A Helionox Story
By T M Romanelli
The ancestral estate was sequestered in a pristine valley of central Hokkaido, bordered by the Tokachi range to the north and the lesser Mount Sahoro in the south. At the height of its commercial productivity three centuries before, several large farms produced heirloom lavender that grew thickly in many shades of purple. The farms, automated harvesters and processing sheds were long gone, but lengthy nanowire fences surrounded the property and sentry drones still patrolled the grounds from unwelcome intrusions. What had once been the center of significant political influence now stood vacant and mostly forgotten.
Atsuko was seated in the teahouse that overlooked a shallow lake of the most brilliant blue, a result of mineral deposits that leached through the basin. A small forest of seasoned conifers sprouted through the mirrored surface, and the light dusting of snow that decorated their bare branches created a striking contrast against the mountainous backdrop. She pondered the view for several moments, before turning her gaze downward at the table and the tanto that waited in its lacquered sheath. Seppuku was a traditional conceit, but she had treated the blade with a lethal neurotoxin that would take effect before the completion of the ritual disembowelment. The telemetry monitor on her arm would alarm after her passing, triggering the incendiaries that had been planted on the support piles under the main residence. In the dry air of early winter, the accelerants would allow the inferno to spread quickly throughout the structure until it was consumed. A lofty plume of hot embers would blossom from the fire to be carried on the winds across the lake.
Only the teahouse would remain.
The senior officers had assembled in the large wardroom aboard the flagship Aleksander, awaiting Commodore Christopher Sobel to brief them on the upcoming mission. The Martian protests against the Interworld Governments had become increasingly violent, and there had already been several acts of terrorism that damaged vital infrastructure. The Council had ordered Sobel’s task force to strike rebel bases lurking on the periphery of Utopia Planitia as a show of force to dissuade others from inciting sedition. Surrounded by holographic projections of orbital paths and squadron formations, the Commodore presented the order of battle, deployment schedules and the various phase lines that would be used during the operation. When the briefing was over, he wished them lucked and dismissed his officers to their designated vessels to finalize preparations.
Using embedded handholds to navigate the microgravity environment, Atsuko made her way towards the Commodore and saw he was giving additional orders to a small group of subordinates that bobbed slowly near the central console. Her mentor was a tall, dark-skinned African that spoke in clipped Standard with a subtle Dutch accent. She caught his eye and then waited until they could speak in private. After the other officers departed, he took her by the elbow and guided her towards the main passage that ran the length of the ship.
“Walk with me, Captain,” he said, preferring the old nautical terminology as they pushed themselves down the corridor towards the hangar deck. Near the junction, they ducked into a hatchway and allowed a large piece of equipment to pass them.
“With all due respect, Sir,” she began, and noted he dismissed her formality with a quick frown. “My squadron would be better placed in a forward deployment to bring our kinetic batteries within range of the targets. Keeping us in reserve isn’t appropriately aggressive. I’m also concerned that others may think that you lack confidence in my ability to lead.”
“You don’t approve of your deployment priority?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her respectful challenge.
“To be candid, Sir,” she continued without hesitation. “It’s insulting.”
“I understand your objection, Captain. But my decision stands,” he said, ending any further attempts at negotiating a different outcome. As they continued to move forward they passed some of the Commodore’s staff, all of whom needed his attention but were disciplined enough not to interrupt his conversation. “You’re one of my best officers, Atsuko. For you, the mission always comes first. You don’t allow yourself to be distracted by what some gravity slinger may think about you.”
“Except yourself, Commodore.”
“My confidence in your capabilities is unconditional,” he stated firmly. “However, the present circumstances are… unique.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t follow,” Atsuko said.
“How do you know when a Council Elder is lying to you?” he asked, abruptly changing the topic. She was taken aback by the Commodore’s open contempt towards the leaders of the Interworld Governments and the entire System Fleet. Uncertain of how to answer him, she simply shrugged.
“Their lips are moving,” he answered, but there was little humor in the truth he had shared. She became aware of all the activity around them as the crew prepared for their imminent departure. There were several observers in uniforms marked with the Council Crest, and other personnel who had donned drivesuits without any rank or unit insignia. Armed marines were posted at regular intervals throughout the ship in larger numbers than normal for this type of operation.
“What’s going on, Topher?” she asked, keeping her voice low. It was rare that she used his nickname, and her informal slip made him smile.
“I’m not at liberty to disclose mission specifics, Atsuko. Those orders come from the very top,” he said, adding to the conspiratorial atmosphere. “But something spooked the Council enough to order a preemptive strike on the rebel bases.”
“That’s why my squadron should be up front where we can respond to anything unexpected,” she said, hoping to persuade him with her tactical logic.
“Sorry,” he retorted. “But that’s exactly why I want your ships held in reserve. You might have to come and rescue me from something… unexpected.”
They had reached the hangar bay where a runabout waited to ferry her back to her own ship. The crew chief helped Atsuko don her drivesuit as she listened to the Commodore’s final instructions. The Senior Chief consulted with a Marine officer and assigned assault teams to each dropship on the flight deck. Around them, busy crews performed checks on various strike craft and secured ordinance onto their hardpoints.
They were going to war.
“Good hunting, Captain,” he said, prompting her to salute. He returned the gesture, then leaned down and spoke into her ear, knowing the engine noise would prevent eavesdropping. Atsuko looked at him and nodded after a moment. She boarded the runabout and waited for the pilot to complete her pre-flight checks while the crew chief made sure their harnesses were secure. The armored doors closed and the platform rose towards the outer hull aperture. They launched as soon as there was enough clearance and sped towards Pacifica, the lead vessel of her squadron command. She considered the Commodore’s parting words.
If anything happens to me, Atsuko, someone will try to contact you. Listen to them. You’re the only person I trust with something this important.
The task force inserted cleanly into Martian orbit, with three large formations stationed ten thousand kilometers above the impact basin while the support elements and Atsuko’s squadron deployed at a higher altitude. Recon drones swept the sector as the fleet created a broad picket line with the Aleksander at its center and cruisers anchoring each flank. A fighter wing established a defensive perimeter and others were poised to escort the strike craft to their targets.
Atsuko observed the operation unfold from her ship’s combat information center as Rene, her executive officer, relayed orders to their squadron of destroyers. They maintained combat status and the crew manned their posts from acceleration couches that would protect them during high-G maneuvers. The low-level light condition of the CIC was enhanced by the subdued glow from various tactical displays, and the narrow-band comms traffic created a soft background murmur that was periodically broken with bursts of harsh static.
“Captain Mai, unidentified vessels approaching the security perimeter,” announced the Radar Intercept Officer. “I have civilian transponders on my screens. Mixed classes of freighters and personnel transports. Looks like another refugee fleet.”
“Verify their status and course,” she ordered. “And notify the flagship.”
“Skipper, who the hell is crazy enough to make an orbital ascent into a System Fleet formation?” asked the XO. His face popped up on her screen while she watched the blips converge into an irregular cluster. She grabbed the stylus that floated at the end of an elastic lanyard around her wrist and drew trajectories on her screen.
“Not crazy, Rene, but definitely desperate,” she said. “Captain to RIO. Designate target group November India Zero One. I estimate they will cross phase line Alpha in seven minutes. Confirm.”
“Standby,” came the answer over the intercom. “RIO to Captain. There’s a second group of UVs trailing the first. More civilian transponders. Same course. On their current bearing, group Zero One will cross phase line Alpha in seven minutes, and group Zero Two will follow in fifteen.”
“Skipper,” the XO announced, “the Aleksander just launched dropships. They’re on an intercept vector for the lead group. That’s not part of the mission brief.”
Atsuko switched to another display that showed the progress of the dropships towards their targets. The craft could attach themselves to the outer hull and detonate breaching charges to create a temporary airlock. Marines would then board the vessel to take control of the bridge and engineering spaces. There weren’t enough dropships to secure the entire refugee flotilla, and she worried what would happen if the civilian vessels continued to advance despite warnings.
“Aleksander to Pacifica,” her command circuit earpiece chirped. “Reposition your squadron and prevent any civilian craft from entering an insertion trajectory towards Deimos. I have a Case Black authorization from the Council. You are to use any and all means to stop civilian craft. I say again, Case Black. Acknowledge.”
The Commodore had sent the transmission himself, as she recognized his accented cadence. The Council had just given them orders to fire upon civilian ships, which violated so many of the rules governing combat that she didn’t know where to begin. The closest blips on her screen would make contact in less than four minutes.
“Pacifica actual,” she answered, and let a few moments pass. “Acknowledged.”
“Skipper, are we really going to splash civies?” Rene asked, his voice tinged with uncertainty.
“I trust the Commodore,” she said, despite her growing sense of unease. “Rene, I need you to find out what’s so important about Deimos.”
“Yeah, OK. I’m on it, Skipper,” he answered and switched to another console.
“Captain to Maneuvering,” she said. “Standby on thrusters to-”
“Captain!” shouted the RIO. “Target zero one just launched fighters! I show multiple independent heat signatures from… shit! Missiles incoming!”
“Skipper, should I-”
“Stay on Deimos, Rene,” she ordered and then switched channels, programming a numeric sequence into the NAV console. “Squadron, immediate max burn to these coordinates. Maintain echelon formation. As soon as we D-cel, activate point-defense systems and prepare to screen the main fleet against inbound hostiles.”
Atsuko inserted a mouth guard as the Pacifica’s accelerometer spiked, and the inflatable bladders in her drivesuit kneaded her stomach and legs to prevent her from passing out. The acceleration couch was equipped with inflatable cushions that stiffened around her head and neck for additional support. The ship had high G capabilities that exceeded human tolerances, and “red maneuvers” were probably fatal except during cryosleep. The squadron was already pushing high yellow, and the ship’s vibration intensified enough to chip unprotected teeth.
“Captain,” the RIO’s voice warbled. “Missile plot intersects central formation. They’re lighting up the flagship. Wait one… there are… there are unusual signatures among the projectiles. Some of them appear to be shielded. Captain, I think-”
“Sound radiological alarm!” she ordered. “Our track’s already locked in. Secure bulkheads and activate the EM field. All hands, prepare for imminent Nucflash!”
Atsuko’s eyes flicked between the monitor that showed bright blips approaching the main formation and the live feed from the recon drone shadowing the flagship. Glittering streams of tungsten rounds left the main fleet’s air defense cannons and streaked towards the incoming missiles. There were several small explosions as some of the warheads were destroyed, but not all of them.
“Brace! Brace! Brace!”
When the recon drone’s screen went black, Atsuko was grateful her squadron was still outside the epicenter of the radiation pulse. The warhead was low-yield and had detonated prematurely, too far from the center formation to vaporize it but close enough to still inflict catastrophic structural damage. When the remaining drones reacquired the fleet’s position, the Aleksander was adrift and venting coolant, surrounded by the twisted wrecks of her escort vessels. The leading freighters had scattered the dropships with their improvised fighters, and were already accelerating towards the breach in the System Fleet line.
“God’s blood,” the XO cursed softly over the command net.
“Steady, Rene,” she answered. “They just expended everything they had to punch a hole in our line. Once we’re in position, our guns and missiles will do the butcher’s work. Terminate all hostiles with extreme prejudice.”
The comms were absolute chaos, jammed with screaming voices, garbled transmissions and contradictory reports. It was so distracting that Atsuko muted the TacNET while she ordered the squadron into a braking maneuver as they reached the coordinates. She was pushed against her harness as the Pacifica and her escorts precipitously slowed. All ships reported in that they were fully operational and combat ready.
There was a sudden flash far to their starboard side, and she knew then that the flagship’s reactor had gone critical. A chain of secondary explosions rippled in both directions as the remains of other damaged ships were consumed. All that was left was an expanding field of irregular debris that cascaded within a widening sphere.
The Aleksander was gone.
“This is Captain Mai of the Pacifica,” she transmitted fleet-wide. “I am assuming command of all remaining task force assets. Standby for new orders.”
In the next few minutes she mustered the two flanking squadrons to suppress the enemy fighters and intercept the second group of refugee ships with strict orders that if any vessels showed hostile activity, they were to be destroyed whether they had civilian transponders or not. The support elements began rescue operations among the damaged ships that had survived the thermonuclear detonation, and would initiate a casualty assessment. Atsuko’s squadron had slowed relative to the leading group of freighters and engaged them as they sped towards Deimos. The squadron discharged most of its magazines at the fleeing vessels, obliterating anything that lacked countermeasures or reactive armor. They wouldn’t be able to catch up to the few that escaped without refueling first, and by then it would probably be too late. She ordered her ships to rendezvous with the remnants of the task force and establish a new defensive perimeter.
“Skipper, I’m sending you the data from our long-range optics module,” Rene said. “Your eyes only.”
Atsuko entered her clearance code and opened the file on the master command screen. The images were slightly off-focus and the scale needed some correction, but they showed an active orbital dock near the Martian moon that wasn’t listed in the fleet registry. A massive vessel was in the late stages of assembly, with a configuration she had never seen before. Atsuko wondered if this was the real reason the task force had been deployed at short notice. She didn’t know if the secret shipyard possessed enough defenses to stop the refugees from hijacking it. There was still a mission to complete.
She purged the file from her console.
When they returned to their base on Luna, a security team met them dockside and two Sentinels placed her into custody. Her final instruction to Rene was to look after the crew. She was transported to the Security Ministry’s detention center, not the Fleet brig, and subjected to an exhausting interrogation process that included physical duress and was devoid of any legal representation. As she considered the pattern of questioning, it was obvious that she had become the designated scapegoat for the Council’s military disaster. Commodore Sobel had always tired to shield his officers from the inevitable political interference, but he died leading the task force in battle. When the interrogation finally stopped she was placed in an isolation cell to await summary execution. There would be no appeal.
Atsuko had prepared herself for the final time the cell door would open, and when it did she was surprised by the Fleet Marine detachment that snapped to attention when she rose. They promptly escorted her to Luna Fleet Headquarters where there were numerous apologies and expressions of outrage at the incompetence of the Security Ministry. An ad hoc tribunal had reviewed the operational orders and after-action reports- they quickly concluded that Captain Mai had acted appropriately and within her full authority to accomplish a difficult mission that unfortunately resulted in the loss of several ships and crews. The tribunal expressed grave concerns about how extremists had acquired nuclear warheads, presumably through the black market networks that had penetrated the Martian underground. There was no mention of the shipyard at Deimos.
In light of her exceptional service she was granted a personal leave before reporting to take command of Frau Maura Fleet with a promotion to Vice Admiral. The abrupt transition from convicted mutineer to exalted hero was disorienting, and as the senior command staff praised her courage and shook her hand, Atsuko realized that she was a pawn being used to advance an unseen agenda. She numbly mimicked the theatrics of the Council’s sycophants, revolted by her own complicity. When the charade was finally over she took the earliest transport to Hokkaido, even though there was no longer any family there.
Her shame was an abyss.
Atsuko was seated in the teahouse, contemplating a life that had been devoted to military service. She had risen through the ranks surrounded by the rigors of duty, honor and self-sacrifice. The words and principles that had once held so much personal meaning were now as empty as her ancestral home. There were no offspring that would inherit the family holdings after she was gone. Perhaps that was for the best, since no one really knew how quickly the chaos brought on by the Helionox would manifest itself. No child should be born onto a dying world.
There was a brief flutter of wings and a lone starling entered the structure to settle on one of the interior beams. It looked down upon her and then began to preen itself. Atsuko wondered where the bird had come from, as it was well past the season for the white-cheeked species to migrate to Kyushu, and thought perhaps it had nested somewhere under the roof of the main house. The bird nimbly dropped down to the table and hopped around the knife before stopping on the letter she had left behind for those that found her body. Atsuko wasn’t normally superstitious but the bird’s strange behavior sent a shiver down her spine. Just then it looked directly at her and chirped loudly three times in quick succession as its eyes flashed brightly with each sound.
It was a replicant.
The Commodore’s words came back to her, and she looked around the teahouse to see if anyone was there. She reached out slowly to the bird and was rebuked with a hard peck to her finger before it resumed tapping on the folded parchment. Atsuko watched in fascination but wasn’t sure what to do as the little creature pecked monotonously at one of the kanji for her family name, which was pronounced “eye”. Suddenly she understood, and quickly reached into her obi for her visor. She fitted the set over her eyes as the device automatically powered up.
***Remote signal connected. Synching encryption packet…***
The small display provided a literal birds-eye view of Atsuko sitting in the teahouse. The feed had a mild distortion but was stable as the avian replicant stood unnaturally still. A message appeared on her screen.
A little birdie told me what you were up to.
Who is this?
The question appeared underneath the original transmission, and quickly formed a scrolling dialogue on the projected interface. Angered by this intrusion upon her privacy, she also admired the audacity needed to contact her in this manner.
I’m your guardian angel. It’s rude of you to take your own life, especially after all the trouble I went through to save it.
It took her a few moments to process the fact that an unknown benefactor had engineered her stay of execution. In other circumstances she would have been grateful, but instead felt trapped by this individual to whom she now owed a significant debt. Atsuko imagined the endless extortion that might follow, and wanted no part of it. Death was still a viable alternative in her mind.
There is an onsen on the slope of Mount Furano. My advance team has already swept the area. Be there tomorrow, so we can enjoy the hot springs and talk more privately without interruption.
Disgusted at the implications of this message, she found it increasingly difficult to maintain her composure. An answer was expected, and she thought about grabbing the tanto and using it immediately as a final act of defiance. Desperate to regain some sense of control, she tried to stall for time.
Father said to never talk with strangers. Do I know you?
You do indeed. Intimately.
At first it seemed like a cruel remark meant to humiliate her, but there was something odd enough about the comment that she decided to explore this dramatic claim as a hypothetical exercise. It was not particularly challenging. Atsuko had spent most of her adult life training or on deployment, and her single-minded focus on a military career had left little time for the episodic partners that could be counted on one hand. She suddenly realized who it was that had contacted her, and immediately knew she would go to Furano and meet him. But she wanted to be sure.
Do you still drink your scotch neat?
Always. Do you still snore?
Atsuko smiled as she remembered the first time she had met Geoffrey Macallan at a strategic symposium. He was a special advisor with close ties to the Council, and a rumored serial womanizer. As to her own motives, she had sought temporary companionship and unlike most of the other individuals that worked for the Council he was quite knowledgeable, unusually discreet and had treated her as an equal. It remained a little vague regarding who seduced whom, but she had fond memories of their time spent together after the daily conferences were concluded. They were both practiced at compartmentalizing emotions from their professional lives, and had parted as friends to resume their careers. Their paths had diverged until now.
I was sorry to hear about the Commodore. He was a good man, and told me that I could trust you. Can I?
Yes. What’s this about?
The future. Full disclosure when I see you tomorrow. Have to deactivate our proxy now. Place our little friend in the garden behind the teahouse for a job well done.
***remote signal terminated.***
Atsuko removed her visor and watched as the starling slowly bowed its head and collapsed onto its side. The replicant had a programmed expiry to prevent forensic analysis or tracking, and having fulfilled its purpose it would undergo accelerated decomposition. She gently scooped the small body into her hands and walked to the garden where she buried it at the base of a sakura tree.
When the task was finished, she thought about the Council, a secret shipyard and the future. She didn’t know what connected them, but was confident that Geoffrey would explain the details. And when they were done talking?
Perhaps there would be enough time for another generation.