A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 4
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.