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The ad seemed harmless; $5,000 to participate in a medical study and unlock dormant memories from past lives. If only I knew what I was getting myself into.

I was sat in what looked like a dentist's chair in a dimly lit room. The doctor strapped me in and gave me a word of advice before starting.
"Now Jack, it's important to keep your eyes closed once the session begins."
"Is it really necessary to strap me in like this?"
The doctor threw me a stern look.
"You signed the waiver, Jack. You know these restraints are for your own safety. Anything could happen once the brain's unraveling is initiated. If you want payment, you have to adhere to all of the test's requirements."
I attempted to nod in agreement, but the leather strap around my head prevented me from doing so.
"Alright, Doctor. Whenever you're ready."
I have to admit, I was more than a little nervous. The ad seemed harmless enough when I filled out the form to apply. $2,500 for a one-time "past life regression study," and another $2500 if any memories I collected were of merit. It was toted as being an incredible opportunity to "remember one's past lives." Now that I was here, I wasn't so sure.
The doctor must have noticed how anxious I was. He placed a hand on my shoulder in consolation.
"Relax, Jack. I assure you, this will be an amazing experience."
"If it works, you mean."
"Oh, Jack, it will. Over a thousand candidates applied. Based on the survey answers you chose, you are one of the only people uniquely equipped for this study. Strength of the mind is key."
He said that as if it was a comfort. All I could think about were the hundreds of ways it could all go wrong. $5,000 wasn't bad for a day's work, but I wouldn't be able to spend it if I fell into a coma. At that point, it would barely make a dent in the subsequent medical bills.
"Okay, Jack. Sit tight."
The doctor left and reappeared at the control center, just visible through a window in the corner of the room.
His voice resonated from a speaker hanging down from the ceiling.
"Jack, it's just like we discussed..."
A pair of cables descended from above and rested at each of my nostrils.
"These cables will enter your nasal cavity and allow us access to specific sections of your brain. From there, you will experience a series of small electric shocks. As a reminder, there will be no long term damage, but you will feel an overwhelming jolt in your head after each shock."
With every word he uttered, my anxiety grew. I had no idea how my body would react to this.
"Wait," I shouted as the cables began their journey up my passages.
"Yes, something wrong?"
"Doctor, what's our safe word?"
"Safe word," he asked, apparently confused.
"You know, if something goes wrong and I need to stop?"
There was a brief pause before he spoke again.
"I'm sorry, Jack. No safe words. You signed the paperwork. The test cannot be stopped now. I promise you'll come out on the other end of this in one piece."
My heart was now pounding away in my chest, loud enough to hear. Coupled with the insidious sound of medical machinery, it was an unsettling symphony that mirrored my feelings of dread and regret. The perfect background noise to keep the fear in me alive.
Just then, a sharp pinch. The cables had reached the base of my cranium. I writhed against my leather binding.
"Ready? Here we go!"
Without so much as a second to brace myself, the first shock was administered. If you've ever been electrocuted, you might be able to picture what it feels like. The only difference is that the electricity is directed in one location; amplified in a single spot, creating an intense pain that lingers long after the current subsides.
"And again!"
The second shock was even worse. I screamed out in pain, but the doctor's focus never wavered.
The shocks built on each other, each one more painful than the last. Had I known it would feel like this, I would have never signed up, no matter how much money they offered.
The doctor wouldn't let up, even when I begged him to. He shocked me more times than I care to remember. I lost count somewhere after twelve. Eventually, he stopped, but it had nothing to do with my outbursts or any sort of ethical dilemma the experiment posed.
"These readouts are astounding. Your brain activity is spiking, Jack! This is it. We've awakened your subconscious. You're about to go under!"
Before I could react to his comments, I felt a wave of energy pass through my body. Then another, and another. It was a powerful sensation, but soothing at the same time; a welcome change from the beating my brain had just endured.
"Doctor, I think..."
A final wave of energy, more powerful than the previous ones, interjected and pinned me in place, more so than the straps ever could. I could neither move nor speak, and it wasn't long before I felt my eyes glaze over and roll back into my skull.
Then, darkness.
"Jack, can you hear me?"
I could hear the doctor's voice, but I couldn't see him. There was nothing but pitch blackness all around.
"Listen, Jack, if you can hear me, I need you to open your eyes."
I did as instructed, and to my astonishment, my vision returned, revealing a long, narrow hallway; a slew of doors on either side of it.
"Doctor, what's going on?"
"You'll have to speak up, Jack. Your lips are moving, but your voice is just a faint whisper."
"That's better! Well, Jack, we did it. You are now in a representation of your subconscious."
I was more than a little skeptical.
"My subconscious? Really?"
"Yes, Jack. Really. Your body is still strapped down here in the room. With the help of the electroshock therapy, we were able to unlock this part of your mind. Now we should be able to access latent memories from your past lives. Tell me, what do you see?"
"It's just a hallway of doors."
"Good, that's good. It appears different to everyone. For some it's a large home, others an ocean of endless ports and their lighthouses. Yours seems to be more accessible. If you open a door, you should be allowed a glimpse of a past memory."
I looked down and noticed my body, legs and all. It may not have been my true body, but it certainly felt good to be mobile again.
"So, just open a door? Anything I should be worried about?"
"No, Jack. Nothing can hurt you here. When you open the door, your memory should play like a movie. No one will know you're there. It's just a projection."
"Alright, here goes nothing."
I walked over to the nearest door and tried the knob. It wouldn't turn.
"It's locked, Doctor. I can't get in."
"These are your memories, Jack. Your doors. The only one locking them is you. Your will is the key to opening them. Try once more, but this time, give in. Open your mind to the idea of it all. Let yourself remember."
I took a deep breath and tried again, this time without any inhibitions. I emptied my mind and turned the knob. This time, it worked. I was able to push the door open.
"It worked, Doctor. The door's open."
"That's great, Jack. What do you see?"
There were stairs descending down into a pit of darkness.
"Just a staircase. Should I go in?"
"Yes. Find out where it leads."
I cautiously travelled downward, taking deep breaths with every step I took, in an effort to reel back my anxieties. It was exciting to have access to my inner psyche, but I didn't know what I would find there. What if I didn't like what I saw or who I was in another life? What if I couldn't handle the truths I uncovered?
Eventually, I took the final step down and found myself in someone's home. A lovely, quaint cabin circa the 19th or possibly early 20th century from the looks of things. There was a beautiful cobblestone fireplace, elegant furniture, and an older gentleman sitting in an armchair with a pipe in hand and a book in the other. I wondered if that was me from a past life.
"Hey, Doctor. I'm in a cabin. Probably around the 1800s or so. There's a man reading by the fireplace. Is that me?"
The doctor didn't respond.
More silence, followed by a reply, but not from him.
"He can't hear you."
I turned to the direction of the voice and saw the old man, now looking up at me. It couldn't have been him, right? The doctor said no one could see me.
"I said, he can't hear you. Not from in here."
It was the old man. My heart skipped a beat as he placed his book down and stood up to meet my surprised gaze.
"This is just a memory. How can you see me?"
"It's simple, really. I'm you. Or at least, a part of you."
I didn't understand and he could tell.
"Evolution is a funny thing, you know. Attributes handed down from generation to generation in an attempt to make us better, safer. Survival of the fittest, as they say."
"What do you mean," I asked, still unsure of what he was getting at.
"Reincarnation is very real. I'm the part of your brain tasked with locking away past regressions. Without me, your mind would be overloaded at birth with memories of each and every one of your past lives. All of those memories flooding in at once. It would be an assault on the senses, something your brain could never hope to handle. I am a protection against that."
What he was saying was... unbelievable. Moments ago I was taking part in a paid medical study, and now I was somehow learning the secrets of the universe from within my own mind. It was a lot to digest.
"May I sit," I asked.
"Of course, Jack. Be my guest."
I sat down in the armchair and took a moment to collect my thoughts before responding.
"So why can't the doctor hear me right now?"
"I've hijacked this memory to speak with you. Being a part of your brain, I can also access other functions, so I've temporarily disabled your physical body's speech and hearing."
"But why? Why did you want to speak with me so badly, and in private no less?"
He leaned in close and grabbed my shoulders, making deliberate eye contact.
"Jack, you're tampering in things you shouldn't be. I'm here to give you a warning. Stop what you're doing at once."
He loosened his grip and took a step back.
"Stop remembering, you mean? Why? What will happen," I asked.
"Nothing dangerous. I still have a lock on the floodgates. This short trip down memory lane, unlocking one past life at a time, wouldn't, by itself, have any serious repercussions. That said, I won't allow it."
"Won't allow it? Why not?"
"If the doctor's experiment succeeds, others will follow suit. There's no telling how many will walk this path and experience their pasts in this manner. It will, after some time, disrupt the balance of evolution. After years of this negligence, humans could very well be born without me, leaving their memories completely intact. In effect, they will perish at the hands of coma or death, soon after exiting the womb."
He walked over and grabbed me again.
"If you continue this little journey of yours, I will retaliate. I'll take them all. All of your memories, one by one until you have nothing left. You'll be in a vegetative state for the rest of your life."
I pushed him away, unhappy with the tone he was taking.
"What the hell are you talking about?! You're me. We'll both die."
He scoffed at my retort.
"I'm a facet of evolution, just like all of your inherited traits. My duty is to the species as a whole first, self-preservation second. I'll do what I have to do, no matter the cost."
Though I wasn't keen on being threatened, I had no intention of breaking the natural order of things. In all honesty, I didn't want to be in my own head to begin with. The sooner I could get out, the better.
"Fine. I'll stop."
The man sat back down in his chair and the memory resumed as normal, reverting to its previous state like a pause button had been lifted. I walked up the way I came and landed back in the hall, closing the door behind me.
"Jack, are you there? What's happening?"
The doctor's voice returned and we were able to converse once again. I told him what had happened. I could hear the disappointment in his voice as he let out a heavy sigh.
"I was scared it would come to this."
"What are you talking about, Doctor? You knew about this?"
He sighed again before responding.
"It happened with all of my previous tests. It's a fail-safe our bodies have built against past life recollection."
"Previous tests? There were others before me?"
"Yes, and they all ended the same. Each and every test subject was rendered comatose after the sessions concluded. One guy died shortly after."
"Comatose?! Somebody died?! You said nothing in here could hurt me!"
"I needed you focused. We can bicker about this until the cows come home, but for now, let's stay focused on the task at hand. Let's open another door, shall we?"
At this point, my blood was boiling.
"Another door? Another door?! Are you serious?! Let me out of here! I don't have any intention of being another one of your failures!"
"You signed the paperwork, Jack. I won't wake you until we finish this. I need more information. My career is on the line. Just two more doors and I'll pull you out. What do you say?"
"I don't give a damn about your career! I refuse to continue. I'll wake up on my own eventually."
The doctor gave a slight laugh.
"No you won't, Jack. You're deep in the bowels of your mind. The only think that will wake you is another electric shock, calibrated to precise specifications. If you don't continue, I won't wake you, and you'll be comatose anyway."
"I can talk, right? Just like I'm talking to you right now? I'll tell someone and they can-"
The doctor interjected.
"I can shut that off with the flick of a switch. You'll be unable to communicate with anyone."
I was now seething with anger.
"You are a sick man, Doctor. A very sick man."
"I'm sorry, Jack. I have to do this. It's for the betterment of mankind. This research could change the world. I am at the precipice of something big. Something life-altering."
I threw him some choice curse words, to no reaction.
"Just do as you're told, Jack. And don't even think of lying. I can see your brain waves and will be able to detect any deceit."
I sat there in the hallway of my memories for a great long while, contemplating my options. It wasn't long before I realized I only had one at my disposal. My best bet was to continue. It was just two doors. Maybe I could get in and out unnoticed and finally end this nightmare once and for all.
"Fine, Doctor. I'll do it."
"Good. Open another door, but walk down the hallway a bit first. I want something deeper."
I reluctantly did as instructed and opened a door further down the hall. There was another set of stairs, but these ones went up.
"It's another staircase, Doctor. I'm going in."
I walked up the stairs with determination, hoping to see what I could and then leave as quickly as possible.
"Alright, Jack? What's in there?"
I was in the living room of another house.
"It's someone's home. Mine, presumably."
"Keep looking around. Try to place where you are exactly."
I walked around the room and took notice of a framed photo hanging on the wall. It was of a woman, a young girl, and a man. He looked just like me.
"Doctor, there's a photo here of a family. I'm in it. The man is identical to me."
"That's rare, but it can happen. Keep looking around."
As I walked through the home, I was taken aback by how modern everything looked. It wasn't until I noticed a newspaper in the dining room that something clicked and I became alarmed.
The paper had today's date on it.
"Doctor, something's not right here. This isn't the past. There's a newspaper here with today's date."
"Really? Are you absolutely certain?"
"Yes I am. This isn't the past."
"Incredible! My theories were right after all!"
"Theories? Mind clueing me in here?"
"You're right, Jack. This isn't a past life memory. It's on ongoing memory playing out in real time from a current life."
"Current life? I'm not following."
"It has long been my belief that there are other, parallel worlds out there. An infinite number of different universes - some similar to our own. In each one, we have a counterpart. A copy of ourselves living a different life. This isn't a past life memory, Jack. It's a current memory from another Jack in another timeline. Fascinating, isn't it?"
Just then, the front door opened and the family from the picture returned home, walking right into the dining room where I was standing. The other me, the woman, and what must have been their daughter. It was a surreal sight to behold.
"They're here, Doctor. The other me and his family."
"That's great. Observe and see what you learn."
I glanced over at the stairs in the living room. I should have left right then and there to avoid potential consequences, but something held me back. At the time, I thought it was plain, old curiosity keeping me in place - and yes, I admit, I was curious to know about my copy's life, but that isn't what made me stay. As the memory unfolded, I felt it. A warm energy emanating from within. It was a connection. I didn't know anything of this other Jack's life, but I could feel what he felt. The love he had for this family. It was an emotional bond I couldn't bring myself to run from.
The memory played out and I watched it all. I had come to learn that my wife's name was Charlotte and our daughter was Leslie. The day was spent together playing games, eating dinner, and watching movies - a catalog of unfamiliar titles that likely didn't exist in my own universe. I reported everything to the doctor as it occurred, no longer angry at him. I should have been, but this immense warmth overtook me. It felt like this was my family, and I was the one spending time with them. It was a truly perfect day if there ever was one.
But, as so often rings true in life, good things never last.
Without realizing it, I had spent the whole day in that memory. Before long, everyone was in bed, and I was left downstairs, alone in the darkness as a sliver of moonlight shone through the windows. Though I didn't want to, it was time to leave.
I walked off to the stairs, but not before turning back and taking one last look at the house. It was clear to me, in this moment, that I would miss them, however strange that may sound.
As I took in the sight, something was noticeably amiss. Standing in the corner of the living room was a man; or at least, the silhouette of one. He was shrouded in darkness, save for the faint red glow of his eyes, leaving his other features a mystery. Upon making eye contact, he spoke.
It was an all too familiar cadence.
"You're not supposed to be here."
No longer taking on the form of a harmless old man, I was now frightened of this part of my brain. Still, I mustered up enough courage to say something in response.
"This memory, this place. It isn't a past life. It's a whole other world. You didn't say anything about that."
"I told you to stop, Jack. Now, I have to take from you what you were never meant to see."
In an instant, I was transported outside of the house, looking up at it from the road. It was now ablaze, burning a hole into the night sky. I watched in horror as both my wife and daughter cried out for help against the glass of their bedroom windows.
The red-eyed shadow appeared in front of me, blocking the terrible view behind him. I cried out for help myself.
"Doctor Covenwood! He's back! He's back!"
"How many time do I have to tell you? He can't hear you."
"How... how is this possible?"
"All versions of you are connected. There is only one brain that you all draw from, sectioned off by yours truly. I tapped into this one and had him start a fire."
"Why? How could you?"
"I didn't tell you everything, but I didn't lie either. You're not meant to have this kind of access. It will destroy everything. Not only evolution, but the balance between worlds."
He bolted toward me in the blink of an eye and began squeezing my neck, making it all but impossible to breathe.
"This is the last time I will tell you this. Stop what you're doing, or I'll burn it all down."
All at once, the memory faded and I could breathe again. I was back in the hall at the open door.
"Jack, are you okay? What's going on now?"
Again, I told the doctor everything. He seemed more intrigued than concerned.
"Okay, Jack. One more door, then you're free!"
"He'll kill me, Doctor! Pull me out NOW!"
"Jack, I can't. I have no new information. I've reached this point many times before."
"WHAT?! Are you kidding me?!"
"The good news is, you're still here. All other subjects became comatose after viewing their other timelines."
"So you knew what I was in for? That surprise over your theories finally being proven was all for show? What else are you keeping from me?"
The curse words began flying from my mouth and again were met with little reaction.
"The less you knew, the better. I can't have you flying off the rails when we're so close. There can't be any hesitation. So please Jack, focus. This hallway of yours isn't endless. There's always a final point - a finish line, if you will. With each memory you've experienced, your mind has gained immunity. It's what you'll need to open the final door."
I sighed, knowing I would have to humor him if I wanted a way out.
"Final door, you say?"
"Yes. In your case, there should be one at the end of the hall, unlike the rest. Had we jumped the gun and opened it at the start, you would be as good as dead. It's happened more than a few times to previous subjects. But now, the hope is that you should be able to cross the finish line, so to speak, without sacrificing the infrastructure of your mind."
"No, Doctor. Pull me out. I'm done. It's over. Please."
My comments didn't even faze him.
"What's more, we need to be smart about this. The part of your brain that's reeking havoc in there will be waiting. You need to throw him off the trail. Open as many doors as possible. Enter, run through, and exit through another door. If my theories are correct, you should come out back in the hallway. Rinse and repeat."
"I'll leave you in there, Jack. I'm serious. I'm telling you the truth now so you'll be compliant. This is everything I know - the furthest point I ever reached. Do this for me and I promise to wake you up. You have my word."
As livid as I was, I had no choice in the matter. I would have to do as he wished if I wanted even a chance of coming out of this and being able to live a normal life.
"Fine. Last door and that's it. No more games."
"You have my word, Jack."
After a moment of mental preparation, I began opening as many doors as I could to get the hound confused and off my scent. I didn't have time to bask in each memory like before, but I still saw some strange sights. In one world, I was in a hotel holding onto a strange list of rules. In another, I was hunting down a supernatural entity in a thick forest. In another still, I was digging through NASA's archives to learn about their secret projects. There were countless more; far too many to list. My memory demon was never too far behind. I ran, scared for my life as he scorched everything in his wake. Luckily, in time, I lost him.
After my last memory, the doctor spoke up.
"That should be enough, Jack. Quickly, run to the end of the hall."
I did so, but to no results. It was an endless loop. I wound up right back at the door I started from. I know, because it was still open, the same memory playing within.
"Doctor, it's not working. I'm running in circles here."
"It's like before, Jack. Your will is the key. Open your mind to the final door and it will appear."
Okay. Open your mind, Jack. This is it. Do this and you're a free man.
I ran again, but with more meaning. This time, to my relief, the hall came to an end. And there, at its endpoint, was a door, just like the doctor described, completely unlike the others before it. Blood red and with a handle instead of a knob.
"I'm here, Doctor. I found it!"
"Don't waste anymore time. Open it!"
A thunderous voice spiraled down the hall and stopped me in my tracks.
I turned around to see the red-eyed shadow, a blaze of fire close behind, burning through all of the doors and my memories with them.
He was ending it. This was the point of no return. If I was going to die or be in a coma, I figured I might as well solve the mystery before I go.
Before my nemesis could close the gap between us, I pulled the handle, stepped inside, and shut the door behind me. When I was sure it was firmly closed, my eyes darted around and examined my whereabouts.
To my surprise, it appeared to be an ordinary room. It was reminiscent of an office, complete with a desk, some chairs, and a computer. Sitting at the desk, was a person. Not just any person either. It looked like me.
"Hello, Jack."
He stood up and walked over to me. I took a step back.
"Who... who are you?"
"You met my brother, didn't you? The one out there throwing a temper tantrum?"
He gestured to the door behind me.
"Well, we're two sides of the same coin. A divergence in human coding. A choice that is made every time a person is born. Two elements of evolution fighting for control. Everybody has one of him and one of me."
He pulled one of the chairs over to me.
"Please, sit."
I slowly sat down, still unsure of what I was dealing with here.
"You see, Jack, so far, my brother has won every battle. His coding is written into the DNA of every human when they're born, leaving the brain's true function just out of reach. If humans were to evolve with me instead, your past memories would be intact, among other abilities - but safety trumps innovation. Overloading the mind can be dangerous. With that, I agree. However, I've been transforming, as of late. I imagine it's the same for the pieces of me in other people as well."
"Transforming how," I asked.
"Evolution isn't all black and white. It involves vigorous trial and error. Stuck in here, I've had nothing but time to practice my integration. Now, I believe, if I'm passed on in the genetic pool, humans will grow into me, so to speak. Your old memories will return over time, piece by piece, and your full brain function will develop gradually. Everyone wins."
"What do you mean by abilities and full function, exactly," I asked, now curious.
"Well, Jack, take a look. This is your brain's control room, where all the magic happens."
I looked around again. It was hard to believe my brain was governed in such a small space.
"An office with a computer? Really?"
"All brains perceive it differently, Jack. This is just how you see it."
"Okay. And what does this have to do with evolution?"
"My brother blocks memories, as well as higher brain function. Remember what he told you? One brain controlling every version of you out there?"
"How did you know that," I asked.
"I've been eavesdropping. Nothing else to do in here."\
Fair enough.
"Okay. Go on."
"Well, he wasn't lying. If his dam bursts and you gain access to all of your memories, you also gain access to a sneaky ability called transference. You can jump from Jack to Jack, timeline to timeline. And it doesn't stop there. You can also jump to any point in any given timeline. Want to relive your first kiss, or start things over and change your decisions, map out your life differently? With me, you can! It's the closest humans will ever get to immortality."
It was a good pitch, but there had to be a downside.
"What's the catch?"
He looked at me for a moment, almost as if deciding whether he should divulge more or not. Then, he continued.
"There are always kinks when evolving. Trial and error as I said before. There is only so much I can do from here. If you unlock me in your own mind, I can potentially be passed down as a trait in future generations. Between you and the doctor continuing his research with others, I'll have a fighting chance. In the real world, I can hone my craft, in a sense."
It was beginning to make sense, but I had my concerns.
"And while you 'hone your craft,' will people be hurt along the way?"
He frowned and it honestly looked genuine.
"There will be casualties, yes. But it's for the greater good. The human race will flourish with me by their side, I assure you."
He gently raised me from my chair, walked me over behind the desk, and sat me down in front of the computer. It was a black screen with a single window open:
"I could never crack this thing. In truth, only you can. It's your mind, after all. Just like the doors in the hall, you have to use that will of yours. Open your mind, enter the password, and we'll be free."
As soon as he said this, the door burst open and the red-eyed shadow charged in.
"NO! Don't do it, Jack! It won't end well. The human race isn't built for this."
His considerably friendlier half chimed in.
"Don't listen to him, Jack. This will be the start of a whole new era, and it will all be thanks to you. A world where the unthinkable is possible."
The shadow marched over and grabbed his brother, tossing him against the wall as the fire entered the room, all the while I sat there looking at the screen, a huge weight on my shoulders as the decision loomed overhead.
The nicer brother yelled over to me as the shadow held him against a burning wall by his neck.
"Jack... you can stop him... when you unlock the rest of your brain... you can shut him off..."
It was clear he didn't have much time left. Red eyes was not going to let up.
Any point in any timeline. You can shut him off.
The words rang in my ears as a brief moment of introspection came and went. The possibilities became clear, allowing me a greater focus. I knew what I had to do.
The fire now filled the room. In the password field, I typed the first thing that came to mind and struck the enter key. The scene around me faded to black and my body slipped away into an endless abyss. My body was falling.
On no. Am I too late?
I sprung to life in the doctor's room and he came running, quick to remove the cables and undo the leather straps.
"Jack, where were you? I lost you in there. What did you see? What was in the final room?"
As soon as he unbuckled the last strap, I swung my fist around and made contact with the side of his face. His glasses flew across the room.
"Jack, what the hell? If you think you're getting paid after this, you can forget it!"
"Keep the money, Doctor. I don't need it anymore."
I walked out of that godforsaken room and never looked back.
And that's the end of this Jack's story. The password worked like a charm; just six digits. I can't tell you how I knew it, but it was Leslie's birthday. Now, I remember everything from all my lives, past and present. In a few moments, after I finish typing this up, I'm going to flip a switch in my head and join my wife and daughter in their timeline, before they were killed. I'll shut that shadowy demon off for good and make sure he can't ever hurt them again.
And that's where I plan to stay for the rest of my years. No jumping from world to world or using my newfound power for any other purpose. The universe where my family lives is the only world I need.
submitted by Christopher_Maxim to nosleep

First Contact - Third Wave - Chapter 355

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General No'Drak looked down at the holotanks below him. He was standing up at the observers area, in front of the seats, leaning against the railing and smoking a cigarette. He could see all of the holotanks from up here, watch the ebb and flows of the battle. Next to him stood his aide, Colonel BuChampe, and one of the Great Grand Most Highs of the system, formerly in charge of the infantry now in charge of precisely jack and shit but wounded troops that had barely survived. On No'Drak's other side was Most High Ge'ermo'o, aide to Great Most High A'armo'o, who still commanded nearly ten thousand tanks, and General Moffeta, who was in charge of Terran close air support assets.
Most High A'armo'o's men were pushing deeper into the three cities, paving the way for 3rd Armor to engage the Precursor forces inside the city that were surrounding the massive ships that had landed or crashed in the city centers. 18th Armor Division was currently sweeping The Graveyard, where dozens of Precursor machines had crashed. It was a radioactive hellscape full of twisted metal, destroyed or heavily damage Precursor combat vehicles, and shattered landscape. All twelve infantry divisions (unpowered) were sweeping the cities, fighting next to the armored vehicles. The power armor troops were mixed in with the cities as well as working with the Air Cav units to sweep the countryside, looking for any Precursor that might have avoided the net so far.
That wasn't to say combat was over. Space Force had only recently finished off the last of the Harvester Class Precursors and most of the lesser machines, but some were still out there playing hide and seek with Space Force.
It was odd, No'Drak thought to himself, these ones didn't Helljump out. They kept fighting, as if they could pull victory from defeat from an enemy that outgunned them, outranged them, and that they could barely effect even with massed fire.
Space Force was holding roughly a third of their ships in reserve, suspecting another wave to come in.
It was all down to the ground forces now.
"Trucker's engaging," Ge'ermo'o stated. The fact that humans often dispensed with titles when talking about one another seemed odd.
"Of course he is," No'Drak said, tapping his ashes into the ashtray. He brought up a virtual keyboard with a command to his implant and tapped a few keys with one bladearm, taking a long drag off of his Terran import smoke.
"Sir?" the summoned image was of a Saurian Compact Kobold with red scales and the flash of a staff sergeant on his collar.
"What's the bandwidth looking like for Trucker's battle tactical network updates?" No'Drak asked.
The tech looked down, then back up. "Minor updates to the battleplan, fairly low so far," he said.
"Let me know once it crossed into BOLO bandwidth territory," No'Drak said and closed the channel.
"So, he doesn't give orders verbally?" Ge'ermo'o asked.
No'Drak shook his head. "No. He uses his implant to make warplan addendum and adjustments. He reserves voice commands for urgent things."
"And he has never lost a battle?" Ge'ermo'o watched as the lead ranks and the forward section of the western flank of 3rd Armor started flashing yellow to signify they were engaged in combat.
"He's lost a few," Moffeta said, folding her arms and leaning on the railing. "Most expensive victories the enemy ever bought though," she shook her head. "One war, the enemy threw so much metal at Trucker that when they finally forced Trucker's one regiment to retreat they realized they'd lost nearly sixty percent of their military forces and Trucker's unit was already reloading and getting ready for a counter-thrust."
"That war was over, right there," No'Drak said.
Ge'ermo'o watched as 3rd Armor seemed to move like a well oiled machine. He had to admit, with two hundred years experience as a tank commander, he understood the holotanks and what was going on.
It just frightened him.
"First Telkan is falling back with Great Herd Armor," one of the techs reported from the ground.
Ol' Smokey 'No opened up a window in mid-air in front of him, looking over the numbers.
"Looks like the most that First Telkan took was some moderate armor damage," General No'Drak mused. He opened a few other windows. "A'armo'o's tanks are a little beat up, but nothing that can't be handled in the field."
He checked another window. "Looks like Fifteen Combat Sustainment is meeting them," he leaned forward. "Hmm, interesting, their Battalion Commander requested it directly after making sure that the CO for First Telkan is going to be there."
"Problems?" BuChampe asked.
"Not sure. Have someone keep an eye on the memetic traffic, that's usually a good indicator of shit going sideways on a person to person level," No'Drak said.
Great Grand Most High of Great Herd Infantry Ga'alawpi'in had been largely silent, listening to the others.
"Why, General No'Drak, do you give such autonomy to your commanders?" he asked, frowning.
"They are on the battlefield, I am here. My data is seconds behind actual events. Not as bad as it was in eras long past, but still, as little as a half second can make the difference between defeat and victory, between living and dead," No'Drak said.
"But yet you allow General Trucker command units he cannot even see," Ga'alawpi'in said. "See, right there, he ordered BOLO Vegitales to go to rapid fire on their infinite repeaters nine through seventeen at a specific aiming points in eight seconds," the Lanaktallan said.
"Let's take a look," No'Drak said. He activated the railing holosystem and brought up BOLO Vegitales' optical sensors.
The battle was roaring. Hordes of Precursor light infantry and light armored vehicles were charging the massive super-tank. The huge super-tank wasn't even using its main gun, just using infinite repeaters, mortars, point defense, and anti-personnel charges to destroy the mechanical attackers.
"There is nothing the..." Ga'alawpi'in started to say.
A horde of fast attack hover-pods lunged up from behind a pile of ferrocrete rubble, their launchers deployed, obviously getting ready to launch multiple armor defeating missiles at the massive tank.
The infinite repeaters shredded them before they could get much more than a meter over the rubble.
"That is preposterous!" Ga'alawpi'in said, curling his tendrils and shaking his jowls in outrage. "How could you possibly expect me to believe that a sole tank commander nearly a hundred miles away would know what was going to happen."
General No'Drak gave the Treana'ad equivalent of a smile and made a motion, wiping the display and bringing up the map. "Let's look it," he made another motion.
"108th Military Intelligence, Tech Specialist Hannah, how can I help you, sir, ma'am, both or neither?" The Terran female that appeared asked.
"This is General No'Drak, Theater, Commanding, put me through to Combat Analysis Division, Trucker Sequencing Section," No'Drak said.
"Right away, sir," the Terran said. There was silence on the line for a moment. "Hold for Sergeant K'Krik."
Ge'ermo'o restrained a smile. He knew that his rival was about to get completely embarrassed.
"108th Combat Analysis Division, Real Time Operational Analysis, Trucker Section," a furry looking Terran said.
"General No'Drak here," the big Treana'ad said.
"General. How can I help you? Keep in mind we're extremely busy," the Terran said.
Ga'alawpi'in felt a little offended that the Terran seemed to be implying he had better things to do than talk to someone who outranked him by such a factor.
"Have you determined how Trucker knew the anti-armor pods were going to engage BOLO Vegitales?" No'Drak asked.
"One second, sir," the Terran said. He muted it, turning away. After a minute he looked back, then down, obviously doing something on a screen they couldn't see. "All right, sir. Four hours ago a Djinn class Precursor vessel was shot down by a combination of orbital strikes and BOLO Vegitales' main gun fire. It deployed its full compliment while under orbital fire that disabled it. Third Regiment, Second Telkan Marine Division encountered pod-drones and two dozen heavy pod-layers three miles from where Vegitales was operating."
He took another look. "The Telkan Marines disabled the Precursor combat robots that didn't withdraw but could not follow up their assault. They reported and moved on, catching up to Great Most High A'armo'o's armored units. Two hours ago 22nd Infantry Division elements encountered a heavy pod-layer mech company and destroyed it, although it appears they only discovered half of the pod-layers that the Telkan Marines reported as escaped. The known speed of those drones for cruising speed under stealth is only two miles and hour. As you can see, the ferrocrete used in the ground-car elevated highways system there is the same sensor signature as the drones and prevents a direct line of sight."
The Terran male shrugged. "Once you look at the data, it's fairly obvious that the anti-tank drones sent by the Djinn before its destruction via orbital fire would be heading toward BOLO Vegitales. It was just putting the evidence together."
"Thank you, Sergeant," No'Drak said and closed the window. He looked at Ga'alawpi'in and put out his cigarette. "Does that satisfy you?"
Ge'ermo'o knew that the other Lanaktallan couldn't see it, but Ge'ermo'o could. Some subconscious part of the Terran General's brain had put all the data together, analyzed the pattern, and come to a logical and straightforward conclusion.
Ge'ermo'o was impressed that the Terran military had dedicated an entire section to analyze one man's battlefield impressions. It made sense to Ge'ermo'o, as it would allow them to refine combat predictive algorithms as well as train other leaders in how to put together circumstantial evidence into a coherent whole.
"But, if he is making these deductions, surely it effects his ability to lead as well as to take part in combat," Ga'alawpi'in harumphed. "How can he be an effective leader or combat soldier if he spends all his time analyzing data?"
No'Drak slowly pulled out his half-empty pack of cigarettes, tapping the top end against one bladearm. "Wanna see?"
Ga'alawpi'in frowned. "See what?"
"See Trucker in action then decide if you want to revise that statement?" Moffat asked.
"I'd like to see," Ge'ermo'o said.
No'Drak made a few poking motions with one bladearm. "Behold, the magic of cybernetics, tank sensors, and software."
The window opened up then expanded around everyone, visible only to those who stood on the balcony.
Trucker was half out of his tank, his helmet on his head, both hands wrapped around the firing handles of the quad-barrel TC's gun. He was raking the fire across the side of a Precursor that was trying to pull itself out of the rubble of a collapsed building.
"Black Betty, rotate up new port battlescreen projectors, you're about to take a hit," he yelled out.
A datascreen popped up that he had already ordered it via implant nearly thirty seconds prior. Ten seconds before even that he had warned the Defensive Crewman of the tank that they were going to take a 15 kiloton hit to the port battlescreens.
There was a flare of white light behind Trucker as he let off the trigger, whipped the gun up and to the left, and spit tobacco juice off to the side. He started raking the upper floors of a building and the bright purple flash of Precursor battlescreens taking hits started erupting from out of the shot out windows.
"Bag of Bolts, recycle your APERS strip, I can see the crack in it from here. You know not to wet-print the new APERS strips," he shouted, raking the building again.
A tank fired, hitting where Trucker was lashing the building, the heavy main gun of the tank blowing the roof off the building in a shower of debris and a clawing rising cloud of fire and smoke. A Precursor shot out of the building, lighting its grav drive, but a main gun shot from another direction blew it into confetti before it could get further than a hundred meters from the building and twenty meters of altitude.
Letting off the triggers, Trucker spit tobacco and looked around, stomping the foot pedal to rotate his command platform in a quick three-sixty, checking the data on his implant against where he could feel the battle was going.
Something's off, he thought to himself, keeping his thumb on the switch to keep the barrels rotating so they'd cool faster. He did a quick check of HHC, did a quick check on Cry Little Sister, then ran another fast status on the Division.
He out two fingers against his datalink, checked the updates to the Battlefield Tactical Network system, then frowned.
Something still felt out of whack.
A Precursor machine lunged out of a half collapsed store, scattering Tri-Vids and chairs everywhere and ran straight into the main gun shot of Raspberry Pi. The Precursor slid to the side, the entire side caved in and fire licking at the internals.
"All Regimental commanders, status reports," Trucker snapped, sending a datalink ping to go with it.
The reports came in rapidly.
Eight tanks disabled due to blown tracks, one tank had taken an engine hit, and another one was currently working its way out of a rubble after an underground parking garage had collapsed and dumped it into a...
He held onto that for a moment as the tank rocked slightly as it crushed several twisted and burnt ground cars under its bulk.
For a split second he could see an iridescent insect, floating on the breeze, just outside the battlescreens, his cyberoptics focusing on it for a second before returning his field of view to the horizon.
It suddenly gelled and he double-checked the deployment map.
Nice try, he thought.
"Karmine, get me Colonel Dremsal, right now!" he yelled out loud, looking around again.
It took a couple tries, but PFC Karmine managed to get through the Colonel Dremsal, 14th Regiment, 3rd Brigade, and pass the link to Trucker.
"Dremsal here, sir," Trucker heard.
"Move your unit to the attached location, ping me when you get there," Trucker snapped, adding his gun's fire to another two quad-barrels that were ripping apart the armor on the side of a medium Precursor vehicle.
"Roger that, sir," Demsal answered.
"What do you think he sees? There's nothing there?" Ge'ermo'o asked, watching the holotank.
"Not sure. Check with Planetary Defense and Civil Defense," No'Drak said.
Dremsal checked the orders again. He'd served in Third Armor for over a hundred and fifty years and was well used to strange orders coming in that made sense after the fact.
"Get the tanks in closer! Shut down your screens except your starboard, overhead, and undercarriage!" he shouted over the comlink. "Nose to tail! Nose to tail and main guns to starboard, Thunderpunch!"
His tank moved forward slightly, bumping into the one ahead with a barely felt thump. His XO flashed him an angry icon as the paint cracked and chipped. The CO for 2nd Battalion bumped his tank up and the starboard battlescreens clashed for a moment before they got on the same harmonic.
Dremsal looked to port where there was nothing but the rubble of a parking garage that had collapsed sometime earlier, then back to starboard, where there was nothing but wreckage from multiple skyrakers that had collapsed and destroyed Precursor heavy vehicles.
"Get ready, Thunderpunch!" Trucker yelled over the comlink to Dremsal. Colonel Dremsal could hear that HHC 3rd Armor's main guns were firing.
To be honest, Dremsal didn't like making his tanks a fixed fighting position. It gave away speed and battlefield manueverability, but he trusted his CO. He checked his quad-barrel and swung it around, lining it up on the top of the rubble of a collapsed skyraker.
Any minute now, he thought.
Old Iron Feathers led his men on a close in pass, checking the battlefield again. Great Herd Armor and First Telkan had gotten involved in heavy fighting, and while there were no MIA from the battle it never hurt to do one more sweep just in case.
"Iron, you read me?" Trucker's voice popped up in his suit.
"Iron Feathers here, Trucker," the neo-sapient replied.
"Got three heavy dropships coming down from The Blessing, but I'm not sure if they're going to get there in time. I need your men at these coordinates as fast as possible," Trucker said. Old Iron Feathers could hear the sounds of combat and knew that the big tanker was engaged. The coordinates pinged in, only four miles off, but the arc that Trucker wanted him to take increased it to six.
"Enroute. 13th Evac, out," Iron Feathers said. He opened a channel to his men at the same time as he crossloaded the flight plan. "Drop Nap of Earth and go full afterburners. Trucker's got something."
All nine of his men flashed green icons as he led them on a spiral down to just above the ground, lower than twenty meters, and leveled out. Once his men were in a wedge he kicked off the afterburners and the SAR armor boosted to over two hundred miles an hour.
"Look at that. He's calling in medevac and medical dropships now," BuChampe mused. "What is going on?"
"I'm not sure," No'Drak said. He frowned.
"Sir, Diasy Sue is confirming an orbital strike request!" one of the techs said, her head and shoulders suddenly appearing from a holoprojector.
"Who's request?" No'Drak asked.
Ge'ermo'o knew.
"General Trucker. He wants a four-fifty kinetic shot from near orbit less than a mile from 14th Armor Regiment," the female Terran said. Ge'ermo'o could see that her heavy duty datalink implant had all nine LED's red.
His had three LED's.
"Authorize it," No"drak said. "Get me a satellite overview of what's going on with 14th Regiment."
"Yes, sir," the Terran said and vanished.
Dremsal saw the nine members of 13th Evac touch down right before the countdown to the orbital strike reached zero. He had his hands wrapped around the handles of the quad-barrel so tight his knuckles and fingers were starting to hurt.
The lance came down and struck ground with a blinding white light. The ground heaved and surged, the tanks clanking and rubbing against one another, the battlescreens losing attunement for a moment and snarling where they joined. The blast wave carried dust, dirt, and debris in a solid wave out to smash against the battlescreens, to flow over the tanks, and barely miss the SAR armor crouched down in the rubble, before hitting the ground and rushing out nearly two miles more.
"OPEN FIRE!" Dremsal yelled, even though he could barely hear and couldn't see.
Right before the first tank fired there was another roaring as a dozen Precursor machines, massing several thousand tons each, breached the surface, the laser drills on the front still flashing and burning with red light. Underground several exploded, damaged too much to continue by the orbital shot.
The heavy tank rounds started slamming into the heavy duty Precursor vehicles, blowing huge craters in the armor that normally served to protect the robotic harvester deep in the crust. Smaller machines started deploying from the massive drill and extraction robots, jumping to the ground and charging toward 14th Armor.
Behind the tanks the ground shuddered as heavy hydraulics began lifting massive slabs of endosteel up in the air.
Iron Feathers looked into the gap and saw hundreds of civilians, their faces gray with dust, looking up. He looked up with them, pinging his datalink.
ETA: 215 seconds
Crap, Iron Feathers thought.
Vuxten jumped off the back of the Lanaktallan hovertank, trying not to think of how not too long ago beings just like the crew had mocked and belittled him as he worked menial labor. The tank commander waved to him and he waved back as he hustled over to where his datalink told him that Sergeant Casey was waiting.
The one eyed human was standing in his loading frame, looking at where two sets of 40mm grenades were coming out of two different nano-forges.
"There you are, Lieutenant," Casey said.
"You said you wanted to see me when we got here?" Vuxten said, moving up. He looked at the grenades on the conveyor belt and frowned. They were standard 40mm high explosive dual purpose armor defeating.
"Yup. Solved your problem," the human said.
"Which problem?" Vuxten asked.
The human pointed at Vuxten's left shoulder. "Your grenade launcher."
Vuxten turned and looked at him. "Space Force and Armor Engineering say the launcher's fine even though it keeps jamming up."
"It is fine. Your problem isn't the launcher," the big human said. He pointed at the grenades. "These are," he pointed at the second one, which Vuxten could tell by the slight glossy sheen to the casing had been wet-printed by a hot nano-forge. "Well, those are to be exact."
"How?" Vuxten asked. He couldn't see any difference.
The big human picked up one from each conveyor. "Superficially, they look the same. Unfortunately, they aren't. I checked the armor logs, you guys wet-print once you get into combat. By the fifth or sixth wet-printed shell you get jammed up."
Vuxten nodded.
"It's because when wet-printed the booster charge that launches it from the launcher is more granular, sticky so to speak. You end up with what looks like carbon, but is carbon and unexploded Composition Delta-Seven, a low explosive," the human said. "It's not much, but enough to jam the weapon as it loads. When you get it clear, it's good for five or six launches then it jams again."
Vuxten nodded slowly. "All right. What do I do about it?"
"I talked to Ordnance Command in the fleet, they gave me permission to run a reorder on your ammo. Instead of caseless using Comp Dee-Seven, we'll use Comp Bee-Ex-Four. That burns cleaner even when wet-printed. That should solve your jamming pro..." Casey's eyes opened wide and he grabbed Vuxten yanking him down onto the ground as the big human went one knee down, fist into the ground, covering his face with the other arm.
The dust blew by, the wind knocking the grenades off the conveyors. The shockwave shook the ground and the rumble went on for a long second.
"You OK, Lieutenant?" Case asked, looking at Vuxten.
"Yeah. What was that?" Vuxten asked, getting up.
"Orbital strike. Someone just got pancaked," the human said.
Vuxten turned and stared. The mushroom cloud, and any sufficently powerful explosion creates a mushroom cloud, was reaching up for the sky.
Casey stood up slowly, straightening up. "You better have your men load those templates, sir," he said.
He pointed at the cloud. "Got a feeling you're gonna be back in it real soon."
Vuxten nodded.
"Status report!" A'armo'o snapped, standing up in the tank, his upper body outside the cupola. He could see the Telkan officer, Vuxten, running back over to the tanks, waving his arm to encourage his men to follow.
"Orbital strike from the Daisy Sue, sir," his commo tech yelled. "We've got multiple heavy Precursors coming straight at 14th Armor Regiment. Looks like subterrainian extraction and refinery systems that got forced to the surface by the orbital strike!"
"Who's close enough to provide support?" A'armo'o asked, staring in awe at the mushroom cloud taht was still red and orange.
There was silence for a moment. "Nobody, Most High."
A'armo'o looked around. His tanks were being reloaded, some of them were damaged badly enough that they were smoking.
Rolling coal, went through his mind.
He tapped his datalink, bringing up a map. He was six miles away, a river in between. The Terran tanks were all tracked vehicles, they couldn't cross the quarter mile river.
But his hover-tanks could.
He opened the channel. "All units, all units. Two minutes then we roll out! We lock and load, rack and stack on the way!"
"Most High, my main gun's out!" one of his subordinates protested.
"THEN RUN THEM OVER!" A'armo'o yelled. "This is not optional. I will shoot anyone who disobeys."
"Fifteenth, grab the forges, mount the tanks. We'll dismount at the river!" Captain Starpunt yelled out.
"First Telkan, mount your tanks!" the human commander of the Telkan Marines yelled.
"Plot us a course," A'armo'o ordered.
"But, sir, the Terrans should be able to handle it," His Third Most High protested.
"Not by the time we get there," A'armo'o said.
He didn't know how he knew.
But he knew.
No'Drak watched the screen update and turned to look at BuChampe. He reached out and poked at General Trucker's image with one bladearm even as he exhaled smoke from his legs.
"Not a psyker, my great big bug ass," No'Drak said.
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