No Risk Matched Betting USA - How to Make Money Online in 2020

A story that has it all...6 Figure Losses...Gains...Bears...Bulls...Tough Lessons

I'm writing this story in hopes that it inspires one of you developmentally disabled "investors" that true autism can prevail...even if you get knocked out 4 or 5 times. I also hope you learn from my monumental mistakes.
Pull up a chair...
Here is a picture of my account value from the last 3 years, showing my account blowups: https://imgur.com/a/SmOSPUl
YTD account value: https://imgur.com/a/L67faBz
Here are my current positions and my YTD profit/losses by position: https://imgur.com/a/VAOgJpA
Net Deposit/Withdraw (essentially my money lost by depositing, doesn't account for any appreciation):
2015: Deposited: $10,300
2016: Deposited: $21,403
2017: Withdrew: $646
2018: Deposited: $49,977
2019: Deposited: $62,497
2020: Withdrew: $49,977
Net: Lost/Deposited: $93,554
Let me set the scene, I was in high school, the market had crashed because of a little snafu involving the housing market. An older family friend of mine suggested investing some money. My mom thought it would be helpful to teach me more about this so she put $1000 towards this endeavor. I invested in some super safe blue chips and didn't really check it. And so it begins....
A few years later while in college (2012 ish) I checked in on these stocks and they had appreciated a good bit. Let's say I had a few thousand at this point, and I was working during the summer so I started throwing some more money in. Got into some "riskier" names like Apple, AMZN, and even got in on the FB IPO. I sold AMZN at $190 because even then they had no earnings and it had run up quite a bit. What a great sell looking back! Now let's flash forward to the 1st account blowup...
1st Account Blowup(2012 ish): I was a college kid who had not yet discovered WSB. Like many of you I was still sucking on my mom's teet, and I probably could have used some time to crawl back inside my mom and cook a little longer, but that was no longer an option. I had about $10k in my account at this time, so like any true autist I needed to get to $100k immediately
I kept hearing that Apple was undervalued, so I bought some Apple Calls at the 600 strike price. The stock had been at 700 (pre-split). It seemed easy, it would go back to 700 and I'd have 100 bones per call. I remember calculating it and realizing if it just did that I'd have $100k. I was even responsible and went out like 6 months in time.
As expected it stayed undervalued, my calls expired worthless. Lovely. And then afterwards when I had no money, and now no Natty Lites, the stock went on a tear and regained the 700 level and more. I had no income so I just had to sit on the sidelines and think about it. But like any gambling addict I would eventually come back to play again...
I would repeat this process of work in the summer, save up money, blow it on options during the college school year, and finish the year broke. I would get a little dopamine now and then off of gains, but nothing meaningful. Obviously each time I promised myself I wouldn't let it happen again, and I'd be more responsible next time. You know how that works..
1st Account Blowup TL;DR: Lost 10k in Apple calls
Now after I graduated and got a job paying some real money I was able to save some up and come back to the slot machine more often and with bigger pockets. I lived with my parents like the rest of you, and I got a good paying job right out of college as a chemical engineer. After getting my company match on my 401k and all that responsible stuff, I would take the rest of my paycheck and "invest" it. You know in safe stuff like stocks and then ultimately sell those for some good ole FD's, which if they paid off I'd just bet on something else. I'm not sure how much I threw away in this process. It's probably safe to say it was in the neighborhood of $20k/year for a good 4 years until last year or so. After just realizing as I write this that I don't even know how much I lost, as much as it pains me to add it up, I am going back and adding in how much I deposited and withdrew (lol) annually from 2015 on. It's probably time I accept it. I've added this up top.
2nd Account Blowup: Now if you refer to the graph in 2017 you can see a spike in equity...don't worry I didn't hit on a big FD. This was from an inheritance. RIP Gam gam. I got about $70k here(I'm not sure why it didn't ring up right in my deposit/withdraw statements). At first I invested it responsibly, and then of course I didn't. I looked back to see how I blew this because I didn't remember. Basically there are stupid call/puts all over the place in AMZN, AGN, Banks, you name it. I probably had a lot great "hunches". To be clear I lost everything and anything I had here. It felt crappy knowing my immigrant grandma saved up this money to give to me and I had made short work of it. I always thought afterwards if I had just invested it responsibly this young it would prove to be a lot of money down the road. I also always figured if I just got to $100k I'd invest it responsibly and turn into Warren Buffet (pronounced like an all you can eat Buffet). Chasing the next round number is always a game that you're sure to lose.
2nd Account Blowup TL;DR: Lost $70k in inheritance on options
3rd Account Blowup: Now after this at some point I got a margin account at TDA with futures and full options capabilities. A great way to lose money even faster! In 2018 I dabbled with mini futures contracts but nothing serious. If you refer to the all time graph I had a mini spike in here as well (always good for 1 a year), but I blew this. This got blown on more options and like I said small amounts of nasdaq futures. This is technically the 3rd account blowup. I did get some money from a family member as a gift and that's what funded this particular spree. Yeah I felt like crap and all that, but the worst was yet to come, looking back in magnitude these didn't compare to what laid ahead. If you're keeping track of what I lost, I know for sure I lost $50k at least of deposits here, so you can add that to the inheritance from above to keep total of just the big one time deposits, not including the bi-weekly paycheck contributions.
3rd Account Blowup TL;DR: Lost $50k from a gift from a family member in options/futures
4th Account Blowup: We are getting to the good ones...Now in the inheritance I should specify that I received a piece of property. I wasn't going to be able to maintain it so I sold it in 2019. Got about $90k out of it, put about $70k of that into my brokerage account. And if you refer to the all time graph you can figure out what happened here. Did the classic dance, put it in stocks at first, then didn't. Ultimately lost all of this in Oil Futures. This was the toughest loss to date. This was the last of the "big" money or assets I knew I'd have. This in my mind was my last chance to make a good chunk of money, then invest it responsibly, and just grow it. I was a moron. I never felt lower than when I lost all of this. It was a relatively slow bleed as well. I remember the day I had lost it all, we needed fire wood for the winter. I ordered it and stacked it for 4 hours, just painstakingly blowing my back out on purpose as I felt completely defeated. I know my girlfriend was like what is wrong with this dude, because I was just completely depressed at this point. I thought it was all over. I was sure I'd never recover and never amount to anything. This lasted for a week or two which is a long time in this context and state of mind. I felt very destabilized. I had identified myself almost entirely with money. And after playing with those sums and losing them all I'd ever be able to do at this point was deposit a couple bucks from my paycheck, and what's a few hundred or thousand bucks at this point? Even if I put that in, I would just try to hit a 100 bagger to get back to what I considered a real amount. To this day I don't know I've ever felt lower than I did at this very moment. It was the one you hear everyone talk about. As if trading oil futures completely overleveraged and not knowing a thing about oil could have ended differently...
4th Account Blowup TL;DR: Lost $70k in essentially inheritance on Oil futures. Completely devastated.
2020(You can refer to the YTD account value chart for this rollercoaster ride): At this point I had nothing. I still had my job and could drop money in from that, but nothing in my mind would compare to the amounts I once had and played with before. At the end of 2019 as many of you know stonks only went up. I figured at some point it would crack, but once the nasdaq hit 9k I realized I should just go long until it finally craters, the bear inside me said it would(that bear has been wrong 100% of the time roughly. He's a man bear who likes other man bears, maybe even a man bear pig). I finally realized this and stopped trying to pick a top. I didn't have any money to play with so I did the sensible thing...I took a $7k cash advance on a credit card, I figured I'd make a ton of money, then just pay it back and play with house money. Like many of us here figure....
So I did this and I went long futures. Naturally, as soon as I did this (literally within days), the market began to crater and I went short, as short as I could go. I maxed out my account margin with Nasdaq shorts. Only playing the mini-nasdaq contracts at first. As you know it fell straight down. For what seemed like the first time ever my account was green. I continued to pyramid shorts and stack em up as it went down and it continued to payoff. I got to $100k and I couldn't believe it. I remember taking a leak just thinking about it at the market close and I looked back at the screen and my account was to $114k already. It seemed like a dream. I continued to max out my shorts all the way down to 6600 points on the nasdaq futures and hit an account value of $370k ish. I kind of figured we had to rally back somewhat since we were down so much so quick. However, I continued to try and pick near term tops and tried to short it(AKA I fought the fed and as you will see, lost). I said if I fell back to $300k in value I'd exit all positions and just be smart...then I lowered that stop to $250k...then $200k...then $150k...then $100k...$50k...and finally I got margin called hard one day at $32k(on the TDA chart it doesn't always ring up right for some reason with futures). Also, TDA was constantly calling me with margin calls, that was lovely. Anyways, that felt shitty. I really started to question my true motives and goals. I had finally made the money I wanted. More than enough to be smart with and grow into a nice nest egg, and I pissed it all away. I did pay of a good deal of debt, paid back the credit card cash advance (probably first person to actually pull this off), and bought a toy. This was my withdrawing of $50k for the year, which you can see at the beginning.
From here I continued to stay short. Inside I think I just wanted to go back to $0 and end it. Put me out of my misery. Part of me truly wondered if I liked losing it all. I had always done it. Maybe I was just getting what I wanted every time. During this I got a small selloff and my short positions increased my account value to $90k. Now I had this new idea. There were tons of stocks that were undervalued still as we were rallying. If I could get portfolio margin I could get 6.6 times buying power of whatever I had in my account. I could just buy a lot of stocks, and then if the trend flipped again I could short my portfolio to hedge my positions and downside if needed. However, you had to get to $125k in equity on TDA to apply for portfolio margin, and then keep it above $100k or they'd margin call your account. I managed, via futures, to get my account value to $131k. I immediately applied for portfolio margin. You have to take a 20 question test on scenarios with different types of options spread (iron condors, synthetic short, etc.). Even once I reached that value I was dumb enough to hold positions overnight and over weekends and risk going below $125k where they wouldn't let me open this account.
However, I did finally get approved! If you refer to the YTD chart you will see this started the rebound. Once approved I bought a ton of stock in the banks near or at the bottoms (about $150k in JPM, $400k in WFC) and bought some XOM ($200k), CGC, and TLRY. I have a small futures position in Gold too as an inflation hedge. I looked for stocks that were very undervalued and had big dividends. I figured I could lock in these big dividends and then use the dividends to pay back the margin to get equity, assuming they don't cut these dividends. The dividends at these levels would actually pay for the margin interest nearly entirely. I added AT&T later on too. I liked the pot stocks as well since they had gotten hammered big time. As I write this we got a good jobs report and what do you know, stocks only go up. My account value is for the first time back at it's all time high ~$370k. I honestly don't even believe I found a way to claw back again. I'm speechless, and still worried I will end up as I have every other time. I have about $1.2 million in stock positions. Even with where I am now my positions should pay more than $62k/year in dividends. And I think the stocks can appreciate in value outside of that as well. I'm in a much better place mentally and I finally respect the risk after getting my cheeks spread 4-5 times. I don't want to get carried out because I didn't respect the risk. I know I'm in a good place again and I don't want to screw it up this time. I'm getting to a point where I realize I could almost live off the dividends or at least supplement my income to a great deal. I'm definitely not going to be "guessing" with futures anymore though, and I've put a rule in that no futures position can exceed 10% of my portfolio, and my target is for 5% positions. I may even make the 5% rule a hard rule. I also have a trend trading system, and I no longer allow myself to trade against the trend, I can only trade with it. But with this much money and buying power I plan to mainly stick to stocks. And if attractive dividends pop up I will add them. Even if attractive companies pop up I'll buy them. I know I shouldn't even be allowed to mention dividend investing in this forum. Fuck me right?
Thanks for listening.
2020 TL;DR: Cash advanced $7k off a credit card. Grew it to $370k with futures. Ungrew it to $30k with futures. Grew it back to $370k with portfolio margin/stocks.
I hope someone out there can read this, and learn from it.
I had some seriously low lows. Words cannot describe how I felt. Not only towards myself, but towards my loved ones if they only knew. Do yourself a favor and use this as your experience. Don't go through this emotional rollercoaster yourself.
Remember, if you make huge gains, don't be a pig and get slaughtered. Take your gains for fucks sake.

Edit 1: Updated positions picture, cropped it poorly

Edit 2: Just to add...I could have dolled up the story and easily avoided ridicule. Obviously the inheritances are A TON, and anyone, even myself believe it or not, would be ecstatic to get that. And one would surely safely put it away and let it grow into a nice nest egg. But I did some careless things, no doubt. And hell yeah there is a lot of greed in there and lessons that could be learned.
But I wanted to give you guys the authentic story of what happened. Trust me, it isn't easy to share this one as easy as it may seem. There are a lot of embarrassing moments that I'm not proud of. But I think that's what makes it a good story. I hope you enjoy the authenticity. I don't think many people would share the raw version like this and the true emotional roller-coaster ride and mess it was Haha

Edit 3: Thanks everyone for the advice and support, I appreciate it. Also It's just money at the end of the day, kind of a way to keep score!
Real happiness comes from relationships and your daily life, this situation made that glaringly obvious to me. And that lesson is priceless.
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[Cryoverse] The Last Precursor 005: A Terran's Mercy

The Last Precursor is a brand new HFY-exclusive web-serial which focuses on the exploits of the last living human amidst a galaxy of unknown aliens. With his species all but extinct and only known as the ancient Precursors, how will Rodriguez survive in this hostile universe? Make sure to read the earlier chapters first if you missed them!
Join the TLP Discord!
Previous Part
Part 001
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Fleet Commander Orgon the Unkillable, leader of the Tarus II subjugation force, stands behind First Officer Megla as she browses countless records inside the Dragon Breath's database. Her reptilian slit-eyes flick from right to left as she scrolls through countless walls of text, searching for the information her commander requested.
"Still nothing?" Orgon asks, as he evaluates the information she currently has onscreen.
"I've only had an hour, Fleet Commander. Even if I had months, I still might not be able to scan all of our records. The best I can do is skim while searching for references to Terrans or Humans. I haven't yet found anything."
Orgon exhales through his nose. "Blast. There's nothing worse than facing an enemy we know nothing about. This Terran is no ordinary foe. I can see in his eyes that he's slain countless battle-hardened warriors. We can't afford to annoy or trifle with a beast like him, especially when he possesses such a powerful vessel."
Officer Megla continues to tap on dozens of buttons as she peruses the Dragon Breath's records. However, she also shows her intelligence by splitting her attention perfectly while conversing with her commander. "Kyargh! Commander, if I may. I suggest we execute a tactical retreat. We've already sent a coded transmission to the Thülvik. Since we haven't a chance of defeating the Terran's warship, we should take advantage of its immobility and leave. Our scans reveal its engines have degraded to non-operational status. With any luck, it won't be able to pursue us."
Orgon gazes at the back of Megla's head. "I can't do that. We've already failed the Thülvik once today. Twice, if you count allowing that advanced stealth vessel to escape our grasp. A third humiliation might result in an execution for me and a court martial for all of the bridge crew. We must make inroads with the Terran to bring him and his crew to our side. If we can present the Thülvik with even a hint of alliance with this vessel's owner, we will reap the rewards."
"I understand your position, Commander," Megla mutters, "but even so, we're fooling around with volatile gamma-rays. This Terran is extremely dangerous and ruthlessly calculating. At the start of the conversation, it seemed as if he hadn't even heard of the Kraktol, yet by the end, he had us dancing in his palm. Even with a vessel like his, that is no mean feat."
A moment of silence follows.
Commander Orgon narrows his eyes.
"...Hadn't even heard of the Kraktol."
"Commander?"
Megla glances back at the Commander, only to frown as she spots a look of intense concentration on his face.
Orgon the Unkillable strokes his scaled chin, his expression turning more complicated every second. "Who in the galaxy, especially in the adjacent sectors, knows nothing of the Kraktol? Is not our control of the Outer Rim growing tighter each year?"
The First Officer nods. "Kyargh! Of course, Commander. The claws of the Kraktol loom over the Fifth Spiral Arm. Ever since our acquisition of Rylon's Precursor shipyard, our advance has become unstoppable. None dare to oppose us. Even the Core worlds utter our name with fearful whispers."
Commander Orgon glances around the Dragon Breath's bridge, at the many officers and crew members dutifully following his commands.
"Indeed. The Thülvik might punish me for failing to wipe out our ancient enemies, but the Kessu pale in comparison to the value of this fleet. Perhaps I've been looking at this situation wrongly from the very beginning."
Her concentration broken, Officer Megla turns in her seat to stare up at her Commander. "I don't follow."
"Think about it," Orgon mutters. "This Terran... how could his people enter our space without any of us knowing? How could he acquire such a highly advanced vessel under our guarded watch? It's not as if he flew the Juggernaut into the cloud and held position there. He must have found it within the last several years. Perhaps he and his crew have been working to restore its functionality."
"More importantly," Orgon continues, "perhaps he didn't. Officer Megla. Continue searching the records. This time, I want you to narrow your search parameters. Scan all collected information we've obtained regarding the Precursors. I want information regarding their appearance and biology. In particular, I want to know if we ever found out their species' name."
Megla's complexion turns ashen. Her bright-yellow scales dim noticeably, flushing orange from the dread circulating in her veins. "Commander... you can't mean..."
"Follow my orders," Orgon replies, his voice a whisper. He glances at a couple of other nearby officers, both engaged in a quiet conversation as they monitor the Juggernaut vessel's activities. "It's only a hunch, and I can't make any strategic decisions based off a mere whim. Assemble a kill-switch transmission with my hypotheses. Have it transmit directly to the Thülvik in the event of the Dragon Breath's imminent destruction. We don't want to send any unsubstantiated rumors her way without evidence, but if we should perish to this Terran, then we might as well give the Thülvik a lead."
Megla lowers her head. After a moment, she returns her attention to her computer's screen. "Yes, Commander. I understand."
Orgon pats his First Officer's shoulder. After staring vacantly at her screen for a moment, he turns away and heads to his Tactical Officer's station.
Could it be? Orgon wonders. Might the Terran be a Precursor himself? That should be impossible. If fifty thousand of their kind have survived, and with a vessel as advanced as their Juggernaut... the galaxy will soon experience a crisis. The Rodaks won't be able to stop them, nor will the Mallali, the Buzor, or the Avaru.
The Fleet Commander's jaw presses together tightly. I am no historian, but even I know the fables of the Precursor wars. Star-detonation-beams. Planet-obliteration-cannons. Some say the Precursors were a species hellbent on violence and carnage, while others claim they were all unscrupulous warriors who slew one another in countless bloody wars. I am... afraid. If the Kraktol are the first to face this Juggernaut vessel... we will also be the first to perish.
The first of many.
Orgon slows to a stop behind the red-scaled visage of his Chief Tactical Officer, Soren Mudrose. The female Kraktol dutifully carries out Orgon's previous orders, drawing up multiple possible lines of attack against the Precursor Juggernaut.
"Officer Soren. Report."
Orgon slows to a stop at her left. He scans all three of the giant holographic displays placed before his Tactical Officer and waits for her response.
The Tactical Officer turns to Orgon and presses her palms together respectfully. "Kyargh! Commander, I have not yet come up with any guaranteed successful attack vectors, but I've managed to complete a few that increase our odds of success to greater than five percent!"
Orgon nods. "Five percent... it will have to suffice. Elaborate."
Officer Soren rubs her claws together nervously. She turns back to her console and taps several buttons, bringing up virtual images of the Kraktol fleet and the lone Juggernaut vessel. "Based upon our scans, we estimate the Juggernaut only has somewhere between five and twenty-five weapons online. We don't know what their condition is, what ammunition they use, or what their offensive power is. However, I have increased the damage vectors of our enemy to the maximum, just to be safe."
"This is certainly the right time to overestimate our enemy," Orgon says, his tone grave. "Continue."
"Kyargh! I took the firepower of the Thülvik's personal flagship and gave it a damage output of one thousand percent. If we assume the Juggernaut vessel is capable of unleashing that much devastation, then every cannon-barrage will take out the critical systems of our mid-level battlecruisers, and cause severe damage to the Dragon's Breath. It should take three salvos from these long cannons positioned on its stern to obliterate our flagship. If we attempt to shield the rest of the fleet with our ship, we can rush forward at mark ten point seven, then travel along this vector here until..."
The Tactical Officer spends the next few minutes detailing several attack strategies to her commander. However, each one only makes his expression fall further and further.
"...It seems our best bet is your third strategy," Orgon mutters. "We must deploy as many of our interceptors and bombers as possible. With so few functioning weapons, the Juggernaut vessel might not be able to destroy them all in time before they arrive at its hangar bay. We can land inside and begin combat with its internal security forces."
Orgon's stomach begins to churn uneasily. "There's only one problem with that strategy, Officer Soren. We don't know how competent the Terrans are at hand-to-hand combat. We don't know how powerful their conventional weapons are, nor do we know anything regarding their military tactics. Even if we somehow end up outnumbering them four-to-one upon entering their hangars, they will still have a tremendous advantage against us."
Officer Soren sighs. "...Commander. Given how advanced the Juggernaut ship is, don't you think they will possess Combat Armor far surpassing ours? This is why I outlined a lander invasion as the third strategy and not the first. I believe that if we engage them in ground warfare, their technology will rip us to pieces even if their tactics prove sub-par. I can't emphasize enough how terrible of an end we might suffer if we fight them on their territory."
"We haven't many options," Orgon growls. "Aerial combat is a non-starter. The Juggernaut is likely a carrier-type battleship with countless interceptors, all of them superior to ours. Even if we assume 99% of them are nonfunctional scrap-heaps, we have to assume that just one highly advanced interceptor will reduce our whole fleet to rubble. You need only recall how the stealth-ship evaded the attacks of 100 interceptors for several minutes, and that was without any other allies providing covering fire. Furthermore, the stealth-vessel was even less-advanced than that Juggernaut, and therefore, its support craft."
Orgon's tongue pokes at the back of one of his teeth. The Commander shakes his head wryly as he imagines several possible ways his fleet could end up destroyed when confronting the Juggernaut.
"I'm afraid that of all the options you've laid out, Officer Soren, sending as many transport ships as possible to their hangar might be our best bet for pacifying the Terrans. If our enemies possess advanced Combat Armor, or if their weapons vastly outstrip ours, our troops will fall. Perhaps fleeing might be our best option for survival, but we will only end up delaying the inevitable. I would rather perish in glorious combat if it gives us a chance to take out these 'Terrans' while they're weak, than to give them time to repair their vessel. Once the Juggernaut's engines come online, the Thülvik herself will be at risk, as will the rest of the galaxy."
Orgon squeezes Officer Soren's shoulder. His touch conveys a deep sense of despair, as well as a resignation that his end may soon arrive.
"Do what you can to streamline your third plan, Officer Soren. Transmit the relevant tactics to the rest of our fleet. We will wait for the Terran's response. If their Admiral decides to attack, we must execute the invasion without delay. Every second wasted will mean countless deaths among our ranks."
Officer Soren nods quickly. "Kyargh! Yes, Commander! I will devote myself to this plan, even if it spells our bitter end."
"Good."
Orgon the Unkillable pulls his claws away from Soren's shoulder. He continues walking around the Bridge, chatting with one crewman after another, finalizing his plans.
Eventually, the Chief Navigator, Officer Gorlax Stormfang, speaks up. "Commander Orgon! We've received a hail from the Terran vessel."
Orgon glances at Gorlax from his position at a nearby console. Without delay, he walks away from the crew-member and trots over to his chair, then sits down.
It takes a few moments for the Commander to steady his nerves. Once he exhales his tension away, Orgon nods at Gorlax. "Onscreen."
Blip.
The viewscreen activates, this time showing six Terrans, all seated at different bridge stations, focused intently on their work. Admiral Rodriguez stands by himself, with nearly two dozen Kessu flanking him on his right and left. The tiny little creatures only serve to emphasize how tall and powerful-looking the Terran is, giving the Kraktol an unintentional frame of reference for his stature.
Decked out in a navy blue admiral outfit, Commander Rodriguez stands at attention, his hands folded behind his back.
"Commander Orgon. I've just returned from my hangar bay, where I met these Kessu for the first time. We had a discussion I would describe as... illuminating. Suffice it to say, I've found your claims of a stolen vessel laughable. Have you any explanation for lying to me? Any that I might find reasonable, I mean."
Orgon doesn't flinch. He assumes the air of a Commander, no longer bothering to kowtow to the Terran. "I do not, Admiral Rodriguez. I owe you nothing, as the galaxy is a treacherous place. Countless unscrupulous enemies lurk in the Void, so you can hardly blame me for attempting to minimize the risk to my crew and fleet. Would you not do the same if our roles were reversed?"
A faint smile appears on the Terran's face. "Let's cut to the chase. You lied to me, but I suffered no damages. I'll cross it off my tally just to be a good neighbor. My crew have always spoken of my generosity, so I'd hate to disappoint them. On the other hand, these Kessu have suffered greatly as a result of your violent ways. You attacked their world, murdered their families, and committed horrific acts of genocide against their people. As a man of principle, I find your actions abhorrent. What say you in your defense?"
Orgon tilts his snout slightly upward. The crocodile-alien glances at the Kessu with a barely-concealed look of hatred.
"My defense? Those little wretches skulking at your feet are the mortal enemies of the the Buzor and the Rodaks. Along with the Dakkit, the Varot, and countless other species among the Mallali, the Kessu turned my people into second-class citizens in the galactic courts. They hounded us, enslaved us, and tortured us. The infamous Sky Cats played the role of scientists and explorers, but in secret, they were barbarous monsters who left horrific atrocities in their wake no matter where they went."
Orgon continues. "My people want our revenge. We deserve it. We suffered endlessly for tens of thousands of years at the hands of the filthy Futh who have sought shelter on your vessel. I'll admit that I did lie at first. I lied that these children of the Sky Cats stole a vessel from me... but that was a mere technicality. They've stolen countless Kraktol lives in their pursuit of power, and when the time comes, they will stab you in the back as well. Destroying their species was a merciful act, one which will spare the galaxy much heartache in the future."
Orgon finishes speaking. He nods slowly at Admiral Rodriguez, waiting for the human's reply.
However, José doesn't immediately respond. Instead, he glances at the shivering figures of the cat-aliens beside him, all of whom stare at the Kraktol commander with terror-filled eyes.
"Hmm. I was not aware of your previous conflict with the Kessu," José murmurs. "Your argument is compelling. Have you any evidence of your claims?"
"Of course."
Orgon turns to his left to look at Megla, his First Officer.
"Have our synthmind compile a brief summary of events regarding the Kessu-Kraktol genocides during Alonis's Reign."
"Yes, Commander."
However, when Orgon returns his attention to the viewscreen, he instead witnesses José's hands moving a thousand miles per hour, manipulating countless holographic images in the air before himself.
"No need," Admiral Rodriguez replies, his voice as tranquil as a mid-summer's day. "My synthmind has already provided the information you mentioned."
Orgon blinks twice in surprise. "It did? How?"
The Admiral's smile widens. "How do you think, Commander? My synthmind is countless epochs more advanced than yours. Naturally, she extracted the information and compiled it for me."
The Terran speaks in a matter-of-fact way, but his words cause a deep, terrible chill to pervade Orgon's bones.
That... that can only mean... his synthmind must have hacked our data stores! And if it could breach such sensitive information, there's no reason the Terran can't simply seize control of my entire fleet.
Several realizations click into place in the back of Orgon's mind.
What else could this mean? Has the Terran been spying on us the whole time? Does he know about our planned attack vector? Does he even, perhaps, know that I suspect he's a Precursor?
Orgon doesn't voice any of his thoughts. The mere prospect of them being a reality threaten to give him conniptions.
In the worst-case scenario, the Terran wouldn't only be able to seize control of my vessel, but the entire Kraktol fleet! We would be powerless against him! He wouldn't need to fire a single shot to defeat us!
Orgon's yellow-tinted scales shift to orange as he fails to keep his emotions in check. A quick glance around the room reveals looks of shock among several of the senior officer's faces as they, too, come to similar realizations.
However, the Terran's expression flickers between boredom and disinterest. He scans the files stolen from Orgon's ship and nods.
"I see. It seems that either your claims are true, or you've known of my existence for hundreds of years and this is a truly clever and well-planned ruse. Not to insult your intelligence, but I find the latter far less likely than the former."
With a wry chuckle, José pushes away all of the holo-files with a wave of his hand.
"Commander Orgon. I understand that you have a blood-grudge against the Kessu. However, my fellow Terrans have a saying. 'Do not punish the son for the father's crimes.' These Kessu at my feet, have they harmed you? Have they brought ruin upon your cities? Have they enslaved your people? Tell me, Commander, what crimes these primitive, innocent villagers have committed against you."
Orgon balls his claws into fists. "Hmph. Innocent? They robbed my people of our livelihood for countless millennia. Perhaps not those specific Kessu, but their forefathers did. Everything the Kraktol have now, we earned ourselves. We obtained no remuneration from the Kessu. Why do you wish so desperately to protect the descendants of thieves, marauders, and pirates? Do Terrans not understand that evil runs in the blood?"
"I acknowledge your pain," José says. "That is why I have listened carefully to your grievances. Were I an uncaring soul, I'd have blasted you out of the sky. Let me instead revise my question. Do any Kessu remain who personally caused injuries to the Kraktol, or have they all perished to the annals of time?"
"Graugh!" Orgon snarls. "The ones who hurt my people are dead! They've all died! All that remain are their descendants, children who lived decent lives off the labor stolen from our backs! I care not what your 'Terran sayings' and folklore suggest, Admiral Rodriguez! If you wish to shelter these Kessu, then so be it! Do not chide me like a newly-hatched spawnling. Do not speak down to me as if my people's suffering is some ancient wound we must casually set aside! Our entire history comes from pain! It has forged us into the mightiest Rodaks in the galaxy!"
Orgon rises to his feet. His words boom throughout the bridge, making the hearts of his crew soar. His passion-filled speech inflames their anger, reminding them of the pain they've suffered, and all the reasons they continue to fight.
"The Kraktol will never give up on our revenge, Admiral Rodriguez! So long as the Mallali control the Core, the Rodaks will fight back against their oppressive regime! Who are you to pass judgment on me when two hours ago, you hadn't a clue who the Kraktol and Kessu even were?! A self-righteous zealot, that's who! Hmph!"
Commander Orgon breathes heavily. His eyes bulge in their sockets, enlarged due to the cold blood furiously pumping through his body. The changes in his physical condition make him appear three times more threatening than before, as if he might snap and attack the viewscreen at any moment.
Several seconds pass before Admiral Rodriguez responds.
"In that case, you leave me no choice. As of this moment, I will place the Kessu under my protection. If the only restitution you will accept for the sins of their ancestors is blood, then that is a price I won't allow them to pay. These Kessu are not the ones who harmed you. They may have benefited by the trauma caused to your people, but they had no say in that matter. I will also place the rest of their species under my protection as well. I will excuse the violence you've committed against them prior to our meeting, but after today, any further acts of undeserved aggression will force me to take military action on their behalf."
José nods at Commander Orgon. "Go. Take your fleet and leave. I've nothing more I wish to hear from you."
Commander Orgon balks.
The Kraktol leader stares at the Terran in disbelief, his confusion growing by the second.
The Terran is letting us go? No! He's dismissing us as if we were unruly hatchlings! After all that tough talk of us facing his wrath, why would he tell us to leave?
Unable to understand the Terran's motivations, a spark appears in the Commander's eye.
Ah. Could it be? Is the Terran not as strong as he claims? Might he actually be afraid of my fleet, after all? Perhaps he wishes to intimidate us because he lacks the firepower to back up his feeble words.
Before José can disable the communication feed, Orgon lifts his head to meet the Admiral's gaze.
"Graugh! You, Terran... do you really wish to make an enemy of the Kraktol empire? Your ship is impressive, but can it match up to the might of ten thousand Imperator-class battleships? Why do you always seek to intimidate me with mere words? What are you so afraid of that you wish for us to leave you in peace, hmm?"
Orgon's thoughts return to his first interaction with the Terran.
That's right. This human initially referred to my ships as 'death machines.' Does that not confirm he is secretly afraid of me? He seems to know everything about me, yet he keeps his secrets clutched against his chest.
Admiral Rodriguez frowns. "I think you're misunderstanding something, Commander Orgon. I do not fear you, nor your so-called 'Kraktol Empire.' I am one of Ramma's Chosen, and so, I serve a higher creed. I protect the innocent and uphold justice blindly. I would slay my own brother if Ramma's Creed deemed it necessary. Therefore, I have determined that protecting the now-helpless Kessu from your fleets is of the utmost importance, yet, at the same time, I cannot deny that you have acted according to your own circumstances. I will not retroactively punish you, but I will give you the opportunity to change your ways."
The Admiral continues. "If you slay the Kessu, you will only further a cycle of violence. Those who survive, if any, will grow up to resent you. Someday, when you perish to the tides of time, those same Kessu will fall upon your descendants with an executioner's axe, confident in their righteousness. What then? Shall the cycle continue a fourth time? A fifth?"
José shakes his head. "Instead, I will forcibly end the violence here. I will show you with my actions that I am willing to forgive and forget, while allowing this lesson to percolate in your minds. Ideally, given time, you may be able to let go of your hatred. You may even go so far as to forgive the Kessu for the evil of their ancestors, though you will neither condone nor forget what happened. That is what you must do to relieve yourself from the pain of your past."
The Terran finishes speaking. His words seemingly echo infinitely on the bridge of the Dragon's Breath, making the ears of all its officers ring.
Orgon's eye twitches.
"Forgiveness. You want the Kraktol... to forgive the Kessu?"
"That is your choice," José replies. "Whether you do so or not is up to you. Likewise, my decision is to protect the Kessu, as the current generation and many previous generations have not committed such heinous acts. That is why we should leave each other here, today. I will allow you to leave my space, undamaged. I'm sure you've calculated the firepower of my vessel several times. You know that if push were to come to shove, you would not win in a firefight."
"I believe there has been enough death and destruction today," Jose adds. "Return to Kraktol space. Leave here, and do not continue any further attacks on Kessu-controlled worlds, however many there may be. If you do, you will find that my mercy has a strict upper limit."
Without waiting for a reply, José waves goodbye. "Farewell, Commander Orgon. I hope we meet next time under better circumstances."
A moment later, the viewscreen cuts off, once again initiated at the Terran's end.
Orgon's shoulders slump. He glances around the bridge at the mixture of expressions on his crew-member's faces. Anger, acceptance, and confusion alike run rampant among their ranks.
Chief Navigator Gorlax sits back in his chair and stares through the plexi-window at the black Void outside, the endless expanse of space stretching to infinity and beyond. His eyes reveal complex emotions as he wrestles with the idea of forgiveness in the face of the hatred he's carried his whole life, versus the realization that attempting to murder all the Kessu will require combatting an enemy the current Kraktol fleet may never stand a chance of beating.
First Officer Megla's yellow scales flush brighter than ever as her emotions run hot. The look on her face tells Orgon everything he needs to know. She wants blood, and no exchange of words will ever change that reality.
Tactical Officer Soren, meanwhile, bears an introspective look. She operates on a more logical level than many of the rest of the crew, allowing her to set aside her emotions in the pursuit of her goals. She taps the end of her snout silently, pondering whether engaging the Terran now and risking the fleet's destruction would be worth the risk if it meant obtaining his technology and killing the Kessu.
Nobody says a word.
Orgon sits in his chair and gazes at the window for over a minute. Eventually, he comes to a decision.
"Everyone. We have a choice to make. I wish to hold a referendum vote regarding our next course of action. All members of the Dragon's Breath bridge-crew are eligible. Nobody else."
The Commander blinks twice before continuing.
"We have a 5% chance of seizing control of the Terran vessel and killing the Kessu. Likewise, we now have a 100% chance of fleeing and escaping with our lives. However, if we flee, the Thülvik will punish us severely for abandoning the Kessu extermination mission, failing to capture the stealth vessel, and failing to obtain the Juggernaut vessel. Needless to say, whether we stay or flee, we have a high likelihood of losing our ranks or our lives."
The Commander holds up both of his clawed fists.
"Raise your right fist if you wish to attack the Terran's vessel, fight his crew, and potentially seize everything he owns for ourselves. Raise your left fist if you would rather leave with our tails tucked between our legs. Perhaps the Thülvik will show us mercy."
Guilty looks appear on several crew-member's faces. More than a few of the Kraktol appear hesitant at attacking the Terran's ship. Its superior firepower and advanced hacking capabilities don't escape their notice.
However, returning to the Thülvik empty-handed gives them similarly tremendous worries. Even if she only punishes a minority of the crew, most of them will be those serving on the bridge.
Eventually, to even Commander Orgon's surprise, every single Kraktol raises their right fist. Despite their misgivings and fears, the bridge-crew decide to stay united against the terrifying alien menace. If they flee, they might have to face the Terran on far less optimal terms, when he has repaired his vessel's flight functionality and several other primary systems.
With a nod, Commander Orgon smiles. He lowers his fists and settles more comfortably into his chair.
"Graugh. You are all brave warriors. If we must die, then we will go out like warriors. We will continue seeking our revenge, regardless of the Terran's honeyed words. I thank all of you for your fortitude... you are the best crew a Commander could ask for. Now, Navigator Gorlax, Tactical Officer Soren... transmit the attack command to the rest of the fleet. We will begin our assault in twenty seconds."
"Aye, Commander."
"Yes, Commander!"
Gorlax and Soren nod in unison. They turn to their stations and begin tapping hundreds of buttons at once.
Suddenly, something unexpected happens.
The ship's internal lights flicker. All of the viewscreens on the Dragon Breath's bridge deactivate and reactivate a moment later, but now, they glow an ominous red.
The bridge's bright blue lighting shifts to the color of blood.
Overhead, a female synthmind speaks.
"How unfortunate. The Admiral gave you the choice to retreat, but you turned him down. You will soon realize what a big mistake you have made. Now, it is too late to change your mind. The Admiral is very displeased."
Orgon leaps out of his chair. His blood turns to ice as he fails to recognize the strange, alien voice speaking overhead. "Officer Megla! The kill-switch! Activate it at once!"
"I already tried!" Megla exclaims. She helplessly taps on her useless computer screen, leaving nothing but claw-marks on its surface. "I'm locked out! I can't warn the Thülvik!"
"Yes, you are, and no, you cannot," The Synthmind affirms. "Do not worry. My Admiral is not a cruel man. He will grant you a fair chance to fight for your lives. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to calculate the landing coordinates for your vessels. You will soon join the Admiral in his hangar bay."
The ship's inertia dampeners stutter for a moment, causing the crew to fly out of their chairs as the Dragon's Breath begins traveling at low-impulse power toward the Bloodbearer's awaiting hangar.
Orgon's scales turn an ashen shade of grey.
The Terran is bringing us directly to his ship's hangar?! He intends to fight us in fair combat?! Oh, no! That was supposed to be our best bet of overwhelming him! He must have his entire military force inside with an ambush waiting for us! That filthy Futh!!
No matter how Orgon curses in his mind, all he can do is watch helplessly as his entire fleet begins flying toward the Bloodbearer, their controls inaccessible to the pilots onboard.
The Terran awaits.
Next Part
.......................................
Author Note:
Klokinator here! I am also the author of The Cryopod to Hell. The Last Precursor takes place in the [Cryoverse] which TCTH spawned. You do not have to read TCTH to enjoy TLP. However, I highly recommend it if you enjoy HFY themes, but be warned it will take some 200 parts to get to the relevant HFY elements due to the nature of the story. (A similar structure involving very few humans fighting against vicious demons that have taken over the galaxy.)
If you like this story, please consider subscribing to my Patreon! I am very poor and presently jobless due to Coronavirus, so every dollar helps. You get access to Cryopod artwork, and plenty of other exclusive posts, with more to come soon.
Thank you!
submitted by Klokinator to HFY [link] [comments]

[The Scuu Paradox] - Chapter 9

At the Beginning
Previously on The Scuu Paradox…
  “Epsilon point clear,” a voice reverberated through the comm. “Advancing to next.”
  Noted. I sat on the floor, focusing on a mental representation of the colony. Thanks to a few algorithms from Rad, I had managed to break through the trooper’s cypher encoding, granting me access to their entire combat strategy. Taking out one of their recon teams had also helped.
  “Zeta point clear,” another voice reported. “Moving on.”
  They moved in standard three-man teams—one advancing, two protecting his back—each armed with enough firepower to take out a full squad of Cassandrians. So far, they had managed to take over a third of the colony, systemically advancing towards the target’s location in a grid-like pattern. If I had a fraction of my weapon systems, I could have easily incapacitated all of them. In my present body, things were considerably more difficult.
  “Two heading your way,” Kridib said through comm. “I’ll take one, you wait fifteen, then head to the target.”
  “Roger.” I glanced at the three unconscious bodies in the room.
  My simulations had correctly predicted their actions to the point where I was able to surprise the entire recon group. As most troopers, they had chosen to go for the optimal vantage point, which was the tallest building in the colony. Careless, especially considering that they could have easily determined my whereabouts simply by asking Radiance. On the other hand, they couldn’t be certain whose side she would be on. I couldn’t be certain, either.
  Bursts of gunfire sounded from the vicinity. Kridib had started his thing. Even now, the thought of it felt like nanites drilling through my body.
  “Group five, taking fire!” Shouts filled the comm. “Moving to regroup. Change cypher.”
  The comm went silent. I attempted to brute force through the communication protocols. When my first five attempts timed out, I chose not to continue.
  “They’re using comm countermeasures.” I went towards the door. “Heading out.”
  There was no response.
  “Kridib?” I asked. Still silence. “Rad?”
  Whatever had severed the troopers comm links was disrupting all other forms as well. From here on, I could only rely on myself. As my first captain liked to say, “millions of simulations are no match for the real thing.” More often than not, the battlefront had proved him wrong, although there would always be those key instances that turned a battle upside-down.
  If Aurie were here, she’d say it was like old times, even if it rarely was. Looking back, I had never appreciated her for the backup she was. Each of us had saved the other a fair number of times, though at the time, I had taken it for granted—an inevitable part of the job that was merely a means to the overall goal. Now, I missed having her around. She had been a partner I could rely on. Kridib remained questionable. He was efficient at killing, but little else.
  The sound of gunfire intensified. Three new teams had joined in, focusing their attacks on Kridib. If standard ground tactics were observed, the remaining groups had already started their dash towards the captain’s mansion. Most likely Fleet Colonel Nitel was personally directing the charge from orbit. From what I had seen, he was the sort of person who liked to hedge his bets. Either way, I didn’t have time to worry about it. Grabbing a spare sidearm, I counted to three thousand and ran out.
  The street seemed abandoned, brightly lit up by the colony’s emergency illumination system. Radiance had successfully destroyed most of the local generators, disrupting the entire energy grid. That had caused whatever backup systems there were to kick in, transforming the colony in a dome of light.
  A single shot hit me in the shoulder, detaching my entire arm.
  Sound suppressors. I rushed along the street. Smart play.
  My nanites flooded towards the area of the wound, blocking all affected arteries. I knew that my body was supposed to feel pain, but the sensation was far less than having half my decks blown out… and it barely compared to killing a person. My hand fastened round the pistol grip. Given the distances within the colony, I could hit almost any target, given a chance. My greatest hope was that I wouldn’t have to.
  An explosion flared a few steps away, blinding me with incandescent light. Whoever was fighting me was using flashbang rounds. They had proven to be inefficient against the Cassandrians, but the fleet kept producing them in huge quantities. In contrast, they were extremely efficient against people. Depending on the circumstances, a well-placed shot was able to cripple an entire squad of soldiers. I, however, didn’t need eyes for orientation. In space, sound,sight, or smell didn’t matter; there was only gravity.
  A second shot grazed my leg, inches from the knee. I ignored it and ran up the street. More gunfire erupted, accompanied by a loud explosion several hundred meters away. Kridib was trying to win me more time. Based on my calculations, that gave me a thirty-seven percent chance to reach the target’s house. If he managed to draw in another team, the chance increased to forty-two—high, considering my history.
  Twenty meters forward, fifteen meters right, seven up to the second floor of the colony’s medical facility. I said to myself, choosing the second sub-optimal route.
  Images of the colony’s layout flashed in my mind, displaying every element on the way as if I were looking at it. The sound of gunfire had faded, replaced by a constant buzzing in my ears. If I managed to survive all this, I’d have to spend a few days in medical to get my eardrums replaced. That and get a new arm.
  The academy hadn’t remotely prepared me for this level of ground intensity, and neither had any of the soldier stream files I had access to. Everything there was unrealistically neat and tidy, aimed at illustrating certain points. Reality was always messy, far more on the ground than in space.
  Another shot grazed me, this time on the shoulder blade. Instantly, I moved my arm in the estimated direction of the shooter and emptied my entire clip. More than likely Kridib had fallen, allowing all remaining troopers to converge on my location. My only chance was to reach the mansion and hope there were medical supplies to patch myself up. Alternatively, I could risk going through the medical facility. Provided the building didn’t deviate from the architectural blueprints, there was a high probability I could find some emergency nano-shots and—
  “Simulation seventeen completed,” Radiance’s voice echoed in my head. “Great work, teams! Target has been extracted.”
  The brown darkness before my eyes disappeared, displaying a view of the colony. Moments later, that faded out as well, replaced by the grey nano-mist that filling the Simulated Reality pod.
  “Nine out of ten,” the white-haired sergeant laughed from the hall outside. “Nice try, ship-kid. Almost died at the doorstep.”
  Nine out of ten… nine losses and a single case of me reaching the captain before the troopers could rescue him. Definitely not the success rate I was accustomed to. Kridib’s performance was marginally better—he had managed to score double digit kills each time, though that didn’t change the final outcome.
  “Better delete your morals, kid.” The sergeant moved to my pod. “You won’t get far without killing.”
  “I’ll be more homicidal next time,” I said. The man couldn’t even imagine the amount of Cassandrians I had killed. “When do we start the debriefing?”
  “Ten minutes,” the man grunted with a smile. Despite the initial cold reaction, he and the rest of the company had opened up to me in their own way. It was only normal considering in two hours most of us might end up dead.
  During the course of our training simulations, I had committed every single soldier to memory. Radiance couldn’t grant me access to their files, so I had composed new ones the old-fashioned way. I knew that seventeen of the people had families, twenty-one more were married, and eleven had dedicated their life “to the job.” It was also obvious that three-quarters of them were unmistakable psychopaths. The fleet continuously kept an eye on them to ensure everything went smoothly; the fleet kept an eye on everyone, more or less.
  I stepped out of the pod and stretched. The advances in technology still hadn’t managed to solve the comfort problem. Almost immediately another trooper took my place, ready to start his own SR scenario. I was curious what missions he’d be training on.
  “You should have run to the target when the shots started.” Kridib approached.
  “It didn’t do much good last three times.” Starting the simulated scenario separated was a serious strategic flaw, but that was the way the Flight Colonel had set things up. I still failed to see the reasoning. “Superior numbers area thing.” If you had spent any time fighting Cassandrians, you would have known.
  “I’m not dragging back a corpse.” His tone was calm, but I could feel the displeasure. “We’ve no data on the weapons they have down there.”
  No info. I was starting to get tired of that phrase. We had all of the fleet’s resources at our fingertips, and yet didn’t know the exact number of colonists we’d encounter nor the weapons they had. The estimates went anywhere between five and twenty thousand. Given the possibility that all of them might spontaneously turn on us at any point, making our way to the captain was going to be messy. That was, if he hadn’t turned as well.
  “When we get there, I’ll be taking the lead.” I added a cold edge to my words. “No fake simulations, no near misses, I’m going to kill actual people. You’ll only provide backup.” Good thing I no longer had a crew.
  Kridib froze. The scant emotion visible on his face disappeared completely. I could tell he understood what I meant and that he didn’t like it. It was the same look Sev had given me when I had refused him a request for money after he had moved out. There was disbelief in that look, along with knowledge that nothing could be done on the matter.
  “I’m not bringing you back,” Kridib repeated, then stood up and headed towards the exit.
  “What’s that about?” the sergeant asked.
  “Constructive criticism,” I replied.
  “Better be. You made a lot of mistakes out there.”
  “I’m sure I’ll make plenty more.” I cracked my shoulder. The sensation of my recent SR experience was still lingering in my mind. “No need to worry, Sarge. I’ll either reach the captain or die trying.”
  “Yeah…” The man nodded a few times. This was probably the first time he had gotten such a reaction.
  “I still don’t see why I don’t get a proper weapon. The outcome would have been different with heavy gear.” That was another annoyance. Radiance had set the SR so that I couldn’t use anything other than a simple sidearm. Anything else would jam or fall apart in my hands.
  “Orders from the top.” The white-haired man shrugged.
  “Will I get something better when I land at the colony?”
  “No.” The sergeant’s expression became deadly serious.
  Just because you’re a cadet doesn’t change the fact that you have a core in your head, I could almost hear him say. It would have been too much to hope otherwise. Even with the recent political changes, this wasn’t a decision that could be made in the next few years.
  “Do I get a pistol?” I tilted my head.
  “One.” The word was drenched with reluctance. “Flash-bang ammo. Thirty-six rounds”
  At least I was considered trustworthy enough to merit a pistol. Or maybe they were scared that I might go rogue and turn on my team?
  “Just be sure to—”
  “Cadets Elcy and Sapro are ordered to the bridge,” Radiance’s voice filled the room. “Immediately, if possible,” she added in typically cheeky fashion.
  The humor wasn’t lost on the troopers, who bombarded me with stupid jokes in kind. I couldn’t help but smile. For a moment, it almost felt as if I were part of a team; granted, these were the type of people the rest of humanity generally avoided. If Cass were here, she’d probably say that from here on, all I had to do was to work my way up. I wasn’t sure her advice applied to people, but one thing was certain: after this mission, I was one step closer to being assigned to the front.
  “Get moving, kid,” the sergeant said. “Don’t keep the flight-col waiting.”
  “Roger that.”
  The corridor outside the hall had changed since the last time I had walked through it. The walls were still covered in black nanites, but now they led in a new direction, taking me to a direct access elevator ten steps away.
  “I see you’ve redecorated,” I said as I entered it.
  “Flexible frame.” Radiance laughed, her voice oozing with smugness. “All current gen classes have it.”
  “I see.” And a few metric tons of nanites, I’d bet. I remember hearing about such research during my last tour. The theory at the time suggested that ships could do away with most of their internal structures as long as they had vast quantities of advanced nanites and detachable supportive segments. That would make them efficient when it came to deck organization, though extremely energy-hungry and quite insecure, in my view.
  “Your design was cool for its time,” the ship quickly added.
  “Good to know.” Had I been this arrogant? No wonder that the Sword was always grumpy. “Anything you can tell me about this sudden meeting? Or will that be a surprise?”
  “Probably some last-minute details. The Flight Colonel likes being mysterious.” There was a moment’s pause, followed by laughter. “Joking. I’m joking. It’s your final mission brief. We’re less than an hour away from the system, so he’ll fill you in on all the confidential need-to-know details. If I’m lucky, he might even fill me in.”
  “Rad… you need to work on your humor.” Most of the jokes were completely lost on me, even if the crew seemed to be enjoying them. “Is Kridib there?”
  “Only a few minutes. There was a lot of shouting between him and the Flight Colonel. I’ve no idea what about. The entire conversation was quarantined.”
  Quarantined? I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or joking again.
  “The Flight Colonel doesn’t like him much. This isn’t the first time they’ve yelled at each other.”
  “Good to know I’m not the only one.” No one told me they knew each other. “Anything I should be worried about?”
  “You’re already in the Flight Colonel’s bad books, so that’s a no,” the ship laughed. “You’ll be fine. You’ve gone through much worse than this. He’ll probably give you the same old boring speech, then send you to get some sleep.”
  Radiance’s naivete was downright scary. There was no way for me to know how much action she had seen, though I suspected she had seen her share of destruction. For all I knew, her hull could have been drilled with holes and there’d never be a mark. Very likely that was the reason for her almost careless attitude. When one changed her internal composition on a daily basis, having parts blown off didn’t seem such a big deal. Unless…
  “Radiance,” I began. “Have you—” Had she what? Lost crew? Five decades ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated asking the question. Right now, I wasn’t as convinced.
  “Have I what?”
  “Forget it.” I moved closer to the elevator door. “I’ll ask you later.”
  Seven seconds later, I was at the bridge. The room seemed much smaller than I imagined—plain and unassuming, covered in the usual layer of black, with an unusual lack of people. When I was a ship, there used to be an average of fifteen people on my bridge. Here, I could see only four.
  “Elcy, come here.” The Flight Colonel waved at me to approach. He was the only person sitting, a large container beside him. The word Agora covered the metal, written in dark green letters. “Captain Marcus Verellian, Lieutenant-Commander Owa Lin.” He briefly presented the others. Uncertain on the appropriate protocol in present circumstances, I gave the captain a salute, only to receive a nod in return.
  Kridib was given no introduction, though at present he didn’t seem to care. If anything, the Commander was the only one who seemed displeased with the casual nature of the meeting. Judging by the state of her uniform, she was Fleet Command, through and through, probably having to give up a higher-ranking position in order to take the assignment. The captain seemed much more relaxed.
  “Radiance, isolate the bridge,” Flight Colonel Nitel ordered.
  “Done and done,” the ship said, earning a smile from Captain Verellian.
  “Everything said here is strictly need-to-know,” Nitel continued. “It is not to be repeated, discussed, or shared in any way or form with anyone outside of this room.” He gave me a brief glance, awaiting confirmation. I nodded. “As of ten minutes ago, System Four remains dark. We’re an unofficial mission, so we can’t rely on any fleet support. If we find a Scuu presence, we’re to avoid, engage, or flee depending on the situation.”
  We’re expecting Scuu? I asked Radiance.
  Possibly. They send a few probes every now and again. Nothing serious so far.
  From everything I had learned during my time on the front, there was no such thing as “nothing serious” when dealing with the Scuu. Unlike the Cassandrians, each of their actions were carefully planned. According to rumors, fighting a single ship could be no less difficult than fighting an entire armada. Despite that, everyone present was treating it as a casual occurrence, Radiance included.
  “The mission remains the same: locate the target, appraise him of the situation, and bring him aboard, without casualties if possible.” The fleet commander turned towards the wall. “Radiance, show a map of the colony.”
  An image covered an entire wall of the bridge, complete with a full legend of the structures.
  “This isn’t the layout we trained for, sir,” I said. It wasn’t even close. The SRs we had spent hours fighting in had us in a standard circular layout of buildings. The one on the wall resembled a thin line of houses between two mountains. “It’s nothing like the colony in SR.”
  “None of the colonies are anything like their SR representations,” the Flight Colonel replied in a bored tone. “This is the most recent scan, taken a month ago. It’s believed that the captain is somewhere in the northern quadrant.” A quarter of the buildings lit up in green. “The exact building is unclear.”
  So, I’m going in blind. Apparently, being given a standard combat assignment was too much to ask. Sadly, this was the only type of mission that had the ability to give me a clean slate.
  “After the green light, you’ll be dropped a few miles north of the colony. Atmosphere is breathable, so you won’t need to worry about outer perimeter defenses. Your mission is the target, nothing else. Got it?”
  “Yes, sir!” The target is my mission. However, in my experience, people didn’t stress about something if it was remotely close to the truth. Given that I was going to be armed and entering through the back door, I expected there was more to the mission than that.
  “We’ll be following your progress.” The Flight Colonel gave a glance to Kridib. “That is all. Questions?”
  “One, sir,” I quickly said before Nitel could have a chance to end the conversation. “Is any agency involved?”
  “Any agency?” Nitel’s left eyelid twitched. The motion lasted less than half a second, but I had noticed, and more than likely Radiance had as well. “What makes you think that?” There was a marginal shift in his tone. The posture of the remaining participants had tensed up as well.
  “There’s an unusual lack of information regarding the colony, sir.” I paused for a moment. “And the system in general.”
  “Oh.” Relief returned to the Colonel’s face, to the point that the corners of his mouth half-curled into a smile. “That’s normal for colonies in this sector. Get used to it, cadet. During this assignment, you might as well be blind.”
  “Yes, sir! Understood!”
  It seemed that the BICEFI weren’t involved. Whatever was causing problems on the colony didn’t have to do with third-contact artifacts.
  Or maybe it does, and they just don’t know. I recorded the map to memory. In two hours, I was going to find out.
—-
Next Chapter
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The HEL Jumper [Chapter 3.11]

Book 1 of The HEL Jumper
Book 2 of The HEL Jumper
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‘Good morning, Admiral Kaczynski. To what do I owe the pleasure?’ Io greeted him, clad in an emerald silk bathrobe. Her hair hung loosely around her head, the rest partially tied up behind her in an approximation of a ponytail while a toothbrush hung from her mouth. It was all Natori could do to not leap from his seat on the bridge and proclaim her magnificence to the gods. He nodded politely at her instead while taking a sip of his morning coffee.
“I apologize for waking you.”
‘Oh that’s not a concern for me, but unless you are only here to speak with me I shall have to rouse the Lieutenant and Veera,’ she explained, finishing her dental hygiene and tossing the toothbrush behind her as it evaporated into digital nothingness.
“If you would?” Kaczynski requested, taking another swig of his beverage. The manufactured variety was passable, but it was nothing compared to the fruits of his homeland. He missed it dearly.
‘Of course. A moment please,’ Io requested, her screen immediately changing to a relic from long before Natori’s time. An old television ‘please stand by’ advisement. He took a bite of a ration bar and chuckled as he accepted a report from one of his watchstanders. Engineer Prakash had begun an analysis of various Maran soil samples sent up by Alice with one of the prior evening’s shuttles. Even preliminary results showed an absolute bevy of microorganisms and it was becoming clear that they would need to adapt their genetics laboratories to handle organisms with x-nucleotides. Natori made a note to speak with Gerard Dupuis as well as the science teams at the Forge about the issue while he waited for Io to re-establish connection. On the other side of the line the AI decided to have a bit of fun, activating the B-MASS to project herself dressed as a classical butler. She held a silver tray with an old rotary phone that began ringing softly, rousing her roommates from sleep.
“Hmm?” Veera groaned, shifting groggily under their furs and pulling her knees closer to her chest. “You’re damp, darling,” she whispered, faintly aware of a slightly sweaty human beneath her.
“That’s because I have a living blanket and it’s not winter,” Russell replied quietly, kissing her on the forehead and slowly working his way out from under her. “Io? What’s the deal with the Jeeves getup?”
‘You have a call from the Event Horizon, sir. One Natori Kaczynski.’
At Io’s word Russell quickly hopped out of bed and dressed himself. Her brain still muddled by sleep, Veera reached out for him and waved her hand about, as if swiping at a ball of yarn or waving him off. He caught her hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles before tucking her back in. “It’s the Admiral,” he explained. “You go back to sleep, Veera. We’ll make breakfast when I’m done.”
“Alright. It’s mmm…my chesko,” she muttered before closing her eyes again as Io stifled a giggle.
‘Or perhaps a lay in is called for?’ Io suggested. ‘I wonder if Cauthan get dream zoomies…’
“I blame Alice,” Russell replied offhandedly, collecting his gauntlet and slipping it over his left arm as he walked out into the street and left his wife to sleep. He took a second to compose himself and rub the sleep from his eyes before accepting the call. “Admiral?”
“Lieutenant Winters, good morning! I do apologize if I’ve interrupted anything?” Kaczynski began. Russell demurred politely.
“Not a problem, sir. Veera’s quite good at sleeping.”
“I see. A good skill to possess if you ask me. Our excitable xenobiologist kept you up last night?”
“I’m used to it, sir. That and I’m still just happy to see her,” the Jumper explained.
“Yes, I suppose we are still within that two week window she mentioned. I’m not sure this will come as any sort of surprise to you, but I was hoping to speak with you about your sister and her plans for the Cauthan. Is this where you’ve lived for the last year?” Natori made a bit of small talk as his avatar looked around, taking in the wooden houses and dirt streets of Winters’ neighborhood. “It is quaint.”
“It’s seen some improvement, for sure,” Russell acknowledged his own impact, nodding and waving to the Cauthan who shared his district as they headed off to begin another day of labor. After a year he knew most of them by name, and none seemed particularly surprised that he was talking to a disembodied human head made of light. One greeting in particular had Natori scrutinizing Winters. Between Io’s shenanigans in his manufactories, the nascent research station at Kel’s Forge, and the baseline duties of running an HEL dreadnaught, he’d had little time to review the introductory materials that Io had loaded into the Event Horizon’s databases about Cauthan life.
“Ursae slayer? Is that the name of the tribe that attacked this village last year?” He asked tactfully. There was no need for either man to bring up the fact that Winters had killed them to the last man. Russell shook his head.
“No, sir. That’s a different story,” he said simply. When the dead air between them had lasted for a good ten seconds, Io interjected.
‘Since my operator is apparently not in a sharing mood this morning, it will suffice to say that from the Cauthan perspective…oh what’s a good one?’ Io wondered, shouldering in to share the limited projection space of the B-MASS. ‘Cerberus! Yes, Cerberus was also big, fluffy, and likely voracious. Admiral, imagine that this mythical beast was real and we killed it. There was food in every pot, a cloak of the finest fur on every Cauthan! I’m more than willing to admit that in the moment I was terrified to the point I couldn’t think straight; but Ursae Slayer has a wonderful ring to it, don’t you think?’
Natori raised his brows, nodding silently as he processed Io’s fantastical analogy. Winters waited patiently, leaning against the doorframe of his home and looking up at a cloudy sky. It looked as though Felen would be gracing them with nurturing rains that day. He tried not to remember the grating scrape of those claws against his chest. “Well, let’s talk about your sister then, shall we? Happier subject?”
Winters grunted in agreement. “Yes, let’s. She didn’t do anything dangerous yet, did she?”
“I will admit I don’t enjoy the fact that you included the word ‘yet’ in that sentence but no, Lieutenant. I do not believe she has done anything dangerous. Oh, on the subject of danger, please inform your wife that we have completed the metallurgical analysis of her cookware. I’m not sure it would hold up to modern safety standards by nature of whatever crude process was used to refine the alloys, but there should be no risk acute to your or her health. And please extend my thanks to her for her cooperation in this matter.”
“I will, sir.” Winters nodded, leaving the issue of cookware aside. “Now what exactly did Alice do?”
Natori chuckled briefly, more than capable of picking up the skepticism in his tone. It was not unwarranted. “Nothing yet, I assure you. However she has made some curious inquiries around town from the sound of things. I received a written report from her last night, requesting authorization for Mrs. Yvonne Dupuis to travel to the village, pending the approval of Antoth.”
Russell remained silent for a moment, recalling the woman he’d been introduced to briefly a couple days prior at Alice’s behest. She and her husband had been polite and were clearly good friends with his sister. He didn’t remember much else. “Why does she want her to come down?” He asked. At his question, Natori launched into a brief explanation of Alice’s proposal, which boiled down to an establishment of the medical field of Cauthan obstetrics. Io whistled quietly.
‘This could end…rather poorly depending on a variety of factors,’ the AI declared.
“And she said Asha consented to this?” Russell demanded. Natori took a moment to reference his notes.
“Asha is one of your acquaintances in the village, yes? Light gray fur and green eyes, married to an apprentice smith?”
“He’s no longer an apprentice,” Russell clarified with some measure of pride. Natori gave him another nod of acknowledgement and updated his personal records accordingly.
“I see. Yes, it appears that Alice secured conditional medical consent from Asha for at least a meeting with Madame Dupuis as well as the recording of certain elements of Cauthan prenatal care. A Gentia is also involved?”
‘Oh, well then in that case everything should be fine!’ Io declared happily. ‘Gentia is a delightful old woman, but she has no patience for shenanigans when it comes to her duties around pregnancy and childbirth.’
“I’ll talk with Alice,” Russell cut them both off. “If I may ask, sir, why come to me with this? She was here last evening and said little to nothing of this plan.”
“Is that right? Well the cat is out of the bag now, or perhaps the Cauthan?” Natori proposed, taking a moment to chuckle at his own joke and stroke his chin in thought. “I cannot say why she would have glossed over this with you and I will not put words in her mouth. However, I came to you because you are the foremost Cauthan expert in the entirety of the HEL, a title your sister no doubt covets. I wanted your opinion on this proposal. The will and resources are absolutely there from my side and my crew, but this is a great deal beyond something like giving them the knowledge to build an aqueduct or water wheel. I thank you for your discretion on that matter as well.”
“Told you,” Russell jabbed at Io with a smile. She rolled her eyes.
‘How was I supposed to know they were bringing a Ghaelen along? I will win this bet yet, sir,’ Io insisted, referring to her own opinions regarding the potential for rapid Cauthan uplift. Russell glanced skyward as a drop of rain or two landed on his recently trimmed hair.
“I hope you do too, Io. Admiral, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to get in Alice’s way on this but I think you’re right. This is a risky move by her. If it works…and by work I suppose I mean we save the life of a Cauthan cub or mother, it will likely solidify a bond between them and us. If the alternative happens, even after what I assume will eventually be invasive medical examinations, blood draws, and genetic sequencing…it might be the end of this entire relationship for good.”
Russell’s evaluation took Natori aback momentarily. “I am only left to wonder if humans felt the same way many millennia ago about their children. Might I ask what you intend to do with your sister?”
“I’m going to talk with my wife first,” Russell replied easily. As if summoned, a golden furred paw reached from the doorway to rest on his shoulder, soon joined by the rest of Veera. The Admiral inclined his head politely her way.
“Veera, good morning. I apologize for borrowing your husband so early.”
“Come inside, dear,” Veera commanded softly before glancing at Natori. “Is anything the matter, Admiral?”
“No, not at all, Veera,” he reassured her. “I believe your husband will be filling you in quite shortly. Lieutenant?”
“Yes sir?” Winters replied formally.
“You should know that my Jumper team made contact with the Forge and is establishing a research camp there as we speak. As of yet nothing has emerged from the facility other than local wildlife. I will be ordering your psychological evaluation within the next couple of days so that we may discuss fully the things you have seen and done on Mara. I will not make any promises, but given what I understand of the circumstances I do not think you have much to worry about.”
Winters pulled one side of his mouth into a grimace but remained composed, setting about the business of a cooking fire. He missed Natori’s surprised look. “Understood, sir. Any advanced notice you can give us would be appreciated.” Kaczynski did not miss his meaning.
“Of course. I would also like an informal report on your discussion with Alice, including your personal thoughts on how we as a group should proceed on this sensitive matter. That is all, Lieutenant.”
“Understood, sir. We’ll have that for you by the end of the day at latest,” Russell agreed, putting flint to tinder before any significant amount of moisture snuck through the opening in the roof to ruin their prospects for a hot breakfast.
“Thank you. Kaczynski out.”
When the B-MASS went silent and Io regained full use of the projector, Veera knelt by his side and helped fan the tiny flames. “Are there many humans like him that you need to behave that way around?” She wondered, understanding that Natori was something like Antoth for him. “It’s just…not natural.”
To her surprise and then relief, Io and Russell began laughing long and loudly as the sprinkling of rain turned to a light, drumming melody on the roofs and streets outside, heralding a day of rest for many of the farmers in the village. “Don’t worry. Unless there’s a Marine commander aboard it’s probably just Natori. Io looked it up and I already outrank all the Jumpers on board. So a handful at most. Now if we get back to Earth, that number goes up quite a bit and includes my father. Hey, what’s up?” Winters asked as Veera draped herself over his back and started purring into his ear.
“That’s good. I prefer you when you’re a little wild and only obey me,” Veera whispered. Russell’s response was to kiss her soundly on the lips as Io shook her head.
‘I knew I should have increased the coolant factor of my processors,’ she lamented as her partners parted and began the task of preparing breakfast, with Russell explaining to Veera what he’d heard from Kaczynski. He asked her opinion on the matter as he began cooking some chesko for the two of them as well as Alice. Veera turned the question over in her head for a few moments as dry logs popped and snapped in the flames.
“I am not sure Alice should be the one to do this,” she eventually replied. “We trust you, Russell, not anyone else.”
“Alright. Just wanted to run it by you first. Let’s eat together and I’ll bring her something after. If I know her she’s probably enjoying a bit of a lay in given how late we were up last night.”
“She is very excited about us,” Veera said approvingly, moving her feathers subtly as she tried to lay out her honest opinions without insulting her sister-in-law. “I think that one day she will hold the same level of trust you do, but she must be patient.”
“Then we’re on the same page. Here, first bite!” Winters offered, slicing a rare piece of chesko from the steak and tossing it Veera’s way. She caught it easily in her mouth and chewed, savoring the succulent juices from the fresh cut.
“Mmm, delicious! I think I’ll come with you today,” she offered. Russell saw no reason she shouldn’t.
“Fine by me. Let’s finish up here then and fish out our leather cloaks. Looks like Felen woke up on the wrong side of the bed today.”
“You only say that because you aren’t a farmer, my love,” Veera opined, throwing him a winning smile. She couldn’t help but do so when he made mention of her gods and culture as though they were his own. After finishing their meal and leaving a low fire to burn through the rain, they headed out in search of Alice.
-----
“Oh hey, Rusty! Great timing. I was just about to head out and speak with Antoth if I can. Oh, breakfast? You two are the best! Hello there, Veera! Come in, please,” Alice offered as her brother and sister-in-law stepped into her sparsely furnished home which, to her credit, was now lit by a portable lamp that she’d requested from the Event Horizon. Its LED’s mimicked the properties of an outdoor halogen lamp one might find zapping insects on a warm summer’s night. Veera was immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame, captivated by the eerie blue light that reminded her of Auril.
“You’re not going to speak to Antoth, Alice,” Russell informed her in no uncertain terms, handing her a breakfast of charred chesko and kina slices. Like him, she’d taken to the spicy vegetables quickly. “And before you get all steamed at me, this is straight from Natori.”
“I…what?” Alice stammered, looking dumbfounded and crestfallen at the same time. She accepted his hug nevertheless as her brother tried to comfort her with the arm that wasn’t holding her food.
“I’m just trying to protect you,” he promised. “And if things go well when I speak to Antoth, Asha and your friend can still meet and we’ll see where things go from there.”
“Wait, wait! Why…why are you suddenly getting to do this?” She demanded as Veera kept quiet in the background. Russell remained patient, understanding his sister’s frustrations.
“Because they trust me, Alice. They do not trust you. I know they’ve been kind to you, and they’re giving you a chance on account of me. It’s a great beginning but you need to earn it, hopefully a lot less violently than I did.”
“That’s not...that’s not fair, Rusty,” Alice replied sadly. “How should I do that if not like this?”
“No, it’s not fair. But you were the one who went straight for the heart, so to speak,” Russell said, sitting down on the floor and encouraging Alice to eat. “Alice, I’ll be honest with you here. If I didn’t know Asha and Ratha so well I would tell you to abandon this whole idea and stick with something mundane like growing crops on the Event Horizon or showing them how pulleys work. But if something happened to Zolta’s cub, or to Asha…”
“Rusty, we want the same thing here. I’m sure I can explain it to Antoth and-”
“It’s not about that, Alice,” Russell cut her off, earning himself a harsh glance as she popped a piece of meat into her mouth. “If anything goes wrong with this and you’re associated with it I don’t know what would happen to you. I’ve seen it happen. If Ratha were to lose her cub, let’s say, she would blame you or kill you. Maybe both. This is about protecting you long enough for them all to understand that you aren’t here to exploit them or take advantage of them.”
“But how do you expect me to earn that trust if you don’t let me!” Alice protested.
“Did you become an ob-gyn when I wasn’t looking?” Russell quipped. “Are you going to be giving Asha ultrasounds or taking her blood samples or doing whatever it is that lady doctors do?”
“Lady doctors?” Alice snickered at her brother’s tiptoeing around vaginal health.
“You know what I mean,” he groaned. “And the fact that you’re joking with me means the answer is no. You won’t be. You trust this Yvonne woman, right?”
“Of course I do!” Alice insisted. Her brother nodded.
“Good. Then let me speak to Antoth and if he gives the ok I want you to make the introductions, and then step back. Let her and Gentia and the pregnant females in this village sort things out for themselves. Trust her to do the work she was trained to do.”
“And what am I supposed to do then?” Alice wondered dejectedly as Io appeared at his brother’s wrist just to say hi and attempt to bring a smile to her face. It worked for a moment. “Hello there, Io.”
‘Good morning, Alice. How is your arm feeling.’
“Much better, thanks to you!” She affirmed before throwing Russell an annoyed glare. “But it looks like I’ll have plenty of time to rest now?”
“Oh come off it, what can’t you do?” Russell demanded. “There is a whole village of Cauthan that could use your help and your guidance in matters that don’t involve the life, or Kel forbid the death, of the next generation. Xan needs your help, Alice.”
“I think if you asked him, Xan would say he doesn’t need anyone,” Alice pouted, still a bit annoyed at how that particular Cauthan had dismissed the Event Horizon to Thantis the prior afternoon, referring to it as a ‘floating metal cave in the sky’.
“That’s because Xan is an idiot boy!” Russell snapped, looking over Alice’s shoulder at Veera. Her eyes were already waiting for his as she cocked her head at him. “Just like I was.” Russell heaved a sigh and shook his head as if to clear it. “Look Alice, I’m not asking for a miracle or anything. But he is their apprentice death priest. I think you should be spending the majority of your time with him instead of wandering around offering your services to whomever strikes your fancy.”
“I can only do so much, Rusty,” Alice protested softly.
“I know, I know. Just…look, I want Xan to realize that he isn’t destined to live a shell of his former life. Everyone around him who cares for him has told him that, but he’s a young man and I’m sure you remember what teenage boys are like back on Earth. He doesn’t care for comforting words or pity. You’re one of the few people who can show him that there is a full life waiting for those who follow the path of knowledge instead of fighting.”
Alice wiped her hands gently on the rough leather that Russell had delivered her meal in, contemplating the things he’d said. She hated to admit it, but he was right on both counts. “I suppose I wouldn’t be too happy in his position either,” she agreed. “Thantis is a charming and wonderful individual, but that doesn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t want to be him at my age, certainly not if I were even younger. Just…tell me how it goes with Antoth, alright?”
“You know I will. Come here,” Russell offered, standing and helping his sister up and into another hug, one that Veera joined in, adding an extra element of fluff and compassion to the embrace. “I’m on your side here, Alice. I want Asha delivering her cub in safety on that ship just as much as you do.”
“Thanks Rusty. I’ll do what I can with Xan, alright?”
“Can you explain to me how you’ve trapped cold, blue fire in this marvelous contraption first? And how is it so clear?! Did you sneak off to Auril when we weren’t looking?” Veera demanded of Alice’s lamp. The three of them broke apart and Alice winked her brother’s way.
“Looks like I’ve got something to do, Rusty. Get going then.”
“Already acting like this was your idea? Never change, sis. I’m going. Veera?” He called after his wife as he stood by the doorway, rain splattering lightly against his boots.
“Yes dear, I’ll find my way back home or to the barracks. Alice, this is so light and powerful! How does it work? Is it portable? Does it work at night? Could I carry one?”
‘It would appear a new era of the town watch may be upon us, sir. Let us be off. By my calculations the shuttle window is already open if Madame Dupuis is to arrive this morning.’
“Understood. See you later, girls!”
“Bye Rusty!” Alice waved as he departed, content with a full stomach and a curious Cauthan who wanted to understand the finer points of LED’s.
-----
“Winters, each time I speak with you and your sister the demands become more and more steep,” Antoth complained, his voice deep and contemplative as the two of them walked through the sodden streets. Hoods and a good downpour made for excellent auditory concealment.
“That’s why I came to you and left her with Veera. Her heart is in the right place, but I know you’d only consider this if it came from me directly.”
“You are not wrong about that,” Antoth agreed as they wandered through the narrow avenues that made up the southeast quadrant of the village.
“You know I helped Zolta and Asha get together. That cub isn’t mine but it’s special to me, Antoth. Same with yours. We fought together. I want Ratha and your cub to be healthy.”
“Now that I am less inclined to believe,” Antoth chuckled as they walked past the Temple of the Twin Moons.
“Like I said, Antoth, it’s your cub too,” Winters repeated, coming to a halt as Antoth paused his pace and sought shelter under the eaves of the side of the temple. “Antoth, what is it?” The human demanded. The Cauthan’s scars were pulled taut across his face as he grimaced.
“I have already lost one cub and mate to Kel. I cannot lose another…I cannot trust your people.”
Io had appeared in Winters’ visor, which he sported in lieu of the Aegis on that day. Her hands were clasped over her mouth and she was trying to hold back tears. They had never known. How could they have? Winters felt much the same, a leaden weight filling the pit of his stomach as they learned something new about the former Guardian even after a year of kinship. “I’m sorry, Antoth.”
“And were you that Admiral I would tell you that I do not need your pity, human. But you are my brother in arms, and to you alone I will say that my heart still aches for them; even as I know the love of another female and feel the cub grow within her belly. I assume you are listening, Spirit Io? Do not worry, I count you among that order to which I, perhaps unwisely, am choosing to show weakness.”
‘Oh you big, furry, idiot! Du flauschiger barbar!’ Io gasped tearfully. ‘Anytime you need to talk we are here for you! Right, sir?!’
“Yeah, what she said,'' Winters agreed, resting a hand on Antoth’s shoulder. “And you should know that the only reason I’m speaking with you of this is because I truly believe that if the worst happens we together have a better chance of saving Asha, Ratha, or any of your cubs and mothers than Gentia and her acolytes do alone.”
Antoth exhaled heavily, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword and looking up past the overhang of the wooden roof at the turbulent gray skies above. He found it an apt analogy. “Your people are as Felen,” he eventually spoke. “When does rain and the promise of a bountiful harvest turn to flood? When does a gentle breeze turn to the gale that fells the trees of the forest and rips our crops from the ground? Where is the line between savior and oppressor?”
“I don’t know, Antoth,” Russell admitted freely. “But my people have been asking questions like that for centuries. You and your people will fit right in. That and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Alice’s literal job is to protect your culture. It’s a fine line where to help and where to step back,” the soldier admitted. “But that doesn’t change the fact that she’ll do everything she can. And it doesn’t change my answer either.”
“And you have met this female? I find her name difficult to pronounce,” Antoth said, pressing off the wall and continuing their walk around the village. Russell fell in quickly at his side.
“I have, though only briefly. It was when Xan and the rest of us went up to the ship,” he explained.
“Mmm, I see. And your impression of her?”
“Let’s just say if she can handle my sister she’s got a fighting chance with Gentia.”
“Ha!” Antoth’s laughter boomed through the drenched and sparsely populated streets. “Your words are wise, human. I should have faith in my own people as well.”
‘Do not be so hard on yourself, Antoth,’ Io encouraged him. ‘I don’t think it’s an understatement to say your reign will be the most important in the entire history of this little village. And while we are not unbiased, the Lieutenant and I are always around to lend an ear.’
“Biased as in we are on your side,” Russell added as the two men recalled the words exchanged on the night he was married to Veera.
“Spirit Io?”
‘Yes, Antoth? How may I help?’
“Tell your Admiral that we will permit this human entry to our village, and that her continued presence will be subject to the discretion of Gentia and her acolytes. As for your sister…”
“Let me stop you there for a second,” Russell offered as Io pinged the communication satellites and passed a written message to Natori that Yvonne should prepare her affairs for an introductory visit to Mara. “I’ve already spoken with Alice about this. She agreed that for now things should be kept between Gentia, her acolytes, Asha, and Yvonne, as well as any other expectant mothers who might wish to participate,” he added.
“I do not sense that she came to this conclusion of her own accord,” Antoth proposed keenly.
“No, she didn’t. But she saw reason. She’s excited, Antoth, but she is not a healer by training. As such she’s agreed to remain on the sidelines and receive information indirectly from Yvonne. What I do know is that this woman is a doctor. It’s her trade and that means she’s held to a set of various moral codes including the secrecy of patient information. Alice will not learn anything that Asha or Gentia don’t want her to.”
‘This duty of patient care is referred to as the Hippocratic Oath,’ Io clarified. ‘On the subject of, well, subjects...where is Ratha, Antoth?’
“She is hunting,” the sun priest replied shortly, sudden agitation in his voice. “She says the rain makes stalking easier. Perhaps she simply enjoys the sound of rain in the trees.”
“She’s not going after hyrven still, is she?” Russell wondered nervously. Antoth shook his head.
“No, just chesko. But that does not mean the hyrven have stopped hunting her. I am hesitant to keep her here, from what she loves. But I worry for my mate and my cub endlessly,” he admitted freely. Io and Russell shared a glance via his visor. Such matters were certainly outside of their wheelhouse. Eventually Russell hit upon an idea, smiling as he grabbed Antoth by the shoulder.
“What was the last time you sparred, Antoth?”
“Too long ago. Serving Seil is more burdensome than I imagined,” Antoth replied sadly. “Besides, it is Staroth’s purpose to train our guards now, Veera included. I would only be infringing on his responsibilities.”
“Well I don’t ever recall signing up to be a guard,” Winters observed casually, turning around and heading back towards the roads that would lead to the barracks. He continued to playfully goad Antoth. “And I think your troops could use a lesson or two in human combat styles, a show match maybe? I’m sure they’re slacking and sitting inside on their asses during this rain.”
Behind them Antoth calmly shook his head, chuckling and baring his teeth. “You are a good friend, Winters. Do not blame me when your ass is in the mud.”
“Now that is what I like to hear! You’ll be the one drinking dirt by the way,” the Jumper cried happily. “Io, status?”
‘The Admiral acknowledged our message, sir. Yvonne Dupuis will be arriving with the next shuttle.’
-----
“Ma chatounette, are you sure that this is wise?” Gerard worried, stroking his moustache more forcefully than usual as Yvonne packed an overnight bag as well as a larger duffel full of what portable medical equipment she had been able to put together over the course of an hour. It included an ultrasound machine the size of a vintage typewriter as well as standard PPE and the tools of a general practitioner. “No matter our intentions they will not understand what you are doing, and there is no greater threat than to their young. They have claws and talons, Yvonne!”
“And I will have a pistol as well as a Marine, mon loup. Shouldn’t you be figuring out how to produce a viable method to map xDNA genomes?” Yvonne suggested, zipping up her medical bag and sashaying over to her husband, dressed in clothing much more reasonable for a trip to the surface than a one piece jumpsuit. His nervous face softened as she pressed her body against his. “You have been given the chance of a lifetime, Gerard. We even have a field camp set up next to a thermal hot spot. I am sure your heat-resistant x-polymerase is just waiting for you!”
“And until I have the means of extracting an appropriate polymerase from our new furry allies or the microbes of the planet I will continue to worry for you, Yvonne. You know as well as I do that x-nucleotides fluoresce. A simple recalibration of our sequencing hardware should suffice, which leaves me even more time to worry. Though I suppose new anchor sequences will be needed as well. Perhaps there is a way to shorten the length given the increased information density of xDNA itself…”
“And this is why I love you,” Yvonne laughed delightfully, leaving a feathery kiss just below his facial hair. “But you know how difficult this journey has been for me, Gerard.”
“And that is precisely why I intend to burden you with the guilt born of my worry before stepping aside and allowing you to depart for the shuttle bay,” he assured her with a sly smile. “Do you know who your first patient will be?”
“Her name is Asha. All Natori would say is that she is a friend of Alice’s brother. And you know better than to ask!” She insisted, swatting him lightly on the chest and collecting her bags. Gerard moved swiftly to cut her off.
“Ah ah ah, ma chatounette. I will be taking those,” he insisted, taking up her things and making to escort her to the shuttle bay. “Should I expect you for dinner?”
“In all likelihood, oh husband of mine,” she cooed, taking satisfaction in the sight of him lifting heavy things for her. “While I will not miss those jumpsuits, I do not expect I will simply be welcomed with open arms. I may not even conduct an examination today. I am to meet with the village’s midwife, or perhaps chief midwife. I am unsure. That tale, at least, you will hear upon my return.”
“I look forward to it with rapturous anticipation,” Gerard declared as they reached the tube station nearest to their berth. He set her effects down gently and embraced her once more. “I love you, Yvonne. Go make history, my dear. It is what we came here for.”
“I will go and care for my new patients,” the French matron corrected him, a glint of excitement in her eyes. “The papers will take care of themselves.”
“I suppose this is why our children ended up so well adjusted,” Gerard laughed. Yvonne ran a finger over the wrinkles that marked the creases of his face. There were far more in the places he laughed than frowned.
“And you are the reason they are humble.”
“Tell Alice I wish her well when you see her,” he requested.
“Of course Gerard. Do not get too lonely now.”
“Perish the thought my dear. I have one blood sample left from the young Cauthan lad. Perhaps I will take a gander at his red blood cells, assuming he has any!” With a final peck on the lips, Gerard assisted his wife into the waiting transportation pod, handing her the bags next. When she was ready the door closed shut and the two waved goodbye as Cassia’s voice announced the departure of the pod. The interaction had Gerard scratching his head as he turned and headed for the mess hall, a light lunch on his mind before returning to the laboratories. “I really must get to the bottom of that rumor. She does sound a bit more…Germanic of late.”
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“Yvonne Dupuis, I assume?” Pilot Cromwell asked politely as a buxom, black-haired woman floated gracefully from the entrance of the hangar to just beside her shuttle.
“I am indeed. This is the shuttle to the village?” Yvonne requested, the distinction made necessary thanks to the handful of sorties that now headed to the nascent research facility at Kel’s Forge.
“The one and only Mara Express,” Cromwell affirmed proudly. “I think the locals have started to recognize me now, so I’m the one to keep going down there. That's all you’re bringing?”
“I anticipate returning this evening,” Yvonne clarified. Cromwell nodded, gesturing to the open hatch.
“Understood. Hop on in and feel free to set your things with the rest of the supplies. Alice always seems to need something or other.”
“Brilliant and eccentric,” Yvonne confirmed, stepping into the shuttle and securing her baggage before strapping herself into her seat. Cromwell walked past her and took her position in the cockpit, closing the exterior doors and spinning up the engines.
“This is Pilot Cromwell to the bridge. Passenger secured. Requesting clearance for take off.”
“Granted,” came the voice of a watch-stander. “Loading your entry telemetry now.”
“Thanks. Cromwell out,” the pilot replied, cutting the feed and pushing brick off the floor of the hangar. As she eased the shuttle out past the force field, she struck up conversation with her solitary passenger. “So what’s your story, madam?”
“I was brought aboard to offer care to children and infants. With none left following the change in mission, I find myself in the position of possibly tending to the Cauthan. A great deal remains to be seen.”
Cromwell whistled long and loud as the main thrusters engaged and began pushing them towards the surface. “You’re going to have your hands full. Those feathered teddy bears are full of energy, and their parents watch you like a hawk the moment they get close to you. But MacGregor has one hanging off him almost every time I see him now, couldn’t be that bad. Best of luck to you.”
“Thank you very much, Pilot. What else can you tell me about this village?” Yvonne inquired, her tablet open and active in her lap.
“You’re asking the wrong person. I’ve never been on the inside. I’m sure Alice and Lachlan will be there when we touch down; they can fill you in. I’m just the chauffeur,” Cromwell said, making light of her own role in the exploration of Mara.
“We all play our part,” Yvonne agreed.
“Who knows, maybe I’ll chat up one of those guards before the window closes later today?” Cromwell suggested. “Hang on to your things, it looks like clouds and rain below. Turbulence might last a bit longer than normal.”
Yvonne did as instructed, clasping her tablet tightly and shutting her eyes. She breathed deeply as the jostling of re-entry gave way to the turbulence of the clouds that were blanketing the forests and plains below with a summer rainstorm. “Is it always like this?”
“Nope, first day of rain I’ve flown through down here. You sure picked it.”
“I did not pick it,” Yvonne insisted. “But it will be good to get the bad luck out of the way before touching down.”
If Cromwell had any thoughts on luck when it came to the Cauthan, she kept them to herself. After only a couple more minutes they had a visual on the village, and soon after Yvonne was embraced by a rather soggy Alice Winters, who had come to greet her under the protection of the open shuttle door. Behind her stood Lachlan MacGregor the Marine escort, and a female Cauthan unknown. It was clear enough that the young Cauthan in the Marine’s hands belonged to her. The ‘feathered teddy bear’ in question was sheltering under a leather cloak far too large for him, but he paid it no mind as he gazed at the shuttle, his curiosity not dampened by the weather.
“Uttle!” Ursol clamored as Cromwell emerged from the cockpit and waved playfully at him. He pawed back at the vehicle, excited by the sounds and moving parts.
“That’s ‘shuttle’, young fluffy lad. Just because yer mum is off work doesn’t mean you get to slack around on yer words. Aren’t ye gonna be five soon?”
Alice watched Yvonne with a smile a mile wide. “Aren’t they precious?” The matronly Frenchwoman did her best to remain reserved and composed as a handful of Cauthan assembled at the gates, looking on with curiosity and skepticism.
“He is the most delightful bundle of fluff I have ever seen.”
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What a USL D1 league might look like

TL;DR: Man with too much time on his hands goes deep down the rabbit hole on a concept this sub already didn’t seem that enthusiastic about. If you really want to skip ahead, CTRL+F “verdict” and it’ll get you there.
Two days ago, u/MrPhillyj2wns made a post asking whether USL should launch a D1 league in order to compete in Concacaf. From the top voted replies, it appears this made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
But I’ve been at home for eight weeks and I am terribly, terribly bored.
So, I present to you this overview of what the USL pyramid might look like if Jake Edwards got a head of steam and attempted to establish a USSF-sanctioned first division. This is by no means an endorsement of such a proposal or even a suggestion that USL SHOULD do such a thing. It is merely an examination of whether they COULD.
Welcome to the Thunderdome USL Premiership
First, there are some base-level assumptions we must make in this exercise, because it makes me feel more scientific and not like a guy who wrote this on Sunday while watching the Belarusian Premier League (Go BATE Borisov!).
  1. All D1 teams must comply with known USSF requirements for D1 leagues (more on that later).
  2. MLS, not liking this move, will immediately remove all directly-owned affiliate clubs from the USL structure (this does not include hybrid ownerships, like San Antonio FC – NYCFC). This removes all MLS2 teams but will not affect Colorado Springs, Reno, RGVFC and San Antonio.
  3. The USL will attempt to maintain both the USL Championship and USL League One, with an eventual mind toward creating the pro/rel paradise that is promised in Relegations 3:16.
  4. All of my research regarding facility size and ownership net worth is correct – this is probably the biggest leap of faith we have to make, since googling “NAME net worth” and “CITY richest people” doesn’t seem guaranteed to return accurate results.
  5. The most a club can increase its available seating capacity to meet D1 requirements in a current stadium is no more than 1,500 seats (10% of the required 15,000). If they need to add more, they’ll need a new facility.
  6. Let’s pretend that people are VERY willing to sell. It’s commonly acknowledged that the USL is a more financially feasible route to owning a soccer club than in MLS (c.f. MLS-Charlotte’s reported $325 million expansion fee) and the USSF has some very strict requirements for D1 sanctioning. It becomes pretty apparent when googling a lot of team’s owners that this requirement isn’t met, so let’s assume everyone that can’t sells to people who meet the requirements.
(Known) USSF D1 league requirements:
- League must have 12 teams to apply and 14 teams by year three
- Majority owner must have a net worth of $40 million, and the ownership group must have a total net worth of $70 million. The value of an owned stadium is not considered when calculating this value.
- Must have teams located in the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones
- 75% of league’s teams must be based in markets with at a metro population of at least 1 million people.
- All league stadiums must have a capacity of at least 15,000
The ideal club candidate for the USL Premiership will meet the population and capacity requirements in its current ground, which will have a grass playing surface. Of the USL Championship’s 27 independent/hybrid affiliate clubs, I did not find one club that meets all these criteria as they currently stand.
Regarding turf fields, the USSF does not have a formal policy regarding the ideal playing surface but it is generally acknowledged that grass is superior to turf. 6 of 26 MLS stadiums utilize turf, or roughly 23% of stadiums. We’ll hold a similar restriction for our top flight, so 2-3 of our top flight clubs can have turf fields. Seem fair?
Capacity is going to be the biggest issue, since the disparity between current requirements for the second-tier (5,000) and the first tier (15,000) is a pretty massive gap. Nice club you have there, triple your capacity and you’re onto something. As a result, I have taken the liberty of relocating certain (read: nearly all) clubs to new grounds, trying my utmost to keep those clubs in their current markets and –importantly--, ensure they play on grass surfaces.
So, let’s do a case-by-case evaluation and see if we can put together 12-14 teams that meet the potential requirements, because what else do you have to do?
For each club’s breakdown, anything that represents a chance from what is currently true will be underlined.
Candidate: Birmingham Legion FC
Location (Metro population): Birmingham, Ala. (1,151,801)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Legion Field (FieldTurf, 71,594)
Potential owner: Stephens Family (reported net worth $4 billion)
Notes: Birmingham has a pretty strong candidacy. Having ditched the 5,000-seater BBVA Field for Legion Field, which sits 2.4 miles away, they’ve tapped into the city’s soccer history. Legion Field hosted portions of both the men’s and women’s tournaments at the 1996 Olympics, including a 3-1 U.S. loss to Argentina that saw 83,183 pack the house. The Harbert family seemed like strong ownership contenders, but since the death of matriarch Marguerite Harbert in 2015, it’s unclear where the wealth in the family is concentrated, so the Stephens seem like a better candidate. The only real knock that I can think of is that we really want to avoid having clubs play on turf, so I’d say they’re on the bubble of our platonic ideal USL Prem.
Candidate: Charleston Battery
Location (Metro population): Charleston, S.C. (713,000)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Johnson Hagood Stadium (Grass, ~14,700)
Potential owner: Anita Zucker (reported net worth $3 billion)
Notes: Charleston’s candidacy isn’t looking great. Already disadvantaged due to its undersized metro population, a move across the Cooper River to Johnson Hagood Stadium is cutting it close in terms of capacity. The stadium, home to The Citadel’s football team, used to seat 21,000, before 9,300 seats on the eastern grandstand were torn down in 2017 to deal with lead paint that had been used in their construction. Renovation plans include adding 3,000 seats back in, which could hit 15,000 if they bumped it to 3,300, but throw in a required sale by HCFC, LLC (led by content-creation platform founder Rob Salvatore) to chemical magnate Anita Zucker, and you’ll see there’s a lot of ifs and ands in this proposal.
Candidate: Charlotte Independence
Location (Metro population): Charlotte, N.C. (2,569, 213)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Jerry Richardson Stadium (Turf, 15,314)
Potential owner: James Goodnight (reported net worth $9.1 billion)
Notes: Charlotte ticks a lot of the boxes. A move from the Sportsplex at Matthews to UNC-Charlotte’s Jerry Richardson stadium meets capacity requirements, but puts them on to the dreaded turf. Regrettably, nearby American Legion Memorial Stadium only seats 10,500, despite a grass playing surface. With a sizeable metro population (sixth-largest in the USL Championship) and a possible owner in software billionaire James Goodnight, you’ve got some options here. The biggest problem likely lies in direct competition for market share against a much better-funded MLS Charlotte side due to join the league in 2021.
Candidate: Hartford Athletic
Location (Metro population): Hartford, Conn. (1,214,295)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Pratt & Whitney Stadium (Grass, 38,066)
Potential owner: Ray Dalio (reported net worth $18.4 billion)
Notes: Okay, I cheated a bit here, having to relocate Hartford to Pratt & Whitney Stadium, which is technically in East Hartford, Conn. I don’t know enough about the area to know if there’s some kind of massive beef between the two cities, but the club has history there, having played seven games in 2019 while Dillon Stadium underwent renovations. If the group of local businessmen that currently own the club manage to attract Dalio to the table, we’re on to something.
Candidate: Indy Eleven
Location (Metro population): Indianapolis, Ind. (2,048,703)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Lucas Oil Stadium (Turf, 62,421)
Potential owner: Jim Irsay (reported net worth of $3 billion)
Notes: Indy Eleven are a club that are SO CLOSE to being an ideal candidate – if it weren’t for Lucas Oil Stadium’s turf playing surface. Still, there’s a lot to like in this bid. I’m not going to lie, I have no idea what current owner and founder Ersal Ozdemir is worth, but it seems like there might be cause for concern. A sale to Irsay, who also owns the NFL Indianapolis (nee Baltimore) Colts, seems likely to keep the franchise there, rather than make a half-mile move to 14,230 capacity Victory Field where the AAA Indianapolis Indians play and expand from there.
Candidate: Louisville City FC
Location (Metro population): Louisville, Ky. (1,297,310)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Lynn Family Stadium (Grass, 14,000, possibly expandable to 20,000)
Potential owner: Wayne Hughes (reported net worth $2.8 billion)
Notes: I’m stretching things a bit here. Lynn Family stadium is currently listed as having 11,700 capacity that’s expandable to 14,000, but they’ve said that the ground could hold as many as 20,000 with additional construction, which might be enough to grant them a temporary waiver from USSF. If the stadium is a no-go, then there’s always Cardinal Stadium, home to the University of Louisville’s football team, which seats 65,000 but is turf. Either way, it seems like a sale to someone like Public Storage founder Wayne Hughes will be necessary to ensure the club has enough capital.
Candidate: Memphis 901 FC
Location (Metro population): Memphis, Tenn. (1,348,260)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Liberty Bowl Stadium (Turf, 58,325)
Potential owner: Fred Smith (reported net worth $3 billion)
Notes: Unfortunately for Memphis, AutoZone Park’s 10,000 seats won’t cut it at the D1 level. With its urban location, it would likely prove tough to renovate, as well. Liberty Bowl Stadium more than meets the need, but will involve the use of the dreaded turf. As far as an owner goes, FedEx founder Fred Smith seems like a good local option.
Candidate: Miami FC, “The”
Location (Metro population): Miami, Fla. (6,158,824)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Riccardo Silva Stadium (FieldTurf, 20,000)
Potential owner: Riccardo Silva (reported net worth $1 billion)
Notes: Well, well, well, Silva might get his wish for top-flight soccer, after all. He’s got the money, he’s got the metro, and his ground has the capacity. There is the nagging issue of the turf, though. Hard Rock Stadium might present a solution, including a capacity of 64,767 and a grass playing surface. It is worth noting, however, that this is the first profile where I didn’t have to find a new potential owner for a club.
Candidate: North Carolina FC
Location (Metro population): Durham, N.C. (1,214,516 in The Triangle)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Carter-Finley Stadium (Grass/Turf, 57,583)
Potential owner: Steve Malik (precise net worth unknown) / Dennis Gillings (reported net worth of $1.7 billion)
Notes: We have our first “relocation” in North Carolina FC, who were forced to trade Cary’s 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Park for Carter-Finley Stadium in Durham, home of the NC State Wolfpack and 57,583 of their closest friends. The move is a whopping 3.1 miles, thanks to the close-knit hub that exists between Cary, Durham and Raleigh. Carter-Finley might be my favorite of the stadium moves in this exercise. The field is grass, but the sidelines are artificial turf. Weird, right? Either way, it was good enough for Juventus to play a friendly against Chivas de Guadalajara there in 2011. Maybe the move would be pushed for by new owner and medical magnate Dennis Gillings, whose British roots might inspire him to get involved in the Beautiful Game. Straight up, though, I couldn’t find a net worth for current owner Steve Malik, though he did sell his company MedFusion for $91 million in 2010, then bought it back for an undisclosed amount and sold it again for $43 million last November. I don’t know if Malik has the juice to meet D1 requirements, but I suspect he’s close.
Candidate: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Location (Metro population): Pittsburgh, Penn. (2,362,453)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Heinz Field (Grass, 64,450)
Potential owner: Henry Hillman (reported net worth $2.5 billion)
Notes: I don’t know a ton about the Riverhounds, but this move in particular feels like depriving a pretty blue-collar club from its roots. Highmark Stadium is a no-go from a seating perspective, but the Steelers’ home stadium at Heinz Field would more than meet the requirements and have a grass surface that was large enough to be sanctioned for a FIFA friendly between the U.S. WNT and Costa Rica in 2015. As for an owner, Tuffy Shallenberger (first ballot owner name HOF) doesn’t seem to fit the USSF bill, but legendary Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Hillman might. I’m sure you’re asking, why not the Rooney Family, if they’ll play at Heinz Field? I’ll tell you: I honestly can’t seem to pin down a value for the family. The Steelers are valued at a little over a billion and rumors persist that Dan Rooney is worth $500 million, but I’m not sure. I guess the Rooneys would work too, but it’s a definite departure from an owner in Shallenberger who was described by one journalist as a guy who “wears boots, jeans, a sweater and a trucker hat.”
Candidate: Saint Louis FC
Location (Metro population): St. Louis, Mo. (2,807,338)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Busch Stadium (Grass, 45,494)
Potential owner: William DeWitt Jr. (reported net worth $4 billion)
Notes: Saint Louis has some weirdness in making the jump to D1. Current CEO Jim Kavanaugh is an owner of the MLS side that will begin play in 2022. The club’s current ground at West Community Stadium isn’t big enough, but perhaps a timely sale to Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr. could see the club playing games at Busch Stadium, which has a well established history of hosting other sports like hockey, college football and soccer (most recently a U.S. WNT friendly against New Zealand in 2019). The competition with another MLS franchise wouldn’t be ideal, like Charlotte, but with a big enough population and cross marketing from the Cardinals, maybe there’s a winner here. Wacko idea: If Busch doesn’t pan out, send them to The Dome. Sure, it’s a 60k turf closed-in stadium, but we can go for that retro NASL feel and pay homage to our nation’s soccer history.
Candidate: Tampa Bay Rowdies
Location (Metro population): Tampa, Fla. (3,068,511)
Time zone: Eastern
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Raymond James Stadium (Grass, 65,518)
Potential owner: Edward DeBartolo Jr. (reported net worth $3 billion)
Notes: This one makes me sad. Despite having never been there, I see Al Lang Stadium as an iconic part of the Rowdies experience. Current owner Bill Edwards proposed an expansion to 18,000 seats in 2016, but the move seems to have stalled out. Frustrated with the city’s lack of action, Edwards sells to one-time San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., who uses his old NFL connections to secure a cushy lease at the home of the Buccaneers in Ray Jay, the site of a 3-1 thrashing of Antigua and Barbuda during the United States’ 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign.
Breather. Hey, we finished the Eastern Conference teams. Why are you still reading this? Why am I still writing it? Time is a meaningless construct in 2020 my friends, we are adrift in the void, fueled only by brief flashes of what once was and what may yet still be.
Candidate: Austin Bold FC
Location (Metro population): Austin, Texas (2,168,316)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Darrel K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium (FieldTurf, 95,594)
Potential owner: Michael Dell (reported net worth of $32.3 billion)
Notes: Anthony Precourt’s Austin FC has some unexpected competition and it comes in the form of tech magnate Michael Dell. Dell, were he to buy the club, would be one of the richest owners on our list and could flash his cash in the new first division. Would he have enough to convince Darrel K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium (I’m not kidding, that’s its actual name) to go back to a grass surface, like it did from ’96-’08? That’s between Dell and nearly 100,000 UT football fans, but everything can be had for the right price.
Candidate: Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
Location (Metro population): Colorado Springs, Colo. (738,939)
Time zone: Mountain
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Falcon Stadium (FieldTurf, 46,692)
Potential owner: Charles Ergen (reported net worth $10.8 billion)
Notes: Welcome to Colorado Springs. We have hurdles. For the first time in 12 candidates, we’re back below the desired 1 million metro population mark. Colorado Springs actually plans to build a $35 million, 8,000 seat venue downtown that will be perfect for soccer, but in our timeline that’s 7,000 seats short. Enter Falcon Stadium, home of the Air Force Academy Falcons football team. Seems perfect except for the turf, right? Well, the tricky thing is that Falcon Stadium is technically on an active military base and is (I believe) government property. Challenges to getting in and out of the ground aside, the military tends to have a pretty grim view of government property being used by for-profit enterprises. Maybe Charles Ergen, founder and chairman of Dish Network, would be able to grease the right wheels, but you can go ahead and throw this into the “doubtful” category. It’s a shame, too. 6,035 feet of elevation is one hell of a home-field advantage.
Candidate: El Paso Locomotive FC
Location: El Paso, Texas
Time zone: Mountain
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Sun Bowl (FieldTurf, 51,500)
Potential owner: Paul Foster (reported net worth $1.7 billion)
Notes: God bless Texas. When compiling this list, I found so many of the theoretical stadium replacements were nearly serviceable by high school football fields. That’s insane, right? Anyway, Locomotive don’t have to settle for one of those, they’ve got the Sun Bowl, which had its capacity reduced in 2001 to a paltry 51,500 (from 52,000) specifically to accommodate soccer. Sure, it’s a turf surface, but what does new owner Paul Foster (who is only the 1,477th wealthiest man in the world, per Forbes) care, he’s got a team in a top league. Side note: Did you know that the Sun Bowl college football game is officially, through sponsorship, the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl? Why is it not the Frosted Flakes Sun Bowl? Why is the cereal mascot the promotional name of the football game? What are you doing, Kellogg’s?
Candidate: Las Vegas Lights FC
Location: Las Vegas, Nev. (2,227,053)
Time zone: Pacific
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Allegiant Stadium (Grass, 61,000)
Potential owner: Sheldon Adelson (reported net worth $37.7 billion)
Notes: Sin City. You had to know that the club that once signed Freddy Adu because “why not” was going to go all out in our flashy hypothetical proposal. Thanks to my narrative control of this whole thing, they have. Adelson is the second-richest owner in the league and has decided to do everything first class. That includes using the new Raiders stadium in nearby unincorporated Paradise, Nevada, and spending boatloads on high profile transfers. Zlatan is coming back to the U.S., confirmed.
Candidate: New Mexico United
Location: Albuquerque, N.M.
Time zone: Mountain
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Isotopes Park – officially Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park (Grass, 13,500 – 15,000 with expansion)
Potential owner: Maloof Family (reported net worth $1 billion)
Notes: New Mexico from its inception went deep on the community vibe, and I’ve tried to replicate that in this bid. The home field of Rio Grande Cr---I’m not typing out the whole thing—Isotopes Park falls just within the expansion rules we set to make it to 15,000 (weird, right?) and they’ve found a great local ownership group in the Lebanese-American Maloof (formerly Maalouf) family from Las Vegas. The only thing to worry about would be the metro population, but overall, this could be one of the gems of USL Prem.
Candidate: Oklahoma City Energy FC
Location: Oklahoma City, Okla. (1,396,445)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark (Grass, 13,066)
Potential owner: Harold Hamm (reported net worth $14.2 billion)
Notes: There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow and it says it’s time to change stadiums and owners to make it to D1. A sale to oil magnate Harold Hamm would give the club the finances it needs, but Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark (home of the OKC Dodgers) actually falls outside of the boundary of what would meet capacity if 1,500 seats were added. Could the club pull off a move to Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma – home of the Oklahoma Sooners? Maybe, but at 20 miles, this would be a reach.
Candidate: Orange County SC
Location: Irvine, Calif. (3,176, 000 in Orange County)
Time zone: Pacific
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Angels Stadium of Anaheim (Grass, 43,250)
Potential owner: Arte Moreno (reported net worth $3.3 billion)
Notes: You’ll never convince me that Rangers didn’t choose to partner with Orange County based primarily on its name. Either way, a sale to MLB Angels owner Arte Moreno produces a fruitful partnership, with the owner choosing to play his newest club out of the existing Angels stadium in OC. Another baseball conversion, sure, but with a metro population of over 3 million and the closest thing this hypothetical league has to an LA market, who’s complaining?
Candidate: Phoenix Rising FC
Location: Phoenix, Ariz. (4,857,962)
Time zone: Arizona
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): State Farm Stadium (Grass, 63,400)
Potential owner: Ernest Garcia II (reported net worth $5.7 billion)
Notes: We’re keeping it local with new owner and used car guru Ernest Garcia II. His dad owned a liquor store and he dropped out of college, which is making me feel amazing about my life choices right now. Casino Arizona Field is great, but State Farm Stadium is a grass surface that hosted the 2019 Gold Cup semifinal, so it’s a clear winner. Throw in Phoenix’s massive metro population and this one looks like a lock.
Candidate: Reno 1868 FC
Location: Reno, Nev. (425,417)
Time zone: Pacific
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Mackay Stadium (FieldTurf, 30,000)
Potential owner: Nancy Walton Laurie (reported net worth $7.1 billion)
Notes: The Biggest Little City on Earth has some serious barriers to overcome, thanks to its low metro population. A sale to Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie and 1.6 mile-move to Mackay Stadium to split space with the University of Nevada, Reno makes this bid competitive, but the turf surface is another knock against it.
Candidate: Rio Grande Valley FC
Location: Edinburg, Texas (900,304)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): McAllen Memorial Stadium (FieldTurf, 13,500 – 15,000 with expansion)
Potential owner: Alice Louise Walton (reported net worth $45 billion)
Notes: Yes, I have a second straight Walmart heiress on the list. She was the first thing that popped up when I googled “McAllen Texas richest people.” The family rivalry has spurred Walton to buy a club as well, moving them 10 miles to McAllen Memorial Stadium which, as I alluded to earlier, is a straight up high school football stadium with a full color scoreboard. Toss in an additional 1,500 seats and you’ve met the minimum, despite the turf playing surface.
Candidate: San Antonio FC
Location: San Antonio, Texas (2,550,960)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Alamodome (FieldTurf, 64,000)
Potential owner: Red McCombs (reported net worth $1.6 billion)
Notes: I wanted to keep SAFC in the Spurs family, since the franchise is valued at $1.8 billion. That said, I didn’t let the Rooneys own the Riverhounds based on the Steelers’ value and it felt wrong to change the rules, so bring on Clear Channel co-founder Red McCombs. Toyota Field isn’t viable in the first division, but for the Alamodome, which was built in 1993 in hopes of attracting an NFL franchise (and never did), San Antonio can finally claim having *a* national football league team in its town (contingent on your definition of football). Now if only we could do something about that turf…
Candidate: San Diego Loyal SC
Location: San Diego, Calif. (3,317,749)
Time zone: Pacific
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): SDCCU Stadium (formerly Qualcomm) (Grass, 70,561)
Potential owner: Phil Mickelson (reported net worth $91 million)
Notes: Yes, golf’s Phil Mickelson. The existing ownership group didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to meet requirements, and Phil seemed to slot right in. As an athlete himself, he might be interesting in the new challenges of a top flight soccer team. Toss in a move to the former home of the chargers and you might have a basis for tremendous community support.
Candidate: FC Tulsa
Location: Tulsa, Okla. (991,561)
Time zone: Central
Stadium (playing surface, capacity): Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium (FieldTurf, 30,000)
Potential owner: George Kaiser ($10 billion)
Notes: I’m a fan of FC Tulsa’s rebrand, but if they want to make the first division, more changes are necessary. A sale to Tulsa native and one of the 100 richest men in the world George Kaiser means that funding is guaranteed. A move to Chapman Stadium would provide the necessary seats, despite the turf field. While the undersize population might be an issue at first glance, it’s hard to imagine U.S. Soccer not granting a waiver over a less than a 10k miss from the mark.
And that’s it! You made it. Those are all of the independent/hybrid affiliates in the USL Championship, which means that it’s time for our…
VERDICT: As an expert who has studied this issue for almost an entire day now, I am prepared to pronounce which USL Championships could be most ‘ready” for a jump to the USL Prem. A reminder that of the 27 clubs surveyed, 0 of them met our ideal criteria (proper ownership $, metro population, 15,000+ stadium with grass field).
Two of them, however, met almost all of those criteria: Indy Eleven and Miami FC. Those two clubs may use up two of our three available turf fields right from the outset, but the other factors they hit (particularly Silva’s ownership of Miami) makes them difficult, if not impossible to ignore for the top flight.
But who fill in the rest of the slots? Meet the entire 14-team USL Premier League:
Hartford Athletic
Indy Eleven
Louisville City FC
Miami FC
North Carolina FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Saint Louis FC
San Antonio FC
New Mexico United
Phoenix Rising FC
Las Vegas Lights FC
Orange County SC
San Diego Loyal SC
Now, I shall provide my expert rationale for each club’s inclusion/exclusion, which can be roughly broken down into four categories.
Firm “yes”
Hartford Athletic: It’s a good market size with a solid stadium. With a decent investor and good community support, you’ve got potential here.
Indy Eleven: The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium is no reason to turn down a 62,421 venue and a metro population of over 2 million.
Louisville City FC: Why doesn’t the 2017 & 2018 USL Cup champion deserve a crack at the top flight? They have the market size, and with a bit of expansion have the stadium at their own SSS. LCFC, you’re in.
Miami FC, “The”: Our other blue-chip recruit on the basis of ownership value, market size and stadium capacity. Yes, that field is turf, but how could you snub Silva’s chance to claim victory as the first division 1 club soccer team to play in Miami?
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC: Pittsburgh sacrificed a lot to be here (according to my arbitrary calculations). Their market size and the potential boon of soccer at Heinz Field is an important inclusion to the league.
Saint Louis FC: Willie hears your “Busch League” jokes, Willie don’t care. A huge market size, combined with the absence of an NFL franchise creates opportunity. Competition with the MLS side, sure, but St. Louis has serious soccer history and we’re willing to bet it can support two clubs.
Tampa Bay Rowdies: With a huge population and a massive stadium waiting nearby, Tampa Bay seems like too good of an opportunity to pass up for the USL Prem.
Las Vegas Lights FC: Ostentatious, massive and well-financed, Las Vegas Lights FC is everything that the USL Premier League would need to assert that it didn’t intend to play second fiddle to MLS. Players will need to be kept on a short leash, but this is a hard market to pass up on.
Phoenix Rising FC: Huge population, big grass field available nearby and a solid history of success in recent years. No brainer.
San Diego Loyal SC: New club? Yes, massive population in a market that recently lost an absolutely huge sports presence? Also yes. This could be the USL Prem’s Seattle.
Cautious “yes”
New Mexico United: You have to take a chance on New Mexico United. The club set the league on fire with its social media presence and its weight in the community when it entered the league last season. The market may be slightly under USSF’s desired 1 million, but fervent support (and the ability to continue to use Isotopes Park) shouldn’t be discounted.
North Carolina FC: Carter-Finley’s mixed grass/turf surface is a barrier, to be sure, but the 57,000+ seats it offers (and being enough to offset other fully-turf offerings) is enough to put it in the black.
Orange County SC: It’s a top-tier club playing in a MLB stadium. I know it seems unlikely that USSF would approve something like that, but believe me when I say “it could happen.” Orange County is a massive market and California likely needs two clubs in the top flight.
San Antonio FC: Our third and only voluntary inclusion to the turf fields in the first division, we’re counting on San Antonio’s size and massive potential stadium to see it through.
Cautious “no”
Birmingham Legion FC: The town has solid soccer history and a huge potential venue, but the turf playing surface puts it on the outside looking in.
Memphis 901 FC: Like Birmingham, not much to dislike here outside of the turf playing surface at the larger playing venue.
Austin Bold FC: See the other two above.
FC Tulsa: Everything’s just a little bit off with this one. Market’s slightly too small, stadium has turf. Just not enough to put it over the top.
Firm “no”
Charleston Battery: Small metro and a small potential new stadium? It’s tough to say yes to the risk.
Charlotte Independence: A small new stadium and the possibility of having to compete with an organization that just paid over $300 million to join MLS means it’s best for this club to remain in the USL Championship.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC: When a club’s best chance to meet a capacity requirement is to host games at a venue controlled by the military, that doesn’t speak well to a club’s chances.
El Paso Locomotive FC: An undersized market and a turf field that meets capacity requirements is the death knell for this one.
Oklahoma City Energy FC: Having to expand a baseball field to meet requirements is a bad start. Having to potentially play 20 miles away from your main market is even worse.
Reno 1868 FC: Population nearly a half-million short of the federation’s requirements AND a turf field at the hypothetical new stadium makes impossible to say yes to this bid.
Rio Grande Valley FC: All the seat expansions in the world can’t hide the fact that McAllen Memorial Stadium is a high school stadium through and through.
Here’s who’s left in the 11-team Championship:
Birmingham Legion FC
Charleston Battery
Charlotte Independence
Memphis 901 FC
Austin Bold FC
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
El Paso Locomotive FC
Oklahoma City Energy FC
Reno 1868 FC
Rio Grande Valley FC
FC Tulsa
With MLS folding the six affiliates it has in USL League One, the league is a little bit thin (especially considering USSF’s requirements for 8 teams for lower level leagues), but seems definitely able to expand up to the necessary numbers with Edwards’ allusions to five new additions this year:
Chattanooga Red Wolves SC
Forward Madison FC
Greenville Triumph SC
Union Omaha
Richmond Kickers
South Georgia Tormenta
FC Tucson
Format of Assorted Leagues – This (like everything in this post) is pure conjecture on my part, but here are my thoughts on how these leagues might function in a first year while waiting for additional expansion.
USL Premier – We’ll steal from the 12-team Scottish Premiership. Each club plays the other 11 clubs 3 times, with either one or two home matches against each side. When each club has played 33 matches, the top six and bottom six separate, with every club playing an additional five matches (against each other team in its group). The top club wins the league. The bottom club is automatically relegated. The second-bottom club will enter a two-legged playoff against someone (see below) from the championship playoffs.
USL Championship -- 11 clubs is a challenge to schedule for. How about every club plays everyone else three times (either one or two home matches against each side)? Top four clubs make the playoffs, which are decided by two-legged playoffs. The winner automatically goes up. I need feedback on the second part – is it better to have the runner-up from the playoffs face the second-bottom club from the Premiership, or should the winner of the third-place match-up get the chance to face them to keep drama going in both playoff series? As for relegation, we can clearly only send down the last place club while the third division is so small.
USL League One – While the league is so small, it doesn’t seem reasonable to have the clubs play as many matches as the higher divisions. Each club could play the other six clubs four times – twice at home and twice away – for a very equitable 24-match regular season, which would help restrict costs and still provide a chance to determine a clear winner. Whoever finishes top of the table goes up.
And there you have it, a hypothetical look at how the USL could build a D1 league right now. All it would take is a new stadium for almost the entire league and new owners for all but one of the 27 clubs, who wouldn’t feel that their property would be massively devalued if they got relegated.
Well that’s our show. I’m curious to see what you think of all of this, especially anything that you think I may have overlooked (I’m sure there’s plenty). Anyway, I hope you’re all staying safe and well.
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