Heritage of Flight

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Humanity is inextricably torn in an interplanetary war that could lead to the death of human society. Project Seedcorn is probably the last and best hope for the human race.

A small group of refugees, scraping out an existence on the edge of human-occupied territory, has been given orders to live as though everything were ordinary and there were no war. Now, everyone's lives depend on the children...

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New York 1989 Mass-market paperback First edition. New. No dust jacket as issued. (112506a) 1st edition Mass market paperback is brand new in Near Mint condition with slight age ... browing outside page edges. paperback (US). Glued binding. 338 p. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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New York 1989 Mass-market paperback First edition. New. No dust jacket as issued. (111104) 1st edition Mass market paperback is brand new in Near Mint condition with slight age ... browing outside page edges. paperback (US). Glued binding. 338 p. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Heritage of Flight

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Overview

Humanity is inextricably torn in an interplanetary war that could lead to the death of human society. Project Seedcorn is probably the last and best hope for the human race.

A small group of refugees, scraping out an existence on the edge of human-occupied territory, has been given orders to live as though everything were ordinary and there were no war. Now, everyone's lives depend on the children...

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812554137
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 4/1/1989

Read an Excerpt

Realspace shimmered, elongated, then twanged back into existence, taking Pauli Yeager with it. The boards of her ridership, too painstakingly maintained to be new, blurred, then solidified once again. Bad transit, she judged. She shook herself mentally, then glanced at the chrono. It should have begun to move as soon as they entered realspace. Reality shimmered for a fearful "instant," then refocused. There: now the damned chrono had started up.

She put out a hand to touch the display, which gleamed ice-blue. Three seconds realtime had elapsed. Very bad transit. Jump was -- or should be -- instantaneous, however long it felt as space curved and light shifted about you. She swallowed hard, and blinked away a treacherous fog that would be the death of her if it hit when she was using armscomp. Despite lifesupport, which allegedly kept her suit at a comfortable temperature, she shivered and sweated simultaneously.

That actual time had passed ... if Jump had been this bad for her fighter and its host, Leonidas, which had the best of a dying fleet's diminished store of matériel, what had it been like for the refugee ships Daedalus and Sir Jeffrey Amherst?

Before her transfer to Leonidas as a senior pilot -- and that seniority was a laugh, if anything about this damned war qualified as laughable -- she'd served aboard the Amherst. That had been temporary duty, another in the frustrating chain of TDYs that cheated Pauli of the advanced pilot training on New Patuxent she'd been wild for since the war had stepped up. New Pax gave pilots the best training, and increased their chances of surviving their first scramble. And ifExploration, the service she had wanted to enter, was no longer an option, the best training was barely good enough to keep her alive.

Wouldn't you just know that the instant Amherst was headed toward New Pax at long last, new orders would divert them to Wolf IV, one of the slagged worlds, half charnel and half rubble, to rescue and lift out as many survivors as possible for resettlement? She couldn't complain of her luck; it was better than any on Wolf IV.

Thereafter, it seemed, they were always on the run, retreating world by abandoned world, system by ravaged system in the Net of Worlds that had linked the Alliance with Manhome Earth, a Net the Secessionists had torn through, God only knew why.

This war made Alliance and Secess' maniacs even in retreat, fighting with the deadliness of scavengers forced against a cliff face to defend their last scrap of meat. This was not a war you could win, Pauli thought, remembering Wolf IV -- the half-melted ruins, the fevered, feral survivors, and the factories stripped by raiders from both sides, desperate for components and supplies now that the production lines were gone, or going.

She glanced over her boards, which weeks of prayerful labor had raised to a semblance of their old speed. Like Leonidas itself, all the riderships had the best equipment they could scrounge, cajole, or steal. Why was it so important to protect refugees? Why, as the tiny convoy fled farther out and deep into the No Man's Worlds, had security intensified until the pilots rode out Jump in their fighters? At the last planetfall, Federal Security marshals had crammed onto the ships, and the pilots had hoped that they, at least, might offer some answers. But the marshals whose presence strained cramped ships' capacities to house and feed them were saying nothing. At least, not to the pilots, though they had summoned -- by God, they had ordered as if they were cadets -- Captains Borodin and Ver from their own ships onto Leonidas for a conference. When they emerged, the captains announced that the marshals would keep order on board and serve as consultants -- that elastic, treacherous term for despots pro tem, as impossible to get rid of as to question.

After that meeting, the convoy altered course. It was hard to escape the conclusion that the marshals had ordered it. Too damned many marshals, eating supplies that the refugees needed, speaking officialese to no purpose but their own, issuing random orders, seemingly for the joy of turning line officers into flunkies.

Maliciously, Pauli hoped they enjoyed their new duties: mediating between the civs, who suspected anyone in uniform of some past or future atrocity, and their refugee charges, who feared anyone at all. Most of them were children, but they were children who had learned to claw for survival. Rescue parties had found battered adult skeletons in the rubble of Wolf IV; the medics had forbade anyone to question the evacuees.

Over in the Amherst and Daedalus, refugees slept two and three to a bunk. Even the riderbays emptied by crashes and firefights had been converted to makeshift barracks for the refugees, who crouched among emergency supplies they still did not dare touch as if they hid in caves. Leonidas would set the medics, techs, civs, and their charges down on whatever resettlement world the marshals intended, and then Pauli would transship for New Pax and the business of fighter training. Anything that would extend her life a little longer and give her the chance to strike back at the war that had ended any hope she ever had of growing up happy, or growing up at all.

Pauli activated communications, taking bleak comfort from the renewed chatter of a ship running in realspace. Comfort that they'd survived Jump. Satisfaction that they'd made it this far. Never mind happy. Happy was a word like peace: it had book definition, but no meaning. At least not for anyone she knew. The psychs had praised her flexibility; if flexibility meant that she could adapt to this, then it was another reason for satisfaction. Happy was a dream she had before she realized how long, and how final, this war looked to be. She had to adjust to it -- or die; and the same damned psychs said she wasn't a quitter.

A klaxon brayed over the ship chatter, and red light pulsed in the gloom of her cockpit. Pauli checked her boards again and cursed. So much for careful maintenance! Her ship's alarm buzzer had failed. With luck, the weapons systems wouldn't fail too. She tightened her webs and braced for the launch that hurled her ship out into space. Gravity pressed, then slacked off as she banked into formation with the rest of the riderships. The port darkened to protect her from the actinic glare of the white dwarf that circled a much larger, cooler star. Scanners showed planets in this system, planets and a dense asteroid belt. The system was too crowded to be wholly safe.

Well, what would it be this time? Secessionist ships, or some Fed Sec marshal gone even more paranoid than usual? Ambush was impossible in Jump, but betrayal -- that was feasible. Pauli activated internal security scan. After all, Secess' and Alliance had been one government once before the damned theories -- expansion versus consolidation under human rule -- blew apart the government, then started firestorms on the worlds themselves.

With the Net gone, patrolled by Secess', Earth was a dream of order and prosperity. Ironic, Pauli thought, that Manhome herself now had about as much meaning as the word happy.

Was it just the Secess', came a treacherous whisper, or had Terra chosen isolation, suspicious of friends who might, suddenly, transmogrify into enemies doubly vicious for the knowledge alliance and kinship had given them? She shivered. If she believed that --let the Secess' show up soon, she prayed, so I can forget.

She turned eyes back to her boards. The moments between system entry and attack were always tricky. You could betray a ship, especially as systems lost backups, and even some primaries were scrapped. A hidden transmitter, and there you were, vulnerable after Jump. Then the Secess' could emerge and strip down your ship, leaving you -- if you were lucky and they were feeling kind -- to limp back to whatever base might help you refit. There were fewer and fewer such bases on either side these days, Pauli thought.

She interfaced sensors with the other ships. They pressed forward, scanning, always scanning, so slowly that she felt no acceleration; on the newer riderships, you could feel G-forces build up only as you neared Jump speed. The navigation grids glowed with the patterns of ships on three axes. To her left and "up," one veered out of formation. A quick warning, and the light that represented it blinked back into its proper position: the shift of that light and the chrono's ordered clicks were the only movements Pauli perceived.

Her breath rasped in the tiny cockpit, threatening to cloud the visor of her helmet until she adjusted temperature controls downward. Recon felt motionless; it wore on the nerves until you wanted to blast something if only to see the light slash out to break the monotony and the tension.

Come on, if you're out there! Fire already! No pilot who actually wanted to get out and zero Secess' with virtuoso laserwork outlived his third battle ... sometimes not even his first. But this damnable prowling, waiting for a strike that might come in a second, an hour, or never, made you want to scream or strike first, blindly, in an attempt to find some clear, safe way. She sweated with the need to see something, anything. It built up, as it always did, to a point where she didn't think she could bear it -- and then the moment passed, as it always did; and the ships pressed forward, scanning for enemies.

Secess' out here didn't necessarily mean treachery. Attack could even be coincidence, as ships from both sides sought the No Man's Worlds, seeking to survive in these remote spacelanes by turning scavenger, even pirate. So far, she thought with a sort of chill pride, such scavengers only preyed on one another.

Quickly Pauli ran the armscomp test program again, as she had before Jump and would again, if they didn't suddenly engage the Secess' and she had to use her lasers for real. Testing was never superfluous. You never knew when your equipment might fail. How long would it be until Alliance ships turned on their own, as well as the Secess', to steal the dwindling supplies of components, concentrates, all the never-to-be replaced stores for which production lines had all but ceased?

Two of the riderships passed by a massive asteroid with a dense metallic core, a deliberate feint to draw out -- there! as if they blinked into existence, there glistened the formation standard to Secess' pilots, a pentacle arrayed along the three axes of space battle. Then another, and another. And where was the base ship that had released them?

Predictable, Pauli thought for the thousandth time. But what was never predictable was the speed with which that formation seemed to materialize, the precision with which the Secess' flew, their cold ferocity, and the deadly teamwork that made each ship of the five react like a finger on the same fatally capable hand. Almost inhuman, it was: never wearing down or fearing, like the pilots she knew. Like herself. Pilots who tired, whose eyes bleared, whose hands shook, and whose breath came hoarse and husky in the fetid cocoons of lifesupport.

Once, just once, before the captain had entered, wardroom rumor whispered of proscribed biotech, of spies vanished, doubtless suicides or painfully dead on Secess' worlds in vain attempts to discover whether the babble about clones and augmentation contained even an atom of truth.

She chilled: even a moment's reflection might prove fatal against Secess' pilots. Whatever else they were, they were geniuses at seizing the opportunity, yes, and one's life with it.

And here they came.

Beyond the five-pointed stars emerged the hull of the Secess' base ship, not burnished like its riders, but scratched and pitted by micrometeorites into a kind of dullness. At the orders of Leonidas's captain, the riders broke formation, changed attitudes, and engaged the Secess' pilots. Shrewd targeting set violet-tinged spurts of light ravening into hardened metal and fragile systems. Damn! That one had hit a power source. Scratch one ship. Pauli had known the pilot, who had been no fool, just a little old, a little slow. Too slow for the Secess' pilots. They were damned fast, like a schizophrenic divided into five separate, murderous intelligences.

The survivors re-formed and accelerated. A whine underlay the white noise in Pauli's cockpit, and the apparent motion of her companion ships increased. She fired quickly, felt the ship jolt to compensate -- and that was the first indication that her ship moved at all. Then Leonidas shot forward toward the Secess' so rapidly that she saw it both on grid and in actuality.

Pauli pressed in, one hand thumbing frantically for communications. All around her crackled the chatter of ship-to-ship communications: all chatter from the Alliance side. Never mind jamming: the Secess' were silent, all save the one cool voice per pentacle that had announced the opening of hellmouth for too many of Pauli's friends.

"They're on my tail ... cover me-eee!"

Before a wingman could turn to aid him, needles of violet slashed into the ship and it broke apart, fragments spinning, globing around a central core of fire and instantly freezing vapor. That pilot had been unlucky. Usually the Secess' struck so efficiently that their quarry hadn't even time to see it coming, let alone scream. So, they could be rattled. That, at least, was something. One listed, attitude wobbling; and she fired, taking a ruthless delight in the way that ship veered off, losing control.

"Daedalus, Amherst ..." that was the voice of the Leonidas's captain. "Get out of here. Prepare for Jump."

"Captain, that last jump ... Engineering reports chip fissures on NavComp. The main boards, not the backups. We can't risk Jump if they melt."

"Daedalus, retreat and test then! Amherst, prepare for independent Jump. Do you copy?"

"Negative, Leonidas, negative," came Captain Borodin's voice in an unusual display of control. Then, more predictably, he roared, "Not goddamned likely, Leonidas. We're backing you up!"

Not with all those refugees and civs on board, they couldn't. "This is -- "

"Never mind who you are, Captain! My commission antedates yours, and I said I'm backing you up!"

" -- this is Federal Security Marshal Arnaut, Captain. On my authority, you will retreat and prepare for Jump. Or you will consider yourself removed from command."

In a battle? Pauli could imagine Borodin's snort at the deskflier who would try an empty threat like that. With that snort would come a return to humor, sanity, and craft. Likely, Borodin would bide his moment, then attack. Sure enough, Amherst began a tentative retreat. Pauli signalled her own squadron and accelerated toward Leonidas as she headed toward a deadly interception with the Secess'.

"Shields on. Daedalus, you too; Amherst, faster now, get back!" Command crackled over the circuits, faltered, then grew loud again as overused commgear achieved a fragile resolution.

"What kind of people are we if we abandon our own?" came Borodin's voice. Pauli felt an incongruous stab of pride. Despite her promotion -- for such it was -- to the Leonidas, Borodin was still the captain under whom she'd first survived fire.

"Smart ones. You have the kids to protect, remember? You really going to let them see battle again, just when they thought they were safe?"

Pauli grimaced. That marshal was crafty, maybe as smart as Borodin, She wondered if the one on Amherst was that clever, too.

She got the nearest Secess' in the armscomp sights, heard the satisfactory beep! of aligned axes, then opened fire. Clean hit! The other three ships in the format flew wide, then re-formed more raggedly as they, and she, rode out the inevitable buffeting.

She could imagine the chaos on the barracksdecks, and her old friends trying to work with hostile civs to calm them down: Ro, who wore a uniform only because war broke out and she had no choice; Rafe, half a civ himself ... best not think of Rafe or that last fight when she had finally abandoned their dream of becoming a first-in team, or transferring from the Amherst to the more sophisticated Leonidas. The kids screaming and crying, wetting themselves, some of them, maybe; the civs struggling to hold to some sort of order as the lights flickered to conserve power, sending it to armscomp and the shields, and the comfort of yellow light faded to uterine crimson, then to twilight.

Her boards showed the haze of screens encircling Leonidas and the Secess'. Just one glancing hit, just one, and metal vapor would cloud those shields, make them visible to the naked eye. The screens hazed as Leonidas's lasers slashed out. The running lights dimmed on the big ship. Inside, even the thrum of its lifesupport would pause for the space of a gasp, then resume as power flowed away from armaments and throughout the ship, then gathered for the next surge.

She herself targeted and fired -- not mechanically, but with the maniacal precision of a chessmaster forced to choose a move in microseconds. The ship yawed, then resumed attitude. She scanned damage control: assuming nothing else failed, the hit wasn't major. She could press the attack, and she did. Acceleration touched her, pressed webs against her, and apparent motion increased. She fought.

Once again Leonidas's lasers seemed to coil and spring; the Secess' ship returned fire. A pallid haze enveloped both ships, glinting as the white dwarf's savage light struck clouds of frozen vapor into ferocious rainbows. The light intensified about the ships, then widened as power was diverted from other systems into protection.

"Keep back!" Pauli whispered. Signalling to the three ships nearest her, she headed toward Leonidas, careful to use all available cover to dodge the Secess' one-man craft. On unattainable Earth, she had heard, there were beasts who fought each season over mates. Their weapons were immense racks of horns which they would lower and aim at one another. But once those horns ... those antlers ... locked, the beasts were too stubborn, or too stupid, to be willing or able to disengage. Some, she heard, died that way, to be found, seasons later, as racks of bleached bones, their fatal antlers still, inexorably locked.

Once, and once only, she had seen firelock: two ships of roughly equal strength committed, shields and weapons, to destroying one another, as weapons and defense reached a balance in which the captain who diverted power to weapons was instantly consumed as his shields weakened, or the captain who reinforced shields was driven back and driven back until, inevitably, he had to weaken them.

Firelock ended one of two ways: swift, vicious intervention by ridercraft or another ship; or mutual annihilation as systems failed, or overloaded. A brilliant pilot might elude it; but Leonidas's master was no such thing. In the past three years, they had started promoting senior engineers rather than strategists in order to safeguard those ships still in good repair. He might not be pilot enough to avoid firelock, but Pauli was about to stake her life on his being a good enough engineer to hold out until the riderships managed to break it.

They regrouped outside firing range of the two huge ships, now enveloped in light, punishing even as the viewscreens polarized. Half the riders reconfigured as guards against the Secess' single fighters, while the others prepared for the first of a series of quick onslaughts against the base ship: in fast, fire hard and full power -- then out again before the ship's heavy armaments could skewer and melt them at a beam. This would either weaken the Secess' ship long enough for Leonidas to strike hard, killing or crippling its enemy, or enable Leonidas to pull back and retreat.

Ship-to-ship transmission crackled and whined in and out of phase, weakened by passage through the screens. As the riderships poised for their first strike, words emerged from the static created by screens and Secess' jammers ... "will begin pumping ..."

"What?" That cry came from a pilot several hundred kilometers out ... the emissions of her ship shone more clearly on her status boards than the actual ship itself to the naked eye. Pauli knew that one too: before the war had pulled her from her labs, she had had an interest in physics.

"... all Jump-capable ships retreat, prepare for Jump on the mark ... others link with Amherst and Daedalus... prepare for upconversion."

She remembered now just why the man had received his captaincy. It wasn't just that he was an engineer; it was that he was a weapons specialist. And when he got started talking, he was a spellbinder. One off-watch, he had entertained an entire wardroom with his plans for converting the ship's weapons to gamma-ray lasers. The problem wasn't breaking the atomic nuclei to produce gamma rays -- more than one planet knew that to its lasting and highly radioactive sorrow. The problem with gamma-ray lasers lay in pumping the material, then raising it to a uniform energy level from which the actual laser would be fired -- all without melting the systems ... even the adamantine components of plated diamond that served shipwide as microprocessors and were all but indestructible ... or letting the laser beam degrade. Thus far, the captain's engineers had managed to store energy from the ship's power plant in what the techs called an isomeric state. The problem was altering its energy level. Where would he find an outside ...

An outside source? He had an outside source: the firelock.

"Lee, don't!" Borodin's voice crackled through the fragmented communication, then squealed out. "Daedalus, what's your status ..."

"Jump plotted ..."

"You don't know this is going to work," Borodin argued.

"We don't know it won't," came Captain Lee's voice. "In any case, I have been ordered to use any and all means to safeguard your passengers."

Arnaut and those other damned marshals! That was a whole ship out there they were talking about hurling into the equivalent of a very small nova. Not only was the ship not expendable, it had a hell of a lot of fine people on it, friends and comrades of Pauli and the other pilots.

Quickly the pilots conferred on ridership frequencies as, all around them, the Secess' fighters struck, attempting to break their formations, weakening their chance of ending the firelock. Disobey orders? Retreat? Turn and fight all comers? Counterpointing their hasty quarrel over the best alternative was the captains' argument: Leonidas, stubborn, sure of its strength; Daedalus, frantically testing systems and backups; and the Amherst. Voices rose and fell, cleared, then phased out as the firelock intensified. Pauli imagined that her short, sweat-damp hair stood on end from the energies that Leonidas prepared to harness.

A short bark, and a spate of sounds comprehensible only as orders silenced the captains until Borodin's deep, slightly accented voice took over the comms. "All ships!" he cried in the archaic slang of a planet probably lost to all of them forever. Slang was better than code for emergency messages. Code could be broken. Slang could only be understood -- and the Secess' had moved so far from Alliance that they no longer shared many of the same referents. "Mayday! Sauve qui peut!" It was the call of uttermost disaster, old even as Earth counted age, a cry for flight so desperate that those unable to keep up must be left behind. And if Borodin sounded it, it could not be disregarded. He was too canny a fighter to cry rout where none existed.

Pauli's ship sensors fluctuated wildly. The radiation detectors emitted a steady beeping which meant, if she were lucky, a clouded badge and a warning, and if she were not ... she didn't expect to live long enough to have any children, so it made little difference. Firing at the Secess' fighters who pursued gleefully, she and her companions turned and fled toward the two refugee ships. Acceleration pressed her into her couch, which tilted back to enable her to withstand the pressures. Ahead of her and behind, the starlight dopplered as she neared lightspeed. Her breathing deepened, then turned to panting as pressure really took hold. Raising her hand to adjust the angle of the NavComp readout became a supreme effort. If it had not been for the ache in her head from recycled air and the shock to her eyes of explosions too quick for polarization to shade, she might have dreamed that this was a particularly brutal simulator. More pressure, and her vision reddened, her focus narrowing to that one precious readout. She grunted as she forced a stiffly gloved hand up toward NavComp, keying for intercept with Amherst.

The overstressed detectors hooted a final time, then were silent. Only the digital readout continued to climb. "X rays," Pauli recalled. Lee had planned to use X rays to trigger the upconversion from which the actual laser would be fired.

As if sensing something new and hideous, the Secess' ship's rate of fire slowed, and its shields intensified ... "Too late," muttered the pilot turned physicist. "He's engaging it now! Prepare for Jump on Amherst's coordinates!"

The pilot had anticipated her order: well enough. Pauli was no scientist, and the other knew it. She concentrated on breathing and her boards. Around her, the other pilots pressed for maximum speed. One stopped dead, power gone, until a Secess' blasted it to shards and gleaming vapor. Others, unable to maintain the pace, swung wide, hoping to avoid the shockwave to come.

"The drive ... I'm on overlo --!" Yet another ship veered sharply off, tumbled, then exploded as its drive overloaded.

Behind the fleeing riderships, light rippled about the firelocked craft. In less than a microsecond it peaked, stabbing into an explosion of such speed and brilliance that the ports had no time to polarize. Pauli squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that the ships could make Jump before the shockwave hit them. At least the distress buzzers were out, she thought as the first tremors of the wave buffeted her. Ahead of her loomed the Amherst. She forced leaden hands to controls, cutting speed and Gs so fast she almost retched. Half by instinct, she headed for the blessed familiarity of the flight deck's landing bays and the welcoming symmetry of their bright landing grids.

Her ship touched down, and the lights died as the landing bay closed. Her boards ran through their usual spectrum of powering-down, and she sagged against her webbing. How many ships had made it into the safety of flight deck? The others would have to ride out Jump alone. She'd done that once in a ridership, and would probably do it again -- if she were lucky enough to survive -- but she didn't envy them the experience.

Borodin's voice barked out the command, "On the mark, all ships NOW!" Control boards bent and shimmered, gravity faded, and the ships Jumped ...

Realspace contracted and expanded simultaneously in a frenzy of infrared flickering to violet, then back, rocking and racking the ridership as the shockwave struck, and Pauli yawed back and forth until Jump ...

... Motionless ... away ... hell exploding, worse than the heart of that white dwarf star in the binary system ... a hideous scream, thought, not heard, never to be heard, from the throats of Leonidas's crew, which had created its gamma laser, and died of it -- but had obeyed orders to the last, and taken their enemies with them.

Gravity seized and released, and Pauli screamed soundlessly --like Daedalus; like the damned! -- as Amherst dipped and plummeted down the bubbles some madmen said underlay space, skimming the treacherous supercurrents of radiation so bright that even quasars seemed dark, a froth of tachyons and fermions, then slid into a trough of soundless, timeless darkness.

Buffeting subsided as the ships Jumped, base ships and riders. Time twinged and trembled in their wake. Then space curved about them, silent and protective, and they left a timeless, trackless hell behind.


Copyright (c) 1989 by Susan Shwartz

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