PILOTS OF THE TWILIGHT
by Ed Bryant
This concerns a woman and a man, and a large, extremely hostile machine. It is a tale which has changed in some details over a generation, but is still true in its essentials. Some tellers have attempted to embroider the story, but nearly always have drawn back. They realized there simply was no need, and I concur.
The tale truly happened, and it took place just this way:
The woman's name was Morgan Kai-Anila. Some around her used the diminutive "Mudgie," though usually not more than once; not unless they were long-time friends or family. Morgan Kai-Anila was fast with a challenge, but even swifter with her customized duelling model of the neuro-humiliatron. People tended to watch their step around her.
Morgan was a remittance woman. Her home had been Oxmare, one of the jeweled estates setting off the green, cleared parklands to the south of the Victorian continent's capital. Now her home was wherever she found employment. The Jobs had picked up as the political climate of our world, then called Almira, began to heat considerably. Morgan's partner was her ship, a sleek, deadly fighter called Runagate. Both singly and together, they had achieved a crucial style. They were known by everyone who counted.
The man's strong, suit was not style. He was too young and too unmoneyed. The man possessed a baggage of names, a confusing matter not of his doing. The North Terrea villagers, who finally had been convinced to accept custody of the boy back from the truculent 'Reen, bad christened him Holt Calder. Only the smallest voice from the past in the adult Holt Calder's memory recalled his birth-parents, wish to name him Igasho. Then there were the 'Reen, who had mouthed the sequence of furry syllables translating roughly as "He-orphaned-and-helpless-whom-we-obliged-are-to-take-in-but-why-us?" Son of the largely, unspoiled forests, "Holt" was what he eventually learned to respond to.
Holt's ship was not the newest or shiniest model of its class, but it had been modified by rural geniuses to specifications far superior to the original. The fighter's formal name was Limited North Terrea Community Venture Partnership One. Holt called his ship Bob.
Then there was the huge and hostile machine. It had no name as such, other than the digital coding sequence which differentiated it from all its brothers. It had no family roots, electronic or otherwise, located in this planetary system. Its style was as blunt and blocky as its physical configuration.
If was here only because a randomly ranging scout had registered sensor readings indicating the existence of sentient life—the enemy—and had transported those findings back to an authority that could evaluate them and take decisive action.
The result was this massive killer popping out of nowhere, safely away from the system's gravity wells.
The scout's intelligence had been incomplete. There were, the new visitor discovered, two inhabited worlds in this system. Fine. No problem. Armaments were adequate to the increased task.
The machine swept with bulky grace in along the orbital plane of the nearer world, even though that planet was the enemy sanctuary whose orbit was closer to the central star. The machine chose that jungle world first for mere convenience. It was a target of opportunity. If any complications arose, the assassin's implacable brain could compute new strategy.
A sympathetic human, goodlife, might have considered this a good day for killing. It didn't occur to the machine that it was having a good day. Nor was it having a bad day. It was just having a day.
A small part of the machine's brain checked and confirmed the readiness of its weapons. Its unfailing logic knew the precise time it would reach striking distance. Electrons spun remorselessly, just as the two inhabited planets ahead rotated on their axes. Maybe the machine was having a good day…
Morgan Kai-Anila's day was going fine. Runagate screamed down through the airless space around the moon Fear. Occasional defensive particle beams glittered and sparked as they vaporized bits of debris still descending slowly from Morgan's last strafing run. The missiles to the defense dome housing the Zaharan computers had done their work well, confusing if not destroying the targets.
"Eat coherent light, Zaharan scum," Morgan muttered, punching the firing stud for the lasers. Her heart really wasn't in it. Some of her best friends were Zaharans. This was only a job.
The lasers flashed away from recessed ports in Runagate's prow with a vibrating, high-pitched thrumm. Morgan saw the main Zaharan dome slice open and rupture outward from the pressure differential, spilling dozens of flailing, vac-suited figures into the harsh sunlight on Fear's surface.
"Ha!" Morgan kicked in the auxiliaries and hard-banked into a victory roll as the ship knifed away from the devastation. The pilot's ears registered the distant rumble of the dome explosion. She hoped the tumbling, suited figures were all watching. Good run.
Runagate climbed quickly away from the rugged, cratered surface of the moon. Within a few seconds, the distance allowed Morgan to see the full diameter of the irregular globe that was Fear.
"Good job, Mudge," said Runagate, The ship was allowed to use variations of Morgan's loathed childhood name. But then, she had programmed Runagate.
"Thanks," Morgan leaned back in the padded pilot's couch and sighed. "I hope nobody got torn up down there."
Runagate made the sound Morgan had learned to interpret as an electronic shrug. "Remember that it's just a job. You know that. So do they. Everybody loves the risks and the bonuses or they wouldn't do it."
Morgan touched the controls on the sound and motion simulation panel; the full-throated roar of Runagate slashing through open space died away. The ship now slid silently through the vacuum. "I just hope the raid did some good."
"You always say that," Runagate pointed out. "The raid on Fear was a small domino, but an important one. The Zaharans' bombardment base won't be dumping anything dangerous on Catherine for a while. That will give the Catherinians enough time to build up their defensive systems, so that Victoria can take some of the pressure off the Cytherans before Cleveland II and the United Provinces—"
"Enough," said Morgan. "I'm glad you can keep track of continental alliances. I'm suitably impressed. But will you just prompt me from time to time, and avoid the rote?"
"Of course," Runagate said, the synthesized voice sounding a touch sulky.
Morgan swiveled to face the master screen. "Give me a visual plot for our touchdown at Wolverton, please." The ship complied. "Do you estimate I'll have time for a workout before we hit atmosphere? I'm stiff as a plank."
"If you are quick about it," said Runagate.
"And what about my hair?" Morgan undid the rest of her coif. It had started to come undone during the raid on Fear. Red curls tumbled down onto her shoulders.
"It's one or the other," the ship said. "I cannot do your hair while you are working out."
"Oh, all right," Morgan said mournfully. "I'll take the hair."
The ship's voice said, "Did you have plans for tonight?"
Morgan smiled at the console. "I'm going out."
A bunch of spacers were whooping it up at the Malachite Saloon as they were wont to do any evening when a substantial number had returned safely from freelance missions. It had been a lucky day for most, and now was going to be a good night. The swinging copper portals might as well have been revolving doors. The capering holograms on the windowed upper deck had tonight been combined with live dancers. The effect of the real and unreal forms blurring and merging and separating composed an unnerving but fascinating spectacle outside for the occasional non-spacer passersby.
"Look, Mommy!" said one tourist urchin, pointing urgently at the dance level as a finned holo enveloped a dancer, "A shrake ate that man!"
His mother grabbed a hand of each of her two children and tugged them on. "Overpaid low-life," she said, "Pay no heed."
The older brother looked scornfully at his sibling, "Oneirataxia," he said.
"I do so know what reality is," said the younger boy.
Inside the Malachite Saloon, Holt Calder sat alone in the fluxing crowd. He was a reasonably alert and pleasant-looking young man, but he was also the new boy on the block, and spacer bonds took time to form. Holt had fought only a comparative handful of actions, and truly seen nothing particularly exciting until today.
"Let me tell you, son, you almost cashed it in this afternoon off Loathing." The grizzled woman in black leathers raised her voice, to penetrate the throbbing music from upstairs. Her hair was styled in a silver wedge and she wore a patch over her left eye. Without invitation, she pulled up a chair and sat down.
Holt put down his nearly empty glass and stared at her. True, he had realized at the time that it was not a particularly intelligent move to speed out of the moon Terror's shadow and pounce on a brace of more heavily aimed Provincial raiders. "I didn't really think about it," he said seriously.
"I suspected as much." The woman shook her head. "Damned lucky for you the Cytherans jumped us before I had a chance to lock you in ray sights."
"You?" said Holt. "Me? How did you know—"
"I asked," the woman said. "I checked the registry of your ship. Tonight I made a point of coming to this smoke-hole. I figured I ought to hurry if I wanted to see you while you were still alive."
The young man drained his glass. "Sorry about your partner."
The woman looked displeased. "He was about your age and experience. I thought I had him on track. Idiot had to go and get over-eager. Lucky for you."
Holt felt uncertain about what to do or say next.
The woman thrust out her hand. "The name's Tanzin," she said. "I trust you've heard of me"— Holt nodded—"but nothing good."
Holt felt it unnecessary and indeed, less than politic, to mention that Tanzin was usually spoken of by other freelancers in the vocabulary that was also used to name the three moons, especially Fear and Terror. Her grip was strong and warm, quite controlled.
"Couldn't help but notice," said Tanzin, "that you've been slugging them down fairly frequently." She gestured at his empty glass. "Buy you another?"
Holt shrugged. "Thanks. I never drank much. Before tonight. I guess the close call got to me."
"You don't have a mission tomorrow, do you?"
The young man shook his head slowly.
"Fine. Then drink tonight."
There was a commotion at the other end of the long, rectangular room. Holt tried to focus through the smoky amber light as a perceptible ripple of reaction ran through the crowd. Public attention had obviously centered on a woman who had just entered the Malachite. Holt couldn't make out much about her from a distance, other than her height, which was considerable, and her hair, which fell long and glowed like coals.
"Who is that?" said Holt.
Tanzin, trying to signal a server, glanced. "The Princess Elect."
Holt's mouth opened as the Princess Elect and a quartet of presumed retainers in livery neared and swept past. "She's beautiful."
"The slut," said a deep voice from behind him. "Out slumming."
"Her hair…" Holt closed his mouth, swallowed, then opened it again.
"It's red. So?" That and a chuckle came from a new speaker, a cowled figure sitting at a small table close by Holt's right' in the packed bar.
"You must have been out on a long patrol," said Tanzin.
"Hey, I like red too," said she same booming voice from behind Holt. He turned and saw two men, each dark-bearded, both dwarfing the chairs in which they sat.
The one hitherto silent lamed to his companion. "So why don't you ask her to dance, then?"
The louder one guffawed. "I'd sooner dance with a 'Reen."
Before he realized what he was doing. Holt had jumped to his feet and turned to confront the two men. "Take it back," he said evenly. "I won't have you be insulting."
"The Princess Elect?" said the first man in apparent astonishment.
"Are you crazy?" Tanzin, reaching up and grabbing one elbow.
"Perhaps suicidal," murmured the hooded figure, taking his other elbow. "Sit back down, boy."
"Don't spoil my fun," the louder of the large men to the pair restraining Holt. "I'd fly all the way to Kirsi and back without a map, just so's I could pound a "Reen-lover."'
"Big talk," said Tanzin. "You do know who I am?"
The man and his partner both looked at her speculatively. "I think I can take you too," said the first.
"How about me?" With the free hand, the cowled figure threw back her hood. Red curls smoldered in the bar light.
The first big man smirked. "I think I can mop, wax, and buff the floor, using the three of you."
The second large man cautioned him. "Hold on, Amaranth. The small one—that's what's-her-name, uh, the Kai-Anila woman."
Amaranth looked pensive. "Oh, yeah… The hot-shot on the circuit. You got as many confirmeds during the Malina Glacier action as I did all last year combined. Shoot, I don't want to take you apart."
"There's an easy way not to," Tanzin said. "Let's all just settle back. Next round's on me."
Amaranth looked indecisive. His friend slowly sat down and tugged at the larger man's elbow. "How about it, Amaranth? Let's go ahead and have a drink with the rookie and these two deadly vets."
Morgan and Tanzin sat. Still standing, Holt said, "Amaranth. What kind of name is that?"
Amaranth shrugged, a motion like giant forest trees bending slightly as wind poured off the tundra. "It's a translation. Undying flower. My pop, he figured we'd get to emigrate to Kirsi and he ought to name me that as a portent. My mom thought it sounded wrong with my last name, so she politicked for Amaranth—it means the same but doesn't alliterate— and it stuck."
"Good name," Holt said. He introduced himself and put out his hand. Amaranth shook it gravely. The other introductions followed. Amaranth's friend was Bogdan Chmelnyckyj. A server appeared and drinks were ordered.
Holt couldn't help but stare then, when he first looked closely at Morgan.
"The hair really is red." She smiled at him. "Even redder than the Princess Elect's."
Holt shut his mouth and then said, "Uh." He knew he was making a fool out of himself, but there didn't seem to be any help for it. He realized his heart was beating faster. This is ridiculous, he told himself, feeling more than comfortably warm. He could smell her and he liked it. We're all professionals, he admonished himself. Cut out the hormonal dancing.
It didn't do any good. He still stared and stammered and hoped that drool wasn't running off his chin.
The other four seemed oblivious to Holt's situation and were talking shop.
"—something's up, Amaranth was saying, as Holt tried to focus on the words. "I got that from the debriefer after I set down at Wolverton. Wasn't that long ago tonight. I hit up four or five grounders for information, but nobody'd divulge a thing."
"I have the same feeling." Tanzin said. She looked thoughtful "I called a friend of mine over at the Office of the Elect. Basically, she said 'Yes,' and 'I can't tell you anything,' and 'Keep patience—something'll be announced, perhaps as soon as tonight.' I'm still waiting." She drained a shot of 2-4-McGilvray's effortlessly.
"Maybe not much longer " Bogdan motioned slightly. The five of them looked down the bar. The Princess Elect had returned from wherever her earlier errand had taken her and now stood talking to one of the Malachite's managers. Then she snapped her fingers and two of the huskier members of her entourage lifted her to the top of the hardwood bar.
For a moment she stood there silently. Her clingy green outfit shone even in the dim light. The Princess Elect tapped one booted foot on the bar. A ripple of silence spread out until only murmurs could be heard. The music from upstairs had already cut off.
"Your world needs you," said the Princess Elect. "I will be blunt. Effective now, the normal political wranglings among Victoria, Catherine, Cythera, and all the rest have ceased. The reason for this is simple—and deadly." She paused for maximum drama.
Amaranth raised a shaggy eyebrow. "Our star's going to go nova," he speculated.
"There is an enemy in our solar system," continued the Princess Elect. "We know little about its nature. Something we can be sure of, though, is that effective local sundown tonight, our colonists on Kirsi found themselves in a state of siege."
The level of volume of incredulous voices all around the room rose and the Princess Elect spread her hands, her features grave. "You all know that the few colonists on Kirsi possess only minimal armament. Apparently the satellite station was overwhelmed immediately. At this moment, the enemy orbits Kirsi, turning the jungles into flame and swamps into live steam. I have no way of ascertaining how many colonists still survive in hiding."
"Who is it?" someone cried out. "Who is the enemy?" The hubbub rose until no one could be heard by a neighbor.
The Princess Elect stamped her foot until order could be restored. "Who is the enemy? I—I don't know." For the first time, her composure seemed to crack just a little. Then it hardened again. Holt had heard the Princess Elect was a tough cookie, in every way a professional, just as he was as a pilot. ''I have ordered up a task force to proceed to Kirsi and engage the enemy. Ail pilots are to be volunteers. All guilds and governments have agreed to cooperate. I wish I had more information to tell you tonight, but I don't."
Again Holt thought the Princess Elect looked suddenly vulnerable before the shocked scrutiny of the Malachite crowd. Her shoulders started to slump a bit. Then she gathered herself and the steel was back. "Personnel from the Ministry of Politics will be waiting to brief you back at the port. I wish you all, each and every one, a safe and successful enterprise. I want you all to return safely, after saving the lives of as many of our neighbors on Kirsi as is humanly possible." She inclined her head briefly, then leaped lithely to the floor,
"Hey! Just hold on," someone yelled out. Holt could see only the top of the Princess Elect's head. She paused. "What about bonuses?"
"Yeah." Someone else joined in. "You want us to put our tails on the line, making an inter-planet jump and fighting a whatever-it-is—a boojum—all for regular pay and greater glory?"
"How about it?" a third pilot shouted over the rising clamor.
Holt could tell just from the attitude of the top of the Princess Elect's head that she wasn't pleased. She raised one gloved hand and the decibel level lowered. "Bonuses, yes," she said. "Quintuple fees. And that also goes for your insurance to your kin if you don't come back "
"Bork that," said Amaranth firmly. "I'm coming back."
"Does 'quintuple' mean 'suicide'?" said Bogdan slowly. He shrugged.
"Satisfactory?" said the Princess Elect. "Good fortune to all of you then, and watch your tails." Within seconds, the entourage had whisked her away.
The crowd was quieter than Holt would have expected.
"Hell of a damper on the party," Tanzin said.
"I am ready," said Amaranth. "Could have used some sleep, but—" He spread his hands eloquently.
Bogdan nodded. "I, as well."
"We may as well start back," said Tanzin. "I expect all transport will be headed toward the field."
Morgan flipped her hood forward. Holt was saddened to see her beauty abruptly hidden. "Some kind of fun now," she said in a low voice.
"I hope…" he said. They all looked at him. Holt felt like a child among a group of adults. He said simply, "Nothing. Let's go."
Midnight in the jungle. Nocturnal creatures shrilled and honked on every side. Overhead the star field shimmered and winked, as a brighter star crawled slowly across the zenith.
Kirsi's moon Alnaba began to edge over the tree-canopied horizon to the east.
Then the night sounds stopped.
The image suddenly tilted and washed out in a flare of silent, brilliant white light.
"That was the ground station at Lazy Faire."
Black. Stars that didn't twinkle.
The image flickered, blurred, then focused in on—something.
"What's the scale?"
"About a kilometer across. At this point, we can't be more exact."
It was a polyhedron that at first one might mistake for a sphere. Then an observer perceived the myriad angles and facets. As the image clarified, angular projections could be seen.
The device reflected little light. In its darkness it seemed a personification of something sinister. Implacable machinery, it looked tough and mean enough to eat worlds.
"We managed to swing the cameras of a surface resources surveyor. These were all the pictures we got."
A spark detached from the distant machine. That spark grew larger, closer, until it filled the entire screen. As with the transmission from Kirsi's surface, the image then flared out.
'That was it for the survey satellite. I think you've gotten a pretty good idea of the fate of nearly everything on and around Kirsi."
The lights came up and Holt blinked.
"It's gonna be one hell of a job, let me tell you that now," Amaranth said to him.
"I think my enthusiasm is wearing thin already." Tanzin looked glum.
"Beams," said Bogdan. "More wattage than this whole continent. Missiles up the rear. How're we gonna tackle that thing?"
Morgan smiled faintly. "I'd say our work's cut out for us."
"Bravado?" Tanzin covered the younger woman's hand with her own. The five of them sat behind a briefing table in the auditorium. "I agree with the sentiment. I just question how we're going to implement it." Complaining voices, questioning tones spiraled up from the other dozens of tables and scores of seated pilots around the room.
"I know what you're all asking. I'll try to suggest some answers." Dr. Epsleigh was the speaker. She was short, dark, intense, the'coordinator chosen by the emergency coalition of governments to set up the task force. She was known for the sharpness of her tongue—and an ingenious ability to synthesize solutions out of unapparent patterns.
Someone from the back of the hall shouted, "Your first answer ought to try to squelch all the rumors. Just what is that thing?"
"I heard," said Dr. Epsleigh, "that someone earlier in the evening called our opponent a boojum." She smiled grimly. "That was an astute nomenclature."
"Huh?" said the questioner. "What's a boojum?"
"It's fortunate that classical literacy is not a requirement of a first-rate fighter." Dr. Epsleigh snorted. "The long-range sensors detected an object and coded it as a snark, a possible cometary object. One of our programmer ancestors liked literary allusions…"
At the table, Morgan's head jerked and she half-raised one hand toward an ear.
"What's wrong?" said Holt, feeling a start of concern.
"Runagate," she answered. "The ship's link. I've got to turn down the volume. Runagate just shouted in my ear that he knows all about snarks and boojums. Quote: For the snark was a boojum, you see.' "
"So just what is—" he started to say.
Dr. Epsleigh's amplified voice overrode him. "What we shall be fighting, as best can be determined at this time, is an automated destroyer, a deadly relic from an ancient war. It's a sentient machine that has been programmed to terminate all the organic life it encounters."
"So what's it got against us?"
"That's a dumb question," someone else pointed out. "Maybe you're not organic intelligence, Boz." The first questioner flushed pink.
"Thank you," said Dr. Epsleigh. "We've been running an historical search for information in the computers. Objects like that machine orbiting Kirsi were known when we sought refuge in this planetary system four centuries ago. They were just part of the oppressive civilization our ancestors fled. Our people wanted to be left alone to their own devices. It was assumed that the vastness of the Galaxy would protect them from discovery by either the machines or the rest of humanity." Dr. Epsleigh paused. "Obviously the machines were better trackers—or perhaps this is just a chance encounter. We don't know."
"Is there room for negotiation?" That was Tanzin.
Dr Epsleigh's humorless smile appeared again. "Apparently not. In the past the machines negotiated only when it was part of a larger strategy against their human targets. The attack on Kirsi was without warning. The machine has not attempted to communicate with any human in the system. Nor has it responded to our overtures. It is merely pounding away at Kirsi with single-minded ferocity. We think it picked that world simply because Kirsi was closer to its entrance point into this system." Dr. Epsleigh's jaw visibly tightened; the tension was reflected in her voice. "It's not merely trying to defeat our neighbors. The machine is annihilating them. "We're witness to a massacre."
"And we're next?" said Morgan.
"All of Almira," said Dr. Epsleigh. "That's what we anticipate, yes."
"So what's the plan?" Amaranth's voice boomed out.
Holt glanced aside at Morgan, her hair almost glowing in the hall's artificial glare. His job had been to send back fee dividends to North Terrea, the village that had invested in him and his ship. Until only a short time ago, his life had centered around adventure, peril, and profit. Now a new factor had intervened. It seemed there suddenly was another facet of life to consider, Morgan. Maybe it was only a crush—he'd never find out if it would work or not unless he explored the possibilities. But instead they'd both fly out with the rest to Kirsi. The machine would kill him. Or her.
Or the both of them. It was depressing.
Dr. Epsleigh interrupted his reverie. "We don't know what the defensive capabilities of the machine are. The few ships that investigated from Kirsi didn't even get close enough to test its screens. You'll be more careful. We think you've got considerably more speed and mobility than the machine. The strategy will be to slip a few fighters through the machine's protective screens while the other ships are skirmishing. We're jury-rigging some heavier weapons than standard issue."
"Um," said a pilot off to the left. "What you're saying is, you hope some of us can find points of vulnerability on that critter?"
"We're continuing to gather intelligence about the machine," said Dr. Epsleigh. "If a miracle answer comes up, believe me, you'll be the first to know."
"It's borking suicide." Amaranth's voice carried throughout the hall.
"Probably." Dr. Epsleigh's smile heated from grim to wry. "But it's the only borking chance we've got."
"Why even bother with quintuple bonuses," someone muttered. "No one'll be around to spend 'em other than the machine."
"How can that boojum-thing just want to wipe us all out?" came an overly loud musing from the back of the room.
"Aren't you forgetting us and the 'Reen?" Holt said angrily, also loud. His neighbors stared at him.
"We didn't kill 'em all," said Bogdan mildly.
"Might as well have. For four hundred years, we took their land whenever it suited us. They died when they got in our way."
"Not in my way," protested Bogdan. "I've never done anything to those stinking badgers."
"Nor for them," said Holt.
"Shut up," said Tanzin. "Squabble later. When the machine bombards Almira, I'm sure it won't distinguish between human and 'Reen." She raised her voice back in the direction of Dr. Epsleigh. "So what happens next?"
"We're outfitting the fighters. It will take some hours. You'll be leaving in successive waves. The ready rooms are prepared. I suggest you all get whatever sleep or food or other relaxation you can manage. I'll post specific departure rosters when I can. Questions?"
There were questions, but nothing startling. Holt drew his courage together and turned toward Morgan. "Buy you a caf?" She nodded.
"Buy as all a caf," said Taazin, "but get a head start now. We'll meet you later."
Unwelcome satellite, the machine continued to circle Kirsi.
Thai list pretty much inventoried the status of Kirsi's surface. Orbital weapons probed down to the planet's substrata.
The boojum, you see, wanted to be sure.
The ready rooms were clusters of variously decorated chambers color-keyed to whatever mood the waiting pilots wished. This dawn, the pilots had tended to gather together in either the darkest, most somber rooms, or else the most garishly painted. Seeking privacy, Holt conducted Morgan to a chamber finished in light wood with neutral, sand-colored carpets.
Holt told the room to shut off the background music. It complied. The man and woman sat opposite one another at a small table and stared across their mugs of steaming caf.
Morgan finally said, "So, are you frightened?"
"Not yet." Holt slowly shook his head. "I haven't had time yet. I expect I will be."
She laughed. "When the time comes, when that machine looms up as sharp and forbidding as the Shraketooth Peaks, then I expect I'll shake from terror."
"And after that?" said Holt.
"Then I'll just do my job."
He leaned toward her over the table and touched her free hand. "I want to do the same." She almost imperceptibly pulled her fingers back.
"I know something of your career," said Morgan. "I pay attention to the stats. I'm sure you'll do fine."
Holt reacted to a nuance in her tone. "I'm not that much younger than you. I just haven't had quite as much experience."
"That's not what I meant." This time she touched his hand. "I wasn't making light of your youth. I've watched the recordings of your skill as a young fighter pilot. What I'm wondering about is what it took to get there…"
Her words lay in the air as an invitation. Holt started to relax just a little. Their fingers remained lightly touching.
It was rarely simple or easy for Holt to explain how he had been raised in the wild by the 'Reen. A casual listener might toss it off as a joke or an elaborate anecdote. But then Holt rarely talked about his background with anyone. The few hearers invariably were impressed with his sincerity.
He found himself not at all reluctant to tell Morgan.
Simply put, Holt had been set out on a hillside to die, while only an infant, by the North Terrea villagers. In the laissez-faire way of all Almira, no one had wanted to take the rap for doing in the baby. It all had something to do with Holt's parents who had perished under hazy circumstances that had never been explained to their son's satisfaction—but then, that circumspection was part of the eventual pact between Holt and the villagers.
At any rate, following the death of his parents, a very young Holt Calder had been placed on the steep, chilly flank of a small mountain, presumably to perish. Within hours, he was found by a roving band of 'Reen hunters. The 'Reen were a stocky, carnivorous, mammalian, sentient species with mythically (according to the human settlers) nasty temperaments—but in spite of colonists' scare-the-children stories, they didn't eat human babies. Instead the 'Reen hunters hissed and grumbled around the infant for a while, discussing this incredible example of human irresponsibility, and then transported the baby down to North Terrea. Under cover of the night, they sneaked past the sentries and deposited Holt Calder at the threshold of the assembly hall.
North Terrea held a village meeting the next night and again voted—although by a smaller margin than the first time—to set Holt out on a hillside.
It took longer for a 'Reen band to happen across the infant this time. Holt was nearly dead of exposure. Rather than return him to what the 'Reen presumed would be a barbaric and certain death, they took him into their own nomadic tribe.
For a decade, Holt grew up speaking the rough sibilance of the 'Reen tongue. There were certainly times when he realized he was as much less hairy than his fellows in the tribe, that his claws and teeth were far less impressive, and that he didn't possess the distinctive flank stripe, lighter than the surrounding fur. The 'Reen went to pains to keep Holt from feeling too much the estrangement of his differentness. The boy was encouraged to roughhouse with his fellow cubs. He enjoyed the love of a mated couple who had lost their offspring to a human trap.
After a certain rotation of long winters, though, the 'Reen determined it would be a kinder thing to return Holt to his original people. The time had come for the 'Reen his age to join the Calling. It was a rite of adulthood, and something the 'Reen suspected Holt would never be capable of. So regretfully they deposited him on his twelfth birthday (though none of them knew it) on the threshold of the North Terrea assembly hall.
Holt had not wanted to go. The humans found him in the morning, trussed warmly and securely in a cured skelk hide. Before sunset, Holt had escaped onto the tundra and found his 'Reen band again. They patiently discussed this matter with him. Then they again made him helpless and spirited him into North Terrea.
This time the villagers put the boy under benevolent guard. That night the assembly met for a special session and everyone agreed to take Holt in.
They taught him humanity, starting with their language. They groomed and dressed him in ways differing from how he had previously been groomed and dressed. After a time, he agreed to stay. 'Reen-ness receded; humanity advanced.
The passage of more than a decade had brought about certain social changes in North Terrea. The inhabitants wanted to forget the affair of the elder Calders. They plowed their guilt and expiation into rearing the son. And there were those who feared him.
When Holt reached young manhood, it was readily apparent to all who would notice that he was a superior representative of all the new adults in the community. It only followed feat his incorporation into the North Terrea population should be balanced with a magnificent gesture. The assembly picked him to be the primary public investment of the North Terrea community partnership.
And that is why they purchased him the second-hand fighting ship, refurbished it, paid for Holt's training, and sent him out to seek his own way, incidentally returning handsome regular bonus dividends to fee investors.
Years after his return to human society, Holt had again essayed a return visit to the 'Reen, The nomads traveled a regular, if wide-ranging, circuit and he had found both the original band and his surviving surrogate parent. But it hadn't been the same.
PereSnik't, the silver-pelted shaman of the band, had sadly quoted to Holt from the 'Reen oral tradition: "You can't come home again."
"But aren't you curious about what your parents did to trigger their mysterious fate?" said Morgan, somewhat incredulous.
"Of course," Holt said, "but I'd assumed I'd have a lifetime to find out. I didn't suspect I'd wind up zapped into plasma somewhere In Kirsi orbit."
"You won't be." Morgan pressed his fingers lightly. "Neither of us will be."
Holt said nothing. Morgan's eyes were ellipsoid, catlike, and marvelously green.
Morgan met the directness of his look. "What was that about the Calling," she said, "when the 'Reen returned you to North Terrea?"
He shook himself, eyes refocusing on another place and time. "Though the Almiran colonists didn't want to admit it, the 'Reen have a culture. They are as intelligent in their way as we are in ours—but their civilization simply isn't as directed toward technology. It didn't have to progress in that line.
"The 'Reen can manipulate tools if they wish—but usually they choose not to. They are hunters—but they have few hunting weapons. That's where the Calling comes in."
He paused for a drink of caf. Morgan remained silent.
"I'm not an ethnologist, but I've picked up more about the 'Reen by living with them than all the deliberate study by the few humans who showed interest through the centuries." Holt chuckled bitterly. "A formal examination would have led to communication, and that to a de facto acknowledgment of intelligence. And that would have brought the ethical issue of human expansionism into the open." He shook his head. "No, far better to pretend the 'Reen merely extraordinarily clever beasts."
"I grew up in Oxmare," said Morgan. "I didn't think much about the 'Reen one way or another."
Holt looked mildly revolted. "Here's what I'll tell you about the Calling. It's one of the central 'Reen rituals. I'm not sure I understand it at all, but I'll tell you what I know."
It's one of the earliest of my memories.
The 'Reen band was hungry, as they so often were. Shortly before dawn, they gathered in the sheltered lee of the mountain, huddled against the tatters of glacial wind that intermittently dipped and howled about them.
There was little ceremony. It was simply something the band did.
The shaman PereSnik't, his pelt dark and vigorous, stood at their fore, supporting the slab of rock between his articulated paws. On the flat surface he had painted a new representation of an adult skelk. The horned creature was depicted in profile, PereSnik't had used warm earth colors, the hue of the skelk's spring coat. All the 'Reen—adult, young, and the adopted one—looked at the painting hungrily.
PereSnik't had felt the presence of the skelk. It was in hunting range, in Calling range. He led his people in their chant:
"You are near.
Come to us.
As we come to you.
With your pardon,
We shall kill you
And devour you,
That we, the People,
The chant repeated again and again, becoming a litany and finally a roundelay, until the voices wound together in a tapestry of sound that seemed to hang in the air of its own accord.
PereSnik't laid down the effigy upon the bare ground and the voices stopped as one. The pattern of sound still hung there, stable even as the winds whipped through the encampment. The shaman said, "The prey approaches."
The hunters accompanied him in the direction he indicated. Shortly they encountered the skeik walking stiffly toward them. The hunters cast out in the Calling and perceived, overlaid on the prey's muscular body, the life-force, the glowing network of energy that was the true heart of the animal. With an apology to the beast, PereSnik't dispassionately grasped that heart, halting the flow of energy as the hunters chanted once more. The skelk stumbled and fell, coughed a final time and died as a thin stream of blood ran from its nostrils. Then the 'Reen dragged the carcass back to the tribe. Everyone ate.
"Sympathetic magic," said Morgan, her eyes slightly narrowed. "That's what it sounds like."
"When I became human"— Holt's voice wavered for just a moment—"I was taught there is no magic."
"Do you really believe that?" said Morgan. "Call it a form of communal telekinesis, then. It makes sense that the 'Reen wouldn't evolve a highly technological culture. They have no need—not if they can satisfy basic requirements such as food with a rudimentary PK ability."
"I didn't have the power," said Holt. "I couldn't join in the Calling. I could only use my teeth and claws. I couldn't be truly civilized. That's why they finally sent me back."
There was a peculiar tone in his voice, the melancholy resonance of someone who has been profoundly left out. She reached for his hand and squeezed it.
"I would guess," she said, "we've greatly underestimated the 'Reen."
Holt coughed, the sound self-conscious and artificial. "What about you?" he said. "I know you're an extraordinary warrior. But I've also heard people call you the"—he hesitated again— "the obnoxious little rich kid."
Morgan laughed. "I'm a remittance woman," she said.
He stared at her blankly.
Morgan Kai-Anila had been born and reared, as had been the eight previous generations of her line, in Oxmare. The family redoubt reposed in austere splendor not too many kilometers to the south of Wolverton, capital city of Victoria continent. The glass and wood mansion, built with the shrewdly won fortunes of the Kai-Anilas, had been Morgan's castle as a girl. Child of privilege, she played endless games of pretend, spent uncountable chilly afternoons reading, or watching recordings of bygone times, and programmed a childhood of adventurous dreams. She expected to grow up and become mistress of the manor. Not necessarily Oxmare. But someone's manor somewhere.
That didn't happen.
When the right age arrived, Morgan discovered there was no one whose manor she wished to manage—and that apparently was because her family had simply reared her to be too independent (at least that's what one of her frustrated suitors claimed). Actually, Morgan had simply come to the conclusion that she wanted to play out the adventures she had lived vicariously as a child.
Fine, said her family. As it happened, Morgan was the third and last born of her particular generation of Kai-Anilas. Her eldest sister was in line to inherit the estates. Morgan didn't mind. She knew she would always be welcome on holiday at Oxmare. Her middle sister also found a distinctive course. That one joined the clergy.
And finally Morgan's family gave her a ship, an allowance, and their blessing. The dreamer went into private (and expensive) flight training, and came out the sharpest image of a remittance woman. Now she was a hired soldier. In spite of the source of their riches, her family really wasn't entirely sure of the respectability of her career.
The Kai-Anila family had fattened on aggressive centuries of supplying ships and weapons to the mercenary pilots who fought the symbolic battles and waged the surrogate wars that by-and-large settled the larger political wrangles periodically wracking Almira. Symbolic battles and surrogate wars were just as fatal as any other variety of armed clash to the downed, blasted, or lasered pilots, but at least the civilian populations were mostly spared. Slip-ups occasionally happened, but there's no system without its flaws. A little leery of societal gossip, the increasingly image-conscious Kai-Anila family started trying to give Morgan more money if she would come home to Oxmare less frequently for holidays. The neighbors—who watched the battlecasts avidly—were beginning to talk. The only problem was that Morgan couldn't be bribed. She was already sending home the bonuses she was earning for being an exemplary warrior. Her nieces and nephews worshiped her. She had a flare for armed combat, and Runagate couldn't have been a better partner in the fighter symbiosis.
Her family did keep trying to find her an estate she could mistress. It didn't work. The woman liked what she was doing. There would always be time later for mistressing, she told her parents and aunts and uncles.
In the meantime, she found another pilot she thought she might love. He turned out to be setting her up for an ambush in a complicated three-force continental brouhaha. She found herself unable to kill him. She never forgot.
Morgan found another person to love, but he accidentally got himself in her sights during a night-side skirmish on the moon Loathing. Runagate was fooled as well, and her lover died. For the time being, then, Morgan concentrated on simply being the best professional of her breed.
Temporarily she gave up on people. After all, she loved her ship.
"I don't think I love Bob," said Holt. "After all, he's just a ship." Holt looked flushed and mildly uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.
"You haven't lived with him as long as I have with Runagate," Morgan. "Just wait."
"Maybe it's that you're another generation." Morgan's eyebrows raised and she looked at him peculiarly. He quickly added, "I mean, just by a few years. You spend a lot of time on appearances. Style."
Morgan shrugged. "I can back it up. You mean things like the sound and motion simulators?"
"Don't you have them installed?"
Holt said, "I never turn them on."
"You ought to try it. It's not just style, to come roaring down on your target from out of the sun. It helps the pilot. If nothing else, it's a morale factor. The meds say it's linked to your epinephrine feed, not to mention the old reptile cortex. It can be the edge that keeps you alive."
The man shook his head, unconvinced.
They both turned. Tanzin stood in the doorway. Bogdan and Amaranth loomed behind her. "Mind if we bring our caf in here?"
The five of them sat and drank and talked and paced. It seemed like hours later that Dr. Epsleigh walked into the ready room. She handed them data-filled sheets. "The departure rosters," she said.
Amaranth scanned his and scowled. "I'm not blasting for Kirsi until the final wave?"
"Nor I?" said Tanzin.
Nor were Holt and Morgan.
"I'm going," said Bogdan, looking up from his sheet.
"Then I shall join you," Amaranth said firmly. He looked at Dr. Epsleigh. "I volunteer."
The administrator shook her head. "I hadn't wanted to save all my seasoned best for the last." She paused and smiled, and this time the smile was warm. "I want reserves who know what they're about—so both of you will go later."
The two large men looked dismayed.
"All your ships are still being readied," said Dr. Epsleigh. "Obviously I'm saving some of my best for last. Cheer up, Chmelnyckyj."
Bogdan looked put out. Morgan stared down at the table. Holt and Tanzin said nothing.
"I know the waiting's difficult," said Dr. Epsleigh, "but keep trying to relax. It will be a little while yet. Soon enough I'll send you out with your thimbles and forks and hope."
They looked at her with bewilderment, as she turned to go.
Morgan was the only one who nodded. Runagate shrilled in her ear, "I know, I know. It's from that snark poem."
"I hate waiting," Amaranth said toward the departing Dr. Epsleigh. "I should like to volunteer to join the first sortie."
The administrator ignored him. They waited.
Since the machine had no sense of whimsy, it couldn't have cared whether it was called a boojum, a snark, or anything else. It would respond to its own code from its fellow destruction machines or its base, but had no other interest in designation.
It detected the swarm of midges long before they arrived near Kirsi's orbit. The boojum registered the number, velocity, mass, and origin of the small ships, as well as noting the tell-tale hydrogen torches propelling them.
The machine was done scouring Kirsi anyway. It registered a sufficiently high probability that no life-form beyond a virus or the occasional bacterium existed anywhere on the planetary surface.
The boojum accelerated out of its parking orbit and calculated a trajectory that would meet the advancing fleet at a precise intermediary point. Weapons systems checks showed no problems.
Time passed subjectively for the pilots of the first wave of Almiran ships.
Counters in the boojum ticked off precise calibrations of radioactive decay, but the machine felt no suspense at all.
The Almirans joined the battle when their ships were still hundreds of kilometers distant from the boojum. Their target was too far away to try lasers and charged beam weapons. Missiles pulled smoothly away from launching bays, guidance computers locking on the unmistakable target. If the guidance comps, in their primitive way, felt any rebellious qualm about firing on their larger cousin, there was no indication—just a few score fire-trails arcing away toward the boojum.
The missiles reached the point in space the machine had picked as the outer limit of its defensive sphere. The boojum used them for ranging practice. Beams speared out, catching half the incoming missiles at once. Dozens of weapons flared in sparkling sprays and faded. The machine erected shields, wavery nets of violet gauze, and most of the remaining missiles sputtered out A handful of missiles had neared the machine before the nets of energy went up and were already inside the shields. More beams flicked out and the missiles died like insects in a flame. One survivor impacted on the boojum's metal surface. Minor debris mushroomed slowly outward, but the machine did sot appear affected.
"That's one tough borker," said the first wave leader to his fellows.
Then the boojum began alternating its protective fields in phase with its offensive weapons. Beams lanced toward the nearing Almirans. Some pilots died instantly, bodies disintegrating with the disrupted structures of their ships. Others took evasive action, playing out complex arabesques with the dancing, killing beams. More missiles launched. More lasers and beam weapons were directed toward the boojum. Fireworks proliferated.
But eventually everyone died. No pilot survived. Information telemetry went back to Almira, so there was a record, but no fighters or pilots of the first wave returned.
The boojum lived.
Its course toward Almira did not alter.
The second wave of Almiran fighters held its position, waiting for counsel, waiting for orders, waiting. The third and final wave sat on the ground.
"I won't say that's what we expected would happen, but it was certainly a possibility we feared." Dr. Epsleigh turned away from the information screens. The others in the room were quiet, deadly silent, as an occasional sob escaped. Faces set in grim lines. Tears pooled in more than a few eyes.
"Now what?" said Tanzin quietly.
Morgan asked, "Will we join the second wave of fighters?"
Most of the hundred pilots in the briefing hall nodded. Weight shifted. Chairs scraped noisily. Noses were blown into handkerchiefs.
Holt said, "What is the plan now?"
"Bad odds I can live with," said Amaranth, stretching his massive arms, joints cracking. "Assured mortality does not thrill me."
Dr. Epsleigh surveyed the room. "I've conferred with the Princess Elect and every strategist, no matter how oddball, we can round up." Given time, we might be able to rig heavier armaments, plan incredibly Byzantine strategies. There is no time," She stopped.
"So?" said Tanzin.
"We're open to ideas." Dr. Epsleigh looked around the room again, scrutinizing each face in turn.
The silence seemed to dilate endlessly.
Until Morgan Kai-Anila cleared her throat. "An idea," she said. Everyone stared at her. "Not me." She slowly pointed. "Him."
And everyone stared at Holt.
"I don't think it will work," said Holt stubbornly.
"Have you got a better idea?" Morgan said.
The young man shook his head in apparent exasperation. "It's like a bunch of kids trying to mount a colonization flight. They borrow their uncle's barn and start building a starship back behind the house."
Morgan said, "I hope my suggested plan is a bit more realistic."
"Hope? That machine out there just killed a whole borking planet!"
The woman said stiffly, "I know my plan has a chance."
"But how much of one?"
"Holt, can you come up with better?" Tanzin looked at him questioningly—almost, Holt thought, accusingly. He said nothing, only slowly shook his head no. "In the final seconds before a combat run," Tanzin said, "you've got to choose a course." She shrugged. "If Occam's razor says your only option is faith, then that's what you fly with. Okay?" With her one good eye, she surveyed the others.
"All right, then." Morgan looked over at Dr. Epsleigh. The four of them had adjourned to a smaller office to consult.
"Can you arrange transport? The fighters would be faster, but I doubt there's any place close to set down."
Dr. Epsleigh punched one final key on the desk terminal. "It's already done. There'll be a windhover waiting as soon as you get outside. Is it necessary you all go?"
"I really would like to accompany Holt," said Morgan. She glanced at Tanzin.
"I may as well stay here. If this cockamamie plan works, I can start the preparations from this end. Just keep me linked and informed."
Dr. Epsleigh said, "I'll get a larger transport dispatched to follow you north. If you can make progress and see some future in continuing this scheme, the transport will have plenty of space for your, um, friends."
"Are the villagers expecting us in North Terrea?" asked Holt.
Dr. Epsleigh nodded. Her tousled black hair fell into her eyes. She shook it back and blinked. Evidently she had been awake for a long time. "They're under a most extreme request to cooperate. I don't think you'll have any difficulty. Besides, you're the fair-haired local boy who made good, true?"
"See?" Morgan smiled tiredly and took Holt's arm. "You can come home again."
"Well," said Morgan, "I admit it's not the sort of jewel that Oxmare is." North Terrea sat in awesome desolation in the middle of a cold and windswept semi-arctic plain. The town was surrounded by ore processors, rolling mills, cracking towers flaring jets of flame, and all manner of rusting heavy machinery.
"It's grown since I was last here," observed Holt.
"What brought colonists here first?" Morgan began to decelerate the windhover. The craft skimmed along two meters above frozen earth.
Holt shrugged. "Molybdenum, adamantium, titanium, it's hard to say. These plains used to be one of the 'Reen's great hunting preserves. That ended quickly. North Terrea was built in a day or so, the 'Reee were driven off, the game mostly left of its own accord. That which stayed either got shot by human hunters or was poisoned by industrial chemicals."
"Self-interest run rampant," mused Morgan. "Did no one ever try to put the brakes on?"
"I suspect a few did." Holt looked vague, almost wistful. "I don't think they got too far. There were livings to be made here, fortunes to be wrested from the ground." His tone turned angry and he looked away from her to the fast-expanding image of North Terrea.
"I'm sorry," she said, words almost too soft to hear.
They were indeed expected. A small group of townspeople waited for them as Morgan set the windhover down at North Terrea's tiny landing field. At first Morgan couldn't tell the gender of the members of the welcoming party. Dressed in long fur coats, they were obscured by falling snow. The great, light flakes drifted slowly down like leaves from autumn trees.
Morgan cat the windhover's fans and opened the hatch to a nearly palpable miasma of ice-cold industrial stench. She squinted against, the flakes tickling her face and realized that some of the greeters wore thick beards. Presumably they were the men.
"I hope those coats are synthetics," said Holt, as much to himself as to Morgan, "or dyed skelk."
"I think they are," said Morgan, avoiding passing an expert opinion. They don't have any of the quality and gloss my parents' coats do, she carefully did not say aloud.
The greeting party trudged toward them across the landing pad, packed snow squeaking beneath their boots. Holt and Morgan climbed out of the cockpit and down past the ticking, cooling engine sounds.
"Holt, my boy," said the man in the forefront, opening his arms for an embrace. Holt ignored the gesture and stood quietly, arms at his sides. The man tried to recover by gesturing expansively. "It's been a while since we've seen you, son."
"Haven't the checks been arriving?" asked Holt.
"Punctually, my boy," said the man. "Our civic fortunes rise with boring regularity, thanks to you and that fey ship of yours." He turned to address Morgan. "I forget my manners. I'm Kaseem MacDonald, the mayor hereabouts. The 'cast from Wolverton informed us you'd be Morgan Kai-Anila, true?"
Morgan inclined her head slightly.
"We've certainly heard of you," said the mayor. "We're all great fans."
Morgan again nodded modestly.
"There isn't much to do of a winter night other than to keep tabs on the narrowcast and see what fighters like you and our boy here are doing." Mayor MacDonald chuckled and clapped Holt on the shoulder. "Sure hope you two never have to go up against each other.''
Holt spoke in a low voice. "I think there are arrangements for refueling us?"
"Plenty of time for that," said the mayor, his head bobbing jovially as if it were on a spring. "Our grounders'll tank you up again during the feast. Heh, grounders." He chuckled again. "We even pick up the talk from the 'casts."
"What feast?" asked Holt and Morgan, almost together.
"We don't have time to fool around," said Morgan.
"I believe the message from the capital was a priority request," said Holt.
The other North Terreans looked on. Morgan didn't think they looked either particularly happy or hospitable. Mayor MacDonaid showed teeth when he grinned. "You need sustenance just as much as the windhover does. Besides, you can meet some of my local supporters and I know they'd love to meet you. I'm running for re-election again, you know."
"We can't do it," said Holt. "There's no time."
"I'm not saying a long dinner," said the mayor. "Just time to eat and say hello to the folks and be seen. Everybody can use a little reminder of where those venture investment checks come from."
"No," said Morgan. "I don't think so. We've got to—"
The mayor interrupted her smoothly. "—to get some nourishment and relaxation before continuing whatever your urgent mission is."
"Yes," sad the major "It's necessary. You'd be shocked, I'm sure, to learn how erratic the ground crew here can be when they aren't working refreshed and rested."
Morgan said, "Why, this is—"
This time it was Holt who interrupted her. "We'll take refreshment," he said, his gaze locked on the mayor's. "It will be a brief delay "
Mayor MacDonald beamed. "I'm sure your refueling will be as brief, and extremely complete and efficient."
Holt glanced at Morgan and smiled coldly at the mayor. "Then let's be about it."
The mayor waved toward the terminal building. "It isn't far, and warm transport awaits."
As the group trudged off across the field, it seemed to Morgan that she was feeling something like a sense of capture. The fur-coated North Terreans surrounding her reminded Morgan of great sullen animals. Their fur might be synthetic fiber, but it still stank in the moist fog that hung low over the town.
Starships descending atop stilts of flame.
Cargoes of frozen optimists being sledded into chromed defrosting centers.
Towns and villages carved out of tundra winterscapes.
The occasional city erected in the somewhat more temperate equatorial belt.
A developing world torn from wilderness.
The triumph of a people.
Heaps of slain 'Reen piled beyond the revetments of a fort constructed from ice blocks.
Morgan stared at the towering starships. "That's not right," she said bemusedly. "The big ships stayed in orbit. The shuttles brought the passengers and supplies down. Then the larger vessels were disassembled and ferried down to be used as raw materials. I learned all that when I was three."
"It's artistic license," Holt answered, his own gaze still fixed on the scene of the slaughtered 'Reen. "Historical accuracy is not the virtue most prized in North Terrea." In the fresco in front of him, the attackers had outnumbered the beleaguered humans by at least ten to one.
"It's not that good, just as art," said Morgan. The mayor's circular dining room was lined with the sequence of historical frescoes. "And it really doesn't trigger my appetite."
Other dinner guests were filtering into the room and beginning to sit at the semi-circular tables. The mayor was off in the kitchen on some unspecified errand. Holt said, "The good people of North Terrea are pragmatists. When the community decided to pay lip service to culture and proclaim a painter laureate, the choice of frescoes in here rather than any other medium was because the plaster would lend an additional layer of insulation."
"Laying it on with a trowel, eh, boy?" said Mayor MacDonald, coming up behind them. "I hope you both are hungry." Without his long fur coat, the mayor looked almost as bulky, dark signs of hirsuteness curling from sleeve-ends and at his collar. The blue-black beard curled down to mid-sternum. "Skelk steaks, snow oysters, my wife's preserves from last green season, shrake liver paté, barley gruel; let me tell you, it's one extravagant meal."
"We're grateful," said Morgan. "Can we start soon?"
"In a blink, my dear." Both Morgan and Holt felt a heavy, mayoral hand descend on a shoulder. Mayor MacDonald raised his voice and said, "All right, friends, citizens, guild-mates. On behalf of all of us who make up the populace of North Terrea, I want to welcome formally our guests; Holt, here, wise I know you all remember fondly"—his hand clamped down, long, powerful fingers paternally crashing Holt's clavicle—"and Morgan Kai-Anila, the splendid contract pilot so many of us have watched and admired on late-night battlecasts." Warned by the look on Holt's face, Morgan had tensed her shoulder muscles. It was still difficult not to wince.
The scattering of applause around the dining room did not seem over-enthusiastic.
"Our boy here," continued the mayor, "and his friend, are just passing through. As best I can figure, they're heading off on some solemn but secret mission for our kin down in Wolverton. Naturally we here in North Terrea are delighted to lend whatever aid we can in this mysterious activity."
Neither Holt nor Morgan decided to pick up the cue.
"Now I have a theory," said Mayor MacDonald, "that all this has something to do with the rumors about someone attacking our neighbor world toward the sun. If that's so, then we all can wish only the best fortune to these two, Pilots Calder and Kai-Anila."
The applause was a bit more prolonged this time.
Servers had started to carry in platters of steaming food. The mayor motioned them toward him. "Let our guests eat first." The food looked and smelled good. Morgan and Holt showed no reluctance to dish themselves respectable portions of steaks, biscuits and vegetables.
"As we share this food today"—Mayor MacDonald lifted his arms to gesture around the circle of frescoes—"I hope you'll all reflect for just a moment on our four centuries of hard-fought progress on this world. Our ancestors left their friends, sometimes their families, certainly their worlds and indeed their entire human civilization to seek out this planetary system. Our new worlds were remote from the interference and paternalism of the old order." The mayor looked far above them all, focusing on something invisible. "I think we've done well with our self-generated opportunities." He looked back at them then, meeting eyes and smiling. The smile widened to a grin. "Let's eat."
The applause seemed generated with unabashed sincerity.
"Not the election rhetoric I'd have expected," said Holt in a low voice to Morgan. "He must be waiting to sink in the hook later."
"I'm not hungry!" The voice was loud and angry enough to rise above the dinner hubbub. The speaker was a young woman about Morgan's age. Her dark hair was piled atop her bead. Her high collar displayed a delicate spray of lace, but her expression belied her appearance.
By now the mayor had sat down to Morgan's right. Holt sat to her left, "Is something amiss, Meg?" said Mayor MacDonaid. He held a piece of meat only slightly smaller than a skelk haunch in one hand.
"Only the company at this meal," said the woman called Meg. Other conversation around the died away. "It's one tiling entirely to dine with Holt Calder. I might not like it, but I recognize the necessity of letting him eat with us. We're all quite aware where our community's investment bonuses originate." She glared toward Morgan. "No, it's her I register an objection to."
Morgan's, voice was a bit higher than' her usual, controiled tone. She half rose from her chair. "What's your objection? I've done nothing to you."
Meg rose, from her own chair. "It's who you are," said the woman, "not just who sits before us," She pointed, "Aristocrats… You are a blood-bloated, privileged parasite on the body politic." Meg appeared to savor the words.
Morgan shook her head in astonishment and then sat back down.
The mayor looked unhappy, "I said," he repeated, "let's eat."
Meg stalked out of the dining room. Those around her developed an abiding interest in the serving platters, in gravy and chops.
Holt touched Morgan's shoulder. She flinched away.
"My sympathies," Mayor MacDonald said to her. In a confiding tone, he added, "The external universe is not an commodity to sell here. I fear we don't find Holt as comfortable a dining companion as we might wish." He turned back toward the young man. "Just between you and me, lad, I couldn't blame you if you found the world not worth saving." Mayor MacDonald put an index finger to his lips. "Just don't let on to my loyal constituents I said that." He looked at the great hunk of meat in his other hand. "And now," he said, apparently addressing the food, "and now, let us eat."
The windhover skated across the tundra ground-blizzards with full tanks, barely rocking in the gusts. The pilot and passenger rode with full bellies and an anxious sense of anticipation.
"That's it, isn't it?" said Morgan. "That peak off to the east."
Holt gave her a compass heading.
"How do you know? I thought the bands roamed."
"They do," said Holt. "Back at the field, I stood in the open air. Even with the inversion layer I could tell. I know the season. I can feel the patterns. The temperature, the wind, it's all there." He came close to pressing his nose against the port. "The pieces fit."
Morgan glanced sidewise at him. "And is there," she said carefully, "perhaps a little bit of instinct, something unquantifiable in the pattern?"
"No," he said flatly.
Holt repeated the compass direction.
"Aye, sir." Morgan swung the windhover to a north-by-northwesterly heading. A range of jagged mountains loomed in the distance.
"You weren't particularly friendly back in the town," said Morgan.
"I wasn't feeling cordial. I hope friendship awaits me now." His words were overly formal, a bit stilted, as though a different identity were being overlaid on the young man Morgan had met in Wolverton.
"You know," said Morgan, "aside from being presumably competent and obviously a good fighter, you're quite an attractive young man."
Holt didn't answer. Morgan thought she saw the beginnings of a flush at the tips of his ears. She started to consider the ramifications. She wondered whether her own ears—or anything else—betrayed her.
They found the encampment—or at least an encampment— just as Holt had predicted. Morgan circled slowly; to give the *Reen plenty of warning, "Skins?" she said. "They live in hide tents?"
"Look beyond," Holt answered. "There are openings for the dug-out chambers. Even though they're nomadic for most of the year, the 'Reen open earthen tunnels for the heart of the winter. It's a retreat to an earlier, life. They dig the passages with their claws. You'll see."
And so she did. Morgan set the windhover down and cut the fans. The mechanical whine ran down the scale, fading to silence. Holt cracked the hatch and they heard the wind shriek. Heat rushed from the craft, to be replaced with darting, stinging snow and a marrow-deep chill.
Morgan glanced out and recoiled slightly. While she had' been engaged in shutting down the windhover, a silent perimeter of 'Reen had come to encircle the craft. Not, she reflected, that she could have heard them in this gale anyway.
She had never before seen the 'Reen in the flesh. Films had not done them justice. Morgan squinted against the sudden flurry of snowflakes slapping her face. The 'Reen appeared bulky, not as though they could move quickly at all. The woman knew that perception was utterly wrong. She also knew the 'Reen were equally adept on all fours as upright. These adults were standing erect, as high as her shoulder. Their fur color was rich brown, ranging from deep chocolate to a golden auburn.
The sun abruptly burned through the gray sky and Morgan saw the light glitter from the 'Reen claws. Those claws were long and curved like scimitars. They looked as honed as machined steel. The silence, other than the wind's keening, stretched on.
"It's up to you now, isn't it?" she finally said to Holt.
He made a sound that might have been a sigh, then moved forward through the hatch, dropping down to the intermediate step and then to the snow. She followed as he approached the 'Reen squarely facing the hatch. Wind ruffled the auburn pelt. Obsidian eyes tracked the newcomers.
"Quaag hreet'h, PereSnik't tcho?" Holt's voice, ordinarily a baritone, seemed to drop at least one gruff, uncomfortable octave.
At first the 'Reen seemed to ignore his words, staring back silent and unmoving. It responded as Holt stepped forward and raised both empty palms facing the 'Reen. The man said something brief Morgan couldn't catch. The 'Reen spoke something in return. Then man and 'Reen embraced roughly.
Morgan thought instantly of how she used to hug her huge stuffed creatures when she was a girl, damped the incongruous response, but said under her breath, "I think this is a good sign."
The 'Reen turned its attention to her, cocking its head back slightly. Morgan stared past the blunt muzzle into unblinking, shiny, black eyes. The 'Reen articulated sounds. Holt replied in kind, then turned toward Morgan.
"His short-form name translates as MussGray. He is an artificer, ah, an artist, apprenticed to PereSnik't, the tribal shaman. He says to tell you he's honored to meet one who is vouched for by He-orphaned-and-heipless-whom-we-obliged-are-to-take-in-but-why-us?"
"That's you?" Morgan couldn't help but smile. "I'd like to hear all that in 'Reen."
"You did." Holt didn't smile. "The 'Reen tongue is quite economical."
"Tcho, PereSnik't tcho." The 'Reen called MussGray turned and started to walk toward the nearest hide shelter. Morgan noted that the 'Reen's rounded shoulders hunched forward as he moved. Holt followed. "Follow me," he said back to Morgan, who had hesitated. "It's what we came to do."
"I know, I know," she muttered. "And it was my idea."
The other 'Reen had made what to her ears seemed whuffling noises and dispersed among the hide shelters of the encampment.
MussGray led them through a doorway protected by a heavy flap of cured leather. Inside, the shelter was dimly illuminated by the flicker of a few candles. Morgan saw a thin column of apparent smoke drifting up from the room's center, then realized it was rising from a circular hole in the earthen floor.
"That's where we're going," Holt said to her. "Don't worry."
MussGray vanished into the smoke, into the hole. Holt followed. So did Morgan, discovering the top of a sturdy wooden ladder. She clambered down the rungs, attempting to hold her breath, trying not to cough and choke on the smoke. Beside the foot of the ladder, a tow fire was separated from the opening of a fresh-air shaft by an upright stone slab.
This chamber also was lit with candles, only slightly abetted by the dusky fire. The interior seemed rounded and close. The place smelled of fresh earth and woodsmoke and a muskiness Morgan did not find unpleasant. Five 'Reen waited there. Morgan took them to be older adults, pelts silvered to an argent that seemed to glow in the candlelight.
"They honor us," Holt said to her. "The 'Reen are nocturnal. Our greeting party up there tumbled out of warm burrows to meet us."
The 'Reen reclined in the shadows on the luxuriant furs blanketing the chamber's floor. Then the largest and most silvered of the adults stood and embraced Holt for a long time. Morgan heard the man say simply, "PereSnik't."
Later he introduced Morgan. The woman, half-remembering one bit of biological trivia about showing one's teeth, inclined her head a moment, but didn't smile.
Then they all made themselves comfortable on the heaps of autumnal black-and-white skelk hides. "We'll need patience," Holt told Morgan. "Both of us. This will take a while. I have too little vocabulary, too few cognates, so I'm going to have to approximate some language as I go."
"Can I help?"
"Maybe," said Holt. "I don't know. I'm going to be improvising this as I go."
PereSnik't rumbled something.
"He says," Holt translated, "that you smell just fine to him."
Morgan covered her smile.
With MussGray, PereSnik't, and the other four 'Reen listening attentively, Holt told his story. He also used body language and a bit of theater. Morgan could decipher the gestures sufficiently to understand at which points in the narrative the boojum arrived in orbit around Kirsi, destroyed that world, and then advanced on the Almiran fighters. She found herself forcing back tears as Holt's long fingers described the rupture of ship after ship, his expressive features miming the final moments of her friends and comrades. Morgan clamped down on the feelings rigidly. Time enough later to mourn, and there would doubtless be many more to keen dirges for. She wondered whether, indeed, there would be anyone left alive to do the mourning.
At last Holt's monolog ceased and what seemed to be serious discussion began. Morgan hugged her knees, feeling a sense of disconnection. There was nothing now she could do to affect what was happening with the 'Reen. She had acted, if all catalyzed as she hoped, she would act again. But for now she was reduced to sitting on plush furs and listening.
The interplay between Holt and the 'Reen became much more of a staccato exchange. Morgan thought of a ball hit back and forth across a net. She couldn't tell the content of what she heard, but was sure of the context: questions and answers.
As best Morgan could tell, internecine bickering was igniting among the silvered 'Reen. Growls, timbre sliding low, verging on subsonics, filled the underground chamber. Claws as long as her hand clicked and glittered while the candles began to burn down.
MussGray appeared to be taking a moderating role. He deferred to the older adults, but began to interject his own comments when the others roared at Holt.
These are carnivores, thought Morgan, staring at increasingly exposed teeth. They are predators, and they surely must hate us for all we have done to them. Except for Holt.
The discussion had reached a crescendo, a near-pandemonium.
Holt stood and slipped off his windbreaker as the 'Reen fell silent. He tugged his insulated shirt up over his head. His chest hair was not nearly so impressive as the 'Reen fur. Holt slowly raised his empty hands up and apart, forming the bar of a cross.
Morgan realized the man was exposing the vulnerability of his belly. The 'Reen voices began again to grumble and roar. Morgan wondered again if they were about to kill Holt; and after him, her. She had no weapons. Holt had insisted on that. She knew she could neither save him, nor beat a homicidal 'Reen up the central ladder.
Holt had better know what he was doing.
MussGray said something. PereSnik't said something else in turn. Holt hesitated, but then nodded his head slowly. Affirmatively, he drew his arms in, then proffered both hands in front of him.
It happened almost too quickly for Morgan to see. PereSnik't extended one paw, flicked out a razored claw, and blood traced a thin line down the inside of Holt's right index finger. The blood, black in candlelight, beaded and dripped for a moment before Holt closed his fist to stop the bleeding.
The 'Reen were silent again. MussGray looked from Holt to Morgan, and then back to the man. Shivering, Holt put his shirt and windbreaker back on. He shook his hand as though it stung.
"Are you all right?" Morgan said.
He answered a different question, one unspoken. "It's done."
"They'll help us?"
"The verdict's not in yet. There have to be… consultations. We're to wait here."
The 'Reen began to climb up the ladder. PereSnik't ascended without saying anything more to Holt. MussGray was the last to go. He turned back from the ladder and spoke briefly.
"He says' that we should enjoy the shelter," said Holt. "There's a storm front passing above us. It shouldn't last long, but he says it will keep us from traveling for a few hours."
The 'Reen disappeared through the ceiling hole.
"We wait," said Holt.
"Are you optimistic?"
The man shrugged.
"Are you simply tired of talking?"
Holt looked down at the furs around them. "Just… tired." Then he again raised his eyes to her face. One of the guttering candles flickered a final time and burned out. A second spattered. "This is probably entirely too forward," he said, hesitating, and then saying nothing more.
"Yes?" she finally said, prompting him.
He met her gaze levelly. "I feel colder than even the storm warrants. Would you give me some reassurance?"
"Yes," she said, "and a good deal more, if you'd like."
Morgan reached to take him gently, as the last of the candles went out and the only light was the lambent flames racing over the coals in the fire.
She hadn't meant, to sleep, Morgan thought, as she moved and stretched under Holt's welcome weight. Since she couldn't recall when she had slept last, that probably explained her drifting off. Holt, not having slept at all, his upper body supported by his elbows, glanced toward the center of the chamber and said something in 'Reen. Someone answered. Morgan turned her head and made out MussGray's form limned by the coals at the foot of the ladder. Holt gently disengaged himself and got to his knees. Her body tautened for a moment. He softly touched the side of her head with his fingers.
MussGray spoke again.
"We'll be ready," said Holt. "Their decision is made," he said to Morgan.
The two of them dressed quickly, unself-consciously. After all, she thought wryly, we're all soldiers, comrades in arms.
"Are they coming down here?"
"No," Holt said. "We're to go back above."
When they climbed the ladder and emerged from the hide shelter, they found a clear, cold starscape overhead. MussGray led them back to the windhover. Morgan saw that the skids were now covered with fresh snow.
PereSnik't and the other adult 'Reen, not just the silvered elders, waited. Bulked together in the night, they didn't seem to Morgan either ominous or an outright danger. They were simply at home there, not discomforted by the chill.
The two humans stopped a meter from PereSnik't. MussGray crossed over some intangible boundary and rejoined the tribe. He, too, faced Morgan and Holt.
The streamers of Almira's aurora began to play above the horizon. Ribbons of startling blue crackled into the sky.
PereSnik't said something. To Morgan, it seemed surprisingly brief. Holt let out his breath audibly.
"And—?" she said softly.
"Will they help?"
The dark mass of 'Reen stirred. PereSnik't said something to them over his shoulder.
"They will try to aid us," said Holt. "I think they understand what I attempted to get across. I'm more concerned about what I don't comprehend."
"I'm not sure I follow."
"They agreed," Holt shook his head. "But the terms of the bargain are open. I don't know the price. I'm not sure they do either."
"How expensive can it' be?" Actually she had already begun to speculate. Night thoughts. The man only smiled. In the shifting, ephemeral light of the aurora, it was not a smile of joy.
The machine swept steadily toward the waiting second wave of Almiran fighters. The ragtag fleet neither advanced nor retreated. The ships hung in position, interposing themselves as a flimsy shield between assassin and victim.
The machine electronically seined the inexorably diminishing distance between. It did not project a definitive probability-model of the humans' intention. It could not. The machine searched its memories for similar human strategies. Nothing quite matched. In its way, the machine considered what it perceived to be all the likely human options, attempting to place itself in its opponents' position. No answers emerged.
Electrons continued to spin in paths weaving patterns that simulated organic intelligence—only it was a mind far more carefully considered, infinitely more ordered than that of humans. There was no primitive animal forebrain here. No conscience. No irrationality. Only a paradox. A holographic representation of oblivion.
The boojum searched for any evidence of human trickery, signs of an ambush, but it could accumulate no empirical support.
It sailed on.
But as much as it was capable of doing so, the machine wondered…
"No?" said Morgan. "No?"
"No, with regrets." Dr. Epsleigh looked very unhappy. "The word came down from the Princess Elect's office a short time before you and Holt returned. I'd already dispatched the transport to pick up the 'Reen, but now I'll have to call it back."
Dr. Epsleigh's office at the Wolverton landing field was spare and austere. The four of them—Tanzin had been waiting for Holt and Morgan the moment the windhover set down—sat in straightbacked, unpadded chairs around a bare desk.
"But why?" Morgan thought that if she gripped the arms of her chair any more tightly, either the furniture or her fingers would snap.
"Spume," said Dr. Epsleigh.
"I don't understand," said Holt.
"It's the word the Prime Minister used." Dr. Epsleigh shrugged. "Moonfoam. Brainfroth. The point being he thought our plan was the silliest proposal of anything anyone had suggested. That's why the summary turn-down."
"I have to admit I can see his position," said Tanzin. She leaned back in her chair and stretched her legs, one boot crossed above the other. "It's akin to me saying, 'Hey, I've got a. great idea—I think my pet is telepathic, and he can hypnotize the bird in the birdbath.' Then someone else says, 'Hey, it's so crazy, it might just work.' See the point?"
"I gave Morgan's suggestion preliminary approval," said Dr. Epsleigh angrily. "Are you suggesting this is all a pipe dream? We're in a desperate situation."
"Just a moment," Morgan'said, "Hold on. Does the PM have a plan of his own?"
Dr. Epsleigh turned toward her, shaking her head in disgust. "It's death. I told him that, but he said if was the only rational option."
"Suicide." Tanzin inspected her boots. "Pure and simple."
"You don't like any of the alternatives," said Holt.
"No." Tanzin's voice was somber. "No,"I don't."
"Suicide?" said Morgan. "What did the PM say?"
Dr. Epsleigh gestured out the dawn-lit window toward the massed ranks of fighting ships. "One, massive attack. Those ships carrying all the massed armament and fire-power that can be bonded on during the next few hours. Mass against mass. Brute force against force."
"The machine will win," said Holt.
"The PM knows that, I suspect. I also think he believes the machine will prevail in any account. A grand doomed gesture is apparently better than this half-balked scheme from a battle hero and a junior pilot." Dr. Epsleigh slapped her small hands down on the desk top with finality.
"No," said Morgan. They all looked at her. She said to Dr. Epsleigh, "Can you use your phone to get through to the Princess Elect's office?' I want the woman herself."
Without a word, the administrator punched out a code.
"What are you doing?" said Holt. "I've heard the Princess Elect doesn't do a thing without the PM's approval."
"Have I given you my lecture on power?" Morgan said, and proceeded, to answer without pause her own rhetorical question. "I despise the power one is born to without earning it. I've never used that lever."
Dr. Epslelgh had reached someone on the phone. "Tell her the caller is Morgan Kai-Anila," she said.
"My personal rules are now suspended," Morgan said.
"It's time for this 'blood-bloated, privileged parasite on the body politic' to kick some rears."
Dr. Epsleigh handed her the phone.
"Hello?" Morgan said. She forced a smile and let that smile seep into her voice. "Hello, Aunt Thea, dear?"
Steam curled up from the jet nozzles of the dart-shaped fighters. The rows of sleek fuselages formed a chevron, the point of which faced away from the administration complex of the landing field at Wolverton. The sun had sunk close to the western horizon, the twilight glow beginning to soften the peaks of the Shraketooth Range.
Swarms of workers surrounded the fighters, topping off water tanks, tuning each weapon, completing installation of the additional acceleration couches.
The briefing hall had become an auditorium of Babel. Intermixed, humans and 'Reen crowded the room. The sessions had been loud and volatile. Serving as translator, Holt had tried to mediate. The basic problem seemed to be that each group thought it was surrounded by unsavory barbarians.
The overtaxed air purifying system could no longer cope with the sweat and musk. Cheek by jowl, fur against flesh, luxuriant flank stripes juxtaposed with extravagantly theatrical uniforms, the warriors groused and growled as Dr. Epsleigh tried to keep peace.
About the height of the average 'Reen, the administrator had to stand on a chair to be seen by all in the room. Many of the pilots looked distinctly dubious after having listened through the first briefing sessions.
"I know you have questions," continued Dr. Epsleigh. "I recognize that we've been asking you to take all this in on faith. I also know I can't order any of you simply to be credulous."
Beside her Holt translated for the benefit of the 'Reen, "Just let me wrap it up," said Dr. Epsleigh. "The majority of pilots will have the essential task of harrying the boojum in whatever way and from whichever tangent they can. It will be your job to draw the machine's attention from the score of colleagues who will be ferrying our 'Reen allies as near to the enemy as is"—a wry smile broke across her lips—"humanly possible."
Amaranth stood in fee first row; "Isn't this just as foredoomed as the PM's idiotic plan?"'
"'If It were, I wouldn't endorse it." Dr. Epsleigh raised her eyes machineward. "It will be dangerous, yes. You'll all be dependent upon your wits and the abilities of your ships."
Amaranth nodded, amused. "It's never been any different." The 'Reen whuffled and coughed at the translation. For them also, it was a point of commonality.
"We've exhaustively pored over the recordings of our first combat encounter with the machine," said Dr. Epsleigh. "So long as the boojum's missiles and beams are avoided, we're sure that some of our ships can maneuver beyond the protective screens."
"Mighty hard to avoid particle beams, maneuvering in slow motion," someone called out from the floor.
'"I expect that's why the rest of us'll be speeding our tails off," someone else answered.
"Precisely right," said Dr. Epsleigh. "The machine won't anticipate seeming irrationality.".
"So you think."
"So we think." The uproar threatened to drown out the administrator.
"And then the 'Reen will claw the boojum to death?" someone apparently said jokingly, but too loud.
"Is a manner of speaking,"' Dr. Epsleigh said.
Holt translated that for PereSnik't's benefit. MussGray overheard and both 'Reen growled in amusement. Dr. Epsleigh shook her head in exasperation and asked Holt to explain the Calling again.
"I still don't think I believe in all that occult crap," a pilot called out.
"Neither do I think," Holt said, "that the 'Reen believe simple light can actually be cohered into a laser.''
"But that's different."
The room's noise level got louder again.
Twilight had begun to fuzz into actual night.
In the briefing hall, Holt held up a meter-square sheet of shining alloy so that all could see. A grid of silver lines had been etched, then painted in almost a cloisonné effect. Regular clusters of angular symbols cross-connected the lines. The panel could equally have represented an electronic map or a jewelry design. It was an elaborate and stylized pattern.
"The apprentice MussGray created this," said Holt, "under the direction of the shaman, PereSnik't. It will focus the Calling."
"This is the brain of the boojum," Dr. Epsleigh said.
PereSnik't rumbled something.
"The heart," Holt translated. "Energy. The electrical field."
"The design may not be identical to the primary components in that machine up there," said the administrator, "but it's as close as we can come by guess and extrapolation after ransacking the historical computer memories. When we were part of the rest of human civilization, our ancestors helped dissect some of the boojums. We're hoping that logic circuitry is logic circuitry, even allowing for refinement."
The room fell silent.
"Hey," said Amaranth, voice loud and firm, "I'll give it a shot." His lips spread in a grin, revealing broad, white, gleaming teeth. The 'Reen muttered approvingly as Holt translated.
"We've placed identical copies of the focus pattern in each ship carrying a 'Reen. To help coordinate the plan, our friends will have their own ship's-link channel." Dr. Epsleigh turned on the chair and looked down at Holt "You're going to be a busy young man. I understand PereSnik't will ride with no one else."
"He is my father," said Holt. "I am his son."
"Will you be able to handle the translating as well?"
"No one else can." Holt's voice was not so much resigned as it was simply matter-of-fact.
PereSnik't said something. Dr. Epsleigh looked at Holt questioningly; the young man had already growled a brief answer. "He wanted to know if it were the chanting time yet. I told him no. The prey is still too distant."
In the forefront of the pilots, Amaranth restlessly shifted his weight from one leg to the other. "Let's get on with it," he said. "It's getting late and we're all getting curious whether we'll live or die."
That triggered smiles and nods from those around him.
Dr. Epsleigh shrugged. "You've heard what I have to say about tactics. Just do what's necessary to get the 'Reen as close to the machine's surface as possible."
Anything else seemed anticlimactic. Holt led the 'Reen out toward the ships. Tanzin followed with the pilots. They mixed at the doors of the hall. The neat divisions along species lines no longer seemed as clear-cut as at the beginning of the day.
Dr. Epsleigh lingered, waiting by a door. Morgan came up to her. "Sympathetic magic and PK indeed," the administrator said. "Should I have said good luck? Godspeed? I might as well simply admit I am sending you all out with thimbles and forks and hope."
Morgan squeezed her hand, "You may be surprised by who all come back." Silently, behind her reassuring smile, she thought, I know I will be.
Together they walked toward the field and the ships. The dying sunset looked like blood streaking the sky.
The machine did not overtly react when it detected movement in the distant fleet of fighters. Other craft were rising from the planetary surface and joining the group. The boojum's sensory systems registered each increment of numbers, every measure of expended energy.
The fighters began to disperse toward the machine in no particularly discernible formation. The boojum searched for patterns and found none.
Then the machine completed another in its infinite series of weapons system status checks.
The ships in the approaching swarm flared energy.
Everything seemed to be fine. The oblivion within the machine waited to be defined and fulfilled.
Like silver shoals of fish they rose up, the fighter formations rising from Almira's surface. Throttles open, the fighters accelerated. Superheated steam plumes whirled back from the craft, propelling them into an ever blacker sky where the stars had begun to glitter.
The stage, thought Dr. Epsleigh, watching from her tower window in the Wolverton terminal, is set. The massed scream of the rockets deafened her.
She realized the fingers of her right hand were curled into a fist, and that fist was upraised. Get the bastard!
Wolverton Control/All Ships: "The Princess Elect says 'Good luck' and bring back a chunk of the boojum for the palace garden."
Amaranth/Wolverton Control: "Stuff that! We're gonna bring back enough scrap so the palace gardeners can make a whole public gazebo."
Bogdan/Wolverton Control: "I like the sound of 'gazebo,' Can we perhaps code the machine that instead of 'boojum'?"
Wolverton Control/Bogdan: "Sorry, fellow. Too late, Boojum it is."
Anonymous/All Ships: "Bloody hell. Death be what it is."
Holt/'Reen Channel: *Our Hair-like-Morgan-elected-leader-serving-from-the-ground tells you all 'Good fortune and success in the hunt.'*
PereSnik't/'Reen Channel: *Could not your leader/shaman/provider have initiated so enlightened a sentiment a bit earlier than tonight? As perhaps her forebears could have three or four hundred world journeys ago?*
Various/'Reen Channel: *amusement*
Holt/'Reen Channel: *There were many sad winters…*
PereSnik't/'Reen Channel: *Sad winters…?! Skelk droppings, Son. What we do now is a perversion of the Calling that gives me dismay. This is not food-gathering.*
Holt/'Reen Channel: *It is a greater good.*
PereSnik't/'Reen Channel: *My unthought-out comment is unsuitable for either furred ears or bare.*
Various/'Reen Channel. *amusement*
Holt/'Reen Channel: *I am unthinking. Forgive me.*
PereSnik't/'Reen Channel: * Let us concentrate on our onerous task. Let us pursue it with honor.*
All/'Reen Channel: *anticipation*
Runagate/LNTCVPl-Bob/ Ship, is your pilot's survivability index high?
LNTCVP1-Bob/Runagate: He has luck, skill, and courage. My level of confidence is high. Why do you inquire?
Runagate/LNTCVPl-Bob: My pilot's interest level in your pilot is increasing. Her concerns are mine as well.
LNTCVP1-Bob/Runagate: I perceive an equivalent status on the part of Holt. I hold no wish to see him injured in any way.
Runagate/LNTCVP1-Bob: Then we both must survive.
LNTCVP1-Bob/Runagate: The projections do not encourage me.
Runagate/LNTCVP1-Bob: We shall live with them.
LNTCVP1-Bob/Runagate: I will look forward to discussing these matters with you after the battle.
Runagate/LNTCVPl-Bob: Likewise. And with pleasure… Bob.
Morgan ordered Runagate to adjust the artificial gravity so that a satisfying, but less than debilitating, G-force would trickle through the system and settle both 'Reen passenger and the pilot snugly into their harnesses.
Takeoff acceleration hadn't seemed to bother MussGray at all. The artist had endured the climb up to the stratosphere stoically, listening to the voices on the 'Reen channel. He had not so much as shut his polished jet eyes as the ship shuddered and sang. The 'Reen hunter in him bared his teeth at the screens as they imaged the distant boojum. He unsheathed his claws.
Morgan lay cradled in her pilot's couch and exulted in the profligate power of the torch, powering her ship. She restrained herself from putting Runagate into a vertical roll. Time enough soon for fancy maneuvers. But, she thought, the power, the sheer, raw force propelling her into space atop a column of incandescent vapor was the most intoxicating feeling she had ever known.
Competing information channels buzzed and bleated within her ears. Almira and Wolverton Control, the fleet ahead, her colleagues, the 'Reen, Runagate. Morgan had ordered her ship to monitor all links, including the 'Reen channel, and to mix whatever communications he deemed important.
"That may confuse you a bit," Runagate had said.
"I'll live with it."
For all effective densities, Runagate cleared atmosphere. Morgan ordered the simulators on. Her ears registered the distant rumble of the other fighters. The ship shuddered slightly beneath her and she heard the closer, reassuring roar of knife-edged fins slicing through vacuum.
Holt glanced at the silver-furred 'Reen bulked in the acceleration couch beside his. His adoptive father looked steadily back at him.
"The boojum is accelerating toward us," said Bob. "Must be getting impatient."
"Perhaps merely suspicous," said the ship.
"Keep on the direct intercept." Holt sighed and said to PereSnik't, *Was it necessary for us to wrangle before everyone listening over the channel?*
PereSnikt's muzzle creased in a grin. *Are we not still speaking to the rest?*
*No. For a short time we can talk in privacy.*
The 'Reen paused in obvious deliberation. *My son, I now realize I haven't prodded you enough.*
Holt stared at him questioningly.
*I believe I erred in turning you back quite so young to the barbarians in North Terrea.*
*I could not join the Calling. There was no—*
PereSnik't held up a paw, the underside gleaming like well-worn polished leather. *It may be that my judgment was premature. No shame to—*
*No!* Holt turned away from the 'Reen.
PereSnik't shook his massive head slowly and sadly. *It will grieve me if I must conclude you are less of the People than I suspect.*
*I am all too human—*what is it, Bob?" Holt answered the imperative blinking of a console tell-tale.
"Runagate messaging," said Bob. "Morgan would like to speak with you."
Holt's spreading, silly smile was indeed all too human.
Amaranth goosed his ship out of the atmosphere. It was not that he had to be the first fighter in the assault—although he wouldn't have turned the position away—but he also knew he didn't want to place anywhere back in the pack. "First in the hearts of his countrymen," he sang atonally. "First to fight their wa-orrr.'' The last note jangled dissonantly in his own ears.
Tanzin's voice crackled over the ship's link. "Perhaps you could, uh, sing, if that's the precise verb that fits, privately instead of on-channel?"
"She's right." Bogdan's voice.
"It's a war song," said Amaranth, "I'm building morale." He hit another, more than slightly askew, note. Only a meter away, his 'Reen passenger growled ominously.
Amaranth stopped singing, "You're a critic too, my hirsute colleague?"
Another growl, prolonged, rumbling low in the 'Reen's throat.
"ThunderWalker, that's your name, right?" Amaranth said to the 'Reen hunter. "ThunderWalker, perhaps you'd like to join me in a duet."
The ship's link garbled and jammed as a dozen voices said the same word.
"Um; I… never heard anything quite like that said on a ship's link," Holt said. He wondered if the warmth showed on his face.
"And quite probably you won't again," The smile permeated Morgan's voice. "Don't worry, it wasn't public. Runagate and Bob locked in the channel."
"We had better open up that channel." It was Runagate's voice, "Things are heating up considerably with the boojum."
"Channel open," said Bob, "Good luck, everybody."
"Buy you a caf after this is over," Morgan said.
The brain of the machine juggled probabilities, determining whether it should, for the time being, ignore the first ships now violating its zone of effective weaponry, in order to lure the great mass of them into range.
Amaranth/All Ships: "Well, that was easy."
Holt/'Reen Channel: *Though we are in range of its talons, the prey has not sprung for the bait.*
Tanzin/All Ships: "It's got to be a trap."
LNTCVP1-Bob/Runagate: It is a trap.
PereSnik't/'Reen Channel: *Surely, then, the prey is attempting to gull us.*
Runagate/LNTCVPI-Bob: It is a trap.
Morgan/All Ships: "Okay, let's boost hard!"
The machine suddenly came alive, bristling missiles as though they were quills erecting on a Q-beast. The missiles flew just as its enemy shattered into a cloud of wildly varied trajectories. The boojum had three hundred and seventeen separate sentient enemies to contend with now, not to mention the thousands of semi-intelligent missiles erupting from the fighters like insects swarming from a nest.
Skeins of contending particle beams crisscrossed the sphere of defensive space, a traveling net with the machine spidered at the center. The boojum's shields and weapons phased in tandem. Incoming missiles sputtered, fused, and burned luridly. The machine had no program for esthetics, so it could not appreciate the beauty of nuclear flowers blooming brilliantly in the garden of the firmament.
The machine looked for patterns to form as the human ships flew in all directions. It had projected that the battle might be won in the first twenty seconds. That was now clearly impossible.
Victory was still a clear probability, but it would be neither fast, nor simple.
Amaranth/All Ships: "We're in. Dammit, we're in!"
Tanzin/All Ships; "Take it easy. We're just fleas, and it doesn't mean spit if the dog hasn't decided to scratch yet."
Holt/'Reen Channel: *Close, we're close.*
ThunderWalker/'Reen Channel: *Good. The chant will also wipe away the noise of my pilot.*
MussGray/'Reen Channel: *At least your pilot has kept you alive.*
Holt/'Reen-Channel: *We are all still alive.*
Tanzin/All Ships: "Look out! It's scratch—"
Morgan whirled her ship into a maneuver she could term, but never could have identified as to origin: an Immelman turn. Runagate looped around, rolled, then accelerated as a brace of boojum missiles flashed by.
The woman blinked through the array of images Runagate projected throughout the control space. In the holographic display, the lasers and parade beams were colored bright neon shades for clarity. The webwork patterns danced around the painfully slow midge that was Runagate closing on the boojum. Sparks cascaded around the miniature image of the ship. Some were accelerating missiles. Some were bits of debris from the dead and dying.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
Morgan glanced at the 'Reen. beside her and did a double take. The artist MussGray had brought on board a pad Dr. Epsleigh had given him. Grumbling happily, he was staring at the screens, displays, and images, and sketching furiously. The pilot shook her head and her mind retreated to speed. She slammed Runagate into a full-ahead feint at the growing mass of the boojum.
PereSnik't granted as the restraining straps dug into his thick shoulders. Bob rolled into a hard zig-zag, and Holt prayed the AG would stand up. If it didn't, the inside of the cockpit would look like it had been spread with berry jam.
"You're within the parameters you requested," said Bob. "Good luck."
Holt scanned the instruments, glanced at the chunk of machine balefully occluding his main screen. No casualties among the 'Reen ships yet.
"Now!" he said into the ship's link. *Now!* he said to the 'Reen.
*Hyo* came the chorus.
He glanced aside at PereSnik't. The 'Reen shaman held tight to the alloy effigy. Fur glittered, reflected in the stylized circuitry. Holt wanted to touch his father a final time, but he didn't want to alter PereSnik't's concentration.
The 'Reen reached over and clasped Holt's upper arm. *Remernber* said PereSnik't. *You are as much I as them.*
PereSnik't began the chant. His voice rumbled as the others picked up the resonance.
*You are near*
The ship's skin rumpled slightly. Bob's skeleton creaked. Holt couldn't see it with his eyes, but the instruments told him a charged beam had passed within meters of Bob's wingtip.
*Come to us*
*As we come to you*
"Closer!" Holt said into the ship's link to the other pilots. "We've got to get in so close, the machine will take up the whole screen."
PereSnik't's voice filled the ship. The chant filled the space between ships.
*With your pardon*
*We shall kill you—*
Holt prayed thai the other ships, the ones not carrying the 'Reen, could continue to draw the machine's attention and its firepower.
*—and devour you*
He realized he was chanting too. 'Part of his mind, his concentration, his attention, more and more of it, was drawn into the skein of power. I have to pilot, he told himself. Careful, Careful—
*That we the People*
"I'm closer to that son of a bitch than you," said Morgan's voice. "Get in here, love!"
"I'm even closer," said Tanzin over the link. "Move it, Holt."
*You are near*
PereSnik't began the chant again. This time Holt sang with them from the beginning.
*Come to us*
*As we come to you*
The images flashed in front of his eyes. The main screen swept across what seemed an endless expanse of machine.
*With your pardon*
The screen was filled with the images of asymmetric metal forms. The song, the ship—Holt meshed.
*We shall kill you—*
It all worked. He could be both—
"Hey!" Amaranth's voice yelled. "We're in! Did you ever—" The transmission cut off Vacuum filled that space.
One of the boojum's particle beams punched through Amaranth's ship transversely. Clubbed by a weapon moving at lightspeed, some things just were there, and then they were not.
The components of the ship's brain instantly stressed to destruction under the energy overload and flared into darkness. The ship died of a thousand electronic aneurisms.
Passing through the cockpit, the beam did far more immediate damage to Amaranth than to ThunderWalker.
As the ship twisted sickeningly and began to break up, Amaranth could look down and see little where his chest had been. The scarlet spray beginning to cloud his eyes told him the AG was going wonky.
He knew it should hurt, but it didn't. Shock. It wouldn't. No time.
Amaranth saw a field of spring flowers, all red and gold and vibrant, in a meadow at the foot of the Shraketooths. He died before the season changed.
The particle beam had barely grazed ThunderWalker. That was sufficient to vaporize the 'Reen's shoulder.
*We shall kill you—*
The chant still reverberated inside ThunderWalker's head. And continued for the hunter. *—and devour you*
The ship split into ragged sections. The last air was expelled from the cockpit, ripping from ThunderWalker's lungs. Still held back by the elastic restraints, the 'Reen glared out at the machine that filled his sky.
*That we the People*
The 'Reen hunter was dying in a sea of debris. He reached and grabbed with his remaining paw. Claws tightened around something substantial and silky—the wrist of his severed arm.
He grinned out at the prey filling his eyes and mind, feeling the chant rise to its climax.
Expending the last of his fury ThunderWalker whirled the orphaned limb around his head and then hurled it directly into the face of his prey.
He could do no more.
The smallest segment of the boojum's defensive brain detected she strange object moving toward it from the destroyed ship. Circuits reacted. A beam flicked out and turned the arm into a dissipating trace of ionized gases.
The action was the result of a reasonable judgment on the part of the machine. Had the arm not been there to draw fire, the boojum would have selected another target…
Bob flashed across the boojum's surface.
Holt looked at PereSnik't and said, *Now!* The 'Reen' shaman felt the pattern of the magic that had just been worked. This prey was no different than a skelk— just, larger and inedible.
The People repeated the sum of the chant.
*We shall kill you*
*And devour you*
PereSnik't focused and guided the dispassionate grasp out and into the prey. He soared along the guideways and glowing paths of the boojum's mighty heart.
It too was much energy even to imagine. But not so much be couldn't interrupt it. PereSnik'i touched the true heart of the machine.
*That we the People*
One millisecond the electrons spun and flowed in streams; the next, the wets of energy surged, staggered, choked—
—and died. Struck through its heart, the great, dead machine hurtled along its course.
Bob abruptly angled to avoid a desultory defensive missile.
The machine was an inert body in the center of a cloud of angry wasps.
Holt looked at PereSnik't and the 'Reen nodded.
*It is done* he said into the 'Reen Channel. Holt translated that for the other pilots.
"Amaranth…" said Bogdan mournfully.
"We'll count the dead later," said Morgan. Her voice was sober. "The machine—are you sure it's finished?"
PereSnik't growled softly.
"It is dead," Holt said.
"Now to dispose of it," said one of the link voices.
"Into the sun?" The voice was Bogdan's.
"It will probably go for salvage," said Tanzin. "Drawn, quartered, and dismantled. Where did you think our bonuses were going to come from?"
The link settled down to routine traffic as pilots began to tally the casualties.
Morgan's voice came on the channel. "Holt? When we get back to Almira with the 'Reen… I don't think things are going to be the same." Holt knew exactly what she meant. Then Morgan said, "Don't forget the cup of caf. I want to see you."
"I want to see you too," said Holt.
Dr. Epsleigh came on the general channel and relayed thanks and congratulations from the PM and the Princess Elect. She tried to say all the right things.
"What about that boojum?" said Bogdan. "Once we take it apart, can we figure out where it came from?"
The administrator on Almira admitted that was possible.
"And then follow the trail back and blow hell out of those machines, now that we have our secret weapon?"
Dr. Epsleigh laughed. "Maybe we will, and maybe we won't."
"We will," said Bogdan.
But Holt, translating for the 'Reen Channel, wasn't so sure.
Beside him, PereSnik't granted in agreement.
I have recounted to you the truth. It was the time of rejoining comradeship with "Holt," as the Other People called him, and the beginning of my learning strange and sometimes wonderful new ways.
Young, young and eager I was in that battle, riding with the woman Kai-Anila, smelling her bravery and her spirit, and attempting to lend my own poor effort. Now I shall pause for both breath and refreshment.
Just remember, my cubs, my children, my future, that this is the rightful tale of how we at last began to gain our freedom.