“Do we really consider them ready?”
“We believe their Resolution Juncture has come.”
“We have doubts. They are fiercely divided, they are strong, cruel, indiscriminate, restless.”
“It is their ardour that we sought out.”
“Ardour is of no consequence if they destroy themselves before Transition.”
“There is nobility within them; we can prove it.”
“Our Watchers have observed them since their Awakening. We see no salvation there.”
“We cannot complete our Judgment fairly until we are among them. Allow us to finish our final appraisal.”
“We believe we are making progress with our Emissary. We will present our testimony soon.”
“We retain doubt. We wait.”
A warm gust of wind buffeted them on the loading platform. Almost two miles above the ground, the thin aluminium railings of the deck turned the wind into a forlorn whistle. Above their heads glared the intense glow of the light tube, a bottled artificial sun which ran the fifteen-mile length of this asteroid world’s axis, warming and illuminating its hollow interior as it spun slowly in space, a giant cylinder on a spit of light. The world of Angelhaven existed on the inner surface of this vast cave, shielded from the vicious radiation of the neighbouring gas giant by a billion tonnes of rock. A great city, fields and villages all clung to the cylinder’s green interior, held in place by the centrifugal rotation of the rock, an approximation of gravity giving the inhabitants of this unusual habitat the same weight they’d have had on a E-type planet.
Except up here, in the hot updrafts near the axis; here the centrifugal force was weakest and clouds formed a glowing sleeve around the axial tube, diffusing its light and casting shadows on the ground far below. Here, they felt almost no physical weight; the bulky rifles they carried felt like toys, but the old man’s heart felt the weight of fear and responsibility for his young companions, like a lead anchor pulling him into the abyss.
“Is everyone ready? This is it.”
Junichi Omura looked into the shining eyes of each of the five scared young faces kneeling around him. His own narrowed, resolute, a mask of determination feigned for their benefit. He didn’t have reflective membranes on his eyes like these kids, his were protected from the hot white glare of the vast light tube above by a pair of old-fashioned reflective goggles.
He pushed the rectangular ammunition cartridge into the open spine of the AC30 rifle. There was a dull click and an electric whir as the magazine fed a compressed chain of 200 expanding armour-piercing slugs into the firing mechanism. He snapped the spine shut and the small blue ammunition counter on the top lit up, muzzle automatically extending and locking into position. Everyone else did the same, though with considerably less efficiency, trembling hands, all thumbs.
Omura waited patiently. He knew they were just children, startled by this stark exposure to his previously unspoken military past, but eager to prove their worth. The only danger they were used to was that of gliding the tube every night after school. The tube was the name the glider kids gave to the narrow band of zero G at the centre of their cylindrical home, a funnel of cloud shrouding the light, two miles from the ground all around.
He used to watch them with genuine admiration through binoculars from his office in the New Chaldea police station, looping down into the gravity well and then spiralling upwards on the thermals into the tube above, the combination of weightlessness and turbulent air currents enabled them to perform amazing three-sixties, perfect loop-the-loops, spiralling starfish… The light from the axis reflected in their coloured butterfly-like wings, like a precocious swarm of fireflies buzzing around a fifteen mile-long glow stick. Most of them decorated their wings with light-reactive paint; glide meets were a kaleidoscope of blurring colours. Each glider competed to have the most striking hues and to weave the most complex patterns in the air.
Iolana and her older brother Keoni were the best body gliders of all. They were respected and admired by all the other kids and even the adults who came along to the bigger meets during the low-trade season when the axis traffic was at its lowest. Omura was a regular spectator at first, but soon had his own flight harness made up. Keoni had pitied this insatiably curious old man and taken the unprecedented step of teaching him to glide. At first the others protested at having an old man lurching alongside them in the tube every weekend, but after a while they took to him with some affection. Having the police chief of New Chaldea as the surrogate uncle of your gliding family wasn’t without its advantages. With a dead wife and no children, Omura grew to adore these kids.
Iolana had once told Omura that her old Hawaiian name meant ‘to soar like the hawk’, that her long deceased parents must have foreseen her future in the skies of Angelhaven. How inappropriate the bulky grey automatic rifles looked in the hands of these beautiful, innocent children, glowing brown skin tanned by fusion light, eyes bright.
Omura choked back bitter tears. They had to resist the Legion, at all costs, even at the expense of innocence. The invasion had begun and the Navy would not get here in time to stop coming slaughter. He had to hope that Keoni could look out for his little sister in battle as well as he had done throughout their carefree lives in Angelhaven. He looked at the kids, focussing on Iolana and her brother.
“Coils charged? Propellant fuses primed?”
Keoni’s reflective membranes momentarily flickered open, flashing his glittering green eyes at the old man.
“We’ve done this a million times, Junichi. Don’t worry about us; we’re not afraid of those barbarians. We’re sick of waiting, let’s go hunting!”
Omura sighed at the teenager’s exuberance, wishing he could mask his eyes from the horrors they were about to see. He hated himself for putting those guns in their hands. There was no choice. The LightBringer did not discriminate between young and old. His little surrogate family was the only airborne infantry their little resistance could muster, and they’d need all the help they could get against an estimated invasion force of a thousand battle-hardened Legion troops. He’d selected the five best fliers, the bravest.
“When we land, you split up and take cover behind the cranes. Don’t forget, these AC30s kick hard, so stay low and keep them tucked into your shoulder like I taught you. When the dock doors open, give them the full pack and go. Is that understood?”
He paused, looking around the young faces, trying to emphasise his point.
“We don’t have the firepower to put up a long fight. You empty your clip and take off, straight up to the axis, burn all the propellant you’ve got, and don’t stop until you get to the loading tower at the north end. Fire in short bursts and pick your targets quickly. If the one you’re shooting at takes cover, aim at someone else; don’t waste time. Aim at the neck where the armour is weakest. We know they don’t have any aircraft capable of flying efficiently in our centrifugal gravity well, so we should be able to escape through the tube.”
Alex, the youngest boy, raised his hand tentatively, his slender frame dwarfed by the rifle in his lap.
“We won’t do much damage with five rifles will we?”
“There is a small militia from the secondary factories who will be scattered throughout the villages in the south sector. They have improvised some light artillery from factory parts and should be able to put a decent amount of firepower into that hole when it opens. Our job is to pick off as many foot soldiers as we can. They won’t be expecting fire from the loading cranes and should be distracted by the heavier fire from the houses below. Some of the guys from civil engineering have managed to find a way to trip the secondary dock hatches remotely, so we’ll be able to open the doors before they’ve finished boarding their landing craft. Hopefully we can kill forty or fifty soldiers between us before they realise we’re there.”
Omura could see the brave faces betrayed by their small, trembling fingers; only the twenty-year old Keoni stood resolute, holding his rifle firmly, ready to defend his world, eyes bright and fearless. He looked at each young face in turn, making sure they heard him carefully:
“Remember everything I’ve said. Empty the clip and go. We’re buying time, that’s all.”
Keoni stood up and gave Omura a toothy grin, tall muscular body towering over the greying man.
“Enough speeches old man, we’ll all be as grey as you by the time we get going.”
Omura took comfort in the teenager’s tone; there was nothing else he could say or do. He stood, slinging the rifle across his chest and tightening the glider harness around his shoulders. The others did the same. Keoni and Iolana looked the most comfortable, handling the harnesses as if they were extensions of their own body. Glider wings coiled tightly in two large, ring-like loops on their backs, solid fuel rocket packs mounted on their hips.
Alex, the younger boy, fumbled with the hulking weapon, bravely masking inability with effort. Anna and Tony were the older ones, quiet, serious. He’d never gotten to know them particularly well. In the glide meets, the brother and sister team were Keoni and Iolana’s greatest rivals. The usual competitive aggression between the two pairs of siblings was on hold today.
They all checked the packs on their waists, inserting the home-made nitro-glycerine propellant pellets into the thin cylinders on either side. They didn’t need much fuel to take off, the potent chemical monopropellant rockets they’d devised gave quite a hefty kick in the low-gravity of Angelhaven. The bizarre centrifugal forces and air currents of their world took care of the rest. Iolana gingerly stroked the coiled wings of her glider; she’d had to strip off all the light-reactive glow paint, exposing the plain grey composite material of the wings.
They all stood and moved to the edge of the loading ramp. It towered over the reservoir far below. Directly behind them was the tangled mass of gantries and cranes that constituted the axis loading area of the AC1 factory below. Above their heads was the warm white glow of the axis light tube which stretched like a horizontal streamer of solid light fifteen miles to the south docks in the distance. Omura still had difficulty looking down from this height even after twenty-nine years of living here; he’d grown up on an open world, and still got queasy when he looked up and down in the tube.
At least he couldn’t see the ground very clearly today. The resistance had overloaded the environmental systems in preparation for the invasion, dramatically increasing the amount of cloud cover in the tube, lowering the ambient light level in their normally tropical world to the sullen grey of a rainy day.
The sub-vocal police communicator in his ear sounded an alert. It was time.
The six stood side by side on the edge of the ramp, just on the fringe of the gravity well, body weight a fraction of what it would be just a few hundred feet lower. They extended their arms outwards and triggered the release switches in their palms. With a fluttering whoosh, three metre-long poly-silk sails snapped out of their coiled positions, whipping into place, with delicate control surfaces on the tips connected to the tips if their fingers. They leapt from the platform in unison, swooping out and down, then arcing slowly upwards, the fingers at the ends of their wings adjusting their angle with the delicacy of a hawk’s primary wing feathers. They’d ride the thermals all the way there, saving the propellant for their escape.
As they passed over the industrial district, the hot air wafting upwards pushed them up into the tube; the centrifugal force of Angelhaven’s slow rotation gave way to the swirling hot air within the grey cloud tunnel. Unhindered by gravity, they spiralled onwards, momentum hurtling them close to eighty miles an hour. Their wings curled into strange, distinctly un-bird like shapes, guiding them through the buffeting currents. The glare from the axis tube light reflected on the tunnel of cloud around them – it was almost blinding…
They’d be there within minutes at this speed. Keoni assumed his position at the front as they all formed a diamond formation behind him – in the air Keoni was always the leader. The cloud was starting to thin up ahead as they approached the tangle of platforms and cranes of the south docks. Omura couldn’t worry about the others now; his own fear was starting to bubble up in his stomach, self-preservation taking over. Keoni curled the tips of his wings in opposite directions, making him spiral wildly. He was showing off, but Omura was glad of the distraction. The formation followed Keoni as he began his descent out of the tube and spread out to form a line.
They made a perfect landing. Dividing neatly along the length of the highest gantry, they hit the deck running, wings instantly retracting into their looped coils. Omura quickly unfastened the rifle from his chest and slipped off the safety, gesticulating wildly at the others to do the same. He clenched his right fist and silently hand-signed deployment instructions to the others. They scurried into position behind cranes and stairwells, all aiming their weapons downwards at the huge air-lock a hundred metres below. The security cameras had indicated that the first entry would come from the first of the four inner bays at the centre of the south end-cap. Once the doors were opened, they’d have a perfect line of fire.
They still didn’t know how the barbarians from New Jerusalem had found them. No one was supposed to know the exact location of Angelhaven. The coordinates were classified and only divulged through highly encrypted keys plugged directly into the AI minds of the small fleet of Union cargo freighters that served the colony. The Artificial Intelligences that made the impossible calculations necessary for interstellar travel were surely incorruptible. How could the backwards Legion, who hailed as blasphemous the very technology that carried them here, how could they acquire one of these keys, much less harness the AI mind necessary to use it?
Angelhaven’s advanced cybernetic manufacturing capabilities and military contracts were meant to be a well-kept secret and yet an army of zealots, perpetually underestimated by an arrogant Union military, were here to seize a prize asset for their crusade. Angelhaven had no army, secrecy had always been it’s defence. This was a peaceful world, a small, closely-knitted community – a factory town on a distant galactic frontier.
Despite several brutal assaults on mining colonies in the outlying systems, the Union Council hadn’t considered the massing forces of the LightBringer Legion a threat worthy of full mobilisation. They were planet-locked, with no fleet of their own despite their overwhelming numbers on the ground. The only threat the Union military advisers took seriously was that of the Alliance; a growing group of powerful star systems on the outer rim who resisted Union authority and ran increasingly aggressive smuggling networks through Union space. They had the ships to wage war but New Jerusalem had the manpower. It was unthinkable that the two would join and yet the freighters with the stolen docking codes that carried an army of a thousand warriors to their doorstep were undoubtedly of Alliance origin. The Havenites would have to fight them alone for now and they were a long, long way from the home systems and the Navy.
Omura lay flat on his stomach behind the control cabin of a giant articulated crane, knowing that the tangle of cables and struts would break up his outline against the sky from below. His old soldier’s instincts took over as his calloused index finger rested on the trigger, rifle butt nestling neatly into his shoulder like an extension of his arm, cheek pressed against the stock, eye lined up with the sights. He pressed his other hand to the throat switch of his communicator.
“Angel One, this is Angel Three. We are in position, are you ready?”
The response was instant.
“Affirmative Angel Three, we set up the artillery like you said; I hope those firing solutions are on target. Took me an hour to figure out the math for the trajectories; no one’s ever tried to fire a mortar inside a giant spinning rock before…”
“You mean it took you an hour to before you gave up and asked the AI…”
The man on the other end of the line laughed.
“You have such little faith in me, Junichi.”
“On the contrary, I have every faith in you.”
“Affirmative Angel Three… Good luck up there… wait one… Ok, we’ve got breach in… four… three… two…”
The silence hung for an eternity, the swirling wind buffeting in their ears seemed to disappear as they waited for the giant, hundred metre-wide doors to slide upwards. There was a loud warning klaxon and flashing green lights started rotating around the frame of the hatch. They heard a sharp crack and hiss as the doors started sliding open and the pressure equalised. Trigger fingers tensed. The giant titanium slabs groaned as the pneumatic systems wrenched them apart, a spray of ice crystals puffing out through the gap as the seal popped.
Omura’s eyes grew wide with terror. There must have been a thousand men and women in that dock, all heavily armed, wreathed in insectile armour. He caught familiar shapes amongst the throng. The outline of an old Alliance shuttle, it’s huge loading bay open, soldiers still disembarking. Massive cargo bays disgorged old Sikorsky 6-12 hovercraft, bristling with weaponry. Terrifying, four-legged Scorpion tanks lumbered after them, decades-old relics from barbaric ground wars on the fringes of Alliance space. There was a lot of movement in the dock, surprise, panic; soldiers shouted and ran back and forth, the daylight from the interior of Angelhaven filling the gloomy chamber.
The doors were only half open when the first volley of artillery was fired. A dozen hastily-built ammonium picrate mortars landed in a tight cluster at the same time, half impacting on the outer doors, the other half spraying through the gap. The explosions hammered Omura’s eardrums; the unpleasantly familiar sensory barrage of war came flooding back into his mind. Orange flashes blossomed as the steel shards wrapped around the shells’ explosive cores sprayed a deadly cloud of shrapnel in every direction. The screams of the Legion soldiers echoed amidst the sound of metal fragments ricocheting inside the chamber, bouncing around until they could find something soft to embed themselves into. He almost felt sorry for them until he saw the Scorpion tanks frantically rotating their railgun turrets, looking for a target. What savages would bring such awful heavy weaponry to their fragile little world?
The pneumatics were still struggling to prise apart the vast metal doors as the second volley hit. This time, most landed inside, the detonations sending human-shaped blooms into the air, their limp forms slumping against the chamber’s walls and the sides of the landing craft. As the smoke began to clear, he could see organised movement; squads taking cover, forming into groups. The Scorpion tanks lurched to life, lumbering towards the front of the chamber to provide cover. Omura shook himself from his stunned state; there was a sergeant below, screaming to his men, organising, issuing orders, gesticulating wildly. He’d have to be the first.
The AC30 kicked hard into his shoulder as he squeezed off a short burst. A tight cluster of shuttlecock-like expanding steel slugs punched into the soldier’s chest and neck, bursting open like jagged umbrellas inside him. The rounds that hit the armour had had no effect, but at least three had cut clean into his neck, burrowing deep into his torso, shredding his heart and lungs before punching into the inner padding under the armour in his lower back. A fountain of crimson spewed from his collar, drenching the black plating. Omura gagged. He hadn’t killed a man in thirty years. Before he could reflect on what he’d done, the kids around him opened up, filling the air with the staccato din of rapid fire.
Down below, soldiers began to drop into limp piles by the dozen. Omura swallowed hard and fired again; this time, at a young woman with the dark, weathered features of someone born in the desert slums of New Jerusalem. It was a clean shot; she hadn’t put her helmet on so two rounds straight through the ear gave her a relatively painless end. A tall black soldier carrying an evil-looking machine gun was next. Before he could mount the tripod of his weapon, Omura put a knot of bullets into the back of his neck as he lay prone on the deck. Two soldiers running towards the Sikorsky were hit low, the bullets throwing their legs into a crazy tangle and sending them sprawling. Most of his shots were impacting harmlessly on their armour; he couldn’t get a clean shot… Damn it… he’d spent almost half of his rounds already…
He moved onto a trio of troops moving purposefully towards the hatch, rifles up. The first went down when hit in the jaw. The second and third finally figured out where the shots were coming from, but before they could return fire, Omura had put them on their backs with one continuous sweeping burst across their line of sight. Their faces exploded like burst grapes. The gun clicked loudly… empty. It was time to go.
He stood quickly, slinging the rifle across his chest and gripping the wing release in the palm of his hand. He could see the others were already running for the far edge of the ramp; Keoni and Iolana had already extended their wings. The sound of his heart pounding in his ears was deafening, he couldn’t even hear the gunfire coming from below until-
Alex stumbled, the weight of his rifle throwing off his balance. He hadn’t extended his wings yet, desperately trying to wrestle the rifle into its straps on his chest. Omura had started to run towards him, screaming at him to drop the gun and go, when the first round hit. The Scorpions must have zeroed them… the aluminium railgun slug punched clean through the underside of the ramp, peeling through the thin steel and piercing the young boy’s torso as if he were wet paper. Omura’s eyes met the young boy’s; he froze, paralysed with horror at the child’s wide, disbelieving eyes. The second slug, electro-magnetically accelerated to ten kilometres per second silently cut the boy in half, the burning projectile slicing diagonally across his waist. Omura looked away as the severed torso fell away, the young boy’s blood sputtering intermittently through the cauterised, smoking stump.
He looked for the others. Keoni and Iolana were away, rocket packs flaring wildly, wings tucked in as they hurtled into the cloud tunnel above. Anna was away, but there seemed to be a problem, her rockets weren’t firing properly. She wouldn’t be able to pick up enough speed… Tony was leaping off the ramp, ignoring his rockets and diving down to his sister…
Omura inhaled deeply and ran faster, pushing ageing joints through the threshold of pain. The ramp seemed to be erupting all around him; railgun slugs punching neat, fist-sized holes, armour-piercing bullets scoring crazy lines of ragged metallic eruptions. The air around him was filled with the fine dust of obliterated steel and cordite, the edge of the ramp seemed miles away… He pumped his legs harder and harder, adrenaline making his hands tremble wildly… his left leg was suddenly trailing limply, unable to keep up like a deflated tire. Confused, he looked down at the dark red patch spreading across the grey fabric of his trousers. He could feel no pain, he must have been clipped by a fragment from a railgun slug; the aluminium projectile so hot that it had burned his nerve endings as it cut clean through him. Damn damn damn damn… His right leg felt like lead as he pushed it harder and harder. Something knocked him clean off his feet, legs buckling. Arms too numb to break his fall, he crashed flat on his face, rifle digging painfully into his ribs.
In the sky below, Tony swooped over his sister and grabbed her around the waist with one arm, the other hand yanking her harness release, wings peeling away. He hit his rockets and she was yanked skywards, dangling from his arms like a sparrow plucked from the sky by a bird of prey. Omura smiled, as he looked up at the twinkling white light blazing from the hip mounted rockets – they’d make it with Tony’s ability in the air…
The two were engulfed in a shower of automatic fire from below. Omura felt a wrenching scream well in his gut and bellowed; a primal roar which seared his throat. There must have been a dozen rifles trained on them. Their bodies convulsed wildly in mid-air as hundreds of rounds tore them apart, Tony’s bright blue wings sprayed red, holes growing like cancer across their surface. After just a second or two, he’d gone completely limp, wings trailing like rags at his side. The rockets kept firing, but their trajectory veered downwards. The dead boy never let go of his sister’s corpse as they rocketed to the ground two miles below.
Omura’s scream wheezed into a silent exhalation, vocal chords expended. Tears streamed across his face, his own pain forgotten. He wanted to confront the soldiers who’d shot those children, tear their eyes from their sockets with his bare hands…
He absently felt his stomach, index finger tracing the numb puncture point of the bullet-hole. He felt cold despite the warm pool of blood spreading around him. The fight was seeping out of his tired limbs. He closed his eyes, exhaling deeply, the faces of the men, women and ultimately children he’d killed today burning into his heavy eyelids.
When his eyes opened, a wave of agony swept through his body, the blinding shard of pain in his gut bringing his dazed senses into acute awareness. He was on his knees, with his arms tied tight behind his back. He must have lost an immense amount of blood; he could barely keep his head aloft, struggling to focus his eyes. As the blur cleared he could see he was in Chaldea Plaza, the huge hand-carved fountain trickling behind him. At its centre was a golden statue of a woman holding aloft a flame sculpted from dark, synthetic diamond. A circle of Legion troops surrounded him, like giant armoured ants around a wounded animal, pure contempt in their eyes.
A shadowy figure hung before him, the long carbon-black ceremonial robe of the Minister parted to reveal the shining hilt of a medieval-looking sword. Behind him stood a soldier carrying an old holographic camera, no doubt whatever they were about to do was going to be seen by the rest of Angelhaven. A deep, authoritative voice boomed out across the cobblestone plaza.
“See this, citizens of Angelhaven. See what happens when you resist the divine will of the LightBringer. You can no longer hide behind your corrupt technology. You can no longer pursue your campaign to overthrow the Lord from his throne. We have come to your world to cleanse you of your sins.”
Omura was struggling to focus, weaving in and out of consciousness; the tall, dark figure before him was a black blur. The silhouette reached down and gripped the glittering hilt; the long sword slid smoothly out of its leather scabbard, an eternity elapsing before the emergence of the tip. Omura closed his eyes. He felt cold, empty, too tired to feel any fear. He found little comfort in the numbness, knowing his gruesome holovised death would only help to scare and weaken the resolve of his fellow Havenites; he hoped that Iolana and Keoni wouldn’t be watching. The voice continued after pausing to show the sword to the camera.
“Repent Serpent, and the great LightBringer may shine his divine countenance upon you. Repent, for it is never too late to turn your back on the Beast…”
Omura looked up at the dark blur before him, trying to aim his bloodshot gaze at where the man’s face would be.
“Fuck you and your butchering false god…”
He felt nothing as the blade came down, severing his head. For a few moments he felt the cold of the cobbled stone against his cheek, the world at a strange skewed angle. A warm pool was forming around his head, his body a ghostly absence. His lips moved to utter a curse, but no sound came out.
If you’d like to read more, chapters 2 and 3 are here: