Imperial Guard, Echo Force – Team Six
Captain E.E. (Mick) McCullum, commanding team six, squirmed uncomfortably in the cramped, confining interior of the entry capsule which protected his life in the wispy upper atmosphere of the planet he was plunging toward.
The stealth ship which had come in on the dark side of the world below had decelerated in orbit to match the planet’s rotation before it had released the fourteen capsules, carrying his team and their equipment, twenty miles above the planet’s surface. With no speed differential to bleed off, the large planet’s gravity alone was pulling his pod to the surface at an ever-accelerating rate.
Since the shuttle had released them just above the ozone layer, it was smooth sailing for the first moments. Capt. Mick knew that once they penetrated the ozone layer the buffeting would start. He just hoped that it wasn’t too severe.
He activated his helmet and looked down between his feet. The helmet was connected to a network of cameras on the exterior of the pod allowing him a 360-degree view of the environment outside of the capsule. The pods were designed to descend with their occupant’s feet oriented toward the ground.
The view did not give him a lot of comfort. There was a storm raging below. The solid-black cloud layer was lit periodically with vast sheets and frightening stabs of lightning. It was good news / bad news; the good news was, the storm would conceal their approach. The bad news was, they would get beat up mercilessly coming down through it.
He felt a tug and a slight deceleration as the stabilizing, drogue-chute deployed that would keep his pod oriented correctly for the descent. In Moore’s World’s thick atmosphere, the drogue-chute would slow the capsule to a little over a hundred miles an hour. At five thousand feet, a large parasail would deploy, allowing the pod to touch down as if it had free fallen from no more than four feet.
At least that is what Capt. Mick fervently hoped would happen; going into the sea at one hundred plus miles per hour would not be pleasant.
Capt. Mick did not want to go into the sea at any speed. The parasail gave him quite a bit of control once deployed. His plan was to steer the capsule to a beach and land with dry feet. In his previous six insertions, he had a perfect record.
He had gone into the water every time.
It was one of the burdens of command. Mick wouldn’t land on a beach until the rest of his unit was down, dry and safe. That is to say, he could; there was no regulation stating the commander had to wait. In fact, some of his peers held it was their duty to land first so they could take command sooner.
Capt. Mick felt it was more important that his fire team was on the ground and set up to protect the rest of the unit before he arrived. They didn’t need him to tell them how to deploy and how to fight in the first moments of an insertion. They had trained for years for every conceivable scenario. Only when they were on the beach, set up, and the equipment modules unloaded would his leadership be needed to carry out the mission.
This entire mission had a sense of unreality. Mankind had never encountered any other sentient, intelligent life in the six hundred years since they had launched their first tentative steps into the cosmos by landing a man on their moon. If the reports were to be believed, not only had men finally bumped up against another star-faring race; the aliens had reportedly taken over Moore’s World and were eating the human inhabitants.
It seemed like a sick, adolescent joke and, if so when Capt. Mick got his hands on the perpetrators… In the meantime, he had to proceed on the basis that the fantastic story had at least a modicum of truth. His orders were clear, find out the truth, determine the alien strength and dispositions, but in no uncertain terms; he was not to start an interspecies war.
Captain McCullum was an anomaly. He was fifty-five years old; a mustang who had served as an enlisted soldier for thirty years before going to OCS. He had no family, few friends and knew no other life than serving his Emperor in the Imperial guard. He had graduated from OCS with his captaincy due to his age and experience. He would go no higher. In five years, he would retire from his company commander position, with the best wishes of the service, and enter a new life. He was not looking forward to it and refused to think about it.
He and his team had been dispatched within days of the alarm being raised, but the iron reality was, although it was only yesterday to them, five years had passed since the scout ship carrying he and his team had dived into the lens connecting his home system, their naval base, and the governor’s office, to this forbidding world.
Once in the system, they had checked back for updates. Nothing had been heard from Moore’s World in the five years they had been in transit. That was unsettling. There was a task force coming behind them that had been launched three months after they departed.
For ninety days, they were on their own.
Beneath Mick’s feet, the maelstrom seemed to clear a bit. The insertion was planned to slip his team into position where they would land on a beach as the eye of the storm passed over. It was thought they would have up to a half hour to get assembled and off the beach before the back side of the raging storm hit them.
“Deceleration chute deployment in ten seconds,” the sultry voice of the pod’s AI whispered in his ear. He braced his legs for the shock. “Whoomp,” the first of four huge, gossamer-thin chutes deployed above the capsule sending shock waves up his legs as if someone had slammed the bottom of his feet with a ball bat.
A few seconds later and even greater shock raced up from the bottom of the capsule as the three main drag-chutes deployed in a great triple-umbrella over the pod. Exactly seven seconds later, after a hundred miles per hour of velocity had been purged, they were released to dissolve in the atmosphere without a trace.
The parasail deployed one heartbeat later, slowing the capsule to fifty miles per hour and giving Mick control at last. He felt his feet come up and his body settle back into the sling-like seat behind him. Where the capsule descended at speed in a vertical orientation, it was flown in an almost horizontal configuration. Mick closed his hands around the control handles at his waist and experimented with a couple of shallow turns to verify everything was deployed and working as designed.
His right hand controlled the angle of attack, his left controlled the warping of the sail to give him directional control. He slowed his descent to less than one hundred feet per minute and made a great circle to observe the scenario below.
“Eleven, twelve…” he mumbled to himself as he counted the deployed parasails below. A surge of adrenaline hit him as he realized one chute was absent. He pulled in a sixty-degree turn to give him a wider view; as he swung around, the large gray shape of a cargo pod came into view a couple hundred yards to his right, descending at the same level with him.
“Mick, Sanchez and I are on the ground,” First Lieutenant L.T. (Tiger) Boswell reported in. “We have control of the cargo pods.” Mick felt a slight relaxation, knowing his second in command was on the ground and the team’s essential equipment was in his capable hands.
White light from the single large moon flooded the beach as the storm’s eye developed around the landing party. For once, the plan seemed to be unfolding on schedule. Mick made two more circling turns around the landing area watching the pods spread out across the beach, discarding their parasails. As the airfoils were released the interior of the wings were given a shot of helium that carried them aloft to dissolve along with the drogue-chutes.
Mick made one more descending turn that brought him around to the south of the deployed force on final. As the ground rushed up to meet him he watched the three fire teams scrambling toward the tree-line to take position and the remaining troops clomping around in their enhancement harnesses, stacking their pods in a circle above the high-water mark.
The two cargo pods were sitting at either end of the landing area. As Mick’s capsule thumped lightly to the ground, released its sail, and shoved its hydraulic arms into the soil to bring it vertical, he watched the near-side of the far cargo pod drop down, revealing its contents.
The front of Mick’s capsule popped open, clamshell-like, and he felt the damp, thick, air wash over him. It was redolent with the aromas of a living, breathing planet. The jungle flora mingled with the tangy salt-water breeze from the ocean, slapping in the face him like a physical blow. Months of breathing the sterile air of the ship and orbiting station where he had been stationed, had become the norm.
He took a long moment and just breathed the fragrant air into his lungs. It felt like life. He became invigorated… Then he caught an unmistakable whiff of the oncoming storm.
“Mick, the fire teams are deployed, the pods are being assembled…” Lieutenant Boswell informed him as Mick stepped out of his capsule wearing his exoskeleton.
“Oversight, do you read,” Mick subvocalized into his throat mike. He glanced up to his right and focused on a pinpoint of purple light displayed on his helmet’s visor. He blinked his right eye which connected him to the solar-powered autonomous aircraft sailing high above the storm.
Oversight was a glider equipped with twelve tiny electric motors. It was constructed of carbon nanotubes and transparent graphene film. It was invisible to radar and difficult even to see visually. Its enormous wingspan gave it lift in the wispy air at extreme altitudes. It was equipped with myriad sensors, cameras, and telescopes. Its rudimentary AI was as faithful as an old dog.
‘Oversight, aye,’ the tinny voice of the glider’s AI responded from far above the storm. The laser transmitter/receiver on one of the cargo pods had made connection. “You are clear, no sign of any enemy activity.”
“How much time do we have until the storm hits us?”
“The first rain will return in approximately fourteen minutes,” the AI informed him.
“Okay, Tiger, we seem to be clear of any immediate threats,” Mick told his second-in-command. “Let’s put the fire team into pods on the perimeter, split into two groups and ride out the storm in the cargo pods.”
Oversight had been a bit optimistic. The first rain started battering the cargo pod, eleven minutes later, where Mick and half of his team were sheltered, just seconds after the clamshell door closed.
Retired Fleet Admiral Butner sat in the fighting chair with his feet propped up on the top of the footrest, a cup of fresh coffee balanced on his knee. His sports fisherman, Lady Lynn, was stopped at sea for the night, frozen in place like an oil drilling platform by her computer-controlled pump/drives. They had hauled in their lines shortly before sunset and stopped five-hundred yards from a reef-encircled atoll. In the early morning darkness, he could hear the surf breaking up on the reef. The breeze off the island carried the pungent odor of reef-life being battered by the waves.
Butner was enjoying the solitude and sense of isolation being at sea gave him. He especially enjoyed his early morning vigils, with the rest of the crew asleep below. He had spent fifty-five years in the Navy surrounded by people. Thirty of those years he had served in various ships where he lived cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of folks, twenty-four-seven with no breaks.
Where some people thrived on this environment, it had been torture for Butner. He was a very private person who found interacting with his fellows, trying. Despite this, he had succeeded and been promoted ahead of his peers, to eventually be given the top position in the Navy. Frankly, he had come to realize after his retirement, he had hated that job.
He remembered wistfully how his wife had loved it. Amy Carlisle, the Spartan beauty that had captured his heart while he was still in the academy had been the love of his life, mother of his children, best friend, and advisor.
He missed her. The ache of her loss haunted his thoughts while awake and his dreams when he slept. He regretted the decades of separation his deployments had brought but consoled himself with the memories of how Amy had enjoyed being the wife of the fleet admiral.
He heard the soft swoosh of the salon’s sliding door, tamped down a surge of resentment at having his memory of Amy interrupted, and forced himself to relax.
“Senator…” the admiral said softly as his old friend walked by and gently patted his shoulder.
“G’morning, Q,” the senator replied, “…and a beautiful morning it appears to be.” The senator was looking across the stern of the boat at the first rays of the morning sun. He was in uniform, wearing his white short-sleeved shirt, matching knee-length shorts, boat shoes with socks, and a double bloody Mary clutched in his right hand. Butner wondered briefly if the camera crew filming the vodka commercial had followed him out.
“Did you know our esteemed captain is a Jew?” Senator Reynolds asked as he turned and sat on the aft rail, looking forward as if he could see the lady he just mentioned.
“I was well aware… so?”
“Well, the political heat… who else knows you have a relationship with her?”
“Reggie, sometimes, you can be such an ass!” Butner exclaimed. “First, Myrna and I are just friends, she is no older than my youngest daughter. Second, I don’t give a damn about the prejudices of a few social climbers in the Emperor’s court.”
“You are awfully close friends,” the senator mumbled, suspiciously. “I see how she makes over you, touches your arm when she speaks to you, pats your hand at dinner, from time to time…”
“Reggie, she is just doing that to pull your chain. She only does that when she knows you’re watching. You triggered her when you made a pass. She is now teasing, perhaps taunting you, just a bit.”
Butner regarded the old senator closely, expecting an outburst of Reynold’s infamous temper, but instead, Reggie chuckled.
“Well, there is no fool like an old fool, I suppose.”
“Exactly Reggie, you must face it, your days as a Lothario, are over.”
“That isn’t what the girls at Morrisons tell me,” Reggie grinned wickedly. Morrisons was a bar, ensconced surprisingly, in a rather upscale Byzantium neighborhood that catered to “semi-pros.” These were ladies who were college students and even housewives who hung out at the establishment and could be encouraged to accompany a gentleman back to his bed for a consideration.
Such consideration could be cash, of course, but if the gentleman was prideful, ashamed to admit to paying for sex, a trip to one of the exotic shops along one of the more expensive shopping areas in the city, resulting in a wardrobe enhancement, would sometimes suffice.
“Reggie, please tell me you don’t…”
“A guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.”
“You do know the media hangs out down there?”
“Ahh,” Reggie grunted dismissively. “I’m retired, off the payroll, no one cares about what I do or don’t anymore. Besides, those rejuvenation treatments make me horny as a billy goat.”
“Perhaps if you hadn’t put them off for a couple of decades…”
“That was intentional. I needed the ‘senior statesman’ look.”
“I’m afraid that toward the end it trended more to the ‘homeless drunk’ look.”
“Why did Myrna not stay in New Israel with the rest of her kind?” the retired senator grunted, ignoring Butner’s barb.
“Reggie, you’re starting to seriously piss me off!” Butner growled. “As far as I know, she has never even been to New Israel. She is a third generation Byzantium. Her father was the conductor at the Philharmonic for twenty-five years. Myrna herself plays first violin. Her people are some of the most talented, productive citizens in the Empire. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“Okay, okay…” the senator turned around and looked out over the water at the sun peeking up over the horizon as if to change the subject. Then he turned back around and looked directly at the admiral. “I can’t believe you’re supporting those people when they defeated you in battle and sent your task force home with its tail between its legs.”
Admiral Butner didn’t reply for a long moment. His brows furrowed as if he was seriously considering his answer. When he did reply, he spoke slowly and carefully, as if struggling to maintain control.
“Is this seriously about Imperial relations with the Jewish people, or is it about your pique over being rejected in your attempt to bed our captain?” he asked cryptically, but then went on in the same measured voice. “Either way, be careful Reggie, you’re on dangerous ground. I was Commodore Commanding on that expedition to New Israel.”
“Oh… I was not aware…”
“Yes, it was hushed up and locked down tight. No details of that clusterfuck were ever released, and I doubt ever will be. It was a poorly conceived and terribly stupid idea, that due to a number of factors was allowed to play out to its inevitable conclusion.”
The admiral got up from the fighting chair and walked over to the rail, staring at the surf breaking up on the reef beyond. Reggie thought he had finished because he didn’t say anything for at least two full minutes. But then he continued.
“The Senate was divided, and the Navy did not want any part of the mission. The fleet admiral resigned rather than order it. The board was deadlocked for weeks but finally gave in after the Senate threatened to cut all their funds. The patriarch was in favor because of rumors coming from New Jerusalem about the persecution of the church; which turned out to be pure lies and fabrication. Since the patriarch was in, the Templars agreed, reluctantly, to go along. So, in the end, the Emperor and a noisy claque in the Senate got their way.”
“What was the Emperor’s…”
“Greed… greed and avarice,” the admiral replied bitterly. “The old fat bastard wanted the Jews under his thumb, so he could milk ’em. The same prevaricators that were claiming church persecution, were telling stories of vast wealth being generated within the bounds of the Israeli system. The Emperor wanted his pound of flesh.”
“So… what happened?”
“The Israeli Navy is what happened,” the admiral remembered bitterly. “Our intelligence was wrong about almost everything they thought they knew about the Jews. Their fleet was four times bigger than we were led to believe. They had a planet guard with cutters and armed freighters. They threw everything they had at us. If that wasn’t bad enough, our communications were compromised. They knew exactly when we were coming and with what forces. It was a slaughter.”
“The Empire never went back…”
“No, when we arrived in the system, cooler heads had prevailed since we had departed. Five years had passed while we were in transit. When word of our debacle filtered back, the Emperor was dead and there was no appetite for a second bite at the apple.”
“Well, at least we are trading with them and there is dialog…”
“It was a pretty steep price to pay. They would have agreed to trade and interstate relations if we had simply asked. We lost a lot of good people out there, for nothing.”
“…and you’re not bitter?”
“Oh, I’m bitter alright, just not at the Israelis. They did what they had to do. It was our own political elites that caused the entire mess.”
“Well, I hope they learned their lesson.”
“Hmmm, yes… one can hope…”
“The IIS believes Captain Sinclair is going over to the Israelis, did you know that?”
“No, but I’m not surprised. Where else would he go?”
“Do you think the Israeli government will turn him over?” the senator asked, ignoring Butner’s rhetorical question.
“Not in a thousand years… If he goes to the Jews, he will be welcome… and safe,” the admiral mused. “It’s a damn shame, but I wish him well. All of our lives may be in his hands.”
The senator was surprised at that statement but was afraid to ask what it might mean. The implications were just too frightening.
“What is the function of this place, what is it used for?” Xianelta asked me in a whisper. She was huddled close to me, one arm across my shoulders with her tail gently caressing my face. It was hard to read the alien’s expression, but she seemed to be in awe, perhaps even frightened.
“People come here to pray and to hear the words of their ancient texts read again. They believe their God speaks to them through the words of the prophets,” I answered in a subdued voice. The grandeur of this great domed-hall seemed to require reverence.
My little party was standing in the left entrance to the cathedral. From where we stood we were looking across the grand hall to the raised dais at the far end. What would have been an altar in a Christian church featured a pair of raised balconies for speakers. Behind each was a large pedestal holding a partially unfolded scroll. In the center was a two-story tall painting of Moses, in the wilderness, holding up the golden snake on a staff. Aaron was beside him, holding his arm.
Subdued light flooded the hall from a ring of windows at the base of the great domed ceiling. The mosaic tile floor stretched almost a football stadium’s length to the speaker’s platform. Two colonnaded halls ran down on either side of the great hall leading to the rear of the building where the rabbi’s quarters and offices were located. The cathedral was home to the patriarch, the senior rabbi of the church of Israel.
When the Jews had come out to the stars the worship practices of the people had morphed into a strange hybrid of ancient Israel and Christianity. The Jews of New Israel worshiped the God of Abraham, rejected the trinitarian concepts of Christians, but believed salvation was based on the atonement of the predicted Messiah.
The great hall held no other furniture. The Jews stood when they came to worship.
New Israel was a secular, republican democracy, heavily invested in the ancient faith of their people. As such, freedom of religion was allowed and protected, to a point. Christianity was tolerated because of its old testament roots. Orthodox Judaism was allowed and even given grudging respect. Islamic practice was strictly prohibited and secularism was looked down upon as a surrender to worldly temptations.
The structure of the Temple Mount gave evidence to the foundations of New Israel’s philosophy. At the center, and rising above everything else, was a replica of Solomon’s original temple. It had been built first, very soon after the people arrived and established an economic base assuring their survival. Dug and recovered from the catacombs beneath the original temple in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant had been placed in the Holy of Holies. There had been hope that the Shakina Glory might return.
It never had.
Barring that, the sacrificial system of worship was never reinstituted. The Temple became a place of prayer and a monument to the ancient faith.
To the left of the temple, the Cathedral of Solomon stood. To the right, lower, on the same level as the cathedral was the Knesset building and the various office buildings of the governing bureaucracy.
All the buildings were faced in the finest, polished marble. Wide sidewalks and covered promenades connected all three complexes together, with lavish parks and tree-shaded walks softening the effect of mountains of white stone. It was evident, no expense had been spared to give this center of gravity for the Jewish people a sense of permanence and beauty.
After four thousand years, the Jewish people had found a home.
“I don’t understand, ‘pray’ and ‘worship’ have no meaning for me. What do these words mean?” Xianelta asked me.
I had to think about that for a long moment. I had never really considered trying to define those words or concepts. I had been raised in the catechized in the church. As such, prayer, faith and worship were as natural to me as breathing.
“Humans believe there is more to life than what we can see and experience through our senses. We believe there is a spiritual foundation underlying the physical world, put in place by the Creator of everything, seen and unseen,” I said hesitantly, realizing I was barely scratching the surface of this subject. “Worship is an act of recognizing the existence of this Creator, thanking him for the gift of life. Prayer is a method of trying to communicate with Him.”
“All humans believe this?”
“Well, not all will admit it… but yes, most humans seem to accept the fact there is more to life than what we can see and feel.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, drawing away from me and studying me from a couple of steps away. “Your race is insane.”