Free Fiction: “The Watchers” – Part 9


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‘The Watchers’ is a short story set in the universe of ‘Shallow Space’, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. The story is available in ‘Factions’ available on Amazon now. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.

For previous chapters, click on the links below:
Part 8: The Journey Home
Part 7: The Illicit Route
Part 6: The Big Rock
Part 5: The Sanctuary
Part 4: The Limp Home.
Part 3: The Flight.
Part 2: The Investigation.
Part 1: The Find

9: The Fortress

Digger and Bones sat and waited. They said nothing. What was there to say?

He just sat there, watching the ferns and branches dip and dive outside as the wind grew. A high-pitched whistle built outside as wind screamed past an antenna.

A dull boom reverberated through the building. They glanced at each other and shrugged. A warehouse door closing perhaps. Or the floor closing over the hidden landing pad. The Asteria was probably in there, hidden, some tech plugging in and downloading all the Map data Bones and he had risked their lives for.

He realised the air smelt different. Not stale, but more metallic. Like it was being sourced from internal air batteries rather than the fresh air outside.

Digger stood, his legs suddenly tense. That was what the bang had been, the switch over to closed-loop atmosphere, something one did when expecting a bombardment of biological weapons.

He paced, wondering what was happening throughout the complex. The R&D facility would be shut down as far as possible – a wayward bomb could do a lot of damage to a live experimental fusion reactor. Any weapon systems the MFC had would be brought online. And up on the top floor, Martissa and the Top Dog would be debating all of their immediate futures.

The wind turned. Digger thought he saw the tip of the mount through the canopy. No fleet of invading ships coming from that direction.
“Sit down,” drawled Bones. “You’re fritzing with my happy place.”

Finally, the door opened to show Martissa curling her finger at them to follow. Together they left and entered the elevator. Martissa hit the top button.

Digger raised his eyebrows. They were going to see the Top Dog himself.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. They stepped out into a penthouse office. It filled the whole top floor. Large plush rugs, decorative panels on the ceiling, couches, lamps, sculptures of. . .something. It felt grandiose but empty. A wasted space. It took Digger a moment to find the sole occupant, Henry Kallahar, CEO of Mineral and Fusion Corp, standing behind his quartz desk by the far window looking out over the canopy, a link hanging from his ear.

“Dammit, Walverzon, what the hell are friends for if you can’t rely on them when you need them?

Digger elbowed Bones and whispered. “He’s talking to the owner of A.I.M.”

“Fates sake Henry,” came Fred Walverson’s voice from the desk. “Its Terra we’re talking about. The milli-second I activate agents in Terra airspace, I’ll lose my license and A.I.M will be disbanded. I won’t be any bloody use to you then will I?”

Henry turned away from the window, saw Martissa, nodded, then looked down at his desk. “I’ve got twelve spooks coming in hot. I need man-power Fred, or I’m not going to be around for you to help. It’s now or never, Fred. What’s it going to be?”

Digger crept forward at Henry’s words, forgetting all company decorum and leaning forward over the desk. Henry glanced at him before turning back to the window, waiting.

Henry had been looking at a near space sensor sweep. There were twelve blips approaching Underwood.

Digger felt a cold lump in his throat. They’d been followed. He’d brought the wrath of whoever it was on the whole of MFC. It was his fault.

He was backing away before he realised it. He bumped into Martissa. He spun, eyes wide, staring up into hers. “I shouldn’t have come. I’ve put everyone in danger.”
He moved to pass her but she put a hand on his shoulder. “Hush now,” she said. It was quiet, almost a whisper, but most definitely an order. Digger stopped. He turned back to watch Henry.
Fred Walverzon’s sigh scratched across the link. “I have some discrete ships I can send up to you, but they’re not the best and they can’t hang around for ever. They’ll be too obvious.”
“Just get them here now,” Henry said at a near bellow. Then softer: “Thanks Fred.” He tapped the link, pulled it from his ear and looked back at his guests. “Martissa, thank you. These are the gentlemen?” He gestured Digger and Bones to the two lounger-cum-seats before his desk.

“I ordered your ship out of sight as soon as Martissa told me what happened,” he said. “But I’m afraid it may have been too late, which is why I was wrangling a deal with A.I.M there to help us out.”

Digger nodded, a lump in his throat. He felt heavy, trapped under the twin weight of stupidity and inconsideration. Henry seemed to pick it up.

“You know,” he started. “I’m proud of what Mineral and Fusion Corp have achieved over the last four hundred years, all the way back to Old Earth. Hell, we were the benchmark at one
stage. Everyone in shallow space still uses MFC fusion technology. That’s pretty fantastic right? But since INC pulled that coup in claiming a whole stellar system and the rediscovery of the Pleiades colony, well, we’ve been the underdog.

“Now if there is one thing I know about the underdog is that they play to the strengths and they stick together, and they don’t fight the big boy on their turf. They let the big boy come to them.

“So you boys did the right thing, coming here. We look after our own, and we don’t take shit from anyone trying to play us for fools. We have defences. We’ll be ok.”

Henry stood, ushering them up. “But I believe it will be best for us to move to our underground control centre.”

The four of them entered the elevator. The ride down was quiet. No one spoke. Henry kept glancing at Martissa, whose own expression stayed bland, if not disinterested. Digger kept watching them all, wondering what they weren’t telling him.

Bones elbowed him and nodded at Martissa’s butt. She was wearing a complimentary dress for sure, but Digger was more worried that an invading armada didn’t rank highly in Bone’s priorities.

The rush of air around the elevator changed pitch as they went underground. The door opened a few moments later.

The control centre was small, maybe all of twenty square meters, but fitted out with serious kit. Large screens filled all four walls: sensor sweeps, satellite imagery, a link to the A.I.M network showing friendly ship statuses. Data was streaming in continuously. Three men worked at the consoles.

“Bandits have entered the atmosphere,” said one of them, as if he were in a military bunker relaying news to his General.

Digger didn’t like sitting still, hiding, waiting for them to come to him. There had to be something he could do. The whole thing had started when they boarded the TCS Constitution.

No, not when they boarded. When he went to the bridge and started downloading information.

Information. . .

“What about the information we downloaded off that ship?” Digger asked. “What if that’s what they’re after?”

Henry scoffed. “Too late for that, Jeremy. Besides, it’s irrelevant. My IT slicers found nav data. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing worth attacking you for.”

“But what if they don’t know that? What if they think we got the mother-lode? Or what if we do have the mother-lode and we just don’t know it? Don’t know how to look at it properly?”

Martissa squinted at him. She clenched her jaw. “What do you suggest?”

“Bandits inbound. One thousand klicks and closing. A.I.M forces moving to intercept,” called one of the console men.

Digger glanced at the screen. The twelve ‘bandits’ were coming in from the northern sea, avoiding Capitol airspace. The small clump of freighters and explorer ships that A.I.M had organised slowly edged northward to meet the aggressors. Unless the A.I.M ships were ironclad and their pilots were masters, then it was going to be a one sided battle.

And he’d be responsible for their deaths. Any other option sounded appealing. He took a deep breath. “Broadcast it.”

Bones raised an eyebrow, Martissa stared blankly, but Henry understood. “All of it?”

“All of it,” echoed. Digger. “If its gibberish, they’ll realise we know nothing and maybe leave us alone. If it’s not gibberish then everyone on Terra will have the information and maybe they’ll get distracted by damage control rather than bombing us into oblivion.”

Henry tossed Digger’s crystal to a console man. “Do it.”

The man plugged it in, pressed some buttons and then a stream of information screamed across one of the smaller displays. “Transmitting,” he said. “Ten percent. Twenty. Thirty percent, forty.”

“Bandits five hundred kilometres and closing,” called the other console man.

“Sixty percent.”

Digger watched the progress bar scroll across one side of the large screen as the incoming ships closed in on the other. Both inching forward, both looking to meet in the middle.
It was going to be tight.

Henry had his link back in his ear. “Talk to me Walverzon.”

“My boys have a visual,” droned Fred’s voice through the control rooms speaker. His voice had a distant boomy quality, as if he was talking into a speaker in his own control bunker. “They show no hostile signs toward us.”

Henry’s voice rose. “Then get the hell in their way, Fred!”

“You know we can’t fire first. Not on the same planet as the damn Emperor!”

Digger stepped up to Henry and snatched the link. “Get in their way for Fates sake! Make them alter course. Make them have to shoot you out of the way to get through. Get in the game or go home and play with your dolls.”

The room went silent. Henry snatched his link back, his cheeks red. Digger expected a big huff, the hurling of abuse, but Henry simply snorted. There was a twinkle in his eye. “Well said.”

“It’s uploaded,” called one of the men.

“Two hundred kilometres,” called the other.

The enemy ships merged with the A.I.M ships on the monitor. Random blips of black superimposed over the satellite image. Their movements were incoherent and random but then it changed, as if a magicians hand had waved past the screen, like the resolution had grown pixelated and then cleared.

The twelve ships were still coming.

“Fred, What the hell?” yelled Henry, both hands clutching the link.

Fred’s breathing filled the room’s speakers, but he didn’t say anything.

“Fred!”

“They flew right through us. Fate-fucking-sake they flew right between our ships! I’ve never seen flying like it. My ships closed in like a mesh and they threaded the goddamn needle! Henry, I’m sorry.”

Fred sighed. His whole frame seemed to sink forward, like whatever strength had held his spine together had suddenly disappeared. “You did your best, friend. Now it’s our turn.” He turned to the men. “Sound the alarm. Activate the defences.”

A distant air siren spooled up, louder and louder, the pitch increasing to a crescendo in a promise to destroy any eardrum on the continent.

Then it died. Falling and falling, like a collapsing air balloon, the sound driven by momentum rather than force.

The computers flicked off one by one, followed by the lights, until only the last screen remained. The big one. The one showing the incoming fighters.

Digger spun toward the elevator, a heavy pang in his own chest, the sting of failure, and embarrassment. Whoever these people were, they had just played the Mineral Fusion Corp like a two dollar banjo. Like the magician waving his right hand around while his left got up to mischief.

The incoming ships weren’t there to attack them.

The attack was already here.

“Guards!” Henry yelled, obviously having coming to the same conclusion.

Bones ran toward Digger, both Garrard’s out and powered. “I’ll go check it out.” He entered the elevator but the power was out. He exited and turned to Henry. “You got stairs outta here?”

Three armed men appeared from a shadow, answering the question. Bones nodded at Digger then he was gone. The guards formed up in a wedge before the stairs, their big guns long and dark and scary. But how trained were they?

Digger turned to the sole surviving screen. The approaching ships were overhead now. Digger waited for the explosions, the pressure shockwave of bunker-buster bombs literally shaking the building to its core.

The ships continued on, leaving without even a deep breath.

Digger found himself stepping forward as the ships passed away across Underwood, the A.I.M ships now overhead.

Martissa appeared next to him. She was looking at him. He looked up at her. “False alarm?”

Henry pulled on his shirt collar and straightened his suit jacket. “Let me tell you something, pilot. No one goes to this much effort for a false alarm. Someone is here.”

A man cleared his throat behind them. They turned as one.

A man in black stood at the hidden staircase. He had a shock pistol in his right hand and a blackjack in his left.

At his feet were the three security guards. The shadows were too dark and too long for Digger to see if they were dead, but the blackjack appeared dry and the shock pistol would only kill someone with a heart problem.

“Who-,” started Henry but this man raised the shock pistol, silencing him. The last screen went out, collapsing the room into pitch black.

The voice of the mystery man wafted out of the pure darkness, like the disembowelled voice of a nightmare, a voice that made your shoulders shiver as if someone was standing right behind you. “Your mainframe has been wiped. The computer in that pissy little freighter has been fried. She’ll never fly again. All data crystals in this building are now inert.

“You know nothing. That is if you want to stay in business, and if you want to stay alive. I trust I’m understood?”

Henry’s voice came out of the black hole to Digger’s right. “Understood.”

Shoes squeaked on flooring. The man was turning to leave.

“Wait,” Digger said. He winced at his stupidity. The sooner this spook was gone the better. But he was committed now. “Who are you?”

The man’s voice changed, warmer, as if he were smiling. “We’re the Watchers.”

Another squeak then the man stopped again. “Good day Jeremy Digger.”

#

It has come to my attention in the last few months how big the Imperium really is. Space really, really, is quite big and the horrors (man-made) hiding in its depths will leave even the hardest C.E.O with nightmares.

The other thing I learnt recently was how small Mineral & Fusion Corporation is. Our technology is crucial to all of Shallow Space and we are the third largest Corporation in the Imperium.

But we are still small. Small compared to what is out there, watching us.

We have survived so far through ingenuity, hard work and god bless it, good, old fashioned luck.

Three lynchpins of many success stories over the millennia, but I can’t see a future for us in them. Not anymore.

Going forward, we need to be strong. We need to be able to defend ourselves.

When those hidden nightmares emerge from the shadows we need to be ready to send them back to the hell whence they came.

To this end, I am hereby authorising the construction of a MFC StarYard and a MFC Protectorate Fleet. This will become our private navy to defend our interests, from our home in Underwood to the wild fringes beyond shallow space were our miners toil day in and day out.

We won’t be caught off guard again.

We will be ready.

– Extract from The Kallahar Manifesto, written March 31st, 2494

THE END

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