In the year 2448, the interstellar Empire of Rome spans an area almost as wide as the far-flung colonial worlds of the United States of America.
Caesar Numa Pompeii is still rebuilding his shredded empire after the catastrophic war that his predecessor, Caesar Romulus, waged against the United States. War’s end left Romulus in a nanovirus-induced coma, captive of Caesar Numa.
Numa has under his command a powerful living weapon—a patterner, an augmented man capable of synthesizing vast amounts of data into actionable intelligence.
Now, Numa has lost his prisoner, and his patterner may have turned on him, while the U.S.S. Merrimack has lost the commander of her Fleet Marines, Colonel T. R. Steele.
Events take a Mobius turn when fanatical devotees of Romulus rescue their fallen leader from his tortured captivity and fashion him into the most capable patterner ever created. Romulus is back, more insanely brilliant than ever. But without his queen, all the power in the universe means nothing. Romulus will move heaven and Earth and space and time to rescue his beloved Claudia.
Admiral John Farragut returns to the space battleship Merrimack in an attempt to head off the impending temporal catastrophe. Past and future hinge on a critical moment when time broke once before in the distant star cluster known as the Myriad.
About the Author
R. M. Meluch is an American SF writer, and published the first of her Tour of the Merrimack series of military SF/space opera novels in 2005. She can be found at rmmeluch.com.
Read an Excerpt
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED
U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES
HECHO EN U.S.A.
PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
from The Myriad
7 June 2443
U.S. Space Battleship Merrimack
Globular Cluster IC9870986 a/k/a the Myriad
THE STAR SPARROW SPRANG with a scathing shriek. The deck heaved. The ship rang behind it.
Captain Farragut heard a murmured benediction from Jose Maria. He hadn’t known he was on the deck. Farragut demanded, “Tracking.”
“Tracking, aye. We are on course. Accelerating well. Perfect launch, sir.”
Perfect. Ten minutes too late to achieve intercept. “Take us down from redline.”
Calli relayed orders to back off Merrimack’s tearing speed.
All attention remained on the speeding Star Sparrow. No one on the command deck spoke above a murmur, constantly updating velocities, accelerations, the deficit to intercept. All indicated the attempt to stop the message from reaching Origin was going to fail.
Farragut tried to convince himself that he was wrong, that failure was good. Augustus was right; there was no changing the past. Those innocent beings on board the Arran messenger ship would get away alive. That was the way it would happen. Augustus was never wrong.
Tried to inhale calm.
Augustus was always right.
And still the desperate need to run as if his world depended on it.
Low, professional voices read off dispassionate progress reports of the Star Sparrow, the Arran messenger, the Hive swarms.
Captain Farragut watched the chronometer. Watched the plots creep across the tactical map. The Star Sparrow was dead on its estimates, accelerating precisely as calculated.
The variable was the target.
“You’re making a race of it, John,” said Calli. “The Arran messenger has not kept a constant speed.”
“What’s our deficit now?”
“Augustus, coordinate a firing sequence with fire control.” At thousands of times the speed of light, the moment of contact would be brief in the idiotic extreme. He could not risk the explosion occurring a million miles after impact. Detonation by resonant command may be instantaneous, but the decision and execution was not.
Augustus nodded vacantly.
Farragut requested an update. Waited for the inevitable deficit.
“Target is twenty minutes from the gate. Missile twenty—Whoa.”
Farragut’s head snapped aside. “Explain ‘whoa.’”
“Target is decelerating! Five-minute deficit. Four! Three!”
“Control Room! Fire Control here. At this rate of closure we may overshoot.”
“I’ve got you, John,” Augustus assured him from the depths of his altered thoughts. “I’m not slowing this bird till we’re there. We aren’t there yet.”
“Nineteen-second deficit! Target still decelerating. Eighteen!” Tactical lost his professional monotone. “Arran messenger turning to line up its approach to the kzachin. Ten-second deficit. Five seconds. Four.”
And a long pause.
“Status,” Farragut demanded in the long quiet.
“Deficit holding at four seconds. No.”
Tactical made a fist. Opened it. “Five-second deficit. Six. Target is reaccelerating.” Dashed beaded sweat from under his nose. “We’re losing it, sir.”
Calli demanded coolly, “ETA of target to the gate?”
At two minutes, Farragut asked again, “Deficit to intercept?”
“Ten seconds,” Jeffrey reported gloomily.
Farragut hesitated, ordered, “Push the missile.”
The resonant control signal went out to the Star Sparrow’s guidance system. “Balk,” Fire control reported.
“Overriding, aye— Distortion! Missile flame out! Star Sparrow is running dead.”
There would be no more acceleration from the Star Sparrow, no course correction. The missile sped on inertia.
“Deficit at fifteen seconds. Sixteen. Climbing.” The young specialist turned his eyes up. “We’re not going to make it, sir.”
This is it.
Barring miracles, it was all over. Done is done. Farragut could only watch and wait out the final minute. Wait—for what?
For nothing, he hoped. John Farragut inhaled deeply. His chest felt full of heavy air, as if a gorgon swarm were sitting on it.
He told himself it would be okay. In fifty-four seconds Augustus would be laughing at him and asking him to explain why he opened fire on an unarmed, manned vessel, and John Farragut would be feeling ridiculous. He never imagined wanting so badly to be ridiculous.
He searched for Jose Maria on deck. Wanted to say to him: Here’s to Augustus laughing.
He felt a presence immediately behind him. A touch, a breath on his hair. A kiss on his neck.
And he was angry. A line crossed and never expected. Farragut’s hair prickled, face burned. He did not appreciate the gesture, and the timing stunk. It pissed him enough to snap around from the face of the imminent Judgment and demand, “What was that?”
Augustus elled his thumb and forefinger against his opposing palm, flipped a quick word in American Sign: Later.
John Farragut felt himself go wide-eyed. Tough to scare, he was suddenly profoundly terrified. Later never comes.
He stared into bottomless eyes. Crushing the tremor out of his voice, he commanded quietly, “Now, I think.”
Because he sensed Augustus had no intention of ever explaining that. For all Augustus’ talk of the immutability of time, Farragut got the feeling Augustus did not expect one or both of them to be here thirty seconds from now, and that had been an end-of-the-world stunt Augustus need not live with for more than thirty seconds.
His eyes were suddenly not blank at all. Always, when plugged in, Augustus’ eyes became vacant hollows, the thoughts racing deep inside. This time they looked back, aware, omniscient. The patterner had taken in all, synthesized all the minutiae, and saw what he had not seen before this moment.
Farragut stared at him. You just recanted!
Saw the answer in his eyes.
MUNDI TERMINUM ADPROPINQUANTE. Now that we are approaching the end of the world, John Farragut.
Your individual existence is a statistical miracle. We are, each and every one of us, highly improbable, a one-in-a-million event at conception. History turns on a space big enough for angels to dance on. I do stand by inevitability. But inevitability works on a macroscopic scale. Macroscopic events are inevitable. The blizzard will come. But the when, the where, and the unique shape of each snowflake is a function of chaos. One breath out of place, and that one singular snowflake never forms. I mistook us for macroscopic. Intuition is subconscious knowledge, and while logic says changing history is impossible, intuition says there are things beyond my ken; and you are a patterner, John Farragut. You know. You know. And you’re right. You are chaos. I won’t explain later, because there is no later. There is no earlier. There is no time at all. Simply put, it was miraculous knowing you, and that was good-bye.
So said the eyes. Aloud, Augustus answered with an ironic near smile, “I still think you’re an idiot.”
But Farragut understood him as clearly as if he’d spoken all of it.
The floor of the world kicked out from under him. This was the end of the world he knew.
Did not want to be right.
He faced forward, terrified now. The countdown fell on cotton ears.
“Arran messenger ten seconds from the gate. Nine. Eight.”
There is no later.
“He’s accelerating again.” The count sped up. “We have four seconds. Three. Two. Messenger at the gate—”
Closed his eyes.
Oh, God, it’s done. If it happens, it will be this instant. I won’t even know. Either I’m here or I’m not, and I never was.
COLONEL TR STEELE didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know who he was or what he was. He had the sense of nearing a surface, which suggested he was under something. It was dark. He wasn’t breathing. But he had a heartbeat.
He neared consciousness while they were moving him. Didn’t know who they were. His eyelids fluttered. He heard, as if through thick gauze, concerned murmurs from the people lifting him. One voice sounded sudden alarm, but Steele couldn’t understand the words.
What language was that?
Did I crash?
The last thing Colonel Steele knew, he’d been in the cockpit of his fighter Swift, lining up his approach to dock with the United States Space Battleship Merrimack.
And now he wasn’t.
He had a sense of time having passed. But how long? Hours? He had a bad feeling that it was longer than hours.
How did he get here? Where was here?
Was that voice speaking Latin?
Oh, hell, he was sinking back into red-black nothingness.
Where was the Merrimack?
And where the hell was Kerry Blue?
5 January 2448
U.S. Space Battleship Merrimack
Indra Aleph Star System
The universe was all wrong.
Rumor had it that Flight Sergeant Kerry Blue had married the Old Man.
Yeah, right. A flight sergeant married to a full bird colonel? Not in this man’s Fleet Marine. Flight Sergeant Shasher Wyatt wasn’t idiot enough to believe that squid story. And the idea of Kerry Blue married to anyone? In what universe?
But how then to explain how Kerry Blue went from anybody’s port in a storm to sleeping alone in her own pod?
Kerry Blue was pretty. Okay, fine, she was what passed for pretty on a space battleship patrolling the edge of nowhere. The longer Merrimack stayed out here at the galactic rim, the prettier Kerry Blue got. She had it all over those perfect lindas in the dreambox for being real. But you could have one of those dream babes anytime—anytime you were off duty. You couldn’t have Kerry Blue anymore, anytime, at all. That hurt. And for some stupid reason it made her more wantable.
And then there was Cain Salvador—Lieutenant Cain Salvador, if you can believe that—acting like her daddy with a shotgun. You touch Kerry Blue on pain of, well, pain. The rumor was that Cain had been best man at the supposed wedding. But just ask him if that was true and Acting Wing Commander Cain Salvador would order you to do something anatomically unacceptable involving a . . . well, anyway. Cain was not the problem. The Kerry Blue of old could get around any chaperone God ever invented. The problem was that Kerry Blue didn’t want to get around Cain. She really did act like she was holding a docking beacon for the one man who wasn’t on board. And when Kerry Blue fixed on one guy, the rest of you lot were so not screwed.
So the only ball Flight Sergeant Shasher Wyatt got to play with Kerry Blue involved a hoop.
It was Team Alpha versus Team Baker in the starboard maintenance hangar. The Bakers were swabbing the deck with the Alphas, who were not tall.
Alpha Six, Kerry Blue, jumped for the basketball.
So did Geneva Rhine, Alpha Three, the one they called Rhino. Rhino was an upholstered boulder with a cute elfin face. Rhino slammed into Kerry Blue like—well, not like a charging sugarplum fairy. And Rhino and Blue were on the same team. Just the sound could knock the air out of you.
Shasher Wyatt winced.
Kerry Blue came down from the jump, breathless and ball-less. Her feet missed the deck. She landed on her back and rolled. Shasher Wyatt staggered. An alarm clanged.
The status panel flashed red. Shasher Wyatt was over Kerry Blue, trying to help her up. He fell too.
Other Marines on the court in the maintenance bay staggered. The ship shivered. The deck heaved. There was a sound like rocks crushing. The ship’s energy shell buzzed.
Whatever Merrimack allowed you to feel wasn’t anything close to whatever really hit her. The real sounds were muted way down to something that wouldn’t blast your eardrums out.
The tremor in the deck was just the smallest suggestion of what had actually hit the space battleship.
The tremor suggested that Merrimack had just been nuked.
Right now the ship’s auto-defense program would be turning the Mack on her central axis faster than your brain synapses could fire, shifting her attitude and raising full shields to cover the engine vents.
Over the loud com the Dingo’s voice sounded: “All hands. Siege stations.”
Siege status locked the ship up until the command staff could find out exactly what they were dealing with.
Everyone hated sieges. No one—not the navvies, not the Fleet Marines, not the ship’s dogs—no one liked a defensive fight. You just wanted to get out there and blow something up. Nothing flew under siege. The Marine Wing’s fighter craft were locked down in the hangar bay. Nothing to do but stampede with the rest of the team to the projectile gun blisters and wait for something to open up.
Up ahead of Shasher Wyatt, Kerry Blue was racing Dak Shepard to get to the hatchway of gun bay twenty-five first. She was going to lose that race. Dak used to be a linebacker. But instead of squashing her at the hatchway, Dak grabbed her, shoulders and ass, and launched her into the gun blister ahead of him.
Shasher was last man in. Climbed onto his gun.
Of course the foxtrotting gun ports were buttoned shut. That meant the torpedo tubes would also be shut and the missiles clamped down inside the ship’s inertial shell.
The only guns operable at the moment would be the battleship’s energy weapons. Those were for the Navy shooters. The Fleet Marines with their projectile weapons had no trade. Got to stare at the blast covers. The monitors didn’t show nothin’. Had to wonder if they were broken.
So here was Team Alpha, twiddling their thumbs.
None of them twiddled well.
And there’s Kerry Blue seated at her gun next to Shasher. He watched her thigh move as her heels tapped. Heard her muttering, “C’mon c’mon c’mon.”
Shasher didn’t say anything. No one wants to hear the new guy talk. Shasher had just come over from the Battery. Always wanted to fly. Not flying now.
Here in the gun bay was Dak Shepard, Alpha Two. Solid guy. Dak was a brick. Swam like a brick. He was all muscle, even to his brain. Dog devoted. Dog friendly. Doesn’t drool, but he sweats. You can’t call him stupid. Okay, fine, you can, but you really want Dak on your team.
Carly Delgado was in the four slot. Strong, hard, tough, bad as a hornet. Bony. Fast. Plays with knives. That little fist swings around like a rock on the end of a whip, and Shasher Wyatt wakes up in the ship’s hospital. Why don’t you just spar with a bobcat next time, Shasher?
Kerry and Carly are both kickers when they don’t have weapons on them, which is rare. Carly’s always got a blade on her.
Carly hangs tight with Twitch Fuentes. Twitch looks dangerous, and he can be. But that dark-eyed squint and frown is just his face in at-ease position. Flat planes of heavy bones, brown skin, black hair, broad build. Quiet. After five tours you’d think Twitch would talk but he don’t. He understands Americanese as well as anyone else in the team. Shasher guessed Twitch just got so used to not talking he just doesn’t do it. Afraid of sounding dumb.
Then there’s Geneva Rhine, the Rhino. Rhino likes being a Marine. Don’t like being a girl at all. Has a red X tattooed between her eyebrows and tattoos on her knuckles DNFW, as in Do Not Foxtrot With. Rhino hates Romans. Don’t we all? But Rhino hates Romans.
Not here in the gun bay with the rest of the Alphas was Flight Leader Cain Salvador. Lieutenant Cain Salvador now. Cain was probably on the command deck. That’s where Colonel Steele would be, if Colonel Steele was here.
Merrimack was operating at the back of the Outback, at the edge of the galaxy, where it wouldn’t do to have a half battalion of Fleet Marines under the command of a mere rate. It would take two months or more to whistle a real officer out here from Earth. So they—the “they” who made those decisions—they had gone and field-promoted Cain.
Nothing was right in the universe. Colonel TR Steele should be up there on the command deck, and Cain Salvador—Flight Leader Cain Salvador—should be in here in gun bay twenty-five with the rest of us Alphas.
Should be was another way of saying ain’t.
The buzz of the ship’s energy guns vibrated the gun bay.
There’s Kerry Blue kicking her heels like a squirmy child. “Well, someone’s got trade.”
“Ain’t us, chica linda,” said Carly Delgado.
“I think they’re just shooting in the dark,” Shasher Wyatt said.
Dak Shepard: “Can’t we do that?”
“I’m with Shash,” Kerry Blue said. “Know what I’m not hearing?”
Dak and Carly called it at the same time: “Incoming fire.”
Listened to the ship’s beam gunners raking surrounding space with concentrated hellfire. Didn’t sound as though they connected with anything.
“Helm. Take us to FTL.”
At the captain’s order the space battleship jumped out of normal space to faster than light.
The stars disappeared.
“Change course, random vector.”
The pilot acknowledged. “Random vector, aye.”
“Jump down to sublight.”
The stars reappeared in the Merrimack’s portholes.
“Position of the bogey!” Captain Carmel demanded.
Tactical reported, “Bogey does not register on the tactical screen. Bogey does not appear to be in normal space.”
Merrimack’s attacker had apparently dropped out of FTL to take its shots and immediately jumped back to FTL space. There was no knowing where the enemy was in FTL space. But here in normal space Merrimack was a sitting target.
The captain said, “Dingo, I want to be somewhere else.”
The ship’s XO, Stuart Ryan, was a lean, hard-strung man from the land of Oz, eager as a wild dog. Dingo Ryan gave the orders, “FTL jump. Random vector.”
“FTL, aye. Random vector, aye.”
Traveling FTL was dangerous inside a planetary system, but Merrimack had collision avoidance programmed into her otherwise random choices to prevent her from crashing through anything massive. Not that she couldn’t survive a collision with just about anything short of a black hole.
Safe again at FTL, Calli Carmel rounded on Tactical like a hissing swan. “Tactical! Identify bogey.”
The ship’s systems would have got a read on the hostile plot in the instant of its appearance while in normal space. Tactical had since had time to process the data.
Marcander Vincent at the tactical station reported, “Bogey reads like a Roman Accipiter. Negative hull identifiers. But it posted a Roman flag.”
“Helm. Change course. Random vector.”
No one could track a plot moving FTL. But technology never stood still, and Calli Carmel took no chances when dealing with Romans. She assumed Merrimack was being tracked even while traveling in FTL space.
“Random course change, aye,” the pilot responded.
Calli looked to the tactical station. “Mister Vincent. Was the bogey sending IFF?”
“Negative transmissions while the plot was sublight,” the com tech added.
“Dingo. Lock us down.”
“Helm. Systems. Full lockdown.”
Her XO gave the orders to make it happen. In full lockdown, Merrimack was almost invulnerable. The list of threats that could fit through that “almost” was getting longer by the year. Merrimack was still a grand ship, but not a new one.
“Lockdown full. Aye.”
“Return us to normal space, a thousand klicks from our original position.”
“Space normal, aye.” The pilot gave the galactic coordinates of the space battleship’s new position.
“Stand at full alert,” Calli ordered.
And waited for their attacker to come back around for another strike.
Dingo Ryan came to her side. “What do you think?” he muttered.
Calli gave her head a small shake. Really didn’t know. “Nothing’s right about this.”
Dingo glanced to a porthole. You never saw your attacker. But you really couldn’t help looking.
“Where is he?”
In the waiting, the ship began a low thumping from within. You felt it through the decks—Marines ’cussing. This percussion number was their own war dance. The Bull Mastiffs of the 89th Battalion wanted out to hunt.
The bogey had shown a Roman flag.
“Give me my direct res link to Numa.”
“Res link open. On your com, Captain.”
Caesar Numa Pompeii took Calli’s hail immediately. Without greeting, the voice of Caesar himself sounded from the captain’s com. “What do you have?”
There were no gaps in his transmission. That was telling.
Dingo mouthed without sound, He’s traveling sublight.
Calli nodded silent acknowledgment. Spoke into the com, “Why did you jump me?”
“Captain Carmel?” Numa sounded innocent. Truly. Not pretending.
Calli told him, “I just took a thousand megaton tap from your Accipiter.”
Caesar Numa’s voice returned a quiet rumble. “Not mine. Kill it. Then find the nest and kill that.”
Calli didn’t take orders from the Roman emperor. But she welcomed permission to open fire on a Roman-flagged vessel. That permission betrayed Caesar’s desperation to exterminate the subversives.
Caesar Numa didn’t ask where Calli was. He would already know, the instant she’d hailed him on the resonator.
Rome had the technology to locate the source of a resonant pulse. The United States Naval Fleet didn’t.
The res link went dead without a signoff. Unless Calli had Romulus in custody, Numa, the emperor of Rome, had no time for her.
Calli turned to her XO. “That Accipiter can’t be alone.”
Dingo gave a quick nod. He also smelled a rival predator here. “There’s a hidden outpost or a mothership close by. Got to be. We got lucky flushing out that Accipiter.”
“Lucky never happens in my presence,” Calli said.
Lucky usually meant you didn’t understand the situation. Lucky meant you were being set up.
“It looks like we’re close to what we’re hunting for,” Calli said. “I don’t trust the look.”
No one ever just happened to run into anyone between stars. And this chance encounter felt altogether wrong.
Calli posed her problem to the XO. “Why did the Accipiter hit us?”
Dingo Ryan didn’t understand the question. “Sir?”
“What did the Accipiter gain by attacking us? He knows we’re shielded. All he did by shooting at us was give away his presence. Why would he reveal himself? And how did he know we were here?”
“Numa knows we’re here,” Commander Ryan said.
“Numa knows now. He didn’t know where we were until I resonated him. Why is there a short-range Roman attack craft out here and why did it hit us?”
“Sir, we’re in this star system hunting for a Romulid outpost. Is it too big a stretch to think we finally found one?”
“Yes. It is. You know it is. If those are Romulii in that Accipiter, then we didn’t find them. They came out and flashed us.”
Dingo Ryan covered his eyes and gave a growling snarl.
The war drumming from down decks was getting louder. The Marines pounded, stomping on the bulkheads and ductwork. The sound reverberated through the ship. BOOM pom pom pom BOOM pom pom pom.
Captain Carmel finally ordered, “Mr. Ryan. Throw a bucket of water on my dogs. They’re not going outside.”
Four months after Caesar Numa ejected Merrimack from the Zoen star system at the galactic edge, the U.S. space battleship still patrolled the galactic Outback. This was not American space. The Perseid arm of the galaxy was dominated by colonies of the Pacific Rim nations of Earth. The United States had no colonies here.
Merrimack’s company and crew of 1145 hands made her the largest U.S. presence in Perseid space.
The Perseid arm of the galaxy had been a festering ground for Romulus and his rabid followers, the Romulii, even before his public rise to power. Romulus had founded most of the Roman colonies in Perseid space while his father Caesar Magnus was still alive.
After Romulus’ meteoric rise and meteoric fall, his followers were still fanatics. More than ever. The Romulii became an underground subversive faction of the Roman Empire, disloyal to the legitimate Caesar Numa Pompeii.
The United States was not an ally of Rome or its current emperor, Numa. Between Romulus and Numa, Numa was the lesser of two evils. It had been Caesar Romulus who declared war on the United States of America two years ago. The U.S. didn’t want to see that Caesar back in power.
Romulus was missing.
War’s end had left Romulus in Caesar Numa’s custody, incapacitated, and existing in an induced coma on the Roman capital world Palatine under heavy guard.
At some time between then and now, Romulus’ rabid followers had spirited their comatose leader away from Numa’s custody. Worst guess had him way out here in Perseid space, being rehabilitated in preparation to bring him back to power.
A healthy Romulus could mobilize worlds. Romulus had been adored. Still was.
That Romulus might be alive and recovering in Perseid space was a nightmare that must never see daylight.
So the Joint Chiefs had not ordered Merrimack back to Near Space.
Captain Carmel ordered, “Launch Argus.”
Argus, named for the mythical hundred-eyed giant, was a flotilla of drone scouts controlled by the Wraith—Specialist Tim Raytheon—the ship’s chief V-jock and drone wrangler. Wraith was young, bony, and pale. He received a rejuv three times a year to keep his reaction times sharp.
Dingo Ryan ordered, “Mister Raytheon, turn over some rocks in this system. You’re looking for just about anything. You know what belongs and what doesn’t.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
The drone flotilla Argus deployed with no more noise than the hissing of missiles through their launch tubes.
As the drones dispersed, Commander Ryan moved to Calli’s side. “It’s a big search area, Captain,” he said quietly.
The rough dimension of the Indra Aleph star system was 500 billion cubic astronomical units.
“It is that, Mister Ryan,” Calli allowed.
But it was smaller than infinity. By galactic measure, Merrimack was just about stepping on the Romulid lair.
Dingo said, “I’m surprised Romulus’ followers don’t have him in a labyrinth.”
Romulus was beloved by his fanatics for his dangerous and twisted sense of entertainment. Calli’s brows lifted. A labyrinth did sound like Rom’s sort of fun.
She said at last, “Is there anything to say they don’t?”
12 Ianuarius 2448
Indra Shwa Zed Star System
THE CRAMPED GRIMY CORRIDOR looked like it used to be white. The lights buzzed within dirty fixtures. Flickered on and off. Something yellow-green dripped off a moldering ceiling that was so low that Nox had to crouch. The drops sizzled on hitting the concrete floor and gave off a sickly sweet vapor. A dark bloody brown crust dried around the fallen drops. Flat, pincered bugs the size of flounders with serrate legs clung to the peeling walls on either side of him. Their mouthparts clacked.
Then the passageway opened to a wide high chamber, and Nox saw in it what he was meant to see: In the floor, a pit. From the ceiling, a pendulum.
Perched over the doorway hunched a molting, raggy-winged, one-eyed raven with a croaking caw and a viciously barbed beak.
Almost none of it was real.
Nox pulled his monoc down over his right eye. The filtered lens on the monoc showed him only what was really there—just a plain metal chamber. No monster bugs, no blood, no pendulum. There really was something sticky on the floor, but it was clear. The raven was nothing but a caw.
Nox walked through the swinging pendulum.
Overly complicated, nonsensical squidsquat. Nox would name this defensive program Jackass Quest, except that he was here to assassinate a Caesar. And a lot of the merda in here could really kill him.
Sensors implanted in Nox’s eyes were sending readings up to the ship for his guide, Cinna, to process and direct him where to go. The patterner Cinna, codenamed Chessman for this mission, saw through Nox’s sensor implants. The implants sent more than visual images. And it wasn’t just Nox’s sensors sending the patterner information.
The Chessman was seeing through the sensors that all his brothers carried, seven of them, crawling through this maze. Plugged into the ship’s vast data bank in patterner mode, Cinna could process all the input at once.
“Nemo. Pit,” the Chessman warned.
“I see it,” Nox said. “What do you want me to do with it?”
“Don’t fall in,” said the Chessman.
“Jump off a cliff, O Best Beloved,” Nox said back.
“This looks like a game I played,” one of Nox’s brothers said.
Another answered, “I think this is a game I played.”
“Gurdanjan’s Dungeon,” said another.
“That’s the one.”
This program was set up to deter, distract, disguise, and destroy. This dungeon was meant to really kill them. Playfully.
This was what happened when you put gamers in charge of security. They built in layers of overly elaborate, impractical, and outright frivolous obstacles, when what they really needed were heavily armed guards with orders to shoot to kill.
The gaminess of this place had all the hallmarks of the Romulii.
A lofty, no nonsense voice that had to be Nicanor’s sounded. “Chessman, can we just shut down the game generator so we can all see what we are doing?”
“We could. If one of you shows me where the generator is,” the Chessman responded, and went on just as calmly, “Ogre. Run. To your right. Fast.”
Nox heard heavy breathing over the link. Had to be Ogre. Running.
The call signs were confusing Nox. The only call signs Nox knew instantly were Nemo—that was his call sign—and Chessman—that was Cinna, the patterner. Chessman was Nox’s navigator in here, his lifeline.
And Scimitar. Nox knew the call sign Scimitar. Scimitar was the whole squad. If Chessman called Scimitar that meant all the brothers and it was an emergency. Nox listened for that one. If Chessman called Scimitar, they were probably running for their lives.
Chessman: “Loki. Walk softly. You have a human being directly under you, one level down.”
A whisper, probably Loki, sounded, “Can I shoot down?”
The Chessman: “Don’t.”
The presence of human guards meant the defenders were serious about guarding something, not just playing games. The presence of human guards also meant it was going to be a son of a bitch getting out of here alive.
The man who sent the Ninth Circle in here was not desperately concerned with their getting out alive. Just in their completing the objective: Kill Romulus.
Caesar Numa couldn’t openly order a hit on his predecessor. So Numa had secretly conscripted the most feared and vicious pirate band in civilized space, arranged their very conspicuous deaths, and placed a patterner in their squad.
The brothers were privateers without a marque. Officially they didn’t work for Caesar. Officially they were the disgraced dead.
There was a high chance of actually dying in here. They knew that coming in.
The voice of the Chessman sounded in Nox’s ear: “Nemo, Paladin. Ignore the falling rocks.”
Nox fell, screaming, with a feeling of being crushed and buried alive. His voice came out amazingly loud for having rocks caving in his chest. Nox gasped, “Chessman, is this a tactile illusion?”
“It is. Get up and walk.”
It took all Nox’s will and strength. He didn’t even feel his limbs moving. He just imagined walking. Then suddenly he lurched out of the illusion and staggered. And breathed.
His brother Pallas, code-named Paladin, was standing over him. “You all right?”
“I’m superluminary,” Nox snarled, gulping air.
The patterner’s calm voice directed, “Nemo. See the iron maiden.”
“I see it, Chessman.”
Nox hesitated. “What’s inside?”
“I won’t know until you open it.”
Nox’s tolerance for gore was getting lower and lower. He swallowed hard. His hand quivered a bit as he grabbed the handle of the iron maiden’s lid and pulled it open.
The iron maiden was viciously spiked on the inside but Nox found no victim impaled there.
There was no back part to the torture device at all.
Beyond the open lid stretched a quiet, antiseptic corridor with walls of calm sage green.
The Chessman instructed, “Nemo. Paladin. Advance.”
“Are you sure, Chessman?” Nox asked, not trusting his eyes. Nox was a terrorist. The very idea of an iron maiden terrified him.
“Reasonably sure.” Cinna’s soft voice sounded maddeningly calm.
Nightmares loomed at the back of Nox’s consciousness, threatening to paralyze him. He force-marched himself through the opening of the iron maiden, his back tensed, anticipating invisible spikes closing around him like jaws.
But he felt only a soft tiled floor under his foot, just like what he saw. Behind him he felt only Pallas following close as a tail.
Pleasant diffuse lighting shone from the white ceiling of the corridor. White noise drifted in from somewhere. “We’re in,” said Nox. “I think.”
It looked like the game stopped here. Everything around Nox looked, smelled, felt sane and real.
“Move quickly,” the Chessman said. “You have set off a silent alarm. Whatever they send against you now will be real. And probably human.”
Nox and Pallas were wearing personal fields, which protected them against projectiles and energy weapons, but there were other ways to be killed.
Nox yanked at the first side door he came to. It opened easily. He stood in the doorframe, staring.
“What am I looking at, Chessman?”
It looked like a hospital room. A man floated unconscious in a tank of pink medical gel.
“Is this real?”
“Yes. He’s real.”
“You found him!” one of the brothers cried over the link.
“No,” Nox said. This wasn’t Romulus.
This man was white. You could see that even through the pink gel. He was naked and he was blond. Romulus was bronze-skinned and he had dark hair. Romulus was also younger than this man. “This is the wrong guy,” Nox said.
“Are you sure?” one of his brothers asked over the com. “They could have given Romulus a new body.”
“Well they’re not jolly likely to give him this body,” said Nox.
This man was what Americans called big, but he was not what Romans considered big. This man was only about Nox’s height, but broader, more muscular with heavier bones. His skin was a paler shade of Caucasian than Nox’s. His hair a whiter shade of blond. This man was older than Nox.
It was not the body of a Caesar.
Nox did a double take. He hadn’t recognized the man at first because the figure was pasty and inanimate and shrouded in pink gel. This unconscious body held none of the energy and defiant fire that made the man the gladiator he was.
Nox had seen him on the imperial broadcasts during the war.
“Chessman, are you seeing this? Do you know this guy?”
“I do. I don’t care. It’s not the target. Keep going.”
Nox broke into a trot down the corridor, throwing doors open on the right side, Pallas was already opening doors on the left side. The rooms were scientific chambers where medici could work undisturbed by the insanity of this fortress’s substantial moat. There were no medici in the rooms now.
Suddenly Nox saw where he wanted to go—the door up ahead with the crest on its lintel in black and gold. Julian colors. “That’s it!”
The Chessman spoke, not the words Nox expected. “Scimitar. Scimitar.”
Scimitar was the code name for the whole squad. It signaled dire emergency.
“Fall back. Get out. Get out. Scimitar. Scimitar. Get out.”
AUDIBLE ALARMS SOUNDED NOW. Nox could scarcely hear Cinna’s soft voice over them.
“Nemo! Paladin! Get out of there!”
Instead, Nox charged ahead to the imperially crested door. The door was locked. The lock demanded a retinal scan. Nox was not giving that thing his eyeball.
He threw himself at the door, shoulder first. “No. We’re here. We came here to—” He stopped talking. Better not say why he was here. He hurled himself at the door again. “We came here for a reason. Get me through this door!”
Chessman: “Nemo. Fall back! We’ll do it later! You need to get out of there!”
Nox threw his weight against the door. The door didn’t feel stout. And with another heave, it gave way. Nox staggered into the chamber.
Came to an abrupt stop.
Pallas ploughed into his back and stopped.
“Merda,” Nox said.
Five other voices sounded in their coms. “What?”
Nox couldn’t say it.
Pallas could. “He’s gone!”
Nox and Pallas were in a room that was part sickbay and part royal chamber. The walls were hung with royal trappings in black and gold. An oak wreath hung over an empty pallet where a patient had recently lain.
The life-support equipment had been left behind.
A top sheet appeared half-dragged off the pallet, as it might if it clung to someone who’d got up and walked under his own power.
Nox whirled about-face to run away. Collided with Pallas.
Abruptly a heavy metal barrier slid across the doorway with deep thunks of locking mechanisms.
The voice of the Chessman sounded in their ears, “Nemo! Paladin! You got yourselves bottled. Go vertical.”
Nox and Pallas looked up. “How?”
The ceiling was high and smooth. There was a vent up there, but it was smaller than Nox’s head. Nox didn’t see any other egress from this room.
A gurgle sounded from the floor drain.
Pallas, blanched. “Nego.” No.
The gurgle from the floor sounded closer. It was coming from a drain no bigger around than Nox’s fist.
And suddenly water jetted up from the opening with bone-breaking force.
“Oh no no no,” Pallas murmured, lips gone ashen. Water pounded the ceiling and rained down.
Nox had thought they were done with games. With Romulus the games never stopped.
“Is this a tactile illusion, Chessman?” Nox asked, hopeful.
Pallas bounced off the walls, his boots splashing in the rising water.
Nox roared at the air. “Get us out of here!”
Red lights shone on both Nox’s and Pallas’ displacement collars. Jammers were operating. There would be no displacing out of here.
Chessman: “Get yourselves on the roof for Santa Claus.”
Santa Claus was a physical pick up and grab. Santa Claus required Nox and Pallas to get to the asteroid’s surface.
The Chessman calmly gave directions to each of the brothers where to go.
Nox and Pallas were locked underground and nearly under water.
A murmur sounded, right next to Nox, so soft Nox scarcely heard it. “Frater, I don’t want to go this way.”
“We’re not!” Nox said decisively, one of his better attempts at a bald lie.
Water swirled around Nox’s shins. Pallas tried to take a step, splashed forward and fell, face under. He emerged sputtering.
Water shot up in a solid pillar from the floor. It hammered at the ceiling, spraying the whole chamber with hard rain. The water level on the floor rose steadily. Pallas climbed onto the pallet.
Nox waded to him, his legs dragging heavily in the rising flood. Pallas reached down and helped Nox up onto the mattress, which was getting soggy.
“Chessman!” Nox bellowed.
Cinna’s voice sounded calm. “In the ceiling there is a vertical shaft intersecting with a horizontal cross duct. The horizontal duct is far too small for human passage, but the vertical stack is wide enough for you to chimney up.”
The hard spray from the spouting water had everything wet. Nox’s and Pallas’ faces dripped.
Nox spat water off his lips. “Yeah? The vent to get at it is far too small too!”
“Widen it,” Chessman said.
Widen it. Right.
The ceiling was too high for either Nox or Pallas to reach the vent, even standing on the pallet.
Nox dragged gauntlets onto his wet hands. Pallas fished a hammer claw out of his pack. Pallas boosted Nox up on his shoulders. Pallas teetered on the spongy mattress.
And the lights failed.
Nox roared wordless noise. He pushed his palms against the ceiling to steady their tottering human column in the wet darkness.
A light blossomed from below. Pallas had stuck a glow dot on his own shoulder. Pallas reached up and pressed one onto Nox’s back as well.
Nox pulled the cover off the vent and threw it away to the side. Too scared and angry to say anything, he reached down an open palm. The handle of the hammer claw slapped firmly into Nox’s waiting glove.
Nox swung the claw at the rim of the small vent. Widen it. Widen it. The hammer strike clinked. Nox tried not to scream. “Chessman! It’s metal!”
The Chessman, insanely calm, said, “Nemo. It’s ductwork. Not armor. It’s thin.”
Nox forced panic back and realized yes, the barrier did have a thin feel to it. He beat holes into it until he could pry the metal back into razor-edged rolls. He could see at last there really was a shaft up there, maybe a meter wide. Air moved against Nox’s face. Water swirled at his thighs.
Under him, Pallas was blowing bubbles on the water surface. “Hurry.”
Nox slid the hammer claw into the horizontal duct. He placed gloved hands on the cut edges, and poised to hoist himself up. Pallas got a palm under one of Nox’s boots and gave him a push. Nox scrambled up through the jagged hole. He planted one boot on either side of the opening in the horizontal duct.
Down below, Pallas was up to his nose in churning water.
Nox set the small of his back against one wall of the vertical shaft and lifted one boot, sole out, to press hard against the opposite wall. When he was pressing hard enough to hold himself up between boot sole and back, he brought the other boot up. He planted his gauntleted palms on the wall behind him and started to chimney up the shaft. He moved his gloved palms up, then his back up. One foot. The other foot. Quickly. Hands. Back. Step. Step. Hands. Back. Step. Step. Hands—
—slipped. Nox’s body folded up like a jackknife as he dropped into Pallas coming up beneath him. He met no resistance. He just swept Pallas along with his descent, and they both plunged into the rising water in a cloud of bubbles, down and down. Nox couldn’t see. His leg brushed against the floor. The pounding inrush from the drain surrounded him with solid noise.
He dragged off his gauntlets and kicked up. He found the ceiling. The water was up to the top. There was no room to breathe.
Where was the vent? He’d lost it. He couldn’t see. He had no sense of where he was. The mattress should’ve been under him and wasn’t. Which way?
He needed to breathe now.
Felt a rough grip and a yank sideways. Then hands under his ass gave him a mighty shove. Pallas launched him up through the vent. Nox caught the sides of the opening and he gasped. Immediately he hauled himself up. He planted his back and feet against the walls of the shaft and chimneyed up again, fast, pressing hard.
The water had stopped rising. It stayed flush with the level of the ceiling. There had to be a flotation cutoff switch.
He heard a gasp directly below him. Pallas had found air. Nox heard him coming up beneath him.
Nox ascended as fast as he dared, pressing hard with the small of his back and his boot soles.
The voice of the Chessman: “Nemo. Stop. Paladin stop. Nemo. Open the hatch.”
“Behind and above your head.”
Maintaining pressure between his back and boots Nox craned his neck awkwardly to find the hatch. He lifted his arms to get at it. Fumbled to open it.
And lost purchase between his back and feet. Came down on Pallas.
A grunt underneath him.
Pallas had his head bowed, ready for it this time. Pallas was braced and holding fast.
Quickly Nox reached for the access hatchway. He grasped the frame and pulled himself up and off of Pallas. He slither-crawled head first through the opening and spilled out to a cloister-sized chamber.
It looked like the living quarters of a medicus, but empty. The inhabitant had packed up and gone. Not a panic flight either. The room was orderly. The medicus had performed his resurrection and left.
Chessman: “Nemo. Paladin. Move into the corridor and turn left. Quickly. Incoming hostiles.”
Superfluous to identify the incoming plots as hostile. Everything in the known universe was hostile to them.
Nox didn’t hear his other five brothers on the com anymore. They must’ve got back to the ship already. Nox hoped that was why he wasn’t hearing them anymore.
Nox and Pallas climbed a ladder up a fire shaft to the asteroid surface. Pallas lifted the hatch.
He howled at the cutting cold. Nox and Pallas were wet. Bitter air sliced down the shaft as fire alarms shrieked. With the opening of the fire hatch, the defenders knew exactly where Nox and Pallas were.
Nox climbed to the surface.
Overhead was perfect black. Ice crystals blew across the frozen ground with scraping sounds. Red heat lamps gave off a lurid glow and not a hell of a lot of heat. It was a jagged landscape. The air was thin, held down to the asteroid by a low, energy barrier.
High above that, a physical umbrella dome stretched horizon to flat horizon.
No spacecraft was showing. The umbrella dome was still way up there, shimmering, intact.
Nox lifted his arms, useless. He roared at the blank, artificial sky. “They beached us!”
He hurled epithets.
The calm voice of the Chessman sounded: “Run.”
Nox shut up and ran.
With a roar like a mountain crumbling, the ice pack up ahead divided before an invisible plow.
A slash of light appeared like a door into the black void. A ramp lowered from nothingness. Pallas raced up.
Buzzing flashes surrounded Nox, several paces behind. Defensive guns periscoped up from the ground. Their beams glanced off Nox’s personal field.
The ramp to the ship was lifting away, the slash of light narrowing.
Nox dove into the light. The ramp rose up, just catching Nox and rolling him aboard. The hatch sealed shut.
Nox rolled to a stop.
The ship’s energy gathered underneath him. He could feel it through the warm deck.
The pirate ship sprang, crashing straight up through the asteroid’s dome, ripping open the sky.
Then all the stars shining in the viewports disappeared.
In an instant, the pirate ship Bagheera was traveling FTL.
Nox lay on his back on the deck, palms over his ears, which felt cold enough to fall off. Made it!
Faunus’ laughter boomed. “Weren’t sure you were going to join us, frateri!”
Pallas smiled, but Nox didn’t see anything funny. His frozen clothing was thawing. He rasped, “Why did we go in at all! Why didn’t we just blow the whole idiot maze up!”
Nicanor spoke crisply, “Because then we wouldn’t know that we completely missed the target! Romulus got away.”
Nox stayed on his back, catching his breath, unfreezing his lungs.
Cinna came down from the control room.
Cinna had been cultivated from the same genetic base as the rest of Nox’s Roman-bred brothers, but Cinna was younger. He looked smoother. His irises were opaque black disks. The implanted cables of a patterner hung loose from the back of his neck and his forearms. He wasn’t operating as a patterner at the moment. “Did anyone get hit?”
“No,” said Pallas.
“No,” Orissus growled.
“No,” said Nox.
Cinna stalked across the deck, tearing off his com set. An angry young archangel. His finger pointed down at Nox on the deck. “What do you mean no? Nox, what is that?”
Nox stared back at Cinna, puzzled. He turned his head and followed Cinna’s gaze backward, over his own shoulder. There was some blood on the deck. His. Nox’s brow knotted. He frowned, confused. “Unclench, Little Brother.” Nox pushed himself off the deck and stood up. “I got scratched.” Probably from the metal edges of the vent he’d enlarged. He hadn’t felt it. He kind of remembered the ripping at his haz suit as he’d fallen through.
“Oh—” Cinna softly swore up blue flames.
“What?” said Nox. “Am I dead?” Thought he was kidding.
Cinna spoke tightly, “Pretty much.”
CINNA SEIZED NOX by the torn suit and hauled him into the ship’s medical compartment.
Formerly an ambassadorial craft, the pirate ship Bagheera was a Xerxes type spacecraft. It carried excellent diagnostic equipment, but this was an exotic problem. Cinna needed to jury-rig the analyzers to look for microbombs.
The other six brothers crowded at the chamber hatch, waiting for the prognosis. They were keeping their distance, and they had their personal fields activated. Some microbombs were programmed to detonate under standard detection procedures.
Cinna pronounced, grim. “We didn’t escape.”
The brothers exchanged uncertain glances. Of course they’d escaped. All eight of them were here.
Galeo fidgeted with his neat red goatee. “What’s the problem?”
Leo drew back sharply. He backed into Orissus and Nicanor who shoved him forward again.
Leo had a positive horror of nanites. Leo saw nanites under the bed, in every drop of water. The others ragged him mercilessly about it. Leo recovered in a moment and gave an annoyed laugh. “No, really, Cinna. What is it?”
“Nanites,” said Cinna.
“Verily?” Galeo tried to scoff.
Cinna glared at him. Cinna was always serious.
Nox, from the exam table, said, “I’m fine. See? No raving. No visions.”
Romulus’ nanites only affected Romulus. And his sister Claudia. The nanites had really slammed Claudia.
These nanites weren’t doing anything. “They screwed up,” Nox said.
“Do not underestimate the Romulii,” Cinna said. “Just because they are a bit insane, doesn’t mean they aren’t very, very clever.”
“So are we,” said Nox. A bit insane and very, very clever. “We’ll get through this.”
“I don’t think we will.”
Coming from Cinna, that was a death sentence.
“Why did the nanites target me?” Nox asked. “Is it because I wasn’t born Roman?”
“No. Because you’re the one who got who got himself scratched in the dungeon,” Cinna said.
Nox craned to look over his shoulder at the scratches on his back. Hell, they didn’t even feel infected. “Why didn’t these things just kill me immediately and be done with it?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Cinna said. “It needs answering.”
“He’s a Trojan Horse,” Leo said.
“Yes,” Cinna said. “I believe he is.”
A graveled voice sounded from the back of the group. Orissus: “Get him out of here.”
Nox said, “Maybe I’m not the right carrier. That’s why the nanites aren’t doing anything.”
“They’re doing something,” Cinna said.
“What can we do for Nox?” That was Nicanor. Stuffy martinet Nicanor. Nox suddenly loved the hell out of him.
Pallas suggested, “Numa has the resources to help Nox if he wants to.”
Graveyard snorts all around. Even Nox snorted.
“We can’t go to Caesar,” Faunus said. “We failed our mission. We didn’t kill Romulus. Merda, we didn’t even find Romulus.”
“Numa Pompeii won’t let anything with nanites near him. He’d kill all of us first,” Nicanor said. “Or, more simple, just order us to die.”
“Am I contagious?” Nox asked.
The brothers were keeping their distance. Leo was standing just about in the next solar system.
“Somewhat,” Cinna said.
“How what?” Nox yelped. “Which what!”
“I’m not sure,” Cinna said. “Those scratches are how the nanites got inside you. What they’re doing now, I don’t know.”
Cinna reached behind his back for the cables implanted in his spine. He plugged them into the base of his skull. His face relaxed. His irises, already black, looked like hollow pits. He connected the cables in his forearms, then made a last connection with a port to Bagheera’s data array.
He was only in for a moment. Then he pulled all the connections apart. He announced, “Do not kiss Nox good-bye.”
Nox took a breath of relief. “You mean I’m going to live?”
Cinna reworded for his brothers, “I mean don’t anyone kiss Nox when you say good-bye to him.”
They would be saying good-bye. From a distance.
Leo asked, from out in the corridor, “What are you going to do, Nox?”
Words stuck in Nox’s throat. How was he to know the answer to that? “You mean besides crying like a little girl? I HAVE NO IDEA!”
Cinna was watching the instrument readouts. He made an ominous little sound in his throat.
“What?” Nox snapped.
“Give Nox a strong sedative,” Cinna ordered Pallas.
“Tequila,” Nox requested.
“Something faster acting than that. Pallas, haste. We need to slow Nox’s pulse—fast. The nanites are circulating. And they’re oscillating.”
“I’m guessing that’s bad,” Nox said.
Cinna waited until after Pallas administered an intradermal sedative to respond. “It’s . . . ominous. Something will happen when all the oscillators sync-up.”
The sedative was already slowing Nox’s blood circulation. Nox asked fuzzily, “What happens if they sync?”
“There’s no if. Synchronization is a mathematical certainty. Each oscillator affects all the others. When two oscillators with different periods pulse at the same time, they lock together in the same rhythm and they do not fall out of step with each other. Eventually, all the oscillators will sync-up with one another. Then it’s not good. We could be in danger.”
“What about me?” said Nox.
“You?” said Cinna. “No question. You’re done.”
“Keep them from syncing!” Pallas cried. Those were words Nox tried to say, but he was too slow to form them.
“I can’t,” Cinna said. “They’re mingling in Nox’s bloodstream. They’re in different phases now, but every time one pulses in the vicinity of another, they lock step. It’s a symmetrical bond. Sooner or later all the oscillators will pulse together.”
“So what happens when they are all synced?”
“I’m pretty sure they blow up.”
“Get them out!” Nox cried.
Cinna’s hesitation was disturbing. When he spoke, it was worse. “We don’t have the equipment to extract nanites.”
Nanite extractors were exotic specialized equipment. Bagheera was created to be an ambassadorial ship and, though it was exceptionally well supplied, it didn’t carry anything like nano-synthesis equipment.
“And we have damn little time. While Nox stays on board, we are all in danger.”
Nox asked in a drugged calm, eyes swimming up to Cinna’s beautiful face, “Are we pitching Nox out the air lock, Little Brother?”
Cinna turned his opaque gaze down to Nox. “That is the plan. Yes.”
Orissus brought a life pod to the medical compartment. Nox obediently rolled into the thin-membraned sac. He thought to ask, “Why am I doing this?”
Cinna closed the sac three quarters of the way around him. He left it open over Nox’s face.
Nox’s brothers, in full containment suits with personal fields activated, carried the life pod to the air lock. Leo wasn’t one of the pallbearers. Leo opened the air lock and stepped way aside to let the bearers step through.
The brothers placed Nox in the air lock. The last person Nox saw was Pallas, who nodded encouragingly, stupidly clinging to hope. “It’ll be okay.”
The life sac closed over Nox’s face. It was dark in here. One of his brothers had given him a bottle of tequila. Nox hugged it like a teddy bear.
He felt a pressure change with the air lock shutting, sealing him off.
He knew when the air lock opened. His life pod lost contact with the deck. He heard the swish of expelled air. And that was the end of external sound. His life pod ballooned out, stretched taut.
He floated, weightless, alone with his own breathing, his own pulse, and the soft whisper of the air circulator.
There was no light. Dammit, they hadn’t given him a light. Nox floated against the smooth confines of the life pod. He touched against one side, and slowly bounced to the other side.
This isn’t a life pod. It’s a body bag.
He’d been tossed into the vastest of all oceans. The pressure was minimal. He felt puffy. Heat distributed unevenly, forming uncomfortable cooling eddies around him.
The membrane that separated him from eternity seemed so fragile. It felt as if it might tear at a thought.
How long do I have? He’d asked that before being cast outboard.
Cinna had answered. Best you not know.
His heart beat slowly. That was the drugs. It was hard to panic with a heartbeat this slow. All his little oscillators were joining up and flashing together in greater numbers. He felt his own exhalation through his nostrils against his upper lip.
He would have liked some sound. Music. A voice link. Someone to talk to. They’d sent him out with a com tuned to the international emergency channel, but no one was talking to him.
He heard his sluggish pulse brush at his eardrum. Sounded like little pairs of breaths.
He smelled his own fear. Claustrophobia crept through him in the black heart of infinity.
He gave a slow-motion kick in protest.
A noise formed in his throat. It would have been a scream if he had the energy.
Bagheera lurked, dark, cloaked in perfect stealth, monitoring the tiny life pod from a distance.
Bagheera didn’t carry the facilities to clean the nanites out of Nox, but as Cinna told his brothers, “Someone out here does.”
The U.S. Space Battleship Merrimack carried a hospital bigger than that of most terrestrial cities. Merrimack had nanite scrubbers.
Normally hunting anything in space was like trying to find a needle in a pine forest. But Cinna knew where Merrimack had been a few terrestrial days ago. Merrimack gave away her position when she sent Caesar a resonant hail.
Merrimack was nearby, astronomically speaking. Not a coincidence. The Americans were hunting the same installation the brothers had just found.
With the lifepod in tow, Bagheera raced at threshold velocity to Merrimack’s last known position. Cinna gambled that he would find Merrimack still in the Indra Aleph star system, wandering in the wrong pine forest.
And here she was, cruising at sublight velocity. But even now, the space battleship was gathering in her drone scouts, perhaps making ready to leave.
Merrimack was a big plot with a distinctive shape. There was only one other spacecraft like her. Her upper and lower sails were swept back like fletching on an arrow. Merrimack’s wings were not wings for flying, though they gave an impression of flight. Merrimack had wings like a building had wings. Merrimack was as aerodynamic as a skyscraper.
The pirate ship set Nox’s life pod adrift across the Merrimack’s path with a white flag and an SOS beacon.
Cinna murmured a benediction into the void. “Good hunting.”
12 January 2448
U.S. Space Battleship Merrimack
Indra Aleph Star System
Merrimack moved at sublight speed through the Indra Aleph system. Her drones had turned over a lot of rocks, searching for the one Romulus was hiding under. There was still more space to cover, but Captain Carmel was starting to think the Roman had thrown her a bone.
“I’ve been played. Dingo. Bring in the drones and get us back on our previous course.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
The drones were coming in when Tactical sang out, “Bogey! Directly in our path.”
The pilot threw the space battleship into an immediate reverse. Merrimack’s inertial shell kept everything that was inside her from flying out through her nose. Even so, you felt the heave.
Calli absorbed the import of the word directly.
Directly in a battleship’s path signaled intent.
Calli announced over the loud com: “Battle stations.” Then to her command crew, “Tactical. Identify the object.”
“Shit!” Tactical cried.
Doubting that the object was literally excrement, Captain Carmel said with restrained irritation, “A statement with more content, if you please, Mister Vincent.”
“Object is a life pod. With a life in it.”
The com tech reported: “I have an SOS on the common band. Interstellar standard.”
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