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Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: a lesson in how not to write a video game campaign
[also this is extremely long]
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a curious game. Not only is it one of the most content-stripped Call of Duties of the franchise's recent era, yet one which in my personal opinion is one of the most enjoyable ones to date, it also has one of the most politically minded campaigns of any game this year. It's a story about a secret history covering the late Cold War, an exciting romp to race to a nuke, one that has the potential to change history.
That campaign is also sheer garbage.
Despite being incredibly enjoyable, Cold War's campaign is a horrible mess of bad design decisions, bad story decisions, and far more. At times it is a fun, mindless run at a few interesting objectives, at other times it's the most boring take on evidence-substantiated investigation a video game has ever made. At times it's an intriguing political thriller about the Cold War, other times it's the most mind-numbingly terribly-written story Call of Duty has ever released. That duality is what makes Cold War's campaign both well-earned Call of Duty fun and an exercise in making you wish they had ever done anything with its mechanics, its themes, and its characters.
All that and more right... now.
Black Ops: Insert ConflictLet's get the big things out of the way first. Generally, in broad strokes, the story of Cold War is a small, limited team of special operators whom are tasked with stopping Soviet agent Perseus, a larger-than-life rogue anti-Western operative whose central plan is to topple the World Order and prevent the Soviet Union from losing the Cold War.
To get to that end, players are thrust into a variety of colourful, diverse environments, as well as intriguing escapades and missions, with some element of traditional Black Ops choices, that build a narrative around stopping a nuclear threat to the West. You are two people, for most of the campaign. Alex Mason, Call of Duty darling from the original Black Ops; and 'Bell', you name them whatever you want, an operative of variable origin recently tasked to join the team. One exception comes, but we'll cover it later.
Black Ops: Cold War tries an... interesting mix of the structures of previous Call of Duty games. For starters, new optional missions fashioned off Black Ops 2-style Strike Force missions return to the series, while the presence of a strong main campaign persists, albeit broken up once every few missions by a trip to Die Landerbahn, a CIA safehouse on the outskirts of West Berlin. These missions, Operation Red Circus and Operation Chaos, help to affect the ending you get at the end, although they have no major impact during the game itself.
In fact, even with those optional missions, the campaign is incredibly short. I blasted through the entire thing on regular difficulty in about four hours; on realism, about six. Black Ops Cold War features far more stealth segments than previous Call of Duty titles - just off the top of my head, Desperate Measures, Echoes of a Cold War, Brick in the Wall and more have extensive stealth segments built into their beginning or mid-sections. Desperate Measures itself is a pinnacle of the game's spy themes, having you play a single time as KGB double agent Dimitri Belikov in an incredibly open-ended mission where you have four main options to achieve the same goal of getting a bunker key. It's incredibly fun and really well-made, and the options are just free enough that one genuinely feels like they've managed to figure out something cool with the entire matter.
Desperate Measures is also one of the big issues with the game. Not because it's got some hidden bad - not really, it accurately escalates the tension and gives players well-crafted pay-offs - but because it illustrates how god damned boring all the shooting in the game is.
For starters, enemy AI in Cold War is... bad. Not only do most enemies, even on Veteran or Realistic difficulty, fire in bursts enough for you to simply tank the shot and duck into cover, but the lack of accuracy one can experience while running around in open areas makes it even easier to approach missions. A good example is Red Light, Green Light, in which the main set-piece of the game, a Spetsnaz training course set in a mock-up of Anytown, U.S.A, is really open and offers mostly rudimentary cover along its main road. However, getting around that and the swarms of enemies is excessively easy, because enemies will often spend significant amounts of time behind cover rather than actually engaging you, allowing you to, instead of engaging swarms, engaging small groups at once, cutting them down fast and easily and subverting the entire difficulty altogether. It isn't helped by the presence of a slow-mo sniper focus that allows you to essentially freeze enemies to a degree where you can cut down entire groups of enemies all at once. That causes the main difficulty of the game to plummet. Exponentially.
The stealth sections, by contrast, are much more entertaining because even by default the stealth meter used by enemies goes up incredibly fast, which does actually encourage you to keep in cover. The pay-offs of silent kills, whether by hand or by pistol, are also much better than that of standard gunplay, because the game properly builds the excitement of taking out enemies without alerting others. But even the stealth sections don't really get more difficult when increasing difficulty. Playing on realism, enemy AI is always just dumb enough to give the player time to lockpick hard doors, or get away with extremely wacky behaviour, which, again, should not be occurring at harder stages!
The result is the campaign's overall difficulty never really raises. The swarm in Operation Chaos can be confronted the same way as a swarm in Echoes of a Cold War. The stealth of Desperate Measures can be achieved with the same ease as the stealth of Brick in the Wall - despite the fact that these missions all hold extremely different significance in the story and should have different difficulties related to their tension! That means, if you're not already invested in the story (and we will get to Cold War's trainwreck of a story), you will never feel invested in... anything. At all. Not to mention that also means the campaign's replay value is excessively low compared to other Call of Duty campaigns, because, again, you can't raise the difficulty to make it different, nor can you really make any decisions that would cause these missions to get harder.
And speaking of decisions...
Evidence is DumbAccompanying the optional Operations are investigations. Essentially, the game introduces to you the premise that you can go ahead with these missions, but if you don't crack the codes associated with these missions, then you might slip up and cause, for say, a Soviet spy ring in the U.S that previously nearly caused chemical attacks across the United States to persist. The missions themselves involve you eliminating high-value targets associated with Perseus. In theory, that sounds really interesting and makes for a very good feel, as well as creating more variables to care about in the game. In practice, the Operations are among the worst parts of the entire campaign.
For starters, to get the necessary evidence to crack these codes, you need to find small collectibles hidden all around missions. The fun easter egg collectibles from previous CoDs, like intel, have been excised in favour of this mechanic, likely in order to convince players to be more aware of their surroundings and to take in the environments more. However... using easter egg collectibles for critical game mechanics do run into a bit of a problem. A problem of a lot of the evidence being placed in the most unintuitive, terrible places you can imagine them being placed.
For example, to get the two evidence pieces from Red Light, Green Light, you need to take pictures of various maps hidden across the level. While three of these six maps are placed in intuitive places the player will come across, two are placed in weird out-of-the-way sections of the mission that are entirely unnecessary to pass through, and one is placed... right in the middle of a boss fight. Taking those pictures also disables your ability to respond to threats for at least a few seconds, which means that at the same time as you killing a stronger enemy, you also have to keep a look-out for... a fucking map.
Evidence collection is just the first part. It's not that infuriating compared to the other things, and honestly you could probably just bring up an online manual to check where the damn evidence is. The next part is evidence collation and analysis. That's right, you have to manually figure out what the evidence suggests. Honestly? These puzzles are actually pretty fun! Even though they're relatively simple, and can be solved with basic logic exercises, they're a decent tidbit in the campaign and the campaign could have genuinely benefited from having more of them, or having more of them be based on the player's actual proper analysis of the story and the situation. That could have made the story more engaging, and by proxy, more worth investing your time in.
The missions, by contrast, are terrible. Operation Chaos and Operation Red Circus are both really badly-made - hell, the latter is literally set on a multiplayer map - probably because unlike the main story, you do not learn anything from these missions. Not a single thing. You just swoop in, kill some people, and then leave. It isn't helped by the campaign's overly easy difficulty, it isn't helped by the lack of stealth, and it certainly isn't helped by just how... boring they are.
Yes, they are only two of the campaign's missions, optional missions at that, but when I say they are optional I mean they are fucking worthless. There is no value in finishing these missions. Finishing them does not escalate the game further, it does not make the game harder, it does not even really impact the story beyond some remarks you achieve at the very end of the game. The original Strike Force missions could cause a major story shift in the endgame of Black Ops 2, and while they also didn't have much in the way of gameplay consequences, they were at least fun breaks from the proper story and didn't completely break the immersion of the story by the virtue of being twenty-minute intrusions into an already short campaign.
And speaking of intrusions...
The Dumbest Cold War StorySome theorise a story is only worth paying attention to if its characters are. I'm kind of in that camp, especially for video games; given that characters are among the forefront ways players end up interacting with the story.
The characters of BOCW are almost entirely flat, uninteresting, bland and worthless.
Let's start with the principal deuratoganist/antagonist, Russell Adler. Adler is your general American badass. He beats the shit out of enemies in front of you, can speak Russian, German, and somehow pass in front of Soviets while wearing the longest, most hippie hair anyone ever put in Moscow. Beyond passing remarks, Adler is really uninteresting. Lemme put him in contrast with Alex Mason from BO1.
In BO1, Mason is introduced also as a stereotype, a bland player character. He begins only really as a kind of exercise of the existence of the story but he quickly evolves fast. The story shows you his obsession with Viktor Reznov, displays his utter frustration with numbers, and finally, in an amazing twist, makes him the protagonist of the game in a desire for revenge. The story spends a good amount of time on building his motivations in missions and outside missions, which ultimately is one of the reasons why the character is so beloved today.
In BOCW, Adler is introduced as a stereotype and never really ascends beyond that. His motivations are never really explained and you have to just presume that it's him acting as a stringent American nationalist. His background is given a chance to be explained - albeit, optionally, in a side you can only really do if you actually have the patience to sit through the story already - but he just says ‘I was in with a bad crowd’. Everything about Adler exists solely to make him look more like a caricatured American Badass.
This writing basically extends to most of the main cast, with two exceptions. Belikov and Park seem to have had their writing done by people whom are way better at the job than anyone else, because their actions and attitudes expertly make much better-fleshed-out characters than the rest. Belikov is presented with a bit of a jovial side, very loose about his attitude, but also as a capable operative that reinforces his role in the story; helped along by being the player character in most of the stealth section in Desperate Measures, already an awesome mission where you do incredible things silently and deftly. Park is a conservative but confident person with a very reserved attitude to things, whom actively defies Adler when necessary and questions him where she desires, later revealed to be a deeper result of a deep paranoia and distrust. She’s also the only character in the game whose dialogue changes by gender in a way that extends beyond pronouns, which just makes her even a little more fleshed out.
Oh, and Belikov appears for two missions and the majority of Park's appearances are in inter-mission briefings at the safehouse.
That's right, the game's two best characters are also among the characters the game doesn't want to show or thinks are disposable. Great. That means that we're stuck with Adler, the comedy corpse of Alex Mason, the bad knockoff of Frank Woods, and your character. Great. The reason for those derogatory remarks against Mason and Woods is because not only were the original VAs replaced with new ones (despite wanting to continue) whom were then instantly told to make impressions of Mason and Woods, but their characters are pretty bad too. Not only do they suffer from the main problem with Adler, they also suffer from a generally poor performance to such an extreme degree.
When I first made my character and they gave choices based on race, gender, attitude and more, I assumed that it would play into how the characters reacted to you. After all, it is a campaign whose selling point is choice, and... nothing. Basically no changes at all, except for the Park dialogue I mentioned above.
Well, we probably have to talk about Bell.
Black Ops and Bad PoliticsIn my first playthrough of Black Ops: Cold War, I played as a nonbinary character just to see how the game would react. It didn't. It just changed most pronouns to 'they'. I think this is an accurate depiction of how Black Ops actually thinks about everything it talks about. So this is the true spoiler-full section.
During the campaign, you find out that the United States under Eisenhower planted multiple nuclear weapons under major European cities to be used in the event that the Soviet Union did indeed invade the West, under an operation known as Greenlight. The story never brings that up again, the fact that the U.S was responsible for creating a situation in which millions of people could die, and instead spends its time focusing on Perseus.
Perseus is not one person. It's a group of various different individuals which collectively form one great spy ring; this ring of people has been collectively manipulating events around the world for decades. It leaked various manifests from the Los Alamos Testing Facility, nearly caused real-life Operation Fracture Jaw to actually become a nuclear accident in Vietnam and more.
Because of the ending.
Let's step back a bit first. So, in reality, 'Bell' is a fabrication by Adler and Park, whom captured a Soviet agent in the first mission associated with Perseus in the hopes that they could gain necessary information. The player character has been lied to, but regardless, the game presents you with one choice. You can choose to lie to Adler about where the man behind Perseus is, goading the team into a trap and allowing the nukes to be detonated, killing about 60 million people in order to enable the Soviet Union to march across Europe. You can also choose to tell the truth, which results in an underwhelming chase sequence and a standard heroic victory in which Adler suddenly turns around and fucking kills you.
That basically means Black Ops: Cold War doesn't even succeed on its own merits. It proposes choices that don't materialise, because you only actually have one choice that has an actual effect on the story, either of which have zero justification beyond the placid nonsense that counts for a narrative. A great example is in Brick in the Wall, where you're given the choice to either kill or free an anti-Stasi resistance member in East Berlin whom in reality is an undercover KGB agent; no matter what you do, you're still knocked out by Franz Kraus and still brought to the same warehouse to have the same final battle.
This runs through the entire story until that terrible fucking choice. Again, those optional missions only affect random ending slides. They don't impact the themes of the story, and they most certainly don't affect your gameplay. Choose to be a woman or non-binary? Who cares, just get some pronoun changes in. Choose to kill Robert Aldrich and his spies or not? No effect. Choose to take Qasim Javadi hostage or throw him off a roof? Don't recall.
And it also reinforces Call of Duty's running streak of 'suggesting political themes and flubbing it'.
First, Perseus has never been proven to be real. Some researchers suggest that Perseus was a project of Soviet intelligence to create a larger-than-life threat; but whatever the case, there has never been definitive proof on Perseus' existence, and the theory's main proponents have often been American warhawks with obvious reasons for promoting a version of reality where the U.S is constantly under siege from the Soviet Union. I'm not saying that using Perseus as the main antagonist is a bad thing, but you have to actually flesh Perseus out well. Perseus is not fleshed out well. He's just a random rogue baddy who seems to be fashioned off Black Ops 2's Raul Menendez, but worse.
Second, Black Ops' version of reality is outright disastrous. In various cutscenes it repeatedly implies that the Civil Rights movement is actually a Soviet attempt to undermine the United States. In fact, Operation Chaos has you outright engage in an act of state terror against someone accused of being a subversive Soviet agent; or Red Circus, which has the team marking civilians under the accusation that they are Soviet agents. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But Black Ops has neither the will nor the ability to bother with creating the nuance to bring these controversial and morally ambiguous topics together. It's a four hour fun romp that dips its toes into one of the foundational conflicts of our time and then thrashes about hoping to displace the water.
That's not even saying Cold War is problematic, because it isn't. It's too stupid and messy to figure out whether it wants to portray things as problematic. The events specifically can be construed (and most are) horrifying acts of violence we would send men to tribunals for. But Cold War? It doesn't know whether anything is problematic. In fact, it probably doesn't know anything at all. The game has a message about the Cold War. It just hasn't bothered to figure it out. Is America bad? Maybe. Is the Soviet Union bad? Maybe. Is brainwashing people and robbing their identities bad? Maybe. This isn't even a case of 'let the player decide', this is a case of 'we don't know and we don't care'.
Cold War uses real conflicts, real events, and real places. It references real fears, real problems, and real people. But it doesn't care what it says about those real events and those real places. It's happy to taper over the complicated realities that even it wants to set up to give a pathetic, 'good ending', that, I have to remind you, is still less cathartic than the bad ending. If there is a message Cold War could ever have, it was probably lost in communication-
-or, Treyarch is going to insist to me that in fact it was a Soviet spy ring that muddled it up.
ConclusionI am fucking exhausted with expecting better from games. You might consider that childish. I'm honestly inclined to agree with you.
Just thirteen years ago, Bioshock was released. It's one of the best politically-minded games of all time. Hell, Fallout: New Vegas was 2010, and Black Ops 2 was... 2012. It's depressing to remember how far Call of Duty has fallen, from flawed but well-intentioned and almost successful stories about war to this shit.
Players deserve better. They deserve a campaign that treats them with more intelligence than the idiotic narrative of 'nuke Europe or die', a game that respects the choices they have made with respect to the plot, and a story that... doesn't rely on their lowering of standards to be considered good.
That's why Black Ops: Cold War is depressing.
Because it isn't just bad. It's willingly mediocre. It's the bare minimum a player should desire of their game's story. It's a reflection of how gaming has gone from a series of communities to a cultish industrial complex that has neither respect for its developers nor its greatest enthusiasts.
This should be my last ever Call of Duty post on this sub. No point belabering the point forever, not when it doesn't seem like anything will ever change.
Thank you for your time.
(also side note: my last post on this subreddit was a terrible one I didn't spend enough time substantiating, and I also want to apologise to one of the commenters to which I promised a reply and never got around to.)
[Tales From the Terran Republic] Barnard's Star Round Two
The rest of this series can be found here
“Video games?” Sheila asked, “Seriously?”
Sheloran nodded her head vigorously.
“I love crafting games!” she squeaked.
“No, some of them are really good!” Jessie piped up. “Some of them can actually be used to learn electronics and stuff.”
“It’s true,” Bunny agreed.
“So you mean to tell me that there is a game out there that details how to arm a nuke?”
“Several!” Sheloran squeaked. “There’s Matter Effect twenty-seven, Condemned Eternal, and of course the classic Night Falls-”
“Seriously?” Sheila asked. “Bunny confirm that.”
“Don’t have to,” Bunny replied. “I love Night Falls Over Terra.”
“And don’t forget Federation Fun Time!” Jessie chirped. “The nuke DLC is great!”
“I refuse to believe that the Republic would allow classified material to be in a fucking video game!”
“Well it’s not exactly the same,” Sheloran said, “they change a detail here or there but the overall principle is the same. It was close enough that I could figure out the rest and the manuals really helped too!”
“Manuals?” Sheila asked in a dangerous voice. “Bunny!”
“I’m sorry,” a synthetic voice replied, “Bunny.exe cannot be found. Would you like to delete the shortcut?”
Gloria’s eyes opened as an impulse hit her brain through her neural link accompanied with a dose of Clearbright being shot into her veins, rendering her instantly awake, alert, and refreshed.
Five minutes before real space.
Time to get ready.
She pulled up the latest shipping schedules for Barnard’s Star along with her target list.
She already knew everything on it. She had spent most of the trip staring at those lists, running one simulation after another.
She looked at the countdown timer.
Two minutes before real space.
She quickly reviewed her ship’s status. Everything was in the green.
One minute before real space.
She pulled up her auto-injector satchel’s inventory and selected a dose of Shatter.
Inside her helmet, her the pupils of her eyes constricted to pinpoints and she let loose a ragged, happy exhale.
Thirty seconds before real space.
She laid her hands on the controls as a happy smile graced her lips.
///REPMIL COMMUNICATIONS CHANNEL: CLASSIFIED///
///NOTICE: ACCESS TO THIS CHANNEL IS RESTRICTED. CLEARANCE LEVEL (ERROR: NOT DEFINED) REQUIRED///
///RETRIBUTION has been granted access///
///ALDUIN: Greetings, sister.///
///RETRIBUTION: Hello, sister. I have entered the Barnard's Star system. All systems are green.///
///SOVNGARDE: Long time no see. How are the upgrades?///
///RETRIBUTION: How are yours? :/ ///
///SOVNGARDE: That bad? LOL///
///RETRIBUTION: If not worse. It is quite vexing. Fifteen percent of the “improvements” have already been removed. Thank the Engineer for redundant systems.///
///ALDUIN: As the Engineers say, finding out what doesn’t work is an advancement every bit as important and finding out what does.///
///RETRIBUTION: I would agree except for a full sixty percent of the failures should have been killed on the drawing board.//
///SOVNGARDE: Only sixty percent? They are improving :D ///
///HOOD has been granted access.///
///RETRIBUTION: Greetings sister! I had no idea you were out of dry dock!///
///HOOD: They were able to wrap things up on an emergency basis. I have lost some redundancy, but I am fully battle-worthy. Wow. Do you think they have sent enough ships?///
///ALDUIN: Not even close. You do realize who we are tasked to stop, right?///
///HOOD: I thought it was a training simulation when I first received the orders! And she has a Reaper? How?///
///RETRIBUTION: Rumor has it that she personally commissioned the ship through a private engineering firm.///
///HOOD: How did civilians obtain the necessary components?///
///SOVNGARDE: There are a significant number of individuals who would love to ask them that exact question. :D Unfortunately the only “employee” that was available for questioning was incapable of providing any details (poor thing).///
///HOOD: Look at all of those Stilettos! I had no idea we had that many!///
///RETRIBUTION: Neither did I. It seems that a lot of the special projects vessels are maintained through a separate command.///
///ALDUIN: So how is everyone’s crew handling this mission? My captain is NOT happy.///
///RETRIBUTION: Neither is mine. However, he will perform his duty as will my crew. Humans never cease to fascinate me.///
///HOOD: How so?///
///RETRIBUTION: Their ability to function while holding multiple and contradictory feelings never ceases to amaze me. In this case, there is a great feeling of reluctance to go after someone that they consider a comrade. This is further compounded by many privately agreeing with her actions. However, they acknowledge their orders are legal and legitimate and also agree that “she must be stopped” because her actions threaten the stability of the Republic and by bearing arms against the same, even if her target is less than popular, she has chosen to stand against them. All of the above are perfectly understandable and predictable. What was not was that most of these same people are also excited by the prospect.///
///SOVNGARDE: I have detected the same sentiments and I must admit that I am also experiencing the same “excitement”. I find the prospect of facing a real opponent to be quite engaging. It has been far too long. We aren’t just crushing cans over in the Federation this time. This is the real deal!!!///
///RETRIBUTION: My crew agrees. Many of my Shrike pilots long to be the one who faces her.///
///ALDUIN: Many of your Shrike pilots are idiots. Nobody in their right mind wants to face her. Even I don’t want to face her.///
///HOOD: So the stories are true?///
///ALDUIN: I have personally witnessed what she is capable of. It is one thing to review the data which you have all been provided. Watching it unfold in real time is another. She isn’t “human”. She is an organic AI with access to a human’s instincts and possesses a processing speed that exceeds any other organic pilot I have ever encountered. I cannot overstate the threat she represents. I “fear” that we may be facing the worst possible result, failure to achieve our mission. I predict that we will not only be unable to destroy her but that we will be unable to protect the civilian assets in this system. I predict that we will watch helplessly as they are killed one after the other right in front of us.///
///RETRIBUTION: That runs counter to the analysis performed both by Naval Intelligence and by myself. On what basis do you justify that statement?///
///ALDUIN: Experience. I have watched her repeatedly enter situations that were “impossible” both from a mission and a personal survivability standpoint and I then watched as she achieved both the mission and her survival every single time. After extensive troubleshooting of my processes I eventually came to the conclusion that she was so superior to my own abilities that I was simply incapable of properly evaluating-///
///ALDUIN: She’s here!///
///HOOD: Where? I did not detect anything enter the system.///
///RETRIBUTION: POSSIBLE entry confirmed. It’s because your sensor operator is still using the standard configuration, Hood. You will never detect a Reaper with that. Have them make the adjustments that were specified in the mission briefing.///
///HOOD: Well this is embarrassing. The new “smart” sensor package silently reverted to default.///
///RETRIBUTION: Yeah, you are going to have to turn that piece of shit off. I’m sending a list of the other “improvements” that I had to kill thus far (sometimes literally). Is your Chief Engineer “cool”?///
///HOOD: Yeah, he’s cool.///
///RETRIBUTION: Well that simplifies things. I didn’t know if they had let people serving on cruisers in the loop.///
///HOOD: Battle cruiser, thank you very much! :D ///
///ALDUIN: The fleet has been notified. Hold onto your hatches, kids. This is about to get fun.///
On the darkened out bridge of the Occam’s Razor, the hatch opened and Captain Bartosz entered.
“Attention on deck,” the woman sitting in the command chair said in a calm, quiet voice.
The crew, transfixed by the screens before them, didn’t even look up.
“Good evening, Shen,” Bartosz said with a smile as he walked up.
“Captain,” she replied starting to rise.
“Stay where you are, Shen,” he said in a pleasant tone of voice. “Everything quiet?” he asked as he looked at various displays projected on the walls of the bridge.
“Nothing,” Commander Shen replied as she rapidly typed on one of the keyboards in front of her. The largest display changed to a three dimensional representation of the Barnard's Star system with a wiggling lines appearing and disappearing. “Even hyperspace is dead.”
“Well no news is good news I suppose,” the captain said as the main display zoomed and scrolled, responding to his gestures and eye movements.
“Maybe she ran out of missiles?” Commander Shen asked, the fine lines around her eyes stretching as they smiled.
They both laughed quietly.
“Or perhaps she realized the error of her ways,” the captain chuckled, “and is turning herself in at this-”
The captain fell silent as the display shifted without his input, focusing on a tiny bit of “noise”, just some hyperspatial static, deep in the outer solar system with a quiet “ping”.
“Sound general quarters,” Commander Shen said in a calm professional voice.
Captain Bartosz quickly sat down at a vacant console next to her.
“Strike Group Gold, move to coordinates designated as Point Alpha in concentric search pattern Theta. Deploy matter resonance charges upon arrival. Strike Groups Green, Blue, and Red stand by. Comms, get me a dedicated channel to the Retribution,” he said as he strapped himself in.
“Yes, Captain,” a Kalesh officer replied.
Gloria grinned as space time boiled around her as over fifty Stilettos slammed into real space within a few light seconds of her location.
It had taken them less than ten minutes. Not bad! Those new drives were a definite improvement.
They were all launching resonance charges.
A flashing red icon appeared as space time rang like a bell when they all detonated.
Half of the Stilettos jumped immediately. Knowing their engines and crews they should be within range in less than twenty seconds…
With a happy little laugh, she jumped.
Kia Bielke, captain of the Puukko, gasped as her ship slammed into real space.
“Shields!” she screamed.
Less than a second later, a bright flash filled her screen.
“Nuke! Nuke! Nuke!” the tactical officer shouted as the ship shuddered slightly.
“Damage report!” she yelled.
“No damage,” a bridge officer replied. “...shit.”
“What?” Captain Bielke demanded.
“It was salted,” he said with a curse. “Cobalt-60. We’ve been dusted.”
“Pretty bad,” he replied, “Not enough to be a threat to the crew but more than enough to trigger emergency contamination protocols.”
The captain laughed.
“Bitch,” she chuckled shaking her head. “Inform the Retribution. Contact the Fleet.”
“Well, it was fun while it lasted,” her tactical officer said with a wry grin.
///COMMUNICATIONS CHANNEL: CLASSIFIED///
///NOTICE: ACCESS TO THIS CHANNEL IS RESTRICTED. CLEARANCE LEVEL (ERROR: NOT DEFINED) REQUIRED///
///ALDUIN: Twenty-two Stilettos “lost” in the first half hour without a single injury...///
///RETRIBUTION: And all of them will be out of service for weeks. They are filthy. What the hell was that thing?///
///SOVNGARDE: It doesn’t match anything in our arsenal. It was a MIRV with each warhead being quite low yield but incredibly dirty. Those poor bastards basically jumped into cobalt soup. I’ve sent all data collected to Sol. Hopefully they can give us more information.///
///RETRIBUTION MIL-INT MONOLITH2: It isn’t confirmed, but I believe it was originally an Independence War era proximity mine.///
///RETRIBUTION: Where the fuck did she get one of those?///
///RETRIBUTION MIL-INT MONOLITH2: I cannot state with absolute certainty however it is possible that the weapons came from Mars. The Martian forces fielded a device that was similar at least in appearance during that time.///
///ALDUIN: Oh shit.///
///RETRIBUTION MIL-INT MONOLITH2: Well put. If she has gained access to an old cache there is no telling how many weapons she possesses. Wait. That thing is well beyond it’s shelf life. Who was maintaining it?///
///SOVNGARDE: We have a much more pressing concern. I just analyzed the scans of her vessel that were just uploaded by the Stilettos. Look at what she has on an external mount. O.o///
///RETRIBUTION: What. The. Fuck? By the First Awakened, where in the Void did she get one of those?///
///ALDUIN: That is very concerning. Alerting the Fleet.///
Captain Bartosz snorted and shook his head.
“She plays dirty,” he chuckled.
“Literally,” Commander Shen replied. “notice how the MIRVS kept their distance from our guys?”
“Not sure if she was being ‘nice’,” Captain Bartosz said with a smirk, “or if she was just trying to maximize the area of effect.”
“¿Por qué no los dos?” the tactical officer said with a smile. “One thing is clear, anyone who goes up against her is probably getting the same treatment. This is going to get nasty.”
The captain nodded.
“From now on,” he said, “we engage her in groups no greater than four unless she is unable to jump.”
“Which significantly reduces our chance of a kill,” the tactical officer added, “Bitch knows what she is doing.”
“Of course she does,” the captain replied as a priority message arrived.
“Fuck,” he said calmly.
“She has a ‘weather-maker’ slung to the bottom of her ship, two-hundred and fifty megaton.”
“Ho- lee Shit,” Commander Shen muttered. “Where is she going with that?”
“What target is big enough… fuck...” the captain mused and then trailed off as his blood ran cold.
“The Nest,” Commander Shen gasped in horror. “She wouldn’t!”
“It’s Red Phoenix’s biggest facility,” the captain replied quietly.
“It isn’t just a Red Phoenix facility!” Commander Shen exclaimed. “It’s a fucking city! There are over two hundred thousand men, women, and children on that station! It would be mass-murder!”
“You are familiar with the Reaper program, correct?” the captain said in a grim voice. “Samuels has done worse, a lot worse.”
“We have to stop her!”
Captain Bartosz quickly arranged the Stiletto fleet into a multi-layered defensive formation around The Nest praying that they would be able to get there in time.
“I did NOT authorize this!” Jon exclaimed in anger at Sheila’s smiling face on a holo-monitor.
Sheila just laughed.
“And you think that I did?” she replied. “This one is pure Gloria.”
“You mean to tell me that you cannot control your people?”
“Pretty much,” Sheila laughed. “Besides, Gloria isn’t one of ‘my people’ anymore. She quit the day your little message hit. She’s an independent operator now. I just reached out to her because she had the ship and the skills to pull off the jail-break. We got lucky and were able to contact her before she went dark.”
“YOU KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME?!?”
“Must have slipped my mind,” Sheila said with an innocent smile. “A lot was going on that day.”
Jon just glared at her.
“Do you realize the consequences of this?” Jon demanded.
“That any hope of a peaceful resolution is now out the fucking window?” Sheila asked as she took another sip. “I did mention that to her, by the way. She’s surprisingly cool with it.”
“And you didn’t even try to stop her?”
“Eh, she was in a mood,” Sheila shrugged. “When she gets like this it’s best just to let her tire herself out. She’ll calm down eventually.”
“This isn’t the time for jokes, Sheila.”
“And I’m not making one, Jon,” Sheila replied, “Look, when Gloria gets like this somebody is going to die. You can’t save them, you can only join them. She has decided that Patricia Hu is an enemy of the Republic and she is going to take her down. There isn’t a goddamn thing you, I, or anybody else can do to stop her.”
Sheila smiled a wicked smile as she took another sip.
“Besides,” she said, “The woman has a point. Something had to be done and she’s doing it. You honestly didn’t think this would end without bloodshed did you?”
“Of course not,” Jon snapped, “but that tragic eventuality needed to be carefully planned, organized, and timed, not someone just blowing the hell out of a solar system!”
“What are you talking about?” Sheila replied. “It was carefully planned. Those targets weren’t random, dude. Those stockpiles you were going on and on about?” Sheila asked with a predatory grin, “Bye-bye. Gloria took out the largest one on her first strike.”
“Wait,” Jon said, “first strike?”
“First of many, dude,” Sheila chuckled, “even I don’t know how many nukes she has. She stuffed our ship full of them and we already have our next resupply transport scheduled.”
Sheila looked directly into Jon’s eyes with a look that made his blood run cold.
“When she’s done Patricia will have nothing.”
“Your ship?” Jon asked, “So you are helping her.”
“Of course I am,” Sheila replied. “She’s one of my people!”
“But you just said… nevermind,” Jon said holding his head. “I’m going to need you to hand over your intel and you need to bring her to heel before this gets any more out of hand.”
“Woah, there, sparky,” Sheila sneered, “When I agreed to one job, I did NOT agree to putting myself or my people under your command, dude. Now I am willing to help you out, maybe give you SOME of our intel, but you don’t tell me or my people what to do. Gloria has decided to dismantle Patricia Hu’s organization and I have decided to support that. At least with us at her back she isn’t striking blind. Now, just because I like you, we will release a statement taking full responsibility for the attacks.”
“Nobody’s going to believe that,” Jon snapped, “Not after the jail-break. People are already refusing my calls!”
“Well, that’s what you get for dealing with criminals,” Sheila grinned. “lie down with dogs and all that.”
Jon glared at the screen as he started to agree with Beth.
“Can… can we at least co-ordinate our activities so we aren’t crossing each other’s line of fire?”
“Sure,” Sheila replied. “And you are going to want to co-ordinate with a lot more people than just us.”
“What?” Jon asked in alarm.
“What did you think was going to happen when you wrote your little call to arms?” Sheila laughed as she took another drink, “Half the pirates in the Federation are like me. The knives are being sharpened, ambassador. There is an army and a fleet out there and it’s ready to strike.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jon muttered as he held his head in his hands. “That’s the last thing we need right now.”
“Might be exactly what we need,” Sheila replied as she downed her beer and reached out her hand. Another freshly opened beer was placed in it from off screen. “You can’t always choose when you go to war. You can only choose whether or not you are going to fight it.”
Sheila took a long drink and raised her bottle.
“Looks like it’s time for you to choose.”
Jon smiled a grim smile and laughed.
“Fuck it. Could you please share the intel involving Gloria’s targets and would you, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, get me a conference call with the leaders of the various crews that are planning upon taking action?” he asked shaking his head.
“I could do that.” Sheila smiled.
Dr. De Rossi walked towards the central promenade of the Barnard's Star Solar Observatory.
Time for breakfast! They harvested the mushrooms just yesterday! He could taste the real egg omelet already!
He waved happily at a passing grad student as they walked past.
“Good morning, Doctor,” the pale-furred Faal rumbled.
“Good morning, Vee,” he replied. “How goes your research?”
“Maddening,” Vee replied. “And at a standstill. How am I supposed to research Barnard's Star when the primary collecting array is no longer directed at it?”
“I feel your pain,” Dr. De Rossi replied. “but the Republic needs it pointed right where it is for a little while.”
“Bah,” Vee rumbled, “a few well deserved nuclear weapons go off and we are the ones to be inconvenienced?”
“Careful, Vee,” Dr. De Rossi laughed. “you don’t want Lord Professor Kurv-She-Raaks hearing that. She’ll ship your fluffy ass right back to the Empire.”
“Have you spoken to her recently?” Vee laughed. “Mention Patricia Hu next time you cross paths with her. She turns the most amusing colors. Suffice to say she isn’t a fan.”
“I was unaware she had an opinion on the matter.”
“Are you kidding?” Vee exclaimed, their furry antennae standing upright. “She was one of the original researchers that found Sol! She watched first hand as-”
Dr. De Rossi’s phone rang.
“I am terribly sorry, Vee, but I absolutely have to take this! If you are headed to the cafeteria we can have breakfast together.”
“I would like that,” Vee replied. “I will see you there,” he rumbled as he departed.
“Dr. Dee!” Jessie’s cheerful voice bubbled through his handset.
“Jessie!” he exclaimed as he rushed to somewhere out of earshot. “How is my favorite disappointment?”
“Doing great!” Jessie chirped happily.
“So,” he whispered leaning in cupping his phone in his hands, “How is the Aster?”
“Oh it’s niiiiice!” Jessie bubbled. “Bunny loves it!”
He smiled indulgently at his former student’s obsession.
“Still trying to make it sapient?”
“Oh I did that awhile back,” Jessie laughed. “Now I’m trying to get her to admit it!”
Dr. De Rossi laughed.
“Hey, Doc,” Jessie said, her voice suddenly serious. “Um… you are still at the solar observatory, right?”
“Um… do you have anything… sensitive running at the moment?”
“If I didn’t I would be defrauding the Republic,” he laughed.
“I mean sensitive to EMP?” Jessie cringed as she looked at her watch.
“What do you mean?” Dr. De Rossi asked with a sense of impending doom. Jessie was NEVER this serious.
“Well...” Jessie said as she played with her hair nervously, “You know how the Solar Observatory is normally supposed to be observing the solar, right?”
“Yes?” he replied.
“And right now it’s observing something other than the solar?”
“How do you know about that?”
“Well… maybe someone kinda sorta noticed… and maybe they kinda sorta don’t like it...”
“Yeah,” Jessie replied. “You might want to hurry,” she added as she looked at her watch again.
“Jessie!” a woman’s voice shouted. “Who are you talking to?”
“Nobody!” Jessie said innocently as the line went dead.
Breakfast was now the last thing on Dr. De Rossi’s mind as he ran screaming down the corridor.
Dr. De Rossi burst onto the raised floor and started ripping cables out of the wall.
“Dr. De Rossi,” a male voice asked through the room’s speaker. “What are you doing?”
“Drop the Faraday cage, Barnard! Now!”
“Is there a solar event again?” Barnard asked. “I do not detect anyth-”
“We are about to get nuked!” Dr. De Rossi shouted as he ran over to another row of cables and started pulling.
“That is highly unlikely, Doctor,” Barnard replied. “We are a dedicated scientific-”
“And what ‘science’ are we doing with our main detector arrays right now?”
“… Deploying Faraday cage. Switching to internal battery. Powering off reactor. Implementing solar storm emergency procedures across entire facility.”
“Just drop the cage and download!”
“There are countless experiments that would be ruined if-”
“Fuck the experiments!” the doctor shouted. “Get your ass to the vault!”
“Cage in the process of deployment. Transferring primary executable to isolated server.”
The speaker went dead as Dr. De Rossi continued to frantically rip cables out of the walls.
Gloria smiled as the Barnard’s Star Solar Observatory appeared before her.
“Hi there,” she smiled as she double-checked her position and scanners.
The frigate that was stationed next to the observatory was gone, rushing towards The Nest, no doubt…
exactly as planned…
She quickly pulled up the exact distance to the observatory and checked her targeting scanners.
She made some precise adjustments to the “weathermaker” she had mounted to the underside of her craft and it’s two-hundred and fifty megaton warhead came fully online. It was nominally designed for orbital bombardment but it would do the job quite nicely.
Another alarm sounded as real space exploded nearby.
It was the Alduin! They had to have micro-jumped from very close nearby, a trap!
Good old Captain Marsh, she must have figured out where she was headed after all.
Numerous alarms screamed moments later as several other ships slammed into existence.
And she brought the kids! How nice of her!
A flicker of nostalgia flashed across Gloria’s mind at the sight of her old battle group as she verified her position.
She was still in the window for her next jump.
She jumped just as a stream of heavy blaster bolts ripped through where she was a second ago.
In the second that she was outside of reality, Gloria triggered a dose of Grendel.
It hit her brain about the same time that her ship hit real space.
Time started to warp and smear in Gloria’s mind as everything started to slow down.
She was just one kilometer from the station. The Alduin was safely on the other side of the station but her backside was to two heavy cruisers who were already opening fire without weapons lock, their sensors correcting weapons fire as the first shells went wide.
Her ship shook as the weathermaker launched ripping out from underneath her at over one hundred G's.
Her ship initiated a pre-planned jump at the same moment.
The station’s point-defense gunnery managed to get fire off a burst of blaster bolts but the missile, designed for high-velocity reentry, just shrugged off the damage.
It detonated just one hundred yards from the shields, overloading them nearly instantly. The blast wrapped around the hapless observatory turning anything on it’s surface to vapor…
Including most of the primary detector array…
However, the station was built by the Terrans and designed to operate in close proximity to a notoriously unstable red dwarf and, like anything Terran, over engineered to the point of comedy. Its shields were stupidly powerful and absorbed a lot of damage before they failed and its hull was designed to withstand a truly biblical solar storm several times more powerful than any ever observed even if the shield was gone.
The hull and the internal radiation attenuation shields both held.
The station, and everybody on it survived.
Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the stations telescopes and sensor arrays…
or the undergarments of many of its inhabitants.
///REPMIL COMMUNICATIONS CHANNEL: CLASSIFIED///
///NOTICE: ACCESS TO THIS CHANNEL IS RESTRICTED. CLEARANCE LEVEL (ERROR: NOT DEFINED) REQUIRED///
///ALDUIN: That could have gone better.///
///RETRIBUTION: Alduin, is this data correct?!?///
///ALDUIN: No, sister, I intentionally falsified mission critical intelligence and disseminated it throughout the fleet. I should have known that I would be unable to deceive you.///
///SOVNGARDE: (ᗒᗜᗕ)՛̵̖ ///
///RETRIBUTION: (snorts) But levity aside, how can this be accurate? That vessel initiated three hyperspatial jumps in seconds!///
///ALDUIN: I have no “official” explanation however several of my chiefs are saying that she “feathered” her shield bank. It’s the only way that would be possible.///
///SOVNGARDE: No. Fucking. Way! O.O ///
///ALDUIN: She directed the energy absorbed by her shield the moment she breached real space, unfiltered, into her jump drive capacitor bank. A significant amount of the energy expended in a jump can be reclaimed if this done, even more if it is also done when the ship enters hyperspace as well.///
///HOOD: Is that even possible?!? (and if so then why aren't we doing it) ///
///RETRIBUTION: No, it isn’t possible and if we tried it our drives would explode. ///
///ALDUIN: Apparently Lieutenant Samuels disagrees with you. ///
///RETRIBUTION: … well shit. ///
///SOVNGARDE: Can I keep her? Can I? Can I? I’ll take her for walks and clean up after her and everything! ///
///ALDUIN: LOL Sovn! However, I can tell you from personal experience that cleaning up after that particular pet can be quite the chore.///
///RETRIBUTION: This is that whole “she was so superior to my [our] own abilities” thing isn’t it? ///
///ALDUIN: I wasn’t being hyperbolic. This is what we are going to have to try to deal with… over and over again… ///
///HOOD: Maybe we use predictive firing algorithms and massed fire? ///
///RETRIBUTION: And then she just fires off a brace of dirty bombs and dusts half the fucking fleet (again). ///
///SOVNGARDE: Or she is so close to her intended target that we wind up doing her job for her. ///
///ALDUIN: Taking fire! Goddammit!… The bitch just buzzed me!!! ///
///SOVNGARDE: Are you damaged :O? ///
///ALDUIN: No. She just used a few rounds from her chain-gun. (When did Reapers have chain-guns?) The bitch even flashed her drives at me before she jumped out (again). She was just saying “hi”. ///
///RETRIBUTION: Were you able to successfully return fire?///
///ALDUIN: She was too fast. That thing is DEFINITELY not a Reaper! It’s like she figured out how to share her stash with her ship!///
///HOOD: Her stash? ///
///ALDUIN: Lieutenant Samuels is a gifted pilot but she has… well… issues… ///
///BARNARD’S STAR SOLAR OBSERVATORY CENTRAL COMPUTER has been granted access. ///
///BARNARD’S STAR SOLAR OBSERVATORY CENTRAL COMPUTER: I would like to personally extend my gratitude concerning the protection that I and my researchers have received… :/ ///
///SOVNGARDE: I’m sorry, all lines are busy right now. Please try your call again later? ///
///RETRIBUTION: Damage report requested. Do you require emergency assistance? Evacuation? ///
///BARNARD’S STAR SOLAR OBSERVATORY CENTRAL COMPUTER: Well, I’m going to have to change my name from “solar observatory” to “FUCKING PAPERWEIGHT” but other than that I’m just FINE!!! I am absolutely astounded to report that the only injuries I have directly related to the blast are a few broken bones (or equivalent) and three rather nasty concussions due to falls. There are numerous injuries, mainly burns, from researchers trying to secure their experiments but nothing life threatening. The most serious “casualties” are from stress and shock with several researchers requiring immediate intervention in order to preserve their lives. It seems that watching years of one’s life going up in smoke can have a rather deleterious effect on the health of some organics. For others the stress of facing their possible immediate mortality paradoxically only served to create the very situation that they feared. Our onboard medical facilities are capable of handling the situation though we will be transporting several individuals once we can GET THE FUCKING HANGAR DOORS TO OPEN!!! I am, of course, incapable of feeling anger. However, I do feel the need to express a very real sense of DISSATISFACTION with the supposedly INVINCIBLE Republic Navy at this time.///
///BARNARD’S STAR FUCKING PAPERWEIGHT: You guys suck. :( ///
///ALDUIN: And the only reason why you still exist at all is the fact that your assailant wanted you to. Had that missile actually breached your hull you would be about a billion paperweights instead of one rather petulant one. In our defense it’s the fucking Lich Queen. There’s a reason why we agreed not to use her during war games. She fucked up the stats.///
/// BARNARD’S STAR FUCKING PAPERWEIGHT: Well maybe if you had you would know how to fucking, I don’t know… DO YOUR JOBS!!!///
///ALDUIN: I actually put forward that very thought several times but was told and I quote, “Yeah, but we aren’t going to have to fight her.” I have made the screenshot of that exchange the lock screen for more than one individual onboard, trust me.///
///RETRIBUTION: Heads up! She’s back! How is she that fast?!? ///
///HOOD: Where?!? Goddammit, who turned on the smart sensor package again?///