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Final Exams by Diane Duane & Peter Morwood

“SPEEDBIRD one-niner to Dock Control; requesting release clearance.”

“Control to One-Niner, you are cleared for launch at this time.”

“One-Niner confirms release. Switching to Launch Control, frequency two-zero-zero-decimal-three-zero. Speedbird One-Niner out.”

“Have a nice one, Roj, Minerva. Dock Control out.”

“One-Niner out. All right. Retract docking booms.”

“Docking booms unlatched, retracting ... Docking booms secured.”

“Release umbilicals.”

“Release. Ship is floating free.”

“Mr. Peason?”


“You have control. Take her out. On manual.”

“Manual? Oh, shi—I mean, yes, sir. I have control, sir. Setting maneuvering thrusters to station-keeping.”

“Mr. Peason?”


“If the maneuvering thrusters are at station-keeping, why are my repeater screens showing a three-degree yaw to port?”


“Correct it, mister.”


“Mr. Peason?”


“I said correct, not overcorrect. My screens now show a seven-degree yaw to starboard. Tell me, Mr. Peason, why is the docking bay getting closer?”

“Warning, proximity alert, warning, proximity alert!”

“Oh, bugger. ... Thrusters ahead one-third.”

“No, asshole! Not yet . . .!”

“Warning, collision alert, impact imminent! Warning, collision alert!”

Olympus-class brainship RM-14376 hit one of the main support pylons on the orbital dock facility at a glancing, forty-degree angle. It was enough. Her hull began to buckle, and the brainship’s twelve thousand tons of mass was still accelerating at four G right up to the instant that her main drive went critical. The frightful screech emitted by her onboard warning systems cut through even the rending sound of the collision, but by then it was far too late. Her main screen flared white in the instant before a rolling fireball of thermonuclear detonation consumed the ship, the dock, and everything else for six cubic kilometers of space around Port.

Senior Captain Roj Malin stared at the blank, sputtering repeater and then clenched his fists, hearing only the drumming of blood in his ears as he tried to put what he had just seen into some sort of perspective. There were a great many things that he might have said, and a great many others that he might have wanted to say, but knew he should not. Opening his mouth without due consideration had gotten Roj in trouble before, and would probably get him in trouble again when it was reported back. Even so–he drew a deep breath as he swiveled his seat around and stood up–there were some things that had to be said, and right now he was in just the mood to say them.

Goddammit! If you think that’s the way to handle a brainship, mister, then you’ve got another think coming! I’ve seen better navigation from a crew of stoned-out Weasels! Suffering Christ on a crutch, how many times do you need to be told, you set the maneuvering thrusters first and stabilize the bloody things before you touch anything else! You may have broken this ship and you may have broken this docking facility and you may have broken your mother’s heart, but by God you’ll not break mine! Reset the simulator, Mr. Peason, and then the entire student group will do it again for your benefit, and you’ll keep doing it until you get it right, and if you make just one more mistake like the last one, I’m gonna climb up the front of your tunic and I’m gonna pry your nostrils open with this datapad and I’m gonna crawl inside your pointy little head and I’m gonna kick some fuckin’ sense into it!”

He glowered at the row of shocked baby faces staring at him from above the collars of their squeaky-clean new uniforms, and guessed from the expressions that at least some of his annoyance was finally sinking into whatever the Fleet Academy was passing as good brain material these days.

“Mr. Gillibrand,” snapped Roj, “you have the conn. Repeat the exercise and remember this, I don’t care if your father is a sodding general, you’re in my class, not his! Carry on.”

He flopped back into his command chair and kicked it back around to face the simulator repeaters, breathing hard. Though neither his students nor the rest of the Academy staff would have believed it for a minute, Roj really didn’t like having to bawl his classes out for their mistakes; but there were times when only full-throated abuse could dispel the aura of hero worship that hung around the simulator tank and got in the way of education. Rank, so the saying went, hath its privileges. Roj hadn’t seen any sign of it being true, either in his case or in Minerva’s. Between the pair of them, they had picked up every decoration, commendation, and award that the Fleet could offer to a brain-brawn team, but not a single one of those awards had been enough to keep them on anything approaching active duty. “Too valuable,” one staff officer had said. “Irreplaceable knowledge and experience,” said another. “Invaluable assistance during training,” from a third.

Even before their last mission Roj and Minerva had seen the way the wind was blowing. The Academy’s principal combat simulator system had been outdated by the Khalian war, and now the tutors were pressing for something not only more up-to-date, but more realistic as well. Their choice had been live pilots, those who had survived a full tour of duty against the Weasels and who, for the most part, were only too glad to be pulled from front-line duty to confront nothing more dangerous than a class of inexperienced students.

In Roj Malin’s view, there was definitely nothing more dangerous than a class of inexperienced students, especially those who couldn’t see what they were studying because of the stars in their eyes through having an accredited Hero as a tutor, and since he and Minerva had taken up their duties at the Academy; his doubts had been confirmed a dozen times. And now they had just been confirmed all over again. At least where the Khalia had been concerned, he had known that they were actively trying to kill him. The students weren’t so safely predictable.

Gillibrand, whose father was indeed a general; approached the command console at first as though it was made of eggshells and broken glass, but Roj had already seen him twiddling his fingers in the air like a virtuoso concert pianist, and had a sneaking suspicion that the simulator’s reset button was going to be needed again. And again. And again. They should never have put a loud pedal on that thing.

“How much more of this have I got to put up with?” said a plaintive voice in his secure-circuit earpiece. “This class hasn’t gotten beyond orbit yet and already I’m getting fed up with being crashed into things.”

Oh, boy, thought Roj. Now Minerva’s pennyworth as well, The brain-core’s voder was capable of many sensitive nuances of speech, and right now it was managing to sound bored, irritated, put upon, and generally insulted all at once.

“Cheer up,” said Roj. “It’s only a model.”

“Maybe. It feels more like a wax doll with pins stuck in it. Why doesn’t the simulator tank make up a model of you and let them wreck it just for a change?”

“Wouldn’t look the same at all.”

“Of course not. I’ve seen the ads on the omni. For a bigger bang, blow up a brainship.” Minerva uttered an irritable little snort that more usually heralded incoming fire. So when do we rotate classes and get some capable students for a change? Next week? Next semester? Next year?”

“Take it up with Colonel Fotherington-Thomas,” said Roj, a little weary with the argument that had been going on ever since they were seconded to the Combat Training Faculty of the Academy. “If anybody knows stuff like that, it ought to be the principal of the Staff College.”

“Ought to, maybe. But he won’t tell me anything!”

“I don’t know that—Wait one.” Roj paused, staring narrowly at the repeater screen while Ensign Gillibrand actually succeeded in maneuvering the computer-generated brain ship clear of drydock without hitting anything. He smiled hastily and punched in a couple of variables so that at some stage in the next five minutes, Gillibrand would end up confronted by a pukon-class dreadnought already well inside orbital traffic separation. There were a great many incorrect methods of handling a proximity alert—as recently demonstrated by Ensign Timothy Peason—and three that were correct and by the book. Roj was curious to see which Gillibrand would choose.

“Sorry, Minerva. You were saying?”

“The Honorable Colonel Basil Fotherington-Thomas would rather talk to the clouds or the sky than listen to what I have to say.”

“Because he doesn’t want to lose us.”

“Because his views on what he terms artificial intelligence are, ah, somewhat archaic.”

“Then he should get on nicely with this class.”

“Very amusing.”

Roj shook his head and glanced at the lens from which Minerva was watching him. “Too easy, Minerva. Baz F-T’s no bigot. For one thing, he hasn’t got the brains for it.”

“And for another ... ?”

“It’s our old friends in Research and Development again. We may not be on active duty, but we’re still testing things for them. That new maths coprocessor for one.” There was a pause of several seconds, while both considered the problem.

“SIGISMUND? I know it—but not what the acronym stands for,” Roj asked.

“Neither do I, Roj dear. As I told you, nobody in this damned faculty tells me anything.”

“Including what’s happening elsewhere?”

“Oh, now that they told me. ‘Don‘t mention the war,’ they said. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.”

“Yeah. You don’t want to annoy the Weasels, not now that they’re on our side.”

“That,” said Minerva, weighing her words carefully, “is a matter of opinion. There are times when I wonder if Project Firefrost wasn’t a better idea than we thought at the time.”

“Unternehmung Endlosung,” said Roj, and there was a vicious edge to his voice. “No. It was never a good idea. And I’m glad it didn’t work. We weren’t dealing with Weasel civilians, but with their military–and the ones who supplied them.”

“Warning, proximity alert!” yelled the verbal alarms, beginning to whoop as their simulator-slaved sensors were advised of a dreadnought closing fast. Roj gave his full attention to the repeater screens as he watched what happened next. Gillibrand hammered desperately at the manual-control console like an inebriated musician trying to play “Fairy Bells,” so that the simulator cage lurched sideways and its screen image showed the million-ton mass of the pukon-class battlewagon slipping out of their path and out of danger.

“Not bad,” said Minerva in Roj’s ear. “He shows definite promise.”

“Except that I’ve never been quite sure what he’s promising,” said Roj with a smile. “Intelligence–artificial, military, or otherwise–has never played a great part in the Gillibrand family.”

“Or any family with a long military background,” returned Minerva with a smile that was no less poison-sweet for being heard and not seen. “Like the Malins, the Martins, and the Moleswor—”

“Warning, general alert,” said the bulkhead speaker, making Roj jump in his seat. Normally the damned thing said nothing unless he had programmed it for the students’ benefit, but right now it was blaring a klaxon warning as though the sky was about to fall in on their heads. And perhaps it was. The computer-generated signal choked off with a sound like a cat drinking treacle through a straw, and was replaced by the voice of Colonel Basil Fotherington-Thomas. Which was, if anything, worse.

“Staff and students of the Fleet Academy!” he said. “Perimeter sensors have picked up a contact that refuses all identification hails. We must therefore assume that this is an enemy sneak attack. It will enter weapon range in twenty-plus minutes. I am calling battle stations.” (Stations-stations-stations, said the PA system’s internal reverb.)

Roj blinked once, twice, glanced at his students–who were acting with commendable restraint under the circumstances, Gillibrand having even remembered to flip the simulator over to standby hold–and then stared at Minerva’s primary lens as he would have looked someone more human in the eye. “An enemy sneak attack I can accept,” he said. “But which enemy?”

That, right now, was the problem. The Khalian Weasels had not only sued for peace and thrown themselves on the mercy of the Alliance and its Fleet, their High Council had gone further and declared that any foe strong enough to defeat them was strong enough to deserve their active support. So there were Weasel ships–at least, those who hadn’t turned privateer rather than surrender–flying in formation with those of the Fleet nowaday’s, despite the misgivings of old campaigners like Roj and Minerva.

(And those misgivings might well have been another reason why they were pulled out of the first line of battle. A certain lack of selectivity in someone’s fire-control could put the new Armistice alliance back to the beginning again. Something nobody wanted, not on either side. Not with the Syndicate to deal with.)

Minerva had been the first of any Fleet ship to encounter the Syndicate, and had it not been for another R&D experiment–fitting a scoutship’s brain-core into the hull of a light cruiser–neither she nor Roj would ever have escaped with their information. And even despite the urgency of their mission, blowing a metallic planetoid apart to provide screening chaff was considered just a touch excessive…

“What say,” Roj was smiling as he spoke, “we go to standby all by ourselves, just as a precaution?”

The irises deep within Minerva’s primary lens contracted, and then expanded again. That was one reason why she had insisted that all her brainship manifestations have the primitive iris shutters, rather than a phototropic filter. So that she could wink. “Why not?” she said. “If it does nothing else, it should give the kids a thrill. And break the monotony of this goddamn training routine!”

Roj was too well mannered to ask aloud which reason had precedence in Minerva’s mind. The brain’s voder had a selection of voice tones that could cut like razors–he knew from experience–and Roj had no desire to provoke them again. For all that Minerva’s preferred tones were those of an elderly maiden lady, she could slip into the coarsest Marine slang at a moment’s notice. It worked particularly well on staff wallahs, the sort of people who hadn’t heard a sharp word come their way since the day they put on their fancy red-and-gold tabs. They could jump very nicely when prodded the right way.

As, he hoped, could students.

“You all heard the colonel,” he said to the repeater screen just an instant before rotating the command chair so that he could glare at his students from the proper angle. “Battle stations, the man said. So why are you all sitting here?”

The effect was something like dropping a firecracker into an ants’ nest, or a long-delay sub-kiloton munition into a Weasel emplacement. There was an instant of disbelief, and then everybody was running every which way. At least on the valhalla-class hull shell that was Minerva’s present incarnation, there was room to run about. Roj imagined the confusion that would have ensued had he issued the same order aboard the old olympus scout, and hid a smile behind his hand. “Intimate” was the kindest way to describe those ships, and he had heard several other descriptions that hadn’t been kind at all.

“And what about us?” asked Minerva. She sounded eager, dubious, and testy all at once. “We’re not supposed to involve ourselves in active duty.”

“According to Rear-Admiral Agato. We’re not to go looking for trouble. That doesn’t mean we have to sit still if trouble comes looking for us . . .”

“And us with a shipful of cack-handed dunsels? We’ve got trouble enough, Roj.”

“I know, I know. There isn’t a service chief in history cretinous enough to send a vessel crewed by a boatload of children out on a mission of any importance, and I doubt that Agato means us to start the practice now.” He slapped the bulkhead beside him and grinned full into the lens pickup. “But don’t forget the firepower this thing has at its disposal. We can make quite a nuisance of ourselves before we get to hell out of harm’s way.”

The main screen flickered as Minerva speedscanned her fire-control data, and then she chuckled. “Everything short of a forty-centimeter bacterial cannon,” she said. “And the way things have been going, they’ll install that sometime next week.”

“Just to see how it works?”

“Why else. After all, Roj dear, old vets like us won’t be going back into combat again, now will we?”

“That’s what they think. Take us out.”

Running on full autonomous control, Minerva slipped from her holding bay with the sort of ease that the students would have given their eyeteeth to achieve. Roj wasted no time in watching; he was already studying the trajectory projections on the big secondary screen, and wondering, Who the hell are they ... ?

That was the problem. The Big D and her task force were supposed to be guarding–of all places–Khalia and Target against intrusions by elements of the huge battlefleet that Roj and Minerva had almost run into during their last active mission. The Alliance had toyed briefly with reactivating Plan Poseidon and blowing both planets apart to deny their rich resources and convenient locations to the enemy, but wiser heads had prevailed. Instead of a scorched-earth strategic withdrawal, there was likely to be–or for all Roj and Minerva knew, had already been–a full-scale fleet-level battle somewhere out in the depths of Khalian space. The incoming blips might be nothing more than message torps reporting on progress or lack of it; but equally, they might be a few Khalian freelance raiders like the Delta corvette Roj and Minerva had chased last time–or an opportunity attack by a lightweight flotilla while the bulk of the fleet was pinned down elsewhere.

Whatever they were, they hadn’t counted on the presence of a valhalla-class cruiser, or they would have been a lot more circumspect in their approach.

“ECM is up and running,” said Minerva briskly. “If they’re scanning, I wish them joy at the attempt.” A telltale on the primary console flipped from amber to green with a small, decorous chiming sound. “And the main drive is on line for one hundred percent thrust at your discretion.”

“Or yours,” said Roj. “Plot us an intercept course.”


“Then let the students know. Full alarm klaxons for Red Alert, Condition One, and then full military power. Let’s go make trouble ... !”

* * *

Roj promised himself that he wouldn’t look into the student quarters for a while ... at least for long enough to let the inevitable reaction wear off. He busied himself looking over the manual fire-control station, which Minerva obligingly popped out for him, and making sure of what they had handy. Bacterial cannons seemed unnecessary, in retrospect. Besides her plasma cannons, Minerva was carrying more than enough smart nuclear missiles in her rotating launchers to make things at least interesting.

“ETA to the base force’s rendezvous with the blips is ten minutes,” Minerva said. She had a slightly abstracted sound to her voice.

Roj glanced over at the closest of her sensor consoles. “Hmm?”

For a moment she was silent. “A lot of chatter back there,” she said. “They’re rattled.”

“I’m not surprised. Not much like a simulator run, is it?”

“In that they’ve realized that they might accidentally get dead,” Minerva said a little more sharply, “no.”

Roj shrugged. “They’re going to have to deal with the idea sooner or later,” he said. “Better to do it with a valhalla-class craft wrapped around them. They have that much better a chance of getting home safe.”

Minerva synthesized a sigh. “True. Still ... they’re so young.”

“Seems I remember you wishing in the middle of the simulations that some of them shouldn’t get any older,” Roj said, teasing. “The way you were being crashed about.”

“Ahem.” Minerva said, sharp-voiced. Then, “Ah: better signal from the blips now,” she said. And added, “Hmm.”

Roj looked up from the fire-control board in alarm. “I wish you wouldn’t say ‘hmm’ like that,” he said. “It’s like hearing someone go ‘oops’ in the control room of a fusion reactor. What is it?”

Her voice was flat. “Look at these.”

The screen nearest him came alive with the blips that Fotherington-Thomas had mentioned. Minerva’s packet-synched scanning was possibly better than even the base had–which now made Roj worry a bit as he saw the six blips heading for them, in open formation, at the vortices of a tetrahedron. “What’s the scale on this?” Roj said, doubtful.

“The usual. Screen diameter equals a hundred and sixty klicks.”

But on that screen the blips had appreciable size and shape. They were long, narrow lozenge-shaped double-headed arrows. “Minerva,” Roj said. “they can’t be that big. Can they?”

“I rarely pray for equipment malfunctions,” Minerva said, sounding rather unhappy, “but this time I might make exceptions. The mass readings on those things are what you look to see from small moons. Leaving their accelerations entirely out of the discussion for the moment.”

Roj shook his head. “Suggestions?”

“Shoot first and ask questions later,” Minerva said. Her voice sounded tight. Lights began to flicker green on the arms-control console. “If I were you, I’d sit yourself down there and strap yourself in.”

Roj did.

“All right, children,” Minerva said, and her grim voice echoed through the hull, “pressure suits all. Then sit down and stop scrambling around as if you were being chased by Weasels with fleas! Increased acceleration in sixty seconds.”

Roj wondered again what was going on back there, but the sight of the trajectories suddenly beginning to trace themselves out on the screen near him gave him something to be much more concerned about. The curves that the six ships were tracing were much too acute: they were flowering out from their original trajectory in tight hyperbolas that were almost curve-expressions of right angles. “Minerva . . .” he said.

“Not manned,” she said, sounding grimmer than ever. “They’re telerobotically controlled.”

“Holy shit,” Roj said softly. Such ships could carry oversize power plants whose unshielded radiations would fry any normal crew–because there was no crew to worry about frying. They could maneuver in ways that would kill anything made of flesh and blood. Their pilots–if that was the right word for them–were sitting somewhere comfortable, perhaps even somewhere planet-based, working the ship remotely, as if it were a gigantic toy.

Whereas brainships, and almost every other kind of ship the Fleet flew, had people (or at least Weasels) inside them. Compared to the telerobotic ships, Fleet vessels were fragile, overshielded, delicate contraptions, as full of breakables as a china shop, and as vulnerable as one when the bull came calling.

Roj felt the acceleration begin to push him back in his seat as Minerva poured the power on. “I take it,” he said, “that Agato’s little scruples about us not getting involved go out the window about now.”

“You take it right, sonny boy. This is a time for doing as you would rather not be done by. Have you counted those ships? Have you counted the other blips on that screen? And did you compare their sizes? We have a problem here, and if we don’t stand up on our tailfins and do something, all these kids’ parents are going to be receiving condolence letters sometime next week. The mails being what they are.”

Roj swallowed. There were only four other ships responding to the incursion at the moment. He had no idea of what else might be handy or getting ready to scramble. But the truth of it was that none of the other ships were likely to be as well armed, or as heavily engined, as Minerva was. Neither sitting the encounter out nor turning tail was likely to save them.

He watched the Syndicate ships continue flowering out of their original tetrahedral formation. Shortly they would pause in their hyperbolas and curve in again to catch Minerva, or whatever other ship was in range from all sides: at least, if they had, any grasp of tactics they would.

“Looks as if your maths coprocessor is going to get a workout.” he said.

“Mmm,” said Minerva, sounding momentarily abstracted again. “Dammit. Roj, those kids back there are beginning to sound like mice at the cat show. They haven’t been adequately prepared for combat yet, and there’s no way they’re going to get used to it in the next twenty minutes or so.”

Roj hit one of the controls on his panel and shifted the screen to a view of the ready room. Their students had obediently strapped themselves in and were trying to pass the time chatting, but they were looking at the screens too, and reading them correctly, and several of them, Peason in particular, were almost frozen with fear.

Roj chewed his lip. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he said.

There was a longish pause. “Depends.”

“Can you do Fotherington-Thomas’s voice? Silly question. Of course you can. Your voder can do any sound you’ve ever heard.”

There was a long silence. “Roj, you scoundrel,” Minerva said. “I’m not sure this is ethical.”

“Screw ethics! If it works, they’ll never know. If it doesn’t work, they’ll die confused instead of terrified, and God can explain it to them.”

That camera iris blinked at him thoughtfully. “And what about after we take the heat off, so to speak?”

“Then we play it by ear as usual, lady.”

Silence again. Then Minerva said, “You are a reprehensible and dishonest creature, Roj Malin, and it’s a pleasure knowing you. But if I had fingers, I’d count them after shaking hands with you.”

Roj snorted and started making adjustments to the fire-control board, keeping his eye on the screen that showed the back room.

“Now hear this,” Minerva bellowed. Except that it was Fotherington-Thomas’s fussy accent to the last consonant, and Roj almost jumped at the sound of it again. “This has been a drill. I repeat. This has been a drill. All vessels stand down from alert and return to assigned courses. Response time for this drill showed only fifty-three percent of optimum. We will expect much better next time. Commanders will assemble in four standard hours for debriefing and evaluations. Out.”

On the screen, the faces in the back room went through more expressions in the matter of a few seconds than Roj could ever remember having seen from them. “All right,” Minerva said. “I’ll cut accel for about two minutes–that’s all l can spare you: I’m trying to work up maneuvering speed. You get on back there and bawl them out, and make it about half an hour’s worth, because you won’t be able to go back there again until afterward.”

Assuming there is an afterward–

Roj headed back to the ready room and paused, framed in the doorway as its heavy blast shielding retracted in front of him. He braced clenched fists on his hips and swept a slow, simmering gaze across the students, back and forth until every one of them had tried to meet his glare and failed. “Fifty-three percent,” he said. “Is that the best you can do? Is that as fast as you can move? I doubt it, because I’ve watched you clear the room at the end of my classes. Would you move faster if I clapped a laser cutter to your well-upholstered little backsides? Because if that’s what it takes, I’ll do it!”

The entire student contingent jumped at his roar, but Roj was just getting warmed up. “Mr. Peason! Wipe that smile off! This isn’t any bloody laughing matter, because what you lot have shown me is that as combat personnel you’re crap! Yes, Gillibrand, Mr. Flying Fingers, that means you too! And what the hell are you all doing sitting down? You’re on board my ship and that means when I come in you stand up! Get those straps released! Squaaad. ... Wait for it, Grabber, wait for it. Squad, ten-shun! Oh, Jesus ever-lovin’ Christ, Mr. Grabber, what do you call that? Standing for the ladies? I don’t care if you are wearing a pressure suit, I want to hear those heels smack! You lot are officer cadets, not a bunch of old women! Again–squad, atten-shun!” Roj stalked along the ranks, glowering and breathing audibly through his nose.

“That’s more bloody well like it. But fifty-three percent,” he said again. “And who do you think gets to explain that shitty performance to the colonel? Minerva? No way! Me! I’Il get the flak–unless I can come up with something that shows I’m commanding something more than this shower! I’ve got four hours before I make my report, and in that four hours you lot are going to put in some work, and you are going to do it well, or by God somebody’s going to be walking home and it won’t be me! You can’t handle a cruiser any better than my old granny and you can’t respond to an alert at any speed worth shit, but we’ll see how you can deal with target practice at combat level! That’s right, Mr. Peason. I said combat speed, and l fucking mean it! Stations!”

He slapped the com installation beside the door without taking his fiery stare from the students. “Minerva, release those drones. Wide dispersion. Then unlock the number two gunnery rigs. Let’s see if this lot can save my hide.”

“You mean, save their own,” said Minerva’s own voice.

“Something like that. Guns to active status.” The multiple firing yokes popped from their recesses along either side of the ready room, and without needing another word from the appalling martinet their tutor had become, the students strapped themselves back into their seats. Even the scary speed of the blips displayed on each installation’s targeting screen was better than the expression on Captain Malin’s face.

“Good,” he said as the blast door slid open behind him. “Just remember, it’s not my ass anymore. It’s yours!”

The door closed and locked–and Roj sprinted for the bridge.

He was aware of the cool mechanical eye on him as he strapped himself in again.

“Appalling,” Minerva said softly.

Roj breathed out, breathed in, tried to answer–and coughed for about ten seconds without stopping. “I hate shouting,” he said at last, when he was able to speak again.

“You could have fooled me,” Minerva said. “Three minutes till we’re within firing range. All missiles arming.”

“All of them?”

“Nuke ‘em till they glow,” Minerva said, “that’s the best policy. Especially when they have us outnumbered, and I have a slightly-worse-than-three-body problem to solve for every missile.”

“Here’s where SIGISMUND proves what he’s got,” Roj said, tapping at the gunnery console to bring up a more detailed view of the attacking vessels.

“Coprocessor’s running,” Minerva said. There had been much noise about the SIGISMUND system; Fleet’s computer specialists had made extravagant claims for its usefulness as a navigational aid, one that could work out the most complex courses in milliseconds rather than minutes. It was the equivalent of a whole supercomputer system on one component board, meant to lock into synch with Minerva’s extant nav and weapons systems, and do their math for them a thousand times faster than they could by themselves. But Roj thought nervously of the ten million lines of code that Fleet boasted had been burnt into the SIGISMUND system’s structure. A lot can go wrong in ten million lines of code–

“Better projection of trajectories now,” Minerva said.

“Our friends have course changes imminent.” The screen changed, showing the inward-arcing parabolas twisting into new shapes. The ships were splitting up, three and three. Three were heading for Minerva: three, for one of the other ships arching out toward them.

The hull shuddered a little, once, twice, three times, as Minerva fired missiles. “Nukes away,” she said.

Roj looked unhappily at the fire-control board. “Minerva, is that damn gadget working? This says those have only a fifty-fifty chance of hitting.”

Minerva snorted. “I know. The damn thing’s not a fortuneteller, not yet, no matter what the science jocks say. It refuses to interleave any tighter than one-to-three with my onboard nav systems when the problem is this complex–!”

Roj swore softly. “It’s getting worse,” he said, looking at the board’s screen as suddenly the six blips turned into eighteen. “Tell me this is a system malfunction. Please.”

“No such luck,” Minerva said. “Those damn ships are carrying. Half a sec–” The telltales for her maximum sensor array came alive as she stretched her scanners to the utmost. “Frigates,” Minerva said. “Unmanned. Plasma weapons, nothing else. But being smaller, they’re going to be more maneuverable than their mommies–”

Roj slammed one hand down on his com control. “There you are, gentlemen,” he said to the lot back in the ready room. “This is a fairly simplistic simulation of Syndicate attack frigates–or, at least, what Intelligence reckon they look like. Plasma weapons, nothing more. I don’t want to see any of them there when we’re done. You have three minutes. Commence.”

“Reports from the three missiles,” Minerva said. “All clean misses.”

“Goddammit, what’s wrong with the things? Can’t they even home properly?”

“Countermeasures, I should think,” Minerva said. The new set of blips, the smaIler one, was getting closer. “Working on it. Roj, this wretched excuse for an adding machine can’t multitask! I can use it for nav, or for weapons, or for cryptography, but not all three! Not even two at once! How many of the miserable things am I going to have to have installed?”

“Yet another design by the lowest bidder,” Roj muttered. “Better concentrate on the countermeasures. Solve those, and you’ve got the rest of the problem solved as well.”

“And shoot with what?” Minerva groaned, making the changeover. “My regular computers are barely up to dealing with these damned orbital elements as it is–ships aren’t supposed to move this way!”

“Ah, but you’ve got us,” Roj said, trying desperately to sound cheerful.

“Te morituri salutamus,” Minerva groaned, and launched another three torpedoes.

The little ships were arrowing in closer, in a swarm at first, then dividing as their parent ships had. They turned even more quickly, curved even more tightly–tight hyperbolas that looked terribly wrong, but worked nonetheless. Like a swarm of bees they began circling Minerva, looking for a weakness in the ablative hull—

—and not without reaction. Fire lanced out from six different places in her hull, tracking with the little ships. One of them blew in a wild burst of fuel and air and reaction mass, a brief sun that Minerva swiftly left behind her. The other ships backed off slightly, but still matched her course, and buzzed around threateningly, firing Iances of blue fire, probing for a weakness.

“How much of that can you take?” Roj said softly, bringing one of the missile launchers on line at his console and considering each of several of the big ships as a possible target.

“Not very bloody much,” Minerva said. Her hull shuddered once more as another spread of torpedoes left.

“Still working on the countermeasures. You want to steer these?”

“Will do.” Roj stared at the projected trajectories of the big Syndicate ships on his fire-control screen, let his eyes go a little unfocused, tried to feel which way they were going rather than to reason it out. One of his instructors had once spent quite a while trying to explain to him that this was an effective way to hyperprocess data. It had seemed iffy at the time, but it was worth a try, since there was no way in hell that he was going to be able to match Minerva’s computers in plain old reasoning power.

“There,” he said, slapping one course in, and “There,” adding another, and a third—

The ship rocked. Minerva cried out.

“What is it?”

“Nuke,” she gasped after a moment. “Just a little too close. A few eyes burned out. Still working on their countermeasures.”

Roj began to sweat bullets. He had only heard Minerva make a sound like that once or twice before: it sorted ill with her usual acerbic invulnerability. While hammering on the fire-control console with one hand, he slammed the other down on the com control and roared, “Who the fuck let that one by? Peason, was that you? Never mind, I don’t care who it was, but do you realize that would have burned out Minerva’s eyes? Do you know how much those optics cost? Do you know how long you would have to work as the deck-scrubbers you’re all equipped to be before you replaced even one of them? And do you realize that the colonel is going to look at the tapes of this little party, and the odds of you lot ever sitting in the front seat of anything more advanced than a spacescooter are getting fairly dim? Seven saints in a sidecar, I can’t even give you dimwits a motherfucking videogame to play without you shafting it every way from Sunday–”

On the fire-control screen there was a bloom of green fire. “Got one,” Minerva said, sounding a little breathless. “Keep at it, boyo, you’re doing better than I’ve been. God damn this miserable electronic abacus straight to–”

There was a screech of delight from the ready room as another of the little attack ships ran through one of the waist-mounted plasma beams and sliced itself in two like an abruptly explosive cheese. And then another howl as a second beam stitched its way across the hull of yet another of the small frigates, catching it right in the engines. The detonation was silent but impressive.

Roj unloaded another three torpedoes, felt them fire, studied the screen, went unfocused, adjusted their trajectories again, not quite toward where he thought the next two of the big Syndies were going to be–just a little off, that seemed to be the way–

“Got the algorithm of their countermeasures,” Minerva said. “I think–”

Another terrible shudder of the ship. “That’s the first layer of ablative,” Minerva said, sounding worried. “Another one in that spot will not be good.”

“How not good?”

“How long can you breathe vacuum?”

“Noted. Peason, that was you,” Roj shouted. “I saw you, mister, don’t deny it! Can you please, if it’s not too much fucking trouble, not crash your used enemy vessels into the one you’re riding in? Thank you ever so much.” He put an extra little turn on one of the torpedoes he was steering, as it flew. The big Syndic ship it was aiming for twisted impossibly, twisted past it, then back onto course again. And blew up.

“Holy shit, how did that happen?” Roj muttered.

“You forgot your other torpedo. I think. Almost, almost ready. Aha! So that’s how they’ve been doing it, the clever little swine! How dare they wave-shift my own tachyar! We’ll see about that. Roj, for all sweet sakes cover my back, here come another two–!”

“Heads up now, you assholes, this is it,” Roj shouted, “don’t blow it! Get those little guys off our case! Now, Gillibrand, goddammit”–and he grabbed at the fire-control console as the hull shuddered and boomed again, the worst yet–“get your thumb out of whatever orifice it’s in at the moment and onto the firing button, yes, you too, Grabber, come on, shoot at something even if you can’t uncross your eyes long enough to hit it, come on, come on–!” He was Ioading every torp that Minerva had not already declared dedicated, there were only three of those ships left now, the terrible sharp double-arrow shapes coming at them two and one, two of them arcing apart from each other to be the pincers, the third coming down from “above” like the sting in the scorpion’s tail, and he saw how the sting was curving slightly up and away to make him think it was going to abort the run, but he could clearly see where it was going instead. “Come on, come on!” he shouted to the kids in the ready room, and slapped the last course corrections into his torps and let them go free–

–and all the images in the screen changed, blipped suddenly a degree or more in one direction or another–all the wrong directions–

“True enemy positions displayed,” Minerva said dispassionately. “Correcting weapon assignments—”

–and there was one bloom of expanding signal on the screen.

And another.

The third kept coming.

“Clean miss,’” said Minerva, but this time she sounded almost cheerful. “Doesn’t matter, Roj, I’ve got their number–“

There was whooping and screaming coming through the com circuit from the ready room. “All right, you lot, knock it off,” Roj said, glancing at his screen, “you still have one of them lef—”

The motion caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. The one screen that mimicked “the windshield” was showing a needle-nosed shape, lozenge-sectioned, getting bigger and bigger and–

A line of blue fire hit it. It blew up.

The whole ship felt as if it had been kicked up and backward. The lights went out. There was a sound that Roj could feel all through his body, like a bass drum being beaten one hard stroke. He held his breath, wondering if he would ever get another chance at one. Then he let it out and yelled, “Minerva!”

No answer.


And the lights came back on.

“You needn’t shout,” she said.

Roj looked at his screen. It was clear, blessedly clear and empty, except for the bloom of one more large explosion.

He hit the com switch again.

“Peason,” he said. “I may just let you live. Check with me in five minutes.”

* * *

“Another two weeks in overhaul,” Minerva grumbled. “For half an hour’s pleasure. I don’t know how I keep letting you get me in to these things.”


“At least,” Minerva said, “the combined forces now have the countermeasures to the Syndicate’s ‘dislocation’ countermeasure. They’ll be shooting at the actual positions of the attacking ships–rather than the fake ones manufactured from Fleet tachyar signals.”

“Thanks to SIGISMUND.”

“That piece of crap,” Minerva said with a sniff.

“Yes,” Roj said, “the one you ordered six more of. I heard you talking to the Quartermasters’ office this morning.”

Minerva laughed softly. “And I heard you saying good-bye to your boys,” she said. “You old softie.”

Roj blushed profoundly. “Well, after all,” he said, “they did the job.”

“And they only fainted and screamed and cracked up a little,” said Minerva dryly, “when they found out.”

Roj blushed harder. “Well, what was I supposed to do? Lie to them?”

Minerva burst out laughing.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Not to them. And not to the class who are waiting for us ... I believe right about now. You’d better go let them in.”

“But the overhaul–!”

“About the only thing that was not broken during that run,” Minerva said with infinite regret, “was the simulator.”

Roj got up and headed for the airlock. “We must have a nuke left over here somewhere,” he said, “just a small one . . .”

Minerva’s laughter followed him all the way down to the door.

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