The Ambassadors crowded around a great mahogany table. Every inch spoke of luxury, loaded with fruits, vegetables - even real meat. The plates were made of real silver, polished to perfection. Each of these was dwarfed by the pompous lifestyle of the Ambassadors. Though they were rather far down the chain of authority - Earth, despite its impressive title of the cradle of humanity, was itself a veritable dump. Even its orbital space was cluttered with debris of all sorts, though precautions had been taken aboard the Federation Space Station.
The same relativistic principles that had driven rapid, plausible interstellar travel now generated the artificial gravity aboard the FSS. Their gentle humming permeated the large craft, a uniform sound which, accompanied by the hiss of the air systems, set its occupants at ease.
Ambassador Levi of Marcanee was looking forward to this meal. After more than three months in interstellar space, this was his first proper view (the view from warp drive consisted of a hazy whiteness out the forward windows) - and a planet, no less! Blue oceans and swirling white clouds decorated the day side, while the night was ablaze with the endless city lights. Once in a while the moon could be spotted too, with its mining colonies and spaceports illuminating the shadows.
They dined in this Earthlight. Though they each represented a different planet, they were united under the banner of the Federation of Mankind. Men in black skirted the edges of the room, sinking into the shadows. Their duty was chiefly theoretical, for the only people they might guard the Federation from were the crew and technicians (who were, not entirely coincidentally, Earthmen). These men were hardly noticed by the Ambassadors, though the technicians would often fumble under their hard gaze.
"Have you heard of the trouble those people have been causing down there?" Asked an elderly aristocrat, turning to Levi.
"Well," he began, "I've hardly arrived, so I haven't heard much!"
The old man was clearly pleased to be allowed to continue. "In that place they call Asia, they tried storming a spaceport! Of course," he added, "our men more than fought them off. We have the bigger artillery, you see."
Levi was glad to hear that the people of the Federation (himself included) were safe. "I hope this isn't a trend!"
But the Ambassadors were sure that it was nothing more than an isolated event, like those others that took place over the years; little sparks that die down in the endless wind and rain.
More pleasant conversations ensued, and Levi was quite liking it here with all these similar-minded individuals. They had soon exhausted their appetites, and while waiting for dessert, Ambassador Alice, representative of the Federation itself, stood to give a toast.
"To the fine fellow who has just joined our ranks, Ambassador Levi! May your time here be spent in relaxation (and may it end in a promotion)!"
Cheers erupted about the table, and Levi already felt perfectly at home.
Frederik Christiansen revelled in the lack of gravity (or more precisely, free-fall). He carefully maneuvered himself about the outside of the space station towards the communications antenna. The difficult part of the spacewalk was behind him.
The shuttle pilot had been experiencing issues with the docking locks; it couldn't be fixed from the inside. This was mighty convenient, for here was the perfect excuse to leave the station - they had no need to make one up after all. Fixing the machinery took some careful work. It looked as though it was damaged by an imperfect jettison of the interstellar ship - which had brought Ambassador Levi to the station - as it left for the larger, more central Earth Space Station.
Drawing near to the antenna, he anchored himself to the station and withdrew a multi sized spanner from his pouch. He removed a panel and pressed the manual shutdown button - usually only used temporarily, when the antenna was under maintenance. This would show up on the computers, which was not an issue as long as he was believed to be carrying out some operations on the antenna; showing up in the airlock, however, would appear suspicious to the agents of the ambassadors, if it was still disconnected.
Frederik pulled a small box from his pouch. A set of wires protruded from two sides. He attached these to the wires in the antenna. It would give the illusion that the antenna was in working order. Replacing the panel, he returned to the ship.
Levi was enjoying the view from his suite. The space station was made to rotate slowly, giving a fine view of both the stars and the Earth. Presently his host planet was in shadow, little lights bathing the continents in a blueish glow. There were the old continents of Africa and Asia, each a constellation in itself. And to the north of Africa - nothing? For a sea of blackness extended from the ocean to what should have been Europe.
He was not in the least acquainted with terrestrial geography, but it took little knowledge to notice that an entire continent was missing. After the initial shock, he came to wonder if this was not just some Earth custom that he was unaware of; Earthmen did have a miserly streak when it came to energy and resources. Or perhaps, as a worst case scenario, those Earthmen had brought a curfew upon themselves.
Maria Aguirrez was waiting for him on the other side of the airlock. With constant surveillance, they could not directly say anything. Instead they exchanged friendly smiles as she helped him out of his suit (a rather long winded affair).
"The repair was a success," Maria said. "The shuttle left shortly after. Diagnostics on the communication antennas were also successful. A job well done!"
"Oh, I'm just doing my duty." He stiffened involuntarily as those words left his mouth. Did that sound too suspicious?
In each person's mind, a countdown had begun; nine hours until the twice-daily report from the Federal Ground Base. Nine hours until they were found out.
The two made their way to the crew kitchen and lounge. All vehicles had been removed from the station, and as such every man aboard the FSS would remain so. No communication, therefore no warnings from the wary minds below (of course this posed an issue for both the Earthmen and the Ambassadors). Everyone was on their own.
They turned into the narrow hall leading to the lounge, approaching the door single file, Frederik in the front. He stopped short of the door. Several Federal agents occupied the room, all of them armed. Maria halted behind him; with some luck, they hadn't spotted her.
"Go." Frederik told her under his breath. "Do what you can."
She nodded, creeping back down the hall. He stepped into the room. An endless list of scenarios playing out in his head; each was worse than the previous. He felt sick.
There were fewer men in black than there usually were. At first the Ambassador had hardly noticed, but then his mind had harkened back to the eerie darkness that had encompassed a large portion of the Earth's crust. Perhaps they were related - perhaps he was in danger.
Levi was not the only one who had noticed such things. Already many of the Ambassadors had gathered in their lounge, sitting in a comfortable circle on their couches and discussing the state of affairs. No irregular updates had come from the ground, so it surely wasn't something to worry about, one man said.
"Perhaps," said another, clearly not convinced. "Or maybe their stations have been destroyed by the rioting Earthmen!"
"Do you suppose," interjected another, "that we're in any personal danger? I don't like that they hired those Earthfolk to maintain our station."
The group fell into a disturbed silence. The Federal agents did not interfere. Their display of indifference would set the Ambassadors at ease.
"What seems to be the problem, sir?"
An agent had broken off form the group, approaching Frederik, hand hovering above his holster. The agent ignored the question. "Where did you come from."
"I just returned from a spacewalk." It was best, he figured, to give information only as far as was necessary.
The agent motioned for him to join the other crew members; with few alternatives, certainly nothing that would produce favourable results, he obeyed. Most of the crew had been gathered here - for what? Not even an hour had passed since he jammed the antenna; surely they couldn't have found out so soon. He turned to the closest technician, Fahd Dawazi, hoping for some enlightenment. Fahd shook his head, just as clueless.
The men in black had distanced themselves from the crew members, standing near the door; there were two for every Earthman, and they appeared to be waiting for something, simply standing, blocking the exit, regarding their prisoners (it seemed the only appropriate term) cooly.
The commander entered the room, and the agents snapped to attention. He conferred with the agents for a moment, then turned to the crew. "We have received no communications from any of the Federal Ground Bases that we have contacted."
But why would they contact them? He heard Fahd gasp, and followed his friend's eyes. Earth was visible from the small window; most of Asia and Africa were also visible, lit up in the night; Europe was not. The timing so very unfortunate, that something should go so visibly wrong on the ground, just when the crew had planned to do their part in the liberation of Earth.
Frederik pressed his eyes shut. If he could have sat, he would have, but he dared not move.
"Why?" Implored the commander. He was not an Earthman. "It seems much more likely to be a failure on our end than in every ground station and satellite in operation."
The agents were pressing in, and one pointed towards Frederik, speaking inaudibly to the commander. They approached him.
"You just completed a spacewalk."
Frederik bowed his head. "Yes."
Fahd had taken several steps back.
"What did you do during this spacewalk?"
Frederik's voice was barely a whisper. "I repaired the shuttle docking locks-" He hesitated to say more.
"I carried out some standard maintenance on the antenna."
"Sending or receiving?"
"Both." He clenched his fists; it did nothing to relieve the tension. The agents had come much too close for his comfort.
The moment they laid their hands on Frederik, Fahd sprang on them. He knocked the gun from one man's hand, and Frederik packed as much strength as he could into his punch. The commander stumbled back, blood pouring from a split in his cheek.
The other crew members seized the moment, hurling all that they could into this last-ditch effort to carry out their plan. They were going to die anyway. There had been no time to set up their escape plan; they were out of options.
Frederik tried to resist the attacks, lashing out where he could - he caught the wrist of an agent as she pointed her gun at his chest, then a blinding pain encased his right leg. He crumpled, hitting the ground. Fahd was caught up with his own assailants, and a weight was pressing down on Frederik's spine, his hands jerked back-
The weight was gone. He tensed, and a surprised agent was sent tumbling from his back, flailing all the way to the ceiling. Another was floating helplessly, walls, floor, and ceiling out of reach. His tensing had sent him floating upwards at a leisurely pace, and he grabbed onto whatever he could until he had his bearings. Good. The crew were all trained for zero gravity environments; the same could not be said of the agents.
There was no person in the universe, at that moment, that he loved more than Maria. Even the pain in his leg could be ignored.
Levi wasn't sure what to make of this; indeed, none of the Ambassadors were at all certain. The elation of floating was all but ground out by the fear - what had happened? Had the generators faltered? Broken down?
Whatever elation had existed for Levi was farther diminished as his weak stomach had its say. The other Ambassadors tried pointlessly to swim away from him, arms flailing. Their understanding of physics was rather limited.
Levi had noticed a disturbance among the Federal agents moments before the gravity disappeared; they had started towards the Ambassadors. One such agent now spoke.
"We have just received word-" He paused as he extended his body in an attempt to slow his frenzied spinning. "That the crew have attempted a rebellion. This may or may not be - but is most likely - linked with the events playing out on Earth. We have not been able to communicate with the ground or any orbiting stations, however we are gaining control of the situation rapidly."
The Ambassadors erupted in a frightened clamour, and they tried pushing off of each other to reach the walls.
The agent, receiving hard kick in the face, yelled above the din, "we urge you to remain calm! As I have said, we have everything under control."
To emphasize that point, another agent brought the control screens for life. Everything, thus far, read nominal. The men in black sealed all the doors leading to the lounge.
The agents still had their guns, which they fired freely, springing backwards with each shot; Frederik launched himself at one man, tugging at his gun; the man held fast, and they tumbled in the microgravity. Approaching the wall, Frederik pulled closer to the agent, and the pair rotated at a greater rate; at the last moment, his back to the wall, Frederik pushed off with his good leg towards the ceiling; the agent tried to push himself away, but only managed to put himself between Frederik and the ceiling. With a yank, Frederik broke the man's wrist against the ceiling, seizing the gun and launching himself towards the door.
He fired a few rounds as he left, several crew members ahead, more behind.
"The secret's clearly out," someone called, "we can speak freely."
"What's been done so far?" Called a voice from behind.
"Communication's been brought down, obviously." Frederik said.
"Escape plan?" Asked Fahd. Silence. "Any possibility, at least?"
Robbed of the full nine hours, given not even the conservative five that they had allowed for themselves, they simply had no time to prepare.
Someone at the back of the line fired several rounds through the door. The agents had managed to orient themselves, and were clumsily pursuing. Just ahead, Maria entered the hall; several men were in tow. She caught a gun that someone tossed her way, firing behind her.
"Frederik! No escape plan, I assume?"
"Let's go then. Do what we can."
He followed her through the crew passages, pushing off the walls. They headed towards the air systems. Fahd and the rest of the crew went to ensure that the halls leading to the Ambassadors were open.
The Ambassadors had begun to settle down (or perhaps not quite down) when there was a banging at the heavy doors. A frenzied, muffled voice could be heard. "Let me in!" More banging, which was a difficult task in the low gravity. "This is Ambassador Berlinger! Let me-"
In all this chaos, they hadn't noticed the absence of their most senior member. One of the Federal agents detached herself from the group and typed in a code. The door opened, and the greying man flew inside, in hot pursuit by a train of Earthmen. The agent swung the door closed, but not before one of them had lobbed a small projectile through the opening.
It clattered around the room, the only sound, as everyone held their breath.
Fahd waited. First silence had come, after he hurled the ammo pack of his gun through the opening. Then a mighty roar, which was cut off when the door closed. He and his crew mates backed up, lining the walls. The door opened again, and there was a clamour as each Ambassador and agent tried to reach the safety of the hallway. It is easy to forget, when under stress, that there was absolutely zero chance that a grenade would be allowed onto a space station.
He almost chucked, but...his smile faltered as he caught a glimpse of a terrified face. It would seem pathetic, the wails and grimaces - these were men who, not once in their lives, had any reason to fear. To fear death, persecution, no, these were the oppressors. But there it was. They looked no different from the victims of Federal military raids; dressed in more expensive clothes, perhaps, but the screams were the same.
Fahd slipped into the room, retrieving his ammo pack. He was silent for a long while. Perhaps, at least, his crew mates would be able to escape. He called up the computer.
Frederik heard an approaching rumble - the Ambassadors, with any luck - just as they neared the air systems. Maybe they could keep this local. Maybe they could even escape...
Maria called up the computer; it flashed, and Fahd's face appeared.
"We're in the Ambassador's lounge. We may be able to separate from the rest of the station...more than that I can't yet say." He spoke quietly.
"Good." Maria called up a map of the station. "If the Ambassadors are in their safe-room..." She paused. For the past hour death was a certainty. And who knows...something might work out. "we can keep the damage local."
"We'll wait until the last moment."
The words scarcely echoed at the back of her mind. The safe-room kept flashing red, resisting the changes she tried making.
He came up behind her. Of course. He bit his lip. "They need to confirm all changes from the inside."
Ambassador Levi had begun to shiver from the shock of what was, without any reasonable doubt, the worst day of his life. Images of deranged Earthmen, bounding like spiders through the narrow tunnels of the space station, clawed at his mind. He could hardly imagine what could push people to such lengths. As they rounded each bend, he half expected to see more of them, clambering up from the depths (he had long since lost his sense of up and down) to steal him away.
He had not even the time to practise a safety drill, and yet he had cruelly been snatched up by reality; and he could still recall the boasting of former Ambassadors to Earth, of how it made a man rugged, watching over such an unruly host. Ha! He (and his fellows) could outstrip the lot!
A Federal agent beckoned them into a room. "This is your safe house! You will be in lockdown here until we have restored order to this space station."
A note of hope crept into Levi's mind. Here, at least, they would be safe, or at least at peace.
They had no coin to flip, though they weren't sure if it would make any difference. Frederik was more familiar with the security procedure, but his leg, though only grazed, would be a serious hinderance.
"There's no time. I'll go." Said Maria. She took Frederik's gun.
He grabbed her arm. "No. You're more familiar with the air systems."
She caught the lie. "If your leg fails, this will all have been pointless. They didn't start a war down there for us to fail. I go."
She bounded down the hallway, leaving Frederik to the computer.
He pounded on the wall panelling, hoping to abate both his pain and frustration, yet succeeding only in irritating both. He would have to wait for the clearance - if it came. In the meantime...there really wasn't much to do. He examined the FSS map, looking for nothing in particular. The moment he released all the oxygen into the safe room, he would glide through the halls towards the Ambassador lounge. Live a little longer. No point in dying when you don't have to.
He considered the wretched timing of the whole operation; the Earth had gone noticeably awry (what were the odds!), the communication antennas failed as they ought, and the agents had caught on when the oughtn't. It was already set to be the worst day of his less than pleasant life, but this had exceeded all expectations.
And why had Europe gone dark? Was it their plan at work? Emergency curfew called by the military representatives of the Federation on Earth? He couldn't bear to imagine a failure of their plans on Earth; why, if the Federal Ground Bases found out about this while they still carried some semblance of power...
Maria reached the final stretch as the last of the Ambassadors floated through the door. She took a mighty leap, kicking the wall hard, and bore down the hallway. The agent was pulling the door shut...she jammed the butt of her gun into the crack of the door and the agent lost his grip, completing many backward summersaults on his way to the far wall.
She forced her way in, aware that another agent had locked the door behind her. She made a quick survey of the room, finding the security panel on an adjacent wall. She grabbed the nearest person - a frightened Ambassador, yanking at his wrist; she held tight to a groove in the wall and pivoted, swinging him toward the wall, just as a jolt of pain shot through her shoulder.
She let go of her handhold a moment too soon, allowing the man to carry her into the wall. The panel was still a distance away. Another shot nearly missed her head. They were drifting away from the wall again.
In a moment of chivalry, another Ambassador had come to his fellow's aid, pulling the leg of Maria's hostage; he had little effect, though enough to cause the three of them to slowly rotate lengthwise. In a few seconds she had a foothold of the adjacent wall, and was launching herself once more towards the panel, two men in tow. She jammed the Ambassador's hand onto the ID sheet.
One...two...three...she was in. She let them struggle away, making odd whimpering sounds, and navigated the computer. The Ambassadors shielded her from any would-be assaults for a few precious moments...there it was. Confirmation. She dodged what she could, as the room became saturated with oxygen, until one man struck her leg. The next shot caused a flash around the barrel, the bullet eventually lodging itself in her abdomen.
The last one started with a billowing ball of fire, enveloping the entire room, ending with a tearing explosion.
Ambassador Levi almost welcomed those last moments. He didn't want to die, but he found it far preferable to being swatted about by a crazed girl, threatened with grenades, and bounding fearfully through narrow hallways, pursued by more crazy people - all while being thoroughly nauseated.
He considered, for a moment, how nice it would have been if he had pursued that career in archeology. Too late, too late. At least those flames were a fine sight.
Frederik drifted through the halls. Half of him - no, a little more than half - just wanted to die. Maybe he'd be celebrated as a war hero. He really didn't care. His vision became distorted, and he wiped away the water that had pooled around his eyes. The Ambassadors' lounge was just around the corner, if the crew hadn't yet jettisoned themselves. What was that?
He heard a clank behind him and turned to see a Federal agent. Probably the last of them. The agent drew his gun and Frederik sighed. Fine. Everybody's dead, but if you want to shoot me anyways...
Not all of the Federal agents had made it to the safe room. Anthony was just coming to in the crew lounge. One of those Earthmen had lobbed something big at his head, and that was it. A headache had taken hold, but he did his best to ignore it. What a pitiful thing it would be for a mere headache to stand in between himself and those traitorous Earthmen.
He took the first gun he could find and hurried in search of the action. As he maneuvered through the hallways he soon became aware of a hissing sound. There, near the sealed entrance to the safe room, was a hole. A relative small hole, but large enough to create a slight draft.
He moved in the opposite direction - and there, just ahead, one of the crewmen limped (or the closest thing in free fall) away. The man was picking up speed, and he cast a resigned glance at Anthony. Good.
He fired three shots into his back. The man accelerated slightly, and continued in a straight path, ending at the far wall.
After a moment of consideration, Anthony turned the gun on himself.
It didn't take long for the comfortable walls of the Ambassador's lounge to take the countenance of a prison. It seemed a good idea at the time, of course. They would be safe, protected from the vacuum, high oxygen levels, anything, really. Except, of course, for a slow death, for they had no means of contacting the Earth, Moon, or any orbital stations. Nor did they have lasting air supplies. Fahd sighed. Sometimes you just can't win.