To Spec

by Charles E. Gannon

Mendez, the newest guy in the squad, had been jumpy ever since the worsening solar weather updates started coming in. The most recent message—that Priestley’s replacement wouldn’t show up for at least another three hours—just made him more anxious. As Eureka command post signed off, Grim saw Mendez hold his new rifle—a flimsy piece of experimental junk called the Cochrane XM 1—a bit too tightly. So, in an effort to get the newbie’s mind off his fears, Grim asked him, “What’s on the ‘other’ radio today?”

A tentative grin twitched at the right corner of Mendez’s mouth. “It’s against regs to listen to—”

“I’m a sergeant, Mendez: I’m too stupid to remember all those ‘regs.’”

Mendez needed no further encouragement: he made a fast, flat zero-gee hop over to the control panel. Steadying himself on a handhold, he pushed a preset button, jumping the radio over to the Commonwealth Armed Forces frequency.

But instead of plaintively wailing guitars, the two of them heard a painfully jocular deejay working his way through the end of the news. First, Mendez looked like the kid who got coal for Christmas—but then he went rigid as the announcer segued into the weather:

“Hey, here’s a CWAF flash from our siblings-in-arms guarding the Big Secret out at Eureka. ‘Quaff’ this one, grunts: they tell us that it’s another beautiful February day out at the Mars L-5 point, with the mercury peaking at minus 215 Celsius. There’s good visibility despite average dust densities and a continued surge of downstream trash sent by some unknown admirers near Mars. But for everyone out here in the fourth orbit, remember: that huge solar storm-front we’ve been watching will move on through in just an hour or so. So come on inside before the weather turns and send a shout out to the folks back home. Don’t let that half AU stop you.”

Great: now Mendez looked more anxious than ever. Sergeant Eldridge Grimsby—“Grim” to all who knew him and wanted to avoid a fistfight—reached out a brown, blunt-fingered hand and shut off the radio. Reflecting that this might be the right moment to employ some of the conversational and psychological subtlety for which sergeants have always been famous, he leaned forward: “What the hell is wrong with you, Mendez?”

Mendez looked gratifyingly startled, then abashed. “Well, sir—”

Grim sighed. "Mendez, don't offend me with that 'sir' crap: I'm not an officer. I work for a living."

"Yes, si—Master Sergeant Grimsby."

Grim grunted at the narrow margin by which Mendez had avoided a repetition of the original slur, nodded for him to continue.

“Sarge, it makes me nervous—guarding the Big Secret they’re building on Eureka. If it’s as important as the security precautions seem to indicate, someone out there”—he swung an arm at the space beyond the bulkhead—“could have us in their crosshairs now, this very second.” When Grim failed to respond in any way, Mendez added, “Sarge, we could die without warning—and without ever knowing what it was we were guarding.”

Grim stared at him. “And your point is?”

“Well—that’s an awful lot of risk without an awful lot of information.”

“Mendez, if the vacc suit you’re wearing hasn’t tipped you off just yet, you’re in the ExoAtmospheric Corps, and we don’t get information; we get orders. And bad food and worse pay. What part of this have you failed to understand?”

But Mendez’s gaze wandered away-—meaning that he hadn’t exposed what was really eating at him: beyond his general anxiety about the duty, Grim sensed a more specific and deeper fear. And the best way to unearth it was to keep the newbie talking: “Okay, Mendez, so why are you more worried today than yesterday? Which is to say, what’s you’re latest theory about how the Big Secret is going to get us all killed?”

Mendez folded his hands and stared at them. “Sarge, I was floating watch outside the comcenter yesterday and heard the staff officers getting briefed by a pair of civvies. One was some kind of spook, I think. Name was Darryl Wilder; mean anything to you?”

Grim felt his stomach contract. “Yeah; security specialist. Ex-Air Force. Then ex-FBI.”

“Who’s he with now?”

“Wish I knew.”

“Private contractor?”

Grim emitted a rumbling set of grunts; he was secretly proud of having a laugh that sounded like an irritated crocodile. “Mendez, guys like Wilder don’t retire. Ever.”


“So he’s interagency, or an errand boy for the Joint Chiefs, or carrying out an Executive Order.”

“How do you know about him?”

“Right after we started setting up shop out here, he was on-station for about a month: always sniffing around, like a security inspector or engineer. Didn’t talk much, never gave an order, but always looking, examining, watching. He was the one who wrote the specs on the facility’s secrecy protocols: that if any of us entered the Restricted Work Zone—the lair of the Big Secret itself—that we had to be removed from general circulation. At least until the Big Secret isn’t a secret any more. I think he was also the one who suggested building it out here on Eureka in the first place.”

“Well, he sure as hell picked a crappy place.”

“Which was his intention, I’m sure. Easy enough to get to Mars from here, and vice versa, but not really on anyone’s flight path, so you see intruders well in advance. Now, you said you heard a second name?”

Mendez looked sideways at Grim. “You know that guy Wasserman, the professor who—”

Grim leaned forward before he could stop himself. “Robert Wasserman? The physicist?”

“High energy physicist—and engineer. Nobel nominations last two years in a row.”

“So you think the minority scuttlebutt is true?”

Mendez shrugged. “Well, I guess the Big Secret could be a starship, Sarge.”

Grim leaned back so energetically that he almost floated into a backwards somersault out of his seat. Robert Wasserman. And Darryl Wilder. Both out here in the Martian L-5 wasteland. What besides a secret FTL project could explain their presence? And it would also explain why the other blocs were having trash-heaving hissy fits about being kept at arm’s length. If they knew that the Commonwealth was getting close to achieving faster than light travel—

But Mendez wasn’t done. “And everyone at the debrief was worried, Sarge. Real worried.”

Hearing Mendez’s tone and words, Grim suddenly felt the first creeping fingers of contagious anxiety. “They were worried? About what?”

“About this solar storm.”

Grim tried not to scowl, failed. “Jee-zus; what the hell is it with this storm? With these hourly updates on expected EMP and rad levels, you’d think we’d never seen a flare before.”

“Sarge, this isn’t a flare: this is a CME. A big one.”

When transferred hastily into the brand-new ExoAtmo Corps six years ago, Grim had managed—blissfully—to sleep through all the space science crap served up by the rear-echelon weenies, so now he was compelled to ask: “So remind me: what’s the science behind a . . . a—?”

“A CME. A coronal mass ejection.”

“I know what it’s called,” Grim lied. “I asked for the science of it.”

Grim immediately regretted making that request, because Mendez—otherwise a good kid—sat a little straighter, and readied himself to deliver a Recitation of The Facts, as was his wont: he was bucking for OCS so hard that Grim wondered if he sometimes got whiplash from the effort. “A coronal mass ejection occurs when the sun actually heaves out a jet of plasma. Much worse than a flare: lots of EMP, hard radiation, and—” Mendez actually shivered “—a big increase in cosmic rays.”

Now, finally, Grim understood Mendez’s anxiety. In the flippant vernacular of the Service, radioactive emissions were collectively known as “zoomies.” Cosmic rays, however, had their own special category: they were “ultra-zoomies.” Unless you were safe inside a (fantastically expensive) electromagnetically-shielded hull or habitat, you just prayed that the water tankage arrayed as shielding stopped all of those little nano-scale laser beams. And if it didn’t, you added a novena that the ultra-zoomie wouldn’t hit a chromosome and clip one of your telomeres too short, thereby kicking off the runaway cellular replication commonly known as cancer. Fortunately, that kind of damage was beyond prediction or control and was, therefore, just part of the random nonsense of the job. So Grim—a hardened veteran—wasn't disposed to worry about it. Much.

However, it meant they might have to wait out the storm in their one-room rad shack, safe behind its multi-layered radiation shielding. Designed to house—barely—a three-man team, its interior was an inhumanly cramped collection of long-range guidance and tracking computers, sensor and drone control consoles, and a single bunk. Its head was a constant source of black humor and savage derision: by comparison, the fresher of a commuter jet seemed positively palatial. On extended watches in the shack’s claustrophobic interior, even Grim had found himself beginning to reconsider the hazards of a spacewalk in exchange for a little extra room to stretch, and a change of scenery. But now he was about to find himself the middle of the biggest solar storm on record. He sighed, and found a way to conceal the rest of his ignorance: “Review time, Private Mendez: what are the special protocols for a CME?”

“Well, we’ll have to pull in the sensor and comm array or it will fry. No reason to leave it out, anyway: anything but laser-based comm and nav is going to be awash in static-soup.”

Grim shrugged “And it’s not like we have much to scan except the Mars trash.”

Mendez obviously tried to keep a frown from wrinkling his brow: he failed.

Grim glared at him. “What? Now you’re worried about the Mars trash, too?”

“Well, the brass is, Sarge. Seems like the other blocs are not dumping the trash anymore—at least not the way they were right after we posted Eureka as a no fly zone. Word is that just last week, Earthside HQ got on the horn with Admiral Riggen and tore him a new one. Threatened him with additional proctological modifications if he didn’t find where the trash was coming from and pronto.”

“God almighty, Mendez: it’s space. How hard can it be? You track back and—”

But Mendez was shaking his head. “The trash has changed, Sarge. Nothing too big, and no metals: all composites and plastics. Just a bunch of black bodies by the time it reaches us.”

The command circuit toned twice: coded traffic from Eureka Base, which was perpetually twelve kilometers behind them. The inevitable Junior Grade Lieutenant on the other end didn’t sound as bored as usual: “Shack Four, we are updating you on Priestley’s replacement. We’ve got a clearance snafu on our end; won’t get it resolved before the end of your watch.”

As Grim heard the first indignant words come out of his mouth, he realized that he was now shouting at an officer— as had happened too often throughout his career. It did not matter that the officer was a J.G. and therefore the service equivalent of pond scum: this pond scum still ranked him and could pull a “rocker” off the bottom of his stack of sergeant’s chevrons. Grim’s realization of this trailed a crucial second behind his shout of: “We’re going to be a man short because of a ‘clearance snafu’? What the hell kind of bullshit is that...sir?” Grim could hear the insincerity in the lagging honorific; knew the J.G. had heard the same. Oh well, Grim hadn’t really liked being a Master Sergeant anyway: too much paperwork.

“Sergeant Grimsby,”—the voice was markedly colder than the outside temperature—“Priestley can only be replaced by another member of his special duty team.”

“Special duty? What special duty?”

Mendez tapped his junk-rifle, muttered: “Sarge, he means the Cochrane. Carrying a field prototype of a weapon is special duty: along with Priestley, they only cleared five of us for—”

Grim rolled his eyes. “Jesus Christ. Sir, are you telling me you won’t send out a replacement because you don’t have anyone else who’s permitted to carry around another of these dumb-ass guns?”

“Sergeant, I’m telling you I can’t send anyone who’s not a part of the field trial: the protocols are quite explicit.”

“Great: so we’re down to two men for the rest of the watch.”

Grim was surprised when the affirmation lagged, and then did not come. Instead, the J.G. said, “No; you’re down to one man.”

Grim looked at Mendez, who was already looking at him. Eyes narrowed, Grim asked the console coolly. “Say again, sir. Sounded to me like you said the duty watch in this shack is to be reduced to one.”

“That is correct, Sergeant.”

“That is a violation of our standing orders, sir. One man can’t oversee all the critical systems in the event of an attack. So—with all due respect—I am not going to leave Private Mendez out here on his own. He’s only been on station for—”

“Sergeant: you’re not leaving Private Mendez. He’s leaving you.”

Oh. Well. How very wonderful for me. “On whose order am I losing Mendez, sir?”

“Doesn’t say, Sergeant: the order to pull him off the line comes straight from Mars HQ. And he’s got to start back now. Otherwise he won’t make it inside before the hard weather hits.”

Mendez raised his chin, seemed ready to resist; Grim shook his head at the newbie once, sharply. “Understood, base. Mendez is on his way. Rad Shack Four out.”

The light that indicated a live carrier signal hadn’t winked out before Mendez launched into his protests. “But sir—”


“I mean, ‘but Sarge,’ this order just isn’t right—”

Grim was touched. “Listen, Esteban; I’ll be fine out here on my ow—”

“No, no: I mean that my recall order sounds fishy—and besides, it will invalidate the Cochrane’s field test.”

It made Grim all warm inside to realize that Mendez’s commitment to an experimental weapon was immeasurably greater than whatever concern he had for the continued well-being of his senior NCO. “Ah. The Cochrane.” That flimsy piece of shit. “Listen: if they were about to invalidate their precious test, they would have told you to leave it behind for me to babysit.”

“No, Sarge, something’s wrong with all this: no one has told the J.G. that, by ordering me in, he’ll invalidate the current trial phase. It makes even less sense that my recall order comes all the way from Mars HQ. And leaving you out here on your own? That’s blatantly against standing orders.” Mendez frowned. “I’m gonna look into all this back at base.”

“Which is where you’re heading now.” Grim snagged and handed the Cochrane up toward him.

Mendez, distracted, took a moment to realize what Grim was doing: then he shook his head. “No, Sarge: you keep it.”

I’d rather have a piranha in my pants. But Grim said: “Mendez, as you pointed out, I’m not cleared to—”

Ever-respectful Mendez interrupted, almost violently. “Sarge: keep the Cochrane. If—well, if anything happens out here, you might need it.”

Like I need a hole in my vacc suit. “I’m better off with my old—”

But Mendez had snatched up the weapon Grim was about to mention—an Armalite six millimeter caseless. “No, Sarge: I’m taking this one. You keep the Cochrane.”

“Mendez, you stop this nonsense. I’ve been using that Armalite since—”

But Mendez smiled an apology as he snugged his helmet, faceplate still up, over his head. “Sarge, the Cochrane is state of the art: liquid propellant, variable munitions and velocity. That makes it extremely versatile, and great—great—in zero-gee. Do you remember everything I told you about it?”

I hear your endless gushings in my sleep. “Some of it.”

“Then please: do this for me.” He checked the clock. “Mother of God; I’ve gotta go. Via con Dios, Sarge.”

Grim answered with a softer-than-usual grunt.

The airlock squealed open, and then complained once more as it was shut.

Leaving Grim quite alone in Rad Shack Four.

* * *

Forty-two minutes later, the external environment monitor started chiming. Grim pushed himself into a slow drift toward the console, looked at the radiation sensors, inspected the rem numbers on the real-time dosimeter—and blinked. As he reached over to silence the alarms, he kept his eyes on the unprecedented readings, and settled in to watch their equally unprecedented rate of increase.

—and bumped into the XM-1 Cochrane’s oddly vented flash-suppressor, which nudged cheekily against the side of his thigh. Grim scowled at it; okay, so it was cool to look at: a sleek, unipiece design. And, although he had refused to admit it to Mendez, he had read the specs on the weapon. If the hype had any resemblance to the truth, its nanyte-reinforced composites made it light and extremely rugged. But it still looked like some flimsy piece of crap out of a sci-fi B-movie of about a hundred years ago.

But, to hear the brass tell it, looks were apparently deceiving. With the liquid propellant stored separately from the warheads, the bullpup magazine held three times the usual number of rounds. No shell casings meant it was a sealed action, without breech or bolt: the liquid propellant was simply injected into the combustion chamber, making velocity—and therefore recoil—a function of how much was injected at any one time. The same combustion chamber was also used to boost bigger munitions out of the integral, underslung launch-tube. Grim wanted to call that a “grenade launcher” but every time he did, Mendez corrected him: apparently this miracle weapon was capable of launching a variety of other, rather exotic submunitions. The Cochrane could probably turn water into wine, too, given half a chance. Grim sneered down at it: yeah, you look fancy, and the specs look impressive, but you just won’t cut it as a sturdy tool. You look like—and probably are—a kid’s toy, not a real gun: all bells and whistles, but no balls for business.

The short-range radar emitted a strangled squawk: a partial contact, just at the edge of the system’s threshold. It was probably a marginal object that, tumbling, had presented a momentarily bigger cross-section for the radar to bounce off. But the system squawked again, and this time Grim saw what had tweaked it: a faint signature, range established at seven kilometers—no, six. Then the range indicator plummeted to three, jumped up to ten, and finally zeroed out for a recalibration as the whole screen surged brightly for a moment. As it faded back into its normal contrast ratios, Grim looked up at the external weather sensors: a corresponding surge in charged particles was dying down. Which suggested that the contact was maybe just an anomalous interaction between the storm and the trash, since the blip had been closing at the same rate, and along the same vector, as today’s unusually dense sampling of debris.

The radar pinged the object again: no doubt about it, now; something was out there. At the same moment, the rad indicators spiked, but this time, remained bright: the sensor’s overload alarm system chirped and an orange warning light glowed on the board. The automatic protection software had activated: in ten seconds, unless overridden, it would yank the combined sensor/comm mast back into a hardened Faraday cage. Grim watched the countdown ticker erode toward zero—but when it hit “4,” he reached over and turned the system off. The program hooted at him, asked him—in bright red block letters—“Do you wish to override the automatic safety?”

Did he? Really? Grim rubbed his stubbly chin. Well, of course he didn’t: if he kept the mast extended, there was a reasonable chance that its sensitive electronics would fry, and an equal (indeed, directly proportional) chance that the brass would fry him. That, along with the duty SOPs, should have decided the matter. But this situation—with a mystery bogey inbound—was not the one envisioned by the armchair jockeys who had written the “standard procedures.” And that meant that Grim’s adherence to them was about to “fluctuate.”

Fluctuate. That was the term he had used during his first disciplinary hearing twenty-eight years ago, and had been using ever since. And he’d probably get busted another stripe for leaving the mast out today.

And what for? Was there really-–really—any danger? Even if a basketball-sized package of plastique slipped past his metal-obsessed sensors, and headed toward the Big Secret on Eureka, how could it engage a target with any precision? It would have to be invisible to radar, which meant there could be no metal in it, which meant no terminal guidance: if something was inbound, it would—quite literally—be nothing more than a shot in the dark. And with all the EMP activity, there’d be no way to command-detonate such a package, unless some mad scientist had come up with a strange new piezo-electric initiator, or maybe a switch activated by timed biological decay—

Like iron filings suddenly exposed to a magnet, Grim’s thoughts swiftly collected around the term “biological,” just as the short-range radar let loose a full squawk, and showed the same junk-blip still approaching—but on a slightly altered vector. Grim added the terms and concepts together: Biological. Change of vector. No reliable electric systems.

God damn, it was a live attack; in the midst of this solar typhoon, there were living, breathing saboteurs inbound, who had just corrected their course—

Grim reached out and tapped the dynamic button that would open the link back to base. Which produced no results. He tapped it again, then harder, then hammered at it. Nothing. He turned to the hardwired auxiliary console to his immediate right, flipped the toggle for the command line: a sudden wall of cat-scratch static prompted him to shut off the volume.

So: thanks to the weather, communications were out. Which meant he had no way to call for help, or send a warning, and, reciprocally, base would no longer be receiving automated status updates from the rad shacks and therefore would not check to discover why he had failed to retract his sensor/comm mast. He was alone—and only he had the knowledge, and therefore the opportunity, to act.

Grim leaned back slowly, checked the range and speed of the blip: given the one meter/second closure rate, he had about ten minutes to consider the problem, decide on a plan, and carry it out-—whatever it happened to be.

Grim turned to his tried-and-true first maxim of planning: know thy enemy—and he had to admit that he knew next to nothing about the approaching attackers. So, using what little data he had, could he induce or deduce any tactical intel from it?

First, given the detection range of Eureka’s main arrays, and the attackers’ rate of approach, they had not been inside any metal hull—shielded or otherwise—for at least a week. That meant that the attackers had floated in with the junk, using it as a moving smoke screen. And that, in turn, meant that this was a suicide mission: given the wholebody rem dosage the attackers had accrued during that extended approach, this solar storm meant their death from radiation sickness would be as certain as it was swift.

As peculiar as that conclusion seemed, Grim discovered that it was consistent with the emerging pattern of careful and meticulous planning evinced by his opponents. The timing of the attack indicated that it was designed to take advantage of the rising solar activity cycle, which had surprised the experts when it began a year ahead of its eleven-year cyclic schedule. Indeed, the attack unfolding now had probably been held in readiness for weeks, possibly months, until solar meteorology indicated the first, turbulent signs of an imminent coronal mass ejection. In the meantime, Eureka’s security forces had been lulled into a slow and inevitable complacency regarding the camouflaging trash flow, ultimately seeing it as just another part of their routine operating environment. And in retrospect, Priestley’s absence, and now Mendez’s, had probably been achieved by hacking, bribery, or both.

Given the attacker’s evident commitment and preparation, it was probable that their equipment was purpose-built for this mission, meaning that from weapons to vacc suits, it was almost entirely nonmetallic. However, complete thermal equalization and diffusion was more difficult to achieve in space, and might become a further problem due to the exclusion of all-metal components.

Which, Grim realized, meant that the attackers’ thermals might still be visible. He quickly snapped over to the slightly more robust thermal sensors. And there, mixed in with the slowly oncoming stream of trash, was a diffuse, almost invisible thermal bloom above the background, pointing inward toward Eureka like a finger.

It was also pointing straight at Rad Shack Four. Grim rechecked, confirmed the vector of approach. Although their target was unquestionably the Big Secret being built on Eureka, they were heading straight at him. Why?

The answer followed hard on the heels of the question: because the saboteurs surely knew about the rad shacks, and therefore knew that they needed to eliminate whichever one sat astride or closest to their point of penetration as they crossed through Eureka’s spherical security perimeter. Which meant that Rad Shack Four was no longer a haven: it was a coffin.

Oh, it still protected Grim from the rads, but that wasn’t the imminent danger, now. Thinking like the attackers, he somberly concluded that, in their place, he would certainly take out at least one rad shack to open a hole in Eureka’s outer defenses, and would do it with something quick and decisive. A high-explosive, armor-piercing missile would be the weapon of choice: it would easily penetrate the shack’s shielding and would bust it open like a pickaxe smashing through the shell of an unsuspecting mollusk.

Grim returned from his thoughts, facing down into the sensor screen over which he was perched. He placed both of his hands on its wildly flickering surface. Despite the pronounced veins and sturdy wrists, his lightly pebbled and very dark brown skin looked suddenly fragile as he concluded, I’ve got no choice: I’ve got to go out there, too.

Which seemed like suicide, on the one hand, because in this storm, EVA ops was the radiological equivalent of going outdoors during a hailstorm of razor blades. But if he remained inside his EMP-crippled rad shack, he could not defend himself or fight back: he could only wait to die.

Grim rose carefully from the seat, picked up his helmet, reached for his Armalite—and closed his hand on empty air. Oh. Right. Slowly, he turned to look at the Cochrane. Okay, then: you and me, bitch. And—for your sake—you’d better perform to spec, or you’re going to get very lost in deep space.

He reached down, picked up the weapon and moved toward the airlock, slaving the rad shack’s shaky sensor feed into his HUD relays as he went.

* * *

Exiting the airlock, Grim controlled the first, transient wave of nausea that always surged up when he went EVA: no up, no down, and the black forever all around him. The stars only made the distance and solitude more absolute. Why so many people—from the earliest astronauts to the current day—were thrilled by “space-walks” was beyond him.

The distant sun—a small, painfully incandescent nickel—peeked into his helmet, rising up over the lower rim of the faceplate as he manually dogged the hatch and resteadied himself. He had a full MMU on his back, but the less activity and motion he engaged in, the better. Right now, surprise was an advantage, so high-energy maneuvers of any kind were out of the question.

Using the external handholds, he towed himself back down into the shadow, and then around behind the rad shack, placing its mass between himself and the approach vector of the saboteurs. Once there, he checked the rad shack’s sensor feed in his helmet: not good. Whether it was the sensors failing or the EMP interference, the data skipped sideways, winked out, came back, fizzled, leaned, then straightened and remained momentarily, quaveringly, readable—before it commenced its weird free-form dance all over again. But in that brief moment of clarity, Grim had seen the oncoming blip: larger now, and shaped like a lumpy, collapsed quatrefoil. There were four of them? Maybe it was just another sensor glitch—

But it probably wasn’t, because it made perfect sense. It was just the right number: one heavy weapons expert, a backup expert who was probably carrying the missiles they planned to use on the Big Secret, and then two combat specialists. The combat personnel would be specially trained in EVA weaponsplay—which, given the way that conventional firearm recoil sent you tumbling ass-over-ankles in zero-gee, was not a common or easily acquired skill. Those muscle-boys would provide cover for the other two, distract and/or neutralize responding defense forces, maintain situational awareness. The guys with the missiles would be monomaniacally focused on their equipment and their target. And in one more minute they would reach the 2000-meter range mark: a logical distance from which to eliminate the rad shack.

Meaning it was time for Grim to get a little distance from the shack, but without using his high-signature MMU. Grim placed both feet against its hull and reached down to grasp the handhold on either side of him as he coiled his body into a tight squatting position. Then he simultaneously released the hand holds and pushed as hard as he could with his legs.

As he shot away from the rad shack, he checked the HUD to see if there was any reaction from the blips; no new course changes, there—and then the whole display went black. Great. Either the commo signal was lost or the shack’s sensor system was finally fried; either way, it was all on him, now.

Which meant it was time to confront the Cochrane and its insanely diverse ammo bag. Clips of penetrators, expanders, nonlethals—those were pretty self-explanatory. Pulling up the top flap on the segmented grenade pouch, Grim laid a finger on an HE round, considered its use as both a weapon and a flare, rejected the tactic. Since Eureka’s own sensors would be pulled in, they wouldn’t see it. Instead, Grim selected two range-detonated flechette rounds, loaded them, and reasoned he should give the targeting system a quick check before trusting his life to it. He turned it on, and raised the integrated sighting scope to his right eye—

And held his breath. Whatever computer was silently working in the recesses of the Cochrane, it was apparently laboring overtime: multiple moving objects were quickly located optically, ranged and vector assessed by a laser ping, and a guidon indicated how to reposition the gun to acquire the closest target. Damned impressive—but still just a toy, Grim reminded himself.

He revised that opinion when the Cochrane flashed a new guidon into existence in what seemed like open space and indicated a cluster of four objects—which Grim himself still couldn’t see—closing at .97 meters per second at 2100 meters range. Sweet Jesus: unprompted, the Cochrane had found the attack force. Well, well, Grim thought, smiling at the gun, you’ve earned your continued existence—bitch.

The targeting display flickered, then reasserted shakily. The electromagnetic soup was getting to the Cochrane’s electronics: Grim switched off the power, and brought the scope back up to his eye.

Even through the faceplate, the unassisted sight-picture in the unusually wide eyepiece was still viable. At maximum magnification, the plain old mechanical scope was already picking out dark blotches moving across and occluding the background starfield where the targeting system had detected the intruders. Grim grunted in satisfaction: gotcha. He settled in to watch them, calculating that they would make their move within the minute, if his conjectures were correct. And so far, they had been—except for one unsolved tactical variable: where was the ship from which the attackers had deployed, and how had it stayed both out of sight and out of the trash stream?

Grim glanced sideways at the scattered, tumbling bits of irregular blackness and grayness that were the trash stream—and suddenly he knew the answer: the attackers’ “ship” was floating past him right now. Their ship was now part of the junk. Sure: each of them had been sealed and launched in a self-disassembling pod with a hull of composites and plastics. It had had rudimentary thrust, life support, comestibles, and was set on a ballistic course, so it required no guidance. When the attackers neared the range at which Eureka’s arrays might pick them out, they (figuratively speaking) pulled their ripcords and let the pods fall—or rather, float—to pieces around them. That way, they could probably have approached to within about three hundred kilometers before getting into their vacc suits and preparing for—

The attack began with a sudden burst of vapor, centered on a bright flash which bloomed and then arced out from the midst of the attackers: a rocket, speeding toward the rad shack. Grim flinched away as a blinding flash coronaed up from the far side of the boxy module, knocking it into a slow tumble as papers and pulped electronic parts vomited out of the huge, jagged rupture in its side.

Time to return the favor. Grim reactivated the targeting system, leaned into the Cochrane’s sights again, ready to fire—but was surprised to see a question mark glowing on the right margin of the display overlay, underscored with the legend “0G opt?” Grim wanted to spit: goddamn, was this weapon busted already? Goddamned tinker toy piece of sh—

Oh, no, wait: Mendez had told him about this. The weapon sensed profound changes in ballistic conditions—such as gravity—and would ask if you wanted an optimum solution. So: “0G opt?” was obviously offering him an optimal firing solution for zero gee. Well, that seemed like a good idea: he edged his thumb up to the “accept” button behind the handgrip, pressed it. The query blinked away.

Grim focused on the four attackers again: they were at 1400 meters range and still clustered. He reasoned he might get two of them with a flechette grenade. But how to access the launcher?

The needed information arose as chapter and verse from Mendez’s endless worship of the Cochrane: “You’ve got three settings, Sarge: main weapon, launcher, or integrated. Just adjust this dial down here—”

Grim did. The Cochrane identified the ready round in the launcher: a laser-controlled, range-detonated flechette grenade. It computed the ballistics—which were pretty clean in free space—and superimposed the firing solution on the current scene: it painted a dim red cone on top of two of the attackers’ vector-projected plots at the time of warhead discharge. Then the image fuzzed, almost disappeared: another EMP surge. Damn: moment of truth. Grim snapped the safety off, lined up the weapon until the guidon told him his aimpoint matched the indicated firing solution, and squeezed the trigger—just as the targeting image flickered and winked off for good.

For a split second, Grim was sure—again—that the weapon had malfunctioned: the almost imperceptible jolt from the underslung launcher barely tumbled him. But no, he could see the grenade moving briskly downrange. But wait a minute: he could see it? How was that possible? Why was it going so slowly—?

And then he realized that, in zero-gee, the optimal firing solution was not as dedicated to maximizing accuracy as it was concerned with minimizing recoil: the munition had been fired with only a tiny bit of force.

Grim, now moving backward more rapidly, and in a very slow tumble, entertained the brief hope that, because of the minimum discharge from the launcher, that it—and his position—would remain undetected by the attackers. No such luck: a mere second after his counterattack, the infiltrators turned toward him, weapons flickering. He twisted his head to keep them under observation: the muzzle flashes were very small, and seemed to occur in short, angry sequences: probably small-caliber weapons, with a maximum three-round burst setting. All common features in zero-gee firearm designs that—ever unsuccessfully—tried to minimize the recoil of conventional rounds. A few self-oxidizing tracers indicated the vector of the fire, which dropped off: having seen that they were wide of their mark, the attackers were no doubt using their own MMUs to correct their tumble before reaiming—

Almost precisely where Grim had seen the sparkle of their weapons, there was a barely visible flash, from which extended a small, lateral vapor plume: his flechette grenade. As Grim rolled up slowly toward direct alignment again, he brought the scope up to his eye.

Seen at the visual equivalent of fifty meters, one of the figures he had targeted was thrashing spasmodically. Whether or not he was wounded, it was pretty clear that his suit was vented, probably multiple times. The other figure was a stark contrast: motionless, arms widening slowly, some object—his personal weapon?—had begun to free-float away on a slightly altered vector of its own. The third attacker, who had been at the edge of the area of effect, was also engaged in rapid motions, but these were brisk and methodical, not desperate. Probably one of the missile specialists trying to change over to his personal weapon.

As Grim completed his first full 360 degrees of tumble, he switched over to the Cochrane’s main barrel and briefly considered using his own MMU to restabilize. But if he did so, he would lose the advantage of getting in another shot before they were ready to respond. On the other hand, taking another shot would make his own tumble worse. Mendez had mentioned something about rear-angled compensator jets for zero-gee firing stabilization—sort of like a mini-bazooka back-blast that equalized the force of the muzzle discharge—but Grim couldn’t recall the details. And since Grim had no time to screw with it, he used what he knew: he spun the propellant dial to the lowest setting—minimum recoil, in case the automatic optimization system had been fried. Then, before he rolled up beyond his current position of direct alignment with the target, he hastily lined up the attacker who had been outside the cone of flechettes, and fired four quick rounds.

Grim was surprised—and relieved—to find that most of weapon discharge vectored him directly backward; as he fired, the muzzle brake’s cruciform nozzles selectively vented the Cochrane’s exhaust to precisely counteract any pitch, yaw, or roll changes to his trajectory. But the Cochrane’s system wasn’t perfect: possibly because Grim had rapped the rounds out so fast, there was still enough off-vector impulse to increase the rate and skew of his tumble.

As he came around on his first, faster, slightly cockeyed rotation, Grim panned the scope across what he estimated had been his target area. At first, he saw nothing—then a faint white plume: he swept back toward that. The plume disappeared briefly, then appeared again, evidently rotating back into view. It was a punctured air-tank: the rapidly venting gases had thrown its wearer into an accelerating spin and were carrying him on a very divergent trajectory. Judging from the figure’s already muted writhings, he wouldn’t live to see where his new heading took him. Grim guessed that he had hit more than just the backpack unit.

But now, as Grim continued his own knees-over-nose rotation, he faced two alternatives—neither of which had promising outcomes. Grim could either wait until he completed another somersault, try to access the last target through the Cochrane’s scope (unlikely, given his increasingly erratic tumble) and score some more hits (profoundly unlikely, for the same reason); or, he could let the Cochrane float on its lanyard while he grabbed for his MMU controls to correct his tumble—and thereby allow the other guy to finish getting his personal weapon readied and aimed, and thereby beat Grim to the probably fatal punch. But wait: Mendez had once said, “And here’s the beauty part, Sarge; you can use the Cochrane to correct your tumble—”

—And then Grim was following his memories of Esteban’s instructions, just as they came to him, word by word—

“First you set the magazine feed to ‘off’—”

—Grim did—

“—so that when you squeeze the trigger, the Cochrane’s muzzle works just like a little rocket. And to counterboost, you just reorient yourself so you’re facing into the direction of your tumble—”

—Grim swung his left arm out, imparting enough spin to turn his body around—

“—then aim into the vector you need to correct—”

—Grim aimed down into the direction of his roll and slightly to one side—

“—and fire.”

Grim squeezed the trigger, leaned into the light recoil, felt his rotational speed drop, saw that the yaw had almost disappeared. He straightened out the tube, fired two more times. And was almost perfectly stabilized. He threw his left arm back across his body to turn around again—toward the enemy—and, engaging the magazine feed, brought the weapon up to his right eye.

He got his left hand back on the forestock, saw the starfield sweep past in the scope, caught a glimpse of movement—and then spotted a silhouette against the stars, head hunched down as if taking aim. Hail Mary, now. Grim thumb-selected autofire, twisting at the waist to keep the barrel on-target. He saw angry little flickers coming from the silhouette as he fired.

Even the Cochrane’s compensators couldn’t keep up with a full-automatic barrage of thrust-generating discharges. Grim tumbled backward—and felt a sharp slap to the back of his head as the spinning began. That slap was probably death’s calling card: the attacker’s first accurate round had hit Grim’s helmet—luckily in the tough rear-plating, probably burrowing into the command electronics for his now useless computer and HUD. But the next round would probably hit something that was soft, would puncture, would release air, would leak blood: would kill him.

But that next round never came.

* * *

After correcting his madcap cartwheels with the MMU, and maneuvering into the solar lee of a small rock that dutifully followed the ruined Rad Shack Four in its slow orbit of the distant sun, Grim waited. And waited. And contemplated his probable wholebody rem dose. And waited some more.

Almost a full hour later, base finally sent a shielded pinnace out to nose among the rocks in the vicinity of Rad Shack Four. When it got within five hundred meters, Grim toggled his radio, heard the faint hum of the carrier wave under the EMP static, and said, “Hey. Over here.”

After a moment of silence, there was the inevitable request for the day code, the countersign, and a curt request from a new voice: “Sitrep, Sergeant Grimsby.”

“Uh—who is this?”

“Sergeant Grimsby, my name is Darryl Wilder. I’m—”

“Yes sir; I know who you are, sir.”

A pause. “Very well. Proceed.”

As the pinnace made its slow retroboosting approach, Grim proceeded to give the most respectful, thorough, professional, and utterly boring sitrep of his entire career to date. At the end, he even managed to forget about the rads sleeting through his body long enough to ask, “Any idea who was behind this, Mr. Wilder?”

“No hard evidence yet, but I’d say it was the megacorporations.”

“Corporate? Why? Are they afraid you won’t let them sell Big Macs on Alpha Centauri?”

There was a long pause. “Sergeant, you seem very sure that our construction project at Eureka has something to do with interstellar travel.”

Oops. “Uh...sorry, sir.”


“Shouldn’t have said that on open channel, sir.”

“, you shouldn’t have. But your conclusion, and your presence of mind, is promising. So, it seems, is the Cochrane.”

Grim stared as the gun; the approaching bow lights of the pinnace glinted off its selector switch: it seemed like a bright, conspiratorial wink. “Yeah, well—it was okay.”

“`Okay’? Sergeant, from what our first readable scans are showing, it seems like it was the star of the show.”

“Sure—but, with all due respect, Mr. Wilder, what if the Cochrane hadn’t worked?”

“Just be glad that it did work, o ye of little faith,”—an expression which made Grim wince: that had been his Grandmama Rayshawne’s signature tag-line, so it just didn’t sound right coming from a man—“because if you had had your old Armalite-6, you would have had to conduct a full MMU tumble correction after every shot. How many shots do you think you could have taken that way?”

“Uh—two. Maybe.”

“Yes, ‘maybe’—with a capital ‘M.’ Either way, two shots would have been two too few: they came at you with four attackers. A conventional zero-gee weapon couldn’t have engaged them all. But the Cochrane could—and did. You were right to have Mendez leave the Cochrane behind, even if it was against regs.”

“Uh, sir—”


Grim paused: the smart thing to do was to take the credit for keeping the Cochrane at the shack. But—maybe because he had just recalled Grandmama Rayshawne belting out “Sweet Bye and Bye” at Church—he said, “Sir, I didn’t think of keeping the weapon at the shack. That was Mendez.” With any luck, that would earn Esteban enough brownie points for his OCS nod, allowing him to become a less-than-typically detestable shave tail—if he lived long enough.

Wilder was still talking. “Well, your actions certainly proved that Mendez made the right choice.”

“Yes, sir, but I did break a few regs.”

“Well, I’m not your CO, but it seems to me that if we don’t bust you, we’re going to have to decorate you.”

“Why’s that, sir?”

“Well, in addition to single-handedly defeating a sabotage attempt on what everyone will soon know as FTL Project Prometheus, you just gave the Cochrane a field test the likes of which no weapon has ever had—either in terms of what was demanded of it, or how well it performed. The testing team at Eureka look like they stole grins off a Cheshire cat: they’re talking about sequestering and debriefing you for a whole week. But before that, we should have a talk about your future. How does that sound?”

The talk about his future sounded almost as good as the sequestered debrief, which meant a soft, solo bed in officer’s country and real chow, instead of the gruel and grey walls of the brig he had been expecting to inhabit for the foreseeable future. “That sounds fine, sir.”

* * *

What Wilder hadn’t mentioned about Grim’s future was that, in the immediate short term, his trip to Eureka included a one way journey past numerous hatches and checkpoints he’d only seen the outside of, and some of which he had no idea existed. That hasty trip ended in an infirmary more clean and more modern than anything he had ever seen—even in those bullshit technothriller vids where high-tech medical facilities are always sterile white, indirectly illuminated by pale blue and even indigo lights. This sick bay made those slick Hollywood sets look like piss-poor imitations.

However, surface glitz did not change the invariable indignities of being in a medical facility. He was poked, prodded, run under, through or in front of a bewildering variety of machines, filled with fluids, and then had those or his own fluids drawn, drained, or deposited.

At the end of it all, the medtechs left him alone with chow that was better than what he was used to, but nowhere near so fine as he had imagined, and dressed in a gown that would have embarrassed a half-witted three-year-old. Still, he was making fair progress with the small portions and was reflecting that no matter how you dressed it up, you just couldn’t make jello look or taste new or improved, when the privacy tone chimed. “Who is it?” Grim growled.

“Darryl Wilder.”

Oh, shee-it. “Please come in, sir. Sorry if I sounded impatient. I was—”

Wilder, a little blond hair still glinting dull gold amidst the full collection of silver, grinned and waved airily as the door slid open. And now Grim was really scared: he’d never seen Wilder smile. He’d never seen anyone that high in the military-intel food chain smile. Not unless they were trying to scam you or deliver bad news. Both of which could be imminent, Grim figured.

Wilder sat beside Grim’s bed. “How do you feel, Master Sergeant Grimsby?”

“Uh, fine sir.”

“Good. But you won’t in a little while, I’m afraid.”

“The rads, sir?”

“I’m afraid so. Nowhere near a lethal or permanently debilitating dose, but the next week doesn’t promise to be a lot of fun. Of course, we can’t really know how your body will react: radiation effects are a bit of a wild card at this level of exposure.”

Well, that was true. But there were other issues that had clearer numbers attached to them. Grim steeled himself and asked the question he had hoped he’d never need to ask: “What are my long-term health prospects, sir?”

Wilder’s gaze became thoughtful. “Realistically, no one can say. But the actuarial studies say that your little jaunt took something like seven to ten years off your life. Of course, you could be paying that price in five years—or never: it’s a crap shoot.”

Easy to say when you’re not the one whose crap has been shot full of atom-sized holes. But Grim only said, “I see, sir.”

“Well, I’m not sure you do, Sergeant. We’re on the verge of putting a number of post-exposure radiation-repairing drugs on trial that could sufficiently improve those odds.”

“But sir, how could that be? I always heard that rad exposure was like spilt milk: you could cry over it, but there wasn’t much use doing so, because the damage was already done.”

Wilder nodded. “Except now there are therapies that may make it possible to replenish the lost milk.”


“Okay, Sergeant Grimsby: I’ll abandon the analogies. Straight talk: third generation gene therapies have led to a new line of drug research that can spur the body’s intracellular mechanisms to detect and perform limited repairs upon telomere damage.”

Grim goggled. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Well, then sign me up for the trials—sir.”

Wilder smiled. “Well, about that: I have good news and I have bad news.”

See? When the big bosses smile there’s always a hitch . . . “Well, I think you’ve already shown me the good news, sir: there’s a way to repair some or all of the damage I sustained from the CME. But I can’t see the downside, not from where I’m sitting in this hospital bed.”

Wilder sighed, the smile diminished but did not disappear. “The downside, Sergeant, is that you can’t be part of the trial.”

“What? Why not? I should be perfect for it, given what just—“

“Sergeant, it has nothing to do with your condition. It has to do with your location.”

“Well—yes, sure, sir: I don’t suppose they want a test subject out on Mars, and at a secure government facility, no less. But like you said, I might be in line for a decoration. If so, then I’m guessing I might be able to ask for a long enough leave to be part of the trial—”

“Sergeant, where are you? Right now, and precisely: where are you?”

“Sir? I’m right here on Eureka.”

“More precise than that.”

“Well, let’s see: after going through those high-security hatches, I’m probably beyond the primary ops hub and in the—“ Oh. Grimsby’s flesh became very cold very quickly. I’m inside the Restricted Activity Zone. Shit. “I understand, sir—but honestly, what have I seen? There’s no reason to keep me under wraps when I haven’t even—“

Wilder shook his head. “No exceptions, Sergeant Grimsby. Personnel who enter the Restricted Activity Zone must remain sequestered for the duration of the project’s secrecy. I believe that is part of the speech you yourself have been giving to incoming security personnel for almost three years now, isn’t it?”

Grim felt that he might throw up. “Yes, sir.” Which really means, “Yes, sir, I will sit here, or in some safe-house or secure base, for months or years, waiting to see what will happen first: the Big Secret becomes common knowledge, or one of my cells goes haywire and does me in.”

“So,” finished Wilder. “Being part of the trials is out of the question.” Then his voice changed, became almost whimsical. “Of course, if I were you, I wouldn’t want to be part of the trial, anyway—not when I also have the option of getting the final, proven drug, instead.”

Grimsby looked up. “Uh . . . what are you saying, sir? That the Big Secret is really a time machine, and you’re going to give me a quick ride into the future?”

“No: as you guessed and I confirmed, the Big Surprise really is a starship. But that doesn’t stop me from giving you a ride into the future. A one way ride, however.”

Grim frowned, then felt his heart rise even as his stomach sank. “Cryogenic sleep?”

Wilder nodded, and the touch of whimsy was stronger; it was even in his face, now. “Exactly. We can schedule you to be revived only after the drug trials are over and a proven compound exists.”

“Can you really do that? I mean, I thought that long-duration cold sleep was dangerous for someone who is, well, injured or at risk. That the shock can kill them.”

“Sergeant, what was the first thing I asked you when I entered this room?”

Oh. Yeah. “You asked me how I felt, sir.”

“Still feel as fine as you did then?”

“No effects yet, sir,” Grim reflected. “Well, not from the radiation, anyway.”

Wilder nodded. “You’re feeling conflicted because you don’t know what will be left of your old life when you are ultimately reanimated.”

Grim nodded, but had to admit: how much was he really leaving behind? His one ill-advised marriage—an idiotic furlough fling that had ended the next year in a childless divorce. And he didn’t have much family to speak of. Certainly no one who went out of their way to keep track of Grimsby Elder. And hell, he’d get a chance to see the future—a future with starships and journeys to other worlds, and wonders he had not even imagined.

Which, he realized as he looked up and met Wilder’s eyes, was where the older man’s whimsy came from: it was actually a kind of amicable envy. “Sure, sir,” Grim finally answered. “Cold sleep sounds like a fine option. And I guess that it will certainly ‘take me out of circulation’ as per the specifications for anyone who enters the Restricted Activity Zone.”

Wilder nodded. “Yes; it is indeed all according to spec, Sergeant. Now: any questions before we prepare you? We don’t want to waste any time; the doctors need to start slowing your cellular functions before your body starts registering the rads.”

Grimsby thought for a moment. “Just one question, sir. The starship—“

“The Prometheus,” Wilder supplied with a smile.

“Yes, the Prometheus. Why make it a Big Secret at all, sir? Why put it behind the black curtain for the last five years? Up until then, everyone knew the Commonwealths were working on advanced spaceflight technology. But then all of a sudden, the project went dark, and the other political blocs started raging at us to share our research. Why not have the whole planet in on the effort?”

Wilder smiled, waved a hand at the door, inviting Grim to rise and follow him. “That’s an interesting question, Sergeant, and one that the rest of the world has been asking for a few years now. And because you’re going where you can’t tell anyone until it no longer matters, I can share the answer with you: we did it to piss them all off.”

“What? Why would you want to do that?”

“To make them push harder on their own, Sergeant. You’ve trained recruits, you know how it is: you give them an easy way, they take it. Pretty similar for any kind of larger achievement, too. By being forced to conduct their own research, to take their own chances, the other blocs have pushed forward the sum total of human knowledge on how to build what Robert Wasserman is calling a ‘shift drive.”

“And together with them, you’ve solved the problems?”

Wilder laughed. “Oh no; we’ve already solved the problems on our own.”


“We conducted the first successful trials about a month ago. I suspect some intel on that leaked, and might have triggered the attack today. I suspect it was an attempt to break our research momentum, force us to rebuild before we can advance further.”

“Then what was to be gained from pissing off the other blocs into accelerating their own programs?”

“It gave humanity a number of different perspectives upon the same set of problems. Sure, we’ve already built a drive that works. But when we finally share our information with them, and vice versa, humanity will be able to construct a far more refined second generation drive. And besides, because they think we’re holding out on them, they’ll rush out into the stars as quickly as possible, determined not to be left behind.”

“But that could start a . . . an interstellar stampede, a land-grab frenzy.”

In response to which Wilder only smiled broadly.

“You mean, you want that to happen?”

Wilder nodded. “Of course we do. Look, Sergeant, for reasons I can’t go into, we—all of humanity—needs to get out among the stars as quickly, as vigorously, as possible. Nothing will achieve that faster than an initial phase of intense, even fearful, international competition to do so.”

Grimsby grunted as they left the infirmary section and started moving into what looked like a cross between a factory floor and landing bay. “I hope that doesn’t ignite a war, sir.”

“Me, too, Sergeant. It’s not without risk—but it’s a pretty manageable risk when you can simply turn around and give—literally give—your competitors almost everything they wanted. And you’ll be there to see what comes of it all. Maybe from a planet circling a distant star, if you want to give us a release to send you out beyond this system.”

“Yes, sir. I’d—I’d like that a lot, sir.”

“Good. Now, one last thing about your action earlier today.” They were approaching rows of lab benches, the Cochrane’s eager technicians staring at Grim, nodding, whispering behind cupped hands. “About the experimental weapon you used. Its primary engineers are standing right over there and they need to find out if there were any failures or shortcomings with the Cochrane. Of course, given your pressing date with a cold cell, it turns out we can’t wait long enough to let them debrief you, now. So I promised them I’d ask for a performance assessment before we started prepping you. Sergeant, did the Cochrane fall short on any of its design parameters? Or did it perform to spec?”

Grim looked over at the lab bench on which the gun itself was resting, like a revered object on an altar surrounded by eager acolytes in white coats. “Yes sir, it performed to spec.” Just like I’m doing now. Then—when he was sure no one was looking—he grinned. And he thought:

Yeah; definitely to spec.


For expert opinion and information on the topic of solar weather in general, and the effects of coronal mass ejections in specific, the author gratefully acknowledges the input of: Dr. Gordon Holman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, USAF; and Russell Howard, a principle investigator in the USN’s SECCHI (Sun-Earth Connection Coronal Heliospheric Investigation) initiative.

Copyright © 2013 by Charles E. Gannon