A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 17

Zara has got into the city of Cabezon, only to have her ID taken by the guards. She has to communicate with Hwa and then find a way to get back out before the police find her again.

Link to last episode: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-16/

This episode is 2.6k. I’m still suffering with a pinched nerve in my back. Some of this has been written while under the influence of drugs!

I also need to keep the Hwa thread running, so we’ll probably have a chapter back in Iruna next week.

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:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/new-serial-begins-a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-1/

Thanks for the feedback, and all feedback welcome.

= – = – = – =

Chapter 37

Zara

 

One step at a time.

I’m in Cabezón, so I better do what I set out to do. I’ll think about getting back out later.

It’s not a huge city. It takes me only twenty-five minutes to walk across it to the station. I had intended to use the library for comms, but I’d need an ID to get in, as I would for any government building with comms access. The station is my best alternative. The Rangers had warned us that travel on the railway was restricted, but stations on Newyan always have free short-range connections to the travel section of the InfoHub. Not quite the faciities I need, but a good start.

The station is popular, but not because people are travelling. There are signs everywhere warning that all personal travel on the railways is halted during the emergency to allow for shipment of food. Some of the signs are defaced, because most of those shipments haven’t arrived.

No, the station is popular because it’s warm and people can get off the street where there are constant police patrols. And maybe a train carrying food supplies will pull in. Hope has not died.

The crowding helps by hiding me. I slink along until I find a spot behind some seats where I can crouch down and work with my pad. The crowd swirls aimlessly. There’s a hum of quiet conversation, which is better than the despairing silence outside the barriers.

The important thing is that no one is interested in me.

I log on to the InfoHub, to be immediately greeted by notices that I cannot book travel from Cabezón. There are some travel forums, but I notice that they’re all local, for travel within the city itself. The InfoHub is being chopped up, isolating each community.

No matter, I think, because I have tools installed on my pad by Hwa.

The barriers are better than I anticipated. It takes the tools about ten minutes to burrow through and even then, I get a warning that they cannot re-route via any intermediate servers. If my messages get through, and someone looks, my location will be revealed.

This isn’t ideal, but I need to find out what’s happening in Iruña and Hwa needs to know what’s happening to me.

I manage to log onto a bulletin board that I identified for Hwa for us to message each other. We’re lucky it’s still up. It’s one of the broking systems, where people and companies can bid for travel deals. The site is not busy and my message is going to stand out.

I submit it anyway, to the personal messages section, using the informal code Hwa and I agreed on.

 

Great journey! Got what we wanted!

Stuck here at the moment with a cousin.

What news?

 

Hwa will understand that my reference to a cousin will mean Kat, even though we had no idea we would meet. She’ll also be aware of the travel problems. I’m hoping, against hope, that she’ll say something like ‘we’ll come and fetch you’, but that’s not likely.

As I scan other messages to see if Hwa’s tried communicating with me, the random movement of the crowd in the station changes suddenly.

I switch the pad off and tuck it back down my pants as I get to my feet.

Police. In the station.

I don’t have my ID. I have to get out or they’ll arrest me.

Not everyone is running, but there’s enough who seem to be as eager to avoid the police as I am. The flow becomes a surge, and I go with it, keeping my head down. The station has emergency exits, we should be fine. They probably just want to clear the station for supplies to come in.

That turns out not to be the case.

The surge is stopped and turned back. There are police at all the exits. Through the bodies, I catch a glimpse of batons swinging, people cringing back. Everyone in the station is being forced into a single tight knot. I’m trapped in the middle, unable to move in any direction because of the crush of people.

Just my bad luck. I’ve picked the wrong day to visit the station.

Shit.

 

After an hour, it becomes clear that this is a deliberate, well thought-out plan. There are trucks pulling up outside the station. Small groups of people are taken out of the crowd. Their papers are inspected. Some of them are allowed to go. Others are taken to the trucks.

I don’t know where the trucks are heading. No one around me does, but the fear is like a smoke steaming off bodies in the crowd. It forms a choking smog around us. People are crying. Others are fainting.

I reckon I have one chance.

When they finally reach me, I don’t wait to be dragged forward; I walk confidently, my head up.

My bulky clothes hide the shivering. I don’t lick my dry lips—that would communicate nervousness. I am not nervous. I am not. I am not.

Heads come up. They look closely at me, because I’m acting differently. They’re expecting people to be scared of them.

One of them pulls the bag from my hand and holds up the fruit I had in there as if it’s proof of something.

I ignore him. My eyes are focused on the officer. I hold his eyes, don’t look down, which unsettles him. I pull the flask of alcohol out of my pocket, take a sip. It’s vile.

One of them reaches for it, and I move it away. His face is a picture of blank incomprehension. I’m not doing what they expect.

“So, you guys are ready to make a move on the Nightwatch?” I look them over, contempt on my face.

The guy holding my bag drops it and raises a fist as if he’s going to punch me.

The officer stops him.

“What do you mean?”

The man’s voice is raw and his eyes are mean, but there’s cunning in them. I think I’ve guessed correctly. This police gang don’t want trouble with the Nightwatch.

“Touch me and find yourself talking about it to the Nightwatch.”

The officer glares at me, but his glare is uncertain.

“ID.” He hold out a hand.

“Go ask for the guy they call Sarge in the Nightwatch,” I say, shrugging. “He’s got it.”

“Why would he have it?”

I take time replacing the flask in my pocket before replying, careful to keep my movements slow and unconcerned. “So he knows I’m coming back.”

They know what it means, and they know it’s something the Nightwatch does.

“If you’re his new whore, what’re you doing here?”

“Searching for my sister. Look, why don’t you guys call him?” I challenge them. “Ask him what you should do about Maria. Maria Oria.”

The officer nods to one of them who gets out his pad.

“Stand over there,” he says.

The others continue checking IDs and they’re thorough about it. The officer has a scanner attached to his pad. If I had been caught with my fake ID, I’d probably be in one of those trucks outside.

Luckily, whatever comes back from the call to the Nightwatch convinces them.

“You got a couple of hours to find your sister,” the officer says. “Then he says you better be at the barracks.”

He smirks.

My heart still racing, I sneer at him and walk out, shouldering my way through their ranks.

My stomach aches with fear.

I have to check whether Hwa has responded and find a way to get out of the city.

All in a couple of hours.

 

 

Chapter 38

Zara

 

The library will have the InfoHub connection I need. Maybe even a clue as to how to get out of Cabezón. I should need ID to get into the library.

Either I’m starting to feel lucky, which is usually when things goes wrong, or I’m desperate. I’m not entirely sure which it is.

The Serena Library is situated overlooking the Plaza Mayor. Another time, the row of tall, pale columns which flank the entrance would have me taking a picture or sketching. It’s a beautiful building.

No time.

I rush in, through the glass doors and come to a sudden halt in front of a security guard.

He’s an older man, with a serious face. He looks as if he’s a retired policeman. The real police, not the gangs of animals outside.

All my ideas of lying about searching for my non-existent sister evaporate.

“My ID was taken this morning,” I say, when he holds his hand out for it.

“Who by?” His tone is quiet, reserved. There’s a hint of anger in his eyes.

“The Nightwatch.”

If it wasn’t anger before, it certainly is now. He’s no fool. He knows the purpose of taking my ID; what it means.

“Please,” I say, when it looks as if he’s thinking of getting involved. “There’s nothing you can do. But if you let me in, there may be something I can do.”

All expressions vanish from his face, as if they’d never been there.

Have I made a mistake? Did I misread him?

No. Moving stiffly, he gets up from behind his desk and opens the barrier to walk through, then stands at the glass doors, looking out onto the plaza, rocking to and fro on his feet, with his hands clasped behind him.

I scuttle in, breathing a word of thanks.

The library is nearly full, but hushed.

People avoid eye contact. They keep their heads down. It’s as if they’re all ashamed that they’re not doing something about what’s going on in their city. And yet, what could they do? The ‘police’ are armed.

I find an empty table, almost hidden in the middle, surrounded by tall bookcases of Terran history, and take my pad out of its hiding place.

Hwa first.

The library comms has been isolated in the same way the station was, but this time, Hwa’s tools burrow through without any trouble.

I frown.

Too easy?

I imagine the trap: some InfoHub spider just waiting somewhere for people to make an attempt to break through the communications barriers.

No. That’s crazy. What’s happening here is evidence that they’re barely keeping control as it is. They probably don’t have the resources to monitor every library comms interface on Newyan, and certainly don’t have enough to send agents out here to arrest me.

Communications options from libraries are wider than from the station, so Hwa’s tools have more selection of routes to open.

It’ll all be different when we get to Iruña. Security there will be very tight.

If we get there.

One step at a time.

I glance around; no one is watching me.

My comms app bounces through half a dozen servers, obscuring its trail and then sets up a connection to the bulletin board where I posted.

There’s a response.

 

So good to hear from you at last.

Need you here, back at work. Having difficulties.

One week, absolute max.

 

I blink.

One week to get to Iruña without giving my location away to the Hajnal.

Stealing an aircraft seems the only option with any chance of success. The host of problems involved boils up in my mind. How do we re-fuel it? How low do I have to fly to evade land-based radar detection? How dangerous is that, especially here in the hills? Could they track me on space based surveillance? What about the weather? What if it closes in, and I have to land somewhere else? How close can I land to Iruña without the Hajnal knowing about it?

It seems impossible.

While I’m thinking, Hwa’s spooky apps find some hidden link in the bulletin board, and I see an encrypted file from Hwa downloaded. Probably a full update. I can’t look at it now. I post a response to Hwa.

 

Understood

 

I close down the pad and check how long I’ve taken. The less time I’m on the InfoHub, the safer I will be.

Something makes me look around again to make sure no one’s paying me any attention and I’m just quick enough to catch the face of a man walking out of the library. The bookshelves in the way give me no more than a glimpse. A man of medium height with dark hair and eyes. Well dressed. A second later, all I can see is his back as he walks toward the front of the building and the security desk.

A surge of adrenaline makes my hands clammy.

It almost seems as if he was looking at me, waiting, and then started moving when I looked up. As if he wanted to be seen.

Why?

Why does his face seem familiar?

Calm down.

I’ve visited Cabezón before. The last time was… five? Six years ago? What was I doing here? Whom did I meet?

I feel a sudden panic and my memory blanks.

Think!

It was a study trip. I must have met hundreds of students and teachers. He could be any one of them. My looks have changed a lot—theirs would too.

And even if he was one of them, and he recognized me, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s going to the police.

If he did recognize me, why walk away without a word?

There is of course, the small matter that there’s been an enormous reward for ‘information or assistance leading to my capture’ since I escaped.

I mustn’t panic.

A woman is approaching from the other side, edging her way between the shelves nervously. Head down, blonde hair visible despite the hood pulled over her head. She’s dressed almost as scruffily as the people outside the gates. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t say anything. A tiny slip of paper falls from her hand onto the table and then she’s past, walking steadily away.

With trembling fingers, I pick up the paper scrap, smooth it out.

 

Zarate,

Upstairs please. It’s important.

Yon Bey.

 

The shock of the name jars my memory.

It’s a different context. Not Cabezón at all. Later. Iruña itself. The ridiculous debutante balls that my grandfather made me attend.

Yon Bey, heir of the Founding Family Bey. Former owners of the estates which produced my favorite tea – Harantza.

Don’t waste your time with Bey, grandfather had said. Too unengaged. Too distant. No political weight.

Which meant I danced with him, rather than the chinless wonders my grandfather proposed. Yon wasn’t a jerk about it, but I could feel he didn’t want to dance with me. I suspected he was in the same position I was, being urged to look for a partner for political reasons.

It wouldn’t have helped either of our families.

Now what?

He’s recognized me.

Not only that, he and others here, the woman for one, are acting as if they have something to hide.

There’s no alternative really. I have to find out what’s going on behind the smooth silence of the library.

The guard doesn’t look around while I pass behind the security desk and take the polished stone stairs to the upper floors.

There are long corridors to either side. Lots of closed doors, except one at the end on the right hand side.

I walk quietly and look through the open doorway. There’s a glossy meeting table in the middle of the room, with chairs around it. Yon is standing at the other end, looking out of the window.

Five paces into the room and I hear the door being closed quickly behind me.

I spin around.

It’s the woman who lured me upstairs with the message, and she’s holding a pistol pointed at me.

 

 

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/Sa0D3n

5 responses to “A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 17”

  1. Justin says :

    good harvest this week i see. hope your back is better.

  2. amper5andrew says :

    I’ve been insanely busy and have just read this. I really enjoyed it. I hope your trapped nerve recovers quickly.

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