February 2821, Imperial Standard Reckoning
"Hold it right there, Mack."
The voice was feminine, but it contained a thinly-concealed edge, with
the intimations of a commanding presence that made one sit up and listen.
In this case, however, the response was a barely perceptible nod. A
male voice drawled in a bored tone, as if stifling a yawn. "Yeah, I'm jake,
Linda, holding it right here." He resisted the urge to make any further
overt motion. The operation was delicate enough as it was.
Linda Lefaye finished the job in eight minutes, three less than it took
earlier on. A rapid arm-swinging motion signalled the slaved precision-welding
powered limb to shift out of the way, locking into storage position. Linda
glanced above and behind her mobisuit to make sure that the motorised arm stayed
there. It had once wriggled loose somehow and nearly knocked someone else off a
platform and out into the void. She had no intention of letting that sort of
thing happen again. Ever.
"Not bad, Miss Sizzler. That was a quick one." Jason Mackenroy - Mack to
all who knew him - started to move now. An array of micro-thruster jets fired in
tiny spurts in an orchestrated concert that was directed by a complex, built-in
movement-cue system that took as input body motions which were fed into an array
of processors. These in turn determined the direction the user wished
to go and translated the resultant vector into the appropriate
thrust-firing chains. Mack moved gently into position, holding the entire
door-and-frame mechanism in a servo-augmented deadlock grip with infinite care.
He was helped by his finely-honed sense of direction in all this time out here,
a set of glowing x-y-z co-ordinates appearing in front of his face - and a
steady barrage of instructions from Linda.
"Almost there, Mr Gripper. Two more inches... hold it... steady, down
one, yes, that's it, lock it down - now!" Linda hovered nearby, watching
anxiously as Mack engaged the automatic seals that would hold the frame
temporarily in position until she completed the final phase of the task by
welding the entire frame tightly to the hull.
The nicknames were derived from the job functions of the pair. Linda was
the welder, hence "Miss Sizzler" - and Mack was "Mr Gripper" due to
the pair of strong manipulator arms that were part of his suit. They both knew
that it would have sounded pretty ludicrous to anyone else, however, the
short-range, tightband radio transmissions they used made it difficult for others
to listen in.
Freed from having to do anything for a while, Mack looked up and made a
swimming motion with his arms and legs. The mobisuit complied immediately,
accelerating him away from Linda's similarly-suited figure which was now
busily engaged at work completing the final welds. Mack made a halt
motion, stretching out his arms and legs as far as he could. Again, the
movement cue was picked up, and he came to a complete standstill.
Changing his focus from the task at hand, Mack took in the breathtaking
view directly below his feet. Planet Earth, as always, was a beautiful sight
to behold, even when covered by the blanket of night. Tiny city lights peeped
out from beneath dark, swirling clouds. Every now and then, small flashes of
lightning from inside the cloud layer indicated the presence of a thunderstorm in
progress. As Mack continued to take in the view, he had to remind himself, as often
he did, that every discernible feature - a coastline, a mountain ridge, or a
body of water - was often hundreds or perhaps even thousands of miles across.
It was a humbling thought, a perception that held one's attention there and
then, and that lingered in the mind for a long while afterward.
They ought to bring some of these politicians up here from time to time.
Who knows - it might do them a whole lot of good. Meta-nation boundaries,
ocean territorial rights, airspace extensions, well, it's all in the mind,
Breaking away from his philosophical musings, Mack turned his head to look up.
As he did so, the suit rotated in unison, bringing him face-to-face with the
dull gray shape looming before him. Two meters to his right and just above
the spot where Linda was still micro-welding away was a row of neatly-stencilled
lettering, each character easily twice his own height. As yet unpainted and
now visible only in outline, the letters read - "[SSK] Predominant". Below these
letters, stencilled in wavy italics in a much smaller font visible only on
close inspection, were the words "Ship of the StormKeepers Fleet".
The vessel, first of its class, sat in near-complete glory. A replacement
for the ageing Prophecy class, the Predominant was to be the most advanced
destroyer in the Stormkeepers Fleet upon its slated launch in a month's
time. Designed in a sleeker style than its predecessor, the entire 426-meter
length of the ship looked as if it was ready to break free of the
yellow-and-black construction girders holding it tight and simply leap
into space, to disappear into the darkness beyond.
It had not been easy getting to this point, however. Mack remembered coming
across news articles on the OmniWeb about the political controversies
which had sprung up when the rest of the world heard that the StormKeepers
Organisation, of all possible factions, was actively engaged in construction of
their own next-generation space-faring vesels quite independently of the Empire's
Grand Fleet. Numerous questions had been raised at the time. Were the StormKeepers
trying to create an arms race among the independent factions? Warfleets were
not cheap - where did the SK's get their funding from? And the one that
was repeated most stridently : were the StormKeepers attempting to
become a viable political force independent of, and outside the Empire?
To the first and third questions, the answer, repeated over and over by
the same few spokespersons, was a categorical "no". The SK's remained
silent on the second question, though. Mack could not recall what had happened
after that. All he knew was that, at some point, the meta-nation of China had
stepped in. Rumors circulated of high-level talks being held among the powers that be.
It was said that the top leadership of the StormKeepers, a reclusive lot by habit,
had been quite shaken up by the political storm. The chat circuits were busy for a
time with discussion of mysterious deals being struck with the Empire. That was the
only tangible item with any discernible effect, because the OmniNews went quiet on the
whole issue within two weeks after the first wave of news scoops and investigative
Mack was no political animal, therefore he, too, like most of the world,
had quickly lost interest soon after that. It was only after he had been
retrenched from a reasonably cushy middle-manager post at the flagging
real-estate investment arm of Imtrax Corp. before he had even come across
any further mention of the enigmatic StormKeepers Organisation again.
Blaming the accursed Imtrax Corp. for its short-sightedness in its diversification
efforts, he had spent four months in unemployment, all the while declaring loudly
to everyone within earshot that Imtrax should have concentrated on its core processor
business in the first place. He signed up with an employment agency which
matched him up with some person who only called himself [DA] SkyDiver, who had
then somehow managed to persuade him to leave the firm grounds of Earth to be a
spacedock construction tech. It was a pay-by-the hour, mid-skill job, but
Mack had grabbed at it because there simply were no other offers for someone
of his age group. Besides, the job came with a first-class view
- and an office area the size of Planet Earth, the brochures had said.
The three-week training was intense, but it was an eye-opener. Among other
things, Mack had quickly learned much about spacewalking, Earth-relative
velocities and zero-gravity object handling in that short period.
The insistent tinkle of a proximity alert made Mack look away from the
dull-gray hull of the Predominant where he had been day-dreaming for the
past half-minute. Looking around him, he saw nothing much out of the ordinary,
but, being fully aware that in space, sound could not be relied upon to
deliver the news of approaching entities, he simply watched the skies - and
There - they appeared as three white dots, moving fast against the background
of space. The dots expanded, becoming larger and more distinct from the blanket
of stars they came from. In a smooth fly-by that would have been deafening had
there been an atmosphere, the three StratoStars zipped by directly overhead,
cruising at what would have been hypersonic speeds relative to the orbitplat,
though in reality the absolute velocities were measured in tens of Mach
The fighters seemed to be turning back now. A routine patrol perhaps - or
some hotshots going out on a joyride. Mack decided that he really couldn't
tell - and really could not care less. To him, all pilots of the
StratoStar aerospace superiority fighter were in severe need of some kind
of an attitude adjustment. Well, all except, perhaps...
"Evening, Mack. What're you doing nowadays, eh? Saw your code come up on
the IFF, thought I'd drop by to say hello." A familiar voice burst out on
the open broadband channel.
Ah, that explained things a lot. Mack remembered that stratofighter fly-bys
had been specifically prohibited in the area - a restriction that did not
apply, of course, to the Commander - Air-Group that had ordered it.
"Ah, so it's you, my dear uncle [SK] Ramrod. Had to defy your own orders,
didn't you?" Mack was chuckling now. Technically, the lead pilot in the
StratoStar formation was not quite his uncle, but some distant relation,
though the distinction seemed to be lost on the two of them on the rare
occasions that they did meet. "How's the wife and kids?"
Ramrod was quick to correct that one. "Kid. Singular, mind ya. One, going on
two. I'm still young, you know. And they're fine, both of them."
"No way - you're well into your third decade." It seemed to be Mack's turn
at ribbing today. "If I were you, I'd be laying off on the G-forces already."
"Hey-hey-hey, look who's talking. You've got a month left to your own
tri-decade celebrations, my oh-not-so-young newphew."
Mack frowned. That much was true - he had not counted on Ramrod to be
this good at remembering dates. "Ouch. That hurt."
"No-glitch, Mack. The company I'm keeping nowadays seem to have made it
their job to remind me of that every waking moment. Here, let me introduce
you to our new Initiates, [SKI]'s Rock and, well.. Newbie. See what I mean?"
The Initiates were StormKeepers in training. An integral part of the courses
they had to attend in order to become full-fledged StormKeepers was a
space-combat module in actual StratoStar or AstroStar fighters. Which added
one or two more vehicles to their repertoire, having already qualified in
at least half a dozen Hercs, tanks and perhaps other vehicles at this stage
of their journey to achieving the right to wear the coveted [SK] tag preceding
"Well, Mack, it's nice to see you, even if it's just sucking vacuum out here.
Have a face-to-face someday, eh? I've gotta run, help these guys squeeze in a
few more hours on their flight logs. Make it look good on their records, yeah?"
Ramrod had always been on the lookout for the cadets under him - even though he
did bend the rules a little for them from time to time.
"Seeya out there sometime, Mack," Ramrod was turning his fighter around,
preparing to go, when Mack thought he heard some commotion coming from the
open channel. At that instant, Ramrod barked out an order, which was immediately
followed by the three StratoStars engaging maximum thrust on their multi-mode
ion-mass jets, afterburning away out of sight.
The last words that Mack heard on the channel before the aerospace craft went
out of range sounded a lot like "... get under cover".
As he pondered over the garbled transmission, Mack noticed a flicker of
movement at the periphery of his vision. He watched, transfixed, as the
line ended up in a series of neatly-grouped, pockmarked craters on the
smooth surface of the uncompleted destroyer. From his angle, it looked
a little like rain - if only raindrops moved this quickly.
It was only then that red warnings plastered themselves across the
faceplate of Mack's helmet. An alert klaxon sounded in his ears, a
cacophony of warbling which went rapidly up and down the scales.
Fear seeped in with the realisation of the situation he was in. A meteor
shower! Moving at speeds measured in kilometers per second, the fast-moving
particles regularly punched holes in unprotected orbiting equipment. Entire
clusters of satellites had been lost in the past before shielding had come
into widespread use.
Mack waved frantically at Linda, who had just finished her welding and was
coming up toward him. "No, don't come any closer!" He managed to retain
some presence of mind to switch back to the proper radio channel. "We've
Mack looked up at the invisible canopy which was supposed to protect the
space dock from these meteors. It was belatedly energising to full power,
having been put in a power-saving mode to conserve energy during a
supposedly-lull period. As it did so, splotches of green appeared, highlighting
the impact points of the incoming rocks against the station's force shields.
Small explosions marked the demise of larger rocks as the point-defense
auto-lasers swung into action, picking off the more dangerous elements.
Despite the best precautions, Murphy's Law would nearly always rear its
ugly head. Mack watched, horrified, as Linda's mobisuit burst into flame,
her right-side main thruster having been sheared off by one of the meteors
that had managed to slip past the multiple layers of defense. The reaction
mass contained in a nearby assembly ignited, sending Linda on a vector heading
directly away from the Predominant - and into space.
Frozen to the spot in momentary shock, Mack looked on as Linda's mobisuited
figure miraculously cleared its way through the force shielding through
an invisible gap in the supposedly-overlapping field coverage regions.
Mack wasted no further time as he boosted off in the same direction, burning
up precious reaction mass in doing so.
Mack was talking rapid-fire now. He wondered whether she could hear him
at all. "Hold on, Linda, I'm coming after you... ughh... okay, made it
through the shields... let's hope the ALAS turrets don't mistake me for
a meteor and shoot me down... hey we got IFF, right? Tell me if you
copy all that... Linda... Linda? Almost there..."
Reaching out with his powered gripper arms, Mack locked onto the remaining
left main-thruster assembly on Linda's suit. Waving his arms and feet, Mack
commanded his own mobisuit to assume a hovering position. Thrusters
flaring, Mack's suit struggled to comply, as it tried to deal with the
unexpected weight and spin imparted by Linda. It managed to stop the
rotation and slow their combined velocity to a crawl before the jets
spurted and gave up altogether.
"Christ and Hunter. Now we're really stuck," Mack swore under
his breath. He took a peep at Linda's suit indicators. They blinked mostly
green. She should be fine - for the moment.
Mack toggled his chin-activated comm-switch and started to call for help.
"Mayday, mayday, this is Jason Mackenroy here. Is anyone out there? HELP!!!
I'm outta reaction mass, dammit! My partner's, well, I dunno, I think she's okay,
but we need a MED TEAM out here ASAP!! Repeat... repeat, this is Jason Mackenroy
out here... we need a pickup NOW!!"
A scratchy voice came forth from the darkness. "Jason Mackenroy, this
is Olivia Station Control - please hold your position. We have been
apprised of your situation, and have you on scope. Help is on the way."
Mack swore further. Hold position? What did those bozos think he was
A minute later, Mack found himself staring at [SK] Ramrod's helmeted
figure as the StratoStar returned from the depths of space and slid
to a precision stop a few feet away from his position. Still
gripping on to Linda's left thruster determinedly, Mack watched the
two other fighters align themselves into position, formation lights
winking in the night.
"Ah, a re-hi, Mack. I'm sorry we had to scram earlier. Meteors got too
heavy, it was a storm out there. Even S-Stars could get wiped out, eh?"
Ramrod sounded deeply apologetic. "You two okay out there?"
"Yeah, I suppose. Burned too much fuel to go get her. She's okay,
I think, probably got whacked hard, but she's okay. I'm no doc, but
suit says so, anyway."
"Fine, then, Mack. Glad to hear that. Now, grab the line - I'll be
towing you back to base."
A silvery tow-cable snaked out from Ramrod's fighter. After a few
tries, Mack got hold of the hook end and held on with his spare gripper
arm as the craft accelerated. The other two StratoStars followed closely,
the SK Initiates tucking in behind and slightly below their leader,
exactly as they had been taught in class.
Mack heaved a deep sigh as the space dock got nearer. He could see the entire
Olivia Platform from here now - five spokes radiating out from a central
cylinder, with four new destroyers in various stages of completion. At the
moment, two of these vessels belonged to China who was the holder of the majority
stake in the orbitplat. Tiny mobisuited figures moved about busily, going about
their duties as if the meteor storm had not occurred at all.
Mack shook his head tiredly. Such were the occupational hazards he had to
face in his current job - it was all in a day's work - meteor storms and all.
He now looked forward to his next duty rotation back to Earth, where
a meteor shower was just an atmospheric phenomenon and not a life-threatening
Oh yes. It would be good to be back on solid ground again, indeed.