Corona was nervous. It was her first combat-search-and-rescue flight over open ocean and they were a thousand kilometers from
shore. The Nightjar utility g-plane she piloted was made for night missions, and although it was night it was far from dark.
The giant planet Adonis was nearly full and reflected brightly off the solid-cloud undercast obscuring the ocean below. In
a hundred flying hours Corona couldn't recall a night as bright.
The mission commander, Khalid al-Turki, led from the flight engineer's
seat where he had the most immediate access to mission data. Corona looked over at her commander to request a status report
and she saw the raven-like sheen of Khalid's hair, with soft highlights courtesy of the muted illumination of the Nightjar's
"Do you see anything?" Corona said.
"No." Khalid turned to her quickly and gave her a brief smile
to go with the negative. "Don't worry."
"Okay," she said.
Khalid turned back to his station. Corona followed his example. The unnecessary
exchange had left her feeling a little better.
After the ‘All Clear' had sounded on the night of the big raid, holding hands atop Mt. Meru
had evolved into kisses in Corona's room. The evolution had been wordless and immediate once the door had closed. In very
little time, clothing came away with yanks, tugs, and only slightly awkward pauses to pull limbs free of encumbrances. Corona
smiled a bit as she remembered how they had sighed together as he found his way into her, gently, in stages. What Power would
forbid them such companionship? Brother Michael? God?
After, stroking each other in the darkness, Corona and Khalid talked about
how much they wanted to live. Corona thought that their unexpected gift of love was worth preserving. Khalid was of the opinion
that their love was not a boon but a charge from God and that they would have to sacrifice to be worthy of it. Maybe it was
the guilt talking, Corona had thought at the time. Then she had had a sudden thought of herself hanging in an anonymous loft
that was icy in its clarity and impact. She rolled on top of Khalid, seeking warmth. His smooth hands played over her back
with his lazy smile like a moon in the clouds.
Next morning, Khalid was still there. But so was the war. They both had work to do, although not
together. Khalid's duties kept him glued to the Senior Staff. Corona had become a notable jack-of-all-trades. One day she
would fly a Hummingbird out to monitor advancing werewolves, another she would be cloistered at a workstation verifying simulation
models, and another she would be assisting her friend Vee on draining a deep abscess. Vee had cooled toward her a bit, but
remained friendly and chatty. Both avoided discussing Khalid. Corona understood that Vee felt hurt, a little. Vee wanted to
be the one sharing her in bed. Corona sighed. Maybe if they had met on Mars, back when in that other life, but not anymore.
Then the priority CSAR mission had come down. Somebody important was flying south from the Archipelago in a skimmer that didn't
have the legs to reach Pangaea. Khalid's team got the mission to fly out over the ocean and bring him back. Mission planning
had been meticulous. They would have to elude the Provo blockade.
Every kilometer brought the Nightjar g-plane closer to the submersible
aircraft carriers that electronic intelligence systems had detected from their flight operations. Although the SSCVs-the skivvies-could
traverse Outre Mer's oceans from their bases in the Archipelago without worry of detection, they still had to surface and
use laser and occasionally radio to launch and recover their planes. At these times, the sophisticated ELINT network of the
Mandate Coast Watchers would record the emissions that analysts at Mt. Meru studied to develop the characteristic patterns
of certain activities and even the equipment types involved.
"There is a mayday with attached telemetry," Khalid said. "It's
a meteor burst transmission, spread-spectrum. Looks like a flier."
Corona looked over at him. He was studying the iconography
of his display. Meteor-burst communications worked by bouncing radio signals off of ionized particles in the trail of a meteor
entering the atmosphere. A sensor monitored the sky in the desired arc for the telltale signature of a meteor in the upper
atmosphere. When one was detected, the transmitter sent a data burst. It was an easy way of sending simple messages over the
horizon, and since there were hundreds of micro-meteor events per hour in a given swath of sky the technique was not all that
inconvenient even when time was a factor. Best of all, if the data burst was properly managed, it took an awful lot of signal
processing to determine the location of the transmitter.
"Our guy?" Corona asked.
"The encryption works," Khalid
said. "It's for us. I'm going to acknowledge. You take over with Cricket."
"Right," Corona said. She opened
a communications window and selected the directional link with Cricket, the call sign of the PAX Mission's Search and Rescue
Center. They were over the horizon from each other but directional communications were still possible via the long-endurance
unmanned aircraft loitering in the stratosphere carrying an antenna array and repeater. "Cricket, this is Whippoorwill
"Cricket here. Go ahead Whippoorwill."
"Cricket, we are responding to a mayday from an apparent airborne
target. Range is roughly five hundred kilometers."
"Whippoorwill, do you have positive identification?"
Corona looked at Khalid
who gave her an ‘okay' sign followed by a brief cut of fingertips across his throat.
"Looks like we have our guy, Cricket,"
Corona said. "No voice at this time, however. How do the skies look?"
"Clear skies, Whippoorwill."
Corona glanced over
at Khalid again and received a thumbs-up.
"Cricket, we're going to dash in for an extraction."
"Great news, Whippoorwill. We'll alert
the Papas to head for the shore."
The Papas were a pair of Blue Jay fighters whose pilots sat in lawn chairs in the mountaintop shelters
next to their birds waiting the order to scramble. Their function was to engage any enemy aircraft that threatened the CSAR
team. The Blue Jays were fast but couldn't use that speed over land as sonic booms were deemed disruptive to the aboriginal
duranni living oblivious beneath the jungle canopy. Alerted, the Papas would get airborne and fly over land at high subsonic.
Out over the ocean they would be able to open up the throttles if the need arose.
"Glad to have them," Corona said.
"Out here, Cricket."
Khalid had provided Corona with navigation data to the target. She could see that he had yellow-lit
the recovery crew, which for this mission consisted of three jump-divers. The Nightjar wasn't carrying a separate recovery
vehicle because much of the payload was devoted to ordnance. So Corona would have to directly overfly the rescue area and
likely as not hang there a while. If the enemy had been alerted-and the omnidirectional nature of meteor-burst communications
made it likely that he had-then that would be when the Nightjar would be most vulnerable.
"Khalid, can you tell if the target
is still airborne?" Corona said.
"Airborne but descending," Khalid said. "The telemetry shows a planned water landing."
"Can you ask him
if he has any juice left?"
"What do you mean, Corona?"
"I mean," Corona said. "Might it be possible for him to
displace once he reaches wave-top level?"
"Jesus, Khalid!" Corona said. Sometimes she thought he was deliberately fogging up on
her. "Could you ask him to drop a splasher and hit the throttle?"
"Well," Khalid said, evenly. "I don't
even know if he has any splashers."
"Could you ask him, maybe?" Corona said, as evenly as she could manage. What was it about
sexual familiarity that caused men to become dopey? "I'd like to keep the skivvies in the dark about what we're up to
out here, at least until the Papas are on station."
"That would be good," Khalid said. "I imagine you have
an alternate recovery site calculated?"
"As a matter of fact," Corona said. "Here is something I worked out."
Corona released her
"This is excellent," Khalid said after a few moments of review. "I can use this. Give me just a little
more altitude to see if I can raise the target."
Corona nudged the Nightjar into an easy climb. Khalid composed a text-and-icon
message and sent it. He was nothing if not fair and practical. This had helped Corona to fall in love with him. Although,
Khalid's falcon bearing and bloused jumper's pants hadn't hurt. The reply came as the g-plane crested the swell.
"Negative on the
decoy," Khalid said. "And the target says he's at the end of his rope. We're just going to have to dash in and grab
"It was a good idea, Corona."
Corona felt disappointment as she nosed the Nightjar
down into the brilliant clouds. She had been surprised to discover that she had something of a flair for tactics. Her facility
was not based on complex sequences timed perfectly but rather on subtle variations on the straightforward approach, just enough
to insert an element of the unexpected. Corona's tactical ability was slowly recognized by her teammates and eventually by
her superiors. Corona was distantly aware that there was an element of vanity in her disappointment that her splasher idea
hadn't panned out. She also had enough experience to know that sometimes you just had to dash in and take your chances.
"The target is
down," Khalid said. "Can we go any faster?"
"That would be helpful."
Corona pressed her
teeth together and brought the Nightjar as close to the wave tops as she dared. The pilot's assistant showed its analysis
of the central tendency of aggregate wave height produced a ten percent chance per hour of a catastrophic impact. Corona increased
speed until the calculation said twenty percent. She considered that acceptable, given that there were now a mere ten minutes
from the recovery point. Khalid could have overruled her but he didn't. The skivvies would have heard the impact and were
likely as not launching their fighters at that very moment. The lower the Nightjar was to the ocean's surface the longer it
would take for an airborne radar to spot them.
"Attention, we are ten minutes from pickup," Khalid said over the intercom. "Recovery
crew, the target is scuttling so he'll be a bobber."
Corona looked at her tactical display and saw that the Papas had crossed
the beach. Over the ocean-feet wet-the Blue Jay fighters were now transonic and accelerating. Corona willed them on. Open
She saw a yellow triangle flicker into existence on her threat display.
"I see it."
The triangle was gossamer.
A wraith. The Nightjar's warning receiver soaked up emissions and the threat library put together a composite sketch of the
contact. The icon brightened, becoming orange. And then red. A threat window opened and displayed information.
"It's a Shiden,"
"Yeah," Corona said.
"The name is Japanese for ‘Violet Lightening.'"
"Is it?" Corona mulled that for
a moment. "The Provos seem to have a thing for names involving energy."
"We seem to have a thing for birds,"
Additional triangle icons appeared. These were already orange: presumed hostile. Corona didn't need any more information
to know that they were. The Provo carrier appeared to be launching a flight of six aircraft. That wasn't so bad. There was
a lot of ocean to cover. Even if the skivvie sonar had pinpointed where the fleeing skimmer had splashed down, the Nightjar
would get there first. The enemy fighters would need to cover a wide arc of sky to leeward if they wanted to prevent the CSAR
team from getting under friendly fighter cover.
"The Shidens don't know where we are exactly," Khalid said. "By the time their search
radars have us we should be on our way back. It'll be a stern chase."
"I like your optimism," Corona said. "Six
minutes to the pickup point."
The optimism died in a rose blossom blooming on the tactical display. Threat alarms sang in the
cockpit. Strong search radars in multiple bands were beating down on them. It wasn't long before Corona heard the unmistakable
staccato tone of radar that had switched over to track mode. On the tactical display a solid line now connected the Nightjar
with the red blossom. Corona immediately climbed out of the surface clutter that no longer gave them any concealment. She
increased speed to maximum. There was no discussion.
"They put up a blimp," Khalid said finally. "A goddamn
"It's a Nimbus," Corona said. "And you never curse."
"There's a time to every purpose under
heaven," Khalid said.
"Relax," Corona said. "Tell the guys in the back to hold on to something."
Corona climbed away from the area-surveillance airship and selected one of the three Whisker anti-radar missiles the Nightjar
carried in its twelve-round rotary launcher.
"You know," Khalid said. "We're out of range for a Whisker."
"The range doesn't matter."
Two of the Shiden fighters had turned as well, putting themselves between the Nimbus and the Nightjar.
The other four fighters were angling toward the Pangaea shore to cut off her escape. Corona selected a Partisan command-guided
missile and gave it a sea-skimming flight profile toward the Nimbus. The Partisan had the range to reach the airship but the
latter had a sophisticated countermeasures suite and the probability of a kill using an active seeker was very low.
weapons release?" Corona said.
"Oh, I see what you're doing," Khalid said with some delight. "You have the keys."
Corona launched the
Whisker and then set up the launcher to eject the Partisan she had programmed. When telemetry showed the Whisker was flying
out properly, she dropped a stick of radar decoys and evaded sharply back toward the pickup point and in the process ejected
the Partisan. The large missile dove seaward stabilized by a drag chute. It jettisoned the chute along with the unlit booster
and ignited the sustainer motor.
"The Nimbus is all over us," Khalid said. "Still tracking."
said. "I tried to be clever and it didn't work. Honor is satisfied."
Corona executed another turn away. This turn was faster
and longer. She wanted the enemy to think she was running for it. Part of her wanted to run for real.
"The Nimbus is
trying to jam the Whisker," Khalid reported. "It's a deception technique. The Whisker is starting to veer away from
"Somebody shoots a missile at you, you don't count on it not having the reach," Corona said. She took the
information on the Nimbus' jamming techniques that was coming in from the Whisker's datalink and she stored it in her threat
library. "Nobody has that much faith in their intelligence."
The Whisker went irrevocably off target and soon ran
out of fuel, dropping harmlessly into the sea well short of the airship. Meanwhile, the Partisan was flying at near wave top
level in a low-profile subsonic cruise mode using inertial navigation. When the two Shidens had passed over it, Corona sent
a command for the Partisan to engage the Nimbus. She also loaded the pattern of the Nimbus' jamming technique for countering
the Whisker. The Partisan's sustainer motor sucked fuel and zoom-climbed toward the airship.
Unable to identify the inbound
missile that suddenly threatened it, the Nimbus began jamming using a variety of techniques in succession, one of which broke
the command datalink from the Nightjar. But another technique was intended to deceive anti-radar seekers about the location
of the radar's source: the one that had successfully jammed and deflected the Whisker just a few minutes before. The Partisan's
terminal engagement seeker now homed on the energy pattern generated by this jamming technique. About ten kilometers from
its target, the Partisan's directed-plasma warhead detonated and sprayed a conical swath of sky with hypervelocity bolts of
molten metal. The Nimbus erupted into flame and crashed into the sea. It took several minutes for some pieces to flutter down
in lazy, leafy motions trailing swirls of smoke.
Long before the first fragments hit the ocean, Corona was diving into the clutter with the echo
of Khalid's celebratory shout in her ears. She executed a series of turns so as to approach the rescue point from a different
direction. The enemy would have a general knowledge of the Nightjar's position but that information got old fast. Corona hoped
she could build up enough uncertainty to at least make the pick up.
"We're really going to need the Papas," she told Khalid.
"They've got their
own problems," he said. "They have to get through that cordon of fighters between us and the coast."
"Do you want to
Khalid was silent for a moment.
"No," he said finally. "Brother Michael says we really need to get this guy back."
said. "I wonder who he is. A Provo defector?"
"I think he's a spy," Khalid said. "But that's above my
pay grade, as they say."
When Khalid's team had been briefed for the combat search-and-rescue mission, they had been told
only that a skimmer was coming south from the Archipelago and its solo pilot would have to be retrieved at sea because the
craft lacked the range to make landfall at Pangaea. At the time, Corona had thought to ask who the pilot was and why he was
coming. She refrained because it was really a question Khalid should be asking, and he didn't. So the questions had mainly
been about how many skivvies the coast watchers were reporting cruising the area and what sort of air cover would be available.
The CSAR team was told that the retrieval was high enough of a priority that certain doctrines meant to husband the Mission's
diminishing personnel and material assets would be suspended. Nobody explicitly used the word "expendable," but
the team was told that they would be expected to take some risks that would otherwise have been unacceptable.
Corona normally would
have regarded shooting missiles at a Nimbus area-surveillance airship and proceeding on mission while dodging Shidens without
friendly fighter cover in range as being unacceptably risky. However, in the twilight world of the PAX Mission, leaving a
mysterious fugitive in the drink for the Provos to recover was apparently the worse option. Corona frowned at the tactical
display, wondering just how the hell they were supposed to pull this off.
"God save us," Khalid whispered.
Corona's blood chilled.
he said, more firmly. "Cricket says Mt. Meru has sent a cruise missile after the skivvie with a nuclear depth charge."
she breathed. The PAX Mission wasn't even supposed to have nukes. "When does it hit?"
Corona watched a pinpoint
appear on the tactical display that rapidly expanded into a circle with a nebulous perimeter. The Nightjar was well clear
of the blast area. Corona cleared a weapons screen and directed the sensors to put up a real-time camera view of the impact
point. The flatscreen showed a thick white pillar on the horizon rising through the clouds. A data overlay registered telltale
changes in atmospheric pressure and radiation levels in the higher portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. She had missed
the flash and hadn't felt any shockwave, but even the flatscreen representation of a nuclear detonation-albeit only half a
kiloton-was impressive enough.
"Wow," Corona said quietly. "Our guy must be really, really important."
Gustavo Franco walked
stiffly down the stern ramp of the Nightjar utility g-plane wearing the mouse-gray coverall his PAX rescuers had given him
and carrying a kit bag. Before emerging into hot night-glow he had shaken the gloved hands of each of the three members of
the combat search-and-rescue team who had recovered him from the bathtub waters of the enemy ocean, and who had given him
all that cold seltzer water and those frozen-fruit bars on sticks. Oddly, Gustavo had craved carbonated beverages more than
most things on his weeks of flight across the Archipelago.
Gustavo wanted to thank the flight crew personally but quarantine protocol
prohibited that. He had to make due with giving his thanks over the intercom to the commander, an Arab, who said he would
pass his gratitude to the pilot. Gustavo declined a medical litter and was told that he would be met on the tarmac. The evening
air was so fetid it reminded him vaguely of Brazil, except Brazil was fetid in a homey way. The tepui mesa on which he stood
seemed to float on a sea of living filth and the smell was indescribable. Gustavo felt almost as repulsed as during his earliest
hours on Outre Mer in what he now regarded as the relatively frisky air of the northern islands. It was all he could do not
to stagger to the bottom of the ramp.
The sight of Aye-Aye Zar emerging from the shadow of a maintenance shed banished all disgust. He
recognized his partner immediately, the fishbowl helmet Aye-Aye wore atop his environmental suit clearly revealed his beautifully
"Did you have a nice flight?" the Madagascar native asked.
"I should be asking you that question," Gustavo
said. They embraced and took stock of one another. "What the hell happened to you up there?"
"Oh, a hunter-killer
snuck up on me," Aye-Aye said with a combination of nonchalance and minor embarrassment.
"No shit?" Gustavo
said, as if he were surprised such a thing was possible.
"It was a tricky one," Aye-Aye said. "I managed to dump
a Gecko-Tail before the thing ran in on me. When I got clear of the rings I was picking up a lot of volume search radar but
nobody was tracking me, at least not that I could tell. Of course, there could have been a telescope or some passive sensors
on me." Aye-Aye shrugged. "But I made it down here okay."
"No." Aye-Aye grinned
his sharp grin.
"You brought her in!"
"Is the lateen intact?"
"It seems to be."
"That's great!" Gustavo cut his celebratory
mood short. "Wait a minute, why didn't you try to get clear and call for a pickup?"
"Well, at first I made
the mistake of thinking I should try to pick you up first."
"That was stupid," Gustavo said.
"I know," Aye-Aye
said. "I regretted it my first hours down here. By the time I came to my senses, the iSUN contingents on the other moons
had fallen and there was no way I was going to break Adonis without getting spotted and a having a whole lot of ordnance thrown
at me. So I decided to stick around and wait for you."
"You were that confident that I was going to make it to Mt. Meru?"
"In your case,
desperation is the mother of invention," Aye-Aye said. "I knew you'd find a way."
Gustavo tried to blot out some
of the desperate actions he had perpetrated to achieve his goal.
"I wouldn't want to have to do it again," he said.
Aye-Aye understood Gustavo's meaning but was not judgmental. "But worried that you might have been deterred by the fact
the Provos were trying to nuke this place out of existence."
"They were," Aye-Aye said. "But then
I noticed that the attempted nuclear strikes were not getting any news coverage, so I figured you didn't know about them."
Gustavo looked around. "The Provos seem to have bad aim."
"The environs of Mt. Meru are under a first-rate air-defense network."
Aye-Aye looked suddenly grim. "Unfortunately, the network doesn't cover the border areas out East and they got hit pretty
bad. They won't tell me how bad exactly but I get the feeling the whole Mandate is collapsing. The Missionaries seem to be
just tucked in around here waiting for reinforcements that probably aren't coming."
Gustavo understood Aye-Aye's hidden meaning
about the level of cooperation they currently had with the PAX. Secret stuff was still secret. And they were probably being
"Well, I have a little good news, then," Gustavo said. "I know how to access the Aethernet node past
the Provo blocks."
"Brother Michael will be happy to hear that," Aye-Aye said.
"Right," Gustavo said. "Let's go introduce
me to Brother Michael and make some calls."