Two days ago
Aimee wiggled her toes. It was a small gesture, but it made her entire leg ache as if she had just stretched for an hour. Despite the aching feeling she did it again, smiling at the small digits as they curled and uncurled. When she had woken up in the hospital bed it had been the first thing she’d done, and the fact that she couldn’t move them had terrified her more than anything else in her life. The doctors had entered the room to find her sobbing, shaking her head back and forth and unable to do anything else.
“Muscle suppressors,” they had told her, “to keep you from moving around too much in your sleep and exacerbating the damage.” Aimee still thought they could’ve left a note or something beforehand, rather than leaving her thinking she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life.
In the meantime, being stuck in the clean white sheets until her legs healed completely was almost as bad. It was like a temporary paralysis; being unable to leave for so long, her only company the squaddies when they could grab enough free time and felt like wasting it on visiting her. Jackson was the most frequent, and she could really see their relationship burgeoning into something like a close friendship. Aimee smiled as she pulled a screen from her bedside table.
Her father had been an Academy pilot before his injury had forced him into retirement, so Aimee had known what to expect from her squaddies. The Nesbit family had moved from deck A to deck H just so that he and his fellow squaddie Sara could be on the same floor, and her mother had simply seen it as the cost of marrying an Academy pilot. Sara was like a close aunt or an older sister to Aimee for most of her life, and when she had begun her Academy training Aimee had been excited to have that same relationship with someone.
Did we lose our chance at that, when we left Academy? Did we ruin our shot at any meaningful connections? Aimee stared through the screen without really reading anything. It wasn’t as if there was anything interesting to read anyways; trapped inside the core of Pivot and cut off from the outside world, the screen could only access Pivot’s network. A few kids were writing a story on one of the sites, but anyone old enough to write entertaining content would be spending most of their time working. Like I should be doing. Aimee shifted restlessly. She amused herself by playing yet another game of ShipMiner
Missy came by a few hours later, clearly on a break. Her uniform was smudged with charred carbon and grease, and her brown hair with its streak of blue was tied in a tight ponytail much like the ones Aimee liked to wear.
“They have you working on ship repair?” Aimee moved her legs aside to let her friend sit on the end of the bed, wincing at the motion. “Isn’t Pivot all about the building and tech, don’t they have enough mechanics?”
“What would we use ships for?” Missy had been carrying a small package beneath one arm, and she unwrapped it on the bedspread to reveal several meal cubes. She must’ve been working hard, since the cubes were being tightly rationed yet Missy had managed to grab flavored and textured food. Missy leaned back comfortably and popped a lavender cube in her mouth. “We’re completely land-locked.” She explained around the mouthful of cube. “As far as we can tell the Terrans own everything in a complete sphere around us; there’s no way we could safely launch a ship from the core and get it to the outside. No, I’ve been helping work on the generators.”
“You don’t know anything about power systems.” Aimee popped a tan in her mouth and took a moment to enjoy the savory, rich texture and taste. “At least with ships we squaddies kind of know what we’re doing.”
“Mostly they just have me cleaning parts and handing out tools.” Missy admitted with a smile. “But it sounded more impressive the way I said it.” Aimee chuckled, watching her friend with interest. The friendly and outgoing girl at the end of the bed was almost an entirely different person to the mousy girl she had known at the beginning of their tour. Of course the largest shift in her confidence had been after she started dating Preston. The two of them had really brought out the best in each other; he had somehow drawn her out of her shell, and she had miraculously made him less of an asshole and more pleasant to be around. Aimee frowned. Preston had even visited her in the hospital a few times, and they had chatted much more naturally than the single time her own boyfriend, Li, had visited.
Aimee’s thoughts were interrupted when Missy leaned forward and flicked her across the forehead.
“I’d say ‘chit for your thoughts’, but I spend my last luxury chit on the food.” Missy said. “What are you so caught up on in there?”
“I was just thinking about Li. Specifically how Preston is a much better boyfriend than him.” In another girl Aimee might have to worry that her words would be construed as jealousy, but Missy understood her bumbling attempts at communication by now. She ate a pink sphere thoughtfully, not replying until she’d finished the entire thing.
“You have a lot of interests in common with Preston, don’t you?”
“Sure. We both play Cribkers, we both like pre-separatist art, both enjoyed drones classes.”
“You both listen to that Popclick noise.”
“Hey, Popclick is a legitimate musical genre, snob.”
“Either way, you don’t really share many interests with Li, do you?” Missy lifted a tiny golden cube to her mouth and sniffed it before eating it as Aimee considered the question.
“I dunno…we sort of just each do our own thing when we’re not together.”
“And by ‘together’, you mean having sex. The only thing you have in common is liking old Synthetic Joe cartoons.”
“Li likes Synthetic Joe?” Aimee asked in surprise.
“Aimee Patricia Nesbit!” Missy glared, and Aimee winced at the use of her hated middle name.
“There’s no reason to be mean about it.” Aimee sulked, and Missy’s angry face softened.
“I’m sorry Aimes, I’m just cranky ‘cause of the heat.” Indeed, the other girl’s face was shining with sweat, her clothes clinging to her. For once Aimee was grateful to be in the hospital wing, where the patients only had to wear light medical gowns, and heatsoaker panels had been placed to absorb large portions of the ambient heat. She felt sorry for whoever had to share a room with the used heatsoakers that would begin expending all that collected heat.
“Look, I know okay? I know I should break up with him. Hell besides the sex, neither of us will even notice the difference anyways. It’s just hard, you know? I’ve never been the one to do the breaking up before. I have to steel myself up for it.”
“Oh, it gets easier to break up the longer you’ve been together? Is that how that works?” Missy asked innocently. Aimee opened her mouth to come up with a smartass answer, but they were interrupted by a small ping from the hand-sized screen on Missy’s belt. “I have to get back to work. Parts need cleaning, tools need fetching. Just think about what I said, okay?”
“I’ll break up with Li.” Aimee lifted her screen. “I’ll call him right now. I just…really hope we can still be friends afterwards.”
“Okay, good luck sweetie.” Missy leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Eat the rest, I bought half of these for you. I have a date night with Preston tonight, but I’ll stop by tomorrow and see how it went. It’ll be hard, but I have faith in you.”
When did that change? Aimee thought idly as she watched her friend leave. When did I become the ‘sweetie’ that needed reassuring?
She activated her screen and went back to playing ShipMiner. She would call Li and break up with him. In just a little while…
Two hours ago
It was awkward sitting next to Li when she knew she should break up with him, but what could she do? It wasn’t as if she could turn to one side in the middle of the General’s debriefing and say “psst, by the way I’m breaking up with you.” Much better to wait for the perfect moment, and now definitely wasn’t it.
Her worries put off for the moment, Aimee focused on the General’s and the security Captain’s words. The mission seemed straightforward, although it wouldn’t be easy: open the shielding, pump out the heat, flood the core with cool air, then slam the shields closed again. Aimee wiped a bead of sweat from her neck and nodded. When she’d stepped out of the hospital she could actually feel the wall of hot, sticky air she was moving into, and for a moment she had briefly considered hamming her injury to spend a little more time inside the cool confines of the impromptu sick bay.
Not that she would, of course; being there when Tess and Captain Appet had emerged was too rewarding an experience to miss, even if it had been a little awkward with the girl who used to be their teammate but had no memory of them. Aimee shook her head and tried to focus again. It was too early in the morning for this, she needed a caffeine dose. Just a few minutes later they were moving to get ready, and Aimee was busy enough to forget about problems focusing.
Two seconds ago
Did sweet and doll-like Missy really just say ‘fuck them up’?
The crash of the room-wide section of shielding opening was muffled almost instantly by the whipping wind that blasted past them from behind, mixed with the startled sounds of all of the squaddies who hadn’t taken thermodynamics classes. The heat differential between the sweltering core and the cool air outside caused the air to shift with a huge gust of wind. Despite the possibility of enemy combatants, Aimee clamped her eyes shut as the blowing wind whipped against her face. The only place she had encountered wind before was on the rescue mission to the surface, and for a moment Aimee was back there, in between the trees and unnatural curves of the plants, biting back fear for her life, just waiting for a Terran to end her life.
Aimee opened her eyes, and the feeling didn’t go away. She wasn’t quite sure what she was expecting, but she was pretty sure it included some version of the sleek hallways of Orbital Pivot, the enclosed space of an Orbital, the metal and plasticine that was the hallmark of ordered, civilized life. What she didn’t expect was twisted trees, climbing plants, and the unnatural curves of vines and leaves.
“What the fuck.” She breathed, but her voice was swallowed up in the silence that followed. The metal of the hallway protruded a few feet past the line of shielding, but after that it was covered by the twisting roots of giant trees. The ceilings had been ripped away, and although the presence of oxygen told her that there had to be at least something between them and the void, she couldn’t see any metal above them, obscured by the heavy tree cover.
It was lucky that there were no Terrans waiting for them, because for a few moments Aimee and her squaddies were exposed and defenseless, staring at the changes with open mouths. The whole affair was lit with an eerie blue glow, similar to the reflective light the moon had cast on the surface during the night. It was bright enough to see by, but somehow made the looming trees and small bushes seem more grave and imposing.
“This is Blue, broadcasting to both parties.” Normally the disembodied voice of the station creeped Aimee out and made her jump, but it didn’t even register as strange next to the towering trees. “I’m looking over the camera feeds from your teams and…well, I can at least see why my instruments weren’t working.”
“Can you tell us anything beyond the obvious Blue?” Jackson asked. “Something we might not be noticing?”
Is there anything that phases him? Aimee wondered, noting Jackson’s stoic demeanor. He had even dropped into suppressive-combat position, and the stance reminded her that she should be doing the same. She hastily dropped to one knee as the robotic voice answered.
“Rookie Jackson is asking for any data not obvious, which is surprisingly not much. The fauna is legitimately organic, and drawing nutrient and power from some central location. They look like separate entities, as one might find on the surface, but the roots are interconnected and sharing a single power source.”
Aimee hadn’t heard much from Blue, but the voice of the station seemed almost uncertain. “I’m not the best source to make a guess, but it appears to me that these were placed and modified to both match the appearance of the surface flora and to exist in the confines of the Orbital. How they made those modifications to the cellular structure in such a short time is beyond me, let alone how they aged the cells to reach such growth in the space of less than a month. That kind of technological progress is…worrisome.”
There was a short pause, then the voice broke in again. “Captain Kreshler has remarked that this level of technological sophistication should be discussed with General Hunter, and I agree. I will be going silent until such time as I’m needed.”
“It’s magic. We told them the Terrans used magic, why is it such a shock?” Aimee grumbled, staring down her sights. The mottled shadows made it hard to determine shapes within the trees, and the constant wind at her back made the leaves and branches move in smooth and humanlike ways. Her trigger-finger itched.
“We know that the Terrans think it’s magic.” Alex corrected quietly. “I think we can be a little more intelligent about our guesses.”
“Alex you were there! You interacted with Terrans more than any of us, you can’t explain the things we’ve seen!” Aimee regretted her words almost immediately. The other girl hadn’t ever said what she did to get her fellow captured squaddies out of the jails and into more comfortable quarters, but Aimee had grim suspicions. Alex didn’t seem bothered by the implication.
“When I was five I didn’t know how a recyclergizer worked, and I believed my mother when she said pixies came and took our trash away.” She said. “And yet I could still use one. I’m not going to take the Terrans’ word for it just because they think they know what they’re doing.”
The group lapsed into silence again, marred only by the hum of whatever machines were pumping heated air out of the core. If every muscle hadn’t felt like a taut string, the breeze running past her would’ve felt quite good after days of building heat, but Aimee couldn’t enjoy it. The darkness and the blue light seemed to press down on them all, and the flickers in the forest played tricks on her eyes that had her almost pulling the trigger a few times.
“Rookies.” This time Blue’s voice was quiet, almost too quiet to hear. “The team on the opposite end has been engaged by Terrans. We are assuming a corresponding attack will be launched against you as soon as they make the connection of our purposes. Please standby at the ready.”
The squadmates were already in position, spread out along the walls of the hallway just inside the shielding area, but there was a subtle shift as each of them mentally prepared. Aimee strained, watching the edge of the forest as if she could see through the thick trees. She would be damned if one of her squaddies fell because she missed a Terran in the dark.
“Rookies, note has been made that the Terrans do not have low-light visibility. I will be dropping light coverage to your hallway in an attempt to provide an advantage; please put on your helmets and prepare to activate either heat or night VI modes.”
Aimee’s helmet was already on, as were the majority of the squads’. Only Marcus fumbled for a moment, slipping his into place. When the lights cut out, suddenly and silently, Aimee already had her finger on the switch. She preferred night-Vi, taking advantage of the higher definition and detail it provided. She wasn’t even sure what heat-Vi would show, given the currents she could feel swirling around her, but Preston, Alex, and Missy used heat-Vi and didn’t seem to be having problems.
Aimee was surprised to find that she was much less nervous there in the dark, peering through the night-Vi. Before the blue light had seemed ominous, the flickering shadows dangerous, and the lurking threat of Terrans terrifying. Now there was no distinction of color, and she could see into the trees as clearly as if it had been appropriately lit. The Terrans were coming, and knowing that for a fact seemed somehow less frightening.
She didn’t even jump when she caught sight of the creature moving towards the edge of the forest at a slow, cautious pace. It looked exactly like a waist-high version of a Drake; reptilian scales layered in intricate patterns across its back, a long snout and four stubby legs with dexterous looking clawed toes at the end of each. Even through the night-Vi Aimee thought she could see the intelligent gleam in its eyes. The fluttering in her stomach settled and hardened into a manageable ball as soon as she saw the creature, and instead of fear she felt only a grim resolve.
According to the squad tactics Captain Appet had taught them, if there was no time to plan hen whoever happened to be in front would give the group signals, and without hesitation Preston lifted a closed fist in the air. The squad waited obediently, as the little Drakeling shuffled to the edge of the forest and peered down the dark hallway. The creature’s gaze passed by her, unseeing, but Aimee still shuddered. It took a few hesitant, suspicious steps forward, stopping to look around it, taste the air with its tongue, and tilt its head to one side as if listening, before taking a few more steps.
The tension that was growing in her stomach was enough to make her want to scream, but Aimee trusted Preston’s judgement, and he let the beast approach until it was almost at the mouth of the hallway before his closed fist dropped.
The hallway erupted in sound as the squad emptied laser and slugfire into the beast. Even being caught off-guard and unable to see them, the Drakeling was frighteningly tough and frighteningly fast. It turned and lunged back towards the protective cover of the trees, even though Aimee could see the slugs ripping into its protective scales, and was blinded by the blinding blurs of light that were her squaddies’ laser weapons. The creature almost made it to the edge of the forest before it slumped to the ground with a roar, and the hallway and forest was quiet save for the echo of the brief but roaring volley.
Aimee blinked away the tears that the laser flashes had caused. She considered turning her night-Vi off, but she would rather be momentarily blinded than stumble into the laserfire that heat-Vi wouldn’t show her.
“Even if that was just a scout, the Terrans will have heard that.” Li noted.
“Should we move forward, spread out a little bit?” Aimee asked the group as a whole. “They won’t be able to put the shield back up, but we can have a wider range of fire.”
“And we won’t be in as much danger of whatever their version of a grenade is.” Missy remarked. Aimee looked at her sharply. The words were simple enough, but Missy said them almost lightly, as if with a shrug.
“Missy are you…enjoying this?” Aimee asked. This was the same Missy who struggled with tears in her eyes to meet the PT requirements, the same Missy who had screamed and dropped her gun their first time they went to the firing range. She stood there now completely at ease; there was even a half smile playing at the corner of her lips. Aimee frowned. Her friend’s confidence was encouraging before, now it was…creepy.
“It does get the blood flowing a little bit, doesn’t it?” Missy asked. “Makes you a little tingly? Like you can take on anything?”
“Don’t let the adrenaline make any stupid choices.” Preston warned, and Aimee felt a little better that she wasn’t the only one who had noticed the difference.
“I agree with the girls though, we should get out of the hallway.” Marcus offered. After a brief exchange of glances, the squaddies moved slowly into the great expanse of the forest beyond.
“I will not compromise the integrity of the Orbital, rookies.” Blue warned. “If I must trap you out there to prevent the Terrans from moving in, I will.” Whether it was due to her warning or simply the safety of the unknown, the squadmates pressed against the ruined wall on the either side of the hallway. The metal had somehow been corroded and eaten down, as if decades of age had set on it.
Did they do that with their magic or technology or whatever? The back of Aimee’s neck tingled. What would that do to a human?
“Our team on the other side has two security forces down,” Blue reported, “but my scans are showing they’re unconscious, not dead. The General has ordered you to switch to non-lethal rounds.”
“For all we know, they’re resistant to non-lethal.” Missy grumbled, but she joined the rest in switching. The energy weapons were easy enough to swap, but all of the squadmates with slug-based weaponry had to switch magazines, and there were a tense few moments when half of the squad were effectively defenseless until they changed over.
The first shot was bright and sudden, arcing out of the forest and towards Jackson. Aimee watched in horror as the searing bright blue orb passed within inches of her squadmate’s face, but despite the near miss he didn’t react at all.
“Terran!” Aimee screamed, all thoughts of subtlety behind her, and she spun to locate the source of the attack, resisting the urge to start firing wildly. A small motion of fabric moving behind a tree was enough to indicate a direction, and she narrowed her eyes and squeezed out a small burst of fire. The helmet adjusted to the light of her lasers within moments, but it was almost too slow; the second she could see again another bright light was moving towards her.
The other squaddies were firing as she dove low behind one of the bushes, and in the half-second it took for her helmet to adjust she felt more helpless than she’d ever felt. The Terrans’ attacks looked evil, but they were far, far slower than laser weapons. Slow enough to dodge. Blue’s comment about their lack of ability in this low light was proving accurate; even though there were several of them flinging orbs of light at the rookies, none of them were contacting or seemed deliberate.
They’re literally taking shots in the dark. She realized. They can only even see us by the light of their attacks. Jackson’s lack of reaction stuck in her head, even though there were lights and danger that screamed for her attention. It suddenly hit her as the helmet took another half-second to adjust.
“Their spells…bullet…things give off light!” She called. “They won’t show up on heat-Vi!” At her words, the squaddies who had been using the heat-Vi switched, and skirmish between the two forces, already surprisingly evenly matched, began to shift even further.
It began with the first Terran to fall. To her surprise, Aimee was the one to dispatch him, catching the burly man in the side with a laser. The man collapsed without a sound, but a Terran standing a little ways behind him began screaming, loudly and incoherently. To her right, Alex slipped behind the bush with Aimee, pulling another non-lethal clip from her belt and reloading.
“Why’s he screaming? The other one should still be breathing.” Aimee checked her gun’s settings to make sure it was non-lethal.
“Haven’t you read the histories?” Alex rose and fired a few shots, and the screaming was suddenly cut off. “First time they’ve seen Orbitans who can actually hit one of them.” With the end of the screaming, the forest was suddenly plunged into an eerie silence. Aimee peaked over the edge of the bush, and caught sight of a handful of Terrans running for more distant trees, moving away from the forest’s edge.
“They’re running!” She cried, pumping off a few more rounds at the Terrans’ backs.
“The Terrans on the other end are retreating as well.” The voice of Blue called from the hallway. “General Hunter is ordering a retreat as well. Our core temperature has cooled even lower than the outside, and he’s muttering some paranoid garbage about things being ‘too easy’ and ‘filthy Terran traps’.” Aimee grinned, and turned back to the hallway, clapping Alex on the shoulder.
“Rookies, attention and alert! From the hallways!” Blue’s voice was sharp, and the smile died on Alex’s face as they all turned to the darkened halls they had come from. Even after the several weeks in which the squad had been broken up, Aimee was so used to working as a team with her squadmates that the sight confused her. The first thought that occurred to her was to wonder why she couldn’t see whatever enemy Terran was chasing Tess towards them.
The girl’s strides were long and determined, and her fingers were moving as she ran. It was only a split-second of hesitation that made Aimee pause, but the split-second was all her former squadmate needed. Light flashed so bright that the night-Vi helmet simply shut down, its protective hardware choosing to protect her eyesight rather than blast the image into her head. She heard Tess running passed them, and she fired a few non-lethal shots in their general direction. The helmet booted back up, but Tess had already disappeared.
“God damn it, I knew we shouldn’t have trusted her-” Preston began to complain, but it was at that moment Aimee saw the spell.
It was through a combination of luck, the night-Vi helmet, and peripheral vision that she even noticed it. The spell was so subtle and so dimly lit that she might’ve walked right by it if the blur hadn’t been magnified, but her eyes widened as she watched the small orb rolling across the ground, bouncing like a ball, heading straight for where one of her squaddies stood.
“Grenade!” She screamed, and the squaddie turned in horror.
Aimee didn’t think or reason, didn’t hesitate for a moment. Throwing her gun to one side she lunged forward, throwing herself on the magical grenade at Li’s feet.
She felt the impact rattle her bones and shake her teeth. She had no idea what a physical grenade would feel like, but she could actually feel the pieces of magic whipping through her body. Her blood seemed to warm, her muscles shaking as if she’d had too much caffeine. Bile rose in her throat, then was slammed back into her stomach. One eye was staring at Li’s feet, the other somehow looking into his face. He was saying something, but all she could hear was a jumble of ten or twenty voices, all of them his, all of them saying something different.
It didn’t even make a noise. The ludicrous thought occurred to her, just as the feelings stopped as suddenly as they began. Aimee’s vision refocused, and she realized that she hung a few feet in the air, facing a group of concerned squadmates, frozen stiff. She tried to blink or speak, but it was as if her muscles weren’t even connected to her brain anymore. On the plus side, she seemed to be able to breath, and she could at least hear everyone.
“You’re sure she’s alright?” Li was asking worriedly.
“I’ve been scanning since the moment the device went off; she’s alive and conscious. Judging by the spike in brain activity she can even hear you now.” Blue sounded exasperated. “Now will you please pull her in before the Terrans come back?” Aimee’s squadmates approached and gingerly pulled her towards the hallway. It felt as if she was being pulled through a thick syrup instead of the air, but Aimee wasn’t complaining.
“What if it doesn’t wear off? What if she stuck like this forever?”
“One member of the other team was hit by this device at the beginning of the attack on the other side.” Blue reassured, as the squadmates pulled Aimee into the hallway. The group visibly relaxed when the silver shielding slammed shut again behind them as Blue continued. “He ‘thawed out’ about ten minutes ago, a half hour after the effect started. It was clearly just supposed to incapacitate you while your Terran friend escaped, not hurt or kill you.”
It could’ve killed me. Aimee realized belatedly. I could’ve died.
“She took that for me.” Li seemed similarly shocked, gently guiding her frozen body between himself and Missy as the squadmates followed in a bizarre procession. “Holy shit Aimes you had no clue what that thing did and you took it for me.”
“I’m really glad.” Missy smiled at Li from the other side of Aimee. “See how much she cares for you, even after breaking up? That’s the kind of friendship squaddies have.”
It’s the kind of friendship Dad and Sara have. Aimee would’ve smiled if she could.
Li stopped in the middle of the hallway.
“…Breaking up?” He asked.