood vigil. John had put on his armor and joined the Marines that had run from the destroyer to engage the Tammerain troops that made it to the surface. He led the platoon into the heart of the enemy and there they killed every Tammerain butcher they could find. He was still in his armor, standing guard over the aide station since the platoon had returned. He had refused refreshment and just stood, weapon at the ready.

Chloe nodded to the Captain, as she passed the woman on the way to the quarters John had been assigned. The Captain wiped her own tears from her eyes and turned back to her duty, after everything was said and done, that's all a soldier really had at the end of the long days.

In his quarters, Chloe got them both out of their armor and stood naked outside the small shower compartment and washed him. This battle had been hard on him. It was at times like this that she worried about losing him. This was the real threat to the guardians, carrying the cost of all the battles and all the death. It had been almost two hundred years since they had dealt with something this bad, and John had taken it hard back then, too.

He looked up at her. "I'll be fine, Chloe. You know that, I just need time to..."

She almost started crying again. She hated to see him like this. To the rest of the Kingdom, the Temporal Guard were ageless, fearless, and unswerving in their duty to protect the human race. It was a rare thing to see a Guard reduced like this. John was Chloe's strength. If he were to retire she would too because living without him would be too painful.

He sighed and gently took her hands. "Shh, love. I'll be fine. I'm not going to retire anytime soon. Our people still need us, even if we failed a few of them."

"Bullshit, Marine!" Mark's voice was heard in the small room. "You didn't fail anyone! In point of fact, you saved a great many lives!"

"You weren't there, Mark. You didn't watch those fuckers slaughter those people, you didn't hear their cries and pleas for help!" John said. You didn't hear a mother begging the Tammerain soldiers to not kill her child."

"No John, I wasn't there. You were," Mark said. "Because you were there, those animals were put down before they could kill more people. You stopped them. Yes, they made it to the planet, and started killing innocents. But you know as well as I do, that is something most Tammerain will not do. Gabby believes they were some type of fanatical temple guard that followed the traders here from that planet. Nothing they did since the moment of their arrival was typical of normal Tammerain military."

"So? I still failed those people on Haven! I let those animals get too close and people died!" John said yelling at Mark.

"You stopped religious fanatics from slaughtering an entire fucking planet! Damn it, John, yes they got to the planet and did a lot of damage, but you're not seeing the bigger picture here; that planet is still there, and ninety-nine percent of its population is still alive because you were there. If you hadn't been, that planet would be dead, and that fleet would be on the way to do the same to another world!" Mark countered.

"No, the Fourth Russian would have contained them, or held them long enough for more of our ships to arrive to deal with them," John said as he got out of the shower, pushed Chloe in, and he began to wash her. "Mark, the fifty-four thousand people in and around Sanctuary that had no idea what was coming; those people that believed we would keep them safe, it's those people I let down."

"John, you're the oldest living soldier in our military. You're also the oldest human still alive. You, more than anyone else, should know that in any military confrontation that takes place in the vicinity of population always results in collateral damage. Not 'never', not 'sometimes', but always! As soon as the Tammerain fleet took up orbit around that planet, it became a forgone conclusion that someone on that planet was going to die as a result.

"Your actions, as well as the actions of the other Guardians, helped to limit that damage. You did all you could have done, John. The simple fact is that there was nothing, nothing else you could have done to prevent this outcome. If you turn around right now, go back to Haven, pick anyone in the aide station or the city of Sanctuary and ask them if they believe you are responsible for the deaths and destruction there, what would they say? I honestly don't believe you will find one person that would blame you," Mark replied.

"While I was down there, I did get a chance to speak to some of the people," Chloe replied. "We were recognized, and that actually surprised most of the people. They believed that we Guardians were only out on the frontier because that's where we were needed. They asked me, 'if the Guardians are on Haven, who was keeping the Tammerain from invading?'." Chloe paused and smiled sadly. "They believed we are the only reason the Tammerain hadn't yet invaded them. The other side of that was that, if what happened at Haven was bad enough for the Guardians to respond, then it had to have been very dire. The survivors believe that because we were there, they survived." She looked up into John's eyes. "John, the people of the planet believe that because we came, they survived. Not that the fleet had come, but that we had come."

John shook his head slowly. "That's wrong, too. It was the fleet that saved them, yes, we helped, but four old soldiers do not decide battles."

"Actually, they do, John," Mark replied. "You are icons for our people. Just your appearance on a field of battle inspires them. If our people see you fighting for them, they know there is hope. Yes, there are only five of you remaining, but you are going to be adding to that number. Yes, it might take a while for the new Guardians to build the reputation you have, but the simple fact that you have selected these people to be guardians tells our people that you believe in the future, and you are planning for it."

"Mark, what happens when we fall? With what we are facing, there is a far better than normal chance none of us are going to survive. What you’re saying is that when we fall in battle, the rest of our forces are going to lose heart and crumble. There's nothing special about us. We are just jacked up Marines that are too stupid or stubborn to die. We have no special abilities, but because of our age we get the best toys to play with. The way things are right now, what will happen when we die?"  John asked.

"The people honestly believe you won't, some believe you can't," Mark replied. "If this is bothering you that much, then talk to the people, tell them about your fears, tell them why you are still here, and why you still fight for them. It certainly can't hurt anything, and maybe it'll give them the strength they'll need if you do fall in battle."

"How am I supposed to do that?" John asked.

"The Palace has its own studio, use that," Mark suggested. "Who knows, maybe it'll help improve recruiting. Gods know we could use the boost there."

"I'll think about it, Mark," John replied. As he and Chloe left the shower room, they found Mark's hologram sitting on the edge of their bunk. He stood as the pair proceeded to get dressed in duty uniforms. "Will did a good job with our defenses, but I see what you mean about him. He's only going through the motions." Mark said sadly. "As soon as the Flyer gets out of dry dock, I'll make sure you have a couple of weeks for him. I just wish I could go with you. Other than you, John, Will helped me the most. I can remember times when he physically held me back from charging in and getting killed." Mark smiled, sadly. "He'd grab the back of my armor by the helmet seal, and pull me back. He'd tell me something like 'bad puppy!' or 'Puppies shouldn't play with wild animals all by themselves.' At the time I wanted to slap the hell out of him, but somewhere in the jumbled mess of my mind, I knew that, in his own way, he was just trying to keep me alive."

John nodded to Mark. "That was when Holly was still with us."

Mark nodded. "I know I approved his retirement request, but I had hoped that maybe we could get him to snap out of it. Now that I've been around him again, I understand what the rest of you meant."

"You ordered us to return, may I ask why?" John asked.

"It might seem specious, but Mary is due to arrive soon, and I wanted you both here to greet her. I also think you four need a break before getting involved in what's coming. Besides, it's just nice having you guys around again," Mark said, "Even if it is temporary."

Chapter 33

The reunion at the Palace landing area was more than John or Chloe had expected. Mary literally jumped on him with a hug and a passionate kiss. When she finished with him, she did the same thing to Chloe, which made Chloe very happy, and embarrassed her at the same time. Not to be outdone, Gloria ran to Mark and planted a lip lock on him that would have the gossip columns speculating for weeks, and had the guards grinning.

"I guess she's really glad to see us, John," Chloe said. Gloria and the King were still kissing. Beside them, her parents were starting to look a little uncomfortable, kneeling on the landing apron.

John grinned. "Naw, I don't think she missed me at all, she kissed you longer!"

"So why did she kiss you first then?" Chloe replied, also grinning.

"Oh stop it, both of you!" She turned to her friend. "Gloria, if you don't stop kissing him, he won't be able to let your parents stand back up!" Mary moved back over to the Saints, and knelt with them, to greet her King.

Mark opened his eyes and waved them back to their feet behind Gloria's back. The trio stood, but still had to wait for Gloria to break the kiss. John and Chloe moved over to the Saints and shook hands welcoming them to the Capitol.

"How was the flight, Baily?" John asked.

"Pretty comfortable, actually. For a courier, she's a really comfortable ship," Bailey replied.

"Mark told me she was built with the same frame as our ship, only without all the stuff we need, like weapons," Chloe added as she kissed Lisa on the cheek.

"Then I'm sure the Flyer is a good ship," Bailey replied. Lisa seemed to be a little tongue tied and she was staring at her surroundings like she didn't believe she was there.

"Lisa, are you okay?" Chloe asked.

"I just can't believe I'm standing here! I never thought I'd ever even see a core world, and here I am, about to enter the Palace of the King himself as a guest." She paused a moment. "It's just so unbelievable!"

John chuckled. "Well, not so much if you stop to look at these two!" he hiked his thumb to the still kissing pair.

"Yeah, she didn't even bow first," Bailey said flatly.

"I did send for a bucket of cold water, Sir," one of the guards replied with an utterly straight face.

"Good thinking Corporal, I fear we may need it before they do something more embarrassing," Bailey replied.

"I think it's safe to say this is as embarrassing as they'll get. I'm sure His Majesty would never harm her; especially like that," Mary replied.

"No, he never would, which is why this relationship is so puzzling to me," Bailey replied. "I don't object to it at all, but I do worry for them. What kind of future will they have?"

"I can't answer that Bailey, but I can tell you that the issue is being worked on," Mary replied.

The guards stiffened and became more alert as an air car entered the landing area and headed for them. The Corporal that spoke whispered to Mark while the rest of the guards surrounded the mostly oblivious pair with their armored bodies. John motioned Mary to stay put, and accepted the side arms the Royal Guards handed him for himself and Gloria, while he and Chloe began walking toward the approaching vehicle. As she watched, both Guardians activated their enhancements, making them look like professional body builders. John actually grew a couple of inches.

"There! That's what Marines are supposed to look like! John never told me why he didn't," Lisa replied.

Mary swallowed the lump in her throat. "Lisa, they just activated their combat enhancements. This is what an enhanced Marine looks like under their armor. The guards around the King and your daughter would look the same if they were not in armor. Most images of Enhanced Marines are of them with activated enhancements."

"So, why are they activated now?" Bailey asked.

"Sir, please keep the ladies and yourself behind us. The vehicle approaching is as yet unidentified and unexpected. Until we identify it and its occupants there is danger." The Corporal said.

Seeing the approaching Guardians, the vehicle stopped and an elderly gentlemen got out and held up his hands. "Guardians, I am no threat!"

John and Chloe immediately recognized the man. He was the head of The Center which was the leading research facility for bio-molecular medicine and enhancements.

"Manny! What the hell? We almost shot you!" Chloe called back to him. "Come on, we'll escort you the rest of the way,"

Manny dismissed the car, which lifted off the tarmac, slowly turned around, and took off back the way it had come.

"Okay, so why did you risk getting shot by coming out here like this?" John asked as they got to the man.

Manny smiled up at John. "I wanted to be here to greet your paramour, John. I think she might be on to something with her ideas. There is a good chance we will be able to create a protocol that will allow an enhanced soldier and unenhanced human to be intimate! I don't know if she is aware of it, but there is a good chance that you could still father children! Can you imagine it, John? Becoming a father, after five thousand years?"

"Does that mean I'll be able to have a baby, Manny?" Chloe asked.

He looked a little sad, “not in the way you mean, no. The enhancements would never allow that much deviation. However, we might be able to extract a viable, unenhanced ova for implantation into a surrogate."

"I've never regretted my decision to be enhanced to defend humanity, but I do regret not having a child first," Chloe said. "Then again, the only man I would have wanted to be the father was already an enhanced Marine I hadn't met yet."

John took her hand, and used his comm to let the Royal Guard know what was going on. Then he deactivated his enhancements. The couple then lead Manny back to the waiting King and his guests.

Chapter 34

"Manny, I know you are excited about Mary's idea, but we could have shot you, for cryin' out loud!" Mark said to the absent minded scientist.

"Again, I apologize, Highness, It is just that her ideas are so exciting! The entire lab is on fire with new purpose and direction!" Manny said excitedly.

"Doctor Halverez, I am flattered that you came to welcome me, but I hope you understand that I would like to spend some time with the people I love before I get to work," Mary replied.

"I do understand, Doctor St. Andres. I am not here to try to sweep you off to the labs. I simply wished to welcome you to our planet, and," He suddenly looked surprised as he remembered the other part of his errand. "I wanted to bring you this!" he pulled out a small pouch and handed it to her. "These are your credentials in our organization. I have set your clearance level to that of our senior most researchers. It is a very rare thing to find one such as yourself with such an innate grasp of our profession, especially at such a young age.

"I have approved the building of the installation on Bethel's Anvil; I have to say, it is far past time we had a facility out there to assist the wounded farmers and construction workers. I have wanted such a facility out there for a long time, but have lacked the appropriate personnel to assign to it. Granted, we have the medical personnel for it, but not the leadership. We need a senior researcher to undertake the leadership role for the facility. I have taken the liberty to assemble several candidates for you to choose your staff from. Since the facility has yet to be built, you should have plenty of time to get to know each of the candidates and make informed decisions." He took a last sip of his tea and rose.

"I will leave you now, my friends. Marebella, feel free to come to The Center at any time. You are a member of the staff now, and as such, you have an office as well as a research laboratory. There are several assistants available for you as well."

"Doctor, the Guardians all need controller upgrades. Do you have the open facilities for that to be handled immediately?" Mary asked.

Manny bobbed his head. "I do. One full suite is reserved solely for use by the Temporal Guard. However, in the past it has been a very difficult, if not an impossible task, to get them in for upgrades. If you can accomplish this task, you will again have won my never ending gratitude."

"Thank you, Doctor. I will call to reserve it for me as well as for the team; I will get at least two of them in for upgrade as soon as we can decide on the controller for them," She paused and sadly added. "We will also be retiring Guardian-Commander William Curran at his own request."

Manny stood silently for a moment. "I had heard that might be the case. The loss of Major Degrassi has proven to be too much for William. If he will permit it, I'll make the arrangements to perform the service myself"

"With your permission, Doctor, I would be honored to assist," Mary replied. "Will is a good man. He should be sent on his journey by people that respect him."

Again Manny bobbed his head, only slower this time. "I will see to it. Thank you for the offer. I will leave you now." He turned and quietly left the room.

"When one of us falls in battle, he takes it almost as hard as we do. To perform a retirement himself must tear his heart out," Chloe said.

"He cares for all of us," Mark said. "That's why he is the head of The Center. There are better bio-mol researchers out there, and we actually do employ most of them, but if they cannot, or in some cases will not, empathize with their patients, they have no business dealing with them directly." He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "John, Chloe, as an apology, and through pure self-serving motivation, the crown has reserved the entire restaurant you had reservations at. This way you can have dinner together with Mary. However, you won't be the only diners. That is, if Gloria would accompany me out to dinner? Mr. and Mrs. Saint, you are invited as well as chaperones."

Bailey and Lisa looked at each other, then back at the King. "Sire, we'd love to go, but I don't think we can afford..."

Mark waved it off. "Mr. Saint, I invited you as my guests. In fact, you are on this planet as my guests. You do not need to pay for anything, I only ask that you not buy something I might have trouble explaining to the Ministry of Finance!" he joked.

"Sire, that is too kind, but we do have some money saved up. Lisa and I were going to take a vacation once Gloria moved out. On our way here, we agreed to use that now, and this could be our vacation," Bailey explained, and Lisa nodded.

"Mr. and Mrs. Saint, while we are alone, I would like for you to call me Mark." He had to hold his hand up to forestall the argument Bailey was about to make. "Because, there is a very good reason I asked you to come here. You see, when I was a young man, I was raised with a certain respect for those around me, as well as a certain type of manners. I know it might sound old fashioned in the extreme, especially in today's society, but I would like your permission to court your daughter for the purpose of our eventual marriage."

"You want to marry Gloria?" Lisa asked.

"Yes Ma'am. We have talked for the better part of a week, and we both seem to really like the other person. I would like your permission to see if we are compatible enough to live together," Mark said. Gloria looked excited, and hopeful.

Bailey looked confused. "Please don't think I'm not agreeing, I just want more information. If you're still enhanced, and what you said about long time soldiers not being able to be unenhanced is true, how is this going to work?"

"Well, for now, our relationship will have to be platonic. Currently, there is no way for us to be any more than we are right now. I'm told that may be able to change soon. But even if it doesn't, I would still like to have Gloria in my life," Mark replied. "I really care about her, and want to share my life with her for as long as she'll let me."

"Gloria, Honey, how do you feel about him?" Lisa asked.

"I think I'm in love with him, Mom. It's been such a short time though. I agree with him, we'll need to see where this is developing between us, and if it is something for the long term. Although I do hope it changes, if all I can have from him are kisses and hugs, then that's what I'll take. If either of us needs sex, well, I'm sure we can figure out something there as well," Gloria replied.

"I know we're not actually part of this conversation, and we really shouldn't be, however, when we were walking Manny back to the rest of you, he said something about Mary's research making it possible not only for intimate physical contact, but also for the possibility of offspring," Chloe replied carefully. "Maybe not for an enhanced female to actually carry and give birth to a child, but the possibility exists for the use of a surrogate."

"So much for the surprise I had for you two," Mary said dryly.

John took her hand. "He was just excited, sweetheart. He made it very clear that this whole line of research came from you."

"I didn't know that," Mark replied. "Now I'm really hoping you'll agree!" He grinned.

Bailey looked at his wife who smiled and nodded. "Look at her Bailey, she's happy. Isn't that all that really matters?"

Bailey nodded. "I can't see a reason to say no; and Lisa's right, as long as Gloria's happy, who am I to say no?"

Chapter 35

Dinner was wonderful. Hanna had been correct in her choice of restaurants. The food was excellent, and the ambiance of the dining room comfortable and intimate. Of course, the simple fact that it was also the most heavily booked eating establishment in the capitol city was proof of that.

However, all of that was secondary to his dining companions. Mary and Chloe imposed on the palace valet service. Even though it had been impossibly short notice, the ladies looked amazing. The paparazzi most definitely made bank from the many holograms captured as the small group got out of the armored air limo to enter the restaurant.

The following day, all the gossip rags in the Kingdom were filled with images of the group, as well as speculations about who they were, and what the relationships to the King and the other notables actually were.

The next day, Chloe excused herself to return to MIIO and the Promethean code. Mary smiled and asked if she could show her to The Center first. Chloe grinned and the pair left John to his own devices. Mark would be busy with Kingdom business most of the day, leaving John at loose ends. He decided to take Mark up on his offer of the use of the Palace studio.

Wearing a plain duty cover-all, John sat down in front of the camera's and began talking about himself, as well as being a Temporal Guard.

It was candid and truthful. He didn't try to glamorize anything, in fact he stressed the horrors of war and battle. Describing a few of the atrocities he'd witnessed during his career, and going into detail of the most recent attack on the world of Haven. He downplayed the actions of the Guardians, to the actions of the fleet, and the actions of the soldiers and sailors he worked with. After almost five hours of talking, John spoke of the first battles, explaining what made him decide to become a soldier as well as enhanced. How close the human race had come to extinction, and the terrible fight for survival as their race fled their world.

"I know I've been very long winded tonight, folks. If you've sat through all of this, I would like to thank you for listening to me. Although I will continue to serve our race and protect as many of you as I can, I want you all to know how... fulfilling my life has been. I've seen our race harried and bloodied, entire cities destroyed from orbit, planets lain to ruin. Our losses are now uncountable, but we are still here. In spite of all of that, we have not only managed to stay alive, but we have thrived. We've made so many advances that if I hadn't seen the events with my own eyes, I would begin to doubt what our histories tell us.

"That is my reward. That is the reason I became a soldier. That is the reason I am still here. Because we have the right to live. Yes, we made mistakes back before the Tammerain destroyed our home. But we learned from them, and we have come far. Our journey isn't finished either. The Tammerain now want to kill us; they claim their Goddess sees humanity as a blight in her perfect garden.

"I'm not, nor have I ever been, a religious man. But I just can't bring myself to accept that a divine being could order the utter destruction of an entire race. If she's the 'Divine Being', then... why did she create us in the first place? Further, if she's so omnipotent, why doesn't she just...wipe us out herself?" He shrugged. "I'm not trying to be mean by asking that, I'd really like to know the answer.

"Anyway, the bottom line is that the Tammerain are coming back. This time they claim that they are here to free all of you from all of us. By us, I mean every enhanced soldier in the kingdom. Basically, they want to make sure all of your protectors are destroyed because their goddess told them that we have split our race, and that we enhanced soldiers are an affront to her. You know, if I thought that would keep you all safe, I'd have been the first one in line at the airlock. But my questions still apply. If we are such an affront to her, why did she allow us to perfect the enhancement process? Why does she allow us to continue? Why doesn't she take us out herself?"

John shook his head. "Nope, I don't believe it for a minute. The Tammerain are here to murder every man, woman, and child of the human race because a drugged up, adolescent girl told them too," John smiled. "One last thought to leave all of you with; if we were such an affront to their Goddess, how come the Tammerain didn't even know we existed until our exploratory ships encountered one of their planets? Since she is a Goddess, shouldn't she have already known who we were and sent her forces after us eons ago? We had no defenses then, they could have easily wiped us out, but they didn't. Why?

"Please give that some thought the next time you hear one of our people telling you that the Tammerain will leave us alone if we simply got rid of our weapons. The Tammerain will never leave the human race alone. I don't claim to know why they won't, but as long as they believe their Goddess is telling them we need to die, we will be hunted and murdered like those people on Haven. It's up to each of you to decide, in your own heart, what you are willing to do about it. I'm John Aster, Good evening."

The entire studio, which had gained a few dozen people while John had been speaking, erupted into applause as the over-head lights faded out and the lights on the cameras shut off. John realized he had a larger audience than he had thought.

Chapter 36

Gloria, at Mark's request, spent the day with him as he dealt with the normal, mostly mundane business of the Kingdom. She was expecting to be bored, but was soon very fascinated by how much of the interplanetary business the Kingdom actually handled. For the most part, that's exactly how Mark ran the government; as a business.

Past a normal introduction, no one seemed to question Gloria's presence either. That is until there was a security alert, at which time Gloria was quietly escorted back to her quarters. She didn't mind since the alert happened very close to the end of the day and she was getting a little tired.

The over-all retreat of the Tammerain forces gave the kingdom the time it needed to get most of its forces moving to the positions they needed to be in to defend the population centers. Now the Tammerain fleets were once again on the move. No attacks had happened yet, none of the Tammerain forces were even close to the border yet. The alerts had come from the hyperspace sensors along the border registering the large scale movement of ships towards the border.

Even though it had been established the Tammerain forces had discovered cloaking technology, it was impossible to 'cloak' a hyperspace signature. Since the Tammerain Ambassador had left the palace, Mark no longer had anyway to contact the Tammerain leadership to try to stop what was coming diplomatically. However, deep down, he knew there could be no diplomatic solution to this war.

After talking to each of his commanders and letting them know what was going on, Mark felt he should go to the studio and record a message for the people. He arrived just as John was finishing his speech. In the control room, Mark noticed that the controls had been set to live transmit. What John had been saying was being transmitted. He found the young woman in charge of the small studio and asked her about it.

"He said he wanted to talk to the people, Sire, we set it to go live. I don't think he knows that though, because he's not censoring his words. I've tried to tell him a few times, but... My Gods, Sire, did you know he was going to talk about his life as a Marine?"

Mark looked concerned when she said he hadn't been censoring himself. He doubted John would reveal any state secrets, but the last thing they needed was to offend people with bad language. "I knew he wanted to record a few spots, but I had no idea about this. How bad's the reaction going to be?"

"I don't think bad is going to describe it, Sire." The woman said. "Over the last five hours, I've cried, laughed and been scared, gotten mad, then laughed again. He's made me think without telling me what I should think. He's asked questions that every person in the kingdom should be asking; he's taken the icon we've made of him, and turned himself back into a person. One of us that just happens to be a Marine."

"Highness, I doubt you're going to have to worry about recruiting for much longer," a new voice said from the door. His Press Secretary had just arrived. She looked at the young Studio Manager, "Tomorrow, you'll want to schedule a replay with the major networks. This caught most of them flat footed, and now they're hounding me for a copy of this. Of course, you'll have to break it up, but I wouldn't cut anything out."

The young manager nodded. "I can do that Ma'am. Would it be possible to add some footage from some of the places he was talking about?"

"Yeah, it would be possible, but I don't think it would be a good idea. This was live, and totally unscripted. I really don't want to change that." The Press Secretary said.

The younger woman nodded. "Yeah, I think that's really where its appeal lies. I know I certainly not only have a new respect for him in particular, but also for all of our armed forces. More than I had before. He brought home to all of us just how much our soldiers do for us, and what they give up to do it. He didn't glamorize anything. If anything, for everyone that saw this, he brought home the reality of what it means to be an enhanced Marine."

"You almost sound like you want to sign up, Jen," Mark said smiling.

The woman nodded. "Actually, I am considering it. With the way the Tammerain are acting up, we're going to need more Marines, not less."

"The reason I came down here was to record a message to the people to tell them that we have just been informed that the Tammerain have once again mobilized their fleets. They are still two or three days from the border, but considering what's been going on, I doubt they are going to be stopping this time," Mark said. "The highest casualty rates are from the newly enhanced soldiers because we use the soldier's temporary insanity from enhancement as a form of shock troop. Jen, immediately after enhancement, the data feeds are simply too much for the human mind to handle, and it takes time for it to adjust. During that time, the soldier will be just as likely to fuck an enemy as it is to kill it. The soldier has no control at all for at least the first two months. That's the reason for the mandatory three month 'internment' period. No, we don't really bury a soldier, but we restrict them to the point where they can't hurt themselves and isolate them from everyone so they don't hurt anyone else. We lock them in unpowered armor and lock their controller into the medical computer until the mind is capable of at least rudimentary control of the enhancements."

"Sire, I know..." Jen began, but Mark cut her off.

"No, Jen, you don't," Mark replied. "Even today, we lose ten percent of newly enhanced soldiers due to mental shut-down. The mind simply crashes; unable to process the data from the enhancements. The soldier dies because the mind is not capable of making the transition. The worst part of all of it, the part that we don't tell everyone, is that you are still in there during all of this. You're aware of what's going on, but you have no control. You're trapped in there until you can figure out how to force your mind back under control. That's the real horror of enhancement."

"My God, you were aware of everything you were doing, but couldn't stop it?" Jen asked.

"Enhancement will imprison you inside your mind for almost two years, Jen. It's the first couple of months that are the hardest, because you have no control at all," Mark replied.

When everyone started clapping, the trio realized that John had finished and added their own applause for the now blushing man. John waved at the crowd and entered the control booth. The clapping techs and other visitors stood up for him. John shook his head and held up his hands. "Come on, guys! Enough, please?"

People stopped clapping but still thanked him or congratulated him on such a good performance.

"Well, that should give you a few hours’ worth of commercials, Sire. I got some stuff off my chest and recorded about five hours’ worth of footage for you guys to use however you want," John said.

"John that was a live broadcast to the entire Kingdom. All the major networks are clamoring to replay it since most of them missed the first part," Mark said.

"Is that what brought everyone down here?" John asked.

"Everyone but me, it would appear. Tammerain's on the move again, and I came down here to record a message to the people," Mark replied. "You're gonna be a hard act to follow!"

"Sire, you're the King!" John replied. "People will always listen to you!"

Chapter 37

The next day, Mark kept his promise to Mary, as he had scheduled the morning for her. They ate breakfast together, waited for Manny to arrive, and then Mary surprised everyone by asking John and Chloe to leave.

"I had hoped to be able to talk to Mark before you guys got here. As it turns out, you beat me here, but I still need to make my case to him and Dr. Halverez without you two trying to talk me out of it," Mary explained.

John nodded. "Enhancement is not something to be undertaken lightly, Mary."

Chloe narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean? Who said anything about Mary getting enhanced?"

Mary pursed her lips. "How long have you known, and when did you figure it out?"

"I figured it out when I found out about this meeting, and who you had invited to it." John said. "She thinks that if we allow some parts of our scientific community to be enhanced, the knowledge gained in the long run would be worth it. She'll argue that she wouldn't need the full combat enhancement package since she wouldn't be a soldier. But she would be able to carry her research forward for as many years as it took. She would also be able to help enhanced soldiers in a more direct way since she could survive an attack. She would also be able to have physical relations with us."

Chloe looked thoughtful. "I can see you're points, Mary. I agree that we would probably make tremendous strides in any area where a scientist decided to become enhanced. However, enhancement is like using a mass driver to swat a fly. Granted, there is no middle ground here, but you don't destroy a planet to stop a single enemy soldier."

"Okay you two, sit down. Yes, you guessed what I was going to talk to them about, but you don't have all the information," Mary said. Both Mark and Manny had been listening and had been shocked at the suggestion, but chose to let John and Chloe handle it.

"I have discovered something that could have a profound effect on our people as a whole. It's something I've been working on since I was still in school. There is a type of enhancement that we can make available to everyone. In fact, I would recommend it for first generation colonists simply because of the risks that come with founding a new planet." Mary began, and for the next three hours presented her findings and (for Manny) her data.

"Marebella, this is not bio-molecular, this is neuro-cybernetic," Manny said.

Mary nodded. "Yes, it was based in the neuro-cybernetic part of the enhancement process. To summarize, this is the addition of a specially designed bio-crystal, not unlike a Marine enhancement controller, into the human cranium. The person this device is installed in would gain the Marines ability to heal and have the ability to build up their own bodies to almost one hundred-fifty percent of current maximums."

"Manny?" Mark asked.

"I see nothing wrong in any of it, Sire. It would require a bit more testing before we allowed human trials, but from everything I see here... Marebella, it says here that reproduction would be unaffected, is that correct?" Manny asked.

Mary nodded. "Yes and no, Doctor. Reproduction is possible, but every system in the human body would be affected. Much like it is..."

The doors to the Royal apartments opened suddenly, to a very serious looking man in the uniform of a Vice Admiral. "Sire, forgive me!" he bowed quickly before rushing forward again. "The listening post at 4 Antares Sigma has gone dark. As have the solar observatories at Halston's Trinity, the University of Juno's Deep Space Telescope, and six other remote installations!" The man finally puffed to a stop. "Sire, we are under attack!"

Mark nodded. "I'm sorry Mary, your times up. Please get with Manny and work on this as you can. In the meantime, please excuse us, it seems our friends the Tammerain are getting anxious."

"Of course, Sire. Marebella, shall we return to The Center, and delve into your wonderful new idea?" Manny said.

Mary nodded. "Mark, you can't send them out without the new controllers. I'll make the arrangements, but when you're finished with them, send them to The Center for upgrades."

"If there's time, I will Mary, I promise," Mark replied.

Mary put her hand on his arm gently. "This is important, Sire. Please make the time, order them. Their lives depend on it."

Mark looked into her eyes and saw that she believed every word she said. He sighed. "Okay Mary, I'll send them all to you as soon as we're finished here. But keep in mind, every minute they are in The Center from now on will cost lives."

"If they don't get this done, it will cost many more, including their own," Mary said and kissed her friend on the cheek. She kissed both John and Chloe then ran after Manny who had almost made it to the door.

Mark stood, "Okay, come on everyone. Let's go into the viewing room so we can see what we're dealing with."

Chapter 38

The 'Viewing Room' Mark was talking about was actually a large, dark chamber that had holographic emitters mounted in the featureless walls. There was a table and chairs for visitors to use, but the main feature of this room was the powerful holographic projectors, and the computers that controlled them.

"Computer. Exaggerated display of the Border with Tammerain Space. Interface with MIIO and add the last known positions of the Tammerain forces so far detected. "

In response to his voice the room darkened almost completely and the image he asked for took form in the air above them.

"Good, now add in the positions of our forces, include course plots to destinations," Mark added and the computers added that information to the image as well. Finally, Mark directed the computer to add in the facilities the Admiral had told him about. That was when they discovered three more facilities had also gone dark. One of them a major communications relay station that had been servicing an entire sector of the Kingdom.

"Lay it out for us Admiral," Mark ordered.

"Yes, Sire," The man replied. "Beginning about an hour ago, with the loss of the Telleram Six Nova Observatory, or TELSNO, we have systematically lost several expensive facilities in the Kingdom's delta quadrant, sector nine. While this sector of space is along the Tammerain Border, it is far from the main thrust of their attacking forces. While the possibility of accidental failure has been ruled out, we honestly can't pin this on the Tammerain either. We have no information from these facilities prior to them going off-line, and there was no hyperspace signature to indicate ships jumping into that system.

"Each of the facilities destroyed had the ability to provide the crown with real-time strategic data in the event of war. The sector itself is sparsely populated, and with the surveillance capability of those facilities, we have very little in that sector in the way of defensive force. Currently, there are several scout ships in transit to some of these locations to determine what happened to them, and hopefully discover why they did not capture any data on the attackers.

"Now, the forces of the Tammerain know we have the ability to detect ships in hyperspace crossing the border, however, they also have no idea what the range on that is, or even how we are doing it. It could be that they believed these facilities had something to do with the system, and felt they needed to take them out in order to safely cross the border without being seen."

"That would work for this sector, and maybe the next, but not the whole border, Admiral. More troubling to me is how did they take these out without us not even seeing them?" John asked.

"My apologies, Lord-General, I thought you would have gotten the notice that the Tammerain have cloaking now," the Admiral replied.

"I did, Admiral. That's not exactly what I was talking about. Each of the facilities in question is more than a light year from the border, and spread even further apart. We've detected no unaccounted hyperspace events in that sector at all. How are they getting around?" John asked.

"Sire?" Gloria asked meekly.

Mark smiled at her. "I told you, you could call me Mark."

"You did, but this isn't personal. Sire, the scout ships that are going to investigate these events; why not have them stop two or three light hours short of the facility and focus all their sensors on it. Shouldn't that give you an idea of what happened?" Gloria asked.

John chuckled. "The Temporal Witness; the event itself."

"If the sensor platforms themselves didn't record what happened, then how would stopping to record the event help us?" the Admiral asked.

"The listening post had passive, omni-directional sensors, but for the most part, it was focused on Tammerain space. If something could have come on any other vector, there is a good chance the passive sensors simply didn't have time to record or report anything," Chloe explained. "The other installations were civilian installations that had an extra module added to them in the event we need to use them for something. In most cases, they had no sensors other than their primary ones, which were most likely focused on whatever mission they had been on when they went dark."

"Ahh, I misunderstood their functionality," The Admiral said, nodding to himself. "If you will excuse me a moment Sire, I'll issue new orders for those scouts."

Mark nodded to him, and he stepped out. "Chloe, have you gotten anywhere with that code from the Tammerain Capitol World?"

"Yes and no, Sire. We did get it broken down, and it is definitely not normal computer code. I'd like to continue to work on it, but with everything that's going on, I think we should send it to Xanadu Computer R and D," Chloe said.

Again Mark nodded. "I'll make sure that happens. By the way, the Admiral has no idea about that code, or about the planet we detected. He knows that the traders jumped back here with a shit-load of data, but it's all classified and he hasn't been briefed. Last night, I issued orders to expedite the work being done to the Flyer."

When he didn't continue, John finally looked at him. "Not that we don't appreciate it, but why?"

"When it's finished, the TG Flyer will be the most advanced ship and weapons platform we'll have. I'm going to send it, and you, to destroy our real enemy," Mark said quietly. "If anyone can pull it off, it'll be you. That being said, I can't shake the feeling I'm sending you on your Final Mission."

"I thought you didn't believe that planet was the Capitol World of the Tammerain?" Chloe asked.

"No, that part I do agree with," Mark said. "What I don't agree with is that it is the Capitol of our enemy. I believe the Tammerain are being used." When the door opened again, Mark shook his head. "The Flyer will be ready by the end of the day tomorrow. Your mission briefing and every scrap of data we have will be loaded into her before she leaves the system. You will escort Commander William Curran to his ...retirement, and depart for the mission from there.

"Understood, Highness," John replied. "Mary's going to hate you."

"She cannot hate me anymore than I already hate myself. I know what I'm asking of you - you don't yet."  Mark said.

The Admiral, sensing he shouldn't be privy to this discussion, cleared his throat. "Sire, should I step out for a few more moments?"

"No, Admiral, there is no need," Mark replied. "Do we know how soon we should get any new information?"

"The closest scout will be in position in about an hour, Highness,"

Mark nodded again. "Let's get some lunch then."

Chapter 39

"What do you mean you're leaving again?" Mary asked. By order of the King, both John and Chloe went to The Center for controller upgrades, Mary had come in to see them while they were getting ready for the procedure.

"Sweetheart, the Tammerain are on the move, we are probably going to war, and we are soldiers. This is what we do," Chloe replied.

"Damn it! I just got started on a somewhat long term project here, I can't just take off," Mary said. "I really wish Mark would have said something earlier!"

"He didn't say anything for the same reason its fine that you have a long term project just starting. You're not coming with us," John said. "Normally, I would discuss things with you Mary, but not this. You are a civilian, and you have no business in what's coming."

"Besides," Chloe said, "I really need you to stay here and make sure that we can have kids eventually. You'll have to carry and give birth to them, but we'll be able to have a family, right?"

Mary sighed. "When are you leaving?"

"Very late this evening, or very early tomorrow morning. I have no idea how long it's gonna take, so before you ask, the honest answer is, I don't know," John said, pulling the woman into a hug. "Chloe and I both love you, Mary. We need you to stay here, where it's safe."

"I know, I know. That doesn't mean I have to like it!" Mary said in frustration. "Well, I have your new controllers ready. They have the new protocols in them, so neither of you are leaving here before we can test them, got it?"

Three hours later, when the new controller woke John, he found he was lying next to Chloe in the recovery room. On the other side of the curtain, a new IFF Icon told him that Carl and Alice were also waking up. Will hadn't been required to receive the upgrade. However, he was sitting in the room guarding his team mates.

John took a few moments to get used to the new controller and some of its improved functions. He found that he liked the suit style 'heads-up-display' option, and opted for that as his default mode. He set the icons dim unless in combat mode. He played with and set a few other options and decided that this might actually be an improvement.

"Squad, report." John ordered and got both a verbal reply, as well as an update in his vision. Lastly, Will sounded off.

"Curran, I'm still here, Boss."

"Will, His Majesty has approved your final mission request. We're scheduled to depart this evening. Is that okay with you?" John asked.

"Yeah, that'll be good, John. It's really getting more difficult to keep going," the depressed man replied. "Every time I close my eyes Holly's there, waiting for me."

"You'll see her soon, Will," Alice said. "You'll tell her how much we love and miss her, right?"

"You know I will, Alice," Will replied. "Mary wanted me to let her know when you all regained function; I'll be right back."

"He's really hurting, maybe we should have stopped on our way here," Carl said after Will left the room.

"No, Mark wanted to see him before he retired," John replied. "Remember, as far as Will knows there really is no other mission, got it?"

Everyone replied affirmative just as the door opened for Will, Mary, and two meditechs. Mary and the techs came up to John first and tilted his bed up to an almost standing position.

"Lord General John Jacob Aster of the Temporal Guard, do you know where you are?" one of the meditechs asked. John was fully restrained and locked down by the medical computer. Even if his arms and legs would answer his commands right now, there were battle-steel bands covering them to prevent movement.

"Yes, I am at The Center, a bio-molecular research and enhancement facility outside of the capitol city on the world of Centauri," John replied as protocol directed. No joking was allowed here, the precautions were in place to make sure the upgrade hadn't malfunctioned, leaving John basically an insane killing machine.

"Correct, do you know what has been done to you?" the same tech asked.

"I underwent a primary controller upgrade and a basic enhancement functional evaluation. Status green, no anomalies to report." John recited.

"In what year was the war of 4012 fought?"


"What color is a blue house?"


"What is four squared?"


Twenty more questions were asked and answered as rapidly as possible and the inevitable last question;

"What is the meaning of Life?"

"An existential question with no commonly definable answer."

The tech turned to the other meditech, "He's good, turn him loose. I'll move on to Commander Diamond next."

"Oh Goody!" Chloe said, sarcastically. The questions for each of them were different, but each had to be answered before the techs would let them loose. They were designed to evaluate the mental functions of the soldier prior to release. Obviously, a newly enhanced soldier couldn't answer them, but then again, there were a hell of a lot more restraints used, and the soldier was in an armored room, with the Techs in another room operating the equipment remotely.

Once the techs released them, Mary took each of the couples into a private room to test the viability of the new protocols. For the women, it was an abbreviated pelvic exam. For the males, well, there was a plastic cup, which surprisingly didn't burst into flames once the sample had been deposited in it.

Obviously, Manny and Mary were both working on this because once the samples had been analyzed, both doctors joined the four in a waiting room.

"So far, the new protocols are functioning perfectly, and there is really only one test left. We'll need each of you, as couples, to have sexual intercourse so we can monitor all the force vectors and your enhancements. Please, remember that as in the last tests, you will need to disable combat mode." Mary explained.

"And if this works, Doctor?" Alice asked grinning.

"None of your damn business, slut!" Chloe replied blushing.

"Lady Commander Diamond, this is Lieutenant Carmichael. We just finished the shakedown. I have to dock with the command module for a classified data upload, but then we'll be able to transit back."

"Very good, Lieutenant, I'll get you clearance to set down at the Palace landing field. By order of His Highness, you are to go dark and stay that way until instructed otherwise. After landing, you will keep the ship sealed. No one is to be allowed on board until we arrive. If someone asks, they will need permission from John or myself to board. After going dark, use enhancement comms only, do not link through the ship. No radiated signals and none received. ATC has been directed to call you directly. The ship is under a level alpha data lockout," Chloe finished.

"Understood Ma'am. I'm docking with the main facility right now, so I'll see you when we get there," Carmichael replied.

"Excellent, Lieutenant, see ya in a few," Chloe said and closed the channel. It had been on her internal comm so no one had overheard it.

"John, the Flyer will be arriving in a couple of hours," Chloe said to him. "I put Carmichael on internal comms only, and she knows where to land."

"Okay, but we better take care of this issue, or we'll have a bigger fight on our hands when we get back," John replied.

"You got that right!" Mary said, and turned to face Alice, who was about to make a smart-assed comment. "Remember Alice, I have your index code, I can make it so you can't have sex at all!"

Manny looked scandalized until Mary winked at him to let him know she was bluffing. However, Alice had no idea she was bluffing and sputtered. "You wouldn't! That would be punishing Carl too!"

"No it wouldn't, there are other female marines on the ship, and he won't be restricted!" Mary shot back.

Alice sat back, and finally grinned. "Okay, now I'm starting to see it. You win Doc."

Carl roared with laughter, "She did get you pretty good! Come on, let's check this new protocol out," he held out his hand to her.

When they left, Mary looked at Chloe, "What did she mean by, 'now I'm starting to see it'?"

"We never fall in love with normals, Mary. It's too painful for us and damn hard on you," Chloe replied. "When we fell for you, she hadn't gotten to know you like I had, so she couldn't see what had made us love you. Now she's beginning to understand. That was an Alice-style compliment."

Mary nodded her understanding. "Just so you know, I'm prohibited from doing anything even remotely like what I just threatened her with. We all are."

Chloe nodded. "I know, John and I helped write that section of the protocols." She turned to John, "Come on handsome, if we want to spend any time with her at all before we boost, we need to get busy."

John smiled, winked at Chloe, and held his hand out to Mary. Catching on, Chloe also held out her hand. Manny grinned when he figured it out, and nodded. As he left the room to begin monitoring. Mary was surprised and took the hands of her friends.

Chapter 40 Turen Day (Ninth day)

"Lieutenant, set course for Onaris 9. We need to be invisible the whole trip, full stealth," John ordered.

"Yes Sir, if I may, Sir, wait to go stealth until we make orbit. Everyone saw us land, they should see us take off." Carmichael replied.

"Good thinking, do it," John said, and nodded to her.

The lieutenant dealt with flying the craft, since the ship comms were locked down and John trusted her to handle it. Chloe had sat down at the navigator's station and plugged in a course for Carmichael to follow until the jump. Once they jumped, then the waiting would begin. Onaris 9 was technically in Tammerain space, but was one of the contested border worlds that was in one of the systems that defined the border.

On his own terminal, John had brought up a map of the planet they were going to. Using his own memories of the fighting here, he located the place where Holly died, and marked it. John would make damn sure his friend's ashes were as close to that spot as he could get them.

John looked up at the viewer and watched as they left the atmosphere. He still didn't know what the secondary mission was, since those orders would not become available to them until they departed Onaris 9. He did know that Mark considered them to be suicidal. Well, he and Chloe had something important to come back to, so he knew he would do everything in his power to make damn sure they got back.

"John?" Chloe asked, interrupting his daydreaming.

"Yeah, sorry, I was dreaming there for a minute," John grinned.

"I said we're on course and we'll be jumping in an hour. I set our course through the Badlands, so transit should only take a week," Chloe reported. The Badlands were a non-system cluster of asteroids that were just floating in space. That is if you consider a 'cluster' to be a something measured in light weeks and months. Astronomers believed it to be the remains of a small nova or perhaps it had been ejecta from a stellar nursery, the bottom line was, no one knew how to explain it, but none the less it was still there.

John nodded. Jumping 'over' the Badlands would save time, but there was more risk, there were too many moving objects of mass in the area to accurately track and plot them all, so normally a ship would bypass the whole area. Chloe knew what the computers on the Flyer could do, and jumping the Badlands had worked for them the last time that they had come this way.

"Sounds like a plan," John replied. "There's some stuff I want to work on. If you don't mind, I think I'm gonna stay here for a while."

Chloe kissed his check. "Okay hon, I'll see ya in the morning,"

"Ah, then I take it you haven't found the little surprise Gabby and Minister Gadfries left for you?" John asked.

"Uh, no, what did they leave me?" Chloe asked grinning.

"Log in under your personal account, and you should see the messages from them. I got a few things to occupy my time during the trip, and a request from the Minister to file a report on my findings once we return," John explained. "I'm sure they left something similar for you. Oh, and by the way, they had to move our quarters to make room for a power something or other."

"A power sync. The Flyer uses them to shed excess energy," Chloe said. "So where did they move them too?"

John hiked a thumb over his shoulder. "Just tell the lift 'Command Quarters', and it'll take you there. One of the kids had to get my permission to take our gear to it."

"They built the 'sky box' didn't they?" Chloe asked excitedly.

"The what?" John asked. "I have no idea, I haven't been there myself yet."

"When I helped draft some changes to the ship, one of the suggestions I made was to move the command quarters to the top of the ship - basically above the mess hall, but aft of the forward missile magazine," Chloe explained and headed for the lift.

Once the lift doors closed, John muttered to himself. "Great, like sleeping next to one nuclear firecracker isn't enough!"

At the helm, Lieutenant Carmichael had a sudden coughing fit.

Chapter 41 Turen Day (Fifteenth day, a week later)

"Orbital insertion in twenty minutes, John," Carmichael said via her comm. "Other than a couple of Tammerain freighters, the screens are clear."

Once John got a look at his and Chloe's new quarters, he was amazed. For a starship as small as Flyer was, these were huge. They were almost the same as a standard, single-bedroom apartment you would find on almost any planet in the Kingdom. It had a big bedroom with a king-plus sized bed. A private bath complete with an actual bathtub! A small private kitchen, a small dining area, and an office/living room that the lift opened onto. Living here made him feel guilty considering the size of the rest of the quarters on the ship - some of which were shared.

John had been working on translating the ancient Promethean files Minister Gadfries had sent, when Lieutenant Carmichael called to let him know they were in orbit.

"Understood, Tami. Have you located the spot I wanted?" John asked.

"I think so, Sir, it looks like it's on the edge of a farm of some kind. There is a snow-covered field we can set down in practically on top of it," the navigator replied.

"Okay, we'll be down in a few minutes," John said, and closed the channel. Chloe was enjoying a long soak in their bathtub, so he thought he should go warn her they were going to land.

Tami Carmichael was just about to call her commanders again when they arrived on the bridge dressed in their formal dress uniforms. "I'll take over, Tami. You can go change," Chloe said sadly.

"Yes, Ma'am," Tami replied. "How's he doing?"

"An hour ago, he reported to the medical unit, and pulled his controller out of the network," John replied. "When I checked on him, he was smiling. He said Holly had told him he should go to medical and get ready. I told the medical computer to sedate him and disable his combat systems."

Chloe looked back at John. "He wasn't offended?"

John shook his head. "No, he had already disabled them on his own when he began hallucinating. He told me it was really strange because it was like he was getting a comm from her. He said he thought perhaps his controller was having difficulties dealing with his grief. He said he had the computer do a complete work up on him, and he'd recorded his observations for Mary."

"Once we're down, the locals are going to know we're there," Chloe said. "There is a small village less than a kilometer away."

"That shouldn't be a problem, if they want to know what's going on, I'll tell them we are only here to say good bye to a friend," John replied. "Just set us down, Chloe."

Tami ran from the bridge to change and felt the ship maneuver for landing. John input his command code on his terminal and felt the Flyer's far more powerful comm system open to him. "Mark, it's time."

"Okay, John. Leave the channel open for now, I'll join you shortly," Mark replied.

John didn't need to reply, he just left the channel connected to Mark and made sure there was a holographic drone available so Mark could leave the ship with them. Seeing that they had landed, John nodded to Chloe. "I'll get Will; we'll meet you at the rear hatch."

Chloe nodded as she stood and got out of the pilot's station.

John walked back through the ship to the medical section to find his longtime friend dressed in simple coveralls and waiting for him. "I really appreciate all of you doing this for me. You know, we could have done this from orbit."

John shook his head. "No, Holly is down here. I promised I would bring you back to her, and I have."

Will handed John the remote diagnostic panel for the terminal that was now acting as Will's controller. "Shall we?"

John and Will walked calmly back to the rear equipment ramp and saw that it was lined with the Marines that had accompanied them. All were dressed in formal uniforms and at attention. When Will and John arrived, Chloe ordered them to salute. Will smiled, nodded, and walked down the ramp. When they got to the bottom, Chloe ordered most of them to fall in behind John and Will, and the troop followed them.

At the very edge of the field a bank led down to a stream that had not yet frozen over. "This is the place my friend,"

"I almost don't recognize it," Will said. "But I think you're right, this is the place."

Dressed in the full regalia of the King, Mark joined them as a hologram. "I'm really sorry I couldn't be there in person, Will. But there is no way the guards would have allowed it."

"The fact that you are here at all honors us, Marcus. Just remember, charging in blindly isn't always the right thing to do," Will said.

"I'll remember my friend," Mark said.

Will turned to face the gathered Marines, came to attention, and saluted them. "Guard our people well!"

As the Marines returned the salute, Will nodded to John. "Now, John. Set me free."

John touched the appropriate controls and Will Curran simply fell to the ground. In moments, his body burst into flame and cremated his remains.

"Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust, may you always walk in the light. Good-bye my friend," John said softly.

"He asked me not to do the whole day of mourning as is the norm, but instead, he asked for a day of celebration. So I will grant his request. From this day forward, let it be known as Holly Curran day. A day of celebration and remembrance of all those that have given everything for our freedom," Mark declared. He turned to John, "Your mission files are now unlocked. Please don't make this day one of remembrance for all of you."

"We won't, Sire, we'll be back." John replied.

"I wish I could believe you, my friend. I really do," Mark said as he faded out, and John felt the channel close and the comm system lock back up.

"Take as long as each of you need, but keep in mind that we need to get going, and this is a hostile planet," John said, as he took position at the foot of the rear ramp. He would not board himself until everyone else had gotten aboard; he was the commander, he would be the last to say good-bye to yet another friend.

Chapter 42

After everyone had said their own good-byes to Will, and they were all back on board, John closed the ramp and returned to the bridge. "Get us out of here, Tami. Just head out for Tammerain space. Maintain stealth profile and comms lock. I'll give you a destination once I get a look at our orders."

"Will do, Boss." Tami replied, and began lift-off procedures. She had already changed back into her duty coveralls and had been waiting on the bridge.

John turned to Chloe, "Let's get changed, and I'll look over the orders Mark has for us."

Chloe nodded. "All this cloak and dagger shit has given me the willies, I get the feeling this isn't going to be a very fun mission."

"Considering your definition of 'fun', then you must think this'll be boring duty!" John replied as they left the bridge, and a grinning Tami.

As soon as the lift doors closed, Chloe looked at him. "Now that we're alone, I really don't have a good feeling about this John. Just how deep are we going into Tammerain Space? You do realize that by doing this we're declaring war on the Tammerain on behalf of the Kingdom, right?"

John shrugged, "Just coming here for Will was an act of war according to that treaty. Besides, the Tammerain have already declared war. Twenty-eight heavily armed naval fleets crossing the border isn't very subtle."

"I know, but still... this just doesn't feel right to me."

John scoffed. "Honey, we don't even know what the mission is yet!"

"I know, and that scares me even more."

They had arrived at their cabin, and changed clothes. Just before she was about to head back down to the bridge, John stopped Chloe.

"Relax, Sweetheart, this is probably nothing more than a recon mission for Mark. You know how anal he is about gathering intel."

Chloe nodded. "If it's a simple recon mission, why did he look like he was sending us out to die?"

"He looks like that every time we leave the Palace!" John countered. "Look, all I'm saying is don't read so much into this okay?"

"Let me get back to the bridge. You find out what we're doing out here. Then we'll know, and I can quit stressing over it." She ended the conversation by closing the lift doors, leaving John to open the file.

Twenty minutes later, John called down to the Bridge. "Chloe, I've input our course. Please have Tami load 'Promethean Prime' and execute immediately. As soon as we're clear of the jump, call everyone to the mess, Tami too."

"What's up? Was I right?" Chloe asked.

"Yes and no, I'll be down in a few minutes to tell everyone what's going on. Just execute that nav program and head for the mess cabin," John replied.

On the Bridge, Tami had overheard him, and had loaded the program John had ordered. Since she'd been assigned to the Flyer as its pilot - some eighty years ago, Tami had never seen John handle anything related to navigation. However, she knew he had the ability, but hyperspace navigation was one of those skills you had to keep using. As far as Tami knew, John hadn't plotted a course in more than eighty years.

She was nervous as she instructed the helm to load the program. She wavered over the execute command and looked back at Chloe. "Ma'am, I know you guys are like the best at everything, but, I've never even heard of General Aster plotting a hyperspace jump before. Should we at least double check it before we jump?"

Chloe smiled at her. "Tami, I understand your unease - hell, I feel it too, but my issues are about the mission, not our course. John taught me how to navigate. I'd be willing to bet that the people that programmed that navigational computer learned how to do so from something John had a hand in creating. Even if the computer gives you an error, never doubt John's plot; there is a good chance the computer is actually wrong. Just hit the button, and let's go. We'll find out what's going on soon enough."

Tami sighed. "Yes Ma'am." She hit the execute button, and the ship immediately turned on a new vector and jumped into hyperspace.

"Come on young'en, buy me a coffee, and I won't tell John that you were nervous about his plots," Chloe said grinning.

Tami unbuckled and got out of her chair. "He'd just shrug; he knows I'm nervous about my own plots!"

"I've always wondered about that, you've been our pilot for damn near a century, and you're still nervous about plotting a jump?" Chloe asked as she got up.

Tami smiled. "Call it my way of keeping it fresh. Hyperspace fascinates me, and I love everything about it. I don't ever want to get bored or consider plotting a jump to be a normal or routine occurrence, even though they are."

Chloe nodded. "Okay, that works, but if you call me to the bridge to double check a plot while I'm getting lucky, I'm liable to be less than understanding."

Tami blushed. "I've never called you to bridge after hours since The General rejoined us. I'm not a total idiot."

"I thought he told you to call him John?" Chloe asked.

"He did," Tami nodded. "But to refer to him like that when he isn't here just doesn't feel right to me."

"By the time we get home, Tami, you'll have changed your mind on that," John said from behind them. He'd walked up quietly behind the women in the corridor outside the mess.

"Okay, I officially don't like the sound of that," Chloe said.

"Oh, you're gonna love the rest of this," John replied. "Come on, the crew's waiting."

The trio entered the largest cabin on the small ship to see that everyone was indeed there. John got a cup of coffee and stood at the front of the room.

"A long time ago, there was a race of beings that our scientists have taken to calling Prometheans. We don't know a whole lot about this race since we think it went extinct shortly before we left Earth. I say we 'think' it went extinct, because there is still a race of beings that claim to be 'Promethean'. They occupy an area of space we believe to be on the far side of the Tammerain. It is believed that the original race of these beings stood between six and eight feet in height. What we know of the current race is that none of them are over four feet tall.

"The original Prometheans were a race focused on the pursuit of knowledge. We know they were so tall because we have found a few of their artifacts over the years spread around the galaxy. All indications we have of this race is that they were destroyed by their own hand... somehow. Some think it was something like a rogue AI, others think it was a biological disaster of some kind.

"Regardless of what happened, what we do know of the current Promethean race is that they are nowhere near the level of technological development of the ancient race.

"I'm sure you're all really interested in finding out more about them. You're going to get your chance. Two weeks ago, the remains of one of our trading fleets landed in the Haven system. I say the remains because they got too close to something while in Tammerain space, and they were hunted down by a small task force. It took two years of playing cat and mouse them to get back home, and they lost over half their ships and crew. The fleet that had been hunting them arrived and was destroyed in the Haven system. I know that some of you helped with that. Here's why.

"What those ships got too close to was a Promethean artifact the size of a small planet. The freighters did what they could to record as much as possible, but they aren't scouts and don't have top of the line sensors. That being said, they brought back enough data to give the people at MIIO a serious case of heartburn.

"This planetoid-slash-artifact is believed to be the Capitol of the Tammerain Empire," John said as one of the Marines stood.

"Sir, forgive me, but no one knows where the Tammer's Capitol is; they won't let anyone in deep enough." The man sat back down, but John could see a general agreement to the comment.

John nodded. "The traders were allowed in far deeper than anyone had ever been before. The records from the wrecks show them going three hundred lights years past Draconis. The artifact is located only a hundred lights past Draconis, and it will be our first stop. Data from the freighters shows the system to be heavily guarded, and actually entering the system would be suicide. So we're going to be dropping out just inside the system's outer-most boundary, near the system's Oort cloud. We are to scan as much as possible, as quickly as we can, then jump back into Hyper after firing a targeting probe in-system.

"That is the first part of our mission," John said. "We will not be heading home. The Artifact is receiving ancient Promethean computer code from within what used to be their space. We are to investigate the source of that signal, determine what if any, actions to take, then return to the Kingdom.

"Folks, from the looks of what we could figure out from that computer code, and other intercepted communications, there is a possibility that the Tammerain are being used to try to destroy the human race. For what ends, we don't know, and it is hoped that might be one of the things we can find out," John replied.

An officer stood. "General, why are we being sent on a recon mission? There is a war starting at home, and we're needed there. This is a ghost hunt."

"I understand your feelings Captain, but I don't agree with your assessment. This is most definitely not a ghost hunt. We are being sent out here to find out if the Tammerain are being used against us by a very much superior race, and if they are, we are to stop them. If we fail, this war that is getting started will never end."

"Sir, when you say the far side of the Tammerain, how far are we talking about? Have you been able to trace the origin of the signal?" a Marine asked.

"We have the source location down to a sector. The problem is that sector is in the beta quadrant, and that's where we're going," John said. "You want to know about time? I can't actually tell you. The Tammerain do have a stable transit point that terminates in the beta quadrant, but we don't actually know where. We will try to use that, at least to get there."

"What about getting home?" the Captain asked.

"Did you forget your teddy bear, Greg?" Chloe asked, to which a certain lieutenant sitting next to him blushed brightly.

When the teasing laughter died down, John answered him. "Let's just say it's a damn good thing enhanced marines can't get pregnant." He paused to grin. "I can't answer you, Greg. It may be that we'll have to jump straight home, which would take..." He closed his eyes to do the math.

"Eleven months, sixteen days, fifteen hours," Tami replied. "Based on the center of the next quadrant."

"What if it's on the far side of the quadrant, Lieutenant?" the Captain asked.

"Just use the rule of thumb that a quadrant takes a year across, and you'll be close enough - with our current drive tech. If we had transit points it wouldn't matter," Tami replied.

Chapter 43 Frisen Day (Thirty-first Day)

John had ordered the entire crew into armor for their arrival at the capitol 'world'. Not that it would save them if the ship was destroyed, but it would reduce injuries if the ship took damage.

"Drop-out in five, four, three, two, and..." Tami said as the view screens showed the return of 'real' space. "Stealth systems are stable and active. Prepping the probe for launch and initiating full spectrum scans of the artifact."

"On screen when you have an image please," John said. He began typing to make sure a copy of the data they were gathering was loaded into a special drone. The drone was like a flying memory core. Launched in Hyperspace, the drone would head back for the Kingdom with a copy of all the information they would gather here as well as any messages John or his crew needed to send.

Tami typed on her keyboard, and a somewhat fuzzy white orb took shape on the main screen. "We'll get better detail as more data comes in. There is a huge amount of data going in and out of that place!"

"Focus on the data feeds heading for Promethean space. Try to get as much as you can," John ordered. "Let me know when the bees get pissed."

"So far, I'm not showing anything unusual with the fleet..." Chloe began, "I spoke too soon, one of the fleets is powering up jump engines."

John nodded. "Tami, stand by to jump."

"Jump ready on your command, sir," Tami replied.

"I don't think they can find us," Chloe said.

"What? Why?" John asked.

"Well, we're in full stealth. Even though we are using full spectrum scans, they don't know where they're coming from. Those fleets are powered up, but they’re not moving yet," Chloe said. "They are scanning this area, but they're not locking onto us."

"Probe ready, Sir." Tami reported when she had a beep on her console.

"Great, hold off on launching it until we leave," John ordered. "They'll probably detect the launch."

"Understood, Sir, how long do you want to stick around?" Tami asked.

"As long as we can, or until we get a good look at that artifact," John replied.

"Sir, this data isn't... it's like that artifact isn't even there. Something that big should be effecting local gravity, but it isn't," Tami said. "The sensors read as fine, but the data is wrong."

"No, the freighters had the same issue with it. Just keep scanning it. We need as much info as we can about it," John said.

"John, That monster has a singularity for a power unit! That's why we're getting strange readings! The Prometheans used singularities as power!" Chloe said excitedly.

"How can you be sure?" John said.

"Boreon particles are off the fuckin' charts! Those can only exist near a singularity!" Chloe said typing furiously on her terminal.

"We didn't detect it when we jumped in, and we should have," Tami replied.

"Are we getting anything under the surface yet?" John asked.

"Not really, just that there are chambers under the surface in various places." Tami said distractedly.

"Speak up, Tami, your thoughts are just as important as ours are," John said.

"Well, I think I know what this is, Sir," Tami replied. "Although it's really difficult to get good reading under its shielding, I think what we're looking at here is a very large computer."

"Fleet's starting to move! I think our time's up," Chloe said. "Holy shit, they're jumping in place!"

"Okay, Tami, work your magic," John said.

"Firing Probe, and going to full power. Jump in forty seconds," the pilot said.

"Chloe, reharmonize our cloaking shields, just to be safe, please," John said.

"Enemy fleet has jumped, points forming ten-k klicks astern, and falling back. They're going to see us jump out," Chloe said.

"Tami, don't let..." John said but was interrupted by the ship jumping to hyperspace. "...that happen. Thank you."

"No problem, Sir. I just don't want to know what that did to the orbits of those ice chunks," Tami replied. "I can promise it'll be interesting for those arriving ships, at least for a few minutes."

"Good work, Tami. Once we're stable, make up a quick report on your computer theory, I want to include it in the message drone," John said.

"Yes Sir," Tami replied. "We're already stable, the report will be ready in just a minute, Sir."

"Okay, let's load up the message database and prep the drone for launch," John said. "When Tami finishes, load her report, and launch the drone."

"Will do, John. Do you think there is any way we can lift the comms lock long enough to see what's going on back home?" Chloe asked. "We're all getting a little concerned."

"I really wish I could, Chloe. Mark's orders didn't leave me much of a choice. No sending, no receiving, he was very specific about it," John replied.

"That sucks," Chloe said, as Tami replied that she had finished her report.

As he made sure the drone was uploaded with all the information they had gathered, John thought about the mission and the coming trials they would face. If they were successful, the war would end, and the human race would be safe; at least from this threat. He didn't even want to think about what would happen if they didn't succeed.

About the Author

Ben Winston (1965 - ?) was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota on the family dairy farm. Upon reaching adulthood, he joined the United States Army as a communications technician. Before getting out of the military, he decided to go to school for computer electronics.

Shortly after getting out of the military, and after getting a new job with an over-seas company, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. A month after beginning the new job, he was laid off due to budget over-runs on the project he was hired for. Upon returning to the United States, he had difficulty maintaining employment because of the chronic illness.

He began writing as a form of stress release, from being home bound and not being able to work, and found he liked writing erotica. Ben wrote a trilogy called the Talosian Chronicles (Currently in rewrite to remove the graphic sex and finalized his vision of the story). The first book, Star Dancer, won awards and was nominated for many others by the online communities where it was posted.

Ben Winston returned to school for literature, after completion, he began writing professionally. Being an avid fan of science fiction he focused on this genre. He was, and still is, influenced and inspired by Gene Roddenberry, Anne McCaffery, David Weber, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. Some of his favorite movies and TV shows are; Battlestar Galactica (both versions), Andromeda, Star Trek, Firefly, Star Wars, and many of the B-rated movies that were actually box-office bombs.

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Ben Winston


Blue Space Publications, LLC.






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Books Published by Blue Space Publications, LLC.

by Ben Winston

Pollux Paradox

Tides of Mars

Tides of Mars (Omnibus)

Ascension – Book I

Conflict – Book II

Book of the Guardian

Home – Book I

Pest Control – Book II

The Last Mission – Book III

The Abraxis Complex

Origin of Prometheus – Book I

Sword of Damocles – Book II (Upcoming)

Talosian Chronicles

Olympus – Book I

Star Dancer – Book II

Talosian Alliance – Book III

*Neptune’s Massif – Book IV (Upcoming)


Temple of S.A.R.A.H.

Prototype – Episode I

Subroutines – Episode II

Base Functions – Episode III

*Hard Wired – Episode IV (Upcoming)

by Michael McClain

Chronicles of Atlantis Series

Chronicles of Atlantis (Omnibus)

Atlantis Rising – Book I

Euthara – Book II

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