The rebels have claimed victory in Alzir System, but a hardcore of ISP die-hards is refusing to lay down their arms. Aided by Irina Petrova, Admiral Santana Pendergast makes a desperate attempt to free the prisoners from the detention camps on Pearl. Meanwhile, the crew of the HYPERION embarks on a mission to strike back at President Skolberg.
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Table of Contents
“Between Heaven and Hell“
Sol System, Terra, high-security prison in Canada, September 7 2266, 22:30 hours
Alzir System, NOVA Station, Admiral Santana Pendergast's briefing room, September 9 2266, 08:30 hours
Sol System, Terra, Imperial Residence, September 10 2266, 9:30 AM
Alzir System, NOVA Station, Admiral Santana Pendergast's briefing room, September 16 2266, 09:25 hours
Interlink Cruiser HYPERION, Sol System, September 16 2266, 14:10 hours
Alzir System, Pearl, northern hemisphere research station, September 17 2266, 15:36 hours
Sol System, Terra, Paris, September 17 2266, 16:12 hours
Alzir System, Pearl, northern hemisphere research station, September 17 2266, 17:46 hours
Sol System, Terra, Paris, September 17 2266, 17:10 hours
Algethi System, Pearl, northern hemisphere research station, September 17 2266, 18:10 hours
Sol System, Terra, Paris, September 17 2266, 17:52 hours
Alzir System, Pearl, northern hemisphere research station, September 17 2266, 18:25 hours
Sol System, orbital space port, IL HYPERION, September 17 2266, 19:15 hours
A short time earlier
Alzir System, Pearl, northern hemisphere research station, September 17 2266, 19:20 hours
Sol System, Terra, Paris, September 17 2266, 19:45 hours
Alzir System, Pearl, ISP Orbital Stations, September 17 2266, 19:55 hours
Interlink Cruiser HYPERION, NOVA Station, 19 January 2266, 06:30 hours
Interlink Cruiser HYPERION, conference room, en route to NOVA Station, September 19 2266, 09:30 hours
Alzir System, Nova Station, September 21 2266, 14:00 hours
Sol System, Terra, Sol Center, September 21 2266, 15:20 hours
Alzir System, Nova Station, September 21 2266, 16:45 hours
Epilogue I - Hidden in plain view
Epilogue II - Project 'Retribution'
Epilogue III - The beginning of a new era
The Charakters of Heliosphere 2265
by Andreas Suchanek
A quiet hum like a swarm of bees heralded the start of a new day, just like every other day. As there were no windows or visible doors, his universe consisted of six gray surfaces. One of the walls was fitted with a simple bed. It was hard, but better than nothing.
Openings in the ceiling blew cool air into the room, dissipating the stale atmosphere. It was the same procedure as every day. Weeks must have passed since he first arrived. He had been alone all that time. The expected lawyer never turned up. Contact with the outside was forbidden; there was nobody except him and the guards.
His mind went over the same thoughts again and again. From one day to the next, the Inner Security Police had turned his life into hell.
All because of you, Jay!
His damned brother had betrayed the Government and broken his oath of service. He had defected to Pendergast and the rebels. None of the family wanted to believe it at first but eventually cold reality sank in and they lost their faith. The tax authorities had accused him - Jasper Cross - of fraud. Things moved quickly after that: The accounts of his parents' shuttle factory, had been frozen. Just forty-eight hours later, he was under arrest. He shuddered to think about what else might be happening outside his gray prison cell.
A tinny fanfare announced breakfast. Jasper stepped to the bed and awaited the inevitable. One of the walls slid silently into the floor. Behind it waited him. He was tall, thick-set, and merciless. There was a fixed procedure that had to be followed. Any failure to comply on Jasper's part would be punished swiftly with punches, kicks and... worse.
"I hope our Princess slept well", his voice rang out.
Jasper called him Ox; in his head, of course. The guy swaggered like a cowboy from an old Western holo and was dumb as an ox. But Jasper had no choice but to obey. He knelt down and stretched out his arms.
Cow approached. One step away, he paused and looked down. Slowly, he spat into the glass of water. Seconds later he did the same to the food. "Only the best for our Princess. Enjoy it, Cross."
Filled with anger, his hatred grew from day to day. But there was nothing he could do. Instead, Jasper took the tray and began to devour his meal - on his knees. Ox watched with a fat, stupid grin on his rubbery face.
Breakfast was followed by the routine beating. As usual, Ox wanted to blow off a little steam. And who better to take out his aggression on, than the brother of the man who had killed Ox's cousin in some space battle?
The first blow hurt but Jasper had stopped feeling anything by the tenth. His face was a bloody mass by the time the guard finally took a satisfied step back.
"That's what I like to see", said Ox.
Just as he brought back his foot for the mandatory final kick, a shot rang out. A particle volley. It smashed into Ox's back and felled the man like a tree. His body smashed onto the hard concrete floor, breaking his nose. The guard lay unconscious on the floor, a few inches from Jasper's face. Blood oozed out around his face, forming a dark pool. He was defenseless. Jasper would have liked to reach out, grab his tormentor's head and put an end to his suffering with a short, firm twist. But he couldn't. His arms were heavy as lead, he was bleeding, every bone in his body ached.
With morbid fascination, he watched as his blood mixed with that of his torturer. He could feel the bruises around his eyes swelling until he could barely see.
Something touched him. Someone. He was lifted into the air, placed on a shoulder.
"Let's go", said a deep voice. "The chrono's ticking."
"Ready", replied a woman in a low voice.
Booted footsteps rang out on the stone floor. He was being carried. Each step reverberated deep within body. Like another gut punch from Ox.
"Four more minutes", the deep voice said.
"It's going to be close, damned close", said the woman. "My God, that pig really did a number on him."
"At least he's still alive. They weren't all so lucky. Maria and Bea didn't get Özenir's sister out in time." A sigh. "We can't save everyone."
"But we have to try."
Silence. He heard the sound of unlocking doors. More steps and more pain. An siren began to wail.
Darkness surrounded him. He laughed weakly. They had tricked him into thinking it was morning, but it was night.
"We are now officially no longer employees of this dump", said Deep Voice. "If they catch us, we'll be the newest inmates."
A bitter laugh. "Don't worry. If they catch us, a blaster shot to the head and vaporization is what we can expect. They won't hesitate, Pearl is pretty much history now."
The steps grew faster. Jasper heard voices in the distance. His eyes were now so swollen that he lost all vision.
"I heard Skolberg's already building a new prison", said deep voice. "A mobile space station. Hardly anyone knows where."
An antigrav unit howled nearby.
"Hurry", called another voice, bright and clear. "We've got a hell of a ride ahead of us. They're shutting down the airspace. The ISP is redeploying satellites to monitor the area. Our window is closing."
He felt himself being lowered onto a soft surface. So soft...
"This guy urgently needs a doctor", said the woman who had carried him. "I think he has internal injuries."
The unit roared and the shuttle took off.
"Good news from the Japanese sector", called the pilot into the cabin. "They extracted the Ishida's."
The name seemed familiar to Jasper. Wasn't that his brother's deputy? He'd seen her wanted holo all over the GalNet. Just like Jay's.
What had become of Terra? How did things get so bad?
The unit howled again, this time with a tormented screech as it was driven to the limits of its capacity. Shots rang through the night. The shuttle shuddered.
"Hold on!" The pilot's voice sounded worried.
Something in Jasper's chest cracked; a stabbing pain wrenched a moan from him. He could barely breathe. He felt liquid in his mouth. Blood? He gurgled.
Then came the darkness.
Captain Jayden Cross felt like he was sitting on the bridge of a spaceship. Since the rebels had taken over the station, busy engineers had fitted Admiral Pendergast's briefing room with additional holospheres, monitors and panels. While Ivo Coen and his officers coordinated everything from the real space station command center, this place was the true heart of the Alzir system.
The room was packed, which was not surprising given the major decisions at hand. Among other things, he hoped to finally learn where the HYPERION would be flying next. And Jackson Brown, the new captain of the TORCH II and his FO, Kristen - Kirby - Belflair, were also present. It was hard to believe that he had been lying next to her just a few hours ago. It already seemed far too long.
"Right", said Pendergast, as the last officers took their places. "Let's begin." As most of you know, I prefer short and effective briefings, not hours of debate." Her pony tail bobbed up and down as she looked down at her pad and then up again. "Doctor Tauser, how are the negotiations with Ramson going? I presume he still speaks for the entire ISP on Pearl's orbital stations?"
"We were able to confirm that, at least", replied Janis with a nod to Jayden. They had not had time to greet each other. His friend stroked his white beard in thought. "Unfortunately, that's the only progress made. "The hostage-takers - and I think we can all agree that's what the men and women of the ISP are - ..." Everybody nodded. "... are not willing to make any concessions."
"Still a stalemate?", Pendergast asked.
"Exactly, Admiral." If we attack, they will fire nuclear warheads at Pearl. That would mean the death of all the prisoners still down there awaiting rescue. At the same time, they would lose their trump card."
"Please forward the negotiation clips to the commanding officer of the task force. We are currently assessing various scenarios for taking out their orbital forts without endangering the hostages." She entered something in her mempad, as did Janis. "Let's move on to the next point. I have asked Doctor Damato to join us. He has some good news."
An animated Japanese man in a white smock stood up. He was visibly nervous and did not know what to do with his hands. "Ladies and gentlemen." He bowed demurely. "For those who do not know me: My name is Siu Damato. I was employed as a researcher in the fields of space physics and phase space mechanics on board the TORCH II. I was fortunate enough to witness the incident after the departure from the Algethi system"
He now had Jayden's full attention, although "fortunate" was not the word he would use.
"when the TORCH II saved the HYPERION from an attacking Parlid fleet a few weeks ago. As we took it through phase space using a tractor beam, the cruiser's interlink drive activated. The result was... impressive to say the least.
The TORCH II was displaced to the fourth phase band. Somehow, the HYPERION was ejected from the interlink bubble. "Captain Cross's ship", he pointed to Jayden, "fell many light years behind in normal space - at extremely reduced speed."
Ishida was sitting right next to Jayden. She tensed suddenly, as did Kirby. Captain Brown was listening to the scientist with stoic calm.
Damato made a dismissive gesture. "Before you get your hopes up, we are still not able to transfer a ship to the fourth phase. Especially not with our currently limited research resources. We can only continue our slow and steady research." He took a deep breath. "But based on the events, we have been able to develop designs for an interlink disruptor."
The comment hit the room like a bomb. Suddenly, the whole room was shouting a torrent of questions at the scientist. Admiral Pendergast brought the pandemonium to an end with a sharp cough. The room returned to silence. She gestured for Damato to continue.
"Until now, the HYPERION has had an advantage against traditional phase cruisers because the phase disruptors that protect solar systems from potential attacks, have no effect on its interlink drive." He waited until everybody nodded. "We now know that Skolberg is working on his own fleet of these cruisers. For this reason, we have intensified our research in recent weeks - as far as possible. So far, our results have been theoretical only. But based on these, it should be possible to produce a prototype in the next few months."
"That would be fantastic", Jayden exclaimed. "That could keep the Alzir system safe from an invasion. A fleet would have to take the usual route and finish its interlink flight at the edge of the system. By then, we would be ready for them."
"Exactly", confirmed Damato.
"Thank you, Doctor." Admiral Pendergast motioned for him to retake his seat. "Your project has top priority, above all others. You will have full access to all the experts you need."
"So let us move on to the next - and most important point." She glanced at Jayden and Captain Brown, then Kirby and Commander Ishida. "The TORCH II is fully operational, the HYPERION has also been repaired."
He thought back over the last few weeks with a mixture of disbelief and respect. The rebels had worked diligently since occupying the Alzir system. The necessary reassignments had been made; all the officers were now in their respective positions. There had been further attacks in the first two weeks, but they had caused no major damage. All those openly loyal to the regime on Earth had now been expelled from the system. On Pendergast's orders, none had been harmed.
Slowly but steadily, NOVA Station was returning to calm. His ship no longer looked like a scrap heap and now bore the proud designation "Humanity's First Interlink Cruiser". He was filled with respect for the engineers who had worked miracles in such a short period.
Nevertheless, the news from elsewhere was catastrophic.
They had been celebrating the conquest of the Alzir system on NOVA Station's recreation deck when the message came in. In a speech full of empty cliches and pathos, Elias Skolberg had dissolved the Solar Union and created the Solar Empire. Their initial dismay and disbelief was soon replaced by a grim acceptance of reality.
Tikara II, the home world of Tess Kensington's foster parents, had been bombarded from orbit. Nobody knew who had survived the attack. The planet had been declared a no-go zone and guarded by ring of war ships. The survivors had been left to fend for themselves, as a warning to other local governments who might be thinking about independence.
At least that might provoke a real uprising, Jayden thought at the time. But Skolberg's timing was excellent. Cloned Alphas and lab-bred marines ruled the Space Navy ships with an iron fist. The Executive Commanders had all been fitted with cardiac dead man's switches. One cruiser's attempt to reach the Alzir system had ended in disaster. The ship's officers had killed their EC, detonating all the kill chips in their skulls. The marines had slaughtered the remaining crew.
Skolberg had sent them the video recordings. He certainly knew how to make a point. And things had gone much the same way on the planets as in space. The forces of law and order had been subsumed by the ISP. All significant members of the government were neurally reconfigured. This was a process that still had numerous side effects. The drooling and babbling EC Christopher Johnston was living proof of that. The man's brain had been unable to cope with his failure to maintain control of the HYPERION.
It still seemed incredible to Jayden that just four weeks had passed since those events. Since then, Skolberg had acted with a speed that barely seemed possible. It was even more proof that the whole thing had been planned long in advance.
His train of thought returned to Admiral Pendergast as she continued to speak. "As you all know, Skolberg has just commissioned the first new interlink cruisers. Soon the HYPERION will no longer be unique. But she has an experienced and well-trained crew and we will take full advantage of that.
Things on Earth have gotten worse - to put it mildly. For this reason, Admiral Jansen has implemented various measures. Commander Ishida, I am pleased to bring you good news. Your entire family has been rescued by the rebels and brought to safety."
His First Officer beamed all across his face. Jayden knew that she had been worrying in silence about her parents.
"Thank you, Admiral, that is wonderful news."
"As for you, Captain Cross, I can tell you, that your father and your mother were also able to go into hiding." Your brother has been rescued from a high-security prison. Since then, we lost contact, unfortunately."
"Why is that?" Jayden was both happy and worried. Had the rebels been discovered?
"No reason to worry. The hacking war is constant. Every now and then, we find a loophole in the 'Golden Shield' that gives us access to the GalNet and the phase network for a while. Then they fill the gap and the search begins again."
"Just imagine the days when they used to send messages on paper! Carried by owls", interjected Captain Brown.
"Pigeons", Kirby corrected him with a grin. "They sent messages withpigeons."
"Really?" The Commander's eyes flashed in amusement. "You know a lot about ancient history?"
And it started again. Jayden had initially feared that the Kirby's informal manner would not go down well with her new commanding officer. But the opposite was true. Brown had survived his years of involuntary confinement on the PROMETHEUS in the Silent Sector and enjoyed having a First Officer with whom he could discuss changes and new developments. Especially one with an interest in history.
Their verbal sparring had become a game in which they would set little traps for each other - incorporating deliberate mistakes into their trivial conversations. According to a table drawn up by Lieutenant Özenir, Navigator of the TORCH II, Kirby was several points ahead.
As long as they don't make any deliberate mistakes with the torpedo inventory, more power to them.
"If we could get back to the point", said Pendergast, giving Kirby and Brown a playfully admonishing glance.
"Aye, Ma'am", they responded in unison.
"Thank you, so kind of you. In recent weeks, the rebels have activated all their sleepers and released prisoners. Not only on Terra, but also on other worlds. Fortunately, we have plenty of space on the habitats after clearing out the ISP."
"How many people we are talking about?", asked Jayden.
"A few hundred", said Pendergast. "Together with the prisoners on Pearl - whom hope to bring out soon - that should put us at our limit. But I'm not leaving anybody behind."
"So we're going to evacuate the rebels from Terra?" asked Brown. "With the HYPERION and the TORCH II?"
"Exactly. Our sleeper spies managed to get hold of the signature for a maintenance tender from the fleet database. It took a while, unfortunately, but it will now be possible to use the REP-I, disguised with the stolen signature, to bring the HYPERION and the TORCH to Earth.
After arriving, cargo shuttles will ferry the rebels to the REP-I, where they will be assigned between the two ships. Once this is done, the tender will carry out an emergency start. The TORCH and the HYPERION will then disengage and disappear."
"A daring plan", commented Brown.
"No more daring than taking a whole solar system from Skolberg", said Pendergast. "You also have Cross. With him you can rely on two things." She winked at Jayden. "First: he destroys everything he touches. Second: He brings his people home safe." While Cross wondered whether to feel flattered or insulted, the Admiral added: "I would be grateful, Captain, if you would try to concentrate solely on your second talent. The shipyards and repair docks are already overloaded."
"I'll see what I can do, Ma'am."
"Excellent. Then let's get started. Ladies, Gentlemen, that will be all for now."
The company rose gradually.
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