A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 11
“You can’t do that!” the daughter said.
“What?” I asked.
“This episode. It’s a triple cliffhanger.”
“It’s a cruel and unnatural torture etc.”
“Of course it is! I have my reputation to consider.”
So triple cliffhanger it is this week, but only because I couldn’t see a way to make it a quadruple cliffhanger.
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, delivered in weekly episodes and starts at:
Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.
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Zarate would never give up. Never.
It’s been her constant mantra all the way through the Sierra Arija, but it’s not working so well now.
Kattalin crouches, ragged and shivering, in the lee of an old wall facing an empty, sun-baked plaza.
She didn’t know what to expect of Berriaren. Teenage Aguirre family members were always brought here as part of their upbringing, to see first hand the place of their shame, and walk the echoing black stone corridors of the Jauregia in awed silence. It is—was—supposed to be something of a treat and she’d missed her outing.
Was. Was. Was. There is no Aguirre family any more. Just Zarate, wherever she is, and me.
She cries a little, silently, tears tracking the dirt on her face.
The abandoned city of Berriaren is not how she imagined it. There is still dignity in some of the old stone buildings. The neo-crete streets and paving remain, but over the years, dust has made dunes and bunkers, where grass and moss have taken hold, choking the streets and creeping across the plazas. The dunes seem to be reaching up walls, clutching, as if to drag the buildings down into the dust. Above the dunes, empty windows and half-blocked doorways make sorrowful faces. Flying animals swoop in and out of the openings: screeching, dark-feathered birds, whispering leathery saguzar, green winged lizards and hovering, biting insects.
The living inhabitants of Berriaren are the animals of Newyan. Not just in the air; in the first plaza she crossed, she disturbed a band of neo-monkeys. They fled, chittering and whooping. Now their mournful songs follow her, warning others, and she sees no more of them beyond the flicker of shapes at the edges of her sight.
At least there are no Hartzak. She has walked half the length of the Sierra Arija and not seen a single one.
She’s not sure about staying here in Berriaren; there’s shelter, but the buildings aren’t clean and empty. On the other hand, she expects the neo-monkeys will stop singing about her when they get used to her presence, and then they’ll be like guards, warning her if the Syndacians enter the city. Which she’s sure they will. They’re not that far behind. She can feel them.
She smears her wet cheeks with a shaking hand, and then holds her fingers against her head.
As if she didn’t have enough, there are more problems.
Her feet are a mess—blistered, bleeding where they’ve been rubbed raw. Either from that, or the scratches from plants, or insect bites, or something she ate or drank, she’s picked up an infection and she’s running a fever. Her head is throbbing and her vision is blurred.
She has to find somewhere to hide and recover. Somewhere to escape the relentless pursuit of the Syndacians, if only for a while.
Why are they following me?
Did Ohana get it wrong? They want to kill every single one of us?
Or is it me? My Name?
Are they trying to kill me because Zarate escaped?
She closes her eyes. Her head aches when she tries to think about the how and why. It’s better to not think. To just exist, as she has done, becoming a grey phantom, drifting silently across the sierra, drawn to this city of phantoms, gradually becoming more ragged and grey herself. The ghost of a pirate. Filthy. No time to clean and mend. She has a piece of torn cloth tied around her head to keep her greasy hair back. Her pants are chopped and frayed to nothing below her knees. Her jacket was always too large, now it’s ripped and it hangs off her bony shoulders like a stained and threadbare tent. Too hot, but she can’t get rid of it. Too cold at night. Too cold. Too hot. Too cold.
Run where they will not follow. Hide where they will not look. Better old ghosts than new, Ohana said.
They gather in the plaza: the tattered old ghosts, like faded flags fluttering in a spirit wind.
Their faces stare out from history books. The Names. Newyan’s Names Among the Stars. Azenar and Bey, Haritz and Gartzea, Ibarra and Heng, Zuira and Cuibirey. And Aguirre, foremost. Aguirre. Always at the front.
Their voices echo through the plaza and the sound stirs the dust.
Xabat Abarran Aguirre himself kneels in front of her.
“This is no place for the living, Kattalin Espe Aguirre,” he says. “This is a place for ghosts, a place for death and shame. For those who lived once, but now are memories. You must leave. Go.”
Go. The wind picks the word up and sings it mournfully, drawing it out. Go. Gooo. Gooooo.
She wakes with a start.
She’s still huddled against the wall. She’s dripping sweat and shivering at the same time. The sun has swung around and now hangs as if a gigantic brass ball were suspended between two buildings, across the plaza from her. The light stabs at her eyes. Her legs have gone numb and her headache has gotten even worse. Her mouth is very dry. Everything is too dark or too bright. Nothing moves in the plaza but the evening wind, which sweeps trails of dust as it wanders to and fro, like ghostly coats dragging in the dirt.
The wind is whispering, but the song that woke her is the neo-monkey’s. Not around the plaza. Back the way she came into the city.
The Syndacians are here already.
She staggers to her feet, feeling sick and dizzy. She stumbles across the plaza, falling twice before her blood starts to circulate in her legs again.
She’s no idea where she is in the city, but she takes the western street, because that low sun will make her invisible to anyone looking that way.
She’s just at the entrance to the street when she trips again.
A chunk of stone explodes just where her head was, half masking the unmistakable sound of the plasma rifle firing.
And up ahead of her, an equally unmistakable noise, a shattering roar. Once heard, never forgotten: the heart-crushing sound of an enraged Hartzak.
The gentle hush of air-conditioning seeps back into Hwa’s consciousness.
She feels as if she’s been dreaming—laws and customs, traditions and conventions, Zara and the Aguirre, the Hartzak and the Atsekabe, the piskatellers and … something, all blended together in a way she can’t fathom.
Best not to tell Alice Jalair.
Systems Administration Manager Alice Jalair, of the Xian Delegation, has an almost proprietary interest in Hwa. So much so she came in person to collect Hwa from her landing outside Iruña and spent the journey back questioning her.
Understandable, given that the initiation of actualization remains more an art than a science, and any manager whose systems self-actualize becomes a legend in the Xian community.
Alice she would want to talk about what the concept of dreams might mean for a Self-Actuated Entity. Alice would want to investigate how to make her systems dream too, and Hwa doesn’t have the time.
She’s on a futon in the main systems room. It makes an untidy rectangle in the middle of all the smooth symmetry. She rolls the futon and puts it out of the way.
The processors here are powerful, but they aren’t actuated, nor, unfortunately for Alice, do they appear to have the right basis for becoming aware. Still, it has been very restful for Hwa to expand her mental processing to encompass the extra capacity available in the delegation’s computer systems. She has also taken the opportunity to completely refresh and review the letter and the implementation of both Terran law and the Accords which will govern what happens on Newyan over the next weeks.
It confirms what she feared when she and Zara began plotting back on Kernow.
The Terran Commission of Enquiry has latitude in what they allow to be entered as evidence pertinent to their proceedings. It’s the slimmest of allowances and the commissioners have to be able to justify refusing evidence, but she and Zara cannot allow even the smallest of possibilities for the Hajnal to escape.
The rules make a distinction between evidence presented before and after the moment a Commission of Enquiry has been set up, and ‘existing pertinent lines of investigation’.
Hwa has to set up a Newyan court case on behalf of Xian to investigate the incident where where the customs cutter Duhalde fired on the Shohwa. Once the Commission has been started, she has to notify them that she will be presenting evidence relevant to the Enquiry. The key is that they cannot refuse evidence from her pre-existing case.
Then she has to delay the Commission until Zara gets here with her part of the puzzle and they can present their combined evidence as all part of a single ‘line of investigation’.
So she has to register her case before the Terran Commissioners get to Iruña. Once they’ve met the government and the Enquiry is formally set up, then all relevant judicial cases must go through the Commission and they decide on relevance and they can refuse to allow new cases.
They shouldn’t, but Hwa has suspicions—about Taha, about Ivakin, about the whole process of Commissions. There is something rotten in the Terran Council, but others must investigate that. Hwa can’t, not from here on Newyan. She has to do her task and trust others to do theirs. She must concentrate on her first step; to register a Newyan court proceeding in the High Court of Iruña, on behalf of Xian and the Fragrant Stars Trading Company.
She had hoped to hold the threat of withdrawal of Xian trading over the Newyan administration’s head to ensure they allowed the case, but Captain Besud has already carried out that threat, and she’s left with persuading the High Court that the only way to get Xian trading back is to comply.
The delegation here has arranged an appointment for her at the High Court tomorrow.
She’s eager to begin, but the Courts have been closed today, and her meeting with officials is the earliest it can be.
The door swishes open, and Alice’s right hand man, Danath, comes in and bows to her.
“Hello, Hwa. I trust you are refreshed?”
Hwa bows in return. “I am,” she says. “Thank you, Danath.”
“It’s early evening,” he says. “Alice asks if you would care to attend dinner with us in an hour, or would you prefer to eat alone?”
He’s eager, like all of the team here, to talk. She wonders if this is what it feels like to be a bug under the microscope.
But… there’s nothing else she can do at the moment.
“Dinner with the delegation will be my pleasure,” she says.
He beams. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”
She follows him out through the corridors. Like the corridors of all delegations on all the planets Xian does business with, they are decorated in Xian traditional style with hanging panels of gold and red.
Danath is handsome. The dark silk work clothes he wears show that he’s slim, and strong, and moves smoothly.
Perhaps there will be some entertainment for her at dinner, or afterwards.
She smiles at him, and it’s returned, then he touches his hand to his ear.
His smile falters a little.
“The TSS Annan has emerged from Chang space at the planar zenith,” he says.
Hwa nods, and makes her own connection to the delegation’s comms monitoring system.
The Annan has been in the Newyan system for the time it has taken for verification of the ship’s identity and radio transmissions to arrive on the planet. Ten minutes or so. It will take them a couple of days to reach orbit over the planet, and more days for the Terrans to come down to Iruña and meet with the government.
The Newyan destroyer Biháriz will be close to the planar zenith and will have communicated the reason that it’s retrieving its missiles from a shipping lane.
What will the Annan make of the attack on the Xing Gerchu?
Was it something they expected, after they sent a message warning about the courier’s arrival? Or something they planned? Or have they simply been mistaken so far and will they finally accept that there is something very wrong happening on Newyan?
Hwa is in her room fifteen minutes later, when there’s a broadcast picked up from the TSS Annan.
This is Captain Rahman Taha, commanding the TSS Annan. Allegations have been made in the strongest terms to the Terran Council regarding the orderly administration of a list of Margin systems, all of which are signatory to the Accords. The Terran Council takes such allegations with the utmost seriousness. It has, therefore, under the terms of those Accords, appointed Commissioners to visit all such systems and, where necessary, establish a Commission of Enquiry to discover the truth of the matters reported. Newyan is included in this list of systems and I have the privilege to lead the Commissioners appointed to the task here.
In light of the extraordinary events which have just occurred in this system, and the resultant unilateral cessation of trading announced by Xian, I have decided there is no need for any further preliminaries, assessments or communications with the authorities.
Under the rules of the Accords, to which Newyan is signatory, I hereby declare a Commission of Enquiry has been initiated in this system as a matter of emergency, and all powers invested in such Commissions are active from this point.
He’s declared the Enquiry before she’s opened her court case.
A flooded plain outside the city has pushed us further around until we’re coming into Berriaren from the west.
The sun is setting directly behind us, throwing our shadows fifty metres or more, down dusty streets and across open plazas. The west-facing walls of buildings glow with reflected light, but it just serves to make the empty windows and doorways look darker. The wind quests down the empty streets and it carries the eerie, mournful howls of the neo-monkeys who live here.
It truly feels like a city of ghosts.
It’s not the way I came in the last time, so I’m just heading in what I believe is approximately the right direction. It shouldn’t be difficult. At the center of the town, we’ll find the Plaza Nagusia and facing each other across it, the black stone of the Jauregia, the palace of the Aguirre, and the frowning, columned facade of the Auzitegi, the Court of Disputes. And at the heart of the Auzitegi, a courtyard with a deep, old well.
If Talan is unnerved by Berriaren, she doesn’t show it. The small plasma rifle she’s carrying has actually been in her hands or at her side since we entered the pine forests. It wasn’t ghosts she’s been worried about, it was Hartzak.
Or perhaps not.
“I don’t know,” she’s saying. “After walking for hours through that forest expecting at every step that a huge, angry bear was going to leap out, I’m starting to wonder if you’re not teasing me about Hartzak.”
“You mean like the mutant pigs someone told me lurk on the coast path back in Welarvor?”
She laughs. “There are mutant boar, and they do lurk there.”
“Yeah, and you hunt them from horses using those old lances.”
“You’ll be telling me there are intelligent aliens hiding in your ocean next.”
“Hmm. They’re not the aliens though. We are.”
“Tell me, how did Morgen become—”
“Down!” Talan hisses and grabs my arm to pull me to the ground.
I spit out a mouthful of dirt. “What?”
I can’t see anything threatening us.
I hadn’t heard the plasma rifle, but I certainly hear the next noise. You never forget it. It presses on your ears, it vibrates in your chest, it turns your stomach to water: the roar of a Hartzak, just up ahead of us.
Followed by a human scream.