Cornelius Hunter Bunker Complex - Epsilon Gamma Three - 0.7 miles below Sagrella Village

“This is a Skywatch capsule fusion reactor!” Cerylia L’Orleans’ voice echoed off the concrete walls. The metal reinforced tunnel ran for at least a thousand yards in each direction. The overhead lights had to be pulling at least ten kilowatts by themselves. It was like being in an aircraft hangar, if said hangar had been built more than a half-mile underground.

“What can I say? My gramps plans ahead.” Jason Hunter didn’t look the least bit surprised. He was one of the few people who knew what his grandfather had been up to for years. He was back in his trademark denim jeans, this time with a Skywatch Fleet T-shirt and white athletic shoes.

Cerylia had been offered a fleet T-shirt. The look on her face gave Jason chills, so he decided against any further offers of Alliance military accessories.

The captain of the Condor Pirates had only heard rumors about the retired general’s bunker complex, mostly from Jason. She knew the Hunter patriarch was more than a little off, but nothing prepared her for this. The ceilings in the main loadway were seven stories overhead. The lights were all luminous gas bulb models that hadn’t been used seriously for more than 200 years. Cerylia and Jason had already visited the munitions storage, where the pirate queen had personally witnessed the supply of spare bulbs. The crates were stacked ten feet high alongside the general’s personal collection of man-portable anti-tank weapons and his still-operational Oerlikon shoulder-mount rocket launcher manufactured so far in the past L’Orleans would have had to break out a handheld to do the math.

It was the automated demolition and construction equipment that sent her over the edge. “Hold it, HOLD IT!”

Jason turned, hands in pockets.

“You had this all planned out!”

Hunter raised an eyebrow. “Far as you know.”

Cerylia stepped towards the captain with a vaguely menacing expression on her face. “Now look, I’m not your secretary, mister Hunter. If you’ve got a plan, and you want my help, you had better let me in on it or you’re going to find yourself riding a horse-drawn wagon back to Sagrella.”

“You wouldn’t leave me stranded.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Gambling is illegal on this planet. You wouldn’t be trying to corrupt a Skywatch line officer, now would you?” Hunter gave his opposite number an unearned grin.

“I’ve already corrupted you, funny man. Now out with it. What the hell are you doing and what are you cooking up with that gun-waving maniac you’re related to?” The pirate folded her arms and shifted her weight to favor one hip. Her expression told the captain he wasn’t going to be able to smart-aleck his way out of this one.

“Smokey and I made a deal when I first got word there were... individuals at Skywatch with my officers in their crosshairs. I was under threat of assassination. At least that’s the backchannel message I got from Admiral Powers’ chief of staff. They were also apparently trying to set me up for the murder of Vice Admiral Charles Hughes.”

“So that’s what brought you all the way out to Magellan looking for informants? That’s why you ordered your senior officers to arm themselves?”

“Exactly. This plan has been in operation for months. I involved you only to a certain necessary extent. I wanted things arranged so you could slip out the back door if everything went sideways.” The look on Hunter’s face was so matter-of-fact it gave Cerylia pause. It had been a long time since she had seen him this serious. “It wasn’t until Annora discovered Hughes was still alive that it blew everything wide open. It was then we knew we had more than one enemy, and they weren’t just Sarn.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked in a small voice: The kind of voice she would never use around anyone but Jason Hunter.

“You’ve got enough to worry about.”

“Jason.” Cerylia’s eyes locked with his. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Hunter hesitated. The struggle was visible on his face. “I was trying to protect you.”

“You don’t need to protect me, captain,” Cerylia snapped. “I’m not one of your academy conquests. We’ve been through more than that together. And we’ve been over this subject before!”

“Yes, yes you can take care of yourself. But that’s not good enough. I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy when it comes to this kind of thing.”

“You’ve always trusted me.”

“Even when I had no reason to.” Jason gave Cerylia a skeptical look. “A woman does not rise to lead the Condor Pirates unless she has some fortitude. But grit isn’t going to matter when we’re up against these people. They are treacherous, Lia. They won’t stop until they get what they want.”

“Why not just dress me in a gown and put me in a tower? Then I can seductively brush my hair while I wait to get kidnapped.”

“Because occasionally I need fire support,” Jason quipped.

“Very funny.”

Hunter’s expression didn’t change.

“Is that really what you think of me? Just a hired gun?”

“I think you’re a dangerous pirate who has even less information about her enemies than I do. I can’t snare you in this and then just leave you to deal with it.”

“You thought you were going to die, and that I was going to be next.”

Jason nodded. “Something like that.”

Cerylia drew close. She let her hands rest on the young captain’s chest. “I’m not going to let you die, Jason. I can apply pressure too.”

“Sending in the leg-breakers isn’t going to feed the bulldog this time, captain. These guys are active on multiple fronts. They are flag officers with multi-billion-dollar budgets. They have incredible intelligence resources. They are working with our enemies and they know they are facing capital charges if they are exposed. It’s life and death for them and it’s no different for us. All of humanity is at stake here.”

“Well I’m more concerned with one human in particular.”

Hunter smirked. “Why so protective?”

L’Orleans smirked back. “Because you owe me a hell of a lot of money, captain.”

Jason slid his arms around Cerylia’s slender waist. “I don’t plan on checking out just yet. I’ve been keeping Smokey in the loop and he’s been telling stories about Sarn activity on this planet. Something the fine members of the Hansen family just confirmed for us all. Admiral Powers made up a story about my need to ‘recover’ from the defeat at El Rey so I could disappear from the front lines for a while. We have a manhunt underway, and Cochrane is keeping Argent in on it as well. Now that we’re at war, time isn’t on our side.”

“Okay, Jason? This is the same man who roared off at 3AM one morning because he claimed there were interdimensional aliens genetically altering the soy crop with invisible laser weapons. You do remember that night, do you not? It was ten below out there. You ended up stranded offshore with a burned out radio and a couple flare rounds. If it weren’t for Jayce’s quick thinking and my forcible appropriation of rescue equipment from a rather uncooperative police ship, you would still be out there living in a grass hut and eating coconuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“I hate coconuts.”

“Exactly. So you better learn to show some gratitude! Who are we looking for now? Atwell again?”

“I wish it were that simple. This new guy was seen right here on Epsilon Gamma Three less than a month ago. We don’t have his name. We’re not even entirely sure he’s human. What we do know is that he managed to breach security at Lethe Deeps. Then he showed up on Raleo Two. He escaped from the obelisk complex with some kind of artifact none of us can even hazard a guess about. Jayce tracked him to the planet’s surface. She hasn’t checked in, so we don’t know what his status is. If I haven’t heard from her in the next 30 hours, I’m aborting our play dead act and going after the Sai Kee.”

“How did he know about Bayone?”

“That’s the whole problem. Nobody knew about what’s under Lethe Deeps except myself, Jayce, Komanov and our senior officers. There are details about what we found down there I didn’t even include in my reports. Yet somehow this guy zeroes in on the place like he’s been sitting in the room the whole time.”

“What’s the mission?”

“There may be heavy Sarn activity on this planet. You and I both know that’s unusual. That combined with the presence of this ‘Denominator’ as Jayce calls him leads me to believe we need to do some serious investigating, and that means we need General Hunter’s help.”

“Jason, the man is certifiable. You remember the last time you had to coax him out of that bus station. It was the first and only time the psychiatrist left the hospital in a straitjacket!”

“He was getting married.”

“To a cocktail waitress who wasn’t even old enough to enter a bar much less work in one! She had no idea what the hell was going on! Come on, captain. You were there. How many more times are we going to have to bring him back home after helping his latest blushing bride pack up her feathers and heels?”

“He’s lonely, Lia. Grams passed more than five years ago. He doesn’t have anyone to talk to except those dingbat drinking buddies. He was married for almost fifty years. It’s tough for someone to be alone after all that time. Only thing that keeps him going is that he thinks he’s helping me save the universe. If that means I have to occasionally say hello to some twenty-year-old chick who he’s talked into a tour of his underground empire, so be it. Every one of those girls pulls me aside to tell me she’s in awe of what she’s seen and not a single one of them has any idea what to make of General Cornelius Hunter, Skywatch Marine Corps Retired. I’ll say this much: more than one of them ended up loving the man to death. At least he isn’t out starting fistfights with the cops or sitting in a recliner crying drunk five nights a week.”

Cerylia sighed. “Alright, you’ve convinced me. What’s your plan?”

“First I need to make sure he isn’t the target. Then I need to make sure this complex is secure. Then I need to find out what the empire is protecting here, because the very last thing we need in a war where we are already outgunned is for our enemy to show up with a secret weapon at the wrong time. I can’t imagine what the hell they are doing all the way out here in the first place, and that’s making me more nervous than whatever they might be concealing.”

“How is a reactor going to help?”

“This is only the first level.”

Cerylia blanched. “You Hunters are all certifiable!”

“Hey I never claimed to be sane. By the way, if you think Ol’ Smokey is twisted, you should see what grams had stashed under the oven for the last 20 years.”

A door slammed. Boots rang against metal stairs. A few moments later none other than retired General Cornelius Hunter appeared at the load bay entrance.

“If you two are through slow dancing, I’ve got your little machines hooked up in the lab.” The general looked like Santa Claus had joined the Marines. His gray beard was trimmed to surface warfare tolerances. He was wearing full camo complete with a heavy sidearm and a pair of all-terrain boots. He had his own hardwood-engraved universal in one hand and a magnesium-beam torch in the other. One clear fact about Jason Hunters grandfather was that he was always armed and equipped for medium-weight equipment repair and open theater combined arms skirmishes. Cerylia was fairly certain he wore a charged blaster in a holster to bed every night with extra power packs stashed in the nightstand.

The two young captains followed the Hunter patriarch down a well-lit side corridor towards a pair of double doors. Inside was one of the former marine’s electronics labs. This one was tended by a not-quite-regulation trundlebot with rather distinctive modifications Jason instantly recognized as having been manufactured by his darling sister. The bot was equipped with a taylon gas plasma cutter and a set of searchlights some of which appeared to be tuned to non-visible light frequencies.

On the main lab table stood a miniaturized version of the transport system Commander Curtiss had designed aboard Argent. Next to one of the platforms was a portable terminal running a simulation of the conversion drive Commanders Curtiss and Tixia had improvised in the Omicron sector.

“Did you get a chance to review Yili’s data?”

Cornelius tossed his universal on a cluttered metal shelf and picked up a rag. “I ran the numbers. The theory checks out. If all the data in that simulation is accurate, your engineer may have advanced our understanding of spaceflight by a century or more.” Cornelius washed his hands with a bar of anti-grease soap. “I’m not saying I approve of college girls serving aboard a ship of the line, of course. Damndest thing I ever heard of. Ought to be putting napkins under teacups...”

Cerylia took a breath. Jason gestured urgently for her to relax. She glared at the captain and spoke through clenched teeth. “This is the little surprise you were talking about?” Cerylia asked as she watched the simulation carefully.

“C-drive. Also known as conversion drive,” Hunter replied. “We can cruise at 40 times light speed by modifying a standard Cantlon-type field. We can get bursts of up to 2000 times light speed. We used it to escape from the supermassive singularity near the Atlantis Sector.”

“This is real? You actually used this?” Cerylia asked, looking at Jason intently. “Aboard Argent?”

“It’s the other half of my disappearing act,” Jason replied. “Powers wants this kept absolutely confidential until we’re ready to spring it on the Sarn along with our little transport gizmo. The only thing standing in our way at the moment is making it production-ready.”

“Is your faction of crazies at headquarters after this thing?” Cornelius asked. “Don’t trust a word. I’ve warned you about those people before.”

“If James and the anti-alarmists knew about it, they would strangle it and bury it somewhere way out in the desert,” Jason replied. “We needed time to get the C-drive tech to a select group of our own captains first.”

“Which captains?” Cerylia asked.

“You, for one,” Jason replied. “Yili cooked up a new module for the Shrike. It’s in your cargo hold.”

“How the hell did you get a new drive module into my cargo hold?!” Cerylia roared.

“I have all the specs to your ship,” Jason replied without looking up. “Now I have all the specs to your improved ship.” The look on the pirate queen’s face inspired Jason to be concerned for his own safety, so the captain tried to keep an all-business look on his face despite the raised eyebrows. “We’re on the clock!”

Cerylia bared her teeth. “One of these days, captain, I’m gonna–”

“Pretty smart of your engineer to imagine that if a combination wormhole and drive field could get your ship from place to place in a hurry, it would work on equipment and personnel too,” the general added. “Sure she doesn’t have a secret helper somewhere?”

“She’s the real deal, pops,” Hunter replied, examining some of the general’s new tools.

“If you say so. The power requirements all check out. We could move half a ton of liquid, solid or gas anywhere in a couple hundred miles and run the whole thing off my own power systems right here.”

Jason began hooking the complex’s power grid into the devices. “Everyone’s been so busy imagining that teleportation required matter to be destroyed and recreated that they never considered just moving it more efficiently was the right answer.” The captain took a seat on one of the metal stools and put the control module through a diagnostic cycle. He picked up an ATMAS scanner and performed a quick analysis of the data.

“Now for the important question,” the elder Hunter began. “What in plaid-colored hell did you bring back to my once peaceful planet?”

“I think that’s a fine question myself,” Cerylia added, folding her arms. She was still a little annoyed that unauthorized personnel had been aboard her ship without her knowledge. Although she had to admit she was extremely interested in seeing Yili’s C-drive in action.

“Apparently we brought two things to Epsilon Gamma,” Jason replied, tinkering with the control board for the miniature transport mechanism. The captain’s ATMAS handheld was now sitting on one of the pads. “One of them is called the ‘Denominator.’ He may have acquired Ithis technology on Bayone Three. Skywatch Intelligence has been looking for this guy for a while. We’re not sure if he’s in cahoots with Atwell or his organization or not, but he was positively identified by Jayce aboard the Sai Kee on the surface of Raleo Two.”

“What’s the other thing?” Cerylia asked. Cornelius dried his hands with the dirty rag.

“There’s Sarn activity on this planet. Nobody cares about Epsilon Gamma Three. Or at least nobody cared about it until a few weeks ago. Officially, I’m ‘recuperating’ from the El Rey engagement. Unofficially, my mission is to track down whatever shenanigans are going on here. Skywatch believes the Sarn might be working with this ‘Denominator’ character, and if that is true, we need to know what they are cooking up before they spring it on us in combat.”

“Powers sent you down here alone to draw out the Sarn?” Cornelius asked with raised eyebrows. “Good to see some things never change with those chowder-heads.” Ordinarily, calling a four-star flag officer a “chowder-head” would be considered rude. Then again, Cornelius Hunter’s flag had a few stars emblazoned on it too, so he was allowed. Jason and Cerylia had already been through the general’s study. One entire wall of the room was devoted to flags, banners, unit standards and awards from alien governments and military dignitaries.

“Argent’s pretending to be grounded,” Jason replied. “In reality, she’s fully crewed and playing dead at Gale River. I’m on a short clock here. My first priority was to run down any civilian involvement, and I’ve confirmed Skywatch Intelligence’s suspicions so far. Now I just have to find out what they are hiding here, and I’ve got a lead.” Jason glanced at Cerylia, who rolled her eyes.

“You’ve also got a spacecraft out there with illegal weapons mounted on it. You know M-Guns were outlawed by treaty, boy!” the general said sarcastically.

“They aren’t my M-guns,” Jason replied with a grin.

“A likely story,” Cerylia teased. “Now we know where you and your sister got your unique personalities.”

“They didn’t get them from me,” Cornelius muttered, banging around in one of his 68 toolboxes. “I always said they were adopted, but nobody listened to me, so I just stuck to my mashed potatoes. Far as I’m concerned the two of them ought to be teaching classes for the slow kids at an elementary school. Every Christmas buncha scatter-brained little hooligans running up and down the stairs like they were in some kind of fire station. Jayce with her tinker-metal contraptions and the boy with those smoke-clouded model rockets– why I oughta–”

While the general ranted, Jason reconfigured the mechanism and looked over at Cerylia. The commit button illuminated and all the indicators shifted green. “I’m sure as hell going to utilize every advantage we’ve got if push comes to shove. In fact, my ship and crew are on a 12-hour ready alert, and there isn’t a soul alive anywhere on this planet who suspects a Citadel-class strike battleship can transit from Core Three to Epsilon Gamma in a half day. If I do find what I’m looking for down here, I’m going to unleash a big ol’ kennel full of ass-biting dogs, and God help whoever they catch first.”

Jason activated the miniature transport device and teleported his ATMAS handheld nine feet across the table to the opposite pad. Cerylia gave him a sarcastic look and slow-clapped.

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