chapter thirteen
Part Eleven

Senior Lieutenant Sean Finnegan was in the command alcove of his troop carrier catching up on some reports. This was the first time in nearly a week that they had a consistent and clear signal with Command and he desperately needed to take advantage of it.

The pop-up that appeared on his monitor was the first one of the tour and it startled him into momentarily thinking he'd hit the wrong command key. As he read the details of the Burst his brow furrowed.

His first command was coming to an end, abruptly and without the chance for closure. They had five days to return to one of the four listed depots or provide reasons for a request of delay, presumably deep negotiations with a local group that would probably prompt an outside negotiator to take over.

Finn supposed he should've been prepared for this, he knew the Astral Carriers were returning to Earth with reinforcements, but as he stepped from his alcove and looked at Sherona Jones and the rest of his crew he grew morose. It was like a little death, seeing this team disband, the people move on, and he was going to need to mourn that.

Unfortunately it resurfaced other, unresolved with emotions relating to actual loss. Finn's expression tightened as his posture stiffened and a formality came over him, the classic stiff-upper lip of his people.

"Everyone." The tone was clipped and harsh sounding, something none of his crew had heard from Finnegan except when they were under fire. Considering there were no threats around that chilled many as quiet descended on the small group and they turned to face him.

"We've been given the recall order. We're to make way to…” he glanced at the briefing and quickly determined which centre was closest. “… Garden City, Kansas, best possible speed. All personnel are to prepare for redistribution and redeployment."

The mood quickly soured. The confines had been tight but with that the bonding had grown tight as well. Each looked around realizing that shortly they wouldn't be with these people anymore and that they'd need to get used to new bodies and new quirks.

Corporal Livingston peered up at him, his eyes seemed moist. Despite his towering frame and cool demeanor Finn always suspected he was a big softy at heart. "How soon, sir?"

Finn glanced at the order again and shrugged. "Re-deployment is early next week so it seems to me the earlier we get there the more time we have in leave."

Most smiled at that. Trust Finn to find the bright spot to something like this. "I have every confidence that the shower facilities will allow for more than one user at a time as well."

Private Jimmy Armstrong chirped in, "Wonder if the food is fresh?"

The merest thought of fresh food was enough to break even Finn from his shell, he turned to Wallace, "Do we have enough fuel for airborne rapid trans?"

Wallace turned to the console and reviewed their reserves. "If we don't hard launch we can coax that, yes sir."

Finn's broad toothy grin flashed hungrily across his face. It was one of the first times they'd seen their commander smile that much. "Secure stations for flight."

Finn took his seat. The mourning would wait, today he getting a steak.

* * *

Tass did launch one ship, her personal shuttle, from JJ MOORE to Rapid City. Here she was greeted by Colonel Potvin and the Information Management liaison, Victoria Wells.

A quick survey of the progress thus far did a lot to calm her nerves. Rapid City was a well oiled machine and the crews in the returning Troop Carriers were quickly being reassigned their new missions and re-deployed, with the indulgence of a 48 hour leave.

Team Leads for each mission weren’t so lucky. There were quick debriefs and then reassessment orders, they had little time to restock, resupply and refurbish before they were to meet with their new crews and prepare their departure. But that was the burden of Command, Tass thought.

But before the got their new assignments Tass had them and their crews gathered for a Mission Brief. A large assembly of newly arrived Troopers and the returned veterans. All unsure what the future will hold.

Tass stood on the platform, holding a podium with her hands, surrounded by three float-cams and an assembly of nearly three thousand Astrals and support crew knowing full well that her images and words would be transmitted to the other three bases along the frontier.

“Good Evening,” Tass began, wondering how she’d ended up in such a political position so quickly, she wasn’t prepared for this she was sure of it, but she licked her lips and continued with a voice she’d never known she was capable of, a command voice. Measured and firm.

“Four months ago nearly three thousand teams departed into the wilds of Buffalo Commons, unsure what you would find. I’ve seen the reports, some were greeted, some welcomed, others challenged. We’ve got our dead but to their testament, we’ve also opened up lines of communication with people who didn’t know what that was, and we’ve mapped travel and trade routes that will do us well for the remainder of this mission.”

Crowds are odd things, Tass thought as the compliment rippled through the assembled, “As many of you know, sixty percent of the settlements in Buffalo Commons have already had preliminary contact. They know we’re coming back. Stage two will be to show them we’re back for good and we bring civilization.”

Tass shifted and glanced behind her quickly to ensure that someone was advancing the visuals. This wouldn’t make sense if the monitor wasn’t showing them what she was talking about.

“This is a Congress Unit.” Tass paused as a ripple of tension rifled across the crowd. “It’s a stupid name so let’s just accept that.”

The laughter released most of it, she could see people relax. “The brightest minds in the Network have developed this unit as a method of connecting each community along the Commons together. Select teams will be taking these out to prime targets and negotiating those settlers into union. This is the second step in a plan to securely restore commonality among the people of Buffalo Commons.”

To her side Victoria Wells eased up on the balls of her feet, tippy-toed as she tried to peer at the speech Tass was reading off. The podium was bare, Tass wasn’t reading off a script. Impressive, Victoria thought as she eased back down.

“Connecting, Community, Commons, Commonality. I’m sure you see the theme here. We believe once the settlers of this territory realize they’re not as alone as they thought, not as isolated as they believed, they will come together. They will rejoice in the unity. And with that they will embrace the security that peace brings.”

After a moment to let that thought settle Tass pointed at them, and then continued building in pitch and tone with an almost evangelical fervor, “You are agents of that peace, carriers of that message, and for those pegged to deliver these units, critical to the success of this next leg.”

A cheer erupted from the assembled as her speech wound to its crescendo. Tass was a little taken aback by it, particularly considering the next step.

“However, those not tasked to delivering the Congress units have an even more critical mission. To the east, armies of the United States of America are in motion toward the Commons.”

She let that sink in before continuing, “East America is trying to reactivate their claim to these lands. We will not allow that to occur. The teams tasked with eastern defence will be given their assignments. You must prepare those you meet for the coming conflict.”

Fear was visible now as the assembled imagined their small numbers facing the overwhelming onslaught of a wall of tanks. Not far from reality as it stood now.

“Do so convinced that shortly a surge of troops will be joining you from above,” Tass continued with the same unwavering tone of confidence, “but remember that we are working first to defuse this crisis through diplomacy. Hold your fire unless there is no option, and never fire first!”

Tass paused, unsure if she wanted to include this last bit or not, then deciding it was the right thing to do.

“I was born in Buffalo Commons.” She let that sink in too.

“Born and raised.” She added, “We are a strong, proud and independent people. We will not tolerate a regime imposing its will on us; we will not brook an occupation of our lands. We will welcome allies that are intent on helping us form our own government, decide our own path, and be our own people.”

She leaned forward on the podium, “Convince each person you meet of that and you will have an ally that will fight to the death for our mutual cause; fail to sell that point and you will face a foe with the heart of a lioness protecting its cubs.”

“And I assure you, that if anyone can sell the message of Unity, I expect it would be someone who knows what it means to say, ‘I - am - Network -Strong!’”

Victoria’s eyebrows rose in surprise as the assembled joined in on the chant halfway through the word “Network”. She smiled and moved to keep pace with Tass as the Commodore descended from the platform.

“A deft speech, Commodore. Congratulations.”

Tass glanced back at Victoria, momentarily unsure why a civilian was present, then on seeing the I.M. Badge, nodding acceptance of the compliment.

“I thought ending with the charge most of these Troopers heard as Recruits in boot camp was most encouraging.”

Tass stopped and turned to Victoria in a huff, “I’ve had enough of politicians for one day, Major. Say what you have to say.”

Victoria was taken aback by the frankness, “I have, Commodore. Good day.”

Victoria Wells nodded and then moved past Tass back to the Command Building.

Tass looked out at the assembled as they broke up into groups, murmuring about their collective futures. It would take more than a good speech to win the day. God help us, she thought as she turned and followed Victoria, how bad this gets is entirely up to Politicians now.

* * *

Finn wandered through the throng of people with the Link in his hand reviewing the display. Most of the items required he could arrange by simply ‘thumbing’ approval as he read but he held off on that wondering if he should speak with his Commander first.

Finn didn’t like the idea of being sent the opposite direction of the battle. His mission was to deliver two of the Congress units and that seemed a huge waste of his training and experience.

He paused, it wasn’t like him to question orders and certainly part of his agitation had to do with the shake up of his team, but what were they thinking sending in ‘in country’ to negotiate treaties?

Drop off two boxes, the first would be pretty simple. The first contact report pegged the Cateris Settlement as eager to do anything that would put an end to the neighbouring tensions. Certainly the idea of instant links to judges and hospitals was greatly appreciated.

The second drop was going to be a problem. The first contact report described a very tight community, bordering on compound mentality. Exactly the type that wasn’t going to want outside influence. Finn wondered what went into developing that sort of mentality and then realized that shortly he’d have his answer.

He arrived at his Troop Carrier, freshly cleaned and outfitted with fresh gear. At least it smelled clean, a welcome change from the last few weeks.

He turned to face his crew and felt the pang of doubt return. Gone were Sherona Jones and others, his new second was Sergeant Major Anais Diego, a career Trooper with an enviable record but he’d rather have retained someone who already understood him.

He was happy to see Mackenzie, Livingston and Hreha still with him, but that made him wonder why he hadn’t been allowed to retain all of his team.

Ours not to reason why, Finn remembered, choosing to omit the remainder of that expression as he handed the Link to Diego and sized up his new crew.

“Alright,” he said, “Let’s get mobile!”

Diego turned and on two orders everything came to action. She’d obviously been preparing for him, perhaps she’d read up on him as well.

* * *