eyed the flatscreen coldly, fighting growing dread. The tactical view was all predictions based on reports sent from Outre
Mer. He had no idea how much reality was reflected in the little icons or how much of what they told him was fantasy, or deception.
He did know with irreducible certainty the locations of the sun and its planets and its plotted lesser bodies. Of great, ringed
Adonis and his moons. Of Outre Mer, Janni's home. He knew the locations of the ships of his flight because they remained in
contact with one another via bi-directional datalinks. Everything else was prediction. Speculation, really.
According to the tactical
view, the prime mover identified as Centauri Conveyor was approaching Iota Horologii's inner system but was vectoring away from Adonis, apparently running
for the sun on a course that could propel her out to the system's edge. This information came from numerous passive and active
sensors in the inner system, updated regularly on the Provo tactical nets. For some reason, the great prime mover appeared
to be removing herself from the fight. This could mean that she was aborting her mission or that she had already deployed
her payload toward Outre Mer. Or perhaps the movement was a part of some great ruse that Janni had not yet fathomed. Contained
in this thought was the smear.
The smear was a megaton-plus mass that wasn't showing on any other sensor besides massprint and
motion trackers. This was odd because something so large should occlude stars, which this thing apparently did not. Whatever
the smear represented was on course for Outre Mer with a delta-v that would enable it to fall into orbit. It might be a pseudo-mass
decoy or an assault group running cold that had been disgorged from Centauri Conveyor. It was impossible to tell at the moment.
Janni glanced down at Ashelle
Mor, who likely as not was engaged in a long-distance, long-lag-time exchange with her Equinox handlers on Outre Mer. She
had promised to give him up-to-the-moment intelligence. Yet he had come to expect little more than another list of instructions,
along with intelligence filtered to support any suggested course of action. The duranni had decided that he would follow instructions
no more. He would act according to his intellect, his experience, and the advice of those he trusted. And he would act in
the best interest of his own kind. That seemed to be the only way to get anywhere in this universe.
The list of those people and
agencies that Janni trusted was growing short. The glorious Ascent and Breakout had run afoul of their enemies' refusal to
play their assigned roles and roll over. First the iSUN Monitors had defied all expectations by shooting back. That had cost
a vessel with most hands lost, and by head count most of the lost had been duranni due to the total loss of the marine contingent.
Janni smirked darkly at the thought of a ship's crew being "hands" in the traditional nomenclature.
Funny, he thought,
how language had a huge effect on what thoughts a person expressed. Not only that, he considered, but language also constrained
the thoughts that one had in the first place. Somebody should write a book about that.
Park So turned up from his station.
"Janni, just a
reminder that we have a flight conference with the other command teams scheduled in fifteen minutes."
"Thank you, Park,"
Janni said. "We'll do it up here, unless you need any special facilities."
"I'm pretty comfortable," Park
The captain of Broadside Electric took Ashelle's silence for assent. He nodded and Park turned back to his work. Janni suppressed a grimace and wished
he could spit out the bitterness clinging to the back of his throat. Down deep he was worried. A deadly threat closed on the
duranni, despite the assurances and the sacrifices and the strategies and the politics. Janni had been out in space, participating
in something he had always dreamed about, vindicating himself. And in the end, again, he had found himself in the wrong place
at the moment of crisis. True, this time he wasn't helpless. But still he was worried, deathly so. Not for himself but for
"Ashelle, are we going to have any more intelligence on that massprint signature?"
Janni regretted the unnecessary
question as it came out of his mouth. But he pushed through and kept his voice clear. He watched for the political officer's
reaction with interest.
"I'm expecting a burst update in a few minutes," Ashelle said. Unlike Park, the Equinox political officer
did not seem to feel the need to turn around to face him.
"Outstanding," Janni said, not bothering to conceal his unhappiness.
Ashelle didn't reply. Janni showed his teeth to the glimmering flatscreen in the threat-smile that was a bastardization of
human and duranni expressions.
Broadside Electric and her sisters had entered the Iota Horologii system hotly, with flywheels imparting a relative
velocity of nearly ten percent of the speed of light. It was the outer limit of a flywheel's ability to realize kinetic energy
as motion from an aether slip. In the 240 hours the flight had spent on their sunward dive from the heliopause Janni had received
a steady stream of tactical reports. Up until recently Janni had every confidence that he would be able to engage Centauri Conveyor before she reached the environs
of Adonis. But now that the prime mover seemed to be accelerating away from Adonis, Janni had come to doubt the wisdom of
the intercept strategy. The point was coming where the flight would have to begin decelerating in order for the ships to remain
in the inner system. He did not want to be caught wrong-footed again.
An invitation icon emerged on his flatscreen, indicating
that Ashelle had unceremoniously cleared some new intelligence for him. He scowled and tapped the icon with a manipulator
digit. He examined the updated massprint imagery and attending analysis. His mouth opened. The massprint had resolved into
multiple massive contacts. There was a central ovoid of perhaps a million tons attended by a dozen spheroids of about a quarter
of a million tons each. Maddeningly, the contacts still defied all optronic means of resolving them. Whatever the objects
were they were under power, drawing ever closer to Outre Mer and decelerating with an apparent intention to go into orbit.
Calculations predicted the cluster could reach the world in less than three days.
"Ashelle, what do you make of this?"
Janni said, frustrated.
"I don't have an opinion, Captain," the political officer said, remaining focused on her station. "But
I advise that we bring the flight home to Outre Mer."
"Duly noted," Janni said. He published the updated intelligence
so authorized personnel on all three ships could view it. "Park, what do you think about this?"
The senior flight engineer
whistled as he examined the new data.
"That's some big shit," he said, turning toward him.
"Agreed," Janni said. "But
what's the threat?"
"If they are landers, they're the biggest ones I've ever seen."
"Mission Control says the massprint
signatures are likely decoys based on their geometry," Ashelle said, declaratively. "We are advised to bring the
flight home to Outre Mer."
Janni was going to declare himself sufficiently advised. Instead:
"In order to achieve orbit
we would have to begin decelerating drastically and soon," Janni said. "We would arrive several hours after the
"If the massprint objects turn out to be a real threat, then our orbital defenses will deal with them,"
Ashelle said. "And in the unlikely event that the enemy manages to deorbit some landers, he would require weeks to establish
a cohesive front in Pangaea, given the extent of our penetration. We would be able to break them up from orbit without too
Janni nearly howled at Ashelle's use of the word ‘our' with regard to the sacrifice of duranni lives involved
in the liberation of Pangaea. Some charged air must have escaped his mouth because Ashelle tossed a sidelong glance at him.
Before this spark could prime Janni's outrage, Park ignorantly doused the moment with a calendar item.
"Janni, the other
captains are holding for you," he said.
The duranni calmed himself. He sat back in his couch and opened his communications window. Jake
Roberts and Dean Joseph appeared split screen.
"Well gentlemen, the moment is upon us. We have to decide how we are going to make our approach
to the inner system. For the moment, Centauri Conveyor seems to be a diminishing threat. The question is: What is the best way to deal with whatever existent
threats there are to Outre Mer? First of all, what do you make of those massprint signatures?"
"The spherical ones look
like gas or liquid transport containers," Jake said. "They might be bladders under tow."
Janni said. "How come nobody has been able to get a visual on something that big? Not even a star occlusion."
not that big," Dean said. "They might just be really dense."
**like pseudo-mass decoys** came a private text message
Janni tried not to let his annoyance at the message appear on his face.
"What do you think about the possibility
that the signatures are pseudo-mass decoys?" he said.
"It's always possible," Dean said. "But it seems too...bizarre
for a formation of decoys."
"It doesn't smell like a ruse to me, either," Janni said. "The way I see it, our
choices are to either decelerate sharply into Adonis orbit, decelerate more gently into a stellar orbit in the inner system,
or remain at speed and do a flyby. The second and third options will enable us to intercept the massprint objects before they
reach Outre Mer."
**our only real choice is adonis orbit**
"What does Mission Control think?" Jake said.
"They want us to come on home,"
Janni said. "But I'm not quite ready to give up our current speed advantage."
**we have to bolster the orbital defenses**
"This is an open forum," Janni said, pointedly. "I invite all opinions."
"There are three of us," Dean said.
"We could each adopt a separate flight profile."
"We lose a lot of combat power that way," Jake said. "We
fight best when we can provide each other with mutual fire and sensor support."
"But if one of us does a flyby then
the others will have a better notion of what we're dealing with," Dean said. "Information is the best force multiplier
A thought dawned on Janni.
"You know, Dean, that's an excellent point," Janni said. "Maybe we could get more
information by talking to them."
**mission control will not approve**
"Won't we give up the element of surprise?" Jake asked.
"We could put
out a Scarecrow with a repeater," Janni said. "We'll pipe our communications through it."
**not an option**
"What if nobody
replies?" Jake said.
"Then we'll come out of the black and pepper them with pacs and railguns," Janni said. "We'll fire
as they bear."
**you are not authorized to negotiate with the enemy**
"Just ask them who they are, huh?" Dean ran a hand through his
unruly hair. "Yeah, why the hell not?"
**listen to me**
Janni showed his teeth and pressed on: "Ashelle will start prepping a Scarecrow."
The communication links
to the other cruisers blanked.
"You are relieved, Captain," Ashelle said, turning to face him at last, cheeks flushed.
"Please exit the command cupola and confine yourself to quarters."
"I don't recognize your authority to relieve me,"
Janni said, quoting some half-remembered, ancient source.
Ashelle produced a weapon from a recess and pointed it at him. Janni recognized
the laser carbine.
"This ship is not your personal property," she said. "It belongs to the Outre Mer Provisional Authority
and the Equinox Party. I am the Party's appointed representative. You will now take your orders from me."
"Who's going to
command this flight in action?" Janni said, finding odd bravery in his own anger. "You?"
Ashelle was moving
out of her couch. Janni didn't keep a sidearm handy aboard ship. Who did? His eyes focused on the glittering emitter of the
laser. The question answered itself.
"Henceforth, all flight commands will come from Mission Control," Ashelle said. "I
am perfectly capable of fighting this ship."
"Sit down, Ashelle," Janni said, showing his teeth.
"Clear the flight deck now," she
said. "Or I will shoot you and have your carcass carried out."
Janni didn't really think that he would be able to get
to Ashelle from his semi-prone position. The laser's emitter was fixed on him and her finger was on the trigger. Still, he
wasn't going to relinquish command without a fight. The duranni tensed.
The shot was louder than he would have expected. It
made him blink. He smelled ozone. When his eyes focused he saw Ashelle sprawled across her couch, twitching. He couldn't see
her face, but saw a bundle of ruddy blond hair bound wetly with blood. Then he saw Park's extended arm, which was trembling
and spotted with rich, red droplets. His fist gripped a gauss pistol. From the blunt barrel a thin tendril of vapor threaded
up toward a vent.
"I didn't know what else to do," Park said, staring at his handiwork.
Janni followed the line of shot and didn't
see anything broken or smashed. The round must still be inside Ashelle's head, he concluded. Park knew enough about what he
was doing when he set his gun. Good.
"Can you work?" Janni asked him.
"I didn't know- "
"Put the gun away, Park,"
Janni said, less gently. "Can you work your station?"
Park shook briefly, like shedding a daydream.
the link to the other ships.
"Gentlemen, we've had an unfortunate occurrence," he said, addressing his fellow captains.
As he spoke he began tapping commands into his flatscreen to transfer the functions of Ashelle's blood-spattered console to
his own. "I'm afraid our political officer is dead."
"Dead?" Jake said. "You killed her?"
"That's a shame,"
"Well, then," Janni said. "I consider myself under arrest. Captain Roberts, the flight is yours."
said. "As my first act as flight leader, I relinquish all command authority to Captain Janni."
"Thank you, gentlemen. Now, we need to rethink our conduct of this war."
Emmerich Leight's flatscreen rang, interrupting
his planned twilight morning of quiet contemplation. He stomach sank when he saw the silver sphere logo.
Mr. Leight. This is an automatic advisory from Palladium, your intelligence nexus."
"Goddammit," Emmerich said.
limited node access for the next twenty to sixty hours, followed by probable termination of service for an indefinite period."
"As a Platinum
Club User, you are being granted special node access to begin at 8:00 this morning."
"You are advised
to conclude all priority transactions before 9:00 this morning. You should not initiate any communications requiring return
receipt. We are sorry for the inconvenience."
"I have a question," Emmerich said.
"How can we help you?" The voice was only
slightly different, but Emmerich's practiced ear could tell.
"Do you have an idea when you'll return to normal service?"
"Not at this time."
"Do you know what
the problem is?"
"The problem is known. Have a productive day, Mr. Leight."
Emmerich frowned as he blanked the screen.
He rushed through the
rest of his coffee as he got himself together. In the car, Emmerich drove past dunes covered in blue grass, and the horizon
of the sea beyond bulged with ringlight, held as if by surface tension but ready to spill out over the waters. He turned onto
the viaduct approach ramp and the car politely took over. The wheels retracted. Emmerich picked the OMB 1 World Service on
the radio, and settled back.
The Tacton Viaduct ran between Hull and Xander and was the longest stretch of maglev ribbon in
the Archipelago. The sun-sharpened leading edge of Adonis' rings had sliced through the horizon, lighting the underside of
a thick, dark bank of clouds before him. Elsewhere in the ruddy, tarnished sky were crescent moons and a spray of hazy stars.
It seemed to Emmerich that he caught glints of ice crystals in the sky near Goodall and Cousteau, or perhaps it was just the
ringlight catching flecks on the windscreen.
The energy stream appeared as a vein of purple-white brilliance wreathed in vapors bisecting the
sky. Writhing capillaries fled the central shaft and jabbed deep into sudden clouds illuminating them from within. The nimbus
took on the structure of a narrow alcove in a great cathedral receiving a visitation from a furious aspect of the Almighty.
Even though the Archipelago's
skies could be the stage for some spectacular lightening, Emmerich knew immediately that what he was witnessing wasn't a natural
phenomenon. For one thing, the energy stream was too perfectly linear and uniform in color. The beam persisted in the sky
as if supporting it, like a column of coherent light. Then he perceived that it was moving toward him.
He grabbed the wheel
but the car wouldn't let go. Not that there was anywhere to turn. The Tacton Viaduct was in total control, and traffic streamed
westward at 200 kilometers per hour. He stared at a vertical blade of evident destructive power knifing right for the bridge
of his nose, dragging its own weather system along. His eyes traced down to the base, which was concealed in bubbling, explosive
steam. Silhouetted against the steam-storm was a surface-effect ship, long and forward-leaning with a tower amidships and
V-rudders aft. It was the 7:30 ferry out of Hull. The ferry usually had something like five hundred people onboard for the
morning commute: well-dressed and groomed professionals, earnest and young. The ferry disappeared into super-heated, supersonic
In his horror, Emmerich was dimly aware of the OMC World Service chiming the three-quarter hour, a synthesized ascendant trill
behind a piano striking three regular notes in C. There was mild and not unpleasant susurrus of wind over the car. He heard
these things, and not the terrible jove that was coming in wrath and glory. This fact told Emmerich that the phenomenon was
itself supersonic, and would be on him in seconds.
There were barbs of guilt and worry: The mortgage payment was due. Who
was going to refill the suet cage? Then he felt a spark of elation. The vertical, cracking beam was slipping toward his shoulder.
Then he was watching it out of the driver's side window, a disciplined column of purple-tinged acetylene flame stretching
from sea to sky. The sound hit. It was a crack and a sustained howl, like a hundred trays dropped in a great stone hall simultaneously
with the reverberation taken up by an after-burning pipe organ with a thousand throats. Pain lanced through his eye. His ears
popped. His teeth came together, clattering. A hand of lightning grabbed for him, fingers drumming about the car.
In following the vision,
Emmerich had twisted his neck around, like a terrestrial owl. The sky pillar was moving across the rear window. Emmerich's
eyes alighted on the gold French braid of the woman in the car behind him. It was done up tight and neat with a pretty navy
bow at the top. The sky pillar cut the viaduct at the elbow of the turn he had just cleared and was tracing it back up the
ribbon toward Hull drawing a curtain of steam behind it. The woman's mouth was an "O." Their eyes met. Hers were
brown and there were tears streaming down her face. She was beautiful. Emmerich recognized her from town, but did not know
her name. He turned away from her and finally exhaled.
Emmerich saw many vertical beams on the horizon. Some were just stabbing
flashes. Others were striking, moving, and then disappearing, each no more than five seconds in duration. Was the event he
just experienced really that sudden? He turned around and the sky pillar was gone, the sea shrouded in a mountain of fog that
was tinged with red at the top and one side by the sun-rimmed rings rising behind it. The scream of the jove had fled across
the open waters with nothing to bring it back to him. There was a tone from the radio he recognized as a Civil Defense broadcast.
He looked hopefully to the windscreen of the car behind him, but could only see the top of the driver's head between bone-white
hands clutching the wheel. She was heaving, sobbing, the pretty bow of her hair ribbon perched atop, oblivious.
The siren wail pulled
him back to the dashboard screen, which was filled with a compelling pattern of black and yellow arranged in a circle. Through
the windshield, he saw tongues of purple-white hydra-head lightning lashing points on the horizon.
"This is the Emergency
Broadcast System," said a female voice of calm, grave authority. "This is not a test. You are required to listen
closely and follow all instructions. Above all, remain calm and think clearly."
Emmerich blinked as the word "war"
entered his thoughts. He had helped the government prepare for war using his own modest skills and now the war had come back
to him. Although he hadn't seen any fighting during the Breakout, he had watched many features and documentaries on the victories
and the sacrifices. The Pangaea business way over the southern horizon and half a world away. But now there was war all around
Brilliant globes ascended skyward from a point on the horizon, about six in all. These seem to accelerate as they climbed
and became streaks that disappeared. From somewhere else, a tight, prismatic spray of glistening crystals streamed into the
In one region of the sky, light shuddered through the layer of fat clouds, growing and uneven. Folds in the clouds darkened
as their bellies brightened. Then something artfully curved yet horribly jagged plunged out from the cloud bottoms into the
open air as if it ripping through a wet, tired grocery sack. The trailing fire poured light that spread out across the cloud
bottoms and pooled on the surface of the sea below. A scattering of other flaming, falling objects attended the core of the
stricken craft, which eventually met its reflection. The sea exhaled a flash and a high plume of spray.
"We got one,"
Emmerich said, without elation.