white line creeping forward on Gustavo Franco's flatscreen represented the bow shock of the Maya System's heliosphere, about
one hundred AU from the single G2-class star. The pilot of the Rat cutter Rocky was effectively a passenger while his boat remained
snuggled into a form-fit recess on the dorsal surface of the frontier cruiser Vermithrax. The cutter was a spear point, a flattened lifting body
angled and coated for a low-radar cross section. It was the cruiser's Reality Goblin complex that distressed space and projected
cruiser, cutter, and the souls aboard them beyond the firmament.
A star's heliopause was the final barrier in terms of Vermithrax's ability to relocate through
the aether. For Gustavo, the line also represented the threshold of a major career advance. He had flown dozens of missions
for the Outer Service's Scout Corps, but none had required such meticulous planning on such short notice. None had been as
audacious. Gustavo felt the thrill that only the opportunity to distinguish oneself in an elite field could provide.
He glanced to his right
at Amir "Aye-Aye" Zar, the flight engineer who sat in the second couch of the two-place flight deck. Aye-Aye was
signing to his flatscreen, cycling through preset displays. As opposed to Gustavo, who was a natural, Aye-Aye was a human
of design: dark with large gold eyes and astonishingly sharp teeth. Rocky was fitted with a space recovery pallet for the mission and carried no
additional flight crew, although there was a small launch and recovery crew aboard Vermithrax.
When the white line washed over the ship's icon they
were in real space. The cruiser's flywheel imparted an ingress velocity of one-tenth the speed of light without acceleration.
She simply emerged into reality traveling at that speed.
The launch crew chief offered Gustavo a twenty-second separation window.
Miss it, and Vermithrax would have to go to the secondary ingress point, adding as much as a month to their mission.
"Okay?" Gustavo asked
"I'm good," Aye-Aye said.
Gustavo reviewed his own display and saw that all the good lights were on and the bad ones were
off. The separation routine was cued and ready. He gestured knowingly at the screen. Fifteen seconds remained after acceptance.
"Here we go,"
Gustavo told the crew chief.
"We'll miss you," the crew chief said.
"Yeah," Gustavo said. "Stay away from
"You mean this?"
The crew chief sent an image of his fist around the neck of a bottle of Sapporo. Gustavo smiled.
Things worked, and that was worth some attitude. They were the top team in a very select league. A know-it-all from another
Rat team once pointed out to Gustavo that Rocky was a flying squirrel, not a proper rat. It was convention among the Rats
to name their mounts after notable rats in history. "Tree rat," Gustavo had had replied. "Rocky's a flying
tree rat." The Flying Tree Rats became the name of the boat crew's null-gravity squash squad. Their jerseys adorned with
the buck-toothed squirrel swooping down brandishing his racquet like a saber were in great demand around the Outer Service.
There was a chunk, and
they were away. High-pressure helium vented from recessed apertures in a complex sequence. Gustavo felt the tugs and shoves.
Rat cutters were highly automated. Most of Gustavo's pilot work was done in mission planning en route to the star system catalogued
as CD-41 328.
It was Gustavo's good fortune that Vermithrax was green-lit at Escher when orders for the priority operation came down. Nicodemus was on call at Cantrip but Smaug, her attached frontier cruiser,
was yellow-lit with a communications problem. The required fix would take too long. Vermithrax had been preparing for rotation back to Sol and the
cruiser's Sol-based crew hadn't been happy about the tour extension, which would mean about another six months at least before
they saw home again. Before, there had been excited talk around the base about Christmas on Earth. Gustavo sympathized, but
didn't much care. Although he'd been born on Earth he didn't have a real home other than his unit. Most Scouts didn't. Gustavo
was glad to be working.
Both the Rat and frontier cruiser were running cold on divergent courses. Rocky was going to meet the Iron Maiden, a Mars-size sphere
of iron and nickel that plodded along an orbit in the outer system. Rocky would be gravity-breaking for a full week prior to the encounter, bleeding
velocity in a stream of gravitons aimed at the planet. The cutter would then skirt the Maiden to meet a fast comet on the
downward slide of a parabola toward the sun. Vermithrax coasted at her tenth-c velocity toward the outer edge of the star system below the plane of the
ecliptic, where she would aether-brake and take up station to wait.
Gustavo felt a twinge of pity for his Outer Service comrades. In effect,
Vermithrax was a glorified delivery truck.
The success or failure of the mission was largely out of her crew's hands. It was Rocky that would plunge into the midst of a hornet's nest
to pluck out one particular individual, albeit a willing one. A shot at recovering a Phalangist defector was the sort of opportunity
that made or broke a career. Although the Phalangists weren't declared enemies, they would have no qualms about opening fire
on an Outer Service vessel operating in such a sensitive area. Moreover, if the objective of the mission became clear, they
would pull out all the stops to thwart it.
"I have Vermithrax on optical," Aye-Aye said.
"Keep a telescope on her," Gustavo said. "Just for fun."
Aye-Aye was able to
track the cruiser for the first few days: electrooptically for a day and then by massprint until she faded into the background.
Rocky's relatively slow dive sunward
was necessitated by a mission requirement to remain within the target comet's concealing particles as they moved into the
inner system. For the next three months Gustavo and Aye-Aye read, wrote, programmed presets, watched movies, played computer
games, cooked adventurous meals, thought, and talked about what they were going to do when they grew up. On the cruiser, at
least, there would be room to play some squash.
Marten Fisher burned planets. He was good at it but it was just a job to him. Marten's partner,
Ekaterina Tsourikov, adored it. They made love with the atmosphere on fire beneath them.
The natural world below was passing into oblivion.
Man's hands throttled it as they would one day form the lifeless clay into something more suitable to him. Marten's hands
were covered with a world's blood and Ekaterina's sweat and sweetness. She spoke in tongues. Marten looked into the eyes of
the dragon and wondered what Circle he was bound for.
The Ninth, of course: the Lake of Ice. His sins would be redeemed by the
worst sin of all. But first, blessed oblivion.
Ekaterina rolled off him and Marten felt ropes of her wet hair drag across his face. Years of engineering
and politics fled scudding before the after-moment. Away, he sucked air and exhaled like a billows. The electric blackness
enfolded him and was heavy with their smell. He reached for her, landing his hand on her slick thigh.
"I was thinking of having
a son," Ekaterina said.
Marten felt a chill penetrate to his spine, impaling the moment.
"Oh, God, please don't do that,"
"Why not?" She pouted. "Wouldn't you like me to carry your child for a while?"
reconsidered quickly. "Not really."
"I don't mean to term. I'd transfer him before he became too inconvenient." Ekaterina
exuded seduction from the pout. "But I mean for a while. It would be nice to have something from you growing inside me."
"I don't think
we need to add a child into the mix right now."
"We can afford it," Ekaterina said, moving her legs in such a
way. "We already have more money than we can spend in ten lifetimes."
"It's not what we can or cannot afford," Marten
said, seeking calmness in deliberate speech. "But are we ready for something like this?"
"Don't you want to have
a baby with me?"
"With or without you, I don't want to have a baby right now. Not like this."
"Not like what?" Ekaterina
"I don't want to look at our child and see that in the back of my mind," Marten said, pointing at the maelstrom
on the wallscreen.
Maya burned, filling one wall of their suite in a natural view. Firestorms pinwheeled as huge hurricanes across the
night face. The eye of each storm sparkled with the point source of a Kinder Torch. All organic matter on Maya would be reduced
to ash and all gases in the atmosphere would be transformed through combustion. This phase would last six months, eventually
burning down to an even shimmer of sustained chemical reactions: slow burn. Years later, an induced rain of comets would reintroduce
oxygen and hydrogen into the environment. It would be a generation before the landscapers moved in with the shrubbery.
Ekaterina said, somewhat mollified. "You always get philosophical after ignition."
"I know," Marten said. "The
Party wouldn't approve. But I do find myself thinking about all the poor little critters getting barbecued down there."
They had done six worlds
together, and Maya was their greatest project. None of the worlds Marten and Ekaterina had worked on were fully baked yet.
But they were all advancing as calculated and so their reputation as a team grew and they were invited to bid on the choicest
properties. Maya was the most terranorm world yet attempted, with all leading indicators within a twenty percent of Earth's.
It was also the world with the most complex aboriginal biosphere, supporting land chordates and flowering plants. But there
was too much sulfur in the air for humans and terranimals to breathe without filters or genetic modification, and the virulent
microorganism index was particularly high. So the Ministry of Public Works closed the world and gave notice to the scientists
and squatters in residence. Then they opened the project to bids. Marten and Ekaterina had the best proposal.
"I think of it
as an act of creation," Ekaterina said. "Die the little death and then life springs from the ashes. I feel like
one of those pagan goddesses. You know? The Freya-Ishtar-Khali figure; goddess of life and death, war and love."
"You always do
get megalomaniacal after ignition," Marten said. He pinched at her hip. It was firm and smooth and slick and his fingers
slipped. "You are nearly made of marble."
Ekaterina bucked and yelped pleasantly. "You're teasing me."
"So no baby right
She sighed. "Okay. Not right now."
"Good," he said. "Maybe when we can take some time off."
"After Maya we
go right into precursors for Miramar."
"Don't remind me. But maybe after that." Marten fabricated a facsimile of hope for his
lover. "We can take a year. I want to see you get fat."
"Okay," she said. Ekaterina rolled toward him and took hold of
him. "For you, I'll get fat," she whispered.
She kissed him. He prolonged it, and they were together. Marten had an
overwhelming desire to tell Ekaterina everything, to ask her go with him. He loved her suddenly and totally. But he drove
his love into the outer darkness and threw his soul after it. Ekaterina started speaking in tongues; it was something she
only did after an ignition. Her voice was rhythmic and guttural and it drove him mad while the world burned.
After, Ekaterina slept
and Marten got up. He had a shower and dressed in a coverall. Marten looked at Ekaterina lying nude, breathing deeply, bathed
in the infernal light of their handiwork. Perfect.
Then he left her.
He avoided the common rooms where the team's celebrations were in progress. The corridors were cold
and quiet. Marten signed out his boat and filed a flight plan for an orbital survey of the planet. It was not an abnormal
thing for a terraform team project manager to do.
The skiff hummed and clicked through its preflight routine. The pilot's assistant handled it all
automatically leaving Marten to stare vacantly into space. He sipped from his Party Conference XLIX coffee mug and watched
smears of oranges and reds and cracks of brilliant yellows against the ruddy dullness of the planet's dark side.
Marten had planned his
betrayal for several years. At first his Outer Service Intelligence contacts had put him off and so he buried his dreams in
the Maya project. Then suddenly, about nine months ago, they couldn't wait to pull him out. By then Marten could almost taste
the coming ignition, and the fever came over him. He always found a reason why he needed to stay on and finish the project.
They hadn't liked that. Terraforming was a universal crime in the Treaty Area, and it seemed too much like he was having his
cake and eating it besides. They had threatened on one occasion to revoke his immunity deal, but that was a bluff and Marten
had laughed at them. Then they threatened to expose him to the Party. But Marten knew that he was too valuable and that they
had invested too much in cultivating him and building his escape route. They may never get such an opportunity again.
The pilot's assistant
program told him that the skiff was ready for departure. The boat was Marten's personal property, but he took nothing with
him other than what he was wearing and what was in his flight bag. Anyone who stopped him would have no reason to suspect
that Marten was going on anything other than a day's outing. He broke from the station and let the assistant maneuver the
skiff into the clear. The identify friend-or-foe transponder chirped its test. Marten deployed the gravity lateen and took
control. He put the skiff into an equatorial orbit, climbing higher than the observation satellites, chasing the dawn. The
sun peaking over the horizon highlighted one of the huge bladders containing his witches' brew of aerosols that would be introduced
into the cauldron at the proper time to regulate temperature and influence reactions. There were fifty thousand of the bladders
orbiting like a string of pearls over the equator. When he was on the dayside, with the station eclipsed, Marten altered the
repulsion to climb out of Maya's gravity well. He inserted a new flight plan for a close solar orbit. This would be considered
out of the ordinary but not unheard of.
The Phalanx frigate on high guard interrogated his IFF but everything was in order. His flight clearly
had originated at the station and the electronic approval stamp was a good forgery.
"Do you want an escort?" the frigate's
duty officer asked him.
"That won't be necessary," Marten replied. "But thank you."
"That's quite a show you're putting on."
"Is this your first
"It is. A little daunting."
"Do you know who Oppenheimer was?"
"I do indeed. The gentleman who made the first atomic
weapon. I was thinking along the same lines. Behold, I have become Death..."
"The destroyer of worlds."
out if you need anything, Dr. Fisher."
"I will, Lieutenant. Thanks again."
When the skiff failed to emerge from Maya's far side
on schedule, the station automatically hailed him. Marten requested a new flight plan so that he could make his own observations
of the sun. He justified his request by saying that he wasn't satisfied with the data coming from the heliosat. Solar radiation
was part of the recipe for terraformation. It dictated how aerosols were introduced. This was the dicey part of the plan.
If Marten's request was refused and he failed to decelerate then he would be in open flight. There would be pursuit, but he
had already built up enough velocity to get to the sun before the frigate or its outriders overtook him. That's all his handlers
had told him: Get to the sun. But the request was approved, and he proceeded sunward with official sanction. The next problem
would be when Ekaterina woke up and started looking for him, but he put that horrible moment out of his mind.
"Holy shit, you're
not going to believe who I've got."
Emily Playa had been adrift in melancholy at having to sit by and do nothing while a rare jewel
burned in space. She looked up at the incongruously excited face of Avi David. The young flight engineer was monitoring the
signals intelligence station, which recorded and catalogued Phalangist communications and sensor emissions. He looked like
he had just won the Centauri Sweepstakes. As for herself, Emily could just barely hold back her tears.
Avi said. "It's Marten Fisher."
"No!" Emily wiped away her forlorn look with a hand she fought to keep from trembling.
"Yes! At least
that's what the IFF says. That frigate pinged him and we picked up some of the splash. It's his personal boat."
Devil himself! "Where's he headed?"
Emily's ship, the Spectrum Warrior, was lying dark at the Lagrange point between Maya and the star CD-41 328, documenting the murder
of the world. The imagery and data would be useful as evidence in any universal crimes trials in the unlikely event anybody
ever got hold of a Phalangist and dragged his ass back to Sol. They would also pull in a fortune in fundraising for Starpeace
to help them carry on the fight.
The NGS Spectrum Warrior was a non-governmental ship that was registered to Starpeace and sustained by the donations of
like-minded people from worlds across the Treaty Area and Frontier. She was armed and licensed according to Interpol conventions
governing auxiliary police units. Some would call her a privateer. Others, worse things. The Phalanx was not a member of Interpol
and it would destroy the Spectrum Warrior on sight in Phalangist territory, if it got the chance.
"Is there an escort?" Emily asked.
"Doesn't look like it,"
Avi said. "The frigate's still in geosynchronous orbit and it hasn't launched any outriders."
Emily ran a daydream in fast-forward where she faced the bastard: his eyes downcast, hers blazing. Then the notion forked.
Along one tine she handed him over to proper authorities with great fanfare and media coverage; along the other she shot him
in the face with a plasma pistol. Of course, neither possibility allowed for the realities of space travel. "Maybe it's
"Maybe. Maybe it's both of them, out to get a look at their...handiwork."
"That would be too much."
"Tell me. But just
one of them would be worth breaking cover for. He's the ten of diamonds and she's the ten of spades."
Emily Playa was not
a risk taker. Despite the carefully crafted image, Starpeace captains typically were risk-averse creatures, and Emily had
been recruited from the Conveyors, a more conservative lot you would never find. The romance of commanding an Ecowarrior had
seduced her away from the comfort and financial security of the prime movers.
Emily believed in the Starpeace cause-what she understood of its Red-Green, world-first
ideology-but she was a master and commander
first. A professional. Her mission was to document the Phalangist crimes against Maya and return to the Treaty Area. The recorded
imagery and spectroanalysis data of a World Crime in progress plus the Phalangist communications and telemetry traffic gleaned
from the ship's signals intelligence system would advance the fight against terraforming more than all the hypotheticals and
simulations ever rendered.
There were standing orders and policies that could cause Emily to deviate from this mission, but
she would have to answer for her actions. Spectrum Warrior had recorded the ignition and the formation of firestorms across the surface of the screaming world.
Ideally they were to record the progression of the firestorms as they grew and merged until the entire globe was aflame. In
time-compressed edit with a suitably tragic soundtrack-think Barber's Agnus Dei-it would make an impressive feature for the videodromes. But Marten Fisher!
and fifty thousand miles at closest approach," Avi said. He glanced at his screen. "About four hours from now."
"Warm up the rotary,"
Emily said, deciding quickly. "We'll fire a spread of chasers as he passes and follow along behind to make sure he's
finished. Then we'll shoot the sun and make for the rim."
"Shouldn't we try to grab him?"
"We'd have to break for the sun right
now to match his velocity in order to take him. We'd risk getting spotted. Fuck that. He dies."
"Tell Frank to
make sure the cameras are on it."
"Absolutely. I'll load a TV round. We'll get a missile's eye view to a kill."
Emily said, with an eye toward her dress at the premier.
Gustavo and Aye-Aye were freshly shaved. They were on cartridge rations
and had put away the personal touches that earlier had bloomed amid the equipment racks like wildflowers: photos of Aye-Aye's
son, a Brazilian national soccer pennant, a Vargas nude, a Titian landscape. Only a clip-on plastic squirrel with buckteeth
and aviator's goggles clinging to the flight deck air vent handle remained as a mascot. They cycled the cabin to a neutralair
mix of hospital-grade nitrogen and oxygen. The homey smells of spices and cooking and soap gave way to efficient sterility.
Aye-Aye was using the
sensor suite to take inventory of threats before they committed to the rendezvous maneuver. Once free of the comet, now a
radiant feather, Phalanx moving target indicators would almost certainly register them in short order, if they weren't spotted
optically first. The comet would be an object of some curiosity for idle eyes and there were plenty of telescopes in Maya's
"This is interesting," Aye-Aye said.
"I don't like the sound of that," Gustavo said.
ship out there. A new one, away from the Phalanx units covering Maya."
"Yes. It's right in the Lagrange point.
Fisher's skiff is going to take the paint off it."
"What's it doing?"
"Just sitting there. But I'm seeing indications
of some exposed optics."
"Could be a satellite," Gustavo ventured. "It's a good place for an observation bird."
"It would be. But
the massprint suggests a starship."
"Not that big. More like a corvette."
"The Phalanx doesn't use star-capable corvettes.
Is it a system boat?"
"No, there's definitely an aether vent."
Gustavo only had to think for a few moments before the
"Oh, I bet I know who that is!" he said. "It's goddamn Starpeace. One of their Ecowarriors."
"That could be
a real problem," Aye-Aye said.
"No doubt. Damn. OSI said Starpeace wouldn't operate this far out."
has been doing so well for us lately."
"Can you type the ship?"
"It looks like an Ecowarrior," Aye-Aye said, fusing the data
from multiple sensors. "They're all a little different, but the massprint fits and the infrared signature is the right
"Damn it." Gustavo cursed OSI more eloquently to himself. "It's cold, you say?"
"Yes, just sitting
there," Aye-Aye said. "Probably taking pictures."
"I hope that's all. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but massprints."
"You don't think
maybe Fisher's screwing with us?"
"You mean like a double-cross?" Gustavo thought about that for a moment. "I don't
see the angle."
"Maybe Starpeace offered him a better deal."
"That seems unlikely," Gustavo said. "Besides, they'd never
honor any deal with a planet-killer like Fisher. They'd drag him back to The Hague in irons."
"Maybe Fisher's an idiot."
"Not too many idiots
in the Phalangist Pioneer Corps."
"You know how us science guys are," Aye-Aye said. "Brilliant but we can't manage
our own bank accounts."
"OSI said Fisher's a smart player," Gustavo said.
"Oh, well, if OSI said so."
"Hmm. Is Fisher's
skiff on course?"
"It is," Aye-Aye said, some doubt creeping into his voice. "They'd never manage a transfer rendezvous
short of the sun. Even if the Ecowarrior broke into a high-delta run right now we'd still get to Fisher first."
That was promising news.
Gustavo always put his faith in math.
"Two possibilities, then," he said. "Starpeace got tipped off that this deal was
going down and they're going to assassinate Fisher, or it's just a coincidence and they're documenting the terraforming."
"I like number
two," Aye-Aye said immediately.
"It's better for us."
Gustavo laughed, feeling genuine relief. No math there, but what the hell.
"And we know for
a fact that God is on our side," he said.
"But if that's the case then the Ecowarrior must be holding its breath hoping not to get spotted.
That skiff is going to come within 350K of her."
"We should place a couple of calls," Gustavo said. "Lasers?"
might require an extended conversation," Aye-Aye said. "With all the outgasing and ice crystals around us the lasers
will reflect and reveal our position."
"Good point. And if we break cover the Phalanx motion trackers will start reading us. Microwave?"
"They'll be some
backscatter. If the Phalanx has any SIGINT systems functioning they could pick us up."
"Will they be able to DF us?"
"Always a possibility."
"We'll risk it,"
Gustavo said. "There are probably more optics trained on the comet right now than DF antennas. You zap Fisher, let him
know about the spider. Tell him to hold course. Then point me at our Starpeace friends."
Aye-Aye tapped out a message
and sent it as a microburst over the microwave. Marten Fisher had received instructions on the communications protocols and
disciplines they would be observing on the pickup. There would be several seconds of delay for a round trip message. But instead
of the expected acknowledgment, Aye-Aye received a hail request.
"He wants to talk to us," Aye-Aye said.
"Tell him to stand by and
keep his zap shut."
Tap, tap, tap. Pause.
"Acknowledged," Aye-Aye said. The flight engineer made some adjustments. "You're
good to go."
Gustavo opened a communications window on his flatscreen.
"Starpeace vessel, this is the Outer Service," Gustavo said.
After a brief delay: "Hello, Rocky," a bright female voice said. "What can I do for you?"
Gustavo was astonished.
By the clock the delay had been just about what was required for a straight reply, as if the sender was sitting with a dossier
on her flatscreen.
"The Ecowarrior is responding with a laser," Aye-Aye said, disgusted. "Might as well be a pointer."
"Would you not
use the laser?" Gustavo demanded. "Microwave, please."
There was a longer delay. "Is that better?"
Gustavo looked over
at Aye-Aye, who nodded.
"Who are you?"
"I am Captain Emily Playa, Starpeace, commanding the NGS Spectrum Warrior. Accreditation attached."
Gustavo opened the attachment
and examined the letter of marque. The computer said it was genuine. He checked his mission folder to see if there was a file
on Emily Playa. There wasn't. Figures.
"Captain Playa, I must ask you to stand clear."
"Don't be funny."
"We are bearing
witness to a universal crime," Emily said. "Humor is the furthest thing from my mind."
"You are in the middle of
an Outer Service operation," Gustavo said. "You will take no action against the skiff approaching you."
"How is the skiff
related to your operation?"
"That is not your affair."
"What about the murder of worlds?" Emily said. "That is
"We're working on it."
"Not very hard."
"We're here, aren't we?" Gustavo said. "You're smart enough
to know how complicated the situation is."
"We're here too, Rocky," Emily said. "And we actually care. So go on back to the Vermithrax, why don't you?"
Gustavo turned to Aye-Aye.
"How does she know who we are?"
"Waveprint," Aye-Aye said. "Somebody must have catalogued our comms set in the past."
"But we're supposed
to be covert, with encryption and hoppers and all that."
Aye-Aye shrugged. Gustavo shrugged back.
"You have good intelligence, Captain,"
"They're shooting at you," Emily said.
Words failed him. He turned to consult Aye-Aye.
"She took the words out
of my mouth," the flight engineer said. "From the Maya orbital station. Six missiles. I'll have the type in a moment."
at me," Gustavo said.
"What are you going to do?" Emily said.
"I don't know, yet."
"Want my advice?"
Emily said. "Leave Fisher to me."
So it was serious. She knew Fisher was exposed and she was going to kill him. No sense denying anything.
"Can't do that,"
Gustavo said. "Orders."
"You can't rendezvous with him. It would be suicide."
"Don't worry about me. Just stay clear."
"Can't do that,
love," Emily said. "Ethics."
"Let me put it to you this way," Gustavo said. "I have broad discretionary powers."
me when there are six vampires coming down your throat?"
"Oh, look," Emily said. "That frigate's
launching its outriders."
"I don't care if the whole Phalanx fleet is bearing down on us," Gustavo said. "The
skiff and its contents are my responsibility."
"That's nice. You deal with your problems and I'll deal with mine."
"I will use force,"
Gustavo said, as gently as he could. He was beginning to like Emily Playa.
"What's your name, Captain?"
"Where are you
"The Union of Capricorn," Gustavo said. "On Earth."
"Me, too," Emily said. "Chile."
"Please run for
it, Gustavo. You have a perfect excuse."
Gustavo cut the link. There was nothing else to say. At least, not to Emily
about that, Aye-Aye? She's a fellow citizen."
"Small universe," Aye-Aye said. He was from the state of Madagascar.
"Are we worried?"
"The incoming vampires
are Bastion long-range missiles," Aye-Aye said. "Torch drives. 120g. Mid-course correction via datalink. Dual-mode
radar/multispectral terminal seeker. Warhead is either directed plasma shot, kinetic rods, or nuke. They'll be here in fifteen
"Are we smarter?"
"But of course."
"Good. What about the outriders?"
Aye-Aye said. "But if the missiles don't kill or cripple us we'll be able to outrun- Hello."
"We're being hailed
by the Phalanx space station," Aye-Aye said. "Wideband. They're warning us off."
Aye-Aye said in a mocking deep voice.
"Ignore them," Gustavo said, pleased that he wasn't the only one in the system with wanting
intelligence. "Zap Fisher again and ask him if his boat is armed or has any countermeasures."
Aye-Aye typed out and
sent the message.
"No and no," Aye-Aye reported after an interval.
"Okay, tell him to accelerate at maximum delta right for the sun.
Tell him to get ready to bail out on our say so."
"Oh." Aye-Aye smiled, showing his sharp teeth. "He's going
to love that."
"Are you kidding me?" Marten Fisher asked the universe.
He reread the communication from Rocky in open-mouthed astonishment.
Bail out? The skiff's cockpit was full of blue-gray tobacco smoke, as Marten had gone through half a pack in the two hours
since the Outer Service pickup team had first signaled him. Cigarette consumption had become clinical chain-smoking when they
reported the Starpeace ship lying in ambush. Now he was watching missiles accelerating toward his rescuers. What else could
happen? Was there any vodka in the little fridge?
A voice hail came from the station, wideband and in the clear: "Marten, what's happening? You
were gone and then we had an alert. Talk to me."
The panic in Ekaterina's voice was equal parts concern and disbelief. The
concoction poured messily down Marten's neck and back, cold and stinging. His hand went to the comms console, and then he
withdrew it as if snake bit. The need to answer Ekaterina was just as powerful as his desire to crawl under a rock and hide
from her. Marten hadn't just left Ekaterina; he'd fucked her and left. Seven years of struggle and triumph and mundane intimacy
showered off without so much as a goodbye. Guilt pricked him. Marten aimed the laser at a repeater satellite in Maya orbit
and typed a message: "Can't talk. Have faith. Love you."
He sent it and felt like the worst person who had ever lived. But Marten
thanked God for the favor of time delay. It took two minutes for a message to reach him from the station and the same for
a reply. Ekaterina wouldn't be expecting anything from him for a bit. In the mean time, the Starpeace ship might kill him.
Marten set his controls for the heart of the sun.
Marten smoked another cigarette. He froze when Ekaterina gurgled something over the air, wideband.
It was a cry of rage, grief, and horror: of realization. Marten cut the audio. As he was lighting another smoke end-to-end,
the skiff's threat alarm sounded. Spectrum Warrior had fired three missiles at him. He frowned and brought up the procedure for bailing out of a spacecraft.
As he scanned the step-by-step instructions it occurred to him that if Rocky failed to pick him up after he was clear he would go sailing into the
a fair cop," he told the universe.
"Three away," Avi said. "One's a TV round. We're getting a good feed."
Emily nodded grimly.
She watched Marten Fisher's skiff streak by on the tactical view with the missiles Spectrum Warrior had just fired turning sluggishly in pursuit.
Emily had almost held back on launching the missiles when she had heard Tsourikov's anguished cry on the wideband. If Fisher
was indeed defecting and the Outer Service was picking him up, shouldn't she back off as Gustavo demanded? But then she had
a mental flash, a vision of the planet killer living luxuriously in soft exile while the cinders of his victims smoked and
popped, thirsting for blood.
"How are the Phalanx missiles tracking?" she asked.
"True," Avi said. "Rocky has major problems."
"What is Rocky doing about them?"
Emily executed a plot
that would propel her into Fisher's wake, following her own missiles.
"Plot a firing solution for Rocky," she said. "Just
as a precaution."
"She's fired three vampires at the skiff," Aye-Aye said. "Wishbones. Fisher's an easy target and he's
silhouetted against the sun besides. They can't miss."
"Can you jam them?" Gustavo said.
"No. They have command guidance
but it's a pencil beam and we don't have the right jamming techniques."
"That's another angry letter for Intelligence,"
Gustavo said. "Okay, so he's going to have to bail. I'm pulling us out of the comet."
Gustavo maneuvered Rocky clear of the halo and increased
the lateen's preference for the sun's gravitational pull. There was a point short of the sun's corona where Rocky could intersect the skiff's
"Lots of radar on us now," Aye-Aye said. "Volume search modes. From the station, the frigate, those
outriders. They'll start tracking once they get the first returns from us."
"Fine, fine, let them track us,"
Gustavo said. "Just so long as you can jam the Bastions."
"I think I can."
"More confidence, please."
"Oh, not another ship?"
"Two more outriders," Aye-Aye said. "To sunward. Ah, there she is. There's a frigate
on sun guard, too."
"Sun guard," Gustavo repeated.
They had planned for contingencies that the Phalanx would post up to a half-dozen combatants in
the system. Likely spots would be one or two on Maya high guard, the Lagrange point, sun guard, and orbiting important bodies
in the outer solar system, of which Iron Maiden was the most useful. The presence of additional ships would have altered the
points of entry or exit and thus the timeline of the operation. The Outer Service had a reconnaissance bird at the edge of
the system that confirmed the Iron Maiden was clear, at least. They were counting on Fisher to let them know about Phalanx
warships in the inner system. Almost any challenge could be overcome with good mission planning. But surprises courted death.
"The sunward outriders
are making for Fisher and the Spectrum Warrior," Aye-Aye said. "Their frigate is keeping station over the sun's north pole."
"You'd think Fisher would
have let us know."
"Maybe he didn't know," Aye-Aye said. "He's with the Pioneers, not the Fleet."
he can't rightly bail."
"Sure he could," Aye-Aye said. "They'd catch Fisher in their arms and he'd thank
his comrades for saving him from us. Obviously the Outer Service and Starpeace had teamed up to get him."
Gustavo said. "I'm going to talk to Fisher. Point the laser."
Marten Fisher watched the approaching outriders with
mixed emotions. On one hand, a pickup by Rocky was looking well nigh impossible. On the other, the Phalanx could snag him if he signaled his intentions
prior to bailing. His cover story about an impromptu survey of the sun would hold water. A little fishy, maybe, but it would
hold because they'd want it to. He'd go back to his life of burning planets. His life with Ekaterina. A celebrated professional
with social rank and a highly sought after skill. Parties and interviews. They could have a son together. Was that so horrible
missiles were stealing up on him. He'd have to make a decision soon. The sunward frigate would have to maneuver to assume
a search-and-rescue profile while the outriders decelerated to cover his retrieval. A blinking icon told him he was being
hailed. He had ignored Ekaterina's repeated attempts to contact him. But this was a laser transceiver. It was Rocky.
"Fisher here," Marten
Fisher, I am Rocky's pilot," a voice said after a short delay. "You are aware of our situation?"
"Very much so, Mister...?"
"Call me Gustavo.
You will not be bailing out as planned. You will immediately set your autopilot with the attached vector."
Marten opened the attachment
on the navigation screen. It would put him into a high-delta climb-out below the plane of the ecliptic. He'd scrape the sun's
corona over the south pole. That was fine because the skiff could take it. But the vector would do nothing about the missiles
in his wake.
"This is suicide, Mister Gustavo," Marten said.
"No, it isn't. We can deal with the missiles tracking you. And it's
"What about the missiles tracking you?"
"Let us worry about them."
"Us? You have more ships?"
"There are thousands
"You aren't trying to kill me, Gustavo?"
"No, sir. Those aren't my orders. And you're wasting valuable time."
"If I commit to
this vector then it will be clear to my comrades that I am intentionally deserting them."
"Yes, sir. I am telling
you to pick a side. Right now!"
Marten engaged the vector.
"You told Fisher that we could jam the Wishbones," Aye-Aye said.
"I said we could deal with them," Gustavo said. "Bring the particle accelerator online. Give it to
Rocky's particle accelerator was located in a chin turret that looked like the distended lower lip of a dragonfly nymph.
A turret housed a relatively short barrel compared to centerline mounts, where the barrel ran the length of the ship from
the storage rings. A turreted arrangement was less powerful but it could be fired at a target within a half-conical swath
of space ahead and below the axis of acceleration without requiring any maneuvers.
"You know, it will be very difficult
to engage those missiles with the pac," Aye-Aye said as he powered up the weapon. "They evade randomly along their
"Not my target," Gustavo said.
"My God!" Avi said. "Rocky's targeting us."
"Hail him!" Emily said.
"Sorry," Gustavo whispered. He triggered the pac.
A stream of neutral hydrogen atoms moving at near the speed of light smashed
into the Spectrum
imparting kinetic energy that ripped through her midsection. The ship started tumbling. The beam fell off the target. Gustavo
cut power and adjusted his aim.
"The Wishbones have gone ballistic," Aye-Aye said.
Emily's voice came through the audio, over
wideband and in the clear. "You're killing us! There are twelve people aboard!"
Gustavo exhaled through clenched his teeth
and fired a second stream. The stricken Spectrum Warrior erupted into a ball of blue-white radiance.
"Did anybody eject?" Gustavo said, heart racing.
"Okay," Gustavo said. He blinked away the echoes of Emily's last transmission. "Tell Fisher to stay
with his ship. We'll be along. Now, about those Bastions."
Richard Alvarez, commander of the frontier cruiser OSS Vermithrax, knew the engagement report
as if he had lived the details himself. Yet he persisted in probing it for alternative courses of action. He studied the mission
data and the sensor recordings. He knew the transcript of all recorded communications between all participants by rote. He
could replay in his mind each phrase, every spoken word with the inflection of its speaker. He stalked a four-dimensional
rendering of the battlespace like a ghost, racing from ship to missile to any number of vantage points to watch the actions
unfold from all useful angles.
Richard watched Spectrum Warrior unleash three Wishbones at Fisher's skiff from the rotary launcher in her missile bay. He watched
the six Bastion missiles fall one by one to soft-kill and hard-kill countermeasures. He watched Rocky overhaul the skiff and take Marten Fisher
aboard. And over and over again he rode one stream of pac fire and then another into the body of the Starpeace ship.
You're killing us! There are twelve people aboard...
It was the second shot
that troubled Richard. Every other action was completely justifiable given the circumstances. But when Gustavo fired the second
was already tumbling from the impact of the first shot. Command guidance of the Wishbone missiles had already been broken.
One thing Richard didn't know from the engagement report was what went through Gustavo's mind at that moment of decision.
Gustavo reported that
he had fired the second shot because he feared that Spectrum Warrior might right herself and regain control of her missiles. He didn't want to risk that with the Bastion
engagement approaching endgame. Aye-Aye had countersigned his partner's report without comment. Richard would not dismiss
that rationale before he had a chance to talk to Gustavo and Aye-Aye face to face.
Rocky was currently climbing for the lip of CD-41
328's gravity well below the plane of the ecliptic where Vermithrax was waiting. Free of any requirement for stealth, the Rat accelerated
at maximum and there was only one week remaining in the three-week outbound run. One Phalanx frigate and her outriders maintained
a pursuit, but Rocky was putting another light minute between them every day. It was always possible that Rocky could have a lateen failure or there might
be a complication with the rendezvous that could put the outriders in striking range. It was not impossible that they would
have to fight, although it was unlikely.
Even if Richard delivered Marten Fisher intact and gushing, there would be many questions he would
have to answer. A review board was going to grill him over the Spectrum Warrior shoot. It wouldn't matter that Gustavo had pulled the trigger. Richard
was in charge of the operation. And as special forces, the Scouts had a layer of protection denied the other services. There
were only a dozen active Rat teams and their members were elite among elites, particularly the flight crews. They went down
the holes, into the gravity wells of potentially hostile star systems performing all matter of dirty deeds, word of which
almost never escaped. Such people were hard to find, harder to train, and next to impossible to retain. Death and psychological
wounds took their share.
Young as he was, Gustavo was already a star among the Outer Service Scouts. The OSS would be doing everything in its
power to protect him long before word got out about the Spectrum Warrior, as it certainly would. In time, Starpeace would declare its ship missing.
The Phalangists would be all too pleased to release select details about what happened to her, if only to deflect responsibility
Besides, the nuance of who did what would be lost on most of the pundits and partisans across the Treaty Area anyway.
The Outer Service would be roasted on the Aethernet where Starpeace had a virulent fan base. Richard Alvarez, captain of the
Vermithrax and mission commander, would
provide Starpeace with a significant and satisfactory target for their wrath and fund raising.
The door buzzed. Richard pinched
the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, digging his nails lightly into the corners of his eyes. He disengaged from
his cabin's workstation and got up feeling lightheaded and remote. He opened the door and was surprised to see Beth floating
in the accessway. She wore a half-frown/half-grin that said he didn't deserve her visit but there she was anyway.
A small satchel shot across the open space spinning hypnotically until it hit the gravity of the cabin, where it sank
alarmingly. Richard's training overrode the unnatural trajectory and he fumbled a save, stooping and bobbling. Whatever was
in the satchel was hard and heavy. Beth was laughing as she brushed by him and inside.
Bethlehem Stern was tall and olive-skinned
with raven-black, wiry hair restrained in a silver comb that was not strictly regulation. She wore the green of an information
operations mission specialist but without a vest that might obstruct her figure. Beth's face wasn't portrait pretty, but she
was athletic and outgoing with an air of approachability that made her popular with the insular technical types. Like him,
The discipline of active duty prevented Richard from sharing his cabin with Beth. She was a temporary member of the
crew, a mission specialist. Not that anybody would actually say anything to him, but word would get around and it would be
just enough to put some drag on his career.
It had been a long mission: going on five months with another month ahead of them and Beth's real
work just beginning. It was her role in the mission to handle the vital preliminary debriefing of the Phalangist defector
on the way back to Escher. Richard would see Beth even less. Maybe that would be better. Beth had stopped even trying to tempt
him into the squash tower or the recreation deck shower at odd hours. Richard and Beth had been separated for longer periods
in the past but the current mission was the longest time they had spent in the same place without intimacy. Somehow it was
easier being apart. There was nothing for it. But living with one another, day after day, the conversation becoming routine,
the number of words exchanged becoming fewer, sex becoming something that they used to do.
"Hey," Beth said. "Got any
"A while back."
"Huh." Richard had to strain not to actually say that he hadn't
noticed. "I'm the captain, of course I have cigarettes."
"Good," Beth said. "I've supplied the booze."
"You have booze?"
"You do, now."
Richard glanced stupidly
at the bag in his hand. He reached inside and withdrew a bottle of whiskey. It was Japanese, the kind he liked.
"Where did this
"The Tree Rats gave me some of Gustavo's stash."
"Yeah?" Richard's stomach tightened. "What did you have
to do to get it?"
"Ah. You went nuclear."
"Crew Chief What's-His-Name had no choice in the matter."
Beth pulled down the
foldaway bunk and hopped up. Richard must have looked alarmed because Beth scowled.
"Don't worry. I won't seduce you. In
fact, why don't you turn on the recorders and pipe us over shipwide if you're so worried about your reputation?"
are on, actually," Richard said. "Whenever the captain receives a visitor they come on automatically."
Beth said, looking around.
"Not that we're on shipwide, mind you," Richard said, feeling foolish. "It's mainly
"So have I gotten you into all sorts of trouble by throwing booze at you?"
"Not at all," Richard said. He recovered
his footing and fetched two scotch glasses. "There's an unspoken rule in the Outer Service." He clunked ice into
the glasses. "After five months in space it's okay to get drunk. Particularly after you've just killed twelve innocent
"Gimme," Beth said, motioning for the glasses. "Get your cigarettes."
Presently, their insides were
warming with liquor and their heads were wreathed in smoke.
"Better?" Beth asked.
Even through the cigarette smoke, he could
smell her non-regulation shampoo and her against-regulation perfume. Try as it might, the uniform coverall did nothing to
hide her figure. Wisps of Beth's dark hair escaped a comb that wasn't trying too hard to hold things together, and trickled
down the sides of her neck and over her shoulders.
"Much," Richard said, trying not to get too carried away by the sensory blitzkrieg of
whiskey, smokes, and a woman sitting on his bed.
Beth bathed in his plight. "Is there an unspoken rule about removing the coverall of a willing
girl after five months in space?"
"Let the record show that I have not touched this young lady," Richard said loudly to
the far corner of the room.
"What, are you bucking for admiral?"
"The Outer Service doesn't have admirals anymore."
"I know. I just
"I miss us, too," Richard said. He laughed, a little scarily. "You know, before all this, I was going
to ask you to come back to Earth with me?"
"Yeah. I wanted us to be home for Christmas. I wanted you to meet my daughter."
"I would have liked
that," Beth said.
"Yeah, me too."
It was a nice moment. It was a sweet moment. It was chaste-in deed if not in desire-but there it was, like a rose.
"You didn't kill anybody," Beth
in command," Richard said.
"You got Fisher," Beth said.
"The Tree Rats got Fisher."
"But you're in command."
said, watching smoke curl upward from the tip of his cigarette. "I was."