Nathan snapped the stick back and was shoved down hard into the seat of the fighter. The missile slipped beneath him, missing by just a few hundred meters. A bolt of energy from the fighter's belly laser disabled the missile. It fell away; spiraling into the clouds below him.
The enemy fighter did not follow Nathan in the climb. It dropped away; picking up speed even as Nathan slowed. Nathan watched it plummet toward the earth in the 3D display of his helmet.
His little finger touched a button on the stick, bringing up a list of his remaining stores - two short-range missiles, a recharging belly laser, and fifty rounds of ammunition for his forward gun. His wing lasers were out of chemicals. The rear one was still recharging. He touched the button again with his little finger, bringing back his 3D display.
The enemy reached the mountains below and slid into their sheltering embrace. Carefully placed pingers on those mountains kept Nathan from seeing what was going on there. All he saw were white sparkles covering the computer generated terrain.
'Damn,' he thought for the tenth time. 'His lasers recharge faster than mine, though they're not as powerful. His missiles sense my movement through the earth's magnetic field. I can't hide from them, only escape once they're fired. My missiles use gravitic sensing, but are short range. I'm slower, but more heavily armored. He can hide in the mountains below. If I go down there after him, the guns on those mountains will turn me into Swiss cheese.'
Two red lights on the side of his 3D display snapped green. His lasers had recharged. Point defense only, he heard his instructor intone for the hundredth time. No good against fighters; they're too massive. 'How the hell am I going to get rid of this guy?'
Pulling back a little more on the stick, Nathan brought the ship over in an arc and plunged toward the ground below just as the enemy fighter erupted from the white noise covering the mountains.
"Predictable bastard," Nathan mumbled. 'He'll let me get close enough to fire a missile,' he continued in his mind, 'then fire his and use his wing lasers to take out my missile. My forward gun will disable his first missile just as he's firing a second. I juke around the sky for a bit, letting the little bugger get close enough for my computer to generate a kill solution for the belly laser. The belly laser takes out the missile and he dives for the hills to start all over. But what if I ...'
His thought processes had hung up here during the last three passes. He was running low on fuel and would have to break away and run soon. Something predictable boy was obviously counting on. Command wanted this corridor cleared for the bombers, however, and Nathan was determined to succeed. Of course, it was only one corridor. The five other members of his team were clearing paths of their own through these protected mountains.
Nathan's thumb slipped automatically to the firing button as a soft shrill in his headpiece accompanied by a flashing outline around the enemy fighter told him that he was in range. He started to press the button, but pushed down on the stick instead. His ship dropped just as the enemy fired. The missile slipped in behind him as he plummeted for the white-noise hills below, red slowly creeping in at the edges of his vision from the negative G's he was taking. 'Hope this works,' he belatedly thought.
The soft shrill turned into a calm computer voice calling out the range of the missile. "Four thousand meters... Three thousand five hundred meters... Three thousand meters..."
The voice said five hundred meters just as Nathan plunged into the white noise shrouding the mountains. All of the instruments in his display instantly turned into a jumble of disjointed images. White noise sparkled across the entire display as he pulled back on the stick and once more felt the seat rise up to press hard into his legs and back. Redness turned to black as positive G's threatened to send him into darkness. His ship was buffeted by explosions going off below him as the ground batteries opened fire. Just as he hoped, the enemy missile was caught by fire from one of the ground batteries and exploded in a splash of color in his distorted display.
As he lifted above the white noise, his display quickly corrected itself. He spotted the enemy fighter above him and to his left. It was flying straight and level, following the line of mountains. Nathan slid his fighter into a pursuit course, his speed slowly bleeding away as climbed.
Seconds later, he tapped the missile firing button just as the soft shrill of missile lock sounded in his ear. The enemy was still flying straight and level, but as the missile leapt away, he broke right and plunged toward the mountains. Nathan's missile closed the distance, then exploded in a puff of smoke and broken metal as the enemy's rear laser detonated it.
But Nathan had known this would happen. Firing his second missile was not an option. The enemy would soon be in the white noise of the mountains and his buddies on the ground would help him out much as they had inadvertently helped Nathan out.
No, Nathan had flipped over and followed his missile as the enemy fighter broke right and headed for the ground. He burst through the smoke and debris of his missile and quickly overtook his opponent. His 3D display automatically shifted scales as he closed the distance until the pixels of the rapidly approaching mountains were blurry blocks of color and the enemy fighter was a fuzzy blob beneath him. Closing the distance even more, Nathan watched as the dot at the center of his display, which represented his fighter, began to merge with the fuzzy blob beneath him.
He was flying by instinct alone now. The computer display could not help him. The enemy, apparently sensing what he was trying to do, began bouncing around the sky while continuing his plunge toward the mountains below. Nathan followed. He had played with this guy long enough that he could almost think like him, fly like him, breath as he breathed.
As the center of his display slid toward the blob that was the enemy craft, he felt along the stick with his thumb and found the correct button. Pressing it brought up a warning window in his display that asked him to confirm by pressing the button a second time. Without thought, he pressed it.
His belly laser discharged less than twenty meters above the left wing of the enemy fighter. It tore through the metal and found a missile hanging beneath it. The wing vanished in a shower of debris that clanged against Nathan's ship. Then the rest of the ship exploded in an expanding cloud of broken metal and electronic parts.
Nathan felt the shockwave of the explosion below him and fought to control his madly bouncing ship. As parts from the destroyed ship battered against his undercarriage, warning lights lit up in his display and shrill warning sirens stung his ears.
Nathan slammed the throttle forward and pulled back on the stick. He was dangerously close to the mountains below and well inside the white noise. His ship shuddered under the strain and he watched the world slowly shrink into a graying tunnel of light. His head and heart pounded almost as loudly as the explosions from the gun and laser batteries below him.
He was struck hard and he felt his ship slide over and invert. Sweat trickled into his eyes. His nostrils flared as he smelled burning insulation. He was dangerously close to blacking out. Only flight instincts got him flipped over and climbing up and out of the range of the gun batteries.
He limped home, his ship shuddering and twice losing power, but he made it. He even managed to land it and was amazed to see the damage to the underside as he climbed down from the cockpit, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw as he stepped down from the ladder and passed under the ship.
The enemy pilot had managed to eject. The pilot's canopy had burrowed deep into the underbelly of Nathan's ship, but there hadn't been enough time for canopy and pilot seat to separate. The dead pilot stared back at him from that seat as Nathan struggled up from the dream screaming.
"Philippines again," Lenny asked as Nathan, heavy robe swishing against his legs, padded out of the bedroom and headed for the kitchen and some tea.
"Yep," Nathan answered not wanting to go into any more detail.
"That's the third time this week, boss. You okay?"
Lenny followed him into the kitchen. He was naked, as usual this time of day, despite Nathan complaining endlessly about seeing his skinny butt this early in the day. 'You'd think after two years I'd be used to it,' he thought.
"Fine," Nathan answered. He filled a cup with hot water from the tap and dropped a tea bulb into it. The hot water melted the synth-sugar encasing the tea, then dissolved the crystallized tea. Ten seconds after entering the kitchen, he left it with Lenny following and looking at him in concern.
"Better finish packing," Nathan said, sitting the tea cup on the corner of the nightstand. "We have to be at the spaceport in two hours. Better yet, you shower. I'll finish packing for both of us. We might actually make it on time that way."
He lost himself in the packing then, not even noticing when Lenny finished his shower and, still dripping water, padded across the rug of the apartment's only bedroom. Lenny dried himself silently next to the sofa that had been his bed for two years.
Eventually Nathan stepped in one of the wet spots in the rug and looked over just as Lenny bent down to pull on his pants. "Why'd I tell the Feds I'd keep an eye on you," Nathan asked no one in particular.
"Weak moment?" Lenny proffered.
"Momentary insanity is more like it. I should have let you rot in jail. At least I wouldn't step in wet spots in my rug every morning."
Lenny dropped his head and looked sufficiently chagrined that Nathan almost apologized - almost. Two years as Lenny's guardian would have made even India's Saint Theresa curse.
Thirty minutes later, Lenny and Nathan climbed into a taxi waiting in front of their apartment. The computer pilot, controlled by a traffic computer somewhere in the heart of Los Angeles, waited for several cars to go by, then pulled away from the curb and merged seamlessly with the flow of traffic.
Nathan could still remember when most people drove their own cars, but the sheer volume of people living in such a small place had doomed that concept. Only a computer and the lightning reflexes of a robot pilot could hope to navigate the congested streets and freeways of metropolitan L.A.
Thinking about the taxi pilot brought back memories of this morning's dream. 'It's been ten years,' he thought, 'why am I still haunted by the face of that pilot?'
But the answer was already in his mind. He really wasn't haunted by it. It had simply surfaced as the time approached for him to leave for this assignment. It had been that mission that had put him on the road to being a reporter. He had laid his pilot's wings on the commander's desk before making his way to the locker room that day. The commander had silently assigned him a desk job reporting news of the conflict to eager American consumers back home. The rest, as they say in the vids, is history.
But ten years later, Nathan was beginning to question if he had done the right thing. Most reporters his age, thirty-one in three months, had cushy jobs behind desks at some news agency. Three of his friends even anchored news vids on the Net.
And what was he doing? Chasing another third-rate story. This time all the way to the Yang Liwei station. Some space-jockeys were attempting to break the solar sailing speed record from the moon to the Earth. Tanton News was paying his way, his expenses, and three months rent for him to cover the story, which would probably be used as filler in some third page sidebar. This would give him a couple of months to find yet another story and so the cycle would go.
Is this all he had to look forward to as he stumbled toward middle age - wet spots in the rug and horrid glimpses of the One Brown Eye? He shuddered and wished, not for the first time this month, that the enemy pilot had won that fight.
It took twenty minutes to cross out of Hollywood and get to the spaceport check-in station. Lenny pulled the suitcases out of the trunk while Nathan retrieved his credit disk. Placing them on one of the short conveyors, Nathan punched in the reservation code they had given him this morning. The bags disappeared into the mouth at the other end of the conveyor to be searched, wrapped in plastic, and coded for delivery to the correct orbital shuttle. Glancing left and right, Nathan watched as at least a hundred other passengers did the same.
A bus took them to the main terminal. Nathan had to punch in his reservation code again to get through the massive security doors. An army of security screeners waited for them on the other side.
"Destination," a brown-haired, pimply-faced kid asked him.
"Yang Liwei," Nathan answered.
"That your brother?" pimple-face asked him while nodding at Lenny waiting behind him.
"Traveling companion. I'm a reporter and he keeps track of my things while I get the stories." Nathan smiled his best smile and tried to look innocent.
Pimple-face waved them on, then stopped as an agent behind a nearby desk spoke. "Feds got a watch on these two. They get special handling."
Nathan sighed. It had been that way for two long years. Every time he traveled, with or without Lenny, that watch list had garnered him 'special handling' from airport screeners.
And all because Nathan had killed a man. Of course, the man was trying to kill Nathan and, oh yes, the group the man worked for was trying to blow up a nuclear power plant and Nathan stopped them. Well, actually Nathan and Lenny stopped them. It was Lenny that actually kept the reactor from blowing. A story any reporter would give his arm for, right?
Wrong, the Feds told him if he ever breathed anything about it, they'd lock him up and throw away the key. Lenny got much the same treatment, but because he was already wanted for other crimes, they only released him because Nathan agreed to watch over him and keep him out of trouble. What a mistake agreeing to that had been.
He and Lenny were stripped. Their belongings placed in special cases and sent away for 'analysis' by a lab somewhere in the bowels of the terminal. They'd get them back when they boarded the shuttle for Pournelle station, one of nine stations orbiting at geo-stationary points above the planet. They were given white, pull-over gowns to wear and placed in a special waiting area with fifteen other 'special' passengers.
Lenny and two of the other men tossed their gowns in a nearby trash can. With the light in the room, the gowns really didn't hide anything anyway.
"What a crock," Lenny exclaimed as they headed for a nearby vending machine. Nathan used their reservation number to order a cup of hot tea for himself and a high-caffeine soft drink for Lenny. "If we had half a nut, we'd barf our history to the local jizman and watch Feds scramble to keep our story off the Net."
"I wish you wouldn't call the local reporters that," Nathan said softly pulling Lenny toward a corner table in the large waiting room. "Those 'jizmen' work hard for their stories, a lot harder than most people think."
"Okay," Lenny said. "But why these pearls got to ogle my merchandise every time we travel? Like we could ever forget what happened two years ago." Lenny's voice rose as he said, "two years ago."
Nathan hissed and shoved Lenny into a seat at the table. "You might not mind spending the next forty years in a maximum security cell, but I sure do. I've got plans and they don't include watching you self destruct every time we go out."
Nathan slammed the soft drink down in front of the wide-eyed Lenny. "So, you pull those thirteen bits of gray matter you call a brain together and keep your lips around this bottle for the rest of the trip."
Lenny looked like he was about to cry, but he grabbed the soda and turned toward the window to watch a ship being loaded. Nathan settled into the seat across from him and slowly sipped at his tea.
'Plans?' he thought. 'What plans have you got?'
'Well, I could get work as a pilot,' he answered himself. 'I've kept my licenses current. I'd make a good cargo hauler between the earth stations.'
'You call those plans?' his argumentative half answered. 'Hiding is more like it. Admitting you're nothing but a failure. Might as well be a handler at the spaceport as a hauler. Hours would be better and less risk.'
'Sure, if you like your back crinkled and most of your muscles screaming at you by the end of the day.' His sister's husband worked as a handler at the L.A. Spaceport. He wasn't yet thirty years old and already he looked fifty. 'No thanks,' he told himself. 'I'll put up with the One Brown Eye for the next forty years before I settle for that.'
"I'm sorry," Lenny finally said. "I let my mouth get verbal diarrhea more often than it should. And I certainly don't tell you often enough how much I jake what you been doing for me the last two years, but I really don't mean no harm. I just get pissed and my tongue starts going and I can't get it to stop. Just say the word and I'll walk over to that security counter and turn myself in. I'll make something up and they'll haul me away and you'll never see me again." He set the bottle on the table and stared intently at Nathan.
"And the Feds would be waiting for me when I step off the ship at Pournelle station," Nathan said after a brief pause where he had seriously considered taking Lenny's offer. "They made us a team two years ago, remember?"
When Lenny nodded, Nathan continued. "Besides, who'd keep that old computer of mine working if I didn't have you around?"
A tear did escape from one of Lenny's eyes and he came around the table to hug Nathan. For a moment, Nathan relented and accepted Lenny's gratitude, then he remembered where they were and that Lenny was naked. "Okay Lenny," he said. "We don't want the nice people in security thinking we're any more strange than they already do, right?"
Smiling, Lenny nodded and went back to his soda. "How long we gonna be at Pournelle station. I know a little ticket agent up there that used to make extra money by..."
"Lenny," Nathan started, then saw the gleam in Lenny's eyes. Joking again. Wasn't anything serious for Lenny?
They sat and talked for the next hour. Finally, the speakers announced that it was time for passenger boarding with reservation number ending with zero through two-hundred. Nathan's ended with fifty three, so he and Lenny headed for the boarding gate. Twenty minutes later, clothed in their street clothes once more, he and Lenny took seats near the back of the ship.
It took another hour to load, but eventually the flight attendants came around and gave their safety speeches about what would happen if they had to abort as they climbed up over the mountains surrounding L.A. Only one shuttle had ever had to abort and it had been able to glide into the port near Washington D.C., but rules were rules even if they were rules made up when most long distance travel took six or more hours of flying.
The pilot then announced they had been cleared for launch and would the cabin crews please take their stations. Minutes later, Nathan felt vibration as the first of the great engines ignite, followed quickly by nine others. Within moments, they all felt the weight of acceleration pushing them down in their seats as they arched up and over the sprawling metropolis below.
When they broke through the upper reaches of the atmosphere the engines idled back, lessening the weight sitting on their chests, but keeping enough pressure there to hold them in place. Then they were weightless as the ship waited for permission to dock with the station. Apparently, some VIP was taking a little longer than usual to clear the station.
Lenny and Nathan, sitting near the rear of the passenger shuttle, couldn't see the station, but one of the vid stations on the monitor in the back of the seat in front of him showed it and Nathan had once flown in the cockpit of an express transport ferrying private cargo between the orbiting Earth stations. The Pournelle station was a monster, last of four stations built by Audrey Pournelle, famed great-great-granddaughter of the celebrated late twentieth and early twenty-first century novelist.
A long cylinder, it was twelve hundred meters long and over four hundred meters in diameter. Rotating once every minute, it provided a simulated gravity of just over one fifth that felt on the surface of the Earth. Accounting for outer wall thickness, life support, and attitude controls to keep the station in place left over one million square meters of living space on the inner surface of the rotating tube. Eighty percent of that area was set aside for biomass - farming, parks, and even wild-growth areas, leaving almost a quarter of a million square meters for living space. There were nineteen major hotels, hundreds of shops, eleven low-gravity manufacturing plants, and almost five thousand permanent residents aboard the station. It had been officially designated by the World Congress, the body that had replaced the impotent United Nations, as one of the wonders of the modern world.
Both Lenny and Nathan had been to the station a number of times, but it still took the breath away to walk down the ramp from the shuttle and see the station interior sprawl out in front of them. The shuttle docked at the center of one end of the cylinder, where gravity was almost nothing. Passengers were given Velcro slippers to hold them to the carpet as they de-shuttled.
The receiving area was a large room with a huge window at one end looking down the length of the station. A thousand meter-long lanyard of carbon nanotubes, molecule sized tubes of carbon stronger than steel, stretched from the center of that window to another window at the other end of the station. Optical fibers brought solar light into the station all along its length, making it sparkle like ten thousand brilliant suns dancing on a string.
Two-hundred meters below them, the curved wall of the station arched up to the left and right. Covered in a dense carpet of spindly vegetation, it was a park straight out of paradise. It always took long moments of staring to spot the buildings scattered among trees so delicate that the gentle bursts of air from the recyclers caused them to sway gently. Looking so much like wind crossing the grasslands of Nathan's youth that it forced a lump to rise deep in his throat.
He and Lenny would spend twenty-six hours here waiting for the transport ship that would take them to the Yang Liwei station sitting at the La Grange point between the Earth and the moon. Nathan guessed that very few, if any, of his fellow reporters would be here yet, opting instead to come up when the shuttle returned in twenty-four hours. A fact he intended to capitalize on. He knew the VIP that had delayed his shuttle's docking.
Clearing customs in record time, he dropped Lenny by their hotel to unpack the bags. He then caught a ground car that whisked him to the other end of the station. He just hoped he was in time.
The elevator to the departure lounge deposited him so gently that Nathan did not know they had arrived until the doors opened. A woman wearing nothing but a smile started to enter the elevator, spotted Nathan and the two other men who had ridden up with him, and backed off to let them pass. Restrictions on public nudity faded away in the close confines of most space communities. Smiling and trying not to ogle the woman too badly, Nathan slid past her and into the VIP lounge of the departure dock.
His quarry wasn't hard to spot. A namach this close to Earth always drew attention and Andrew Deats, better known as Carver, was no exception. At least twenty people hovered around Carver, who looked uncomfortable but resigned.
Namachs were amazing creatures. Once human, they had opted to have their bodily functions augmented by nanomachines, molecule-sized machines that could resequence DNA or rapidly cover a twelve hundred meter long space station in layer upon layer of nanotubes. Nathan wasn't sure who started calling them namachs, but the name had stuck.
Once augmented, a namach could survive the harsh environment of space, making them perfectly suited for mining the asteroid belt. The nanomachines in his or her system repaired radiation damage as fast as it occurred. Modified skin cells extruded a thin layer of nanotubes when the pressure dropped, effectively forming a space suit. Energy striking this suit was converted into power that drove the nanomachines in their endless dance of keeping the namach alive. Nanomachines in the lungs converted carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon. Nanomachines in the waste system recombined carbon, oxygen, and other waste products into food that was dumped into the bloodstream to power the namachs cells. Should a namach be damaged, there were even cellular repair machines that could grow new tissue in milliseconds.
Endlessly young, requiring almost no nourishment, virtually impossible to kill, a namach would have made a formidable soldier but for one tiny flaw. Gravity slowly broke down their intricate web of nanomachines. A namach could survive for only a few minutes in full earth gravity. Even the micro-gravity at the core of the space station was causing Carver some distress. It was his arrival and subsequent travel from the arrival lounge to the departure lounge that had cause Nathan's shuttle to be delayed.
"Andrew," Nathan called as he approached Carver's satellites. "Can I pry you away from these gentle folks for a few minutes? I've got a couple of questions for you."
Even at the outer edges of the crowd surrounding the namach, Nathan could see relief flash briefly in his eyes. Smiling and apologizing, he slowly pulled himself away from the crowd. Grabbing Nathan's hand, he pulled him toward the Lanyard Room, a control room at the exact center of the station. Inside, a small panel of lights blinked as various systems in the station reported their status to the central computer. It was very quiet here and gravity so close to zero, that Carver could relax, at least a little. The Earth itself still pulled much too strongly for some of his nanomachines to function at peak efficiency.
"Okay Beetle, I owe you one, more than that I guess. How many times have you pulled me out of those? Five? Six?"
"Seven, but who's counting?" Nathan answered smiling. "You okay in here? Electronics not messing with your O2 cycle?"
"Oxy machines got an upgrade last year. Not bothered so much by electromagnetics as they used to be. I'm okay. My shuttle's in for some repairs. Should be done in about fifteen minutes. That's all the time I can spare you. So make with the reporter bit while you can."
He smiled at Nathan who pulled out a vid recorder, switched it on, and sat it in a spot where it could cover them both.
"Okay," Nathan began. "What brings a namach this close to Earth? And don't tell me you needed your shuttle repaired. One of the lunar stations could have done a much better job without causing you so much pain."
Carver smiled. "Straight to the point, as always. I don't suppose you'd believe I was here to look up an old flame?"
When Nathan didn't answer, he continued. "I thought not. I can't tell you all of it, but I was here to meet with some executives from The Company. They don't come out to the asteroids, not even for a few namachs."
"Fair enough," Nathan said after a short pause for some careful thought. "You won't tell me everything, probably won't tell me anything unless I ask, right?" Carver smiled and Nathan continued. "Alright, who were these Company execs? Give me some names."
"Sorry," Carver said. "That'd breech my contract. No can do, buddy. All I can tell you is, they are in Research and Development."
"R&D huh? They finally figure out a way to give you fancy-pants space jockeys some brain cells?"
Carver's laugh was deep and clear. "Har! Nope, they finally figured out how to get you beetles up off the ground and looking at what's around you. I was here to beg them to please not use it and pollute space any more than you already have."
The two of them bantered back and forth like that for the rest of the interview. It was apparent from the outset that Carver wasn't going to blurt out what was going on, but he was going to drop hints. Those hints pointed to something that affected humanity as a whole. Something that had scared the namachs out on the asteroid belt enough that they had sent one of their most celebrated members to Earth to talk to The Company about it. What it was Carver was not saying, but that he was scared was a given.