In the Crosshairs, part 2

Part 2 in a series set in the Orion’s Arm universe. On Bertrand dyson, a team searches for the leader of the vecs. Meanwhile, vec-Drifter can’t enjoy a meal in peace.

In annoyance, Gabeta bashed the holoprojector with his palm. “Did you predict that?!”

“With 97% certainty,” affirmed the hologram.

Dark red blood trickled down the forest-green scales of Gabeta’s palm, torn open by a sharp corner. He mentally disregarded the pain signal, and commanded his immune system to repair the damage.

“Then why in the name of Isidore did you let me do it?!”

Boustrophedon’s avatar shrugged. “My role is to look after the general welfare of the people of Bertrand dyson. Not to protect visitors such as yourself from minor self-inflicted injuries. Now can you help, or not?”

Gabeta growled angrily at the holographic projection, but then linked his mind back into Bertrand’s net. Last week’s vec attack played back in his mind. Security sensor imagery flooded into his brain.

As he watched and rewatched the assault, the scales on his face paled to a faint seafoam green. 11,772 humans slaughtered by the vecs, as witnessed by security cameras from multiple angles, in visible light, night-vision, and thermal IR. Audio capture and radio chatter accentuated the already gruesome video records.

A new voice joined the conversation. “Gabeta, are you online?”

“Drifter? What have you found?”

“Packet radio chatter,” said Drifter. “Recorded just before the attack.” Gabeta mentally received a file transfer from Drifter. “Encrypted. Can you make anything of it?”

As a cryptosavant, Gabeta could normally crack non-transapient encryption subconsciously. Bertrand dyson, though, was the most lo-tech society Gabeta had ever witnessed. Access to the Known Net was painfully slow, and Gabeta had access only to very primitive computing resources.

Nevertheless, Gabeta examined the encrypted file. “This will take me some time,” he told Drifter.

“How long?” demanded Boustrophedon.

Gabeta shrugged mentally. “Likely at least one-point-five megaseconds. How long do we have until the vecs attack again?”

“I project the vecs will attack again within seven-point-five megaseconds, with 87% certainty.”

“Let’s hope this will lead us to the vec leader before that happens,” said Drifter.

Gabeta closed his eyes and focused all his mental power on cracking the vec’s communications. Those files might contain the key to saving himself and everyone on Bertrand dyson.

“How’s the weather?”

Even without vocal recognition, vec-Drifter knew when Jarrett was talking. None of the other humans combined such banal small talk with terrible timing. Drifter was in the middle of a meal.

“Clear dark skies,” replied Drifter. “Atmospheric pressure of twelve micropascals and dropping. Chance of precipitation: zero.”

“Snarky. Guess that means you’re still human.”

Most of the so-called atmosphere was outgassed from the regolith of planetoid XC-177, freed as vec-Drifter wielded a half-dozen mining lasers against the asteroid. With his two remaining free limbs, vec-Drifter consumed the gravelly ores broken free by the lasers.

“So how long until you’re fully fueled?”

Vec-Drifter’s stomach was nearly packed with extracted regolith. Soon he would go into sleep mode to digest the raw materials, separating them into ingots of platinum, iridium, iron, and a score of other elements. The dross would become fuel for his mass driver propulsion.

“Two more hours,” vec-Drifter told him. To be precise, 6,800 seconds, but this was one of many concessions to human idiosyncrasy on Bertrand.

Earlier, vec-Drifter had reverted a mindmod and once again taken to referring to himself as ‘he’ — the local dialect on Bertrand had no gender-neutral pronouns. He still lived on human time, sleeping eight hours a day even though his Korwen silicon brain required only a tenth of that under normal operating conditions.

“Good,” said Jarrett after a twelve light-second round-trip transmission lag. “Nenshe will be in the mind bay by then. She wanted to know when you would be in sleep mode.”

“Fine. I’ll signal her before I sleep.” vec-Drifter switched to do-not-disturb mode before Jarrett could move on to any other irrelevant topics, and resumed his meal of unrefined asteroidal ore.

Boustrophedon examined the log files found by Drifter. Little was known to the inhabitants of Bertrand dyson about the vec society that shared this asteroid belt with them. Everyone knew that they were anti-human separatists. News trickled in on rare occasions via leaked radio transmissions. Even the name of their leader was a mystery.

In one of the computing facilities, closely monitored by Boustrophedon, Gabeta and his team studied the discovered communications with frantic urgency. Even with all of Bertrand’s computers working on the problem, Boustrophedon estimated that it would take another million seconds to decrypt the intercepted communications.

Fortunately, Boustrophedon’s mind ran atop an SI>0.9 computronium infrastructure, independent of Bertrand’s computers. Gabeta had not yet decrypted the files — but Boustrophedon had. He had even discovered other communications that Drifter had not yet found.

One of the messages contained a mention of the new vec leader. His name was {23C9:AE90:AC0D:4DF3:9F31:FB5C:4397:0D0A}.

Using his authority as administrator of Bertrand dyson, Boustrophedon commanded an automated radio telescope to listen for 23C9’s transponder signal.

Less than a thousand seconds later, he found his target.

“Nenshe. Begin phase two of the plan. Your target is planetoid ZR-308.”


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