Cloudscapes in I:B

Continuing the discussion from Gas Giants and Planetary Information:

It felt like posting these illustrations of the epic potential of gas giant cloudscapes would have derailed that thread. These excerpts are from McAuley’s Quiet War.

The engineers prepping the two singleships broke into a storm of applause when the pilots, a man and a woman dressed in close-fitting acceleration suits, were escorted into the hangar pod by a swarm of medics and briefing officers. The anthems of Greater Brazil and the European Union played one after the other and everyone stood to attention as best they could in the absence of gravity. An avatar wearing the face of the President of Greater Brazil delivered a brief prerecorded speech that touched on great moments of exploration and the questing and indomitable nature of the human spirit. Commander Gabriel Vaduva shook hands with the pilots in front of the roundel of Operation Deep Sounding while engineers and technicians applauded again, cheers and whistles and war-whoops, their enthusiasm genuine even though it was choreographed for the news channels. Then the security officer announced that the cameras were offline, the engineers resumed their work, and medics and technicians closed around the pilots for the final pre-flight checks.

The sleek black daggers of the two J-2 singleships lay nose to tail in their launch cradles. Engineers swarmed around them like ants grooming alletes about to fly the nest, making final checks and adjustments, loading the clandestine-op packages into weapons bays. The single-ships were fully powered up, vibrating eagerly, each infusing the frigid air with crackling ozone and its own particular song. Cash Baker could feel the familiar music of his ship thrilling in his blood like a celestial choir. A complex harmonic resolving somewhere just above E flat, braided from servo-motors and flywheels, turbines, and the huge currents circulating in the superconducting magnets of its fusion torus.

Cash was spreadeagled in a dressing frame while a tech checked his acceleration suit for microscopic flaws that could cause pressure sores or haematomas. Woven from several hundred differently doped species of fullerene thread, quasi-living, self-regulating, the suit fitted as closely as a second skin from the soles of Cash’s feet to the crown of his shaven head, leaving only his face exposed. At last, the tech signed off the suit and Cash was fitted with his face mask and the frame was elevated and rotated on its long axis and guided towards the holster of the lifesystem, a slot narrower than a grave that gaped behind the singleship’s everted equipment pods. He glimpsed the other pilot, Vera Flamilion Jackson, suspended in her frame over her ship, and then his uplink came alive and he blanked out for a moment, came back with the comforting presence of his ship sinking through him and its control menu laid across the view of the crowded and busy hangar.

‘Oh man,’ he said. ‘Let’s get this thing on!’

‘Ready when you are,’ Vera Jackson said.

The link cut out as the flight medics began their work, making sure that the alchemical marriage between the ship’s control interface and Cash’s nervous system was robust and there was no echo or leakage, running through the familiar series of tests on his visual, auditory, and proprioceptive systems, finally telling him that he was good to go.

He entered the lifesystem head first, like a breech birth in reverse. Smart gel flowed around him. The lifesystem connected lines that fed air and water and liquid nutrient, the hose that piped away wastes. A long smooth push gripped him from head to toe and then he was all the way in, cocooned in a thin layer of gel, and the ship’s senses were fully meshed with his own, giving him a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the final spurt of activity in the hangar. The equipment pods were closed away, the wings folded and retracted like an exercise in origami, and the ship sank further into its cradle, smoothly everting into vacuum.

Cash no longer had any sense of his body. It was a lump of meat in the sealed can of the lifesystem, sedated with muscle relaxants, fed by a drip, blood passing through a cascade filter to remove wastes, breathing and heartbeat and metabolic rate controlled by a bridge plugged into his autonomic nervous system. Its sole function was to sustain his brain. His mind. And as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t inhabiting his skull right now. He had become one with his bird, his nervous system meshed with hers and extending into every part of her, her senses his own.

Launch was a little love pat from the cradle’s electromagnetic catapult, a brief burp of attitude jets. Then Cash was falling away behind Vera Jackson’s singleship, both of them swinging around the sharply curved shoulder of Mimas’s heavily cratered globe. Saturn’s fat crescent dawned, looking close enough to touch. Its rings, seen edge-on, were a dark line slashed across equatorial bands with delicate tints of butterscotch and peach, and cast a shadow grooved like a tyre track across the turquoise and pale blue bands of the northern hemisphere.

There was another tremor as the singleship adjusted its trim. Cash watched the countdown flip back towards zero, yelled, ‘Geronimo!’ and ignited the main engine, a long hard burn that would deliver him to Saturn, and to history.

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The two singleships fell across the plane of the ring system, a little under half the distance between Earth and the Moon. Skating just a hundred kilometres above the broad bright arc of the A Ring and the narrow, eccentric braid of Huygen’s Ringlet, soaring through sunlight across the wide gap of the Cassini Division, passing above the opaque and intricately braided B Ring, where ringlets of icy rubble backlit by the sun and divided by fine gaps dwindled away into shadow in one direction and in the other seemed to rise and converge in a narrowing arc or bridge that whipped around Saturn’s hazy crescent. All this glory created from the rubble of a moon torn apart millions of years ago, ground fine and graded and ground again by gravity and simple Newtonian mechanics.

As Cash Baker and Vera Jackson passed the faint, narrow bands of the inner ringlets and rings, mission control transmitted a short burst of encrypted data that unpacked into the optical image of a ship some fifteen thousand kilometres behind the singleships but catching up fast - a fuzzy blob riding a bright spear of fusion fire that burned like a gypsy star against Saturn’s nightside. One sidebar identified it as a shuttle, the SV Happy Trails, registered to a collective operating out of Paris, Dione; another tracked its orbital path back to Atlas, a tiny moon at the outer edge of the A Ring.

‘Atlas was on the far side of Saturn when you guys set out,’ mission control said. ‘We think the ship was parked there - it must have kicked off when you did. It seems to have made its initial burn while it was hidden behind Saturn. It cut a chord across the rings, and we only spotted it when it lit up again.’

‘You make it sound as if it was waiting for us,’ Vera Jackson said.

‘It’s possible. The mission profile is public knowledge.’

‘Are they talking?’ Vera said.

‘We haven’t been able to raise the ship. According to chatter on the system’s net, it’s crewed by Ghosts.’

Cash said, ‘A spook ship?’

Vera said, ‘Don’t you ever read briefings? Ghosts are some kind of gang or cult whose members think they’re guided by their future selves.’

She was ten years older than Cash, ice-cool and fearsomely competent. When she and the other two European pilots had joined the singleship wing, Bo Nash had taken bets on who would get to fuck her first, and Cash had told him that it was more a question of who she would fuck first. Her hard-shell attitude made it difficult for anyone to like or get close to her, but Cash sure as hell respected her, one pilot to another.

‘They’re definitely connected to the government of Paris,’ mission control said. ‘We’re right now sending its mayor some tough questions.’

‘Check out its beacon,’ Vera said.

She’d caught it on the broadband scanner, passed it through three increasingly paranoid filters to check for viruses, and copied it to Cash and mission control. A yellow circle with two dots and a curved line making a happy face; a rippling banner superimposed above it. We Come In Peace For All Mankind chasing All These Worlds Belong To Us around and around.

‘Very cute,’ Cash said.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ mission control said. ‘They’ll pass close to you but they can’t follow you down into Saturn. Their ship is strictly for vacuum. You’ll lose it just after you hit the edge of the atmosphere. Our thinking is that they’re making a political point. It’s just a fly-by. A stunt. So if they try to make contact with you by radio or line-of-sight laser, ignore them but bounce the message straight to me. Don’t reply. Don’t give them anything they can use. Is that clear? Now, let’s get down to the final checks.’

The two singleships were moving above Saturn’s nightside now. The gas giant’s black bulk eclipsed half the sky. The arch of the rings gleamed high above. Dawn was coming fast. Cash and Vera worked through checklists, tested guidance and control systems, made microscopic attitude adjustments. If they didn’t hit a very precise entry profile they would either skip out of the atmosphere or descend too steeply and too fast and be incinerated.

All the while, Cash kept an eye on the shuttle. It had completed its burn and was drawing closer; if it kept to its present course and velocity it would pass them at a distance of less than a hundred kilometres just as they reached the outer edge of Saturn’s atmosphere. Cash and Vera could fire up their motors and quickly leave the shuttle behind, of course, but they’d also miss the critical window for safe entry, and would have to abort their mission. So all they could do was keep to their course and keep watch on the interloper as they completed their final approach.

Ahead, the sun’s tiny disc lit the leading edge of the gas giant’s tremendous curve, a bridge of pearly light that quickly broadened into a crescent in which details of a vast cloudscape began to resolve. The two singleships were aimed at a pale oval between two latitudinal bands north of the equator - one of the long-lived storms that, anchored over a hot spot deep in Saturn’s atmosphere, swept a clear area in the cloud decks around it. Details exploded out of the cloudscape as the single-ships fell towards it, ripples and ruffles resolving along the boundary between the bands, intricate scrollworks formed by drag between opposing streams of atmosphere. Cash could see structures within the bands too, great ranges and banks of cloud. All this racing beneath the two singleships when the shuttle caught up with them, skimming past on a course that would cut a shallow chord through the uppermost fringe of the atmosphere before taking it out beyond Saturn. Cash glimpsed a flare as it shot past, cleaned up the video grab and replayed it, saw that it had dropped a heat-shielded pod strapped to a pair of solid-fuel retrorockets.

It was too late to do anything about it. He was already riding his ship through the beginnings of turbulence. Subtle vibrations, short sharp shudders as attitude jets fired to keep the singleship stable. It was travelling at hypersonic speed. Bands of cloud raced by far below and a high-pitched wail began to mount in volume and pitch and a pale glow brightened to a furnace intensity as friction transformed the kinetic energy of orbital motion into heat. Shock waves in the hot ionised hydrogen formed a stable shell in which the rainbow slicks of plasma streams flickered, the shock waves converging behind the singleship to a focal point like an incandescent diamond. Deceleration rose steadily: five g, ten, briefly peaking at just over fifteen. The light show slowly faded. Cash extended the singleship’s wings. The atmosphere was thick enough now to use aerodynamic control surfaces rather than the attitude jets to maintain trim.

Cash was falling free through Saturn’s vast skies at a steep angle, making slow S-turns to bleed off excess velocity. He eyeballed Vera Jackson’s singleship falling ahead of him, about fifty kilometres to the east, looked for and failed to find any sign of the pod dropped by the shuttle, uploaded a status check to mission control and acknowledged the congratulations of the mission commander.

‘On my mark,’ Vera said, and counted down from ten.

Cash deployed his drogue parachutes at zero and there was a thump and a tremendous corkscrewing jerk as the parachutes swung him around and checked his forward momentum, and then he was falling nose down through a vast clear ocean of hydrogen and helium at just under a hundred kilometres an hour, in a prevailing air current that was taking him eastwards at about five times that speed. In about ten hours, if he kept falling at his present rate, he would reach the beginning of the amorphous boundary between the gaseous atmosphere and the deep ocean of hot metallic hydrogen that lay beneath, although long before then the singleship would have been crushed and scorched to a cinder by tremendous pressures and temperatures. Not even tough, heavily shielded robot probes had ever penetrated to more than half the depth of the gaseous phase of Saturn’s atmosphere. The two singleships would fall for only three hours, dropping through the liquid-water zone before igniting their motors and departing.

If everything went well, they’d pass close to their target. And even if they missed it, the packages they planned to release contained autonomous drones that could ride the winds of Saturn for months while they tracked it down and searched for other anomalies.

Meanwhile, Cash had a few moments to enjoy the tremendous panorama wrapped around him. It was early morning. The sky was deep indigo and seemingly infinite, the sun a tiny flattened disc that glowered at the hazy horizon, the centre of concentric shells of bloody light that rose towards zenith. In every direction, the crystalline hydrogen atmosphere stretched for thousands of kilometres, broken only by a few wisps of cloud formed from frozen ammonia, looking just like ordinary cirrus cloud and tinged pink by dawn light. He felt like a king of this whole wide world, an emperor of air, and told Vera that this place was definitely made for flying.

‘I hear that,’ Vera said. ‘Check out the storm. We’re right in the pipe.’

Below, halfway to the eastern horizon, a creamy ocean of cloud rifted apart around the storm’s great oval eye. With interrupted arcs of cloud and clear air curved around it, it looked much like a hurricane back on Earth. In fact, everything seemed eerily familiar. Blue sky, white clouds, the sun gaining a golden hue as it lifted above the horizon. It took an effort to remember that the distance to the horizon was more than ten times that on Earth. That the storm was two thousand kilometres across. That the sky was hydrogen and helium a thousand kilometres deep, with cloud layers of ammonium ice above and decks of ammonium hydrosulphide and ammonium-rich water-ice and water-droplet clouds below, endlessly blowing around this vast world.

Cash and Vera dropped slantwise towards the continent-sized storm. The parachute of Vera’s ship was blazoned with the flag of the European Union. A blue rectangle vivid and alien against the muted creams of the cloudscape they were fast approaching. Vera caught a pinpoint signal on deep radar, too far away to resolve any detail but exactly where their target was supposed to be. A few moments later, Cash picked up another signal, about five hundred kilometres aft. Two small echoes. The singleship’s guidance system tagged the dots with vectors. They were moving faster than the prevailing wind and they were moving under guidance, catching up with the singleships.

‘We see them too,’ mission control said. ‘Stand by for advice.’

Vera transmitted a snatched high-magnification shot of a drone riding atop a propellant tank. It reminded Cash of a photograph of an ancient space shuttle he’d once seen in a history text. Mission control came back, told them to stick to the mission profile, said that a formal protest had been lodged with the government of Paris, Dione.

‘Imagine how grateful we are,’ Cash said, and proposed that they wait until the drones got close, then light up their motors and burn the fuckers out of the sky.

‘We’d have to drop the parachutes first,’ Vera said. ‘And that would mean we couldn’t complete the mission.’

‘So we sit here and hope these drones are tourists, just like we’re pretending to be,’ Cash said. ‘I think not.’

‘Matter of fact, we do need you to sit tight,’ mission control said, and told them that everyone was working hard to construct workable solutions to a variety of scenarios.

‘Just sit here and let them make the first move?’ Cash said. ‘You have to be kidding.’

‘You heard the man,’ Vera said. ‘Hang tough.’

Cash called up the navigation subsystem of his singleship and started to make his own calculations. The drones were still closing, and the two singleships were falling towards the edge of the volume influenced by the storm now, past a curving archipelago of plume clouds ten kilometres tall from their fluffy white tops to their trailing dark roots. There was a moment of bone-shaking turbulence as Cash passed through a fierce updraught before settling in a steady current circulating east and north, clockwise around the outer edge of the storm. A few dark clouds with the anvil shape of thunderclouds on Earth drifted ahead, caught in a slightly faster current.

The ambient temperature was -10° Centigrade and steadily climbing. Pressure was rising too, already more than four atmospheres. Clear air stretched down to a reddish haze above a deck of dark brown clouds more than a hundred kilometres below. The target was less than a thousand kilometres ahead, its radar image beginning to resolve into separate signals. The sky above was almost exactly the blue of a summer’s sky on Earth, and the small swift sun was considerably higher: daylight on Saturn lasted just five hours.

The singleships fell past the roots of the plume clouds and continued to fall towards the reddish-brown floor. Slowing now, because the parachutes were working more effectively as the atmospheric pressure increased, but still falling. In less than thirty minutes they would fall past the target; an hour after that, they would have fallen within a couple of kilometres of the top of the cloud deck below, breaking the manned descent record. Then they could lose their parachutes and light their motors and fly right out of there. Cash was looking forward to that part - the flying. But the two Outer drones were closing fast now, close enough to see that each was targeting one of the singleships.

Cash fired up the ship-to-ship laser and explained how they could escape and still make the rendezvous.

‘We don’t have enough fuel,’ Vera said.

‘We won’t be able to beat the record,’ Cash said, ‘but we’ll be able to drop our packages and fly past the target and get back into some kind of orbit. The Glory of Gaia will have to come pick us up.’

‘And while we were waiting we would be sitting targets for any Outers who might want to take a shot at us.’

‘We’re sitting targets right now,’ Cash said.

After a moment of silence, Vera said, ‘We’ll have to clear it with mission control.’

‘I don’t think we have time,’ Cash said. ‘This is a combat situation. Which means that as mission commander it’s your decision.’

He was watching the drone that had targeted his ship. It was shaped a little like a squid, its black body shell etched with a white skull grinning above crossed white bones, five blunt tentacles extended from beneath a hooded sensor cluster. He had a very clear picture of those tentacles splayed against the hull of his singleship in a fierce embrace . . .

‘Let’s do it,’ Vera said. ‘Link up - I’ll push the button. Otherwise we might end up all over the sky.’

‘You got it,’ Cash said, and surrendered control. Vera started to count backward from ten, and Cash saw the drone detach from its booster, saw the spark of its motor, and told Vera to do it now.

She did it.

Cash’s singleship bucked violently as the parachute detached and blew away like a leaf. For a brief moment he was in free fall. The drone skimmed past, attitude jets flaring as it tried to hook around, and then the singleship’s fusion motor fired up with its characteristic double crack and the singleship flared downwards, its nose gradually pitching up as Vera’s ship pulled the same manoeuvre directly ahead.

His own bird juddered as it passed through the sound barrier, and control came back. He was flying, burning precious fuel as he chased after Vera, both of them drawing contrails through the clear air as they plunged eastwards, accelerating through thickening atmosphere. The target was dead ahead, resolving on the radar into distinct signals. A ghostly signal shaped like a plumb-bob, a handful of rectangles sending back strongly, and a fuzzy cloud of activity around them.

‘Drop the packages,’ Vera sang out, and Cash triggered the sequence, felt the shudder as black cylinders sprang loose on either side, tumbling end for end, sprouting parachutes and jerking away and vanishing into the vast sky.

They were almost on the target now. Cash glimpsed a scatter of foreshortened rectangles silhouetted against the vast white curve of the storm, and then Vera’s ship began to pull up and he followed, continuing to gain speed, hooking upward, jolting through layers of cross-winds. The cloudscape directly below flattened out as he rose above it, becoming two-dimensional, darker bands on either side coming into view. The sky ahead darkened from blue to indigo to black. A few bright stars came out. It was so much like flying on Earth, although he was flying faster than anything had ever flown in Earth’s atmosphere, and was still accelerating . . .

Cash whooped, pulled a barrel roll. The spark of the sun sank behind the planet’s bulk and night flooded the cloudscapes below and stars came out everywhere else, with two moons standing one above the other directly ahead as the singleships cleared the outer edge of the atmosphere, reaching escape velocity of thirty-six kilometres per second and continuing to accelerate for more than five minutes, until their tanks were almost dry.

They were in orbit, falling in a long ellipse that would take them around Saturn once every two hours.

After the fusion motors cut off, Vera contacted mission control and ran through what had happened. Commander Vaduva came online and told them that they had done well, but must maintain absolute vigilance until they were picked up. Meaning that if any Outer ship attempted to rendezvous with them, they were to blow themselves up rather than be captured or taken as salvage. They began to transmit encrypted data, everything from second-by-second status reports during the mission to optical and radar images of the target. There was a long hour of checks and updates. The security officer played them a clip of the mayor of Paris, Dione making a bland statement that refused to take any responsibility for the actions of a few exuberant individuals, and told Cash and Vera that very serious diplomatic representations were being made at that very moment.

‘I know what kind of representations I’d like to make,’ Vera said. ‘You and me, Cash, in a room with those Ghosts, we’d show them a thing or two about exuberance.’

‘I hear that,’ Cash said.

It had been a lot of fun, going toe to toe with the Ghosts, even though the encounter had ended in a kind of draw. Next time, he was determined to come out on top.

After Operation Deep Sounding, Cash Baker and the other singleship pilots were kept busy flying so-called science missions around Saturn’s moons. They mapped variations in gravity and radio fields and overflew every major city and settlement, probing them with radar and sidescanning microwave arrays, shooting high-resolution videos. Much of the data could have been acquired remotely or by using drones, but the overflights were meant to be deliberately provocative, establishing the dominance of the Brazilian and European joint expedition, testing the capabilities of the Outers’ traffic-control and defence systems. According to the psy-ops officers, every overflight contributed to an ongoing hydra-headed programme aimed at promoting fear and hostility within the Outer community, destabilising its social and political structures, exacerbating divisions between belligerent factions and those still trying to prevent war, and panicking those communities as yet undecided into declaring neutrality. Most of the pilots were sceptical about the strategy. Luiz Schwarez said that it was like hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick and hoping that at some point they would start stinging each other instead of you. ‘When it comes down to it, Outers are Outers. They’ll stick together against a common enemy despite their differences.’

‘If you’re gonna fight someone, there’s no point tweaking his nose or throwing insults,’ Colly Blanco said. ‘You just go ahead and do it. Make sure you throw the first punch.’

‘I’d volunteer for a first strike,’ Cash said.

‘We all would,’ Luiz said. ‘It’s why we got cut. It’s why we’re here.’

‘Instead of which, we’re sitting here with targets painted on our asses while psy-ops dicks around with black propaganda and denial-of-service attacks,’ Colly said. ‘And if one of the tweaks decides to take a pop at us, we could be in trouble. All they need to do is throw a bunch of high-speed gravel at this damn hulk of a ship. Some of it is bound to get through, do to us like the Martians tried to do to Earth a hundred years ago with the goddamn comet.’

‘It was an asteroid,’ Luiz said. ‘The Chinese used the comet against the Martians. But you have a point.’

‘Ice, rock, fucking cow flop, it don’t make no difference when it’s coming at you at ten thousand klicks per,’ Colly said.

Three days later the resupply ship, the Getulio Dornelles Vargas, entered orbit around Mimas. The Pacific Community’s ship wasn’t far behind, and four more Brazilian ships had just left Earth orbit. Three were headed to Jupiter; the fourth, the Glory of Gaia’s sister ship, the Flower of the Forest, was bringing General Arvam Peixoto to Saturn.

After the Getulio Dornelles Vargas laid up alongside the Glory of Gaia, Cash Baker was summoned to a meeting with two secret service agents who told him that he had been selected for a clandestine mission.

‘You can’t discuss or disclose anything about this with anyone else,’ one of the agents said.

‘That includes the mapping specialist you’re bunking with,’ the other agent said. ‘It also means that if you are captured we will deny all knowledge of you.’

Cash dealt them his best grin. ‘Aren’t we all friends here? Why don’t you just tell me what you have in mind?’

A couple of hours later Cash was buttoned up inside his singleship, watching from several perspectives as a dropshell was loaded into the starboard slot in place of the weapon pod. The dropshell was about the size of a coffin, little more than an open cockpit set in front of an ion motor, with small but powerful solid-fuel boosters slung either side. It reminded Cash of the ancient sports car that his great uncle Jack had lovingly rebuilt, hand-machining replacements for rusted-out components, sculpting new bodywork from resin laminate and painting it with fifteen hand-rubbed coats of cherry-red lacquer. Uncle Jack had driven that old car at the head of every neighbourhood parade, Thanksgiving, Homecoming, and Earth Day, until one fine summer’s day, exactly a year after his wife had died of rampaging lymphoma, he’d fuelled it up and taken it out, tried to take a bend at more than a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, and smashed it to smithereens and killed himself.

The passenger arrived at the very last minute, while Cash and the techs were running through final preflight checks. He was already wearing a pressure suit, but the ship’s microwave scanner saw right through it, revealing a tall, skinny young man, picking up the asynchronous pulses of micro-hearts in his femoral and subclavian arteries: he was an Outer. The secret service agents hadn’t told Cash word one about his passenger, had told him that all he had to worry about was delivering him to the right spot. But there was no doubt in Cash’s mind that he was some kind of turncoat. A spy maybe, or an assassin.

The passenger was zipped into the dropshell and the slot was sealed, Cash finished the checks, and without any ceremony the singleship sank into its cradle and was everted into vacuum. Cash used the attitude jets to get some distance from the Glory of Gaia and lit the singleship’s fusion motor, quickly outpacing the Outer tug that tried to follow him as he headed inwards towards Saturn.

The mission had been scheduled to begin during the final approach of the Pacific Community’s big ship; hopefully, Cash’s singleship could slip through the system while everyone was distracted. At present, trailed by a little fleet of sightseers, including a Brazilian drone, it seemed to be heading into a wide orbit around Saturn, but a final burn could put it anywhere else; in the pool Colly Blanco had set up, Cash had his money on Titan. Meanwhile, his singleship fell across the ring system, and gained velocity and altered course as it hooked past the edge of Saturn’s banded cloud oceans. As he headed outwards, Cash risked pulsing the sky with deep radar. There were only a couple of Outer ships crossing the ring system, and neither of them had a chance of intercepting him. But that didn’t mean that there might not be a few nasty surprises lurking out there, like spooks in a pitch-black basement . . .

He sped past the C Ring, with its gaps and its narrow, broken and braided ringlets, past the opaque sheet of the B Ring, and on out across the wide, star-filled gap of the Cassini Division. The A Ring spread beyond, with his target, Atlas, just outside its sharp edge.

Cash prepped for the drop, ran a final set of checks, and opened the slot where the dropshell rested. Atlas grew from star to speck to lumpy dot. It was a peanut-shaped chunk of water ice with a semi-major axis just forty kilometres across, yet its faint gravity braided complex ripples and clumps and kinks at the edge of the A Ring and kept the Keeler Gap open. Despite its small size, a crew of construction robots had paid it a visit and built no less than three small habitats, powered up and pressurised, waiting for hardy settlers or hermits. Or refugees, if there was a war. There were enough untenanted habitats scattered across Saturn’s seventy-odd moons (most of them, like Atlas, irregular chunks of water ice) to house the populations of the system’s cities twice over.

The proximity alarm sounded and Cash kicked into hyper-reflexive mode, made a microscopic adjustment to the singleship’s trim as Atlas rolled towards him. He glimpsed a string of craters along one edge, the largest containing the emerald glint of a habitat, and the counter rolled back to zero and he fired the rail gun. Atlas flew past beneath the singleship’s keel and at the same instant, with the tiny moon shielding the singleship from optical or radar observation, the dropshell shot away with a brief flare of its boosters. It was thoroughly stealthed, and Cash soon lost radar and optical contact as it angled away from the singleship. His best guess was that it was heading on out towards rendezvous with Dione.

Cash turned his bird end for end and began the long burn that would take him back around Saturn to Mimas. A quick check of the telescope showed that, some fourteen million kilometres away, the Pacific Community ship had made its own course correction. It looked as if he was going to be out ten bucks. It wasn’t headed for Titan or any of the other inner moons. No, it was rising above Saturn’s equatorial plane towards Pheobe, the largest of the flock of tiny, eccentric outer moons.

The Glory of Gaia was a big ship, one of the largest ever built, but it was crammed with equipment and supplies and was carrying more than twice its normal complement. Senior officers doubled up in cabins; junior officers hotbedded in life capsules; specialists and technicians slept and ate and spent their off-duty hours in little encampments in corridors or in their cubbyholes or weapon blisters and turrets. The specialists’ wardroom doubled as the sickbay because the sickbay, which lay conveniently close to the ship’s spine, had been converted into a self-contained fighting bridge containing a triumvirate of strategic AIs and immersion tanks for the ship’s combat team, and the combat team slept in their tanks because there was no room for them anywhere else. Everyone breathed a common air filled with the stink of cooking and farts and unwashed bodies, and everyone knew everyone else’s business because they all lived in each others’ pockets - no one except the highest-ranking officers and security officials was ever out of sight or sound of at least two other people.

And then the Flower of the Forest made its rendezvous with the Glory of Gaia and the Getulio Dornelles Vargas, and two detachments of marines who had been slumbering like fairy-tale knights in hibernation coffins in the Glory of Gaia’s zero-gravity gymnasium were revived and had to be fitted somehow into the already overcrowded quarters. Security personnel, technicians and senior officers shuttled back and forth between the three ships. Everyone knew that they were getting ready for battle even before General Arvam Peixoto gave an address to all ranks, telling them to prepare for action and assuring them that everything was in place to guarantee complete and total victory.

‘The enemy does not yet realise it, but we are already engaged in a small, quiet war of attrition and diplomacy, of propaganda and subtle sabotage. Their morale has been sapped. Their reserves of air, food, and power are depleted. Half of their cities have indicated that they will offer no resistance. Several more are close to surrender. The rest will try to give us a fight, but in every case we will prevail. Not because we have might on our side, although we do, but because our cause is right and just, and each of us carries the proud flame of righteousness and justice in our hearts.’

Watching this in the memo space in the pilot’s mess, Cash Baker told Luiz Schwarez, ‘I guess we can forget about being rotated back home.’

The Glory of Gaia had been orbiting Mimas ever since it had arrived in the Saturn System. Now it fired up its motors and broke away, heading towards Dione, some two hundred thousand kilometres outward. Paris, Dione was expected to put up the fiercest resistance; General Peixoto would direct the campaign against it personally. The Flower of the Forest broke orbit too, heading towards Rhea. The small caravan of local ships which had been dogging the Glory of Gaia, skimming as close to it as they dared at random intervals, firing off clouds of noble gases and using lasers to print in letters fifty metres high brightly glowing slogans, launching drones the size of beetles that tootled across hundreds of empty kilometres on whispers of gas and blew apart in harmless firework displays or attached themselves to sally ports and used them as loudspeakers to transmit the screams of babies or wailing sirens into the interior, fired up their motors too. Falling behind one by one into the starry black as the Glory of Gaia and the Flower of the Forest steadily accelerated. The last fired off a huge cloud of neon and printed a final farewell: SO LONG, SUCKERS.

Despite numerous housekeeping regulations about securing everything in zero gravity and strictly enforced disciplinary measures that punished anyone caught breaking them, when acceleration established a pull down the Glory of Gala’s axis all kinds of junk came loose or dropped from where it had drifted to or had been carelessly left. Cash Baker, Luiz Schwarez and the other pilots were in the hangars, helping the techs police a litter of loose tools, bolts, snips of wire and plastic and metal shavings, wrappers, and blobs of coolant and grease, when Vera Jackson came in and announced that there was going to be a special briefing in five minutes.

‘Is it on?’ Luiz said, voicing everyone else’s thoughts.

‘Not yet,’ Vera Jackson said. She was grinning, though, so something was definitely afoot. ‘Not exactly. You and Cash leave that crap to your crews and come with me.’

Arvam Peixoto and several aides were waiting for them in the briefing room. The general laid out the mission in his customary blunt manner. The Pacific Community’s base on Phoebe had just received an anonymous warning that they had six hours to evacuate their position; someone had aimed a chunk of ice at them from Ymir, one of the most distant of Saturn’s small, irregular moons.

The general pulled up photographs in the room’s memo space, fuzzy long-range views of a pitted slab, and said that the Pacific Community had fired a missile at it, but the missile had been shredded by kinetic weapons as it made its final approach.

‘The ice has a defence system mounted on it, which makes it a hard target,’ the general said. ‘The Pacific Community ships can’t do anything other than a fast fly-by because it is coming right down their throats and they don’t have the advantage of the new fusion motor. So we are going to help them out by intercepting and destroying it as soon as possible. It will show that Greater Brazil and the European Union are good friends of the Pacific Community, it will demonstrate our technological superiority, and it is an excellent opportunity to find out what the Outers are capable of. One of you will carry one of our last-resort H-bombs; the other two will deal with the defence systems mounted on the ice. We’re still gathering data on it. As soon as we know what we need to know we will devise and send you a detailed plan of action. Meanwhile, you will launch immediately. The sooner you get there, the better the chance of destroying this thing, or significantly altering its trajectory. Do you all understand? Good. If you have questions, ask them now.’

Luiz asked if anyone knew who had fired off the ice.

‘I’m sure they will make themselves known soon enough,’ the general said. ‘Anyone else? No? Then go with God and Gaia, and go swiftly.’

Within ten minutes, Cash was in the hangar, purged and plugged, fitted into his acceleration suit. He shook hands with Luiz Schwarez, Vera Jackson, and his tech team, and then he was zipped into his bird and jacked in. Just like any other routine run, except for the flutter of excitement in his chest, the way he’d felt as a kid whenever he’d set off with his two cousins into the sewers to hunt rats or possums.

As soon as his bird had dropped from its launch cradle, falling away from the Glory of Gaia at twenty metres per second, it began to pitch and roll, hunting for the point where it would catch up with its target. All Cash had was a set of coordinates: the chunk of ice was so far out and so small that it was beyond the detection limit of his radar and optical systems; even Phoebe was no more than a smudge of pixels. Luiz’s and Vera’s singleships hung close by to starboard, turning in unison. To port, the massive, bristling bulk of the Glory of Gaia occluded a large portion of the sky. Behind it were the few Outer ships still in pursuit, and beyond them was the misty bulk of Saturn.

Cash had a few seconds to take all this in, and then the singleship’s motor fired up. He was on his way.

Phoebe was an unmodified primitive object that had been captured by Saturn when it had wandered in from the outer reaches of the Solar System. Its wide orbit, with a semi-major axis of some thirteen million kilometres, more than thirty times the distance between Earth and the Moon, was not only inclined to the gas giant’s equatorial plane but was also retrograde. The rock fast approaching it had fallen at a slant across the entire system and the three singleships were catching up with it from behind, climbing above Saturn’s equatorial plane and aiming at a point where their path would intersect with their target. Luiz said that this was the opening salvo of the long-awaited war, but Vera reckoned that it was a shot across the bows aimed by a bunch of hotheads.

‘The tweaks don’t have a consensus about anything,’ she said. ‘There’s no central control, just a bunch of small groups with different agendas. And that’s how we’ll defeat them. After we move in on one or two hostile cities and show what we can do, the rest will surrender on any terms we care to make.’

‘If this thing hits where it’s aimed,’ Luiz said, ‘it won’t matter who was responsible for it. It’ll be war. Everyone who wants to fight will try to get in their shots right away. There won’t be time for your domino theory to take hold.’

‘It isn’t going to hit where it’s aimed because we’re going to make sure it doesn’t. Jettison any thoughts to the contrary, mister.’

‘Permission to make another point, Colonel?’ Luiz said.

‘Don’t be a smart-mouth, Schwarez,’ Vera said. ‘You know you can say anything you like to me as long as it isn’t seditious. Since I’m in a good mood, you can even insult my mother.’

‘I was thinking that they could have fired off any number of missiles at Phoebe, and told us about just this one.’

‘It’s possible,’ Vera said. ‘But so far Phoebe hasn’t spotted anything else, and neither have we. Best leave speculation to the tactical crew, Schwarez. They do the thinking, we do the doing. You want to be less like them and more like me and Baker. You still awake, Baker?’

‘Aye aye,’ Cash said.

‘Bullshit. You were daydreaming about the girl you left behind. Well as far as you’re concerned she’s long gone, fucking someone else and making babies. You’re out here on the finest and most important mission you’ve ever flown, and you will stay frosty unless I tell you otherwise.’

‘Aye aye.’

But it was hard not to zone out. Cash’s radar and microwave and optical sensors were sweeping a vast bubble of space with the regularity of a ticking clock, but there was nothing in any direction for fifty thousand kilometres except for the other two singleships. The traffic moving between Saturn’s moons and the chatter on the Outers’ communications network was dwindling behind them, remote as the lazy drone of a beehive on a summer’s day. So he fell through empty space with nothing to do but run system checks and stargaze until the Glory of Gala’s tactical crew sent a brief, heavily encrypted package that contained a detailed survey of the target.

The optical image wasn’t much of an improvement over the ones the general had shown them, but radar scans showed that the chunk of ice was roughly oval, one hundred and twenty metres long and thirty metres in diameter. Grooves cut down one side suggested that it had been sheared away from a bigger mass. A one-shot chemical motor was buried in a pit in the trailing end, and the tactical crew aboard the Glory of Gaia claimed that two faintly radar-reflective spots on either side of the midpoint were most likely attachment points for a pair of lightsails. The motor would have contributed most of the ice’s delta vee, with a modest contribution from laser beams aimed at the sails, which would have made final course corrections after launch.

‘Amazing that no one spotted it,’ Vera said. ‘With the fusion motor burning and lightsails reflecting gigawatts of laser light it must have been quite a sight when it got under way.’

‘A tiny speck of light in a very big ocean of dark,’ Luiz said. ‘The volume inside Phoebe’s orbit is something like one point seven times ten to the power twenty-one cubic kilometres. And this came from much farther away.’

If there had been lightsails they were long gone, ejected after the rock had achieved its final velocity. And so far the tactical crew hadn’t been able to identify the defence system that had taken out the Pacific Community’s missile; Cash and Vera would have to probe the ice very carefully before Luiz delivered the H-bomb. And they’d have to do it quickly. By the time they matched delta vee with the ice, they would be less than an hour out from Phoebe.

Cash, Vera and Luiz discussed tactics until turnover, when they flipped their ships end for end and began to decelerate. They had been travelling much faster than the ice to catch up with it, and now they had to shed a substantial portion of their velocity, a hard burn that peaked at three g and was followed by small course corrections to make sure that the three singleships were flying in precise formation, Cash and Vera about twenty kilometres apart, Luiz trailing several hundred kilometres behind. Their target grew dead ahead, a giant bullet slowly rotating, showing pits and craters across its surface. Still no sign of the defence system. Phoebe hung way beyond it, a faint sliver that in telescopic views resolved into a craggy globe with bright-floored craters, long linear grooves and scablands of loose material that had drifted to the bottom of slopes. One tremendous impact had created a basin more than forty-five kilometres in diameter, its rim a broken cirque more than four kilometres high, half the height of Everest; a gigantic bite out of the little moon that gave it a lopsided, flattened profile. The Pacific Community had built its base in a secondary crater near the huge cliffs of the basin’s cirque; Luiz said that the chunk of ice would strike Phoebe close to the basin or even inside it.

‘The people who sent it on its way knew exactly what they were doing.’

‘We also know a thing or two,’ Vera said. ‘Ready with your proxy, Cash?’

‘Aye aye.’

‘On my mark.’

The two proxies shot ahead of Cash and Vera’s singleships, closing on the ice. Cash was flying his by wire, plugged into its sensorium. Watching the ice’s foreshortened bullet-shape grow, radar overlaying and giving depth to optical and infrared images. He could see the pit at the trailing end where the motor was buried, make out hollow spheres that had to be fuel tanks ringing it. The putative anchor points for the lightsails were sharp spikes on either side, and there was a faint image of a pair of broad hoops or girdles running from stem to stern . . .

The proxy was slowing, less than ten kilometres from the ice, when Cash lost contact with it. No warning, just like that. Vera’s proxy was dead too. Both of them riddled by some kind of kinetic weapon, falling blindly past the ice now. Luiz, hung way back, transmitted to Cash and Vera a single video frame that showed two specks blurring away from the ice’s trailing end, said that the hoops must be rail guns. ‘They can fire forward or aft, and their ends are flexible so they can cover large arcs of sky. And they must be made out of some kind of superconducting fullerene, which would explain why it is so hard to spot on radar.’

Vera said it didn’t matter what they were was made of because she was going to cook them right now, and she and Cash brought their X-ray lasers online and raked the ice port and starboard, burning long shallow troughs into the hoops, curtains of vaporised material exploding away. Then they fired dumb missiles at the trailing end of the ice and the missiles sped in unhindered and blew out the motor in a blink of hot light. Although the ice appeared to lie defenceless before them, Cash and Vera hung back and sent in another pair of proxies, and as the proxies snarked in there was a stutter of activity across the surface of the ice, sharp plumes of dust flying up from craters as a swarm of tiny drones hurled themselves at the proxies and the singleships.

Cash fired a broadside of flechettes, discharged chaff to confuse the drones’ targeting systems, triggered the power cycle of the gamma-ray laser, activated the systems that would bring the ship’s fusion motor back up to full power. All this in less than a second, as he kicked into hyper-reflexive mode. Everything seemed spaced and deliberate: the ship’s systems were frustratingly slow to react to his commands. Flashes when flechettes struck five of the drones; more flashes when flechettes struck the ice. The rest sped on, would continue to fall forever in long, eccentric orbits around Saturn. The surviving drones were accelerating towards Cash, cutting through the random radio chatter, flashing lights, infrared sources and explosively inflated radar-reflective bubbles of the chaff. His gamma-ray laser fired and took out a drone, expelled the one-shot power source, cycled a fresh one into place, and fired again and took out another drone. It cycled once every tenth of a second, but in Cash’s accelerated state it seemed way slower than his father’s old pump-action shotgun and the drones were closing fast, too many of them for the gamma-ray laser to take out before they hit the ship.

Cash had just enough time to feel a fat wave of horror and anger. It was like being a pilot in a plane a moment before it struck the ground, or the driver of a car just before it crashed. A sick realisation that he’d screwed the pooch, that this wasn’t meant to happen - he was supposed to be a hero, not a casualty.

There was only one thing left to do and he did it. Even though he knew it probably wouldn’t save him, he had to try. He flipped on the singleship’s motor, full power, but the incoming drones blew up as he shot past them. An intense flash of electromagnetic radiation seared the singleship’s hardened sensor systems; the outer edge of an expanding cloud of hot diamond shrapnel slammed into its stern.

Most fragments buried themselves harmlessly in layers of frangible armour, but a few penetrated to the hull, where expended kinetic energy turned them to plasma that burnt through the composite skin and sent secondary particles showering into substructures around the motor and its fuel tanks. The shock of the multiple impacts and surges from overloaded optical systems and damaged control ganglia and processor arrays flooded through the ship’s control interface with a white flash and a sudden roar. The battle AI performed an emergency disconnect and pumped eight milligrams of sevofluorane into Cash’s oxygen supply and put him out before feedback could fry his motor and sensory synapses.

When he came back, a shade over fourteen minutes had elapsed since the strike. The damage in the stern of the singleship was a numb tingling in his calves and feet. He had a bad headache and he was blind and a taste like burnt plastic filled his nose and mouth, very like the taste he’d had for days after all his teeth had been pulled and replaced with contoured plastic ridges at the beginning of the J-2 programme. After a moment of disorientation, his training kicked in. He’d been through simulations of multiple malfunctions of the ship’s systems hundreds of times. He tried and failed to access the ship’s visual and radar displays, then pulled down status reports, stepping on his dismay when he saw the huge blocks of red scattered across system readouts. The motor was damaged but still burning at about four per cent maximum thrust; the battle AI was doing its best to carry out the last order he’d given before he’d been put under. Cash overrode the AI and shut down the motor carefully, then completed his survey of the singleship’s status. One of the three fuel cells that provided backup power was down and one of the tanks that supplied the attitude jets with propellant was dry, most likely holed. He’d lost every kind of optical display, too. Most of the cameras were intact, but overload had burned out the main bus and all the processors. Radar was more or less working, aside from a hole of about thirty degrees; when he used it, Cash discovered that he was already more than two thousand kilometres beyond Phoebe. No sign of the ice, or of the other two singleships, but hell, the singleships were stealthed, and maybe the H-bomb had taken care of the ice . . .

He tried to raise Luiz and Vera, and that was when he discovered that the communication package was crippled by fatal faults in both the antenna of the microwave transmitter and the ganglia that controlled the aim of the modulated laser. Shit. He was dumb, half-blind, and running on minimum power, with a severely reduced supply of propellant for his attitude jets and a damaged motor that he didn’t want to fire up again until he knew exactly what was wrong with it; he’d been lucky that it hadn’t flamed on him when he’d been hit, leaked plasma through a warp in the containment fields and scorched the ship hollow. The singleship’s repair mites were already beginning to clean up the gross damage, but it would take them a long time to diagnose the faults in the fusion motor, and even longer to fix them.

After a few moments’ thought, Cash launched one of the proxies. Now he could at least see again. Phoebe’s flattened disc hung behind him; beyond it, barely visible at maximum magnification, were the two singleships, separated by several hundred kilometres and closing fast on the little moon. There were points of light twinkling between the singleships and Cash saw a brief pinpoint flare that had to be an explosion: it looked like Luiz had delivered the H-bomb to the ice and vaporized the son-of-a-bitch, and now he and Vera must be chasing down the biggest chunks still heading towards Phoebe, blowing them to gravel and steam or knocking them off course … So they’d survived the drones, but even if they knew that Cash was alive they couldn’t rescue him. Only the Glory of Gaia and its tugs were equipped for retrieval.

The Glory of Gaia was too far away, but maybe he could raise Luiz and Vera, appraise them of his situation. The proxy was equipped with more than a dozen analysis packages, including a laser spectrograph. He aimed it past Phoebe and started blinking it on and off, three long flashes, three short flashes, three long. The pilots had been taught Morse code for situations like this, and he was grateful for the foresight of the training team. Three long, three short, three long. SOS. Save Our Souls.

Cash Baker’s singleship took its own sweet time to heal itself. Its battle AI spent hours rebooting control functions and rerouting them around terminally damaged circuits, checking and rechecking virtual simulations of every stage of the repairs; the punctures in its multilayered skin knitted together with infinitesimal slowness; it had reached the apex of its orbit, some fifteen million kilometres from Saturn, by the time its busy mites had cannibalised shards of broken ceramic insulation around the motor’s fusion chamber and reforged them into temporary patches. As he swung back towards Saturn, Cash began to regain control of the drive and navigation systems. It was as if his legs had been numbed by some terrible blow, and now he could wiggle his toes, feel the bruises on his shins, flex his knees . . .

Some damage couldn’t be fixed. Cash was unable to plug back into the battle net or contact any friendly ship because his encryption engine had suffered a fatal logic flaw; the only way to fix it was to upload a patch, and that required use of the device which the fault had shut down. And there were glitches in the navigation system too, persistent rastering in the optical systems, false echoes on the deep radar and a permanent problem with the antennae array’s tracking system . . . But he was at last fully engaged with the ship and its senses again, with a godlike view pitched about thirty degrees above the equatorial plane of Saturn and its rings and its retinue of moons.

The AIs were patiently reconstructing data that had been lost when the encryption engine had fallen over, using the singleship’s powerful optical system to log and tag the position and delta vee of every ship. It was clear that war had broken out. The Pacific Community ship was driving towards the inner system from Phoebe’s high and lonely orbit, on track for Iapetus. The Brazilian flagship was in orbit around Dione; the Flower of the Forest was about to enter orbit around Rhea; the Getulio Dornelles Vargas had remained on station at Mimas. Single-ships, identified by the unique spectrographic signature of their fusion flames, were chasing down Outer ships or were engaged on strafing runs across the surfaces of the various moons. Using blink comparison of multiple scans, the AIs were also able to locate ships fatally damaged by singleships or EMP mines, cooling towards the ambient temperature of space as they fell along eccentric orbital padis.

The AIs tagged casualties red, friendly ships blue, and everything else white. There were at least thirty red-tagged ships inside Iapetus’s orbit, but an equal number of white-tagged ships were fleeing unchallenged. Most of the action was confined to the half-million-kilometre radius defined by the orbit of Rhea. As he fell inwards, Cash watched blue specks chase down the last few white specks amongst the inner moons and ring system, stooping down in swift geodesic interceptions, altering their courses towards new targets by slingshot manoeuvres past moons large and small. A battle determined by Newtonian physics. By time and velocity and direction.

Cash was still locked out of it as he fell towards the orbit of Iapetus, four million kilometres out from Saturn. The repairs were almost complete, but much of it was temporary patching and he didn’t know how long it would last. He was low on fuel and power and air, too, and the control system of his rail gun was still futzed, but his proxies and pumped-pulse laser and single-shot gamma-ray lasers were fully operational. He could still make a contribution to the war, but he was going have to choose just one target, and choose well.

He plugged into the navigation engine and studied the various options. His best bet was to do exactly what most of the fleeing Outer ships had done: swing in close around Saturn. That way he’d maximise his chances of acquiring a target by passing through the broad arc of possible trajectories that any ships leaving Dione and Tethys had to follow if they wanted to slingshot past the gas giant. The only problem was that it would mean making a course correction pretty soon, and the AIs advised against it. He’d use up more than half his remaining fuel, the burn would be at the limits of the damaged motor’s capacity, and after he swung past Saturn he’d be stuck in an orbit tilted high above the equatorial plane, with a period of some two hundred and forty-eight hours and a semi-major axis of twenty-one million kilometres. He wouldn’t have enough fuel to rendezvous with any of the moons, so he’d have to hope that someone would spot him and come to pick him up. If the worst came to the worst, he could always let the ship put him under. He could wait out a couple of years in hibernation, and someone was bound to retrieve him before then . . .

Fuck it. Cash overrode the AIs and thirty minutes later fired up the motor for the first time since the accident: a short, hard burn that peaked at 1.38 g. It was a little rough, and efficiency was down to somewhere below eighty per cent, but the repairs held. He had his ship back. He could commit to battle.

Most of the Outer ships that had survived or evaded attack by skill or chance were dwindling away into the outer dark beyond Saturn, but there were still a few laggards heading towards the gas giant. Cash studied them carefully before choosing his target, a recent departure from Dione. It was one of the ugly lopsided tugs they used for hauling cargo from moon to moon, and it had a disproportionately small radar profile; someone had attempted to stealth it, which had to mean something. He’d have a hair-thin window of opportunity as he crossed its path at high relative velocity, but it was the best pick of a bad bunch.

He finessed the parameters of a second course-correction to ensure that he’d pass as close as possible to the target, pushing close to the limits of the damaged motor, then throttled back to a steady 0.3 g acceleration and began to prep his weapon systems. He felt no remorse about attacking a civilian ship. Once war was declared, battle orders were to intercept and terminate or cripple all Outer ships inside the orbit of Iapetus, the outermost of the inhabited moons. And the Outers had definitely declared war by flinging that rock at the Pacific Community’s base on Phoebe. Not to mention attacking his own ship. Besides, who knew what that tug might be packing, who it might be carrying? It was his duty to take it out. It was what he’d been trained for; why he was here. And it was also time for a little payback. Time to show the Outers that their sneaky little tricks couldn’t keep a good man down. As he powered up his weapons and worked his way through endless checklists, Cash tried to keep his growing excitement at a distance. He had a job to do, and he wanted to do it as well as possible.

The singleship drove past the orbit of Mimas, hurtled on towards the ring system. Cash had flown many missions around Saturn, but he’d never before had such an elevated view of the rings. An arch or bridge braided from a million luminous strands and interrupted here and there by wide or narrow carbon-black gaps, sweeping up to a sharp peak and falling back to girdle Saturn’s fat globe . . .

For a little while, he was transfixed by an oceanic feeling of enlargement. He remembered how he used to lie out on the block roof on clear summer nights when he was a kid, remembered feeling that he might fall for ever into the rigid patterns of the stars that bestrode the black bowl of the sky, knowing that he was linked to them by photons forged in their thermonuclear fires that had travelled for hundreds or thousands of years across interstellar space to fall into his eyes.

The same physics that determined the behaviour of starlight and Saturn’s rings constrained the way in which he could fight his particular corner of the wider war.

Cash slanted in above the eccentric clumps and kinks of the F Ring, bearing down on the tug now, closing in fast as it scooted towards the Keeler Gap. A ticker in one corner of his vision started flashing red as it ran back to zero and the cannon launched the proxies and they eagerly accelerated towards their target. Cash was looped into their control systems: it was like trying to hold on to fierce hounds straining at ever-lengthening leashes. The tug began to yaw and zag, evasive manoeuvres that would do it no good at all, and at the same moment Cash’s comms link beeped. An incoming message in plain text sent, according to the ID tag, by General Arvam Peixoto. Ordering him to defuse the proxies and cease all hostilities against the tug at once.

It appeared to have originated from the Glory of Gaia, but without use of the encryption engine Cash had no way of knowing that it was genuine or a spoof got up by the Outers as distraction or defence. After half a second’s thought, he texted verify authority.

Far across the rings, the tug was making a course adjustment: the predictive element of the singleship’s AIs suggested that it was planning to skim through the plane of the rings in an attempt to confuse the proxies. Cash adjusted the singleship’s attitude and initiated his own course change. The burn was ragged and tooth-rattling as it peaked, but it put him back on course for interception.

Another message arrived. Details of his service record and an order to disengage.

The hell he would. Sending his service record proved nothing because the Outers knew all about him thanks to the foofaraw surrounding Operation Deep Sounding, and Cash wanted payback so badly he could taste it, and he was closing rapidly on the tug now, right on the tails of the proxies. He began to power up the gamma-ray laser . . . and something inside the ship’s control system rose up at him. A demon. His first wild thought was that it had ridden one of the messages and punched through the firewalls. Then he realised that it was far too complex, something huge and remorseless that must have been waiting inside the control system all along, a fail-safe wakened by some encrypted signal.

He kicked into hyper-reflexive mode, but it was too late, he’d already lost control of the drive and navigation systems. The ship was rolling on its long axis, attitude jets punching on and off. He tried to find a way back in but couldn’t stop the motor climbing to maximum thrust, angling him away from the tug.

Well, fuck ‘em. He still had control of the proxies and they were almost on the tug now. He wouldn’t let it go. This was the apex of his career, and in his fury and pride he would not let it be taken from him. All he had to do was hold on, but the demon was rushing towards him as remorselessly as a tidal wave, smashing through buffers and firewalls. He was like a man standing on his tiptoes in a sealed chamber that was rapidly filling with water, trying to keep his head in a shrinking bubble of air. The demon snatched at weapon control, and although the proxies were still too far from the tug he triggered them before the demon could shut them down. Saw their bright blinks far ahead of him, and then the demon was on him and he lost the last vestiges of control, and every sensory input.

Cash was aware only of his body, swaddled tight as a mummy in his acceleration suit. Absolute blackness and silence pressed in. It was like being buried alive. He forced himself to relax back into ordinary mode - it would be intolerable to be trapped like this with heightened awareness stretching every second ten times over - and a few heart beats later the ship’s sensory inputs came back. Whether because one of the AIs had found a way to run around the demon, or because the demon had relaxed its grip as soon as its job was done, he neither knew nor cared.

The motor had cut out, and he was locked out of drive and communications and weapons systems. But at least he could see again, right across the electromagnetic spectrum.

The tug was slicing neatly through the Keeler Gap, close to the edge of the A Ring’s lustrous arc. It did not seem to be in any way crippled. And he was falling towards the plane of the rings, too. Travelling so fast that he’d acquired a faint shell of ionised plasma as he ploughed through the sparse atmosphere of molecular oxygen produced by the action of the sun’s ultraviolet light on the rings’ water ice. Flying above the Keeler Gap on a course that would plough a long chord through the A Ring beyond. It came up at him with blinding speed, resolving into points of light all racing away in the same direction, a vast churning swarm ordered into lanes. The ring was more than a quarter of a million kilometres across but just ten metres thick, the height of a two-storey building: Cash told himself that even though he was going to pass through at a shallow angle, there was a good chance that his ship wouldn’t suffer any significant damage.

And then with a flash the broad plane of the rings collapsed into a line of brilliant light. And a speck of basalt, a sphere less than a millimetre in diameter, polished and eroded by billions of years of microscopic collisions, smashed into the nose of the singleship and shattered into dozens of white-hot fragments. Most were stopped in their tracks by temperfoam that filled every nook and cranny of the interior, but two shot through the lifesystem. One expended its energy in the impact gel that cased Cash’s body, but the second smashed through his virtual-reality visor and left a charred track through his skull and brain. He didn’t even have time to realise that he’d been hit.

I don’t know what I just read but I want more. What is this? A book? Where can I buy it?

It’s from Paul McAuley’s Quiet War. Quiet War is followed by Gardens of the Sun, then In the mouth of the whale, then Evening’s empires. It’s mainstream enough that you can get it from Amazon or any other major retailer and probably any small book shop in person.

Checking it out now. The reviews seem all over the place. I like what I’ve read so far and hard sci-fi makes me so happy I’ll pick up the trilogy as soon as I have time to read them.

The rest of the novels aren’t as military/space combat oriented. You have that singleship jockey arc, then a few others. The main story arc is about the growing pains of humanity post-solar system colonization, with an emphasis on the split between two main sides: pro and anti genetic tinkering.

I only recently started the second book, so I can’t advise more than that, as far as the fighter pilot content goes. The rest of the book is just as hard SF though. One of the other story arcs is the cloak and dagger trials and tribulations of a born & bred spy/assassin thru the chaos of that quiet war between pro and antis.

That’s it basically. I can’t really say more without spoiling. Cash Baker does show up again in the second book, but as far as I’ve gotten he’s only just reappeared.

The depictions of those cloudscapes are really awesome though. And I read that first book while I had just discovered Infinity. Needless to say it really makes you dream :slight_smile:

You’ve sold me. I love dirty politics, plots, and spaceships in my novels. This reminds me, we need an Infinity bookclub thread…

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Definitely might be a good read, if you like dirty politics. I won’t say more.

If there’s a chance for disappointment it’s that sometimes that same convolution of politics and back stabbing etc, gets a little tedious. Ok now I’m preaching. It’s up to you to find in the books what enjoyment you will :slight_smile:

Here’s a related thread:

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This piece of concept art for Elite: Dangerous might fit well in here as a visual reference for the potential of cloudscapes in gas giants:

Visuals like that are well outside the scope for Infinity: Battlescape unfortunately.

That’s too bad. I was thinking maybe if we “only” got to 799k or so …

Well there is always hope, Flavien’s first posts on over ten years ago were experiments with volumetric clouds so he’s got some experience in the area. The thing is that the community can say that something is really hard and out of scope and next week Flavien will reveal it as a feature because he spent some of his spare time thinking about the problem. So never rule anything out entirely.

@Enginish can recommend you some bad ass science fiction books. I think he has read all of them. All. of. them.

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Are they? Because I thought one of the devs talked about gas giant weather, lightning and stuff like that that could affect the ship and its modules as things they want to implement, depending on funding and the meeting of stretch goals. I think it was during one of the streams, don’t remember which one though.

Well there is the $600K stretch goal:

“$600k - Improved atmospheric effects such as volumetric clouds, storms, etc”

I’m imagining something a bit more basic for that rather than complex cloudscapes. System performance is going to be their biggest challenge in that regard.

Well, I obviously wouldn’t expect them to create a complete weather simulation, that would probably be a bit too hard. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do something that looks right. Similar to how planets work. You don’t have to get every bit of physics and geology right, but you can make them look right.