A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 5
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.