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Here it is, the action-packed conclusion to our third tale set in the solar winds universe. Don’t forget to start back on chapter one, or you can read The Syzygy Gambit and other original tales by yours truly at our Amazon author page.
And stay tuned for a special announcement at the end…
Solar Winds: The Syzygy Gambit
In the main projector dish, the several hundred pound charge of high explosive placed by Pell a few moments before promptly detonated. The blast was brief, but enough to rattle the entire complex through the forest of transmitter dishes, which fell like dominoes. The deep space network, effectively the eyes and ears of the Terran Legion, was down.
But unbeknownst to Andrea and Gemini Cell, Pell had successfully contacted a Martian resistance team based to the north near Gamma Spoke deep in the jungles of Borneo. The deep space radar system served as a fine guidance positioning unit for the three spokes that held the habitation ring in place around the Earth; without its direction, the flexing of the spokes would soon rip the ring apart. Ordinarily, the temporary dropout of the deep space network wouldn’t pose a problem, as the critical stabilization system was triple redundant, and the short range autonomous systems within each spoke could handle the extra loads, as they often did during routine maintenance. However, on their downward transit, the separate Martian resistance teams had also placed charges at discrete points on backup controls for each spoke. Teams on Alpha and Beta Spoke failed to receive termination orders from Pell before he was killed and they promptly aborted as per instructions, deeming their mission in the Australian outback a failure. Assault Team Three, however, had received their orders and detonated the charges on Gamma Spoke.
Within minutes, the effects were noticeable. The twenty-two thousand mile spoke was made of carbon nanotubes, and was designed to flex somewhat. However, without guidance, the spoke began to bend and vibrate as the mass of the planet shifted under it. These vibrations were transmitted to the habitation ring, and alarms sounded up and down the spoke. Frightened passengers in transit to and from Earth could do little as transporters froze in place. Most of Earth’s cargo delivery and space travel was not performed from the surface, but from the ring itself. The engineers had little choice; the errant spoke had to be separated before it ripped the ring apart. The Empress herself commanded ring engineers to blow the explosive bolts joining Gamma Spoke with the Habitation Ring. The enormous 22,000 mile high column began a slow tumble, like a slender Tower of Babel, back to Earth.
“By Jove, look at all the ships!” The Shrink called out over the comset. They had already separated in their one man assault pods from the Armageddon on Tap and were riding in about fifty klicks behind the impactor. The Armageddon was already accelerating towards a different orbit and taking the brunt of the attack.
“Stay on course…” Karl called out. “We’re in this to win this now!” The last chance to abort came with their explosive launch from the asteroid miner. They were now on a terminal dive.
Karl looked portside as they entered the Moon’s shadow. Two preceding pods carrying Valkyrie and the Professor winked out behind him. His sensors detected the downing of the deep space radar within seconds of their separation. Damn, that gal did it! As practiced, the pods altered course slightly, then cut engines. Any ships that spotted them would be firing blind now. Karl spotted the accelerating Armageddon as it passed out of the cone of the Moon’s shadow. Glinting red and sliver, it was hard to tell how much damage it had taken. Perhaps it was no more than space junk now, doomed to endlessly orbit the Sun. All around them, he spotted the large lumbering ships deploying flares in a vain attempt to spot them. Karl manually turned his transmitter off to avoid the temptation of using it. They would be without V.I.C.A.R.’s near-time translation for Valkyrie anyhow; their attack would have to rely instead on practiced non-verbal cues. Doubtless, the Legion and half the Earth saw their payload before it slid into shadow and was attempting to track it with short range radar… and it didn’t take much thought to realize where it was headed.
Suddenly, a tremendous flash filled the forward view screen as their arrow had found its mark. Karl watched with enormous satisfaction as the tiny asteroid vaporized, taking out a good chunk of the station’s landing platform. Several escape modules were already jettisoned, and the impact looked as though it would eventually totter Legion Headquarters off of its gravitational perch. Karl and the rest of Scorpius Cell flipped the safety covers off of dashboard switches to deploy their magnetic grapplers. Karl knew that they were close enough that they couldn’t be targeted by the large assault craft swarming around them for fear of hitting the station.
“Someone knew we were coming,” Karl said to himself.
But the damage to the landing platform also meant that encountering a large squad of reinforcements was out of the question. For a brief moment, the station was theirs.
The grapplers locked in with a heavy thud. All three ships were pulled around and snapped to in a circle, heaving into the hull of the station. In the flickering glow of the impact, Karl noted that Valkyrie’s ship had already taken heavy damage. The pods only held one crew member each; if they were destroyed, there would be no escape. We’ll worry about that after we pop this can, Karl thought. Coming to a stop, Karl snapped his visor down as he purged the cabin pressure and popped the canopy in one swift motion. He noticed that he had come in long, and was now several hundred meters past the axis of the station. Professor and Valkyrie are probably already in, he thought, working his way along with a hand held thruster. The station would be back in sunlight shortly, and he didn’t have to travel far.
He came upon the gaping wound in the station, spotting scurrying maintenance drones attempting to seal compartments. The Professor was already engaged with a Legion Security team, eagerly testing his new heavy neutron pulse burster. We can’t get slowed down, Karl thought, as he took cover next to the Professor. He un-slung his maser rifle and began to fire. Suddenly, a soundless flash appeared overhead as Valkyrie dove into the fray, missing Karl and the Professor by inches. Even space-suited and with her wings sheathed, she packed a deadly wallop. She arrowed through the vacuum, slicing the first guard clean through the heart with her diamond blade. She spun on the second guard, but Karl already had him in his sights. It felt good for him to be on an assault again, as he squeezed the trigger with a measured precision. He faced court-martial on this same station before, and by a stroke of dumb luck had the chance to go AWOL…
The Professor popped the airlock, and they quickly stowed their spacesuits for retrieval on exit. The entire station appeared to be in pandemonium, as the eerie red emergency lights bathed the corridors.
Karl led the way.
“No time for sight-seeing, ladies and gents,” he said as they drifted deeper into the station. Not fearing an attack this close to home base, what security was left was only lightly armed and put up little resistance. “What we want is dead ahead.”
They dove into the double-vaulted encryption room. A scattered sonic volley greeted them as frightened security guards half-heartedly met their attack. Again, Valkyrie swept forward. Pinning the first guard against the bulkhead, she deftly sliced open his uniform and gingerly held his shriveled manhood in her improbably long talons. “Vor ant ris?” She hissed like a lover in his ear.
“I think she’d like to show those to you before she shoves them down your throat,” the Professor heckled. Karl had already disarmed the remaining guard.
“Think about it guys…” Karl said in measured tones to the remaining Legion guards. “What’s in here ain’t worth dying over.”
They wordlessly released their remaining weapons. Karl knew that the Blessed Empress was now watching them through the eyes of the frightened guards via neural net, but he didn’t care. He hoped she felt the terror they experienced now.
The Professor took the stolen Rubik’s device out and plugged it into the console before Karl even entered the room. “Ease up, Val,” Karl called out to Valkyrie. She seemed to be feeding off of her victim’s fear, and was eager for more takers. “Ay dojo…” she released the frightened guard, but not before grazing his one remaining testicle with her talon. His shriek echoed as blood drops floated down the corridor.
“That’s cold,” Shrink called out, monitoring the progress of the blinking device as it downloaded piles of classified data. Ship boarding codes. Scrambler nets. Details of illegal interrogations and entire colonies that had been wiped out. Technology that gave the Legion a tactical edge over every off-world group in the solar system. And as a personal request from Andrea, prisoner lists on Mercury Prime.
The download complete, the Professor disconnected the device and placed it back in his storage pack. Suddenly, the emergency lights cut out. A loud thump reverberated though the hull, as they heard the muffled whine of a laser torch beginning to cut through the bulkhead.
Karl knew shock troops were inbound. “Let’s move it folks, we’re going to have very nasty company soon!” They drifted out, the Professor in the lead with his night vision goggles in place. Karl knew the shock troop squad’s first priority would be to secure the classified material, and that would bring them crashing squarely down on top of Scorpius Cell.
The troops broke into the compartment just as they reached the outer airlock. Unlike the ceremonial rent-a-cops, these guys were well-trained. Gotta give us time to escape… “Into the hatch!” Karl yelled.
Karl pushed both Valkyrie and the Professor hard into the airlock. He spun to face down the corridor, with maser rifles in both hands. Valkyrie and the Professor struggled to suit back up as the chamber they passed through glowed white hot. “They’re gonna use plasma charges to clear the bay…” Karl called back, diving headfirst into the melee.
His shots were cool and measured, causing a premature detonation. This surprised the boarding shock troops, who scrambled to put their blast visors down in place in time.
Valkyrie and the Professor saw his feet last as Karl vaporized in the expanding fireball.
“Shit!” the Professor yelled as the air lock doors burst. Valkyrie was blown outward into space, without time to tether in. Struggling, she managed to click her helmet into place, barely averting the deadly kiss of the vacuum. Tumbling, the Professor slid out of sight. Valkyrie groped as she searched her waist for her hand-propulsor. She’d spent most of her youth in the darkness of space. The Sun, so overbearingly bright to her here in the inner solar system, was just beginning to slide out from behind the limb of the Moon. Tapping the propulsor, she regained direction and surveyed their handiwork. The impactor had definitely done a number on the station, with half of the structure ripped away. The Armageddon fired a warning salvo just 10 minutes prior to their attack, and most of the non-combatant staff now drifted like a new constellation around the station. Valkyrie smiled. She hoped, for Karl’s sake, that the Legion Commandant was among them. Fortunately for her, most of the remaining patrol craft were now dedicated to rescue, and paid scant attention to her. No going back, she thought. The Rubik’s device and the data it held were lost with the Professor.
She knew Andrea’s orders were for them to make their way back to the Cartel rendezvous point by any means possible. She greatly respected and admired the young girl that had rescued her from the brig of the Daedalus. Was Andrea still alive? Did the Armageddon make it though that rain of fire? The shock troops had cut two of their assault pods free of their landing moors, but she spied Karl’s pod, still tethered in its distant landing spot. Jumping in, she quickly pressurized the cabin and sped away once she’d dropped out of sight, hoping to meet the Armageddon on its outward slingshot.
She peered down at the fully illuminated Earth, as the black puncture of the Moon’s shadow drifted silently across its disk. She thought that the artificial ring now looked a little askew from her vantage point. Although this world was the home of her ancestors, it looked utterly alien and virulent to her, as a child of the Oort Cloud. Stretching out as much as she could, she said a silent prayer for Karl.
I Gotta wash these wings…
Back in the Australian Outback, Andrea and Lori faced a vexing problem. They had worked their way out to the mining catapult, only to find it already loaded for the next shot. With several hundred kilos of cargo aboard, it was too much to unload; Andrea made the snap decision to let the automated system fire the load into orbit, then wait the five precious minutes for the launch catapult to cycle and then launch the first escapee in the next available empty pod.
“That’s you, girl,” she shouted to Lori as the loaded cargo pod roared down the magnetic rails into space. She saw the look Lori gave her as she moved to question Andrea. “There’s no room for debate!” She knew that the Armageddon would be in its ten-minute pickup window in about twenty minutes. That would give them both just enough time, now that bloody Pell wouldn’t be joining them.
Andrea cursed his name under her breath. She knew Pell was up to something! This would bring the whole Legion crashing down on them and Mars, with her as the token martyr. Damn him! Did he and his goose-stepping fifth columnists want to start another Martian Revolution? She tried not to think of the enormity of the situation, and instead focused on the task at hand. Escaping in the mining pods was either a very brave or very stupid move, as they weren’t built for live passengers. Egg-shaped, they would only accommodate one passenger at a time: they had no crash seats, and even with environmental suits and minimal pressurization, they would almost certainly black out under the excessive acceleration. Then they would have maybe 30 minutes worth of oxygen until, hopefully, the Armageddon picked them up; otherwise, they would hang in low Earth orbit until either a salvage ship discovered their corpses or they burned up on re-entry.
Andrea and Lori sweated in their half-donned enviro-suits as they waited out the recharge cycle. The coolness of the eclipsed desert had once again given way to scorching heat. They knew that the first Legion quick reaction team was inbound and due to arrive any minute.
Finally, like a morbid carnival ride, the next available cargo pod slid into loading position. “Your date’s here,” Andrea said as she helped Lori in. For the first time, she thought the young girl looked genuinely frightened. “Say hi to V.I.C.A.R., and give the Professor a kick in the ass for me!”
“Why don’t you do it yourself when you see them in person?” She called back as Andrea clamped the hatch shut. She checked the charge. About a minute to go… Ordinarily, these pods were set to launch externally after they were fully loaded, but Andrea would carry the remote for her own launch with her.
”Shit!” She saw a glint on the horizon. A Legion sub-orbital carrier was coming in low, no doubt having launched a few minutes ago out of Perth.
The craft circled the area once to quickly survey the situation. Andrea hid in a defensive position, hoping to buy Lori a few precious seconds.
The craft landed a few hundred meters distant. She saw several assault troops quickly disembark. Her heart sank as she saw how heavily armed they were. They fanned out and appeared to be setting up a general neuro-disruptor as they secured the area. She looked over at the charging pod. There is no way I can repel them, and the catapult will draw them in this direction…
A cold downdraft passed overhead. Andrea ducked slightly as a shadow blotted out the Sun. She briefly wondered if she was hallucinating yet another eclipse. She only hoped the pod wouldn’t misfire from a weak charge, only to put Miss Stutton in the Indian Ocean a few hundred miles downrange. Andrea looked in momentary disbelief as Cerulean dismounted his moving jet cycle and began two-fisted firing his sonic pistols, all in one swift motion. I didn’t know monks could move so fast, she marveled.
The distraction allowed her to punch the catapult into action. Without hesitating, she fired a high-powered volley into the disruptor crew as the pod whooshed past. She ran towards Cerulean’s position and hit the dirt. Her timer was reset. “Bored with the endless meditation?” she yelled over the roar.
“I fill but a required chasm,” He replied, barely missing a beat as he laid down suppressing fire. He was a surprisingly good shot.
Pinned down, Andrea glanced as the next pod swiveled into launch position. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the Legion troops begin to deploy gas.
“That pod’s yours, monk-boy,” she shouted, putting on her enviro-suit mask. With it, she could withstand the gas longer than he could. “I’ll launch you from here.”
Wordlessly, he held his hand up in a silent benediction. Andrea pressed her Cartel transmitter in his hand. “Welcome to Gemini Cell. You’re one of us now!”
She laid down suppressing fire until her charge was out. She then launched the pod with Cerulean in it, although the safety protocols were off and she knew it wouldn’t have the energy to reach orbit. Anywhere is better than here, at this point, she thought. Her weapons spent, she now felt an odd sense of peace.
She managed to kick the first soldier that reached her square in the jaw, knocking him off his feet. Blackness descended over Andrea as a neural disruptor field knocked her unconscious.
Battered and scarred, the Armageddon on Tap began its slow climb out of the inner solar system. Most of the solar shield was once again destroyed, although they wouldn’t need it where they were headed. V.I.C.A.R. had managed to pilot the craft through the onslaught of Legion cruisers, relying mostly on brute forward momentum to see it through. With the hull blistering dangerously against the Earth’s atmosphere, he dutifully scooped up the sole pod registering a Cartel transmitter, and Lori Stutton was now recovering from her perilous ride into space. Valkyrie had joined them soon after, with news of the action and heavy resistance they had encountered at Legion HQ. As the three of them made their way back to the Kumari asteroid several weeks travel distant, Lori wondered if their sacrifice was worth it. Two dead; two missing, and probably dead. And Victor… She looked down at the Venusian firestone the Professor had given her. They monitored deep space channels, and heard the news. They knew of the collapse of Gamma Spoke and what it signified: most of the solar system was or would be at war soon. Because of them.
Looking out the port window of the sickbay, Lori shed a silent tear. Their sacrifice hadn’t been worth the cost. She spotted a bright fleck in the constellation Leo that she knew was Jupiter. She had come from the Legion as a spy, only for the events in that far off Ganymede Bar to change her mind, and introduce her to the only man she truly loved. Now, like the solar system, they were ripped apart. The three of them were all that remained of the Zodiac Cartel.
Now the most wanted ship in the solar system, the antimatter-fueled engines pushed the damaged asteroid miner onward towards the distant rendezvous point.
The Sapphire Awe hung in orbit over the planet Mercury, its dazzling solar shield deployed. Colonel Mascon admired the surface blisters she knew led to the deep subsurface prison mines below. Already, the Empress herself had relayed word of open revolt among the Martian colonies; the Jovian system had followed suit, and there were hints that Titan might follow as well. Titan! With transport to the habitation ring from the surface down, Terra’s ability to launch Legion reinforcements was now extremely limited. The assets that were in space or already off-world were all that was available to her now. Already, the Commandant had granted her authority over Inferior Worlds, and her orders were to quell any insurrection on Mercury and Venus as the local versions of the Empress were finally installed. Upon entering orbit around Mercury, she informed the Governor that his services would no longer be required, as they were now at a state of war. When he protested and questioned her authority, she promptly answered by sending the first batch of shock troops landed to his residence in Copernicus City, assassinating the Governor and dispatching his family to the prison mines below. Kill one mouse, and you will frighten a thousand. She thought. Colonel Mascon had studied her Sun-Tzu well.
Now, her interest was piqued by the latest arrivals from Terra: the expected new batch of fresh prisoners. As the Colonel boarded her personal landing shuttle, she eagerly awaited meeting the infamous Andrea Makati in person.
Light shot down the long mine shaft as the large entry hatch hissed open. Several prisoners scurried like rats before the armed guards, disappearing into the endless warrens of the prison.
“Marc, wake up! We’ve got fresh meat!”
Warily, Marc picked up his head and peered out of his cell. The jeering darkness was as close a vision of hell as one could ask for. He had hoped and prayed since his arrival from Mars that a blissful end had finally come, but this wasn’t it.
He inspected the new arrivals. Martians, no doubt. They all looked slightly thinner, as if accustomed to generations of low gravity. And the battered girl on the end…
He had to restrain a cry. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Note: with this installment, we’re wrapping up our free fiction Friday offerings. Don’t worry, we’re working on lots more scifi and straight-up fiction to come, and it’ll all be featured on our Amazon author page.
As we hit the road, we’ve decided to move this blog back to its roots, telling musings and tales from the road in 2016… more to come!