Book 2 – 93: Double Indemnity

Third Quadrant

Tethari Asteroid

 

Onla reached the relative safety of the overhang in front of the Ollo base before Horne. He had been ahead of her but had double-backed to give the lagging VendX troops some cover. That’s what self-medicating with hormones did to you — made you emotional.

“Horne, get in here,” she shouted into the comms, but in a controlled and professional manner. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you half-witted moron.”

“Incoming! We’ve got more incoming.” He was flying above the running troopers, being buffeted by the wind but using the updraft to remain aloft longer than he would have been normally able. His suit’s deflectors were set to max as he intercepted huge bolts of light that were slamming into the ground and bursting the remains of ships around them.

Onla’s HUD showed the composition, construction and energy potential of the light-torpedoes. They were far in excess of anything the Central Authority could produce. And far more than what Horne’s suit could block.

He didn’t try to block them. Instead, he carefully positioned his shields and an angle that took them away from the panicked troopers. Light was still light. And Horne was still a moron, but he wasn’t stupid.

“I can see that!” An edge crept into her voice, even though her hormones were at the minimum level. “Don’t tell me what I already know, you jackass.”

Troopers ran past her into the area around the main entrance, a huge vertical door that had been raised about a metre and left stuck there. None of them wanted to go in and face the base’s security system, but no one wanted to be out there either.

“I’m seeing over a hundred people out here,” said Horne, his voice fading in and out over the comms. “Also several hundred more still inside the ships, hoping they can wait it out. Don’t think that’s a good idea. How are we going to get them—”

There was a massive explosion as one of the VendX transport ships took a direct hit from a sizzling white beam of solid light. The ship, the people near it and the ground under it, all erupted into a cloud of flame and dirt, the newly created air molecules helping the flames to burn brightly.

Horne went tumbling through the air, crashing into the ground only to suddenly spring back into the air as though he had just executed some perfectly timed acrobatic trick.

“Never mind,” he said. “Problem solved.”

“Ziff, have you heard from the Tranquillity?” she asked the suit’s AI.

“I’m afraid there’s no response,” it said with unflustered politeness.

“Confirm Central Authority fleet status. Are they still in one piece?”

There was a slight pause. “All Central Authority ships showing full hull integrity.”

“Are they coming?”

“All ships are stationary.”

“Why can’t you talk to them?”

“Signals above three hundred megahertz threshold are unable to get through.”

“They’re being jammed?”

“Not by any technology we are currently aware of.”

It was always difficult to get machines to think for themselves in new situations. If they, or any of the devices on the network, had encountered an event previously there was no problem. But the first time something cropped up, it was a nightmare to get a machine to join the dots.

“Find another way to get in contact with them. If you can get a reading on hull integrity, you can find a way to speak to them.”

“I understand.”

Onla peered outside of the alcove. The Antecessor ships that were tiny dots near the wormhole were now slightly bigger dots. Pretty soon they wouldn’t be dots at all. And then they would find out who was piloting the damn things.

“Horne, we have to get inside.”

“I’m not getting any response from Tranquillity,” said Horne, his voice both excited and strained — jacked up on naturally occurring hormones at unnatural levels. He was going all out to protect these worthless VendX workers.

“They’re being jammed. They’ll send help when they can. Now get back in here.”

“Will do. Soon as I—” Horne’s reply was distorted by static, the roar of the winds and the rapid disintegration of the asteroid's surface under light-torpedo bombardment.

The CA commtech was designed to operate and deliver a clear signal under any conditions. Under water, during solar storms, through solid rock kilometres-thick. But there was something interfering, something the equipment hadn’t been designed to anticipate, because no one knew it existed until now.

“ZF-989, can you remotely boot up Guardian Horne’s onboard AI?”

“I’m afraid not, Guardian. Access codes have been reset by Guardian Horne. I can try to guess his password. Psych-eval strongly suggests it will be a lewd combination of words and numbers. I estimate I can break the code in between three and thirty-six hours, standard.”

“Horne! Stop self-medicating and fall back. We don’t know who’s flying those ships. If it’s Antecessors, you won’t be able to save anyone if you deplete your suit’s defences on these useless plebs. Let them die. Stop being so bloody emotional!”

“Okay, okay, no need to get your space suit’s integrated underwear in a twist. I’m coming back.”

Onla let out an exasperated breath and turned around to find herself facing hundreds of VendX employees, fully-armed, crowded into the alcove, all staring at her. It was then she realised her comms were still switched to enforced public announcement mode.

“What are you looking at?” she snapped at them. “You can’t wait out here. Go inside.”

None of them moved. It was understandable they would be reluctant to walk into an Ollo facility without the correct clearance, but it wasn’t like they had a choice. What was in there might kill them, but what was happening out here definitely would.

“Ziff, lay down warning fire, ground-level.”

A rapid burst of laserfire issued from Onla’s suit, striking the ground in front of the VendX employees. They quickly backed up but were still uneasy about entering the site under the partially raised blast door.

Around them, the asteroid continued to be bombarded but the intensity seemed to have decreased.

“Multiple ships are attacking the unknown Antecessor ships,” reported ZF-989. “Multiple ships have now been destroyed.”

“Central Authority ships?”

“All Central Authority ships have been destroyed.”

So much for the cavalry. The firepower of those Antecessor vessels was incredible, able to pierce the shields of the most advanced ships in existence with barely any effort. The base would pose little problem for them once they arrived at the asteroid. Their only chance was to go deep inside, barricade themselves in and then wait for reinforcements to arrive.

“Where did they come from?” said Horne as he landed next to Onla after falling, running and sliding to a halt. “Antecessor ships actually flying around blowing things up. This is crazy. What now? Fire up the Ollo defence grid and blow them out of the sky? Revenge, right? That’s the play.”

“Calm down, Horne. You’re being too emotional. Drain your lymphatics and take deep breaths.”

“I’m not being emotional.”

“Emotional and overexcited.”

“No. This is the way I always am. Take it or leave it.”

“I’d like to leave it.”

“Tough luck, you’ll have to take it.”

“Excuse me, I’m Chief Office Ghent of the VendX Priority Fleet,” said a stern voice that came from one of the troopers who were huddled inside the alcove. “We’ve made a quick check and we three are the ranking officers. We suggest a temporary alliance until this matter is resolved.”

His battlesuit was the fanciest of the survivors, adding credibility to his claim. The two people with him were a little less ostentatious in their attachments, but all three had a high-level of weaponry.

“Didn’t you hear what I said?” snapped Onla. “This is a compulsory buyout. We give the orders, you follow them. Do as you're told or have your contracts terminated, permanently. Lead your people inside the base, Ghent.”

There was another explosion but not so loud. There wasn’t much left to blow up.

“They don’t appear to be targeting the base,” said Ghent. “We can wait out here for now.”

“Go inside,” said Onla.

“I respectfully decline to follow—”

Three quick shots struck the VendX officers, one each in the head. Horne’s sleeve gun hissed and let out a little smoke before retracting. He’d just executed three high-ranking VendX employees.

Numerous members of the VendX fleet activated their weapons. The inside of Onla’s visor sprang into multi-sectioned life as targeting screens showed each hostile action and primed weapons on her suit to take them out. The activity along her arms and shoulders was enough to give her would-be assailants enough reason for second thoughts.

“Okay, maybe I’m being a little emotional,” said Horne. “They started it, though.”

“Guardian Horne has committed an act of unprovoked aggression,” said ZF-989. “Would you like to file a report?”

“Unprovoked?” said Horne. “Are your sensors even working?”

“I apologise, Guardian. My programming requires me to bring this matter to my operator’s attention. No judgement is implied.”

“No, no report,” said Onla. “Classify it as Control Protocol, level three.” It was standard Central Authority practice to remove the leadership of any commandeered group. Once there was no other authority figure to turn to, people became much more compliant. Although, executing them was only meant to be used as a last resort.

“Level three is only valid in the case of food riots and civil unrest,” said the AI. It wasn’t wrong.

“I’m classifying this as a special case. Reasoning to be laid out at a later date when we aren't being bombed to shit.”

“Reclassification noted. Reminder set.”

“And send VendX a letter of complaint for poor training of their salesforce, and demand an apology.” In these sorts of situations, it was best to go on the offensive. As it was with most situations. “Put me on public announcement mode.”

“You are already in public announcement mode.”

“Of course I am. Remind me to speak to you about that.”

“Reminder set.”

She turned to the gathered, somewhat nervous survivors of the VendX Priority Fleet. “VendX employees, as I have already clearly stated, you are now sub-contractors for the Central Authority. Breach of contract will be dealt with swiftly and with no option for appeal. This is a category six emergency, and we only have five categories, understand? You do exactly what I tell you or we will classify you as an enemy combatant and eliminate you. We are the Central Authority and VendX has signed up to our charter. We own you until further notice.”

They weren’t responding very well, as the biomedical telemetry ZF-989 was showing her clearly indicated. Mass readings were imprecise at best but when the crowd all felt the same way, the graphs shot up exponentially, so subtle interpretations weren’t necessary. It wasn’t like they were treated any better than this by VendX, but then VendX rarely executed its own people in public.

“Aren’t you just going to use us as meat shields,” said a hesitant voice.

ZF-989 pinpointed the speaker and offered her the option to take him out.

“No, we don’t need you to be meat shields. Antecessor tech will vaporise you and keep going. We do need you to not get in our way, so follow orders or be eliminated from the situation. We also provide full medical and dental benefits while you are conscripted to us.”

The crowd seemed to settle down.

There was a bright flash and the asteroid surface was painted a brilliant white.

“The wormhole is opening,” said ZF-989.

Reinforcements already?

Onla pivoted to look up at the starry sky. The Antecessor ships were still on her HUD, but now there was a fleet of ships behind them, and they didn’t have Antecessor profiles. Although, they were just as recognisable.

“Seneca Corps has been identified,” said the AI.

“Oh shit,” said Horne.

“Get inside,” shouted Onla.

No one hesitated this time. If there was one truth in the universe, it was that the Corps didn’t give a damn who got caught in the middle of one of their fights. They saw every battle as us against them, and everyone who wasn’t in the Corps counted as them.

Even though the blast door was only partially raised, it was wide enough to allow several dozen people through at a time. On the other side was a long tunnel that led to the main base. The VendX troops flooded the tunnel as they raced to get away before the Corps unleashed their ridiculously overpowered weapons that would probably cause more damage than the Antecessors ever would.

The ground was shaking already.

Onla reached the base control room and tried to get some kind of response from the Ollo network. Everything looked turned off and depowered. The doors at the far end refused to open despite the VendX troops doing their best to prise them apart.

“Receiving no response,” said ZF-989.

“Is it dead?” If the network was down that would at least mean it couldn’t target them.

“No. It is being suppressed. Source unknown.”

“Someone’s controlling it?” This was an unexpected turn of events. People had been known to destroy one of Ramon Ollo’s devices, but no one had ever managed to hijack one.

“Hello everyone,” said a voice in everyone’s comms. “I’m Hollet 3.2.”

The people crowded in the control room stared blankly at their companions.

“You’re the Central Authority, right? I’m here with Guardian Tezla. Well, she’s around here somewhere. Look, it’s not really safe up there. Why don’t you come down here? Not that it’s safe here, either, but, you know, safety in numbers.”

The doors on the far side opened. It was clearly a trap. Onla would have hesitated if she didn’t have hundreds of meat shields to help out.

“Everyone, go through,” she shouted. “It’s our only chance.”

They ran into the gaping entrance to the Antecessor site.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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