The Thoughtsea was, in its own way, almost as tangible as reality. It flowed with knowledge, stray thoughts, and pure emotions, caressing the open mind like a swirling current. Usually, it was strong and purposeful overall, although there were a thousand subcurrents of differing tones within it. Now, though, the whole Thoughtsea seemed to vibrating with an intense feeling of excitement and anticipation. She could understand that. Her own excitement was part of it.
A hand on her arm, and a soft mental nudge, called Ebbiar back to awareness of her immediate surroundings. She opened her eyes. Garasso looked affectionately down at her, his own eyes reflecting the lights of the display panel she'd been leaning next to.
"It's almost time for us to leave," he told her. "Last time I'll see you until Landing Day itself."
Ebbiar nodded. "I know." Her thanks to him for coming to find her was too obvious to be dwelt on, and was only an undercurrent, although he could hear that too. Mostly, though, it was excitement that still colored her thoughts. "We can see it now?"
"We can. Come on, I'll show you." Ebbiar followed Garasso through a walkway and out into the open. All of Homeship was bustling with excitement, and the Great Floor seemed more crowded, and busy, than usual. Many of the others were streaming in the same direction they were, and for the same reason. Still, there were many viewscreens. Garasso quickly found them one that wasn't overly crowded, so they could see.
There, hanging in space before them, was a bright sphere. It was all in vibrant blue, green, and brown, wrapped in an irregular covering of grayish-white atmosphere. Ebbiar stared in awe. She'd never seen a real planet before.
"That…?" For the moment, her thoughts formed no more coherently than that.
"That's it," Garasso confirmed. "Our harvest. There's a high vermin population we'll have to burn out, but it's expected to be quick work. Within three or four cycles at most, the way will be clear."
"And then, Landing Day." Ebbiar's thoughts managed to be both still with awe and vibrating with anticipation at one time. "I've never celebrated a Landing Day before."
"Neither have I, or most others here," Garasso reminded her, amused. "It happens once in most people's lifetimes."
Ebbiar felt another familiar presence approaching, and a moment later, Sippiyid came up next to them. She acknowledged Garasso with a respectful nod, although her attention was mainly on Ebbiar. "I thought I might find you here."
"Would I miss this? Three or four cycles…" Her expectations carried their own echo: "Such an event, the space and the surroundings, the celebration!"
"Landing Day itself is only the beginning," Sippiyid reminded her. "There remains the entirety of the harvest. That could take macro-cycles."
"During which we'll dwell down there."
"Yes," Garasso confirmed. "You've never been outside Homeship. You may well be enthusiastic." As a Striker pilot, he had been outside many times, on asteroid- and comet-mining runs, although he had no more experience with real planets than she had. Indeed, they didn't know anyone who did. The travel time between one harvest and another was so great that, as Garasso had said, most experienced only one in their lifetimes.
They looked up as a call spread through Homeship. "Harbinger forces are to board for departure now." Ebbiar turned toward Garasso, who nodded.
"You heard; I have to go. I'll see you again on Landing Day."
"I'll be waiting. Gook luck!"
Garasso briefly clasped her shoulder, then, exchanging another respectful nod with Sippiyid, he turned and hurried away. Ebbiar looked after him until he was out of sight. She could still hear him, of course, but Sippiyid pulled on her attention then. "Come. There are at least a couple of cycles left that we still have our usual duties, and the shift starts soon." Ebbiar nodded, and turned to follow her.
As they walked away, though, she glanced back for one more glimpse of the planet ahead. Soon…
The meeting occurred in the Overview Chamber, at the heart of Homeship, and for the moment, those within addressed only each other. The results would be shared with the masses soon enough. The screens showed the planet from various angles, as well as glyphs indicating flagged targets, notable statistics, and other important information.
"The native vermin have numerous major nests, all over the planet. They are also spread in thinner concentration across much of the surface, but the nests are easily the highest priority. If we swiftly burn them all out, most of the job will be done," Laddeeg summarized.
"They have more nests than we can hit simultaneously," Baaln noted. "Many of them must be relegated to follow-up targets. If they react by scattering, the job becomes significantly harder."
"Yes, but our observational studies suggest that they tend to group together when possible, in any case," Laddeeg pointed out. "They'll most likely run to, or even form, fallback nests."
"So we watch for those," Baaln confirmed. "The target pattern will be updated accordingly."
"Are we certain the threat of retaliation is negligable?" one of the others asked.
"Yes," Laddeeg assured them. "Scouts have studied this planet extensively. Native technology level has failed to even detect our presence in most cases, and has shown no ability to hinder us."
"Wait. I understood that one of our early Scouts was lost there," someone else pointed out.
"Not to native aggression," Baaln asserted, bringing up to the file for the others to see. "The last message reported mechanical failure, result of native atmospheric conditions. The problem was quickly adjusted for, and will not be an issue again."
Laddeeg glanced over the file. "A crew of three. Other Eyes on mission confirmed the deaths of two when the Scout when down. Fate of the third …unknown." He paused briefly, then shook his head. "Unlikely he survived all this time. Regrettable." He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "The native vermin have weapons, but they are nowhere near sophisticated enough to cause any harm to our ships. They have no true transportation, nor real concept of the surrounding universe. Thus, they are inevitably unprepared, and have no allies to call to. They will be removed with minimal difficulty, I think, and certainly no threat."
There was a brief stirring of confusion from one or two of the others. "Why, then, do they have weapons at all, if they supposedly don't conceive of anyone to use them against?"
"They are fractious. They often fight against each other, usually in factions," Laddeeg explained. "This is why so many of the nests are recognized as authority nexuses."
"Odd, the ways of vermin," Baaln noted. "However, they have all the planet to spread across. Perhaps they can afford to behave thus." He looked up. "The Harbingers are nearly ready to launch. The techs have established that the native relay drones can be used to send our signal. Given the large number of them in stable orbit around the planet, we can rely on them. This will significantly save on resources."
"Though we'll soon have enough resources for a long time," whispered around the Chamber. Even the authority heads of the harvest preparation weren't immune to the anticipation of what lay ahead. First, however, it was their job to see that the obstacles were removed, so it could happen.
"It was one of these relay drones that smashed against the hull a few mini-cycles ago?" Laddeeg noted. Baaln confirmed. "Try to establish an orbit out of their path, as much as possible. There's no sense wasting something we can use. Is the signal set?"
Baaln nodded. "The signal is up and running, countdown ready to commence at eight master-cycles. That will give us sufficient time to both position and observe. All ready to commence."
Laddeeg accepted that. "Start countdown, and launch the Harbingers."
The ship vibrated slightly around them as it separated from its resting place and started toward the planet. Garasso felt a shiver of excitement of his own. He'd been out in a Striker many times, but crewing on a Harbinger was something else again. It was big enough to be more reminiscent of Homeship itself, but there was a different feel to it all, reminding him that this wasn't Home. He savored the moment, and not only for himself. He and Ebbiar were still in contact, and he was happy to share.
"So this is really it. You ready for the big time?" Veen asked, coming up next to him.
"Are you? Scorching a vermin nest isn't like boring an asteroid," Garasso pointed out.
"Like you're the expert? How many vermin have you dealt with?"
He hadn't dealt with any, of course, but Garasso would have come up with some boast, just the same, if he had been paying Veen more of his attention. As it was, Veen quickly noticed where his attention was flowing. He offered a quick, friendly greeting to Ebbiar, then backed off—for the moment.
Garasso twined his thoughts with hers while he could, but he could see the hull of Homeship getting further away as the Harbinger sped toward its destination. Ebbiar clung for those last moments. "I miss you already."
"I know. I'll be waiting for you down there, when it's clear."
"I'll be waiting to join you. Until Landing Day." With a last mental caress, the connection faded, as the ship moved out of range. Ebiarr continued to watch its progress on the small screen for a few moments, then finally turned away. The terminal was just outside the storage area, and was usually reserved for allocation charts. Sippiyid was waiting in the doorway.
"Come on," she said gently. "The harvest hasn't begun yet, but the supplies we already have still need to be distributed. You've got basic kits, balcony wing five."
Ebbiar nodded. "I'm on it." Grabbing a loaded cart, she maneuvered around the other Distributors who were streaming into the room, and headed for the elevator entrance in the nearest strut. Everyone on Homeship had their job to do, and the normal order of things hadn't yet completely ceased.
As the Harbingers spread out and moved into position, heading for their repective primary targets, the communications flowed back and forth through the stream. The data signal was set to a diminishing loop, thus doubling as a countdown as it slowly narrowed. When it vanished, the burning would commence. In the meantime, they would observe the reactions of the vermin below, and update their schedule accordingly, while the stream was still strong.
"Plenty of time to spare for observing," Atchak noted. "Even with one of the longest routes to target, we'll arrive with nearly five sub-cycles left."
"We may need that long to make anything useful out of the vermin reactions," Terryf pointed out, "especially if they panic first, and rally later."
"Assuming they can rally at all," Atchak commented, but he had accepted what she said. Although he was the head of this Harbinger, he valued Terryf's council.
Many of the ships with shorter routes were already taking up position, and were sending out reports of fear and panic among the vermin below. So far, it was about what they expected. As soon as his ship was within sight of the nest it aimed for, Atchak had no doubt they'd inspire the same.
He looked up in interest as they picked up a small native aircraft, flying straight for them. Atchak pointed it out, but there was no real need. His crew were watching their monitors, and everybody had noticed. They listened carefully. It emitted confusion, mostly. The confusion gave way to a peak of terror, a moment before the aircraft destroyed itself against their hull. Atchak exchanged a small shrug with Terryf, before turning to the console and keying in a brief report.
Elsewhere on the ship, Garasso looked up from his monitor to share a look with Veen, who was posted next to him. "That was… interesting."
"Vermin idea of an attack?"
"No. I don't think they even knew what they were doing. I suppose visual interference is at a rather high level out there. Maybe they couldn't see us."
"They clearly saw us at the end," Veen noted. He paused, pensively. "I don't know. They can't see where they're going, and they apparently can't manuever very well. Is this what we're up against when the time comes for actual combat? I was looking forward to a challenge. And of course," he added wickedly, "to showing you how it's done."
"How what's done, barely pulling through?" Garasso asked, giving as good as he got. "Or perhaps you were going to instruct me in the art of getting lucky? Are you not the one who once had to take more than one try to line up a proper shot on asteroid?"
"Are you not the one who once blew apart an asteroid, only to have more than half the pieces promptly bounce off your own windshield? And who took nearly a mini-cycle to restabilize?"
"Are you not—"
"Enough!" Atchak cut in. He'd heard them, and although he wasn't nearly in the same room, they could feel the look he'd be giving them. "You're to be watching the monitors."
"Sorry," they quickly offered. They had, perhaps, let themselves get too distracted. The was a high chance their skills as Striker pilots would come into play, in combat against the vermin, and they were eager to try—and to show what they could do.
Atchak noticed. "There has been no attempted strike against us yet," he reminded them. "That means, if they try to fight us at all, it almost surely will not be until after our own first strike. In the meantime, if you would be prepared, concentrate on watching them now."
It was not long after that they were in position over their target. Atchak sent confirmation through the stream, keying in his own and his ship's identification, and the verification: "Atchak, Harbinger 2-6, reached location." Such communication was limited in many ways, really. Although their system of glyphs allowed for a number of sentiments, as well as most types of hard information that might need to be sent, it was no substitute for a genuine, mind-to-mind conversation. However, for times like this, when they were off Homeship and out of range, it was what they had.
Certainly, the stream was adequate for sending reports on what they were hearing from the planet's surface below. As expected, Atchak heard mainly fear and franticness from the nest below, as well as observing a modest amount of scattering, and he relayed the report accordingly. Most of the reports were the same.
There was slight variation from some. Felluw, head of Harbinger 2-4, was hearing fear like the others, yes, but he also picked up a strong core of tightly held calm and control, from right below in the heart of the nest. However, that particular nest was also an authority nexus, so it probably made sense. Atchak knew that the one below him was no such thing.
Felluw soon sent another report. "Relocating of sizable vermin group from nest to elsewhere. Too controlled to be further scattering. Feels important. Suspected heading to alternate or fallback nest." The movement was accordingly tracked, and the destination (apparently a hidden fallback authority nexus) added to the list of targets. That was why they were waiting and watching now: to see where the focus gathered in response to a crisis, and so to know what else had to be burned out. Not every nexus was marked by a population concentration.
Like all the others, Atchak watched as the reports passed through the stream, and as new targets were added, and the routes adjusted accordingly. Some of those targets might be assigned to his ship, after all.
When the shift was over, Ebbiar found her way back to Sippiyid's side. She could have opened herself to the Thoughtsea again, but it was hard to pick specific information out of there, and right now, she was after something specific. "Sippiyid, do you have any knowledge of what it's like on a planet? Someone must remember the experiences of those who took part in the last harvest. Have you ever seen any of them?"
"Still consumed with eagerness, are you?" Sippiyid asked fondly.
"Can you blame me?"
"No, of course not. We're all excited. And yes, I have witnessed a few actual experiences. I think they were passed along several times. I'll share them with you, if you like."
"Please." Ebbiar caught her breath at the images Sippiyid showed her. A surface of strange texture stretched underfoot, going on for as far as she could see in all directions. There was no ceiling overhead either, just endless space, and it was all in such a wealth of colors. She caught hints of strange sounds and smells, and the very air seemed to move against her like the tides of the Thoughtsea itself.
It was only a moment's worth of imagery, but Ebbiar spent what felt like nearly a mini-cycle immersed in it before she and Sippiyid released it. She blinked as it faded. Her senses felt like they needed a few moments to readjust to the common, familiar sight of Homeship's encircling dark surfaces and constant, plain aqua light. She stared at Sippiyid.
"That's the surface of a planet? That's… amazing. Everything was…" She could barely organize her impressions coherently.
"It was the last harvest, I believe, or maybe the one before that. It won't be exactly the same when this Landing Day comes, you know. Every planet is at least somewhat different, as I understand."
"Incredible. And we'll get to see this one ourselves, and actually stand there…" Ebbiar's thoughts were hushed with awe. After a moment, something else occurred to her. "Sippiyid? Is this why you honor the ancient world? Because you'd seen those memories?"
Although it was long forgotten, the Arretchi knew that their ancestors had been spawned by a planet as well, before they'd broken its bonds and found their role wandering the void. There were two schools of thought, one that credited this long-ago planet as their true progenitor, and one that said they were truly children of the void, and had only taken time to find their way back to their proper home. Ebbiar wasn't really sure which she favored, but she knew that Sippiyid was of the planet-school.
"I don't know for sure," Sippiyid answered her. "I believe I'd have felt that way anyway, in truth, but having access to those experiences couldn't have hurt."
"What do you suppose is causing it?" Veen asked. Atchak's crew had picked up an odd phenomenon: a growing bubble of excitement and joy in the middle of the nest below, in stark contrast to the fear that permeated the rest of it. Veen and Garasso were diligently continuing to watch their respective monitors as they discussed it with each other.
"I don't see any explanation, unless it's also in response to us, of course," Garasso answered. "I suppose it's possible that some of the vermin are unsure if we're truly threatening them or not, at this point, but it doesn't seem to justify this."
"They've otherwise acted like they realized. Do we know if those signals are supposed to be some kind of attack or not?"
"The radio signals? The energy-shielding is absorbing so much of their strength, it's impossible to tell what they are. Probe, disruptor signal, even attempted message. Who knows?" Garasso shrugged. "Whatever their intention, it's failed. Hmm. Maybe some of the vermin are happy to see the others' efforts fail. It was reported that opposed factions exist among them," Garasso mused.
"Maybe. Or maybe they're happy they'll soon have the honor of death at a distinguished warrior's hands. On the other hand, you're here too, and you'd think that would discourage them again."
"Right, when's the last time you shot at anything that wasn't a rock again? Maybe they're celebrating the hope that all they'll have to contend with is the likes of you."
"Say that again after we do get some action, when I'll have taken out a whole fleet of them."
"No, I'll be busy resting, after having destroyed three fleets to your one."
Veen snorted. "You'll be busy hiding in shame after you failed to do any harm."
"Well, at least I'll find a hiding place with a good view, so I can watch them make you turn tail and run."
"No, that's your face I'll be running from."
From the heart of the ship, Atchak sighed. He could hear those two, at it again. However, he could also tell that a sufficient amount of their attention remained on the task at hand, so he left them alone.
The stream had grown narrow. There was less than half a sub-cycle left, and the burning would commence. The schedule was set. Everyone had their routes to follow, and follow-up targets to hit. The synchronized destruction of the primary targets would launch the whole agenda into motion.
No one really expected any important developments at this stage, so Atchak was somewhat surprised to see a priority message coming through the stream, originating from Felluw on Harbinger 2-4. "Several native aircraft now hovering just outside hull. Formost displaying bright light in moving pattern. Countdown? Charging sequence? Request permission to destroy."
"Interesting. Do you suppose we were wrong; that the vermin will try to attack first after all?" Atchak mused.
"It's a weak attempt, if so," Terryf commented.
"Or a probing strike."
"It could be that," she acknowledged. "On the other hand, perhaps it isn't an attack at all."
A reply had come back through the stream from Homeship, bearing Laddeeg's mark. "Little to no possibility of aircraft actually posing threat. No need to destroy now."
Felluw's response was swift. "Still wish to destroy. In name of caution."
After several moments, Laddeeg replied, "In name of impatience? If so determined, proceed."
"It sounds like we'll never know for sure whether it was an attack or not," Atchak noted. "Felluw isn't giving them the chance. Oh, well. I suppose it doesn't matter either way. That nest, like many of the others, will be gone very soon now."
He and Terryf watched as Felluw sent a "Job done" signal. A mini-cycle later, he sent another message. "Nest's center of controlled calm dissolving into fear. Apparent renewed scattering attempts."
"Do you suppose he'd sound proud of himself, if we could actually hear him?" Atchak asked Terryf.
"It's quite possible."
It was the last major communication through the vanishing stream. They were down to mere mini-cycles now, and everyone watched them dwindle away in relative silence. Finally, the stream vanished to nothing, its last moment carrying only a single, clear glyph: "Commence."
Atchak relayed the sentiment to the Harbinger's crew, though they had all seen it. Immediately, bustling began around key control consoles, as they opened the panels on the bottom of the ship and started charging up the thermetic cascade. It didn't take long to charge. The carrier beam was trained on the tall structure just below them—one of the tallest structures at the center of the nest, which they had specifically centered over for the purpose. It was also, Atchak idly noted, the center of that bubble of happiness and excitement that had developed below.
He felt that excitement stutter, then briefly flare into fear just as they released the pulse. Traveling swiftly down the carrier beam, it reached the structure below, and the explosions began. The cascade moved quickly, spreading outward through anything dense enough to transmit it. As the nest below began to burn, cheers filled the Harbinger. In a way, this was the true beginning of the path to Landing Day.
As the cascade's progress widened, engulfing the nest from the center outward, most of the crew joined in the Thoughtsea, the better to share the moment. Some, including Atchak himself, had to remain focused on the instruments, just in case, but he allowed his crew to indulge. There were numerous other targets waiting for them, but there wouldn't be another time like the first, unified action.
Indeed, while those within the Thoughtsea were only truly in contact with each other, they could pick up the presence of other wells of merged presence, elsewhere on this planet, just out of range. It seemed all the Harbingers' crews were reacting the same. They could even faintly feel the presence of the true heart of the Thoughtsea, back on Homeship, in the distance.
Garasso imagined he could almost sense Ebbiar in there, if he tried, though he knew he really couldn't. It was too far away. Some would also say that it was nearly impossible to pick one presence out of the Thoughtsea, but that wasn't true. After all, he could clearly feel Veen, right here with him and everyone else. For the moment, there were no challenges or boasts, only the shared pride of a job well begun, and the promise of what was to come.
While those on Homeship were less personally invested in any one of the blooms of fire below, they had the vantage to witness them all at once, and to truly see the big picture. In a single, perfectly coordinated action, the Arretchi had destroyed a large percentage of the vermin, and it was just a matter of time before they'd have removed them completely, clearing the way for Landing Day and the harvest. The Thoughtsea rang with unified pride and anticipation.
Ebbiar's wasn't the least of it. The planet was fairly covered with the signs of their progress, Landing Day would be soon, …and Garasso was down there, helping make it happen. She was so proud of him in that moment, and her pride and excitement joined those of the rest of Homeship, buoying everyone in a great wave.