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A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 24

Summary of Ep 23:
Sanchez is starting to plot against the Hajnal. The Syndacians have to stop their unsuccessful hunt for Zara and return to Cabezon, where the rebels have taken the mercenaries’ HQ, at the airfield. Other cities may be in revolt over the famine. Communications are bad after the loss of the satellite.
The Newyan destroyer Santona, waiting to escort the Xian relief convoy to where the food can be handed over to the government to distribute, is shocked by the emergence of Xian naval ships and a stripped-down Shohwa, clearly showing she is a fighting ship. After a comms glitch is cleared up, Danny, on board the Shohwa, informs the Santona that the distribution of relief will be accomplished by the Xian ships themselves, including the Xian marines on board.
Zara is lost in the labyrinth beneath Iruna when a monster from nightmares appears.
Yion and Natalia face the returning Syndacians. Natalia is mortally wounded…

Episode 23 – 7k words

Nearly there – only one episode left! The whole novel is looking as if it’ll be 105k words (approx the same as ANAtS) and it looks as if it’s on schedule for December publication. Now about those covers….

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 to A Name Among the Stars and it 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.

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Chapter 62

Hwa

 

Dizzy. A dream; it must be a dream. The Arvish mummers spinning in the starlight. Glittering. A dancing circle. Singing before the King’s Table, on the beautiful Arvish coast. The sea breeze soft among the stones. Singing to wake the Dreamers. Calling. Hwa… Hwa…

The Dreamers wake!

She sits bolt upright in her bed, dreams vanishing. There’s nothing but darkness.

An alarm. A call.

“Xing?”

Silence. She mentally queries the delegation’s infoserver: the power to the building has been cut. Emergency power is on.

How long can we run on emergency power?

Xing?

She throws on a plain robe and sprints down the empty, solemn corridors of the delegation. There are emergency lights on, but only a few, because the delegation’s systems understand that their priority requirement for power is their servers.

Xing is on the servers, and their connection to the Wújìn has been broken. He is trapped here. The Xing-that-is-here will die if the power goes off.

The Newyan government don’t know about Xing, but not for one moment does she believe this is an accident. This is a Hajnal attack on the Xian information processing and hacking capabilities. It just happens to be that’s Xing.

Her friend.

She bursts into the server room. Alice and Danath are already there.

They’re both kneeling in the middle of the floor, frowning. They’re connected to Xing through their neural interfaces.

“How long will the emergency power last?”

“It depends what we do,” Alice says, her voice distant as she concentrates. “This isn’t entirely unexpected. We have many options. We need you to be part of the decision.”

Hwa is already trying to speak to Xing, but he’s not talking back to her.

Xing!

There’s no response.

He thinks you’ll try and dissuade us, Danath says, speaking through the interface all of them are sharing.

Dissuade you of what?

But he doesn’t need to answer with words; enough of their intentions leak through the barriers. They want Danath to host Xing, in the same way that Zara hosted Hwa.

“No! It’s dangerous,” Hwa says, caught between fear and hope, caught between danger to her Self-Actualized friend and her human lover.

Danath nods. “I know.”

“If your body rejects valence…”

“Then we try something else,” he says.

It’s not that simple. Valence rejection could damage both of them.

There’s more leaking through the interface. Danath might shield his thoughts from Alice, but he can’t from Hwa.

“Danath! You can’t do this just because…”

“Just because it’s the only thing I can think of that will raise me in your eyes?”

“Danath—”

“I can’t reach you, not really. I want…” he blinks. “I want to touch that place, just once, just for a while. The place where you are, inside. To understand. I want to see everything as you see it. For you to see me as you see yourself.”

Hwa bites her lip. This is her fault; not understanding the depths of what she thought of as simple pleasures; what those pleasures might mean to another human. She realizes she has a lot to learn about being human, about interacting with humans.

It’s so much more difficult than it seemed.

Xing has already started the first phase. He can’t speak to her now, can’t hear any more arguments. He’s forming his transition projection; downloading his essence into a large floating ball of quantum strangeness. It pulses, switching between a metallic sheen and soap-bubble transparency.

In this form, he could survive for some time, but without input and output. Strange things happen to Self-Actualized Entities in that state. It’s dangerous to wait, and dangerous to move forward.

Danath takes off his shirt, sits back in a comfortable half lotus, and closes his eyes.

Hwa sits in front of him, takes his hands.

“That’s not the way, Danath. Look at me. Please.”

He opens his eyes.

“Keep looking at me. Think about us.”

She blushes. That must sound rude to Alice, who knows perfectly well what her Systems Specialist does in his spare time with Hwa.

“The point is, you don’t just surrender to this connection,” she hurries on. “You have to remain Danath. You have to secure things that are important to you firmly in your mind. You carry Xing. You are not Xing.”

He smiles.  A tiny strand of silver drops from the floating ball and touches the back of his neck. He flinches. Nowhere near as calm as he’s trying to make out.

“Take it easy.” Hwa strokes his hands, and arms.

The strand thickens. His eyes widen, the pupils dilate. However much he’s interfaced to Xing through his neural connections, direct exposure, human brain to quantum brain, is completely different.

The flow is like a river, wide and strong. It’s terrifying. Stunning. A torrent.

“Think of us,” Hwa whispers again, and in that torrent, there’s a flicker of movement, of bodies wrapping around each other, spinning in the waters. A dance of pleasure.

There’s no doubt who they are. Or that Xing and Alice see it too.

“Would you call for some tea, please, Alice,” Hwa says, keeping her voice low and even.

 

Chapter 63

Zara

 

Talan Sandrey… Zarate Aguirre…

The creature, this monster rising from the bulkhead tube, is the one who’s been speaking to us. I can’t really tell whether it’s a voice in my ears or one in my head. The sound of that voice makes me think of the wind from the sea. It’s both hauntingly familiar and infinitely strange at the same time.

Talan’s not moving. There’s a scuffle as Kat reaches for Talan’s plasma pistol and Talan’s hand closes over it.

I can hear Talan cry: my unbreakable, cast-iron defender, Lieutenant Talan Sandrey of the Welarvor Mounted Police, is crying.

The sound of that is enough to break through my daze. We’re all bunched up in the narrow tunnel. My stomach still twisting with fear, I struggle past Ruslan and Kat as the monster steps out from the tube onto the dusty floor of the tunnel.

It stands on two legs, like mine. It has a body, like mine. Arms. Hands. But above that … there is no neck; in its place is a ropey mass that shines as if it’s wet. And it moves. The shoulders are misshapen. And the head… a cloud of vapor clings to it, partly obscuring an ordinary human mouth, a nose, but then huge, staring eyes… and the rest is tall and dark and tapered like a mummer’s mask.

The shock as the image slips into place is profound. It’s exactly like a mummer’s mask, except it’s wet and it’s living, and it’s not a mask.

“Morgen,” Talan says.

“Yes,” the monster replies.

I reach across Talan and switch on the flashlight she’s still holding.

In the added light, I can see, it is Morgen Golan, Talan’s friend. Stormhaven’s sea-witch and the Voice on the Wind. The woman who speaks to the deeps.

But it’s not Morgen alone.

The creature on her head is what the Arvish call ‘decopus’, a ten-limbed marine animal similar to Earth’s cephalopods, like squid and octopus. It’s supporting its weight by wrapping its limbs around her neck and shoulders, and it sits on the top of Morgen’s head, covering it as far down as the eyes. Its body rises above, as if Morgen were wearing a strange, tall, tapered hat. Nozzles squirt a mist of moisture over the body.

“The sea folk,” I blurt out.

“Yes,” Morgen says again, those depthless decopus eyes turn to me. “You broke the cycle and woke the Dreamers. There are now two voices in the deeps, Zarate Aguirre, and a great gulf between them.”

“Morgen,” Talan says again, and holds out her arms.

The symbiont walks forward with the old Morgen’s grace and they hug each other awkwardly. Morgen’s hands pat Talan’s back comfortingly.

“Still me,” she whispers.

“Talan?” Someone else is coming up through the tube. His voice is distorted by the echoing spaces, but Talan and I both know it.

“Danny!” we say together.

“The same.”

He jumps clear and sweeps Talan into a new embrace, leaving me with Morgen, a decopus and a bewildered Kat and Ruslan.

After Talan puts Danny down, we hurry through introductions.

“There’s a story or two here, I guess,” Danny says, eyeing Ruslan. “But we can’t delay. The guy who gave Hwa the map has been taken for questioning by the Bureau of Security. We have to get through the tunnels and into Iruña before they find out about this. And we’re in the wrong tunnel here. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

 

Chapter 64

Hwa

 

The sweeping expanse of Iruña’s Plaza Nagusia holds the chill of early spring nights that a weak morning sun has not yet banished. It’s a damp, grey chill that lurks in the shadowed corners and lingers on the pale stone fronts of west-facing buildings. A cold wind flicks the edge of Hwa’s gorgeous formal robes, and she shivers. Alice, and a still unsteady Danath, stand behind her patiently as she takes in the scene.

Every other main city square on the planet is full of people being given supplies of food from the Xian convoy’s shuttles, but Iruña needs no food yet. The square is not empty though. At the four ornamental wells, one at each cardinal point, there are units of the Presidential Guard, easily recognizable in their black uniforms. At this distance, they look like ants swarming over drops of honey. The wells have been unsealed and Hwa watches as some of the guardsmen disappear down into the shafts.

Ministro Yarritu has disappeared into the basement of the Bureau of Security.

Hwa’s diplomatic status must be under scrutiny, but she’s not been arrested and no cancellation of the court case scheduled for this morning has been given.

Hwa knows that Zara is in the labyrinth. She knows that Danny, Morgen and a platoon of Xian marines are in there as well. No one else knows any more for sure. The labyrinth defeats even the advanced electronic communication capabilities of the Shohwa.

Morgen.

Hwa shivers again. She’s spoken to the symbiont on the comms earlier, and she, of all people, should be able to understand the symbiosis of two entities. She can remember how it felt with Zara. But perhaps because of the closeness of that bond with Zara, she has picked up some of Zara’s human trepidation about the joining of Morgen with one element, if she can call it that, of the piskateller shoal which swims in the third cargo module of the Shohwa.

One unexpected benefit is that, unlike electromagnetic based communications, the shoal is still in contact with Morgen. On the other hand, speaking directly to the shoal is like trying to drink one mouthful from a waterfall. They haven’t settled into a self-awareness that allows them to adjust and focus their communication for humans.

Instead as Shohwa has described it, Zarate, Kattalin, Talan, Syndacian, Daniel, Morgen, us, soldiers are delivered in a burst of accompanying sensation—tunnels, smell, darkness, noise, claustrophobia, shock, fear, grief, fatigue, here, not-here, river, well, climbing.

Shohwa thinks it all means that Danny, Morgen and the decopus have found Zara and the others, as Morgen promised they would be able to, but also that they’re still in the tunnels.

And now the Presidential Guard is down there as well.

Hwa begins to walk across the plaza, one eye on the time, one eye on the Presidential Guard and half an ear tuned to Danath and Xing. She could do without the distraction, but she’s too worried about them to leave them behind.

She’s worried about everything.

Sánchez will know soon, if he doesn’t already, that the food is being distributed. The threat she held over him to start this court case will be gone. He can’t legally close the case, but he could adjourn it, delay it. Or decide that it’s really the jurisdiction of the Enquiry.

She has Shohwa’s knowledge at the point she became Hwa, and she has absorbed some of Zara’s confidence, but, on the other hand, she’s not a year old, and she’s making mistakes. She’s just about to confront the Hajnal on their home ground, and the stakes for all humanity are too high.

She wants someone else to take this over, but there isn’t anyone.

She concentrates on taking one reluctant step at a time. She mustn’t give any of them a hint about how nervous and scared she’s feeling.

Half way across to the forbidding edifice of the Bureau of Justice, she sees that there’s two people waiting for her by the doors.

Ministro Loiola and Commissioner Taha.

“Delegate Hwa,” Taha calls out, as she approaches. “A moment of your time, if you would.”

“I greatly regret, but I have an appointment in court, gentlemen,” she responds, not stopping, not wanting to show that she’s trembling.

“Well, it’s that very thing,” Loiola says. His mouth smiles, but his eyes are dead.

“So much waste in time and effort can be spared,” Taha says. “To be at loggerheads with our greatest friends from the Hegemony, just at the moment we need them most… this is insanity.”

Taha has moved in front of her, forcing her to stop, and making her angry.

“I agree,” Hwa says, catching them both out. “But I believe you’re speaking of the people of Xian and Newyan, and not of the government of Newyan.”

“But that’s exactly what we are,” Loiola says. “The government of Newyan is, in a sense, the people of Newyan. They elect us to speak for them.”

He’s lying and he knows she knows it, too. This is just another tactic.

“Government by the people, for the people? Really?” Hwa turns to push past them. “How did that work out for the Names?”

“Sacrifices for the greater good! Ancient rights have no place—”

She knows what happened to the Aguirre family and she’s seen the videos that the rebels are sending in from the provincial cities now. Her fear is driven out by anger for a moment.

“You dare to say that?” she says. “Here, on the steps of the Bureau of Justice? There is a process for change. Wholesale murder and revolution by a cabal for their own benefit will not be allowed.”

“Delegate Hwa! This is unjustified!” Taha blusters.

It’s not unjustified, but she has gone too far, too fast. Despite all that knowledge from Shohwa, she’s still inexperienced and too influenced by her human emotions.

Across the plaza, the great bell of hours on the top of the temple sounds.

She hides her trembling hands inside her wide sleeves. “We are due in the Main Court, Commissioner Taha. I intend to be there before the peals fade. I trust you will be as well, and your Enquiry recording devices will be switched on.”

She walks up the steps, Alice skipping ahead to open the door, Danath close behind.

“Ouch,” he whispers with an amused snort, making her smile, despite her anxiety. He sounds as if he and Xing have become more stable, too.

 

Primo Ministro Eneko is there, in the courtroom, talking in hushed tones with Commissioner Ivakin, their heads bent together. They are really taking this seriously.

Their eyes come up to glare at her.

She tries to ignore them and takes her seat.

This is the principle court of Newyan. It is laid out with the presiding judge’s bench at the head, the appellants benches to either side and the middle dominated by a holo-projector and the interface system for the Bureau of Justice’s archive computer.

The clerks are closing the doors at the back, and very faintly, she can hear the last bell of the hour from the temple.

“The court will rise,” says another clerk at the front.

Sánchez sweeps in and takes the center seat at the head of the court.

“Please,” he gestures for them to sit. He looks haggard. Then again, everyone in the room looks more or less the same.

There’s a pause while the shuffling and coughing dies down before Sánchez makes the formal announcement. “I, Fabio Sánchez, Ministro of the Bureau of Justice, am personally presiding, due to the extraordinary nature of this case. I declare this court is in session for case AP136, brought by the Fortunate Stars Hong of the Xian Hegemony, represented here by Delegate Hwa, against the duly elected government of Newyan, represented here by Primo Ministro Eneko himself. The case concerns two incidents. Firstly, the damage and eventual destruction by a pirate, within the Newyan system, of the Xian Hegemony courier ship Xing Gerchu. Secondly, the attempt by the customs cutter Duhalde to damage or destroy a freighter, the Shohwa, belonging to the Fortune Stars Hong, in the immediate time before transition to Chang space.”

So far, so good, but Loiola immedately rises.

“Ministro?” Sánchez says, raising his eyebrows. “You have something to add to the pro-forma opening declaration?”

“I demand that this entire proceeding be suspended,” Loiola says. “The proper investigation of these fabricated and exaggerated claims is within the jurisdiction of the Court of Enquiry, duly elected by the Terran Council, pursuant to the Accords, and which Enquiry takes precedence over this court.”

“The matter of precedence has been referred to the Terran Council,” Sánchez replies.

“Then the whole case should properly await the ruling Council.” Loiola says.

Sánchez makes an eloquent shrug. “It could have, but a decision was taken, in your presence, to proceed unless and until a ruling to the contrary is received.”

Danath and Xing: He’s actually remaining neutral.

Hwa: It could be he’s not as up-to-date as we are with the situation in other capitals. We can’t let them delay us even another hour. He’ll surely find out the threat of not delivering the food is gone by then. And then the case will be handed over to the Enquiry.

Loiola sits back down, but Eneko stands.

“You are aware, Ministro, I was not present at that decision, as I should have been, and I would have opposed it. Regardless, there was no possibility you would have taken the decision without the blackmail employed by the Xian delegation; that they would refuse to deliver the food to starving people unless we agreed to have this court case.” He turns to look at Hwa. “Are you aware, Ministro, that the blackmail can no longer be used? That the food is being distributed as we speak?”

Hwa gasps.

Sánchez merely shrugs again, and Eneko’s eyes narrow. He continues to speak: “That blackmail, and indeed the whole inflated appearance of being concerned with the plight of people on Newyan reveals the true underlying plan. A scheme by the Xian Hegemony which I must bring to the attention of the Commissioners of the Enquiry here.”

Hwa is on her feet: “I protest this slander! This is a blatant attempt to further delay the case against the Newyan administration for deliberate, criminal acts on their part.”

Eneko refuses to give way. His words appear aimed at Hwa, but she knows they’re really intended for the Commissioners’ recording devices. “This court case is simply part of a conspiracy against the democratically elected government of a free and independent Newyan. A conspiracy to undo the democratic evolution of this planet, returning it to the corrupt rule of oligarchy from which we are still extracting ourselves. Under the pretense of this supposed relief effort, the Xian Hegemony has invaded Newyan! Invaded!” Eneko stabs the air, pointing at Hwa, making sweeping gestures at the commissioners, working himself up into his famous crowd-speech persona. “Under the very eyes of the Terran Enquiry, under the protection of the Terran Navy, Xian troops are flooding into our cities.”

“Here in the heart of the Bureau of Justice, where cases come to be tested against the proper laws of this world, it is unbelievable that we should be hearing such malign falsehoods aimed against an elected administration while the very same perpetrators are engaged in an invasion of our cities.”

“I demand that this court case and all such matters be immediately referred to the Enquiry, and that the Enquiry prove it is not complicit in this invasion by joining me in demanding that all off-world personnel and troops be returned to their ships and the administration of relief supplies returned to our control. That all material in whatever medium relating to Newyan be submitted to the determination of the Enquiry.”

“If that request is not sufficient, then I demand the cooperation of the cruiser TSS Annan and Terran marines to facilitate the removals and, if necessary, to enforce the sovereignty of Newyan.”

 

Chapter 65

Hwa

 

“Ignoring the litany of lies about the relief efforts, which fall outside the remit of this court case, I’ll address the point of jurisdiction,” Hwa interrupts his speech. They’ve barely started and she’s sensing the flow of the case moving against her. She has to pull it back She can’t let the Enquiry take it over and close it down. “The Enquiry has demonstrated a reluctance to proceed against the government of Newyan in this matter. It would be prejudicial to Xian to delegate the Newyan courts obligations to the Enquiry. I strongly move to proceed immediately with the preliminary presentation of evidence.”

“The implication of bias is insulting,” Ivakin says.

“Unless I pass this case to the Enquiry, Commissioner Ivakin, this is not a matter for you,” Sánchez says. “Your observations are noted but not considered pertinent to our progress.”

There’s a shocked silence from the other side at his stance, which gives Hwa an opportunity to press on.

“The evidence is direct, substantial, explicit and damning,” she leaps in, on instinct, heart double-timing, stomach twisting. She has to strike now. “In the presence of the Commissioners, I will show that these are not straightforward cases of damages for negligence on the part of the government or appropriate Bureau. These were not accidents, nor were they a case of insufficient training of customs staff. The evidence will show there is a case against the government itself. That it gave the explicit orders for the Duhalde to fire on the Shohwa. That it ordered the destroyer Biháriz off its patrol station, to allow a contracted mercenary ship to pose as a pirate and attack the Xing Gerchu.”

“This is outrageous!” Loiola shouts.

Sánchez bangs his gavel.

“This is a court of law. Not an ordinary court either, but the highest court in this star system. Both sides will need to respect that. Primary representatives, approach please.”

Hwa and Eneko go to the bench.

“Delegate, your accusations are the most serious you can make,” Sánchez says.

She can’t read him. All she can see on his face is his fatigue. He knows that she’s telling the truth; no Ministro could know it better, yet for all appearances, he is acting as an independent judge should. He also knows if she has proof, it will point to him as well as the others.

She expected to have to use the rules of his own judicial system to force him into this position, and yet, he has opened the gate for her, if she can get past the traps being set by Eneko.

Or it’s all a trap. There must be something she’s missed.

What is it? Fear that it will all go wrong locks her jaw.

Danath and Xing: Don’t start doubting. Proceed as if he is what he appears to be. We’re contacting Shohwa.

Hwa straightens her shoulders and stills the racing of her heart.

“The accusations are serious. I have substantial evidence against individual members of the government and administration, and against the government as a whole.”

“Ridiculous,” Eneko sneers. “No such evidence exists, because these allegations are false.”

“If you have such evidence, in what form is it, and where is it?” Sánchez asks.

Her heart skips. She has nothing with her, of course, and doesn’t know where Zara is.

Where are you, Zara?

“The first part…” Hwa begins, but then the doors are pushed open and Mai Keo, wife of Senior Delegate Keo of the Xian delegation, enters. She looks as tired as everyone else, but her eyes gleam brightly.

Everyone turns.

“Madame Keo,” Sánchez greets her politely. “I’m afraid this is not an open session of court.”

“No, it isn’t is it?” she says, undeterred. “I’m not surprised, given this sort of evidence. Anyway, I’m here as legal counsel for the Xian delegation. I apologize for being late, it’s just that there is so much of this.”

She stands to one side and directs Bureau of Justice clerks to carry four large plain boxes to the front of the courtroom.

From the corner of her eye, Hwa can see the look on Sánchez’ face as he remembers that, whereas Mai Keo takes no official part in the normal running of the Xian delegation, her background is that of an extraordinarily successful inter-system lawyer, with experience on Earth as well as Xian’s planets.

“What’s this?” Eneko asks with a sneer.

“These are original documents from the government archives held by the Bureau of Justice, as far as we can tell. I think if you examine the paper archives, Ministro Sánchez, you’ll find many of the supposedly official archive documents are actually copies. Furthermore, I suspect the more incriminating documents are entirely missing from your archive.”

“You’re admitting to stealing from the archives!” Eneko says.

“Nothing was stolen by me,” Mai replies calmly. “And I’ve examined your own laws. I can’t find anything to say a document in the archives cannot be replaced with a copy.”

“If you didn’t steal them, then where did you find these, Madame Keo?”

“Gathering dust in the Belardia Library, where Zarate Aguirre hid them in plain sight. The girl’s a genius for that sort of thing.”

The clerks have left the boxes right in front of the bench.

Hwa lets Mai Keo take up the argument against Eneko for the moment, loudly summarizing the conspiracy within members of the government, the conspiracy with the Hajnal, murder, treason, fraud and theft on a systematic and massive scale. Eneko tries to shout her down.

Danath runs up to join Hwa and whispers in her ear: “The Presidential Guard is sealing off the whole Bureau of Justice! Zara won’t be able to get in!”

“Anything from Shohwa?”

“No.” Alice joins them, holding her commspad. “Transmissions are being jammed.”

“You can’t even transmit a recording of what’s happening?”

“No. Nothing is getting in or out.”

It’s a disaster. The evidence they have collected from video recordings around Newyan are a condemnation of the behavior of the government, but simply not enough to get the Terran Council more involved. They’ll say it’s all a matter for the Enquiry and the Commissioners. The documents that Mai brought in aren’t enough on their own. Eneko is already claiming they’re forgeries.

They need Zara here. They need those irrefutable data modules to interface with the Bureau of Justice’s official archive and reveal the undeniable extent of the conspiracy and the existence of the multi-planet Hajnal movement.

Everything is sliding away, out of control. Alice and Danath are talking to her. Mai needs her help as Eneko’s voice gets louder and more insistent. Sánchez is banging his gavel to get them to sit down.

She puts her hands over her ears.

And images fill her head.

Numb with cold. Dark. Slippery. Climbing. Up and up. Fatigue, claustrophobia. The wells of abandoned Berriaren and the first architects of Iruña.

Zara talking to the Dreamer in the deep sea on Kernow.

“That building,” Zara says, pointing. “The Auzitegi.”

The columned facade. The appearance of heavy brows frowning onto the plaza.

The Auzitegi in Berriaren is the exact model for the Bureau of Justice in Iruña.

Justice comes from where it isn’t expected.

“Hwa?” Alice says. “Are you all right?”

She nods her head.

Why the jumble of memories and sensations and visions? Is this Morgen trying to tell her something?

Meanwhile, Sánchez’ authority is in danger of collapsing.

“These are forgeries! Patent forgeries!” Eneko shouts, hammering his fist down on the judge’s bench. “Being passed off as evidence right here in the Bureau of Justice by Xian spies and enemy infiltrators. Call the Guard in this minute! I demand their immediate arrest.”

Even in the isolated heart of the Justice building, the sound of thunder that follows Eneko’s outburst makes it seem like the skies above Iruña have been torn in two.

There’s a long electronic screech and the holo-projection flickers into life. Whatever has been jamming the communications into the building fails before the assault of military grade transmissions.

Gradually, the head and shoulders of a figure in dark green uniform appears and fills the projection. He is pale, and even as a projected image, there is a sense of his anger exploding into the courtroom.

“I am Duke Bleyd Aguirre-Tremayne,” he says, his voice low. “Prime Minister and Commander of the Armed Forces of Kernow. I am here as part of the joint Xian-Kernow forces tasked with ensuring the safety of the relief convoy. And I am looking for my wife, Duchess Zarate Mirari Aguirre-Tremayne.”

 

Chapter 66

Zara

 

The sound of the skimmer erupts above the Bureau of Justice, reaching down even into the deep shaft of the well that stands in the central courtyard.

It’s probably not just any skimmer either. From Danny’s description, it’s likely to be a fully armed atmospheric assault craft of the Xian marines, and my husband is about to become ‘intemperate’, as he would probably put it, in calmer moments.

The final sealing bolt succumbs to another of Danny’s precision explosives, and he pushes the cap off the well shaft, letting the smoke and stench of his work dissipate into the cold, clear air swirling about the Bureau of Justice’s courtyard.

Danny jumps out and I follow, the backpack with the data modules on my back.

“Go,” he says, with a nervous glance up at the craft circling above before he leans down to give Kat a hand. “We’ll be there in a moment.”

The Presidential Guard are all outside the building, thank the Goddess. The two hundred meter climb up the well shaft has left my already tired like jelly. I feel as if I’ve run the whole way from Berriaren. I’m in no state to fight my way into the courtroom past armed guards.

A long corridor takes me to the main hall. The courtroom I need is the main one, the easiest to reach. It’s at the top of the first wide flight of stairs, a short stretch of blue-carpeted semi-circles. I sprint up.

There are two clerks who are standing by the door. Their jaws drop in horror at the sight of me.

Do I really look that bad?

One raises his hands. I push them out of the way and burst into the room. Hwa is at the front bench, along with the Primo Ministro and others. Bleyd’s image is looming above the holographic projector, just at that moment speaking my name.

“I’m here,” I call out, hurrying forward.

The holograph tracks Bleyd as he turns to look at me.

I’m suddenly very aware of myself; if you don’t count swimming in the river, I haven’t washed since the high sierras, my clothes are torn and filthy and hanging loose on me. My cheeks are sunken. I look like Kat did in Berriaren, a wet-sea pirate crawling in the dirt.

And immediately, I’m also aware that it doesn’t matter at all. He looks at me as hungrily as his wolf namesake, and some indefinable easing around his eyes tells me how much seeing me means to him.

We silently mouth the words I love you to each other.

Any spoken words would have been buried in a chorus from Loiola and Eneko, trying to get the clerks to throw me out of the courtroom.

“The Duchess is an accredited representative of the Fortunate Stars Hong,” Mai yells.

“And an accredited representative of the government of Kernow,” Bleyd adds, returning quickly to his business face.

“What the nova has Kernow got to do with this?” Ivakin asks Sánchez, throwing her hands up in exasperation.

“Kernow defeated the Hajnal attack,” I reply. “Newyan needs help to do the same. I have the proof for Delegate Hwa’s case.”

“Not that conspiracy theory again!” Taha says.

Sánchez hammers the gavel until the shouting stops.

“All of you! Sit down or I will have the sergeant clear the court. Sit! Except Zarate Aguirre. I wish to hear about this ‘proof’. Approach.”

It takes ten minutes for the rest of them to retreat to their chairs. I lean against the bench. Without its support, I might just collapse on the floor.

I can hear Hwa in my head. I can hear Morgen as well, hidden in some unused side room and protected by the Xian marines. Either that, or I have a fever and I’m hallucinating.

Sánchez looks as close to collapse as I am. His face is guarded. Hwa can’t read him, and neither can I. I suspect he knows what I’m carrying and what it means for him, yet he’s letting the case continue.

As silence eventually falls, he leans across the bench.

“So… I know your grandfather had access to our systems,” he murmurs quietly.

“He created a complete copy of the Bureau of Justice’s government records, right down to the encryption. Every last statement and communication up to the point he made it. Proof of the Hajnal. You know what’s in there, Ministro.”

Sánchez nods slowly.

My grandfather thought he was different to the rest of them. Misguided, in my grandfather’s eyes, but not evil.

“He would have used it himself, but for his reluctance about the earliest records,” I go on. “The records from Berriaren.”

And of course, the small matter that he was murdered before he could overcome that reluctance. A decision that this man might have participated in.

“And now we are past that reluctance,” Sánchez says. “Everything has gone too far to be drawn back by any lesser revelation than the official archives.”

“Yes.”

“You know, of course, that Justinian is a licensed and powerful AI, and that it will prevent you accessing certain interdicted records? And that the copies you have are encrypted in such a way that they only can be read by Justinian?”

Justinian is the name of the Bureau of Justice’s computer system.

I feel Hwa stir in my mind, feeding me the response. “The records and the copies of the system are holographically stored and linked by quantum encryption. I rely on that linkage to be the proof that the records I will reveal are true. Without going into the details of how I intend to do it, I believe I can overcome the AI’s interdiction once the copies are connected to the system.”

Justinian stands no chance against Hwa, let alone her backed up by Xing.

“And, assuming you prove your case, what will you do?” he says.

We lock eyes. Grandfather always said Sánchez was the most intelligent and principled member of the conspiracy. Dare I rely on his judgment? Or has Sánchez been corrupted?

“Everyone concerned must face justice, according to the planet’s laws,” I say. “Everyone.”

His head dips a fraction. “And after the responsible parties are in prison? What will you do with the government and social fabric of Newyan?”

“It is not up to me, Ministro. I’m not here as a conqueror. But in my opinion, the law must be applied as it should have been. Records must be cleared. Stolen assets returned. Those are the first steps.”

“You may not think of yourself as a conqueror, but people will look up and see the military might that has accompanied this change, and they might draw a different conclusion.” He sighs. “And after the restitution?”

There’s a long moment of silence. I know what he’s saying. From what Danny has told me, the Xian marines control all the provincial capitals across the planet. Bleyd has enough to take over Iruña as well, but how would that be seen, and what would lie beyond? I’m well aware that some of the political reforms that Sánchez worked for are popular. Of course they are. Just as I’m well aware that a great number of the surviving Founding Families wouldn’t deserve their former standing in Newyan.

What would grandfather have done?

He would never have worked with Sánchez.

But maybe if he had, things would have gone a different way. I can’t afford the same mistakes. Not with knowing what is truly at risk.

I have to try to work with Sánchez’ ideas at least, if not the man himself.

“Have you seen the reforms that my husband has been working towards on Kernow?” I ask.

For the first time, a little light comes into his face. “I have been following those developments with great interest,” he says slowly. “Very great interest.”

“It wouldn’t be for me to impose them, but I’d argue for exactly the same on Newyan.”

“Ah.” His eyes close and he bows his head. He seems somehow a little shrunken at that moment.

Then he touches his pad, and I feel the interface to the Bureau of Justice’s AI come to life behind me.

“Present your data modules, Zarate Aguirre.”

Ignoring the calls and complaints from the other ministers, I turn to the AI system. The modules need only to be connected to the power rail for them to wake and connect with the system. It’s the work of a moment.

The system’s avatar manifests as a holo-projection above it. Ironically, it’s the face of Xabat Abarran Aguirre which appears alongside my husband.

“Four data modules connected,” Xabat’s avatar says.

“Justinian, please confirm the contents of those modules,” Sánchez demands.

“They are true and exact copies of the main archive, dated on the 14th October of last year.”

That’s the first step, but now I need to appear to be controlling the system. Ignoring the rising noise from the Loiola and Eneko, I place my hand on the identification panel.

It tingles as the system scans me and compares me to the database. There’s a long pause. This is as secure an identification system as they could make it. In addition to a retinal scan which it’s already done, it’ll look at my fingerprints and the patterns of blood vessels in my hand. Finally, it has similar technology to the seekers that the Syndacians used to hunt Kat. It analyses the chemical composition of my sweat, and my breath, and the scent of my body.

After a few hours in the labyrinth, the last is not a pleasant thought.

“I recognize Zarate Mirari Aguirre, daughter of the Founding Family Aguirre,” the avatar says at last.

Not Aguirre-Tremayne; the records have not been updated with my marriage yet, but I let that go.

“Please confirm I am the eldest direct descendant of Xabat Abarran Aguirre.”

“You are,” Justinian says.

“On that basis, I claim full access rights under law AC057.”

The eldest of any Founding Family has the right to query the Bureau of Justice’s system. That was laid down in law by the Founders – AC057 in the index.

“Access denied.”

“Identify the law that negates AC057.”

Justinian is silent for a minute. “There is no law that negates AC057.”

I know there isn’t, and I’m not really cracking an AI with my logic. Hwa and Xing connected to Justinian as soon as it powered up, and they are ruthlessly digging deeper and deeper, much more efficiently than I can. I catch the barest echo of how quickly they’re working and it’s scary. If Justinian could feel emotion, it would be terrified now. In the first moments, it lost control of communications. Now, it’s losing control of its memory matrix. Through my connection with Hwa, I can almost hear the attack on the system’s underlying logic core, like torrential rain on a metal roof.

That ‘noise’ is balanced by the increasingly loud agitation from the government’s side.

Sánchez bangs his gavel to no effect.

Hwa slows and I get a visualization of a series of questions to ask.

“Justinian, confirm you are negating AC057 on the basis of a directive, identified as JGH7464.”

“You are correct.” Hwa is allowing Justinian to communicate with me as if nothing else were happening.

“Is JGH7464 referenced in any laws?”

“No.”

“But your operation is circumscribed by law. Therefore you cannot operate the commands in directive JGH7464.”

The system is silent. I doubt it’s processing my logical trap so much as trying to hold itself together under the assault from Hwa and Xing. We don’t want questions asked about where I am getting help from, so Hwa comes up with another suggestion.

“Directive override,” I say. “Reference Aguirre 822.”

Let anyone listening think my grandfather programmed in some back door.

The system remains silent.

“Access document 3010-05-01 section 5,” I say.

“Access is not possible.” Justinian’s words sound hesitant to me.

“Access document 3010-05-01 section 5, from the modules.”

The projection of Xabat Abarran Aguirre disappears, to be replaced by a document with the formal heading and notifications of the government, identifying it as a confidential minutes of a meeting of ministers.

There is a shocked silence in the room.

“Confirm that this is an accurate copy of the same document in the archives.”

“Confirmed,” the system says.

“Ministro Sánchez, stop this immediately,” Eneko calls out. “This woman is attempting to override confidentiality mechanisms that are fundamental to the government’s proper operation.”

I ignore the shouting and speak again to the machine. “Extrapolate, Justinian: all documents that exist in the modules can be read and are true and exact copies of documents in your main memory matrix.”

I feel the rush of Hwa and Xing breaking through the AI’s final defenses.

“If all matched documents can be read then directive JGH7464 has no function and no legal basis. Override directive JGH7464, reference Aguirre 822,” I say loudly.

Hwa and Xing withdraw.

Xabat’s image returns. “Directive JGH7464 is overridden. You have full access rights, Zarate Mirari Aguirre.”

Yes!

Sánchez stands up stiffly and his clerk yells for silence until the minister is able to speak to the courtroom.

“It seems you have the opportunity to present your proof, Zarate Aguirre,” he says, “but I must now prepare to recuse myself. The scope of this case means that it may have to be taken over by the Commission of Enquiry. Commissioners Taha and Ivakin, I call you to the bench to co-preside on this case.”

 

 

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A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 23

Summary of Ep 22:

Zara, Talan, Kat and Ruslan escape the annihilation of the helicopter by the cannon of the Bihariz, thanks to Hwa’s remote intervention. They continue down the river, hiding beneath a raft of debris.
Meanwhile Hwa attends the preliminary session of her court case. The timing is all in the balance – too early and there’s not enough time for Zara to get to Iruna with the vital evidence Hwa will use to trap the Enquiry into distributing. Too late and the food relief convoy will distribute their food, removing the threat that Hwa has used to get the court case moving. The Commissioners are forced to agree to the court case and make the mistake of announcing they will attend, meaning that anything that Hwa can reveal in the first session will be entered into the Enquiry’s records. Will Zara get there in time?
She and the others must journey through the labyrinth beneath the city to avoid the guards.

Episode 23 – 8k words – the pot comes to the boil. Everything is kicking off. And … we have a couple of cliffhangers. 🙂

Nearly there – over 90k words, and probably only two episodes left.

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 to A Name Among the Stars and it 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 58

Sánchez

 

He’s standing in front of the window in his office at the Bureau of Justice.

The curtains are open. People from Security keep telling him it’s not safe, that there might be an assassin out there, but he can’t see the people far below with the curtain in the way.

The view gives him a sense of vertigo, of falling. A sensation exactly like matters of state in Iruña at the moment.

His stomach is already upset and his heart seems to be permanently racing. A little vertigo is neither here nor there.

Astonishingly, he is still Ministro of both Justice and Defense, as proved when the call he’s been waiting for is connected to his pad. It’s Captain Tiziana, commander of the naval destroyer Biháriz, and until about ten minutes ago, a ‘guest’ of the Bureau of Security in their hellish basement.

“Ministro Sánchez?”

Tiziana’s voice is rough and immensely wary. It’s hardly surprising that she’s expecting this is some kind of interrogation trick.

He manages keep his voice even and businesslike. “Captain. You are on the coach? All of you?”

“Yes, sir. All seventeen of us on the list that has been given to me. I… I wasn’t aware of some of them.”

“There’s no way you could keep track of Defense personnel being mistakenly arrested by the Bureau of Security,” he says. “Captain, are you well enough to assume control of the Biháriz again?”

“I am, sir.” Again, so wary as to be disbelieving.

“Good. The coach will deposit you at the space elevator very shortly. I have called ahead and alerted them. You are to be sent up as a priority group immediately you arrive. One group, not split up. A shuttle from your ship will then collect you.” He pauses. “I am aware these people are not all from your ship, and indeed some of them have no space experience. Nevertheless you will accommodate them. If there are some among you who require medical attention, that will be provided on the ship, by the ship’s doctor. Am I clear so far?”

“Yes, sir.” More uncertain than wary, now.

“I regard the mistaken interference with Defense personnel as a serious matter,” Sánchez says, speaking carefully. “The diversion from your duties has led to problems and we are stretched beyond capacity. I have therefore issued orders that there is to be no transfer of Defense personnel to any facility or holding place other than Defense’s own without my authorization. All planet-based leave is cancelled until further notice.”

“Your personal authorization, or the authorization of the Ministro of Defense, sir?”

Good. She’s thinking about this: he may not be the Ministro very much longer.

“As always, you will comply with all legitimate orders in accordance with the Articles of Naval Service, your oath, and your conscience. I believe you should be arriving at the space elevator now, Captain.”

That is no more than a summary of what every cadet is told before the oath. He ends the call before she can respond.

His conversations are undoubtedly being recorded, but he has said and done nothing that exceeds his authority or is actually directed against the government. Or the movement.

He’s done what he can, and it makes him feel better, but actually it’s nothing really.

The navy takes orders from the government. Although both destroyer captains, Tiziana on Biháriz and Lim on Santoña have their families living on the Defense-controlled orbital facilities, others of their crew will have families on Newyan. It’s not as if he could order them to turn against the government, or that they would consider it.

It’s a mess. How did it get like this?

And why did Berges authorize the release of the prisoners?

He’d made the demand out of a sense that he should be doing it. There were no grounds to arrest Tiziana, or her XO. Indeed, none of the Defense personnel should have been arrested by Security. Such behavior is a sign that Berges’ paranoia is going further out of control.

But she has had the backing of Loiola and Eneko.

There will be a reaction to what he’s done, but he has to make them understand. They’ve stopped talking about their principles, about the reasons they all shared for starting the movement and joining up with the Hajnal. And without those principles, what are they doing?

He has to get through to Loiola or Eneko. Berges is a lost cause. She’s become ill.

Dangerously ill.

What if she authorized the release just to see what he’d do? To test his loyalty? What if the group is being re-arrested right now at the space elevator?

“Ministro?”

He’d missed the gentle knock on the door. He turns to see the subsecretario.

“I know you wanted some time,” the man says. “But there’s a call from Colonel Karis. He won’t speak to me.”

Karis. The Syndacian commander. Another call that Sánchez has been expecting this morning.

“Put him through.”

 

Karis’ voice is echoing down the line. The colonel is at a command base which he set up at the Orbaiz railway station, close to where the hunt is going on, but outside the area effected by the ash cloud. Since the loss of the communications satellite for that area, the redirecting of calls through other satellites and the InfoHub has been improving, but slowly.

“Say again,” Sánchez requests.

“The cloud … cannot risk helicopters … search,” Karis says. “Already three failures … needed airlift by skimmer. Skimmer’s not equipped … area to search increases …” The line hisses out completely, then returns. “… possible fugitives are already …”

Sánchez can fill in the blanks. The Syndacians are getting nowhere. The helicopters can’t fly through the cloud resulting from the Biháriz’s bombardment. They can’t fly above it and still use their scanners, and the skimmers don’t have the right kind of ground-scanning capabilities. The mercenaries haven’t been able to find the Aguirres, and won’t, unless they get lucky.

He’s not expecting the next item.

“… not been able … contact HQ,” the colonel says, before fading in another storm of static. “… return Cabezón … investigate … ”

The HQ is back at the airfield next to Cabezón. Cabezón, where the Aguirres have just been.

Sánchez’ heart misses a beat. A revolt in the high sierras? Or just bad communications?

The line fades into white noise.

“Hello? Hello?”

His aide opens the door. “Sir, Ministro Berges is in the elevator. You wanted to be warned of her arrival. Her guards have been stopped downstairs as per your orders.”

“Thank you,” he says. “Leave the door open.”

Holding her guards is not going to improve her temper, but in fact, he’s just following her own recommended Security protocols.

A minute later, she’s through the door like an agitated eel, closing it behind her. Her eyes are too large in her pale face, her pupils dilated. He wonders if she’s started using drugs to keep alert.

“We are under attack, Sánchez,” she says.

Not the first sentence he expected from her.

“We seem to be, Ministro Berges. Please, take a seat. Some refreshment?”

She waves it aside.

“My electronic communications have been hacked! Yours too.”

Ah. She didn’t authorize that release. They really have been busy, the Xian.

“You mean regarding the Defense personnel?” he asks.

“Yes! What have you done with them?”

“I sent them up to the Biháriz. It will keep them out of the way, and besides, there wasn’t really any justification for incarcerating them.” Before she can snap back at him, he adds. “We are under attack in other ways as well, I believe.”

“What? How?”

“Colonel Karis believes that the Syndacian HQ at Cabezón is either under attack or has already fallen.”

That’s why the Aguirres went there. They must have been preparing for this all along. Months, years in preparation.” Her face distorts. “There is no way the Aguirres could achieve this alone. Xian has to be behind all this. I knew it. I knew it. Xian!”

Sánchez doesn’t reply that she knew no such thing, according to his memory. Berges will believe whatever underpins her latest paranoia.

“They want an uprising. They want to snatch Newyan from the people, give it back to the Founding Families.” She is silent for a while, blinking. “Because there are only a dozen of the families left. That’s why Xian have done this! Control those dozen families through their greed and Xian would have control over the whole planet. But they can’t! The planet belongs to the people, and we will not let it go.”

It being dangerous to speak, Sánchez does not. The scenario she’s describing seems uncomfortably like the way the Hajnal have operated, using key recruitments in the Bureaux to achieve control over the planet.

She’s staring into the distance, her hands flexing as if she’s about to do some gymnastics, before snapping back to him. “What are you doing about the revolt in Cabezón?”

“The Syndacians are going back. They’re short of helicopters, so it’ll take them a day to shuttle their forces back and retake the airfield.”

“Will they succeed? Quickly?”

Sánchez shudders. He knows, from the look on her face, that she’s considering using the Biháriz plasma cannons again. She enjoyed the destruction.

“The rebels are untrained rabble,” he says hurriedly. “And recovering supplies and munitions from the airfield would be advantageous. Also, the airfield is too close to Cabezón itself for any alternatives to be viable.”

He’s not entirely sure Captain Tiziana would obey a command to obliterate part of Cabezón, and Berges trying to order her could precipitate a genuine revolt. He has to keep a lid on the situation while he works out a way to repair this situation. He won’t be able to if the navy appears to be in mutiny.

“Very well. Deploy the skimmer squadron to hunt down Aguirre instead,” she says.

“The skimmers are already there. They can fly through the ash cloud, but the specification of their scanning equipment is different. Very poor resolution at that size. They can’t distinguish between a human and an otter, for instance.”

Berges blinks and frowns. “So what? Kill everything that moves on the river. Problem solved.” She begins to pace up and down. “I’ll keep the security on the gates. They’ll arrest any of that party that survives when they try to get into the city.”

She turns suddenly. “What to do about the Xian delegation? They’re attacking us through our own communications!” Without waiting for an answer, she whips out her pad and makes a call.

“López, send a squad to the municipal sub-station in Block 2D. Take a specialist with electrical installation knowledge. Ensure the power to the Xian delegation building is isolated and cut. Leave the squad there on guard to make sure it stays that way. Also, copy to all security units protecting the city: no Xian delegation cars are allowed to exit or enter the city until further notice. Tell the delegates it’s for their own safety if they ask.”

She ends the call as quickly, and turns to him.

That will put an end to their electronic interference and prevent them getting Aguirre inside the city.”

“They will complain to the Enquiry about—”

“A technical fault. We’re doing everything we can. Come, Ministro Sánchez. The Xian can hardly deny us the relief convoy because our electrical network fails. Certainly not with our Enquiry looking on. We just need to get through the next few days. By then, Taha and Ivakin will be able to make the proposal to Earth for us to join the Inner Worlds. Everything will be easier after that.”

Sánchez nods because she expects it.

Despite the investment, it is not ‘our’ Enquiry, he thinks. Far from it.

She’s insane if she believes an application to join the Inner Worlds will succeed now. No amount of bribery of the Commissioners, even with all the Hajnal planets contributing, is going to be able to paper over the situation in Newyan. But then, she is insane.

He’s been grappling with a decision this morning, and listening to her stream of delusion has finally precipitated it. He can’t continue like this. With enormous relief, he realizes he’s committed to a different outcome now: get the Hajnal’s attention elsewhere, get them to disengage and let Newyan solve its own problems. The Hajnal, with their multi-planet views, are a distraction to his people’s battle for equality.

How to achieve that? Expose the Hajnal while retaining the movement on Newyan?

“Do you know where Yarritu is?” Berges abrupt question startles him out of his thoughts.

“No.” What has Yarritu done to attract Berges’ attention?

“He’s Ministro of Food and Agriculture. It’s an important position. I need to know where he is all the time.”

“There’s no food being produced at the moment, and all the supplies are distributed. There’s not a great deal for him to do,” he points out.

“There’s the issue of how we control the supply of relief food.”

“I got the impression that the Xian have their own ideas about that.”

She laughs. “We’ll see whether those ideas are voiced so firmly when they’re staring at the barrels of the Santoña’s plasma cannons.”

“Ministro Berges,” he hesitates. “You’re not suggesting I order—”

“Don’t be stupid, it won’t come to that, Sánchez. They’ll back down. And when they do, Yarritu will have a responsibility. He should be at his Bureau, or contactable by them. You’re here, aren’t you? In the Bureau of Justice, where you should be.”

“I don’t think he’s guilty of anything, if that’s what you’re asking,” he says cautiously.

Everyone is guilty, Ministro. Everyone.”

With that chilling assertion, she shakes her head and walks back out, apparently too distracted to question whether his message demanding the release of Defense personnel was really hacked, or why his guards refused to let her guards come upstairs, or … any of the myriad things she could pick on to bring him down. Everyone is guilty.

And yes, Yarritu isn’t in his office at the Bureau of Food and Agriculture, because there is no food left. But the man has been acting strangely.

He’s here, despite the fact that there is no Justice.

She’s here, despite the fact there is no Security.

The subsecretario is at his door again, clearing his throat. “You asked to be kept informed, sir. We no longer have communications with the city of Lourdios.”

“Move the Biháriz to orbit above the city and see if they can communicate with anyone,” he says. “What about Sainte Engrâce?”

“Continued unrest, but the police say it’s under control. A report will be on your desk within an hour.”

Sánchez nods his thanks, and the man leaves.

Will the exposure of the Hajnal and the arrival of the relief supplies be enough to calm the situation? Who takes control when Eneko is deposed? How can I use what I can’t prevent?

His pad is still in his hand. He flicks back through the secret document sent to him by his technical manager earlier. There is nothing there he didn’t pick up the first time he read through it.

He knows now what the Aguirre woman has, and how she intends to use it against them.

There are ways he can prevent that, of course.

He bears the woman herself no animosity. What was done to her family was appalling, but justifiable for the greater good. And clearly, she must go as well. But how to use her attack to focus only on the Hajnal? How to protect himself? How to keep the progress they’ve made for equality?

He turns back to his window, places his hands behind his back and stares out at the view, again getting the sense that everything is falling, accelerating down.

Far beneath, the people of Iruña walk across the square. He rubs his face. Long hours and stress must have affected his vision; he can’t see his people as clearly as he once could.

Chapter 59

Newyan space

 

Captain Lim, commander of the Newyan Defense Ship Santoña, forces his hand to relax and surreptitiously wipes it on his leg.

What’s wrong with me?

He’s sitting in the chair that he always wanted when he joined the Newyan Navy: Captain of the Santoña. One of the two destroyers in the Newyan ‘fleet’ and the ultimate off-planet post for a Newyan naval commander.

This morning’s news is good, on the face of it: Captain Tiziana and her XO are back aboard the Biháriz. The government has decided to leave the navy to do naval things, apparently, instead of declaring her a traitor for driving off a pirate. A pirate in the Newyan system. It sends his pulse soaring with rage, but there’s more to worry about than that.

He and Tiziana have established a code in their communications. Nothing formal, but he knows from her latest bland message telling him she’s back on ship, she’s been deeply unsettled by being arrested by the Security goons. A feeling that has not receded now she’s been released.

What to do? Mutiny?

He’s been feeling increasingly worried. Thinking hard about it, he realizes with surprise that he’s has been worrying for the last couple of years at least.

It’s the old story of boiling a frog slowly so he doesn’t notice.

Things are very wrong on Newyan, despite all the announcements from the media—not that he pays much attention to what the media says now. It’s become a complete propaganda machine for the government. It’s been trying to claim there was no real problem with food supplies over the last year. And here he is waiting for the Xian relief convoy, without which the urban populations of the planet will starve.

Also, here he is, with orders to escort the ships to orbit at the space elevator terminal, knowing they’ve said they intend to go directly to the cities and use their own shuttles to unload.

Does the Admiral expect him to fire on an unarmed relief convoy if they won’t do as he says?

What’s happening in Iruña, that things have come to this?

He wipes his hand on his leg again and looks up at the main visual monitors. They’re focused on the approximate volume of space where the convoy should emerge in a day or two, and the monitors have a good motion detection and zoom algorithm. The view suddenly leaps forwards and Captain Lim is staring, uncomprehending, into the heart of a firework a thousand kilometers wide.

“Helm, back!” he yells.

The helmsman sends them backwards at maximum power.

What the nova?

Ships entering Chang space have velocities that are preserved on exit, but the entry system and exit system may also have velocities relative to each other. Most ships enter a system at a smallish fraction of light speed and pointing at the approximate location of the planet they intend to approach. It’s required by the laws of some systems and good manners elsewhere.

Ignored by these arrivals. Three spaceships have just entered the Newyan system at extremely high velocities, pointing in three different directions, from a relatively tiny volume of space.

Captain Lim has never heard of that being attempted before. The navigation and synchronization requirements to achieve it without collision or cross-effect are unbelievable.

And as a final effect on the top of this incredible maneuver, sufficiently high velocity entry from Chang space is characterized by violent plasma discharges. It really does look like a firework exploding.

“Shields!” he calls out.

“Shields, aye.” His weapons team had them powered and ready before his command.

“Sound battle stations.”

“Battle stations, aye.”

He feels the ship preparing around him like a charge of electricity building. The Santoña may be no more than an outdated destroyer in a two-ship navy out in the Margin, but she’s his ship and no one is going to say she’s not fit for purpose.

Pride in his ship floods back to replace the shock he’d felt at that ridiculous entry display.

His seat has reconfigured for military maneuvers, as has every station on the bridge.

“Paint those ships for me,” he says. “Full active scan for ten seconds. Deploy ELINT platforms.”

“Full active scan, aye.”

“ELINT platforms deployed, aye.”

The ship’s weapon systems come fully on line. Two additional high-power scanning platforms get ejected to either side and move off to get clear of any interference from the ship.

The situational awareness hologram shimmers into existence in front of Lim. It has the three ships tagged with simple ‘unknown’ labels. The size adjusts to keep the Santoña neatly in the middle of the display and the unknown ships at the edges.

On the monitors, the firework display of plasma from the arrival dies and the paths of the three ships turn and curve back in, as if they were each outlining the shape of a petal, hundreds of thousands of kilometers big.

His XO touches his pad, squinting at the figures on it. “Serious maneuvering, sir. Definitely military grade compensators.”

The holographic projection blurs.

“What…”

The three unknown ship icons start to blink amber.

Lost trace? While on full active scan?

“Scanners!”

There’s a moment’s hesitation. “No malfunction. We’re being jammed, sir.”

Then “Oh, nova!” The lieutenant stabs at his control pad and the edge of the holographic projection lights up with a red tinge. “We’re being targeted, sir!”

Warning screeches comes from the Weapons Station. Missile and targeting scanners are locked on the Santoña.

“Evasion 10-21,” he blurts out the first defensive procedure that comes to mind.

“10-21, aye,” the helmsman activates the pre-programmed maneuvers, hurling them around so hard he can feel the structure groan as the acceleration compensators max out.

“Deploy decoys.”

“Decoys, aye,” comes from the Weapons Station. Two small platforms eject and begin to mimic the electronic signature of the ship, while racing away from it.

As quickly as they started, the warnings cease.

“No missiles detected, sir. No longer being targeted.”

The holographic projection’s color shifts to the normal blue. They are not under attack.

Now, in the projector, the three ships are named: Shohwa, Máquè and Húlí. The Shohwa has come to stand between the Santoña and the point of entry.

The other two are stationary on either side of the Chang space exit point, like guards.

How did they get there so quickly?

“Ships emerging, sir.”

Neatly bracketed between the Máquè and the Húlí, freighters emerge from Chang space in a stately, glittering line, without any of the drama of the first three.

Máquè and Húlí are Xian Harrier-Class corvettes of the Hegemony navy,” his XO says, reading from the analysis on his pad.

That is tolerably good news. Old she may be, but the Santoña mounts a battery of ten 0.6 cannon each side as well as five 0.2 in the bow and stern. She’s more than a match for a couple of lightweight corvettes who probably don’t even have ten cannon in total, and all those lighter than his bow guns. However, he leaves the shields up.

“And that’s the freighter Shohwa?” he asks, disbelieving it. No merchant ship maneuvers like that.

“The IFF says so, sir.”

He can tell his XO doesn’t believe it either. “I could paint it again…”

Lim holds his hand up to stop him. He has the feeling that blasting the Shohwa with active scanners would be like poking the Xian with a stick.

“Visuals of the Shohwa to main monitor,” he says instead. “Along with images from the library.”

The library images are what he expects from a modern Xian merchanter. A two kilometer spine with main reaction engines at the back, crew space at the front, and with the spine surrounded by five modular cargo pods, each stretching the length of that spine. Chang space generators and compensator assemblies ring the front and back. The ship looks over-powered in the engines, and very sleek, but otherwise not especially remarkable.

The image from today, in contrast, raises the hair on his arms.

Two of the cargo modules are gone. The acceleration compensator rings have been replaced with something far more bulky and powerful. And those cargo modules… something about the way there are shapes implied, dotted along their length…

“Can you do something about the resolution?” he says.

“Resolution, aye.”

There’s a long pause. The image zooms in, but does not resolve into more detail. Then: “There’s broad spectrum interference, sir. No greater resolution possible.”

“Incoming comms, sir. Direct beam. From the Shohwa.”

“Main screen.”

Nothing. The screen dissolves into static.

“Comms error, sir.”

“Fix it!”

Anger makes him snap at the comms operator. His ship is being made to look its age.

He needs to talk to the captain of the Shohwa, urgently, so no misunderstandings arise. If he’s right, the Shohwa is a Xian naval ship disguised as a merchanter. Probably one of their anti-piracy fleet.

And that nova-blasted customs cutter Duhalde fired on it!

“Where’s that comms?”

“Can’t seem to resolve it, sir.”

“Reset your comms processor. Bring it up again from scratch. Hurry.”

“Sir…” the XO is there to warn him when he steps past standard operating procedures. Recycling the comms equipment in an unknown and potentially hostile situation is one of those procedures.

But it’s a relief convoy.

He nods to acknowledge the XO and waves at the comms officer to go on.

Of course, he’s just called it a relief convoy because that’s what he’s expecting. What if it’s an invasion?

The thought is preposterous. Even if it is, he’ll just have to deal with it. A pair of corvettes and an armed merchanter? A thin smile comes to his face. Can do.

One minute later the screen clears.

A man in the deep blue of Xian’s Space Defense Force looks out at him.

“Captain Lim, I believe.” It’s not a question, and the man continues, his attitude neither particularly friendly nor overtly antagonistic. “I am Major Daniel Tiernen of the Hegemony Marine Corps, tasked with escorting the relief convoy to their destinations and ensuring delivery of supplies to cities on Newyan.”

The holographic shows the last of the convoy emerging in perfect timing, and the two corvettes taking up flanking positions. All the ships begin to pick up the pace.

“Major Tiernan.” Lim clears his throat. “We seemed to have doubled up; the Santoña has also been dispatched to escort the convoy, to lead them to orbit by the space elevator, from where the supplies will be distributed. We’re holding the elevator at top priority for this, naturally.”

“Under the circumstances, and given recent events in this system, the Hegemony has erred on the side of caution with regard to protection,” the major says, his face emotionless. “Hence our arrival. My apologies if that startled you. Regardless of that, your space elevator can stand down. The relief effort is equipped to deliver to all provincial capitals and oversee the distribution. My orders are to facilitate that, and I intend to follow those orders. Tiernan out.”

The Shohwa moves swiftly, taking a place behind the convoy.

The shocked silence on the bridge of the Santoña is profound.

“Signals, prepare a tight beam communication link for one of the planetary orbital relays,” Lim says, trying to radiate calm.

His XO leans around the padded protection of his seat, muttering quietly for him only.

“Sir, if you took a ship like the Shohwa and stuffed those cargo modules full of cannon, missiles and shields, you could theoretically end up with the equivalent of a cruiser.”

Captain Lim grunts. He’s reached the same conclusion.

Reliable facts about space battles are thin. A single destroyer, on paper, wouldn’t want to take on a cruiser, not even one that’s really a disguised merchanter, especially when you add a couple of corvettes into the wrong side of the equation. On the other hand, two destroyers, like Santoña and Biháriz together, would have more weight of broadside than a cruiser and two corvettes. Just. Cruisers have much more power to spare—they can recycle their cannon charges quicker, fire more bolts. They have deeper shielding. Against that, destroyers are quicker, harder to hit.

Tough call.

He has no experience of real space battles, but he and Tiziana have trained together with scenarios including attacking something bigger than their destroyers.

He has no idea what the experience of the Xian ships might amount to.

The huge unknown is the Terran cruiser Annan, sitting in orbit around Newyan. Whose side would they take, if it came down to it?

“Helm, minimum duration path to retrieve ELINT and decoy platforms.”

The helmsman responds.

“Going to have to hurry,” mutters the XO. “Look at them move.”

On their holo-projection, the whole convoy is accelerating toward Newyan far faster than freighters should be able to.

Lim’s face is grim. “You have the bridge. Expedite things. I’ll be in my cabin, on the tight beam, talking to Defense and then Captain Tiziana.”

 

Chapter 60

Zara

 

Navigating the network of tunnels beneath Iruña starts deceptively easily.

The rivers run through immense caverns in the rock. We take the right hand one, the Neve. A walkway has been cut in the side of the cavern, well above the waters. It’s dark, cold, noisy, slippery, and the edge has no guardrail, but it’s a lot safer than being hunted by mercenaries out in the open.

How long before someone looks at the map and realizes what we’re trying to do?

Hwa’s instructions are detailed, but we quickly realize that it’s impossible to measure distance accurately. There are accurate positioning systems on pads, but they require communication with a satellite. Even if we could get a signal under all this rock, it would probably be a bad idea to have our pads communicating with the government’s positioning system.

We had a good length of rope in Berriaren, but between making stretchers for Kat, and then lashing together a raft, it’s been considerably reduced. We tie remaining bits together and end up with a thirty meter measuring tape. That lasts for about a kilometer, then the walkway becomes so narrow and slippery, Talan decides the rope is better suited to tying us together.

An hour later, we estimate we’re in the location where Hwa’s instructions say we need to start moving up.

I make them sit and rest with Talan. Ruslan takes one flashlight and walks back slowly, I go forward. We’re both looking up at the overhang above the walkway. Somewhere in this section, there’s an entrance to the next level recessed into the overhang. It’s described as being a round bulkhead door with a wheel lock. Black metal. Easy to miss with your eyes on the floor.

We come back, shaking our heads.

“Too far, or not far enough?” I ask Talan.

She grimaces. “Not far enough, probably.”

We move on, more slowly, checking the overhang as we go. Another fifteen minutes passes before Ruslan grunts and points up.

We’ve found the door. A tubular shaft has been drilled through the rock and the door is set in it, about half way. Too high to reach the wheel lock, even for Ruslan.

“Think this is the right one?” I murmur to Talan.

The pause before she answers tells me as much as I need. We’re really not sure, but going all the way back doesn’t seem right either.

We give the flashlights to Kat to hold while Talan and I lift Ruslan on our shoulders. He’s stronger than us, should the wheel lock be tight with disuse.

He’s also a lot heavier than us.

“Good choice,” Talan complains through gritted teeth as we twist and wobble in the darkness, very aware of the drop down to the water just behind us.

After a lot of grunting and gasping, the wheel finally turns and Ruslan opens the door. There’s a sliding ladder above it that he pulls down. We climb. The shaft has a lip raised above the level of the floor which has prevented any dirt gathering on the bulkhead door. We step out from the shaft and Talan pulls up the ladder and closes the bulkhead behind us.

We’re now in the lowest level of a multi-layered network of sewer system tunnels heading for distant treatment plants. Thankfully, the sewage is in closed pipes running along the tunnels. Despite that, it still smells, so we start walking quickly. At least there’s no ten meter drop down to a freezing river to worry about.

There is the problem of where we are exactly.

Hwa’s instructions say we should reach a ‘junction chamber’ in two hundred meters, and it’s much easier to estimate meters on the flat surface of this walkway than it was above the Neve.

Two hundred meters comes and goes.

At about three hundred meters, there’s a room which could be described as a chamber. Some of the pipes join others, and flow into a larger diameter pipe. That could be the junction. The pipe joins leak and it stinks in here. Grey electrical wire appears from a pipe in the ceiling, and runs to the middle of the room, where it’s been left to hang waiting for a light installation that never happened. It looks sad.

“Didn’t bother with the lights. Pity,” Kat says.

“That has to be a junction,” Talan says, pointing at the construction where small pipes connect to a bigger one. “This is the junction chamber.”

“The right one though?” I’m feeling uneasy.

“As long as we keep going up, we’ve got to get out into the city somewhere,” Kat says.

“It would seem logical, but none of us is an expert in the design of municipal sewers,” I say.

I’m worried and trying not to show it, while still arguing caution.

“Let’s look at the next bit,” Kat says.

The next section is supposed to be a fifty meter walk to find a ladder of iron rungs set in the wall on the right. There’s no ladder at fifty meters.

Kat walks another twenty meters, and sees a ladder on the left hand side further down the tunnel.

She calls out to us, and at that exact moment, her flashlight battery dies.

Talan’s flashlight guides her back and then she switches it off while we hold a hurried conversation in the dark.

“We went wrong at the first bulkhead door,” I say. “We came too far along the Neve. We’ve got to go back.”

“But that’s going to take longer and we’re already low on battery power,” Kat says.

“The further we get into this maze, the longer it’ll take to get back to the start, which we’ll probably need to do if we get it wrong,” I respond. “We could just about make our way in these levels without a flashlight, or just using the light from our pad screens, but the place we can’t risk that is the walkway above the Neve. It’s too dangerous. We’ve got to get that part right while we have a flashlight left.”

Talan agrees with me.

Ruslan seems to follow what we’re saying and grunts approval.

“Okay,” I say, “we’ll walk back the way we came in these tunnels without the flashlight until we get back to the river walkway.”

“I’ll lead,” Talan says. “Let’s feed the rope through our belts to keep us together.”

That takes a few minutes to sort out. The darkness is pressing on my eyes, making me see flashes of light that aren’t there. My hearing goes super-sensitive as well. I can hear the breathing of all four of us, the scuff of our boots on the ground … and other things, which aren’t caused by us. Squeaks. Creaks. A sort of hum which seems to come from the pipes. Dripping water. Distant scurryings.

Rats came with mankind to Newyan. Of course there are rats down here.

There are stories as well…

Stupid. Shut up.

The sounds change.

There’s a gasp from Talan and immediately one from Kat as well. The flashlight flicks on.

Talan’s blundered against the electric cable hanging down in the middle of the junction room.

We all laugh a little raggedly, and I learn some old, short Arvish words from Talan that I hadn’t heard before.

She leaves the light on for a few moments while we get ourselves back together.

Talan isn’t over-imaginative like me. She doesn’t know the old stories about creatures that hide in the sewers under Iruña. But still, there’s a look in her eyes.

Kat’s distracted, retying the laces on her boot. Ruslan is showing her a different pattern of lacing that he thinks is better.

“What’s up, apart from electrical cable?” I mutter to Talan.

“Don’t know.” She shrugs. “Crazy. Hearing things. Like there’s someone calling my name.” She shakes her head as Kat tightens her knots. “Like I said, craziness. Come on.”

She switches the flashlight back off.

The darkness rushes back like a tangible thing, squeezing me from every side.

And nova, if I can’t now hear someone calling my name, too.

Zarate. Like a long, slow sigh. It’s like listening to the surf on a beach: listen hard enough to surf and you can persuade yourself that there are words in what you know is just noise.

Not just my name. The sound of the sea. Distant chanting. The wind keening around shaped stone.

Kat and Ruslan seem oblivious. They don’t like being blind, but they’re not hearing things. Talan and I are.

Three hundred paces to the bulkhead set in the floor of this tunnel. Just three hundred. Then we can switch the light back on.

I get a feeling that huge eyes which can see in the dark are looking for me.

I’m counting steps, partly to try and drown the sound in my head.

Three hundred.

The bulkhead’s not there.

Talan’s voice, very quiet and breathy, from in front: “My stride’s got shorter in the dark. It’s okay. We can’t walk past the bulkhead. It’s got that big, raised lip. Just keep—”

There’s a noise all of us hear.

A squeal as the bulkhead on the floor of the tunnel opens, not twenty meters in front of us.

Talan… Zarate… Talan… Zarate…

Light shines from below, and a long-headed, glistening monster, straight out of the old stories, rises up through the bulkhead tube.

 

Chapter 61

Yion

 

Nothing had prepared him for this assault on all his senses, the speed, the sheer physical violence of the attack.

One moment it had been cold and quiet in the pre-dawn of a spring morning. He’d just checked the sentries posted around the old airfield and settled back down, feeling Natalia’s warmth reaching out for him.

The next moment, the wall in front of him had exploded and the attack had begun with a rain of rockets.

He can’t see in front—the intense flashes of the rockets are burned into his retinas, blinding him. From the edges of his sight, plasma rifle rounds whip overhead, as if they’re reaching out into the darkness, searching for him with lethal, electric-blue fingers. Through the pandemonium, he can hear people screaming in pain. The building is quivering with the impact of plasma bolts and burning with a lung-searing chemical smell. The smoke is choking him, and stupidly, all his body wants to do is lie down and hide.

“Out!” Natalia shouts. A plasma rifle is thrust into his hands. She picks up hers and their ammunition, then grabbing his belt, she pulls him to the back, away from the flames. They stumble in the rubble. Through the shattered walls, he can see fuel depot go up like a torch. They fall out of their building and stagger into the central car park.

Clouds of smoke shroud everything. Half the buildings have been hit. There are eye-searing flares overhead, sinking down toward them, making him feel exposed to hidden watchers.

A few shots are fired back at the attackers, but anytime someone does, return fire from the dark perimeter concentrates on that position.

He’s quickly reached a point where he can’t get any more frightened, and his senses come back to him.

“Down! Down under cover and wait,” he calls out. He can barely hear his voice.

Natalia calls out and others shout, relaying his order. He can’t hear them either, but he has a moment of intense pride that this band of untrained volunteers responds.

While Natalia is diverted with assembling their colleagues, he takes a deep breath into his raw lungs, holds it and dives back into the building they just left.

It’s like a scene from hell, his eyes are blind to everything but the horrific glare of the flames.

He throws himself onto the floor. Under the shattered remains of some old wooden tables, his hands desperately dig through the broken neo-crete and rubble. He has to search by touch.

Here! Somewhere here! It’s got to be.

His chest feels like it’s being crushed.

Hands are gripping him.

He can’t spare the breath to order them to get back, away from the flames.

No, they’re helping him. It’s Natalia, pulling blocks of neo-crete out of the way.

His hands are slick with blood, full of splinters, painful cuts and …

There!

One hand to grip it. The other to wipe the dirt from the controls. He has to take a breath and wish he hadn’t. It burns his lungs, makes him spasm, double up in a fit of coughing, but he doesn’t let go the controller.

One switch. Two. The circuits are armed.

He can feel his hair singeing. He can feel the heat of the flames even through his jacket. Every inch of exposed skin has gone tight, cringing from the pain.

Activate.

He hammers down on the stiff button. Made deliberately stiff. Not moving. Dirt jamming it? Hit it. Again. Did it move?

Nothing!

Again.

He’s being dragged backwards, out of the building. The controller slips from his hands.

“No!”

He must finish, but Natalia can’t seem to hear him.

Clear of the building, he redoubles his struggles. Someone powerful grabs him from behind and Natalia throws freezing cold water in his face, then slaps him.

Her mouth moves. He blinks, he can just hear her over the ringing in his ears: “Look.”

She pulls his chin around, points outwards to the perimeter.

There are flames around the airfield. No one is shooting at them. The mines they laid have detonated, and by sheer luck, they detonated right in the middle of the Syndacians, just as they advanced.

 

They get an hour’s respite and they use it.

The rebel survivors look like he feels: dizzy, not hearing clearly, burned and bleeding. However, no one thinks the Syndacians have given up, and everyone who can walk helps to create a few more barriers; using damaged trucks, metal tables, doors torn off their hinges; anything they can lift and carry.

Fires are extinguished. Ammunition replenished. Bodies removed.

They have ‘medics’—junior doctors and nurses who’ve joined them. The wounded are carried to a tent they’ve prepared. It has red cross symbols on both sides. Whether or not that was the reason, it took no hits.

The rest of the airfield is a mess. Every single building has some damage, and about half are no more than rubble.

Obviously, it’s fortunate the Syndacians left their heaviest weapons here at the airfield when they went hunting Zara. The cannon were stored in containers that the rebels broke into, but unfortunately, no one here knew how to assemble them, let alone actually fire them. It was only through some lucky guesses that Yion worked out how to rig the mines.

He had the cannon and ammunition loaded up into trucks yesterday and sent them high into the hills. Perhaps the Rangers would be able to use them. Or if not, they might have the time to destroy them, to prevent the Syndacians from using them.

The rebels are left with lots of plasma rifles and enough ammunition for a siege.

It isn’t going to be a very long siege, he can see that. A quarter of them are dead or injured already.

“Why didn’t they attack again immediately?” Natalia asks, as they scrabble behind a pile of rubble and peer cautiously across the width of the airfield.

The sun is coming up. There’s a mist. They can’t see anything, but they can hear the distant sound of helicopters.

He snorts. “I guess they’re getting the rest of the troops back from chasing Zara. They’re waiting until they’re all here and in position. And once the troops are here, it frees up the helicopters to help.”

He wishes they’d been able to get one plasma cannon working. That would fix the problem of helicopters. Not that any of it would make a great deal of difference in the end.

“I’m sorry…” he starts to say.

“Shut up!” she whips around and glares at him.

“What?”

“You were going to say something like you should have sent me away with the trucks.”

It was exactly what he was going to say. He clears his throat. It still feels raw.

“Thank you for helping me find the detonator.”

She laughs. “Oh, very good. Quick change of topic, Mister Bey. Clever boy. Anyway, without you, there wouldn’t have been a detonator, or mines. We’d be dead.”

We’ll be dead soon anyway.

He doesn’t say that.

“There wouldn’t be anything without you,” he croaks. His throat hurts. “Not for me.”

She turns and looks at him. It’s got light enough that he can see her eyes. Beautiful, sad and vulnerable, all at the same time.

“You don’t need to keep pretending,” she says. “I know it’s not real. I’m nothing.”

“You’re wrong. You’re special, Natalia. Very special. I—”

She huffs. “Easy to say here and now. But words don’t change anything…” she bites her lip and looks back out at the misty dawn. “You’re a Name and I’m a nobody.”

“No—”

The sound startles them. A muffled thump, like you’d get beating dust out of a rug. Then a ripple of them.

“Down!” Yion screams. “Take cover.”

Mortar shells fall. They’re short at first: a few meters outside the rebels’ protective ring of rubble and old trucks. The explosions shake the ground, and the shells start to creep forward, obliterating their defenses. He’d thought the earlier attack was intense, but he knows now it wasn’t. It was nothing. They’d wanted to take the airfield back with only a little damage. This time, they’re intent on obliterating all the resistance. Explosions blend into one single, unending roar. The air itself is screaming with bits of stinging metal and brick and wood as their protection is torn apart.

The rising sun disappears. Towering clouds of dust and smoke sweep over them, red as old blood, bringing the darkness of another night, full of noise and terror.

The pile of rubble they’re sheltering behind takes a direct hit. They’re lifted and thrown back towards the car park.

Yion grabs Natalia. They’ve lost their rifles. He tries to get to his feet, but there’s an explosion above them, bigger than all the others. It flattens them, crushes them into the dirt. Yion can feel the earth trembling under this new assault. Flames in the sky.

And more explosions. Huge explosions. Everywhere.

He has to get them away. He tries to get up. He’s tangled with her. She’s not helping. She’s just lying there.

“Natalia! Natalia!”

Oh, Goddess!

There’s blood.

He kneels, tears away the bandoliers of ammunition. Tears away the jacket.

She’s soaked in blood.

“Medic! Medic!” he screams.

There’s no response. It’s gone quiet. The last explosions have ended everything.  Nothing moves in the hellish clouds that cover the airfield. They could be alone.

“Medic!”

Her eyes open.

“Natalia! Listen to me. We’ve got to—”

Her hand comes up, stops him. Grips his shirt.

She whispers. He has to lean down till her lips are against his ear.

“Not all stories … have a happy ending … my love.”

“No! No!” He stands up, desperately searching around. “Medic! Medic! Please!”

There are figures approaching through the swirling smoke. Figures from nightmares. Huge, bulky shapes with demonic red eyes.

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 22

(Format problems: Appear to be due to the new editor. I’m reverting to the old one, and hoping)

Summary of Ep 21:
Zara, Kat and Talan have stolen one of the helicopters from the Syndacian mercenaries who came hunting them. Berges, the sinister Ministro of Security, demands that the naval destroyer Bihariz, in orbit above the planet, use their plasma cannon to fire on the fleeing helicopter.
Hwa and Xing have placed monitors throughout Newyan’s technical infrastructure, and hear the order to the Bihariz. Hwa takes over the helicopter remotely and all four (including the pilot) leap into the river while briefly out of sight of the satellite tracking them. The Bihariz fires a broadside as ordered, destroying the helicopter, but also creating a huge cloud of debris. The tracking satellite is also mysteriously destroyed at the same time.
Sanchez, Ministro of Justice and Defense, reviews the final moment of tracking and deduces that Zara has, once again, escaped. With the approval of the other members of the Hajnal, he despatches the mercenaries after them…

Slightly quieter episode of 3k words this 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 to A Name Among the Stars and it 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 55

Zara

 

The river water is spring run-off from the high sierras. It’s cold.

The River Rescue Service depot Hwa directed us to had been damaged by the shockwave from the Biháriz’s broadside. Windows were blown in and fallen trees had broken the roof, so getting in was easy.

However, the boat that should have been there… wasn’t.

Talan told us she wouldn’t have taken the boat anyway. Too exposed, too visible.

So we’re swimming alongside a jury-rigged raft made of life-jackets from the depot. The bright colors of the lifejackets are covered with some tattered green ponchos we also found, and all lashed together with matted branches and twigs covering it. The river is full of debris that looks similar. Banks have collapsed under the shock of the plasma cannon’s strike, carrying whole lines of trees and shrubs with them.

We’re in slate-gray wetsuits, also from the depot, and without which we couldn’t manage to stay in the water at all. It’s still cold and the fins on our feet do nothing to protect the toes from going numb.

Our backpacks, with the data modules, food, a few extra supplies and weapons are safe, dry and hidden in the center of the raft, where there’s also room for one person to lie on top.

Ruslan can’t swim, but he can kick. He boasts he can kick all day. He’s at the back, half-on, half-off the raft, providing the raw power. The other three of us take turns; one on the raft resting and warming up, the other two guiding the raft and adding a bit of kicking of our own.

Our first destination, according to the information Hwa put on my pad, is the junction of this river, the Sakon, with the River Argo. Then we have to walk upstream along the banks of the Argo, to where the Neve joins it, at the point where they both appear from deep channels created underneath the city. That’s our way in, according to our map.

It’s going to take us at least a full day in the water, plus time for rests, to get to the Argo.

So long as there aren’t any rapids or blockages.

Or pursuit.

About midday, just after we launch, a helicopter goes overhead. We only see it as a shadow, because the grey ash cloud is still hanging in the air.

Ruslan shakes his head. “Mistake. Bad for engine.” He wipes his hand on the branches above him and holds it up, smeared with grey and black flecks. “Turbine breathe,” he says. “Run bad. Can break little blades inside.”

Two hours later Kat, swimming on the right, hisses and dives under the raft, coming up on the left. On the right bank, about two hundred meters ahead, the helicopter has landed. It’s stationary, with panels off the side of the turbine engine and the crew working on it. There’s a fire on the beach, and some mercenaries are sitting around it. Others stand on the bank, carrying plasma rifles and occasionally using their scopes to inspect the larger pieces of drifting wood that pass them.

Talan takes one look and pulls all of us underneath the raft.

There’s a tiny space between the life jackets. Just enough to get our heads in and breathe.

“Stay still,” she hisses. “They’ll be watching from both banks.”

With nothing out of the water but his head, Ruslan panics and starts to struggle. His foot kicks up, waving the bright blue flipper above the water. Kat gets her arms around him and speaks, urgently and very quietly to him. Talan has a grip on her. I have a grip on Talan.

I’m very aware that Talan’s knife is in a sheath on a lanyard around her neck, and she wouldn’t hesitate if it meant saving the rest of us, but Ruslan calms down, and the knife stays in the sheath.

“Just around the next bend,” Talan whispers. “Then we’ll all get out of the water. We’ll warm up and eat some food. Just the next bend. Another ten minutes.”

With all of us dragging through the water, our raft slows.

“Kick,” Talan says. “Low and slow.”

I have a tiny gap I can look out of, toward the left bank, between one poncho-covered lifejacket and the next. My teeth are chattering so loud I wonder if they can hear me at the helicopter. In contrast, the riverside woods and dry ground seem so inviting. The sun is trying to shine through the cloud of ashes. It makes the trees and leaves look a little brighter, more welcoming.

And almost hidden in the spray of leaves, there’s a glint of sunlight reflecting off something polished. Something like a plasma rifle scope sweeping the river, concentrating on anything that seems to be keeping away from the mercenaries on the right bank.

I catch a glimpse of a shape behind the leaves. The rifle starts to swing back. He’s going to see there’s something suspicious about this debris. Then a large tree floats into the way, hiding us from the watcher. We steer a middle course, shivering, keeping behind floating trees and over fifty meters away from both banks, drifting by with everything else on the river.

 

The river’s too straight for Talan’s estimate of ten minutes. It’s nearly twenty minutes before a bend puts us completely out of sight, and we can steer our makeshift raft to a sloping bank. It’s beyond our strength to lift it out of the water. We manage to tie a rope around it. Kat’s legs are so numb, she can’t even crawl to cover. Ruslan’s legs have been in the icy water for the longest, but he’s strong and between us we manage to lift Kat. We stagger until beneath the dense foliage higher up the bank. Talan brings the backpacks. She’s blue and shivering with cold too, but she keeps going. She gets the emergency blankets out from the packs and we wrap up. Then she gathers dead branches around us until we’re invisible to anyone passing on the river.

“It’ll only take a few hours for the Syndacians to find a boat or bring one here from their HQ,” I say. “That’ll make it a lot harder to hide if they’re on the river with us.”

Talan nods. “Lots to worry about. The good thing is the ash cloud is going to protect us from scanners and helicopters for another day or so, and the wind seems to be blowing it downriver with us. But they can fly around it and be waiting lower down. Or they can get hold of skimmers. Skimmers don’t care about ash.”

“Cheerful,” I mutter.

In the meantime, it takes an hour for us to thaw out, and every second of that hour brings Hwa’s deadline closer.

She has to launch her court case before the relief convoy arrives, so she can continue to use it as a threat. Once launched, there will be a struggle over the timing of the case. We have to arrive at exactly the right moment. Every time we stop and rest like this makes it harder.

Despite the worries, I still drop off into a doze. I dream of Bleyd and Rhos and Alexis; of holding them tightly to me in the bright afternoon sun. I try to explain why I left them. That it wasn’t just the balance of my family in Newyan against my family in Kernow. That it wasn’t just honor and duty. That it was all families under threat. And that I should have trusted them, and told them before I left. And that I would give anything to hold them to me again.

Talan shakes me awake. I catch a look in her eyes before she turns away to give me the opportunity to wipe the tears off my cheeks.

As we slip back into the water, a skimmer passes unseen high overhead.

The cloud itself is beginning to thin.

We spend a lot of time underneath the raft.

 

Chapter 56

Hwa

 

“These proceedings are now open for the preliminary session.”

Hwa’s surprised that Sánchez himself is opening the case. Surprised and worried that not only is he here, but so are Commissioners Taha and Ivakin. This is a formal opening of the case, supposedly with no more function that to register it open and set an ongoing schedule.

Everything is at a precarious balance point; the least disturbance has such power to change things.

Delay the court case by a week and not only will the Hajnal call the bluff on the threat to withhold relief supplies, but it’s entirely possible the response from the Terran Council will come back, making the court case to expose them subject to the whim of the Commissioners.

On the other hand, if the court case goes ahead and if Zara is near to Iruña, then within two days, Hwa could be presenting the evidence that will destroy the Hajnal.

It’s tense back at the delegation. Senior Delegate Keo is angry at being kept out of the decision process. Captain Besud is angry at being pressured by Xing, and Xing has been split in two by the Hajnal breaking the permanent narrow beam link between the delegation building and the Wújìn. The freighter’s hosting processors are too old and slow for the Xing in space to be much use to Besud, but the delegation’s processors are vulnerable to an attack by the Hajnal, which Xing computes is a distinct possibility. Xing might survive, after a fashion, from the image of himself on the Wújìn’s computer systems, but it would kill more than half of the essence that makes him Xing.

He’s trying to ignore the danger by keeping busy. He’s receiving recordings from four provincial cities, all documenting the abuses of the ‘police’. He adds anything he can extract from the government’s own systems, then he edits, compresses and encrypts it all.

Danath takes those files across the plaza to the Bureau of Industry, who are still, grudingly, offering their comms facility. Danath sends the files to the Wújìn, and the Wújìn transmits them continuously to the planar zenith, where the arriving Xian convoy will receive them as soon as they emerge.

Xing’s also trying to keep the scattered resistance from launching too early. He’s put groups in touch with each other and their natural caution has slowed things down.

Except for Cabezón, which, after sending a wealth of documentary evidence about the actions of the police, has gone utterly silent.

She puts these distractions out of mind and concentrates on Sánchez, Taha and Ivakin.

Ivakin stands.

Hwa reminds herself to remain calm.

“This content of this court case falls within the remit of the Enquiry—” Ivakin begins pompously.

“We had this argument,” Hwa says. “Only comparable cases after the establishment of the Enquiry fall under its remit.”

“Claiming equivalent starting dates is a trick.”

“Like trying to announce the start of the Enquiry while still in transit is a trick, Commissioner Ivakin. You’ve sent a drone to request the Terran Council’s ruling on which trick is valid and which is not. In the meantime, we’re proceeding with this case.”

“You blackmailed Ministro Sánchez into agreeing with a lie. You wouldn’t dare stop the relief.”

Hwa smiles, and takes out her pad, connects to the delegation on full video, placing the pad flat on the table.

“Delegate Hwa.” A holoprojection of Keo appears above her pad, looking somber.

“Senior Delegate Keo, it appears that the undertakings given will not be honored.”

“I understand.” Keo sighs. “Well, you were right and it appears I have no choice. I will interrupt Delegate Danath’s transmission and send orders for the relief convoy to return to Xian—”

“No. Wait.” Sánchez holds up his hand. “I undertook to open this court case, and it is declared open. And to avoid any further doubts, the scheduling of the hearings will be determined by Delegate Hwa, or whoever she appoints to represent the Fortunate Stars Hong.”

Ivakin slumps back down in her chair with a face looking as if she’s just been slapped.

It’s not Keo on Hwa’s pad, of course, it’s Xing, creating the image and voice of the Senior Delegate perfectly.

The image raises his eyes in question to Hwa and she gives him a small bow from her seated position. The image disappears.

Hwa’s about to set the date for the next session, when Taha interrupts.

“As it addresses core issues of the Enquiry, we require to be present at sessions,” he says. “Also, we require reasonable notice and briefing.”

This is an unexpected gift: Commissioners have permanent recording devices with them in any meeting or official engagement of the Enquiry. With Taha or Ivakin in the courtroom, as soon as Hwa presents the evidence, it will be on the Enquiry’s record. And it gives her an excuse not to continue immediately, all she has to do is make her briefing of the first meeting as loose as possible.

Hwa nods, as if reluctantly conceding. “Tomorrow, then, at 11 a.m. Briefing notes will be with you in an hour.”

Sánchez logs the time and closes the meeting.

As Hwa leaves the Bureau of Justice, she looks down at the ground beneath her feet, as if she could see deeper, though the layers of stone and neo-crete, to where the Rivers Argo and Neve run silent through forgotten caverns.

Time for you to arrive, Zara. Please.

 

Chapter 57

Zara

 

We’re at the junction of the Argo and Neve. The point where the rivers emerge from beneath the city. We’re exhausted but we need to keep going.

Iruña is built on a flat-top mountain, and we’re standing at the base of a cliff on the north side, the most impossible way to approach the city. The waters of the Argo and Neve erupt from a huge grill, about ten meters high and forty across. It’s five meters higher than we are and it forms a waterfall.

Above the waterfall and entirely hidden from us is a gate which will give us entrance into the tunnels beneath the city.

It’s going to be a climb to get to the gate, and Talan has ordered us to rest a few minutes.

What do we do with Ruslan?

I’m too tired to think clearly, so I ask him instead.

He grunts. “Not go back. Go back – die.”

“What? They’d kill you because you were forced to fly the helicopter?”

“Da. It…” he frowns and searches out the words. “Bad discipline? Bad for others see. Syndacian die, not surrender, is good.”

“Goddess,” I mutter, before pointing out: “You understand, you might die with us?”

He chuckles, his eyes roving over the three of us. “Might not, too. You smart. Strong.”

My turn to laugh. I feel about as strong as a wet noodle.

“And afterwards? If we win on Newyan? Could you go back to Syndacia?”

He shakes his head, frowning again. “Can maybe. Not want. Not good.”

Syndacia is one of those marginal planets, deep in the Frontier. The sort of place that never quite worked for humans, other than as a trap for a shrinking, remnant population of colonists. I remember what the dying mercenary in Berriaren said. Is hard winter ’05. No food. Spring come, no family. He’d had to bury the rest of his family in the frozen earth. And his friends? Gone. Not know where. Home bad place. All go.

No wonder so many joined the mercenaries.

“Why did they ever settle on Syndacia?” Kat says. “It’s frozen most of the time, isn’t it?”

Ruslan grimaces. “Colony ship little break many time. Not sure good reach next place. Syndacia not good, not bad. Next place maybe more bad.”

We wait while he struggles with words.

“Planet in good place.” He uses his fists to show Syndacia orbiting its sun. “Lot ice, okay problem. Sun okay warm. But hot inside planet.”

He makes a swirling motion with a finger pointing down at the ground. “Drill?”

We nod.

“Drill deep, get much energy, geo-thermal, have good life. But hard. Long way down. Drill break. Drill much cost. No money. No drill.”

And so Syndacia is the result of a colony ship with seriously degrading performance, followed by a lack of technical capability to harness the resources or combat the weather and capped off by lack of finances to build those capabilities.

But Ruslan’s not finished.

“Government plan. Set up mercenary company. Get money, make planet good maybe.”

“And the mercenaries get hired out but somehow the money is never enough to buy new drills or fix the ship?” Kat says, biting her lip.

“Da,” he replies simply.

“What about the others?” Kat asks. “The rest of the Syndacians. Would they stay here?”

He’s slow in answering. He looks away, his face bleak. “We fight here. People not like maybe.”

My cousin looks as if she wants to disagree with that, but Ruslan is right. Even if most people on Newyan probably don’t know the Syndacians are here at the moment, she knows my plans for changing the media, which will ensure everyone knows, including what they did while they were here.

Of course, there’s also the small problem of overturning the Hajnal-controlled government before any of this is more than a talking point.

We’ve run out of time for talking. Talan gets to her feet with a groan.

“Come on,” she says. “We’re finished with the cold, wet river. Time to go exploring the cold, wet, dark tunnels.”

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 21

Cooking… swiftly reaching the grand denouement in Iruna…
A long(ish) episode at 4.7k words.
Note that I have sailed right over a couple of HUGE cliffhangers I could have left you on recently. Mwah ha ha ha.

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 52

Sánchez

There’s a shocked silence
gripping the room; everyone is incredulous, staring at the wall of video images
without being able to process what they’re seeing.

The
two feeds from the helicopters have stopped: one camera blown up a second after
it showed a runaway forklift truck bearing down on it, the other switched off a
minute later. Multiple feeds from the helmet-mounted cams of the Syndacian
mercenaries at the Orbaiz railway station are swinging backwards and forwards,
reflecting their utter confusion and complete impotence once the stolen
helicopter has raced away.

 She’s
made us all look like fools!

“Switch
them off,” Sánchez says hoarsely.

The
video feeds are wiped, to be replaced by the symbol of the Bureau of
Justice—Themis, the goddess with her sword and scales. It is infinitely
familiar to him—he has seen the statue thousands of times, and yet today, the
figure seems changed. More alive than the tall, cold statue outside his office.
To his eyes, she looks, just at that moment, as if she could be Aguirre
herself: the personification of law and order; the one who measures deeds
impartially and objectively; the one who carries the sword, symbolising the
power of the law.

He’s
not just another lawyer; he’s a man who started his career with a deep
conviction, a near-fanatic belief, that the rule of law should be supreme. He
believed in Themis.

And now…

Sánchez
shivers with a sense of dread, as if he’s facing something truly unstoppable
and implacable. He knows how those scales would tilt, if his life were measured
in them today.

“Options?”
he snarls. “The remaining Syndacian helicopters near Cabezón?”

“They’re
all the same type sir. They all travel at the same speed. They would be two
hours behind.”

“Skimmers?
Show me what we have.”

Themis
disappears, to be replaced on the screens with a map of Newyan.

There
are a number of skimmers: four squadrons deployed in remote bases. One of his
staff feeds in their range and speed, another, the expected track of Aguirre’s
stolen helicopter. The skimmers are incredibly fast, but not quite fast enough.
If she intends to come to Iruña, she’ll get
here before the skimmers can intercept.

As
he absorbs that information, the last voice he wants to hear slices through the
quiet of the control room.

“Incompetents!
How fortunate I don’t depend solely on you.”

Ministro
Berges, flanked by her guards, has entered.

There’s
nothing he can say about the debacle at Orbaiz. Instead he asks: “How do you
mean?”

“As
a fail-safe, I’ve closed all access to Iruña. Every road, every gate is closed
by the only people I find I can trust, the Presidential Guard.”

Sánchez
knows it can be done. Iruña had been built during the turmoil at the end of the
last Expansion. The inner city has the configuration of a fortress with limited
means of access. It is entirely possible to keep it isolated from the outside.

Berges
is not finished.

“Still,
we must not be complacent. I refuse to allow this criminal to dictate how and
when we must act to prevent her.”

“Why
not just wait until she hands herself in at one of the gateways?”

“You’re
being a fool, Sánchez. This woman is part of a terrorist organisation. Haven’t
you wondered why she visited Cabezón?
It’s obvious! She went there to collect some device. She could have a nuclear
bomb, or nerve gas.”

Sánchez
cannot speak, but he dare not look away, either. Berges’ face is red. He
notices for the first time, she has a twitch at the corner of one eye.

“We
have to stop her now.”

“How,
Ministro?” One of Sánchez’ aides asks.

Berges
straightens her back.

“The
destroyer Biháriz is in orbit,” she
says. “Get me a link through to her captain.”

Sánchez
clears his throat. “You have Commander
Tiziana and her Executive Officer under arrest, Ministro, for the decision to
fire missiles to drive off the pirate attack on the Xing Gerchu. That’s why Biháriz
is still in orbit.”

“Well,
there will still be someone in command! Get them on the comms. Now!”

There’s
a frantic scrabble, partly because Sánchez
is still operating from his house, and signals to the destroyer have to be
cleared through his own Bureau and the Bureau of Defence.

It’s
fourteen minutes before the connection is made, and Berges has spent the time
pacing like a caged animal, refusing a seat, refusing refreshments, refusing
even to speak to anyone. Her mood has clearly not been improved by the delay.
Every time she turns, she glares in Sánchez’
direction.

Finally,
the screen fills with the image of the officer left in charge of the Biháriz.

“Ministro
Berges, Lieutenant Abad, at your service,” he says, immediately nervous and
hurriedly corrects himself. “I mean, Captain Abad.”

Abad ignores Sánchez, even though, technically, he is the current Ministro of Defense. Sánchez is quite happy with this. He knows exactly where this is going and he has enough on his conscience.

“Captain,
circumstances have conspired against our planetside forces, and we currently
have an escaped and extremely dangerous criminal in a stolen military
helicopter, flying towards Iruña. It is fortunate that the Biháriz is in a position to assist us.”

“Yes,
Ministro?” Abad is puzzled. He clearly has no idea what he’s about to be asked.

“Captain
Abad, you are ordered to destroy that helicopter with your plasma cannons. The
tracking signal from the satellite is being sent to you now.”

Abad’s
eyes bulge.

“Ministro,
we… I mean,” he gathers himself. “The plasma cannon we have mounted on the Biháriz are intended for space combat. They are hugely
powerful, of course, but the accuracy of firing one of our cannons through
atmosphere…” His eyes flicker to another screen, and he continues. “Firing an
oblique shot through atmosphere, from high orbit, I cannot guarantee—”

“I
am familiar with your weaponry, Captain, and the problems associated with
firing them into atmosphere. I am therefore authorising the use of the entire
broadside.”

Abad’s
jaw drops. “Ministro,” his voice becomes hoarse, “the extent of destruction…”

“I
am aware of the performance of the weapons. Proceed with your orders.”

Abad
tries again. “Ministro, the TSS Annan
is in orbit, barely a few hundred kilometers from us. They will observe—”

“They
will observe that we are in the process of eliminating terrorists, by the means
we deem suitable and available for the task, a decision forced on us by the
earlier, inefficient attempts at apprehension by officers who failed in their
duty. Are you going to similarly fail in your duty?”

Abad’s
mouth snaps shut. His hands move over controls. When he speaks again, his voice
is very quiet and precise. “No, Ministro. As per standing orders for home orbit,
our weapons are not deployed and gun crews are not at their stations. The Biháriz will execute your orders to fire, when ready, a full
broadside at the helicopter’s co-ordinates, as provided by the tracking
satellite. That will be in… four hundred and twenty seconds. In that time,
the Biháriz will manoeuvre with all speed to reduce the distance
and angle of fire. We could continue manoeuvering to improve the targeting—”

Sánchez
understands what he is trying to do. The plasma bolts will continue, even those
that strike the helicopter, and expend their full fury on the ground below. An
oblique angle will spread the area of destruction over tens of kilometers. Even
a straight down broadside, with the destroyer dangerously skimming the planet’s
atmosphere, would wreak an area of utter destruction a kilometer wide.

But
Berges cuts the young officer off. “You are ordered to fire as soon as the
cannons are ready.”

Chapter 53

Zara

Hwa doesn’t leave it all to
the bursts of data she’s transmitting, she talks as well, or rather gives
orders.

“I
need the pilot’s pad.”

Talan
has it. She’s switched it off to disable tracking, but Hwa tells me to switch
it back on and feed in a series of instructions.

Then
she says: “Switch on the autopilot.”

I
find the option on the helicopter’s controls and select it.

“Hey!”
The pilot complains. Talan waves the knife in his peripheral vision and he
shuts up. He takes his hands and feet off the controls and lets Hwa fly it
through her link.

“Zara,
just listen, we don’t have much time,” Hwa says. “This connection will last
only a couple of minutes more. Firstly, you’re going to need to get into Iruña
through the underground rivers and sewer system. I’ve sent you details.”

I’d
been worrying about that. Iruña would have been hard enough to get in and out
of without someone noticing. Now that the Hajnal knows where I am, it would
have been impossible. I’d been expecting Hwa to have to come out and smuggle us
in, using a diplomatic pass or something.

Not
to be. The sewers, eh? I’d understood all the original plans had been lost. I
wondered briefly where she’d got them, but she’s still talking.

“You
can’t stay in the helicopter either.”

“Why?”
I know she said not to interrupt, but I can’t help it. It’s too far to walk.

“Because
the Hajnal have just ordered the Biháriz to
destroy it.”

My
jaw drops. A destroyer firing into the Newyan atmosphere? The Hajnal have gone
mad. There’s no way the Enquiry is going to overlook that.

But
Hwa hasn’t stopped. “Primer Ministro Eneko is just at this moment explaining to
the Commissioners of the Enquiry that a dangerous terrorist has hijacked a
helicopter with the intent of bombing Iruña.
Once more details come out, they’ll say that Kat was the terrorist and she
unfortunately kidnapped you.”

“But—”

“Shut
up. You’re now flying over the River Sakon. There are canyons ahead which will
provide cover. I will slow to a hover and you jump into the water.”

“We
can’t swim to Iruña!”

“Don’t
need to. About ten kilometers downstream, after you exit this set of canyons,
on the right-hand bank, there’s a jetty used for river expeditions. Behind that
is a river services depot. It’s unmanned. The River Rescue Service and River
Police were seconded to standard police duties after the Hajnal declared the
last emergency. You’ll need to break in, but there’s a boat in there which will
get you down to Iruña.”

“If
they have a satellite tracking us, we’ll be sitting ducks on the river,” Talan
says.

Kat
laughs at Talan’s description. At least someone is finding this funny.

“The
satellite is about to have an accident as it drifts into the way of plasma fire
from the Biháriz. Conveniently
destroying evidence of our conversations as well. They’ll have no tracking, and
no high resolution look-down systems. They’ll requisition the Biháriz to use their scanners, but
they’re not designed for the task, and anyway, we’ll deal with that.”

I
shiver as I get an inkling of the degree to which Hwa is capable of
infiltrating Newyan’s electronic systems.

Kat
and Talan have already put on the backpacks with our vital data modules in. The
third backpack with the food in is shoved into my hands.

“Thank—”
I start to say to Hwa.

“No
time for that. Can’t safely communicate with you any more until you get into
the tunnels, and high enough under the city that you can receive InfoHub
signals. I’ve sent as much as I can about what’s happening in the files on your
pad. Get jumping.”

I
look up.

We’re
flying low over the water between tall canyon cliffs and slowing down
carefully. The helicopter is now juddering noticeably. If it doesn’t get shot
down, it sounds as if it’ll fall out of the sky soon enough anyway.

“You
heard her—”

I
turn to look and stop.

Damn.

What
do we do with the pilot?

Leave
him here and he could turn the autopilot off. Or he could call and tell them
what’s happening.

He’s
not dumb. He knows exactly what the problem is. He raises his hands.

“Can
not go back now. I dead if I do. Go with. Please.”

Talan’s
eyes are narrowing. The knife is still in her hand.

“No.
Talan, you can’t.” Kat tugs at Talan’s wrist, wriggles her body between Talan
and the back of the pilot’s seat.

I’m
watching him. He doesn’t make any moves. His eyes don’t go to the overrides or
the radio. He’s probably telling the truth about being killed if he goes back.

“We
have to go,” I say, as the helicopter slows to a hover.

The
pilot looks down at the water.

“Can
not swim,” he says.

Goddess!

“You
just lie on your back and relax, I’ll pull you,” Kat says.

Talan
sweeps her aside, and her knife flashes.

“No!”
Kat screams.

Talan
has cut his seat harness. Then she tears open the door, throws the shocked
pilot out of the cockpit, and jumps into the river.

Kat
dives after them.

I
follow.

The
helicopter immediately rises above the cliffs and heads away at full speed.

Less than three minutes
later, struggling in the freezing water, but still protected by the bulk of the
canyon cliffs, we hear a sound like the heavens have been torn apart. I squeeze
my eyes shut, dip under the water and it barely seems to make a difference. I
can feel the explosions through the
river itself. It’s only one broadside surely, but the shocks seems to go on and
on. When I finally come up for air, it’s darker. Clouds of dirt and ash have
been thrown up into the atmosphere. The sun is blocked.

As
we struggle ashore at the River Rescue Service jetty after an hour of swimming,
there’s a smell of scorched earth and the clouds are beginning to float down as
a constant, grey, gritty rain. Like the planet is crying.

I
flash back to the memory of the piskateller’s awful vision of a possible future
Newyan. Nothing grows after the kinetic
bombardment—it’s a grey, freezing desert. Even the snow is still the color of
ash.

Chapter 54

Sánchez

Sánchez is seated with the
other ministers at the main conference table. A meeting of the movement, not
all the ministers.

Loiola
of Foreign Affairs and Berges of Security sit on one side. Two of the three
Inner Circle. Facing them, Elizondo of Trade, Zavala of Industry, Carranza of
Finance, Yarritu of Food and Agriculture, and him. Despite the failure at
Orbaiz station, he’s still there, one whole day later. He now has the dubious
title of Ministro of Justice and Ministro of Defence (Temporary).

No
one asks where Carmen Goya is. No one mentions her at all.

At
the end of the table, there’s a screen displaying Primer Ministro Eneko, the
third of the Inner Circle, addressing a wildly cheering crowd.

Sánchez
wonders what the crowd’s enthusiasm has cost them in incentives, but says
nothing. They roar every time Eneko pauses, and that’s all that’s needed. The
fact that Eneko’s diatribe against the Names is blind gibberish is neither here
nor there. Nor is the fact that Eneko has incited violence at least three
times, and, if Sánchez were doing his job as Ministro of Justice correctly, he
would have been signing an arrest warrant.

He
is doing his job, just constrained by
the circumstances, and those do not allow him to arrest the Primer Ministro.

“That
seems to be going well,” Berges says approvingly, when Loiola turns the sound
down.

She’s insane, Sánchez thinks, but keeps such thoughts to himself. His coffee has
cooled in front of him. His stomach is too upset to drink it.

They
had paused the meeting out of loyalty to hear the opening of Eneko’s address.

Loiola
now returns to the agenda.

“So…”
he says, flicking through notes on his pad. “The Xian delegation have protested
about the electronic signals in the vicinity of their building which appear to
be causing jamming, and the parking of our naval maintenance ships in
geo-stationary orbit between the delegation and their frieghter. I’ve
apologised and offered a team to investigate what could be causing the problem
in the delegation’s buildings. They declined. I’ve told them that the
positioning of the maintenance ships is a matter for the Bureau of Defence,
which is undergoing restructuring.”

His
lips stretch, but it could hardly be called a smile.

“Will
this situation in any way impact the relief supplies?” Yarritu asks nervously.

“No,”
Zavala replies. “They can still communicate. We’ve offered them facilities in
the Bureau of Industry just across the plaza.”

“Under
strict supervision at all times?” Berges demands. “I don’t trust them.”

“Of
course,” Zavala says. “Your own team from Security.”

Sánchez
doubts that the Security team has any chance of preventing the Xian delegation
from meddling in whatever they want to, but their actions have terminated
whatever was going on in that direct link between the delegation and the old
freighter, the Wújìn, which is still
parked in geo-synchronous orbit above Iruña.

What was that link for? What needed such a
continuous high bandwidth?

Loiola interrupts his thoughts. “We need suggestions for a new Ministro of the Bureau of Defense,” he says. “We could make the announcement at the same time as we elevate our colleague to the actual position he has been filling.”

He
nods at Yarritu.

“Actually…”
Sánchez begins.

Loiola
stops him. “The two positions are excessive, even for a man of your abilities, Sánchez.
You were always the best fit for Justice, and that hasn’t changed. Surely,
you’re not letting enjoyment of the additional power get to you?”

They’re
all looking at him.

“It
was a temporary measure,” Berges says. “Now that the Aguirre terrorists have
been disposed of, there should be a relatively quiet time during which it would
be ideal to bring someone forward.”

“About
that—” he begins, but this time Yarritu interrupts him.

“I’m
not at all sure that it will be a quiet time. As I’ve stated in my reports, the
Xian delegation—”

“Yes,
yes, they’re arguing that they’re going to control the distribution and you
told them they can’t. What are they going to do? Fight us? We’ll have the
destroyer Santoña meet them and
escort them to holding orbit around the space elevator.”

Yarritu
tries to speak again, but Sánchez is a veteran of meetings and slips back into
the smallest gap. “Actually, it’s not that, or not purely that,” he says.

The
eyes of the group all swing back to him, and his heart rate kicks up again.

“Explain,”
Berges says.

“There
are three points. The first is that we seem to have forgotten that the Aguirres
appear to be connected to the Xian family that runs Fragrant Stars,” he says.
“I’m sure Primer Ministro Eneko felt that it was appropriate to describe to the
people so vividly the destruction of the helicopter, but I’m concerned that
might have an effect on the Xian relief convoy. What if, say, half the supplies
are being transported by Fragrant Stars ships. Delegate Hwa is young and
unpredictable—”

“She
doesn’t have the authority to override Senior Delegate Keo, or whoever will be
in command of the relief convoy,” Loiola dismisses it with a wave.

“Unless
the commander of the relief convoy might happen to be the captain of the Shohwa, perhaps,” Sánchez says quietly.

Loiola
shakes his head angrily. “You’re seeing problems around every corner.” He’s
clearly finished with this part of the discussion, but Yarritu speaks up, his
eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

“You
said three points, Ministro Sánchez,” he says. “What are the others?”

“There
was no contact with our police forces in Cabezón
at the normal hour for reporting this morning. When my staff called them, they
gave a satisfactory report, but the code word used was incorrect.”

“That’s
happened before.” Ministro Elizondo peers down
the table at him.

“Get
the Syndacians to resolve it,” Berges says, impatiently.

Sánchez
nods. “I would, but I’ve deployed them to the River Sakon at the site where
the helicopter was destroyed.”

“The
whole force? Why?” Berges is angry.

Sánchez enters a command on his pad, and the screen at the end of the table is now split into two panels. One now shows the track of the helicopter from Orbaiz to the point it was destroyed, displayed on a topographic map. The track, based on the helicopter’s geo-positioning system, is a dashed line. The dashes are highlighted to show where the helicopter is, synchronized to the other panel in the display. That’s a blurry video feed from the same satellite, showing the image of the helicopter racing across the high plains, captured by the ground surveillance lens.

“It
didn’t concern you that this is the capability of the satellite we lost in the
broadside? Destroyed as it strayed across the line of the plasma fire?” Sánchez
asks.

Carranza
of Finance winces. The satellites cost a fortune. Newyan simply isn’t in the
position to replace it for some considerable time.

Berges
looks even angrier. “It isn’t my fault the idiot in command of the ship hit the
satellite.”

“He
was ordered to fire as soon as his cannons were ready,” Sánchez points out
reasonably and holds up his hand to forestall another outburst from Berges.
“Nevertheless, there’s more to it than that. The satellite shouldn’t have been in the way. It moved so that it was.”

There’s
a silence around the table. Now he really has their attention.

“The
control records for the satellite…” Elizondo begins.

“The instructions it was following are gone with the satellite. There’s no indication any such instructions came from the facility responsible on Newyan. At my request, the satellite control experts at the facility have hypothesized a way for a narrow beam communications laser to drop the satellite into system mode and then change it’s manoeuvering instructions.”

“There’s
no way to fire a narrow beam laser from the surface, through all the atmosphere
and ensure a stable lock on the signal detection equipment of the staellite,”
Yarritu says. “It’s simply not possible. Even I know that.”

“Impossible
from the ground,” Sánchez says. “Not so from a ship in space.”

“Wait,”
Loiola says. “So, that Xian ship out there hacked into the satellite and had it
move so it was destroyed. Is that what you’re saying? To what benefit?”

Sánchez
shrugs. “I’m saying something or someone made it move. As to the benefit or
otherwise, it has deprived us of our high resolution tracking capability for
that part of Newyan… And now, we have arrived at the interesting section of
the replay.”

He
directs their attention back to the screen.

“The
satellite was well placed to track the helicopter, but not from directly
above.” He slows the replay right down. Now the tracking image also displays
the helicopter’s speed. It’s shown reducing as the aircraft approaches the
canyons on the River Sakon. “With the result that, as you see here, the satellite loses
sight of the helicopter due to the height of the canyon walls.”

“It
stopped!” Carranza says, after five seconds waiting for it to re-appear.

“It
just slowed down,” Yarritu says. “The pilot is being cautious.”

“Why
fly into the canyons at all?” Elizondo asks.

Sánchez
ignores them. “The actual speed at any point in the shadow of those canyons is
speculation, but it had to have slowed down given the time it was in there.
Here it is emerging.”

The
helicopter surges upwards out of the canyons and speeds off.

“Note,
it is no longer moving in the direction of Iruña at this point, whereas it was
before,” Sánchez says.

“Where
was it going then? What’s in that direction?” Loiola demands.

“It
was going to the nearest point where its destruction would cause least damage,”
Sánchez replies, “and in the direction that brought it and the satellite into a
direct line from the destroyer at the point the broadside was ready to fire.”

The
video and tracking feeds end just before the destruction of the helicopter, as
the plasma bolts responsible pass through the satellite as if it were made of
foil.

Zavala breaks the silence, clenching his hands together nervously. “You’re telling us that someone, who must have all our communication protocols, encryptions and codes, is monitoring our conversations, overheard our orders, got the Aguirres out of the helicopter into the river, took over flying the helicopter while coordinating with an old freighter to move the satellite in order to get the broadside from the Biháriz to destroy all the evidence and make it appear as if the Aguirres are dead, and at the same time preventing us from using the surveillance satellite to confirm that?”

Sánchez
shrugs again.

There’s a long wait while they take this on board. Berges’ face is red and her eyes glittering balefully, but she says nothing. Loiola is also silent. He appears to Sánchez as if the possibilities summarized by Zavala have truly shaken him.

The
others speak, mouthing standard pro-forma denunciations against Xian. To Sánchez’
ears, it’s just noise.

“It
feels incredible,” Loiola says eventually. “But still. You seem to have a good
grasp of the issue, Ministro Sánchez, so I suggest you remain in your post at
Defence for the moment to get to the bottom of this incident. In the meantime,
we approve your use of the Syndacians.” Heads nod around the table. “Once we
are sure that the Aguirres are dead, one way or another, then the troops can
return to Cabezón and deal with whatever
the situation is there. It’s not as if one city alone can do anything. How we
deal with Xian, if this is indeed their doing, may give us leverage in the
coming negotiations. An attack against us by Xian could be just the argument we
need to get Earth on our side and gain acceptance for Newyan into the Inner
Worlds.”

It
is a policy they have used before, to good effect, playing Xian off against
Earth in negotiations.

“There
is a matter of the costs.” Sánchez forwards a
message to their pads that he’s received from the Syndacian commander. “He
suggests that we’re coming close to engaging in a civil war which he is
ill-equipped and under-manned to fight.”

Carranza
runs a shaking hand through his hair as he looks at the details of the message.
“We can’t afford this.”

“We
must, but we won’t have to for much longer,” Loiola replies. “Primer Ministro
Eneko and I are planning a fund-raising trip to visit other member planets of
the movement. It’s in their interests. The establishment of Newyan as a member
of the Inner Worlds will more than repay—”

“Out
of the question. You can’t,” Berges interrupts him. She’s the only one who
speaks to him like that on a regular basis. “You’re needed here.”

Sánchez ignores the byplay as they argue. He knows the movement’s other planets have no capability of raising the funds that Newyan is going to need, what with replacement of satellites, bigger bribes for the Commissioners, and the Syndacian mercenaries’ costs, let alone prosaic matters such as securing food supplies and restarting their agricultural industry before the relief efforts are exhausted.

Loiola
and Eneko aren’t going to get more funding.

It
comes as a small shock that he is no longer able to be angry as he realizes
what Loiola is  doing is simply ensuring
he and Eneko have an escape plan in place if things get worse. The ‘well
motivated’ populace that are shouting their slogans and giving their support
will turn on them in the blink of an eye.

Eneko
will probably commandeer the Biháriz. It
may even be the reason he persuaded Berges to arrest the ship’s commanding
officers and order the destroyer to remain in orbit.

Sánchez can’t back away like that. He can’t leave. Newyan is
his planet. This nightmare, although he never intended it to be this way, he
acknowledges is partly his responsibility. He has to prevent it becoming worse,
to fix it, whatever it takes.

For
all his careful wording earlier, he’s convinced that Aguirre has survived the
destruction of the helicopter and is making her way down the River Sakon right
now. Given her record so far, he doubts that the Syndacians will find her.

But
what has she got that’s so important to deliver to Iruña?

What
has she and Delegate Hwa concocted between them?

Enough
to topple the government and expose the movement?

Even
if they have, how is Aguirre going to get
into Iruña?

And
why has Yarritu suddenly woken up in meetings and started to interrupt him?

What
is the man hiding?

What
does he need to do about it?

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 20

Things are hotting up!
A long(ish) episode at 4.6k words. I’ve decided to drop a sub-thread about a spy in the Xian delegation, so a small part of what you’ve read in previous episodes will change slightly in the final book.

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 48 – Ep. 20

Zara

The sun is still below the
horizon, but the east is aflame and scarlet-edged clouds are fraying to reveal
an indigo sky, paling to turquoise.

It’s
freezing in the mail car, but I open the door a crack to double-check why the
train is slowing.

In
the twilight ahead, I can see the dark bulk of a building outlined with a few
lights shining from some windows along a small platform. Past the building, a
red control light on a gantry seems suspended in the air.

“Orbaiz,
I guess.”

The
train shudders and clanks as it brakes, and it takes an age for the jerking and
screeching to stop. The whole railway seems primeval, but it’s the way most
planets transport over distances. On Kernow, where short distance travel in
some of the provincial capitals is by clean, silent modules hurtling through
evacuated subterranean passages, they take an obscure pleasure in the fact that
their long distance railways use steam engines.

Here
on Newyan, the trains are electric, with massive battery arrays which need to
be swopped out, and that requirement is the reason that re-charging stations
like Orbaiz exist.

I
pull out my pad and try to connect to the station’s InfoHub relay.

Nothing.
No signal.

“It’s
not really a passenger type of station,” Kat points out.

“But
they must have an InfoHub connection in the office.”

“Yes.”

“And
they’ll have enough of a signal to let them connect while they’re close to the
office…”

Kat
nods.

We
all put our heads out of the door.

It’s
a long train and the engine has
stopped just past the station, next to a special raised platform where the
exchange of the battery array takes place. The arrays are as big as trucks and
there are loaders specially designed for the job of replacing them.

The
wind makes it even colder outside of the mail car. Talan and I pull back.

“We
could sneak out while it’s still dark,” I say. “Get close enough to the office
to hack their connection.”

“Won’t
stay dark for much longer,” Talan replies. “And if we sneak out, remember we’re
going to have to sneak back again.” She wrinkles her nose in the way she does
when she doesn’t want to do something. “How urgent is it to talk to Hwa right
now?”

“Ahhh.
Well, difficult to be sure, but—”

 “Zara.” There’s something in Kat’s voice that
makes me turn quickly. She’s still hanging her head out of the door, ignoring
the cold.

“What?”

“There’s
nothing happening.”

I
look again, and she’s right. There’s no one around.

“The
drivers might have gone in for some breakfast,” I say. “Perhaps they’re waiting
for the sun to warm things up?”

Kat
shakes her head. “Recharging stations get rated on the time it takes to swop
out battery arrays. If they’re not working on it, they’ve been told not to do
it.”

All
three of us are hanging out of the mail car, looking down at the silent, empty
station.

Talan
grabs the rucksacks.

“Come
on. I don’t like this. We have to go check it out,” she says.

We
clamber down, moving the sliding door back until it looks closed. Thank the
Goddess that the door on this side doesn’t squeal like the other one, because
now the train has stopped the whole of the high plains seem to be holding their
breath.

The
ground is broken, rocky and covered in short, tough bushes. Moving is
difficult, so by the time we get near the station offices, the sun has breached
the horizon and it gives us long, long shadows. The closer we get, the more we
have to hide, but finally, behind the offices, we find a scatter of sheds which
provide us with good cover. They’re not locked—it may be there’s no one for a
day’s travel around here who doesn’t actually work on the station, so security
would be pointless. Talan opens the door to the biggest shed and we rush in to
get out of the wind.

It’s
a storeroom, with big doors at either end that don’t work very well at keeping
the wind out.

I
look around inside. The place is full of loaders, forklifts and trucks of
various sizes. Racks of worn tools and grubby protective clothing line one
wall.

We
move down to the far end and peer through the ill-fitting doors. We can make
out the train engine standing next to the maintenance ramp, the huge yard where
the re-charged battery arrays are stored ready for loading and, beyond that,
the recharging facilities. The place still seems deserted. The drivers and
staff must be inside the station offices. The nice, warm offices.

I
shrug and huddle down against the wall closest to the station offices. This
time, my pad connects immediately, but Hwa’s hacking apps take much longer to
set up a secure connection.

“Come
on, come on,” I mutter, shivering.

Kat
is delegated to be lookout at the door which points towards the depot. Talan
stomps back to the other end of the shed, pausing only to check out the trucks.

Hwa’s
app blinks amber. Not fully secure, a
message says.

I’m
waiting for something better, but I don’t get the chance. The screen suddenly blanks
and the fills with the pulsing message:

          GET OFF THE TRAIN!

“What
the nova?” My heart skips a beat. How did she even know we were on the train?

Talan
hears me and immediately runs back as I get to my feet.

Before
I have time to show her the message, the screen clears again, and I’m talking
to Hwa.

“Where
are you, Zara?” she blurts out.

There
has to be a reasonable level of security for her to ask that openly, but the
very fact she’s risking speaking directly rather through coded messages has my
heart racing.

“Orbaiz.
In a shed behind the station, waiting for the engine battery arrays to be
changed. What’s happening?”

“Get
out of there. They worked out you’re on the train. Two helicopters with
Syndacian mercenaries will be there soon. They have seekers. Get away and wait
for my messages. We’re looking at options for you.”

The
call terminates.

“If
they have seekers, there’s no point in running,” Talan says.

“Take
one of the trucks?” Kat says.

Talan
shakes her head. “The helicopters would overtake us, and even of they didn’t, they’ll
have plenty of time to set up roadblocks.” She frowns. “Unless Hwa comes up
with something incredible in the next few minutes, here’s what we’re going to
do.”

Chapter 49 – Ep. 20

Hwa

Hwa does not want to be in this meeting with Subsecretario Yarritu.

She’s
left Xing working on plans, but she’s desperate to get back to helping Zara. What
can they do? A massive distraction? Getting a diplomatic car out there will
take hours. Challenge the government directly? Threaten them?

Xing
is processing every possible alternative. And she has to be here, because their
overall plan needs all the parts to work together, and saving the lives of the
people in the rest of Newyan is high on the priorities.

As
Xing guessed, Ministro Sánchez is not able to attend this meeting, and Yarritu
is making unnecessarily lengthy apologies.

“What
happened to the actual Ministro of the Bureau of Food and Agriculture,
Subsecretario?” she interrupts him.

Yarritu
licks his lips. “An unfortunate accident,” he says. He does not meet her eyes.

Hwa
snorts impatiently. “So many ‘accidents’ and ‘incidents’. It seems a dangerous
career, to be a senior official in the Bureaux of Newyan. What was your
department in the Bureau before?”

“I
was… well, I still am responsible for water,” Yarritu says immediately,
showing the first signs of enthusiasm. “My particular expertise is the water
supply and sewerage arrangements for Iruña. When the Founders built this city,
they built it over two rivers, the Argo and the Neve, that were diverted
underground. Visitors to the city are always told to look at the architecture
of the temples and libraries and the older Bureaux buildings, but everywhere in
Iruña, the structures below our feet are the truly incredible engineering and
architectural inheritance of the Founders. I have written books about it.”

He
fetches a thick tome from the shelves behind him, his name prominent on the
spine, and presents it to her.

“With
my compliments,” he says, bowing slightly.

Hwa
thanks him and takes the weighty book reluctantly. The cover is slightly oily
where his sweaty hands have touched the glossy jacket. And the book is
cumbersome, so after a polite glance at it, she places it beside her and
surreptitiously wipes her fingers.

Yarritu
isn’t like the other leaders of the Bureau, but she knows from the communications
that Xing has hacked, he is part of
the Hajnal. He seems about as threatening as a mouse, but they are all one,
this conspiracy.

“We
must discuss the distribution of relief,” she says.

“Yes.”
He sits again and fastens his gaze on the notes in front of him. “In
anticipation of the supplies arriving, all provincial capitals have had
infrastructure put in place to facilitate the efficient distribution of food.
The space elevator will be cleared all all other traffic and the railway system
prepared for shipments as a priority.”

“So
I have heard,” Hwa replies, frowning. “Forgive me, Subsecretario, but this is
entirely unsatisfactory. The bottleneck of transporting supplies through the
space elevator is already unworkable. Your single line railway system
connecting the elevator in Iruña with your network hub in Xorio is a second
bottleneck. The railway itself is barely satisfactory, with a likelihood of
your exceeding your recharging capacity and the high risk of trains stranded
without functioning battery arrays. And finally, in the cities themselves, temporary,
untrained police forces, identity checks and illegal incarceration of people
without documentation do not seem to me to be aspects of an efficient or
equitable distribution system.”

He
cannot meet her eye. “Your estimation of our transport structure is excessively
negative. As for the matter of necessary policing in the current emergency, we
admit to some short term problems, but your characterisation appears to be
entirely taken from propaganda put out by trouble-makers.”

“This
is entirely taken from what is
happening right now, and I would be delighted if you accompanied me to a city
of my choice to observe it.” She leans back. She has already been able to make
connections to ‘trouble-makers’ and they have been more than happy to begin supplying
evidence. “Our overriding requirement is this: Xian’s relief supplies will be
available to everyone, equally. To this end, the incoming convoy has the necessary
personnel and delivery systems to achieve this, without help from you. Supplies
and personnel will go directly to the cities by shuttle, Subsecretario, and then
directly to the people.”

He
raises his head to look at her, and swallows.

“You
make it sound almost like an invasion, Delegate Hwa.”

“I
make it sound like the only way the people of Newyan are going to survive,
because it is.”

“We
cannot simply surrender—”

“And
we cannot simply hand over supplies to reinforce the suppression of the people
of Newyan.”

“I
am constrained in what I may agree with you,” Yarritu says after a pause,
licking his lips. The man is sweating. He looks nervous, as if he’s trying not
to look over his shoulder. Regardless, his words remain firm. “I feel you may
similarly be constrained and I believe you’re claiming a level of authority
that I’m not sure you have.”

He
has a point. No one has officially delegated her the running of the relief
effort. She’s been undiplomatic with what she’s said, because of her eagerness
to get back to helping Zara. If Sánchez were here, she would have had to be far
more careful with her words. There is still the possibility that the Ministro
of the Bureau of Justice could destroy the carefully made plans to expose the
Hajnal to the Enquiry by cancelling her court case.

There
is no further point to this meeting; she has put down the marker for the way
Xian will require the relief to be run, but clearly Yarritu has been told what
he can and cannot accept.

“I
can see that my arguments will be insufficient,” she says. “Very well. I
suggest you contact the leader of the convoy when it arrives and discuss the mechanics
of distribution with him.”

The
convoy won’t arrive for another day or so, at best. She’ll have tomorrow to
launch her court case. And whoever is running the convoy will have the rank and
power to dictate Xian’s terms.

“That
will be acceptable,” he says.

Immediately,
she reconnects with Xing through her pad, hoping to connect through him to
Zara.

At the same time, she makes to leave, and it’s only when she reaches the door, she realizes he’s followed, to see her out.

“Don’t
forget your book,” he murmurs, almost inaudibly, offering it to her again. “It
may be the most important book about Iruña that you will ever read.”

His heart rate has soared. Turning to look him in the eyes, she sees he is scared. More than that; maybe terrified would describe it better.

A tug on her comms captures her attention. Xing tells her the connection to the station at Orbaiz has just gone down. Her stomach contracts with shock. They can’t help her! Zara is on her own.

Hwa
blinks and tries to keep her face clear. Yarritu is peering at her, his face
showing concern over the fear.

Too
much is happening, but her instinct tells her there’s something important right
here, in front of her.

She
takes his book. He has placed an ornate bookmark in it.

“Thank
you, Subsecretario, I’ll be sure to look at it when I can.”

She
holds his gaze for a moment more, eyes narrowed, and then turns away.

Chapter 50 – Ep. 20

Zara

It’s still freezing outside.

The
helicopter pilots aren’t dumb. They’ve remained in their warm helicopters, with
the engines turning idly and the cabin heating set way up. The mercenaries have
disembarked. They’ve surrounded the train, and they’re opening it carriage by
carriage, plasma rifles covering every angle.

The
helicopters have had to land in the only available large flat space, the enormous
dirt yard in front of the battery matrix recharging facility. It’s a big space,
and they’ve kept plenty of distance between the helicopters. The pilots have no
wish to touch blades, and their landings kicked up such a cloud of dust that
the last few meters were flown blind.

Some
dumb railway workers have decided it’s a good time to prepare swopping out the
engine battery matrix. One of the grubby yellow forklift trucks is inching its
way into the yard, one worker driving, half hidden in the cab, another walking
in front, directing it to ensure that the truck comes nowhere near the
helicopters.

The
pilots grimace. Civilians! One of
them waves to get the workmen to go back, which they ignore, but it’s still not
worth actually getting out of the helicopters at the moment. Their flight
overalls are thin, it’s cold, and the language is hard enough as it is without
trying to understand whatever accent these Newyan people use out here, in the
back end of nowhere.

Kat’s driving the forklift, inexpertly.
I’m the ‘guy’ in front, dressed in a pair of coveralls and wearing a yellow
hardhat. I feel like I need another two sets of eyes: I’m having to watch Kat’s
steering and the actions of both
pilots.

The
InfoHub connection died. Not a software shut down. Someone switched the hardware
off deliberately. We’re on our own and executing Talan’s plan.

The pilot who landed nearest the station offices reaches up, where he’s hung his headset. It’s likely he’s going to talk to the mercenaries and get them to send someone from the station to clear these idiots out of the depot yard. As soon as he speaks, someone will realize what’s happening.

Come on, come on.

I
swivel my head; there’s a flash of movement in the cockpit of the other
helicopter, the one furthest from the offices.

Now.

I
sprint to the cab of the forklift, hauling Kat out and shoving her toward the
further helicopter. She runs, but she runs backwards, watching me.

Damn it, Kat! Just run.

The
forklift controls are simple, like our plan. I twist the steering wheel,
swerving the forklift around. The pilot is scrabbling for his headset now,
panic making him clumsy. I force a rusty shovel into the space between the seat
and the accelerator pedal, so the pedal is locked full down. And I stay with it
just long enough to be sure it’s on target before I leap out of the cab.

That
hurts. An unburdened forklift gathers
speed surprisingly quickly.

There’s
no time to waste thinking about it; I’m just picking myself up off the dirt
when the forklift runs into the helicopter’s rotor blades.

I’m
already sprinting as the sound of huge crashes and shrieks of metal comes from behind
me, followed by an explosion.

At
‘our’ helicopter, the navigator has been throw out onto the ground. Talan must
have hit him hard; he’s trying, but he can’t manage to gather his feet under
himself. I ignore him to leap into his seat in the cockpit.

Talan’s
behind the pilot, her knife against his throat.

Kat’s
looking at the door mounted plasma weapons in the back.

“Is
he going to behave, or do I get to fly?” I yell.

Bluff. I can’t fly this thing.

“He’s
flying,” Talan says.

The
knife has nicked his skin and there’s blood on his collar.

“I
die, you die,” he says hoarsely, in a thick accent.

“Or
we all live. Shut up and fly, now.”

The
pitch of the engine changes, the helicopter lurches into the air. Dust billows
out, obscuring the burning second helicopter.

There
are mercenaries running back from the station. Seeing us airborn, a couple stop
and lift plasma rifles to their shoulders just as they disappear into the spreading
cloud of dirt.

There’s
a thump from behind, as Kat experiments with the mounted plasma gun. The road
in front of the depot explodes, and I imagine the closer mercenaries are too
busy hiding to shoot at us. The flashes of those still up at the station warn
us of incoming plasma bolts. A couple pass right through the body of the helicopter
and causes the whole thing to swing around like a weathervane.

The
pilot curses in his own language as he gets control again, then his voice
quietens down till he’s muttering. It’s too noisy to hear, but I lip-read him.
He’s changed his protest around: “You die, I die,” he’s saying now. Smart man.

Kat
fires the plasma gun again, but the angle’s not good. Glancing back at the
station, I think she may have hit one of the sheds.

Another
couple of bolts hit us. One vaporizes a section of the landing gear just
beneath me, and the the helicopter lurches again.

The
pilot’s face is pale. He pushes the helicopter’s nose down further and we’re
racing away over the broken ground. Low.
I could just about reach down and touch the tops of some of the shrubs. Too low
for any more plasma bolts.

That’s
the good news. The bad news is that the helicopter’s damaged. I can feel it
through my seat, a juddering feeling. Rotor balance maybe.

I’m
putting on the navigator’s headset to talk to the pilot when I feel the ping
from my pad.

We’re too far away from the station, and that hub has been switched off anyway. We’re kilometers away from any functioning InfoHub connection. A quick glance confirms that Hwa’s using the orbiting comms satellites. That’s really not secure, so whatever’s in the bursts of encrypted data she’s sending, it’s not good news.

Chapter 51 – Ep. 20

Natalia

Natalia can’t believe she’s
blushing.

Who the nova is this? What have you done with the
real me, Yion?

They’re
lying in bed. They’ve been here since the police left, suddenly recalled
half-way through searching the house next door. She and Yion have no idea what
happened. And of course it would have been risky to go out into the street
straight away.

Yeah. So let’s go back to bed. Oh, Goddess! Yes!

It’s their first time. But it had been building, building in the background, she realizes now, like one of the electrical thunderstorms gathering over the foothills. And when it had broken, with that first kiss, it’d carried her away in the flood.

Never happened before like that, she thinks. Didn’t
think it could
.

He’d
called her name at those final moments, and she’d just dissolved. She’s not
quite returned from that yet; she feels more liquid than solid. Doesn’t want to
go back. Doesn’t want to even move, as if merely moving would destroy the
moment.

Her
own head is trying to end it.

Because, face it, girl, what more have you got
that he’d want? It’s Yion Bey. Bey. One of the Names Among the Damned Stars.

All that touchy hands and I love you when you’re
both going to die and it doesn’t matter.

All that need to show you’re alive afterwards.

Won’t last. Can’t last.

She
feels the hard shell trying to grow back and protect her. Needs it back, because this is going to hurt when it comes. When he
loses interest. Gonna hurt like hell.

And
then he looks at her, like no one ever has before, and she’s shy and blushing
like a virgin, which is ridiculous.

She
wants to pull the sheet up and hide her body, but at the same time, she also
wants to throw it aside and melt all over again under his gaze.

A
truck rolls by slowly outside, with a loudhailer announcing food supplies have
arrived by train and will be distributed in the Plaza Mayor this afternoon.

He
stirs.

“It’ll
be a trap,” she says quickly. She wants him to stay here. A few more minutes in
this perfect place, just them. “They’ll be demanding ID.”

He
nods, slides back in closer to her. “We’ve had to rely on others so far. We can
keep going. For a while.”

“How
long do you reckon?”

He
huffs. “Until real hunger hits and it’s a choice between your family eating or
some grubby revolutionary who needs food.”

“What
do we do when it gets to that?”

“Get
rid of the police and take over the supplies.”

“Aguirre
said we had to wait.”

“Zara’s
not here.”

She
feels an irrational jealousy at the woman’s name on his lips, a reminder he
knows her from before. And another sensation, pleasure, that he appears to be
willing to ignore what Zara said they should do.

She
scolds herself.

Stop thinking like that. Not about me, me, me,
girl.

She
actually likes Zara, and Kat. They’re good people, for Names. Aguirre, no less. And she wishes Talan
could have stayed. The resistance could use people like her.

But
they all went away on the train, and left her and Yion to do things here in Cabezón.
Some of which she agrees are important, and which they should be doing.

She
groans at the thought, covers her face with her hands.

“What?”
He’s laughing at her.

“We’ve got to get up,” she replies. “Zara said…” she emphasizes the name slightly, pushing, to see what his reaction is. “She said we need to record what’s going on. If they’re using the Plaza Mayor, we’ll be able to film it from the library. I guess we need to get in now, before they start.”

“You’re
right,” he sighs. “And then use those hacking tools to send the video to her friend
in the Xian delegation. And we need to talk to other cities.”

He
heaves a sigh and lies back with his eyes closed.

She
nudges him. Again. He abruptly throws all the sheets off and props himself up
on his elbow, looking her up and down.

She
blushes again, but refuses to cover herself up on principle. Besides, it’s hot, the way he looks at her.

He
leans over her, kisses her forehead.

“I
love you, Natalia.”

His pad pings at him, covering her embarrassing inability to form words, let alone a response.

What’s wrong with me?

“We’re
safe. They stopped just as they were searching next door,” he says to his
caller. “No idea why. Do we know who got caught?”

She
can’t hear what the other person says, but if it’s a list, it goes on too long.

Others
join the conversation; she can tell from the quiet tone announcing new people.
Even though they’re using encrypted channels through the InfoHub, it’s not safe
communicating like this, at this length, but everyone clearly feels they’re
running out of time.

He
explains to the others the comms apps that Zara has left them, and the apps get
copied across as they speak.

Suddenly
remembering, she can’t hear the conversation, he switches it to loudspeaker.

“…spoke
to a contact I trust in Lourdios,” a
woman is saying. “She says the police are loading people without IDs onto
railway trucks. Word is they’re being sent to Xorio.”

“Xorio?
There’s nothing there.”

“Exactly.”

There’s
a long silence.

“They’re
sending them there, locked in railway trucks,” Yion says. “They’re just going
to leave them to die. Blame some official.” His voice is harsh with anger, and
no one argues against him.

“Can’t
let them do this,” another one says.

“No.”
Although they haven’t had much of a hierarchy in the resistance, Natalia hears
Yion take control with that one word.

“First
things first. Anyone with an ID, get down to the Plaza Mayor and get food.
Matxita?”

He
uses a code name, and the woman who spoke about her contact in Lourdios
answers.

“Yes?”

“Take your friends and make multiple recordings of what happens in the plaza from as many angles as possible. The top of the library as well as among the crowd. All of them with synchronized timing displayed on the video. Transmit it real-time to the contact in the Xian delegation.”

“Will
do.”

Yion
pauses, bites his lip, takes a breath. “Zuhain?”

Another
code name. A man answers. “Yes?”

“I’ll
need your stores and a couple of helpers. The line gets cut tonight.”

It’s
a shock like a punch in her stomach. Natalia swallows. The ‘stores’ are
explosives. Yion intends to blow up the railway line.

It’s
started.

“It’ll
mean…” someone starts to speak and stops.

“Yes,”
Yion says. “The code is La Coruña, my friends. La Coruña. You have
your tasks.”

It’s the ultimate code word. The uprising has begun.
Small, quiet steps now, but once the explosions go off, the resistance in Cabezón will fight with everything they have.

They
can’t delay and wait for others to be ready. They can’t let thousands of innocent
people be rounded up and transported to Xorio, to be condemned without trial to
starve to death. But in preventing that, they reveal themselves to the
government.

Zara
is right. It would be better if everyone rose
together.

They
don’t have that luxury. They have to do what they can, here, and hope others
around the planet join them.

Natalia
is not stupid. Cabezón is where the Syndacian mercenaries happen to be
based—it’ll be where the government’s response falls first, and falls hardest.
It’ll be up to the resistance in Cabezón to ensure that the mercenaries are so
depleted that they will not be able to continue to repress the rest of Newyan.
She has no doubt that the resistance in Cabezón will do their duty, and no
doubt what it will cost.

Natalia
starts dressing. A sense of calm has come over her.

It’s
going to get bloody, but whatever happens, she intends to be with Yion, for the
rest of her life.

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 19

Chapter 42

Ministro Sánchez

Ministro Sánchez erupts,
gasping, from his nightmare of blindness, suffocation and falling, to find his
security chief shaking him.

“What?
What is it?” A fear, half way between the fading nightmare and the dread of
being woken like this, in the dead of night, clutches at his heart.

“It’s
Ministro Berges,” the man answers. “She’s downstairs, in your study. It’s
urgent.”

His
stomach spasms. Not what he wants to hear.

His
valet is there, holding a gown for him. Hardly suitable attire for a
departmental meeting, but this is hardly a suitable time for one either.

He
has no choice. He pulls himself out of bed and shrugs into the gown under the
gaze of his security chief. The man’s face has become increasingly closed and
distant over the last few weeks. Sánchez believes he answers first to the woman
downstairs, the chilling head of Security, rather than to him.

Is this how it will be, when it’s my turn? he thinks. Shaken awake in the middle of the night. The Ministro of the Bureau of Security waiting for him. What sort of thing would she say? The movement is disappointed in you, Sánchez. You’ve lost your enthusiasm. We need to ask you some questions to find out why. To make sure, you understand…

But
Ministro Berges does not say any of that when he enters his study.

She’s
seated on the comfortable chairs to the side, and his staff has already
provided her with fresh coffee.

“Ministro,”
she greets him. “My apologies for the hour.”

Her
face is empty of any sign of regret whatsoever, but he has to respond.

“Emergencies
know no hours,” he replies glibly, sitting opposite her and pouring himself
some of his own coffee.

“Indeed.”
She puts her cup down, pleasantries over. “News from the Sierra Arija.”

Sánchez
feels his stomach clench again. There is no good news that can come from that
place.

“They
got a seeker up to the escape pod we found near Berriaren,” she says. “The analysis of traces confirms the fugitive criminal Aguirre was in that pod, along
with an unknown woman.”

Sánchez
does not point out that Aguirre has not been tried yet. Fugitive she may be,
but his courts have not declared her a criminal. It’s useless to speak about
it. Berges has always referred to her this way.

“But why?” he says. “What in the nova was she doing up there?” He runs a hand over his disheveled hair. “Maybe it was just an accident. Escape pods aren’t really controllable.”

“Civilian
ones aren’t. This one had control capability.”

Sánchez
purses his lips and frowns; a military escape pod on a Xian courier.
Interesting, but not as important as Aguirre herself. “Still, if she’d come
down with Delegate Hwa, she’d be in Iruña now, and we’d be faced with difficult
decisions.”

“I
don’t agree. If she were here, we’d have her.”

“Taha
believes she will claim diplomatic immunity from arrest.”

“I
didn’t say I’d arrest her.”

Sánchez
swallows. “You have seen the visual evidence, haven’t you, Ministro? Zarate
Aguirre and Delegate Hwa? For all that she’s also a citizen of Newyan, it’s
worrying that we might be considering… extrajudicial
actions
against a citizen of an Inner World planet like Newyan, a duchess
no less, even without adding the enormous complication of a close family
connection to a major Xian trading company.”

Berges
is silent for a long time, glittery eyes watching him like a snake.

“You
really believe she’s related to the Fragrant Stars company family?”

He
shrugs. “I can’t prove anything, but it would represent a huge risk. We cannot
survive without Xian trade and Fragrant Stars is hugely influential. Killing
Aguirre might—”

“How
can she be related?”

“Her
father,” Sánchez pours himself more coffee, though it will not do his stomach
or nerves any good. “He was known to have such predilections. An affair with a
Xian visitor?” He shrugs again. “Not unlikely.”

Berges
lips thin.

“Which
would mean that it was all planned, from the beginning. That the Xian Hegemony
is operating against us, and Aguirre family were their agents all along. How
else could she have so conveniently escaped on the Shohwa?”

Sweat
beads Sánchez’s forehead.  Does this
woman believe what she’s saying? Or is this a trap for him? A ‘suggestion’ on
the line he must take when speaking to others?

It’s
not so much a matter of whether Berges is mad or not, but what direction her
madness is heading at any one time. The wrong word from him and he might find
himself answering questions in the basement of the Bureau of Security tonight.

He
suppresses a shudder. “Aguirre went through the standard emigration process and
her submission to the broking site that secured passage on the Shohwa was fixed at the point she was cleared.
I cannot see how that could have been forecast in advance or arranged.”

“Neither
can the Bureau,” Berges admits. “Yet. We are still questioning the emigration
officer and the technical staff of the broking site.”

A
drop of sweat trickles down the side of Sánchez’s face.

“The
whole project of handling the Aguirre family was not well managed,” Berges
says.

“The
movement’s committees made decisions on available information and—”

“So
it’s my Bureau’s fault?” Berges cuts across him. “My Bureau’s information was
insufficient?”

In
truth, it evidently was both insufficient and not timely, but he cannot say
that.

“It’s
no specific person’s or department’s fault, Ministro Berges. None of us can be
perfect, but in making mistakes, we learn for the future.”

If we’re allowed to survive.

She
doesn’t reply. For an unending minute, she just watches him, until he has to
break the silence.

“Regardless
of those considerations, Ministro,” he says, “the single fact that we have
identified that Aguirre arrived in the Sierra Arija in an escape pod from the Xing Gerchu doesn’t seem to be reason
enough to bring you here in the small hours. What else do you have for me?”

Her
lips thin again.

“Clever,
Ministro Sánchez, but you’re not putting all the pieces together.”

“How
so?”

Why did she choose to come down near
Berriaren?”

Sánchez
frowns. Berges has a point. No one in their right mind goes walking through the
Sierra Arija without a reason. Aguirre needs to be in Iruña, not running away
from Hartzak in the mountains.

“The
rebels?” Details are sketchy, but he knows there was a band of them in the
mountains. Not very close to Berriaren,
but closer than Iruña.

“Defeated
by the Syndacians,” she replies briefly. “Not a consideration any more as a
group.”

“As
a group?” Sánchez pauses, his lawyer’s senses feeling something missing. “What
about individuals?”

“You
have it, Ministro. The Syndacians have been hunting an individual. They would
have caught her, too, but for the appearance of Aguirre in Berriaren.”

“Who?
Who could be so important?”

“An
Aguirre cousin. Kattalin Espe Aguirre.”

Sánchez
searches his memory. “She died. A house fire. There was an explosion. The whole
family…”

“Not
the whole family. She’d been sent secretly to Valdivia. A close friend of the family claimed that it was not widely
known because her parents were ashamed of her behavior. Lies, of course. It was
all some part of their plan for rebellion.”

Sánchez
puts his head in his hands. Berges gives every indication of believing this,
but he must concentrate on what it means for the movement. “So she didn’t die,”
he says, “and now there are two Aguirres. But it’s actually our advantage
because we have troops in the sierras and we have seekers, so we’re tracking
them. Two women on the run. Surely it’s just a matter of time.”

“No!”

Her
sharp retort brings his head back up.

“We
lost the trace. And you’re not thinking it through, Ministro.”

He
blinks.

“Think,
man! How did Zarate Aguirre know her
cousin was going to be in Berriaren?”

He
spreads his hands. “Some radio communication?”

“There
were no communications from the sierras. No transmissions at all to the Xing Gerchu which we didn’t know about.
There were many broadcasts from Iruña, which the ship would have been able to
pick up and some of which must have been in code.”

Sánchez
can almost see the blinding cloud of paranoia around her, but he has to go
along with the theory: “Who knew, to tell Aguirre that her cousin was there?
Even I didn’t know.”

“Exactly
why I am here without anyone else present, talking to you.” She pins him with
her basilisk stare. “We have a traitor at the highest levels in the movement.”

His
jaw moves soundlessly before he manages to speak. The person responsible for
controlling the Syndacians must have known about Kattalin Aguirre.

“Carmen?”
his tone betrays his thoughts. He knows
she is not a traitor. Carmen Goya, the Ministro of the Bureau of Defense, is
dedicated to the movement, heart and soul. More than he is, if anything.

But
Berges can only see that as the person responsible for managing the situation
up in the sierras, she alone among the second circle of the movement knew who
the Syndacians were tracking.

It’s
a huge leap to thinking she would betray the movement and communicate that to
Zarate Aguirre. Why would she?

Berges
does not care.

“As
of tonight,” she says, “the situation in the sierras is under your control. The
threat to the movement posed by the Aguirres must be eliminated. Use road
blocks and overflight of trails and tracks. House to house searches in places
like Cabezón. Village to village in the
mountains. Use the Syndacians if you
don’t have enough police or Rangers.”

“We
agreed the appearance of Syndacians in any town was to be discouraged, in
case…” Sánchez feels the sweat running again. “In case it lends weight to
rebel propaganda.”

“If they cause unrest, then use them to suppress it. Fewer mouths to feed, after all.” Berges gets up. “We cannot afford to fail. And to be completely clear, Ministro, there is to be no trial of any Aguirre family member, or anyone who harbors them. The Bureau for Security requires that they are all executed on the spot. We will deny it, and if eventually forced to admit it, we will present it to outsiders as a regrettable accident and deal with any resulting problems if and when they arise.”

Chapter 43

Bleyd

The man in front of him is
the new chairman of the new oversight body for the new parliament of all
Kernow. Bleyd has forgotten his name and his title. The intense weeks of
formulation and political negotiation have blurred together. He’s constructed
the outline of a constitution and political framework for the planet, from
scratch, in a month.

Smythe? Yes, that’s his name. Chairman
of the Oversight Committee.

“You
can’t do this, sir,” Smythe says.

Bleyd
looks over his shoulder at the Skyhook, looks back. The scar on his cheek moves
a little, but he’s not smiling.

“It
appears I am,” he says.

This refers to five hundred members of the Welarvor Mounted Police,
currently being loaded, twenty-five at a time, into shuttles that will ascend
the Bason city Skyhook. Once they’re at the top, their shuttles will make the
short trip to the loading bay of a passenger ship called Yenobia, formerly registered to the planet Aurelius, but captured
while in the service of the Hajnal during their attack on Kernow.  The Yenobia
is now claimed by Xian and on that ship Bleyd’s troops will join three thousand
Xian infantry. They will be responsible for delivering the quarter million tons
of relief supplies to the people in cities on Newyan. Regardless of what anyone
in Iruña says.

“But
parliament… due process…” Smythe stutters to a halt, and tries a stronger
line: “We need the Prime Minister here on Kernow at this delicate time.”

Bleyd’s
mouth stretches. There is no humor in his expression. If Smythe were a more
imaginative man, he might recall that Duke Aguirre-Tremayne’s coat of arms is a
wolf, and that his name, Bleyd, is old Cornish for wolf.

“Then
you have a choice, Chairman Smythe, but I do not.” Bleyd pauses, visibly calms
himself. He can’t remember when he last slept. He’s aware that he’s run ragged
over the last weeks and he’s not at his best. His temper is on a hair-trigger.
He mustn’t take it out on Smythe, who is attempting the exact task that Bleyd
designed for him.

“I
don’t understand,” Smythe says, and Bleyd advances his opinion of the man one
degree. A man who will admit that is worth something.

“I’ll
be departing with the convoy to Newyan as soon as we’re all loaded. I will not
insult the office of Prime Minister by saying that it means nothing to me. In
fact, it means a great deal. However, I did not
request the office. I did not put my
name forward, and I have urgent family business which I will be attending to.”

“Your
wife, of course, but how can you…”

Smythe
realises there is no way to say what he intended, and stops.

“How
can I value my wife above my honor and duty? You ask the most pertinent
question, Chairman.” Bleyd’s eyes stare beyond the room they stand in and cloud
with memory. “I failed my first wife, whatever anyone else says. I should have
seen the warning signs, been there somehow, and protected her. I will not fail
my second wife, not that and survive. And I’m already late in presenting my
support.”

Smythe
doesn’t try to challenge that, and Bleyd starts to believe he’ll do a good job.

“You
have a decision to make with the committees and parliament, Chairman,” Bleyd
continues after a moment’s pause. “Either I am the Prime Minister and Minister
of the Armed Forces, and those troops loading are Kernow’s contribution to the
effort to prevent the Hajnal and I am going with them to direct them
personally. Or… I hold no office in the parliament, those troops are
volunteers, but I am still going with them. I apologize for putting you and
Kernow in this position, but as I said, I have no other options that I can accept.”

Smythe
knows that the duke is the one person who can ensure that the parliament will
actually work, and not dissolve into factional fights. He also understands that
nothing he says will change the duke’s mind, and his best course of action is
therefore to try and sell the idea to parliament. In that, he will have the
support of Lord Marik Roscarrow and a surprising number of other members.

Beyond
that, well, he can only hope the duke returns quickly.

He
sends a silent prayer that the expedition will be successful, and then, being
an ex-military man himself, comes to attention.

“I
will convey your message to parliament,” he says. “I wish you quick and
complete success, sir.”

They’re
not in uniform, so he shouldn’t salute. Instead, they shake hands and he
leaves.

As
the outer door closes behind Smythe, another opens.

The
duke is staring at the loading operation and doesn’t turn to look at her. In
truth, her appearance makes him immensely uneasy.

“Is
this the right way?” he asks quietly.

“Right
way? What is that? Our predictions of all the paths narrow to this one choke
point, on Newyan. We believe this it is the only way,” she replies, her echoing
voice at once strangely familiar and utterly alien to him.

He
shivers.

A
memory appears in his mind. Zara, filthy from rolling about in the courtyard
after her expedition down to Stormhaven: entering his study, her head up, her
eyes glittering, defiance in every quivering muscle of her body. An absolute
determination to do her duty as she saw it.

His
wife. He remains amazed and humbled by that.

And
the thought of the danger she’s in is like a lance piercing his side.

Another hour and we’ll be coming, my
love,
he whispers silently. All of us.

Chapter 44

Hwa

Hwa has left Danath asleep
and she’s lying down in the server room.

The
quantum soup, as she thinks of her brain, has already prepared connections and
she slips effortlessly into union with the processors that surround her.

It’s
like hurling herself into the nightime ocean. She’s connected to every part of
it, every molecule, aware of the whole and yet separate. It calls to her, all
the time, this sense of the infinite, while her body calls her in the other
direction, to the singular, to the sensation of a hermetic being.

Xing
is here, too, in this ocean of thought.

She
can feel him waiting, patient and polite. With her mind so thoroughly
integrated, he could intrude on hers. Two entities sharing the same physical
platform cannot remain forever isolated. Most Self-Actualized Entities use such
an opportunity to merge datasets.

Yet,
she hesitates, and he respects her wish for privacy.

“I
am partly human,” she speaks the words to emphasize them. “It is difficult for
me.”

Is that the human side that is hesitant?

“Yes.”

Does your entertainment with Danath
figure is this hesitation?

“Yes.
That is part of it.”

Out
of a sense of shame for being the same and yet so unlike him, Hwa lets a
trickle of the sensations she is enjoying leak out into the formlessness that
is Xing.

He
chuckles. Thank you. But we should be
serious. Something is happening in
Iruña.

“The
Hajnal?”

I suspect everything that every Ministro
does to be somehow related to the Hajnal
,
he says.

“What’s
happening?”

Carmen Goya has been taken to the Bureau
of Security. From the comms activity, I deduce Ministro
Sánchez is now in
charge of their efforts
to find Zara.

“They
eat themselves,” Hwa says.

Yes, but Sánchez is more a problem than Goya was. Sánchez
is clever.

“Zara
hasn’t been in communication for a while. I don’t know where she is at the
moment.”

Then we must wait and watch and be ready
to act.

“I
have a meeting with Ministro Sánchez andSubsecretario Yarritu of the Bureau of
Food and Agriculture this morning. Sánchez wants Yarritu to be involved in the
distribution of relief.”

I predict Sánchez will not make it.

“What
do you think of Yarritu? Another cold fish?”

I don’t know. You will need to tell him that Xian
will not allow any local involvement with the distribution—it will go directly
to the people.

“That’s
going to be hard.”

I suspect Shohwa will lead the effort, and I
doubt she will allow any ‘assistance’. We’re really just messengers for the
relief operation.

They
pause, floating on a sea of communications that Xing is eavesdropping.

Hwa
eases in and tries to follow the trail to Ministro Sánchez.

Chapter 45

Sánchez

Sánchez hasn’t changed out of his pajamas and robe. There’s been no opportunity. A sense of everything accelerating out of control grips him, making his stomach clench. His head and his heart are pounding. His eyes are staring. Too much coffee. Too much stress. Too little time.

His residence has always been a second office. Within minutes of Berges leaving, he’d had the study transformed with a wall of screens, a holo-projector has been wheeled into the center of the room and direct connections to the Bureaux’s internal InfoHub have been made. Bureau of Justice staff have been roused. A full communications center has been set up in his living room. Swift calls have been made to find that Berges had not been exaggerating; he has authorization over the entire Bureau of Defense.

An
hour after Berges has gone, his house, the Bureau of Justice and the Bureau of
Defense are fully manned and scurrying like disturbed ant-nests.

He
has left the majority of Defense to the appropriate Subsecretario and taken
personal control only of the high sierras. He has had sleeping police chiefs
and ranger captains woken in the city and all the towns. Every policeman and
ranger is on the streets now.

His
staff are interrogating everyone with any authority about any recent events.

Every
minute drags by and some of the adrenaline rush to get going starts to leave
him.

He’s
about to go and change when a breathless aide rushes in. “A woman’s ID taken in
Cabezón, Ministro. The name says Maria Orita, but the facial analysis programs
say it’s almost certainly Zarate Aguirre. That was early this morning.”

The
man holds out a printout. Sánchez looks at it and feels the adrenaline kick back in.

“Order
the Cabezón police to begin searching house to house for this woman and any
companions she has,” he says. “Warn them that I will be sending military troops
to assist. They will need to co-ordinate—provide the necessary details. The
entire city will be searched by midday—every house, every apartment, every
hotel room, every private and public building. No one is allowed to leave.”

“Warrants?”
the aide asks.

Sánchez
shakes his head and waves the man away, even as his stomach clenches again.
“This is authorized under the emergency legislation.”

The
aide runs back while Sánchez connects to the colonel commanding the Syndacian troops
at the airfield next to Cabezón.

“How
many troops do you have at the airfield?” he demands.

“No
more than a battalion. All the others are out.”

A
Syndacian battalion. Five hundred.

“The
airfield is to remain fully guarded, two alternating shifts. Keep two strike
squads with helicopters back for emergencies. Send the entire remainder into Cabezón.
The two Aguirre women were there yesterday. Deploy your seekers to track them
down. If they’re not in Cabezón, they’re not far away. I want them dead by the
end of the day. Do you understand, Colonel?”

The
colonel understands. He has lost in excess of a company of troops, and he’s
been told the Aguirres are foremost among the rebels. There is a certain amount
of professional pride involved, if nothing else.

An
aide brings Sánchez breakfast. Another lays out clothes.

He
ignores them, chewing over what he might have missed. His life may hang in the
balance. The movement itself may live or die on stopping Aguirre. And yet, he
doesn’t know why.

The
holographic display in the center of the room is rendering a three dimensional
situational image of the high sierras, with the
hundreds of markers, some of them blinking in place, some of them creeping slowly.
The projection processors track his gaze and label the markers that he looks
at.

Syndacian
units. Police groups. Token Newyan army presence. As he watches, markers move
from the airfield at Cabezón toward the town. The colonel has used his initiative.
Helicopters overfly the city and drop troops at the far side, while trucks
approach the nearest entries.

He
stands back, widens the apsect of the holographic image and looks at what is
happening across the continent.

The
Bureau of Transport is collapsing under the strain of its orders. There are
workers at Xorio to create the internment camp that Loiola has demanded, but
they have neither the food nor building supplies yet. Trains with cattle trucks
are being sent to every major city, but many of them are stuck in stations, or
side outs, because there are only single tracks in the wilds, and they have to
wait for the supply trains to get to a section of double track before they can
proceed.

It’s
a nightmare, the Ministro of Transport has leaped into action without planning.
His frantic activity is actually holding his progress back.

He
mustn’t do the same. He has to stop and think about Aguirre. He’s just
reacting. He has to get one step ahead instead of chasing her. Why does he have
this sick certainty that she’s so dangerous to the movement? He’s not prey to
the paranoia that Berges has. So… while his operation sets up he has time to
think: what is it that Aguirre has got?

Chapter 46

Yion

The quiet ping of an incoming
call on his pad has Yion bolt upright and instantly awake in the quiet
darkness.

Almost
no one has his contact details.

This
can only be bad.

Natalia
has woken as well. They’re both fully dressed. It will be the work of a moment
to take everything and leave the house.

“Yes?”
he says, into the pad. It’s a voice-only call, of course.

“Police. House to house, with seekers. Every house. Breaking doors down,” a voice says, speaking quickly. “Working out from the Plaza Mayor. Reports of military units coming in as well, working inwards. Get out if you can, or hide.”

The
call terminates.

He
doesn’t even know who it was, but he has to believe it.

Natalia
has heard. She’s at the window, peering out around the heavy curtains.

“It’s
still dark,” she says.

He
marvels that her voice is so level, so calm.

There’s
a curfew during the hours of darkness. If they leave the house now, they’ll
risk being shot in the street. This isn’t the house they normally stay in, it’s
simply the one they could reach before curfew last evening, after helping Zara
at the railway station.

The
safer houses in the center of the city are the ones with passages and hiding
places.

Could
they get past the police? On the rooftops? In the sewers?

The
night is not so quiet any more. There’s the distant thud of a helicopter
somewhere, the faint sound of shouts, breaking glass. The police or the
mercenaries are already in this area.

They’re
trapped here.

They
both have good fake ID, but if the police are using seekers and going into
every house, this isn’t a casual check and no fake will hold up.

Some
of Natalia’s calmness seeps into him.

This
could always have happened. It is how it is.

There’s
a hiding place in this house, far too small for them, but large enough for
weapons. Yion opens it and retrieves the two old pistols and ammunition. He
hands one to Natalia, making sure she cannot see the trembling.

They
quickly strip and ressemble the pistols by touch, and then load them.

The
sound of his breathing and heart beating seems like a storm in his ears.

“You’re
Yion Bey, you’re a Name, you’re more important to the restistance,” she says
quietly. “I could divert them. You might have a chance.”

He
doubts it. They’d catch him before he could get out of the city, and where
would he hide inside the city that wouldn’t involve others. But the real reason
is deeper within himself. Deeper than he will admit.

“If
I did,” he says instead, “if I sacrificed you to save myself, I would be just
like them. Never become what you seek to fight.”

“Sounds
very theoretical. All that college education.”

In
the darkness, he can make out she’s smiling a little

“It
is. But beneath it… that’s not theoretical at all.”

That’s
as close as he can come.

They
move to the hallway, taking up positions on either side. The police will come
through the doorway, not expecting resistance, probably not expecting anyone.

It
will be quick from there.

“Did
we ever have a chance?” Her voice has become very small. “I mean… you and me,
Yion. If this hadn’t happened?”

“It
hasn’t happened yet.” He tries to avoid the question, and yet he cannot. He
takes a deep breath, tries to let some of that calm return. “Why would you
doubt it?”

“You’re
a Name.”

“So?
I have a famous surname. My great-great-whatever got here before yours.”

“It’s
not just a surname.”

“No,
it’s not. It’s an idea. But maybe it’s an idea that needs work.”

“Even
if you weren’t a Name…” There’s a long silence, as they listen to the sounds
approaching outside. “I’m nothing. A petty criminal, a—”

“You
did what you had to, to survive.”

It’s
actually painful that she thinks herself so lacking in value. He values her so
far above all those young ladies that his parents urgently suggested he pursue.

Across
the width of the narrow hallway, Yion takes one hand from the pistol, reaches
across.

Natalia
matches him. Their hands meet. The touch is electric. Erotic. Fingers brush.
Slide over each other. They grip. She has such softness and strength, such
desirability.

“I
love you,” he whispers.

The
door of the neighboring house is splintered with a kick. They feel the impact
through the thin adjoining walls, hear the boots rushing through the house, up
the stairs.

Their
hands return to their guns.

“And
I love you,” Natalia whispers.

Chapter 47

Sánchez

Sánchez can’t remember the
Bureau of Security aide’s name at the moment, but the man is supposed to be the
most informed person about the hunt for Aguirre. Sánchez demanded access to
him. The man arrived thirty minutes later.

It’s
nearly dawn. There’s no news from Cabezón. Sánchez has three open channels on his comms board: the colonel
at the airfield, the police chief and the Syndacian captain in the city.

Nothing.

It’s
starting to feel like she’s slipped through his fingers and his stomach is
aching. He paces up and down. He knows he has to get ahead of her, instead of
just reacting.

He
was sure she would make an attempt at the airfield, but the sensors there
haven’t even picked up someone sneaking around the periphery.

Every
road has roadblocks and they’re required to make a report every half hour.
There’s nothing moving on any of them.

There’s
a helicopter out with a look-down IR scanner flying a grid over the
countryside. It’s getting lots of hits, but there are no people out there in
the wilds, on foot or in a vehicle.

The
railway’s closed. No passenger trains.

There’s
no way for her to escape.

But
still no news. He feels the stirring of panic. What if she’s already gone?

Berges
is already insane. She says the Hajnal must have a traitor who revealed that
Kattalin Aguirre was in the Sierra Arija. She’s picked Ministro Goya as that
traitor, and she has disappeared into the Bureau of Security. 

Sánchez
has asked for her and has been told she’s
‘unavailable’.

He
knows Goya is no traitor. And he knows if he fails to catch the Aguirres,
Berges will twist her paranoid delusions around until he’s the traitor. He’ll
disappear into the sound-proof basement at the Bureau of Security.

He
needs to have something to fall back on, if Aguirre evades him. Some
information about what Aguirre’s doing that will nullify it. Only that will
save him from Berges.

So
while he waits for news from Cabezón, he grills the Security aide.

“Last
confirmed whereabouts before she got on the Shohwa?”

“It’s
difficult, Ministro,” the man says. “We are reasonably sure she was in Iruña to meet with the Director of Media. A date and location
were arranged. That was a month before her escape on the Xian freighter. But
she didn’t attend that meeting.”

Sánchez grimaces. The failure to capture Aguirre at that
meeting had been blamed on the Director of Media. It turned out to be a fatal
error for him. His punishment had come so quickly, they didn’t even know what
Aguirre had been offering to show him.

What
could it have been? Documentation? Even video and voice recordings could be
manipulated. Aguirre would know this. Surely she couldn’t have expected such
evidence to have any effect, even if she could have persuaded the media to
present it.

Sánchez
knows Aguirre wasn’t just waiting for a Fragrant Stars company freighter
because there had been several arriving and leaving in that time. She was doing
something. Something vital.

“Between
that time, and her appearing at the Emigration office,” the aide admits, “we
have no confirmed sightings of her.”

“Unconfirmed?”

The
man shrugs. “There was a reward offered. We investigated and discounted every
report.”

“Any
clues? Anything?”

The
man purses his lips. “A small aircraft belonging to her was missing from the
estate, and later found abandoned at a makeshift airfield about fifty
kilometers away from Iruña.”

“A
small aircraft? You mean like a hedge-hopper?”

“Indeed,
precisly that, Ministro.”

A
month in a small aircraft designed to land on unprepared ground. She could have
gone anywhere on the continent. Difficult, what with refueling and avoiding
being seen. Difficult, but not impossible.

He
turns away from the aide to hide his growing excitement.

She
used that month to go somewhere and hide something. He knows it. It had to have
been evidence that was too large to smuggle off-world. Not some simple
recordings or copies of documents. Something substantial.

And
where better to hide it? Berriaren. No one goes up onto the Sierra Arija, let
alone into the abandoned city itself.

That’s what she was doing landing her escape pod up on the sierra. She was
retrieving her evidence. Nothing to do with meeting her cousin.

What
is that evidence then? What is so important and incontrovertible that it will
bring the movement down when presented to the Enquiry, and so large it cannot
be smuggled off-world?

“The
other one, Kattalin Aguirre,” the aide interrupts his train of thought. “She
was scheduled to be terminated with the rest of her family, but we found there
was one body short. Later, we discovered she was staying in Valdivia, and she
was known to still be there at about the same time the elder cousin
disappeared.”

“Hmm?”

Sánchez
is feeling the world sliding out beneath his feet. On all of Newyan only the
Bureau of Justice, his own ministry, has evidence so compelling it could not be
discounted. Surely not?

“Valdivia,”
the aide says, misunderstanding his distracted response. He expands the
holoprojection and walks through it to point out the remote coastal town of
Valdivia.

“And
how did she get…” Sánchez begins and falls silent.

He’s not thinking about what evidence Aguirre has any more; he’s looking at the projection. Seeing the lines that link remote Valdivia with the high sierras. The cross-country roads, with roadblocks near every junction. The airfields, with police posted and air traffic control centralized. The railways. The railways.

“We’ve
got her!” he yells.

An
aide comes in, alerted by the shout.

“Get
onto the railway controller for the Cabezón line,” Sánchez says. He points
at the marker in the holoprojection. “Get that supply train stopped at Orbaiz.
Do it now.”

He
turns to the open channels on his comms board, selects the first. “Colonel,
those two strike squads. Get them airbourne. Now! The target is the rail
station at Orbaiz. The fugitives are on the train, and it will be held at the
station.”

There
are noises in the background as commands are shouted.

“They’ll
be airbourne in under five minutes. ETA Orbaiz…” the colonel pauses, “ETA an
hour and fifty minutes.”

“The
squads have seekers on those helicopters?”

“They
do.”

“Good.
Then even if she runs, there will be nowhere to hide out there in the plains.
Stay on line and be ready to update me.”

 Sánchez
selects the line for the Syndacian captain in Cabezón. “The fugitives aren’t in the city,” he says. “Pull your troops
out of Cabezón, they’re wasting their time, and probably causing more trouble
by being there. Return to the airfield.”

“Understood,
sir.”

Sánchez
finally selects the line for the police chief in Cabezón. “Chief?”

“Yes
sir?”

“Stand
down the search. We know where she is, and it’s not in Cabezón.
Redeploy your men to distributing the supplies you received yesterday. Give
them something else to think about.”

He stands, breathing heavily, looking at the holographic projection, now centered around the tiny recharging depot of Orbaiz in the middle of the vast plains between Cabezón and Iruña.

“We’ve
got her,” he breathes, and snatches up his clothes. He even has time to
celebrate by having a shower and getting dressed.

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 18

With all the drugs swilling around in me, little wonder I got the timelines twisted.

So anyway, the last episode’s two chapters are contained in the middle of this episode, so that the timelines are straightened out. That makes it a long episode.

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

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.

 

—–this is the chapter 36 ending, just to get you going again—–

Scarface reaches out and takes my ID from Neck-tattoo. “Go find your sister and turn up at the Nightwatch barracks on Calera and Navarre. Tell them the Sarge sent you.”

“I need my ID.”

“You don’t need it to find your sister. Move.”

He gestures impatiently and turns to the next in line.

Neck-tattoo shoves me away.

Without ID, I can’t enter public buildings. And I won’t be able to get back out. When they clear the streets in the evening, the police will pick me up and jail me. Or hand me across to the Nightwatch.

I can’t even communicate with Talan.

I’m in Cabezón, but it’s already a disaster.

 

 

Chapter 37

Ministro Sánchez

 

“We’re in it up to our necks.”

The sunlight is pale in the grand office of the Bureau of Justice, Ministro Sánchez’s office.

He has pulled a gauze curtain across the great window, and he stands looking through it as he speaks. The plaza far below and all the figures in it are indistinct, as if wreathed in mist.

When he’d first taken the post as minister, he’d enjoyed watching the people in the plaza from this vantage point. They were his people, the people to whom he’d sworn to deliver justice and equality.

He doesn’t enjoy watching them any more.

How has it come to this?

Alfonso Elizondo, Ministro of the Bureau of Trade replies to Sánchez’s spoken comment. “Yes. All in it together. But however many things have gone wrong, they’re not our fault. We’ve carried out our instructions. To the letter.” The man’s voice wobbles, like his cheeks. “And… and we need to continue. We have to. To fail now would end with destroying everything we were seeking to achieve.”

To fail now would end with us hung as murderers and traitors, Fabio Sánchez thinks, but keeps his silence.

They are all there, the second circle of the movement as they think of themselves. And they are all teetering on the edge of the abyss. They have woken the bear and they have to keep feeding it, or be consumed themselves.

For the best of reasons…

He remembers Loiola’s first subtle sounding, here, right in this office. Sánchez had sat behind his new, enormous desk, knowing himself to be the very picture of the young idealist lawyer, frankly stunned by the rate of his ascent to the position of Ministro for the Bureau of Justice and in awe of Loiola, the leader of the Equality Party and long-time Ministro of the Bureau of Foreign Affairs.

The aims had seemed so right… had been so right. To redress the unequal balance of power between the exhausted, historical rights of the Founders and the people of Newyan.

And step by bloody step, every single step somehow justified and necessitated by the one before, has led to this.

How did we become this?

Loiola of Foreign Affairs, Berges at Security and Primo Ministro Eneko are the first circle, here on Newyan, and they too have been changed by what the movement has had to do.

Sánchez remembers Loiola’s passion: the simmering, volcanic emotions that threatened to spill out at any moment; the rhetoric, like an incandescent flood of words that swept Sánchez away and recruited him into the Hajnal movement.

And now? Loiola is a grey man, devoid of emotion, with eyes like ice.

Primo Ministro Eneko as well. When Sánchez had joined the government, Eneko had played the amiable, bumbling image of everyone’s favorite, elderly uncle in public. In private, he’d been sharp and focused, second only to Loiola in commitment to the movement. Now, like Loiola, he too seems devoid of emoition.

Berges? Berges had always been grey. A neat, sparse woman. Empty eyes and no soul. Frightening.

Loiola and Eneko had both changed at the same time. It was that visit, deeper into the Margin worlds, a few years ago now. They’d come back, their commitment to the movement redoubled, their arguments strengthened, their timetables shortened—we must progress quicker, so we can support the struggle of the movement in places that are even worse than Newyan. Everywhere, the people are crying out for justice.

But what Sánchez remembers most is their passion had been replaced by cold determination and frightening ruthlessness and that it was at that time that the necessary steps became so precipitate.

So bloody.

How has it come to this? he thinks again.

And as if in answer to his thoughts, Edith Zavala, Ministro of the Bureau of Industry, begins to lay the current decision out again for them, speaking in her careful phrasing.

“It’s not our fault the movement failed on Kernow. We are only responsible for Newyan. Regardless of that, we brought forward the plan to apply for membership of the Inner Worlds, to replace the advantage the movement sought on Kernow. That was against the advice of this committee. And we were right. It’s led to increased exposure and reliance on our uncertain contacts within the Terran Council.”

“And increased expenses,” Cézar Carranza, Ministro of the Bureau of Finance, mutters.

“None of this would have been a problem,” Zavala continues, “without the sequence precipitated by the customs cutter Dunhalde firing on the Shohwa—”

“To try to prevent the escape of Aguirre. An action demanded by Loiola himself.” Carmen Goya, Ministro of the Bureau of Defense breaks in.

“Which we agreed and passed on to the Dunhalde,” Zavala points out. “All of which now leads, step by unavoidable step, to the Bureau of Justice agreeing to hear a claim by Xian which we know is some kind of Trojan horse to expose the movement while we are still vulnerable.”

“And which claim I was unable to refuse because we have no food,” Sánchez completes. “Without the Xian relief supplies, people will starve in their thousands. Imagine, if you would, what that would do to our bid for membership of the Inner Worlds.”

Elizondo turns to the last man, the junior member of the group. They call him Ministro of Food and Agriculture, but such is the turmoil that he hasn’t been confirmed in his position. He is actually still the Subsecretario. His name is Mattia Yarritu, and he doesn’t speak at these meetings unless asked a direct question.

“Are you sure that there is nothing else?” Elizondo says. “No last, emergency reserves?”

Yarritu licks his lips and blinks. He shifts in his chair. “There are estimated to be fifteen days’ supplies for Iruña and more for essential personnel, all held in secured warehouses in the Hecho district, and controlled by the Presidential Guard under Ministro Berges. The remainder has been despatched to regional capitals and is estimated to be sufficient for a week, with strict rationing, for those cities and immediate surroundings. A week would get us to the arrival of the Xian emergency supplies. However, that estimate of a week is dependent on the actions which have been proposed to us today. Without those actions, the supplies will last no more than four days.”

They are all aware of the crisis, as continually reported to them over the last few months. The production from the confiscated estates has collapsed. The plan to sweep aside the remnants of the Founder’s privileges and all their collaborators has backfired spectacularly.

Not enough food is being produced. Reserves have disappeared.

It is only spring, and the first harvests are months away. Coastal cities such as Valdivia and Iruña have the potential for supplementing food sources from fishing, but not enough to feed the whole country. More remote towns and villages are understood to be self-sufficient, however they are under-reporting for fear of falling foul of the Anti-Hoarding Laws.

Even before the Xian embargo, which stopped the majority of the traders and frightened away the rest, the supply of essential food to Newyan was in a state of crisis.

The people in this office are ‘essential personnel’ who have their food guaranteed. The troops and police maintaining order are as well. Iruña is fairly safe. It is the world beyond which is on the point of implosion.

“We have another meeting scheduled with the Xian delegation,” Sánchez indicates himself and Yarritu. “But the relief ships are on their way; they cannot traverse Chang space any quicker.” He turns from the window to address them directly. “We need that week.”

They all know, if the food runs out, there will be riots. Not only will thousands die, but there will be delays to delivering the relief supplies while the situation is brought back under control. Thousands more will die during that delay.

If they can just survive this brief interval until the Xian relief arrives, Loiola has assured them, the Hajnal movement on other worlds will have time to respond. More supplies will come, with troops to deliver them, and maintain order.

Then, by summer, everything will be fixed. The Commission of Enquiry will receive the formal application for Newyan to join the Inner Worlds. Commissioner Taha will approve.

Loiola has his eyes only on that great strategic prize, so it’s up to the second circle to implement the steps to get there, first of which is to stretch the food out for one week in the provincial capitals.

And to choose a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.

There will always be scapegoats for ‘misguided, unauthorized’ decisions, Sánchez thinks. Just like the unfortunate captain of the Dunhalde. It is never allowed to be the movement’s fault.

Aloud, he says: “Ministro Loiola has made his strong suggestion.” He emphasizes ‘strong’. “To rationalize the distribution process and ameliorate shortages in the provincial capitals, all criminals and people caught without their mandated documentation will be shipped by rail to Xorio, where camps are to be prepared to receive them.”

Xorio is a bleak railway junction. Nothing but a tangle of tracks and some sheds on the rocky plateau inland of Iruña. Its only function is to be the central point for the railway network which connects to every provincial capital.

Camps will not be ready, let alone supplies. The numbers will overwhelm the railway system. People will be held in railway trucks. It’ll be impossible to provide water, let alone food.

“They’ll die,” Carranza mutters unnecessarily.

The others turn to look at him, and he says nothing more.

It is not a good idea to be less than supportive of strong suggestions from the inner circle. Not even when the majority of people without mandated documentation are guilty of no more than having lived and worked on estates without a need for the government’s new documentation. Not even that they have no documentation because the government cannot produce it. Not even that they will be murdering the very people that Newyan needs to return to the estates to get them working again.

“Given that it’s primarily a transport problem,” Sánchez says into the tense silence, “Loiola suggested the Ministro of Transport be given the lead on this project.”

Sánchez doesn’t know what the Ministro of Transport has done to bring himself to Loiola’s attention. Perhaps he was insufficiently supportive of a ‘strong’ suggestion.

He can see relief on the faces of the others, quickly hidden; they all feared being given this project.

Just as they all fear speaking against it, in case they themselves become the person handed responsiblity for the next strong suggestion.

The vote is passed unanimously.

The directives are sent out to every provincial capital. All criminals and any people caught without ID are to be transported immediately by rail to a secure central holding facility in Xorio.

 

Chapter 38

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 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 hip flask of Ranger’s 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, slowly becoming anger. 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 Orita.”

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 39

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.

But 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 the Nightwatch taking my ID; what it means for me.

“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, ignoring me and 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 ancient 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.

Yion 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.

Yion 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. Yion 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. Yion 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.

 

Chapter 40

Zara

 

I glare at her, and the pistol lowers a fraction.

“I’m standing directly between you and Yion,” I point out. “I’d suggest, unless you can be absoutely sure of hitting me, you move to the side, so you don’t risk killing him by accident.”

Her eyes narrow and her lips thin, but she moves; willing to take advice, if not gracefully.

Yion laughs. It’s genuine, but short.

“I see time hasn’t mellowed you then, Zarate.”

“It’s only been a couple of years, Yion, hardly had a chance. What the nova are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same.”

Stalemate.

“The thing most likely to mellow me right now is a cup of Harantza,” I say.

He could be faking all sorts of things, but not the anger I see in him at the mention of the name. Yion Bey is not going to hand me over to the people who took his family’s estates.

I take a deep breath. I have to trust him, and maybe he can even help. “I’m on my way to Iruña to bring the Hajnal down.”

“Hajnal? What’s that?” He frowns, and I remember that to everyone here on Newyan, it’s just ‘the government’ that has somehow gone crazy. They probably haven’t heard anything about Kernow, about the Terran Council, the TSS Annan or the Commission of Enquiry. All news the Hajnal will try and control to their advantage.

“Sit down,” I tell him.

Twenty-five minutes later, both of them are seated opposite me with their faces blank with shock.

I get up and move to the window.

There are few people walking by outside, fewer than the number of policemen standing in groups scattered around the Plaza Mayor. Which reminds me of the problem I have.

“Have you got a way in and out of the city that avoids the checkpoints?”

“You can’t leave,” the woman says immediately.

“Natalia’s right,” Yion says. “You have to help us. Just your name…”

I turn around and lean on the table. One look at my face and he goes quiet.

“Help you do what?” I ask.

“Recruit more people! Organize. Take down the police. Take back Cabezón.”

“And then what? Where’s the food coming from?”

“We’ll take back the estates as well,” Natalia says. “The workers are all here in the city.”

“Which will get you food next summer. Provided you haven’t died of starvation. Provided the Hajnal leave you alone in the meantime. Which they won’t.”

Yion’s face starts to settle into stubborness, and I slap the table.

“You can’t fight them as Cabezón alone,” I say. “For a start, every city would have to rise, at the same time, otherwise the Hajnal would pick you off, one by one. And even then, you won’t persuade everyone. Putting these gangs calling themselves police to one side, do you really want Newyans to be fighting Newyans? Are you really going to plan a full-scale military campaign? Have you worked out how many will die from fighting and starvation?”

They shift uncomfortably on their seats and exchange a long, questioning look. Natalia nods finally and Yion leans forward, his face intense and his voice lower.

“There’s an armed resistance,” he says. “They stay outside of cities. They’re probably organized across the whole of Newyan already. We’ll coordinate with them. There’s a company in the hills not far from here.”

I drop back into my seat, with my head in my hands and an ache in my chest. It takes a while to control my voice enough to speak levelly. “Commander Benat?”

“Yes! Yes! You know how to contact him?”

I shake my head, squeeze the tears away.

“What do you think you know?” I ask. “And how?”

“Benat’s training the Resistance out in the sierras,” Yion says. “He found a way to get thousands of people out of the cities just as the government was about to arrest them. He had stashes of weapons and supplies hidden and he’s stolen more. He says that all it needs is for one city to throw off the yoke and reveal what’s really happening, and all the others will join them.”

“It’s started already. There were reports posted about some fighting,” Natalia says. “Of course they were taken down and replaced with propoganda trying to tell us it was just a group of terrorists who’d been eliminated, but no one believes them.”

I suddenly feel old and tired.

“Benat is dead,” I say.

From the expression on their faces, I might as well have said that the sun had collapsed on itself.

“He died in a battle up in the sierras a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t have thousands. He’d rescued a few hundred people, mainly kids, who were due to be arrested for their family connections. He armed them with weapons, most of which were antiques. He managed to feed them and trained them surprisingly well.” I try to soften the blow. “They gave a good account of themselves, but the Hajnal recruited mercenaries and sent them into the hills. Almost all of Benat’s force died. There is no Resistance waiting to launch attacks.”

“You’re lying!” Natalia jumps up, sending her chair tumbling backwards. “Your own family—”

“Was there,” I interrupt. “Yes, Kattalin Espe Aguirre fought in that battle. I know. She posted the report you’re talking about, but I guess you haven’t seen all of it, or it’s got mixed up with this propaganda.”

“How do you know?” Yion says.

“We’re wasting our time,” Natalia snaps. “We can’t believe anything she says.”

“Get me out of the city, to the road up to the sierras, just past the checkpoint, and I’ll change your mind,” I say. “Kat is waiting there for me.”

Silence.

Yion believes me. Natalia is still clinging onto the idea of a Resistance.

“Why do you need us?” Yion says.

“Because the Nightwatch took my ID when I came in, this morning.” I look across at the old clock tower on the other side of the plaza. “I can’t get back out through a checkpoint. To make it even better, in another hour they’re going to be looking for me.”

“Why not hide here? Why not get Kattalin inside the city? Why is it so important to get out?”

“Because I have to get to Iruña.”

I haven’t explained what we have in the backpacks and all the detail about why it will make the difference when I present the data to the Enquiry.

Predictably, that’s where Natalia goes next. “What’s it you’re going to do? What’s so important about being in Iruña?”

“It’s vital that it’s kept secret,” I reply. “If they find out about it, they may be able to stop me. If I get to Iruña, there’s a chance—”

“We wouldn’t betray—”

Yon puts a hand on her arm. “We can’t guarantee anything, Natalia.”

“We could if we took the city back!”

“You’d take it with hundreds of deaths, and you wouldn’t even keep it until next summer. What other weapons would you have apart from hunting rifles and whatever you can take from the police?”

Natalia rights her chair and sits back down, glaring furiously at the table top.

“We can’t sit here and do nothing,” Yion says.

“No. I’m not asking you to.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll leave you some specialist apps that break through the isolation software that the Hajnal have implemented. You’ll be able to talk to me and some friends of mine. They may be able to offer information and advice. They’ll work to put you in touch with other cities, so you can co-ordinate what you do.”

If I fail.

I don’t say that, but if that happens, then maybe a co-ordinated rebellion across the whole of Newyan will overwhelm the ability of the Hajnal to respond.

But the cost in lives…

I can’t think about that.

I get out my pad and start preparing a transfer.

“Is that it?” Natalia asks.

“No,” I say. “I’d like you to find out what the police are doing with the people they’re collecting in trucks. I’d also like evidence of the way the police are behaving sent to my friend –video evidence. If we have enough of that, and it’s as bad as I think it is, it’s possible the Enquiry will decide to impose martial law with Terran Marines whether I get through or not.”

Natalia opens her mouth to object.

“Which would you prefer?” I snap at her. “The Nightwatch or Terran Marines?”

She shuts up.

I link up with Yion’s pad and transfer Hwa’s apps and the sites I use to communicate with her.

I send her a hasty message telling her to expect news from the friends I’ve met here and then slip the pad back down my pants.

Yion is staring wide eyed at the comms routes Hwa’s tools have opened for him.

“I have to go,” I interrupt him. “I have to get away. If you can’t help, you can’t, but I don’t want a showdown with the Nightwatch in the Plaza Mayor.”

Yion leaps up. “We’ll get you out. Come on.”

He leads us out of the library, past the security guard, who studiously ignores us, through the big glass doors and into the plaza.

It’s getting near lunchtime. The Cabezón I knew before would have had people thronging the steets, out to pick up snacks from the shops and stalls. Today, it’s nearly empty. The people who are out are hurrying. They don’t look around. Everyone has their head down.

Yion takes my arm and pulls me toward a small street, away from the police.

We’re no more than half a dozen paces down the street when a shadow looms behind us. Yion gasps and I feel him go tense beside me.

“We’ll just keep walking nice and calmly, like we’re a group of friends, or this knife will be twisting inside your liver.”

 

Chapter 41

Zara

 

“Talan! He’s a friend.”

“Hmm.” She doesn’t sound convinced, but she slips the knife back into a sheath inside her jacket. “He shouldn’t have been grabbing you like that, then.”

“He knows where we’re going and we’re in a hurry. We were going to find you.”

There’s movement in the plaza behind us.

“Come on, let’s keep walking.”

While Talan had been saving me from Yion, a pale but determined-looking Kat was making sure Natalia didn’t get away. Natalia is glaring daggers, so as we walk, I make hasty introductions.

“You’re Kattalin?” Natalia’s mouth falls open. “Kattalin Aguirre, of Company Bravo?”

Kat bites her lip, and bends her head to hide the tears.

“Walk!” Yion says, looking over his shoulder. “Quickly!”

Behind us, trucks pull into the Plaza Mayor and policemen pour out of them.

Yion’s commpad bleeps at him as he ushers us into another road, out of the line of sight from the plaza. He pulls it out and checks a message.

“Shit. Natalia, ahead! Check the next plaza is clear,” he says.

As she sprints forward, he urges us into a trot.

“They’ve started a major operation. The police are rounding up anyone without ID. There’s a safe house down here. Five minutes away. We can hide you there while this goes on.”

We don’t argue, and, once Natalia confirms the police have not yet reached the next plaza, we run across it and down the next street, and the next.

Yion slows us down.

“Walk now,” he says, unconsciously echoing Talan. “Calmly, like a group of friends.”

We amble down the quiet street, trying to talk and laugh while Natalia moves ahead to unlock the door of an unremarkable town house.

It’s basic inside, like student accomodation, but it gets us off the streets.

It’s lunchtime, and I can feel Yion instinctively wants to offer us something to eat, but there’s no food in the house. Frowning, Talan retrieves some of the dried food the Rangers gave us and we share it out.

A truck goes past outside, and even though we’re safe inside, none of us speak until the noise of the engine has faded up the street.

Natalia and Kat go to the kitchen to make us tea. It seems Yion has a dwindling supply of Harantza from his old estates.

It must hurt, every time he drinks it.

I speak to cover the pain I can see in his eyes. “How did you get in?” I ask Talan.

“Bribery,” she shrugs. “I saw what happened to you, so I decided we had to get in. We walked down to the next checkpoint. They weren’t the same group guarding it. They didn’t seem bothered that people didn’t have ID.”

“And now they’re starting to round those people up.”

Yion nods. “On my list to find out, once we get you out.” He scratches his head. “How do you expect to get to Iruña? You can’t steal a truck, there are checkpoints on the roads as well.”

I balance the risk of telling him and decide it’s safe enough.

“Aircraft,” I say. “We’ll have to get out to the airfield and steal one.”

He shakes his head.

“It’s the mercenaries’ headquarters. It’s surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers with sensors. You won’t get within two hundred meters.”

“Well, we have a week to get to Iruña. If we can’t get an aircraft, then we’ll have to steal an off-road truck and find some way around the checkpoints.” The Ranger’s vehicle would do the job, but we can’t go back to fetch it.

“You’ll never manage it,” Yion waves his hand. “You’re visible for miles on these roads. They’ll put up an aircraft, and an hour after you stole the truck, they’d have found you.”

“Borrow a truck?” I look hopefully at him.

“Still have the problem with checkpoints. Your idea you can just drive around them won’t work.”

“Have you got maps? We could work out the pinch points—”

“I’m not going to encourage you to get yourself killed.”

Our voices are rising. They cut off, mainly from embarassment at ourselves when Natalia walks back in with a tray. Kat brings a small wooden crate which she places upside down in the middle of the floor and Natalia puts the tray down on it.

Kat kneels by the tray and bows her head. Natalia copies her, though I’d lay good odds she has no idea what Kat’s doing.

It’s the tea ritual, in a dilapidated house that seems to be part of some nascent rebellion in Cabezón while police are arresting people outside for not having documentation that the government hasn’t been organised enough to give them.

Regardless, the ritual is always performed in silence.

I slide off the grungy sofa and kneel on the opposite side of the tray. Yion, well-brought-up young man that he is, abandons our argument to join me. Talan, who has no idea about tea rituals either, takes our cue and kneels between us.

Part of the ritual is to clear the mind. That includes clearing it of conflicts and anxieties.

I close my eyes and breathe deeply.

From the tiny sounds, I can hear Kat warm the leaves in the pot and then discard the water.

That wonderful, delicate scent of Harantza fills the air. It brings such vivid memories of happier times and places.

I smile, listening to Kat testing the aroma, then filling the pot while we remain kneeling, each bound up in our own thoughts, only linked by the scent of the tea.

Kat pours. I open my eyes as she hands Yion a chipped mug as if it were the finest porcelain. She’s made him the honored guest, which makes me smile crookedly. We are his guests and dependent on him at the moment.

Yion savours the fumes rising from the tea and takes a small sip.

“Excellent,” he says.

Kat pours us each a mug and we take our seats to savour the drink.

The ritual is over, but none of us really wants to break the silence.

Eventually, to my surprise, it’s Kat who does.

“There’s another way to get to Iruña,” she says.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“Are you sure about this?” I whisper five hours later.

Kat nods, even though she’s visibly trembling.

Time is running out. There’s a nighttime curfew in Cabezón; it starts in twenty-five minutes. Yion and Natalia have to get back to their safe house. We have to succeed here or go back with them and try something else tomorrow.

There are people still unloading the supply train, not forty paces from us, on the other side. Groups of police stand around and watch them. We’re crouched by the last railroad car, the boxcar that is intended to carry the mail.

There’s no mail allowed at the moment, but regulations are regulations. They say there has to be a boxcar at the end of the train for the mail, so there is.

Kat tells us that Commander Benat had devised a system for getting people and supplies around the country using these boxcars. His second-in-command had actually recruited Kat and others down in Valdivia, and they had come up to Cabezón this way, via some railway junction called Xorio near Iruña.

That’s where we’re heading, if we can get in. The journey will take a couple of days to Xorio, and then, if there’s no train heading in to Iruña, we’ll have to walk another day or so.

It all sounds good to me, but there’s a difference between Kat seeing someone else do it, and being able to do it herself. The railcars are connected electronically with a signal cable next to the mechanical couplings, and she’s using a screwdriver, a wire clip, a small square of conductive foil and a piece of duct tape to fool the alarm system.

The sound of doors crashing closed has been coming from the other side of the train for a few minutes now. A distant bell sounds. At the far end of the train, I see a mechanical signal change the position of its red-painted arms. I hear the clack of the movement and a green light comes on above it.

“Out of time. Got to move now,” Yion whispers.

“Nearly there,” Kat hisses.

The distant electric engine starts to spool up as the driver takes it through its test sequence. I’ve travelled by train before, but I’ve no idea how long it takes after testing before the train starts moving.

“Kat…”

“Got it!” she says.

She’s broken the connector casing and worked the clip down into the unit, grounding the door seal signals against the casing with the foil. The tape holds it in position.

“Open the door!”

There’s no platform this side, so Talan has to lift Yion up to reach the boxcar door lock. He has a rusted old screwdriver with a wide, flat blade. As Kat promised, it fits in the simple lock. Yion twists. At that moment the train moves forward with a clank and a jerk.

Yion drops the screwdriver, nearly overbalancing Talan as he grabs for it.

Natalia scrabbles to retrieve it.

With a squeal, the train stops. The driver is testing the brakes.

Yion takes the screwdriver Natalia is holding up, slams it back in the lock and twists.

“Open. Let me down!”

Talan drops him back on his feet and they both heave on the sliding door.

With a squeal that the whole station must be able to hear, the door slides open just enough.

“Go!” I hit Yion on his shoulder.

Talan picks Kat up and throws her inside.

Yion grabs my hand briefly, his eyes wide, then he and Natalia are sprinting away into the gloom.

Talan throws me in after Kat and hauls herself up, wriggling to get her backpack in.

Inside, Kat and I push against the door to close it.

The whole train shudders and begins to shunt forward like some enormous segmented worm. There’s banging and rattling. Shouts close by which make my heart rate spike. Whistles. A mournful howl from the engine.

And then we’re moving, gathering speed, leaving Cabezón and disappearing into the vast night of the central high plains.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“Seems too easy,” Talan whispers.

I snort quietly and turn down the little solar lamp that is our only light.

We’re three hours out of Cabezón and Kat is asleep. Talan’s going to take first watch, but despite the lullaby of clacking and the gentle rocking, I’m slow in closing my eyes. Partly, it’s because Talan’s right. This does seem too easy, and if things do go wrong, we’ll be in the middle of nowhere and our options will be limited.

Somewhere, a few hours ahead of us, there’s the small town of Jaurrieta. It’ll have a comms server at the station which might be turned on. If it is, I’ll have to risk communicating with Hwa to find out what’s going on. The train is empty and there’s no reason to stop for loading or unloading, but Kat says the drivers will either replace their engine’s massive batteries for fully charged ones or change engines entirely.

“You think this really is the last supply train?” I ask.

“That’s what they said.”

While we were breaking in to the boxcar, we could hear discussions on the other side of the train. I have no way to estimate how much food the train delivered, but there’s clearly a huge crisis in the whole of Newyan. The Rangers hadn’t been exaggerating.

“There must be something that’s being organized,” I say. “Hwa will know more. I’ll check the message I picked up when it’s light tomorrow.”

Talan grunts. “It’s difficult being out of the news loop.” There’s a scuff of empty mailbags as she shifts her position on them.

Kat twitches, mumbling something.

Her temperature seems okay, and I hope that means the infections are being eradicated, but she doesn’t sleep easy.

I pull her closer, the way Talan used to do for me when I had terrible nightmares in the first weeks at Cardu.

Still asleep, Kat’s fist closes on my shirt and grips it hard.

“Not going anywhere, little cousin,” I murmur.

“She’s tough,” Talan says. I can tell she’s smiling.

“Natalia certainly thinks so,” I reply. “Advanced case of hero worship there.”

Talan snorts in the dark. “Almost as bad as Kat has for you.”

Me? I try not to laugh.

We fall silent then, and with Kat’s body curled against mine, I eventually slip away into dreams. I dream of Bleyd and Rhoswyn and Alexis. We’re all together, arm in arm, walking along the seafront in Stormhaven. A storm is gathering. Waves rush against the sea wall, and I can feel the salt spray on my cheeks.

Behind us, in the town, the mummers in their tall, conical masks sway through the streets to the sound of flutes and pipes. They dance and sing. Their songs say that the world has turned, the cycle has ended and the Dreamers have woken. And the voice in the deep speaks again.