A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 9
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.