Exham IV is well-known in the Galactic Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even among the hundreds of thousands of inhabited systems throughout GCPS space, Exham is one of a handful every schoolchild can name. In itself, Exham was responsible for the expansion into the Perseus Arm. Discovered on the cusp of what would become known as the third wave of human expansion, the rocky inner planets of the Exham star were the fuse that would see Mi-Gan become one of the richest corporations within the Sphere.
In its formative years, Exham collided with another system, swallowing the errant star whole while their planets collided in an apocalyptical display of pure inertia. At least one exoplanet smashed into Exham IV’s surface, infusing its mantel with the dense concentration of the precious ore of two worlds, and giving the planet an almost solid outer shell of asteroids.
There Exham IV remained for billions of years. Cultivating and erasing complex ecosystems like millions of planets galaxy wide, it grew dormant and content, until a SanMar long range scout ship anchored itself over the world and tagged it as Category D planet fit for immediate exploitation, with a footnote for massive mineral potential.
What followed was a bidding war in the most factual sense only possible within the GCPS. Conglomerate-busting bribes, persuasion teams, and even out and out warfare were used in the days before the almost instantaneous tendering system of today. In the end, a young and hungry Mi-Gan emerged with the sole lease to exploit Exham IV and its vast potential wealth. And exploit it they did.
Tunnelers the size of ocean liners were rapidly constructed and plunged into the planet’s skin. Manpower was shipped to the new colony in the tens of thousands, lured with the promise of a more comfortable life, only to find even the meagre health and safety guidelines of Mi-Gan bypassed for the sake of its bottom line.
Settlements spread quickly from the initial survey sites, swelling out across Exham’s iron-red soil like an affliction. Within decades entire landmasses crowded with low grade housing, quickly running to slums of ultra-high concentration, until the worker’s ancestral memories harkened back to the uncramped apartments of Sao Paolo and Neue Berlin as some kind of spacious utopia. These accommodations were built directly over the mines Mi-Gan’s worker population laboured in, keeping manpower transit to a minimum. The scant air-quality regulations were conveniently lost under a sea of yield projections. Beneath the surface, seam after seam of ore was cleaned out; rhodium, iridium, palladium, iron, francium. All were chased and hunted down until the mantel was a honeycomb, more stagnant tunnel air than solid rock.
As each mine ran dry the pitheads shifted, taking the machines and people with them. Entire cities were abandoned, left to moulder in an ever growing industro-urban sprawl until not a scrap of the original ruddy earth could be seen. In a final indignity the seas were boiled away, exposing even more land, while the water was broken down into its component elements and sold when the pan-galactic resource market gave acceptable dividends. Not even the ground-water was spared as Exham’s earth was sucked dry, leaving the wind to blow oxidised red dust over every building, vehicle and smelting plant.
From then on the importance of Exham may have been consigned to a footnote in history, a textbook example of how to leverage maximum profit for minimum outlay, were it not for an unforeseeable turn. As humans moved on to leave their footprint on ever more distant planets, Exham’s location became a natural stepping stone onto the ever-expanding boundaries of GCPS space. Within days McKinley drives could take the military and executives to stars so distant as to be unknown a generation ago, but the bulk haulers which were the lifeblood of interstellar commerce needed fuel and supplies on their outward journeys. Journeys which took them within hauling distance of Exham.
Above Exham, Priory Station was refitted; docking ports were added, habitation blocks restructured, faux-grav drives installed, and storage hangers expansive enough to refit star-going vessels constructed. Its size mirrored its growing importance, until at 1.4 x 109 kg mass it officially became the largest man-made object in Sphere skies. Exham became the primary hub for any voyage to third stage space, until all a flight officer had to say was, “We’re going to Priory” for someone to know they were in for a long journey.
Over time, Priory Station’s importance to Mi-Gan’s bottom line waxed as that of the planet below waned. Every day it arced over Exham’s sky, insultingly visible to those on the surface. Teasingly close, but unreachable for workers stuck on the planet-slum for their whole lives. To Mi-Gan these people did not register. They had the most lucrative and busiest port in the GCPS; a constant and unlimited credit supply to buy themselves a seat on the Council of Seven.
Until Exham IV’s orbit was knocked outward from its sun.
The culprit was a rogue planet. If Mi-Gan had not been headstrong, so focused on the winning the contract they might have completed their due diligence. They might have cross-referenced long term star charts, might have identified the nomad gas giant designated MJ-6674cK, noted its long term circuit around the galactic sector, and how its passage could take it through the Exham system, across Exham’s IV’s path and pull its orbit a sliver away from system centre.
Within a decade Exham IV slipped 0.3au away from its star. Barely a scratch in the galactic map, but enough to see what would have been an ice age had most of the surface water not been ionised. Exham went into deep freeze. Away from the equatorial band daytime temperatures scarcely broke into the positive. Shifting weather systems battered the surface, driving blizzards of frigid air between abandoned apartment buildings, coating everything in Exham’s red dust. The population fell. Deaths were in the millions from the official citizens. Among the poor souls cramped in the tunnels and decommissioned cities, the labour surplus as demand dropped, the numbers were so high as to be deemed not worth counting.
Entire manufacturing centres were shut down as fuel stocks ran low. Engines began misfiring in glacial temperatures, accidents saw operations drawn inwards to centralised hubs, leaving even further stretches of Exham hollow and empty, filled with nothing but frozen dust and the wind’s howl.
And the sound of scurrying.
It was as the remaining citizens gathered around the controlled profit centres; the remaining smelting plants and the sole spaceport to Priory Station; that the bleeding sickness struck. It came without warning, coursing through a tightly packed populace huddling three families to an apartment.
Mi-Gan moved quickly to protect their investment. Security cordons were thrown up around the last spaceport and immediately began repelling the riots of the sick and the desperate trying to get off-planet. The medicos on Priory Station set every expert they had to studying the sickness. The results found that it used a select agent similar the Lujo Virus of Old Earth, granting the highly contagious sickness a mortality rate of 80%, but only among the grown and healthy. Children, the aged and the frail shrugged off the virus, while other suffers would quickly go into haemorrhagic shock, and drown in blood as their lung tissue broke down. But for all their effort, the experts on board Priory could find no hint of a cure other than to let the sickness run its course, and Mi-Gan made the decision to compartmentalise the data to avoid panic spreading to the Station.
However, the concentrated use of the word ‘virus’ on Mi-Gan’s comm bands triggered the latent subroutines of the Council of Seven’s defence forces. When the words were cross referenced against the stress levels in the speaker’s voice an alert was sent to Corporation Central, tagged Magenta level critical. The closest Enforcer Task Force was alerted and a Recon Unit dispatched with Grounding and Containment protocols on hold pending investigation.
By the time the Recon Unit, ID designate P12-6-12, arrived at Exham two cycles later another 150,000 people had fallen to the bleeding sickness. 6-12 arrived on a planet virtually abandoned but for the concentric bands circling the remaining spaceport. Millions frantic to leave the planet crowded into areas designed for thousands, held out by the equally desperate ring of Mi-Gan Marine Corps. To all purposes Exham was derelict, a planet waiting for its remaining inhabitants to die.
For 6-12, a veteran recon trooper with two decades of successful missions behind her, those empty industrial streets held similarities to previous missions which were too apparent to ignore. Virus pandemics were not uncommon in the GCPS, but the abrupt nature of the outbreak on Exham; its lethality, the unnecessary foulness of the deaths; bore the hallmarks of missions she had been on before.
The city above ground was nigh-on deserted. Only the hopeless and mentally deficient walked between the derelict manufacturing plants and heavy machinery, and even then, the blasts of frozen wind desiccating the air finishing off the job the bleeding sickness began. Knowing she would find nothing among the abandoned heavy machinery, 6-12 descended below street level to the sewers, and immediately her suspicions were confirmed. Holes had been knocked upward from the extinct mining tunnels, too frequent and too ragged to be the result of erosion. Through those holes and into the tunnels beyond, even more evidence to support her suspicions; dirt disturbed by the passage of clawed feet, discarded bones gnawed upon by over-large incisors, and thin scratches along the walls; too purposeful to be anything but deliberate, and disturbingly similar to those she’d seen light years away, below the surface of other planets.
The circumstances built up until the chance of coincidence was negligible. Following protocol, 6-12 left a vigilance control system to trigger if she did not return and moved towards the remaining spaceport.
6-12’s suspicions were confirmed with ominous speed. The shafts delved by Mi-Gan’s tunnelers had been excavated to the limit of structural integrity. They criss-crossed in intersections wider than highways, and disappeared kilometres underground until it could almost be called a city. And among the cavernous shafts creatures had indeed made their homes.
There were Veer-myn beneath Exham IV.
6-12 worked her way closer to the spaceport, and at a convergence of four tunnels hollowed out into a vast cavern she found reason enough to order an immediate Containment Protocol; more Veer-myn than she had encountered in any operation, a seething mass of thousands. Enough so the tunnel’s floor and lower walls were lost beneath their writhing bodies.
The situation had become clear; Exham with its ultra-high population had bred a Veer-myn colony of prodigious size. A colony which could perhaps have gone unnoticed forever in the swathes of empty cities, until the unforeseen onset of an ice age. It was then a choice of freeze or escape, and the Veer-myn had recognised the potential of Priory Station and acted upon it. Viral outbreaks had long been documented as tools of the Veer-myn, and the bleeding sickness could only have been a first strike on the Mi-Gan troopers already struggling with a dying population in open revolt.
The chance of such a potently virulent disease reaching Prior Station and spreading through the core worlds was alone enough for 6-12 to order an immediate Containment Protocol, but the sheer size of the Veer-myn brood was a danger in itself. If the brood splintered, confirming the elimination of all Veer-myn on Exham may be impossible. To increase the chance of mission success she would have to tag the Brood Mother; the dominant female around which broods were centred. 6-12 knew that would mean she would never leave those tunnels.
Loading her rifle with tracer darts, she tagged the Brood Mother. The effect was instantaneous; the entire colony was roused at their Mother’s keening wail and, drawing on the brood’s group perception, focused on 6-12. In her last act she released a drone cloud to record the discovery and return to the vigilance control system.
She ran out of ammunition before she ran out of targets.
P12-6-12’s drone cloud executed their final order, and 6-12’s last recorded moments were returned to the VCS and the files transmitted.
A Grounding Protocol was triggered. Instantly nav data to and from Priory Station was severed. All traffic stopped, and shuttles in transit between the surface and the Station found themselves unexpectedly under manual controls. Unable to compensate many crashed, some into the station, some in the forest of asteroids around Exham, and some into the cities.
On Exham, having noticed the break in nav transmissions, a horde of Veer-myn erupted from beneath the surface. The Marine battalions guarding the spaceport were unprepared. Already reeling from the sudden loss of communications, they found themselves swamped from below as hundreds of Veer-myn Night-Crawlers sought to take control of the remaining launch facilities. Meanwhile on Priory Station access hatches and air ducts burst open, and the Veer-myn smuggled up in ones and twos over months poured through, swamping Mi-Gan’s unprepared guards and sending the hundreds of visitors into panic.
When the Grounding protocol was executed P12-6-12’s task force was already en-route, standard operating procedure to backup first contact recon units. The Drakon class vessel Terminal Intervention arrived with a full strike company of Enforcers. It ignored the panicked activity and impotent comms from Priory Station, and instead dispatched its drop ship, loaded with the Intervention’s full troop compliment. Their mission; to confirm the possible threat vector identified by P12-6-12, and exterminate if necessary.
The Enforcers’ insertion went to plan until the drop ship entered the asteroid field making up Exham’s outer orbit. Centuries of traffic around Priory Station had left the entire field in a constant state of excitement, with rocks the size of hab blocks in a perpetual uncoordinated dance. The Enforcer pilot was more than capable of navigating the almost solid shell of asteroids, and managed to do just that, until an unexplained explosion ripped through the ship’s hull, destroying its gyroscope and sending it uncontrolled through the asteroids. The fuselage was shredded and most of the troop compliment killed, punctured by dozens of hyper fast rocks. It was a testament to the pilot’s skill that any managed to survive the crash landing on Exham’s surface.
The ship’s distress call was relayed through the now-crewless Drakon and then direct to Corporation Central, where, as per procedure when an Enforcer ship is shot down, a Containment Protocol was activated.
Exham IV to all intents and purposes winked out of existence.
On the ground the remaining Enforcers were left in arctic conditions with limited supplies and no chance of immediate support. Their mission, however, remains. If the Veer-myn were able to take the remaining spaceport and reach Priory Station they could spread their bleeding sickness throughout Second Sphere space, infecting billions. The Enforcers must eliminate the Veer-myn threat before they can reach the station and be lost among the stars of the GCPS.