Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus

Part 3: Flight of the Shepherd

By T M Romanelli

“Established deep within the Kadinsky Crater, the recently commissioned Kepler Colony at Mercury is the new site for Integrated Production Services®, the Cassini Consortium’s innovative multidisciplinary design and manufacturing center created to facilitate advanced research in the fields of cybernetic modeling, life sciences, nanotechnology and applied spatial engineering. Our fully equipped workspaces and collaborative environments currently host divisions from several renowned firms such as Helios Energia, Kanterborg Biomechanics GmbH, Sirius Nano and Tomatsu Heavy Industries. Following the RFP phase and highly competitive finalist selection, Unified Dynamics awarded Kepler the exclusive contract for its planned Gateway Shipyards, which will become a major hub of commercial and System Fleet vessel construction when completed.

Our centralized, multi-phasic stock feed and Syzygy series™ additive printers can meet all the creative demands of its subscribers, whether they require bespoke alloy monofilaments or a multi-tonne armature for the standard Type IV drive. In addition to unrivaled capacity, a suite of administrative services may be purchased to assist with IP registration, quality assessment programs and the compliance requirements of relevant government ministries. Tailored urban spaces and generous amenities complement a thriving cultural establishment that make it easy for our customers to attract and retain high-value employees as well as independent sub-contractors. Contact one of our representatives to discuss the favorable taxation schedules available within the Special Economic Zone. The Cassini Consortium and registered subsidiaries are EEOC-certified (UCG 3516.12).

Kepler Colony IPS: Fulfilling your needs from inception to creation.”

– excerpt from Systems Quarterly, Vol 27 (3); published by the IWG Commission of Commerce

Kepler was doomed.

The Tsiolkovsky-class habitat, an enormous cylinder eight kilometers wide and twenty-six kilometers long, was part of the Northern Polar network comprised of dozens of identical structures built at the bottom of the Kadinsky, Petronius and Remarque impact basins. Assembled in layers from a nano-weave alloy and with sufficient volume for the interior to possess its own weather system, each habitat was completely self-sufficient and spacious enough for several million inhabitants. Far removed from its humble beginnings as a penal colony for criminals and political dissidents, Mercury was home to more than one hundred million enterprising colonists that had created the most valuable economy within the inner system.

The coronal mass ejection, an exploding arc of half a billion metric tons of stellar material traveling at more than four thousand kilometers an hour, would strike Mercury with a force ten times that of the historic Carrington super flare event. The planet’s electromagnetic shielding and rarefied atmosphere would be overwhelmed, its surface bombarded by volatile plasma and radiation that would erase an entire era of prosperity forged on Sol’s nearest neighbor.

Nothing would remain.

Lysirah ran flat out, her legs pumping hard as she sprinted across the Life Sciences quad towards the nearest hopper port. She had heard the klaxon even before she had climbed out of the maintenance tunnel, but unlike the scheduled tests of the emergency broadcast system, this alarm sent a shiver done her spine. The data slate was flooded by pop-ups that reported the network-wide alert status, with multiple notifications for all residents to report to their designated stations and await further instructions from Colony Control. This response was standard operating procedure, meant to give people a sense of confidence and guide their actions during a crisis, but Lysirah knew there was no authority anywhere that could stop what was happening in the heart of the sun.

The campus appeared empty as she passed an overturned recumbent sport trike and then an abandoned picnic spread, the brightly colored blanket stained from a spilled wine carafe. In the distance she saw a small group of people moving towards the entrance to one of the emergency shelters. They ran hunched over, their hands covering their heads as if they were conducting a policing drill. Lysirah thought that was strange, but she could already see the hopper port tower beyond some other buildings and treetops. The facility services plaza was just ahead, and her data slate showed a number of available vehicles sitting fully charged in their cradles. She entered an arbor full of cultivated olive trees, dodging numerous fallen branches and several odd stakes poking up from the ground before exiting the other side as the aerodrome came into full view.

Lysirah skidded to a halt when she saw the body.

Why did you stop?

The young girl was dressed in the latest style and wore an expensive wraparound visor set. Frozen in an awkward plank position, it seemed she had stopped at the apex of her final push-up. A jagged shaft of polished metal protruded from the girl’s torso, pinning her at an angle so that her arms dangled loosely just above the lawn. There were a dozen other bodies nearby, felled by a similar pattern of violence that had struck them down mid-stride, turning the tranquil lawn into an abattoir. Lysirah looked up towards the central spindle and saw the reflector grid was damaged, with mirror debris tumbling slowly in the microgravity zone. As the cloud of lethal glitter expanded, some of these pieces had been captured by the colony’s centripetal force, plummeting to the interior surface with devastating speed. Several diffusion lenses had failed, and the loss of their focused illumination created irregular dark zones that migrated across the precincts as the Kepler cylinder continued its rotation.

Some of the mirrors fractured. Once the shards entered the gravity well they sliced through anyone on the surface. Didn’t even know what hit them.

Are you exposed?

There’s no time to run through every building for cover. Besides, I think I have a bigger problem now.

The hopper port was a tall transparent structure that contained the small vehicles colonists used to travel throughout Kepler, dispensing them at the ground level from docking cradles like a giant vending machine. Convenient and easy to use, the common hopper had an enclosed bubble canopy mated to a small thruster and two sets of shielded tilt-rotors, allowing the vehicle to move across the colony’s gravity gradient. Most could ferry four passengers, and the AutoNAV feature made anyone a skilled operator. Aerodromes were located at key locations on the interior surface and along the spindle, providing waypoints for personnel and cargo in addition to the tramway that ran the length of the colony’s central spine.

Mirror fragments had penetrated deep into the tower’s structure, some large enough to crush vehicles and disrupt the conveyor system. Lysirah checked the hoppers sitting on their cradles outside the building, hoping at least one would be functional, but instead found nothing but shattered canopies, broken rotors and ruptured fuel cells left behind by the reflector grid’s destructive rain. A few of the cockpits were still occupied, their passengers killed by the shrapnel. The data slate reported that the AutoNAV network was down, too, so even if she could squeeze everyone into a single hopper, the excess weight would make manual piloting very dangerous.

She needed something bigger and sturdier than the port’s standard inventory.

There’s nothing useful here.

Have you considered the hopper port in the next precinct?

It’s too far. And there’s no guarantee that-

Lysirah saw the answer just beyond the aerodrome’s perimeter, squatting on its own elevated platform within the facility services depot. The Unified Dynamics Heracles UA-3 runabout sat on four landing struts, its tilt-thruster engines mounted at the midsection beneath stubby wings attached to a boxy, composite fuselage. She ran up the rear ramp and squeezed passed several cargo pallets before she settled herself at the command pilot’s station to start the pre-launch program. The craft was nearly identical to the simulator Matthias used to train her for basic flight certification, and would easily carry the engineers and their materials to Dockside. Her fingers danced across the console, toggling the switches that would initiate main engine start. Gently turning the throttle, she brought the engines to a low idle and then checked the pedals, cyclic and thrust control. The FlightCOM mapped the shortest route to the far side of the campus where Pleida had instructed the team to shelter in place. She wondered why the vehicle hadn’t been commandeered for the evacuation, and then saw the flashing warning light on the instrument panel.

Anak ka nang puta!

Is there a problem?

Lysirah retraced her steps back down the ramp and examined the portside skid, which was encased by the pad’s mounted security arm that prevented the craft from lifting off. She promptly kicked the device to vent her growing frustration. Twice. It did not break.

They’re not making this easy.

This is an unfortunate development.

You have a gift for understatement. I mean that.

And I need you to focus. Analyze and resolve the problem.

The landing pad terminal had a security protocol that prevented her from activating the remote release. A quick search of the vehicle enclosure revealed some basic maintenance equipment like fuel lines and a hydraulic lift, but none of those were particularly useful. Lysirah used the Halligan bar to force the lock on a storage cabinet labeled with a flammable materials icon, and she combed through shelves of power tools and spanners until she found an oxylene torch caddy. She helped herself to a pair of shielded goggles, some fuel cartridges and the hose adapter before returning to the landing skid to ready the cutting implement. When the canisters were attached, she cracked open the regulator valve and pulled the ignition lever. She slipped the goggles over her eyes as a bright blue flame emerged from the hardened nozzle, and after making some adjustments to the gas flow, brought it into contact with the security arm’s retaining pin. Only when the pin was cut could the arm be pried open to free the landing gear.

Will this take long?

I‘m working as fast as I can. Anything I should know?

The electromagnetic interference from the solar core has intensified. It will impede the evacuation effort.

Any more good news?

The effect may become strong enough to disrupt our link.

So if that happens… I’ll really be on my own.

I will maintain the connection for as long as feasible. Even in my absence, you must recover the team.

Lysirah was still getting used to the nuances of the constant connectivity provided by her cortical implant, but the possibility of complete isolation from Pleida was a bit frightening. Pushing those thoughts aside she pressed on, and with practiced motions of her torch the retaining pin began to glow cherry red. When she pressed the oxidizer trigger, the pin’s hardened surface began to melt, thin rivulets of molten alloy dripping onto the landing pad.

I have not heard such gratuitous profanity since you were studying for your final astrometrics examination.

It worked, didn’t it? I got the highest grade in my section.

The claim that it was an essential element of your success is dubious. We may debate that point when you are all safe.

She worked quickly, and had already burned halfway through the pin when she remembered an event from her time at Alhambra. It was a small detail, but it seemed very important to share it now with Pleida while she still could.

There’s something I need to tell you. Before I left for Polytechnica, I jacked one of your antique roadsters. The blue one. I blanked the security system and returned it before anyone knew it was gone. Sorry.

Adept Jerome was convinced the vehicle had been tampered with, and sought to investigate. I advised him otherwise.

Wait a minute… you knew? Why didn’t you say anything?

I did not say anything because I was happy for you.

How could you be happy that I stole your custom quad?

I was satisfied that you were exploring your boundaries with the eyes of an ordinary teenager. You had come a long way from the trauma of Cypress Station and then even more trials with your uncle. While I could not condone impromptu theft, it possessed a strange sense of cliché that I found reassuring. Disapproval does not preclude my appreciation for your modest rebellion. I was also a teenager, albeit in the distant past. Your parents would have been proud of who you have become, Lysirah, as am I.

Pleida conducted himself with a measure of maturity so assured that it was difficult to consider that he had ever been a teenager at all. The rumors she had heard growing up in Alhambra attributed his persistent youth to a proprietary mix of biomodulation and genomic enhancements which cost a fortune but were worth much, much more. It was said that a small portion of the guarded research was isolated and allowed to spawn the field of cryomedicine, which by design was more accessible and immensely profitable. He confirmed the essence of these stories when she was invited to become a Conservator, and while his vast material wealth granted many benefits, the gift of functional immortality was his alone.

When the retaining pin was severed she hastily removed the security arm, and checked the landing skid for any damage. Lysirah pushed the goggles down around her neck and brought the cutting equipment with her up the ramp, setting it aside in case it would be needed later. The rear compartment had to be cleared for her passengers and their materials, so she flipped the latches on the straps that held the cargo pallets to the deck and returned to the command pilot’s station. In quick order she secured her own harness, donned a headset and revved the engines to full power. Matthias had taught her well, and she silently thanked him as she keyed the transmit button.

“Delta Tango One Eleven to Kepler Control. Requesting emergency flight clearance. Do you copy?” she spoke into the mic, and waited ten seconds. The only reply was a variable pattern of static. She doubted anyone would ever answer her.

I’ll take that as a yes.

Lysirah slowly pulled up on the thruster control and the runabout lifted cleanly off the pad, hovering in place. She scanned the gauges on the instrument panel and maneuvered the cyclic so the fuselage pitched upward, sending the cargo pallets tumbling over the open ramp and onto the landing platform below. When the deck was emptied she toggled the ramp closed and then used the pedals to swing the craft around as she dipped the nose and began to glide across the campus grounds.

The runabout accelerated as she opened the throttle and aligned her course with the FlightCOM display, using the buildings as markers to intermittently correct for the coriolis effect within the colony. She kept her altitude low but sufficient to safely clear the rooftops that passed beneath the cockpit windows, and only now could she clearly see the conditions in adjacent precincts. Streams of assorted vehicles ascended towards the spindle, then banked to follow the central spine directly towards Dockside, the colony’s main transfer point between its pressurized interior and Mercury’s atmosphere. She would have to navigate those chaotic traffic patterns as well as the spinning wrecks that were a testament to the panic that had engulfed the colony.

The team is sheltered on the fourth floor of the design annex. They will be awaiting your arrival.

On my way.

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