I have the novella [Adamant] completed but I have no idea when I’ll be able to release it because it needs a lot of attention--in fact I’m going to skip one of the scenes, which is broken right now--and it’s me doing space opera. So yay.
Explosions shattered the void of space spraying vibrant reds, yellows, greens. Each firework made Jeff flinch, but he maintained an even smile.
“Quite the show, eh?” the shuttle pilot asked. She had a southern accent, which sounded pretty authentic, but who was he to say? It had been over a century since anyone had heard a real one in the flesh.
“It’s lovely,” Jeff said, hoping she wouldn’t notice his wince as another large series went off near the shuttle. He couldn’t hear the detonations--not flying through the vacuum of space--but he imagined them. Or were those other explosions, from another time?
“You could say this is all for you sir,” the pilot said, then glanced at him. She was pretty, with short blonde hair and a prim blue Armada uniform. A silvery sidejack gleamed on her left temple, just back from the eye. “I’ve never flown a hero before.”
“It’s war, Lieutenant,” Jeff said, “We’re all heroes.” The shuttle flew through a ring of vibrant red light, sparks bouncing off of its shielding.
“No," the pilot said. "Sorry sir but it’s not war. Not anymore. Not thanks to you,” she smiled broadly. And she was right, the war had ended. Those weren’t explosions, they were signs of celebration. Vigilance and Valor, it was actually over.
A flight of fighters zipped by in battle formation. Two slower Obstructers on the outside, four Interrupters inside them, carrying a precious Carrier at the very center. Today that Carrier dropped lines of fireworks instead of bombs. Jeff found himself smiling in genuine appreciation of the festivities. He didn’t need to give the crawling darkness a place inside of him any longer. It was done; now the fun could begin.
The shuttle banked around the side of a large gunship, finally bringing the Adamant into view. The massive flagship was a wedge of steel and lights tipping the front lit the enormous wings sweeping backwards, almost like a pair of crashing waves. Another sequence of fireworks burst around the Adamant, and Valor, their size must have been incredible for him to make them out at this distance. Through the light show he got a nice view of the ship’s Impeller plate at the back. The plate stretched long and wide, like a massive radio dish. An EDB detonation in the center would shove the ship directly into Negspace, letting it travel a great distance in a short time. Of course if the detonation was off, the blast would irradiate the entire ship and kill everyone on board. That was the risk of modern space travel. Fortunately, mistakes were very, very rare.
“So how’d you do it, sir?” the pilot asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you know what the enemy would do? You must be one hell of a strategist.”
“No, actually,” Jeff said, still forward in his seat to get a better view through the shuttle window, “When it comes to tactics I barely know my flanks from my rearguard. I’m a xenopsychologist.” She gave him a blank look. “I study aliens,” he said. “That’s my life’s work, both the <Shivana> and the <Alkour>.”
“The <Alkour>? You mean the Knockers?”
“Sure, the Knockers. I made a study of them. It wasn’t too difficult to decide what the Centurion would do once I teased out the specifics of his race’s psychology. I passed word from my lab on FS21 to Armada tacticians, and they fortunately accepted my conclusions. So here we are.”
“Wait, you’re a--” she cut off, blushing, “You lived on a station, sir.”
She glanced at the colonel's insignias on his uniform and then back out the window. Jeff ignored the slight. He wasn’t surprised that she expected the Hero of Broken Sky, as the <sidecasts> were already calling him, to be some swarthy general and master tactician rather than a short, pale scholar from a remote station. Armada prejudice against staties was silly, and most of the Armada people he met seemed to know it. In a way, Jeff really didn’t care what this woman thought. The anticipation of the moment was too thrilling. Decades of war finally over, the Knockers defeated in a resounding final conflict. More importantly, in the fury of the battle the Armada’s forces had accomplished something even Jeff had never thought possible. They had captured the enemy general.
“Well that seems good,” the pilot said. Jeff glanced at her; they were in the shadow of the Adamant now, cruising along its side. Being so close only emphasized how massive the ship was, bigger than some stations Jeff had lived on.
“What was that lieutenant?” Jeff asked.
“Hmm? Oh I was talking to the docking attendants. Didn’t they give you authorization to basic Armada side-channels?” She glanced at him and seemed to noticed for the first time the scar on his left temple, and the complete lack of a sidejack there.
Jeff rubbed the scar. “Jack didn’t take for me.”
“That can happen?”
“It has at least once. What did they send you?”
“That we are free to dock in 14OB, sir” she blushed again, bringing the shuttle into another sweeping turn toward one of the smallest of the docking cubbies. “There should be a reception committee there for you sir, though I think you’ve missed a lot of the festivities.”
“I’m not here for the party,” Jeff said, “I’m here for an interview.”
“Debriefing?” the woman asked.
“You could say that.”
The Adamant’s side here was gouged with hundreds of holes, like a field after a heavy artillery bombardment. Most ships couldn’t enter <Negspace> on their own. Even the massive gunships would need a transport to carry them interstellar distances. The flagship, and other transports of its class, were like hives. Each carried its own fleet of tiny fighters, larger shuttles, mid-sized assault-craft, and powerful gunships. They all floated separately for the moment, arrayed to watch the festivities. Parties would be happening on each gunship, whose crew was like their own smaller borough within the city that made up a transport fleet like this one. Jeff’s shuttle pulled alongside a boxlike cubby and then slid in like a peg into a hole, locking into place.
“Good luck with the <GAF> sir,” the pilot told him.
“Oh I’m sure Robert and I will have a good time catching up,” Jeff said, noting the look of shock in her eyes when he called the Armada's commander-general by his first name, “but my interview isn’t with him. It’s with the Centurion.”
She paled even further, “The Knocker general? We caught him?”
So it wasn’t common knowledge. Good. Jeff had asked for the information to be kept quiet, despite Robert’s insistence that parading the Centurion about would improve morale. “Yes,” Jeff said. “That’s classified information by the way.” The lieutenant nodded quickly; he wondered if she’d stay quiet. Well, discovering that his request had been followed was worth the potential leak. He didn’t really care if people knew, he just didn’t want Robert using the general as a showpiece. A glorified carnival act. During their years of war, taking a Knocker captive had been a rare occasion, and to have the general himself…
The docking process finished, and light above the airlock flipped to green, indicating the seals were in place. Jeff reached up and put on his stiff, formal service cap and headed toward the door.
“Good luck sir,” the pilot called to him, “With the Knocker, I mean.”
“Aliens are rarely a problem for me lieutenant,” Jeff said, the doors sliding open, “It’s humans that give the trouble.” He smiled politely, then stepped off of the Adamant.
[scrolling past the aforementioned “broken” scene]
So Jeff goes and meets the XO, or no the sergeant, one of the sergeants in charge named Chug and has a little conversation with Robert, the <GAF>, and gets to go meet the Knocker general. He's wanted to the whole time, and is annoyed that people are not letting him.
So they go and they are now at the prison, where they are keeping him, and they have met a little marine who is sitting outside.
The marine looked Jeff up and down with a critical eye. Tall, lean, and dark-skinned, the man surprisingly wore no armor and carried only a simple handgun as a sidearm. In fact, he seemed far less imposing than Jeff expected of a marine, the Armada ship-to-ship boarding troops. The only distinctive thing about this man were his eyes. They were… cracked. Like a broken window. Cracks spread across the man’s irises and whites, starkly visible. Jeff had read about that effect somewhere, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember where.
“So you're him,” the marine said. Vigilance and Valor, those eyes were disconcerting when they focused on him. It almost made up for the fact that the man was basically unarmed. This is what they had guarding the most dangerous warrior in the galaxy?
“Jeffrey Salazar,” Jeff said, pulling out his hand. The marine took it, surprisingly.
“Maddox. Nice work, sir.”
“Thank you,” Jeff said, uncertain how to interpret the pause. “Why are you here marine, normally the brig isn’t your jurisdiction, is it?”
“There’s a Knocker in there colonel,” Maddox said.
“With all due respect, colonel,” Maddox said, “that thing is the most dangerous monster we've ever faced. Every step we’ve taken in this war, he anticipated. We’ve been playthings to it all along. Now it’s on my ship. So as far as I’m concerned, we’ve been boarded by a hostile force, sir.”
Jeff nodded slowly. “I’m going to need to go in there and see him anyway, marine. Can you call your superior and authorize us?” Maddox looked at Chug, and then back to Jeff. He pulled out a datapad and checked it also.
No sidejack, Jeff thought. Marines didn’t use them. The <Shivana> had claimed there was little possibility of the enemy learning anything from one, but it was still Armada protocol to keep them off the marines, who had a much higher than normal chance of being captured.
“I can authorize you myself,” Maddox said, “I can’t open the door from this side though, as a precaution. It will take me a moment.
“Commander Maddox is head of the Armada’s marines,” Chug noted as Maddox sat down in a chair beside the massive metal door to the brig.
“Commander? Your uniform says airman.”
“Yeah,” Maddox said from his chair, “This body is my runner. I need the stripes off in case boarders are watching for officers.”
“This body?” Maddox went completely limp. A second later, the blast door revealing... Maddox. Only a much taller version, well muscled, and wearing full boarding armor and carrying a wicked looking gun. Jeff glanced at the limp body beside the door. They were the same, only the less muscled body’s eyes were no longer cracked. In fact, they stared sightlessly like the dead. “You’re a jumper!” Jeff said, finally remembering what the broken eyes indicated.
Maddox nodded, waving for them to follow. Jeff hurried after, entering a small, narrow metal hallway. Slits on the side revealed gun placements beyond. Jeff shivered. Anyone trying to run down this hall could easily find themselves in a death trap, bullets spraying at them at every step.
“I didn’t think there were any jumpers left,” Jeff said, catching up to Maddox, “Didn’t the program get scrapped?”
“Yeah,” Maddox said, each footstep thumping now that he wore his heavily armored body.
“We kept losing soldiers sir,” Chug explained, “They’d jump from one body and never appear in a new one. They just leave behind empty bodies staring sightlessly. No one ever returned. Drooled a whole lot though.”
Jeff shivered. “So each time you jump…”
“I might not arrive,” Maddox said, eyes forward, “But I don’t think about it too much colonel, I am what I am. I simply make use of it the best I can.”
“I suppose if I could keep two separate bodies,” Jeff said, “I might consider it to be worth the risk.”
They reached the end of the corridor, and Maddox opened a door there and then turned to Jeff and smiled, “What makes you think I have only two, colonel?”
Jeff raised an eyebrow but didn’t press for more information. He was growing excited about what would come next. Together with Chug and Maddox he stepped onto a large causeway that ran around a steel box of a room two stories high. Marines in full armor stood at mounted guns here, spotlights shining from the ends and pointing at the floor below. At least they were taking proper precautions. Jeff counted two dozen marines here, not including the ones hiding behind the kill slits in the corridor.
Maddox stepped up to a female marine who had been guarding the door. She saluted him. “Any changes?” he asked.
Maddox waved Jeff to follow him and led him down the causeway. A row of cells covered one wall below, but there didn’t seem to be anything in them. If the Adamant had been carrying any other prisoners before today, they had all been shipped out. That meant their sole prisoner was in the cells underneath Jeff’s feet. He suppressed a shiver, though he couldn’t tell if it was born of excitement or nervousness. Maddox led him along the causeway as his soldiers shuffled their feet in an odd pattern, several of them stamping while others slid to the side and set up their guns in new positions. To keep the Centurion from knowing where they ended up settling, Jeff realized. If the monster somehow escaped it wouldn’t know exactly where to target its attacks. How disorienting would it be, gunfire falling on you, blinded by spotlights, trying to escape?
I’m sweating, Jeff realized as they reached the small lift with open sides. Maddox pointed for Chug to wait above then lowered himself and Jeff down to the floor below. They hugged the wall and rounded it to stand before the empty cells, facing towards the ones under the causeway they had crossed above. These were deep and dark, but Jeff could make out a hulking form inside the middle of the three. Something shifted in there. Valor, it was huge. Maddox made a fist, and one of the soldiers above shined their spotlights into the cell. Jeff got his first in-person look at one of the Knockers. Its head brushed the ceiling of the cell, which had to be seven feet tall. The Knocker probably could have stood taller if it hadn't been forced to stoop. It’s entire body was covered in silvery bits of metal. They actually grafted it onto their skin somehow, melding with it and creating armor plates that attached to their body. Indeed, as it stepped forward, trailing a ripped cloak that matched its deep red uniform, Jeff could see that it had long, knife-like metal spurs sticking out of the wrists and extending along the backs of the hands. Its head was enormous, covered in bits of iron plate. It looked vaguely reptilian, with golden eyes and deep leathery skin underneath the grafted on bits of steel. The back of the skull bulged out in five wicked knobs. The hands were big enough they could’ve palmed a watermelon in each. Jeff had to resist taking a step backwards as the Knocker general walked to the bars of his cage, squinting, focusing despite the spotlight on it.
“You,” the creature said softly, “are the Lurker.” It spoke English well.
“I…” Jeff’s mouth was dry.
“Yes,” the Centurion said, its hands, which had metal bits embedded along the fingernails, scraping the bars as they moved along them, “I can see it, Lurker.”
Time to assert myself, Jeff thought. He stepped forward, meeting the thing’s eyes. “I’m Jeffrey Salazar and I’m the one who defeated you.” Now the creature would either bow before his dominance or rage against him, seeking to destroy him. He waited for it, curious to see which--
“I…” Jeff licked his lips. Why was his mouth so dry? “I challenged your authority, you must respond.”
“My authority?” The alien raised its enormous hands towards the cell. “This authority?” He shook his head, “We’ve been bested, you and I both, and so it ends.” He looked at Jeff, and then, in a distinctly chilling move, he smiled.
That smile, there was so much wrong with it. Why would a Knocker use a human facial expression? How much did this creature know, and why was it quoting Shakespeare? The Knockers were brutes, driven by instinct, that’s what he’d written, that’s what he’d learned, it--
The alien’s smile deepened, and he closed his eyes again, “The game is done,” he whispered, “Farewell.” Jeff stumbled back, feeling sick. He’d been wrong. whatever he’d thought he’d known about the Knockers and their society, he’d been wrong. His expertise has supposedly won this war, but it turned out that he had no idea what he was talking about.
“Take me away,” he said to Maddox, “Now.”