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Authors: Steve White,Charles E. Gannon

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Military, #Fiction, #General, #Space Opera

Extremis (4 page)

BOOK: Extremis
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McGee wouldn’t let his head sag. “Yes, sir.”

“Well, that’s not how we’re seeing Jennifer’s disappearance. Since you were laid up in the hospital and then came straight up here, there’s some news you’re probably not aware of. On the day that Jennifer was taken, twenty-two other persons were disappeared in Melantho. Same approach, same methods.”

“What?”

“And there’s only one connection we’ve been able to establish among them.”

“What’s that?”

“They’re all artists.”

McGee’s thoughts chased around purposelessly, like a dog in vigorous pursuit of its own tail. “They’re all
artists?
” he echoed.

Van Felsen nodded. “Yes. All twenty-three of the abductees were artists.”

“But why—”

Van Felsen stopped and looked at him again, firmly but with a touch of gentleness. “Despite the official line I barked out during the general briefing, our theory is that the Baldies are trying to communicate with us. Art is nonverbal communication—and the whole verbal approach has been a nonstarter for them. And us.”

McGee found the theory vaguely intriguing but was unsure where Van Felsen was heading. “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t—”

“Did you
hear
me, Lieut—apologies: I mean, Sergeant? Our theory is that they want to try to
communicate
with us.”

McGee heard the broader implication but had spent so long suppressing the uncertainty, the fear, the regret, the self-recriminations, that he didn’t dare embrace it all at once. “Communication. They took Jennifer to communicate. So, she might be alive.”

“It’s only a theory so far. But there
is
something else.”

McGee’s heart felt like it wanted to soar and plummet, to race and die, all in the same instant. He could only nod and parrot. “Something else?”

“Yes. There has been only one subsequent abduction incident. It happened just recently. The Baldies snatched up two nurses with the OB/GYN unit in Melantho General when they left their overnight shift two days ago. Neither one had any prior contact with the Baldies or the Resistance, and no explanation was given by the abductors.”

McGee’s heart finally decided on a direction: it leapt up. “You mean…?”

Van Felsen closed her eyes and made a palm-down calming motion. “We have nothing more than that, McGee. But Jennifer was the only one of the twenty-three abducted artists who was pregnant.” Then Van Felsen opened her eyes and smiled. “And something tells me the Baldies don’t need our help birthing their
own
babies.”

Van Felsen had handled a lot of unexpected situations in her years as a pint-sized Marine officer, but she had no experience with, was untrained for, and quite frankly baffled at being snatched up by an immense Marine sergeant into a joyous, smothering bear hug.

1

Undeceived

We are never deceived: we deceive ourselves.
—Goethe

RFNS
Gallipoli
, Main Body, Further Rim Fleet, Raiden System

“Here they come,” breathed Vice Admiral Erica Krishmahnta of the Rim Federation. She leaned forward to get a better look as the first enemy ship made its appearance.

However, Krishmahnta was not looking out a viewport of her flagship, the RFNS
Gallipoli
, but into a hot tub–sized holotank display snugged into a dip at the foot of the captain’s chair. There, tiny green arrow points were clustered about a purple circle that floated upright like the hoop of a lion tamer: the green icons depicted her fleet’s current deployment around the purple-coded warp point, a hole in space-time that—if entered properly—led to and from the Jason system. As she watched, she felt Captain Yoshi Watanabe leaning over her shoulder for a better look of his own.

The first enemy craft—signified by a bright red mote—blinked into existence, seemingly spat out by the purple ring like a drop of blood. An arterial gush of further enemy contacts was sure to follow.

Krishmahnta leaned sharply forward. “Sensor Ops, what kind of—?”

But before Erica could voice the question, the red icon was gone—and with it went two of the eighty nearly invisible cyan latticeworks that indicated the minefields Krishmahnta had laid down to defend the warp point.

“What the hell?” Watanabe’s surprise diminished into an angry hiss.

“It wasn’t an anti-mine missile.” Helmsman Ensign Witeski’s voice cracked, but he sounded sure of himself nonetheless. ”It’s too big. You could fit ten, maybe twenty of our own into it. So it’s not a standard AMBAMM.”

“Maybe not,” said Captain Velasquez from the Engineering console, where he was hurrying his computer through its analysis of the sensor data, “but the first EM-spectrum results say that some pretty big antimatter warheads went off—bigger than the ones on our HBM ship-killer missiles.”

Krishmahnta drummed her fingers. “So what was it?”

“We, uh…we don’t know, sir. It was gone too quickly for us to get any good data on it.”

“Not even images?”

Velasquez shrugged. “Sir, this warp point is pretty big, and from what we can tell, that ship was pretty small. We’d need at least a hundred dedicated imagers running in fast-capture mode if we wanted to get a picture—”

“Then get a hundred imagers aimed at the warp point, running in fast-capture mode, and do it
now
! Captain, if—no,
when
—another of those ships appears, I want to learn as much as we can about it.”

“Yes, sir!”

Krishmahnta waited for more enemy arrowheads to emerge. None did. But then, after a few moments, a swarm of much smaller red motes danced through the purple hole. “Let me guess—recon drones.”

“Dead-on, sir,” confirmed Commander La Mar at the Tactical station. “Dozens of ’em. We’re burning them down.”

And Krishmahnta’s first line of ships did just that—but two of the bright scarlet gnats seemed to think the better of suicide. They spun about and dove back into the purple circle, which swallowed them.

She leaned back. “Well, they got a look at us, and at the effect of their AMBAMM equivalent. Fine. We were expecting them to probe us before attacking anyhow. La Mar, reconfigure the fleet into intercept formation Myrmidon. Make it a phased redeployment. I don’t want to be caught in the air between dance steps if they decide to rush through. Now,” she said, changing tone as she looked at Commander Samantha Mackintosh, her chief of operations and resident expert on damned near everything, “how in Vishnu’s name does that minesweeper of theirs work, Sam?”

“Uh, sir, as Paulo—er, as Captain Velasquez pointed out, we just don’t have any technical specs on—”

“Sam, I know you’ve got blank data screens right now. I’m talking theoretically. How could they manage an
immediate
discharge—of
any
thing—right after warp transit? Everything we’ve got—and everything we’ve seen of theirs—spends at least half a second realigning itself after going through a warp point. But that damn thing’s discharge was well-nigh instantaneous.”

“To be precise, 0.002 seconds after arrival,” supplied Velasquez.

Samantha did not look up from her screens. “Sir—I’m sorry. I don’t have the faintest idea how they’re doing that. It shouldn’t be possible.”

“No,” agreed Watanabe, “it shouldn’t be. But we just saw it.”

“And stood by while it started blasting a path through our mines.” Krishmahnta frowned, set an incisor down on her lower lip, then winced away from the swollen blister that had already arisen there in reaction to her habitual biting. “Next time, we’ll have to lay the mines back farther from the warp point.”

“Which is just what they want, I imagine.”

“Then we’ll have to find a way to make them wish they’d never wanted it.” Krishmahnta rubbed her lip. “Sam, how long—
exactly
how long—does warp-point transit disorient a ship?”

“Well, sir, it depends.”

“On what?”

“On a whole lot of variables. Such as the gravitic signature particular to each warp point, the angle of entry, time elapsed since the warp point was last used for a transit, organic systems versus electronic systems, the size of the—”

“Wait a minute. Organics versus electronics—can you detail that?”

“Not much. A little. Back before the Fringe Rebellion, the old Terran Federation did some studies, but they never amounted to much, since you can’t—”

“The details, Sam.”

“Uh, yes, sir. There are two rules of thumb. First, organics reorient faster than electronics. Second, simple systems reorient faster than complex ones.”

“Fastest and slowest rates?”

“Without researching the data, sir, I’m guessing—”

“Then guess, Sam—and hurry it up.”

“The simplest organic object, a unicellular organism, would probably reorient in under one-tenth of a second. Conversely, complex electronics like a third-generation quantum computer would take up to two seconds.”

Krishmahnta stared at the holotank for a moment. Then: “Lieutenant Lachow, fleet signal direct to Lieutenant Commander Mikopolous, commanding RFNS
Balu Bay
. Have her advance to three light-seconds’ distance from warp point, offset from its center axis by sixty degrees opposite the direction of the ecliptic’s rotation, and sixty degrees beneath its zero-reference.”

“Sixty trailing by sixty declination. Aye, sir.”


Balu Bay
is to take up that new position at better than best speed. Once on-site, she is to run all sensors active, full gain.”

Lachow looked up from his console. “Sensors
active
, sir?”

“Active, Lieutenant. If we’re going to get a look at one of these things, we’ll have to have our eyes wide open the instant it transits the warp point.”

Watanabe leaned close to Krishmahnta’s ear. “Admiral, with sensors active—”

“Your reservations are duly noted, ’Nab—and yes, if the next thing the bastards send through is an SBMHAWK,
Balu Bay
doesn’t have a chance. She’s too small, too close to the warp point, and will be too bright a target not to take a contact hit.” Which, given the antimatter warheads carried by almost all ship’s missiles, meant a certainty of instant vaporization. “But we’ve got to get a better look at this thing they just used to clear our minefield. And besides, I don’t think they’re going to switch gears into a full scale attack just now.”

“No?”

“No. They tried their new toy, sent RD’s through to see how well it worked against our mines. My guess is that right now they’re deciding how best to step up the pace of their operations. Which is to say, they’re going to clear a path with more of these anti-mine systems and then send their main assault in.”

“Or maybe they’ll cat-and-mouse us. Keep us on edge with intermittent probes and jabs and wear us down.”

“There is always that possibility,” agreed Krishmahnta. “Although the Baldies haven’t shown much interest in that kind of tactic before.”

Witeski looked up, his thin face a mass of confused crinkles. “The ‘Baldies,’ sir?”

Krishmahnta smiled but kept one eye on the tactical plot in the holotank. “That’s what the folks back on Bellerophon are apparently calling the invaders.”

Witeski looked around at the unsurprised senior staff. “Eh…I thought we were cut off from Bellerophon and its news, sirs. By about four systems.”

“We
are
cut off, Wit,” Marian Nduku tossed over her shoulder as she crossed the bridge to finish installing new command relays in the engineering console. “But ‘Baldies’ is what they’re called back home.”

Witeski, clearly annoyed that even a fellow junior officer should be more in the know than he was, aimed his impatience at her retreating back. “Oh, and how’d you find that out? Did the Baldies tell you themselves?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, they did, Mr. Witeski.” Krishmahnta’s answer calmed the ensign, although he might have been made anxious all over again had he seen the soberly assessing look in her jade-green eyes. “While our Intel people were picking through the wrecks they left behind after their first visit to this system”—fierce, satisfied grins sprang up around the bridge—“we found snippets of human com chatter in some of their computers. They must have recorded it when the Home Fleet evidently tried to break into Bellerophon from Astria.” The grins gave way to grimly set mouths. “Our best guess is that the aliens kept our chatter in their computers as some kind of reference base for analyzing our signals. And in it, our people were calling them Baldies.”

“I can see why,” put in Mackintosh. “Did you see the post-action forensic reports on the remains they scooped up after their first attack? Not a hair on their bodies. Three eyes, no nose, tentacles where their fingers ought to be.”

Krishmahnta closed her eyes to help her concentrate. “And if I remember correctly, Doc Sadallah made note of how strangely unevolved their vocal apparatus was. Much less neurological complexity than we expected.”

Sam studied the backs of her hands as they rested lightly on her reconfigurable touchpad. “I wonder what made Sadallah decide to examine their vocal structures.”

Watanabe leaned back from watching a green chevron sidle up to the wormhole in the holotank: RFNS
Balu Bay
was almost in position. “Sadallah told me he saw a note in the technical intel reports about how the Baldy computers had little or no provision for voice input.”

Krishmahnta watched the icon of the
Balu Bay
sprout a bright silver stalk: her sensor arrays were active. “So, if they don’t talk much, could they be—?”

Mackintosh’s face lost its ruddy tone. “Telepathic? A hive mind? Like—”

Krishmahnta shook her head. “They’re not like the Bugs,” she heard herself say, while her conscience countered with:
C’mon, Erica, you don’t really know that. But you’re leader enough to know that you can’t afford to have that spectre looming in the Fleet’s mind—now or ever.
The Bugs—humanity’s most dangerous enemy to date—had initially seemed as unstoppable as they had been inscrutable. No communication had ever been established, and the price of defeating, and ultimately exterminating, them had been horrific. “No, they’re not the Bugs. We know the Baldies asked—crudely—for Bellerophon to surrender. And they’re not using us as a food source. They just want to push us aside.”

BOOK: Extremis
5.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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