Chapter 54 – Meeting of the Commanders

Chapter 54 – Meeting of the Commanders

The Next Day

— Wednesday, November 23, AD 2129 —

“Alright, Kaji… it’s just a meeting with all of High Command. Nothing to worry about. Hah…”

Colonel Saito took a deep breath after muttering to himself, and then adjusted his tie a second later. In lieu of the black jacket and cargo pants that was his typical uniform, Saito currently wore a navy blue suit with a black tie and beret. Sewn onto both of his shoulders was the winged sun insignia that represented Colonels in SERRCom, while pinned to the right breast of his jacket was a small nameplate listing out his full name and rank: Colonel Kaji Saito. In line with his fancy uniform, the Colonel had also freshly shaved — and this time, he had made sure that his cheeks and chin were as smooth as possible.

…Get it together, Kaji, he mentally berated himself as he strode through the hallways of the Opportunity space station, SERRCom’s space-borne headquarters. He passed but a brief glance at the virtual windows to his left before recentering his attention on the hallway in front of him and taking another deep breath. Damn. You’re acting like a schoolgirl on her first date. Pull it together, man, you’re a Colonel! You’ve earned this.

However, as much as Saito attempted to cheer himself up, he couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Command Meetings, wherein every member of SERRCom’s High Command was physically present, weren’t that uncommon; High Command held such a meeting at the beginning of every year. However, irregular Command Meetings — like the one Saito was about to attend, wherein the meeting was called out-of-cycle and with short notice — were exceptionally rare. As far as Saito knew, the last time SERRCom’s High Command had held an irregular Command Meeting was twenty years ago, at the outset of the Nanocreature War.

“Ah, Colonel! On the way tae the meetin’?”

“Hmm?” Saito glanced behind him, where he spotted Director Scott MacTavish walking up, dressed in a slightly baggy gray suit and carrying a tablet. “…Ah, Director MacTavish,” Saito greeted as Scott fell into step beside him, and the two men continued down the hallway. “I see you brought your own suit…”

“Ah, this?” Scott looked down and frowned as he pulled at his jacket. “Well, Director of the ETAA is considered a ‘civilian’ role, even if our promotions are processed like the rest of SERRCom… sae I didn’t get one of the fancy military dress uniforms. Had tae buy my own.”


“Hell, I almost forgot I had the thing! Didnae remember I had it until Sarah said I should ‘wear my best’ for the meetin’, ha!”

“You certainly seem calm about this.”

“Why nae? It’s just a little meetin’ with High Command. I gae tae these all the time!”

“You mean the annual meetings?”

“Of course I dae. Isnae this one of those?” The moment the words left Scott’s mouth, a frown developed on his face. “Wait… this isnae January!”

Saito passed Scott a deadpan look as the two stopped in front of a large door at the end of the hallway. “…No, Director. It’s November.”

“…Oh. Hmm.”

A wary sigh escaped Saito’s lips as he held his right wrist up to a scanner next to the door. The scanner flashed as it read the identification implant under his skin, and then a click sounded as the door unlocked, and slid open into the ceiling. Standing back, Saito gestured for Scott to enter the room. “After you, Director.”

“Ever the polite one!” Scott remarked as he strode into the room.

Saito soon followed, ignoring the door as it closed behind him to look upon the meeting room he had just entered. A large, oval, oaken table occupied the center of the room, surrounded by enough leather chairs to sit almost two dozen people — one at each head of the table, and ten on each side. Navy blue carpet covered the floor, and a handful of lights offered illumination from the ceiling. A couple pieces of inoffensive abstract and natural art adorned the right wall, and a projection screen occupied the far wall, behind the far end of the oval table. Overpowering those mundane sights, however, was one of the largest virtual windows Saito had seen aboard Opportunity. Stretching from floor to ceiling, from far wall to near; the entire left wall offered a view of space outside, and the vast stretches of wispy clouds, verdant land, and blue oceans upon Earth below. The view wasn’t direct, of course; the virtual window offered a view of a hologram of Opportunity’s exterior, without presenting the security weaknesses of a real window. These kinds of windows were abundant throughout the space station, and yet the one Saito saw now was far more majestic than the rest.

“…Colonel Saito. I’m glad you made it.”

Saito’s attention snapped to the head of the table, where General Matthew Lead was currently sitting, dressed similarly to Saito but with the shielded Earth and Moon insignia of SERRCom attached to his shoulders. “General,” Saito greeted with a salute, noting as he did that several members of High Command were already seated.

Sitting in the chair on the left side of the table, closest to Lead, was an older woman with auburn hair done up in a bun. A few small wrinkles could be seen below her eyes and around the corners of her mouth, and she slouched slightly in her chair — but her eyes were sharp as she eyed Saito, and her navy blue pantsuit was impeccably well kept. Saito had no need to read her nametag to know her identity: this woman was Nastasia Markovic, the Commander of the Space Navy. The entirety of SERRCom’s space fleet fell under her purview, an immense responsibility — given that SERRCom’s spacecraft were the organization’s primary method of traveling and projecting its power.

A couple seats down from Commander Markovic sat another woman, dressed similarly but with a smaller frame. A white cap sat atop her dark, curly hair, which itself framed her ebony, rounded face. With a smile, she nodded toward Saito; the Colonel couldn’t help but think that she didn’t look a day over 30, but he knew better. This woman was Jackie Penningston, the 50-year-old Surgeon General of the Space Forces — the one in charge of SERRCom’s medical operations. As most people thought of SERRCom as entirely a military organization, Penningston was often overlooked compared to the other members of High Command — but a large part of SERRCom’s operations included scouting out and colonizing uninhabited planets, and interacting with alien peoples from entirely alien environments. The disease risk to SERRCom members — among other potential medical emergencies — could not be understated, and Penningston’s role was to study and mitigate that risk as much as possible.

The only other member of High Command present in the room at that time was Director Akane Hamasaki, of the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command. She sat across the table from Surgeon General Penningston, and was dressed just as sharply as the rest of High Command. On her face was her renowned polite smile, a smile that didn’t disappear even as she chastised Director MacTavish for his ill-fitting suit.

“So MacTavish and Saito get here before Shepherd, yes?” Markovic released an incredulous snort as Saito took a seat two chairs down from Penningston, putting him the furthest from Lead.

“Give him some time, Markovic,” Lead replied. “He still has a couple minutes before he’s late.”

“You really can’t call anyone late when Ulrich isn’t even here,” Penningston remarked. “That man is like clockwork.”

“And also unnecessary to this meeting,” Hamasaki retorted, her hands folded on the table in front of her. “I see little reason for the ECC to be involved, here.”

“The matters we are about to discuss will concern the future of all of SERRCom, Director,” Lead declared. “Normally, I would’ve waited to raise these matters at January’s meeting, but certain recent events are concerning enough to call an irregular meeting.”

“’Certain events’ involving a certain Colonel, I take it?” Markovic questioned as she passed Saito a glance.

The Colonel opened his mouth to respond, but General Lead beat him to it. “You already know the answer to that question,” Lead stated. “Colonel Saito and Director MacTavish both should have some important insight into the matters we’ll be discussing, hence their presence here.”

“Glad to help, sir!” Scott remarked.

“…Yes, same here, sir,” Saito added. “I’ll try not to disappoint.”

“What? Kaji Saito, disappoint?! You ought to have some more confidence in yourself, Colonel!”

Everyone in the room turned toward the entrance, where there now stood two men. The one who had just spoken had a stout build, with an average height, fair skin, and short, graying hair. His sharp cheekbones and bushy gray moustache, hiding the corners of his mouth as he smiled, was more than enough to identify him as David Shepherd, the Commander of the General Forces. All of SERRCom’s groundside forces fell under his command; as SERRCom’s ground forces were often considered far less important than its space fleet, many people considered the position of Commander of the General Forces to be less prestigious or important than the Commander of the Space Navy. But Saito knew better; within the politics of SERRCom’s command structure, Shepherd was just as important as Markovic — though in a different manner. Whereas Markovic often agreed with Lead and helped to effectively carry out his vision of SERRCom, Shepherd was Lead’s biggest rival, and had done much to claw SERRCom’s ground forces into relevance.

The second man, and the final member of High Command, stood just a little taller than Shepherd with a thin build. He wore a stern expression upon his narrow, angular face, topped by short dirty blond hair and a thin mustache. This man was one of the members of High Command that Saito had the least experience interacting with, but he still knew well the man’s name and role: Ulrich Riese, the Director of the Earthian Colonization Command. All of SERRCom’s colonization efforts were handled by the ECC, and thus Riese stood at the forefront of Earth’s expansion into the stars.

Riese silently took his seat next to Hamasaki, while Shepherd confidently strode around the table to sit across from Markovic and next to Lead. “Well!” he remarked, clapping his hands and looking around the room at everyone present. “Looks like everyone’s here!”

“You took your time,” Markovic commented with a bitter smirk.

“I had a couple things to tend to,” Shepherd replied in kind. “I arrived at the same time as Ulrich, anyways.”

“Riese,” Director Riese corrected.

“Right! Apologies, Director,” Shepherd replied.

Saito watched from his seat with a level of apprehension. I’d heard that Markovic and Shepherd don’t get along, but to start with this level of pettiness…

“Now that everyone is present,” General Lead spoke up, drawing everyone’s attention to himself. “Allow us to begin. As I mentioned in the meeting declaration, today we are here to discuss SERRCom’s plans to address the significant new threats and technology that we have discovered recently. Between the Drakkars, EA, the resurgence of the metallic infection, and our discovery of several pieces of Aldredian technology… I think it is certainly fair to say that we have far more on our plate than we did just three months ago. As all of these matters are interconnected, it would be difficult to try and discuss them one at a time. Nevertheless, we will begin with the ongoing research into our recovered Aldredian technology, and the coordinates to other potential caches of technology and information.” He nodded toward Scott. “Director MacTavish, would you do the honors.”

“Right! Of course!” Scott nodded back, and then cleared his throat. “Ahem. Well, I’m sure ye all know by nae about the Aldredian armor and Corvette that CSF-1 recovered last month?”

“Yes, Raenaros,” Markovic commented. “It sounds impressive, for a fightercraft.”

“And that armor is currently in Lieutenant Emerson’s possession,” Shepherd pointed out. “I’m sure there’s a good reason for that?”

“Yes… well, as it turns out,” Scott explained, “both Raenaros and the armor can only be activated or controlled by Mote. Uh, by Lieutenant Emerson. The same goes for one of the mechs that we recovered from the Aldredian Dreadnought, in fact. I’ve been looking intae why, and thanks tae information that CSF-1 discovered on one of their recent missions, I believe I have the answer. These devices are locked tae a specific gene signature.”

“I know of biometric locks, but that sounds overly strict,” Markovic said.

“I’d even go so far as to say implausible!” Surgeon General Penningston declared. “This is Aldredian technology, right? Devices that were created over a hundred thousand years ago?”

“As far as we can tell, that’s correct,” Scott replied.

“Hmm…” Penningston crossed her arms and cocked her head in thought. “The current galactic consensus is that every race in the galaxy, except for the Drakkars, are descended — at least in part — from the Aldredas. That would explain why we look the same, and the theory is supported by similarities in our DNA and internal organ structure, among other pieces of evidence. There’s flaws in the theory, of course, but that’s neither here nor there; my point is that I find it difficult to believe that a gene-locked piece of technology from thousands of generations ago would recognize only one person as having the gene it’s looking for. Either the gene signature should break down and disappear over the generations, or it should proliferate to the point that a large percentage of the population has it. But you’re saying that only Lieutenant Mote Emerson can activate these gene-locked devices?”

“I agree that it’s implausible, but it appears tae be the truth,” Scott answered. “I’ve tested just about every individual on the Opportunity. Of the thousands working on this space station, none of them could activate Raenaros, or the armor.”

“Those Eximius Vir… they really are special, aren’t they?” Shepherd remarked as he passed Lead a knowing glance.

“That isn’t something we didn’t already know,” Markovic shot back, and then turned to Saito. “Colonel Saito, yes? You work with the Eximius Vir? Does what Director MacTavish is saying make sense to you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Saito replied. “What the Director is saying is in line with my experience. We ran into another gene-locked device on our most recent mission, as well, and Mote was the one who could activate it.”

“What’s the purpose of the gene-lock?” Penningston asked. “Do we know?”

“Uh, well…” Scott smiled uneasily. “We have an idea. At the beginning of this month, CSF-1 visited a derelict Aldredian space station, and on that station was a large cache of valuable information!”

“And the Nanocreatures,” Saito added. “Because of them, we weren’t able to actually recover anything.”

“Physically, nae,” Scott commented, and then tapped his forehead. “But ye remembered some of what ye saw, which is important. Namely, this gene-locking technology seems tae have been called ‘Raen Technology’ by the Aldredas, named after Rynisaren Raen, the nobleman who created it. It sounds like the purpose of the gene-lock was entirely a political one.”

“In other words, only Aldredian nobles could use this technology,” Riese stated.

“…Yes. It seems that way.”

“Is there a way to circumvent the lock?” Shepherd questioned.

“Not that I knae of at this time…” Scott admitted sheepishly. “…But! We’re working on it, as we speak!”

“I’m glad to hear that, Director,” Markovic said, her arms crossed as she wore a bitter frown. “However… until we can manage that, I’m not sure I can endorse further investigations of those coordinates retrieved from the Aldredian Dreadnought.”

“And why would that be?” Shepherd pressed.

Genesis just recently returned from investigating one of the coordinates,” Markovic replied. “…He limped into the bay, with significant damage to his power plants and shield generators.”

Genesis took damage?!” Scott exclaimed in disbelief. “From what?!”

“According to Chief Captain Krick’s report, they arrived at a planet that was entirely covered by defensive fortifications. Furthermore, there were sprawling gun arrays in orbit, and preliminary scans suggest that the rest of the solar system featured similarly heavy defenses. By Krick’s word, the defenses immediately opened fire on Genesis, almost completely burning through his shields in barely a minute.”

“What?! But Genesis’s shields are rated at 1.3 Teratons’ worth of TNT! Are you saying that the fortifications applied that much damage tae a target as small as a Battlecruiser, all within one minute?!”

“That is what I’m saying, Director. And Genesis’s own battle logs prove it.”

“How did they detect Genesis in the first place?” Hamasaki questioned. “Did Krick forget to activate the ACS?”

“No, he did not,” Markovic responded. “The fortifications were able to see through Genesis’s ACS. That concerns me more than their damage output, honestly.” She then turned toward Lead. “General, quite frankly, these fortifications are not something that SERRCom would be able to handle, even with our entire fleet. If we had sent any other Sub-Capital ship aside from Genesis, they would have been slaughtered! And as I understand it, this coordinate did not have any special markings or notes in the Dreadnought coordinate cache. If that is the case, then how many more coordinates could lead to literal minefields?”

“It sounds to me as though you’re scared that you’ve finally found your match,” Shepherd retorted.

“Don’t patronize me,” Markovic snapped back. “This Aldredian fortification represents a serious threat to SERRCom’s security, as well as the life of our officers and materiel. Further investigation into these coordinates could result in the destruction of one of our ships… and if someone else were to discover these fortifications, someone with enough manpower or firepower to defeat them, then they may be able to study them and develop sensor technology that could pierce Genesis’s ACS.”

“But, Commander!” Scott protested, “if our other searches mean anything, then perhaps the fortifications only opened fire on Genesis because they failed tae pick up on any Raen gene signatures! If you investigated with Mote, then things might be different!”

“’Might’ isn’t strong enough, Director,” Markovic countered. “As is, Genesis will be out of commission for at least a month while he undergoes repairs, and he was lucky this time. Without knowing whether or not Lieutenant Emerson’s presence would deactivate the defenses, it’s simply too big of a risk to investigate. Trust me, Director — I want to access those defenses just as much, if not more than you do. But we cannot sacrifice our entire fleet to do so!”

“Markovic does raise good points,” Hamasaki commented. “A defensive fortification that not only can see through Genesis’s Absolute Cloaking System, but also defeat her shields in a minute, is something too powerful for us to face at this point in time.”

“I agree,” Lead replied with a nod, and then glanced toward Scott. “The coordinate that the Genesis visited is classified top secret, effective immediately.”

“Uh… right…” Scott responded dejectedly. “Sae… nae more coordinate investigations, then?”

“Ha. One single little scare, and you shut down the whole thing?” Shepherd scoffed. “SERRCom should expect more of itself. Progress was never made without a few sacrifices along the way.”

“We are talking about the lives of our soldiers and sailors, here,” Markovic snapped. “Would you throw them away so easily just to gain access to bigger guns?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth. I’m just advocating for continuing to research the Dreadnought coordinates. Aldredian technology is powerful, and not all of it is just ‘bigger guns’.” Shepherd then passed Saito a glance. “Isn’t that right, Colonel?”

Saito paused for a moment, suppressing the urge to fidget as everyone in the room turned toward him. “…I suppose, sir.”

“What is he talking about?” Markovic demanded.

“One key piece of technology,” Shepherd said. “One that I’m sure you would love, Markovic: a device the Aldredas called a ‘Superspace Drive’.”

“…And how do you know this?” Riese questioned.

“Yes, I would like to hear the answer to that, as well,” Hamasaki added icily.

“You should know well that all members of High Command have complete security clearance,” Shepherd declared, and then passed Hamasaki a challenging look. “You just have to know where to look.”

Regardless,” Lead interjected, “…I never intended to completely halt the research into the Dreadnought coordinates. However, given the massive fortifications that Genesis recently ran into, we should certainly approach the project with more caution. It may be that we’ll have to leave the investigation entirely to Captain Krick and his ship.”

“But, General!” Scott protested, “there are hundreds upon hundreds of coordinates! It would take forever tae search them all with only one ship!”

“It’s all we can spare,” Markovic insisted. “Under normal conditions, I would be willing to commit some Battleships, or even a Carrier to the investigation. However, I simply do not have that freedom right now.”

“You’re talking about the Drakkars?” Penningston questioned.

“And EA… as silly as it may sound.”

“If we’re that pressed for ships, then why not just break out those precious Dreadnoughts of yours?” Shepherd snorted. “We built them for exactly this purpose, didn’t we? Or are we too scared to use those, as well?”

“Commander!” Markovic sharply countered, briefly passing Saito a glance as she did. “That development is a classified project!”

“It’s alright, Markovic,” Lead said. “I grant Colonel Saito clearance on the matter.”

“Thank you, sir,” Saito hastily replied. Dreadnoughts? I thought we didn’t have any. I’d heard that SERRCom was looking to build one — but ‘dreadnoughts’? Plural? And in secret…?

“…Alright, then…” Markovic took a deep breath before turning back to Shepherd. “Ragnarok and Apocalypse are not spaceworthy, yet. They won’t even be ready for field testing for another year and a half at least, let alone use in missions and active combat!”

“How… expected,” Shepherd drawled. “Even after all of the time and resources poured into this pet project of yours… you even got that dam, all for the Dreadnought project. And now, when it matters, you still can’t use them. What a shame.”

“Ships take time to build, Commander,” Riese pointed out. “Not everything can be done in a day.”

“And that’s where I’m afraid you’re wrong, Riese,” Shepherd countered. “The Space Navy might take months and years to accomplish its objectives, but the General Forces need only days. Particularly…” He turned to give Lead an impatient stare. “…One certain, painless op that you keep needlessly rejecting.”

Lead held a frustrated hand to his forehead. “Shepherd…”

“And just what ‘op’ would this be?” Markovic questioned. “A foolish waste of SERRCom’s resources, no doubt.”

“Quite the opposite,” Shepherd insisted. “In fact, in the face of the threats looming over SERRCom, this op is more important than ever.”

“Which is…?” Hamasaki prompted.

Shepherd paused for a moment as he looked around at each of the other meeting attendees. Eventually, he declared, “I want to reclaim Sunova.”

“Sunova…?” Penningston echoed, “…isn’t that the outpost that was lost to the metallic infection 20 years ago?”

“The only outpost we’ve ever lost to a hostile force, to date…” Riese muttered.

“Exactly, Director!” Shepherd exclaimed, “that is my point, exactly! Sunova represents a major blemish on SERRCom’s record… and what’s more, we lost it to the metallic infection — a threat that is supposedly resurgent. Imagine what it would do for morale if we were to reclaim the outpost? If we were to demonstrate that SERRCom never forgets, that we never leave our holdings behind? If we were to demonstrate to the public that we have no fear of this ‘metallic infection’?”

“You want to organize a morale op?” Markovic questioned incredulously.

“I don’t think you understand how important this is to the rank and file,” Shepherd countered. “We live in uncertain times, Markovic. As leaders, it’s our role to put on a brave face and make sure that our followers know that we have a plan to come out ahead. They trust us to do that — they trust us because we do that. But if we just back away from every threat we face, then what does that say to the average soldier, hmm?”

“Be that as it may,” Penningston interjected, “the fact remains that Sunova was overrun by Nanocreatures. Active nanites may still be present. A reclamation operation would risk spreading the infection to SERRCom!”

“I do not see the value, either,” Riese commented. “The ECC is not lacking for colonies and outposts. Sunova was a Tier 5 world from twenty years ago, and even then, SERRCom’s surveys suggested that the planet was small, hostile, and lacking in resources. Its only value is sentimental.”

“It’s that sentimental value that’s important,” Shepherd argued, and then turned toward Lead. “You’ve read my op plans. I’ve addressed the metallic infection issue. As it stands, this op would be faster and cheaper than anything the Navy gets up to.” Shepherd then passed a snide glance toward Markovic. “I’m not even asking for a multi-trillion dollar, 8-year ‘defense’ project.”

“Those Dreadnoughts will save Earth, one day,” Markovic shot back. “And just what will taking Sunova do?”

“This is a lot of push back for such a harmless op. If I may ask, Lead, exactly what are the grounds for rejecting it? If couldn’t be… that you’re afraid of what we saw in the caves?”

In the caves? Saito thought cluelessly. He knew that Shepherd and Lead both had a history with the fallen colony of Sunova, and he surmised that their current disagreement about Shepherd’s op likely arose from that history — but he had never heard anything about caves. As the Colonel glanced toward Lead and saw the General massaging his brow, however, Saito realized that there might be actual substance to Shepherd’s accusation.

“…If I may add,” Scott spoke up, “there might be something tae learn about how the metallic infection spreads, by studying what remains in the caves, and whatever might have happened after we pulled out.”

“An astute observation, Director!” Shepherd declared. “See, Lead? There’s value, here.”

Another couple seconds passed in silence before Lead eventually replied. “…Very well. I’ll approve the operation to reclaim Sunova.”

“What?!” Markovic exclaimed, “General, you can’t possibly be caving to Shepherd’s demands?!”

“I am not caving to anything,” Lead refuted. “…Scott made a decent point. That’s all. If nothing else, it could be useful to secure Sunova and clear out any remaining signs of the metallic infection before it can come back to haunt us.”

“I’m glad you finally see reason,” Shepherd remarked with a smile.

“Yes…” Lead muttered. “But for now, let’s table the subject of Sunova. We still have other matters to discuss.”

“Might as well discuss the metallic infection, then, since the Commander here is so keen on confronting it,” Markovic declared.

“Yes, I wanted to talk about our plans regarding the infection, as well,” Penningston said. “I’ve read what pitifully little literature exists on the subject, and none of it is good.”

“That’s because the infection isn’t just that. It’s also a security threat,” Lead stated. “We all saw 20 years ago what the metallic infection can become. Infected individuals fall under the command of a central intelligence — Morcii — and, as far as we can tell, he gains access to all of their knowledge and memory.”

“Sounds like the solution is simple, then,” Shepherd remarked. “If someone is infected, then we… well, euthanize them.”

“You cannae be serious?!” Scott exclaimed.

“Ever the heartless one,” Markovic muttered.

“As an M.D., I feel ethically obligated to disagree with you, Commander Shepherd,” Penningston declared as she glared at Shepherd. “It is our job to reduce the spread of the infection, yes, but also to save the lives of anyone who contracts it — or at least to make their exit from this world as comfortable as possible. I won’t stand for any talk of involuntary euthanasia, especially when the possibility that a cure exists is on the table!”

“A cure? Ha,” Shepherd scoffed. “All we have now are rumors from ancient databases. Personally, I think you all aren’t taking this matter seriously enough. All it takes is one infected person to contaminate an entire command, or an entire ship. Are you willing to take that risk?”

“Before we make any decisions,” Lead cut in, glancing between Shepherd and Penningston before turning toward Saito. “Let’s hear from someone who has had recent personal experience.”

“That’s true.” Shepherd nodded as he and the rest of the room looked to Saito as well. “Colonel, you ran into the infection earlier this month, didn’t you?”

“…That’s correct, sir,” Saito replied.

“Well, Saito, you have the floor,” Lead said. “We’ve all read the mission report, so we know what transpired on the space station. What I’d like to hear are your thoughts on the matter, and how big of a risk you estimate the infection to be.”

“Right.” Saito took a deep breath and cleared his throat before continuing, “well, sir, I admit I’m not sure what to make of it all. I can at least say that energy shielding keeps the Nanocreatures at bay; they can’t get through it. The Aldredas must have known as much, too, since their labs seemed to use energy shielding to contain the Nanocreatures. Mote and Danielle were able to hold the Nanocreatures off, as well, even the big dragon we ran into. So, overall, the Nanocreatures are far from invulnerable, or unstoppable — at least, that’s my opinion, sir.”

“You still had Captain Krick fire upon the space station,” Markovic pointed out.

Saito nodded. “At the time, I feared that the Nanocreatures might take physical control of the entire space station, and turn it into a weapon against us. Destroying it seemed like the best course of action.”

“That is something the Nanocreatures did during the big war 20 years agae,” Scott remarked.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about, though,” Shepherd spoke up. “If the endgame of an infection incident is bombardment from a Genesis-class battlecruiser, then why risk letting it get that far?”

“The Colonel provided the answer for you,” Penningston replied. “Energy shielding can contain the Nanocreatures.”

“We have the technology tae scan someone and determine if they’re infected, as well,” Scott quickly interjected. “Genesis used it just fine when Saito and his team returned tae her. And I hear Raenaros, the Aldredian Corvette, has some kind of infection scanner as well.”

“Yes, so we can detect and contain the infection, good.” Riese glanced around the table. “Now, the question is thus: when, how often, and with what resources?”

“…You’ve lost me,” Markovic responded with a confused frown.

“Do we scan anyone who travels by Interstellar Gate, every time they travel?” Riese questioned. “Do we scan anyone who is beamed down to an unsecured planet? Do we scan people every time they move into a new environment? These are the thresholds I’m asking about.”

“SERRCom members already have identification implants,” Penningston mused. “The implants already have functions for contact tracing. If someone ever gets infected, then we can look at the logs and scan anyone and anything they came into contact with.”

“…I still don’t like this,” Hamasaki said. “This metallic infection… we know that a sapient entity drives it. That means that any information that comes into contact with the infection is contaminated… and that includes the knowledge of any people who get infected.” She looked around the room, making eye contact with each of the other members of High Command before settling on Penningston. “What would you have us do about that?”

“SERRCom’s classified secrets can’t possibly be worth more than a soldier’s life,” Penningston insisted.

“If only the world actually worked that way,” Hamasaki replied. “The fact of the matter is that if someone with access to certain pieces of information were to become infected, then the Nanocreatures would gain access to information that could quite literally cripple SERRCom. Supply routes, spacecraft weaknesses, access codes.”

“It’s no different from losing information to a traitor, or a spy,” Penningston argued. “Don’t tell me that the EIIC isn’t practiced enough in compartmentalizing information that it can’t handle a few bad actors?”

“I think we’ve had enough back and forth,” Lead cut in, extending his hands as if to calm Hamasaki and Penningston. “The fact of the matter is that the metallic infection, in the grand scheme of things, is a novel threat. Even the CSA and the Nimalian Union are uncertain about how to handle the resurgent infection. By all reports, the CSA seems to be claiming that the infection isn’t resurgent at all.”

“The evidence quite clearly says otherwise,” Riese said.

Lead nodded. “I agree. Given the CSA’s cageyness toward the matter, we can’t count on them to provide further information or guarantees. The Nimalian Union, however, is more willing to work with us.”

“The Nimalians were the ones who caused the infection outbreak on Sunova!” Shepherd protested.

“They dae have more knowledge than us on the matter, though,” Scott pointed out. “And if I recall correctly, that whole ordeal with Sunova was a surprise tae them, as well. And they helped us get out of it!”

“And we clearly don’t have enough information to come to a concrete decision ourselves,” Lead pointed out, and then turned to address the whole room. “For the time being, Penningston, let’s put that contact tracing into full practice as soon as possible. The infection risk to SERRCom officers and soldiers thus far has been small, but we need to stay ahead of it. Hamasaki, I need you to review our security protocols and make sure that anyone who is a critical member of SERRCom gets scanned any time they switch locales. Additionally, critical members will need approval before engaging in direct physical contact with anyone outside of SERRCom or our colonies, or travel to foreign locales. And Director MacTavish, I need you and the ETAA to investigate the veracity of these infection cure claims. For this project, I’ll also assign CSF-1, the Eximius Vir, and the Flagship Strike Group to help you investigate the Aldredian coordinates. I know I told you earlier this month not to focus on it, but after what happened on Nimalia recently, it needs to be a priority.”

“Understood,” Penningston replied.

“I’ll see that it’s done,” Hamasaki said.

“Got it, General!” Scott remarked.

Lead then glanced toward Director Riese. “Riese, the ECC’s ongoing colonization efforts can continue, but we need increased security at points of entry. If possible, minimize publicly mentioning the metallic infection. Director Hamasaki is right — the infection is driven by a sapient entity — so we need to leak as little information to it as possible.”

“That will be costly, and likely require slowing or halting the homesteading contracts,” Riese stated.

“Whatever it takes, Director.” Lead then looked at Shepherd, and then at Markovic. “The General Forces and the Space Navy can continue as the two of you see fit, Commanders. Our access to beaming technology greatly reduces potential points of contact for the infection, compared to the rest of the galaxy, so I do not expect the metallic infection to significantly hamper our military efforts. In the meantime, I will look into setting up an official channel with the Nimalian Union or the NSD so we can cooperate in dealing with the infection, among other things. Hamasaki, I’ll be working with you on that one to ensure that any communications fall within OpSec.”

“Of course, General,” Hamasaki replied with a polite smile.

“Good. And with that dealt with… it’s time to discuss the final two matters on today’s docket: the Drakkars, and EA.”

“It’s absurd that a single boy could present such a threat to SERRCom,” Shepherd declared with an irate scowl.

“Absurd as it might be, it is the reality we must face,” Riese stated.

“Of course I know that,” Shephered retorted, “what I’m saying is that it’s absurd that we ever reached this position in the first place. How in the hell did we allow this EA to get access to the resources that he has? And why haven’t we captured him yet?”

“…Loathe as I am to admit it,” Hamasaki commented, her polite smile maintained while her brow creased with frustration, “we have very little intel regarding EA’s whereabouts or activities.”

“How is that possible?” Markovic questioned, “this EA person is just a clone of one of the Chaotic recruits, yes? Why is he so difficult to track?”

“Do we actually know if he’s a clone?” Penningston added. “No blood or DNA samples have crossed my desk.”

“…This is the crux of the issue,” Hamasaki replied. “The EIIC has heavily reviewed our surveillance logs of Earth over the past several years, and… it would seem that the only possibility is that EA does not actually come from Earth.”

“We already knae that he somehow has access tae cloaking technology very similar tae, if not better than Genesis’s ACS,” Scott pointed out. “Perhaps he used that tae remain unseen?”

“If it were just him, I would concede that as a possibility. However, he has shown that he commands dozens upon dozens of human-sized battle-capable robots, on top of at least one Cruiser. One man cannot manufacture all of those on his own, and even an ACS large enough to blanket an entire production facility will leave a suspiciously large blank spot on planetary sensor readings. Not to mention all of the necessary supply chains that he would have to mask.”

“In other words, the robots and the Cruiser could not have been constructed on Earth?” Riese asked.

Hamasaki nodded. “Yes, exactly. Furthermore, I think we can all agree that one man cannot construct a Cruiser all on his own, under any circumstances. Therefore, EA must have an ally, or some kind of benefactor that supplied him with his robots and these Cruisers.”

“Excuse me… Cruisers? Plural?” Penningston questioned in disbelief. “I thought he only had the one!”

“So we thought,” Markovic replied, “but a week ago, CSF-1 and the Once In A Blue Moon Frigate encountered a second Cruiser bearing EA’s insignia while they were investigating one of the Aldredian coordinates. The second Cruiser had a different signature and physical design than the one we’ve seen here on Earth, so it was definitely a different ship.”

“Did you notice anything else about it, Colonel?” Lead asked, turning his attention toward Saito.

“About the Cruiser itself? No, sir,” Saito answered, glancing briefly at Lead before turning to Hamasaki and Scott. “But when we went planetside, we ran into another one of EA’s robots. It was more advanced than the rank and file robots he usually uses, and also had this weird scythe with it. It ambushed us and stole the Aldredian tech from right before our eyes, using that scythe.”

“Yes…” Hamasaki mused. “According to the testimonies of the Chaotic recruits from their encounter with EA last month, EA seems to have two different ‘series’ of robots. An E-series, which are the ‘rank and file’ robots that Saito mentioned, and then a more advanced A-series, consisting of larger robots with specialized designs. Based on EA’s own statements, and records of fights with the Eximius Vir and the Chaotic recruits, I believe that we’ve destroyed six of his A-series robots. The recruits took out one while training on the morning of EA’s New York attack, Lieutenants Emerson and Carver destroyed two over the San Francisco bay, the recruits took out another two during the EA kidnapping incident, and Emerson destroyed one during CSF-1’s most recent mission.”

“We may have destroyed them, but they still keep coming,” Shepherd pointed out. “What we need is to find who’s backing EA, and where they’re making his robots and ships.”

“And why they’re backing him,” Markovic added.

“The answer to that, I’m afraid, isn’t simple,” Hamasaki explained. “For one… EA’s robots are significantly more advanced than any AI research in the galaxy. As you all may know, true independently-acting artificial intelligence has thus far eluded the galaxy’s researchers, and yet EA’s robots all seem to be equipped with it.”

“EA has claimed tae be an Intellitechnic,” Scott pointed out. “Kate is one, tae, and we all knae just what she can dae. Hell, without her smarts, the Ragnarok and Apocalypse would still be on the drawing board right nae! So I wouldn’t be surprised if EA designed all of his own machinery.”

“That would line up with Austin Travis’s claim that he recognized two of EA’s mechs from childhood drawings,” Lead commented.

“That does seem to be the likely answer, at the moment,” Hamasaki said, “but even if EA drafted his own designs, he would still need a manufacturer for those designs. However, the EIIC is not currently aware of any non-government-owned or -aligned manufacturers that would be capable of producing two Cruisers of completely unique design.”

“True. Even the largest of the PMCs don’t have any spacecraft foundries…” Riese mused.

“Are you saying that one of the galactic governments has it out for us?” Shepherd questioned.

“Don’t be absurd,” Markovic quickly countered. “Neither the Riaxen nor the Drakkars would use such a roundabout method of attacking us, especially when we aren’t their primary targets. And what motivation could the CSA, Nimalians, or Syraus possibly have to antagonize us?”

“The answer seems obvious to me,” Shepherd shot back. “The CSA and Nimalians have been begging for access to our beaming and cloaking technology for 20 years. Subspace Drives, too. Sponsoring a terrorist to antagonize us could be some kind of attempt to expose our secrets.”

“I disagree, Commander,” Hamasaki stated. “EA has already demonstrated access to his own beaming, cloaking, and Subspace Drive technology, all on par with SERRCom’s. If his ships were being constructed by the CSA or the Nimalian Union, then they would surely be applying the same technology to their own ships. And yet, they aren’t.”

“Maybe they just haven’t had the time to do so.”

“You know as well as I do that planning and constructing even a Cruiser can take years. If the CSA or NSD were backing EA, then I have no doubt that their newest ships would be equipped with their own beaming technology and cloaking systems. They would also have no reason to continue harassing us for our technology. But, as I said — this is not the case.”

“What are you suggesting, Director?” Lead questioned.

Hamasaki took a deep breath and turned toward Lead. “…I… am not fond of saying this,” she eventually replied, “but the only possibility that remains is that a mysterious, unknown entity is backing EA.”

“That sounds pretty hokey,” Penningston remarked.

“’When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’,” Riese quoted. “It is as Director Hamasaki said. If there are no other possibilities, then this must be the answer.”

“It’s rather difficult to plan around an entirely unknown organization,” Markovic muttered.

“I don’t disagree, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt,” Lead stated, and then moved to address the table. “Given just how little we know about EA, there does not seem to be anything that we can proactively do at this moment in time. Director Hamasaki, I need you to figure out anything you can about EA. I want to hear about even the smallest thing you find. And until we know more, Markovic, Shepherd, I want our forces to remain on alert. Who knows when or where EA will show up next.”

“Understood,” Shepherd and Markovic replied.

“And for our last matter of the day…” Lead continued, “we have the Drakkars. There isn’t much discussion to be had here, so much as a few updates. Ever since a Drakkar Cruiser appeared within a day’s travel of Earth, we’ve increased patrols, and the Drakkars haven’t shown up since. Nevertheless, Markovic, let’s keep those patrols going.”

“I understand, sir,” Markovic replied, “but between the Drakkars, EA, and the Nanocreatures, we’re really stretching our fleets to the limit. If something happens, our only choice will be to play defensively.”

“That should be all we need for now,” Lead declared. “The CSA has taken on the responsibility of handling the Drakkars. We only need to repel any potential attacks; any offensive response can be left to the CSA.”

“Relying on aliens to do our work for us, again?” Shepherd snorted. “This won’t do.”

“One of the benefits of living in an interconnected galaxy like ours is that everyone can play to their strengths, and cover each others’ weaknesses,” Lead countered. “Dealing with the Drakkars happens to be one of the CSA’s biggest strengths. They have significantly more information about the Drakkars than us or the Nimalian Union, due to constantly being in battle with them. And on that note…” Lead glanced toward Saito. “I haven’t heard any news about Telregina since you encountered her at the Aldredian shipyard, but CSA intelligence says that there has been increased chatter about her amongst the Drakkars.”

“…Is she back?” Saito questioned warily.

“She hasn’t been spotted by any of the CSA forces,” Hamasaki stated. “We haven’t told the CSA about what happened at the shipyard… and the Black Suns seem to have kept it a secret, as well. But the CSA seems confident that Telregina is still alive.”

“I’ve heard that the Drakkar Faction leaders are invulnerable to all damage,” Penningston remarked, “but can that really be true?”

“The CSA certainly believes it is, and they’ve had well over a thousand years to form that opinion,” Lead said. “Either way… Colonel, you and the Eximius Vir should be careful the next time you run into Drakkars. I’m told that the Faction Leaders have long memories.”

“Sounds like fun, sir,” Saito drawled.

“You ran into Drakkars during last week’s mission,” Markovic stated, “did you learn anything from that?”

“Just that the Drakkar Factions really do have it out for each other, ma’am,” Saito answered. “They were fighting over the Aldredian outpost, but they hadn’t managed to get inside.”

“That’s nae the first time ye ran intae Drakkars while gaein’ after Aldredian tech,” Scott remarked.

“And it likely won’t be the last, given our luck.”

“That possibility is part of why I’m restricting the coordinate search to CSF-1, the Eximius Vir, and the Flagship Strike Group,” Lead declared. “You should be able to handle any Drakkars you run into. That said, we do need to figure out why the Drakkars know as much as they do. Hamasaki, MacTavish, is it possible that they’ve bugged our systems?”

“It is always a possibility,” Hamasaki replied, “however, it seems unlikely. The Drakkars have never had direct access to our data or systems, and their only opportunities at remote access were during the handful of ship-to-ship encounters last month. Judging by Genesis’s data logs from her encounters with Drakkar ships, the Drakkars didn’t transmit anything. This is in line with CSA intelligence, which states that the Drakkars tend to prefer gathering information through their ability to steal Ciei, rather than hacking computers or infiltrating systems.”

A brief image of Captain Feng flashed through Saito’s mind, and the Captain’s fate at the hands of Prosusicivious. The scene brought a frown to Saito’s face — he couldn’t imagine what it felt like to lose what might as well have been his soul. However, as tragic as the event was, Feng was far too low down the chain of command for Prosusicivious to have gleaned any knowledge of long-term importance from him. If the Drakkars had a way of tracking SERRCom, then it had to come from somewhere else.

“So we’re on the defensive on all fronts?” Shepherd questioned irately, bringing Saito’s attention back to the meeting. “This is ridiculous. All the more reason for my Sunova op to go through: the troops need something to inspire them, and there’s nothing like a good offensive to do so!”

“You already got your permission for that mission, Shepherd,” Markovic retorted.

“Yes, despite your advice. You’ll see, Markovic. This op will be more important for SERRCom than you think.”

“I hope you’re right, Shepherd,” Lead replied, “but raw speculation won’t do us any good right now. What will are the concrete actions that each of us can take to help preserve SERRCom and those we protect.” He then slowly looked around the room, making eye contact with each of the other members of High Command. “Are we all clear on our current directives?”

“Yes, sir,” replied the rest of High Command, with Scott and Saito hastily adding in their affirmations half a second later.

Lead offered a curt nod. “Good. Well then, Commanders, Directors, Surgeon General, Colonel. We have a lot ahead of us, and a lot to do. So let’s get to it.” He then placed his hands on the table and stood up, prompting everyone else to do the same. “Meeting adjourned!”