A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 15
Back after a break of a week. The last episode left Zara and Talan with the doctor in the clinic, hearing the sound of a vehicle approaching outside.
Link to last episode: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-14/
This episode is medium length – 3k words.
For those who are 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 of weekly episodes is the sequel and starts at:
Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.
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The Rangers are very nice, once we all put down our weapons and introduce ourselves politely.
The introductions are, of course, a little stilted.
They call themselves Fox and Ox. The doctor remains Doctor. We are Z, T and K. Just in case things go wrong.
Fox looks like a fox. He’s small, with bushy, red hair, sharp blue eyes, and he moves quickly. Ox doesn’t in the slightest resemble an ox, but he’s about as big as he can be and still fit in their Rover.
The Doctor has persuaded these two Rangers to take a couple of days off for a ‘hunting trip’, down in the lower sierras. Even though they’re on holiday, they retain the right to use their Rover, a hulking all-terrain vehicle with an electric motor for each independently-articulated wheel.
It takes a bit of getting used to, the Rover does; it’s quiet and the cabin only sways gently while the wheels bobble over the unmade tracks. Still, it’s ideal for Kat, who sleeps soundly.
About half-way through the night, we stop and Fox takes Talan for a short walk with a pair of night-vision binoculars. She comes back and describes what she’s seen in the valley, on the main road down to Cabezón: a Syndacian road block. Apparently, there are patrols along every paved road in the region. It’s not that we couldn’t get around them, but using the Rover on the dirt tracks avoids the risk of blundering into a road block, and besides, it’s letting us recuperate.
My back, feet and shoulders are very thankful.
It gets better. The back of the cabin is warm, flat and it has foam rolls. After our last week in the pine forests this is unimaginable luxury.
Without us exchanging any words, I can tell Talan is still wary.
“Wake me when you need to sleep,” I whisper, and then drift away to the gentle murmur of Fox flirting with Talan. It puts a smile on my face. He just about reaches her collarbone. You have to admire the ambition.
I’m woken by the dawn. Fox is driving now and Ox is alseep, with his seat flat back.
Talan nods at me, lies down and is gone in seconds.
Kat is half-awake but groggy. Talan has already updated her on what’s happened, though I’m not sure it’s all sunk in.
Fox leans back and hands us some nutrient bars. “Breakfast,” he mouths, and then grins.
They’re okay, these Rangers.
We pull off the track a couple of hours later and, hidden away under the pines, there’s a Ranger out-station with recharging capability and better food than the nutrient bars. I mentally add some costs to the IOU I left with the doctor.
Cabezón is only forty or fifty kilometers away, but the forest tracks wander all over. Fox tells us the plan is to circle the city and approach from the other side, closer to the main station which is where I’ve said we need to go.
When we resume the journey after lunch, Talan and I are making unnecessary repairs to our clothing with odd colored patches of old cloth. The Rangers say we’ll stand out if our clothes look too new. We’ve stained our backpacks to look older. We’re also doing what we can to salvage Kat’s clothes. She spent much longer up on the high sierras than we did, and that was hard on her clothing. My first sight of her emerging from the building remains vivid in my mind: that wide-eyed apparition with a rag tied around her head like a pre-space flight sea pirate.
Even with the best intentions, there’s a limit to what we can achieve for her.
“You’re still going to look like a vagrant,” I say, smiling at Kat.
“She’ll fit right in,” Ox says bleakly.
“That Hartzak came close to getting a bigger piece of you,” Talan says to Kat, wiggling her fingers through the gap in one leg of her pants. The claws caught in the fabric, ripping it, just as Kat dived through the gap into the building.
It’s not that the Rangers have been especially chatty or involved, but there’s a sudden quiet from them.
“You Rangers get much trouble from Hartzak?” I ask, conversationally. It was something I’d been thinking about a lot as we came down from the high sierras.
There’s an exchange of glances between them.
“No,” Fox says.
“Guess they don’t come down off the Sierra Arija, or they’d be tearing whole villages to pieces, and I’d have heard about that.”
“So, no one goes hunting up there?”
Ox shakes his head.
There’s something very different between what I thought I knew of the Hartzak, and what happened to us, up on the Sierra Arija.
When I flew up there in the hedge-hopper, I’d chosen to use Berriaren as a hiding place for the data modules, because I ‘knew’, like everyone on Newyan ‘knew’, that the Hartzak were insanely territorial. That they need only to sense humans in the area and they would always attack. People on Newyan avoid the whole Sierra Arija, so I’d gambled that no one would accidentally find the data modules in Berriaren. Good plan.
That day, I landed the hedge-hopper beside the lake. The short journey from there, into the city and back, counts among the most terrifying moments of my life. Even while I was in Berriaren, in the Auzitegi, I was sure that a Hartzak would scent me and call others. I half expected to die down that well.
But having got away with it, I’d dismissed it as good luck and went back to congratulating myself on the plan.
And yet, Kat, Talan and I had just walked much of the length of the Sierra Arija. Kat twice. We’d seen one Hartzak, in Berriaren. It had certainly gone berserk, but having a plasma rifle fired at you can do that.
There had been signs of others, and it was beyond belief that they hadn’t known we were there in the pine forests.
What am I missing? Ox and Fox know something, but they’re not talking.
It’s Kat who speaks: “I have an idea about that,” she says.
She puts down her jacket that she’s been re-stitching.
“The Hartzak were aggressive,” she starts slowly. “We have lots of reports, and even video from the early days to prove that.”
“Hmm,” I say. I’ve seen those videos. Truly terrifying.
“But not when they first landed. Not while the Founders built the center of Berriaren. Only later.” She clears her throat, suddenly aware we’re all paying close attention, Rangers included.
“What if…” she pauses and looks less confident. “Look, what I’m saying is, what if the Hartzak were domesticated by the Atsekabe. What if the Atsekabe deliberately trained the Hartzak to defend them.” She rushes on. “If they were smart enough to make paintings and use tools and domesticate the Hartzak, the Atsekabe could have seen humans as a threat.”
“You’re saying the Hartzak were trained by the Atsekabe to attack humans?” Talan looks sceptical.
“Yes,” Kat says. “Then when the Atsekabe were gone, after a generation of two, the Hartzak just went back to being Hartzak. By that time we’d left Barriaren. Now?” she shrugs. “Humans aren’t really on their list of things to eat.”
It matches our experience, but I don’t know. I suspect the Rangers do, but they aren’t talking about it. In any event, my estimation of Kat goes up a notch or two. To be thinking about things like that while being hunted through the high sierras by Syndacians is … very Aguirre.
“Change of plan,” Fox says, avoiding the subject. He’s looking at something that’s appeared on his pad. “We’ll need to fill you in on some background of Cabezón now. We’ll take a break at another Ranger station this evening and then walk you to the city before dawn.”
“You can’t take us nearer to the station?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Just got a message. Been ordered back. Something’s stirred up the Syndacians.”
Talan and I look at each other. My gut says they’ve found our abandoned escape pod and someone’s started to join the dots.
They’ll be hunting us all now, and they’ll know exactly where we have to be heading. It’s going to get more difficult every day, every step closer to Iruña.
It’s Fox who gives the briefing.
“We don’t know who you are and probably don’t want to know. But at least one of you isn’t from Newyan, and we’re thinking you may have been … out of touch. So, we’re going to give you the full package, as if you didn’t know anything recent,” he says, his eyes carefully not looking at any of us. “That suit you?”
“It does,” Talan says.
“Okay. Here goes. Bit of background.” Fox settles himself down self-consciously. “Newyan’s always been a good planet. Meant we used to attract people from other worlds, and the population grew, till, oh, ’bout three or four years ago. Now, I’m no economist, but it’s always been clear as summer sky to us, living up in the sierras, that the necessities to support that lowland population were always just a step ahead of the numbers. One good reason we like it up here.”
He pauses, takes a sip from a canteen.
“Don’t know the truth about all the corruption scandals and the government confiscating estates, but sure as shi… sure as hell, the people who got hold of the estates don’t know squat about running them. Not for producing food, anyway. Disaster just waiting to happen, all that.”
His eyes flick across to me and Kat. I gave the doctor my name. I don’t believe he told the Rangers, yet I’m sure Fox suspects that Kat and I grew up on estates. The little things that are so hard to disguise give you away: accent, turn of phrase and so on.
“A couple of months ago,” he continues, “right in the middle of winter, there were some incidents: a bad fire at the food warehouses down in Sainte Engrâce, a goods train came off the rails on the Lourdios line, severe winter snow storms.” He waves a hand. “Some other minor things went wrong. Just things that happen sometimes. But the effect was like someone had set off a bomb. Sainte Engrâce had no food. The neighboring estates that used to feed it were producing nothing. All the people who used to work on those estates and been turned out, had to come down to the city. Some were managing to live hand to mouth with odd jobs, but most of the old estate workers were living rough. With the accident, there was no way to supply the city by rail. The place is out on a limb with one major road and one railway, which was blocked.”
Kat nods, her face grim. She’ll know all this. She’d told us that Commander Benat had made sure the whole of Training Company Bravo heard news from outside, unfiltered through the usual media channels.
“It rippled out from that,” Fox says. “A relief convoy of trucks turned up in Lourdios and people stopped food being loaded, because there wasn’t enough for both cities. Suddenly everyone was looking around at the food stocks, at the number of people in each city, at the numbers living rough. Everyone was doing the sums and working out that there wasn’t enough food to go around, certainly down here in the southern hemisphere. And the northern hemisphere has never produced enough food.”
“Everywhere, everyone, short of food, except in Iruña.” Kat interrupts, her voice bitter.
Fox nods. “The government started seizing food and stockpiling in Iruña. The Bureau of Food and Agriculture was put in charge of distribution. Of course, people started hoarding, straight away. New laws were passed against that. You can’t store a week of food in your own home! Can you believe that?”
Ox speaks from the driving seat. “The media keeps saying everything’s under control, there are just minor problems and it’s temporary emergency laws.” He snorts. “That Ministro for Food was on last month. Idiot.”
He shakes his head and falls silent.
Fox takes it up again: “The Ministro explained early on that the ‘acquisition’ of food was all part of a wide reaching program to ensure the basic necessities for everyone. What was it he said? To everyone according to his need, without favor. A way to stop people making unreasonable profit from necessities. Fair for everyone. And that this was all just teething problems and minor local issues.”
“That’s a short time to go to hell,” Talan says. “This all happened in two months?”
Fox nods. “About that. It was the way it was set up. Like I said, a balance—”
“The system used to have resilience,” I interrupted. “The estates used to store surplus, especially in winter, specifically for these types of local problems.”
Fox is watching me like his namesake, but I’m not revealing any more than he already suspects.
“When you take the estates out of it,” I say, “you create perfect conditions for a major disaster. The estates aren’t producing food, which means centralized purchase and storage, and a road and rail network overloaded with levels of traffic it wasn’t designed for. Then when there’s a problem at any point in the network, and no local safety net, that problem propagates back through the system.”
“You’re saying every city in Newyan is on the brink?” Talan asks.
Fox nods. “The media don’t say that, but they can’t keep a lid on it now. First the news said there was just uninformed panic, then the Bureau of Food and Agriculture said it was teething problems with a new system, then the Bureau of Defense blamed some ‘rebel sabotage’.”
He leaves that hanging. Kat is pale, but quiet. From what she said to us, Commander Benat’s operations were entirely against the Syndacian mercenaries. I’m certain she wouldn’t have been party to any attacks that would have harmed people from Newyan.
“Got Rangers out near Sainte Engrâce, and they say no rebels there,” Fox says. “But here’s a strange thing up here in the high sierras. Someone posted a bulletin a couple of weeks back on the InfoHub. Said there was a battle in the hills above Cabezón. Got taken down quickly, but not before people saw it and copied it.”
Kat’s barely breathing, looking down at the floor of the cabin.
“Now, the Syndacians are all over those hills. We can’t get near to see what went on, if anything did.”
He stops to reach for a snack of air-dried meat to chew on.
“Lot of carrion scavengers in those hills,” he says thoughtfully. “You can see ’em from miles away. Normally, they’d strip a carcass in a day. Still around now means there’s too much for them. Never seen that before.”
No one says anything. There’s the quiet whine of the engines, the crunch of the tires over the ground, the gentle sway of the cabin as the servos compensate for the rough ground.
“So, anyway, however bad it is in other cities, it’s worse in Cabezón. Mercenaries in the hills. Police on every street corner checking papers. More checks on anyone coming in or going out. Everyone hungry, and lots of desperate people.” He looks out through the windows at the forest. “Now that spring is here, we’re expecting people to start coming up into the hills to look for food. The old comfort that we’re well out of it up in the sierras, that won’t last much longer.”
The vision created by the piskatellers looms in my mind. Shooting hungry people because we don’t have enough to share with them.
“Goddess of Mercy, guide our steps and hold us in your hands,” Kat whispers.
Fox goes on. “Anyway. If you need to go there, you need to go. But if you know Cabezón from before, you won’t recognize it now. People get desperate enough, they’ll steal anything, do anything. Expect everyone to be a thief or worse. Trust no one. Avoid the police. Keep out of public buildings.”
He looks directly at Talan. “Don’t talk,” he says.
Ox reaches back from the driving seat and hands Fox a pair of scissors with a grunt.
Fox holds them up for Talan. “We’d advise… I mean your hair’s beautiful, but…”
Talan’s lips twist in what might be called a smile. “What you’re trying to say is it might help if I looked and acted like a guy.”
Fox nods, looks down at the floor. “You two both. Might make you a little safer.”
My hair is already cut short. I take the scissors and raise a brow at Talan.
She nods and shifts across to sit in front of me. Hair will grow back, if we’re still alive.
I unbraid her hair, let it fall like a river of autumn down her back. Fox steals a look. It is magnificent.
With a sigh, I gather it in my fingers and start cutting. The only problem with this is that her hairstyle won’t match the fake documentation that Xing made for us on the courier ship, and we’ve no way of changing that. And we don’t have any documentation for Kat.
Fox pulls a couple of odd garments from a box. They’re outer vests with many pockets.
“Wear these under your shirts and jackets, out of sight,” he says. “We’ll stock up the pockets with dried meat and fruit, enough for a couple of days. We’ll put more in your backpacks, but you may lose that if the police stop you. They’ll call it hoarding. You’ll get your canteens filled with water tonight, and public pumps are still working.
“Leave the plasma rifle. Take pistols and keep them hidden.
“Last thing. We’ll give you some alcohol and drugs. They have better purchasing power than money at the moment.”
This looks worse all the time, but I have to get a message to Hwa as soon as possible, and using the sort of redirection and disguise that’s only available on communication servers in cities. The reason the Syndacians followed Kat with such so determination may very well be because she posted about the battle from an insecure point, probably some village’s InfoHub router she could connect to wirelessly. As soon as they traced it back, they’d have known where she was to within a few kilometers.
We can’t afford that now.