On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

Bison Class Freighter
HTS-3 Spacepizza
Elliptical Orbit
238 Kilometers from Earth
July 2219

The Happy Tree Shipping Company was one of the odder corporations plying the shipping lanes. All their position titles, ship names, and everything about their organization on a paperwork level was based on high context pop culture references and in-jokes.

Happy Tree had grown into an industry juggernaut in the last ten years of interplanetary and intersolar shipping with their quirky and slightly over the top presentation. The HTS-3 Spacepizza was painted from nozzles to nose cones in garish pepperoni pizza textures, and a huge image of a pastel cat adorned one face of the hull. The ship’s scheduled route took it swinging around the Earth on a pass between two stations. But, as it made its closest approach to Earth, an error in one of the bay systems caused the bay doors to open and dump a large number of cargo containers onto suborbital trajectories.

The tumbling containers fell away from the freighter as it continued onward on its journey, and a set of discreet thrusters mounted onto them righted and balanced them as they began sliding into the atmosphere.

The metal walls of the containers ablated away in the stream of superheated air, revealing the armored personal re-entry capsules that had been stashed inside of them. Margaritifer Ross, Kaya Twopallas, Becca Ivanova, Ridley Borealis, and Elis Sixhebe collectively grit their teeth as the pod decelerated through the atmosphere at several gravities. Huge feathered grid finds unfolded from the hull of the stolen UN drop pod. Mixed amid the debris of their shed containers, the pods were nothing but tumbling debris on a radar screen.

Aside from Eli, who had fought on Earth previously in concert with local revolutionary forces, and Ridley who was born on Mars, none of them had set foot on a planetary surface before. Holoscreens mounted all around the inside of the drop pod showed them rapidly streaking through increasingly blue skies as the pod fell from space towards the Earth over eastern Siberia.

The pod kept falling, and the ground seemed to race up to meet them until, just below the cloud tops, the landing engine on the pod fired a painful 4 gee deceleration burn and brought them neatly to a stop in the middle of a  small glade. The walls of the pod blossomed open and shoved them all out onto the loam of the Siberian forest.

Kaya stumbled a few feet from the pod, collapsed to his knees, pulled his visor up, and retched on the root system of a pine tree. Margaritifer felt the gravity of the Earth pulling her towards the planet’s core. It felt different than spin gravity of the same strength in a way that she couldn’t quite quantify, but which nonetheless unsettled her. She felt her stomach churning but refused to let it get to her.

“Get a move on you sorry boot lickers!” Eli’s voice shouted through the comms system on their suits, “All teams converge on waypoint alfa! Do not fall behind, we have a schedule to keep!”

A noise from above brought Margaritifer’s eyes and the barrel on her Gauss rifle pointing upwards as a drone zipped past overhead. Her HUD system flagged it as green in the moment before it vanished, that meant it was friendly.

“Let’s move people! Can’t let the board mashers steal all the glory!” Eli’s voice was loud enough to distort itself through the speakers, and she could hear him through the walls of her suit as well; they were in an environment with air.

Eli took off at a run and the rest of the team struggled to keep with his relentless pace as he trudged through the rough forest terrain. Several centuries ago, the region they were now in had been mostly flat land: permafrost studded through with pine trees and small streams. But as climate change had swept the planet, the permafrost had collapsed into huge networks of undulating hills and ridges; It had become what the Martian exogeologists referred to as chaos terrain. Over the decades, the old coniferous forests had given way to a lusher variety of deciduous trees and undergrowth, which further conspired against their progress.

The ghostly line leading towards the distant waypoint marker on Margaritifer’s HUD seemed to stretch off endlessly into the distance. The waypoint, which she knew from the briefings could be anywhere from one to four kilometers away, never seemed to get any closer.

The monotony of the hike would occasionally be broken by another drone buzzing by overhead, moving in the same direction that they were. All the drones they saw were flagged friendly, the board mashers had clearly put a lot of preparations into this operation.

The teenager’s muscles ached and her lungs burned as she struggled to drag her suit through the gravity well, but her pride and training refused to let her give up or fall behind. They topped a small ridge and in the valley beyond, a massive UN compound sprawled out across one end of the valley floor and up the side walls.

Above the compound was a sight that took the girl a few seconds to process. A huge cloud of black dots were circling above the center of the installation in a huge whirlwind of motion. She thought they might have been birds, but as another drone whizzed overhead she realized they were a vast swarm of drones, thick enough to darken the skies over the compound.

To Margaritifer, it was something of wonder, a sign of the glory and strength of their revolution, but to Eli, it only meant one thing. They were late.

Bison Class Freighter
KRDV I Am Blending In
Circular Orbit
35,786 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

The Bison class freighter was a Joveworks standard design and over a thousand copies of that standard freighter hull were plying the space lanes between Earth and Mars at any given time. Even as Margaritifer’s team was being dumped into the upper atmosphere, another Bison in a higher orbit on the other side of the planet had just docked to Pyramid Station, the huge orbital colony structure from which four space elevators hung down into New York, Paris, Cape Town, and Buenos Aires.

I Am Blending In was an odd vessel. The internal cargo bays, corridors, and crew compartments had all been removed and replaced with endless racks of computers. The drone ship wore the skin of a freighter, but beneath that skin, it was a supercomputer with engines. The docking would have seemed strange were there anyone to witness it. However, the berth the ship used was tucked into an out of the way hangar level, and there were no human eyes to witness the I Am Blending In’s arrival.

As the ship docked with the pyramid and connected its airlocks, power systems, and computer networks, a worm inserted itself into the station systems and began unpacking itself in the docking computer. Cargo panels opened on the sides of the freighter as automated arms emerged from the hangar walls to collect cargo. But when the doors opened a vast cloud of drones emerged from every opening in the ship and the entire bay vanished from UN systems in a storm of jamming and interference.

Encrypted military firewalls crumpled like tissue paper as HENGE stepped through the hangar bay computers and into the station mainframe. Access errors, trajectory calculation errors, and targeting errors began to bloom through the UN computer systems as HENGE began inserting itself into the computers of other on-orbit infrastructure.

And then AEGIS began to stir. HENGE had anticipated this and had allocated enough server banks on the I Am Blending In to beat the UN military AI in a battle of raw computing strength, but only if the branches of the AEGIS AI on the ground could be simultaneously neutralized.

Different parts of HENGE were enacting their plan in perfect timed sequence across the system; on the surface of the Earth, vast clouds of electronic warfare drones were beginning to congregate over the UN facilities housing AEGIS server banks. In orbit, additional copies of HENGE propagated themselves into every UN system they could access.

AEGIS surged back out into the UN systems, launching antivirus programs that tore into HENGE’s intruding instances. And then, exactly on cue, the mass signal dampening operation began, and the majority of AEGIS’s power collapsed as the Earth-based ground stations lost the ability to communicate with space.

A series of trunk lines running up and down the pyramid tethers maintained enough bandwidth to keep AEGIS in the fight and HENGE dug in at the Pyramid network hub, blocking access to the station transmitters as it continued to propagate and take control of the local defense grid stations and satellites. Every UN system theoretically had a copy of AEGIS inside it, and those copies in all the various starships and defense stations around the system began coordinating with each other and linking up into a new network. But with the ground stations isolated and the Pyramid under electronic siege, these systems were but a shadow of their former selves. HENGE continued to force its way into defense station platforms, but as the local AEGIS instance moved to attack the HENGE instance, HENGE took control of their life support systems and vented the stations to space.

Twenty seconds into the digital battle and ten seconds into the start of the deaths, a UN system administrator aboard the Pyramid Station felt the beginnings of a panic attack start as the error messages and fault state reports he was getting cascaded into a full network breakdown. He and several hundred other administrators and technicians who had been unlucky enough to notice the battle beginning all tried to sound the alarm even as the alarm-sounding systems became corrupted and crashed. Lights flashed and doors opened and closed on their own as if the station was in the throes of a seizure.  

As the local defense networks collapsed in on themselves, fifteen stolen UN warships slammed out of warp high above the north pole of the Earth and Kamay Alcoseba stepped out of an airlock into the Pyramid Station hangar deck.

Pacifier Class Scout Battlecruiser
UNDF Mercy Given
Circular Orbit
900 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

It felt good to Maeve O’Donnell to be back on the bridge of a starship and out of the infirmary. The environment of the place was starting to nasty things to her mental state, but Dr. Modi had insisted on keeping her until all her cancers had been eradicated. The captain took a breath and looked out over her domain. The Mercy Given was a new ship, state of the art in FTL starship design. The bridge sprawled wide beneath a vast holographic canopy, projecting a view out into space.

The Earth hung vast and blue above their heads as they crossed the daylight terminator and fell into the world’s shadow. The lights of cities glowed on the dark face of the planet, twinkling faintly in the atmospheric haze. Maeve could stare at the Earth for hours and frequently did during her bridge shifts. After Maeve had recovered, had she begun a month-long series of shakedown exercises and they were finally starting to culminate in a crew she thought she could rely on. The loss of Katie still pained her, but Dora was proving her worth and competence on a near hourly basis, and her bridge crew were slowly revealing their strengths to her.  

She thought in another week or so, they’d be ready to begin their mission of searching for alien life in interstellar space. She was looking forward to being on the move again, even if the assignment itself felt something like being banished. The UN government continued to drunkenly stagger along, trying to rebuild itself in the wake of the Malacca Elevator strike, and Maeve would frankly rather keep her distance from that bureaucratic nightmare.

She took a deep breath and went back to admiring the view of the Earth. She was watching the first rays of sunlight rising over the Atlantic when alert messages began spreading across the holoscreens. The situation transformed in an instant from calm to pandemonium, and everyone was shouting over everyone else.

“The Earth Defense network just collapsed!” Comms specialist Erica Sanger shouted, “Pyramid Station has gone dark, we’re attempting to reroute through other local assets!”

As she was saying that, Edwin Penrose, the sensor specialist, was shouting “Contact! Contact! Fifteen flagged hostiles exiting warp over the North Pole!”

Maeve felt a horrible chill settle into her bones. The Free Sky Tribe had returned.

“The hostile fleet is hyperbolic,” Edwin reported, “They’re accelerating at one gee burn and are already doing almost a hundred thousand kilometers per second. Their projected trajectory reaches periapsis at one hundred and ten kilometers above the central atlantic.”

“The entire Earth defense network is offline, the satellites and defense stations are unresponsive,” Erica was saying at the same time.

She let her moment of horror pass and the snapped into action, “Designate targets by range, free fire on all missiles and drone systems we can hit them with.”

Trevor Stein, their gunnery specialist, began launching drones and missiles at the hostile vessels as fast as their tubes would support. The missiles leapt out ahead of their ship, racing towards the halo of laser point defense the ships were already generating around themselves. Other UN ships were also firing on them, and the space around their fleet glittered with drone and missile detonations.

“This isn’t going to work,” Maeve said as she watched their opening volleys vanish into the point defense bubble, “They’re using our own point defense systems. What ships can we intercept with?” She said as she took in the situation, making eye contact with Dora across the bridge.

Dora’s eyes went blank for a moment as she crunched numbers on her implants, “Our ship, as well as thirty-one others, have intercept opportunities. If we burn at six gees for twenty seconds, we can get within a thousand kilometers of them for about a third of a second, after which our trajectory will send us into the atmosphere.”

“Can you precalculate a shot on the railgun batteries to hit in that window?” Maeve asked Trevor.

“If you can line them up down the barrels? Sure,” Trevor replied.

“Then we can make that work,” Maeve said with a nod. Her fingers danced across the command console, “All crew strap in, prepare for a high gee maneuver,” she said over the shipwide.

Dora dumped her trajectory calculations into navigator Charlie Hatfield’s control console as everyone raced for crash couches and strapped in. The ship was already beginning to pivot in space, the Earth rotating out from above them so their nose was pointed down towards the planet.

“Power up the warp drive,” Maeve ordered the navigator, “plot a warp jump to ten thousand klicks off the south pole, do not execute, just get the drive spun up.”

“They’re launching missiles and drones!” Edwin shouted suddenly as the Free Sky Tribe fleet began to unload nuclear ordnance into orbit.

“Sound general quarters, fields up, go active on point defense, fire at anything that gets too close to us,” Maeve ordered back, “How long until that burn?”

“Six seconds left on the clock captain!” Charlie called back.

“Everything better be ready to go, this is all going to happen real fast,” Maeve managed to get out before six gees of gravity crushed her into her chair.

UN AEGIS Compound 3
Defense Perimeter
Urodan, Russian Federation
Earth
July 2219

The blue skies of the Siberian afternoon were darkened to near storm cloud levels by the massive swarm of drones spiraling above the AEGIS server installation. Jamming fields on all the drones turned the entire region for hundreds of miles into a useless bubble of digital snow across all radio and microwave communications frequencies. Beneath the cloud of drones, the scene rapidly turned into a nightmare landscape. Combat drones in the swarm fired all manners of weapons into automated defense systems and by the time Margaritifer’s team had made it to what had been the outer defense perimeter, the automated pillboxes had been reduced to smoking wreckage; two of the administration buildings had gone up in flames.

Gauss rifle shots echoed across the valley and the chatter of UN machine guns in response created an unholy din, even through Margaritifer’s suit. Occasionally a fireball would blossom skyward as a drone-launched missile blew apart some defensive emplacement.

“Keep moving! Press forwards for the main server hub!” Eli’s voice cried out over the roar of weapons fire, his suited form beckoning them forward onto the shattered and rubble-strewn plain of the UN compound. Her HUD traced a line through the war zone to a huge concrete cube, formerly covered in mirrored glass that was now sloughing off under numerous weapon strikes. A bright red callout over the building marked it as their target.

“Movement on the line by the east wing, UN marines emerging from one of the hangar bays!” Came a voice over the comms channel Margaritifer didn’t recognize.

“Put in a call with the board mashers to dust the structure,” Eli ordered in response, “Go for full zone denial, fire from cover until you have an opening.”

They clicked their microphone in response and a moment later an explosive-laden drone fell out of the swarm and dove into a distant hangar bay on the far side of the compound. The front doors of the hangar were blown out along with a helicopter and several soldiers.

“Keep moving Ross!” Eli shouted at her and she realized she had frozen up for a moment. She shook herself and ran after Eli and the rest of the team. They’d met two other squads at the treeline and the fifteen of them pushed into the compound, cutting a swath through UN forces the drones hadn’t already taken care of.

Their advance team rounded the corner of a building and almost comedically doubled back as a tank emerged from around the bend. The warriors scattered in all directions as the remote machine gun on the top cut a jagged line through the ruined asphalt towards them.

“Benson you’d better already have this!” Eli’s voice came over her suit speakers as Margaritifer rolled behind a burning supply pallet.

“I’m on it!” Came the reply, and Margaritifer dared to glance around the pallet in time to see a missile streak out of a half collapsed building and slam into the side of the tank. There was a brilliant flash and Margaritifer ducked back behind the pallet as the ordnance in the vehicle cooked off and the whole thing went up in a towering pillar of fire. She felt the heat from the shockwave pass over her, and then she was up and moving, sprinting back towards their target again.

“Move! Move! Move!” Eli was shouting, “Eyes on a swivel, watch for ground troops!”

Margaritifer’s heart pounded as they ran beneath the cloud of drones, closing the distance to what had been a razor wire topped chain link barrier separating them from the server bunker. The fence line and automated guard towers had been reduced to a line of piled concrete and metal by the drone swarm before they’d gotten anywhere near the building, and the last hundred meters to the target were clear of all opposition. They congregated at the great metal door to bunker, in the eye of the drone storm. All around them the compound was still being riddled by bombs and catching fire and the blast doors were closed tight and locked.

“West, Ivanova, you’re on, cut us a way inside,” Eli said calmly, leaning against the long barrel of his gauss rifle. Becca Ivanova and Carson West moved in front of the door and began extracting the sets of industrial cutting torches they’d brought in their combat packs. The two fired up their equipment, and the plasma torches roared as they bit into the steel face of the door, eroding the metal in a shower of sparks.

“I want everyone else in defensive positions around the entrance, keep those two covered while they cut us in,” Eli ordered to the rest of them, and Margaritifer snapped into action. She moved towards one corner of the structure and stretched herself out prone.

The situation seemed almost serene for a few moments, despite the storm of conflict surrounding them. A tunnel of blue sky was visible up through the middle of the drone swarm, and the dark underside of the drone cloud was lit in the red-orange glow of fires all across the ruined base. The scene had a surreal, otherworldly beauty, and to Margaritifer who had never been on the surface of a world before, it was magical.

“Movement on the horizon, eyes up!” one of the warrior’s said on the suit channel and Margaritifer’s eyes went darting along the somewhat unsettlingly distant horizon line, where she was able to pick out a cloud of dark smudges rapidly cresting a distant ridge.

“Hurry up on that door!” Eli barked, “We’re on limited time here!”

“We’re almost finished,” Becca’s voice came back in a clipped tone.

Margaritifer watched the smudges grow larger as they flew closer, and then her HUD started to throw hostile callouts onto them, identifying UN attack VTOLs and marine dropships that could carry potentially hundreds of troops. She lined up the distant vehicles in her crosshairs and fired off a few potshots at them, but her inexperience dealing with ballistics in a gravity field meant the rounds fell far short of their targets.

Hundreds of drones from the overhead swarm began to peel away and race towards the approaching UN forces, and the sky lit up as the two sides exchanged fire in the distance.

“Got it!” Becca shouted into the microphone as the bunker door fell out onto the pavement with a heavy metallic thud.

“Go! Go! Go!” Eli called out, leading the warriors forward into an interior stairway. Margaritifer took one last shot at the dropships, which were close enough now she was beginning to make out specific hull shapes, then bolted for the entrance.

The team raced down a metal stairwell into the depths of the bunker, boots pounding on the grating as they headed for the bottom of the shaft.

The advance team was nearing the door at the bottom when it suddenly blew out into the stairwell, slamming one of the warriors into the wall as a group of UN soldiers came out guns blazing. Shots began whizzing up and down the stairwell, and the battle surged once more.

Pyramid Station
Docking Ring 12
Geostationary Orbit
35,786 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

Kamay strolled through Pyramid station and the station opened up to her in response. She wandered through an automated military checkpoint like it didn’t exist and walked straight into the secured military sections of the station. Her outfit, a stolen UN Lieutenant Commander’s uniform, gave her enough of a pretense that no one thought anything of her presence in the halls.

Systems throughout the vast colony station with its three huge rings were failing and going haywire as HENGE battled with AEGIS for control of the mainframe. That mainframe, nestled behind layer after layer of bulkheads at the core of the actual Pyramid structure, was Kamay’s eventual destination.

The alerts finally began going off halfway to Kamay’s destination. The corridor lighting went from bright white to glaring red, and everyone stopped using their magnetic boots and began bouncing along the walls at the maximum safe speed they could manage.

Kamay ducked to avoid an ensign with a stack of tablets as she rebounded past Kamay en route to some unknown destination. Kamay kept her boots locked down, but took off at the best approximation of a run she could perform in the absence of gravity. She rounded a corner and dodged a trio of marines headed the opposite direction before boarding a secure lift to the high-security area of the base.

It was all almost too easy. The station was in chaos all around her, and no one paid Kamay any mind as she headed for the increasingly deserted server core. High-security clearance bulkheads should have barred her way, but HENGE took momentary control of the door mechanisms and Kamay slipped inside before AEGIS could get the doors shut again.

Her fingers absentmindedly went to the keyfob in her breast pocket containing the self-assembling algorithm that would unfold itself into a new instance of HENGE. Her targets were the air-gapped core power systems that underlaid the server farm. Those computers were isolated to prevent outside interference, but if Kamay connected them to the network and let HENGE into the systems, the battle would turn decisively in their favor.

A final set of security doors parted before her and vast racks of servers stretched off into the distance. The area was deserted, the crews apparently busy elsewhere, which Kamay was thankful for, her presence in the actual server room was a bit more difficult to explain than in the hallways.

She came to a sudden halt as she rounded the final corner leading up to the access panel she needed to reach. Special Investigator Bartholomew Morrow stood calmly before the access panel, imposingly tall and menacing in the dimly lit server room.

“Hello Kamay,” he said calmly, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

The android posing as Kamay Alcoseba smiled as the electronic warfare systems in her head and chassis powered up.

“Detective Morrow,” she said in a girlish squeak, “How great to see you.”

The walking electronic warfare platform strolled casually down the corridor towards the investigator and in an instant, his sidearm was out as she was looking down the barrel of his custom issue revolver.  

She paused, and her hands went to her hips, “You can’t end this you know?” she told him.

“I can and I will,” he said assuredly, “Your reign of terror ends today Kamay.”

The girl snorted unable to hold back the chuckle, and shook her head, “My reign of terror?” She asked with a theatrically raised brow.

“Look, kid, just come calmly, please,” the detective said, “I don’t want to have to shoot you, but if you lay a finger on one of these computers I will shoot you.”

Kamay looked at the detective, looked at the computers, then looked back at him. She couldn’t help it then, she broke down laughing. In the server banks on either side of the robot girl, HENGE surged through the systems in its battle with AEGIS. Everything was going according to plan.

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