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Chapter 5: Infiltration


Olympia Prime, Olympia system

images22.jpg

Olympia Prime was considered the Bahamas or the Hawaii of Terran Federation, located at the edge of the border. With tropical ocean climate more pleasant than Earth, it became the prime destination for vacations. Numerous resorts levitated over the calm horizon of the ocean, traveling to and from the beauty spots. At least before the Contingency. Then it became the staging ground for the Terran Interstellar Marine Corp, and Planetary Defense Force.

Its pristine white beaches and grand floating resorts used to bustle with the members of the armed forces. Now, with the looming Estwani threat approaching ever closer to home, they became empty as the servicemen reported for duty. Only few scattered synth servants could be seen tending to the abandoned infrastructures.

Music eerily echoed throughout the empty lobby of the resort. Outside the large window, over the horizon of the blue ocean, a Titan appeared as big as the moon, partially obscured by the white clouds.

Admiral Moreau and her brother sat across from each other at a table overlooking the shore, both in their off-duty clothes. She stared at him silently, but fiercely. Whereas her brother looked around awkwardly, unable to keep the eye contact. He eventually took a deep breath and finally spoke.
"You should go back."
"No," she bluntly replied.
He sighed and said, "Remember the tar pit behind the foster home, where we dared each other to see who would jump in first?"
"Yes."
"Remember how I jumped in and almost drowned--"
"And I almost died trying to save your ass. What's your point?"
"Just saying, old habits die hard."
Alex sat quietly for a moment, squinting her eyes.
"Well, you are here because of me, aren't you?" Mike said. "I promised myself that I will never put you in harm's way again, since then."
She looked up, holding back some of her emotions. Empathy and rage. But mostly rage.
"You being here... makes my job harder. Now I feel like I have to turn around to see if you are okay. Now I have to second guess my every move," he bluntly said. His tone grew cold. "You are not a soldier like me."
"Oh, you have no idea," she replied. "Do you think, because I'm an intelligence officer in the navy, that I don't know how to fight?"
"You are not battle enhanced like me. In battle you need speed, reflexes, stamina and strength," he retorted like he would to the defiant and undisciplined new recruits.
"Oh, don't you lecture me about what I need!"
"You are an erudite, sis! You chose that life as I have chosen mine. Now back off!"
The pair's bickering boiled over to a point where the synth clerk at the front desk hesitated to leave its post to calm them down. The arguments eventually stopped however, and the music could be heard again. They both silently looked outside the window, towards the Titan growing larger and taller as it rose up from the horizon.
"That's my ride," Alex said and both got up from their seats.


FSS Atlas, Orbit of Olympia Prime

space2.png

"From what I hear, you aren't supposed to be here, Moreau."
Grand Admiral Palmer, leading the vanguard of the unified Terran fleet above Olympia, was a veteran of the early Bilnoc conflict before the Contingency and the return of the Estwani empire. He was 121 years old. He may be frail, but his mind was still sharp enough to lead his ships into battle. President and now a Consul, Dugalle, trusted him with the defense of the border. He was known to be a logistician, and therefore strict with the enforcement of the military codes, and was a textbook tactician. But even so, the navy knew he needed fresh and unconventional minds to fight against the foes as powerful as the Estwani. He welcomed Moreau onboard the Titan, but tested her limits.
The Admiral's study was filled with relics, trophies and awards, as old as himself, but one thing that caught the eyes of Moreau was a hollowed skull of a Bilnoc. Only a hardcore xenophobe would keep around a skull of a sentient being, she thought.

"I volunteered--"
"For your brother, yes?" Palmer cut her off. "You do know, we do not tolerate familial issues to get in the way of service."
"I'm fully aware," she hesitantly replied.
"Your friendship with the president doesn't mean shit, as long as you are embedded in my fleet. Don't think that you will get your way. Do you understand me, Captain?"
"Yes, Admiral."
"Now, report to the commander of the ship. She will fill you in on our situation."
"Sir, I have one last request."
"What the hell did I just tell you?"
"... I will report to the commander right away."
"Get out of my sight!" Palmer barked from behind his desk. "Damn youngsters."

Commander Zhi had a completely different personality than Palmer. She was composed and much younger, and Moreau could tell Zhi had more patience. Moreau wondered how the pair worked. In her knowledge, Palmer was stationed on FSS Atlas, Titan, for more than 5 years. Just as long as Zhi had been commanding the ship. They just didn't seem like the ones to click. She almost felt bad for Zhi.

"Captain on deck," Zhi said as Moreau emerged from the entrance to the bridge. The officers got up and stood at attention, and sat back down in their stations without a word.
"Welcome to Atlas, ma'am. It's an honor to have you here with us."
"Thank you, commander. As you were," Moreau replied and paced around the holographic virtual battlespace several officers were studying.
"Again," an officer said, when the blue blips, representing the Terran fleets, were about to be flanked by the red blips, representing the Estwani. The simulation turned off and reset. When it restarted, there were more red blips than before. The Terran fleets were heavily outnumbered.
"Destroyers advance," the officer said. "Slow Atlas and all battleship lines."
The officer gave commands to the simulation as Zhi and Moreau observed. The outcome was the same. Destroyers were flanked by swarms of Estwani strikecrafts and were destroyed, and then eventually the capital ships, despite the best efforts by the Terran strikecrafts to assist them. Moreau was impressed by how accurately they captured the NIS's intelligence on the Estwani fleet into the simulation.
The officer sighed and said, "Again!"
"Wait," Moreau stopped the officer. Zhi and the others looked on with curiosity. "You've got all these destroyers armed with point defense. Why send them in and not the corvettes to secure the flanks and swarm them?"
"We can't, ma'am. Admiral's orders," Zhi replied.
"What? Why?"
"He says we'll need the corvettes to escort our capital ships. He expects the enemy escorts to swarm on us."
"So he's willing to sacrifice the destroyers? For what?"
"We tried to reason with him ma'am," the officer said. "We have to play this out by his book, and make it work. That's what we are trying to figure out."
"We don't have time for this bullshit. Lives are on the line," Moreau said. "Every destroyers they down, thousands of lives are lost."
The officer shook his head apologetically.
"May I speak to you, privately?" Zhi asked. The other officers eyed them both, knowingly. Moreau nodded and followed her outside.

"What is it?" Moreau asked.
"It's Admiral Palmer. He's not the same," Zhi whispered with worry.
"Can you be more specific?" Moreau squinted her eyes, trying to figure it all out.
"Few days ago, I was waiting outside his quarters when he had a call from Grand Admiral Yamato."
"The reformist?" Moreau asked and Zhi nodded.
"They talked for a while, but I couldn't make out the conversation. All of a sudden, Admiral Palmer began yelling. He was angry and spoke all kinds of gibberish. Something about perversion of the mind," Zhi looked around the corridor suspiciously and continued. "When it was all said and done, I went inside to speak to him. He was a completely different man. I couldn't recognize his tone of voice, his posture... I know I sound crazy, but this was not the man I served with for years on this ship."
"Perversion of the mind... huh?"
"That's the only thing I caught. The rest, I think he was speaking in New Odessian dialect, which I am not familiar with. But I've traveled around the stars long enough to know how socialites sound like."
"I still don't know if I have the right to be the judge of anything that goes on around this fleet," Moreau said.
"Please, captain... he's losing his mind. It's gotten worse, and this battle is so important for all of us. I can't lose my men because of Palmer."
"Those words could put you in court."
"I apologize. I just don't know what to do," Zhi said. "His strategy... it's insane. We can't push our escort destroyers against them like how he suggested."
"I concur. It's like throwing bodies against the waves. It's a brash move, almost as if..." Moreau stopped mid-sentence.
"As if?"
"He wants to lose," Moreau said in realization, but Zhi seemed confused. "Perversion of the mind!"
Zhi gasped and trailed off, "You can't mean..."

Moreau barged into Palmer's quarters, flanked by naval security officers.
"How dare you come in here!" Palmer yelled and pounded on his desk.
"Admiral Palmer, please come with us, sir," one of the security officer said.
"Do you know who I am, son!? I will have you locked up for this! This is my ship, MY FLEET!"
"Sir! Calm down!" officer said.
"You will get nothing from me!" Palmer screamed until his voice began to break. He foamed at the mouth like a mad dog. "A god is coming, you will all die!"
Moreau noticed a slight flicker from Palmer's eyes. Something about his eyes weren't familiar. When she stared into them, she realized his irides weren't human.
"Be careful, boys," she quietly said, struggling to find words. Her words were drowned out by the mad laughter of the old admiral. Things took an even stranger turn when the admiral's feet seemed to be off the ground. Moreau looked down to check her feet, making sure the artificial gravity was there and she wasn't imagining it.
"What the f..."
Suddenly, the laughter stopped. As the officers approached to apprehend him, the admiral spoke calmly.
"So this is a Terran," he said with a darker tone of voice, and looked down and around at his own body and limbs. The officers froze in place, unable to move. Neither could Moreau.
"For hundreds of centuries, I have yet to meet an interesting species so close to the potential of the Shroud, until now. Close, but not close enough. How disappointing."
"It's you, isn't it?" Moreau thought, but couldn't speak. "But how? You are half a galaxy away."
She felt unusually calm and thought clearly, even though she couldn't move and knew she should panic. She also felt mentally linked to Palmer, which was an unnerving sensation.
"This universe is nothing!" Palmer barked out loud, smiling. "You are all but a step away from me in the Shroud. I am all around you. There is nothing in this universe that I can't grasp. Compared to my dominion, this world is insignificant."
"Why don't you kill us all and be done with it, if you are so damn powerful?" Moreau thought.
"Your very existence fuels me with more power!" Palmer yelled.

shutterstock_231163618.jpg

With a sharp pain in her head, she saw the infinity unfold before her. She flew at high speed, across the flat planes. The skies above and below were violet, lit up with lightning behind silhouettes of dark storm clouds. Was she going up, forward or down through the seemingly endless fall through the storm? She did not know. Eventually she sped up, and the two skies closed in, becoming narrower. Then she traveled at the speed of light, and both planes merged until she could see nothing but blackness and white light at the center she was falling towards. She felt as though she flew for years. Thousands of years, perhaps. Maybe millions of years. Forward or back in time. Then, with a sudden stop from the speed of light, she felt an enormous weight on her chest which crushed her every particles, down to her atoms. Moreau shattered into nonexistence, and like a spring, the leftover force pushed her back into reality. With a tremendous energy, she was flung across from where she stood and splat onto the wall, leaving a crater. She gasped for air and her visions blurred. Moreau's matter and blood held her on the wall for a while, but eventually came down. Her hair painted the wall with trails of blood and meat, like a brush. Every ribs in her were crushed, puncturing her lungs, liver, and multiple arteries around the heart. Areas behind her skull broke open, exposing the pulp of the inflamed brain wanting to spill out. Within a short moment, she was quite sure that more damage had been done to her body than she thought. Her consciousness then slipped back into darkness, with faint ominous laughter in the background. She had died. This is what death is.

"AAAAAAH!!!!" Moreau screamed as she woke. She found herself standing in Palmer's quarters. The two officers she had brought along were tending to her. They were both caked in blood.
"Ma'am, are you okay!?" one said. "You were unresponsive for a second."
Moreau couldn't speak, and the voices were muffled by the ringing in her head. She dropped to her weak knees. Her body shook uncontrollably. Before her laid a lifeless body of Admiral Palmer, missing a head. But she hardly cared.
"We need medical team down at section E7, admiral's quarters immediately. There's been a psionic attack on the senior officers. I repeat..." the other officer spoke into his comm, and then the alarms went off all around.
"Help will be here soon. Sit tight, captain." then, the pair left her. She silently mouthed, "don't go."
It didn't take long for her to gag and vomit, and lose consciousness on the cold floor once again.


Medical wing, FSS Atlas

Moreau couldn't remember much prior to waking up in the medical bay. She vaguely knew she had died. In her mind, anyway. But it was visceral and felt real. It wasn't like any nightmares her erudite brains ever had, which usually suppresses them. Whenever she would close her eyes, she could see the mystical and hellish scape of the Shroud, burned into her vision like a branding. She felt jumpy and had to look around to see if anyone was present to harm her. But all she saw was her brother, sound asleep in a chair next to her bed.

"Captain Alex Moreau, genetic preset sequence ID Y dash 3 3 4 6 2 9. Subject's neuron patterns indicate a traumatic experience, but the genetic preset seems to be restoring her to normal functions. However, memory erasure is highly recommended for the sake of morale," a man in a officer's uniform spoke into his comm, leaning against the wall. He eyed Moreau knowingly and smiled.
"Welcome back, captain," he said after turning off his comm. "I'm Colonel Schmidt, medical officer for the marines. I will monitor your conditions until Dr. Taylor arrives from Mars. Courtesy of the president--I mean Consul Dugalle."
"Dr. Taylor?" she asked, her voice cracked and weak.
"You may not have heard of him, but he's an interesting one in the world of medicine. A bit unconventional. He's a xeno neurologist, expert in the school of theoretical psionic studies."
"A what?" she asked, disoriented. "I've never heard of such a thing."
"Well, its practitioners are very rare for obvious reasons," Schmidt loomed over her. "Anyway, for now, your neurons are healing, thankfully. They've been under a lot of strain in such a short time. But not to worry, your genetic preset is designed to be tough, you should be fine. As for your mind, well, that's up to Dr. Taylor."
"I can't stay like this," she said, getting up from the bed.
"You are out of my jurisdiction, so I can't stop you. Would I, if I could? Yes. Definitely," Schmidt replied, unusually enthusiastic as if there was no upcoming battle to worry about. He almost had Moreau convinced.
Moreau stared at him with a raised brow.
"I totally understand. Your obligation is very important. But so is mine, captain," he said and walked out of the medical bay. Another medical officer soon stepped in. This time, he was navy.
"You are not going anywhere, captain," the doctor said, frowning.
"Damn it..." she whispered.
"Huh? What?" her brother woke up. "Where do you think you are going?"
"Oh, great..." she rolled her eyes and laid back down in the bed.


Hermes System, Array Bravo, Sentry Array Service HQ


d57qk0u-e4f97b05-3c29-4419-ad5d-e0c8406f9035.jpg

The command center of Array Bravo was the busiest out of all other sections of the Sentry Array. They were responsible in monitoring the Estwani movements at all times, and advising the unified Terran fleet and the NIS. Array Gamma came in as close second, as monitors of the Contingency threat. The large chamber was filled with bright screens showing statistics, galactic maps, and visuals of the large Shroud beast accompanied by the Estwani fleet and Colossus, jumping stars after stars, getting closer to Terran home.

One operator at his station stared into his monitor screen, with his comm ready just in case of any new developments. And before his eyes, the Estwani fleet disappeared. Comm chatters intensified with panic, and the room was lit in red with alert messages across all the stations. "Warp signature," it read.
"Where did they go?"
"Find them now!"
"Umm guys?" a naval officer on break stared out the window, into the darkness of space. "GUYS!"
All the operators turned around and rushed towards him. Their jaws dropped. Outside, they witnessed a bright ghostly being ahead of them.
"EVACUATE THE ARRAYS, NOW!" the officer shouted, and the operators screamed and scrambled in panic.
He kept a cool head and ran towards the nearest monitoring station and spoke through its comm.
"They are he--"
Suddenly, all the screams and movements subsided in an instant. It was as if time itself had stopped.


Hermes System, Starbase Citadel

Commander Jameson puffed on his cigar, his collar unbuttoned. He swung the golf club in slow motion, then readjusted his feet and back, shaking his behind. He raised the golf club to swing again, and almost tripped when his lieutenant's hologram appeared before him.
"What the hell!?" Jameson yelled.
"Sir, they are here! They are here!"
"Damn it, calm down!"
"The Estwani fleet is here!"
The commander looked serious for a while. He laughed.
"That's a good one. I'll let this intrusion pass," Jameson said and returned to his posture.
"Sir! This isn't a joke, it's serious!"
"Alright, that's enough. I know you want to be transferred but this isn't the way to go about it. Now quit shoutin' and get out of my office," commander said and shook his head. "Pfft. Estwani fleet? So deep in our territory? Yeah right."
The lieutenant huffed loudly out of frustration and ended the holo.

"Sir, now what do we do?" a crewman asked the lieutenant back at the command center.
"What do you think? Sound the alarm, and I want all hands on deck!"
"But only the commander can--"
"Do as I say or we'll all die. Your call!"
The crewmen hesitated and got back to work in their stations. Finally, the alarm blared across the starbase and its weapons activated.
"Sir, our shields are not on..."
"What the hell do you mean!?"

Thousands of engineers in the engineering sectors casually went about their business, making sure everything was in working condition. Everything worked except for the shield generator, which was on routine maintenance. The engineering crew in charge of the shield generator rotated the shift, instead of rushing to get it fixed. Half of them slowly worked on it, while the other half played cards and watched a synth gladiator match in the breakroom. There were no set quotas. When the alarms sounded, they stood silently for a while.
"Xeno invasion confirmed. All hands to battlestations. This is not a drill," a voice spoke from the speakers. The engineers threw down their cards and ran outside.

Half of the entire crew had gone on leave or been redeployed to the frontlines. The station was practically run by skeleton crews. No one had expected the war to come so deep in Terran space, so early and without warning.


Earth, Presidential Palace

638071.jpg

Dugalle's large command center, located in the subterranean levels of the presidential palace, was alive with activity, particularly the arguments among the dozens of senior admirals and generals. Dugalle's new council.
"Consul, we must deploy the 7th and 8th fleet, as well as the Capitol Guard--" a general spoke, only to be cut off by an admiral.
"Are you insane!? That's all of our reserves. We need them to secure our borders against the Lox."
"We are not at war with the Lox. Our boys on the ground need fleet support. Land invasion on the orbital habitat is imminent!"
"Consul, I suggest we lure the enemy fleet to Alpha Centauri. We have habitats there that are better prepared, ready to fight to the last man. They will delay the enemy while the unified fleet turns back to intercept them," another general suggested. The officers shook their heads and scoffed in disbelief.
"Alpha Centauri!? You want to endanger the lives of billions of our citizens!?"
"Alpha Centauri is the heart of our republic!"
"They are already at the heart of our nation. Wake up!"
"I have made up my mind," Dugalle said, and the room grew quiet. "Turn the fleets around. Deploy all reserves. Order the local habitat to brace for possible invasion. We will cut them off and crush them where they are."
Immediately the officers opened their comms and dispatched their orders.
"Sir, if we turn our fleets, our flank will be exposed to the second Estwani wave. And we don't know if the habitat in Hermes system could hold until the unified fleet arrives," an admiral said.
"Then they will have to hold, won't they?" Dugalle replies.
A general sighed and began, "It's risky, but if that's what you think should be our course of action, then I will not complain. But we should at least send the best man for the job."
"And who do you have in mind, general?"
"You won't like it sir. Retired General Markovics."
The officers quietly gasped.
"The Butcher? Responsible for a million Bilnoc civilian deaths?"
"He may be a war criminal, but he could get the job done."
"Would he be willing? After everything we've done to that man? I mean, we made him take the fall for the galactic council, after all."
"We can get him out of Tartarus penal colony, and get him aboard a stealth transport, sneak past the Estwani. We could offer to reduce his sentence to convince him. Just say the word sir, and he's yours."
"Do it."
"Yes sir."


Tartarus Penal Colony, Hades System

e239b2eabd4deb4de1dc342192c96149.jpg

"Work hard, and earn the freedom that you don't deserve!" Propaganda blared across the skyline of the crowded and rugged district. Above, the red star blazed, scorching the golden plains of sand and dirt. The shanty town part of the district provided occasional shade, where crowds gathered to shelter themselves. On the street level, rows of convicted miners, escorted by enforcers, marched on to the direction of the mine transports to fulfill another day of repaying their debt to society. While in front of a building, a group of enforcers breached a suspected drug lab, sponsored by a xeno cartel stars away. No one paid much attention to it, as it happened regularly.

By the entrance to one of the housing complexes was a well-built topless man, casually sitting in a chair biting down on a fat cigar and skinning a local wild critter with a knife. The xeno neighbors didn't seem to mind as they passed by. But some had fear in their eyes. His dogtags dangled from his neck, drenched in the blood of the animal.

He nearly hacked off the critter's head, but he stopped and looked up when an armored prisoner transport vehicle rolled in and the enforcers emerged from it. One of them took out a scanner and aimed it at the man's disgruntled and tanned face.
"Look, I already told you assholes. I didn't kill those shrimps. I thought it was settled with the district warden."
"That's him," the enforcer said, completely ignoring the man. Then another man emerged from the vehicle, wearing a uniform the convict had recognized. His frown faded. He almost teared up. It was a sight for sore eyes.
"I haven't seen your type in a long time. I miss it. What the hell is the army doing here anyway? The nearest fort is that way."
The uniformed man stood at attention and gave a firm salute.
"Whoa whoa, no need to salute me soldier. I'm nothing more than a criminal and an old man."
"General Markovics, sir! The consul is willing to pardon you if you accept your reinstatement!"
"Wha-what did you just say?" Markovics dropped the knife and the creature, and slowly got up from the rusted chair. The enforcers stepped forward cautiously.
"You are being reinstated sir!" the soldier said, staying firmly at attention.
Markovics breathed fast with excitement, but he frowned and said, "There's a catch, isn't there?"
"You are to be immediately deployed to Hermes system, sir!"
"To that backwater? They really are out to destroy me, aren't they?"
"Sir... the thing is... the Estwani--"
"The Estwani!? I knew we were fighting some xenos, but them? Why the hell are we fighting them!?"
Markovics only knew a fraction of what was unfolding before the Terran Federation, due to the information quarantine imposed on the penal colony. The occasional rumors of internal politics were considered a rare commodity, heavily regulated by the penal colony.
"This world's gone insane. I like it," Markovics said with a wide smile and slapped the soldier's arm. The soldier gulped, nervous.
"Now, you go tell that son of a bitch Dugalle that if he wants my service, I am to be deployed on the front lines. Is that understood!?"
"Sir... Hermes is the front line."
There was a moment of silence.
"Come again?"
The soldier's eyes moved around nervously, trying to avoid eye contact as reddened Markovics drew in closer to his face. Markovics whispered, "Do you know how hard my men and I fought during the Bilnoc wars, so youngsters like you could be spoon-fed? And now, here you are, telling me that the xenos are inside our home."
"S-sir, it's-it's not like that--"
"I've heard enough," he said, turning away. "If you idiots need a man like me, then this country's going to hell."
Markovics chuckled and shouted aggressively at the building, "I will miss you all!"
The observing xenos, startled, hurried back into the building.
"Sir we need to go, now."
"Let me go get my gear!"
The enforcers and the soldier looked at one another, baffled.
"I thought weapons aren't allowed here," the soldier asked and the enforcer shrugged.


Hermes Fortress habitat, Hermes system

Sirens and murmuring crowds filled the streets. A wide eyed child suckled her thumb in her father's arm, while he struggled to make sense of everything. He stood there with a bag in hand, looking up to the blackness beyond the atmospheric frames of the habitat. His wife then took the child to comfort her, and he hesitantly took his eyes off the void. He continued to pack his shuttle with bags of supplies and other belongings. The child began to cry when the sirens got closer and louder, and the grounds shook with military vehicles slowly passing overhead.

"This is the Federal Planetary Defense Force. Evacuate to the nearest shelter immediately," a soldier from a military shuttle spoke through the speaker. "Please follow all directions sent out to your personal comms."
Below the shuttle followed an armored personnel transport. Some soldiers sat on top of the fully enclosed armor. One of them stared blankly at the crying child, while casually leaning back against the turret behind him. This wasn't a parade. There were no welcoming cheers on the streets, but confusion and horror. Perhaps it was a parade to their doom.

Not too far away, massive lines of civilians trailed around a large temporary field encampment which blockaded a strategic point in the city. Turrets and missile launchers were deployed on the walls; tanks, artillery, drone swarm hubs, atmospheric VTOLs and shield generators occupied the base's inner field. Officers sat at portable tables, and processed the necessary paperworks as the civilians approached. They received their battle gears and weapons, saluted and moved on to the side, and the next in line followed. They were then taken inside the personnel transports, never to be seen again. Outside the perimeter walls were members of their families, crying hysterically in choir. Above them, a banner depicting a soldier and words that read, "What it means to be a citizen."

All personnel transports headed to the gigantic structures in the distance, shaped like a pyramid and protected by a dome of energy shield. The forts of the Hermes habitat. They were each marked with large letters and numbers on their windowless armored surfaces.

Despite being a fort habitat for the military, the civilian life here was peaceful. No one had realized the war would ever come this deep. But it has.
 

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Infiltrating the enemy's military command ... pretty slick. Not just for the disruption of a single event, but for the paranoia it can cause.
 

HistoryDude

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The Estwani are very powerful...

I'm worried that Terra is screwed...
 

Sinister2202

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Chapter 6: The Escape


Unknown location, Estwani prison ship.

They ran through the dark, seemingly endless corridors of metal. The air was damp. Some screamed and some whispered behind every door they passed. Auriel could barely gasp for air, and it was one thing she desperately wanted. She bit hard and ran as much as she could. The more she fell behind, the tighter her rescuer's grip became.

"We must hurry! The vicar's lackeys are nearly here!" Auriel's rescuer shouted, running with pistol in one hand. He breathed hard, as he briefly turned his head to check on her. The corridor lit up bright, followed by loud gunshots. The rescuer had taken out a guard. Auriel jumped over the body and continued running. The thumping of her heart and the sound of her breath drowned her to a kind of a trance.

"We are almost there!" another rescuer shouted from behind, rifle in hand. "I can see the light!"
But not soon after, he screamed in pain. But he withstood the pain and returned fire to whomever shot him from behind. He then dropped to one knee. Auriel and the other rescuers stopped and turned.
"Go on without me! I'm done for." Those were his last words before falling onto the ground.
The others hesitated, but one took the initiative and took Auriel's hand and ran.
"Let's go!"

The light at the edge of the corridor was an illusion, as it had gone dark by the time the group had reached it. The entire area was pitch black, blinding all. The rescuers stopped and listened for each other's breaths.
"Let thine eyes guide us, O Shroud," one of the rescuers prayed after catching his breath. "Brace yourselves, here come the blind monks. The only sense we need here is our psionics. Remember your training!"

Auriel closed her eyes, but the darkness didn't make much difference. Then, her psionics revealed before her the murky violet chamber they were in. There were about a dozen robed monks surrounding Auriel and the rescuers. The monks raised up their arms simultaneously, and lowered them, directing their power towards the group.
"Get down!" Auriel shouted. One rescuer who reacted too late met an unfortunate end, as his entire body turned to a dry husk.
A rescuer fired his weapon at one of the monks, who disappeared like a smoke and reappeared elsewhere.
"I cannot get into their minds!" another rescuer shouted. "They are like a fortress!"
Auriel rose up and shouted. In a blink of an eye, all dozen monks slammed into the walls behind them. They let out a loud screeching noise. Pain. Auriel balled her hands into fists, and the monks perished where they laid.
The light returned to the chamber. The rescuers looked around in awe, and back to Auriel.
"Such power..." one of them whispered.
"Let us not delay," another said, and the group followed him to yet another corridor.

When they reached the end of the corridor, they were met by a breathtaking scenery. Streams of water fell from above somewhere, dropping down below into the clouds. Pink sky and the setting star. There were nowhere else to go now. But a transport shuttle emerged from below.
"Get in!" an armed Estwani shouted from the shuttle.

The group, known as the An'Kaji Sect, was a small religious sect within the Estwani Empire. With the awakening of the empire came changes. Revolutionary changes of culture, religion, and socioeconomics. But these schools of thought were rejected as heresies, by the Nu'Rwa Concordat, roughly translated as "Chosen One and People" in Terran tongue.

They were the main religion and government, initially formed when the Chosen One departed for the Shroud thousands of years ago. It was designed to separate the religion and government function, and install emperors and religious heads respectively, but the Chosen One would always be the de facto ruler of both the empire and the religion.

The An'Kaji Sect rejected the Chosen One as their god, and claimed to know the true nature beyond the facade and propaganda of all things taught about the Chosen One. Auriel's existence further affirmed their beliefs. They claimed to be following the doctrines of the Chosen One's former master, although such doctrines are so ancient that
they were lost in time. Only fragments and interpretations of this master's teachings remained, along with the crucial witness document - proving that the Chosen One isn't the one they all thought. That perhaps he wasn't even an Estwani to begin with and neither was his master.

It was only a matter of time the unnerving truths would surface when Estwani Empire awakened, and all its lost archives and former territories were retrieved. The Concordat did not hesitate to mark the sect as rebels and to hunt them down.

Nevertheless, the long lost artifact was found once more, fused inside the Shroud-sensitive Terran known as Auriel. It was the An'Kaji Sect that had kidnapped her, as she was being transported to the Curators by Terran Federation's shadow council, when the sect's most powerful elder had sensed her existence. She was their ultimate hope, so they raised and trained her. They especially grasped at this hope desperately, when the portal to the Shroud was opened above Estwani's home planet, and emerged from it the Chosen One's avatar. They knew the Chosen One's arrival was drawing ever closer. But the portal wasn't the only major change brought to the Estwani Empire.

The Estwani's entire social structures were transformed. Leaders and serfs alike were executed en masse. Inquisitions spread like wildfire, all in the name of appeasing their Immortal Emperor, who the Nu'Rwa believed was enraged and displeased. Military was reformed, and the psionic elites known as the Order of the Immortal Emperor tripled in size and acted as the backbone of the Estwani imperial might. Meanwhile the regular armies made of meager serfs fought to their deaths in vain against the Lox Empire. The Order brought death and massacres to inferior alien civilizations around the galaxy. Even forming a sizable fleet of their own, called "The Will". The fleet, which was now at the doorstep of Terran Federation, along with the Chosen One's avatar. They also acted to cull the psionically weak, resulting in the deaths of millions of Estwani. These only strengthened the Sect's resolve, and helped them to gain more followers. There were also rumors of the current sovereign emperor being directly interfaced and controlled by the Chosen One from the Shroud.

A new era was upon the Estwani Empire, as it grew stronger each day.




Sirius Prime

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The night sky of Sirius Prime were lit with lights of the city in the distance. Below stood the tower that overlooked the city's skyline. There were laughters and music on the rooftop of this tower, where citizens of the highest of the social class danced and chatted away among themselves, worrying and joking about frivolous things as if war was a thing of the past. Of course, something as barbaric as a war wasn't for them to taste, but for the masses to consume and experience for them. That's the way the socialites wanted it to be. There were at least a dozen or so of the rich and powerful, young enough to be drafted for the war effort, drinking away the wines far enough away from the barracks after all.

Separated from the rest of the crowd was a man leaning against the railing of the terrace. He was a businessman of sort, constantly being pestered by different groups every time they had spotted him from the party. This time, though, was a bit more serious group of people. Businessmen of sort, wearing the medals and insignias of their ranks. The navy, army, marines - all in one bunch. All drunk and foolish. The businessman pitied them, but he had already put on a mask for the occasion. It was all so tiring for him.

"So, I've always wondered," the naval officer began after the laughters of his comrades subsided, "why a man like you, who pursued such theoretical and 'arcane' xeno nonsense ever turned to the machines."
"I've wondered that too," the marine officer said. "Oooh, the mysteries of the universe," he mocked, twirling his hands in the air. The red-faced officers laughed. The businessman let out a short chuckle. His pretentious smile quickly faded.
"All those years of chasing after this 'arcane', as you put it, has taught me one thing," the businessman said. "And it is that our destinies are beyond our control."
"Well, duh," the naval officer broke the short moment of silence. Of course, the businessman didn't expect these men to understand.
"But there are things we can control, from which we can shape our destinies. That is the 'arcane' I sought," he said. "But to answer your question, sir, the synths are our creations. Mirrors of ourselves that are superior in efficiency. Mind you, our genetic enhancements were born out of pride, fear, shame, and our inability to accept our place as lesser lumps of matter. If we cannot control what we have created, what gives us the right to shape the destiny of our species? And so, with that realization, my quest had ended, knowing that this is as far as our species could go. Control is my new mission and perhaps an obsession. I controlled self-esteem and shame of our species, which allowed me to defeat all competition and monopolized the industry, all those who did not understand the purpose. I control all the synths in all the worlds. I control all that they have built and all the fields they worked. I control every extra strands of the DNAs of our kind. I control the manipulation of all the cells in our bodies and veins. And yet, our fate remains unclear and turbulent. Our destiny remains unshaped."

The officers stared blankly. The naval officer hesitated to reply, but in the end had nothing more to say.
"You definitely don't control me," the marine officer laughed. As did the others. They left the businessman, but the army officer remained.
"I've never got a proper chance to thank you, Mr. Westley," he said. "For the hotfix, I mean. You really saved a lot of my guys."
"Where were you stationed, Major..." Westley took a quick glimpse at the officer's name tag. "Rodriguez?"
"Procyon habitat, sir."
"Ah, a farm. Lots of synths."
"Yes sir. Our garrison was outnumbered ten to one. When we heard the reports of erratic synth behavior across all sectors, not to mention the news coming from Uthonians and the machine uprising, we really thought this was it," Major Rodriguez said and took a swig of his beer. "You really saved us out there."
"I tried my best to contain them," Westley muttered to himself, frowning.
"Sorry? Contain what?" the major asked.
"Ah, it's... some virus in the
network," Westley said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand.
"Well, whatever that virus was, it was galaxy-wide and I've never even heard of a tech that could do that. Whoever was responsible, infiltrating various xeno networks must've been extremely difficult if not impossible," the major replied. "Could've been the ghost signal we keep hearing about in the news these days, huh?"
"Indeed. Oh well it was all such a long time ago. No use dwelling on them now," Westley coughed and continued. "It was a good chat. Please enjoy the party, I have some matters of business to attend to."
"Of course. Thanks again."




Sirius Prime, Westley Conglomerate HQ

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"I can almost imagine a new concept for the next series with the schematics you sent over this evening," an overly ecstatic man said through a hologram. "This will truly be the next innovation for the Westley Conglomerate. Could you tell me where you got these ideas, Mr. Westley?"
Westley gently rocked back and forth in his desk chair, his back turned to the hologram and deep in thought. He bit his nail as he blankly stared up into the void sky through the glass panels.
"Frank?" Westley's investor began to sound annoyed. "Frank!"
He sighed and turned his chair around to the large office and a long table before him. It was too large of an office for one man to occupy, he would always think. So much so that the walls were equipped with calm waterfalls with which he could meditate, and alien trees which produced rich air and atmosphere he admired.

The investors, sitting at the long table via holograms stared silently, waiting for a reply.
"There is a difference between innovation and imagination," Westley began. "Innovation in our company is a concept with a purpose. It could be something we haven't done or something better. Something reachable, something... real. Imagination is a fool's dream. We humans have a tendency of dreaming up these wild things and get lost in our own thoughts. Imagination will always be thoughts that cannot be realized."
The investors remained silent.
"You, for example," Westley got up from the chair and began to slowly walk around the table. "I assume you imagine that you'd double up your profits by the end of this fiscal quarter, while pitifully drooling over the schematics, just as a mere child would imagine that he is a naval officer traveling around the stars."
"I... uh..." the investor began, but was soon cut off.
"That will never happen. That is your imagination. Gentlemen, the government has given me the green light to mass produce these units," Westley said.
"Have they invoked the federal obligation?"
"What exactly is the purpose of these units, then?" another investor asked.
"You could not see it in the schematics I have given you, as the actual schematics are classified."
"For?"
"These are weapons. Disposable weapons to be thrown away," Westley said and got back into his chair. The investors looked at one another, concerned.
"Mr. Westley, do you have any idea how much the mining industry is willing to pay this company to replace laborers with synths? We have talked about this!"
"Yes, we were so excited, that perhaps this time, you had developed mining units finally."
"Count me out of this project. I will not support it."
"Neither will I."
"You are right. I guess our imaginations have bested us."
Unsurprisingly to Westley, all investors had pulled out and shut off their holograms. He then immediately tapped into his comm.
"Connect me to the presidential palace. Encrypted channel," he said.
After a brief moment, a man answered from the other end.
"Yes?"
"Any news of the girl?" Westley said.
"Not yet," the man replied.
"Not even a vision?"
Silence.
"No," the man said.
"Are you hiding something from me, number three?" Westley.
"Why would I? You made me into a Consul after all."
"We. We made you into a Consul. Don't forget why we are doing this," Westley said. "Tell your military council a million DX units will be ready by the end of next month. In the mean time, the council expects you to come up with a plan to convince your admirals and generals to take the fight to the Estwani."
"You do understand we are in the midst of an invasion, correct? Are you confident that we can repel them from the Hermes system?"
"You will do what you must," Westley replied.
"Of course. Of course I will."
"Now, you are to gather the council as soon as the girl reaches out to you. She must have an insight on the situation in Hermes, so we should expect her contact soon."
"She may not even be a retainer for an Estwani noble, after what happened in Daraan. If anything, I fear for her well-being. And so should you, number one," the man replied. "Three, out."



Olympia System, FSS Atlas

Acting Admiral Moreau and Commander Zhi greeted Dr. Taylor as he disembarked from the military shuttle in the Titan's hangar, along with some naval engineers and other crews. By now, the unified fleet was traveling deeper into the Terran territory to meet the Estwani in Hermes system.

All of Terran sentry array was locked in a psionic temporal field, generated by thousands of powerful psionic priests within the invading Estwani fleet. Terran Federation was blind, relying on local sensors, and turning the unified fleet away from the border was more of a gamble, rather than strategic. Many senior officers tried to argue that there may be a second wave of Estwani fleets that would encroach upon Terran borders without being detected, and that the attack in Hermes was just a diversion to blindside the federation. Nevertheless, Consul Dugalle made the final decision, all without the insider knowledge from Auriel he once got.

Dr. Taylor was a middle aged man, in his 80s, and a top expert in theoretical psionic studies, which is often dismissed as pseudo-science within Terran academic circle. But he had created ways to integrate it with psychiatry, and that didn't sit well with Alex. He was also known for xeno history and archaeology, all pertaining to his interest in ancient xenos capable of psionics. That explained a lot about history lessons he pestered Alex with.

"You know, remote psionic attack isn't anything new. According to an archive found in Fen Habbanis, there are many folktales that mention similar events. Of course, these folk tales are just warped versions of the truths that were told millions of years ago," Taylor rambled on as he inserted a small canister into a CDS, a compound delivery system about the size and shape of a pistol. He laid the tip of the CDS onto Alex's arm and pulled the trigger, shooting the chemical into her vein. "Yes yes, before you ask, we did find a fragment of a truth that depicted such an event. From what I could gather, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and psionic capabilities just to break through the placenta of the psionic dimension--"
"The Shroud?" Alex interrupted.
"Yes, the Shroud. Anyways, all I'm saying is that whoever attacked the admiral must be an extremely powerful entity, to be able to reach out into the very fabric of reality! But worry not, such a feat shouldn't be possible again for a long while," he explained, and then tapped on Alex's arm. "All done."
"How can you be so sure?" Alex asked.
"About the treatment?"
"No. About the attack. How would you know if it couldn't happen again for a while?"
"Well, for one, certain laws apply in the Shroud as it does in our universe. And like the laws of energy and exchange here, there are laws of psionic energies. The fabric of the Shroud must be destroyed and kept open in order for the entity to accomplish such a feat. The Shroud has most likely returned the favor and held the entity accountable for the dimension to be sealed again, by draining an equal amount of his own energy that he used to rip open the Shroud. As I said, not an easy feat. He may be powerful, but even he may need a rest from all that expenditure. However, I do fear for his arrival," Taylor sighed and picked up his medical equipment.
"Wait, but why go through all that trouble just to get to Admiral Palmer?" Alex asked, half hoping Taylor had an aswer for her.
"My first theory suggests that he wanted to sow instability, by killing the leader of a most powerful Terran fleet," Taylor said and shrugged.
"And your second theory?"
"Is that Palmer wasn't his goal at all. Perhaps he got to someone or something he wanted, through Palmer," Taylor said, staring into Alex's eyes. "What ever he wanted accomplish, it must have been very important to try something like that."
She sat quietly for a while, with a bit of concern in the back of her mind, itching for some kind of consolation or affirmation.
"So... am I cleared for duty?" She asked, snapping back into focus.
"Yes. The concoction that I just gave you should neutralize the cascade effect."
"The what?" Alex asked.
"You'd feel fine now, but your brain would've scrambled and melted after a few days. It's a side effect of being grabbed by an entity from the Shroud," Dr. Taylor smiled as he explained.
"That's really reassuring doctor. Thanks, I guess," Alex said with sarcasm.
"By the way, I must meet with the one Commander Moreau. Your brother, I presume."
"That will be difficult. He's on a transport ship, and there is no way for you to get off this ship during transition. But we can set you up with internal fleet communications before we hit the gateway," Moreau replied.
"Thanks, that'll be fine."
Moreau wondered why Taylor would need to speak to her brother, but her suspicions faded quickly, as the scientist seemed too innocently quirky to be hiding anything. But her intuitions screamed otherwise. Any outsider sent by Dugalle must be watched. Especially if they had interest in her brother, no matter how innocent they seem, she thought.

Back at the bridge, on the main screen, there were two objects each about the size of a small moon. Both were on opposite ends and hovering over a dark vacuum. The surrounding of the vacuum warped the visuals of stars in the background, with faint white gas of its event horizon. The crew knew that, just beyond that gateway, through the vacuum, lied the Estwani fleet. The bridge was silent as they prepared themselves.
"Command, this is Commander Zhi of FSS Atlas. We are approaching gateway bravo zulu three," Zhi spoke into her comm while watching the screen. "We need romeo alpha nine gate in Hermes opened, over."
"Atlas, you are cleared for approach."
"Fleet, this is acting Admiral Moreau. Engage sublight speed on my mark."
"All weapons and shields are online, strikecrafts are standing by," an officer at a station informed.
"Engage," Alex ordered. The Unified Terran Fleet moved towards the gateway in formation.




Hermes System, Hermes Fortress Habitat

The compact stealth shuttle's hatch opened, and General Markovics was met with sharp and loud hissing of the engine.
"General Markovics, welcome to Hermes hab. I'm Colonel Lee," an army officer of the Federal Planetary Defense Force shouted while saluting as Markovics emerged from the shuttle.

Markovics looked up as a pair of VTOLs broke the sound barrier above. He paced himself to the edge of the landing pad. Below him, he saw highways and flat plains of green surrounding the enormous pyramid structure that he was on. From the vantage point, he could almost see the edge of the habitat just above the horizon. On the surface of the building were the numbers "01". There were more hangar bays and landing pads that emerged from the surface, as well as mounted cannons and missiles.
"This is ant hill one! This is currently the command center for the entire ground forces in this habitat!" the officer shouted over the loud engines, which grew even louder as the stealth shuttle lifed off. The noises became a lot calmer as it blasted off with a loud bang, towards the atmospheric field above.
"How many have we got?" Markovics asked, while looking at the fields below the fort.
"We've got little more than half of a million in this fort, and around two million and a half fighters throughout the hab. Four, if you are counting the citizenry," the officer replied.
"What a mess," Markovics mumbled.
"Sorry?"
"I was already briefed on the way here. But I wanna know if any ant hills have engaged the enemy," Markovics said.
"Not yet. They are still hurling."
Both walked to the entrance and got inside, where concealed gun emplacements were being loaded by crews.
"What are they hurling? What's the yield?" Markovics asked.
"For now, they are just throwing rocks at us, about the size of a holo-theater. Few thousand civilian casualties."
"What the hell were those civilians doing on the surface level?"
"Evacuating," Lee said. "They are punching the hull of the habitat, and one of the subterranean sector was compromised."
"Let them chip away at the hull. They couldn't bring this hab down in a million years if they tried," Lee spoke again when Markovics stayed silent. The pair walked down the long hallway and passed several armories and concealed hangars. They got into a transporter car nearby, which quickly took them to where they needed to be - the command center, located at the heart of the fortress which was the safest place to be.

At the command center, there were different stations, some monitoring the status of the shields and other forts scattered throughout the habitat. One Markovics was interested in was the orbital monitoring station, where the cluster of the Estwani fleet was present on the screen.
"We are getting information that the unified fleet is less than ten days away," a soldier reported from a different station.
"Yeah, I can see that. Looks like I came just in time," Markovics said, staring at the scrambling Estwani fleet. It was as if a hornet's nest had been disturbed. Out of the fleet's cluster came forward over a dozen ships. Suddenly those ships released thousands upon thousands of objects. They showered through space like droplets in the rain.
"Enemy dropships!" a soldier shouted out.
"This is good. They're rushing. Here they come," Markovics said, smiling. How's the FTL inhibitor holding?"
"It's holding steady, sir."
"Good. They made a mistake coming into our home turf."
One of the larger Estwani ships brightened, and out from under it came a large ball of energy which traveled much faster than the tiny dropships. In a blink of an eye, it had passed the waves of dropships and was heading straight to the command fort.
"It's a missile, sir. It will get past our shield!"
"That is one big ass missile," Markovics said.
"Incoming missile strike. All personnel, brace for impact," an announcer's voice spoke throughout the entire fort, before the alarms went off.
Markovics and Colonel Lee watched the screen as the announcer counted down until impact. When it approached close to the fort, the screens went dark and came back on, followed by a slight vibration on the floor.
The screen showed bright blue flash, which faded and revealed massive red balls of flame rising a few kilometers off of the surface of the fort.
"Status?" Colonel Lee asked.
"We have 10,682 casualties, 14,079 wounded, sir."
"Shoot down as many of those dropships as you can," Lee ordered the station's chief in charge of the guns.
Markovics took off his bag and removed his officer's uniform, until he was almost naked. The others looked awkwardly. He unpacked the bag, got into his combat pants and boots, and wore the combat armor plates with nothing underneath but his tanktop. He took out his pistol and checked its chamber, and then began to assemble the parts of his rifle.
"What do you think you are doing, general?" Lee asked, baffled.
"You take care of things here. Imma have me some xeno hunting fun."
"What... I don't even..."
"Relax buddy. This is why I'm here."
"You know we don't use that rifle anymore, right?" Lee pointed out. "Your gear... they are outdated."
"I don't need some pansy ass pea shooter. This old baby right here does the job just fine," Markovics said, holding up the assembled rifle and resting it on his shoulder. It had various scratches and markings on it. Kill counts. There were many.
"As they say, colonel. Hold down the fort," Markovics chuckled. He left the command center. The colonel looked around at the awe-struck soldiers.
"Get back to your duties!"


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The first wave of dropships passed through the atmospheric field and crashed down like hail storm, crashing into and destroying buildings, streets and fields. Some exploded in mid air when lasers intercepted them as they flew down. But the vast majority of them seemed to have swept right through the defenses, and landed in the urban area near the habitat's administrative HQ structure.
Out of each of the dropships, dozens upon dozens of Estwani troops flooded out, screaming. Some dropships carried armored vehicles, and some released aerial strikecrafts into the air which blasted off into the artificial sky.

The 122nd of the FPD troops were garrisoned in the city center, and have established the administrative HQ as their base of operation. When the small squad at a vantage point got back up after the shocks from the impacts of the dropships, they quietly took a look around and found the area swarming with Estwani troops. They administrative building was surrounded and cut off from all flanks secured by the 128th and 144th. To their dismay, they began to hear explosions and firefights where the two army groups were located, in addition to Estwani aircrafts overwhelming their positions.
"Oh shit!" a soldier shouted. "We are screwed!"
In the distance, part of the 122nd that were dug in at a plaza began firing at the incoming Estwani troops. But they too were surrounded. The Estwani had landed in such a way that pockets of the 122nd's positions were surrounded and overrun almost immediately.
Artillery guns and VTOL fighters emerged from the forts, to provide support to army groups that were fighting on the ground.

Inside the admin HQ, colonel Nassar was monitoring the virtual battle space, and witnessed the slow disintegration of his army group.
"We are too spread apart. I need to consolidate our position and break through, and rejoin with the 144th army group. They are closest to our current position," Nasser spoke into his comm. "We need artillery and air support to create a path through the encirclement."
"We can grant you fire missions, but you must defend your position at all costs. General Markovics will relieve you with 113th assault group," Colonel Lee replied.
"What's his ETA?"
"One hour."
"Alright. We will hold."
"Good luck."

battle-for-yaletown-992x567.jpg


Inside a pillbox, the Terran soldiers fired their weapons into the distance where Estwani were approaching.
"They are trying to close in on us," one of the soldiers said.
"Good thing we ain't fighting the Lox. I hear they got some crazy tech that can kill us from afar, before we can even see them."
"Why do I get a feeling that these guys aren't even trying?"
"They probably aren't."
"Don't jinx it."
"Alright, we can't let them through the plaza or we are screwed."
A soldier, his skin pale and sweat drenching his face, shivered in the corner of the small bunker. But others seemed too preoccupied to have noticed him.
"No no please don't make me do it," he whimpered. His hands violently shook as he reached for his fusion grenade. The click of the safety of the grenade was all too familiar for the soldiers. They turned around and saw their mortified comrade holding the grenade up in the air.

"What the hell?" Colonel Nasser squinted at the virtual battlespace holo, when the perimeter defenses slipped out of existence one by one. He quickly ran to the window of the building, and looked out to the direction of the central plaza. Pillars of smoke rose from defensive circle around the admin HQ. Although the perimeter was a few kilometers away, Nasser knew it was only a matter of time until the Estwani swarmed the HQ.
 

HistoryDude

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Well, things are going badly.

If I'm reading this right, though, there is hope. The Estwani aren't as united as they'd like us to think...

Hopefully, Auriel can help defeat them...
 

Macavity116

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Remind me not to get on Auriel's bad side. Really enjoyed the action in this chapter, too! :)