“C’mon, c’mon” she whispers to no one but herself. “Get back here.” The red trajectories of her scan probes on the system map indicate that each had entered warp and were returning at maximum speed. At times, even faster than light travel was too slow. Like now. Every millisecond those glowing buckets of coherent unnatural energy emissions spent out there, the probability of being detected increased. She would have chewed her fingernails, had she could. Instead, she pings her proximity scan at maximum range and prays nothing shows up. Obsessively, she follows the dots as they fly towards her position, trying through sheer force of will to make them go faster. She adds a countdown timer onto each dot and watches as they flash towards zero.
Finally, the hydraulics in the cargo hold resonate as the bay doors open and the manipulators begin catching each probe as it emerges from warp and races the next eight hundred meters or so towards her ship. In different circumstances she might have paused to marvel at the precision and grace with which the probes decelerate, are caught and then stacked neatly in the launcher’s charging mechanism ready to be redeployed. Her only concern at the moment, however, is getting those bay doors sealed. With them open, her ship is nearly as detectable as those probes. “I might as well be painted white,” she thinks.
As soon as number eight was safely in its rack and the familiar hiss seal of the bay doors closed behind it, she engages the stealth module and the ship vanishes in a wink.
Selecting from one of their predetermined frequencies, she sent her report as quickly as she could. “Multiple new signals at grav site epsilon. Movement. Hundred and ten megaton mass. Remaining cloaked. Await further instructions. Passcode Jumper-Delta-Nine”. Turning off the emitter and then all other non-essential active systems, she wipes the system overlay away from her field of view and replaces it with the output monitors of her passive scanners, ready to receive the return transmission. Her duty done, she could finally relax. But she doesn’t.
Relaxed prey is caught prey.
To Helena, the war had simply always been. She’d been born to a life that was a blur of treating the injured, gathering food and running away but mostly it had been about how to tell time. Just after dusk, every twenty four hours and forty five minutes precisely, the hives moved. That was when the drones took flight and came out to hunt them.
One of her earliest memories, well, natural memories anyway, was her older brother, Xhen, teaching her what to do during an attack.
“We’re going to play another game, ok Elie? It’s hide ‘n seek, like you are already so good at, but this time we’re going to add something, ok?” Her freckled face nodded vigorously. She’d probably been no more than four or five. “Ok, now, before finding the bestest hiding spot in the whole world, you are going to run to the Genrice pond and pull up as much as you can, don’t worry about getting wet or mud splash all over you. Make sure to get the roots too and the more mud the better, ok?” She liked the genrice pond. That’s where they had food. And sometimes she got seconds. Xhen continued, “And then when your hands are full you run as fast as you can, in a zig-zag, like a white wabbi, Elie. See, it rhymes!” Xhen always had tricks to make her remember.
“But if I’m a white wabbi, they’re gonna see me, Xhen” she protests. “I wanna be brown or black or…or, dark green with brown spots like the jumpers, is that ok, Xhen? Can I be a jumper Xhen? You never see the jumpers until you step on them!”
“Well, well little sis, I can hear mom’s smarts behind those words!” beamed Xhen. “Ok, you can be a jumper, but remember to zig-zag! You don’t always have a pond to swim away in, you have to run.” He walks over to the pickings pile and grabs a burned piece of a flier drone’s outer shell. Holding it over his head, he starts to imitate the hum-click noises they make as he walks towards the little girl.
With all the seriousness a four year old can muster she races towards the center of the camp ducking and weaving through tents, cook fires and people. Getting to the pond she grabs two little handfuls of the pale grasses growing from within the water-filled plastic basin. Without skipping a beat she bolts out past the other orphans gathering the nights meal and out towards the fern-filled underbrush of the plankwood forest, zigzagging in pattern so erratic it would confuse a dragonfly.
She remembers the cramped places she found to hide, under rocks, next to trees, in grassy sandy overhangs. She’d always been able to get away. Once dug in, she’d look around and wait tucking her wet muddy prize to her chest. That was the other part of hide and seek she was good at. Waiting. Ten turns, twenty turns, thirty turns and then the short-long-short buzz would come in on her wristlink. All clear. Come home.
“Eighty nine”, counts deck hand as his exosuit’s manipulators maneuvered the cargo unit into the storage rack. When each of the crate’s tabs had aligned with those of its v-shaped berth, he released it where it fell with a satisfying clang sending shivers up his suit’s boots. Bringing forth his pincer welder, he hits each tab, locking it into place. He lets the smoke clear and then goes around and hits each again; last thing he needs is a rack of thousand kilo Fury ordnance tumbling down on him. Not even his suit’s trit-reinforced cross-bracing would keep him from becoming just another stain on the metal floor of hangar bay twelve. He had learned the hard way that on an orbital station, “down” wasn’t always in the same direction. No, these containers were going stay put even if they started shelling the station like all that nonsense in Jita. He scanned his double welds and, satisfied, turned around to pick up another crate. Hydraulics hissed as he walked heavily across to the pile of remaining crates. They had been unloaded in a typical crap-assed trader fashion, laying all jumbled this way and that.
Good thing he was stealing them.
A light flashed on his console. Stopping the suit, he flicked the receive toggle. “Xhen? This is dispatch, come in.” buzzed his headset.
Wiping a bead of sweat from his brow back into his newly greying hair, Xhen wondered , not for the first time, if they’d been found out. Switching to transmit, while clearing his throat, he responds, “Yeah, this is Xhen.”
“VIP just docked in bay three. Requested a full 4R package. Pay bonus if done in under three hours. Copy?”
Ahh, good. Just on time, he mused.
Forcing some annoyance into his voice, he answers, “Another 4R? What the hell, dispatch, is there a frikkin capsuleer conference going on? That’s the ninth in the last three days!”
“Not that I know of and probably none of your business anyway. Just get over there and get it done. Dispatch out.”
Eighty nine crates would have to do, he thought to himself. Setting his suit to power down, he unfastened the harness and climbed out and down to the hangar floor. Walking over to the access hatch he grabbed his tool kit and headed towards the tubes.
Yep, if there was something they all shared, it was punctuality.
“Next?” yawned the controller. He hated these yearly status meetings almost as much as he hated writing the reports afterwards. Oh the glory of middle management he thought sarcastically.
“Obe IV, sir, a temperate orbital. Our present holdings planet side include a launch pad, two basic industry facilities and a one advanced industry facility, currently producing nanites. Profitability at 17%, down one percent from last year but holding steady with past five years data. Additionally the lease will be up this year.”
Another average installation making average profits. Lords he hated his job. “Anything of note on Obe IV then?” he feigned interest in his voice, knowing full well that full transcripts of these meetings were made available to his superiors at his yearly reviews. Better to always seem keen.
“Other than a 2% material loss from equipment failure, no sir,” came the answer.
“Two percent,” he repeated absent-mindedly. It fell within normal operating norms. It was a little high for a temperate planet harvesting bacteria and metals. But he quickly chided himself, opening an investigation file on such an insignificant holding was ridiculous. To recoup 2%? What was he thinking? Must be the new longevity treatments.
“Ok, recommend extending lease on Obe IV for another ten years. Roll over last year’s extraction protocols for another year.”
Of course, back then, she had known little of the war or why it was being fought. Things like “refugee” and “harvest radius” and “greedy Caldari bastards” were heard but not understood. Well, she probably was inferring that last one. What she did know was once a hive was done with an area, it would move. And when it did the drones would take to the air and kill everything they found.
She couldn’t, even now, remember how long they had run. A month? Two? It was just a continuous blur of running and hiding. She couldn’t recall how many of them had been lost either. Whenever they got the all clear, they came back and counted. Inevitably the number was lower than the time before.
She remembered when they’d finally met up with another group of refugees. They had been half starved and, to Elie, more than a little scary. A bunch of big, hairy smelly men who smoked and talked loud and had hats. But the first thing she noticed was that their clothes. Their jackets and pants were colored just like jumpers, all greens swirling into greys and blacks. They also had vehicles, some heavy weapons and a leader named, Kur.
Kur didn’t like to run as much as we did.
“Incoming transmission” flashed her status indicator. She activated the decryption subroutines and almost immediately a system bookmark was produced. She overlaid it onto her map. It hung there about the forty five AUs above the ecliptic plane and about seventy AUs further than the outermost planet. Good, a nice ways out. Regular scanners usually concentrated their searches around orbital bodies in systems.
She was also very glad that it was practically dead opposite from where her probes had scanned down the new signatures next to the grav site. Hundred megaton mass was battleship class targets.
Feeding the coordinates to her jump drive, she ran the countdown and felt normal space fall away as she sped towards the transmitted location.
“Jumper, this is control, come in,” came Kur’s whisper in Elie’s ear. She was lying prone under several layers of isothermal sheeting between two boulders overlooking the road running down the center of the natural shallow canyon below. She adjusted the zoom on her telephoto imager she’d gotten for her twelfth birthday a couple of weeks back.
“This is Jumper,” she responded in her subvocal mike. “I have two standard crawler drones on intercept course with your current position. Light air support. Extractor head behind it. They should been in red zone in six minutes.”
“Copy that, stay in position.”
“Roger control, happy hunting.”
Six minutes later the road lit up with six precise detonations. As smoke billowed from the massive crawler drones and the extractor head transport barge behind, small arms fire could be seen ringing the canyon. The brightness of the muzzle fire left purple dots floating in front of her eyes.
Another successful attack, but to what end? Over the years they had destroyed countless drones, hives and even storage facilities and factories. They just came back. She rolled over and looked up at the starlit canopy.
Her scout ship came out of warp at the indicated coordinates and she glanced at her overview. The orbital bodies were all listed but at the top, 2,105m away, was a standard acceleration gate. She fed her passcode into the transmission unit and the gate activated.
As the gate ran through its power up sequence she had time to run a quick D-scan of the area. Nothing. Good.
Xhen had just finished cycling the oxyscrubbers when the pod fluid temperature gauge beeped. He climbed down the scaffolding to below the deck and the turned the valve on the evacuation system. The two guards assigned to him as he worked on the Caldari made ship turned their noses and stepped a couple of paces further away. The stench of the used pod fluid filled the air around him as it sloshed down the hose into the septic tank below. He could feel the warmth coming off the jet as it poured down the drain. He’d been there when they had drained the station’s first pod and it had taken…well forever. The thick pod fluid flowed like soygel and they’d ended up sucking it out with heavy duty pumps. They’d gone through three motors.
It had been Zhen who had suggested they heat the fluid to make it more liquid. He had drunk for free for a week after that idea. He’d also been promoted to deck hand first-class. The bigger pay was great. Security clearance and access to capsuleer-fit ships was better.
Checking again that the flow was even, he stepped out from under the capsule and checked the markings of the Raven-class battleship once again. In large block letters just under the port flange, “A-21071”, it was one on his list. Time to get to work.
Grabbing his tool kit from next to the pod fluid pump, he walked over to the unopened tank of fresh pod fluid and started cutting off the plastiwrap sheeting which encased it. Pulling a fresh hose from the rack he set screwed one end of it into the tank and walked with the other end towards the pod. Reaching the end he put his tool kit down and withdrew a dull metal cyclinder about the same diameter as the hose and had screw threads on each end.
"A little something from home," he thought. He quickly screwed it into the end of the hose and then screwed that into pod’s intake valve.
Only an expert would have noticed the extra piece between the hose and the pod. Luckily for Xhen, that expert was him.
She came out of warp and scanned the list of friendly ships at the rally point. Her overview was practically full.
“Welcome back Elie,” Kur transmitted. “We just got word from your brother. The last of the ships just left the refueling station. He also confirmed having dosed all ten pods. We are on final countdown.”
“Happy hunting all.”
Hands shaking, he began reading the report from the beginning: Obe – IV, planetary infrastructure loss, 96% medium orbital station loss, 100%; defense force loss, 89%.” A detailed breakdown of what had been destroyed versus simply looted followed on for several screens.
Then, at the bottom came the part which he wished he could simply make disappear:
“On site salvage teams have recovered several pods from the wreckage of the ships and each, when opened, contained nothing but silvery liquid which, upon further analysis was revealed to be Nanite-176-Obe4. Manufacturer…” Well he knew the manufacturer. He knew everything there was to know about 176-Obe4. Or at least, as his superiors had made crystal clear, he should have.
He sat back, reached into his desk drawer and withdrew the pistol. How in all of known space could he have known all that bacteria they’d detected had been on people? Slowly, he slid the safety off.
Helen pulled her uniform tighter around her against the chill wind blowing through the gathered people on the hilltop meadow. It was a good location for the memorial ceremony. The polished metal with the names of those who'd gone, glinted in the midday sun. The transfer ceremony was coming to a close. At the appointed time they all turned towards the launch pad they had won in their settlement and watched as their very first transfer was lifted into the stars.
It contained fertilizer.