“Pyroclasm, fall back! Esograph’s picking up emissions from a large Core headed for you, estimated Class III or III+.”
“Negative, TACCOMM,” she says into the headset mic, “air’s still thick with Scarabs.” The Pyroclasm’s pilot punctuates her response with a burst from shoulder-mounted flak launchers, knocking several of the insectile Scarab drones from the cloudy sky in gouts of dirty smoke. “The civvie lifters won’t get clear without ground support.”
“Get to a better position, Pyroclasm; you’re exposed down there. We’ll send backup.”
Another civilian heavy-lift vehicle lurches clear of the ground, clasping a tunneling machine to its central surface: one more piece of the client’s hardware, probably worth more to them than the client’s people piloting the lifter. A Scarab above it brakes hard and opens internal missile bays; with a rapid burst from her adaptive laser rifle, she cuts it in half before it can launch on the lifter.
Up until a week ago, Finnbar Isola had been held by Black Cat Resourcing Limited, a mining concern operating out of some tiny FIS republic that she’d never heard of. A week ago, their supply lines had been cut off by an unidentified hostile force consisting mostly of widely-available and thus anonymous combat drones. Five days ago, the isola itself had fallen under siege by the same force. Four days ago, Black Cat had placed a call to the Lorne Company. Three days ago, the Lorne Carrier Etain had taken up a high station Pathward of Finnbar, just above the uncertain region where the isola’s gravity field fell off, and loosed its first wave of Armours, hers among them, towards the ground below.
Skye has been waiting for the real action to start ever since.
So she says, “Backup costs, TACCOMM; waiting costs, lives and gear both; prefer to keep us in the money on this callout. Just forward me that Core track, anything you can get on optics.”
“Uh, Roger, Pyroclasm. Your call. Cloud cover’s blocking optics; we do confirm another lifter’s cleared the clouds, Etain gunnery can cover it from there. That Core’s still moving towards—“
The TACCOMM operator’s voice dissolves into the harsh pops and strident tones of a codec falling through its bit rate floor. Her electromagnetic environmental awareness suite is beeping at her:
Jamming Attempt flashes in the hazard overlay.
Skye flicks the map overlay into the center of her vision, adds the last track update from before she lost the Etain, and realizes the other Core is right on top of her. No coincidence, that jamming. She scans the battered surface buildings of the mining facility through more eyes than just the ones in her own personal head, searching through buildings, in odd frequencies, behind her Armour, visual cortex awash in veils of unreal color.
Nothing. Where the hell is it?
Then the cloudy skies bend towards the Pyroclasm; visibility drops to mere meters in a sudden ground-level fog, swirling and thick, made worse by dust kicking up from the ground. The first strike hits her out of nowhere. It’s a solid blow to her back; her Armour staggers, but its plating holds. She whirls a half-turn and still can’t see her attacker.
The jamming alert fades. An audio channel opens. Her comm overlay is scrolling something about well-known public keys and isotropic broadcast that amounts to everyone nearby can hear you both.
“Excuse me, little mercenary, but you are in my way. My blade is not powered up,” a pleasant female voice says in a cultured accent Skye can’t quite place. “Walk away, or the next time I strike, it will be.”
“Okay. Can’t let you do that, obviously. Here to do the job I’m paid for,” Skye says, noticing a pattern to the swirling dust and fog around her. That’s gotta be a downdraft. Thruster wash. She’s hovering above me. She has to be. “Come and get some, then, if you’re hard enough!” She twists the firing controls, and both shoulder flak launchers swivel and blast straight up.
“Tch, how crude… Fine, then,” the voice continues. “In guardia. Pronte? … No? Peccato. A voi.”
And something hits Skye again, a lot harder.
From the front! She swings in front of her, wildly, but the Pyroclasm’s short wrist blades slice empty air. She’s fast!
Skye loves her Armour about as much as she can love anything, but it really wasn’t built for this short-range shit. Gotta disengage. She drops, rolls back, fans the aperture of her rifle, fires a cone of hot light into the fog and dust, briefly burning it away. She can see a humanoid shape running towards her before the wind draws a new veil of fog. Skye recollates the beam, guesses at her opponent’s center of mass, and fires.
A contemptuous swat from the other Armour’s blade knocks the adaptive laser rifle from Skye’s hands, severing power and retractor cables and sending it spinning away. Then another strike hits the Pyroclasm, and an arcane charge of uncertain nature surges through her systems. She suddenly can’t feel herself. Wait, no, she can’t feel her Armour. Her Core connection is shot. Skye briefly sees double, which is several fewer views than she’s used to, and then she can feel her cockpit tilt as something pushes up on it from below, and there’s just nothing she can do. She braces uselessly for the worst.
The fog clears. The other Armour is right in front of her, painted in geometric patterns of black and white. Its weapon, a vaguely Civic-style sword arcing in shades of virulent yellow-green, is tilting her cockpit and sensor assembly up and back, and the energy crackling off it is probably what’s screwing her Core connection, because she’s never seen anything like it. A few remaining Scarabs hover above her in a loose arc.
“Yield or die,” the enemy Pilot suggests, still in that even, pleasant voice.
So Skye yields. She’s a mercenary, not an idiot: pay’s only pay if you survive to spend it.
“Fine. The first one.”
“Good girl,” her opponent says. “I find butchery distasteful. So here is how it is going to go: I will turn off the disruptor blade. You will eject your magazines, power down, fully, and get out. Then I and my comrades will do what we came to do, and eventually you may be allowed to leave, and you may even be allowed to leave with your Armour. If you try anything silly, know that the Lost Pleiades is as formidable, and that my reflexes are as fast, as they were a minute ago. It will not go well for you. Are we clear, darling?”
What a blowhard. But she can’t raise the Etain, she can’t think of any weapon the Pyroclasm could throw at contact range that wouldn’t blow back on her… and the prickling sensation she gets in response to three whispered syllables of power tells Skye that the ambient nano is very much not available to her control.
“Understood,” Skye grumbles. She begins flipping hard toggles to detach ammo magazines and prepare for a field power-down. But now she has to know: “So, who are you, anyway?”
The response is one word: “Cerigo.”
She shivers. That explains the accent; it’s not a common one. Cerigo. A bit out of her league, then.
But, as she exits the Pyroclasm down its flimsy emergency ladder, she notices recent deep scoring and burns in the lower leg plating of the Lost Pleiades. In fact, the damage looks very much like the effects of a flak shell at close range. The machines of the legendary rogue Civic station are not entirely untouchable.
Someday, Skye vows silently, glowering at the unseen Pilot of the Lost Pleiades, I hope we meet again.
They want to drum her out of the Lorne Company, after the debacle at Finnbar. Her captain is furious. His major is furious. But this is the Lorne Company, and the decision to discharge an officer goes all the way to the top: Commander Niamh Lorne herself.
Skye’s summoned to the Commander’s office on the Gallowglass. She opens the door to find the Commander, back to the door, working with a floor-to-ceiling video wall. She recognizes her own photo, a schematic of the Pyroclasm, maps of Finnbar; many of the other images and documents are unfamiliar to her.
“Black Cat is refusing to pay the contract,” Commander Lorne says, without turning to her visitor. “Despite a 90% successful evacuation. Apparently there was something valuable aboard one of the lifters whose retreat you were covering, something they left until the very last minute to retrieve. And of course, Cerigo retrieved it instead. So I’m being advised to drop you from the Company with a dishonorable discharge, Lieutenant Connacht, as a sop to the client, and hope that satisfies them.”
“What do you intend to do, ma’am?” Skye asks, in a measured tone of respect.
She faces Skye. Commander Lorne is tall and rangy, with close-cropped blonde hair and gunmetal eyes. “I haven’t heard your side of it.”
“She got the drop on me, ma’am.”
“You refused reinforcements.”
“That’s so, ma’am. Mine was far from the only site where the client was pulling out, and pulling back to link up with reinforcements would have left a hole in anti-air coverage.”
“So you think you had a better picture of the situation than Tactical?”
“At least as good as Tactical, ma’am, with regard to the situation on the ground. TACCOMM were doing their job keeping me informed well enough to make that call. I tried to do mine.”
“Hmm.” Lorne stares through her. “Happens you were right.”
“Cerigo Armours came at us from three vectors, along with a renewed push by the drones we now know to have been theirs. The Cerigo Pilots at the other two pushed, we pushed back. There were losses. Mostly ours, I’m disappointed to say, and Black Cat personnel and hardware. But they would have been worse if we hadn’t been able to route the rapid response squads to them, instead of covering you.”
“Lieutenant, why do you think you’re still alive? Not a trick question. I’m curious. The Cerigo Pilot could have closed your file right there.”
“Not sure, ma’am. It does seem like she could have. She made the most of freak local weather, and had excellent short-range weapons versus my Armour’s primarily anti-air configuration, so perhaps she didn’t see me as a real threat. She said she found butchery distasteful. As I reported, I’ve never come up against what she called a ‘disruptor blade’ before.”
“Yes,” Lorne says. “Neither has anyone else that we know of.”
“Don’t fret,” Lorne continues, “your black box recorded the whole encounter. I’ve reviewed it personally, out of interest, but so have several others in your chain of command. The facts are not in doubt. It’s as in your report: physical contact with a novel weapon somehow suppressed your control over your Armour. What’s more: even before that, your onboard esograph recorded ambient activation levels several sigmas past natural background. So that’s new information as well. Some of the swarm-talkers in Engineering think the opponent may have had a localized weather control capability.”
“That would explain the convenient fog, ma’am.”
“Yes. So. You did a reasonable job covering your evac site against drone opposition. Your decision to hold and engage solo against an enemy Armour freed up units needed elsewhere, and somehow ended with you not being killed and with your Armour still intact, despite a technological disadvantage.”
Lorne furrows her brow.
“Lieutenant, I don’t see any reason not to chalk this up to good and bad luck that just about cancelled out, and I also don’t much care to set the precedent that the Lorne Company will hang its own people out to dry, or that clients can decide to leave their bills unpaid — because of something at that site that they didn’t tell us about! That said,” she finishes, “given the number of people you pissed off, I’m inclined to make the offer of an honorable discharge anyway. You might find it preferable to an accident on the firing range, or a knife in the back.”
Skye considers this for a hot second.
“Appreciate it. Rather stay, ma’am.”
“Why’s that, Lieutenant?”
“Don’t get to take the Pyroclasm with me if I leave, ma’am.”
Lorne laughs. “Pilots! You and your machines… Very well. Back to the Etain with you. Tell your captain you’ve drawn eight weeks of scut duty in the Armour shop, and no port leave. You won’t like it, but he’ll have to see it as honor satisfied. And Connacht?”
“You still fucked up. What did you fuck up?”
“Let her get too close and couldn’t hit back fast enough, ma’am.”
“Yes. Suggest you figure out how to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Dismissed.”
Captain Skye Connacht starts out of a half-sleep, dropping her copy of the Abridged Flower of Armoured Conflict into her lap. She remembers where she is: Duir Flight’s ready room on the carrier Morrigan. She vaguely remembers eyelids fluttering shut somewhere around the “Doctrine of Reflections Above and Below”, which was not one of that old fart Haruman’s more reader-friendly tactical exercises, even in the abridged version.
“Pleasant dreams, Cap? Hell of a bedtime read,” someone snickers, across the round map table from her. “Captains sleep through many briefings back on the Etain?”
“Shut it, Illaun,” she says without any real rancor; ey’re okay, as sergeants go. “Listen up, people.”
The speaker grille above the map table is bleating something about a Condition Yellow: “…carrier to respond to distress call from allied forces in the Veil Scatter. Standby Pilots muster for detailed briefing. Standby Armours to be prepared for departure within the hour. Be advised that we will be making an abrupt vector change within the next ten minutes. Ten minutes. Non-flight crew, secure loose items in preparation for maneuvers. Update repeats…”
She groans. The Morrigan is the oldest of the Lorne Company’s carriers, a merchant bulk freighter in a previous life, now up-armored and up-engined but still basically a flying cinderblock, and its maneuvers are not gentle. Skye hates it. But after the debacle at Finnbar, there’d been the triumph at Cahir, and by then the brass were starting to call the engagement a war when they thought nobody was listening. Her star beginning to glow, she’d wrangled a promotion, and then found the sleek modern Etain was mysteriously full up on captains.
So it’s the Morrigan for Skye now, with its last-generation everything.
The briefing finally downloads to the map table. Skye scrolls through it, and one word jumps out at her: “Cerigo”.
“Cerigo?” a Pilot asks.
She must have said it out loud. “Looks like. Eight months ago, as far back as Finnbar, they were on the other side, and even after they came over to the same people we’re working for, they’ve been steering clear of us. Things must be interesting down there, if a Cerigo flight is calling the Company for reinforcements…”
Things are indeed interesting in the Veil. Long-range optics on the dropships show swirls of cloud over the destination isolet, pierced by columns of smoke and periodically lit from beneath by actinic weapon flashes. A firefight has been going on for some time.
Skye, at the point of Duir Flight’s transit formation, extends her Armour’s extrahuman senses in the direction from which the distress call originated. She tastes radio static as the Pilot interface tries to make sense of transmissions and emissions mangled by distance and battle, feels crawling lines of icy cold, smells metal and ozone. “No IFF beacons,” she murmurs, still half-submerged in the interface.
Then, loud enough for her comms mic to pick up, she repeats, “No IFF beacons. Ten correlated emissions point sources, or maybe nine and something big, expecting no more than five friendlies. Go in careful, go in with your beacons on, understand? Someone takes a shot at you, don’t let your reflex systems shoot back, don’t you shoot back, not until you can see clear what you’re shooting at. No engagement from beyond visual range, repeat, no engagement from beyond visual range: we’re not here to do the enemy’s job for them.”
Three variations on the theme of “Copy” echo back from the flight.
“Right. So here’s how we’re going to play this…”
Skye drops through the clouds, scanning every direction for cover. She finds it behind the collapsed ruin of a railway freight loading station. Around her, the other elements of Duir Flight are doing the same, transponders squawking Lorne Company codes in an easily scattered spectrum, saying: we’re here. But hopefully without enough precision to say exactly where here is.
They move in a loose wedge, guided by inertial nav and ranging data passed over flickering opportunistic LoS laser links between Duir Armours. Skye expects contact with either enemy — well, with the enemy or Cerigo, she mentally corrects herself — very soon.
Contact comes in the form of a very short-range comm signal: “Yes, yes, you’re finally here,” a human voice hisses, “now turn that noise off!”
Another Armour shoves Skye’s up against the shadow of a bulk tanker car. Its side already split by some previous impact, the car begins to dribble a stream of some black liquid onto the muddy ground.
“The enemy,” she continues, “has remarkably effective radiation-homing missiles, and an abundance of them. Stay shadowed! Don’t… don’t radiate!”
Skye ducks under the Armour’s arm, noticing paneling in geometric shapes of black and white. Cerigo colors. She’s already sensed the incoming barrage. With an upward flick of her eyes, she screens the sky with shrapnel from her shoulder launchers, then pirouettes back against the metal bulk of the tanker car as harmless fragments rain down into the mud.
“Those?” Skye asks.
“Right. I’ll keep an eye out. Who are you? Who’s in charge here?”
“I am Lieutenant Portia Calcaria Victrix, of the Seventeenth Detachment, commanded by my Lady and Captain Caecilia Almiranda Satur, and I’d like the command structure to stay that way, so please come with me and bring your friends. You do have friends? Tell me you have friends.”
“Welllll, I’ve never been the most popular girl in school, but got enough.”
Skye gestures behind Victrix at the rest of Duir Flight, converging on Skye’s position.
“Friends. Three Class IIIs like mine. With your five—”
“Oh. Lovely. We stopped counting hostiles around thirty, so I don’t fancy our chances at much better than they were, but it’s nice that you came all this way to say hello.”
“Thirty!? We scanned no more than eleven big emitters on the entire isola on approach!”
“We’re down from five to three Armours ourselves, and only one with any functional flight capability. If you’d gotten here half an hour ago, you’d have been just in time to watch Messiena eject from the Ursa Strix, right after it took an eso-charged missile strike that slowly turned everything within a hundred meters to needles.”
“Shit. I’m sorry,” Skye says automatically. It’s reflex; she never knew Messiena. Inside her head, she’s calculating how much less they’re getting paid given that the Ursa Strix and its luckless pilot aren’t leaving the Veil Scatter.
“She made it out, Lorne. Just made it out. Riding second seat on the Lupa Vinctia for now. Wish I could say the same for poor Avida and the Vivid Serpent.”
She hisses through her teeth, briefly mourning fallen comrades and wrecked Armours, the losses of any soldier’s trade.
“Now, as for the other signals, I guarantee any single long-range scan was an undercount of the problem,” Victrix continues.
“How’s that?” Skye asks.
“When we shoot them, they do not stay down,” a new voice explains. “It is quite frustrating.”
Her Cerigo accent is quite a bit stronger than Lt. Victrix’s.
to be continued…