A paralyzed, broken Octobot hung off the roof’s ledge. A shot from a powerful rifle rang out. The robot let go and plummeted to the ground below with a thud.
Steve and Christine looked out at the battlefield, breathing hard, railguns in their hands. The outpost’s defenses fired on enemy units below. The whole valley was alight with laser fire and explosions. Bombers and fighters zoomed overhead. The heavy dropship still hovered silently and menacingly over the scene, its shields absorbing immense punishment.
“Woo! Haven’t done anything like that in a long time. Shit, that was almost fun!” said Steve lowering his rifle.
“Yeah, almost,” agreed Christine. “What happened to Alex and that other cyborg? What did he call her?”
“Mai. Her name is Mai Ito,” said Jake as he stepped up to the ledge with the humans, looking out at the action below. ”Speak of the demons... Incoming!”
A huge bolt of red lighting erupted over the battling units below, producing a thunderous clap and a visible shockwave. Alex warped in on top of a Walker, tentacles surging with red electrical sparks just as a massive protuberance of charged plasma hit the Walker and turned it into shrapnel. He warped back out, blending into a streak of zigzagging red light.
He collided with a line of the 10th Fleet’s robots, sending tentacles, legs, and guns flying as he plowed right through to a dropship which finally managed to stop his advance with sheer mass, giving Mai a split second to warp in on top of the huge robot and dive down.
As she hit the ground, she exploded toward Alex who pushed her aside with his tentacles. The two exchanged electrical bursts at close range, pushed off, collided again, pushed off, and finally warped out in different directions.
Mai’s eyes flashed as she easily hopped around the kill box, setting herself up for the next attack.
“Mai! Quit fucking around with your boy toy and take this seriously!” barked Jason into her brain.
“Nag nag nag...” she wordlessly responded. “Fine, spoil my fun, you useless asshole.”
She landed, skidding to a stop. The support structure on her right arm expanded to cradle her hand as the tentacles on her right side locked to create a focal point. She unleashed a powerful positron laser burst, incinerating countless robots and creating a massive and deafening shockwave, then warped out, taking advantage of the devastating recoil.
The pressure wave hit Steve, Christine, Jake, and the support machines on the roof of the city gate, momentarily stunning them. A tentacle swiped Jake off his feet, sending him flying. He hit the roof, bounced, and slammed his head into the lid of an open hatch used to deploy quadcopters.
“Jake!” shouted Christine.
“Look out!” Steve yelped, pulling her back from an incoming blur burning with red and orange plasma.
Christine turned to come face to face with Mai’s menacing smirk and electrified limbs. Balanced on her tentacles, she towered over the humans. The glow in the cyborg’s eyes faded to show her normal pupils.
“Hmm... I wonder what I should do with the two of you...” she mused, her voice oozing with malice.
Before she got the chance to take another step, however, a whip from a robotic tentacle pushed her backward. Alex warped in right above her, sending two tentacles to shove hers back. As he landed, he grabbed the back of her head with one hand while his other hand grabbed her tricep. Using his other two extra limbs for leverage, he knocked her off balance, throwing her towards the ledge.
She quickly recovered and with a growl launched herself towards him, her eyes aflame, bearing a scowl that’s no longer amused. A charged plasma burst hurled her into the still hovering heavy dropship. In the background, the shockwave sent Christine and Steve flying backward.
Mai slammed into the hull, sinking her claws and tentacles deep into the alloy to slow herself down. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a flash of light. An instant later, Alex fired his positron blast anchoring himself into the roof to absorb the recoil that ripped through him and sent loose protective tiles, shards of metal, and dust flying towards the city.
From their distant vantage point, the fighting Octobots and Walkers saw a flash of red light jumping off the dropship as the craft split in two before turning into a cloud of debris and a constellation of small explosions like fireworks.
Pieces of the hull launched like missiles obliterated the Octobots they hit while the sky above erupted in powerful lasers and a hail of kinetic kill vehicles targeting the 10th Fleet’s drop ships and walkers. The entire valley was engulfed in fire as bombers screamed overhead, unloading their powerful cluster munitions.
In orbit, an agitated Jason snarled at his data feeds, but before he could issue any commands, an alarm suddenly rang out. He checked his screens again with horror.
“No, no, not now!” he growled.
On his ship’s screen, a massive structure that looked like an asteroid the top of which was flattened to accommodate a city of sleek dark spires and towers resembling giant claws warped into focus on the main screen. Tens of thousands of destroyers with flame insignias swarmed it, shuffling into what he knew was an attack formation.
His bridge was quickly rocked by shockwaves, turning his angry snarl into concern. Glancing at his live feeds, he saw numerous destroyers orbiting at very low altitudes, pointing their main canons directly downwards and firing at the surface as swarms of fighters and destroyers spiraled down through the planet’s atmosphere.
Panicked dropships raced back from the surface trying to avoid the heavy incoming fire with mixed success. Several of his key support ships were hit and appeared damaged before he could even react.
“Cancel that last order, we’re out of here as soon as Mai’s back in orbit,” he barked into the intercom. “Holy shit, the 13th does not hold back...”
“Aye Commander,” came the compliant reply as his destroyer began to quickly turn.
The other ships of the 10th Fleet began warping out, trying to dodge the increasing numbers of lasers and missiles aimed at them. A bomber joined them and managed to quickly dock with Jason’s command ship right before it warped out into deep space. Several destroyers bringing up the rear were less lucky as kill vehicles delivered mortal blows that tore them in half.
The technicians in the control room stared at the image of the giant craft on the control room’s main screen with confusion. They’d seen some large ships before, but the thing now front and center on the screen was monstrous. It was as if someone took a megacity and managed to make it fly.
“What the hell is that thing?” asked Sandra.
With a few key taps and clicks, Edwin opened several close-up shots. New windows on the screen displayed a detailed view of the spires as well as the central building emblazoned with a flame seal.
“Oh, phew... They’re our ships. I almost had a heart attack.” Kepa fell back in her chair with relief.
“Our ships?” frowned Katja.
“Well, ones from the fleet that wasn’t actively trying to kill us,” helpfully clarified Kepa.
“Whoever is in charge of that thing is requesting to talk to us unlike last time,” said Edwin. “How polite of them. I’m gonna put it through.”
He pressed a symbol on a touch screen and a window with Dot came up on the main screen.
“Sigma Draconis 691 D home base, this is Commander Nelson with the 13th Expeditionary Strike Fleet,” she introduced herself. “We’re here to recover our crew and help in cleanup operations.”
“We’d give you permission to land on our roof pads, but those were blown up just a few hours ago. And then again just now.”
“That’s what I’ve been told,” a hint of a smile crossed her lips. “We’ll figure something out. The 13th is known for being pretty resourceful. Thank you. Over and out.”
Milburn leaned back in his seat with a dissatisfied grunt. He took a sip of scotch, emptying the glass, and set it aside. His index finger hit the ESC key on the keyboard. Just when things were finally starting to get exciting, the 13th had to bring an entire numbered division to interfere.
No, no, no, this would not do. A very different approach would be required. Something that would put distance between his test subjects and a fleet that would do the equivalent of bringing in an antimatter warhead to destroy an anthill. As he stroked his beard, the wheels began to turn. But no rush, he reminded himself. He needed to let the ideas ferment a bit, go through a few permutations...
Alex surveyed the now quiet battlefield as blood ran down the right side of his face over several scorch marks. If he still had lungs and a heart, he’d be panting from exhaustion right now. He looked back at the stunned humans dusting themselves off while trying to shake off the after-effects of the blast. His tentacles softly retracted and the images of his pupils returned to normal as the steam coming from his right arm began to dissipate.
“Sorry about that,” he said to Steve and Christine. “You all right?”
“Yeah, we’re fine,” replied Steve. “These suits are pretty tough. Are you ok? Because you’re bleeding.”
“Ah, well,” the cyborg shrugged. “It happens.”
“Is Mai...?” started Christine.
“Oh no, no. She’s still very much alive. A little banged up maybe, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again very soon.”
“Steve, Christine! Come in!” rang out Ingrid’s voice over the intercom in their helmets.
“We’re here,” answered Steve.
Ingrid’s furious yelling in reply distorted the signal enough to make Steve and Christine wince.
“Of all the stupid stunts the two of you pulled! You could’ve been killed! Get your asses back inside this instant!”
“Uh... Roger that. On our way,” mewed Christine.
“Holy shit Ingrid’s mad,” sighed Steve with almost tangible despair. “Well, we better get to her office or it’ll be worse. You know how much she hates it when she’s mad and waiting.”
As they headed back into the city, heads low and brows furrowed in preparation for an epic scolding, they saw Alex tending to a few wounded cyborgs. He examined their reflexes and injuries with a skilled hand as medics asked him to help with triage. He seemed just as focused as he did when he fought.
Steve and Christine sat at the mission commander’s desk like troublemakers in the principal’s office. Steve tried to avoid eye contact while Christine looked down at her lap, nervously rubbing her hands together.
“What were you thinking?” raged Ingrid. “You’re not on rotation anymore. You’re part of the leadership team! You can’t just go out and do what you want on a whim! You have operational continuity to think about. Goddamit, it’s like you haven’t learned a thing.”
“The base was being threatened...” started Christine.
“And you thought you’d casually run after... whatever the hell ‘Alex’ is and get involved?” came the unamused retort. “Thank God he saved your asses. But what bothers me is that he saved them from what appears to be a counterpart.”
“See, we need answers instead of sitting here, talking about what deputy would be in charge of what,” tried Steve. “And that’s what we wanted to get. I mean, come on! Don’t you think we need to know more?
“Of course I do!” Ingrid shot back. “But not if I have to lose two senior staff members.”
She sighed and picked up a tablet. After a few swipes, she put it back down on her desk and leaned back in her chair.
“Well, I guess what I have to say next is going to make your day,” she said.
Christine and Steve perked up.
“Right before you arrived, Commander Da Silva asked that you accompany them to the base that’s now floating above us. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think we’re in a position to refuse.”
The duo exchanged a puzzled but excited look.
“Weren’t they going to leave the system as soon as possible?” asked Christine.
“They were. But apparently, things have changed. You take off in six hours so they can safely de-orbit all the debris and figure out what to do with all the alien corpses to prevent contamination. Go get ready.”
A small, rocky moon orbited an icy gas giant vaguely resembling Neptune. On the moon’s surface was a large, spiderweb-like outpost with a myriad of glowing lights. In its center was a domed structure with the fanged skull seal of the 10th Fleet. A small group of destroyers orbited above the base.
Mai walked onto the bridge of a command ship wearing lounge pants, slippers, and a tank top. A towel was draped around her neck, a few drops of water still lingering on her crystalloid hair. She held the towel at both ends, exposing a minimalistic red design of a dragon coiled on itself on her left shoulder.
“You rang?” she asked.
Jason stopped reading his tablet and turned towards her.
“Milburn wants us to debrief with him,” he softly intoned. “He probably has another idea for a new attempt since we were so rudely interrupted by so many ships.”
“Think where was a VIP on the planet?”
“That is the leading theory. And Mai?”
“Please don’t call me useless again.”
Mai scowled and turned around to leave.
“When you stop being useless, you’ll get the respect you want so much,” she groused back over her shoulder. “Prometheus is not the place where we care about your rank and who signed off on your letters of merit. Got it?”
“Yes, I understand,” nodded Jason glumly, turning back to keep reading the data on his tablet.
The space city’s enormous engines’ glow subsided as it settled into a stable orbit. The destroyers around it spread out over the calm and peaceful planet below. The rainbow of lights from the outpost below was subtle but clearly visible to Dot, Steve, and Christine, who stood in front of a giant, curved panoramic window showing the floating city and the curve of the planet. Destroyers on patrol appeared only as red dots in the distance.
The structure to which they were escorted towered over much of the base and showed that all the seemingly separate facilities were, in fact, connected, with monorails racing between several bustling hubs on what appeared to be a regular schedule.
In yet another surprise, instead of being accompanied by Izzy, they were handed off to Dot, who was far more petite, smiley, and warm than they expected a commander of such an enormous force to be. But as they exchanged greetings, the phrase “seemingly harmless” kept flashing in Christine’s mind. She was perfectly polite, even verging on bubbly, but a few things about her just seemed unnervingly... off.
“So, welcome to one of our autonomous command posts,” said Dot, gesturing at the window. “This structure is home to hundreds of thousands of soldiers, doctors, engineers, and other support staff. It’s also armed with almost every weapon you can think of. And some that I probably forgot about.”
“One of your command posts?” asked Steve. “This thing might be bigger than our whole city complex, and I’m including the caves and satellite structures. How are there more than one?!”
“Space is big. Lots of asteroids are just floating around up for grabs and we have a bunch of 3D printers and lasers,” winked Dot and handed the humans two silver, coin-sized fobs with a tiny flame insignia. “If you put these in the middle of your palms, you’ll have access to all recreational and public areas of the base.”
The humans took the fobs but hesitated, trying to decide on which hands to put them.
“Which hand doesn’t matter. It just needs to be on you so the sensors can talk to it.”
“Got it,” nodded Christine. “And what if we need to jump back down to the planet?”
“I’m sorry, but you may not be able to do that for a few days,” frowned Dot with the same casual expression and tone one would expect from a concierge telling a guest that they were out of their favorite coffee until the next morning.
“Uh, how... why... How come?” stammered Steve “Are we being very politely detained?”
“You’re being placed under, well, protective custody for lack of a better term,” diplomatically agreed Dot.
“But... but... why? What did we do?” asked Christine.
“It’s not what you did, it’s the fact that you were targeted by an unidentified faction using ships from the 10th Fleet. We need to assess the situation and decided it would be best to protect you here.”
“I’m afraid we can’t help you with your assessments,” objected Steve, “Frankly, we’re not even sure what’s going on. So far, all we sort of understand, is what kind of cyborgs you, or Jake, or Commander Da Silva are...“
Christine saw Dot smile wryly to herself out of the corner of her eye.
“... and that Alex and Mai are on a whole other level, and, at the risk of being out of line here, they seem to have a lot of issues to work out,” Steve concluded.
“Yes, Alex and Mai are very... different,” nodded Dot. “They’re experiments, version zeroes.”
“Speaking of Alex, how is he doing?” asked Christine.
“Oh, he’s perfectly fine. It was just a couple of scratches. What you saw probably looked pretty nasty, but that was just sparring. If those two ever went all out, well, there wouldn’t be much left of your outpost.”
“What a soothing thought,” muttered Christie looking aside.
“You’ve had a very long, rough day. Why don’t I show you to the living quarters so you can relax a bit?” offered Dot.
Her tone remained light and pleasant, but a steely note softly playing underneath, one very reminiscent of the type mastered by Izzy, made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t presenting an option but was merely informing them of what they were expected to do next if they wanted their stay on this enormous, heavily armed base to remain outwardly polite and friendly.