Chapter 57

It moves slowly, the enlightened mother ship, the gap between Hekati and our enemy seeming to remain the same, although our sensors say it is widening. A Z7x fighter is fast, but with shit range. Victory First can follow to the other edge of the galaxy and beyond. We can’t outrun it once its engines hit full power, and we can’t outshoot it. All we have going for us is a head start. And that is not going to last us long.

‘Asteroid belt,’ says Colonel Vijay. ‘We’ll hide there.’

‘Sir,’ I say, ‘they’ve got enough firepower to turn the belt to dust.’

‘And us with it,’ adds the SIG.

The colonel grins sourly. ‘So much for that idea.’

‘We could try U/Free space.’ Haze is right, we could . . .

Only Paper Osamu won’t be happy if we come trailing an Enlightened ship behind us, and General Jaxx will be furious. Any sentence passed by court martial on one of us is passed on the others. Little point getting home, only to be executed for treason. We need a better plan.

‘Hekati’s dying,’ says Haze.

‘Sven?’ Colonel Vijay says.

‘Thinking, sir.’

My gun snorts.

I’ve seen battle, I’ve killed. This is different. It’s genocide, which is a term I’ve only heard the U/Free use. But it sounds right for destroying a habitat and killing those inside. Hekati wants our help. I run Iona’s words again.

And we want Hekati’s . . .

‘Back through the ring,’ I order. ‘And take us out to the belt.’ To his credit, Colonel Vijay says nothing when I steal his plan.

‘Make it fast,’ I tell Haze. To Shil, I say, ‘Arm the harpoons.’

She scowls at me.

‘It’s what we’ve got,’ I say. ‘Only take the bloody tethers off first.’ The last thing we need is to drag some wounded Z7x in our wake. Assuming we’re still around to hit one.

‘And the drilling laser,’ I tell Neen. ‘Put that on standby.’

Hekati’s hub is so badly out of true we scrape an inside edge, shattering a sheet of glass higher than the tallest building in Farlight, because the hub is only small compared to the habitat itself. We shudder as we hit, my SIG feathers the retros and we are through.

The asteroid belt waits ahead.

Also behind us is the vast bulk of the mother ship, turning as fast as its boosters will allow. We’ve long since lost the braid. He broke audio as soon as he realized we’d stopped listening to him. Braids hate that.

I mean, most people hate being ignored, except me. I’m happiest in my own company. But braids take it personally. It pisses them off when lower species don’t know their place. And ours is out here in the belt.

‘Fighters,’ Neen says.

Three of them, coming in tight. Not the cleverest of formations.

‘Take them all,’ I say.

Our mining laser is meant to crack rock. So it’s not subtle. That makes it hard to aim and crude, but it’s still a laser and one of the Z7xs comes apart with a satisfying flash. It’s good luck that makes it wipe out the other two as it explodes.

‘Those harpoons ready?’

‘Yes, sir,’ says Shil, her voice clipped. If she’s afraid, it is well under control.

‘Well, use them.’

Another three fighters are moving to intercept us.

They come in hard and fast, and they’re being careful this time. Two fly ahead, the other waits behind, high enough to avoid any explosion that kills its outriders.

‘Missile about to launch,’ says the SIG.

‘Change its mind.’

‘Haven’t got time,’ it says. ‘I’m busy.’

‘You can be replaced.’

‘Sven,’ says my gun. ‘You don’t mean that.’

‘Try me.’

The SIG stops what it is doing, which turns out to be keeping us steady. As everything lurches, my head hits the side of my chair and we start to spin. ‘I’m sorry,’ says the gun.

The rear Z7x launches a missile that flicks past us, and turns in a tight curve to head straight back for a second go. ‘Really,’ we hear the gun saying. ‘You’ve got this completely wrong.’

The missile disagrees.

So the gun copies the ID patch from the fighter, pastes it onto our tug and deletes the original. ‘See,’ it says. ‘I told you.’

Avoiding us in a blur of white heat, the missile takes out its original owner. A split second later we have a blizzard of steel fragments, ceramic shards, traces of organic matter and some water vapour. I only know because the SIG tells everyone.

‘Thank you,’ I say. My gun pretends not to hear.

At the last second, the next attacker loses his nerve and stands down his missile.

‘Get him,’ I tell Shil.

She fires, and a harpoon streaks away. She’s left the tether attached. I am about to bawl her out for being stupid when I realize the wire is free at our end. When I said untie the tether I meant at the harpoon end.

Obviously.

Well, it’s obvious to me.

As we watch, her harpoon flips ahead of the fighter; which hits the quarter-mile length of industrial hawser dragging behind it. A Z-class mining tug, and we’re a Z-class mining tug, can drag a ten-thousand-ton asteroid out of orbit. Dragging is the easy bit. It’s getting the asteroid moving first that is tricky. That’s where the wire comes in.

Thin it might be, but God it’s tough.

The Z7x spins away. One wing is sheered off close to its fuselage. The fighter has lost the wrong retro to halt its spin. The next thing we see is an explosion as the Z7x hits the outer edges of the belt.

‘Good shot,’ I say.

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘My pleasure. Now do it again.’

‘Kinetic energy/hit-to-kill,’ my gun announces suddenly.

We won’t be talking this missile out of anything. It’s dumb as a stone. No targeting AI and no warhead, just a length of titanium-tipped steel. The speed of the incoming fighter gives the steel bolt its power. And because the hit-to-kill launches head on, our speed is added too. We’re talking closing velocities of three point five miles a second.

‘Haze,’ I say.

‘Sir,’ he says. ‘I’m on it.’

‘No . . . Hand navigation back to the SIG.’

‘Sven,’ says Colonel Vijay.

‘Know what I’m doing, sir . . . And, I need Haze.’

‘Switching roles now,’ says our pet Enlightened. His face blanks, and then we’re spiralling away as the SIG twists us out of the way of the first hit-to-kill. Another fighter flicks past and the SIG twists again, but that’s unnecessary.

This fighter still has its bolt slung underneath its fuselage.

Now the Z7x has to go round again. That’s going to be a long loop, because it will need to ramp up its speed for the next hit-to-kill.

Except that fighters are shaking free from Victory First like bees from a hive. As for the mother ship, that’s turning for the asteroid belt. Read-outs on the heat signature say it is about to gather speed.

Desperate times, my old lieutenant used to say, desperate measures.

You take ground and then you keep taking ground until casualties make further advance impossible. Life used to be so much simpler in the Legion. Reminding myself of that doesn’t make me happier. But what does happiness have to do with it? If I have to embrace the kyp then that is what I have to do . . .

‘Haze,’ I say, my voice harsh. ‘On my count.’

‘Sir?’ he says.

‘Lock me down.’

A wall rises around me as my count hits zero.

I’m somewhere else. Although my body is back in a Z-class mining tug. Has to be, because it’s not here. The wall smells like ice and tastes like . . . Who the fuck knows? How do you put words to something like this?

Hekati,’ I call.

The air inside her shell is thin, getting thinner. The sea is gone. All the mirrors in the hub are broken or ripped out of true and those towns not crumbling are burning up. The oxygen mix is so thin the grass no longer burns, it chars direct to ash.

A young woman grabs her child and runs. She dies under the feet of men running in the other direction. Whole villages flee for safety they don’t find. Because safety no longer exists in Hekati and will never exist here again.

Everybody has stuff that shames them. Troopers more than most, but we do our job so other people don’t have to. At least that is what I believe.

This, I tell myself, this is different.

Hekati agrees.

She’s dying in front of my-

Fighting free of the horror, I find myself on my knees in the crewpit. The kyp in my throat is so excited it is trying to crawl its way out of my mouth. It can’t, of course. Those hooks go too deep into my gullet.

It’ll kill you, Paper told me. Right around now, I believe her.

Colonel Vijay tries to lift me into a seat but I shake him off. ‘Shouldn’t be here,’ I tell him. ‘Should be back there. Haze . . .’

Haze nods.

Hekati’s waiting for me this time. A firestorm of emotions and a thousand clashing voices all joined into one scream. She’s scared, and she’s furious, and she’s so tired of life that it hurts. Not sure I want to know this stuff.

Sir,’ says a voice. ‘Sir.’ ‘Leave,’ I tell Haze. ‘Get out while you can.’ Who are you? Hekati says. Sven. Human? Had this conversation once before. A few months back. But that was with a ferox. And everyone knows that ferox can’t talk.

Mostly, I say.

But not now?

No, I say. Not now . . . Rummaging among the million images she’s receiving, I find one of the Victory First. It is seen from Hekati’s view, little more than a heat signature laid over six exhaust cones. Only now, the exhausts look tiny.

This is what hurt you, I say.

Hekati probes the edges of that thought.

It stole your air and water; it ripped a hole in your shell; it broke the mirrors and took away your sun; your hills are crumbling, wind’s stripping dirt from the fields; the people now dying inside you are dying because of what this thing did.

The people now dying inside you . . .

Pavel’s in there and I don’t care what happens to him. But so is his daughter Adelpha, and her new husband. So is Kyble, and the boy with the dog, who found enough courage to challenge our shadows in the night, and the girl who pissed on her own doorstep, not knowing she was watched. For all I know, the miners we met on the river bed are still in there. If they lived this long. A world is dying, and those dying don’t even know why.

That machine will kill another like you, I say. It will kill again. If you don’t halt it now . . .

Doubt fills her.

As what I have said isn’t true, I don’t blame her. Only I realize it’s not doubt about the Silver Fist ship killing another habitat that troubles Hekati. It is the thought of having to kill her own people.

She’s quick.

Already aware of what I am asking.

You’re dying, I tell her. Your shell is ripped and your mirrors are broken. You cannot stop what is happening. When you die, those you protect will die.

The fact Hekati doesn’t disagree tells me she knows it.

Why let them suffer in darkness? I say. There is a kinder way . . . I feed her the memory of my blade sliding beneath Franc’s ribs.

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