Monday, July 30, 2018

HELLGATE #6: Event Horizon

With the worlds of the Deep Sky declaring their independence and the super-carrier battle groups assigned to quell the Colonial War by any means, Neil Travers and Curtis Marin find themselves in an explosive situation. 

On the one hand, the London and the Avenger are poised to move against Jagreth and Borushek ... on the other, the Zunshu continue to strike out of the massive Hellgate storms ... and caught between them are the most powerful ships on either side of the frontier. Richard Vaurien's Wastrel -- a salvage tug designed to work the fragmented space on the edge of Hellgate. And Mark Sherratt's Lai'a -- with the body of a warship and the mind of a Resalq super-AI. 

A Freespacer crew pledged to fight for the freedom of the Deep Sky ... a unique artificial intelligence bred and born for the region beyond Hellgate -- the realm that has become known to a handful of pilots as transspace. 

From a searing battle fought in the shadow of Oberon to the depths of Zunshu space beyond The Blood Gate ... from the cool, green forests of Jagreth to the most alien worlds Marin and Travers could never imagine, and a first contact that will change the future ... this is Event Horizon. 

  • Scroll down to read Chapter One right on this page, but -- Spoiler alert! If you haven't read #5: Flashpoint you're about to run into catastrophic plot spoilers! 

Novel length: 302,000 words
Rated: adult (18+; sex, violence, language)
ISBN pending
Publication date: 2013
Publisher: DreamCraft
Price: $9.99 - ebook
Cover: Jade

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Chapter One

Salvage tug Wastrel,
Oberon science platform

Oberon swam like a shadow against the bright, stormy face of Hellgate. The spines of the science platform's comm aerials were picked out in hazard and navigation flares, and scores of lights winking from the long observation ports marked the presence of humans aboard. A civilian science ship from the Drift Research Institute on Borushek had docked twelve hours before, and in the last ten hours the crew had been generating noise that would have made any Resalq cringe.

The science team had come out to align the active resonance arrays, and Neil Travers knew the work could only be done one way. Emitters fired a tight pulse into the J-layer, the outermost shell of the e-space conduit. Receivers fed the pingback to one of the most powerful AIs in the Deep Sky, and interferometry yielded data on the constant dimensional flux of Rabelais Space. Transspace.

The technique was simple, but it was loud. It rendered Oberon the brightest object in the region, intermittently as bright as one of the supergiant stars which were the handmaidens of dark Naiobe, the black hole which lurked like a master sorcerer at the heart of Hellgate, and much brighter, noisier, than the leftover hiss and throb from a Class 3 Event which had bloomed like a blood rose, just forty light minutes from Oberon's position, not three hours before.

In a time when frontier worlds like Saraine were deliberately being powered down to run cold and silent, offering nothing to betray the presence of industry, civilization, the noise emanating from the science platform set Travers's teeth on edge.

The last pulse fired from Oberon was so powerful, local comm sheeted out into pure white noise for over twenty seconds. As it subsided Curtis Marin's voice swore softly over the loop, but it was Jazinsky who barked into the highband comm. Travers had been monitoring it since the Harlequin launched from hangar six. “Danny, for the love of whatever you like to call god, will you put a lid on it!”

She was bawling at Danny Ramesh – she knew him, though Travers did not know from where. Ramesh headed the DRI team, and to Travers's ears he sounded like a reasonable enough man.  He and Jazinsky had almost certainly collaborated many years ago on some project, but though they greeted each other as friends when the science vessel Tycho docked at Oberon, Jazinsky's patience swiftly frayed. Danny Ramesh had no idea how much danger his team was inviting with the constant pulses into the J-layer, and his own temper was on a tight leash now.

“No can do,” he told Jazinsky. “I've told you before, we've got a twenty-hour window to get this job done. You know the drill, Barb. You've done this kind of work yourself.”

“We have crews in space, Doctor Ramesh.” Richard Vaurien's voice was on the highband now, level with the tone and meter of the peacemaker. “You're blanketing our comm traffic. This can get ugly.”

“And I'm still on a deadline,” Ramesh said with a shade more pleasantry than he had harbored for Jazinsky in the last ninety minutes.

“Give us two hours,” Richard proposed.

“Two hours would put me so far over our time budget, my ass is going to be hoisted in a sling, back at base. Look, Vaurien, just get off my back, let me and my people get this done, and then we'll get out of your hair and you can go back to whatever the hell it is you're doing.” Ramesh paused, more than likely to address a member of his team.

“Let me offer a bargain,” Vaurien said into the brief silence.

“You're going to bribe us to delay?” The man from Borushek was amused enough to at least listen. “Watchya got?”

“What do you want?” Vaurien asked with a trace of annoyance which perhaps only Neil Travers would have heard.

Twenty meters away a shape moved in the harsh shadows cast by the worklights, and he turned toward it. Marin was there – like Travers himself, black-armored and moving methodically from one sequence of tests to the next. Travers saw himself reflected in the half-opaqued faceplate of Marin's helmet, watched himself wave as Curtis came closer.

The armor they wore had rolled out of the fabrication shops so recently, the surface still carried no decals. It was experimental, and though the design was similar to the standard industrial armor preferred by most salvage operators on both sides of the frontier, it felt different. The difference was in the mass. This armor was more than triple the weight of the regular suit, and the Aragos were adjusted to compensate. A bare split-second of lag time separated the force-input of Travers's physical movement from the response of the suit, but it was enough for his brain to register, and it made the armor feel a tiny fraction ungainly.

For half an hour he and Marin had paced the hull of the Wastrel from the cranes and gantries on the starboard side, which gave the ship the familiar aspect of a hunchbacked troll, to the indented pods on the port side, where the geocannons were cold and dormant above the mid-ship holds. From the vantage point of the hull itself, the ship presented a bizarre landscape of hackles, dishes, domes, rails, hatches, in the shadow of the gantry cranes. In all the years he had been associated with Richard Vaurien's operation, Travers had never worked out on the hull.  Normally only drones saw this part of any ship. Hundreds were stored in bunkers down the length of the spine and keel; they would come online when the AI woke them, scuttle out to their task and then retreat to storage.

Drones could have tested the new armor to a point, but Vaurien and Jazinsky wanted a skerrick more data than machines could deliver. They wanted the human reaction. The Wastrel was rarely shorthanded, but with the Wings of Freedom and the Earthlight standing by Lai'a and the Esprit de Liberté still fitting and testing engines at Alshie'nya, Travers and Marin had volunteered. Jazinsky was quick to hand them an assignment.

“Two hours, and we'll be out of your way,” Vaurien was saying. “If I have to negotiate – if I have to buy the safety of my people for that time, I'll do it. Name your price, Doctor Ramesh.”

A soft chime in Travers's left ear told him Marin wanted to talk privately, and he switched back down to the Wastrel techs' loop. “Ramesh's crew could get themselves into real trouble, Richard. This kind of noise –? It's insane, though they don't know it.”

“And we can't come right out and warn them,” Vaurien said in the same quiet, measured tone he had used with Ramesh. “The data is categorized Zunshu, Curtis. It's classified.”

“Even if it kills them?” Travers was watching the sternflares of the Harlequin as Hubler and Rodman maneuvered in the darkness several thousand meters off the aft starboard quarter.

“Even if.” Vaurien sighed. “Give me a few moments, Neil. It's not impossible Doctor Ramesh has a venal streak as wide as any politician, and if he does –”

“You can buy enough time for us to get done and bug out,” Jazinsky said tersely, “and leave these idiots to it. And before you say anything, Richard, I know. It's classified, and there's the end of it. The best you can do is protect our own. Goddamn!”

It was bad, and Travers was equally aware of the ruthlessness of their assignment. “Let it go, Barb,” he said as Vaurien returned to Ramesh and began to barter. “This one's not our call to make.”

“And we have work of our own,” Marin added sharply. “We're not out here for the childlike fun of playing in these suits! What do you want next?”

The armor might be the same design as routine industrial hardsuits, but the similarities were superficial and the differences could throw one's equilibrium way off. The triple mass, the slight lag in the response, betrayed the disparity. Jazinsky called it Zunshulite. Travers thought of it as an alloy of the kevlex-titanium that had been conventional for centuries and the Zunshu armor which sheathed the ancient, alien devices, but he knew the term was a misnomer.

No technique existed to forge the Zunshu metal, much less alloy it with other materials. Instead, the stuff for which Jazinsky had coined the term Zunshulite was fractured at the molecular level by particle beams, reduced to a heavy, toxic crystalline dust and fired, like a trillion microscopic projectiles, at the kevlex-titanium matrix. Super-hard, super-dense, the fragments of Zunshulite embedded into the woven strands of the parent material, and the result was revolutionary.

“You get used to it after a while,” Marin was saying into the busy techs' loop. “The lag's only about a tenth of a second, but it's damned weird at first. A little like wading in a lake of treacle up to your armpits. Then the brain learns to compensate.”

“So you think you can move in it, work in it, for a realistic amount of time? Enough time to get some kind of difficult, precarious assignment done?” Jazinsky was in the lab, reading telemetry from the flocks of sensors mounted on the suits and already collating data.

“It shouldn't be a problem,” Travers told her. “The lag's a nuisance for a few minutes. The servos can only catch up so fast … but I've worked in Marines armor with grav-resist that was jacking around, and a hell of a lot worse to live with than this. In the field you can easily take a hit in the Arago cells. The damn' things can go intermittent and your apparent mass can be all over the spectrum. You deal with it.”

“Soldiers deal with it,” Jazinsky argued.

“And most of us went through the Fleet meatgrinder,” Travers reminded. “Even Richard did six months on a carrier before he took his virgin furlough and kept walking! You? You're the anomaly. Any of the rest of us would muddle through without too much cussing, even if the armor was a genuine bitch to work with. The lag's not that bad, Barb.”

“And the rest is fine,” Marin added. “I'm cool and dry, the vid feed is top quality, the displays are absolutely stable and the comm is 20/20 unless those idiots on Oberon are firing another pulse into the Drift.”

“They're the proverbial pain in the ass, aren't they?” Jazinsky muttered, concentrating on the datastream. “I'm almost ashamed to say I know the idiot in charge. I took Physics 901 with Danny Ramesh – we were kids, something like sixteen. Before the draft notices were posted, anyway. He went into Fleet maybe two months after Richard spirited me away before they could get their hooks into me. Danny finished his degree on the London.” She sighed. “And the fact is, none of this crap is actually his fault. Nobody at the DRI knows any damn' thing about the Zunshu. Not yet. They're doing the exact kind of work Alexis Rusch wanted to get into – it's the whole reason she enlisted.”

“After the war, why don't you buy him a beer and share data?” Travers's humor was arid. “Then you can watch the bold Doctor Ramesh and associates turn a pale shade of green as they realize what they were doing.”

“After the war,” Marin echoed in a cynical tone. “If I had twenty Ulrish bucks for every time I've heard that one –”

“You could buy a cheap cup of coffee on Earth or Mars.” Jazinsky indulged in a chuckle. “The data's looking good. Better than I'd hoped for. Just one more thing I want you to do, guys. Tweak your Aragos, crank your apparent mass up a couple of percent at a time. Tell me when the mass gets oppressive. Then I want you to pitch the cargo sled back and forth between you like a medicine ball, hard as you can, see how the servos handle the impact. How well they compensate, how fast they respond.”

“Will do.” Travers shifted his attention to the helmet display and keyed on the Arago settings.

The worklights glared harshly from the high gantries. A zug was making its way between holds, and as Marin joined him he turned his back on the strobing effect as the freight car occluded one light after another.

Two thousand meters closer to the Oberon science platform, the bright, hot sterntubes of the Harlequin chased like fireflies, and while he and Marin focused on the suits' Aragos, Travers listened to the loop.

Roark Hubler and Asako Rodman had been working steadily for two hours and estimated they had another two to go before they could call the job done and move on. This was the two-hour window Vaurien was negotiating for.

The Harlequin was preparing the sixth of twelve minefields which were methodically, meticulously being set down in what Mark Sherratt called the ‘exit lanes' skirting Hellgate – the navigation routes via which Zunshu devices always exited the Drift, due to the position of the storms out of which they were spat.

The big events the Zunshu employed as the gateways to their ‘gravity express' had been reasonably predictable since the days of Yamazake and the first generation nav'ware which began to open up Rabelais Space. But with Jazinsky's own work, and Mark Sherratt's, Hellgate was increasingly familiar territory. Humans and Resalq were rapidly retracing the steps of the ancestrals who designed and flew the Ebrezjim.

The data was sound. Mark had run the numbers twenty times, correlating between the positions where the frontier colonies were now routinely being lost, and the major Hellgate storms which took time and space and tore them apart. Without exception, a major event coincided with the loss of a colony. The exit lanes were tightly plotted – the trajectories on which Zunshu devices could be expected to appear were charted; and when the Harlequin finished laying down this current minefield, six out of twelve of those exit lanes were safeguarded.

To Travers's jaundiced eye the defense looked tenuous, but in bad dreams he was back at Velcastra, still seeing the markers wink off in the navigation tank as Fleet ships were destroyed, taking hundreds, thousands, of lives with them.  He could wake up in a cold sweat as he acknowledged, even in his sleep, how easy it would have been for himself or any member of Bravo Company to be serving on one of those ships. Only the unfathomable grace of some soldier's god kept them safe.

“Neil? You all right?” Marin's voice was low, quiet.

He shook himself hard. “Yeah. Let's get this done – you want to grab the sled and pitch it at me? My mass is way up … starting to feel heavy, sluggish, Barb.”

“But the good news is, the Aragos will nail you down, if you need 'em to,” she mused. “Question is, can you work under these conditions?”

“Could you fight under them?” Marin added as he stooped to lift the small Arago sled which had carried out an assortment of equipment. It was unloaded now, and he turned off the power, rendering the sled a hundred kilos of dead weight. “Here she comes, Neil.”

He slung the sled with a sizeable percentage of the force he could still tap out of his armor, and it came at Travers like a missile. Jazinsky was right – the apparent mass pinned him to the hull as the sled hit him squarely in the breastplate, and Travers felt nothing of the impact. The armor was just 0.02% Zunshu metal, and in the lab it had tested impervious to repeated impacts from Shrike and Tomahawk missiles which would have punched through a gunship.

Travers caught the sled, turned it around slightly to get a grip on it and launched it back at Marin with at least as much force. “You getting data, Barb?”

“Getting numbers,” she assured him. “I'm asking for the human input. How's it feel? Machines and numbers can't tell me that.”

“The armor's heavy, it feels slow,” Marin told her as he caught the sled and heaved it back in Travers's direction with enough force to draw a grunt from him which carried over the comm. “But it's an illusion. It's not actually slow – I'm looking at the same data you're seeing.”

“Waiting for the brain to compensate.” Travers fielded the dead weight of the sled and ramped up the force as he hurled it back. “As a Master Sergeant, I'd recommend briefing and training before you put my kids into these suits. You give 'em a few hours to get the feel of the new gear, and they'll be fine.”

“Richard and I were thinking the same.” Jazinsky chuckled. “You know, what you guys are wearing is one of the most rare and valuable substances in the universe. After the war, the patent on Zunshulite could be worth a trillion credits – even the manufacturing process can be patented. Tully and Paul Wymark and Sasha Tomarov and me, we had to invent the whole thing, build the machine. So, how rich do you want to be?”

“Maybe we'll buy our own planet.” Marin shared her humor.

As he spoke, the Harlequin looped around a fourth time and Roark Hubler's voice said into the loop, “How're we reading, Wastrel?”

From the Ops room Tully Ingersol mused, “Looking a little bit ragged on the last pass. We want to get this part dead right before you start laying the mines – you don't wanna be back in there later, wading around in the little Zunshu bastards.”

Part of the preparation for the minefields saw the Harlequin setting down a chain of passive monitors, very similar to the broken device the Wastrel had retrieved from Celeste. The monitors were seeded first, before the mines were set in strict formation. Finally, each site was clearly beacon-marked.

Twenty thousand mines had already been seeded around the shoals and skirts of Hellgate, and connecting the swarms were long ratlines of passive monitors, covering the Drift. When the Harlequin was done, five thousand passive monitors would be adrift between the bloated stars, the black hole and the tendrils of dust left by the supernova, 2631C. They were simple listening machines with one objective: they gathered data from the Drift and uploaded to a vessel scheduled to pass by.

The patrol would be the first duty of the Esprit de Liberté. Data would be sent to labs on the Wastrel and the Carellan Djerun; and buried somewhere in the collation, Jazinsky and Mark Sherratt were sure, the keys to the mystery of the Zunshu would be found.

Travers understood only a little of what they were doing, but he grasped the significance of the work, as did Hubler and Rodman, who understood even less of the details. The Harlequin swung away, powered out on a right-angle from Oberon and positioned itself for the next run. Six monitors were on the ramps, ready to be set into position, and with fifty more laid down, tested and validated, they would begin to seed the minefield itself.

Mines and monitors alike were churned out by the Wastrel's factories. They were dormant as they left the shops, with the kernel of their rudimentary AI shut down and waiting for an activation code any sane person hoped would never be broadcast. Just one of those mines was enough to erase a small ship from space. Eight would cripple the Wastrel; twenty, and too little would be left for observers to be sure a ship had ever been there at all.

Travers was deeply impressed by the care Hubler, Rodman and Ingersol invested in the preparation of each minefield. Tully was on the techs' loop even then: “Barb, I'm going to bring these units online, see if I can get  them to calibrate their own position. They're not far out of line – pitch jets might get them where they need to be. You want to oversee this? Second pair of eyeballs on the job.”

“Can't be too careful,” Travers muttered.

And Rodman: “At least they're just passive listening devices. Every time I remember we've got a hold stuffed full of those mines, I come out in cold shivers. One nasty little ship-killer, and we're history.”

Over the loop Jazinsky said, “Sure, Tully, on my way. You can leave it there, Neil, Curtis. If you're happy with the performance, and you believe we can expect proper efficiency from techs and troops in these suits – good enough for me. Come back in. They'll be setting up for dinner in an hour.”

Before she finished speaking, Oberon issued another pulse and the comm whited out again. Travers swore into the mass of hissing distortion, and beckoned Marin. He could see Curtis, even see his face through the darkened visor, but they were reduced to hand signs. Marin signaled in the old military visual code which was drilled into draftees in the first month after conscription: Am securing the sled, wait for me there, then we'll go back to Lock 9.

Travers gave him the OK and adjusted his comm, switching from band to band, trying to get over or around the distortion. It was as comprehensive, as dense, as any deliberate jamming, and all he could do was wait for it to clear. He was wondering what kind of deal Vaurien had been able to arrange as at last the loop began to break back through the sizzle of interference.

A word here and there made sense; it was the tone of Roark Hubler's voice that set Travers's pulse hammering, and he raised his voice to shout over the white noise, first at Marin, then at the Ops room. “Harlequin is reporting bogeys – Wastrel, are you hearing this? Richard? Richard!”

The interference was clearing, but not nearly fast enough. Travers fed power to the suit broadcast, cranked the comm to maximum and tried again. Marin had retuned the Aragos holding him to the deck and approached in long bounds, covering the thirty meters between Travers's position and the drone store in three long strides. Proximity improved their comm, and Curtis was shouting,

“Neil, I'm getting audio from Hubler and Rodman. They're saying something just shot out of Hellgate. Freespacers?”

“Might be.” Travers's mind was racing. Some associate of Boden Zwerner who recognized the Wastrel and was willing to try his luck in a bid for revenge – or some colleague of Henri Belczak with an axe to grind after the battle at Celeste? “Richard? Ops room!”

The voice answering belonged to Ingersol, thready and intermittent, no matter how much power he fed to the transmitters. “We're getting one word in three, Neil, and zilch data feed. We're blind. You're probably seeing more than we are – what you got?”

“Kel-bloody-brochev,” Marin swore in a hybrid version of the native Resalq, a humanization of Midori Kulich's favorite expletive. “Neil, my sensors are maxed out. If it was a Freespacer ship big enough to have Hubler and Rodman running scared, we ought to be seeing it by now.”

“I know.” A line of sweat tickled across Travers's brow as he scanned visually for the Harlequin. She was out of sight, perhaps on the other side of the Wastrel or the Oberon platform, or else simply too far away to be picked up by the naked eye. “Tully, can you hear me? Tully!”

“I'm getting some of your transmission,” Ingersol shouted. “What's it look like?”

“No way to tell,” Travers told him. “Sound all-stations, get the ship on alert, clear the geocannons. Call Mick Vidal to Ops – get him on Tactical, and do it fast. Stand to Bravo Company. I say again –”

The interference had begun to clear now, and as he finished repeating the message Travers could already hear Etienne bringing the crew to stations. Travers was not surprised to hear Michael Vidal.

“Neil, they've asked me to take Tactical. What am I shooting at? I've got nothing in the tank big enough to call a target.” His voice was taut.

“Power up the cannons and Aragos, and standby,” Travers told him. “Harlequin, can you hear me now?”

“Reading you 12/17,” Asako Rodman responded. “Tell Vidal to reconfigure – he's looking for ships, and he won't be seeing 'em. Scan in the four-meter range, and smaller.”

“Roark, that's boulder size,” Vidal protested. “You got a meteor shower coming out of Hellgate?”

“Mick, that's pod size,” Hubler corrected. “Some kind of acceleration shells, we're counting five of them – they punched out of the Drift like a volley of freakin' artillery and vectored 'emselves in on the Wastrel and Oberon, soon as they were clear to maneuver. I never saw anything like 'em before. They're not Fleet hardware, not Freespacer tech, and you know what that means. Shit, hold on – we've got a clear shot, we're going to take it.”

A peppering of red enunciators winked on in the helmet display, and Travers's eyes narrowed as he watched. The Harlequin had taken on a full warload at the orbital yards at Ulrand, and to his knowledge she had not fired a shot since. The same impressive cannons that had seen service in the Freespacer battle there were hot again, and sensors counted sixteen rounds delivered dead on-target, on the closest of the bogeys. He held his breath now, hoping, wishing he knew how to pray, but as the interference from the blasts cleared his sensors told him the same truth they told Hubler and Rodman.

“No joy,” Rodman called bitterly, “and that's the best we got.”

And Hubler, a moment later: “You seeing this, Mick? They have to be shielded. We didn't even knock the little bastards off-vector.”

“Get out of there,” Vidal advised. “They haven't returned fire, but we're not assuming they're unarmed. With these guys, who knows?”

“They'll be armed, count on it,” Marin said emphatically, “but in craft this size they won't have ordnance to burn. Do like the man says, Rodman – get out while you can. Show them a sitting target, and they'll take a crack at it.”

“We're gone,” Rodman sang.

Sensors showed a fierce heat bloom at the Harlequin's position as the engines lit up brightly, and Travers called, “Are you tracking unknowns yet, Mick?”

“Not yet,” Vidal told him, “but the Harlequin just bounced her data right to Etienne. It's only blind luck she was out there, close enough to see them. Mark Sherratt will tell you, these raids normally have no warning, no lead time. Ask Curtis. He knows so much about this crap, it's a wonder he can sleep.”

“I guess we got our personal guardian angel,” Ingersol breathed. “Uh, Neil, I looked at the inbound tracking data from Fridjof Prime, back at Ulrand, when you guys fought there, at the refinery … same deal?”

“Same deal,” Travers muttered. “Mick, you getting anything now?”

Vidal's body might still have been frail but his mind was almost as sharp as it had ever been. “I'm trying, Neil. There's just too much bloody interference from Oberon, I'm still not seeing shit. Richard!”

“Right here.” Vaurien's voice was the sole note of calm in the loop. “I'm coming to you, Michael. Take a deep breath, and recalibrate.”

“Already did that. Whatever Roark's seeing, they're too small to pick up at this range through this swamp of background white noise.”

“Understood.” Vaurien did not skip a beat. “Etienne, bring the deep scan platform online. Harlequin, you hearing me?”

“Yo,” Rodman called. “You want realtime coordinates.” Not a question.

“Best you can guesstimate,” Vaurien affirmed. “Relay what you have direct to the AI. Michael, use the deep scan to derive a firing solution and configure the Aragos, get some shielding between us and them.”

The Wastrel's deep scan platform was the sensor array from a Resalq research vessel. It was designed for observing stellar phenomena, and far more sensitive than the close-range sensors which normally guided the guns. Vidal swore quietly. “Damnit, I'm getting slow. I should've thought of that.”

“No,” Marin argued. “You're used to the resources of a warship. You're still trying to adjust to think civilian. Richard, we're outside. Where do you want us?”

“Pick your ground,” Vaurien offered. “Nowhere's going to be safe, and you're already wearing the toughest armor this side of Zunshu space itself. Michael, any joy?”

And Vidal, as appalled as he was self-satisfied: “Oh, yeah. I'm seeing six, Harlequin, not five, but you pegged the size dead right. Just over the three meter mark … some weird-ass engine signature, doesn't even look like an engine. The only thing I've seen that's halfway similar –”

“Is the signature off the mines the Fleet battle group flew right into, at Velcastra,” Barb Jazinsky finished. “Oh yeah, these bogeys are Zunshu. No question about it now. Okay, Tully, I'll take Ops – get moving. Weimann ignition procedures. Get us to jump minus three seconds and hold it right there.”

Ingersol: “Will do. You better check the highband. According to everything I'm seeing on sensors, those bloody fools on Oberon are charging up for another pulse. They blind us again, and we're a sitting bloody duck.”

“Shit,” Jazinsky swore in a rasp. The comm clicked audibly as she switched up, and Travers almost winced as she bawled, “Danny Ramesh, are you listening to me? Ramesh!”

He was there at once. “Like I'm going anywhere? What the hell is your problem, Jazinsky?”

“Shut down your goddamned pulse generator,” she told him, “right now. Do it, Danny, or I swear I'm going to blow the emitter right off the shoulder of Oberon.”

He snorted a laugh that was terrible in its ignorance. “Yeah, right. Take a pill, go have a lie down. I might talk to you later when you're making more sense.”

“They're still feeding power to the emitter,” Richard warned. He touched his combug. “Doctor Ramesh, I should warn you, we're serious.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Ramesh groaned.

“Etienne, clear Starboard 22 and lock onto the Oberon J-band emitter. Standby to fire on my command,” Vaurien said in a tone like crushed velvet. The words carried clearly over the comm. “Ramesh, shut it down.”

“Or we'll shut it down for you – permanently,” Jazinsky breathed.

Marin's helmet turned toward Travers. His voice was a bare murmur. “Which is what we should have done hours ago.”

“This is the property of the taxpaying public of the Deep Sky,” Ramesh roared.

“All the more reason to go dark and keep it in one piece,” Vaurien said reasonably. “You have one minute, Doctor Ramesh. Etienne, countdown and fire on zero if the pulse emitter fails to deactivate. Acknowledge.”

“Fifty-eight,” Etienne said calmly. “Fifty-seven. Fifty-six.”

“Michael?” Vaurien's voice betrayed nerves wound tight as steel hawsers.

“I'm glimpsing objects,” Vidal told him. “But they're so damn' small, target acquisition is going to be like spitting into a cyclone. Looks like two are vectored on the Wastrel, the rest are going for Oberon.”

And Jazinsky: “Time?”

“Maybe two minutes before they get to us,” Vidal judged, “three minutes before they reach Oberon. It's difficult to be exact because they're surfing on gravity fields, their velocity's constantly changing.”

“And we,” Marin said darkly, “are unarmed, Neil.” He took a step away, in the direction of lock 9, but Travers's gauntleted hand on his shoulder held him back.

“No time to get in to the armory. Come this way.” Travers was already moving, and thanking the old soldier's gods that he knew this ship as well as he had ever known the Intrepid.

The loop hummed with data and he listened as the flock of pods raced up out of Hellgate with the speed and maneuverability that had always defeated the Resalq. The same tiny craft had dropped the Zunshu machines into Fridjof Prime, and the Fleet docks at Albeniz, absolutely without warning. They were so small, so fast, in almost every instance the target was overrun before defenses could come online.

And for hours Oberon had been transmitting, loud and strong, in the very bands the Zunshu passive listening devices monitored. Nothing natural fired such pulses. Only industry or science used the comm bands close to the e-space horizon. The command traffic of military and industrial drones was loud there; the big AI freight haulers that cut time-saving slingshots through the safer quadrants of Rabelais Space bounced signals through the J-layer, where tachyon fields vibrated in and out of e-space. But nothing natural emitted such signals, and the noise Oberon had been making, right on the skirts of the Drift, seemed to Travers like blood in the water.

Just aft of the rank of four-meter parabolic dishes was a code-sealed hatch. He had never actually handled it, but he had seen it on vidfeeds numerous times. Tech gangs often worked out here. Tully Ingersol was far more familiar with the Wastrel's outer hull, and as Travers dropped to one armoured knee beside the hatch he called,

“Tully, you there?”

“Engine deck,” Ingersol responded. “What d'you need?”

“Give me the code for service hatch 68, aft of the four-meter dishes.” Travers adjusted the tint of his visor and surveyed an outsized keypad designed for massive, armoured hands.

Ingersol did not even have to think about it. “Alpha-gamma-2-4-9-kappa-delta. You're doing what I think you're doing?”

The gauntlets were thick enough, heavy enough, to make tapping in the code a frustrating exercise, though the keys were huge. “How long till the Wastrel can jump the hell out of here?” Travers whispered.

“Fifty seconds, but sublight engines are already hot and all three reactors are throttled up. We can at least give them a run for their money.” Ingersol paused. “Shit, Neil, you, uh, you guys did this at Ulrand, right? You beat them?”

“We beat them,” Marin said levelly. “In fact, we've beaten these bastards twice. And the Wastrel can jump out and escape, Tully – it's the crew on Oberon that'll be erased like they never existed. Ops room.”

“We have tracks on all bogeys,” Jazinsky told him. “Two headed for us, four going for Oberon like a school of sharks.”

“There's almost fifty people on Oberon,” Travers said as he lifted the service hatch. A light flickered on in the trench beneath. “Bravo Company, where are you?”

The voice answering belonged to Judith Fargo, as Travers would have expected. She had earned the promotion to lieutenant, and she took the rank seriously. “Armed and in the hardsuits, in Hangar 4, boss, starboard side. We can freakin' see Oberon from here. You call it.”

The Capricorn was parked in Hangar 4, and Travers took a deep breath, weighing the risk before he said evenly, “There's a bunch of ignorant, dumb civvies on Oberon, and they're getting fragged unless we get between them and a squad of automata. You want to go kill some more Zunshu?”

“We can do that,”Fargosaid without hesitation. “Perlman's been prepping the Capricorn as a CYA fallback. She's about one minute off flight ready. It'll take another minute to get over there and dock. We got time?”

“Just,” Travers judged. “Make it fast, Judith, and – be careful.”

He was still speaking when Etienne counted down to five, and Danny Ramesh's voice exploded into the loop. “Fuck you, Vaurien – we're shut down, going dark. You'll never work in the Deep Sky after this – you better take off for Freespace and keep running!”

Vaurien was far too busy to deal with Ramesh, and it was Jazinsky who answered. “Save the squealing for later, you little twerp, and while you're at it, look at your bloody sensor displays. You should be seeing six marks, coming in from the Drift on a vector of 159/280, almost in line with Naiobe itself.” Ramesh began to bluster, and she cut him off with a roar. “You want to stay alive long enough to file your report, look at your goddamned data!”

A pause, and he was back, angry, surly. “We're tracking a bunch of sizzling Hellgate meteors, four headed this way. So what? The AI already ramped up the Arago screening, it's not an issue, Jazinsky.”

“You think? Get your people in their hardsuits,” Jazinsky said tartly, “or tell them to drop what they're doing and head back to the Tycho.”

As Ramesh began to argue, Travers stopped listening. In the service trench under hatch 68 was an assortment of tools – not weapons, as such, but industrial tools became terrible weapons with a shift of intent.

He moved back to let Marin see the resources they commanded, and deferred to Dendra Shemiji experience in the selection of them. An hour a day, often more, he was still studying the resources Mark Sherratt had made available, and his grasp of Resalq triple-think was deepening rapidly. Half an hour every day, he and Curtis were in the gym, and the time was gone when Marin could bounce him off the mats with impunity, with the fluid, economical moves of the Aramshem, one of the most ancient Resalq martial arts. Travers was catching up fast, and as Marin chose the tools which would become weapons, Neil saw the affirmation of his own judgment. He had chosen the identical selection. For himself, a plasma torch with a five liter tank of nentane gas – it would cut or weld, on command. For Marin, a bolt gun with the fat cylinder of a ten-round magazine, which would double as a fearsome projectile weapon.

Over the comm Vidal's voice was even with a surreal calm. “They're close enough for me to get reliable target acquisition. Neil, Curtis, watch yourselves. Railguns are primed. Richard?”

“Take your shot,” Vaurien invited. “Etienne, switch gun control to the main navigation tank. Let's see this.”

First the helmet armorglass darkened to midnight black, then the whisker-thin Zunshulite visor dropped down, completely screening the faceplate. A faintly distorted vid image replaced the live-eye view of the Wastrel's hull, and Travers held his breath, waiting for it.

The railguns opened up in dazzling nine round bursts. Every third round was tracer, the first two armor-piercing and Demolex-7, but at 30 rounds per second the muzzles of the cannons mounted right above the holds seemed to pour streamers of pure, blue-white light. Vidal had a delicate touch on the triggers, locked onto two targets and releasing discrete bursts, a third, a fourth, before he paused to look at the data.

“Targets still inbound,” Etienne reported.

“And I'm reading powerful energy signatures off them,” Jazinsky added, “enough like our own Arago fields for me to recognize halfway similar tech. We're not going to knock them down, Richard. They're way too well screened.”

“Merde,” Vaurien said softly. “Save your ordnance, Michael. We're not going to take them that way.”

“Railguns on standby.” Vidal hesitated, then, “Forty seconds, Neil … they're coming into range of your suit sensors. You ought to be seeing them very soon. Get out of there.”

“We have to lure them – bring them to us,” Marin corrected. “Let them get inside the ship, and it's odds-on we'll wind up as wreckage. We're going to vector them to us, Mick.”

Vaurien's voice murmured into Travers's ear. “You're the specialist. What do you want to do?”

“Power down all the locks except Hangar 4 – Bravo's on launch procedures,” Marin said levelly. “Make a big, bright display of chain guns coming online in Hangar 4, and then run everything dark except lock 9, which is us. Open up 9.”

Even Richard Vaurien skipped a beat. “Are you sure? You want to open a door and invite in a squad of Zunshu automata?”

A fist seemed to clench around Travers's throat as Marin said, “I'm sure. Standby to seal 9, as soon as the automata commit to our position, and then … good hunting.”

His gauntlet closed on the forearm of Travers's armor, and Travers followed his lead, into the scant cover of the drive motors beneath the last of the parabolic dishes. They hunkered down there, armed, concealed, and Travers turned his attention to his suit's sensors. They were at maximum, configured to search for objects in the three meter range, and like Marin he was already keenly aware of the inadequacy of suit sensors.

Over the highband comm, Danny Ramesh was screaming. “Vaurien! Vaurien! What the hell are you firing at?” His voice was sharp with anxiety now, much of the righteous anger pared away by shock.

It was Jazinsky who responded, sounding distracted as she jockeyed data. “Did you herd your people back to the Tycho?”

“No, I – I bloody didn't,” Ramesh protested.

“Well, too late now,” she said cynically. “Get them together, and if you've got the hardsuits, get into them. You have a Marines unit coming to join you – power up lock 3, repeat lock 3. It's the closest to us. I don't suppose any of you are actually armed?”

“Armed?” Ramesh's voice was shrill with an unhealthy mix of dread and confusion. “Of course we're not armed – we're just a civilian science mission.”

She took a deep breath that carried over the comm. “Then, you get behind the Marines unit, and you do as they tell you, understand?” He was still talking, demanding, but she ignored him now. “Lieutenant Fargo? Talk to me, Judith.”

“Launching in five,” Fargo called into the chaos of the loop.

“Tully?” Jazinsky was almost as surreally calm as the AI.

“Holding at Weimann ignition minus three,” Ingersol responded from the engine deck.

“On my word,” Vaurien told him. “Neil?”

The helmet displays had registered the incoming marks seconds before. Airlock 9 gaped open behind them while the Capricorn burst out of Hangar 4, ahead and below them, in a lightstorm of engine flares. It was gone in an instant, like a single tendril of fork lightning, headed for Oberon. In its wake, four chain guns set in the hangar mouth set up a staccato pattern. They were small, designed to impede a forced docking by ships like Sergei van Donne's Mako or the Capricorn itself, but the incoming Zunshu were unaware of their limitations.

Again Travers held his breath as he and Marin watched the tracking marks, and a moment later Curtis whispered, “Yes! They took the bait, Richard. They're coming to us. Standby to seal 9.”

“Seal 9, and we lock you out,” Vidal said sharply.

“We know.” Travers licked lips that were suddenly dry as paper. “Call it another test of the Zunshulite armor. You wanted data, Barb? Looks like you're going to get it.”

“You maniacs watch your bloody asses,” she said in a tone that cut like a razor. “The Capricorn is docking. Judith!”

 “We can see them,” Fargo assured her, “four bogeys headed this way, thirty seconds from locking on – and they're going to have to cut their way in. Buys us some time, Barb. Get the civvies moving, send 'em anywhere, so long as it's away from the Zunshu lock-on point.”

“Doctor Ramesh, are you monitoring our comm?” Vaurien asked over the increasing clutter of the loop. “You have very limited time. Advise your people make their way to the Tycho, and commence preflight procedures. Do it now, while you have the chance.”

And then Travers stopped listening. In the helmet display he had visually picked out the identical, eggshell-smooth shapes of two aeroshells, no more than five hundred meters off the starboard side of the Wastrel. They were slower now, shedding speed so fast, a human pilot would have been knocked insensible. The two shells were butting their way through the tug's dense, overlapped and interleaved Arago fields, and turning slightly to close on lock 9.

“Mick, they're getting right through the Aragos,” Travers warned loudly. “Can you squeeze any more out of them?”

“A few percent,” Vidal mused, “but what's the point? Repel them here, and they'll target some other area, maybe a thousand meters away. You and Curtis want to go hunting?”

“No,” Marin whispered. “Let them through, Mick. Don't make it too easy – don't give a machine mind anything to suspect. For once, they're right where we want them.”

The datastream from Etienne told him when Vidal shut back a fraction of the power to the Aragos and the field weakened a few percent. It looked as if the generators were overstressing, and if Travers had not heard the exchange between Curtis and Vidal, he would have assumed nothing more. The Zunshu would buy it.

Marin's voice was a bare murmur, oddly intimate over the comm. “Same as last time, Neil. You know how this works.”

Academically, Travers knew how it worked, but on the big moon of Ulrand, and way back on Kjorin, Bravo Company had been behind him, and the weapons in his hands were state of the art. He looked down at the plasma torch he cradled against his chest, and then up again, at the bolt gun Marin had lifted out of the glorified tool chest.

“It's not too late to cut and run,” he suggested half mockingly.

“Nowhere to run to, is there?” Marin shifted position and pulled the bolt gun into his shoulder as if it were an assault rifle. He had no efficient way of sighting or marking his target, and Travers knew what he was about to say. “They'll have to be damned close for this to work.”

The Zunshu machines would be focused on lock 9, and given the weird topography of the Wastrel's hull, the route to the open lock was narrow and tight. Travers watched Marin prime the bolt gun, and deliberately tuned the plasma torch to a fine, super-hot jet.

The loop was a mess of callsigns and invective, but he heard Fargo's voice, and both Kravitz and Inosanto, chorusing the same information: they were docked, they had blown the Capricorn down to partial pressure and bypassed the normal airlock cycling, to save time. A gale was rushing through the nearer parts of Oberon, but it would soon be spent. Much more significant was Danny Ramesh's wailing voice.

“Something's locked onto us,” he howled.

“We see it,” Vaurien said coolly. “It's on your back, near the machine shops. You're dead lucky, Ramesh. Oberon has better armour than a super-carrier, because Hellgate's always likely to throw super-hot debris at it. You weren't fired upon, and these intruders have nothing that'll mesh with your docking rings. They'll have to cut their way in, which buys you a little time. Are your people back on the Tycho?”

“They're shutting everything down and grabbing their equipment,” Ramesh began.

“Ditch it – ditch everything,” Jazinsky said loudly. “Danny, will you just do as you're told for once in bloody stupid life? You've got about one minute. Tell your people to run!”

Marin made a sound that might have been cynical humor. “They're not going to make it.”

“Not unless Bravo buys them another chance,” Travers agreed. “And speaking of sitting targets – Mick, can you get a shot at any of the pods that just locked onto Oberon?”

“One of 'em,” Vidal mused. “It's worth a try. Hold on.”

Again, the liquid streams of pure light lanced out of the starboard railguns, but as the blaze of sensor noise settled Jazinsky only swore bitterly. “Waste of time and ammunition.”

“Worth a try, like the man said.” Travers licked his lips and shifted his grip on the plasma torch. “Curtis …”

“Oh, yeah. Here we go. Forget Oberon now – let Bravo take it, we have enough to do.”

They were watching the aeroshells buck through the last Arago field and come slithering around, lined up on lock 9. With perfect efficiency both shells settled solidly onto the hull and hatches opened in the long sides.

“Touchdown,” Travers said quietly. “Standby to seal 9 … wait … wait … do it!” He had delayed long enough to see the six automata step out of the shells, and in moments they were out on the hull, separated from their pod-like craft.

“Lock 9 is sealed,” Vidal informed him. “I've got visual on you, but you're out of the firing arcs of any weapon we have. You're on your own, kids.”

“Not quite.” Travers checked the charge on the plasma torch. “Deploy the drones from 24 through 29.”

Vaurien was with him. “Cannon fodder, Neil,” he warned.

“Distraction,” Marin said pointedly. “Right now, we'll take anything we can get.”

“You got your drones.” Vaurien paused. “I'm configuring them to seize anything that moves and put it in storage. They're going to be fragged as fast as the Zunshu can target them.”

“But six Zunshu machines,” Vidal added, “can't fire on a hundred targets at the same time. It'll buy you an advantage, Neil – a small one.” He took a breath, audible over the comm. “Drones coming at you … my vidfeed is about six meters up on the wave guides above you. You'll see them in a moment.”

In fact, Travers had already seen them – and so had the automata.

It was so odd to see unarmored, unsuited figures striding across the hull of the Wastrel with the aid of tractor technology so similar to the Arago patents. These machines were careless of the vacuum, the background radiation from the engines, the constant brain-sizzling pulses from the active sensors. The six automata had the body and face morphology of the ancestral Resalq; at first glance they looked like the Kulich siblings, clad in plain blue-gray coveralls and black work boots which would not have drawn a glance on any colonial street; but the similarities between these figures and any generation of living Resalq were barely skin deep. They were hardware, with a single objective.

As airlock 9 sealed, Etienne broadcast the standard warning issued to crew working on the hull. Travers was never more keenly aware of being disconnected, and he shifted his grip on the plasma torch as Marin began to move. The automata were still thirty meters away and all six had spun to engage the swarm of maintenance drones which had descended on them with outstretched handling arms. The directive was seize and store, and the drones had no more regard for their own safety than the automata.

“They're Zunshu generation four,” Marin muttered. “Firearms built right into the armature, see? Go!”

The hundred incoming drones would be knocked down in seconds, but Travers told himself those seconds should be all the advantage he and Marin needed. They were moving as the automata began to fire, and he had set his apparent mass low enough to cover the distance in two giant strides. Curtis was less than a half pace behind him, and the bolt gun pounded like a jackhammer, firing white-hot, thumb-thick, twenty-centimeter rivets with a force like a mortar. Travers's instruments registered every concussion as he watched four of the automata physically picked up and flung away by the impacts.

The last two moved with a speed so far in advance of even a champion athlete among humans, Travers was breathless. One instant they were aiming into the swarm of drones, picking them off at the rate of four, five per second; the next they were gone.

“Neil,” Vidal called sharply.

“Get a track on them,” Travers barked as Marin came to a slithering halt on Aragos, and the plasma torch spat a blue-white jet as long as his forearm.

Three of the four automata had gone down hard in a tangle of threshing limbs, while the fourth had been flung off the deck and was drifting away from the Wastrel. The three on the deck were easy pickings, but the forth could be dangerous, and Travers watched as it writhed in mid-flight, twisting until it could bring its weapons to bear.

“Neil!” It was Jazinsky calling now.

He did not need her or Vidal to tell him he had just been lidar painted. Neither the plasma torch nor the bolt gun had the reach to hit the Zunshu machine, and at its rate of drift, it would be five seconds, minimum, before the automaton entered the firing arc of any gun the Wastrel possessed. The ship's defenses had never been configured to repel boarders on the hull.

“Zunshulite,” Marin whispered across the comm as Travers dove into the fracas in the shadow of the dish arrays, where the wounded automata were halfway back to their feet.

The snake-tongue of blue-white plasma licked out, haloing one machine from pelvis to breastbone with the brutal heat of a cutting torch. He wondered if this had ever been done before – Mark Sherratt would know – but if an assault rifle could punch through the abdominal armor, reach the core processor and destroy it, a plasma torch should do the same.

It was a gamble Travers was willing to take, but his teeth were clenched as the Zunshulite shielding his own belly and chest was pounded by a weight of gunfire that would certainly have fragmented standard Marines armor.

The jet from the plasma torch was slower than hitting the automata with a dozen rounds from an AR-19, but the final result was more satisfying. For two seconds, three, the Zunshu mechanism defied the heat and then it seemed something in the abdominal cavity melted down, ruptured in a gush of molten metal. The machine spasmed, limbs flailing before it went limp. Travers dove on to the next, all the while weathering a barrage on the armor.

He was on the second Zunshu before it could get away from him, but the third had slithered loose. “I'm going to lose it,” he warned between gritted teeth as he slammed the muzzle of the torch into the belly and hit the trigger.

“I've got it.” Curtis had launched himself.

He vaulted over Travers as the Zunshu thing thrashed, trying to dislodge him and angle its weapons. Travers keyed his Aragos high, pinning the machine down, holding it against the deck while the torch heated his own armor to such levels, the suit's rudimentary AI issued a piercing warning.

He ignored the alarm and watched as Marin shot low overhead. A projectile from the bolt gun slammed the Zunshu back against the housing of the dish's drive motor and pinned it there securely. It was still writhing, trying to force its way free, when Travers picked himself up and walked into the path the cannon mounted in its left arm.

He was aware of Marin standing between him and the drifting Zunshu, taking the hammering from its cannon on his own Zunshulite breastplate, but Travers was intent on the pinned automaton. His armor was so hot, peripheral systems had dropped offline and the cooling system was overloading. He seemed to be locked in an oven and sweat streamed from him as he walked into the Zunshu gunfire, but in the cold of space the suit was shedding heat rapidly. As the temperature fell, the cooling system began to function properly and chill fresh air wicked sweat and heat away from his face.

The drifter was sixty meters away now and its weapons had fallen dormant as it exhausted its ammunition. Vidal's voice cut across the loop. “I've target-locked the bastard. Duck!”

The same chain guns that protected Hangar 4 opened up with a sun-bright torrent of 50mm, armor-piercing, incendiary and tracer. The Zunshu machine wrenched itself apart in a welter of shrapnel and gasses. The remains of its body were flung away by the impacts, and Travers began to breathe again.

The automaton was distant enough that his instruments registered nothing when its self-destruct triggered at last, but Jazinsky called, “It's gone. Nasty implosive device … two more out there, Neil, Curtis. They can hurt us, even if they don't get inside.”

“Understatement,” Marin said glibly. “Mick, you still tracking them?”

And Vidal: “About two hundred meters aft of your position, heading for the service locks ahead of the engine deck. Jesus, if they get in there –”

“They won't.” Richard Vaurien hesitated a moment. “Tully, take us to Weimann ignition minus one second, and hold. Neil, Curtis, what do you need?”

They were already moving and Travers said, breathing hard as the sweat began to cool on his skin, “Can't think of a damn' thing. Don't delay for us, Richard. If you see the wire coming up, you bloody do it!”

Had a Weimann jump ever been performed, with crew exposed on the hull? The radiation storm would have fried Marines armor, and Travers was far from convinced a thin skin of Zunshulite would protect them. He looked sidelong at Marin, seeing only the shape of the suit, featureless, black, not quite sleek, not quite cumbersome.

“This,” he muttered, sotto voce, “is going to be the stupidest bloody way to buy the ranch anybody ever thought of.”

If Marin heard him, he made no response. They were moving fast on the blind side of the crane gantry, and Vidal's voice murmured in Travers's ears, giving him the position of the Zunshu while in the loop's busy background he heard the tumult from Oberon.

At last, Ramesh's people had grasped the gravity of the situation. Perhaps the appearance of a squad of Marines was enough to jerk them out of civilian complacency, or the clamor of their own AI, which was endlessly repeating the warning of intruders on the platform and an imminent hull breach.

Bravo Company had placed itself between the science crew and the service bays where the Zunshu shells had locked on, and Etienne reported heat blooms where the automata were cutting through. Blastdoors were slamming, sealing, across the breadth of Oberon, and the voices of Fargo, Inosanto and Kravitz shouted over the infuriating calm of the AI. A moment later Travers heard Fargo bawl,

“They're inside! Twelve units. We're decompressing … the AI's got it covered. Inosanto, move your ass!”

There was a maddening desire, a terrible need to be there on Oberon with Bravo, as if he must call the shots, and Travers knew it was no more than a knee-jerk. Bravo had done this twice before; they were more qualified than any force in the Deep Sky to challenge a company of automata, and as he caught a glimpse of movement among the girders and rails he forcibly dragged his mind back to the hull of the Wastrel.

“Got the buggers in sight, Mick.” He took a breath, licked his lips. “Retask the drones – if the swarm decoy worked before, it'll work again.”

“You got it,” Vidal assured him. “We've deployed a gang of hangar drones on the inside of the service locks. If the Zunshu do get through, they're going to walk right into a bunch of cutting torches. What worries me is –”

“The self-destruct,” Marin finished. “This is the way the Resalq used to go down. You fight the bastards to a standstill, and if they can't get to your generators …” He rasped a Resalq curse and took a half step ahead of Travers. “Standby, Neil.”

“Do it.” Travers was already configuring the torch as his eyes raced over his suit's systems data. Several peripherals were still intermittent but Aragos, life support and comm looked good, and when he could see the target with his own eyes, these were all he cared about.

The two automata were already inspecting the service airlock, and the engine deck itself was only thirty meters away. Vaurien's tone was level, dark. “Close your blastdoors, Tully. Give me a Weimann status report.”

Ingersol's own voice was sharp and Travers remembered, Tully had never been this close to a combat situation. His entire five year Fleet hitch was spent working with the engines of the tender Livingstone, and he had already contracted with Richard before his formal notification of civilian status arrived. As a tender, the Livingstone had never seen so much as a skirmish, and the Wastrel had always been one of the safest ships in the Deep Sky. For the first time Tully Ingersol was under the gun, and it was clear he did not relish it. “Blastdoors are sealed, Rick. Weimanns are at 97%, all three reactors are available, and we're holding at ignition minus one second. Jesus bloody Christ, Neil and Curtis are out there!”

“I know, Tully.” Vaurien's voice was familiar, intimate, and a light year distant in Travers's ears. “Neil?”

“Standby,” Travers told him.

Marin was only waiting for the drone swarm, and as they descended like so many hornets around the Zunshu, he moved with a speed and agility that surprised even Travers. His apparent mass was low, and he dove across the distance separating the crane from the service lock. He was upside down, corkscrewing in mid-flight as he emptied the bolt gun into both of the automata, less than a second apart.

He was tight on target, crippling both of them with shots into the abdominal cavities, and now Travers held his breath. The core processors were housed there, and it was possible he might have knocked them offline with the impact, as surely as he could have done it with a high energy pulse from an assault rifle. But Travers was not about to take the risk. He launched himself after Marin while the automata were still pitching backwards with the force of the impacts.

 The torch cut into the first machine he could get his hands on, and by now he knew how long it took to melt down the innards. He was counting seconds, waiting for the gush of molten matter, while he watched the second Zunshu machine come clumsily to its knees and turn a twisted, distorted face toward him.

The temperature inside his armor had soared and comm was starting to break up. He heard Marin's voice but did not have the time to register more than the razor sharpness of his tone. The super-hot goo had begun to ooze sluggishly from the Zunshu when Marin's gauntleted hands caught his shoulders, and he felt the wrench as Curtis spun him around and threw them both with all the energy industrial armor could conjure.

 Before he could snatch a breath, Travers found himself pitching laterally across the deck at shoulder height. He was half aware that Marin still had a grip on him, and was struggling to right himself when the explosion grabbed them both and flung them, much harder than Marin's throw.

He knew at once, the last automaton could only have triggered its self-destruct, but the blast that caught them and sent them tumbling between the cargo gantries and the spines of the lateral sensor arrays was no implosion. The breath was knocked out his lungs and every instrument he possessed went dark for several moments. The only sound in the universe was the rasp of his own breathing.

When sensors, audio and comm came back up, intermittent and indistinct, he heard Jazinsky's voice, sharp with dread. “Neil! Curtis!” And then, “Still nothing, Richard. I'm going to try rebooting their systems on remote. Mick, give me a hand here – task the sled, make it fast.”

Travers was about to tell her to wait, let him run a swift diagnostic of his own systems, but before he could speak his instruments went dark again. He felt Marin's gauntlets tighten about him as they tumbled blindly, powerless to do anything more than wait.

The reboot took five interminable seconds but when systems came back up, they looked good. Travers sucked a breath to the bottom of his lungs, cleared his throat and took stock of the situation. He and Marin were still locked together by the clench of Marin's gloves, which had clamped into place on Travers's armor before the reboot.

But they were already several hundred meters off the hull and as they tumbled he caught sight of the ship – the extent of the damage. Marin had seen the same, and whistled softly. “Wastrel Ops, looks like you're blind up top. The sensor arrays are just … gone.”

“Tell me about it,” Jazinsky muttered. In the loop behind her voice an all-stations alert was clamoring, and Ingersol's tech crews were shouting.

“What the hell happened?” Travers demanded. “That was an explosion, not an implosion!”

“Tell me about that too.” She skipped a beat and plowed on. “Best I can guess is, the bloody machine tried to self-destruct, but the implosive device malfunctioned. It was probably unstable enough to go divergent. Ask Mark Sherratt – this might have happened before.”

“And we were just plain lucky,” Vidal said tartly. “Something about guardian angels, was it? It would have blown a big hole in us – big enough to take the engine deck in one bite.”

“I'm looking at your data, Neil,” Jazinsky mused. “You're in one piece and we know where you are. Hang tight – we're sending an Arago sled after you.”

The sensor arrays were only part of the damage. One of the crane gantries was twisted and a zug had been torn off its track, pitched into one of the four bunkers housing reactor service drones. For the moment there was no way to get to the access hatches under which the Weimann drive modules were installed, and Ingersol was swearing bitterly as he ran diagnostics.

“We're a drydock job, Rick,” he was saying.

“Engines?” Vaurien wanted to know. “Will she get us back to Alshie'nya?”

“She's hurting,” Ingersol warned tersely. “Don't ask me for a Weimann insertion before I take a long, hard look.”

Jazinsky was already reviewing the data. “If it was me, Richard, I'd be sending for the Wings, take her back to Alshie'nya under tractors.”

“That bad?” Vaurien's voice was dry as old bones.

“Bad enough,” Ingersol said flatly. “One mistake, and we're history.”

As he spoke, a hatch popped in the big ship's flank and Travers watched a light Arago sled come slithering out. It rotated inside its own length and kicked off from the Wastrel, jetting fast to catch up with them.

They were plummeting toward Oberon with all the force of the impact that had thrown them off the Wastrel, and as they tumbled again Travers was surprised to see how quickly they were falling toward the platform. Bravo's comm traffic was a constant growl, and as the hazard to the Wastrel diminished his focus shifted.

According to his chrono, just seventy seconds had passed since Fargo shouted the warning that the automata had broken in, and the Oberon AI was aligning Arago fields to minimize an explosive decompression. Time was passing in a curious slow-motion for Travers. He hesitated to intrude on the Bravo comm traffic – they were in control of the situation, but he heard a sharp edge in Fargo's normally level voice.

“Bravo, this is Travers, we're coming to you,” he said into a lull in the commotion. “Bravo, respond.”

“It's good to hear your voice, Colonel.” Fargo was preoccupied. “The civvies are on the run – Ramesh has them hustling back to the Tycho, over on the big dock, but –” She paused, rasped a bitten-off expletive. “Damnit, Colonel, we can get the civvies out or we can maybe, maybe take down some of the Zunshu. You call it. Damned if I can see how to do both, not in here. It's like a – a rabbit burrow. Like trying to fight in a maze. There's ten ways to go anywhere, even without cutting right through the bulkheads, and you know the Zunshu are only trying to get the freakin' generators!”

“Even if Bravo could corner them,” Marin said pointedly, “their chances of taking the whole squad in the same instant to stop a self-destruct are slim to none. Not in a maze. We got lucky at Fridjof Prime, taking them on in an open space with plenty of topcover.”

“Settle for the civilians,” Travers said without hesitation. “Soon as they're on the Tycho, get the Capricorn the hell away from there.”

“Copy that,” Fargo said with obvious gratitude.

The sled had caught them up, and as it jetted in beside Marin he caught one of the fenders and hauled it under himself and Travers. They were close to halfway between Oberon and the Wastrel, and Marin's hand hovered over the attitude controls. “You want to turn back, or head for the platform?” He tapped the small dashboard with one armoured fingertip. “The power's getting low. These contraptions don't usually have to go so far, or so fast. As far as the sled goes, Oberon's going to be a one-way ticket, so we'll be bugging out with Bravo.”

The question was a good one, and Travers chewed on it for several moments, still listening to the Bravo comm, making sense of their situation. They had put down three automata but nine were still at large, and the invective was thick in the air, furious with their frustration. Travers gave Marin's hardsuit a thoughtful look, weighing the value of testing the Zunshulite armor in the field.

“Wastrel Ops,” Marin was saying, “do you have a schematic of Oberon?”

“We do.” Vidal's voice seemed so close, he might have been standing right behind them. “Is this what you want?”

The threedee plan of the platform unfolded in the helmet displays, rotating slowly, and Travers breathed an oath. “All yours, Dendra Shemiji,” he said wryly.

“Oh, thanks a bunch.” But Marin was intent on the display and asked, “Mick, have you plotted where the Zunshu machines are? Suit sensors aren't getting through Oberon's meteor screens.”

“Better, we have the security feed direct from the AI. Like … so.” Vidal overlaid the sensor information. “Good enough?”

“Good enough,” Marin said acerbically, with one glance, “for me to tell you the risks are way too high to even try to save hardware. Recall Bravo the moment the civvies button up the Tycho.”

“And lose Oberon,” Jazinsky breathed. “Damn.”

“Or … part of it,” Marin mused. “Mick, are you seeing what I'm seeing? Do you have a shot?”

Travers had already glimpsed what he meant. The automata had cut their way in through the hangars adjacent to the service bays. They were over a kilometer from the generators, and the platform was armoured to take the worst Hellgate could throw at it. The AI had already secured it, blastdoors had sealed to stop the decompression. Even with Bravo extracted, the Zunshu had a major cutting job ahead of them, and it would take time.  “We can lose part of Oberon and save most of it,” he mused.

“Well, now.” Vidal made a sound that might have been a humorless chuckle. “Blow away the hangar bays, the machine shops … take the Zunshu with them, let the AI seal the rest, get a tech gang in and rebuild her. That's not bad – if I had a shot. But I don't, Curtis, and the Wastrel's halfway dead in the water here. We're not moving till Tully gets through checking every rivet.”

“Understood.” Travers was a move ahead. “Harlequin, where are you?” He had been lamenting the puny nature of suit sensors since lock 9 closed behind them. “Hubler, you still there?”

And Asako Rodman's voice came crackling across the comm from a considerable distance: “Still here, Travers – keeping well clear of the Wastrel.”

“It's all over, the Zunshu were neutralized,” Marin said tersely. “Mick, squirt the data to that old buddy of yours, see what he can do with it.”

“Yo, Roark,” Vidal called. “Swing around to the ass-end of Oberon. You've got about a half minute to make a shot, if you can.”

The science ship Tycho was comparatively small, compact, with the telltale lines of a Kotaro-Fuente design. The drive engines had shut down when she docked, and Travers gritted his teeth at the slowness with which they were coming back online. The ship was docked on at one of Oberon's four belly ports, five hundred meters from the Zunshu lock-on point, and the only good news he could see was that, according to the AI's security feed, the whole civilian company was back aboard. The hatches were arming as he said,

“That's it, Bravo – skedaddle. They're on their own now. That was damn' good work.”

The Capricorn's engines had not shut down. Perlman had left them idling, and the sterntubes were still bright. As Bravo fell back to the plane Travers was watching the nine red blips marking the position of the remaining Zunshu machines. They were scything through bulkheads, as Fargo had said, cutting a direct line toward Oberon's generators.

“You want me to do what?” Roark Hubler demanded. “Say again, Wastrel.”

“You are authorized to blow the aft hangar section right out of Oberon,” Vidal repeated. “You can take the Zunshu with it, one hit, nice, surgical. The platform'll fix.”

“On Rick Vaurien's authority?” Hubler queried. “Cannons are loaded … firing solution is plotted … coming around into line. Anything goes wrong, who's Shapiro going to chew chunks out of?”

“My authority,” Vaurien told him. “Shapiro would issue the same order if he were here. Do it, Hubler.”

“Consider it done,” Hubler snorted. “Mick, if you've got a command line into the Oberon AI, have it standby with attitude thrusters. This is going to give it one mother of a kick.”

The Capricorn broke free of her docking ring at that moment, and Gillian Perlman took her away from Oberon on a fast, steep arc. She had obviously been listening to the loop. “Harlequin, we're clear,” she called as the ship looped up over the back of the Wastrel. “Take your shot, Roark, any time you like.”

“Soon as the civvy bucket gets the hell out,” Rodman muttered. “Shit, they're slow.” She paused, and then, “Tycho, do you need assistance? Tycho, what's your problem.”

Travers had been watching the Tycho for some time, and he had begun to worry that either the pilots were rank amateurs or they had drive ignition problems. As Rodman hailed them the sterntubes lit up at last, a dully, cherry red, and he recognized Danny Ramesh's voice.

“Give us a chance, for godsakes. Where do you want us?”

From the Wastrel's Ops room, Richard Vaurien told him, “Put her in our blind side. Use our armor.”

“You're damaged,” Ramesh observed as his sterntubes swiftly brightened to blue-white.

“We're still the biggest hunk of armor in the quadrant,” Jazinsky snarled. “Move it, Danny. You're running out of time.”

The Tycho broke free sluggishly and climbed away slowly enough for Roark Hubler to be cursing. Travers looked back at the security data from the Oberon AI and warned, “You've got ten seconds, Roark, and then we lose the lot.”

“Talk to the friggin' civvies about that!” Hubler paused long enough to stroke the triggers, and a white-gold flower seemed to blossom against the dark, stormy face of Hellgate.

Comm exploded into a chaos of static and noise for several seconds, and when he heard a trace of the loop again Travers's ears were ringing with the high-pitched blare. Clinging to the flimsy framework of the Arago sled, he and Marin watched the eruption escalate while alarms began to clamor across Oberon. The whole platform had blown down to near-zero pressure and the AI was routing power and data around zones that had swiftly gone cold and dead. Hubler's shot had been surgical, just eight missiles which lifted the hangars and service shops clean out of Oberon, and the Zunshu machines with them.

“Harlequin, track the debris,” Vaurien shouted into the audio confusion. “Make bloody-damned sure those machines don't get back to their pods!”

“We're on it,” Hubler reported, “but it's a mess out here. Give me a minute, Vaurien – I'll get back to you.”

The explosion was fading when Vidal's voice cut like a knife across the loop. “Wreckage coming your way, Neil. Hang on.”

“Jazinsky said she wanted to test the Zunshulite,” Marin growled as he closed one fist on the sled and the other on Travers.

“Not like this,” Jazinsky said shortly. “Curtis, you've got one huge lump of debris coming at you – it's going to be close. Dodge around it, if you can.”

“I'm seeing it.” Marin turned slightly to get at the sled's small dashboard, and shifted his grip on Travers's shoulder. “Perlman, you there?”

The Capricorn was hanging above the Wastrel, loitering there while Bravo Company watched the data and fretted. Every Arago screen the Wastrel possessed was at maximum and overlapped on the starboard side. The wreckage from Oberon plowed into them with white-hot ricochets and large chunks fragmenting into showers of scorching shrapnel.

“We're safe,” Perlman told him. “We're in under the shields. We can't get to you, Curt, not till the blast's gone through.”

All this, Travers already knew. His left glove was locked to the sled and his right was clenched around Marin's left arm as Curtis fed what power they had left to the sled's feeble jets. It was just a maintenance sled, convenient transport to take a tech out onto the hull to work with a gang of drones. It would have hauled them back to the Wastrel a minute before its power cells flattened, but there was no time now. Marin was asking a lot of the sled while Travers tracked the incoming boulder of Oberon debris. The sweat of healthy dread prickled along his ribs.

 “Ten seconds,” Marin whispered. “Hold on.”

The flimsy little jets battered, struggling to turn the sled on an angle to the direction of its plummet away from the Wastrel. Travers's breath snagged in his throat as he watched the instruments redline, watched the planetoid-sized chunk of  hull plate  and girder come tumbling at them with the speed of an artillery shell. His grip tightened on Marin, and as the chrono counted through two he held his breath.

The boulder of wreckage was large enough to blot out the stars, and he would have sworn he felt it – the glancing clip of a steel spar on the shoulder of his armor, picking him up, wrenching him away from the sled and tossing him away like a toy. His helmet display flared red with howling proximity warnings and he ducked involuntarily as he and Marin, still locked together, lost contact with the sled and hurtled away from the Wastrel. It was like being pummeled in a brawl, and Travers's senses dimmed. He heard audio as if from a vast distance –

“Neil! Neil!” Vidal's voice was sharp. “Travers, I'm tracking what looks like the pair of you locked into one sensor mark, but your beacons have failed. Can you transmit? Neil!”

He cleared his throat, blinked his vision clear and forced himself to focus on the instruments. The loudest sound was the rasp of his own breathing, and the stream of cool air wafting across his face told him life support was still functional. But the helmet display told a tale of woe, and Travers muttered a curse as he lifted his head.

Still tethered by the clamped fingers of Travers's right gauntlet, Marin was at arm's length. And he was not moving. “Curtis?” Travers heard the hoarseness of his own voice. “Curtis, do you hear me?”

Nothing. Marin was still not moving, and Travers clamped down tight on a tide of dread. “Mick, can you hear me? Wastrel Ops, do you read?”

He could still see the Wastrel, still hear their comm, but as he called over and over, he realized he had stopped transmitting. Vidal's voice had dropped several notes now; he was the consummate professional as he spoke into the loop, which was rapidly settling down. Travers had nothing to do but listen, and he focused on Vidal like a lifeline.

“You're probably hearing me, Neil,” he was saying. “I'm starting to lose you in the background interference off the Drift, but the Harlequin has a track on you. They're coming to get you. Run your diagnostics – how's the armor?”

“Already done that, Mick,” Travers muttered as he gave a solid tug on Marin's arm to spin him around. The hardsuit was pocked and scarred across the back and left shoulder. It had been peppered with fragments of debris shot out of Oberon, pebble-sized projectiles that had hurtled at them along with the massive hunk of plate and girder. The boulder had only struck Travers a glancing blow, just enough to tear him loose from the sled and send him spiraling down and away from the Wastrel, on a trajectory that would eventually feed them into the gravity well of Naiobe. Of this, Travers was not immediately concerned – the Harlequin was no more than minutes away, at most.

But Marin's suit was dark. The panel on the left shoulder, on the side of the breastplate, where techs could plug in and service a hardsuit while it was working, showed no enunciator lights. His power was out, Travers thought feverishly – little wonder he was not moving. Without power, normal human muscles could not move the mass of these suits. Moving in Marines armor that had lost all power was close to impossible, and the Zunshulite would have defied some hybrid between a Pakrani and a mountain gorilla.

“Harlequin,” he called, hoping he was transmitting some fraction, and both distance and the background noise off the Drift were blanketing him too thickly for him to reach the tug. “Harlequin, can you hear me? Roark, goddamn it!”

Again nothing, and this time he had not expected a response. Instead, he lifted the visor and used his own living eyeballs to scan the heavens, looking for the ship. He saw the Wastrel, receding into the darkness with the firefly lights of the Capricorn's sternflares scudding around and down to the hangar level. He saw Oberon, still a glitter of lights though the human crew had left and its service bays and hangars were gone. He caught a glimpse of the Tycho, and forced himself to listen.

“All right, Jazinsky, you want to tell me what that was all about?” Danny Ramesh was angry, but fear and reaction had eroded the sharp edges off his fury. He knew, now, how much he did not know.

“Classified,” she said simply. “You want more than that, get over to Velcastra. Take it up with the office of the President.”

“We're not going to Velcastra,” Ramesh protested.

“You are, if you want access to classified information,” Vaurien said with a tone of finality. “We've scanned you, nose to tail – you're in good shape. You took no damage. You can light up your Weimanns and get out of here at whim, and I wish you'd do it.”

For a moment Ramesh fumed in silence. “Take it up with the office of the President of Velcastra – a rebel colony that just declared war on the Terran Confederation? You're not shitting me?”

“Straight up,” Jazinsky swore. “Look, get lost, Danny. We've got a lot of trouble here – we took some heavy damage.”

“So I see. I've been told you Freespacers make enemies among your own ranks. You have your little wars, and if anybody gets between you, intruders from the legit side of the frontier get chewed to a pulp and spat out.”

“Is this what you've heard?” Jazinsky's temper was frayed to rags. “And you think you were just jumped by rogue Freespacers, what, trying to loot Oberon?”

“Yeah, this is what I just saw.” Ramesh was gradually recovering some small part of his composure and his natural arrogance had begun to reassert.

“Then, of course you must be right,” she said dismissively. “You always were, you little ratshit, even when you were sixteen years old and dead wrong.”

And Vaurien – loudly: “If this is what you want to think, Doctor Ramesh, be my guest. Go home to Borushek and file the complaint.”

“If I do, you'll never haul trash in the Deep Sky again,” Ramesh said nastily.

For the first time in so long, Travers had forgotten what it sounded like, Richard Vaurien laughed, and it was a genuine laugh. “Go, team, go!” And then he clicked out of the highband comm and returned to the Wastrel tech loop. “Tully, any joy?”

Just then a glimmer of light caught Travers's eyes and he turned toward it, watched it grow, brighten. He was right. It was the forward cockpit armorglass of the Harlequin catching, reflecting, magnifying the lights from Oberon as the ship braked down and yawed over onto her side to present the docking hatch.

The lock was open; dim blue cascaded from within and Travers saw a shape outlined against the backwash of illumination. A suit of industrial armor knelt there, tethered on with two cables the thickness of a man's thumb. Roark Hubler was fishing with an Arago remote, and a moment after a red laser spot began to dance on his breastplate, Travers felt the solid grasp and pull. Tractors had hold of his and Marin's combined weight, and the Harlequin came up fast as they were reeled in like trout.

He hit the deck right inside the airlock with a heavy blow through every large bone he possessed, and did not wait for Hubler. Worklights flickered on, painfully bright, and he was up at once. The side of his glove hit the green close/lock bar, to the right of the open hatch. Marin's armoured legs were in, and in the instant the outer door slammed, the lock began to pressurize.

At eighty percent, Travers's hands were on Marin's helmet seals, even before he touched his own. Hubler was on Marin's other side, keeping out of the way as Travers broke the seals, twisted the helmet ten degrees left and lifted it away from Marin's shoulders. The weight of it was astonishing under the Harlequin's normal one gravity, and he passed it to Hubler.

Marin was pale as a wax effigy, not even his eyelids stirring, and Hubler groaned over the comm. “Christ, we got a casualty. Make it quick, Asako – Wastrel, fast. Get Bill Grant and a crash team.”

The Harlequin was moving before he finished speaking – Travers felt the faint shimmy through the deck of powerful engines, and as he broke his own helmet seals he heard Rodman calling ahead. The Harlequin's air was cold, a little acid with the tang of new electronics. She had been gutted and refurbished after the Battle of Ulrand and the newness would wear off her slowly.

Still, Marin was not moving and Travers shoved his own helmet at Hubler, not caring what he did with it. The gauntlets followed, and Travers set his bare hands on Marin's face, feeling only a faint chill from his skin. “Get me a combug,” he said without looking up at Hubler. “I wasn't transmitting, but I could hear the loop.”

“You want to talk to Grant,” Hubler guessed as he came to his feet and stepped out of the lock.

In fact, Travers was searching his memory, hunting for the information he had read months before. This part of the Dendra Shemiji study was so low on the agenda, he had only skimmed it in passing as he looked ahead to see what was on the horizon. His own heart hammered painfully at his ribs, but he knew this. Or thought he did.

The armor was intact; the helmet had not taken a hit, and only the power had failed. The helmet itself contained a standard two-minute oxygen cartridge, but how long the emergency supply might have to stretch was another question. Even Marines conscripts learned biofeedback techniques, to be calm, breathe shallowly, slowly. A thousand years before, the Resalq had taken such disciplines to startling extremes.

Back of the skull, behind the ears. The mastoid process, low on the temporal bone, where the big neck muscles were anchored into the skull itself. Both middle fingers tapped there in an even, staccato rhythm.

And then he waited, dry mouthed, while Hubler reappeared with the little blue-gray shell of a combug. It slipped in, cold and hard, and he heard Bill Grant at once, calling his name.

“Hey, Neil – they told me Curtis is hurt. Tell me what you're seeing.”

“Give me a minute.” Travers heard the croak of his own voice. “The hardsuit lost power. No heat, no air … no break in the armor.”

“They're not coming home hot,” Hubler added. “Rad count's only a tad over normal, just garbage from Oberon.”

“How long?” Grant wanted to know. “How long was he cold? Any sign of cyanosis? You know what it looks like, Neil – blue around the mouth, blue tongue.”

But Marin was simply pale and cool, no sign of injury or suffocation. He was just not breathing; or if he was, each breath was so shallow and so far apart, Travers could not see any of them. “No blue,” he told Grant.

“Get me a pulse,” Grant said sharply. “They're bringing you right to lock 3, and I'm coming to you. I've got a cryogen tank prepped.”

His skin was cool as a lily petal. Travers tucked his fingertips up under the jaw, looking for the pulse in the big arteries and waiting for it, one beat, anything to tell him Marin was alive.

“Travers!” Grant shouted. “You got a pulse, or not?”

“Not yet,” Travers murmured. “Standby, Bill … just wait.”

“Neil, let it be, old son. He ain't gonna get any deader,” Hubler remonstrated. “Let Bill do his thing. You still have a minute and a half.”

Ninety seconds more before Marin was brain dead, and all the technology in any world would not bring him back. Travers's chest squeezed. He took a breath to call Rodman's name, ask how soon she would dock – and then Marin's nostrils flared; and again; his lips parted, a pulse beat faintly beneath Travers's fingers – a second time, a third, slow with extreme bradycardia. Travers sagged back onto the deck, only then feeling the tremor in his limbs, the hot sting of tears.

“Jesus,” Hubler said. “Is he alive? Bill – he's breathing. Damnit, he's actually breathing!”

“He's breathing,” Travers rasped. “Thanks, Bill. Go grab yourself a coffee.”

Marin's lids fluttered open and dark, dilated hazel eyes looked up at Travers, narrowed in the glare of the worklights. He coughed, the tip of his tongue flickered over his lips, and his voice was a bare murmur. “I guess we made it.”

“Semcaram.” Travers knew the term, though the Resalq did not roll off his tongue – yet – as it did Marin's. The language was utterly alien. It translated badly, and the nearest sensible paraphrase Mark had been able to find was ‘the death that is not death.'

“Semcaram,” Marin echoed, starting to breathe deeply now. A flush of color had returned to his face and his pupils were contracting properly. He glanced at the mesh of their gauntleted fingers and gave Travers a wry little smile. “And I'm very glad to rejoin the living … but this hardsuit doesn't have a lick of power. I'm glued to the deck here.”

The truth was, Marin could not have moved if he had wanted to. Travers let go his hand, and as they felt the slight shudder through the whole airframe of the Harlequin as the electromagnetic docking rings took hold, he beckoned Hubler. “Give me a hand here, Roark.”

The look on Hubler's face was odd. “Some Resalq bullshit?”

“Some,” Travers affirmed, deliberately vague. “Don't ask me how they do it. He's had ten years to learn this stuff.”

“It's not that hard.” Marin ouched as the seals broke and between them Travers and Hubler lifted off the pieces. Beneath it he was clad in the familiar Tai Chi pants and mesh shirt, and he was cold enough for the chill of the airlock to make him shiver visibly.

With no Arago function the Zunshulite armor was lethal, Travers thought as he set down the last segment. His own suit was still under power, so his own mass felt entirely normal; but if the power were to fail without warning he would go down like a bunch of linguini. He doubted Sergei van Donne could carry this weight – or if he could, it would not be for long. This also would be among the data Jazinsky must process, and they could expect the second generation suits to be modified accordingly.

Just as Marin sat up and began to rub his bare arms the hatch ground open, and he hissed at the rush of chill air. Bill Grant's face appeared a moment later, and he lifted one brow first at Travers, then at Marin. The Australian was thick in his voice.

“I heard something on the loop about Resalq bullshit.”

“It's called –” Marin clambered stiffly to his feet and hugged himself “—Semcaram. A way of shutting back body function to conserve oxygen. I had no power, no comm. I knew I had two minutes of O2 in the emergency capsule, and it might have to last a hell of a lot longer than that. What else was I going to do?”

“Biofeedback,” Grant said sagely. “Dario Sherratt told me a lot about this.” He aimed a handy at Marin and took a swift set of readings. “You're still a little cold, pulse is way too slow, and you'll be dizzy for a few minutes. You feel all right?”

“Freezing,” Marin corrected.

“That's because it's bloody cold in here.” Grant put away the handy and tossed him the thermal blanket from the gurney which had followed him from the Infirmary. “You want my professional advice? Get yourself a mug of Irish coffee and candy bar.”

The pieces of Travers's armor were stacking up by the lock's inner door. “Call a drone in here, Roark,” he said as he set the boots aside, “get these back to Jazinsky's lab.”

  “Will do.” Hubler was halfway out of his own suit, delaying taking off the lower segments, and Travers knew it was because the powered armor took the weight off his legs and the effort out of standing, walking. The biocyber prostheses still hurt him, it was no secret.

Neil dropped a hand on Hubler's shoulder. “Thanks, mate. Good job.”

“What, blowing the bejesus out of Oberon?” Hubler snorted. “Just so long as Harrison Shapiro nails Vaurien's ass to a wall for it, not mine!”

“Nobody's going to get nailed to anything,” Marin said in a voice that shook slightly. He took the combug from his ear, adjusted it, replaced it, and called, “Richard?”

A dry chuckle over the loop answered him. “The Tycho is on its way. They're putting some polite distance between us before they jump out of here, and the little prick is threatening me with every legal action he can think of. Good luck to him. Fleet Borushek already has every one of us, Harrison Shapiro especially, on its most-wanted list. We lose this war, and like Ramesh said, we better get out, get lost in Freespace and not look back.”

“We win,” Jazinsky added cynically, “and it's Danny Ramesh with the egg all over his nasty face. Forget him, Richard. He's always been the same – rich kid, his mama's a Middle Heavens industrialist. When conscription time came around she bought him a Fleet commission, fast-tracked through officer school and straight into administration at Fleet Sector Command. He never saw the inside of a troop carrier, never mind a warship. Hey, Neil, Curtis, why don't you come up here? Bill said something about Irish coffee … I believe I'll join you.”

And Judith Fargo, over the comm from Hangar 4 where Bravo had just put away the Capricorn and powered her down: “Make it a half dozen.”

The thermal blanket was barely adequate and Marin was still shivering as Travers stepped down out of the Harlequin and shepherded him in the direction of the lifts.

This mobile friendly version of MEL KEEGAN ONLINE created and posted by webmaster JADE.

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