Chapter 21: Sunilight1
In the afternoon of the forth day, Karri's voice sounded over the com just after Tammis nailed me in the back and Karin in the leg on the ricochet, "Sunlight1 on visual. Everyone might want to find a forward viewing port. This is beautiful."
Tammis was reluctant because he was winning, but the game was called off for us to head up front. Karri wasn't lying, this was magnificent even from the 'rear'. This is by far the largest orbital structure over Earth or Algol. According to Karri the structure was a disk 22km in diameter with a cylinder in the center. This cylinder was 3.5km wide and 13km long. Spreading out like a spider's web was the disk. It was made up of mirrors designed to reflect sunlight onto a darkened area of the polar ice cap. Within the halo of mirrors, the cylinder slowly rotates. Docked at the tend of the cylinder is the first other space ship I have seen so far.
Unlike the Rimfire with its dual circus design, this ship seemed to be just an engine with an afterthought of a ship attached to it. The Rimfire slowly approached and docked with the central hub. As the docking clamps took hold, Karri called for disembarkation procedures. Dass was there to meet us at the airlock, and sent the rest of the Rimfire crew back to the ship. Haj started to complain, but Mox grabbed him by the arm and led him off down the hall.
Just as the last member of Fireflight arrived (I couldn't tell who), it cycled and opened. Waiting for us on the other side is a strikingly beautiful red-haired woman. When she saw Tharis, a minute bit of surprise was shown in her face. Dass introduced her as Commander Emilia Darka. Darka led us down several maze-like corridors. After two or three turns, I was totally lost unable to even decide if we had descended towards the center or not. After about fifteen minutes, she opened a door, and ushered us in. The chamber itself is spherical, with the center of the floor a good thirty feet below the entry area. The entire room was ringed with reclined seats, each row lower than the one before. The ceiling seemed to be some sort of viewing port, as we could see he stars shine in deep space. Darka motioned for us to take a seat, as she walked down to a pedestal in the center of the room.
After everyone took their seats, she activated controls on the pedestal, and it raised up as she began to speak, "Dr.Tal has had us checking in sector 182.56. Until a few days ago we had nothing. No clue, nothing. Then at 22:34 another signal was beamed to the section we were looking for." A white circle appeared in the night sky. "It is here." The circle expanded, as if in a zoom lens. I saw a planet with a dark spot on its surface. The spot is circled, and the words Asteroid Karmuria appeared under it. "The second signal was beamed directly at it. We can only assume that first signal was as well. Our sensors are picking up higher than average radiation from it. The planet you see is Aries. Now the bad news."
The planet vanished, and is replaced by a starfield. "The second signal was a coded numerical message. Very human in origin. We have been keeping our eyes on the deeper system, so we are certain that the transmission was not sent to a human agent."
The lights came back up, and the platform holding Darka lowered. She continued, "Currently there are two targets we must contend with: the Asteroid and the 'source' of the second transmission. It would take Rimfire over a year to reach Aries. The ship docked now, The Tarsus, is going to the Asteroid. You all, and the Rimfire, are going to stay in-system. When we get a fix on the location of the human transmitter, it will be your job to destroy it."
She then showed us back to the Rimfire, avoiding Tharis like the plague. Later that night, a knock came to my door. Opening it, I found Arisa, eyes rimmed in tears. She threw herself into my arms, sobbing. She explained that her family has been disintegrating while she was away. Her mother has fallen ill, and her father is still off looking for her brother. I held her and repeated that it wasn't her fault and that she knew she was doing the right thing. Strange thing for me to say, I would kill just to have a real family to worry about. Sure, Fireflight and Rapid Fire were excellent substitutes and Rapid Fire did have a sister through marriage, it was lacking when compared with memories with my real family.
On one hand, I wanted her to return home, to make every moment with her loved ones last. But doing so might make her feel worse. If her mother has a fatal disease, I know the UAA would give her time off, I'd see to it personally. She would be of no help in the search for her brother and the pain from futile searching and watching her mother suffer could be more than she could handle. Arisa was convinced by my words not to leave, but she still needed close companionship, someone to comfort her, a job I found myself ready to fulfill. We leaned back on the couch holding each other and talking. She has long since crying and we enjoyed each other's company well into the night.
The klaxon of the alarm woke us up. We have not moved from the couch and had dozed off. The wake up call caused Arisa to jump from my lap, knocking over a table in the process. She smoothed out her wrinkled uniform as Dass shouted over the intercom, "All pilots to the circus, Sunlight1 is under attack!"
Arisa helped my throw on my combat armor. Just before we headed out the door to our assigned stations, she turned to me and said, "Nate, be careful out there. I don't want to loose you."
Touched, I told her not to worry and squeezed her hand gently. As usual, Larani was first out the launch tube. What she saw surprised her. "They're Kargan Shaitans! Ten of them!" she reported over the radio.
Those from Kargan were equally surprised and hurried to launch to see for themselves. By the time I was ready to launch, everyone else had already entered the fight. The Shaitans were like armored knights of old, nothing to distinguish them much. About half carried large objects which Larani identified as magnetic mines. They were flying in perfect formation, but when I hit the thrusters to scatter them, the Shaitans broke formation. Their plan was obvious, half would distract us and the rest would plant the bombs on Rimfire. With the help of the Scarab's computer, I lined up the five carrying the mines with the particle rifles (on pulse mode), tail cannon, and the nacelle mounted beam cannon. But the strain of tracking all those targets ruined my aim. When I fired, only the rifles hit. The pulses broke the mine casing and caused a premature detonation which, naturally, destroyed their mektons.
"Think you can handle the other three, Fox?" Cedric asked.
"With my eyes closed!" I replied firing at another mekton.
I missed and Cedric quipped, "Maybe you should try it with your eyes open. We got them out numbered here. I'll send Tammis to help you."
The remaining mine layers decided that the only way to beat me so they could finish their mission was to team up then concentrate firepower. Tammis was trying to break a stalemate between himself and another Shaitan leaving me alone. Well not quite alone. I activated the drone cannons and, while keeping them in their ports, rotated their lasers outward for some side defence. One got too close so I let him have it with the drones. This time the pilot kept the mine out of view, but he lost an arm mounted weapon and got a few holes in his arm armor in the process. I found out it was a distraction when the second grabbed my tail. Apparently this pilot didn't know this tail was stronger than standard issue. I made a sharp turn, whipping my tale. The momentum proved too much for his metal grip and he collided with the first mekton, mine first.
The explosion killed them both. Turning my attention to the last real threat, I found that he had wisely split to do his mission. He was too close to the Rimfire for comfort. A miss could blow a good sized hole in Rimfire's hull and make one angry captain. Suddenly out from the side, Tammis's Sentinel rammed the Shaitan from the side with his shield. The blow shoved it well out of the way for Rimfire. I charged at full speed, holding my fire lest Tammis might also get hit. The Shaitan tore itself free. It was a mess. The left arm was completely useless and there was a hole in the chest where the main gun was. The right hand glowed from the flare of a plasma sword. But he never got the chance to use it because Tammis sent a shot from his particle rifle straight into the exposed inner-workings of its torso.
I gave him my congratulations as we flew to help the others. With superiority with mektons and numbers, by the time we arrived four were rendered nonfunctional. The Sentinels had taken little damage themselves and were closing in on the remaining mekton. Faced with a hopeless situation, the Shaitan self-destructed in a fireball which only lightly scorched Aleoi and Cedric. With the battle over we returned to the Rimfire as salvage crews headed out to survey the wreckage for survivors. Jenmel said the damage wasn't too serious and should be able to make repairs with the parts salvaged. The Scarab performed flawlessly and I was telling everyone about it. I was invincible, encased in a shell of alien technology with enough firepower to take care of any target.
But in the back of my mind, I knew it wouldn't last. This was a potent mekton and there are others who would kill to own it. Since it will only fly for me, I could be a target by Axis, anxious to get their toy back. Larani noted that they didn't act like Kargan mektons. The tactics were wrong and the piloting techniques were off. Karin noticed that also and posed the obvious question as to why Karga would attack us. Larani's comment about her father surfaced in my thoughts. This would support any conspiracy theories but there was something else, something wrong and everyone seemed to agree.
The salvage report was recited over the intercom. There was indeed a survivor who was being rushed to the infirmary. We caught a look at her just before the doors closed. The pilot was a young girl, about seventeen, wearing a Kargan uniform. All of us decided to hang around for a while and see what happens. We wasted the next few hours waiting, the monotony broken by occasional trips to the circus to check up on repairs and to the lounge on a grub run. Then Emilia poked her head out and asked Laian to look at the girl. Larani turned towards me and signaled with her eyes, that she wanted me to follow Laian inside. I checked to make sure a blank tape was in my recorder and activated it as I entered the infirmary. We were shown into a sparse white room. In a bed, hooked up to a life support machine, is the young woman.
She is badly burnt, but breathing steadily. Normally, this could be taken care of with some vat grown skin, so I didn't pay attention to the injuries. But I learned that there was something worse. The woman's eyes were open, but responded to nothing. She seemed not to notice us at all. "I'm going to try telepathy on her." Laian said pulling up a chair and sitting down.
Deciding that it was a good idea, I attempted to do the same. However I got a blank slate, no emotions or anything as Laian chanted in a neutral tone what she saw. "I am sitting at a make-up table, combing my hair. The face in the mirror is not my own. It is the woman's. I am going through the routine of applying cosmetics and jewelry. Now the door chime rings. The room's decorations tell me the girl is Elaran. I flounce to the door, and open it, expecting my date. But there is a large man at the door, unfamiliar. One side of his face is horribly scarred. I try to scream, but it's trapped in my throat. Everything is fading to black. I am now sitting in the cockpit of a mekton, looking at the uniform I wear in confusion. I look up and see a Sentinel firing at me. Suddenly there is fire and pain. Now everything is fading again."
Laian shook herself out of the trance. With tears in her eyes she said there was nothing else in the woman's mind. It was completely blank, like an erased tape. Emilia explained the brain scanner confirmed Laian in that the victim was now at the level of a newborn infant. Emilia asked Laian if she should let the woman live or die. Jabess did not want to offer anything to this because he was a field surgeon. But I could. Seeing that poor person there brought back horrible memories.
Memories of my sister in a coma from a traffic accident when I was ten. She was in there for almost a year. But when she awoke, she had changed. My sister ranted about unending pain and demanded to know why we didn't let her die. Whatever happened to her, it was clear that it had driven her insane. Before we could stop her, she leaped out the window and fell fifteen stories to her death. The doctors claimed that they had no idea that she was in pain. But I didn't believe them. They only wanted our money, bills from an extended hospital stay.
While Laian played God, I took action to end this suffering. Emilia tried to stop me as I drew my pistol from its holster in my combat armor. "Look at her! She's dead, her body doesn't know that yet. Have you know idea what pain she could be in? Where is your sense of mercy?"
I could have easily flung Darka aside and do what I felt was right, but there was some part of me that created doubt. It was that thing that prevented me from pulling the trigger, more than Darka's physical restraints, more than Laian's pleas. Maybe it was how often and how easily I have killed while somehow feeling it was too much, that I did not need more bloodshed in my life. I looked deep into the woman's eyes, searching for some signal, a way to know which is the right decision but finding none. Barely aware of Laian's argument for keeping her alive, I returned my pistol to its place and hoped things would turn out better for her than for my sister.
Fortunately no one made a big deal over my outburst, thinking it was merely the product of my violent past. But I couldn't bear to tell anyone the real reason except for Arisa. She sat there listening without judgement until I had finished. "Why didn't you kill her? They couldn't have stopped you."
"I don't have a damn clue. It might have been street honor: never kill a helpless enemy. Or because I was worried what doing so would have made me."
"I think the similarities between this mystery woman and your sister have more to do with this than you thought. Maybe deep down, you know circumstances are different enough to hope she won't share you sister's fate."
"All I know is that when, or if, she gets better, I'll be responsible for her actions. Thank you for your time. See you tomorrow." I left feeling more confused about my motives, but more confident that I had done the right thing in letting her live. The sleep inducer was intentionally left unused in hopes of the dreams night brought and the chance of an answer could be found.
Along the series of dreams where Algol and Night City collided I saw her. She was fully healed and chanted her thanks. Her image ended when a mekton-sized claw shattered it and grabbed me. The arm raised me high above some ruined city. This mekton was as big as a skyscraper and reeked of evil. The head of the mekton morphed into that of a hideously scarred human male.
"You were meant to serve me!" he boomed, "Now you will perish!"
He slowly curled his hand into a fist, enjoying my panic as the metal digits closed around me. I thrashed about in a panic and fell right out of bed. My room was in terrible shape. Everything was scattered about in such a manner that would be the envy of any tornado or hurricane. Even some of the edges to the metal plates which made up the inner walls had buckled. Relief of waking turned to a moment of inspiration.
If I was doing this in my sleep, how hard can it be to do it while I'm awake? Actually, it was very hard. When fighting for survival, the mind can do things it couldn't normally do. The same was be true here. I sweated bullets, but eventually I was able to bend the plates back to normal and return some order to my belongings. There was no permanent damage which made me wonder the true nature of this peculiarity.