The Teacher by Robert Conroy and J.R. Dunn - Baen Books

Not For Ourselves Alone

Charles E. Gannon

Note: The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the advice and consultation of Dr. Ellis Miner (formerly, Fields and Particles specialist, and Deputy Project Scientist on the Voyager mission, JPL). His expert review of near-Jovian habitat requirements was indispensable

The service pin glimmered silver-white through the Mercator map that was etched into its reflective surface. Maelstrom whorls—his fingerprints—stood out against the underlying brightness of the miniature continents. He buffed the tiny world with his shirtcuff; the meteorological perturbations vanished.

The sunlight abruptly decreased in the cabin; the spaceplane had tucked around behind Earth’s terminator. Down below, the Asian landmass slipped by, dark and unremarked except for occasional pinpoints of light: the sparse cities of the steppe. In his mind he named them and savored the naming. Even though some of those cities had no love for ethnic Russians, he cherished them; they had not been targets. In their streets, men still grumbled, women still sang, children still played. That was all that mattered.

The spaceplane trembled. He closed his eyes, felt the course change: a slight roll and yaw to the right. They were angling south. He opened his eyes; the Sea of Japan scudded by beneath them, a featureless black sheet.

Too fast, he thought. In wartime, everything seemed to happen too fast; comings, goings, meetings, partings. From the first moment he had been given the pin he now held, there had never been enough time to shake hands, to remember faces, or to save anyone’s life—

Other than his own.

* * *

Before the first peal of the klaxon died out, Sergei Andreyev was sprinting toward the emergency spacesuit lockers. He focused on the nearest of the narrow doors, gauged the rate at which it was automatically opening. As he came abreast of the locker, he spun on the ball of his foot and kicked off into a sharp backward jump. His shoulder blades crashed against the rear panel of the locker, but the blow was tolerable, softened by the interior of the emergency suit waiting there. Sergei straightened his legs and flexed his ankles so that, as he "stood up," his feet slid down into the waiting boots. That contact activated the automatic assist: servos whined and the bottom half of the emergency suit shot up to his waist.

The klaxon yowls accelerated into doubletime. No time to lose. Jam arms into sleeves, fingers into unipiece gloves. Reach down, find oversized guide tab for ventral zipper. Yank it up—zzrrrrripppp—and then slam the central overseal in place. A sudden gust inside the suit: confirmation that a hermetic seal was established. Reach overhead. Grab helmet in both hands, pull down sharply. Craclack-bang as the connecting rings of suit and helmet met, argued, then mated with a resounding metallic bark.

The automatic power-up initiated: a heads-up display sprayed glittering data on the inside of the visor. Environmental systems green. Communications green. Seal monitor green. Maneuver jets green. Mooring clamp indicator green and blinking: time to disengage the suit from its rack. He depressed the first button on the back of his left gauntlet; the suit came free of its ready-harness with a dull ker-klack.

Sergei played out the suit’s tether slowly, carefully. So far, there had been no howling blast of explosive decompression, nor the warbling whine of a sizable leak; this part of the space station was still pressurized—for now. Time for a communications check. Sergei activated the helmet mic with a nudge of his chin; “This is Andreyev, ID 2-18. Reporting all-go from Module Eleven. Over.”

There was a pause. Then: “Acknowledged, Andreyev. Your total test time: 22 seconds.” Captain Aivars Meri, today’s emergency drill supervisor, punctuated his report with a short grunt. It was a disappointed sound, indicating that he had not been able to find any major flaws in Sergei’s performance. “You established full-seal in fourteen seconds, but you lost time with the gloves. Pick it up there. Traumatic abaria gives you twenty seconds of function—at most.”

Sergei suppressed a snort; as though I don’t know that. But I do note your tone, Captain Meri; pure disdain. To you, I’ll never be more than the son of a pan-Slavic embarassment, of a “Nommie” extremist.

Meri had emerged from the pressure door at the other end of the corridor, dressed in the blue and black flight suit worn by the pilots of the Baltic Confederation. “Okay, Andreyev, let’s finish the drill. Next action?”

Sergei droned through the checklist. “Check the module—”

Meri shook his head; his short, lank blond hair switched from side to side. “Andreyev, this mock-up module:”—he waved a hand at their surroundings—“what does it represent?”

Andreyev frowned. “A module on the Americans’ Jovian space station.”

Aivars nodded: a slow, exaggerated gesture. “Da. Very good. But allow me to remind you that the American station is a torus comprised of many modules.” His tone lost the false animation of sarcasm, became flat and impatient. “So `the’ module means nothing to me, Andreyev. Always identify which module you are in. No exceptions. Now: try again.”

Andreyev resisted the urge to grind his molars and started over. “I check Module Eleven for other personnel. Assist any who are experiencing suit-up difficulties. I move to the Command Center in Module One with all haste. As I pass through each intermodule coupler, I check the module separation system. If the system has failed, I am to arm that module’s separator charges manually.”


Andreyev blinked; that question was not part of the standard drill. “I do not understand. I thought—”

“Andreyev, it is my prerogative to ask questions that are not in the tech brief—to see if you’ve been paying attention to the orientation lessons. I ask again: why do you arm the module separator charges in the event of a local system failure?”

Andreyev stuttered out an answer. “If—if the separation system is not responding to the main command net, and if it becomes necessary to jettison that module, separation can only be effected by switching to manual override and personally detonating the separator charges.”

“And what are your chances of survival if you must manually initiate detonation?”

The technical briefing materials hadn’t even mentioned this: Sergei tried math, gave up, guessed. “There is a fifty percent survival possibility in the event of—”

“Wrong, Andreyev. If you secure yourself with your tether before triggering the charge, you have an eighty-six percent chance of survival. If you don’t, you are dead. Period. You will be sucked out into space. Your life support pack will last up to twenty-four hours at minimum settings, but the rads will have killed you long before then.” Meri’s already narrow lips thinned; his frown became a feral smile. “Your next drill will be on the American station, tovarisch, and it wouldn’t do to put on a sloppy show there, would it? Not only would a failure in front of Americans stain your family honor,”—Sergei’s brow grew suddenly and uncomfortably hot—“but I’d have to mention your incompetence to Major Korsov. And clearly, Korsov might not be as understanding as I am.” The Estonian’s sneer-smile vanished. “Unsuit, Andreyev. And here:”—he tossed a small manila packet at Sergei—“I understand this is the latest fashion craze.”

Sergei rubbed his thumb across the small, disk-like lump at the center of the packet. “What is it?”

Meri smiled. “A sign of our unity, tovarisch. A pin, I think. The symbol of the provisional global government.” The deck jarred slightly under their feet. Meri’s smile became hard and decidedly unkind. “Early arrival and docking is now completed, Andreyev. Time to debark and meet the Americans.”

* * *

Sergei, glad to have finally finished moving through the crew induction gauntlet, savored the emptiness of the well-appointed galley. He opened the manila packet Meri had given him: a silver service pin tumbled out of the manila packet and on to the table, its mirror-like surface winking brightly. Sergei ignored it and picked up his glass of tea. He assayed the aroma: a coarse blend, overly strong in tannins. He checked the logo on the teabag: an American brand. Of course.

A clutter of new noises began washing over the subtle "earthsounds" being piped into the galley: thudding feet, mutters, an occasional bark of laughter. Sergei put down his glass, fumbled a Russian technical journal out of his jumpsuit’s breast pocket, and feigned immersion in the material.

The rest of contingent from the Pripyat entered in twos and threes, bringing with them a babel of languages punctuated by translations into Americanized English: the lingua franca of the modern epoch. Sergei hunched forward into the sanctuary of his journal’s cyrillic characters.

Sergei heard the clatter of trays and a few jokes about the pureed cuisine on the Pripyat. Korsov’s bearish guffaw rose above the general buzz of conversation; the large Russian settled into the endmost seat on the other side of the table, Aivars Meri trailing behind him. “But it looks like beef,” Meri was insisting, staring at the hamburger on his tray.

Matthewson, a pilot from New Zealand, grinned. “No matter what it looks like, mate, it’s just processed tilapia.”

“We have the same thing,” Korsov added, “but not on the older ships.” He winked at Matthewson. “Aivars here has only served on rustbuckets. Poor boy from the sticks.”

The Estonian snorted. “Hegemonist. Eat your fish-burger.”

Korsov haw-hawed and squeezed his teabag against his spoon. “The tea is a bit harsh though, hey?”

“Americans drink it differently,” Matthewson commented. “Try it with more milk and sugar, Grigori.”

Korsov looked up, feigning surprise. “Shto? Ruin tea with an udder’s worth of milk?” Even from the corner of his eye, Sergei could see that a broad smile had returned to Grigori’s equally broad face. “I have had tea that way in America many times, my friend. I was for two years in Minneapolis.” Korsov passed the milk to his right.

Aivars shook his head. “No milk for me; I am a purist.”

Aivars Meri claiming to be a “purist?” Sergei knew what his late father would have said: any real Russian purist would militate for the ways of his own culture—right down to archaic and nearly forgotten tea-drinking customs—over the vacuity of American-backed globalism. Sergei had seen a certain measure of validity in that perspective, but had never embraced it with the same vitriolic zeal that had drawn the world’s attention to his father’s archly “NeoComm” videos and appearances. The consequent disagreements between the two of them had persisted until the day his father died, yet even then, Sergei never had an opportunity to publicly distance himself from his father’s radicalism: where dogged loyalty had once kept Sergei silenced, respect for the dead now permanently sealed his lips. How could it be otherwise? How could the son of cultural-protectionist firebrand Aleksandr Andreyev admit that he thought his father’s nationalism had been excessive? Less damning family disputes had led to the besmirchment of more than one public reputation, and in death, a kind of manic political legitimacy was all that Aleksandr Andreyev had left.

“Tennnnn-hut.” Sergei blinked, both at the unexpectedness of the new voice and at the explosive force behind it. Around him, the rest of the new arrivals from the Russlavic Federation were scrambling to their feet and yanking the creases out of their coveralls. Sergei snapped to, saw a figure standing arms akimbo in the doorway: a large African-American man, fifty-ish, American space service uniform, chest cluttered with “fruit salad.” Sergei mentally consulted his briefing materials: Lt. Commander Clifford J. Harrison, station exec and senior flight officer.

“At ease, gentlemen. Since we went to secure-channel discipline four weeks ago, I haven’t been getting personnel rosters. Who’s your CO?”

Korsov stepped forward. “Major Grigori Korsov reporting as ordered, sir.”

Harrison started, stared at the Muscovite, and smiled. “Grigori Mikhailovich, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Repaying a favor, sir. Never got the chance to thank you for your help during the Belt War.”

“Bullshit, Grigori. You just can’t stay away from a good fight. But it’s good to see you here.”

“Good to see you, sir.”

Harrison forced the smile off his face. “Status, Major Korsov?”

“All transferees from Mare Crisium Lunodrome to Hephaestus station present and accounted for, sir.”

Harrison’s answering nod was to the whole room. “You may be seated.” The American commander began a slow, deliberate circuit of the room. “Welcome to Hephaestus station. It is my dubious honor to fill you in on the strategic details of our mission here. Worst news first. Tuesday’s report has been confirmed: the Arat Kur have attacked Barnard’s Star and the International Command Staff predicts that they are not going to stop there, but will carry their assault through to Earth. The games-theory people believe that the Arat Kur want to conclude the conflict before we can adapt to their technology and tactics. Since it is clear that we are their technological inferiors, it’s logical for them to try to finish us off with one sharp blow to our head—and heart. Which means that they’re going to hit Earth.

“Any such invasion will begin with an attempt to secure a refueling site within the solar system. Like us, the Arat Kur need deuterium for their fusion plants. Unlike us, reports indicate that their combat craft are capable of skimming what they need directly from gas giants. Consequently, we’re predicting that their first stop in-system is going to be right here: at Jupiter.

“However, our job is to gather information, gentlemen, not defeat the Arat Kur. If they come, we’ll give them a fight, but a handful of outdated interceptors isn’t going to stop an invasion fleet.”

Aivars Meri’s voice was tight with restrained emotion. “Sir, if this is where they are going to arrive, then why not engage them here with everything we have?”

Harrison stopped. “Because until we learn more about the Arat Kur weaponry, it would be tactical and strategic suicide to meet them in a head-to-head engagement. We apparently made that mistake at Barnard’s Star. We won’t make it again.”

Harrison started on his second orbit of the mess tables. “The engagement at Barnard’s Star did not end with a `strategic withdrawal.’ It was a rout. Forget the ‘uncertain reports’ that are being `leaked’ to the public: they’re candy-coated trash, intended to manage the level of hysteria that might build otherwise. The real story is that the Arat Kur hit us with a weapon that tore even our biggest hulls to pieces. The few pilots who had the presence of mind to try a close sensor pass are now gas particles. Fact is, if it weren’t for eyewitness accounts from civilians on evacuation craft, we wouldn’t even know what had happened.

“That’s why some of you are tactical analysts and theoretical physicists, not pilots, mechanics, or weapontechs. When the Arat Kur come—and note that I said `when,’ not `if’—our interceptors will engage, but only in order to occupy the enemy, draw their fire, and allow us to gather more sensor-data. The experts here at the station will be orchestrating our sensor operations and analysis and relaying the results straight back to the think tanks on Earth. And it’s imperative that we get, and transmit, that info quickly, because our only secure data link is via lasercom. Consequently, we’re no longer useful once the station is hit hard enough to change its attitude and break the link. That means our pilots will have to fight hard and our analysts will have to think fast.” Harrison completed his pacing with a crisp swivel into an “at ease” position. “That’s the job. We are, in effect, bait. That’s why this was a volunteer-only mission.”

Two more officers entered the mess hall; Harrison segued into an introduction: “The station CO will walk you through the near-Jovian `facts of life.’ Captain.” Harrison turned and snapped a precise salute at the more senior of the two recent arrivals.

Who returned it and smiled at the assembly. “I’m Captain Costa, U.S.SF.” He indicated a round, shiny disk adorning the uniform collar that jutted above the neckline of his regulation unipiece duty suit. “You all received one of these in your briefing packet. Please put it on.”He waited as they complied; if he noticed that Sergei did not deign to touch, much less affix, the pin, he gave no sign of it. “Gentlemen, you are now members of the First International Task Force. The statesmen back home have done their best to hammer out a provisional world government that will see us through this crisis. Given their example, I’m confident that we can lay aside any national differences we might have—at least for the duration of our mission here.

“Now since almost half of you have not had prior spaceside assignments, a quick overview of our local conditions is in order.” Costa activated a holoprojector; a baseball-sized image of Jupiter blinked into existence. Tiny dots traced long orbits about the equator of the slowly-revolving sphere of white and orange striations. Costa touched the keypad of his handheld relay. A small white ring appeared some distance above and off center from Jupiter’s north pole. “That’s us: Hephaestus station. Mean distance from upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere is two hundred forty-two thousand kilometers. Contrary to what the news media like to say, we are not in orbit around Jupiter. Unpowered, we’d fall like a stone. Instead, we use heavy plasma thrusters to maintain a vector that parallels Io’s orbit.”

He brushed a fingertip against the remote control: the innermost orbiting dot—Io—glowed bright gold; the white ring of Hephaestus station escorted it. “As Io orbits Jupiter, Hephaestus rides shotgun. However, Io’s equatorial orbit puts it deep inside the Jovian radiation belts.”

Another jab: a bloated red doughnut encircled Jupiter, listing to one side. “The Jovian radiation belts are roughly toroid in shape. Cumulative daily exposure averages about forty thousand rads. Eighty percent of that is electron radiation; most of the balance is from protons and neutrons. Being in an essentially polar position, Hephaestus station briefly traverses the uppermost area of the belts as it maintains its Io stationkeeping. Dosage levels are comparatively light, but still lethal: up to six thousand rads per day. Fortunately, nature provided us with an answer to the local radiation problem.”

Costa pressed another control stud; a light blue arc reached out from Jupiter’s north pole, enveloped Hephaestus station, impaled Io, and then curved back toward Jupiter. The arc disappeared into the atmosphere just above the south pole. Io continued to orbit Jupiter, dragging the blue arc and Hephaestus with it.

“That blue arc is a plasma flux tube, gentlemen. And the only reason we’re alive right now is because Hephaestus stays inside of it. Fall outside of the flux tube and the ambient radiation will fry you in a few hours.

“The `tube’ is a plasma soup of electrons and ions, rated at approximately two trillion watts. This station uses that energy to produce a grid of extremely powerful bipolar electromagnetic repulsion fields. That grid repels the charged particles which comprise the bulk of Jupiter’s radiation, and manages to shallowly deflect a reasonable proportion of the cosmic rays.” A cross-section of the station’s hull replaced the hologram of Jupiter and its moons. “Each station module’s outer layer is made up of carbon composites. Next, a meter of water and gel shielding. Closest to the interior is a hard shell of lead and electrobonded titanium or steel alloys.” The image winked off. “Welcome to your new home. That will be all.”

Sergei rose quickly and used long strides to make sure that he was the first out the door.

And the first to escape from the maddeningly affable Americans.

* * *

Sergei rubbed his eyes with his palms, spent a moment watching bluegreenyellow spots chase back and forth against the blackness. When the retinal light show faded, he drank in the comforting darkness for one luxurious second. Then he lowered his palms, opened his eyes, and squinted against the glare of the computer display. For the third time that day, he read:


Required Clearance: A1B




191118 0730:27 GMT



Primary analysis and correlation of eyewitness accounts re: Barnard’s Star assault continues at Tycho II Military Research Facility. Current International Command hypotheses re: Unidentified Arat Kur weapon are as follow:

1) employs high energy particle acceleration as destructive agency. Confidence: high.

2) employs IR laser for atmospheric plasmating and targeting. Confidence: high.

No viable alternate explanations have been advanced. Analysts are tasked to confirm or propose alternative hypotheses. Relevant observational data follows:

—Sergei leaned away from the screen: the complete “observational data” archive was a half dozen blurry images and fragmentary sensor recordings, all of which he had memorized. Of course, there was nothing in those results to specifically suggest that the Arat Kur were in fact exciting nucleons to estimated energy levels of well over one hundred gigavolts while keeping them focused over the better part of a light second. It just seemed the most plausible explanation and no rival hypotheses were forthcoming. After all, how can you come up with a revolutionary model when you don’t have enough data? You can build whatever flight of fancy you wish—only to have it come apart for lack of the glue provided by hard, quantifiable evidence. And so Sergei’s colleagues throughout the solar system had been cowed into an acceptance of the standing hypothesis.

Which, on the surface, seemed reasonable enough. Yet, every day when Sergei blanked his screen and left for evening PT, he always had the same feeling; something was wrong with the total picture. Like a layman looking at a painting with a slightly skewed perspective, he could sense an inaccuracy, but could not identify the flaw. He could accept that the Arat Kur might well have a particle beam weapon possessing energy levels and a rate of fire far beyond anything humanity had achieved. But despite their technological advantage, it was still difficult to imagine how such a weapon could be made to fit inside their hulls. Unless, of course, reduction in mass and volume was another benefit of Arat Kur technology.

Sergei scowled. Superior technology: did it always come down to that? Could each mystery be solved with the same answer?

Well, why not? Why run in theoretical circles when the answer seemed so simple and clean, a nice filet of truth left behind by Occam’s razor?

Sergei frowned; because that’s not the right answer. You’re missing something. He called up the eyewitness accounts again.

The Arat Kur naval elements had emerged from shift relatively close to the Pearl, the international naval base that had been dug out of the bedrock of the lifeless second moon of the mid-sized gas giant in Barnard’s Star’s first orbit. Even before radar and ladar had picked out the two dozen inbound hulls, deep space sensor platforms registered multiple gravitic distortions and neutrino surges: signs indicating the recent arrival of ships with shift drives and fusion plants. In short, an invasion force.

The battle out beyond the gas giant’s satellites was exceedingly short-lived, and that was all anybody really knew about it. The lasercom relay buoys were lost within the first few minutes. Radio contacts disintegrated over the next hour. The last few coded messages came from a handful of surviving ships that were preparing to cut engines and initiate radio silence. For them, there would be a slow drift to hidden bases on tiny planetoids in the outer system. Maybe they’d made it, maybe they hadn’t. Either way, by the time their messages reached the Pearl after the fifty-minute radio delay, the battle might as well have been a matter of ancient history.

The engagements fought along the retrograde approaches to Pearl were hardly any better documented, most of the data coming from eyewitness accounts. Ultimately, human and Arat Kur interceptors and ROVs had tangled at the edge of Pearl’s toxic atmosphere, then within it. A few escapees had witnessed human interceptors attempting to launch ordnance at two Arat Kur hulls, always staying within the (presumed) comparative safety of the atmosphere. And always with the same result: each human interceptor’s attack run—a glimmering parabola that arced toward the Arat Kur heavies—never lasted more than a couple of seconds. As each craft neared the apex of their approach, there was a stabbing streak of actinic red and the interceptor’s parabola ended in a bright white exclamation point, shattered fragments of the hypersonic airframe tumbling back toward the clouds, wings cartwheeling away from secondary explosions.

Sergei jabbed knuckles into his eyes and rubbed. Every attack had been defeated in exactly the same way: first, the red targeting beam, and then what one American had called the “pinpoint annihilation” of the—

Wait: “pinpoint?” Sergei called up one of the Russian transcripts, searched it quickly—and there: the eyewitness had described the mystery weapon’s destructive force as being like an invisible nozh, or knife. Another unanticipated flash of memory prompted Sergei to call up a Canadian’s transcript: here the metaphor was of “an unseen drill.” Then there was the statement of a young German woman, who explained that the human interceptor appeared to have been “pierced through its heart.” Sergei had read that transcript once before and dismissed her imagery as a matter of ill-advised poetic license. Now he was not so sure. Perhaps—

He cleared the documents off the screen, called up the sole videotape that showed a strike by the Arat Kur weapon. He watched as the narrow delta shape of an interceptor, a Canadian model, rose into view from behind a tall cloud bank and arrowed off the left side of the screen. The amateur camera pan wobbled after the atmospace craft, unable to hold it steadily in the frame. Sergei stopped the real-time flow of the video, shifted to single frame advance.

In slices of frozen time, Sergei saw the Canadian war craft successfully evade a spread of the dim red laser beams, but the firing pattern forced the interceptor into a tighter approach vector, bracketing it and narrowing its maneuver options.

And then the bright red beam. In the first frame, it slipped past the interceptor; in the next, it had locked on target, a red smear across the fuselage. Sergei studied that smear; no sign of hull superheating or structural stressing. He frowned: that was a very low-power laser, possibly too low to even plasmate the atmosphere—in which case, it would not help a particle beam weapon to function more effectively. Sergei tapped the “advance” key again, summoning the next—and fateful—frame.

A blue-white starburst had erupted from the fuselage just a short distance ahead of the red laser smear. The interceptor’s hull was breaking into a shower of long steely fragments. Sergei leaned back, stopped focusing on the details, tried to see the overall pattern instead.

The interceptor was coming apart, some pieces flying forward, others blown to the sides or backwards and down. Sergei back-tracked the vectors of each major piece of debris and found that the disrupted area was actually a short, precise line rather than a pinpoint spot. That short line started just ahead of the laser smear and ended a few feet behind it: a column of devastation that suggested a powerful, focused beam. Certainly more focused than a particle weapon should have been able to produce in an atmosphere. It was indeed the thrust of a knife—or a drill or needle—which had undone the interceptor’s structural knot.

Sergei intertwined his fingers behind his head. Instead of finding new answers, he was generating more questions. And if he raised those questions, his would be only one voice against many, unless someone else already doubted the hypothesis. So Sergei needed an intellectual ally, and the first step to finding one would be to compile a computer list of other individuals who had studied the same information he had. Maybe such a person was also harboring the same doubts.

His search yielded only two names. The first was a junior theoretical physicist by the name of Kenji Akikawa. He had gone over the transcripts, but had not flagged any of the passages that Sergei had focused on.

The second name was Captain Costa’s. Although his research overlapped Sergei’s in only one regard, the similarity was significant. The captain had requested frame by frame studies of the interceptor videotape with visual enhancement. He had done so no less than seven times. He, too, had evidently memorized the image until it became a visual worrystone that he could turn over and over in his mind. An insightful mind, evidently. And a restless mind. But also an American mind. A mind that Sergei could not trust.

Sergei rubbed his eyes again, checked his watch: 1820 hours. Time for daily PT.

* * *

A pair of Euros slid past Sergei as he angled off the track of Module Nine’s sparsely populated exercise complex. He had just resolved to ignore a slight clenching pain in his right side when John Costa’s voice inquired. “So, Captain Andreyev, how’s your work coming?”

Sergei blinked, straightened when he saw the American lounging against the entry to the locker rooms. “No conclusive results yet, Captain.” It felt strange to call Costa “Captain”; in the naval-patterned U.S. space forces, it indicated a far more senior command position than in the air-force inspired Russian ranks.

Costa shrugged. “What about guesses, Captain?”

“With all due respect, Captain, I do not `guess.’ I restrict myself to the facts.”

“Glad to hear it, but then why haven’t you confirmed the International Command hypothesis? It’s based on solid facts.”

Sergei met the American’s level gaze. “I may yet conclude that the International Command hypothesis is correct. I am simply being thorough.”

Costa smiled again. “That’s bullshit, Sergei Aleksandrovich.”

Sergei’s felt the hairs on the nape of his neck rise slightly. “Do you call me a liar, Captain?”

Costa laughed. “No, I’m not calling you a liar. But it’s clear that you’ve got some reservations about the particle beam theory. I put a watchbot on the evidentiary files that I myself have been examining. You’ve been accessing the same ones. Repeatedly. So it seems that you and I have some unanswered questions in common.”

“I wasn’t aware that my research is subject to investigation, Captain.”

“It isn’t, Mr. Andreyev, but neither is it a private affair. And I exercised command privilege to see if anyone else became interested in some of the anomalies I noticed in the video images of the attacks. Seems like you found the same images to be unsettling.”

Sergei frowned, answered carefully. “I am merely puzzled by some of them and by some aspects of the eyewitness accounts.”

Costa leaned forward. “Which ones?”

Sergei studied Costa’s expression; was there a hint of hopeful expectation there? “The civilian accounts that describe the moment of target destruction are, as you say, ‘unsettling.’ What they saw is not consistent with the current weapon hypothesis.”

“In what way?”

“A particle beam is susceptible to atmospheric diffusion, Captain, even with a laser cutting a thermal path ahead of it. This means that its area of effect tends to widen, not remain focused. In practical terms, a target hit by a particle beam suffers damage in many places at once.

“However, judging from the eyewitness accounts and the videotape, it seems that the Arat Kur weapon has a more focused area of effect. That implies a beam with extraordinary coherence. Not what I would expect from a particle beam weapon shooting down into an atmosphere, sir.”

Costa nodded. “It’s not what I expected to see either. So it’s got to be something else. And I very much want to hear your thoughts on that. But let’s drop the `sir’ and other formalities and then discuss the other possibilities over a drink. Acceptable?”

Sergei opened his mouth; nothing came out. Costa was an ally, maybe a friend—but also an American, and thus, unreliable. Historically and temperamentally unreliable. The contending reflexes peaked, washed each other out. Instinct took over. “Sir, I would like that.”

“Good. And the name is John.” Costa began toward the exit.

“Sir—er, John?”


“Perhaps we could sample some of the genuine stolichnaya I brought out aboard the Pripyat.”

Costa grinned. “Invitation accepted. Lead on.”

* * *

Once in Sergei’s quarters, Costa showed admirable interest in the vodka, but returned Sergei’s toast of Na zdorovie with a pointed question: “So what other hypothetical weapons have you been considering?”

Sergei ignored the almost ungracious directness and shrugged. “I have many theories, but they all lead to dead ends. A cosmic ray laser is out of the question: the power requirements would be difficult enough to achieve, but how one would go about focusing cosmic rays into a sufficiently coherent beam is beyond imagination.”

“What about gamma ray and x-ray lasers?”

Sergei nodded. “Theoretically possible, but again, the focusing and intensity issues seem to be insurmountable. X-rays and gamma rays can’t be focused by other forces or by optics.”

“We focus them in our X-ray laser drones.”

“Not exactly. We generate a diffuse directional cone, and a very sloppy one, by ‘tamping’ the nuclear warhead that generates the x-rays. It is not a pinpoint destructive effect. Also, since the only way we have of generating those rays in sufficient quantity is by detonating an atomic warhead, it is not a very practical shipboard weapon.” With a wry smile, Sergei motioned for Costa to return the vodka.

John complied. “And you’ve considered other possibilities?”

“Yes, but they are even more far-fetched. Materializing relativistic subatomic particles in the target does not fit what we’re looking for; that would manifest as a small, intensely destructive point-source, not a beam. It cannot be sonics; the weapon works in a vacuum. Gravitics? Perhaps, but I cannot even construct guesses about that. We just do not know enough about how gravity can be manipulated.”

“So where does that leave us?”

“It leaves us with two sensor tasks that must be conducted when the Arat Kur show up. One: we must determine either the wavelength or the frequency of the beam itself. That will allow us to identify the general nature of the weapon. Two: we need to get a good look at the architecture of the Arat Kur vessel. Architecture is purpose-driven, so the energy and focusing requirements of this weapon will certainly affect a ship’s design.”

John nodded. “No way to solve this puzzle without those pieces.”

The word “pieces” sparked a sudden shift of focus within Sergei: he imagined his finger poised upon a solitary rook, locked in a technological chess-game with his faceless Arat Kur opponents. And maybe that’s just what I need, thought Sergei, a game of chess to resharpen my wits, to distract me from the intractable problems of identifying the Arat Kur mystery weapon. He smiled at Costa. “Do you play chess?”

Costa blinked at Sergei’s sudden change of both topic and expression. “A bit. Now and again.”

Sergei heard the sly tone of understatement. His smile became a wide grin. “Indeed?”

“Well . . . look: I’m not ranked, like you are. And yes, your competitive standings were in your dossier. So I’m not likely to be a sucker.”

Sergei rose to get the chessboard. “So much the better, then.”

* * *

The first game went to Sergei within an hour. The second game extended itself over the course of a subsequent evening, but with a similar outcome. In the third game Sergei’s luck ran out; Costa capitalized on a minor flaw in the pawn defense, grabbed the initiative, and eventually the game. The fourth was a hard-fought stalemate, a duel that dragged on for two days as they swapped both pawns and double-duty shifts in the Command Center, where they spent long hours crafting strategies to use against the Arat Kur. Meanwhile, the station’s technical contingent was working round-the-clock to install a recently-arrived, 20-gigawatt UV laser for station defense: a monster that would have been impossible to power without the extraordinary current of the Jove-Io flux tube.

Exhaustion from the long hours cost Sergei the fifth game, or so he told himself. That comforting rationalization was supported by his victory in the sixth game, dashed by his eventual defeat in the seventh.

On the day that he and Costa started their eighth game, Hephaestus began moving through the more intense regions of the Jovian radiation belts. Rad levels peaked and radio contact disintegrated into random patterns of static and squeals.

As Hephaestus switched all its communications over to tight-beam laser link, Sergei began putting the finishing touches on his own gambit against the Arat Kur: a staggered pawn defense of remote sensors, keyed to concentrate on different spectral bands. Each robot probe was covered by another. Comlinks were rigged to automatically reroute if any of the relay drones were destroyed, all so that they could get one good look at the aliens’ mystery weapon. It was a game that the crew of Hephaestus feared to start, even though they wanted to get it over with.

The Arat Kur did not keep them waiting.

* * *

Seated across from Costa’s empty chair, Sergei frowned at the chess board. The once-orderly lines of white and black pieces were now deeply interpenetrated, a wilderness of overlapping protective webs and half-formed, lurking gambits. Costa had a real talent for chess. With a little more practice, he might even—

The klaxon howled. Sergei rose, feeling the pace of his actions fall far behind his high-speed thoughts: It’s not the right time for a drill. They’re here. Move move move—

By the time the klaxon yowled again—one second later—Sergei was slamming backward into his room’s emergency suit locker, the door barely out of his way. As the bottom half of the suit shot up around him, the intercom began announcing what he already knew; “General quarters, general quarters. This is not a drill. Repeat, not a drill.” He heard the rest of the prerecorded message over his helmet radio, called in his position and status, and detached his suit from its harness.

Out into the corridor. Two pilots, one of them Aivars Meri, darted past, feet thumpthumping into the distance as they disappeared into the adjoining module. More bodies crowded in from both directions, brushed past each other, faces either a blur or anonymous behind helmet visors. Pressing into the turbulent mosaic of flashing limbs and torsos, Sergei started running toward the Command Center in Module One.

As he maneuvered through the bent-elbow joint of the first intermodule coupler, he shot a quick look at the status indicator for the separator charges: a green light glared at him. Sergei picked up his pace, focused on the next module junction.

His suit radio emitted a tonal blip: incoming message on an open channel. “Secure for emergency contra-spin. This is a sixty-second warning.” Then a slight increase in the quality of the channel: a private communique. “Andreyev; report your position.”

“Currently in Module Five. Am moving toward Four.”

“Negative. Report to Auxiliary Command, Module Fifteen.” The circuit closed. Sergei completed his next loping step on his toe, turned, and began sprinting back the way he had come. Auxiliary Command? Why there?

The corridors were now barren as Sergei passed his own compartment. Brief snippets of conversation heard over the suit radio told a fragmentary tale: pilots were firing up the interceptors, their gunner/sensor-op partners racing through preflight diagnostic checks. The external berthing harnesses were opening, mooring clamps retracting, freeing spindly, wingless warbirds. At the bottom of each fighter’s thrust bells, shimmering white cones of heavy plasma bloomed, sudden and silent in the vacuum.

Sergei stole a quick glance at the chrono on his visor’s heads-up display: thirty seconds to contra-spin. He kept checking the status lights of each module’s separation system: green, green—

Red. Shit. “Andreyev here. I have a separator charge failure at intermodule coupler 13-14.”

A pause; then, “Acknowledged. Proceed to Auxiliary Command.”


“We’ll take care of it. Proceed to Auxiliary Command as instructed.”

“Acknowledged.” What the hell was so important about getting to Auxiliary Command?

No time to ask the question a second time: only ten seconds to emergency contra-spin, which was never a pleasant experience. It was the spaceside equivalent of “hitting the brakes,” as the Americans liked to say. From a tactical point of view, the station’s own kinetic energy was more of a threat than any enemy weapon; Hephaestus was a three-hundred-fifty thousand tonne armored wheel with a diameter of just over three hundred meters, spinning at a rate of two point one rpm—giving it a rim velocity of about one hundred twenty kph. Any significant hits would introduce new vectors to the rotation, diverting the inertia of the spin into a myriad of conflicting directions. The cumulative stresses would surely tear the station, and most of its crew, to pieces.

One last stride brought him into Module Fifteen; Auxiliary Command. Costa and Akikawa were there, strapped in and helmets hinged open. As Sergei entered, Akikawa undid his straps and headed back into Module Fourteen.

At least, that was what was supposed to happen. Instead, just as Sergei dropped into the acceleration couch Akikawa had vacated, the floor seemed to slide forward: the contraspin had started. Rotational speed was dropping. Fast.

Akikawa stumbled into the intermodule-coupler, stifled an annoyed curse. Sergei sympathized; moving during an emergency contraspin was a treacherous undertaking. The sensation was reminiscent of walking up the aisle of a braking maglev: the world came to a smooth, swift halt, but your body insisted on retaining its forward momentum, usually in a most ungraceful manner.

Costa pointed to the holotank, where Jupiter rotated slowly. Near its north pole, blue-white motes hovered: the human interceptors. Some were moving “upward” to meet a spearhead of red motes that was plunging downward toward the pole: the Arat Kur.

“They came in well above the ecliptic.” Costa’s tone was sharp, precise: very unlike his off-duty voice. “Active sensors indicate one large vessel, maybe a dozen smaller ones. A heavy, its interceptors, and probably some ROVs in the mix.”

“Any sign of other craft?”

Costa shook his head, snagged the compupad stylus that had begun to float away from him; contraspin was finished. “No. But the Arat Kur could easily have more ships out there. This bunch must have popped out of shift pretty far away from us, at least fifty light-minutes out. Otherwise, the gravitic distortions and neutrino emissions would have been dense enough for us to detect against the background.” Akikawa had silently picked himself up off the floor and was now headed back the way Sergei had come—though God only knew why.

“The Arat Kur are playing a very conservative game, John.”

Costa nodded, narrowed eyes reflecting the red motes. “They sure are. But they’re not wasting any time. They’re counteraccelerating at one point five gee constant and still going like bats out of hell. Our craft will intercept in four minutes.”


“Not good. Our birds were only scrambled three minutes ago. Plus four more minutes to intercept, that gives them a total of seven minutes of boost at two point five gees. Relatively speaking, they’ll be sitting still when the hammer comes down. But Harrison’s good, and so is Korsov. They’re using most of their thrust for evasive maneuvers.”

Sergei glanced over at the remote sensor readouts; nothing yet. Not surprising: he had deployed almost all of his sensors within sixty thousand kilometers of the station. A voice on the intercom anticipated and answered Sergei’s next question: “Fourteen bogeys confirmed inbound. ETA defensive perimeter: three minutes forty seconds. ETA Hephaestus: four minutes fifteen seconds.”

Costa grinned; there was no humor in it. “I hope you work fast, Sergei Aleksandrovich. We’re not going to have a lot of time between the start of the party and the finish.”

Sergei nodded, fastened the rest of his straps and checked his tether. “Captain, where did Akikawa go?”

“Intermodule coupler 13-14. He’s taking care of that module separator system failure you found on the way here.”

“But I could have—”

“It was imperative that you—you, specifically—got here, and with all possible speed.”

“And exactly what am I—are we—doing in Auxiliary control, sir?”

Costa smiled. “Being where we’re not expected to be.”

Sergei nodded; that made sense. The Arat Kur certainly knew about Hephaestus station, had probably managed to get design specs from the same suborned humans who had evidently furnished them with intelligence on the defenses at Barnard’s Star. So they were sure to target the metaphorical brain of Hephaestus, its Command Center.

Targeting data started streaming in from the interceptors. Costa opened a link to their commo net. Underneath the cool efficiency of the Russians and the truculent banter of the Americans was a thread of fear. Or perhaps it was just the result of the thoracic compression caused by two point five gees constant thrust. Harrison growled a warning about unnecessary chatter; the Americans became quiet, coldly precise. Korsov started counting down the narrowing range, voice devoid of emotion.

Sergei considered the enemy’s rapid approach. “At their speed, the Arat Kur won’t be able to engage for very long. It will take them hours to retroboost and return. Perhaps this is a feint?”

Again, Costa’s humorless grin. “Or perhaps they’re confident that they can polish us off in one quick pass. They don’t need to hold this `battlefield,’ so they don’t have much to gain by matching vectors for an extended fight. Besides, their velocity gives them an added defensive option. If things don’t go their way, they can be past us in a matter of minutes.”

And that, thought Sergei, also decreases our chances of seeing their heavy, gives us less time to look at their mystery weapon. The Arat Kur would make excellent chess-players.

“Forty seconds,” Korsov’s voice warned. The blue-white motes in the holotank began spreading out, moving more erratically. Sergei double-checked the range—just over ninety thousand kilometers—and activated the tiny remote sensors that had been seeded over the preceding weeks, scattered along the Arat Kur’s inevitable line of advance. Data started scrolling down his monitors.

The Arat Kur handled the sudden increase of targets—forty-five suddenly-active sensor clusters—with apparent aplomb. Their interceptors split into two groups, the smaller one hanging back slightly.

“Fifteen seconds.” Korsov’s voice was as hard and sharp as slate.

One of Sergei’s sensors gave a brief reading of high energy UV—the classic fingerprint of an Arat Kur tactical laser—and then went off line. First blood.

The Arat Kur’s lead formation opened up with a barrage of laser fire. Four human interceptors were destroyed outright; another was crippled. Then, Arat Kur missiles appeared in the holotank, red needles probing toward the blue motes. Harrison responded by assembling his remaining craft directly along the Arat Kur approach vector. All except for Korsov and Meri. Their motes merged—too proximal to be distinguished separately—and veered away from the main group.

Meanwhile, Sergei’s sensor clusters were being systematically blasted into junk by the trailing group of Arat Kur interceptors. A moment later, the human interceptors reached their optimum range. Missiles and lasers shot toward the enemy fighters—just as the Arat Kur missiles reached their targets. Blue-white motes winked away in clusters. The combined mote of Meri and Korsov vectored back toward the more distant heavy.

“Now launching,” announced Korsov’s voice over the intercom.

Costa almost whispered the order. “Start your sensor run, Lieutenant Meri.”

Sergei watched the two blue motes separate once again. One of them—Korsov’s—emitted a new, smaller mote: a large missile. If it held its current trajectory, it would pass behind the Arat Kur fighter screen, and well in front of the heavy: apparently a blind miss. The other blue-white speck—Meri—became a smear as the Estonian ignited his interceptor’s detachable solid-core boosters and underwent five gees of acceleration. The sensor cluster mounted on Meri’s interceptor went active and more data started scrolling in.

Costa glanced briefly at Sergei. “Only ten seconds left in those boosters. Better get something fast.”

Sergei felt a bead of sweat snake down his neck. “If the sensors read it, I will get it. How long until Korsov’s payload intersects the heavy’s approach vector?”

“Ten seconds.”

“Any counter-fire?”

“Just starting.”

Sergei frowned. “Korsov, deploy the missile’s payload now. We’ll have to risk it.”

Korsov’s mutter was barely audible: “Deploying—”

A second later, Korsov was dead, commingled with the debris that had been his interceptor. But not before the Muscovite had sent the remote command that deployed his missile’s payload.

Only sixteen thousand kilometers in front of the Arat Kur heavy, Korsov’s outsized missile split apart, trailing a stream of micro sensors. Video images and spectral analyses now occupied a new row of Sergei’s screens.

Harrison and Matthewson made it through the enemy interceptor screen just as Meri’s visual sensors picked out the Arat Kur heavy. Sergei had a brief impression of a growing blot of starless space—and then the link with the Estonian’s craft was lost. The mote representing Meri’s interceptor vanished from the holotank.

Costa’s voice was tense. “Got anything?”

Sergei frowned: “Nothing from Meri, but Harrison has established a targeting lock on the heavy.”

“Damn right I have,” Harrison confirmed with a satisfied growl. “And now it’s time to give those bastards a—”

He was cut off by a squeal of static. Then nothing, not even the faint pulse of an active commo link. Sergei checked the holotank; Harrison’s mote was gone, but none of the Arat Kur interceptors had fired. Sergei’s eyes flicked over to his microsensors, watching for any new data that might indicate what had destroyed Harrison’s craft.

Whatever it was, Matthewson must have seen it. The New Zealander’s voice was low and awe-filled. “Jesus Christ, what was—?”

A second ominous squeal of static ended the transmission, just as Sergei’s microsensors revealed what had occurred in the instant that Harrison had gone off-line. There had been a sudden surge of neutrinos from the alien warship, followed by a powerful gravitic disturbance, almost as though the Arat Kur were about to engage their shift drive. And then, a beam of x-rays pencilled out from along the centerline of the heavy’s mass. Sergei nodded to himself as he passed the news on to Costa: “X-ray laser.”

Costa grunted acknowledgement. “Any guess how they’re generating the beam?”


Costa began aiming the station’s 20-gigawatt laser. “Better send whatever data you have now.”

Sergei queued the recorded sensor data into a continuous loop and activated the laser link to Tycho 2, then to Mare Crisium, and then to Titan, Himalia, Mars, Ceres—

The station shook; one of the Arat Kur missiles had hit. The lascom signal lock flickered and blanked. The computer attempted to correct for the station’s change in attitude, to reestablish the commo link.

“Hull integrity compromised in Module Four,” the intercom warned. “Intruder ETA: two minutes.”

Costa called Akikawa. “Finish up with that separation system, Kenji. We’re running out of time.”

“Re-securing the access cover now, Captain.”

“To hell with the cover. Just get back here.”

Sergei watched the red motes draw closer, brushing the few remaining blue-white ones aside as they came—

The world tilted and jumped backwards. Sergei slammed forward against the seat straps, upper teeth piercing his lower lip. He was vaguely aware of a distant crash and metallic groan, and wasn’t sure if he had blinked or the lights had gone out for an instant. A sharp pain bloomed in his temples, dimmed to a dull ache. He knew he was surprised, but he didn’t feel surprised. He didn’t really feel much of anything.

Except that there was something warm running down his chin. He lifted a wobbly hand to dab at it, stared at the red stain on his glove: blood. From his lip.

There was another crash, this time of metal slamming together rather than tearing apart. The noise had been very close to his ear, and had possibly damaged his hearing, because sounds seemed dull now, muffled—


Costa’s voice—blasting out of the helmet communicator—jolted Sergei halfway out of his post-concussive shock. Pieces of reality began reassembling themselves. The station had been hit. And he was still alive. But dazed. Someone—must have been Costa—had taken the precaution of slamming his helmet shut, momentarily deafening him. Sergei opened his mouth, tried to start an inquiry, gave up; verbalization was still a daunting challenge.

Costa helped him out. “This time, the x-ray laser went after us. More range than we guessed. Took out the Command Module and smeared the lascom array.” As the American returned his attention to aiming the station’s 20 gigawatt laser, Sergei forced his eyes to focus and then slewed them around to stare at the sensor readouts.

Several of the screens were lit with gray glowing fuzz; a number of the microsensors had been destroyed. But most of them were still functioning, including a number of video relays which offered clear views of the Arat Kur battlewagon.

The heavy was appropriately named. The mass-scans indicated that the alien warship weighed in at over two hundred twenty-five thousand tonnes. A flat, aerodynamically-optimized oval, the enemy’s non-modular hull broadened out at the rear, flared upwards and outwards at the sides. Its spine was slightly raised, cresting into a sizable hillock at the stern. Sergei checked his active and passive sensors, studied the wavelength results, tracked back along the trajectory of predominant radiance, found that the neutrinos and gravitic anomalies he’d noted earlier had a single point source: they were all coming from the hillock at the heavy’s stern. Sergei nodded: the stern. Pieces of a theory began swirling together, the attractive force of a budding hypothesis giving them order, direction, purpose—

Costa muttered a terse, triumphant curse: the first Arat Kur fighter to come within range of the station’s laser had been promptly ripped to pieces. Then two more in quick succession. At about the same time, there was a soft ker-thunk from the module behind them; Akikawa returning, probably. But still some distance away.

Costa was shifting his aim away from the enemy fighters, which were now giving the crippled station a wide berth, and toward the heavy. It would soon be in range.

But not soon enough, Sergei realized: the Arat Kur warship was yawing slightly, re-aligning itself to face the station dead-on.

Although everything did not happen at once, Sergei couldn’t process the events separately. His microsensors indicated a sudden upswing in neutrinos and another gravitic disturbance. Then, x-rays were streaming in at a multigigawatt level. Sergei shifted his attention to Hephaestus’ external monitors—just in time to see the 20-gigawatt laser shear away like a scrap of aluminum foil. The module it was mounted on buckled and burst, sending spasms throughout the station.

Over the rumbling shocks, Sergei heard a faint scraping noise in the module behind. He turned, saw Akikawa towing himself slowly along the wall, his left arm tucked awkwardly against his side. Costa saw him too, tried radioing; no luck. The American reset his communicator, prepared to try Akikawa again—and froze. Sergei followed his gaze back into the adjoining module.

Behind Akikawa, the module’s corridor was warping. First it shifted to the right, and then bent, trying to twist around its own axis. The angles where wall met floor were distorting, which told Sergei that they had very little time left: each hit had imparted substantial inertia to the station, and each of those inertial vectors were in conflict. Even though it was no longer spinning, Hephaestus station was beginning to tear itself apart.

Sergei watched the neutrino and gravitic readings climb again, and, mildly surprised at the lack of fear in his voice, he announced, “It’s over for us.”

Costa was silent for a moment, still staring at Akikawa. Then he turned back to his console; “Not for all of us.” Costa flipped back the safety cover for the module separator system and his fist hit the firing button.

A shudder went through the Auxiliary Command module. Akikawa, less than ten meters from the intermodule coupler, looked up suddenly. Then the module door slammed shut and the separator charges went off, blowing the Auxiliary Command Module away from Hephaestus station—and Kenji Akikawa.

The rumble of the blast was still playing itself out when the Arat Kur’s final shot hit the curved spine of Hephaestus. The doomed station broke into a ruin of fragments and half-intact modules, all cartwheeling madly away from the point of impact. Sergei turned to Costa, was about to speak, but saw that the American’s eyes were closed tightly.

Then the shock waves hit.

* * *

“We’ll need another two point four seconds of burn to correct the pitch.”

“One-half thrust?”

“Affirmative,” Sergei answered.

Costa entered the instructions into the program that governed the attitude control thrusters and waited. After a few moments, they both felt a faint tug. Sergei watched the simple gyroscope angle back toward alignment. Closer, closer—

The tug stopped. The gyroscope swayed once and settled, centered. Sergei leaned back, released a long sigh. Stabilized at last.

They had endured the post-blast tumble for several hours. As Costa had pointed out, their module’s resemblance to the rest of the spinning junk was probably the only reason that the Arat Kur hadn’t finished them off. As they waited, Sergei had watched the enemy craft sweep “down” across the face of Jupiter, the interceptors and their ROV wingmen retroboosting at two point eight gees constant until they matched vectors with their mothership. As they crossed the plane of Jupiter’s magnetic equator and bore through the very heart of the radiation belts, the smaller red motes merged with the red blob that signified the heavy: the enemy interceptors had returned to their berths.

Costa guessed that as the Arat Kur moved further into the belts, the aliens’ sensors would become increasingly impaired, would lose the ability to discern minor variations in movement or energy. Accordingly, Costa and Sergei had begun to correct the Auxiliary Command Module’s tumble. It took almost three hours of occasional one- and two-second boosts to stabilize the module in all three axes. Now they were ready to add the final touch: a four rpm roll, which would produce about zero point one five gees of "pseudogravity."

When Sergei heard the rotational rate, he frowned: “Four rpm is rather high. It will take some getting used to.”

Costa almost smiled. “You going somewhere in a hurry?”

Sergei shrugged, watched as Costa brought the thrusters on line slowly: there was a barely perceptible sideways tug as their module eased into a lazy roll. “So, John, which gets us first: anoxia or radiation?”

“Cheery, aren’t you, Sergei?”

“A Russian trait. Seriously, I would like to know.”

Costa sighed. “Air in the module will last about two days. Our suits give us—maybe—one more day. That assumes that we cut our oxygen mixture back to minimum levels.”

“What about the radiation?”

“We’re okay as long as we stay in the flux tube. The EM repulsor grids on the module are still functional. But without the big station-keeping fusion thrusters, we’re going to fall behind the flux tube shortly after we start running out of air. So even if we had more oxygen, the radiation would finish the job a day or two later. Of course, all that assumes that we’re not rescued first.”

“Rescued? Who is going to rescue us?”

Costa eased the thrusters back. “Units from Ganymede, maybe. They’ve got some EM-shielded ships there, the ones that were used to assemble Hephaestus. If the Arat Kur aren’t patrolling, those ships might risk a rescue attempt.”

“Why should they try? No one knows that we remain alive.”

“Not yet. But once the Arat Kur tuck behind Jupiter, we can squeak off a few tight-beam radio distress signals.” He undid his straps, rose into the pseudogravity, tottered to the left. “Watch it when you try standing. You can feel the rpms. And we’d better shut down most of our electronics, just in case any other Arat Kur show up for a look-see.”

Sergei nodded, reached out to cut power to the relays that were still in touch with his last three microsensors—and stopped, hand motionless as his eyes grazed across the mass-scan readout of the Arat Kur heavy. The battlewagon was lighter, even after her nine remaining interceptors and ROVs had been taken on board.

“John, take a look at this.” Sergei felt the American sway closer, lean over his shoulder. A moment of silence . . .

Then: “Jesus Christ, Sergei, are your sensors okay?”

“Systems are green; diagnostics check out fine. That damn heavy has shed several hundred tonnes of mass.”

“Could it have dumped fuel?”

“No. Sensors would have indicated it.”

“Well, where the hell did the mass go?”

Good question; where could all that mass go? It hadn’t been dumped, and it hadn’t been carried off into the oblivion of shift-space by a pseudosingularity drive. So what could have become of the mass? Or, to rephrase the question, what could the mass have become . . .?

Sergei blinked as the answer arrived like a conceptual freight train: E=MC2. The Arat Kur hadn’t dumped the mass; they had simply turned it into x-rays. They had burned up several hundred tons of their fuel mix in order to power their weapon. And that meant that the weapon drew its energy directly from the ship’s main powerplant.

As Sergei blurted out his revelations, Costa leaned back and frowned. “Sergei, even if the Arat Kur could fuse that much deuterium in a few minutes, or hours, how would they be able to store that kind of power?”

“By using a pseudosingularity as a capacitor. As they generate the power, they sink it into a pseudosingularity. Then when they’ve got enough power built up, they allow their little incipient black hole to unimplode, but at a controlled rate.”

“Sergei, the magnitude of the field effect needed to control that process would make the engagement of our biggest Wasserman drive look like a gravitic hiccup.”

“Exactly. That’s the fundamental scientific breakthrough that makes their x-ray laser possible. Consider: even the microscopic, incipient pseudosingularities of the Wasserman Drive are beyond our ability to maintain for more than a fraction of a second. But the Arat Kur have learned how to create a more powerful containment system. With it, they not only create pseudosingularities ten times stronger than ours, they can actually use the field-effect to store the energy for several minutes, at least. They may even be able to release the energy through a containment aperture, which would explain the precision of the beam. That’s also why we saw neutrino bursts and gravitic distortions each time they were preparing to fire. And why they’ve adopted such an aft-heavy ship architecture: to accommodate the increased engineering subsystems.”

Costa cocked his head, inviting extrapolation. Sergei obliged: “Both the drives and the fusion plant are probably outsized and heavily shielded, so they require extra room. That explains the pronounced hillock at the stern and why it is the point-source of all the neutrinos and gravitic anomalies.”

Costa nodded, then pointed at the holotank. “And there’s the final proof of your hypothesis.”

The big red mote was angling in toward Jupiter, preparing to make a shallow pass through the uppermost reaches of the gas giant’s atmosphere. Sergei frowned, shrugged. “The heavy is atmobraking. What does that prove?”

“That’s not an atmobraking trajectory, Sergei. They’re scooping up hydrogen. They’re refueling.”

Sergei nodded. “They’ve just finished a number of fuel-costly operations. They shifted in-system, boosted ‘down’ into the ecliptic, and conducted a number of high-power x-ray laser attacks. They have to refuel.” Sergei felt the corners of his mouth edge upwards. “If that assumption is correct, then the fuel cost of their weapon significantly reduces their combat endurance. From a tactical point of view, one might almost call that a weakness—”

“True enough, but first we have to find a way to tell our side that invincible Achilles has a vulnerable heel. And we have to live long enough to do it.” Costa rose, datapad in hand. “Time to take an inventory.”

Fifteen minutes later, he and Costa had finished gathering the resources relevant to their continued survival. The American ticked off the items: “Eight emergency rations kits. Two spare emergency suits. One self-contained radio communicator/beacon. One Unitechcorp ten millimeter liquid-propellant pistol with four thirty-round magazines.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, about ten liters of ready water. And,”—Costa opened up one of the hardcopy storage drawers and snaked a hand into its cluttered depths. Like a fisherman brandishing a prize catch, he pulled up a long-necked amber bottle—“And one fifth of eight-year bourbon.”

Sergei raised an eyebrow. Perhaps the next day or two wouldn’t be so boring after all.

* * *

The readout on the oxygen gauge dropped another notch: zero point one three oxygen pressure. Sergei stared at it, hating the simple device that had deposed their chronometers. Seconds had ceased to have any significance; the remaining number of breaths meant everything. Costa held out the bourbon again. Sergei took it absently.

They had spent their time as wisely as they could. They had closed off the rest of the module and pumped the oxygen from the sealed sections into the Auxiliary Command Center and a small corridor that led to a fresher and an emergency airlock.

They had aimed radio messages at Ganymede, then Callisto, then Himalia. Then they repeated the process. Again and again. For four hours.

They had recorded and printed out their hypotheses, their observations, their wildest surmises about the x-ray laser and the Arat Kur heavy. Sergei hadn’t generated that much hard-copy in years, but whereas the radiation might destroy computers, compromise magnetic media, even scramble crystal encoding, it would not affect paper. And the information had to survive, no matter what else might happen.

Then it was back to the radio: Ganymede, Callisto, Himalia. Ganymede, Callisto, Himalia . . .

The hectic activity helped the first day pass quickly. But now, only halfway through the second day, there was nothing but bourbon and talk and waiting. And staring at the oxygen gauge. Sergei rubbed his thumb along the neck of the bottle, leaned back against a bulkhead. “How long?”

Costa looked at the gauge, then at his chronometer. “Five hours, maybe six. Then, into the suits.”

“Our rescuers had better hurry, then.” Sergei swigged from the bottle, winced. He still wasn’t used to the charcoal taste that lingered behind the corn-sweetness of the bourbon. Another swig made him choke, cough.

Costa reached out for the bottle. “Careful now; don’t kill yourself.”

Sergei was only partially aware of his fingers clutching the neck of the bottle tightly, of drawing it back close to his chest. Blood throbbing in his temples, he tried to push away the realization spawned by John’s harmless, if dark, joke. Of course the two of them were almost sure to die. But one still had a significantly greater chance of surviving. One would only consume half the oxygen, could therefore last twice as long.

And at least one of them had to survive. Their reports were painstaking and thorough, but what military intelligence really needed was a flesh-and-blood witness. Sergei raised his eyes to the oxygen gauge: the indicator seemed to falter downwards toward zero point one two.

Fighting against a sense of dreamlike detachment, Sergei found himself unholstering the ten millimeter automatic that had been placed in his care. Costa’s eyes followed his motions but remained calm. The American’s waving hand signalled again for the return of the bourbon.

Sergei passed it back and heard himself say, “If only one of us consumes air, that person might live long enough to be rescued.”

Costa nodded and drank.

“John, one of us has to report, has to be fully debriefed.”

Costa nodded again, seemed ready to smile.

“I’m serious, John. We have to consider—our options. We can’t afford to fail now.”

Costa, hearing this in the middle of a swig, laugh-sputtered and then coughed; the bourbon had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the region of his esophagus. “Who are you trying to convince, Sergei? Me, or you?”

Sergei suppressed a shiver that started at the base of his spine and spread clawlike across his shoulders. He snapped the pistol’s safety back with a sweep of his thumb, focusing on the red dot that had been exposed, the bloody red drop of death that said, The safety is off; you are now prepared to kill.

Costa wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Look, I’ve never cared for”—he smiled and looked meaningfully at the pistol—“`Russian roulette.’ Particularly with an automatic. So if that’s what you’re suggesting, I’m afraid I don’t want to play.”

Sergei raised the weapon and told himself: think logically. This is not about John or you or your unexpected friendship. This is about humanity, about doing one’s duty. Above all, it is about choosing somber practicality over unwarranted optimism. And making that kind of choice, as his father had always insisted, is something Americans don’t do very well.

Costa nodded in the direction of the gun. “It only works if you squeeze the trigger, you know.”

Sergei’s brow grew very hot. “You seem very sure that I won’t kill you, John.”

Costa shrugged and cradled the bottle in his lap, stared into the amber reservoir at the bottom. “Maybe killing me is logical, but it’s not right.”

“Right or wrong, killing is essential sometimes.” The gun seemed very heavy, sagged slightly in Sergei’s hand. “You killed Akikawa.”

“Yes, just like your need for more sensor data killed Meri and Korsov. That’s what war is all about: giving orders that get people—your own people—killed. But what you’re contemplating now isn’t war. It’s murder.”

Sergei felt his jaw muscles bunch up into iron spheres. “I will do what is necessary. I am an officer.”

“You’re a human being, too. Sure, you can effectively double your survival time by killing me. But a rescue ship could be on its way right now, and that means there’s still a chance for both of us to get out of this alive. That’s why you won’t shoot me, Sergei, because, whether you admit it or not, you haven’t lost hope. And I don’t think you will.”

Sergei stared at Costa. Then he raised the pistol and squeezed the trigger, squinting against the sudden roar.

The oxygen gauge shattered into a spray of fragments, ruined and unreadable.

“At least I won’t have to see that damn gauge anymore,” Sergei grumbled. “Pass the bourbon.”

* * *

Sergei’s head hurt, not in just one spot, but all over. Damned bourbon. Sitting up, he reached for one pounding temple—but his hand thumped to a solid stop against the side of a space helmet.

Opening his eyes, and discovering that he was in an emergency suit, plunged Sergei into a tangle of confused thoughts. When did I get into this suit? Why can’t I remember putting it on? Where’s John? Is hypoxic delirium setting in? John will know. Find John.

Sergei staggered to his feet and scanned the control room. It was tidier than he remembered. All the hardcopy was in neat piles. Most of the screens were blank and most of the lights were off. And where was John?

Sergei clawed awkwardly at the controls on the back of his left wrist; the sudden illumination of the heads-up display blinded him momentarily. Squinting, Sergei checked the chrono: eight hours since he had blasted the oxygen gauge.

And still no sign of John. He tried the suit radio. “John?” No response. Sergei entered the dark walkway that led to the fresher and the airlock. However, the darkness there was not absolute: the narrow passage was illuminated at regular intervals by a slowly pulsing red light—the red light which indicated that the outer airlock door was open. An emergency suit was on the floor next to the inner door, folded neatly, backpack unit to one side. Sergei leaned against the airlock door, slid down into a sitting position, felt his stomach contract into a tight, frigid mass just before his mind started saying no no no.

It kept repeating that for a very long time.

* * *

Quite a while later, Sergei dragged to his feet and wandered back into the control room. John had indeed left everything in perfect order, except for a folded sheet of paper lying on what had become Sergei’s chair. It was labelled “For My Wife and My Son” and, like an oversized dot capping the “i” in “Wife,” a small silver disk rested upon the letter. Lightly inscribed with a map of the globe, it was John’s international service pin. Along the bottom were words that reproached Sergei for ever having doubted Costa: the service pin’s motto read, non nobis solum. “Not for ourselves alone.”

Sergei rubbed the disk between two fingers and then closed his hand around it tightly.

And waited.

* * *

They found Sergei forty-eight hours later. In order to buy extra time, he had set his suit’s oxygen pressure at zero point zero nine five and slipped slowly into hypoxia. He was deep in that twilight world of dreamless sleep and semi-conscious delirium when the crew of the U.S.SF Christa McCauliffe finally docked with the Auxiliary Command Module.

Sergei woke up sometime during the trip outsystem, nauseous from the two hundred and five REM wholebody dose he had received prior to his rescue; it was going to take a while for the leukocyte booster drugs to kick in. How well the other therapies—telomere regeneration in particular—would work would only be known in the decades to come.

He spent the following weeks en route to, and then on, Titan, reputedly the most secure spot in the solar system. The Arat Kur had ignored the Saturnian regime, pushing their attack straight for Earth after utterly destroying most of the system’s available warcraft in two very one-sided battles just beltward of Jupiter. Shortly after regaining consciousness, Sergei overheard two guards muttering about an alien landing in Indonesia, but it was impossible to learn much more than that.

It was nonetheless clear that the war was not going well. Most of the faces that filled his days were grim. However, after being grilled by a panel of equally glum experts, and undergoing hypno-recall, Sergei began to note a few smiles among his debriefers. As their mood improved, they became increasingly interested in the operational limitations and fuel costs implied by the Arat Kur weapon. The questions and debriefing sessions began to blur into one long waking dream of repetition and drudgery, and Sergei lost track of the date.

Until January 25, when two messages arrived from Earth. The first message announced that the Arat Kur had been defeated in a series of sharp naval engagements in cislunar space. The second message indicated that Sergei’s information had shaped the attritional tactics that were used to overcome the Arat Kur invaders. In fact, he was due to receive a medal or two, just as soon as he got home . . .

* * *

Down below, a short stream of lights winked and was gone; the vacation communities of the Sonoma coast. The spaceplane began nosing in harder, the backswept delta wings trembling under the sudden increase in aerodynamic drag.

Sergei sighed, looked at the service pin in his hand, and affixed it to his collar. He wondered what John would say if he could see the pin. Probably wouldn’t say anything, just smile.

As the spaceplane leveled off again, the sun came up over the blue rim of San Francisco Bay. Gold and silver sleeted across the water below, streaked the horizon, painted actinic highlights on the wingtips. Sergei took his hand away from the service pin as they circled back out over the California coast: a tumbling green crest above the Pacific. At last, he was home. Home in America. And in Russia and Egypt and Uruguay and on every patch of ground that comprised the surface of the Earth—because except for lines on a map, it was now, for him, all the same place.

Sergei leaned back into his seat as the space plane descended toward the runway. Did John’s infant son have his father’s smile? Within an hour or so, Sergei would find out.

He looked out the window and watched the sun dance between the tops of the redwoods.

It felt good to be home.

Copyright © 2015 Charles E. Gannon

"Not for Ourselves Alone" is set in the universe of the award-winning Caine Riordan series. The third novel in the series is Raising Caine, out in October 2015. Fire with Fire, book one in the series, was a Nebula Award finalist and winner of the Compton Crook Award, and book two, Trial by Fire, was a Nebula finalist and national bestseller. Before becoming a full-time writer, Charles E. Gannon was Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University. He is a member of SIGMA, the "SF think-tank" which has advised various intelligence and defense agencies since the start of the millennium. Gannon lives in Annapolis, Maryland.