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"[A] solid military space opera influenced by Conrad's Lord Jim . . . . Shwartz's detailed setting and lively pace will hold readers' attention throughout this lengthy examination of guilt and heroism. Fans of the military SF series of Elizabeth Moon, Lois Bujold McMaster, and David Feintuch are bound to enjoy this novel."-Publishers Weekly
Corporate BioShip Irian Jaya
Don't let me screw this up, the pilot prayed. A survivor of Alliance's Fleet, he'd been an interloper on the civilian Irian Jaya since he'd boarded.
"Three klicks out, same heading." The cybernetics tech raised his voice a careful degree to carry over the hums and beeps of navigation and the rasping breaths of three techs and one pilot trying to pretend they weren't expendable. "That's the worst of it. Better strap in."
Shirtsleeve environment, these civilian riderships were supposed to be, but now the crew sealed their helms, cautious as Alliance spacers who'd survived the Secess' war that had first divided, then almost destroyed, space-faring humanity. The pilot felt his hands sweat, then go cold inside his heavy gloves. He looked beyond the slagged and tangled umbilicals to the adiabatic pods that held a new generation of pioneers for a war-torn world. Let even one of them snap and the recoil could crush the tiny rider, slash through the hull of the corporate bioship, bound on its mission of well-paid mercy, and fling its cargo, men and women sleeping deep in Freeze, beyond this isolated Jump point through the space beyond the No Man's Worlds.
If they were lucky, they'd drift and not even feel the moment centuries from now when their systems failed and Freeze became death. But if their luck failed, they'd be retrieved by pirates. They'd fired on Jaya before, prying the light-armed ship away from its convoy until it had two choices: surrender or risk premature Jump.
Jaya had Jumped. By the time it miraculously emerged at a Jump point near its goal, the rough return to normal space sent the damaged umbilicals twisting around the ship's central disk. If they couldn't be stopped, they'd soon exceed their tolerances, and they'd snap, leaving Jaya easy prey. He had no confidence that the civilian captain, who'd made him feel like a hired killer since the moment he'd come on board, would blow the ship. Probably he feared to stick his estate--because of course the bastard had a substantial one--with the insurance premiums.
The pilot drew a rough breath. Other Fleet TDYs had complained of claustrophobia on these civ riderships, prompting long, long meetings on how cubic was precisely, absolutely the same as on Fleet riderships. But cubic be damned: matched against Jaya, this thing felt fragile as an egg. Matching it against a warship was like going throughJump in a soap bubble. And Fleet didn't give medals for damn-foolishness.
He swallowed. Atmosphere display might be nominal, but he still felt he wasn't getting enough air.
Through the suit-comms, he heard a tech cough. Nerves or spacer's throat, whatever: the man fought to suppress it as the pilot edged away from Jaya's central disk toward the worst of the tangled lines. So he wasn't the only one.
The cyberneticist's voice seemed to vibrate in the cramped cabin. "Jim. Did you hear me? Three klicks out. Same heading."
The pilot bent over a jury-rigged display he'd delayed takeoff to install. Its yellows, reds, and greens glowed too brightly in the reddish cabin lighting that preserved his night vision.
The tension in the ridership thickened.
"Did you hear me, mister?" the cybernetics tech snapped. He seemed to puff up in his flight-suit. Custom-made, no less, not ship's issue. On bioships in particular, cybes were privileged characters, used to people asking "how high" if they so much as murmured "jump."
If Jim remembered it right, this particular cybe was some kind of VIP or VP of R&D groundside. Civilian alphabet soup. The whole chain of command was different.
On Irian Jaya, though, this bigshot cybe came under the orders of Chief Tech Danamon, who reported direct to Captain Heikkonen. Never mind that: for now, this rider was under its pilot's command, and that was Jim.
And if they didn't like it, they could all breathe space.
A Regular service arms officer, Jim was on an expensive and somewhat controversial exchange to the civilian bioship Irian Jaya. He wasn't in the corporate chain of command. All the evidence of a six months' tour of duty--at taxpayers' expense, as the captain liked to point out too often at too many meetings--showed he barely understood. From the first day he'd come on board, it had tripped him up. Like the major flap before they got under way for New Amman when he insisted on going through the usual security manual before certifying that Irian Jaya was fit for departure. The deadline was tight, and Jaya could win a fat bonus if it arrived before it. The captain had tried to "give him guidance" about security. Jim had replied, "Management guidelines be damned," no one was going anywhere until the ship was secure.
So what if they missed a fat performance bonus. The money wasn't going into Jim's account. But if the mission failed, they'd take that out of his hide.
No one in Fleet had ever accused Jim of being arrogant. There, after his rare minor screwups, he'd apologize and make good fast. A career in Fleet with lives riding on his decisions gave him a phenomenal learning curve, and he never made the same mistake twice.
The problem was he wasn't on their team, they didn't want him on their team, and he had only to breathe to antagonize them. He'd more than breathed; he'd insisted on Fleet levels of security, and they couldn't forgive him.
Especially because he'd been right.
God. Get them through the Secess' war, and now all the civs, especially the corporates, wanted to do was get on with their lives. People like Jim were an unpleasant reminder that not only could fighting break out again, it might break them--and what's worse, any way they sliced it, they'd have to pay.
The pilot whirled. Blue eyes flashed beneath his gleaming visor. Seeing only the ridership's crew, he made himself relax and turn back to his instruments. Mustn't scare the passengers.
"Three klicks, aye."
Behind him, he heard the techs start to breathe again. Don't want to stir up combat reflexes, do you? Not when I'm driving.
After his last wardroom confrontation, Jim had taken to keeping to himself on board Jaya. He was actually more shy than aloof, and he thought some of the crew were beginning to see it. But most of the senior staff saw him only as "tin soldier," an expensive line item on the ship's manifest, useful in the kinds of PR that used more spin than a space platform explaining to shareholders how concerned management was to protect their investment. They simply couldn't forgive him for being what they thought he was: a meticulously groomed, polite, stiff-backed recruiting holo of the sort that had lured their brothers and sisters out of secure berths, into the damn Secess' war and the subject lines of messages that began "we regret to inform you."
For a long moment, Jim stared at his passengers, reflected in the glow of the instrument panels. He could see his own reflection staring back at him from their helms, could see what they saw now: a soldier who restrained himself from striking out, whose eyes were bracketed from strain, and who stared at the ship's crewmembers as if they were part of an unquiet dream that distracted him from his instruments.
A pilot's concentration approached trance, sometimes. Even corporate pilots. The story was, all pilots did was eat, sleep, and brag for ninety-eight percent of their time. The other two percent, they earnedthe exorbitant bonuses and even stock options that helped divide them even further from the rest of the crew.
Stop thinking and drive, Jim told himself.
He sent the ridership gently forward.
JIM SIGHED AS AWARENESS OF HIMSELF AS A BODY CRAMMED INTO A TOO-CRAMPED ridership with nervous civilians returned. A moment ago, life had been stars, screens, and the hope, spiky with adrenaline, that debris wouldn't pop out of nowhere and hole them a good one or scavengers didn't choose to emerge from Jump right now.
I'm supposed to protect these people. How can I concentrate with all this chatter going on in back?
Not that he could protect anything right now. The ridership was unarmed. Not even a dead man's switch.
Careful, he warned himself. This wasn't the time for the cybernetics tech to squeal "your tin soldier's trancing out on duty" to the bioship's captain, who'd consider it his duty--as in fact it was--to relay that back to Corporate HQ.
Besides, the meager kilometers between Astro-Pharm's Irian Jaya and the fouled umbilicals that mated the bioship to its cargo of eggs, sperm, zygotes, and cryonically frozen shipsicles didn't give him enough time to get a real trance of concentration going.
Lights blinked white/off, red/off, green/off on the snarled and damaged tubes. They looked like the landing strips in the rider's docking bay on board Jaya.
It's not over yet. This ship, these people, this mission all depend on me, Jim reminded himself again. I used to dream about being helpful, being necessary, saving lives. I wanted to be a hero. They should have locked me up for a madman instead of letting me enlist. If I could wake far away from here, if I could relive the last twenty years ... .
If he were back on Irian Jaya, or, better yet, if he were young again, innocent of the discipline and the memories of the regs, with no blood on his hands or the kind of dreams that woke you up choking in the night watches, fingers clenched on nothing, as if you were running out of air, he'd damned well dream about life as a groundsider.
But no, he'd had to want the stars, he'd had to dream of glory, of sacrifice, and he'd never factored the blood and the sweat and the fire and the death that the war was really about into the equation. War had become his trade. Now the war was over, and he knew he'd have learn a new one. Assuming he wasn't too old to learn new tricks.
"Getting restless, are you?" Jim asked his passengers. "I'll send the steward back with drinks."
A grunt and a chuckle told Jim his flippancy had registered.
"Our tax money at work," muttered someone. "Tin soldier's turned into a comedian. Someone tell him to shut up and drive."
The war with the Secess' had been long and expensive. There were still some civs who didn't understand why the Secess' couldn't simply turn around and go their merry way. After all, it was a damn big galaxy.
Trouble was, everyone--Secess', Alliance, and the barbarians in between--laid claim to the same real estate, the same planetary systems and Jump points, no one compromised; and everyone had loud and stubborn theories over how to run the show and who was best qualified to run it. Contradict any of them, and they could bring heavy firepower to bear ... and had.
Manifest destiny, expansionism, lebensraum, ethnic cleansing: the Secess' war had been all of the same obscene standbys, but played out at faster-than-light. Jim didn't know about Secess', beyond the fact that they were hell to fight. What he did know was that the ordinary Alliance citizens, who relied on the Fleet for their lives, would probably never forgive it, or the people--the brothers and sisters of a hundred star systems--who shed their identities for a uniform and discipline and emerged as those almost unrecognizable creatures, combat soldiers. Assuming they emerged at all.
The war had been a near thing. In the end, Secess' and Alliance made peace, such as it was, because they couldn't afford to go on killing and being killed, and force humanity to retreat to planet-bound barbarism.
"Lighten up," someone told whoever had come up with the tin soldier remark this time. "He actually made a joke. And I could do with a drink. Yellow."
Jim jerked an elbow at the pac storage compartment: yellow for a jolt of pick-me-up; green for electrolyte balancing; clear for recycled water.
"Living dangerously, are you?"
"On sucrose and caffeine? What about you, Jim? They let you drink on duty? Clear? Well, all right, man, but you know what that stuff really is!" The pac flew at him, a good-natured assault. Jim snagged it without missing a blip on his readout, unsealed his helmet, tugged loose the straw, and sucked down the water, chemically pure despite the jokes about its source. For all corporate crew complained about defense appropriations, their living conditions were a damn sight better than Fleet's.
Just shrug off insults, Jim remembered the briefings that preceded this TDY. Fleet shrinks had cleared him for it, and he'd survived Basic Training years ago; he was pretty sure he could rise above a few insults.
It was the rare civilian who hadn't lost friends or family, who hadn't had her career derailed or his research confiscated. Some civilians, whose homeworlds were near the front, had had to hold the line with armed shuttles and aging ground installations until the Regs could build up to strength and take over. Never mind the fact that before the Secess' struck, Alliance force appropriations had been down to all-time lows. The Fleet was supposed to make bricks without straw, and don't you forget it. Now that the war was over, economics had replaced survival as the bottom line as civilians reckoned up the prices they'd paid to survive and decided that they'd paid far too much.
No good deed goes unpunished. This war wouldn't be the first time in history civilians had turned on their military.
Suck it down, mister. He did, along with a last gulp that drained the pac--they were right, the recycled water did taste like his idea of stale pee--and hurled the empty into the recycler. Right on target. He didn't want to think of the chaff he'd have taken if he'd missed.
He resealed his helm and cast an eye over the bioship's tangled umbilicals and the pods they still sustained. They all carried scorch-marks, but no heavy damage--except for the pod and cable furthest from the ship. That umbilical was all but severed. An energy beam had gnawed a hole in the pod's hull. Its registration number was empty space, and even its stationkeeping lights were dead. The thousand shipsicles in there would never wake. Their hibernacula had become coffins.
The cybernetics tech hissed.
"Captain's not going to like the body count," Chief Tech Danamon muttered agreement. "They'll probably dock his pay."
Was that supposed to be a joke? Jim wondered. And they complain about Fleet's gallows humor?
Corporate-politics alert, he told himself and kept eyes forward, where they belonged anyway. Just fly the ship, Jim-boy. That's what they're paying you for.
"Think of your assignment as a chance to build bridges," Fleet psychs had urged him. "Or repair them."
Problem was, "building bridges" had been problematic the day he reported on board. The techs had been wary, still were--but Jann Heikkonen, the corporate bioship's civilian captain, had been downright hostile, and his needling spread down the chain of command.
"I suppose you think we're slack," he'd confronted Jim as he slouched behind his desk in his office.
"Sir, no sir." Jim snapped to attention. His second mistake. Coming aboard had probably been his first.
"'Sir, no sir,'" the captain had mimicked. "We polish our instruments, not our brass, soldier. You just remember that. Your job is to advise, sit around in your pretty uniform, and collect your pay while we do all the hard work. So let us do our jobs, all right? Don't touch something you don't have the degrees to understand. You might break it, and we'd have to pay for that too--not that Fleet's ever given a good goddamn about the bottom line."
"Sir, yes sir" would have been the wrong reply. Anything he could have said or done would have been wrong.
And that's how things had stayed: armed stalemate. He occupied a berth. But he wasn't crew on Jaya, and if the captain had a thing to say about it, he never would be.
Damn, why didn't he have the brains just to pack up right then and report back to his old CO?
War's over, Jim. You have to make some contingency plans. The Old Man thought he was actually doing Jim a favor by sending him on board Jaya. He couldn't just go back and say, "Sorry, sir, I don't like it."
So. He was actually following orders ... wasn't he? A thousand more repetitions, and maybe he'd even believe it.
A ship like Irian Jaya with its well-paid corporate crew could be part of his plans if Fleet retired him. Assuming he didn't botch this exchange assignment and learned to fit in with civilian corporate culture. It had its points, his CO had assured him.
Yeah. Most of them would be aimed at his back, if the Jaya's captain had anything to say about it.
Alliance's fleet gave him a name, a rank, a serial number, and a role. No one on Jaya threatened to take those things from him, but people's mouths twisted if they were forced to use his military title, so they used his name. His first name, as if he were some hired hand.
And the fact Jim unfortunately resembled the kind of recruiting holo that civilian scientists thought were the lowest form of propaganda hadn't helped him win friends either. He was fair-haired, spacer-pale, and blue-eyed. Political types in the post-war Alliance Fleet warned him to be diplomatic among civs, so he smiled when he remembered. His grin stripped years from him and made people who'd determined never to trust him want to like him. Trouble was, he hadn't had much to smile at lately.
At the sight of the ruined pod, Jim felt his lips snarl back from his teeth in a way the civs wouldn't have found likable at all. A thousand lives. Scavengers had taken out a thousand lives. Just as well he sat up front with his helm sealed again so they couldn't see his face.
Jim's universe had to be as full of enemies as it was of stars: if not Secess', then scavengers who could kill people who'd had the courage to lie down in those pods, never knowing if they'd wake to save a world or dream forever.
"Prepare to fire braking thrusters." He felt, more than saw, someone swing forward and sink into the seat next to his. The little ridership really didn't need a copilot, but he'd take Tech Danamon's help as evidence he was making progress.
"Got it." Jim nudged the four-person rider closer to the umbilicals. Danamon would need a visual inspection of the surviving pods. "Thrusters engaged."
Firing this close to the umbilicals was tricky. With diagnostics compromised, there was no telling if some last power surge wouldn't make a stray cable break free and slice the ridership in half.
Sweat trickled into his flightsuit's absorbent lining. In the early phases of his service, such as it had been, medical telemetry had given him--and biofeedback training--hell for nerves. Ventilation kicked up in the cabin, dispelling the spoor of fear and tension and too-close quarters, its rhythm like a heartbeat in the womb: persistent, reassuring, life itself.
Jim's face in the back-lit heads-up display, which flickered as navigation's colored lights fountained and subsided, showed him a fierce stranger.
No wonder this crew of softer strangers bristled.
He wished he felt as confident as his outthrust jaw looked. God, don't let them catch on, was his first hope, immediately followed by the real form of the pilots' prayer that had been ancient even before mankind left Earth: God, don't let me fuck up.
He glanced at the sensor he'd attached to the console next to the navigation readout--his DEW-trap, he called it--a distant early warning sensor he'd jury-rigged to monitor the mines he'd placed around the ship. He was uplinked to such weapons systems as Jaya had. If scavengers Jumped, he'd order fire from here.
Nothing out there but particles and background radiation.
Scavengers knew Irian Jaya was out here and that she'd taken damage. After all, they'd cut her off from her convoy and forced her intoJump. He had to assume they'd tracked her all the way here. It was what he'd have done.
The best outcome Jim had been able to force was to destroy two ships and drive off a third. No reason, he snorted inwardly, to pin a medal on him. The ships he'd killed had been nearly derelict, thank God. Besides, he'd borrowed his tactics from Conrad Ragozinski's encounter with Abendsterners at Sigma Draconis. Abendstern, one of the capital planets of the Secess', had proved to be an almost unbeatable enemy until Ragozinski, covering the evacuation of the outpost on Xanthus, had used his ship's mass as an anchor for the other ships, as little suited to combat as they'd been.
Ragozinski's victory at Sigma Drac had gotten him promoted to captain at some ungodly young age, "an inspiration to us all," as the saying went until the next person to intone it got thrown out of the wardroom. Even the Abendsterners sent an uplinked commendation, but then they always were weird about honor, or their notions of it.
Jim knew he hadn't won honor with Irian Jaya. He'd simply gained a little time. Maybe even enough.
He spared a glance back at the screen showing the bioship's status. Talk about a fat, tempting target.
Irian Jaya was a late-model bioship that melded a heavy transport's hull with the special fittings and tech crew that let it carry immunosuppressants and seed organs, cloned skin for grafts, sperm, ova, and zygotes, to worlds whose populations had been driven below viability by the war. And its specialized equipment, its priceless cargo of genetic material, and its pods with their ten thousand immigrants in cryonic suspension made it too rich a prize for the scavengers not to try again. Ten thousand people was a planet's worth of hostages--or slaves. And the frozen embryos and gametes could be hatched out into little scavengers, expanding their forces and their gene pool.
Or, if they were feeling kind, the scavengers could hold the whole shooting match for ransom. If there was anything Alliance and the Fleet agreed upon, it was the importance of the bioships.
Not that that had made a lot of difference in Jim's present mission. What they needed for proper protection of a ship like Jaya was a full convoy, assuming ships and money could be found, which they couldn't.
But New Amman's need was desperate, and it could pay for living freight in rare earths and chemicals that made the R&D people's eyes go all bright and greedy. So Jaya flew with only a few companions. Complicating the situation, the best he could say of Jaya's handling capabilities was that she didn't handle; she wallowed. But then, shewasn't built for speed or maneuverability; she was built to endure. She'd have been torn apart in Jump otherwise.
They'd embarked in communications silence, such as it was. Even so, the scavengers had found Jaya preparing for Jump and scored her hull near the propulsion scoops before the captain could turn and try to fight back.
Would they be lurking by this Jump point too? Where'd they get their data? And from whom?
Dangerous thinking, Jim my boy.
Even after the scavengers had taken out one of their three convoy vessels, some of the crew had wanted to negotiate, not fight. High-minded of them, Jim thought. Their minds had to be high up their butts, if they thought you could negotiate with scavengers. Scavengers pounced on unwary ships and stole, not just cargo, but whatever they had a mind to. One of ship's crew looked tempting? She--or he--got hustled onto one of the flying derelicts that the scavengers called home. The ship needed spare parts? Why, then, it stripped its prey, and too damned bad if what it stole was primary life support.
Fleet had zero tolerance toward scavengers. It was practically the one thing on which they agreed one hundred percent with Secess'.
You didn't negotiate with vermin; you burned them, Jim had snarled--and opened fire. He guessed he could give up on the vote for Most Congenial Shipmate.
Still, he had saved the ship. It was his old civilian fantasy, and he'd actually done it.
Congratulations might have been nice. He would have been grateful for a pat on the back; it had been a long time since anyone who wasn't a physician's aide had touched him. But he didn't have time. Jim had driven the scavengers off in search of simpler prey, but Jaya was too rich a target for them not to try again. There were improvements in the ship's defenses he could make now, if only he had the time.
What he got instead was an entire war's worth of debriefings. Irian Jaya's Captain Heikkonen might not know how to use ship's weapons like an expert, but he did know the energy consumption and depreciation costs of each weapon he'd fired--and he'd lectured Jim about profit and loss numbers et goddamn cetera while the adrenaline in his blood made him fight not to shiver in the aftermath.
Then, the red lights flashed up an ion storm on the umbilicals' monitors and it was the engineers' turn to justify their existence. And Heikkonen's job to see that they did just that. While needling Jim into taking over damage control and surveillance missions like the present one. Bastard didn't even give me a chance to volunteer.
So far, the mines he had rigged as another distant early warning system were untouched. His sensors were flatline, his DEW trap empty. No bugs, no signals, and no scavengers.
Behind him, the techs and scientists tensed as they got visual confirmation of the damage to the lines.
"You think the other pods are compromised?" one asked.
"Better hope not," Danamon tossed back over his shoulder.
The most important thing--and the most dangerously templing--about Jaya wasn't the genetic seedcorn she carried. It was that she was rigged to ferry the Linebarger adiabatic pods that trailed out a hundred klicks behind it on complex umbilicals. In the last years of the war and now, too, in the aftermath, when convoys were a luxury no one could afford, ships like Jaya resembled those quail or whatever from Old Earth, assuming they hadn't been eaten during the blockade. Jim had studied those birds as part of his fascination with flight. Mother quail, seeing their nests endangered, would leap away and posture, one wing down, as a way of luring predators away and protecting their young. He knew. He'd watched them as a boy.
Not even Frekans, obsessed with genetic engineering as they were, would challenge a bioship, Fleet myth whispered. But Freki had a crazier honor code than even Abendstern. Scavengers had nothing but what they stole.
"If the engines scorch the vents or those exposed housings ..." whispered a man from Life Support. "We could lose another pod."
Jim glanced from sensors to controls. A touch, practically a caress on his board, accelerated the tiny craft. Just a touch, you beauty. There. You like that? Want me to do it again? You'll do anything I say, won't you?
Tech Danamon hissed, demanding caution. "Were you planning to mate up with the pods?"
Jim's fingers paused in their fugue on controls long enough for him to flick a wary glance at Danamon. No pun intended. "This mission's time-sensitive," he reminded the crew. "I want to get in as close as we can. Mr. Banks barely qualified for EVA in the last powered-suit drill."
Jim's words aborted another whispered staff meeting among the civs. Again, he let his glance flicker from DEW sensors to navcomp. On this board, navigation looked a lot like target acquisition on a Fleet rider. Too easy to make a mistake ...
Perhaps he should not have left weapons control on board Jaya to pilot this mission, but he'd already exceeded the time the civ medics thought he should spend on watch. He'd had to bully them into letting him go out.
Tin soldier, they'd whispered disapprovingly. He'd been counting on precisely that reaction.
"While this ship is under my command," Jim said, not bothering to turn his head, "Mr. Banks will go EVA only under tether. Short tether."
Cybernetics Tech Banks began a furious protest starting with "No tight-ass ..."
"Shut up and let the man fly," whispered the maintenance tech. Banks subsided, quelled by her glare. In corporate life, Jim knew, Tech Rourke was Dr. Alanna Rourke, senior technical staff with two earned PhDs--in physics and engineering--and a couple honoraries. On board ship, she might be only a warrant officer--he never could figure out the civ version of ship hierarchies--but she outranked the others morally, at the very least.
Take twenty years off her, put her in uniform, and she reminded Jim of an officer from his first ship. One he'd liked. One years dead.
He raised his head (carefully not looking away from navcomp as he maneuvered thrusters) so she could see his reflection smile at her.
She snorted. "Is charm school part of our arms deal with Fleet?" she demanded.
His smile widened into a grin.
At least, she didn't freeze him out. Not entirely. God, if that little bit of support warmed him, he must be freezing to death inside.
He was coming up on the tubes now. Jim tapped thrusters, edging in. Scavengers might set off his sensors or detonate his mines in the next instant, but these maneuvers were critical.
Damage the bioship's umbilicals and the adiabatic pods they fed lost power. Power loss meant the shipsicles sustained damage, and what was revived at planetfall wouldn't be immigrants, ready and eager to help rebuild New Amman, but freezer burn cases a slagged world couldn't afford to rehabilitate. Might as well simply cast them loose now.
Light glinted on the scorched cerametal tubes, the trailing filaments, and the jeopardized pods. Parsecs beyond, gas trails coiled in immense dragon shapes, the stars of their hoards glittering sapphire and diamond in the darkness.
Forget the poetry, he reminded himself. Think of what's out there simply as a cosmic version of this wretched snarl of smart machinery--idiot gadgets studying to be morons--that we have to fix before we can power up and escape into the safety of Jump.
Wouldn't this be one hell of a time for scavengers to pop back in-system?
He glanced at his DEW trap. No activity.
So what if the starscape was beautiful? What he was really looking for--beside a safe halt near the pods--was any flicker of anomalous motion. Besides, his training and his survival had taught him the value of taking a pragmatic view of deep space. That meant that gas clouds were just navigational hazards, and singularities were traps.
Space didn't care whether you lived or died. If you were stupid, you ran into trouble. Usually, you died. If you were really stupid, you died slow and messy. And that was just from space hazards: before Armistice, the Secess' had been far worse. The Abendsterners tended to outplan you; the Tokugawans never gave up; and the Frekans always and invariably attacked like madmen.
Damn, he still didn't know how that misbegotten trio of worlds had agreed to break off from the Alliance, much less how they'd attracted satellite and client worlds. All three were authoritarian as hell. Abendstern and Tokugawa both had hereditary aristocracies, and on Freki, you fought to win your place and keep it. The first hint had come out of the universities, when some of the senior-most scientists had resigned and returned to their homeworlds. If Intel hadn't hacked into the university systems and copied their research, Jim probably wouldn't be sitting in this ridership.
Exposure had prompted formal complaints, then withdrawals. A couple attacks that everyone knew now had been feints.
And then the massed Secess' fleets had come out, driving the Alliance back, always back, until its capital world, old Earth itself, lay imprisoned by a blockade.
They showed all the graduating classes the blockading fleet. Beyond those ships lies Home, the CO would say. And just about then, usually, some Frekan fighting star would come out to test the mettle of the new officers. For all he knew, the Frekans thought they were doing them a favor.
It would have made more sense and saved lives not to hold Academy graduation so near the blockade, Jim knew. But it took a far more cynical mind by far than his who didn't see the blockading fleet and pledge, inwardly, to break through and restore Earth to the Alliance, and reclaim the stars. All of them, Alliance and Secess' alike.
The part of him that was still a dreaming boy who'd looked up from the bottom of his lavish safe gravity well at the blue sky of his home and craved starlight still believed that.
He blinked his eyes hard, as if cleansing them of dreams. Even the familiar ergonomic light of controls hurt his eyes. The wrinkles that bracketed his eyes didn't show any signs of smoothing, and a musclein one eyelid ticced. He looked fifteen years older, at least, than his age. Mid-thirties--no gray hair yet, but he was getting up there for a combat officer. Had his reflexes slowed yet?
The mines still floated out there untouched, thank God. The DEW trap showed empty. His monitors shone clear. Just a little longer, he prayed.
His unlikely crew was shifting in their seats, unsnapping restraints before the all-clear chime.
"As you were," he spoke without bothering to turn. He knew what he heard.
"We're losing time!" Banks snapped. "Energy levels are dropping, or don't you care how many more we lose?"
Think about the mission.
If those umbilicals snapped now, it was his ridership with its limited capabilities that would have to chase them. He'd have to avoid a recoil that could breach its hull, then reconnect them to the bioship. He'd heard that trick described as "crocheting with a hundred kilometers of yarn and an explosive hook." In better times, he'd have liked to try it.
These weren't better times.
Still, a tricky repair job was better than having an umbilical snap while Irian Jaya was in transit.
Painstakingly, Jim adjusted a final course vector. He could remember his former officers: there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything. And then there's the Fleet way.
Yes, he knew this wasn't the Fleet. Jim still flushed with anger at Captain Heikkonen's accusation that pulling some of the bioship's engineers off regular duty to improvise mines and upgrade weapons systems had turned them "into goddamned unproductive toymakers!"
Do I hear anger, mister? Angry is stupid. Stupid is dead. And if you screw up here, it will go on your fitrep.
He took a deep breath, masked by the rest of the crew's heavy breathing. When a mission turned critical, oxygen consumption always jumped.
Captain Heikkonen wasn't out here. So Jim would conduct this mission according to the Fleet's best practices, or this was one rider that was heading back to Irian Jaya's docking bay. He didn't want to cook those pods any more than Banks wanted him to.
Besides, the investigation would be worse than any possible accident.
One more microburn, and they could maneuver alongside. Do it neatly, Jim. Make a good impression.
His fingers danced a last dance on control, then rested on the console after the infinitesimal course correction. A burn slowed the ship, briefly forcing its inhabitants back against their seats.
"Matching course achieved," he reported. In the silence of the tiny ship, heavy with the tense breathing of four people, he sounded like a priest giving his blessing.
At least the readouts, thank God, were green. As green as the hills of the Earth he'd never walked on.
"Make us proud, son," his father's most recent transmission had ended. He still had all his father's tapes, kept them despite the stringent weight allowance that taught the Fleet to travel light. They were a blockade in their own way, against fear, against loneliness. Jim, at least, had a home he could go back to once he was no longer needed. No Secess' ships had ever gotten through to his homeworld, to scorch it bare or turn it into one of its slave holdings--in that way, war-time Secess' resembled scavengers. Jim liked to think that his efforts had something to do with that.
His father was safe. Somewhere other than in his memories, the stream ran clear across the corner of the acreage he knew would be his own if he survived to come home and claim it. He knew just where the best place would be to build. Assuming that was the life he wanted. It never had been before. Still, the fact that it was still going on in his absence was cause enough for pride.
Jim blinked again, hard, then stared out at the glowing tendrils of red and blue gas that coiled from the binary as it danced about its cosmic axis. He'd put in one dose of drops before he'd left the ship and wished he'd doubled it. One good thing about a corporate ship; Jaya had the best pharmcloset he'd ever seen. When Jim thought about how Fleet ships went chronically short, not just on the meds for deep pain or antibiotics, but on the little amenities that could boost performance or prevent it from degrading ...
You fought off scavengers. What are you doing out here?
He'd already fought this out. Shut up, he ordered himself.
Strict chain-of-command probably would say it was no job of the arms officer on loan from Fleet to court burnout. Still, the facts remained: in space--or in the Fleet, there was no such thing as "it's not my job."
So, while Chief Engineer Stuart checked out the hull, lounging by his readouts in Engineering, Jim played driver and nursemaid for ship's biotech maintenance staff, who whispered behind his back or spoke science more often than any language a serving officer like him could understand without advanced degrees.
The time would pass faster if he could check in on the civs he had checking out ship's personal arms. Although standing orders required qualified arms officers and maintenance techs staffing ship's weapons, Jaya wasn't just a corporate ship, but a bioship, for which "ship's safety" meant something other than armaments. The Jaya's personal arms had never even been unpacked and tested out. And that wasn't just a dereliction of duty, that was suicide.
That was also when he'd all but charged into Captain Heikkonen's quarters about this violation of standing orders and been told that the standing orders governing self-defense were "low priority." God, he hated terms like "prioritization" when they interfered with his duty. If scavengers had boarded, he'd have had crew firing at them from every lab and cabin. No doubt, that was precisely what Heikkonen wouldn't want, if he'd thought that far. Damage to his expensive ship. No doubt, its owners would have tried to negotiate Jaya's return. Dealing with scavengers. God.
It was easier to negotiate even with Frekans than with scavengers. Frekans would shoot at you, but they didn't "revisit issues" or "put back on the table" problems that he'd thought had long been solved. Not to mention the occasional "misspeaking." And the "feedback." Good God, the feedback.
I wish I knew what they were doing with those sidearms back on board. Just thinking what Jaya's crew could do with active weapons, minimal arms training, and technical ingenuity could give you post-traumatic stress. But he was on communications silence, except for emergencies. Which this wasn't. Not yet. And worrying about it would disrupt his concentration.
The DEW trap was still empty. He already had the mines, and soon he'd have crew EVA.
"Have Tech Rourke go over the checklist on that suit with you," he ordered as the cybernetics tech struggled into EVA gear. The woman wearing engineering insignia bent as close to the cybernetics officer as she could in her bulky EVA suit and whispered. Both scientists laughed.
Jim bit back a sigh. More jokes about his first name, no doubt. His family had pinned it on him before civilians had regarded war or the military as a subject for irony. Before he'd become a straight arrow and the Jaya's resident arms consultant. But to civilians, "Jim" meant straight arrow. "Jim" meant hero. Not a stressed-out refugee from Fleet who wondered what he'd do now that the war was over.
"Aye, Captain." More teasing. He thought it had gotten friendlier since yesterday, when Jim had had to suit up and go EVA to rescueBanks, who'd lost orientation during boost, burned out his fuel, and gone drifting, too stunned by the view to do more than hyperventilate.
Jim hadn't even grimaced when they got Banks inside again and found he'd fouled his suit. He'd seen worse and, for that matter, smelled it. And at least the man was alive. He'd even managed to laugh over his mortification, which was probably more than Jim could have brought himself to do.
"We're coming up on the damaged section," Danamon reported. "Coming up ... coming up ... stay on course ..."
His voice sounded almost hypnotized: on a pilot, that would have been fighting trance. The Abendsterners and Frekans induced it with drugs, Jim had heard ... They used drugs to augment their pilots' performance and block out fear ... stop it!
God, don't let the scavengers Jump in-system now, please!
"You can see it now, sir," Danamon told Jim.
"Sir"? Had he actually got a "sir" out of the senior tech, who had made it perfectly clear one evening that any of Jaya's senior staff could buy and sell the likes of Jim? Would wonders never cease?
There. Jim was no biotech specialist, but even he could see the discoloration on the umbilical and the way it bent.
The cyberneticist watch bent over his console. Blue and green shadows flickered over his dark face, lit already by the ambient glow of the red lights that kept them from losing time while their eyes adjusted to darkness. Blue, green; a deeper, blinking red.
He hissed under his breath, then swore.
"Well and truly snarled," muttered Danamon. "Auto-correct's burned out. See?" He pointed out the flashing red lights on Jim's screen. Not the mines. Not yet.
"Can we get confirmation from the umbilical systems?" Banks asked.
"Burned out. We'll have to replace the whole control panel," Danamon said. "Banks, you can unhelm. You're not going. I am."
He found the case, carefully sealed and time-stamped, counter-stamped it, and tenderly lifted the replacement panel from its packing.
"Want me to move in closer so you can grapple?" Jim asked.
"No way I want to use grapplers on that mess," Chief Tech Danamon told him. "I'll EVA. I'm rated satisfactory, without tether," he informed Jim, with a flicker of a smile.
Jim inclined his head ironically. What do you have to do to win friends around here?
Rising, Danamon checked his oxygen tanks, inspected his helm seals, and headed for the airlock, pulling on EVA gauntlets as he went.
The white panel slid aside, then whooshed shut.
"Ready." Danamon's voice, filtered through helmet comm, sounded tinny.
Depressurization flashed on Jim's board.
A moment later, the outer hatch slid aside. In a ship this small, he felt the jolt.
"EVA initiated, sir."
Another "sir." Well, would wonders never cease? He noted Danamon's egress time, although recorders had been live since they'd left Jaya.
Give Danamon this, Jim thought, the man could fly. His trajectory out to the damaged umbilical and his landing were as tidy as Fleet could wish.
Bioships demanded first-rate equipment and first-rate crew. Bioships were a bitch to maintain and, because the pods required shielded engines and slow speed, a worse bitch to protect. But nothing was more valuable to a recovering Alliance. The immigrants who clambered of their own free wills into those pods' sterile hibernacula were special, not just by virtue of their genes and their decisions, but because of their courage.
And that, not just restlessness, was why Jim was out here.
He stared at the green of clear readouts till his eyes watered.
His sensors stayed blank.
"READY FOR RETRIEVAL," CAME THE FILTERED VOICE ONE HOUR POINT five minutes later.
Jim gestured at an engineer to secure his helm. After the last one, on any mission he flew, no one went EVA without a backup.
"Sufficient." An embarrassed pause while Danamon remembered what had happened last time to a panicked colleague.
Let your mission commander decide sufficiency, Jim had snapped and refused to let the man fly again.
"I mean ... eight point six minutes."
"Sufficient," Jim agreed, consciously letting his voice warm to assure the scientist "no harm done." "Come on home."
Another tidy take-off, economic use of fuel, smooth landing. Manwas good enough for Fleet. No doubt he preferred the easier berths, the benefits ... the safety.
The airlock cycled open and unsealed. The man emerged, cracking his helm open only in the safety of the ridership.
Cautious. Good man. Safe man.
He pulled off his gauntlet and rubbed one hand over dark hair cropped so close to his skull that it looked almost like beard-shadow. Jim's own jaw itched.
"It's seriously ugly out there," he told Jim. "We're going to have to cast off the lines to unsnare them, then hook them up the old-fashioned way."
"By ridership?" Jim asked.
"That's my recommendation."
Jim sighed. By the time the ridership returned to Jaya and was checked over, Captain Heikkonen would be offshift. Sleeping, Jim would bet. Corporate officers in the fleets of companies like Astro-Med, Bio-Cosmos, any of the majors, lived more like executives than honest spacers.
If Heikkonen could sleep, maybe Jim could get in a meal, maybe even a session in the gym, a shower, or some sleep. God, his eyes hurt.
But the sensors stayed blank.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Shwartz