Once the outer moons were cleared or suppressed, follow-on flights moved in on Outre Mer proper. These included a variety
of surface attack craft armed with particle accelerators and deadfall ordnance, and Swallow suborbital air dominance fighters
that could dip into the atmosphere to clear areas of enemy aircraft. The surface attack flights maneuvered to achieve orbits
over the Archipelago while the fighters converged on the skies over Pangaea. Provo ground batteries on Outre Mer offered what
resistance they could.
A Swallow in the high stratosphere over eastern Pangaea grazed the edge of sudden radiant globe and began trailing
blue smoke. The aerospacecraft rolled and dropped and struggled upward again. Inside the cockpit, pilot Brian Carbin dampened
a surge of fear. He saw immediately that the generator would never get him out of the atmosphere again. The stricken Swallow
had the altitude to glide out of enemy territory and over the Mandate, but that was strictly forbidden. He wouldn't likely
make the sea, and besides, the threat alarm was still singing. So resignation took hold. The pilot triggered the SAR beacon
The escape capsule separated from the rest of the fighter, which Brian watched arc upward and out of sight. The pilot
thought of his little son, fifty-six light years away. Just before his deployment he'd sent him his chronograph for his son's
fifth birthday, which we would miss. His ex-wife hated him for choosing space over them, but she wouldn't prevent the boy
from getting his father's flight watch. The escape capsule oriented itself and achieved terminal velocity. About a mile up
the repulsor pushed against gravity and brought the escape capsule to ground.
Brian climbed out of the cockpit and down a rescue ladder.
He looked around, marveling at the beautiful and strange landscape. Although he'd been briefed on the danger of grex, he'd
had his treatments and decided he'd take his chances. Besides, he'd also been briefed that the enemy would likely as not kill
him on sight. He cracked his seal, decided he'd smelled worse landfills, and took the helmet off. The pilot fished a silver
cigarette case out of his survival kit and took out a filterless coffin nail. He lit it with an old Zippo and breathed deep.
Ah, much better.
There was a stump nearby, and he took a seat to wait for his rescuers or executioners, whoever showed up first. Contrails
ripped the green sky high overhead. The pilot was lighting his second cigarette from the nub of the first when he heard the
patrol come through the alien trees. His heart skipped and ice ran through him. There were six duranni soldiers, coiled, moving
on backward-bending knees. They all wore dark goggles and trained long guns on him. Brian remained seated, smoking, calming
himself. One of the duranni stepped forward.
"Are you taking poison?" the soldier asked.
"I guess I am," the pilot said,
suppressing surprise at the creature's clear speech. "But it takes many, many years for it to work. In the mean time,
Brian thumbed open the lid on the case and offered it to the duranni, who shook her head curtly. The pilot shrugged
and put the case away.
"Are you otherwise armed?"
"No. I have a gun in the escape capsule back there. But I should tell you that the whole thing
is rigged to blow up, so I'd keep away if I were you."
"Good of you to warn me," the duranni soldier said, eyeing the
escape capsule warily while shouldering her weapon. She studied it for a moment and then pointed the finger of a metallic
gauntlet. "Is that a joke?"
Brian looked at the gauntlet with interest before turning to see where the artificial finger was
pointing. The duranni soldier was indicating a touch of artwork on the exterior, below the cockpit. It depicted a skeletal
forearm and hand extending from the arm of a black robe. Beneath were the words, "Take My Hand."
the pilot said.
"Oh? You find humiliating us amusing?"
"What do you mean?"
"The hand. ‘Take my hand,'"
the duranni said. "Our hands are rudimentary so you ask us to take yours, even though you know this is not possible.
We have to wear these mechanical contraptions. It is a big joke among you at our expense?"
"I hate to disappoint you,
friend. But I painted that on there without any preconceived notions of duranni anatomy. Frankly I didn't know that your hands...paws...looked
like that. No offense."
"So what is the joke, then?"
"Well, it's a reference to our personification of death, which we
represent as a skeleton in a black cloak, sometimes with a scythe, and sometimes with an hourglass. It's Death, with a capital
‘D.' I'm inviting my enemies to take the hand of Death, who will help them into the afterlife."
"So it's religious."
Brian said. "But not really. I'm saying that I bring death to my enemies."
"But your enemies wouldn't be able to
"It's really more for my benefit."
"Morale," the man said. "It makes me
feel good to personalize my equipment."
"I see. And this Death character makes you feel good?"
"In the context of being a fighter pilot.
There's a certain dark pleasure we derive from macabre imagery. Although right now I'm sort of wishing I'd painted a naked
girl on there."
"I don't get it, friend," the duranni soldier said. "But I can tell you're a subtle man."
"Take my hand,"
the soldier said. "Do you see the irony?"
Brian formed a picture of his smiling little boy in
The duranni barked an order to her patrol. The duranni aimed their rifles and blew the man to pieces. Brian Carbin
had the distinction of being the last human being killed in the Outre Mer War.
"My name is Janni. I am a duranni, a native of
Outre Mer. I have a mind. I believe that I have a soul. I am a person."
Marten Fisher replayed the opening of the
broadcast that had first reached him in the amphitheater of the command tug Sausalito. He now walked the tombstone paths of his teardrop-shaped
home that was ensconced in geosynchronous orbit over the continent of Pangaea. The station was attended by the Kinder Torch
assembly and the constellation of pressure spheres filled with Fog that hung like a many-bladed Sword of Damocles over the
heads of the Awakened duranni. There was also a flotilla of gunboats at his disposal. Marten understood that when the light
was right it was possible to see the torch assembly and the pressure spheres from the ground with the naked eye. Regardless,
the Awakened duranni certainly knew they were up there.
Marten admired the frank, intelligent face that made the case for clemency.
"You do not have to annihilate us. Please, let us live. Let us live and we will leave Outre Mer."
It was sometimes hard
to reconcile that beast-like face with the words. But Janni's tremendous saucer eyes held the viewer. They were like a pair
of fresh-struck bronze coins, wet from the blank.
"The land is not important. Do what you want with it. Do what you
must. Our lives are important. You do not have to kill us. You can choose not to."
The prime mover Centauri Conveyor would leave on its first run
to Erie within a week. Her shuttles made regular flights to Pangaea to remove Awakened duranni. They would go to Erie to live
under the domes, at least initially. But they would live.
The first time he saw Janni's address was on a workstation monitoring the
Red Channel. The comms specialist tugged his elbow and Marten was surprised to learn that the transmission was coming from
deep space, within two AU. Direction-finders quickly pinned down the location of the source and sensors strained to resolve
and identify it.
"As I choose not to kill you now."
Threat alarms had cried out from the balcony where the command staff worked.
Marten had dropped his visor down over his eyes to see the track of a spacecraft as it blazed through the core formation of
the Orbital Insertion Group at one-tenth the speed of light. They had to replay the footage of the vessel's flyby to identify
her because she was gone as quickly as she had appeared. She was the cruiser Broadside Electric, and for a moment she had worn brilliant
colors of emerald green with yellow mottling. The ship's railguns and a large dorsal particle accelerator had been trained
on the Sausalito. Then the moment had passed
and the cruiser receded sunward, fading into a camouflage scheme and into the background as targeting sensors belatedly groped
"You can choose to let us live."
It had quickly become apparent that the transmission was coming from a
remote source. Also, there had been every reason to believe that the other Provo cruisers were out there, too, stalking them.
"I do not claim to speak for the government of Outre Mer. I do not even claim to speak for the duranni. But you can use
me to speak to them."
Marten had used the channel that connected Sausalito with the hindmost unit of the Strike and Interdiction Group relay his
recommendation that Richard Alvarez explore Janni's plea for clemency. Maybe there was another way.
"I'm asking you
to please let us live. We are people, just like you."
Janni ended his address by holding up his mitt-like, three-fingered hand
in a universally recognizable gesture of greeting.
"Meet us and see."
Standing at the mezzanine rail on the Sausalito, Marten had passed the invitation
on to Richard. He confirmed that he would park his Fog bladders and Kinder Torch in high orbit above Pangaea, he said that
he would not deploy these systems without a direct order.
The order had never come.
Marten Fisher, proconsul of the Outre Mer Provisional
Government, liked to play the ‘I Am a Person' speech in his garden while he walked the tombstone path, with the arms
of Adonis soaring overhead. It reminded him that he still had his soul.
Delphi emerged from the starfield like a dark thought.
Gustavo's mouth opened. He looked at his tactical displays.
"Amazing," Gustavo said. "We were in range of the station's
long-range weapons for minutes before it showed up on the scope."
"Delphi has gravity sinks," Aye-Aye told him.
"Sort of like pseudo-mass in reverse. They suck up gravitons and bottle them."
"Now that I know where to put the telescope
I can make it out," Gustavo said. "Usually massprint cues the electrooptics."
"There are outriders, too," Aye-Aye
said. "Clouds of them."
"I don't see any."
"That's the idea."
Gustavo simply observed as the autopilot
flew the ship in according to telemetry sent from Delphi. The great mobile logistics base grew almost imperceptibly. The scrolling
contact report gave a better indication of the speed of their approach. Feeling generous, Gustavo opened the intercom.
You can come up to the flight deck if you want."
Their passenger had been unwilling at first to leave his beloved adopted
world but Gustavo had prevailed on him that the greater good required his expertise. Brother Michael had seemed sort of glad
to see him go.
The flight out had been surprisingly uneventful. Mt. Meru's air-defense system kept the Provo interceptors back and
they had an outrider from the vanguard of the strike force that was bearing down on Outre Mer as an escort. Once past the
sun it was a routine climb to the heliopause.
The aged Jesuit came up through the steep ramp separating the control and engineering wells of
the flight deck. Two-and-a-half weeks in space had not made him appreciatively more facile in zero gravity. His legs floated
up over his back as he made his way forward using the handholds. Gustavo noted with some relief that the good father had finally
discarded his cassock for a onepiece.
"Where should I sit?" Father Durann asked.
"There's an empty workstation right there,"
Aye-Aye said, gesturing at an alcove. "It's mostly cold so you can't hurt anything."
Father Durann floated
over to the unused station that was partially recessed into the starboard bulkhead. He struggled into the couch and strapped
"Try channel five," Aye-Aye said. "It an ambient-light view slaved to Delphi."
Gustavo smiled when
he heard Father Durann gasp.
"How did they build such a thing way out here?"
"They built it somewhere else,"
Aye-Aye said, enigmatically.
"Something so large is capable on interstellar travel?" Father Durann said, astonished.
"Seeing is believing, Father," Aye-Aye said. "An attending fleet of tankers takes helium from uninhabited
star systems in range. Cargo runs of material and passengers are made clandestinely. Delphi can effectively go anywhere free
of the constraints of system-based maintenance facilities."
"I'm just glad it's here," Gustavo said. "I had my doubts."
"And now it's
here," Father Durann replied softly. "At the edge of Iota Horologii."
"Welcome to your new home, Father,"
Gustavo said. "I'm afraid it might be a while before you make planetfall again."
"You, too, I might add," Father
Durann said. "I think we're all going to be very busy for some time to come."
"Suits me," Gustavo said. "Planets
"Amen," Aye-Aye said.
Corona Alvarez awoke and her hand immediately went to her head, which was smooth as a river stone.
It was a gesture she would get over, in time. Every day she felt better.
Golden light streamed through the open window. The dawn
had come while she had been asleep. She got out of bed and walked to the window, nude and without the self-consciousness she
remembered feeling even when she was alone. The jungle lay spread before her and mighty Adonis seemed to float on the breeze,
bejeweled and impassive. Corona breathed deep and found the lush, perfumed scents exhilarating.
She dressed in a onepiece and
moccasins. Matins (or Fajr, as Khalid insisted on calling it) was in half-an-hour and she liked to get topside early.
The duranni in the
hallway made her start.
"I am to be your partner," the large female said. Clearly she had been waiting for Corona, which was unnerving.
"I thought we should meet informally before orientation."
Corona recognized her. She had a commanding bearing that made her a standout
even in a crowd of others of her kind. The Outer Service now ran the Outre Mer Provisional Authority and it considered the
involvement of Awakened duranni crucial to the success of its administration. This included teaming up humans and duranni
for the new Pangaea monitoring program. Corona had been hoping to partner with one of the males. They seemed meeker. Not as
"What is your name again, I'm sorry?"
"I'm Nagya," she said, inclining her head slightly.
Corona resisted the impulse to extend her
hand. It wasn't considered polite to offer to shake hands.
"Nice to meet you, Nagya. I'm Corona."
"I know," Nagya said.
"I've reviewed your service record. We should make an effective team. Our skills compliment one other, I think."
"You were a marine,"
she said, remembering.
"I've done some field work," Corona said uncertainly. "But I'll try not to get in
"I couldn't fly if I had wings."
Nagya's voice conveyed such seriousness that it took a moment for Corona
to comprehend that she had been joking. She smiled.
"I think we'll get along fine."
They walked together, taking
the stairs topside. Corona found herself studying the movements of Nagya's legs, with her odd-seeming backward-bending knees.
She tried not to stare at the duranni's long, magnificently furred tail. If Nagya minded she didn't show it. Apparently the
marine had spent a lot of time around human beings.
At the top of the stairs, Nagya put on a pair of goggles. Outside, the
facilities of Mt. Meru were coming to life with the impending change of shifts. The two of them walked across expanse of the
tabletop mountain, drawn to the vista of the great ringed planet hanging over the horizon. The green day-sky spread out from
the sun, although the opposite horizon was still painted in the ruddy, golden hues of night.
"That's where I was stationed
last," Nagya said, pointing at a moon.
Corona did some quick calendar calculations in her head.
"That's Cousteau," Corona said.
"Was it bad?"
"It was pretty bad," Nagya admitted. "Not many of us made it through the bombardment."
"Don't be. Your
people suffered, too. Besides, it's over now."
They walked together to the edge of the tepui. Corona sat with her feet
hanging over the side. Nagya crouched down and leaned back. The jungle was a great, multicolored sea, with the treetops catching
the near horizontal morning light. Other tepuis were like ships upon the waves.
"I was going to retire to the high forest,"
Nagya said after a while. "Now I won't get that chance."
Corona looked down at the mists clinging to where the mesa emerged from
the canopy. She thought about her mother.
"I never really thought I'd make it to retirement," she said.
It was Christmas morning and
it was raining. An early frost had given Richard Alvarez a hope for snow, but the Adirondacks almost never had snow before
February. He sat in his study and watched the rain patter on the pine branches. A squall of blue jays blew through, darting
from tree to tree and calling raucously.
Richard had isolated himself from the vindictive and hateful firestorms that spun in his direction
after the Outre Mer affair by cutting himself off from all contact with the outside world, other than the places he could
get to on a brisk walk. He had title to his home until his death and a first-rate air-defense system. But he understood that
there were powers looking over him that enabled his splendid isolation.
Various NGOs weren't happy. The Americans were furious
and mobilizing, no-doubt. Good, Richard thought. It would be healthy for his countrymen to get back out onto the universe.