Piped-in bells and intensified lighting pulled Corona Alvarez out of the shower. Where once her heart leapt with fear she
now smiled at a break in the routine. She toweled off quickly and allowed an admiring appraisal of her sleek, glistening self
in a full-length mirror before pulling on a jumper. Corona was lithe and strong and any padding she had retained emphasized
the right features. Even the onepiece flattered her. Corona was in the best shape of her life in what was, arguably, one of
the worst places she could be given the megatonnage hurtling toward her location at that moment.
The air-raid warning signaled
the start of another impromptu party topside. The pattern of bells indicated it was a high-altitude missile attack. Corona
calculated that she had a few minutes before the show would begin, so she padded briskly barefoot down the corridor and ducked
into her dorm room. It was a generous single, because there was no shortage of accommodations. Corona quickly gave herself
an immunity check. In the meantime, she counted the bells and processed the counts. It was to be a saturation attack. Plenty
of action. Satisfied with the state of her immune system, Corona slipped into her moccasins; selected a filter mask that covered
her eyes, nose, and mouth; and put on a parade cap with ear flaps. The latter she'd bleached and dyed an array of festive
colors. Finally, she grabbed a few bottles of cold homebrew out of the fridge and put them into her flight bag. The Mission
headquarters counted a number of brewmeisters and distillers in its number, and Corona's search-and-rescue flights had earned
her a backlog of goodwill.
At first, air-raid alarms had sent everybody scurrying into the bowels of Mt. Meru with images
of what had happened to the firebases fresh in their memories. The tepui mesa was a warren of tunnels and chambers, and the
deepest, innermost locations served as bomb shelters. Of course, a direct hit with a fusion weapon would vaporize the whole
mountain, but the shelters were considered proof against near misses and radiation. The raids seemed to come incessantly.
Missile attacks generally occurred in waves, while the bombers tried to penetrate individually. There were many different
combinations, but nothing ever got through. After a while, the alarms were more annoying than terrifying. Then, at some point,
word got around that it was really interesting to watch the raids from up on top. This is when the parties began.
Corona ran into a friend
on the way up, Violet Black. Everybody called her Vee.
"Ra, you're wearing your party hat," Vee said.
Vee was from Tasmania
and had the accent to prove it. She had a gorgeous face under a chestnut crew cut, with eyes that wandered through all the
colors of the rainbow. Vee had started calling Corona ‘Ra' for short, ostensibly because she was a "drop of sunshine."
It was shameless flattery, of course, but Corona basked in it.
"I have the hair for it," Corona said, flipping a dark rivulet
spilling out behind her ear. She was a month beyond her regulation cut.
"Tease," Vee said.
Corona grinned, preening. Vee
flashed her a ‘V' gesture, and not the nice one.
Violet Black was a meditech and a fugitive from upper-middle-class purgatory,
which was how she and Corona had fallen in with each other. Corona's vaunted skill-set had recommended her to assist on an
emergency case where an off-duty pilot had gone out for a long pass, caught it, and turned right into an autoloader. Violet
had performed a deft knee-replacement surgery and saved the man's lower leg by sheer, cheerful thoroughness. Her infectious
and effortless chat had held Corona's lingering fears about festering wounds at bay until the situation was in hand. The attending
conversation about guilty dissatisfaction, Jewish versus Catholic guilt, recreational wanting, and hedonisms regretted had
achieved at a connection that survived the medical procedure. The dopey pilot would live to fly another day, and Corona had
found a new friend.
"I still can't stand the smell up there," Vee said, pretending to polish the fishbowl helmet under her
arm. "It's like being inside a sick cow."
"I wouldn't know about that," Corona said. "To me it only
smells like low tide."
"Do you have the beverages?"
Corona patted her flight bag.
"Do you have the booster?"
Vee's eyes flashed
a devilish red and patted a pocket on her shapely backside. The friends smiled at one another and ascended the ramp together.
In the buzz of the movement upward, Vee pressed a finger into the palm of Corona's left hand. Corona made a cage with her
fingers, as if trapping a moth. Without turning she licked her right hand behind the knuckle of her middle finger and then
clapped her left hand on top, firmly pressing the patch into the moistened skin. In the hum of the onset, Corona had the presence
of mind to crumple and deposit the spent patch into a pocket of her flight bag. She felt Vee's arm link with hers and the
friends moved upward, silent and eager.
The alerts of inbound strikes had become like the call to vespers, except without the solemnity.
At the landing before the last lock clusters of companions checked each other's outside gear. Corona put on her mask with
practiced ease and Vee secured her plexan helmet. Corona confirmed the readout on Vee's suit by tugging twice on a free equipment
loop. Vee playfully yanked a strand of Corona's hair in reply.
They cycled through and joined the community out on the flattop mountain
outside under the golden curtains of night. Corona craned her neck. Above, ringed Adonis stretched out his mighty arms across
the sky. Corona and Vee stepped around clusters of people on the ground and found an open space.
Vee had sort of crushed on Corona
as their friendship developed. Corona deflected a kiss once, stammering that it wasn't her thing. Thankfully her friend hadn't
been offended. Vee was not at a loss for physical companionship, but Corona got the impression that the invitation remained
open. The fact was, intimate relationships bloomed among the Mt. Meru community in the afterglow of discharged weapons and
high-altitude intercepts. If many of these couplings were opportunistic and even fatalistic, more than a few bore an honesty
and intensity sanctified by the coming of Death. Certainly, regulations set down in the Missionary Handbook, not to mention
the Old Testament and the New Koran, forbade intimate contact between unmarried people. But tradition strains to maintain
its grip over interstellar distances, and war tended to focus an authority's attention on more substantive matters.
There was a mist on
the northern horizon revealing the odd, shivering fingers of beam weapons playing the silent songs of automatic fire-control
systems. It had begun. Corona and Vee found each other's hands. The drug's sustainer pattered into her consciousness like
a distant rain. A brace of interceptor missiles leapt up from vertical launch cells on separate mountaintops. They arced downward
again and then streaked toward the horizon leaving brilliant, converging trails. Railguns from distant sites threw jewels
into the sky. Smears of light painted the heavens indicating the death of incoming weapons. A four-flight of Blue Jay fighters
raced overhead and everybody cheered.
Corona reached into her flight bag with her free hand, pulled out a beer bottle, and gave it to
Vee. She took out one for her self and hooked it up to her drinking tube. The brew was strong, cold, and grainy.
"Do you have another
one of those to spare?"
Corona turned toward the voice and found Khalid standing there in his legionnaire's helmet and
a line suit that gave him some anonymity. She felt Vee's hand pull away.
"Khalid, hi," Corona said. She was surprised
to see him. He had been closeted with the Senior Staff for a number of days, and there hadn't been any search-and-rescue missions
for a couple of weeks. Plus, Khalid wasn't one to join the group topside during raids. "Wait a minute, you don't drink."
he admitted, crouching down. "But Brother Michael likes to say that there is a time to every purpose under heaven."
"Isn't that a
psalm, or something?"
"Ecclesiastes," Khalid said. "King Solomon's reflections on the duality of life."
"It sounds like
an excellent formula for rationalization," Vee said.
Corona shrugged and handed Khalid one of the large bottles. He sat cross-legged
and took a deep swallow through his drinking tube.
"How are we doing?" he asked.
"I think we're winning," Corona said.
"Three's a crowd,"
Vee said, standing.
"No, Vee, stay," Corona said.
"And kill the joy?" Vee shook her head. "I think I'll go find a playmate. Night,
Corona squeezed her friend's calf briefly as she departed. If Khalid felt uncomfortable he didn't say anything about
it. Corona sheltered in the cool shimmer of her finely adjusted awareness. Haloed stars glowed warmly in the nebula. Leakey
was visible as a sharp white crescent above Adonis' rings. The mighty planet was dull orange with a flare along its rim where
sunlight on the far side refracted through the atmosphere. Sometimes there were flickers of lightning on the dark side. Closer
at hand, the northern horizon flashed in a succession of brilliant colors. Corona could feel the intensity of the raid peaking.
A ripple of interceptors cut across the sky. Columns of ascending railgun rounds formed a glistening spider web that made
her think of sitting in the dewy grass of Oxford's Port Meadow at dawn.
"Khalid," Corona said. "It there any
possibility that we'll ever get home again?"
"About that," he said.
Corona turned and saw Khalid's head dip. Then, after an eye blink, Khalid
gestured dismissively at the radiant sky.
He continued: "While these displays are encouraging, we have to keep in mind that hordes of
contaminated duranni are advancing unchecked through the Mandate. In a few months, only isolated pockets of Pangaea will be
free from their influence. More to the point, our superb air-defense network will be of little use against an enemy coming
at us from beneath the canopy."
Corona dropped her gaze down into the sea of darkness encroaching on the mountain. The concepts
were well known. She felt that Khalid wanted to tell her something else, but instead had fallen back on the strategic situation
as a dodge. But she didn't want to spook him, so she asked him about her second-deepest fear.
"You don't think the reinforcements
"There's no way of telling," he said. "The iSUN has Iota Horologii under communications blackout.
The Provos seem to have been able to upload blocks of their own because we can't access the node using PAX codes."
That was news.
"And the Centauri Conveyor is overdue," Corona said.
"That in itself
isn't too troubling," Khalid said. "They might just be holding the ship back until a proper escort can be assembled.
Like I said, there's no way of knowing. But the situation does not inspire much hope."
Corona filtered her disappointment and found
that she was merely distantly sad. She sighed.
"No, I suppose not."
Then she had a sudden image-icy in its clarity and impact-of herself hanging in an anonymous loft. Corona shuddered, blinked, and
felt warmth return. She was alive, and that was all the hope she had a right to ask for. Corona wondered if the only real
difference between herself and her mother was that her mother had never sought or seized an opportunity to pull free the desperate
tedium enfolding her. Or at least to try to keep ahead of it. Her sense of sadness deepened, but it was not for herself. She
was sad for the woman who had thrown her own life down on the rocks rather than endure another moment of it. The daughter
left behind to peer down fearfully to see the body amid the leaf litter was now facing her own death. But it wouldn't be at
her own hand.
And she reached out at that moment and took Khalid's hand. She was alive and there it was. The man seemed to shiver
slightly. Was he trembling? He looked at her. Corona turned and smiled at him. He smiled back. Their fingers enfolded and
together they watched a war in heaven.
All of the interior spaces of Broadside Electric except the big common room were under counter-delta gravity, which meant
that just enough power was being used to maintain weightlessness relative to acceleration. This was policy was to conserve
power during the month it required for Broadside Electric and her sisters to reach the heliopause. Janni watched elfin Ashelle Mor drift down from the ceiling
portal without using the handrails and take a practiced, graceful step into weightfulness before she could bounce back up.
Ashelle wore her ruddy-blond hair short so it wouldn't float, and this accentuated her long neck. The delicateness of human
physiology amazed Janni sometimes, and of select females in particular. For duranni, of course, the females typically were
the large, muscular ones. But even duranni males, wiry and coiled, would not be described as delicate.
The appearance of the
political officer quieted the room somewhat. Ashelle smiled and nodded her way through the knot of section leaders to her
seat and brought up her screen with a few gestures. Janni, who was already seated and reviewing his notes, watched her and
wondered if she had been reading secret messages again. Or sending them. Ashelle was mostly business. But she was not so focused
that she didn't notice her captain's regard and she nodded to him with courtesy and a respectful but cool touch of her pale
Laughter burbled again from the assembly. Janni blinked and looked over. Park So held court, enjoying the afterglow
of his sotto-voce joke. A joke that Janni had missed because as a captain he had learned that it was sometimes better not
to know certain things that he would otherwise have to act upon. Thus so, the duranni had taught himself how not to eavesdrop
by turning his ears away from things he didn't want to have to hear.
"Okay, let's get started," Janni said.
The knot untangled and the standing
section leaders found their places among the dozen empty swivel chairs set into shallow alcoves that increased the central
space. The workstations were equipped with retractable harnesses and foldaway screens. One by one, the officers settled into
place and raised their screens, gesturing them into meaning.
The "big common room" was big only in relation to the "old
common room," which was now reserved mostly for poker sessions and movies now that they were beyond virtual conference
range of the other ships. The new space had become available because the particle accelerator pallet was smaller than the
transport pallet it replaced. The addition of a physical recreation space was considered desirable for the maintenance of
crew total well-being on extended missions. Just under an hour ago the space had seen the end of what apparently had been
an exciting game of pairs volleyball among the off-watch crew. Janni could detect the tang of sweat and pheromones lingering
in the air. Janni caught himself exhaling noisily: a sigh, really; something Sandi Fall told him he did rather frequently.
It was stress triggered, like when an animal yawned. He had seen that on a nature show.
The volleyball ladder and the betting it
supported had become the life of the ship. The players wore next to nothing and this, Janni understood, along with the effects
of gravity was part of the appeal. They wouldn't let him play for money because his ability to jump was deemed unfair. Then
there was the simmer clique, whose enthusiasts poured all of their free hours into one or more of microverses active on the
Electric's network. Janni was open-minded
about how people wasted their lives and their morals, just so long as the work got done.
And there had been work to do. In the outbound
flight from Cousteau to the star system's heliopause the vessel crews had trained in the virtual configuration of starships.
In effect, each of them had each undertaken an advanced class in practical starship operations. For the most part, this had
not been particularly taxing. The groundwork had been laid in Flight School, and for some of them in Command School as well.
But they had not received any specific mission training on operating vessels equipped with aether vents, probably as a security
measure. Janni cast a furtive glance at Ashelle, wondering if she might have been an exception.
He mentally scolded himself
and turned quickly to Sandi. The electromechanical engineer had been the busiest person on Broadside Electric. Not only had she had to master
the technical nuances of the particle accelerator pallet but she would also lead the effort to integrate the aether drive
assemblies when they rendezvoused with them on the lip of Iota Horologii's gravity well. If the amount of new material and
the accelerated schedule of orientation and training had worn on her she didn't show it. Sandi seemed as cheerful as ever.
He thought about Nagya and her marines. They would be half-insane by now, most of them. The females in particular. It was
clear why only select male duranni had been trained up for flight assignments.
"I know you all have other places to be, so this
won't last long," Janni said.
That drew a tired laugh. The section leaders and their teams were all adapting well to the stresses
of extended containerized living. He had been over every passable meter of the vessel's internal spaces and had even accompanied
Sandi into the conduits on those few occasions during the outbound run when they had to be opened. Janni went out of curiosity-just
for something to do-not because he could offer any meaningful assistance. He had held a funny wrench or something, once. Sandi
tolerated him, so long as he hung back and didn't ask too many questions.
"Let me start by updating you all on our mission
status," Janni said.
He brushed an icon on his screen. The common room's main flatscreen changed from a scoreboard into
a tactical map showing Broadside Electric, Radiant
leaving vector trails that faded to nothingness. It was clear from the trails that the ships had been widening the distances
between each other over the past week. They were currently spread out over an area of space about equal to the orbit of Adonis.
Out near the heliopause this was still relatively tight grouping.
"Right now we're about fifteen light-minutes away from Radiant Mirage and twenty light-minutes from
he continued. "Ashelle, if you would?"
The political officer used her thumbprint to produce the approximate locations of the aether vents
on the main map. Even this wasn't navigation quality information. Ashelle wouldn't unlock the precise locations of their objectives
for another day, when the final rendezvous maneuvers were scheduled to begin. This was all in the name of operational security,
lest some incautious or unfriendly soul transmit the information off ship.
"We are three days from rendezvous," Janni
said. "We'll go on full-watch at twenty-five-hundred tomorrow before executing the approach maneuver. Just to get everybody
focused. After that, we'll go to half-watches until further notice."
There were nods around the room.
"Sandi, tell us
what we can all expect after linking up with the aether drives."
The electromechanical engineer shifted in her seat.
"The Isaac Optiks
aether complexes are the only commercially available units with flywheels," she said. "They are often used by priority
transport operators and law-enforcement agencies with multi-system jurisdictions. Broadside Electric and her sisters were built with high-performance
commercial interfaces and couplings. Once we hard-dock systems integration should take about a day. Tests and diagnostics
about another day more. Then, theoretically, we'll be free and clear to navigate."
"How do we even know they're out there?"
Park broke in, glancing in turn at Sandi, Janni, and Ashelle. "Or is that still classified?"
It was an interesting
question, although Janni avoided registering his own interest. Except for directional links between the ships and occasional
status reports sent back to base, they were flying a no-emissions profile. Only the use of passive sensors was permitted and
the aether drives were still out of range. For her part, Ashelle did not seem to feel obligated to reply.
"They're out there,"
Janni said. "Otherwise we'd be back down in the well running Colonel Day's laundry."
The assembly laughed. Even Ashelle
managed a smile. Possibly out of gratitude. Park laughed, too, although he clearly wasn't satisfied.
"What I mean is, how does
anybody know that the drives even showed up?" he said, persisting. "It's not like we've got a receipt for the things."
"There was a confirmation
signal," Ashelle said, electing to speak up. "It was what set the operation in motion."
"So you got beeped,"
Ashelle frowned, a rare event. "I didn't get beeped."
"Your people, then."
"You mean, ‘our people,'
Janni held up a manipulator. "That's enough."
Park did have a point. The Isaac Optiks units likely would have been purchased
clandestinely from offworld sources operating outside of Interstellar Law. The Outre Mer Provisional Authority was not allowed
to have an organic spacefaring capability, let alone starships. All offworld travel was strictly regulated and managed by
iSUN agencies or their designates. Unless the Provisional Authority had an outside government or non-governmental organization
as a clandestine ally, it was dealing with extra-legal entities.
"If I understand you, Park," Janni said. "You're
afraid that we might have taken delivery of a bunch of sounding drones instead of the requisite aether drives."
"Until we flash
them we can't be sure," Park said.
"That's true," said Anton Teague, the senior systems architect.
Anton had the floor by the very
act of speaking those words. He was burly and friendly and cut more like a special operations soldier than a software designer.
Anton didn't speak out much, but when he did people listened.
"A confirmation signal and most any attending data attachment could
be faked," Anton said. "On Cousteau, when we were briefed on this phase of the operation, I only received technical
documentation on the Isaac Optiks units that I presumed were going to be out there waiting for us. I never received any information
as to their whereabouts or even their physical existence."
"What he said," Park said, looking at Janni and jabbing a forefinger
Janni saw that Anton was done. He glanced at Ashelle to see if she was going to offer a reply. The political officer
sat like an all-knowing-yet-remote oracle to whom the proper sacrifices had not been rendered. Before the silence made itself
uncomfortable Janni broke it.
"True it may be but it can't be helped," he said, businesslike. Janni recalled the clipped,
assured declarations of officers who disposed of unwelcome news with a dismissive, confident cadence. "In order for this
operation to work everybody has to rely on others to do their jobs. And millions are relying on us to do ours. Since we're
not about to turn around let us proceed on the assumption that our leaders aren't quite so gullible as feared."
That drew a smirk from
him along with a few guffaws from the others. Janni nodded, relaxing.
"Now then, Sandi," he said. "You were
"Well," the electromechanical engineer said, recovering her thoughts. "The main thing is that we will
be able to draw incidental power almost immediately through our own adapters and conditioners. We can have gravity again in
the other compartments."
"Will we be able to power up the main weapons?"
Sandi appeared uncertain. "I would advise
against it. Not until we're finished with the system checks."
"You think there's going to be trouble?" Park said.
"I don't know,"
Janni said. "But we have to keep in mind that we're not the only ones who know about the aether drives. After all, somebody
sold them to the Provisional Authority."
"And sent them over," Anton said. "Even though the units have displaced since their
arrival they might have been tracked."
"Or they could have coded transponders," Park added.
So Janni felt justified in his
concern. He checked the Broadside Electric's inventory. She had three Scarecrow hunter-killers in the aft magazine. There were a dozen more in storage that
would require some time to spin up. The other ships had the same mission loadout. That would do. A Scarecrow hunter-killer
was larger and more intelligent than a missile but did not have the payload or flexibility of an outrider. It had an integrated
electronics suite with a full-spectrum sensors array and a self-protection package to defeat enemy soft-kill and hard-kill
countermeasures. It also had a signature generator enabling it to function as an off-board decoy. Unlike an outrider, a hunter-killer
was not expected to be recovered. It would use all of its intelligence-even cunning-to acquire and reach its given target.
The Scarecrow's self-preservation programming existed so the weapon could impact with its target at hyper velocity or detonate
nearby and shred it with kinetic rods and fragments.
"Ashelle, when we're through here I want you to ready a Scarecrow,"
Janni said. "Send it on ahead to the rendezvous area and than have it loiter in an overwatch profile."
Ashelle said, shifting slightly. "I won't be able to comply with that request."
The silence in the room demonstrated that
the duranni was not the only one who was stunned. Request?
"I don't understand you," Janni said, as evenly as he could
"I am not yet cleared to release detailed bearing and heading information for the aether drives," she said. "So
therefore I cannot send a Scarecrow ahead to the rendezvous area."
"What the fuck?" Park exclaimed.
Janni silenced him
with a curt gesture. The duranni was not interested in having a showdown with the political officer in front of the section
heads. And he didn't want bad blood staining the relationships between them. But neither could he afford to have his authority
checked so publicly. His doubts about his own command ability bubbled up and he forced them back into the darkness before
they clouded his thinking.
"In the interest of security," Janni said, looking matter-of-factly at Ashelle, "I
authorize you to encrypt the mission plan for our Scarecrow. You will also prepare and transmit encrypted mission plans for
so that they can send Scarecrows ahead to their rendezvous areas. Clear?"
"Yes, Captain," Ashelle said. "That's
a good solution."
"I'm glad you think so," Janni said. Janni noticed that Anton was nodding. He felt relief. It bothered the duranni
a little that he found the man's affirmation so comforting.