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Dear Solar Winds fans… here’s this week’s installment, another extended helping of space opera action and adventure. Like what you read? be sure to start back at part 1, or read the entire story and other original tales by yours truly.
Solar Winds: The Syzygy Gambit Part 4
Andrea watched Mars recede in their aft view until it was once again a tiny glowing orange ember. Now there was nothing to do but prepare for the three-week trip to Earth’s Moon. She knew that this roundabout transit would drastically reduce the critical time they needed on Luna to prepare for the assault. Because of the current solar geometry, they would have to slingshot past Venus, which was actually currently closer to Mars. To any inquiring calls, they were simply an independent scavenging harvester on an inbound run from the Kuiper Belt. Indeed, the Armageddon on Tap had started its life as such a vehicle. Andrea knew that the Professor had “acquired” the ship in his pre-Cartel days, and when she first saw it, it was parked and shut down in Jovian orbit near one of the planet’s Trojan points.
The days soon settled into a shipboard routine; Andrea kept busy by getting to know her team. They left Mars woefully under-equipped and short-handed, and she knew it would be a miracle if they managed to pull off this assault. She kept in shape sparring daily with Valkyrie in the ship’s tiny zero-g gym. She found that, although she couldn’t understand Valkyrie’s alien tongue, she could at least connect with her in this fashion. She had even convinced V.I.C.A.R. to teach her some of Valkyrie’s language.
“They inhabit the Oort Cloud, you know,” The android said to her one day. “They construct large aggregate fusion farms around comet nuclei. They have twenty words for ice, but sunlight is almost unknown to them. This trip to the inner solar system will be difficult for her.”
“What was she doing in the brig of a Legion scout?” Andrea asked.
“She won’t say. She was a long way from the Oort Cloud when they captured her.”
And Andrea still didn’t trust Lori Stutton.
As a former Legion deserter himself, Karl assured Andrea that he could disconnect any neural implants that Lori might’ve received… but who would really know until they got to Terra? Once inside real-time transmission range with the Legion and the Empress, Andrea worried that Lori might rediscover an old allegiance. It’s only a matter of time until the outer worlds are ‘plugged in’, Andrea grimaced. She had heard rumors that Mercury and Venus had already installed local incarnations of the Empress.
Andrea’s communications link crackled to life. “Our pulse laser is powered up…” The Professor said. “We’ll have far side contact for another 30 minutes. We could use your leadership-ness here in the command center.”
Andrea spun around in the hatchway and started towards port side of the ship. “How long ‘til our Venus slingshot?”
“Twelve hours… got any friends there?”
“Perhaps… I’d like private use of the pulse comm. afterwards.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” The Professor said as he clicked off.
Andrea swung down into the cramped control chamber of the ship. Pell and Stutton were already hooked in: the Professor was still aligning the laser, sighting a guide star as the Armageddon continued its dive sunward. “We’ve fired off our greetings,” he called out, squinting through the periscope. “The turnaround delay will be about a ten minutes.”
The pulse laser on the hull was the most secure way to communicate. Rapidly firing off millisecond encoded light pulses, the signal was only visible to a receiver along a precise line of sight. That was also its chief drawback; the signal didn’t hold up to relay very well. Still, it was a very low-tech way to send a secure signal, even if the other problem with laser pulse communicators was that they were borderline illegal. Andrea doubted that they would have to submit to inspection as they rounded Venus to gain speed, but the probability went up when they hit orbit around Luna.
The speaker popped on.
“This is Icarus Monastery, lunar Far side, calling mining tug Primus. Do you copy?”
Andrea leaned into the mic. “Primus here…” Andrea replied, using their agreed upon cover designation. “How’s the weather down there? We hope you’ve got some extra cots…”
They all waited silently through the minutes-long pause. Even in the inner solar system, interplanetary communication could be frustratingly slow. Andrea knew that this fact was probably the only thing protecting the fringe worlds from total submission.
“Chatter is picking up…”
“We are Cerulean. We submit to Cerulean. You will form with Cerulean…”
“Suitably cryptic,” Lori said. “You know these guys?”
“Let’s just say that they don’t have any love of the Terran Legion,” Pell replied. “And their monastery on the lunar far side is the perfect hideout point.”
“We’ll need V.I.C.A.R.’s knowledge of their religious order to interface with their occult methodology,” Andrea observed. Buried on the lunar farside, she knew the Monastery is shielded from most prying eyes. Most lunar habitation was located at the poles and on the Earthward face of the Moon. Only a few deep space observatories and laser propulsion stations existed on the far side. Nice and quiet.
They relayed their arrival time and estimated supply needs to the monastery. It still bothered Andrea that they were woefullyunder prepared. She and Karl agreed that it was best to outline their attack plan in-depth with their new hosts when they arrived at the monastery. It amazed her how much she relied on him and his military strategic know-how. as an art school drop-out, she was all too painfully aware of her non-qualifications to lead this mission. The fact that she had a semi-plan at all seemed to be the only thing that kept her in charge.
“Shrink, keep the pulse commicator up. I’ll be using it in private,” Andrea called out as they all drifted out of the ship’s core.
“No love letters home,” he chided, closing the hatch behind him.
Andrea swiveled the transmitter toward Venus. The featureless planet was now just barely a thumb-sized disk ahead. Andrea manually entered an input a code given to her by Holderson.
An image leapt forth in front of her. The woman bore a studious appearance, complete with heavy horn rim glasses. As if anyone needs those these days…Andrea thought. Still, it completed the look.
“How did you get my line?” Doctor Laetitia Pournova said, allowing herself to be slightly surprised.
“You look different without your testosterone entourage,” Andrea shot back. ”Sorry to bother you at your Venus practice.” Their relative nearness allowed for almost real time communication. “Holderson gave me your link.”
“What brings you into the Inner S? Are you and your merry crew dropping by our balmy world?”
“Just slingshotting through… I’ve got a message to relay to Holderson. I want you to hold it for timed relay.”
Pournova looked relieved “Thank goodness. Jove knows we’ve got enough socio-paths and maladjusted augees to deal with here on Neith…”
“But it keeps you employed, right? I’ll commence relay shortly.”
“Your message is safe here, and Andrea,” Pournova said. Andrea was startled to be called by name. “Watch who you guys cut deals with. There’s a fine line between heroine and martyr.”
The pulse laser fell silent. Andrea drifted back to the long corridor that passed through the center spindle of the ship leading to the main habitation modules. Behind her now were the shunt plates that shrouded the enormous primary fission engines of the Armageddon on Tap. She knew that V.I.C.A.R. was there now, maintaining the motors. He was largely immune to the large doses of radiation that riddled the engine room, plus he could work in a vacuum, meaning they didn’t have to bother with pressurizing the chamber. In the absence of a dedicated engineering drone, a converted chaplain’s android was the best they had. Andrea drifted up past the pod docks. Gotta have someone in ops check those, she thought. The three dart-shaped Pods gifted to them by Holderson might be the key to the success or failure of their mission.
She drifted up into the habitation node. The first chamber was the Emergency Control Room, a storm cellar of sorts that could shield the crew from lethal solar radiation if need be. While the space was cramped, it could house the six of them long enough to protect them from heavy solar particles that would play havoc with their DNA. Sol was reaching the maximum in its current solar cycle, and Karl had been passing on outburst bulletins daily at her request. While solar flares were eagerly sought out by thrill-seeking sunsurfers, they were deadly to most deep space missions and their crews. It was only a matter of time before they would have to use the shelter.
After weeks in deep space, Andrea had noticed flashes in the periphery of her vision, brief bursts that got more intense here in the inner Solar System. A deploy-able solar shroud for the ship was also available, but it hadn’t been used in decades. Meant to shield the craft during mining runs chasing after sun-grazing comets, it thoroughly frustrated Andrea to no end when they unfurled it earlier, only to see half of the tattered shield missing.
“We’re not going into inner-Mercurial space anyway,” the Shrink replied.
“I don’t care,”’ she shouted. “Your hands need to spend half as much time keeping this ship space worthy as they do on Miss Stutton’s ass. I want that shield repaired by the time we reach the lunar far side.”
Andrea pulled herself into the small makeshift gym she and Karl had set up. As usual, it was empty. She had ordered them all to exercise, but it seemed as if her orders were considered optional these days. They would be in real combat soon, and some of them would be going down to the surface were they would also battle with Terran gravity. None of them, except Lori Stutton, had been Earthside before, and even she had been in deep space with the late Legion ship Daedalus for almost a year. Time to kick some butt, bandit or no, Andrea thought, grimacing as she strapped herself into the grav cycle. She cranked the settings up to well past Earth gravity. Occasional one-on-one sparring with Valkyrie or Karl was about all she could get some of the crew to do. Even then, it was always her and Karl, or her and Valkyrie, with V.I.C.A.R. translating. The Professor relied way too much on his beloved techie toys… and in her eyes, Pell and Lori Stutton were just plain lazy.
Andrea pumped the grav cycle harder just thinking about it. The Professor was the easiest to read. He was motivated simply by plunder and profit. “If these exploits bring me enough credits to buy my own secluded pleasure asteroid, so much the better,”he exclaimed once. Lori Stutton seemed to follow him everywhere like a puppy. Hard to believe she was a Legion Officer, Andrea mused. Only a little younger than Andrea, she seemed to have a typical Terran naivety about her. That’s what happens when good Terrans unplug and start thinking, she thought. If she wasn’t a spy, Andrea doubted she knew what she was doing. Lori just seemed along for the ride. And Karl was an easy read. As a deserter, he simply seemed to want to bloody the nose of the Terran Legion any way he could. Whatever he did in his previous Legion life, it wasn’t paperwork.
Andrea started to break a serious sweat. Valkyrie was tougher. Ambition or greed didn’t seem to impress her. Her quarters were very spare. In sparring, she could be agile and dangerous. Andrea had difficultly keeping up with her, even with her own zero-g gymnastics training. Valkyrie could also pilot and operate most Terran technology, but all else about her remained a mystery. She could occasionally be seen in the ship’s stern, praying with the Sun to her back, her bizarre wings outstretched while her eyes were serenely closed. I wonder how you shower with those, Andrea mused.
She had long since figured out Sebastian Pell. She knew Pell’s type. They would preach ‘Mars First,’ and do cute things like post banned Martian cycle calendars at school, but in the end, they were perhaps as dangerous as the Legion shock troops. Andrea hoped that, when the revolution finally came, men like Pell wouldn’t end up in charge.
Andrea looked at the virtual status board hovering before her. Half the crew was asleep, and the other half was watching classic 20th century vids that the Shrink seemed to be obsessed with. Andrea grunted. Most of the ancient sci-fi she had suffered through in Earth History class was obnoxiously terrible; she wondered how it ever found a renaissance. Gravity seemed to exist everywhere in those terrible flicks, even in deep space, as if it were a luxury people couldn’t be without. And the aliens! Andrea knew modified “humans” that were more bizarre.
Andrea focused in on the present. She knew that they didn’t leave Mars under optimal circumstances, and that they were woefully under-equipped and out gunned. They didn’t even take on their promised Resistance contingent as planned. But I’ll be damned if I lead this team into oblivion, she thought.
In a huff, she stopped the grav cycle and hit the general alarm. The Zodiac Cartel would start acting like a team, she told herself. Now.
“Each of you scum bags, report to the gym!” She shouted into the intercom.
The harsh twilight had faded across the rim of Bose crater, winking out across the spires of Icarus Monastery. Its bleak existence hummed on, barely noticed by the Terran authorities. Here on the far side, the Earth never rose. Even the Sun vanished on its long gait across the sky, not to return for weeks. The nearest far side habitation was an astronomical observatory nestled in a crater boasting a large liquid mercury mirror, and it was scores of hundreds of kilometers distant. The monks here were almost entirely self-sufficient and well-versed in the ability to convert and extract elements needed for survival from the unforgiving lunar rock. Occasional traders bound for the outer solar system were their only visitors, and helium isotopes and the occasional bottle of Lunar Eclipse Bock the only luxury product they kept handy for trade.
Cerulean stared out into the cosmos. All monks here were known as the Order of the Cerulean, without individual distinction or prejudice. He felt the impending disconnection that would soon be necessary.
A voice called behind him. “You will go. Cerulean commands it.”
He spun to face what could be his identical twin. “Go?”
“You will go out into the Hives of Man. The time is optimal. The Terran Empress has conceived a way to extend her infernal control beyond the Terran system. The outer systems grow restless. Our presence here on her doorstep will no longer be tolerated. And the ones from Diaspora shall return.”
“But the monastery has been here for over a century… the Terra-Luna treaty guarantees…”
He held up his hand to cut him short. “The treaty will soon be an anachronism,” he continued. “You are specifically designed for this purpose. When the Martian Resistance arrives, you will join them.”
I must focus on this, he thought, entering a meditation chamber. The unnatural light from within was little comfort. He had been raised here, and like all of the other monks, he had never left the confines of Bose crater. He felt the swift opening of consciousness as the strobes descended around him.
The hatchway slid shut behind him as Pell drifted into the gym, half-dressed and semi awake.
“Ah, our last victim,” Andrea called out to him. The other members of the Zodiac Cartel were assembled in front of her. For the first time that she could recall, all of the Zodiac Cartel was present in one chamber on the ship.
“Today is a new day,” she called out. Her voice echoed off of the metallic hull. “Today we start acting like a team.”
“I’m not part of your team,” Pell called out.
“But you are on my ship,” Andrea continued. “And shortly, we’ll all live or die together.” She was starting to like Pell less and less.
“We are now seven strong counting you as an unofficial member. For this assault, we will split into two teams: Scorpius Cell, led by Karl, with Valkyrie, and the Shrink, will carry out the assault on Legion Headquarters. A new cell — Gemini Cell, led by myself, along with Miss Stutton and Pell will go down to the Terran surface and disable the transmitter for Gamma Spoke. V.I.C.A.R. will stay in a geosynchronous transfer orbit and pilot the Armageddon for our escape.”
“I didn’t think there was a plan for escape,” the Shrink retorted, “I thought it was every hide for himself post attack.”
Andrea wordlessly stared him down for a moment. She then knocked him against the bulkhead with a zero-g drop kick.
“It’s thinking like that that’ll get us all killed,” she replied. “Gemini Cell, fall in on me!”
Pell and Lori dove in, snatching up sonic pistols that were set to a low training pulse. The settings were not so low, however, that their slap didn’t still smart.
“Take up defensive positions,” Andrea shouted.
Pell was the first to cartwheel over, but Valkyrie had already closed the distance. Her wings folded, she dove in and disabled Pell with her talon gloves before he could get off a single shot. Andrea marveled at her swiftness. She knew that the attack on the Legion outpost would probably see the most intense combat, and had stacked the assault team accordingly. She had never seen Valkyrie carry a weapon, but Andrea relized that she probably didn’t have to.
She also wanted to keep personal tabs on the two team members that she least trusted, Pell and Stutton. And Andrea also knew that the Professor and Lori Stutton could not be on the same team.
“Miss Stutton, if you please,” Andrea said, as Lori managed to stun Valkyrie with her rifle, also knocking down Pell in the process. Great, we’re now stacked two-and-two, Andrea thought as she tried to gauge the situation. Karl, being larger and slower, had come in behind Valkyrie and grappled with Lori at close range. Both had Legion training. This should be interesting, Andrea thought. Lori tossed the rifle as she struggled to get out of Karl’s grip.
Andrea released the gagging Professor and sprang across the cabin to grab the rifle. He’s still a bit fuzzy, she thought, as she let her momentum carry her to the other side of the bulkhead.
As she spun, she saw Lori deliver a swift kick to Karl’s skull. Good shot, Andrea thought as she braced herself to aim the rifle. The team almost seemed to enjoy letting off a bit of steam.
“Down for a little bondage, sweets?” the Professor called out as he tossed a bolo weapon across the bay. Karl just ducked as it whizzed by. It neatly wrapped around Lori and secured her to the nearest bulkhead. “Those perma-magnetic bonds even come with authentic struggle-cinching abilities!”
Great, outnumbered again… Andrea fired a sonic volley towards Karl and the Professor, but their range was too great. Gotta up the energy a bit… She took cover, as the Professor fired off a round of neuro-flechettes at her. How many toys does he have? She wondered.
“We gotcha, your leadership-ness… you’re gonna feel the next one!”
Andrea reached down and grabbed the main circuit breaker to kill the cabin lights. The bay went dark. Instantly, her infra-ocular kicked in. She could see everything in motion across the exercise chamber. In zero-g, bodies and objects simply carried on a straight line until they hit something. Now the advantage was hers. She drifted into the center of the room, and perched two-fisted with a sonic pistol and maser rifle to pick her shots at will.
“Uh, y’know, I can still find you Martian girls by your stink,” the Professor called out with a slight tremble in his voice. She knew he was just trying to shame her into talking, so she would give away her position. As he drifted past, she threw the pistol against the far bulkhead. The Professor shot a flechette round blindly in its general direction as the impact rang out. Andrea let loose with the maser rifle right next to the Professor’s skull.
“Your lucky that’s a low-power training burst,” Andrea said, remembering her blackout on Mars. “Let me know when you can see clearly again…”
But now Karl knew her position.
“Hello, love…” He grabbed her in a bear hug. She dropped the remaining weapon as she felt the air escape her. “Everyone gets a sweet taste of pain today…”
“V.I.C.A.R…” Andrea called out barely rasping, “Lights…” The cabin flooded with brilliance as the emergency lights turned on. Andrea twisted and breathed deeply as Karl released her. “Glad I don’t have to walk…,” Andrea said. She glanced about as everyone recovered. They were all, without exception, bruised, bleeding, and beaten. We’ve gotta try not to kill everyone next time, she thought. But she knew they were now on their way to becoming a team.
The weeks in deep space transit slowly came and went. Sol swelled in their forward view as they performed the sling-shot maneuver around Venus, the cloud shrouded planet shrinking behind them to the ship’s aft as they gained speed to approach the Terra-Luna system. Daily combat drills continued, as the teams practiced tearing each other apart, sometimes with weapons, sometimes without. Andrea insisted that they work on individual failings. She came up with scenarios that challenged the weaknesses of each team member in turn. Sometimes, the Professor was stripped of hidden weapons, while Valkyrie learned how to use them. They could now also communicate with Valkyrie in near real-time thanks to microscopic ear implants centrally linked to V.I.C.A.R.; these also helped with timing and coordination. Andrea often found Valkyrie’s thought process hard to follow, even with translation. Clearly, she hailed from a Diaspora culture in the Oort Cloud, although her motives for remaining with the Zodiac Cartel remained unclear. Andrea still wanted to know what Valkyrie was doing when she was captured in the outer solar system, and how she had ended up in the brig of a Legion Ship.
Andrea and the rest of the crew were relieved when they finally performed the braking maneuver to enter lunar orbit. The Professor used some of his inside mining contacts to generate a fake prospecting request. To the Solar Mining Guild and any other curious eyes, they were simply an asteroid mining crew requesting a payload to exploit and haul to the outer colonies.
Andrea and Gemini Cell took the ship’s small shuttle down to the lunar surface. She was apprehensive about leaving the ship parked in orbit any longer than necessary. With every pass through low lunar orbit, the Armageddon crossed over several near side settlements, potentially exposing it to prying eyes. The ship was crucial to the assault on Legion Headquarters; they couldn’t complete the attack without it. Andrea and Karl had already laid out a final rendezvous point beyond Earth’s orbit. It was a given that they would all get scattered in the chaos. If that failed, each would have to make his or her way back to the Kumari asteroid as best they could, and that could take months.
“Pitching over for de-orbit burn,” Lori called out, maneuvering the descent lander towards the Monastery. Andrea caught sight of the nearly full phase Earth on the toothy gray horizon, just before it was swallowed up by the lunar hills. The two worlds couldn’t appear more different: the lunar surface was ashen like coal, yet the Earth was alive with a profusion of color. Like many third generation Martians, Andrea had never been to Earth. Over ninety percent of humanity still lived on that bloated blue marble and the habitation ring that surrounded it. Andrea tried hard not to think of it as her team’s grave.
“We’ve got a visual on Icarus crater…” Lori called out. “Gawd, their berthing is tiny!”
Andrea leaned in over Lori’s shoulder. “Park us off to the rim if you don’t think we can land…”
“I’ve got it…” V.I.C.A.R. called out as he adjusted the landing vector. “I just don’t think that their navi-drone gets much company.”
Darkness descended across the tiny cabin as the berthing port engulfed the ship. A thud shuddered through them, and Lori and Pell started flipping clusters of switches for power down.
All was silent as they descended from the hatchway.
“Are you sure they know we’re coming?” Lori called out nervously. The chamber smelled of ancient mold and must.
“They’d better,” Pell called out. His voice was dull against the lunar rock. “They’re our passport down to Terra. With a wry smile, Andrea noted that Pell never forgot to address Earth as Terra. Andrea flipped her headlamp on and the other two swiftly followed suit.
Almost instantly, an eerie blue light flooded the chamber. A single hooded figure stood before them.
“We are Cerulean,” he called out. Great, more conundrums, Andrea thought.
Andrea spoke first. “We are Gemini Cell of the Zodiac Cartel. We’re here for escort Earthside.” She shifted her weight under the light lunar gravity. It was slightly less than her native Mars, and she still felt as though she could take flight in a single step.
“You will learn our ways, but you will not be incorporated into our general population.”
Lori stepped forward. “I joined this outfit for action… not to become a bleeding astro-nun…”
Andrea grabbed her shoulder. “Believe me; you’ll see some action very soon. But we’ve got to be convincing monks if we’re going to make it to Earth undetected.”
“Besides, seventy-two hours of closed legged-ness might suit you…” Pell chimed in. The look that Lori shot Pell wasn’t lost on her. Certainly, it was hard to conceal things on the cramped Armageddon over the past few weeks. Let the drama of Gemini Cell begin…
Their enigmatic guide led them to a shared bunk room. They unloaded their gear and prepared it for consolidation. Pell had a package awaiting him delivered by the monks. “Ah, our ‘Party mix’ has arrived,” he said as he unpacked what were in his words, “enough advanced explosives to make the Shrink blush.” After the unloading of the lander was complete, V.I.C.A.R. remote-piloted it back to the Armageddon, and the remaining crew aboard moved the ship off to the far Lagrange point, a much more secure and discrete location. “Now, they should have a load attached,” Andrea said, referring to a small 100 ton asteroid the Armageddon should now be pushing. They would be running with comms out for the remainder of the mission, with no contact between Cells. The beginning of the solar eclipse would serve as the indicator for both teams to commence.
The few days they spent at the monastery went by in a blur.
What time they didn’t use prepping for their ‘pilgrimage’ Earthside, they spent learning the ways of the monks. To her surprise, Andrea and the rest of Gemini Cell weren’t forced to shave their heads, or don hair shirts. The monks also didn’t seem to mind the fact that she and Lori were female, although they never came in contact with anyone except the original “Cerulean” that first greeted them. “I will accompany you to Uluru,” he stated one evening. “There, you will seek the benefit of the Cerulean.” Their belief seemed to Andrea to be a curious mish-mash of what she could only describe as ‘Off-World Cosmism.’ As humans moved out to settle the solar system in the early 22nd century, a feeling of conceptual oneness crept into what remaining faiths existed after the Information Transfiguration. Certainly, the Earth was unique among what those early settlers discovered first-hand. Some, however, had come to realize that they did not feel apart from the desolation that they encountered. As humans sought to terra-form those first few planets to suit their needs, those same worlds transformed them.
Then the Empress came. If anything, she was the state religion now. Passage of the monks on pilgrimage would be permitted, as it was every year, but for how much longer? What passed as religion these days consisted of either the Empress and her cyber-grip on Terra and its citizens, or such desperate scattered sects as Valkyrie’s people beyond the Kuiper Belt or this tiny enclave. Most of the colonized worlds such as Mars seemed to put more faith in the Revolution than anything else. Rumors persisted that the Empress would soon no longer be bound to direct control within the Luna-Terra System. She would then command an intimate connection with all of humanity. Even she couldn’t bypass the speed of light; only the promised copies of her Eminence could finally complete the task. But how could the colonists stand against the Empress and the Terran Legion?
Andrea lay awake late at night, listening to the ever-present whir of the air scrubbers. As was tradition, evening prayer was carried out late, and morning devotions came all too early. Plus, Andrea wanted to personally supervise final loading tomorrow.
“I don’t trust these guys,” Lori’s voice said in the darkness. “We’ve hardly ever seen them.”
“We don’t have to,” Andrea replied. “They just need to get us undetected to Uluru. We’ll make our own way to the Outback transmitter. Then it’s on, and Legion be damned.”
“And if they rat us out?”
Andrea shifted in her bunk. “I plan on being aboard the Deep Space mine launcher before they know what hit them…”
“Could you gals hush?” Pell said.”Some revolutionaries still need their beauty sleep!”
“Well put,” Andrea said, rolling back over. We’ll all see action soon enough.
To be continued…