by Callista Dalmore
“Fire!” ordered Gate Commander Tol.
The brilliance of guns Five and Six washed everything on the command deck in a blazing halo of white light.
“Shields gone, armor breached”, buzzed gunnery control.
“Ok, Alpha,” said Tol as he swiped the group of four blue chevron shaped icons on the overhead to the center of the display, he continued, “switch to secondary. Gunnery stay on primary until neutralized. Primary is D, Secondary is Tornado E. Where is Beta?” he asked impatiently as he scanned the holo-tac.
“Beta is still responding to the four-thirteen called in from the ice field, sir.” came the answer from dispatch.
“Why do we always…nevermind.” said Tol, clearly annoyed.
“Dispatch, order Beta to return as soon as they collar their thief. Then send a system wide All Hands, we are going to need the backup.” He swiped the view away from Alpha group back to where it had originally been: centered on a group of ten chevron shaped icons hanging sunwards from the gate.
The command deck flared again in the brilliance of the guns. In the hologram, one of the red icons turned grey.
“Gunnery, please target E. Tactical, report.” ordered Tol.
Some forty kilometers away from where the Gate Commander stood, Osarii cleared her comms and her throat. From her tiny frigate, she had an up-close-and-personal view of one of those red chevrons. The hull of the Tornado-class battlecruiser careened by as she tweaked her speed to allow her orbit to settle just a little closer. A quick glance through her canopy verified that the shimmering blur of her emanating from her ship’s entanglement generator still enveloped the battlecruiser’s stern. It wasn’t going anywhere. Looking out across the field she could see similar fields being applied to the rest of the attacking fleet.
Activating her comm link she answered, “Perps E through N are cuffed and pinned, Sir. We are also keeping an eye on the vic. I’m afraid that, at this rate, he just ain’t going to make it. I’ve run the outcome projections. It’s just too fucking slow.”
Seemingly to underline Osarii’s statement, another massive volley of 1400mm caliber rounds lit up the thirty or so kilometers between battlecruisers and the colossal but essentially defenseless Obelisk-class freighter desperately trying to reach the stargate’s jump field. Each impact sent great plumes of the freighter’s carapace hurling into space. Geysers of various gasses and fluids were venting explosively from impact craters all over the hull. Two of the freighter’s titanic cargo holds had been breached and storage containers could be seen spilling out onto approach lanes seven and eight. Regular gate traffic was starting to back up. To make matters worse, it seemed that several opportunistic scavengers were leaving the gate queues; some heading towards the freighter and others towards the rapidly cooling Tornado wrecks floating like blurry placeholders next to the remaining attacking force.
But Osarii wasn’t wearing the white gloves today, traffic control was someone else’s problem.
Back on the command deck Tol answered, “Excellent, tactical. Apprise me of any…”
The brilliance of a giant ball of flame as the next battlecruiser exploded, momentarily cutting him off. In the same moment the battle group Beta came out of warp right in the middle of outgoing traffic lanes five and six scattering the ships there like leaves.
“Beta, about time. Please lock and neutralize N, acknowledge,” barked Gate Command.
“Roger that Command,” answered Group B’s the communications officer, “Targeting systems still recovering from warp, we’ll have firing solutions in…”
But suddenly he was interrupted by an all channels system-wide broadcast originating from the freighter, “Anyone! We are a humanitarian hauler ferrying medicine, food, shelter and medical teams to Mehatoor. If you are a repair ship please we beg of you, your immediate assistance is needed. Need logistics support. You will be compensated. Proof of corporate solvency encoded in this message. We repeat, anyone! We are a humanitarian…”
Surprisingly, from the lengthening gate lane queue, Osarii saw several ships break away from their positions and begin orbiting the freighter.
“Are you seeing what I am seeing, Tactical?” asked Gate command.
“Several repair ships have answered the freighter’s distress call,” said Osarii elated, “I am re-running projections based on standard configurations. I am counting eight armor repair craft and two energy supply ships forming up and orbiting the freighter. Calculations are done, according to projected figures and at this configuration…”
“Hold, Tactical,” interrupted the Tol. “Ok, I’ve just gotten word from our sister gate that we have two squadrons of destroyer-sized ships inbound. They are owned by an corporation affiliated with that of our current aggressors. Jump control I need a count down.”
“Acknowledged Command, this is Jump Control. All fourteen ships are currently in warp to our gate. We are seeing gate reception cycle starting in four, three, two, one…activation!”
With a series of flashes the gate captured the incoming ships.
“Ok, where the fuck are they?” asked a pilot from Beta group.
“It will take a few moments for the jump gate residue to dissipate from their hulls if they stay motionless.” answered Osarii, surprised that this had to be explained. Too much time hunting easy targets in belts, she thought.
“Comms, can we get a feed of their communications?” asked Tol.
“Negative sir, they are on a priority paid private channel.”
Suddenly, the diminutive ships appeared simultaneously from everywhere around the gate. Just as rapidly, they aligned towards the freighter, afterburners blazing.
“Catalysts!” exclaimed Osarii, unsurprised yet completely dismayed. She had no doubt the freighter was in fact not their target.
“Permission to engage new targets, Command” asked Osarii.
“Denied, Tactial, stay on current targets.” came the answer just as quickly.
“But sir they are clearly heading towards the logistics ships!” said Osarii as she began adjusting her orbit to have a clean exit towards the freighter.
“Stand down Tactical! We have no legal reason to pursue or engage. Continue with current targets!” ordered the Gate commander.
Suddenly Osarii’s tactical data on two of the Augorors changed to suspect for criminal activities. In a blink of an eye, this information was transmitted to everyone in system. “What the hell…” she thought.
As if reading her mind, Tol broadcast, “This is Gate. Kill rights have been purchased, verified and granted. No one is to engage any ship engaging the suspects. Understood?”
“What?” exclaimed Osarii before she could stop herself. “Permission to engage sir!”
“Are you not listening? That’s a negative Tactical, continue with current targets.” came the reply.
Another Tornado exploded but Osarii’s eyes were fixed to what what happening around the freighter. The two newly declared suspect Augorors were aligning to jump away from the gate when they realized what had happened. One, more agile entered warp immediately but the other got caught in the drive destabilisation projector from a Caracal-class cruiser arising out of the gate traffic. Its weapon systems came online and suddenly the space between it and the Augoror was filled with the contrails of its heavy assault missiles. Before the initial volley had even hit the target another was launched and then another…
Meanwhile the catalysts had closed range and were bringing their offensive systems online. Choosing the same target as the Caracal, they fired seemingly as one, obliterating what remained of the already damaged Augoror’s shields and armor. But rather than finishing the job, they turned and formed up to charge the Caracal. Taken completely off guard, the Caracal’s shields went down in the first two volleys, the ship exploded with the next.
Osarii’s tactical display changed once again highlighting the catalyst group as shoot to kill. On her comms she read the standard broadcast to the catalyst fleet, “This is DED Gate Control. You have violated CONCORD law and committed a criminal act. We are authorized and required to use lethal force against your ships.”
“Finally”, she thought to herself as she once again requested, “Gate, now permission to engage Catalyst group?”
“Negative Tactical, stay on current target”, came the reply.
Her face started to sweat. Osarii knew she was angry when her face sweat. And now it was sweating. A bead rolled down the bridge of her nose down into her flight mask. They might as well just point the gate guns at the freighter.
The catalysts now split into two groups and began engaging the remaining logistics ships. But clearly the haphazard group of would be good Samaritans were over-matched by the well coordinated catalyst gang. It also seemed that no others dared engage after having seen what happened to the caracal. The catalysts adjusted bearing and engaged an exequror. Struggling to repel the attack, it recalled its repair drones from the freighter and launched a set of combats.
But then, suddenly, born of chaos: a mistake.
The exequror, having survived the catalyst onslaught from the repair fields it was receiving two nearby augorors, must have reused the wrong target lock and ordered its combat drones to engage the freighter instead of the catalysts.
Almost instantaneously, the automated message was delivered to the exequror as well as the the two augorors, “This is DED Gate Control. You have violated CONCORD law and committed a criminal act. We are authorized and required to use lethal force against your ships.”
“What?” yelled Osarii watching as the catalysts continued to tear into the exequror. “Are you out of your fucking…”
“Clear the comms, IMMEDIATELY Tactical, THAT IS AN ORDER!” bellowed Tol.
Sweat pouring down her face, Osarii tried to ignore the scene that was unfolding before her. She tried to not see Beta Group being re-tasked to target the logistics ships. She tried to block out the brilliant flashes coming from the gate, turning the exequror and the augorors into molten slag. She tried to forget the weapons lock she had on the catalysts. She especially tried to miss the moment when the remaining Tornado fired its last salvo into the freighter turning it into a great shuddering explosion.
She tried, but failed.
“If interstellar trade is New Eden’s life blood, then the arteries which allow it to flow are our stargates. These fantastic feats of engineering connect each and every known system; from hub to rim and back again uniting all of them, all of us, to be greater than the sum of the parts. But for this organism to live, blood must flow to all its organs, all its parts. Not just in the core; in the brain and in the heart and lungs but also at the periphery as well! Why? Because each cell that is cut off, will starve and will sicken and die. This necrotic cell then becomes the spawning ground, the ground zero, for disease and infection. Disease and infection which then spreads back from that one single festering cell and threaten the whole being! It is thus not only important, it is thus even beyond critical, it is fundamental, that our stargates be maintained, that they be protected, that they be armed to fend off any threat. Be it threats of old or new ones: rogue drones or the Drifter menace. And this must be done efficiently, professionally and above all, impartially…”
Kjersidur Elladall, excerpt from the published transcripts of his address to the CONCORD Inner Circle conference, Yulai VIII – Inner Circle Tribunal, YC117.
Osarii looked out along the 4 kilometer length of the stargate from the Commander’s office and observed the repair crews, salvage teams and ambulance ships mop up the remnants of this morning’s events. She blinked as the gate fired. Traffic continued, completely oblivious.
“So the cargo was, in fact, medical supplies?” asked Gate Commander Tol, provokingly.
“That’s what it says in my report, sir.” answered Osarii, attempting to remain calm.
“But it could have been, well, anything, could it not?” said Tol, trying again to make his point. He turned from his desk and also looked out at the myriad of scintillating ships working around the mass of the Stargate’s stabilization turrets. “And if it had been, let’s say, fifteen million units of anti-personnel mines destined to some oppressive regime or another, would you still be standing here in my office?”
They let the question hang there between them. Another Obelisk-class freighter warped in and queued to jump. They watched it lumber into lane 4, catch the authorization and with a flash, disappear.
“Osarii, you are a talented pilot and a decorated officer but dammit, you are police! We do not interpret laws. We enforce them. D. E. D. Directive ENFORCEMENT, Department. Get it? CONCORD makes the laws, DED enforces the laws. There is no good or bad, there is no morality. So the freighter was carrying medical supplies? Destined for which side? Who’s side would we have been on? Neither side, that’s which side we’re on. Because it doesn’t matter if the ship is carrying heavy ordnance or puppies being hugged by school kids: if you’re flagged, you’re flagged and we will take you down.”
Tol paused and asked, “Now, have I made myself clear, or are we going to continue having this problem every time the perp and the vic don’t sit right with you?”.
“Permission to speak frankly, sir,” asked Osarii.
“Don’t get all formal with me Osarii, now’s the time,” said Tol, knowing in his heart what was to come but still hoping somehow, it would not.
Osarii turned and looked at Tol, “Well sir, you say we are police, but I haven’t felt it in a long time. You talk of impartiality but day after day, perp after perp…targets are selected, laws enforced, but to what end? Peace? Safety? No, that’s all just bullshit. It’s fucking propaganda. Because, really, it’s all about power. DED is one of the most powerful corporations in New Eden. Why? Because it’s a fucking monopoly! From jump gates to system policing in every one of the thousands of Empire space systems, it’s all controlled by one corporation: DED. And to keep that monopoly and keep all the owners happy we have to make damn sure to display that power whenever we can so that the average extractor worker all the way up to the CEO elite of elites can be swamped in a continuous media campaign with but one single message, ‘You need us’. Well guess what, entire systems have gone dark to Sansha incursions and are we there? No. We stay in our ivory stations while trillions are spent on mercenary capsuleers. It’s not impartiality that keeps us out, it’s the bottom line. Cheaper to hire temporary mercs than to actually deploy an increased presence there. Oh, and bonus, the podders are smart enough to not bite the hand that feeds them. Win fucking win.”
Tol, resigned, just kept his eyes on hers.
“It’s not just that, how about security in New Eden?” She continued, “Are we spreading peace and stability to more and more systems? No. When’s the last time a system actually raised its security status? I’ll tell you when: fucking never, that’s when. And why is that? Because you can’t have flashy illicit drug busts or massive shoot outs in peaceful law-abiding systems because there aren’t any. And, whoops! There goes all your press, all your media, all your advertising, all your recruiting. So we come to this morning. Perfect example. Were there, in fact, any actual incentives for us to save that freighter? Absolutely none. Our fourteen-battlecruiser-kill-report goes back to Central, they can point to the numbers and say to everyone ‘Hey! look how much safer you all are, and, bonus: these bad guys we’re real tough ‘cause they had logistics support as well!’ Because you know and I know that no one actually reads our fucking reports. And then the media is going to be all over the medical supplies and as usual Central will get their media relations charlatans in and tomorrow or the next day we’ll have a nice statement, something along the lines of ‘We neutralized the attackers but if we just had a little more budget we could have avoided this tragedy. Queue the violins, cut to a child placing a wreath on a gravestone.’
Osarii paused, catching her breath. Then, as Tol remained silent, asked, “Tell me I’m wrong!”
Tol had stopped listening a while back. He’d heard it all before, hell, he’d even said some of those arguments himself. But that was a long time ago. He kept looking into Osarii’s eyes.
What he saw there, he’d seen in a thousand pairs of eyes and would see it in a thousand more: the burning fury towards injustice. The view that there was, in fact, right and wrong in the world. The view that you could actually make a difference if you righted every wrong. It was a view tolerated, at times even encouraged in the recruits. It motivated so many of them.
But with time, one comes to the realization that in the universe, there is no good, there is no evil, right or wrong. There is just form and formlessness. Order and chaos. To Tol, DED was form was order. In Osarii’s eyes all he saw was passion and chaos.
“You’re done.” he said.
“I haven’t even gotten started,” answered Osarii.
“It wasn’t a question, Osarii, you’re done,” said Tol. “This interview is over. You’re out. Guards.”
“What? That’s it? After eight fucking years? What, did I strike a chord, Tol? Hmm? Too fucking truthful for you?” cried Osarii as two heavily armed security personnel entered the office.
“Apprehend officer Laprairie and escort her to hangar 6. Have her personal effects brought to her there.” ordered Tol.
As the guards seized Osarii’s arms and forced her towards the door, she cried over her shoulder, “We could have fucking saved them you asshole! It’s on you, Tol, it’s on fucking, you! You’re a fucking robot, Tol. A fucking mindless drone. Fuck you!”
He let the door close behind them. The Gate Commander sat down slowly on his chair and swiveled it so he could look out at the orderly rows of traffic lining up to his gate.
“No, Osarii,” he thought, “I am simply at peace with myself.”
The gate flashed.
Pod and Planet Fiction Contest YC117 Entry
Category: Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden