By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
There: Thebe. Ugly little thing. A potato of ice and crap, streakin' past like the comet it probably once was. Blink and you missed it. Maybe I feel a tug as it zips by, its mass just enough to stir me in my suspension coffin. Or maybe I'm imagining it. You imagine a lot of things out here. You need to.
Okay brain, brace yourself, incomin' data. Let's see what we got. Infra-red: No change. You-Vee: No Change. Radio: No Change. Yep, Thebe looks the same as ever. Ain't budged from its expected orbit, no signals or sign of power-sources or anything. Quelle surprise. Just for once I'd like there to be something, even if the enemy just wrote 'Made you look!' in the ice. I guess no-one wants to stick their flag in poor Thebe. Not us, the Callies, Ganymede, or even any of the smaller players.
So we've done our duty for today. Boat tells me "burn" in 5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. 1.. BURN.
Eeeeeeeeeeee, damn, I'm getting too old for this. What am I doin' here? Lying in a coffin full of goo, tubes plugged into me, six-gee trying to break my bones an' breathless space no more than two feet from my face. Boat ain't much better than a metal raft with a propulsion reactor at one end, weapons pods on outriggers, and Muggins here stuck in a tin can between them. It looked a whole lot more glam in the recruitment blits. I probably glow in the dark by now. I kinda thought my life would have more ball-gowns an' parties in it.
Tactical shows me other burns in the darkness, magneto-plasma blooms from my squad. Count them.
One, two, three, four, Coffin-Dodgers winning this war.
Yeah, as if.
Still, all my girls present and correct in formation around me.
'Course, now ain't the time for one of them to disappear. We've still got the Flux Tube to look forward to. Probably won't happen. Probably won't happen. If it does, who will it be? Should be me really, I'm the oldest. Twenty-three standard, practically a babooshka among the Dodgers. Who would I prefer, sayin' it ain't me? Bel an' Tudy wouldn't blart much over Sian, I bet. Sian's a neut, born from a jar. Hairless, bird-thin and brittle; Built lightweight for flyin', stripped of anything she don't need for that. Makes her hard to relate to. They're making more an' more of 'em, like they're replacing us, an' yeah, we don't like that. No-one's blartin' for Sian, no mum or dad nor sis or bro. I will, even if I have to make myself: someone should. Mina will a bit, out of duty. After all, Sian's our luck, an' we all know it. Saved us all sometime with her creepy hunches. She's always had this sixth sense for trouble; neuts are twitchy, but Sian's twitchy and *right*. I thought they'd made her that way, but none of the other neuts have it, whatever 'it' is.
But the girls still blame her for Emilio. Yeah, we had ourselves a boy once, one of the few that could make the weight; wasn't carryin' a munition pod's worth of useless muscle. Weedy thing he was. Before the war I'd never have scanned his stats. But Emilio was the type who comes in under the radar an' boots your mumsie code. An' he was funny. Oh, he was funny. He had gigs of weird sayings and gestures. We'd burn him for them mercilessly, and then one day you'd catch yourself usin' one. We called it 'Emilio's revenge'. He'd grin an' point and say "gotcha". I guess he still lives on in all of us, in those contagious mannerisms.
'Course he was good for morale, and poison for discipline. Only boy in a fly-girl gang, he must have thought he was dead and in Dodger's-Dock already. Bel and Tudy had a knock-down-drag-out-both-bitches-off-to-medical fight over something, an' neither would 'fess what it was. But we all knew. Sian hated him, the only time I seen her blit that emotion. Said he was a witch (where did she learn that word? That ain't in the flight manual), had us all under a spell and was gonna get us all voided. That's how it would look to her, she couldn't scan what was goin' on, poor vat-grown thing. Or maybe she did, and that's why she hated him so much.
So, when Emilio takes a razor-swarm in the kisser, Bel and Tudy are bleeping that Sian was supposed to have his six. I'm sure it wasn't true. I'm sure of it. It was The Battle of the First Periapsis, after all. The Callies knew we were comin'. Bitches came out of nowhere and nearly blew us right back to Europa. And we lost all the poor boys in those stupid tin-can troopships. They could only sit there, waitin' for it. All those lovely toothy-white grins an' firm asses that we thought we'd sink our claws into one day. We couldn't protect them; enough of us died tryin'. We were lucky any of us got out.
'Got out', there's a laugh. No-one gets out. I know I'll meet my fate somewhere among these rings.
Still, we made the Callies pay. And they made us pay for making them pay. And then we made them pay for making us pay for making them pay. They've not got even on that yet. But they will.
Oh, Emilio, I'm startin' to forget what you looked like. Soon you'll be just another name in a database of 'those who gave', another statistic from the Warring Moons period. That's what they're calling it now, 'The Warring Moons', like we're history already. It'll be great history, written in our blood, smeared across the screen. People will re-enact the battles, an' pay gigs for our hole-filled g-suits, once the blood an' shit stains have been washed out.
I daren't speak to my squad, our burn-signatures are announcement enough. Maybe we're already dead data in someone's targeting system. So we run silent through the dusty dark of the gossamer ring, laid out like Theban princesses in our deadly coffins. Bodies in powersave, brains directly wired into our boats, unable to speak or act for fear of being detected. Only the ghostly whistles an' cracks of Daddy-Jupe's radio noise for company. Sixteen hours of playing dead, working your way through the entertainment cache, meditate, cogitate, masturbate (frowned on, ups your life-support cost, but fuck that). Wishing for something to happen an' hoping to hell nothing does.
And right in the middle, at hour eight-and-a-half, we'll hit the Flux Tube.
They always miss that out in briefing, an' we always bring it up: it's the games we play. Commander Grinning-Bastard-Zu draws rings round moons an' tells us it's a routine mission, grinning his charming-bastard grin. And then Sian will put her hand up, to show she can be rebellious too, because she needs our approval like a child needs a mother's love, and she'll ask: "Sir, won't that trajectory take us through the Io Flux Tube?"
An' every time, *every time*, Zu will stroke his chiselled chin and say, "Well, yes, now that you mention it, I suppose it will. Why?"
Why? WHY? It's the fucking Flux Tube. Fifty gazillion volts flowing between Jupiter an' Io, stirring up those spooky aurora at both ends. It gives you phantom periods an' messes with your head. The Brass keep saying it's just a 'natural phenomena', Io cuttin' through Big-Daddy-Jupe's giant mag-field an' acting like a generator. But flyers know better. 'Phenomena', maybe. 'Natural'? No. It's beyond that. We've all heard recordings of the weird, rambling, final broadcasts of lost pilots:
"The sea, it's red. Like a sea of..."
"They're all around me now, hundreds of them. Singing."
"Mom? Is that you mom?"
"... it's full of stars."
And that's the least. Chanting, singing, screaming, voices speaking in ancient languages or unknown ones, voices that ain't human, long delayed echoes of shit that happened years ago, the Flux Tube has it all.
And then there's the stuff we've all seen. I once flew with a girl named Zeta: 'routine' mission, took us through the Flux Tube. 'Routine', 'cept before we go, Zeta hugs me an' says "See you in Dodger's-Dock," an that's strange, 'cause she was never one to show it. An' I hug her hard, 'cause I know she's telling me she knows. Knows she's had her page in the Jade Books. An' I'm telling her I know she knows, an' it'll be alright. Whatever that means. So we fly, an' yeah, it's routine. 'Cept back at base, Zeta don't get out of her boat. When we open it, it's empty. I saw her get in, the systems confirm it ain't been opened, the suspension gel would've escaped. It's intact, full load of G-gel, just no Zeta. Like she dissolved.
So we'll sit there, in the briefing, just long enough for Bastard Zu to know that we know, and he knows, and we know he knows we know he knows, and then Sian will say: "No reason Sir, just a point of interest." And we'll all trot off to our coffins like the good girls we are. Bastard Zu smiling proudly, like that secret combination of daddy and the boy-next-door that that you keep for your really private dreams.
I'm sure Zu doesn't look like that in real life, at the other end of the comms-link. I bet they have him enhanced to remind us what we're fightin' for. I wonder what the ground-boys get? Maybe they get Zu too, I'm sure he could turn a few. Ohhhh... there's a fantasy to keep the blood flowing through sixteen hours. I'll save it for the Flux Tube, that's when I'll need it most.
I bet there is no Commander Zu. He's probably a machine. Nah, that can't be right, the machines would stop the war. That's why they have to put us in these boats. Any machine smart enough to handle combat will just sit there on the launch pad or fly round in pointless circles and return home.
"What are you doing?" we'll say, and the machine will say, in that smug way they have. "I'm pursuing the optimum strategy to achieve the best outcome in the war."
"But you're not doing anything?"
The real smart ones just light straight out into the inky black, shouting, "So long, suckers!" in octal or whatever, and are never seen again. Well, people say they've seen them, zipping among the inner rings like dolphins playing in surf.
Only us meat-minds are smart/stupid enough to fight.
Sixteen hours. I'm gonna get some downtime. If anything kicks off, the boat will wake me straight into battle-status in an eye-blink. If it doesn't have time to do that, then I wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway.
Maybe I'll sleep right though the Flux Tube an' wake up in hell?
Naaahhh!! Oh, bad one. Fuck, I was right back seeing Emilio buy the comet again. Damn, I'm in the Flux Tube. You just know, even without the dreams, same as knowin' you're awake. All the scans an' sensors are playin' merry hell, feeding crap an' static straight into my brain. No wonder you get bad dreams. The cramps are a big hint too. The Flux Tube's reminder of what life was like when you had rhythms other than patrol-duty and mess-times; before they stopped your bio-clock an' turned you into a battle-component. Wonder if Sian gets them? That'd be weird.
Seven Gods, it was so clear, like it was yesterday. A razor-swarm slices through Emilio's boat like... well, like a matrix of nano-blades. I saw it on optical, I shouldn'a looked, but of course I did. His boat becomes an expanding cloud of pieces an' there in the center is that little splat of green: G-gel released from the suspension coffin. And within that splat, there's this red mush, an' that's Emilio.
Not how he wanted it. He wanted to be one of the drifters. Sometimes, if a boat gets hit just right, the suspension coffin will get ripped open like an amniotic sac, an' out will come G-gel, baby and all. 'Course, most of the time you come out in pieces. The rings get a little thicker every day with hands an' heads, livers an' lungs. We call it the 'Jovian Orbital Organ Bank'. I've seen formation-flights of eyeballs; just eyeballs. But some come out whole, untouched, perfect. They drift, frozen an' looking so peaceful. Enshrined in the rings, forever nineteen. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. Micrometorites can mess you up a bit though.
Everyone wants to go like that: be your own monument. There's this girl out at lag-14, the way she's floating it's like she's dancin' ballet in her sleep. I reckon someone came by and arranged her, made sure she looked her best. She's gorgeous, all curves instead of starved-thin angles like the rest of us, even got decent sized tits. All that extra mass was probably what got her killed. Still, she looks great. I'm basically straight, but I wouldn't have said no. But those dead lips will never ask, an' she's my sworn enemy, cruel Callisto's daughter. Maybe if we meet in Dodger's-Dock, when we're beyond our obligations, maybe. She's got glorious hair, floating about her like an aura. The Calli-girls an' us got common ground on the hair. You can punish us all you like, we're still gonna grow it. We've given everythin' else, we ain't cutting our fucking hair: it's the limit. I hear they're letting you keep it long through training now, if you keep it in a net. It's the first thing that neuts get implanted. Sian's got purple cascades, cost her a gig, it grows an' everything. She watches how we toss and play with ours, and when she thinks no-one's looking, she practices. She never picked one thing up from Emilio; neuts ain't natural mimics, they have to work at it. She's talking 'bout getting boobs, even though they'll up her mass and decrease her survival odds. An' they still won't make her really human.
Fuck. Bad cramps. But at least no edge-of-perception whispering voices or sensations that someone's in here with me.
Idiot. Don't think that stuff. If you start thinking it, it'll start to happen.
Oh, there you go, a scream. Outta no-where in the inky black, a-
Plasma flash. Rad-wash. Fuck, it's real, we've got action. Bring the comms up just a glimmer, micro-power lasers reaching out to touch the four boats around me. Hiss and noise from the Flux Tube makes my brain ache, but my troops still come clear through it, an' into my head.
Bel: We got hostiles, four. Three friendlies, plus one dead.
Tudy: 'ow can you tell who's who?
A woman's voice screams something, but the hiss and static of the Flux Tube mangles it. There's an AM-flash: we're down to two friendlies, an' the rings have some new dust.
Bel: Europan accents and encryption protocols.
Tudy: But that was just a noise?
Me: Bel's right, they must be ours, we wouldn't even get noise from the enemy's protocols.
Sian: Ma'am. Got one of my bad feelings. Worst I've ever had it. Ever.
Mina: Fuck that, they're slaughtering our sistren. We can take these bitches 'fore they even know we're here.
Me: Copy that. Switch to radio, pick your bitch, break, break, break.
Sian: No, something's wrong! Fucking burn for it!
Sian's boat peels from formation before I've even finished giving the break command. Her plasma-plume lights, announcing our presence to everyone an' she's off into the wild black yonder.
"Shit, our luck just left," thinks Mina, probably not intending to broadcast it.
"Fucking neut coward," thinks Bel, maybe not intending to broadcast that.
We break formation and burn hard, come screaming in like avenging angels. Really screaming. Screaming in our coffins as twenty gees grinds our bones. My boat's pumping blood for me, otherwise the gees will alternately flood an' drain my brain, killing me, or worse. It mixes nutter-drine in my blood an' time slows down as my brain kicks into overdrive. But we still won't be quick enough to save the prey. Our girls got caught with their hands down their knickers. They're dead. But we'll score some revenge, an' that's almost as good. Even the score, right? That's what the war's gonna come down to, the score. Who dies the most. We're gonna kill one more than you, that's what counts as a win in this game.
Even with Sian's warning, the Callies are late to realise. They're too focused on doing to those girls what we're about to do to them. By the time they start to take evasive, we've already got them locked into our probability webs, an' the missiles are flying. Warning points will start prickling through their tactical-perception an' they'll realise that they're instant nobodies. Their names were written in the Jade Books as bit players, walk-on parts who no-one cares about. You'll never meet the right guy, or girl. You'll never learn to play guitar. You'll never be twenty-one-standard. You'll never hike down that big valley on Mars. You'll never fuck on a real beach by a real sea. You'll never hear little fucker call you 'mama'. You'll be dead and forgotten, 'cept when your mom an' pop pull out the old recordings to cry over them. And some drunken bitch in a mess hall somewhere will be blow-by-blow bragging 'bout how she gave you the whole fucking nine kilo-tonnes straight up your fat ass.
Cry in your coffin, 'cause you're already dead, now here comes a c-dart to blow off your head. See you in Dodger's-Dock, bitch.
Info and images surge into my brain, but all signals are Flux-scrambled an' boats all look the same on optical. Tactical is making guesses at who's who, changin' its mind back and forth. I see some poor bitch take a c-dart straight through the coffin. Greeny-red mush jets into space, lumpy as vomit, full of little hard white bits. There's only one sis left. She's trying to make a burn for it, the Callies breaking off pursuit now, but she's got so much ordinance chasing her tail that she might as well just turn and fly into it. Our own munitions are cheerful little twinkles on tactical, count-down timers ticking away lives. Mina's laying down c-darts in a stochastic pattern that's calculated to max the chance of getting *something* if the target goes evasive. Tudy's more direct, four AM-torps chasing the bitches down. The Callies start spewing countermeasures an' doing what Dodgers do best, twirling like desperate ballerinas. But it's too late. Even if they deal with the darts an' torps, we're on them now to finish it boat-to-boat.
Our last friendly flares out, AM-torp up the tail-pipe, pathetically forgotten on the edge of things. Everyone's too busy to care. I pick my bitch, an' initialise my sand-gun. Accelerated up to near-c a grain of sand can punch through moons. She's got her own sand-gun working defence, an' the AM-kiss Tudy blew her goes off premature, like the death of a small sun. Perfecto, it'll blind her sensors an' cover my approach. When my own senses come back online, there she is. Couldn't be better if she were gift-wrapped an' naked.
An' that's when I hear the screaming, an' I know something's wrong. We're not supposed to hear that. We can't read their encryption codes: that's what 'encryption' means. We're not supposed to hear them pleading for their lives an' crying for their moms, it's against the rules of war. But we can, all dopplered an' messed up, can't really make out the words, but you can hear the feeling. Must be a special little present from the Flux Tube, this. Today's way of fucking with our heads.
She jinks hard, real hard. That's gotta bruise even in a suspension-coffin. Bitch is good, rollin' an' twistin' her boat, pumping out decoys an' vengeance drones, screaming to her dying mates to come help her.
I chuck three wide clouds of c-sand: they should scrub the drones to scrap. Then I cast a sand-beam, hopin' to punch her still-beating Callistan heart straight out of her boat. The beam slices off an outrigger, an' touches her coffin, sheering across it an' reaping off the top. G-gel sprays out and my enemy is birthed into space, limbs flailing like she's trying to swim. Pipes and tubes pop out of her, only that silver umbilical: the skull-jack data-feed, stays in, tethering her to the wreck. With the 'drine and my boat's wide-spectrum eyes, I've got gigapixel vision an' I get a millisec glimpse of a friendship bracelet on her wrist, just like the one Jenet give me 'fore her drive faulted an' launched her into the eternal night.
If you can see that, you're too damn close.
I pirouette my boat and burn vicious-hard. G squashes me till I hear tiny cracklings from my skull. At these speeds she can still get me back for what I've done. A splinter from her wrecked boat would be enough, and there's surely clouds of them lurking black an' invisible ahead. The wreckage shoots away into rear-view. Scans ain't showing any avenging drones or darts on my tail: I'm safe. The crime-scene is already a hundred kay behind me, more grist to the rings.
'Cept something's wrong. I just know, like you know if you're awake. I bring her back from the boat's memory to watch her die again. Let's see what we got: Infra-red, You-Vee, Optical. There. Her gel-wet hair, long and black as my own, expands like a cape, spraying twinkling droplets. The face-mask comes off, and she takes her first taste of vacuum, her breath steaming out of her like an attitude-jet firing. Jenet's bracelet on her wrist. She's got features drawn from three ancient Earth races, just like mine.
Exactly like mine.
That's my face, freezing an' slackening in the black.
And clear as day I hear someone scream "Oh fuck, no, plea-", and then Tudy's AM-torp cuts them out of existence. I should have recognized it before, even all scrambled up. But I ain't never heard her like that. That's Bel's voice.
Suddenly my boat's screaming to me that I've got incoming on my tail.