In which Zara comes to earth with a bang…
If you’re just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).
This serial is a sequel and starts at:
Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.
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The ship explodes.
The spears of flame from igniting gases are immediately extinguished in the vacuum of space, but the whole structure shudders and collapses down the length of the spine as the insystem engines continue to thrust blindly. The ship’s modules break off and spin violently away, most of them twisted and battered beyond identification.
Xing Gerchu has given us all it could.
It’s time to end it.
There would be something undignified about such a lean and beautiful ship being reduced to a scatter of misshapen parts, but I know that’s not what’s going to happen, and in the very moment I think that, the anti-matter containment fields fail.
The heart of the Xing Gerchu is a fiery star that never accepted the human restraints which bound it. It the power that rips particle from particle, dwarfs all of nature’s other forces and it leaps out to consume everything in its reach. For one instant, it swells and boils like a supernova, and the next, it is utterly gone.
We are beyond the radius of that awful power, shielded by an escape pod designed to be used in conflicts where such explosions might happen. The death throes of the Xing Gerchu still slag all the sensors I dare use to peek at them.
Captain Besud argued to the end and it took Xing, the ship’s SAE, to see the sense of it. What Xing thought of the destruction of the only home he’d ever known, I couldn’t be sure, but he was adamant that no clue to his nature could be left for Newyan to pick over. The ship had already been a wreck, beyond repair, beyond even achieving a stable orbit.
Now, it’s an expanding field of basic particles and light.
Xing himself is now on the shuttle, semi-conscious, his processing units unable to draw more than half power. The shuttle is crammed with as many of the crew as could fit. The remainder are in a spray of pods hurled out like gleaming seeds into the darkness, with their lights on and beacons transmitting.
The shuttle will race to and fro, collecting pods and depositing them on the Xian merchanter ships that have come to help.
Two pods are not in that spray. We stayed until the very last moment and were fired out of the shuttle launch tube.
In the last desperate hour of the Xing Gerchu, the crew made up a raft from the small acceleration compensators used in the hi-G sections and two pods. It was the firing of that raft, at speeds we couldn’t have survived without the acceleration compensator, that finally broke the ship and triggered the release of the anti-matter, as Xing has designed it to do.
All the other pods are skimming through the high orbit levels of the planet at a speed which will carry them right out of the system if they aren’t collected.
Thanks to being launched back along our track, our two pods are travelling just slow enough, relative to the planet, to enter the atmosphere. Just. It’s not going to be comfortable. It wouldn’t even be possible without the high level of specification of the pods. Hwa and Xing laid in the computations. They say it’ll work.
The compensator disconnects and falls away, leaving just the two pods. It’ll enter the atmosphere ahead of us and provide such a display of fireworks, that the two pods may go unnoticed.
We’re dark. The beacons are disabled and we’re emitting no radio signals. Our attitude and maneuvering jets are gas powered and cold. Friction will heat us up in the atmosphere, but anyone tracking us will write us off as debris from the ship. We hope.
Hwa’s pod begins to drift away. Her target is to land outside Iruña, Newyan’s capital city, where she’ll be collected by someone from the Xian delegation.
Quite apart from the deliberate destruction of his crippled ship, Captain Besud is also angry that his directive is not being implemented, at least not fully. We can’t explain to him we’re doing this because we saw some visions produced by a race that no one else knows about, but Xing accepts Hwa’s word it needs to be done, and his backing was enough—just. The Self Actuated Entities of Xian are a power within the Hegemony at a level that I’m only now beginning to appreciate.
I was able to identify a good wide place for Hwa to land and rendezvous with the delegation, well enough away from suburbs and farms to land safely, even given the somewhat inaccurate maneuvering of the pod in the atmosphere.
A lot more civilized than where my pod is heading, in the high sierras.
“Nova’s sake, Talan, every bit of this pod that isn’t me seems to be filled with some random bit of you.”
She chuckles. “I’ll give you that it is. This pod certainly wasn’t built for two.”
She’s behind me, right behind, like you’d get if you took two rowers on a boat and squashed them together tightly.
What makes it worse is I’m clutching our backpacks and supplies in front of me. I barely have space to tap the screen of the pad that’s showing me the progress of our semi-ballistic fall to earth. Our heads are cocooned in impact foam with the smallest slit cut in the front so I can see the screen.
However uncomfortable it is, we had to fit in one pod. Hwa and Xing were very clear. The best we could have hoped for with two pods was to land within five to ten miles of our targets. That could have meant Talan and I landing twenty miles apart. Hwa will communicate with her rescuers using her comms pad. Newyan will quickly know she’s arrived, but she’s an accredited representative of Xian.
Talan and I can’t use comms to find each other. We have to maintain complete radio silence and we have a limited time to retrieve the evidence, because someone on Newyan will start realizing that if Hwa arrived in an escape pod, so could others.
If they backtrack… if they have recordings in the infrared… if they see there were other entries into the atmosphere… if they don’t assume my pod is debris… if they suspect it’s me… if they remember my threats about revealing evidence… if they realize I couldn’t have taken it with me when I escaped… if they think about where I would have hidden it…
Then I just have to hope I can retrieve the evidence from Berriaren and get away before they reach the conclusion about where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing, because there are few places better to eliminate me without anyone else ever knowing than the empty high sierras.
Landing safely is only the start of it.
After that... Get to Berriaren without being killed and eaten by Hartzak. Collect the evidence. Get away from Barriaren. Carry the evidence across half the main continent to Iruña. Evade the Hajnal, their mercenaries, the rangers in the foothills and the Newyan police in the lowlands. Hide in Iruña. Persuade the Terrans to enter the evidence into their Enquiry log. Convince them that the Hajnal is a real and imminent threat. Make them do something about it.
It’s like looking up at a mountain. It’s best to think of one step at a time.
“You do know how to fly this thing, don’t you?”
“It’s pre-programmed, Talan, and you know it. Remind me to punch you once we land.” I take a deep breath. “In about fifteen seconds the pod’s going to start tumbling. It’ll spread the friction heating and make us look more like debris. Then after twelve minutes or so, the attitude jets will try to straighten us and slow us down up before the parachute deploys.”
“I can’t say I like the way you say try. It sounds too much like maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t.”
“Oh, it’s okay. According to the idiot’s guide on the screen here, the last stage parachute should do most of the braking anyway. If it doesn’t fail completely, of course.”
“Remind me to punch you back when we get down.”
Her arms tighten around me as the clock counts down. I cling on to the canopy handle grips, trying to brace both of us, so we won’t rattle around too much.
The pod starts tumbling.
I’d thought it would be unpleasant. I had no idea.
With a short shriek of attitude jets, the pod begins turning end-on-end. Then it spins. The whole thing judders. At that point I lose all interest in what it’s doing. I must not be ill. I close my eyes and pray for it to end.
The parachute will deploy really low. For survivability reasons the idiot’s guide says. Meaning the military specification pod is designed to spend the minimum time possible in its descent before hitting the ground. Hard.
I start counting. It’s only going to be another twelve minutes.
Not so long.
I’m feeling so ill, I lose track of the count twice. In the end, it’s the scream of attitude jets that warn me. Magically, wonderfully, the tumbling stops. The spinning slows. I try to shout to Talan, but all that comes out is a croak, swiftly cut off by the jerk of the parachute opening.
Talan gasps as well. As she’s beneath me, she must have absorbed the worst of it.
“Watch out for the—”
We smash into the ground. My head slams against the canopy and my stomach rebels.
We bounce, roll, fall another couple of seconds before hitting again.
I’m going to be sick.
Another roll. One way, then back.
Then… stillness. Blessed stillness.
Lady of Mercy, thank you.
Talan’s voice is scratchy. “Rhos did warn me your landings aren’t the best.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” I mumble. “We’re down in one piece aren’t we? On a slope, I think.”
The canopy’s stuck and the screen is dead. There’s no power at all. No cooling. The temperature inside the pod is soaring—the surface will be red hot from the descent.
There’s an emergency pump which will open the canopy, even if we’re lying upside down.
As long as we aren’t jammed in a ravine. And the pump’s hydraulic fluid reservoir isn’t broken. And I can reach the handle, which is down near my feet.
After two minutes of contortions and complaints from Talan, I’m pumping the handle and the canopy is inching upwards.
The heat gets worse. We’re cooking.
We’re on our side, halfway down a hill.
And once it’s a couple of foot open, the canopy jams solid.
I push the backpacks out through the gap and follow it with strips of crash foam to shield me from the heat of the pod’s skin. When I’m happy I’m not going to get third degree burns, I squirm out, pulling more crash foam with me. I get burned anyway, but not badly, and it’s blessedly cool outside.
Talan emerges gingerly and rolls away from the pod.
“Nothing broken, other than my backside,” she says, standing carefully. “Bruises are going to be a sight.”
I look around. We’re definitely in the high sierras. The hill, and others like it, are bare rock, standing proud in a sea of pine which stretches to the haze-hidden horizon.
A hundred yards south and we’d have plunged into the forest canopy. It would have been a softer landing and it would have completely hidden the pod. No such luck.
Talan and I try and get the pod to roll down the hill, but it’s simply too hot, too heavy and the canopy is now permanently jammed open, so it won’t roll easily. The parachute is half wrapped around it and we can’t even clear that. The best we can do it to tie the dark shroud around it with the cords. Anyone in an aircraft who’s really looking for a crashed survival pod isn’t going to miss it. And of course, the pod will also be visible on radar or infra-red scans. We simply don’t have time to try and do anything about it.
Instead, we take our backpacks and hurry down to the cover of the forest, nursing spains and bruises.
At the foot of the hill, we pause.
The mapping system on my pad says we’re about ten miles north-west of Berriaren. I switch the pad off. It doesn’t transmit anything, but there are scanners which might be able to pick up a reading from it, if it’s running. Not to mention, we won’t have much opportunity for recharging until we reach Berriaren. I have an old-fashioned compass which will have to suffice for getting through the forest.
Talan is looking up at it. It is impressive.
The mature pines in the forest are over a hundred feet tall, and some of them were saplings when Xabat Abarran Aguirre first stepped onto the surface of the planet. Of course, they’re not Terran pines, they’re the Newyan high sierra equivalent. Neo-pinacea Newyansis Supremus. The bark is deep black and feels oily. As the tree ages, the bark cracks to accomodate growth in the trunk. The cracks form regular hexagons for some reason, and there are hexagons within the hexagons, so it’s weirdly hypnotic to look at the bark, like looking at fractals. Not that we’ll have time for that. The tree branches begin at about four to five foot from the ground, so we’ll be forever ducking to avoid them. As for the pine needles, they fall every year and take about twenty years to decay, so we’ll be walking on twenty years of springy, sound-absorbent carpet that smells of lemon and balsam and freshly-turned earth.
It’s dark under the trees, and the wind hisses in the pine forest of the high sierras. It’s always cold, always whispering.
I shudder and we slip quietly into the perpetual gloom.
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. Hit a problem. I’m putting a short update to the beta readers today and asking their opinions.
Bite Back in France: I have the covers and schedule for publication from Milady division of Bragelonne in France. See FB post on BB site. They’ve signed up to take it as far as Wild Card. They’re publishing in August-November and will review how the sales are going and whether they want the rest of the novels by the end of this year.
I’m going to start putting the novellas out in audio, but Julia Motyka isn’t available until September, so Inside Straight, Change of Regime, The Biting Cold and Winter’s Kiss will all go into the pile at that stage.
Still undecided about how to do audios of A Name Among the Stars (which I would *love* Jessica to narrate), and Bian’s Tale.
How are we doing in A Threat Among the Stars? Well, I believe the story’s main plot requirements have been set up and it’s now about how Zara, Hwa, Talan and Kat can defeat the Hajnal on Newyan and alert the rest of humanity to the dangers that the piskatellers have predicted. So… much teetering on cliff edges, banging and crashing around to follow…
Thanks for the feedback. All feedback welcome. 🙂
‘Pirate’ is the name being used by the people on Newyan for our attacker.
I’m not so sure. What kind of pirate attacks a courier ship? What kind of pirate has several salvos of missiles? Why were they right there, supposedly invisible to Newyan, just at the right time to attack us? Just when the Newyan destroyer returned to base for maintenance?
But more importantly right now, can we escape the latest salvo, and if so, how many more missiles does the pirate carry?
Lieutenant Commander Boon: Ten seconds to impact.
Standard hi-G crash couches double as survival pods, jettisoning the power-hungry compensators and shooting out through the skin of the ship. If the missiles hit the ship, we’ll be ejected. However, a survival pod has no engines other than some attitude jets for orientation. It just floats in space, waiting for someone to pick it up. If this pirate is determined to kill all of us, we’ll provide no more than a few minutes of target practice for its plasma guns.
Lieutenant Commander Boon: Eight seconds.
Survival pod instructions start to fill the left of the screen and I get a sliver of good news. These are military specification pods – they are shielded and have small thrusters and can land on a planet.
Unfortunately, we’re a long way from any planet and no low power shields are going to stand a couple of plasma bolts.
My bleak prognosis is interrupted by someone new on the in-ship communications transcription.
Xing: I am assuming control.
I almost miss it among the babble of damage and capability reports.
Xing the name reads.
There is no officer I’ve met on board by that name. Is it the ship’s Self Actuated Entity?
Xing: Primary compensators on.
With a nauseating lurch, I can feel the couch’s compensators fade. On the ship’s monitor, the acceleration drops rapidly.
What’s Xing doing?
But even as I ask myself that, I realize that speed alone isn’t going to save us. I have to hope there’s another way; that Xing has a plan.
The pad’s screen is now displaying a visualization of the entire ship.
Lieutenant Commander Boon: Four seconds.
On the pad, I see the ship, the whole body locked within the same compensator field, spin around until it’s pointing back at the missiles streaking in toward us.
Power is diverted from the insystem engines, dropping the acceleration to zero.
The forward Chang field generators engage.
We can’t get into Chang space with only half the generators operating and anyway, we’re within the minimum safe limit from the star to attempt it.
Lieutenant Commander Boon: Two seconds.
But there’s another use for the generator: a bow wave field, called the rockbuster, and used when travelling through an area of space with lots of debris.
The Xing Gerchu begins to spin along its main axis and then precess, like a gyroscope winding down, its nose making a circle, and presenting the rockbuster to the missiles.
I close my eyes and grab the canopy grip handles, even though it won’t make any difference if the ship blows up.
Lady of Mercy, into your hands…
The first missiles explodes.
Even with the cushioning of the acceleration compensator, the ship lurches to one side, then another, like a old, punch-drunk boxer taking one beating too many. I can feel the explosions through the fabric of the ship. We’re being battered and thrown around inside our couches.
I can’t pray. Instead, I try to count the missile strikes.
The compensators fail. Zero-G.
Unable to stop myself, I open my eyes and look at the pad screen.
POD EJECTION SEQUENCE INITIATED.
Where are the fifth and sixth missiles? If they explode as we eject…
I’m pushed against the right side of the couch by a huge hand. We’re turning.
The Xing Gerchu swings around until it’s pointing insystem again.
POD EJECTION SEQUENCE TERMINATED.
Acceleration suddenly climbs again, and I gasp a protest as my ribs creak under the pressure. It feels like a horse just sat on my chest. My eyes blur.
I’m about to pass out when the couch compensators start to work again.
The ship status on the pad shows a flood of red and yellow for every unit damaged.
The forward Chang generators are gone. It seems a miracle that we damaged two of the six incoming missiles, and reduced the effect of the others, but it’s not a trick we’re going to be able to repeat; without the Chang field we’re down to the unarmored skin of the ship.
One of the two slim shuttles in the front docking bay has been hit and the whole section of the front where the Chang generators were attached has been ripped away.
I blink at the last damage report: the forward hi-G section is simply gone, along with the four people who had taken refuge in the couches there.
I close my eyes again and offer another prayer to the Goddess.
Main life support has failed. Half the external sensors are gone. It’s another miracle that the insystem engines are still operating at all, given their statuses blink between red and amber.
Even though Xing has bought us some time, we can’t outrun any more missiles, we can’t defend against them. We can’t even outrun the pirate. In another hour, they’ll have overhauled us and can slice us to pieces with lasers or punch holes in us with their plasma cannon.
But not everyone in the Newyan system is our enemy. As the list of damages mount up, Lieutenant Commander Boon reports that the captain of the Biháriz has fired four long range missiles locked on the pirate’s emission signature.
Hwa searches through the Xing Gerchu’s database to come up with their specifications. Her search results are mirrored on the screen of my pad.
Those missiles are fast. In their current usage, they’ll bracket the pirate’s position in about twenty minutes, so long as it’s still in pursuit of us and we don’t turn away. The missiles are the latest, horrendously expensive, three-stage Terran missiles. The Biháriz has probably fired its entire complement and some Newyan procurement bureaucrat will be having fits.
But they may be just what’s required.
The missile’s first stage involves a booster firing them to a sizeable fraction of lightspeed before separating. That’s just happened. Then the second stage cruises at that speed on a ballistic trajectory to a predicted position. They’re small and electronically dark, so the pirate won’t know exactly where they are until they enter their kill radius—a distance away from the target that’s not public information.
At that point, the missiles will fire third stage booster engines, and the pirate will become history in a matter of seconds after that.
The pirate has the same data as we do. He turns tail, heading back out to where he can engage his Chang field and escape.
My pad relays a transmission from the captain of the Xing Gerchu, his voice ragged: “Biháriz – Captain Besud of the Xing Gerchu. Thank you for that timely intervention.”
A female voice responds breezily: “Commander Tiziana of the Biháriz. That’s okay, Captain Besud, I always wanted to fire those babies, and as a bonus we get to reel them back in, this time. It’ll all have been a useful exercise for us. Appreciate somewhat different perspective from your view.”
“What’s your status? We can rendezvous before you achieve orbit over Newyan.”
“Negative, Biháriz. Thank you, but please proceed to recapture your missiles safely,” Captain Besud says. “The next arrival is likely to be the Terran cruiser TSS Annan, in a hurry and not expecting missiles on its sensors. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any accidents. Or misunderstandings.”
“Acknowledged, Xing Gerchu. Thank you. Good luck. Biháriz out.”
It doesn’t escape me that the captain has not answered the question about our status.
On my pad, the icon marking the pirate disappears. He’s engaged his Chang field.
I can feel Captain Besud switch the primary compensators back on a moment later. They’re damaged too. ‘Gravity’ comes back as a lurching, swaying force, as if we were being pulled along on a cart with differently sized, eccentric wheels.
“Remain in the couches,” Lieutenant Commander Boon warns us over the speakers in the pods. “We have severe damage. We’re ensuring compartmental integrity before re-pressurization.”
I guess the reason for switching the primary compensators back on is to try and prevent the whole ship from disintegrating as it begins its gentle deceleration. It’s as much as much as the groaning hull can stand, but I don’t need Hwa’s computational abilities to see it’s not going to be enough. We’ll be going far too fast to assume a standard orbit over Newyan.
And the ship coming apart during braking maneuvers could kill us just as easily as a missile.
Half the overhead lights come back on, and some of the red warning signs by bulkheads switch to amber.
Bridge crewmembers scurry past in full vacuum suits and carrying tools, clumsy with their loads and the failing compensator field.
The rearward bulkhead door has to be forced open.
The litany of damage continues on the pad’s screen.
More dead in engineering.
Insystem engines down to 60% and dropping.
Life support 40% capability.
Meanwhile, incredibly, some official on Newyan is criticizing the destroyer’s captain for firing on a vessel without full identification. He’s not even restricting it to narrowband or military frequencies; he’s broadcasting on the main shipping frequency.
He goes on for half an hour, with the Biháriz ignoring him, until someone further up the chain of command silences the idiot.
We’re still trapped in our pods.
Every minute I can feel a new shudder run through the ship as some over-stressed structural component fails.
The middle section of the ship took the main impact of the missiles. It’s too badly damaged and has to be abandoned. The crew can’t even make their way past the destruction. The surviving engineers are stuck on their own at the back, with engines that are being nursed to provide one final effort.
The crew cut loose whatever can be jettisoned and retreat from the middle sections. The hi-G station I’m in is the first forward compartment that escaped major damage, but the rearward bulkhead won’t re-close or seal.
An impermeable sheet of conforming material is applied over it. As the first pressure returns to our section, the sheet solidifies.
The main air pumps don’t work. One crewman remains behind to operate a portable emergency system. It’ll take another a half hour before we have a breathable atmosphere, and we have to remain in our pods.
“You’re not thinking this is your fault, Zara.” Hwa has managed to patch into the remains of the in-ship comms system and her voice comes from my pod’s speakers.
“It is,” I say.
“Stop right there. I would have been on this ship whether or not you were, and I would have brought the ship here. And even if neither of us were, Captain Besud was due to return here. You can’t assume that you were the target.”
“If they’ve worked out what I’m trying to do, they know I’m the greatest threat.”
“That’s one assumption piled on top of another,” Talan says. “This isn’t the Inner Worlds, there are pirates out here.”
“It’s hardly the Frontier, either,” I snap back, still on edge with adrenaline.
“With no disrespect to Newyan, as a world,” Hwa says, “I think the Hajnal have moved the Frontier here.”
I can’t argue the point. Yes, Frontier space is riddled with pirates. Pirates don’t always behave in predictable ways. If this had been a world out on the edge, the sort of place that Newyan’s media portrayed as common in the Frontier, I would believe it had been a pirate, mistaking a courier for something worthwhile.
My view of the Frontier comes from the Newyan media reports that I saw growing up. That thought stopped me in my tracks. If they could distort everything about what was going on in Newyan, then why should I believe what they said about the Frontier? They’d misrepresented the situation on the Inner Worlds – I knew that. What if…
“Sorry, just thinking,” I replied.
“I give you that it was unusual behavior from a pirate,” Hwa said, “but what gets called pirate here might be some Frontier system’s navy.”
“Doing what? Attacking a courier? Why? What benefit—”
“Attacking a Xian courier.”
Pirates attacked ships carrying anything that had value. That wasn’t only standard trade goods. Xian ships carried technology that would be more valuable than any freighter’s entire standard cargo. Whether the pirates knew about it or not, the Xing Gerchu’s Self Actuated Entity, Xing, would be more valuable than the rest of the ship combined, but even standard Xian navigational computers were highly prized. And couriers were unarmed. A Frontier system, one of the marginal ones, they might think the value of the tech outweighed the risk of the attack.
“That attack was intended to disable this ship,” Hwa said. “Those missiles fired at us weren’t ship-killers. I’d lay odds that pirate had a docking bay big enough to take the whole Xing Gerchu in one gulp. If Besud hadn’t come into the system so fast, and kept accelerating, they’d have had time to grab us and leave before the Biháriz could do anything.”
The pirate would have had a Xian ship with all its technology to trade. And any survivors. There was a market for slaves in the Frontier.
“Still not random,” I said. “That wasn’t a pirate scouting out the system and getting lucky that the destroyer normally on patrol was away just at the moment that the Xing Gerchu happened to be due. Or, for that matter, that no one in Newyan noticed the pirate’s footprint on arrival.”
“Agreed,” Hwa said. “There had to have been collusion with some people on Newyan. And yet, it was the Newyan Defence Force Biháriz who saved us. Clearly, the Hajnal’s grip is not complete.”
And the news we were on the way could only have come from the Annan, carried on the message drone which left Kernow before us. That pirate had to have been close, and someone on Newyan knew exactly where they were and how to get a message to them.
But it can’t mean the Terrans are colluding with the Hajnal, surely?
The air pressure has risen high enough that the couches can open and we’re told we can get out.
We can’t go anywhere outside of this small section, but the restroom facilities are much pleasanter than the array of tubes in the pods. Even if it’s freezing cold and the gravity is erratic. Everyone gets out and makes use of the facilities.
A crewman brings in emergency power cables and air piping. We’re warm ourselves up by helping with the mechanical connections and running tests. The air is thin and we’re soon panting, breath steaming in clouds around us.
Every few minutes, I check the ship status on my pod’s screen.
The ship is basically in four sections now. The remaining shuttle, the bridge, this hi-G section and the engines, all held precariously together by the ship’s spine. Everything else has gone dark.
The deceleration has increased, but it’s still not enough.
Hwa wants to talk to the captain, but he’s understandably busy.
However, he takes just enough time out from trying to save the dying ship for a broadcast message to the Newyan system, which he pipes onto the ship’s general announcement speakers. We all stop and listen.
“This is Captain Besud of the Xian Hegemony diplomatic courier ship Xing Gerchu to all Xian citizens and all Xian registered vessels in the Newyan system. I am an authorized level 2 official of the Xian Hegemony Foreign Ministry, and in that capacity, I am implementing Xian intra-system conflict directive W738. I repeat…”
Hwa’s eyes blank as she consults the data banks, and then widen.
She rushes to one of the bridge crew still checking structural damage in our section and persuades him to hand over his comms unit.
I can’t follow what’s being said, so I check on the couch pad what directive W738 is.
Newyan has been designated as a hostile system. The Xian delegation is being withdrawn. All Xian traders are to cease commerce, regardless of the state of their business dealings. All Xian trading ships are requisitioned for evacuation by the Hegemony. All Xian citizens are ordered to get onto those ships are rapidly as they can.
It’s understandable, but Hwa needs to be down onto the surface of Newyan to initiate her court proceedings, and she’ll need to do it before the Annan arrives. Once Taha and Ivakin present their credentials and declare there’s a Commission of Enquiry in process, they’ll be able to prevent any new proceedings.
For me, I’m not a Xian citizen, but I had hoped to be able to use the Xian delegation to assist me in retrieving the evidence. And I had hoped to stay there too, as the delegation buildings would have offered some level of physical security that a hotel wouldn’t. Not to mention I’d risk being arrested anytime I wasn’t somewhere covered by the delegation’s diplomatic immunity.
What the sea folk’s vision showed us was the threat of withdrawal of trade that Hwa could use to bring pressure on the Newyan government while, working from the safety of the delegation, I could present the evidence to the Commission that reveals the extent of the Hajnal.
The directive has suspended Xian trade with Newyan already and there is no longer a Xian delegation to assist me.
Directive W738 has just destroyed our plans.
Like a banished nightmare returning, I can hear the screaming of the bleak winds that blew through the dismal landscapes of the piskateller’s vision.
If you arrive here and wonder what’s going on … I’m writing serial novels on my blog and we’re about 1/4 of the way through a sequel. If you want to catch up, buy & read A Name Among the Stars from Amazon, and then go to the first episode of this sequel:
Each episode is available with a ‘Next post’ link after the end of the episode.
What’s up elsewhere?
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. Going strongly. Will provide next section to beta readers in the coming week.
How are we doing with ATAtS?
Apart from the fact the current weekly episodes are a bit short, the story feels as if it’s going well as a novel. Strangely, this doesn’t feel like writing A Name Among the Stars felt. I feel I’m writing chapters and scenes rather than episodes with cliffhangers.
I’ve tried to remedy that this week. 🙂
Thanks for the feedback. All of it is welcome.
Kernow system / Chang space
We’re a quiet group of three after the conversation about the Atsekabe. The hours stretch and we streak across the Kernow system toward the planar nadir, the point outgoing ships exit a system.
Ivakin continues to transmit messages to us, and both Hwa and I answer briefly and politely; we will need to have some kind of working relationship with the Commission. However, we decline her requests to tell the captain of the Xing Gerchu to slow down. We point out, reasonably truthfully, we are in the courier as a courtesy and operational parameters are a matter between Captain Besud of the Xing Gerchu and the appropriate department of the Xian Hegemony government.
And in fact, whereas most spaceships reach a cruise speed or even slow down before the point where the Chang field is safe to engage, the Xing Gerchu continues to accelerate.
Sidereal velocity is preserved in Chang space. We will emerge into Newyan’s system travelling in the same absolute direction, at the same speed, as we entered it from Kernow’s system. Of course the two star systems are moving relative to each other as well, so that has to be taken into account.
I don’t have access to the navigational computers, but it seems clear we’re going to arrive in the planar zenith of the Newyan system like a missile aimed at the planet.
When I question Captain Besud, he tells me it’s standard practice for Xian couriers in uncertain systems. He also points out that there’s one inter-system vessel faster than a Xian courier ship: a message drone. Unmanned message drones go between systems all the time, but he knows that the one that just left the Kernow system for Newyan was carrying a message from the TSS Annan. A message transmitted after we’d left orbit. As the captain puts it: a suspicious person might think that message could contain news about us. Or warnings.
The Xian are taking the threat of the Hajnal and the questionable behavior of the Terrans very seriously.
Uncertain systems and urgent warnings sent ahead. What are we going to find on Newyan?
There have been no messages for me. At the rate we are approaching the nadir, it looks as if I am going to be out of the system before Bleyd reads my letter.
It’s cowardly, but almost a relief at the same time. What is there left to say to him? To Rhos? To Alexis?
I have broken my heart and theirs. I am trapped between my love for them and an unbearable burden of honor, duty, oaths, obligation and the certainty that the Hajnal will tear humanity apart if not stopped. I believe I have a chance to at least expose the Hajnal for all to see, but I cannot believe I will live through it. All I can offer them is this clean break, and that is tearing me apart.
But as we approach the nadir and the point where we lose contact, a message does arrive for me.
Given the light-speed delays at this distance, there’s no attempt at real-time contact. It’s a message alert from the ship’s main communication server which appears on my pad.
With my hand shaking, I press the icon to read it.
It’s brief. Simple. Unencoded, so all can read it. A declaration.
Duchess Zarate Mirari Aguirre-Tremayne
We are strong because we are one.
We stand together.
Bleyd, Rhos and Alexis
Duke Bleyd Aguirre-Tremayne,
Lady Rhoswyn and Lady Alexis Esterhauze Aguirre-Tremayne.
What does it mean? The full formal names are given. Aguirre-Tremayne. Has he refused the annulment?
We are one. We stand together. No call to return. No questioning my decision. An unconditional acceptance, no matter the cost.
There are tears pouring down my face again, and my friends’ arms around me.
We remain like that for a long time, and the ship enters Chang space.
Hwa leaves us to speak to the captain, and Talan distracts me.
Where did I hide my grandfather’s evidence?
Down in the well at the centre of the courtyard inside the Auzitegi, the Court of Disputes.
How are we going to get to Berriaren?
How are we going to get the evidence to the Commission?
I don’t know yet.
To hide the evidence in Berriaren, I flew in a single-seater ‘hedge-hopper’—a tiny, open aircraft that is invisible to most aircraft tracking facilities, and chose my route and height so few people would have seen me and none would be sure where I went.
The situation on the ground may be very different to when I left.
I may be able to get help.
I may not.
Every time I say ‘I’, Talan corrects it to ‘we’.
And whenever I stop answering questions, frustrated by my lack of information about what’s happening on Newyan, whenever I fall back into the waiting pit of misery, Talan pulls the conversation around.
The shame that I abandoned my family.
Not your fault, she says. You had no way to know that Kattalin survived.
The shame I abandoned my position and my duty.
The shame is on all the other Names who did not support you, she counters.
The shame of what happened to the Atsekabe, and that it falls to me to reveal what has for so long been kept in silence.
Not your shame.
We can’t agree on that. I love Talan, but we’re using the same words that have different resonances to the two of us.
And there’s something she wants to tell me that she feels she can’t. I can see the struggle going on inside her.
It’s not until the we’re nearing the end of our trip through Chang space that she finally speaks of it, just before we all take our turn in the common sleeping room.
“The sea folk had something they wanted to tell you,” she says. “Sometimes they won’t say things directly, they’ll make it obscure, and it’s not my place to say it for them. Now you’ve told me about the Atsekabe, I think it’s about what happened to them.”
Hwa rises up on her elbow and looks at Talan across me. “If they make it so obscure, how will we know when we work it out?”
“You’ll know.” Talan lies back and closes her eyes. Her voice becomes a murmur. “Did you think it was a coincidence that the mummers were dancing in the square when we got back from speaking to the sea folk?”
Hwa snorts as if she was expecting something that obscure from Talan.
I’m too tired to crack the code. By tomorrow, we’ll be in the Newyan system and I need to be ready for that.
Hwa turns off the lights.
I can sense her thoughts as we slip down into sleep, and she can sense mine, so I’m not sure when it is we actually start to dream.
The sky is a bowl of deepest blue above us. The sun plays around our heads, striking hot rainbows from our eyelashes. The grass beneath us is a rich, rich green.
Hwa and I are looking at a circle of statues; the ones the Welarvor coastal people call Dreamers.
The statues are black stone. They give the impression of crouching animals facing the center of the circle; animals with tall conical heads that reach up into that blue sky. Animals just drowsing in the sun. The shadows they cast are so deep, they have the texture of velvet.
I hear voices chanting:
The Dreamers dream,
What was, and what may yet be.
With sorrow they left the land to dream.
But when all their dreams are done,
The Dreamers will awake,
And the sea folk may yet be redeemed.
Morgen, Alexis and Rhoswyn walk into the center of the circle, holding hands.
“Welcome to the King’s Table,” Morgen says formally.
She gestures. The wind begins to blow and the holes drilled in the statues begin to make their eerie music counterpoint to the chanting.
Mummers, men and women wearing tall, conical masks which are woven from twigs and balanced on coils of rope, follow the girls into the circle, swaying and dancing and singing.
I suddenly see, their masks are modeled on the Dreamers’ heads.
More mummers flow in, joining, holding hands, until Morgen, the girls and the mummers form a single, dancing circle, spinning around inside the King’s Table.
Then the King rises, and all the Dreamers wake.
“Qǐng zhùyì wéixiǎn! Qǐng zhùyì wéixiǎn!”
I am still linked to Hwa and, through her, I understand the urgent Xian warning blaring through the cabin, shaking us out of sleep.
We’ve left Chang space. We’re in the Newyan system, and the Xing Gerchu is under attack.
We stumble from the sleeping couches. I can feel the acceleration compensators surge and fade. The courier ship is maneuvering wildly.
This being a common room, we sleep dressed. I pull my shoes on.
“—immediately to the nearest hi-G stations.” It’s another voice, speaking in English. “I repeat, all non-bridge personnel must go immediately to the nearest hi-G stations. Primary compensators will be offline in twenty seconds. Twenty seconds.”
I’ve been briefed. I know where the hi-G stations are. Twenty seconds is cutting it fine.
We race down the corridor. The tiny lag on the acceleration compensators make us clumsy.
There’s an explosion behind us. The compensators fade. Down becomes up. We fall onto the ceiling. We’ve been hit. Secondary explosion. Inside the ship.
I can feel the pressure wave through my chest, my head, my whole body. Bulkheads slam shut behind us. Lights flicker. Ears pop as pressures fluctuate, and alarms begin screaming.
With the compensators struggling to keep up, I can feel the Xing Gerchu strain as it twists and turns. The ship’s spine is nanostructured metal, the same stuff that they use to build space elevators. It’s strong, but it has to flex.
We slide along the ceiling, back the way we came while the ship groans around us like a living thing.
I vividly imagine more missiles and plasma bolts passing inches away from the unarmored skin of the courier. Any one of them…
The alarms are shut off abruptly.
Compensators surge again. Down becomes down. We fall to the floor.
“Primary compensators will be offline in ten seconds. Ten seconds.”
We help each other to scramble back upright and sprint along the corridor.
There’s a stink of burning in the air. Red lights flash over doorways.
The hi-G station is an array of crash couches enclosed in bubbles. Crew members are frantically locking themselves in. One waves us toward the empty ones, but he doesn’t dare stay outside his own to check whether we get in.
We get the three nearest us and I throw myself into one.
The couch controls sense me. The canopy descends.
There’s a horrible moment before I can feel the couch compensator cycle up. My heart is on my mouth until I feel that tugging that tells me the compensator’s working. I wouldn’t have had time to reach another couch if this one’s faulty; I’d be dead.
There are red lights flashing all around us.
Everyone seems to have found a couch. I feel the final section bulkheads slamming shut, and noises all become suddenly distant as the ship starts sucking air out of the corridors and common spaces. I feel the canopy around me seal. My ears pop again. Chilled air blows in my face.
I hear the countdown only from the speaker in the couch. I give Hwa and Talan a thumbs-up to show I’m okay. I hope.
“Zero. Primary compensators disengaging.”
I can feel the ship’s compensators releasing their hold and the couch taking over fully. It’s like driving on ice—the sensation of slipping one side or another.
All the lights outside the couches go off.
The acceleration compensators consume energy in proportion to the square of the mass they’re compensating. The twenty couches here, half dozen on the bridge and any other fragile areas being covered will take no more than a thousandth of the power of compensating for the entire ship. All of that reclaimed power is now being directed to evading whatever is attacking us.
Of course, the ship is now composed of units with different intertial frames. Switching off the primary compensators is an act of desperation. Every maneuver is stressing the frame to its limit. I can sense the ship groaning again, but the couch and the vacuum isolates me from it.
Who’s attacking us?
Without Hwa, I can’t even read some of the control menus on the couch’s built-in pad, but I don’t need to. From her couch, Hwa is configuring my pad and Talan’s. She is giving us full access. The screen splits and starts streaming the communications log, translating the internal discussion and damage reports.
I run down it quickly to distract me from thinking about how vulnerable we are and how completely helpless I am. It doesn’t take long to catch up.
Captain Besud decides to emerge from Chang space further out than normal. As the ship emerges, the standard calls are made: ship identifier, type, destination, speed, location and manifest.
Newyan Space Traffic Control responds. They’re unhappy with the Xing Gerchu. Too far out, too fast.
All of which is routine. Space Traffic Control like to emphasize the ‘control’ part of the name.
But then Lieutenant Commander Boon, the bridge navigation officer, reports a ship to spinward, relatively close to us and running dark—no engines, no power leakage, no transmissions, no transponder. It doesn’t appear on the navigational alerts from Newyan. Only the courier’s military grade sensors picked it up.
Captain Besud queries the presence of an unidentified vessel running dark so close to the inbound lane.
As soon as they realize they’ve been seen, the mystery vessel spools up powerful engines and fires two missiles at the Xing Gerchu.
Couriers carry no space weapons, not even point defense against missiles.
Lieutenant Commander Boon deploys electronic counter measures and the pilot begins emergency evasive maneuvers.
They’re not good enough. Ten seconds later one missile gets through. The courier’s rear Chang generator assembly and starboard FTL engine array is destroyed. That was what happened while we were in the corridor.
Another ten seconds later, all the crew is protected by hi-G couches and the Xing Gerchu is accelerating away, twisting like an eel.
The mystery ship is in pursuit. The courier is faster than it, but not so fast it can outrun missiles.
Captain Besud is yelling at Newyan Space Traffic Control.
A series of uncoordinated responses filters back.
Newyan has a ‘space navy’—principally two ancient destroyers. One is normally on patrol at the Newyan system zenith, where we’ve just emerged. Yesterday, it docked for maintenance at the orbital stations. The other, the Biháriz, is on training maneuvers near the system’s gas giant. It’s making all speed to intercept our course, which it will do in about eight hours, given the speed at which we’re coming in.
Eight hours will be far too late.
There are customs cutters which are armed and slightly closer, but I can see their reluctance to head out and confront a powerful vessel of unknown capabilities.
Which means that all we have is speed and limited maneuverability. The insystem engines don’t seem diminished, but the missile strike has damaged the internal structure of the courier. The pilot has to make a delicate balance between over-stressing the frame, causing the ship to tear itself apart, and avoiding missiles from blowing it apart.
Another missile detonates far too close. A plasma round destroys the remainder of the rear Chang generator. Damage reports flood the status boards.
The pilot continues using the full power extracted from turning off the main compensators to increase our speed; the gap with the attacker continues to grow.
Our pursuer abandons the strategy of pinpointing us with one or two missiles. He fires a pattern of six, intended to bracket our position.
Lady of Mercy, look down on your children now.
Whichever way the pilot jinks the ship, there’s going to be a missile waiting.
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. I have had positive feedback from the beta readers on the first 10k of the book (with some tweaks) and I’m going to try and set up a schedule to get them about the same amount every week. Eeek!
BIAN’S TALE 1: The Harvest of Lies. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBPK2B6/
It’s very evident from the *lovely* reviews of THoL and ANATS that I’m selling to fans. Which is *wonderful* and *thank you*. It does leave me puzzling how to increase the number of fans! I dipped my toe into Amazon adverts over the last couple of weeks with negligible response, and I’m chewing over what that might mean.
Audio books: Okay, okay, on it. I have contacted Julia Motyka about the novellas: Change of Regime, The Biting Cold and Winter’s Kiss. She’s not available until September, at which time I hope that Inside Straight will be available to go to audio. In any event, whatever order we go with, they’ll start to come out toward the end of the year. I’m still hoping Jessica might do ANAtS, and I’m looking for a narrator for Bian’s Tale. It’s not that Julia couldn’t do it, but I thought it would be good to get a Vietnamese American narrator.
How are we doing with ATAtS?
Here’s the next episode. Of course, because this is a two-thread story, you don’t get the resolution of the last episode’s cliffhanger until the second chapter… ‘cos I’m cruel like that.
Thanks for the feedback last week. Even a single line is good. Even negative stuff. Don’t be shy.
High sierra, Newyan
Cold light seeps through the pines around Kattalin.
It’s not dawn yet and she’s so tired.
Yesterday she rested. She’d walked hard for two days beyond the last high sierra villages, and was beginning to feel she’d gotten away. She’d stopped walking. She’d fed on early spring berries which cramped her stomach. She’d pulled up gozo roots, and baked them with a mixture of pine seeds and nuts, burying the fire and letting the slow heat soften the food.
She washed it all down with water from the ice-cold streams.
Then she’d slept, truly slept.
And woken to a forest too silent around her.
She’s been walking non-stop since then.
They certainly aren’t Newyans, but there is a group hunting for her. They’ve got a seeker. It’s the only way they’d be able to find her in this expanse of forest.
It’s their strength and their weakness.
The seeker is almost as sensitive to odors in the air as a dog. It can separate out human smells from animal and plant. It can identify a human, separating out the smell from other humans. It can even detect disease or infection.
But it’s not a dog. It doesn’t have a dog’s feel for tracking. It has provided enough of a trace that the hunters have been able to follow her up into the high sierras. Given her head start and the fact that they would have had to keep stopping to check the seeker readings, they must have been moving almost continuously. They must be even more tired than she is.
The situation’s bad, but it’s not impossible, she tell herself.
What would Zarate do?
Kattalin has a trick of pretending she’s her cousin. It makes her braver. It silences her fearful inner voice. Zarate wouldn’t be scared. Zarate is never scared.
Now, when she can see them. She’s walked in a huge loop to come back and cross her own trail.
Her heart is beating so loudly, she’s afraid they’ll hear.
There are four of them, Syndacians, walking where she walked a few hours ago. One is carrying the seeker in a backpack, with the readouts displaying on a small InfoPad mounted on his helmet, like a look-up display. The other three are carrying camping equipment. All of them are carrying plasma rifles. She doesn’t recognize the type. They have blocky mounts on top—she guesses they’re light-enhancing telescopic sights. They can probably kill her from a thousand yards. In the dark.
She has to ignore that. If she gets in their sights, she’s dead, so she will not get in their sights.
Think like Zarate.
What else can she learn from seeing them?
They’re carrying about a week’s worth of supplies in their packs.
Will they be re-supplied by an aircraft, or will they have to go back?
She’d forgotten about aircraft.
She’ll have to keep to the forests. If they’re this committed to finding her, there could be an aircraft high above with infra-red vision. She has to keep under the canopy of the forest. Sleep hidden beneath fallen trees or in caves.
The men pass out of sight in the pre-dawn gloom, and with her heart in her mouth, she hurries down to the trail. She follows it downhill for ten minutes, back the way she came, before disappearing into the forest on the opposite side from her approach.
That will not throw them off completely, but it’ll take a day of their time, circling around and around until they have a firm reading on where she left the trail.
Zarate would be proud of her.
Now to find a stream.
As dawn breaks, her feet have become frozen in the run-off from mountain snows.
She trudges up the stream, and as the day brightens, she occasionally leaves it to walk clumsily a dozen paces to one side or another, out and back.
This should all delay the hunters even longer.
They’ll eventually find the place she entered the stream down below. The seeker can’t track her in the stream, but they know she has to leave it at some time. So they have to walk along the stream until they find a point where she came out.
Actually, they should check downstream as well as up, but she imagines they’ll assume she’s heading up.
They need to walk the seeker down both banks of the stream, and any time she leaves the stream, they have to check that as a possible route until they’re sure she didn’t leave that way.
It will delay them, every time.
It becomes a routine. Walk half an hour, get out, stamp her feet and walk away from the stream, then get back in it. To keep her mind away from the pain of her feet, she tries to plan ahead.
Spring is well under way.
Another week or so and the Hartzak will begin to stir from their winter hibernation. They’re far more dangerous than the hunters. She doesn’t have any clever ideas about how to avoid them. Walking in streams, sleeping in caves and burying her waste won’t fool the Hartzak. She can’t hide from both Hartzak and Syndacians.
Maybe the Hartzak will kill the Syndacians.
Or maybe she’ll sprout wings.
She distracts herself from this bleak prognosis by thinking of her cousin instead.
Ohana must have been mistaken. Zarate will be bringing allies. Terrans or someone. Maybe they’re coming right now, emerging out of Chang space this very moment.
Little bits and pieces of news had filtered out to her and her comrades in Training Company Bravo. They’d heard Zarate had smuggled herself past the Hajnal and got onto a freighter heading for the Inner Worlds. But that was immediately followed by news that the customs cutter Duhalde had fired on the freighter.
It had been a bleak few days, imagining her cousin’s death in the void of space, which made hearing the final bits of the story all the more glorious.
Even now, shivering as she struggles up the cold stream, Kattalin feels a warm inner glow as she imagines Zarate hijacking the freighter, locking the crew out of the bridge, making the spaceship twist and turn like a snake so the missiles from the Dunhalde miss, and then escaping into Chang space.
Just thinking of Zarate makes her feel proud.
Such a heroine would not abandon Newyan.
She must be on her way with help.
Kattalin looks back down the stream. All she has to do is keep ahead of the hunters until Zarate arrives.
Outbound, Kernow system
“Talan! What the nova are you doing here?”
“My duty, officially. I have to say, protection detail is usually so boring, but this is the most fun I’ve ever had, looking after you. Anyway, up you get, it’s time for lunch.”
I bury my face in my hands.
“Be serious,” I say.
“I am. I’m starving.”
I want to strangle her. Even putting the joking aside, she’s misunderstood the whole situation. She must think I’m here with the Duke’s knowledge. That everything’s all right.
We can’t turn back. She’ll be absent without leave for weeks. Along with everything else I’ve destroyed on Kernow, I’ve ruined her career.
I tell her so, unable to meet her eyes.
“Zara.” Her voice is gentler, and she takes my hands, uncovers my face. “Whatever bridges you think you’ve burned, whatever decisions you’ve taken, you have to learn to trust others more. And realize not everything is always your problem alone.”
She drags me off to a small cabin which she laughingly calls the restaurant.
The food is pre-prepared and re-heated. I have no appetite. I sit there and poke at the meal.
“You have a duty,” I say.
“I made an oath when I joined the Welarvor Mounted Police,” she replies. “I made another, to the Duke himself, to guard you with my life. I know which one he thinks takes precedence. Maybe I’m honoring both. Maybe just the one. Time will tell.”
Before, Bleyd might have agreed, but by now he’ll have read the letter. By now, I will no longer be Duchess. No longer Colonel. Just Zarate Mirari Aguirre.
Talan breezes on. I’ve been asleep for hours and she updates me.
The TSS Annan got underway not long after the Xing Gerchu, but the courier is faster than the cruiser. Much faster. We’re pulling away.
Ivakin has been trying to communicate with me, but Talan dismisses it with a wave of her hand. “She’s still trying to lecture you about the rights of ordinary people on Newyan to self-determination, as if that’s what’s happening.”
That angers me enough to make me talk. “Is she stupid or deliberately not seeing?”
“Have you seen what a Commissioner is paid?” Hwa interrupts, joining us.
It’s disorienting, being so close to her. I can almost hear her thoughts. When the piskatellers reconnected us through them, it’s as if they left a channel open. I know if I touch her hand, we’ll be able to mentally talk as easily as when I hosted her in my head.
“When they set up their Commission of Enquiry, Taha and Ivakin will become fabulously rich, even if they conduct it honestly,” Hwa says. “And there’s a whole industry back on Earth responsible for extracting vast amounts of money and funneling it into these Commissions. And skimming a fortune off it.” She snorts. “People will be urging them to run their Commissions for ever, regardless of the situation.”
“And if they admit that the Hajnal threat exists?” Talan asks. “If they say the military has to get involved?”
“Then it’s not a Commission of Enquiry on Newyan, it becomes an occupation, and the money goes back to the military. That’s where most of the budget has come from.”
“No wonder Ndungane is so angry all the time,” I say.
“It’s not just that,” Hwa says. “The Annan was his command. He’s been effectively demoted while Taha’s on board, and the ship will stay in orbit over Newyan until relieved if there’s a Commission established. He’s been made a sort of glorified orbiting honor guard in a navy that’s shrinking to pay for the Commissions.”
“Is he on our side? Could we use that?” Talan asks. “Get close to him somehow?”
I shake my head. “Very dangerous. He may not like the Terran Council politics, but he’s no fan of Xian either. Or me.”
We’re silent for a while.
“If you’re not eating that…” Talan says.
I push my meal over.
“You owe her the rest of the details,” Hwa says to me, nodding at Talan.
Talan gives every indication of being interested only in the food, but I can sense her attention at Hwa’s words.
It will hurt to speak of it, so I must. I deserve the pain to remind me of the pain I cause others.
“What do you know so far?”
Talan looks up thoughtfully.
“I saw you and Hwa in that vision, and I saw the predictions that the piskatellers made if we fail to stop the Hajnal. And so I also know you may have a cousin still alive on Newyan.” She frowns. “Hwa’s told me you hid the evidence your grandfather compiled which will prove there’s been a genuine conspiracy and Newyan’s current government is the result of an illegal, murderous coup carried out in secret. I get the bit about using the Commission’s own rules to actually broadcast that information.”
She pauses and becomes focused on her food again.
“I know there’s something about the evidence that you think will destroy your family Name,” she says.
“All Newyan Names,” I say. “But Aguirre most of all.”
“Why?” Talan asks sharply. “Why is it always your responsibility above all others?”
“Because the Aguirre are the foremost,” I reply. There’s pride and sorrow in my words. Responsibility and privilege. Honor and duty. “That’s what the name means in the old language—foremost. And it’s a recognition that the others gave us, because it was Xabat Abarran Aguirre alone who made Newyan possible, who claimed the planet for all of us.”
It looks as if Talan will argue, but she and Hwa exchange glances and she falls silent.
Into that silence, I must bear my shame. Our shame, all of the Names of Newyan.
“Xabat chose the site of the first city, which he called Berriaren. It was in the high sierras, a habitat isolated from the rest of the planet by the geology. The Founders needed time to study the native life and experiment with merging Terran forms in a non-invasive way.
“Newyan means ‘promise’, and the planet lived up to its name. Little needed to be done with the atmosphere, native crops were compatible with humans, the introduction of our crops and livestock had near neutral effect on the ecology. It seemed the great promise would be delivered. Berriaren thrived. Farms spread out around the city, even as the laboratories continued to study the planet.”
We are alone on the room, and Talan has put aside the empty plate to listen intently.
“There was one exception, ironically limited to the same high sierras where the Founders set their base; a species trapped in that habitat.” I sigh. “We call them Hartzak, the old Basque name for bear. You have bears on Kernow, adapted Terran black bears, and you might mistake the two at a distance. They share some characteristics—they’re large, furry, quadrupedal predators, they hibernate in the winter, they’re territorial.
“But there are differences. The Hartzak bite is highly poisonous, so even if you survive being bitten, you die without a blood transfusion. And the adult Hartzak are not just territorial and aggressive, they’re insanely so. A Hartzak coming across humans always attacks. Even if it’s hungry and just made a kill, it’ll abandon the kill to attack the human. To make it even worse, they trigger each other. A Hartzak attacking a human will release pheromones which will override the territorial exclusion pheromones and call other Hartzak to attack. And then, as a species, they take it beyond that. The Founders detected the Hartzak breeding rates increased as if they somehow jointly perceived humans as a threat and gave birth to more Hartzak in response.”
“Intelligent?” Talan’s single word question cuts across my lecture.
I blink. “No. The Hartzak are not intelligent.”
She’s right and she’s wrong. Just as the Founders were, so long ago.
I take a deep breath.
“They have a weakness. The full grown adults hibernate, moving up out of the high sierra into the mountain cave systems. They leave the adolescents and the cubs, who haven’t developed the territorial reflex and aggression, down on the high plains.
“The Founders argued that it would be disastrous for the rest of the planet if the Hartzak ever got out of the high sierras, and it was clear humans and Hartzak couldn’t co-exist.”
“So they eradicated them?”
I shake my head. “They tried. They thought it would be easier to eradicate the adolescents and the cubs, so that’s what they did in winter operations: they cleared the high sierras of any Hartzak they found. They had IR scopes and seekers, surveillance drones and motion detectors. The Hartzak young were docile, without the strength and capabilities of the adults. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. Just sat there and got slaughtered.”
“But it didn’t work?”
I take another deep breath.
“They stopped when they found they had it all wrong. Completely wrong. There were two symbiotic species that looked identical – the Hartzak young and the other, the Atsekabe. They killed a generation of Hartzak that were being cared for by the Atsekabe, and they wiped out the Atsekabe.”
Talan is shocked, but not enough. Not yet.
The old story hurts, but I complete it: “They found out later that the Atsekabe were intelligent. They found rock paintings that told stories, stories about families and generations, and about the bond between the Atsekabe, who nurtured, and the Hartzak, who protected. This is what we tried to hide when we abandoned Berriaren and the high sierras: the shame of Newyan that everyone will know soon. Our Founders, led by the Aguirre, killed an entire intelligent species. The only group of humans ever to achieve that.”
BITE BACK 6: Inside Straight. The first 7 chapters, 10k words are with the beta readers. I have written more, but these first 7 contain two really key scenes and I want feedback on them before polishing the remainder of the first 1/4.
BIAN’S TALE 1: The Harvest of Lies. Launched! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBPK2B6/
How’s it doing? Quick initial sales. Glowing 5 star reviews. Slipping in the ranking already.
The market for books is brutal and I will need to put time aside to do real marketing. As one reviewer noted, this is a major alternative route into the Athanate world, and I need to get it out there.
How are we doing with ATAtS?
Well, break out the handkerchiefs. If I don’t make you cry this episode…
Oh, and look out for that cliff.
We’re at 20k words, which I guesstimate is 1/5 of the book already. The build-up has been, of necessity, slowish because I had to undo all the HEA ending on ANAtS. Zara’s starting to do crazy stuff again now.
Some of you do regularly feed back, and that feedback is vital to the process of writing a serial novel. If you haven’t said anything recently, I would appreciate even a few words. Enjoying it? Not enjoying it? Don’t be shy.
“The Duchess Aguirre-Tremayne, Colonel Zarate Mirari Aguirre.”
The announcement is grand. If it had been Hanna, if it had been ‘Duchess Esterhauze-Tremayne’, she would have glided into the ballroom, elegant and glittering. She would have looked the part and won people over with her charm and presence.
I laid a flower on her grave this afternoon, and wept.
My way to win people over will be different.
I enter wearing my uniform, now officially the uniform of the Kernow Air Force. I have a rank and gold braid and medals. I have had my hair cut short again this afternoon.
Gaude could barely speak when I explained my requirements. The braid and medals represent my compromise with him. Without his frantic argument, I might well have walked in here with a sidearm.
A ripple of silence flows outward across the ball. I am a raven come among peacocks.
Behind me the Master of Ceremonies calls out again: “Lady Rhoswyn Tremayne, Lady Alexis Esterhauze and companions.”
The girls are dressed for a ball, and still surprised I’ve brought them. Talan and Moyle are with them, in uniform and under strict instructions what to do. Hwa follows unnoticed behind, dressed in traditional Xian silks.
My hostess, Lady Dowriel, hurries forward to greet me. I guess as much to limit the damage as anything else. I feel a twinge of guilt, but it was her decision to invite the Terrans that has brought me here.
“Duchess,” she says, and we offer little bows and shake hands, that being the custom on Kernow.
“Such a smart uniform,” she says, clasping her hands together, and meaning something completely different. “I suppose simplicity of form might be the fashion this autumn.”
I smile briefly. “Perhaps. Uniforms can be fashionable when we are at war. And we are at war, despite the behavior of the Terran Council.”
I timed my entrance to arrive immediately after the Terrans, and I’ve spoken loudly enough that they, and others close by, can hear.
Lady Dowriel retreats hurriedly to attend to other arriving guests.
Captain Taha and Yeva Ivakin take my bait and engage in a defense of their actions. It goes better than I could have hoped—an argument in the middle of the ball with almost all the Founding Families present. I am sorry for Lady Dowriel, but the message gets out. The Duke and I believe the Terrans have failed in their responsibilities as defined by the Accords. I can see Commander Ndungane repeatedly trying to signal the others to leave the party. They’re too stubborn to listen to him.
“It’s a pity the Duke has left you to attend events on your own,” Taha says. “I’m sure we would get a more reasoned and reasonable approach from him.”
“And I assure you,” I reply, “both that I am perfectly capable of presenting our shared opinions, and also that he would put his opinions no less vociferously than I.”
“Really? Is he not embarrassed by the court cases against you on Newyan? I understand he was able to quash them here.”
Taha’s anger has made him careless. He’s just insulted Kernow. I can see the reactions of those who are close enough to hear. They turn and walk away. They’ve heard enough. It will ripple through the ball tonight, and the news will travel across the world tomorrow.
No one will remember that he started by talking about cases against me in Newyan.
Ivakin and Ndungane realize his mistake, but Taha is their leader and he’s desperate to get the last word in.
Whatever they think of me, this kind of confrontation is making me shake with adrenaline, but I’ve made my decisions. I’ve done what I can for Kernow, now it’s time for Newyan.
“I will enjoy proving those cases against me were brought fraudulently, entirely for the murderous political agenda of the Hajnal.”
Taha raises his eyes to the sky, presumably that I persist in my conspiracy theory about the Hajnal. I don’t care. I need him and his Commission of Enquiry on Newyan. I don’t need him to believe anything at this point. What I need is to irritate him to the point that he—finally—hurries to Newyan.
“You won’t be able to dismiss them from here,” Ivakin points out.
“I’ve no intention of attempting it from here,” I reply. “I intend to return to Newyan to ensure the Hajnal are stopped. Clearing my name is secondary to that.”
That silences them for a second. I can see they’re shocked. And Ivakin’s expression turns calculating.
“It’s possible the Commission of Enquiry may close the system to non-essential traffic,” she says, with an icy smile. “You would probably be best advised to come with us on the Annan, though you may need to apologize to the captain first.”
I know what’s going on in her head. There’s no likelihood that the Commission will close the system at all. She’s made some deal with the Newyan government, whether explicitly or not. If the Terrans take me there in the Annan, she believes that will give them some advantage with the authorities—see, we’re bringing back a criminal to face justice.
She might even believe that’s what she’s doing. I haven’t decided yet whether she’s genuinely mistaken or she knows the Hajnal is real and she’s just assuming she can use them for her own personal gain somehow.
“The Duchess will not require transport in the Annan.” Hwa steps up beside me.
“And who the nova are you?” Taha scowls at her.
“I am Hwa, representative of the Fragrant Stars Trading Company of Xian, and I will be prosecuting the administration of Newyan, on behalf of my company, for their deliberate attack on our freighter Shohwa.”
Taha and Ivakin bluster that Xian has no authority in Newyan.
Hwa waits patiently. While they’re still blustering, Ngungane’s eyes have narrowed, flicking to and fro between Hwa and me. He can see the resemblance and it’s probably put his brain into overdrive. He bears watching closely, this man. He’s certainly far sharper than Taha and Ivakin.
His colleagues come to the end of their little speeches about over-reaching jurisdiction, looking satisfied that they’ve put Hwa in her place.
“There is, of course, no way I can compel the Newyan authorities to attend my court,” Hwa says calmly. “Nevertheless, my resolution will bind all Fragrant Star traders, as well as anyone who wishes to do business with us in future.”
Taha still doesn’t understand, although Ivakin and Ndungane certainly do from their expressions: Fragrant Stars is the second or third largest Xian trading company, and Xian companies dominate pan-system trade. One major Xian company doesn’t make it a complete embargo, but it doesn’t have to be. The effect will ripple through the markets. Newyan businesses will face collapse.
Captain Taha sniffs dismissively. “Ridiculous,” he says. “Anyway, all such complaints and procedures would come under the aegis of the Commission. It’s all laid out in the Accords.”
“That only applies for matters arising after the Commission has been established, which it cannot be until you’re actually present,” Hwa replies. “My court will begin before your arrival.”
Ndungane stares at her as if she’s grown a second head.
“The Annan is the latest design of Terran light cruiser, and we are departing tomorrow,” he says. “You can’t credibly claim that some freighter is going to overtake us?”
Hwa smiles. “Oh, I don’t doubt your ship is very, very fast, Commander, and you’re proud of her. Don’t worry, we’ll try not to make you look too bad.”
An hour later, I’m changing into plain work clothes.
The Terrans left the ball soon after Hwa and I finished with them, Taha and Ivakin finally realising that they would find no friends on Kernow after our loud discussion.
I gave my heart-felt apologies to Lady Dowriel. She not only graciously accepted them, but embraced me in sight of others. The Terrans have made an error here that will not easily be erased.
It all went far better than I deserved, far more easily. Now I am alone and the tears are streaming down my face.
Rhos and Alexis are still at the ball with Talan and Moyle. They are excited to have my permission to be out until 11pm. They won’t notice until it’s too late.
The letter is in the envelope on the table, waiting for me to seal it. Waiting for me to end this little spell of incredible happiness that I stole from fate.
There’s only one thing left to do. The hardest thing of all.
My heart is coming apart in my chest.
I can’t do this.
The knocking on my door is the sound of nails in my coffin.
I have to go. I have to. Now.
Duty and honor.
It says that in the letter.
Quickly, so as not to give myself time to weaken, I pull the rings off my finger and put them in the envelope. Seal it with trembling fingers. Rest it against the vanity mirror where whoever comes in will see the name it’s addressed to on the front.
Duke Bleyd Tremayne.
His Name stands alone. It looks wrong.
I have to go.
I rush from the room carrying nothing but my old duffel bag. I will leave as I arrived.
Hwa and I run down the back stairs.
Outside, a car driven by a member of the Xian delegation takes us to the airport, where a special dispensation has been made for a shuttle to land.
It’s an unusual shuttle, tiny and fully capable of atmospheric flight. It has no need for the Skyhook, and has none of the facilities of that kind of shuttle. Hwa and I are bundled into a closed compartment barely bigger than ourselves, and strapped in.
The crew is scrabbling to meet their lift-off window. Five minutes later we hear the outer doors close and seal. The last sounds of people rushing through the narrow corridor cease and the warning lights come on.
The acceleration is brutal; there’s no room for compensators on this small a craft.
I welcome it.
I want the pain. I want the weight on my chest squeezing the life out of me. It’s what I deserve. And still, my heart is torn with such a longing I can barely breathe.
Duty and honor.
Two hours later the shuttle docks precisely into the sleek shape of the Xing Gerchu, the Xian Hegemony courier ship waiting for us.
As soon as the clamps lock onto the shuttle, I feel the Xing Gerchu move and its acceleration compensators start to operate.
Space is at a premium in the courier. The ship is all engines and compensators, with passengers a distinct afterthought. There aren’t even private cabins, just bunks we may take turns in. Hwa guides me to a reclining seat and presses a drink into my hand.
I haven’t stopped crying since I left the hotel. I’m still crying when exhaustion finally takes effect and I fall into a deep and troubled sleep, where every time I reach the end of the letter, the words at the beginning have started to fade and must be written again.
My Dearest Bleyd
I love you. I am more sorry than I can possibly express in words.
We met in the most improbable of circumstances and you risked everything to accept into your life a woman with nothing to her name. And I truly believed I had nothing, except my Name.
But as my grandfather took pains to remind me, there is more to a Name than the sound; that bearing a Name may sometimes be an honor and a privilege, but it is always to have a duty and a responsibility.
Generations of us have accepted the benefits of our heritage and fate has it that it falls to me to pay that sum back, in full if necessary.
It does not seem fair, but no one promised me that life would be fair, and if it could, I would not deserve it.
I am a coward, and in that failing, I lied to myself. Worse, I lied to you and our daughters.
When I thought all my family had died on Newyan, I felt absolved of the duty to fight against the conspiracy we now know as the Hajnal. My grandfather, in his premonition, had made me swear I would never abandon the family so long as one of them was alive, and surely, I fearfully justified to myself, their deaths released me to escape and save myself. I forgot the greater truth; that my duty was not limited to my family, but to everyone touched by us on Newyan, and to the whole of Newyan.
Worse, even that cowardly justification is false, for I have discovered that one cousin survived, at least until recently. Unlike me, she took arms against the Hajnal. Her example shames me for my cowardice.
I have a duty. I must return.
You, too, have a duty, and your duty binds you to this world, which I have come to love as you do. Do not abandon Kernow to pursue me, I beg of you. I am not worth that.
This is not an entirely hopeless cause that I must commit myself to.
The Terrans will install their Commission of Enquiry, and think that doing so absolves them of any further requirement. But the Commission has procedures, written in the Accords, which it may not vary, one of which is to make freely available all verified evidence submitted to them.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that my grandfather compiled evidence that will prove the existence of the conspiracy that murdered him and all but two of the family. I hid it on Newyan. All that remains is for me is to evade the Hajnal long enough to provide that evidence to the Commission.
After that? I have not thought too much on it. The Annan cannot do very much on its own, but I expect a full uprising. It may be that it will be my honor to lead it. The Hajnal have mercenaries on Newyan against such an event. It will be a bloodbath, and the Terrans will be forced to ship in marines from Earth. Once they have committed a military force, the political prevarications will end and the Hajnal will be revealed for all to see. I do not expect to survive that long.
There is one further matter of honor.
My grandfather’s evidence is in an encrypted quantum holographic storage unit. The same method that guarantees its veracity means that it cannot be delivered other than as a whole, and what it comprises is the truth of Newyan from the planet’s foundation. It is the bare, unalloyed truth of every government decision and responsibility since Xabat Abarran Aguirre landed.
And so, along with the evidence of the conspiracy, will come the shame that we, the Founding Families, led by the Aguirre, bound up and left in the high sierras, hoping that the ages would eventually erase it. Now all humankind will know, and the Names of the Founding Families of Newyan will become anathema; Aguirre foremost among them.
I could not bear the thought of you and Rhoswyn and Alexis sharing that burden. You should not have to, and the girls must not.
There will be pain. I beg you to do what you can to shield the girls and comfort them.
But pain will end. Shame attached to a Name does not heal.
My heart is breaking. I cannot ask for forgiveness, but only that you sometimes think kindly of me and what might have been, without the weight of our duty and honor, and without the stain upon the Name of Aguirre.
Attached is a legal form of annulment, which I have signed.
I release you from your vows.
I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep before a touch on my face wakes me.
I open my eyes, and the shock that greets me reaches into my very soul.
Has everything I’ve tried to do been in vain?
# # # # # # #
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