The White Cat reappeared 200 kilometers above Redline. Ordnance burst around her. Someone had predicted she would come out there and then. “Oh yes,” said Seria Mau, “very clever. Fuck you too.” Tit for tat, she cooked off a high-end mine she had slipped into the path of the incoming pod. “Here’s one I prepared earlier,” she said. The pod broke up, temporarily blinded, and toppled away in several directions. “They won’t forgive us for that,” she told her mathematics. “They’re arrogant bastards, that team.” The mathematics, which was using the respite to normalise her relationship with the White Cat, had no comment to make. The ship’s sensorium collapsed around her. Everything slowed down. “In and out now,” she ordered. “Quick as we can.” The White Cat pitched over into entry attitude. Retrofire pulsed and flared. Outside, the colours of space gave way to weird smeary reds and greens. Seria Mau airbraked relentlessly in the thickening atmosphere, letting speed scrub off as heat and noise until her ship was a roaring yellow fireball across the night sky. It was a rough ride. The shadow operators streamed about, their lacy wings rippling out behind them, their long hands covering their faces. Mona the clone, who had looked out of a porthole as the ship stood on its nose, was throwing up energetically in the human quarters.
They breached the cloudbase at fifteen hundred feet, to find the Karaoke Sword immediately below them. “I don’t believe this,” said Seria Mau. The old ship had lifted itself a foot or two out of the mud and was turning hesitantly this way and that, shaking like a cheap compass needle. A fusion torch fired up at the rear, setting nearby vegetation alight and generating gouts of radioactive steam. After twenty seconds, its bows dropped suddenly and the whole thing slumped back to earth with a groan, breaking in two about a hundred yards forward of the engine. “Jesus Christ,” Seria Mau whispered. “Put us down.”
The mathematics said it was unwilling to commit.
“Put us down. I’m not leaving him here.”
“You aren’t leaving him here, are you ?” Mona the clone called up anxiously from the human quarters.
“Are you deaf ?” said Seria Mau.
“I wouldn’t put it past you, that’s all.”
The Krishna Moire pod, realising what had happened, swept in, fanned out into the parking orbit with a kind of idle bravado, the way shadow boys in one-shot cultivars occupy a doorway so they can spit, gamble and clean their nails with replicas of priceless antique flick-knives. They could afford to wait:. Meanwhile, to move things along, Krishna Moire himself opened a line to the White Cat. He had signed on younger than Seria Mau, and his fetch, though it was six feet tall and presented itself in full Earth Military Contracts chic, including black boots, high-waist riding breeches and a dove grey double-breasted tuxedo with epaulettes, had the demanding mouth of a boy.
“We want Billy Anker ,” he said.
“Go through me,” Seria Mau invited.
Moire looked less certain. “This is a wrong thing you are doing, resisting us,” he informed her. “To add to all those other wrongdoings you done. But, hey, we didn’t come for you, not this time.”
“I done ?” said Seria Mau. “Wrongdoings I done ?”
Outside, explosions marched steadily across the mud, flinging up rocks and vegetation. Elements of the pod, becoming impatient with the half-minute wait, had entered the atmosphere and begun to shell the surface at random. Seria Mau sighed.
“Fuck off, Moire, and take speaking lessons,” she said.
“You’re only alive because EMC don’t care about you one way or another,” he warned her as he faded to brown smoke. “They could change their minds. This operation is double red.” His fetch flickered, vanished, reformed suddenly in a kind of postscript. “Hey, Seria, I got my own pod now!” it said.
“I knew that. So ?”
“So next time I see you,” the fetch promised. “I’ll let the machine speak.”
“Jerk,” said Seria Mau.
By this time she had the cargo bay open. Billy Anker, dressed in a vintage EV suit, was shuffling head down towards it with all the grim patience of the physically unfit. He fell. He picked himself up. He fell again. He wiped his faceplate. Up in the stratosphere, the Krishna Moire pod shifted and turned in hungry disarray; while high above it in the parking lot, the hybrid ship awaited what would happen, its ambivalent signature flickering like a description of the events unfolding below. Who was up there, Seria Mau wondered, along with the commander of Touching the Void ? Who was presiding over this fumbled op ? Down in the cargo bay, Mona the clone called Billy’s name. She leaned out, caught his hand, pulled him inside. The cargo ramp slammed shut. As if this was a signal, long vapour trails emerged from the cloudbase at steep angles. Billy Anker’s ship burst open. Its engines went up in a sigh of gamma and visible light.
“Go,” Seria Mau told the mathematics. The White Cat torched out in a low fast arc over the south pole, transmitting ghost signatures, firing off decoys and particle-dogs.
“Look!” cried Billy Anker. “Look down!”
The South Polar Artifact flashed beneath them. Seria Mau caught a fleeting glimpse of it–a featureless gunmetal ziggurat a million years old and five miles on a side at the base–before it vanished astern. “It’s opening!” cried Billy Anker. Then, in an awed whisper: “I can see. I can see inside–” The sky lit up white behind them, and his voice turned to a despairing wail. The pod, growing frustrated, had hit the ziggurat with something from the bottom shelf of its arsenal, something big. Something EMC.
“What did you see ?” Seria Mau asked three minutes later, as they skulked at Redline L2 while the White Cat’s mathematics tried to guess them a way out under the noses of their pursuers.
Billy Anker wouldn’t say.
“How could they do that ?” he railed. “That was a unique historical item, and a working one. It was still receiving data from somewhere in the Tract. We could have learned something from that thing.”