Act I, Scene 16 of 2100 CE.
Zahn squinted at the image he was being shown, bringing his face closer to the screen for a better view. He felt ridiculous, like trying to make out one of those old-fashioned 3D photos. “This is the best magnification?”
“Actually, it’s not line-of-sight,” the technician said. “The camera that caught this is on a surveyor drone—it’s not really intended to take these sort of long distances images. What we’re seeing is a computer approximation.”
It looks like a piece of modern art, Zahn thought, squinting again at the image. There was something out there, that was for sure; successive images showed the same patch of space mottled by moving masses and occasionally lit by flashes of what looked like red lightning. “I don’t get it,” he said after a long while, “these drones must have navigation cameras for remote control. Those should be sufficient. These weren’t taken with the surveyor camera, you said?”
“They do, and they are,” the technician replied only a little defensively, “but we’re getting a lot—and I mean a lot of interference.”
One of the other communication technicians was nodding. “Hell, we can barely capture the drone’s controls from here. We have most of them on standby until we can figure out what’s wrong.”
“Interference?” A slight motion at the corner of his eye drew his gaze to Santiago.
The old man shrugged. “Signal could be out of sync?”
“No, no, no,” the three techs instantly protested.
“Hold on, let’s get something clear,” the lead technician said, “this ain’t our fault. We checked our equipment, and we checked the signal.”
“We tested it,” another said, as though that settled the matter entirely.
“That’s right,” the lead went on, “we tested all the transmitters and even rebooted the server. Short of reimaging the system, there’s nothing else we can do. What ever is affecting it, it’s coming from out there.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” Zahn said, raising a placating hand. Although he was hardly a fan of Confederal employees, he did not think they would purposefully go out of their way to mess things up. “But we’ve never had this issue before. The drones are out there almost the entire year on remote operation—that’s exactly what they’re designed to do—but you’re telling me you can barely get in touch with any of them?”
The lead nodded. “And whatever is affecting our communications with them has wiped out all of our long-range comms. We ain’t able to raise Ceres, Juno, or any other nearby operations.”
Zahn was less phased by that second issue as by the problem with the drones. Every time there was a confederal holiday, these clowns left them blind to the outside world, and so he had long ago learned to deal with being cut off from long-range comms for extended periods of time. So long as operations at 8-Gitano continued, he would cope with the fools who ran the colony’s primary communications. But the drones were integral to their mining operations, scouting for water, silicates, diamonds, metal ore, and any number of other resources intended to meet their quota.
“These are expensive pieces of equipment,” he said patiently. “We need to reestablish communication and get them back.”
The tech next to him spread her hands. “If we can’t talk to them, they’re stranded. You’ll probably have to send someone out to retrieve them.”
Great. The last time Zahn had been compelled to do that it had been a bunch of kids enrolled in the high school’s technical engineering curriculum who he had been forced to call upon. They were, to every resident’s astonishment, the only members of the colony licensed to operate spacecraft outside the mining crews.
It had not been a great experience.
“What’s causing the interference?” Santiago said. “Or…what do you think is causing it?”
The three technicians exchanged looks, each just as unsure as the next. Something unspoken seemed to pass between them as the two junior technicians seemed to urge on their boss with the expressions they bore.
“How about a solar flare?” Santiago volunteered when he received no response. “Hmm? Small solar flares wreak havoc on electronic communications all the time.”
The lead technician shrugged, avoiding the looks coming from his colleagues. “That’s possible, though there haven’t been any reports of solar activity…”
“Well, what then?” Santiago demanded, letting more than a little of the former Dragoon officer slip into his tone. He loomed over the lead technician as he spoke, “Because the sooner you give some idea of what’s going on, the sooner can have our people look in to it and maybe even get it resolved.”
Zahn resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead focused his gaze on the blurry image before him. “Do you think this has something to do with it?”
“Damnit, Adam.” The farther technician turned to Zahn. “It might be a solar flare, sure, but that’s unlikely—we can usually predict and prepare for them, especially out this far. More likely—”
“Steve,” the lead tech hissed.
“They have a right to know!”
“What?” Santiago demanded. “Know what?”
The lead technician sighed heavily. “We’ve been monitoring enemy naval activity in this area for some time and on our way back we were informed that there would be a Space Forces task force—one of ours—passing through this region of space. We were to report its presence to the relay station on Juno. That was it. That’s all we know.” He hesitated a moment, looking at the images. “The problem is that we can’t get through because we’re being jammed.”
Zahn frowned. “Jammed?”
“Local space is filling with electron interference,” the closer tech explained, her voice irritated. “We’re practically drowning in it.”
“Standard operating procedure when engaging the enemy,” Santiago added.
“Exactly. So we’re actually not sure what’s going on,” the lead said. “After what you told us about separatist ships in the area, we suspect they have intercepted or been intercepted by the Space Forces.”
Zahn stared into the middle distance for a moment, taking in what he had just been told and processing its meaning. Nodding slowly, he said, “And so the flashes we’re seeing…”
Zahn nodded. A battle right on their doorstep and exactly no way to call for help. Damn the separatists and damn the confederation—this whole area should have been declared neutral space! Collateral damage to the colonies caught between space navies was often high—disproportionally high compared to the number of ships engaged. It only took a few stray missiles or laser blasts to rip a colony apart. Naval warships were armored, capable of fighting back, and most importantly, capable of movement: dodging, strafing, firing, and fleeing.
8-Gitano had none of those.
He took a deep breath, held it, and very slowly let it out. No use getting worked up—it would just make things worse. “How close are they?”
“It’s hard to tell. Maybe one or two thousand kilometers. Could be less, could be more.”
Zahn nodded—kept nodding. It was all he could think to do. “Alright. Alright, just keep monitoring the situation and keep me and Colonel Santiago abreast of any updates or changes.”
“And if they target us?”
He felt his eye twitch. “We’ll deal with that then.”
“Hmph.” Geoffrey dropped his tablet down in front of him. “Still no internet. Just the colony’s intranet.” He spoke the last word as though it were a curse.
Chelsea frowned across the table at her friend. “It’s down again?”
“Same goes for phones,” Iain said, taking a bite from his sandwich. He frowned and set the sandwich down. “The only phones working are the hardline ones. Been that way since morning.”
“You think it’s why they called that big meeting?”
Conspicuously absent from the conversation, Landon sat at the table with them but remained staring off into space—not distracted, but vacant.
“Lan,” Chelsea said softly. “Landon, you okay?”
The other two now, for the first time since they had all sat down to eat together, took notice. Even if Landon could at times be aloof or even downright insulting, he was never silent like this—especially when it came to politics, and local politics at that…
Iain waved a hand in front of his friend’s face. “Hey, pal, you there?”
Landon could of course hear and see him—of course he could—but that was not important. Something was wrong. In his chest and in his stomach, Landon could feel a strange sort of tension, one which felt at once familiar and still entirely foreign to his being. Physical tension in his muscles and organs was accompanied by the vaporous feeling of anxiety or maybe anticipation. It felt like the pressure of acceleration he had felt pushing against his body aboard the spaceliner he and his mother had taken the day they left Fahiri, to catch up with his father here among the asteroids.
An unexpected specter materialized before his mind’s eye—the sort of indistinct, dark shadow which often substitutes for people or the personification of ideas in his dreams. But unlike those familiar forms, this one loomed large—extraordinarily massive and menacing, not unlike the Chernabog atop Bald Mountain…
“Something’s coming,” Landon heard himself mumble, though he had no thought of the words or their production.
“Thus spake Ray!” Iain announced.
But before he could dwell on the ethereal image, his eyes focused and he found himself staring into Chelsea’s eyes. Had they always been that shade of azul, and her hair that bronze red? And she had freckles, too. Had they always been there…?
“Are you okay?” Her words came to him distorted, the image of her lips moving coming to him first before he actually heard her speak. She looked, he thought, genuinely concerned—and that realization both touched and bothered him. She could be too nosey.
“Off dreaming about Mars again,” Iain suggested, rolling his eyes, “and that stupid colony—”
“Iain,” Geoffrey admonished.
“—what’s it called? Fahiri?”
“Dude, lay off,” Geoffrey said
Chelsea ignored the jibe and kept Landon’s gaze. “Are you okay?”
All at once time came back into sync with what he saw with his eyes, and he was once again back in the normal world. Everything came into sharp focus, and in a single sweep of his surroundings, he saw that everything was precisely as it should have been: They sat in the school’s courtyard, at their usual table, eating lunch.
And Chelsea was staring at him intently.
“I’m fine,” Landon said a heartbeat later, forcing the words through heavy lips. “I’m fine.”
“You said something,” Geoffrey said. “You said someone was coming.”
Had he? Landon shrugged.
Geoffrey screwed up his face, an expression not dissimilar to the distaste Iain had shown for his sandwich. “What was that about?”
“I don’t know. Who cares?” Landon shook his head in quick jerking motions, trying to clear his head. What the hell was that? It was like he had been asleep—and now, he could remember almost nothing, just like a dream. With each attempt at accessing those memories, he felt that tension again in his chest and stomach—and now in his head. And yet, it was somehow enticing…
“Have you been sleeping?” Chelsea broke through.
“Yes. Yes, why?” He hated being questioned about his choices. What he did was his business!
Chelsea sighed and shook her head.
“I remember right before midterms, I got almost no sleep,” Iain commented.
“You studied?” Geoffrey said with no small amount of disbelief.
“You sound so surprised. I actually try sometimes.”
“Right,” Geoffrey said by way of reply. “That’s why you sleep through Engineering.”
“Hey, maybe if Coach Monfries, I don’t know, tried, I might actually be interested!” Iain waved a hand at the school building around them. “Who the hell ever heard of having a rugby coach teach mechanical engineering?”
While the other two engaged in their usual banter, Chelsea took the opportunity to stand up and move around the table. Sitting down next to Landon, she stared at him until he finally turned to look at her.
“What’s been with you lately?” she said softly, not wanting the others to hear. “Sometimes you’re nice and we can go get a coffee, but then you suddenly turn cold.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but was stopped short by a piercing wail that echoed from the walls of the cylindrical settlement. It rose in pitch in a long, mournful call that made it impossible to hear yourself speak. Reflexively they covered their ears with the palms of their hands as the wail rose a second time and then a third—and then silence. The silence which followed was as deafening as whatever they had just heard, only to be replaced by a feminine, distinctly mechanical voice—like some disembodied voice of God speaking into the air: “An atmospheric breach has been detected. Seek shelter at once. This is not a drill. This is not a drill. An atmospheric breach has…”
All at once the school was manifest pandemonium as teachers and staff shouted over the din to the students, trying to keep some semblance of control as panicked children ran for the relative safety of the school’s shelters in the basement. There they would enter pressurized modules with independent atmospheric systems, each attached to the exterior of the colony cylinder.
In the press of bodies and jostling about, Landon found Chelsea’s hand and gave it a squeeze before pulling her along into the melee, determined not to become separated.
“What the hell is going on up there?” Zahn shouted toward his desk phone.
“The breach is small, Mr. Zahn, though its origin is unknown,” the on-duty engineer reported. “It struck C Block and penetrated down four levels.”
“Four levels?” Zahn fixed the final clasp on his spacesuit and hurried across the office for the helmet. “That’s not a meteorite. What’s the damage?”
“The mining stations are effectively cut off,” the engineer replied. He hesitated before continuing, “We’ll have to go outside the colony to link up with them until repairs can be made. That whole connection is open to space.”
Zahn pulled on his helmet and keyed into his direct line. A blast of static accompanied the transfer of the call from his desk to the suit’s built-in communications. “Can we talk with them?”
More blasts of static as the suit’s A.I. attempted to clear through the wireless communications interference. Filtering and attempting to translate data to words, the suit’s operating system relayed: “Well, thar’s a mother problem.”
“Out with it, Bill!”
Blasts of static accompanied Zahn as he clicked through various displays on his computer. The suit finally returned: “We have it bin able to contract them for some time. We thought it was justice temporary short, and with the phones and radios being out.”
“How long have they been out of touch?”
“Two hours!” Zahn stopped himself from eating into the engineer right then and there. “Why the hell wasn’t I informed?”
“We had people on the way—”
“Where are they now?” he called over the A.I., which automatically paused.
“They were in C Block. Level One.”
He fought the urge to swear over the open comm. The ultralight spacesuit felt like wearing a wetsuit, but came with the awkward feeling of having one part of your body tug on an entirely separate part, but this he ignored as he worked his way out of the evacuated administrative building and out onto Andalus Boulevard. From the top of the steps of the building’s portico, he paused to glance up toward the spaceport high overhead on the far side of the colony. In the streets below, other residents were moving about in the same ultralight suit Zahn wore, assisting in the evacuation to the shelters. Not far from where he stood, Zahn caught sight of Colonel Santiago giving directions. He started down the stairs towards the head of security, simultaneously calling into the comm, “We need to reestablish communication with them. All of them—the miners and your team. Do you have people available to go down to Level Five and try extending some wire?”
As he distanced himself from his office, the signal grew increasingly problematic, requiring that he manually reroute the call to a nearby landline relay. Through static bursts, the A.I. said: “It’s just me and Luas Ray up here. If you can get somebody up here to trail over—”
“Colonel Santiago is going to send someone,” Zahn cut in. “Where’s everyone else?”
“They were on their way to a meeting.”
Damnit. Zahn had been the one who had called that meeting, and by happenstance had been running late when the alert went off. Now a disproportionally large number of the colony’s leadership council were stuck in a single shelter with no access to their emergency equipment.
“Mr. Zahn,” Santiago’s voice clicked over the short-distance radio—little more than a common Bluetooth connection. His voice was likewise filled with static, but it was distinctly his and discernible. “It has to be a hit from one of those ships.”
Zahn nodded gravely—he had thought the same thing. “Colonel, I need you to send someone up to the ECC to take over so Bill and Luas can get down to Level Five.”
“What the hell for?” Santiago said, though he was already waving over one of his security officers.
“It’s the only way to get in contact with the mining stations.”
“Pedro,” Santiago was saying, “get up to ECC and take over there. Grab Charlie while you’re at it.”
Zahn clicked back to his direct line. As he began to transmit, the A.I. fed something to him: “—can’t fit. Besides, we’ll be a sitting target.”
“Bill, what’s going on?”
Static. “Mr. Zahn, there’s a pea cake carrier requesting—demanding permission to dock,” the suit’s monotone voice said. “They’re saying we have to comply in accordance with some resolution I’ve never heard of.”
Pea cake carrier? What had the suit mistaken for—of course, he realized. “Have you responded?”
Static. “We were about to.”
“Do not respond,” Zahn said into the mic. “Whatever you do, do not respond.”
“Am I clear, Bill?”
There was an unusually long pause this time, more than mere static and the computer’s attempts to resolve a message, and then the reply came: “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Your priority is to figure out how we can get in contact with the miners.” All three hundred and fifty of them, he thought to add. He dreaded to think what had become to the people who had been trapped in C Block—what chance did the miners have, then? If what had pierced the colony’s walls had been a missile or even a laser blast…
As if to underscore that very fear, the colony suddenly shook—and then shook a second time, more violently than the first, nearly sending him off his feet. Instantly the emergency channel lit up and through the static he hard someone shout, “Two more breaches!”
“No response,” the signaler called back as the ship shuddered against the shock wave of another proximity-rigged missile. “Those hits they took may have knocked out their array.”
The Leopard shook again. Even with the restraints of the command chair, Braddox had to brace himself against the console in front of him to keep from striking it.
“Should we try the laser comm, sir?” the duty officer in the chair next to him suggested.
Braddox shook his head. What was the point? Even if they did have a laser comm, which was unlikely for a remote mining colony like this one, there was no guaranteeing anyone would respond. “Keep our heading,” he said by way of response. “Their main dock is open, so we’ll land there anyway.”
“Captain, do you think that’s wise?” the lieutenant at his side asked.
“It’s safer than trying to outrun them,” Braddox said, clicking at his console for the latest report from Damage Control. With their skeleton crew, the chaplain was in charge of the damage control parties—but even if Chaplain Pipkin was a competent theologian, he was no leader. The Captain did not like what he saw. “I do not believe that separatists will fire on a neutral colony, particularly since doing so might tip the colony corporation against them.”
“Captain,” his headset crackled. It was Cseltor. “Railgun One is operational again, but the hit burned out one of the capacitors and so we can only attain half power.”
“That’s better than nothing. Deploy it.”
The ship shook again as another missile exploded uncomfortably close. At the helm station he could see the two quartermasters on duty sweating as the young conning officer called orders from his station, sending the Leopard through difficult and random evasive maneuvers, twisting, turning, and rolling the ship in an attempt to avoid enemy fire. But even these efforts could only do so much, and already six exterior sections were open to space, along with the failing of two banks of verniers and a third ready to give.
Out in front of them lay their only hope, a private mining colony they had stumbled upon in the navigation’s software. It steadily grew in size as the crew struggled to both slow the Leopard in order to achieve a successful dock while simultaneously staying ahead of the enemy destroyers. On the green-hued surface of the asteroid, a circle of brilliant lights delineated arrival points to the colony—and at its center, the open hangar of the colony’s spaceport.
The lights on the bridge flickered as the first of the railguns fired. Relatively new additions to the ship, they pulled too much power from the ship’s reactor to all fire simultaneously. With the fire from each gun came a new round of flickering lights before settling back to normal.
“Fire Control reports Gun One is out.”
Braddox stabbed at the direct line to the operations center. “Cseltor.”
“It’s going critical, Captain,” came the immediate response. “We have to retrieve it, or we risk overload.”
He stifled a curse. If they lost even one more, their options for long-range attack would be finished. “Give the retrieve order.” He turned to the duty officer. “Time to dock?”
“Six minutes, twenty-three seconds, sir.”
“Right. I want the rear tubes to hit them with everything they’ve got left.” He turned to the Fire Control station. “Have half of the missiles set to timed fuses. I want the missiles to provide a curtain explosion to cover our landing. Helm, as soon as the tubes fire, reduce speed and then take us in with the verniers.”
The acknowledgements came back crisply in turn.
“Captain,” Cseltor’s voice crackled over the headset, “those weapons are powered up and being transported to the craft elevators now. They should be on the flight deck in less than ten minutes.”
“Keep them there,” Braddox replied. “We will deploy them once we have landed.”
“Rear tubes ready, sir!”
Braddox looked up. The colony’s dock was frighteningly close now. He could without assistance from the computer make out individual features of local spacecraft docked to the spaceport’s ceiling.
“Fire all rear tubes,” he called. “Engines—”
But he never finished the order. In the instant when the rear missile tubes fired their considerable payloads, the A.I. aboard a pair of missiles from the enemy destroyer Retiarius detected the enemy’s missile signatures at a point less than fifty meters from the stern of the carrier. Having been launched purposefully off-target and without overriding instructions from their mothership, the two missiles dove down on the Leopard and ignited their warheads. The resulting explosion in turn ignited the carrier’s own recently fired warheads, now a mere sixty meters from its stern.
Despite the entire bank of forward verniers firing to slow their advance, the force of the combined explosion shot the Leopard forward at nearly twice its current rate of travel. In the 3.26 seconds it took for the carrier to cover the remaining distance to the asteroid, not one hand on the bridge or in the operations center could regain control of the ship, and a heartbeat later the Leopard struck the upper bulkhead of the colony’s spaceport. The impact sheered away the ship’s forecastle, taking with it the bridge and the dorsal railgun before striking at the interior core of armor, bouncing the out of control warship down and into the hangar.
With most of its forward momentum absorbed by the initial impact, the second only buckled the weaker armor of exterior sections along the ventral forecastle. The combined force of the two impacts sent those members of the crew not strapped down flying at hundreds of kilometers per hour into consoles and armored bulkheads. While those who were so restrained saw only the briefest flash of light as their spinal cords severed from the whiplash of the impact. The soundtrack of their demise was the screeching and groaning of the ship’s metal hull dragging across the hangar deck amid the baying of klaxons and the hissing of venting atmospheric gases, before coming to a halt with a final thunderous clap.
Continues in Act II.
Part of 2100 CE.