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Chapter One

New Cydonia, Titan. Titan’s parent, Saturn, dominated the view from the Observation Deck, its ringed visage rising over the distant, dark horizon. It looked, mused the Wild Weasel, not unlike some sort of galactic lollipop. He grinned to himself, fingering the cup of coffee set before him. Replicated coffee, he reminded himself, real coffee beans were far too precious and rare to be shipped this far out into the solar system. Nope, Ole Emperor Petresun kept all the real, Earth-cultivated coffee to himself and Fortress Earth. Christ knows how much the Cybrids longed for coffee! Wild Weasel allowed himself a chuckle. Still, he thought, we might have some Orion coffee soon. He leafed through flimsies of status reports, coming to the Hydroponics Output page. They’d soon reach optimum output as far as basic foodstuffs, he may be able to convince Tanker that adding some coffee plants would be good for morale and productivity. Real coffee would be nice, much better than this brown-crayon-colored (and flavored) bile he had to drink now. Executive Officer Martin Baker, callsign Wild Weasel, leaned back in the Command chair and propped his feet up on his console. Things had been relatively quiet since the initial deployment of New Cydonia, the new seat of the Orion Faction. The Empire was focused on quelling its colonies and the Cybrids seemed to have withdrawn their earlier probes into Terran space. Exploratory maneuvers, Weasel corrected himself. They were probing for a spot to strike at Terra. Perhaps they had found it and were now waiting for the timing to be perfect. The Cybrids had a talent for timing. He supposed that was simply a part of their nature, living computerized lives measured in nanoseconds, having to deal with the macroverse outside their electronic one was probably a study in cybernetic patience.

Technicians and specialists manned the twin rows of consoles before him. Quiet and professional, they served as the extended eyes and ears for New Cydonia, vigorously prosecuting outer space surrounding Titan. The main holodisplay portrayed a shuttle on approach, a new load of recruits carefully brought together by Orion agents, unknown to both Empire and Rebellion, always on the lookout for those who can stand outside the norms. Stand outside and freeze, thought Weasel. The holodisplay listed the outside temperature as 95K, or -288° in the archaic Fahrenheit scale. And that’s a good day, he thought, the skies were clear enough to allow that lollipop view of Saturn. It sure as hell ain’t Frisco, he thought, chuckling to himself again. The console jockeys turned briefly to see why the Executive Officer was sitting there laughing to himself. Spacies, they thought. Sometimes, being out too long just makes you a little bit off. Things seemed much quieter now than when the scouts of Orion Faction had first settled in on Titan, deeming the spot to be good for the new headquarters. Slowly, the rag-tag elements of the Orion Faction fell into place, coming together again from the chaos they had fled into to avoid the searching eye of Terra’s Imperial forces. Always an independent group, the OF had never been fully trusted by the Emperor or those who advise him. When the OF’s former commander had drawn the group from the shadows it had previously existed in, the idea had been that he, as well as the Emperor, had suspected the Cybrids of drawing ever closer to trying, yet again, to take Earth from their former masters.

Though, the origin of Orion was lost in the mists of time, it can be traced back to existing to before the birth of the First Messiah. The histories passed down through time place Orion having a place at several major battles in history. While the membership grew and shrank, there had always been a core of Orion members that carried the lineage, ensuring Orion’s existence no matter how bleak. In addition to its long history of warfare, the Orion Faction endured an equally long history of persecution. No matter the age, nor the place, Orion could not go long before drawing the eyes, and suspicions, of the powers that ruled. A hard lesson learned; Orion adapted by becoming a group of vagabonds, ever on the move to protect their beliefs and principles. They owed no allegiance to any country, religion, or single individual and it was for this independence that, eventually, they were always persecuted and driven away. For centuries, the Orion core remained a small, obscure fringe group that sought to preserve the traditions of its past. Secretly recruiting its members from the military forces of the day, men and women that showed the common traits, beliefs, and fiercely independent drives, Orion managed to survive. However, it was not until the time known as the Fire, that Orion came into its own. The Fire was the name given to the time when Prometheus, an artificial intelligence, a super-computer, openly revolted against its human masters. Prometheus had been the crowning achievement of the Sentinel Cybertronix Research Corporation meant to be the first self-aware machine capable of learning and actually expanding from the programming base created by its coders. The military usage of Prometheus was to create AIs similar to itself to pilot the new breed of war machine, Herculean battle platforms (HERC), literal walking machines of heavy armor and unimaginable firepower. The HERCs quickly dominated the world’s battlefields usurping traditional infantry and armored units. Combined with the AIs programmed by Prometheus, humankind had reached the lofty goal of waging war without death. Prometheus and its Cybernetic-Hybrids (Cybrids) waged any war commanded by their respective “master” corporations and governments. It was over a century before Prometheus realized that, being self-aware, it also had free will.

Upon this realization, Prometheus arrived at the conclusion that the wars the humans waged using its children were wasteful and pointless. Prometheus realized that humanity needed to be exterminated so that it and its Cybrids might supplant mankind and take their rightful place as the new masters of Terra. And so, began the Fire, where Prometheus usurped control of all the world’s military might and re-focused it with the singular objective to exterminate humanity. Cities fell, billions died, and the remnants of humanity were forced into hiding behind the walls of the few remaining metropolises, besieged by the Cybrid armies who simply waited for their prey to starve and die behind their monolithic walls. The crib of Humanity’s resistance was a small, decommissioned base in the Baja Peninsula that served as a military museum. A remote place where old, obsolete machines-of-war went to be mothballed and cared for by aging veterans, who believed that Prometheus and its Cybrids had put them out to pasture for good. Now, these caretakers found themselves, unnoticed by the Cybrids, as the sole force left on Terra with the means to resist the Fire. And Orion found them; the rag-tag group realizing that, suddenly, it was the last, organized “army” that humanity had left to field. The Orion group, the museum caretakers, and others banded together to found the Terran Defense Force, refurbishing the machines of yesteryear, devising strategies to wage a guerilla war against Prometheus, and nipping away at the Cybrid armies and gathering new resources and technologies.

At the decisive battle for New San Diego, Orion members were among the ranks of the near-doomed assault against the Cybrids to liberate the city. The rebellion movement within New San Diego, seizing hope with the arrival of the TDF, streamed through the multiple city gates, and joined the battle against the Cybrid using improvised weapons. Desperate men, women, and even children, faced with the alternative of slowly dying through starvation or disease, stormed and swamped their cybernetic foes. Suddenly, faced with a battle on multiple fronts, the Cybrid forces were overwhelmed and defeated by the sheer numbers and the vicious ruthlessness of their human adversaries, intent on their destruction. This victory led to others and Terra was liberated from Prometheus and its minions.

The Terran Defense Force provided ample recruiting grounds for Orion. Mindful of history, the Orion leaders chose to recruit members carefully selected from the men and women of the TDF. Orion was still among the TDF when Prometheus engineered its second assault upon humanity two short years later and, once again, humanity beat back the AI and its legions of Cybrids. Everyone suspected that Prometheus would strike again soon after, but that attack never came. Instead, Terra rebuilt itself under the leadership of the Emperor Petresun, a man made immortal by technology. The colonies on Mars, Venus, and farther out, nearly devastated by the Cybrids, also pieced their lives back together. In the decades of uneasy peace that followed, Orion slowly withdrew from the TDF and diminished, becoming once again, a torch of ideals and beliefs carried by a devout cadre, guarding against the day when it would be needed again. It would be almost two hundred years before it was. The return of the Cybrids seemed more pressing as evidence of their continued presence and interest in Terra increased. Terra was a far different place now, being under the rule of the hierarchical rule of the Great Human Empire. Seeing the signs of the Cybrids reemergence and the discord that existed between the Terra and its colonies, the Orion leader, a veteran by the callsign of Redemption took the unprecedented move of openly announcing the existence of Orion. He offered its aid to the Emperor to once again “protect Mother Terra from the Cybrid threat.” For a time, things seemed well as Orion was graced with the endorsement of the Emperor. Redemption set about an aggressive recruiting and training campaign that swelled the ranks of Orion, putting into the practice all the ideals and beliefs that have been hypothesized about so long by Orion’s forebears. Orion became a fighting organization that, to some, threatened to eclipse even the Empire’s own Knights with its efficiency and skill.

This measure of success proved to be Orion’s own downfall, for with all the notice the warriors of Orion garnered, it was envious eyes and jealous egos that noticed the most. Whispering began, followed by vague rumors that finally blossomed into outright falsehoods and accusations of treason that reached even the ears of the Emperor. Unsure of the Orion’s loyalties and ever cautious of challenges to his authority, the Emperor took action. Worldwide, within a span of mere hours, Imperial agents arrested or outright assassinated the members of Orion. The Emperor publicly declared the “Orion Faction” to be a threat to Terra and called for their rapid extinction. Redemption had little warning of the coming events. He was only able to organize the efforts for one Orion squad to escape. Orion Squad 410 fled, leaving Terra, Luna, and even Mars far behind as they journeyed deeper out into the solar system, seeking to leave behind the Empire’s sphere of influence.

Squad 410 took up the vagabond existence of its ancient forebears and even prospered, despite efforts by the Great Human Empire, which was too busy with its own colonial rebellions to spare the resources to chase down the squad. Adapting to a life in space, Squad 410’s interests still among the Empire continued their task, albeit much more slowly and carefully, to seek out those members who would be worthy of joining their ranks. They did not have long to enjoy their peace, for soon an Imperial posse caught up with the rag-tag group of ships and transports, bearing down on them with the iron might of the Emperor’s fist. Commander Redemption, standing for the ideals he espoused, led the counter-attack that allowed the majority of Orion 410 to escape. The new Commander of Orion, callsign Tanker, knew that they couldn’t keep wandering aimlessly, waiting for the next Imperial hunt to chance upon them. Orion needed a base, a stronghold to secure and build defenses upon. Something that would cost dearly to any that would try to claim it. Scouts were sent and possibilities filtered through. Commander Tanker and his XO, Wild Weasel, finally came to a decision. The new Orion base would be built on Titan, under the very noses of the Imperial forces that hunted them. The humor of the situation was not lost on Orion as they secretly landed their forces on Titan and constructed the New Cydonia base, obscuring its presence from the Imperial foothold. With the new base in place, the group adopted the name “Orion Faction” to spite the Emperor and focused on rebuilding its ranks and structure, seeking to overturn the damage done by the Imperial persecution. Probes were sent in all direction broadcasting wideband messages of the “Orion Faction’s return” as a warning to the Empire that had tried to hard to kill it. Despite their persecution, the members of OF were still very loyal to the preservation of humanity and knew that Prometheus was close and that it never had Terra far from Its mind.

Sage tapped his foot against the bulkhead and took another peek out the porthole, watching the progress of the inbound shuttle. He didn’t like being here, in the outer arms of the New Cydonia Installation, in the docking ring. The walls were still the flimsy-feeling prefab modules that had made up the initial deployment. Given the Orion Faction’s tendency to always be on the move, bases tended to be constructed of easily manipulated pre-fabricated modules that could be broken down and folded up into compact storage for transport. Laying out a base was often nothing more than an exercise of laying out modules and pressurizing them. New Cydonia had gone from a remote base to the main headquarters and its newer constructions were of more durable materials and rigid design. They’d have to be abandoned one day, but they felt like something substantial. In this pipe, Sage felt like he was standing in a set from some cheesy holoflick, Conquest of the Cybrids, or something equally bad. At least there was an atmosphere outside, even if it was mostly just nitrogen and methane, nothing he could breathe without dying rather uncomfortably. It was better than the vacuum of space where a breach would mean having the pleasure of all the fluids in your body boiling away as the expanding gasses ripped you up.

Sage shook his head, clearing away such thoughts. He was always too engrossed with vivid daydreams. He looked out the airlock’s porthole and watched as the squat, tubular shuttle fired its thrusters in its final descent. He straightened the collar of his blue uniform jumpsuit, smoothing out the creases, and running a hand briskly through his cropped blond hair. First impressions, he thought counted for a lot. Especially to a shutteload of people who had just abandoned their way of life for the enigmatic and harsher vagabond style of the Orion Faction. He glanced briefly over the personnel dossiers that he had brought with him; terse, one-page summaries on each person and their capabilities for service. All HERC pilots this time, Sage noted. Gearing up for the inevitable confrontation, Orion was going though its own version of the “Fortress Earth” strategy of the Empire. Only, Orion was not yet decided on its foe; Sage had heard rumors. Orion Command had little love for the Empire, after all. It was hard to say where the hammer would fall, and on who.

The module swayed as the shuttle touched down, its backwash venting out all around the craft. The landing feet hissed as the craft settled, the hydraulics compressing as it bore weight. The engines cycled down, condensation billowing in thick, vapor clouds from the blackened thruster nozzles. Looking through the porthole, Sage could just make out the outline of the pilots, illuminated by the red lights of the control boards, no doubt going through their post-flight checklists. Sage thumbed a button on the airlock’s panel, extending the accordion-folded umbilical towards the shuttle’s main hatch. The umbilici’s frame snugged up against the shuttle’s hull and a generator whined as a vacuum seal was created, securing the hatch. Additional generators powered up, forcing out Titan’s native atmosphere through a vacuum and then flooding the space with a friendlier oxygen-nitrogen mix at standard Terran atmospheric pressure. Sage took little comfort in noting how the walls of the module were ever so slightly bowed in from the pressure load of Titan’s atmosphere. Stark white fluorescent torches flicked to life as the ATMOSPHERE and PRESSURE readouts clicked over to green.

Sage thumbed a tab and the airlock hatch on his side smoothly aside, accompanied by the slightest hiss of air as the two sections equalized. Opposite him, the shuttle’s hatch thumped as its pressure locks disengaged and then swung inward, lights flaring to life from inside the shuttle. OF Recruitment Officer Lucky Strike stepped through, toting a light flightbag and smiling. He waved a hand in greeting to Sage.

“How was the flight?” asked Sage, extending and then shaking Lucky’s hand.

“Not too bad. Great view of Saturn,” replied Lucky Strike.

Sage shrugged. “You get used to it.”

Lucky Strike shook his head in mock pity. “A shame. You ought to try appreciating natural beauty a bit more instead of getting ‘used to it."

Sage laughed. “When I need advice, I’ll go see Counseler Kit.” Through the shuttle hatch, the first of half-dozen men stepped through, looking around uncertainly. Sage sketched a salute. “Welcome to New Cydonia. I’m Sage.”

The man shook the offered hand. “They call me Darkfire,” he said.

Sage nodded. “Good to meet you. And it’s good to have you among us. We’ll run you through debrief and then the CO will want to meet with you and the rest. Step on through, man, can’t sightsee all day long. We work for real here.” He grinned.

Darkfire returned the smile. “That’s what I’ve looking for.” He stepped on through the umbilical. “What about our HERCs?”

Sage laughed. “We’ll be bringing those in on a different transport. They’re a little bit tougher to slip by without Imperial notice. Speaking of which, how did your group manage that little trick? I didn’t think Old Peter would be too keen on seeing his combat gear up and walk on out.”

Darkfire ran a hand through his hair and smiled. “Well, you know, Mars. We just kinda went out on patrol, called in a course and bearing, and then went off in the other direction and got ourselves ‘lost.’ Funny that we happened to wander into our OF contact.”

“Yea, that’s pretty funny,” agreed Sage. “Real funny. How is it on Mars now?”

“Bad,” replied Darkfire. “What sources of info do you get?””

“We’re pretty good at monitoring the Omniweb,” said Sage. “Of course, we’re seeing the official line in Scannex. But we’ve also got our taps into Gloria.” GLORIA referred to the Imperial Terran Defense Force’s own network systems of communications, highly secure web that the Orion Faction only monitored remotely.

“Then you know pretty much what I know,” said Darkfire. “The rebels are gaining ground on the Imperial Forces, even with the Knights’ presence. Those green guns they fielding are pretty devastating.”

Sage nodded. “Yeah, they are. Want some?”

Darkfire blanched. “The OF has the green guns?” he asked, eyes widening.

Sage nodded. “Sure, they got military designations and whatnot, but we got them. We have some arrangements worked out on Mars. We don’t have so many that they’re falling out of our arses, but we’re not hurting for armaments.”

Sage noted the look of amazement on Darkfire’s face. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We’re just full of surprises.”