X Nate, three days after the meteors came. X

I couldn't go to sleep. I'd been twisting around on the mat for what seemed like hours. Everyone else was already asleep except for a few guys who were standing guard. Any minute now we'd wake up, get back in those trucks, and go kill those guys. I shuddered at the word. I can't do this. Even if they were criminals, I didn't want to be the guy who pulled the trigger. I hadn't even finished my training yet! And here they were expecting me to go against trained gunmen. They expected too much of me and nearly killed me when I showed them. Desertion seemed a better idea now.

I sat up and glanced over the others. Macy was sleeping just a little ways down the line. No, I wasn't interested in her; I still couldn't forget Maria. Besides, Macy seemed to be the only one to get that I was just a kid, and she was the only friendly person here besides Russell. I lay back on my cot for maybe an hour before everyone started getting up. I was so tired that I barely managed, and I ended up falling asleep once we were in the back in the truck. I had a nightmare where I got executed for some horrible screw-up I made. I jerked awake, and then I saw the others were staring at me. I awkwardly scratched my head and didn't say anything. A few minutes later, the truck slowed down and turned a corner before stopping. I watched another truck stop behind us.

"Alright, dismount!" someone yelled. When I tried to get off the truck, I ended up falling to the ground. Marcus helped me up.

"C'mon; let's grab the mortar," he said. Most of the supplies were in the two trucks, which were now being emptied. I looked around.

"Whoa…" I stared at the giant house in front of me. I realized everyone was parking in the driveway. Man, this dude has got to be loaded…

"Squad and platoon leaders, line up!" I recognized the voice of Captain Sallee. I stood behind Eugene and Marcus. They were holding the large case for the mortar between them.

Okay, this is what intel knows so far. We're up against a group of mercenaries that call themselves 'Golden Dawn'. They've been serving as mercenaries for large corporations in the past couple of years, and are highly skilled and experienced." I gulped. She continued.

"They specialize mainly in guerilla warfare, but the only weapons they have are what they stole from the convoy. Corporal Richards," she pointed to a non-com a few meters away from her, "take your squad and do a recon on the blue mansion over there." She pointed to a house further down the road. "That's supposed to be their base." The corporal nodded and left, with a few other soldiers following close behind.

"This is some serious stuff," Marcus said. He didn't look excited, which made me more nervous. I wasn't the only one, either. Since we technically were trainees, we had slightly different uniforms. I counted at least twenty people who wore the same uniform as I did.

Why are they doing this to us?We were kids; why should we have to fight? The corporal and his men returned and talked to Captain Sallee, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. She called us all back after a minute.

"Okay, they've made their base in a mansion seven houses down. Based on court documents, there are probably fifty of them." I breathed a sigh of relief; we had more guys on our side. "Here's the battle plan: sniper teams and mortar crews will fire from the roof of this house."

"Huh?" I cast a terrified look at the tall house. No one paid any attention.

"First Platoon has perimeter security here, and will quickly establish a second roadblock after the assault starts." She pointed down the street. "The machine gun teams will take cover in the house next door. They'll lay down suppressive fire while Second Platoon assaults the house. I want two squads in the front and two on both sides. All teams will move as soon as the mortars initiate the first strike against the barricade they've set up in the driveway."

Us, I realized. We were going to begin the attack…

"Questions?" She looked around. I almost raised my hand to ask if we had to fire from the roof. "To your positions then!" Everyone else was either jumping up to the trucks or going back to their Humvees. Eugene and Marcus started carrying the case indoors. I reluctantly followed.

Oh, God. I felt like I'd pass out again. We'd have to kill them; there was no other option. I still didn't want to, even if they were the bad guys. Just walking up the stairs made my stomach hurt.

We pretty much got lost. The house was so big; we kept wandering into spare bedrooms or bathrooms. One bedroom had a body in it. I let out a terrified shout and jumped back. Marcus dropped his side of the crate. We left, quickly pretending we hadn't seen a decaying corpse.

We eventually found the attic, and there we saw a window fixed onto the roof. "They sure know how to decorate," Eugene pointed out.

"Wow…" I looked in amazement. I hadn't seen much in the truck, but this neighborhood was huge! Big mansions were lined up one beside the other. This was where millionaires lived. Then, I noticed the mercenary's headquarters.

The house looked abandoned now. There was paint and graffiti all over the walls, and most of the windows were broken. In the drive way, they had sport cars grouped together in a barricade. I suddenly shrunk closer to the ground.

I could see the guys even from here. There must've been thirty of them outside! Just how many people do they really have?

"That's a lot of them." Eugene seemed scared too.

"Heavy Weapons Platoon is in place," Lieutenant Whitley reported over the radio.

"Sniper teams are taking positions." I jumped as two other men climbed up behind me. I never even noticed them. The three of us glanced at each other and unlatched the case for the mortar. It wasn't very hard to set up—you only had to assemble the base plate, barrel, and bipod. Adjusting the bipod determined where it landed. That's why I was here.

"Where should we hit?" Marcus pulled out his binoculars. I bit my lip; I didn't want to think about how many people would be killed if we didn't get enough of them in our first try. I reached for the mortar and unlatched the bipod to lower the barrel slightly lower.

"That should just hit the cars—right?" I asked uneasily. There were a lot of them gathered around the cars.

"Uh, this is mortar team, preparing to fire." Eugene's voice cracked when he said that last bit. I gripped my side of the mortar tightly as Eugene took a shell out of the case. He held it above the tube and looked at me. I probably didn't look reassuring—I was about to puke. Marcus was staring at us instead of through his binoculars.

"Any day now, boys!" one of the snipers snapped irritably. We all jumped.

"You sure this'll hit the barricade?" Eugene asked. I nodded, too afraid to speak. He looked from there to the mortar and shrugged.

"Fire in the hole!" He dropped the shell into the tube. I immediately ducked and covered my neck with my right hand, with my left hand holding the mortar.

I'd gotten used to firing it in the past few days, but the way it shook seemed odd to me. I didn't look up till the explosion had stopped. When the gunfire broke out, I almost ran back inside. I couldn't even see anything when I looked up—there was too much smoke. I did see the APCs turn into the driveway.

Gunfire kept going off behind the smoke. "Are we supposed to fire again?" Marcus thought aloud. My mouth was glued shut.

"Hold your fire," Lieutenant Whitley ordered over the radio. "We may hit our guys." I pressed myself down and covered my head in case any bullets came towards us.

The firefight seemed to drag on for an hour, and there was another explosion. "Damn, there goes a Humvee," one of the snipers said. When the gunfire began to slacken off, I looked up.

The sports cars had stopped smoking, and I saw the APCs sitting in the driveway, with our soldiers taking cover behind them. Most of the fighting seemed to be going on inside the house, and I ducked again as one of the windows shattered.

Oh, man. I kept pleading in my head over and over again for it to be over soon. The gunfire stopped after a few minutes.

"Building clear," a voice growled through the radio. I sighed and sat up in relief. Finally out of danger… "Twenty hostiles neutralized," the voice went on. I squirmed.

"We got the rest down here. Search the house for weapons or hostages. All other teams: hold your positions," Captain Sallee ordered.

It was over. I sat there dumbly for a while. I'd been scared completely shitless at the idea of killing other people, but I didn't feel anything right now. Does that mean I'm a bad person? It wasn't like I enjoyed it, but why didn't I feel guilty?

"All squads: pack up!" Captain Sallee called. "We've over stayed our welcome." I helped Eugene and Marcus load the mortar back into the box.

"Well, what now?" I asked.

"We head back to town, and we stay there," one of the snipers answered. It was as if I'd asked a stupid question.

"How was your first time?" Macy asked as soon as we reached the driveway.

"… I don't feel anything." I realized she wouldn't believe me as soon as it left my mouth. Instead, she nodded.

"It takes time to set in." She patted my back. She went back to talk to some other soldiers.

"Friendly, isn't she?" Marcus elbowed me. I ignored him. Once we climbed back into the truck, a lot of the recruits were excitedly discussing the fighting. It was stupid—people had died! I nearly puked when I thought about it. They acted like it was some adventure, but we had to do what others told us.

What's so great about being a soldier to these people?

X Vera, three days after the meteors came. X

Unbelievable—what idiots!More unladylike words were crossing my mind, but I restrained myself. I'd put up with a lot this year: the bad food, the small living space and even smaller bathrooms, the lack of sun, the uncomfortable gender-neutrality policies, Kerrigan, and the simpletons that made up the rest of my squadron. I'd managed to deal with all of it without complaining. The least I expected in return was to be able to do my job.

We weren't going airborne any time soon. There weren't a lot of reserve craft on the ship, and what ones there were had gone to Stancill's flight. All the carriers in the fleet were understaffed; any one of them could deploy ninety planes instead of the thirty usually assigned, but we got the surplus while most of the planes and pilots went to the main fleets. Again, it came down to our idiot government. Oh, but of course they tried to bribe us with an offer to go look on a nearby island for aircraft. The base had been decommissioned for several years, and there was no chance of there being F-18s or A-10s on that island for us. So, Heather and I stayed, as did Vincent. The three of us were waiting for their return in our quarters.

"It's completely foolish." I stared at the bottom of Heather's bunk as if it would provide some relief. I greatly disliked being powerless, especially when those in power were so incompetent.

"And insulting," Heather added, "we could do more than any of them." This was the reason we were friends, why we acted normal around each other, and why we could be open on even the most intimate issues: we thought exactly alike, we knew how to balance seriousness with fun, and we were above childish giggling at perfectly normal subjects. The same could not be said for the others or some of the older EMs.

"Yeah, we could." We sat in silence for some time, mulling silently over the injustice until Heather got out of her bunk.

"I need to use the head," she announced.

"I'll go with you." I hopped down my bed. I didn't fancy being alone in this room, anyway. A few minutes later, while we were on our way back to our compartment, we ran into Vincent in the hallways. Rather than let us pass, he decided to start a conversation.

"What're your thoughts on all of this?" he asked. I was slightly surprised; he wasn't really talkative outside of missions.

"It's clearly humanity's darkest day," I said. "This new attack seems to have done severe damage to the planet." I remembered the red sky. The ecological and atmospheric damage was very visible. Vincent nodded.

"What weapon could even do such a thing?" Heather pondered.

"I don't think it was a weapon," Vincent admitted. I looked curiously at him. "The sky looks like those pictures in history books about when the dinosaurs went extinct.

"... Ash blocking out the sun." I remembered those pictures.

"It was caused by meteors," Heather remembered. "They also caused extremely destruction of the landscape and caused water levels to—" Heather and I both jumped as if we'd been struck. Realization came to us in a brilliant stroke, and I again chastised myself for being ignorant as of late.

"Meteors—that explains all of it!" I exclaimed. "But, if a second meteor shower…" I cringed with fear. It was worse than war. I felt light-headed, and the next second Vincent grabbed my shoulder. "Steady, there," he said. I straightened up immediately and shrugged him off.

"I'm fine." I stood erect to make a point. "It is quite possible," I conceded, "though it fails to explain the fighting that followed."

"People are paranoid," Vincent shrugged. "They probably thought it was artillery." He had a point; people were that unintelligent. I tried to digest this information. On one hand, it did mean my educational goals were certainly delayed. On the other, armed with this information, we could prevent fighting and thus not endanger ourselves more than necessary.

"Admiral Ryman should hear this," I decided out loud. Heather nodded. Vincent didn't look convinced.

"Would he even listen?" he asked.

"He's a leader," I said impatiently. "He's supposed to listen to his subordinates." Besides, I saw him interact with his subordinates numerous times before, anyway. "Let's go." We got a couple of odd looks by other sailors as we went past them on our way to the bridge. Let them stare and go on with their lower work. We ran into trouble finally just below the bridge.

"Sorry ma'am, he's engaged in other matters." The Marine standing guard denied our request.

"We have a plausible theory on what happened." Heather let go of my hand and crossed her arms. If this intrigued the Marine, he had the discipline not to show it. Her words had the desired effect, and the Marine told us to follow him.

The bridge was as busy as any flagship. Officers ran in every direction; others talked seriously at their stations, but every motion remained fluid and even. Admiral Ryman was talking with Captain Benedict, the ship's commander.

"Sir, you requested the presence of anyone who can offer an explanation." The Marine saluted.

"Yes I did." We saw that it immediately got the admiral's attention. "At ease, Corporal."Captain Benedict, on the other hand, glanced at us in clear disapproval. "Cavender, Waites, Schoenfeld." He addressed us all by our last names—his habit of micromanaging the Air Wing had given him that talent. "I had a feeling it'd be one of your flight—bright bunch there." The pride I felt allowed me to completely ignore Captain Benedict, who didn't look so convinced. "So, what do you got?"

I quickly launched into the explanation, quoting a similar occurrence millions of years ago, and how the effects were similar now. No sooner did I finish did Heather launch into an explanation of how it could have led to an outbreak of fighting.

"Vincent was the one who suggested it." We both said it as we concluded, but he hadn't stepped forward to take credit. Unlike Amy, we gave credit where it was due.

Admiral Ryman nodded throughout the whole speech with his hand on his chin. Captain Benedict said nothing but kept frowning. While they didn't turn their faces, I could tell all of the officers nearby had an ear toward our conversation.

"Truth is, I've heard that from a few others, too. I'm starting to believe it's a plausible theory. Well, I won't pretend that makes things any better." Admiral Ryman shook his head. "Of course, we have no definite proof, but it's something to act on. In any case, we still have to continue our humanitarian operations, and we must maintain a state of constant alert." He stopped for a moment. "Your flight is still grounded, right?"

"Yes sir," we all said. He shook his head.

"Not anymore." He smiled rather indulgently at our astonished expressions before continuing. "Unfortunately, a carrier that had just been commissioned was passing through here and got pushed into the rocks on the far side of the island." I covered my mouth in surprise. It was a lucky break, no doubt. "The surviving crew and planes are being recovered as we speak." He then continued in graver tone of voice. "I know this is not perhaps how you envisioned returning to the skies, but in these desperate times, we must take extreme measures."

"We understand, sir." The three of us nodded, but a certain thought kept running in my head as he said that last bit. Mankind enjoyed a slight superiority over Mother Nature because of intelligence—and that no longer seemed to be the case today. Admiral Ryman nodded and continued.

"You're dismissed. Thank you again for the information." We exchanged salutes and were ushered out of the room quickly; he was a busy individual.

"Not much of a progress," I said bitterly. It seemed every step forward was greeted with a step back. Those poor people… I wasn't superstitious, but knowing those planes had been used by someone else made my stomach twist painfully. Keep looking forward, I told myself. At least some good had come out of it; our chances of combat were far less likely now, but that was all I could think of. I felt queasy again.

"I think I'm going to lie down for a few hours," I told them, and then I went straight to bed without as much as a backward glance.

After a few minutes, which were much too soon in my opinion, we were called for a briefing session. We were the last to arrive, earning us stares from everyone else. Ignoring them, we took our seats without raising a fuss.

"Thank you for coming," Admiral Ryman said. He paced back and forth, his face almost set in a grimace. "Earlier, we received a theory that explains everything that has happened so far." This grabbed everyone's attention, and Admiral Ryman went straight to the point. "We think it may have been meteors." And he repeated our theory as if it was a memorized speech.

I smirked at the various expressions going around the room, ranging from terror to skepticism. As if they'd have come up with a better one themselves. Heather was smiling, too.

"Nevertheless, if this is true or not, we still have to carry out our humanitarian operations and maintain a constant state of alert. We are staying here for two more days to help repair civilian infrastructure. After that, we move on. Now that we have a more capable Air Wing, patrols will be organized so that we have a constant BARCAP around the clock. We cannot allow any less."

"What military district are we in?" Captain Bostack asked.

"We are not sure yet," Admiral Ryman responded, "but we are still below the Main Belt." He was referring to the contested islands that made up the center of the Channel. At the very least, there was a low chance of us encountering enemy ships and aircraft in this sector. When no one else spoke up, he continued.

"I want all pilots rested and ready to fly at the slightest sign of trouble. This is not a scenario we ever trained for, but it is one we will face with everything we have. Dismissed."

XX Author's Note XX

The map in Vera's part is meant to be the Antipode map in the N. A. version (I am unaware if the map names are different in the EUR version). I meant to incorporate some combat on her part, starting with some small combat scenes like Nate. However, I am still trying to refine my descriptive ability of air warfare, so it'll have to be on the next chapter.