Author’s Note: The End of Orbital Academy
Missy shifted her weight from one foot to another, unsure of where she should be looking. The weight of the gun at her hip seemed to be pulling her towards the ground, and the ten men and women in the commando vests of Orbital Pivot’s security forces kept shooting her glances as if reproaching her for not drawing it. Their own firearms were held loosely in their hands, but the tension they carried in their shoulders made it clear just how willing they would be to use them.
A small electrical hiss in the wall made three of the security forces jump, levelling their guns at the harmless metal. Missy’s brow furrowed.
“The-the General said they shouldn’t be harmed,” she stammered, “you should be careful with your firearms.” It was barely loud enough for the assembled security and her squadmates to hear, but six months ago she wouldn’t have had the courage to say anything at all.
“The General said not to harm them unless in self defence. An Academy Captain and a Terran are going to be on the other side when that shield comes down, I think it’s okay to be on the safe side.” Their leader responded. Unlike his forces, he never took his eyes from the strangely reflectionless wall, holding his gun firmly aimed at the midpoint.
“What’s taking them so long? Didn’t the General give the order a while ago?” Missy wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead with one arm, while on the other side Preston squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“They’re getting alternating power systems up and running, clearing escape routes, closing off intersections with blockades, that kind of thing.”
“Isn’t that a bit much?” Preston broke in. “It’s Cap App and Tess, they’re not going to be a military threat.”
“He’s pulling down the only thing separating us from a Terran, Rookie. Tacksman down in conveyance says you escaped from a Terran prison camp, you of all people should know what just one is capable of.”
The anxiety in Missy’s stomach was making it cramp up, and she briefly wondered if the other squaddies were feeling the same way. Jackson’s face was impassive, as usual, but Missy noticed that Alex looked the same way, standing just behind him with her arms folded across her chest.
I wonder if they’re together. She thought. It had been so long since the rookies had all been together in the same room, they could be dating and she wouldn’t know a thing about it. The idea was so strange that she set it aside, returning her attention to the silver wall in front of them.
“Walls coming down in T-minus sixty.” The security captain’s voice was even, but everyone in the room suddenly tensed; the security forces raising sidearms and rifles to point at various points in the wall, the rookies simply stiffening.
“This is Blue, your friendly artificial intelligence.” Missy squeaked when the speaker to their right crackled to life. “Passing on the message to all non-essential personnel, aka the group of children standing around, that in the event of hostile engagement, you will almost certainly be in the danger radius. I don’t suppose I can convince any of you to move back just a few rooms, so you’ll have time to run if things turn sour?”
Missy shook her head, but most of her squadmates didn’t even respond. Preston flipped the speakerbox off until Missy grabbed his other hand in hers.
“T-minus thirty.” The captain said. Preston’s hand was sweaty, but Missy didn’t know if that was because he was as nervous as she was or because of the heat that was making her uniform cling to her body.
“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five.” The captain didn’t count the final seconds off, and Missy jumped when the silver walls snapped down with such force that they rattled the ground beneath their feet. A rush of cold air slammed into her, yanking her almost off of her feet. To her left Marcus actually did stumbled, but he caught himself before falling.
Captain Appet and Tess stood in the middle of the room beyond, arms at their sides. The room had been torn apart, scorch marks and huge shears and gouges spread across the floors and walls, but the women themselves looked fine. Missy held her breath along with everyone else as the Captain and Tess slowly and carefully picked their way across the debris in the room, their hands always in sight. Captain Appet leaned down and murmured something to the green-haired girl at her side, and Tess looked past the guards at her squaddies.
Despite what they’d told her, Missy had hoped for a glimmer of recognition from her former squadmate.
Maybe if Julia had been here… The unbidden thought felt like a knife in the gut. They had left the two girls behind, and look at where it had brought them? If Julia was alive, who knows what the Terrans had done to her. As Tess’ gaze slid along the faces of her friends, unknowing and uncaring, Missy sighed in frustration. She hadn’t realized how much she had been holding out hope, but the sight of her teammates’ faces should’ve been enough for Tess damnit.
Tess’ gaze rested on Missy, and her eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“You- ” She said, lifting a finger to point.
There was screaming, so much screaming that Missy wasn’t sure what had even happened.
“Get on your knees!”
“Hands on your head!”
“Lower your hands!”
Clearly trying to follow as many of the conflicting instructions as she could, Tess placed her hands behind her head and sunk to her knees.
“She didn’t do anything! What are you doing?” Missy screamed.
“Stop yelling.” The security force captain snapped out orders, first to his troops, then to Tess. “You can stand up Terran, but please don’t point. As I understand it, you’re able to attack without use of a visible weapon.”
“I didn’t mean to be threatening, I am sorry.” Tess replied. The sound of the familiar voice made the knot in Missy’s stomach loosen a little bit, as did the very familiar smile on her friend’s face. “I was just surprised,” the girl continued, nodded towards Missy, “I didn’t know there was another Terran on the Exiles’ Moon.”
It would’ve been the perfect time for Tess to show some treachery, since for a moment every eye had turned to search Missy.
“I’m not a Terran.” Missy shook her head, not sure if she was correcting Tess or defending herself to the security forces. “There was an accident early, with a crystal, it turned my hair this way.” Missy had been self-conscious about the streak of blue that ran through her hair ever since the accident, but she was even more aware of it now, standing out from her brown ringlets like a beacon. Hair dyes had proven ineffective in changing the colour back, and now that the station was on emergency power, she couldn’t requisition luxuries like hair dye even if she had the chits for it.
Tess hadn’t said anything about her explanation, just nodding and following Captain Appet into the room where her squadmates stood. Missy hadn’t noticed how nice the cool breeze had felt until the silver shield slammed back into place, cutting off the pleasant breeze with a loud slam.
With the security forces loosely ringing them, Captain Appet and the squadmates looked at one another awkwardly. Missy wasn’t quite sure what to do, but she opened her mouth to say something when Jackson stepped forward and threw his arms around Tess in a bear hug.
“Even if you can’t remember us, it’s good to have you back Tess.” He said. “We were friends once, I’m sure you’ll learn to put up with us again.”
“Please let go of me.” Tess was standing ramrod stiff, clearly fighting to keep a horrified look from her face. Jackson stepped back quickly, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.
“No it is I who should apologize.” Tess said hastily. “I just…I don’t like being touched, and I don’t know you….”
“Didn’t mind it before…” Jackson mumbled, but trailed off. Missy offered a hand instead, even though Preston tugged on her to keep her by his side.
“I’m Missy.” She said. “Would you like us to call you by your Terran name? Or is your old name alright?”
“They’re both pronounced the same.” Tess seemed a little relieved as she shook Missy’s hand. “I suppose you can spell it in your head whichever way you like.”
“Right then. Rooks, I don’t want to tell you your business,” Captain Appet said suddenly, breaking the silence before it started to stretch, “but as a courtesy I’m going to let you know they’re waking you up at 0500 tomorrow.”
“What? Why?” Missy was startled enough to turn her attention away from their awkward reunion.
“They didn’t say. Some security bitch.” Jane shrugged, and the captain of security cleared his throat loudly.
“You still here? How long are you going to be hovering around us? We’ve got things to do.” Jane asked.
“Until the General is satisfied she’s not going to kill us all. So probably for a while.”
“How’d we get so lucky.”
Missy was woken by a hand firmly grasping her big toe and giving it a gentle tug. It took a few such tugs for her to wake completely up, blinking sleep from her eyes.
“There’s no way it’s five hun’rd,” Missy slurred, “too tired to be five hun’red.”
“It’s not, it’s two hundred, but keep it down!” It took Missy a few blurry moments to piece together who’s voice hissed in her ear in the pitch black. It was like Aimee’s, but a little lower, and the words a little less clipped…more like…
“Tess?” Missy was suddenly as wide awake as she’d ever been, her eyes straining to make out the figure in the dark.
“Yes, but please hush, you’ll wake your lover.” Tess’ voice sounded amused, but for all Missy knew Terrans enjoyed quieting their night-time victims before slaughtering them in bed. Preston was asleep next to her; a swift kick would wake him up, but would he be able to get his bearings fast enough to make it worth the effort?
Missy could always try to fight Tess off herself…a buzzing feeling, like pins and needles, spread slowly through her wrists and her fingertips, and for some reason she felt almost sure she could take the girl. Of course Tess had always been ahead of Missy in physical activities rankings, but Missy could perhaps use the other girl’s underestimation of her.
Except, she doesn’t remember me enough to underestimate me. Missy suddenly realized. The buzzing pins and needles were in every joint now, pounding at her head. She had been sweating in her sleep, and the thin blanket she had been sharing with Preston was now in a tangled knot around her ankles. Could she kick it off fast enough to spring to her feet?
“I wanted to talk to you for a bit, is that alright?” Tess whispered, and Missy let out a gasp as the prickling pressure drained out of her body, leaving her a little shaky. She rose from the bed almost in a trance, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Preston was still asleep.
The hallways were lit with the same half-lights that had been on ever since the station went to emergency power, bright enough to illuminate their way, but dim enough to cast shadows on the walls as they walked. Missy looked over her shoulder, her skin prickling at the sight of the empty hallways around them. It was early morning, after all, so it took her a few moments to realize what made her so unnerved.
“Aren’t…aren’t there supposed to be guards watching you?” She asked carefully. Tess looked over her shoulder at Missy with a look that could only be described as ‘mischievous’.
“They left two guards outside my door. They are asleep now.”
“They just ‘fell asleep’?” Missy slowed to a stop, her stomach turning to ice. Interpreting her horrified expression, Tess shook her head.
“I made them fall asleep. They will wake up in the morning. I wanted to talk to you.”
Tess didn’t answer, she simply glanced up at the streak of blue in Missy’s hair, before ducking into an open doorway. Missy shivered, hesitated for a few moments, and followed. The room was taken up mostly with a huge conference table, and with the lights out it was dark enough that someone walking by wouldn’t see the two girls that sat across from each other. Missy squinted to even see Tess’ face, but it looked as if the other girl was fixing her with a searching stare.
“I’m really not a Terran.” Missy broke the silence.
“You used a Coricia, and your hair begins to take the tint of a blue triber. That is as close to Terrans as I’m going to get, I think.”
“But I’m not-”
“I know you’re not.” Tess brushed Missy’s objections aside with an impatient hand. “But you have a friendly air, and you seem…honest.” Missy wondered what word Tess had been considering before settling on that one. “Tell me about this girl you knew. The one who I used to be.”
“I…it’s not that easy. I mean we were squadmates, and I like to think friends, but…”
“If she was such a good friend, why did you leave her to be captured by the Terrans?”
Missy recoiled as if Tess had slapped her. The way she said it so casually took Missy’s breath away for a moment, but on closer inspection it was clearly a casual question to Tess. There was no anger in her good eye, the other covered with a small white cloth patch. No bitterness, no accusation, only curiosity.
“You told us to leave you. Your leg was broken, shattered actually, and you couldn’t have run as fast as us. The rest of the Terrans were coming and we…we had to get away.” Even without judgement in the other girl’s eyes, Missy avoided her gaze.
“Aah, shattered.” Tess breathed, as if to herself. “That’s why my leg hurts when it rains.”
“No matter. What manner of girl was she, your squadmate?”
“She was…you were…” Missy tried to keep the pronouns straight, “…strong, and brave. You were always really quiet, but we could just tell that you would go to the wire to save us. You risked your life for Julia when we fought the Drake.”
“Your squadmate fought off a Dracori for your rooks?” Tess looked impressed.
“Sort of…I mean kind of, sure. It was you, not some random squadmate.” Missy felt as if she was missing some part of the conversation, and Tess didn’t make things easier by making the dismissive motion with her hand again.
“She is different than me, a whole other person. Your Captain says I can live her life if I want, but I will never have the memories that she had.”
Missy wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, but the other girl seemed perfectly content to sit in silence in the darkened room. The heat that permeated the room seemed to smother any attempt that Missy made to continue the conversation, and the combination of the early hour and the warmth was making her nod off even as she tried to think of anything to say. She wasn’t sure exactly when she slipped into sleep.
“Get up Rooks! Rise and shine! Out of bed!”
At the familiar yet fresh sound of Captain Appet’s scoldings, Missy tumbled out of the wide bed. The nostalgia and sudden anxiety of being woken up by an angry Appet almost made her believe that the past few months had all been a part of her dream, and she wondered if that made her happy or sad. It was only when she finally pulled off the twisted blanket and blinked rapidly that her mind caught up, and judging from the swearing next to her, Preston had caught on as well.
“I thought you said it was Pivot people who were waking us up!” he growled. It was times like these that Missy was glad she was with Preston; he voiced the thoughts that she herself would never say aloud.
Captain Appet stood in the doorway, wreathed in light from the hallway. She looked exactly the same as she ever had. Of course it had only been a few months, Missy reminded herself.
“Nope,” the Captain corrected, “I said it would be a bitch, and as always, I’m true to my word. Conference room one, 0630.”
“Being awake hurts, why does it hurt?” Missy whined as the Captain vanished.
“We’ve had a few weeks off, gotten soft.” Preston grunted and began digging through their bags for their uniforms.
“Do we at least have time for a quickie before we go?” Missy glanced at the clock. The small red display read 0615. On the one hand, Captain Appet had let them sleep for an hour longer than she’d said. On the other, there wasn’t even enough time for a quickie before they left. Missy flopped backwards onto the bed with a groan.
It took them a little while to locate the right conference room, so when Missy and Preston stumbled in, rubbing their eyes, it was already almost full. The seats were divided into two sections, with an aisle down the middle leading to a podium. General Hunter and Captain Appet were both quietly conferring with a group of three other people on the podium, and when Appet saw them come in she pointed to the back of the left section where their squadmates sat. In the front of the same section, about twenty men and women in security force uniforms or pilot civs talked and joked among themselves. In the other section of seats, the bleary eyes and nodding heads told Missy that the men and women seated there were civilians.
Not that she could judge them too harshly. Missy was yawning when she sat down next Aimee, and she leaned her head against Preston’s shoulder. The only squadmate not with them was Tess, and Missy had begun to ask where their squaddie was when Captain Appet started talking from the podium.
“This is the entirety of our security forces.” Captain Appet barked, and the room immediately fell into shocked silence. Missy blinked. She had known that Pivot didn’t have much security normally, but did so many leave in the initial evacuation that this was all that was left?
“I notice that some of you are probably wondering why on earth we maintain a security force that’s so damned pitiful. I wonder the same thing myself.” Captain Appet shot a look at the other woman on stage behind her. “With the permission of General Hunter, I’m going to be training up another group of security fighters for Orbital Pivot, now that Orbital Pivot is essentially a warzone. Unfortunately, it seems that there’s a little hiccup that takes precedent. “
General Hunter rose heavily to his feet. “We’re burning the fuck up.” He said coarsely. The language and the unexpectedness of his statement was enough to wake most of them from their nodding. Hunter continued.
“As soon as they dug into the Orbital, the Terrans went straight for our power generators, knocking us down to two of the available four. We don’t know why they chose to spare us and leave the other two intact, but I wasn’t the only one who felt that we shouldn’t rely on the Terrans’ largesse. This morning, work has wrapped up on our replacement generators, safely within our protective shell. They’re all ready to turn on, and we could be back on full power within the next few days. I don’t have to tell you all what a boost to morale and productivity that would be, but we’re encountering the aforementioned problem; we’re burning the fuck up.”
As if to illustrate his point, General Hunter wiped his brow with a damp sleeve before he continued. “I don’t fully understand the science behind it, but heat transfer is one of the largest problems they had when the Orbitals were originally constructed. Left on its own, heat just doesn’t like to dissipate in space, and our normal method of removing heat via ‘heat packets’ can’t work unless we have access to the outside wall of Pivot. We’re not sure how the Terrans are keeping cool, since they’ve ripped half the damn Orbital apart, but the few instruments left intact out there suggest that they’ve come up with a way to manage it. We need to do the same if we’re going to get those generators running. In the meantime…we’re going to steal it.”
Missy had started to nod off, so she was sure she had misheard the General’s words. The muttering around her assured her that she had not.
“Air replicators can provide us with oxygen, but as long as we’re sealed in the airtight shell of senstone the ambient temperature is going to approach dangerous levels. So we’re opening a section of the wall on either end, and we’re blasting the inside of our little shell with Terran-cooled air before we close it up again.” Hunter seemed sceptical of the plan he was outlining, but his gaze was steady as he looked around the room. He gestured to one of the men on the podium, who stepped forward and addressed the men and women on the right.
“You scientists are here because we want this whole process to go as smoothly as possible. Some of you were no doubt already working on the cooling problem, but this morning we want you all on the ‘moving-air’ problem. You’ll have a window of time, a hot inner core and a cool outer core, and your job will be to lower the inner core’s temperature in that window. We’re going to move to the systems lab to talk this over, so please follow me.”
The captain of security stepped forward as the scientists filed out, addressing the remaining group.
“The rest of us are acting as backup to the nerds while they cool us down. The shields have been keeping us safe from the Terrans up until that point, but that means they’ll most likely be watching for any sign of them coming down. We know they definitely have troops, and both a full-sized and bite-sized Drakes among them. It gets worse.” He raised a hand to forestall the murmurs. “Although we don’t have our normal instruments, we’re told that there are more Terrans here now than there were in the initial raid. Personally I’m hoping that just means they’ve been having a lot of Terran babies out there, but the leading theory is that they’ve manufactured some way to bring more Terrans from the surface.”
“How is that even possible? If they can portal around, why not attack us inside the core?” One of the security forces in the front of the room asked.
“We don’t know, but again the leading theory is that they have some device they’re using. If that’s true, even one Terran slipping past us is as good as letting them all in. Maybe as good as letting the whole damn surface in. That’s one of the reasons both teams are going to have to be very, very careful when we defend the two openings.”
“One of the reasons? Not the most important one?” One of the pilots asked. The captain sighed, leaning on the podium as if it had already been a rough day.
“The most important reason to be careful is that in the history of the Orbitals, we’ve never gone head-to-head with the Terrans and won.” He answered flatly.
It was strange to Missy that she’d only been awake for a few hours. It felt like an entire day had passed, and a busy day at that. From the meeting hall they went to a small construction room which had been re-purposed as a fitting station, to get her measurements taken. From the fitting station to the armoury, where the wizened man had fixed her with a look when she had answered “preferred weapon” with “something small”. From the armory they were hustled to mess to eat a quick breakfast of ‘battle-rations’, a bland thick paste that contained large amounts of proteins and carbohydrates.
Her squadmates were with her, all but Tess and Julia. Even Aimee, who had been in the hospital wing just a few days ago. They were all just as sombre as Missy, quiet as they contemplated what could be in front of them.
“They might not even show up.” Missy said brightly, trying to lift her squaddies’ spirits. “I’ll bet we get super bored and have to resort to that stupid word game Alex came up with.”
“Genius word game, you mean.” Alex gave a half-smile, and Missy grinned back. She wasn’t naive enough to actually believe her own words, but it seemed to help her squadmates a little bit.
After breakfast the squaddies went back to the fitting station, where the heavy armour plating was waiting for them. Tailored to their measurements, the rough plasticine scales fit into place around their bodies perfectly. In theory they would reflect, refract, or absorb most of the damage from energy weapons.
What about magic? Missy couldn’t help thinking as they filed out of the fitting station, but she pushed the thought firmly to the back of her mind. The dimness of the hallways reminded her of the night before, and she vaguely wondered why Tess wasn’t with them. Of course, she was still a Terran. The General probably had her under guard somewhere to keep her from fighting on their side. Missy suddenly noticed that they had stopped, and she looked around her.
For the second time in two days, they stood in front of the silver sheen of the shield.
Missy’s stomach lurched, and her hand shook as she drew her sidearm. It suddenly felt too tiny in her hand. The oppressive heat seemed to ratchet up a few notches, and she moved a damp sting of hair that was plastered to her forehead.
“This is Blue, I’ll be keeping you updated on our progress.” The disembodied voice crackled from the wall. “Both teams are in place, so we’ll be dropping the shielding in T-minus thirty. There are no Terrans in sight, but I’m a little limited on what I can see. They destroyed my instruments out there.”
Terrans aren’t invincible or invulnerable. I knocked one out. I beat them when I rescued my squaddies from them. Missy focused on her breathing, leaning against Preston for a moment as if to reassure herself that he was still there. I beat them once, I can beat them again.
“Hey remember that time we kicked the Terran’s asses so we could have air-conditioning?” Alex joked weakly. The rest of them smiled, but Missy just knelt into firing position, pointing her gun at the wall. Around her, the squaddies did the same. The handful of security forces with them moved into position. Missy belated realized that her wrists and temples had started buzzing again, as if there were hornets in her blood that wanted nothing more than to be unleashed and ravage her enemies. In a sudden moment of clarity, the nervousness left Missy completely, and she smiled. Her back straightened, and she spoke with a voice full of confidence.
“Let’s fuck them up.”
Her startled squadmates didn’t have a chance to respond before the silver walls slammed open with a loud crash.