The StormKeepers Chronicles
Volume IV "Masters of the Galaxy"

Copyright (c) 1998 by Low Ee Mien
All references to Hercs and the StarSiege Universe (c) 1998 Dynamix Corporation

Chapter 7 : A Skirmish in Non-Space

4.7 km from SK HercBase #3
High noon 1200 hrs
The day of the unreal battles

Slight breezes drifted in the thin martian atmosphere, stirring up tiny dust motes, and specks of soil, swirling into the slightly tepid air, curling themselves and disappearing around the Herculean-sized legs of five multi-ton machines facing each other in a tense, one-sided showdown.

After a brief silence, it was NTDF Thrawn who spoke up first.

"What in the bloody hell are you jabbering about, Mr. Ess-Kay Hanuman?", Thrawn pactically spat out the StormKeepers' abbreviated initials with a measure of precise deliberateness.

"It was the Cybrids", announced [SK] Hanuman, simply.

Katana was unable to stand it any further. He chuckled, "Yeah right, you SK people are really crazy, you know that? You kidnap one of our guys, you sneak into the grounds of the Imperial Palace, no less, and then you put him in the middle of your battle defending your own base, and then you blame it all on the Cybrids. Who do you really think you are kidding this time, Hanuman?"

"Facts are facts - they will speak for themselves", countered Hanuman. He was clearly biding his time, waiting for... what? Katana was getting a little worried. Cybrids. It was a crazy idea. What did the Cybrids have to do with kidnapping, what did they, in fact, have to do with the SK's in the first place... it was an intriguing, yet unbelivably incredible..

Unexpectedly, the conversation, such as it was, was ground to a halt by the characteristic double-take shoo-shoosh of a pair of missiles leaving twin launch modules at almost the same instant of time. Katana looked sharply to his left. The missiles were leaping clear from PrinzEugen's Basilisk, and were headed straight for Hanuman's Herc, flying, flying...

At precisely a quarter of the way in the intervening distance between the firing and the fired-upon Hercs, twin bolts of brilliantly whitish energy shot out. The missiles disappeared in mid-flight, shot down by ELF bolts placed with incredible speed and accuracy.

A whole second later, it looked for all the world as if the missiles had never been launched. Hanuman's Herc, unscathed, untouched, stood its ground, as yet facing the four menacing Hercs which would have looked to even a casual observer as if they were trying their best to stare him down.

It was at that instant that Louie and Lollipop's Hercs materialised into being, ghostly shapes melting translucently from the landscape, taking on real, solid, form as the effect of the cloaking shields wore off.

"I suppose you have heard of the Louie-Lollipop pair. They've made quite a name for themselves so far, and I should think you'd know better than to mess with these two", Hanuman paused, for effect, "... at the same time." The battle with the Cybrids three days ago had made it to the planet-wide news networks and had reached as far as Earth itself. Hanuman had played down his own decisive strategic role and, for obscure reasons of his own, had PR (Public-Relations) Coke publicise the efforts of Louie and Lollipop for as much as it was worth. Coke had put Louie in charge of some so-called Propaganda and Paparazzi department, even inciting him to add a "PP" tag behind his SK name, but Louie thought it was a tad too long and couldn't quite agree that "[SK] Louie G3L / PP" would look good on the Tactical Data Link displays...

"Now that we have reached some understanding regarding the odds here, let's get down to the real explanations."

Hanuman went on to a detailed narrative of the arrival of Dire Wolf, the battle with the Cybrids, how Dire Wolf got injured, and had to be rushed to the on-base Medical Center, leaving out some classified parts but telling the truth overall. The NTDF people were getting visibly impatient, tracking their swivel-mounted weapons this way and that, but they held their fire - after Katana's sharp reprimand on PrinzEugen for shooting first without orders.

It took a lengthy download of log files and the appearance of Dire Wolf himself, fully recovered and restored to health by Dr Sinclair, driven to the scene in a rumbling land-rover driven by Jeffr, to convince them that the StormKeepers were not entirely crazy after all. The fact that some of the log listings were obtained from the NTDF's own internal databases shook up the NTDF'ers somewhat as to the extent of the threat. Jeffr accompanied the four Hercs the rest of the approximately 5 kilometers back to their waiting transport while Hanuman promised to keep Katana updated on the delicate situation at hand. They left with a decided huff, still a little sceptical, but, as Katana sternly reminded the rest of his squad, there would be no fighting while the New Terran Defense Force carried out its own investigations.

Trigger #5 at node 5A:DF:7C:02:65:00:78:9E under sub-net 45:65:6C:40 in domain activated. Type 4 Anomaly in effect.

It was a synthesized computer voice, for the most part gender-neutral, yet somewhat feminine, that spoke rapidly, loud and clear, in Louie's mind. A network map superimposed itself over the view of the external world outside Louie's Herc, showing a pulsing red dot at the exact location of intrusion - it was a primary mail router, fully identifiable by all of its 192-bit net address, deep inside the StormKeepers Headquarters somewhere in the Kunlun area of China. Somewhere in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, as China was called - it was an appropriate place to house the reclusive leaders of the StormKeepers' organisation.

The activation of the trigger, which was itself a type of electronic tripwire, indicated that Louie's efforts to locate the intrusion into the StormKeepers' electronic chain-of-command and e-mail systems was paying off. A certified expert in the networking and data communications field, Louie had planted a number of flags in the system to inform him immediately of any attempts to hack, or break into the StormKeepers' sophisticated, planet-hopping wide-area network.

The Cybrids were attacking again.

It was two hours after Dire Wolf was warded in the StormKeepers' Medical Center that Lollipop had begun to uncover the circumstances surrounding the apparently-mistaken transfer of an NTDF personnel to the newest SK base. Having amassed top-notch skills in cryptography and encryption technology, mostly self-taught, Lollipop was more than qualified to check out any irregularities behind PR Coke's transfer orders for Dire Wolf.

Lollipop had run a series of tests that confirmed the worst fears of the senior officers present - someone had managed to infiltrate a number of nodes, or machines, in StormNet, the far-flung network that connected SK HQ and each and every one of the StormKeepers' bases on Earth, Mars, Venus, as well as every Herc, ship, transport and more. Even the SK deep-space probes were linked in as well, through remote router satellites orbiting faraway Neptune and Uranus. It was a wired (and wireless) Solar System in the 29th century, and an incursion into the networks carried with it a level of threat as great as any physical attack.

And on this virtual battle-field, the Cybrids, with Prometheus as their leader, were literally on home ground. Their cybertronic brains made for much faster and efficient navigation in the unreal volumes of cyberspace that existed as massive collections of pulsating bits and bytes in the modern version of the Internet that was a direct descendant of the ancient ARPAnet that had been funded in the mid 20th century by the then-US Department of Defense.

The Cybrids had attempted such incursions before - the last such major invasion had occured some fifteen years ago in 2814. And once again, they were trying at a skirmish in this arena. The mid-fielder defenses had failed - sophisticated encryption protocols, protective firewalls and private-key systems had been tampered with. Application-layer protections and safeguards were falling everywhere - left, right and center.

And now, Louie and Lollipop were going to have to play the defenders in a cyberspace re-match against the Cybrids today. And the score so far - Cybrids 2 and Humans NIL - did not look good...

... continued