Authors: Ian Douglas
For Dave Plottel, who first introduced me to the wonders of Godel numbers many years agoÂ .Â .Â .
and, as always, to my beloved Brea.
here's an old, old expression in the military, one that can probably be traced back to some platoon sergeant in the army of Sargon the Great:
hurry up and wait
In fact, it's been said that 99 percent of military life ranges from tedium to unbearable boredom, with the remaining 1 percent consisting of stark, abject terror. A lot of that tedium comes with the waiting .Â .Â . especially if what you're waiting for is that few moments of crisp, cold terror.
“Doc Carlyle!” the gunnery sergeant's voice called on my private channel. “You okay?”
“Yeah, Gunny. No problems.”
“Remember to breathe, okay?”
I swallowed, trying to center myself into a calm acceptance of whatever was to be. “Aye, aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” As the platoon's Corpsman, I was supposed to be monitoring all of the Marines inside the tin can .Â .Â . but Gunnery Sergeant Hancock had been watching my readouts, and noted the increase in pulse and the unevenness of my respiration.
I was packed in with the forty-Âone Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, inside the cargo deck of a shotgun Katy. That's the Marines' name for the KT-Â54 orbital cargo transporter, a big, chunky tug with meta-Âthrusters on one end and a blunt-Âended cylinder on the other. We were in full armorâÂa KT's cargo can isn't pressurizedâÂstrapped Âupright to ranks of backboards .Â .Â . and waiting. They hadn't opened the can yet, so we were in near total darkness. A maddeningly calm voice inside my head, an extremely sexy
voice, said, “Five mikes.”
“Ah, copy that,” another voice said. “Crack 'er open and let's see what we got.”
In front of me, beyond the lined-Âup helmet backs of nine Marines, the end cap of the Katy split in two and began to swing open. If we'd been riding in the throat of an alligator, that's what we would have seen when he yawned. Light blasted in from a slender horizon to my right, silhouetting the closely packed Marines and illuminating the utilitarian interior of the can.
“Four minutes. Brace for course correction in three .Â .Â . two .Â .Â . one .Â .Â . fire.”
I felt a short, sharp kick along my back. The Katy's AI pilot had just fired the engines, giving us a slight bump up in velocity and making a micro correction to our course. I wondered if the bad guys at Capricorn Zeta had noted the course change, and were getting ready to welcome us.
“Okay, platoon.” That was our platoon CO, Second Lieutenant Paul Singer. “Unship your harnesses.”
I used a thoughtclick to unsnap the harness holding me against the rigid backboard. God knows we didn't have room in there to fumble with snaps and fasteners with our gauntleted hands. I glanced up and felt claustrophobic. The Marines of 2nd Platoon were lined up on the canister's bulkheads in four ranks of ten each, plus two extrasâÂSinger and Staff Sergeant Thomason. The helmets of three of them were less than a meter from my own, coming in from either side and one seemingly suspended head-Âdown directly above me.
no “up” or “down” in zero-ÂG, of course. From Corporal Gobel's vantage point,
was the one hanging upside down.
“Three minutes.” Damn, but that AI's voice sounded sexy. “Two hundred kilometers.”
The seconds trickled away as we continued waiting in ranks. Two hundred kilometers to the target was a long way, too far for us to see the objective yet. But it was out there, probably well above the gleaming curve of the Earth. Then I noticed a bright star directly ahead, and queried my in-Âhead. Was that the objective? The platoon AI responded by putting a red box around the star, together with a fast dwindling set of numerals just to one side. Approaching in a lower, higher-Âspeed orbit, we were closing with the target at just over two kilometers per second. According to the opplan, the shotgun would fire when we were ten kilometers from our objective.
“Okay, Marines,” Lieutenant Singer said, “Listen up. We do this by the book, and we'll come through this alive.”
Well, most of us
, I thought.
Â .Â .Â .
If we were very, very lucky.Â .Â .Â .
“Remember to steer for the rock end of the facility,” Singer went on. “The doughnut will navigate itself to the main control hab, and that's where we'll make the breach. We don't know what kind of defenses the tangos might have in there, so stay sharp, and keep an eye on your CT2 displays. Got it?”
“Ooh-Ârah!” a number of the Marines chorused back, their centuries-Âold battle cry.
I wondered how the CT2W could sort new fear from what was there already.
Oh, I knew how it worked in theory. The Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System has been around in one form or another since the early twenty-Âfirst century. It picks up P300 brainwaves, which are linked to stimulus evaluation and categorization. Back in the 2020s, this was handled by a smart helmet equipped with scalp sensors. For the last century or so, though, it's been a program running within a soldier's cerebral implants. The idea is that we can detect a threat subconsciously, well
it actually manifests as a bad guy with a weapon. It sounds wild, using brainwaves to detect subconsciously perceived threats, but tests show Marines pick up about 47 percent of hidden threats with just their eyes or standard optics .Â .Â . compared with 90-Âplus percent when they're running a CT2WS.
“Weapons check,” Staff Sergeant Thomason called. “Lock and load!”
I looked at my own weapon, a Mk. 30 Sunbeam-ÂSony carbine packing a half-Âmegajoule-Âpulse in a mass of just four kilos. My sidearm was the usual Browning Five, a stubby, mag-Âaccelerator handgun that could hurl a five-Âmillimeter bit of steel-Âjacketed depleted uranium at a thousand meters per second. Both weapons were charged, hot-Âlinked to my in-Âhead, and safed.
There's an old myth that says Navy Hospital Corpsmen don't go into combat armed. That might have been true once, back when the Geneva Convention dictated the rules for civilized warfare. Unfortunately, any nonhuman bad guys we happened to run into weren't going to be signatories of those documents .Â .Â . and that was definitely true of the human hijackers we were facing now.
“Hey, Gunny,” Sergeant Woznowiec called. “Any intel yet on how many tangos are waiting for us in there?”
“Negative on that, Woz,” Hancock replied. “When I know, you'll know.”
“Comm silence,” Singer warned. “Stay the hell off the TC.”
Shit. The tactical channel was shielded and short-Âranged. There was no way the bad guys could be listening in. Singer was an asshole .Â .Â . worse, a
asshole fresh out of the Naval Academy.
“We're getting a warn-Âoff from Zeta station,” Thomason said. “They've seen us.”
There was a lot of traffic in low-ÂEarth orbit. The idea had been to slip in close like an innocent cargo tug. Unfortunately, that deception couldn't provide us with cover indefinitely. The station's radar would have been tracking us for long minutes already, and collision avoidance alarms might be going off over there already.
“Twenty seconds,” Thomason added. “Dropping the backrests.”
Those rigid boards behind our backs, shaped to fit our armor backpacks and meta tanks with snug precision, were grown from the canister's internal nanomatrix, just like made-Âto-Âorder chairs and tables grown from the floor. At an electronic command from our AI, they dissolved back into the deck, leaving each of us moving with the Katy. I felt my boots leaving the deck, just by a few millimeters, as the sexy AI voice sounded off the final countdown.
“Cargo launch in five .Â .Â . four .Â .Â . three .Â .Â . two .Â .Â . one .Â .Â .
The Katy fired its forward maneuvering thrusters. From our point of view, the walls of the cargo canister abruptly slid backward, and the entire platoon emerged suddenly into open, empty space. The vast, eye-Âwatering blue and mottled white of Earth filled half of the sky with aching beauty. The sun was squarely at our backs; the sunset terminator stretched along the curve of the horizon ahead.
The Marine version of a KT-Â54 was called a shotgun Katy for a reason. By decelerating sharply, the vessel's armored human cargo hurtled from the wide-Âopen bow, moving at the same speed as the tug until it slowed. Now it was dropping away behind us, empty, and 2nd Platoon kept moving at a constant velocity toward our objective. For all intents and purposes, it was as though we'd just been fired into space like a cloud of pellets from an enormous shotgun.
“Platoon, shift to Formation One,” Singer ordered. “
Our Mk. 10 suits were locked into standard M287 dorsal jumpjet packs. On the ground they let us bound across the landscape in twenty-Âmeter jumps. In open space, they turned each of us, in effect, into a small, independent spacecraft. They were fueled by cryo-Âstabilized N-ÂHe
, an exotic fuel commonly called meta that was far denser in terms of available energy than conventional propellants. The thrusters were controlled by our in-Âhead software; I told mine that I wanted to move into Formation One, and my backpack gave a gentle kick to my right.
The Marine formation was opening up, creating a more dispersed target in case the bad guys started taking shots at us. The shift also cleared the way for our doughnut, which was accelerating now on its own, moving up the center of the formation and into the distance ahead, homing on the bright star of Capricorn Zeta.
My jumpjet pack bumped again, halting my outward drift. Around me, the Marines appeared to be unmoving, hanging motionless in space relative to me and to one another. The surface of the Earth, however, drifted past at a steady pace. We were coming up on the west coast of Baja at the moment; north, I saw the cloudless ocher expanses of the Arizona and New Mexico deserts; southeast, bright stars strung in a vertical line stretching up into the sky flashed with a steady wink-Âwink-Âwink that marked the space elevator over Cayambe, a thread otherwise made invisible by distance.
And moment by moment, the Zeta facility grew brighter, taking on shape and formâÂan awkward collection of cylinders dazzling in the sunlight, connected at one end to a black rock a kilometer across.
We'd been thoroughly briefed on the Zeta situation, of course, complete with in-Âhead downloads showing every detail of the five-Âhundred-Âmeter facility. Asteroid mining was a particular target of the neo-ÂLudd movement, of course, so Zeta had offered them some highly visible propaganda for the watching global netizens back on Earth.
That small and wrinkled-Âlooking nickel-Âiron asteroid, listed as Atun 3840, was only a kilometer across, but it contained an estimated 2 trillion dollars' worth of platinum, 2 trillion in iron and nickel, and perhaps 1.5 trillion dollars' worth of cobalt .Â .Â . a total of more than 5 trillion dollars of commercial metals.
The first asteroid mining had commenced early in the twenty-Âfirst century, with robots that extracted precious metals on-Âsite and slingshotted them back to circum-ÂEarth space where they were captured. There, one-Âton slugs of solar-Âpurified metal were injected with inert gas, molded into lightweight glider wings, sheathed in cheap, refractory heat shielding, and sent on down for recovery in the ocean .Â .Â . a cheap and highly efficient system still used to this day. The very first of Humankind's trillionaires made their fortunes with the various space mining start-Âups of the 2020s, paid for our expansion out into the Solar System, helped us survive the return of the Ice Age, and ultimately funded the first starships.
Later, it proved more cost effective to nudge target asteroids out of their original orbits and swing them into Earth orbit. Decelerating one large mass, it turned out, was a lot easier than trying it with millions .Â .Â . and safer as well.
fact was abundantly demonstrated when the catchers missed a slug of iridium in 2094 and it slammed into the Lunar farside.
For a century and a half, now, more or less, we've been bringing whole asteroids into Earth orbit and dismantling them there, using a Âcouple of close Lunar passes to decelerate them. The AIs managing their vectors are
.Â .Â . and the meta-Âthrusters used for precision adjustments are reliable enough that even if somethingâÂunthinkable!âÂgoes wrong, they can sling the rock into a higher and safer orbit. Hell, they
to be good just to shift the orbit periodically to avoid cutting the space elevator.
But the neo-ÂLudds are less accepting of the claims and promises of technology. They're probably best known for their opposition to cerebral implants and the global Net, but orbital mining is a popular target too. This time, they'd made it a literal target by boarding Capricorn Zeta and threatening to drop Atun 3840 on Earth.
The rock wasn't a dinosaur-Âkiller, but it would make a hell of a mess if it hit. An ocean strike meant tidal scouring continents for hundreds of kilometers inland; a land strike could annihilate a dozen cities and raise a global dust cloud that would wreck our ongoing attempts to beat back the new ice age, and might even knock us all the way into a “Snowball Earth” scenario. These guys were
And so the president had given the order: the Marines
take back Capricorn Zeta. Negotiations had been going on for a week already, but had been going nowhere. And then a few hours ago a hostage had been shoved out an airlock. The terrorists' key and nonnegotiable demandâÂthat humans abandon space industrializationâÂsimply wasn't going to happen.
The kicker was that there were still fifty-Âfour Âpeople on board Capricorn Zeta, not counting an estimated twenty tangos. There reportedly also were two M'nangat on board .Â .Â . and that made it an interstellar incident. Our orders were distressingly precise. Our first priority was to secure Atun 3840âÂwhich meant capturing the facility's meta-Âthruster controls. Second was to make certain the two visiting M'nangat were safe. Saving the miners and corporate officials in the facility came in only at number three.