Rocket League: The Thrilling Role-Playing Game
Rocket League was to be a role-playing game that re-imagined the “future” as it was envisioned during the golden era of science fiction. Atomic rockets, ray guns, evil robots and terrifying alien invaders from space would’ve been waiting for you, Space Cadet!
“Enemy Unknown!” was intended to be an introduction of sorts to the game setting, and was to be included in the game’s core rule book. For a variety of reasons, the game went into limbo, and while there’s a chance it might still come out, my last communication with one of the game’s creators indicated that he had no idea when that might be. However, he gave me permission to post the story, as I’d received several requests to have it made available. So, here we go, space cadets!
Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore
Standing in the Control Room of the flying saucer Theseus, Major Max Armstrong felt dread welling up within him. His apprehension only intensified as he stood transfixed, staring at the main image viewer and the chunk of debris displayed upon it.
It’s not as though you were expecting anything else. The fact that he had prepared himself just such a sobering discovery before their search mission even had begun did little to ease the way he felt now.
“Look at that,” said his pilot, Lieutenant First Class Jack Curtis, the younger man making no effort to keep the shock from his voice.
Armstrong heard the comment but said nothing. Without looking away from the screen, he could sense similar feelings of anxiety gripping the other three Rocket League officers on duty here in the space ship’s nerve center. No one else spoke, and so consuming was the silence that he could hear the low rumblings of the saucer’s powerful atomic engine even through the insulation of the hull. The constant hum caused a subtle yet noticeable vibration in the deck beneath his boots, a sensation to which Armstrong had long ago become accustomed after years of serving aboard such ships. Reverberating all around him, the pulse of the Theseus typically brought Armstrong a measure of comfort.
But not today.
Instead, Armstrong felt only trepidation, his attention riveted to the sizeable piece of tortured metal displayed on the image viewer. Jagged edges were charred black, no doubt from fire or an explosion. While it was difficult for Armstrong to get a good look at the debris, tumbling in the void as it was, he had no trouble making out the crossbeams forming part of what could only be a portion of a ship’s space frame. Despite the viewer’s current magnification, he still could see the seams of painted hull plating along with the rivets holding the individual sections in place.
“Telescopic scanners are picking up other pieces of debris, sir,” reported Lieutenant Katherine Tyler from her control station to the left of the viewer. “It’s everywhere, drifting in all directions.”
“Think it’s from the Olive Branch?” asked Lieutenant First Class Benjamin Sharp, the Theseus’ mechanic and one of Armstrong’s oldest friends. Rising from his own station at the rear of the Control Room, he moved to stand next to the major. “Her last reported position wasn’t all that far from here, you know.”
Armstrong nodded in agreement, recalling the mission briefing he and his crew had been given three days ago. The Olive Branch, a civilian vessel, had sent its last routine flight status report to ST-2, the Rocket League’s space station located halfway between Earth and Mars, seven days previously. That report had offered no clue that either the vessel or its renowned owner, entrepreneur Harrison Wickerman, were experiencing any difficulties. The first inklings that something might be wrong came when the Olive Branch missed its next scheduled transmission.
When attempts to reach the ship failed, the alert was sounded. In response to frantic calls for assistance from the Wickerman Foundation, the Rocket League had dispatched the Theseus to investigate, and the FS-2 class flying saucer had spent the past three days searching for some sign of the wayward space craft.
Looks like we may have found it, Armstrong mused. Still studying the hull fragment on the screen, the major’s eyes caught sight of something on the piece of tumbling metal. “Wait,” he said as he stepped closer to the viewer. He pointed to the display of carnage on the screen. “Tyler, get me a close-up.”
“Magnifying,” Tyler replied. Adjusting the telescopic scanning controls, she was able to increase the size and clarity of the image while bringing the hunk of debris into sharp relief.
Armstrong could now clearly discern where once-gleaming white paint had darkened and burned away in the face of intense heat. Even the edges of some hull plates were turned upward, bent away from the mounting frame as if they had buckled.
“See how thick that plating is?” Lieutenant Curtis said. “Whatever happened, it was something big.”
The pilot was right, Armstrong decided, but that wasn’t what he was interested in at the moment. Tapping the screen, he said, “Freeze that. Right there.” He waited while Tyler carried out the order, already knowing what he would see. When the image on the screen paused, holding the fragment still, his gut feeling was confirmed in an instant.
Motioning to Sharp, he leaned closer. “See it?” he asked as he traced his finger along the lines of green contrasting against the dulled white finish of the hull plate. The lines formed letters, printed in English.
O-L-I-V. The remainder of the word disappeared into the scorches marring the painted metal, but of course it was enough to answer the question hanging over everyone in the Control Room.
“Guess that confirms it,” Sharp said, his words flat and somber.
Feeling his jaw tighten, Armstrong nodded curtly. “Now we have another mystery: What happened to her?” Turning to Tyler, he said, “Transmit these pictures back to Headquarters immediately. General Barker’s going to want to see them.”
Glancing over his shoulder, the major eyed the communications station, knowing that he should radio in a full report to his superiors on Earth. Rocket League’s highest-ranking flag officer would waste no time demanding answers, either, as he would be faced with explaining this tragedy to a number of interested parties. Leaders in both government and business had been waiting for word on the fate of the Olive Branch for nearly a week, and the demand for definitive answers was growing with each passing day. Armstrong could already hear General Barker’s voice bellowing the same questions plaguing the Theseus crew, his gravelly voice booming through the Control Room speakers once news of this latest discovery reached Earth.
The best thing we can do now, Armstrong thought, is find those answers as fast as we can.
“I’ve never seen damage like it before,” Sharp said, having stepped closer to the main viewer to get a closer look at the hull debris. “The Martians sure don’t have anything like that.”
“Not that we know of, anyway,” said Lieutenant Curtis. “You know how secretive they’ve been these last few years.”
“I’ve run a check with the Geiger counter and examined the X-rays,” Tyler said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t atomic rockets, Martian or otherwise.”
Curtis countered, “Maybe they’ve come up with a new weapon.”
Turning from the screen, Armstrong said, “Enough of that, Curtis. We don’t know what happened here yet. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Even as he spoke the words, he hoped they didn’t sound as hollow to his crew as they did to his own ears. Truth be told, no one really knew what the Martians were up to these days. The inhabitants of Earth’s closest neighbor had been caught up in their own problems over the years, including a bloody uprising that had lead to the complete upheaval of their central government.
More recently, however, indications were that the people of the red planet had emerged from the chaos of their own internal strife and once more were concentrating on expanding their reach into space. Encounters between Earth and Martian ships were on the rise, and while no hostilities had resulted – at least, so far as anyone knew – Armstrong felt in his gut that it was only a matter of time before something happened.
“We’re within spitting distance of Mars right now, Major,” Sharp said, his voice low so as not to carry to the other members of the crew. “It’s hard not to think the obvious. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”
Armstrong gritted his teeth at the thought. It had been nearly three years since the remains of another Earth vessel had been found drifting in space near Mars: the White Dove, and the similarities didn’t end there. Constructed by millionaire and noted activist Charles Wickerman, also the father of Harrison Wickerman, the White Dove had left Earth five years ago, carrying the tycoon on a peace mission to establish diplomatic relations with Mars.
And promptly vanished without a trace.
The Rocket League, already facing criticism from colleagues of Wickerman that it had done precious little to establish peaceful ties with neighboring planets and therefore was indirectly responsible for the fate of the White Dove, had combed space between Earth and Mars for the ship to no avail. Ultimately, the vessel was classified as lost and presumed destroyed, its passengers and crew listed as having perished.
When debris from the elder Wickerman’s vessel was found two years later, a fresh round of accusations was leveled against the Martians. Armstrong himself remembered thinking at the time just how close to war Earth might be. Somehow, Earth’s leaders had demonstrated a calmer presence of mind rather than lead a charge to war, but Armstrong knew that any future “incident” could be used to fan the flames of discontent that continued to seethe.
Did the Olive Branch represent just such an impetus?
“Spooky, isn’t it?” Sharp asked after a moment. “History repeating itself?”
“Looks that way,” Armstrong replied. “Harrison Wickerman never did accept that his father was dead, after all.” He remembered reading Amalgamated Press reports detailing how the younger Wickerman had taken his case, along with a small amount of questionable evidence – mostly in the form of unconfirmed reports detailing sightings of his father on Mars and even on Venus – to the Rocket League in a quest for their assistance. When that was not forthcoming, Wickerman took matters into his own hands and oversaw the construction of the Olive Branch, all the while determined to find his father and bring him home.
“If the Martians are responsible,” Sharp said, “then they may well be readying for war right now.”
Armstrong shook his head. Such an explanation simply didn’t make sense, three years ago or now. “Why would they leave so much evidence drifting around out here, so close to home?” he asked. “They’d have to know we’d come looking for it. I don’t care how crazy their leader is, I don’t think he’s ready for all-out war with Earth.”
At least, he reminded himself, not yet.
“Maybe they’re sending a message,” Curtis said, turning from his pilot’s station. “You know, that they’re not worried about us finding out what they did or what we might do in response.”
That didn’t work for Armstrong, either. “The only way they’d have a chance against us is by catching us off-guard early on,” he said. “If they’re planning something – and I don’t doubt that they are – then they wouldn’t tip their hand like this.” Frowning as he considered that thought, he turned his attention back to the main viewer. “No,” he decided, “this is something else.”
“Yeah,” Sharp replied, “but what?”
“Major Armstrong!” Tyler’s voice echoed off the Control Room’s metal bulkheads. “Radar’s picking up….”
The rest of the lieutenant’s report was cut off as the deck abruptly lurched beneath Armstrong’s feet. Instinct took over and he threw his arms out in an effort to find a handhold as the ship pitched to one side. He saw Sharp in his peripheral vision as the mechanic fought his own battle to retain his balance, failing as he was slammed to the deck. Alarm klaxons wailed within the restricted space of the Control Room, ringing in Armstrong’s ears as he steadied himself. Additionally, he felt a harsh vibration coursing through the deck plates, the bulkheads, even the fillings in his teeth.
“Report!” he shouted above the din.
Holding onto her console for dear life, Tyler did not turn away from the array of dials and gauges before her. “We’re being attacked! Radar’s showing three unidentified space ships closing on our position!”
Sharp had picked himself up and moved across the room to his own station. “Whatever hit us is packing quite a wallop!” he said. “Outer hull plates are buckling near the radar array. I’m also picking up a power drop-off.”
A single shot had done that? As staggering a thought as that was, Armstrong knew there was no time to contemplate the matter any further. Now was a time for action. “Curtis, get us out of here!”
“Working on it!” the pilot replied, yelling to be heard over the alarms. He pulled down on the lever controlling the saucer’s antigravity thrusters and Armstrong heard the whine of the Theseus’ atomic engine as it responded to the new demands being placed upon it.
Lunging forward, he grabbed the edge of the communications console to steady himself. “Tyler, who are they?”
“Unknown!” the lieutenant replied, frantically shaking her head. “The radar circuits don’t recognize the ships!”
“Can you get a picture of them?” Armstrong asked.
Tyler shook her head. “They’re out of range, sir!”
Armstrong fell into the seat at the comm station as the Theseus shuddered under the brunt of another attack. The violent reverberations returned with it, and this time he heard bulkheads and support struts groaning in protest as they withered in the face of the brutal assault.
One of the monitors at Sharp’s station exploded, showering the mechanic with sparks and shrapnel as he threw his arms up to protect himself. He had ducked out of the way in time, however, managing to escape serious injury.
“Ben, are you okay?” Armstrong shouted, relieved to see his friend already picking himself off the deck and returning to his station.
“It’s some kind of energy ray!” Sharp called out as he took stock of what remained of his console. “It’s spiking power readings all over the ship! We’ve got to get away from it, now!”
While this was certainly not Armstrong’s first time in space combat, he had never before encountered anything which could inflict such damage so quickly. The Martians had certainly never displayed anything that kind of power.
“They’re gaining on us!” Tyler shouted.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep them off of us!” Curtis called out from the pilot’s station. “Sharp, we need more speed!”
Shaking his head, the mechanic wiped sweat from his brow. “Power drain is getting worse every time they hit us with that ray, and we’ve got hull plates coming loose from the side of the ship!”
Armstrong felt smoke stinging his eyes as he listened to his people’s reports, the acrid stench of burned insulation and ozone charging the air and assailing his nostrils. It was not difficult to picture the outcome of this engagement, Armstrong knew. As things stood now, the enemy ships, whoever they were, would have the Theseus dead to rights in only a matter of minutes. Options were dwindling rapidly.
“If we can’t outrun them,” Armstrong said as he pulled himself to his feet, “then we have to outfight them before our power drops too far. Curtis, power up the ray cannons!” To Sharp, he said, “Divert as much power to the weapons as you can, Ben. We may only get one shot at this.” He locked eyes with his friend for a brief moment, and the mechanic nodded in understanding before returning his attention to his console.
With his crew working frenetically to carry out their respective duties both here in the Control Room and down in the saucer’s lower levels, Armstrong knew there was still one task to perform, and that only he could to it. Reaching for the radio handset, the major keyed the frequency that would put him into contact with his superiors on Earth.
“Rocket League Earth Command!” he all but shouted into the handset. “Rocket League Earth Command! This is Major Armstrong aboard the Theseus! We have three hostile space ships closing fast! They’ve got a weapon we’ve never seen before, and I think it may be the same one used to destroy the Olive Branch. We’re….”
His impromptu report was interrupted by yet another vicious assault as the unknown energy ray struck the ship again. This time the entire ship seemed to tremble all around him, feeling and sounding as though it might shake apart at any instant. Whatever was punishing the ship was having other effects, as well. His skull pounded as though he’d been struck in the head, and he heard blood rushing in his ears.
It wasn’t just him, either. Armstrong saw Sharp holding his own head in his hands, and Tyler had fallen from her chair, slumped on the deck with her eyes screwed shut in obvious agony.
“What’s happening?” Curtis yelled, his own voice a shriek as though he too was suffering from the attack.
Pain stabbed Armstrong behind his eyes, and he felt as though his skull might crack under the mounting pressure. Rising from his chair, the radio handset still gripped in his fist, he lurched across the deck toward the pilot’s station. As he moved he glanced to Tyler’s station and through blurring vision saw the radar screen, flanked on both sides by flashing red alarm lights.
The radar image made his blood run cold.
“Curtis!” he shouted. “They’re flanking us! Fire the thrusters! We’ve got to try and….”
Another powerful blast hammered the already-distressed Theseus, the ship shuddering with more force than anything which had come before. Armstrong was thrown to the deck, landing hard on his shoulder. He felt bone snap from the force of the impact and new pain lanced through his body. Gritting his teeth was all he could do in an effort to keep from passing out.
Unable to rise even to a sitting position, he turned his head enough to see that Curtis also had fallen from his chair. He lay sprawled on the deck, his head twisted at an unnatural angle atop his neck and his eyes wide and unseeing.
The thought had only just begun to register when a harsh whistling sound echoed in Armstrong’s ears, and the last thing he saw before vision and consciousness failed him was the sight of the hull plates at the front of the Control Room parting to reveal the bright, unfiltered stars of space.
* * *
Snatching the dog-eared pass boldly labeled “PRESS” from the front pocket of his tweed jacket, Hank Jameson propped himself just inside the door of the main briefing room in Rocket League headquarters. Taking a moment to rub his fists into his tired eyes, he drank in all the hubbub.
The room already bustled with fellow journalists, camera crews, attaches representing a dozen world governments and who knows how many onlookers who were just in the way – every one of them angling for the best view of the action to come. Jameson looked over the crowd to the front of the room, a raised dais dominated by a long, cherry wood table with eight tall-backed leather chairs, a 20-foot-tall projection screen behind them, and to one side, a podium complete with the Rocket League’s stylized atomic-orbit symbol emblazoned on the front.
Jameson settled into his spot by propping one foot up and pressing his square shoulders against a flat, featureless wall, which did a fine job of amplifying the ambient noise within the briefing room to create an even greater mood of chaos than the one he observed. The din of conversation among disheveled newshounds – one likely mustered at a moment’s notice as was he – mingled with the all-too-familiar aromas of stale cigarette smoke, too-strong coffee and flop sweat. As it all washed over him, Jameson smirked a bit to himself and felt right at home.
He loved a good news story – and this was bound to be a doozy.
The young reporter scratched the scruff of his day-old stubble with the side of his press pass before reaching up and tucking it into the band of his wool felt porkpie hat, angled so he was sure it would be visible from the dais. Not that anyone up there was likely to have trouble picking him from the crowd. He had covered the Rocket League and its major players for the Amalgamated Press for – how long? Jameson quickly did the math and shook his head.
The first time he ever had set foot in this room was back in Space Year 44, when General “Bulldog” Barker met a group not unlike this one and released the first reports from the Rocket League’s expedition to the planet Chara II – and humanity’s first contact with the Dinosaur Men. As he heard it, Jameson could hardly believe the news himself at the time, until he found himself just like the rest of the press corps, staring slack-jawed at startling images from the planet projected larger than life on the briefing room’s two-story screen. Just thinking about that moment made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Seven years, he thought. And still the best beat in the world.
Jameson’s reverie was broken as he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Striding across the dais and straight to the podium was General Barker himself, his cap pulled tight but not so far down that Jameson couldn’t discern his furrowed brow above his bushy, white eyebrows – furrows that never were a good sign.
Behind the general filed several other Leaguers, among them a lab-coated researcher carrying a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a pair of generic wool-suit types that Jameson didn’t recognize. But the last person to take the dais put Jameson on both feet again.
Major Cliff Boone strode into view, his jet-black hair cropped closely to his head, his full Rocket League uniform crisply fitted to his form and his trademark rakish grin bringing a smile to Jameson’s own face. When the major stopped to stand next to the last seat at the table and folded his arms across his chest, the reporter knew that Boone’s presence there was deliberate.
The Rocket League was about to tell the world that it was ready to take action today.
“Ah-hum.” Barker cleared his throat into the podium’s microphone, clipping the cacophony of conversation to a halt. “Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen,” the general said, “and we’ll get started. We certainly appreciate your joining us at this hour of the morning. Lights.”
The room’s overhead illumination dimmed at Barker’s command and was replaced with a softer glow from the main screen. Jameson fished into his coat and whipped out a palm-sized notepad, plucking a pencil from its spiral binding to scrawl notes. He angled his pad to catch some of the light from the screen and squinted in an attempt to read his jottings.
Someday, I’ll have to resort to a miner’s helmet so I can see what I’m doing, he joked to himself.
“At 0147 Greenwich Mean Time, Rocket League Earth Command Headquarters received a series of burst transmissions via interstellar signal transceiver from the FS-2 saucer Theseus during its search for the Olive Branch, which as you know was reported missing near Mars almost a week ago.” The general paused as a photograph of twisted metal girders and scorched hull plates filled the glowing screen. Jameson stopped writing long enough to gaze into the tangle of wreckage and debris frozen in space against a backdrop of gleaming stars. Had he not recognized the situation as a likely deadly one, he might have thought the photo dazzling to behold.
Barker continued, “This photograph was taken by the Theseus in proximity to the last known coordinates of the Olive Branch. For what it’s worth, this represents the largest portion of wreckage to be found in the area. Lights.” The image faded in intensity as the briefing room’s illumination returned to normal.
“The bursts were accompanied by a voice communication from Theseus commanding officer Major Max Armstrong,” Barker said, “a communication that was cut short by interference that the nature of which remains undetermined. Professor Deitering if you will assist us?”
Barker craned to look at the researcher, who activated the tape recorder. As Jameson watched its reels spin, he heard Major Armstrong’s static-laced voice issue from the device’s tinny speaker. “…three hostile spac…weapon we’ve never seen…destroy the Olive Branch…” The major’s voice was lost in a burst of static for several seconds before the harsh interruption faded. “Fire the thrusters…to try…” the words were consumed by static once more.
Then everyone in the room all but jumped from their seats as a horrific scream pierced the room, only to be drowned out by what Jameson thought sounded like a cacophonous thunderclap, which was just as quickly replaced by an odd, wavering sound. It was unlike any space transmission he had heard before, something…not of this world.
Barker’s voice boomed throughout the room. “Now, Professor Deitering has augmented this communication to amplify and repeat the final moments of contact with the Theseus. I want you to listen closely, as it’s the only clue we have so far to what happened out there. Professor?”
For a second time in as many moments, Jameson felt goose bumps rise on his arms. As soon as Deitering re-started the tape recorder, there it was; the same eerie wailing he thought he had discerned for himself. Amplified and repeated, it rang in his ears worse than Armstrong’s death throes.
Deitering adjusted the tape recorder’s volume just enough so that he could speak over it. “This sine wave we’re hearing has been modulated in such as way that we theorize it could be capable of great destruction. Certainly, it could shake a spacecraft’s hull plating away from its frame…but not before liquefying any poor souls unfortunate enough to be inside.”
Jameson’s eyes widened as the professor switched the sound off. A weapon capable of destroying a Rocket League ship – and vibrating its crew into puddles of goo – in an instant? The prospect of such power in the hands of an otherworldly race was enough to chill the reporter’s blood, but then he looked up and into the eyes of Major Boone, his jaw set in steely resolve. Jameson calmed a little and continuing jotting his notes, knowing that the investigation of this incident was in capable hands.
Barker spoke again from the podium. “That’s all the information we have at this time. However, know that as we speak, the Rocket League is preparing an expeditionary force equipped with the latest equipment at our disposal to get to the bottom of this situation and rep….”
“This situation, General,” said another voice, interrupting Barker, “would not even be an issue had the Wickerman Foundation kept the Olive Branch on the ground as you suggested!”
Jameson recognized the interrupting voice immediately and scanned the crowd for the source of the outburst. There he is, Jameson thought as his eyes settled on his professional rival. Ol’ reliable Bennett. Someday they’ll give this guy the bum’s rush outta one of these things.
“The readers of the Global Tattler demand to know,” said Bennett as he raised his arm to point at Barker, “just what the Rocket League is doing to prevent the Wickerman Foundation from inciting interplanetary war?”
The room erupted in a flurry of questions as Barker raised his palms at the din. “Calm yourselves! The issue here is not about whether the Rocket League is at odds with private interests over the exploration of space,” Barker said. “We’re trying to find out just what’s out there making space deadly for all of us!”
His words barely finished, a dark-suited man that Jameson did not recognize stood up from the crowd not far from Jameson. “You’re right, General,” the man said in a measured British accent. “Safety is the primary concern here. It’s a concern that obviously escaped the Rocket League until now – and we’re all paying the ultimate price for that failure!”
Wow, Jameson thought as he stopped writing to watch the man speak, somebody is really not happy today.
“Nigel Smythe-Spottiswood of the Wickerman Foundation,” the man said by way of introduction, “and we hold the League directly responsible for the loss of the Olive Branch and Harrison Wickerman himself!”
Jameson sensed the attentions of everyone in the room turned toward the man, whose voice rose in volume. “It is obvious that you are well aware of the threats waiting for us in that area of space, yet you have deliberately kept that information from the public purview. Our foundation demands – I demand – that the Rocket League put everything on the table right here and now!”
More rumblings rose from the press corps and Jameson smirked a bit, tucking his pencil into his notebook. There was no way that Barker or anyone else would just roll over to some finger pointing from the Wickerman Foundation. If anything, Jameson’s news sense was tickled more by this Smythe-Spottiswood’s outburst itself than by his accusations of a Rocket League cover-up.
This is more of a smoke screen than any smack to the League’s credibilityy, Jameson thought. And I’ve got a feeling that at this rate, this press conference is thirty seconds away from being over.
“Please, Mister…um…sir,” Barker started. “This is hardly the time for threats of conspiracy or secrecy. The Rocket League….”
“The Rocket League must be held accountable for its actions!” Smythe-Spottiswood’s voice surged to its loudest level yet, and accompanying questions from the other reporters – more of them to Smythe-Spottiswood himself than the Rocket League panel – and Jameson knew that there was nothing more he would gain from hanging around.
He slipped out of the conference room, nodded amiably to a pair of Leaguers outside the door and headed for the pressroom to make a call to his editor. As he walked down the empty hallway, his footfalls echoing off of the tile floor, his mind buzzed through the likely preparations that the Rocket League was making for the mission at this very moment.
Waitaminnit, Jameson thought. If my betting money for the Rocket League were on the line, I’d put it all on one horse….
The reporter picked up his pace and made his way down a stairwell to the underground shuttle system that interconnected the Rocket League command center. Walking across the small station to a readily available shuttle car, he stepped inside and gripped a handle next to a control panel with several columns of buttons by the door. He punched the one corresponding to Space Launch Hangar B and steadied himself as the car’s doors folded closed and the car sped almost soundlessly through the tunnel.
Band after band of light swept past him, Jameson’s only visual means of gauging the distance he traveled, until the car slowed and pulled into a shuttle station much larger than the one he had left behind a few moments ago. As soon as the car’s doors unfolded, his eyes and ears were filled with the buzzing of a Rocket League prep team on full alert. Jameson stepped from the shuttle car into Space Launch Hangar B, a huge domed structure more than a dozen stories high at its apex capable of completely encapsulating one of the Rocket League’s crowning achievements in spaceflight: An RS-3.
He stepped forward slowly, as if magnetically drawn to the gleaming tower before him, his eyes following the center seam of the retractable dome to the tip of the rocket ship. Grabbing his notepad, Jameson jotted down every thought that crossed his mind as he beheld the rocket ship for the first time.
Bright lights gleaming off its silvery hull … sweeping wing lines … multi-engine spread for swift maneuvering … more laser cannons than any other League ship … massive atomic engine nozzles ready to belch flame and power ….
Finally, his eyes settled to the hanger deck and darted among the jumpsuit-clad personnel responding to orders bleated from bullhorn speakers all about the hangar. The workers zipped to and from the ship with various crates, pressure tanks and boxes of supplies and equipment. He caught sight of a pair of workers slowly walking toward the RS-3’s gangway ramp alongside a tread-footed, man-sized hunk of metal. With the machine’s configuration of concentric ray-rifle discs on its right arm and a three-digit manipulating hand on its left, it could only be the Rocket League’s newly commissioned Security Robot.
“Just look at that,” Jameson muttered aloud to himself. “I thought that thing was still in the planning stage.”
“That’s the prototype, fully functional,” came a deep-basso voice from behind him. Jameson spun, instantly recognizing the words as coming from Major Cliff Boone, and he saw the smiling Rocket Leaguer approach him. “I guess they trust me with all of the new gizmos, eh, Scoop?”
“Major, sir!” Jameson put a bit more energy into his greeting in the hope of maintaining his professional veneer while standing within earshot of the surrounding personnel. Privately, he and Boone had become fast friends and respected colleagues over the years. For instance, the major knew that Jameson loathed the cliché nickname of “Scoop,” so the major used it every chance he got.
“I guess that they do,” Jameson replied. Jerking a thumb back at the RS-3, he added, “With those engines, I guess this sweetheart has gotta be as fast as they claim.”
“Maybe faster, Hank,” Boone said as he stood beside the reporter. “Once the Artemis here reaches open space, we’re going to find out the hard way.”
“Mm-hmm.” Jameson pressed his pencil to the notepad and made note of the space ship’s christened name. “So, what’s your gut tell you about that transmission from the Theseus, Major?”
“Off the record?”
“No such thing, sir.” Jameson paused to grin, then noticed that Boone did not waiver from his question. The reporter nodded in resignation as he tucked his pencil and pad into his coat pocket. “Well, then I’ll tell you what I think. I think that if you scan enough noise, static or feedback or whatever, and you do it over and over and over, you’ll start hearing a signal pattern – whether it’s really there or not. I mean, come on, people see ducks and horses in cloud formations and portraits of presidents on grilled-cheese sandwiches!”
Boone nodded silently for a moment, and then spoke in a low voice. “Could be a completely natural phenomenon. Could be something doesn’t want us out there. Doesn’t make a difference to me, Hank. Bottom line is that I want to know what’s happening to our ships. I want to know for Armstrong, for the League, for the people of Earth, and I’m going to find out.”
Jameson felt himself steady a bit on hearing Boone’s words. The fact of the matter was that regardless of their friendship, the reporter knew that he stood in the presence of a true-blue hero. If any man or woman on Earth could get to the bottom of this mystery in space, it was Major Cliff Boone.
“Best of luck to you, Cliff,” Jameson said, extending a hand and having it met in a firm shake. “I’ll be right here to tell the world how you do.”
“Well, Scoop, that’s where we run into a bit of a jam,” Boone said, his serious tone undercut just a bit by a hint of a smile.
“Oh, that’s just swell, Major,” Jameson started to rile a bit at the implication brewing in his mind. “I know this is a restricted area, but you catching me here is hardly grounds from getting tossed off of this story.”
Boone’s face went serious again. “Oh, you can be here if you want, sure,” he said. “My problem is that General Barker has ordered me to take a reporter along on this mission. Something about reassuring the public about the Rocket League’s open operations policies or some sort of thing. For this one, you’ll have to get your feeds directly from the newshound aboard ship rather than me.”
“What!” Jameson’s shout nearly was loud enough to echo off of the space hangar’s domed enclosure. “Who the heck pulled that plum of a story? I can’t believe that he’d … that you’d…” As Jameson felt his face redden, Boone’s own features cracked and he let out a good-natured laugh. “Hey, waitaminnit … this is at command discretion, isn’t it?”
“Well, rank does have its privileges.”
“And you’re taking…?”
Boone clapped a broad hand on Jameson’s shoulder and nudged him forward to the waiting Artemis. “I’m taking someone I can trust to tell an objective story regardless of his personal connections to the crew and his personal support of the Rocket League. I’m taking someone who can keep his yap shut about this deal even to his editor until we’re en route. I’m taking someone who has to be ready and I mean now,” Boone said. “Know anyone who fits that bill, Scoop?”
Jameson barely felt his feet touching the hanger deck as they moved closer to the gleaming RS-3. After seven years with the Amalgamated Press, this was the first time he had been tapped for an actual mission, let alone one of this magnitude, and his skin prickled at the very prospect of it all.
He was going into space with the Rocket League.
“Gosh, Major, someone who fits the bill?” Jameson said and smiled. “No one really comes to mind.”
Who is this mysterious new enemy? What threat does it pose to the people of Earth?
Can it be stopped?
The men and women of Rocket League need brave new cadets – like you!