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A note from D.W. Belfield

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you celebrating today! I'm exceedingly thankful for this story reaching the front page of RR today. We're number #10 on the Rising Stars list. That is entirely due to you, so thank you once again for reading, supporting, and reviewing. Eat well, spend time with your friends and family, and find something to be grateful for :) 

Aidan and his Spectres were standing in front of the newly dubbed XCG-1 Ibis. It squatted on four landing gears in the sun’s waning rays while a swarm of engineers and scientists crawled over its body to put on the last remaining touches.

The commander had to admit that the camp personnel had worked a feat of magic. The hull plates had been entirely replaced with titanium composites that were lighter but equally as strong as the duralloy panels of his Spectre armor. They had incorporated the same synthetic chromatophores that allowed the Spectres to camouflage themselves as they saw fit. They had even applied a refractive coating to give it more durability in the face of laser or plasma weaponry.

If those had been the only improvements the Americans had made, then it might not have been worthy of a complete designation change. After all, a facelift didn’t constitute an entirely new class of aircraft. Instead, the engineers had taken the overhaul a step further. Gravitic engines had replaced the noisy jet engines on the previous iteration, and they added two double-barreled laser turrets on either side of the landing ramp.

Aidan could already think of improvements he wanted for the overall design, but this was an excellent first step in the camp’s aviation development. The Ibis was a quicker, quieter, better-equipped version of the Chinese Y-3A Jingwei. It would serve well enough for the night’s mission.

As Aidan watched, most of the engineers descended from the craft while one lone man connected his datapad to the chromatophores on the hull. With a few swipes of the engineer’s finger, the skull and crossed lightning bolts of the Spectres appeared on the side in black. It was a fitting finish to the overhaul. The man disconnected his datapad and then slipped down the side of the craft to land on his feet. He turned to the commander of the Spectres and snapped into a perfect military salute.

Aidan smiled beneath the skull-like facade of his helmet and returned the salute. As the unnamed engineer backed away from the craft, the gravitic engines began to spin up with a low hum. Aidan knew it would be at least a few minutes before the Ibis was ready for his team to board, so he looked around for the group accompanying him.

As he expected, the team arrived at the muster point precisely on time. They wore slimmer versions of the Spectres’ armored body suits, but the similarity ended there. Instead of full helmets and armor plating, they had hoods that extended from the body suit to cover their head and mouths like ski masks. Over their eyes, they wore duralloy visors equipped with a plethora of different sensors and cameras. Where Aidan and his Spectres looked like juggernaut warriors, the other team looked like space ninjas.

Their leader walked up and offered his hand to Aidan, and the commander shook it.

“Evening, Commander. I’m Eli Levitt, and I’ll be in charge of the other team,” the man introduced himself.

“Welcome to the team, Levitt.” Aidan returned the greeting. “Sorry for not briefing you in person. My team needed to do some training on our own, and it ended up being more than I bargained for.”

“No problem, Commander.” Levitt quickly forgave him. “Besides, we also needed some training to get used to the new infiltration suits.”

“Infiltration?” Aidan asked.

“Yeah, they’re a variant of the suits the Spectres are wearing. Director Gray commissioned them for us when he saw how effective yours were. They’re slimmed down, less protective, and don’t have as many bells and whistles, but they have one pretty unique feature.”

Levitt reached down to tap a button on the small embedded datapad on the forearm of his suit. There was a brief pause, and then the man’s form flickered, and he turned practically invisible. Aidan examined the man closer and realized it wasn’t true invisibility. It appeared that his suit had just changed color to match his surroundings.

“Each suit has a huge number of micro cameras embedded around it,” Levitt explained. “They take in the details around us and then adjust the chromatophores in the suit to match. Every time we move, it takes a brief second for the suit to re-calibrate, but it should help us slip through the PRC camp unnoticed.”

Aidan nodded, “And since you’re mostly planting explosives, you don’t need to draw weapons unless it’s an emergency.”

“Exactly,” Levitt agreed before pressing the button on his forearm again and returning to his standard shadowy silhouette.

“We’ll do our best to meet you back at the Ibis before you punch out. If we don’t make it, we’ve been ordered to hang around, collect as much information as possible, and continuously delay and sabotage the PRC until they find and send us for respawn.”

Aidan shuddered at the thought of practically invisible saboteurs hanging around the base and causing havoc in their operations. He hoped that Plymouth HQ had devised countermeasures for that sort of eventuality.

“What about sensors or cameras?” Aidan asked.

Levitt shrugged, “I know we don’t get picked up on IR, but who knows what kind of detection capabilities the PRC has. We could get shot down as soon as we show up, or we’ll stay hidden for weeks. This will be our test run to see if the infiltrator suit is viable for future operations.”

Aidan was about to ask more about the suit, but a pilot came down the ramp and gestured for the teams to board.

The commander clapped a hand on Levitt’s shoulder. “Well, good luck. This is a test run for us both. We’ll try and coordinate our comms, but if we’re trying to get out of there in a hurry, I don’t know how well we’ll manage.”

“Understood, Commander,” Levitt replied. “Like I said, we have our orders.”

The two men turned and gestured for their teams to board. The Spectres stayed together, and the infiltrators did the same, although there were two infiltrators for every Spectre.

The inside of the craft was cramped for twenty people. There were troop benches for the soldiers to sit on, but they weren’t very wide, and the somewhat bulky Spectres found it uncomfortable to sit on. Exposed pipes, circuity, and cables covered the transport’s walls and ceiling, and Aidan could see clear signs of the quick overhaul of its system. Newly welded panels and random snaking cables on the ground betrayed the shortcuts the camp engineers had to make to get it delivered on time.

At the rear of the Ibis was a door that seemingly led to the aircraft’s cockpit. It was here that the pilot who had guided them into the craft had disappeared. When Aidan had taken his seat and magnetized his boots to the floor, one of the pilots introduced himself over the comms.

“Welcome aboard Spec-air and the somewhat new Ibis, our finest and only bird in the fleet,” he joked. “My name is Simon Munn, and I’ll be your pilot this evening. I’m assisted by my co-pilot and gunner, Degory Dodson. The scientists tell me our flight time is around eight hours and fourteen minutes, but that’s based on some shaky math done by overcaffeinated and sleep-deprived nerds.”

There was a pause in the brief as the gravitic engines kicked into a higher gear, and the entire craft began to shake.

“You’ll notice the brand new and highly experimental engines welded to the side of our Ibis. I have been reliably informed that they will definitely not explode, but just in case, we’re going to leave the ramp door down as we ascend.”

The Ibis lifted off into the air, and the shaking evened out as soon as it left the ground. It hovered in the air outside of camp before slowly turning toward the West.

“I’ve taped little bits of paper around the cockpit to translate the Chinese characters into English, so we’ll know what we’re doing,” Munn continued. “So now I’m going to close the ramp and hit the kung pao chicken.”

The pilot abruptly cut off while the troop ramp started to close with a mechanical whine.

“Sorry, my co-pilot informed me that I’ll actually be hitting the thrust. As a final reminder, there’s no smoking in the cabin unless it’s coming from the hastily cobbled-together avionics and the seat belt sign is lit. If you have any complaints, please find the nearest flight attendant and let them know. Thank you for riding Spec-air!”

The Ibis shot exploded into motion as the last words filtered over the comms. Inside the cabin, the ride was unbelievably smooth. The commander couldn’t claim that he truly understood how the engines work, that was the domain for scientists and researchers, but he did know that it made the eight-hour and change ride to the Chinese base calm and nearly silent. The low hum of the engines wouldn’t be announcing their presence any time soon.

The Ibis landed around five miles outside the expected location of the Chinese settlement. Astra had been able to pull the origin point of the PRC base from the Ibis’ navigation system. When the access ramp opened onto the flat plains of the former Yangtze river delta, the Spectres and their infiltrator teammates smoothly exited the aircraft.

Three of the small TODs followed them from within the craft and immediately shot into the air to get a better idea of what they could expect.

Astra, what are we looking at? Aidan checked in with his companion.

The navigation computers were a little off. We’re about six miles from the base, and it’s much more extensive than HQ’s projections.

Asta’s networked observation drones flew closer to the PRC base and formed a triangle above it. Their dark gray shells made them practically invisible in the nighttime sky. Based on their imaging, the AI created schematics for the base and updated the Spectres’ and infiltrator’s heads-up displays. Aidan pulled up his own map and studied the terrain. Anywhere he focused, one of the TODs would direct its cameras and sensors to that location to give the envoy a better look.

It wasn’t a large base, but it was certainly more developed than Camp Plymouth. It squatted on the shore of what used to be the Atlantic Ocean on its west. There, docks leading to the ocean were built, and small naval craft were already moored along their lengths. Just off the docks, he could make out a shipyard using massive replicators and automated machinery to construct another of the relatively smaller naval ships. The ports were abutted by a series of storage warehouses, and there was little foot traffic at that time of night. The commander marked the shipyard as a primary target and the docks, warehouses, and naval ships as secondary targets.

Inland from the docks were rows of concrete barracks. Based on the size alone, Astra estimated that the camp held approximately ten thousand enemy soldiers, engineers, and scientists. Next to the barracks, there were several similarly sized administration and headquarters buildings. Aidan couldn’t discern their purpose, but he associated their profiles with the obligatory spaces that every base needed to remain functioning. They probably also contained the scientific and engineering labs that PRC relied on within the system. Aidan marked these as secondary targets for the infiltrators.

A reasonably large motor pool of transport vehicles was located east of the barracks and the administrative spaces. Aidan identified PRC equivalents for humvees, cargo trucks, and armored personnel carriers. Aidan was relieved that nothing on the lot represented a credible threat to him or the other Spectres. In fact, their technology looked practically primitive in comparison. These vehicles were also marked as secondary targets. Their destruction would annoy the PRC, but with the use of aircraft, they weren’t as strategically valuable.

Two short runways led to the ocean south of the barracks and the motor pool. There were six large hangars already built, three for each runway, and Aidan could see four squadrons of the Y-3A Jingweis staged on the tarmac. There was an empty fifth stretch of asphalt that likely used to hold the Jingweis that had been shot down at Camp Plymouth. The sixth and final hangar was for a squadron of fighters. They looked similar to J-20 Chengdus fighters, but the envoy couldn’t be sure unless he were close enough to look at the description of the aircraft. The aircraft and hangars were all marked as primary targets for the infiltrators. That was one area of the base that Aidan wanted to see absolutely destroyed.

The final building of note looked like a small, secure compound to the north of everything else. It was the only place on the base with roving patrols and constant security this time of night. It was a squat, squarish building surrounded by thick concrete walls. Two humvees were stationed outside the front entrance with gunners posted on machine guns up top. Aidan quickly marked the location on his map and sent it to the Spectres.

The camp would be considered relatively secure if they were back on Earth. Topped in razor wire, a thick concrete wall circled the entire settlement. Watch towers lined the permitter, and Astra had already marked at least two sentries per tower. There was a single main entrance on the East wall. Still, anyone entering from that direction would have to make it through the motor pool and barracks before getting to anything strategically important.

Outside the camp, farm fields stretched for at least three miles. There were grain silos, warehouses, and small domiciles for the workers that serviced the area. Overall, the base was a ripe target for the Spectres and infiltrators. There didn’t appear to be anything security-wise that would prevent them from causing havoc.

With a gesture, the commander gathered the two teams around him. “I’ve marked everything I think is critical on your maps. Infiltrators, I want you to board the Ibis and have it drop you about three miles south of the base. You should be just at the edge of the farms. Proceed along the covered parts of the beach until you reach the perimeter. From there, enter the base from the ocean and take out the aircraft and any associated infrastructure. You should be looking for replicators and material stores. Next, head east and take out the shipyard. The ships themselves and the warehouses are secondary targets. Finally, if you haven’t been discovered, and the Spectres haven’t completed their mission, make for the motor pool and plant charges on the vehicles. I don’t think you’ll have time for anything else, but if we leave you behind, target the engineering and scientific spaces at the center of the base.”

“What will you guys be doing, Commander?” Levitt asked.

“We’re going to circle around to the north from here. Enter that secure compound, and hopefully retrieve Dr. Smith,” Aidan answered. “We’re going to exfiltrate about a mile from the outer wall and then swing around and pull your guys out from the south if we can. Plan on being a mile out, but we’ll likely need to adjust plans as shit hits the fan.”

Levitt nodded before signaling for his team to mount up. “Good luck, Commander,” the man said before boarding the Ibis again.

Within minutes, the Ibis had taken off and was tearing for the South side of the PRC base.

Aidan turned to look at the rest of his team. “You guys have any questions?” He asked.

“You sure you don’t want me to go with the infiltrators, Commander?” Agerwal asked hopefully.

“No, Agerwal,” Aidan answered before rolling his eyes. “We need your explosive tendencies with us.”

“Roger that, Commander,” Agerwal said cheekily.

“Alright, Spectres, weapons hot. Let’s move out.” Aidan ordered.

With the order given, the Spectres settled into a pace swiftly covering the distance between them and the base. They circled around the farms until they were north of the settlement. For anyone else, their speed would’ve looked like a sprint. For the Spectres, it was nothing but a light jog as they looked out for any trouble.

Thankfully, they arrived at their entry point without any complications. Based on the markers on the envoy’s minimap, Aidan saw that the infiltrators had already entered the base and were planting explosives on the exposed aircraft. He saw half of them were working up one runway while the others were progressing on the second one. The Spectres hadn’t even entered the base yet, so everything seemed to be running on time.

The commander exited his minimap and focused on the scene before them. They had selected a part of the wall between two guard posts shrouded in shadow. Astra repositioned one of the TODs overhead to ensure they hadn’t been discovered by defenders on the other side of the wall.

Agerwal stepped up to the wall and drew his sword. He pressed a switch with his thumb, and purple psionic energy extended down the length of his blade. The superheated plasma hissed and spat, sounding like a den of snakes. Slowly, he pressed the point of the sword against the concrete wall. It pushed through the concrete like a knife through butter until the blade was halfway through the barrier. Agerwal shifted his grip and cut a Spectra-sized doorway in the concrete. When he was finished, he stepped back, deactivated his psi sword, and snapped it back onto his back.

When he was clear, Wang stepped forward and planted a heavy front kick into the center of the concrete door. The piece shot off the wall and crashed to the ground with a low thunk. The team of Spectres rushed through the entrance with their weapons drawn. Yanovna was the first to disappear in search of higher ground, while the rest of the group advanced on the gated compound in front of them. The walls were only about six feet tall instead of the twice as high outer defenses.

The Spectres started running and took a leap that carried them to the top of the wall. Their armored boots didn’t even notice the razor wire that topped it. Astra marked two sentries on the other side of the wall, and Guzman and Aidan took them down with sizzling psionic shots. Immediate threats neutralized, the team dropped quietly to the ground.

Yanovna has taken out the sentries in the two closest watchtowers. Astra informed him. She’s got overwatch on the compound. We have fifteen minutes until the first respawn.

A fifteen-minute countdown appeared on Aidan’s HUD while he passed instructions to the rest of his team.

Split up, he ordered Faraj and Agerwal with me. Wang and Guzman go left. Take out the turret gunners and the two guards by the door. Astra, mark targets.

The operation was as smooth as silk. Both teams turned the corner of the central building. Guzman and Aidan took out the turret guards, Faraj and Wang dropped the sentries, and Agerwal took out two soldiers that had appeared from inside the humvees.

After that, the Spectres took defensive positions while Aidan pried the cover off the access panel next to the compound door. With a flick of his wrist, the probe embedded in his vambrace extended, and the microfilaments started inserting themselves into various parts of the circuitry underneath.

Access granted. Astra informed him. Taking control over internal camera systems and painting targets.

What about Dr. Smith? Aidan asked. Did we guess right?

We did, his companion confirmed. She’s on the third basement level in a small cell. According to the system records, she’s under logout and respawn jammers.

Respawn jammers? Aidan questioned.

Yeah, Astra said curiously. I’m not sure if they got a sample of our logout jammer and developed their own or if it was from the Korean technology they adapted themselves. Either way, if you shoot her, she dies.

I’m not sure I want that kind of technology out in the wild. Aidan decided. Pull information about the tech and then purge the rest from their systems. Do you have access to anything else?

Yes, Envoy. Astra answered. The entire camp shares a network. It doesn’t look like they’ve had time yet to firewall anything off or segregate high-value systems. I’m in everything, everywhere, and all at once.

Good, don’t shut off comms, Aidan ordered, but make them go nowhere. Play empty loops on all the cameras, and disable any alarms and security across the base. Also, pull any engrams or schematics you can, and then purge them from the enemy databases—I want them blind, dumb, and defenseless.

Done, Envoy. Astra told him a fraction of a second later.

Perfect, inform the other Spectres and the infiltrators. If we’re lucky, this will be a complete victory.

The door slid open, and the Spectres rushed inside. The guard at the front desk only had time to glance up before a psionic round hit him square in the head. Only a smoking hole betrayed that he was already dead, but the team was already moving.

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About the author

D.W. Belfield

Bio: Derek Belfield is a Marine Corps Veteran and the author of the Scourge Wars series. His first book, Evolve, was an Amazon #1 Best Seller and #1 New Release in the Military Fiction category.

His day job is in finance where he helps non-profits, political campaigns, and crowd funders raise money for great causes. At night, he taps away at a keyboard in the hopes of writing the next great story.

With a background and education in business and the military, Derek has leveraged that experience into writing realistic military fantasy in the LitRPG/GameLit genre. He has spent the last eight years of his life in the United States Marine Corps. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Intelligence Studies (military), Cum Laude, and is pursuing his Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Southern Methodist University.

Announcements:
• The third book, Resist is now available on Amazon.
• The audiobook for Evolve, narrated by Christopher Boucher and Jessica is now available on audible.
• Join DWB’s mailing list at dwbelfield.com/mailinglist to enter a drawing for a free Audible code. No purchase required.

Do You Want to Know More?
• Website: dwbelfield.com
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