55 miles SE off Melas
The undulating terrain seemed to go on forever. Hills rose and fell, leading
to shadowy valleys whose darker regions spread themselves out as the cold
Martian sun dropped steadily towards the horizon. The only signs of life
came from random patches of sawgrass, a tough, resilient offspring of the
vegetation that covered entire landscapes of a faraway mother planet. Through
the desolate landscape, the only sounds that Roger heard, enclosed in his
Predator's cockpit, was the high-pitched whoosh of the turbo boosters
as he engaged them, dying off in a cascade of decreasing notes as the speed
boost wore off. The constant low-pitched whine of the anti-gravity drives was
felt more than heard - a curious tingling sensation that seemed to grip one
by the chest, fading off all the way down.
A line of tracer rounds stitched the ground directly in front of the Predator,
missing it by less than two meters. Half a dozen similarly deadly lines of
walking lead kicked up the reddish soil, raising small plumes of dust. Breaking
out of his reverie, Roger spun the tank around on its axis and boosted off,
at the same time wrenching the stick to its extremities, which threw the
vehicle in another direction. His reaction came just in time, as three incoming
missiles screamed through the air and exploded harmlessly along the path he
would have taken if he had been continuing on a straight and level course.
Roger looked up at the sky, scanning left and right for his airborne attackers.
As he did so, the blasters mounted on the Predator's turret copied faithfully
every head movement. He squinted at four black dots bearing down in his
direction, autocannons still firing. The helmet-mounted display picked up the
eye-cue automatically. The onboard computers made some calculations, and called
for an appropriate zoom level.
Even as Roger recalled the distinctive silhouette of the Knight DawnRiser
ground assault aircraft from his regular perusals of the authoritative
Jane's All-System's Combat Flyers, the display in his helmet
confirmed the sighting from the vehicle's own electronic copy of that database,
with a bunch of helpful alphanumerics thrown in, indicating the exact model
variant, altitude and closure velocity.
Roger bit his lip, feverishly thinking of a way out of this new situation.
The Knights have probably wiped out the Rebel contingent and brought in their
ground-attack flyers to do mopping up of any stragglers left from the skirmish.
And his Predator just happened to be one of these stragglers.
An incoming transmission on an open emergency channel broadcast the usual
terms of "honorable" surrender that the Knights reserved for those
they had already defeated. Or considered defeated. Hunter knew,
anti-grav or no, the Predator was not going to last very long against a
determined onslaught of the LATC long-range autocannons that these four
flyers carried. And having no onboard ECM to ward them off, it was a matter
of time before the DawnRisers' missiles found their way to some vital component
on the Predator.
Roger ignored the Knight pilots' demands and pressed on, hunting for
non-existent cover. The accursed landscape was devoid of convenient
hiding places. The military maxim ran through his head incessantly.
On open ground, there is no running from the airborne enemy.
Thus it went on for miles, the Knight flyers scoring more and more
hits on the beleaguered Predator. Parts of its rear stabiliser fins
indicated yellow on the damage display and threatened to go to red
at any moment. A lucky hit at any moment could breach the reactor and
bring the chase to an abrupt conclusion.
Roger was rapidly running out of turns to twist to. He sighed, gathering
his thoughts, preparing to broadcast his acceptance of the Knights' terms
when a new voice joined in the channel.
"Good evening, fellow Warriors. While we appreciate your taking the time
to skirmish within the borders of our Protectorate, we would appreciate
it better if you could keep your little argument off our territory.
Roger let out all his breath at one go. Now what. He couldn't as yet
figure out the source of the broadband transmission.
Another voice spoke on the open commnet. "Attention incoming convoy, this
is Colonel John Woode of the 14th Airborne Regiment of the Imperial Knights.
We are well aware of your Stormkeep Protectorate, as you choose to call it.
However, you may be aware that the pursuit of Rebel elements on any area of
Mars is well within our jurisdiction. It's your call, Mr... ?"
"Colonel John Woode, this is [SK] Jeffr of the StormKeepers. Negative on
pursuit. This is a private airlift operation within our designated territory.
We have no argument with either you, or your Rebel friends. Approach
closer than one kilometer and we will open fire. Waypoint set, now.
For the Darkstar!!"
A kilometer, in flying terms, lasted for no more than a handful of seconds.
Roger barely caught a glimpse of blood red-skinned fighters as they buzzed
by him directly overhead, their dual ion-turbojets emitting the familiar
pulsating roar as they went into full burn. The resultant shock waves from
the broken sound barrier added to the Predator's already-random bumps as
the new entrants pulled off a lo-hi popup maneuver and clawed for sky.
Even as the Predator's computers struggled to sample the radar profile and
identify the nearest incoming craft as the StormKeeper CrimsonStar, the
engagement had already begun. The Knight flyers, concentrating on the main
formation two kilometers away, had only noticed the sneak-in at the last
moment, but they reacted quickly and professionally, star-bursting immediately
in four different directions.
With the pressure of pursuit off him for once, Roger spared the time to
absorb the fresh pages of statistics appearing in front of his face. The
SK fighters looked impressive enough, at least according to the Jane's database.
Dual McLockey ion-turbojets, twin rapid-fire swivel-mount ALAS Auto Lasers,
complete with two wing-mounted five-round Interceptor missile packs. More
probably than not a medium-range escort-type loadout, as opposed to
the Knights' ground-assault variants, though the DawnRisers sported lower-spin
but more agile vector-thrust turbofans that gave them a slight edge in turning
ability. It was going to be a rather interesting match, he thought. Speed
and firepower and a squad of mystic pilots versus an agility advantage and
the famed Imperial Knight training and reputation.
He had no time to digest further information, as a shrill warning beeped and
the radar lit up with solid red lines, indicating incoming enemy laser fire.
Yikes, me, too?? This was not going to be pretty, Roger thought.
If all eight of these battling pilots decided to get together and take on his
rickety little tank all at once, he was not going to be safe and sound, or
even stay in one piece, for very long.
It turned out that he did last not all that long against the fifth incoming
CrimsonStar either. The pilot must have been either quite good, or
using some kind of advanced targeting system, Roger thought with a grimace,
as he watched his rear stab-fins disintegrate into blackish nothingness. Gray
smoke trailed out the back end of the Predator as it spun around and around,
its anti-grav carrying the entire mass forward from sheer inertia, spinning
it horizontally and bringing it ever closer to a lone protuding rock, an
obscene-looking finger thrust into the sky. Panicking, Roger slammed the
stick to either end, only remembering at the last moment that with the
stabs gone, his commands only served to counteract each other. He had no
time for further maneuvers as the Predator flew right into the rock-face,
knocking half his breath out from him, as the vehicle finally came to a
complete stop, still floating one-and-a-half meters off the ground.
Roger leaned back in his cushioned seat in disgust as he contemplated his
embarrassing collision into the only visible piece of solid rock for
miles around. Out of the action entirely, but with the shock-resistant
computers ever at the ready to dole out the usual overly-detailed information,
he watched the duel between the opposing forces, and decided that he would
have to surrender to whoever was left over from the furball in the evening sky.
The fifth StormKeeper CrimsonStar was pulling out to aid its comrades, but
it did not get to attend what was left of the ongoing party, as the last
two remaining Knight DawnRisers fled westward and out of radar range entirely.
Roger caught the last taunts thrown in that direction on the open channel.
He decided it was probably quite deliberate, broadbanding it that way.
"... and don't come back till dawn, you hear?"
"Sure chose the wrong time of day to pick a fight eh, Thunder? Haha."
"Yeah, Rawhide. That oughta keep them off Stormkeep. Or at least keep 'em from
annoying our air ops, anyway. For the DARKSTAR!!"
"Ooh yea. For the Darkstar."
"Hey check this out guys, lookie what have we here!!"
Oops. That would have to be him. It was not too difficult to spot his smoking
vehicle jammed against the solitary rock outcropping. Roger faced his turret
backwards and locked his blasters in a downward position. It was more or less
a visual indicator of surrender for tank-like vehicles since ages past. He
spoke into his helmet mike.
"This is Roger Simmons, of the Free Martian Alliance. Whoever you StormKeepers
are, I didn't mean any harm, and, I uhh, did not mean to trespass into your
territory. I mean, well, I suppose this is no excuse but I really had no idea
it was your, erm, Stormkeep? Protectorate? ahh... zone or, whichever. I will
accept any terms you may have. My vehicle is shot up and cannot move.
I surrender. I repeat, I surrender."
There was a long period of silence. Too long, Roger thought. He fidgeted
in his restraints and wondered whether these StormKeepers characters were
going to shoot him now and get it over with, or... what?? Being
sliced into sushi by five pairs of auto-lasers did not sound
particularly appetizing, and he had no idea what alternatives they had in
mind for him either.
The reply came through finally, but it was a puzzling one. "This is
[SK] Zeke here. Please repeat : what did you say your name was?"
That should be easy enough. "My name is Roger Simmons. I am with
the Free Martian..."
"Roger Simmons, you say. Formerly from Valkline Valley? Say, you've got
any relation to Henry and Karen Simmons?"
What in blazes...
"Hell, yes, that's my parents. Was. Were. Whatever. You knew them?"
"Please confirm. Your mother's maiden name?"
"Lacrosse. She was Karen Lacrosse."
"Your father's part-time career? The undocumented one."
Now this was getting odd. How could they know this much about his family?
Anyway. Roger decided it probably wouldn't help him very much if he refused
to co-operate. He was hardly in a position to dictate terms. "He was
a mission scriptor for a military spin-off Herc sim company.
There was another long pause."I think you'd better come over. We'll
hitch you a ride back."
Roger was about to ask where this [SK] Zeke meant by back when
a shadow loomed over him, followed presently by the sound of clanging
metallic alloy as a StormKeeper vehicle transport grabbed him with its
external recovery grippers and eased him, Predator and all, into its
The ride back, such as it was, took place in the near total darkness of
the transport. It was an unnerving ride, as Roger tried to imagine the
number of guns that would be aimed at him just outside his turret. It
ended a short while later - somewhere. The Predator's navigation system
was probably 200 miles off course by then, as the multiple jolts would
have totally destabilised the inertial navigation system, and without
an external navsat to calibrate it, the entire mapping suite was as good
An insistent knocking on the hull prompted Roger to quickly unbuckle his
harness restraints and pop open the hatch. What he saw at the door made
him jump back into his seat in shock.
"FATHER!! YOU'RE... YOU'RE ALIVE!!!"
It was his father, all right. Henry Simmons was well and truly standing
at the hatchway. "Yes, and that's no kidding, my son. I'm all alive,
right in front of you. It's... good to see you again."
It was the kind of possibility that Roger Simmons, Mechanical Engineer,
would not have dared to dream of. "But... how did you escape the
"Oh, we didn't really escape it. Mother's not here. She... she's been
in and out of coma these past months. Severe head concussion, they say.
No idea when she'll be able to get up, though. They'll bring you over
"Oh. But what do you mean, you didn't really escape? The town centre
was vaporised from the few holos that I managed to get a hold of."
"See, Roger, remember the time I lent you one of my TX-335 datapads
to store your co-ordinate data? Well, that night I remembered I left
something in there that contains the specs I needed urgently for one of
those projects. And since you could not be reached by comms, and I can't
drive those contraptions of yours very well, I got Mother to fetch me in
your tandem-seater, that Speeder I you made three years back. Remember
that tri-thruster you first made?"
Yes, Roger remembered it quite well. It was well on its way to being
the only flyer he made thus far that he didn't crash all by himself.
Roger's father continued. "Actually, you were further into the shock
wave radius than we were. We had no idea, then, of course. We probably
passed each other on the way somewhere. Looks like Speeder III survived
the crash eh, more or less, else you wouldn't be here at all. You've saved
your own life that time, son. As for me, I thought I made it out good with
just a broken arm and some bruises. Well, I'll have to go visit Mom in the
ICU. But I think the base commander wishes to speak to you right now.
They'll bring you over to the medical center after this."
His senses barely recovered, Roger started to call for his father to wait up,
but a trio of black-robed figures strode in from somewhere amidst the depths
of the shadows in the cavernous hangar. The one on the right removed the hood
of his robe, revealing a youngish, distinguished-looking face. He addressed
Roger in a grave, serious tone.
"Roger Simmons. First, a welcome to our humble Base of ShadowStorm. I am
[SK] Hanuman. Here you will find the StormKeepers whom I work with."
Roger wondered if this person was indeed the commander of the base. If so,
then what he just said would be an understatement among understatements,
worthy of the record books - "work with" ??
"Let us be to the point then. This open conflict among the Knights and the
Rebels has taken heavy casualties on both sides, do you not agree?"
Roger nodded. That much was true. The Rebels - FMA and MLF factions both,
had lost a lot of good men - and equipment. The Knights fared better but
they have also had to pay dearly for every victory they have had thus far.
"Now, what if you, Roger Simmons, you, were to come across the knowledge
that all this in-fighting will result in consequences far beyond the
realm of this little planet?"
Roger decided that he had enough of mumbo-speak for the day. He took
a step forward, and gave [SK] Hanuman his best glare. "You said you
would get to the point. So, tell me, if you will, what is the glitchin'
[SK] Hanuman waved a hand, and the surroundings seemed to shimmer, dim,
and disappear. It was replaced by an alien sight. Hundreds upon thousands
of ominous, dark purple and gray shapes hung in space. Roger gasped, before
he realised that he was looking at a rather advanced form of sens-surround
holo-projection. The small round platform he seemed to be standing on was
merely a convenient illusion to give him a sense of relativity to himself
amidst the grandeur of the spectacle before him.
"This, Mr Simmons, this, is the glitchin' point, as you have so eloquently
put it. While you and your Rebel friends have been busy fighting your so-called
Imps, the Cybrid Fleet has been busy forming up and is even now heading our way."
"You realise, that we humans as a race will face rather dire consequences if
this fleet ever reaches the inner solar system."
Visibly shaken, Roger nearly stumbled over himself as the illusion disappeared
and the base hangar came back into being around him.
The Cybrid Fleet. Prometheus, the Dark Intellect, had finally decided to
finish the job he had started a generation ago. This time, it looked certain
that he fully intended to accomplish his genocidal mission - the elimination
of the entire Human race.
The approaching Cybrid Fleet made the War of Independence that the Rebels were
waging against the Imperials look like a mere playground spat. The understanding
dawned like an exploding S&R flare in a pitch-black sky - sudden, abrupt, and
Revelations upon revelations. Roger wondered if the world would ever start to
decide against shifting under his feet, and all around him. He shook his head
tiredly. Such was Fate, he supposed. Or perhaps some mysterious forces
at work that conspired to make it seem that way.
Before he could open his mouth to ask any of a number of burning questions
he had, another member of the black-robed trio stepped forward and introduced
"Evening. I am [SK] Louie." The title was pronounced simply as
"Ess-Kay Louie". "My job, at least in my off hours, is taking charge
of our small operation that we call StormNet Ops." Roger decided he was
going to disregard all references to small, little and tiny in
this environment of heavy understatement. It would probably be more accurate
The surroundings shimmered again, and Roger found himself standing on white
metallic deck plating. All around, bodies lay in various static positions.
As the camera panned and moved with the observer, a particularly gruesome
sight was revealed in what seemed like the main control center. Patches of
blood stained the formerly pristine floor. The dead lay heaped in piles
of two's and three's.
"This footage was taken on board what was formerly known as the, let me
recall, yes, the Mars Imperial Orbital Defense Platform, MDP-3. What you
see here is how the situation would have been like on board this
orbitplat just after the Valkline Misfire."
The camera moved in closer and finally rested on a dead crew member sprawled
over a control panel. Multiple holes were drilled into his back, dark spots
on the grayish-white uniform. After a short moment, the camera zoomed in on a
hand inches away from a large red squarish button that read "Emergency Stand
Down - Master Override".
"I guess you know by now what you're looking at. Major systems malfunction,
uncalled-for platform re-orientation, and a full-spectrum weapons discharge.
In other words, you're looking at the source of the Valkline Misfire."
Roger shuddered and wondered what else these SK's really knew. But apparently,
[SK] Louie was not quite finished yet.
"Here is a graphical representation of the logs from the orbitplat's primary
Firewall that day. You see two individuals, going by the names of Slicer and
Dicer, gaining entry into the secured (ahem) e-mail system using a brand-new
exploit that had not yet been publicly announced at the time. These guys are
pros - they knew what they were doing - almost."
"Now, you see, what they didn't know was, one, they were being watched by
more people than they might have imagined, and two, more importantly, the
Denial-of-Service worm that they uploaded would have done exactly as they
had intended, if not for one more thing."
Roger was confused. "Wait up. What did they intend to do?"
"The usual. Propaganda run, Free Mars, that sort of thing. The source
of their worm reveals that it was a fairly self-limiting type, no real
harm should have been done."
"But, as you would know, things are never the way they seem to be. Now
look at this set of co-ordinates. The movement you see is a Cybrid Stealth
Virus entering the same hole our Rebel friends Slicer and Dicer created."
"Colonel Hyderan never got to realise what he had done when he slotted the
wrong holodisk into a drive on the other subnet. The Cybrid virus
easily made the jump and proceeded to create the havoc the effects of which,
well, you would have seen that for yourself."
"The internal defense system was the first one it took over. It proceeded
to turn the protection protocols against its owners, hunting down and killing
the entire crew in every corridor, every room throughout the platform. By the
time they realised what they had to do, they were dying by the dozens before
they even reached the door. The man you saw in that last frame just now almost
made it, but not quite. Even if he did, the orbital bombardment would have
continued on for the next minute or two before the stand down took effect."
Hit by the barrage of revelations, and faced by all the damning evidence that
his world view the past few months had been quite entirely skewed, Roger slumped
down and settled heavily onto a chair that had somehow been conveniently
positioned behind him.
"Mr Simmons, we would presume that you understand the implications of all that
we have shown you."
"But... yes... I suppose. I mean, I didn't know. How could I have trusted them,
"If you wish, you are free to go. You may take your vehicle prototype with you
and return to your Rebel friends, no conditions, no strings attached."
"But the FMA, they..."
"It was not entirely their fault. Their only objectives were a short service
denial, scrambling their non-essential commsystems for a while, and then
broadcasting the Free Mars message on all civilian channels."
"Also, they used hired help, so it is not like we could point an accusing
finger at them directly. And most importantly, I assure you, nobody could have
detected the dormant Cybrid virus unless they knew what they were looking for.
Our StormNet Ops admins only stumbled across it by extreme good fortune,
and also because we had some inkling that something like this may have been
what actually happened. We have been monitoring the Cybrids for years. They
do this kind of virus thing all the time. Dangerous stuff."
"And the station?"
"Taken into custody, by us. We have decided that at this juncture, it is
not safe in the hands of those who would be on opposing sides. MDP-3 is
now [SK] M-1 ODP. Orbital Defense Platform. Means the same thing, anyway.
Well almost, but not quite. Clean-up was messy. Now it's under intensive
repairs and upgrades. We must get ready for The Test."
Roger thought he had some idea of what Louie referred to. If it meant some
kind of Hunter-like test of survival, then Humankind had better pass with
flying colors. He shrugged. He supposed he had a lot more to learn about
these intriguing StormKeepers.
Over the next few days, Roger conferred further with Hanuman, observed the
StormKeepers going about their daily activities, watched the ongoing battles
between the Knights and the Rebels, and visited his mother regularly in the
base Medical Center where Dr Sinclair was attending to her in the Intensive
In the end, Roger decided that his place was beside his own parents, and
that the company of this new group of mystical strangers was slightly
preferable over that of being in the midst of warring parties. He announced
his decision to continue his Predator research at ShadowStorm Base, and was
caught off-guard yet again when presented with a range of facilities that
rivalled those available at Mole Research. The equipment seemed to be geared
to the very purpose he had intended ("actually - not quite - just a small
matter of re-configuration"). A dozen pairs of anti-grav modules
waited on the racks (which in itself was odd, but when asked, the SK's only
pointed to thin air and referred vaguely to the Darkstar, whatever it was).
After a while, Roger was also given a complete translation of the Predator's
"owner's manual". It turned out that the title of the volume was
"Principles of Construction and Maintenance of the _________". The alien name
was untranslateable. When Roger asked, the SK's around him gave more or less
the same reason - "The Darkstar Watches, the Darkstar Listens, the Darkstar
Provides". It was all strange, mysterious stuff, but as long as he got
everything he needed, Roger was not about to go around looking gift-bearing
glitches in the mouth.
The StormKeepers encouraged Roger to send the results of his ongoing research
back to his former comrades in the FMA by anonymous encryption, which he did,
albeit reluctantly. The Rebels were initially confused, but having more
pressing concerns, especially that of Caanon literally threatening to shove
his twin autocannons down their throats, did not pursue the matter further.
A flurry of events happened that validated what Roger had been told earlier
on. The OmniWeb crashed from massive infestations of Cybrid viruses, despite
the best Human efforts to keep it going. The Cybrid Fleet arrived at Luna
and began landing in force. The Emperor, realising belatedly his error in
judgment, recalled the Grand Fleet back to defend Earth.
More weeks would pass before the Rebels and Knights came to their senses
and formed the Human Alliance. Preparations were made to evacuate the planet
in the face of the Cybrid Fleet fragment that was rapidly heading for Mars.
Defenses were put up around major cities. The StormKeepers set up a
formidable "last haven", a defense perimeter with Stormkeep Spaceport in the
center and ShadowStorm Base offset slightly to the south.
In the midst of all the ongoing preparations for departure, Roger was able
to improve the balance of the Predator dramatically. Though it still was more
unstable than ordinary tracked tanks, and a far cry from two-legged Hercs,
it was proven to be pilotable under combat-type conditions. Three SK pilots,
Jeffr, Zeke and Louie took turns flying two advanced prototypes that
Roger helped the SK's build. These were good enough to prompt Zeke
to ask Roger whether they should get the beta-testing over with and start
mass production right away.
Meanwhile, the Cybrid Fleet drew nearer.
On 2829.9302, seemingly out of nowhere, the StormKeepers Fleet appeared
in Mars orbit to lend a hand. Hanuman had, at the time, merely shrugged and
noted with his characteristic flair that "the SK Fleet has always been
there". Together with the combined fleet elements and the Martian
Aerospace Division, the SK Aerospace Wing conducted intense drills. Knight,
Rebel and non-affiliated squads alike joined in the frenzied evacuation
preparations for departure from the planet. Caanon decided to launch for
Venus to help recover TDF elements fleeing from Mercury, while Harabec
decided to lead the bulk of the forces to Titan and match up with the
TDF personnel and NTDF squad stationed there for the usage of the deep-space
The SK Fleet split into half, one part to stay and defend Mars, while the
other would bring volunteers to Earth to make one last stand against the
Cybrids. Mars may be invaded by the Cybrids eventually, but even the dustborn
agreed that should Earth fall, there would be literally nowhere else left for
Humankind to go, except the deep, cold, empty vastness of interstellar space.
Roger decided to bring his entire project along with him, convinced that it
would help in some way towards the war effort. An entire destroyer-class
vessel, the newly-renamed [SSK] Predilection, was dedicated to this mission,
complete with escorts, its internals crammed floor to ceiling with transplanted
ShadowStorm equipment - and alien technology.
On 2830.1302, the first wave of Cybrid invaders landed. The real battle of
Mars had begun.
... to be continued