Read The City Who Fought Online

Authors: Anne McCaffrey,S. M. Stirling

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Science fiction; American, #Space ships, #Space warfare, #Sociology, #Social Science, #Urban

The City Who Fought (10 page)

BOOK: The City Who Fought
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"Quilting party?" Simeon searched his lexicon for the term.

"Old-fashioned way to spend a productive and socializing evening," she explained absently.

"Oh. Not much we can do until they get back to us, I suppose."

Simeon sounded unhappy. Channa quirked a corner of her mouth.

"We can't go in with lasers blazing and slag Child Welfare Central, if that's what you mean. If the station had full self-government, they wouldn't be able to mess with us—so let's concentrate on station business for now, shall we?" She cleared her throat. "I've been going over your accounts, Simeon, and I've got to say that you have some
weird
entries. For example, tucked away in the fourth quarter is the notation

'stuff.' You'll have to be more specific than 'stuff.' "

"Why? 'Stuff' is acceptable to the accountants," he said in a facetious tone.

"I'm not an accountant. I'm supposed to be your partner. Would you explain 'stuff'?"

"It's like this, Channa, I buy things that interest me. Me, Simeon, not the station master brain." Never mind that that also accounted for why he hadn't paid off his natal debt to Central Worlds.
SoI'm a pack
rat. Is that her business now?

Far out in space, Simeon's peripheral monitors, the ring of sensors that warned of incoming traffic, began to transmit information that suggested a very large object was headed their way. From the ripples it caused in subspace, it was very large or very fast or both. He split his attention between her and the alert, and sent a communicator pulse in the direction of the disturbance. There were strict rules on how to approach a station. Approaching unheralded broke half a dozen regs and invariably caused stiff credit penalties.

Respond to hailing, he transmitted. Respond immediately.

"Well, we've got this inspection and audit coming up in two weeks," he heard Channa saying in a firm let's-not-beat-about-the-bush tone. "We have
got
to have everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, partner."

He did appreciate that she subtly reminded him of her promise to help with Joat, but this was no time for petty details.

"I don't
have
a ship shape, Channa," he muttered in his distraction, "but I do have something very unusual out there, approaching me without due protocol."

Visual information was now reaching him. Dropping out of interstellar transit and approaching at . . .

Great Ghu, .17 c!
A large vessel whose profile did not fit any known human ship. The basic hull-form was spherical, but carried a web of crazy-quilt additions, constructions of girder and latticework. Some of them looked as if they had been slashed off short with energy beams, and the outpoints were
tattered.

People were generally not sloppy with cutting tools. Enemies were. Simeon relayed a standard "please identify" message and put the tug bays on standby.

"Nor am I abristle," he continued to Channa. "The inspectors will be when they come, though."

Channa groaned. "Even for you that was lame. You're being unusually ridiculous, Simeon. You know the mentality that goes with these inspections—sentence first, trial afterwards."

"In other words, off with our heads, if they could reach mine."

"And us running as fast as we can to stay in one place, too. Which capability you also don't have. Now, since this is my first time with you . . ."

"Oh, Channa . . . pant, pant."

"Simeon," she said warningly. "I know where the controls for your hormone balance are."

"Heh heh, sorry. What's the worst they can do to me? Send me back to asteroidic purgatory? Like I told you, I'm only on temporary duty here anyway."

Channa had been running a scan. "There are twelve entries for the word 'stuff'! You want this to be a temporary assignment? Well, you may get your wish."

"It's not a wish, my dear, I never said 'I wish they'd take me away from here and put me anywhere else.'

I've a very definite destination in mind, as you so astutely concluded the other evening. If I had my druthers, I'd be running a command ship and waging star wars on the Axial Perimeter. But," and he gave a huge audible sigh, "who believes in wishes anymore?"

"You do, with all your war games and tactical daydreams."

The approaching ship still had not responded, nor was it dumping speed as fast as it should. In fact, whoever was in command had waited much too long to begin doing so. The flare of drive energies should be blanking out that whole quadrant, and the neutrino flux was barely enough for a pile just ticking over.

Simeon came to a disagreeable conclusion.

"Whoa, there, Channa. We've got stuff, not mine, coming in to make mince of us if we're not careful.

Have a look?"

Simeon slapped up a main screen view of the intruder bearing down on them. Surprise and alarm held her motionless for only a split second before she reacted.

"I'm alerting the perimeter guard," she said, wiping her previous program and inputting the new.

"Right!" Although he already had, two sources of the same alert emphasized the emergency. "I'm busy calculating how to cushion the impact of that great hulking mass whistling towards us. I hope they know where the brakes are." Nice to have a brawn to share emergency work. The station personnel should get used to dealing with her.

Stabbing the alert button on the main console, Channa then called up a finer resolution of the object, which to her appeared to be a darker mass against the black of space.

"Unannounced arrival!" She transmitted the image to the personnel on perimeter traffic control, alerting them to the pertinent vector and ordering them to begin rerouting incoming traffic.

"How do you know it's
whistling
toward us?" she asked in as calm a voice as he was using while her fingers flew over the controls. "There's no sound in space."

Simeon could detect just a micro-tremor of fear in her noncommittal tone. "If I think it whistles," he answered, "it whistles."

"Perimeter says it's like nothing they've ever seen before either and—" she paused and licked her lips

"—it's about to cut a broad swath through the proper traffic pattern."

Simeon took full control of the traffic control boards. He could see and respond to the necessary changes in traffic patterns faster than any unshelled human. He was simultaneously redirecting and responding to dozens of ships.

Suddenly Channa started cursing. "Damn their eyes and innards! These damned civilians are asking questions instead of doing what they're supposed to in emergency routines. Now you see why I didn't like you calling those false alarms. No one's paying a blind bit of attention to this
genuine
emergency!

Wolf-cryer!"

"I've put it on every public screen. They'll know it's no drill," Simeon said, his voice velvet with malice,

"and it's coming straight at us. I don't think it'll stop."

I didn't realize you could banter when you're terrified,
he thought with tight control, though it helped being able to set your analogue of adrenal glands.

Channa stared, stunned, as the screen filled with the alien ship. "You haven't activated the repel screen?

Hit it for God's sake!" She pressed her rocker switch just a fraction of a second behind Simeon.

* * *

Joat gritted her teeth and wiped eyes and nose on the back of her sleeve. It was a good shirt, and clean.

Dumb,
she told herself fiercely.
Dumb, dumb, dumb bitch, dumb gash, just like the captain told you
you were.
Especially when he was drunk. He'd always been worse then.

She turned her attention back to the little computer. It was the best she'd ever been able to steal, a real Spuglish; jacked into the station system right now, with the skipper-unit she'd cobbled up to keep the station from knowing just where or why.

Ship schedules / departures / outsystem,
she told it. Machines didn't lie to you! You could trust machines and, if they didn't do what they were supposed to, it wasn't because they had lied. Maths and machinery could be believed.

A barking sob broke through her lips, spattering drops on the screen. She bit down on her hand until the pain and the taste of her own blood let her continue. Then she wiped the machine down with the tail of her shirt. Machines didn't let you down, either.

Departures, the computer said. Look, Joat, you don't have to leave here. Trust me, we're—

"No!" she screamed.

Joat stuffed the scramblers into her pockets and went off down the duct at a scrambling crawl, ignoring projections and brackets that only slightly impeded her progress. The motions were reflexive, with a graceless efficiency.

Nobody's going to give me away again,
she thought.
Get me used to eating regular and school and
everything, then
give me
away!
The thought went round and round in her head, filling it, so that it was minutes before the klaxon penetrated her self-absorption.

"Oh, shit," she whispered in a still small voice, listening. Then she turned and went back the way she came, faster still. The computer was back there, and without it, she wouldn't be able to find out what was really going on.

Her spacesuit was there, too. This sounded serious.

* * *

"THIS IS NO DRILL! REPEAT, THIS IS NO DRILL!" The words rang down the corridors and hallspaces, without the melodramatic klaxons Simeon had always used. "Nonessential personnel report to secure areas. Report to secure areas. Prepare for breach of hull integrity."

This time the citizens of the SSS-900-C listened, hastening into suits, gathering children and pets and heading for the central core or section shelters. Crews pelted onto their ships, even as moorings were detached and entry locks irised shut and each "all on board" signal was relayed to Simeon. Emergency crews flocked to their assigned stations. Infirmary patients who could not be moved were placed in individual, independently powered life-support units. All too soon, most of the citizens of SSS-900-C

could only wait, imagining their station crushed like an egg as the invader plowed into them.

Simeon worked frantically, ordering ships of all sizes out of the projected path of the incoming ship, brutally suppressing the knowledge that ships with ordinary, unshelled pilots could barely handle the split second timing he was asking of them. So far, so good—no one out there seemed destined to die today.

For a heart-stopping moment he thought the alien might be decelerating, but the blaze of energies sputtered and died.
It's only shed
7%
of relative velocity,
he calculated dismally.
Not nearly enough.

"Why didn't they program mobility?"

"Who?" Channa asked distractedly. "Where?"

"In me! In this station! I can't duck! I've no weaponry to blast it out of my way. I can't even fend off such mass. All I can do is watch. What lasers I've got can just about handle a decent-sized meteor. The best I can do is warm up his hull a little, and I have to wait till he's up my ass to do it! Damn! This station is like a paraplegic spaceship!"

"Whoa! Did you see that?" Channa shouted. The mass had seemed to deliberately veer aside from an ordinary asteroid miner vessel, something the miner pilot himself probably couldn't have done. "Watch,"

she said, "there! Did you see? It jigged just a bit to miss that incoming ferry traffic. It
is
being guided."

"But by what?" Simeon asked. He ran calculations on the ballistics of those maneuvers. The deviations were
absolutely
minimal for the effect. "It's traveling so fast now, no human pilot could stop it and stay conscious. They don't answer any radio messages. They're ignoring the damn warning flares. Shit, maybe they think we're welcoming them. Ah,
good
!"

"But they are decelerating again, Simeon," Channa said, glancing up from her own screens to the main viewer before she went back to other chores which she had assumed.

"Yeah, marginally longer this time. No, cutting out—no, decelerating
again.
Rate of energy-release . . . God, but they're still not dumping enough velocity! And still on a collision course!" His voice went slightly wild. "They must
want
to destroy me!"

"I don't see any weapons," Channa said, trying to finish her current task in time.

"Who can tell in that jumble of struts and boxes and crap! Besides, that thing
itself
is a weapon." Simeon had just one card to play and at exactly the right moment for maximum effect. "You're not even suited up, partner. At least take shelter in my shaft core, Channa."

She shook her head, "Not till I'm through evacuating the alien quadrant. 'Sides, those Letheans scare easily enough as it is without me appearing in full gear."

She had managed at last to get through to the leader of the Lethe contingent. A people so formal that emergencies required a ceremony, mercifully brief, for deferring the usual endless courtesies in favor of survival. Had Channa not performed the ceremony and explained the situation to them, they would have died rather than commit such a breach of manners as assuming that something was actually wrong. She broke the connection at last and exclaimed, "Joat!"

"She has a suit," Simeon said, "first thing I gave her. She's probably in it right now. Why aren't you?"

She dashed for the cabinet holding her space suit and began to struggle into it.

"Come to me, Channa," he said, in a wildly facetious tone, "come, touch the hard, male core of my innermost being."

"Ee-yuck, is that the sort of romance you've been studying? Try another mode."

"When I've world enough and time, lovely one, but have a look at what I've managed to arrange as stop signs."

Seemingly from out of nowhere, three communications satellites came diving towards the incoming ship, two striking it head on and one slightly astern. Whole sections of the scaffolding and outer skin of the derelict sublimed in white flashes that expanded into circles with zero-g perfection. The alien ship was not slowed—there was too much kinetic energy in that mass—but its vector altered slightly.

BOOK: The City Who Fought
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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