gold or iron

The process is not, in truth, all that complicated. The rock is surveyed, its mass and density ascertained. Stays are drilled into its core and motors attached; sometimes, an abort mechanism is added, though usually not. The most sophisticated aspect is the navigation; the calculations are logical enough, but the raw data must be perfect. Once the course has been determined and the relative positions of the rock and the target fit – once the planets have aligned, if you will – the motors fire, and the rock accelerates. It passes for a time through the depthless vacuum; once its fuel has all burnt away, it is acted on only by the tug of distant stars and the faint drift of the galaxy a-whirl all about it. Then, if the aiming solution is good, it makes contact with the target and, through a brief but intense series of interactions that can be explained to you by any schoolboy caught doodling explosions in his physics class, introduces that target to all the pent-up hate and frustration of the rock’s engineers.

I can see the rock now, through the Blantyre’s one real window. I’ve been seeing images of it almost constantly for a year, from mission-briefing models six months and three systems away to crass, blurred “action footage” from a few hours ago as the Longstreet shot off the booster engines at unnecessarily close range. As it lies before me now it’s a tiny glint, only visible by the reflected sunlight; but say what you like, there’s something special about seeing things with your own eyes.

Starbreakers, Inc., say the patches on my suit and the livery on the hull of the Blantyre, a meaningless moniker thought up by people who believe in “brand management”, men and women in suits who I’m glad I’ll never meet. We are not the biggest or the oldest of the rock-stopping operations around – both of those titles are for Spiros & Harker – but our oh-so-understated ads, placed in the pages of people who pray they’ll never need us, say we’re the best. Response times matter in this business, and we’re faster than S&H; less institutional inertia, less of the stultifying regulation that comes from trying to standardise something too big over too wide a space. S&H have fossilised as a corporation; we might overtake them in a few years, and have our own turn at the top of the slippery pole, underdogs snapping at our vulnerable nethers. The only other serious contender on the interstellar stage are Weltabwehr, who kicked off fifteen years ago and are so good it’s scary, but who fouled up the Leo job through no fault of their own; the bets are still open as to whether the company’s rep died in that impact, but four million people certainly did, and counting.

So: here we are, a few hundred kilometres from this nameless lump of inertial murder, and coming in quick, with very large amounts of currency and, potentially, human life, at stake.

“It’s a military op,” I remember saying with some surprise to Artem, two months ago, when the Blantyre set off from the company station above New Ambleside.

“Well, of course it is,” he said. Then, with some suspicion, “Do you make a habit of clocking on without even looking at the mission?”

“Do you think I’d turn a job down?” I replied, and that seemed to satisfy him.

Of course, I was breaking the line by even calling it a “military op”; we are meant to be neutral here, acting only as civilian contractors, apolitical averters of impact events. But you can work most of the situation out from context; people don’t pay Starbreakers fees unless their existence is at stake, and people don’t weaponise asteroids unless they wish their fellow man considerable discomfort. There are at least two players involved beside us: one of them has attached the drivers to set this rock on its way, and the other, who presumably lives on the planet in the way, objects to being annihilated by a giant inertial kill vehicle, and is willing to pay a staggering amount of money to avoid this happening. You can draw further conclusions – that these are two rather undeveloped players, nascent colonies without spaceflight and possibly without even serious industry, from inferring that the victim nation doesn’t have the launch capacity to attempt an intercept themselves and the aggressor can’t afford anything more subtle or sophisticated than a pebble from God’s own sling – but here you enter the realms of speculation.

As this is a contentious mission rather than a random rock, we’ve got some shooters to look after us; a warship named the Longstreet, run by an outfit called Brisk Security, which will be shadowing the Blantyre for the duration. I personally haven’t heard a single good thing about their character; the one who was constantly trying to chat me up over the link for the last six weeks was certainly no paragon. But rep matters, even out here at the ends of the stars; and their rep for competent violence is solid as a million tonnes of nickel-iron.

Speaking of which. The rock ahead doesn’t have a name; optics have picked up PANDEMONIUM scrawled on some of the engine housings, but nobody wants to write that in a report. We just call it “the rock”, in a display of stunning imagination.

I’ve been on two rock-stopping jobs for Starbreakers before, the first of which paid off my training, the second of which gave me savings enough to live comfortably for the rest of my days. Neither was contentious; there are plenty of pieces of stellar debris threatening to rub out underdeveloped colonies, and plenty of governments who will pay us to avoid that. But there are only so many people insane enough to attempt to weaponise an asteroid. Rocks flung at planets are objectively bad weapons, full stop. They’re extremely difficult to shoot down, but they cost more than a ballistic missile programme, and if the calculations are even slightly off they miss entirely or, worse, flatten the wrong continent. Even when they work perfectly, they cause the sort of collateral damage that makes them a crime against good business practice.

Like everything, it comes down to money. Doing anything in the void costs. Motors are cheap and ubiquitous enough in space terms, and rocks are a budget option compared to genuine spaceborne weapons, but cheap in space terms is still ruinous, and the “budget” in question is that of a well-off planet. And as a countermeasure, the cost of a Starbreakers callout… well, we’re the best, and we charge accordingly. You get what you pay for; you pay for what you get.

I’ve done my reading: there have only been twenty-one contentious rock-stopping runs in all of human history. Spiros & Harker have done six, one of which saw two of their teams killed and a warship dragooned in at the eleventh hour; a considerable expense in both blood and treasure. Starbreakers have done one, which went off without a hitch.

I don’t know what was in the minds of the people who planned this particular rock. They may even be mad enough to believe it will actually hit. But it will be a year before the rock hits, long enough for the suits to try again and again. A second mission would turn profit to loss, a third would put the entire company in financial jeopardy; but their rep rests on it, and that is worth everything.

Compared to all those trillions, the expense of a few sophisticated booby-traps and deterrents is negligible, and we have no doubt the rock is riddled with them. I’m fighting the craftsmen who worked this rock, not the planners or the paymasters. If they are better at their jobs than me, I’ll never be close enough to my killers to even see them. There can be no malice at such distances.

“Belt up,” says Artem, terse as he always is, and we go below to prepare.

We are the pawns in the most detached method of fighting ever devised. This is war without slaughter, war without hate; war reduced to a puzzle game, played down a one-way wire five years old and fifty million kilometres long. The only person likely to die is me.

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overwrought overeducated overthinking

I always think of rainy nights as dull and gloomy, but every part of this one shines before me, glittering and brilliant. The lights of streetlamps and rocket-motors and swishing headlights glance in angled pieces off the wet glimmer the rain paints across every surface, like fragments of a broken mirror, an infinitely fractured panoply of light.

The rain isn’t heavy, but it’s everywhere at once, in falling streaks and slashes dancing at the periphery of my sight, placing an unearned halo on every streetlamp’s head as the sodium-vapour bulbs creak grudgingly from red to orange. It turns the landing lights of jetliners above into glowing cones of white as they fall below the clouds, and the jets chase after them like backwards comets. On the water of the bay, the wind-ruffled waves reflect the floodlights of the port in a flickering, uncertain zoetrope as they rise and fall.

Every time a rocket goes up from the port, the sun-bright flames of its motors are solid fire, their sharp definition unique among the rain-shaken uncertainty of the night. The rockets rise, atop a billowing column of exhaust lit white-gold from within, and the rain brings out a nimbus, brighter than bright, that makes everything else feel insipid and ethereal. It grows as the rocket rises, casting black shadows along the coast-road bollards and just as quickly shrinking them to stubs. They live and die in those first staggering seconds before the rocket punches through the cloud-cover, and the clouds all light up with its passing; a dull, bruised glow that fades, imperceptibly but inevitably, like the deceptive solidity of the exhaust plume or the afterimage of the flames.

If I could stop time, I would watch the rocket held there, see it hanging in the sky on its pillar of frenzied, frozen flame. If I could hold that moment forever, I would see the world caught in every raindrop, each one a reflected universe in distorted detail, a trillion points of light made infinitesimally different by the raindrop’s place in space and time. Too much to see in a frozen lifetime; enough detail to be lost in its fractal beauty, forever finding new intricacies, until they flooded my consciousness and overwhelmed my memory so that even the familiar seemed new, until all I had ever seen was their twinkle.

I wonder what people back on old Earth would make of this, back before any of it was a glint in inventors’ eyes. I wonder how they felt as they looked at all the lights in creation and gave them names and legends, whether they wondered at the silver-ripple of moon on sea, what magic it was that they thought animated the simmering stars. Before rockets and arc-lights, there were glimmers in the night. Before fire and language, there was rain and reflection. And darkness is older than light itself.

I know there’s no magic there. The waves shimmer because the water’s surface moves and changes angle faster than my eyes can perceive, the reflections coming and going in strobe-flashes of perception like the sweep of a ladar beam. The streetlamps wear saintly halos because the raindrops catch their light, and reflect it back to the world in fleeting, broken scatter. Reflection and refraction, intensity and incidence, particles and waves bending and stretching, passing and bouncing at different speeds and angles before they are at last contorted by the lens of my eye, and photon acts on retina, nerve winds round nerve and neuron touches neuron.

I understand all the processes and I know all their names, and still I can feel that little touch of magic, that certain sense of wonder, that last shiver of perception as the final pieces coalesce into the rain-slick totality of understanding. Perhaps because there’s so little wonder left to find that every time I feel the magic it leaves an indelible memory, a unique touch above all the mundane, scientific certainty that other men have felt and known and written down, and stared at until they couldn’t see it any more. Clarity, wonder, lucidity, call it what you want. Magic; its rarity itself makes it precious, the slimmest supply in a world of depthless, desperate demand.

Even a faint light shines brightly, against a dark background.

there are no roads here

It’s a careless land, a dusty, unkempt place that hasn’t noticed men. The ground is flat, but textured by a monotony of scrub and low trees whose dark green waxy leaves all hang drooping from the same height. The earth is red-orange and hot under the sun. Defence mounds rise like pimples out of the stubble, some still with old rusted guns on their turret rings, some stripped and crumbling, all empty. They look like they have been there forever and have looked that way since the day they were made. Here and there huge dome-shaped hills made of rough dark stone stud the flats in patterns that make sense only to them. They have been there forever but they are not worth anything. There are no clouds in the sky, and the land has a feeling that there will not be any clouds for a long time.

The land doesn’t care about the men, but the men care about the land and they are afraid of it. Every hillock fort they pass draws the worried stare of round eyes and rifle scopes. They all carry the same guns and wear the same clothes and their black hair is all cut in the same fashion. The rough, open-topped six-wheeled vehicles they ride are all the same shape and size, and bounce in the same way one after another over the humps and potholes of a road that can only be called a road because the rest of the land around it is even less helpful. They regard the dry place uncertainly behind their dark glasses, and fidget when they realise the camouflage of their uniforms does not match it. There are two hundred of them.

Captain Espera is a bad soldier and he knows it. He could not afford prestige, and the academy whose brass badge he wears nestling among rank insignia and meaningless decorations is not a good one. In his satchel, with his maps and ammunition, he keeps books by old war heroes. When he tells his men to do something by the numbers you can see his lips counting silently. He is afraid of Lieutenant Jafa.

Lieutenant Jafa is a bad soldier too, but he is too aware of the captain’s flaws to care about his own. He knows that it is the young, bright men who go far. He is young, and as bright as he is pleasant. He could afford prestige, and the better quality silver badge he wears gives him another reason to sneer at the captain. He collects curses like men collect butterflies, and uses them on Staff Sergeant Tam at every opportunity.

Staff Sergeant Tam is a good soldier, a pragmatic, unimaginative man who brings the men above him solutions whether or not they ask for them. He is convinced that he will die in uniform. He has seen far too much and there is little left in the world that can frighten him. He knows his place and is not unhappy, though the men quietly despise him.

The enlisted men are mostly aware that they are tiny parts of something too large to really understand them, and that their dirty jokes and love stories and funny habits and quiet, secret ways mean nothing to anyone, and that their lives are worth as little as the careless land on which they will fall.

oh, soldier, who will they find to replace you?

“Hey, little man,” said Brodie. He’d found a scorpion, sitting on a flat rock, bemused at the sudden shadow of transport nine. The little creature looked up attentively. To his eyes, at least. “I have a favour to ask.”
He spoke softly, trying to be friendly. “What I want you to do, little man, is crawl up that little funny-smelling purple creature’s back and sting him. Can you do this for me, friend? You do this for me, I get this big transport moving.” He jabbed his thumb at the muddy white behemoth behind him. “You can have the sun back, hey?” The scorpion did not react. Clearly, it was considering his proposal.
Brodie sighed. He stood, stripped his murderer and his rack of fifth-cal shells from his back and set them against the wheel of transport nine. He undid the magnetic strips and seals on his mealy bag and tore away a tiny strip of day-old chicken. He squatted before the undecided scorpion and offered the chicken. “I make this sweeter. You do this for me, I get you many little dinners like this. You don’t like chicken? This the good stuff. Farmer cooked this for us. He had a nice little stove. Cute daughters. Good food.”
Heavy, sticky footsteps approached. “Team four, we’re on the move in two,” said D’Erlanger. “No rest for the weary. Brodie, what… what are you doing?”
“Making friends with the natives.” Brodie indicated the scorpion.
“It’s a scorpion. You’re talking to it.”
Brodie winked conspiratorially. “Trying to convince this little man to sting Motara. Save all our lives, hey?”
D’Erlanger looked exasperated. “That’s a Falgar scorpion. It only speaks Spanish. Leave it alone.”
“Oh,” said Brodie, and felt foolish.

a september snow is upon us… and on such a warm day, no less

-(This is a good line.)-
D’Erlanger looked up. Motara was surveying one of the berms that bounded the endless Falgar paddy-fields, posing dramatically, as if the dead epistler’s camera was still on him. It looked like every other berm they’d seen in the last fifty kay of retreat, a big, long, flat, pointless ridge of red earth standing between one poxy puddle of crops and the next. The column’s heavy transports and armour were parked along the one he was sitting on, huge and white and still. Small arms cracked in the middle distance.
He turned back to his lap, ignoring the old fool Q’orray. There were twenty-nine hammer rounds lying in the mud-stiff fabric of his tunic. There had been twenty-nine rounds there the first time he had counted them, and every time since. That answer did not please him. He started counting again.
Sarjane walked over, her visor up. Power was too scarce to use the eslinks when you didn’t have to. “Technicians reckon transport four’s a bust. We’re blowing it.”
“They took three hours to tell us this?”
Sarjane shrugged. “It would have been worth it if they’d managed to get the wheels spinning. As it is, your team gets to carry a nice heaping helping of fifth-cal. Reckon they can handle ten rounds apiece?”
“Yeah. Wish it was thirtieth-cal.” He indicated the pathetic clutch of munitions in his lap.
“Wish for some air support while you’re at it.”
He started thumbing the gleaming rounds back into his murderer’s magazine, and only then noticed his superior was drenched in fresh blood.
D’Erlanger raised an eyebrow. “Woman troubles?”
“Ain’t mine,” said Sarjane, not laughing. “Some stats were hiding in one of the shacks. One had a grenade. What the shit’s going on here?”
D’Erlanger nodded towards Motara, still striking a pose with his hand shading his head-eyes. “He likes the mud here.”
-(We can make a stand here.)-
Sarjane didn’t even bother. “Supply promised me a drop as soon as we get onto hard ground. Nobody’s slept in days and the stimulants are running out. So is the ammo, so is the fuel. We stop here, we die by inches.”
Motara’s grasp of spoken languages was shaky even when he was trying to understand. Now, he wasn’t even listening. -(Look. Auxiliaries along the parapet. Dismounted guns at intervals. It’s a ready-made line. Stop the transports in the field behind, hull down, use the fifth-cals for support. We could hold out for relief.)-
Sarjane looked at the berm for no more than five seconds. “If you want to make a stand here, you’d best know you’re going to die alone.”
Motara’s response was cut off by a rolling blast that made the rice stalks all shiver together. Pillars of smoke rose from what was left of transport four. The other vehicles were powering up, their huge fat wheels slithering in the red mud.
D’Erlanger slotted the magazine back into his murderer, shouldered it, and set off wearily towards them.