SS2

Prologue

Another day, another case. Junior Agent Simon Decker pulled the lever to recline the passenger seat back, but it jammed two or three clicks shy. Stupid piece of second-hand junk. Work for the government they'd said, join the cyber-division and fight terrorist hackers. And, being a naive, freshly graduated college graduate finally off the parents' credit card and facing bills for the first time in his life, he'd agreed. His parents had been upset, had seen it as way beneath his potential.

The hours were better, the benefits better, the pay better, in the private sector. But, dang it, he'd wanted to serve his country. His parents had hoped he's show more loyalty to Tri-Optimum where they were mid-level officers trying to rebuild back to the glory days before the whole Citadel Station fiasco. If he'd taken that job he sure wouldn't be here now, three years on, in a second hand no-frills Ford with a broken recliner. So much for the good old days when the pay was still bad, but the government bought everything new.

Simon sighed and gave up on the recliner.

"Okay Sanchez, what have we got today?"

Senior Agent Daniel Sanchez drove through the outskirts of Los Angeles with practiced ease, weaving through cars on the I-10. Traffic was as heavy as always these days, but it was at least bearable on atuday mornings such as this one. The freeway veered left to face full east, and he paused a moment to pull down the sun visor before answering.

"Another scare and share for the DoD."

"Another one, huh? What'd this one do?"

Sanchez glanced at his junior partner who was staring out the window at another beatufiul fall day in Los Angeles. The air was even clean ever since Tri-Optimum set up camp here and decided the polluted air made them lose face with their fellow mega-corporations. But it had come at a price, and this crappy car, this days work, was only a small part of the price the government had to pay. Was still paying.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a second and took a deep breath. Easy Sanchez. Thinking about this stuff is what got you bumped down here to feeder runs in the first place. Do your on and let the higher ups worry about keeping a leash on these corporate megalomaniacs.

Sanchez turned back Decker to answer. "What did he do? Not much. Started trying to look in places he shouldn't have. He's inexperienced, made a lot of rookie mistakes and raised some red flags in the system."

Decker grunted and turned to give his senior partner a sardonic look. "So the old man sends us in to the rescue. Fantastic." He shook his head in disgust and turned back to look out the window again.

Sanchez started the dance of crossing to the right side of the freeway as their exit drew near.

All was silent in the car as Sanchez pulled out his GPS and took them on to the surface streets. They were a couple blocks away when Decker spoke again.

"So who'd he bother? Sarona? Apple?"

Sanchez allowed himself a minute smile.

"Nope. This kid may be an idiot, but he's got guts, I'll give him that."

Decker half sat up and turned to face his partner, eyes wide in surprise.

"He didn't..."

"Yes, he did. Our aspiring hacker decided for his first attempt he'd go poking around Tri-Optimum's files."

"And he lives here, in LA, Tri-Op ground zero..." Decker sagged back into his seat, the energy draining from his voice. "What an idiot. If he lived somewhere else he might have had a chance to make it to another company before they caught up to him..." He paused and let out another sigh. "Well, that explains why the old man sent us."

Sanchez nodded in the affirmative.

Decker shook his head. "He might be an idiot, but I bet he's smart enough to take the deal."

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

Sanchez parked the car a couple blocks away, they checked that the safeties on their weapons were on, and they stepped out into beautiful 85 degree weather just outside of the Southern California University campus.

The area was a lot nicer, a lot safer than it used to be. Sanchez had mixed feelings about it. It was fantastic on the surface, of course, but once you dug a bit deeper... they hadn't gotten far when the source of that new found security rolled slowly on by.

A brand new land rover painted in Tri-Optimum's colors drove by, driver and passenger both staring intently at the two partners walking on the street. Private Security. They weren't allowed lethal weapons but they had a whole armory of not-quite deadly weapons in that thing, and the courts were far behind on specifying exactly what they could and couldn't do to their prisoners. Neither agent relaxed his grip on their weapons until the car was safely around the next corner.

Decker shook his head again. "And he lives right here..." he muttered. "It's a miracle we found him before they did."

At last they arrived at their destination, a dingy campus housing apartment that looked like it had seen better decades. They wandered through its maze of passages until they found #19.

They paused for a moment at the door, and Sanchez shot his junior partner a glance. "Shall we?"

Decker signed. "Yeah, let's do it."

Sanchez knocked, and a terrified looking 20-something answered the door.

Ten minutes later Sanchez was going for the kill.

"Look, let me lay it all out for you. We don't have a warrant, and we're not here to arrest you. Yet. You can tell us to leave and we'll go file for all the paperwork we need to come back, arrest you, and put you away for a while."

The skinny, blonde kid went pale, but Sanchez wasn't done with him yet. "But there's a problem. You didn't mess with just anyone, you messed with Tri-Optimum. I promise you this, they will get to you before we come back.

At this news he went from pale to three-days dead white.

Now to reel him in. "But there's always a choice."

Sanchez nodded to Decker who pulled out a thin stack of paperwork and set it on the coffee table.

"And for you, that choice is simple. Enlist, or take your chances with Tri-Optimum."

The kid looked a little punch drunk, looking back and forth between the papers and Sanchez. His mouth opened and closed silently for almost a minute as they all sat in silence. At length, the kid reached out and picked up the paperwork.

"Good choice, kid. Now, my partner here will explain how you fill it out..."

Back on the road again, Decker was back to playing with the recliner. "Remember when we used to have an all-volunteer army?"

Sanchez favored him with a glance. "Remember when we had the only military, with the best weapons and training?"

Decker grunted and looked back out the window.

Sanchez smiled his helpless smile. "Yeah, neither do I."

Chapter 1: New Beginnings

"Welcome to the Ramsey Center UNN Recruitment facility. Please watch your step when leaving the train. The grav shafts at the end of the hall will take you to the street level training and recruitment center. Please proceed to the grav shaft."

Ender Mahe stepped off the light rail at the UNN stop and tried to ignore the whispers of the other passengers, the majority of which sported the Tri-Optimum logo. The UNN wasn't particularly popular with Tri-Optimum ever since the UNN had taken their their business licenses after the fiasco at Citadel Station that had filled headlines 40 odd years back and textbooks ever since.

The train door slid shut behind him, leaving him to stand clutching his enlistment papers on the abandoned platform. The place had obviously had the attention of Tri-Ops bully boys. The trash cans had been knocked over, their contents strewn across the platform, and graffiti covered the walls. All very inviting.

Ender gingerly stepped past the trash and into the standard blue-tinted anti-gravity shaft. His stomach lurched as the localized field took hold and pushed him up to the street level. A drizzly gray mist met him as he stepped out of the shaft, but it couldn't hide the UNN Navy recruitment office. He paused a moment, the rain slowly soaking through his hair and jacket, as he gathered his courage. A moment longer. The neon lights of the office glowed through the mist undimmed... inevitable. He heaved a sigh, hunched a little further to shield his paper, and marched through the doors.

Year One

The shuttle doors opened to admit Ender and a handful of other navy personnel fresh from basic to the heart of the UNN Navy, the space station Chesapeake Bay. He made his way through the cramped hallways, shouldering past fellow servicemen and mechs alike, with one eye on his PDA's map function. Without the hand held device he would have been completely lost in the tight knit labyrinth every space-bound structure or ship embraced to save on costs.

Basic Training back on Coronado Island had been pretty much what he'd expected. Lots of uniform starching, ridiculous cleaning checks and yelling instructors. The technical training had been a breeze, the physical training a struggle. Still, it felt good to honestly be able to say he was in good shape. They'd even had some training with standard sidearms, though if he ever had to use it, it meant a lot of other things had gone very wrong already.

At last he cut his way through a final bulkhead into the next shuttle bay. The flight deck was a writhing mass of sailors and machines which swarmed over the six shuttles lined up across the bay. The deck had the pungent smell of lubricant and fuel. The left three shuttles seemed to be in various states of disrepair, with parts strewn about in an organized chaos as the mechanics struggled to make them whole again. The far left shuttle actually seemed to be more skeleton than shuttle, and somehow had take the time to spray-paint a name on the hull itself— Hangar Queen.

There she was, second from the right: shuttle N365L. She was headed off to rendezvous with the UNN Lucille where he'd take the year-long post of Ops Training Officer.

Small surprise, it was a tight fit inside. Idly he wondered if his (few) personal belongings had actually made the transfer to the right shuttle. He didn't have much time to contemplate, however, as just a few minutes after strapping into the last free seat the shuttle's engines whined to life and lifted the shuttle smoothly from the deck. A few minor bursts from the maneuvering jets later and they were through the containment field and out into hard vacuum. The main thrusters fired and Ender was shoved roughly into the back of his seat.

They were off.

The UNN Lucille, Ender decided, was not particularly pretty looking. The light cruiser floated outside, visible only through the shuttle's view ports as they made their final approach to dock. The hard line performance demands of the Navy quickly smashed any aesthetic ambitions of their ship designers, and as a result the Lucille looked more like a box with engines than anything else. Still, she had a sort of beauty of function, at least if you squinted hard enough. She might not have the smooth lines of science fiction ships, but as the shuttle closed in Ender could make out the external lumps of some pretty heavy weapons and the hubs of some of the most advanced navigation and data control systems in existence. At least, the UNN hoped they were still the best – Apple and Sarona were closing in fast, with Tri-Optimum quickly making up for lost time now they were back up and running.

Five minutes later the docking tube clamped into place and they disembarked. A heavyset man in full dress uniform greeted the sailors at the docking platform – not a good sign. "Welcome to the UNN Lucille sailors. I'm Lieutenant Godwin, and Captain Mayer has asked that I show you to your posts."

The sailors fell into line quickly and within a remarkably short time Ender found himself deposited on the Ops deck. Godwin wanted a final word. "Here's your post, sailor. Petty Officer Cortez will be your immediate CO, but when he's not using you, you'll be assigned to me." He smiled in what Ender would have sworn was pure sadism. "Get ready to do some heavy lifting."

Ender sat at the nearest console and tried to take everything in. He was here at last, his first full year tour. Suddenly four years seemed like a very, very long time. He slumped and put his face in his hands.

Day one...

Year 2

The docking tube hissed open and once again Ender was on Chesapeake Bay station. Leave had gone in the blink of an eye and orders had come in. Apparently he'd impressed Captain Mayer more than he'd thought, as there was no way Lieutenant Godwin would have recommend him for anything, much less to be the Navigator's Mate on the UNN Carfax, and somebody had signed off on it. As not-excited as he was for another year in close quarters and zero personal space, he was excited to see the Carfax.

The ship was one of the newest, most advanced heavy cruisers in the military, and she was mapping a newly discovered class B comet headed into the solar system. All in all, it sounded much more exciting than his time on the Lucille had been, and anything had to be better than more time with Lt. Godwin.

So it was with a little bounce in his step that he boarded the shuttle for his next assignment.

The ship was just as advanced as advertized – he'd been on the ship six months and only now was he starting to get the hang of the advanced neural interface that manged the navigation suite of tools that together determined their position in space and plotted a course to their destination. Their current course had taken a month of fine-tuning with Liuetenant Bergeron, the Chief Navigation Officer, and the central computer. Just thinking over all the details made his head want to pound with remembered stress and headaches. They had had to arrive at the right time, at the right place, at the right speed, and going in the right direction. And on top of that, at the speed the comet was moving even any mistake, however tiny, would have exponentially larger consequences.

But at last they were here, Bergeron had the con, and he could catch up on a little slee-

The world went crazy. With an almighty wrench Ender was launched into the bunk atop his. He slammed back down onto his mattress, but the whole top bunk came along for the ride and cfrashed on top of him, and he knew no more.

The first thing Ender became aware of was the dull throb of a warning klaxon slowly growing louder as he swam towards consciousness. The next thing was the incessant throbbing in his skull.

"Mrrrgh..."

Actually, now that he thought about it, most of the rest of him hurt as well.

He performed a mental self-check . . . he seemed to be all in one piece more or less, but it was dark and his left side was pinned by something big and heavy which kept him from turning his head to see anything more than the bulkhead to his right. He pushed against the weight and felt it give a little. He pushed again and slid an inch closer to freedom. Another push, another inch.

The bulkhead groaned. Not good.

He redoubled his efforts and pushed and slid, pushed and slid, and at last Ender popped free and dropped to the deck with a gasp. The bulkhead groaned again, visibly buckling in the dim light. Very not good.

Ender rolled onto his knees, grabbed his boots by feel and started moving toward the door. The room, what little he could make out of it, was a mess. The power had gone, which meant a pretty serious structural breach somewhere along the line. The emergency power was on, hence the pulsing red alarms, for the moment. He stubbed his toe on something in the dark and hit the deck, smothering a curse on reflex. It was something big, heavy... soft. This time he let the curse fly. It was a body. He paused to let the strobing red light pass over it. The details weren't clear, but that he was dead was certain. A heavy steel grate had come loose and smashed into from above. Nobody took that kind of trauma and survived.

His toe hurt. He pulled on his boots and moved on. It all seemed surreal, like he wasn't there, but rather simply watched as he made his way through the already cramped hallways now half-lit and covered in debris. The crazy lighting, the completely altered surroundings, and the pounding migraine forced him away from the moment. He never new how long he spent crawling alone in the dark before he reached the end of the blackout zone. The yellow light of only one of the two overhead lights felt like a godsend when he finally reached the corridor's end.

A uniform ran up to meet him as he emerged from the darkness. "Specialist Mahe, report!"

Ender listened to himself in fascination as he replied sharply on pure, military-engrained reflex.

"The situation is critical. There's power failure all along this deck and structural integrity is failing rapidly. I could hear the bulkheads giving out."

The officer recoiled, aghast. "Well . . . we have to go in there, rescue any survivors." He glanced down the black corridor now only occasionally lit by the flickering red alarms as the emergency power ran low and paled.

"Negative, sir. There are no other survivors and once the far bulkheads give out, whatever is on the far side will wash through here. We must close off access and contain this compromised area."

Idly he wondered why he wasn't panicking and how, precisely, he managed to speak in anything even approaching his normal voice.

"Are you sure?" The officer's fear was bleeding through, the military courtesies abandoned in the moment of crisis. "If this goes wrong, you'll take the blame?"

"Absolutely, sir." Ender's fear was just as great, but buried under the shock. He clung to the military structure to keep the fear distant, walled away behind the familiar.

To his credit, once the decision was made the officer didn't waste time. "Let's get it sealed off then."

They got to work on the nearest bulkhead, both relieved to lose themselves at last in action, and between the two fo them they got the bulkhead sealed.

Just as they finished the lights flickered more strongly and at last held steady. Power was restored. As was intercom.

"Specialist Mahe, report to the bridge immediately, this is Captain Rahman. I say again, Specialist Mahe to the bridge ASAP."

Mahe shared a final glance with the officer and turned to make his way to the bridge.

"Mahe, good, you're here." Captain Rahman certainly looked the worse for his experiences. His gray UNN uniform was soaked through with perspiration, his ever-present hat missing. Somehow his balding salt-and-pepper hair, glistening with sweat, made him look older, tired. He pointed to the Nav Officer's console. "Bergeron is dead and I need to know what the hell happened."

Ender saluted with a "yes, sir," but the captain had already turned away to talk with another officer.

The bridge, like the rest of the ship, was a mess, though fortunately not as bad of one as the crew deck. Overhead panels hung broken everywhere, making the narrow walkways a jungle of exposed wires. At least a third of the command consoles were out, either without power or physically destroyed by falling debris. The rest were lit up with a staggering number of red lights.

The Nav Console wasn't in good shape. In fact, the entire overhead unit was missing. He glanced down to see if it could be salvaged and caught sight of a pair of legs in UNN gray. It was lieutenant Bergeron, his jacket draped over his head. Still, the blood where the overhead unit hit him had already soaked through.

Ender turned back to what was left of his console with the sense of the surreal stronger than ever.

The console displays flashed meaningless symbols at him. The lights blinked on and off haphazardly. He had no idea what it meant. He couldn't do this. He was only the mate, and a new one at that! They needed Bergeron, where was Bergeron . . .

Captain Rahman glanced over at Specialist Mahe. He didn't look good, staring into space, swaying slightly. The shock must have been settling in.

"Sir, the newest casualty reports..."

The captain waved away the orderly. "Everyone, give me a moment." Rahman stepped gingerly over the scattered debris towards the young specialist and spoke in as calm and gentle a voice as he could manage. "Stay with me now soldier."

"Need . . . Bergeron . . ."

Rahman put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "He's not here now son, but you are. The central computer is out, but you can interpret the raw sensor data, I've watched you do it a hundred times. I need you to focus now and tell me what happened."

Ender Mahe took a deep breath and looked back down at his console. The captain's words seemed to cut through the fog that was enveloping his mind. He could do this.

"Well captain . . . it . . . well . . . that's strange."

"What is it?" The captain's voice was intense, but calm.

"The comet is right where it's supposed to be, at least most of it, with the same velocity and direction. Still, a good chunk of it is missing." His voice gained strength and confidence as he focused on the familiar task. "We didn't hit it, but I think a part of the comet broke off and hit us. In fact, that would explain all these sensor contacts all over the place, some as close as 2,000 meters."

The captain's voice answered from behind. "I think I know. We were already pacing the comet, several hundred kilometers away. The piece of comet must have come at us sideways and extremely slowly, and even then it must have been small enough for the sensors to miss, otherwise we'd be nothing more than dust. Without the engines to push us away we've floated in the debris cloud."

Silence reigned on the bridge for a moment as everyone took in the stunning information.

"Well," said the Rahman after a moment, his voice changed from comforting to commanding once more. "That explains why we couldn't find any sign of explosion from the engines. That also means we could be hit again at any moment. Engineering, I want another full inspection, then we're getting out of here. Mahe, I know it will be tough without the computer, but I need you to plot us a way out of here. Grab anyone with experience in navigation and get to work, I want at least the beginnings of a path to get us out of this debris field in the next four hours. Hydroponics, I want you to..."

It was, Ender reflected, the most intense time of his life. Burning eyes from long hours at the sensor board, living off stims and the best of what was left of the cafeteria, the mad camaraderie of their sprint to come put with a path out of there, all of it amounted to an experience he would probably never top. And did he ever have a hell of a story to share for nights on the town while on leave. Plus, even better, he had the special commendation from Captain Rahman to back up the story. That, combined with the widespread rumors that hit the fleet when the brand new UNN Carfax came limping into port with three sub-decks blown out, half her critical systems out and 123 casualties, pretty much assured victory in any one-upmanship contest ever. What nobody realized was just how close it was to being 124 casualties.

Ender abandoned his thoughts in favor of grabbing an orange and some juice from his mini-fridge for breakfast. His quarters were small and cramped, but the key point was that, since his last promotion, they were his quarters, and not all that many people could claim as much on the space station Port Francisco.

He plopped down on the lone chair at his small kitchenette and flipped on the TV to check the latest football scores and noticed the blinking icon of a new e-mail. A flick of the wrist brought it up on screen.

Liuetenant Mahe,

In light of your successful career in the Navy thus far, and particularly your success aboard the UNN Carfax, the Navy, in conjunction with SpaceCom, have put your name forward as a potential candidate for the Navy Sea, Air, Land and Space program, or the Navy SEALS. This program involves an intense, multi-year training program from which, upon graduation, you will join an elite SEALS team within the Sol system. More specifically, the program consists of three months of basic training, followed by six months of electronic and technical specialization, and three months of survival training school. The rest of the training program is classified. For further information, and to present your decisions to the Navy, report to CentCom aboard Port Francisco.

Sincerely,

The Undersecretary of the Navy

Ender put the juice back down untasted. His thoughts spun as he considered the offer and all of its implications. Him, a Seal? It was unthinkable . . . and yet. Why not? Why not give it a shot? It was true he'd had a lot of help along the way, but this was a truly once-in-a-lifetime chance.

He sat back on his small couch and pondered. Why not?

Year 3

Well, that's definitely a good reason why not. The errant thought ran through Ender's head as he staggered through the tangled jungle that made up most of the biosphere that was the Io Survival Training Center. What "that" was came clearly into view as a massive creature crashed through the undergrowth in hot pursuit. In an unrelated aside, the 21.2% mortality rate of the survival school was another reason. The rate was considerably lower among Seal candidates, but that was besides the point.

Ender gasped for air as he tore through the jungle back towards his squad. Who's idea was it to set training exercises hunting the other candidates when those things were willing to hunt both sides at the same time?

Ender swore as another of the beasts crashed through the bushes to the left and nearly gored him. He slid right but the thing paced him relentlessly, blocking off that side.

They were herding him, dammit, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it but hope he ran into his squad before the rest of the creatures. He regulated his breathing as best he could and kept running. Fortunately the creatures, some sort of mutant of a tiger and a gorilla, were built too bulky for drawn out chases, and they slowly fell behind.

At last he was in the clear. He slid to a stop and leaned against a bigger trunk, gasping for breath. That had been close. Next time he'd know that if the opposing force left a gap in their lines for a nest of these things, it wasn't because they were afraid there were mutants in there, it was because they knew there were mutants.

Mahe's cochlear implant buzzed to life.

"Mahe, I think I see you. Give us a signal."

At last, he'd found the rest of the team. He straightened and started to raise his arm to signal when he heard something that froze him in place. A growl, from right above him. The mutants trap. He snapped his eyes up to the tree and the thing launched itself at him.

"Oh shi-"

His eyes opened. The room was stark white. The walls, the ceiling, all of it was white, the monotony broken only by the occasional pastel toned abstract painting. Nothing had changed since the last time he'd woken. Nothing ever changed in hospitals.

Ender groaned as another round of pain shuddered through his body. The meds the doctors had him on took the edge off the pain, but it just made it less of a knife to the gut and more of a hammer to the face. He readjusted himself on his hospital bed in yet another vain attempt to find a position that didn't hurt.

As he shifted he noticed something different from his last bout of consciousness – a letter on his bedside table. An honest-to-goodness on paper letter. With more effort than it should have taken he managed to snag it and pull it open.

Lieutenant Mahe,

We regret to inform you that your candidacy for the SEALS has been indefinitely suspended pending a full recovery from your injuries. The Navy and SpaceCom invite you to re-submit your application at a future date, at which time you will begin the SEALS candidacy process with a new group of candidates. The Navy wishes you a speedy and complete recovery.

Sincerely,

The Undersecretary of the Navy

Ender dropped the letter back to the bed-side table and leaned back in bed. And that was that. He'd wanted to be in the SEALS, but not enough to sign up for another tour. You had to have at least one year remaining after your training to be admitted into the training program itself, and he had only one more year. One last year. Time to start looking at potential new assignments, but not today. Not today. Today, he would sleep.

Year 4

Data source 433/EoP

Transmission sub-cyber

Protocol "TANGO"

. . . . . . . .

Order: Reassign 98322/u

From: Captain William Bedford Diego, UNN Rickenbacker

To: SOLDIER G65434-2

Re: Assignment to the Von Braun escort mission.

Soldier-

Your application to join the crew of the Rickenbacker has been approved. Report to the shuttle Mayfair at Port Francisco at 0400 on 01-09-14. Get ready to become part of history, soldier.

WBD


Ender set down his PDA and looked around the train. He'd read the message at least a dozen times now, there was no reason to read it yet again. But he was so pumped up with energy that it was hard to sit still. He was going to be part of something big, and better yet, he was going to part of the UNN "escort" of the Von Braun. In short, he would get to play oversight over them for once. Oh this promised to be good.

The train slowed to a stop with a final jerk, and he joined the flow of the crowd into the space port. The shuttle was ahead, and with eager steps he marched towards his future.