November 21, 2017

Free Fiction Friday: Solar Winds-The Syzygy Gambit Part 5

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Ready to tear the solar system asunder? Can’t make it to Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Here’s our latest free fiction Friday offering from 2222 AD and the Solar Winds universe.  Don’t forget, you can read this tale and other original works of fiction in their entirety, and be sure to start from part one.

 

Solar Winds: The Syzygy Gambit

by

David A. Dickinson

Chapter 5

 

The Armageddon on Tap was pointed back with its stern sunward and was now parked at the Terra-Luna system’s far L2 Lagrange point. The repaired sunshield was now deployed, giving Karl and the Shrink a small shaded micro-environment in which to operate. They both moved slowly forward, despite their bulky spacesuits. Valkyrie and V.I.C.A.R. were visible through the cabin’s plexi-glass viewport. The large, nickel-iron asteroid seemed suspended above them in the ship’s capture cradle.

“I don’t know about you,”the Shrink said, fumbling with his suit’s controls. “But I’m ready to blow this can!”

Karl grunted in reply. He barely noticed the nearly full Moon with its far side turned towards them just beyond the ship. It was a face of the familiar satellite that Earth never saw. Like most Legionnaires, he had spent a majority of his life in space.

“You and me both,” Karl replied as they worked to position the load. “I just want to deal a blow to the bloody Legion.”

“I say we escape with our resulting infamy to the Kuiper Belt and finish off our days as Sun Kings. This strike should give us the stolen tech for it!”

“That is, if you don’t mind gals like Valkyrie…” Karl said, making sure his mic was still hot. The Shrink was in on the joke. “Miss Stutton is a top rider,” He replied, smiling inside his visor. “I dunno, what do you suppose lights her ion engine?”

“Your frozen entrails,” a translated voice they had all come to recognize as Valkyrie’s replied over the comm. “Your sweet pink interior strewn about the inner Solar System fascinates me. Care to visit my lair tonight?”

They both laughed. “Remind me not to get in front of you during the assault,” Karl replied. They already knew that she could be a formidable foe during sparring sessions.

V.I.C.A.R. unplugged from the shipboard computer. “The load is centered, 0-1-0. We’re positioned for Earth dive.” The outer Lagrange point was unusually empty, save for a few automated and independent mine craft powering up for an outward jump. The Earth-Moon system wasn’t currently well-positioned for outward solar system travel. What few ships there were would use huge and expensive amounts of fuel correcting their long orbits outward. “Damned cyber-pushers and cowboys, all of them,” Karl said. “We’d come here periodically and bust heads.” In six months time, this 100 square kilometer area would be littered with ships. Hopefully, none of their present company would take note and report their curious Earthward orientation. As with so many other things, it was just a chance they had to take. Like an angel on a head of a pin, Scorpius Cell and the Armageddon on Tap were balanced for their lethal dive. All they could do now was wait and hope that Andrea and Gemini Cell could disable the Deep Space Monitoring Network in the Australian Outback long enough to get their crucial punch in to Legion Headquarters, or it would be a very short trip. The Armageddon lay posed waiting for the Moon’s shadow to begin its creep across the face of the Earth.

Colonel Mascon retired to her private communications quarters aboard the Legion flagship, the Sapphire Awe. Now in a distant solar orbit trailing the planet Mars, she had requested a direct conference with the Empress and Commandant of the Terran Legion. Her skill as a torturer had yielded some fruit on the Martian surface. Vital information had been gleaned at her hands, as her victims had begged for quick deaths. Fools, she thought. Dying out here beyond the Empresses’ sweet neural caress was not for her. In Mascon’s eyes, they deserved death. Still, she was glad that she hadn’t completely lost her touch…

“Colonel Mascon, commander of the Sapphire Awe. I am pleased to announce that I have an answer concerning the recent activities of the Martian resistance vermin and the Cartel scum.” Mascon continued with her report, knowing that the Earth was currently near superior conjunction from her location. This meant a 20+ minute round trip in communications relay and a one-way conversion. “I’m pleased to say they’re right under your noses. Independent brain purges revealed a plan to assault Legion units in Earth orbit very soon. Undoubtedly, the Armageddon on Tap will pass through the local region as well.” She paused and looked off to the blood-orange dot of Mars to the ship’s port before continuing. ”Please leave some gray matter for me to play with… I look forward to chatting with Miss Makati over Ink Tea on Mercury Prime.” The transmission fell silent. She only regretted that the Empress wasn’t present here in Martian orbit, at least not yet. She knew that the Sapphire Awe couldn’t reach Earth in time to see action, but they could make Mercury in time to greet the resulting stream of prisoners. She retired back to her quarters, where she knew two of her lobotomized trophies from the recent Mars campaign awaited her. They would have to do for now.

Andrea peered out the window of the cramped descent craft at the stunning vista beyond the view port. The snow capped blue marble that was the Earth now loomed large before them. Nowhere else in the Solar System had Andrea seen such a violent splash of color: Terra was an improbable blue-green bulge against a pervasive sea of black. After the coal-gray world of Luna, it was a welcome change. The four of them were cramped into a one way lander that reminded Andrea unpleasantly of pictures she had seen of an old fashioned diving bell.

“Coming up on geosync,” Lori called out as they crossed the artificial ring winding around the planet like a badly-fitted wedding band.

“Wave to home, guys,” Lori said. “We’re about six hours to re-entry.”

The shadow of the enormous habitation ring passed over them. Andrea could just see Beta Spoke off to port. Some Terrans, such as Lori Stutton, had spent most of their lives there. Almost all of deep space transport now passed through the Ring; traditional landing and launching from Terra was almost unheard of. The monks, however, were granted a special dispensation while on pilgrimage, as this was their customary way to approach the surface before the convenience of the Habitation Ring and its three space elevators. This, Andrea hoped, would also allow them to make it to the surface undetected. Andrea was somewhat disappointed that they wouldn’t mingle a bit, but she knew that the nature of their current mission precluded the possibility. “Even off-worlders must get cyber implants now prior to immigration,” Lori had explained to her. “Without them, you can’t purchase anything; you couldn’t even use the toilet. The beloved Empress is always there. Thank Jove that the Shrink removed my implant.” Andrea looked off at the swelling crescent as they approached. It was hard to believe that only scant centuries ago, the Earth was all there was, the cradle of mankind. Now it was possible for humans like herself to live out their entire lives without setting foot on Terra. Granted, they still required massive technology to live elsewhere, but the time was coming when humanity could finally disconnect from Mother Earth, often seen by many now as Dominating Terra. Settlers in the distant Kuiper Belt had already made a de facto severance. The die is now cast, Andrea thought grimly. Nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.

Re-entry was rough and choppy. The atmosphere whistled by and slapped the capsule about like the hand of a fire giant. Andrea had never landed on a planet with an atmosphere as dense as Earth’s, and the nightime ‘soft’ landing in the remote Australian outback was anything but, as it battered all of their kidneys. Andrea was becoming impressed with Lori Stutton’s skills as a pilot, as she put them down with what limited control she had almost precisely on mark.

“Let’s get this craft buried and get the Scrambler out,” Andrea said, referring to the six wheeled assault vehicle they had crammed into the dropship’s tiny hold. Although it was still cool and dark, she was already breaking a sweat under the crush of Earth’s gravity. She at least hoped Pell felt the same.

They set up a makeshift camp and said a quick farewell as the enigmatic Cerulean continued his pilgrimage on foot to Ayer’s Rock in the red heart of the continent.

“How will he find his way?” Lori asked incredulously as he receded into the brightening dawn. “He says that his paths are ‘the most ancient of Man, we’ve only forgotten them,’” Andrea said. “Suitably cryptic, if you ask me.”

It felt odd for Andrea to walk out in the open, without a space suit. She felt the irrational urge to quickly pull a visor shut. She looked out to the wide horizon, spying the slender fingernail of the Moon, only days from eclipse.

They slept uneasily through the dawn.

Andrea was amazed by the cacophony of noises that assaulted her ears from the Australian Outback. It seemed as if the very air itself was alive. On Mars, there were no gnats, no mosquitoes. Such things simply weren’t brought over by the first colonists. She had seen bees before, working for one back-breaking summer in one of Mars’ great farming greenhouses. But the extent of wildlife here was overwhelming. And this is a desert… She and Lori awoke to Pell sitting beside a small flickering fire. Andrea wondered if that was the wisest idea. The smoke could be spotted for miles, she thought. Pell promptly flipped shut a small memory pad as they approached.

“Soup’s on,” he called out.

Andrea stood upon the rock ledge and looked out across the bleak landscape. Already, the daytime temperature was soaring. Except for the fact that she was breathing openly sans excursion suit and the occasional spinifex plant poking at the soles of her boots, she could be looking across any vista on Mars. And that blazing sun…

“Miss Stutton, as soon as you gather yourself, you and Pell load the Scrambler,” Andrea said to Lori, who was relieving herself behind a bush. This was yet another alien concept for someone who was raised on Mars.

“We’ve got lots of ground to cover to be in position for tomorrow’s festivities.”

Andrea tried not to breathe hard once she finished her sentence. She hoped that Pell was as winded by Earth gravity as she felt. Lori seemed to be handling things better. This was, after all, her home world.

“Ma’am, I was thinking we could send one more message up to the Armageddon…”

Andrea cut her short and knelt down beside Lori.

“No can do, gal. We’re going comm-out from here on in. You know that.” Andrea swiveled over to look at Pell. “Same goes for all of us, right?” she said, looking accusingly down at his portable terminal.

“This system’s totally stand alone,” He said defensively, “We gotta track orbiting snoops somehow!”

Andrea kicked out the dying embers of the fire. “Load up. We’re exposing ourselves to danger just sitting here.”

They traveled across the open desert most of the day. Andrea felt as though she had never drunk so much water in her life. Scores of kangaroos and wallabies parted before them. Occasionally, they would stop and deploy the top cover for the Scrambler, as they knew that unseen high-altitude drones were always peering down from overhead. No signs of civilization were to be seen. Much of the Earth had been abandoned by humans, and the animals ruled the vast empty expanse of the Outback once again. Some areas had been over-polluted or mined clean of resources, while others had simply proven to be inhospitable. Most of humanity was now corked up in remaining urban areas or vast habitats either undersea or overhead in orbit. Only mining drones or Legion patrols might venture out this far. Andrea and Pell had both stripped down to undershirts by midday, and they both now sported the beginnings of nasty sunburns. Lori still had her light pilot’s jacket on. Andrea didn’t know how she could stand the noon day heat.

After what seemed like hours, they finally spotted a high plateau in the distance. The Crawler was now at about half a charge. Andrea knew that they had to be careful and conserve energy. Without stopping, she scanned the horizon with her image-stabilizing binoculars. She caught a glint of metal far off in the fading Sun. She tapped Pell on the shoulder, and pointed off to the right. They would set up camp here tonight, for recon. Andrea felt her pulse quicken.

Their target was near.

The Armageddon was as dead as a tomb. The ship was now on a free return trajectory, a long looping path made possible by their final burn. V.I.C.A.R. had long since shut down all engines and external drives, and the whir of life support fans was now the only noise on board the ship. They now had to be careful to not emit any electromagnetic signals, not even a pulse oven. To any prying eyes, they were simply a mining tug, awaiting an engine cradle or a Moon-based laser to become available and push them outward. Only at apogee would they perform their final burn announcing their true course: a collision trajectory with Legion headquarters. Karl had gone over the equations via neural net himself; once in the shadow of the Moon, they would release the asteroid that was suspended in their forward carrier, and after that, the Scorpius Cell assault team would follow in podcraft. “Now, Andrea just has to get that transmitter down,” he grimaced. The near Earth tracking radar needed to be out long enough for their final course correction. Karl was eager to deliver a punishing blow to Legion Headquarters, even at the expense of the Armageddon and Scorpius Cell. The sleek one person pods that Holderson provided them were prepped for immediate launch. If necessary, they could abort using the pods before the strike. None of them wanted to contemplate that as an option. They would ride in behind the asteroid as V.I.C.A.R. piloted the Armageddon into a long, Earth-grazing dive. Then they were on their own. All of them knew that their post-mission egress plan was only a remote possibility; the Armageddon would scoop up whatever the mining catapult delivered to orbit, Gemini Cell or no. Whatever pods were undamaged would carry Scorpius Cell to rendezvous beyond Earth orbit. The plan was simple; one pod equaled one person. But Karl didn’t think things would get that far.

“Sure is purdy, ain’t it?” The Professor said, voice crackling over the comm. “I’ve got a special payload for the Empress herself!”

Karl laughed. He’d been out of action for far too long. Valkyrie was back in the propulsion section again, praying facing anti-sunward in zero-g. He doubted she would be interested in meeting up with him back at her quarters one more time. “Great…I’ve got my own to-do list…” He checked his maser rifle one final time. Looking down at his helmet visor display, he saw the names of several prisoners and Legion leaders. He had highlighted one Andrea had mentioned to him in particular: Marc Kilcullen.

Andrea and Pell crawled up to the top of a high bluff. The scorching daytime heat of the Outback had given way to a relatively cool, starlit night.

“What do you see?”

Andrea adjusted her infra-ocular. It had taken her some time to learn to do that by thought. She saw several supply trucks being loaded by cargo drones. Several large dishes aimed skyward behind the convoy like nocturnal sun flowers. Beyond it all, she saw the ramp of the Mining Catapult extending far into the night.

“Looks mostly like drones. I don’t see any heavy Legion protection…”

Suddenly, a sharp-pitched whine tore through the night. They both watched as the catapult hurled a payload into space. A blast of air hit them a few seconds later. “That’ll be a fun ride if we make it,” Andrea said.

“The eclipse begins tomorrow just before sunset,” Andrea continued. It made her nervous to be this close to their intended target. It almost looked like it was too easy a hit. It was a cliché, but she thought they were walking into a trap.

Pell pulled out his small terminal again. Andrea didn’t like the fact that he’d brought it, even if only the user could see the illuminated screen. She feared that Pell wasn’t conferring strategy with her. Lori had told her earlier that she had even overheard Pell talking to someone, although she couldn’t make out what he was saying. So much for our comm-out plan, Andrea thought. I hope he’s got a Martian Resistance squad in his hip pocket.

“We’ve got a ten-minute surveillance-free window tomorrow shortly after totality begins. We’ll have to hit them hard and quick”

Andrea agreed. Even with light security, the three of them wouldn’t stand a chance if they were pinned down in a stand up fight.

Andrea pointed to the low bluff near the entrance. “If we hit them from the west, they won’t see us coming.” Karl had taught her how to limit their exposure and strike with pinpoint accuracy.

“The Armageddon should be in position, idling in a return orbit,” Pell said. He seemed nervous to Andrea. “With any luck, you’ll be back aboard by tomorrow night.”

Andrea grabbed him by the arm before he could stand up. “What’s going on?”

Pell stared back off at the control complex. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been nervous as a Martian sand flea since we landed on Terra,” Andrea said, staring him down. She had heard him say ‘you’ll be back on board.’

“What’s going on here?”

“Come on, you don’t get a bit nervous before battle?” Pell replied. “I guess the attack back on Mars rattled me more than I thought.”

Andrea didn’t buy it. “I just need to know one thing. Are you up for this tomorrow?”

“I’m good; the Earth-G is just screwing with me is all. If I get a little sleep under my belt, I’ll be fine.” Pell started back down the slope towards their hidden Scrambler. Andrea resolved to keep a sharp eye on him on the way back to camp.

The Empress was in a high state of agitation. The Commandant and all of her Terran subjects sensed this. She reached out across the expanse of space to the Legion headquarters at the Earth-Moon LaGrange point. She hadn’t felt such exhilaration since she had first plugged in as a girl and overthrown Earth’s bubbling nation-state rulers. Soon, all of humanity would finally be hers. She would finally set a tremendous wrong right. All of her children would be brought back to the fold. The excitement was beguiling to her.

“Commandant, are your strike cruisers in position?” She knew the answer, but she preferred to hear it from him.

“All assembled. Half of the total fleet strength is in lunar orbit.” The Primus had been sighted in an orbit over the moon’s poles, but had since vanished just as they verified its true identity as the Armageddon on Tap.

“Destroy the monastery,” the Empress said. “Their presence need not be tolerated any longer.”

The Commandant flinched slightly at the decision. The Legion hadn’t carried out military action in the Terra-Luna system for decades.

“And what of the Primus?”

“Find and obliterate them. I want their destruction to be seen as a message across the solar system.” The final thought of the Empress came across sharply in the Commandant’s mind. “Except for Miss Makati. Our favorite inquisitor has a special surprise party planned for her.”

Cerulean dropped his hood and surveyed the bleak horizon. He had been hiking for the last 24 hours, and now stood atop Ayers Rock, known as Uluru to the ancient aborigines. Old when mankind was new, this worn down rock was still one of the most sacred spots known to him. Reaching beneath his robe, he pulled out a simple sieve and held it out to the sunlight. Hundreds of tiny crescents danced about the red rock at his feet. The partial phase of the solar eclipse was well under way, and with it, the fate of humanity was cast. He knew that up there, between the Earth and the Sun, the Icarus Monastery now lay in ruins. They always knew it would come to this. With it, the only home he had ever known was gone. It had served its purpose, and he had been just another tool to that end. Their answer to salvation and the plans of the Empress were at hand.

He rubbed his hairless scalp in the eerie sunlight. He was a lone emissary now of a debt that was due.

He jumped on a stashed jet-cycle that had been pre-positioned for him. He checked the pair of sonic pistols clipped to the manifold before bolting off towards the Moon-bitten sunset.

Lori peered up at the slivered Sun through filtered goggles. Overhead, she knew that Scorpius Cell was beginning their suicidal dive at Legion Headquarters. She also knew that the Professor was there, and the success of the assault relied squarely on them.

“Ten minutes ‘til show time,” Andrea whispered. “Is the electronic pulse field positioned?”

“I’ve got my finger on the pickle button,” Pell called out. “Just say the word…”

Andrea silently waved a gloved hand. They were all in full assault gear now. The daytime Sun had faded noticeably; within minutes, the Moon’s shadow would sweep over them like the Hand of God.

She scanned the complex. The drones were going about their mundane tasks, oblivious to the natural spectacle unfolding over their heads.

We gotta hit them with maximum force, Andrea thought as the minutes dragged on.

“There!” Lori said, dropping her goggles and trying hard not to be overcome with excitement.

A dazzling diamond ring appeared on the edge of obsidian Sun like the last gasp of a dying ember.

“Now!” Andrea cried as Pell pushed the accelerator. The Scrambler shot up over the ridge and bore down on the complex. Several drones scattered in surprise trying to make sense of the situation. The three of them rolled off into the sand within a few hundred meters of their target. Andrea stopped and lifted her head just in time to see the collision as several hundred kilos of shaped charge aboard the Crawler slam into the door. The pressure wave of the resulting explosion almost took the wind out of her. “Pell,” she screamed, “Hit the disruptor!”

A smaller, more subtle secondary burst followed. Andrea flipped down her visor, as they had done in practice a thousand times. This muffled blast was an extremely low yield neutron burst. Its sole purpose was to disable as many of the security drones as possible.

Andrea scanned ahead with her infra-ocular. Already, Lori was on her feet, rushing towards the gaping hole in the structure. Pell was nowhere to be seen. “Damn,” she called out to no one in particular. Andrea ran towards the smoking hole. The eclipse now cast an eerie light on the collapsed piles of drones as she stepped over them. She met Lori inside, brandishing her maser pistol with relish. “Glad you could make it,” she called back to Andrea as she finished off the last of the security drones that survived the burst. “I thought I’d have to take on the entire complex myself!”

Andrea un-holstered her maser pistol and scouted ahead with her infra-ocular. Most of the action seemed to be dying down. Good. We hit them hard and fast…

“C’mon,” she waived Lori forward. “Pell’s got the codes and the charges…let’s see if his ass made its way into the core.” Andrea knew that the closest Legion quick reaction force on the continent was in Perth. Even if they were all spun up, it would take them at least 15 minutes to reach this location…

Andrea and Lori rounded the last corner to the control center. She hoped that they wouldn’t have to barricade themselves in here as it would be a hell of a spot for a last stand.

“Pell!” She saw the Martian resistance leader standing in the center of the room. He was wired to his portable terminal with a comset on. He barely noticed their presence.

“Assault Team Three, your sensors are go. Commence with termination of Gamma Spoke. Assault team Four…”

Gamma Spoke… they mean to take the habitation ring down! Andrea ripped the comset from his head. “What the hell are you doing?”

Pell hit his belt and a jolt of electricity knocked her back like an invisible battering ram. “You’ve done your part, little lady… let’s just say the revolution is long overdue!”

“Too bad you won’t live to see it!” Lori stepped from the shadows and leveled her maser at Pell’s head. His skull imploded nearly instantaneously, his brain pan melting in a flash. She barely noticed that he had already squeezed the remote detonator in the palm of his left hand.

To be continued…

Read The Syzygy Gambit and other original sci-fi tales by David Dickinson

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