FLIPSPACE Missions 16-18
by John Steiner
Surpassing the speed of light remained elusive in 2170’s. However, the trick was to hold still to swap out spatial locations. For Colonel Sumitra Ramachandra, Major Lamarr Fitch, Captain Malcolm O’Connell and the rest of the ISS Mockingbird’s crew jumping between solar systems is just the start of their wondrous, sometimes zany and often perilous missions. The future of aerospace defense stretches far above the blue yonder.
Colonel Ramachandra’s mission takes the ISS Mockingbird to the exoplanet Gaia 1001R and the alien diplomatic space station in orbit. Yet, flying out the consulate staff and supplies for the International Space Organization is no simple assignment. Major Fitch and Corporal Ash both take an interest in the diplomat. An ISO astronaut calls on Captain O’Connell to reach far into his past to teach firefighting to aliens from the all-ocean planet. The newest member of the Ghostwalkers security force team must prove her worth to Rama and the Ghostwalkers. All the while, human and alien secrets come to light.
A violent encounter ensues between the aliens of Gaia 1001R and a ship from the Jade Continuum. Colonel Rama is tasked with tracking the ship to uncover the Continuum’s motives. Before departing the consulate space station of Gaia 1001R, Rama is given a subtle warning by another diplomat. On discovery of a wandering star system, the ISS Mockingbird is attacked by yet another unidentified aggressor. Outgunned, Rama orders Major Fitch to evacuate most of the crew, while she lures the attackers away. The loss of lives is just the start of bad news revealed to the crew.
It’s New Years, and with it starts a relationship for Colonel Rama. On leave and dating, she is unaware another ISV-71 Raven is sent to rescue the AI, Khronos, missing since the Astraeus Event. After they come up empty handed, Rama is ordered to assist the investigation of suspicious ties between an RSCI firm, Star Labs Inc. and the Jade Continuum. She, Major Fitch, and Chief Anders prepare the crew for entering the frozen wild-west culture of an RSCI habitat in the Kuiper Belt. Todd Ash is kidnapped by a forgotten nemesis, making Captain O’Connell feel helpless under a debilitating condition.
Waves without end. That’s what one of the two survivors of a Jade Continuum octuplet saw as they drifted in an alien sea under partly cloudy skies of the super-Earth exoplanet, Gaia 1001R. The duo saw herself as one woman who had died six times already. She clung to her unconscious other self and swung her helmeted head back and forth, with panic driving her heartbeat.
Two other sets of octuplets had been with her in the intra-solar vehicle dispatched from Gaia 1001’s outer reaches to conduct reconnaissance. But alien fighting flight suits had attacked, after sifting through Jade Continuum scrambling of their radar signals. She was forced to use ejection capsules in the hopes of saving valuable intelligence. The other octuplets died all eight times before two of her reached the escape tubes. Six of her other selves had shrieked in horror, as the ISV’s hull explosively peeled open and atmosphere blasted out. The suits were little saving grace against unprotected atmospheric entry, and she couldn’t shake the memory of her other bodies being burnt alive and suffering explosive decompression.
Now the Jade Continuum woman was stranded on a planet with no landmass whatsoever, and already she saw glimpses of indigenous intelligent aliens cruising below the waves in search of her. Something throbbed in her head, and then she realized that her other self was suffering a brain hemorrhage. Brought to fleeting consciousness, her second-self struggled in the water before dying. Seeing her other set of vital signs flatline within her neural-augmented mind, the Jade Continuum woman knew there was nothing to be gained by clinging to her lifeless body. She watched her other body sink to the depths after she let go.
Gaia 1001R’s surface gravity was almost three times that of Earth, so every swim stroke over the surface was taxing, even with suit actuators. She also struggled to keep her head up, and without her pressure suit she felt she would’ve already drowned by now.
In one instance, where her head sank below the waterline, she caught a glimpse of a massive alien coming her way. The lower side of its body was light gray with dark gray scales, like those of sea turtles. The dorsal side was palatinate at the center, iridescent green on the cobra-like frill, with an irregular-edged neon-yellow band separating the colors. Its lower jaw resembled a robust version of a dolphin or sperm whale, but the other reminded the Jade Continuum woman of a raven’s beak, but for the green coloration and single yellow stripe up the middle. Six limbs reached out from under the cobra-hooded thorax and resembled a cross between a sea turtle’s scaled flippers and lobe fins of Sarcopterygii fish. The four longer flippers switched from an alternating paddling motion, to wing beats half a cycle off from each other. The third pair of flippers grew to half the length, but were broader and served more as rudders to help with braking. It was the largest of its kind she had ever seen.
Between vertical undulating swim strokes, the Jade Continuum octuplet saw a flash of two weapons held together in a bank of finger-like limbs on the right side of the abdominal region. Together, they bore coincidental resemblance to a trident. When the alien switched the two-pronged fork to the left-side bank of fingers, the Continuum octuplet knew what the alien was planning with the high tech harpoon. She realized her only chance to complete the mission was an encrypted burst transmission, since survival was out of the question. There wasn’t a human ship built that could conduct a water landing on a super-earth and take off again.
For that, she needed to stay above the water surface. She searched in desperate hope for anything useable as a life raft. She knew the planet had mats of floating plant life, and the octuplet began swimming toward the first cyan color she saw in the water. Another wave surged, reminding her that the planet’s largest moon was in ascension and pulling the tides up with it. Something else rose with the growing incline toward the wave crest. The alien warrior breached near the top of the wave into a slow corkscrew that turned its dorsal side down.
It was a sighting maneuver, to be followed with a flip of the lower body and tail that catapulted the harpoon. A line trailed in rapid spirals back to where the alien held on tightly with leading set of abdominal fingers. The harpoon’s serrated warhead pierced the Jade Continuum woman’s calf, and she let out a scream, as pain threatened to engulf her, and water started leaking into her suit.
Even more terrified than before, her below-surface side-strokes sped up, although there was nothing to be done. After the alien plunged into the water, a hard yank of the harpoon line pulled the woman under, as burning agony shot up her leg. The aquatic being had already circled around and was heading up with a bladed fork in its right-side grasp.
The Continuum woman tried to paddle aside, but the creature adjusted all too easily. The octuplet felt the piercing stab of the twin prongs enter under her ribcage and exit the nape of her neck at both sides of her spinal column. Blood spurted out of her mouth and all over her visor, as she weakly grabbed at the forked shaft entering her. Vision faded, as she was thrust several meters out of the water by the breaching alien attacker. Death came as she crashed through the ocean surface.
* * * *
Sitting alone in the backseat of a base-issued car, Colonel Sumitra Ramachandra used her ocular augments to read over the file of her newly assigned crewmember, one Master Sergeant Kinessa Lane. Lane’s appearance in the file contrasted with Rama’s considerably. Kinessa’s hair was sandy blonde and long, but kept in a ponytail. In the alternate image, in dress black uniform, Kinessa’s hair was up in a bun. Being of Indian descent, Rama’s skin tone was dark. Master Sergeant Lane carried the freckled pale skin of her distant Irish ancestors who moved to Australia in the nineteenth century. Hard hazel eyes stared at the XD cam that captured both animated profile images for her military records.
Below, Rama discovered that Lane had originally enlisted in the Australian Army and worked up to the Special Air Service Regiment prior to transferring to Aerospace Defense Response. There were several remarks by Extra-Vehicular Rescue instructors showing how much she had impressed them. Lane was about ten centimeters shorter than Rama, but the former SASR operator carried more muscle mass. Her build was fairly close to the ideal frame needed for ADR Ghostwalkers.
Finishing her third read-through of Kinessa Lane’s file, Rama cleared her view in time to see the driverless car reach the Atlantis Base airfield. The suborbital-liner carrying new transfers had already landed, and personnel were dispersing to deliver their orders to the units to which each were assigned. Rama picked out Sergeant Lane in her Air Battle Uniform, a large duffle slung over her left shoulder, and a smaller bag in the steely grip of her right hand.
Rama had the car pull up aside the airfield. She got out to accept the NCO’s salute and return the courtesy. “At ease. Master Sergeant Lane, I’m Colonel Ramachandra, your mission commander. Welcome to ISS Four-Five-Four. The trunk’s unlocked for your baggage.”
“Click-bang,” Lane sounded off, to Rama’s mild surprise, then added, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Once auto-drive became the norm in military cars the informal tradition had been that junior ranks sat forward of their seniors and faced back, which Lane did when the two got in. The idea was that incase of—now quite rare—accidents, the lower ranks would be at greater risk.
When the vehicle started up, Rama began her in-person interview. “So, you know our cadence at the ship registry numbers. What about her song?”
“Flight of the Mockingbird, Ma’am,” Lane answered in her prominent Australian accent.
“Have you read the mission history of our bird?” Rama was curious at just how much document reconnaissance the combat operative had done.
“Everyone in the world knows about the Mockingbird,” Lane replied, “Your first time out was the Astraeus rescue, and after that Kepler 22B. Then there was the Fortuna Incident opposite that Risky Business vessel, The Boundless. If I might say Ma’am, that was a ballsy move.”
At that point, Rama could tell Lane hadn’t stopped at the more famous missions, which made M-Cast news. Journalists reported the story of Fortuna, but International Services, the Russian Cosmonautics Force, and RSCI all kept the names of people and ships out of their press statements.
“Go on,” Rama prompted in a more serious tone.
Lane caught on to the unspoken point. “And I know about your losses at Kuiper Belt Object 2039 WX2. It would be like losing family, what with the time your crew put in together.”
“I’m going to be frank with you, Sergeant,” Rama said as she leaned forward in her seat, “you’ve never lost people from any unit you served in. That’s the only hang-up I had over whether to accept you on my crew. You’re an experienced combat operator, but this is war we’re dealing with up there. I need to know that you can deal with seeing people die in horrific ways that you never encountered on Earth. It’s not just people you have to fight in space. Our atmosphere fends off enemies you can’t even see. A grain of sand or ice can be more powerful than a 120 millimeter railgun.”
“Yes ma’am, I recall.” Lane sounded respectful but certainly not meek. “When you run your lap around Jupiter with the Gilligan’s Anomaly as your only mate you become quite conscious of your suit’s fragility and more so of your own. That’s why I completed it with the second fastest record time.”
“Yes, I read that in your file,” Rama said. “Every detail is in there, Sergeant.”
“Every detail, Ma’am?” Lane inquired.
Rama knew Lane’s EVR Jupiter Evolution had been harrowing, but she started to wonder if there were more. The shift in Sergeant Lane’s expression hinted at a backstory, for which there could be plenty of room in the Comms Dead Zone around Jupiter.
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