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.’
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?’
‘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.