Chapter no 52

Winter World

CERES GLOWS white from the incendiary blasts, so bright I can’t even see the surface. I squint at the screen, unable to tear my eyes away, afraid of what I’ll see.

The flashes fade. Sparta One has come around the dwarf planet so the sun is behind Ceres, lighting its edges like the top of a fuse burning. I’m staring at the dark side of Ceres, now lit by the incendiary devices the fleet has sent to its surface. It’s gray and rocky, like a rougher version of Earth’s moon. And in the center is the white whale I’ve been hunting, the evil device that has killed billions of my people, mercilessly, from afar, as though we were simply a pest in the way.

The creature, if it is alive, is massive. Beyond massive. A dozen arms radiate from its center, like a spider’s legs stretching over the rocky landscape. Each leg has smaller fingers jutting out from the sides, like hairs from a limb. I have never been so in awe as I am right now.

A mechanical spider is clamped to the surface of Ceres.

Based on what I see, I believe my theory was right: this is a harvester. Its arms must gather the material it needs and transport that material to its center, its central manufacturing plant, where the solar cells are constructed and launched toward the sun. It pumps the cells out, like an assembly line, building its solar array cell by cell.

Across the surface of Ceres are a series of ruts, like someone took an ice cream scoop and carved line after line out of the rocky planet. I bet the gullies are where the harvester’s arms were before, gouging out raw material, refining it, using what it needed for the solar cells. It must be able to crawl across the surface.

Streaks of light emanate from the other eight ships. Nuclear weapons on their way to the harvester.

“Fleet is firing at center mass,” Heinrich calls out.

“No!” I shout. “Leo, issue new fleet order: fire on the radial arms.

Evasive maneuvers, all ships.”

The ship’s computer beeps, confirming it has heard and executed the order.

Sparta One shifts sharply to the side, the evasive maneuver causing the entire crew to grab on to the table.

“Leo,” I say, my voice steadier than I expected, “instruct attack drones to commence their run. Target will be given as they approach.”

Leo beeps. On the screen, a countdown to the attack drones’ arrival begins.

On the surface of Ceres, the harvester’s arms lift out of the deep valleys they’ve carved, and they rotate, showing their undersides to us. Each one possesses thousands of small holes and hundreds of larger ones, like the arms of an octopus. My guess is that these openings take in material. That guess is confirmed when those openings belch raw material, small and large chunks, at all nine ships of the fleet. It’s literally hurling rocks at us.

“Leo, fleet command: rail guns!” I shout. “Target the points where the arms meet the center. Sever them.”

As soon as the order leaves my mouth, the ship rocks.

I expected a battle in space to be silent or nearly silent. That’s true in theory, but not in practice—not if your ship gets hit. That’s loud. The rocks tear into Sparta One like buckshot through a soda can. The sound is deafening. The smaller rocks reach us first. The larger ones will follow, and they’ll be even more deadly.

“Helmets!” I yell.

Everyone pulls on their suit helmets, except for Oscar.

Emma looks over at me. Her eyes, through the glass of her helmet, are tender and scared. I’m scared too. I’ve never been this scared in my whole life. But seeing her steels me. I’m out here to save a lot of people. But in this second, she’s the one I’m fighting for. She’s the one I have to save.

The screen turns white. The nuclear warheads have exploded. Too soon. The harvester must have hit them with the kinetic bombardments. Still, the plasma cloud might be big enough to sever the arms.

“Weapons controller is offline,” Heinrich says over the comm.

“Oscar, get down there!” I yell. Without weapons, we’re done for.

Oscar turns, grabs the rim of the hatch, and propels himself forward, flying like Superman through the modules of the ship.

“Leo: order fleet ships to fire all nuclear ordnance.”

The ship shudders, a new wave of debris hitting us. My tether barely holds me to the table. The ship seems listless. The engines are down. We took a bad hit. Probably a mortal one.

“Escape pods!” I shout over the comm. Instantly, I remember that we no longer have escape pods. I shake my head, trying to clear it. “Disregard. Get to your stations. Spread out across the ship. Seal the hatches and uncouple your modules. Right now. Everyone.”

The crew bounces out of the bridge, bound for the modules where they work, modules that can be sealed off from the main ship. They’re similar to the module Emma and I traveled back to Earth in. These won’t get them anywhere, but the crew will have a better chance of survival if they can get some distance from the main body of the ship, which I’m sure is the target of the harvester’s kinetic rounds.

On the screen, I watch as fleet reports come in, text scrolling. Damage reports. Ordnance deployments.

Then, all of a sudden, they stop.

There’s a window in the upper right that lists the status of every ship in the fleet. The text that reads Sparta Two goes from white to gray. Offline. Sparta Three does the same. Sparta Four. All the way down to Sparta Eight. Every one of them goes dormant. They’re gone. The ships are disabled, maybe torn to pieces. Crews dead.

I realize there’s a figure still left in the bridge with me. Emma.

“Get off the ship,” I whisper.

She shakes her head. Tears well in her eyes. “I’m not going anywhere.”

More debris hits the ship, rocking it. Emma and I brace ourselves. Our tethers hold to the main conference table, the lines pulling as we’re tossed around, the vibration like a stringed concert instrument, a deep ominous note foreshadowing our end.

But the bridge is still here. I’m amazed.

And I know we won’t survive another strike.

Notifications flash on the screen:

Engineering module separated. Navigation module separated. Cargo bay separated.

Med bay separated.

Crew quarters separated.

“Emma,” I say over the comm, “please.”

She doesn’t respond. She floats closer to me in the bridge. “We’re going to finish this together.”

The viewscreen is still white with the aftermath of the nuclear blasts. I can’t see what the strikes accomplished. But I know there’s more debris coming, objects launched before.

A new message flashes on the screen.

Weapons online.

Oscar has done it.

“Leo! Fire rail guns at the last known intersection of the radial arms and the main body. Two rounds to each arm. Then fire all three nuclear warheads toward the incoming kinetic objects. Have them detonate one hundred miles from our position. Space them equally to maximize plasma disintegration of the inbound objects.”

The ship rumbles as the rail guns fire. The three nuclear missiles depart the ship with a whoosh.

But we’re too late. Another wave of debris hits the ship. The message I’ve dreaded, that signals our end, appears on the screen.


Emma and I are both jerked back toward a gaping hole in the side of the bridge module. Loose articles rush past us. Then silence. Stillness. Detritus floats past me, like trash blown in the wind in slow motion. I’m panting from the exertion, my heavy breathing the only sound I hear.

I look down. My tether held. That might be the only thing that saved


The screen still works. That’s the good news. The electronics for the

bridge are self-contained and shielded. All the modules are shielded against nuclear radiation. But with a gaping hole in the bridge, I don’t know how Emma and I will survive when those nukes we just fired go off.

The breach in the hull is to the rear of us—away from Ceres. We must have been hit with shrapnel from another module being shredded. That’s good. It means we won’t be directly exposed to the nuclear blast.

On screen, in one of the cameras connected to the bridge, I spot which module was destroyed: weapons control. Oscar. The module is in pieces. I can’t see Oscar’s body, but I know he’s out there somewhere, along with the other debris.

I spot movement in the debris, and a glimmer of hope swells inside of me: could he have survived?

It’s not Oscar’s form that’s moving though. It’s something oblong and metallic, with short arms, like a centipede in space. Why didn’t I think of it before? What the harvester launched—not all of it was raw material from the planet. Some of the pieces must’ve been rovers and smart bombs that were stored in the arms. They’ll search the debris for survivors and kill anyone left alive. Will that be my fate? Emma’s fate?

We’re trapped out here. I’m certain of that.

The screen goes white once again. Still tethered to the conference table, I reach out and grab Emma’s hand. She squeezes tight. We brace and wait. I feel a tear fall from my right eye. Not for myself, but for Oscar. He was the best friend I ever had. Whatever is left of him after weapons control broke apart, will be disintegrated in the plasma blast of the nuclear warhead.

Light beams in through the narrow hole at the back of the bridge.

I close my eyes, but the flash is too strong; it seeps into the darkness.

My vision is spotty when I open my eyes once more.

The fleet is gone. Sparta One is in pieces. As far as I know the only piece left with any power is the one Emma and I are in right now. We have no shipboard weapons, only the small fleet of attack drones disguised as

asteroids. I held them back for just this purpose. I hope they’re enough to finish this.

The drones can’t transmit. They can’t scan. They can’t even acquire a target. They can only read directives from the comm patches on one of the ships of the Spartan fleet. The bridge module has three comm patches. I hope they still work. And I hope the drones are watching.

“Leo, send message to attack drone fleet: their target is the large object on the planet. Center mass.”

A beep over my comm tells me that Leo is online and that he’s relayed the message.

The ship status window prints a status update in white text on the black background:

Drones confirm.

Estimated time to planetary impact: 8:57

These will be the longest nine minutes of my life.

My vision is still spotty, but I get my first glimpse of the aftermath of the battle of Ceres. The orbital space is a debris field. A mix of the remains of the Spartan fleet and the kinetic bombardments that destroyed it. Nothing is under power. Everything is adrift. There are sporadic flashes, no doubt as compartments decompress and atmosphere is ejected, or perhaps as electrical systems short out or unused ordnance goes off.

My vision is clear by the time I pan to the surface of Ceres.

The spider-like harvester is completely dismembered. Every one of the radial arms is severed. Some lie like twisted shards of aluminum foil, mangled and crushed. Others are shredded completely, like silver pieces of confetti scattered across the rocky surface. In the center, the main module sits unmoving. Its surface is a black dome, unreflective, like a crystal ball holding our future, betraying no hints. This thing, whatever it is, tried to destroy my people. We haven’t killed it yet, but we’ve hurt it. Badly. And it’s hurt us too.

The countdown on the screen reads:


The screen lights up with a blue alert box:

Incoming message.

One of the other ships has survived. Or at least, one of the modules.

Maybe one of the other bridges.

My hope evaporates immediately. Confusion takes its place.

There is no ship designation on the message that appears. There is no designation at all. The transmission is coming from a source Leo doesn’t recognize.

I realize then where the broadcast is coming from.

It’s coming from the only other thing left alive out here. The message is simple.


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