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Guardian of Night

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Guardian of Night

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Author: Tony Daniel
Publisher: Baen, 2012

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Invasion, defection—and a last stand to save Earth.

Dissident alien commander Arid Ricimer and his human allies, Captain Jim Coalbridge and Lieutenant Commander Griff Leher, are the courageous and very mortal heroes who must face down the forces of a tyrannical star empire.

Captain Arid Ricimer, an alien starship commander with integrity and a clever plan, attempts to defect to Earth with his officers and entire spaceship—a vessel that mounts a superweapon of almost unimaginable power. He's pursued by his former fleet, a force that has already devastated Earth once and is poised to wipe humanity from existence forever. In a thriller filled with echoes of The Hunt for Red October and cool hard science fiction technology, it's a desperate gambit for the alien captain and for humanity, as well. Yet after years of battling back from the brink of destruction, the U.S. space navy has the wartested heroes to rise to the challenge, among them attack ship captain Jim Coalbridge and alien analyst, Griff Leher.

The players are in motion and the greatest confrontation this sector of the galaxy has ever witnessed is at hand. All depends on the courage of an honorable alien warrior and the intelligence and daring of his human counterparts and would-be compatriots.



25 November 2075
Vicinity of 82 Eridani
U.S.X. Chief Seattle

A low thump, thump, thump reverberated from outside the SIGINT station entrance hatch. Inside, the directed sound suddenly became much louder and more intense. Petty Officer Second Class Melinda Japps was the only exper on duty in SIGINT, and she was taking advantage of the situation to cycle her own music through the craft's superior speakers. At the moment, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was flooding from the bulkheads. Japps adored its creepy, snaky, utterly-old-fashioned synth melody line. She was a connoisseur when it came to century-old goth. It was a darkender thing, after all.

Okay, darkenders were not really close to the goths of yore in dress (not that she had much choice, Extry regs being what they were) or mannerisms, Japps thought. More a state of mind, really. "Negative reaction," like in that Nettles mantra. The cultivation of a numb exterior to hide a beating heart of passion and—

Oh, whatever. The Nettles made good music now. Joy Division made great music then. It wasn't her job to analyze it all to death. Music she listened to. And felt.

Japps was not alone in SIGINT. Once you were wiied into the chroma—the vessel's virtual overlay—SIGINT came alive with consoles, readouts, floating status boards, collapsible toolbars and inputs that appeared and disappeared at your fingertips on command.

And geists.

There were least three partially transparent human-looking figures who seemed to be standing around her performing various tasks. These geists of the Chief Seattle were personas, not quite up to the sentience standards of their betters, the a.i. servants, but certainly programs of a high order. The geists, the ghostly representations, were allegedly for human benefit and ease of interaction. Sometimes Japps thought the geists also enjoyed freaking people out.

Japps figured she might be creeping the SIGINT geists out just as much with the Joy Division.

Or maybe not. Maybe they were fans. With personas, unlike servants, it was hard to tell if they had real feelings at all.

If not, too bad for them. For Japps, music was life, a least the way life felt. It was one of the ways you got through and kept going. She'd even once been a musician herself.

Japps missed her baby grand. Sure, here on the Chief Seattle she could create one on a table top, on a bulkhead—heck, she could make one seem to hang in mid-air in front of her. But it wasn't the same. No matter how good the chroma and Q had gotten—and she'd been amazed over the years since the invasion as the two new techs, pushed by war-time extremes, were transforming every part of existence—still, it wasn't good enough to build her piano. The sustain, the reverb in her the old farmhouse where she'd grown up, the creak of the pinewood floor when she shifted her weight on the bench. Because to do that, she'd have to reconstruct it all. The chicken farm outside Murfreesboro where she'd spent the first sixteen years of her life. Her practice time, early in the morning before she had to leave out for the private school in town where she had a half-tuition music scholarship.

It was the time when only she and her father were up—him to make a cup of coffee and his customary two pancakes with Karo syrup—her to practice. They'd share a cup of coffee together—she was allowed to drink it at twelve and had, from the start, taken it black, like her father did—and he'd give her the one big pancake she always requested. But always he'd throw in the dad variation. Sometime it was the shape of a cowboy, sometimes a cactus (truthfully, they were hard to tell apart). But most days he made it in the shape of a heart.

And then he'd go to his day job at the Stones River Relay Station on the thirty-inch oil and natural gas pipeline that ran from Nashville to Atlanta. She'd run through her scales and arpeggios until she heard her father gathering his truck keys, then she'd pause, he'd step into the living room where they kept the piano, and give her a bus on the cheek before heading out into the dawn.

This would be Melinda's signal to dive into work on whatever competition piece she was currently trying to commit not only to mind, but to the memories that seemed to live in her fingers, in the shape of her hands on the keys. She usually had an hour until her mother woke up, and then her sisters, Lillian and Pam, dragged their tails out of bed so they could get ready and pile into the ancient ‘63 Landmaster station wagon her mother drove because she hated the monitor sight lines on boxies and mini-boxies.

All gone.

Japps had been in Atlanta at a piano competition when the sceeve drop-rod attack came. She'd just taken second place for her Chopin's "Heroic."

All her family was dead. Battered to pieces.

Her baby grand not splintered, but pulverized to wood pulp as fine as dust.

Nope, unless somebody came up with time travel, bringing back her piano was a problem beyond any technology known to humans.


A screen appeared. It hung weightlessly in the chroma on Japps's right. She turned in her swivel chair to face it and, with a motion of her hand against a chroma-based input pad that hovered by her right hand, damped Joy Division down to a low murmur of disgruntlement.

"Hello," Japps said to one of the geists nearby—LARK, the sensor persona. "Looks like we've got contact."

LARK nodded. "We have received audible of conditioning super-function. It frequency-maps as a sceeve pre-transmission signal."

Japps checked her screen, saw an auditory waveform assemble itself. "It's the Poet, all right," she said.

Japps touched another hovering toolbar with her fingers and selected BRIDGECOM. Her own geist would now appear on the bridge next to her intended recipient, Executive Officer Noemi Martinez. "XO, our beta output pulled the trigger again. We've got incoming from the Poet."

"Very good, SIGINT," said Martinez. "Localized?"

Japps double-checked a read-out.

"Same as always. It's our bogie, XO, or else the bogie is a relay."

"No verification on primary source yet?"

Japps took a breath. Now was the time. She was either going to voice her big idea or let it go. She was sure, wasn't she? For a moment, she felt the same butterflies she used to get before plunging into a piece at a recital. Show time.

"Yeah, but I have an idea on that, XO," she said. "I think we can confirm with this transmission, as a matter of fact, nail the Poet down as the original source."

"No shit? Then I'll be in SIGINT in two," said Martinez. Her geist blinked out of existence. Two minutes later, her physical body entered through the area portal.

Martinez was tall for a Hispanic woman—although she was of fairly average height for female in the Extry. She was an old acquaintance of Japps. Japps and the XO had served together for a year and a half now, had gone out drinking and hell-raising back home, totally violating any officer-enlisted separation protocols. Both had lost whole swaths of their family during the invasion, so who really gave a shit about such shore leave regs?

"So you figured out what our bullshit sceeve philosopher going on about today?" said Martinez.

Japps shook her head. "Not really, XO."

"As if anybody can tell. It's a lot of hot air, if you ask me. Or hot whatever it is they spew out of those mangled faces of theirs."

The transmission had begun before the XO arrived and continued for several minutes afterward. With the aid of LARK and her recording engineer persona KETCH, Japps tried to ride the gain on it as best she could. The trick was to be sure that everything was recorded up and down the scale of possible notes. A rough paraphrase was possible, but usually pretty far off after she'd compared it to a full-scale translation from the real-deal team at HQ. The full-scale translation work could take weeks, and days getting back via bottle drone. On Earth, a roomful of xeno analysts—at least that was how Japps imagined it—poured over all the nuances in the New Pentagon.

Japps and LARK might do a better job on site if LARK were a true servant, but the vessel was forbidden from employing a real a.i aboard by top-down edict from Extry Command. It was said the directive came from Old Man Tillich himself.

Japps had played around with the translation code parameters much like she might adjust an equalizer on a music player, and she had a pre-set for the Poet that she'd tweaked to encompass what she thought of as some of the "ambient" undertones that accompanied "his" broadcasts, if he were a he. Even though Japps couldn't speak sceeve—how do you speak a smell-based language, after all?—it was these "ambients" that had begun to interest her several days ago—and had taken up all her free time since she'd had her idea for source verification.

Japps set up her templates and prepared to intercept and attempt to multiply decode the anticipated beta transmission. The sceeve usually sent messages to one another in a set of standard formats. At SIG school, all the scrub exper-techs had been taught to think of a sceeve sentence as a train being "built" car-by-car in a large freight yard. But for Japps, it was a lot easier to think of sceeve as a peculiar form of music.

"So what's your idea, Japps?" Martinez said, stepping up next to Japps. She seemed to be staring off into space, but Japps knew she was examining her own separate chroma monitor hanging within her particular sightline and maybe even overlapping Japps's own. After a while, you got used to the idea that not everybody saw the same thing in chroma.

"So I've gone through a couple of month's worth of our friend's broadcasts," Japps said.

"When'd you do that?"

"In my copious spare time, ma'am."

Martinez didn't crack a smile, but Japps could tell by the crinkling around her eyes that she was amused. "Sounds like a party I'm glad I wasn't invited to."

"Nah, the Poet's not so bad as soon as you accept he's playing around, being a smartass most of the time, and not really trying to make a logical political argument or anything. What's important for him are the poems, and the rest is kind of him working up to delivering them."

"If you say so."

"Anyway, I wasn't replaying those bounce-back translations from HQ," Japps said. "I was listening to the incoming raw feeds." Japps moved her hand, pulled down a toolbar and used it to pop up a display that she and the XO could share. A series of audio signals were stacked horizontally on its screen. "So the big problem is verification, right? How do we know the Poet isn't sceeve propaganda, a false flag operation meant to send us on a wild goose chase or plant false info and stuff?"

"And stuff," the XO said. "I'd love to send a MDR back to HQ with confirmed information. Can you give us that?"

"I'm pretty sure that now we can at least confirm the source as unique," Japps said. "Look."

She pointed at the screen, and her pointing finger highlighted a segment in each of the audio signals. The same segment.

"The Poet's beta signature is scrambled in a way we don't understand yet, so it's impossible to tell where on the sceeve vessel he's transmitting from or even if it is coming from the vessel we've been shadowing. Might be a relay of some sort."

"HQ is translating the vessel designation as the Powers of Heaven," said the XO.

Japps nodded. She'd taken the message that contained the name translation and had been a bit disappointed to see she no longer could refer to the target vessel as the Brown Turd, the temporary call sign she'd assigned the vessel.

Japps touched the chroma screen again and zoomed in on a particular spike in the audio.

"What's that?" asked the XO.

"That," said Japps, "is a characteristic ten decibel pop at a thirty-two kilohertz frequency. I call it the 'thirty-two spike.'"

"Okay, what does it mean?"

"Every one of the raw feeds has it," said Japps. "And it doesn't always come at the same place, so I don't think it's solely equipment-related."

"What else could it correlate with then?" The XO seemed genuinely puzzled.

That's because the Poet's still just a concept to her, Japps thought. She's not really picturing him making these beta broadcasts. How it would look. And smell.

"It's a popped p, XO."

"A what?"

"You know how sometimes you get those airpuffs on p and bs when you're talking into an old fashioned microphone, one without a pop screen?"

"Nope, not really."

"Trust me. This is the same thing, only with odor."

"Not following you, Japps."

"It's chemical. The sceeve equivalent to a plosive in our spoken languages," Japps said. "It's something like overextension on his sensing microphone's dynamic range in an oxygen-helium atmospheric mix. But in our guy's case, the effect's produced not with overpressurization by spoken word, but via oversaturation with a chemical signal."

"So the Poet—"

"Pops his ps. He'd got bad technique. Or he's doing it on purpose for some reason."

"And you're sure about this?"

"Oh yeah. See here," she pointed to a prime example. "And this from two weeks ago."

The XO made a motion with her hand and the chroma screen floated in closer to her eyes. "Yeah, I see it. I do." She turned to Japps. "Thirty-two spike, huh. Good work. Have to talk to the cap, but I can just about guarantee you another stripe under that crow if this holds up."

"Thanks, XO. Just get me the E-6 rate so I can upgrade to a 140 PB Pocket Palace Plus."

"You and your tech fetish, Japps—"


And the Poet's transmission was done. Japps quickly secured and verified her redundancies, and labeled the session with the date.

For nearly two months now the Chief Seattle had been stalking the sceeve craft, always attempting to remain in beta range for whenever the Poet felt the urge to broadcast. He was saying things the sceeve simply had never said before. Seditious, rebellious stuff, verging on the crazy. He seemed utterly "unsceeve," as a matter of fact. Nothing like the sceeve command who had run their invasion of Earth like a factory operation with a slaughterhouse component. In fact, the Poet seemed almost human in his sensibilities. And the fact that there was trouble in the sceeve ranks—if the Poet truly had a large audience (another unknown)—was the best news humanity had received in a long time.

Attention, you dry-gilled strugglers! Attention, you children of the promise broken! You who have spent your miserable lives soaking your feet in the feeding pool of untruth, cant, fibs, propaganda and hatred!

Rise up! Shake off this dust!

Calling for the downfall of the Administration? Encouraging an uprising within the Sporata ranks? It was beyond incendiary. It was fascinating. Plus the Poet was extolling a philosophy or a religion that was, so far as anybody knew, completely at odds with everything humans thought they knew about the sceeve.

Your history is a history of war.

Wars waged to steal and to hoard.

Wars waged to justify the unconscionable.

Civil wars.


The Shiro itself is nothing more than a hive for on-going fighting, a hideous fortress that ate a beautiful and wondrous city-in-the-stars.

Yet still there is hope!

What the Poet preached was a philosophy or belief or something having to do with both—Japps didn't think the distinction mattered very much, anyway—that had been translated as "Mutualism."

Attention! Attention! From behind the veil of lies, a simple message of truth.

I am nothing but a vessel, a pointer toward the feeding pool that never runs dry.

I am no leader, only a Poet.

And I say: your life, our lives, they do not have to be this way.

Parasitism can give way to symbiosis. It must.

Regulation must give way to Mutualism, or we're doomed.

Hear me, you dry-gilled strugglers! Wet your gills with my words.

Hear me, you children of the broken promise! Learn a new way of giving. The galactic economy is no zero-sum heat exchange. The calling of the symbiot is not for domination, but to aid. The symbiot creates; the symbiot is not a distributor, but a maker. The symbiot does not regulate, but trusts in plurality, the profligate creativity of the universe.

The symbiot is our only way home.

So down with Regulation!

I do not speak as a warrior. Nor as one who wishes to coerce. What I give you is words, only words. But words that point to the new, the old that has been forgotten or overlooked, the extravagant universe!

Give me your feet, you dry-gilled strugglers. Wet your gills. Drink it up!

Down with the Administration!

Thrive the symbiosis!

And then the Poet's tone changed and he would begin reading his poems or songs or whatever they were. Japps tended to side with the faction that thought the Poet was a kind of pirate radio d.j. among the sceeve beta operators, broadcasting his thoughts into the ether for anyone listening at the right time to hear. In any case, he seemed to be knowledgeable enough about beta signals to avoid detection—a very difficult feat. Japps wasn't even sure she could figure out how to do that.

Usually, the beginning of any message was filled the Poet's political cant, kind of the sceeve version of a Peepsie protest rally. It was only with a careful listen—and after you'd heard a bunch of normal sceeve broadcasts—that you figured out that the Poet was having fun with the usual sceeve catchphrases, that he was delivering an opening monolog before he started the main event: reading his poetry. Or songs. Or whatever you wanted to call it. Some of his material was either original or at least from an unknown source. It wasn't in any of the captured databases, that was for sure. But then there would be some of the poems that matched up with known sceeve works, usually from some ancient, pre-Administration writer.

And then there were the poems that were by human writers. "Gleaned," as the sceeve termed it.

Fucking thieves.

Fucking sceeve.

The poems were famous ones. Marvell, Rimbaud, Lorca, Emily Dickinson. There seemed to be no connecting theme and method for when a human poem got dropped in a broadcast. Japps's own opinion was that the choice was down to whatever happened to tickle the Poet's fancy.

She remembered when she'd first seen the translation on a Dickinson:

Safe in their alabaster chambers,

Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,

Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,

Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

And had gone back to the original sceeve signal and had figured out how sceeve rhymes worked. It was always the aromatic portion of the chemistry that was duplicated. The fucking scum-crawling murdering sceeve did have some cool aspects about them, Japps had to admit. Which took nothing away from the fact that she wanted to see them all dead, dead, dead. And killed in horrible ways, too.


Over the SIGINT loudspeakers, the crackle of more incoming signal.

What the heck? Another Poet show? She called up a visual on her chroma monitor, checked.

The Poet never broadcasted back-to-back. HQ figured randomness was an important part of the method he used to avoid detection.

She checked a portion of the feed. There was the thirty-two spike.

It was the Poet again.

Didn't he realize he was exposing himself to discovery? If she could figure out how to identify him, then so could the other sceeve. And two broadcasts from the same source was bad form. Japps shuddered to think what the sceeve might do to a captured traitor.

What was going on? It had to be important.

Whatever it was, Japps's had a gut feeling that she was tuning in to the Poet's final broadcast.

And then LARK delivered the translation prelim. And for the second time in her young life, Japps's world changed yet again forever.

The Poet was calling out to the humans.


It was a cry for help.

And then there was one scream that went on for a very long time.

Copyright © 2012 by Tony Daniel


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