The Omega Tango

Summary: Sierra Tango is a non-commissioned officer and historian in the solar system's most lethal mercenary company, the Omega Company. Humanity fragmented to uncountable subspecies and societies, and she finds herself in the midst of wars fought for others. After an intervention in an ally's civil war, she finds herself forced to make a fateful decision.

The Boarding of Feynman Station

The Omega Company

My name is Sierra Tango, and I have always been a target. I have been with the Omega Company for over five decades, and it has been my duty to remember the specifics of every mission I have been assigned to in that time. I bear the intangible burden of memory for those that have served in our ranks, and those we have faced. Despite our current station providing security for the trans-Martian cyclers, we of the Company have served dozens of clients over a half-century of ceaseless conflicts.

We have served in causes noble and atrocious for twelve lustrums. We helped the Paracelsus Foundation distribute medical supplies after the Great Tsunami. We squealed a million brushfire wars in failed states with a brutal efficiency impossible for state armies. We participated in every major conflict in the Solar System, from the Claim Wars of Mercury to the petty squabbles of the Plutonian survivalist cults. We engaged in dogfights with and beside both the Venusian Southern Union and Northern Hemisphere Alliance. We battled pirates alongside the Oceanian fleets in the South Pacific. We cleansed the infected in unflinching enforcement of the Lunar quarantines. We stormed Samarkand to end the Second Eurasian War. We done what needed to be done, and we struck with the utter finality of a headsman's ax.

Despite our well-deserved infamy, we offer a fresh start to the disparate denizens of the Solar System. As such, our ranks have included all manner of entities, people, and backgrounds. Those who serve in our ranks either select, or have selected, a new name for themselves. These call-signs become their new monikers and identities, as they scrounged away the detritus from their unwanted pasts. We offered redemption, of a sort, for all willing and able to follow orders. These that the decent people could not control, we put down like the rabid dogs they were.

For a mercenary band, we of the Omega Company put far more stock in our heritage than any of our competitors or foes. We started off as an Earthside multi-national task force defending what little remained of civilization, but expanded into extraterrestrial warfare as the strategic balance of power shifted offworld. Our members have claimed descent from dozens of Old Earth military units and forces: American Marines and SOCOM, Commonwealth SAS, French Foreign Legion, Russian Spetnaz, Chinese Snow Tigers, Nepalese Gurkhas, Brazilian Piranhas, Safrican Veldt Commandos, and hundreds of other fragmented forces. We see ourselves as the direct successors of these units, far more than the soulless security firms that scarcely maintained order in the remaining habitable regions. We may be a legion of fallen flags, but we will never be without war.

As the longest serving non-commissioned officer in the Company, I would technically be a Sergeant Major of the Company by our official ranking system (itself a syncretic construct). Unofficially, I am the Company's archivist and history, the incarnate representative of our past. As a remnant of the half-mythic era when these disbanded units existed, the enlisted look up to me with a terror beyond that of a mere drill instructor. It is well as they should, for if they should fail, I never hesitate to remind them that hesitation to advance is cured by placing something worse behind them.

I remember the myriad martial cruelties and gruesome deaths I inflicted upon sapient beings of all descriptions over the years. Not all of the Company had the stomach for such work, so we had a high attrition rate for the squeamish. It is tempting to contemptuously upon them, but a maturity granted only by age and facing oblivion gives them a begrudging respect, for they saw our work and made the moral decision not to involve themselves in it. We may bear the flags and pilfered traditions of a dozen militaries, but we do not behave with the honor affordable by a mighty nation or noble cause behind us. Like a pack of stray dogs, we rip and tear in search of fresh carrion.

Despite our name, our size has varied substantially throughout our history. From four full brigades during the First Eurasian War to the squad that escaped annihilation at the hands of the Titanian Expeditionary Force, we have fought on every type of body in the Solar System. Our history is similarly full of triumphs and failures, from the Pacification of Sunrise Station, where we routed a Rin army outnumbering us by thousand without a single fatality, to our near-extermination at the hands of the Blackhive. Each time, the survivors rebuilt. From then came our motto: We endure.

It is a lesson all of our recruits have burned into their minds. Half of them fail training, and half of those leave after their first mission. The survivors are the greatest victors, heedless of the battle's outcome. I proudly record the names of those that have joined our ranks, those that attempted, and those that were. I make this record such that our unit's own traditions may endure far longer than those flags we once saluted. In this line of work, we are all targets. Our enemies change, but we endure.

The Sergeant Historian

I joined the Omega Company as they were preparing to depart Earth, for more lucrative contracts amongst the colonies. They were under contract to the Oceania Provisional Government, to handle, to help hand out Paracelsus Foundation medical supplies after the Great Tsunami. I was well-educated by adaptive AI tutors commissioned by a family of relatively high wealth, but one that lacked connections to move abroad to cooler climes and higher altitudes. From history to literature to technology, I learned the breadth of knowledge available to me.

But even the greatest education could not forever forestay the inevitable. When the tsunami wiped my family away, I was fortunate enough to be visiting distant relatives. I returned to the drowned ruins of Manila, desperate for any signs of them. Somewhere inside, I knew I would never see my parents again, but I pressed on with the foolish resolve I've become known for. I avoided the looters and security forces, until I came to what had been a park I knew. The Omega Company stood there, handing out supplies. Immediately, I noticed curious things about how the soldiers stood in relationship to the mob out front, forming a wedge aimed at the crowd like an arrowhead. I searched for any trace of them online, but I found nothing other than AI-written PR pieces about mercenaries hired to protect relief shipments.

I saw a man moving towards the mercenaries with his arms folded over a long, cylindrical object in a blanket. A glint of metal beneath it was all I needed to know. I screamed as loud as I could, hoping to draw attention like a horde of hollering demons. The mercenaries turned their weapons towards my direction, and the man, now caught in the open like a deer in the headlights, hesitated for a moment. The squad leader, Captain Glass himself, opened fire, the man clutched his chest, and I saw a loaded assault rifle clatter to the ground. He exploded a moment later, and my own vision went black. When I woke up, I was on the Omega Company's medical shuttle. Captain Glass looked down on me with a warm smile, and I knew I had come home.

I was determined not to disappoint my saviors. I passed simulated years' worth of training in virtual worlds. I buried myself under hours of recorded lectures on warfare, history, and strategy, committing them forever to my digital memory. I learned the strange quirks of the Company's members, from Amish's love of modernized archaic weapons to Doc Starr's bizarre medical treatments to Judith's favorite methods to cut arteries in zero-g knife fighting.

I appreciated the motley ethos of the Company, especially after I could recant the traditions of the military units it descended from. I got my nickname from Captain Glass himself, who suggested I learn the military alphabet better than my own name. Having fitted my wounded body with prosthetics and augmentations directly from the Foundation, I never again had to worry about death from mundane disease or old age. I don't know why they were so eager to adopt me into their ranks, but I like to think Captain Glass had a good eye for recruitment.

The Foundation Job

Since I had joined, I only returned to Earth for business. The comrades I had fought alongside bore a closer bond to me than the distant blood relatives scattered on the farthest corners of the Earth. Many of them had given up or withdrawn from lucrative professions on Earth to join up, but only a handful came from outside the martial professions. Doc Starr was one such figure, a former researcher from the Paracelsus Foundation that had the jocose demeanor of an assistant professor more than hardened mercenary. What had prompted him to leave had been as simple as frustrations with the petty drama of academia, as well as the elaborate steps required to perform research on human subjects. Fortunately, his mad scientist antics were channeled towards positive directions.

Doc Starr wasn't even a medical doctor, but he was a damn good medic. He kept people alive regardless of the condition they were in, from broken bones to just a brain in a jar. He was an adept mechanic and serviceable programmer as well, when he needed to tend to our AGI enlistees. The Foundation was one of the few groups with an understanding of brain uploading technology, but Starr had barely been privy to such things during his time amongst them. The Foundation was generous with sharing its other technological and medical advances, but there was still intense debate about how to release it into the wider society.

It was a fight we'd find ourselves drawn into, when one faction hired us to assault a heavily fortified research station. Provost Meiyin Wang, an accomplished biochemist and previous Foundation head, had been deposed by an armed insurgent faction led by none other than the Foundation's most famous humanitarian researcher, Dr. David Ritter.

This struck me as curious for a number of reasons. As far as our intelligence analysts could tell, Ritter was a soft-spoken man, an early colonist from Earth, with little care for politics beyond the democratization of science. Nevertheless, his collected demeanor and erudite mannerisms belied a mind able to devise an entire arsenal of parlous devices. The inhuman efficiency of his coup and the manner in which his forces secured their base lead me to believe he had substantially advanced military AI, personnel, and assets.

Contrary to their stereotype as medical researchers and academics, the Paracelsus Foundation possessed substantial martial knowledge and proficiency. They were librarians that knew why Alexandria had burned. They were intellectuals who know what happens when secret police begin knocking on doors. They were researchers who remembered the witch-hunts and systematic scapegoating of desperate societies. They recognized us a sort of kindred spirits, descendants of old world institutions surviving in a solar system in free slide towards Pandemonium.

We helped train their security teams, after all. Due to often being caught in other people's crossfire over the course of their scientific and medical missions, they had learned firsthand the virtues of martial knowledge and prowess. As the most famous of the founders, Ritter held substantial support and respect amongst members high and low. We'd crossed paths with the Good Doctor before, like after the Great Tsunami. He had awarded us contracts aplenty before, so the catalyst of his erratic actions remained as vague to us as a beaker of dark matter. I was honestly curious that Ritter didn't contact us to help with his coup at Feynman Station, because he had praised us on a number of occasions. We probably would have helped him, too.

The Provost was a red-faced woman with a clinical demeanor and wandering gaze. While she cited many of the same concerns we did, she sent us information on the status of Feynman Station. It was a kilometer-long O'Neill cylinder, with an outside that bristled with weapon mounts. It was like if the turrets possessed the fecundity of mosquito larvae in fetid, lentic waters. More disconcerting was the conversions made to the central axis of the station, which was now a mass accelerator easily powerful enough to fell the titans of archaic myth, and to vaporize the world upon which they originated.

Meiyin gave us the trajectories of objects it had blasted out towards the rim of the solar system, which I ensured were independently verified. Feynman launched a quartet of projectiles with the approximate mass and volume of ancient aluminum cans at relativistic speeds towards the rim of the solar system. Despite the small size, the sheer amount of kinetic energy would be more than enough for a surprise "let's rid the world of you" party. Even Meiyin could scarcely believe the soft-spoken man, the savior of untold lives, would go mad and graft a super-weapon into the hull of a civilian research station.

I noted Doc Starr's conflicted eyes flickering between the communications display and his briefing notes. Recalling his background, I recalled our medic had once been Ritter's student. As a career soldier, I am ill-suited to imagining the relationship between academics, but I could understand facing the grim reality of battling those once called friends. I still bore vivid memories of the Breakwater Culling, where our enemies had hired a former band of Omega mercenaries to support them.

I still wish I hadn't seen the bodies that remained after that bloody slog. I remember Danforth, who died with wide eyes turned eternally skywards. I remembered the death of Shang in a fierce firefight, the sniper that had once saved my life, and nearly claimed it in that engagement. I remember the sight of flies buzzing around the rancid, bloody mess that was Alvarado, the kid who to see Mars. Enemies and conflicts are plentiful, but old friends are an irreplaceable resource. I wondered if the Institute's technology could change that once stone law of existence.

A Way In

My suggestion of a sneak attack was enough to waylay Doc's doubts. Feynman was a fortress that could tear through anything within few thousand kilometers, and potentially far beyond. During a meeting with our Company's assembled experts, we deduced a solution. The discussion included Revenant, our intelligence officer; Slapdash, our operations officer; Amish, our technical specialist; and Doc himself. Revenant suggested approaching on a ship with custom heat sinks and weapon jammers that would allow us to get close enough to insert a breaching team. Slapdash suggested swarming them with armored transports to make it a knife fight between point defenses and boarding parties. Amish suggested simply disguising ourselves as space debris and letting gravity take us in. As it turns out, Doc's solution blew them all out of the water.

Feynman still relied on a single external source of resupply. A nearby automated asteroid mine regularly sent automated shipments of rare minerals towards the station, where a waiting robot shuttle would retrieve it for processing. All we had to do was dress up a dropship like a space rock, and we'd be able to get a boarding party in. However, the system had a number of fail-safes. Every shipment was expected to have certain mass, volume, and composition constraints, or it was vaporized. That meant our disguise had to be very convincing, which limited how much hardware we'd be able to send in. Amish amicably slapped the kid on the back for that idea.

Feynman Station's voracious appetite for raw materials raised a number of disconcerting possibilities. Although theoretically capable of centuries-long autarky, they possessed a finite amount of raw material with the primary habitat. Given the heavy metals and rare earths that Feynman devoured, they were feverously building something big. A relativistic projectile-launching, planet-sterilizing rail gun definitely fit the bill, on top of the other lethal renovations they'd done to the place. Ritter planned the coup well.

Captain Glass jokingly suggested dropping nukes or amat from a safe distance, as we'd come to expect from him. As our client wanted to investigate instead of annihilate the station, we vetoed his favorite idea once more. His dogged insistence on thorough orbital bombardment earned him his nickname, and his talent for management thankfully kept him constrained to nominal Company leadership instead of operations and logistics. He nevertheless kept to his strengths, providing copious amounts of autonomy and deferring to his subordinates when necessary.

While known for providing copious amounts of autonomy, Captain Glass knew when to appoint a meticulous disciplinarian towards an appropriate task. Our attempts to hail them conventionally had failed, as our only response was a looped stock message to stay away. As I expected, he assigned me to assemble a team together to infiltrate Feynman Station. I knew our enlistees better than no other, and therefore, I bore the weight of the Captain's orders like a glorious, but somber burden.

No matter how it came down, I would be leading an attack against a man I respected. I did not have the personal knowledge that Doc did, but I felt it necessary to include him because of this. While other members had more direct experience with combat medicine and habitat infiltration, the Doc was the only one of us that had lived in Feynman. We needed to know Ritter, where he lived, and what his goals were. Gnawing at my mind was the question of whether he was truly our enemy. Given the abject radio and communication silence that we heard from the cylinder, our client had already assumed the worst. Given what they were building, I had no evidence to the contrary.

On the other side, we had no evidence to assume they were hostile. In an ideal world, we'd pop in, have an amicable chat, and depart after leaving the AGI lawyers to resolve the organizational spat. Civil wars were always messy, but internal strife within our long-term associates was doubly painful. If any of us fell, we would take hostilities doubly personal. Sadly, I was painfully aware of how fast allegiances change, and the prices the survivors paid. All long-serving members of the Company bore scars, but few were physical. Doc would learn that lesson soon.

Given the limited volume we'd be working with, I filled it with four of the most devious, dangerous souls on the Company. Tagging along with them would be Doc Starr and I. With the raised stakes of the mission, the Captain sent me as an empowered representative. As we typically fielded few commissioned officers and non-coms relative to the old bureaucracy-heavy armies of Earth, our special operations teams utilized experienced COs or NCOs as acting field leaders. In those respects, our structure had not changed substantially since the time of our terrestrial forebears.

Joining me were those experienced with assessing and combating advanced technology. Amish earned his name from his quixotic fixation on using as low-tech weapons as possible, even he was forced to make a few concessions to modernity. His burly build, tan skin, and earthy brown eyes matching his beard called to mind an ancient farmer, as though he was a farmhand that had stumbled onto a battlefield. Beside him was Deborah, an Israeli swarm robotics specialist. Watching her flesh-eating gnat-bots devour a terrorist alive was one of the few times I threw up in recent memory.

Sitting across from the woman with the anthropophagic mechanical bugs was Iktomi, our AGI infosec and electronic warfare specialist. Despite the alias, se identified with no gender, preferring an androgynous android body with two additional pairs of arms. I was fortunate we could fit Mahini on the transport. Her rotary rail gun had always provided a terminal, efficient solution to any implacable adversary in our path. The exoskeleton she wore outperformed the best industrial bots, and I doubted that the concept of an immovable object existed while wearing it.

In contrast to the garish, baroque mechanisms that adorned Amish's handmade armor or the three assault rifles that Iktomi held in each pair of hands, Doc and I were more humbly equipped. Doc Starr's lean form fit into a thermoptic camouflage vac-suit that resembled a hooded duster, while he carried medical gear, a bulllpup carbine, and his custom Tyrannosaur revolver. I wore a light powered vac-suit buttressed shear thickening fluid, my assault rifle, a drone scout, my semi-automatic sidearm, and the rest of the standard kit. In all my years of soldiering, I had found more psychological comfort in a conventional, familiar load-out than any of the specialized equipment used by other squad members. On that long ride over, I could not help but feel we were like action figures in their packaging, before children ripped us apart.

The Belly of the Beast

Doc Starr was well-aware of the Foundation's previous security arrangements, but we had no idea what tribulations laid in wait for us. Ritter's coup had likely swept away or coopted the formidable security apparatuses we had helped design, which warranted extreme caution. Given the advanced technologies the Foundation dealt with on a regular basis, I wondered if our own security protocols had been rendered obsolete shortly after we had implemented them.

At that moment, I considered the very real chance we'd be slaughtered by some weapon against which we had no defense. I hoped if that was the case, it would be a swift euthanasia that we never saw coming. Savoring the possibility of a tranquil demise was anathema to a soldier, but I could not help myself considering it as preferable to succumbing to novel tortures sprung from my fecund, fearful imagination.

Reassuring myself Ritter would be above such things, I waited as the cargo shuttle fed us into the material processing port of the hab. We'd gone into hibernation to save oxygen on the trip over, but only now were the tranquilizers wearing off. My own implants helped metabolize the stimulant payload faster, but I still felt as though I was stumbling through some Lethean stupor, haunted by somnolent sensations.

Each bout of distant, cacophonous clanging conjured forth new nightmares of industrial agonies from my fevered imagination. The distant machinery sounded as though it was buried far beneath our feet, in some chthonic realm of mechanical abominations. Based on the schematics that appeared in augmented reality before my eyes, we were heading towards the processing chamber, where raw materials were taken to be pulverized into nanofabrication feedstock.

As I was not keen on spending the remainder of my existence as a solute in chemical vat, I nodded to Doc. The poor kid was shaking more profusely than his first drop. He clutched both his carbine and med-kit with the intimate proximity of a security blanket. Both would be necessary, although I did my best to focus him.

"Zero hour, Doc," I said. "Look sharp and get ready."

Doc Starr chambered a round and flicked off the safety. "Yes, ma'am," he said, his gaze veiled beneath his opaque face-plate.

"Deborah, report and deploy."

"Unleashing the swarm, Sergeant," Deborah said as she unleashed her drones. The mechanized insects buzzed like a plague of demonic locusts as they swarmed around the specialist's armor. They took to the air around her myrmidon-like helmet, with its insectile, angular sides. They formed constellations of light blue luminosity as they massed towards the top hatch of the transport shuttle. Mahini trained her automatic cannon at the portal, while Iktomi moved each assault rifle to cover a different flank around sem. Amish rammed a stack of charges down the barrel of an electronically-fired blunderbuss. Doc had learned not to stare at the deceptive primitivism of Amish's weapons, but he was fixated on it as though it was a talisman to ward off ill-luck.

I would be lying if I said I was some paragon of stoic virtue under those circumstances. I was very knowledgeable about Foundation security forces, having seen them in action and personally trained many of them. Coming up against them, or whatever had bested them, was no reassuring thought. While high-tech weapons and nightmarish lab-spawned abominations were intimidating, I was more concerned with the unknown political aspects of the mission. What if Ritter was on the brink of some paradigm-shifting technological breakthrough, and the Company would be forever condemned in history, like the brutish murderers of Archimedes and Hypatia? I struggled to smother such thoughts, but the blast of the external release charges mercifully dispelled such considerations, exposing us to hard vacuum. The clarity of battle returned, and we returned to what we were good at.

According to the tactical display, we were somewhere in the station's gullet when the charges exploded. In parallel to the processing corridor was a slew of access and maintenance tunnels, which led up to the hab's central control. We had hoped to get closer to an access hatch before springing our bomb, but it had detonated too early. We'd have to make our way into the guts of the facility more forcefully than we hoped too.

To be honest, leaving that sardine can of a transport was both relieving and exhilarating. My own eyes confirmed what Deb's drones had sighted outside the shuttle, an airless corridor of white light feeding into colossal engines that glowed like the waiting maul of some robotic demon. Loose bits of rock and metal were sucked towards the shredders by means of a low-velocity electromagnetic accelerator build into the walls of the tunnel. The applied magnetic field was a bit more powerful than the specs we got, so we'd have to burn more juice to move against it. I wondered if Ritter had made adjustments or simply bad intel. Or both.

I fired a magnetic grapple on a nearby wall, and allowed the mechanism to draw me forwards. Iktomi launched a separate line, and we proceeded towards the wall before us. Our magnetic and gecko-fiber boots activated as our feet gently pressed against the wall. The port-side wall became our floor, and the stream of cosmic detritus became our sky. It was an appropriately surreal horizon for the esoteric geometry of hull breaching ops.

Our staggered column proceeded cautiously in that soundless corridor, as if every surface bore some hidden trap. Mahini led the way, as her titanic frame shrugged off anything short of the heaviest anti-armor weapons. When we made enemy contact, we'd used her for cover more than once. Given the weapon in her hands, behind her was the safest place to be. Underneath her opaque, faceless helmet was ironically the kindest, friendliest person in the Company. That was why I never wanted to get on her bad side.

We reached the hatch without incident, but opening it proved to be harder than anticipated. Iktomi found a sensor added to the external hull that wasn't on the specs. Seeing it was connected to a suspicious device, we spoofed it before entertaining the door. Being the technical wizard se was, Iktomi was able to open the hatch by bypassing the door without breaking out his plasma torch. Ushered into the mechanical underworld of Feynman Station, I wondered if some technological Cerberus would be coming for us. I doubted if we'd even see it coming.

Emergence from the Underworld

Despite Mahini's lumbering frame, she was wise enough to keep some of Deborah's swarm around her to scout. After returning to the comforting familiarity of microgravity, we followed a maintenance tunnel that was polished to the mirror sheen of a decorative sword. Given the immaculately smooth texture and the dearth of fingerprints or smudges, I wondered if these halls ever seen human traffic since their days of their manufacture. The Foundation was certainly advanced enough to develop automation for cleaning, especially as the station lacked the traditional masses of workers, heavy labor-bots, and fab-shops of industrial outposts. From what the Doc told me, Feynman was just as capable of manufacturing as even the Belt industries. I wondered just how advanced this level of technology truly was.

We continued down those eerily empty corridors with an alacrity partially born of restlessness and partially of fear. At any moment, we feared getting blasted out an airlock, devoured by impossibly advanced nanoswarms, or blown up by a simple explosive trap. I wondered if my own synthetic entrails and cyborg brain would mar the walls around us if we ran into an enemy trap. We keep the atmospheric seals on our suits on, for fear that poison gases or nanotoxins were present in the ambient atmosphere. Despite the suits indicating we were clear, I nevertheless understood the apprehension against removing them.

When Iktomi halted in the corridor, I almost dropped to the floor and aimed my weapon at non-existent enemies in front of us. Instead, he broadcast a readout to the rest of us, indicating a peculiar magnetic field that came and went at regular intervals of a hundred milliseconds. A readout of the station's specs and his own estimation presumed it resulted from the mass discharge of electromagnets or capacitor banks across the station. When asked to translate for the rest of the squad, Amish simplified it by saying the mass accelerator was charging up once more. Detecting the weapon's heartbeat, I wondered if the corridor we were in would be showered in lethal radiation or flooded with coolant, but Iktomi assured me that was unlikely.

Based on the schematics and our relative location, he said, we'd be nearing the surface soon. I took that message with a bag of salt, as such an entrance was a perfect location for an ambush. Bottlenecks and key corridors were the perfect places for defenders and traps to congregate, a place in which the principal social exchange of combatants takes place. I remembered being on both sides of the hall, but my favorite tactic was simply to fill the passage with a wall of bullets, with the odd explosion as a punctuation mark in the language of organized violence. When we came upon a ladder leading up, such thoughts were ready on my mind, as sure as the scars on a leper's skin.

The ladder was thirty meters high, and it terminated at a small, circular bulkhead like a manhole cover with a latch. Deborah's swarm indicated it was bolted on the other side, but we had other problems beside a possible booby trap or ambush on the other end. Mahini would not be able to fit through, short of deploying a specialized demolitions payload or burning her way through with a plasma torch. It was obvious we'd have to continue on without her, but we found an alternative route through the tunnels on the maps and directed her to use those. Her route would be longer, but we thought it bore more of a risk for anyone who wasn't as heavily armed and equipped as her. At the very least, she'd be able to give us a distraction by blasting the station's entrails.

With no small amount of trepidation, we sent up Amish to open the way. Behind him, Deborah's swarm waited to devour anyone unfortunate enough to attempt to ambush us. I was honestly more concerned about an explosive tripwire or automated turret opening up, but that was due to traces of volatile chemicals Doc read in the ambient atmosphere. Iktomi believed they were due to an exhaust vent, but I searched for any reason to justify my skittishness. I found it unlikely that the Foundation would simply let us come aboard unopposed, especially given their lack of response to our contact attempts.

I wondered if perhaps there was some reason we had not been opposed we'd overlooked. I considered that perhaps they'd all fortified themselves in the station's Central Administration Building, putting all of their eggs in one basket due to the personnel required for their ad hoc mass driver. I wondered if Ritter's faction lacked the tactical acumen of the forces we trained, but I found that unlikely. My mind turned towards more macabre directions, wondering if they'd all committed suicide like the defenders of Masada or even an uncharacteristic bout of cult suicide. Considering the dearth of mortal enemies and plethora of goodwill the Foundation enjoyed, I doubted they'd hole up for a desperate final stand.

Doc began to reminiscence about how recalcitrant Ritter could be once he decided on a course of action. It was indirectly because of Ritter's actions that a lost girl in Manila ended up as the most senior NCO in the Omega Company. His controversial, at least at the time, decision to hire the Company to defend their humanitarian supplies after the Great Tsunami led to the incident that brought me into their ranks. In a way, I wanted this mission to simply be a case of innocuous mistakes or faction politics. Once I climbed up that ladder, I realized how wrong I was.

A Hundred Meters of Fire

If anyone ever tells you that a space station lacks the majesty of Earth, I would consider them to be a parochial fool. The interior of that O'Neill cylinder was a scenery that would easily inspire a master painter's hand. The vista was like a divine engagement ring wrought of an inverted planetary surface. Two windows on opposite side of the station let in the light of the sun upon its solar wings, with banks of synthetic lights powered down to give the station a dusky, almost nocturnal characteristic. A synthetic lake dotted with small islands dominated the other half of the station, while the other side was a clustered campus of sleek buildings and gardens. I briefly wondered if we were alone on that station, so that we might savor the view for a moment longer.

Sadly, that was not to be. The ladder emerged in a small supply shack built into the side of a large building made of an alabaster white polymer, but from whence we could see a structure on top. A massive gun turret was built into the top of the building, a recent retrofit if Doc's words were anything. Similar weapons platforms dominated other structures of that collegiate skyline, as if preparing for a siege of barbarians. I ruminated once more on if we'd be remembered in the same role as the Visigoths or Vandals in Rome, leaving only ruins in our wake. Above me, I saw similar emplacements on the other side of the station, dotting the islands above like martial stalactites.

I figured out what they were for the moment they simultaneously turned on us and opened fire. Like Archimedes' ingenious defenses, I admired the thoroughness of which Ritter's defenses occupied the cylinder. No matter where we stood on the surface, we'd be exposed to at least some portion of the unceasing salvo from above. Doc recognized the pattern as Hezi Type 64 anti-meteor cannons, point defenses against space debris and slow missiles. The ones on the other side of the hab hammered us with a shower of gyrojet rounds, which gave them an extra punch relative to conventional munitions. The cannons closer to us used conventional slugs, which didn't require traveling a longer distance to become lethal. Devious setup, really.

The doorway we used was plastered with lead, blocking our way out. The only way out was through. I ordered the squad to engage active camo, but Amish unleashed a surprise of his own. He fired a special mix of black powder, chaff, and other chemicals to create a roiling cloud of hot smoke that we disappeared into. Optical, infrared, and radar were all obscured as we activated active camo, and that was before Iktomi unleashed his full electronic warfare capacity.

Fully unshackled, Iktomi jammed like a rock star. Half of the guns above us started to fire erratically, aiming at the locations that we thought we were. The rain of bullets came down like a micrometer shower, pulverizing the pavement into dust. Despite my worry of structural damage, Amish reassured me the projectiles lacked the kinetic energy to cause any significant hull damage. The way in which the bullets left pockmarks on the buildings did little to reassure me. Nevertheless, I had a newfound respect for our adversary.

While we were steadily advancing towards the Central Administration Building, we nevertheless were expending scarce resources. Deborah's swarm managed to take out a single turret by acting as gremlins, sabotaging internal components and the like. The other turrets detected something amiss and concentrated fire on the turret, annihilating her swarm as it emerged. With only a handful of gnat-bots left for scouting, Deborah ran like she never had before for cover. Amish was covering us with more of his retro-tech smoke shots, each of which could have been fabricated by a Victorian inventor. Doc and I fired off a few guided gyrojet rounds, aiming for the guidance systems of the distant turrets. Our actions bore little effect, as they seemed to have been plugged directly into the station's environmental sensors.

Mercifully, we made the full hundred meters to the Central Administration Building with only few minor dings and scrapes to our armor. The entrances were barricaded and sealed, but Iktomi was mercifully able to override the controls on a side door. Even Amish, normally so cavalier when it comes towards my persistent suggestions of adopting cybernetics, seemed almost ready to acquiesce. He ended up tapping on the shoulder of his obsolete suit of powered armor as though knocking on wood, being grateful in his errant belief such things were made to a higher standard in the old days. Nevertheless, I was in no position to argue, as the armor admirably performed its job. We were all alive, but the party had barely begun.

The Front Lobby

Part of me hoped the Central Administration Building would be as deserted as the tunnels below. Instead, we were greeted by the previously absent researchers. I had no doubt that the atrium would have been beautiful, had I visited in other circumstances. The building was three levels high, all with balconies overlooking the atrium. Each was surrounded in barbed wire and improvised barricades of overturned desks and stacked furniture. Automatic turrets, smaller versions of those outside, were positioned one on each level, providing overlapping fields of fire. The staff, dressed in light armored suits of thermoptic camo and sleek bullpup carbines, opened fire once they saw us.

They flickered in and out of shape like an army of vengeful wraiths. I felt the bullets whizzing around me, and I let my well-honed instincts take over. Amish unloaded with blunderbuss-launched seeker grenades, while Deborah served double-duty with cover fire. When we downed the turret that most directly threatened us, I ordered Iktomi and Doc to advance to cover. They took down the second turret amidst that cacophony of assault rifle staccato and deafening explosives. Even with my artificial hearing running acoustic clean-up, I was almost floored by the first grenade to go off nearby. Afterwards, I returned it with interest.

The defenders fought on like cornered animals, but I noted something amongst my comrades. I heard the distinctive report of Doc's weapon less than Iktomi's, as I sensed a reluctance in his firing. If any of the masked, translucent figures that skirmished like ghouls were his old coworkers, then he must've felt as though he'd snuff another life he cared for. Thus, I called him back and had him run interference on the turrets, freeing up Iktomi to focus on the dirty work. When the last turret went down, I expected the enemy to change tactics.

They did, to a point. But a buzzing sound from above caused us to nearly flee back from whence we came. A million gnat-bots, a design similar to Deborah's, descended on us from above. They blackened out the insufficient lights of that corridor, while the defenders showed no signs of yielding another millimeter. They harassed us from innumerable angles while the bot-swarm descended towards our position. When I recall that now, I remember thinking we'd be messily devoured. I hoped for a better legacy than a red stain on a university hall, but I saw weapon or means by which to forestay my fate.

It was Doc who shouted something, but I never heard what. What I remember is a series of events that transpired when I looked left. Deborah futilely swatted at the swarm coming to devour her first, as though through some great cosmic irony. Instead of returning her head to a bloodied skull devoid of all flesh, the gnat-bot swarm dropped to the ground as an explosion knocked me back. I looked up to see another grenade bouncing along the floor, but away from me. It was then I recognized the elaborate, Maori-styled artwork on Mahini's exo-suit. Another chaff grenade finished off the remnants of the swarm, squelching it like a dying fire.

That was all that I remember before her heavy machinegun opened up, ripping through enemy cover like a mining laser. I'd later learn that she found an unmarked side tunnel, either forgotten since construction or made by the defenders, that led to the building basement. The defenders left standing hurled grenades at Mahini, which barely drew her notice. Given the weight and thickness of her armor, I would have done the same. She eagerly returned a burst of machinegun fire to the origin point of each, hopefully halting the enemy on the other side. Like a Greek Fury, she hammered righteous vengeance at all who dared cross her.

Settling Accounts

The fracas continued for a few extra minutes after that, but it was clear which way the battle turned. Now, I feared the desperate enemy would attempt some desperate last stands, some spiteful tactic meant to destroy us as well as them, or fall back to regroup elsewhere. I had no idea as too their true numbers or casualties taken, but I assumed that they would have time to prepare more surprises if we waited longer. I wanted to continue advancing into the building, but Doc stopped me. When I asked why, he opened an augmented reality overlay that displayed a man sitting in a table that had long been overturned and shredded with high-caliber rounds.

The gunfire stopped for a moment, and the AR projected man stood up. Beneath us, I felt the floor shift with a near-instantaneous celerity, as though a car too fast for human vision had narrowly avoided hitting us. The smile on the man's pale, clean-shaven face was enough to tell me why the fighting had stopped. His hair was as black as the celestial vacuum, and his high cheekbones and piercing eyes gave him an avian gravitas, like a predatory raptor preparing to dive. His clean, antique suit and jacket were relics of his younger days, back before transhumanity went feral. Dr. David Ritter looked at me, and I felt as though I had committed some blasphemy or defiled an eidolon of a god now preparing deserved retribution.

"Ah, I thought the Provost might send the Omega Company in," said the researcher. "But did she tell you the reason for the dispute?"

"Why are you talking now?" Doc Starr asked, anger seething in his voice. "Why not when we hailed you, or when we almost died against the turrets or ambush?"

"Because, Jason," he said, using Starr's old first name as though admonishing a child. "We were too preoccupied with completing the final phase of the project before the inevitable counterattack occurred. I knew the Provost would not let our actions stand."

"You took over the whole station in a coup! How could she?"

"Because she threatened the neutrality and goodwill we had worked so hard to foster. She covertly planned to hand out our technologies to opposing factions, playing the major powers against each other," he said, turning to me. "You must be Sergeant Major Sierra Tango. I've read your published memoirs of the Company's involvement in the Eurasian Wars, and I believed that you'd be charged with an operation of this importance. I must apologize for the inhospitable welcome, but the defense AGI jumped the gun quite literally. Fortunately, it fabricated the gnat-bot swarm too late to devour you."

Standard operating protocol was for Company members to ignore personal threats or attempts at psychological manipulation by providing misinformation or faked accounts. I would have done so, had he not called me out on it. He was one of the people who helped compile our debriefing and interrogation techniques after all.

"Dave, leave her out of this," Doc said. "This is all about Foundation politics, not us."

The projection of Ritter grinned wryly, folding his hands on the table. "I understand the frustration that drove you to join the Company," he said. "The Provost's actions threatened completion of the goal of which I've long advocated, especially considering the long term survival of our civilization."

"The seeding project!" Doc exclaimed. "The mass driver wasn't a weapon, but a launching platform. Those small objects were von Neumann probes, weren't they?"

The scientist grinned widely. "Exactly. Each can self-replicate once it reaches its destination, and they contain the uploaded minds of my entire staff. We've fired them towards a few choice objects in the outer system and some exoplanets of choice."

"Then that explains your defensive strategy," I interjected. "You were fighting a delaying action, and most of your defenses were ad hoc improvisations. Your crew were so reckless because they no longer feared death."

"Yes, the concept of virtual immortality has always done that to people," Ritter said. "But it was a technology the Provost wanted to give away, among a raft of others."

"And you opposed it?"

"I opposed giving our best technologies to groups that threatened us, while leaving our old friends out in the dust," he said. "That's why I just broadcast all of them to you."

I had Iktomi verify this, as a source in the station just broadcast a bundle of technical data through our AR mesh. It lacked overt malware, se'd still have to examine it in depth later. I clenched my teeth together. If this was true, then we'd been given the keys to one of the solar system's most coveted kingdoms. I'd find it suspicious Ritter gave them as good will, rather than try to leverage them.

"I understand the Company is to old military units what we are to old universities: MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, Tsinghua, IIT, Oceanian United," Ritter said. "But I sometimes fear losing touch with our founding principles."

"Dr. Ritter, our contract was to secure this station. Are you willing to order your troops to stand down? Otherwise, we'll nuke the station," I said, continuing my performance in a well-rehearsed role.

"They already have," he said. "Besides, I doubt the Provost would like it if Captain Glass had his way on Feynman Station."

Starr drew out a pair of plastic flex-cuffs from his belt. "Dave, can you and your followers step out?"

"I'm not in Central Admin, but some security forces are," he said. "I'm in the mass driver's control bunker a few buildings over with my technical staff, but I'll be joining you shortly. I will switch on my locator beacon and submit to any verification techniques you desire."

I wondered if this was another delaying tactic, for some vengeful last salvo aimed at the Provost's lunar base. I doubted this man to be capable of that, although he did his research on Company officers. Iktomi confirmed that the mass driver was shutting down, however. Ritter probably had sources inside the Provost's faction, and he perhaps even had access to Company information. I did not know his game, but I figured he'd spill the beans soon enough. He'd surrendered his troops, his technical data, his control of the mass driver, and himself.

I saw Dr. Ritter walk through the door we had assaulted, clad in little more than a ragged jumpsuit. He had not shaven in days, and he grew lean from undoubted days on thin rations. There was nevertheless a certain fortitude about him, as one capable and willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve his objectives. Behind him came a few dozen motley sorts in thermoptic camo, which they removed so we could see the downcast eyes behind their hooded masks. Those were traits I could easily identify with, if not sympathize with. I wondered if any circumstances drove me to mutiny, if my own compatriots would similarly rally behind me or gun me down in a shallow grave.

"Now we are here before you," Ritter said. "I had one thing to request."

"Dave, you're not in a position to request anything. Can you just fold 'em for once?" Doc asked.

"I harbor no illusions my fate is entirely at your whim," he said. "But I request you spare my followers any punishments the Provost has in store for me."

"What's the contract say about prisoners, Doc?" I asked.

"Allow me to elucidate," Ritter said, sending us an AR copy with the relevant sections highlighted by an infernally devious AGI lawyer. "You are to secure the station, but prisoners are to be handed by the acting operational leader."

He looked at me, knowing I held his, and his followers', fate in my hands. He sent another document to me, one I recognized with the familiarity of a fanatic before scripture: the Company Charter. As I skimmed over the highlighted sections, I knew where the conversation was going. "Now, there is a section regarding treatment of prisoners, but also a clause on applicants. Given that we lawfully surrendered to you and are no longer combatants, we hereby and formally request to join the Omega Company."

Doc would have done a spit take if he had been drinking anything. Iktomi began scanning the ambient mesh, as if doubting of his own senses. Mahini shrugged. Deborah seethed. Amish was too distracted by a collection of antique swords to care. I pulled him away before he smashed and looted the case, before turning back to the assembled captives. My squad drew their weapons once more. The prisoners awaited my decision, but they bore a cool resignation about themselves. In a sense, they already escaped where we'd be unable to follow. Now, I held their lives, and perhaps their uploaded afterlives, in my hand.

I stand by my decision to this day.

Reaping the Whirlwind

By the time I saw Glass again, he informed me the Provost was livid with rage. I saw the recording of her message, where her mouth was a frothing fissure of ribald profanity, language obscene as the visions of lunacy. I wondered what triggered such a savage outburst of rage from an otherwise unremarkable, relatively demeanor bureaucrat. I wondered if some rift between the Foundation and Company was riven wider due to my actions, but I decided it would pass.

Having served in the Company for so long, I believe I've gained a longer term image of where we've been, what we are, and what we might become. I understand that contracts are impermeant, so it's important to maximize the one resource we can. New enemies are plentiful, but old comrades are sparse. Thus, I opted to recruit Dr. Ritter and his followers into our ranks. The Provost was angered at the technical data and leaked files about her schemes getting out, as well as the sensation we'd shortchanged them by not summarily executing surrendered enemies.

I told Glass that the current Provost was someone we could afford to anger. The revelations of her internal plans kicked up plans to remove her, and her successor would undoubtedly be pressured to discontinue such policies. The wounds would heal, as we'd already proven ourselves as dealing with a domestic squabble as relatively successfully as we'd done. I was proved vindicated when a Foundation representative later contacted us to apologize for the Provost's outburst.

We'd gained the most from the affair, of course. Ritter and his team were a combination of academics with experiences downloaded from military veterans and athletes, in conjunction with a highly educated security staff. While white collar staff were not our typical recruits, I already had a special role for them: our own internal research and development team. I secretly think Doc was relieved having the help, even though he was sullen for a week afterwards. As we acquired the most advanced technologies in the system, we'd also draw unwanted attention from its powers. But we could face them, with our brain uploading systems and self-replicating factories to supply our inexhaustible campaign into the future. That is how we became the most powerful force in the solar system.