Fractured Orbits Chapter 2
Fractured Orbits is book one in the Encoded Orbits Trilogy, It’s being released as a serial with chapters coming out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first ten chapters are free, before requiring a paid subscription.
Hwicce hit the ground, the servos in his battle armour groaning from the impact. He sprinted behind a ticket booth made of simulated sandstone and dropped to one knee. Whirring fans whisked away the stench of his exertion as he paused to get his bearings.
A flashing green line showed him in his helmet’s heads-up display where he needed to go. Blue call signs marked the locations of all his platoon members. As his team landed around him, they spread out in the pre-planned formation, heading towards their objectives.
Creating a billow of dust, Baker landed off to his right. The brassy metallic coating to her armour glinted in the bright light. She raised her weapon and scanned their target: the gaudy casino in front of them.
“You good?” he asked.
Keeping her gaze focused on their objective, she gave him a thumbs up. “I don’t see any movement, sir,” she said over a private channel.
“Even though this is a routine sweep, stay sharp,” he broadcasted to his team. “I expect everyone to make it home in one piece.” Raising his pulse rifle, he shifted to get a view of the casino. “Sound off.”
“Alpha squad is in place,” Dogan’s voice came over the comms.
“Bravo squad’s got the rear,” Fin said.
“Charlie’s to the south,” Chang answered.
Hwicce confirmed their locations before he stood. Their cruisers above had already won the space battle, but a lot of work remained for ground troops like his platoon. Intel said to expect resistance from the multiple groups of Nader Alliance soldiers hiding in the area.
“Stick to the plan, everyone,” he transmitted. “Let me know the instant you spot enemy movement.”
As he started moving forward, he glanced to his right. Baker stayed right with him—as always. He’d never admit it, but her presence was a relief. Even in the chaos of battle, she remained predictable and solid. Confident she had his back, Hwicce let his eyes follow the green line of his projected path.
Dead ahead, the Pharaoh Casino rose from the ground in the shape of a pyramid. The travel brochures declared it as true to the original down to the simulated sandstone blocks covered with glittering gold decorations. Staring at the monument to gambling, Hwicce remained sceptical that the people of Old Earth had ever built anything that tacky. Fortunately, his display didn’t show any enemy forces in view.
He and Baker passed two bird-headed, human-bodied statues constructed from the same simulated sandstone as the ticket booth. His head didn’t reach past their shins. He could’ve just stepped into one of the historical vids his daughter loved—except for the flashing neon lights visible even in the midday sun advising massive jackpots.
“I thought they shut this place down,” Baker said on their private channel.
“If it’s this tacky under minimal power, I can’t imagine how awful it’d look on full.” He paused to confirm his platoon was in position.
Baker snorted. “Maybe the bright lights are to dazzle the patrons into parting with more cash.”
With a chuckle, Hwicce continued forward, his eyes on their target.
The bright sunlight made the oversized entrance to the casino appear dark. He did a quick IR scan to make sure no one waited for them inside.
“Sir.” It was Chang. Hwicce checked, and she was off to his left around the side of the structure. “There’s movement at the west door. We spotted a group of Rokan soldiers entering.”
Hwicce paused. The Rokan were among the plethora of groups that loosely made up the Nader Alliance military. Rokan soldiers didn’t wear combat armour, instead hiding their faces behind goggles and respirators. They moved unnervingly fast, showing up when least expected.
“Five.” Chang spoke with the certainty of someone who’d survived many battles.
“Roger that,” Hwicce replied. “Everyone, stay alert. We now know for sure there are enemy troops inside.”
“Covering.” Baker dropped to one knee.
Hwicce sprinted as fast as his suit would go until he reached the gaping entrance. Up close, the building loomed overhead, nearly blotting out the sun, but his suit quickly adjusted to the lower light levels. He reminded himself the mission was just a routine sweep—the enemy had already surrendered; their goal was to just round up the few remaining soldiers who hadn’t gotten the message.
He kept his body relaxed as he dropped to one knee beside a pillar of faux stone. Keeping his rifle sights on the dark interior, he said, “Covering.”
Baker darted forward and behind the pillar on the other side of the entrance.
Resetting his display filters for the interior lighting, Hwicce rose and made his way around the pillar. Inside, the ornate atrium complete with palm trees and rectangular pond appeared empty. Further in, rows of old-school slot machines extended in multiple lines. The metal machines blocked his IR scanner, creating infinite hiding spaces. The enemy could be anywhere.
“They’re on the run,” he reminded himself without activating his comms. He kept his thoughts from descending into the worst-case scenarios and forced himself to stay focused on the moment.
“Contact!” Fin shouted into the comms link. “The bloody Rokan got behind us. Fucking mutants!”
Weapon fire sounded from the drop zone.
“Dammit.” Hwicce turned away from the casino’s entrance and started sprinting towards Fin. Baker followed close behind.
The bird-headed statue on the right disintegrated. A millisecond later, the concussion hit him, tossing him backwards and against the casino’s wall. For a moment, his heads-up display shorted out. His mind raced through possibilities. Was it an unexploded bomb? A mine? Grenade? After a glitch, his display of tactical information returned. Red dots indicated some of his soldiers were down.
“Crap!” Hwicce pushed the rubble off and started moving towards the firefight. “Baker,” he called as he lifted his rifle and looked down the sights. “Where are you?”
The air thirty metres in front of him seemed to swirl as though heat was rising off the pavers. Then a woman appeared squinting in the bright sunlight without goggles and a respirator. Her pale face was exposed—meaning she wasn’t Rokan. A web of some sort covered her shaved head like a cap. Dark cloth cloaked the rest of her, and she didn’t appear armed.
Hwicce didn’t see her move, but suddenly, she stood directly in front of him. Her movement seemed impossible, but she didn’t seem threatening. Hwicce decided she wasn’t a combatant and lowered his weapon.
“Get down.” He gestured towards the ground. He ran a diagnostic routine on his display. The visual band seemed to be glitching; maybe that’s how he missed seeing her move. “It’s not safe out here.”
She ignored his instruction. Instead, she cocked her head, but her expression remained blank. She’d clearly heard him. Maybe she was shell-shocked.
“Are you lost?” Hwicce took a step closer to her. She would be in the line of fire if she stayed out here. “It’s dangerous—”
With her palm, she struck the chest plate of his armour. He flew backwards with enough force to send him through the casino’s wall.
As Hwicce scrambled to his feet, the alarms in his armour started sounding. Chest plate integrity down 13%, right rear proximity sensor off-line, servos in both knees near failure. He’d owe the suit techs when he got back to base, but he couldn’t worry about that right now.
“Baker?” His heads-up display flickered, then went dark, leaving him with no idea where anyone was. At least he could still see through the clear surface of his visor. “Baker?”
He was inside the casino now. Other than a Hwicce-in-full-battle-armour-sized hole in the wall, his surroundings were pristine. He glanced back towards the entrance, hoping to see Baker. Instead, the un-armoured woman stood silhouetted in the light.
“Dammit.” He pulled up his rifle and fired, this time without hesitation. Bolts of light flew towards his adversary.
She shimmered and vanished; he’d missed her. Intel had said there would be a new group of super-soldiers on the field. They failed to mention anything about teleportation. How was that even possible? Her bare face confirmed she wasn’t Rokan, and even though Rokan were reported to move fast, it was not like this. Other than the cap, the woman didn’t appear to be carrying much technology.
“Crap!” The woman was gone before he’d managed to get many sensor readings off her.
With a squelch, Hwicce’s comms link returned to life.
“We’ve beaten them back,” Fin transmitted.
“Everyone okay?” He turned to look for either Baker or the mystery woman.
“Just some dented armour,” Fin responded.
“Good. Be warned: there’s at least one super soldier in the area. She appears unarmed, but she’s still dangerous.” Hwicce swallowed. He seemed to be all alone in the casino’s foyer. Where was Baker? “Can you pick up my location?”
“Got you, sir.”
“I can’t locate Baker. I need backup.”
“We’re on our way.” Fin sounded confident.
“Stay sharp. The super soldier I encountered can teleport.”
Hwicce re-booted his battle computer, but the heads-up display didn’t fully come on, just the IR. At least he was no longer as blind.
Turning, he surveyed the casino. The slot machines limited what he could pick up, but a heat signature shone from deeper inside. He couldn’t tell if it was Baker or the enemy. Using the cover of slot machines, he advanced. He knew he should wait for backup, but he kept going anyway, worried that Baker needed his help.
With his pulse-rifle at the ready, he circled around slot machine after slot machine. More heat signatures came into view up ahead, but he maintained his slow and steady advance.
“Baker,” he called again on the comms.
The now-familiar shimmer materialized ten metres ahead. He aimed and squeezed the trigger just as the woman appeared. She vanished before being struck.
His left-rear proximity alarm went off. He swung around, but his failing armour slowed him. With bare hands, the woman struck his left side, sending him flying a second time.
He skidded into a row of slot machines, causing them to cascade like dominos as he tumbled over top of them. On the other side, he rolled across the floor, only stopping when he slammed into the base of a bar. The power to his armour failed, and its weight made him slump to the side. He re-booted the armour, and to his surprise, it powered back up. But another blow like that, and he might not get lucky a second time.
Swallowing, he tried to focus on the world beyond his display. Who was that woman? And where was she now? As though summoned, the woman appeared in front of him.
“Captain Oswiu.” His comms link to command crackled to life. “We have reports of super soldiers in your area. It’s imperative that you capture one of them.”
He frowned. As usual, the staff officers working in command had no idea what it was like on the ground. The super-soldier before him remained where she was, staring at him—but she hadn’t resumed her attack.
“Acknowledged,” he said before cutting the line.
His rifle had broken free of his armour, and he didn’t know where it was. He was unarmed and uncertain how long until backup would arrive. He gulped, trying to force his fear down. With his eyes fixed on the woman standing a few paces in front of him, he pushed himself up to his feet, expecting his armour to fail at any moment.
She took a step back and just stared at him.
“I won’t hurt you. I just want to talk,” he said. “Who are you?”
She froze, then cocked her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. She scratched her cheek and squished her eyebrows together.
“I’m Hwicce.” He opened the faceplate to his helmet, and the warm air of the casino dried the sweat on his brow almost instantly.
The woman met his gaze, her dark eyes boring into him. She said nothing. On the surface, she appeared to be an ordinary human—but clearly, she was much more.
“Where are you from?” he asked, keeping his tone as friendly as he could. Maybe her origin would give him some clues—the rumoured Nadar super soldiers had to be from somewhere. Intel said they were most likely a further tweak on people whose ancestors had already been genetically altered.
When the generation ships arrived, some people colonized hostile worlds where tweaking their descendant’s genes made sense. Only later did they discover how wrong that idea was. If the super soldier wasn’t a descendent of one of those strains, maybe she was a throwback like Molly...
He pushed the thought of his daughter away and focused on the woman in front of him.
After staring up at the ceiling for a moment, she glanced around at her surroundings. It was almost as though she was genuinely surprised to be where she was. “Where am I?”
“In the Pharaoh Casino on Candy Cane Lane.” Hwicce took in a deep breath. Maybe he could talk her into coming with him.
Her eyes fixed on him again. “I don’t understand.” She gestured at the toppled slot machines and once opulent Egyptian-themed space. “None of this makes any sense.”
“You’re right. None of this makes sense.” Keeping his empty palms in sight, he stepped closer, stopping an arm’s length away. “Why don’t you come with me? I can take you somewhere safe.”
Baker popped out from behind a nearby slot machine and fired two blasts at the woman. Before Hwicce could react, the woman vanished.
“Dammit, Baker!” He spun around to see if the woman would reappear. “I’d almost convinced her to come peacefully.”
“Can’t you even be slightly happy I just saved your life?” Baker walked closer and tossed him his weapon. “Sir.”
“Well, I’m glad you aren’t dead—that has to count for something.” Hwicce closed his faceplate and scanned the area on IR. The human heat signatures he’d spotted earlier were still there. “Seriously, I’m glad you’re okay.”
Baker shrugged, a gesture made comical by the combat armour. “Just a minor setback.”
“Our orders are to bring in that woman.” Hwicce continued surveying the casino, expecting the mysterious woman to materialize at any moment.
“How are we going to imprison someone who can teleport?”
It was Hwicce’s turn to shrug. “If we catch her, I vote we hand her off to intel as quick as we can.” He focused on the IR reading deeper in the building. It was the best lead he had. “Follow me.”
“Hell, sir, I’m always willing to follow you.” Baker’s words dripped with her usual sarcasm.
Hwicce groaned and led the way to the back of the casino. They passed through a series of corridors lined with faux hieroglyphics before reaching a ballroom filled with gilded tables and chairs. No windows meant the only illumination came from the emergency lighting.
Sticking close to the walls, the two of them circled the room—their IR sensors said it was empty.
“Where did she go?” Hwicce muttered under his breath.
“Don’t know, sir.” Baker continued to follow close behind. “That monster had skills.”
Hwicce glanced up at the dark ceiling, then back where they came from. “I’m not convinced she’s a monster.”
“She threw you through a wall.” Baker’s tone was flat.
“Keep moving, soldier,” he grumbled as they reached the doors that could only lead to the kitchen. The IR signature wasn’t far now.
He paused and checked in with the rest of his troops. Everyone was okay, and they weren’t far behind.
“Moving,” he said as he hit the door release.
“Covering.” Baker took up position beside the doorframe, pointing the barrel of her weapon at the door.
As the door slid open, an automatic light came on in the room beyond. It was a kitchen—a massive industrial one. His armour’s augmented hearing picked up a click from a far door closing.
“They’re running for it.” He broke into a sprint.
“Wait up, sir.” Baker fell in behind him. “Blindly storming a building is normally my thing.”
“I trust you’ll cover me,” Hwicce said as he continued through the doorway, hoping to glimpse the augmented woman from before. They entered a service hallway, the overdone decor now replaced by beige walls and dim overhead lights.
Someone far ahead darted into a side room.
“Stop!” His voice boomed in the confined space as he stormed after his quarry.
With a crunch, his armoured shoulder smashed the doorframe as he rushed through. As pieces of doorframe tumbled to the ground, he pulled up his weapon and activated the sights. Then his breath caught in his throat.
His wife and daughter cowered before him. Veena held Molly tight as if her flesh could protect their daughter. She looked up at her husband with accusation in her eyes. Hwicce’s hands trembled, and he lowered his rifle.
“Huh, some non-combatants.” Baker followed him into the storeroom.
“They....” His words trailed off as he squeezed his eyes shut, knowing what he just saw was impossible.
“Good thing you didn’t shoot first.” Baker’s tone edged on inappropriate humour.
Hwicce opened his eyes; it wasn’t his family. Instead, a greenie woman dressed like a hotel attendant stood before him. She pushed her child behind her. Light from the hallway illuminated her green-hued skin. She said nothing, just stared at them.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said to her. “You two need to go to the refugee camp; you’ll be safe there. I can arrange an escort for you.”
The mother shook her head but said nothing as she took her child by the hand and filed out of the storeroom. The two of them looked nothing like his family—but they were someone’s family and deserved to be safe.
“Baker, let the rest of the platoon know some non-combatants are on their way out.
He bit his lip as he watched the mother and child go. He’d been away fighting when the bombs fell on New Haven. Had Veena and Molly been forced to hide like those two? What had they gone through? He should’ve been there to help or at least been there to comfort them after. He swallowed a lump in his throat. In the five months since the bombing, he hadn’t even managed to get enough leave to see them in person.
Baker slapped his armour on the shoulder. “Yo, sir! You zoning out or something? Chang’s calling you.”
“Right.” Hwicce shook his head. He needed to focus. “Chang, go ahead.”
“We bagged three Rokan,” she said with an edge of excitement in her voice. “Including one of the purple cloaks.”
They weren’t super-soldiers, but the Rokan might have useful intel. “Right, package them up. Take care with the purple cloak; they can twist your thoughts.”
“On it. Chang out.”
continued in Chapter 3
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