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The five small craft passed from shadow, emerging with the suddenness of coins thrown into sunlight. The disks of their rotary wings shimmered in the air like heat, momentary rainbows flexing across prisms of motion. Master Pilot Jocim Marx noted with pleasure the precision of his squadron's formation. The other pilots' Intelligencer craft perfectly formed a square centered upon his own.
"Don't we look pretty?" Marx said.
"Pretty obvious, sir," Hendrik answered. She was the squadron's second pilot, and it was her job to worry.
"A little light won't hurt us," Marx said flatly. "The Rix haven't had time to build anything with eyes."
He said it not to remind Hendrik, who knew damn well, but to reassure their squadron-mates. The other three pilots were nervous; Marx could hear it in their silence. None of them had ever flown a mission of this importance before.
But then, who had?
Marx's own nerves were beginning to play on him. His squadron of Intelligencers had covered half the distance from dropsite to objective without meeting any resistance. The Rix were obviously ill-equipped, improvising against far greater force, relying on their single advantage: the hostages. But surely they had made preparations for small craft.
After a few moments in the sun, the waiting was over.
"I'm getting echolocation from dead ahead, sir," Pilot Oczar announced.
"I can see them," Hendrik added. "Lots of them."
The enemy interceptors resolved before Marx's eyes as his craft responded to the threat, enhacing vision with its other senses, incorporating data from the squadron's other craft into his layers of synesthesia. As Marx had predicted, the interceptors were small, unpiloted drones. Their only weapon was a long, sinuous grappling arm that hung from the rotary lifting surface, which was more screw than blade. The devices looked rather like something da Vinci might have designed four millennia ago, a contraption powered by the toil of tiny men.
The interceptors dangled before Marx. There were a lot of them, and in their host they impelled the same vaguely obscene fascination as creatures from the deepest ocean. One moved toward his craft, arms flailing with a blind and angry abandon.
Master Pilot Marx tilted his Intelligencer's rotary wing forward and increased its power. His ship rose above the interceptor, barely missing collision with the enemy's lifting screw. Marx grimaced at the near miss. Another interceptor came into focus before him, this one a little higher, and he reversed his wing's rotation, pushing the ship down, dropping below its grasp.
Around him, the other pilots cursed as they pitched their craft through the swarm of interceptors. Their voices came at him from all sides of his cockpit, directionally biased to reflect their position relative to his.
From above, Hendrik spoke, the tension of a hard turn in her voice. "You've seen these before, sir?"
"Negative," he replied. He'd fought the Rix Cult many times, but their small craft were evolutionary. Small, random differences in design were scattered throughout every generation. Characteristics that succeeded were incorporated into the next production round. You never knew what new shapes and strategies Rix craft might assume. "The arms are longer than I've seen, and the behavior's more…volatile."
"They sure look pissed off," Hendrik agreed.
Her choice of words was apt. Two interceptors ahead of Marx sensed his craft, and their arms began to flail with the sudden intensity of alligators when prey has stepped into reach. He rolled his Intelligencer sideways, narrowing his vulnerable area as he slipped between them.
But there were more and more of the interceptors, and his Intelligencer's profile was still too large. Marx retracted his craft's sensory array, trading away vision for compact size. At this range, however, the closest interceptors resolved to terrible clarity, the data layers provided by first-, second-, and third-level sight almost choking his mind. Marx could see (hear, smell) the individual segments of a grasping arm flexing like a snake's spine, the cilia of an earspot casting jagged shadows in the hard sunlight. Marx squinted at the cilia, gesturing for a zoom until the little hairs towered around him like a forest.
"They're using sound to track us," he announced. "Silence your echolocators now."
The view before him blurred as sonar data was lost. If Marx was right, and the interceptors were audio-only, his squadron would be undetectable to them now.
"I'm tangled!" Pilot Oczar shouted from below him. "One's got a sensor post!"
"Don't fight!" Marx ordered. "Just lizard."
"Ejecting post," Oczar said, releasing his ship's captured limb.
Marx hazarded a glance downward. A flailing interceptor tumbled slowly away from Oczar's ship, clinging to the ejected sensor post with blind determination. The Intelligencer tilted crazily as its pilot tried to compensate for broken symmetry.
"They're getting heavy, sir," Hendrik warned. Marx switched his view to Hendrik's perspective for a moment. From her high vantage, a thickening swarm of interceptors was clearly visible ahead. The bright lines of their long grapples sparkled like a shattered, drifting spiderweb in the sun.
There were too many.
Of course, there were backups already advancing from the dropsite. If this first wave of Intelligencers was destroyed, another squadron would be ready, and eventually a craft or two would get through. But there wasn't time. The rescue mission required onsite intelligence, and soon. Failure to provide it would certainly end careers, might even constitute an Error of Blood.
One of these five craft had to make it.
"Tighten up the formation and increase lift," Marx ordered. "Oczar, you stay down."
"Yes, sir," the man answered quietly. Oczar knew what Marx intended for his craft.
The rest of the squadron swept in close to Marx. The four Intelligencers rose together, jostling through the writhing defenders.
"Time for you to make some noise, Oczar," Marx said. "Extend your sensor posts to full length and activity."
"Up to a hundred, sir."
Marx looked down as Oczar's craft grew, a spider with twenty splayed legs emerging suddenly from a seed, a time-lapse of a flower relishing sunlight. The interceptors around Oczar grew more detailed as his craft became fully active, bathing their shapes with ultrasonic pulses, microlaser distancing, and millimeter radar.
Already, the dense cloud of interceptors was beginning to react. Like a burst of pollen caught by a sudden wind, they shifted toward Oczar's craft.
"We're going through blind and silent," Marx said to the other pilots. "Find a gap and push toward it hard. We'll be cutting main power."
"One tangle, sir," Oczar said. "Two."
"Feel free to defend yourself."
On Marx's status board, the counterdrones in Oczar's magazine counted down quickly. The man launched a pair as he confirmed the order, then another a few seconds later. The interceptors must be all over him. Marx glanced down at Oczar's craft. The bilateral geometries of its deployed sensor array were starting to twist, burdened by the thrashing defenders. Through the speakers, Oczar grunted with the effort of keeping his craft intact.
Marx raised his eyes from the battle and peered forward. The remainder of the squadron was reaching the densest rank of the interceptor cloud. Oczar's diversion had thinned it somewhat, but there was still scant space to fit through.
"Pick your hole carefully," Marx said. "Get some speed up. Retraction on my mark. Five…four…three…"
He let the count fade, concentrating on flying his own craft. He had aimed his Intelligencer toward a gap in the interceptors, but one had drifted into the center of his path. Marx reversed his rotor and boosted power, driving his craft downward.
The drone loomed closer, lured by the whine of his surging main rotor. He hoped the extra burst would be enough.
"Retract now!" he ordered. The view blurred and faded as the sensor posts on the ship furled. In seconds, Marx's vision went dark.
"Cut your main rotors," he commanded.
The small craft would be almost silent now, impelled only by the small, flywheel-powered stabilizer wing at their rear. It would push them forward until it ran down. But the four surviving craft were already beginning to fall.
Marx checked the altimeter's last reading: 174 centimeters. At that height, the craft would take at least a minute before they hit the ground. Even with its sensor array furled and main rotor stalled, in a normal-density atmosphere an intelligence craft fell no faster than a speck of dust.
Indeed, the Intelligencers were not much larger than specks of dust, and were somewhat lighter. With a wingspan of a single millimeter, they were very small craft indeed.
* * *
Master Pilot Jocim Marx, Imperial Naval Intelligence, had flown microships for eleven years. He was the best.
He had scouted for light infantry in the Coreward Bands Revolt. His machine then had been the size and shape of two hands cupping water, the hemispherical surface holed with dozens of carbon whisker fans, each of which could run at its own speed. He was deployed on the battlefield in those days, flying his craft through a VR helmet. He stayed with the platoon staff under their portable forcefield, wandering about blind to his surroundings. That had never set easy with him; he constantly imagined a slug finding him, the real world intruding explosively on the synesthetic realm inside his helmet. Marx was very good, though, at keeping his craft steady in the unpredictable Bandian winds. His craft would paint enemy snipers with an undetectable x-ray laser, which swarms of smart needle-bullets followed to unerring kills. Mark's steady hand could guide a projectile into a centimeter-wide seam in personal armor, or through the eye-slit of a sniper's camopolymer blind.
Later, he flew penetrators against Rix hovertanks in the Incursion. These projectiles were hollow cylinders, about the size of a child's finger. They were launched by infantryman, encased in a rocket-propelled shell for the first half of their short flight. When the penetrator deployed, breaking free the instant it spotted a target, it flew purely on momentum. Ranks of tiny control surfaces lined the inside of the cylinder, like the baleen plates of some plankton-feeder. The weapon's supersonic flight was an exercise in extreme delicacy. Too hard a nudge and a penetrator would tumble uselessly. But when it hit a Rix tank just right, its maw precisely aligned to the hexagonal weave of the armor, it cut through metal and ceramic like a rip propagating down a cloth seam. Inside, the projectile disintegrated into countless molecular viruses, breaking down the machine in minutes. Marx flew dozens of ten-second missions each day, and was plagued at night with fitful microdreams of launch and collision. Eventually, backpack Al proved better for the job than human pilots, but Marx's old flight recordings were still studied by nascent intelligences for their elegance and flair.
The last few decades, Marx had worked with the Navy. Small craft were now truly small, fullerene constructions no bigger than a few millimeters across when furled, built by even smaller machines and powered by exotic transuranium batteries. They were largely for intelligence gathering, although they had offensive uses. Marx had flown a specially fitted Intelligencer into a fiberoptic Al hub during the Dhantu Liberation, carrying a load of glass-eating nanos that had dismantled the rebel's communication system planetwide within minutes.
Master Pilot Marx preferred the safety of the Navy. At his age, being on the battlefield had lost its thrill. Now Marx controlled his craft from shipside, hundreds of kilometers away from the action. He reclined in the comfort of a smartgel seat like some fighter pilot of yore, bathed in synesthetic images that allowed him three levels of sight, the parts of his brain normally dedicated to hearing, smell, and tactile sensations all given over to vision. Marx experienced his ship's environment as a true pilot should, as if he himself had been shrunk to the size of a human cell.
He loved the microscopic scale of his new assignment. In his darkened cabin on sleepless nights, Marx burned incense and watched the smoke rise through the bright, pencil-width shaft of an emergency flashlight. He noted how air currents curled, how ghostly snakes could be spun with the movement of a finger, a puff of breath. With an inhumanly steady hand he moved a remote microscope carefully through the air, projecting its images onto the cabin wall, watching and learning the behavior of microscopic particles aloft.
Sometimes during these dark and silent vigils, Jocim Marx allowed himself to think that he was the best microcraft pilot in the fleet.
He was right.
Copyright © 2003 by Scott Westerfeld