And here’s the problem with using WordPress as a medium for telling a book in episodes – I can’t make the blog ‘threaded’. So, when I have an announcement like this, it sits in the middle of the current episodes for A Threat Among the Stars.
Anyway – here’s the link for A Harvest of Lies – Bian’s Tale book 1:
A disrupted week. Thank you government legislation on GDPR, among others.
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. I have two *key* meetings between characters that just don’t feel right at the moment, so I’m holding back going to the beta readers with the first 1/4.
The Harvest of Lies, Bian’s Tale 1, is *still* just waiting for the cover.
ATAtS is obviously more complex that ANAtS, and feels slower to me. I can’t really tell from the feedback, because there’s been so little. Hint! Hint!
The daughter wants to write or co-write a novel/novella in this universe, but she’s got her hands rather full. We’ll see. She’s back on Sunday, and for a month this time (we think).
* * *
Talan and I look at each other in one of those moments of complete understanding.
We just know who’s making that noise, and it isn’t piskatellers.
Down in the cabin, we’d swung the table out from its normal stowed position to give us something to drape wet towels over.
Talan pushes it back, freeing the cover to the old smuggling compartment in the deck. It’s pushed open from below: Rhoswyn and Alexis are squeezed into the space so they can barely breathe.
As they clamber out quickly, Alexis is looking frightened and Rhoswyn stubborn.
I can barely think straight. I’m so furious at them and scared for them at the same time, I can hardly speak.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I heard Warwick tell you about the piskatellers,” Rhos says. “It’s time I saw them too.”
“You are impossible!”
Shouting is upsetting Alexis, who is a good child and would never have dreamed of an escapade like this. What can I do about Rhos? I’ll have to call Gaude—they’ll be searching for her. What will Bleyd think when he finds out about this? I’m not fit to be her parent.
I’m getting no help from Talan and Hwa. They’ve found urgent duties on deck.
Rhoswyn’s face is set. Not sulking at least, but so determined.
“It’s what you would have done,” she says.
How many times did I confront my grandfather with that face and that sort of argument? Rhoswyn is my punishment for not respecting him.
“We’ll have to turn back,” I start, but the girls get support in the form of Morgen, who leans down into the cabin.
“Duchess, it’s not dangerous,” she says. “If these young ladies are the next generation, they should be introduced to the sea folk.”
“I haven’t… I mean, it’s the sort of thing I should discuss with the duke.”
“From what the last Morrach told me, when the duke first went out, he was younger than his daughter is now,” Morgen says, and leaves us.
Although it immediately disappears, I catch a look of triumph on Rhos’ face and I know I’ve lost this one. Both girls go all soft eyed and appealing, like they’ve practiced it.
“You obey what Morgen says immediately and without arguing,” I say and they nod their heads solemnly. “And there will be punishments and extra duties.”
“Get on deck and ask if you can climb up into the crow’s nest or something.”
“There isn’t—” Alexis begins, but Rhos drags her quickly out, leaving me to sit on the narrow bunk, with my head in my hands.
I love them so much it breaks my heart.
When I emerge later, it’s still dark and we’re so far out, I can’t see any lights from the land.
Morgen suddenly stands, letting go of the tiller. She tilts her head one way and then the other, like a predatory bird. Her body sways to the rhythm of the boat.
“Here! Here!” she says. Her eyes are shining. “They’re rising.”
Talan drops the sail and we fold it hastily.
My heart stutters at the sound of a splash, thinking Alexis has fallen in, but it’s Morgen. She’s lying on her back, her hands waving languidly in the water.
There are strange lights in the water and the sea looks odd, almost as if it’s simmering.
“Come on,” Morgen calls. “Quickly.”
Rhos and Alexis jump in as if it were the swimming pool at Pyran Manor and not the deep ocean, out of sight of land.
With a varying degrees of trepidation, near panic in my case, the rest of us follow.
Morgen orders us into a circle, then gets us to lie on our backs in the water and hold hands. Our heads point inwards and I have Rhos on my right and Alexis in my left.
It’s much warmer than I thought. The water is calm; there are no waves, just the stirring movement that stretches as far as I can see. My chest gets tighter and tighter: irrational fears of drowning, flashbacks of the undertow sucking me down, visions of creatures with teeth rising from the depths.
“Be calm,” Morgen says.
It sounds like she’s speaking in my ear, but she’s on the other side of the circle, and she can’t have spoken to me because she’s murmuring some sort of chant.
But oddly, it does help me to calm down.
And nothing happens. I don’t drown. Creatures don’t emerge and eat us. Instead we gently drift in our circle, around and around, while the sky above grows lighter.
There are sounds; the wind, and a sort of echo to Morgen chant, like a far off crowd.
What are they saying?
Too indistinct to tell, and it’s too warm and comfortable to worry about it.
I close my eyes and drift.
There’s a cold, cold wind coming off the mountains. Up here, where it seethes through the endless pine forests, it has a smell you can never forget; lemon peel and fresh earth and balsam.
And it has a sound. You can never forget that sound either. The wind sighs secrets; whispers old, forgotten stories.
I know exactly where I am. I’m in long-abandoned Berriaren, hidden away, high in the Sierra Arija on Newyan. I’m walking the black stone corridors of the Jauregia, dripping seawater, shivering.
There’s nothing but stone here. Wood and weave has long gone to dust. Rust has eaten metals from the inside. Only the timeless stone endures. Even the great pines hold their ranks away from the ancient buildings.
The tall windows of the corridors I walk past have lost their glass. They stare with sightless eyes over the great Plaza Nagusia, over the sleeping ruin of crumbling columns and fountains, to the distant, somber Auzitegi, the High Court, that sits opposite the palace.
Nothing but stone here… stone and ghosts.
How many stubborn Aguirre feet trod this corridor, wore these dips into the stones? How many besides mine? How many pass this way like phantoms?
This corridor, any corridor in this level, will lead me to the Harrera, the main reception room, where visitors came to make requests of the Aguirre when this world was newly settled.
That’s where I find Her; Her presence a light in the darkness, yet wreathed in shadows.
I kneel. “My Lady.”
My Lady of Sorrows moves, a floating dance of black veils and haze. I see a small smile pass briefly across Her face.
“We are not what you make us, Duchess. You have these images much in your mind.”
I seek such sorrows as I may only bear with Her help.
“We are not what you seek. We cannot speak like this. Come…”
She shimmers and now the face that looks down on me is the one that I saw every day in the house where I was born. His portrait hung facing the main door. Xabat Abarran Aguirre, first of the Family to step onto Newyan. The man who made Aguirre a Name Among the Stars. He has features like a hawk, and I was always afraid of him.
He shakes his head, shimmers, fades, and in his place my grandfather looks disapprovingly down at me. I was afraid of him, too.
Shohwa, with her depthless eyes. Not so much afraid, but…
“Duchess Tremayne.” I know it’s not really her, but the shock startles the greeting from me.
“We only wear her face. You are Duchess Aguirre-Tremayne,” Keren replies and nods as if satisfied. “Come.”
I follow her down the stairs to the courtyard, where open arches channel the wind and tattered ghosts throng the echoing square. And out. Out into the Plaza Nagusia, to the great central fountain, its basin choked with dust and dreams.
“Why here?” Keren says, turning around and holding her arms up to encompass the ruins around us.
She has taken an image from the surface of my mind, and my mind has been lingering on abandoned Berriaren ever since I found the Terrans are intent on a Commission of Enquiry for Newyan.
“That building,” I say pointing across from where we stand. “The Auzitegi. That was the Court of Disputes when the Founding Families built this city.”
Keren frowns at it: the columned facade, the heavy-browed, blank eyed stare, the shouting mouth of the doorless main entrance. The Auzitegi is not an attractive building.
“You seek there for justice?” she asks.
I laugh bitterly. “That’s where people went for justice when it failed elsewhere. That’s where I went and where I must return. If I have the strength.”
The sea folk have brushed my mind. Some memories they have touched, but some are hidden from them, just as justice is hidden in the Auzitegi.
Keren waits to see if I will explain, but I do not.
“No matter,” she says after a while, with a sigh. “Few truly seek justice, Duchess. I honor you for that. Fewer take it on themselves to deliver it. But I feel your mind is made up on this. What is life without honor, and honor without duty?”
“My grandfather’s words.”
My eyes blur at the sharp edge of the wind.
“Learned at his own grandfather’s knee. As that grandfather did in turn, no doubt, all the way back to Xabat Abarran Aguirre who laid the foundations of that palace.” Keren eyes the Jauregia.
“The Jauregia is just a big house,” I say, “not really a palace.”
“Yet they called it a palace and laid the burden of leadership on your family. Except they called it honor and duty.”
That knowledge, they have touched. I can tell they know why we bear this shame.
“It is not your shame,” she says. “At worst, not yours alone to bear.”
I know she is telling the truth as she perceives it, and that she has the wisdom of many generation of humans she has spoken with, but I am the first from Newyan. She cannot understand why the shame of the Founding Families does not diminish by being shared, nor why revealing it will break everything.
“You are wrong in other things, too,” she says. “As is your mind-meshed sister.”
Hwa enters the plaza and joins us.
“I’m sorry, Zara.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you. I thought if you knew the truth—”
But Keren speaks before she can answer. “Look,” she says.
The dust in the basin of the great fountain stirs and begins to spin. It swirls out around us and when it clears, we’re on a hill. It’s the scene of a desperate fight and we’re surrounded by bodies.
There are two women left alive in all this.
The older one staggers to her feet. Better old ghosts than new ones, she says.
There’s the sound of a distant aircraft. I can see the women’s faces. They’re both streaked with dirt. The younger seems familiar, even with her head bowed down so I can’t see her face.
What is this I’m seeing?
Something Hwa knows about? Something that has actually happened? On Newyan?
The older one pushes the younger away.
Go now, she says. Run and hide, girl. Run where they will not follow. Hide where they will not look. The Goddess of Mercy guide your steps and hold you in her hands, Kattalin Espe Aguirre.
The girl turns, I see her face, and suddenly Keren, Hwa and I are standing beside the dead fountain in the ghost city of Berriaren again.
“She’s alive?” My question comes out as a croak.
It’s Hwa who answers.
“Yes, as far as the Xian delegation on Newyan know. She survived a battle with the mercenary troops the Hajnal deployed near the city of Cabezón. The mercenaries were reassigned and there has been no news of her capture by local police forces.”
My little cousin Kat, who was sent away to Valdivia to avoid my bad influence. Still alive.
“I’m not released from my oath,” I mutter.
In my mind’s eye, my grandfather is looming over me during one of those arguments about what was happening on Newyan. He was berating me for refusing to believe that there was a force seeking to undermine and destroy the foundations of our society.
Swear to me, he shouts. Swear to me that you will never abandon the family so long as one of them is alive.
I swear, I shout in reply, and he goes silent.
Then that will suffice for me. He turns on his heel and marches out, leaving me with the usual trembling confusion of pride and anger.
Hwa takes my hand, and in that moment, our minds lock back together in the way they did when I hosted her in her ghostly quantum state.
We are, literally, of one mind.
“That was a true vision of what happened on that hillside,” Keren says with a wave at the dusty fountain basin. “Communicated in your way from spy drone to the Xian delegation, to courier ship and so to Hwa. But that is not what we are valued for.”
The dust in the fountain basis begins to spin again as if stirred by a whirlwind.
“The two of you are both meshed and individual. Successfully. That is what so fascinated us to begin with. So much that the shoal who saved you from drowning offered itself to the eldest shoals, that all might share this experience.”
I sense behind her words a merging, like the stately collisions of galaxies. But a loss of identity? Do the sea folk feel identity as we do?
“Morgen called you the Great Old Ones,” Hwa says.
Keren nods her head.
“We are no longer the Great Old Ones,” she says, as the dust-storm envelopes us all. I can’t see her any more, and her voice is now the voice of the wind, ever rising. “You are the agents of change. You have brought an end to a cycle that has lasted thousands of your years. You have brought us strange tales too deep and wide even for the Old Ones. There is now one voice in the deep. One dreamer of what may be, if you fail.”
Kernow: I’m on foot, masked and walking silently through the outskirts of Marazion with others behind me. Tense, alert. The city looks empty, but we know that can be deceiving. There are basements where the berserkers lurk, and they can boil out at any time. We wouldn’t be here, but the crops are failing again. Somewhere in the city there will be supplies. Hidden away in the back of some shop: fresh seed, uncontaminated with the viruses; tinned food; medicines.
It’s filthy. I can still smell it through the breathing filters. The worst of the stench, from when so many died, has gone, but berserkers foul the streets and there are still a lot of them around. The viruses rob them of all reasoning. Berserkers exist only to kill and eat anything living that’s not in their small, shrinking tribes. In another few years they’ll be gone, but we need the supplies now.
Something stirs way down the street and we freeze. Safeties click off. We really don’t want to kill any, not because they have any resemblance to humans, we’re long past that, but the noise of killing them will bring more. We don’t have an infinite supply of ammunition.
Newyan: Wrapped in triple layers against the cold, I walk around to check the fortifications again, worrying that it’s been so long since the last attack. We’re secure where we are: heavy neo-c walls, a deep well, a warehouse stocked with fuel, food, and clothing. Weapons and ammunition. A cleared area two hundred paces wide all around the fort.
Our supplies make us a target. Nothing grows out there after the kinetic bombardment—it’s a grey, freezing desert. Even the snow is still the color of ash. Of course, I’d like to take in some of the starving people from outside, but we’ve got just enough fuel for the hydroponics, and just enough food until the hydroponics start to produce an amount needed to feed us regularly. If we take any more people in, we’ll all die.
No one is coming to save us. There hasn’t been a whisper on the radios. No spaceships above with supplies. Nothing. We have to save ourselves. In the end, we might be the only humans left for all we know.
I open one of the firing holes and take a rapid look outside.
I sound the alarm.
I don’t wake up at any specific point. Hwa and I are both locked together in the horror of the possible future that the sea folk have shown us.
Morgen understands. She and Talan have got everyone back on board the Low Lady and we’re heading for home with a following wind. No one else seems affected quite the way we are. Rhos and Alexis are quiet, but whisper excitedly up on the prow. Talan looks sad and thoughtful. Morgen is silent.
Half of me wants to go back and ask more questions.
This can’t depend on Hwa and me alone.
What did Keren mean about me doing something, but not actually doing it myself? Who else could I call on?
The whole night seems to blur.
But there is no going back. Only forward, whatever the price.
It’s a fine morning, sunny, with clear skies and a cool wind. We sail into Stormhaven harbor. Moyle’s there to greet us. He gives the girls a piece of his mind before loading us all into his truck.
There’s a small crowd in the town square and we have to stop and wait.
Hwa and I are blinking. I know exactly what she’s thinking. There are people out enjoying the sunshine. The town smells of the sea and fresh fish and boat varnish. Everything is clean and neat. Everyone is well fed. No berserkers hide in the houses. No foraging parties, masked against viruses and grimly marching along the quay looking for supplies.
To make it all more bizarre, the reason for the crowd is there’s a mummer’s play in the square. The actors all wear tall, conical masks, woven from twigs, that balance on coils of rope around their necks. Sea shells are used to make huge eyes on the masks, and their costumes are covered with thousands more sea shells.
Everything feels as if it has another meaning beneath it.
“I’m still dreaming,” I say, and Hwa nods.
Again, a bit shorter than intended. Busy times with daughter back.
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. Getting close to sending the first quarter to the beta readers. I’ve written quite a bit more than that, but there are a couple of scenes which I’ve left only sketched out, or I’m not happy with.
The Harvest of Lies, Bian’s Tale 1, is still just waiting for the cover.
So Many Doors is out now. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07CXRLG6L/
It’s an excellent murder mystery set in Africa in 1948.
* * *
We arrive at a deserted Cardu airfield. Given how tired I am, Talan drives the truck.
At the headland crossroads, the road splits—straight for Cardu, right for Stormhaven Wyck and the harbor, left for the bay.
Talan turns left.
“Morgen wanted the Low Lady brought around to the bay,” Talan says. “Wants to keep this quiet.”
Minutes later, as we zig-zag down the switchback dirt track to the isolated bay, I can see the boat as a dark shape on a sea turned to rippled silver by the light of the moons. It riding to anchor beyond the surf.
“We’re going to have to swim out?”
Talan grins and nods.
Great. That will wake me up.
Talan parks where the track levels out just short of the beach. With the engine and headlights switched off, the horizon seems darker and wider.
There are three-quarter length wet suits in the back of the truck and we strip and change quickly. I’m shivering, as much in anticipation of what’s ahead as the chill.
The wind is offshore, and in fact, it’s cool but not really cold. It smells of late summer – dusty harvests and sweet berry hedges, ripe fruit and sun-dried hay bales. I try and block out the messages the wind is bringing me of autumn duties abandoned and concentrate instead on tonight.
What will Morgen Golan be like?
Sea witch? Wizened old woman stirring a cauldron? That’s foolish, but she’s got to be something unusual. How do you become sea witch for a fishing village?
“She’s waiting on the boat?” I ask Talan.
She shakes her head, which is difficult because she’s making a braid of her hair.
Hwa points. “She’s not that crazy woman, is she?”
My eyes follow her gesture.
Out in the silvery sea, short of where the Low Lady waits, the waves make long, rolling shadows as wide as the bay and tall as the truck. When they’re not fishing or harvesting, Stormhaven folk come to the bay for swimming… and surfing.
And yes, there’s a crazy person out there, riding the midnight waves, wild hair sprayed out like a headdress behind her.
“Yup. That’s Morgen.” Talan is grinning again.
As well as apparently a serious addiction to surfing, Morgen has talent. It’s difficult to see her clearly while she rides in the curl of the wave, but just as it all starts to break, she crests it and pirouettes effortlessly, before letting the remaining swell float her gently toward the beach.
So exactly what kind of person becomes a sea witch? A surfer.
The woman hops into the water as the beach shelves up and carries her board to where Talan is trotting down to greet her.
They hug, laughing. Old friends. No wonder Talan was confident that Morgen would take her call.
She’s no old crone, but the sea witch is unusual. It’s difficult to be sure in moonlight, but I think her hair is red-gold and fine, a little like Rhoswyn’s. Thank the Goddess that Rhoswyn’s not here to see her, because Morgen’s solution to untameable hair is to braid it through sea shells. Her hair has a mass and it clicks as she moves. She’s wearing a wet suit like ours, but hers is decorated in patterns of dizzy swirls.
Talan introduces us. The sea witch is polite and speaks with the soft Arvish tones I expected.
It’s also difficult to see her eyes. Trying to peer at them without being rude, I get the strange feeling I’m looking into a star field, like it is with Hwa sometimes.
Morgen and Hwa greet each other with equal interest.
“I don’t want to give offence,” I say looking out to sea, “but we’re expected back by the afternoon. I don’t know what this meeting entails.”
Morgen raises her head as if scenting the state of the sea. “Can’t say as being busy would offend them,” she replies. “Should be good on timing too: we’ll be running ’fore the wind both ways. Best be about it, though. We can talk more on the boat.”
She puts her board in the back of the truck and we swim out to the Low Lady, a long effort which tells me I’ve spent too much time sitting down in an office.
On board, there’s no time to rest to begin with. Anchors and sails need raising, and then we take turns drying ourselves while Morgen steers. There are some salty windbreakers in the cabin which the three of us put on, but Morgen doesn’t appear to feel the cold.
The first part of her prediction is correct—the wind is steady and we make about ten knots heading straight out. I’ll be interested if her prediction is right about the wind on the way back in.
We settle down into the course but Morgen shows no sign of stopping. The Low Lady was anchored much further out than where I was when I had my life saved by a piskateller, and we’re quickly further out even than when I left an offering for them.
“They don’t mind being called piskatellers,” Morgen says in answer to my question. “They don’t have names that we could easily use, but sea folk is as good as any for them all together.”
“The one who saved us doesn’t have a name?” Hwa asks.
I forget, when I think of the piskatellers saving me, they actually saved both of us.
“No name or number.” Morgen sees our confusion and continues. “The sea folk aren’t what you’d call unitary beings. There is no ‘one’ who saved you.”
“I saw…” I begin.
But what I saw was the Lady of Sorrows. A projection, as oxygen starvation induced hallucinations in my brain.
“A kind of mirror of what’s in your mind,” Morgen fills in the silence. “They share your thoughts, take images from your mind. That’s how they talk to us.”
I shiver; nothing to do with the temperature.
“Maybe that’s the reason they want to talk to us again,” Hwa says.
Very few people know what happened with Hwa; the way she was downloaded from the Xian delegation’s servers into my brain. The whole process and its similarity to the sort of mental invasion used by Jackers still terrifies me. I’d just about got used to having Hwa sharing my head, when Shohwa separated us. Now it seems the piskatellers want to use the same method to talk to me, by burrowing into my brain.
I owe them for saving my life, otherwise I’d turn the boat back now.
Hwa and Morgen are still talking.
“It may be you’d want to think of them as shoals,” Morgen is saying. “Younger shoals merge and split and merge again with the seasons and the need of the Tellings. But the old shoals keep their cores, even as they take and give parts of themselves, they keep what land folk would say was their identity. The blue water shoals are people like you or me. The Great Old Ones out in the deep…” she shrugs.
I heard the weight of the word as she said it. “Tellings?”
“The sea folk have a need to speak.” She grimaces. “All rivers flow down to the sea. The weight of water cannot be borne. It must be released back to feed the land.”
Her phrases have the cadence of a recitation. She shrugs again. “That’s how they describe it.”
“I don’t understand,” Hwa says.
“Everything that happens in or near the oceans, everyone who visits the sea folk, all tell them their tales, big or small. These tales pass among the sea folk, mingle and merge with other tales, grow or shrink. Then they have to tell them back. It’s what makes the sea folk what they are.”
Talan had been silent so far. Now she speaks: “I always thought of them like the weather monitoring system. After all, that’s one of the things they do for us. The lesser shoals all over the oceans sense the changes, and pass the information to the Old Ones who use it to predict the weather and pass on warnings back to us. Like our satellites and weather monitoring stations pass information to the central computers to produce the forecasts then send to us.”
Except the piskatellers are much better at it.
“Hold on a moment,” I say as another thought catches up. “Shoals? Like fish? Don’t we…”
“Yes, we eat the individuals, which doesn’t harm the shoal. The sea folk and the land folk who know honor each other in this way.”
I shudder. Goddess, that sounds so strange. I’m not even sure whether I’ll be able to eat fish pie again. And we honor them? I’d heard burials at sea are popular on the coast…
“But you two,” Morgen is saying, “you’ve brought them tales from far away. The sea folk will be hungry for more.”
Another shudder. Hungry mouths in the water. What have I let myself in for?
“That, and I guess they may have something to say back to you, for you to carry—”
She stops, startled by the noise of something banging against the wood of the boat. It’s coming from below us.
Kattalin jerks awake and immediately freezes in position, heart racing.
No one can see me.
She’s lying under a camo-net, which is itself hidden under a leafy branch. She looks and breathes through a filter of twigs and leaves. She’s as invisible as she can make herself in the electromagnetic spectrum from IR through to UV. She has no electronic equipment switched on. The plasma rifle ran out of charge a long way back and she buried it. She’s emitting nothing but breath and heartbeat. And smell, no doubt.
A saying from a truly ancient holovid, reputedly older than presence of humans on this planet, drifts through her mind.
It is said a Shaolin priestess can walk through walls. Looked for, she cannot be seen. Listened for, she cannot be heard. Touched, she cannot be felt.
She snorts quietly and wonders whether those priestesses ever had to hide from dogs. Dogs are what she’s really worried about now.
The Syndacians had seekers, instruments which were almost as good as dogs, but Ohana had been right; they weren’t really interested in chasing her into the mountains.
What they had done instead was to inform the villages in the hills.
No doubt, the message had been about a dangerous, unstable criminal heading your way.
Each little village up here had Sierra Rangers; two or three fit young men of the community who supplemented their income with part-time police work and environmental protection duties. And most of them had big mountain dogs capable of fighting the Hartzak, if one of them should come down from the high ranges.
Hidden from view, she runs a sweaty hand over her face. She’s heading to those high ranges. She wonders if that’s a sign of madness, but she’s become obsessed by Ohana’s words: Someone must live. Someone must know.
She needs to keep moving. She shouldn’t have fallen asleep, but she’s run out of stim tabs and her body is trying to compensate.
Now she doesn’t know if she slept while a whole group of Rangers walked past.
She’s looking down a gentle slope at a dirt road. The road is long and straight. The cleared area is wide. Very wide. There’s no place to hide when crossing.
It seems wider every time she looks at it.
She should have crossed straight away. It’s not as if she’s in sight of a village.
All she’d intended was to pause, to see if anyone was coming. But she’d felt sleep dragging her down. She’d had just enough time to cover herself.
She knows she can’t go on like this, but she thinks this road must be the last one, connecting the last couple of villages, surely. Surely. No one lives higher up the mountains than this—they say the high sierra is empty except for ghosts and shame. And animals.
How appropriate she’s heading up there, dragging ghosts and guilt behind her.
She has made herself a bow and arrows. She’s not bad up to about thirty paces, but it’s more for show than anything. She will not kill any Newyan, even if they’re trying to kill her. She’s not sure if she can kill even a Syndacian now.
Her bow will be useless against the Hartzak too, and stalking the little bouncing deer that dart between the trees is too hard. No, the best results will come from traps, when she has time to set them. She can’t afford the time yet, not anywhere near a village.
Berries, leaves and roots. Water from streams. That has to be enough to keep her going.
And she must be going now. She can’t rest here, and lack of it is making her delirious.
She’s about to move when she hears distant voices on the road.
Two rangers, and a dog.
There’s no point running away now—they’ll definitely see her if she moves. She just has to hope her camouflage works, and the dog…
Well, there’s nothing left to hope for with the dog, except maybe it’s too old to scent her.
She’d pray, but she’s been too ashamed to speak to the Goddess after the battle.
She’s so tired. She lets her head sink back down until she can see nothing but a thin strip of road.
The voices get closer. She has to listen hard over the pounding of her own heart. The men are talking about a girl in the next village. If they’re supposed to be looking for her, they really aren’t trying.
They walk into the strip of the road she can see and her heart stops. The dog is a huge young animal with a tawny ruff—a real mountain dog. He must knows she’s there. He’s looking straight at her.
He can’t see me. He can’t see me.
She doesn’t breathe. Doesn’t blink.
The rangers pass out of her line of sight. She closes her eyes, breathes again. Listens to them wandering down the road with their dog until finally she can’t hear them.
The dog doesn’t care about her. As far as he’s concerned he’s just out for a walk unless something dangerous threatens his humans. And she’s not dangerous any more.
Or maybe the Goddess is still looking down on her.
She gathers her camouflage net, sweeps dead leaves to hide where she’s been lying and crosses the road, swift and grey and quiet as a phantom.
This is a bit shorter than intended. Busy weekend and week.
Meanwhile… my late mother’s book, So Many Doors, is out now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07CXRLG6L/
It’s an excellent murder mystery set in Africa in 1948.
The Harvest of Lies, Bian’s Tale 1, is still just waiting for the cover. Soon!
Inside Straight, Bite Back 6, is progressing. I’m nearly at the stage where my voracious beta readers can start chewing on the first section, but there are a few interleaving scenes to add in before I let it go.
One more dead Syndacian. One more of the Goddess’ children to die by her hand.
Kattalin slumps against a tree, too exhausted to vomit, too exhausted even to drink from her canteen.
She wants to die. Anything for it to be over. She doesn’t know why she keeps fighting. She doesn’t even know how long it’s been. Two days? Three?
No sooner had she fired her great-grandfather’s rifle for the first time in anger than orders came down from Commander Benat. The plans had changed. They hadn’t been able to get enough separation from the forward units of the Syndacians, and the pass was too wide.
The new plan was for the first line of the ambush to leapfrog back past the other two and dig in to cover, then repeat. As night fell. In a forest.
It became a nightmare. She’d been shot at by her own side more than the Syndacians. And rather than being slowed down, the Syndacian skirmish line seemed more on top of them every time she turned around. Only night and the forest had saved Training Company Bravo from being massacred in those first few hours.
Through the next day and night, there had been no pretense of any plan, no semblance of an orderly retreat in phases. The thicker the forest got, the more the lines broke up and lost contact, until the battle degenerated into a confused, rolling maul, a scatter of desperate individual fights, long, lung-bursting climbs and descents broken only by moments of sheer kill-or-be-killed terror.
Over the pass, through the next valley, up and up again. Without supplies, without orders, without hope. Death slithered through the forests. Still, Training Company Bravo fought.
The fourth Syndacian she killed, or maybe it was the fifth, had a pocketful of stim tabs. She chews another every time she feels herself slowing down. The pulse rifle she’s using belonged to the second Syndacian she killed. Her collection of vintage ammunition for her great-grandfather’s rifle had run low, and she wouldn’t find any more up here.
She has to keep moving. The cooked meat smell of the Syndacian she’s just killed may bring others.
She knows she’s well behind their forward line. She knows that because she’s shot most of her victims in the back. That’s why she’s been successful.
She’s on another steepening slope and the forest seems lighter ahead.
She emerges, blinking, into a scene of carnage. Dozens of bloodied Syndacian troops lie dead among shattered, fallen trees.
A minefield? No. Explosives in the trees, triggered by someone waiting. Followed by devastating fire poured into this narrow section between cliffs.
She can’t remember any plans that suggested that. It would have taken time to prepare.
She had heard firing and explosions in the night, but the forest distorted sounds until she couldn’t tell which way they’d come from.
What is this place?
At the sides and top of the slope she can see gun emplacements.
Emplacements? A plan for a real ambush here? What about the ambush below she thought she was involved in? Was it no more than part of the lure to get the Syndacians here?
From a dead comrade, she has another scrap of red for safe passage. She pins it to her front and begins the climb. There is no challenge from above. No sound at all but the wind and her labored breath. Nothing stirs but the scavengers, circling above or creeping out of the brooding forests. They will feast well today.
She shudders and keeps climbing.
At the top, the emplacements contain actual plasma cannon. Carrying them into this remote place must have taken weeks. They’re useless now. All the charge units LEDs are dark, indicating they’re expended.
And when the cannon had ceased to fire, the line had been overrun.
There are Syndacians who made it through the hell below and lie here, mingled with…
Mingled with the officers of Training Company Bravo.
She’s found the last stand.
She’s found Commander Benat.
He’s lying alone, staring at the sky. His chest is a raw mess, but chance has left his handsome face whole.
She collapses onto her knees beside him.
The horror of the battle and the scale of the sacrifice finally hits her then, breaking through the numbness of the stim tabs, and she begins to cry; for her dead commander, for her friends, for herself, and for what she has become.
“But we did it, though, didn’t we, Commander?” The words fall from her lips. “We did what they asked us to do. We kept the Syndacians away from Cabezón. The Resistance’s main force will have entered the town. All Newyan must know the truth of the Hajnal by now. Because we did our duty.”
She covers his face with his beret.
“They will build fine statues of you,” she says, wiping at her cheeks. “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.”
She knows there must be some shovels here, to dig those emplacements.
“I’ll bury you Commander,” she says quietly. “Like they build one statue to stand for all of the company, I will bury you in honor of all of us.”
There will be more Syndacians than have died here. They will come and find her and kill her. She doesn’t care.
I have embraced my death. Only my duty remains.
She’s completed her duty. Surely. Please, Goddess. Once she buries him, there’s no reason to go on any more. She senses the spirits of Training Company Bravo gathering around her, waiting for the moment she will join them.
One last task.
But as she rises to find a shovel, she hears a cough, and among the bodies she finds Lieutenant Ohana alive.
The side of Ohana’s face has been burned and hastily bandaged. One eye remains, but it is dull. Her leg has been sealed in stabilizing foam.
“Don’t bury him.” Ohana’s voice is weak but clear.
Kattalin is shocked, but before she can speak, Ohana hurries on.
“Hush, Kat. Listen to me. He wouldn’t have wanted it.”
Ohana pulls herself upright painfully. “Look!” she says, pointing up.
Kattalin looks. The sky is a great, dark, spinning-wheel of scavenging birds.
“We called the Goddess.” Ohana coughs and spits. It’s bright with blood. She looks at it indifferently and closes her eye as if to sleep.
“Not in Her gentle aspect,” she says. “For She is in all things and everywhere, even in War. Benat knew this. We called and She answered. This, too, is Her work, and those gathering around us are Her children. Our bodies are offerings to Her.”
Ohana clears her throat and spits again. “You must go.”
“No! Ohana, I swore an oath. I have embraced—”
“Stop that and listen to me, child!” Color returns to Ohana’s face, and her eye clears a little. “Yes, all of you did your duty. Now I absolve you of your oath. Go! Run, before the Syndacians come. Someone must live. Someone must know.”
“All Newyan knows by now, Ohana. We fought them and the main force—”
“Shut up! Shut up!” A paroxysm of coughing brings more blood.
Kattalin holds out the canteen and Ohana takes a sip, refuses more.
“Benat’s step-brother worked for the Hajnal,” she says.
Kattalin worries the woman is becoming delirious. She’s had medical training, but not for serious head injuries.
“From him, our spy, we knew. You were all, every one of you, every cadet we recruited, on their lists. All declared Enemies of the State. A conviction that allows no recourse to any court.”
She coughs again. It’s weaker now.
“You should rest, I’ll—”
“You’ll do nothing for me, Kat,” she shakes her head. “Except listen. I loved you all, like you were my own children. I thought that my love gave me rights to chose for you. That was terrible hubris. Only the Goddess has a heart so deep and pure, a vision so clear.” She sighs. “You were all due to be executed. All we did…”
Her voice fades. Her remaining eye swims in tears and she scrubs them angrily away, smearing dirt on her cheeks. “All we did was delay it.”
Kattalin knows that a head injury can confuse you. They didn’t just delay things, the officers of the company are all heroes, and it feels important she keeps reminding Ohana.
“No. What you and Benat did was strike the blow that will win Newyan—”
“Nothing, child. Nothing!” Her voices catches and trembles then strengthens again. “We wanted to keep you safe out here in the wilds until the Terrans arrived. But they’re not coming, Kat. They’re not coming.”
Kattalin rocks back in shock.
“But they must come!” she says, then anger boils in her, driving everything else out. “Or not. We will do it ourselves. Newyan will rise behind the Resistance. The High Command will—”
“Oh, my poor Kat,” Ohana’s shoulders heave and she shakes her head again. “There is no Resistance. There was no main force poised to march into Cabezón. There was never anyone else, not even a Training Company Alpha. There was just us. Training Company Bravo. We were everyone.”
“We just wanted to keep you safe. Then, when we learned the Terrans weren’t coming, what could we do? Tell you we’d been lying and send you back to the cities where the Hajnal would execute you?”
Tears roll unchecked down her cheeks now.
“Goddess forgive us. When we realized the Terrans weren’t coming, we gave you the only thing we thought we could. A way to die well. A cause. A chance to die under Newyan’s bright sky, with hope in your heart, not despair. Hope.”
Kattalin cannot speak. Her world has torn itself apart.
“But it was a false hope, and you didn’t die, so now you must live.” Ohana pats her clumsily. “There are places you can go. While we were a group, we were a threat and they had to chase us. But there are just a few of you left, and if you go deep into the wilderness, they won’t bother to follow.”
She struggles up onto her feet, using the immobilization casing on her leg to balance herself.
“Go now,” she says. “Take supplies and go. Head to the high plains. Better old ghosts than new ones.”
Kattalin opens her mouth to refuse when a sound reaches their ears.
An aircraft, still many kilometers away, flying low over the forest. She can just see it, a tiny glint of light as it turns. Again. It is flying a pattern of long sweeps over the thick forest. Searching.
“They’re coming.” Ohana picks up a plasma rifle from a dead Syndacian. “Go now. I’ll delay them. Run and hide, girl. Run where they will not follow. Hide where they will not look. The Goddess of Mercy guide your steps and hold you in her hands, Kattalin Espe Aguirre.”
After a curt farewell to the Terrans, Bleyd leaves immediately to get to the airfield while I wait impatiently for Hwa.
There’s a coldness in me that won’t go away, and my grandfather won’t go back to sleep now.
If you won’t fight for it, you don’t deserve it, he says.
The odds are stacked against me. I can’t win all the battles, but maybe I can win the war.
So which battles will I lose?
Talan brings me a cup of tea. She’s not asking questions, but I can feel the worry radiating from her. I know I’ve gone quiet. Bleyd noticed too. That’s stupid of me. He can’t afford to be worrying about me while he’s knocking heads together down on the islands.
“Thanks,” I say and take a sip from the cup. It’s horrible. “Can you get an urgent message to the Golan?”
“Yeah. Might take a while to speak directly to Morgen, but she’d take my call.”
I raise an eyebrow at that, but leave it for now.
“Okay, this is what I’m proposing. As soon as Hwa gets here, we head back to the airfield and fly to Cardu. We go straight from the airfield down to meet the Golan, however late it is. If she can take Hwa and me from there to meet the piskatellers directly, we’ll do it.” I look sideways at Talan. “I’m assuming that involves going out to sea?”
“Great. The Low Lady is down in the harbor. We’ll use her. Warn the harbor master. Organize something suitable for us to wear while we sailing. Then tomorrow, we’re flying back. We have Lady Dowriel’s party to attend in the evening.”
At least the party isn’t in Bason. Lady Dowriel lives in Portscatho, down on the Kensa coast. That saves us an hour of flying time.
Talan looks surprised at our new schedule, but takes out her commspad and starts immediately.
Gaude messages me. He’s delighted that Hwa and I will be able to attend Lady Dowriel’s party. Should he arrange for a dressmaker with something suitable that can be quickly adjusted? To which hotel should the dressmaker go? What about a hairdresser? A shoemaker?
He thinks I’m staying in Bason.
I message back: I’ll be at Pyran Manor tomorrow. Arrange for someone after lunch. Keep it plain.
Which means that what with piskatellers, dressmakers, my daughters and minor matters like sleeping, I’ll have no time to check on the progress of rebuilding at Cardu or preparations for harvest.
That battle I’m going to lose. I know it already in the pit of my stomach. Gaude will have to step into the management role for the estate and the rebuilding.
A message comes in from Hwa: Meet at airfield.
Talan and I run outside to flag down a taxi.
The airfield is busy, not only on the ground, but in the air as well. It’s not until we’re about forty minutes out and I sign off from Bason Air Traffic Control that Hwa and I speak.
She’s angry, with the sort of stillness of a furious cat.
A few brief exchanges about what the Terran Navy is not doing does not improve her temper, or mine.
“There is something in Ivakin’s claims,” she says at one point. “There has to be something we’re not seeing behind the Hajnal movement. The way it takes over planets doesn’t ring true.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t know.”
That we probably means the combined processing power of the Self Actuated Entities of the Xian Hegemony doesn’t understand. That’s… worrying.
Hwa gets me to go through step by step what the Terrans said, to see if there’s a discrepancy between that and what’s been reported to her by the courier ship. Anything to give a clue to what’s going on behind the scenes.
Talan pitches in half way through.
“I don’t get the big deal about Newyan applying to join the Inner Worlds,” she says. “It’s just a name, isn’t it?”
“No.” It’s Hwa who replies. “Margin worlds and the companies based on them can only operate through their delegations on Inner World planets. And those delegations are under strict rules of scrutiny by the Inner World governments. Margin worlds can’t directly own property or buy companies on Inner Worlds. But other Inner Worlds can. If the Hajnal get one planet inside the Inner World sphere, they have direct access to markets and ownership in all the Inner Worlds. That’s probably why they saw Kernow as such a prize.”
There’s a pause while Talan digests that, then: “Forgive me asking, but what’s it to Xian?” she says.
The Xian Hegemony is on the other side of human space.
“Officially? Xian is immensely concerned with the disruption in trade. Our merchant fleet handle more than half of all trade across the Inner Worlds and the Margin. We are already threatened by the Hajnal.”
Hwa’s mouth is a tight line. “It’s difficult to describe to you,” she says.
Talan was there when the silvery ghost of Hwa’s pseudo-organic quantum state was downloaded from the Xian servers and into my brain. She knows it, but she can’t feel it. I know exactly why Hwa responds the way she does. Hwa is something between daughter and sister to me. What affects me affects her in the same way, and that bone-deep empathy has passed on from Hwa to Shohwa, and through her, to a network of related Self Actuated Entities.
It’s wonderful and frightening at the same time.
“Think of it as Shohwa and Hwa being part of my family,” I say to Talan. “And me being related to a dozen more ship captains of the Fortunate Stars Hong.”
The Fortunate Stars is the trading combine that commissioned the Shohwa and her sister ships. It’s the second or third largest of all the Xian Hegemony trading hongs. Not every merchanter ship in the Fortunate Stars is captained by a Self Actuated Entity, but enough of them that the sense of personal involvement in Newyan and Kernow’s affairs has seeped from the hong into Xian governmental thinking, so Hwa tells me.
“Sort of ‘blood is thicker than water’?” Talan says, and I nod.
That’s good enough. She can’t understand how this relationship works for Self Actuated Entities, but she can think of it as family and that makes sense to her.
We don’t reach any conclusions as the ocean gives way to the night-dark land mass of Murenys beneath us, and I start thinking about landing at Cardu. There are lights for the runway now and my navigation systems are guiding me in, so it’s not going to be a difficult landing.
We have a truck parked there. We’ll drive straight down to the harbor where Morgen Golan waits on the Low Lady, despite it being the middle of the night. Morgen. Stormhaven’s Sea Witch. The Voice on the Wind. The woman who speaks directly to the sea people.
And then we’ll sail out into the nighttime ocean and speak to them ourselves.
The conversation on the flight has left me restless and unhappy. There’s something Hwa’s not telling me. I can hardly complain, because I’m holding back too.
But she lets slip one bit of information I didn’t anticipate.
I’d just said: “It’s almost as if the Hajnal is trying to fight an interstellar war without declaring it.”
Hwa’s face was bleak in the glow from the instruments.
“Yes. It is exactly like an interstellar war. They’ve deployed mercenaries from a Frontier world on Newyan.”
She wouldn’t say any more.
The main PoV in the Zara stories is Zara of course, and she speaks in the first person.
There is a second PoV to this sequel, which I render using the third person. I had originally planned for you to first experience that second PoV later, as Chapter 3 or even Chapter 6. So you had a few chapters with Zara, got a sense of what was happening in her life and the stormclouds on the horizon, then BOOM, *this* is also happening. Or is it?
This first section of the episode today is now going to be the opening chapter of the book. It’s the alternate PoV. The second section today is therefore labelled Chapters 4 and 5 (back with Zara).
The alternate PoV is intended to shock. The toss-up is between shocking you at the start where you’re thinking who, what, where? before getting to Zara, or shocking you later where you’re not quite sure it’s real… All will become clearer after another couple of episodes.
Anyway, over 5k words for you this weekend …
Do comment please!
The sun dips toward the horizon and the woods become gloomy, full of ominous, swaying shadows.
Kattalin can’t see any of the others at the moment, can’t hear them. For a few seconds, there’s only the gurgle of the stream at her feet and her heavy panting. She’s been walking fast for hours, but she’s shivering. She’s been shivering since she saw the first movements below them, at the base of the valley, just as dawn broke over the peaks.
The pursuit has been there all day. A kilometer or two behind. Relentless. Remorseless. Merciless. Syndacian mountain troops, mercenaries from the most violent of Frontier worlds. They’re professionals, they’re trained for this. She’s not.
Around midday, there had been gunshots. Maybe a hundred or so in bursts, over fifteen minutes, then silence.
Someone must have stopped. Held up the pursuit for a short while.
Maybe Benat ordered it.
She tries to think what it would have been like, if he’d given her that order.
She doesn’t know.
She’s scared in a way she’s never been scared before, shaken to the core of her being.
She repeats the last lines of the oath to herself: I have embraced my death. Only my duty remains.
It feels a lot more real now than when she first joined the Resistance’s Training Company Bravo.
It had begun to feel real yesterday, when they were all huddled together listening to Commander Benat.
“Comrade Cadets,” he’d started in his usual jaunty, energizing way. Then, he’d stopped himself and looked seriously around the group, meeting every eye, before continuing more quietly: “My beloved brothers and sisters. The call has come, as we all knew it might.”
The hairs had stood up on her arms.
“To the High Command, every single one of you in the Resistance is a true hero, but war respects no single person. To let our main force through into the provincial capital of Cabezón, the Syndacian troops have to be delayed. If the main force takes Cabezón, the Hajnal invaders won’t be able to hide the revolt of an entire town from the rest of the planet. The elaborate lies the media have been telling will be exposed. The planet will be in an uproar and the Terran Marines will arrive to restore order and crush the invasion. But everything hinges on delaying the Syndacian cohort.”
He stood, silent for a moment, his handsome face dark with sun and lean as a wolf’s.
His next words fell like pebbles into a deep pool. “And there is only us. The High Command has called on Training Company Bravo. We must lure them away from Cabezón, into the high passes, and ambush them. Where we will certainly die. But we will die proud, free people, and because of us, Newyan will rise again. I know each one of you will do your duty, for only our duty remains.”
That was yesterday. He’d left them proud and scared.
She doesn’t feel like a hero today. The pride has leaked away.
More shots behind. Much closer.
She kneels beside the cold stream and fills her canteen. Her throat is dry and she drinks hurriedly. This may be the last chance. The pass isn’t far ahead. The last stand.
Her hands nervously flutter to check the scrap of red is still pinned to her chest to identify her to any of her colleagues waiting in ambush.
If I’m going to die, I want to be facing the right way. I want to take some of them with me.
Barely a hundred paces further on and Benat’s senior lieutenant, Ohana, appears out of the shadows like a forest dryad.
The fear soldifies in her belly.
Ohana holds a finger to her lips and waves her to the side.
There, a bit of earth and been hurriedly shoveled into a small bank. A net with twigs and leaves entwined is waiting for her, just as Benat had said there would be.
She looks down at it.
This will be my grave.
Ohana has tears streaming down her face. Wordlessly, she unpins the red warning sign on Kattalin’s chest, gives her a hug, and kisses her forehead. Then she is gone, slipping through the forest to the next position.
A few of the other cadets pass her as she gets herself ready. The red flags make them stand out easily. Some give a little wave, some a poor salute. They all look terrified. One or two keep looking back down the slope.
Soon, the Syndacian troops will come, grim and pale and silent as ghosts, and the killing will begin.
She knows she’s been given a position of honor. This is in the first rank of concealed firing positions. The first that will be overrun.
She will slow them down, kill a few and then she will die. Tears spill.
I have embraced my death. Only my duty remains.
The rifle is warm against her cheek, slightly oily beneath her fingers. It’s an old police weapon from her great-grandfather’s time. Her ammunition is stacked and waiting beside her. She’s stuck her knife into the ground, if it comes to that. The net camouflages her. She concentrates on breathing smoothly and being invisible.
She’s lightheaded. She hasn’t eaten all day, but she has no appetite now. Tiredness and sadness, hunger and fear will all cease to matter in a very short time.
Her trembling eases away and her dark, oval eyes look up to the darkening sky.
Goddess, My Lady of Mercy, look down on Newyan now, she whispers. Remember all your children and speed us on our way. And hold your hand over blessed Zarate. May her steps be always sure, and may her words strike true, that all Newyan will be delivered from the enemy. Forgive me what I must do this day, for we are all your children. Forgive me. Forgive me. Into your hands, Goddess, I commend my soul.
Only my duty remains.
Far down the slope, shadows sway and ghosts begin to drift through the trees.
<< OKAY THAT WAS THE NEW CHAPTER 1 >>
<< WHICH MAKES LAST WEEKS CHAPTERS 2 and 3 >>
<< NOW BACK TO ZARA >>
We can’t go straight away to talk to the sea people.
As it is, our journey is timed to get to Bason around the time the TSS Annan arrives in orbit and they’re expecting us to meet at the base of the Skyhook shortly afterwards. If I had postponed the meeting with the Terrans, I would have needed to explain why.
I’ve taken the decision to be ‘Arvish’ in my dealings about the native race that live in the sea. We Arvish, living on the western coast of Murenys, consider the sea-folk’s secret secret is ours to keep. To outsiders, we talk of piskatellers and let them dismiss it as old folk tales and silly superstitions. I can’t use piskatellers as an excuse for delaying this trip.
And I have to know what’s happening with Newyan, even if I I’m sure I’m not going to like it.
Still, as we fly over the ocean, Hwa and I look down on the glittering expanse thoughtfully. I know we’re both uneasy, thinking we’ve got the priorities wrong.
So does Talan, but she, of course, is fast asleep in the back.
Could I have delayed the meeting at the Skyhook?
Surely this is just a courtesy call from the Terran navy. Surely.
“Will you be all right to fly straight back?” Hwa asks.
“I hope so,” I say. “Then we could meet this Morgen Golan tomorrow.”
I’ll get to see my husband, but not for very long this time.
Ninety minutes later, as we’re tracking across the main continent of Kensa and approaching Bason, Hwa gets a message from the Xian delegation. They also urgently need to see her.
“Never one thing at a time,” she mutters with a frown. “Is it really important? It won’t be about Shohwa, she’s back in Xian.”
She queries the InfoHub for details of visiting spaceships. “The only Xian ship incoming at the moment is the Xing Gerchu. How odd.”
“It’s not a freighter. It’s a Hegemony courier ship.”
Couriers are fast ships used by the Xian Hegemony within their own association of planetary systems. It’s unusual to see one on the other side of human space.
“Perhaps some of the Xian delegation are being replaced,” I suggest. That’s the kind of official business a courier would conduct.
Hwa shakes her head and I can see her infopad cycle through more information.
“They’d tell me that,” she mutters. Then her infopad screen clears abruptly and she looks away, out of the window.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I’m going to leave you and the Duke to go to the meeting with the Annan,” she says. “I’ll go to the delegation and get back as quickly as I can.”
“What’s up, Hwa?”
Her words are clipped. “The Xing Gerchu’s last port of call was Newyan.”
Bason Air Traffic Control start talking to me at that moment and I have to concentrate.
Less than two hours later I’m in the conference room with Bleyd and I’m having it confirmed that this is anything but a courtesy call from the Terran navy.
“A clarification?” Bleyd’s voice is low and smooth, which alerts me to how angry my husband has become.
The group from the TSS Annan have no such insight.
Their leader has introduced himself as Captain Rahman Taha. He’s a startlingly handsome man with a sharp face, dark eyes and silky, black hair. He looks every inch a ship’s captain and the inheritor of centuries of the finest Terran naval traditions.
That image is only slightly marred by comparison to his executive officer, Commander Xolani Ndungane. One look at the pair of them tells me who actually runs the TSS Annan. The captain’s face is unlined by worry, his speech is as slow as pond water and his lazy eyes seem to be focused on a point behind my head when he looks at me. Ndungane, on the other hand, is scowling and his eyes are like lazer pointers. I sense he’s really angry for some reason.
But it’s the quiet third member of the group who really troubles me.
Unlike the others, who are wearing naval uniform, she’s in an elegant cream suit with an apricot shirt . Yeva Ivakin is a politician, despite being introduced as a diplomat. I can smell the politics clinging to her. She sits demurely to one side with a pretty smile on her face that says she’s here to be helpful. It’s all premium grade manure. She hates us.
“Yes,” the captain responds. It comes out more like yaaas. “Kernow being on a direct path to Newyan, it seemed a good idea to drop out of Chang space and make sure we have a thorough understanding of your perceptions of the situation in Newyan and you fully understand the parameters and limitations under which we are operating.”
“I suppose a delay of a few more days is hardly significant in comparison to the time already taken.”
Bleyd’s voice is dripping sarcasm.
Ndungane narrows his eyes. Captain Taha flinches. It dawns on him that we aren’t impressed by him, any more than we’re impressed by the tardiness of the entire effort.
“Quite,” Taha says and tries to repair things. “First of all, allow me to re-iterate the praise of the Terran Council for the way in which you defeated the unwarranted Tavoli aggression here on Kernow. The Tavoli suborning of local media, judicial and administrative functions showed a long prepared strategy, as did their hiring of of a company of mercenaries. Your timing, catching them when they were committed, but before they were fully ready, was brilliant.”
“Hajnal,” I say. The timing had involved a degree of luck, but it’s worrying about the way he’s talking about this: our perceptions of the situation; their limitations on operations. “Hajnal. Not Tavoli. The planet of Tavoli may be as much a victim as Kernow nearly was.”
A silence greets my words. Taha and Ivakin exchange glances. Ndungane’s rich lips compress to a thin line and he sits back, folding his arms across his chest and deliberately taking himself out of the conversation.
“You don’t like using the name ‘Hajnal’?” I ask.
Taha clears his throat. “It’s nothing to do with the name, per se,” he replies.
“It’s what all the surviving conspirators here call it,” Bleyd says with a frown. “You can see the interrogation transcripts if you want.”
“Yes.” Taha holds up his hands. “I’m sure they do. I’m sure that was what they were told. It’s simply that we believe that calling it a multi-planet movement and giving it this mysterious name, ‘Hajnal’, was part of the recruitment process.”
“What do you mean?” Bleyd says.
“It would be much easier to recruit someone here on Kernow if they were told that it was all part of a groundswell uprising; a movement covering many planets. You can see the power of that, surely? Imagine a government functionary, disturbed by what’s being reported in the news and feeling immensely frustrated by being unable to influence the way things are going, suddenly learns that there is a this large, secret organisation with an exotic name and huge resources which aims to correct all those problems on lots of planets, and they want to recruit him.”
“There were members of the conspiracy who genuinely believed they were on the right side,” Bleyd concedes, his eyes narrowed. “But there were more who just did it for greed, and others who were blackmailed.”
“Yes. We imagine they had some kind of tailored approach for each recruit, but all with the common thread of this powerful organisation in the shadows. Your example of ones who were bribed, for instance: it would have given them an assurance that the organisation was big enough to keep bribing, and so on.”
“They all called it Hajnal,” Bleyd says. “Why are you so sensitive to using the name? You’re not saying there wasn’t a large organisation behind this? Operating across many planets?”
I lean forward, a desperate sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “That’s exactly it, isn’t it? You’re trying to tell us that it was all just Tavoli and an attack on Kernow?” The pieces click into place and I feel physically sick. “You’re trying to tell us that there is no Hajnal conspiracy on Newyan.”
Taha’s mouth turns down as if he were truly sorry for having to hold this conversation with me. “We’re not concluding anything without detailed further investigation, Mrs Aguirre-Tremayne. Newyan has made representations to the Council which I am tasked to evaluate even-handedly in the interests of seeing justice done.”
“They murdered my family,” I grind out. “Every single one of them.”
“Both sides have made allegations—”
“And you believe them for one instant?” Bleyd is on his feet now, shouting. “The same people that fired on a trading ship?”
“Please. We realize this is an emotive subject, but the Newyan delegation on Earth explained that the cutter Duhalde was in no way under the instructions of Newyan Space Traffic Control, and that the captain of the customs cutter, a man under considerable stress, took steps he believed appropriate at the time—”
“Appropriate?” I surge to my feet, unable to believe what I’m hearing. “There wasn’t even a warning shot. Rather than let one singe member of the Aguirre family escape, they decided to murder the entire complement of the Shohwa. They deliberately fired to destroy a freighter. And you’re all taking their side.”
Taha’s face colors. He gets to his feet and leans on the table to emphasize his point.
“As a passenger on the Shohwa, you have no idea what happened,” he shouts.
“We will review all the evidence with the recordings in front of us before reaching any conclusion,” Ivakin says.
I’m about to start again when Commander Ndungane’s gravelly voice cuts through. “The freighter immediately engaged its Chang drive as the cutter fired, so it must have been at the transition point. The cutter would have been aware there was no time left for negotiation.”
The Commander is watching me closely and I feel a sudden chill.
Shohwa had engaged her Chang drive early, before the standard transition point. The cutter captain would have had no inkling that was going to happen. But if I start talking about that, I risk revealing details that Shohwa wouldn’t want aired. It’s enough that the Inner Worlds must now suspect that Xian freighters are armed without letting slip that they are captained by Self Actuated Entities. The whole accord of human space could tear apart on that issue alone.
Ndungane may be the most dangerous person in the Terran group, and his agenda may not be anything to do with Newyan at all.
“That’s no excuse for the Duhalde’s action,” I say and sit back down, touching Bleyd’s arm. He growls, but he subsides.
“Indeed,” Taha says, sinking back into his own seat. “The late captain may agree with you. It seems when he considered what he had attempted, he took his own life in shame.”
“And you take that as the unvarnished truth, without ‘reviewing all the evidence’?” I snap back. “The Duhalde’s captain killed himself out of shame? I think it’s more likely he was killed to stop him being questioned.”
“We will review that issue along with everything else,” Ivakin says.
“You’ve already got the inter-system messages between Hajnal conspirators—” Bleyd starts off on a new line, but Taha interrupts him.
“All the messages we’ve seen were taken from communication servers based on Kernow. There’s no confirmation that the conspirators on Kernow were actually communicating with anyone other than fake accounts on Tavoli.”
“Please, a moment,” Ivakin holds her hands up as Bleyd starts to rise again.
She waits for a good ten seconds before going on. “We admit, we’re having difficulty with the scenario depicted in your testimony to the Terran Council.”
I take deep breaths. Bleyd and I have to hear what they’ve got to say. Yelling at them isn’t going to achieve anything. And if I lose my temper, I risk saying something that Ndungane might pounce on. There’s a lot that went on which Xian does not want known.
“Without any judgment on your perceptions of what happened on Newyan, you must allow that this vast conspiracy theory is extremely implausible,” Ivakin goes on, her voice sweet with reason. “Here on Kernow, the one place we see the Tavoli plan in operation, where they attempted to control the media and judiciary, and where they were intent on murdering key people who refused to co-operate with the takeover, they failed. Surely you’re not saying they succeeded on all these other planets and we know nothing about it?”
“Yes, we are,” I reply. “Just as no one knew anything about Tavoli being taken over in exactly that way.”
“We can’t comment on your speculations about that,” she shakes her head, as if regretful. “What happened on Tavoli itself is now a matter for the Terran Council’s Commission of Enquiry to establish.”
Commissions of Enquiry are notorious for never reaching conclusions.
“Referring to it as a conspiracy theory is a deliberate and calculated insult,” Bleyd says, voice tight with anger. “You’ve clearly already made up your minds, but no doubt you’ll now tell us you’re forming another meaningless Commission of Enquiry for Newyan.”
Ivakin wrinkles her nose as if she smells something unpleasant. “I’m sorry you can’t agree that the need for truth—”
Captain Taha stands up abruptly. “I suggest a half hour break for all of us to regain our composure.” He urges his companions toward the door.
Their avoidance of Bleyd’s comment hits me like fist in the stomach. They are forming a commission. That’s why this is meeting is with ‘staff’, not crew. This isn’t really a naval mission at all. That’s probably why Commander Ndungane is so angry. Taha and Ivakin are going there to form a Terran Council Commission of Enquiry for Newyan. Nothing significant will ever get done, and this is all the Terran Council will do for any of the planets blighted by this vast conspiracy.
In effect, the Hajnal have won.
“They want something.”
My husband is marching up and down the cramped conference room, scowling.
He looks as if he’s been running on adrenaline and caffeine. Without knowing the details, I understand that the momentum of his plan to unify Kernow under a new parliament stalled when he went with me to Earth to present our evidence about the Hajnal. Putting it back together is like ‘making a pyramid from billiard balls’ apparently.
I can’t regret that he joined me to go to Earth—we got married on the Shohwa while we were en route.
But I regret not being able to do anything about repairing his plans. I’m still an outsider, especially as far as the Founding Families and the Kernow politicians go. What I’m doing at Cardu will have to be my contribution to the effort.
Well, that and getting the insane Autumn season social circuit stopped.
Bleyd is too pale. I’m used to that scar on his cheek standing out from the tan of his skin and winking at me when he smiles. Now I can barely see it, white on white. And he looks so tired.
I want to take him in my arms and comfort him. I want to lie on the lawn in the sun with him, go riding along the coast, just the two of us. Breath the sea air. Listen to the dreaming statues singing on their lonely, windswept cliffs. Share food and wine and laughter deep into the night.
It’s not to be.
Gaude messages me. Couldn’t we attend just one party in tomorrow? Despite how well the proposal for a single Harvest Ball event is proceeding, Lady Dowriel hasn’t had enough time to cancel and she’s always been a good supporter. She’s being persistent with her invitation and he feels he can’t tell her we won’t attend. With both of us already in Bason, it’s not so far.
No. I’ll call him later and let him down gently.
Meanwhile, I finally stop Bleyd’s pacing, push him down into a chair and begin to massage his shoulders. The skin is too loose; he’s not eating well. Not exercising. The muscles are too tight. Given more time and privacy, I could do something about that, but even the massage gets cut short by another urgent call, this time for Bleyd.
Marik Roscarrow. The man has thrown himself into the unification project, taking on much of the easier work from Bleyd. But he’s hit a problem in the Delkys Islands. He can’t even get them to agree between themselves, let alone with the rest of Kernow. If Delkys aren’t speaking with one voice when Trethow are added into the mix next week, then the whole thing will start to unravel. He needs Bleyd.
The Delkys Islands are on the other side of the world.
“I’ll have to fly overnight,” Bleyd says. “Which means I have leave here in an hour and sleep on the journey.”
Thank the Goddess the aircraft Bleyd has been loaned is capable of that kind of flight. And has a crew to fly it.
Messages go out, postponing and re-arranging other scheduled meetings. And a note gets taken down the corridor to the Terrans: if they want something, their time is running out.
They want something, all right. They’re back in the room in five minutes.
But what is it they want?
I’m having trouble concentrating.
The Terrans have achieved something the Hajnal never managed to—they’ve made me despair.
There is nothing I can do for Newyan. Nothing I can do for all the workers thrown off the Aguirre estates. Nothing I can do to avenge my murdered family.
I try to flood my mind with other matters. What did the Xian delegation want so urgently with Hwa? What do the piskatellers want with both of us?
It doesn’t work. And that despair shakes something loose. Wakes an old memory of my grandfather.
But it’s mine!
My birthday present, the best thing in the whole world, has been taken by my cousins and their friends. I want it back.
It’s not theirs. It’s mine!
Grandfather looms like a watchtower, blocking the afternoon sunlight from my world.
If you won’t fight for it, you don’t deserve it, he says.
I blink. I still see his face at times, more real than the world around me.
The Terrans have got Bleyd talking. He’s running on autopilot, one eye on the clock, half his mind on what he’s going to have to do in the Delkys Islands tomorrow, and half of the rest distracted by the effect this is all having on me.
He’s demolishing their argument that it isn’t possible for the Hajnal to undermine and take over a Margin World.
“The weak point is media control,” he says. “On Earth, you’re the inheritors of multiple nation states, each with their own multiple media sources, resulting in dozens of independently owned media companies, even centuries after unification.”
Taha shrugs. “There are lots. Smaller ones get bought up and bigger ones get split up occasionally. What of it?”
“Each of those companies are filled with reporters keen to make a name for themselves by getting hold of stories their rivals haven’t. The same situation applies to the innermost of the Inner Worlds. There is a market.” Bleyd pauses. “By the time you get out this far, there isn’t the perceived diversity of interests, nor is there the infrastructure to support more than a couple of news organisations. Then move beyond Kernow and the Inner Worlds, into the Margin, where the Hajnal operates, and the reality is even starker. There are no news channels. There are information channels, possibly only one, and everyone believes them.”
Ivakin snorts. “Why?”
“Because in the Margin worlds, the population is measured in hundreds of thousands, not in billions. People have the feeling that they’re all in a mutual enterprise and it’s a marginal existence. There simply isn’t time for factional politics, and without that incentive, all the people want is information, not some reporter’s scoop.”
“That’s manifestly not the case with Newyan,” Ivakin points out.
She’s right. Newyan is one of the most successful of the Margin worlds. It has a population in the millions, a wide diversity of interests, and there are political parties. Or there were. But there was only ever one media channel that people got their information from. That was our weakness.
“It’s not only about Newyan,” Bleyd replies.
“No, we have a huge list of planets accused of being part of this conspiracy with no more ‘proof’ than their inclusion in that list by Xian trading ships,” she snaps back. “If you were cynical, you’d almost suspect some trade motive on Xian’s part.”
“Our remit is Newyan,” Taha says, stopping a riposte from Bleyd.
“Yes, Newyan.” Ivakin is running off their friendly script now. “A world oppressed by oligarchs selected by obscure historical family ties, calling out for democratic systems that will allow them to apply for inclusion into the core of Inner Worlds.”
“So you approve of ‘democratically’ murdering entire families,” I interrupt her. She is sick. I am one of those supposed oligarchs selected because my family was a Founding Family. And the rest of my family was murdered because of their status.
But it’s Bleyd who angrily takes up the thread before Ivakin can respond.
“That is a willful misrepresentation of the politicial situation that covers a number of the Inner Worlds, including Kernow, and most of the Margin.” He takes an exasperated breath. “All those worlds, including Newyan, were settled not by any governmental effort. Earth lay struggling and exhausted with its burdens, unable to help anyone because it was tying to help everyone. Individuals and groups built and manned the First and Second Expansions. They found and settled planets, terraformed them, made a successes of them.”
“So then they should own those planets forever?”
“They certainly shouldn’t be stolen by murderous groups with the blessing of the Terran Council!”
Taha stops the conversation again, before it gets any more out of control.
“We know the history. And the Terran Council acknowledges the efforts those worlds made in the Third Expansion and those agreements are enshrined in the Accords.”
Earth and the core Inner Worlds went through a terrible spasm, where billions of people they couldn’t support fled outwards in whatever transports could take them, looking for places to settle. That was the Third Expansion.
Almost all such unplanned and ill-equipped ventures had one hope—that an already settled world would accept them.
But the settled worlds belonged to the people who’d settled them, and those worlds had been chosen to get away from the madness at humanity’s core.
It was a dark time.
Founding Families fought over the policies. Entire systems descended into war and barbarism. The Frontier was born—where the unwanted, the displaced and the desperate fled.
Out of it finally came the Accords. A way for the core’s overpopulation to emigrate out. A way to handle the conflict. An agreement to prevent a flood of unmanageable undesirables.
It wasn’t a treaty so much as articles of understanding, but it recognized the Terran Council and gave them powers through custom and tradition. It codified a structure between Founding Families and immigrants—the Charter.
The Accords were a compromise no one believed would work at the time, and yet they had ended the Third Expansion, and given humanity centuries of peace, at least in the Inner Worlds and Margin.
And I sit in the conference room, listening to the Terrans and thinking of wind-born seeds, each seed carrying a full imprint of the source—every good and bad thing all together.
Bleyd is arguing the interpretation of the Charter as it has applied to places like Newyan and Kernow. The Founding Families defined their estates, which remained in their families so long as they wished them to, and these were regarded in law as sovereign nations. The rest of the planet was provided under licence to the arrivals, who formed governments and infrastructures.
“But what if there are no remaining members of the Founding Family to pass the estate to?” Taha asks.
The Charter allows that to varies by planet. On Newyan and Kernow, the estates pass to the government.
Which, on Newyan, would also apply if the remaining member is convicted by a properly constituted court of serious crime.
I finally get the first glimmer of what the Terrans want. It’s like ice in my chest.
Meanwhile, Bleyd completes his answer to Taha’s question and rises to his feet.
“And I have run out of time,” he says. “So any further clarifications should be sent by message to my adjutant, who is more than capable of answering queries of this nature.”
Ivakin smiles. “Oh, we may come up with some more, but no doubt we’ll see you at Lady Dowriel’s party tomorrow night. We’ve just accepted an invitation to attend. I understand it’s quite something.”
Ndungane looks furious. Even Taha looks embarassed and mutters about the mission to Newyan looking like a long posting, and taking the opportunity for a last social gathering.
Bleyd shakes his head. “I’m flying to the Delkys Islands tonight,” he says.
He’s about to tell them I won’t be there either, but I’m quicker than him.
“I’ll see you there,” I say firmly.
At least Gaude will be half pleased.
The Terrans have boxed me into a corner over Newyan, but there’s no way I’m going to allow them to foment problems behind Bleyd’s back in Kernow.