Gustavo sat in a windowless room. He was wearing pajamas,
of course. They always came for you when you were in your pajamas.
He leaned lightly on his forearms with his hands folded on a metal table.
The table, like his chair, was bolted to the floor. The floor was made of concrete and had a slight dip in the middle with
an alarming stainless steel drain as its nadir.
His opponent was a burly man, about fifty-like. Squarish. He had close-cropped, almost comically
red hair. His eyes were sharp and humorless, and green like Outre Mer's daytime sky. Gustavo wondered if the eyes were natural.
The man wore a mottled copper and dry-brush black uniform. The outfit was vaguely police-like, more paramilitary. The man
hadn't given a name or affiliation. That wasn't so funny.
The declared, uniformed police had spirited Gustavo away from his hotel
in the blackened isolation section of a g-plane. There had been a warrant, or something. Gustavo had nodded and gone along
peacefully. The flight had taken forty-five minutes. Gustavo could tell by the maneuvers that the pilot had been trying to
make him sick as well as disorientated. That was amusing. At the end of it the door had rolled up to reveal a pair of armed
men he did not recognize. Beyond, the underground corridor with stark, recessed lighting had no signage of any kind. The guards,
wearing rust-colored jumpsuits without badge or rank, had escorted Gustavo without word to the room in which he was now seated.
He had no idea where he was. He imagined the Minotaur's lair as a straight line.
Gustavo was surprised that he hadn't been
placed in restraints of any kind. That bothered him a little bit. Like the drain in the floor.
Red was waiting for him. He
had a selection of Gustavo's personal effects arrayed on the table. The police had clearly tossed his room. There was all
of his tech as well as his (to them) exotic-seeming toiletries and personal hygiene devices. Gustavo had to admit that his
flash flosser looked a little like a mini laser pistol. The antigen cartridges in his immunity kit might pass for grenades.
Red had indicated the empty chair without looking up. Gustavo glanced at the guards, who might as well have been animatronic,
and took his assigned seat. The chill of the metal made his balls shrink. Red turned his cold emerald eyes on him. The guards
left the two of them alone to face each other across the table, with Gustavo's things just out of his reach.
There was a moment
where Gustavo considered a leap across the table. He identified that impulse as pride and let the moment pass, and sat back.
He wasn't relaxed but he wasn't poised, either
"This is quite a commcaster you've got," Red said, by way of introduction. His voice
sounded almost tired in its disinterest, which was terrifying in a way.
"One of the best," Gustavo replied, game.
"Are you able to get it sorted out? It took me forever."
"Is it a standard model?"
Gustavo shrugged. "Should be. That's
what I ordered."
"You've used it before?"
"Only to test it out. I bought it for this project."
"No special modifications?"
"Not that I know
"What about application software? Anything special?"
"Um, no. I mean, it comes loaded with a bunch of
standard software and I ordered a package of custom programs. Plus, I had some waveforms and programs transferred over from
my previous unit."
"You did this yourself?"
"I hired a consultant to do it." Gustavo inhaled just a little more sharply than normal.
"You didn't find anything illegal, did you?"
"I wouldn't know." Gustavo hazarded a slight
"I mean, like, erasers," Red said, hazarding a slight smile.
Deep inside, Gustavo relaxed.
He knew that the security man was fishing. There was no possible way that any authority on the planet had any indication of
what the Scouts were capable of. Besides, if his caster's anti-trace routine had been found Gustavo would be in real trouble.
"Um, I think you
can delete things by dropping them into that little garbage slot icon. Although, I haven't gotten rid of anything involving
this project. You never know what's going to be useful."
Gustavo was uneasy at Red's lack of concern.
"Can you provide a list
of the applications on your unit?" he said
"I doubt it," Gustavo said, scrambling for something more useful to say. "I'll list
what I can remember, but I'm sure there's some stuff on there I've either forgotten or don't know about."
"You don't know
what's on a caster you bring to another world?"
Gustavo gestured ‘mia culpa' with his hands.
"I gave the thing
to customs," he said. "They checked it and gave it back to me. I figured it was okay. I even have a little stamp.
See? The one with the flying fishie hologram."
"It's an exocet."
"The wave skipper," Red said. "It's
called an ‘exocet.' It's the symbol of the Archipelago."
"Huh," Gustavo said. "Sounds French."
"I wouldn't know."
Coming through immigration
at Phalz had been much less problematic than he had expected. In fact, the process of leaving Cousteau for Outre Mer had been
much more intensive. He had to go through a complete physical after his two weeks of quarantine. That had actually been fun
for a while-the quarantine, not the physical. Cousteau had a large number of amenities that he had largely passed on to avoid
interacting with the iSUN people assigned there. The Scouts had very little to do with the iSUN on a professional basis, but
he did occasionally interact with them and it would be just his luck to make eye contact with a familiar face. But even so,
the suite was comfortable and room service had varied and exotic selections, professionally delivered. The food and drink
had been wonderful, too.
Gustavo understood that he was now balanced on the edge of a precipice. As a Scout, it was a position he had been
in before, but never so personally. He had spent much of his career operating as a member of a Rat team. He went down holes
to do things that needed doing. Generally, these tasks could be performed aboard specialized spacecraft, where he had a mate
or two to share the danger with. Aye-Aye, for instance, had been his partner for years. Sometimes they would have another
mission specialist along and rarely even a tactical squad. Missions conducted on a flight deck, even down a rat hole of a
star system, were much different propositions than hanging out in the smelly breeze of foreign world. In space, danger was
mostly about physics: a missile launch detection, tracking, flyout analysis, maneuvers, countermeasures. Probabilities. You
could simulate almost any space combat situation imaginable so that nothing really was all that surprising, and so it wasn't
that scary. Even when death got close, there you were sitting at a workstation with a friend right beside you. Swearing maybe,
sweating surely. Breathing hard, heart pounding. But not uncomfortable. And you were not alone. You might even have the wherewithal
to exchange some witty comments before the big bang. And wasn't that what it was all about? A good death? Gustavo had often
thought so, particularly when making a sloppy toast.
But now he was in the vestibule of Hell.
The powers had taken an interest
in him, which hadn't been unexpected. After all, Gustavo had come to Outre Mer on a commercial flight under a carefully crafted
persona with a rich and traceable history. Goose Green wasn't famous, but he was known if you did some research. Or more properly,
his work was known. They key was in establishing the cover before the mission was even conceived, let alone planned. Enough
people had a dim memory of that funny series of educational shorts about nutrition, the iSUN Charter, and elementary grammar
and math because these had been syndicated across the Aethernet for years. Goose Green had done these, early in his career.
His later work, involving various imperiled ecosystems and underclasses, were also recognizable by statistically significant
population segments. Did people know Goose Green? Not at all. But enough people remembered his work from way back. His
name was on the credits, which were always registered with the applicable guilds and unions. He was the real deal. Of course,
it helped that a producer could take raw material from a multiplicity of sources and fashion a media product without ever
having human contact. It wasn't completely unusual that there were no photos or videos of Goose Green in circulation. The
man liked his privacy. Gustavo had been able to slip into the cover effortlessly.
Yet Gustavo was in his pajamas in a place
where no one could help him, facing a man who could, if he desired, consign him to the tortures of the damned. Gustavo knew
very well that he might disappear at any moment. But not disappear in the immediate way of a pilot: into a puff of expanding
vapor with a curse or a joke, depending. He could be flushed down into the bowels of Hell where his captors could do whatever
they liked to him. They could strike or twist or cut or deprive or inject him in any way they wished and Gustavo would be
without any hope that anybody would come for him, let alone intercede on his behalf. Moreover, he was in a place that he had
no hope of escaping from on his own.
"What do you need a personal caster for?"
Gustavo blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Why do you carry
a caster with you?"
"It's a personal assistant, communications link, and content manager all rolled into one," Gustavo said,
falling back on a commercial he had heard. "All useful stuff for a filmmaker."
"Why do you need a comm link?"
"So I can get on the Aethernet, of course."
"You can do that from your hotel."
"I'm not always going to
be in my hotel."
"Why is it so important for you to be able to have Aethernet access away from your hotel?"
So I can look stuff up. I subscribe to a number of update feeds. Also, I can send footage out for backup."
"You can get all
that with a regular personal assistant by accessing local services."
"In my experience, local services are often...difficult
to access. For an offworlder, I mean. All those strange codes. I'm terrible at this stuff. Where it's not prohibited, I like
to have my own access."
Gustavo shrugged. "News to me."
"In case you haven't noticed,
we're at war."
"I know." Gustavo crossed his arms in a mild huff. He didn't want to provoke Red, but he didn't want to
seem unduly cooperative either. That might seem suspicious. "And I should be out covering it rather than sitting in here
talking to you. It's not like a war drops in your lap every day."
The stony eyes trained on him.
"You think this is funny?"
nothing funny about missing out on award-winning footage."
Red chewed that one over and grunted.
"We're going to have to take your caster."
"I figured as
"And your recorder."
"Oh, not my recorder!"
"Your recorder is prohibited."
"I'm making a documentary!"
Red held up a mitt-like
hand. "Please, Mr. Green. Besides, a video crew has been assigned to you."
Gustavo understood then that he was in the
clear. It was the first time Red called him by name, and he had used his pseudonym. And he had tried to calm him down. The
game was his to lose.
"I understand that. But I like to capture supplementary material by hand, you know? For authenticity?"
"That shaky shit?"
Red said, allowing a slight smile.
"Fine, whatever," Gustavo said, summoning exasperation to cover his elation. "Can
I get my things back when I leave?"
"You'll have to pay an importation tax."
Gustavo patted himself theatrically. "I'm a little
"It will automatically be deducted at the spaceport upon your departure." Red gestured like a road-weary
conjuror. The guards reappeared. "We're going to keep you overnight for observation. These gentlemen will show you to
your room. Have a safe stay, Mr. Green."
The flight away from the fireball in the belly of the Grackle had been a detached dream of comms
chatter, sobs, and white anger.
Corona had nothing to do in those first hours but shrink before the billowing realization of what
had happened and the cold dread of what was yet to come. The Grackle pilot had shuttered the flight deck so Corona had only
the baggage to commiserate with. As some point during her sorrows she realized that she shared a cargo bay with the personal
effects of dead people. Her eyes darted around at duffels full of clothes and caches of small treasures that were stenciled
with the names of people she knew were now dead.
Corona tried to read some of the names, between bouts of crying, but could not because of the folds
and shadows and her own tears. Then she could: ENTI was Tony Valenti, First Class. He was the funniest guy that Corona had
ever known. During a PAX Sexual Orientation seminar they had been seated next to each other on folding metal chairs in the
back of the room. Sister Somebody queued an instructional video and after a while Tony had nudged Corona and given her a wink.
He was slight, almost elfin, but he had confidence born of quickness of wit. The girl in front of him had a horsetail of cornsilk
blond hair spilling over the back of her chair, nearly into Tony's lap. While the video recounted some canned scenario involving
unwanted touching, Tony pantomimed grabbing the cascade of hair, bending the girl's head over the back of the chair, and tonguing
a deep kiss through the fingers of his right hand. Corona should have been offended but found herself strangling a fit of
giggles instead. She started to laugh to remember the scene, until it dawned on her that ENTI was dead, now. And she began
to cry again.
Then she realized that poor Jay under the sterile tent with one arm gone and half his chest carved out was vapor
too, rising into the dull orange sky along with the rest of them. This produced an anger that dried Corona's tears. But there
was nothing she could do. The flight deck remained shuttered and she was alone in the back with the baggage. Anger and frustration
were an unpleasant combination. But Corona liked them better than fear and grief.
The cargo hatch alarm sounded and she started
like she had been sleeping for an age. She reached for a weapon that wasn't there, then for her helmet. Corona realized that
she had probably slept through the landing approach announcement from the flight deck. If there had even been one. Events
flooded in along with the fart smell of Outre Mer. She secured the helmet in place, grabbed her duffel bag, and said a silent
farewell to the others.
Corona stumbled down the cargo ramp into darkness unable to cry anymore. The Mt. Meru facility was under blackout
conditions, not that this would be much proof against an incoming weapon with their coordinates in its targeting system. She
switched on her optronics to see a Dove transport sigh onto a pad delineated in soft ultraviolet. Brother Michael sprang from
the flight deck door and was scrambling down the external handholds before a bewildered ground crew could maneuver a ladder
into position. Brother Michael, with his boxer's build, bald pate, and bouncing moustache, was in fighting trim; hoisting
up his cassock sleeves, pointing, and barking orders. He wore slim optronic goggles that looked like old-fashioned reading
glasses. His eyes caught Corona's.
"Star!" he bellowed at her. "You can fly! Sign out a plane and get on the search-and-rescue
net! We can save some people out there!"
It had been just the thing. There were two types of leaders who yell at you under pressure: people
who had their shit wired and people who didn't. Brother Michael was fully wired. Corona nodded resolutely.
"I will come with
you," said a calm, familiar voice at her elbow.
Khalid was there, wearing a legionnaire's helmet with a clear faceplate.
"There may be
a need to drop under the canopy and I am a jumper," he said. Khalid was grim but fluid, looking around, appraising. "I
will need two riflemen and a meditech. You can operate a remote turret?"
"Very well then," he said, and
he smiled at her before moving off.
The smile was like a star revealed suddenly on a shrouded night only to become covered again. But
the image of its brightness lingered, and you knew in you heart that the star was still there, way above the clouds. Braced
by Brother Michael and heartened by Khalid, Corona went to work.
While Khalid assembled the search-and-rescue team from the broken and
the lost, Corona signed out a Nightjar long-range tactical transport and selected a combat-search-and-rescue mission profile.
She requisitioned some necessary equipment and stores from glass-eyed supply personnel if they were around. If they weren't
then Corona just took what she needed. In an unattended arms locker she found a beautiful, shapely laser carbine that just
had to be somebody's personal weapon. She took the carbine because it had a shoulder rig that would keep it comfortably out
of the way even while she was seated, and because she wanted it. Nobody ever complained. She ducked into the ready room to
slip out of her battle dress and into a cammie flight suit rated for long-term exposure. She exchanged her bulky field helmet
for a pilot's model. Corona left her duffel there, taking her immunity kit. She had scooped up her Star badge and pips, but
they had seemed like vain accessories in her gloved hand. She left them. What did rank matter, now?
Corona was back on the flight
line in ten minutes. The Nightjar was perched on its designated pad, humming through its preflight routine. Autoloaders attended
the craft like squires equipping a knight, delivering stores and attaching payloads. Khalid addressed a knot of figures he
had dragooned from the disorder. Or perhaps rescued was a better word. She didn't recognize the others, but it was clear that
they were all volunteers. No Lifers in the bunch. There were brief introductions with names that flew out of Corona's head
the moment after they were uttered. That didn't matter, because she would be able to study the roster at her leisure. Corona
found herself regarded with uncertainty. Yet under Khalid's direction they all nodded and climbed aboard. Like it or not,
they were now a crew.
Corona settled into the pilot's seat and introduced herself to the Nightjar. The pilot's assistant evaluated her
skill set and then ran through a rapid orientation to point out particular functions, controls, and displays she needed to
know about. Corona understood that the Nightjar wasn't as nimble as a Hummingbird but had longer legs, greater carrying capacity,
and more weapons. She was confident she could handle it. The abbreviated orientation wrapped up just before Mt. Meru Flight
Operations gave her a pipe to the southeast.
Khalid was in the flight engineer's position, which was elevated behind her and to the right. Corona
turned to look up at him. He was on the SAR net and she caught his eye with a brisk wave.
"We're ready to go," she told him.
Khalid responded with a thumbs up and then turned back to his flatscreen.
Corona brushed the launch icon. Once the Nightjar cleared
the takeoff pipe, Flight Operations assigned Corona a transit altitude very near the Floor. She breathed deep and took the
controls. The Floor was an absolute no-go zone that no PAX craft could break without special authorization because of the
inviolable no-contact policy. The purpose of the PAX Mission on Pangaea was to keep the aboriginal duranni completely ignorant
to the presence of mankind elsewhere on their world. Even the whisper of a g-plane passing low over the jungle canopy was
deemed to be potentially injurious to this purpose. That being the case, Corona was a little surprised at how low her flight
had been assigned. Until she realized the amount of other traffic in the area, most of which was taking off from bases on
tepui mesas surrounding Mr. Meru.
"It's busy up here," she said.
"We're scrambling interceptors," Khalid said. "There are
Provo skip bombers and cruise missiles inbound."
"So we may not have a home to come back to?" Corona said, turning
to look at him.
"That's not our problem for the moment," he told her. "I have a retrieval request from a field team
stranded without transport. That will be our first pickup."
Corona took the cue and turned her attention back to her flight displays.
The location appeared on her moving map. She filed a plan with Mt. Meru and received an altitude ceiling suitable for a high-subsonic
transit to the mission area. No sonic booms allowed. The location was deep jungle, far behind the chain of firebases, well
inside the secured region of the Mandate.
"What's a field team doing so far from the frontier?" she asked Khalid.
"It's a special
survey team," he said. "They are dropped into select locations of the Mandate for extended periods. They look for
signs of cultural contamination among populations of aboriginal duranni. It's always possible that the enemy may be infiltrating
without our knowledge."
"What if the team does the contaminating?"
"That's a danger," Khalid admitted. "But
such surveys are conducted by specially trained Lifers who know the jungles as well as the native duranni. They are experts
at not being seen."
"What if they find signs of cultural contamination?"
"That hasn't happened."
"But what if it
"The contaminated duranni would have to be euthanized."
"For their own good," Corona said softly.
The transit required just under an hour. She passed the time taking a number of tutorials for Nightjar systems and
trying to make sense of the situation map. The iconography showed that there were running aerial engagements off the northern
coasts of Pangaea between Provo intruders and PAX interceptors. There was one spectacular flare that lit up the northern horizon
and spilled a spectral glow across the top of the otherwise dark canopy.
"Damn," Corona said.
"Mt. Meru has an excellent
integrated air-defense network," Khalid said. "Ground-based and air-launched missiles, plus directed-energy weapons
and electromagnetic cannons. It's probably the most comprehensive air-defense network ever deployed."
"That's a bold
Khalid seemed to consider her comment at face value. "God willing," he added. Then: "It
is tragic that the frontier firebases were not covered."
In Corona's mind, ‘tragic' was something of an understatement.
"Why weren't they?"
the terrain near the Rift Valley doesn't offer many sites high enough above the canopy to build on. It was always thought
that the Monitors' satellites would provide us with early warning of any attack. Time enough to send air cover."
"Yet when the
Provos knocked out the satellites, Brother Michael reinforced the frontier anyway."
"Yes." He was silent for a moment.
"It was a mistake to do so. At the time, the main concern was the ground assault by so many contaminated duranni. The
thinking was that we would need more manpower to make up for the absence of satellite reconnaissance. We never imagined that
the Provos would launch coordinated attacks."
"It's funny how the greatest tragedies seem to stem from failures of imagination," Corona
Khalid did not reply and Corona let the silence hang for a while. She watched icons fencing over the equatorial oceans. Neatly
packaged symbology on maps with vectors gave the illusion of order to what was in fact a grand dissolution. She was in that
sea, thrashing, doing something that seemed purposeful in order to stay afloat. But really she was at the bottom of a deep,
deep well. Any help would be weeks away. Her hopes alighted briefly on the Centauri Conveyor, but then she realized that in all likelihood
wouldn't be coming. So help would be months away, if any was realistically to be expected. She spared a thought for the deep
survey team they were on the way to pick up. She wondered what you think about, stranded in the depths of an alien jungle,
knowing that your base was gone and most of your friends, too.
"Khalid, how many of us were lost today, do you think?"
"How many dead?
I don't know. Up to seventy percent of the Mission's personnel may have been forward deployed."
"I expect our
losses will approach that," Khalid said. "But there are some people out there we can still bring in."
When they approached the mission area, Corona cut back on the Nightjar's speed and made a circuit with a radius of
five kilometers from the recovery point. Khalid was in communication with the stranded field team. Corona had biosensor returns
up on one of her multifunction displays. She was looking for aboriginal duranni that might be in the area. The display fused
data from a suite of sensors, including acoustic, chemical, multispectral, and foliage-penetrating radar. While there was
lots of animal life-scads of it, even-there were no duranni signatures after she finished her orbit.
"Once around, and all clear,"
"Okay, spiral in," Khalid said. "I'll get clearance for a drop."
The Nightjar made a series of
orbits around the recovery point, each one tighter than the last.
"This should be quick and clean," Khalid said, disengaging from
his station. "I'm going back to supervise the recovery. Hold us steady and watch the biosensors."
Corona said, too late to catch his eyes before he disappeared aft.
She turned back to her multifunction displays, keeping close watch on
the biosensor returns. The Nightjar had a recovery vehicle that would drop through the canopy on autopilot. She released it
to the control of the operator's station. A tone informed her of the separation. The people down below had only to scramble
aboard and signal to be brought up.
The recovery vehicle had its own sensor package and Corona added these into the mix. Once below
the canopy the additional sensors markedly improved the clarity of the fused data. There was a separate camera on the field
team and they were in fact nearly invisible in their adaptive camouflage netting. Then the moving target indicator on the
biosensor screen sang a warning and traced an outline in the shadows near the recovery point.
Corona said. "Bearing one-seven-seven, fifty meters."
"What is it?" Khalid said calmly but with urgency.
Corona's heart sank.
She had seen enough duranni to recognize the signature, even if it was her first aborigine.
"It's a native."
A heartbeat of silence.
"Where the hell did it come from?"
"I don't know, it was just there." It was facing the recovery point, advancing in glacial
movements. Like a sloth. Or a sloth's shadow on the forest floor, more like, if there could be such a thing. Corona adjusted
the motion target indicator. Two more shadows emerged from the murk. "Ugh, two more. They all look like females."
"And there was
nothing on the way in?"
"I didn't see anything!" She was angry at the question. Corona took a reading off the
revealed duranni and recalibrated all of her sensors. Suddenly there were at least a dozen returns. Some of them were scattered
out to a kilometer away. Probably males and children. "There are more. It's a goddamn family or something."
"You know what
you have to do," Khalid said.
"I know." She just didn't really understand why.
Corona armed the Fog dispenser. She set the
Nightjar's autopilot for an optimal dispersal pattern and activated the routine. The g-plane wove a course over the target
returns and the Fog dispenser launched spin-stabilized shards of the frozen agent through the canopy. A fuze in each shard
injected a second stage through capillaries that caused the primary to sublimate into a vaporous, dense biotoxin that settled
rapidly. The fuze mechanism was fabricated from the frozen primary agent and sublimated along with the rest. Fog killed duranni
instantly on inhalation and also accelerated their decomposition. The biotoxin had been engineered to be defeated by Outre
Mer's microorganisms to leave no trace. On the Nightjar, there was a damage-assessment view that Corona couldn't bear to watch
once she saw that aboriginal duranni males carried their babies on their backs.
The Nightjar returned to the recovery point and Corona
had retained the presence of mind to acknowledge the recovery signal from the field team. When the recovery vehicle was aboard
the grateful team leader sent her greetings and felicitations that she didn't bother to acknowledge. She understood history
well enough to know that she had passed from the realm of soldier into that of mass murderer. Of course, even as a soldier
she had been following orders in a cause that she questioned, one commonly accused of mass murder by its detractors, although
her few fights against duranni had all seemed direct enough. Up until now.
"Corona," Khalid said.
Khalid had slid catlike
back into his flight engineer's station without her notice. Corona was dimly aware that it was the first time he had called
her by her first name. Another time, that would have made her feel good.
"It was your first SAR mission and we
were unlucky," he said. "Don't feel too bad."
Corona didn't have it in her to feel bad. She just felt empty. Quick and
clean. She felt that she was capable of anything.