The Sword of Jupiter
Imperium, Book I
Table of Contents
The Sword of Jupiter
Other Books By Travis Starnes
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
The Sword of Jupiter
Imperium, Book I
Copyright © 2021 by Travis Starnes
All Rights Reserved
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“It is time, Commander.”
The voice echoed in Ky’s mind, pulling him out of the void of sleep in a rush. His eyes opened as rows of lights sprang to life, one after another, across the bay. Each new section of light dispelled a patch of the inky blackness that made up the sleep cycle, revealing row after row of beds.
Pulling himself up, Ky swung his legs over the side of his bunk and slid his feet into slippers. Looking to either side, Ky could see the rest of his batch working through the same process in ragged succession.
Ky stood and walked between the rows towards the lavatory to complete his daily routine, mentally preparing himself for the mission ahead. As he passed each bunk, the occupant would busy themselves or simply glance away, refusing to make eye contact.
Their detachment was not a sign that Ky was particularly disliked. He'd spent his entire life with this same group of people, training for the tasks they’d been bred for. Humanity had changed much in the last several millennia, but the values of friendship and camaraderie still held strong.
On any other day, he would stop by this or that bunk to have a brief word or tell a story, or someone would stop by his bunk for the same.
However, this morning was not any other day.
Ky had been selected almost a year ago to pilot the second prototype faster-than-light ship. The selection was not an honor or a coveted spot among the candidates though. The first test had ended in disaster as the ship consumed itself in a massive fireball while attempting to open a wormhole that would take it across the void of space to Alpha Centauri.
Ky had not been picked because he was the best or the brightest of his batch. He had been picked because he was adequate. Knowing the probable outcome of the test, command - in their infinite wisdom - did not want to waste their best pilots on a mission that had been given a twenty percent chance of survival. The type of pilot needed for this stage had been described to command by the lead scientists was ‘acceptable but not irreplaceable.’
That did not mean that Ky was sub-standard. Being average among the Empire’s most elite genetic batch still put Ky close to the pinnacle of what humanity had achieved.
Comparisons are rarely objective, especially by the person making them. Ky knew his place among his peer group and had accepted it a long time ago. As humans continued to increase their life spans the ability to accept things as they were and exhibit patience for what was to come had followed. Ky had known his rating among his peers for eighty years, and he would have to live with that same knowledge for almost a hundred more. Assuming he survived today’s mission.
The lavatory remained empty the entire time Ky was inside. The rows of shower stalls he had once shared with his batchmates were silent except for his. Ky did not blame them for keeping their distance. He had done the same when Jax had been selected. Ky had not kept his distance because he thought less of Jax, but more out of fear. Fear of becoming closer and then losing a friend. Fear of a taint that might bring the next test to him. Ky guessed his friends had similar reasons now.
‘Well,’ Ky thought as the shower in the stall next to him sprang to life, ‘all of my friends save one.’
Turning, Ky saw Sara stepping into the shower stall. She turned and leaned back, letting the water roll off her toned body and smoothing her hair into a flat sheet against her back. Wiping the water off her face, she leaned against the short wall that separated them and smiled at him. Almond eyes crinkling as she looked at him, her golden skin glistening with beaded water.
He considered her for a moment. Physically they looked much the same. Centuries of intermingling among Earth’s cultures had virtually eliminated those features humanity once used to separate itself. Skin now came in somewhat lighter and somewhat darker shades of bronze. Eyes now had a near-uniform almond shape with a thin double-fold eyelid and hair came in various colors of black and dark brown.
There were occasional instances of a gene from the far past resurfacing, passing the person oval eyes, or blond hair, or dark skin. But it was rare, and these people were often seen as being lucky. Blessed by a quirk of genetics to stand out from their fellows.
The rest of humanity had melded into a more homogeneous whole.
“Nervous?” she said, her voice a gentle contralto.
Ky just looked at her with an attempted air of indifference, not wanting his weakness to show through. Sara’s brow wrinkled and her mouth became a tight smile as she saw through his forced nonchalance. He had never been able to hide his feelings from Sara.
“Don’t blame them Ky. They want to be here with you, wishing you well. They’re just afraid.”
“I know. I did the same with Jax. It doesn’t make it hurt less though.”
“You aren’t alone,” she said, reaching out and putting a hand on his shoulder.
Ky patted the hand, gave her a wan smile, and returned to his shower. They finished at roughly the same time, toweling off and heading to the lockers. She left Ky to his thoughts, just being present to support him and available should he need a friend.
As he dressed, Ky let his thoughts drift to the test and what he would do afterward if he survived. While he pondered what lay ahead, Ky pulled out the gold flight suit. The hexagonal pattern across its surface contained the impact shielding, power collection, and various sensors needed for flying modern spacecraft.
“Flight suit protocols initiated,” the AI said as the final wrist connectors snapped shut, activating the suit. Ky watched the confirmation data scroll across his vision as his AI completed the steps to gain full control of the suit’s systems.
Across from him, Sara had finished pulling on the soft, white jumpsuit that was his batch’s off-mission uniform. The soft fabric was made for comfort, missing the connections for life support and safety features.
“I have my pre-flight med-check,” Ky said to Sara as he stood.
“Meet me at observation before you launch?” she replied, pulling on a boot.
He nodded, heading out of the lavatory towards the station’s medical facilities. He could not avoid the pang of sadness he felt as he saw his batchmates headed to finish their morning routine now that he was clear of the area.
Ky shook off the momentary depression. He stepped through the hatch, turning down the gleaming white hallway towards the station’s medical section.
The medical bay was one of the larger sections of the space station, barely smaller than the hangar itself. Designed to handle a hundred patients at once and capable of full-scale surgeries, the bay had been originally designed during the last separatist war a hundred and fifty years before and was one of the legacies that carried over from a more martial mindset of the past. The more recently constructed stations, such as the one currently orbiting Io servicing the various mining outcroppings across Jupiter’s moons, had much smaller and more reasonably sized med-bays.
Ky found it unlikely any current station needed the ability to handle a dozen simultaneous surgeries. Living in space was still more dangerous than planet-side habitation. Accidents happened, but there were rarely more than a handful of patients at any given time. The Bureau of Personnel never stationed enough staff to run the medical section at full capacity anymore.
A med-tech checked Ky’s orders, which was probably unnecessary considering the amount of gossip traveling across the station about today’s launch. He assigned him to one of the small diagnostic rooms lining one wall of the bay.
As with his batchmates, the med-tech did not speak to Ky and avoided eye contact as he placed two small, circular devices on either side of Ky’s head. The tech then tapped something into the control panel near the wall, causing the devices to emit a single low tone.
“Diagnostics mode accepted,” the AI intoned after a moment.
The sound of the AI was not so much in his mind, as echoing inside his skull, an effect of the implants in his skull. The acoustics would reverberate, limiting the sound to the implantee. He was not sure how the implants worked, but it sounded different than both how he heard his own thinking and how he heard things from the world around him.
The data that continually hovered in the periphery of Ky’s vision disappeared as the screen on one wall of the small room lit up with a wide array of information and diagrams. Checking to make sure the connection was secure and looking over the screen once more the tech left the room, leaving Ky to his own thoughts.
Ky waited for several minutes, looking at a map of his body made up of pinpoint dots, each representing one of the nanobots that littered his system when the door opened again, and an older man walked in.
“Commander,” he said by way of greeting.
Ky did not reply, waiting while the doctor punched some controls and watched as the data display switched, scrolling information that Ky didn’t really understand.
“How’ve you been feeling?” he asked without looking Ky’s direction.
“I’m fine, Sir.”
“Good. Everything looks to be right in the zone, although I guess if it wasn’t, we’d probably have figured that out by this point, eh?”
Ky just nodded.
“How’s the stress?”
“I know it’s tough for you guys,” he said, turning to face Ky, a look of compassion on his face, “Especially in these early runs. Trust me, everything you’re feeling is normal. Lt. Commander Jax had a similar expression right before his flight.”
Ky let out a snort.
“Well, yes. But I think we can both agree that what happened with his test flight was almost certainly not caused by something he did. The panel cleared human error as the fault of that … event.”
“That does not fill me with confidence, Doctor.”
“I imagine not. Just do your duty, Commander. That’s all you can do.”
“Ky,” he said, looking at the data on the screen again, his voice returning to its professional demeanor, “when you get back, we are going to have to reset your AI. It’s already a month and a half beyond its operating window and the logs show it made two independent decisions on your last prep-flight.”
“They were the right decisions,” Ky said, somewhat defensively.
“I’m sure. The Mark Fourteens are the most advanced Tactical Interface and Guidance systems to come out of Research Command. Operating outside of the host’s decision cycle, however, is one of the early indicators of progression towards sentience. I know they briefed you folk on the dangers of AI integration when you were first implanted, but trust me when I say, you do not want to know what happened to the early users whose AIs went sentient. I’ve seen the archival recordings, and it was … terrifying.”
“The waiting is almost the worst part. I sort of wish you could just reset it now?”
“Can’t. It’s already loaded and calibrated with the ship’s systems. Wiping it would force the techs to start over on this test run from scratch. It’s why we’ve let it run over its operating parameters already. Although I told them if they had one more overrun, I was going to say to hell with it and force them to start over. I may not be able to control what happens once you’re in that cockpit, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let them take unnecessary risks with my pilots.”
Ky smiled. He’d always liked Captain Pei. He’d transferred to Earth Station five years previously and had the respect of every pilot and trooper assigned to the station. Not just because he was likable as a person, which he was, but because every man and woman aboard knew the weathered doctor looked out for them.
“It’s moot now I guess since it seems like the test is happening today, no matter what. I want you back here as soon as you finish your debrief. Once this phase is done, you’ll go back in the pilot queue, and we’ll have the time to reset your AI and do rehab.”
Ky frowned at the thought. Every pilot aboard had to have one of the advanced AIs installed to be fighter qualified. Fighter combat in space, or even just basic fighter operations, required reflexes that outstripped even those of pilots who’d received full nano-enhancement. An AI was required to handle the mass of calculations that were needed in an instant, and pilots trained for almost a decade to be able to integrate with one of the AIs. To people whose life spans had reached almost two-hundred years, a decade was not a lot, but it was still a grueling process.
Even after a pilot had finally worked up to be AI rated, they would have to have them wiped every twelve months, to prevent the exact thing for which the Doctor was hinting. While the wiping and installing a fresh AI only took a few hours, the pilot would then have to go through almost two months of retraining to adapt to the AI. Every pilot dreaded the cycle.
Living with another personality, even one as hobbled as a freshly installed AI, was trying on the human psyche. Just as a pilot got accustomed to the one in their head, the AI had to be reset, and they got a new one. While, theoretically, the AIs were identical pieces of software and should have been uniform, at least when they were first installed, Ky had never found that true. Each one had their own near-personalities and foibles that had to be adjusted to.
The first few hours after the AI was reset, the pilot became almost an infant again. The physical actions needed just to walk were difficult as the new AI came online and learned the host’s movements.
The pilot had gotten used to the automatic reactions of the previous AI’s predictive directions, moving through indicated guide paths before conscious thought could be applied. When the pilot was locked into the AI, they could move before their brain actually registered the need to move. Coupled with the nanobots that increased their strength and reflexes, which were also integrated to the AI, the pilot could actually dodge fast-moving debris, although not so fast enough to dodge energy discharges or propellant driven projectiles.
Before the pilot was locked in, just getting a spoon into their mouths without smashing it into their face was difficult. For the non-augmented technicians and troopers who manned the station, watching newly recycled pilots as they tried to do the simplest task was a prime form of entertainment. Although considering the pecking order of the station, they usually refrained from making comments to the struggling pilots. The pilots, who shared the enjoyment of watching others being recycled, generally chose to ignore the smiles and stares while they fought with the computer in their head. It was a truce that had existed for as long as Ky’s batch had passed the indoctrination and training cycles.
“Well,” the doctor said, pulling the two small devices off Ky’s head, “You are cleared. I’ll send a note to Admiral Al-Wahi that the test can proceed.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Ky said, hopping off the hard seat and reaching for the door to the small diagnostics cubicle.
“Ky,” the doctor said.
Ky paused partway through the door, turning to look back, “Yes, Doctor?”
“Good luck, Son. I expect to see you back here this evening.”
“I’ll try my best, Doctor.”
Ky turned and left the kindly physician and surreptitiously staring med-tech behind. He headed for observation.
Sara was there ahead of him, waiting in front of the long wall of windows, her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the launch bay and beyond to the blue globe spinning far below them. Ky stepped next to her, unconsciously assuming the same stance.
Outside the window sat a strange ship, different from those flying patrols outside circling the station or docked in the hanger bay. The front was a similar pointed, sleek frame topped by a bubble canopy with wings sweeping back into the larger and wider engine housing in a near trapezoidal shape, if you did not include the protruding cockpit.
What made this ship look so different were the missing weapon mounts on the wings, and the large, hollow circle, like a thin doughnut. It engulfed the back of the ship’s engine and was connected to the body of the test platform with wide, metal brackets.
“How’d it go?” she asked, not looking away from the preparations happening outside the window.
“Fine. He says I need a reset after the trial run.”
“Ugh,” she groaned, “I hate resets. I swear, last time I was close to telling them to just pull the implant entirely.”
“Ha. You wouldn’t give up piloting.”
“Maybe not, but it still sucks.”
“Sure. Although let’s be honest, I probably won’t have to worry about that.”
“Ky,” she said warningly.
“I’m not being pessimistic Sara. You know the odds. I’m not panicking. I’m not scared … well, not terrified at least. This is what we’ve trained for. Everyone knows how important FTL flight is and I’m ready to do my part.”
She did not say anything, but also did not look back out the window.
“You know I’ll never be as good as you or Dek,” he said, watching the work party crawl over the small craft floating outside. “I won’t be chosen for the anti-piracy squadrons or any interdiction missions if those happen. Hell, I won’t even get to do any of the exhibitions. After the Io revolt, I don’t think we’ll have a chance to see any more real action anyways, at least not in our lifetime. So, this is really my only chance to do something, you know?”
“Still,” she said, “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.”
He noted she had not disagreed with his assessment, which was not surprising. Sara had never been one to gloss over the truth.
“Okay,” he said, giving in.
They stood there for twenty minutes, chatting about unimportant things, Sara purposefully not bringing the conversation back to his test flight. They talked about their early days of training, about funny things that had happened to them or one of their friends, and just reminisced about the decades they had served together.
An indicator flashed across Ky’s vision as the AI signaled that it was nearing time for the test to begin. Sara must have set her AI to give a similar signal since her expression changed at almost the same instant.
“I have to go.”
He started to walk away from her, towards the lift that would take him to the hanger, and stopped, turning back to his friend, who had returned to looking out the windows.
“You know I had hoped once we both decommissioned, they’d pair us.”
“That would have been nice,” she said, smiling at him.
Of course, they both knew that was unlikely. Personnel carefully matched genetic partners when assigning breeding pairs and Ky was not on Sara’s level. There were a dozen others from their batch that would have been paired with her before Ky. She probably had not even considered who she would be paired with before he brought it up. That was not something people thought much about, let alone discussed. The rare times when someone did, they were singled out as being a possible problem. The expected thing to do was to just wait until you were retired from active duty and then see who you were placed with.
Ky knew saying that would have been considered strange at best and could possibly even mean being removed from active duty pending a full medical and psych exam if someone knew he had thought about it. Considering the likely outcome of the test flight, he’d decided it wouldn’t matter in a few hours. Besides, if he did somehow make it through the test, Sara was unlikely to say anything to anyone.
Ky ventured one last glance at his friend, who had returned to looking out the window. He turned and headed towards his ship.
Ky was shuttled out to the small test ship in a special craft designed to deliver pilots into fighters outside of carriers or stations. The large bridge drive on the back of the test ship made it impossible to dock at the station normally, at least not without a major redesign of the docking bay. They had held the design of the cockpit as close to the existing ships as possible to make the external docking process a workable option.
The transfer was something they had trained for and it was handled with no problems. Once the AI had connected with the on-board systems, he powered up the smaller in-system engines and pointed the craft to a point roughly halfway between the asteroid belt and Jupiter. They were still near to the point where the belt and Jupiter were closest to each other, putting the halfway point just over four hundred and twenty million kilometers away. The fastest ships in the fleet could have made that journey in just over fifty minutes traveling at close to three quarters the speed of light, but Ky’s test ship did not have those speeds and would have needed twice as much time to reach the test area.
Sadly, even that speed was not possible considering Ky had to travel with a small fleet of support ships. They would keep their distance once the test began, sitting almost five million kilometers away from Ky in case there was another mishap. Even with such a large expanse of open space between them, they were still a lot closer than anything from Earth station if something went wrong. Still, that fleet included a large repair ship that was capable of just forty percent the speed of light, making the journey last more than two hours.
Ky spent the time having his AI go over all the ship’s systems again and running the various simulations with him over and over, trying to account for as many variables as possible.
The science was so far beyond him that he did not understand even the beginnings of the theory behind how the engine worked. The basics had been explained to him. What was expected to happen first was the Antonov Field Generator, named after the man who pioneered the science behind it, would create an energy field of some type that would then open up a wormhole, which would then connect to another point of space. The person who gave the briefing had tried to explain that it wasn’t an actual wormhole since the bridge connected two points around space-time rather than across it, but that seemed to Ky like a distinction without a practical difference.
Once the bridge between the two points in space opened up, his ship should cross through the opening created on his end and then instantaneously exit at the other point, ending up light-years away in the blink of an eye. They had tested smaller versions of the bridge and been able to send small items across small distances. They had also been able to open a bridge to the desired point in Alpha Centauri, sending unmanned probes through the bridge.
The point of throwing humans, and larger sized objects, across the bridge was where they run into problems. Any probe they sent through would take almost a hundred years to send a signal back to them, a time frame the powers-that-be had decided was too long to wait. They also couldn’t get the probes to come back through the bridge.
Every test had shown that the technique they had found to open a bridge was uni-directional, meaning any ship they sent through would have to be able to generate another bridge to return. The systems needed for operating a bridge generator were beyond the abilities of automatic controls and they had never successfully gotten an AI to function independently of a human host, making an AI-driven ship out of the question.
These circumstances left a ship piloted by a human with a paired AI the only possibility to return a ship. In their last test, Ky had successfully created a wormhole that, as far as they could tell, led to Alpha Centauri. The next step, which they were doing today, was to generate the bridge again and then travel through that bridge.
Jax had gotten to this point on the original test run, although he had detected large energy spikes both times he had opened up the bridge, which the R&D team believed led his ship to explode when it attempted to cross through the bridge. They seemed confident that they had worked out what had caused the energy fluctuations and Ky had detected none of the same anomalies that Jax had reported on his test opening, which was a good sign.
Finally, Ky reached the assigned coordinates, having broken off from the support fleet, traveling the last five million kilometers by himself.
“Control,” Ky said, keying his ship to communicate with the command and control ship in the support fleet, “I am at the coordinates.”
“Acknowledge. Shut down drives. Put all non-critical systems on standby.”
Ky had waited until getting the order but already had the commands keyed up in for his AI, waiting on the word to go ahead.
“Confirmed. Systems in standby.”
“Acknowledged. Activate the field generator.”
Again, Ky followed the prescribed steps they had followed for the first test. As the AI followed his commands, the ship seemed to hum as the large circular generator came to life, drawing immense amounts of power from the ship’s fusion drive.
Ky watched the numbers on the readouts in front of his eyes climb upwards as the energy output from the field generator began increasing exponentially.
“Generator at full capacity,” Ky said once the drive had reached the necessary levels.
Command’s systems were slaved into Ky’s ship and they could see everything he was seeing. Humans had long ago learned that it was a bad idea to try remote piloting over millions of kilometers. They had come a long way in technology to adjust for things like time dilation and signal degradation, but the small errors that crept in during even milliseconds of delay as the signals were received were enough to cause serious problems. This forced command to rely on a pilot to execute their commands, only able to watch things in as real-time as possible.
“Acknowledged. We are reading the same thing here. Proceed to stage Alpha.”
Ky keyed in new commands and the ship began to physically vibrate. For a moment, it seemed like nothing was happening outside his craft, and then it was as if the fabric of reality ripped open. It was a difficult thing to describe. One moment he was looking at the stars in front of him, and then what he could only think of as a ripple seemed to shimmer in front of him, followed by a new set of stars being seen. A pale blue glow could be seen in a circle roughly twice the size of the engine on the back of his ship, marking the edges of the bridge. When he looked at the bluish color, he could see it wasn’t really a color at all, but where the light of the stars from inside the circle and the different stars from outside the circle kind of clashed, constantly shifting around each other, reality seeming unsure of which view had primacy.
Ky watched the numbers scrolling across his vision, looking for the pattern he had been instructed to expect.
“Are we there?” Ky sub-vocalized to the computer in his head.
“Bridge at parity, Commander,” the AI responded.
“Command, we have a successful bridge,” Ky relayed.
“We are detecting none of the variance readings. Can you confirm?” control asked.
Ky looked at the readout again and said, “Confirmed command. Everything looks stable.”
“You are authorized to proceed.”
“Acknowledge command. Proceeding on maneuvering thrusters.”
There had been some discussion on how to actually enter the wormhole. Some had argued that the best way to go was to just punch through it at a decent rate of speed, allowing the ship to get through before the bridge collapsed, which in their tests happened fairly quickly.
Other voices argued that the bridge would hold long enough for a slower entry, and worried that the additional energies introduced by the ship’s engine could set off another cascade like on the first test entry.
The slow and careful faction had won out, which meant Ky would be creeping towards the wormhole on maneuvering thrusters only, which was more just bursts of compressed gasses designed to be as non-reactive as possible.
The ship slowly crawled towards the bridge until Ky was forced to stretch his neck to see the shifting edges.
Then something happened!
The view in front of him shimmered and then shifted. The pattern of stars that astronomers had assured him was what he would see if he was in the Alpha Centauri system disappeared, and in front of him sat the Earth, although without the large space station he was accustomed to seeing streaking along in high orbit.
“Are we getting readings on this?” Ky asked the AI.
“Confirmed, Commander. Target destination appears to have shifted from Alpha Centauri to Earth close orbit.”
“Reverse thrust. Let’s back off and let command analyze this,” Ky said, pulling back on the small control stick and pushing some buttons that would shift the direction of the craft.
There was a pause and then, “Reverse thrust ineffective, Commander. Forward Velocity to crossover has increased twenty-two point five percent.”
“Command,” Ky said over the comm.
“Ca… you read … neg… abort miss…” a chopped voice tried to reply.
Ky ignored their call for the moment, trying to do exactly what they were saying.
“Why are we accelerating?”
“A sudden gravitational pull, seventy-five point two three five times higher than that of Earth. Current gravitational forces greater than reaction engines can counter.”
“If we fired up the ship’s engines, could we pull out?”
“Negative, Commander. This vessel no longer has the thrust capability to counteract the gravitational pull.”
“Can we shut off the bridge generator?”
“Unknown, Commander, current pro…” the AI started to say and cut off suddenly.
The heads up display that had constantly shown in front of Ky’s eyes since the day he received his implant went dark. He didn’t lose motor control so he knew the AI was still there and functioning, it had just seemingly turned off all communication with him.
“Hello?” Ky said, mentally trying to activate various AI features to no effect. Switching on the manual comms and boosting all but life support to power it, he called back to command, “Command, this is Test Flight 32 alpha declaring an immediate emergency.”
“We … you Commander. You have …opped data syn…” a still choppy voice replied.
“AI has become unresponsive. We have encountered a massive gravitational force pulling us into the bridge. Ship integrity down to,” he paused to check a manual readout, “fifty-five percent and falling. Bridge target has changed. We can see what appears to be Earth, through the bridge.”
“Understood, Comm…” the voice started to say and cut off.
Ky checked his systems and found the disconnection wasn’t interference this time. The AI had shut off the audio link from their end along with all diagnostic feeds that had been sending telemetry back to Command. Surprisingly, the bandwidth of the connection was still running full out with everything switched to a new data feed between his ship and HQ. From what he could see through the ship’s interface with the AI, he was receiving a massive amount of data.
The readout along with the rest of the test crafts console and lighting all switched off, plunging Ky into darkness. The last thing he’d seen on the terminal was all the power being diverted to process the unknown data feed, including the power used to maintain life support. Ky activated his suit’s internal systems, the helmet formed out of his collar as the liquid mesh flowed around his head, hardened, and snapped into place. Surprisingly, the additional helmet HUD systems the helmet used did not switch on either. He tried to activate the systems manually and found everything was locked out. That wasn’t something that should, or even could happen, even with a massive systems failure. The AI was still clearly functioning and was doing something outside of Ky’s control.
The ship began to shake violently as it started to cross into the bridge. Everything around the viewpoint began to twist and swirl as if viewing reality through water. Cracks spidered out along the canopy as the nearly indestructible transparent steel sheeting began to fracture. With his heads up display and all of the ship’s gauges no longer responding it was impossible to tell what was happening outside. The cracks, however, were a major danger sign, since the ship’s outer shell should have been able to resist the pressures found inside the first several layers of a gas giant.
Then he was through the bridge. The distortion was gone, and Ky was surprised to find a pale blue light outside the window. When he’d seen the planet through the bridge, it had looked to be from low orbit, but now that he had transitioned through, he found himself in the upper atmosphere, descending rapidly. The planet that, at least from this high up, looked exactly like Earth, although even the most cursory examination showed that something wasn’t quite right.
He didn’t have time to dwell on that, as the displays jumped to life again. What they showed was bad. The containment on the fusion core was starting to go critical and the outer skin of the ship was heating rapidly as the ship began re-entry.
“You must eject, Commander,” the AI’s voice rang inside his head, breaking his concentration.
“Where the hell …”
“Initiating ejection procedure. Fifty-three seconds until estimated core breach.”
Ky didn’t have a chance to respond as the canopy was blown from its joints by specially placed explosive charges, shooting it out away from the ship. The AI, as it was programmed to do, used the kinetic shielding of Ky’s flight suit to push him out of the now open end of the ship, using enough force to push him away from the falling craft.
Although the ejection system worked as it should, it was intended for zero-g and not built with atmospheric friction in mind. He cleared the ship, but not by enough. Debris started bouncing off the suit’s kinetic shielding creating a shimmer millimeters from the surface of the suit as that section of the hexagonal grid activated to protect its wearer.
Ky twisted as he fell in a shallow V away from the ship, getting a good look at it from the outside. The ring of the Antonov Field Generator had a large fissure along one side and, as he watched, a third of it snapped and broke away from the rest of the ship.
“Core breach. Activating emergency systems. Shielding at maximum,” the AI said in an eerily calm voice that could only belong to a computer at a moment like this.
Then a small sun exploded. The implants along his eyes instantly polarized, protecting his vision, while the rest of the suit hardened, blocking the wave of radiation pouring off the ship.
By the time the ship exploded he had cleared by almost five kilometers, thanks to his falling angle away from the craft. The last-ditch design feature inside the ship caused a near implosion instead of a full nuclear explosion; nonetheless, he could still feel the heat of the expanding fireball through the shielding and the suit’s protective layers.
Then the concussion of the blast smashed into him. As the air was forced from his lungs, the last thing Ky saw was a rapidly growing horizon.
Lucilla whipped the rump of her horse hard urging the animal to run faster. The ten remaining men of her guard were close in around her, each riding equally full-out. A glance over her shoulder confirmed that their pursuers were still behind them, although she and her guard had managed to gain a little more distance on them.
Their lead was a temporary situation at best. Their horses could not maintain this grueling pace indefinitely. The enemy must have realized this as well, which is why they let their horses slow slightly, allowing Lucilla’s small group a small lead. They knew it was only a matter of time until their mounts collapsed from exhaustion.
So far, their reaction since the ambush had been purely instinctual for Caedicius, the leader of her Praetorian detachment, who had immediately ordered Ursinus and his small detachment to get Lucilla to Devnum. As the optio had pushed her on a horse Caedicius had turned his remaining soldiers into the teeth of the much larger force they had been ambushed by. That had been the last she’d seen of the gray-haired centurion who had been in charge of her security detachment for as long as she could remember.
“We are not going to make it to Devnum,” she yelled across at Ursinus, who had stuck right by her side since the mad ride had begun.
He glanced back and grimaced, “We’ll keep pushing until the horses die under us or we lose them.”
His voice was hard, with the sound of a man who knew he was doomed but determined to do his duty to the last.
“Optio,” a voice to the right of him yelled, loud enough for Lucilla to hear.
They both turned and looked, seeing a dust cloud rising ahead of them and to the east, veering towards them.
“Reinforcements?” she asked hopefully.
Ursinus thought for a moment and shook his head, “I don’t think so. We have no forces out here. If they had been sent out of Devnum, they would have been headed south, not west. If their commander is as good as the ambush indicates, he had additional soldiers set to stop us from making a break for it. I think those riders are part of our pursuers, not our reinforcements.”
Even yelling, she could hear the apology in his voice as he crushed her hopes of rescue. There had been no warning anything was amiss until the moment their attackers had burst out of the trees. The fact that Caedicius’s men, including Gallus Gratius Ursinus, had managed to fight through the soldiers who had surrounded them and managed to get her this far had been a miracle.
Ursinus made a hand motion, indicating that his small force should turn away from the incoming pursuers. The land to the west and northwest was marshy, heading into a large floodplain that had clearly been filled to the brim. She was not a soldier, but she was observant enough to realize that land would slow them down, probably fatally. Ursinus, however, seemed to have little choice. They would not be able to skirt the marsh and stay out of the hands of the force bearing down on them, and ten men, including him, could not possibly fight through the oncoming attack.
Their pursuers continued to push them into worse and worse choices, and Lucilla knew she was running out of time. She would soon be in the arms of the gods. She was determined to add some of her attackers to the legions of Hades before she went, however.
They didn’t even make it as far as she had thought they might. They’d been forced to slow, twisting down a dry patch of land that led into the marsh, and came up hard against an open bog that would only end up breaking the legs of the mounts had they tried to rush through it.
“Dismount,” Ursinus yelled, his men complying instantly. “I’m sorry, mistress, we will not be able to outrun them.”
She nodded. Even on foot, the marsh would have been a death sentence. They would have been easy pickings had they tried to go through the thick sludge.
“I understand, Optio, you’ve done your best.”
He looked almost relieved at her proclamation, turning to his men as they pulled shields and weapons off the horses and prepared to make their stand.
“Give me a sword,” she demanded before he made his way to his men.
He looked back at her for a moment, his face looking almost questioning before returning to his horse. The hesitation was brief as he pulled a spare gladius from one of the horses and handed it to her.
“We will try and hold a rank in front of you, but even with the marsh at our backs, we will be too heavily outnumbered. They will work around our edges.”
“I will be ready.”
They didn’t have to wait long as the narrow lane they had taken into the marshland filled with horseman slowing as they neared their prey. The symbols painted on some of their shields made it clear who their pursuers were. The horizontal crescent above a circular skull marking proved them to be Carthaginians.
“Here she is,” the lead man said as he pulled his soldiers to a stop, a few spans of open ground from Lucilla and her handful of remaining guards.
The man’s Latin was thick with the accent of the southern Mediterranean, sounding sluggish. His statement also indicated that their ambush of Lucilla and her guard wasn’t happenstance. They had been looking for her specifically. That meant someone who knew her itinerary had betrayed her. It saddened her to know that she would never be able to deal with the traitor. She hoped her father would realize this after her death and kill the man who’d gotten her sentenced her to death.
“You gave us a good chase,” he said to Ursinus, “so I will make you a deal. I’ll let you and your men go if you hand her over to us. We even promise to take her back to Londinium in one piece. Make this bloody, there is a good chance she won’t make it out of this swamp alive.”
Ursinus’s response suggested the soldier attempt some things that were anatomically impractical, eliciting a snarl from the mounted trooper.
“Fine,” he said, waving his men to fan out, half surrounding the legionnaires. “Take them.”
The troopers, who knew better than to try and ride into even a small shield wall, dismounted and charged on foot. The smaller shields of the riders smashed against the large Roman shields as their heavier, and longer, swords tried to find an opening in the armored wall.
For a moment, the two sides held, the Romans curved in tight around Ursinus and Lucilla. Then the first of them fell, screaming as a sword found a hole and punched through the legionnaire’s chest. His friends tried to pull in tight over their fallen comrade, gladii stabbing out, catching more than one Carthaginian unprepared. Their smaller shield didn’t offer nearly as much protection. Men stumbled back from the Roman formation, clutching wounds, or just fell dead.
But there was always another Carthaginian to take the fallen comrade’s place and all too soon another legionnaire fell. A Carthaginian broke through before the Romans could tighten up their formation to close the hole. He ignored the defending Romans and charged right at Lucilla and Ursinus, sword raised.
Ursinus began to move to repel him and stopped. Before he could bring his weapon up to catch the Carthaginians attack Lucilla took a lunge forward with amazing speed, her Gladius lashing out, catching the soldier in an unarmored spot under his arm, sending a gush of blood washing over her outstretched arm.
She stepped back, recovering into a defensive position even as the man’s body fell. Ursinus didn’t have time to marvel at his charge’s surprising ability, as another legionary fell, and then another. The tide had turned, and the Roman wall crumbled.
Two of the Legionaries had dropped their shields as their defenses fell apart, managing to get back to guard the sides of their commander and charge. A third had tried to join them but an ax ended his life before he could retreat fully.
The rest of the small group of legionaries died quickly and violently. Ursinus pulled Lucilla further back, the two surviving legionnaires following suit. Their backs were almost to the horses, which had started to panic. Their small brains locked in deciding whether they should run from the flashing metal and coppery smell of blood into the nearly impenetrable mud.
As seems to happen in many battles there was a small lull; the enemy not making the collective decision to charge forward yet, knowing they could take the four survivors but none wanting to be the first to attack a wounded but still deadly opponent.
Bodies littered the ground and Lucilla was heartened to see there were maybe twenty Carthaginian dead scattered around the seven fallen Roman bodies. Her men, and she thought of them like that even though she wasn’t part of their hierarchy, had done themselves and the Empire proud.
“Kill th…” the leader started to command and then suddenly stopped.
Everyone, Roman and Carthaginian alike, froze in place and looked into the sky through squinting eyes as a second sun appeared above them.
“Commander,” a voice sounded.
Ky was disoriented as he came awake. He had a moment of confusion as his brain caught up with reality. It came back in a torrent as he remembered the bridge, the ejection, and the explosion.
Ky opened his eyes and saw a small landmass below him quickly growing larger.
“Deploy canopy,” Ky said groggily.
“The canopy is already deployed, Commander.”
The suit was designed to extend its kinetic shielding in large wings that functioned almost like the fabric used during the classic days of aviation. The shielding would create wind resistance that slowed its wearer to a safe speed, although with notable variations for its less high-tech predecessor. Under the AI control, since it was able to make the constant calculations needed, the wings would change in pitch and shape as needed to alter the rate and direction of descent, like an invisible hang glider.
Looking over his shoulder, Ky could see the AI had indeed deployed the canopy while he was still unconscious. A small piece of Ky’s mind noted all the independent actions the computer personality had taken on its own since the bridge had begun failing and then pushed them aside. He had larger problems to deal with at the moment.
“Where are we?”
“All data indicates we are on Earth, above the European continent, specifically above Britain.”
“Everything’s missing!” Ky said.
That was true. From his height, he could see the outline of Europe and Britain except with every major man-made feature missing. The Berlin metropolis, which covered almost a third of Europe, was nowhere to be seen. Even in daylight, it was clearly visible from much higher than his current, although thankfully now much more slowly decreasing, altitude. Looking above him Ky noticed the huge space station that should have been floating in Earth orbit was also missing. Britain, which was essentially a single massive city, looked nearly devoid of all but the smallest settlements.
“Confirmed, Commander. No expected man-made points of reference can be detected. However, topographical and astronomical data conform to general known terrestrial parameters.”
“But where is everything? How can this be Earth?”
“Insufficient data available to answer the query beyond speculation, Commander.”
“Touchdown in under one minute and seventeen seconds, Commander,” the AI replied instead of answering his question.
“Do we have a suitable spot to land?”
“Yes, Commander, there are multiple areas that would be acceptable. However, there seems to be native activity in most of the area within our landing profile.”
“Show me,” Ky commanded.
A section of Ky’s helmet changed from showing what was around him to an enhanced view of the area he would need to land in. The same thing could have happened over his eyes as well, even without the helmet, but Ky preferred to see visuals on the visor of the helmet over the ocular implants if possible and had long ago set the AIs defaults to operate to his preference.
A section of the land beneath him was marked with possible landing points available on his current glide path, even with changes to his canopy. Most of that area was overlaid in red, showing it as unsuitable for landing. A mental command focused in on that area Ky agreed the marshland would be dangerous to land on at the speeds he would touch down at.
Along the far eastern edge of his possible landing area was a small plain which would be perfect for landing, if it didn’t currently hold dozens of men on horseback. He could see archaic weapons either on the horses or in the rider’s hands indicating that they were not gathered there for some type of recreation.
There were smaller cleared areas that stretched into the marsh area, although most were small enough that it was questionable if he could accurately hit them even with the precision his AI could deliver. While it could make rapid changes the closer he got to the ground the more wind gusts and other unpredictable atmospheric changes would cause enough inaccuracies that successful landing became problematic.