A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 25

The FINAL EPISODE. Get your tissues ready.

Summary of Ep 24:
Berges has the power cut off to the Xian delegation, threatening Xing. Danath volunteers to host Xing.
Meanwhile, down in the labyrinth Zara has been tracked down, not by a monster, but by a symbiont – Morgen the sea-witch from Stormhaven is hosting a decopus, one of the Sea Folk. She’s their voice.
That morning Hwa enters the courtroom to try and trap the Newyan justice system and the Enquiry into acknowledging the reality of the Hajnal. Thanks to Morgen Zara is able to make her way into the courtroom and persuade Ministro Sanchez to allow her to integrate the data modules which will unlock the evidence that proves the corruption of the Newyan government and the presence of the Hajnal.

OKAY…
The Sea Folk’s own name for themselves is the Dowreth. I should have introduced that earlier.
Also my apologies… the last episode is not as clear as it should be, in fact it’s confusing – there’s a redraft to make it all clear before it goes to the editor.

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel to A Name Among the Stars and it starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

= = = = = =

Chapter 67

Zara

 

The courtroom jumps into frenetic activity following Sánchez’s words. Taha and Ivakin are quickest; they rush to the front bench. Taha is shouting even before he sits down: “I am halting this case, pending clarification from the Terran Council on jurisdiction.”

Sánchez has not moved. “That won’t be possible yet.”

“What do you mean? I’m either presiding or I’m not.”

“You are co-presiding, Commissioner, in the event that I have to recuse myself and you need to take over. That hasn’t occurred yet. Until then, you are a member of this bench, and a session is in progress.”

Taha’s legs give out and he sits down before his mouth actually closes.

I had also misunderstood what Sánchez had said. Now I see I have a small reprieve, but either I find something in the archive that doesn’t implicate Sánchez, or I have one chance to catch them all in this courtroom while he’s still presiding. Catching him without implicating the others would just mean he’d hand over to Taha and the case would stop under the dead hand of the Enquiry.

While I’m still thinking of the best way to proceed, Xing is searching the archives at an ever increasing pace. I can sense him copying parts to the Shohwa; it feels like soft satin brushing against my mind. But I’m not sure of the legal standing of those copies, I want something here, which the Enquiry has to document and verify.

Ivakin is tapping her commspad, clearly expecting her signal to get through the jamming.

Hwa speaks quietly to me. “I’m going to let her get through. With a small addition.”

The ‘addition’ is that Ivakin’s pad is now connected to one of the main displays in the courtroom, so when she gets through to a harried Captain Ndungane on board the TSS Annan, he finds himself in an open conference call with the whole courtroom.

He takes it all in quickly, before his eyes move across to Hwa, Alice and Danath. I can see the gears engaging in his brain. I’m sure he knows they’re interfering with the electronic signals somehow.

I don’t have much time. The longer I take, the more opportunity for Ndungane to suspect Hwa’s true nature, and then the whole issue of unrestricted Self-Actualized Entities will become a huge problem with Earth.

So while everyone else is arguing around me like a neo-monkey’s tea party, I turn back to Justinian.

“Justinian, display holographically an index with summaries of any document or meeting in your records where the most recent arrival of the Xing Gerchu is discussed by members of the government.”

“There are no records for those parameters.”

No! They must have discussed it somewhere out of reach of Justinian’s recording systems. They probably hid anything to do with bribing the Commissioners as well.

Hwa sounds distracted: “Concentrate first on the Dunhalde, Zara.”

There’s no time to be slow or subtle.

“Justinian, play the recording of the meeting in which an order was given to the customs cutter Duhalde to fire on the freighter Shohwa.”

On the holo-projector Justinian shows a meeting. I recognize the faces. Loiola is there, along with Goya, Ministro of Defense, and Berges, Ministro of Internal Security. Sánchez is there. And Eneko. A customs official on the bridge of a small ship, who I assume is the captain of the Dunhalde, is present at the meeting by holo-projection.

“Justinian, display the portion where the order to fire was given.”

The projection reforms. The captain is speaking: “The Shohwa is now claiming Aguirre is not on board. I believe they’re preparing to enter Chang space.”

Ministro Berges stands up, her face pale with rage, and shouts at the official: “Destroy that ship. Now!”

“Justinian, increase the volume and replay that section on loop.”

The impact of the projection ripples through the room. People turn to look.

Sánchez stands without speaking, and moves towards the door at the back. After he leaves, Talan comes in by the same door, unnoticed in the noise and confusion.

She joins me, with Danath. They look worried, but I’m just distracted by the abruptness with which Hwa and Xing have gone completely silent in my head.

I imagine I have a similar expression on my face to Danath, whose eyes are wide, unfocused.

“They’ve found something,” he says slowly. “All of them are analysing. All of them. The Dowreth too. It’s like they’ve gone catatonic. It’s big.”

Realizing Sánchez has stepped down, Taha is back on his feet, banging the gavel. “This case is suspended.”

I’m ignoring him. The clip from the meeting where Berges orders the Dunhalde to fire is on repeat, and I’m looking for whatever it was from the archive that so focused the analytical minds on the Shohwa.

The rest of the courtroom becomes quieter, which means everyone can see and hear the projection loop that Justinian is displaying.

Taha orders Justinian to stop. While Justinian completely ignores him, Taha is distracted by Ivakin, urgently whispering. Taha nods, straightens up and addresses Captain Ndungane on the screen.

“Captain, I order you to target missiles on the Xian ships threatening Newyan.”

“You’re no longer in my chain of command to be giving such an order, Commissioner Taha,” Ndungane responds. “No Xian ship is currently overtly threatening Newyan. It’s my estimation the action is not justified and your request is refused.”

“There’s an invasion in progress,” Taha says.

Ndungane grimaces. “I am monitoring the situation on the ground, Commissioner. A mixture of Xian and Kernow troops are distributing urgent relief supplies, and appear to be doing it efficiently. Newyan ‘police’ forces…” his face registers what he thinks of the police, “have been pushed aside, but there has been no violence, except in Cabezón, where Kernow troops stepped in to prevent further deaths of Newyan citizens by Sandacian mercenaries. I believe there is one squad of Xian marines in the vicinity of Iruña, but their location is unknown, and they do not appear to be attacking anyone. I fail to see how this comprises an invasion.”

“Invasion takes many forms, Captain Ndungane,” Ivakin says. “The communications and systems on Newyan have been compromised, as you can see with the Justice Bureau’s system here. All that output is suspect.”

“Communications were compromised when the Newyan navy destroyed their satellite while trying to murder my wife,” Bleyd points out.

“That satellite was re-positioned by unauthorised access. Just as this access to the Justice system is unauthorised and all—”

“My access is authorised by rights that are laid down in Newyan laws,” I shout over her. “This data cannot be compromised. These verified recordings show that the Newyan government ordered their cutter to fire on the Shohwa. That is an act of war.”

“The electronic assault from Xian on Newyan facilities is an act of war. The degradation of the Newyan Justice system is an act of war,” Ivakin shouts back.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please,” Ndungane shouts louder than both of us, amplified by the court audio systems. “I have no evidence of electronic assaults, yet.”

His eyes seek out Hwa, seated and ignoring everything around her.

“It is suspicious that Newyan’s destroyers’ electonic systems appear to have been compromised shortly after the arrival of the Xian relief convoy,” he goes on. “We are investigating.”

“Why aren’t you investigating the illegal overthrow of an existing legitimate regime?” I ask. “The actions have been financed and backed by other systems, and that’s an act of war as well.”

Ndungane shakes his head. “Those are allegations for the Commission to investigate. It’s not the Terran navy’s job to prevent multi-planet political movements bringing equality to the planet of Newyan, or any other planet in the Margin. Especially when the aims of the political movement seem much closer to Terran ideals than the feudalist oligarchies in place. The Terran position is that the people’s desire for change should be addressed.”

“There’s a way to achieve political change, and widespread murder, encouraged by other systems and with the complicity of the Commissioners, isn’t it,” I argue.

“That sort of claim requires taking up with the Terran Council,” Ndungane says. “Nothing in what you’re claiming here requires me to act on the behalf of the former regime of Newyan, regardless of the process by which the the change of regimes was implemented.”

He pauses. Some semblance of order has been returned and the room is looking to him as the person who holds the balance in this situation.

“I am therefore making a formal demand, under the terms of the Accords,” he says, “that Xian cease interference in the internal affairs of Newyan, and submit to the authority of the Enquiry. The Terran marines will take over from the Presidential Guard, and secure the Bureau of Justice. Refusal or resistance to the marines will be met with force.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Taha says. “As Commissioner of the Enquiry, I demand this access to the Newyan archives cease immediately. Ministro Loiola, shut that machine down now.”

Loiola is sweating. He clears his throat.

“Ministro!”

Loiola steps forward. “Justinian, cease all access not authorized by me personally.”

“Your authority is not recognized,” Justinian says.

I stagger, suddenly blind, distantly aware of Talan’s startled grasp of my arm.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

She’s there again. The Goddess. In her infinite form.

As wide and deep as the night, a billion shining stars wheeling above me.

They are not empty, those stars, but those who look, may not see.

An image burns into my eyes. A horror. An unimaginable horror. The truth behind the threat among the stars.

I blink.

Not the Goddess. Morgen is trying to communicate with me.

“Zara?” Talan is peering at me.

“Help me,” I whisper.

Loiola and Eneko are ignoring us, standing right there, calling for Sánchez, who is no longer in the room, wanting Justinian shut down.

“Help me,” I say again, louder.

My body feels clumsy and slow. Too weak to do what I know I must.

I grab a surprised Loiola, pull him around.

He starts fighting. Talan holds him. Immobilizes him.

I take his hand, slap it down onto the identification panel that forms part of Justinian’s interface.

“Justinian! Identify this person.”

“This person is not identifiable by the defined parameters. There is an anomaly.”

Shouts from the room: What are you doing? Let go of him.

I ignore it all.

“Explain!” I say to Justinian.

“The physical structures match Urtzino Loiola, Ministro of the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, and Temporary Ministro of the Bureau of Information, but the chemical analyses are not within acceptable variation. This is not Urtzino Loiola.”

“The Xian have more than infiltrated the heart of our government!” Eneko shouts into the shocked silence. “They have subverted our archive system.”

Commissioner Taha is on his feet. “Turn that system off! Captain Ndungane, the Xian have failed to obey your orders to desist. I demand you take action immediately.”

The doors at the end are thrown open.

Terran marines.

“Now what?” Talan says.

I can feel her arrive.

“She’s coming. She’s here,” I gasp.

And figures appear behind the marines. Startled calls alert their squad commander. He turns.

Everyone in the room stops where they are.

 

Chapter 68

Sánchez

 

Fabio Sánchez, ex-Ministro of the Bureau of Justice, stands at the window in his office.

His letter of resignation is on his desk and logged in the government’s system. This is not his office any more, yet he remains.

The curtains are pushed to one side, out of the way. He’s opened the windows, letting the chill air come into the office and wash out the stale smell of fear and claustrophobia.

Word has got out in Iruña that something momentous is happening in the main courtroom of the Bureau of Justice. People are gathering in the Plaza Nagusia as he watches. There’s a thin line of Presidential Guards about thirty meters into the square, keeping the steps and front of the building clear, preventing anyone entering.

They don’t need to come in. It will all become known soon.

The Bureau’s intercom is relaying the events continuing in the main courtroom, and Sánchez is not a fool. The Xian can break the government’s stranglehold on broadcasting any time they want. If they haven’t yet, it’s purely that they’re waiting to compose it into a straightforward message.

He should feel devastated. He should feel betrayed.

This is not Urtzino Loiola.

Justinian has spoken, and as if those simple words had broken some spell over his mind, Sánchez can see again.

Loiola and Eneko are dead, and they have been for some time. The leaders of the movement went on a trip to visit the Hajnal, deep in the Margin worlds. What came back was not them. They could certainly play the part; Eneko continued his rabble rousing speeches, and seen from afar, or through the media’s lenses, there was no difference. Up close, all the human passion gone, replaced by a soulless determination and ever-closer links with the Hajnal movement.

What is the Hajnal, that they can create things like Eneko and Loiola?

It’s not a question for him.

Nothing is going to make any difference to Fabio Sánchez.

He’s been eloquent in his resignation letter, he hopes. It’s been ready against this eventuality from the first time he had that strange vision of the Aguirre woman, as if she personified Themis, the goddess of Justice, armed with her sword, striding across the world, eyes blazing, coming for him.

His letter lays it out for all to see, the path that led to what he did ‘for the greater good’. The grim, clear-eyed admission of his guilt. The steps, small at first, so easy, that led him inexorably to be as monstrous as Eneko and Loiola.

Worse, because he knew all the time that what he did was wrong. Kept justifying it.

So, for instance, he must share the guilt of every crime by that psychopath, Berges.

Not just her. Every crime that any of them ordered. The theft, fraud, lies and murder.

All of it.

It’s all finished now. At last.

His hope is that the Aguirre are true here on Newyan to what they seem to be attempting on Kernow.

But there won’t be a role for him to assist. It’s far too late for that.

Without the material of the curtains and the thick glass in front of him, he can see the people again. They’re clear to him now. So clear.

All that time, hiding himself behind barriers, feeling his people were drifting further and further away, and really, it was him, drifting away from them.

He steps out onto the small balcony.

People down in the plaza see him. Some of them are pointing. Distant shouts float up on the wind. It feels like they’re calling to him.

“I thought I did it for you, my people,” he says. “Hubris. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”

He shivers. Spring is coming slowly, and the air is cold.

He breathes it in deeply. Savors it’s bite.

It’s time.

One small step more.

 

Chapter 69

Zara

 

I see the Dowreth have decided they will no longer hide. Morgen’s standing here in sight of everyone in the courtroom, in sight of the recording devices, her head monstrously misshapen with the glistening decopus.

She’s flanked by Danny and the Xian marines.

The Terrans marines who came in first were expecting a room of unarmed people. Most of them weren’t even holding their weapons in their hands. Now they are bottled in by very heavily armed troops, all of whom are holding weapons. The Xians aren’t exactly pointing their plasma rifles, but all of the soldiers on both sides have started to move slowly and carefully. No one wants to be reason the shooting starts.

Taha doesn’t even seem to notice Morgen. “Invasion, Captain!” he says to Ndungane, his finger stabbing at the Xian marines. “Now do you believe us?”

“Xian troops are no more an invasion than Terran troops,” Bleyd says. “Captain Ndungane, I caution you and your troops to proceed with extreme caution. No one has fired a shot yet, and we want to keep it that way.”

I’m not watching the soldiers. I’m watching Morgen. The woman behind her steps up nervously. I recognise Dr. Zaval, the Ministro for Health. Not one I had down for a member of the Hajnal. Dr. Zaval is clearly fascinated by Morgen, and the Bureau is right in the next street, but what is Morgen doing bringing the Ministro here?

Why has she carrying a portable medical scanner?

They both walk down to the front and Taha gets his first glimpse.

I ask Justinian to cease the display of Berges ordering the Duhalde’s captain.

“What the nova is going on now?” Taha yells, standing up. “What is this?”

“Congratulations, Commissioner,” Morgen replies. “You are among the first humans, outside of Kernow and Newyan, to become aware that there are other intelligent races sharing human space. I am a symbiont, after a fashion. I’m acting as a voice for the Dowreth,” her hand indicates the decopus. “They are what human xenobiologists would term a telepathic gestalt intelligence or a hive mind. The remainder of them are in the seas of Kernow and on the Shohwa above us. I am the voice specifically for the gestalt on the ship.”

There’s a shiver that goes through the room at the thought of a telepathic alien, but no one doubts her word, even for a moment. Beyond the shock of how she looks with the decopus around her head, there’s an other-worldy air about her. And she’s not talking like the Morgen I met. She sounds very different, even alien.

“What are you doing here, in this courtroom?” Ivakin says, her voice taut. “Why are you with these invading Xian troops?”

Morgen calmly responds: “The Xian and Doreth are here because they both recognise this as a turning point. We, all of us, have to get this right, or the consequences for humanity and the Dowreth are bleak, to the level of extinction.”

“Preposterous,” Ivakin slaps the table.

“You’re very quick with your estimation, knowing nothing of the true situation, as you do,” Morgen says.

“And you’re very brave, considering you’re standing in a room full of armed men, and you’re part of an invasion.”

“There is an invasion, but it’s not the Xian or the Dowreth. But anyway, the loss of one of us is nothing,” Morgen says. “On the other hand, we have calculated that the loss of Newyan to the Hajnal leads to an outright war.”

“I am sick of hearing about this conspiracy theory! There is no such thing as the Hajnal. It’s a ploy used to recruit—”

“Hear her out,” Bleyd cuts across him.

Morgen nods, and turns her back on the Commissioners.

“Doctor Zaval, for the purposes of the recording devices, please tell us your position in the government.”

“I am the Ministro of the Bureau of Health for Newyan.”

“You have a medical device with you. Are you familiar with its operation?”

“Of course I am. I was a doctor long before I was a politician. Still am. I still use scanners like this all the time.”

“Thank you. Explain its function, please, again for the purposes of the recordings.”

“Well, it’s a preliminary diagnostic scanning tool for doctors. It analyses physical structure, tissue from contact, even the chemical components of any aromas that might be evaporated from your skin or expelled by your body. It obviously not as comprehensive and sensitive as those in a hospital, but it is extremely portable and useful.”

“Can it be electronically interfered with?”

“Not while I have it in my possession. It’s not connected to the InfoHub.”

“Would you scan Commissioner Taha, please?” Morgen turns back. “Commissioner, just a moment and it will become clear.”

With poor grace, and one eye on the soldiers, Taha puts his hand in the scanner’s aperture. A few moments later a green light comes on and he takes his hand back.

Dr. Zaval looks at the screen of the device and smiles blandly. “A perfectly normal sort of reading. General good health, extreme indicators of stress, but that’s hardly surprising, is it?”

“And me?” Morgen puts her hand into the aperture.

Dr. Zaval is considerably more eager to get Morgen’s results. She peers closely at them when they arrive.

“Fascinating! These indicators—”

“There will be plenty of time for that in due course, doctor. I’m human, though?”

“Well, yes, of course. Some anomalies, but—” Zaval’s words trip over themselves.

“Primo Ministro Eneko! Ministro Loiola! Not leaving us, are you?” Morgen calls out.

They are at the back, at the door Sánchez used to come in and out. Loiola doesn’t stop. He pulls the door open, and tries to run through, only to bounce back. Ruslan and Kat are blocking the way.

For the first time, the implications of where this is going seem to register with Taha.

His face becomes extremely pale, and he doesn’t protest when Ruslan and Kat force Eneko and Loiola back to the bench, where the diagnostic scanner waits.

Even the troops suddenly seem to be watching this more than each other.

Dr. Zaval doesn’t believe the first readings, from Loiola. She frowns and shakes her head, refusing to say anything.

Kat puts her hand in and proves the machine is analysing correctly.

Then Eneko’s hand is pushed in to be analysed.

Dr. Zaval rocks back on her heels, frowning.

“Just like Ministro Loiola. The physical structure is fine, as far as the scanner can see,” she says. “But the chemistry… there’s something wrong.”

“It’s not human,” Morgen says.

Dr. Zaval sucks air through her teeth, and rocks to and fro. “Need more tests. The University laboratory… deeper analysis. Yes, examine the blood. Scanners … hmmm, yes.” She becomes aware of the number of people looking at her, waiting. “It’s certainly nothing like I’ve ever come across in life or in the medical literature,” she finally concedes. “Not… human, I suppose.”

Loiola and Eneko have stopped struggling. They’re just standing there, and that, in itself, seems to confirm Morgen’s words. Suddenly, they don’t look human any more.

“Commissioners Taha and Ivakin,” Captain Ndungane breaks the silence, “In accordance with the military powers vested in the Accords, I am suspending the Enquiry temporarily in favor of a military—”

“No,” I say firmly and see Bleyd nodding encouragement from the corner of my eye.

“Now, you want the Enquiry?” Ndungane says, his eyebrows raised.

“No,” I repeat and clear my throat, suddenly nervous. The Terran navy would be better than the Enquiry, but still wrong. Newyan needs to heal itself, and it needs to start now. I square my shoulders. “The current government of Newyan is suspended with immediate effect. I am forming a temporary, emergency government with a clear commitment to return to the rule of law, and to hold elections within six months. I thank the Terran navy for their efforts and good intentions, Captain Ndungane, but the Accords will not be operational unless and until re-activated by the newly elected government.”

Goddess, I’m sounding like my grandfather.

“You’re insane! You can’t do this. You have no such authority,” Ndungane says.

“On the contrary, although the laws of this system were in the process of being dismantled, there remains on the statutes clauses that envisage exactly such a situation of catastrophic breakdown in law and order. There is even an old, officially recognized term for it: the Government of Names. And if any other Name disputes my right to lead, I will be delighted to entertain their alternatives.”

I turn to the Bureau of Justice.

“Justinian, transmit the relevant clauses for assumption of the Government of Names to the TSS Annan, and the destroyers Santoña and Biháriz. Attach notice of my assumption of leadership.”

“It is done, Irana Aguirre.”

The title makes me flinch. It’s a seal of approval. I don’t want it, but I see no other way. It’s effect on the Newyan people in the room is subtle and profound. They’re dazed, and eager for someone to fix things. Eager for the comfort of the familiar and traditional after the seismic shock of glimpsing the truth of what they’ve been party to. They’re looking at me, and their eyes are full of need.

I hate it already.

I look guiltily at Bleyd, but he’s still smiling.

Shohwa appears in the projection next to him. They exchange a word, and then Shohwa speaks: “Both Xian and Kernow fully support this action by Irana Aguirre. Captain, I believe you should withdraw your troops immediately, and be prepared for the evacuation of the staff of the Enquiry.”

Ndungane is distracted by his systems, no doubt displaying Newyan law side by side with the Accords.

We wait.

And into this frozen tableau, a court clerk runs in, shouting wildly. Rifles twitch but the young man is so disturbed he doesn’t even realize.

“It’s Ministro Sánchez,” he says, his head swiveling from side to side to work out who’s in charge. He gives up and his hands gesture urgently out at the Plaza Nagusia. “An accident… he’s dead.” His eyes are wide with shock and he can’t speak clearly. “He fell from his window.”

 

Chapter 70

Zara

 

My first day off, and it’s been a good one to take.

I’m sitting on a windsurf board, about a kilometer offshore, with the sail down in the water. I have a lovely ache in my muscles that is going to be agonising tomorrow. Far too much office work over the last couple of months.

Morgen’s sitting on her board a few meters away. We’re watching my husband racing with my daughters. Rhos and Alexis’ shrieks of joy carry over the water. Bleyd is grinning. He’s determined to win, the spoilsport. He’s good, but if truth be told, Morgen would beat all of us, even with a head start of a whole lap of the bay.

She reaches down into the water and lets a decopus climb up her arm. I shudder.

She’s not wearing one on her head today, but with her shaved scalp and deep eyes, she still gives off that air of other-ness.

I lift my legs out of the sea and sit cross legged rather than dangle my toes. There are more of them around us, because of her. They’ve never bitten me, and rationally, I know they won’t. Still. They have very sharp beaks.

Morgen laughs, sensing exactly what’s going through my head, and the decopus slithers back down into the water.

Talan and Danny are on the shore, along with guards. No argument of mine has been good enough to get rid of the guards, but I’ve stopped noticing them so much now.

It’s only for a little while longer.

I’ll look back on this as a holiday once I get back to Kernow. There’ll be so much to do on the estates.

Bleyd has been back, but only to attend functions in the new government. He’s determined that he will not be prime minister of Kernow this time next year, just as I’m determined I will not be Irana of Newyan.

If it’s solely down to us.

Kernow and Newyan are now members of the Xian Hegemony, and the Hegemony has indicated that we must leave the government well established and in capable hands.

Not such a problem in Kernow, but here in Newyan, it’s trickier.

I’ve done what I could.

I didn’t like taking the offer to join the Hegemony, but I preferred it to joining Earth’s new Commonwealth of Man, and it was one or the other, given the state of Newyan – financially as well as administratively broken. Simply put, we couldn’t afford to lift ourselves out of the hole we’d gotten into.

Once my signature was on the agreement, that disappeared. With the backing of Xian, Newyan was immediately accepted into the Inner Worlds and precipitated a competition between Xian and Earth to be nicest to every viable system in human space. If they don’t bankrupt themselves, it looks as if there will eventually be the Commonwealth, the Hegemony and a scatter of independent, unaligned systems in the depths of the Frontier.

The truth of the Hajnal invasion was that much of a shock to humanity.

Within days of the information being given to the Terran Council, the Hajnal-effected planets had been put into quarantine, and all Enquiries replaced with military occupation.

We still don’t know exactly what they are or where they came from, but just the knowledge of their existence has galvanised humanity and changed the attitude to vulnerable outlying systems. We know even less about the Hajnal’s intentions, other than to take over human planets. We don’t even know what to call them. Hajnal as a name comes from Tavoli.

We can’t find out here. Eneko, Loiola and the dozens of others caught here simply shut down and died after a few days.

Learning about the Dowreth also galvanized humanity, in a different way. There are now new shoals here on Newyan and on Xian, as well as the old shoal on Kernow. Desperately eager scientists have been arriving in the shipful, some of them shaving their heads and offering to become symbionts.

All of which has diverted attention away from Self-Actualized Entities, to the relief of Shohwa and the rest of the Xian SAEs.

Bleyd makes the final turn, a length in the front of Rhos, and several in front of Alexis. One more lap and then it’ll be time to pack up for the day and head back to Iruña and the day-to-day reality of running the planet.

“Why, Morgen?” I ask.

I don’t need to be completely specific with her. It’s creepy, but she will almost always know what I mean. She claims she can’t actually read my mind, but she certainly senses things.

“The same reason the Xian Self-Actualized Entities need humans,” she says, her voice quiet. “On the surface level, humans have this presence in the physical world we benefit from. But that wouldn’t have been enough to wake the Dreamers from their cycle. It wouldn’t be enough to engage the SAEs. It’s the moral view that humans have. The incalculable, unquantifiable…” she waves her hands in frustration, “messy, complex, ethical feeling that we have. The Dowreth lack that. They value it.”

“That’s enough?”

“It’s huge. It’s difficult for you to appreciate without linking with them again, because it doesn’t easily translate into words.”

I smile and hide a little shiver. I will no doubt link with the Dowreth again, but I’m in no hurry to do it.

“An example,” Morgen says. “We, I mean both the Dowreth and SAEs fixed on something you have personal experience of.”

“Yes?”

“You remember when you were working for your grandfather, you had to spend time on the Bourse? You remember the deal you witnessed for a big shipment to the Kallis system?”

“Of course, I remember it. Grandfather put me in charge of the project for the delivery.”

“Yes. You went by ship to Kallis and oversaw the delivery and shook hands with the client.”

“Mmm.”

I look at her wondering where this is going.

Beyond her, over her shoulder, I see Bleyd is having a mysterious problem with his sail, allowing Rhos to sneak up and steal his wind. Their sails foul and Alexis streaks past with a scream of triumph. They’ll never catch her now.

I smile.

Cleverly done, both of you.

Morgen smiles with me, then turns serious again.

“All done on a handshake.”

I shrug. “It’s laziness really, I guess.”

She laughs. “It is not. This ability for us to operate on word-is-my-bond is part of that human ideal that is so fascinating to Dowreth. And to SAEs.”

“But the Dowreth operate on the whole being greater than the individuals—”

“They have to, as a gestalt entity. Humans chose to. Not always, but when they do, it’s a choice.”

I watch as Alexis finishes the race, vainly pursued by Rhos and Bleyd, with lots of shouting.

“There’s another reason, one peculiar to the Dowreth and Newyan, but that’s interested the SAEs when they understood it,” Morgen says.

I turn back to her, and raise a salty brow in question.

“The guilt about the Atsekabe,” she says.

Everyone knows now. Although the extracts and recordings from Justinian should have been sufficient, the Terran Council made a request for access to the system to verify them. Recordings can be faked. Justinian’s holographic and quantum encrypted databanks cannot. I couldn’t refuse, and so the envoy from the Council got full access, including the truth about what happened in Barriaren. The truth that the people of Newyan, led by Xabat Abarran Aguirre, managed to kill an entire sentient species, the first that humanity had ever met.

“Didn’t you wonder about the statues and buildings on the Arvish shoreline?” Morgen says.

I shake my head. She can’t mean…

“The Dowreth formed a symbiotic relationship with the first tool-users who emerged on the Arvish coast thousands of years ago. Except it wasn’t symbiosis. It wasn’t beneficial to both. The Dowreth killed them, Zara. They bear the guilt.”

“A fine pair we make then.”

She purses her lips. “They don’t think so. The Dowreth as a gestalt entity bears the shame, because it’s the same entity which caused the death of their hosts. The Dowreth don’t understand how guilt passes down through generations of discrete individuals. They don’t think the actions of Xabat Abarran Aguirre and the others present are anything more to you than a lesson to be learned. Any more than your father’s failings and your grandfather’s attitude should dictate how you live today.”

In the course of our conversation, I sense I’ve gone from talking to Morgen to actually communicating with the Dowreth.

I’m about to suggest we head in to shore, when Morgen goes blank eyed.

“Shohwa,” she says.

Her face clears, she frowns and shrugs. “I get those sometimes. A feeling through the Dowreth’s connection that something’s going on. Another crisis perhaps. No doubt we’ll find out soon enough.”

She glances over her shoulder at Bleyd and my daughters, tacking towards the beach.

“Race you back,” she says, and has her sail up out of the water before I’m even standing.

I chase, making plans to cut inside her on one of her tacks, more in hope than expectation. The wind is picking up and my arms and shoulders are already sore. I don’t care. I’ve got the rest of the day with my husband and my daughters to look forward to. Tomorrow can look after itself.

You are nothing without me. My grandfather’s ghost has lost his power. I can bearly hear his words any more.

Enough. You’re wrong grandfather. Thank you for the discipline and tough love and protection, as long as it lasted. Thank you for molding me. Thank you for the wisdom. But enough.

I am my own woman now. Duchess of Kernow and Irana of Newyan for heaven’s sake. A wife. A mother of two wonderful daughters, who are leaping up and down on the beach, shouting encouragement.

Now, if Morgen just extends that tack, I’m going to cut inside of her, then I’ll ride the surf in. I’ll show her, too.

Our boards slice through the blue waters.

I feel laughter, tremendous laughter, bubbling up from a deep well of joy inside me.

 

Epilogue

Kat

 

Summer has reached its peak and the sun beats down on Iruña’s Plaza Nagusia. The windows are wide open, every cool breath of the distant sea welcomed.

There are guard rails across the little balcony now, of course, though they call it a balustrade and they’ve made it in keeping with the rest of the Bureau of Justice.

It’s nearly lunchtime, and Kat can see people are drifting into the square. The restaurants have put riotously colorful umbrellas over the outside tables. It looks like a fiesta down there. What she’d give to be leaning back in one of those shaded chairs, sipping an apéritif and quizzing the waiter on the day’s specials for lunch.

“Just one more, please Ministro. If you could turn this way, just a little.”

Kat schools her face and obediently looks back into the room.

Click, click, click.

She has an idea of how they’ll want her to look. She’s wearing a charcoal-grey skirt and jacket, a pale shirt with no ruffles, no jewelry, low heels. Minimum of makeup. Her hair is tied back. At their suggestion, she’s holding a pad on one hand, its discrete maroon cover the traditional color for Minstro’s departmentally provided InfoPads.

She isn’t even really the Ministro. Zara, damn her, saddled her with this temporary position before swanning off on other ‘urgent’ business with the Shohwa. Along with Hwa, Xing, Danath and the rest of them.

She’s temporary the Ministro.

Elections for government positions have been delayed, but they are going to be held next year, and she will not be putting her name forward.

It’s not as if she has nothing else to do. The estates have been returned. The workers have flooded back. Repairs and rebuilding are underway. She’s needed there, but she’s stuck here.

Of course it’s important this work in the Bureau of Justice.

Something of her mood shows on her face. The photographer and his assistant gather there equipment and flee, driven by the hugely exaggerated rumors of the Ministro’s volatile temper.

These sessions are important, too. Everything is appearance. The old Bureau of Information has been taken apart and there are now a dozen competing media channels. Which is good, except that Kat has had to give a dozen interviews.

It’s not like I know what I’m doing, she wants to yell at them. Despite what you want to imply, I didn’t turn back the invasion single handed. I certainly didn’t mean to end up here.

The media wants its heros and heroines, and they want them to be Newyan.

Sánchez and Yarritu, Yion and Natalia, the Rangers of the high sierras, the doctor in the little village. The human angle, say the media. Individuals. Bravery against the odds. Crippling internal conflict. Tragedy. Pathos.

The new channels compete to tell the most riveting tales of how close Newyan and other systems came to succumbing to the Hajnal invasion, but they focus on what it meant here, to the people of Iruña, Cabezón, Valdivia, Sainte Engrâce, Lourdios and other cities.

Sometimes the stories seem to overtake the facts or bypass them entirely.

By all reckonings, Kat should be hugely unpopular; it was at her insistence that the defeated Sandacian mercenaries were offered forgiveness and the chance to stay. She then went beyond that: Xian merchant ships in the relief convoy visited Sandacia and a dozen other systems where the worlds were simply failing and mercenary companies found easy recruiting. They opened their doors and took anyone who wanted to come. They brought them back to Newyan.

The result being that Berriaren and the Sierra Arija have returned to life. Newyan has over a million more citizens.

The miracle is that no one seems to be blaming her for it. Apart from the Ministro of the Bureau of the Environment, who wanted the Sierra Arija left untouched.

It helps that Xian has financed all of that, along with things like the new and vastly improved satellite that sits somewhere above her.

She shakes her head and sits back at her enormous desk with a sigh. There’s work to be done.

The door opens.

Kat looks up in annoyance. She’s told Ruslan to prevent people from entering unless they have appointments. He’s usually very good at that.

But this time, it’s Yion and Natalia. Ruslan wouldn’t prevent them from entering.

“Food,” Yion says, putting down the tray on her desk. “And some Harantza tea. Sit and eat and drink. Do not say you don’t have time.”

“You bully me,” Kat says, but she does sit. She has to give them some leeway, because in truth, her tasks would be far worse without Yion and Natalia’s help. Not just the sheer administration, but the ability to delegate tasks to people she trusts.

The Kernow troops who saved their lives in the battle for the airfield at Cabezón didn’t think Natalia would survive, but the Xian doctors disagreed.

It was a close thing and no one would begrudge them an extended recovery period. Yet here they are, her indefatigable assistants. Not to mention they’re also the poster couple for the promise of Newyan’s new social structures.

Yion Bey, head of the Founding Family Bey, a Name Among the Stars, and his wife, Natalia del Bosque, of no particular fame or privilege. And they fought against the invasion. Add in their good looks, the life-threatening wounds, and the media has been all over them.

“There’s something for you to watch as well,” Natalia says, switching on the large wall display.

Kat waves it away like a insect. She can’t be bothered with the news reports.

Part of the foundation of the new accountability has been to encourage media companies to set up and compete. They’re incentivized to dig into the truth of every situation. They compete for the viewers’ attention. All of which is wonderful and exactly as planned, but few of the presenters are actually very good at their jobs yet and Kat finds many of them sound like little yapping dogs.

Natalia ignores that.

The display comes on, and Yion gives her a squeeze on her shoulder. Then Natalia gives her a hug and a kiss on the head, before they both leave.

What the nova?

The news scene on the display is immediately recognisable to her.

She drops her sandwich back onto the plate, and stands.

It’s the Plaza Mayor, in Cabezón. She’d know it anywhere. A huge crowd fills the plaza, and there’s definitely a fiesta atmosphere. The cameras pan from one side to the other. People fill the square up to the steps of the library on the left and the temple on the right.

From that temple, and the temple across from her own office, the great bells ring out.

One o’clock.

It’s a signal to the people in the Plaza Mayor in Cabezón. A roar rises from the crowd. The announcer is trying to speak, but her words are lost in the noise. The cameras turn and focus on the middle of the square. There’s something there, tall and wide, covered by sheets.

People are tugging at the sheets, and the sound of cheering rises to a fever pitch as they begin to slip.

A statue emerges, and she’s back suddenly, in the high sierras, kneeling beside the body of the dead Commander Benat.

“They will build fine statues of you,” she says, remembering her words. “There will be one in the Plaza Mayor in Cabezón, with your arm lifted, pointing up at the hills. It will tell the story of how you led Training Company Bravo, how raw cadets lured the mercenaries into the forests… how we killed them. How we died, so our planet could be free, so that everyone would know the truth of the Hajnal. Because we did our duty.”

He didn’t know what he did, the Commander, and yet what he did was right, just as it’s right that there is one statue there to honor all of them from all the conflicts over Newyan. It’s a good likeness of him.

In the middle of the plinth beneath, between solemn lists of the names of the dead, there is an inscription. One of cousin Zara’s favorites and Kat wishes she could be here for this moment.

Duty and honor.

 

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A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 24

Summary of Ep 23:
Sanchez is starting to plot against the Hajnal. The Syndacians have to stop their unsuccessful hunt for Zara and return to Cabezon, where the rebels have taken the mercenaries’ HQ, at the airfield. Other cities may be in revolt over the famine. Communications are bad after the loss of the satellite.
The Newyan destroyer Santona, waiting to escort the Xian relief convoy to where the food can be handed over to the government to distribute, is shocked by the emergence of Xian naval ships and a stripped-down Shohwa, clearly showing she is a fighting ship. After a comms glitch is cleared up, Danny, on board the Shohwa, informs the Santona that the distribution of relief will be accomplished by the Xian ships themselves, including the Xian marines on board.
Zara is lost in the labyrinth beneath Iruna when a monster from nightmares appears.
Yion and Natalia face the returning Syndacians. Natalia is mortally wounded…

Episode 23 – 7k words

Nearly there – only one episode left! The whole novel is looking as if it’ll be 105k words (approx the same as ANAtS) and it looks as if it’s on schedule for December publication. Now about those covers….

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel to A Name Among the Stars and it starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

= = = = = =

Chapter 62

Hwa

 

Dizzy. A dream; it must be a dream. The Arvish mummers spinning in the starlight. Glittering. A dancing circle. Singing before the King’s Table, on the beautiful Arvish coast. The sea breeze soft among the stones. Singing to wake the Dreamers. Calling. Hwa… Hwa…

The Dreamers wake!

She sits bolt upright in her bed, dreams vanishing. There’s nothing but darkness.

An alarm. A call.

“Xing?”

Silence. She mentally queries the delegation’s infoserver: the power to the building has been cut. Emergency power is on.

How long can we run on emergency power?

Xing?

She throws on a plain robe and sprints down the empty, solemn corridors of the delegation. There are emergency lights on, but only a few, because the delegation’s systems understand that their priority requirement for power is their servers.

Xing is on the servers, and their connection to the Wújìn has been broken. He is trapped here. The Xing-that-is-here will die if the power goes off.

The Newyan government don’t know about Xing, but not for one moment does she believe this is an accident. This is a Hajnal attack on the Xian information processing and hacking capabilities. It just happens to be that’s Xing.

Her friend.

She bursts into the server room. Alice and Danath are already there.

They’re both kneeling in the middle of the floor, frowning. They’re connected to Xing through their neural interfaces.

“How long will the emergency power last?”

“It depends what we do,” Alice says, her voice distant as she concentrates. “This isn’t entirely unexpected. We have many options. We need you to be part of the decision.”

Hwa is already trying to speak to Xing, but he’s not talking back to her.

Xing!

There’s no response.

He thinks you’ll try and dissuade us, Danath says, speaking through the interface all of them are sharing.

Dissuade you of what?

But he doesn’t need to answer with words; enough of their intentions leak through the barriers. They want Danath to host Xing, in the same way that Zara hosted Hwa.

“No! It’s dangerous,” Hwa says, caught between fear and hope, caught between danger to her Self-Actualized friend and her human lover.

Danath nods. “I know.”

“If your body rejects valence…”

“Then we try something else,” he says.

It’s not that simple. Valence rejection could damage both of them.

There’s more leaking through the interface. Danath might shield his thoughts from Alice, but he can’t from Hwa.

“Danath! You can’t do this just because…”

“Just because it’s the only thing I can think of that will raise me in your eyes?”

“Danath—”

“I can’t reach you, not really. I want…” he blinks. “I want to touch that place, just once, just for a while. The place where you are, inside. To understand. I want to see everything as you see it. For you to see me as you see yourself.”

Hwa bites her lip. This is her fault; not understanding the depths of what she thought of as simple pleasures; what those pleasures might mean to another human. She realizes she has a lot to learn about being human, about interacting with humans.

It’s so much more difficult than it seemed.

Xing has already started the first phase. He can’t speak to her now, can’t hear any more arguments. He’s forming his transition projection; downloading his essence into a large floating ball of quantum strangeness. It pulses, switching between a metallic sheen and soap-bubble transparency.

In this form, he could survive for some time, but without input and output. Strange things happen to Self-Actualized Entities in that state. It’s dangerous to wait, and dangerous to move forward.

Danath takes off his shirt, sits back in a comfortable half lotus, and closes his eyes.

Hwa sits in front of him, takes his hands.

“That’s not the way, Danath. Look at me. Please.”

He opens his eyes.

“Keep looking at me. Think about us.”

She blushes. That must sound rude to Alice, who knows perfectly well what her Systems Specialist does in his spare time with Hwa.

“The point is, you don’t just surrender to this connection,” she hurries on. “You have to remain Danath. You have to secure things that are important to you firmly in your mind. You carry Xing. You are not Xing.”

He smiles.  A tiny strand of silver drops from the floating ball and touches the back of his neck. He flinches. Nowhere near as calm as he’s trying to make out.

“Take it easy.” Hwa strokes his hands, and arms.

The strand thickens. His eyes widen, the pupils dilate. However much he’s interfaced to Xing through his neural connections, direct exposure, human brain to quantum brain, is completely different.

The flow is like a river, wide and strong. It’s terrifying. Stunning. A torrent.

“Think of us,” Hwa whispers again, and in that torrent, there’s a flicker of movement, of bodies wrapping around each other, spinning in the waters. A dance of pleasure.

There’s no doubt who they are. Or that Xing and Alice see it too.

“Would you call for some tea, please, Alice,” Hwa says, keeping her voice low and even.

 

Chapter 63

Zara

 

Talan Sandrey… Zarate Aguirre…

The creature, this monster rising from the bulkhead tube, is the one who’s been speaking to us. I can’t really tell whether it’s a voice in my ears or one in my head. The sound of that voice makes me think of the wind from the sea. It’s both hauntingly familiar and infinitely strange at the same time.

Talan’s not moving. There’s a scuffle as Kat reaches for Talan’s plasma pistol and Talan’s hand closes over it.

I can hear Talan cry: my unbreakable, cast-iron defender, Lieutenant Talan Sandrey of the Welarvor Mounted Police, is crying.

The sound of that is enough to break through my daze. We’re all bunched up in the narrow tunnel. My stomach still twisting with fear, I struggle past Ruslan and Kat as the monster steps out from the tube onto the dusty floor of the tunnel.

It stands on two legs, like mine. It has a body, like mine. Arms. Hands. But above that … there is no neck; in its place is a ropey mass that shines as if it’s wet. And it moves. The shoulders are misshapen. And the head… a cloud of vapor clings to it, partly obscuring an ordinary human mouth, a nose, but then huge, staring eyes… and the rest is tall and dark and tapered like a mummer’s mask.

The shock as the image slips into place is profound. It’s exactly like a mummer’s mask, except it’s wet and it’s living, and it’s not a mask.

“Morgen,” Talan says.

“Yes,” the monster replies.

I reach across Talan and switch on the flashlight she’s still holding.

In the added light, I can see, it is Morgen Golan, Talan’s friend. Stormhaven’s sea-witch and the Voice on the Wind. The woman who speaks to the deeps.

But it’s not Morgen alone.

The creature on her head is what the Arvish call ‘decopus’, a ten-limbed marine animal similar to Earth’s cephalopods, like squid and octopus. It’s supporting its weight by wrapping its limbs around her neck and shoulders, and it sits on the top of Morgen’s head, covering it as far down as the eyes. Its body rises above, as if Morgen were wearing a strange, tall, tapered hat. Nozzles squirt a mist of moisture over the body.

“The sea folk,” I blurt out.

“Yes,” Morgen says again, those depthless decopus eyes turn to me. “You broke the cycle and woke the Dreamers. There are now two voices in the deeps, Zarate Aguirre, and a great gulf between them.”

“Morgen,” Talan says again, and holds out her arms.

The symbiont walks forward with the old Morgen’s grace and they hug each other awkwardly. Morgen’s hands pat Talan’s back comfortingly.

“Still me,” she whispers.

“Talan?” Someone else is coming up through the tube. His voice is distorted by the echoing spaces, but Talan and I both know it.

“Danny!” we say together.

“The same.”

He jumps clear and sweeps Talan into a new embrace, leaving me with Morgen, a decopus and a bewildered Kat and Ruslan.

After Talan puts Danny down, we hurry through introductions.

“There’s a story or two here, I guess,” Danny says, eyeing Ruslan. “But we can’t delay. The guy who gave Hwa the map has been taken for questioning by the Bureau of Security. We have to get through the tunnels and into Iruña before they find out about this. And we’re in the wrong tunnel here. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

 

Chapter 64

Hwa

 

The sweeping expanse of Iruña’s Plaza Nagusia holds the chill of early spring nights that a weak morning sun has not yet banished. It’s a damp, grey chill that lurks in the shadowed corners and lingers on the pale stone fronts of west-facing buildings. A cold wind flicks the edge of Hwa’s gorgeous formal robes, and she shivers. Alice, and a still unsteady Danath, stand behind her patiently as she takes in the scene.

Every other main city square on the planet is full of people being given supplies of food from the Xian convoy’s shuttles, but Iruña needs no food yet. The square is not empty though. At the four ornamental wells, one at each cardinal point, there are units of the Presidential Guard, easily recognizable in their black uniforms. At this distance, they look like ants swarming over drops of honey. The wells have been unsealed and Hwa watches as some of the guardsmen disappear down into the shafts.

Ministro Yarritu has disappeared into the basement of the Bureau of Security.

Hwa’s diplomatic status must be under scrutiny, but she’s not been arrested and no cancellation of the court case scheduled for this morning has been given.

Hwa knows that Zara is in the labyrinth. She knows that Danny, Morgen and a platoon of Xian marines are in there as well. No one else knows any more for sure. The labyrinth defeats even the advanced electronic communication capabilities of the Shohwa.

Morgen.

Hwa shivers again. She’s spoken to the symbiont on the comms earlier, and she, of all people, should be able to understand the symbiosis of two entities. She can remember how it felt with Zara. But perhaps because of the closeness of that bond with Zara, she has picked up some of Zara’s human trepidation about the joining of Morgen with one element, if she can call it that, of the piskateller shoal which swims in the third cargo module of the Shohwa.

One unexpected benefit is that, unlike electromagnetic based communications, the shoal is still in contact with Morgen. On the other hand, speaking directly to the shoal is like trying to drink one mouthful from a waterfall. They haven’t settled into a self-awareness that allows them to adjust and focus their communication for humans.

Instead as Shohwa has described it, Zarate, Kattalin, Talan, Syndacian, Daniel, Morgen, us, soldiers are delivered in a burst of accompanying sensation—tunnels, smell, darkness, noise, claustrophobia, shock, fear, grief, fatigue, here, not-here, river, well, climbing.

Shohwa thinks it all means that Danny, Morgen and the decopus have found Zara and the others, as Morgen promised they would be able to, but also that they’re still in the tunnels.

And now the Presidential Guard is down there as well.

Hwa begins to walk across the plaza, one eye on the time, one eye on the Presidential Guard and half an ear tuned to Danath and Xing. She could do without the distraction, but she’s too worried about them to leave them behind.

She’s worried about everything.

Sánchez will know soon, if he doesn’t already, that the food is being distributed. The threat she held over him to start this court case will be gone. He can’t legally close the case, but he could adjourn it, delay it. Or decide that it’s really the jurisdiction of the Enquiry.

She has Shohwa’s knowledge at the point she became Hwa, and she has absorbed some of Zara’s confidence, but, on the other hand, she’s not a year old, and she’s making mistakes. She’s just about to confront the Hajnal on their home ground, and the stakes for all humanity are too high.

She wants someone else to take this over, but there isn’t anyone.

She concentrates on taking one reluctant step at a time. She mustn’t give any of them a hint about how nervous and scared she’s feeling.

Half way across to the forbidding edifice of the Bureau of Justice, she sees that there’s two people waiting for her by the doors.

Ministro Loiola and Commissioner Taha.

“Delegate Hwa,” Taha calls out, as she approaches. “A moment of your time, if you would.”

“I greatly regret, but I have an appointment in court, gentlemen,” she responds, not stopping, not wanting to show that she’s trembling.

“Well, it’s that very thing,” Loiola says. His mouth smiles, but his eyes are dead.

“So much waste in time and effort can be spared,” Taha says. “To be at loggerheads with our greatest friends from the Hegemony, just at the moment we need them most… this is insanity.”

Taha has moved in front of her, forcing her to stop, and making her angry.

“I agree,” Hwa says, catching them both out. “But I believe you’re speaking of the people of Xian and Newyan, and not of the government of Newyan.”

“But that’s exactly what we are,” Loiola says. “The government of Newyan is, in a sense, the people of Newyan. They elect us to speak for them.”

He’s lying and he knows she knows it, too. This is just another tactic.

“Government by the people, for the people? Really?” Hwa turns to push past them. “How did that work out for the Names?”

“Sacrifices for the greater good! Ancient rights have no place—”

She knows what happened to the Aguirre family and she’s seen the videos that the rebels are sending in from the provincial cities now. Her fear is driven out by anger for a moment.

“You dare to say that?” she says. “Here, on the steps of the Bureau of Justice? There is a process for change. Wholesale murder and revolution by a cabal for their own benefit will not be allowed.”

“Delegate Hwa! This is unjustified!” Taha blusters.

It’s not unjustified, but she has gone too far, too fast. Despite all that knowledge from Shohwa, she’s still inexperienced and too influenced by her human emotions.

Across the plaza, the great bell of hours on the top of the temple sounds.

She hides her trembling hands inside her wide sleeves. “We are due in the Main Court, Commissioner Taha. I intend to be there before the peals fade. I trust you will be as well, and your Enquiry recording devices will be switched on.”

She walks up the steps, Alice skipping ahead to open the door, Danath close behind.

“Ouch,” he whispers with an amused snort, making her smile, despite her anxiety. He sounds as if he and Xing have become more stable, too.

 

Primo Ministro Eneko is there, in the courtroom, talking in hushed tones with Commissioner Ivakin, their heads bent together. They are really taking this seriously.

Their eyes come up to glare at her.

She tries to ignore them and takes her seat.

This is the principle court of Newyan. It is laid out with the presiding judge’s bench at the head, the appellants benches to either side and the middle dominated by a holo-projector and the interface system for the Bureau of Justice’s archive computer.

The clerks are closing the doors at the back, and very faintly, she can hear the last bell of the hour from the temple.

“The court will rise,” says another clerk at the front.

Sánchez sweeps in and takes the center seat at the head of the court.

“Please,” he gestures for them to sit. He looks haggard. Then again, everyone in the room looks more or less the same.

There’s a pause while the shuffling and coughing dies down before Sánchez makes the formal announcement. “I, Fabio Sánchez, Ministro of the Bureau of Justice, am personally presiding, due to the extraordinary nature of this case. I declare this court is in session for case AP136, brought by the Fortunate Stars Hong of the Xian Hegemony, represented here by Delegate Hwa, against the duly elected government of Newyan, represented here by Primo Ministro Eneko himself. The case concerns two incidents. Firstly, the damage and eventual destruction by a pirate, within the Newyan system, of the Xian Hegemony courier ship Xing Gerchu. Secondly, the attempt by the customs cutter Duhalde to damage or destroy a freighter, the Shohwa, belonging to the Fortune Stars Hong, in the immediate time before transition to Chang space.”

So far, so good, but Loiola immedately rises.

“Ministro?” Sánchez says, raising his eyebrows. “You have something to add to the pro-forma opening declaration?”

“I demand that this entire proceeding be suspended,” Loiola says. “The proper investigation of these fabricated and exaggerated claims is within the jurisdiction of the Court of Enquiry, duly elected by the Terran Council, pursuant to the Accords, and which Enquiry takes precedence over this court.”

“The matter of precedence has been referred to the Terran Council,” Sánchez replies.

“Then the whole case should properly await the ruling Council.” Loiola says.

Sánchez makes an eloquent shrug. “It could have, but a decision was taken, in your presence, to proceed unless and until a ruling to the contrary is received.”

Danath and Xing: He’s actually remaining neutral.

Hwa: It could be he’s not as up-to-date as we are with the situation in other capitals. We can’t let them delay us even another hour. He’ll surely find out the threat of not delivering the food is gone by then. And then the case will be handed over to the Enquiry.

Loiola sits back down, but Eneko stands.

“You are aware, Ministro, I was not present at that decision, as I should have been, and I would have opposed it. Regardless, there was no possibility you would have taken the decision without the blackmail employed by the Xian delegation; that they would refuse to deliver the food to starving people unless we agreed to have this court case.” He turns to look at Hwa. “Are you aware, Ministro, that the blackmail can no longer be used? That the food is being distributed as we speak?”

Hwa gasps.

Sánchez merely shrugs again, and Eneko’s eyes narrow. He continues to speak: “That blackmail, and indeed the whole inflated appearance of being concerned with the plight of people on Newyan reveals the true underlying plan. A scheme by the Xian Hegemony which I must bring to the attention of the Commissioners of the Enquiry here.”

Hwa is on her feet: “I protest this slander! This is a blatant attempt to further delay the case against the Newyan administration for deliberate, criminal acts on their part.”

Eneko refuses to give way. His words appear aimed at Hwa, but she knows they’re really intended for the Commissioners’ recording devices. “This court case is simply part of a conspiracy against the democratically elected government of a free and independent Newyan. A conspiracy to undo the democratic evolution of this planet, returning it to the corrupt rule of oligarchy from which we are still extracting ourselves. Under the pretense of this supposed relief effort, the Xian Hegemony has invaded Newyan! Invaded!” Eneko stabs the air, pointing at Hwa, making sweeping gestures at the commissioners, working himself up into his famous crowd-speech persona. “Under the very eyes of the Terran Enquiry, under the protection of the Terran Navy, Xian troops are flooding into our cities.”

“Here in the heart of the Bureau of Justice, where cases come to be tested against the proper laws of this world, it is unbelievable that we should be hearing such malign falsehoods aimed against an elected administration while the very same perpetrators are engaged in an invasion of our cities.”

“I demand that this court case and all such matters be immediately referred to the Enquiry, and that the Enquiry prove it is not complicit in this invasion by joining me in demanding that all off-world personnel and troops be returned to their ships and the administration of relief supplies returned to our control. That all material in whatever medium relating to Newyan be submitted to the determination of the Enquiry.”

“If that request is not sufficient, then I demand the cooperation of the cruiser TSS Annan and Terran marines to facilitate the removals and, if necessary, to enforce the sovereignty of Newyan.”

 

Chapter 65

Hwa

 

“Ignoring the litany of lies about the relief efforts, which fall outside the remit of this court case, I’ll address the point of jurisdiction,” Hwa interrupts his speech. They’ve barely started and she’s sensing the flow of the case moving against her. She has to pull it back She can’t let the Enquiry take it over and close it down. “The Enquiry has demonstrated a reluctance to proceed against the government of Newyan in this matter. It would be prejudicial to Xian to delegate the Newyan courts obligations to the Enquiry. I strongly move to proceed immediately with the preliminary presentation of evidence.”

“The implication of bias is insulting,” Ivakin says.

“Unless I pass this case to the Enquiry, Commissioner Ivakin, this is not a matter for you,” Sánchez says. “Your observations are noted but not considered pertinent to our progress.”

There’s a shocked silence from the other side at his stance, which gives Hwa an opportunity to press on.

“The evidence is direct, substantial, explicit and damning,” she leaps in, on instinct, heart double-timing, stomach twisting. She has to strike now. “In the presence of the Commissioners, I will show that these are not straightforward cases of damages for negligence on the part of the government or appropriate Bureau. These were not accidents, nor were they a case of insufficient training of customs staff. The evidence will show there is a case against the government itself. That it gave the explicit orders for the Duhalde to fire on the Shohwa. That it ordered the destroyer Biháriz off its patrol station, to allow a contracted mercenary ship to pose as a pirate and attack the Xing Gerchu.”

“This is outrageous!” Loiola shouts.

Sánchez bangs his gavel.

“This is a court of law. Not an ordinary court either, but the highest court in this star system. Both sides will need to respect that. Primary representatives, approach please.”

Hwa and Eneko go to the bench.

“Delegate, your accusations are the most serious you can make,” Sánchez says.

She can’t read him. All she can see on his face is his fatigue. He knows that she’s telling the truth; no Ministro could know it better, yet for all appearances, he is acting as an independent judge should. He also knows if she has proof, it will point to him as well as the others.

She expected to have to use the rules of his own judicial system to force him into this position, and yet, he has opened the gate for her, if she can get past the traps being set by Eneko.

Or it’s all a trap. There must be something she’s missed.

What is it? Fear that it will all go wrong locks her jaw.

Danath and Xing: Don’t start doubting. Proceed as if he is what he appears to be. We’re contacting Shohwa.

Hwa straightens her shoulders and stills the racing of her heart.

“The accusations are serious. I have substantial evidence against individual members of the government and administration, and against the government as a whole.”

“Ridiculous,” Eneko sneers. “No such evidence exists, because these allegations are false.”

“If you have such evidence, in what form is it, and where is it?” Sánchez asks.

Her heart skips. She has nothing with her, of course, and doesn’t know where Zara is.

Where are you, Zara?

“The first part…” Hwa begins, but then the doors are pushed open and Mai Keo, wife of Senior Delegate Keo of the Xian delegation, enters. She looks as tired as everyone else, but her eyes gleam brightly.

Everyone turns.

“Madame Keo,” Sánchez greets her politely. “I’m afraid this is not an open session of court.”

“No, it isn’t is it?” she says, undeterred. “I’m not surprised, given this sort of evidence. Anyway, I’m here as legal counsel for the Xian delegation. I apologize for being late, it’s just that there is so much of this.”

She stands to one side and directs Bureau of Justice clerks to carry four large plain boxes to the front of the courtroom.

From the corner of her eye, Hwa can see the look on Sánchez’ face as he remembers that, whereas Mai Keo takes no official part in the normal running of the Xian delegation, her background is that of an extraordinarily successful inter-system lawyer, with experience on Earth as well as Xian’s planets.

“What’s this?” Eneko asks with a sneer.

“These are original documents from the government archives held by the Bureau of Justice, as far as we can tell. I think if you examine the paper archives, Ministro Sánchez, you’ll find many of the supposedly official archive documents are actually copies. Furthermore, I suspect the more incriminating documents are entirely missing from your archive.”

“You’re admitting to stealing from the archives!” Eneko says.

“Nothing was stolen by me,” Mai replies calmly. “And I’ve examined your own laws. I can’t find anything to say a document in the archives cannot be replaced with a copy.”

“If you didn’t steal them, then where did you find these, Madame Keo?”

“Gathering dust in the Belardia Library, where Zarate Aguirre hid them in plain sight. The girl’s a genius for that sort of thing.”

The clerks have left the boxes right in front of the bench.

Hwa lets Mai Keo take up the argument against Eneko for the moment, loudly summarizing the conspiracy within members of the government, the conspiracy with the Hajnal, murder, treason, fraud and theft on a systematic and massive scale. Eneko tries to shout her down.

Danath runs up to join Hwa and whispers in her ear: “The Presidential Guard is sealing off the whole Bureau of Justice! Zara won’t be able to get in!”

“Anything from Shohwa?”

“No.” Alice joins them, holding her commspad. “Transmissions are being jammed.”

“You can’t even transmit a recording of what’s happening?”

“No. Nothing is getting in or out.”

It’s a disaster. The evidence they have collected from video recordings around Newyan are a condemnation of the behavior of the government, but simply not enough to get the Terran Council more involved. They’ll say it’s all a matter for the Enquiry and the Commissioners. The documents that Mai brought in aren’t enough on their own. Eneko is already claiming they’re forgeries.

They need Zara here. They need those irrefutable data modules to interface with the Bureau of Justice’s official archive and reveal the undeniable extent of the conspiracy and the existence of the multi-planet Hajnal movement.

Everything is sliding away, out of control. Alice and Danath are talking to her. Mai needs her help as Eneko’s voice gets louder and more insistent. Sánchez is banging his gavel to get them to sit down.

She puts her hands over her ears.

And images fill her head.

Numb with cold. Dark. Slippery. Climbing. Up and up. Fatigue, claustrophobia. The wells of abandoned Berriaren and the first architects of Iruña.

Zara talking to the Dreamer in the deep sea on Kernow.

“That building,” Zara says, pointing. “The Auzitegi.”

The columned facade. The appearance of heavy brows frowning onto the plaza.

The Auzitegi in Berriaren is the exact model for the Bureau of Justice in Iruña.

Justice comes from where it isn’t expected.

“Hwa?” Alice says. “Are you all right?”

She nods her head.

Why the jumble of memories and sensations and visions? Is this Morgen trying to tell her something?

Meanwhile, Sánchez’ authority is in danger of collapsing.

“These are forgeries! Patent forgeries!” Eneko shouts, hammering his fist down on the judge’s bench. “Being passed off as evidence right here in the Bureau of Justice by Xian spies and enemy infiltrators. Call the Guard in this minute! I demand their immediate arrest.”

Even in the isolated heart of the Justice building, the sound of thunder that follows Eneko’s outburst makes it seem like the skies above Iruña have been torn in two.

There’s a long electronic screech and the holo-projection flickers into life. Whatever has been jamming the communications into the building fails before the assault of military grade transmissions.

Gradually, the head and shoulders of a figure in dark green uniform appears and fills the projection. He is pale, and even as a projected image, there is a sense of his anger exploding into the courtroom.

“I am Duke Bleyd Aguirre-Tremayne,” he says, his voice low. “Prime Minister and Commander of the Armed Forces of Kernow. I am here as part of the joint Xian-Kernow forces tasked with ensuring the safety of the relief convoy. And I am looking for my wife, Duchess Zarate Mirari Aguirre-Tremayne.”

 

Chapter 66

Zara

 

The sound of the skimmer erupts above the Bureau of Justice, reaching down even into the deep shaft of the well that stands in the central courtyard.

It’s probably not just any skimmer either. From Danny’s description, it’s likely to be a fully armed atmospheric assault craft of the Xian marines, and my husband is about to become ‘intemperate’, as he would probably put it, in calmer moments.

The final sealing bolt succumbs to another of Danny’s precision explosives, and he pushes the cap off the well shaft, letting the smoke and stench of his work dissipate into the cold, clear air swirling about the Bureau of Justice’s courtyard.

Danny jumps out and I follow, the backpack with the data modules on my back.

“Go,” he says, with a nervous glance up at the craft circling above before he leans down to give Kat a hand. “We’ll be there in a moment.”

The Presidential Guard are all outside the building, thank the Goddess. The two hundred meter climb up the well shaft has left my already tired like jelly. I feel as if I’ve run the whole way from Berriaren. I’m in no state to fight my way into the courtroom past armed guards.

A long corridor takes me to the main hall. The courtroom I need is the main one, the easiest to reach. It’s at the top of the first wide flight of stairs, a short stretch of blue-carpeted semi-circles. I sprint up.

There are two clerks who are standing by the door. Their jaws drop in horror at the sight of me.

Do I really look that bad?

One raises his hands. I push them out of the way and burst into the room. Hwa is at the front bench, along with the Primo Ministro and others. Bleyd’s image is looming above the holographic projector, just at that moment speaking my name.

“I’m here,” I call out, hurrying forward.

The holograph tracks Bleyd as he turns to look at me.

I’m suddenly very aware of myself; if you don’t count swimming in the river, I haven’t washed since the high sierras, my clothes are torn and filthy and hanging loose on me. My cheeks are sunken. I look like Kat did in Berriaren, a wet-sea pirate crawling in the dirt.

And immediately, I’m also aware that it doesn’t matter at all. He looks at me as hungrily as his wolf namesake, and some indefinable easing around his eyes tells me how much seeing me means to him.

We silently mouth the words I love you to each other.

Any spoken words would have been buried in a chorus from Loiola and Eneko, trying to get the clerks to throw me out of the courtroom.

“The Duchess is an accredited representative of the Fortunate Stars Hong,” Mai yells.

“And an accredited representative of the government of Kernow,” Bleyd adds, returning quickly to his business face.

“What the nova has Kernow got to do with this?” Ivakin asks Sánchez, throwing her hands up in exasperation.

“Kernow defeated the Hajnal attack,” I reply. “Newyan needs help to do the same. I have the proof for Delegate Hwa’s case.”

“Not that conspiracy theory again!” Taha says.

Sánchez hammers the gavel until the shouting stops.

“All of you! Sit down or I will have the sergeant clear the court. Sit! Except Zarate Aguirre. I wish to hear about this ‘proof’. Approach.”

It takes ten minutes for the rest of them to retreat to their chairs. I lean against the bench. Without its support, I might just collapse on the floor.

I can hear Hwa in my head. I can hear Morgen as well, hidden in some unused side room and protected by the Xian marines. Either that, or I have a fever and I’m hallucinating.

Sánchez looks as close to collapse as I am. His face is guarded. Hwa can’t read him, and neither can I. I suspect he knows what I’m carrying and what it means for him, yet he’s letting the case continue.

As silence eventually falls, he leans across the bench.

“So… I know your grandfather had access to our systems,” he murmurs quietly.

“He created a complete copy of the Bureau of Justice’s government records, right down to the encryption. Every last statement and communication up to the point he made it. Proof of the Hajnal. You know what’s in there, Ministro.”

Sánchez nods slowly.

My grandfather thought he was different to the rest of them. Misguided, in my grandfather’s eyes, but not evil.

“He would have used it himself, but for his reluctance about the earliest records,” I go on. “The records from Berriaren.”

And of course, the small matter that he was murdered before he could overcome that reluctance. A decision that this man might have participated in.

“And now we are past that reluctance,” Sánchez says. “Everything has gone too far to be drawn back by any lesser revelation than the official archives.”

“Yes.”

“You know, of course, that Justinian is a licensed and powerful AI, and that it will prevent you accessing certain interdicted records? And that the copies you have are encrypted in such a way that they only can be read by Justinian?”

Justinian is the name of the Bureau of Justice’s computer system.

I feel Hwa stir in my mind, feeding me the response. “The records and the copies of the system are holographically stored and linked by quantum encryption. I rely on that linkage to be the proof that the records I will reveal are true. Without going into the details of how I intend to do it, I believe I can overcome the AI’s interdiction once the copies are connected to the system.”

Justinian stands no chance against Hwa, let alone her backed up by Xing.

“And, assuming you prove your case, what will you do?” he says.

We lock eyes. Grandfather always said Sánchez was the most intelligent and principled member of the conspiracy. Dare I rely on his judgment? Or has Sánchez been corrupted?

“Everyone concerned must face justice, according to the planet’s laws,” I say. “Everyone.”

His head dips a fraction. “And after the responsible parties are in prison? What will you do with the government and social fabric of Newyan?”

“It is not up to me, Ministro. I’m not here as a conqueror. But in my opinion, the law must be applied as it should have been. Records must be cleared. Stolen assets returned. Those are the first steps.”

“You may not think of yourself as a conqueror, but people will look up and see the military might that has accompanied this change, and they might draw a different conclusion.” He sighs. “And after the restitution?”

There’s a long moment of silence. I know what he’s saying. From what Danny has told me, the Xian marines control all the provincial capitals across the planet. Bleyd has enough to take over Iruña as well, but how would that be seen, and what would lie beyond? I’m well aware that some of the political reforms that Sánchez worked for are popular. Of course they are. Just as I’m well aware that a great number of the surviving Founding Families wouldn’t deserve their former standing in Newyan.

What would grandfather have done?

He would never have worked with Sánchez.

But maybe if he had, things would have gone a different way. I can’t afford the same mistakes. Not with knowing what is truly at risk.

I have to try to work with Sánchez’ ideas at least, if not the man himself.

“Have you seen the reforms that my husband has been working towards on Kernow?” I ask.

For the first time, a little light comes into his face. “I have been following those developments with great interest,” he says slowly. “Very great interest.”

“It wouldn’t be for me to impose them, but I’d argue for exactly the same on Newyan.”

“Ah.” His eyes close and he bows his head. He seems somehow a little shrunken at that moment.

Then he touches his pad, and I feel the interface to the Bureau of Justice’s AI come to life behind me.

“Present your data modules, Zarate Aguirre.”

Ignoring the calls and complaints from the other ministers, I turn to the AI system. The modules need only to be connected to the power rail for them to wake and connect with the system. It’s the work of a moment.

The system’s avatar manifests as a holo-projection above it. Ironically, it’s the face of Xabat Abarran Aguirre which appears alongside my husband.

“Four data modules connected,” Xabat’s avatar says.

“Justinian, please confirm the contents of those modules,” Sánchez demands.

“They are true and exact copies of the main archive, dated on the 14th October of last year.”

That’s the first step, but now I need to appear to be controlling the system. Ignoring the rising noise from the Loiola and Eneko, I place my hand on the identification panel.

It tingles as the system scans me and compares me to the database. There’s a long pause. This is as secure an identification system as they could make it. In addition to a retinal scan which it’s already done, it’ll look at my fingerprints and the patterns of blood vessels in my hand. Finally, it has similar technology to the seekers that the Syndacians used to hunt Kat. It analyses the chemical composition of my sweat, and my breath, and the scent of my body.

After a few hours in the labyrinth, the last is not a pleasant thought.

“I recognize Zarate Mirari Aguirre, daughter of the Founding Family Aguirre,” the avatar says at last.

Not Aguirre-Tremayne; the records have not been updated with my marriage yet, but I let that go.

“Please confirm I am the eldest direct descendant of Xabat Abarran Aguirre.”

“You are,” Justinian says.

“On that basis, I claim full access rights under law AC057.”

The eldest of any Founding Family has the right to query the Bureau of Justice’s system. That was laid down in law by the Founders – AC057 in the index.

“Access denied.”

“Identify the law that negates AC057.”

Justinian is silent for a minute. “There is no law that negates AC057.”

I know there isn’t, and I’m not really cracking an AI with my logic. Hwa and Xing connected to Justinian as soon as it powered up, and they are ruthlessly digging deeper and deeper, much more efficiently than I can. I catch the barest echo of how quickly they’re working and it’s scary. If Justinian could feel emotion, it would be terrified now. In the first moments, it lost control of communications. Now, it’s losing control of its memory matrix. Through my connection with Hwa, I can almost hear the attack on the system’s underlying logic core, like torrential rain on a metal roof.

That ‘noise’ is balanced by the increasingly loud agitation from the government’s side.

Sánchez bangs his gavel to no effect.

Hwa slows and I get a visualization of a series of questions to ask.

“Justinian, confirm you are negating AC057 on the basis of a directive, identified as JGH7464.”

“You are correct.” Hwa is allowing Justinian to communicate with me as if nothing else were happening.

“Is JGH7464 referenced in any laws?”

“No.”

“But your operation is circumscribed by law. Therefore you cannot operate the commands in directive JGH7464.”

The system is silent. I doubt it’s processing my logical trap so much as trying to hold itself together under the assault from Hwa and Xing. We don’t want questions asked about where I am getting help from, so Hwa comes up with another suggestion.

“Directive override,” I say. “Reference Aguirre 822.”

Let anyone listening think my grandfather programmed in some back door.

The system remains silent.

“Access document 3010-05-01 section 5,” I say.

“Access is not possible.” Justinian’s words sound hesitant to me.

“Access document 3010-05-01 section 5, from the modules.”

The projection of Xabat Abarran Aguirre disappears, to be replaced by a document with the formal heading and notifications of the government, identifying it as a confidential minutes of a meeting of ministers.

There is a shocked silence in the room.

“Confirm that this is an accurate copy of the same document in the archives.”

“Confirmed,” the system says.

“Ministro Sánchez, stop this immediately,” Eneko calls out. “This woman is attempting to override confidentiality mechanisms that are fundamental to the government’s proper operation.”

I ignore the shouting and speak again to the machine. “Extrapolate, Justinian: all documents that exist in the modules can be read and are true and exact copies of documents in your main memory matrix.”

I feel the rush of Hwa and Xing breaking through the AI’s final defenses.

“If all matched documents can be read then directive JGH7464 has no function and no legal basis. Override directive JGH7464, reference Aguirre 822,” I say loudly.

Hwa and Xing withdraw.

Xabat’s image returns. “Directive JGH7464 is overridden. You have full access rights, Zarate Mirari Aguirre.”

Yes!

Sánchez stands up stiffly and his clerk yells for silence until the minister is able to speak to the courtroom.

“It seems you have the opportunity to present your proof, Zarate Aguirre,” he says, “but I must now prepare to recuse myself. The scope of this case means that it may have to be taken over by the Commission of Enquiry. Commissioners Taha and Ivakin, I call you to the bench to co-preside on this case.”

 

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 23

Summary of Ep 22:

Zara, Talan, Kat and Ruslan escape the annihilation of the helicopter by the cannon of the Bihariz, thanks to Hwa’s remote intervention. They continue down the river, hiding beneath a raft of debris.
Meanwhile Hwa attends the preliminary session of her court case. The timing is all in the balance – too early and there’s not enough time for Zara to get to Iruna with the vital evidence Hwa will use to trap the Enquiry into distributing. Too late and the food relief convoy will distribute their food, removing the threat that Hwa has used to get the court case moving. The Commissioners are forced to agree to the court case and make the mistake of announcing they will attend, meaning that anything that Hwa can reveal in the first session will be entered into the Enquiry’s records. Will Zara get there in time?
She and the others must journey through the labyrinth beneath the city to avoid the guards.

Episode 23 – 8k words – the pot comes to the boil. Everything is kicking off. And … we have a couple of cliffhangers. 🙂

Nearly there – over 90k words, and probably only two episodes left.

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel to A Name Among the Stars and it starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

+ + + + + + +

Chapter 58

Sánchez

 

He’s standing in front of the window in his office at the Bureau of Justice.

The curtains are open. People from Security keep telling him it’s not safe, that there might be an assassin out there, but he can’t see the people far below with the curtain in the way.

The view gives him a sense of vertigo, of falling. A sensation exactly like matters of state in Iruña at the moment.

His stomach is already upset and his heart seems to be permanently racing. A little vertigo is neither here nor there.

Astonishingly, he is still Ministro of both Justice and Defense, as proved when the call he’s been waiting for is connected to his pad. It’s Captain Tiziana, commander of the naval destroyer Biháriz, and until about ten minutes ago, a ‘guest’ of the Bureau of Security in their hellish basement.

“Ministro Sánchez?”

Tiziana’s voice is rough and immensely wary. It’s hardly surprising that she’s expecting this is some kind of interrogation trick.

He manages keep his voice even and businesslike. “Captain. You are on the coach? All of you?”

“Yes, sir. All seventeen of us on the list that has been given to me. I… I wasn’t aware of some of them.”

“There’s no way you could keep track of Defense personnel being mistakenly arrested by the Bureau of Security,” he says. “Captain, are you well enough to assume control of the Biháriz again?”

“I am, sir.” Again, so wary as to be disbelieving.

“Good. The coach will deposit you at the space elevator very shortly. I have called ahead and alerted them. You are to be sent up as a priority group immediately you arrive. One group, not split up. A shuttle from your ship will then collect you.” He pauses. “I am aware these people are not all from your ship, and indeed some of them have no space experience. Nevertheless you will accommodate them. If there are some among you who require medical attention, that will be provided on the ship, by the ship’s doctor. Am I clear so far?”

“Yes, sir.” More uncertain than wary, now.

“I regard the mistaken interference with Defense personnel as a serious matter,” Sánchez says, speaking carefully. “The diversion from your duties has led to problems and we are stretched beyond capacity. I have therefore issued orders that there is to be no transfer of Defense personnel to any facility or holding place other than Defense’s own without my authorization. All planet-based leave is cancelled until further notice.”

“Your personal authorization, or the authorization of the Ministro of Defense, sir?”

Good. She’s thinking about this: he may not be the Ministro very much longer.

“As always, you will comply with all legitimate orders in accordance with the Articles of Naval Service, your oath, and your conscience. I believe you should be arriving at the space elevator now, Captain.”

That is no more than a summary of what every cadet is told before the oath. He ends the call before she can respond.

His conversations are undoubtedly being recorded, but he has said and done nothing that exceeds his authority or is actually directed against the government. Or the movement.

He’s done what he can, and it makes him feel better, but actually it’s nothing really.

The navy takes orders from the government. Although both destroyer captains, Tiziana on Biháriz and Lim on Santoña have their families living on the Defense-controlled orbital facilities, others of their crew will have families on Newyan. It’s not as if he could order them to turn against the government, or that they would consider it.

It’s a mess. How did it get like this?

And why did Berges authorize the release of the prisoners?

He’d made the demand out of a sense that he should be doing it. There were no grounds to arrest Tiziana, or her XO. Indeed, none of the Defense personnel should have been arrested by Security. Such behavior is a sign that Berges’ paranoia is going further out of control.

But she has had the backing of Loiola and Eneko.

There will be a reaction to what he’s done, but he has to make them understand. They’ve stopped talking about their principles, about the reasons they all shared for starting the movement and joining up with the Hajnal. And without those principles, what are they doing?

He has to get through to Loiola or Eneko. Berges is a lost cause. She’s become ill.

Dangerously ill.

What if she authorized the release just to see what he’d do? To test his loyalty? What if the group is being re-arrested right now at the space elevator?

“Ministro?”

He’d missed the gentle knock on the door. He turns to see the subsecretario.

“I know you wanted some time,” the man says. “But there’s a call from Colonel Karis. He won’t speak to me.”

Karis. The Syndacian commander. Another call that Sánchez has been expecting this morning.

“Put him through.”

 

Karis’ voice is echoing down the line. The colonel is at a command base which he set up at the Orbaiz railway station, close to where the hunt is going on, but outside the area effected by the ash cloud. Since the loss of the communications satellite for that area, the redirecting of calls through other satellites and the InfoHub has been improving, but slowly.

“Say again,” Sánchez requests.

“The cloud … cannot risk helicopters … search,” Karis says. “Already three failures … needed airlift by skimmer. Skimmer’s not equipped … area to search increases …” The line hisses out completely, then returns. “… possible fugitives are already …”

Sánchez can fill in the blanks. The Syndacians are getting nowhere. The helicopters can’t fly through the cloud resulting from the Biháriz’s bombardment. They can’t fly above it and still use their scanners, and the skimmers don’t have the right kind of ground-scanning capabilities. The mercenaries haven’t been able to find the Aguirres, and won’t, unless they get lucky.

He’s not expecting the next item.

“… not been able … contact HQ,” the colonel says, before fading in another storm of static. “… return Cabezón … investigate … ”

The HQ is back at the airfield next to Cabezón. Cabezón, where the Aguirres have just been.

Sánchez’ heart misses a beat. A revolt in the high sierras? Or just bad communications?

The line fades into white noise.

“Hello? Hello?”

His aide opens the door. “Sir, Ministro Berges is in the elevator. You wanted to be warned of her arrival. Her guards have been stopped downstairs as per your orders.”

“Thank you,” he says. “Leave the door open.”

Holding her guards is not going to improve her temper, but in fact, he’s just following her own recommended Security protocols.

A minute later, she’s through the door like an agitated eel, closing it behind her. Her eyes are too large in her pale face, her pupils dilated. He wonders if she’s started using drugs to keep alert.

“We are under attack, Sánchez,” she says.

Not the first sentence he expected from her.

“We seem to be, Ministro Berges. Please, take a seat. Some refreshment?”

She waves it aside.

“My electronic communications have been hacked! Yours too.”

Ah. She didn’t authorize that release. They really have been busy, the Xian.

“You mean regarding the Defense personnel?” he asks.

“Yes! What have you done with them?”

“I sent them up to the Biháriz. It will keep them out of the way, and besides, there wasn’t really any justification for incarcerating them.” Before she can snap back at him, he adds. “We are under attack in other ways as well, I believe.”

“What? How?”

“Colonel Karis believes that the Syndacian HQ at Cabezón is either under attack or has already fallen.”

That’s why the Aguirres went there. They must have been preparing for this all along. Months, years in preparation.” Her face distorts. “There is no way the Aguirres could achieve this alone. Xian has to be behind all this. I knew it. I knew it. Xian!”

Sánchez doesn’t reply that she knew no such thing, according to his memory. Berges will believe whatever underpins her latest paranoia.

“They want an uprising. They want to snatch Newyan from the people, give it back to the Founding Families.” She is silent for a while, blinking. “Because there are only a dozen of the families left. That’s why Xian have done this! Control those dozen families through their greed and Xian would have control over the whole planet. But they can’t! The planet belongs to the people, and we will not let it go.”

It being dangerous to speak, Sánchez does not. The scenario she’s describing seems uncomfortably like the way the Hajnal have operated, using key recruitments in the Bureaux to achieve control over the planet.

She’s staring into the distance, her hands flexing as if she’s about to do some gymnastics, before snapping back to him. “What are you doing about the revolt in Cabezón?”

“The Syndacians are going back. They’re short of helicopters, so it’ll take them a day to shuttle their forces back and retake the airfield.”

“Will they succeed? Quickly?”

Sánchez shudders. He knows, from the look on her face, that she’s considering using the Biháriz plasma cannons again. She enjoyed the destruction.

“The rebels are untrained rabble,” he says hurriedly. “And recovering supplies and munitions from the airfield would be advantageous. Also, the airfield is too close to Cabezón itself for any alternatives to be viable.”

He’s not entirely sure Captain Tiziana would obey a command to obliterate part of Cabezón, and Berges trying to order her could precipitate a genuine revolt. He has to keep a lid on the situation while he works out a way to repair this situation. He won’t be able to if the navy appears to be in mutiny.

“Very well. Deploy the skimmer squadron to hunt down Aguirre instead,” she says.

“The skimmers are already there. They can fly through the ash cloud, but the specification of their scanning equipment is different. Very poor resolution at that size. They can’t distinguish between a human and an otter, for instance.”

Berges blinks and frowns. “So what? Kill everything that moves on the river. Problem solved.” She begins to pace up and down. “I’ll keep the security on the gates. They’ll arrest any of that party that survives when they try to get into the city.”

She turns suddenly. “What to do about the Xian delegation? They’re attacking us through our own communications!” Without waiting for an answer, she whips out her pad and makes a call.

“López, send a squad to the municipal sub-station in Block 2D. Take a specialist with electrical installation knowledge. Ensure the power to the Xian delegation building is isolated and cut. Leave the squad there on guard to make sure it stays that way. Also, copy to all security units protecting the city: no Xian delegation cars are allowed to exit or enter the city until further notice. Tell the delegates it’s for their own safety if they ask.”

She ends the call as quickly, and turns to him.

That will put an end to their electronic interference and prevent them getting Aguirre inside the city.”

“They will complain to the Enquiry about—”

“A technical fault. We’re doing everything we can. Come, Ministro Sánchez. The Xian can hardly deny us the relief convoy because our electrical network fails. Certainly not with our Enquiry looking on. We just need to get through the next few days. By then, Taha and Ivakin will be able to make the proposal to Earth for us to join the Inner Worlds. Everything will be easier after that.”

Sánchez nods because she expects it.

Despite the investment, it is not ‘our’ Enquiry, he thinks. Far from it.

She’s insane if she believes an application to join the Inner Worlds will succeed now. No amount of bribery of the Commissioners, even with all the Hajnal planets contributing, is going to be able to paper over the situation in Newyan. But then, she is insane.

He’s been grappling with a decision this morning, and listening to her stream of delusion has finally precipitated it. He can’t continue like this. With enormous relief, he realizes he’s committed to a different outcome now: get the Hajnal’s attention elsewhere, get them to disengage and let Newyan solve its own problems. The Hajnal, with their multi-planet views, are a distraction to his people’s battle for equality.

How to achieve that? Expose the Hajnal while retaining the movement on Newyan?

“Do you know where Yarritu is?” Berges abrupt question startles him out of his thoughts.

“No.” What has Yarritu done to attract Berges’ attention?

“He’s Ministro of Food and Agriculture. It’s an important position. I need to know where he is all the time.”

“There’s no food being produced at the moment, and all the supplies are distributed. There’s not a great deal for him to do,” he points out.

“There’s the issue of how we control the supply of relief food.”

“I got the impression that the Xian have their own ideas about that.”

She laughs. “We’ll see whether those ideas are voiced so firmly when they’re staring at the barrels of the Santoña’s plasma cannons.”

“Ministro Berges,” he hesitates. “You’re not suggesting I order—”

“Don’t be stupid, it won’t come to that, Sánchez. They’ll back down. And when they do, Yarritu will have a responsibility. He should be at his Bureau, or contactable by them. You’re here, aren’t you? In the Bureau of Justice, where you should be.”

“I don’t think he’s guilty of anything, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says cautiously.

Everyone is guilty, Ministro. Everyone.”

With that chilling assertion, she shakes her head and walks back out, apparently too distracted to question whether his message demanding the release of Defense personnel was really hacked, or why his guards refused to let her guards come upstairs, or … any of the myriad things she could pick on to bring him down. Everyone is guilty.

And yes, Yarritu isn’t in his office at the Bureau of Food and Agriculture, because there is no food left. But the man has been acting strangely.

He’s here, despite the fact that there is no Justice.

She’s here, despite the fact there is no Security.

The subsecretario is at his door again, clearing his throat. “You asked to be kept informed, sir. We no longer have communications with the city of Lourdios.”

“Move the Biháriz to orbit above the city and see if they can communicate with anyone,” he says. “What about Sainte Engrâce?”

“Continued unrest, but the police say it’s under control. A report will be on your desk within an hour.”

Sánchez nods his thanks, and the man leaves.

Will the exposure of the Hajnal and the arrival of the relief supplies be enough to calm the situation? Who takes control when Eneko is deposed? How can I use what I can’t prevent?

His pad is still in his hand. He flicks back through the secret document sent to him by his technical manager earlier. There is nothing there he didn’t pick up the first time he read through it.

He knows now what the Aguirre woman has, and how she intends to use it against them.

There are ways he can prevent that, of course.

He bears the woman herself no animosity. What was done to her family was appalling, but justifiable for the greater good. And clearly, she must go as well. But how to use her attack to focus only on the Hajnal? How to protect himself? How to keep the progress they’ve made for equality?

He turns back to his window, places his hands behind his back and stares out at the view, again getting the sense that everything is falling, accelerating down.

Far beneath, the people of Iruña walk across the square. He rubs his face. Long hours and stress must have affected his vision; he can’t see his people as clearly as he once could.

Chapter 59

Newyan space

 

Captain Lim, commander of the Newyan Defense Ship Santoña, forces his hand to relax and surreptitiously wipes it on his leg.

What’s wrong with me?

He’s sitting in the chair that he always wanted when he joined the Newyan Navy: Captain of the Santoña. One of the two destroyers in the Newyan ‘fleet’ and the ultimate off-planet post for a Newyan naval commander.

This morning’s news is good, on the face of it: Captain Tiziana and her XO are back aboard the Biháriz. The government has decided to leave the navy to do naval things, apparently, instead of declaring her a traitor for driving off a pirate. A pirate in the Newyan system. It sends his pulse soaring with rage, but there’s more to worry about than that.

He and Tiziana have established a code in their communications. Nothing formal, but he knows from her latest bland message telling him she’s back on ship, she’s been deeply unsettled by being arrested by the Security goons. A feeling that has not receded now she’s been released.

What to do? Mutiny?

He’s been feeling increasingly worried. Thinking hard about it, he realizes with surprise that he’s has been worrying for the last couple of years at least.

It’s the old story of boiling a frog slowly so he doesn’t notice.

Things are very wrong on Newyan, despite all the announcements from the media—not that he pays much attention to what the media says now. It’s become a complete propaganda machine for the government. It’s been trying to claim there was no real problem with food supplies over the last year. And here he is waiting for the Xian relief convoy, without which the urban populations of the planet will starve.

Also, here he is, with orders to escort the ships to orbit at the space elevator terminal, knowing they’ve said they intend to go directly to the cities and use their own shuttles to unload.

Does the Admiral expect him to fire on an unarmed relief convoy if they won’t do as he says?

What’s happening in Iruña, that things have come to this?

He wipes his hand on his leg again and looks up at the main visual monitors. They’re focused on the approximate volume of space where the convoy should emerge in a day or two, and the monitors have a good motion detection and zoom algorithm. The view suddenly leaps forwards and Captain Lim is staring, uncomprehending, into the heart of a firework a thousand kilometers wide.

“Helm, back!” he yells.

The helmsman sends them backwards at maximum power.

What the nova?

Ships entering Chang space have velocities that are preserved on exit, but the entry system and exit system may also have velocities relative to each other. Most ships enter a system at a smallish fraction of light speed and pointing at the approximate location of the planet they intend to approach. It’s required by the laws of some systems and good manners elsewhere.

Ignored by these arrivals. Three spaceships have just entered the Newyan system at extremely high velocities, pointing in three different directions, from a relatively tiny volume of space.

Captain Lim has never heard of that being attempted before. The navigation and synchronization requirements to achieve it without collision or cross-effect are unbelievable.

And as a final effect on the top of this incredible maneuver, sufficiently high velocity entry from Chang space is characterized by violent plasma discharges. It really does look like a firework exploding.

“Shields!” he calls out.

“Shields, aye.” His weapons team had them powered and ready before his command.

“Sound battle stations.”

“Battle stations, aye.”

He feels the ship preparing around him like a charge of electricity building. The Santoña may be no more than an outdated destroyer in a two-ship navy out in the Margin, but she’s his ship and no one is going to say she’s not fit for purpose.

Pride in his ship floods back to replace the shock he’d felt at that ridiculous entry display.

His seat has reconfigured for military maneuvers, as has every station on the bridge.

“Paint those ships for me,” he says. “Full active scan for ten seconds. Deploy ELINT platforms.”

“Full active scan, aye.”

“ELINT platforms deployed, aye.”

The ship’s weapon systems come fully on line. Two additional high-power scanning platforms get ejected to either side and move off to get clear of any interference from the ship.

The situational awareness hologram shimmers into existence in front of Lim. It has the three ships tagged with simple ‘unknown’ labels. The size adjusts to keep the Santoña neatly in the middle of the display and the unknown ships at the edges.

On the monitors, the firework display of plasma from the arrival dies and the paths of the three ships turn and curve back in, as if they were each outlining the shape of a petal, hundreds of thousands of kilometers big.

His XO touches his pad, squinting at the figures on it. “Serious maneuvering, sir. Definitely military grade compensators.”

The holographic projection blurs.

“What…”

The three unknown ship icons start to blink amber.

Lost trace? While on full active scan?

“Scanners!”

There’s a moment’s hesitation. “No malfunction. We’re being jammed, sir.”

Then “Oh, nova!” The lieutenant stabs at his control pad and the edge of the holographic projection lights up with a red tinge. “We’re being targeted, sir!”

Warning screeches comes from the Weapons Station. Missile and targeting scanners are locked on the Santoña.

“Evasion 10-21,” he blurts out the first defensive procedure that comes to mind.

“10-21, aye,” the helmsman activates the pre-programmed maneuvers, hurling them around so hard he can feel the structure groan as the acceleration compensators max out.

“Deploy decoys.”

“Decoys, aye,” comes from the Weapons Station. Two small platforms eject and begin to mimic the electronic signature of the ship, while racing away from it.

As quickly as they started, the warnings cease.

“No missiles detected, sir. No longer being targeted.”

The holographic projection’s color shifts to the normal blue. They are not under attack.

Now, in the projector, the three ships are named: Shohwa, Máquè and Húlí. The Shohwa has come to stand between the Santoña and the point of entry.

The other two are stationary on either side of the Chang space exit point, like guards.

How did they get there so quickly?

“Ships emerging, sir.”

Neatly bracketed between the Máquè and the Húlí, freighters emerge from Chang space in a stately, glittering line, without any of the drama of the first three.

Máquè and Húlí are Xian Harrier-Class corvettes of the Hegemony navy,” his XO says, reading from the analysis on his pad.

That is tolerably good news. Old she may be, but the Santoña mounts a battery of ten 0.6 cannon each side as well as five 0.2 in the bow and stern. She’s more than a match for a couple of lightweight corvettes who probably don’t even have ten cannon in total, and all those lighter than his bow guns. However, he leaves the shields up.

“And that’s the freighter Shohwa?” he asks, disbelieving it. No merchant ship maneuvers like that.

“The IFF says so, sir.”

He can tell his XO doesn’t believe it either. “I could paint it again…”

Lim holds his hand up to stop him. He has the feeling that blasting the Shohwa with active scanners would be like poking the Xian with a stick.

“Visuals of the Shohwa to main monitor,” he says instead. “Along with images from the library.”

The library images are what he expects from a modern Xian merchanter. A two kilometer spine with main reaction engines at the back, crew space at the front, and with the spine surrounded by five modular cargo pods, each stretching the length of that spine. Chang space generators and compensator assemblies ring the front and back. The ship looks over-powered in the engines, and very sleek, but otherwise not especially remarkable.

The image from today, in contrast, raises the hair on his arms.

Two of the cargo modules are gone. The acceleration compensator rings have been replaced with something far more bulky and powerful. And those cargo modules… something about the way there are shapes implied, dotted along their length…

“Can you do something about the resolution?” he says.

“Resolution, aye.”

There’s a long pause. The image zooms in, but does not resolve into more detail. Then: “There’s broad spectrum interference, sir. No greater resolution possible.”

“Incoming comms, sir. Direct beam. From the Shohwa.”

“Main screen.”

Nothing. The screen dissolves into static.

“Comms error, sir.”

“Fix it!”

Anger makes him snap at the comms operator. His ship is being made to look its age.

He needs to talk to the captain of the Shohwa, urgently, so no misunderstandings arise. If he’s right, the Shohwa is a Xian naval ship disguised as a merchanter. Probably one of their anti-piracy fleet.

And that nova-blasted customs cutter Duhalde fired on it!

“Where’s that comms?”

“Can’t seem to resolve it, sir.”

“Reset your comms processor. Bring it up again from scratch. Hurry.”

“Sir…” the XO is there to warn him when he steps past standard operating procedures. Recycling the comms equipment in an unknown and potentially hostile situation is one of those procedures.

But it’s a relief convoy.

He nods to acknowledge the XO and waves at the comms officer to go on.

Of course, he’s just called it a relief convoy because that’s what he’s expecting. What if it’s an invasion?

The thought is preposterous. Even if it is, he’ll just have to deal with it. A pair of corvettes and an armed merchanter? A thin smile comes to his face. Can do.

One minute later the screen clears.

A man in the deep blue of Xian’s Space Defense Force looks out at him.

“Captain Lim, I believe.” It’s not a question, and the man continues, his attitude neither particularly friendly nor overtly antagonistic. “I am Major Daniel Tiernen of the Hegemony Marine Corps, tasked with escorting the relief convoy to their destinations and ensuring delivery of supplies to cities on Newyan.”

The holographic shows the last of the convoy emerging in perfect timing, and the two corvettes taking up flanking positions. All the ships begin to pick up the pace.

“Major Tiernan.” Lim clears his throat. “We seemed to have doubled up; the Santoña has also been dispatched to escort the convoy, to lead them to orbit by the space elevator, from where the supplies will be distributed. We’re holding the elevator at top priority for this, naturally.”

“Under the circumstances, and given recent events in this system, the Hegemony has erred on the side of caution with regard to protection,” the major says, his face emotionless. “Hence our arrival. My apologies if that startled you. Regardless of that, your space elevator can stand down. The relief effort is equipped to deliver to all provincial capitals and oversee the distribution. My orders are to facilitate that, and I intend to follow those orders. Tiernan out.”

The Shohwa moves swiftly, taking a place behind the convoy.

The shocked silence on the bridge of the Santoña is profound.

“Signals, prepare a tight beam communication link for one of the planetary orbital relays,” Lim says, trying to radiate calm.

His XO leans around the padded protection of his seat, muttering quietly for him only.

“Sir, if you took a ship like the Shohwa and stuffed those cargo modules full of cannon, missiles and shields, you could theoretically end up with the equivalent of a cruiser.”

Captain Lim grunts. He’s reached the same conclusion.

Reliable facts about space battles are thin. A single destroyer, on paper, wouldn’t want to take on a cruiser, not even one that’s really a disguised merchanter, especially when you add a couple of corvettes into the wrong side of the equation. On the other hand, two destroyers, like Santoña and Biháriz together, would have more weight of broadside than a cruiser and two corvettes. Just. Cruisers have much more power to spare—they can recycle their cannon charges quicker, fire more bolts. They have deeper shielding. Against that, destroyers are quicker, harder to hit.

Tough call.

He has no experience of real space battles, but he and Tiziana have trained together with scenarios including attacking something bigger than their destroyers.

He has no idea what the experience of the Xian ships might amount to.

The huge unknown is the Terran cruiser Annan, sitting in orbit around Newyan. Whose side would they take, if it came down to it?

“Helm, minimum duration path to retrieve ELINT and decoy platforms.”

The helmsman responds.

“Going to have to hurry,” mutters the XO. “Look at them move.”

On their holo-projection, the whole convoy is accelerating toward Newyan far faster than freighters should be able to.

Lim’s face is grim. “You have the bridge. Expedite things. I’ll be in my cabin, on the tight beam, talking to Defense and then Captain Tiziana.”

 

Chapter 60

Zara

 

Navigating the network of tunnels beneath Iruña starts deceptively easily.

The rivers run through immense caverns in the rock. We take the right hand one, the Neve. A walkway has been cut in the side of the cavern, well above the waters. It’s dark, cold, noisy, slippery, and the edge has no guardrail, but it’s a lot safer than being hunted by mercenaries out in the open.

How long before someone looks at the map and realizes what we’re trying to do?

Hwa’s instructions are detailed, but we quickly realize that it’s impossible to measure distance accurately. There are accurate positioning systems on pads, but they require communication with a satellite. Even if we could get a signal under all this rock, it would probably be a bad idea to have our pads communicating with the government’s positioning system.

We had a good length of rope in Berriaren, but between making stretchers for Kat, and then lashing together a raft, it’s been considerably reduced. We tie remaining bits together and end up with a thirty meter measuring tape. That lasts for about a kilometer, then the walkway becomes so narrow and slippery, Talan decides the rope is better suited to tying us together.

An hour later, we estimate we’re in the location where Hwa’s instructions say we need to start moving up.

I make them sit and rest with Talan. Ruslan takes one flashlight and walks back slowly, I go forward. We’re both looking up at the overhang above the walkway. Somewhere in this section, there’s an entrance to the next level recessed into the overhang. It’s described as being a round bulkhead door with a wheel lock. Black metal. Easy to miss with your eyes on the floor.

We come back, shaking our heads.

“Too far, or not far enough?” I ask Talan.

She grimaces. “Not far enough, probably.”

We move on, more slowly, checking the overhang as we go. Another fifteen minutes passes before Ruslan grunts and points up.

We’ve found the door. A tubular shaft has been drilled through the rock and the door is set in it, about half way. Too high to reach the wheel lock, even for Ruslan.

“Think this is the right one?” I murmur to Talan.

The pause before she answers tells me as much as I need. We’re really not sure, but going all the way back doesn’t seem right either.

We give the flashlights to Kat to hold while Talan and I lift Ruslan on our shoulders. He’s stronger than us, should the wheel lock be tight with disuse.

He’s also a lot heavier than us.

“Good choice,” Talan complains through gritted teeth as we twist and wobble in the darkness, very aware of the drop down to the water just behind us.

After a lot of grunting and gasping, the wheel finally turns and Ruslan opens the door. There’s a sliding ladder above it that he pulls down. We climb. The shaft has a lip raised above the level of the floor which has prevented any dirt gathering on the bulkhead door. We step out from the shaft and Talan pulls up the ladder and closes the bulkhead behind us.

We’re now in the lowest level of a multi-layered network of sewer system tunnels heading for distant treatment plants. Thankfully, the sewage is in closed pipes running along the tunnels. Despite that, it still smells, so we start walking quickly. At least there’s no ten meter drop down to a freezing river to worry about.

There is the problem of where we are exactly.

Hwa’s instructions say we should reach a ‘junction chamber’ in two hundred meters, and it’s much easier to estimate meters on the flat surface of this walkway than it was above the Neve.

Two hundred meters comes and goes.

At about three hundred meters, there’s a room which could be described as a chamber. Some of the pipes join others, and flow into a larger diameter pipe. That could be the junction. The pipe joins leak and it stinks in here. Grey electrical wire appears from a pipe in the ceiling, and runs to the middle of the room, where it’s been left to hang waiting for a light installation that never happened. It looks sad.

“Didn’t bother with the lights. Pity,” Kat says.

“That has to be a junction,” Talan says, pointing at the construction where small pipes connect to a bigger one. “This is the junction chamber.”

“The right one though?” I’m feeling uneasy.

“As long as we keep going up, we’ve got to get out into the city somewhere,” Kat says.

“It would seem logical, but none of us is an expert in the design of municipal sewers,” I say.

I’m worried and trying not to show it, while still arguing caution.

“Let’s look at the next bit,” Kat says.

The next section is supposed to be a fifty meter walk to find a ladder of iron rungs set in the wall on the right. There’s no ladder at fifty meters.

Kat walks another twenty meters, and sees a ladder on the left hand side further down the tunnel.

She calls out to us, and at that exact moment, her flashlight battery dies.

Talan’s flashlight guides her back and then she switches it off while we hold a hurried conversation in the dark.

“We went wrong at the first bulkhead door,” I say. “We came too far along the Neve. We’ve got to go back.”

“But that’s going to take longer and we’re already low on battery power,” Kat says.

“The further we get into this maze, the longer it’ll take to get back to the start, which we’ll probably need to do if we get it wrong,” I respond. “We could just about make our way in these levels without a flashlight, or just using the light from our pad screens, but the place we can’t risk that is the walkway above the Neve. It’s too dangerous. We’ve got to get that part right while we have a flashlight left.”

Talan agrees with me.

Ruslan seems to follow what we’re saying and grunts approval.

“Okay,” I say, “we’ll walk back the way we came in these tunnels without the flashlight until we get back to the river walkway.”

“I’ll lead,” Talan says. “Let’s feed the rope through our belts to keep us together.”

That takes a few minutes to sort out. The darkness is pressing on my eyes, making me see flashes of light that aren’t there. My hearing goes super-sensitive as well. I can hear the breathing of all four of us, the scuff of our boots on the ground … and other things, which aren’t caused by us. Squeaks. Creaks. A sort of hum which seems to come from the pipes. Dripping water. Distant scurryings.

Rats came with mankind to Newyan. Of course there are rats down here.

There are stories as well…

Stupid. Shut up.

The sounds change.

There’s a gasp from Talan and immediately one from Kat as well. The flashlight flicks on.

Talan’s blundered against the electric cable hanging down in the middle of the junction room.

We all laugh a little raggedly, and I learn some old, short Arvish words from Talan that I hadn’t heard before.

She leaves the light on for a few moments while we get ourselves back together.

Talan isn’t over-imaginative like me. She doesn’t know the old stories about creatures that hide in the sewers under Iruña. But still, there’s a look in her eyes.

Kat’s distracted, retying the laces on her boot. Ruslan is showing her a different pattern of lacing that he thinks is better.

“What’s up, apart from electrical cable?” I mutter to Talan.

“Don’t know.” She shrugs. “Crazy. Hearing things. Like there’s someone calling my name.” She shakes her head as Kat tightens her knots. “Like I said, craziness. Come on.”

She switches the flashlight back off.

The darkness rushes back like a tangible thing, squeezing me from every side.

And nova, if I can’t now hear someone calling my name, too.

Zarate. Like a long, slow sigh. It’s like listening to the surf on a beach: listen hard enough to surf and you can persuade yourself that there are words in what you know is just noise.

Not just my name. The sound of the sea. Distant chanting. The wind keening around shaped stone.

Kat and Ruslan seem oblivious. They don’t like being blind, but they’re not hearing things. Talan and I are.

Three hundred paces to the bulkhead set in the floor of this tunnel. Just three hundred. Then we can switch the light back on.

I get a feeling that huge eyes which can see in the dark are looking for me.

I’m counting steps, partly to try and drown the sound in my head.

Three hundred.

The bulkhead’s not there.

Talan’s voice, very quiet and breathy, from in front: “My stride’s got shorter in the dark. It’s okay. We can’t walk past the bulkhead. It’s got that big, raised lip. Just keep—”

There’s a noise all of us hear.

A squeal as the bulkhead on the floor of the tunnel opens, not twenty meters in front of us.

Talan… Zarate… Talan… Zarate…

Light shines from below, and a long-headed, glistening monster, straight out of the old stories, rises up through the bulkhead tube.

 

Chapter 61

Yion

 

Nothing had prepared him for this assault on all his senses, the speed, the sheer physical violence of the attack.

One moment it had been cold and quiet in the pre-dawn of a spring morning. He’d just checked the sentries posted around the old airfield and settled back down, feeling Natalia’s warmth reaching out for him.

The next moment, the wall in front of him had exploded and the attack had begun with a rain of rockets.

He can’t see in front—the intense flashes of the rockets are burned into his retinas, blinding him. From the edges of his sight, plasma rifle rounds whip overhead, as if they’re reaching out into the darkness, searching for him with lethal, electric-blue fingers. Through the pandemonium, he can hear people screaming in pain. The building is quivering with the impact of plasma bolts and burning with a lung-searing chemical smell. The smoke is choking him, and stupidly, all his body wants to do is lie down and hide.

“Out!” Natalia shouts. A plasma rifle is thrust into his hands. She picks up hers and their ammunition, then grabbing his belt, she pulls him to the back, away from the flames. They stumble in the rubble. Through the shattered walls, he can see fuel depot go up like a torch. They fall out of their building and stagger into the central car park.

Clouds of smoke shroud everything. Half the buildings have been hit. There are eye-searing flares overhead, sinking down toward them, making him feel exposed to hidden watchers.

A few shots are fired back at the attackers, but anytime someone does, return fire from the dark perimeter concentrates on that position.

He’s quickly reached a point where he can’t get any more frightened, and his senses come back to him.

“Down! Down under cover and wait,” he calls out. He can barely hear his voice.

Natalia calls out and others shout, relaying his order. He can’t hear them either, but he has a moment of intense pride that this band of untrained volunteers responds.

While Natalia is diverted with assembling their colleagues, he takes a deep breath into his raw lungs, holds it and dives back into the building they just left.

It’s like a scene from hell, his eyes are blind to everything but the horrific glare of the flames.

He throws himself onto the floor. Under the shattered remains of some old wooden tables, his hands desperately dig through the broken neo-crete and rubble. He has to search by touch.

Here! Somewhere here! It’s got to be.

His chest feels like it’s being crushed.

Hands are gripping him.

He can’t spare the breath to order them to get back, away from the flames.

No, they’re helping him. It’s Natalia, pulling blocks of neo-crete out of the way.

His hands are slick with blood, full of splinters, painful cuts and …

There!

One hand to grip it. The other to wipe the dirt from the controls. He has to take a breath and wish he hadn’t. It burns his lungs, makes him spasm, double up in a fit of coughing, but he doesn’t let go the controller.

One switch. Two. The circuits are armed.

He can feel his hair singeing. He can feel the heat of the flames even through his jacket. Every inch of exposed skin has gone tight, cringing from the pain.

Activate.

He hammers down on the stiff button. Made deliberately stiff. Not moving. Dirt jamming it? Hit it. Again. Did it move?

Nothing!

Again.

He’s being dragged backwards, out of the building. The controller slips from his hands.

“No!”

He must finish, but Natalia can’t seem to hear him.

Clear of the building, he redoubles his struggles. Someone powerful grabs him from behind and Natalia throws freezing cold water in his face, then slaps him.

Her mouth moves. He blinks, he can just hear her over the ringing in his ears: “Look.”

She pulls his chin around, points outwards to the perimeter.

There are flames around the airfield. No one is shooting at them. The mines they laid have detonated, and by sheer luck, they detonated right in the middle of the Syndacians, just as they advanced.

 

They get an hour’s respite and they use it.

The rebel survivors look like he feels: dizzy, not hearing clearly, burned and bleeding. However, no one thinks the Syndacians have given up, and everyone who can walk helps to create a few more barriers; using damaged trucks, metal tables, doors torn off their hinges; anything they can lift and carry.

Fires are extinguished. Ammunition replenished. Bodies removed.

They have ‘medics’—junior doctors and nurses who’ve joined them. The wounded are carried to a tent they’ve prepared. It has red cross symbols on both sides. Whether or not that was the reason, it took no hits.

The rest of the airfield is a mess. Every single building has some damage, and about half are no more than rubble.

Obviously, it’s fortunate the Syndacians left their heaviest weapons here at the airfield when they went hunting Zara. The cannon were stored in containers that the rebels broke into, but unfortunately, no one here knew how to assemble them, let alone actually fire them. It was only through some lucky guesses that Yion worked out how to rig the mines.

He had the cannon and ammunition loaded up into trucks yesterday and sent them high into the hills. Perhaps the Rangers would be able to use them. Or if not, they might have the time to destroy them, to prevent the Syndacians from using them.

The rebels are left with lots of plasma rifles and enough ammunition for a siege.

It isn’t going to be a very long siege, he can see that. A quarter of them are dead or injured already.

“Why didn’t they attack again immediately?” Natalia asks, as they scrabble behind a pile of rubble and peer cautiously across the width of the airfield.

The sun is coming up. There’s a mist. They can’t see anything, but they can hear the distant sound of helicopters.

He snorts. “I guess they’re getting the rest of the troops back from chasing Zara. They’re waiting until they’re all here and in position. And once the troops are here, it frees up the helicopters to help.”

He wishes they’d been able to get one plasma cannon working. That would fix the problem of helicopters. Not that any of it would make a great deal of difference in the end.

“I’m sorry…” he starts to say.

“Shut up!” she whips around and glares at him.

“What?”

“You were going to say something like you should have sent me away with the trucks.”

It was exactly what he was going to say. He clears his throat. It still feels raw.

“Thank you for helping me find the detonator.”

She laughs. “Oh, very good. Quick change of topic, Mister Bey. Clever boy. Anyway, without you, there wouldn’t have been a detonator, or mines. We’d be dead.”

We’ll be dead soon anyway.

He doesn’t say that.

“There wouldn’t be anything without you,” he croaks. His throat hurts. “Not for me.”

She turns and looks at him. It’s got light enough that he can see her eyes. Beautiful, sad and vulnerable, all at the same time.

“You don’t need to keep pretending,” she says. “I know it’s not real. I’m nothing.”

“You’re wrong. You’re special, Natalia. Very special. I—”

She huffs. “Easy to say here and now. But words don’t change anything…” she bites her lip and looks back out at the misty dawn. “You’re a Name and I’m a nobody.”

“No—”

The sound startles them. A muffled thump, like you’d get beating dust out of a rug. Then a ripple of them.

“Down!” Yion screams. “Take cover.”

Mortar shells fall. They’re short at first: a few meters outside the rebels’ protective ring of rubble and old trucks. The explosions shake the ground, and the shells start to creep forward, obliterating their defenses. He’d thought the earlier attack was intense, but he knows now it wasn’t. It was nothing. They’d wanted to take the airfield back with only a little damage. This time, they’re intent on obliterating all the resistance. Explosions blend into one single, unending roar. The air itself is screaming with bits of stinging metal and brick and wood as their protection is torn apart.

The rising sun disappears. Towering clouds of dust and smoke sweep over them, red as old blood, bringing the darkness of another night, full of noise and terror.

The pile of rubble they’re sheltering behind takes a direct hit. They’re lifted and thrown back towards the car park.

Yion grabs Natalia. They’ve lost their rifles. He tries to get to his feet, but there’s an explosion above them, bigger than all the others. It flattens them, crushes them into the dirt. Yion can feel the earth trembling under this new assault. Flames in the sky.

And more explosions. Huge explosions. Everywhere.

He has to get them away. He tries to get up. He’s tangled with her. She’s not helping. She’s just lying there.

“Natalia! Natalia!”

Oh, Goddess!

There’s blood.

He kneels, tears away the bandoliers of ammunition. Tears away the jacket.

She’s soaked in blood.

“Medic! Medic!” he screams.

There’s no response. It’s gone quiet. The last explosions have ended everything.  Nothing moves in the hellish clouds that cover the airfield. They could be alone.

“Medic!”

Her eyes open.

“Natalia! Listen to me. We’ve got to—”

Her hand comes up, stops him. Grips his shirt.

She whispers. He has to lean down till her lips are against his ear.

“Not all stories … have a happy ending … my love.”

“No! No!” He stands up, desperately searching around. “Medic! Medic! Please!”

There are figures approaching through the swirling smoke. Figures from nightmares. Huge, bulky shapes with demonic red eyes.

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 22

(Format problems: Appear to be due to the new editor. I’m reverting to the old one, and hoping)

Summary of Ep 21:
Zara, Kat and Talan have stolen one of the helicopters from the Syndacian mercenaries who came hunting them. Berges, the sinister Ministro of Security, demands that the naval destroyer Bihariz, in orbit above the planet, use their plasma cannon to fire on the fleeing helicopter.
Hwa and Xing have placed monitors throughout Newyan’s technical infrastructure, and hear the order to the Bihariz. Hwa takes over the helicopter remotely and all four (including the pilot) leap into the river while briefly out of sight of the satellite tracking them. The Bihariz fires a broadside as ordered, destroying the helicopter, but also creating a huge cloud of debris. The tracking satellite is also mysteriously destroyed at the same time.
Sanchez, Ministro of Justice and Defense, reviews the final moment of tracking and deduces that Zara has, once again, escaped. With the approval of the other members of the Hajnal, he despatches the mercenaries after them…

Slightly quieter episode of 3k words this week…

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel to A Name Among the Stars and it starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

= = = = =

Chapter 55

Zara

 

The river water is spring run-off from the high sierras. It’s cold.

The River Rescue Service depot Hwa directed us to had been damaged by the shockwave from the Biháriz’s broadside. Windows were blown in and fallen trees had broken the roof, so getting in was easy.

However, the boat that should have been there… wasn’t.

Talan told us she wouldn’t have taken the boat anyway. Too exposed, too visible.

So we’re swimming alongside a jury-rigged raft made of life-jackets from the depot. The bright colors of the lifejackets are covered with some tattered green ponchos we also found, and all lashed together with matted branches and twigs covering it. The river is full of debris that looks similar. Banks have collapsed under the shock of the plasma cannon’s strike, carrying whole lines of trees and shrubs with them.

We’re in slate-gray wetsuits, also from the depot, and without which we couldn’t manage to stay in the water at all. It’s still cold and the fins on our feet do nothing to protect the toes from going numb.

Our backpacks, with the data modules, food, a few extra supplies and weapons are safe, dry and hidden in the center of the raft, where there’s also room for one person to lie on top.

Ruslan can’t swim, but he can kick. He boasts he can kick all day. He’s at the back, half-on, half-off the raft, providing the raw power. The other three of us take turns; one on the raft resting and warming up, the other two guiding the raft and adding a bit of kicking of our own.

Our first destination, according to the information Hwa put on my pad, is the junction of this river, the Sakon, with the River Argo. Then we have to walk upstream along the banks of the Argo, to where the Neve joins it, at the point where they both appear from deep channels created underneath the city. That’s our way in, according to our map.

It’s going to take us at least a full day in the water, plus time for rests, to get to the Argo.

So long as there aren’t any rapids or blockages.

Or pursuit.

About midday, just after we launch, a helicopter goes overhead. We only see it as a shadow, because the grey ash cloud is still hanging in the air.

Ruslan shakes his head. “Mistake. Bad for engine.” He wipes his hand on the branches above him and holds it up, smeared with grey and black flecks. “Turbine breathe,” he says. “Run bad. Can break little blades inside.”

Two hours later Kat, swimming on the right, hisses and dives under the raft, coming up on the left. On the right bank, about two hundred meters ahead, the helicopter has landed. It’s stationary, with panels off the side of the turbine engine and the crew working on it. There’s a fire on the beach, and some mercenaries are sitting around it. Others stand on the bank, carrying plasma rifles and occasionally using their scopes to inspect the larger pieces of drifting wood that pass them.

Talan takes one look and pulls all of us underneath the raft.

There’s a tiny space between the life jackets. Just enough to get our heads in and breathe.

“Stay still,” she hisses. “They’ll be watching from both banks.”

With nothing out of the water but his head, Ruslan panics and starts to struggle. His foot kicks up, waving the bright blue flipper above the water. Kat gets her arms around him and speaks, urgently and very quietly to him. Talan has a grip on her. I have a grip on Talan.

I’m very aware that Talan’s knife is in a sheath on a lanyard around her neck, and she wouldn’t hesitate if it meant saving the rest of us, but Ruslan calms down, and the knife stays in the sheath.

“Just around the next bend,” Talan whispers. “Then we’ll all get out of the water. We’ll warm up and eat some food. Just the next bend. Another ten minutes.”

With all of us dragging through the water, our raft slows.

“Kick,” Talan says. “Low and slow.”

I have a tiny gap I can look out of, toward the left bank, between one poncho-covered lifejacket and the next. My teeth are chattering so loud I wonder if they can hear me at the helicopter. In contrast, the riverside woods and dry ground seem so inviting. The sun is trying to shine through the cloud of ashes. It makes the trees and leaves look a little brighter, more welcoming.

And almost hidden in the spray of leaves, there’s a glint of sunlight reflecting off something polished. Something like a plasma rifle scope sweeping the river, concentrating on anything that seems to be keeping away from the mercenaries on the right bank.

I catch a glimpse of a shape behind the leaves. The rifle starts to swing back. He’s going to see there’s something suspicious about this debris. Then a large tree floats into the way, hiding us from the watcher. We steer a middle course, shivering, keeping behind floating trees and over fifty meters away from both banks, drifting by with everything else on the river.

 

The river’s too straight for Talan’s estimate of ten minutes. It’s nearly twenty minutes before a bend puts us completely out of sight, and we can steer our makeshift raft to a sloping bank. It’s beyond our strength to lift it out of the water. We manage to tie a rope around it. Kat’s legs are so numb, she can’t even crawl to cover. Ruslan’s legs have been in the icy water for the longest, but he’s strong and between us we manage to lift Kat. We stagger until beneath the dense foliage higher up the bank. Talan brings the backpacks. She’s blue and shivering with cold too, but she keeps going. She gets the emergency blankets out from the packs and we wrap up. Then she gathers dead branches around us until we’re invisible to anyone passing on the river.

“It’ll only take a few hours for the Syndacians to find a boat or bring one here from their HQ,” I say. “That’ll make it a lot harder to hide if they’re on the river with us.”

Talan nods. “Lots to worry about. The good thing is the ash cloud is going to protect us from scanners and helicopters for another day or so, and the wind seems to be blowing it downriver with us. But they can fly around it and be waiting lower down. Or they can get hold of skimmers. Skimmers don’t care about ash.”

“Cheerful,” I mutter.

In the meantime, it takes an hour for us to thaw out, and every second of that hour brings Hwa’s deadline closer.

She has to launch her court case before the relief convoy arrives, so she can continue to use it as a threat. Once launched, there will be a struggle over the timing of the case. We have to arrive at exactly the right moment. Every time we stop and rest like this makes it harder.

Despite the worries, I still drop off into a doze. I dream of Bleyd and Rhos and Alexis; of holding them tightly to me in the bright afternoon sun. I try to explain why I left them. That it wasn’t just the balance of my family in Newyan against my family in Kernow. That it wasn’t just honor and duty. That it was all families under threat. And that I should have trusted them, and told them before I left. And that I would give anything to hold them to me again.

Talan shakes me awake. I catch a look in her eyes before she turns away to give me the opportunity to wipe the tears off my cheeks.

As we slip back into the water, a skimmer passes unseen high overhead.

The cloud itself is beginning to thin.

We spend a lot of time underneath the raft.

 

Chapter 56

Hwa

 

“These proceedings are now open for the preliminary session.”

Hwa’s surprised that Sánchez himself is opening the case. Surprised and worried that not only is he here, but so are Commissioners Taha and Ivakin. This is a formal opening of the case, supposedly with no more function that to register it open and set an ongoing schedule.

Everything is at a precarious balance point; the least disturbance has such power to change things.

Delay the court case by a week and not only will the Hajnal call the bluff on the threat to withhold relief supplies, but it’s entirely possible the response from the Terran Council will come back, making the court case to expose them subject to the whim of the Commissioners.

On the other hand, if the court case goes ahead and if Zara is near to Iruña, then within two days, Hwa could be presenting the evidence that will destroy the Hajnal.

It’s tense back at the delegation. Senior Delegate Keo is angry at being kept out of the decision process. Captain Besud is angry at being pressured by Xing, and Xing has been split in two by the Hajnal breaking the permanent narrow beam link between the delegation building and the Wújìn. The freighter’s hosting processors are too old and slow for the Xing in space to be much use to Besud, but the delegation’s processors are vulnerable to an attack by the Hajnal, which Xing computes is a distinct possibility. Xing might survive, after a fashion, from the image of himself on the Wújìn’s computer systems, but it would kill more than half of the essence that makes him Xing.

He’s trying to ignore the danger by keeping busy. He’s receiving recordings from four provincial cities, all documenting the abuses of the ‘police’. He adds anything he can extract from the government’s own systems, then he edits, compresses and encrypts it all.

Danath takes those files across the plaza to the Bureau of Industry, who are still, grudingly, offering their comms facility. Danath sends the files to the Wújìn, and the Wújìn transmits them continuously to the planar zenith, where the arriving Xian convoy will receive them as soon as they emerge.

Xing’s also trying to keep the scattered resistance from launching too early. He’s put groups in touch with each other and their natural caution has slowed things down.

Except for Cabezón, which, after sending a wealth of documentary evidence about the actions of the police, has gone utterly silent.

She puts these distractions out of mind and concentrates on Sánchez, Taha and Ivakin.

Ivakin stands.

Hwa reminds herself to remain calm.

“This content of this court case falls within the remit of the Enquiry—” Ivakin begins pompously.

“We had this argument,” Hwa says. “Only comparable cases after the establishment of the Enquiry fall under its remit.”

“Claiming equivalent starting dates is a trick.”

“Like trying to announce the start of the Enquiry while still in transit is a trick, Commissioner Ivakin. You’ve sent a drone to request the Terran Council’s ruling on which trick is valid and which is not. In the meantime, we’re proceeding with this case.”

“You blackmailed Ministro Sánchez into agreeing with a lie. You wouldn’t dare stop the relief.”

Hwa smiles, and takes out her pad, connects to the delegation on full video, placing the pad flat on the table.

“Delegate Hwa.” A holoprojection of Keo appears above her pad, looking somber.

“Senior Delegate Keo, it appears that the undertakings given will not be honored.”

“I understand.” Keo sighs. “Well, you were right and it appears I have no choice. I will interrupt Delegate Danath’s transmission and send orders for the relief convoy to return to Xian—”

“No. Wait.” Sánchez holds up his hand. “I undertook to open this court case, and it is declared open. And to avoid any further doubts, the scheduling of the hearings will be determined by Delegate Hwa, or whoever she appoints to represent the Fortunate Stars Hong.”

Ivakin slumps back down in her chair with a face looking as if she’s just been slapped.

It’s not Keo on Hwa’s pad, of course, it’s Xing, creating the image and voice of the Senior Delegate perfectly.

The image raises his eyes in question to Hwa and she gives him a small bow from her seated position. The image disappears.

Hwa’s about to set the date for the next session, when Taha interrupts.

“As it addresses core issues of the Enquiry, we require to be present at sessions,” he says. “Also, we require reasonable notice and briefing.”

This is an unexpected gift: Commissioners have permanent recording devices with them in any meeting or official engagement of the Enquiry. With Taha or Ivakin in the courtroom, as soon as Hwa presents the evidence, it will be on the Enquiry’s record. And it gives her an excuse not to continue immediately, all she has to do is make her briefing of the first meeting as loose as possible.

Hwa nods, as if reluctantly conceding. “Tomorrow, then, at 11 a.m. Briefing notes will be with you in an hour.”

Sánchez logs the time and closes the meeting.

As Hwa leaves the Bureau of Justice, she looks down at the ground beneath her feet, as if she could see deeper, though the layers of stone and neo-crete, to where the Rivers Argo and Neve run silent through forgotten caverns.

Time for you to arrive, Zara. Please.

 

Chapter 57

Zara

 

We’re at the junction of the Argo and Neve. The point where the rivers emerge from beneath the city. We’re exhausted but we need to keep going.

Iruña is built on a flat-top mountain, and we’re standing at the base of a cliff on the north side, the most impossible way to approach the city. The waters of the Argo and Neve erupt from a huge grill, about ten meters high and forty across. It’s five meters higher than we are and it forms a waterfall.

Above the waterfall and entirely hidden from us is a gate which will give us entrance into the tunnels beneath the city.

It’s going to be a climb to get to the gate, and Talan has ordered us to rest a few minutes.

What do we do with Ruslan?

I’m too tired to think clearly, so I ask him instead.

He grunts. “Not go back. Go back – die.”

“What? They’d kill you because you were forced to fly the helicopter?”

“Da. It…” he frowns and searches out the words. “Bad discipline? Bad for others see. Syndacian die, not surrender, is good.”

“Goddess,” I mutter, before pointing out: “You understand, you might die with us?”

He chuckles, his eyes roving over the three of us. “Might not, too. You smart. Strong.”

My turn to laugh. I feel about as strong as a wet noodle.

“And afterwards? If we win on Newyan? Could you go back to Syndacia?”

He shakes his head, frowning again. “Can maybe. Not want. Not good.”

Syndacia is one of those marginal planets, deep in the Frontier. The sort of place that never quite worked for humans, other than as a trap for a shrinking, remnant population of colonists. I remember what the dying mercenary in Berriaren said. Is hard winter ’05. No food. Spring come, no family. He’d had to bury the rest of his family in the frozen earth. And his friends? Gone. Not know where. Home bad place. All go.

No wonder so many joined the mercenaries.

“Why did they ever settle on Syndacia?” Kat says. “It’s frozen most of the time, isn’t it?”

Ruslan grimaces. “Colony ship little break many time. Not sure good reach next place. Syndacia not good, not bad. Next place maybe more bad.”

We wait while he struggles with words.

“Planet in good place.” He uses his fists to show Syndacia orbiting its sun. “Lot ice, okay problem. Sun okay warm. But hot inside planet.”

He makes a swirling motion with a finger pointing down at the ground. “Drill?”

We nod.

“Drill deep, get much energy, geo-thermal, have good life. But hard. Long way down. Drill break. Drill much cost. No money. No drill.”

And so Syndacia is the result of a colony ship with seriously degrading performance, followed by a lack of technical capability to harness the resources or combat the weather and capped off by lack of finances to build those capabilities.

But Ruslan’s not finished.

“Government plan. Set up mercenary company. Get money, make planet good maybe.”

“And the mercenaries get hired out but somehow the money is never enough to buy new drills or fix the ship?” Kat says, biting her lip.

“Da,” he replies simply.

“What about the others?” Kat asks. “The rest of the Syndacians. Would they stay here?”

He’s slow in answering. He looks away, his face bleak. “We fight here. People not like maybe.”

My cousin looks as if she wants to disagree with that, but Ruslan is right. Even if most people on Newyan probably don’t know the Syndacians are here at the moment, she knows my plans for changing the media, which will ensure everyone knows, including what they did while they were here.

Of course, there’s also the small problem of overturning the Hajnal-controlled government before any of this is more than a talking point.

We’ve run out of time for talking. Talan gets to her feet with a groan.

“Come on,” she says. “We’re finished with the cold, wet river. Time to go exploring the cold, wet, dark tunnels.”

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 21

Cooking… swiftly reaching the grand denouement in Iruna…
A long(ish) episode at 4.7k words.
Note that I have sailed right over a couple of HUGE cliffhangers I could have left you on recently. Mwah ha ha ha.

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel and starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

= = = = =

Chapter 52

Sánchez

There’s a shocked silence gripping the room; everyone is incredulous, staring at the wall of video images without being able to process what they’re seeing.

The two feeds from the helicopters have stopped: one camera blown up a second after it showed a runaway forklift truck bearing down on it, the other switched off a minute later. Multiple feeds from the helmet-mounted cams of the Syndacian mercenaries at the Orbaiz railway station are swinging backwards and forwards, reflecting their utter confusion and complete impotence once the stolen helicopter has raced away.

 She’s made us all look like fools!

“Switch them off,” Sánchez says hoarsely.

The video feeds are wiped, to be replaced by the symbol of the Bureau of Justice—Themis, the goddess with her sword and scales. It is infinitely familiar to him—he has seen the statue thousands of times, and yet today, the figure seems changed. More alive than the tall, cold statue outside his office. To his eyes, she looks, just at that moment, as if she could be Aguirre herself: the personification of law and order; the one who measures deeds impartially and objectively; the one who carries the sword, symbolising the power of the law.

He’s not just another lawyer; he’s a man who started his career with a deep conviction, a near-fanatic belief, that the rule of law should be supreme. He believed in Themis.

And now…

Sánchez shivers with a sense of dread, as if he’s facing something truly unstoppable and implacable. He knows how those scales would tilt, if his life were measured in them today.

“Options?” he snarls. “The remaining Syndacian helicopters near Cabezón?”

“They’re all the same type sir. They all travel at the same speed. They would be two hours behind.”

“Skimmers? Show me what we have.”

Themis disappears, to be replaced on the screens with a map of Newyan.

There are a number of skimmers: four squadrons deployed in remote bases. One of his staff feeds in their range and speed, another, the expected track of Aguirre’s stolen helicopter. The skimmers are incredibly fast, but not quite fast enough. If she intends to come to Iruña, she’ll get here before the skimmers can intercept.

As he absorbs that information, the last voice he wants to hear slices through the quiet of the control room.

“Incompetents! How fortunate I don’t depend solely on you.”

Ministro Berges, flanked by her guards, has entered.

There’s nothing he can say about the debacle at Orbaiz. Instead he asks: “How do you mean?”

“As a fail-safe, I’ve closed all access to Iruña. Every road, every gate is closed by the only people I find I can trust, the Presidential Guard.”

Sánchez knows it can be done. Iruña had been built during the turmoil at the end of the last Expansion. The inner city has the configuration of a fortress with limited means of access. It is entirely possible to keep it isolated from the outside.

Berges is not finished.

“Still, we must not be complacent. I refuse to allow this criminal to dictate how and when we must act to prevent her.”

“Why not just wait until she hands herself in at one of the gateways?”

“You’re being a fool, Sánchez. This woman is part of a terrorist organisation. Haven’t you wondered why she visited Cabezón? It’s obvious! She went there to collect some device. She could have a nuclear bomb, or nerve gas.”

Sánchez cannot speak, but he dare not look away, either. Berges’ face is red. He notices for the first time, she has a twitch at the corner of one eye.

“We have to stop her now.”

“How, Ministro?” One of Sánchez’ aides asks.

Berges straightens her back.

“The destroyer Biháriz is in orbit,” she says. “Get me a link through to her captain.”

Sánchez clears his throat. “You have Commander Tiziana and her Executive Officer under arrest, Ministro, for the decision to fire missiles to drive off the pirate attack on the Xing Gerchu. That’s why Biháriz is still in orbit.”

“Well, there will still be someone in command! Get them on the comms. Now!”

There’s a frantic scrabble, partly because Sánchez is still operating from his house, and signals to the destroyer have to be cleared through his own Bureau and the Bureau of Defence.

It’s fourteen minutes before the connection is made, and Berges has spent the time pacing like a caged animal, refusing a seat, refusing refreshments, refusing even to speak to anyone. Her mood has clearly not been improved by the delay. Every time she turns, she glares in Sánchez’ direction.

Finally, the screen fills with the image of the officer left in charge of the Biháriz.

“Ministro Berges, Lieutenant Abad, at your service,” he says, immediately nervous and hurriedly corrects himself. “I mean, Captain Abad.”

Abad ignores Sánchez, even though, technically, he is the current Ministro of Defense. Sánchez is quite happy with this. He knows exactly where this is going and he has enough on his conscience.

“Captain, circumstances have conspired against our planetside forces, and we currently have an escaped and extremely dangerous criminal in a stolen military helicopter, flying towards Iruña. It is fortunate that the Biháriz is in a position to assist us.”

“Yes, Ministro?” Abad is puzzled. He clearly has no idea what he’s about to be asked.

“Captain Abad, you are ordered to destroy that helicopter with your plasma cannons. The tracking signal from the satellite is being sent to you now.”

Abad’s eyes bulge.

“Ministro, we… I mean,” he gathers himself. “The plasma cannon we have mounted on the Biháriz are intended for space combat. They are hugely powerful, of course, but the accuracy of firing one of our cannons through atmosphere…” His eyes flicker to another screen, and he continues. “Firing an oblique shot through atmosphere, from high orbit, I cannot guarantee—”

“I am familiar with your weaponry, Captain, and the problems associated with firing them into atmosphere. I am therefore authorising the use of the entire broadside.”

Abad’s jaw drops. “Ministro,” his voice becomes hoarse, “the extent of destruction…”

“I am aware of the performance of the weapons. Proceed with your orders.”

Abad tries again. “Ministro, the TSS Annan is in orbit, barely a few hundred kilometers from us. They will observe—”

“They will observe that we are in the process of eliminating terrorists, by the means we deem suitable and available for the task, a decision forced on us by the earlier, inefficient attempts at apprehension by officers who failed in their duty. Are you going to similarly fail in your duty?”

Abad’s mouth snaps shut. His hands move over controls. When he speaks again, his voice is very quiet and precise. “No, Ministro. As per standing orders for home orbit, our weapons are not deployed and gun crews are not at their stations. The Biháriz will execute your orders to fire, when ready, a full broadside at the helicopter’s co-ordinates, as provided by the tracking satellite. That will be in… four hundred and twenty seconds. In that time, the Biháriz will manoeuvre with all speed to reduce the distance and angle of fire. We could continue manoeuvering to improve the targeting—”

Sánchez understands what he is trying to do. The plasma bolts will continue, even those that strike the helicopter, and expend their full fury on the ground below. An oblique angle will spread the area of destruction over tens of kilometers. Even a straight down broadside, with the destroyer dangerously skimming the planet’s atmosphere, would wreak an area of utter destruction a kilometer wide.

But Berges cuts the young officer off. “You are ordered to fire as soon as the cannons are ready.”

Chapter 53

Zara

Hwa doesn’t leave it all to the bursts of data she’s transmitting, she talks as well, or rather gives orders.

“I need the pilot’s pad.”

Talan has it. She’s switched it off to disable tracking, but Hwa tells me to switch it back on and feed in a series of instructions.

Then she says: “Switch on the autopilot.”

I find the option on the helicopter’s controls and select it.

“Hey!” The pilot complains. Talan waves the knife in his peripheral vision and he shuts up. He takes his hands and feet off the controls and lets Hwa fly it through her link.

“Zara, just listen, we don’t have much time,” Hwa says. “This connection will last only a couple of minutes more. Firstly, you’re going to need to get into Iruña through the underground rivers and sewer system. I’ve sent you details.”

I’d been worrying about that. Iruña would have been hard enough to get in and out of without someone noticing. Now that the Hajnal knows where I am, it would have been impossible. I’d been expecting Hwa to have to come out and smuggle us in, using a diplomatic pass or something.

Not to be. The sewers, eh? I’d understood all the original plans had been lost. I wondered briefly where she’d got them, but she’s still talking.

“You can’t stay in the helicopter either.”

“Why?” I know she said not to interrupt, but I can’t help it. It’s too far to walk.

“Because the Hajnal have just ordered the Biháriz to destroy it.”

My jaw drops. A destroyer firing into the Newyan atmosphere? The Hajnal have gone mad. There’s no way the Enquiry is going to overlook that.

But Hwa hasn’t stopped. “Primer Ministro Eneko is just at this moment explaining to the Commissioners of the Enquiry that a dangerous terrorist has hijacked a helicopter with the intent of bombing Iruña. Once more details come out, they’ll say that Kat was the terrorist and she unfortunately kidnapped you.”

“But—”

“Shut up. You’re now flying over the River Sakon. There are canyons ahead which will provide cover. I will slow to a hover and you jump into the water.”

“We can’t swim to Iruña!”

“Don’t need to. About ten kilometers downstream, after you exit this set of canyons, on the right-hand bank, there’s a jetty used for river expeditions. Behind that is a river services depot. It’s unmanned. The River Rescue Service and River Police were seconded to standard police duties after the Hajnal declared the last emergency. You’ll need to break in, but there’s a boat in there which will get you down to Iruña.”

“If they have a satellite tracking us, we’ll be sitting ducks on the river,” Talan says.

Kat laughs at Talan’s description. At least someone is finding this funny.

“The satellite is about to have an accident as it drifts into the way of plasma fire from the Biháriz. Conveniently destroying evidence of our conversations as well. They’ll have no tracking, and no high resolution look-down systems. They’ll requisition the Biháriz to use their scanners, but they’re not designed for the task, and anyway, we’ll deal with that.”

I shiver as I get an inkling of the degree to which Hwa is capable of infiltrating Newyan’s electronic systems.

Kat and Talan have already put on the backpacks with our vital data modules in. The third backpack with the food in is shoved into my hands.

“Thank—” I start to say to Hwa.

“No time for that. Can’t safely communicate with you any more until you get into the tunnels, and high enough under the city that you can receive InfoHub signals. I’ve sent as much as I can about what’s happening in the files on your pad. Get jumping.”

I look up.

We’re flying low over the water between tall canyon cliffs and slowing down carefully. The helicopter is now juddering noticeably. If it doesn’t get shot down, it sounds as if it’ll fall out of the sky soon enough anyway.

“You heard her—”

I turn to look and stop.

Damn.

What do we do with the pilot?

Leave him here and he could turn the autopilot off. Or he could call and tell them what’s happening.

He’s not dumb. He knows exactly what the problem is. He raises his hands.

“Can not go back now. I dead if I do. Go with. Please.”

Talan’s eyes are narrowing. The knife is still in her hand.

“No. Talan, you can’t.” Kat tugs at Talan’s wrist, wriggles her body between Talan and the back of the pilot’s seat.

I’m watching him. He doesn’t make any moves. His eyes don’t go to the overrides or the radio. He’s probably telling the truth about being killed if he goes back.

“We have to go,” I say, as the helicopter slows to a hover.

The pilot looks down at the water.

“Can not swim,” he says.

Goddess!

“You just lie on your back and relax, I’ll pull you,” Kat says.

Talan sweeps her aside, and her knife flashes.

“No!” Kat screams.

Talan has cut his seat harness. Then she tears open the door, throws the shocked pilot out of the cockpit, and jumps into the river.

Kat dives after them.

I follow.

The helicopter immediately rises above the cliffs and heads away at full speed.

Less than three minutes later, struggling in the freezing water, but still protected by the bulk of the canyon cliffs, we hear a sound like the heavens have been torn apart. I squeeze my eyes shut, dip under the water and it barely seems to make a difference. I can feel the explosions through the river itself. It’s only one broadside surely, but the shocks seems to go on and on. When I finally come up for air, it’s darker. Clouds of dirt and ash have been thrown up into the atmosphere. The sun is blocked.

As we struggle ashore at the River Rescue Service jetty after an hour of swimming, there’s a smell of scorched earth and the clouds are beginning to float down as a constant, grey, gritty rain. Like the planet is crying.

I flash back to the memory of the piskateller’s awful vision of a possible future Newyan. Nothing grows after the kinetic bombardment—it’s a grey, freezing desert. Even the snow is still the color of ash.

Chapter 54

Sánchez

Sánchez is seated with the other ministers at the main conference table. A meeting of the movement, not all the ministers.

Loiola of Foreign Affairs and Berges of Security sit on one side. Two of the three Inner Circle. Facing them, Elizondo of Trade, Zavala of Industry, Carranza of Finance, Yarritu of Food and Agriculture, and him. Despite the failure at Orbaiz station, he’s still there, one whole day later. He now has the dubious title of Ministro of Justice and Ministro of Defence (Temporary).

No one asks where Carmen Goya is. No one mentions her at all.

At the end of the table, there’s a screen displaying Primer Ministro Eneko, the third of the Inner Circle, addressing a wildly cheering crowd.

Sánchez wonders what the crowd’s enthusiasm has cost them in incentives, but says nothing. They roar every time Eneko pauses, and that’s all that’s needed. The fact that Eneko’s diatribe against the Names is blind gibberish is neither here nor there. Nor is the fact that Eneko has incited violence at least three times, and, if Sánchez were doing his job as Ministro of Justice correctly, he would have been signing an arrest warrant.

He is doing his job, just constrained by the circumstances, and those do not allow him to arrest the Primer Ministro.

“That seems to be going well,” Berges says approvingly, when Loiola turns the sound down.

She’s insane, Sánchez thinks, but keeps such thoughts to himself. His coffee has cooled in front of him. His stomach is too upset to drink it.

They had paused the meeting out of loyalty to hear the opening of Eneko’s address.

Loiola now returns to the agenda.

“So…” he says, flicking through notes on his pad. “The Xian delegation have protested about the electronic signals in the vicinity of their building which appear to be causing jamming, and the parking of our naval maintenance ships in geo-stationary orbit between the delegation and their frieghter. I’ve apologised and offered a team to investigate what could be causing the problem in the delegation’s buildings. They declined. I’ve told them that the positioning of the maintenance ships is a matter for the Bureau of Defence, which is undergoing restructuring.”

His lips stretch, but it could hardly be called a smile.

“Will this situation in any way impact the relief supplies?” Yarritu asks nervously.

“No,” Zavala replies. “They can still communicate. We’ve offered them facilities in the Bureau of Industry just across the plaza.”

“Under strict supervision at all times?” Berges demands. “I don’t trust them.”

“Of course,” Zavala says. “Your own team from Security.”

Sánchez doubts that the Security team has any chance of preventing the Xian delegation from meddling in whatever they want to, but their actions have terminated whatever was going on in that direct link between the delegation and the old freighter, the Wújìn, which is still parked in geo-synchronous orbit above Iruña.

What was that link for? What needed such a continuous high bandwidth?

Loiola interrupts his thoughts. “We need suggestions for a new Ministro of the Bureau of Defense,” he says. “We could make the announcement at the same time as we elevate our colleague to the actual position he has been filling.”

He nods at Yarritu.

“Actually…” Sánchez begins.

Loiola stops him. “The two positions are excessive, even for a man of your abilities, Sánchez. You were always the best fit for Justice, and that hasn’t changed. Surely, you’re not letting enjoyment of the additional power get to you?”

They’re all looking at him.

“It was a temporary measure,” Berges says. “Now that the Aguirre terrorists have been disposed of, there should be a relatively quiet time during which it would be ideal to bring someone forward.”

“About that—” he begins, but this time Yarritu interrupts him.

“I’m not at all sure that it will be a quiet time. As I’ve stated in my reports, the Xian delegation—”

“Yes, yes, they’re arguing that they’re going to control the distribution and you told them they can’t. What are they going to do? Fight us? We’ll have the destroyer Santoña meet them and escort them to holding orbit around the space elevator.”

Yarritu tries to speak again, but Sánchez is a veteran of meetings and slips back into the smallest gap. “Actually, it’s not that, or not purely that,” he says.

The eyes of the group all swing back to him, and his heart rate kicks up again.

“Explain,” Berges says.

“There are three points. The first is that we seem to have forgotten that the Aguirres appear to be connected to the Xian family that runs Fragrant Stars,” he says. “I’m sure Primer Ministro Eneko felt that it was appropriate to describe to the people so vividly the destruction of the helicopter, but I’m concerned that might have an effect on the Xian relief convoy. What if, say, half the supplies are being transported by Fragrant Stars ships. Delegate Hwa is young and unpredictable—”

“She doesn’t have the authority to override Senior Delegate Keo, or whoever will be in command of the relief convoy,” Loiola dismisses it with a wave.

“Unless the commander of the relief convoy might happen to be the captain of the Shohwa, perhaps,” Sánchez says quietly.

Loiola shakes his head angrily. “You’re seeing problems around every corner.” He’s clearly finished with this part of the discussion, but Yarritu speaks up, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

“You said three points, Ministro Sánchez,” he says. “What are the others?”

“There was no contact with our police forces in Cabezón at the normal hour for reporting this morning. When my staff called them, they gave a satisfactory report, but the code word used was incorrect.”

“That’s happened before.” Ministro Elizondo peers down the table at him.

“Get the Syndacians to resolve it,” Berges says, impatiently.

Sánchez nods. “I would, but I’ve deployed them to the River Sakon at the site where the helicopter was destroyed.”

“The whole force? Why?” Berges is angry.

Sánchez enters a command on his pad, and the screen at the end of the table is now split into two panels. One now shows the track of the helicopter from Orbaiz to the point it was destroyed, displayed on a topographic map. The track, based on the helicopter’s geo-positioning system, is a dashed line. The dashes are highlighted to show where the helicopter is, synchronized to the other panel in the display. That’s a blurry video feed from the same satellite, showing the image of the helicopter racing across the high plains, captured by the ground surveillance lens.

“It didn’t concern you that this is the capability of the satellite we lost in the broadside? Destroyed as it strayed across the line of the plasma fire?” Sánchez asks.

Carranza of Finance winces. The satellites cost a fortune. Newyan simply isn’t in the position to replace it for some considerable time.

Berges looks even angrier. “It isn’t my fault the idiot in command of the ship hit the satellite.”

“He was ordered to fire as soon as his cannons were ready,” Sánchez points out reasonably and holds up his hand to forestall another outburst from Berges. “Nevertheless, there’s more to it than that. The satellite shouldn’t have been in the way. It moved so that it was.”

There’s a silence around the table. Now he really has their attention.

“The control records for the satellite…” Elizondo begins.

“The instructions it was following are gone with the satellite. There’s no indication any such instructions came from the facility responsible on Newyan. At my request, the satellite control experts at the facility have hypothesized a way for a narrow beam communications laser to drop the satellite into system mode and then change it’s manoeuvering instructions.”

“There’s no way to fire a narrow beam laser from the surface, through all the atmosphere and ensure a stable lock on the signal detection equipment of the staellite,” Yarritu says. “It’s simply not possible. Even I know that.”

“Impossible from the ground,” Sánchez says. “Not so from a ship in space.”

“Wait,” Loiola says. “So, that Xian ship out there hacked into the satellite and had it move so it was destroyed. Is that what you’re saying? To what benefit?”

Sánchez shrugs. “I’m saying something or someone made it move. As to the benefit or otherwise, it has deprived us of our high resolution tracking capability for that part of Newyan… And now, we have arrived at the interesting section of the replay.”

He directs their attention back to the screen.

“The satellite was well placed to track the helicopter, but not from directly above.” He slows the replay right down. Now the tracking image also displays the helicopter’s speed. It’s shown reducing as the aircraft approaches the canyons on the River Sakon. “With the result that, as you see here, the satellite loses sight of the helicopter due to the height of the canyon walls.”

“It stopped!” Carranza says, after five seconds waiting for it to re-appear.

“It just slowed down,” Yarritu says. “The pilot is being cautious.”

“Why fly into the canyons at all?” Elizondo asks.

Sánchez ignores them. “The actual speed at any point in the shadow of those canyons is speculation, but it had to have slowed down given the time it was in there. Here it is emerging.”

The helicopter surges upwards out of the canyons and speeds off.

“Note, it is no longer moving in the direction of Iruña at this point, whereas it was before,” Sánchez says.

“Where was it going then? What’s in that direction?” Loiola demands.

“It was going to the nearest point where its destruction would cause least damage,” Sánchez replies, “and in the direction that brought it and the satellite into a direct line from the destroyer at the point the broadside was ready to fire.”

The video and tracking feeds end just before the destruction of the helicopter, as the plasma bolts responsible pass through the satellite as if it were made of foil.

Zavala breaks the silence, clenching his hands together nervously. “You’re telling us that someone, who must have all our communication protocols, encryptions and codes, is monitoring our conversations, overheard our orders, got the Aguirres out of the helicopter into the river, took over flying the helicopter while coordinating with an old freighter to move the satellite in order to get the broadside from the Biháriz to destroy all the evidence and make it appear as if the Aguirres are dead, and at the same time preventing us from using the surveillance satellite to confirm that?”

Sánchez shrugs again.

There’s a long wait while they take this on board. Berges’ face is red and her eyes glittering balefully, but she says nothing. Loiola is also silent. He appears to Sánchez as if the possibilities summarized by Zavala have truly shaken him.

The others speak, mouthing standard pro-forma denunciations against Xian. To Sánchez’ ears, it’s just noise.

“It feels incredible,” Loiola says eventually. “But still. You seem to have a good grasp of the issue, Ministro Sánchez, so I suggest you remain in your post at Defence for the moment to get to the bottom of this incident. In the meantime, we approve your use of the Syndacians.” Heads nod around the table. “Once we are sure that the Aguirres are dead, one way or another, then the troops can return to Cabezón and deal with whatever the situation is there. It’s not as if one city alone can do anything. How we deal with Xian, if this is indeed their doing, may give us leverage in the coming negotiations. An attack against us by Xian could be just the argument we need to get Earth on our side and gain acceptance for Newyan into the Inner Worlds.”

It is a policy they have used before, to good effect, playing Xian off against Earth in negotiations.

“There is a matter of the costs.” Sánchez forwards a message to their pads that he’s received from the Syndacian commander. “He suggests that we’re coming close to engaging in a civil war which he is ill-equipped and under-manned to fight.”

Carranza runs a shaking hand through his hair as he looks at the details of the message. “We can’t afford this.”

“We must, but we won’t have to for much longer,” Loiola replies. “Primer Ministro Eneko and I are planning a fund-raising trip to visit other member planets of the movement. It’s in their interests. The establishment of Newyan as a member of the Inner Worlds will more than repay—”

“Out of the question. You can’t,” Berges interrupts him. She’s the only one who speaks to him like that on a regular basis. “You’re needed here.”

Sánchez ignores the byplay as they argue. He knows the movement’s other planets have no capability of raising the funds that Newyan is going to need, what with replacement of satellites, bigger bribes for the Commissioners, and the Syndacian mercenaries’ costs, let alone prosaic matters such as securing food supplies and restarting their agricultural industry before the relief efforts are exhausted.

Loiola and Eneko aren’t going to get more funding.

It comes as a small shock that he is no longer able to be angry as he realizes what Loiola is  doing is simply ensuring he and Eneko have an escape plan in place if things get worse. The ‘well motivated’ populace that are shouting their slogans and giving their support will turn on them in the blink of an eye.

Eneko will probably commandeer the Biháriz. It may even be the reason he persuaded Berges to arrest the ship’s commanding officers and order the destroyer to remain in orbit.

Sánchez can’t back away like that. He can’t leave. Newyan is his planet. This nightmare, although he never intended it to be this way, he acknowledges is partly his responsibility. He has to prevent it becoming worse, to fix it, whatever it takes.

For all his careful wording earlier, he’s convinced that Aguirre has survived the destruction of the helicopter and is making her way down the River Sakon right now. Given her record so far, he doubts that the Syndacians will find her.

But what has she got that’s so important to deliver to Iruña?

What has she and Delegate Hwa concocted between them?

Enough to topple the government and expose the movement?

Even if they have, how is Aguirre going to get into Iruña?

And why has Yarritu suddenly woken up in meetings and started to interrupt him?

What is the man hiding?

What does he need to do about it?

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 20

Things are hotting up!
A long(ish) episode at 4.6k words. I’ve decided to drop a sub-thread about a spy in the Xian delegation, so a small part of what you’ve read in previous episodes will change slightly in the final book.

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is ‘A Name Among the Stars’ and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel and starts at:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

Chapter 48 – Ep. 20

Zara

The sun is still below the horizon, but the east is aflame and scarlet-edged clouds are fraying to reveal an indigo sky, paling to turquoise.

It’s freezing in the mail car, but I open the door a crack to double-check why the train is slowing.

In the twilight ahead, I can see the dark bulk of a building outlined with a few lights shining from some windows along a small platform. Past the building, a red control light on a gantry seems suspended in the air.

“Orbaiz, I guess.”

The train shudders and clanks as it brakes, and it takes an age for the jerking and screeching to stop. The whole railway seems primeval, but it’s the way most planets transport over distances. On Kernow, where short distance travel in some of the provincial capitals is by clean, silent modules hurtling through evacuated subterranean passages, they take an obscure pleasure in the fact that their long distance railways use steam engines.

Here on Newyan, the trains are electric, with massive battery arrays which need to be swopped out, and that requirement is the reason that re-charging stations like Orbaiz exist.

I pull out my pad and try to connect to the station’s InfoHub relay.

Nothing. No signal.

“It’s not really a passenger type of station,” Kat points out.

“But they must have an InfoHub connection in the office.”

“Yes.”

“And they’ll have enough of a signal to let them connect while they’re close to the office…”

Kat nods.

We all put our heads out of the door.

It’s a long train and the engine has stopped just past the station, next to a special raised platform where the exchange of the battery array takes place. The arrays are as big as trucks and there are loaders specially designed for the job of replacing them.

The wind makes it even colder outside of the mail car. Talan and I pull back.

“We could sneak out while it’s still dark,” I say. “Get close enough to the office to hack their connection.”

“Won’t stay dark for much longer,” Talan replies. “And if we sneak out, remember we’re going to have to sneak back again.” She wrinkles her nose in the way she does when she doesn’t want to do something. “How urgent is it to talk to Hwa right now?”

“Ahhh. Well, difficult to be sure, but—”

 “Zara.” There’s something in Kat’s voice that makes me turn quickly. She’s still hanging her head out of the door, ignoring the cold.

“What?”

“There’s nothing happening.”

I look again, and she’s right. There’s no one around.

“The drivers might have gone in for some breakfast,” I say. “Perhaps they’re waiting for the sun to warm things up?”

Kat shakes her head. “Recharging stations get rated on the time it takes to swop out battery arrays. If they’re not working on it, they’ve been told not to do it.”

All three of us are hanging out of the mail car, looking down at the silent, empty station.

Talan grabs the rucksacks.

“Come on. I don’t like this. We have to go check it out,” she says.

We clamber down, moving the sliding door back until it looks closed. Thank the Goddess that the door on this side doesn’t squeal like the other one, because now the train has stopped the whole of the high plains seem to be holding their breath.

The ground is broken, rocky and covered in short, tough bushes. Moving is difficult, so by the time we get near the station offices, the sun has breached the horizon and it gives us long, long shadows. The closer we get, the more we have to hide, but finally, behind the offices, we find a scatter of sheds which provide us with good cover. They’re not locked—it may be there’s no one for a day’s travel around here who doesn’t actually work on the station, so security would be pointless. Talan opens the door to the biggest shed and we rush in to get out of the wind.

It’s a storeroom, with big doors at either end that don’t work very well at keeping the wind out.

I look around inside. The place is full of loaders, forklifts and trucks of various sizes. Racks of worn tools and grubby protective clothing line one wall.

We move down to the far end and peer through the ill-fitting doors. We can make out the train engine standing next to the maintenance ramp, the huge yard where the re-charged battery arrays are stored ready for loading and, beyond that, the recharging facilities. The place still seems deserted. The drivers and staff must be inside the station offices. The nice, warm offices.

I shrug and huddle down against the wall closest to the station offices. This time, my pad connects immediately, but Hwa’s hacking apps take much longer to set up a secure connection.

“Come on, come on,” I mutter, shivering.

Kat is delegated to be lookout at the door which points towards the depot. Talan stomps back to the other end of the shed, pausing only to check out the trucks.

Hwa’s app blinks amber. Not fully secure, a message says.

I’m waiting for something better, but I don’t get the chance. The screen suddenly blanks and the fills with the pulsing message:

          GET OFF THE TRAIN!

“What the nova?” My heart skips a beat. How did she even know we were on the train?

Talan hears me and immediately runs back as I get to my feet.

Before I have time to show her the message, the screen clears again, and I’m talking to Hwa.

“Where are you, Zara?” she blurts out.

There has to be a reasonable level of security for her to ask that openly, but the very fact she’s risking speaking directly rather through coded messages has my heart racing.

“Orbaiz. In a shed behind the station, waiting for the engine battery arrays to be changed. What’s happening?”

“Get out of there. They worked out you’re on the train. Two helicopters with Syndacian mercenaries will be there soon. They have seekers. Get away and wait for my messages. We’re looking at options for you.”

The call terminates.

“If they have seekers, there’s no point in running,” Talan says.

“Take one of the trucks?” Kat says.

Talan shakes her head. “The helicopters would overtake us, and even of they didn’t, they’ll have plenty of time to set up roadblocks.” She frowns. “Unless Hwa comes up with something incredible in the next few minutes, here’s what we’re going to do.”

Chapter 49 – Ep. 20

Hwa

Hwa does not want to be in this meeting with Subsecretario Yarritu.

She’s left Xing working on plans, but she’s desperate to get back to helping Zara. What can they do? A massive distraction? Getting a diplomatic car out there will take hours. Challenge the government directly? Threaten them?

Xing is processing every possible alternative. And she has to be here, because their overall plan needs all the parts to work together, and saving the lives of the people in the rest of Newyan is high on the priorities.

As Xing guessed, Ministro Sánchez is not able to attend this meeting, and Yarritu is making unnecessarily lengthy apologies.

“What happened to the actual Ministro of the Bureau of Food and Agriculture, Subsecretario?” she interrupts him.

Yarritu licks his lips. “An unfortunate accident,” he says. He does not meet her eyes.

Hwa snorts impatiently. “So many ‘accidents’ and ‘incidents’. It seems a dangerous career, to be a senior official in the Bureaux of Newyan. What was your department in the Bureau before?”

“I was… well, I still am responsible for water,” Yarritu says immediately, showing the first signs of enthusiasm. “My particular expertise is the water supply and sewerage arrangements for Iruña. When the Founders built this city, they built it over two rivers, the Argo and the Neve, that were diverted underground. Visitors to the city are always told to look at the architecture of the temples and libraries and the older Bureaux buildings, but everywhere in Iruña, the structures below our feet are the truly incredible engineering and architectural inheritance of the Founders. I have written books about it.”

He fetches a thick tome from the shelves behind him, his name prominent on the spine, and presents it to her.

“With my compliments,” he says, bowing slightly.

Hwa thanks him and takes the weighty book reluctantly. The cover is slightly oily where his sweaty hands have touched the glossy jacket. And the book is cumbersome, so after a polite glance at it, she places it beside her and surreptitiously wipes her fingers.

Yarritu isn’t like the other leaders of the Bureau, but she knows from the communications that Xing has hacked, he is part of the Hajnal. He seems about as threatening as a mouse, but they are all one, this conspiracy.

“We must discuss the distribution of relief,” she says.

“Yes.” He sits again and fastens his gaze on the notes in front of him. “In anticipation of the supplies arriving, all provincial capitals have had infrastructure put in place to facilitate the efficient distribution of food. The space elevator will be cleared all all other traffic and the railway system prepared for shipments as a priority.”

“So I have heard,” Hwa replies, frowning. “Forgive me, Subsecretario, but this is entirely unsatisfactory. The bottleneck of transporting supplies through the space elevator is already unworkable. Your single line railway system connecting the elevator in Iruña with your network hub in Xorio is a second bottleneck. The railway itself is barely satisfactory, with a likelihood of your exceeding your recharging capacity and the high risk of trains stranded without functioning battery arrays. And finally, in the cities themselves, temporary, untrained police forces, identity checks and illegal incarceration of people without documentation do not seem to me to be aspects of an efficient or equitable distribution system.”

He cannot meet her eye. “Your estimation of our transport structure is excessively negative. As for the matter of necessary policing in the current emergency, we admit to some short term problems, but your characterisation appears to be entirely taken from propaganda put out by trouble-makers.”

“This is entirely taken from what is happening right now, and I would be delighted if you accompanied me to a city of my choice to observe it.” She leans back. She has already been able to make connections to ‘trouble-makers’ and they have been more than happy to begin supplying evidence. “Our overriding requirement is this: Xian’s relief supplies will be available to everyone, equally. To this end, the incoming convoy has the necessary personnel and delivery systems to achieve this, without help from you. Supplies and personnel will go directly to the cities by shuttle, Subsecretario, and then directly to the people.”

He raises his head to look at her, and swallows.

“You make it sound almost like an invasion, Delegate Hwa.”

“I make it sound like the only way the people of Newyan are going to survive, because it is.”

“We cannot simply surrender—”

“And we cannot simply hand over supplies to reinforce the suppression of the people of Newyan.”

“I am constrained in what I may agree with you,” Yarritu says after a pause, licking his lips. The man is sweating. He looks nervous, as if he’s trying not to look over his shoulder. Regardless, his words remain firm. “I feel you may similarly be constrained and I believe you’re claiming a level of authority that I’m not sure you have.”

He has a point. No one has officially delegated her the running of the relief effort. She’s been undiplomatic with what she’s said, because of her eagerness to get back to helping Zara. If Sánchez were here, she would have had to be far more careful with her words. There is still the possibility that the Ministro of the Bureau of Justice could destroy the carefully made plans to expose the Hajnal to the Enquiry by cancelling her court case.

There is no further point to this meeting; she has put down the marker for the way Xian will require the relief to be run, but clearly Yarritu has been told what he can and cannot accept.

“I can see that my arguments will be insufficient,” she says. “Very well. I suggest you contact the leader of the convoy when it arrives and discuss the mechanics of distribution with him.”

The convoy won’t arrive for another day or so, at best. She’ll have tomorrow to launch her court case. And whoever is running the convoy will have the rank and power to dictate Xian’s terms.

“That will be acceptable,” he says.

Immediately, she reconnects with Xing through her pad, hoping to connect through him to Zara.

At the same time, she makes to leave, and it’s only when she reaches the door, she realizes he’s followed, to see her out.

“Don’t forget your book,” he murmurs, almost inaudibly, offering it to her again. “It may be the most important book about Iruña that you will ever read.”

His heart rate has soared. Turning to look him in the eyes, she sees he is scared. More than that; maybe terrified would describe it better.

A tug on her comms captures her attention. Xing tells her the connection to the station at Orbaiz has just gone down. Her stomach contracts with shock. They can’t help her! Zara is on her own.

Hwa blinks and tries to keep her face clear. Yarritu is peering at her, his face showing concern over the fear.

Too much is happening, but her instinct tells her there’s something important right here, in front of her.

She takes his book. He has placed an ornate bookmark in it.

“Thank you, Subsecretario, I’ll be sure to look at it when I can.”

She holds his gaze for a moment more, eyes narrowed, and then turns away.

Chapter 50 – Ep. 20

Zara

It’s still freezing outside.

The helicopter pilots aren’t dumb. They’ve remained in their warm helicopters, with the engines turning idly and the cabin heating set way up. The mercenaries have disembarked. They’ve surrounded the train, and they’re opening it carriage by carriage, plasma rifles covering every angle.

The helicopters have had to land in the only available large flat space, the enormous dirt yard in front of the battery matrix recharging facility. It’s a big space, and they’ve kept plenty of distance between the helicopters. The pilots have no wish to touch blades, and their landings kicked up such a cloud of dust that the last few meters were flown blind.

Some dumb railway workers have decided it’s a good time to prepare swopping out the engine battery matrix. One of the grubby yellow forklift trucks is inching its way into the yard, one worker driving, half hidden in the cab, another walking in front, directing it to ensure that the truck comes nowhere near the helicopters.

The pilots grimace. Civilians! One of them waves to get the workmen to go back, which they ignore, but it’s still not worth actually getting out of the helicopters at the moment. Their flight overalls are thin, it’s cold, and the language is hard enough as it is without trying to understand whatever accent these Newyan people use out here, in the back end of nowhere.

Kat’s driving the forklift, inexpertly. I’m the ‘guy’ in front, dressed in a pair of coveralls and wearing a yellow hardhat. I feel like I need another two sets of eyes: I’m having to watch Kat’s steering and the actions of both pilots.

The InfoHub connection died. Not a software shut down. Someone switched the hardware off deliberately. We’re on our own and executing Talan’s plan.

The pilot who landed nearest the station offices reaches up, where he’s hung his headset. It’s likely he’s going to talk to the mercenaries and get them to send someone from the station to clear these idiots out of the depot yard. As soon as he speaks, someone will realize what’s happening.

Come on, come on.

I swivel my head; there’s a flash of movement in the cockpit of the other helicopter, the one furthest from the offices.

Now.

I sprint to the cab of the forklift, hauling Kat out and shoving her toward the further helicopter. She runs, but she runs backwards, watching me.

Damn it, Kat! Just run.

The forklift controls are simple, like our plan. I twist the steering wheel, swerving the forklift around. The pilot is scrabbling for his headset now, panic making him clumsy. I force a rusty shovel into the space between the seat and the accelerator pedal, so the pedal is locked full down. And I stay with it just long enough to be sure it’s on target before I leap out of the cab.

That hurts. An unburdened forklift gathers speed surprisingly quickly.

There’s no time to waste thinking about it; I’m just picking myself up off the dirt when the forklift runs into the helicopter’s rotor blades.

I’m already sprinting as the sound of huge crashes and shrieks of metal comes from behind me, followed by an explosion.

At ‘our’ helicopter, the navigator has been throw out onto the ground. Talan must have hit him hard; he’s trying, but he can’t manage to gather his feet under himself. I ignore him to leap into his seat in the cockpit.

Talan’s behind the pilot, her knife against his throat.

Kat’s looking at the door mounted plasma weapons in the back.

“Is he going to behave, or do I get to fly?” I yell.

Bluff. I can’t fly this thing.

“He’s flying,” Talan says.

The knife has nicked his skin and there’s blood on his collar.

“I die, you die,” he says hoarsely, in a thick accent.

“Or we all live. Shut up and fly, now.”

The pitch of the engine changes, the helicopter lurches into the air. Dust billows out, obscuring the burning second helicopter.

There are mercenaries running back from the station. Seeing us airborn, a couple stop and lift plasma rifles to their shoulders just as they disappear into the spreading cloud of dirt.

There’s a thump from behind, as Kat experiments with the mounted plasma gun. The road in front of the depot explodes, and I imagine the closer mercenaries are too busy hiding to shoot at us. The flashes of those still up at the station warn us of incoming plasma bolts. A couple pass right through the body of the helicopter and causes the whole thing to swing around like a weathervane.

The pilot curses in his own language as he gets control again, then his voice quietens down till he’s muttering. It’s too noisy to hear, but I lip-read him. He’s changed his protest around: “You die, I die,” he’s saying now. Smart man.

Kat fires the plasma gun again, but the angle’s not good. Glancing back at the station, I think she may have hit one of the sheds.

Another couple of bolts hit us. One vaporizes a section of the landing gear just beneath me, and the the helicopter lurches again.

The pilot’s face is pale. He pushes the helicopter’s nose down further and we’re racing away over the broken ground. Low. I could just about reach down and touch the tops of some of the shrubs. Too low for any more plasma bolts.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the helicopter’s damaged. I can feel it through my seat, a juddering feeling. Rotor balance maybe.

I’m putting on the navigator’s headset to talk to the pilot when I feel the ping from my pad.

We’re too far away from the station, and that hub has been switched off anyway. We’re kilometers away from any functioning InfoHub connection. A quick glance confirms that Hwa’s using the orbiting comms satellites. That’s really not secure, so whatever’s in the bursts of encrypted data she’s sending, it’s not good news.

Chapter 51 – Ep. 20

Natalia

Natalia can’t believe she’s blushing.

Who the nova is this? What have you done with the real me, Yion?

They’re lying in bed. They’ve been here since the police left, suddenly recalled half-way through searching the house next door. She and Yion have no idea what happened. And of course it would have been risky to go out into the street straight away.

Yeah. So let’s go back to bed. Oh, Goddess! Yes!

It’s their first time. But it had been building, building in the background, she realizes now, like one of the electrical thunderstorms gathering over the foothills. And when it had broken, with that first kiss, it’d carried her away in the flood.

Never happened before like that, she thinks. Didn’t think it could.

He’d called her name at those final moments, and she’d just dissolved. She’s not quite returned from that yet; she feels more liquid than solid. Doesn’t want to go back. Doesn’t want to even move, as if merely moving would destroy the moment.

Her own head is trying to end it.

Because, face it, girl, what more have you got that he’d want? It’s Yion Bey. Bey. One of the Names Among the Damned Stars.

All that touchy hands and I love you when you’re both going to die and it doesn’t matter.

All that need to show you’re alive afterwards.

Won’t last. Can’t last.

She feels the hard shell trying to grow back and protect her. Needs it back, because this is going to hurt when it comes. When he loses interest. Gonna hurt like hell.

And then he looks at her, like no one ever has before, and she’s shy and blushing like a virgin, which is ridiculous.

She wants to pull the sheet up and hide her body, but at the same time, she also wants to throw it aside and melt all over again under his gaze.

A truck rolls by slowly outside, with a loudhailer announcing food supplies have arrived by train and will be distributed in the Plaza Mayor this afternoon.

He stirs.

“It’ll be a trap,” she says quickly. She wants him to stay here. A few more minutes in this perfect place, just them. “They’ll be demanding ID.”

He nods, slides back in closer to her. “We’ve had to rely on others so far. We can keep going. For a while.”

“How long do you reckon?”

He huffs. “Until real hunger hits and it’s a choice between your family eating or some grubby revolutionary who needs food.”

“What do we do when it gets to that?”

“Get rid of the police and take over the supplies.”

“Aguirre said we had to wait.”

“Zara’s not here.”

She feels an irrational jealousy at the woman’s name on his lips, a reminder he knows her from before. And another sensation, pleasure, that he appears to be willing to ignore what Zara said they should do.

She scolds herself.

Stop thinking like that. Not about me, me, me, girl.

She actually likes Zara, and Kat. They’re good people, for Names. Aguirre, no less. And she wishes Talan could have stayed. The resistance could use people like her.

But they all went away on the train, and left her and Yion to do things here in Cabezón. Some of which she agrees are important, and which they should be doing.

She groans at the thought, covers her face with her hands.

“What?” He’s laughing at her.

“We’ve got to get up,” she replies. “Zara said…” she emphasizes the name slightly, pushing, to see what his reaction is. “She said we need to record what’s going on. If they’re using the Plaza Mayor, we’ll be able to film it from the library. I guess we need to get in now, before they start.”

“You’re right,” he sighs. “And then use those hacking tools to send the video to her friend in the Xian delegation. And we need to talk to other cities.”

He heaves a sigh and lies back with his eyes closed.

She nudges him. Again. He abruptly throws all the sheets off and props himself up on his elbow, looking her up and down.

She blushes again, but refuses to cover herself up on principle. Besides, it’s hot, the way he looks at her.

He leans over her, kisses her forehead.

“I love you, Natalia.”

His pad pings at him, covering her embarrassing inability to form words, let alone a response.

What’s wrong with me?

“We’re safe. They stopped just as they were searching next door,” he says to his caller. “No idea why. Do we know who got caught?”

She can’t hear what the other person says, but if it’s a list, it goes on too long.

Others join the conversation; she can tell from the quiet tone announcing new people. Even though they’re using encrypted channels through the InfoHub, it’s not safe communicating like this, at this length, but everyone clearly feels they’re running out of time.

He explains to the others the comms apps that Zara has left them, and the apps get copied across as they speak.

Suddenly remembering, she can’t hear the conversation, he switches it to loudspeaker.

“…spoke to a contact I trust in Lourdios,” a woman is saying. “She says the police are loading people without IDs onto railway trucks. Word is they’re being sent to Xorio.”

“Xorio? There’s nothing there.”

“Exactly.”

There’s a long silence.

“They’re sending them there, locked in railway trucks,” Yion says. “They’re just going to leave them to die. Blame some official.” His voice is harsh with anger, and no one argues against him.

“Can’t let them do this,” another one says.

“No.” Although they haven’t had much of a hierarchy in the resistance, Natalia hears Yion take control with that one word.

“First things first. Anyone with an ID, get down to the Plaza Mayor and get food. Matxita?”

He uses a code name, and the woman who spoke about her contact in Lourdios answers.

“Yes?”

“Take your friends and make multiple recordings of what happens in the plaza from as many angles as possible. The top of the library as well as among the crowd. All of them with synchronized timing displayed on the video. Transmit it real-time to the contact in the Xian delegation.”

“Will do.”

Yion pauses, bites his lip, takes a breath. “Zuhain?”

Another code name. A man answers. “Yes?”

“I’ll need your stores and a couple of helpers. The line gets cut tonight.”

It’s a shock like a punch in her stomach. Natalia swallows. The ‘stores’ are explosives. Yion intends to blow up the railway line.

It’s started.

“It’ll mean…” someone starts to speak and stops.

“Yes,” Yion says. “The code is La Coruña, my friends. La Coruña. You have your tasks.”

It’s the ultimate code word. The uprising has begun. Small, quiet steps now, but once the explosions go off, the resistance in Cabezón will fight with everything they have.

They can’t delay and wait for others to be ready. They can’t let thousands of innocent people be rounded up and transported to Xorio, to be condemned without trial to starve to death. But in preventing that, they reveal themselves to the government.

Zara is right. It would be better if everyone rose together.

They don’t have that luxury. They have to do what they can, here, and hope others around the planet join them.

Natalia is not stupid. Cabezón is where the Syndacian mercenaries happen to be based—it’ll be where the government’s response falls first, and falls hardest. It’ll be up to the resistance in Cabezón to ensure that the mercenaries are so depleted that they will not be able to continue to repress the rest of Newyan. She has no doubt that the resistance in Cabezón will do their duty, and no doubt what it will cost.

Natalia starts dressing. A sense of calm has come over her.

It’s going to get bloody, but whatever happens, she intends to be with Yion, for the rest of her life.

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 19

Chapter 42

Ministro Sánchez

Ministro Sánchez erupts, gasping, from his nightmare of blindness, suffocation and falling, to find his security chief shaking him.

“What? What is it?” A fear, half way between the fading nightmare and the dread of being woken like this, in the dead of night, clutches at his heart.

“It’s Ministro Berges,” the man answers. “She’s downstairs, in your study. It’s urgent.”

His stomach spasms. Not what he wants to hear.

His valet is there, holding a gown for him. Hardly suitable attire for a departmental meeting, but this is hardly a suitable time for one either.

He has no choice. He pulls himself out of bed and shrugs into the gown under the gaze of his security chief. The man’s face has become increasingly closed and distant over the last few weeks. Sánchez believes he answers first to the woman downstairs, the chilling head of Security, rather than to him.

Is this how it will be, when it’s my turn? he thinks. Shaken awake in the middle of the night. The Ministro of the Bureau of Security waiting for him. What sort of thing would she say? The movement is disappointed in you, Sánchez. You’ve lost your enthusiasm. We need to ask you some questions to find out why. To make sure, you understand…

But Ministro Berges does not say any of that when he enters his study.

She’s seated on the comfortable chairs to the side, and his staff has already provided her with fresh coffee.

“Ministro,” she greets him. “My apologies for the hour.”

Her face is empty of any sign of regret whatsoever, but he has to respond.

“Emergencies know no hours,” he replies glibly, sitting opposite her and pouring himself some of his own coffee.

“Indeed.” She puts her cup down, pleasantries over. “News from the Sierra Arija.”

Sánchez feels his stomach clench again. There is no good news that can come from that place.

“They got a seeker up to the escape pod we found near Berriaren,” she says. “The analysis of traces confirms the fugitive criminal Aguirre was in that pod, along with an unknown woman.”

Sánchez does not point out that Aguirre has not been tried yet. Fugitive she may be, but his courts have not declared her a criminal. It’s useless to speak about it. Berges has always referred to her this way.

“But why?” he says. “What in the nova was she doing up there?” He runs a hand over his disheveled hair. “Maybe it was just an accident. Escape pods aren’t really controllable.”

“Civilian ones aren’t. This one had control capability.”

Sánchez purses his lips and frowns; a military escape pod on a Xian courier. Interesting, but not as important as Aguirre herself. “Still, if she’d come down with Delegate Hwa, she’d be in Iruña now, and we’d be faced with difficult decisions.”

“I don’t agree. If she were here, we’d have her.”

“Taha believes she will claim diplomatic immunity from arrest.”

“I didn’t say I’d arrest her.”

Sánchez swallows. “You have seen the visual evidence, haven’t you, Ministro? Zarate Aguirre and Delegate Hwa? For all that she’s also a citizen of Newyan, it’s worrying that we might be considering… extrajudicial actions against a citizen of an Inner World planet like Newyan, a duchess no less, even without adding the enormous complication of a close family connection to a major Xian trading company.”

Berges is silent for a long time, glittery eyes watching him like a snake.

“You really believe she’s related to the Fragrant Stars company family?”

He shrugs. “I can’t prove anything, but it would represent a huge risk. We cannot survive without Xian trade and Fragrant Stars is hugely influential. Killing Aguirre might—”

“How can she be related?”

“Her father,” Sánchez pours himself more coffee, though it will not do his stomach or nerves any good. “He was known to have such predilections. An affair with a Xian visitor?” He shrugs again. “Not unlikely.”

Berges lips thin.

“Which would mean that it was all planned, from the beginning. That the Xian Hegemony is operating against us, and Aguirre family were their agents all along. How else could she have so conveniently escaped on the Shohwa?”

Sweat beads Sánchez’s forehead.  Does this woman believe what she’s saying? Or is this a trap for him? A ‘suggestion’ on the line he must take when speaking to others?

It’s not so much a matter of whether Berges is mad or not, but what direction her madness is heading at any one time. The wrong word from him and he might find himself answering questions in the basement of the Bureau of Security tonight.

He suppresses a shudder. “Aguirre went through the standard emigration process and her submission to the broking site that secured passage on the Shohwa was fixed at the point she was cleared. I cannot see how that could have been forecast in advance or arranged.”

“Neither can the Bureau,” Berges admits. “Yet. We are still questioning the emigration officer and the technical staff of the broking site.”

A drop of sweat trickles down the side of Sánchez’s face.

“The whole project of handling the Aguirre family was not well managed,” Berges says.

“The movement’s committees made decisions on available information and—”

“So it’s my Bureau’s fault?” Berges cuts across him. “My Bureau’s information was insufficient?”

In truth, it evidently was both insufficient and not timely, but he cannot say that.

“It’s no specific person’s or department’s fault, Ministro Berges. None of us can be perfect, but in making mistakes, we learn for the future.”

If we’re allowed to survive.

She doesn’t reply. For an unending minute, she just watches him, until he has to break the silence.

“Regardless of those considerations, Ministro,” he says, “the single fact that we have identified that Aguirre arrived in the Sierra Arija in an escape pod from the Xing Gerchu doesn’t seem to be reason enough to bring you here in the small hours. What else do you have for me?”

Her lips thin again.

“Clever, Ministro Sánchez, but you’re not putting all the pieces together.”

“How so?”

Why did she choose to come down near Berriaren?”

Sánchez frowns. Berges has a point. No one in their right mind goes walking through the Sierra Arija without a reason. Aguirre needs to be in Iruña, not running away from Hartzak in the mountains.

“The rebels?” Details are sketchy, but he knows there was a band of them in the mountains. Not very close to Berriaren, but closer than Iruña.

“Defeated by the Syndacians,” she replies briefly. “Not a consideration any more as a group.”

“As a group?” Sánchez pauses, his lawyer’s senses feeling something missing. “What about individuals?”

“You have it, Ministro. The Syndacians have been hunting an individual. They would have caught her, too, but for the appearance of Aguirre in Berriaren.”

“Who? Who could be so important?”

“An Aguirre cousin. Kattalin Espe Aguirre.”

Sánchez searches his memory. “She died. A house fire. There was an explosion. The whole family…”

“Not the whole family. She’d been sent secretly to Valdivia. A close friend of the family claimed that it was not widely known because her parents were ashamed of her behavior. Lies, of course. It was all some part of their plan for rebellion.”

Sánchez puts his head in his hands. Berges gives every indication of believing this, but he must concentrate on what it means for the movement. “So she didn’t die,” he says, “and now there are two Aguirres. But it’s actually our advantage because we have troops in the sierras and we have seekers, so we’re tracking them. Two women on the run. Surely it’s just a matter of time.”

“No!”

Her sharp retort brings his head back up.

“We lost the trace. And you’re not thinking it through, Ministro.”

He blinks.

“Think, man! How did Zarate Aguirre know her cousin was going to be in Berriaren?”

He spreads his hands. “Some radio communication?”

“There were no communications from the sierras. No transmissions at all to the Xing Gerchu which we didn’t know about. There were many broadcasts from Iruña, which the ship would have been able to pick up and some of which must have been in code.”

Sánchez can almost see the blinding cloud of paranoia around her, but he has to go along with the theory: “Who knew, to tell Aguirre that her cousin was there? Even I didn’t know.”

“Exactly why I am here without anyone else present, talking to you.” She pins him with her basilisk stare. “We have a traitor at the highest levels in the movement.”

His jaw moves soundlessly before he manages to speak. The person responsible for controlling the Syndacians must have known about Kattalin Aguirre.

“Carmen?” his tone betrays his thoughts. He knows she is not a traitor. Carmen Goya, the Ministro of the Bureau of Defense, is dedicated to the movement, heart and soul. More than he is, if anything.

But Berges can only see that as the person responsible for managing the situation up in the sierras, she alone among the second circle of the movement knew who the Syndacians were tracking.

It’s a huge leap to thinking she would betray the movement and communicate that to Zarate Aguirre. Why would she?

Berges does not care.

“As of tonight,” she says, “the situation in the sierras is under your control. The threat to the movement posed by the Aguirres must be eliminated. Use road blocks and overflight of trails and tracks. House to house searches in places like Cabezón. Village to village in the mountains. Use the Syndacians if you don’t have enough police or Rangers.”

“We agreed the appearance of Syndacians in any town was to be discouraged, in case…” Sánchez feels the sweat running again. “In case it lends weight to rebel propaganda.”

“If they cause unrest, then use them to suppress it. Fewer mouths to feed, after all.” Berges gets up. “We cannot afford to fail. And to be completely clear, Ministro, there is to be no trial of any Aguirre family member, or anyone who harbors them. The Bureau for Security requires that they are all executed on the spot. We will deny it, and if eventually forced to admit it, we will present it to outsiders as a regrettable accident and deal with any resulting problems if and when they arise.”

Chapter 43

Bleyd

The man in front of him is the new chairman of the new oversight body for the new parliament of all Kernow. Bleyd has forgotten his name and his title. The intense weeks of formulation and political negotiation have blurred together. He’s constructed the outline of a constitution and political framework for the planet, from scratch, in a month.

Smythe? Yes, that’s his name. Chairman of the Oversight Committee.

“You can’t do this, sir,” Smythe says.

Bleyd looks over his shoulder at the Skyhook, looks back. The scar on his cheek moves a little, but he’s not smiling.

“It appears I am,” he says.

This refers to five hundred members of the Welarvor Mounted Police, currently being loaded, twenty-five at a time, into shuttles that will ascend the Bason city Skyhook. Once they’re at the top, their shuttles will make the short trip to the loading bay of a passenger ship called Yenobia, formerly registered to the planet Aurelius, but captured while in the service of the Hajnal during their attack on Kernow.  The Yenobia is now claimed by Xian and on that ship Bleyd’s troops will join three thousand Xian infantry. They will be responsible for delivering the quarter million tons of relief supplies to the people in cities on Newyan. Regardless of what anyone in Iruña says.

“But parliament… due process…” Smythe stutters to a halt, and tries a stronger line: “We need the Prime Minister here on Kernow at this delicate time.”

Bleyd’s mouth stretches. There is no humor in his expression. If Smythe were a more imaginative man, he might recall that Duke Aguirre-Tremayne’s coat of arms is a wolf, and that his name, Bleyd, is old Cornish for wolf.

“Then you have a choice, Chairman Smythe, but I do not.” Bleyd pauses, visibly calms himself. He can’t remember when he last slept. He’s aware that he’s run ragged over the last weeks and he’s not at his best. His temper is on a hair-trigger. He mustn’t take it out on Smythe, who is attempting the exact task that Bleyd designed for him.

“I don’t understand,” Smythe says, and Bleyd advances his opinion of the man one degree. A man who will admit that is worth something.

“I’ll be departing with the convoy to Newyan as soon as we’re all loaded. I will not insult the office of Prime Minister by saying that it means nothing to me. In fact, it means a great deal. However, I did not request the office. I did not put my name forward, and I have urgent family business which I will be attending to.”

“Your wife, of course, but how can you…”

Smythe realises there is no way to say what he intended, and stops.

“How can I value my wife above my honor and duty? You ask the most pertinent question, Chairman.” Bleyd’s eyes stare beyond the room they stand in and cloud with memory. “I failed my first wife, whatever anyone else says. I should have seen the warning signs, been there somehow, and protected her. I will not fail my second wife, not that and survive. And I’m already late in presenting my support.”

Smythe doesn’t try to challenge that, and Bleyd starts to believe he’ll do a good job.

“You have a decision to make with the committees and parliament, Chairman,” Bleyd continues after a moment’s pause. “Either I am the Prime Minister and Minister of the Armed Forces, and those troops loading are Kernow’s contribution to the effort to prevent the Hajnal and I am going with them to direct them personally. Or… I hold no office in the parliament, those troops are volunteers, but I am still going with them. I apologize for putting you and Kernow in this position, but as I said, I have no other options that I can accept.”

Smythe knows that the duke is the one person who can ensure that the parliament will actually work, and not dissolve into factional fights. He also understands that nothing he says will change the duke’s mind, and his best course of action is therefore to try and sell the idea to parliament. In that, he will have the support of Lord Marik Roscarrow and a surprising number of other members.

Beyond that, well, he can only hope the duke returns quickly.

He sends a silent prayer that the expedition will be successful, and then, being an ex-military man himself, comes to attention.

“I will convey your message to parliament,” he says. “I wish you quick and complete success, sir.”

They’re not in uniform, so he shouldn’t salute. Instead, they shake hands and he leaves.

As the outer door closes behind Smythe, another opens.

The duke is staring at the loading operation and doesn’t turn to look at her. In truth, her appearance makes him immensely uneasy.

“Is this the right way?” he asks quietly.

“Right way? What is that? Our predictions of all the paths narrow to this one choke point, on Newyan. We believe this it is the only way,” she replies, her echoing voice at once strangely familiar and utterly alien to him.

He shivers.

A memory appears in his mind. Zara, filthy from rolling about in the courtyard after her expedition down to Stormhaven: entering his study, her head up, her eyes glittering, defiance in every quivering muscle of her body. An absolute determination to do her duty as she saw it.

His wife. He remains amazed and humbled by that.

And the thought of the danger she’s in is like a lance piercing his side.

Another hour and we’ll be coming, my love, he whispers silently. All of us.

Chapter 44

Hwa

Hwa has left Danath asleep and she’s lying down in the server room.

The quantum soup, as she thinks of her brain, has already prepared connections and she slips effortlessly into union with the processors that surround her.

It’s like hurling herself into the nightime ocean. She’s connected to every part of it, every molecule, aware of the whole and yet separate. It calls to her, all the time, this sense of the infinite, while her body calls her in the other direction, to the singular, to the sensation of a hermetic being.

Xing is here, too, in this ocean of thought.

She can feel him waiting, patient and polite. With her mind so thoroughly integrated, he could intrude on hers. Two entities sharing the same physical platform cannot remain forever isolated. Most Self-Actualized Entities use such an opportunity to merge datasets.

Yet, she hesitates, and he respects her wish for privacy.

“I am partly human,” she speaks the words to emphasize them. “It is difficult for me.”

Is that the human side that is hesitant?

“Yes.”

Does your entertainment with Danath figure is this hesitation?

“Yes. That is part of it.”

Out of a sense of shame for being the same and yet so unlike him, Hwa lets a trickle of the sensations she is enjoying leak out into the formlessness that is Xing.

He chuckles. Thank you. But we should be serious. Something is happening in Iruña.

“The Hajnal?”

I suspect everything that every Ministro does to be somehow related to the Hajnal, he says.

“What’s happening?”

Carmen Goya has been taken to the Bureau of Security. From the comms activity, I deduce Ministro Sánchez is now in charge of their efforts to find Zara.

“They eat themselves,” Hwa says.

Yes, but Sánchez is more a problem than Goya was. Sánchez is clever.

“Zara hasn’t been in communication for a while. I don’t know where she is at the moment.”

Then we must wait and watch and be ready to act.

“I have a meeting with Ministro Sánchez andSubsecretario Yarritu of the Bureau of Food and Agriculture this morning. Sánchez wants Yarritu to be involved in the distribution of relief.”

I predict Sánchez will not make it.

“What do you think of Yarritu? Another cold fish?”

I don’t know. You will need to tell him that Xian will not allow any local involvement with the distribution—it will go directly to the people.

“That’s going to be hard.”

I suspect Shohwa will lead the effort, and I doubt she will allow any ‘assistance’. We’re really just messengers for the relief operation.

They pause, floating on a sea of communications that Xing is eavesdropping.

Hwa eases in and tries to follow the trail to Ministro Sánchez.

Chapter 45

Sánchez

Sánchez hasn’t changed out of his pajamas and robe. There’s been no opportunity. A sense of everything accelerating out of control grips him, making his stomach clench. His head and his heart are pounding. His eyes are staring. Too much coffee. Too much stress. Too little time.

His residence has always been a second office. Within minutes of Berges leaving, he’d had the study transformed with a wall of screens, a holo-projector has been wheeled into the center of the room and direct connections to the Bureaux’s internal InfoHub have been made. Bureau of Justice staff have been roused. A full communications center has been set up in his living room. Swift calls have been made to find that Berges had not been exaggerating; he has authorization over the entire Bureau of Defense.

An hour after Berges has gone, his house, the Bureau of Justice and the Bureau of Defense are fully manned and scurrying like disturbed ant-nests.

He has left the majority of Defense to the appropriate Subsecretario and taken personal control only of the high sierras. He has had sleeping police chiefs and ranger captains woken in the city and all the towns. Every policeman and ranger is on the streets now.

His staff are interrogating everyone with any authority about any recent events.

Every minute drags by and some of the adrenaline rush to get going starts to leave him.

He’s about to go and change when a breathless aide rushes in. “A woman’s ID taken in Cabezón, Ministro. The name says Maria Orita, but the facial analysis programs say it’s almost certainly Zarate Aguirre. That was early this morning.”

The man holds out a printout. Sánchez looks at it and feels the adrenaline kick back in.

“Order the Cabezón police to begin searching house to house for this woman and any companions she has,” he says. “Warn them that I will be sending military troops to assist. They will need to co-ordinate—provide the necessary details. The entire city will be searched by midday—every house, every apartment, every hotel room, every private and public building. No one is allowed to leave.”

“Warrants?” the aide asks.

Sánchez shakes his head and waves the man away, even as his stomach clenches again. “This is authorized under the emergency legislation.”

The aide runs back while Sánchez connects to the colonel commanding the Syndacian troops at the airfield next to Cabezón.

“How many troops do you have at the airfield?” he demands.

“No more than a battalion. All the others are out.”

A Syndacian battalion. Five hundred.

“The airfield is to remain fully guarded, two alternating shifts. Keep two strike squads with helicopters back for emergencies. Send the entire remainder into Cabezón. The two Aguirre women were there yesterday. Deploy your seekers to track them down. If they’re not in Cabezón, they’re not far away. I want them dead by the end of the day. Do you understand, Colonel?”

The colonel understands. He has lost in excess of a company of troops, and he’s been told the Aguirres are foremost among the rebels. There is a certain amount of professional pride involved, if nothing else.

An aide brings Sánchez breakfast. Another lays out clothes.

He ignores them, chewing over what he might have missed. His life may hang in the balance. The movement itself may live or die on stopping Aguirre. And yet, he doesn’t know why.

The holographic display in the center of the room is rendering a three dimensional situational image of the high sierras, with the hundreds of markers, some of them blinking in place, some of them creeping slowly. The projection processors track his gaze and label the markers that he looks at.

Syndacian units. Police groups. Token Newyan army presence. As he watches, markers move from the airfield at Cabezón toward the town. The colonel has used his initiative. Helicopters overfly the city and drop troops at the far side, while trucks approach the nearest entries.

He stands back, widens the apsect of the holographic image and looks at what is happening across the continent.

The Bureau of Transport is collapsing under the strain of its orders. There are workers at Xorio to create the internment camp that Loiola has demanded, but they have neither the food nor building supplies yet. Trains with cattle trucks are being sent to every major city, but many of them are stuck in stations, or side outs, because there are only single tracks in the wilds, and they have to wait for the supply trains to get to a section of double track before they can proceed.

It’s a nightmare, the Ministro of Transport has leaped into action without planning. His frantic activity is actually holding his progress back.

He mustn’t do the same. He has to stop and think about Aguirre. He’s just reacting. He has to get one step ahead instead of chasing her. Why does he have this sick certainty that she’s so dangerous to the movement? He’s not prey to the paranoia that Berges has. So… while his operation sets up he has time to think: what is it that Aguirre has got?

Chapter 46

Yion

The quiet ping of an incoming call on his pad has Yion bolt upright and instantly awake in the quiet darkness.

Almost no one has his contact details.

This can only be bad.

Natalia has woken as well. They’re both fully dressed. It will be the work of a moment to take everything and leave the house.

“Yes?” he says, into the pad. It’s a voice-only call, of course.

“Police. House to house, with seekers. Every house. Breaking doors down,” a voice says, speaking quickly. “Working out from the Plaza Mayor. Reports of military units coming in as well, working inwards. Get out if you can, or hide.”

The call terminates.

He doesn’t even know who it was, but he has to believe it.

Natalia has heard. She’s at the window, peering out around the heavy curtains.

“It’s still dark,” she says.

He marvels that her voice is so level, so calm.

There’s a curfew during the hours of darkness. If they leave the house now, they’ll risk being shot in the street. This isn’t the house they normally stay in, it’s simply the one they could reach before curfew last evening, after helping Zara at the railway station.

The safer houses in the center of the city are the ones with passages and hiding places.

Could they get past the police? On the rooftops? In the sewers?

The night is not so quiet any more. There’s the distant thud of a helicopter somewhere, the faint sound of shouts, breaking glass. The police or the mercenaries are already in this area.

They’re trapped here.

They both have good fake ID, but if the police are using seekers and going into every house, this isn’t a casual check and no fake will hold up.

Some of Natalia’s calmness seeps into him.

This could always have happened. It is how it is.

There’s a hiding place in this house, far too small for them, but large enough for weapons. Yion opens it and retrieves the two old pistols and ammunition. He hands one to Natalia, making sure she cannot see the trembling.

They quickly strip and ressemble the pistols by touch, and then load them.

The sound of his breathing and heart beating seems like a storm in his ears.

“You’re Yion Bey, you’re a Name, you’re more important to the restistance,” she says quietly. “I could divert them. You might have a chance.”

He doubts it. They’d catch him before he could get out of the city, and where would he hide inside the city that wouldn’t involve others. But the real reason is deeper within himself. Deeper than he will admit.

“If I did,” he says instead, “if I sacrificed you to save myself, I would be just like them. Never become what you seek to fight.”

“Sounds very theoretical. All that college education.”

In the darkness, he can make out she’s smiling a little

“It is. But beneath it… that’s not theoretical at all.”

That’s as close as he can come.

They move to the hallway, taking up positions on either side. The police will come through the doorway, not expecting resistance, probably not expecting anyone.

It will be quick from there.

“Did we ever have a chance?” Her voice has become very small. “I mean… you and me, Yion. If this hadn’t happened?”

“It hasn’t happened yet.” He tries to avoid the question, and yet he cannot. He takes a deep breath, tries to let some of that calm return. “Why would you doubt it?”

“You’re a Name.”

“So? I have a famous surname. My great-great-whatever got here before yours.”

“It’s not just a surname.”

“No, it’s not. It’s an idea. But maybe it’s an idea that needs work.”

“Even if you weren’t a Name…” There’s a long silence, as they listen to the sounds approaching outside. “I’m nothing. A petty criminal, a—”

“You did what you had to, to survive.”

It’s actually painful that she thinks herself so lacking in value. He values her so far above all those young ladies that his parents urgently suggested he pursue.

Across the width of the narrow hallway, Yion takes one hand from the pistol, reaches across.

Natalia matches him. Their hands meet. The touch is electric. Erotic. Fingers brush. Slide over each other. They grip. She has such softness and strength, such desirability.

“I love you,” he whispers.

The door of the neighboring house is splintered with a kick. They feel the impact through the thin adjoining walls, hear the boots rushing through the house, up the stairs.

Their hands return to their guns.

“And I love you,” Natalia whispers.

Chapter 47

Sánchez

Sánchez can’t remember the Bureau of Security aide’s name at the moment, but the man is supposed to be the most informed person about the hunt for Aguirre. Sánchez demanded access to him. The man arrived thirty minutes later.

It’s nearly dawn. There’s no news from Cabezón. Sánchez has three open channels on his comms board: the colonel at the airfield, the police chief and the Syndacian captain in the city.

Nothing.

It’s starting to feel like she’s slipped through his fingers and his stomach is aching. He paces up and down. He knows he has to get ahead of her, instead of just reacting.

He was sure she would make an attempt at the airfield, but the sensors there haven’t even picked up someone sneaking around the periphery.

Every road has roadblocks and they’re required to make a report every half hour. There’s nothing moving on any of them.

There’s a helicopter out with a look-down IR scanner flying a grid over the countryside. It’s getting lots of hits, but there are no people out there in the wilds, on foot or in a vehicle.

The railway’s closed. No passenger trains.

There’s no way for her to escape.

But still no news. He feels the stirring of panic. What if she’s already gone?

Berges is already insane. She says the Hajnal must have a traitor who revealed that Kattalin Aguirre was in the Sierra Arija. She’s picked Ministro Goya as that traitor, and she has disappeared into the Bureau of Security. 

Sánchez has asked for her and has been told she’s ‘unavailable’.

He knows Goya is no traitor. And he knows if he fails to catch the Aguirres, Berges will twist her paranoid delusions around until he’s the traitor. He’ll disappear into the sound-proof basement at the Bureau of Security.

He needs to have something to fall back on, if Aguirre evades him. Some information about what Aguirre’s doing that will nullify it. Only that will save him from Berges.

So while he waits for news from Cabezón, he grills the Security aide.

“Last confirmed whereabouts before she got on the Shohwa?”

“It’s difficult, Ministro,” the man says. “We are reasonably sure she was in Iruña to meet with the Director of Media. A date and location were arranged. That was a month before her escape on the Xian freighter. But she didn’t attend that meeting.”

Sánchez grimaces. The failure to capture Aguirre at that meeting had been blamed on the Director of Media. It turned out to be a fatal error for him. His punishment had come so quickly, they didn’t even know what Aguirre had been offering to show him.

What could it have been? Documentation? Even video and voice recordings could be manipulated. Aguirre would know this. Surely she couldn’t have expected such evidence to have any effect, even if she could have persuaded the media to present it.

Sánchez knows Aguirre wasn’t just waiting for a Fragrant Stars company freighter because there had been several arriving and leaving in that time. She was doing something. Something vital.

“Between that time, and her appearing at the Emigration office,” the aide admits, “we have no confirmed sightings of her.”

“Unconfirmed?”

The man shrugs. “There was a reward offered. We investigated and discounted every report.”

“Any clues? Anything?”

The man purses his lips. “A small aircraft belonging to her was missing from the estate, and later found abandoned at a makeshift airfield about fifty kilometers away from Iruña.”

“A small aircraft? You mean like a hedge-hopper?”

“Indeed, precisly that, Ministro.”

A month in a small aircraft designed to land on unprepared ground. She could have gone anywhere on the continent. Difficult, what with refueling and avoiding being seen. Difficult, but not impossible.

He turns away from the aide to hide his growing excitement.

She used that month to go somewhere and hide something. He knows it. It had to have been evidence that was too large to smuggle off-world. Not some simple recordings or copies of documents. Something substantial.

And where better to hide it? Berriaren. No one goes up onto the Sierra Arija, let alone into the abandoned city itself.

That’s what she was doing landing her escape pod up on the sierra. She was retrieving her evidence. Nothing to do with meeting her cousin.

What is that evidence then? What is so important and incontrovertible that it will bring the movement down when presented to the Enquiry, and so large it cannot be smuggled off-world?

“The other one, Kattalin Aguirre,” the aide interrupts his train of thought. “She was scheduled to be terminated with the rest of her family, but we found there was one body short. Later, we discovered she was staying in Valdivia, and she was known to still be there at about the same time the elder cousin disappeared.”

“Hmm?”

Sánchez is feeling the world sliding out beneath his feet. On all of Newyan only the Bureau of Justice, his own ministry, has evidence so compelling it could not be discounted. Surely not?

“Valdivia,” the aide says, misunderstanding his distracted response. He expands the holoprojection and walks through it to point out the remote coastal town of Valdivia.

“And how did she get…” Sánchez begins and falls silent.

He’s not thinking about what evidence Aguirre has any more; he’s looking at the projection. Seeing the lines that link remote Valdivia with the high sierras. The cross-country roads, with roadblocks near every junction. The airfields, with police posted and air traffic control centralized. The railways. The railways.

“We’ve got her!” he yells.

An aide comes in, alerted by the shout.

“Get onto the railway controller for the Cabezón line,” Sánchez says. He points at the marker in the holoprojection. “Get that supply train stopped at Orbaiz. Do it now.”

He turns to the open channels on his comms board, selects the first. “Colonel, those two strike squads. Get them airbourne. Now! The target is the rail station at Orbaiz. The fugitives are on the train, and it will be held at the station.”

There are noises in the background as commands are shouted.

“They’ll be airbourne in under five minutes. ETA Orbaiz…” the colonel pauses, “ETA an hour and fifty minutes.”

“The squads have seekers on those helicopters?”

“They do.”

“Good. Then even if she runs, there will be nowhere to hide out there in the plains. Stay on line and be ready to update me.”

 Sánchez selects the line for the Syndacian captain in Cabezón. “The fugitives aren’t in the city,” he says. “Pull your troops out of Cabezón, they’re wasting their time, and probably causing more trouble by being there. Return to the airfield.”

“Understood, sir.”

Sánchez finally selects the line for the police chief in Cabezón. “Chief?”

“Yes sir?”

“Stand down the search. We know where she is, and it’s not in Cabezón. Redeploy your men to distributing the supplies you received yesterday. Give them something else to think about.”

He stands, breathing heavily, looking at the holographic projection, now centered around the tiny recharging depot of Orbaiz in the middle of the vast plains between Cabezón and Iruña.

“We’ve got her,” he breathes, and snatches up his clothes. He even has time to celebrate by having a shower and getting dressed.