Chapter 68 – Reclaimers’ Arrival

Chapter 68 – Reclaimers’ Arrival

3 Days Later

— Sunday, December 4, AD 2129 —

“Long time no see, Captain.”

“Back at you, sir,” Captain Travis replied, offering Colonel Saito a quick salute as he descended the wide ramp leading down from the Interstellar Gate behind him.

And to you, too, Mote, Mark added, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the Captain as he nodded toward Mote, who himself stood off to the side of the ramp next to Saito. With a warm smile, Mark continued, it’s good to see you again!

It’s only been a month and a half… Mote responded, his arms crossed. A moment later, however, a small smile broke through his stoic expression. Still… good to see you, Mark.

“Now if only it wasn’t for work…” Captain Travis complained, his shoulders slumping as he and Mark came to a stop in front of Saito and Mote. The Captain then glanced around the room behind him; the Interstellar Gate — a giant ring wreathed in ornate royal blue, silver, and white geometric designs — dominated the space, surrounded on four sides by concrete walls with massive doors in them, large enough to fit tanks and trucks though. A heavy-duty metal ramp ran from the base of the Gate to the floorspace in front of it, and several meters beyond that were a series of windows into a control room of sorts, sitting high in the wall above one of the truck doors. Standing at attention outside each of the massive doors were several guards, dressed in SERRCom’s camouflage fatigues and wielding rifles. All in all, the room’s appearance was a stark contrast to the civilian Gateports on Earth, Nimalia, or Sikalia — for this was the embarkation room within the Gatefort on Eana, SERRCom’s Primary Fortress World. A planet dedicated entirely to military use.

“Well, you know how it goes,” Saito remarked with a bitter smile. He glanced down at the single bag in each of Travis and Mark’s hands — their only allowances for travel items — and then turned toward one of the exit doors, gesturing for everyone to follow him. “Travis, Mark, I’ll show the two of you to your barracks. We can talk on the way.”

This is far from our first time on Eana, sir, Mark pointed out, though quickly fell into step behind Saito and Mote all the same. We do know where the barracks are.

“You know the regular ones, sure. But this time, we get special rooms,” Saito declared.

Still not sure how I feel about that… Mote muttered.

“Special rooms, though, huh, sir?” Travis mused, “are the brass finally recognizing how valuable we are to SERRCom?”

“Ha. In a way, yes. But also, no.” Saito shrugged. “Commander Shepherd was the one who requested the rooms for us — he did it without even asking me. I doubt we’d receive this courtesy if he wasn’t around.”

Without asking…? Mark questioned warily.

“I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, personally,” Travis remarked.

“Hackett said the same thing,” Saito replied with a smirk as he guided the group down the hallways of the base. He then glanced back at Travis and Mark. “So, how’s life on Nimalia?”

“Much more hectic than I expected…” the Captain responded.

There’s been a lot more combat than I expected… Mark commented with an uneasy smile. Everything’s turned out fine so far, but still…

Can the Nimalians really not protect a simple school? Mote questioned, a hint of derision in his tone.

Captain Travis shook his head. “The fighting wasn’t at the school. Compound Tresnon’s security actually isn’t that bad, but, uh…” He looked over at Colonel Saito. “I was wondering if I’d be able to take my rifle back with me after this mission is over, sir.”

“Don’t worry, Captain, I saw the requisition order you put in last month,” Saito replied. “An SR02… you sure you don’t want an AR02 instead?”

“You know me, sir. I’m a marksman, through and through. I’d like to take out my opponents before they get close enough to use an assault rifle.”

The land outside the walls of Compound Tresnon is very flat, as well, Mark pointed out.

“Yeah, but hopefully we won’t have to defend Tresnon against attack,” Travis countered, and then sighed. “I guess an assault rifle would make more sense in the situations we’ve been in… hey, sir, do you think they’d let me take both an SR and an AR?”

The Colonel chuckled as he shook his head in amusement. “We’ll see. Who knows, if this mission goes well, I bet Shepherd would be more than happy to personally sign off on that.”

You say that like the Commander is giving us special attention…? Mark replied warily.

He is giving us special attention, Mote declared crossly. Why do you think we have special rooms?

“Now, now, Mote… it isn’t quite that simple,” Saito stated. “That said, Shepherd does seem, shall we say… especially interested in how CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir perform. I’m sure he’ll be watching us through the entire op.”

“Is he really here, himself?” Travis questioned.

“You know how the Commander is. Every op worth a damn features an appearance by the man himself. It certainly doesn’t help that we’re going up against an actual established military, this time…”

“Wait, what?! Travis and Mark exclaimed in unison.

An established military?! Mark further questioned.

“Uh… care to explain, sir?” Travis responded uneasily. “We haven’t heard anything about this op during the three days we’ve been jumping through the Gate Network… all we know is it has something to do with Sunova.”

“Shepherd is going to officially brief us later today, so I’ll save the details for then,” Saito replied, “but the gist of things is that we’re going up against the Black Suns.”

Mark and Captain Travis exchanged a wary glance before returning their attention to the Colonel. “…The Black Suns, sir?” Travis echoed.

“Well, the Suns themselves claim that the forces on Sunova are a rogue element, but that’s always the standard line for disavowing a black ops team — and everyone knows that the Suns like their black ops. Whether or not the Sunova forces are actually a rogue element is something we hope to find out.”

They’re all mercenaries, anyways, Mote declared. The sooner we clean out the filth, the better.

Even mercenaries are still people, Mote, Mark said. You can’t just write off the whole group like that…

It takes a special kind of person to sign up for a PMC, Mote countered. You recall how our missions with those Black Suns went back in October, right? They can’t be trusted.

“Ah ha… right…” Captain Travis forced a smile. “…I guess you might be right…”

Saito glanced back at the Captain, eying him for just a moment. “…Is this about that Black Suns officer who showed up on Nimalia?” the Colonel eventually questioned.

“Uh… well, yes, sir.”

What? Mote looked between Travis and Saito in alarm. The Suns are even on Nimalia?!

“Relax, Mote,” Saito insisted. “General Lead is aware of the issue, and has given his approval to keep the recruits on Nimalia for the time being.”

A scowl rapidly formed on Mote’s face as the group ascended a set of stairs and found themselves in a hallway devoid of other foot traffic, on the far side of the base. …I don’t see how that makes this okay, sir, Mote eventually commented. We’ve all seen how the Suns act. How can we trust them?

“Oi, oi, oi…” Saito sighed and shook his head. “I’ve explained this, Mote. The different Sectors of the Black Suns do different things. Besides, the officer on Nimalia is there at the request of the Nimalian Deans. If they trust him, then I don’t see a reason for us not to.”

I see that as a reason to distrust the Deans, not to trust the officer.

I disagree, Mote, Mark interjected. I’ve met several of the Deans, and they all… well, they’re mostly reasonable people.

“Gavon himself seemed like a nice enough guy, too,” Luke added.

…Gavon…? Mote questioned, only for his eyes to narrow. Is that the officer we’re talking about? You’ve already been meeting with him?!

He helped me cook, once, Mark declared.

…Tch. Mote snorted in derision. I knew sending the recruits to Nimalia would be a bad idea. But now they’re getting spied on by the Black Suns, and you and the Captain don’t care to stop it!

Do you really distrust my judgment that much?

…Well, no, but…

“That’s enough complaints from you, Mote,” Colonel Saito cut in. “I already know well what you think of the Suns. Whether you like it or not, however, is not going to change how SERRCom does things.”

Is it not contradictory that we’re about to go on a mission against the Black Suns, and yet, we’re talking about how we’re perfectly fine with a Black Suns officer having close access to the recruits?Mote argued.

“If only things were ever as black-and-white as you’d like them to be… but this situation isn’t. There’s shades of gray all over the place.”

Mote opened his mouth, as if to argue further, but stopped himself and instead pursed his lips, his gaze cast to the side. After a few moments of silence, he said, …if you say so, sir.

“Ah ha ha… I see things haven’t really changed since we left, huh?” Travis remarked with a forced smile.

I think we all just… need a proper break, Mark suggested wearily.

“Funny that you mentioned that, Mark,” Saito replied as he stopped in front of a door. The hallway they were standing in ended a couple doors down, and windows on the wall opposite the door allowed the group to look down on the courtyard of the base. “…If this mission goes well, the General’s agreed to give us some leave.”

“I like the sound of that,” Travis remarked.

“So do I — so let’s see that this mission goes down without a hitch. And to that end, we have a briefing to attend.” Saito gestured toward the door in front of him. “Travis, Mark, here’s where the two of you will be sleeping while we’re here. In fifteen minutes, I want to see everyone in front of briefing room A2.”

“Oof. We just got here, sir. Are we really going straight into a briefing?”

“Suck it up, Captain, it’s part of the job,” Saito remarked with a smirk. “We’ll have to properly catch up after the briefing. But in the meantime, I’ll see you then.”


15 Minutes Later

“Captain! It’s good to see you.”

“Same to you, Major,” Captain Travis replied with a smile as he passed Major Hackett a nod. He then moved over to one of the empty chairs surrounding the briefing room table, taking a seat next to Researcher MacTavish and across from Mark.

Yay! Danielle exclaimed, eagerly leaping out of her chair to envelope Mark’s torso in a tight hug. We’re finally all together, again!

Colonel Saito watched on with a faint smile, from his seat near the front of the room. For the first time in a month and a half, the entirety of both CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir were now all sitting in the same room — namely, one of the briefing rooms within Eana’s Gatefort. The room itself featured little special in terms of decor: a long table filled the middle of the room, surrounded by a dozen cheap office chairs. On the wall at the front of the room was a standard holographic white board, but aside from that, the walls were bare white, and the floor covered in the same sort of thin, firm carpeting that could be found in office buildings.

The only question… Kate drawled, drawing Saito’s attention to her as she planted her elbow on the tabletop and held up her head with her hand, is what kinda stupid reason we needed to bring Mark and the Captain back for.

“Be careful with your words, there,” Hackett admonished. “This briefing is due to start soon, and Commander Shepherd could walk in through that door at any second.”

…Hmph, Kate snorted in response, only to flick her eyes over to the door as it opened once more. …Well, speak of the devil.

In through the door confidently strode an older man with a stout build, average height, fair skin, and short, graying hair. His sharp cheekbones and bushy gray mustache were more than enough to reveal who he was, a fact confirmed by the badge on the camouflage fatigues he was wearing: David Shepherd, the Commander of the General Forces. He quickly approached the white board at the front, inputting a couple quick commands in a keypad to the side before turning toward the rest of the room and flashing a smile. “Apologies for my tardiness,” the Commander declared. “There’s been a lot of work to do to prepare for this op, after all.”

“It’s no issue, sir,” Colonel Saito replied. “We all only just got here, ourselves.”

Shepherd chuckled. “There’s no need to be so polite with me, Colonel. CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir are highly accomplished teams, after all! And quite valuable to SERRCom. You all have permission to speak frankly in my presence.”

In that case—! Kate began, only to be interrupted by Mote.

We appreciate that, sir, he commented, throwing Kate a dirty look as he did.

“Ha ha ha! Quite the dynamic you all have,” Shepherd remarked with a smirk, though he quickly switched to a neutral expression. “Anyways. You’re all here, so without further ado, let’s begin. The eight of you are here today to join Operation New Dawn, an op planned by yours truly to retake the Tier 5 World of Sunova, an old colony of SERRCom’s.” He paused to look around at everyone else in the room before continuing, “I’m sure you all are wondering why I’ve called you here to participate. ‘Why waste our time retaking an abandoned base?’ I certainly wouldn’t blame you.”

Are you gonna fucking tell us, or what? Kate questioned.

Kate, Mote quickly admonished, only to pass Shepherd a confused look as the Commander chuckled.

“It’s alright, Lieutenant Emerson. I did give blanket permission to speak frankly,” Shepherd remarked. He then turned toward Kate. “Rest assured, the purpose of this briefing is to answer all of the questions that you have, but if I may ask, at least allow me to start the explanation of the operation’s purpose and plan before I take any questions.”

“Sounds like a reasonable plan to me, sir,” Saito commented as he threw Kate a side glance.

Yeah, yeah, I get the fuckin’ point already… Kate muttered under her breath, her posture worsening as she slouched down into her chair.

“Alright, then,” Shepherd continued once more. “The primary purpose of Operation New Dawn is as I stated: to reclaim the world of Sunova for SERRCom and re-establish our presence there. To this end, we have two objectives: to ensure that the metallic infection — which forced us to initially abandon the planet — is no longer a threat, and to neutralize any other threats that have manifested in the meantime. At the moment, that means the Black Suns.”

The Commander paused for a moment to turn toward the holographic white board. After making a couple of gestures as though he was interacting with some invisible AR environment, the lights in the room dimmed, and a large overhead image of a mountainous region appeared on the board. “This is the region of Sunova around the Gatefort,” Shepherd explained, drawing a quick red circle around a small building situated in a clearing to the west of the mountains. He then drew another circle around a point at the base of the mountains, at which point a line formed between the two circles, accompanied by a distance measurement of 102 kilometers. “And this is the location of the caves that we discovered over twenty years ago,” Shepherd continued, turning back to address the room. “As I’m sure you’re all aware, those caves were the source of a number of mysteries. It’s where I found the Master Ayas after it had disappeared for two decades, and it’s also where the metallic infection originated.”

“I take it that’s the main point of concern, sir?” Hackett questioned.

“It is, but not for the reason you might think,” Shepherd replied. “The Frigate Out of Hand did a sensor sweep of Sunova last week and found no obvious signs of the infection. Instead…” He swiped his hand through the air, prompting a second image to replace the first. The second image was an overhead view, much like the other, but at an increased level of magnification — and a handful of small buildings could be seen standing just outside of the aforementioned cave entrance. “…We found that someone had set up shop outside the caves. Through careful camera and comms monitoring, we’ve been able to determine that the ‘someone’ in question is actually the Black Suns. Furthermore, they appear to have left Sunova’s Gatefort alone — so orbital scans suggest, anyways. Whatever it is the Black Suns want, it has to do with these caves.”

“I understand that these Suns are a rogue element, correct?” Saito questioned.

A strained smile appeared on Shepherd’s face. “That is what the Black Suns claim,” the Commander answered. “But whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter for this op. The fact that matters is that, thanks to General Lead’s decision to check with the Suns, we can expect to have lost the element of surprise.”

“Is that why this op is moving so fast?” Travis asked.

“That’s it exactly, Captain. We need to move on the Suns before they get an opportunity to fortify themselves — or worse, destroy or ship out whatever it is that they’ve found.”

You think they’ve found something? In fucking caves? Kate questioned incredulously.

“The Black Suns never commit a force this size unless they have a substantial lead on something,” Shepherd asserted. “Plus, you yourselves have already made an underground discovery, no? That Aldredian Armor was located at a Black Suns dig site — a dig site that was also infringing on SERRCom’s sovereignty.” The Commander pounded his fist on the white board, near the buildings in the image. “The presence of this outpost means that Operation New Dawn has an additional, secondary objective: to secure for ourselves all data and objects that the Black Suns have recovered from the caves. I couldn’t care less if the Suns themselves live or die, but their computers, goods, and machinery must remain as intact as possible.”

“Guess that throws out orbital bombardment, huh?” Travis remarked cheekily.

We hardly need to go to that extreme to handle a bunch of mercenaries, anyways, Mote insisted.

“Let’s not undersell the Black Suns, here,” Hackett pointed out. “Rogue element or not, members of the Black Suns are always known for their skill and elite training. The only Suns we’ve worked with were Sector 3, which is the weakest of the Sectors in terms of combat training, but even Rabine seemed rather skilled.”

“You’re absolutely correct, Major,” Shepherd declared. “Bastards though they may be, the Black Suns will be a threat that must be taken seriously, if for no other reason than there are bound to be a number of Chaotics within their ranks. This is why I’ve requested that you all join this op. CSF-1, Eximius Vir — the eight of you have seen more combat against Chaotics than anyone else in SERRCom. I hope I can count on your experience to make this op a success. And on that note, allow me to get into the specifics.” The Commander turned toward the board again, gesturing up to the top to shrink the image and move it to the side. Appearing beside it was a chart featuring a handful of symbols and numbers. “Despite Out of Hand monitoring the outpost for a week, we still don’t know exactly what defenses the Black Suns have available to them. It’s likely that they’ve stowed at least some of their weapons within the caves, where they’d be quite difficult to detect by most orbital scans. We do know a handful of things, however — namely, the outpost and an area nearly half a kilometer all around it is blanketed in anti-beaming jamming fields.”

“Sounds like they were expecting us,” Travis remarked.

“It does seem that way,” Shepherd agreed. “However, the lack of built-up fortifications suggest that the Suns never planned to hold this outpost long term — which is to our advantage. Aside from the jamming fields, it would seem that they have a platoon of around 30 soldiers present, accompanied by 4 mechs. At least one of these mechs appears to be a BSMI-A-389 ‘Enforcer’, which is the standard Black Suns Assault Mech. It stands 9 meters tall, and sports a head-mounted laser cannon with a 6 kilometer range. We haven’t been able to positively identify the other three mechs, however.”

It seems unlikely that a rogue element would have a squad of mechs at their disposal, Mote commented.

“While I agree with you in spirit, Lieutenant, Black Suns mechs and technology are available for sale on the galactic market. A group’s possession of either isn’t proof on its own of a connection to the Black Suns as an organization,” Shepherd declared. “We should be able to determine whether this outpost truly is rogue or not when we storm it — but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to determine how many of the Suns are Chaotics. Not that I expected to be able to, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, this does mean that we’re going into this op with something of an informational disadvantage.”

“We don’t even know if the outpost knows we’re coming, do we?” Hackett mused.

“That’s correct. I’m operating under the assumption that they know, but Out of Hand’s monitoring suggests that they might not. There’s been no noticeable change in their behavior over the past week. The outpost may truly be a rogue element, or the Black Suns leadership may simply have disavowed all contact the moment they knew that we were aware of the outpost.”

“Alright…” Saito leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table as he looked up at Shepherd. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We’ll approach Sunova on two fronts,” Shepherd declared. “I’ve secured the assistance of two more Frigates, due to arrive at Sunova in two days. And you, CSF-1 and Eximius Vir, will approach Sunova through its Interstellar Gate. As the vanguards, you will be in charge of clearing the Gatefort and ensuring that no Black Suns monitoring or defense equipment remains. The exact details of how you do so, I’ll leave to you, Colonel. You know your own teams best.”

“I appreciate that, sir. What do we know about the Gatefort interior?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. Orbital scans showed that Sunova’s Gate is still present within the Gatefort, and as I said earlier, there doesn’t seem to be an active Black Suns presence there. However, it’s still possible that they set up passive surveillance or defenses that the Out of Hand’s scanners can’t detect, or even that they’ve activated the Gate’s blocking mechanism. Since we don’t want to alert the Suns to our arrival, we haven’t yet dialed Sunova; your departure tomorrow will be the first time we open a connection. We won’t know until then if Sunova’s Gate is blocked.”

And if it is? Kate questioned.

“That’s what the Frigates are for,” Shepherd stated. “If Sunova’s Gate is blocked, then the forces on board the Frigates will become the vanguard instead. Regardless of who the vanguard teams are, the job of the vanguards will be to clear Sunova’s Gatefort, secure its Interstellar Gate, and open the way to transporting in further reinforcements through the Gate. Once we’ve established a foothold in the Gatefort — which should only take a day — then we’ll commence with part two of the op, consisting of our attack on the Black Suns outpost. For that purpose, and also for manning the Gatefort, we’ll have a full company as reinforcements, including one mech squadron, one tank squadron, and a half-flight of Hawk gunships.”

“A full company… against just a platoon?” Travis frowned. “Are the Black Suns that dangerous?”

“A platoon is all we’ve seen of them… so far. We don’t know what they could be hiding in the caves,” Shepherd pointed out. “Furthermore… while we may have abandoned Sunova, the fact still remains that the planet is within Earth’s sphere of influence. Sunova is very far from CSA space, where the Suns normally operate — so their presence on Sunova is tantamount to challenging SERRCom’s ability to enforce our sovereignty. We must respond to such a challenge with a heavy hand. This is why I’ll be personally taking command of Sunova’s Gatefort during the op.”

Danielle’s eyes widened in awe. Whoa, really?

“All due respect, sir, but is that really a good idea?” Hackett questioned warily. “Putting a member of High Command on the front lines seems kind of…”

“A poor idea?” Shepherd chuckled. “Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you, Major. But Operation New Dawn is more important than most people realize. We aren’t just reclaiming an old colony of ours; we’re proving that SERRCom can enforce our sovereignty, and more than that, we’re proving that SERRCom can stand against the galaxy’s attempts to bully and extort us. We’re proving that we don’t need outside assistance to achieve our goals — and we must do so with confidence. What better way to demonstrate confidence, than to have a member of High Command personally take part?”

An admirable goal, sir, Mote declared with a firm nod. We’ll be sure to do our part.

“I appreciate that, Lieutenant Emerson,” Shepherd replied with a smile. “I know you won’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to seeing what you all can do.” The Commander then glanced back at the board, and at the small overhead image of the Black Suns outpost. “I’ll go over the exact details of taking the outpost once we’ve secured Sunova’s Gatefort, but for that part of the op, CSF-1, Eximius Vir, you all will be acting as advance scouts and flankers — with the exception of Saito. Be sure to equip yourselves accordingly.”

“Hmm? What am I doing, then?” Saito questioned.

“You’ll be heading the main assault force. We’re going up against the Black Suns, after all, who no doubt have plenty of Chaotics among their ranks. Your experience in fighting against Chaotics would be invaluable for the assault force.”

“Sounds like you’re movin’ up in the world, eh, Colonel?” Travis remarked cheekily.

“Right…” Saito muttered in response.

“I’m sure everything will work out,” Shepherd declared. “Major Hackett will take over command of CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir for that portion of the op, but as I said earlier, I’ll go over the exact details later. For the first part of the op, Colonel, I’ve sent you a map and scans of the Gatefort, so you can plan for your part of the raid. You’ll be heading out at 1200 hours SERRCom Earth time; should be mid-morning at the Sunova Gatefort at that time.”

What? But that’s less than 24 hours from now! Kate complained.

“And I apologize for the short notice, but as I’ve emphasized, time is of the essence,” Shepherd asserted. “When SERRCom discovered the caves on Sunova, it led directly to us claiming the Battlecruiser Genesis, among other things — and I think we all know by now just how influential the Genesis has been. We cannot allow the Black Suns to snatch any discoveries like those from under our nose. We must attack soon, we must do so swiftly and with a firm hand, and above all else, we must preserve as much of the Black Suns’ equipment as possible, just in case they’ve already recorded certain data or discoveries. If we can do all of this while also evicting the Suns with minimal casualties to ourselves, then the message we’ll send to the rest of the galaxy will be clear.” The Commander then clapped his hands together, a confident smile playing upon his face as he looked around at each member of CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir. “Those are the details of Operation New Dawn: reclaim Sunova’s Gatefort, evict the Black Suns, and preserve their computers and equipment. Any questions?”

Saito joined Shepherd in looking around the room for a moment; when no one responded, the Colonel eventually spoke up. “Sounds like a no, sir,” he remarked, and then turned to address the room himself. “I’ll have a plan of attack by 1000 hours tomorrow. I want everyone suited up for the mission half an hour before that.”

“Understood, replied a chorus of voices from the rest of the group.

“Fantastic,” Shepherd commented with a grin. “Well then, I do believe this briefing is over. I wish you the best of luck, CSF-1, Eximius Vir — the future of SERRCom is in your hands. Everyone, dismissed!”