by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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8 9 A
Yeah, reality set in soon enough. As per usual for Easter Island,
the weather sucked; aside from the drizzled rain and early pre-dawn
fog, the incessant wind was damn cold, and the air was thick with
the aromas of the sea and approaching storm. Fortunately, all
we had to do was get to our rooms -- the ground crew would handle
our luggage and such, and Carter knew the way. She gave me the
nickel tour as we walked, pointing out which dimly visible shape
was what bunker or other installation.
Until a radar dish blew up.
I upshifted instantly, and it didn't look like there was anything coming our way right that millisecond; when I returned to the normal tempo, the dryad was well into the first step of a full-bore sprint. "Bunker! Now!" she said, and her command voice was easily audible over the war movie soundtrack that was just getting started.
"Not a problem," I said, falling into step with her. "How abo --"
-- multiple incoming attacks: 4, 5, 6 and 7 o'clock: threat levels high to lethal --
-- I didn't look around. Why bother? The ear-piercing sounds of high-powered artillery were quite enough of a clue that the shit had hit the fan, thanks. Obvious conclusion: Time for us to bug out. I grasped the dryad with care and took off, wishing she didn't weigh quite so bleeding much and making damn sure to provide adequate structural support to her various body parts. It'd be kind of stupid to carry her out of harm's way only to end up sloshing her grey matter into lemon curry, now wouldn't it?
I hauled her over to the bunker she'd first pointed out to me as quickly as I dared. The only evident entrance was below surface level, a sort of walled-off patio accessible via stairs leading down into the ground; while I didn't like being boxed in like that, it did provide good cover. Once there, I confirmed there weren't any bullets in our immediate future, then brought Carter to rest at the obvious entrance (being as cautious with braking as I'd been with take-off), took the edge off my hunger with a strip of beef jerky from the supply in my vest, and downshifted. I finished my sentence a bit differently than I'd planned: "-- ut this? I'm going to assume you know how to get in, because I sure don't."
She blinked in momentary surprise, but recovered herself damn fast -- she'd opened up a small chest-level panel and was tapping at a keypad even before I stopped talking. "Thank you, Mr. Jubatus," she said. By this time the ambient projectiles were triggering involuntary upshifts several times per second, and I had to keep downshifting to follow the dryad's words. "I shall feel a great deal safer when we have a couple of meters of reinforced concrete between us and our adversaries. Ah, that's it -- we may n-" PTWEENG! "-aaaghh!"
Goddamn ricochet! Too many bullets -- maybe if I hadn't been overriding my instinctive upshifts -- nothing else aimed directly at us for the moment, thank Athena. Carter's left hand was poised near what had to be a door handle. Fine, she'd done the hard part with the access codes, getting her inside was the least I could do.
Waiting for the damn door to respond was the longest clock-second of my life...
I squoze us through the gradually widening gap, found some cover inside to lay the dryad down behind, located the "emergency close" panic button beside the door, and pushed said button as gently as a tempo of 30-something would allow.
Only after the place was properly sealed off did I return my attention to Carter; first aid was fine, but making sure she survived for it was a higher priority. Looked like a hit in the woody part of the left thigh... and an exit wound in the back of her leg. A clean hit, and I had to assume that her sap was the clear fluid oozing from it. Given her completely unfamiliar metabolism, there was only one thing I could do that I knew wouldn't hurt her: I took the pills out of her purse and water from my vest, and thus armed, I downshifted.
"You're safe now," I told her, holding the pill-vial so she could see it. "I've got your painkiller here, and water to wash it down. If you're coherent enough to understand me, don't try to talk, just open your mouth to let me slip you a couple pills."
She did. So I did. And while waiting for her drugs to take hold, I poked around the bunker in fast-time, looking for alternate modes of entry. I found no other doors to the outside, various lockers marked with a combination of Greek characters and Arabic numerals, one sealed internal hatch which was apparently the access to an underground tunnel, one self-contained chemical toilet (no sewer connection), and a few air vents that looked to be 6 inches square on the inside. The hatch looked safe enough, but I didn't like the vents. What if our attackers weren't all human-sized or larger? Worse, what if they had a size-changing polymorph? Absolute worst, how about an inanimorph? Nothing I could do about it either way, other than stay alert... but there was no fucking way I'd let anything happen to Carter without a fight!
Time passed. The vibrations and noise from outside told me there was a battle going on, but didn't say anything about which side was winning... No. Not gonna go out to join in the fray. I don't know their tactics, I'd just screw up their battle plan. Anyway, Carter'd be defenseless if I left. And time passed...
...ah. Looked like the dryad had something to say. I downshifted in time to hear, "-re you alright, Mr. Jubatus?"
I gave her a sardonic smile. "I thought that was my line, me not having a bullet wound and all. Anything I can do to help with the leg?"
"There is a first aid kit on the wall there --"
A quick upshift put the kit beside her where it could do some good.
"--but not much else I fear. You'll find a roll of bandages for my leg in the blue and green --"
I had it in my hands, already starting to gift-wrap her wound.
"-- ah. Yes. Thank you. Make it tight but not too tight." Just as I finished she attempted to rise to her feet. "Do you suppose you could help me up? I want t0 -- ah!"
"Stay the hell down," I said, cushioning the impact as she collapsed to the floor. "You're still hurting."
Carter grimaced and tried again. "I, need, to -- aarh!" Another collapse.
Well, if she was that determined to hurt herself, I'd do more good providing physical support than ignorable advice. I got under her left shoulder and took her weight. "What you really need is a hospital bed," I complained.
"No time for that, Mr. Jubatus." She gestured with her right hand. "There. That terminal."
I got her to it, and the screen lit up with a few keystrokes from Carter. "I'm linking to our internal data network -- damn! They've disabled the alpha bank of radar dishes!"
"How bad is that?"
"Potentially serious, as the alphas provided primary coverage for the launch runways," she said while her fingers continued their insistent dance on the keyboard. "We can reassign another bank to them as well as its current duties, but it's never good to cover two distinct regions with one bank of radars -- one always loses a bit of acuity."
And without a clear idea of what the attackers were up to... "Shit!"
"Succinctly put, especially if they manage to disrupt any more banks."
I was still playing crutch for the dryad's left leg, thus had a fine view of the terminal screen as she did her thing. My best guess, she was collating data from those radars she'd mentioned; made sense, as Ad Astra's defenses would almost certainly get more use out of her intelligence than her physical abilities.
I was starting to get a handle on what the various displays meant when Carter spoke up: "Mr. Jubatus, how would you like to assist in the defense of Ad Astra?"
What the heck..? "I am assisting. I'm not messing with stuff I'm clueless about."
"You're also a significant distraction. My efficacy in my assigned tasks shall be much greater if you are not present. And given your ability to upshift, the middle of a firefight should present you no greater hazard than the interior of this bunker."
"And leave you here to get killed by anything that comes through the vents or hatch?"
"If it's biological, I have the Halon fire-suppression system; otherwise, I get to make an empirical test of one of my theories about inanimorphs. In either case, your presence would offer no practical benefit."
"How do I get out without exposing you to stray bullets from the firefight?"
"Minimal hazard. I've already adjusted the door to remain open for no more than one-tenth of a second when activated. Go! You'll find a set of fighting gear in cabinet Alpha 12 -- don't worry about the armor, the helmet is all you'll need."
The cabinet was easy to find and the helmet's matte grey finish stood out from the armor and gleaming high-tech weapons. I hefted one of the rifles experimentally, but it was too heavy -- every kilo counted -- so back it went. I put the helmet on, and once the straps adjusted themselves (!) to fit my skull, fuzzy sparks of light danced around my field of view. After a second or so, the sparks congealed into the word READY, accompanied by clean lines and legible text which highlighted possible escape routes, among many other things useful for saving one's ass in a dangerous situation. HUD, Head's Up Display. Cute. "Nice light show. How's it work?"
"Low-intensity lasers paint information directly onto the wearer's retinas."
"Source of this 'information'?"
"The helmet's built-in CCDs and microphone send raw data to Ad Astra's mainframes, which do the necessary calculations and transmit the results back to the helmet."
"Hm. So it's a dumb terminal."
"'Dumb terminal'? That's a curious description, but not inaccurate. It accepts user input through eye tracking or voice commands."
Voice? I don't think so... Okay, let's see how this thing works out when I upshift. At a tempo of 20 I scanned my surroundings, and the helmet's HUD almost kept pace with my head and eye motion. If I was a slowpoke, I'd never have noticed the delay, but as it was, I'd have to work around it. That aside, it looked good; lots of possibilities.
I upshifted to a tempo of 40, ignoring the rhythmic throbbing of the veins in my brainstem -- while I'm physically capable of more, 40's about as high as I can get and still remain functional -- and pushed the button. The door started moving a few seconds later. As it crept open, I looked every which way through the ever-widening gap; lots of noise came in, but none of the accompanying projectiles were aimed in a dangerous direction. About five seconds after the door started to open, there was finally enough clearance for me to squeeze through, which I did.
The pulsing ache in my skull said it was time to downshift. So soon? Gosh. Tempo of 30 should be adequate -- high enough to see bullets coming, low enough that the strain won't make my head explode. Now show me the bad guys, helmet! Eye tracking with a vengeance. One blink at the word MAP, and glowing lines drew a chart in midair about 6 inches in front of my snout, or at least that's what it looked like; the map was initially fuzzed-out, noticeable without actually interfering with normal vision, but it sharpened up real good when I focused on it directly. That's me in the center, there's the bunker, the runway, the launch pads -- what're those things? Try LEGEND... bingo. Hostiles, graded according to degree of threat when that's known. And the closest one is... ease the hell up, it's working as fast as it can... 800 meters, meaning half a mile. Damn! We cheetahs get real tired, real fast. Running (or even walking) all the way there was not a good idea, not if I wanted to be able to do something upon arrival. The problem isn't so much the energy I expend in moving; rather, it's the extra energy I burn making sure that I don't end up... floating?
Sometimes (like now) I just have to be swatted with a clue-by-four. From my perspective, a tempo of 30 means gravity's down to 1/30 G. So why not take advantage?
I took an experimental jump towards my quarry. Sure enough, a second or so into my jump, the HUD informed me that I'd taken off at 930 KPH -- times point-six, call it 560 MPH -- at an angle of 22 degrees; that I should spend 19 point something clock-seconds aloft (call it 10 minutes of my time), reach an altitude of -- 480 meters? -- at midpoint, and land... good Lord... 4.7 kilometers from where I'd taken off!? No way! But then, I am running 30 times faster than normal, so it's 1/30th G, and slow-timed 560 MPH is about 19 MPH for me, and... that's enough. "It must be possible, Captain. It's happening." Just sit back and enjoy the ride, Jube.
It wasn't true, controlled flight -- the best I could do was influence my trajectory a little by angling my body and using my tail as a rudder -- but it wasn't bad at all. Between the rain and the time of day (night, rather), I couldn't see worth a damn, so I let the HUD give me a virtual view of everything. The invaders, the defenders, both sides' bullet traces, the various targets and hardpoints, it was all there in glorious animated vector graphics. Hmmm... why are the attackers just sitting there? Ah, I see, each one's got a timestamp showing when that position was last verified. Okay, just have to be careful, is all. There weren't as many invaders as I'd initially believed; the HUD's best guess was a maximum of 24 plus or minus three, scattered across a few miles of the Island's coast. Thinking back, my oversensitive ears had to've given me the wrong idea about the total number of shots being fired.
Enough woolgathering. Plenty of time to kill, and I might as well plan out what I'll be doing when I touch down...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
When the door finally slammed shut, I let myself collapse into
the chair. The wound was worse than I'd implied, but not crippling
-- from this point, my services as a coordinator of raw data were
far more important. And now I could concentrate on my tasks without
Jubatus hanging over me.
Whoever these people were, they were above the quality level of most others. Their older low-tech gear suggested that they were anti-techs, and given their displayed degree of training and skill, I would bet that they were from Greenpeace. At least the situation was stabilizing -- thank God for that else I would never have sent Jubatus out into it.
Why was I so concerned over him? With his abilities he was next to invulnerable, and yet I was strongly afraid for him.
All the time he was here I was extremely aware of his presence, of his quick breaths, of his comforting nearness... I had had to force my attention back to my duties.
And was this any better? Intellectually I knew he was as safe, or even safer, outside rather than inside. Even if they knew that I was bringing him, he wouldn't be a primary target -- I and Babylon would be. That suggested that they had timed their assault for my return, waiting for my final approach before beginning so that they could get me on the ground, and get in before we could prepare air support. Angelo had been the other space-qualified pilot but we hadn't yet found an acceptable replacement for him. At least the situation was in hand -- they'd taken out the primary radar net but by distributing its duties amongst the other launch systems nearly full coverage could be maintained -- I'd put optimization routines for radar coverage into the mainframe years ago.
Still, the attack was odd -- there was something missing. To sneak to shore it seemed that they'd concentrated on aquatic SCABs. Such individuals always seemed easier for anti-tech zealots to recruit; while virtually all SCABs could rationalize blaming technology for the Beagle II probe and their condition, landbound ones at least had constant daily reminders of the benefits to be gained from advanced technology. The same was decidedly less true of aquatics, whose environmental restrictions effectively reduced or eliminated any such positive reminders. In any case, the problem at hand was that in order to sneak ashore they were very limited in the equipment they could take. They'd come in far lighter than they'd needed to, but then they couldn't know the limits of our detector arrays. Drew and I had tweaked the system to a stage were the false alarms from sea life were down to a reasonable level; still, for preparedness, I'd have to work out the maximum safe incursion and let Drew know, just not now. Thus they'd come with a limited number of grenade launchers which seemed to have had their ammo used up and now all they had was anti-personnel weapons which they'd been using freely. But even upon landing they'd concentrated on our defenses, sensing devices in particular, and now they were getting creamed. Their attack didn't make sense, they could have taken out Babylon with their grenades, but they had ignored her.
I was missing something.
In war, decisions are made long before the actual conflict starts -- plans, backup plans, reserves, contingency plans, all prepared and rehearsed. I had rushed to get online to inform Drew of my condition and safety, of the intruders, our defense status, our detection system status, all to let him select the proper backup and contingency plans to fit what was happening. I'd only let Jubatus out because with his abilities he would be effectively untouchable by either side, and with the helmet he would be flagged as a friendly. I'd let Drew know too, and I knew that when all this was over, he would give me a right reaming for releasing such an unknown factor onto the field of battle. The question was, what was our opponents' plan? What was their ultimate goal, and how did they intend to go about achieving said goal?
And then I had it! They weren't the main assault, they were the preparatory wave. Their mission was the radar and the air defenses. And with the Fokker 10 unarmed that meant -- shit! I immediately passed my suspicions on to Drew and ran a routine that split the radar patterns -- that meant some loss of detail on the ground, but it gave detail on aerial threats and we needed to know when the main wave was coming.
My conscious attention suddenly turned back to the displays when I realized that Jubatus was on a straight line course. What the hell was he doing? His defenses were speed and unpredictability, and a straight line destroyed the latter. I pulled up more information and determined that he was... no. That data was obviously invalid, surely?
I was about to ask for a diagnostic when I realized the reports were correct: Jubatus was soaring across the landscape at a speed of 931.8 KPH. Given the medical data I'd finally acquired from Dr. Derksen, that suggested his metabolism was running on the order of 30 times above norm.
Still not entirely sure I could trust the readings, I could only marvel at what he was doing, in mingled awe and disquiet. It was one thing to be intellectually aware of what Jubatus was capable of; it was quite another to see him in action. Still, there was something odd -- given a ballpark figure for the drag coefficient of a furred and tailed humanoid biped, the observed loss of velocity was of distinctly smaller magnitude than it ought to have been. Why?
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Drifting along, I'd pretty well worked the bugs out of my battle
plan: Hand-to-hand combat was right out, for a number of reasons.
Instead, I'd exploit something that I was glad not to have needed
on the flight to San Francisco -- my oversupply of nuts and bolts.
Carter had noted their presence, but I doubt she realized why
I had them.
Q: What's the difference between a .45 caliber Magnum bullet and a 15-millimeter nut?
A: Not much, when I throw them...
Given my speed and the helmet's HUD as a targeting aid, I should be able to pick off any hostile within a 200-yard radius, no sweat. Also no danger to me. At my current tempo of 30, I can get in, strike, and get out faster than any slowpoke can react. As well, there's damn few bullets that move quicker than a fast walk, from my perspective; I can dodge 'em at will, and if I miss one, I maybe get a bruise, if even that.
Shouldn't be difficult to zero in on them, either. Camouflage they might have, but upshifting makes light doppler down; at a tempo of 30, I see by wavelengths that a slowpoke would call far ultraviolet and then some, and it wasn't likely they'd have worried about anything much beyond the ordinary visible range. It'll be like dynamiting fish in a barrel. The only real difficulty I saw was getting my leaps under control -- up to that point, I'd always focused on learning how to not leave the ground!
Anyway, what with air resistance and the random wind, I touched down about 240 meters short of the HUD's initial estimate. Nobody in line of sight, hostile or friendly. Fortunately, the helmet pointed out some likely points of interest -- its microphones had detected some gunshots I couldn't make out through the wind and rain -- so I picked one and took a baby step into the air. No joy this time either, but my next leap, the third, was the charm! Some guy wrapped up so that you couldn't tell if he was human or SCAB or what, armed mainly with a beat-up old machine gun whose milky plastic gleam was decidedly unlike the Ad Astran weapons I'd seen in the bunker. I glared at the intruder, who wouldn't have had time to react to my presence even if he had noticed me. Okay, shitface, you are officially done.
The first nut flew straight and true. Not! The damn thing jinked and spun like a drunken fruit fly, and by the time it straightened out, it was off course by 65 degrees! What in the name of Hephaestus..? The second was no better. Its flight path was stable, true enough -- trouble was, it described a perfect logarithmic spiral on its way into the ground 50 feet in front of me. Nut Number Three started with a tiny wiggle which quickly grew to dominate its motion; its overall trajectory was dead on target, but it missed completely .
What the fuck!? Okay, take five to figure it out. Tempo of 30, plenty of time before the enemy's gonna notice, let alone react. I've thrown nuts before; not particularly aerodynamic, but with the kind of spin I put on 'em, they fly nice and stable. So why not now? What's different? Well, in the past, I've only ever done it at my default tempo of 6. Faster this time, by a factor of five. They were doing about 600 MPH then, make that 3,000 now. Hmmm, Mach speed is 740 or so, that's...
Son of a bitch!!
Air molecules don't like moving faster than the speed of sound. In the supersonic regime, their behavior is highly nonlinear, not at all what you'd expect; that's how you get interesting effects like sonic booms. My fault for moving too fast -- now I know what breaking Mach feels like. Okay, keep it subsonic this time, annndd -- yes! A high-velocity biopsy sample, blood and various tissues mingled in abstract formation, emerged from the lower left quadrant of the target's torso. I'd aimed for dead center, but it was still my most accurate shot thus far. I overcorrected on the next -- utter miss -- and the sixth nut hit the 'sweet spot', right there in the center of the sternum, or close enough for jazz anyway. Next on the agenda: Look for the guy's partner, HUD claimed they worked in pa --
-- incoming: 7 o'clock: threat level unclear --
-- ah. I turned around just in time to dodge out of the way of a bullet, trundling its way through the air. Thank you for once, instincts. And it's traveling in that direction, so trace it back along its trajectory... gotcha, pal!
I could give more blow-by-blow commentary, but why bother? The second one had armor, took me another 5 nuts to waste him. Both of them were SCABs, otter-derived animorphs -- made sense, you'd want aquatic soldiers if you were planning an waterborne assault. But Ad Astra was more paranoid than me, so how could those yutzes have gotten close enough... Shit! The private plane that went down must've been a Trojan horse! Hijacked or a legit purchase, they got hold of it and prepped it for duty, and here's the end result, may Athena rot their tech-phobic brains! Fine, but what if they had another plane..?
I downshifted and toggled the helmet's walkie-talkie feature. "Any Ad Astran defenders, this is --"
Carter responded: "I know who you are, Jubatus. Congratulations on the two intruders you wasted. The remainder have been forcibly removed from anywhere of importance; unfortunately, they managed to neutralize all of our SAM batteries first."
Which would only matter if -- "So they do have more planes."
"Only one. It's headed directly for the main launch complex, ETA 58 seconds. We're not sure what it's carrying, and we'd prefer not to find out the hard way. Perhaps you can help?"
As she spoke, the HUD showed me some new data: Position, velocity, and probable future trajectory of this last threat -- plus crosshairs which had to be the mainframe's best guess on where I should aim if I wanted to hit the target. Can I help? I have no idea -- but if that sucker does take out the launch facilities, it won't be for lack of my effort! "I'm on it. Jubatus out."
The plane was miles away, cruising at an altitude of 1000 feet and falling. I leapt for it, downshifting to a tempo of 10 while waiting to get within decent range, and then upshifting to 35 to buy myself more time to fire. You get exactly one pass at this target, so you damn well better make it count. I had 65 nuts left, and I tossed them all in sequence, doing my best to direct each one to the precise geometrical center of the crosshairs. I took my time lining up each shot; it might've been all of 4 clock-seconds before I ran dry.
Once they left my hands, the nuts' flight paths were a crapshoot, thanks to the unpredictable winds which raged around and over Easter Island. Even so, with 65 shots, 65 individual rolls of the dice, surely it wasn't too much to ask for one of them to hit something vital? If not, I think there'll be enough time for one last-ditch effort: I leap for the plane, throwing bolts on the approach, and if that doesn't work I try a mid-air docking maneuver for a little up-close-and-personal action. Not the best plan, but when the alternative is to just let the damn thing hit its target...
And then there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for the nuts to hit or miss, wait for gravity to pull me back to the Island, wait for blood pressure to finish forcing my eyes out of their sockets...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Once I'd tagged the plane, I grabbed all the spare dishes I
could and concentrated them on it. The rest monitored the retreat
of the invading ground forces as our security closed in on them.
Sylvia was almost back from her 'rescue' attempt, but the SAMs
she carried were at the limits of their range. After consultation
with Drew, we'd ordered her to launch and I'd taken over guidance.
The first didn't have a hope so I had it self-destruct, the other
might have a chance just before the plane's impact. It'd be messy,
but hopefully the impact would cause any explosives the attackers
carried to detonate prematurely. The best chance was for Jubatus
to get it first, but at least there was a kind of backup.
Unfortunately, this was a problem of a fast ballistic object intercepting a relatively slow ballistic object -- the sort of idealized scenario one might find in a textbook, whose resolution was trivially easy. Which qualified as 'unfortunate' for the simple reason that it gave me time to worry. So far the entire assault had lasted 16 minutes, and the heavier ground weapons were finally coming on line and taking the invaders out at range. They couldn't do any more damage.
Had sending Jubatus out into the midst of this been the right thing to do? If he intercepted the plane before the one SAM then it was. Victory justified anything. So why was I so nervous? In the worst case Jubatus fails, the last SAM detonates, there is damage to the runway and the armoured buildings, maybe a week worth of repairs. Unless the plane's carrying a nuclear device, in which case none of us are going to escape. It had to be conventional explosives.
Or an inanimorph...
That had always been Ad Astra's greatest fear. If a sufficiently potent inanimorph decided to take us out, there was simply nothing we could do about it. We'd tried to get some on board, but the more powerful ones were reclusive, or insane. And way too dangerous to be approached without extreme caution.
Conventional explosives. It's got to be.
Local radar registered a spread of projectiles dispersing from Jubatus' position -- he was making his attempt. I pulled in more available dishes and pulled in a higher resolution and tracked the courses. Sylvia's SAM was in ballistic freefall so there was nothing more to do there but destruct it if it wasn't needed. The plane wasn't swerving. It was a piston job, single-engine, the silhouette suggested a Cub. I wonder who they have flying it? Then the first of Jubatus' projectiles impacted and the plane began to spin.
Shit! He must have hit the tail -- the plane's course was changing and the ballistic SAM was going to miss. As one hand destructed the SAM to prevent additional damage, the other moved to push the emergency klaxon.
There were more impacts, and then, thank God, an explosion. Jubatus must have hit their payload.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
I could have done without the throbbing in my scalp. Honestly.
So you got a headache. What did you expect, maintaining that high an upshift for that long? Sure do hope I'm not hurting for nothing... And then there was a spot of light where the HUD said the plane
was. The spot grew, faded, and finally glowing lines traced the
downward path of the plane's debris, misguided organic materials
mixed with chunks of airframe... Groovy. It worked. It's all over, I can rest. And I was tired, too. Tired and hungry, as if I'd just run two 100-meter
dashes back-to-back. Had to be the upshift; no way it was the
minor amount of physical activity I'd performed. Once back on
terra firma, I reverted to my default tempo of 6, took care of
certain bodily functions I'd been ignoring, and munched on beef
Rain and wind, but no fighting within earshot. All very nice and peaceful. I kind of zoned out for a while, until I got to thinking about the attack. Come on, Jube, it's done. Or... is it? Carter chooses her words with precision, and she said the intruders were "forcibly removed from anywhere important", not "defeated"... Better check in with the dryad. I downshifted to a tempo of 1 and toggled the walkie-talkie. "Hey, Carter."
She didn't sound happy at all. "What were you doing?"
What's her problem? Who cares, ignore it, she's got a lot on her mind. "Catching my second wind. What's the status on the remaining hostiles?"
"We've succeeded in protecting the bulk of our assets, but we've had less luck with restricting the attackers' freedom of action. I project a 79% chance of their attempting to leave the Island within the next 5 minutes, and we really can't afford to let them escape."
Because if they did escape, they'd report back about Ad Astra's defenses, and their sponsors would use that knowledge to plan their next attack. Double-plus ungood. "Can I help?"
It wasn't a rhetorical question, not when I was largely unknown to the defenders. On a battlefield, nobody likes a wildcard on their side. "Yes, I think so," the dryad said. "Follow the instructions on your HUD. Carter out."
I got up, stretched some kinks out of my joints, and took off. I went easy on myself, only upshifted to a tempo of 20, and I still got there in less than half a clock-minute. On the way I consulted the HUD, which said the targets were hiding in the southernmost tip of the Island, 5 klicks from where I'd just been, and best guess was that they were trying to get to Moto Nui, a 500-meter-long dot of land about a mile to the southwest. By this time the "fog of war" was pretty well gone; we knew where all the intruders were, and that the active threats numbered 11, of whom 7 were wounded.
They didn't stand a chance. Without me, Ad Astra's main line of defense would probably have been able to pick 'em off without any trouble; as it was, my ability to wade directly into a firefight and not care proved to be a lethally effective ingredient in the military cocktail, especially with the advice and orders I got from the HUD. Basically, I made the difference between "decisive victory" and "overkill". The hard part (for me, anyway) was keeping my feet on the ground at a high level of upshift. Sure it's doable, but as I mentioned before, the contortions I have to go through in order to make that happen burn a lot of energy. And I had to make it happen, because I'm a lot less useful drifting helplessly through the air than I am on the ground where there's rocks and people I can push off of to control my trajectory.
By the time we ran out of bad guys to shoot, my blood carried more fatigue poisons than plasma; if the attackers threw a second wave of ground-pounders, I'd be in no condition to fight them. I scanned my surroundings anyway, just in case one of the intruders had managed to evade -- Oh shit, another one! It was a killer whale, big sucker, with a hell of a lot of cargo strapped to its back. Forget 'inconspicuous' -- the damn thing was bigger than my Extremis, for crying out loud! Why in Ares' name isn't anyone shooting at it!? Fine; if I was the only one who noticed it, I'd just have to take it down before it got close enough to deploy a bazooka or LAW rocket or whatever. But it was hundreds of yards offshore, and me with no functional watercraft... oh, bloody hell.
My aching brain rebelled at the thought of another high upshift. I could feel the 5-alarm burn in my arms and legs. Tough. If I was going to pull off the crazy stunt I had in mind, I needed all the tempo and speed I could get, and if that meant risking a nosebleed, I'd live with it. I inhaled my last remaining strips of jerky, pushed my tempo to the upper limit, and started running for the ocean. The air got lumpy a few steps into my sprint; I ignored it and pushed on. I was doing 70 (and panting hard) when I ran out of land -- and kept right on going.
Walk on water? Nothing to it. There's a South American critter called the basilisk lizard that does it every day. It's just a matter of stepping too fast to sink, and nothing steps faster than I do -- not when I've pumped my tempo up to 45! Oh hell not a cramp -- good, it's gone now. Time to share the wealth, and I don't care if it means going quadrupedal, damnit! My hips ached, my head throbbed, my eyeballs felt overinflated, and I was running against the Headwind From Hell, but that oversized fish would not destroy the Dream, not if I had anything to say about it! I'd sooner die myself, by Hela!
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
And finally another lap in the Red Queen's race was over. We'd
won again -- hooray for our side. More of our resources wasted
on destruction, necessarily so in order to protect the resources
that were devoted to the proper purposes. The problem was that while we had to justify our every expenditure to our financiers, their support came from millions of innocent dupes and committed ideologues
around the world, none of whom expected a monetary return on their
investment; as a consequence, they could afford to lose a million
times, but we couldn't afford to lose once. It was always a race,
a duel of technology, tactics, will. I started to let myself rest
when I noticed an exclamation on the realtime chat.
"Jesus Christ --"
All the invaders were dead. The defenders should all know that, should all know the drills. Correction, all of them except -- shit! Jubatus! There he was, headed out to sea straight towards Sylvia, damn him! His HUD should flag her as a friendly, so why... His metabolism had to have a price -- perhaps he had pushed himself so hard and long that he wasn't fully aware -- his speed, his impossible speed --
I frantically punched into Sylvia's private channel: "Dive!"
"-- he's gone hypersonic!"
It was out of my hands now. Unfortunately, that compulsive part of my mind, the part which cannot let go of a mystery, insisted upon making itself known: Even as I worried for Jubatus and hoped that Sylvia had sufficient time to descend the few decimeters that would put her out of harm's way, that part of me crunched the numbers and typed back a reply. "Incorrect. Given his known capabilities, it is highly unlikely he could reach Mach 5 and live, hence his maximum velocity must be in the supersonic range."
Momentum estimates suggested that only a direct impact would seriously harm a being of Sylvia's build, but the same couldn't be said for Jubatus. With the difference in mass, even a glancing blow would produce much the same end result as if he'd slammed headlong into a brick wall. The only ray of hope I could see was that his accelerated metabolism might give him a last chance to avoid or minimize some part of the damage...
Why was I so worried? Sylvia was far more important to Ad Astra than Jubatus. As he'd suggested, there were others who could troubleshoot as well as he could, probably better as they would present neither the same challenges nor hazards within the context of Brin's wholly artificial environment. Why did I breathe faster as I watched the dots move towards each other, as I pictured the streak of Cheetah moving along the surface of the Pacific? Why did I have to force my hands to unclench as the instant of impact occurred?
And then the dots merged and parted. Sylvia's was fine, but Jubatus' traced an erratic and slowing random walk across the ocean, bouncing like a flat stone, vanishing and returning as the waves alternately hid and revealed his signal.
And then his dot vanished for the last time. Blindly obedient to its programmed imperatives, the system informed me that "Signal JUBATUS has been lost -- shall I attempt to reacquire? [No] [Yes]"
Why was I crying as I called for Sylvia to search and recover?
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Pump the arms. Pump the legs. It's soft, but it's a surface. If
a bleeding lizard can walk on water at twenty footsteps per clock-second,
you can do it at four hundred -- shit I slipped --
-- and the world spun around me like a souped-up washing machine and the Pacific Ocean was trying to beat me to death and I was too goddamn tired to even try blocking -- damn that hurts -- and my veins throbbed in five-part counterpoint so I couldn't see straight and there was this big thing big and black and wh -- aaaagggghhhhh! -- and suddenly I was flying and everything got kind of peaceful for a while there anyway until the ocean got in on the act again -- water hates me I'm a cat why shouldn't it hate me -- and then the water stopped feeling like hard rubber it wasn't too bad I actually felt okay I mean as much as I could feel anything -- it's getting dark -- and this whole deal reminded me of a joke I wanted to laugh but there was something in my throat oh yeah seawater...
Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down...
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