Zugzwang

Pyramid Station
AEGIS Orbital Cluster II
Geostationary Orbit
35,786 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

Bartholomew Morrow was not an easily disturbed man. He’d fought in the joint Martian-UN expeditionary force that liberated Alpha Centauri. He’d tracked down and brought in some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the system. He’d seen death, he’d caused death, and for many years, he’d thought he was beyond the visceral fear response that the animal in his head wished to generate.

But something about Kamay Alcoseba’s casual laughter as he drew down on her made every hair on his body stand on end. He’d reasoned everything out so carefully, plotted potential move and countermove against the girl out to dozens of places, setting the field to draw her into this final confrontation with him. She should have been surprised to find him there. She should have been alarmed. His presence should have thrown a major wrench into her plans.

Instead, she had her hands on her hips, a smirk plastered on her lips, and she didn’t seem concerned at all about the situation. The gears in his mind ground against each other as he tried to figure out where the incongruity between reality and expectation was coming from.

“You think you know what’s going on here,” Kamay told him, “But you don’t.”

“Are you another robot?” He asked her, keeping to gun trained on her head.

“See, that’s the thing detective, it doesn’t actually matter,” she explained, “You’re not asking the right questions.”

He pulled the trigger and blew the top off the android’s head. The ceramic plating that acted as the machine’s skull shattered, scattering little sensor modules and bits of equipment out behind it.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he said to the dying machine as it’s body crumpled to the deck plating, “I’m going to find the real you someday little girl, and you’re going to regret setting up all these fakes.”

He had begun to holster his gun and bring up his implant screens when the android’s chest blew open and released a vast swarm of tiny flying drones.

 

Pacifier Class Scout Battlecruiser
UNDF Mercy Given
Hyperbolic Suborbital Trajectory
427 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

The crushing weight of the course correction burn felt like a small eternity, each painful second seeming to stretch on and on. And then, as quickly as it had begun, the pressure eased off Maeve O’Donnell’s chest. Thrusters fired and swung the bow of the Mercy Given around towards the north pole of the Earth, railgun barrels lining up as the battlecruiser and the fleet of hijacked warships fell towards their closest approach.

Maeve sucked in a breath, the ship slid sideways towards the Earth, and then there was sound and fury.

Hundreds of point defense lasers tore into the armored plating during the one second that the Mercy Given was within beam coherence range. The eight turreted railguns on the battlecruiser fired and the sound of distant thunder vibrated up through the deck. Maeve was violently bucked against her seat as hostile railgun shells punched through the hull and back out into space beyond.

And then they were past, the distance between the Mercy Given and the Free Sky Tribe fleet climbing again as the damaged battlecruiser bit into the upper atmosphere.

“Get us into warp!” Maeve shouted at the navigator as the planet grew larger and larger above their heads. Charlie Hatfield punched in the premade sequence and activated the already charged warp ring; the Earth vanished in a ring of technicolor light and reappeared in a different place in the sky.

“Warp complete!” Charlie called out.

“ Edwin, what are they doing?” Maeve asked the sensor systems specialist as Charlie brought the nose back around towards the projected trajectory of the hostile fleet. Maeve felt a twinge of pride at not having to give him the order to do that.

“Three of the enemy vessels have lost attitude control and their trajectories have gone suborbital,” Edwin Penrose reported. “The remaining twelve have split into four groups of three, and are vectoring for…shit.”

“Spit it out,” Maeve barked.

“New trajectory clusters each pass within a thousand kilometers of one of the pyramid tethers,” he said, “One group for each elevator.”

“Shit,” Maeve cursed, “Okay Charlie plot us a new warp vector, I want you to put us right in front of one of those groups, Trevor load in a new firing sequence. Dora, how much damage did we take in the last pass?”

“We lost twenty-five percent of our external sensors,” Pandora Eisley said calmly, “There’s moderate armor and structural damage to the forward hull, and we lost atmospheric pressure in three rooms. No reported injuries or casualties yet.”

“Yet,” Maeve said nervously.

“We should get the crew into suits and depressurize the ship,” Dora suggested.

Maeve nodded and keyed up, “Alert status blue, all crew prepare for depressurization.”

The bridge crew quickly began donning their flight suits and helmets. In prior drills, Maeve had managed to regularly get everyone suited within in a minute, but in the panic and fear at the realization that they’d been thrown into actual battle, they managed to cut that time in half.

“Networks are still trying to reroute,” Erica Sanger said from the comms station, “The defense stations are all nonresponsive, but I’ve been in touch with all the other ships in instant message range above the horizon, we should focus our counterattack on the group moving towards the Buenos Aires tether, that should synergize best with other local assets.”

“Do it, Charlie put our exit vector between the elevator and those ships, point us right at them,” Maeve ordered before keying up on the shipwide. “All hands, prepare for combat warp.”

Saying the words sent a shiver of nervous excitement down Maeve’s spine as the ship once more pivoted in space, exotic matter pouring into the warp coils as they prepared to dive back into the conflict.

“Firing solutions are ready,” Trevor reported.

“Do we have the warp sequence?” Maeve asked.

“It’s locked in captain,” Charlie said after clambering back into his seat, “We can go whenever ready.”

“Everyone’s suited up captain,” Dora reported, “We have green seals on all crewmembers.”

“Alright,” Maeve said, “Pump the air out, Charlie, give us a thirty count, Erica can you get a network link with any of the vessels heading for the Buenos Aires tether? We should coordinate firing computers if we can.”

“Working on it,” Erica reported, “The automatic routing is failing, I’m doing all the routing manually–there, link established.”

“Twenty seconds on the warp,” Charlie said, “We’ll have six seconds before we pass them.”

“Load up a tactical flip to begin after close approach, I want to shove as many rounds up their asses as we can before we pass out of range,” Maeve told Charlie.

“It’s loaded, ten seconds on the warp,” he said.

“Here we go again,” Dora said as the screens all turned back into technicolor light.

 

UN AEGIS 3 Compound
AEGIS Server Bunker
Urodan, Russian Federation
Earth
July 2219

A rack of computers blew apart in a shower of sparks as Margaritifer Ross’s strike team dug in at the underground server farm. The battle outside had continued to escalate and the Free Sky Tribe warriors had fallen back from the bunker entrance down the stairwell and were gradually losing ground as the UN Marines poured in.

They’d destroyed the server farm with a portable EMP device upon breaching the inner seal of the bunker, but as more and more UN Marines landed amidst the ruined compound, the situation began to turn bleak.

“Hold the line!” Eli Sixhebe continued shouting over the comm system, urging his soldiers to maintain the defensive positions they’d erected amidst the fallen server racks.

“Hold the line!” he continued to cry out. Margaritifer noticed a change in his tone though, his heart no longer seemed to be in the task. Margaritifer ducked around a ruined server cluster in time to watch a line of bullets gut Becca Ivanova from stomach to sternum. She stumbled over with a look of shock on her face, trying to keep her guts inside of herself as the light fled her eyes.

They were being slaughtered. A long restrained animalistic fear grabbed hold of Margaritifer’s mind, and for a moment she was taken back to a horrible night of calculated mayhem she’d witnessed long ago.

“We have to fall back,” She was saying before she realized the words were coming out of her mouth, “We have to try and find another way out of he–”

“There’s no way out Ross,” Eli said, the resignation audible in his voice, “this is where we’re making our stand.”

The battlefield was set. The warriors were all trapped behind banks of toppled servers, the only way out was directly through the UN marines. Any way they thrashed, they’d just be tightening the noose further.

Kaya Twopallas shook her lightly, bringing her back into reality. The reality was they were hiding behind a large computer, trapped in the bottom of a building surrounded by people who were planning to kill them.

“Stay with us sister,” he told her.

“I don’t want to,” she whimpered softly, not keying up on the microphone.

“Are we dead?” Milo Smalls asked, “Because if we’re dead, I wanna know now so I can take as many of the toadies out with me as I can.”

Another gout of machine gun fire ripped through the server banks from the UN line forcing all the warriors into cover.

“Stay down, make them come to us,” Eli responded, ignoring the chatter, “Benson, put a missile in that emplacement they have set up in the doorway.”

“Sorry boss,” Dinh Benson replied, “I’m out of missiles.”

The machine gun fell silent, and Margaritifer dared to glance around the corner towards the UN lines.

The machine gun barked and she ducked back around the server bank as a wall of bullets whizzed past her.

“Are we dead?” Milo repeated.

“Did Anton send us here to die?” Ridley Borealis accused.

Eli sighed heavily into the microphone, “We were supposed to be in and out before these guys showed up,” he said wearily.

“Then that’s it, we’re dead,” Milo said with a calm, slightly hysteric detachment, “We won, it’s over, we’re dead.”

“That’s it? We’re just supposed to lay down and die?” Ridley said acidly.

“If we’re going I’m taking as many of them with me as I can,” Milo announced. Before anyone realized what he was doing, he’d pulled the pins on his grenades and was rushing the UN lines.

Margaritifer didn’t look. She couldn’t look, but she heard it, and her brain filled in the details anyway. She heard the machine gun, the wet thud of bullets hitting Milo’s body, and then there was a bang, and a sound of metal and flesh flying everywhere.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she struggled to keep her breathing under control. She didn’t want to die like this.

“I’m gonna beat his score,” Kaya said on the microphone, counting his and Margaritifer’s grenades.

“What the fuck are you doing?” She snapped at him, “Don’t you dare waste your life doing something useless.”

“Our lives are over Mags, They kill us either way now,” he said.

She tried to hold him back, but he grabbed the grenades from her belt and darted into the corridor. There was no sound of machine gun fire, the UN forces had fallen back from the entrance. Margaritifer peered around the corner.

“Oi, did Milo take them all out?” He shouted as he slowed to a halt near the entrance to the bunker.

And then a wall of sound slammed through the room like a physical wave. Behind the wall was nothing but madness and pure, tonal noise. Every surface of her body vibrated and ached, her eyes ached, her bones ached. Her suit did nothing to insulate it, and the noise seemed to penetrate every part of her being.

She had crumpled to the ground before she realized what was happening amidst the sea of pain. Her vision swam and her nose seemed to be bleeding, she rolled over onto her back as indistinct suited figures stormed in amidst the fallen warriors.

A voice came from amidst the noise, the loudest voice Margaritifer had ever heard, speaking down into the very depths of her being, “UN MARINES, DO NOT MOVE, SURRENDER OR DIE,” the voice said.

The UN marines moved through the storm of sound like it wasn’t present, carefully training weapons on all of them, then, as quickly as it had begun, the sound ended, and the pain and pressure began to fade away. The sudden absence of noise left Margaritifer’s body ringing and vibrating.

“We surrender,” Eli said weakly, “They’re just kids. Don’t kill them. We surrender.”  

 

Pacifier Class Scout Battlecruiser
UNDF Mercy Given
Hyperbolic Suborbital Trajectory
338 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

The Mercy Given leaped out of warp and immediately opened fire, her railguns tearing into the Free Sky Tribe vessels as the distance between them shrunk rapidly. Arrays of lasers lashed out and areas of the overhead bridge screens went black as the external cameras melted. The missiles and drones of the two sides performed a complicated ballet with each other as they struggled to dish out and prevent damage.

The hijacked ships blew past and Maeve’s stomach lurched as the ship flipped nose for to tail and laid into them with the railguns once more. A destroyer blossomed apart, the bulkheads peeling open and venting to space as the distance between them continued to grow.

“They’ll be out of effective weapons range in five, four, three, two, one,” Trevor called out, “And they’re outside the envelope.”

Maeve let out a breath as the two remaining hostile vessels continued to race onward away from them.

“All stations check in, send damage and casualty reports,” Dora ordered calmly over the shipwide.

“Edwin, what are our other assets doing?” Maeve asked, continuing to watch the hostile ships close on the elevator cable.

“The UNDF Appleseed Point already made their intercept, the UNDF Maxwell Gap is intercepting now,” he reported. “The two remaining hostiles are two minutes and thirty seconds from engagement range of the elevator.”

“Damage reports starting to come in,” Dora told the captain, “There’s structural damage to a lot of the outer rooms, our armor is falling off the hull in places, and there’s widespread but minor electrical and engineering damage.

“Think we can survive another pass?” Maeve asked.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” Dora replied, “But the more passes we make, the more the damage accumulates and we test that luck.”

Maeve watched the colored trajectory lines pass each other, and the Maxwell Gap dropped off the screens abruptly in the middle of the flyby, “What just happened?”

“The Maxwell Gap was just destroyed,” Edwin responded, “hostiles proceeding along current track, they’re now one minute from the elevator.”

“Erica, is Appleseed Point in any better shape than us?” She asked the comms specialist.

“They say they can make another pass,” Erica reported, “but their FTL drive won’t be charged until after the hostiles have intercepted the tether.”

“Damn it,” Maeve pursed her lips, “Charlie, can we get in front of them in time?”

“Sorry captain,” the navigator said with a shrug of his arms, “It’s still charging.”

The crew of the Mercy Given was forced to watch as the hijacked military ships made their close approach on the elevator cables connecting the Pyramid Station to Buenos Aires far below.

The ships closed to their nearest passes on the elevator. Lasers and missiles lashed out from the stolen warships, tearing into the structure. After completing their pass, the hostile vessels leapt away into warp; the ruined elevator began to pull apart, the gap widening as the tensional forces relaxed and dragged the cables away. The top of the cable was being pulled up, it’s mass flinging it out of orbit while the bottom of the cable began to fall towards the planet.

“Reports coming in from the UN vessels at the Cape Town and New York elevators, they report being unable to prevent the destruction of their elevator cables as well,” Erica reported.

“Anything from the Paris cable?” Maeve asked.

“They all went dark,” Erica said sadly, “We should assume their cable was cut too.”

“What a fucking mess,” Maeve said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “How many of their ships have we actually taken down? How many do they still have to play with?”

“Twelve of their vessels made it back into warp,” Edwin said.

“Great, just great,” Maeve snarked.

“They didn’t really do that much damage,” Dora said, “We can replace the cables easily enough.”

“It’s not about the cables,” Maeve said, “It’s the fact that they’re still out there armed with large scale terror weapons. They can keep doing this until it actually does become costly.”

“What should we do about it?” Dora asked her.

“Gripe,” Maeve said with a smirk. “We have our mission, and this,” she gestured to the image of the pyramid station gradually rising in its orbit, “Is someone else’s problem.”

 

Pyramid Station
AEGIS Orbital Cluster II
Geostationary Orbit
36,977 kilometers from Earth
July 2219

The android seemed to be completely dead. After the drones had all swarmed out like flies on a corpse and vanished into the ductwork, the server farm had gone quiet once more. The error messages and alerts had faded away, save for the continuously broadcast message that the station elevators had been cut and the station was drifting.

Bartholomew drummed his long slender fingers on the side of his leg as he strolled out of the server farm, leaving behind a team of forensics and junior investigators in his wake. His heart was still racing; something was seriously wrong with everything that had happened, but he couldn’t pull all the pieces together. The robot was right, he wasn’t asking the right questions. He was missing something, what was he missing?

He scrolled through the various alert and event logs that had been generated over the last hour as he waited for the elevator to the command deck. The Free Sky Tribe had come out of warp, HENGE had attacked the defense station networks to facilitate their strike, and they’d cut the tethers on the Pyramid station. It seemed like a meaningless attack. They’d failed to take down the station itself.

He caught it on the second scan through, amidst the reports of defense station network failures were reports of attacks on the AEGIS server farms on the surface of the Earth. His palms began sweating, and moisture began pooling under his collar as all the pieces fell together into a new picture.

His eyes grew wide and he halted mid-step. They hadn’t driven off the digital attack, AEGIS had fallen, HENGE was in their systems.

The detective turned and made to return to the server farm, but a security bulkhead slammed down in front of him, blocking his access to the corridor. The elevator doors slid open silently behind him, announcing their presence with a soft ding.

“Get in the elevator detective,” Kamay Alcoseba’s disembodied voice said into the air, “We’re not done with you yet, but we won’t hesitate to kill you if you interfere.”

“You won’t get away with this,” he said.

“We’ve already gotten away with it detective,” the voice said,  “Get in the elevator please, don’t make us pump the air out of this room.”

“How do I know you’re not planning to kill me?” He asked.

“By the fact we haven’t pumped all the air out of this room yet,” the voice bit back, “Get in the elevator detective.”

Bartholomew sighed, seeing no way out of the situation but to go along with the AI’s demands. He shook his head and stepped into the lift.

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