The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Three

Previous Chapter

The observation deck on The Sea of Tranquility wasn’t that different from similar decks on seagoing ships. Those decks loomed high above the water to give people an excellent view of the horizon. On the Tranquility the deck stood high above the bridge and below a massive transparent ceramic window, giving the officers and crew who came there an excellent view of the activity within and without. For the most part, Vice Admiral Jalak Carrington preferred the view outside to that within. He’d spent decades serving on various ships in the Copernican Spacer Corps and had seen more than enough command deck activity to last a lifetime. While the bridge of an Olympus Mons class orbit ship was bigger than any other he’d been on the general ebb and flow of life there was the same.

Earth was something entirely different.

Copernicus was roughly 95% the size of the Homeworld, yet Earth seemed to take up a much larger part of the sky below them. The colors were different from those he’d gotten used to as well. Newton was the closest of the Triad Worlds to the Homeworld’s appearance, a patchwork of blue and green not unlike that above him but with a pattern more like a checkerboard than the graceful, sweeping peaks and basins of Earth geography. The moons of Galileo were blue-gray spheres of rock, starkly different than the Homeworld. And Copernicus itself was still mostly brown, only slowly terraforming into something that would one day be a green world. Water was less common on the surface of the oldest Triad world. Rivers were plentiful and, once all the glaciers and ice caps fully melted, it might even have proper ocean. But that was still a generation away, at least.

Somehow, in spite of how alien the planet below should have been, the sight of it never failed to fill Carrington with a sense of contentment. On a primal level he felt more at home here, over Earth, then he ever had among the Triad worlds. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the mind. He’d expected the vague sense of awe he felt from seeing the Homeworld to fade over time.

They’d been there a month and found the people of Earth to be unpleasant, arrogant and stubborn, not to mention dangerous. The Homeworld itself, on the other hand, had lost none of the appeal.

“Tell me, Director Mond. Why would Earth want to give up this view of itself?”

“We didn’t. You can still see this from the surface, with the right equipment.”

Carrington pulled his attention away from view to the man seated next to him. Stephen Mond used to be a tall man, definitely taller than Carrington’s just below average height, but now he was confined to a maglev chair that tapped into the ship’s UFT field to hover four inches above the ground. He’d lost his arms and legs in the grisly incident that led to his capture and imprisonment by the United Colonial Fleet. His arms were replaced with basic prosthetics from the ship’s medical stores but they hadn’t replaced his legs.

Although it seemed his medical nanotech system was hard at work regrowing all four lost limbs and the doctors were pretty sure he’d be back on his own feet in another six months or so.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Carrington said.

Mond sighed. “You’re not wrong. But it is important for sapiens to restrain our impulse to dominate and control or we will loose sight of who we are. The drive to senselessly fill space was one of our unfortunate habits taken from our martian neighbors. Better to send satellites than come ourselves.”

Carrington grunted noncommittally, once again mystified by the psychobabble that Mond used to justify the strange habits Earth had fallen into in the centuries since Departure. There was a time to dig into the arcane twists of the UNIGOV mindset that had produced Mond. This wasn’t it. “We’ve finally received an official response from Earth.”

“Oh?” Mond was clearly surprised. “I suppose there is enough of the Directorate that could be convinced to talk to the Martian remnant, if given enough time.”

“I said a response, Director Mond,” Carrington replied. “I didn’t say they spoke to us.”

“How can you be sure it was an official response if you didn’t speak to a Director of UNIGOV?”

Carrington pursed his lips and nodded. He’d expected that response based on previous discussions he’d had with Mond and, in many circumstances, it was a valid response. He didn’t think the disassembler field Starstream squadron had encountered was one of those circumstances. Today wasn’t a spear fishing expedition, though. The plan was to bait some hooks and see if Mond would nibble. So, he strung things along. “Actions can be a response, can’t they, Director?”

“Of course.” Mond settled back in his chair, wiggling his shoulders a bit as he tried to find a comfortable position. The doctors thought the regeneration process was triggering phantom pains far more often than was typical. “But actions can be personal as well as collective. Perhaps you’ve mistaken the actions of a few – or even one – person for the actions of UNIGOV. You said the response was official – and UNIGOV is the official source for Earth’s collective actions.”

“Many actions require the work of a collective, rather than just a few or even one.” Carrington gestured to ship around them. “This ship couldn’t exist without a great deal of collective effort to gather the materials and create the plans necessary for such a feat of engineering. Even with all the supplies and planning taken care of for you I doubt you could build one on your own before you died of old age. Nanofacturing and spacedock construction techniques just aren’t efficient enough for it yet.”

Mond nodded. “That’s true. And the facilities on Earth that could build such a ship all belong to UNIGOV. If they’ve launched a ship such as this one – or really, any of those in your fleet – then that is undoubtedly an official response. Has Earth launched such a ship?”

A moment passed while Carrington tried to determine if Mond was legitimately concerned such a thing could have happened, in direct contradiction of the values of UNIGOV’s so-called sapiens, or if Mond was just playing along with the scenario. However even crippled and far removed from his home territory, Mond’s face was as placid as freshly cooled obsidian. So Carrington admitted, “We haven’t seen a ship, no.”

“Then what exactly have you seen that makes you think only an official response from UNIGOV could explain it?”

“One of our landing groups was attacked earlier today.”

“Impossible.” Mond replied quickly and decisively enough that Carrington was sure he believed it. So far Mond had proved to believe a lot of bullshit, so Carrington wasn’t about to take his denial at face value.

“You don’t think our landing group was attacked, then?

“It could have been attacked any number of zealous but misguided people who have lapsed into martian behavior as a result of the stress and uncertainty your recent landings have brought on,” Mond mused. “I cannot imagine it is the result of an official response.”

“Isn’t the purpose of your ‘Schrodinger’s Book’ to insure that people aren’t exposed to any information that could prompt such a response?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence then Mond admitted, “That is true. However, we weren’t even remotely prepared for your return to Earth much less your destruction of structures in orbit or on the ground. When last I heard there were entire cities where your interventions were public knowledge.”

So UNIGOV’s information control wasn’t as total as they liked to pretend. That wasn’t surprising, although the reports they’d received from the ground seemed pretty convinced of the iron clad nature of Earth’s Ministry of Truth. Then again, the experiences of three grounded spacers and two natives they’d captured along the way wasn’t a large sample size. “Regardless, we can be pretty sure this wasn’t the actions of a handful of independent actors. All signs point to this being part of a centralized response.”

“You can’t know that,” Mond insisted.

“They reactivated a fusion reactor just north of Anaheim,” Carrington pointed out. “We’re still detecting an active magnetic signature from it. I doubt you let anyone boot up a reactor that can power half a city.”

“Of course not, but turning on a reactor is hardly an act of aggression. Not even the old martians thought that.”

“Aren’t you curious about what they did with the reactor once it was running?”

Mond hesitated, as if he was looking for the hook that lay behind the question. “No,” he said, dragging the word out. “But I don’t think I benefit from listening to a story about that kind of naked hostility.”

“What if it’s an action that wasn’t intended to be hostile, but we’ve misinterpreted?” Carrington pulled a display screen out of the belt of his shipboard slops. “While I’m pretty sure it was an attack launched by UNIGOV there is a lot about your civilization we don’t know. A problem you haven’t been helping with, by the way.”

After studying the inactive display for a moment Mond finally shrugged and said, “Very well, Admiral. Since you think it’s so important I’ll ask – how was it you think you were attacked?”

Carrington signaled his AI and had it replay the transmissions of Starstream squadron along with telescopic footage of the fighters breaking down taken from the Principia and the Remus. Mond’s expression grew increasingly strained as it went on. Once it was done Carrington said, “We believe Starstream encountered what we refer to as a diassembler field. It’s a kind of wide scale, weaponized nanotechnology that requires huge amounts of energy and very specialized programming to create. I don’t believe it could be built or deployed without the knowledge of UNIGOV.”

“No. You’re quite right.” Mond started to rub the bridge of his nose then stopped and scowled at his prosthetic hand, displeased with the feel of it. “Your disassembler field was created by a separatist faction about sixty years ago. We called it the Light of Mars.”

It struck Carrington as humorous that UNIGOV had such a poetic name for one of the weapons they supposedly detested so much. “What happened to these separatists?”

“They were put into shutdown and their research and stockpiles were turned over to the Environmental Restoration Bureau.” Carrington had to think for a moment to sort through the gobbledygook. If he was right Mond was saying UNIGOV put the separatists into medically induced comas, hooked their brains into a computer and left their work in an abandoned city to rot. Mond wasn’t finished. “In order to recreate that research in such a short period of time the Directorate would have to have drawn some of those separatists out of shutdown.”

“You weren’t interested in their research at all?”

“No. Most of UNIGOV’s research efforts at the time were focused on improvements to the medical systems and recycling advanced polymers. Large scale construction projects like those the Light of Mars was originally intended for were nowhere in the five or fifty year plans at the time.”

So there were separatist movements on Earth after all. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising. Something had reduced the population of the planet below five billion in the two centuries since Departure and zealous pogroms against UNIGOV’s political opposition certainly explained part of it. And it raised an interesting question. “Is it possible some part of that separatist group escaped and is living in or around the city of Anaheim?”

Mond shook his head. “The New Martian Front was based in the city of Sarajevo and was never that large. I was part of the cleanup project and I’m quite confident we rounded up all the important leaders and researchers. Even if a few of the rank and file did escape no one has emigrated from Europe to America in decades.”

No one has moved from one continent to another in the last sixty years?” Carrington found that hard to believe. “Why not?”

“We have very good communication technology, Admiral. We don’t need to be physically around other people in order to enjoy their company. Why traumatize the environment with needless travel when we can already speak to one another at will and manufacture anything we need via nanotechnology? Contment is a sapiens virtue. We don’t need to cross the planet just to say we did it. I know that you martians don’t share that ideal but we do try to make the best of our own situation rather than continually imposing our difficulties on others.”

Once again, Mond managed take a normal human behavior and make it exclusive to his own cadre. Carrington controlled his urge to tear into him for it. There were more important issues at hand. “To be clear, Mr. Mond, do you now believe Starstream squadron was, in fact, attacked on the orders of UNIGOV?”

“I would hardly call it an attack,” Mond objected. “While it’s distasteful, the Light of Mars is essentially a construction tool. If they hadn’t trespassed in Earth airspace they wouldn’t have accidentally stumbled across it.”

Carrington felt his cool starting to slip and struggled to hold on to it. “Mr. Mond, you may believe that it doesn’t make you aggressive or hostile to place a hazard in the path of people you dislike but where I come from, where we think quite a bit about violence towards each other, it does. Furthermore, ever since my fleet arrived in orbit Earth has disregarded all known laws of space. You didn’t have navigation relays on station, you destroyed one of my ships or allowed it to be destroyed by negligently leaving hundreds of unmanned, automated weapons stations in orbit and on the ground with no warning of their presence and you’ve refused all attempts to establish peaceable communications. To say nothing of the summary execution of a prisoner in custody which you, yourself, are responsible for.”

The last bit Mond at least had the decency to be ashamed of. “Admiral-”

Carrington cut him off with a chopping of his hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mond. I’ve been patient and done my best to balance the desires of UNIGOV with my own orders and the desires of the worlds I represent. But the actions – and targeted inactions – of UNIGOV have made it very clear to me that they do not want peaceable communication. Now they are attacking my ships even as we try to avoid direct confrontation. You leave me no choice but to inform you that, as of this moment, UNIGOV and the Triad Worlds are at war. I’ve consulted with the commanders of the other world’s delegations within the fleet and we are in agreement on this. If there’s any way for you to communicate that reality to your fellows on planet please inform me and we’ll arrange for anything you need to facilitate that message, short of your release. Otherwise…” He sighed. “Well, diplomatic channels were never open to begin with so I suppose they can’t be cut off.”

Mond stared at him for a long moment, bewildered. “What is the point of telling me this?”

“Because…” Carrington drew the word out as he struggled to reign in his temper. “We have found that talking before violence is the best way to avoid it, even if it’s not likely.”

“Oh.” Mond looked surprised. “I didn’t think avoiding violence was a martian priority.”

“Of course not.” Carrington strode off the observation deck, passing Mond’s guards as he did. “Take Director Mond back to his room.”

The two men nodded and ushered the Director away, leaving the deck empty but for the distant light of Earth.


The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Two

Previous Chapter

The worst part about being grounded in Anaheim was the gravity. With a whopping 0.93 Standard Gravities Copernicus was a planet that didn’t really prepare one for the full One G experience found on Earth. Add in a two week stint on Mars (local gravity, 0.38G) and Martin Langley’s sense of weight and mass was shot to the point where running from one side of the Anaheim worksite to the other left him winded. He arrived at the command building, wheezing, and wiped sweat from his eyes before saluting and saying, “Sergeant Langley, reporting.”

“Come take a look at this, Sergeant.” The instruction came from a tall, balding man in the faded gray day uniform of the Copernican Spacer Corps. Major Elijah Goldstein hid his hairless pate under a small cloth cap and glared at the world from eyes sunken deep into his skull, his mouth perpetually turned downward in a disapproving expression. Lang instantly felt like he should’ve been focusing more on PT so the Major wouldn’t have to put up with his gasping.

That scowling expression was probably the Major’s greatest leadership skill. If the stories were to be believed, many a junior officer or NCO had felt it’s disdain and changed their ways without any input from him at all. Lang managed to shake off its effects after he caught his breath but the taller man’s vague sense of disapproval never quite went away. Other than that, Goldstein was unremarkable. He was an inch or two taller than Lang, wiry and tough in the way most Spacers were, and had deep lines across most of his face that hinted at his age.

Lang stepped down into the sunken middle section of the large room where the command staff had set up camp. The building had once housed a small planetarium and the Fleet task group that landed there co-opted a lot of the equipment to help build their command center. Now a large situation map was projected over the ceiling. That wasn’t what Goldstein wanted him to look at, however.

Instead the Major’s attention was focused on the room’s EMG station.

“Tell me, Sergeant,” Goldstein said, tapping a part of the screen that showed a large magnetic signature coming from some place twenty kilometers north, “you ever see anything like this during your time on planet?”

A twinge of annoyance stirred within Lang. Everyone seemed to think he was an expert on Earth after spending a couple of days there and escaping to tell the tale. “I can’t say that I did, Sir,” Lang said. “But we didn’t exactly have the best equipment on hand so there’s bound to be a lot of things around here that we missed on the first trip. That said, Anaheim is an abandoned city. There’s a lot of them down here, apparently UNIGOV cleared them out when the depopulation got really severe. Not sure why. We saw two of these places and there was never any major power sources left running in them when we passed through. Whatever is making that field is running off something and I’d bet it wasn’t here when we set up camp last week.”

“Do you think the Uni people are setting up to push us out?” Goldstein asked.

“Everything I’ve seen suggests they aren’t very up to date on strategy, maneuver or positioning. They didn’t even carry weapons or have functioning prisons.” Lang tapped the screen thoughtfully. “I remember Sean – one of the Earthlings I met – mentioning they had maglev transportation corridors, though. Maybe they switched one of those on. We could call up Tranquility and ask the Earthlings about it.”

“Not a bad idea.” The feminine voice made Lang glance over to the comm station where Corporal Priscilla Hu – the only other survivor from his last ill fated first visit to Earth – was on duty. “Sadly we already tried it and no one’s answering. We can’t raise the landing team we’re expecting today either and they should be halfway through the atmo by now.”

“Um.” Lang started chewing on his lower lip, his brain trying to figure out what was going on while his eyes enjoyed looking at a curvaceous woman. “When you put it that way it does seem like a more aggressive move, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Goldstein said. “We still have communication with our forward operating bases so we’ve sent some scouts out towards the origin point of the field. Hopefully we hear from them soon. How certain are you that they don’t have old weapons caches lying around? They kept their launch craft even though they don’t go into space anymore, could they have old munition depots as well?”

Lang pulled his attention away from the biggest distractions in the room and shook his head, more to clear it than signal his disagreement. “What they told us is that they disassembled their weapons in order to avoid ‘Martian thinking,’ which is what they call anything remotely aggressive. I guess they subscribe to the ‘blade itself’ way of thinking and see any weapon as a corrupting influence.”

“But they executed a member of your group, didn’t they?”

“It was an accidental killing more than an execution. UNIGOV doesn’t execute their own dissenters and I’m pretty sure they could find a way to put us in Shutdown too, if they wanted us out of the way, and that would suit them better.” Lang suppressed a shudder at that thought. He hadn’t actually tapped into the Shutdown simulation like his Earthling friend Aubrey had but he’d read her report.

The old Nevada Launch Zone turned out to have more in it than copies of old, forbidden books and the relics of Earth’s old space program. It was also full of chambers containing the dormant bodies of people in Shutdown. Racks and racks of comatose sleepers, held imprisoned in their own minds by the meddling of the medical nanotech UNIGOV had originally sold to them as a benevolent measure to preserve the health of the public.

Which, admittedly, it did just fine when it wasn’t keeping them catatonic.

“So it’s not a weapon,” Goldstein mused. “I wonder what their play is, then.”

“My guess is they’re sending in a representative to talk to us,” Priss said. “They’re very big on talking and that kind of civilized, diplomatic thing when they’re not shoving sleeping people into boxes. It would fit the behavior we saw from Mond when he had us in custody. He had his mouth open so much I’m surprised he didn’t swallow a bug or something.”

“Possibly,” Goldstein said. “But if it was an offensive move, what do you think it would be?”

Lang shrugged. “It would have to be some kind of tool they repurposed on the fly.” Lang’s mind jumped back to the makeshift shackles they’d been locked in, built out of loose materials shoddily nanowelded together. “They’re creative enough for that kind of thing. Maybe they’re going to use the maglev rails to throw something at us. A kind of improvised railgun.”

“Throwing a brick at us is pretty aggressive behavior for the sapiens.” Priss drummed her fingers for a moment. “Maybe cutting off our communications is the point?”

“That’s just passive-aggressive enough to make sense from their point of view,” Lang agreed. “I’m not sure I buy all their propaganda about how they’re wonderful, peaceful people though. If we’ve gotten far enough under their skin to provoke a response then it’s possible we’re about to see what they look like when they get violent.”

“Violent how?” Priss demanded. “You need to practice violence in order to get any good at it.”

“The same way novices always do.” Lang flapped his hands limply in the air. “By flailing wildly until their hand hits something and they hurt themselves.”

“An untrained but valiant man,” Goldstein murmured.

Lang glanced at the Major, waiting for him to continue the thought. When he didn’t Lang asked, “What was that, sir?”

Goldstein grunted and scratched at his vanished hairline. “A long time ago, when I was just a baby officer, I researched historical warfare as part of my academic career. Not a little, a lot. One thing I read that I never forgot was the standards given for a sword master in late medieval Europe. Can’t remember exactly where. But a candidate had to win three bouts against three different types of opponents. Three rounds against a sword master, three against a man-at-arms who is drunk and three against a valiant but untrained man.”

“I get the first part but why the other two?” Priss asked.

“To prove that you can deal with unpredictable opponents.”

Lang stared at the EMG console, watching the magnetic field slowly expand towards the forward operating line. “I’m not sure getting a title is worth this kind of risk, sir.”

“We’re not here for titles, Sergeant,” Goldstein replied. “Do you have any other ideas as to what UNIGOV might be doing out there?”

“Their maglev system is tied into what we’d consider a last generation AI system,” Lang mused, more thinking aloud rather than offering a specific answer to the Major’s question. “I’m not sure they could use it for much outside of traffic control without a serious hardware upgrade. That’d change their power use profiles quite a bit, too. Their nanotech is pretty advanced compared to ours, at least in terms of how fine a scale they can operate on. Based on the van we stole I’d say they’re a couple of generations ahead of us on solar panel technologies.”

“I don’t see how any of that fits into what we’re seeing here,” Priss said.

Lang sighed. “No, neither do I. Sorry, sir, but when it comes to what the Earthlings are trying here I’m as clueless as the next guy.”

“Well, thank you for taking a look at it anyway, Sergeant,” Goldstein said. “I hate to keep you away from your other responsibilities so long for so little reward but I appreciate your time. You can return to your post now.”

Lang nodded and turned towards the door.

He’d barely finished that turn when Priss said, “Fuck. Lang, you’re not gonna believe this.”

He doubled the length of his pivot, doing a complete 360 degree turn. “What? What happened?”

Priss was streaming a live video feed from one of the forward bases. It showed a building on the opposite side of the street slowly turning to dust as an odd shimmering field slowly washed over it. “They found out what the sapiens’ big play is.”

Lang watched as one spacer sprinted across the street in an attempt to get away from the advancing field only to be overtaken. The poor man collapsed on the ground after running another couple of feet, his body’s fleshy parts dissolving into a pale red mist, the heavier pieces slumping into a quivering pile of once living matter. “Ah.” Lang winced as he watched the man’s death. “Well. Violence it is.”

“So it would seem, Sergeant,” Goldstein replied. “So it would seem.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter One


Principia reports Condition Two. Orbital flight, commence acceleration. Starstream squadron you are cleared to depart, you may commence your descent at your convenience.”

Captain Thomas Bourne, Newtonian Flight Command, flicked his left thumb. The motion command was relayed to his helmet microphone, toggling it on, and he replied, “Principia NavCom, this is Starstream Leader, we are Earthbound.” Another couple of finger flicks fired his OF-28’s forward thrusters, killing some of his momentum and pushing its nose down towards Earth’s surface a couple of degrees. The snubby, bullet shaped silhouettes of the other fighters in his squadron briefly pulled up even with him as they adjusted their speeds to match his. Once they were firmly committed to the first leg of their breaking orbit Bourne spoke again. “Lander 42, your escort is in position.”

“Acknowledged, Starstream Leader.” The Newtonian Space Command’s landing craft were built along far less aggressive lines than the fleet’s fighters. Their pilots affectionately called them ‘tubs’ for their very blocky shape and terrible maneuvering characteristics. Fighter pilots assigned to escort them preferred the term ‘albatross.’ “Let us know if you’re expecting any trouble.”

“I don’t know if you’ve been reading the reports from Earth, 42, but trouble isn’t really something they believe in down there anymore.” That voice belonged to Lieutenant Billy Zane, callsign Krampus, in the fighter furthest to port. “Sounds like the whole planet has given up on applied violence as a problem solving approach.”

“Sounds good to us,” the lander’s pilot replied.

“Sounds boring to me,” Krampus replied.

“Too much talk,” Bourne said. “Clear this channel. Lander 42, maintain your position in formation.”

About twenty seconds of flying passed in relative silence before Earth’s upper atmosphere started to tug on the hull of Bourne’s fighter. “Starstream,” he said, “prepare to deploy airfoils. Check mechanisms and report in.”

The diagnostics on an OF-28’s wing system took only a couple of seconds and Bourne had barely finished his own when his squadron started calling in their readiness. Once they all reported readiness he said, “Deploy airfoils.”

All around him the bullet-like profile of the ships shifted. The fighters went from eight meter long, three meter high cylinders to vaguely boomerang shaped. Motorized struts expanded outward and the hull material was disassembled in segments by internal nanolathe vats and then reassembled in their new configuration. The drag on his fighter lessened. “Fire up your jet engines,” Bourne said. “Save that reaction mass.”

Acknowledgments rolled in again. His fighter slowed down again, the thin atmosphere available to its jets too sparse to equal the thrust from its rockets. Bourne toggled his AI’s nav program and double checked his course. Their target landing zone was in a place called Anaheim, one of the cities the Earth government had abandoned and the Colonial Fleet had decided to strip for raw materials. It was an eerie place, full of empty buildings and silent, concrete canyons. As a Newtonian native, Bourne had seen plenty of empty cities in the past, both those under construction on the frontiers of the planet and those bombed out by war. There was something uniquely unnerving about flying over an entirely intact city empty of all life.

Some days he expected the entire place to magically spring to life again, as if the ghosts of the Homeworld were waiting for just the right moment to prank him.

The AI told him that, whether he liked it or not, he was on target to arrive there in forty minutes. “Alright, people, spread out into escort formation and keep your eyes sharp. 42, you’re free to maneuver as needed to compensate for atmospheric drag.”

“Acknowledged, Leader.”

“What are we looking out for, Leader?” The question came from Bubbles, who’s position at the top of the formation left him with the least flying to do at the moment. “UNIGOV seems to be doing its best to just ignore us. If intel from planetside is correct they don’t even maintain a modern military down there.”

“Then watch the weather,” Bourne replied. “We don’t have a satellite network to tap so we’re going to need to monitor that ourselves. You could do your job and ring up the landing group.”

“Sure thing, Leader,” Bubbles said with a laid-back laugh. “But you know what the scuttlebut about the situation on the ground is, don’t you?”

“We don’t spend half our off hours trying to get in the pants of the Comms division,” Krampus shot back. “We’re not going to pick up all the fucking rumors you do.”

“There are no secret vaults full of state of the art space ships down there, people,” Bourne said, letting an edge into his voice. “I saw the specs on the ship the survivors brought back, same as you. It was over a century old. That’s not the kind of space hardware you keep if you’ve built something better last Tuesday. Just stay sharp, the Homeworld has a population equivalent to the whole of the Triad Worlds, someone down there could’ve dreamed up a nasty surprise for us.”

“Leader, Peepers.” The low, growling voice could easily come off as irritated but that was typical for Peepers. “I’m picking up an EM field just north of the Anaheim approach corridor. Never seen anything like it on our previous runs.”

Bourne’s AI displayed the relevant sensor readings on his board and sure enough, Peepers was right. “Control, are you getting this?”

There was a couple of seconds delay, just long enough for a quick discussion in the Battle Space Information Center. “Affirmative, Leader. We’re picking it up as well and we don’t have anything like it from any of our previous scans of the area. Fly careful.”

“See?” Bourne couldn’t keep a hint of satisfaction out of his tone. “We didn’t even have to look that hard to find something new.”

“Doesn’t look strong enough to be any known countermeasures,” Krampus said. “But the signal strength is ramping up. Could be a new weapons emplacement.”

“Leader, Bubbles. I’m not getting any response from the Anaheim team on the usual or backup frequencies.”

Bourne frowned. “They made the T-minus 30 check-in, didn’t they?”

“That’s affirmative,” Control answered. “They didn’t report any comm trouble at the time.”

“Bubbles, this is Hangnail.” Her voice came high and clear across the radio. “Any chance the new EM field is some kind of comms blocking?”

“Wrong kind of radiation, Hangnail,” Bubbles answered. “It could scramble the transmitter if it was about a thousand times stronger than now but as things are there’s no way its directly causing a comms blackout.”

“Well the field’s doubled in strength in the last ten seconds,” Bourne said. “Whatever it is, it’s growing fast. 42, if I were you I’d drop back a couple of klicks until we get a better idea of what’s going on down there.”

“Copy that, Leader.”

“You’re on the bottom, Hangnail.” Bubbles left a deliberate pause.

Hangnail didn’t miss it. “Don’t go getting ideas.”

“Can you get a visual on the landing site? Maybe they left us a note.”

“I’ll give it a shot.”

Hangnail went quiet for a moment and Bubbles filled the time by making the bizarre mouth sounds his callsign was derived from. Bourne filled the time by watching the strength of their anomalous EM field quickly ramp higher. Finally Hangnail got back on the comm, apologetic. “No signs of anything out of the ordinary, so far as I can tell.”

“Starstream squadron, this is Control.” The operator up in Principia BASIC was starting to sound a little strained. “We’re monitoring the area but right now there’s no sign of anything out of place beyond that EM field. A little magnetism never hurt anyone, much less full fledged Newtonian fighter craft. The General says to go ahead and continue with the landing.”

Apparently General Ollinger had taken an interest in the situation. That explained the change in attitude up in BASIC – nothing kept a soldier on his toes like having the ranking officer in theater personally looking over your shoulder. “Control, Starstream Leader. Copy that. I recommend going to Condition One.”

“We’ll pass that on, Leader.”

This time the silence on Control’s end lasted a lot longer than the handful of seconds a quick consultation took. Then, almost ninety seconds later, a new voice came over the comm. “Attention, all ships in the Unified Colonial Fleet. This is the Sea of Tranquility. Admiral Carrington has ordered all ships to General Quarters. Stand by for potential hostile action. I repeat, stand by for potential hostile action.”

Bourne winced. He hadn’t expected that response. He certainly hadn’t expected the fleet’s flag officer to be roped into the decision, he’d assumed the Principia would elevate it’s alert status and that would be the end of it. And Tranquility control wasn’t done yet. “Orbital flight to combat velocity, Remus is to move to the quadrant opposite Principia and stand by to support the landing group as needed.”

“Wonderful,” Bourne muttered after twitching off his mic. “Just what I wanted, support from the space pirates.”

Given the layout of the fleet sending the Minervan destroyer to support them did make the most sense so he couldn’t really begrudge the admiral his decision. After all, Copernicus wasn’t the planet that had Galilean pirates camped in their cities for two years. The orbital flight, on the other hand, was upwell of the moon, so far from Earth’s gravity that it barely even registered. Bourne wasn’t sure what good sending them to combat speed was going to do. Even at that pace they wouldn’t be able to make it inside Lunar orbit for twenty minutes, Earth’s atmosphere was almost a day away.

He twitched his mic back on. “Alright, Starstream. Look sharp, guess everyone is looking over our shoulder on this one.”

“Great.” Krampus didn’t sound that enthused at the idea.

The boundary of the anomalous field was fast approaching. “Be ready for anything,” Bourne said. “Reports say Earth is way ahead of us in several fields so this could be the opening move for just about anything.”

Another round of replies. By the time they were done the squadron was already in the depths of the magnetic field, diving towards their landing zone. They’d been their for exactly seventy six seconds when Peepers said, “Leader, my jet engine just failed on me. Diagnostics are trouble shooting but I’m going to have to switch to thrusters.”

“Copy that, Peepers. Don’t want to spook the natives so go ahead level off. We’ll bring you in last after the ground team has a chance to prep for you.”

“Sounds good, Leader. Igniting thrusters n-”

The transmission cut off as Peeper’s fighter blew itself to pieces.

“Holy shit!” Instinct drove Bourne to swing his fighter around the expanding cloud of debris long before conscious acknowledgment of the disaster. A second later they were past it. “Control, what the fuck was that?”

“Don’t know.” The controller’s voice was strained with surprise and panic. “Looking over the telemetry now. The start up process on his main thrusters was going fine so it doesn’t look like a programming error.”

“Lander, this is Leader, abort landing, I repeat abort landing. All fighters make for space.”

“Leader, Control.” The operator was regaining control of himself. “There’s no signs of ground based weapons fire. This has to be some kind of operational failure; it can’t be enemy action.”

“I’m not taking chances, Control,” Bourn snapped. “The ground team can wait an hour or two while we figure out what just killed Peepers.”

“Leader, this is Franco.” The squadron’s newest pilot, Frank Oregon, came over the radio as the squadron turned towards space. “My jet engine just cut out. Diagnostics say it’s the bearings.”

“Control, does that match Peepers’ telemetry?” Bourne asked.

“Pulling it now.” The two seconds it took for them to come back after that were the longest in his life. “That’s affirmative, Leader.”

That may mean he was having the same problem Peepers was. “Franco, do not, I repeat do not attempt to switch over to thrusters. Try to glide over the target landing zone and punch out there.” Bourne consulted his HUD. “We’re coming up on the upper atmosphere, folks. Avoid switching to thrusters until we get out of this mag field.”

“Leader, Krampus. I just checked my airfoils in preparation for the change over to space flight. All, I repeat all my actuators are out, wing movements are a no-go. Visual inspection shows a large hole in my port wing and it’s growing. I’m guessing we’re in a disassembler field.”

Bourne’s stomach did a flipflop. Disassembler fields were the ultimate in point defense weaponry, a magnetic field full of nanotech that ripped apart incoming missiles or fighters on a molecular level when they tried to pass through. At least in theory. No one in the Triad Worlds had ever made a practical one for a host of reasons. “All right, let’s operate with that as our working hypothesis. Franco, you’re not making it to the ground in one piece if you stay in the field. Recommend you maneuver out of it, if you can.”

“I have no propulsion, Leader, and the field is still growing,” Franco replied. “Don’t think I’m outrunning the edge like this. Is it possible to triangulate the source of the field? I might have better luck hitting it from the air at this point.”

Bourne seriously doubted a fighter could descend quickly enough to do that, given how fast the disassembler field was working, certainly not without engines. Given the options available, however, he wasn’t going to judge how Franco chose to spend his last minutes. “Control, look in to that, please?”

“Acknowledged, Leader.” Control didn’t sound any happier about it. “Remus, are you in position to assist?”

“Control, this is Commander Gryner on the Remus.” The Minervan skipper had the rough, gravelly voice of someone who had inhaled a lot of smoke in his career. Or possibly vacuum. “We’ll arrive at our designated orbit point in eighty seconds but we can maneuver to assist-”

“Holy shit!” Krampus spun out of formation, his fighter striking his wingmate as the wing on the opposite side spun away into the distance. Drag forces and the constant work of the disassembler field must have torn it off. Both fighters crumpled and spun off in opposite directions. Nord – Krampus’ wingmate – died instantly as something in the ship exploded and touched off its thruster fuel or missile warheads. Krampus managed to eject, his fighter tumbling off through the formation as he sailed upwards.

“42,” Bourne snapped, “can you get down here and retrieve Krampus?”

“Negative, Leader. He’s still in the field and we’re barely outrunning the boundary as it is. If we come back for him I don’t think we’re ever getting out of it.”

“Shit. Shit.” Krampus was starting to panic over the mic. “That burns.

Or maybe not panic, Bourne realized with a sinking feeling. Maybe he was starting to get pulled apart. “Krampus, this is Leader. We’re going to figure-”

Krampus started to scream and Bourne suspected he wasn’t getting through.

“Control.” Gryner’s voice rose over the noise. “Please remove Krampus from this channel.”

“What the fuck, Gryner,” Bourne snapped even as Krampus’ voice cut off. He did a quick visual check of the air outside, trying to pick Krampus out of the blue seas below and the black, star spattered skies around. He managed to spot the man’s body after only a few seconds looking and immediately wished he hadn’t found it.

“I need you to hear me, Leader,” Gryner said, blissfully unaware of what Bourne had just seen. “I’ve read up a lot on D-field research. One of their biggest weaknesses is that the field itself is unstable over large distances. Our researchers can’t keep one in place for more than a few minutes over the volume of a singe vessel. Earth is deploying one over thousands of cubic miles.”

“Good for them,” Bourne snapped. “We knew they were a couple of generations ahead of us in nanotech.”

“True. But their field is unstable, we’re reading it from here. That means it will collapse if you can disrupt it with, say, a coordinated plasma barrage.” The smugness is Gryner’s voice could almost be forgiven since it brought a chance at salvation with it. Almost. “There’s too much atmo between us and the field for our point defenses to reach. Are your plasma launchers operable?”

“Check ’em, Starstream,” Bourne snapped.

Principia,” Gryner continued, “adding your guns to the mix gives them better odds of success. Do you have an angle?”

“Not as of yet,” Control replied. “But the captain knows and is angling for position.”

“Fuck.” Bourne pounded his controls in frustration when they told him his main weapon wouldn’t initialize. The forward part of his hull was starting to look more like Swiss cheese than a spaceship but at least he hadn’t lost propulsion yet.

Others weren’t so lucky. Bubbles announced, “I’ve got the main gun booting up.” Two seconds later he followed that up with, “Nope. Circuits overloaded and the whole thing fried. I think it took my engine, too. I’m ballistic.”

“Stay in your cockpit,” Bourne said. “If we can down this field we’ll have the lander come in and pick you up after.”

“Roger that, Leader.”

“Leader, this is Tranquility BASIC. Please stand by for the arrival of orbital flight.”

It took real effort for Bourne to get past his astonishment and crank his gaping mouth closed again. “Stand by? We don’t have thirty hours to wait on ’em, Tranquility.”

“You won’t need it,” Control said. “You’re not doing anything good for yourselves right now so just hang on.”

Bourne switched off his headset and threw his hands in the air. It was true, the disassembler field was playing havoc with the whole squadron but it wasn’t like they had the option of just ignoring it. He was deciding if he should try firing up his plasma launcher again or keep spitting plasma of his own at Control when the orbital flight showed up.

They snapped out of superluminal with no notice, just the brief pop of extra bright light that always accompanied objects dropping below the luminal barrier. Twelve starfighters of Copernican design that, at a glance, had the basic diamond shape of the TX-49. They were long pointed trapezoids with a squat base and a forward taper that made up sixty percent of the total length. However Bourne quickly picked out differences. A much broader middle that made the craft as much as six meters wide, rather than the 49’s standard four meters. A heavy protrusion just under the rear centerline, like a barrel was laid sideways through the bottom of the hull sticking out from under the pilot’s seat.

The fact that they’d come via superluminal drives, which the TX-49 wasn’t equipped with.

In fact, not even Bourne’s top of the line OF-28 had one. Only the Copernicus Spacer Corps’ experimental TX-55 had the space and power plant for a superluminal drive. Admiral Carrington had just committed a fortune in valuable starfighter prototypes to pull their fat out of the fire.

“Starstream Leader, this is Point Break Leader. Stand by for plasma barrage.”

Like their older counterparts, the 55 had dual plasma launchers tucked away under the side corners of the diamond and all twelve fighters cut loose with them at once, sending twenty four packets of ionized plasma screaming into the disassembler field at once. The magnetic field that kept the nanotech powered and suspended in the atmosphere began to fluctuate wildly. Two seconds after the first barrage Point Break squadron fired again. The magnetic field dissolved entirely.

“All right, Starstream,” Point Break leader called. “That’s us. Looks like that field is rebuilding itself down on the surface and will be back in this section of airspace in another ten minutes so I’d get a move on if I were you.”

“You heard the man,” Bourne said, feeling as is a massive weight on his chest was suddenly gone. “All pilots prepare to bail out. Check your flight suits to make sure they’re spaceworthy and punch out. Lander 42, we’d be much obliged for a pick up. Let’s try and get this done without anyone else buying it.”

He busied himself suiting actions to words and five minutes later, it was all done.