Space 2315, Chapter 8

Fleet Admiral Nancy Moore looked around at the assembled commanders in the virtual conference room aboard her flagship. The only other person physically present was Captain Brooks. The software in the chamber allowed for an admiral to communicate with all his or her subordinates in near real-time. Before the days of subspace communications, field commanders were forced to deal with the time delays inherent in light-speed comms.

That wasn’t to say that subspace communications were perfect, and they didn’t allow for real-time comms across star systems. There was no way to conduct a real-time conversation with people in other systems even though subspace comms were relayed through the jump gates. The gates could open a micro wormhole to beam transmissions through to the other side. Even with that ability, there were still unacceptable time delays that would keep people from anything approaching a real-time conversation. Add that to the fact that routine message traffic for civilians was usually put on a lower priority than government or military transmissions as well. For something that needed to be broadcast to many systems, several micro wormholes could be employed. At other times, such as when one was operating behind enemy lines one had to rely on courier ships to carry messages.

Moore’s fleet performed repairs as quickly as possible as they exited the Tigris System. They continued repairs in hyperspace enroute to a desolate star system marked on the star charts as D2C-124. Sitting in this abandoned system for a week they confounded any HF pursuit since for all intents and purposes her fleet had dropped off the map. The only things to mark any Human habitation in the system were aging traffic buoys at the edges of the system where the jump points were. Other than those and a tiny long-ago decommissioned space station in a deteriorating orbit around the third planetoid there was no indication that Humanity ever visited the system before her fleet showed up.

The commanders looked back at her as she softly cleared her throat to get their attention. “From reports I’ve received it looks like repairs are just about completed and we can get back to the job of handing the Human Federation its head.” She paused to watch them grin confidently back at her. “I’ve been considering the route that we planned originally and there is one thing that bothers me about it now. The Human Federation has probably figured out the route we were taking and placed enough ships in our path. Returning to our original plan may very well result in the unacceptable loss of ships.”

The assembled ship commanders nodded their heads in agreement. She knew she wouldn’t get any arguments from them. What she didn’t know right now was what they thought the fleet should do next. This wasn’t a democracy where the ship commanders could take a vote on what the fleet should do, but she would always take their input when making decisions that would affect everyone in the fleet. She already had several ideas, but she wanted to lay them out and see what the rest of them would say. A twitch of Moore’s fingers brought up a holographic display of the region of space they were in. A few more keystrokes and their original plans were displayed with an arrow indicating the direction.

“Looking at what data we do have on the surrounding area I see that we have a few options open to us. We could very well go back to the Tigris System and ambush any HF ships that came to investigate the loss of the Persepolis Station. While I’m confident that we could destroy any forces there in detail if even one ship gets away it would give away our only chance of surprise on other systems adjacent to Tigris. Surely, they have pickets located at each jump point ready to hyper out the minute they hear or see anything. I’d vastly prefer to avoid that.”

There wasn’t much disagreement there. A few ship commanders wanted to go back and take revenge on anything there for the losses the fleet suffered. Most of those commanders were battlecruiser captains who were certain of their ships’ abilities to locate, chase down and destroy anything smaller than them and be able to get away from anything that could kill them. The admiral wasn’t willing to let them do that. She was certain that the suggestion sent via courier ship to send out battlecruiser squadrons to disrupt enemy shipping would start to pan out.

The small minority of dissenters briefly looked around and found that they didn’t have much support even among some of the other battlecruiser captains. That brought them back in line better than any words the admiral might’ve said. Suppressing a sigh of relief Moore brought the regional map into better focus. She reached up into the holographic map and said, “I’d like to get some of your input into what we should think about doing next. Our original plan is shot but there are other ways in which we could hurt the Human Federation. Let’s hear some.”

Rear Admiral Stevenson in charge of one of her assault carrier squadrons gently stroked his mustache before replying. “From this system, we can go to P4W-886, then S7W-429 before taking a short hop to H1L-402 in order to reach this system here,” he “grabbed” the star system he wanted and brought his hands out in order to make the computer zoom in on it. “The Mon Catha System borders the Corporate Republic of Sirius which as everyone knows is officially neutral in this conflict. The Human Federation Space Force would have little need to post much more than small pickets or antipiracy patrols in Mon Catha since it’s inconceivable that Sirius would ever engage in hostilities and it’s also far from our border with the HF.

“We could engage any targets along the way and any in the border systems there. It also gives our fleet the chance to target the Middle Colonies of the Welton and Durna Systems and maybe a shot at an Inner Colony.”

Stevenson sat back down while the others considered what he suggested. The arrow he drew in the regional map was certainly long. It would create a problem with resupply so far from the fleet’s logistical support train which could present problems for them. It was possible to gather raw materials from asteroid belts or steal whatever the fleet couldn’t harvest but there were the things that the fleet couldn’t produce on their own. The route the rear admiral suggested would take the better part of a week and a half and any raiding there would increase their time on station.

However, those Middle Colonies he suggested hitting would prove to be a wealth of resources. The fleet could smash the defenders there and raid whatever it needed. It was true that the fleet would have to screen any foodstuffs and other materials it got for contaminants and other biological agents but that wasn’t something that would be all that difficult for the fleet’s medical staff. Then there was the morale impact such raids would have on both her own fleet and the HF. If the fleet pulled it off her people would be in good spirits and it would send shockwaves through the HF.

“How do you propose doing such things so far from our support Stevenson?” Vice Admiral Wu asked. She oversaw three of Moore’s battleship divisions while Vice Admiral Garcia had the other three divisions. Moore herself was interested to hear what the rear admiral had in mind as well.

“Admiral,” Stevenson answered, “I was proposing that for any resources we can’t produce or steal we could contact Sirius itself.” There were more than a few shocked murmurs running around the virtual conference table at the suggestion. Nancy Moore held up a hand for silence and within moments she had it.

“I think you should explain that Mr. Stevenson,” Moore said.

Stevenson replied quickly with, “Ma’am, among the many intelligence reports that we get on the Human Federation there are quite a few that go unnoticed from the Corporate Republic. There are quite a few high-level executives within their government that don’t toe the line with Sirius’s neutral status in the galaxy. Among them are those that, while they can’t possibly recognize the ACF outright, do tend to lean towards covert support for our cause. Their government has no love for the HF but maintains good relations with them simply out of financial considerations. There are those within their government that would look the other way if we entered their space for resupply. We could stop in one of their uninhabited systems while their ships come to us.”

Moore considered it. It wasn’t that Stevenson was incorrect, in fact, he was just about on the money according to the few reports she read about Sirius. Officially the star nation was neutral but there were high-level people in the republic’s government that wanted to support the ACF.  Already a few Sirius ships delivered supplies to the ACF; not weapons or ships but it was enough to make the ACF doubt the republic’s official neutral stance. One only needed to look at Lend/Lease during Terra’s Second World War to see how even neutral states could assist belligerent ones. It was probably only a matter of time until Sirius started giving the ACF weapons or ships.

All those thoughts passed through Moore’s brain in a matter of moments before she spoke up to address the assembled captains. “Rear Admiral Stevenson does have a point. Sirius might be able to help us after all. I find the whole thing a little distasteful myself,” she gave them a disgusted look, “only because they could turn on us. We all know that Sirius only does what’s in its own political and financial interests. Turning over a whole ACF fleet to the HF would do them a lot of good but I can’t see a majority of their Board of Directors supporting such a move. I think they’d like nothing better than to see the HF taken down a peg or two.”

She watched the expressions on the assembled captains and found agreement among most of them. A few looked dubious about the idea. There were quite a few things that could go wrong operating that far from ACF space. The least that could happen is that the fleet could find itself ambushed behind enemy lines with no escape. However, it would be a deep cut into HF space into areas the HF didn’t think the ACF could go. The morale impact on the enemy alone made the plan worth it. Already news of the destruction of the Persepolis Station was spreading throughout the HF. This act would further prove to the citizens of the Human Federation that nowhere was safe, that even their Inner Colonies were vulnerable.

“Well then,” she announced. “It looks as if we have some planning to do. The basic idea sounds like it can work but there are a ton of details that we’ll need to work out before we make it happen. I’ve already dispatched a courier ship to Altair, but I’ll want to send another once we have our plans drawn up. I’d like to have a few more battlecruisers and battleships just for some added insurance. We’ll also need to send a ship on ahead to Sirius to contact their government to see if we can enlist their aid. We may change where we go around Sirius depending on how they respond.”

She gave them one last look around before saying, “I’ll want preliminary plans submitted by tomorrow at this same time along with status updates on the damaged ships. Let’s get moving people.”

Sofie Taske looked out the viewport of the civilian shuttle as the pilot began her final approach to the civilian transport that would be taking her and other passengers to Terra. She sighed as she remembered that to get the cheapest flight possible her father had helped her book her trip on a liner headed from the New Germany Star System to the Murtan System, then Tau Ceti, Alpha Centauri, and finally the Sol System with stops at the Jovian Moons, Mars, Luna, and Terra.

All those stops added at two weeks to her travel time. However, it was the only way to get her a trip to Terra on what their budget would allow her to have. The trip took her closer to the ACF border than she cared to think about on that trip to Murtan, but she supposed it couldn’t be helped. With the jumpgate, the trip itself wouldn’t take long at all, only a second or two, but the transport had to wait while the transshipment of passengers occurred.

Being cooped up on a ship for two weeks with very little to do wasn’t her idea of fun but at least she wasn’t alone in her misery. Sofie, Clara Herrmann and Daniela Meyer shared a berthing space with seventeen other passengers. That hadn’t been in the plans either but a private room for the three of them would’ve run a few hundred extra credits that they couldn’t afford. They had nothing but a bunk cut into the wall of the compartment with a curtain to call their own. It was traveling coach, but it would get them to Terra as cheaply as possible.

The transport was a large boxy ship with none of the sleek angular lines of a warship or a luxury star liner. It served its intended purpose, albeit with none of the fancy accommodations that star liners boasted. It wasn’t fast by any stretch of the imagination, with lower-grade inertial compensators that didn’t allow it to outrun even battleships. Its sensor suite was laughable by modern civilian standards. The transport carried no armaments and was completely unarmored. From what Sofie found out about the transport it was a heavily converted freighter and could only boast a top speed of 0.2 light in normal space. That speed wasn’t bad for a jump gate civilization, but the ship had to get closer to planets and moons in order to launch and receive shuttles. No small craft could hope to reach the outer ends of a solar system by themselves without refueling.

This brought her and her friends to the ship as the shuttle winged its way into an oversized fighter bay. Clara and Daniela, seated on either side of her, looked over to her and flashed equally wide grins. This was going to be her friends’ first time away from the planet behind them. For Sofie it was a return to her home planet. She briefly wondered if everything her father had told her about Terra was true or if he was exaggerating some of it. Surely the people on Terra couldn’t dislike Colonials that much? More than half the Space Force was made up of Colonials so wouldn’t it be in their best interest not to anger those people? It shouldn’t matter too much, she thought to herself, I mean, I was born on Terra so that makes me an Terran as much as anyone else there.

A flight attendant appeared in the cabin of the shuttle and announced, “We’re about to dock with the transport. Please have your boarding passes ready and berths will be assigned upon boarding. Please be careful while exiting the shuttle as you will be passing through a personnel tube in zero-gee. Thank you for flying with us today and enjoy the rest of your trip.”

Sofie groaned in anticipation as she awaited her turn to go through the tube that led out onto the gallery overlooking the fighter bay. She barely remembered her first experience with zero-gee back when she was… what? Three standard Terran years old? The intellectual part of her expected this but that didn’t mean that she had to like it. After all, even shuttles docking with warships did the same thing. Money and power weren’t going to be used to provide gravity to something like the inside of a fighter bay. If warships weren’t going to do it then it was sure-as-hell that transports such as the rust bucket they were docking with wouldn’t.

Sofie awoke with a start, looking around her trying to determine what woke her up. At first, she didn’t know where she was but a quick look to her right showed only the closed privacy curtain of the bunk she occupied. A datapad and civilian comlink sat next to her pillow but neither of them made a sound. None of those could’ve been it.

Then she heard it. There was alarm blaring outside in the hall. The ship’s crew would only sound an alarm if there was something seriously wrong with the transport and since she hadn’t felt anything and there were no lights on that indicated a pressure loss, she couldn’t think of what happened. Quickly pulling back the curtain that kept the soft lights of the bay out she threw her feet over the edge of the bunk and climbed down the short set of steps set into the wall next to the bunk.

Getting dressed in her jeans and tee-shirt didn’t even occur to her. Her nightshirt and shorts were more than modest enough. Sofie found Clara standing near the door to the corridor outside. She tapped the other girl on the shoulder and Clara nearly jumped. “Jeez, don’t do that!” she exclaimed in German. “I’m nervous enough as it is.”

“What’s going on?” Sofie asked in the same language, “How long has that alarm been going?”

“I don’t know, and it’s been going for about five standard minutes. I’m surprised it didn’t wake you sooner.” Clara looked back toward the row of bunks in the bay, “or anyone else for that matter. I guess I only heard it because I’m the closest to the bay door.”

“Is there any way to find out what’s happening?”

Clara shook her head as she watched Daniela walk up beside them. “I tried calling the passenger manager and the bridge but all anybody would tell me was to remain calm and that the situation was under control. The fact that they sounded nervous didn’t really help.”

Sofie shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I guess if there really was a major problem, they’d have issued an abandon ship order, but I guess they never sent one, right?”

“Nope,” Clara said with another shake of her head. “I’ve heard nothing.”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing to do but wait and see–” Daniela started to say but was interrupted by the bay door opening. The three girls were glad that somebody was coming to tell them what was happening, but that relief was quickly shattered as they found themselves staring down the barrels of four M36 Carbines. Sofie could only stare in numb disbelief as she looked past the weapon to the figure in the powered armor. The armor was colored the red and gold of the Allied Colonies for Freedom and there were three stripes on the arm.

“Shut up!” a female voice from the sergeant inside the power armor silenced the three of them. The voice ramped up in volume as she called out. “I want everyone out of their bunks and lined up against the after hull now! Move it! Move it! Move it! Move like you have a purpose!” When the scared and confused civilians didn’t move quickly enough the other three Marines with the sergeant pushed them along toward the back wall.

The Marine sergeant turned on the lights on her suit’s helmet, bringing bright illumination to the crowded bay. A couple of civilians tried to shield their eyes from the bright lights as the sergeant called out. “I read twenty people in this berthing space from the door plate outside. Lance Corporal Ridge, give me a headcount on the double!”

“Yes sergeant!” the man answered quickly as he dropped his weapon to the low-ready position in its sling and counted off people using his armored hand to point at people. The weapons of the other Marines never dropped from their ready stance, covering every civilian in the bay. Upon completion, he lifted his weapon back up to aim not quite at the gathered civilians. “All present and accounted for sergeant.”

“Good,” the sergeant said. A few seconds later four more Marines entered the bay and started going through the bunks of the gathered people. They ripped open curtains and threw the contents of luggage out onto the floor with no regard for any sense of order. They went through the belongings quickly and efficiently while looking for whatever they were looking for. Within minutes they were done and advanced toward the civilians.

One of the searchers reached forward and roughly jerked Sofie toward them. Clara nearly leaped out at them exclaiming “Let her go!” For her actions, one of the Marines pointed his or her weapon in Clara’s face. Sofie herself shouted at Clara in English, “Stop it, Clara! This won’t help us! Just cooperate with them.”

“That’s right,” the Marine holding her said curtly, “if you cooperate this will go a whole hell of lot smoother.” The Marine made Sofie turn around to face the other civilians as three others were chosen to be searched as well. The Marine behind her handed his weapon to another and used both hands to force her hands up and behind her head. He used his armored feet to spread her legs apart to where she was almost off-balance. An armored hand clenched on her hands slightly forcing her wince despite the obvious care not to crush her hands.

With her hands secured, the Marine proceeded to reach around her and run his armored hand down the front of her body. Sofie’s friends gasped in surprise and Sofie felt indignant as the Marine quickly moved down to search around the hemline of her shorts. He proceeded to run his hand down the front of her legs to her feet then came back up the backside of her body then switched out his hand on her own and proceeded to search the other side of her. The search took only a few seconds before the Marine unhanded her and moved onto the next person. About the only thing Sofie would give the Marine was that he’d been professional about searching her instead of copping a feel when he easily could’ve.

The searches took only a minute or two for them to complete. They unhanded the last civilian before reporting to their sergeant that they found nothing out of the ordinary and that the people were clean. Their sergeant dismissed them before turning back to the civilians. “My men and women report nothing out of the ordinary, just clothes and other personal belongings. This is good as you wouldn’t want us to find weapons or anything in your possession.”

She turned to the other three Marines. “I’m headed onto the next berthing area. Ridge, you’re in charge of the bay now. Keep PFC Park with you for backup. McGregor, you’re with me.”

“Yes sergeant!” they chorused before the one known as McGregor filed out with the sergeant. Ridge and Park walked backward to the front of the sleeping bay, their weapons up to cover the civilians. There they took up flanking positions on the door and proceeded to wait for something to happen next while dropping their weapons to the low ready position.

Sofie could tell that the people around her were scared out of their wits. To be honest she was scared as hell too. She didn’t think she’d ever been so afraid in her life. As much as she handled weapons, she’d never had them pointed at her. The experience was much different and left her feeling helpless. She never wanted to feel like that again, to be afraid to the point where she felt powerless.

For a few minutes, nobody moved at all until Daniela shifted from where she was standing. She took a step forward and then another. Daniela shrugged off the people who tried to hold her back as she took another step. The Marines at the other end of the bay didn’t raise their weapons or make a move to stop her. Brave girl she is, Sofie thought to herself. Of course, Daniela has always been the more self-confident one among our little group. I hope she doesn’t get herself killed.

“Um,” Daniela called out to the two Marines, “may we… move?”

“Hmmm…?” the one known as Ridge hummed to himself. He stared at Daniela then shook his armored head. He raised a hand and made a “come here” gesture to everyone in the bay. “Yes, you may move about and go back to your bunks. Don’t make any threatening movements and there will be no problems.”

Sofie let out the breath she hadn’t known she was holding since her friend moved. She was certain her friend didn’t know how close to death she came, trying to move without permission like that. The blonde gathered her wits again and walked steadily to where her belongings were scattered all over the deck. She groaned to herself as she found that, unsurprisingly, all her clothes were tossed around like rags. The Marine who searched her bag hadn’t cared what they did to it if he didn’t find anything they didn’t like.

Daniela came up behind her and quietly asked, “Sofie, what are those weapons they have?”

“You’re asking me at a time like this?” she responded a little louder than she intended.

Daniela nodded her head. “Hey, I just want to know what was pointed at us.”

Sofie sighed in resignation as she muttered something about people needing to know about a time and place to ask such questions. She grabbed one of her shirts and folded it neatly into her luggage before answering. “Those are Colt M36 Carbines made almost exclusively on Terra and Mars. They could be made by other companies, but Colt makes most of them. They’re gas-operated, magazine-fed, semiautomatic rifles with options for semi and three-round burst fire. They fire a 7.62×51 millimeter HF round and they can also fire optional incendiary or armor-piercing rounds from a 40-round magazine. I think they have a muzzle velocity of around 1,400 m/s. They have customizable mounts for scopes, laser sights, a grenade launcher, and a deployable bayonet. Although what you’d use a bayonet for today is beyond me. If you look at them, they’re obviously descendants of Terra’s old M16A2 rifles and M4 Carbines.”

The other Marine, the one who hadn’t spoken, Park, must’ve heard their entire conversation and said in a softer feminine voice. “It sounds like you know a lot about weapons.”

Sofie looked up at Park and answered. “I like to think I do. Where we come from almost everyone is armed. We must be in fact. There are more than a few predators who bother humans, so we have some practice in using weapons. My father is also retired Army.”

The Marine might’ve responded but didn’t. Sofie quickly figured out that they were listening to their own comms and during those times they didn’t talk to anyone else. Their armor allowed them to talk to the outside world using a series of microphones and speakers when toggled. LCpl Ridge addressed them all again. “We’re going to be holding the ship for the next few hours or so while our sensor crews go over every centimeter of the inside.”

The people groaned when they heard that. The ACF Marine obviously didn’t care how they felt about the situation. Already the passengers felt that they’d been on the ship for too long and wanted to move onto their next destination. Someone behind Sofie asked. “Can we leave this bay at all?”

“No, I have strict orders to keep everyone confined to quarters until we leave,” Ridge responded.

“What about the bathrooms?” another man asked. “Those are down the corridor.”

“If any of you need to use the head for whatever reason I’ll call for backup and you’ll be escorted to the head and back. No exceptions.” That brought on shouts of dismay and disbelief.

Sofie spoke up before anyone else could again, “What about changing clothes?”

“Jesus H. Christ! You people need to stop complaining,” Ridge replied with a heavy sigh. “Look, if you want to change clothes you can do it here. Use your bunks if you feel you need privacy that badly. Other than that, stop asking questions before you annoy me and my battle buddy over here.”

Sofie looked to the deck to hide her rolling her eyes at the two Marines. They’d already been searched, what more could these paranoid Marines want? Muttering unkind things under her breath the blonde continued to repack her things before sliding back onto her bunk.

Weeks later Sofie couldn’t help but stare in awe as the shuttle she and her friends began the final approach to Terra. The planet was bigger than she remembered and the lights of cities on the night side could be seen from space. The shuttle was descending into the night side and according to her itinerary was due to set down at…, she checked her datapad again, the Alexandria Spaceport in Egypt. It was the cheapest place they could set down at and still get a direct train ride to Berlin, Germany. They could’ve taken an orbital elevator down to the surface but the closest one to Europe was in Kenya. The hovertrain ride from there to Germany would’ve been a lot more expensive than from Egypt. The hovertrain was due to leave the next day so the three would have to find a hotel in the city.

That would prove to be interesting. Sofie, with her blonde hair and brown eyes, and the other two with their brown hair would stand out like sore thumbs in the still very Egyptian-Arab city.

Before they crossed the terminator line between night and day, she and her friends got a good look at Terra from space. Her friends, having never been born on Terra, saw it now for the first time. Sofie only vaguely remembered it, having left it when she was only three standard Terran years old.

Of course, everyone had seen holographic images of humanity’s home world at some point in their lives, but to see it in person was something else entirely. It was Home, the resting place of humanity’s most ancient ancestors; and it was beautiful to behold from space. Sofie turned to her friends with tears in her eyes and found them all similarly dabbing at small tears, struck by the sheer beauty of the planet below them. Terra’s continents and oceans spread out below them with clouds ringing her atmosphere and nothing in their lives matched the sheer wonder of seeing it. Issus was a beautiful planet, but she was nothing when compared to humanity’s birth world. People could be born on any planet in Human Space, but Terra would always be Home.

When they were finally on the ground the first thing Sofie did after she got her luggage from baggage claim, noting with a wince that most likely some ACF Marine probably pawed through all her stuff. She then found a comm terminal and logged a message for her father to be delivered at normal priority. Even so, the message cost her one credit to send and would wait in a message queue for a few hours.

She went out onto the street to find her friends already loading a cab with their own baggage. Sofie hurried up to meet them while depositing her suitcase in the boot of the cab and kept her carry-on with her. “Where to?” the cabbie asked first in Egyptian Arabic and then English when he saw the incomprehension on their faces. “Ummm…,” Clara hummed while looking at a map of the city on her datapad, “the closest hotel to the hovertrain station. Something affordable please.”

The cab driver got the vehicle in motion and before she knew it Sofie was praying very, very fast as the cabbie did whatever it took to get into traffic. He seemed to take an almost perverse pleasure in trying the most suicidal stunts in order to get to where they needed to go. A very harrowing ten minutes later he dropped them off at a hotel about three blocks from the hovertrain station. The three thought that the ten-credit bill was steep, but they weren’t about to complain too much. The hotel itself was a ten-story sandstone structure with a name above the door written in Arabic and English which read as The Desert Sands Hotel.

The hovertrain left out from Alexandria early the next morning and the three girls were suffering from what was still stubbornly called jet lag. New Germany operated on a twenty-eight-hour day with fourteen months. While the planet did observe Terra GMT for official purposes with extra hours added on to compensate, the locals used local time for everything else. None of them slept very well on the transport coming to Terra and the stress of the ACF seizing the ship hadn’t helped. The ACF Marines took over six standard hours to search the transport to their satisfaction and then another standard hour to evac their people and let the ship go.

The hovertrain passed out of Egypt near the Suez Canal and turned in a northeasterly direction to head through Israel. Israel suffered horribly in the Third World War, beset by enemies on all sides from the forces of the Arab States that sided with the Neo Soviets. Rockets and artillery landed on the country every day spreading fear and panic. The Neo Soviets sent troops down to help their puppet allies in trying to take Israel to no avail. No matter what, the country wouldn’t give up and managed to hang on long enough for Allied forces from Italy to punch through the United Arab Alliance (the then military arm of the Arab League) naval blockade. When the Allies linked up with the Israel Defense Forces, they brought their combined technological might and numbers to bear against the older equipment of the Arab League.

The result was that in a few short months the entire Middle East was divided between the Allies and the Neo Soviets, the Arab League having been dismantled when both superpowers conquered them. It quickly became a rear-guard campaign for both powers as the war shifted back to the northern hemisphere. The two superpowers paid dearly as the former members of the Arab League had no love for the occupiers. Although their conventional armies were demolished the people in that part of the world had much experience with unconventional warfare. They constantly nipped at the Allies and Neo Soviets, often causing the two sides to band together in temporary alliances of convenience to put down the revolts.

The train made an hour’s stop in Jerusalem and the three only glimpsed part of the city before falling back asleep. The Dome of the Rock was still the most prominent structure in the center of the city with many Muslim pilgrims visiting it while Jews venerated the Western Wall. Even under the Human Federation, the Jewish Temple wasn’t rebuilt as the Arabs and the Jews still disagreed over ownership rights to the Temple Mount, albeit very peacefully nowadays.

From there the train moved into Turkey and then Greece. They all gawked at the sights of Constantinople, now a part of former Greece. Turkey had sided with the Neo Soviets in World War Three and after a long occupation of Greece, it saw the Allies throw them back across the border. The Allies pushed on through Turkey and into Russia allied Syria on their way to further reinforce Israel. After the war the Allies ceded half of the country to the Neo Soviets, keeping Istanbul (renamed back to Constantinople after the war) and Ankara for Greece.

It was another day’s travel to Berlin. The hovertrain station was on the southwestern side of the sprawling, very modern-looking city that looked almost nothing like it did hundreds of years ago.

Berlin was fought over four times during the Third World War. A Neo-Soviet blitzkrieg spearheaded by Russian and Chinese tanks slammed through the Allied line at the Polish-Russian border early in the war. Three weeks later they were rolling into Germany. The new Russian T-135 Tanks outperformed even the American built M1A2 Abrams Tanks in almost every regard, and the Neo Soviets had a lot of them along with plenty of MIGs and bombers and artillery for support. Before long the Soviets reached Berlin and pounded the city to hell before seizing it and driving onto France and Spain.

The Allies managed to stabilize their lines outside Barcelona and launched a counteroffensive that saw them retaking Berlin within two months. Stiff Neo-Soviet resistance bogged the First Allied Army down not far to the east of Berlin. Soon after the Allies were forced to retreat past Paris; it was that or be cut off and destroyed when the Second Soviet Army circled around from the south to reinforce their First Army. For the longest time, it seemed as if Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom would be the last Allied powers still standing in Europe. The combined forces of the Allied European Air Force gave as good as they got in the air war above the English Channel, but they were vastly outnumbered.

Two months later with American reinforcements from the U.S. mainland, the Allies broke out of Spain. They began a slow and grinding advance against the Soviets back to the Russian border.

Facing nearly impossible odds at Paris and Berlin, and an enemy willing to fight to the last to hold those cities, the Allied Combined Forces Command authorized tactical nuclear strikes on the Soviets entrenched there. The war left large swaths of France, Germany and Poland as little more than smoldering ruins from the use of conventional and nuclear weapons.

The Human Federation did much to restore Europe back to what it’d been like before the war. But too much was demolished or burned to make total restorations. The result was that a lot of the old architecture had died with the rebuilding, but efforts were made to restore the old styles to the outskirts of major cities and rural areas.

Sofie couldn’t believe the luck she was having now. She and her friends were split up into separate lines based on the alphabetical order of last names. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she’d gotten all the way to the front of the line and somehow, someway, the Freie Universität Berlin’s admissions people lost her application, transcripts and where they were going to put her. The sophomore and junior at the table apologized and said that they knew she was coming but until they found her files, they couldn’t do anything. Their hands were tied, and they sent her away to stand near the entrance to the university’s gymnasium until they got their “electronic mishap” straightened out.

That was over half an hour ago. Her friends already went with a group of other freshmen to the campus theatre for their orientation. Sofie was well beyond impatient with the school’s admissions office and she was certainly tired of some of the looks she was drawing from other students. They were looking at her clothes and, while they had the decency not to stare, she got the impression they didn’t approve. Although, maybe approve was the wrong word. Most of them were dressed in dark-colored or khaki pants with some other women in blouses and skirts. There were very few people out there who were wearing denim jeans of any kind and most of the ones who did seem to be from colonies. Sofie was quickly getting the impression that denim was long gone from Terra fashion and it only made her stand out, and not in a good way.

Sofie sighed and ran a hand through her hair as she leaned back against the wall. They were taking way too long to find something they should’ve never lost. She was so busy looking down that she didn’t notice the person slide next to her until he put his hand on the wall next to her head and said, “Well hello, who do we have here?”

“A very frustrated and impatient person,” she answered quite frankly. She was so frustrated that she heard her German accent come out even stronger than usual.

“Well, I know what it’s like to be a freshman and all,” the guy said with a flashy grin on his face. Sofie decided that she really didn’t care for his expression.

“After you get your things settled maybe you might want some upperclassman, like me, to give you a tour of the campus and show you where all the fun happens.” He moved closer to her and she felt his arm snake around her shoulders. “Freshmen don’t always know what to do when they get here and sometimes, they need our upperclassmen to show them the ropes as it were.”

“Remove your arm, or I’ll do it for you,” Sofie told him flatly.

The man’s expression changed to one of feigned shock as he said, “Babe, there’s no reason to get all hostile on me. I’m just trying to be friendly.” He proceeded to shrug his shoulders as he used his other hand to point to a patch on the sleeve of his jacket. “Besides, I’m on the wrestling team. I don’t think you could do it.”

“It’s been my experience that when a guy says he wants to be friendly with a girl he doesn’t go invading her personal space,” Sofie replied while she pointed a knife-hand at him. “And you want to bet that I can’t make you move?”

“Babe, I would take that bet.”

“Quit calling me ‘babe’ too. It’s impolite and disrespectful.”

“Woah, Woah!” the guy said, “Who says?”

“I do,” Sofie answered, “I don’t put up with it from total strangers.”

By then another guy showed up in front of them and said, “Umm… are you a Miss Taske?”

Sofie nodded her head. The new person regarded her with the most neutral expression she ever saw on a person. He was a little shorter than her with very closely cropped brown hair and almost completely forgettable features except for his blue-gray eyes. He appeared to be slightly overweight but had a core of muscle underneath. “They sent me over here to tell you that they found your files and that they’re sorry. I think they asked me because I was right there, and they couldn’t get away.”

The guy with his arm around her shoulder turned to the new guy. “Hey, freshie, why don’t you beat it?”

The new person sighed, threw up his hands palms out. “I will. But they really did find her files and they want to get her started already.”

“Well, when an upperclassman tells a freshman to get lost you usually do. She’ll get back to them when we’re done.”

“Miss Taske is a freshman too you know,” the new guy pointed out.

“No, no, she’s a freshwoman,” the first man said as he turned back to Sofie with a quick grin then back to the second man, “get it?”

Sofie shook her head quickly as she looked at the other guy and mouthed, Help me.

“Listen though,” the other man said, “They really need her to start her paperwork now and if I heard correctly, she wants you to unhand her. Please just do so and we won’t have to get campus security involved.”

“Sure, like she or you can make me,” he said with a chuckle as he looked at the other guy. Sofie took that moment and reached up to grasp the wrestler’s wrist with her hand. She clenched down painfully on his wrist as she lifted his arm from her shoulder and bent his arm back behind him.

The bewildered look on the wrestler’s face was nearly priceless and the second man had to restrain himself to keep from laughing aloud as he said, “I do believe that Miss Taske comes from the New Germany Star System.” The upperclassmen still looked confused as he looked at the other guy. “The only habitable planet there has a gravity of, I believe, one point two-five G. Miss Taske is stronger than she looks.”

“One point three G actually,” Sofie corrected gently.

“She’s still not strong enough,” he said as he broke out of her grip. As soon as he was free, he rubbed his abused wrist. “She just caught me with my guard down, that’s all. Miss Taske is it? I guess you’ll miss the fun later,” he said as he walked off.

The second guy was about to walk away when Sofie said, “Thank you. I never caught your name.”

“It’s Carter, Matthew Carter. And you Miss Taske?”

“It’s Sofie,” she said as she held out her hand. Matthew looked at it briefly before hesitantly taking it in his and shaking it gently. Sofie smiled at him as she picked up her bags. “Please, walk me back over there Matthew.”

“Of course, Miss Taske.”

“Matt? Is it okay if I call you that?” At his nod, she continued, “Please call me Sofie. Calling me ‘Miss Taske’ makes me feel old and well… we’ll just leave it at that.”

Matthew looked at her and she swore that she saw his cheeks flush slightly. “I was just being polite Miss… I mean Sofie.”

“Yes…, well… thank you, but it isn’t necessary,” she answered as they got back to the table where the admissions people finally had her files. “There’s polite and then there’s formal and in my opinion, you’re being too formal. Besides,” she said with a grin as she used her New Germany accent as strongly as she would among her friends and family, “I’m not some noble lady or anything like that. I’m a simple girl off a farm on a colonial world.”

Matthew gave her a closer look while a woman from the admissions department, not a student volunteer, slid a datapad over to her. By all appearances, Sofie was right about herself. Everything from her deeply tanned skin (probably from her working on the farm she mentioned), her accent and the way she was dressed said that she was a Colonial. Denim jeans? Who wore those anymore? Matthew heard quite a few German accents but hers was unique.

He couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. She was taller than him (he was only 1.68 m to her 1.83 m), had dark blonde hair past her shoulders, brown eyes and lines to her face that few would call traditionally beautiful; but the words pretty and striking easily came to mind. Her body was athletic, yet still somehow shapely, but she chose to hide it with loose-fitting clothes. Not that Matthew was complaining of course. She most likely dressed that way to be comfortable and he respected that.

Meanwhile, the woman behind the desk was saying, “I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you Miss Taske. We’re still trying to track down the server error which caused your files to disappear temporarily. We’ll have to check into it to make sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else and I think you’re not alone in having this happen.”

“It’s okay ma’am,” Sofie replied with a forced smile. It was anything but “okay,” but she supposed that things could’ve turned out worse. At least Matthew was sent over to get her at just the right time. She had the feeling that the wrestler she ran into wouldn’t have simply left her alone and campus security would’ve had to get involved.

The woman explained that Sofie could head over to the campus theatre at that moment for the newcomers’ welcome. She uploaded a map of the campus to Matthew’s and Sofie’s personal datapads then sent them on their way with another group of freshmen.

Several hours later, early into the local evening, Sofie swiped her university CAC through the reader on the door to her new home for the next year. She was separated from her friends again as they were in separate buildings. At first, it bleeped negatively at her and she tried it again.

The door opened and she found herself looking into a modestly furnished room. To the immediate right were two wall lockers set into the wall with passcode terminals on them to unlock the doors. There were two desks, two chairs, two beds arranged bunk style in the wall, one on top of the other and to the far right, there was another door leading to what surely was the bathroom. There was a two-person sofa just past the beds in front of an HD screen hanging on the wall.

Her roommate was nowhere to be seen but all her stuff was inside, and her name was on the digital nameplate outside. After Sofie got her stuff inside she keyed in her own name for the door as well.

Sofie closed the door behind her and set her bags down before going about unpacking them. She was in the middle of unpacking when the door opened again and another woman walked in. “Who are you?” the other asked with a Castilian Spanish accent.

“Sofie Taske. And you are?”

“Layla Fuentes,” the other answered.

“Ah, if that’s so then I guess I’m your new roommate,” Sofie answered while extending her hand out. Layla returned the handshake and Sofie took a moment to look the other girl over briefly. The other young woman was slightly shorter than Sofie, had brown hair almost the color of dark chocolate and a voluptuous figure that Sofie envied. Layla had warm, chocolate brown eyes that went well with her slightly darker skin and, even to Sofie, a very beautiful face. She wore a floral print blouse that contrasted nicely with her skin and only did a fair job of hiding her figure and a white miniskirt that only came down to just above mid-thigh and seemed to only cover the more important parts of her. She would’ve wondered how she even managed to wear such a short skirt if not for the nylons she was wearing with it. The high-heeled shoes that she was wearing added to her already tall 1.7 meter15.6 foot height which made her seem nearly as tall as Sofie was.

Sofie had to wonder why she was wearing such tall high-heeled shoes but she decided not to ask such a question right after meeting her. She thought that perhaps Layla was insecure of her height and wanted to appear taller.

“I guess you’re not from here,” Layla stated rather matter-of-factly.

“Yes and no, but how’d you guess?” Sofie asked as she looked about the common room of the dorm.

“Your accent. You do a good job of hiding it, but I can hear it. It’s not a German one that I’ve ever heard before. I’d say you’re from a colony world, right?” Layla asked as she sat down on the couch and took her shoes off.

“Actually,” Sofie began explaining. She figured that she’d have to give this explanation a lot so she might as well start practicing it. “I’m from Germany originally, just a few hundred clicks south of here. My family moved to a star system near the edge of Human Federation space when I was about three. A place called New Germany. I know it’s not a very imaginative name, but it is what it is. We’re as far from the border with the ACF as you can be while still being in HF space. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Segovia, Spain. It’s a city of a few hundred thousand people northwest of Madrid. But I’m sure you knew that already. Now, tell me about your home please,” Layla asked, genuinely interested in hearing about what life was like on a colonial world. She heard people on Terra talk about them, but she never actually got to speak with someone who lived on one. People on Terra and those from the Inner Colonies tended to talk down about the “back woodsy” people on those planets. There was talk of them marrying their cousins and generally being poorer and less educated, much like the so-called hillbillies of 20th and 21st century America. She wanted to know if there was any truth to the talk.

“Well for one,” Sofie sat down on the couch opposite of Layla, “it’s warmer than Terra actually. Our star is bigger and slightly hotter than Terra’s and our planet is about eight-point five light-minutes from it. Issus, that’s what we call the planet, is bigger than Terra but has about the same land-to-water ratio. The gravity is about a third again as that of Terra so being back here actually makes my steps light. The lower gravity is going to play merry hell with me since they genetically altered my body when I got there; I have stronger bones, muscles, that sort of thing, along with a boosted metabolism. I come from near the equator so here it’s a little chilly for my taste.”

“I actually agree with you there,” Layla said as she glanced at her datapad again. “It’s only 24 degrees outside here during the day! But Segovia is nearly 30 now!”

“But consider that where I come from it’s above 35 degrees or more with plenty of humidity almost all year round. The hottest I remember it being was almost 46.” She looked down to see Layla gaping at her and explained. “It’s not that bad really, most days don’t get nearly that hot. But I’ve grown up with that kind of heat, so I’m used to it. If I go anywhere for a spring break it’d better be somewhere warm, like the Mediterranean, the South Pacific, or the Caribbean.”

Layla shook her head saying, “What you’re talking about is too hot, even for me!” The two of them then started talking about their families and other such details about their lives.

Continue to Chapter 9…

Last updated on Thursday, October 19th, 2023 at 4:10 PM by trparky.

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