The first major difference from the simulations was the red glow through the hull, as the nukes began to impact the Moon. There was the microgravity too, of course. But after four days in space Lothian was used to that. And, being stuck in a darkened capsule little bigger than a coffin, weightlessness had few practical consequences – except for the queasy feeling of his internal organs floating freely in his body.
The glow died down, followed by another. Right now one little point of the Moon – the crest of Mons Huygens, highest point on the lunar nearside – was experiencing more geological activity than it had in billions of years, as a flight of thirty one missiles plunged down from cislunar space.
Lothian was inside one of those missiles.
Another reddish pulse of light. On the other side of the missile’s carbon fibre, the nuclear detonation was sufficiently intense to melt an unshielded eyeball. Lothian counted six, then seven, such pulses and tensed involuntarily. They were through to the second sequence – and he knew what would happen next.
Abruptly, with nothing more than a shudder, Lothian’s missile gave way around him, its component parts shooting outwards on cold gas manoeuvring jets.
Lothian was still in the dark, but now it was filled by thousands upon thousands of hard, unblinking stars. He was floating in his skinsuit in open space. The sims had attempted to prepare him for this too, but nothing could. He’d imagined it to be like the same flat black curtain he saw above his head at night but the sky he saw from space had depth – depth that went on forever. Somehow, some of these bright stars were clearly closer than others, like motes of dust in a sunbeam: he was taking in the whole universe in three dimensions.
Earth itself was out of view but there were brighter points lined up together that must be planets: Venus, Mars and Jupiter, probably, orbiting along the flat plane of the Solar System. Past them were scattered stars while beyond them crested the cloudy belt of the Milky Way, with other stars further out and the ghostly smear of what surely must be the Andromeda galaxy hovering in the other direction.
There was the whole universe, and then there was him. Lothian felt like he was falling. His heart rate raced and he began breathing rapidly – a useless reaction in his womb-like oxygel liquid. He made a conscious effort to restrain his limbs: his first instinct was to struggle, but drifting in a weightless void meant there was precisely nothing to push against.
This disorientation had been predicted. He simply had to calm down and let it pass. He tried to concentrate on something else. There were stars in only half the sky, the other – beneath him – was an empty black. That was his target, the Moon, for now untouched by sunlight or Earthlight. About a hundred and fifty klicks away at this moment. He was almost there. And if he looked carefully he could – ah, there it was. A reddish patch where the falling hydrogen warheads had rendered the moonrock molten. No 20cen-style mushroom clouds, not in hard vacuum. But the glow would persist awhile, and the shower of X- and gamma-rays birthed at the moment of detonation would hopefully have scrambled the Players’ instrumentation.
The point of detonation had been carefully chosen: far enough from Player installations to not restart the war, but close enough to trigger sensor and comms disruption. They were exploiting a loophole – the peace treaty had not explicitly forbade extra-terrestrial weapons testing. And under cover of the ‘test’ bombardment Lothian and the rest of the team could infiltrate – if all went to plan.
His was not the only missile to come apart. If any Player scanners were still operating, it would simply appear as though a few of the ageing nukes had blown apart as they made their final course correction, leaving a cloud of debris in their wake.
Lothian’s image-intensifying visor sought out that ‘debris’, pinpointing a scattering of human forms at eleven o’clock. Some of them had made it, at least.
‘Rendezvous,’ Lothian commanded.
Cold gas jets embedded into the skinsuit opened up – much simpler and less conspicuous than hot burning engines, these functioned more like pricking a hole in a balloon.
Six other skinsuits were converging, their approach centred on a large but spindly machine, like some mockup of a gigantic virus. The lander looked like a giant spider balancing a plate above a pencil – a design that could only fly in space. As with the skinsuits, it was black-hued to fit their current surroundings: standard reprogrammable infiltration camouflage. Only Lothian’s skinsuit visor let him pick them out at all. And to note there were six of them in all, including him. There should have been seven.
‘Lothian,’ he sent out. They communicated along line of sight, through tightbeam laser pulses, to minimise the possibility of eavesdropping. There were securer and more efficient communication methods – like quantum communication systems embedded directly into their brains – but that was quite unthinkable, of course. That was the enemy’s way, not theirs.
The others replied; all but one.
‘Where’s Farson?’ Lothian queried.
Kirby replied tonelessly: ‘I scanned the entire zone. His missile mustn’t have opened. He’s gone down with it.’
‘We have to save him–’ interjected an anguished Tabb.
‘What can we do?’ Kirby replied. ‘Check the time.’
‘The last missiles are down,’ confirmed Tomas. ‘He’s already dead.’
A fresh soundless flash came from the darkened lunar surface, enough to give a brief impression of blotchy white-grey plains, like an expanse of diseased skull. Their visors had darkened automatically to compensate for the blinding glare.
Lothian’s stomach lurched and his hands trembled through his suit. A simple mechanical failure, at the start of a mission they’d been preparing for over months – years, really…
Fighting Players was hard. You needed to be young, to have a hope of being fast enough. Teenage young. And you needed to fight as a team, intuitively, to compensate for the resources of their mass mind. So team training began in childhood, with the aim of knowing one another as well as you possibly could, short of wiring your brains together. Because in that eventuality you wouldn’t be human any more, not really.
So they’d become a crew as children. Inevitably, over the decade since, you ended up knowing some crew members better than others. Lothian couldn’t really say he’d liked Farson, not really, but they’d grown up together, like brothers. And he’d got to know him better, towards the end. Farson, for all his flaws, was an endless optimist, especially on the subject of this mission: ‘Whether we make it or not, it’s going to be a hell of a ride. And then when we get back? That’s when the fun really starts…’
Lothian wondered if the impact or the nuclear fireball had caught him first. Had Farson even realised his missile was carrying him down to his doom, or had he been zoning out, idly waiting for the action to start?
‘Tabb. Need help prepping the lander...’ That was Kirby. As team leader he doubtless realised she needed some distraction.
The spindly lander – itself unfolded from another dummy missile – was their ride down to the surface. With no atmosphere to slow them down, parachutes or gliding was out. So the only way to lose the velocity that had hauled them here, and kept them up in tenuous orbit, was a rocket-based braking system. The spacecraft was a direct descendant of the 20cen Apollo landers, except this one ran on cold-gas xenon, with the potential for refuelling from oxygen extracted from lunar soil. They needed surface mobility once they were down, and a way up again if and when they completed their mission. Packed around the central rocket core were the supplies to keep them alive for months, if need be, on the lunar surface: nutrients, fresh oxygel and water. But other mass had been sacrificed in turn. Unlike the NASA astronauts of old, they’d be flying in the open: hanging on for dear life all the way down.
‘Here.’ Kirby had begun the unfolding of the handholds the seven – six – if them would affix themselves to on the flight down, but one section had stuck. Tabb was wrestling with it, without success. After one last glance at the subsiding red glow beneath them, Lothian directed his jets forward.
The prospect of extra radiation exposure from the detonations had been flagged by planners, but this added rad-hazard turned out to be minor compared to all the charged particles constantly churned out by all the stars and galaxies around them, their own sun most of all. Their suit shielding would have to cope – never mind how old these re-engineered suits actually were.
‘Ever thought of having kids, Lothian?’ Tomas had laughed. ‘Well at sixteen years old then you’re coming on the wrong mission!’
Lothian landed next to Tabb. Between them they managed to force the stuck handhold into position. Working in weightlessness was tricky: pull something hard enough and it would be you that started moving, not it. But they both had their feet braced in ‘golden slipper’ footholds embedded in the lander platform. They’d practiced such activities underwater as well as in VR.
The others hung beyond them silently observing. Digesting the loss of Farson, Lothian supposed. Belatedly, the thought occurred to him to tightbeam Tabb: ‘I’m sorry.’
She nodded wordlessly. They all knew the risks, but at least they had hoped to share in the same fate at around the same moment. Train together, fight together, die –
His suit barked in warning: ‘Incoming!’ Lothian’s visor homed in on an object approaching at three o’clock. It was itself orbiting, but too big to be a piece of missile debris and too small to be an actual missile. Though he hadn’t been keeping up a count, those should have all impacted by now.
‘Hunter-killer,’ Lothian cautioned.
‘Protect the lander!’ Kirby ordered.
Player security was obviously more resilient than anticipated. The team formed a tight, rapidly-rotating sphere around their ride. But the intruder was coming in fast, undeterred. In a matter of seconds it turned from just another bright point in the heavens to a distinctly-shaped object.
Its streamlined bulkiness resembled an outsize horseshoe crab extruding a spider-like assemblage of long, multi-segmented appendages. It was constructed of polished aluminium – hunter-killers had little need of camouflage. The thing’s grappling limbs twitched in anticipation.
‘Lay down fire!’ Kirby screamed. Their skinsuits switched to mirror mode, as their weapons pods emerged from their shoulders and arms. But it was already too close – Lothian was the combat specialist, he could recognise that.
‘Intercepting!’ he announced, before screaming out a wordless war cry. His skinsuit shot him directly towards the hunter-killer. The Players wouldn’t be expecting that, hopefully. Keeping them off-balance was one way to win. But it was more simple than that, really. Here was a Player, and, as far as Lothian was concerned, Players were the reason Farson was dead.
Lothian’s visor performed a rapid survey as he closed for firing. This confirmed his target was not just a robotic sentry but an actual Player. The scan pinpointed organic contents within the vehicle, behind a forward-facing porthole. From its size it was a human head – just a head, nothing else. As far as the Players were concerned, in space the rest of the body just got in the way.
It was the brain that mattered – and the quantum link in that brain. When you fought a Player you were not going up against a single consciousness but all of them. Each action they took was the outcome of the concentrated deliberations of dozens or hundreds or thousands of minds, debating together at the speed of thought.
‘A distributed hive mind,’ was how their tutor, Highdown, explained it. So the best hope an individual had against it was to act with a kind of wild spontaneity – the sort of erratic behaviour a single perspective could settle on, but a mass mind driven by consensus tends to dismiss. It got ever harder though, because the Players had the mental power to draw on to consider all the options – and were becoming better equipped all the time. So, if in doubt, get crazy.
Lothian fired his ruby laser and projectile guns all at once, followed by the discharge of several grenades. To the hunter-killer – and perhaps to his crew – it appeared he was indeed going crazy, firing off everything at once.
The scarlet laser light cut through the darkness instantaneously, striking the hunter-killer’s underside. Most of the energy reflected harmlessly away, but not all. Hopefully it had imparted enough heat to do minor damage, although he had struck too early for lethal effect. Lothian’s bullets were next to reach the thing, but the Player had enough borrowed computational power at its disposal to deduce their position and velocity, then intercept them with its own laser. All this in the total silence of vacuum, of course, except the desperate pumping of Lothian’s own heart.
One, two, three bullets were converted to splashes of molten metal by the Player’s fast-swerving laser – just as Lothian had anticipated. But his own laser strike had dazzled the thing, hopefully well enough not to notice that bullets were not all he had discharged… Yes! The laser went on to strike the first of Lothian’s grenades, inducing a spherical shower of grass shrapnel, going on to shred one side of the hunter-killer. And this first detonation triggered more, from the other incoming grenades. Mortally wounded, the hunter-killer began to vent gas and blobs of black hydraulic fluid, tilting sideways in reaction.
‘Closer,’ Lothian ordered, his visor vainly querying the wisdom of this decision. But he needed to be within fifty metres for guaranteed destruction. In targeting mode, Lothian’s laser swept its damaged body, making contact with the porthole in its belly to illuminate its contents: a plump, albino head with tendrils emerging from its scalp, nose and neck. It was smiling wryly, even now – the Players were always smiling. The wonder of it was how happy they seemed to be. Its eyes narrowed appreciatively – who knew how many distant minds might now be looking through them? This was it: kill the Player and the damaged hunter-killer would definitely be dead too.
Lothian ordered maximum power charge for firing, just as one of the crab-like arms grabbed his arm, razor-sharp pinchers attempting to pierce his suit. The skinsuit’s artificial muscle resisted the closing pincher as a weapon pod in Lothian’s trapped one discharged a fresh bullet, denting the grappler’s arm-joint. The hunter-killer’s arm was frozen as a result, but did not let go. Its other arms bent round in turn to try and make contact, discouraged by further bullets.
Lothian turned back towards the head, which somehow seemed to be smugly gloating.
‘Fire!’ Lothian ordered.
Direct hit. The superheated flesh exploded, cracking the porthole in front of it. But the arms spasmed in death and a surge of power passed uncontrollably into his own skinsuit. Its muscles arched into rigor mortis as its systems deactivated.
Then nothing. Lothian’s skinsuit was just as dead as the hunter-killer. He tried to shake off the arm’s death grip, but it refused to yield. He was stuck fast. Now was the point that his crew should come to the rescue… Lothian spotted them clustered around the lander, at a heart-stopping distance. They were drifting away from him – that is, he was drifting away from them. Without his visor’s active assistance they were already difficult to make out, their skinsuits reverting to camouflage black. Automatically he messaged them, to no effect. All his systems were down – so he couldn’t hear any messages back, either.
Not that he needed to. Lothian realised what had happened, what the others must already know. Contact with the dying hunter-killer had dislodged him from his precarious orbit, like two balls colliding round a roulette wheel. Already the black Moon seemed to be filling up more of the sky. He had started sinking. The lander, meanwhile, had no fuel margin for any thought of rescue – just enough to get the team down alive. Meaning Lothian was equally as doomed as Farson had been.
Lunar gravity was one sixth’s of Earth’s – he’d been maintaining orbit at just under three klicks per second. Being in orbit was like throwing a ball so fast that, even though gravity was still pulling it down, it curved endlessly around the whole world. Except the once-parallel lines of Lothian’s course and the lunar surface were now coming together. Lothian’s sideways motion was being sheared downwards by a crucial few metres per second. This rate of decline would only accelerate as he drew nearer to the Moon, and its gravitational attraction grew stronger in turn. His descent would be gradual and graceful, but also inevitable. Based on their initial contact, coupled with the rate of venting from the hunter-killer anchored to him, Lothian estimated he had something like an hour left.
He’d strike the surface much closer to sideways than straight down, but would still leave a meteorite-style crater. The only thing left to do was to accept his fate – and fall.