The fragile jewel of the New Poland colony burned with the pinpoint flames of battle. Sleek, stealthy, teardrop-shaped Hornets dipped in and out of the atmosphere, streaking low to deliver their kinetic and energetic payloads and then soaring away to search eagerly for new targets. The hapless colonists, farmers, and factory workers who had dared to grasp for something as ephemeral as freedom, darted about on the ground, panicked and confused, desperate to find some form of shelter from the rain of destruction.
Nineteen light-years away, Peter Highsmith beheld the horrifying whole with his mind's eye, like some vindictive god laying out his retribution upon the unfaithful. But Peter was no god, and he could only look upon what he was doing with dismay, sickened by the way the Hornets' bloodthirsty whispers spoke to him, thrilled him. He was back, doing what he had sworn he would never do again, doing what had to be done despite his own misgivings. Peter was the Sweeper once more.
Worst of all, as terrible as the destruction he delivered was, there was yet more to be done. The greatest danger, both for himself and the colonists of New Poland, still lay ahead. Peter fought back the darkness of his encroaching memories and firmed up his resolve. With a thought, he reasserted primary control of the Hornets and gave them their final assignments, all the while aware of her presence near him, watching his every move, smiling at every new flare of combat.
Peter shook his head in disgust. I never should have said yes to this mess. This is exactly what I walked away from, and now I'm the only one who can do what needs to be done . . . .
The mess in question had begun earlier that day with a very unwelcome reunion. Peter sat, bristling with anger, in a mid-level bureaucrat's office within an immense imperial government tower, nestled in the heart of the overcrowded sprawl of the Dallas-Houston megalopolis. The object of his anger sat arrogantly behind the desk in front of him, gloating at his impotent, spiteful regard. He knew who had the power here and it wasn't him, the broken soldier who had lost himself in a factory for the last decade.
Sylvia Blake, former colonel in Her Majesty's Armed Forces and current Crisis Operations Director for the Ministry of Colonization, smiled back at him with smug contempt. "You never should have broken with the unit, Peter. If you'd stayed after the war, you might have earned yourself a ticket to success, like I did. As it is, I'm not sure you even work over the Welfare Threshold. Have you managed to rise above the dole, Major? I neglected to check."
Peter favored her with a tight smile. It was somehow comforting to know that nothing between them had changed. "I earn my ration credits honorably, Colonel, and a few luckies on top of that. How's the pay schedule here, lying on your back? Or are you more a 'bend over the desk' kind of girl?"
Her smile dropped and Peter's grew in response. She leaned forward, her eyes flashing in anger. "We don't really have time for playing catch-up. A situation has developed and I find myself in need of someone with your skills. How would you like to earn 10,000 Leisure and Luxury Credits for a single day's work?"
The number made his head swim. He felt vaguely guilty even discussing such an amount. "That's a whole lotta luckies. Who do I have to kill? You?"
She chuckled. "You'll never be that fortunate, but a degree of mayhem is involved."
"Hmph. Mayhem. I've been out of this business for a while. Surely there's some soldier you could task with this—and you don't even have to pay them any extra."
His old superior frowned. "That might be a preferred method, but my Ministry is barred from using active troops in colonial situations without a full declaration of war. No, I need a contractor for one mission and one mission only, and I immediately thought of you."
"That's funny, Sylvia, because I seem to recall that you and I don't get along too well. In fact, I believe we parted on somewhat violent terms."
She shrugged. "Yes, you are an insufferable prick, but I need the best, so I go for the best. While not exactly the most obedient sort, in the end you've always done your duty and you always did it with style. That's what I want for my ten thousand luckies: duty to empire and a little of the old Sweeper flair."
He winced at his old title, but the thought of so much money kept him from stalking out immediately. "Okay, I'm listening. What do I have to do for this particular payoff?"
The Colonel leaned forward. "It's simple, really. The administration would like you to inflict some . . . collateral damage upon the colony at New Poland."
Peter slumped, and all the half-formed ideas for how to spend his windfall suddenly fell apart. There would be no money because what she was asking was beyond ludicrous. It was patently impossible. "Well, the administration—and you—apparently need to have your collective heads examined. There's this great new thing called relativity. Heard of it? Seems it makes attacking another solar system pretty much impossible. Besides, my days of razing villages are far behind me. Find someone else to play with."
Her nasty smile returned. "Oh, that's unfortunate, Peter, because this job is simply perfect for you. It's got 'The Sweeper' written all over it, and though you might deny how you really feel, I know that has to count for something. You used to be a Combat Remote Operator—REMO for a whole company of Ripper AI's, and adjunct REMO for a squadron of Hornets. You used to make a difference. And what have you become? Some pathetic factory worker, driving an AI assembly line? Please! You must die a little bit each day. This, on the other hand, is real work, the work you were born for. Willing to give me a chance to explain?"
"Not particularly." He tried to reject what she was saying, but it was a hollow attempt.
"Tough." She tossed a slate in front of him. "Pay attention or walk home."
When he picked it up, a grainy, 2-D video began on its surface. The small datablock in the screen's corner identified the stately gentleman pictured as the Governor of New Poland, an established farming colony a little over nineteen lightyears away, orbiting around Delta Pavonis.
The governor began to speak. "'When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.'
"Those elegant words, written over six hundred years ago, have not lost their power, or their importance, even in these times when Man is spread throughout the galaxy in seeming harmony. It is with the strength of those words that we formally declare our independence from the Empire of the Unified Earth, and the dissolution of our ties to her Majesty, Empress Eleanora De Marquez. We have been driven to this act by the empire's continual disregard for our needs and by the unjust, externally imposed limitations on our growth as a self sustaining society."
Sylvia reached across her desk and tapped the slate to pause the video. "It goes on like that for a while. The smug bastard wrote himself quite the speech, almost like he expects his 'declaration' will have historical significance. The short version is they're tired of working their little fingers to the bone to feed our teeming billions, in exchange for low quality meds and surplus nano-forges. They want us to recognize their independence and renegotiate a more equitable trade deal. If we refuse, they'll stop all harvest loading and divert the courses of the longships en route to Earth, returning them to New Poland.
"They're apparently serious, too. All commands to the New Poland longships via ZPL connection have been shut out. We're currently locked out from our own supply lines, which could only be due to sabotage." She settled back in her seat. "So, what do you think?"
Peter looked back down at the slate. The old man in the screen did not look like a mass murderer—but then again, statesmen rarely did. The longships were Earth's lifelines and the sole reasons for the existence of the colonies. Despite all the orbital greenhouses and the immense arcologies and stack-farms covering nearly every inch of land, extending even into the oceans themselves, the belabored old planet could no longer support her one-hundred-and-eight billion inhabitants without some form of external support. The colony worlds were their breadbasket, their only defense against a staggering near-genocide from starvation. Any interruption in the decades-long supply chain could result in the death of billions.
"Sounds like you need to start renegotiating," Peter answered with a shrug.
She stood up, and walked around her chair, coyly tracing her finger along its top. "And why do you say that, Peter?"
"Because we don't really have another choice. The New Poland colony is thirty-two years away via DMT longship. That's a pretty long lead time for a punitive assault, not to mention that it's essentially a one way trip for the grunts, with no possibility of relief or re-supply. That's a poor mission. Communication with the colony via zero path length wormhole, however, is instantaneous—you can talk to them immediately. Face it, the colonists can starve us out, but we can't touch them." Or could we? What is she not saying? Why am I here?
Sylvia looked him in the eye. "But we can't honestly negotiate with them, either. Do you know what would happen if we granted New Poland their independence? Next year, New Wales would want it. The year after that, Morgan's Rock, perhaps. It wouldn't end until every planet was freed and Mother Earth was left as nothing more than a vassal state, bled dry for our tech resources. It's hard to be an empire without imperialism."
"We could adjust."
"I highly doubt that. There are almost one-hundred-and-eight billion people out there, some trying to eke out a living, but most just content to live off the dole. A lot of them spend their lives only one ration credit away from starvation. How do you think they would handle the government tightening its belt in order to pay our colonies their 'fair share'? They'd revolt! And there's no way around it, either. There's hardly enough work now for those who might want to earn more ration credits, and the population just keeps increasing. We can't ship them to the colonies or kill them off in wars fast enough. No, giving in to New Poland is signing the empire's death certificate."
He declined comment on whether or not that would be a bad thing. As much as he hated to admit it, she had a point. Even if he despised what the world had become—what he had helped to bring about—and though he respected what the New Polish were trying to achieve, the colonists' threats scared him to death. "What other choice is there?"
She came from behind her desk and walked behind his chair, to gently grip his shoulders and lean down to whisper in his ear.
He could smell the sourness of her breath.
"Hornets," she said. "We crush this little independence movement with the Hornets we've been secreting away in each of the colony systems for over a hundred years."
He stood up, as much in shock as to free himself from her touch. "But that's stupid. Why the hell would you bother putting Hornets in systems lightyears away, with no one to control them?"
"The empire wasn't built by fools, Peter. Independence has always been a possibility and prudence demanded it be planned for. History's proven that after a few generations have passed, once a colony's rulers no longer have strong personal ties to the government, they'll start to think they can run things better by themselves. The Ministry of Colonization had a contingency plan for this before they ever sent the first longships of settlers. I usually regard any plans other than my own with disdain, but I have to admit, this particular strategy was a beauty."
Peter shook his head. "What good does pre-deploying Hornets accomplish? Combat AIs can't fight effectively on their own, and if you expect me to go in stasis for over thirty years just so I can go there in person and operate your little death dealers, you've got another think coming,"
She sat back onto the edge of her desk. Now that most of her big secret had been revealed, she appeared somewhat deflated. "It would be easier to show you than to try to explain it. Follow me." She stood and walked out of her office, apparently expecting Peter to follow.
Nameless functionaries peeked out from their desks as she passed, some visibly quaking in her wake. They left the mundane normality of the Ministry offices together and passed through a pair of security checkpoints, as her eyes and her codes proved to be the keys to the kingdom. Things began to look very familiar to Peter after they entered a large space on the other side of an immense, reinforced door.
The weapons of choice for the EUE and Her Majesty, the Empress Eleanora, were the combat AIs. Rippers for ground-combat or Hornets for aerospace and ground attack, the autonomous war machines had proven themselves to be the ultimate force multiplier, but the artificial intelligence driving them was flawed, incapable of creativity, ingenuity, or initiative. Without a human REMO as "man in the loop," Hornets and Rippers either underperformed and were overrun . . . or they committed atrocities so vile, they could never be revealed. They instead had to be "swept" under the rug by very bad, very dangerous people—people like Peter in his former life.
Inside the vast room Sylvia led him to, stood a full Ripper/Hornet control suite, complete with a connection chair for the REMO, and a set of flat panel displays and adjunct controls for the Remote Operator's supervisor. Surrounding it were banks upon banks of identical, stacked equipment enclosures, each fed by heavy duty cables and cooling lines. What their purpose was, and how they related to Hornets and New Poland, he had no idea.
Sylvia walked up to one of the enclosures and patted it fondly. "You're right, of course. There's no way for you to control the Hornets we hid in the New Poland system over such an impossible distance. And even if we waited the thirty-two years it would take to get you to the colony, there's no way you could coordinate the Hornets across the breadth of an entire solar system. The lightspeed lag would make any sort of meaningful integration impossible. By that sort of logic, you are absolutely correct and there is no way to prosecute an interstellar war."
"Yet we find ourselves here together, despite that." Peter waved a hand at the towering bulk of stacked modules. "What is all this?"
She smiled again, but it was a smile filled with malice. "Those are ZPL wormhole transceivers, thousands of them. More FTL comms than have ever been grouped together before, and linked in parallel to provide all the bandwidth you would ever need, enough to control an entire battalion of AIs, whether across town or across the galaxy, securely and instantaneously. This is our ace in the hole. This is how we are going to put down this revolt and save our empire."
Peter suddenly felt weak and sought a chair. He sat down heavily and shook his head. What had at first seemed to be an impossibility, a wild notion that the Colonel and the Ministry were bandying about for argument's sake, now became a crushing, nightmarish reality. He looked at her. "You replaced the Hornet's comm circuits with wormholes?"
"Among other things." She moved away from the wormhole transceiver modules and took her old spot as REMO supervisor. A few taps of her control board and the teardrop shaped schematic of a Hornet appeared on the main screen. "These Hornets are special. The fusion thrusters were replaced with differential momentum transfer drives. The armaments were upgraded to suit their new c-fractional flight profiles, and the best AIs available were installed. Add in the new interstellar control capability, and you can handle the whole sorry business today, from this very building. Our former colonists—who imagine themselves to be untouchable—will never suspect a thing."
Peter felt numb, and he couldn't think of what to say.
She left her console and brought him the slate again. "Every time we sent a longship to one of the colonies, we'd drop off one or two Hornets in a wide solar orbit while the settlers were still in suspension, slowly adding to the pool of Hornets on every subsequent journey. The century-long lead-time for this project has resulted in a lot of variation for the Hornets put on station." She grinned. "I figure that will complicate things, but if anyone can control such a complex assault force, you can . . . Sweeper." That last twist of the knife caused her grin to turn feral.
The slate displayed the specs for all the variants of the Hornet that had been sent to New Poland for the last century. There were twelve relatively limited models and thirty-one with which he could build a complete connection. Peter tried to imagine the expense it had taken to build forty-three such machines—each with an AI that gave it more intelligence than a chimp, and the bloodthirsty will of a rabid pit bull; each armed to bursting with lasers, particle beams, and kinetic missiles; each with a fabulously expensive DMT drive; all outfitted with the hundreds of parallel-processed wormhole circuits to provide the bandwidth he'd need for control—an exorbitant expense that entire planets could not afford. The numbers were staggering, and when he multiplied that by eleven different colonies, the number became too large for him to even conceptualize.
Peter stood up and looked around at the control suite and the surrounding modules of the transceiver nodes, an array of tens of thousands of communication wormhole termini. It was awe-inspiring, frightening, and so very, very sad—all the capability and resources devoted to fear and the suppression of freedom.
He refused to let the stupid, futile irony of the Ministry's self-defeating plan pass without challenge. Peter turned on her. "Do you have any idea how much this has cost us? And not just in money or luckies, but in potential too? With the amount of trouble and expense it took to put this in place, you could have built three times the number of longships to carry away all those 'pitiful' folk on the dole. You could have better outfitted the colonies so they would have been happier as subjects of the empire! This all could have been avoided!"
She switched from calm and proud to livid insanity in the space of a heartbeat. Peter took a step back from her advance as she spat out, "You don't know that! The Ministry and the empire did as it thought necessary! This only proves we were right to do it!"
At that moment, he realized he had always been wrong about her. She was something altogether more pitiful and frightening than the sadist he had always thought her to be. She was a zealot, a true believer. New Poland was endangering her empire and it had to be put down.
She had more to say, though. "And don't preach to me about waste and lost opportunities. I've seen your work! Your real work, not the shit you do now! I've seen the Rippers dance with you as their REMO, burning homes and shooting anyone who got in your way, man or woman, soldier or civilian. You're not clean. You're not pure. You weren't just a cog in the machine, doing what was required like a good little soldier. You did it because it was who you were. And it doesn't matter how many years you've denied your nature, or how many times you've lied to yourself, it's still who you are. It's what you are."
It disturbed him to feel her barbs strike with such accuracy. Years of shame and regret bubbled up. Peter told himself that what he had done had been done under her orders. He told himself that it was the fog of war, the confusion of combat. But her comment about his Rippers resonated too well with him. The people he worked with now made their AIs dance in the acts of creation and industry. What if they only danced for him in the act of destruction?
When he said nothing, she stood straight and smoothed non-existent wrinkles from her pants, using her momentary triumph to regain some equanimity. "Revolt was inevitable, no matter how much money we put into the colonies. It was just a matter of time. The only real question was who would be the first to muster the guts to do it. Now we have a responsibility to the Empress to quell this revolt and provide an object lesson to any other colony that thinks it has the safety of distance. Once a loyal subject, always a loyal subject."
"I need a minute to think."
"Down the hall from my office there's a balcony. Take all the time you need, Peter."
He walked back in a daze, his mind churning with memories and concerns over what she wanted him to do. Outside, a hot breeze blew around the tower, and he was soon dotted with beads of sweat. Peter was surprised the sun still shone through the churning clouds. It felt much later in the day than it seemed to be, emotional weariness supplemented by bodily fatigue. His gaze settled on the chaotic jumble of man-made structures that stretched past the horizon, with barely a swath of green to break up the monotony.
He hardly gave a thought to the money she was offering. The luckies meant a more comfortable life, but it was not as if he intended to retire and live on the dole. Anyway, the money was a lure, not the hook. The real draw was the job itself, a job which appealed to both logic and the baser instincts that he thought he had buried when he left the Colonel's employ. Peter was unsure which was having more of an effect on him, though: the logic or his own rejected desires. Since he could do nothing about the demons of his past and their struggle to gain purchase on his future, he focused on her arguments instead. Peter wanted to distrust her. To him, she was the devil incarnate . . . but if the devil tells the truth, what then?
Walking away was not a realistic option. If he did, she would simply hire someone else, and that person might give into their inner darkness with abandon, turning a bad situation into an atrocity, an atrocity which Peter would be indirectly responsible for. It all came down to answering questions he had avoided even asking for years.
Where did honor and valor lie? Was it in rejecting what he truly was and either letting someone else commit an atrocity upon New Poland, or letting New Poland dictate terms to Earth, along with all the chaos and horrors that would entail? Or did it lie in doing the job, in releasing his hidden demons, in killing a bunch of farmers who just wanted a better life, in order to save an empire that might not be worth saving?
What would the Sweeper choose?
What should Peter Highsmith choose?
Was there truly a difference?
In the end, there was really no choice at all. He walked back into Hornet control room, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I want payment first," he said.
She half smiled, and he thought he could detect her first genuine emotion that day. "Forget it. You get half now, half when it's done. Feel lucky you're catching me on a trusting day."
One small transaction later and the miniscule sum of LLC's marked on the surface of his ration card had jumped by five thousand. Nodding, he asked, "What now?"
She waved a hand at the REMO connection chair and he sat, preparing the restraints and inductive pickups for maximum comfort. He would be in the hot-seat for quite a while.
Sylvia pointed to the largest of her displays. "You'll see the target list when you boot up, but I want to make sure there's no confusion."
He just nodded, his thoughts and memories swirling about too rapidly for him to formulate a response.
"First priority is to prevent them from redirecting the longships. You'll need to hit their wormhole comm sites repeatedly to ensure none of their ZPL termini survive. Miss one and we go hungry. Next in importance are their orbital facilities and satellites. That will prevent them from coordinating any response to the next wave of attack."
"Won't you need to keep some of their comms up so you can accept their surrender?"
She frowned and shook her head. "The Empress isn't that interested in what they have to say. We can wait to talk to them when the next outbound longship arrives in about two years. Next target set is for all the major government buildings and the homes of the governing council. After the leaders and their families are dead, you hit their manufacturing centers, warehouses, and hospitals."
"Yes. I want every single piece of imperial nanotech and every drop of imperial medicine destroyed. I want the next two years on New Poland to be hellish. We have to be overwhelming with our response so the other colonies will think twice before issuing us an ultimatum."
"Won't I kill a lot of innocents in strikes on hospitals and houses?"
She was quiet for a moment, as if she had forgotten there were people on the planet and not just rebels. Then she waved it away. "We didn't start this. It's unfortunate that the populace pays for the hubris of the government, but they brought this upon themselves."
"I don't know. It seems to me that I'm the one bringing it on them."
"Deal with your conscience later. You've been paid and you'll do your duty. Understood?"
He laid back in the chair and let it mold itself to him. "Understood, ma'am." Peter stared up at the ceiling of steel braces and bare conduits, high above him. With a tap of his finger, the cortical relay settled over his head like a skullcap. Its gentle fields engaged the microscopic filaments that had been nano-deposited within his brain and spinal cord. He began to feel a familiar pressure from within, as if his body was too small to contain his soul. The pressure rose until it was at the threshold of pain, and then he was through the interface.
His mind stretched out over nineteen light years in a fleeting moment of null time. Peter doubted that anyone had ever done this before, because he had no idea how they would have kept themselves quiet about it. He almost shouted out in delight. Engaging AI's as a REMO always felt strange, but this seemed downright bizarre!
Peter noted a moment of discontinuity, and then he found himself embedded within thirty-eight war machines, hungry for battle. The connection through the wormholes was stronger and faster than any he had ever experienced before. Even during the war, when all the Rippers and he were in the same general area, there had still been a slight delay between thought and sensation, action and reaction. Here there was nothing but the powerful, immediate sensation of being wrapped up in a twenty-ton, c-fractional spaceship, Armageddon at his fingertips, multiplied thirty-eight times over. It was a godlike sensation. Peter feared that he would lose all he had gained in his transition from the Sweeper to plain old factory worker.
He waited until the dangerous euphoria began to abate and then he took stock of his situation. Five of the Hornets had failed to come online. He tried a wake up call to the thirty-eight he did have. "Hello?"
HELOOOO hELLO hello hElLo Hola Hi Yo HOWDY Hello—Their eager voices came in a reverberating cacophony throughout the entire group. Then they began to greet one another, and then to greet him again.
He made an adjustment or two and tried again. "Hello?"
Hello, Peter. Thirty-eight voices in complete harmony. Better. Many new, inexperienced REMO's made the mistake of anthropomorphizing their AIs. Individuality required creativity, and the AI's lack of creativity and advanced judgment skills was why they needed REMO's in the first place. An AI was a very clever operating system and interface, which took away the need to worry about the small stuff, but it did not live. Peter had no need for individuals. He wanted soldiers who did what he told them to.
"Are you mission ready?"
A chorus of Yes, Peter followed by two slow, disappointed No, Peter's. He delved deeper into those two Hornets and data swam in his vision before him, mingling with his view of the ceiling. Peter closed his eyes and gave a quick scan of the info. They were two of the older model units to which he only had a slow, tenuous connection. Time had not been kind to the Hornets, stuck far out in the Kuiper Belt of the New Poland system. Numerous hits by micrometeorites and cometary dust over the years had rendered them unusable. He guessed that was what had happened to the five units that had failed to check in, but he had neither the time nor the need to find out for certain. Peter dismissed the damaged units and then spent a few minutes discussing the target list with the Hornets, adjusting his plans as the AIs informed him of the differences in their individual capabilities.
Soon enough, he had completed all the planning and prep work. Their drives and weapons were all warmed up from decades of dormancy, and the eager Hornets seemed to chafe against their orbits like attack dogs held at bay on a leash. He gave one final instruction. "Your highest priority is accuracy. When you are done, I want the colonists to have no doubts about what the empire is capable of."
No problem, boss. You point us and we'll hit it. No problem. Their voices were in exact sync, and had even been modulated to sound more like him. They were Peter—and he was on the prowl.
The unsuspecting colonists of New Poland never stood a chance. Hornets streaked inward from points all around the solar system, using their DMT drives to trade momentum with any convenient body along their line of flight, accelerating at the equivalent of hundreds of gravities in order to all reach the planet at the same time. The New Polish colony floated in Peter's mind's eye, a blue and green sphere for which peace was about to become a memory.
Before the first wave of Hornets hit the atmosphere, they launched their kinetic missiles. Self-guided spikes of ceramic and tungsten pierced the skies around the globe and struck the locations of every single wormhole transceiver on record, plus a few that had been secreted away in a futile attempt to fool imperial sensors. The first indication the colonists had that they were not in fact beyond the reach of Mother Earth, that they were not safe from harm, was the fiery destruction of their comm centers, as the spikes converted their orbital speed to massive plumes of heat and explosive force. With that, the immediate threat the colonists posed had been removed, but his work was not done.
The second wave of Hornets made short work of the satellites in orbit, and then joined their brethren to shriek across the skies of the terrified planet, raining down destruction and ruin upon every city and community the New Polish had carved out of the alien forests. The kinetic missiles ran out long before he was through half the target list, but it mattered little. The lasers and particle beams would suffice for what remained to be done.
He had his mission, his responsibilities. Peter made continual minute adjustments to the Hornets' attacks, holding back where one seemed overzealous and wasteful, admonishing and redirecting when one missed a target of opportunity. As the platoon sergeant was to his grunts and the commander to his squadron, he was to his Hornets. It was the very essence of being a combat REMO, but this was far more complex, far more difficult than any op he'd ever engaged in before. It was hard work being everywhere at once, but it all came together for him.
Soon, the images of key homesteads, hospitals, warehouses, and factories on their screens were replaced by the stark video of fire, smoke, and settling dust. Ironically, after rejecting his past for so long in search of solace, for the first time in many years he was totally at peace. He realized, while making the Hornets dance around the planet, that perhaps being the Sweeper was not such a bad thing.
Peter felt almost serene, at least until the battle damage assessments started rolling in.
Moments after the smoke and dust cleared from the target areas, he felt someone strike him, pummeling his chest and arms while he lay in the connection chair. Dimly, he could hear Sylvia's cries of outrage and he knew his time was up. He gave final instructions to all of the Hornets. All but one flew out of the atmosphere and then made a suicidal reentry straight into the ocean, their shattered power cells and violent kinetic energy combining to produce a giant mushroom cloud and shockwave. He hoped it would dissipate before it reached shore.
The last remaining Hornet flew to Warsaw, the colony's capitol, and landed upon the steps, just in front of the shattered remains of the government house, ready for the next step.
With a tap of his hand, the cortical interface lifted off his head and he was free. Peter caught Sylvia's striking hands and gave her a spin that sent her sprawling on the floor. She rose to her knees and appeared ready to charge at him again, but a look of defeat began to supplant the apoplectic rage that had turned her face into a mask. She stayed on the floor and leaned against the supervisor's console as she tried to regain both her breath and her composure. He was glad for it. He had been in the chair for too many hours and could barely move to stop her.
She looked to the large display at the frozen images of the secondary target areas. The sites for the wormhole transceivers were completely destroyed, as were the main government buildings on the night side of the colony planet. However, on the daylight side, when they would still have been manned, the buildings stood completely undamaged. Instead, around those buildings and around every single imperial warehouse, factory, hospital, and leadership home, he had used the Hornets' weapons to excavate a deep trench surrounding each structure. It was a degree of precision for which he felt a certain pride, for himself and the Hornet AI's.
She turned away from the unexpected lack of destruction and toward Peter, her face twisted in both confusion and disgust. "Why?"
"You said it yourself. I've never been very obedient, but I always do my duty."
"You call that doing your duty? You've wasted our one best opportunity to regain control!"
Shaking his head, he began to extricate himself from the chair. "I've given you the opportunity to do the right thing. I've given you time." Peter gestured to the images. The precision of the violently unearthed trenches would send an unmistakable message to the New Polish: it would have been far easier to simply destroy these sites.
"You wanted me to show them they shouldn't screw around with the Empress, that their distance doesn't accord them automatic safety. I've done that. I've also removed the immediate threat they posed to the empire. You now have a thirty-two year buffer where you can't touch them and they can't starve you. That's thirty-two years to figure out the right way to resolve things, thirty-two years to figure out if you want allies or enemies, colonists or partisans."
She said nothing, so he went on. "You said you wanted me to destroy them, to stave off any further thoughts of independence, but you also said that revolution was inevitable. You were right on both counts, but destroying them won't take away the threat of revolution. It'll just tell all eleven colonies and all the hundred-plus billion people on Earth that the empire is without reason. You would have had me turn the New Polish into martyrs that would inspire the next revolution. What I've done instead is shown them what we're capable of, and sent the clear message that it could have been much worse. I've reopened the door to diplomacy. I kept one Hornet alive so you would have a way to contact them. I think they're probably waiting for your call.
She rose to her feet, her hatred of him palpable. "I should have you executed for what you've done," she sneered.
Peter smiled. "If you try to put this on me and have me killed as some rogue actor, your handlers are going to wonder about you and why you hired me. You may end up putting the noose around your own neck. Better to pretend it was your plan all along, I believe."
She said nothing in response. Instead, she swung her fists, knocking her display to the floor. The images of her plan gone awry blanked out in a shower of sparks. "Get out, Sweeper. We're done."
Peter shrugged. Five thousand luckies and a clear conscience were more than enough compensation. He abandoned Sylvia to her machinations and her fate, only slightly worried about getting a knife in the back. Peter Highsmith had focused on what lay behind him for too long as it was, but now his demons were quiet, swept away by a side of himself he had suppressed for years. He walked away, looking ever forward.