Round Hammer, Long Nail

Part 3 – 'Shuffle the Deck'

EAS Typhon, Crew Quarters

After his brief heart-to-heart with a troublesome member of the crew, he went to his quarters, locked the door, assumed the lotus position, and reached out with his mind. The lights were dimmed, a white noise generator turned on to block the noise the machinery and the crew. His gloves removed, PPG sidearm set aside, and a candle lit as his focus.

This universe had so many questions. Not just how they came here, but who their hosts really were, what was their agenda, and how much of a threat they held, or how much potential they had as allies. Those were secondary concerns, something the mundanes may figure out in time. He had other priorities. Where there other of his kind in this universe? Could he speak to them? Could they speak back? And what was the state of their kind here?

He would find answers by searching through alternative means. His was remote viewing, and at a rating of P-12, he was quite skilled at it.

Opening his mind, filtering out the background noise of the thoughts of the Typhon crew, he reached out anyone with the potential for the gift. Their minds, if unpractised in the arts of shielding and protection, would stick out like his candle, brightly shining in the darkness.

And found this universe sorely lacking in potential.

Throughout the fleet of their hosts, the United Nations Taskforce, he sensed the flickering, weak sparks of unaware P-1's and P-2's, and very little else.

"How disappointing." he thought. "But then again, if they are a century behind us in technology, they may be a century behind us in developing psychics too."

His mind reached out further. Beyond the fleet. And there he saw a flame. Though weak by his standards, in this universe it burned much brighter than the rest. A P-3, maybe even a P-5. Unrealized in their potential, or were they doubting the gift? Narrowing his focus, he reached out with increasing mental vigor, straining his abilities to touch the mind. Connected! He could scan her un-shielded surface thoughts. See through her eyes in a dreamy haze. He felt the muted physical sensation of straps pressing against a flight suit, felt her bumps and bruises.

Sensed her urgency, her panic, her fear. Part of it was the cracked canopy, the other thoughts of oxygen in her exo-atmospheric suit. And another still for her partner, whom he saw strapped to the adjacent pilot's seat, head lolled, mumbling in semi-conscious discomfort.

Damphousse was reaching for a microphone and adjusting a knob on a console. He saw the numbers on the display. 1.8 terahertz. She depressed the trigger and spoke with urgency. "This is Lieutenant Damphousse, 58th Squadron, U.S. Marine Corp. Our ISSAPC has crash-landed on Anvil. Captain Vansen is injured and requires medical attention. Please, if anyone can hear us, send someone for immediate dust-off. I repeat, Lieutenant Damphousse, US Marines, we have crash landed on Anvil and require immediate evacuation!"

Then, he heard something else. A clicking noise, in the back of his mind, not in the area of the crashed pilots. At first he thought it unrelated, until he focused more on the clicking noise.

"We've got two hours of oxygen, and I don't know if the Chigs have spotted us. I... hope someone out there can hear us."

The clicking grew louder, faster, and more frequent. When the psychic tried focusing on the noise, he caught another mind. An alien mind. Its surface thought illegible, but its emotions clear as any human's. It was excited, anxious.

And ready to spill blood.

He took a deep breath and gasped in alarm, abruptly ending the remote viewing session.

One of his own was in trouble, and they had to be rescued at all cost.

He tapped the comlink on his wrist. "Communications room."

The response was immediate from a female on the other end. "Warrant Officer Endicott here. What is it, Sir?"

He thought a moment what to say. The mission demanded discretion, though how much it applied as the situation changed could be argued. Still, he didn't want to reveal his psychic status, not while being secret still held an advantage. He though of a lie, and quick. "I was going over the reports. There's a spike in the EM band at 1.8 Terahertz. Could you check it out and report back?"

"Aye, Sir. Tuning in now." There was a long pause before he heard back. "Sir, it's a distress call. Two US Marine Corp pilots, crash landed on a moon in the Zeta Reticulii system."

"I see." He took up his side arm and snuffed the candle. "Please inform the Captain. I will be there shortly."

USS Saratoga, Crew Quarters

Together, surrounded by the bunks of departed comrades, they stared at the ceiling.

Waiting. For anything. For a call-up to action. For a reprimand. For chow. For scuttlebutt. For news on their squadmates. For a medal, or a court martial.

How the last several days of crew quarters confinement unravelled for the 58th Wildcards Squadron, it could be any of those choices, or a few all at once.

Until then, the two remaining members of the Wildcards stayed in their bunks.

And it was fraying on their nerves.

Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes was the first to crack. He lifted himself off his bunk, his boots loudly impacting on the metal floor. He ran his fingers through his crew cut out of frustration. His voice cried out in angst, "Are they gonna do something or what?!"

While Hawkes was prone to aggressive displays, Lieutenant Nathan West was habitually taciturn under such conditions. What drove him to speak wasn't a need to express himself, but to head off the hotheaded Tank's outbursts. "We'll get word when there's word to get, Coop. Just sit down."

"I can't just sit down, West!" Hawkes balled his fist. His anger wasn't directed at his squad mate. He thought of the bulkhead door, locked down and under guard, between him and freedom, or more importantly, news. He raised his fist at the door. "There's a war going on outside and they're keeping us in here, where we-" He banged on the door with the flat of his fist. "-can't do squat! Hey! Are we fired yet or not?!"

"Settle down, Coop." West rose out of his bunk, trying the more diplomatic approach to calm his squad mate. "For all we know something else has come up. They haven't stopped sending us chow, so they haven't forgotten about us."

"Yeah." Hawkes lamented. "But they sure seem to remember us when they need us to pull their asses out of the fire!"

"So then it means our asses aren't in the fire." West countered. "It means our situation's no different than it was the last time they spoke to us. Look, I know you're frustrated. So am I. But at least nothing's changed for the worst."

Hawkes shot back. "Like you don't feel it too. I mean, is McQueen okay? Did they find the others? Are we still at war? Are we being court martialed or what?"

"I doubt it." West said. "I mean, we couldn't have know about the Chig on Anvil. We couldn't know that'd scuttle Round Hammer. And we rescued the Tellus colony survivors. They have to put that into consideration."

"Yeah, right." replied the cynical Hawkes. "At least you have your girlfriend and a civilian life to go back to. Me? People don't hire Tanks, much less Tanks with a criminal record and a dishonorable discharge. I have no life outside the Corp. If I'm drummed out that's it. I'm done." Holding such finality in his words, Hawkes anger dropped, revealing a panicked vulnerability. "And the Wildcards I've got no friends, no family, nobody."

West felt deep sympathy for his squadron mate. When Hawkes joined the Marine Corp, he was a criminal serving a sentence. West resented Hawkes, the symbolic representation of the Invitros who replaced Nathan in the Tellus colony expedition. Once they shared the same mud and same blood, such issues of race disappeared. There were only his squadron mates, bonded in combat, bound by the Marine Corp.

It was a kinship transcending race and social standing.

"You still got me." West patted Hawkes on the shoulder, a thin smile escaping. "And once we hit civilian life, you know I got your back."

"Yeah." Hawkes grinned slightly, a sarcastic edge it his voice stubbornly holding on. "Me too." His smile soon disappeared. "I just wish I could have their backs right now, you know?"

"Me too, Coop. Me too. But don't worry. We'd be the first people Commodore Ross would let know the second McQueen wakes up, or the second they find Vansen and Damphousse. Hell, even if Wang pulls a miracle, we'll be the first to know." West reclined back on his bunk. "Meantime we wait, and hope no news is good news. And hey, we're still getting the mail. Why don't you put in that new record you got yesterday?"

Hawkes sniffed. "It's a CD, West. But sure, even though we've already listened to it so much even I'm sick of it."

"Yeah, but on the bright side the guards are sick of it too." West joked.

"Alright." Hawkes went to his pile of CD and flipped through the cases. "Never Mind the Bollocks or Iron Maiden's Powerslave?"

Both men's attentions were grabbed by a loud knock on the metallic door. The hatch opened. Commodore Ross, stern-faced, waited for the two Wildcards to stand at attention. "I'd prefer some Muddy Waters myself, but beggars can't be choosers. Suit up. You two'll want to come with me and hear what we have to say."

Briefing Room, USS Saratoga, 06:30 hours

"So they're alive?" Hawkes blurted out, excited. "Vansen? Wang? Damphousse? All of them?"

While Hawkes was focused on the status of his squad mates, Lieutenant West's mind was on the implications of what he was seeing. Himself, Hawkes, Commodore Ross, and several of the Saratoga's senior staff were communicating with their counterparts from another vessel.

From another universe.

Considering how much there was to process, he wished for Hawkes' single-mindedness.

Artur Kirpisuu, captain of the EAS Typhon appeared earnest and reserved as he explained in accented english. "We have not heard from your Lieutenant Paul Wang, but we have confirmed a Captain Shane Vansen and Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse have crash landed on the moon you designate as 'Anvil'."

"Which begs the question." Commodore Ross interrupted. "How did you pick up their distress call? We haven't heard a thing."

Kirpisuu explained, "We suspect our communications equipment is more advanced than your own, certainly more sensitive. Regardless, it was a stroke of luck that we've detected the signal at all. It was very faint and using a process we've considered obsolete, no offence."

"Considering the displays of firepower you put on against the Chigs, none taken, Captain." Commodore Ross crossed his arms. "We are grateful for your assistance in this matter."

"As we are to you, Commodore." Kirpisuu replied.

Hawkes asked loudly, "So, we're gonna rescue them, right?"

"Yes." Ross nodded his head, "However, you all must understand the position we're in at this moment. Our tactical situation is becoming increasingly untenable. We're hours away from being enveloped by two Chig fleets unless we pull out now. What's keeping us here is the Typhon, who needs to effect repairs to get mobile. To buy some time, I've scrambled every Hammerhead we've got to harass and slow down the Chig fleets before they arrive. That means if we send an rescue team to save our pilots they'll be going in unescorted."

"Wait, what about us?" West chimed in. "Can't you just give us our Hammerheads back?"

"That won't be possible." Commodore Ross said. "We've reassigned them to new pilots."

"You took away our birds?!" Hawkes objected.

Ross rose his voice sharply, "We used them as we needed them. But we still have an ISSAPC transport armed and ready to fly. You two will be on it with a detachment of Marines. Unless... our guests have something better?"

"Armed you say?" Tarrayo spoke up. "We have a trans-atmospheric shuttle, but it's unarmed. Your ISSAPC would be a better option."

"Be that as it may, and as much as I hate to come in, hat in hand, I still must ask for assistance."

Kirpisuu said, "More accurately, you must leverage the current advantages you have over us, such as assistance in repairs. I am familiar with realpolitik, Commodore."

Ross face puckered. "I wouldn't have put it in such words, but it is what it is."

Kirpisuu nodded in agreement. "For better or worse, our fates are tied. We must support each other for the sake of future self-interests. For my ship to potentially return to our universe, and for you to survive your... tactically untenable situation." He added, "Besides, we must foster trust between each other if we are to survive this. We are sympathetic to your plight. If our pilots were stranded, we would hope for your assistance as well. Paladin Squadron will be your escort."

West asked, "I don't know how good they are, what their fighters are capable of. How far can we rely on them for support?"

Tarrayo was first to answer. "Paladin Squadron already fought against your Chigs and won with minimal losses and no fatalities. From what we've seen, the Starfury is more than a match. Just don't ask us to do ground support. Ours are the Aurora model, rated only for space combat."

West said, "It'll probably be hot on the ground. Pretty risky."

"As I said before." Ross mused at West and Hawkes, "Beggars can't be choosers. No time to tilt. It's time to deal."

To Be Continued...