Ollo Base - Control Room.
Special Analyst Glenn Flott made a fist and pressed the top of his first knuckle with his thumb. The comms device inside his helmet opened a secure channel he would only be able to use once. After that, it would no longer be secure. Every other communication he sent out would be vulnerable to interception, so it was critical to get as much information in the first ten seconds as possible.
“This is Priority Team Insert, defence grid is down. Repeat, defence grid is down.” He waited for acknowledgement.
“Yeah, but how is it down?” said Breach Engineer Shivan Deku. “Damn well wasn’t us. That pile of junk did nothing.” He was looking at the cube hovering over the main console.
Cables hung from its underside, attached to the console. They had been buzzing with activity a moment ago, even though nothing much seemed to be happening as a result. Now they weren’t even doing that, but the defence grid, seemingly impenetrable for the last hour, had collapsed in an instant. For no apparent reason.
“It was them, wasn’t it?” said Stability and Maintenance Guru Ogden Bashir. “Had to be them. They’re the only other ones here. Wasn’t the locals, was it? They’re useless. It’s definitely them.”
“Them? Them who?” said Public Relations Consultant Pal Condos. He was standing by the entrance, arms folded across his broad chest, one side of his helmet leaning towards the hallway outside, listening for any sounds of trespass. He was here to tamp down any resistance. He had already dealt with the men who had ambushed them from behind — they hadn’t even been in the briefing — but there had been no Ollo guards or service personnel. The whole base had been deserted. It was eerie. “How the hell do you turn off the site grid without even stepping foot in the—”
“Shut up,” said Flott, holding up a finger. “No one says anything about this. We did the job we were sent to do. That’s it.”
“They killed my ship,” said Bashir, pouting.
“Not yours,” said Condos. “Company owned. VendX don’t give out free rides.”
“She was special,” said Bashir. “Wait till I find them. Murderers.”
“Find who?” said Deku. “We don’t even know who it was.”
“Three men,” said Bashir. “I told you. Three, no weapons, no biosigs.”
“And where are they now?” said Condos. “Died and turned into ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” said Bashir. “But if they’ve got gear that can kill the grid, who knows what else they’re fitted with. We aren’t the only firm with an R&D department.”
“They didn’t kill the grid,” said Flott, biting down on each word. He would have to make sure no one slipped up on their story. “We did it. We brought down the grid, just like the mission brief stated, and we’re the ones who’ll get the completion bonus, got it? You idiots let them think otherwise and we not only get zilch, we get thrown out of Priority. Resumes deleted, asses cooked.”
“We know,” said Deku. “Outside of us four, no one knows what really happened.”
“Not even inside of us four,” said Condos.
“Don’t joke about it,” said Flott. He could feel this was one of those things that got dropped into a conversation in a company canteen on some long boring flight to a sales pitch in the middle of nowhere. A casual chat picked up on ship sensors or by some guru like Bashir, earwigging for fun and dropping their names for some VendX tokens. “Don’t talk about it, don’t even think about it.”
“Not our fault they sent us out with a dud,” said Condos.
“It’s not a dud,” said Flott. “It works fine. This is Ramon Ollos tech. Of course it’s going to be hard to crack. And they sent us out with no drones, no weapons, no tronics. Ridiculous. All ‘cos of one kid.”
“Maybe it was him,” said Bashir. “Those three.”
“The ghosts,” said Condos. He put the side of his head to the wall. His eyes flickered with blue light. The wall was cool against his cheek but there were no vibrations. “Can’t see ghosts coming. Can’t shoot ghosts.”
“We don’t need weapons,” said Deku. “Not when you’ve got me and Pal on the job. And drones only make things a bit quicker. Not essential. We can handle them, whoever they are.”
Flott had no doubt the two assault specialists could handle three people under normal circumstances, but this was a mission that had merited the entire Priority Fleet being deployed. But the rewards were going to be proportional to that, and now was not the time to admit they had nothing to do with the collapse of the grid.
“Just make sure—”
“This is Chukka,” said a terse voice over comms. “The site’s open?” Even when she got good news she sounded seriously ticked off.
“Yes, Major,” said Flott. “Defence grid is a negative. Site is wide open. Recommend immediate—”
“Our sensors are showing the entire asteroid is negative. Including the Antecessor site. Can you confirm?”
“Yes, Major. The whole site has been flashed.”
“You did this?”
Flott glanced over at the others. “Yes, Major.”
“Major, this channel is no longer secure. I recommend we—”
“The hell with the channel. We’ll take care of any eavesdroppers. Explain to me how you killed the energy signature of an entire Antecessor facility.”
“Ah, the master key operated above expectations.”
“You were stuck for an hour and then hey presto?”
“I pushed it a little harder than the recommended parameters. Seemed to get it past the bottleneck. Blew the device in the process, I’m afraid. Won’t be able to use it again. One and done.” Flott looked at the cube hovering next to him.
“Never mind that, I’ll make sure you won’t be held accountable. Good job. Hold position until we get there. Chukka out.”
Flott let out a breath like he’d been holding it his whole life.
“Why did you tell her you blew the master key?” said Bashir. “Looks fine to me.”
“Because,” said Flott, “they’ll take it in for debrief and wonder why it can’t replicate what we said it did. They’re going to know we weren’t the ones who shut this place down. But if it’s internals are fried, they’ll never be able to work out the exact settings it took to access the Ollo network.”
Flott put his hands on either side of the cube’s casing and pressed. Once his palms were in full contact with the surface, his eyes turned white and he discharged his entire reserve of electrical energy into the cube.
The cube shook between his hands as though it was trying to break free. A couple of seconds and it stopped moving and fell to the floor in reduced gravity slow-motion.
“Seems harsh,” said Deku. “Poor thing didn’t do anything.”
“Harsh? Look, you meathead, you take care of securing our location and leave the planning of our prosperous future to me.”
Deku smiled. “I love it when you’re mean to me. Makes me want to give you a kiss.”
Flott shook his head. “I’ve told you, Shiv, not while we’re at work.”
“Can you two not?” said Condos. “You’re making Oggie feel uncomfortable.”
“Me?” said Bashir. “I’ve been putting up with their flirting for three years. Wait till you see them—” He stopped mid-sentence, his eyes burning bright green. “We got company.”
“Yeah,” said Condos. “Our reinforcements. Nice of them to be prompt for once.”
“No,” said Bashir. “Ours are still inbound. This is someone else. And they’re not alone. Might be several independent units. Signatures don’t match.”
“Damn it,” said Flott. “I told her the line wasn’t secure.”
“Wouldn’t have got here this fast even if they dipped in,” said Deku. “Had to be waiting.”
“Undetected?” said Flott.
“More ghosts,” said Condos.
“How many we got?” said Deku.
“Eight ships,” said Bashir. “More on the way.”
“Eight?” Deku snapped his arms out to the sides. The sleeves of his suit rolled back to reveal his forearms. His eyes glowed red and his arms swelled up. The skin broke as metal rods emerged, running the length of his arms. “Pal, with me. Oggie, hold the perimeter. I don’t want anyone sneaking up from behind.”
“Shiv…” Flott hated these moments the most.
“These guys…” said Condos. “I don’t know if I’m going to cry or puke.”
“You haven’t heard the poetry yet,” said Bashir.
“They write poetry?” said Condos, one eyebrow arched.
“They livestream recitals.” Bashir shook his head.
“Let’s go,” said Deku. “Got to hold the fort. They don’t pay completion bonuses to the dead.”
Flott watched him go and felt like he might never see him again. He shook the thought out of his head and began recharging.
The Great Hall.
Colonel Toaku breathed slowly. Any grand scheme was going to have issues. There was nothing they couldn’t overcome as a people, together. This was their world. The wormhole was theirs by right. The asteroid, too.
“How did it happen?” he asked his adjutant.
“No idea, sir. One minute the grid was up. Then it was gone. The whole asteroid went dark. We picked up eight ships closing in.”
“All of them are hiding their insignia.”
“The Central Authority?”
“They’re holding position at the edge of the Ruben-Sadar line. No movement from them so far.”
“Contact our men on the asteroid. Find out what happened.”
“Sir, if we contact them now, it will reveal their position.”
Toaku looked around the room. Dozens of people were working away at their consoles, monitoring and maintaining order across the globe.
He had set up his operations room in the Budgets and Requisitions conference room. It was the biggest room in the Great Hall complex of buildings, and the only one with a dedicated high-intensity data server. It was criminal how underserved the Enayan seat of power was, but then it had never been the real source of power for this world. That was about to change.
“I realise that. But those men went up knowing the risks. They can aid us most by telling us what’s going on up there, even if it costs them their lives. No one life is more important than the fate of this world. You know that, and they know it. Break comms silence and get a full report from our boys.”
He looked around at his people, confident they were going to follow him into a bright future for Enayans everywhere, even if not all Enayans would be able to share in that future.
“Yes, Colonel.” The adjutant hurried off to follow orders.
Toaku walked over to one of the consoles. “How are we doing with the repatriation?”
“Thirteen percent of the exodus has returned,” said the young woman at the controls.
“And what about the ruling families and senators?”
“They’re being processed as slowly as possible. I’m holding them in security lounges at the spaceports. A few used private ports but we’ve locked them down under emergency airspace provisions.”
“Good, good.” The last thing he needed was the General Assembly reconvening before he’d had a chance to secure the major institutions under his guardianship. He could well imagine what they’d make of the new regime he had put in place. They might not have the men and infrastructure to seize back control immediately but money could buy a lot of assistance and priority shipping. He only had a limited time to get this house in order.
“Sir, we have a problem.” His adjutant looked flustered.
“What is it? Did you make contact?”
“Sir, they’re dead?”
Toaku felt a cold chill down his spine. “All of them?”
“We’re reading two biosigs, both are sending out unusual readings. We aren’t sure…”
Toaku took the handheld device from him and looked at the screen. None of it made sense to him. “What happened to them? Who did this?”
“We don’t know, sir.”
“Are the ships ready to launch?”
“Yes, sir. But until we know what’s up there…”
“Hang the risk. That asteroid is our future. Without it, we’ll just end up someone else’s toy. Send them up, send them all up. I don’t care if we lose every person we dispatch, this is the rock we die on. Everything depends on who controls Tethari.”
The adjutant’s face was red. Fear, excitement, patriotic fervour, it was hard to tell. He nodded and turned to dash away.
Toaku stood looking up at the large screen that showed the global network. The population, those who had stayed when the rats had run, were calm and satisfied with the new order. They were finally getting to choose their own destiny, one which he would provide them. He would be this world’s saviour no matter the cost.
“Colonel Toaku,” said a voice over the internal comms speaker. “This is the Central Authority. We have registered a mass ignition of space-capable vessels from the surface of the planet. Probability of target destination being the asteroid designated Tethari is above acceptable limits. The asteroid is under Central Authority jurisdiction. Access is denied.”
“This is Colonel Toaku, representative of the Enayan people. We are launching a rescue mission. Enayans have been killed on the asteroid. There are two survivors. We intend to rescue them and you aren’t going to stop us. Your own charter gives us the right. Nothing is more important than the lives of our people. We will move heaven and earth to save even one Enayan life, so say the teachings of the First Temple.”
“I don’t care if we lose every person we dispatch, this is the rock we die on.”
It was his own voice being played back to him.
“The asteroid is currently being illegally approached by numerous unidentified parties. We intend to take care of the matter with direct force. Please do not get in our way. A guardian will be deployed shortly, all permissions granted. There will be no further warnings.”
Toaku felt the wind go out of him. There was always a bigger fish, ready to eat you.
“Sir?” said the adjutant.
“Recall the ships.” There was no point getting involved now. Not until the dust settled. “Keep them on standby.”
Tezla stretched and twisted her new limbs. Everything felt stiff. Everything felt unfamiliar. She had no hair, no fingernails, no eyelashes. Touching her bare skin felt like touching someone else’s skin with someone else’s hand.
“OBV, get me a drone.”
“Drone support is not advised with Null Void presence,” said a cool, detached voice.
The white room was empty apart from Tezla and the suit floating in front of her, its rear open and waiting for her.
“I’ve encountered the Null Void. He won’t be a problem. Medic drone.”
“You expect casualties?”
“It’s for me.”
“Very well, Guardian.”
Part of the wall on her right opened and a spherical black drone floated out. It was about the same size as her head — her old head, at least.
“Medic, you know the recommended stim limits for this body?”
“Yes, Guardian,” said the drone.
“Good. Double it and dose me.”
“Guardian, it is strongly—”
“Medic, don’t make me repeat myself. I know what I’m doing. Dose me.”
“Follow instructions,” said OBV.
An arm extended from the body of the drone, thin and cylindrical with a pointed end. When it reached Tezla’s neck, it darted forward and then retracted.
Tezla let out a sharp breath. Her vision blurred, her mouth was filled with a bitter taste, every tooth felt alive in her mouth.
She turned her neck. There was a crack. “Good. Again.”
Another jab followed. Her limbs felt better. Looser. Stronger.
“CK-340,” said an energetic voice from the suit.”
“Call me Chuck.”
The suit fired shot blasts of gas from the hands and feet and floated towards her. She raised her arms so they slid into the suit’s arms.
The back of the suit sealed shut.
“Weapons array deploy. Full firing solutions.”
Panels across the suit opened and laser barrels emerged pointing in every direction.
“Nice. Boosters online.”
A section on her back opened and jet thrusters fired, lifting her off the ground.
“It isn’t advised—”
“Okay, listen up, Chuck. I’m going to need you to turn off that two-step verification. I’m going to be asking a lot of you and we won’t have time for any back and forth. Assume confirmation granted for all requests, no redundancy. Got it?”
“Overclocked maximum is mach nineteen point two.”
“That’ll do, I suppose. There’s one more thing you need to know, Chuck. A very good friend of mine died so I could be here. JK-934. Janks. They killed Janks, and they’ll probably try to kill you. But we’re not going to let them do that. We’re going to kill them first.”
“Guardian,” said OBV. “Central command wants the Null Void alive.”
“We’ll see,” said Tezla. “I don’t think it was him. I don’t think it was the Antecessors, either. But tell Central Command I’m going to be playing this by First Quadrant rules.”
“First Quadrant rules?”
“No one gets out alive. Drop the top.”
The roof to the room slid aside to reveal the endlessness of space. “Let’s go, Chuck.”
The thrusters on her back fired and she flew up and towards the tiny rock floating in front of the giant wormhole.