A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 3
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.