TC54

“Tell me why we’re doing this again, Lil?”

For weeks a pair of landers spun gracefully around a common barycenter, held together by a thick cable two thousand feet long. The sun was a bloated spinning blur growing ever hotter and brighter, but Lilith hunkered down out of the line of sight as the ferocious questing sunbeam scoured the inside of her lander like a searchlight. The irony that she was hiding from the emanations of her own body as a living sun was not lost on her.

The heat rejection system in their highly-reflective landers, based on a macro, was good, but not perfect. Early on the descent arc from Venus, Lilith and Robyn removed all of their clothing for the flight and they found sufficient shade, but they were still quite toasty-warm. And now as the mission drew near to its climax, a lesser light grew out there, the pinkish-grey half disk that was the planet Mercury. Yet only here, at the end, did Robyn in the other lander ask why.

But Lilith found the question funny enough to elicit a laugh. “Isn’t it a bit late in the game to ask that? Alright, Robyn I’ll play along. We’re doing this because the loss of two probes in a row has taught us that it’s dangerous to do an orbital insertion burn at Mercury. And now that we’ve done what we’re doing, Robyn, you can see now what Mastema is really trying to pull here, isn’t that right?”

Jill used to watch Robyn play blackjack in Vegas and wondered why she didn’t take the House for everything they had. Robyn’s open-mouthed astonishment was followed by the answer (away from the table of course) that consistently winning too much money would get Robyn on somebody’s shit list and no casino in town would so much as let her walk through the door. “Besides, that’s not how precognition works,” Robyn said, taking that as a good opportunity to try to explain.

The first thing Jill needed to realize, Robyn told her, was that the free will of herself and others was paramount, and it constantly obscured her talent for precognition. The other players could hit or stand and there was no way for Robyn to predict what they would do, and each choice affected what cards would be dealt to the players down the line, which in turn would affect their decision to hit or stand, and so on. The variables multiplied beyond Robyn’s ability to sort them out. “That’s why I always wait until the seat is open at Third Base before sitting at a table,” she said. And by Third Base, Jill understood that to mean the seat that was serviced by the dealer last, just before he turned over his own cards. That way all the variables were reduced to just those affected by Robyn’s own choices.

“The only thing I can see without fail,” she had said, “is whether the dealer’s going to get a blackjack, and if that happens I can sit out the hand with no bet but if I do that every single time they will catch on and toss me out on my ass.”

Sometimes Robyn lost a hand, but it was always just the minimum bet. Sometimes the cards were no help and there was no way to beat the dealer no matter what she did. But Robyn never busted by going over twenty-one unless she wanted to throw the watchers off her tail, the ones snooping on close-circuit TV through cameras mounted over the table. And if she could see she was going to beat the dealer she doubled down. The result after a few hours of relaxation and exercising her talent was a mild buzz from her drinks and a few hundred dollars. And it wasn’t like she really needed the money.

But yes, now that Lilith mentioned it, Robyn could indeed see what Mastema was doing here, and Lilith did too, since ultimately Robyn’s precognition was derived from El Shaddai and Bat-El.

Just to verify they were both on the same page, Robyn spoke to Lilith of the hundreds of sun-powered steerable laser emplacements that now dotted the north polar region of Mercury. Laser beams were impossible to see from the side in the vacuum of space, of course (bad science fiction movies like the Galaxy’s Fall trilogy notwithstanding), so avoiding them was going to be purely a matter of luck.

They spoke to each other using a two-way video cable strung along the bundle connecting Lilith’s lander to the other one carrying Robyn.

Aside from the pink tinge, most of Mercury was cratered and looked remarkably like Earth’s moon. But nine percent of the surface of Mercury was featureless, smooth, and gray. This was the area already covered by solar panels which converted the fierce sunlight falling on the planet into electric power. And that power in turn drove the lasers.

It was not nephilim who were turning Mercury into a vast powerhouse, but automated refineries crawling eternally toward the west in two groups strung along the day-night terminator, each one accompanied by an army of Bots running at a brisk jog. The combination of Mercury’s slow 59-day rotation and 88-day revolution resulted in a zenith-to-zenith synodic Mercury day of 176 Earth days, and that meant each group had to average between four and five miles per hour to remain in the twilight zone between day and night. This amounted to a light trot at the equator, or a slow walk near the poles.

And there in the twilight zone they had to stay, because neither Refinery nor Bot could store electricity. They generated power from the enormous heat difference between the rising (or setting) sun and the eternal shadow on the opposing side. Part of this power drove the treads of the Refineries (and the legs of the Bots) to cross the land, maintaining their relative angle with the sun, and what remained they could use to do other work.

One group of Refineries was called the Sunset Chasers, because they ran with the westering sun ever in their face. The land they crossed was still hot after three months of searing daylight. Mercury never ceased to smelt its own surface rocks, so there were small but ancient pools of liquid lead, cadmium, bismuth, tin, selenium, lithium, and zinc so buttery-soft a Bot could cut it with a knife.

And that is essentially what they did, ranging far from their mother Refinery to gather raw materials and bring them in to be processed into stacks of sorted ingots and even brand new working baby Bots. Sometimes, when a Refinery had grown large enough, it split neatly in two.

But precisely how the Refineries accomplished all that not even Mastema knew, because he mindlessly assembled the first one from detailed procedures developed by other elohim long ago before he had his nephilim agents take it to Mercury.

“We had an agreement,” Lilith told Robyn. “I let Mastema have a colony at Jupiter but he was supposed to stay out past four AUs. This is a deal-breaker.”

“That might explain the lasers,” Robyn said. “Harder to collect evidence that he’s being naughty.”

Precisely on the other side of Mercury from the Sunset Chasers the Dawn Racers followed, running with the sun ever at their back. They faced a land which had endured three months of the utter cold of Mercury’s night. From the raw materials left on the side of the road by the Sunset Chasers, the Dawn Racers manufactured photo-voltaic panels and had their Bots place them nearby and link them up to the growing network.

Half of a Sunset Chaser’s new baby Bots were left behind to sleep through the night until a Dawn Racer came along to “adopt” it. And when the Refineries grew heavy enough from all the Bots bringing ore to them, they simply divided in two like an amoeba and divided their retinue of worker Bots between them. In a sense, the machines were alive.

This whole operation ran with little intervention by the nephilim Mastema had sent to Mercury. They needed only to clear obstructions from the path of the Refineries.

Lilith suspected the lasers had an additional role. She said, “A few dozen of those beams could be focused on a single target on Earth, a city perhaps, and wreak utter devastation, with absolutely no way to stop it.”

And now Robyn also saw another thing, or rather she didn’t see something. Robyn didn’t see Lilith walking around alive after this mission. She said, “This is a one-way trip for you!”

“Oh, I knew that going in,” Lilith said. “It’s pretty much by design, or the necessity to balance weight. Your lander has the mirror and mine has the upper stage and the torps.”

“And there’s no alternative to dying?”

“Not really, no,” Lilith said. “You must return to Venus with a Bot, and I must stay to find out what Asmodeus is doing to kill me and Yeshua. And you see that now as well, do you not?”

“Yes I do,” Robyn said, “but dammit, Lil! The shit is about to hit the fan and you won’t be around!”

“You’ll have Del.”

“True enough.”

“I’ve already died once before, when I was Talishi,” Lilith said. “It’s nothing to worry about, literally.”

Mercury was close enough now that the stable images coming from the counter-rotating cameras were beginning to provide useful detail. Robyn and Lilith had to work fast, because if the pair of landers did not separate soon, they would both spin down and smack right onto the face of the planet.

When Robyn found a candidate “situation” she piped it to Lilith the cable, along with the latitude and longitude of the scene so it could be fed to fire-control. Lilith wasn’t on the mission just to keep Robyn company, she was the one who was going to take the shot.

Robyn laid out her proposed scenario to Lilith on a screen. She used a black cursor to point out features on Mercury while she spoke, and the display was duplicated in Lilith’s lander. Robyn said, “There are six Refineries currently approaching a gap in this escarpment almost simultaneously, but the gap is only one lane wide.”

“Where are the Bots?”

“They are too small to see right now. At any rate, if you hit this first Refinery here, just when it gets to the gap, there’s going to be a dead hulk in the way when the second one gets there. And these other four will just add to the traffic jam.”

“Okay, how does that help us?”

“Don’t you see it, Lil? These are Sunset Chasers. If they don’t keep moving, night gets the jump on them. The Refineries are complete morons, but they know what to do if they can’t proceed. They’ll ring up all the Bots on the wireless and tell them to go to sleep. And next they will ring up the nephilim, tell them to get off their fat bums, and come out here to clear the motorway.”

Lilith smiled at Robyn’s use of Britishisms. “So we’ll have several days to take our pick of some Bots before the ground is cool enough for the nephilim to send a work crew. And we’ve still got fifty-six minutes before we have to split up. Damn, you’re good, Robyn. I don’t care what Jill says about you.”

Lilith fed the ground coordinates into her fire control panel and estimated how long her torpedo should take to reach impact for maximum effect. The weapon was smart enough to understand her orders to hit the westernmost of the six large objects, the lead refinery, which appeared as a moving white square blur on video. Homing was passive and visual.

After she fired the torpedo she switched to torpedo cam, which was uploaded to her by laser rather than microwave to avoid alerting Mercury with any possible radio back-lobes. And since she shot the torpedo directly at Mercury, there was no visible exhaust flare to announce it was incoming.

The view of the planet grew larger and larger until Robyn’s chosen ridge line was visible. After that, the panorama tightened rapidly until it was hard for them to follow what was happening. Suddenly the signal went dead.

Lilith switched to her original telescopic view. They both saw a gray dust cloud settling rapidly in the near-vacuum, a circular debris field, and only five Refineries. But now Lilith and Robyn were close enough to finally see the Bots as little sunlit specks running around the scene like pissed-off ants. “Great shot, Lil!”

The first major task was completed, and there was still eighteen minutes until the moment of separation.

Here was the reason for the two ships swinging on a tether: Mastema’s people didn’t waste power slicing the sky with early warning radar, but after two reconnaissance attempts with robotic probes they were known to passively search for the bright flares of incoming ships on terminal cruise. If the nephilim discovered Robyn and Lilith’s presence here they would quickly steer several of those lethal laser beams their way. So the mission employed an unorthodox, acrobatic approach scheme which used absolutely no glowing macro drive, ion drive, or chemical rockets at all.

But it depended on exquisite timing. They were approaching the planet dead-center. No human being had reaction time fast enough to cut the line at the proper moment. In the final minute Robyn armed the system and let the micro make the slice. The landers let go of the tether in the same millisecond and the women found themselves instantly weightless after two months at two-fifths gee.

As the landers rapidly flew apart, temporarily incommunicado, Robyn knew everything was rolling out exactly as she had foreseen. But Robyn still grimaced when she skimmed only three thousand feet above one of Mercury’s higher mountaintops. Then she was flying up and out again, captured by Mercury’s gravity into a long looping ellipse.

Lilith’s lander was flying on a virtual mirror image of Robyn’s path, altered only by lumps in Mercury’s crust which introduced a minuscule variation in their orbit. But this was actually good, it added a safety margin when they met again.

High above the side of Mercury currently facing the sun Robyn caught sight of Lilith’s lander again, a bright star which quickly grew and streaked right by, perhaps only a mile away from her at the point of closest approach. She locked on to her with laser communications, and Lil in turn locked onto Robyn. It would be two days up to the top of the ellipse, and two days back down, before they could land and try to grab some Bots.

With any luck, they would beat the nephilim repair team sent to clear the path for the five remaining Sunset Chasers. Those Refineries would become Dawn Racers after the long night of Mercury. Robyn figured it all averaged out in the long run. No doubt Dawn Racers occasionally ran into trouble as well, went dormant through the long day, and became in turn Sunset Chasers.