Criticality 13: A Mother’s Love (Season Two Premiere)


Season Two Premiere: Convenience store air always seemed to be cooler, Vim Cobolgove thought. He entered close behind Slubbich and followed closely as it appeared that his new partner had the layout of the place already scoped out.

“The best Police Force officers always break off into a method of routine,” Slubbich announced. “As you can imagine, it’s a precursor which coincides nicely with doing things by the eBook – actually gets you in that right mindset.” He headed toward the back of the convenience store and made his first stop at the coffee machines.

Season Two Premiere“Too bad that I don’t do coffee,” Vim sighed. His partner, on the other hand, was fun to watch as it appeared that Slubbich took an extra amount of pride in each and every hand motion which was used to retrieve a cup from the stack that resided in the spring-loaded holder, fill the cup to within a centimeter of its rim with the decaffeinated variety, add the perfect amount of two measured drips from the vanilla-flavored cream sweetener, stir briskly with what would normally have been an awkward left hand, and secure the disposable cap on top of the creation in such a manner that the steam could seep while the scalding liquid did not spill.

With his life-sustaining elixir in hand, Slubbich turned around and started to walk off slowly while explaining, “See, I catch a lot of flack for my ‘By the eBook‘ stance, but people don’t even realize how many options that the eBook actually allows you. If I can’t offer you a cup of coffee, can I offer you bottled water? It doesn’t matter what your routine is as long as you have one.”

Vim nodded his understanding, “I’ll take you up on that.”

“Excellent,” Slubbich acknowledged. “The coolers are over in this corner. It’s normally the exact same product selection, but for some reason, the items upfront are a little more expensive. I guess, they don’t figure that the impulse buyers who are running in for a quick item or two will notice the disparity, so that’s another reason of why flying by the seat of your pants isn’t necessarily the best tact to work or life.”

“Because things are rarely as they appear at first glance?” Vim questioned for further clarification.

“Excuse us,” MC said as he and Cindra Rondy made their way around a tight corner and brushed unknowingly (of the occasion) up against Slubbich and Vim’s personal space.

Politely, Slubbich replied, “No problem,” before he continued his conversation with Vim on over to the corner which housed the larger coolers, “and that’s what I mean. You never know who is who. You never know what is what. That is until you take the time to figure it out.”

“Were those friends of yours?” Cindra inquired as she put a few different bags of chips which were crowding her grasp onto the checkout counter.

MC had a couple packs of soft drinks which happened to be burdening him, so Cindra promptly moved aside to give him an angle to hoist his groceries up onto the checkout counter next to hers. “No, but I recognize them, and you should too.”

Cindra smiled as she dug inside of her purse for her debit card, “Oh, I do.”

The Second Earth Special Police Force Base

The interrogation room was unusually small. There was no two-way glass, and it was doubtful that the room was even monitored because this was usually the point where the phone eBook came out. In many precincts, throwing the eBook at somebody was something that was done literally for the purposes of coercing a confession out of a suspect – whether truthful or not, and rooms like these kept the participants from being disturbed by such things as legal counsel and due process.

Stalkord was not some petty criminal who would be phased by a scene like this or goaded into incriminating himself with a slip of his tongue at the behest of the shady tactics which were about to be employed by the crafty officers who stood before him. He had been around and actually authored legal arrangements between his company, Ennead Tech Corp – of which he was the chief executive officer, and humongous multiuniversal factions like the Space Force and the New Alliance. If Pete Rogue and Julian Kazar wanted to make this into a physical altercation – well, fatally pertinent reasons existed as to why he had also been the top mercenary as the leader of Death Corps.

In fact, none of this concerned Stalkord. He had not yet contacted his attorney and practically would not lose any sleep over the somewhat embarrassing situation in which Pete and Julian had snatched him out of his corporate offices – from off of his investor call. It provided a fun and interesting challenge for trying to explain that incident away and somehow turn the indescribable incident into profitability.

As Stalkord laid his tie on the tabletop, and he unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt, he waited patiently for this to begin. Honestly, this was too long overdue. The three of them needed to clear the air, get some things off of their chests, and attempt to put this constant animosity behind them. With it between them, a broken record played out on repeat, and the sound of which was seriously becoming old. He had many enemies, but never before had his enemies been so far off base. This was shocking, and Pete and Julian were going to get themselves killed by pursuing the paths that they happened to be on – irrespective of the vision which they needed in order to traverse such a treacherous terrain. And what was ironic was that their deaths would not come by his hands or anybody even associated with him. See, that was the scary part which he needed to rectify immediately, and he chose to do so by dropping his guard – if only momentarily.

Another of the benefits of this room was the ability for Pete to smoke indoors as he and Julian were breaking all types of other rules, so the public smoking ban did not have much of a chance at holding up either. After lighting up, he sat on the edge of the table and offered one to Stalkord – a last cigarette of sorts.

“You’re funny,” Stalkord was amused by the sentiment.

“How is this supposed to go down, Stalkord?” Julian sat at the other end of the table but was not laughing as he removed his LUNC and slammed it on the tabletop.

“What’s the connection between you, Needo Palatine, and Lil Tiny Palatine?” Pete layered his questioning on top of Julian’s. “Are you the third head of the Palatine Triad?”

Stalkord admitted, “In another universe, maybe. Needo is a competent employee who happens to be related to Lil Tiny. He wished to make the jump from organized crime to -”

Julian interrupted, “White collar crime?”

“Call it what you want,” Stalkord conceded in order to move the conversation along, “but he was the most qualified individual for the position, and I will make my notes on the interviewing process available to you -”

Pete interrupted Stalkord now, “As for the Palatine Triad?”

Getting a little annoyed with being interrupted, Stalkord emphasized the first part to his reply, “As for – the Palatine Triad, they also serve their purpose.”

“Which is?” Julian tersely questioned.

“Which is,” Stalkord stated, “doing your job for you.”

“How so?” Pete inquired skeptically.

Looking away to his side for a moment, Stalkord decided to backtrack, “Let me give you a quick lesson on power – who has it and who pretends. Factions are the most powerful entities in this universe: The Space Force, the New Alliance, the Pillorian Regime, the Doran Aristocracy, the Doran Military, the Ronds, the Slorgs, the Rylaea. You want to act like I pull strings; they pull strings. The reason as to why I am not and will never be afraid of you is because I have had to deal with these factions. The reason as to why I do not and will not take you seriously is because you are incapable of seeing them for who they really are with this blinding hate that you hold toward me.”

Shifting slightly to stand up and then approach, lean, and hover over Stalkord, Pete suggested, “You’re going to get to your point soon – I hope?”

“That is exactly my point,” Stalkord claimed. “I had to call in the Palatine Triad to take out Staines Warehouse District with the Space Force weapons that Ennead Tech Corp was supposed to be disposing of because you’re too busy chasing after your tail which you perceive to be me.”

After rubbing his mouth with a pensive left hand, Julian placed that hand on the table, sat up, and asked, “Why?”

With a sigh, Stalkord announced, “Drugs. Stanislaw Krell is about to introduce something so addictive into the population of Second Earth which we have not seen since long ago back on Earth, and he all but has the Space Force’s blessing to do so as they engage in this halfhearted attempt at trying to partner with the Rylaea for the purposes of stopping this at the source.”

“What?” Pete backed off slightly. “Who is this Stanislaw Krell?”

“It’s nice to see that you’re not naive enough to believe that the Space Force is innocent of my levied charges,” Stalkord acknowledged, “but I’ll get you my information on Stanislaw. He’s the least of our concerns though.”

“Yeah,” Julian concurred as he sat forward, “because if what you said is true then you just crossed the Space Force.”

It was interesting how that little point seemed to resonate with Pete and Julian. Stalkord was finally beginning to get through to them. Perhaps it was the disassociation of himself with being the biggest fish in a small universe, or maybe it was his new tact of being forthcoming with some seriously da-ning information which could have him thrown under the jail – not too far from this room. At minimum, the little bit of information which he had volunteered to this point could see him ruined or killed. He continued, “It’s because the Space Force crossed me first. Remember the office manager at one of the Ennead satellite offices?”

Pete sighed, “How could I forget? I had her brains splashed all over me by a sniper.”

“Yes, well the sniper was the Space Force’s doing,” Stalkord accused, “and the office manager’s behavior was the result of the New Alliance crossing me.

That’s a long story, but let’s focus in on the Space Force and how heavy-handed they are becoming because that is of the most relevance to what you now have to deal with. Because let’s face it, you don’t have a huge corporation like Ennead Tech Corp backing you. You don’t have mercenaries on your payroll who can extend your freedom to wield will. And you don’t have underworld connections for when you simply just want to make a statement to your enemies. Fortunately, you do have at least one faction in your corner as well as other people, including myself, who are pulling for you.”

Faction? Julian found that to be peculiar, and shrugged, “Which faction?”

This elicited a laugh from Stalkord, “Like I told you before when you so rudely whisked me away from my investor call, you two really need to learn who your true adversaries are. But what’s even worse than that is that you don’t even know who you your true allies are. If you want to know more about that faction, ask Sylvia.”

“But she -” Julian started to say.

“I know what she did,” Stalkord was the one who was doing the interrupting now in order to keep the flow of the conversation on pace with the cadence which he believed was the most conducive for Pete and Julian’s receptiveness, “but you’ll soon understand what it was that she had done.

The Space Force wants Second Earth to be subservient and docile and at odds with itself so that it cannot be at odds with them. Something big is about to go down, and those who are smart enough to figure it out are being targeted. Those who are strong enough to try and stop it are being taken out.

But don’t take my word for all of this….” He reached inside of his suit coat and placed an Ear-To-Mouth Com on the table. This actually happened to be one of his favorite features of the device as he tapped one of the buttons to reveal a holographic image of Commissioner Gyro who had a pretaped message:

“Pete, Julian, if you are viewing this recording, then I am a little disappointed that you overstepped your bounds in once again accosting Stalkord, but now is the time that we must move forward – on all matters.

You know that I am sincerely sorry for the loss of your wife, so when I say this, I do not make the request lightly: This beef between yourselves and Stalkord needs to end today. Death Corps happened to be as infiltrated with spies as the Second Earth Special Police Force. Stalkord would have given you the information which you had demanded long ago if it was within his power to do so, but Retsepar did not turn out to be core Death Corps. He was more of a plant which means that his sole purpose was to create a distraction which would take your most hated enemy’s focus off of where it needed to be because of the constant harassment that was stemming from your incessant, investigative activities against him,” the Commissioner explained.

Pete nor Julian had ever considered an angle like this. Stalkord had always seemed like the roadblock, but Commissioner Gyro’s deduction had always held a high level of validity in their eyes. The message was also authentic because Ear-To-Mouth Coms could only be tuned to the wearer as a security precaution against spoofing. This was like a personal voice mail, but the fact that the device was not with their former leader and in the hands of who they had perceived as one of their greatest foes meant that the cognitive dissonance had all but been broken up between them. All that they could do was to remain silent and listen intently as the recording continued.

The Commissioner said, “Yori Curch happens to be the Space Force plant who is in your midst, and there is no telling what information, which we had all spoken about in confidence, has been disseminated to them through him. If you want to know who to trust, I would say to keep it between yourselves, Slubbich – he is a good man, Vim, Sec, and Sylvia.

Yes, Sylvia. I had figured Yori out but neglected to realize the larger implication of what my deductive reasoning had in store for me. The moment that I let out the fact that I knew and he knew that I knew – the Space Force also knew. From there, I went from being someone who they could manipulate to somebody who they needed to watch. I signed my own death warrant on that final day. The Space Force sealed it, for sure. And I am not waiting around for it to be delivered.

There is a betrayal within that story which I will need to address, but it does not belong to Yori. Back to Sylvia though, she played a card which gave me a reason to not have to be around. It was so well-played that even I did not see it initially, and although the Space Force might not have seen it either, my discharge gave me the moment which I needed to escape their view before they picked up on the actual deception.

Thanks to Stalkord’s logistics channels, I have slipped my way through the Space Force’s severing of communications with the Terran System and am headed to Earth. Apparently, I am one of two people who was entrusted with the information about a splinter group that is called the Enforcers. They exist beneath the Space Force but above the Second Earth Special Police Force. The way that this was pitched to me was fraught with lies and half-truths.

I was told that these Enforcers were a group which was independent of the Space Force and would be used to keep the Space Force in check from individuals within the Space Force who would want to do it harm. I later realized that the Enforcers were a group which happened to be sanctioned by the Space Force and would be used to keep the Space Force in power against upstarts like Ennead Tech Corp, other factions, or individuals who would question them. Governments have been doing this forever, and I believe that sometimes we become a little ideological when one steps up and says that they are above certain types of behavior and tactics which have plagued societies since the fallacy of order was invented. Philosophical debates aside, your reality is that you are going to have your hands full in protecting Second Earth, and this is only the part that I know about.

I would like to get the other person’s take on this, and it is almost assured that I will be expected to make this move – otherwise I would not have been told the tidbit about a potential ally. The Space Force will want me out of the way, but first, they will have to test my network in order to do their worst, so I am not concerned about myself – per se. In order for them to get to me, they will make a bee line for me through Edith.”

“Shi-,” Pete muttered.

“I could not take her, Ardina, or Devore into this,” Commissioner Gyro pleaded, “but they are not safe with me there either. I need you to watch my family. There was no way that I could leave on a family trip – not to Earth, obviously, and certainly not with the date of my pending deposition looming over my head. Normally, I would not be considered a flight risk, so there is a little bit of time for me to do my work and get back, but if they get…when they get suspicious, this can become messy.

But I know that you will do your best. My friends, we will meet again. Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other.”

As the Commissioner’s holographic image dissipated, Julian stood up and took the Ear-To-Mouth Com in hand. It was almost like the feeling of clutching an heirloom from a lost loved one, but there was no time to become overly sentimental, so he looked upon Stalkord – not necessarily in a new light but a different light and wondered, “What’s in it for you? You’re at the forefront of everything. It seems like everybody is pulling some sort of string, but it all boils down to a handful of puppet masters. Everybody else is just on a string.”

Working to meet eye contact with both Pete and Julian, Stalkord answered, “It didn’t use to be like that – all of this treachery. I’ve seen more honorable times when a day’s work paid a great rate and you could hold your head high, plus you weren’t taken for granted by or trying to get over on your company.

I long for those days again. Right now, it’s like the universe is trying to kill itself but is so screwed up and twisted up that it probably couldn’t even figure out how to do that.”

About the only thing more astonishing than the fact that Slubbich just used turn signals while backing his car out of its space in the convenience store parking lot was the fact that he was actually driving five miles per hour – as per the various signs which posted the speed limits. It was unclear as to whether or not his jovial mood was in response to the feeling that he felt when following the rules or the thought of digging into the spread of donuts which they were eventually bringing back to the Second Earth Special Police Force Base. There would be one more stop along the way.

“Dude, we just got passed by somebody who was pushing a shopping cart!” Vim watched this display of good driving from beneath the embarrassment of his left hand which happened to be shielding his face as he scooched down into the seat in an attempt to further conceal his identity.

“It’s just as easy to go slow as it is to go fast,” Slubbich countered.

Vim disagreed, “Not according to Julian. Hey, what if the eBook is wrong?”

Slubbich asked for clarification – almost as if he had never heard this question before, “How do you mean, wrong?”

“Well,” Vim explained, “there have been times when the written laws were incorrect and were doing a great disservice to entire populations of people. In the time that it took to overturn such unforgivable mistakes in the legal system and an overall falter in society, in general, so many were harmed – irreparably. At that point, would it have been appropriate to circumvent or even break those laws to bring about equality in the rules?”

“Good question,” Slubbich admitted. “There is a difference between good societal law and a level playing field, but I won’t duck out on your question. If I were in the position, I would still do things by the eBook.”

Shaking his head in clear admonishment, Vim could not believe his ears and made his discontent known with his mouth, “Come on, Slubbich – you would enforce something as horrible as slavery?”

Rather than trying to save any sort of face, Slubbich instead chose to speak from the standpoint of an unequivocal truth, “The eBook is never wrong, however those who write or interpret its laws may be. The scenario which you outlined offers a license for anarchy, and I guarantee you that the anarchists will turn around and be no different if not worse in their tactics than those of who they perceive to be their oppressors. Those oppressors may very well be in the wrong, but lashing out like militants, insurgents, and terrorists will never end the cycle – only prolong and exacerbate it. Oppression needs to end in the law, and, again, the law must apply to everybody equally.”

“Then how does one go about leveling the playing field in the scenario which you outlined?” Vim wondered.

“Fortunately, I believe that all things are possible when we do things by the eBook,” Slubbich replied, “but between you and me, let’s hope that we never have to find out.”

Weeding out the remainder of the converted Shokan had become a bit of a morning ritual in itself for Acro and Acra Lin – a sparring exercise of sorts. With the Shokan’s dojo crushed, they had their enemy on the run and took to the chase with a cool head for the hunt in seeking out a thoroughness of the effort.

The Shokan had grown organically throughout the universe with a training program which lured many unsuspecting fighters into their ranks, but they had help. Their presence was just too thick on Second Earth, and these skirmishes were testing more of Acro and Acra Lin’s patience than their Djibouti Clan skills.

For Acro and Acra Lin to be carrying this battle on during the broad daylight of the morning hours meant that they were closing in on the origination of the influx which they voraciously sought. And in this game, there was no use in putting off until the night what could be done in the daytime to prevent the Shokan from repositioning and ultimately regrouping.

Acro and Acra Lin were going to stay on the Shokan until this was done and the rival nuisance was neutralized for all time. Their Class V Fighters skimmed the blue sky just above a busy highway which was suffering from a bout of rush hour.

Immediately, Acro began to open up on a spotted convoy below with indiscriminate laser barrages which chose not to waste any shots with warnings. As for the innocent bystanders – well, the morning commuters would best be served by moving out of the way or risk getting taken out.

“Three vans,” Acra Lin said into her Ear-To-Mouth Com, “and one car in the lead. How much do you want to bet that the vans are the decoy and the car will take us to where we want to go?”

“I would put some good money on that bet,” Acro stated, “but I would rather put my fighter down on the first van.” He gripped the twin yokes resolutely and brought his ship in just behind the van which was running trailer.

The doors to the van swung open and nearly closed back when they bounced against any give which was allowed by their hinges and reacted to the high speeds that were working against any aerodynamics on the boxy vehicle’s part. Shokan rushed to the edge of the van with Space Force Standard Issue Pulse Laser Rifles firing in the direction of Acro’s fighter. And no sooner shot were the laser pulses deflected by the ship’s Repulser Shielding in every direction except the intended.

Impervious to the attacks of the Shokan, Acro still needed to be concerned with the other traffic as his fighter streaked down the highway in a level pursuit of the convoy. Colliding with any of the other traffic which happened to be out this morning would be more trouble than it was worth, so he held his fighter steady while swerved in and out of it with the ease of a much more nimble land-based vehicle could do. This was all a part of the ploy because Acra Lin had not yet divulged her presence, and she hoped to keep her covertness that way until the lead car stopped at its destination.

A barrel roll through some of the tightening traffic which was going to run this chase into a bumper-to-bumper slowdown freed Acro up to get a lock on the van that he had been hounding. He launched a missile into the rear of that vehicle which exploded the front of it while blowing the laser rifle toting Shokan out of the back of it. If the early morning commuters did not take the carnage of the burning vehicle or the bodies which had flown from it into the path of other vehicles that were testing out their braking distance as a sign that it would be smart to pullover, then they would never understand the emergency of this situation.

With the traffic from the rear having been frozen into a stall which would probably add a half hour to the commute, Acro turned his attention to the second van. Learning from the mistakes of their decimated comrades, there was no attempt to try and shoot things out with his fighter. The intent of their taking to the interior shoulder of the highway was to run, and they must have figured that he was giving second thoughts to the other commuters who had nothing to do with this in their attempt to use those other vehicles to shield them off from the ship.

This was obviously not the case, but to be fair, it was lingering in the back of Acro’s mind, so he attempted to minimize the collateral damage by making use of his fighter’s unmatched speed and flying off on ahead of the second van. Even if that vehicle could cross over from the median strip and head the other direction, it would need to slow down in order to do so. Therefore, the highway was a one-way trap which his ship’s directional privilege could exploit aerially.

Stabilizing into a hovering state directly over the median strip but about sixty yards out, Acro turned on target of the oncoming van and let loose a barrage of laser fire which ate up the road before the vehicle which it eventually ran into and wound up losing control as there was no place to turn and not enough time to stop.

The van’s tires shredded against the jagged ruts in the highway and the vehicle flung itself into the concrete median before veering uncontrollably back the other way and into the highway traffic of the fast lane. It was chaos, yet Acro did not stop there as he turned his fighter in order to take up pursuit of the third van but loosed a rearward missile into the second one before he proceeded to do so. No bodies flew away this time (although they might have wanted to) as the concussive blast sent the wreckage tumbling over and across tailgaters who had been following too closely until flames boomed outward in a concentric circle that charred the highway and further compromised its structural integrity as the intensity either melted or cracked the pavement under the cataclysmic strain.

People rarely ever saw car accidents as they occurred, and those who did were normally too busy thanking their lucky stars for the lack of involvement to have enough of a clear recollection to all of the details which surrounded the occurrence. It was either the culture of the times or the times of the culture which kept Acro from having to worry about the future implications of having flown a fighter along a busy highway and taken out two vans in a violent fashion and plain sight. In the end, could a person really be one hundred percent sure of what was just seen, or would their impression of the past events be believed in the slightest? If not, to either of those points, then things probably did not occur in the way that the people who had seen the carnage envisioned it to happen, and the occurrence could be chalked up to being another fluke of the dreaded morning commute.

For one, Acro certainly was not going to pay this any more mind, and anybody who wished to make something of his tactics was well within their rights to try and find him in order to do so. The Enforcers, and himself in particular, were so far off of the grid of existence that their parents probably happened to be unaware that they even had these children. The shadows were good friends to them, and ironically, a shadow showed up most distinctly during the day.

The final van and the lead car were wising up and had made their way over to the nearest exit for the purposes of taking this to the tightening spaces of a subdivision. Stealthily from above, Acra Lin still continued to track them, and it was not long before Acro’s fighter streaked into her monitor’s visual as he made his ship zoom along the winding exit ramp before skirting up underneath the overpass – thundering after the fleeing vehicles.

Running a stop sign, the lead car turned down a different path than the final van that had chosen to attempt a running stop in hesitation as oncoming traffic filled the intersection. This momentary pause gave Acro the chance which he needed to catch up to the vehicle.

The Shokan in the back of the van heard what amounted to be the thump of two feet landing on top of the roof and a forward roll toward the front of the vehicle which was probably used to gain some semblance of balance. Uneasily, they clutched at their laser rifles. Out of the front window, the Class V Fighter could be seen hovering before them until it took off for higher skies as an obedient drone ship.

Rapid fire LUNC pulses from above the driver side and shotgun passenger side seats put the the driver and the shotgun passenger down permanently as their seat belts held their limp, perforated bodies in place while the van rolled out of control across four lanes of traffic! Additional pulses came through the windshield before a pair of boots came crashing down inside – followed by the rest of Acro’s body. Upon entering the vehicle, he grabbed hold of the steering wheel and swerved them back on the straight and narrow in stride of pushing to the back in order to deal with the remaining Shokan. Four stood in contention.

Taking immediate aim with his LUNC, Acro fired a high percentage shot to the face of the Shokan who was in the foreground and on his left. The person collapsed to the floor of the van as there was not much else that could be done in said instance, but it did not dissuade the other three from attacking. He welcomed the laser rifle pulses by shirking those attempts in the direction of the downed Shokan before snapping off a close-quartered jump kick to the Shokan who was standing in the background on his right.

Now in the center of the melee, Acro pushed to lock up with the Shokan who was on his right in the foreground. He knocked the enemies laser rifle aside as the weapon was pretty much useless during such a struggle and then drove into his opponent by utilizing the flailing gun arm to fling the person into the errant laser rifle pulses which had just been loosed by the Shokan who was on his left in the background. Two remained.

No, make that one. The Shokan who had been stunned initially with a jump kick to the sternum now lay with a fatality of LUNC pulses which peppered the person during unconsciousness and pressured the person’s soul into the death slumber of lifelessness. The final Shokan brushed the body of second Shokan off before staggering to a futile position of where that happened to be anybody’s guess.

Acro burst out of the rear of the van and latched onto its roof where he hauled himself back up and on top as his fighter swooped down and his Crimson Red Belt which was worn as a headband flew along with the high speed of travel. The final Shokan fell effortlessly from the moving vehicle with a snapped neck and the person’s body scraped across the street until it came to a shredded halt in the center of the road.

The van slammed into a building just after Acro had pulled his fighter away. He spoke into his Ear-To-Mouth Com, “What’s my position in accordance of the lead car?”

Acra Lin replied from high above, “They are safely distant away just as we had planned.”

“Excellent,” Acro acknowledged, “although, I’d felt a familiar presence within that vehicle.”

“You know that he’ll be challenging you soon,” Acra Lin reminded.

Acro simply sighed.

“What’s wrong, Billy?” Sylvia Lenorox asked as she looked over to see what amounted to be a paining expression on her man’s face. They both sat in the back seat of the lead and now only car which was left remaining from the original convoy.

“It’s Acro,” Billy Smith turned to look at Sylvia as he addressed his lady friend’s question. “He was in the fighter that was hounding us. I could feel him.”

“Is everybody alright back there?” Sanjuana Woody inquired from the shotgun passenger seat as he turned around gingerly to keep the added strain of his seat belt off of his hyper-extended and ultimately wrecked (for the time being) right arm.

The driver stayed rightfully focused on the road forward during all of the inquiries and checks for well-being.

Billy sat up and leaned across the center of the car to speak to the driver when he ordered, “Stop here!”

Sylvia questioned, “What? Why?”

“Acro’s too good,” Billy responded. “The vans probably got taken out, but I know that he’s still tracking us from above – somehow. We should split up and make our way to the rendezvous point on foot at the next spot of cover which can blind his eyes to the transfer.”

Sanjuana was all for this when he turned to the driver for the purposes of concurring with the merit of the order, “Let’s do that then.”

Sitting back, Billy awaited the moment of when they would need to flee the car and press forward on foot. He looked down to see Sylvia holding his left hand with her left.

“I really appreciate you taking the opportunity to hear my side of things out,” Sylvia said.

With a subtle turn to once again look in Sylvia’s direction, Billy responded, “You made me an offer which I could not refuse – one that I’m not quite sure as to why my surrogate family or my former master sheltered me from it.”

Shrugging away the sentiment, Sylvia offered her view of the situation, “Well, that’s only because they knew how you would react. My responsibility is not to make you have to choose but to provide you with all of the information so that, for the first time in your life, you can make a fully informed decision.”

Perish the thought of anybody attempting to give Billy more control over his life. He still could not figure out Sylvia’s angle in this. After all, she had been converted, but her demeanor was far from that of one of the converted New Alliance drones which he had been warned about. Getting this much closer to the Shokan caused him to wonder about their numbers of converted as well. Each still maintained their personality although, by the very nature of conversion, it was clear that those personalities had been suitably altered for some purposes which were not entirely known to him – even his lady friend, but she too was behaving differently than he would have expected.

“Thank you, Sylvia,” Billy said while gripping her hand firmly in response.

Atro City Hospital

Grits, eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, toast, and grapefruit juice. A fragrant awakening greeted Karyn Jacob as she raised her head up from the makeshift pillow which happened to be her crossed arms on top of the desk in her office.

“I’ve never seen you this tired before,” Terry Terrison said as he laid a tray of delectable food on Karyn’s desk.

“It’s like I’m working two different jobs,” Karyn replied while rubbing her weary eyes and rubbing away her previously blurry vision. “I’ve never seen you be this spry before.”

Terry smiled as he handed Karyn a napkin while setting her food items into a logical order in front of her, “How things have changed, it feels like the weight of the universe was recently lifted off of my shoulders – at least briefly.”

Accepting the napkin graciously, Karyn said, “Thank you for this. Last night, I got so caught up in my work that I neglected to offer you the keys to my place. Where did you even sleep?”

“I didn’t want to disturb you, so I took a couch in the waiting area,” Terry answered as he pointed toward the door to Karyn’s office, “and it wasn’t really that bad seeing as though my bed of late has been either one of the benches in the shuttle which I arrived in.”

“Are you serious?” Karyn asked rhetorically. “Well, neither of those were my bed.”

After locating a freestanding chair, Terry pulled it up beside Karyn’s desk. He sat down and hinted at a plausible future, “There’s still time for that. Get your strength up. What is keeping you so busy anyway? Patients or administrative work?”

Karyn dug into the toast first before answering, “It’s actually a little bit of both. Healthcare is a big deal on Second Earth because the inhabitants can afford to demand the best which is interesting, but I am seeing a lot more preventative screenings, so that is very encouraging. That’s the life of a head doctor, and you’ve been there. You know how it is.”

“That I do,” Terry concurred. He waved off an offer of some of Karyn’s food. It was more than she could hope to finish, and the subtle dangling of her hand over the sizable portions which were placed throughout the tray was meant to be polite. “It’s nice to be on vacation though. I was doing science/medical and engineering both for a while. It was rough for a little bit, but we acquired some special, new talent which could free my services up some. And with this free time, I chose to visit the love of my life.”

“I missed you,” Karyn admitted as she swirled her grits and eggs together for a moment with her fork, “and I was worried about you. It would be a lot easier if you were assigned to a single post, but you’re a jack of many trades who wears various hats and seems to know a little bit about everything. There’s no telling where you would have ended up or how you would have fared when you arrived.”

Without having to think about it, Terry promised, “Nothing in the universe can keep me away from you – as long as you still want me.”

The grapefruit juice was surprisingly fresh this morning – not at all like the commoditized concentrate from the hospital cafeteria’s juice machines which Karyn was expecting. A twinge of tartness caused her mouth to reel from the welcome flavor that actually mirrored the taste of a freshly squeezed grapefruit, and the pulp was included. She licked her lips clean of the intense liquid prior to looking up at Terry in his eyes and saying, “As long as you’ll still have me, I will be here for you.”

A delicate conversation of innuendo was being carried on by Terry and Karyn as they each tried to skate around secrets which could not be divulged to the other for fear of many relevant safety concerns. It was a barefoot dance across a bed of broken glass that they had not necessarily made but had to lie in it nonetheless. For him, his vacation was part of a new, dangerous assignment which would serve to keep tabs on powerful enemies from a distance – distanced from his original posting for the purposes of being able to react more proactively in the event that his nontouted talents would be called upon. For her, these additional responsibilities of an added assignment happened to be matters of planetary security, so the very forthcoming nature of owning up to the position would be as deadly an outing to her as it would be to anybody who she was close to. Although difficult, this one point made the decision simple in her mind. There were reasons as to why Second Earth was the utopia which the advertisements presented in its portrayal. There were reasons as to why the Space Force made this their epicenter of operations – the home of its fleet and industry.

There were always reasons, so Terry and Karyn sincerely hoped that not only would this justification be enough for their secretive behavior but that the weight against the consideration of those other alternatives would not snap back around to bite them. Unenviable positions did not necessarily net choice decisions, however unconditional love would have to take the place of understanding and True Love would need to pick up the rest of the slack.

The Shokan Dojo

Nothing could cause a person to lose their appetite or turn a person’s stomach like the sight of a slaughter. Slubbich and Vim made their way into the central sparring floor where the coroner was earning the salary of pay this day. The additional on duty Police Force officers otherwise stood around as there was not much else for them to do.

It was hard for Vim to believe his own eyes, and he said as much, “An army must have come through here like a buzz saw. The Shokan are some of the most powerful fighters in all of the universe, and they were just dispatched. I don’t even have the words to describe this.”

Noticeably quiet as he and Vim walked through rows of crumpled bodies, Slubbich did not allow the emotion of a detestable scene of destruction get to him, or if he did, he did not allow it to show as detective mode set in, and his pensiveness reigned supreme. With each of the three towers having been destroyed, mounting numbers of bodies would need to be pulled from the rubble, and evidence would be tough to gather from the aftermath. It was not an overly bloody scene in some areas, but in others, bodies were shredded. The walk-through might not have been for added effect, but it caused him to become familiar with the crime scene as the lengths through which the perpetrator had gone or was willing to go happened to be made clear. Intent was established.

“What does your eBook have to say about this?” Vim turned to Slubbich with what normally would have been a verbal snipe but actually turned out to be a verbally honest deference of respect in inquisitiveness.

Facing Vim, Slubbich pursed his lips uneasily before spitting out, “We need to get together a list of suspects and further investigate from there. Any evidence will be cataloged for our future review, so let’s put our heads together at the base. I will say this though, these Shokan sure seem to be at the root of everything which is chaotic that seems to be happening around here.”

The Brael Moonbeam

Billy and Sylvia slipped underneath a ticketing gate which was attached to a booth near the ground level entrance to a parking structure which was attached to an Ennead Tech Corp satellite office before hurrying inside. It was filled with cars as, for all intents and purposes, this happened to be a normal working day, but their destination was not a new set of wheels but the elevator which was toward the back of the winding structure.

Sylvia led the entire way, and once inside of the elevator, she circumvented the numbered buttons which would have led to any of the associative levels of the parking structure and placed her hand on the DNA Recognition/Authorization plate which sat directly below the normal controls. The transport began to descend and its descent was nothing short of incredibly steep as the depth of the plummet fell miles beneath the perceptible surface.

With a shrug Billy, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

“As long as we get ourselves out of it together,” Sylvia answered, “I suppose that it’s all for the best.”

The clear glass casing of the elevator pushed through a significant layer of second earth before entering a dug-out, second earthen hub which had a three hundred and fifty meter long ship set as its destination below.

“I don’t recognize this type of vessel,” Billy admitted.

Because of her recent conversion to a Doran physiology, Sylvia had all of the explanation as she described, “It’s from the Doran Aristocracy – a Peculiar Class vessel. Her name is the Brael Moonbeam, and thanks to our friends at Ennead Tech Corp, we were able to construct it under the Space Force’s nose. That ship is the Aristocracy’s answer to a spacestation – smaller but just about as, if not more so, deadly.”

The Brael Moonbeam was a regal-looking ship from the sight of its rounded thruster and wing sections. They appeared to be more sculpted than assembled which created a design that was both elegant and powerful. The other piece to the ship was the cockpit section which protruded nobly out of the center. All in all, the Peculiar Class vessel looked like a well-formed ‘W’ with ellipsoid features.

There was a name which Billy had not heard before, so his inquisitiveness continued, “Doran Aristocracy – what’s that?”

“The good Dorans,” Sylvia said simply, “who split off from the Doran Military which actually happens to be a subset of the New Alliance who I am sure that you’ve heard of.”

“So you were converted to the Doran Aristocracy and not the New Alliance?” Billy probed because, if for nothing else, the answer would prove to give him a measure of comfort in its self-assurance.

Sylvia answered in the affirmative, “As were the rest of the converted Shokan.”

If this was true, another da-ning omission happened to be one more thing that Billy’s surrogate family and Acro had not so simply forgotten to mention or left out purposely. He had not known or been aware of any divisions within the Doran order – ethnocentric as it was to believe that any group was all exactly the same in beliefs, actions, and temperament…. But the trust of his most trusted family and friends was waning by the moment. As fast as the elevator was descending into an unloading platform within the Brael Moonbeam was his faith in the words of those (who he would have given everything for) disappearing. And nothing said fear like being unable to fully trust one’s own immediate family – surrogate or otherwise.

Upon exiting the elevator, Billy and Sylvia were greeted by a couple of U-Gun toting Doran Aristocracy soldiers who wore their traditional crimson red battle garb, the driver and Sanjuana, Glove who at first glance appeared to be ailing, and a woman who needed no introduction.

Storming out of the elevator, Billy rushed to fall to his knees before the woman and immediately pressed his head up against her abdomen. There was no containing his joy as seen by the tears which poured from his eyes while he squeezed and held on tightly to his biological mother.

Sylvia was all smiles as she exited the elevator with an unmatched feeling of accomplishment in her own rite. Sanjuana nodded his approval of the scene, and even the somewhat emotionless driver had to offer a smile. When the former occupants of the elevator were deemed not to be a threat, the Doran Aristocracy soldiers holstered their U-Guns and returned to their allotted posts at either side of the elevator’s entrance.

Finally, Glove had seen his family be reunited. He was pleased with the outcome and would eventually be forced to come to terms with the cost, but this one moment was worth every bit of the price that he had yet to pay. To see Billy, his son, accept him for who he was as a father who did go to any lengths to find his son happened to be indescribable outside of the outpour of emotions which caused him to hug the mother of his lost child.

And of her, she had seen Billy stolen away from her after carrying him to term and having only held him briefly during the instant following his childbirth. An unforgivable sin was perpetrated against her family which she stopped at nothing of her own volition to put herself in a position to rectify and eventually avenge. Glove had helped in this endeavor and successfully reunited their child with his mother – a woman simply known by the name of…Commander.

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Angie's Diary