Two metal tubes stood erect on the surface of the asteroid, their bottom thirds buried in the hard rock as though it was soft mud, unbending against the howling wind.
There wasn’t supposed to be any wind on the barren, atmosphereless surface and also no howling. The asteroid was changing into something new, something never seen before. Not by humanity.
Panels slid aside on each tube and two Guardians stepped out, their suits protecting them from the misplaced elements.
“Full analysis,” said Guardian Onla. “Here to the base.”
“We already have a full analysis taken from the Tranquillity’s sensors,” said her onboard AI.
“I don’t recall asking,” said Onla. “Full analysis, ZF-989.”
“Please call me Ziff.”
“No,” said Onla. “If I have to ask a third time, it won’t look very good on your record, ZF-989.”
“Analysis is complete. Displaying results now.” The inside of Onla’s visor lit up with numbers and spectral graph readouts. “I followed your orders the first time, Guardian. Concurrent advisory suggestions are provided as an extra benefit to be used at your discretion. No time was wasted as I am able to multitask.”
The only thing worse than being saddled with a fastidious AI — which was all of them — was getting saddled with one of the smug ones. She knew they weren’t programmed with personalities, yet they somehow always managed to develop the most objectionable ones.
“Windy,” said Horne, flapping his arms as though he was preparing to take-off. “Have to be careful we don’t get blown away.”
The readings told her very little. There was an atmosphere but no indication of where it had come from. The air wasn’t breathable but would be in around twenty hours from now. The temperature was increasing steadily.
Wind speed was gusting up to 60 km/h. Her suit kept her rooted to the ground. Horne was running back and forth in front of her, leaping into the air and seeing how long he could remain airborne. The low gravity enabled him to stay aloft for several seconds before crashing back down several metres away.
“Ping Guardian Tezla’s location,” said Onla.
“No response,” said the AI. “Ollo base is shielded below ground level. No life signs on the surface.”
“None from up here, either,” said Horne as he soared past for the third time.
“Could you take this more seriously? We’re here to do a job.”
“I’m doing my job,” said Horne. “Weee, I’m flying.”
“Your suit has rocket propulsion,” said Onla.
“Yeah, but this is flying like a bird, all-natural, tech-free, no organics. Once the air stabilises, I might try it without the suit, naked. Hey, do you think not being able to blink counts as a malfunction in a new body? My vision’s okay but my eyeballs feel a bit dried out.”
Horne was a good Guardian. His record spoke for itself, full of successful missions and few repercussions. But as a colleague, he was deeply irritating. He insisted on activating the hormone secretions in his body and leaving them on beyond what was physiologically necessary, which could make his behaviour somewhat erratic. He claimed it made him feel more human.
“We might as well enter the site,” said Onla. “We won’t get any more information from up here.”
“Do you want to get together after this is dealt with?” said Horne.
“No,” said Onla.
“I have eye-drops somewhere, if you find the intensity of my gaze uncomfortable.”
“Ops-1 is sending me updated orders,” said ZF- 989.
“Why weren’t they sent directly to me?”
“You were busy. I thought it would be easier for you to focus on one thing at a time.”
She could see she would have to take corrective measures against her suit-bound partner.
“What are the orders?”
“A VendX repair team has been allowed access to the planet for emergency work. We are to check for any drones or satellites they might try to send to the asteroid.”
“What the—” Onla looked over the report scrolling across her visor. “They let them through?”
“Is there a problem?” asked the AI.
“Get me Ops-1.”
“Sent. No immediate response. Perhaps I can assist you,” said ZF-989. “Is there a problem?”
“Is there a problem? Command has just let through a VendX strike force.”
“You are postulating an attack on Enaya?”
“How do they even let you out of the factory with this many bugs in your system?” Onla shook her head. “Is there no QA at all?”
“I was not built in a factory,” said the offended AI. “And my internal systems are bug-free. My last screening showed a—”
“VendX is headed here,” said Horne, jumping fifteen metres to land next to Onla. “They’ll send a drop-ship over here once they’re masked behind the planet.”
“There is no current evidence suggesting they will overstep their clearly delineated boundaries. Such a breach would be highly prejudicial to future relations between the Central Authority and VendX Galactic. Probability of such an action is less than five percent. Still no response from the Tranquillity.”
“Great,” said Onla. “Send an urgent communique to all Central Authority vessels telling them to prepare for one or more ships in their vicinity to fake an accidental explosion that will target their engines, weapons and communications array.“
“Probability of such an action is—”
“I hope you’re multitasking while you’re wasting my time with your babbling.”
The AI stopped talking.
“Weapons online?” said Horne.
“Yes,” said Onla. “See if we can make it to the base before the ‘surprise’ attack. Haven’t heard much from your AI. Why isn’t it annoying you with poor advice.”
“Turned it off,” said Horne. “Never use them. Voice in your head telling to do things you know are wrong — I find it a little creepy, to be honest. Hey, what’s your take on pubic hair — yay or nay?”
“Ships detected,” said ZF-989. “Approaching on an oblique vector. Verification is being blocked.”
Onla looked up at the endlessly starry sky. Her visor display turned into a grid, highlighting the dots that were the approaching ships. Twelve of them with flight paths disguised to seem like they were just passing. Very convincing.
These sorts of ‘accidental’ incursions were standard practice for a company of VendX’s size — smaller companies would try to sneak in undetected, bigger ones would obtain clearance. The VendX-sized ones thought they could get away with it because usually they did. Central Authority drone ships accepted their excuses at face value and apologies were documented and filed. Fines were imposed. It was hard to program an AI to see the difference between an honest mistake and a cunning deception. That was why they employed the Guardians.
“Cannons deploy, safety off, arm with anti-armour rounds.”
Her suit vibrated as sections unlocked and weapon turrets emerged.
“Request for live fire sent,” said ZF-989.
“Field override,” said Onla. She doubted they would hear back from the command ship anytime soon. “Cause of override: mission objective interference. Confirm.”
“Confirmed. Would you like to hail the approaching ships?”
“Yes. Open fire.”
“Send a hail or open fire?”
VGV Executive Order
Planet Enaya - orbit
Daccord stood beside the captain as the reports from the drop-ships came in live. The bank of operators down on the floor were coordinating the attack and the main screen showed their positions as they closed in on the asteroid.
“We are under fire,” screamed a shaky voice. “Sensors identify two Central Authority sources, outputting fifteen hundred megatons of damage each. Taking evasive action. Recommend we abort. Please advise.”
It was undoubtedly Guardians, at least two of them. They weren’t on the CA ships, they were already on the asteroid, and they weren’t waiting for an explanation. Guardians rarely did.
Not a welcome deviation from the Chairman’s itinerary but not a completely unforeseen one.
Daccord leaned forward and spoked in the mic on the captain’s left armrest. “Negative. Do not abort. Broadcast preloaded message delta.”
“What do you think we’ve been doing?” snapped the mission leader. “We’ve tried beta and gamma also. They’re ignoring us.”
The screen showed the ships weaving through the hail of missiles directed at them. They were doing well, only minor damage so far. But it would be a lot more than that if they tried to land. The Guardians were letting their displeasure be known.
No surprise there. Guardians didn’t care for corporations asking for help, genuine or not. They saw it as a waste of resources on entities that had plenty of their own resources to spare. They also liked to pick and mix from any wreckage, as was their right under salvage laws.
“Request permission to return fire. We could claim a misfire.”
“Request denied,” said Daccord. That would only lead to an escalation and a terrible mess. There was only one way out of this. “Mission leader, I want you to cease evasive manoeuvres and take the hit.”
“What? You want us to sacrifice a ship?”
“I want you to sacrifice all of them. Take damage and then crash land on the asteroid. The ships can take it and you have the latest anti-crash protection installed. Testing indicates at least seventy percent of you will be fine, and you’ll be on the rock through no fault of your own.”
It was a solid plan. If the Guardian’s shot their ships down, it would be their fault VendX Galactic was on Ollo property. He could definitely work with that in a court of arbitration.
There was a long pause before the mission leader responded. “Hazard pay authorised?”
“Half-pay,” said Daccord. “For survivors, only.”
“We’re going in.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Horne. “How do they keep dodging our missiles? Did we buy these things from VendX?”
That would explain it but Horne was just venting his frustration. The suits were built by the Central Authority, the missiles were generated from stored energy by the turrets. The VendX ships just had better defensive tech. As long as they remained far enough away to be able to calculate trajectory, they would be able to—
There was an explosion, followed by another and another. The ships were being hit. For a moment, Onla felt a pang of satisfaction, but it was quickly quelled as the ships changed course and came crashing down.
Clever. A deliberate ploy to justify landing on the asteroid. Well, they wouldn’t be able to dodge if the ships were on the ground.
“Target crash site,” ordered Onla.
“Central Authority regulations require me to inform you—”
“Do it while firing. On low volume.”
“Looks like they’re offering to surrender,” said Horne.
“It’s a trap,” said Onla.
“Probability of survivor’s needing medical assistance is high. Seventy-eight percent and rising.”
“What’s the overall percentage for Guardian overrules being correct?” said Onla.
“And what’s the overall percentage of AI suggestions being correct?”
There was a slight pause. “Twelve percent.”
The VendX ships had crash-landed in a cluster, creating a crater filled with smoking hulls. They had all managed to remain mostly intact, apart from some wings and external housing. Troops were pouring out, straight into a hail of laserfire.
The CA suits were built to destroy entire planet defences. They converted light into lethal energy blasts, adapting form to fit the target. Anything from tiny pellets spread over a wide area to torpedoes that could take out a battleship. A few VendX repairmen wouldn’t pose a problem.
A blinding flash of light caught Onla by surprise. She turned her head and her visor instantly darkened. Above her, the swirling eye of the wormhole was opening.
“What is it?” said Horne. “I thought it’d been shut down.”
“It was,” said Onla. “It’s a forced opening. Maybe Seneca? Or one of the mega…” Her voice trailed off as she saw the first ships to emerge. Even at this distance she recognised their distinct profiles. Antecessor ships had a very unique look to them, although this was the first time she’d seen one actually moving.
“Are those Antecessor ships?” said Horne, awe in his voice. “Who’s flying them?”
Points of light glittered around the newly arrived ships.
“Shut up and run,” said Onla. She was already moving. “ZF-989, open a channel, public, enforced. VendX Galactic, I am issuing a compulsory buyout order. You now are all temporary employees of the Central Authority, provision of the… Ziff, what’s the treaty?”
“The Deathbed Treaty. Treaty 19, section—”
“Yes, yes, I’m issuing Deathbed. No negotiations, no opt-out. Look it up in your own time. Get to the base and leave behind the injured. Move.”
Figures ran, bouncing across the wreckage. Horne went soaring over her head.
The first light torpedoes hit the asteroid just as she reached the base. It was the same technology as the lasers in her suit, except the Central Authority had only managed to get them to work at a six percent efficiency. She doubted the originators of the tech would suffer from the same limitations.