An extract from the second chapter of Into Everywhere
When the perimeter alert slammed down the pipe Tony Okoye was lying on his command couch and one of the hands was braiding his hair. He raised a finger to still the clever fingers of the man-shaped machine and said, ‘I hope this isn’t another cosmic-ray impact.’
‘Not this time,’ the ship’s bridle said.
‘Because if it is, I swear I will modify your detection filters with an axe.’
‘Then I’m almost glad I’m looking at an actual intruder,’ the bridle said, and opened an arc of windows in the dim warm air.
Tony sat up, bare-chested in lime-green ‘second skin’ shorts, pushing a fall of loose hair from his face as he studied multi-spectrum images, vectors, estimates of the intruder’s capability. She was real. She was big. A G-class frigate ten times the size of his C-class clipper, bristling with weapon pods and patches. She had come through the mirror less than two minutes ago, she was already driving straight for the slime planet, and she was displaying a police flag. CPF Dauntless.
‘What are the police doing here? Have they said what they want?’
‘They haven’t said anything. And they aren’t the police,’ the bridle said. ‘The Dauntless is a G-glass frigate, but that G-class frigate is not the Dauntless. The configuration of her assets is wrong, and her flag’s certificate is a clever fake. Clever enough to fool the average freebooter, but not quite clever enough to fool me.’
‘Are you certain?’
‘I can show you my workings.’
Tony flicked through images of the intruder. It looked a little like a weaponised jellyfish got up from shards of charred plastic: a convex shield or hood three hundred metres across, trailing three stout tentacles ornamented with random clusters of spines. No one knew what the original function of G-class Ghajar ships had been, but plating their shields with foamed fullerene and attaching weapon pods and patches around their rims turned them into formidable combat vessels.
‘If they aren’t police,’ he said, ‘they must be pirates. Claim jumpers.’
‘The possibility is not insignificant,’ the bridle said.
‘A ship that size, running under a fake flag? It is the only possibility. The Red Brigade has frigates, doesn’t it?’
‘So do a number of other fringe-world outfits. We should challenge it,’ the bridle said. ‘You can use your notorious charm to get its crew to reveal who they really are and what they want.’
Her personality package, presenting as a bright eager capable young woman, was the front end of the AI that interfaced with the mind and nervous system of the actual ship, which like the frigate, like all ships everywhere, had been built by the Ghajar thousands of years ago. Tony’s C-class clipper was called Abalunam’s Pride, but no one knew its real name. The name its maker had given it long before it had been extracted from a sargasso orbit, refurbished and modified, and purchased by his grandmother. The secret name it might still call itself.
Tony said, ‘I already have a pretty good idea about what they want. And it is possible that they do not know we are here. So we will maintain radio silence and continue to monitor them. And if they contact us, we will tell them that we are just a freebooter with an exploration licence and nothing to hide.’
‘Which we are.’
‘Which we are. But my family has a history with the Red Brigade. And if that really is one of their frigates . . .’
Tony grazed the cicatrices on his cheek with his thumb as he thought things through. He was scared, yes, shocked and sort of numb, but he also felt alert and focused. Babysitting Fred Firat and his crew of wizards while they probed the ancient secrets of the slime planet had proven to be astoundingly tedious. There were no beasties to hunt, and the scattered Elder Culture ruins weren’t anything special. Junot Johnson was supervising the wizards’ work; Lancelot Askia was keeping them in line; after completing the survey of stromatolite sites and setting his little surprises, Tony had mostly stayed aboard the ship. Now, for the first time in four weeks, he was fully awake. At last he had something to do. And if that frigate really was one the Red Brigade’s ships he would have a chance to test his skill and cunning against his family’s old nemesis.
He said, ‘How long before it gets here?’
‘Nineteen point three eight hours, if it maintains its current delta vee,’ the bridle said.
‘We will have a lot less than that if it fires off scouting drones. What about our assets at the mirror? Has our unwelcome guest pinged them, tried to spoof them, knocked any of them out?’
‘It could have left behind assets of its own when it came through. Have one of the drones scan the mirror and the volume around it out to five thousand kilometres, but keep the rest dark. And shoot a message to Junot, brief him on the situation and tell him that the wizards should start packing up their stuff straight away.’
‘Then we’re going to make a run for it,’ the bridle said.
‘I am not going to sit on the ground and wait to see what that frigate does next,’ Tony said. ‘Check the mirror, message Junot, and raise the ship and aim it at the wizards’ camp.’
‘Shall I have the hand finish braiding your hair, too?’
The bridle had a nice line in sarcasm, but Tony took the offer at face value.
‘Why not?’ he said, settling back on the couch. ‘If those claim jumpers do want to talk to me face to face, I should look my best.’