Deborah Teramis Christian
To be synched with your weapons is to fly. It is to hurtle near light-speed down the barrel of an ion cannon, to thrum tight-stretched along the beam of a targeting array, your skin burning with the hail-bite of tachyons probing the deeps of space. Quasar, quasar, burning bright, like a beacon in the night…
I am the beacon in the night, when I am rigged at tac-ops. I am the far-cast energy frequencies of targeting sensors, and the predator’s eye that follows their mark. I once was the Fire-rigger, the finger on the trigger for the Talisman. My gun-hand was made of cybercircuits and plasteel, my digits were the five techs of my tactical weapons crew, their subsystems ganged to my control. Together we were the human interface to our ship’s armament.
Our role was critical, but we weren’t alone in it. Specialized weapons officers and fire-rigger teams are required crew on every imperial patrol ship along the Hashmin Demilitarized Zone.
Yes, you heard right. Hashmin, that buffer zone between us and our long-shunned enemies, the Dalukin Empire. It is a place where our military presence may go from boring routine to brink-of-war hostilities in the blink of an eye.
They say the DMZ keeps the expansionist Dalukin at bay, but I’m pretty certain you’ve never heard news reports of the brinksmanship that routinely plays out there. Dalukin slip through all the time, to test our security, and probe our borders at will. We are unable to detect their stealthed ships until they are well within deadly striking range. And these things will never be said publicly, lest it panic citizens and make our Navy look worthless.
But such a judgment would be very wrong. They may black out current news, but our triumphs are many, countering everything the Dalukin have tried over the years. So yes, you can sleep safely after all. The men and women who wear the golden starburst are watching over you in the night skies – unless they perish, guarding you in your sleep.
My young career was nearly cut short by an incident on that border. It taught me the cost of vigilance, and the circumstance under which I might just throw my life away, risk vanishing into the cracks of space beyond reach of help or hope.
I’ve been there.
Part of me is there, still.
Before I ever joined the Navy, I was an officer in the Marines. I’d followed the footsteps of my older brother Vars, a decorated hero of the Amh campaign. Our Alshem-caste clan are the descendents of warrior monks, and the urge to prove ourselves in combat and service to a cause is deep-bred within us. Even for us women, and especially for this youngest sister of brothers in imperial service.
We are the Amisano, with roots on the high-g world of Casca, and like my brothers, I looked beyond our borders to make my name. The Marines taught me discipline and the hidden interplay of power and command, born caste and earned rank. I had it in me, I thought, to be a superior combat leader. I was just starting to realize that when a battery of tests cut me off from my platoon and marked me as something different.
The fateful question was asked: would I agree to rigger training? I had the reflexes and mental acuity, but more importantly, I had just that measure of active psi that would enhance, but not conflict with, wired nerves and cyberized brain functions.
It was a revelation to me. My eldest brother Oden was the psion in our family, so brilliant with his ability to manipulate the substrate of material and space – my measure of psi was feeble in contrast with his abundant talent. But this was a windfall, this question put to me by our division commander obliged to solicit enrollment in advanced naval systems training.
There was only one answer I could give. The nuances of Marine leadership would have to wait another day, another lifetime; ambition drove me to distinguish myself now. It required a transfer in service, a change from Marine cammo fatigues to the night-black jumpsuits and crisp, high-necked uniform tunics of the Navy. Suddenly I was obligated to unlearn my Marine arrogance and admit the utility of shipboard teamwork, of operations done in concert by many different systems and people.
With a stroke of a stylus, I became one of ‘them': sent to the closest academy for indoctrination, then on to rigger training and the implant operations that cyberized my neural functions.
At the end of it I was not only something different, I was something more.
Colenis is the title given any master and commander of a vessel in the Sa’adani Navy. Colenis Bakadesh was on the flight deck of the Talisman, and I reported directly to her there, as expected aboard a destroyer-sized vessel. I came to attention and rendered a sharp salute, right fist to left shoulder.
“Simikan Amisano, reporting for duty,” I recited the age-old formula, and held out my data pad with orders view-ready on the screen.
The Colenis gave me a dour look and a searching gaze before she took the pad. Her eyes lingered on the Alshem caste mark laserscribed on my brow, cataloging what that told about me. Calculating, no doubt, where I would fit into the complex stew of rank and caste relationships that is the subtext of any Sa’adani social grouping.
I scanned her surreptitiously for tell-tale marks as well. Nothing on face, ears, neck, no stylized clothing marks on her uniform –
There. As she took the data pad, I saw the gleam of a Gen Karfa caste mark on the back of her left hand. Nanite-graved colors permanently marked her skin with the sigil of her house and clan. So. High-born aristocracy she was, just a notch below outright noble blood, though since she commanded only a destroyer, she hailed no doubt from some minor house in the grander scheme of things. Fortunately, my Alshem caste placed me but one step below her own. It was a pleasant recognition for us both.
I breathed a bit easier, and her tone was less critical than her first assessing glance had been. “Your clearances are in order, I see. You’re up to date on Ballista, yes?”
“Ballista” was the code name for the new weapons system we’d be testing. the latest in our battery of defenses against the Dalukin.
“Yes, Colenis,” I replied. “Top of my class, and field victor in the combat sims.”
“So I see.” She waved the data pad. “I requested top of your class to fill this slot. Up-to-the-minute training is more important than past field experience for this cruise.”
“I’m honored, Ma’am.”
A half smile tugged the corner of her lips. “I’m the I-Rigger,” she said, referring to the integration interface function she served when the vessel was in combat mode. “We’ll be getting to know each other very well, Fire-Rigger.”
“I look forward to it, Ma’am.”
She swiped my data pad through her console reader, handed it back to me. “Go with Provisioner Chief Metrevar, here,” she motioned to the non-com who’d guided me to the flight deck. “He’ll get you squared away. Then report to the wardroom in an hour. We’ll be underway in two.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I gave a parting salute, then followed the Prov Chief into the bowels of the ship.
Somewhere in a gunnery couch, my body breathed and adrenaline washed nerve bundles with chemicals of alertness. I barely noticed. I lived far beyond the reach of my fingers as they stroked console touch-panels. Those fingers were on autopilot, controlled by my hind-brain, that bit that remained in the couch. The rest of me…
Quasar-bright, I burned at the end of a tachyon targeting beam. Besakani ran the array. I felt him in our thought-network, a reflex twitching to my thought, take aim.
His feedback flowed like stream of consciousness. Detection-Acquisition-Lock.
My awareness rode a Ballista Spotter, a seek-and-destroy long-cruise missile. We stitched normal space like a needle, jumping in increments powered by a tiny on-board stutter-warp drive. In every cycle through n-space, we pulsed trace detectors strong enough to sense a Dalukin stealth screen. Jump, pulse, seek, repeat: we rapidly sampled a matrix of space that would take impossibly long for a ship to patrol, or probes to scan in the ordinary manner. Again we jumped, and again, until we found the thing that gave resistance.
The target decoy crunched like a nut between my teeth. Halting the stutter-jump cycle took only a thought; behind me gathered the strike pod, done playing leap-frog with the Spotter missile.
They were the fist that would drive home the killing blow: four Ballistas bearing the full ship-killing charges of traditional plasma torpedoes. I felt my gunners at the ready, coiled like myself in our couches, in our missiles. Strike, I ordered, and a final micro-jump to target ended with warheads exploding.
Only I remained, a lone observation point at a safe remove, the Spotter confirming the kill, Besakani my data-collecting shadow. While flash glare still washed over me, I felt my crew dropping back into the shipboard rigger system, one after another, detached from the sleek bodies they’d ridden to destruction and home again –
The error at Gun 1 sounded a high-pitched electronic scream in my left ear. It yanked my attention back to the ship. Now my hind-brain kicked the Spotter into homing mode while the rest of my senses flew to assess our systems. Out of startled human reflex I forced my physical eyes open, and saw what every fire-rigger dreads: red flashing lights on gunner status readouts. I slammed my eyes back shut, plunging into our system to learn more.
Lead Crewman Eshra on Gun 1, my senior fire-rigger – gone. Off the boards, just like that. There was no disconnect record; only a spike in brain waves, and the abrupt dead air that meant one thing.
Eshra was dead.
Juro’s brass balls! I cursed, and hit the emergency disengage sequence. I ignored the wave of nausea that rolled through my stomach, a physical reaction to the sensation of slamming back into my body, feeling weighty, meaty, once more.
Not pausing to equalize the neural chemicals that aid the rigger process, I dragged myself out of my couch like a dreamer running through molasses. By time I opened Eshra’s hatch, my muscles were almost catching up to real-time. I bolted slow-motion to his side.
Too late. Blood from nose, ears, eyes glazed wide open, slightly protruding as if massive cerebral damage lurked behind those distended orbs. As it no doubt did.
What in the seven icy hells? I thought. This shouldn’t…this never…. I was almost at a loss. Yes, they train us on rigger hazards, but if you fry because of a systems fault, it’s a quick death. We learn that, and we put it out of our minds. It happens rarely, usually from catastrophic system failure in combat. But we’d taken no damage, and our systems were top-notch, meticulously tested for the Ballista project.
Executive Officer Etanen darkened the door, a haughty Delokar whose Aumori caste placed him several steps below me socially. You’d never know it to look at him. He had a proud, stiff-necked bearing, a permanent frown underscoring his hypercritical glare. I already knew to look sharp around him: his disdain for junior officers made him a rival for some Marine NCOs I recalled.
Now that glare was turned fully on me. During field tests he kept a general eye on operations while the Colenis integrated live-fire and direct ship control functions.
“What did you do?” he demanded. “You lost a man on an exercise. That’s inexcusable.”
I was so taken aback, I gaped like an ilu before I had the sense to respond. “We need to lock this gun unit down, Sir. Tech Warrant Demel will need to test the systems, investigate – ”
“Don’t tell me my job, Simikan.” He spit out my rank like it was a dirty word. “The Ballista Spotter’s not home yet. Get your ass back on position and bring her in right now.”
I looked down at poor Eshra, dead in his gunnery couch.
“And secure your crew. Every rigger on the ship felt that malfunction. Just tell them he’s offline, until all stations are locked down. No distractions. This test isn’t over yet.”
It made a grim kind of sense. My fire-riggers had flown their missiles into oblivion, but they remained jacked in and had after-action procedures to follow, systems to stand down…
“Aye, Sir.” I headed back to my pod. Delokar Etanen locked Gun 1 as I hurried away.
I brooded over the tragedy as I jacked back into the system. Our fire circuits were all a-chatter. Queries streamed from my gunners and from Chief Engineer Linrastov at the lead power-rigger position, but the one I had to reply to immediately was from the Colenis herself. At I-rigger, she’d feel anything in synch or amiss in our systems.
Like me, she’d felt Eshra die.
I flipped the comm circuit with a mental nudge.
“Report,” she snapped.
Words aren’t necessary when you’re jacked in. I streamed her an update transmitted in milliseconds. She was silent for a moment.
“I think – ” she began.
It happened again. Another horrid, high-pitched screech in the cyberconnections, heralding failure and feedback where there should be none. And then the ship lurched beneath us.
We have grav plates. A warship under steady drive does not lurch.
# # #
© 2011 by Deborah Teramis Christian. All rights reserved.
For the continuation of “Live Fire”, you can read the rest of the story in the anthology No Man’s Land. The print edition is here; the Kindle edition here. Or see this page for links to more short fiction by Teramis, including free downloads.