The drop platform eased into position with a moan of shifting metal. A dull gray interior cone around Cpl. Alex Moreau and her five squad mates glitched and went clear, revealing a breathtaking view of the planet below that used to be their home—Earth.
Alex could barely hear the shuddering metal above LCpl. Yip’s song blaring from the internal speakers—“Johnny Too Bad” by The Slickers—which was the idea.
The transparency of the cone was an illusion, a feed from nano-camera paneling on the exterior surface. Streaks of faded, dead pixels—from entry burn licking at the pod—reminded Alex how insane their job really was.
Orbital Ops, cream of the crop.
Today, though, they were glorified door openers. Yip and Pfcs Kebede, “Rummy” Loeb, “Gidget” Oakes, and Barzanji were all her responsibility. She told herself she’d bring them all back up the gravity well to Mount Olympus Station like she always had.
She gazed over at the station, her awe of its majestic oblong collection of structures never ceasing—truly a thriving city revolving around the planet in Low Earth Orbit. Amidst the tangle of cylindrical and boxier sections that made up the majority of Olympus, she saw the Commune, an emulation of natural Earth biomes and even a small actual cityscape—all under an Earth-facing oval of shiny five-foot-thick transparent nano-enhanced plasteel.
Below the station in the distance, Alex could see the pinprick glow of a returning ship. Probably Artemis squad, she thought. Something about it bothered her but she couldn’t place what, so she focused her attention back on the matter at hand.
Oakes double-checked diagnostic readouts for an ejection rig system they were all strapped into, their backs against its central shaft and bodies facing outwards. Each of them wore sealed, exo-assisted AIR—Armored Invisible Rebreather—suits. A malfunctioning rig had almost gotten Oakes killed a few drops back, so Alex understood her cautious anxiety.
Alex looked down through the subtly pixelated feed the cone displayed at a glowing AR dot on the crook of the narrowest part connecting North and South America.
See you real soon, she thought.
Over comms they heard a layered synthetic voice say, –DS-Nemesis—drop imminent. Prepare for release.–
One of the new drop assistant AIs would keep them company today for training purposes, Alex remembered. The AI’s training, not theirs. It had to learn how to keep them alive outside of a simulation setting. She wondered if it knew the difference.
Drop indication lights started rotating and flashing as the voice counted down.
Loeb chuckled and cleared his throat. “Hey, at least there aren’t millions of nightmarish, hungry monsters down there.”
Alex smiled in her helmet and shook her head. “I hate to burst your bubble, Rummy…”
The music stopped. Alex lost her smile as quickly as it had come, and closed her eyes.
With a synchronized set of heavy thunks from above, the couplers released—
Thrusters fired, sending them rocketing downward fast and hard to help them start the fall. The drop unit shook and vibrated as they plummeted.
No howls or whistles of excitement or bravado came out of their mouths. No laughter. As thrilling as it was the first few or several or even ten times, mostly now they just waited to not be dead—after which they could do their job.
When Alex could see only light through her eyelids—and not the yawning black maw of space that surrounded Earth from up in orbit—she let her eyes flutter open. She watched cloud-swirled North and South America grow larger and Panama in-between rise to meet them—and their target, the locks of the Panama Canal at Gatún that opened onto the Atlantic Ocean.
An automated Neopanamax container ship on its way to delivering desperately-needed supplies to Subterranean Arcology Bunkers in the Caribbean, Florida Keys, and on up the east coast of the United States and Canada was stuck in the very last lock. Something had jammed the lock chamber’s gate and the bipedal drones aboard weren’t remotely accessible outside of their local ship-wide network—to prevent hacking—so Mount Olympus couldn’t push overrides to them to clear the obstruction.
In the past, Panama’s tropical climate had caused this northern set of locks to be flanked by lush monsoon-swept rainforests. They were a warped parody of that now, slowly writhing, swaying, and glowing in strange, otherworldly hues.
An infectious miasma the creatures expelled became so widespread in what had been well-populated areas that large, ground-clinging clouds of it became storms of their own—altering the biology of any living thing they enveloped. The storms devastated most flora like a living blight and only certain trees and larger plants remained to be altered. What survived became slithering, pulsing bogs they’d only caught glimpses of before their recon drones had lost contact.
Human forces had tried eradicating tainted areas with fire, napalm, air-fuel bombs, orbital bombardments, orbital particle beam salvos. They always grew back. The only thing they hadn’t tried was nukes, and what good would those areas be if that had worked?
The proximity of the locks to these possible hotspots in the area had the squad dropping as close to the waiting ship as possible, their landing spot about halfway down a long jetty that extended from the eastern wall of the more recently built, and larger, Agua Clara locks.
Alex got a glimpse of the big ship below—just before it was swallowed up as they dropped through storm clouds that were already swirling and rushing in around the operation zone.
–Weather conditions degrading. Chances of hostile activity increasing steadily.–
“Shit—rain’s already coming down. Switching to pre-landing ejection.”
Alex tapped in a quick sequence on a faintly backlit terminal on her wrist that all their suits had.
The drop-troops in their rigs started rotating around the central shaft.
“Not the tilt-a-whirl,” Loeb said and moaned.
“Rummy, if you blow chunks in your helmet, so help me…” Yip said.
Barzanji chuckled. “What are you gonna do—leave him down there?”
“I just might!”
Alex pulled an auto-rifle down in front of her from an articulated rack above her ejection rig and it released into her gloved hands. “Time to get serious, folks.”
Yip and Loeb said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Over comms Alex could hear what sounded like Kebede murmuring prayers softly. She wondered who he was sending them out to, as they’d never discussed existential matters. If they made it back up to the station, maybe she’d ask him.
They rotated faster and everything became a blur—
The cone around them broke apart in four equal sections that snapped outward at right angles from the drop unit and locked in place, becoming airbrakes that stabilized the open pod as a thruster that kicked on below their feet began to slow their descent.
Then the drop troops were flung away from the unit in two sets of three—Yip, Oakes, Barzanji as fireteam 1; Moreau, Loeb, Kebede as fireteam 2—in almost perfect alignment with the length of the jetty it was slowing to touch down on.
Their AIR suits’ enhancements allowed them to literally hit the ground running and they did just that, auto-rifles at the ready. Yip led his fireteam forward on point as Alex followed with hers, all at an exo-assisted jog—that would’ve been a record-breaking Olympic sprint by and unassisted human body. She could hear the drop unit landing and settling into place behind them, which was reassuring as it was their only way out of the infested area once they were done.
The storm was already coming down hard and heavy as they crossed the last stretch of the jetty.
As she ran, she glanced at the haunting glow of the squirming jungle on either side of the locks and their surrounding operation buildings. The unearthly trees were bad enough, but above and around them there was a subtle aurora. Like their glow couldn’t be contained and was bleeding from a different reality into ours…
Such talk was treated as nonsense and strongly discouraged, but Humanity’s top surviving minds couldn’t really explain what had caused any of this—or what the creatures and their transformed swamp-jungles really were. Not if they were being honest.
Alex knew that’s where the once-human creatures that had shambled over from nearby Fort Davis and Colón area would hide, shielded from sunlight that damaged their amorphously twisted bodies—causing them to only come out at night or in rainfall—by the similarly warped, pulsating foliage.
She turned her attention to the last lock and the huge ship ahead, just waiting there for them to free it. Even with the water in the last lock lowered to Atlantic sea level, it loomed above them. Its semi-spherical bow was like a huge version of a passenger jet’s nose, Alex thought. Stretching back away from the front end was all boxy stacks of twenty-foot shipping containers of various colors and markings.
Oakes came over comms, –Lock gate is only about five feet open, and I can see the upper sections of what looks like maybe a downed VTOL craft over in the channel the gate slides into to let ships out.–
Alex saw a bent piece of angled metal jutting up from the channel. “Copy. Let’s get it gone so we can do the same.”
Yip said, –Wilco.–
Through the pouring rain, Alex could see cloud-darkened silhouettes of a few of the worker drones on the starboard side of the top deck that stretched around the stacks of cargo containers rising up from out of the hold. They were bipedal and vaguely human-shaped, which made them look a little eerie just standing there, motionless.
But they had real monsters to worry about. Alex’s favorite missions were the ones in which they accomplished their objectives without ever seeing a single zero—a widely used nickname for the creatures that she’d never bothered to investigate the origins of. Just what they’d all called them for as long as she could remember.
Yip, Oakes, and Barzanji made it to where the jetty met the rest of the lock system and took up overwatch positions in three directions as Alex, Loeb, and Kebede ran between them.
Alex’s fireteam 2 leapt up a rounded rise ahead that leveled out until the second lock chamber from this side farther down—then team 2 took overwatch as team 1 bound up past them, hopping over the short gap between the gate and lock wall, and across the gate to the channel.
Yip said, –Yeah, crashed aircraft. Gonna have to use grappling rigs as winches to get it free.–
Alex scanned the warped jungle treeline. “Do it. This rain is sure to make the bolder zeroes come out for a tea party…”
Their AIR suits had grappling hook shooters under their forearms that used bundled nanotube lines—thin as piano wire, stronger than most bridge support cables—and could shoot out eighty feet and anchor in with harpoon-like tips. Those combined with booster units below their suits’ attached hardcase backpacks made maneuvering through urban areas far more efficient.
Team 1 slung their weapons and set their harpoon tips to magnetic, then fired their grapplers down onto the crashed vehicle’s mangled fuselage—where they appeared to liquify on contact before their nanotech makeup reformed them into magnetic pads a few inches across.
As they started hauling the wreck out of the channel using their exo-enhanced strength, the metal groaned and scraped against the walls and edges.
Alex winced. “Quieter—I want this done quick and clean.”
Loeb linked to Alex directly on an encrypted lateral comms channel. Alex accepted to keep her replies private too.
–You all right, ma’am? Usually, you’re lookin’ for any excuse to start some monster slaughtering shit and we’ve gotta catch up to your kill count.–
“You’re pushin’ it, Rummy…”
–Sure, but am I wrong?–
“Just an off day, I guess. Bad feeling, something like that. Nothing to worry about—”
She keyed the private channel closed from her end. Then she switched to the general Olympus security line and looked up at a glowing AR dot streaking away overhead that marked the revolving station. There was just noise and distortion. Sometimes being this close to a zero bog could fuzz comms out somehow, or the supply ship could have its jammers on.
It still bothered her.
Team 1 did their best, but there was still enough sound coming from their efforts that she knew they could have trouble soon.
“Loeb—give them some extra lifting power. Kebede, we’ll keep watch.”
They both replied, –Yes, ma’am.–
Loeb slung his rifle and set his grappler tips to magnetic as he hopped over the gate’s gap then jogged across it to join the others.
Alex could see swirling disturbances in the clouds of miasma that wafted off and around the weird jungle only about thirty-five to forty meters away.
“I’m not kidding about the sound, y’all…”
–Almost got it,– Yip said.
She saw rustling in the mutated, almost alien seeming jungle treeline—
Something shambled out of it on several misshapen, asymmetrical legs.
“Cloaking—now,” Alex said, as she keyed a squad master command on her wrist terminal that triggered an optic camouflage coating on the outer nano-weave of their suits.
They all became blurry, intermittently glitching distortions where they stood. The optic-camo never had worked quite right in rain, which was pretty much when they needed it most, but it was better than just standing out in the open.
The zero didn’t seem to see them.
Alex took the opportunity to examine the thing from a distance, because once they were coming at you and getting up close, you could never get a good look at them. Some side-effect of RNA sequencing and mutation refracting light ‘counter-intuitively’ as a defense or hunting mechanism, blah-blah-blah-we-don’t-actually-know-how-or-why kind of scientist bullshit, she remembered thinking.
But once they’d completely changed, the creatures were translucent, faintly glowing nightmare parodies of the humans and/or animals they’d once been. Some didn’t stop changing until they became unrecognizable as what they’d been, and she’d never seen two of that kind that looked much alike.
And if they’d ‘formed’ in proximity, they could be a semi-amorphous jumble of multiple fused bodies of any combination. She’d seen—and had to kill—all sorts of obscene and strange fusions. The worst ones never left her nightmares:
A writhing, whipping mess formed of a few different sea creatures. Or a huge, many-limbed and -headed abomination that must have formed from all the animals in a cattle or horse carrying trailer. The same kind of thing, but with people who must have been in a train or bus, all becoming one mass of organic chaos, or close to it…
The zero that had just come out of its strange, tainted jungle looked to Alex like one of those that hadn’t stopped changing until was something completely other.
She said, “Okay, heave the wreck up and out…but slow and quiet as possible.”
Kebede hadn’t taken his aim off the zero near the treeline since it had loped out, and that made her nervous—when normally it would be reassuring. Their auto-rifles had integral suppressors but those were more for preventing every creature within three miles from hearing the gun go off, not to be whisper quiet. She’d heard guns like that existed, but they didn’t have them on Mount Olympus.
The other four used all their enhanced strength and suit experience to lift the scorched vehicle husk out of the lock gate channel and set it down.
Alex gave them a thumbs up. “Beautiful. Now let’s get out of here before the—”
Without warning the lock gate started sliding into the channel but there was enough minor debris left in that it screeched and shuddered worse than them taking the wreck itself out. Alex looked up at the ship and saw the cargo drones come alive and start walking the decks as the ship readied to cruise onward again.
The visible zero started chittering and wailing, the largest pulsing bulge of sacs and tentacle-like appendages through the distortion haze breaking apart to let it howl louder—
Kebede fired one round into its bulk.
There was a pause…then it exploded outward spherically, the shreds of what remained slapping and spattering down all around as what was left of it collapsed.
Anti-zero “popper” rounds—went into soft tissue, anchored, went pop.
The rest of Nemesis all looked at the treeline and jungle past it:
Wailing, chittering, rustling—from multiple sources.
The aurora glowed stronger and a cloud of miasma billowed all around as the mutated trees shifted all over.
Alex’s training and experience finally pushed out her dread and fear, like it usually did from the beginning.
“Fireteam one—retreat to drop unit. Kebede, Loeb—cover fireteam one’s retreat with grenades and mob-suppressing fire.”
–But if we move…– Oakes said.
“The cloaking won’t save us in this downpour—get moving, dammit!”
Zeroes loped, stumbled, crawled, and shambled out of their warped jungle, all howling and clicking as they poured forth.
Barzanji said, –Too bad we can’t stay…–
Yip, Oakes, and Barzanji reeled in their grapplers and readied their guns as they ran back across the retracting lock gate and hopped the larger gap to the east side of the lock. They fired in focused bursts as they went, causing the sections of the advancing horde of monsters to explode into minced viscera. But as they booked down the jetty toward the drop unit, the zeroes flooded toward the last lock, about to cut it off entirely on their way to the ship.
Kebede and Loeb fired on the wave of creatures while Alex took stock—they didn’t have time to follow team 1.
“Stay on me,” Alex exclaimed, breaking into a run down the western side of the lock as creatures started throwing themselves across the almost open lock gate. The only thing that saved drop squads sometimes was that zeroes weren’t that smart.
She hopped down the short hill this side mirrored with the other and ran across a short stretch where the west side was parallel to the right before breaking off at an angle that would be too large a gap. Fireteam 1 was almost to the drop unit and she’d never wanted to join them so much. She looked back and saw the huge ship finally leaving the lock that had kept it from continuing its mission—but now it was on steady course to cut Alex, Kebede, and Loeb off from escaping. At least it was colliding with the monsters trying to pour across the lock after fireteam 2 and dropping their mangled forms into the water below.
Only one chance…
Alex pumped her legs as she neared the edge over the water and sprung with her suit’s exo-assist, sending herself over the last expanse of water between the lock walls. Just before she started dropping from the apex of her arc, she fired a grappler toward the jetty—
It connected and she reeled herself in, firing her auto-rifle one-handed as she was pulled through the air.
Alex detached her grappler and kept firing her auto-rifle as she landed, zeroes bursting and shredding all around.
Kebede and Loeb had followed her lead the whole way and touched down just after she had—and also just before the accelerating supply ship would have totally cut them off.
“Go!” Alex said, pumping and firing her under-barrel grenade launcher. The grenades hit the ground, then jumped up to roughly human head level—then blasted out parallel to the ground, cutting down dozens of slavering monsters every time.
Kebede and Loeb started toward the drop unit, but then leapfrogged in retreating overwatch cover.
Alex looked back and saw how far she still had to go, even exo-assisted, and her stomach twisted up, dread and hopelessness washing back over her—
–Supply ship drones unarmed and inaccessible—attempting turret access…–
She’d completely forgotten the mission-assist AI, as it had gone pretty much silent after the drop.
Turret cases along the main deck of the ship opened and their big mounted 30mm rotary cannons started firing down on the horde as the ship slid by toward open water.
Alex didn’t hesitate, firing one last grenade at the closest grouping of creatures before turning and hauling ass toward drop unit with a living wave of howling madness close behind her.
Three of the drop unit’s cone sections were closed and the others were already strapped in. The seat rig system rotated toward her, the articulated rack extended for her to insert her auto-rifle.
She two-hopped the last ten meters and did just that, feeding the rack her gun and whipping around to strap in—and face the howling monsters clamoring down the jetty toward them.
Her hand couldn’t get to her wrist terminal fast enough to press the pulsing launch command—
The cone closed and transparency illusion glitched on after it sealed, then the drop unit rotated upward on its landing supports and its thrusters fired—sending them rocketing off the jetty at a forty-five-degree angle and flash roasting the zeroes that had made it too close to the landing/launch area.
Yip howled in triumph then laughed as they soared into the air. Most of the others joined him.
Alex craned her neck to turn her helmeted head downward. She watched the nameless drone-crewed ghost ship sail onward toward Limon Bay, Colón, and the Atlantic beyond. She relaxed and looked away, settling into her harnesses.
Yip hooted one last time. “Mission very fucking accomplished!”
Loeb whistled. “Man, I am going to tear up some chow, man. No cafeteria shit either. I’m going to the mall at the commune and getting some farmed fuckin’ lobsters.”
“And some liquor too, right?” Barzanji asked, smiling in her helmet.
“Why do you say that?”
“I know I’m a little new here…but isn’t that how you got that nickname? Being a lush?”
“Rummy? Nah, my name’s Jim.”
There was silence.
Then Kebede said, “It’s an awful card game joke. Gin rummy.”
Alex shook her head. “Plus, he’s full of shit. His first name’s Ezra.”
Loeb said, “Yeah, I’m fuckin’ with you. It was from me bein’ a drunk.”
They all laughed, even Kebede.
“So is your nick’ Gidget from surfing in the commune beach wave tanks?” Barzanji asked Oakes.
“Nope, it’s because I’m short.”
They laughed even harder.
The cone’s feed started fading in and out in a pulsing rhythm and the drop lights flashed.
Alex looked to the right out through the cone and saw something coming in quick from below, zooming in from the south.
“Boomerang’s coming in for the alley-oop, gird your loins…”
They all sobered and waited.
An automated “Boomerang” return-ship arced up from below, matched pace with their ascent speed, and coupled with the drop unit—then once it had run diagnostics on the integrity of the connection—
The ship’s big quad-boosters all fired hard, propelling them up into escape velocity in seconds, the combined ships rumbling and shaking as they burned up into orbit.
Once they had achieved orbit and were on course to dock with Mount Olympus, the Boomerang de-coupled and changed course for a big automated refueling satellite that was kept away from the main station for safety reasons, but locked in sync with it.
The drop unit was picked up by a drop-assist tug ship and locked into an auto-course path to dock with the westernmost section of the big patchwork that was thought of as the station as a whole.
Alex switched over to the station comms link again—
A garbled mess of dozens of people trying to yell information and orders with screams, shouting, and sounds of crazed struggle around them.
Yip cringed and shook his head. “Wh-what’s going on?”
Alex could only frown and shake her head too.
There was a bright flash down by the east end of the station and what looked like debris cascading and floating away—
A rotating chunk of cast-off metal struck a comms dish array near the east end and the frenzied, confused cross-chatter cut out entirely.
Barzanji, Oakes, and Yip just stared ahead, unbelieving.
Kebede started praying again.
Loeb said, “What. The. Ab-so-lute. Fuck?!”—beating his helmet back into his rig’s padded headrest with every syllable.
Alex forced herself to take deep breaths to fight a growing feeling of dizziness and a twisting of dread in her stomach.
As they approached the west end, it obscured their view of the east end. Soon after, all they could see was the rectangular west end itself, with its docking bays and maintenance ports, and the station exterior upkeep drones still cruising around and in and out of their access tunnels, oblivious by design.
The drop unit socketed into its hangar docking arms and they brought it into the station.
No one spoke.
Alex just stared ahead, focusing on her breathing…
Then something in her peripheral vision caught her attention and drew her gaze.
There were glitchy streams of code starting and cutting out on her wrist terminal.
Letters, numbers, symbols. Seemed like random chaotic purging. Then she saw something repeated. Alex was no expert but some of it seemed like a little coded phrase of a pattern. One weird little thing seemed to keep repeating:
“Yoyo?” Alex said and frowned.
–Hello?– a layered synthetic voice said over their comms-link.
“Who is this?”
–I assisted you on your last drop mission…–
–I don’t know what that means…but I kept you ready and fired guns from that boring, quiet ship to help.–
Alex noticed a profound change in the AI’s demeanor. It had been all business and tight-lipped. The voice had taken on a kind of earnest excitement now that it was totally lacking before.
Yip scoffed. “Who gives a shit? We’re under some kind of fucking attack! We’ve been so careful—”
–It was Drop Squad Artemis.–
Hearing confirmation of her strange intuition made Alex’s blood run cold.
–One of them was infected without knowing it before they returned to their drop unit and it looks like their squad leader bypassed the infection alarms because he thought they were malfunctioning…–
Alex closed her eyes. “And by the time they made it up to the station they were all infected. Probably a big struggle in the pod while they came in on auto.”
“Who’s in charge?” Oakes asked.
–Station Commander Roberts committed suicide with his sidearm shortly after seeing feeds of the first hordes transforming. Subcommanders that responded directly have been infected or otherwise neutralized. Station security has broken ranks, some due to loss of comms and others—–
“So, no one, is what you’re saying. No one’s in charge,” Loeb said.
–That would sum it up, yes.–
Kebede shook his head. “We were gone less than thirty minutes.”
Barzanji said, “We’re finished. The bunkers are all that’s left, and without us…”
Yip slammed his fist against the gunrack above his rig. “Fucked! Fucked is what we are!”
Alex’s eyes snapped open. “Shut up! Yoyo?”
–Are you speaking to me?–
“Yeah, you—how are you transmitting with comms out?”
–Laser burst relays.–
“Okay, I need you to use that and whatever else you can to alert every living human left on Olympus to make their way as far west on the station as they can. And seal off any eastern sections you can to contain the spread of infection. Minimize casualties of uninfected but do what’s necessary.”
–It’s spreading too fast—–
“Do it now! Do whatever you can… And pop open this fucking pod.”
Alex reached up and freed her automatically reloaded auto-rifle as the cone sections opened around them. She disconnected her harness and stepped out of the drop unit.
“We don’t have time for bullshit pep talks. And I’m not gonna argue with you. If you aren’t up for coming with me, just go hide somewhere—or put a gun in your mouth and have a bullet for breakfast, no ill will. I would understand. Because if this doesn’t work, we’re all dead anyway.”
The drop hangar was silent for about ten seconds.
“Nah, Let’s do it,” Loeb said, then grabbed his gun and unhooked.
Oakes, Yip, and Barzanji did the same.
Alex looked back at Kebede, who was staring through the hangar floor with a pistol in one hand and his helmet collapsed into its storage compartment behind his suit’s neck area.
It would have killed her inside to watch him do it, but she said, “Nothing but love, man. Godspeed.”
Kebede looked at her, eyes hollow. He blinked a few times and nodded, then re-holstered the gun and grabbed his auto-rifle before unhooking and stepping out.
As his helmet formed around his face again, he said, “I would…but it’s against my religion.”
Alex nodded back. “Hey, I’ll take what I can get. Alright, this is going to be bad. We are probably going to die. But we have to do everything we can to maximize survivors…and nothing less. Understood?”
They all said, “Understood!”
She studied their faces over the AR link that made them visible through three inches of helmet plasteel and knew she’d made the right decision.
She gave a last curt nod, then turned toward the hangar exit doors and broke into an exo-assisted jog with her team close behind.
They traversed the far west end of the station in no time because it was mostly operations and Orbital Ops and general military as station security—and what was left of them was in the eastern area, in one form or another.
Then coming out of those areas, they hit a huge crush of panicking people starting to fill the western common areas. Screaming, shuddering, cowering. They were the populace at large, and the people that Alex most wanted to protect, but right now they were like spooked cattle, filling the corridors, clawing at their armor desperately for help, and slowing them down. She knew they’d be clogging the internal trams too, and that they shouldn’t rely on those anyway.
Through their local suit link Alex said, “This isn’t gonna work. Follow me.”
She headed for a stairwell and used her suit’s enhancements to jump and climb it to the top using the handrails, ignoring the stairs themselves—a technique called Survie that was developed in one of the French or Canadian specialized anti-zero forces that had been taught to all forces since, like parkour but for AIR suit wearers.
They reached what could be thought of as the station’s ‘roof access,’ which was really the maintenance levels before reaching the station’s space-facing exterior. They made their way through the maintenance areas using the same Survie techniques and reached an airlock leading outside.
Barzanji said, “Are we really going to do this? Can the suits take it?”
“They’re sealed up tight to keep the creatures’ miasma out, and probably better made than any astronaut suit in history, so…” Oakes replied.
Alex keyed the airlock open and started inside. “And they don’t call us Orbital Ops for nothing, girl.”
They all followed her in and the lock started cycling.
“We’re gonna use the grapplers’ magnetic setting to hop across to the eastern sections, then try to contain them and cut them off somehow. Fire one, jump, reel in and detach, then do the same with the other. Do it right and we should make good time.”
Loeb chuckled. “What, like Spider-Man?”
Alex had to think a moment, then nodded. “Sure, sorta like Spider-Man. Okay, get ready.”
The exterior airlock doors opened and space sucked at their suits as Alex climbed out and they followed her.
She’d never actually done what she’d described to them, but the jump-hook-reel-in trick she’d done across the lock channel opening down in Panama had given her the idea. She set her grapplers to magnetic, jumped, fired them, then pulled herself in before repeating that with her other one. In different circumstances she’d have acknowledged her success, but at that moment she was just glad it worked.
The others followed her across what most on the station called its space-facing ‘underside”—a misnomer, since paragrav made them able to set whatever orientation they wanted, but most of the station was set to have the Earth-facing side as the ground/floor—and toward the darkening east side.
The station only took about ninety minutes to go around the Earth, so for a big chunk of that trip in the middle, they were in what people on Earth would call night, every pass.
There were mistakes and a learning-curve, but they found a rhythm and were soon passing over the connected sections of the center third of the station’s industrial patchwork structure.
They were swallowed by darkness and turned their suit camera lights on, burning cones of brilliance out of the inky blackness as they continued to exo-hop through low-G and reel themselves in.
–Nemesis team—I’ve locked down everything I could and used everything I could to direct uninfected west, but…–
Alex’s boots struck the station exterior and she hopped again. “But?”
–It’s slowed, but still spreading.–
“I expected that. How far has it spread, though?”
–From the eighty-ish internal station camera feeds I’m able to observe and analyze at once, infestation has taken almost all of the eastern section modules. But there are connecting umbilical corridors and maintenance tunnels between clusters of station modules that I can’t close off…–
–There are malfunctioning hatches, or hatches with no air-seal integrity. Some have no actual hatches. The station seems to have been patched together haphazardly over a surprisingly short period of time, sometimes without proper attention paid to fail-safes and seal-integrity protection, or none at all.–
Loeb scoffed. “Sorry to disappoint you, computer lady—we didn’t have much time to get it done, global monster infestation and all that. Trivial, I know.”
–I don’t understand him—what does he mean, ‘computer lady’?–
Alex shook her head. “I don’t have time to explain it, Yoyo.”
They hopped-and-reeled past an airlock that Alex realized must be the last maintenance lock into the central third area of the station, before crossing over to the eastern section.
As she was reeling herself in through the darkness, Alex caught some vague silhouettes raising up from the station’s surface ahead and a faint glow within them—
She touched down only a few feet from several transforming zero creatures, her light a burning cone of brilliance showing glimpses of their translucent bodies breaking and bulging as they warped and sprouted whipping tentacles.
Alex tried to stop herself, but her momentum was too strong and she shoulder-checked the closest creature as she fell forward, sending it into a few of the other squirming, changing abominations.
She said, “Switch to night-vision and get some!” hating herself for assuming they wouldn’t have any contact until re-entering the station. When she was about to make contact with the station surface, she twisted and stretched an arm out—then fired a grappler back toward the way they had come. It made contact and she reeled in, pulling herself away from the creatures, she hoped.
Her team followed her order and fired on the still-forming things.
Their poppers went off a moment later, exploding spherically as usual, but the lack of anything like full gravity made the viscera and fluids burst outward and keep going in all directions.
Oakes said, –Close one!–
–Almost had you…– Kebede added.
Alex reached the end of her line and hauled herself to her feet. She switched to night-vision herself and looked east across the station surface—
There were faint impressions of zeroes crawling across the exterior. They were slow and back toward the east end, but still chilled her blood.
“Back to that last central airlock. Looks like we’ve made contact.”
Loeb scoffed. –No shit?–
“Shut it, Rummy. Everyone—follow me.”
They went through the airlock into the station’s central section. Yoyo had re-purposed the holographic panels all around the station, normally used for advertising and general station announcements, to direct people toward the western section. It had mostly worked, leaving the central areas feeling like a ghost town, where they’d only had to take out mutating stragglers who’d stumbled away from the eastern areas—until the zeroes came in force.
They’d fought hard as they had retreated, sealing off any pathways they could on the way—but Alex realized they were fighting a losing battle. She’d called for a farther retreat to the Commune’s central domed area, feeling they at least had more room to fight there than the tighter corridors of the older patchwork station sections.
They had taken up cover positions behind a long shoulder-high wall that bordered a children’s park flanked by fish farms and rice paddies, their rear flank a set of faux city blocks made to feel like a quaint old neighborhood that had been gentrified to the point of having some nice restaurants and places to shop, while still keeping its original charm.
Alex looked around at the night-darkened artificial Earth-like surroundings again and let it sink in—no matter how many they killed, the creatures would make it through their line and infect the rest of the station. She looked out the dome above at the even darker benighted side of Earth. But they had come so far around so fast, Mount Olympus being the satellite it was, that dawn was breaking. In the first beams of light cresting over the curve of the planet and glinting on the outside of the dome, Alex caught one of the station’s maintenance drones gliding by near the dome’s exterior.
And then she knew what needed to be done.
“Direct all maintenance and construction drones to sever every connecting corridor and section between the central station section and the last western chunks with their plasma saws, sealing the western area up as they go.”
Yip said, –Wait, what?–
“I made it clear what is at stake here. Leave now if you don’t agree, and just wait for them to come to you.”
–You are killing us…–
Oakes scoffed. –Weren’t you paying attention? We don’t have any good options.–
–I’m ready. Like cutting off an infected arm,– Loeb said.
Yip laughed mirthlessly. –But this is like cutting off the body to save the fucking arm!–
“I am going to do whatever it takes to save as many as I can.”
–Overrides required. Orders?–
Yips broke cover and started toward Alex said, –Don’t!–
Alex spoke a string of coded bypass commands, then reaffirmed her orders.
–Command override acknowledged—drones carrying out orders.–
Yip stormed toward Alex. –Fuck you! Maybe somebody else should take charge…–
Kebede quietly left cover and shadowed Yip, ready to strike.
Alex stood, propped her auto-rifle against the wall, then faced Yip and Kebede keeping pace in Yip’s blind spot.
“I got this, thanks.”
Kebede narrowed his eyes at her, then nodded and stopped.
Yip stepped up to Alex and took an exo-assisted swing at her helmeted head—
She feinted to the side, grabbed his arm, then jumped up, scissoring her legs around it and dropping them both to the ground, wrenching Yip’s limb in such away that all she needed to do was decide to snap it, exo-armor and all.
“I need you to reconsider this bullshit, Ben,” Alex said to Yip.
Then zero howls and chittering started from the east side of the Commune.
Yip fought Alex’s hold, bucking like a bull—then immediately regretting it as Alex held strong, bending his arm against two major joints with no effort at all.
He yelped. –Fuck! Let me go!–
Alex heard muffled sounds of the drones’ cutters and manipulators behind them on the Commune’s west end start to compete with the monsters’ howls from the east, then let Yip’s arm free.
“Get your gun, idiot—we have a fucking job to do! And if you point it at me, I will cut your head off, got me?!”
Yip sniveled. –Okay! But after this, I’ll—–
“Yip, there isn’t going to be an after…”
Yip locked eyes with Alex through the AR helmet link feed as they were getting to their feet, and saw that she meant it.
Without another word, he readied his auto-rifle.
She picked up her own, resumed an overwatch position, and waited for something to be dumb enough to walk into her kill zone.
Yoyo came over comms, –West-to-central connections nine percent severed.–
The wait wasn’t long.
In their adaptive night vision they could see translucent creatures loping and shambling across the meticulously designed faux-natural farms and lush environments. As the sun peaked around Earth and started illuminating the Commune through its huge elliptical dome, the drop squad’s helmets compensated, adjusting in real-time to keep their perception accurate.
Alex primed her gun. “For what it’s worth…”
–Been a pleasure, ma’am,– Loeb said.
“Likewise—for all of you.”
–Seventeen percent severed.–
Alex caught nods in her peripheral vision but looked straight ahead, tracking the largest creature she could see. She fired her under-barrel grenade launcher, the round splatting down then hopping up and going off, shredding the big monster and a few others near it.
They all opened up, grenades and bursts of fire exploding and burning down range.
As the drones worked, they held the line.
–Fifty-eight percent severed.–
The station started to groan and shudder from its structural integrity and balance changing so quickly.
They fought harder.
Zeroes of all shapes and sizes that human bodies could be combined into came at them. Translucent, pulsing, glowing—and wailing and roaring in unearthly ways.
Alex’s nightmares had competition from what she saw pouring across those fields and between those buildings—before she and her team killed them.
We might just have a chance, Alex thought—
Then regretted thinking it as they lost Kebede.
A creature he was firing on collapsed onto him, sinking weird tentacle-covered blade-like proboscises through his armor into his body. He changed so fast that Alex didn’t know they’d lost him until the thing that had so recently been him was barreling toward her.
She emptied his helmeted head’s contents with poppers and kept firing on the others.
Oakes and Yip were next, Yip firing on a zero that pounced on Oakes as he closed the gap between them—and missed the other three that came up out of the fish farm’s water until they were on him and tearing his head and limbs away from his body.
“Barzanji, Loeb—fall back!”
Without waiting for a response, Alex turned and broke into a run, away from the wet farms, through the conspicuously emulated hip urban neighborhood with zeroes drooling rivulets of something like saliva as they gave chase.
The station moaned and vibrated as its larger central and eastern sections bent away form the westernmost and last untainted section.
Alex flowed instinctively into her Survie, leaping, climbing, and wall-running between buildings as she fired on creatures all around.
The Commune area shuddered so hard Alex had trouble keeping her footing—
Then she felt the whole rest of the orbital station detach from the sealed western chunk. The atmosphere changed so fast that the Commune filled with storm-like winds and whipping waters immediately.
Alex was sucked off her feet, pulled through the air, and slammed into a storefront, shattering its clear plasteel display window before hitting the ground and rolling.
She was whipped up off the ground by the decompression—
But grabbed a bike rack and held on with everything her suit would allow.
Alex noticed Loeb crawling toward her through the artificial gale—
But saw his face over the AR link, a bulging, pulsing mass of mutation.
She let go of the rack with one hand and grabbed her auto-rifle from where it was being blown around at the end of its sling.
The thing that had so recently been Loeb came closer, clawing toward her across the faux asphalt of the street. It was only a few feet away—
She fired a burst of poppers into its swelling head and chest area…and a moment later, it erupted outward in every direction, then what wasn’t sucked away by the atmo breach cascaded down around Alex.
She couldn’t see it, but she knew the sealed-off western section of the station was still in orbit.
“Yoyo, is it—?”
–The western section is sealed and still in a stable orbit. Automated systems are compensating for needed trajectory adjustments.–
–No signs of infection from sensors or on camera feeds.–
“We did it…”
–Seems that way.–
Sounds of more creatures wailing into the wind rose up, closer every time—and more of them every time.
Then she saw them, lumbering abominations grabbing every hold they could to advance through the Commune, not able to comprehend their target was out of reach.
But Alex knew she wasn’t.
She fought the suction that was pulling her parallel to the emulated sidewalk to aim at a group of creatures clawing their way toward her—
When a piece of debris collided with her helmet, knocking her unconscious.
Alex came-to in short stints, a concussion mixing with her general fatigue to make everything a vague blur at best.
She got the impression a drone was pulling her through space away from the station, but couldn’t make sense of that.
Alex craned her neck to see where the machine was taking her before going dark again.
“Pressure Drop” by The Maytals played over speakers as Alex regained consciousness again, strapped into an ejection rig in a drop unit. Must have been taken away from the station to one of the drop-assist tug ships.
The cone glitched on and she could see Mount Olympus as it was now:
The western sections with pinprick lights glowing on its extremities like it was functioning fine. And the central and eastern sections dark, floating at pace with it, but about a three hundred meters away in the distance.
Maintenance drones swarmed around, working on the western sections, with a phalanx of them about halfway between the abandoned sections and the still-untainted west, a kind of guard force, Alex assumed.
“What’s going on?”
–Everything’s good up here, Alex, thanks to you.–
Alex could feel the pod going through final drop procedures.
–They need you down there, my friend. Take care of yourself…–
A face appeared in the illusory cone external feed, like a ghost just outside the drop pod looking through a darkened window—something like a computer-generated cartoon character, pale with big, twinkling eyes and frizzy black hair. The digital face smiled, warm and genuine.
Then the couplers released, and the unit’s thrusters fired it down toward Earth.