The Graveyard Shift
Project Duality Chapter 3
Dear Reader, with the success of my first novel, EX SUPRA, being more than I ever hoped, I decided to make a sequel. Titled Project Duality and set in the same timeline with the same characters as EX SUPRA; Project Duality will focus on what it means to be human, and specifically to be a soldier, at the dawn of the synthetic biology revolution set to the backdrop of the Sino-American War from EX SUPRA. What follows below is chapter 3, about the war in orbit in 2038 (contains some mild spoilers from EX SUPRA). You can find links here to chapter 1 (Kickstart my Heart) and chapter 2 (This Kind of War). Enjoy!
PS: The recommended music pairing for the combat scene in this chapter is Foo Fighters’ Everlong.
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The Graveyard Shift
GRAVEYARD ORBIT, EARTH
The pale blue dot seemed a whole lot greyer these days. From the heavens on high, the troubles of World War III could feel so distant to the civilian observer. Unless you were the first American space ace. The peace negotiations and accompanying ceasefire provided WaveRider the rare opportunity to take in the sights of the universe rather than place PLA orbital warbots in her gunsights. Patrolling the old graveyard orbit, far beyond any remaining PLA space operations after the liberation of Mars and Luna in the spring, was the closest she’d get to real R&R until the peace treaty was signed. To most people, the sensation of Zero-G felt relaxing, but after three years of war in orbit with only a handful of trips dirtside, she no longer felt the anti-gravitational sensation. She felt the slight vibration in her pedals and handles, in her trigger handles, she felt the adrenaline surge when a new wave hit orbit, but she didn’t feel the sensations of space that brought humanity to the stars despite its countless obstacles. Now that the war was over, she felt as numb and as empty as the vacuum encompassing her cockpit. The physical effects of long-term exposure to space were well-documented. NASA and its counterparts spent decades after the moon landings prepping humans for long-term exposure for deep-space missions. The research helped launch the new Mars and Luna missions, but where it turned out to be most useful was sustaining pilots like WaveRider when SPACECOM strained to keep even the most basic satellite systems in orbit. So SPACECOM knew how to manage the physical stresses, supply needs, and health needs of an orbital pilot. There was just one problem: not every injury is physical.
Long before the war began, astronauts witnessed the burning in the skies in their dreams. When you close your eyes beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the movement and collision of tiny particles burst in the darkness like fireflies in a summer field. The magnetic shielding the earth provides is gone, and while these flickers are harmless, they’re a reminder that there is so much more to the universe than what we can see from sea level. And it wasn’t just the brilliance of destruction, astronauts throughout the decades have sworn they’ve seen things that could never be confirmed or never witnessed on the ground. So when you see something that shouldn’t be there, given the vastness of the unknown universe, how can you know what’s real…and what’s just another battle scar?
Floating through the graveyard, WaveRider tried to relax but her senses still hadn’t quite dropped to normal response times since the war ended. Everywhere she flew, she saw bits of debris over the horizon that looked just like incoming PLA warbots. She’d stopped calling them in right after SPACECOM stopped listening. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in watching for war, they were more than a little concerned she hadn’t left it. She’d just hit her twenty years in, and whenever she returned dirtside, she figured she’d have retirement paperwork or a detail to NASA waiting for her, whether she wanted it or not. In her time, she’d fought over the skies of Korea, the Middle East, and was only one of two naval aviators to fly over Taiwan before it fell. She transferred to the Space Force during the inter-war period as the second space race heated up. In the atmosphere and in orbit, she’d racked up nearly two dozen kills against enemy pilots. She’d killed hundreds more of the PLA’s warbots. The US owed the stabilization of its orbital defenses to her efforts, and now here she was at the end of the war, floating through the graveyard of enemies past and present. Maybe I belong here, among the wreckage of history.
She felt like a relic when most of her fellow pilots were in their early to mid-30s or even younger. At 43, she was the oldest space jockey in the service. She should be holding squadron command, somewhere on Earth or Luna, but she refused command. She wanted to ride out the war in her cockpit. And now the war was over. Still, she couldn’t help but feel like she was being watched. It wasn’t the enemy long-range sensors that creeped her out, it was the unpredictable nature of debris fields. Dirtside, graveyards don’t move. You don’t have zombie caskets rolling through the fields at lethal velocities. The dead stay dead. In orbit, when you destroy an enemy spacecraft or weapon system, the bits and pieces are reborn as lingering, high-flying shrapnel. Eventually, the debris would burn in but often not before making more of itself via orbital collision. Every now and again her hull would get slapped around by some micro-debris, and for a few minutes WaveRider’s adrenaline would spike until she could confirm it was just debris and not an attack.
Far beyond WaveRider’s tiny corner of orbit floated Orion, the main hub for Space Command connecting terrestrial, orbital, Lunar, and Martian operations. The on-orbit node of Project Forge’s logistics network, Orion printed, assembled, and maintained the gear and systems that kept operations running within American-controlled space. It was from Orion that the Hell Jumpers launched their offensive to wrestle humanity’s Martian colony from PLA control. The AI controlling Orion bore the same name, and just like his siblings around the globe was powered by dual molten-salt reactors. Orion occupied a football field-sized facility in the heavens, and for the first time since he was launched into orbit, his life was quiet. His sensors were always open, but he no longer ran survivability drills to counter PLA warbot waves. He monitored the communications of the humans on watch all around him, but for the most part he was on his own, in the silence of the void, locked in orbit high above the South Pacific. Unlike most of his siblings, he wondered less what would become of him once the peace was finalized. He understood that his masters’ fate lay among the stars and it would be his job to push further into the heavens. He predicted a 96.89% likelihood for this future. His algorithms were already adjusting and preparing for dealing with the new surge in civilian space flight and logistics reinforcements to the Lunar and Martian colonies. Then one of his sensors picked up a single broadcast, relayed from Sierra on the wavelength meant only for Project Forge AI. With the relayed distress signal, Sierra attached a singular message to her siblings: wake up.
And with those two words, Orion’s 96.89% likely future began to drop, rapidly.
At first, WaveRider thought she was just seeing things, but as her patrol route parsed the densest part of the graveyard, her rearward sensors detected an anomaly. As the debris density around her declined in most directions, the density in proximity of her rear engine exhaust remained the same, and then slowly rose. That’s odd. She used the remote cameras on her craft that connected to her HUD to see “through” her craft and get a better look at the debris. They have an odd symmetry to them. She played with the throttle a little and checked to see if the debris matched her changes in velocity. They did. And then they accelerated even more.
“All STARGATE elements, this is WaveRider, in contact with unknown enemy elements. Evasive heading India-6. Request reinforcements.”
“WaveRider, this is STARGATE Actual, do you have confirmation of hostile intent?” There was Colorado Springs doubting her again.
“Actual, WaveRider, I have not yet been engaged, but elements have matched my change in velocity and heading, and are now reaching catch-up speed.”
“Roger WaveRider…continue to monitor and try to break contact without firing. Maintaining ceasefire is priority. Could just be a rogue bot acting on bad code.” She took another glance at the debris cloud behind her. That’s a lot of bad code. WaveRider continued to accelerate and pull harder Gs, but there was no way her body could roll harder than an autonomous craft. She hoper she could just force them to run out of fuel, the largest “debris” was maybe half the size of her craft.
She tried to outmaneuver the debris cloud for more than half an hour, burning fuel and jumping between orbits. Her maneuvers caught STARGATE’s attention, but more importantly, she brought the cloud in close enough for SPACECOM’s sensors to pick up the foreign contacts.
“WaveRider, Actual here, we are seeing quite a sizeable collection of unknown contacts on your tail.” No shit.
“Haven’t been able to break them. But they haven’t fired yet. I’m running low on fuel with all these maneuvers. Request to dock with Orion.”
“Negative, WaveRider. Can’t risk leading them to Orion’s location. He’s been Darkside since the ceasefire and we’d like to keep it that way.” Darkside referred to parts of earth’s orbit that could be used as hiding spots from enemy sensors, whether that was due to electromagnetic interference, jamming, space weather, or otherwise.
“Well, if you got any ideas that keep me alive, I’m all ears. Hurry up, though.” There was silence for a few minutes, WaveRider could feel the relentless enemy clawing at her exhaust trail.
“WaveRider, let’s try a Skimjob.” She checked her gauges and ran the numbers in her head.
“Actual, I’ve got just enough fuel for one, maybe two attempts or I’ll burn in with ‘em. You sure about this?”
“Our math says you can pull it off, should only have to run it for a few seconds.” A Skimjob was a last-ditch tactic to burn a warbot on your tail. The idea was that you dropped down just to the edge of atmosphere, “skimming” it long enough for the warbot to get caught and burn in, then you pulled up and out as hard as you could. WaveRider had done it a few times successfully, but she’d also lost a few friends to the same tactic.
“Roger, Actual, plotting course now. I’ll come up on the net when the first burn is complete.” She hit the throttle and dove down towards Mother Earth. She was careful not to close with her home planet too quickly, or she’d never make it out of the dive. The debris cloud pursued. What the hell were these things, fuckin zombies? Initiating skim in 3…2…1… The turbulence and friction transformed her smooth ride in the vacuum into a heated, bumpy nightmare, even if it was just for a few seconds. She looked through the bottom of her craft, she thought she was somewhere over Peru when the guidance system screamed at her to pull up. She pulled hard on the stick and as the Gs climbed, the turbulence subsided. She checked her sensors; the cloud was definitely getting smaller.
“Actual, WaveRider, first dive complete. Confirm enemy contacts reduced.”
“WaveRider, looks like that dive cut your problem in half, can you make another?” She checked her gauges once more.
“Affirmative, preparing to dive…”
“BREAK. BREAK. BREAK. All elements converge to the following coordinates. Allied Command reports contact with Russian and Chinese forces on multiple fronts. Execute NEW CAIRO. I say again, execute NEW CAIRO.” Fuck. WaveRider uploaded the coordinates into her drive and took off. NEW CAIRO was the codename of the all-hands defense plan for Orion. She wondered how long it would take to reach, hoping she could beat the next wave of PLA warbots to her battle position. She wasn’t that far, just a couple minutes. She looked up from her guidance system only to see a magnificent burst of colors. No.
For as far as she could see, PLA warbots zipped through the heavens and through the massive cloud of screaming shrapnel that was formerly Orion. She wasn’t sure what hit her first: the debris from Orion or the enemy warbots that were already on her tail. She had nowhere left to go but down. The hailstorm of shrapnel blew through her thrusters, wrestling control of the spacecraft from her stick and handing it to statistics. Steering failed and without any thrust, the force of the shrapnel sent falling back towards the earth’s atmosphere.
“SPACECOM, this is WaveRider. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. I have lost control of my spacecraft and am in free fall. Break. Orion has fallen. I say again, Orion has fallen.” There was nothing on the net but static, she continued, hoping someone would hear her distress call. “I am venting fuel and atmosphere. Burning in and punching out.”
The Space Ace flipped a few switches, broadcast her telemetry, and hit the eject button. Her cockpit successfully separated from the fuselage; the nose soon glowing red from the friction of the thickening atmosphere. Gravity and heat began to suffocate. She made one final call out to the local battle net and then braced for impact. “Any element this net. This is WaveRider. I am burning in and entering comms blackout. If you’re receiving me, look out below.”
If you enjoyed this story and haven’t read the first book yet, you can buy it here: EX SUPRA. It was recently nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel! It’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
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