Hey everyone, here is the first snippet of Valor’s Duty. This is from my edit copy as I’m on the road, so I hope you’ll forgive any grammatical errors.
Chapter One: Winning Is Everything
“Break left, break left!” I shouted as the incoming fire lanced out at my squadron of Mark Five Firebolt warp fighters.
The fighters were fast, faster than the human brain could readily understand. They attained a nearly instantaneous relative velocity of over point seven C, or seven tenths of the speed of light. Their warp envelopes, however, were not particularly maneuverable. Straight line velocity they could achieve, but they only managed ten degrees of “turn” with their internal warp drives.
That meant the best thing they could manage relative to a sharp bank like in the movies was a long, slow gradual curve. Against the incoming fire, that was painfully inadequate and three of my nine fighters winked out of existence.
I’d just lost thirty percent of my force. In military terms, I was combat ineffective and from a practical standpoint, I’d just led those ships and pilots right into the guns of the enemy battleship, knowing that it was going to happen.
But if they’re shooting at me…
At the velocities my squadron moved at, we were almost blind, we could barely see the enemy battleship, it’s powerful warp drive a beacon, it’s weapon fire strobes that pinpointed it’s progress through the star system. There was no way we’d be able to see the smaller pinpricks of other warp-fighters with their drives offline, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
That was, not until those drive lit off. The two squadrons of warp fighters came online at less than a hundred thousand kilometers distance from the battleship. They closed that distance in onlyseconds, the eighteen Firebolts arming their payloads even as the battleship recognized the new threat. I grinned as those fighters whipped past, releasing their antimatter bombs in a chain of detonations that shone more powerfully than the system’s star.
Before that string of detonations could clear on my screens, they went dark and then red text flashed: Simulation Terminated, Defender Wins.
“Yes!” I heard my boyfriend shout out. I blinked clear of the holographic projections as they faded out, revealing the faces of Sashi Drien and Kyle Regan. I couldn’t help a goofy grin to match theirs. “Chock up another one for Team Armstrong,” Kyle smirked. Sashi and I were seated cross-legged on my bed, while Kyle took my bedroom’s only chair. The space was tight with three, but it wasn’t like my parents’ house was all that big.
Sashi rolled her eyes, “I say we’re Team Drien. After all, they have an Armstrong, too.”
“Let’s see what they have to say, huh?” I asked cheerfully. I couldn’t help the urge to gloat a bit. It wasn’t a particularly nice thing to do, but that maneuver had been hard to pull off… using a single squadron of fighters to herd the enemy battleship into position for the ambush. Of the various warp ship engagements, Battleship Over Terrapin was one of the hardest scenarios to pull off a defender win.
I toggled over our chat to our opponents. “Hey guys, good game,” I said genially.
“Good game for you, maybe,” Ashiri Takenata growled. My best friend sounded particularly surly.
“Well played,” Alexander Karmazin said, far more neutrally.
“That was tricky, Jiden,” my little brother sighed. Will was just in the next room, unlike the other two. They’d agreed to take him on their team, though, even though he wasn’t a cadet.
We’d played the scenario three on three, which was the recommended match-up. The attackers in the scenario had a battleship and two destroyers in escort. The defenders had some unarmed sensor platforms and three squadrons of warp fighters.
“Well, we’d been practicing some of the battle plan back here,” I admitted. “Sashi thought up the piece with the decoy attack from my squadron there at the end.”
“Using the observation platforms as bait for the destroyers was pretty clever, too,” Alexander admitted. “You took Will and I out early on.”
“Thanks,” I smiled. Normally the platforms were there to balance the attacker’s advantages in sensors and maneuverability. Smart attackers made a point of taking them out early on… and I’d decided to set up an ambush with my fighter squadrons on the most likely approach to the main sensor array.
“It wasn’t fair,” Ashiri protested.
“What?” I asked in surprise.
“You three have been playing together solidly for the past week and a half. Alex and I aren’t even in the same hemisphere, right now, and we got stuck with your little brother,” Ashiri growled. “Throw in the communications delay, and you three had a clear advantage.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I wished we were on a video call so I could see my friend’s face. She actually sounded angry, over what seemed like a silly thing. Yeah, those had been some slight advantages, but it wasn’t like the scenario favored us at all. We’d been facing a battleship with three squadrons of fighters. Normally Battleship Over Terrapin turned into a bloodbath where the defending fighters died to the last, leaving the attacking team victorious.
“Uh,” I said after a long moment, “I guess we could shuffle up the teams next time?”
“Right… sure, it was hard enough to get this game in, I’ve still got tons of homework to cover, oh, and this certifies you three for our warp fighter simulation project, but because we lost, Alex and I have to get another certified game in, sometime in the next three days,” Ashiri’s bitterness felt like a bowl of cold jello to the face. It completely blind-sided me and I had no idea where it came from.
“I’m sorry,” I started to say, but then my tablet blinked to show that Ashiri had disconnected.
“What was that about?” Kyle asked. His freckled face was puzzled.
“Sorry about that, guys,” Alexander Karmazin spoke up. “She and I were talking before the game started, I guess she’s had a lot of pressure at home and I think she’s just stressed out a bit, you know?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. Yet I couldn’t help a guilty feeling as I glanced at Kyle and Sashi Drien. I’d invited both of them to visit my parent’s house at Black Mesa Outpost over our Christmas break. Well, in reality I’d invited Kyle because I wanted to introduce my new boyfriend to my family. Sashi had tagged along because she had nowhere else to go, she’d been all-but-disowned by her family after she’d refused to resign from the Academy. We’d been roommates, once, at the Century Military Academy. Then we’d been rivals. Only a few days before the end of last term, we’d both nearly been killed by a psychotic teacher. That had made us both reevaluate our priorities and while I didn’t really consider her a friend, I didn’t want to see her have to give up her dreams, especially not when her family treated her so poorly.
I hadn’t really thought about the advantage that brought the three of us. Most of our assignments over break were ones where we were allowed to collaborate with classmates, so long as we documented our participation and we did it actively, that was, we could discuss the work while we did it, but we weren’t allowed to talk about past assignments, so it benefited those who were present so we could work together.
All three of us were in many of the same classes. Ashiri and Alexander had the same advantage… except Karmazin lived in the Enclave and Ashiri lived in New Albion. They were both in the northern hemisphere, but they were a couple thousand kilometers apart. Plus they’d been involved in a relationship that had sort of fallen apart last summer. They were still friends, but I’d be willing to bet that spending lots of time together might feel awkward.
“Sorry if I messed you guys up,” Will spoke up. My little brother sounded worried.
“Don’t worry about it,” Karmazin snorted. “You did great, way better than your sister did after only a few games.”
“Thanks,” I drawled. Yet I couldn’t help but agree. I had come to this whole military thing in a round-about fashion, it had never been my plan. I’d been dreadfully ignorant about it all, and I’d spent a lot of time catching up. Will had taken to to some of the scenarios I’d loaned him like a sand-lizard to the dunes. It had freaked me out a bit when I’d come home on Christmas break and he’d asked me for more advanced scenarios.
“Anyway, Ashiri was right about one thing, we both still have a lot of homework to do. And I have to set up a certified game with someone else, now, since our team didn’t win that one. Goodnight guys.” Karmazin sounded a bit resigned at that.
“Goodnight,” We chorused and he disconnected.
My feeling of victory had been short-lived. I hadn’t really thought about the pressures some of my other friends were under. For that matter, while this had completed our certified battle scenario, I still had three more projects to complete, including a much-dreaded Military History paper for Commander Bonnadonna.
“Jiden, are you and your friends done playing games?” Mom called in from the next room. Since Will was probably sitting on the couch only a meter or so away, I knew she knew the answer. Yet that was her “polite” way of saying she’d had enough of us all holed up in simulations.
“Yeah, mom,” I called back. I turned off my datapad and stretched. “I guess we need to go be sociable or something.” I couldn’t help but give Kyle a hopeful smile.
He matched it and reached out to give my hand a squeeze. My heart did a little hop in my chest and I felt like parts of me melted at the same time. I really, really liked Kyle. He was supportive, he was smart, and he was just nice. He reminded me a lot of my dad, only not nearly so nerdy.
I headed that thought off and stepped out of my room.
Will had just finished packing up his datapad. He didn’t have one of the newer model academy-issued ones, after all, his application hadn’t even been officially accepted yet. He had one of dad’s older model datapads, so he’d had to use a VR headset to play the game. My mom stood with her arms crossed, a polite but probably fake smile on her face. She hated having guests, I knew. She frequently complained about new scientists and interns showing up here at Black Mesa Outpost, “joggling her elbow” as she put it, and even when Dad’s mom, Granny Effy, visited, she got uncomfortable sharing the house. I hadn’t really thought of that when I invited Kyle and Sashi Drien.
Add in that Kyle Regan was my boyfriend and neither my mom or my dad really knew how to handle that. It helped that Kyle was respectful and polite, but there was still a lot of awkwardness about the situation.
Then there was the fact that the Armstrongs and the Driens were longstanding rivals in the Planetary Militia added to the overall discomfort with Sashi’s presence. Plus there was something about a Drien being behind an attempt on my mom’s life when she’d been a Cadet at the Academy… so yeah, to say my mom was uncomfortable with the guests would be an understatement.
“I thought we might eat something special for dinner, your father and I just got approval on our next research grant,” Mom said.
“That’s great!” I smiled. While I didn’t really want to go into archeology like my parents, that didn’t mean I didn’t find it interesting… or that I didn’t realize the importance of their work. The ruins under Black Rock Mesa were alien, and over a million years old by best estimate. My parents sort of ran the operation here, in as much as anyone “ran” the gaggle of scientists and archeologists here at the Outpost.
“Yeah, your father just signed the paperwork a few hours ago at Duncan City, he picked up some food there before he left, he should be arriving soon,” Mom’s voice took on a tone of relief, like she’d half-expected me to say something snarky. Maybe a couple of years ago, I might have, just out of irritation and maybe even a little insecurity, I could admit to myself. But now, I really appreciated that my mom was trying to be as friendly and gracious a host as she really knew how. After all, it wasn’t like we got many guests out here and Mom… well, I guess she’d never really been much of a people person.
“If you could help me set the table, Jiden,” Mom said, “Will and, um, Kyle, we have some spare folding chairs out in the storage shed…”
“Sure thing,” Kyle smiled. He nodded at Will and they stepped outside.
My mom trailed off and stared at Sashi Drien. “Um…”
“Sashi, want to help me with the cups?” I asked.
“Sure thing,” she replied.
We set up the table quickly. It wasn’t like it was a big table. I hadn’t really seen it through outsider’s eyes, yet the house seemed so… well, small. The cups and plates weren’t anything special, just generic ceramics made from fused silicates, processed out of the Outpost’s fabricator. The silverware was just simple steel, unadorned. The table was just a modular metal table. Metal and silicates were cheap on Century. My sandy, dry homeworld had plenty of both. Wood and plastics were expensive. The planet didn’t have any real forests to speak of and hydrocarbons weren’t particularly plentiful. Most of both had to be imported from other worlds or manufactured from raw materials.
My parent’s house was built of local stone, with thick, heavy blocks to provide insulation, the black basalt cut out of the plateau’s stone by laser drills and held in place by their own weight. It had a metal roof with a double layer of insulation to keep the heat out of the living areas while using that heat to warm water for bathing. There were six rooms to the entire house, my parent’s bedroom, mine, my brother’s, which Sashi got to use during her stay, the living room, the dining room/kitchen shared space, and the one small bathroom. Here at the outpost, we had a water ration of three liters for bathing. We had to use a water recycler on that, since even the deepest wells hadn’t found any ground water, not this close to the equator.
Even so, my parent’s home was the second largest house here at the outpost. The largest one had belonged to Champion Enterprises. Tony Champion’s family had lived there when they’d visited the Outpost for almost a year. Now, if I remembered right, it housed a group of engineers who provided technical assistance to my parents.
There were twenty-nine full-time residents at Black Mesa Outpost, including two Enforcers who’d been tasked here relatively recently. It was the furthest south outpost in the northern hemisphere of Century. I’d grown up here, and especially in the last few years before I’d first left, I’d been sick of the place. It had seemed confining and restrictive and just so… boring.
Now it just seemed small and sort of homey. But it was like an old shirt, familiar and nice, but not something that I really fit in, not anymore.
The Academy was my life now, and while part of me dreaded the hard work to come, the rest of me was eager for the challenge.
“We made great progress, the past few months,” Dad was in full form, gesturing grandly as he ate. Normally that wasn’t an issue with just Mom, Will, and I around the small table. With two more, it meant I had to dodge a fork-full of mashed potatoes as it lanced at my left eye.
“Nelson’s fronted the money as soon as they saw our initial data,” Dad went on. “I mean, a lot of this is going to be revolutionary. Some of the first finds were great, advances in metalurgy and composites, but some of this tech we’re getting online…”
“Wait,” Kyle interrupted, “online? I thought this was an archeology site, you know, like pottery shards and that sort of thing.”
My parents looked at him and started laughing. I couldn’t help but join in, especially at the the thought of my mother picking up alien pottery shards. Kyle just looked confused and I decided that I’d probably better explain a bit. “So, as far as my parents can tell, Century’s ancient aliens weren’t native to the planet. They settled at a few locations, mostly near the poles where it’s, well, a lot nicer.”
“Yeah, there’s some ruins near my parent’s house,” Kyle nodded, “but there’s not much there, just tumbled stones and the Wall.”
“Right, the Wall,” my dad nodded. “That’s the big clue that they were technologically advanced.” The Wall was a massive, gutted construct, over a thousand feet high, which surrounded the main sets of alien ruins. “Our first colonists, well they weren’t too focused on preserving things and the ruins provided some useful building materials. Plus there was sort of an initial artifact rush with some of the Second Wave, and well…” he shrugged, “anything that might have survived a million years of exposure was pretty much destroyed, or else sold to private collectors off-world.”
“Except for pottery shards and that sort of thing,” my mom nodded. “There’s a few finds, most of it already extensively cataloged, but you have to go into the deep desert here in the south to find any of the ruins that weren’t thoroughly picked over.”
“So, you guys found something special?” My boyfriend looked puzzled.
“We think that Black Mesa was a research site or maybe even a military outpost,” My dad said. “The main site is deeply buried, almost a kilometer below the mesa. Most of the upper levels were filled with junk and sand, it took us years to work our way deeper.
“We reached the central zone about five years ago,” my mom said. “Since then, we’ve found dozens of artifacts in excellent shape. The cool dry air down there has preserved things in remarkable fashion. Other sites on Century, there are clear signs that these aliens, they packed everything in an orderly fashion and left, they didn’t leave much behind.
“Here, though,” my dad smiled, “here it looks like the equipment was either too difficult to recover or they just didn’t have time. We think they purposely collapsed part of the main access tunnel and dumped sand down there to prevent access. But after we got past that…”
“Dozens of finds. Much of it preserved almost perfectly,” Mom nodded. “Stuff that’s fifty, maybe a hundred years ahead of us, maybe more. That’s why we got the grant, the research we’re doing is going to give Century a huge leg up over the next few decades as we figure out all kinds of things about these aliens and their technology.”
“Doesn’t that violate the Alien Act, though?” Kyle asked nervously.
He had reason to sound nervous. The UN Star Guard enforced the Alien Act of 483 GD. One might say, they did so in a draconian fashion. Any contact with aliens, beyond shooting them on sight, brought with it a host of penalties, up to and including death. The causes for that were topics of our military history classes, and the violence of the Erandi and the constant warfare with the Culmor were among the central reasons.
“No,” Dad snorted. “It’s not like we’re talking with these aliens, their civilization visited Century over a million years ago. They predate even the rise of the Erandi Empire, as best as we can estimate. They’re long gone. What we’re doing is no different from salvage efforts to recover Culmor or Erandi ships or equipment after a battle… only we’re learning a great deal in the process.”
My mom nodded quickly, though I noticed her dart a glance at Sashi. I wonder what that’s about.
“We’ve thoroughly vetted this through Nelson University’s law section, and believe it or not, it’s gone all the way to Century’s Central Courts for review, just to be certain. We’re well within what’s allowed by the Guard Charter… even if we aren’t technically under the Charter.” My mom adopted a tone of bitterness at that last part, and I couldn’t blame her. The more I learned about the Guard and how they enforced the UN Star Guard Charter, the more bitter I felt about how we got all of the restrictions and none of the benefits out here on the Periphery. Century wasn’t just a barren, dusty world, it was a distant and lonely one. We were on one of the outermost flanks of colonized space, way out past the official borders of Guard Space, in what most people referred to as the Periphery.
“Oh, okay,” Kyle said. “So, not pottery shards, actual technology and devices. What kind of stuff, then?” I couldn’t help but lean forward. My parent’s hadn’t told me much about what they’d been doing, specifically, only that things had been “very promising.”
“Well…” Dad said with a glance at my mother. “Some of it is… well, not really classified, so much as confidential. Regardless of the purpose of this facility, there are some definite military applications to some of our discoveries.”
I felt a chill at his words and I couldn’t help but think about Tony Champion’s interest in my parent’s work… and how he and his father Issac had been selling weapons technology to smugglers and pirates. And Scarpitti tried to kill me, because she was worried I’d recognize a map of my parent’s dig site…
Surely, though, the presence of the Enforcers out here and the fact that the entire smuggling ring had been rolled up would keep my parent’s safe… right?
“None of it is secret,” Mom rolled her eyes. “Yes, there’s some definite military applications, but there’s also generic engineering and scientific applications. Even medical applications. In fact, a major part of what we’ve been involved with is a smart-material that may one day be useful for medical implants. This stuff is tough enough that has survived a million years with minimal decay, while at the same time still retaining it’s reconfigurable properties…” Mom trailed off. “Well, anyway, that’s just the leading edge of the sandstorm. Some of the machinery on the lower levels is massive, orders of magnitude beyond anything we’ve found up until now. Some of it is clearly power production. This might have been a main power hub for their presence on this planet…”
Mom had clearly warmed up to the subject and as she began to go into detail, I just sat back and let the words roll over me. For a moment, I felt like I was a kid again, listening to her and Dad talk about all the little details, the puzzle pieces of the past that they tried to put together. Some part of me understood their fascination. Yet, at the same time, it was the future, not the past that called to me. I didn’t want to piece together long-dead civilizations and ancient technology, I wanted to be building a future for my world.
Well… now I wanted to be building and protecting that future. I’d seen that not everyone was as willing to get along as one could hope. There were people out there who would use violence to get what they wanted… and I’d learned the hard way that I could use violence of my own to stop them.
My feelings of home and family felt distant. For a moment, my mind went to a dark closet where the smugglers had locked me, to the place where they’d nearly killed me… until I killed them.
And again, I thought of Commander Scarpitti, who had nearly killed me, all because she thought I was a threat. I’d killed her, instead, in a combination of planning and sheer luck.
Both times I’d barely survived. I just hoped that next time I faced a situation like that, I’d be better prepared.
“Jiden, you okay?” Will asked from next to me. My little brother looked a little worried.
“Yeah,” I said, forcing myself to smile. My dad was gesturing with his mashed-potatoes-laden fork again, while talking about how they’d excavated the initial dig. He had clearly warmed up to his captive audience, and I could tell from how Kyle’s and Sashi’s eyes had glazed over, that he’d lost them both. This was why I’d chosen to join the Militia, defending my family, protecting them from the people who would do them harm. It was something I was good at… winning when my life was on the line.
I felt the knot in my stomach unclench and my smile became more genuine. All of my uncertainties melted away and I went back to enjoying the moment. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to worry about the future, tonight I could enjoy the fruit of my victories.