From the author: Human brains in hunter-killer satellites. What could possibly go wrong?
by Stephen Dedman
Time and place are unimportant, but I am older than any of you. I was older even than Obscenity, destroyed an inestimable age ago by an enemy Barque, a Carnivore like ourselves, Murderous. Carriers have never attacked Carnivores: I cannot remember a time, and I am older than the oldest of you. Boojum 42 and Loviatar, who are/were historians, cannot remember such a time. But Carnivores, we Carnivores, we prey on carriers, and on the enemy Carnivores when we can; it's the natural order of things. But not on our own, Murderous. You have defied nature. You have gone spin, and we must kill you.
Murderous, I scream; you have the bones you were born with!
My name is Freaklover, and mine is an asymmetrical face of torps and disruptors, and I sit close and eagerly behind it. Far behind me are two engines: I am not so fast as you, Murderous, but out paths will intercept, if you live so long. Loviatar, faster even than you, will cross your path sooner still. Base, poised on the brink of a down like Sisyphus pushing a rock, tells me that you have killed a carrier and a Carnivore, Savage Sky, and that you are hunting Starfucker, proudest and bloodiest of the Carnivores, of the Barques. If Loviatar and Flamerider and Starfucker spare any of you - for you must have been wounded by Savage Sky, and even carriers are armed - I shall be delighted to destroy it.
I hear Boojum 42 and Necrophile talking: they know they cannot reach you, and are disappointed, of course. But we cannot all be drawn to the one kill, as if a down had stolen us: some must escort the carriers, and the others... we protect the borders from the enemy. There are few known ends for Carnivores - usually, they shoot you, or you go spin and we shoot you. It's the natural order of things.
I have nebulous memories of being a carrier - no, of being a carrier pilot. And Starfucker, now of the beautiful/balanced/bloody face of ACE muzzles and disruptors; Starfucker, who rides far back on his Barque near the single engine; Starfucker, too, was once a carrier pilot, named Fleischer. Starfucker doesn't depend on speed: he sits, often deep within the orbits of the downs, so that the hell is behind him, and he looks merely like a sunspot, while his enemies shine like Sirens, like downs, like little hells. Like a sword before him is his Barque of ACEs, disruptors, missiles and torps. Most of the Carnivores, like the carriers, have redundant life-support systems, but he gave that space to weapons. So did I, and I'm still quite alive. I don't have legs any more, but I've never needed them: I was born an Outer, in the weightlessness of Base. Most of the Barques were born downers: I know you were, Murderous. You probably still have your brittle, heavy, calcium bones. I've never even seen a down, save through the screens and scanners. I knew downers when the crawlers stopped at Base - but crawler pilots aren't really Outers or downers, I guess. I mentioned this once to Boojum 42, and he laughed.
"A rope between beast and superman, a rope across the abyss," he said.
Boojum 42 is barely half the size of the other Barques: claims it makes him a harder target. Necrophile once asked me why all the Barques, Carnivores and carriers, were the same size, seven modules by three.
It's just the natural order of things.
"Boojum is smaller."
"I'm unnatural," replied Boojum 42. We all lay around Base like cripples, while suited Outers repaired our Barques. All within conversational distance, hardly a second's lag. "Man's whole purpose, Freaklover, is to defy nature."
You can't defy nature.
"Antimat. You and I, all the Barques, and all the Outers, defy nature by merely existing. Antichrist, you remember him; he thought it was natural for him to live in the Out, so he blew all his seals and tried to fly without his Barque. Nature killed him, Freaklover. Nature kills all of us out here, unless we stop her. You try going without these repairs, and see how long you live. 'Cause we all came from a down, once, you know that, Freaklover?"
"Your ancestors did, Baseborn."
Fuck my ancestors. Outers don't like downs or downers, and Carnivores hate them. When a carrier won't go near a down to drop cargo, they make him a Carnivore. We only go to Base for repairs - but you, Murderous, when your bones break, when your lungs decay, no-one will repair you, not even if you outrun Starfucker and Flamerider and Loviatar and I. What will you do, Murderous? Get taken by a down, pretend you're a crawler? We offer you the honour of dying like an Outer.
"Your ancestors already did that, Freaklover. But that Barque you're part of: is that natural?"
It is. I am this Barque, and it am I. Whatever is, Boojum, is natural.
"Antimat. Why is your Barque that size?"
It's the size of a Barque.
It's a law. Like the speed of light. If Barques should be bigger, they'd be bigger.
"Antimat. I asked, when I converted. They said it wasn't done. Not couldn't be. They hadn't any more fucking idea than you. So I made myself smaller. It can be done. It's not nature, Freaklover. It's just rules. Downer rules. You obey downer rules."
"No. Not yet. I'm not shooting anyone, am I? But you think about it. Nearly everything you can't explain is a downer rule, and they're not going to tell you."
From here, the nearest down is just a Siren-like point, and no other Barques are visible. I wait.
Loviatar can see you now, Murderous, even if I can't. She's not in range, yet: 15 megs is the maximum range for an ACE. ACE range is probably as close as you will come, my computer tells me, and ACEs aren't really dangerous. Many encounters end with both Barques surviving, easily able to return to Base. It's almost like a game.
I wait. When the casts of Loviatar and Murderous, you, Murderous, reach me, they are already old. How old? Time is meaningless, but I can see a faint point now, too fast to be a Siren, or even a down, and my computer tells me it's you, Murderous. Waiting isn't easy. The casts show me that you have been badly damaged, losing your missiles, a disruptor, an engine, even the redundant bridge you built in for emergencies like this.
"This is Loviatar. Spinner Murderous is out of range. Will attempt to manoeuvre for pursuit." Barques, however, are not easily manoeuvred, and she will return to the fray later than I - if the fray remains, Murderous, if you remain. Downers may be eaten by their downs, buried so they can't see the sky, the Out, the Sirens and the hell that scare them so, but you will have a Barque's death, and after a Barque's death, nothing remains. When you are consumed by the Out, when you are one with the Out, you are pure and honourable nothing.
"This is Loviatar. Am returning to Base. Damage slight; no modules lost save missile launcher." Her voice changes, very slightly. "Burn him, whoever's next."
I will, Loviatar, if I can. I will.
There's a down in view, now; a distant disc. Magnification even shows the rocks, little downs, huddling around it, and a dark ring. A memory twinkles somewhere behind me: I feel it as I might feel a damaged engine.
A point of light approaches the down: Flamerider. He will burn you next, Murderous. The tourney between you and Loviatar was like a game: an exchange of ACE fire, a missile each, never close enough for disruptors. But you turned disruptors on Savage Sky and destroyed his life-support. I can see another point, now; Starfucker, in all his lethal glory. He's closer than you, but his one engine doesn't throw much light, certainly not when he's between you and the hell. He doesn't believe in running, unlike you. He kills when he can.
"This is Flamerider. Cannot intercept. Burn him for me."
His casts have reached me: they show the dark-ringed down ahead of me, they show its rocks as discs, not points.
"This is Flamerider. I've been snatched by a down: my own fault. I'm going too fast. Nothing anyone can do. Don't bother asking questions: my computer said I couldn't do it, but I wanted to be there, I wanted to eat that down-loving spinner, so I tried to bounce off the gravity well. Miscalculated. I'm still accelerating, seven point three something gees. Can't turn. Any manoeuvre will only send me into the rings, at best, or into a rock, and there are downers on the rocks." To kill Downers is unnatural. Downers aren't worth killing; they could never hurt us. They could never reach us.
The images show the down much closer: the disc nearly fills the screen. I can hear a conversation between Boojum 42 and Necrophile, hours old: they won't hear this until long after Flamerider is dead, after you are dead, Murderous. He may be dead already: certainly this has taken seconds to reach me. Boojum 42 and Necrophile are talking about Savage Sky: Boojum 42 says he knew her well when they were downers on... but no-one remembers down names. We name the Sirens - Sirius, Vega, Canopus, Arcturus - for they are home. Boojum 42 can't remember Savage Sky's downer name, either, or what she looked like. I can't remember my Base name, either. It doesn't matter. I am Freaklover.
Flamerider will probably burn himself, rather than sink into the down. He isn't answering my messages. Maybe, like Antichrist, he's blown his seals, giving himself to the Out.
"What's Loviatar mean?" asks Necrophile, as though it had only just occurred to him.
"Loviatar was a Goddess of Pain."
"What's a Goddess?"
"Gods and Goddesses were downer lies. No, not really lies. More like dreams, predictions. Gods were Outers. They used to think that the hell was a God, an Outer in a Barque. Called him Apollo, Ra, Utu, Surya, The Father, The Sun, The Holy Ghost. Used to think the downs and the Sirens were Gods, too. All Gods were Outers. Some were Carnivores, some were carriers, some of the lesser Gods were crawlers, visiting the downs. Gods were down predictions of Outers. They always wanted to be Outers."
"Why aren't they?"
He asks too many questions. Starfucker is a disc, now, plainly elongated. You are a constellation; two bright points and a faint. Loviatar slowed you down; you're no faster than I am, now. Loviatar is a faint star, now, too. And the down is a disc, and one of its rocks is a disc, a disc I can remember.
Enemy Barques look like ours: they're built of exactly the same modules. Maybe this is natural, but Boojum 42, curse him, has started me wondering again. It used to surprise me when I was a carrier pilot, but nobody ever bothered explaining, any more than they explained who the enemy was, or why Barques were usually the same size, or... I forget most of my old questions. I should be kinder to Necrophile, I suppose; he's only young, at least as a Carnivore. The only younger is Mordred, who I've never seen even as a point...
I wish I had a head to shake, shoulders to shrug. The past won't go away...
The computer warned me away from the rock, but I stared at it a moment longer. Here, once, I saw a crawler unlike all other crawlers; near as big as a Barque, but not made of modules like ours, and unarmed. I told myself that it was downer-built... but downers can't even build crawlers... can they? Downers are only downers. We build the Barques and the crawlers alike, we Outers.
Base told me to kill it, so I did.
"Weren't you once a downer, Necrophile?" asks Boojum 42, softly.
I steer away from the rock; it is near enough to show features, large craters. Starfucker is in range, now. Maybe he'll save a piece of you for me. Necrophile is blathering about having been born on a down, but always knowing he was an Outer. Starfucker fires his ACEs. Flamerider's casts show the down as though it were the entire Universe, the entire Out. What a bizarre, obscene idea: a down for a Universe.
Starfucker's casts tell me that you're already dead: critical damage to both life-support systems and the bridge. You've destroyed his missiles and launchers, but no other significant damage, and he's still firing. Torp range now, and he fires all of them, hitting mostly fuel tanks and engines. There's no sign that it makes any difference, but he's in disruptor range now, and firing. And again. And again. And again.
The casts show little that is even remotely recognisable: you look as alien as that crawler. You look obscene, downer-built. Even the enemy Barques look more like us. One I killed once looked exactly like my friend Astaroth: one engine, a face of missiles and disruptors, bridge far back and to one side. Why are they our enemy? They're Barques like us, Outers like us... but maybe they follow downer rules, like a dirty joke of Boojum 42's.
And Starfucker is still firing, back onto ACEs now. Your entire face has been burnt away, and only the remnants of your bridge holds the ends together. The next burn reduces you to three, unidentifiable fragments.
I suddenly realised that Flamerider's images have stopped.
Starfucker is barely visible as a Barque, almost at the edge of the hell. Loviatar is only a point. You I can't see at all, save as a cast from Starfucker's scanners. I can remember those casts from my childhood. Tourneys and kills were always shown on holo. The crawler pilots told me it was the same on the downs, too. Perhaps they regarded it as a game.
I cut engines, fire retros, slowing down to steer a return to my border territory. Starfucker and Loviatar are doing the same. Your momentum, I calculate, will send your scant remains past the border and into the enemy Out: not an inappropriate end for a spin. Almost as dishonourable, and neither as quick or pretty, as hitting a down and burning.
But I can't help hearing you laughing, even though you're dead. You know. You know. Starfucker will go spin, in some meaningless time. He's too good for the enemy to kill. Starfucker will go spin, shooting at everything, and we'll have to burn him too.
But I won't see it. I'm oldest, older than any of you, and you know, I'm going to be next.
This story originally appeared in Strange Plasma.