Those who fly close to the sun

 
by Annie Stein
Welcome to Solaris, traveller! Let me get you up to speed.
Solaris is a soft science fiction webcomic set in our own universe, kind of. Learn more by continuing to read, or click here to be taken to the comic.
Q:Where am I?   You're still in the system known as Sol. Except this time each planet is habitable and developed its own life. The people are humanoid, mostly.
Q:I heard something about a comic?   Oh yes! The main comic is still in development, but you can read the first few pages of the Expanse if you click here.  
Q:What's going on?   Sol is invading. The resentful sun sends its angelic armies: the Scourge. For now, they're being held back at Mercury by Penumbra.
by Annie Stein

Written by skairunner

Icarus flew too close to the sun. It was hubris, they say, or complacency, or not respecting the powers greater than you. It is, they might say, an inauspicious name for the mercenary pilots who expect to fly their ships barely a stone’s throw from the sun—millions of kilometers closer than Icarus could ever have conceived—fight the demons spawned from the solar surface, then come back home alive. Then want to do it again the next solar cycle. Hubris.
  The walk from the on-duty lounge to the crawler with Eun’s craft is barely a few dozen meters horizontally, but it feels far longer when lives are on the stake, when scourge are incoming. The low gravity, far far lower than what she’s used to, means her steps are careful but bounding, and that if she hurries she’ll paradoxically arrive later. It’s a relief to reach the base of the crawler and start climbing, practically throwing herself up the ladder and only arresting her momentum at the very top. As she reaches the massive flattop of the crawler she can see the solar edge of the terminator in the near distance, a scant five hours away. Bad timing for the deck crew, who’ll have to scramble to tie down the returning craft before the crawler can move.   Something—or someone, as it turns out—smacks into her and goes flying, and it takes a little bit of acrobatics to save him, sliding her foot into a loop and grabbing his hand and flinging him around in a large arc to land on his back on the flattop with a cloud of dust.   “Sorry Tenor,” Eun says. “I was thinking.”   “Glad you got me,” Tenor says, getting to his feet. Lanky and tall, at least appearance-wise the Martian certainly lives up to the stereotypes. It’s hard to tell expression through their flight helmets, but Eun chooses to believe he is either annoyed or amused. “Let’s go.”   The craft of Eun’s squadron sit pretty surrounded by deck crew hurrying to wrap up the pre-departure procedures, running down their checklists and removing little red and yellow ribbons from weapons and the large engine blocks. Her squad was on standby so there isn’t actual rearming to do—which would be a nightmare, and rushing only causes accidents—but there is still, apparently, some process that needs to be observed. The mirrored canopy is open, so Eun squeezes herself between a miniature lift and a crewmember and into the seat.   Eun has only been flying for Penumbra a mere months, but the cockpit of the Sunbreaker is intimately familiar like a pair of well-worn leather gloves. She knows every control, the way it’ll react to her inputs, its quirks. Like how the twin engines are theoretically capable of equal power in every pitch, but practically only have half the control authority when pointed directly up, between five to ten degrees either side. She can snap the fighter into a seemingly suicidal barrel roll and level out pointed at the enemy. She knows how it’ll act when one of its engines is shot out, a wounded predator limping and fleeing only to return another day.   She runs through the procedure for starting it up, not even needing to look as she flips switches and turns dials, routes power from the crawler’s umbilical into the heart of the machine. The Sunbreaker hums to life around her. She gives a thumbs up out the window to the nearest deck crew—probably Mariet, judging by the offensively garish Venus-style stickers plastered over her helmet—and they disconnect the power cable. Now is the worst part of takeoff: the gap between when Eun gets her wings and when she’s allowed to fly. The hum of her craft seems to collect inside her as impatience.   She looks left, watching the other two members of her squad finish their preparations. To the right, she sees the quiet activity of Penumbra, small shapes moving around. Shapes whose names she mostly knows. Far above, she can see a false star glide through space, sunlight reflecting off Cadaceus Station. It’s attended by a small host of lesser stars, weapons platforms and sensor arrays and all sorts of lethal tools of war directed at the enemy. The fact that Eun and her squad is being deployed now is an admission from up high that the first line of defense failed to entirely parry the threat. They will destroy the fliers of the pulse, then gunships and ground troops would clean up the ground forces.   The indicator lights lining the flattop go green, and flight control speaks through her headset. “Deck crew clear, go for flight.”   Eun feels the pressure of something more like real gravity as she accelerates up away from the crawler. She pivots towards their mission bearing, switching broadcast comms to squadron-only and speaks. “Two, Three, form up and execute.” She and her Sunbreaker leap forward as her squadmates affirm. The acceleration pushes her back in her seat and she feels truly alive.   A long time ago, Eun’s ancestors used to have wings—real wings, one that could send them soaring into the skies without any need for complex machines. All Eun has is traces of the bone structure that might have supported wings. The story of Icarus is not a native Uranian tale, but it resonates with Eun. Perhaps it was intended as a cautionary tale against yearning for what you can’t attain, but Eun can’t help but empathize with the desire to fly, the joy when defying the fundamental force of gravity that wants to keep you grounded. And when you’re already defying one all-powerful force, why not another? Eun has no doubt that if she was Icarus, she would also end up plunging into the sea.   “SF-4, Penumbra Tactical. Adjust course to the right, bearing two three eight.”   Eun acknowledges and adjusts, checking the HUD to make sure that her squadmates weren’t asleep on the job somehow. The sun scourge, or sundogs as mercenary fighters often call them, would usually launch from the sun and fly in relatively predictable arcs towards Mercury. Cadaceus Station would launch artillery barrages and missiles, whittling away some of the attack force before it makes planetfall and maneuvers to destroy Penumbra. Cadaceus Command generally had an idea of which quadrant of Mercury the sundogs would land, updated as fighters moved to intercept.   The world goes white as they cross the terminator into the solar phase. Then the windows of the cockpit dim and all she can see is impossibly vividly illuminated Mercury and the cold blackness of space, the color of atmosphere and the stars beyond blackened out by the sunlight. Eun swears she can hear her Sunbreaker creak and groan as if stretching after a long nap, the hexagonal mirror panels rapidly warming and expanding to fit each other snugly. The deck crew always tell her she’s imagining it. She pulls up the armor integrity screen with an easy twist of a selector dial, making sure each section goes from grey to green. “Armor check,” she says on comms. There’s a moment of silence before she hears responses.   “Two, clear.”   “Three, boss. I got some stuck greys on my six here.” Tenor, unlike most Martians, seemed to have an instinctual distrust of anything technical. Or brevity on comms. Not that Eun is a gung-ho ex-military type, but efficiency is nice.   Eun sighs, but doesn’t transmit that. Instead, she says, “The SOP’s to disengage immediately.” She already has a good idea of what Tenor’s opinion of the standard operating procedure is from overheard proclamations at Oasis, the Penumbra ‘bar’, but she has to point it out.   “I can still fight.” He sounds indignant. Eun thinks his relative inexperience shows in his eagerness to die, but then again maybe he is just very enthusiastic about the cause.   “I’m not letting you dogfight, but you’re launching stand-offs and going home,” she says. “No close combat.”   “Killjoy.”   “That’s an order,” she adds.   “Affirm,” Tenor says unhappily.   Their three fighters rocket along under the glare of the sun, climbing higher and higher until they’re at the very edge of the atmosphere. Up here, there’s less air in the way, and Sunbreakers don’t have wings. So they tear across the planet, going faster and faster until their avionics and computer systems notice the enemy far sooner than any biological person could. It’s the one and only time Eun is okay with the computer taking over her precious controls, practically seizing control of her own body. Sure, she would notice the enemy, too, and it would only be a second, but seconds burn kilometers at these speeds. It’s still jarring, deceleration grasping her like a giant’s hand and pulling, and she had nothing to do with it.   Eun grits her teeth at the pressure, scanning the radar screen and mentally counting the groups. Seven, so a slightly larger pulse than expected. Or, of course, slightly more of a miss rate on Cadaceus’s side. When she is able to speak, she rattles off a string of brevity code. “Tally sundogs seven. Weapons free, Seekers away. Three, disengage after release.” Her squadmates should, of course, already know all of this. They went over this multiple times, in drills, briefings, probably in their sleep, too. When the deceleration hits, you count the number of enemies and start shooting the long-range standoff missiles, Sunseekers in their case. Once you’re out you close distance and start the dangerous part of the fight. But it never hurts to keep everyone in the loop, and it probably keeps nerves at Penumbra Command to a minimum, even if they can’t do anything about the situation.   Just like the Sunbreakers, the Sunseeker Stand-off Missiles are beautiful tools of destruction. She barely sees them when they fly, of course, nothing more than bright purple trails, quickly fading to nothing as the overpowering sunlight gets to them too. “Fox three,” she says, announcing that she’s fired. It feels like a dedication, or maybe a prayer. After all, each sundog she doesn’t have to fight is another weight on the scale that she and her squad will make it back.   The distance is rapidly closing, and if she squints she feels like she might actually see fiery shapes at the edge of her perception. Murderous little stars. The computer beeps at her, and the number of dots goes down to four.   A whoop comes over her headset. “Splash three! Noli timere, bitches!”   “You better be disengaging, Three,” comes the calm voice of her wingman, Kit.   “Roger that, sir. Feels like I have two extra moms on Mercury,” Tenor says.   The dot that marks him starts to fall away as he pulls his Sunbreaker around. The dots that mark the sundogs, on the other hand, start to spread out and move towards Eun and Kit. The military scientists and eggheads of Cadaceus aren’t entirely sure how intelligent the sundogs are, nor how much they communicate, but hard-earned experience has taught the mercenary fighters the shape of their tactics. The computer thinks two are the slower ‘wheel of fire’ archetype, and the other two are the more agile ‘winged fury’ type, and that tells Eun they’re going to be trying to pin her and Kit with the furies against the wheels.   “Kit, with me, extend north.”   They probe the furies, see how willing they are to go on a goose chase. They break off after a short chase and a few of their hot balls of plasma that seemed to be attracted towards metal, easily avoided. Eun brings her Sunbreaker around, trailing the furies at a safe distance. Thinking, weighing their number advantage, taking quick tallies of the remaining ammo they have, trying to figure out the best way to get into this furball while minimizing risk.   “What’s the plan, One?” Kit says.   “We’re going to run in, pull the furies out as far as we can, then engage them like a normal two-on-two. We’ll pick off the wheels when the furies are splashed.” Hopefully they could down one or both furies before the wheels can make it into effective weapons range.   “Executing.” Kit’s voice is as calm as ever, the very model of a tactical operator. Eun isn’t entirely sure whether the woman even feels things other than satisfaction at a job well done. It’s like she has nerves of synth.   Once more, the furies start tracking them, the wheels trailing behind. The computer beeps, telling her more homing fireballs are coming her way. Eun and Kit answer with their own barrage of heat-seeking missiles before going into evasive maneuvers, sharp turns throwing off their aim until eventually they sputter out.   The fight turns into a confusing series of moments. Ordnance both friendly and hostile fills the air. The computer beeps constantly as Eun’s Sunbreaker whirls. She feels shudders from near-misses that wilt the colors of her armor panel into yellowish-green. Her heart leaps into her throat as she executes a sharp dive, only to crash to her feet as she rolls out of it. Slugs rake the flank of one of the furies, pinging off of rows and rows of blazing eyes until a wing covers them from the assault. Sundogs never look like they’re hurting until they’re dead. Eun arcs away and the fury follows, flaring up with white-hot flames and grasping towards her and she twists to try and point her weapons at it while flying in reverse and then there’s a thump-thump and there’s one less enemy hostile.   “Splash one fury,” Kit says. She’s managed to shake her own dance partner and came in behind the fury as it started chasing Eun and unloaded some unguided missiles in its six. The merciless sun turns Kit’s ship into a pale copy of the fury that’s plummeting to the ground shedding flame like feathers.   “Press,” Eun says, trying to keep her voice steady through the adrenaline. The wheels have nearly caught up, yes, but now it’s two on one. The math just doesn’t work out for the remaining fury. With almost rehearsed efficiency Kit and Eun corner the fury before ending its existence. Sundogs never retreat, and they never seem to show any self-preservation, unless it would help them kill more. The two pick off the wheels from a distance, plinking them with shots that are comically easy to land now that they aren’t threatened. One seems to implode, triple-linked rings crumbling up like a piece of paper, while the other simply falls apart.   It’s not quite vertigo Eun feels, but perhaps its opposite. She’s been maneuvering for her life for what feels like subjective ages and now she can afford to be back on level flight. She’s expecting the world to spin around her but it doesn’t. She glances at her armor display. Nothing red, but far too yellow for her tastes. She’ll take it.   “Penumbra Tactical,” she says, keying her mic and setting the comms switch. “We are grandslam.” She imagines the reaction at HQ, the restrained relief, a loosening of the shoulders if only temporary. “Requesting further orders.”   The reaction is quick. “We confirm, radar’s clear. Return to base.”   The trip back is much longer than the trip out. The military situation called for maximum speed, while a more leisurely return absolutely did not. On the flip side, it meant that Eun could actually pilot the Sunbreaker herself and do a few non-regulation barrel rolls just for the hell of it.   A few hours later, the bright lights lining the crawlers come into view. Their home crawler already has Tenor’s Sunbreaker landed on it, hooked up to wires and decorated with enough ribbons to make a child Venusian squee in joy. Once Kit and Eun set down their own birds and cut the power, deck crew come swarming out—not for her, but for the Sunbreaker. One of them does smack her on the back, though that could also just be a ‘get out of my way I need to tend to my baby’ kind of gesture.   After the debrief, Eun is intercepted before she can head back to her quarters and catch a nice five minute-long regulation shower. Sciah, her desk officer in command, pulls her aside.   “With all due respect, sir,” Eun says, “this has got to be worth delaying my post-flight shower.”   Sciah looks a touch confused. “Since when were you so married to the shower?”   “Since five minutes ago, sir.”   She laughs at that, then holds out a round something. A can with a very familiar label, one Eun hasn’t seen ever since she signed up for Penumbra. “Here. Congratulations on the fight and making it back. How many ticks are you adding to your tally?”   Eun frowns, taking the Uranian beer. It’s so cold it would’ve been slick with condensation anywhere else than Mercury. “You know that we can’t actually put ticks on the Sunbreaker, right, sir? Because of the armor?”   “Ah, well.” She looks shifty, and Eun narrows her eyes. Sciah pats her on the back. “Look, the point is I wanted to congratulate you on a job well done. As all your other flights so far have been. You’re probably the most capable pilot under my command… third in all of Penumbra, at least according to the most recent version of my algorithm. And that’s across all axes, not just flight performance.”   Sciah is definitely building up to a point with all these compliments. “And…”   “And, I’m also happy to tell you that you’ve been volunteered to a new detail that’ll be very full of, uh, excitement. Very prestigious.” Sciah looks a little unsure here. “High stakes. Yes.”   Eun sighs. “I don’t remember volunteering for anything, sir.”   “Must’ve slipped your mind in all that excitement out there,” Sciah says with another pat on Eun’s back. “Anyways, the short of it is that in addition to CAP duties, you’re going to be in charge of ferrying a VIP out to the battlefield and back. With lots of V’s. The Sentinels from Neptune and Uranus are arriving soon, you see.”   “That explains the beer,” Eun grumbles. “What happens when I’m supposed to drive a bus out there at the same time I’m on CAP?”   “That won’t happen,” Sciah assures her. “High command’s got it all figured out.”   The assurance makes Eun feel even more certain that things will not go well. “I guess I should start training Kit to be a squad lead.”   “Couldn’t hurt!” Sciah says brightly.   Eun sighs deeply. “Am I dismissed now, sir?”   “You’re dismissed.”   After the shower, Eun pulls down the collapsible chair and lounges on it. It’s far too small, but it’ll have to do. The beer makes a crisp sound as she opens it and takes the first gulp. As good as she remembers. Well, if she was being honest, the stuff from Saturn was actually pretty good too. But this beer tastes like home, and that’s what’s important.   Damn Sciah for springing this on her. Eun was a fighter pilot, dammit, not a glorified bus driver. They didn’t have actual civilian shuttles, of course. She would be flying one of the Heretic gunships into the landing zone. They were perfectly respectable and combat capable craft, armed with a lot more firepower than her Sunbreaker. But the problem was that they were incredibly sluggish. She certainly wouldn’t be able to do a barrel roll in one, let alone defend herself if a handful of furies jumped her. It would be like fighting with her hands cuffed and legs shackled.   And the insinuation that this new Sentinel duty would come first was just the icing on top of the shit cake. Fewer hours flying her beautiful Sunbreaker, more hours sitting in a fancy military bus? If Eun had the kind of contract that had a quitting clause she would’ve had half a mind to pull it. Alas, it was a fixed-duration contract and she had quite a few more years on it.   The can’s half empty now. At least Sciah was considerate enough to give her the proverbial sugar to go down with the medicine. And it would be a unique opportunity to see and talk to a Sentinel in person. Talk on base had been all about them the last few days. Some swore they would be shipped in like fancy weapons, all packed up in crates. People talked about how Uranus and Neptune were only sending six soldiers between them.   “C’mon, just six?” someone had complained, a bit too loudly to be entirely sober. “Are they saying Mercury ain’t their problem?’   He was an idiot, of course. Well, maybe it was different on other planets, but everyone in the outer world knew of the Sentinels. One-man armies, living weapons, trained since young ages and sent off into the space beyond Neptune to fight extrasolar horrors. Famously, one Sentinel had destroyed Pluto’s largest settlement as bycatch when they were fighting in an adjacent plain.   They were presented as stoic and dedicated warriors, but they can’t be that all the time. Surely she could talk to whichever Sentinel she’s escorting. Learn something about them. It would make the bus driving a little less awful. Maybe they could be friends. Could she outdrink a Sentinel?   Eun pictures herself trying to goad a two meter tall musclebound version of Kit into a drinking contest. The idea seems absurd, but who knew with Sentinels?


Comments

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Eternal Sage AmélieIS
Amélie I. S. Debruyne
13 Mar, 2022 11:25

This was fantastic! I love seeing Solaris and its characters come alive and how all the little details from the worldbuilding fit together :D This was a great presentation of the characters, the stakes, and bits of the military culture. The introduction and link later with Icarus was also great :D I'm looking forward to read more later and meet the Sentinels!

To see what I am up to:WE list of articles and goals.
19 Mar, 2022 13:07

Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoyed everything coming together and alive :triumph: