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We’re pleased to announce that our third installment of the Solar Winds saga, The Syzygy Gambit is published and available, along with other original sci-fi tales by yours truly. This week, we thought we’d step things up a notch, and give fans a larger excerpt/serving than usual, so we can wrap up the tale by the end of 2015.
And don’t forget to start back on chapter 1!
Solar Winds: The Syzygy Gambit
Two figures moved through the dust-laden swirl. They seemed to be inspecting her encampment. It’s a Legion patrol if they’re paired up, she thought. She bit her lip as she remembered the military patrols that wandered Saganopolis central square where she grew up. They acted as if they owned the very soil of Mars itself. They had an open disdain for the “colonials” as they sneeringly called them, and would often leer at Andrea as she made her way to school. Many of the ones stationed on Mars, she knew, were Legion criminals, men who would probably get shipped off to the prison on Mercury Prime if they spent an afternoon on Earth. She knew from talking with Karl that this wasn’t a mistake: the worst were always posted on Mars.
Andrea snuck up onto the ridge. The creeper had packed up, and Andrea knew they would soon resume sweeping the terrain. She knelt low as the creeper rolled by under the ridge. She was held frozen against rock, feeling only the swish of her suit’s circulation system as it reclaimed her body fluids. One more second…
She rolled in and landed on top of the crew compartment. The roar of the suspension came to her through the soles of her boots as she struggled to right herself. With any luck, her landing had gone unnoticed by the occupants. I’ve got to do this quickly, Andrea thought. She would have to knock this patrol out before they knew what hit them. They had to be neutralized, Andrea thought, using a cold military euphemism that Karl had taught her. Damn it, I’m an art student, she grimaced. Not a grid-tale secret agent! She saw the topside cabin hatch in front of her. There were no upper windows. Good. She balanced herself, hatch lock in one hand, maser in the other. Hopefully, decompression would do the job. Andrea blew the hatch with a twist of the wrist.
Air rushed past, nearly knocking her down. The creeper ground to a halt. Andrea used the forward momentum to swing downward into the cabin. Flashing alarm lights flooded the cramped compartment in a crimson glow. Hampered by a bulky spacesuit, Andrea’s landing might not have been as graceful as she was capable of. She was once a top member of All Mars Academy Low Grav. Gymnastics in her youth, and she was now in her native environment. She leveled her maser at the pilot. The pilot’s visor was down; they had obviously survived decompression. “It’s gonna be a long walk back,” Andrea said into the comm. ‘I’m taking this tub in the name of the Zodiac Cartel!”
The pilot’s visor went from reflective to transparent. A smiling blonde lieutenant stared back. “Done!”
“Stutton…” Her mind reeled back to the captured Daedalus out past Saturn’s orbit. A double-cross?
Andrea felt a sharp crack at the base of her skull as the cabin spun around her and went black.
“Sorry I had to hit you so hard, boss.” The bearded visage of the Shrink looked down at her. Andrea came to in a haze. “I feel like I’ve got asteroids in my skull…,” she said. She tried to rub her forehead, and then dropped her limp arm back. “What did you hit me with?”
“A little Psychotropic Nullifier I picked on our stop on Ganymede…,” the Shrink replied. “Totally illegal, I can assure you. Kids use them on low power to zone out.”
Andrea shook her head. “People request this? My ocular is stuttering!”
“A higher setting would have left you a vegetable…,” the Shrink replied.
“You’d like her that way, I bet!” Lori Stutton said as she walked in to the creeper’s aft bay. The bay was now sealed and pressurized up to half an atmosphere, allowing them to sit with helmets off.
“I like my fish warm,” the Shrink replied as Lori kissed him on the cheek. “Unlike your performance last night…”
Andrea set upright. She was starting to regard reality with an extreme suspicion now. Hopefully, the Nullifier didn’t induce permanent field disturbances. “Hello, Snow White… last time we had met, you were our prisoner on Kumari base…”
The Lieutenant attempted a curtsy in her space suit. “Ex-Legionnaire Lori Stutton at your service. I think you’re my boss now.”
Andrea was stunned. “Really…what was it, Stockholm syndrome? What, did you finally take pity on our hopeless plight?”
The Shrink interrupted. “Let’s just say she’s proven herself to be… useful in a scrape. And she even managed to procure our luxurious wheels!”
Andrea sunk back to the cot. “Vacation’s over…”
Andrea stepped out of the stolen Legion creeper into the musty hangar air. The familiar smell of the Martian underground, mingled with recycled air, filled her nostrils. Karl, Valkyrie, and V.I.C.A.R. were there to greet them on arrival. Lori and the Shrink stepped out, exhausted. Andrea stepped back and folded her arms as she surveyed the motley bunch. She had never seen all of the Zodiac Cartel in one place, and she almost thought for a moment that she could fool herself at a casual glance into thinking that they resembled an actual team to be reckoned with. V.I.C.A.R., the “chaplain’s drone,” was now sporting a very un-chaplain-like maser rifle mounted on his forearm. Andrea wondered what sort of jihad he’d undertaken. Karl had obviously been running things in her absence. She gave Valkyrie a sidelong glance. Her biogenetic wings were now folded, and she seemed as stoic as always. And Andrea was still suspicious of Lori Stutton’s story. Andrea didn’t trust her entirely, and was not just because she was from Terra. No one goes from prisoner to partner that quickly, she thought.
“Karl, I’ll need a back brief,” Andrea said. She was tired, but knew that she couldn’t show it. “I’ll need to know our current status and what happened back on Ganymede.” She shifted to V.I.C.A.R. “I take it that the Armageddon is still in one piece…”
V.I.C.A.R. blinked. Andrea had been around androids all her life, but this one still amazed her. He’s all too human when he does that… “The fusion drive was damaged. We brought her in on the ion auxiliaries, missus…”
She cut him short. That must’ve taken a week! Andrea thought. I’ve got to make them work as a team if we’re going to pull this off! “Fix it. And I want the ship loaded for catapult launch in twelve hours. There’s a good chance we’ll have to bug out in a hurry.”
The Shrink groaned. “Welcome back from vacation…”
“I’ve got a special job for you,” she snapped back. “My pod is still buried out on the Tharsis Plateau. I’ll give you coordinates.”
“The creeper is still spooled up,” He muttered. “I’ll pack a shovel.”
“That a good boy. Lori I want to talk to you…”
“Makati!” a voice called out across the hanger. A tall Martian settler stepped forward. He was balding, obviously older. Andrea saw no obvious modifications, genetic or cybernetic. He’s was an untainted as they like to call themselves, though the modified referred to his type as an old fleshie.
“I’m glad to see you made it out of orbit in one piece…,” the man said to Andrea as he approached. “Mars has been crawling with Terran Legion as of late.”
Andrea shook his hand, making sure that her grip was as firm as his. She noticed the tattooed symbol ♂ was on the back of his hand. She also noticed a trace of an accent in his voice and wondered if he was from the poles.
“The infamous Sebastian Pell, I presume…” Andrea said. “The Zodiac Cartel is at your service!”
“Your exploits are legendary as well,” Pell replied. Andrea got the distinct impression that she was being checked out. “Karl told us about the hijacking of the Daedalus… very interesting. You’ll surely die an agonizing death in the slag mines of Mercury for that one…”
Andrea smirked. “And you’ll be my cell mate after this planned exploit…where can a girl get a sand shower around this desolate ‘burg?”
“Ordinarily, I’d offer my own,” Pell said, not missing a beat. “I need you and that Legionnaire mutineer of yours in command control. We’ve got a party to plan.”
The Martian Resistance base was much larger than Andrea had realized. As a student, she had heard rumblings of a vast conspiracy and huge underground bases in the desert, but had dismissed them as fifth columnist pipe dreams. In reality, she knew that when the Terran Empress wanted to Terraform Mars en masse they would simply send in their massive destructor fleet without warning, and a few simple colonists wouldn’t stop her. Walking through the vast caverns, Andrea saw converted mine ships being armed, and partisans going through precision drills. She knew that some of this was probably being done for their benefit, and Andrea was careful not to appear outwardly impressed. Still, she wondered how Karl and his team had found the Resistance so easily. Andrea had lived most of her adult life on Mars, and even she couldn’t pinpoint this base on a map! She glanced over at the hulking deserter walking next to her. There was still much about what he had done in the service of the Legion that she didn’t know, and he tended not to talk about his past life even when pressed. Andrea hadn’t forgotten his outburst during their capture of the Daedalus. She knew that she would need his tactical knowledge if they were going to pull off the coming assault. But of all of them, Andrea felt that he was the toughest to control.
They approached a heavily guarded door, and Pell waived them on inside.
They drew up around a hovering solar system projection in the middle of the darkened chamber. Andrea felt a slight wave of nausea come over her as a neural interface lit up deep inside her mind. She realized that this room was remote brain-line equipped. “When Karl here told me of your initial plan, I thought his Legion brainwashing had driven him crazy…”
Andrea enlarged the system to show a bloated Earth and its Moon hanging before them. She remembered a Planetary Science professor who referred to the Earth and the Moon as the ‘only true binary planet.’
“But if we’re successful,” Pell continued, “we’ll severely cripple the Legion assault fleet and their ability to field reinforcements.” The projection was enlarged again. The Earth passed out of view, and a single station, hovering like a toy in front of the bone-white Moon remained. “Legion headquarters is suspended at a Lagrange point between the Earth and its Moon. That is, it’s at a balanced point of equilibrium.” Andrea said. The image of the station spun before them. “The station is heavily armed and guarded, and a direct assault on it would be suicide.”
“However, in two weeks time, a solar eclipse will occur,” Karl continued. They watched in rapt attention as the dark ink blot shadow of the Moon crept silently across the Indian Ocean. Earth, Andrea knew, was still the only place known where a moon appeared the same size of as the Sun. “Legion Headquarters will be in darkness for approximately 22 minutes. With our communications out, we should be able to approach unlit and unnoticed in the Moon’s shadow.”
Pell shifted, unconvinced. “But doesn’t HQ pass through the Moon’s shadow every lunation? Why is an eclipse so special?” Andrea always thought it was bizarre that some people (Terrans mostly) still referred to it as “the Moon”. Her old Planetary Professor would have instantly corrected her to say ‘Luna.’
“I knew you would ask that. Most of the time, the station passes above or below the shadow,” Karl illustrated. “During an eclipse of the Sun, it passes squarely through it. Plus, most of the station staff will be distracted by the spectacle.”
One of the Resistance lieutenants cut in. “Distracted enough to let you march in the front door?”
Karl smiled. “I know some back ones…”
“I used to work in…” Karl paused and grinned. “…the zero-g interrogation division on board the station.”
“Plus, we’ve got this,” Andrea interjected as she pulled the stolen Rubik’s device from her jumpsuit pocket. The small size of the stolen unit belied its huge importance.
“The strike team at Legion HQ will be able to execute a clean sweep before they know what hit them,” Andrea said.
“And your guys?” Andrea said, staring straight at Pell. He seemed taken off guard by her directness, as Andrea had hoped. “We’re chaperoning you guys all the way to the lunar far side… we’ve got a safe house with a religious group at Bose Crater in the polar highlands…”
“Not good enough,” Andrea retorted. “My team is putting our collective asses on the line…”
“We’re taking a huge risk even setting foot in the Terran system,” Pell shot back. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re throwing what little resources we have at this!”
“I want boots in airlocks, or at least in with the Lagrange point team for the assualt,” Andrea countered. It was getting hot in the cramped briefing room. “I’ll head up the surface strike at the Deep Space Network on Terra. You don’t provide the bodies to fill spacesuits, and we’ll head back out to the outer system.”
Pell turned to a lieutenant standing next to him. “Hess, how many sprouts are in the brig from last night’s brawl?”
Pell turned back to Andrea and Karl. “They’re yours. And we’ll send you down with enough Quantum-Tritonal to shake apart the entire habitation ring!”
“About that…” Andrea pointed her finger at the gossamer thread of a ring projected around the Earth. “We only need to hit the Terran communications hub surface-side. That should give the team at the HQ station time to get out. No civilian casualties.”
“What is the Zodiac Cartel afraid of, killing a young girl with her cyber-teddy?” Pell said, smirking. “And what of your deep space hijacking exploits?”
Andrea held Karl back. “No civilian casualties. We’re not Resistance,” she repeated. “You guys can do what you want here on Mars.” She realized that they could never know of Holderson’s funding and his hand in the entire scheme.
“Very well,” Pell said. The room was starting to break up. “Launch window is in twelve hours. Have your ship on the catapult ready to go.”
“Vacation’s over…” Karl smiled to Andrea as they hit the hangar floor.
The circular door slid open with a hiss. An uncanny purple light filled the chamber. The Assassin stepped in, his heart shuddering in his chest. All humans on Terra knew the sole occupant of the chamber all too well, but few had ever witnessed the bizarre scene before him now. A hazy feminine form floated in a swirling transparent cistern high above, her long feelers running from the periphery of the base of her skull like the tentacles of an octopus. The Assassin thought that she looked like the avatar of an ancient Hindu goddess. Small nanobots fluttered to and fro, attending to her. This was the Empress Primate, Guardian of Terra, the Mistress of Mankind.
“I eagerly await your command, mistress…” He said as he lay prostrate, as he was instructed prior to entry, flat on the floor. He would eagerly lay under it to divert her wrath, if only that were possible. He knew she rarely held a personal audience with anyone and for any reason. She scarcely had a need to, as her presence was omniscient and planet-wide. No, she only hosted invited guests to either strike terror into their hearts, or prove a point.
<Ancient popes would request such an audience with those that had lost their favor…>
The words reverberated through the thought-trodes in his skull. He started to feel as if he suffered from a very bad hangover.
The thoughts of the Empress continued to pound him.
<All of humanity are my…children…I tell them when and who may breed, work, and die. But sometimes, children must be punished.>
“Your magnificence, we had the Cartel whore in our sights on Titan…” He now found himself blabbering out loud in a futile gesture.
<Enough. I haven’t brought you here in tryst. I do not want the encoding of your twins’ encounter with the Cartel to be scattered through the Grid.>
The Assassin felt the space within his skull stir. Brief images of Andrea Makati knocking his twin dead to the floor winked to life briefly before his thoughts went mercifully blank.
The Empress summoned acolyte drones to dispose of the body.
Such disgusting husks, she thought to herself. Nearly a century old, she now had a direct link to every permanent citizen of Terra. Soon, that too will change. My scattered children have wandered for too long. And the Empress is lonely.
She flicked her will out across the Grid. The Commandant at Legion Headquarters felt her all consuming presence. Even at the Terra-Luna distance, the one second delay was maddening. How can any God operate under such maddening restrictions?
<Commandant, is your Mars strike force assembled?>
“Yes, mistress…although the Martian Resistance base has proven quite difficult to pinpoint,” he replied. She felt the Commandant sweat.
<I have a visual of your prey>
She shot the engram of Andrea out across the void to him.
<The gloves are off. Carpet bomb the desert if necessary.>
“The bulk destroyers will de-orbit from Deimos within the hour.”
<See to it, Commandant. You’ll receive my own personal melding when Mars is ours.>
Andrea stepped out onto the cold Martian observation deck. It was one of the few places in the underground base that afforded a view of the night sky. The dust storm had cleared, and the night was velvet and crisp. Andrea wished she could contact her family, but did not risk doing so. Our paths have parted, she thought. The Cartel was her family now. The Resistance might have its own reasons to assault the Legion, and she had hers. She had tried earlier to decipher Pell’s intentions. Certainly, they wanted to deal a crippling blow for perceived atrocities, but did they want to bring further Terran wrath down on Mars? The Legion could easily crush the Colonies. Other planets would then simply toe the line. Karl and the Shrink were only motivated by bounty. Maybe they thought they could disappear into the Kuiper Belt underworld after the assault was finished, but she would never run. Not while Marc was still rotting in a prison on Mercury Prime.
Footsteps came up behind her. “Karl said you’d be here,” Lori said. Andrea barely acknowledged Lori Stutton’s presence. “The guys told me about your move on Ganymede…pretty slick,” Andrea replied, turning to face her. “You must know that I still don’t trust you.”
Lori looked out at the dim twilight plains surrounding the observation blister. “Do you have a choice? The Professor’s locked down my Legion neuro-chips…”
“I suppose not. And you’ve unlocked the Rubik’s device. But I’m keeping an eye on you. You’ll be part of the ground assault on Terra with me. I’ll see to that.”
Lori tried not to look surprised. “My old homeworld…but I’m curious. What’s in this little operation for you?”
Andrea looked skyward and thought for a moment. No planets were visible tonight. Terra was on near superior conjunction, on the far side of the Sun. It was a lousy time to launch. Mercury was closer. They would expend twice as much time and energy approaching Terran space. All the better to do this, she thought. No one would suspect the assault now.
“Let’s just say, I’m looking for an old friend,” Andrea said into the night. “A man I once knew here on Mars who… disappeared. Karl thinks he may have been interrogated at the Lagrange station.”
“It a sygyzy.” Lori said with a cryptic tone.
“Your sygyzy. Your union. Or rather the quest for it. Was it a mistake that you planned this during an eclipse?”
Andrea sighed. “Spare me your psychoanalysis… did they teach you that at the Legion Academy?”
Lori stepped off of the platform. “Let’s just say I spent a lot of time in what the Terrans call ‘off-world…’ Maybe there’s more to human existence than the all consuming Empress and her Grid.”
“Get some sleep, child.” Andrea said. She was tired herself. “Launch window is an hour before dawn.”
Andrea again sketched a ♂ symbol in the condensation forming on the dome glass. A tremor shot up her finger as it did so. The dome is shaking….
A klaxon sounded. The vibrations were stronger now. An image of a half-dressed Pell popped up on Andrea’s heads-up display.
“What’s going on up there?”
Andrea peered out into the darkness beyond the dome with her infra-ocular. Streaks of light pierced the night. Thorium bombs!
“You’re under attack…” she said. “Why haven’t the sentries responded?”
Impatient, Andrea toggled her virtual view to the Armageddon on Tap. She hoped that the rest of her team had decided to bunk on board the ship tonight. “V.I.C.A.R., spool us up for launch. We’re getting out of here!”
“Launch sequence initiated…might I remind ma’am that our Resistance contingent has not loaded aboard and our antimatter drive has yet to recycle.”
“We’ll have to use our backup solar sail; that is, if we can launch without getting our asses blown out of the sky,” Andrea said between breaths. “And then go free return, as long as we can leave Martian orbit.” By Jove, she thought. Am I really saying that? It’ll take three times as long…and we were timed for a one week transit.
Lori & Andrea ran into the now crowded launch hangar. “They’re randomly bombing,” Lori shouted. “They don’t know the position of the site!” Karl appeared before them, waving them onto the gantry. “They won’t have to,” Andrea shouted, panting as they started the lift. “A near hit will rupture the pressure dome. That’ll be enough!”
Andrea caught sight of the Armageddon on Tap, its external boosters now smoldering. The ship had started its life as Prometheus Class asteroid harvester, and should have been retired decades ago. The pods bestowed on them by Holderson hung snugly against its belly. Andrea tapped on her sonic pistol in her hip holster to make sure she still had it. Thorium Bombs, she pondered. Someone wants this station intact, or they’d just obliterate it.
“You gals better strap in to the crash couches,” The Professor shouted as they boarded the ship. “We’ll achieve nominal orbit in fifteen minutes!”
Andrea hit the bench hard. Karl and Lori were already buckled in. V.I.C.A.R. and Valkyrie were ahead of them, at the helm.
“Nice you could join us,” A voice called out from behind her left shoulder.
Pell! Andrea tried to retain her composure as the catapult shuddered to life. The Martian night now slid above them as they rolled in a bid to achieve orbit. “I thought you were sitting this one out…” she chided. “Was there a change in your revolutionary heart?”
Pell laughed. “Let’s just say, the Legion moved me…”
I’ll bet they did… to the nearest fueled ship! Andrea thought. If the revolution was ever successful, she hoped men like Pell wouldn’t end up in charge. That would simply be trading one master for another.
The ship gained momentum, and the curve of the Martian horizon fell off beneath them.
“Ka vot gettis…” Valkyrie called out, flipping the switch to jettison the externals. Even now, only V.I.C.A.R. could understand her mysterious language.
A shutter rippled through them as the tanks dropped away. Now, the Armageddon was under its own power to achieve orbit. Andrea hoped that their launch hadn’t been observed by the Legion ships that were currently bombing the site from Martian orbit… Andrea knew they had only one shot to avoid obliteration.
“Deploying countermeasures,” The Professor called out. “Now let’s see if they were worth what I paid those decreps on Ganymede.”
A glitter of chaff appeared off the port side bow. A new Martian constellation, Andrea thought. To probing radar eyes, it would appear like another ship in orbit. The lines of the Armageddon, however, were much more sleek and non-reflective. With any luck, they could slip into solar orbit, where they would pick up their front cradle and big interplanetary solar sails parked there. “Breakaway achieved,”the Professor called out over the intercom. They could feel the acceleration even out. “Nothing to do now except enjoy the long, boring dive sunward.”
The remaining Martian partisans offered little resistance to the Legion shock troops that soon swarmed over the base. Few craft had managed to attain orbit, and most had been obliterated by the slicing pulse masers of the blockade ships that awaited them. Some experienced hands made a go at the vast expanse of the Martian desert; they would make for excellent hunting for bored Legion scouts in the weeks to come.
Colonel Mascon entered the bombed out complex. She hated the tug of Martian gravity at her feet; she was born in deep space, and always hated planetfall. Tall and lithe like most deep spacers, she had been augmented as a girl with mining apparatuses in her hands and feet. Meant for boring into the hard iron-nickel crust of asteroids, she also found them useful in her job of interrogating prisoners.
“Lieutenant, bring any simpering fools that you discover to me,” Mascon said as she surveyed the precision damage her attack had inflicted. Her orders had come direct from the Commandant, which was rare. She was to torture and then execute any members of Martian Resistance she found. The Legion Commandant knew that she would be highly effective in this measure. She had once effectively ended an Asteroid Miners Union strike by patiently torturing, and then executing, one frightened captured miner after another. It never bothered her that some of the tortured were members of her own family. The Terran Legion was her family now. Lately, she missed her linkup with the Terran Empress that she had enjoyed in near-Earth orbit. Out here, the maddening three-minute delay from Terra was more than apparent, and updates only came in discrete packets. She yearned to feel the Empresses’ virtual caress on her psyche and the full presence of obedient humanity. She pitied the tiny souls of these prey she had been dispatched to harvest. So lonely, never to feel the embrace of the Empress well up inside their skulls… Whole cults had sprung up on Terra to worship the Empress Primate.
“We’ve rounded up the remnants of the living in a parts storage locker, Ma’am,” the Lieutenant called out.
Mascon scanned her cyber-database. “I’ll be in their crude machine shop chamber,” she ordered. “Bring them one by one to me.”
To be continued…