A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 7
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.”