M3

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M3 - UMBILICAL

As 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. There are six Refineries currently approaching a gap in this escarpment almost simultaneously, but the gap is only one lane wide. The bots are too small to see right now, but 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. These are Sunset Chasers, Lil. 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 Americans, 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 General Materials 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. Che fed the ground coordinates into hez fire control panel and estimated how long her torpedo should take to reach impact for maximum effect. The weapon was smart enough to understand hez 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 Lilith'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.

Robyn said, Great shot, Lil, that deserves a little yum yum later.

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: GenMat didn't waste power slicing the sky with early warning radar, but they were known to passively search for the bright flares of incoming ships on terminal cruise and bounce the contacts against a list of known traffic. If the Americans discovered Robyn and Lilith's uncleared 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 on-board micro make the slice. The landers let go of the tether in the same millisecond. Robyn and Lilith found themselves instantly weightless after two months being tugged at two-fifths gee.

As the landers rapidly flew apart, temporarily incommunicado, Robyn knew everything was rolling out as she foresaw. But she still grimaced when she skimmed only three thousand feet above one of Mercury's higher mountaintops. She caught a glimpse of Lil flashing by.Then they were both flying up and out again, captured by Mercury's gravity into a long looping ellipse.

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