The ceasefire anniversary arrived with plenty of fanfare, as promised. Promotional ads played day and night on every channel, inviting one and all to the festivities. Events were scheduled for a solid month, spread out across the Territories. Dax groaned at the long tour of appearances ahead of him, but he kept his eye on the prize with a postcard from Saleon in his jacket pocket, featuring the beachfront property that awaited him.
“Through struggle, strength. Through honor, remembrance. Through courage, triumph. The United Territories Alliance invites you to—“
“Join in the celebration of ten years of peace. Blah, blah, blah.” Dax mockingly talked over the announcements. Those ads are going to drive me nuts, he thought. Whether he liked it or not, he knew the words by heart, like a song repeating on the radio until the radio gets thrown out the window. He shut the viewscreen off and continued his approach down to the planet Vega VI. The Vega Memorial Grounds were a long decaying reminder of the war, until a few short years ago when the rubble was cleared out and the surrounding area revitalized as a sizable public park and event space, complete with an open-air stadium. The celebrations would kick off here with a battle reenactment, a tribute to the veterans, and of course, a lengthy speech or two by the Hero of the Alliance himself. Dax followed the rest of the incoming transports, landing the Crichton in the shipyards behind the venue.
The stands filled up with both public and military onlookers as the morning stretched to noon. At ground level, a platoon of cadets scrambled about making final preparations for the reenactment. “Fall in!” Someone announced as Dax approached. The young men and women stood at attention.
“All right, people,” he started, warming up his command voice. “Today you will be reenacting the ground battle that was fought ten years ago on the very ruins this memorial was built on. Some of your mothers and fathers may have even been there, and today we will honor them together.” Whispers near the back of the group caused a small but noticeable break of laughter.
“Something funny, cadet?”
“No, sir. Not at all, Commander,” he sarcastically replied.
“You know, some brave soldiers gave their lives on this scrap of land. I hope you can show them some respect today.”
“Oh, you mean brave soldiers like you? Oh wait, right, you were busy battling mercs on Titan, or saving the crew of the Alexandra.” The others tensed up as he carried on. It wasn’t so funny anymore. “No, that was early in the war. By then you were, posing for a cereal box maybe?”
Dax stepped closer to the cadet, spotting the name on his uniform. “You got a problem with me, Vasquez?”
“I just find it funny how everywhere I go I hear about the great Commander Harrison, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone who remembers you out on a battlefield… sir.”
Were he not being such a prick about it, Dax would have admired the cadet’s gutsy insubordination. “If you want stories from the war, I can recommend a good book to pass time in the brig. In the meantime, do your duty, cadet.”
Dax started back towards the facility interior, hearing the scattered “oohs” from Vasquez’s squad mates under their breath, teasing him like a student called to the principal’s office. Still, Vasquez defiantly called out.
“You and Command may have the civvies fooled, but not us, Commander.”
Dax ignored him and kept walking.
Minutes later, after briefly getting lost in the halls, he entered the facility operations room. Technicians busied themselves at monitoring stations, communicating with the ground team outside. Overseeing them was Logan, who spotted Dax as soon as he walked in.
“Commander Harrison. First Lieutenant Logan Weaver. I’ve been assigned to you for the duration of the campaign.”
“Oh, a pleasure, Lieutenant. Call me Dax.” A glint of his trademark charm shined from his grin, but Logan continued on, unaffected. “We’ll be providing support for the ground reenactment from here and clearing shuttles for aerial maneuvers later.”
Without warning, save for a muffled grumbling heard from the hallway, O’Reilly barged in the operations room, Sanders following close behind.
“I don’t give a damn whose ass you kissed. I don’t need an assistant. And if I did – no offense, Sanders, but you wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Logan did her best to salvage first impressions. “Commander, this is our Medical Chief from Central, Doctor Dan O’Reilly. Doctor, this—“
“Yeah, yeah, I know who you are, Harrison. Forgive me if I don’t swoon.” The old physician clearly had zero interest in putting on airs. Dax smiled genuinely. It was refreshing. “Look, if someone breaks something, I’ll be in the infirmary. Until then, I’ll be in the infirmary, napping.”
O’Reilly left as quickly as he entered, elaborating his complaints in the hallway to no one in particular. “Celebrating peace by playing war… ridiculous waste of time…”
“Cozy bunch,” Dax chuckled.
It took a second, but Dax almost managed to remember the young corporal’s name. “Sandler?”
“Sanders,” he corrected. “And don’t worry about a thing, Commander. I’ll stick around here, and if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. Really, anything at all—“
“That’s great, Sanders!” Dax cut him off before all of space and time ended around them. “That’s great. Why don’t you just hang back here and um… monitor the comms team, and I’ll let you know when I need you.”
“Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir.” Sanders hovered behind the technicians as a few of them appeared annoyed by their new unofficial supervisor.
Dax joined Logan at the front of the room, overlooking the stadium through a wall-sized window.
“Not sure who’s worse anymore,” he whispered. “The fans or the critics.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Logan replied, smiling politely. After a moment, however, her curiosity got the better of her. “I have actually heard some impressive stories myself.”
“Oh yeah?” Dax responded, but Logan estimated that he was already disinterested with the conversation, as his eyes wandered to a female comm technician nearby.
“My father was on the Alexandra.”
Suddenly, she had his full attention. He spun around to face her. “Really? And, um, what did he tell you?”
“He said you saved the day.”
“Well, there were a lot of brave souls on that ship. I simply did my part,” he said, delivering the line with calculated humbleness. “I’m afraid I wasn’t personally acquainted with your father, but I’m sure he made you proud.”
“He did, sir.” She left it at that, but Dax kept a wary eye on her, sensing his every move being analyzed. Or maybe he was just being paranoid. Regardless, he reminded himself that he need only smile for the cameras for a short while longer, and then he could sneak away to a private beach somewhere. No cameras. No Alliance. Just the sand and waves, and hopefully good domestic beer, or a decent selection of imports.
As the opening ceremonies commenced down on Vega, the engineers on Comm Relay Station V-3827 felt a deep rumbling. Seconds later, their final moments would be spent witnessing a giant shadow overtaking the viewports, followed by a large energy weapon powering up and firing in their direction.
The technician who previously caught Dax’s eye tapped away at her monitoring tools, as system alerts popped up on the screen in front of her.
“Lieutenant, we just lost our long-range comms.”
Logan stepped over. “Try a different frequency?”
“I’m doing that, ma’am. So far, it looks like everything is down.”
Lightyears away, at Central Station, the large aerial screens above the promenade all displayed a digital video scramble and an error message: "SATELLITE LINK LOST". Sykes stared grimly at his own scrambled screen on the wall of his office.
“Oh, Dax. Don’t tell me you broke something already.”
The cadets on the ground of the stadium felt it first, followed shortly by the spectators in the stands and the control room personnel. A rumbling shook the entire memorial grounds, and slowly everyone looked to the sky. The clouds above buckled, and through them descended a massive warship, the entire stadium falling under its shadow.
Dax stood in awe along with the rest of the control room, mouth agape. “That’s big. Is that part of the show?” Logan’s expression answered “no”, and she wasted no time in her response. She turned back to the communications tech.
“Any luck with those comms?”
“No, ma’am. Still short-wave only.”
“Patch me in. Emergency frequency.” The tech did so, and Logan tapped the communication pin on her uniform. “Attention, any Alliance fleet in the area. This is Lieutenant Logan Weaver. We have a large, unidentified Carteagan vessel violating airspace at Vega Memorial. Battle-class. Requesting assist—“
She paused, as a large whirring sound filled the air outside. The ship’s main cannon glowed with energy for a few brief seconds and blasted a crater in the middle of the field below. Anyone who wasn’t already running for their lives was most certainly doing so now.
Screams of horror filled the stadium. The warship continued its assault, firing wildly at the troops on the ground as well as the fleeing spectators. As the cannon slowly circled the facility, a blast struck near the ops room. Logan dove for cover as the giant window shattered, raining deadly shards around her. She shouted again into her comm.
“We are under attack! Repeat, we are under attack!” She glanced around. The comms team members helped each other to their feet. Sanders peeked out from a console where he had taken cover. And, and – Where the hell is Harrison?
Dax bolted through the hallway, running like hell for the exit. He darted frantically through the facility corridors, passing O’Reilly, who had stumbled out of the infirmary.
“What the hell is going on out there?!”
“Uh… gotta go!” Dax continued at full speed.
Logan stood by the door of the control room, ushering everyone out. “Go! Get to evac shuttles! Take as many as you can with you!” On the short-wave monitors, a voice began to break through the ongoing static.
“This is… Alliance patrol… do you copy… Repeat…” Logan scrambled to the console.
“This is Lieutenant Weaver. I copy, patrol.”
“…received your transmission… En route to memorial… ETA ten minutes… Get your people out of there, Weaver.”
Dax dashed through the shipyards. The continued assault rumbled the ground beneath him. He flinched and ducked for cover among the transports as the nearby explosions filled his ears.
“SAMM, open up!” He continued his mad dash to the Crichton as the cargo ramp began to lower.
O’Reilly stormed into the operations room. “Sanders!”
“Sir, what are you still doing here?”
“Getting you, you idiot. Come on!” He grabbed Sanders by the arm, but the corporal turned around for a final check of the room. The last of the techs had made their way out. Logan, however, remained at a comms console.
“Lieutenant, I think we better leave now!”
“I’m sending the shuttles emergency routes. They can regroup at—“
“They’re already on the move,” O’Reilly shouted. “And we need to be too if we’re going to make it in time. Let’s go, Weaver!”
Finally, she relented. She moved to a weapons locker against the wall. An eye scanner confirmed her authorization, and seconds later she headed toward the exit with a rifle at the ready. “Follow me.”
Several emergency transports took to the sky, leaving the Crichton on the ground. The engines whirred and sputtered out. Dax tried again, flipping the ignition controls back and forth and hoping for a miracle. No response.
“Why aren’t we in the air, SAMM?!”
“We have a burn-out in the port engine. Redirecting power—“
“Just make it happen!”
With most of the stadium emptied, hardly anyone remained to witness Eyldwan and several of his crew enter the facility. They emerged with a large storage container in tow. Alliance markings peeked out from underneath a tarp covering the object. From the warship above, a cargo lift descended to the stadium, meeting the mercenaries as they walked onto the field. In moments, they loaded the container and rode the lift back up towards the ship with not a soul to contest them.
“All too easy,” Eyldwan gloated.
Logan entered the shipyard first, rifle up, scanning for hostiles. All clear. The trio rushed out, just in time to see the last of the transports taking off. Sanders desperately tried to flag down the pilot.
“Wait!” He shouted, waving his arms.
O’Reilly did the same, less politely. “Wait, goddammit!”
Logan caught the vessel’s ID number on its hull and tapped her comm pin. “Transport ET175, lower your cargo lift. We have Alliance personnel on the ground!”
BOOM! The pilot’s last word rang in Logan’s ears, as a laser blast blanketed the transport in fire. ET175 spun out of control before going down hard, mere yards ahead of the group. They ran for cover, turning to the source of the blast. The warship, cargo now loaded, had repositioned to make its exit, and was now directly facing them.
With nowhere to run, Logan, Sanders and O’Reilly watched the great ship approach, expecting the next blast to hit at any second. Just as all seemed lost, three Alliance fighters soared in from behind them. The patrol. They opened fire on the warship, sweeping by at full throttle.
“Yeah!” Sanders raised a triumphant fist to the sky, cheering in his ever-optimistic fashion. O’Reilly remained grim, with a more realistic view of the evolving situation. The three small one-man fighters would serve as a momentary distraction at best. He looked to Logan for options.
“Well, now what?”
Now what, indeed. They had no options. And it was then that Logan heard the faint whirring engine of the Crichton, sputtering to life at the far end of the shipyard.
“That’s what I wanted to hear!” Dax was elated to finally hear the sweet sound of the engines firing. “Let’s go!” He gripped the yoke, ready to take off, when a voice came through the comms.
“Commander! Commander Harrison, are you in there?!”
Dax pulled up a video monitor of the ship exterior. Logan desperately pounded at the cargo ramp door. Up ahead, the warship was closing in fast. Dax sensed the moment of truth. He hated moments of truth. Oh shit.
The cargo ramp lowered. Logan, O’Reilly and Sanders rushed inside.
The fight raged on in the skies above. As expected, the patrol ships continued their strafing runs, but did little damage to the Carteagan behemoth. One of them took a deadly hit and crashed down into the stadium grounds.
Dax tensed up as his new passengers made their way to the bridge. He readied his command voice.
Logan entered at the head of the pack. “Harrison!”
“Well there you are,” Dax shouted back. “It’s about time!”
“Where the hell—“
“Just shut up and hold onto something!” He cut her off before she could finish the question, buying more time to work out an explanation.
He hit the throttle hard. Logan and O’Reilly braced themselves on their surroundings. Sanders stumbled back into SAMM and grabbed on for dear life. SAMM’s holographic displays lit up.
“Greetings. I would advise strapping into a vacant seat to avoid injuries during take-off.” The voice startled him, loosening his grip and sending him flying back, appropriately enough, into a vacant seat at the back of the cockpit.
The Crichton soared up out of the atmosphere, trailing behind the other fleeing transports. A blast suddenly caught their backside, and Dax’s monitors confirmed the warship was still in pursuit, attempting to pick off the escaping fleet.
Everyone braced from the jolt of the blast. The cockpit lights flickered, and a rapid alert blared from the console.
Sanders panicked. “Are we hit?!”
“No! The ship’s just blowing up for fun!” Dax shook his head at the inane question. Another blast sent them reeling. He strapped into his seat and the others followed suit.
“Does this piece of junk go any faster?!”
“Doc, you make me laugh, but don’t push it!”
Logan cut through the bickering. “Does your ship have a jump drive?”
“It’s charging. All we have to do is not die for another… thirty seconds.” Those seconds seemed to last a lifetime. Dax turned his rage to the alarm still blaring at him, pounding his fist on the console.
“SAMM, if you don’t shut this thing up I’m gonna break it!” It stopped immediately.
“Alarms silenced,” SAMM announced. “Ten seconds to jump, commander.” Everyone braced as he made the final countdown. “Hyperspace jump in three, two, o—“
Another blast interrupted the count. Sparks flew and the cockpit lights blacked out entirely. Sanders let out a high-pitched scream, and the Crichton vanished from space in a momentary blur of light.