A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 10
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.