The command deck of Titan Station was managed chaos. The crew, all on no more than five hour shifts, managed orbital traffic control for the entire planet, the docks surrounding the outer hull of the station still working to repair the last few ships damaged in the assault on the Crucible and the many cargo shuttles coming in and out of the station.
Overseeing the nonstop activity was Colonel Mitchell, one of the few Atlantic Union Aerospace officers in the fleet. He’d been brought on to manage Titan Station, he’d thought to do the job over Saturn’s moon of the same name, not Earth.
He poured a cup of coffee from an archaic machine that still dripped hot water through grounds, and took in a deep breath of the aroma. Kona. The world’s finest coffee, in his opinion, had survived many decades without human cultivation. The beans grown in the Hawaiian Island’s volcanic soil were re-discovered by some Ibarra Corporation workers during the construction of an R&R facility. It took only a few cultivation robots to set up a steady supply of the coffee, much to Mitchell’s delight.
The colonel brought the cup to his lips.
The shout sent hot coffee down the front of his uniform and over his hands, scalding him.
“Set analog condition amber. Ready the kill switch,” Mitchell said, shaking his hands dry. If the Xaros were coming through, they’d compromise every computer system on Earth and in orbit within seconds. The alien probe sitting at the Crucible’s command center swore the Xaros couldn’t access the gate, but it never hurt to be cautious.
“Show me,” Mitchell said. Camera feed popped up on monitors around his chair. A white field spread from the center of the Crucible, growing out of the center and almost touching the great spikes making up the crown of thorns that was the alien jump gate.
Mitchell flipped a plastic safety cover off the kill switch for the station’s automation and waited.
The prow of a strike carrier emerged from the field and the Breitenfeld flew into real space.
“She’s back!” came from the crew. Clapping and cheers broke out across the command center.
Mitchell closed the kill switch, then frowned as the wormhole remained open. The Canticle of Reason followed the Breitenfeld, emerging like a leviathan from the deep ocean.
“That’s…unexpected,” Mitchell said.
“Sir, do we launch the ready fighters?” a crewman asked.
“Message from the Breitenfeld, they’re telling us to relax. The big ship’s friendly,” the commo officer said.
Mitchell pointed a finger at the communications officer. “Get Admiral Garret on the line. Now.”
Valdar followed his escorts through the bunker, newly built beneath the Camelback Mountains just northeast of Phoenix. Staff officers bustled around Valdar with an air of excitement and purpose that Valdar hadn’t seen in someplace so drab and soul-sucking as a high-level command. The atmosphere in the bunker was almost like there was a war brewing.
A soldier in combat armor and almost seven feet tall stood outside Admiral Garret’s office. A visor covered the sentry’s face and there was no name stenciled on his armor.
“What’ve they been feeding you?” Valdar asked the giant.
“Sir,” replied a gravelly voice.
“Isaac, get in here,” Admiral Garret yelled through his open door. The admiral’s office had the wide, solid oak desk Valdar remembered from Garret’s old office at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. Framed flags and guidons from Garret’s long career filled the walls, along with a diploma from the Academy in Maryland.
Valdar wondered how much was a recreation and what was original. His money was on the former; rank had its privileges.
An aide closed the door behind them.
“Sit, Isaac,” Garret said, waving at a leather chair. “I suppose I should chew your ass for taking a little detour on your way back from Anthalas. But you came back with much more than we’d hoped for, and I don’t mean the stray ship that followed you home.”
“Sir, I had to—”
“Stow it. What’s done is done and we’ve got bigger problems to worry about than your adherence to orders or lack thereof. Now, you said you have something for my eyes only? Something you left out of your official report?”
Valdar opened a briefcase and took out the General’s face-plate, five indentations against the edges from where Elias had warped the material. Valdar tossed it on the desk; it made no noise as it came to rest.
Garret touched it with a fingertip then picked up the face-plate.
“This is from the entity your armor encountered, I assume. It doesn’t weigh an ounce,” Garret said. “This is the face of our enemy. Why can’t I share this with everyone? Morale will go through the roof.”
“That’s a trophy. This is what I had to talk to you about in person.” Valdar set a folder on the table and pushed it to the admiral. Garret flipped through medical tests and personnel bio-sheets.
“Some of my crew are…unnatural. Their bodies are fully grown, but immature, only a few months old. For all the digging my counter intelligence officers have been able to do, none of them know what they are or even suspect they’re any different from you or I. I believe they’re sleeper agents or spies snuck onto my crew by Ibarra. He’s the only one with the resources and know-how to get this done. I don’t know his purpose.”
Garret thumbed through the papers, then swept it all into a waste bin.
“Yes, I know.”
“We call them proccies. Procedurally generated consciousness installed on vat-grown bodies. I found out about them after you left for Anthalas, I wouldn’t have let Ibarra conduct his field experiments during a mission as vital as yours. But that bastard doesn’t have the best track record with honesty. He’s getting better.
“Your ship’s been on a communications black-out since you got back. I thought you might have figured something out with the proccies, and I couldn’t let something beyond the official narrative slip out from you or your crew.”
“Sir, explain to me why these…abominations are on my ship. They’re soulless things masquerading as human beings.”
Garret held up a hand. “You aren’t the only one that has an issue with them. It comes down to survival, Isaac. When you left for Anthalas, the fleet we had, or could have built, wouldn’t even register as a speed bump to the Xaros when they return. We bought time when we took the Crucible, just not enough. Ibarra offered a solution. The only one that might see us to daylight.”
“At what cost? He’ll replace every one of us with these things and humanity will still be as extinct. We’ll be gone and have sold our souls for these fakes to inherit the Earth?”
“You make the same argument I’ve heard in this office from many, many other people. The decision comes down to what might happen in the future, and the threat we will face in the next decade. Everyone is struggling with this right now. True born and proccies, not that any of the proccies know what they truly are.”
“There are more than just the ones on my ship?”
“Many, many more Isaac. I don’t even know where to start with the doughboys. Look,” Garret took an Ubi slate from his desk and swiped across the surface. A picture of a human carrier battle group floating in space above the moon came up. “That’s the Midway, big girl’s back in service. Also two strike carriers the same class as your ship, cruisers, frigates, destroyers, tenders…the whole nine yards. Almost every man and woman in that battle group is a proccie. Good thing we’ve got them, otherwise we’d all be dead.”
“I don’t follow. The Xaros are a long way off. We’ve got time to figure out another solution than this,” Valdar said.
“We don’t. The proccies could be our long-term salvation, but they’re also the cause of our current crisis.” Garret brought out another Ubi slate, the casing painted with alternating red and white lines, one meant for classified material. “This is top secret. What you see doesn’t leave the room.”
Garret set the slate on his desk and rotated it to Valdar. On the screen, dozens of almond-shaped ships the color of polished sea-shells floated above Neptune. Jagged weapons like broken icicles protruded from the ship’s hulls. Ships Valdar recognized.
“The Toth are here, Isaac. They are here, and they want to negotiate.”