Beginning | Previous
Chaos engulfed Halcyon, and it was all their fault.
The status reports from Bo'Bakka'Gah continued to flow in, each more upsetting than the last. The small silver lining lay in the fact that it would be quite easy to replace Bo'Bakka'Gah with a more suitable Head of Peacekeeper Operations given the Grast's manifest failure to gain control of the situation. Valast was becoming increasingly certain that he might be the only capable leader the Combine had left.
The newest update arrived with a small ping on his comm-pad. Valast raised the archaic pad to his eyes and reviewed the report. His jaw slowly drooped open, dribble pooling in the corner of his mouth before it poured out in a small tendril. There must be some mistake. If it were not entirely beyond the Grast's capabilities, Valast would suspect Bo'Bakka'Gah of deceit and treachery. None of this made sense. Perhaps the Grast had buckled under the pressure and gone insane. That seemed a more reasonable explanation than the contents of the report.
Valast responded to the report, opening a communication pathway. The inelegance of the affair stood in stark contrast to the thought-net. The Evangi truly had tainted everything.
"Are you insane?" Valast screamed into the pad.
"No," the Grast replied, their voice a gravelly three-part harmony.
"That's all? No?!" Needle-like talons dug into the flesh of Valast's palm as he clenched the paw not holding the pad .
"Grast do not suffer from the mental health ailments of other species. We possess a tri-fold mind, which insulates us."
Valast was pretty sure having three minds in a single head was the definition of insanity, but saw little to be gained by pressing the matter. "Explain your last report."
"The report is self-explanatory," Bo'Bakka'Gah said.
"What about, 'the Human was struck by a energy projection weapon and fell to the ground, incapacitated' followed by 'the Human rose, appeared to acquire precognitive and telepathic abilities, and fled the mainway with the assistance of Evangi interlopers,' makes sense to you?"
"Those are the events as they happened."
"And that does not seem strange to you?"
"They are points of data. With time, we will understand them."
"And what is happening now?"
"We are pacifying the Evangi," Bo'Bakka'Gah said.
"What is the status of your main objective? What of the Human?" Where is the Human? Where is the encryption key?"
"The Evangi block our progress. They must be dealt with before continuing the pursuit."
"Ignore them. Find the Human, immediately."
"Impossible. An addenda in the penultimate status report explains the situation. The thought-net was utilized against us. Upon the appearance of the Evangi in the mainway, orders began to be modified, intercepted and re-routed, resulting in significant impairments to operational capabilities. Pacification of the Evangi, along with the implementation of alternate communication pathways, is required to proceed."
The damnable thought-net. Valast stared at the pad in his paw, hating it for what it represented. In all respects, the pad was a step backward. An emblem of the Combine's over-reliance on the Overseers and the weakness they had bred into the institution they had so carefully tended. They were a cancer, spread throughout the body, and it was unclear whether the Combine would survive their removal. The Premier heaved a sigh. "Very well, dispense with the Evangi and then locate the Human. You have ensured all worm capable vessels are under guard?"
"Peacekeepers have secured all vessels. Barring a change in circumstances, the Human, the encryption key, and Evangi Neeria will remain in Halcyon until they are apprehended."
Valast nodded once and ended the communication. The fugitives' lack of escape options was a minor solace, but it would need to suffice for the time being. Bo'Bakka'Gah had also substantially increased the vigilance in the space surrounding Halcyon, and implemented additional safeguards. It had been many generations since an Evangi vessel had been seen in Halcyon, or anywhere else, but Valast suspected this was the ideal time for an unwanted visitor.
The Premier walked over to the viewing window in the now empty Combine Council chamber and gazed out at the neutron star Halcyon orbited, watching the swirling ball of burning color.
The Humans. The Evangi.
They must be stopped.
Valast continued to stand at the window, his mind drifting through the events.
He glanced down at his pad, opened the status report.
The Evangi had been pacified in the mainway. The Peacekeepers had located the Human's trail and were in pursuit. Apparently the Human was progressing back toward the Adjudication Chamber. A strange choice, but perhaps it was most comfortable in jails.
The corners of Valast's jaws turned up at this.
He glanced down at the pad and read the report.
The corners turned down.
The appearance of a new vessel had triggered an automated message from Halcyon defenses. Valast scanned the message, his frown deepening. Humans. Always the Humans.
The vessel was attempting to communicate.
Valast barked out a laugh as he read the contents. "Peace? They want peace?"
The Premier sneered, seeing the ruse for what it was: a distraction. An attempt to maneuver so they could abscond with their ill-gotten gains.
They would not get peace.
They would get what they deserved.
The answer to the diplomatic entreaties came in the re-positioning of the call signs around the Oppenheimer
. The vast majority of vessels stood between the Oppenheimer
and Halcyon itself, though a number were beginning to flank around. The bulk of those vessels created an effective blockade between the Oppenheimer
and Kai's shuttle. Without a better understanding of the capabilities of the other vessels, it would be impossible to assess the odds of successfully extracting Admiral Levinson.
Given the automated message from Halcyon, it was likely they did not possess kinetic weaponry similar to Humanity's, though the yield on their energy projection abilities were likely to be considerably higher. The Alcubierre
had come under sustained EMP assault in its prior flight from Halcyon, and the Oppenheimer
had considerably more shielding and redundancy in that regard.
Joan idly scratched her chin, watching as the filters applied presumed hostile colors to the call signs taking up the defensive positions. The vessels numbered well into the hundreds.
She pulled up the comm to Amahle and Ragnar. "Ragnar?"
He nodded slowly, "I see it."
"See what?" Amahle asked.
"They're pulling back the fist. Punch will be coming soon," Ragnar replied.
"How do you know? How can you be certain?"
Ragnar shrugged, "Seen a fist a lot of times. Been punched a lot of times."
Joan swiped the view into the comm and highlighted portions. "See the disposition of these larger vessels? How they're spaced? See how they're interlinked with these smaller ones?" She pulled the view out some and highlighted the ships on the fringes, "These are flanks. They'll test whether we have a 360 by 360 defense grid." Farther out still. A group of smaller vessels moving at high speed on the periphery appeared. "These are interceptors. They'll try to insert themselves between us and the wormhole to cut off an escape."
"These are aliens. How can you be sure?"
"Not sure, but can't afford to wait until I'm certain." She looked at Amahle for a moment, pitying her and pitying the fate of Humanity. "The moment for peace is past us, Ambassador. I'm sorry, we cannot wait any longer."
"Down the Black Fork then?" Ragnar asked.
Joan nodded, "BF-1-2-4-2 is the decision tree. Get the Balls dumped and get the rest of G4 here.
Ragnar saluted and then dropped of the line, leaving Amahle with Joan.
"Balls dumped? You aren't--"
"I am. We need to get the fighters flying. Even if the Oppenheimer
can punch a hole through the blockade, the shuttle is going to need an escort to make it through." The Battle Balls were more formally known as Close Space Tactical Fighters, but, once they had left the lab and hit the carrier deck they'd been going by their more colloquial name ever since. It was a fitting name. The battle balls were large, black spheres suited for a single pilot. The design was a recognition that space warfare was not the same as terrestrial warfare. In space, there were no aerodynamic requirements. All that mattered in space was maximizing agility, maneuverability and field of fire.
The Balls had thrusters positioned throughout their exterior, sacrificing maximum forward thrust for increased agility. The entire skin of the Balls were kinetic projectors, capable of being fired off in chunks in any direction without repositioning the fighter. Beneath the exterior layer were two additional layers of kinetic projectors. Once the kinetic skins were sloughed off, the Balls had a variety of secondary weapons in the form of standard ballistics. They were the ultimate evolution in space-to-space weaponry, and had inspired significant shifts in spacecraft design since their introduction at the tail end of Generation 3 vessels.
Joan was well acquainted with their destructive power, largely because she had been on the receiving end of it. The Automics had not suffered from the prejudices of Humanity and had designed purpose-built vessels from the ground up. She still recalled her first dealings with the strange drones in a battle to dislodge the Automics from Titan. They had poured forth like an angry swarm of wasps and laid waste to a broad cross-section of the Human fleet before the Griggs Pulse had taken out the mindframe on Titan.
They were elegant.
And now they were Humanity's.
"You said they would wait for their first aggressive move. There's still a chance," Amahle pleaded. "Do not do this, Joan, there's no coming back from it. We still have no idea who they are, what they're capable of. Your actions today could lead to the end of all of us."
"Ambassador, I've held the fate of man in my hands before, that is why I have been selected for this task. I do not take any of this lightly, but let me be clear, if they refuse to engage in diplomatic discussions, then our options are to retreat and leave a highly-informed senior officer with our potential enemy, attempt to rescue the officer and demonstrate a show of force capable of deterring further hostility, or unconditionally surrender and hope they are merciful." She leaned forward in her chair now, "Only one of those options has the potential of giving Humanity the upper hand."
"And what if they swat away the show of force? What if our weapons are irrelevant to them?"
Joan shrugged, "A possibility, but I'm inclined to think they take any vessel with a threat rating fourteen thousand times over their threshold seriously."
"You're gambling with our future, Joan."
"Yes, Amahle." The Admiral smiled, pearly white teeth peeking out between her thin lips, "Don't worry, I'm good at poker."
Dull thuds sounded out inside the ship.
The Balls were being dumped. Soon there would be over five hundred of them surrounding the ship, waiting for the orders to proceed. Everything would need to be timed perfectly. Everything would need to be executed without a hitch. They would all need to do their part.
She opened a comm to Kai.
"Oh hey Joan, how's it going?"
"The fighters are away. The readout says you're still not in the shuttle. What's the hold up?"
"Moving that quickly?" Kai exhaled. He slapped his hand against the smooth polyplast in front of him. "There's a wall between me and the shuttle."
"How did you get in?"
"There wasn't a wall there before."
"Are you stuck or are you going to problem-solve this?"
Kai wished he could see. Wished he could get a better sense for his surroundings and what he was dealing with. "I'm a bit tired, but I'm pretty sure I can still run through the wall."
"Run through it," Joan replied, deadpan.
"Yeah. I've been doing that a lot lately."
"Then what's the holdup?"
"Well, the other side of the wall is an airlock. If the hole is too big then I might get sucked out into space and I forgot my helmet."
Joan was silent. Kai got the distinct impression she was rolling her eyes. Finally, she responded, "Do you need an extraction team? We might be able to--"
Kai shook his head, "No. I don't want anyone to come in for me. Things are bad enough."
"Get to it then." The wrist console issued a small blip indicating that the comm-link had been cut.
Kai shook his head and ran his left hand along the wall, trying to remember how big the airlock was. It was amazing how much you could forget in a few short days. Grumbling to himself, he reached down and grabbed Neeria's arm and drug her along the wall to clear space. He then returned back to the wall separating him from the airlock his shuttle was docked with and slapped it once with his fist. "X marks the spot."
He slowly backed up. Five paces. Ten.
That ought to be enough. He wanted a crack, not a crater.
He sat for a moment, steeling his nerve. He tried to reach out to Neeria, but was met only with a wall. She was still alive, still projecting the basic map in his head, but she didn't have the capacity for anything else. If there was a solution to this problem, he was going to be the one to figure it out.
"All right. Go time." He crouched down, setting his feet to give him a better push off. Once he was coiled up, he sprung forward, blindly hurtling toward the wall in front of him. Just before impact, an errant thought popped into his mind. If he ever made it back to Earth, he was going to miss this entire ram through walls thing. It was strangely cathartic.
Kai held his breath. His shoulder collided with the wall. The wall gave in, exploding outward and into the airlock beyond. He stumbled forward through the rubble and into what he assumed was the airlock.
Kai was not immediately sucked into the vacuum of space and suffocated. This was a significant victory, both in terms of his survival and in terms of not giving Kate the satisfaction of being correct about keeping his helmet on.
He raised a fist over his head, "Victory!"
A bit disoriented, he felt around with his hand, trying to find his way back into the Adjudication area. After a bit of flailing, he managed to cobble his way through. Almost immediately he heard new sounds emanating from some distance away. Unable to make out particulars, Kai was forced to assume that the Peacekeepers had picked up his trail. He scrambled over to where he had left Neeria, moving as fast as his various encumberments would allow him to. Frantically, he searched around with his hand until he felt spongy flesh. His hand wrapped around what he assumed was an ankle and he turned and began to haul Neeria toward the hole he had made.
The noises came closer.
Something hit him in the back, causing him to stumble. He regained his balance, but found he could no longer swivel his torso. More goo. At least it wasn't a death bolt or something. With a grunt, he dove through the hole and yanked Neeria through the hole behind him. He found his legs again and continued to haul her through the airlock and into the cargo hold of the shuttle.
Shuttle. Health Accommodation. Blind. Incapacitated. Voice Commands."
A chime sounded out. "Accommodation enabled."
A slight grating sound occurred followed by the quick SHHHH of the door closing. "Emergency departure. Set coordinates to Oppenheimer
's location. Disengage airlock and launch."
A low tone sounded out, indicating an error. "Unable to disengage airlock. The coupling mechanism is not within shuttle control."
"Oh for frak's sake. All right then. Plan B." He pulled Neeria along and into the cockpit of the shuttle. He made a half-hearted effort to situate her in the chair beside him, but the ungainly, lanky alien was clearly outside the dimensions of the intended occupants. A mental image of the Overseer splayed all over the place, her arms and legs askew popped into his head. "Nothing to be done about it."
He hurriedly found his own chair and pulled the launch restraints over his shoulder. Behind him, clanging sounds were emitting from the closed door of the shuttle. They had company. He took a deep breath.
"All right shuttle, emergency ejection. Cockpit."
A klaxon sounded.
Immediately afterward, a massive burst of acceleration flattened Kai into his seat as the cockpit of the shuttle separated from the cargo hold and they were ejected into the space beyond. As soon as the acceleration hit, the map in his head blinked out, leaving Kai in total darkness.
Once the acceleration died out, Kai unbuckled the chest restraint and jammed his left hand between his thighs and used the leverage to rip off his glove. He then reached across the small gap to the chair beside him, the effort difficult due to the adhesive goo on his back. After a brief stuggle, his hand found Neeria. Her flesh was still warm. He had no idea if that was a good thing, but he assumed it was. There was no other indication she was alive.
He squeezed her arm once. "We'll get there. Don't worry."
Kai settled back into his chair. "What's the ETA on rendezous with the Oppenheimer
An error tone sounded out. "Not able to be determined."
"What's the problem this time?"
"All routes navigable with available fuel result in interception by presumed hostile vessels."
"Great." Kai opened a comm-link to Joan, "We're on our way, but we aren't going to make it."
"You did your job, we'll do ours."
Kai nodded once, exhaling.
"Joan, how bad it?"
A moment of silence passed.
"You're better off blind. Just sit tight. We'll get there."
Kai nodded again, his breathing somewhat labored now. He was tired. So damned tired. Forward, onward and through had its consequences.
"I've got a passenger and some sort of alien MacGuffin."
"Orb. Encryption key. Wormholes. Neeria needed it, said it was important."
"She's the passenger. She was an Overseer. A Combine uppity-up muckity-muck. At least before she turned against them. I dunno, the details aren't clear."
"We'll debrief when you're front and center. Until then, try to stay out of trouble."
"I'm floating in an escape pod in the middle of a warzone. What could go wrong?"
"With you, everything conceivable." The blip sounded out as Joan disconnected.
He patted Neeria on the arm again.
"Want to hear a song? It's one of my favorites. Oldie but a goodie as they say."
Then he began to sing, his voice raspy and choked. "I see skies of blue. And clouds of white. The bright blessed day. The dark sacred night And I think to myself What a wonderful world." Next. Every time you leave a comment it helps a platypus in need. Word globs are a finite resource and require the rich nourishment of internet adulation to create. So please, leave a note if you would like MOAR parts. Click this link or reply with SubscribeMe! to get notified of updates to THE PLATYPUS NEST. I have Twitter now. I'm mostly going to use it to post prurient platypus pictures and engage in POLITE INTERNET CONVERSATION, which I heard is Twitter's strong suit.