had the news droning in the background as he sat on the floor of his hotel room bathed in raw sunlight. Capital Radio was
in a Special Report holding pattern and there was nothing new to report. It was all that was on, brought to the hotel from
Xander by microwave repeater. Everything else was out. He had heard the stories all morning, but he kept the recorders on
The Equinox movement was standing up to Earth's hubris. Meanwhile, heroic duranni bands trained and armed by Equinox volunteers
were apparently staging some sort of Big Push into the Pangaean Mandate to liberate their brethren. The iSUN Monitors on the
other moons were spitefully dropping bombs on hospitals and baby milk plants. Some analysts blamed the actions on the unjust
policy of forcibly removing the youth of Outre Mer from their native world. Others said that the genocidal policies of the
Missionaries were the root causes of the conflict. A voice of dissent would say that human and duranni should progress by
separate development. Attractive Equinox advocates countered that human beings had a moral obligation to bring duranni out
of darkness in order to atone for thousands of years of essential badness. A Starpeace representative wondered why everybody
just couldn't get along. Provo officials old enough to be Taken found creative new ways to say, "No comment." Then
they were back to the top of the hour.
The balcony windows were wide open, admitting a breeze that smelled less offensive than it did
the day before. Gustavo took that as a sign his immune system was adjusting. The green sky was bright and golden sunlight
poured into his room. He sat in a pool of it, typing commands into a directional transceiver that pointed its emitter tube
and receiver plate at the ghostly form of Adonis. The ringed planet looked like a sandy dream beyond the sky. Offworld communications
had been restricted by Provo order for the duration of the emergency. Gustavo would be able to explain his possession of a
commcaster with his press pass. So long as no one caught him using it.
There was a time window where the rotation of Adonis'
rings brought the Scout cutter Rocky ensconced within them into line-of-sight. This was the only time that Gustavo could communicate
with Aye-Aye. Gustavo sent the greeting tone and promptly received a handshake.
"What's new?" Aye-Aye asked.
"I can eat,"
Gustavo said. He hated to admit how great it was to hear his partner's voice. The six weeks had been the longest interval
apart since they had been assigned as partners.
"Ah. How do you feel?"
"Better than when I got here," Gustavo said. "Although
it seems there's something of a war on."
"Anything hit near you?"
"No," Gustavo said. "The only action I've seen is on TV."
"I've seen quite
a bit," Aye-Aye said. "There's a space battle in progress. Missiles, hunter-killers, some manned fighters and assault
shuttles. I'm getting some great footage."
"The Provos have armed spacecraft?" Gustavo was astonished.
"Sure do. I watched one
shuttle get shot down less than an hour ago and three more are sailing past me at this very moment."
said anything about it on the news."
"Secret mission, then." Aye-Aye said. "The shuttles look like they're heading for
Cousteau in a roundabout way. That's what I can figure. Maybe to bombard the iSUN HQ or even to land and capture it."
are more troublesome than advertised," Gustavo said. "Did you raise Cousteau?"
"Everything's pretty much
jammed up here," Aye-Aye said. "I didn't want to break cover to get a line of sight."
"You don't think this is
"Our mission has Ultraviolet priority," Aye-Aye reminded him.
Gustavo grunted. "I assume you sent
a report to Delphi."
"I'm waiting for a reply. Although I can just about guess what they're going to want us to do."
said. "Dash and grab."
"Yeah. Are you going to be up for it?"
Gustavo rubbed his forehead. "I'll be fine. Provided
they don't throw me in the klink for too long. How about you?"
"Well, the good news is that a lot of the orbital defense stuff has
been knocked out. The iSUN gunners seem to know what they're about."
"Who would have figured that?"
"I know. But it
means that if Delphi says ‘go,' I should be able to scramble down a pipe into the Mandate before the Provos can get
a bead on me. What are you going to do?"
"I can't rightly go wandering about without escort," Gustavo said. "I guess I'll
wait around here until they come and arrest me."
"That's probably best," Aye-Aye said. "What about your
"My contact's a fucking Provo agent."
"Well, we sort of figured that would be the case."
"The silver lining
is that the Provos should feel comfortable enough to let me make my documentary. I mean, I am supposed to be a fellow traveller
and I'll be under their thumb at all times."
"We have to assume that we won't be able to communicate again," Aye-Aye said. "Even
if they don't confiscate your equipment I may have to move."
Gustavo punched some x,y,z coordinates of a location in the Adonis ring
system into his unit. "When you hear from Delphi leave a flasher here," he said. "Green means stay the course
and red means break cover."
"Okay," Aye-Aye said. "And if you don't see anything at all that means you just
get to the Mandate ASAP. All other priorities are rescinded."
Gustavo smirked. "Yes, Mother."
"Are you scared?"
"I'm a little
concerned," Gustavo said. "Be careful up there."
"Don't cut yourself shaving," Aye-Aye said.
Broadside Electric and her surviving sisters climbed
for Adonis, pushing off from Outre Mer's receding mass and pulling at the approaching gas giant. The great planet's rings
threw a wide shadow across space and the spacecraft shot under it, accelerating for the gap between the rings' inner edge
and the gas giant's upper atmosphere. The assault shuttles wore mottled butternut and orange schemes to match the nebula backdrop.
The camouflage offered some proof against long-range optics. The shuttles were separated by a distance greater than the diameter
of Outre Mer, which didn't seem quite so far considering the heroic scale of the celestial mechanism around them. The formation
was tight enough for the shuttles to cover each other with area-defense fire if needed and loose enough to avoid triggering
massprint sensors in search mode.
Gun and missile sites on Goodall and Outre Mer were searching for vulnerable spots in the other's
defenses. There were manned fighters and unmanned hunter-killers loitering and running patterns between the killing moons.
Decoy drones launched from Outre Mer toward Goodall carried electronic payloads that mimicked the signatures of large spacecraft
to keep the threat of a landing on that moon active in the enemy's mind. These also gave iSUN hunter-killers something to
hunt and kill, providing excellent photo opportunities for both sides.
In the command cupola of Broadside Electric, Janni had the impression that
they were leaving the immediate danger behind. Janni had successfully overrode the objections of Mission Control and scratched
Goodall from his target list. The duranni understood that by not contributing to the orbital defense of Outre Mer more enemy
weapons got through and more people probably died on the ground than would otherwise have been the case. But by running silent
and on a course away from the action, Janni's force had an opportunity to win the battle by coup de main.
The shuttles plunged
into the gap between the gleaming rings and the black-streaked crimson giant. At this range the Electric's natural optics showed Adonis as a great
bloody wall inlaid with jet veins that branched and crossed and rejoined with anatomical complexity. Janni studied his instruments
and decided that he didn't need to make any updates.
"Beautiful," Park said softly.
"Yes, it is a natural wonder,"
"I was talking about your flying."
"The mission trainers are proving very realistic," Janni said,
deadpan, elated. He knew that ‘flying' was a euphemism for ‘leadership.' "But thank you."
"We're not in
a simulator," Park said. "It's an important distinction. I have the datalinks ready whenever you want them, Janni."
The duranni understood
what Park was offering but he wouldn't let it affect his decision-making. He couldn't afford to take any pleasure or satisfaction
in the approval of men, particularly of his crew. Not until the job was done.
"Let's have them, then," Janni said.
The revised mission
plan allowed for the flight to reestablish bi-directional datalinks once it reached a designated waypoint at the rings' edge.
That particular spot marked the threshold where the shuttles would slip beyond line-of-sight of Outre Mer while still being
screened from Cousteau. Reestablishing the links would be necessary for Ashelle and her counterparts on Radiant Mirage and Endless Sky to coordinate maneuvers and
targets for the drop run. The three shuttles would swing around the far side of Adonis together and then break for their individual
attack vectors before they emerged into Cousteau's line-of-sight. Janni noticed that Park had started calling the interval
before the flight broke up ‘AT' in his flatscreen shorthand.
"What does ‘AT' stand for?" Janni asked him.
Park said, a little sheepishly. Then he became earnest: "Everyone is basically going to be sitting around on their asses
as we go around the backside of Adonis, so it's sort of a joke with a double-meaning."
"Usually, I sort of just crouch down,"
Janni said, trying for an expression that a human would recognize as humorously oblivious without crossing over into burlesque.
Duranni lacked the facial muscles for subtle emotive expression so it was mostly accomplished in the eyes, occlusion of lips
over teeth, and voice inflection. "Or I lay on my back as I'm doing now. In fact, as most of us are doing, given that
the duty stations on Broadside Electric are acceleration couches."
Park clearly picked up on Janni's delivery and tossed a wicked glance at Ashelle. If Ashelle found
anything funny she didn't let on. But Park wasn't looking for validation and he didn't miss a beat.
"I could change it to ‘BT.'"
Janni knew the term
‘back time' was vernacular for the way humans had sex, at least in some instances.
"That would be inappropriate,"
he said, deadpan, pleased at Park's fleetness of thought.
"I'll keep ‘AT,' then," Park said, turning with a smile.
"For you guys it can mean ‘Anxiety Time.'"
Janni kept the humor in his expression but this thoughts turned to Nagya
and her marines back in the can. Janni considered that there was nothing he hated worse than being in someone else's power.
Particularly if he didn't trust or respect the person with the power. He imagined that his charges must be close to insane
given the loss of Twilight Fire and the fact they had absolutely no control over Broadside Electric's course or profile. Nagya was rated for complete review of all mission
operations, and all of the troopers could tune in various video, audio, and data feeds at their stations. They knew what was
going on. Most duranni didn't like being inside a vehicle under the best of circumstances. And Janni knew that most of the
marines despised him.
Janni was an exception in that he thrived in the boxiness and under the false lights of ships, simulated and real.
He loved ships. He loved the idea of ships: vessels that moved fragile, knowing beings across voids that would otherwise swallow
them in their vastness. It didn't matter that the void had no regard for anybody whatsoever. Janni loved the void, too.
"Get some sleep,"
Janni told Park. "But don't get too comfortable."
"I always sleep with one eye open," Park said, winking.
you going to schedule some rest for yourself?" Janni said.
The senior combat information specialist turned to look up at him with
an elfin face. If he allowed a tilt of compassion she didn't reflect it. Janni couldn't read her as he could the other humans,
unless she willed it.
"I will, Captain." Ashelle said. "But a lot is riding on this."
"I understand that," Janni said.
"But I want you fresh for the fight."
"Yes, Captain," she said. "I will be."
Janni nodded and Ashelle turned away. She
was the only member of the crew who used his title whenever she addressed him, and without irony. Ashelle's nickname was "Changeling,"
which Janni had learned was a mythological false child left by spirits in place of one they had abducted. It wasn't just that
Ashelle was Taken, who were generally remote and cool, but that that she was nearly the age of her shipmates. Janni understood
that Ashelle was beautiful by human standards, even intimidatingly so. Such women were often gifted with nicknames by the
frustrated and the envious. However, in Ashelle's case the distancing-by-labeling seemed to be accepted by Ashelle herself,
Janni opened a window on his flatscreen into which he loaded Ashelle's plan view of the moon Cousteau. The iconography
spelled out known sensor, aerospace defense, and command and control sites on the moon's surface and near orbit. Cousteau's
integrated aerospace defense system was light given the importance of the target, but apparently Goodall and Leakey were intended
to bear the brunt of any fighting. And, of course, fighting was something iSUN had been organized to prevent in the first
Still, even light defenses were sufficient to stop-cut the shoestring attack extended by the Provisional Authority. Janni
watched Ashelle prioritize targets: sensors first, command and control second, weapons third. She also marked sites that were
off limits to their gunners: the communications nexus with its grand spire; the habitation domes; the main concourse, Cousteau
having become something of an elite tourist destination; and the iSUN HQ. The Equinox specified that these areas were to be
spared bloodshed as much as possible. Then there was the PAX's Everclear marshalling yards with its own facilities.
Everclear was to be
taken by the duranni marines embarked on the assault shuttles. Against the PAX, the duranni would offer no quarter and they
would record everything for broadcast over the Aethernet to show how devoted they were as a species to the Equinox cause.
But the Outre Mer Provisional Authority also wanted the records of the PAX Mission's operations and plans that the troopers
might be able to recover intact. Such evidence would show the interstellar community that military action was the only alternative.
Turning Everclear into a crater, while achievable, would undermine this.
The assault plan called for the duranni marines to breach
the civilian locks and then transit the main concourse on foot to gain entrance to Everclear through an interior service entrance.
Acquiring the required schematics had mostly been a matter of buying plan views of other iSUN works from previous operations
and observing the construction. Many useful schematics were readily available over the Aethernet. Verification was possible
when Cousteau was in view by means of legions of amateur observers on Outre Mer. Properly equipped, an individual could sit
in a lawn chair and watch engineers and contractors blast, scoop, and dump ejecta on the other moon's surface. Plus, by studying
the self-congratulatory documentaries and featurettes that iSUN produced or allowed others to make, it was possible for mission
planners to assemble a nearly complete three-dimensional flythrough of the Cousteau complex. Then there were the sympathetic
travellers and NGO people who visited Cousteau and made their observations available through other channels.
Still, even with perfect
intelligence-and despite the assurances of Equinox boosters this was never attainable, at least in Janni's understanding of
military history-it was going to be duranni boots on the ground, first through the airlock. Rather than being cannon fodder,
the duranni at the tip of the spear would serve to kill any doubt that they were an intelligent, civilized people who would
take responsibility for their future. Yet in reality they had barely a borrowed fingertip on the tiller of their destiny.
Certainly, there had not been a duranni voice in any of the Equinox planning conferences.
Human and duranni blood had already been
spilled together in the action, and this would have political resonance. At the cost of a few dead, Janni understood, they
would have a place at the table. But the cost of total failure was rarely calculated by those who diced. Janni often found
himself preoccupied with that wager. If the worst happened and Outre Mer was reduced in some punitive campaign, well, there
would still be plenty of men left elsewhere when the smoke cleared. Janni was keenly aware that the human race was widely
established on scores of worlds, moons, and facilities across a bubble of space while the duranni had but one continent on
one planet to call their own. And at that moment on Pangaea thousands of duranni were dying to pursue a policy they had no
hand in crafting. It didn't help Janni's sense of doubt that the Equinox described the Pangaea campaign as a "coordinated
action," one that was coordinated with the effort he now led.
Janni glanced at Park and Ashelle, he in the final stages of closing out
his station for some rest and she rechecking targeting information and seeding engagement options. Even though they were both
humans, they were radically different people with different motivations for being aboard Broadside Electric. Park was fighting not to be
forcibly removed from his homeworld. He had a number and he didn't want to have to go when that number was called. Ashelle
was fighting for something more complicated. But perhaps incomprehensible was a better word. Ashelle was relatively young
but she was still "grandfathered," to use a human term. She was Taken, and thus would be allowed to live and die
on Outre Mer. More to the point: She wouldn't be allowed to leave. The iSUN policymakers didn't want the Taken back among
their own kind. They didn't trust the Greys who had taken their loved ones and then released them, some after many decades
and some, like Ashelle, who had been born "in captivity." Not that many Taken were apparently keen to leave Outre
Mer in any event. Of course, Ashelle was an Equinox Party member and it bothered Janni just a bit that she probably knew more
about the grand scheme of things than he did.
Once again, he reflected on the uncomfortable position of having somebody else in control of his
fate. That was almost certainly what the duranni marines were experiencing. There was a notion that the transport pallet was
a lifeboat that could be ejected from a stricken spacecraft in the event of an emergency. After all, it was designed to function
as a lander and thus had its own power, navigation, and life support systems. But this was nothing more than a figment of
engineering that made climbing aboard the damn thing more palatable. The geometry of the lander and the nature of most catastrophic
disembarking events-CDEs-made it next to impossible that anybody aboard would really make it. All twenty duranni marines had
gone down with Twilight Fire, along with sixteen flight personnel, including her captain. But twenty people had ejected and lived: all flight
crew and all of them humans.
Janni selected the commander's station on the transport pallet. Nagya was on the other end.
"Ah, you're in,"
"And where else would I be?" the Commander of Marines replied, apparently missing the joke.
Janni coughed. "How
is your team managing...back there?"
"We're fine, Janni" Nagya said. "How's everything...else?"
Janni was surprised
to notice something of a quaver in the duranni trooper's voice. He eyed the ship's status window and saw that the transport
unit's environmental indicators were all nominal. Imagine that, Janni thought. She was a little scared.
said. "I was thinking of coming by the lander for a bit."
"That's what I was thinking."
"Yes. Is that
"Uh, sure," Nagya said. "Sorry, but I'm just a little surprised."
"Don't worry," Janni
said with a subtle laugh that only a duranni would detect. "I won't be delivering an inspirational address to the troops."
"No, it's not
that," she said, relaxing. "It's just, well..."
"Well, it was that."
"Ah," Janni said.
She had a sense of humor after all, and he was oddly thrilled at this discovery. "I'll see you in five."