I’d never used a signal gun, never thought about them, though there’s a whole paragraph about alternate uses for one in the pilot’s handbook. Now that Firth was pointing one at me, suddenly it was the most fascinating thing on the planet.
“You’re not that stupid,” he said. “I’m ordering you to turn this vehicle around—now!”
Take my word for it, wrestling that thing away from him was not an option. The guy was solid and he meant business.
So I called his bluff–if it was one. “Sorry, Firth. No can do. I’m going up there to finish this mission whether intel has the guts for it or not. Shoot or don’t shoot, but get out of my way.”
In close quarters a signal gun makes a hell of a racket. I hit my head on something. The headliner crackled with sparks and chromium dripped from a very ugly welt up there. I was starting to get a little steamed up myself.
“You’ll kill us both, you idiot.”
He didn’t budge. His eyes were like glass.
“It was just a warning. Next time—”
I cut him off. “Okay, I’m calling your bluff.” I goosed up the speed. The accelerator numbers were spinning too fast to read.
I didn’t know if it was the g’s or what, but something was starting to slow him down. Hie talked like he had just had a dram of Martian rum.
“Seven hundred and seventy-five kilometers, Bowman. Vehicle. turn, turn to. Around. Around.”
I was a little woozy myself. “Say again?”
He worked to get the words out. “Lieutenant Bowman, I’m ordering, ordering, ordering you to turn this, this vehicle a-round.”
I glanced away for a second when a chunk of something that glinted like gold smacked into the windshield. When I looked back, things started to come seriously unglued. Firth started reciting the dictionary.
“A-round. Arp. Arpad, Arpeggio. Arrack. Arraign.”
I was too weirded out to catch on. I think I just stared as the space buggy bounced all over the place, taking a beating from the meteor shower.
Firth continued his little recitation. “Arrange. Arrangement. Arrant….”
Now I got it. I couldn’t quite believe it, but I got it. “You were good,” I said, “damn good. I had no idea.”
His words were really messed up now. The harmonics were almost musical. “Thanks. Thank you. An expression of gratitude.”
“What are you,” I asked, “a four-point-five, four-point-six?
I could swear I heard pride in his answer. “Five-point-one!
“They could get the echo to match a human, down to the very breathing and touch, but—”
“It takes a lot of power, Bow-man, a lot of signal. Short range.”
“Seven hundred kilometers. That’s one heck of a power range. They wanted to test you to see if you could be convincing in close quarters on a mission. But they had no idea the crash site was so far from your power base.”
“They had reasons for their orders, Bow-man. Stand back, please.”
Now I heard a voice coming from the console. Serena.
“Hello? Are you there?”
“What about her?” I asked Firth, “What about Serena? What can you tell me?”
The sound of an echo imploding is something that resounds in your nightmares. Imagine the cry of something human being sucked through a straw. I ducked beneath the yellow cloud that spread across the cockpit. Firth the echo, version five-point-one, imploded, leaving yours truly quite alone in the vast northern waste of the planet Citheron. Alone except for….
“Is everyone all right there?”
It was as if she was right there beside me.
“That depends upon your definition of “everyone” and “all right..” I told her. “Cross your fingers and I’ll be there shortly, Serena. In the meantime, how about some poetry?”
Next–Episode 9: “The Face of the Enemy”