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EP333: Asteroid Monte

By Craig DeLancey
Read by Rajan Khanna
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Analog
All stories by Craig DeLancey
All stories read by Rajan Khanna
Rated 15 and up for language, drug abuse

Asteroid Monte
by Craig DeLancey

“You don’t look like an omnivore.”
I was supposed to spend the next several years working side-by-side
with this bear monster thing from an unpronounceable planet, and the
first words she speaks to me are these.
“Excuse me?”
“Your teeth are flat,” she hissed. “Like a herbivore’s.”
I had been waiting in the tiered square outside the Hall of Harmony,
main office of the Galactic police force officially called the
Harmonizers, but which everyone really called the Predators.
Neelee-ornor is one of those planets that makes me a believer. Cities
crowd right into forests as thick as the Amazon, and both somehow thrive
with riotous abandon. It proves the Galactic creed really means
something. Something worth fighting for. Something that could get me
to take this thankless job.
So I waited to meet my partner, as I sat on a cool stone bench under a
huge branch dripping green saprophytes. The air was damp but smelled,
strangely, like California after the rain, when I would leave CalTech
and hike into the hills. I almost didn’t want her to show, so I could
sit and enjoy it.
I really knew only three things about her. She had about two e-years
under her belt as a Predator. She was a Sussuratian, a race of fierce
bearlike carnivores evolved from predatory pack animals, only a century
ahead of humanity in entering Galactic Culture. And she was named
Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess.
God help me.
I rose awkwardly every time a Sussuratian passed, only to sit again
after it walked on. Finally I gave up, and then a moment later a
Sussuratian bounded out of the passing crowds, and addressed me with
this comment about my eating habits.
I sprung off the bench and bowed slightly. “I am Tarkos.” We were
talking Galactic. But my Galactic is pretty good, really. Better than
hers, I was betting. Her name, however, was a Sussuratian name, and in
that language a human larynx was hopeless. Well, here goes. “I am
honored to meet you Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess.”
She was about six feet long, with short dark fur that had black and
green and gold patterns in it reminiscent of a boa. She was a
quadraped, and walked on all fours, her claws clicking. Now she sat
back on her haunches and put her front hands together, threading the
seven claws on one hand through the seven on the other. The effect was
a Kodiak holding a bouquet of knives. Her four eyes — two large green
ones set below two small black ones — fixed on me.
“I am called Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess,” she said.
I bowed slightly again. “Yes. I apologize for my pronunciation.” I
took a deep breath and tried again. “Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess.”
“No,” she said, speaking now very slowly. “It’s
Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess.”
For the life of me her pronunciation sounded exactly like mine. Except
with a bunch of hissing involved in all the S’s. “Can I just call you
Bria?”
Her small black eyes closed. I knew that expressed something –
impatience? Disgust? Chagrin? I couldn’t remember. It’s hard to
learn emotional expressions from a crash video course.
“This assignment is of great importance and could be perilous,” she
said. “I told them I didn’t want to work with a human.”
“Well, thanks for your honesty.”
She ran her long, dark-red tongue over fangs longer than my fingers.
Maybe she understood human sarcasm, because this 300-kilo carnivore then
offered an explanation: “You’re dangerous. I fear you.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I hear that a lot.”

_____

I didn’t ask for the job.
Almost an e-year before, I sat in a Kirt station, in the long, low room
that passed for a bar on the orbiting platform. As I nursed a water,
and waited to hitch a ship back to Earth where I was scheduled to be
court martialed, a human in a gray suit walked over to my table.
“Amir Tarkos?”
I almost cringed. I knew this couldn’t be good. I’d just returned
from a very messy assignment on Purgatorio, a hellish gas giant in the
ass-end of nowhere, and then an assignment on Verrt, a different gas
giant on the other cheek of nowhere. The crew on my ship had managed to
become notorious three times over in the space of a 14-month assignment.
And I was responsible for two of those incidents.
“I’m Conor McDonough,” he said. And he did indeed have a good solid
Irish brogue. “May I sit?”
“If you can find something that a human can sit on.”
He punched at his PDA and a chair rose out of the floor. “You
recognize my uniform?” he asked me.
I nodded. It was the first time I’d seen it on a human, but the grey
of the cloth, and the three-triangle insignia on the front of the suit,
were known to everyone. “You’re a Predator. I mean, a Harmonizer.”
“One of only eighteen humans in the corp.”
“Look,” I said. “I know I’m in a world of trouble. I know I’m facing
a court martial. I know I’m an embarrassment and so on and so forth.
But I also know I did not commit any lifecode violations.”
He fixed me with disconcerting blue eyes. “Aye. That you did not.
I’m not here to arrest you. This is a social call.”
“A social call?”
“I’m a recruiter. I’m here to ask if you would try out for the
Predators.”
I thought about that a long time. I considered telling him this wasn’t
funny. I considered asking, what’s the catch? I considered backing up
slowly. I considered backing up quickly. And all the while, my mouth
worked away, as if trying to remember how to form words. Finally, I
managed, “do you know who I am?”
“Amir Tarkos. Born on the West Bank –”
“Born in Palestine,” I said.
He nodded. “So it is. Fair enough. Born in Palestine. Moved to
Turkey when you were five. Studied engineering at CalTech on a
scholarship. Joined the –”
“I mean, do you know what just happened to me? On Verrt?”
“You took some liberties with the Kirtpau ship that you commanded.”
I liked that. “Liberties?”
“Yes. Liberties. And I know that you’ve had some… troubles back on
Earth.”
“And you’re talking to me because?”
He sighed. “On Verrt, now, you did things that are enough to get you
kicked on out of the military. But our concerns are different.” He
turned in his seat and pointed around the room. “Tell me, Amir, what do
you see here?”
Two Kirt stood by a feeding bar piled with some kind of salad, like two
crabs before seaweed on a beach. One Kirt had an exoskeleton venerably
dark with age, and the other was a red adolescent that reached out one
of its ten legs and tapped rhythmically on its elder’s carapace: a sign
of care and love. In the other corner, two Neelee, six-legged deer-like
creatures, huddled with a brood of birdlike aliens I did not recognize.
One held a globe that emitted beautiful light and faint, rarified music.
Near them, by the observation windows, a shimmering gaggle of Brights
floated and glowed.
“Galactics,” I said. “Civilized, advanced, successful Galactics.”
He smiled and nodded.
“Just so, now. And, tell me, what do you think a beloved Kirt
diplomat, or a Neelee artist, or a Bright philosopher would up and do if
it saw a lifecode violation happenin’?”
“Report it.”
“Aye, might. But these creatures live in cities so civilized, so
peaceful and calm, that if they spot a crime, they’re more likely to
think they misunderstood. They’re likely to reckon they can’t trust
their eyes. And if they do reason they saw a crime, they’re as likely
to assume someone else is taking care of it as they are to call it out.
A crime would seem so outrageous to them, they’d consider it plain to
the whole universe. And you know what? Most times they’d be right.”
I suddenly didn’t like where this was going. “You’re saying it takes a
thief to catch a thief.”
“Oh, no, lad. Don’t be an eejit. I am saying there’s an advantage to
having been exposed to crime. To wickedness. It means you know better
than to assume the best is already being done.” He nodded and watched
the Brights shimmer for a moment. They were beautiful, shining but
translucent. You could see the stars right through them. “But I’m
saying something more than that, I am. To hunt crime in a Galaxy as
good and grand as this here Galaxy, you have to be willing to take
liberties. You have to be the kind of lad who knows there isn’t going
to be help at his back, nor a fix to the problem unless you fix it
yerself, quick and dirty and on the fly. And that’s what you did on
Verrt.”
“Tell my commanding officer that.”
“You join the Predators, and I will.”
I had to smile at that. “Tell me something. Is it true the Predators
are all recruited from the new races?”
“Mostly,” he said.
“Because we’re thought to be expendable?”
He shook his head slowly. “No, lad. No. It’s because we’re closer to
the sheet. We’re just closer to all the bad that happened in our ugly,
hard pasts. And so we understand.”
I looked back over at the Brights, twinkling before the window of
stars. What this Conor McDonough said sounded right. In heaven, what
angel would take it upon himself to stare at hell?
McDonough leaned forward. “But, now, there is one other thing.” He
couldn’t resist a smirk. “We’re scary, lad. It scares the hell out of
a Galactic to see a savage human, terror of the disaster planet, in a
gray suit walking straight on at it. They expects you to beat ‘em to
death with a club and then eat ‘em raw.”
I laughed. In that moment, I was sold.

_____

Bria and I hitched a ride on a Neelee ship. I couldn’t walk ten meters
down its shining glass corridors without getting lost. I kept direction
protocol software running all the time. The Neelee bowed but did not
talk to me. Bria hid in her room. Because I was the new Predator — a
mere cub — I didn’t get the briefing before we left. And Bria wouldn’t
tell me anything until the Neelee ship dropped back into space; shot us,
nestled in our cruiser, out into the vacuum with a puff of wasted air;
and then accelerated away.
A distant sun shone, not much more than a bright prick of green light.
Fifteen AU out. Our cruiser was a gorgeous ship, shaped and colored
like a shark. Sitting in our snug cabin, in two very different chairs
mounted side-by-side before the viewer, I reviewed the NAV data. What I
saw made me catch my breath in awe.
“We’re at the Green Disk.”
“You know it?” Bria hissed.
“Everyone knows it.” The Green Disk was one of the greatest mysteries
of known space. The star was a tad more massive and bright than sol.
From here, it looked green because great clouds of black and green
matter lay between us and its flaming surface. The system had about the
mass of our solar system, but there were no planets. Instead, a disk of
asteroids stretched from near orbit of the star out to a good twenty AU,
with 90% of the mass in the sweet spot, between 0.8 and 1.8 AUs.
Bria tapped at the controls, setting a plot for downsystem and turning
on one of the twin inertial suppressors.
“What’s our mission?” I asked, fighting the weird nausea the
inertia-suppression fields caused as they started up.
“You are aware of the importance of this system?”
“Sure,” I told her. “The Green Disk is home to the Symbionts, the only
known self-reproducing non-intelligent machine-organic hybridization.”
“This is a great treasure, but also a danger. No one knows what would
happen if the Symbionts were seeded in a different system.”
I could see that. There was significant evidence for the theory that
the Green Disk had been made, that planets had been busted up to create
this special ecosystem. The Symbionts seemed mindless, some kind of
remnant of a civilization from hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of
years lost — but you don’t want to mess with that kind of power when we
understood them so little. It would be ugly if the mindless Symbionts
themselves turned out to be capable of planet busting, and they were
seeded in other solar systems and then set about doing it.
“Any reason to think that’s going to happen?”
“Yes.” Bria tapped the console, and we screamed off at three gees.

_____

A Galactic base perched on a big asteroid about 1.1 AU out from the
star. We slingshot braked around the sun and then, as we decelerated at
1 gee to dock with the base, Bria gave me the briefing.
“A Galactic agent on the Fringe found this.” A noisy hologram of a
barrel shaped asteroid stuttered in the air above us. The view zoomed
in, and on its dark metal surface gray and green shapes like strange
fungi stood. Their peaks thrust up out of a shimmering, translucent
surface, like a plastic sheeting that stretched over the rock. Small
machines moved beneath the membrane, purposefully hurrying about at some
task.
“Those are Green Disk Symbionts?” I asked.
“This has been confirmed,” Bria said.
“Who took them?”
“This group appears to be Rineret.” The Fringe was a collection of
species that didn’t want to join Galactic civilization, along with
millions of drop outs from the species that had. The Rineret were in
the former group, centipede-like beings that had centuries been
resentful of the Galactic civilization’s rules. Bria added with
disgust, “Rineret are herbivores.”
“OK,” I said, watching the film loop now. “I see the problem. These
things might be dangerous. But this isn’t Lifecrime. The sample
they’ve taken is too small, by the looks of it, to threaten any of the
genotypes of the Green Disk. And it appears they’re experimenting far
from any ecosystem. You haven’t shown me anything that’s an imminent
threat to another ecosystem or species. Executive should handle this.”
“They asked us to help.”
That surprised me. Executive, the general police and warfare force of
Galactic Civilization, was very defensive of its purview. They resented
the prestige afforded Predators. “Why?”
“The Green Disk is a big asteroid belt to go searching. The Rineret
are stealing seeds.”
The Symbionts launched seeds between the asteroids. “The Executive
discovered that?”
“Yes. Executive ships followed new seed launches, but many seeds were
gone by the time they caught up with them.”
Now I understood why we were here, and why the Executive had asked the
Predators onto their turf, and why we were all stretching the rules a
little bit. “So the Rineret have some kind of very fast, very quiet
ship out here. But a Predator Cruiser, with twin inertial suppression,
accelerates faster than anything in the known Galaxy.”
Bria opened her mouth wide and drew her lips over white teeth, exposing
a slick, dark red tongue. A Sussuratian smile, predatory and sly.
“Yessss. This ship is fast.”

_____

The plan was simple. The seed launches were uncommon, and the Galactic
station here had probes all over the system to identify when they
happened. We would move around and chase each seed that launched in our
vicinity, relying upon station data to plot the trajectory. The goal
was to surprise a ship as it matched vector with and grabbed a seed.
We didn’t have to wait long. We nearly matched orbit with the Galactic
base when they transmitted that a seed had just launched, and within
range: fifty thousand klicks. Bria turned on the twin inertial
suppressors. The point of having two was so you could tune an inner
field to greater damping, but use the outer field to only slightly
dampen the outer hull’s inertia. This was necessary to keep our heat
signature low. We took off at five gees, feeling only about one and a
half inside.
We pinged the seed with focused radar when just a few thousand klicks
out. The Symbiont seeds have a carbon metal shell, between one and
three meters in diameter, containing a dense package of organics and
self-replicating nanotech. This was something unique in the known
galaxy: an ecosystem seed, not just a phenotype but a whole collection
of very loosely related organisms cooperating for reproduction. There
had been an intellectual fashion to think this might be the next step in
evolution: portions of ecosystems, instead of organisms, as the unit of
selection. But we were in the only known ecosystem that had such a
reproduction system.
“It’s about to pass behind that asteroid,” I told Bria.
The Sussurtian only blinked. She was not trying to match the
trajectory of the seed directly, but rather to keep us in radar contact
with it as much as possible. But, eventually, it passed behind the
asteroid, relative to our approach. The radar ping came suddenly loud:
we were picking up the now-intervening asteroid, a big spindle-shaped
iron rock. Bria took us over it, so that its pitted black and gray
surface shot by below in a blink, and then we were past it, flipping
over to deaccelerate and turn into the seed’s vector.
“I lost it.”
“Scan!” Bria demanded.
The ship’s AI began a wide radar scan of the whole area. We got
nothing but the nearby iron rock, and then the ping of more distant
asteroids. Nothing else. Nothing the size or mass of the seed.
Bria matched the last trajectory of the seed, and we coasted. “It
can’t be that there is a ship out here faster than us,” I said. “We
would have seen it.”
We scanned the area, did deep radar scans of the asteroid, and found no
other object within a thousand klicks, and not a thing a degree Kelvin
above the background radiation.
“How?” I asked. “How in the hell did they do that?”

_____

The Galactic Station crouched like a spider on a boulder: a dome of
pale colors standing on bent legs on one end of a big nickel-iron rock.
This asteroid was pitted all over with deep circular indentations, not
like craters so much as like broken bubbles. Like a lava rock. Some of
these were covered over with the membranes that formed the Symbiont
covers, faded now to white with neglect and age.
In the station’s narrow reception hall, Bria talked with the
dark-furred Neelee in charge, and they bounced off together to review
radar logs. I made excuses and headed in the opposite direction. The
station roster listed one human aboard. Not many humans were out in the
galaxy, and common courtesy meant making an introduction, but I also
wanted to learn more about the Symbionts from someone I could skip the
ever-so-slow Galactic courtesies with.
Crossing the station proved frustrating. The weak gravity made little
appreciable difference in my motion. I pushed off the floor, and
immediately found myself pushing off the ceiling. I have spent a lot of
time in microgravity, but here the halls were narrow, smoothly bereft of
handholds, and crowded with neelee.
I followed directions right down one leg of the station to the
terminus: a lab with a window looking out into one of the covered pits
we’d viewed on our descent. Dr. Prima Rajiv proved to be an Indian
woman with a heavy Australian accent. An ecologist, she had big eyes, a
ready smile, but a calculating squint when she considered a question.
She stopped and stared when she saw me: a human in Predator uniform.
“Now I’ve seen everything,” she said.
“Oh, not till you’ve seen me standing next to my partner you haven’t.”
I introduced myself, we bantered and discovered we’d shared a
university teacher who had moved from Cal Tech to Melbourne, and then we
bemoaned the galaxy’s lack of chips — or French fries, as I called
them.
“I’m sorry to change the course of conversation abruptly,” I told her.
“But I need some help.”
“I assumed you did. We’ve been told, you know, about the thefts.”
“Yeah. So what can you tell me about these seeds?”
“What do you know already?”
“Next to nothing. The Symbionts thrive through a tight bond between
self-reproducing machines and a diversity of small organisms. The
machines created small encapsulated environments on the asteroids for
the organisms, and transport the organisms between asteroids. The
organisms provide the machines with proteins that they use for all of
their non-metallic parts.”
“Close enough,” she said. “OK. So, the symbionts are, by our count,
actually about five thousand organic species, most of them under a
centimeter in size. There are instead only a few hundred kinds of
self-replicating machines there. Most are dedicated to building the
webbing, like this.” She pointed out the window. “A translucent
protein sheath that allows them to create a small pocket of atmosphere
underneath. On active asteroids, the sheath is pale green with
photosynthesizers clinging to the underside, and covers the rock,
leaving about two or three centimeters of space below. It makes for a
thin little atmosphere for the Symbionts to work in. Some other
machines build the canons, those big poles you see out there.” They
were like the stalks of mushrooms, rising straight up out of the low
webbing.
“Those fire seeds. An asteroid like this one can be home to the
Symbionts for a few hundred thousand years. Then the organisms start to
be overwhelmed by their chemical wastes. The machines create seeds –
pocket systems where the organisms can dwell. They load them into the
canons, and fire them. Pretty much at random. A few make it to other
asteroids, and start new colonies.”
“The machines stay behind?” I asked. “After an asteroid goes fallow?”
“Those that aren’t launched in seeds do, yes. They actually keep
making seeds, but they’re duds, and they rarely launch. That’s what
we’re studying here. This is a fallow asteroid. You can tell because
the sheathing is white, not green. And because it’s smooth, and has
lots of holes in it. But, in the next few hundred thousand years, a
seed should land here, and start a new symbiont colony. Some of the
machines will merge with the ones still working here.”
“Any reason why someone would steal a seed instead of landing and
taking a sample?”
She shrugged. “Sure. A seed is like a ready-made sample. A
representative cross-section of the whole ecosystem, all you need to
start to a viable Symbiont colony. It’d save a lot of work to steal one
of those.”
“I see.” I went closer to the window. In the crater beyond, some
Neelee were moving about in suits among the seed canons. One prodded at
one of the canons, and it suddenly spasmed.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
“What?”
“That Neelee, it touched the canon, and it looked like… it
contracted.”
“It tried to fire. We’re studying the cannons right now. They are,
like I said, on autopilot. The canons naturally build up pressure
inside, and then when it reaches a threshold they fire and shoot a seed.
But, if you press on them, and compress the gas inside, you sometimes
make them fire prematurely by squeezing the internal pressure higher.
And some do contain sterile seeds. That would have launched one if we
hadn’t been prodding it all week.”
“What’s in a sterile seed?”
“Nothing. It’s just the machines, no organics. It’s like a metallic
foam. Mostly empty space.”
“Yeah. Thanks.”
“Sure. Come see me again if you have any questions.”
“I will.” I smiled at her. “I don’t mean to be abrupt. It’s just…
you’ve given me an idea. There are logs somewhere, of the seed
launches?”
She gave me instructions on how to find the files. I thanked her, we
made plans for dinner — I was looking forward to showing off Bria to my
fellow human — and then I went to do a little data mining.

_____

But I didn’t have enough time to consider what I’d learned. Bria
called me while I was pacing the hall, thinking through the puzzle of
the disappearing seed.
“Another seed has launched. Come.”
We suited and got into the ship fast — it was a thing we had trained
to do. Within a few minutes we were kicking off the asteroid. Then
Bria set course as I got a radar fix on the seed pod.
“Wait. Wait Bria. Listen to me. I think….”
But Bria was on the hunt. She leaned over the console, not listening.

“I think we should head in the opposite direction. We should follow
the trajectory of the seed back to the asteroid it launched from.”
She finally looked at me. “Why? The last seed was intercepted.”
“No, no, I don’t think it was.”
She closed her black eyes. That expression again.
The trajectory we were on was eerily similar to the last one we were
on: the seed was heading for a near miss on the other side of a big
asteroid. In less than a minute it would be out of view behind the
rock, for at least a few seconds.
I didn’t have time to explain. I punched into the virtual controls,
locked sights on the seed — “Human what are you doing?” Bria started to
ask — and I hit it with our laser.
It faded from radar.
Bria looked at me, all four eyes wide. “What is this behavior, human?”
she howled in a rush.
“Look!” I said. I punched at the controls and called up a
spectrograph. If I wasn’t right about my hunch, I was going to be
really, really sorry.
Bria growled. “We do not destroy organisms in order to prevent their
accumulation. The Rineret ship we seek will be retreating in flight
now. I will report that you are not suitable for weapon’s access. Not
suitable for pursuit. I will request that you –”
“Look!” I said again. I pointed at the data, and to my relief my
hunch had been right. “Look at the spectrograph. There are no organics
in the debris. Only vaporized iron and nickel. And trace metals.”
Bria blinked. “The seed was sterile,” she said. “You knew that?”
“I thought it was, but that’s not the point, really. We’re being….”
And I couldn’t think of a Galactic word for duped. I sighed. If I
couldn’t use the term I could tell a story. “Look, please. Just listen
to me. Listen. On my world, there’s a game. A gambling game. When I
was a very young child, in Palestine, walking to school, I would pass
each day a man playing it.” Most days I never made it to school, but
rather waited in an interminable line at a check point until it was time
to walk home. But every day I walked past the three-card monte. I
envied the older boys who had some money to play and bet on the game.
“The man had three… cards. Like this.”
I pulled three data tabs from the console. They were roughly about the
size and shape of playing cards. “See, the challenge was, you pick one
of the cards, and then this man would mix it with the others, and you
had to try to determine which one it was after he shuffled. Say, this
card.” I held up one memory tab, showing her the symbol on its
underside. Then, on the narrow platform between our seats, I did a very
poor three-card-monte shuffle in the half-gee acceleration we were
holding.
“You are a confused child,” Bria said. “I am reporting you to our
superiors.”
“Just tell me which tablet it is.”
“It is the second tablet,” Bria said, disgusted.
“Have you checked the monitor?”
Bria looked at the console. I shuffled. She turned back quickly.
“Which card is it?” I asked again.
“You have cheated. You distracted me and moved the cards while I
looked away.”
“Indeed I have.”
Bria blinked each eye in turn, moving counterclockwise. I remembered
this expression from my Meet The Sussuratian! training vids: it meant
surprise and realization.
“They have distracted us,” she whispered.
“Yes. They get us to look away, and then they shuffle the cards.
Somehow they’re launching the sterile seeds, but aimed on a trajectory
that will get them behind an asteroid from the perspective of the base.
They burn the seed when it’s out of sight. We assume it was picked up,
and look all around in the wrong place. Most likely, they got a ship on
the other side of the sun, slipping out of system right now. They
probably do a fake seed launch every time it does a maneuver that might
be noticeable, in order to distract us. Tightbeam the Execs.”
Bria leaned over the console intently, eager now to be on the hunt.
She sent the message via laser to the Executives waiting high over the
pole of the sun. The message would take an hour to get to them, but if
there were a ship on the other side of the system it would likely need
more time than that to get up speed for a jump point.
Bria hit the console with a fist, slamming both inertial suppression
engines on. “We must enter full coolrunning. We must track the false
seed to its origin.”
I fought the nausea and strapped in.

_____

Bria slipped past the asteroid where the seed had launched. I judged
it to be recently fallow: no green on its surface, but the low
membranes that so resembled spider webs in the sunlight covered huge
unbroken swathes of the black surface. Seed cannons rose up out of
these fields like thorns. Bria dove within a klick of the asteroid, and
then rotated us so that our nose faced the center of it as we passed.
She blasted the engines hard after we skipped a few klicks beyond it,
decelerating without showing engine signature. The result was a very
tenuous orbit.
We upped the magnification on the screens and stabilized the image.
“There,” Bria said. She extended a single claw and touched part of the
image. “A ship.” We zoomed in. It was a spidery framework of black
foil walls and thin tubular beams. It would have likely been invisible
but for the white background of symbiont membrane setting it out in
sharp relief.
“An ultralight ship,” she added. “Good for moving stealthily short
distances, since little thrust is needed.”
“I don’t see any Rineret, or any other suited figures.”
“It could be robotic. Or else, the Rineret are all in the ship.”
Bria nudged us forward.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“We will land, and tag their ship with spy probes. This way we can
trace them back to their system command centers. We need to capture
their interstellar ship.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“A ship is most vulnerable when set down.”
“And we’ll be set down too!”
“We are the predators, they the prey.”

_____

Walking in the station had been bad but walking on an asteroid is a
nightmare, let me tell you. It isn’t walking, really. It’s leaping
about as cautiously as you can. No ceiling above to push against if you
step too hard. None of that nice bouncing ease you get on, say, Earth’s
moon. Get too enthusiastic here and you would jump right off the rock
and into low orbit.
We parked the cruiser, grappled it down, suited up, and walked out onto
the surface. There was no atmosphere under the dead Symbiont webbing,
so it didn’t feel spongy, but it did feel slippery under our hard boots.
A trickle of ambient light fell from some nearby big asteroids with
high albedo. It would have been pitch dark to my eyes, but the suit
could compensate. Our suits set up a short range microwave network so
we could talk without broadcasting too much noise.
“Magnetize your boots,” Bria said. I did it, and felt myself get a
slightly better grip on the asteroid. There was just enough iron in the
rock to pull at the field in the suit’s soles.
We had two kilometers to cross. We tried to do it in measured leaps.
We picked a “mountain” on the horizon that we knew was just this side of
the ultralight ship’s landing field. I was relieved that Bria quickly
became as tired as me: her breath like mine started to come in deep
gasps by the time we had bounded near our target feature.
The stone peak proved to be not a mountain but an irregular edge of a
crater. We scaled to its edge, and then looked down on the uneven field
beyond, a large flat-bottomed bowl prickly with Symbiont cannons.
The ship was not in sight.
“What now?” I asked Bria.
She pointed at a cluster of rocks in the center of the bowl. “It must
be behind those rocks.”
I nodded, a useless gesture in my helmet. I didn’t want to call the
ship to get the data to check, but I did recall the Rineret ultralight
had been parked next to an outcropping of dark stone.
It took us only a few minutes to stalk up behind the stones. Peeking
around them, we discovered only another expanse of Symbiont membrane,
encircled by a thick field of seed canons.
“The ship is gone,” Bria said.
I looked up, suddenly afraid. I couldn’t see anything: we were facing
away from the sun. But then, a line of stars winked out in the
periphery of my vision. I turned to face it. It took me only a moment
to realize that a square of black was cut out of the stars.
“They’re right above us!” I shouted. The black outline of the ship
loomed hugely: it must still be low.
“Move!” Bria shouted. She dove toward the seed cannons. I turned off
my boot magnets and did the same.
Wisps of white rose up around me. I realized with cold fear that
lasers cut at the ground up behind us. The Symbiont membranes shredded
into sheets that twisted and turned into the space around us like some
kind of drifting, bleached kelp.
I dove for a seed canon and then changed trajectory by pushing off it
when I arrived, hoping to set an unpredictable course. But I had no
control. I was very likely to leap off the asteroid if I got moving any
faster, and adrift in near orbit I would be the easiest target
imaginable. The seed cannon I bounced off popped open behind me like a
silent balloon explosion, lased just after I passed.
Then it struck me.
“Bria!” I called. “Bria, hit the base of the seed cannons!”
We had light thrusters on our suits and I turned mine on full blast and
aimed myself at the nearest seed canon, fists out, flying Superman
style. I hit the base and the whole thing convulsed in a coughing
motion as I bounced off of it.
It shot a seed up, so fast I saw only a blur over of the rim of its
barrel. I looked up but couldn’t follow the trajectory. So I dove for
the next canon. And the next. Bria followed my lead, several times
sailing by me, feet extended, like a polar bear diving feet first. In a
few seconds we had launch a dozen sterile seeds.
A flash lit up the landscape, casting sharp shadows of seed canons. I
looked up, squinting. Light leaked from a gash in the ship, revealing
shreds of foil that flapped in escaping gas. A direct hit. The seeds,
launched at high speeds, had easily penetrated the ultralight hull.
Bria bounded past and rammed another canon. It fired. I stared at the
ship, mesmerized. After a second, it jerked, and started to spin. A
direct hit. The ship tumbled away, venting now from two long breaches.
As we watched, it cracked, nearly breaking in two. Long worm-like
figures twisted in the gap: suited Rineret, attempting desperate
repairs.
“Back to the cruiser,” Bria called.

_____

We radioed the Executive fleet, then followed the Rineret ship at a
respectful distance until an Exec Enforcer ship matched trajectory with
us, opened the great maw on its bay, and swallowed the damaged craft
whole. The Executives had not found the larger ship that we predicted
was on the other side of the system, but the Green Disk is large, and
this capture would be a good lead to help them find it.
Since we had discovered that the Rineret were not using a super-fast
ship to hunt seeds, there was no need for two Predators with a cruiser
to stay in system. I sent a message of regrets to Dr. Rajiv, and we set
course for another Exec ship waiting outside the belt, to hitch a ride
out of the system.
“Bria, tell me something.” I looked over at her. Tiny reflections of
the drive control displays were echoed, four times, in her dark eyes.
“What is this thing you have about herbivores?”
“You do not know the hunter theory?”
I shook my head, then realized the gesture might signify nothing to
her. So I added, “no, what’s that?”
“Eleven fourteenths of the species in the Galactic Civilization are
pack carnivores. Three fourteenths are omnivores, like the Neelee or
the Kirt.”
“Or me,” I said.
“Or humans. But few are like the Treven, herbivores.”
“So?”
“Carnivores evolved with weapons — their teeth and claws. So they
evolved the ability to hold back their power, they evolved awareness of
how to show mercy and relent.”
I had seen how wolves lay on their back, if they were willing to submit
during a fight, exposing their throats to the alpha male. The alpha
male would immediately break off attack at the sight. I nodded. “I
see.”
“Herbivores have no such heritage,” Bria continued, “so they do not
know how to relent. They are dangerous, and foolish, given weapons.
And merciless.”
I thought of the Rineret shooting at us on the asteroid surface.
Really I’d be hard pressed to imagine what they thought they could gain
from killing us: it was downright spiteful, and our suits would
transmit all our data if we died, so our ships would report and then the
Rineret biopirates would have had a very angry Predator force hunting
them in retaliation.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll try to reach down and commune with my inner
predator.”
“Good.”
The console chimed. Bria looked over at a hologram rising in the air
above the ship controls. “New orders. An illegal colonization, on
Kirtpauan Nine, fallow planet four. Refugees.”
“I know something about refugees,” I told her.
“I continue to be the leader of this pack unit.”
“Sure, Bria. Whatever you say.”
She punched the engines.

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