With the capture of the Heisenberg being swiftly followed by the brazen taking of the deuterium tanker, word spread from planet to planet, and word filtered back that many men and women were eager to recruit to the rebel cause. At last, the Dynastic Defence Force had been shown to have chinks in its armour, and there was suddenly no shortage of people eager to prise it open.
Bannon sent out his teams to form cells of operatives, as he had foreshadowed. It was work that was both tedious and dangerous. It involved long flights to the Outer Systems, following circuitous routes to avoid the ever more numerous Dynastic patrols, often calling for weeks at a stretch confined to the ship. It proved advantageous to programme the assemblers in the body to reduce height to cope with the cramped conditions aboard the patrol ships: with a fine sense of irony, Arianne programmed herself to shrink back to her “natural” height, which did not involve a large sacrifice, while Tristan reduced himself by twenty centimetres, and some of the other men “lost” as much as thirty. Even so, space was, Arianne concluded, no place for phobics: inside the ship, there was the sense of being forever hemmed in, never being able to focus one’s eyes on anything more distant than five or six metres, while just beyond the hull was the stupendous emptiness of space.
Added to which, the circadian rhythms which could be created artificially aboard a large vessel were also absent, leaving the body with no cues as to the time of day or night, resulting in lethargy and a sense of being in a kind of limbo.
Arianne and Tristan passed the time playing chaturanga, making love in their tiny cabin, and talking at great length, plumbing the depths of each other’s souls as they had never truly done before. And they spent long periods in silent contemplation, looking into each other’s eyes as lovers have done since time immemorial.
As more and more men and women joined the rebel cause, including Dynastic Defence Force deserters, Bannon was able to orchestrate some larger operations against the Dynasty. The downside, of course, was that there was always the risk of Dynasty spies infiltrating the rebel ranks and betraying their secrets, particularly when it was hard to carry out thorough background checks on every new recruit.
Thus it was that when Tristan and Arianne arrived at an outpost on the remote desert world of Barchan, they found they were mere hours ahead of a Dynasty assault fleet. As they entered the upper atmosphere, a signal light on a control panel flashed, alerting the pair that their ship was being interrogated by a ground based Identification Friend or Foe, or IFF, transmitter. The ship’s transponder replied with the correct answering code.
A haggard face appeared on the screen. “Name’s Stoneshave, commander of Foxtrot Battery,” the man said. “Your ID checks out, so you’re welcome,” he added, with something that approximated to a smile. “We can use some extra hands right now. Follow your present approach vector. Do not deviate by a millimetre, if you want to stay healthy. And make it snappy. Things are going to get hot around here.”
As the ship continued to dive towards the rippling red dunes that extended as far as the eye could see, Tristan felt control of the ship being gently taken from him. An autopilot on the surface was drawing them down along a controlled flight path. He took his hands from the controls and folded them in his lap. As the sand continued to sweep up towards them relentlessly, he moved his hands to the armrests, clasping them nervously.
The ship showed no sign of pulling out of the dive. Had the autopilot malfunctioned?
“Tristan...” Arianne said nervously.
He grabbed her hand. “We’re going to crash!” he screamed.
The ship plummeted. This was the end of everything, he was sure. It seemed an absurd way to end, but there was nothing that could be done about that.
And then, moments before impact, the ship levelled out, continuing at high speed, throwing up a huge plume of powdery sand. Arianne and Tristan both let out huge sighs of relief.
And then suddenly Foxtrot Battery loomed ahead. The ship’s speed washed away dramatically as she approached, and the two occupants watched nervously as heavy guns were trained on her. Once through the battery’s outer perimeter, the ship, floating a metre or two off the ground, was directed into a large berm which served as an electromagnetic pulse-shielded hangar. She came to a halt.
Tristan opened the hatch and stepped out. Stoneshave stepped up. He was a lean, wiry individual, and he looked as if he had not slept for quite some time.
“Stoneshave,” he said simply, shaking their hands. “And you are?”
“My name’s Tristan Cray,” Tristan said, “and this is Arianne Nasier. We’re with Bannon...”
Stoneshave’s eyebrows flew up. “Central command? We’re honoured. What can we do for you?”
“Well,” said Tristan, “we were on our way back from initiating some new activist cells and thought we’d check on progress here. We were really just passing.”
“You haven’t picked a good time,” said Stoneshave. “We can’t offer you tea and scones, and as you will have noticed, we are expecting some more guests very soon. You were lucky not to run into them out there.”
He conducted them out of the berm. Foxtrot Battery consisted of an assortment of low mounds almost indistinguishable to the eye from the surrounding wilderness, but various antennae, and large solar panels feeding a range of equipment with a voracious appetite for energy somewhat gave the game away, although to shipborne sensors ranging across much of the electromagnetic spectrum, the battery stood out from the surrounding desert like a blazing beacon.
At the centre of the compound was the Engagement Control Station, or ECS. Mounted above it, the phased array sensors were angled upwards towards deep space, watching carefully the approach of an unseen Dynasty armada. Stoneshave swung the door open, illuminating a swathe of the gloomy interior in harsh sunlight. Half a dozen heads lifted from their workstations.
“Everyone, this is Tristan and Arianne, from headquarters. They’re just stopping overnight.”
A few hands were waved in greeting.
Stoneshave continued the tour, marching them past the raised, box-like long-range pulse generators to the habitat modules. He pushed open a hatch. “This one’s free,” he said cheerfully. “Make yourselves at home.”
“Blazing skies! Blazing skies! All hands to stations! Blazing skies!”
There was a heavy whump! Then another. And another. As Arianne tried to get off her bed she was thrown to the floor. She picked herself up drunkenly, and saw in the feeble emergency lighting that Tristan was already sealing himself into an anti-pulse suit. He pulled a second one from a locker and tossed it to Arianne.
“What’s ‘Blazing skies’?” she asked, pushing her legs into it.
“It’s another way of saying ‘battle stations’,” Tristan explained. It was hard to make himself heard. The impacts became more frequent, becoming almost a continuous rhythm, while Foxtrot’s own batteries began returning fire on the incoming Dynasty craft.
Trying hard to keep themselves shielded from the enemy’s sensors, Tristan and Arianne ran back to the ECS to report for duty. Stoneshave was overseeing operations, and pointed into a corner.
“Over there, that’s Marsfield, the duty Tactical Control Officer. You can assist her.”
Tristan and Arianne took vacant seats on either side of the woman Stoneshave had indicated, and began tracking the movements of enemy ships.
“Good to have you along,” said Marsfield, an elegant blonde with high cheekbones. She did not take her eyes from the screen in front of her. “We’re under a bit of pressure because Baker Battery, fifty klicks to the south, has been hit, and they’re trying to get their systems back on-line.”
“Understood,” said Tristan. His years of Dynasty service came flooding back. The procedures were as natural to him as mother’s milk.
As the Dynasty ships regrouped for another attack, their blips moving across the sensor screens with disconcerting speed, Arianne noticed a portion of them breaking off. “What are they up to?” she asked.
Marsfield squinted at the screen. “Let’s see what the UAVs have to show us,” she said. She switched to a different channel, and the monitor was quartered, relaying views from four unmanned aerial vehicles, reconnaissance drones patrolling beyond the horizon to the four points of the compass. After a moment, one of the four showed a group of ships dropping swiftly through the atmosphere of Barchan.
“Assault ships,” said Marsfield softly. ’They were hoping to sneak a ground force up on us while we were preoccupied. Well, they won’t have it all their own way.”
While she returned her attention to the air assault, Arianne and Tristan continued to watch the assault craft landing. They had scarcely touched down before they began disgorging robotic armoured vehicles. The vehicles rode on a cushion of air, their flexible magnetic skirts sealed to the ground by a film of oil which remained bonded to the skirt - not leaving some greasy tell-tale trail - and which gave them frictionless transit across any terrain.
From the perspective of the UAV, Tristan and Arianne could see the rebels’ mine launchers concealed among the dunes, sitting up on an eight-legged base and scanning the area. The so-called Wide-Area Mines had a peculiarly apposite acronym: WAM. They detected the seismic signature and the engine note of the advancing vehicles and classified them internally as hostiles.
When the first vehicle was a hundred metres away, a mine was launched towards it, tracking its target through its trajectory. But then, just as it was about to fire its pulse, a fierce red beam struck out from the vehicle and vaporised it.
“Uh oh,” said Marsfield, glancing across from her own screen. “New anti-mine rays! They’re obviously wise to our weapons systems.”
“Do you have spies?” Tristan asked.
“It would seem so!” Marsfield growled.
Tristan glanced at Arianne. “They wouldn’t know about our ship though!” Grabbing Arianne by the arm, he headed for the door.
“Tristan!” Marsfield shouted.
Tristan stopped and turned.
“You can just get straight out through the berm wall! It’s only sand, held together electrostatically!”
Tristan waved an acknowledgement, and he and Arianne slipped out through the ECS hatch.
They ran back into the hangar berm, again dodging the rain of fire from above. They scrambled into their ship, and in moments were powering up their systems.
Onlookers would have been startled to see their ship burst through the side of an innocent-looking dune and speed away through the maze of twisting valleys between the dunes. The signal from the UAV was patched through to their ship, and they were soon able to see themselves on the monitor, and gauge their position relative to the advancing column of remote-controlled hover-tanks.
Hidden from enemy radar, and out of their line of fire, Tristan and Arianne were able to get close without being observed, then at the last minute they swept up, skimming the crest of a dune, and then plunged down on the line of tanks, all guns blazing, knocking two out before fleeing over the next dune. In the narrow defile, the two disabled tanks formed a blockage which the others were too slow to avoid, and they lumbered into it.
Meanwhile, Tristan doubled back, approaching the column from the rear, where they had fewer weapons trained, and, weaving to dodge what anti-aircraft fire the tanks were able to bring to bear, he knocked out the remaining vehicles in a couple of passes.
But Arianne saw on her sensor screen that their action hed not gone unnoticed by the attacking force, and several ships were peeling off.
“This is Tristan!” Tristan called loudly. “Mission accomplished. We’re returning to base.”
Stoneshave’s face appeared on the screen. “That’s a negative, you two,” he said solemnly. “We’ve just had a priority call on the ethergrid from your man Bannon. He says you’re not to put yourselves at further risk. Your orders are to head home. Fast!”
“Tristan!” Arianne yelled. “Bandits at ten o’clock!”
“It’s all right,” said Stoneshave. “We’re locked on to them. You just beat it. And thanks.”
The screen went blank. Tristan lifted the nose of the ship steeply and gunned the engine. The rear view monitor showed the ground-based weapons picking off the Dynasty ships that were coming after them. He and Arianne both sighed loudly.
As Barchan shrank behind them, and they saw that they had made good their escape, Tristan said softly, “This is madness. The Nasty will pick us off over time. We don’t have a hope of beating them.”
“But we have to try,” Arianne replied. “We have to try.”