A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 8
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.