Written for the YC115 Pod and Planet Fiction Contest
Category: Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden
Boots on the Ground; Fire in the Sky
The first thing he saw were the boots: Black, battered and yet polished. They contained an unruly mass of rust-colored pant tucked in and cinched down with a knot. They were connected to a pair of legs that led back to a woman who frowned at a monitor. Deak hovered in the doorway. When he had stopped in front of this door he had expected something that was not the deep quiet of the inner room. Behind him the hallway buzzed with the sound of steps, the clink of armor, and the snick of fabric.
“Make a decision,” said the woman. Her eyes had not moved from the monitor. She had the fast, rhythmic accent of a Tinker. Stay? Go? Deak made his decision and pushed the rest of the way into the room. The door stuck for a moment before it gave under his weight and closed against the loud protest of the hinges.
Deak cursed an embarrassed blush. He looked around. The woman at the desk had not moved. She was still leaned back in her chair, her feet up, head lolled to the side, eyes focused on her monitor. The only other occupant sat at the room’s only other piece of furniture. Deak moved towards that table and settled at the opposite end and debated his situation.
The sign on the door had read Throes Corp Recruitment, he was sure. He had expected something else. This was nothing like the long lines at the Public Contract Bunker. Across the table the woman stared at the table top. There was no paperwork. No posters. No one in formal uniform..
He should know better. It hadn’t been glamorous after he signed up and passed the testing that said he was compatible. A production harvester boy going out into space to be a mercenary? It had been a dream. An escape from home. It had been everything he thought that it would be. For the first few minutes. Before the first clone jump.
He wanted to talk. He was a talker. He chewed on his tongue to occupy it and tried not to stare at the woman at the table. A fellow recruit he guessed? She had the buzzed hair and smooth skin of someone fresh out of the clone vats. He recognized the look. He saw it in the mirror in the mornings. The public contracts meant a lot of new bodies. What had been amazing and horrifying became commonplace. Wake up. Throw up. Get up. Gear up.
He had come here looking for something else. He had expected something else. The quiet, empty room with its table and chairs and disinterested recruiter were not what he had expected. Twice, he almost decided to leave. Six times, over the course of two hours he watched the door open. Twice, the prospective recruit looked in and decided not to enter. Twice the prospective recruits entered, looked around, and sat down. Once the recruiter, for that is what he decided she was, looked at the gleaming, fresh faced recruit and said, “No,” in a voice of arctic winter chill. When the sixth potential recruit opened the door the boots hit the ground. “Go sit down,” she snapped. The applicant darted into the room and settled in the last chair. Narrowed eyes looked over the group of them.
“Hi. I’m Syder.” No one answered. Syder did not look as if she cared. “You are all here because you want to be here. Why was there no party and celebration with gift baskets of local cheese? Because we have better things to do with our time then wine and dine high-maintenance children. You came here because you wanted to join Throes. So, now its storytime.”
Five pairs of eyes watched her. “Throes is heading out of this ridiculous Faction War. We could watch the empires pick and heckle each other over space they don’t even want to support and wonder why they want it because someone else wants it. Let us say the empires are unhappy with unhappy Mercs and bored capsuleers who are too used to war and not used to peace. The general consensus is for us to… lets say… defend some planets closer to the edge of no security space and build up a solid, long term base.”
“You really are taking a planet?” the words tumbled out before he could stop them.
Both eyebrows rose. “You are well researched, Mister…” her eyes unfocused for a moment before she continued, “Deak, has heard the rumors. They are true. Most of them. Some are always false. But yes, we are leaving the warzone and heading a bit further out to try our luck on our own. Throes has joined a capsuleer alliance and they are looking for ground support to secure some planetary districts that they oversee.”
“Secure from what?” asked one of the recruits. The female that had been there before Deak was still there and still quiet.
“The question is more what are we not up against? Empire. Other mercs. Civilians. Drones. Other capsuleer corporations. The universe. If that is all you are worried about, don’t. Your job is to sight down your rifle and kill things. If you spend that much time worrying about what is on the other side you’d do better to not follow me out the door.”
The quiet woman was the first to her feet. The rest of them stumbled to theirs and followed Syder from the room. No one said anything. There had been no talks of contracts. No offers of bonuses and gear. There had been zero discussion. Five recruits followed one recruiter deeper into the station, There were no more questions. Choices had been made. Now it was time to live with them.
Engine flares like streaks of oxidized metal faded as the particles dispersed into space. Their creator, a sleek, dual pronged cruiser spun in a loose circle as panels flickered across its exterior hull. In a moment, a reflective membrane skimmed across the hull, tight as a skin. The Loki vanished from biological and sensor sight.
Deep in the ship's core was a capsule. Inside of it, the pilot set a course for a particular point in space. It was a singular spot of black, known to the pilot and no one else. He settled in, a piece of the darkness. If the sunlight that stretched from the bright, blue star has illuminated his hull it would have found it as deeply red as the nebula that surrounded it.
Shadowed and still, the pilot watched the traffic streak through the gates. A pack of frigates from his own corporation raced through. They tossed him greetings across their private, quiet communication bands and felt no insult when he did not answer. He watched and occasionally sent communications. Now and then his curiosity was aroused and he shot a bit of attention towards the roving pack.
The bright flare of a cynosural field opening in the system caught his attention. He was casual as he warped. Unlike some, he was not tempted by the useless frigates so often used to create the fields. The Loki slipped out of warp a hundred kilometers off of one the stations. The ship twisted and began a slow arc to observe the station. Small ships scuttled about the fringes like fish in shallow water. They reached the edges and curved back. Away from the dangers of deeper space.
Nestled below the lower spindle, the cynosural field flickered. The bright beacon was a small, contained tear in the fabric of space. The Loki pilot’s urge was to shatter the little ship. All of its resources were focused on maintaining that tiny, intricate portal. He almost wondered if he had missed the entrants when his sensors whirled into a high pitched clatter as space tore.
There was a visual key as the ships left one piece of space and entered another. Red waves of heat and waste energy washed away from the center of the field. Two dozen carriers sat in space that had once held only the Velator and its small rip in reality. The Loki monitored all of it as he captured the identifiers of the ships.
Hammer Slice: Local query unknown.
Fun Day Plans: Local query unknown.
Throes Corporation: Local query unknown.
Dirt ‘n’ Sky: Local query unknown.
Focused Control Alliance:
Public query found.
Focused Control Alliance is a Minmatar Militia affiliated corporation with mercenary operations planetside. Focused Control Alliance has no public contracts active with the Minmatar Militia.
Public query end.
“‘Interesting,” the Loki pilot said to himself. A query sent back to his corporation returned empty. They did not know any of these names. The war zone was not unknown to them. But space was very, very large.
The carriers had all docked. The Loki slid into warp as he sent queries to public information depots. Klingt had been the home of his corporation for a long, long time. Something unsettled him.
“The nebula is different here.”
“Of course it is different. We’re not in Heimatar anymore. The nebula isn’t exactly a two dimensional picture or something. Why do you always make such stupid comments, Sibiton?”
“I’m just noticing. You’re prickly.”
He had hurt his feelings. “Just fly your ship.” The last thing Eoeis needed was Sibiton to go into a sulk right now. Of course he was prickly. They had received orders a week ago to move to some unknown, backwater system. Then, a stack of requests, or as Eoeis thought of them, demands, had flooded Hammer Slice. They wanted towers up. They wanted customs offices up. They wanted tacticals on the stations, planets, and gates. The market was empty and that made them unhappy. They wanted everything yesterday and the blaster-mad idiots didn’t give a single care that they wanted all of this in a system bristling with active hostiles.
“Pirates are cowards,” he had been told when he asked for some support. “They are not going to stick their noses in when there are a hundred of us in the system.” That left Sibiton and him in space, as the control tower crew anchored it, and a creeping feeling in the pod goo that someone was watching them with great interest.
Nothing was on his scan. That might mean something. It might not. He kept his attention focused as the tower unfurled. With all of the technological advances they still could not put up a structure with some type of reasonable defense without bothering the empty headed combat pilots who could not see past their own turrets. The very people that demanded this tower were the same idiots who whined about how boring an anchoring operation was.
As it was, they kept their haulers cloaked. The cloaking device rendered the ship useless. It also kept them relatively protected as they waited for the final countdown. Between the two ships they carried enough fuel to get the tower online and its basic services up and running.
“Almost done. Let’s move in so we can activate it and get out of here.” Eoeis ordered his Iteron Mark V closer to the tower. The gangly ship stretched out over a kilometer. Its cylindrical bulk moved with a painful slowness as he ordered the cloaking device deactivated. Space flickered and cleared as the ship wheezed back to life. The afterburner kicked in as a few kilometers away, Sibiton’s Bestower snapped into awareness according to his ships sensors.
The two barges hovered around the stalk of the tower. Connectors snaked from the tower and connected up and down the length of the massive haulers. Fuel blocks slid from the hold and down into the depths of the tower. The processes was surprisingly fast. Thousands of cubes rushed to fill the energy hungry core of the tower. The structure hummed as generators rumbled into life.
The two barges withdrew. They slipped out of scan range as their cloaking devices ripped into life around them. The tower continued to turn itself on. Later, crews would head out to man it. For now, it was running on autopilot doing a series of system checks. Once it was finished he would activate its shields. There would be more maintenance to do after that but the dangerous side would be done and another task would be off his startup list.
He didn’t notice the Jaguar before it landed. The sudden appearance of the assault frigate ripped him out of his stupor. For a moment it held still. He held still. The cloak was suddenly just a thin coating of false protection. The chances were high the pilot was just curious. The vicious little frigate might want to see what was happening at the once empty moon.
His hopes vanished as it started to gain momentum. Towards him. He asked the Iteron to move but the ship was slow in responding. All energy was focused on the cloak. Should he drop it or not? Before he could decide the Jaguar gained momentum and streaked past him.
The collision of shield energy shattered the cloak effect. Two Wolves landed and Sibiton’s bestower was left in space. Panic grabbed him as projectile fire started to hammer into his shields.
“Mayday,” he called. It was helpless. By the time anyone responded they would die. He had drifted out of communication range with the tower. The only hope was that he could activate it before he died.
The resolution was calm for him. He was surprised at how calm. His shields shredded. The miniscule power plant inside of the Iteron could not hold up against the onslaught of the frigates. The ship might be large but it was a hollow shell. The shield warnings screamed as they failed and bullets slammed into the armor plates of the Iteron. Sibiton was heading towards the tower as well with two frigates tight against his hull. A duo of Thoraxes dropped out of warp. Eoeis did not hear his own voice screaming curses. One last desperate pulse of the afterburner pushed Eoeis into the range of the tower’s receiver.
The forcefield flowed across the Iteron. The pack of assault frigates snapped into space. Their engines sputtered as they rolled in wild trajectories. In the background, fire sirens howled as the ship’s shields struggled back online. Eoeis watched the frigates regain their balance. He wasn’t paid enough for this.
Dread was cold. He felt himself gasp but it felt as if his pod goo was frozen. Sibiton’s Bestower tumbled in the distance and the pack of frigates were already burning after the helpless hauler.
Dread was a nightmare. From inside the safety of the shields Eoeis watched as the frigate pack swarmed the hauler. The Thorax was a graceful length behind them. The Bestower shattered. Sibiton’s screams for help were cut short as the indicator light for his escape capsule winked out of existence.
Too little, too late, the support fleet appeared on short scans. The frigates snapped into warp with the Thorax only a moment behind them. Battlecruisers and a Dominix slid out of warp and bumped gently against the shields. Numb, Eoeis issued the access commands that would have saved Sibiton. Codes that he had not sent in his panic.
Jolee pushed the corral gate closed behind the indignant axipitta and collapsed against it with a groan. The insulators buzzed into life and the axipitta settled. It had taken her the entire morning to round up the skittish livestock. The lead stamper had required a full bucket of sugar and flanna leaves to convince her to come into the corral before roundup. The axipitta hated change almost as much as Jolee did and coming into the corral before dusk was not part of their normal routine. How the multilegged, native herbivores had ever been tamed was beyond her.
Jolee felt the tremble in the air before she heard it. A moment later the rumble turned into a roar and the ground shook. The eight legged axipitta herd bleated a bit but were calm. The sound rolled off the insulators and the ground trembled no more than if one of the harvesters had come up the lane. Jolee felt the rattle deep in her teeth as a planetary launcher fought the gravitational pull of Klingt V. The glow of its engines burned as bright as the sun as it arced into the atmosphere and dwindled out of her sight.
The launch order had come three days early. It had sent the entire community into disarray. Not that its owner cared about the corral of axipitta or that air traffic was grounded. They didn’t care that double shifts were run at the warehouse to pull in the goods. The smell of ozone tinted the air. Jolee retreated into the stable office to escape the smell.
A second roar shook the air. The sound shattered the windows of the office. Jolee threw her arm up as glass exploded across the room. Dust and gas billowed in and she staggered to the door, coughing. Dark shapes were scattered across the sky. They were not launch containers.
The first drone landed atop the axipitta corral. The lead stamper had time to bleat once in defiance as the writhing mass slammed into the ground and crushed the small herd. It looked like horror. That was all Jolee could think as she backed down the road. The sides of the drone glistened, like melted flesh fused to metal as it split at unnatural angles and things crawled out of its side.
The drills taught you what to do. There was a calm hysteria as she started to run. She remembered sitting in a circle, having the alarm sequences taught as a song.
Drones and ozone
Tone, Tone, Tone!
Three calls for Drones!
Tone, Tone, Tone!
Such a nonsensical song taught to children. Three tones for drones. Where were the tones? What were they waiting for?
The destruction started a moment after. The barn had started to smolder and burn. That seemed to offend the drones that had detached from their transport. Metallic tentacles whirred as they extended and slashed through the air. Fire belched from the ends as they smashed into the barn. The hay and straw, freshly dried during the summer, sucked in the flames. The dark flared flickering yellow and red as the flames danced into the air, shooting huge brands of burning material onto the buildings.
Most of the town was made of local wood. It was cheaper than shipping it in or building it at the factory in between the production runs. The few prefabricated, metal buildings where fire resistant. The rest of the town was not. The fire alarms sounded, their panicked squeal echoed the air. The drones turned towards the sound and began to shoot. Alarms shattered and faded into garbled murmurs. But, the entire town’s system had been set off. Smoke wafted through the streets and the symphony heralded her footsteps as she made a line for the command center as hell erupted behind her.
The command center was in the center of town. The town, once so small was now much too big as she ran. It had turned into the town center a long time ago. Even as she reached the door, people had begun to appear on the street in response to the noise and violence. She was slammed against the wall, then grabbed for the railing as the building lifted. The metal screamed as it twisted. For a moment she thought they were going to tip over before the building shuddered back down. An explosion echoed somewhere outside.
One of the front doors had ripped away. Someone was screaming somewhere. The noise was misplaced in the general chaos--a single note of desperation in the destruction. The foyer was a ruin and she climbed over a shattered pillar. The command center was hollow and the console was located at the back of the foyer. The green ropes that marked its area had fallen over and vanished.
The front of the building shattered as a metallic coil slammed into it. Jolee slammed her fist through the protective covering of the emergency distress box. The yellow and black striped button depressed and the tones started to sound through the town. Drone attack. It cried in its wordless voice. Run!
“Bravo Green company deploying now.” The mercs notification flickered over the coms. A distress signal had found the newly established corporation. One of the early arrived mercenary groups had been dispatched to assist the civilian distress call. Above Klingt V, the assistance fleet chased down straggler drones and prepared to assist the ground forces.
The last infester drone’s charred hulk drifted away from the fleet. “Gate activations sir.”
Deluge Gunner, Secondary Fleet Commander for Dirt ‘n’ Sky demanded, “Who is it?”
“Fine. Let’s see what they bring. I want the cap chain up. I want everyone on their toes. We have a planet to protect and I’m not having pirates cost us this colony.” He was irritated. The distress call had sounded with only a quarter of the fleet in the constellation. Most of their focus had been on stabilizing their habitation of Klingt X. The boldness of the rogue drones knew no bounds. To enter empire and attack a civilian population in a heavily defended system was insanity.
The Proteus decloaked in the middle of the battle. In the middle of the melee it took a moment for each side to register the newest addition. It was one moment too late.
Covert cynosural fields are insidious things. As the pack of interceptors landed on the field, ships started to decloak around the two combatants. Warp engines shut down. Interceptors swept under spewing turret fire as the pirate fleet poured into space around them.
Destroyers evaporated under the spitting plasma fire of a pair of dark Sin. The bulk of the fleet swung around and tightened in. Deluge spat commands with a calm, intensity that defied his internal turmoil. Around him his fleet burned.
“Oh well,” Syder sighed. Deak looked over his shoulder to where Syder stared into the sky. He followed her gaze. Streaks of flame decorated the sky as something fell into the atmosphere. There was only one thing that would burn that bright as it fell through the sky. Fire in the sky. Spaceships die.. “The problem is that there is no I in teamwork," she added with a slight sigh.
"Don’t just stare, boot,” Syder drawled. “Get them secure.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t argue. Instead he went back to herding the civilians. They civilians were wide eyed things. They scattered in every direction but the one the mercenaries wanted them to go in. RIght now that direction was on the link runners. The sleek transports were the fastest way to get the civilians out of the town while the platoon held back the drones.
The first two cars had left smoothly enough. Those people had wanted out. These last ones were not doing as well. Half of them were arguing with the mercenaries trying to get them boarded and the other half outright refused. One girl dragged another across the platform. They passed Syder who was overseeing the evacuation and keeping track of the troops at the fighting front. She had tasked the recruits with the evacuation. As the dark hair girl dragged her lighter haired companion past, the fractious, angry woman stopped to confront Syder.
“How can you stand to have no soul? You are a whore that sold yourself for a false life.” hissed Lorna as they passed the mercenary. Jolee groaned. She wondered if Lorna wanted to die along with everyone else being ridiculous about the evacuation. They were acting like axipitta with no lead stamper.
The mercenary turned. The helmet slipped back in layers. Jolee and Lorna froze. The merc was female. Her eyes, brilliant jade green and just as hard, were exotic against her tawny brown skin. “The same way you can stand to be so irritating. I have amazing tolerance.” She had a lightly-accented voice that was almost musical with its richness. It was a cold voice despite the gorgeous quality of it.
Lorna sputtered in shock. Jolee pulled at her arm to get her moving past the merc. “Drop it,” she hissed to the other woman, “You’re not helping anything.”
“You heard what that thing said to me.”
The mercs helmet had closed again. She sensed that she could still hear them but had dismissed them. “She,” Jolee emphasized through gritted teeth, “Was responding to you being a bitch.” Lorna sputtered again. Jolee felt somewhat sorry for the woman. Her world had changed and her normal methods were not working. Past the emerald eyes the merc was exotically beautiful. But then every one of them were shielded behind those helmets. It was just one of the pieces to giving up mortality.
“Lorna, come on,” she gave the other woman an impatient tug. She didn’t even like Lorna. A week ago she would have wished the mercs would have taken her away. Suddenly, with that option now a distinct possibility, Jolee realized that she preferred the comfortable familiarity of someone she had grown up with over the harsh, alien armored forms that studded the landscape around her.
“You ask why?” Syder said behind them. “Boys like Deak there? They grow up on contested worlds. All he has is fighting. Ain't nothing else out there for some boy from an extraction farm in the warzone. He tests to become a merc he takes the chance. Me? I ain't young, girl. I know what slavery is and it ain't working on an extraction farm writing analyses about fertilizer."
Jolee stared round eyed at the woman. Syder looked calm as she lounged against the rail. In the distance the thump of airships sounded. "Your friend needs to stop listening to that priest of hers. How holy is being a slave? Or dead? He'll teach her right back into chains in a heartbeat. It’s easy to be preachy when your life is full of choices."
"Not anymore." In the distance a flicker of light illuminated over the town.
"True." He sounded embarrassed. The other mercenary had called him Deak. It was a surprisingly normal name in the middle of the horror. “Just head to the link runner and we will be on our…”
He never got to finish his sentence. The illumination of the town flared into an explosion. The shock wave slammed into them and threw people off their feet. Shouts and screams were suddenly accented by gunfire as the HUDs displayed incoming targets. The drones had feinted around the mercenaries and had come for the softer targets.
Deak took cover. Civilians bolted like frightened herbivores. They ran into the line of sight of marines that attempted to burn down the wave of drones that were descending onto the link station. A woman screamed as a metallic tentacle sliced her in half. Deak didn't have time to worry as he poured rounds into the drone’s soft core and dove under its return fire.
The drone crashed down behind him. Projectiles spat above his head as he crawled through a pool of oil and blood. He saw Syder go flying as the ground under her erupted. Behind cover he returned fire. The ground assault drones were a lightweight mobile fast strike force. They didn't have the weight to push back the platoon. The last crashed from the sky in a whine of exhausted gyroscopes.
He surveyed the damage. Then he saw Jolee. She lay in a heap against one of the barriers. Blood pooled around her and burns crisscrossed her chest. She was missing a leg, he realized. An arm too. Deak found himself next to her, his hands above her body, unsure what to do… what he could do.
“I don’t want to die, Deak.”
“You won’t die, Jolee.”
“Deak,” she whispered, “you lie.” Her chuckle came with a wash of blood. “You’re the one that won't…” she coughed again and died.
“There is no clone for that one. Close her eyes and let her not see her home destroyed. Deak opened his mouth and Syder continued, “She’s dead. She isn’t the first and won't be the last.” Syder ripped the tab off of a nanite pack and slapped it to her arm.
“Shut up,” Syder’s voice was hard . Deak’s mouth closed. “They are all special and interesting. They all die. So unless you want to sign your non-reactivation notice and put your gun in your mouth you will fucking deal with it. I don’t have time for tears. Cry on your own time. You have it so use it. But it ain’t gonna bring back a pretty girl on a back system planet who died because the universe is big and no one cares about her.” Syder’s eye glowed. The other was a bloody ruin. “Get them loaded mercenary.”
Deak crouched on the edge of the dropship as it skimmed across the surface of Klingt X. The planet was stuck in a perpetual winter. The dropship killed up plumes of snow as it shot towards their base. Against the rolling hills of green ice it was strange to remember the burning remnants of the drone attack on Klingt V. "Loss sucks."
“If only we won every battle. I would be crowned as a goddess of strategy. Peace would descend throughout space upon the very knowledge of my divine existence. Why didn’t I think about this before?”
“I’m sorry ma’am.”
“You are young and stupid still. Only one of the two problems is your fault. Both are curable with age.”