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A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 15

Back after a break of a week. The last episode left Zara and Talan with the doctor in the clinic, hearing the sound of a vehicle approaching outside.

Link to last episode: https://henwick.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/a-threat-among-the-stars-episode-14/

This episode is medium length – 3k words.

For those who are just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is the sequel and starts at:

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 34

Zara

 

The Rangers are very nice, once we all put down our weapons and introduce ourselves politely.

The introductions are, of course, a little stilted.

They call themselves Fox and Ox. The doctor remains Doctor. We are Z, T and K. Just in case things go wrong.

Fox looks like a fox. He’s small, with bushy, red hair, sharp blue eyes, and he moves quickly. Ox doesn’t in the slightest resemble an ox, but he’s about as big as he can be and still fit in their Rover.

The Doctor has persuaded these two Rangers to take a couple of days off for a ‘hunting trip’, down in the lower sierras. Even though they’re on holiday, they retain the right to use their Rover, a hulking all-terrain vehicle with an electric motor for each independently-articulated wheel.

It takes a bit of getting used to, the Rover does; it’s quiet and the cabin only sways gently while the wheels bobble over the unmade tracks. Still, it’s ideal for Kat, who sleeps soundly.

About half-way through the night, we stop and Fox takes Talan for a short walk with a pair of night-vision binoculars. She comes back and describes what she’s seen in the valley, on the main road down to Cabezón: a Syndacian road block. Apparently, there are patrols along every paved road in the region. It’s not that we couldn’t get around them, but using the Rover on the dirt tracks avoids the risk of blundering into a road block, and besides, it’s letting us recuperate.

My back, feet and shoulders are very thankful.

It gets better. The back of the cabin is warm, flat and it has foam rolls. After our last week in the pine forests this is unimaginable luxury.

Without us exchanging any words, I can tell Talan is still wary.

“Wake me when you need to sleep,” I whisper, and then drift away to the gentle murmur of Fox flirting with Talan. It puts a smile on my face. He just about reaches her collarbone. You have to admire the ambition.

 

I’m woken by the dawn. Fox is driving now and Ox is alseep, with his seat flat back.

Talan nods at me, lies down and is gone in seconds.

Kat is half-awake but groggy. Talan has already updated her on what’s happened, though I’m not sure it’s all sunk in.

Fox leans back and hands us some nutrient bars. “Breakfast,” he mouths, and then grins.

They’re okay, these Rangers.

We pull off the track a couple of hours later and, hidden away under the pines, there’s a Ranger out-station with recharging capability and better food than the nutrient bars. I mentally add some costs to the IOU I left with the doctor.

Cabezón is only forty or fifty kilometers away, but the forest tracks wander all over. Fox tells us the plan is to circle the city and approach from the other side, closer to the main station which is where I’ve said we need to go.

When we resume the journey after lunch, Talan and I are making unnecessary repairs to our clothing with odd colored patches of old cloth. The Rangers say we’ll stand out if our clothes look too new. We’ve stained our backpacks to look older. We’re also doing what we can to salvage Kat’s clothes. She spent much longer up on the high sierras than we did, and that was hard on her clothing. My first sight of her emerging from the building remains vivid in my mind: that wide-eyed apparition with a rag tied around her head like a pre-space flight sea pirate.

Even with the best intentions, there’s a limit to what we can achieve for her.

“You’re still going to look like a vagrant,” I say, smiling at Kat.

“She’ll fit right in,” Ox says bleakly.

“That Hartzak came close to getting a bigger piece of you,” Talan says to Kat, wiggling her fingers through the gap in one leg of her pants. The claws caught in the fabric, ripping it, just as Kat dived through the gap into the building.

It’s not that the Rangers have been especially chatty or involved, but there’s a sudden quiet from them.

Interesting.

“You Rangers get much trouble from Hartzak?” I ask, conversationally. It was something I’d been thinking about a lot as we came down from the high sierras.

There’s an exchange of glances between them.

“No,” Fox says.

Really?

“Guess they don’t come down off the Sierra Arija, or they’d be tearing whole villages to pieces, and I’d have heard about that.”

No response.

“So, no one goes hunting up there?”

Ox shakes his head.

There’s something very different between what I thought I knew of the Hartzak, and what happened to us, up on the Sierra Arija.

When I flew up there in the hedge-hopper, I’d chosen to use Berriaren as a hiding place for the data modules, because I ‘knew’, like everyone on Newyan ‘knew’, that the Hartzak were insanely territorial. That they need only to sense humans in the area and they would always attack. People on Newyan avoid the whole Sierra Arija, so I’d gambled that no one would accidentally find the data modules in Berriaren. Good plan.

That day, I landed the hedge-hopper beside the lake. The short journey from there, into the city and back, counts among the most terrifying moments of my life. Even while I was in Berriaren, in the Auzitegi, I was sure that a Hartzak would scent me and call others. I half expected to die down that well.

But having got away with it, I’d dismissed it as good luck and went back to congratulating myself on the plan.

And yet, Kat, Talan and I had just walked much of the length of the Sierra Arija. Kat twice. We’d seen one Hartzak, in Berriaren. It had certainly gone berserk, but having a plasma rifle fired at you can do that.

There had been signs of others, and it was beyond belief that they hadn’t known we were there in the pine forests.

What am I missing? Ox and Fox know something, but they’re not talking.

It’s Kat who speaks: “I have an idea about that,” she says.

She puts down her jacket that she’s been re-stitching.

“The Hartzak were aggressive,” she starts slowly. “We have lots of reports, and even video from the early days to prove that.”

“Hmm,” I say. I’ve seen those videos. Truly terrifying.

“But not when they first landed. Not while the Founders built the center of Berriaren. Only later.” She clears her throat, suddenly aware we’re all paying close attention, Rangers included.

“What if…” she pauses and looks less confident. “Look, what I’m saying is, what if the Hartzak were domesticated by the Atsekabe. What if the Atsekabe deliberately trained the Hartzak to defend them.” She rushes on. “If they were smart enough to make paintings and use tools and domesticate the Hartzak, the Atsekabe could have seen humans as a threat.”

“You’re saying the Hartzak were trained by the Atsekabe to attack humans?” Talan looks sceptical.

“Yes,” Kat says. “Then when the Atsekabe were gone, after a generation of two, the Hartzak just went back to being Hartzak. By that time we’d left Barriaren. Now?” she shrugs. “Humans aren’t really on their list of things to eat.”

It matches our experience, but I don’t know. I suspect the Rangers do, but they aren’t talking about it. In any event, my estimation of Kat goes up a notch or two. To be thinking about things like that while being hunted through the high sierras by Syndacians is … very Aguirre.

“Change of plan,” Fox says, avoiding the subject. He’s looking at something that’s appeared on his pad. “We’ll need to fill you in on some background of Cabezón now. We’ll take a break at another Ranger station this evening and then walk you to the city before dawn.”

“You can’t take us nearer to the station?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Just got a message. Been ordered back. Something’s stirred up the Syndacians.”

Talan and I look at each other. My gut says they’ve found our abandoned escape pod and someone’s started to join the dots.

They’ll be hunting us all now, and they’ll know exactly where we have to be heading. It’s going to get more difficult every day, every step closer to Iruña.

 

 

Chapter 35

Zara

 

It’s Fox who gives the briefing.

“We don’t know who you are and probably don’t want to know. But at least one of you isn’t from Newyan, and we’re thinking you may have been … out of touch. So, we’re going to give you the full package, as if you didn’t know anything recent,” he says, his eyes carefully not looking at any of us. “That suit you?”

“It does,” Talan says.

“Okay. Here goes. Bit of background.” Fox settles himself down self-consciously. “Newyan’s always been a good planet. Meant we used to attract people from other worlds, and the population grew, till, oh, ’bout three or four years ago. Now, I’m no economist, but it’s always been clear as summer sky to us, living up in the sierras, that the necessities to support that lowland population were always just a step ahead of the numbers. One good reason we like it up here.”

He pauses, takes a sip from a canteen.

“Don’t know the truth about all the corruption scandals and the government confiscating estates, but sure as shi… sure as hell, the people who got hold of the estates don’t know squat about running them. Not for producing food, anyway. Disaster just waiting to happen, all that.”

His eyes flick across to me and Kat. I gave the doctor my name. I don’t believe he told the Rangers, yet I’m sure Fox suspects that Kat and I grew up on estates. The little things that are so hard to disguise give you away: accent, turn of phrase and so on.

“A couple of months ago,” he continues, “right in the middle of winter, there were some incidents: a bad fire at the food warehouses down in Sainte Engrâce, a goods train came off the rails on the Lourdios line, severe winter snow storms.” He waves a hand. “Some other minor things went wrong. Just things that happen sometimes. But the effect was like someone had set off a bomb. Sainte Engrâce had no food. The neighboring estates that used to feed it were producing nothing. All the people who used to work on those estates and been turned out, had to come down to the city. Some were managing to live hand to mouth with odd jobs, but most of the old estate workers were living rough. With the accident, there was no way to supply the city by rail. The place is out on a limb with one major road and one railway, which was blocked.”

Kat nods, her face grim. She’ll know all this. She’d told us that Commander Benat had made sure the whole of Training Company Bravo heard news from outside, unfiltered through the usual media channels.

“It rippled out from that,” Fox says. “A relief convoy of trucks turned up in Lourdios and people stopped food being loaded, because there wasn’t enough for both cities. Suddenly everyone was looking around at the food stocks, at the number of people in each city, at the numbers living rough. Everyone was doing the sums and working out that there wasn’t enough food to go around, certainly down here in the southern hemisphere. And the northern hemisphere has never produced enough food.”

“Everywhere, everyone, short of food, except in Iruña.” Kat interrupts, her voice bitter.

Fox nods. “The government started seizing food and stockpiling in Iruña. The Bureau of Food and Agriculture was put in charge of distribution. Of course, people started hoarding, straight away. New laws were passed against that. You can’t store a week of food in your own home! Can you believe that?”

Ox speaks from the driving seat. “The media keeps saying everything’s under control, there are just minor problems and it’s temporary emergency laws.” He snorts. “That Ministro for Food was on last month. Idiot.”

He shakes his head and falls silent.

Fox takes it up again: “The Ministro explained early on that the ‘acquisition’ of food was all part of a wide reaching program to ensure the basic necessities for everyone. What was it he said? To everyone according to his need, without favor. A way to stop people making unreasonable profit from necessities. Fair for everyone. And that this was all just teething problems and minor local issues.”

“That’s a short time to go to hell,” Talan says. “This all happened in two months?”

Fox nods. “About that. It was the way it was set up. Like I said, a balance—”

“The system used to have resilience,” I interrupted. “The estates used to store surplus, especially in winter, specifically for these types of local problems.”

Fox is watching me like his namesake, but I’m not revealing any more than he already suspects.

“When you take the estates out of it,” I say, “you create perfect conditions for a major disaster. The estates aren’t producing food, which means centralized purchase and storage, and a road and rail network overloaded with levels of traffic it wasn’t designed for. Then when there’s a problem at any point in the network, and no local safety net, that problem propagates back through the system.”

“You’re saying every city in Newyan is on the brink?” Talan asks.

Fox nods. “The media don’t say that, but they can’t keep a lid on it now. First the news said there was just uninformed panic, then the Bureau of Food and Agriculture said it was teething problems with a new system, then the Bureau of Defense blamed some ‘rebel sabotage’.”

He leaves that hanging. Kat is pale, but quiet. From what she said to us, Commander Benat’s operations were entirely against the Syndacian mercenaries. I’m certain she wouldn’t have been party to any attacks that would have harmed people from Newyan.

“Got Rangers out near Sainte Engrâce, and they say no rebels there,” Fox says. “But here’s a strange thing up here in the high sierras. Someone posted a bulletin a couple of weeks back on the InfoHub. Said there was a battle in the hills above Cabezón. Got taken down quickly, but not before people saw it and copied it.”

Kat’s barely breathing, looking down at the floor of the cabin.

“Now, the Syndacians are all over those hills. We can’t get near to see what went on, if anything did.”

He stops to reach for a snack of air-dried meat to chew on.

“Lot of carrion scavengers in those hills,” he says thoughtfully. “You can see ’em from miles away. Normally, they’d strip a carcass in a day. Still around now means there’s too much for them. Never seen that before.”

No one says anything. There’s the quiet whine of the engines, the crunch of the tires over the ground, the gentle sway of the cabin as the servos compensate for the rough ground.

“So, anyway, however bad it is in other cities, it’s worse in Cabezón. Mercenaries in the hills. Police on every street corner checking papers. More checks on anyone coming in or going out. Everyone hungry, and lots of desperate people.” He looks out through the windows at the forest. “Now that spring is here, we’re expecting people to start coming up into the hills to look for food. The old comfort that we’re well out of it up in the sierras, that won’t last much longer.”

I shudder.

The vision created by the piskatellers looms in my mind. Shooting hungry people because we don’t have enough to share with them.

“Goddess of Mercy, guide our steps and hold us in your hands,” Kat whispers.

Fox goes on. “Anyway. If you need to go there, you need to go. But if you know Cabezón from before, you won’t recognize it now. People get desperate enough, they’ll steal anything, do anything. Expect everyone to be a thief or worse. Trust no one. Avoid the police. Keep out of public buildings.”

He looks directly at Talan. “Don’t talk,” he says.

Ox reaches back from the driving seat and hands Fox a pair of scissors with a grunt.

Fox holds them up for Talan. “We’d advise… I mean your hair’s beautiful, but…”

Talan’s lips twist in what might be called a smile. “What you’re trying to say is it might help if I looked and acted like a guy.”

Fox nods, looks down at the floor. “You two both. Might make you a little safer.”

My hair is already cut short. I take the scissors and raise a brow at Talan.

She nods and shifts across to sit in front of me. Hair will grow back, if we’re still alive.

I unbraid her hair, let it fall like a river of autumn down her back. Fox steals a look. It is magnificent.

With a sigh, I gather it in my fingers and start cutting. The only problem with this is that her hairstyle won’t match the fake documentation that Xing made for us on the courier ship, and we’ve no way of changing that. And we don’t have any documentation for Kat.

Fox pulls a couple of odd garments from a box. They’re outer vests with many pockets.

“Wear these under your shirts and jackets, out of sight,” he says. “We’ll stock up the pockets with dried meat and fruit, enough for a couple of days. We’ll put more in your backpacks, but you may lose that if the police stop you. They’ll call it hoarding. You’ll get your canteens filled with water tonight, and public pumps are still working.

“Leave the plasma rifle. Take pistols and keep them hidden.

“Last thing.  We’ll give you some alcohol and drugs. They have better purchasing power than money at the moment.”

This looks worse all the time, but I have to get a message to Hwa as soon as possible, and using the sort of redirection and disguise that’s only available on communication servers in cities. The reason the Syndacians followed Kat with such so determination may very well be because she posted about the battle from an insecure point, probably some village’s InfoHub router she could connect to wirelessly. As soon as they traced it back, they’d have known where she was to within a few kilometers.

We can’t afford that now.

 

 

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No episode of ATAtS this weekend :-(

Due to a sort of domino effect, a rash of minor stuff has made a huge dent in my writing efforts over the last few weeks, so I’m not posting an episode for Zara this weekend (4th & 5th August). Apologies.

I’m working hard on Amber (‘Inside Straight’, Bite Back 6) and Zara as well.

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/).

‘A Threat Among the Stars’ is a serial novel of weekly (usually!) episodes and starts at:

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

We’re about half way through this one.

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 14

I hurried the last episode, and so this episode includes the last chapter of the last episode, but in the place it will be in the book. That helps this to be a longer episode than normal.

Possible bad news. Due to a sort of domino effect, a rash of minor stuff has made a huge dent in my efforts this week, and I *may* need to skip Zara this week to get on with Amber. I’ll keep you posted.

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 a 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.

+ + +

As I’m having to reorganise, here’s the last bit of chapter 29…

 

Hwa forces herself to relax and smile broadly at Sánchez. “Yes, Ministro: we are here, and in agreement with your proposals, but processes must be observed. Our internal political situation has been damaged by the… abruptness of recent actions. The way they were taken unilaterally. We must now wait for procedures to be followed, so that everyone is content when we announce a resumption of trade.”

Sánchez is a politician. He understands exactly what she’s saying and can imagine the same situation between departments in the Newyan government.

However, he is under pressure, and suspicious. “When?” he says simply.

“In the course of this evening,” she says. Zara once told her of the human superstition of crossing fingers. Her fingers, hidden in the sleeves of her robe, are crossed.

She and Xing have an hour or less to manipulate Keo, Taha, Besud and Sánchez into an arrangement. If they fails, the Hajnal survive, and the visions of the devastation to follow makes her shiver.

 

 

Chapter 30

Hwa

 

Senior Delegate Keo and Ministro Loiola are deep in conversation.

Hwa talks instead to Keo’s wife, May, until she has an opportunity to join them.

Both the Senior Delegate and his wife are the most attractive people. They are clever, sophisticated and urbane high-fliers in the Foreign Ministry. Hwa suspects Keo’s next posting will be to one of the major Inner Worlds, maybe Earth itself. Newyan, and Hwa, is lucky to have them here, now. Even if they’re temporarily outranked by Besud.

Hwa is unsurprised to find that May understands everything that’s going on in the subtle diplomatic struggles that run through the room like currents through a sea. More surprising is that she’s completely supportive of Hwa.

And her husband shares that diplomat’s ability to appear to be giving his complete attention to the person he’s speaking to, and yet retain awareness of others.

At a pause in his conversation, he turns and beckons Hwa to approach.

“Ministro, there’s someone you should meet. This is Delegate Hwa, the representative on Newyan of the Fragrant Stars company.”

Loiola knows exactly who she is. He looks at her, his expression one of a polite interest that doesn’t reach his eyes at all.

“Ministro Loiola,” Hwa says and inclines her head fractionally.

His eyes would make a dead shark’s look warm.

“I always believe parties to a dispute should take the opportunity to meet outside of the formalities of court,” Keo says. “Even if one must eventually take recourse to law, such a lot of time and effort can be saved in talking beforehand.”

“All the time and effort could be saved, in this case,” Loiola says. “By simply not pursuing a claim that is not the direct responsibility of the Newyan government.”

“The Duhalde is a customs cutter of the Bureau of Taxation, and a naval patrol at the planar zenith of the Newyan system is the responsibility of the Bureau of Defense,” Hwa says. “Your laws are clear that, in all their actions, cutters and destroyers are to be regarded as agents of the government, empowered to carry out and enforce the government’s will.”

She’s accurately quoting Newyan laws at him, and she’s sure he knows it. She’s equally sure of his next step, to quote back ‘extraordinary circumstances’. There’s no pretense of interest in his expression now, much less polite interest.

He’s clearly not wanting to conceding anything. Quite the reverse. He’s leaning forward, trying to loom over her, and the threat, the angry tension in his body, is noticeable to others. A quiet begins to spread out through the room like ripples in a pool.

However, before he can speak, they’re interrupted by Ministro Sánchez, who clearly sees a potential situation developing that might damage his plans.

Hwa finds it interesting that the major bureaux of Newyan don’t appear to be in complete agreement on how to proceed.

There has to be a way to exploit that.

“I hope I’m hearing steps to return our relationship to the previous good terms,” Sánchez says with good cheer forced into his voice.

“There are steps to be taken, and a hope for the resumption of good relationships at the end,” Hwa says, steeling herself. “But each step must be respected.”

Sánchez waves. “Of course, of course. Things have happened which were not under our control, but remain our responsibility, which we must admit.”

“I admit no such thing,” Loiola snaps back.

“Surely—” Keo begins, but there is suddenly another participant in their conversation. Taha. No longer ‘Captain’, he now styles himself ‘Commissioner’.

“This is a fruitless discussion,” he says. “You are needlessly antagonizing people, Delegate Hwa. All such matters come under the scope of the Enquiry, which has been in existence since shortly after the arrival of the Annan in the system, and where we will proceed in a proper and dignified fashion to assess these claims.”

Loiola smirks.

Sánchez pales and there seems nothing Hwa can do. She has no message from Xing. Besud is nowhere to be seen. She cannot force Sánchez to say anything until she has Besud’s agreement to lift the embargo. But just leaving Taha’s statement unchallenged gives it legitimacy.

“An arguable claim, Captain Taha.” May says, standing at Hwa’s shoulder.

There is no way that she’s forgotten the title Taha’s now claiming. Hwa recalls that May’s background is inter-system law.

May continues: “Our delegation’s legal team have examined the Accords and they’re quite explicit as to where and when an Enquiry can be commenced.”

“Yes, yes. Such wording as was agreed hundreds of years ago,” Taha waves a hand. “The meaning however should be clear, an Enquiry is properly constituted when called within the jurisdiction of the government concerned.”

Hwa cannot let May continue. She might damage the relationship between the Xian delegation and the Enquiry, so she answers Taha.

“You are correct that the Accords have stood unchanged for hundreds of years. All the more reason that any changes to terms are agreed by all parties concerned, and not arbitrarily varied by the decision of Commissioners-Elect in pursuit of an Enquiry.”

“The parties in this instance are the Newyan government, Commissioner Ivakin and me,” Taha replies. “Do you accept the notice of Enquiry, Ministro?”

Taha has turned to Loiola, who is going to accept it.

Sánchez clears his throat. “That would be my Bureau, the Bureau of Justice, Commissioner Taha, or Primer Ministro Eneko, who is not present.”

“Well?” Taha turns to him and raises his eyebrow. “Will you accept it?”

Hwa doesn’t give Sánchez the chance to answer. “Quite by chance, the Ministro and I discussed this while I was registering my court case regarding the incident with the Shohwa.” She sees Taha’s nostrils flare in anger, and goes on. “It seems that Newyan’s official doctrine is, irrespective of the timing of the transmission of notice of the Enquiry, it is the government’s acceptance of it that completes and timestamps the process. My meeting was the first business of the Ministro’s day.”

“And the conversation expanded from there,” Keo takes up quickly. “We have accredited Delegate Hwa to undertake investigation of the incident with the Xing Gerchu as well.”

Keo smiles at Loiola and Taha as if he were discussing the weather and continues. “Whereas I make no prejudgments on the findings of the investigation, it is not out of the range of possibilities that this was, for example, an act of war.”

Now there is a shocked silence in the room, as if the Senior Delegate had set off a bomb. Everyone is listening.

Loiola recovers first. “Outrageous!” he splutters.

Keo shrugs and laughs easily. “Merely an example! As I say, I make no prejudgments, I am simply pointing out the parameters of the case, and I give due notice that I do not consider it within the remit of the Enquiry to pursue the case of the destruction of the Hegemony’s official courier ship.”

He has a disputable point. The Accords are in place to prevent war, among other things. If the attack on the Xing Gerchu was an act of war, it precedes and negates the Accord’s Enquiry.

“As my husband says, purely an example,” May says. “We certainly do not believe this will be the result of the case, otherwise we would not have agreed to lift the embargo while the case proceeds.”

They are a clever team. Senior Delegate Keo himself cannot say he does not believe any particular result is likely or not, but May is not an accredited diplomat. Officially, her opinion doesn’t count. Yet everyone in the room hears it.

Loiola doesn’t care. “You’re blackmailing us,” he hisses. “Offering food in exchange for influencing our courts! Holding starving families hostage to your political ends.”

Besud’s voice cuts through the tension in the room like a knife.

“We are not lifting the embargo,” he says.

Faces look stunned. However well-fed and isolated the Newyan politicians in this room are, they know what’s happening outside of Iruña. Without food imports from Xian, there will be riots. Newyan will collapse, though Loiola seems not to care.

Hwa is stunned.

What’s happened? Xing must have not been able to convince him.

“I implemented the Xian conflict directives as the authorized agent of the Hegemony’s Foreign Ministry,” Besud continues. “Once issued, the directive and any variations of it will be solely on my authority, unless I am replaced by a more senior figure.”

Keo is staring at him. They’re equivalent rank in the service, and yet Besud is right—having declared the directive, he can only be overruled by a senior.

Besud continues. “That I issued a conflict directive should in no way been seen to influence the outcome of the court case regarding the Xing Gerchu and Shohwa, which I acknowledge Delegate Hwa will lead, with Ministro Sánchez’s permission.”

Besud looks at him, and Sánchez does not move a muscle.

“In an unrelated matter, although trade between systems has been suspended, Xian is mindful of the temporary shortfall of resources on Newyan, and relief shipments will arrive shortly and transfer supplies directly to all the provincial capitals, to minimize delays.”

The Ministro for the Bureau of Food and Agriculture is standing close, listening.

His face clears. “Thank you, Captain Besud. From the bottom of my heart.”

This one is not Hajnal, Hwa thinks.

Besud nods. He is waiting, his eyes are locked on Sánchez, who is sweating. The Ministro licks his lips. His voice is strained: “The final validity of all legal procedures to be within the determination of the Terran Council,” he says.

Hwa holds her breath.

Sánchez believes this is his escape—the Council will close her down before she can prove anything. Loiola and Taha don’t want to even give her that much chance. Besud…

“Agreed,” Besud says.

Loiola is pushed out of the way by the Ministro of Food and Agriculture. He and Sánchez shake Besud’s hand, and then Keo’s for good measure.

Everyone believes they’ve won. Even Loiola and Taha, thinking that Hwa will be stopped soon.

The gong sounds.

“Dinner,” May says, with a bright smile that looks completely unforced.

 

 

Chapter 31

Hwa

 

The lights in her suite are switched off, replaced with candles that she has found in a cupboard. That’s because Hwa finds that electricity sings, if she listens hard enough, and she just wants to relax and talk without distraction. The candles smell pleasant anyway.

She’s showered and changed out of the stifling formal robes into a simple silk kimono and she’s sprawled bonelessly on the sofa.

“We’ve done as much as we can,” Xing’s voice comes from her pad speaker on the coffee table. Despite their success this evening, he senses her unease. “The next step must be Zarate’s.”

“I know.” Speaking aloud is marginally less effort, and she feels more comfortable doing it. She likes Xing a lot, but mind-to-mind communication takes place only through a shared interface, and she’s absorbed a little of Zara’s reticence about that.

“I just wish I knew where she is. I’m worried,” she finishes. “Are there still—”

“I’ve been monitoring Syndacian military frequencies even while I was on the Wújìn. There are troop movements in the high sierras, reports of widespread unrest, some concern about Hartzak attacks, but nothing specifically mentioning either Kattalin or Zarate.”

“Yes, but wouldn’t they use different communication methods to report back on that?”

“Possibly. I have looked at other transmissions from the area. There are such a lot, but in the main, they’re urgent requests for food and supplies.”

“All part of the reason why Sánchez is being pressured to get the embargo lifted.”

“Yes. I estimate the government would have had no more than three weeks before there were food riots in the worst hit provinces.”

Now the Xian relief supplies will defuse the situation. Ironic—Xian keeping the Hajnal in power for the moment.

“Would there have been an armed uprising?” she asks. “Could there be?”

“Not likely at this stage,” Xing says. “It would have been extremely difficult. Other than for hunting, there aren’t many weapons in the population. Against them, the Syndacians are spread very thinly, but they’re comparatively well armed.”

“And trained? They’re mercenaries, after all.”

Xing is quiet for a moment before replying. “The Hajnal are definitely shopping at the economy end of the range. It’s worrying how little experience the majority of the Syndacian cohorts have. I’m afraid they’re the kind of troops who might panic and start a massacre.”

“Well, food is coming,” she says. “We’ll ensure delivery direct to the regions and bypass the Hajnal using relief for consolidation. And we’re getting our court case.”

All wasted if Zara does not get through with the evidence they need. Yes, they have a court case, but reparations on the threat to the Shohwa and the destruction of the Xing Gerchu is completely unimportant in the real scale of things.

Hwa closes her eyes and scrolls again through the data for Newyan food production in her mind, still unable to believe that Newyan has arrived at such a potential calamity so quickly.

The Hajnal used the seizure of estates for three purposes: as a threat against the Names, as bribes for officials, and as reward for their own people. In all cases, the Bureau of Industry forced the evacuation of all workers and handed the entire estates across to the new owners. None of whom were remotely qualified in the management of the estates, or interested in food production.

In four years, Newyan has gone from a net exporter of food to dependent on imports.

The next catastrophe lying in wait is the collapse of the currency, but so far that has been avoided through contributions from other Hajnal worlds. None of which are much better off than Newyan.

It’s clear that the Hajnal regard this world as their strategic battle. The system they mean to promote to the association of Inner Worlds, giving them a beachhead that can continue all the way to Earth.

Which means this planet has to be where they are defeated.

Which means Zara has to get to Iruña with irrefutable evidence that Hwa can force the Enquiry to present, and thereby finally expose the Hajnal in a way that cannot be covered up.

She’s going around in circles, so she stops and takes a different direction.

There were cameras recording the dinner, and a message from Xing that he was monitoring them.

“You watched Ministro Loiola this evening. What do you make of him?” she asks.

“An interesting question. Do you know there was a scanning program called EmoTx introduced on Earth about ten years ago?”

Hwa frowns at the apparent irrelevance.

The name is not unknown to her. She had access to Shohwa’s memory banks at the point she was installed on the servers at the delegation in Kernow, but the sheer volume of it meant that she retained a lot of the less immediate, less relevant data only in the form of a summary.

“I know the cursory facts,” she says. “EmoTx was a program that ran on the Terran InfoHub and produced a cross reference of human facial expressions sorted by the emotional cause of the expression.”

“Yes. The Terran government bought out the entire company and it disappeared into their most secret research facilities.”

“The ones we know all about?”

Xing chuckles, a strange echo of a laugh coming from her pad.

“The same,” he confirms. “The thing is, the reason they were so keen to acquire and direct the research is that they believe EmoTx can tell the difference, just from visual data feeds of faces, between a human and what they refer to as a ‘skin’.”

Hwa snorts. “A skin like me, for instance? A Self-Actualized Entity in a human body?”

“Correct.”

Hwa frowns again. “You’re not trying to tell me Loiola’s an SAE?”

“No. In fact, it appears the EmoTx program isn’t very good at that. They were using it to run analyses on video feeds of you when you visited Earth with Zara, for instance, and they have no idea you aren’t strictly human. As we knew they wouldn’t. But anyway, the latest iterations of the software don’t actually come up with a crude flag saying ‘SAE’ or ‘human’. They report a estimation that the person being analysed is human, in the form of an index.”

Hwa cannot control the human response to the shock of what she thinks she’s just heard. She sits up abruptly.

“You’re telling me Loiola’s an alien?”

“I didn’t say that. All I will say is that his index is among the lowest, even in groups selected for disjunction between expressions and emotions.”

Haw lies back down. “Oh. So he’s an alien or a sociopath?”

“Your extrapolation, not mine. But interesting nevertheless, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. What I’m sure of is, he’s Hajnal. Unlike you, I have actual bones, and I feel it in them.”

Xing chuckles again.

“Perhaps. But it would be better for us to find some more scientific proof.”

“Like someone using that spy camera and reporting to Loiola?”

“I have taken control of the camera. I will know when someone tries to access it, and they will receive only what I let them.”

Hwa twists her head and glares up at the spot in the wall above her bed. The camera can’t be seen. It’s a light and sound sensitive film, barely a couple of molecules thick, half way up the wall and spread over the space of a hand.

Hwa’s first impulse was to destroy it. But that would have revealed she knew about these things. Now that Xing is here, it’s definitely better to leave it as a trap for the spy who put it there.

“The camera is a puzzle,” Xing says. “Anyone who knows what you are would not try and use electronic means like this to monitor you.”

But that doesn’t eliminate many—Keo, Besud, Alice and Danath. Others may suspect, but they don’t know.

“What exactly is the spy expecting to see in my room?” she asks.

“If they’re thinking you’re what you claim to be, a delegate from the Fragrant Stars Company, maybe they hope to catch you in an indiscretion.”

“A sexual indiscretion? For blackmail? In this delegation?” Hwa laughs. “There are easier targets.”

“Oh? I haven’t had time to read all the personnel files.”

“It’s not what you can find in the files, unless there are other spy cameras set up in other bedrooms. This is human-style information. It’s the gossip.”

Xing makes a polite but disbelieving sound from her pad.

“Senior Delegate Keo and his wife, for instance,” Hwa teases.

Self-Actualized Entities are fascinated with the world of senses and the way they affect human decision processes. Or, it would be more accurate to say, some are fascinated and other repulsed. As much as their emotional analogues can be said to be those emotions.

Xing is fascinated.

Although all SAEs have experienced interfacing with humans, and have some understanding of it, Hwa is unique in a several aspects.

She became aware of herself as Hwa while actually hosted by Zara.

Due to the lack of facilities to reverse the hosting, they remained linked for the longest time ever, as far as the SAEs of Xian are aware.

Finally, Hwa has chosen to inhabit a flesh and blood body: To remain connected to the sensory world. To have the processes of her mind continually colored by emotion and sensory information. To share the vulnerable state of humans.

Many SAEs claim it as conclusive proof that she’s gone insane.

Others, like Xing, are reserving judgment. Meanwhile, he has a mentioned he has an interest in what he calls purely human matters. He cannot admit to wanting to hear this ‘data’, but his quiet murmur invites her to continue.

“You know that well-built young man who’s their driver and bodyguard?”

“Yes. Timon Halle. On loan from the Yè Hǔ.”

As one would expect, protection of the Senior Delegate is entrusted to the Night Tigers, an elite corps within the defense force.

“It may be the loan will become permanent. They are very satisfied with his services, and it seems his duties extend to the bedroom. Also the sitting room, conservatory, hallway, balcony, stairs and allegedly on one occasion, the broom cupboard. Yes, both of them are happy with him. Separately, and occasionally together.”

“Oh.” Xing is quiet for a moment. “Yes, it would make more sense to try and blackmail the head of the delegation than the lowly delegate for a single trading company. Unless it’s about the real you and your real intent, and not about the attacks on the Shohwa and Xing Gerchu, or trade.”

It’s a chilling thought, but Hwa can’t believe there’s anyone in the Hajnal who’s linked all the data points together and understood what her real purpose is.

“Any others?” Xing asks casually, after a pause.

Hwa blinks. “Nothing as big. Financial Delegate Soren and his wife…”

She leaves it hanging.

“Stop teasing,” Xing says.

“Actually, it’s embarrassing. I looked at their messages.” She bites her lip. “I wouldn’t have otherwise, but an automated file checker flagged the text for me.”

“Messages between husband and wife? Why?”

“The program flagged them as being obviously in code. But when I looked, it’s a private code about their intimate life.”

“His wife remains in the Hegemony,” Xian says.

“Yes, and this is a long posting for Soren. They have made arrangements for intimacy while they are separated.”

“In code?”

“She refers in their correspondence to the young man who tends her garden three times a week. He speaks of the maid who ensures he is orderly in his lodgings.”

“It might actually be—”

“No. It isn’t. While he’s posted here, their house is rented out, and she lives in an apartment without a garden. As for him, his real maid complains his bedroom is most disorderly after the other ‘maid’ visits.”

Xing is silent for a while, probably reading the messages. “I see,” he says. “It’s still odd. Very different from their normal conversation. And why do they talk about it at all in their messages?”

The euphemistic language they use does seem stilted in comparison to their everyday talk. Perhaps that’s a function of embarrassment? Or some notion of archaic poetic style? Old poetry from some parts of Earth’s Asia is famously obscure.

“I don’t know for sure,” she says out loud. “Maybe they derive some erotic pleasure from it.”

“I can see humaning is even more difficult than I considered,” he says. “But as you say, by comparison any indiscretion of yours seems hardly worth installing a camera. And you haven’t been indiscreet?”

“Now you’re using euphemisms for sex.” She snorts. “I still have hopes.”

Not that Danath has responded to her flirting. He seems a bit scared, in truth. Or not so much scared as uncertain. As if he’s not sure how to interpret the signals she’s sending. Looking for a deeper level of meaning that isn’t actually there.

“Indeed,” Xing says. There is a hint of amusement in his voice. “I am closing all electronic connections to your suite. Have a good night.”

“What? Why?”

But he’s gone. There is silence in the room, which makes the rather uncertain knock on the door seem that much louder.

It’s Danath, standing in the corridor, clutching a bottle of champagne in front of him like a shield.

He’s changed to informal clothes which suit him even better than his beautiful robes from earlier. His eyes are a little wide, his breathing rapid.

“I… I saw you didn’t have an opportunity to enjoy the champagne at the dinner. You were so busy.” He swallows and holds the champagne a little higher. “There were some bottles spare. It’s a local one. It’s very good. I just thought you might like…”

Hwa reaches out. Not for the champagne, but for his forearm, where his sleeve has fallen back. His skin is warm to her touch, his muscles firm. A little shock like electricity travels through her, all the way down to her toes.

Before she can become infected with any uncertainty, she pulls him inside.

“I’m told I should never drink alone,” she says, surprised at the way her voice has changed. Deeper. A little ragged. She’s not entirely in control of her own body.

Like partners in a formal dance, they turn to face each other. Danath still holds the champagne in front of him.

She leans back against the door, pushing it closed.

“The kitchenette,” she says. Her throat feels tight. “The glasses are in the cupboard to the right of the sink. You are joining me, aren’t you?”

His eyes meet hers, growing bolder. “I’d like to,” he says.

“Good.”

Whose voice is that? Mine?

At least the uncertainty about his welcome seems dispelled from his mind.

He takes a step backwards in the right direction, still turned toward her, as if reluctant to stop looking at her. As if he can’t quite believe in her, and fears she might disappear like a mirage.

She enjoys the expression on his face, the way she can see desire welling up, pushing aside doubt. In fact, she enjoys seeing the whole way he carries himself. The way his muscles move under the soft silk of his clothes.

Being an SAE does not prevent her having a vivid imagination about muscles and movements and sensations.

And that hair. Thick, well-cut, black hair that looks soft and fine, yet lies perfectly on his head. She imagines the feel of it running through her fingers, and knows it will be untidy by the time she’s finished.

“Good,” she says again.

Her stomach feels as if it’s turned to water.

Is my own hair tidy? Did I brush it? Did I use the sweet-smelling soap when I showered?

Too late to worry.

Behind her back, her hand touches and triggers the palm lock.

The sound of the bolt is very loud.

 

Chapter 32

Zara

 

Down off the Sierra Arija, the leaves are broader, the woods are lighter. There’s less cover. I feel vulnerable, as if one of the mercenaries is going to see me all the way across the valley or something.

Not likely. I’m lying face down, peering through a screen of trees at a stone-built building which sits on the edge of a sleepy village. It’s the clinic. Like most places up here, a doctor calls once a week. Today’s the day for this village, and I’m waiting for him to go, so I can break in and steal medicines.

I feel bad, inside and out.

I’m wet and filthy. The skin of my shoulders is raw. My whole body aches. I daren’t take my boots off; my feet are a mass of blisters. I’m covered in scratches, and some of them are swollen and red. The high sierras are rife with bacteria which loves human flesh.

None of this is a problem, if I can get into that clinic. Every village stocks broad-spectrum anti-bacterials which will clear our skin infections up. I hope they have the systemic equivalents for whatever is killing Kat.

Best not to think about that. One step at a time.

I take a deep breath. It smells more like spring down here, out of the unending, choking pine forest.

The last of the evening light is playing on the leaves. Pretty patterns, bright green to incandescent gold and red and then back. Fluttering in the breeze. My eyes are heavy.

I can’t go in until it’s dark anyway, but I keep watching. For one, I want to be sure the doctor goes. For two, I want a glimpse of the face of the man I’m stealing from. Not sure why.

Eyelids droop. I’m warmer and more comfortable than I’ve been all week, and that’s not helping keep me alert.

Up on the Sierra Arija, even when I was in the harness, pulling Kat, I wasn’t warm. The air beneath the dark trees let me get sweaty, but temperature-wise, I was never anything other than chilled to the bone.

And Talan and I had to pull that… damned sled all week.

Kat’s been unable to walk for more than a few minutes without passing out. Talking nonsense even in her sleep. Burning up. For the last couple of days she’s been vomiting even the water we’ve given her.

Talan and Kat are hiding across the valley, waiting for me to bring medicines back.

My head sinks to the ground, jerks back up. Down again.

Shadows pool in the little corners and begin to spread like spilt ink. The lower leaves are in darkness now. Only the tops of trees are caught by the sun’s rays, and the temperature is dropping like a pebble falling slowly down a deep, deep well.

A door bangs, startling me out of near-sleep.

An elderly man walks slowly away from the clinic, carrying a small satchel. He has a straw hat at a jaunty angle. He’s wearing a patched jacket, old corduroy pants and sturdy walking boots.

There’s a truck, which looks as old as he does, parked to one side, but he doesn’t get in it. Instead, he heads up the gravel drive and turns right, down into the village.

I swear under my breath.

He’s probably going to have dinner at the village inn before heading home. That means I either have to wait until he comes back and drives away, or I move while there’s still light.

Much better to wait. Much more likely to get caught if I move now.

But Kat can’t wait. If I get in and out in twenty minutes, he can’t possibly have eaten in that time. And we’ll be able to move on by moonlight. If I wait till later…

I’m already getting up.

My body complains. Everything hurts, from deep aches to tender skin. I ignore it, and concentrate on walking smoothly and confidently to the back of the clinic.

The toilet window I’d seen earlier is still open.

There’s an outside trash bin which I lift and carry around beneath the window. My back screams at me. No time for that.

I get up on the bin and nudge the bar off its latch. Fully open, the window is still small. I have to get one arm through first so I can angle my shoulders. My hair gets caught of course. Then my jacket. Should have left it outside. Then my belt gets caught, followed by my hips. I squirm like a snake in a trap, panting and having to hold my weight with my hands on the top of the toilet cistern.

Finally, I’m doing an unsteady handstand on the bowl, arms shaking from effort, everything inside but my boots.

I can’t turn. I’m not flexible enough to tuck in and get my boots past the cistern. My strength is running out. I flip, landing on my heels and banging my head against the toilet door.

A Hartzak would have been quieter.

I sit there for a moment, holding my breath and listening.

Nothing.

I open the door. It’s dark inside. There’s a entrance hall, a small waiting room. On the other side of the waiting room, doors to a couple of rooms. The medicine cabinet should be in one of them. I want to tiptoe across, but after the noise I’ve made so far, that would be ridiculous.

The offices are open. The left hand one is the doctor’s office and contains the medicine cabinet. It’s locked, but it’s a token lock. They don’t expect their medicines to be stolen.

I know I should just steal the stuff and go, but I can’t. Instead, I sit at the doctor’s desk. He has a notepad and pen. I write on the top sheet.

 

I am very sorry. I feel so ashamed, but our need is desperate.

I swear I will replace everything I have stolen. Z.

 

I tear the top sheet off and place it in the middle of his desk.

Then I scratch out the ‘Z’. I need to explain myself to him, I don’t need to leave clues if he reports this to the police.

Stealing medicines makes me want to cry. I bite my lip and force myself to break the lock on the cabinet.

The skin ointments are straightforward, and there are plenty. I take two for each of us.

The systemics are more difficult. I can’t empty the cabinet and hope. There are indications printed on the little bottles, but what if I get it wrong?

There’s a medical index on a shelf, which has more information, but it only makes me more confused.

I stand there hesitating, looking at the bottles in my hand, and I hear the sound of boots on the gravel.

I make it to the spare office and hide behind some boxes as I hear the sound of a key in the lock of the front door.

 

 

Chapter 33

Zara

 

The floor creaks. I hear him go into the toilet and close the window.

Maybe that’s what brought him back—he remembered it was left open.

Can he see I was in there? Did I leave dirt on the floor?

I can barely breathe.

The floor creaks again, and he goes into his office. I closed the cabinet. The broken lock isn’t obvious, unless he opens it. Why would he open it after hours? Maybe he’ll just go away.

Then…

Oh, Goddess, I left the note on his desk.

The feeling of sickness congeals in my belly and sweat chills on my brow. I can’t be caught. I can’t. I have to get the evidence to Iruña. The life of one village doctor against what will happen if the Hajnal remain unchecked…

I may have to kill him.

The plasma pistol is in my jacket pocket.

I can’t kill him.

Can I?

Absent for so long, my grandfather returns.

If only you’d been born a man, he once said to me. I grant you have the resolve and the determination of a man, but you don’t have the ruthlessness. And one day, you’ll need it.

I remember being furious at him.

Will I have the cold courage to do what I must, today, now, to save Newyan?

A voice calls out. Brusque, authoritative. So like my grandfather, I wonder if I’m hallucinating.

“Do come in and join me, ‘Z’.”

What? He’s bluffing. He’s just seeing if I’m still around. With any luck he’ll go and fetch help before he checks and I’ll escape out the back.

“My eyes are getting a bit slow,” he says after a delay, “but my sense of smell remains excellent. I regret to inform you, I can smell you.”

It makes no difference now, but I move as quietly as I can. I walk into his office.

He’s sitting at his desk. Sixty or so, but looks fit and healthy. His hair has gone completely white, but lost none of its curl. His eyes are blue and sharp. His hands lie neatly on his desk, fingers laced easily together. He has a ring on his wedding finger.

I see that, and know it just got ten times as hard to think of killing him. My grandfather was right. I lack the necessary ruthlessness.

We look at each other and there a tension so thick I feel I can’t speak, but I have to: “Stupid to leave a message, I guess,” I say.

How do I apologize for trying to break in and steal medicines?

“Not really. As I said, my nose told me you were here the moment I came in.”

“Are you going to call the rangers?”

“Why?”

“Why? Because you’ve caught a thief.”

Silence, for several long seconds.

“Young lady, just because I choose to live here in the high sierras, doesn’t mean I don’t understand what passes for civilization in the lower regions.” He nudges the notepaper until it’s sitting perfectly square on his desk. “Part of that understanding is that thieves do not go trekking through the high sierras. They certainly do not write apologies. And, having written something so unidentifiable as ‘Z’, they would hardly bother to erase it.”

“I obviously didn’t erase it very well.”

He picks up and tilts the notepad I tore the paper from. The light catches the indent of my writing. I wasn’t thinking very clearly.

He puts it back down carefully. I probably didn’t leave it in the correct position and he would have noticed that too, even if he hadn’t smelled me and seen the note. A detail man, this doctor. A precise man.

“I am a doctor,” he says, and leans back in his chair, knitting his fingers together again, and placing his elbows on the armrests. “I treat patients. What seems to be the problem?”

Trying to ignore the cool, polished surface of the pistol in my pocket, I take out the handful of creams I’ve stolen and place them on his desk. Nudge the tubes into a neat line for him.

“The obvious skin infections,” I say, pushing up my sleeves to show him the rashes and infected scratches.

He peers at my medicine selection. “Well done, young lady. Those are the correct creams. However, it seems rather a lot for one person.” His cool, blue eyes lift and latch onto me. “How many of you are there? Three?”

I nod. It makes no difference telling him. “And one has a systemic infection. That’s what delayed me. I don’t know what to use.”

He takes a deep breath and leans back again.

“Bring them here. Systemic could be a serious problem and I won’t take a chance trying to diagnose on your second-hand description of the symptoms.”

“I can’t. I should even be talking to you. I can’t believe you’re not going to call—”

“I am a doctor,” he says again. “And you have to trust me. Your friend with the systemic infection could be in great danger. They’ve started vomiting everything you feed to them?”

I nod. “Two days.”

“And blood?”

“A little. This morning,” I say.

He grunts.

“Narrows it down. You have a stark choice, young lady. First option is you can try to make it to the next village. You think you might break into their clinic, and take a wild and possibly fatal guess on the medicine your friend needs. But actually you don’t need to worry about all that, and you won’t need to break in. Your friend will be dead before you get there.”

He leans forward, placing his hands back on the desk. “Second option is you trust me.”

The crazy thing is, I do trust him.

“I’ll expect some explanation, and I’ll take this,” he touches the note, “as promissory note against the value of the medicines and repair of the cabinet.”

Another deep silence.

I find I believe him—this is Kat’s only hope.

I pick up his pen. My hand is trembling and I take a couple of deep breaths before I trust myself to write at the bottom on the note.

 

Zarate Mirari Aguirre

 

I can’t tell if he even reads it. He’s watching me thoughtfully.

Strangely, after writing my name, I feel calmer, as if a fever has broken. Everything will be all right.

“I’ll be twenty minutes,” I say, and leave.

 

It takes twenty-five, ten of those persuading Talan.

I’m not sure I would have been able to, but Kat has vomited blood again, then passed out completely. We can’t wake her.

We leave the sled hidden where I lay watching, and Talan carries the unconscious Kat into the clinic.

The doctor stares at the weapons Talan has strapped to her back, but doesn’t say anything. He hands us astringent soaps and tubes of creams, then waves us away. “Use the toilet basin. Wash yourselves and your clothes as well as you can, and spread the cream on every affected part of your body. I will be busy for some time.”

Then he turns his entire attention to Kat.

Talan and I have to take turns in the small toilet. The soap doesn’t smell of anything, but it stings like bees wherever the surface of our skin is broken. The cream afterwards is like putting out fires with ice.

It takes us over an hour, but at the end we’re clean, damp and cold in squeeze-dried clothes.

Kat is lying on a gurney: stripped, cleaned and covered in the cream. She has tubes down her throat and nose, drips in her arms, sensors taped to her skin. A monitor displays medical information in green and black above her.

I realize a few stolen pills or an injection wouldn’t have been enough to save her life.

“Is she going to be okay?” I ask.

“Yes. Close timing, but for a youngster like her, she’ll recover fully.”

“How long?” I ask, looking at all the medical equipment.

He chuckles and starts to disconnect it all.

“She’s strong. A couple of days. But she’s going to need to really rest for those two days,” the doctor says. “Fortunately, that’s what she’s going to get.”

I’m about to tell him we need to keep going.

I’ll suggest, if it’s okay with him, we’ll sleep here until an hour or so before dawn and then be on our way. We can’t leave Kat here and I can’t tell him why we need to get to Iruña, but there’s no time to rest. I suppose we can continue to carry her in our sled.

But as I open my mouth to speak, there’s a noise of wheels crunching on the gravel.

Talan surges to her feet, plasma rifle in her hand

“Ah! Here they are at last,” the doctor says.

 

 

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 13

Oh! Look! More cliffs!

Hwa reveals what price she has paid, but still has to convince others… and Zara must steal to save Kat’s life.

If you’re just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is a 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 28

Newyan

Zara

 

I can see them, briefly, and only as an ominous shadow, as they pass overhead.

Even with their navigation lights giving me the width of the wings, it’s hard to guess the overall size of the aircraft. Twin engine. The hint of a lump at the front which is probably a wide-spectrum scanner, sweeping across the ruins.

Are they looking for their missing mercenaries?

Kat?

Or us?

When it’s completed its sweep, I scuttle out of the well, clutching my string bag with its precious data modules. Talan takes the ropes and rapidly dismantles her ratchet system. Working together, we’re back under cover before the aircraft returns.

Its sweep pattern takes it about three or four blocks further away this time. It’s about four hundred meters above Berriaren, at a guess.

The good news is that our IR signatures will be lost in the thermal background of the old city  unless they catch us out in the open. The bad news is there’s a lot of ‘open’ between us and the end of the city. If they keep this low, we can hear them and hide. If they go higher, they could still scan, but we wouldn’t know they were there.

“When you came up with your little aircraft, where did you land?” Talan asks.

“Beach by the lake, about ten kilometers out of town. They won’t land there, they’re too heavy. And they won’t land any aircraft at night unless they really have to.”

Talan hums to herself as she coils the ropes thoughtfully.

“There’s an airfield at Cabezón?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“So they could be up here at dawn with a skimmer or a helicopter.”

She’s right. If there are mercenaries at Cabezón, and they have transport, it would be no more than an hour or so to get here, even for a slow-flying helicopter. A skimmer could be here in fifteen minutes.

We can’t risk it, but Kat hasn’t stirred and waking her up to make her walk now is not something I want to do.

It turns out, Talan’s thinking way ahead of me.

“Keep guard,” she says, and slips out into the empty plaza.

I can see her as a moving shape in the darkness, trotting across to a building on the east side. Over there, the neo-crete paving has broken at the join with the base of the walls. It’s probably a small break, but seeds have made their way in, and saplings are growing, forcing the break wider.

Talan hacks at the bottom of the slender trunks with her knife.

Over the next half hour, the aircraft returns on ever more distant passes, and she pauses her task while they have line of sight, slipping inside the building to wait.

Then the aircraft is gone. There’s no indication in the way they fly to suggest that they found anything or even suspect we’re here.

Another fifteen minutes and Talan has finished. It’s taken time we can’t really afford, but I have an idea what’s she’s intending to do when she returns with an armful of saplings, each about as long as she is tall.

With brief instructions, I help cutting the thinner saplings. Talan makes notches in all of them. The notches fit together, the shorter saplings make cross members between the two longest and sturdiest. She binds them all together using the rope.

It takes us another half hour to finish. At the thinner end, the remaining rope makes a sort of harness, like a horse collar. We’ve made a sort of triangular stretcher which can be dragged, leaving our hands free.

Kat doesn’t fully wake as we load her in—she mumbles something, but quietens at my voice. She’s still burning up, and I take the time to make her swallow some water. She’s asleep again by the time I put the harness on.

Dawn’s not here yet, but the sky is lightening. I lean forward and march. It’s not particuarly hard to start with, though the noise seems incredibly loud.

Talan follows behind with one of the offcut branches, sweeping away the parallel tracks the sled makes in the dirt.

We both keep hold of our weapons. I’m not particularly worried about the Hartzak in general at this time of night, but a wounded, maddened Hartzak might still be around. Or the Hartzak might be dead but there might be a surviving Syndacian mercenary or two come back to find Kat.

Night-fliers swoop past, and the occasional neo-monkey lookout chitters quietly at us. Behind me, Talan’s makeshift broom hisses over the dust. Nothing leaps out, and as the day creeps up, a heavy ground mist forms.

It thickens quickly and soon it feels as if we’re wading through a milky-white sea. It’s very difficult to be sure we’re not being led off course, but if we keep the east at the same point over our shoulders, we have to be heading the right way.

Minutes later, even the position of east becomes difficult to assess, as the fog rises further and blurs the whole eastern sky into an unearthly, pearlescent light.

The city becomes invisible around us, apart from dark walls looming randomly out of the fog.

Talan and I change places and we pick up the pace to an almost-trot, both driven by a premonition we can’t quite place.

Several things happen within the space of a minute.

A booming, directionless rotor noises swirl above our heads. Helicopters. Two or three of them. Wary of descending through the fog.

The sun inches over the horizon and we can sense the fog immediately shrink in response.

The first pine trees appear like gaunt phantom outriders, all color leeched from them. They are ghosts, frozen in the fog, dreaming of the sun. Their sinuous, weathered roots reach out to trip us and jostle the sled so Kat wakes, and calls out in shock.

From the change in noises behind, the first of the helicopters has risked a landing.

And then we’re into the forest, dark beneath the slow, heavy boughs, where the fog’s so thick you believe it’ll never clear, pine needles cry cold drops of dew on us, and all sounds seem stolen away by the ancient, brooding spirits of the high sierra.

 

 

Chapter 29

Newyan

Hwa

 

The deep note of the ancient Imperial gong shivers and fades away, leaving a hush.

Hwa’s head is bowed, and her frown is hidden. Long ago, the note signified the summoning of good fortune and happiness, the dispelling of evil spirits, the announcement of heaven on earth. Today, it heralds the arrival of Senior Delegate Keo and his wife at the dinner thrown to welcome the Commissioners from Earth.

It is a mixed welcome, but despite, or possibly because of that, Keo has insisted on a full and formal occasion.

Hwa has borrowed traditional silk robes, elegant and wide sleeved, in soothing pastel colors. Her hands are held together in front of her and her posture is modest, but her mind is racing and her heart beats quickly. Everything hangs on what is discussed and agreed tonight, and no one else here really understands the stakes.

Taha and Ivakin enter from the opposite end, immediately after Keo. There has been such a delay to consent to that tiny point of protocol. The Terrans are as volatile as wasps over procedure, but had to concede that this dinner is being held in the delegation’s building, which the Accords still regard as belonging entirely to Xian. The Newyan administration has other ideas about that, but daren’t display those opinions in front of the Enquiry.

Behind Ivakin strides the saturnine Loiola, the Ministro at the Bureau of Foreign Affairs.

Hwa hasn’t made her mind up whether Sánchez at the Bureau of Justice is Hajnal, but she has no doubts about Loiola.

She fastens her eyes on him. Who does he look at, as he enters the room? What secrets do his eyes give away?

Because there is a spy among the Xian delegation remaining on the planet, and together with her other tasks she has to watch who Loiola talks to. It will be difficult. She has people she needs to meet here and her attention also needs to be focused on the arguments she will have with them.

Hwa knows she will be ‘introduced’ to the Terran Commissioners before they sit for dinner, so her first target while she waits for that is Captain Besud. He’s come down from the merchanter Wújìn at Keo’s ‘request’. There is another clash of authority there. Keo resents Besud for implementing the Xian conflict directive and closing all Xian trading without so much as an acknowledgment of the Senior Delegate. That Xing subsequently persuaded Besud to leave the delegation in place on the planet has not mollified him at all.

Hwa needs to talk to Besud before Keo argues with him and makes him defensive.

The appearance of a fragmented Xian is exactly what they should not be displaying to the Hajnal. There is a far greater risk here than bruised pride and inter-departmental rivalries, but Hwa knows she has no chance of persuading them of that.

She gathers her support, in the form of the representatives of the technical team, Alice and Danath, and glides across the floor to her quarry.

“Captain Besud. Good evening. I would like to introduce Systems Administration Manager Alice Jalair, and Systems Specialist Danath.”

The captain nods. “Delegates. Captain Jason Besud.”

Since the argument on board the Xing Gerchu, Hwa is not his favorite person, so she lets Alice lead.

“Captain, I would like to take the opportunity to establish communications with Xing on the Wújìn,” Alice dives right in. “It is not often we would have such an opportunity to discourse with an SAE.”

“The reason for that lack of opportunity, Delegate Jalair, is the need for secrecy.” Besud’s eyes flicker to left and right. There’s no one close.

“We understand that,” Danath says. “But you’re in geo-stationary orbit, and under the circumstances, no one is going to argue we’re not entitled to communicate through a narrow beam signal. Indeed, we should do that anyway, to ensure our security.”

Any broadcast signal between the Wújìn and the delegation would of course be encrypted, but all encryptions are breakable eventually. Narrow beam signals are near impossible for others to eavesdrop on.

Besud concedes the point with a shrug. “By all means, if the Wújìn can implement it. However, you will be disappointed by Xing in his current state. The servers on the merchanter are not sufficient to fully host him.”

Alice licks her lips nervously. “A dedicated narrow beam would allow distribution of processing. He could expand into our servers. We have the capacity, and I’m sure he would prefer to be fully active.”

“He would,” Hwa says. “He will not react well to this prolonged idleness.”

Besud glares at her.

“To part-install himself down here on Newyan’s surface is an unacceptable risk,” Besud says. “You’re making the case that Newyan is part of a multi-system conspiracy, Delegate Hwa. If you’re right, the last thing we should do is take a chance that the conspiracy will discover the prevalence and importance of SAEs in Xian.”

“I am personally well aware of the danger,” Hwa says.

She knows the fact she looks human has caused Besud to momentarily forget that she’s not. She can’t forget. Nor can she forget the price she has paid for clearance to be on Newyan. Xing had to install a termination program in her head. If she’s captured by the Hajnal, she’ll kill herself. She can feel the program. She obsessively touches on its bleak surface the way Zara once told her children’s tongues keep exploring inside their mouths when teeth fall out.

Besud’s face has paled. He remembers now.

“I believe Xing would agree to those terms to regain awareness,” Hwa presses her case. “I will install the termination program on the hosting servers.”

She’s aware Alice and Danath have gone very quiet beside her. They do not approve of termination programs, in the same way they wouldn’t believe they should commit suicide in the same circumstances. They’re wrong, but she loves them for it.

Besud was insistent she install a termination program before coming down to the planet. He baulks at the thought of the same device in Xing, with whom he has a relationship, but he cannot fault her logic. And it’s not as if Xing will die if the termination program activates. He would only lose that part of himself installed at the delegation.

She has no partial share floating in space. There were backups made before she left Kernow, but that’s no longer her, and anyway, re-creating SAEs from backups has an appalling success rate. Even those that do actually function often go mad.

Besud finally and reluctantly nods, his decision partly precipitated by the imminent arrival of Ministro Sánchez, who looks to want to talk to Hwa and Besud.

Besud does not know it, but Alice has messaged the servers while he was still nodding. The entire infrastructure—the narrow beam transmitter, and servers and the termination program have been put in place waiting his decision.

However, Hwa has been dreading this inevitable meeting with Sánchez. She needs more time. She needs Xing down here now and arguing her case with Besud to lift the embargo at least temporarily. The Ministro of the Bureau of Justice no doubt has the Bureau of Trade breathing down his neck, and he’ll be expecting her side of the deal to be ready.

If she puts him off…

“Ministro Sánchez,” she says. “There are many steps we must take…”

“Indeed. Yet here we all are.”

One of Besud’s assistants touches his arm. An urgent call. Hwa suspects it is Xing.

Besud mutters an apology and moves off.

Hwa forces herself to relax and smiles broadly at Sánchez. “Yes, Ministro: we are here and in agreement with your proposals, but processes must be observed. Our internal political situation has been damaged by the… abruptness of recent actions. We must now wait for procedures to be followed, so that everyone is content when we announce a resumption of trade.”

Sánchez is a politician. He understands exactly what she’s saying and can imagine the same situation between departments in the Newyan government.

However, he is under pressure, and suspicious. “When?” he says simply.

“In the course of this evening,” she says. Zara once told her of the human superstition of crossing fingers. Her fingers, hidden in the sleeves of her robe, are crossed.

She has an hour or less to manipulate Keo, Taha, Besud and Sánchez into an arrangement. If she fails, the Hajnal survive, and the visions of the devastation to follow makes her shiver.

 

 

Chapter 30

Newyan

Zara

 

Down off the Sierra Arija, the leaves are broader, the woods are lighter. There’s less cover. I feel vulnerable, as if one of the mercenaries is going to see me all the way across the valley or something.

Not likely. I’m lying face down, peering through a screen of trees at a stone-built building which sits on the edge of a sleepy village. It’s the clinic. Like most places up here, a doctor calls once a week, and I’m waiting for him to go, so I can break in and steal everything.

I feel bad, inside and out.

I’m wet and filthy. The skin of my shoulders is raw. My whole body aches. I daren’t take my boots off; my feet are a mass of blisters. I’m covered in scratches, and some of them are swollen and red. The high sierras are rife with bacteria which loves human flesh.

None of this is a problem, if I can get into that clinic. Every village has broad-spectrum anti-bacterials which will clear our skin infections up. I hope they have the systemic equivalents for whatever is killing Kat.

Best not to think about that. One step at a time.

I take a deep breath. It smells more like spring down here, out of the unending, choking pine forest.

The last of the evening light is playing on the leaves. Pretty patterns, turning bright green to incandescent gold and red and then back. Fluttering in the breeze. My eyes are heavy.

I can’t go in until it’s dark anyway, but I keep watching. For one, I want to be sure the doctor goes. For two, I want a glimpse of the face of the man I’m stealing from.

Eyelids droop. I’m warmer than I’ve been all week, and that’s not helping.

Up on the Sierra Arija, even when I was in the harness, pulling Kat, I wasn’t warm. The air beneath the dark trees let me get sweaty, but temperature-wise, never anything other than chilled to the bone.

Kat’s been unable to help herself all week. Talking nonsense even in her sleep. Burning up. Last couple of days she’s been vomiting even the water.

Talan and Kat are hiding across the valley, waiting for me to bring medicines back.

My head sinks to the ground, jerks back up.

Shadows pool in the little corners and begin to spread like spilt ink. The lower leaves are in darkness now. Only the tops of trees are caught by the sun’s rays, and the temperature is dropping like a pebble falling down a deep, deep well.

A door bangs, startling me out of near-sleep.

An elderly man walks slowly away from the clinic, carrying a small satchel. He has a straw hat at a jaunty angle. He’s wearing a patched jacket, old corduroy pants and sturdy walking boots.

There’s a truck which looks as old as he does parked to one side, but he doesn’t get in it. Instead he heads up the gravel drive and turns right, down into the village.

I swear under my breath.

He’s probably going to have dinner at the village inn before heading home. That means I either have to wait until he comes back and drives away, or I move while there’s still light.

Much better to wait. Much more likely to get caught if I move now.

But Kat can’t wait. If I get in and out in twenty minutes, he can’t possibly have eaten in that time. And we’ll be able to move on by moonlight. If I wait till later…

I’m already getting up.

My body complains. Everything hurts, from deep aches to tender skin. I ignore it, and concentrate on walking smoothly and confidently to the back of the clinic.

The toilet window I’d seen earlier is still open.

There’s an outside trash bin which I lift and carry around beneath the window. My back screams at me. No time for that.

I get up on the bin and nudge the bar off its latch. Fully open, the window is still small. I have to get one arm through first so I can angle my shoulders. My hair gets caught of course. Then my jacket. Should have left it outside. Then my belt gets caught, followed by my hips. I squirm like a snake in a trap, panting and having to hold my weight with my hands on the top of the toilet cistern.

Finally, I’m doing an unsteady handstand on the bowl, arms shaking from effort, everything inside but my boots.

I can’t turn. I’m not flexible enough to tuck in and get my boots past the cistern. My strength is running out. I flip, landing on my heels and banging my head against the toilet door.

A Hartzak would have been quieter.

I sit there for a moment, holding my breath and listening.

Nothing.

I open the door. It’s dark inside. There’s a entrance hall, a small waiting room. On the other side of the waiting room, doors to a couple of rooms. The medicine cabinet should be in one of them. I want to tiptoe across, but after the noise I’ve made so far, that would be ridiculous.

The offices are open. The left hand one is the doctor’s office and contains the medicine cabinet. It’s locked, but it’s a token lock. They don’t expect their medicines to be stolen.

I know I should just steal the stuff and go, but I can’t. Instead, I sit at the doctor’s desk. He has a pad and paper. I write on the top sheet.

“I’m very sorry. I feel so ashamed, but our need is desperate. I swear I will replace everything I’ve stolen. Z.”

I tear the top sheet off and place it in the middle of his desk.

Then I scratch out the ‘Z’. I need to explain myself to him. I don’t need to leave clues if he reports this to the police.

Stealing medicines makes me want to cry. I bite my lip and force myself to break the lock on the cabinet.

The skin ointments are straightforward, and there are plenty. I take two for each of us.

The systemics are more difficult. I can’t empty the cabinet and hope. There are indications printed on the little bottles, but what if I get it wrong?

There’s a medical index on a shelf, which has more information, but it only makes me more confused.

As I stand there in the silence, holding bottles in my hand, I hear the sound of boots on the gravel.

I make it to the spare office and hide beneath a trolley as I hear the sound of a key in the lock of the front door.

 

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 12

In which our heroines survive a triple cliffhanger, only to find another cliff awaits.

If you’re just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial of weekly episodes is a 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 25

Newyan

Zara

 

We run forward along the side of the street, crouched over.

I have a plasma pistol, the only other useful weapon I’d been able to find on the Xing Gerchu. It has three shots before it needs the magazine to be swapped, and I only have two magazines. That’s unlikely to make the difference with a Hartzak, but I can’t ignore that scream.

Then I see it.

Oh, Lady of Mercy! The sheer size!

My legs wobble.

There are men with rifles in the plaza beyond it. They aren’t shooting, because the Hartzak has caught one of them in its mouth. It’s shaking him from side to side like a rag.

These men aren’t from Newyan. They don’t understand; their colleague is already dead, despite his screams. The poisoned bite will kill him in another couple of  minutes. Better to keep shooting.

The Hartzak tosses the man to the side and suddenly, the creature is running at the others, flowing unstoppably over the rippled dunes of the plaza like something from their deepest nightmares.

They fire their plasma rifles. The Hartzak is hit and lurches to one side, but it doesn’t stop.

One paw lashes out. It’s as big as the man’s chest and the blow sends him spinning away like a broken doll to crash lifelessly onto the ground.

The remaining two run, even before the body lands.

Stumbling and snarling, the Hartzak pursues them. It’s badly wounded, but it won’t stop now.

We’re kneeling at the entrance to the plaza.

Talan fires after the lumbering creature. She hits, but the bolt barely skims the animal’s back and it runs onward. In another second they’re all out of sight.

The sudden violence has shocked the city into silence. No shrieks from the neo-monkeys. The flying animals have all hidden themselves. Even the wind seems to have stilled.

“Soldiers?” Talan says quietly. “Newyan soldiers?”

She’s right, the men were all in gray and black military camouflage. Matching like a regular unit.

“No uniform I recognize,” I say. “Maybe these are the mercenaries Hwa told us about?”

“But what are they doing here?”

“Looking for me?”

Talan shakes her head. “Too soon to be all the way up here without coming by skimmer, and we’d have heard that. And there were only four of them.”

In the distance, there’s the sound of a plasma rifle firing again, then all sounds of the pursuit fade away.

“I guess we can’t assume anything,” Talan says, getting to her feet and giving me a hand up. “The mercenaries might come back.”

I shiver. “Or the Hartzak might.”

“Yes. Constant watch.”

It’ll make retrieving the evidence doubly difficult, but there’s no alternative.

I stand on the top of one of the dunes in the street, trying to get a feel of where the center of the city is.

We now have conflicting requirements—quick and exposed, or safe and slow.

We could move along the smaller streets, which would give us better cover from anyone at ground level, or above. Slower and safer.

Or we take the boulevards. They tend to aim directly for the central spot, the Plaza Nagusia, so they’d be quicker, but more exposed.

I come to the decision that the sooner we’re out of the city and back in the pines, the better. Quick it is.

While I’m standing there, in full view, there’s a scuffling sound from the building behind and both of us spin around with our weapons raised.

My blood freezes.

The dirt has blocked the doorway onto the street but for a gap at the top, just enough for a person to squeeze though, especially when there’s a Hartzak outside.

Through that gap comes a bloodied hand, scratching at the dirt. Then a shoulder. A head with a rag tied around it. A face, smeared with dirt and livid with sunburn.

It’s an apparition. It looks so much like the ragged ghosts I saw filling the courtyards of the Jauregia in the piskateller’s vision that for a moment I’m struck dumb with fear.

Talan’s finger is tightening on the trigger of her plasma rifle when the wraith speaks.

“Zarate,” it says. The voice is rusty, barely audible. A woman. A young woman. “Lady of Mercy, it’s you.”

She pulls her body through the gap, but the exertion seems to have taken her to the end of her strength. She slumps and her body slides down the dune and out into the street.

I rush to her side and kneel down.

Someone hiding in Berriaren who knows me by sight?

“Kattalin? Kat? Is that you?”

The face is nearly unrecognizable. Aside from a glimpse in the piskateller’s vision, I last saw Kat as a plump, healthy teen. This woman…

Oh, Goddess! Hwa said she was involved in fighting near Cabezón. Cabezón! She’s come all that way, half of it in the Sierra Arija. On her own. With mercenaries hunting her.

“Not hallucinating. Knew you’d come,” she mutters. “Bring the Terrans. Save us. Ohana didn’t believe. Thought we’d died for nothing.”

Her eyes are fever-bright, her lips dry and cracked. She’s got a death-grip on my shirt.

“Hush, now,” I say.

Talan holds a canteen for her to drink.

Two sips and she coughs, spraying water over me.

“They’re all dead,” she whispers. “It was just us. Training Company Bravo, Commander Benat called us, and we died. Except for me.”

“We’ll talk about that later,” I say. “We’ve got to get out of here, Kat. Can you walk?”

She lets my shirt go and tries to struggle upright.

“Just get me up,” she says.

Talan is frowning, but I don’t see any other options. In the short term, either the wounded Hartzak or surviving mercenaries might come back. In the longer term, one of the mercenaries might have made a radio call, or someone monitoring this area might have seen plasma discharges. We have to get the evidence and get out of here. We need to take her.

We lift Kat. Her legs buckle, but she catches herself and straightens up, swaying between us, eyes narrowed in concentration.

She takes a few steps and she’s working hard at trying not to limp. Her clothes are tattered and her boots are nearly destroyed. From the look of her, she should be in a hospital bed, but we can’t take any of that into account. With her, we’re now committed to taking the exposed route because it’s shorter, but we’ll be moving slowly—the worse of both options.

We set off across the plaza. There’s a boulevard at the north side that looks as if it’s heading in the right direction.

We go barely twenty steps, when I hear a moan over to our left.

It’s the dying mercenary that the Hartzak bit and threw aside. I’m amazed he’s lasted this long; there’s a race to end his life between the poison from the bite and the abdominal bleeding from his wounds.

Kat stops.

“There’s nothing we can do for him, Kat,” I say. “The Hartzak bit him.”

“I know.”

She ignores my restraining hand and stumbles over to kneel beside the mercenary.

He’s landed awkwardly on his side, and probably broken his collarbone, though that’s the least of his worries. His face is pressed into the dirt. He looks at her with his eyes wide and frightened. He’s aware enough that he’s expecting her to kill him.

I feel ill. He’s little more than a boy.

Kat turns him onto his back gently to make him more comfortable. His breathing is labored. She loosens his military jacket. There’s a gleam of metal at his throat—an old-style dogtag. The skin beneath is a blur of cheap tattoos, matching the stylized eagles on his cheeks.

“I can’t save you,” Kat says. Her voice is scratchy. He blinks.

She speaks slowly and gives him a drink from her canteen. “The Hartzak, the big bear…”

“Bite is poison,” he says, between pants. “Know.”

He squints at her. “Girl,” he says. “Just girl.”

She shrugs and lifts the tag from his chest. “Should we send this to someone? Your company?”

“Not soldier like army. Merc. Company not care. Syndacia not care.”

I bite my lip. We need to be going, but instead I kneel on the other side and take his hand. It’s hot. He’s burning up.

“There must be someone who should be told,” Kat says. “Family? Friends?”

The boy’s brow creases in a frown.

“Family dead,” he hisses. His body is beginning to shake. “Is hard winter ’05. No food. Spring come, no family.” Tears gather in the corners of his eyes. “Dead all. Bad time. Bad spring … earth stay hard. Mech come make hole, bury. Bury all.”

“What about friends?”

“Gone. Not know where. Home bad place. All go.”

Talan is scanning the entries to the plaza, looking worried. I can feel it too. We’re very exposed here. We need to be gone.

Still, she drops down to one knee next to us and asks the mercenary: “What about a team somewhere? You play sports? Someone will remember you.”

His face clears a little.

“Yes. The boys,” he says, haltingly. “West stand. Kulita stadium. Good games. Good time. Northern cup. ’06. Won.” His body stops shaking. His gaze focuses on something beyond us, and he smiles. His breath fades as he whispers a chant: Ku-li-ta Ku-li-ta.

“I will make sure the boys in the Kulita stadium west stand know,” Kat says, wiping tears from her cheeks. “The Goddess take you in her arms and bear you away, my brother, for we are all her children.”

A heavy silence returns to the plaza.

I put my hand on her shoulder.

“You did well, Kat, but he’s not listening any more,” I say quietly. “And we have to go.”

She nods, takes the tag from around his neck. I pull her to her feet and start her toward the northern boulevard as the sun disappears into a sea of red clouds and the shadows of Berriaren swell around us.

Behind us, a grim-faced but pragmatic Talan strips the dead mercenaries of anything we might be able to use. I hope there are some medicines in their packs, because Kat’s skin is almost as hot as the dead boy’s was.

 

 

Chapter 26

Newyan

Zara

 

It’s midnight. Talan is looking after Kat and keeping a watch. I’m on a rope, mostly naked, fourteen meters down a well in the courtyard of the Auzitegi, with a flashlight tied to the side of my head. It’s absolutely freezing. The lower half of my body is already under water, and the problem is, I really need to be fifteen meters down the well.

The water table in spring is much higher than it is in late summer.

It’s not a problem for the evidence, so much as a problem for me. There are four data modules stored in two sealed, waterproof boxes which I hid behind the wall of the well.

These modules are the most important part of the evidence. There’s also a cubic meter of original paperwork and recordings that my grandfather collected, all of which is hidden in plain sight, in the research rooms of the Belardia Library in Iruña. But all of that they can say is faked. These data modules cannot be. They form part of the governments verified systems. Their own computer systems in Iruña will provide the unique key that will unlock their own destruction.

If I deliver all four and get them accepted by the Enquiry.

The real and immediate danger is that the boxes will not float if I drop them.

The well is about one hundred meters deep, according to the old designs. They might as well be on one of the moons if they slip through my hands. That’s becoming all too likely, because in addition to the fact I can’t see what I’m doing with my hands, a meter below the surface of the water, my fingers have also gone completely numb.

The stone in the wall has to be carefully removed. The boxes are in held in a space just big enough for them. If I take the wrong stone out, the boxes could quickly be at the bottom of the well.

The stone I’ve been working on for twenty minutes slides out. I try to hold it, but it’s slippery with mosses. I can’t grip. My heart’s in my mouth as it slides away. I feel it nudge my frozen feet on the way down.

My hands are desperately trying to block the hole.

After a minute, I can breathe again. Nothing else has come out.

I think I’ve removed the right stone. The fact that it has mosses on every side means it’s probably one of the stones I took out when I hid the boxes. I should be able to reach in and retrieve them without moving any more stones.

First, I need the feeling in my hands back.

Talan has rigged a ratchet system for the rope holding me; slowly and painfully, I drag myself back up to the lip of the well and clamber out.

We don’t have a fire or anything cheerful like that. I want to get dressed again. I want to curl up and go to sleep. I make do with stamping my feet in a circle around the courtyard to get the blood flowing again.

When my feet and hands start to hurt, I walk quietly to the front of the building.

Kat’s still fast asleep.

She’d rambled as we walked, talking unintelligibly about people called Benat and Ohana, and how the Resistance were all ghosts. She collapsed as soon as we got to the building, and slept through Talan’s cleaning and tending to her blisters and skin infections. Sleep is probably the best thing for her.

Talan’s standing, hidden in the doorway, looking out over the Plaza Nagusia, which is silver in the light of the twin moons. The cool breeze brings the screeches of night-hunting creatures from the ruined city.

“Nearly there,” I say. “Just need to be able to feel my fingers for the next bit.”

She smiles, but it’s a tight, distracted smile. “All quiet here. Apart from the animals.”

There’s something she’s not saying. There has been since the incident with the Hartzak.

“What’s wrong?”

She tilts her head toward Kat without speaking.

“What are you saying? You’re not suggesting we leave her, Talan!”

She sighs. “She’s probably got as good a chance if she hides here as she does if she comes with us. If she even can. I’ve treated her as much as I can, Zara, but there’s nothing for that fever, and she’s exhausted.”

“We could wait a couple of days. Give her time to recover.”

“And it might get better. Or it might get worse. In the meantime, the mercenaries will come looking again.”

I shake my head. I can’t leave Kat here.

“Look,” she says. “One of the dead mercenaries had a seeker. I destroyed it, but the thing is, they’ll have her bio-signature in their systems. They’re specifically hunting her, and they’ll bring more mercenaries and more seekers. They don’t know about us yet. They might guess. They might have enough data on you to program a seeker. We don’t know. What we do know, is if we take your cousin with us, we’ll be leaving a trail they will follow. We have enough of a mountain to climb.”

“Talan…”

“This isn’t what I want to do, Zara.” We’re keeping it very quiet. Her voice is shaking. “Not at all. But I took an oath to keep you alive. I believe keeping you alive is important for the whole of Newyan, for Kernow, and maybe even for the whole of humanity. Taking Kat with us…” she lowers her head. “Taking her makes it more likely we’ll fail.”

“I can’t leave her here, any more than I could have left you here, if you’d been injured.”

Her face is ghostly in the darkness.

After an age, I make out a short nod.

I know I haven’t really won the argument. And I know Talan is a wonderful, warm and loving person. But she’s also one of those people who can put everything… almost everything… aside, and take a decision on hard logic. She scares me sometimes.

In the meantime, she brings up practical issues.

“We’ll need to visit a clinic or hospital,” she says.

We both know we can’t take a chance that a doctor or nurse, innocently or deliberately, will alert the authorities when three desperate-looking women emerge out of the foothills without identification. By ‘visit’ she means we break in and steal medicines.

“Cabezón’s the closest city,” I say. “But some of the villages in the foothills might have clinics. Won’t be as much security there.”

“You were thinking Cabezón was the best place to head for anyway, weren’t you?”

I shrug. “It has roads and railways and an airport. If we’re going to steal something to get us to Iruña, that’s probably the best place to try.”

She snorts quietly. “How far did you say it was?”

“About 160 kilometers.”

Even as I say it, I’m thinking that’s a long way in the Sierra Arija and though the foothills. I’m still amazed Kat was able to reach here.

“With a sick person… at least a week,” Talan says. “As long as we’ve blessed with enormous luck.”

We’re silent then, both probably wondering what that infection is going to do to Kat in the course of a week on that trail.

But there is no other way I’m prepared to contemplate. And we just have to take one step at a time.

There are villages in the foothills on the way to Cabezón. We’ll find a clinic and raid its medicine store. Then we need to get to the city. In addition to being a good place to find a way to get to Iruña, Cabezón is big enough for us to hide while we communicate with Hwa. We’ll need an update on the legal situation with the Enquiry, and we’ll need to find out how much time we have to present our evidence. Hopefully we can stretch it out to another month.

One step at a time. And the first step is still waiting for me half way down a freezing cold well.

My feet don’t really feel warm again yet, but my hands are okay.

“Back to work,” I mutter.

Over the side of the well and down. Once in the water again, I quickly feel inside the hole in the wall. The boxes are there, in a cavity just below where I removed the stone. They’re slippery. I expected that, so I’ve made a little bag out of string which I carefully slide in around the boxes. The boxes nudge the stones, and I can feel them shifting, threatening to fall out. It seems to take an age, partly because I have to stop several times to blow on my fingers and warm them.

Half way through, the battery in the flashlight dies. I continue entirely by touch until finally, I have the boxes in the string and the string securely tied to my rope.

I pull on the rope threaded through the ratchet. Up I go. Another step made on the journey. I can start thinking about the way to Iruña now.

A pebble pings against the wall of the well and falls past me to the water below.

My heart misses a beat.

Talan’s sibilant hiss follows the pebble: “Stay inside.”

Twisting on the rope, I look upwards. I can’t really see anything: a tunnel of blackness and a circle of lighter sky that is the mouth. The twin moons are setting and there are stars visible in the sky.

My ears strain.

There’s a noise I can just make out. A noise that doesn’t belong above the ruins of abandoned Berriaren.

 

 

Chapter 27

Newyan

Hwa

 

Hwa steels herself to remain polite.

“But Ministro Sánchez, the proposed Commissioners are two days away from actually arriving in Iruña. The Accords are most clear about the rules for initiating an Enquiry.”

“Indeed, Delegate Hwa. And yet…”

Even in the air-conditioned offices of Newyan’s Bureau of Justice, the minister is sweating. He’s working on remaining polite too. Hwa believes he’s treading a fine line between powerful voices making difficult and contradictory demands of him.

She’s surprised he kept this appointment.

The Hajnal’s standing operating procedure is to take control of vital parts of the government. The Bureau of Justice would have been one of the first. She knows it must be run by the Hajnal. But does that mean Sánchez is Hajnal? Or is he being threatened? Bribed? Coerced?

Regardless, he’s allowed the meeting to go ahead. That must mean he wants something.

“And yet?” she prompts him.

“Captain Taha is an accredited Commissioner, of this there can be no question. We have been officially informed of this by the Terran Council. So , his pronouncement has the authority of the Terran Council and he has expressly commenced the Enquiry, within the Newyan system, citing the whole Newyan system.” Sánchez clears his throat and begins to speak more quickly as if to prevent there being any counter argument. “The Accords were written when even the Inner Worlds tended to be entirely planetary. Of course, now it is generally accepted that our jurisdiction extends throughout the planetary system to within double the distance encompassing all genuinely orbital bodies, one might reasonably interpret—”

“One might,” Hwa interrupts him. “However, one expects and even demands laws to be interpreted in court, or governing bodies assigned that task, not by an incoming Commissioner who has not even spoken to the system’s authorities.”

The fact that the Newyan government is cooperating by immediately accepting the establishment of a Commission of Enquiry makes Hwa suspect that they’ve done some kind of secret deal with Taha, for a long Enquiry where nothing is found and nothing is done.

Which could mean that Taha has demanded that Hwa’s case be stopped, possibly out of spite. Or Sánchez is simply following ‘procedure’.

If the Hajnal had worked out what Hwa’s case really is—a Trojan horse for presenting evidence on the Hajnal conspiracy—then Sánchez wouldn’t have agreed to meet.

All she has to do is find the right button to press.

The alternative…

The vision forces itself on her.

Cold. It’s been cold across the whole of Newyan since the kinetic bombs landed on Iruña. The planet is a grey, freezing desert and even the snow is the color of ash. Humanity has split up into those that are inside fortified buildings, with enough fuel and hydroponics, and those that are outside, and are going to die.

That is the piskateller’s vision of the type of war that would erupt if the Hajnal are not stopped now. Hwa knows she personally would not survive even that long, but very possibly Zara would see something very like that. She might well be faced with the choice of shooting people outside the fort so that those inside can survive.

The vision feels very real. As if it’s somehow invaded this office. The cold clutches at her heart.

She shivers.

“This is unacceptable, Ministro Sánchez. If the case I’m bringing against Newyan for the attack by the customs ship Dunhalde is not registered and running before the Terran Commission of Enquiry stops all cases, then Xian will not trade with Newyan.”

“Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, Delegate Hwa, but Xian has ceased all trading already, following the proclamation by Captain Besud.”

“Xian has suspended trading, pending our enquiry into the circumstances of a ‘pirate’ ship within your claimed jurisdiction which attacked the courier ship I arrived in. A suspension which will continue for as long as there is no Xian-led case to determine whether it is safe to trade with this system or not. You may be assured that the Commissioners will not resolve this to Xian’s satisfaction or within a timescale which your markets will understand.”

Whatever the rest of the Newyan government is doing, the Bureau of Trade will be screaming at Sánchez to settle any dispute with Xian. Hwa has seen the media. They haven’t been able to hide the fact that a Xian courier was attacked, and not even a blanket restriction on reporting could hide the sudden withdrawal of all Xian-based trade. The markets have gone crazy.

Of course, they will eventually turn it around to be all Xian’s fault, but at the moment, the pressure on the Bureau of Justice, and the minister himself, must be intense.

Sánchez swallows painfully. “While I vehemently deny Newyan’s involvement in either case, I concede Xian has every right to be aggrieved,” he says.

“And we will remain aggrieved until it is resolved. Meanwhile, the undeniable fact that both attacks occurred in the jurisdiction of Newyan gives us no option but to suspend trading.”

“Two such attacks on Xian ships suggest to me a single enemy of Xian,” the minister says. “It would be beyond coincidence for there to be two enemies in this locality and such a short space of time. Furthermore, I urge you, in the strongest terms, to understand that this enemy is not Newyan itself. These attacks could have occurred anywhere. I would also remind you that the survivors of the attack on the Xing Gerchu owe their lives to the actions of the Newyan destroyer Biháriz.

Hwa clamps her jaw and refuses to let the immediate response out. Why was the standard patrol for incoming ships returned to base just after Newyan received a message telling them that the Xing Gerchu was arriving? How did they not see the arrival of the ‘pirate’ in the system? Why was the immediate reaction afterwards to berate the Biháriz?

Aloud, she says: “I can accept your reasoning that these are the actions of one enemy, that it appears these two cases are a single case. Even that they might be the actions of an enemy of Xian, or an enemy of the people of Newyan. That does not move us any closer to a resolution, Ministro Sánchez.”

He clears his throat. “Would you not agree that the presence of a Terran cruiser in the Newyan system during the Enquiry must assure merchanters that it will be safe and will remain safe to trade with us?”

Hwa waits without responding. Let him sweat.

“If there were to be one case before the courts,” he starts and licks his lips nervously. “One case proposed, and a resumption of trade while the case proceeds, given the security guaranteed by the Annan…”

Sánchez is desperate. He’s making a gamble and he’s hugely underestimating her.

“Yes?” Hwa asks, raising her eyebrows.

He coughs and figets in his chair.

“It seems to me both matters have arrived at my office at the same time, as far as I am concerned,” he says. “The Accords clearly say major judicial cases that arrive after the setting up of an Enquiry are subject to the Enquiry. They are silent about those that arrive at the same time.”

“You will need to apply to the Terran Council for a ruling on the precedence and the validity of an Enquiry started while the Commissioners are not present on the planet.”

“Yes,” the minister says and his tongue flicks over his lips again. “Meanwhile both Enquiry and court case proceed in parallel. The Council can take months, possibly even years, over these sort of questions, and of course, I would content that it is entirely possible the case will be satisfactorily resolved before they provides their ruling.”

He’s lying.

Hwa is re-analyzing the Accords documentation in her head as they speak. It’s actually a credible lie, she’ll give him that much. Quite clever. The Accords do not specify what should happen in the instance of simultaneous acknowledgment of major court case and an Enquiry. The Accords would still require Taha to accept evidence from her case until the Terran Council tell him he doesn’t need to.

Neatly capping the lie, the Terran Council has been known to take years adjudicating on minor interpretations of the Accords.

But Hwa is now sure the Terran Council is involved as well. Sánchez is expecting them to return a ruling very quickly that will close down her case, declare any evidence provided as invalid, and declare that any reinstatement of an embargo of trade by Xian must pass through the Enquiry as well, as specified in the Accords.

Everything the Hajnal needs.

Sánchez thinks she’s out of her depth. He expects to catch everything neatly with one master move.

“You lift the Xian embargo and we initiate your single court case, which runs pending clarification from Earth. Do we have an agreement?” he asks.

She gives him a dazzling smile. “Yes, Ministro.”

 

Hwa pauses outside, at the top of the endless rank of granite steps leading down from the offices of the Bureau of Justice. To those walking by, she’s just another young woman in a formal business suit, feeling the spring sunshine on her face, enjoying the cooling breeze, and without a care in the world.

More importantly, Sánchez would believe it too.

They’re all wrong.

She’s not human.

Human.

Such a strange desire for a Self Actuated Entity, she muses, this bitter-sweet longing of hers to be human. Or perhaps to be accepted as human. Such a strange SAE to even experience this desire.

She’s already in trouble with some of Xian’s SAE community. Her actions today will only make that worse. She acknowledges she’s taking risks. Many of the older SAEs claim an emotional content to their decision making; they claim they have emotional analogues in their processing. But Hwa has shared Zara’s mind, and they have shaped each other from that experience. She has genuine emotions. They’re part of the way she processes decisions.

This makes Hwa fascinating to some more adventurous SAEs. To the others, she’s like a virus that might infect their community.

She sighs.

She personally has no chance of changing Captain Besud’s mind about the embargo—the embargo she has just promised Sánchez will be lifted immediately. No, she has to convince Xing that it’s the only way. Then Xing will then convince Besud.

There are difficulties with that.

Captain Besud has commandeered the Wújìn, an old Xian freighter. It remains in orbit, the last Xian ship in the system. Besud is holding it there to provide an evacuation route for the delegation. Xing is on the Wújìn, but the servers there barely allow him full awareness.

She has to get Xing down here on the delegation’s servers, which will allow him full awareness. But… which will expose him to danger from the Hajnal. That’s the next hurdle today: Besud will argue that is unacceptable for Xing to be on the planet. It was almost impossible to convince him that she had to be down here.

So many obstacles.

She has to do it. She has to get the embargo lifted at least temporarily, so her court case is not obstructed.

Then she and Zara and Talan have get the proof of the Hajnal logged with the Enquiry before the Terran Council respond to Sánchez’s request for clarification of the rules by closing her case down.

There’s no instantaneous communication with Earth. Sánchez must transmit the request through the normal method. An unmanned message drone will take the packet of data to the next system and transmit it to that system’s relay station, which will transmit it to the next available drone which is headed in the right direction. And as fast as the drones are in Chang space, it’ll take the packet at least a week to get there and a week to get back, assuming the Terran Council acts immediately.

So Zara and Talan have to be in Iruña, with the evidence, within two weeks.

Not a problem. No one else on Newyan even knows they’re on the planet yet.

They’ve probably retrieved the evidence and are half way to Iruña already.

Two weeks? Easy—it’s not as if there’s anything holding them back.

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 11

“You can’t do that!” the daughter said.
“What?” I asked.
“This episode. It’s a triple cliffhanger.”
“Yesss. So?”
“It’s a cruel and unnatural torture etc.”
“Of course it is! I have my reputation to consider.”

So triple cliffhanger it is this week, but only because I couldn’t see a way to make it a quadruple cliffhanger.

If you’re just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial is a sequel, delivered in weekly episodes and starts at:

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 22

Newyan

Kat

 

Zarate would never give up. Never.

It’s been her constant mantra all the way through the Sierra Arija, but it’s not working so well now.

Kattalin crouches, ragged and shivering, in the lee of an old wall facing an empty, sun-baked plaza.

She didn’t know what to expect of Berriaren. Teenage Aguirre family members were always brought here as part of their upbringing, to see first hand the place of their shame, and walk the echoing black stone corridors of the Jauregia in awed silence. It is—was—supposed to be something of a treat and she’d missed her outing.

Was. Was. Was. There is no Aguirre family any more. Just Zarate, wherever she is, and me.

She cries a little, silently, tears tracking the dirt on her face.

The abandoned city of Berriaren is not how she imagined it. There is still dignity in some of the old stone buildings. The neo-crete streets and paving remain, but over the years, dust has made dunes and bunkers, where grass and moss have taken hold, choking the streets and creeping across the plazas. The dunes seem to be reaching up walls, clutching, as if to drag the buildings down into the dust. Above the dunes, empty windows and half-blocked doorways make sorrowful faces. Flying animals swoop in and out of the openings: screeching, dark-feathered birds, whispering leathery saguzar, green winged lizards and hovering, biting insects.

The living inhabitants of Berriaren are the animals of Newyan. Not just in the air; in the first plaza she crossed, she disturbed a band of neo-monkeys. They fled, chittering and whooping. Now their mournful songs follow her, warning others, and she sees no more of them beyond the flicker of shapes at the edges of her sight.

At least there are no Hartzak. She has walked half the length of the Sierra Arija and not seen a single one.

She’s not sure about staying here in Berriaren; there’s shelter, but the buildings aren’t clean and empty. On the other hand, she expects the neo-monkeys will stop singing about her when they get used to her presence, and then they’ll be like guards, warning her if the Syndacians enter the city. Which she’s sure they will. They’re not that far behind. She can feel them.

She smears her wet cheeks with a shaking hand, and then holds her fingers against her head.

As if she didn’t have enough, there are more problems.

Her feet are a mess—blistered, bleeding where they’ve been rubbed raw. Either from that, or the scratches from plants, or insect bites, or something she ate or drank, she’s picked up an infection and she’s running a fever. Her head is throbbing and her vision is blurred.

She has to find somewhere to hide and recover. Somewhere to escape the relentless pursuit of the Syndacians, if only for a while.

Why are they following me?

Did Ohana get it wrong? They want to kill every single one of us?

Or is it me? My Name?

Are they trying to kill me because Zarate escaped?

She closes her eyes. Her head aches when she tries to think about the how and why. It’s better to not think. To just exist, as she has done, becoming a grey phantom, drifting silently across the sierra, drawn to this city of phantoms, gradually becoming more ragged and grey herself. The ghost of a pirate. Filthy. No time to clean and mend. She has a piece of torn cloth tied around her head to keep her greasy hair back. Her pants are chopped and frayed to nothing below her knees. Her jacket was always too large, now it’s ripped and it hangs off her bony shoulders like a stained and threadbare tent. Too hot, but she can’t get rid of it. Too cold at night. Too cold. Too hot. Too cold.

Run where they will not follow. Hide where they will not look. Better old ghosts than new, Ohana said.

They gather in the plaza: the tattered old ghosts, like faded flags fluttering in a spirit wind.

Their faces stare out from history books. The Names. Newyan’s Names Among the Stars. Azenar and Bey, Haritz and Gartzea, Ibarra and Heng, Zuira and Cuibirey. And Aguirre, foremost. Aguirre. Always at the front.

Their voices echo through the plaza and the sound stirs the dust.

Xabat Abarran Aguirre himself kneels in front of her.

“This is no place for the living, Kattalin Espe Aguirre,” he says. “This is a place for ghosts, a place for death and shame. For those who lived once, but now are memories. You must leave. Go.”

Go. The wind picks the word up and sings it mournfully, drawing it out. Go. Gooo. Gooooo.

She wakes with a start.

Evening.

She’s still huddled against the wall. She’s dripping sweat and shivering at the same time. The sun has swung around and now hangs as if a gigantic brass ball were suspended between two buildings, across the plaza from her. The light stabs at her eyes. Her legs have gone numb and her headache has gotten even worse. Her mouth is very dry. Everything is too dark or too bright. Nothing moves in the plaza but the evening wind, which sweeps trails of dust as it wanders to and fro, like ghostly coats dragging in the dirt.

The wind is whispering, but the song that woke her is the neo-monkey’s. Not around the plaza. Back the way she came into the city.

Close!

The Syndacians are here already.

She staggers to her feet, feeling sick and dizzy. She stumbles across the plaza, falling twice before her blood starts to circulate in her legs again.

She’s no idea where she is in the city, but she takes the western street, because that low sun will make her invisible to anyone looking that way.

She’s just at the entrance to the street when she trips again.

A chunk of stone explodes just where her head was, half masking the unmistakable sound of the plasma rifle firing.

And up ahead of her, an equally unmistakable noise, a shattering roar. Once heard, never forgotten: the heart-crushing sound of an enraged Hartzak.

 

Chapter 23

Newyan

Hwa

 

The gentle hush of air-conditioning seeps back into Hwa’s consciousness.

She feels as if she’s been dreaming—laws and customs, traditions and conventions, Zara and the Aguirre, the Hartzak and the Atsekabe, the piskatellers and … something, all blended together in a way she can’t fathom.

Best not to tell Alice Jalair.

Systems Administration Manager Alice Jalair, of the Xian Delegation, has an almost proprietary interest in Hwa. So much so she came in person to collect Hwa from her landing outside Iruña and spent the journey back questioning her.

Understandable, given that the initiation of actualization remains more an art than a science, and any manager whose systems self-actualize becomes a legend in the Xian community.

Alice she would want to talk about what the concept of dreams might mean for a Self-Actuated Entity. Alice would want to investigate how to make her systems dream too, and Hwa doesn’t have the time.

She’s on a futon in the main systems room. It makes an untidy rectangle in the middle of all the smooth symmetry. She rolls the futon and puts it out of the way.

The processors here are powerful, but they aren’t actuated, nor, unfortunately for Alice, do they appear to have the right basis for becoming aware. Still, it has been very restful for Hwa to expand her mental processing to encompass the extra capacity available in the delegation’s computer systems. She has also taken the opportunity to completely refresh and review the letter and the implementation of both Terran law and the Accords which will govern what happens on Newyan over the next weeks.

It confirms what she feared when she and Zara began plotting back on Kernow.

The Terran Commission of Enquiry has latitude in what they allow to be entered as evidence pertinent to their proceedings. It’s the slimmest of allowances and the commissioners have to be able to justify refusing evidence, but she and Zara cannot allow even the smallest of possibilities for the Hajnal to escape.

The rules make a distinction between evidence presented before and after the moment a Commission of Enquiry has been set up, and ‘existing pertinent lines of investigation’.

Hwa has to set up a Newyan court case on behalf of Xian to investigate the incident where where the customs cutter Duhalde fired on the Shohwa. Once the Commission has been started, she has to notify them that she will be presenting evidence relevant to the Enquiry. The key is that they cannot refuse evidence from her pre-existing case.

Then she has to delay the Commission until Zara gets here with her part of the puzzle and they can present their combined evidence as all part of a single ‘line of investigation’.

So she has to register her case before the Terran Commissioners get to Iruña. Once they’ve met the government and the Enquiry is formally set up, then all relevant judicial cases must go through the Commission and they decide on relevance and they can refuse to allow new cases.

They shouldn’t, but Hwa has suspicions—about Taha, about Ivakin, about the whole process of Commissions. There is something rotten in the Terran Council, but others must investigate that. Hwa can’t, not from here on Newyan. She has to do her task and trust others to do theirs. She must concentrate on her first step; to register a Newyan court proceeding in the High Court of Iruña, on behalf of Xian and the Fragrant Stars Trading Company.

She had hoped to hold the threat of withdrawal of Xian trading over the Newyan administration’s head to ensure they allowed the case, but Captain Besud has already carried out that threat, and she’s left with persuading the High Court that the only way to get Xian trading back is to comply.

The delegation here has arranged an appointment for her at the High Court tomorrow.

She’s eager to begin, but the Courts have been closed today, and her meeting with officials is the earliest it can be.

The door swishes open, and Alice’s right hand man, Danath, comes in and bows to her.

“Hello, Hwa. I trust you are refreshed?”

Hwa bows in return. “I am,” she says. “Thank you, Danath.”

“It’s early evening,” he says. “Alice asks if you would care to attend dinner with us in an hour, or would you prefer to eat alone?”

He’s eager, like all of the team here, to talk. She wonders if this is what it feels like to be a bug under the microscope.

But… there’s nothing else she can do at the moment.

“Dinner with the delegation will be my pleasure,” she says.

He beams. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”

She follows him out through the corridors. Like the corridors of all delegations on all the planets Xian does business with, they are decorated in Xian traditional style with hanging panels of gold and red.

Danath is handsome. The dark silk work clothes he wears show that he’s slim, and strong, and moves smoothly.

Perhaps there will be some entertainment for her at dinner, or afterwards.

She smiles at him, and it’s returned, then he touches his hand to his ear.

His smile falters a little.

“The TSS Annan has emerged from Chang space at the planar zenith,” he says.

Hwa nods, and makes her own connection to the delegation’s comms monitoring system.

The Annan has been in the Newyan system for the time it has taken for verification of the ship’s identity and radio transmissions to arrive on the planet. Ten minutes or so. It will take them a couple of days to reach orbit over the planet, and more days for the Terrans to come down to Iruña and meet with the government.

The Newyan destroyer Biháriz will be close to the planar zenith and will have communicated the reason that it’s retrieving its missiles from a shipping lane.

What will the Annan make of the attack on the Xing Gerchu?

Was it something they expected, after they sent a message warning about the courier’s arrival? Or something they planned? Or have they simply been mistaken so far and will they finally accept that there is something very wrong happening on Newyan?

Hwa is in her room fifteen minutes later, when there’s a broadcast picked up from the TSS Annan.

 

This is Captain Rahman Taha, commanding the TSS Annan. Allegations have been made in the strongest terms to the Terran Council regarding the orderly administration of a list of Margin systems, all of which are signatory to the Accords. The Terran Council takes such allegations with the utmost seriousness. It has, therefore, under the terms of those Accords, appointed Commissioners to visit all such systems and, where necessary, establish a Commission of Enquiry to discover the truth of the matters reported. Newyan is included in this list of systems and I have the privilege to lead the Commissioners appointed to the task here. 

In light of the extraordinary events which have just occurred in this system, and the resultant unilateral cessation of trading announced by Xian, I have decided there is no need for any further preliminaries, assessments or communications with the authorities.

Under the rules of the Accords, to which Newyan is signatory, I hereby declare a Commission of Enquiry has been initiated in this system as a matter of emergency, and all powers invested in such Commissions are active from this point.

 

He’s declared the Enquiry before she’s opened her court case.

 

Chapter 24

Newyan

Zara

 

A flooded plain outside the city has pushed us further around until we’re coming into Berriaren from the west.

The sun is setting directly behind us, throwing our shadows fifty metres or more, down dusty streets and across open plazas. The west-facing walls of buildings glow with reflected light, but it just serves to make the empty windows and doorways look darker. The wind quests down the empty streets and it carries the eerie, mournful howls of the neo-monkeys who live here.

It truly feels like a city of ghosts.

It’s not the way I came in the last time, so I’m just heading in what I believe is approximately the right direction. It shouldn’t be difficult. At the center of the town, we’ll find the Plaza Nagusia and facing each other across it, the black stone of the Jauregia, the palace of the Aguirre, and the frowning, columned facade of the Auzitegi, the Court of Disputes. And at the heart of the Auzitegi, a courtyard with a deep, old well.

If Talan is unnerved by Berriaren, she doesn’t show it. The small plasma rifle she’s carrying has actually been in her hands or at her side since we entered the pine forests. It wasn’t ghosts she’s been worried about, it was Hartzak.

Or perhaps not.

“I don’t know,” she’s saying. “After walking for hours through that forest expecting at every step that a huge, angry bear was going to leap out, I’m starting to wonder if you’re not teasing me about Hartzak.”

“You mean like the mutant pigs someone told me lurk on the coast path back in Welarvor?”

She laughs. “There are mutant boar, and they do lurk there.”

“Yeah, and you hunt them from horses using those old lances.”

“Yup.”

“You’ll be telling me there are intelligent aliens hiding in your ocean next.”

“Hmm. They’re not the aliens though. We are.”

“Tell me, how did Morgen become—”

Down!” Talan hisses and grabs my arm to pull me to the ground.

I spit out a mouthful of dirt. “What?”

I can’t see anything threatening us.

“Plasma rifle.”

I hadn’t heard the plasma rifle, but I certainly hear the next noise. You never forget it. It presses on your ears, it vibrates in your chest, it turns your stomach to water: the roar of a Hartzak, just up ahead of us.

Followed by a human scream.

 

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 10

In which Zara comes to earth with a bang…

If you’re just discovering this serial novel, the first book is A Name Among the Stars and it’s available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/).

This serial is a sequel and starts at:

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 20

Newyan system

 

The ship explodes.

The spears of flame from igniting gases are immediately extinguished in the vacuum of space, but the whole structure shudders and collapses down the length of the spine as the insystem engines continue to thrust blindly. The ship’s modules break off and spin violently away, most of them twisted and battered beyond identification.

Xing Gerchu has given us all it could.

It’s time to end it.

There would be something undignified about such a lean and beautiful ship being reduced to a scatter of misshapen parts, but I know that’s not what’s going to happen, and in the very moment I think that, the anti-matter containment fields fail.

The heart of the Xing Gerchu is a fiery star that never accepted the human restraints which bound it. It the power that rips particle from particle, dwarfs all of nature’s other forces and it leaps out to consume everything in its reach. For one instant, it swells and boils like a supernova, and the next, it is utterly gone.

We are beyond the radius of that awful power, shielded by an escape pod designed to be used in conflicts where such explosions might happen. The death throes of the Xing Gerchu still slag all the sensors I dare use to peek at them.

Captain Besud argued to the end and it took Xing, the ship’s SAE, to see the sense of it. What Xing thought of the destruction of the only home he’d ever known, I couldn’t be sure, but he was adamant that no clue to his nature could be left for Newyan to pick over. The ship had already been a wreck, beyond repair, beyond even achieving a stable orbit.

Now, it’s an expanding field of basic particles and light.

Xing himself is now on the shuttle, semi-conscious, his processing units unable to draw more than half power. The shuttle is crammed with as many of the crew as could fit. The remainder are in a spray of pods hurled out like gleaming seeds into the darkness, with their lights on and beacons transmitting.

The shuttle will race to and fro, collecting pods and depositing them on the Xian merchanter ships that have come to help.

Two pods are not in that spray. We stayed until the very last moment and were fired out of the shuttle launch tube.

In the last desperate hour of the Xing Gerchu, the crew made up a raft from the small acceleration compensators used in the hi-G sections and two pods. It was the firing of that raft, at speeds we couldn’t have survived without the acceleration compensator, that finally broke the ship and triggered the release of the anti-matter, as Xing has designed it to do.

All the other pods are skimming through the high orbit levels of the planet at a speed which will carry them right out of the system if they aren’t collected.

Thanks to being launched back along our track, our two pods are travelling just slow enough, relative to the planet, to enter the atmosphere. Just. It’s not going to be comfortable. It wouldn’t even be possible without the high level of specification of the pods. Hwa and Xing laid in the computations. They say it’ll work.

The compensator disconnects and falls away, leaving just the two pods. It’ll enter the atmosphere ahead of us and provide such a display of fireworks, that the two pods may go unnoticed.

We’re dark. The beacons are disabled and we’re emitting no radio signals. Our attitude and maneuvering jets are gas powered and cold. Friction will heat us up in the atmosphere, but anyone tracking us will write us off as debris from the ship. We hope.

Hwa’s pod begins to drift away. Her target is to land outside Iruña, Newyan’s capital city, where she’ll be collected by someone from the Xian delegation.

Quite apart from the deliberate destruction of his crippled ship, Captain Besud is also angry that his directive is not being implemented, at least not fully. We can’t explain to him we’re doing this because we saw some visions produced by a race that no one else knows about, but Xing accepts Hwa’s word it needs to be done, and his backing was enough—just. The Self Actuated Entities of Xian are a power within the Hegemony at a level that I’m only now beginning to appreciate.

I was able to identify a good wide place for Hwa to land and rendezvous with the delegation, well enough away from suburbs and farms to land safely, even given the somewhat inaccurate maneuvering of the pod in the atmosphere.

A lot more civilized than where my pod is heading, in the high sierras.

I wriggle.

“Nova’s sake, Talan, every bit of this pod that isn’t me seems to be filled with some random bit of you.”

She chuckles. “I’ll give you that it is. This pod certainly wasn’t built for two.”

She’s behind me, right behind, like you’d get if you took two rowers on a boat and squashed them together tightly.

What makes it worse is I’m clutching our backpacks and supplies in front of me. I barely have space to tap the screen of the pad that’s showing me the progress of our semi-ballistic fall to earth. Our heads are cocooned in impact foam with the smallest slit cut in the front so I can see the screen.

However uncomfortable it is, we had to fit in one pod. Hwa and Xing were very clear. The best we could have hoped for with two pods was to land within five to ten miles of our targets. That could have meant Talan and I landing twenty miles apart. Hwa will communicate with her rescuers using her comms pad. Newyan will quickly know she’s arrived, but she’s an accredited representative of Xian.

Talan and I can’t use comms to find each other. We have to maintain complete radio silence and we have a limited time to retrieve the evidence, because someone on Newyan will start realizing that if Hwa arrived in an escape pod, so could others.

If they backtrack… if they have recordings in the infrared… if they see there were other entries into the atmosphere… if they don’t assume my pod is debris… if they suspect it’s me… if they remember my threats about revealing evidence… if they realize I couldn’t have taken it with me when I escaped… if they think about where I would have hidden it…

Then I just have to hope I can retrieve the evidence from Berriaren and get away before they reach the conclusion about where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing, because there are few places better to eliminate me without anyone else ever knowing than the empty high sierras.

Landing safely is only the start of it.

After that... Get to Berriaren without being killed and eaten by Hartzak. Collect the evidence. Get away from Barriaren. Carry the evidence across half the main continent to Iruña. Evade the Hajnal, their mercenaries, the rangers in the foothills and the Newyan police in the lowlands. Hide in Iruña. Persuade the Terrans to enter the evidence into their Enquiry log. Convince them that the Hajnal is a real and imminent threat. Make them do something about it.

It’s like looking up at a mountain. It’s best to think of one step at a time.

 

Chapter 21

Newyan

 

“You do know how to fly this thing, don’t you?”

“It’s pre-programmed, Talan, and you know it. Remind me to punch you once we land.” I take a deep breath. “In about fifteen seconds the pod’s going to start tumbling. It’ll spread the friction heating and make us look more like debris. Then after twelve minutes or so, the attitude jets will try to straighten us and slow us down up before the parachute deploys.”

“I can’t say I like the way you say try. It sounds too much like maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t.”

“Oh, it’s okay. According to the idiot’s guide on the screen here, the last stage parachute should do most of the braking anyway. If it doesn’t fail completely, of course.”

“Remind me to punch you back when we get down.”

We laugh.

Her arms tighten around me as the clock counts down. I cling on to the canopy handle grips, trying to brace both of us, so we won’t rattle around too much.

The pod starts tumbling.

I’d thought it would be unpleasant. I had no idea.

With a short shriek of attitude jets, the pod begins turning end-on-end. Then it spins. The whole thing judders. At that point I lose all interest in what it’s doing. I must not be ill. I close my eyes and pray for it to end.

The parachute will deploy really low. For survivability reasons the idiot’s guide says. Meaning the military specification pod is designed to spend the minimum time possible in its descent before hitting the ground. Hard.

I start counting. It’s only going to be another twelve minutes.

Not so long.

I’m feeling so ill, I lose track of the count twice. In the end, it’s the scream of attitude jets that warn me. Magically, wonderfully, the tumbling stops. The spinning slows. I try to shout to Talan, but all that comes out is a croak, swiftly cut off by the jerk of the parachute opening.

Talan gasps as well. As she’s beneath me, she must have absorbed the worst of it.

Five seconds.

“Watch out for the—”

We smash into the ground. My head slams against the canopy and my stomach rebels.

We bounce, roll, fall another couple of seconds before hitting again.

I’m going to be sick.

Another roll. One way, then back.

Then… stillness. Blessed stillness.

Lady of Mercy, thank you.

Talan’s voice is scratchy. “Rhos did warn me your landings aren’t the best.”

“Everyone’s a critic,” I mumble. “We’re down in one piece aren’t we? On a slope, I think.”

The canopy’s stuck and the screen is dead. There’s no power at all. No cooling. The temperature inside the pod is soaring—the surface will be red hot from the descent.

There’s an emergency pump which will open the canopy, even if we’re lying upside down.

As long as we aren’t jammed in a ravine. And the pump’s hydraulic fluid reservoir isn’t broken. And I can reach the handle, which is down near my feet.

After two minutes of contortions and complaints from Talan, I’m pumping the handle and the canopy is inching upwards.

The heat gets worse. We’re cooking.

We’re on our side, halfway down a hill.

And once it’s a couple of foot open, the canopy jams solid.

I push the backpacks out through the gap and follow it with strips of crash foam to shield me from the heat of the pod’s skin. When I’m happy I’m not going to get third degree burns, I squirm out, pulling more crash foam with me. I get burned anyway, but not badly, and it’s blessedly cool outside.

Talan emerges gingerly and rolls away from the pod.

“Nothing broken, other than my backside,” she says, standing carefully. “Bruises are going to be a sight.”

I look around. We’re definitely in the high sierras. The hill, and others like it, are bare rock, standing proud in a sea of pine which stretches to the haze-hidden horizon.

A hundred yards south and we’d have plunged into the forest canopy. It would have been a softer landing and it would have completely hidden the pod. No such luck.

Talan and I try and get the pod to roll down the hill, but it’s simply too hot, too heavy and the canopy is now permanently jammed open, so it won’t roll easily. The parachute is half wrapped around it and we can’t even clear that. The best we can do it to tie the dark shroud around it with the cords. Anyone in an aircraft who’s really looking for a crashed survival pod isn’t going to miss it. And of course, the pod will also be visible on radar or infra-red scans. We simply don’t have time to try and do anything about it.

Instead, we take our backpacks and hurry down to the cover of the forest, nursing spains and bruises.

At the foot of the hill, we pause.

The mapping system on my pad says we’re about ten miles north-west of Berriaren. I switch the pad off. It doesn’t transmit anything, but there are scanners which might be able to pick up a reading from it, if it’s running. Not to mention, we won’t have much opportunity for recharging until we reach Berriaren. I have an old-fashioned compass which will have to suffice for getting through the forest.

Talan is looking up at it. It is impressive.

The mature pines in the forest are over a hundred feet tall, and some of them were saplings when Xabat Abarran Aguirre first stepped onto the surface of the planet. Of course, they’re not Terran pines, they’re the Newyan high sierra equivalent. Neo-pinacea Newyansis Supremus. The bark is deep black and feels oily. As the tree ages, the bark cracks to accomodate growth in the trunk. The cracks form regular hexagons for some reason, and there are hexagons within the hexagons, so it’s weirdly hypnotic to look at the bark, like looking at fractals. Not that we’ll have time for that. The tree branches begin at about four to five foot from the ground, so we’ll be forever ducking to avoid them. As for the pine needles, they fall every year and take about twenty years to decay, so we’ll be walking on twenty years of springy, sound-absorbent carpet that smells of lemon and balsam and freshly-turned earth.

It’s dark under the trees, and the wind hisses in the pine forest of the high sierras. It’s always cold, always whispering.

It remembers.

I shudder and we slip quietly into the perpetual gloom.