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Interim

 

 

 

 

INTERIM

 

by

 

P. K. Lentz

 

 

Text copyright © 2003, 2015 P.K. Lentz.

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

DATE NOTATION

PROLOGUE

PART ONE: MERADA

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

PART TWO: COUNTING STARS

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

PART THREE: ONA

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

EPILOGUE

AUTHOR’S NOTE

BY THE SAME AUTHOR

 

 

 

[]DATE NOTATION

 

            The most common dating system employed by spacers (CR.xxxx, ‘Years from the Crossing’) is calculated from the traditional local date ascribed to the founding of Terra Nova.  The ship-year used in this notation is the Terra Novan calendar year consisting of 8,210 sixty-second hours. With the collapse of civilization on Terra Nova in CR.642, the only practical standard by which spacers might calibrate chronometers was lost.  Hence ship-dates aboard spacer vessels have been found to vary by as much as eighty years.  Accordingly, references to CR dates in spacer datastores and elsewhere are typically regarded only as estimates.

            The Interim calendar (I.xxxx) employs the Reissan year of 10,250 sixty-second hours.  Dates are calculated from the Interim’s founding, with negative numbers used to reference pre-Interim events.  Official Interim (Commonwealth) Time is kept on Reissa, where the chronometers of all Fleet vessels are recalibrated upon each return.  Commonwealth academics have also adopted a standardized version of the CR calendar, according to which the Interim Year 0 coincides with CR.2038.

Durations:

One year (CR) = 8,210 hrs (492,600s)

One year (I) = 10,250 hrs (615,000s)

Conversions:

I.xxxx = (CR.xxxx – 2038)*0.8009756

CR.xxxx = (I.xxxx*1.2484775) + 2038

 

 

 

 

 

[] PROLOGUE

 

1,753 SHIP-YEARS SINCE THE CROSSING (CR.1753)

228.3 YEARS BEFORE THE INTERIM (I.-0228.3)

 

The colony ship Star of Beshaan had been adrift for two centuries.  Long odds favored its remaining that way forever.  Yet instead of slipping quietly out of human space and history, the hulking ship now loomed black-on-black in the main viewscreen on the bridge of Lucifer’s Halo.  The three occupants of that cramped, dimly-lit space were silent as they maneuvered the much smaller Halo past the doomed Beshaan’s fractured, flailing magsail and into position for docking.

After a tense few minutes of acceleration Halo’s pilot and navigator, Serenity Martijn, declared, “We’re in.”

“Nice job, Ren,” said Halo’s captain, Mayweather Kearn.  He ordered the ship’s engineer, sweating profusely into the air around his station, to deploy the docking tether.

The forces involved in engaging the tether, and afterward the rigid docking clamps that would let Halo cut its engines to conserve fuel, were easily strong enough to rip their small freighter apart.  Halo was not built, and its small crew not trained, for salvage operations.  But then when they’d set sail for Reissa seven ship-years ago, none aboard could have anticipated the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would cause their unscheduled revival from hibernation.

The odds of encountering a derelict in deep space were…well, astronomical, but there it was.

Odds be damned, boarding Beshaan was an opportunity Kearn would have gladly declined had it not been for the dogged insistence of his subordinates.  Naturally, now that they had passed the point-of-no-return Kearn hoped to have his instincts proved wrong.  He even dared to hope that the derelict wasn’t as lifeless as it seemed, that some of its occupants had managed to cheat death all these years.

He wasn’t holding his breath for that.

What did cause Kearn a few missed breaths was the docking procedure.  Fortunately, like all interstellar ships, Lucifer’s Halo was of necessity flexible in its ability to couple with foreign structures.  Planetary civilizations separated by gulfs of decades or more from their nearest neighbors tended not to bother much with standardization, and even if they tried, the intention never quite translated to reality.

Kearn watched onscreen as Halo’s articulated metal tether snaked down toward the derelict’s dark hull.  The bulkheads vibrated around Kearn–just slightly, but enough to make him wince–when the tether’s magnetic endcap struck home and locked into place.

Halo’s engineer reported success, and responsibility shifted back to Serenity at the helm, who would close the remaining distance between the two ships, mating them.

Docking clamps emerged claw-like from Halo’s smooth underbelly, and a deep rumble filled the bridge.  Gentle inertial forces pressed Kearn into his couch.  The viewscreen’s image of Beshaan zoomed rapidly and faded to black.

On contact, a booming crash coursed through Halo’s hull.  Then silence.  Serenity stared pensively at her instruments.

Moments later she raised fists above her head and shrieked with joy.

Letting that display suffice for announcement of success, Kearn unbuckled from his station and propelled himself toward the bridge’s exit hatch.  “Let’s get on over there,” he said.

***

Less than an hour later Kearn and five of Halo’s crew, suited for void, made the short trip to Beshaan’s hull via the tether’s transit elevator.  The lift doors opened on the ark’s darkened hull, a flat artificial horizon underlining a featureless expanse of space.  It struck Kearn then, as it might have his fellow boarders, just how helpless they really were should anything go wrong.  The void that spacers called home was vast and unforgiving, and would kill them all in a heartbeat if given half a chance.

But such thoughts were not new to Kearn, and gave him scarcely a moment’s pause as he stepped forward to launch a magnetic impulsion cable onto Beshaan’s hull.

The line struck home near the airlock they’d chosen as their port of entry.  Clipping onto the cable the party set forth across the surface of the lost ship.  At the airlock, plasma cutters made short work of the outer hatch.  Then the inner.

No inrush of air accompanied breakthrough, for what little remained of Beshaan’s atmosphere had long since frozen solid.  The boarders’ suit beams plunged into an otherwise pitch dark passage ahead, lighting swirling clouds of crystallized air, disturbed for the first time in centuries by their unlikely intrusion.

“Passengers are first priority,” Kearn said over the v-suit comms.  “After that, datastores and any useful cargo.  Split up, but don’t get lost.  Be generous with signal beacons.  Initial foray is to last no more than twenty hours.”

Wandering alone, Kearn found Beshaan’s bulkheads adorned with prominent signs in the language of its native world, Troia.  Unfortunately Halo’s datastores didn’t have a full Troian language module available, and even if they had, the eight ship-months of hibe between detection and boarding of the derelict wouldn’t have been sufficient time for full imprint.  And so the otherwise helpful signs were of little use.

Two hours into his exploration, Kearn received the word he’d been hoping for.  It was delivered over his comm by Halo’s apprentice engineer.

“Captain,” the apprentice reported, “I’ve found the passenger holds.”

Signal beacons guided Kearn through a maze of corridors to the entrance of Beshaan’s cavernous passenger hold.  The apprentice engineer awaited him there.

“No sign of power,” the man said grimly.

Extending at least fifty meters above and below the cage in which the two hovered were row upon row of dark, dead hibe capsules.  Shining a suit light on any one of them revealed a vague and featureless face behind frosted glass.  Without power the capsules had failed and their human contents expired.

Kearn let a suitably respectful silence pass before speaking.  “I studied the Troian numerals from the partial file in datastores,” he said.  “That’s a Four over there on the entrance.”

Kearn’s apprentice engineer didn’t need to be told what this meant.  Assuming there were three more passenger holds of this size, Beshaan held upwards of twelve thousand icy corpses.

Death permeated the airless chamber and cast a pall of silence over the next half hour, during which Kearn’s suspicion of the massive death toll was confirmed.

The passenger hold marked One, as dark as the others, was the last to be inspected.

“Ah, Captain?” the apprentice said hesitantly toward the end of their sweep.  Kearn looked over to find the man pointing down the length of the hold.  “Do you see that?”

Bringing his suit beam to bear, Kearn squinted into the darkness.  “No–what?”

“Kill the light.”

Doing as advised, Kearn peered into the jet black depths.

Those depths, he found, weren’t entirely black.  Kearn launched himself out into the hold, homing in on what he’d seen.  Closer inspection confirmed it: somehow, impossibly, amongst the countless banks of dead hibe capsules, a lone status indicator shone green.

Reaching the live capsule Kearn hurriedly scraped frost from its transparent faceplate.  A second later his suit beam penetrated it to light the ashen face of a young woman.  In outward appearance she was no different from any of Beshaan’s other, less fortunate passengers–except that, according to her capsule’s lit display, she lived.

“How does this thing have power?” Kearn wondered aloud.

Long ago when Beshaan’s engines had failed, the capsules’ independent supplies would have kicked in, but even the best of those couldn’t have lasted more than ten ship-years.  Why had this one endured–and for that matter, why just this one out of thousands?  “Better double-check the other holds,” Kearn said upon reflection.  “Make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

But they hadn’t missed anything, and before long Beshaan’s sole survivor was being transported with supreme care back to Lucifer’s Halo.  Kearn accompanied it over.  Staring at the slumbering girl in the transit elevator he suffered an attack of conscience and commed the boarding party with a late addition to his orders: in no case were they to touch anything that might be the personal effects of Beshaan’s passengers and crew.

He spent the remainder of the short trip back considering whether to revive the girl immediately or wait until Halo was safely underway.  The latter, he decided.  No point in informing her she was Beshaan’s last survivor until she was entirely out of danger.  The hibe unit had kept her alive for centuries, and could probably stand to do so a few more hours or days.

Kearn was desuiting when Serenity’s voice erupted over his comm.  “I’m reading strange output spikes from number two engine,” she said.  “Not causing any trouble yet, but it’s something I haven’t seen before.”

Normally Kearn wouldn’t have fussed over what was likely a trifle, but at a time when they were already under tremendous risk even the slightest complication was wholly unwelcome.  He put Halo’s engineer to work on the problem, with permission to call back whatever personnel he needed from Beshaan.

***

Over the next hour the complications multiplied.  Something was clearly amiss with the engines, no longer just one but all four.  The engineers were at a loss to explain, much less stop the anomalous spikes.  Worse still, Ren had been forced to resort to thermal dumps to avoid overload, an action that amounted to venting precious fuel into space.  Already the unanticipated loss was going to delay their arrival at Reissa by ten ship-months beyond the four years already lost intercepting Beshaan.

The extent of the emerging problems forced Kearn to a decision.

“Attention crew aboard the derelict,” he commed.  “Haul ass back to Halo–we are leaving now!”

Kearn’s order was punctuated by the loud, unmistakable rumble of Halo’s engines firing.

“Ren, what the hell was that?”

“Biggest spike yet.  Thermal dumps couldn’t handle it.  I had to fire the vectors.  No other choice.”

Kearn fought to maintain calm.  So he’d been right all along–this had been a bad idea.

”Crew aboard the derelict,” he broadcast next.  “Double-time it!”  He switched comm channels to address the engine room and asked, “What’s going on down there?”

“Nothing!  These engines pass every test we can run!”

“Keep on it.  The second we disengage I want maximum gees on Reissa.  We’ll sort the rest out later.”

Kearn hurried to the bridge to find Ren focused on her displays, her nerves obviously frayed.  They exchanged no words as Kearn strapped in.

After a seeming eternity the comms sprang to life with a report from the boarding party.  “Exiting the derelict, Captain.  En route to the tether.”

“Make it quick.”

Ren blurted an expletive.  “Another spike,” she reported.  “If we don’t fire the engines they’ll overload.”

“We’ve got crew out there.”

“I know!  What do I do?”

“How much of a burn do you need?”

“Too much for them.”

And here it was, a captain’s age-old nightmare: the choice between the lives of the few and the fate of the ship.

“How long do we have?” Kearn asked hopefully.

Ren’s panic verged on hysteria.  “Maybe thirty seconds!  What do I do?

“Search team,” Kearn commed, ignoring her.  “Do not be on that hull in twenty seconds!  Get inside either ship now!”

Understandably there came no spoken response.  Kearn cycled through Halo’s available exterior views but gave up with hands shaking when he failed to find one showing his endangered party.

“Wait for the last moment,” he told Ren.  “Then burn just enough to save us.”

“Longer the wait, stronger the burn,” she said.

“I know.”

Roughly twenty seconds later Serenity flashed Kearn a loaded look, her fingers poised over the engine controls.  Kearn gave a grim nod.

Halo’s hull shivered, engines whined.  But those sounds were swiftly drowned out by the shriek of metal straining against enormous force–the docking clamps protesting their outrageous mistreatment.

“Status?” Kearn called over the clamor.

Ren didn’t answer.  Kearn looked over to find her face livid.  When next she spoke it was not with her former nervous urgency but rather with calm detachment, as though she’d passed through hysteria and into resignation.

“Containment failure imminent,” she reported dully.  “Number two engine is locked at max burn and non-responsive.  We have to disengage now.”

The cacophony of wrenching metal rose.  The hull shook wildly.  Halo was being torn apart.

In the centuries Kearn had owned it, Halo hadn’t experienced a single major system failure.  Yet here, at the least opportune moment, came disaster upon disaster.  This had to be a bad hibe-dream.  Like the encounter with Beshaan itself, these simultaneous failures stretched the limits of probability.

Kearn said at length, “Eject containment chamber on my word.”

Just then the comms crackled to life.  The boarding party, with some good news at last.  “We’re in the elevator, Captain.”

Kearn’s hands moved swiftly to retract the tether from Beshaan’s hull, presumably with his crewmates safely inside.  Now to disengage Halo in time to stabilize the antimatter core.

“Secure yourselves,” Kearn commed shipwide.  The moment the two vessels uncoupled, all aboard would experience sudden high-gee acceleration as Halo’s rogue engines catapulted the far smaller ship away from the huge derelict.

That was not to be, though.  A single indicator light on Kearn’s panel quashed any budding sense of hope.

“One of the clamps is jammed,” he reported.

Ren offered nothing.  Maybe she hadn’t heard him over the thunder of wrenching metal.  More likely she was just scared senseless.  Perhaps she did have more reason than others to fear and regret this moment–but something had to be done.

“I’ll disengage the three working clamps,” Kearn said.  “The last should tear off.”  He wasn’t sure why he bothered speaking aloud.  Even were his voice not drowned out, Ren was in another world entirely.

Kearn went ahead with the plan.  Upon release of the three functioning clamps, a force like an explosion rocked Halo–the final, malfunctioning clamp tearing loose.  The abrupt onset of acceleration shoved Kearn into his couch.  “Ren!” he cried. “Align us on Reissa!”

At the sound of her name Serenity shook off a mournful stare.  Life flowed back into her limbs, her hands flew over the controls.

A few agonizing seconds passed before she looked up.

“I can’t,” she reported.  “Two is still locked at thrust.  Nothing else responds.”  A few labored breaths preceded her nightmarish afterthought.  “Containment failure in ten seconds.”

Still?  Kearn shut his eyes and cursed.  Now it had to be a hibe-dream, for in real life this many things simply could not go wrong at once.  His hands fumbled through the scarcely recalled sequence to jettison Halo’s antimatter chamber.  Rather than delegating the task, he thought, it should be his own hand that doomed his ship and all aboard.

With seconds to spare, Kearn executed the procedure.  Instruments confirmed success.  The trill of Halo’s engines faded and died, leaving the bridge in total silence but for Ren’s fast, shallow breathing.

The weight of acceleration yielded to zero gee.  Kearn studied his displays.  The engines, of course, were dead.  A small backup plant would ensure life-support for a while, but beyond that there was no good news.  Like Beshaan before it, Halo was adrift.

Ren swallowed audibly, face buried in her hands.

“At least we’re alive,” Kearn offered unconvincingly.  “I need you, Ren.  Stay with us.”

She nodded, even if her expression was far from hopeful.

“What are we aligned on?” Kearn asked her.

Serenity wiped watering eyes to focus on her displays.  “Nothing,” she said at length, and choked back a sob.  “Nothing at all.”

“We can adjust course by magsail.”  Kearn knew the suggestion was desperate.

“That would take a century.  We’re eighty degrees off alignment with Reissa.”

“Well, what can we align on?”  Kearn’s growing exasperation stemmed almost as much from his navigator’s fatalism as from the unfolding catastrophe.

Composing herself somewhat, Ren went back to work.   Meanwhile Kearn sent a shipwide request for crew to check in.  One by one they reported: all present, no injuries.

So it could have been worse, Kearn told himself.  At least he didn’t have any deaths on his conscience.  Not yet.  Not until they all perished of hibe failure like the poor icy souls on Beshaan.

No–he refused to give up.  They still had a chance.  Any spacer knew that nothing was easier than interstellar travel.  Just point in the right direction and go.

Unfortunately, right now they were pointed in quite the wrong direction, with no apparent means of changing that.

“Well…” Ren began.  “Good news, I guess.  With sail deployed we can align on L155-0918.  Unnamed, unexplored, non-life-supporting system.”  She raised one wrist to stave off a fresh volley of tears.  “ETA sixty-eight years.”

Good news, indeed.  Yet Kearn’s heart sank upon hearing it.

Maybe Beshaan’s lucky sole survivor wasn’t so lucky after all, he thought.  In any case, she had another very long voyage ahead of her.

***

 

PART ONE: MERADA

 

[] CHAPTER ONE

 

600 SHIP-YEARS LATER

286TH YEAR OF THE INTERIM (I.0286.7)

 

With the casual flick of a few fingers, Erick Fyat signaled the all-clear.  The movements registered in the web of sensors that laced his flesh, and his brief message was beamed via discreet pulse to ISS Whisper of Death, in orbit high above the surface of Merada.

To any casual onlooker Fyat was a normal Meradi civilian enjoying a warm summer day in the park.  Maybe his broad nose and dark skin were slightly out of place on this particular continent, but few were rude enough to stare.

Fyat sat on a bench pretending to watch a common handheld vid.  What he actually watched from behind his shaded lenses was the storefront across the street, a known safehouse for one of Merada’s numerous anti-Interim factions.  In concert with Meradi authorities, Social Engineering Service had initiated planetwide operations to crush the insurgency.  If any rebels sought shelter here, Fyat and the three SES operatives under his command would move in to liquidate.

Fifty meters away, Agents Coleridge and Viera lazed in the grass like any young couple taking lunch in the park.  Elsewhere, out of sight but not far off, Agent Kosta maintained a similar cover.  On the display inside Fyat’s dark glasses, which were in actuality a discreet model of SES visor designed to mimic local fashion, there shone a trio of status indicators, one corresponding to each of his subordinates.  The three agents under Fyat’s command reported to him at regular intervals using the same coded language of seemingly innocuous hand and facial movements by which Fyat then signaled the orbiting Interim warship.

Right now all three agents’ indicators were solid blue: all systems nominal, negative enemy contact.  Other colors corresponded to a range of pre-defined status codes, while an extinguished light meant an agent’s life functions had terminated.

In another corner of the display hovered the exact local time.  Next check-in with Whisper was due in 319 seconds.  Fyat’s squad had maintained its current position for nearly an hour and would soon have to redeploy to avoid suspicion.

The Interim voidship and its accompanying groundside forces were deployed at Merada in pursuit of a single individual, a runaway academic that Fleet had been hunting for well over a century.  Some officers had spent the entirety of their unenviable careers trying and failing to dig her up on any of two dozen worlds.  The exact reasons for Jilan Zerouali’s pursuit were a closely guarded secret, but judging from the time and resources invested in finding her, she could single-handedly topple the Commonwealth.

A skeptical mind might question whether Zerouali actually existed or was rather just a convenient excuse to unleash Social Engineering on non-Commonwealth worlds.  But such skepticism was a luxury for the theorists who created policy, not the groundside agents who implemented it.

Intuition, on the other hand, was an attribute of any successful Social Engineer, and Fyat’s now began to tell him that his reports to Whisper would not remain all-clear for long.

Minutes later that instinct proved accurate when Agent Kosta’s indicator winked out in Fyat’s visor display.  The accompanying datastream denoted a powerful energy discharge in his vicinity.

The display flashed warning of a second discharge, even closer.  Fyat looked over just in time to see Viera’s head disintegrate.

Even as the headless torso slouched to the ground Fyat was vaulting backward over the stone bench upon which he’d sat.  None too soon: two more rapid-fire blasts burned craters in the granite.  Hostile contact, he signaled to Whisper.

Within fractions of a second, Fyat’s visor display pinpointed the incoming fire’s precise origin and superimposed two sets of crosshairs on his view of the structures across the street.  Color-coding confirmed the targets were the enemy snipers themselves and not merely last known positions, acquired by residual energy in their weapons.  Neurilace targeting routines assumed control of Fyat’s arm, and within three seconds of initial contact he was returning fire.

Two guided projectiles programmed to detonate only on contact with flesh plunged through the walls concealing the gunmen.  Fyat’s visor display registered two hits, two hard kills, and the now-irrelevant targeting data faded from view.  A second scan of the facade came up clean.

In the meantime, Fyat noticed, Coleridge’s status light had turned amber.  That meant substantial damage.  But she was on her own for now; the discharge that had downed Kosta could only have come from a third hostile, still at large.  Fyat had the general origin and range of that first blast, but insufficient detail for target acquisition.  He leaped back over the bench to put it between himself and the third assailant’s last known firing position.

If the politically-impaired thug was also a poor tactician, he might move in and try to finish off Coleridge, thus letting Fyat target his energy discharge.  But it was a mistake to underestimate any enemy, especially one that had already cut a superior force in half.  No, a worthy opponent would choose from three possible courses: maneuver for a clear shot, cut his losses and flee, or wait patiently for Fyat to run to the aid of his fallen comrade.  The second was by far the attacker’s wisest option, while the last would leave him waiting in vain for a mistake no Social Engineer would ever make.

Fyat’s instinct said this foe would take the first path.  Given that, and the fact that maintaining cover was no longer a necessity, Fyat’s own course was clear: anyone still in the vicinity was a potential enemy.  Neurilace targeting routines took free rein, identifying thirteen heat sources within a hundred meters and assigning each a threat level.

Nine sets of crosshairs faded when the subjects were confirmed unarmed.  Normally Fyat would have eliminated those anyway, just to be safe, but current orders did include minimizing collateral damage.  For better or worse, Command frowned upon high civilian body counts on worlds approaching Commonwealth candidacy.

That left four questionable but valid targets.  Fyat’s arm moved of its own accord to aim and fire on the most distant.  The human-shaped splash of colors plunged to the ground in a burst of white fire.  In the space of as many seconds the remaining three fell, as well, all confirmed terminations.

Now to withdraw.  With cover blown and seventy-five percent casualties sustained, this mission was over.  Exchanging his projectile weapon for a palm-sized pulsecaster, Fyat sent a wide beam into a nearby grove of trees, setting it aflame.  He turned and blasted three parked vehicles on the street, sparing extra fractions of a second to choose unoccupied ones in deference to mission parameters.

The resulting blaze gave thermal and visual cover while he crossed the open ground toward Coleridge.  As he ran Fyat sent Command a new status report–Redeploying.  They would already know of their two dead, since any fallen asset’s neurilace transmitted such data automatically prior to melting down to leave enemies and scavengers with no functional or even identifiable Interim technology.

When Fyat reached her, Coleridge was kneeling in the grass, wavering and staring blankly groundward.  Beside her, tendrils of smoke rose from Viera’s headless remains as the agent’s augmented flesh turned to slag.

The reason for Coleridge’s amber light was clear enough: her left arm dangled uselessly from the shoulder socket by shreds of flesh and fabric.  Above, on her face and neck, patches of raw and glistening flesh peeked from beneath a blackened shell.  A thick swathe had been cut through her long blonde hair, exposing red scalp.  Sheets of charred skin hung like dry paper from her jaw.

She felt no pain.  Assuming it was still functional, Coleridge’s neurilace would have blocked pain receptors in the affected areas instantly.  SES operatives could continue to function with any damage short of the catastrophic system failure of the sort Viera had sustained.

Despite this, there was something akin to pain in Coleridge’s eyes now as she gazed up at her superior.  Confusion, maybe.  Shock, fear?  Any of them should have been impossible, unless–

Fyat had an idea what might have gone wrong, but this was no time for diagnosis.  They had to leave, and fast.

Taking the woman’s now-useless arm in one hand, Fyat leveled his pulsecaster and vaporized the few ribbons of flesh holding it in place.  As the limb fell into the grass where Fyat proceeded to incinerate it, Coleridge appeared unfazed.  Neurilace inhibitors were working then.

Shrugging off his jacket, Fyat draped it over Coleridge with the aim of making her injury less conspicuous.  To the same end he tore some loose skin from her jaw.  She would still draw stares, but at least it was no longer so obvious that her trauma was far more than an unaugmented human could endure.  Although the pair of them could likely handle any opposition they met en route to their concealed flyer, the ability to blend in could prevent the necessity of any more frowned-upon collateral damage.

By the time Fyat left the blazing park, half-dragging the wounded Coleridge behind him, all of two minutes had passed from the onset of hostilities.

***

“And here’s our last stop,” said William Gareth, yielding to his guest at the hatch and beckoning her to proceed.  The pretty redhead, Mela, smiled wide-eyed as she sailed past him through the circular opening.  Gareth followed close behind her into the bright simulated sunlight of his vessel’s small botanic garden.

The air within was more intensely fragrant than most actual groundside forests.  The brilliant colors of the vegetation, mostly shades of green but splashed with a rainbow of others, arranged in solid banks with hardly a break between them, stood in striking contrast to the dull fibresteel bulkheads that dominated the rest of Lady of Chaos.

“It’s amazing,” Mela said breathlessly.  “I still can’t believe you live this way.  I mean, in a ship all the time.”

The young Meradi had expressed such awe for most of her tour of Lady, which was currently docked at her planets orbital spaceport.  It wasn’t a spectacular ship by any legitimate measure, but it was more than enough to impress the average groundsider.  Not unlike himself, Gareth sometimes thought.  Even if he was no paragon of beauty, with his puffy spacer features, narrow grey eyes and pale skin, the sheer novelty of the life he lived made him plenty attractive.  Not that he let that become an excuse for neglect of either self or ship.

“You get used to it,” Gareth said glibly, overtaking the girl and twisting midair to face Mela.

The Meradi girl’s tolerance for zero gee had improved considerably over the last day.  Her initial excursions outside the simulated gravity of Lady’s habitation module had ended in spinning globules of vomit.  Mortified, she had taken heart when Gareth assured her it happened to almost everyone.  Now, as they drifted lazily past flowers native to four-dozen worlds, the contents of Mela’s stomach remained obligingly hidden from view.  She didn’t even reach for a rail.

“Actually,” Gareth said, “all told, we don’t spend much conscious time shipboard.  A few weeks of each voyage at most.  We still live most of our lives on the ground, like you.  What makes spacer life worthwhile is seeing new places.  Meeting new people.”  This last Gareth added with an appreciative smile which Mela coyly returned.

“Have you ever been to my world before now?” she asked.

“Once.  Maybe sixty of our ship-years ago.  I don’t know offhand how many of your own cycles that is, or what the local date was.”

In reality even the sixty was a guess.  He’d have had to consult Lady’s logs for a sense of exactly how much absolute time had passed since his last visit to Merada.  It just wasn’t a very useful thing to know.

Mela slowed her forward motion on a grab rail, while the extended fingers of her other hand casually brushed leaves of alien greenery.  She observed thoughtfully, “My parents weren’t even born yet the last time you came.”

Gareth swung about to face the girl.  He smiled and shrugged, eager to change the subject.  Dwelling upon the vastness of space and time tended to make groundsiders uneasy, or at least contemplative, neither of which were moods he much desired in Mela at the moment.

“Spacing isn’t for everyone,” Gareth said hastily.  “Sometimes I think I’d rather settle down somewhere.”  This was an outright lie, of course.  “Besides, I don’t actually live any longer than you.  A few hundred years.  The rest is spent in a hibe capsule.”

“I know,” Mela said distantly.  “It’s just strange, that’s all.”  Then she perked up just a little and asked, “How do you speak my language?  From your visit before?”

Gareth smiled warmly, aiming to infect her with good cheer.  “Not exactly,” he said.  “Whatever languages we need are imprinted on our brains during hibernation.  We’ll do the same for you.”

Mela’s elfin features, a little swollen in the zero gee, showed mild interest.  “You must know every language there is by now.”

Gareth detected a hint of intimidation in the girl’s remark.  “Not at all,” he reassured her.  “Maybe half a dozen at any given time.  Others retain them better than I do.  But I like to think I make up for the deficiency with other qualities.”  Drawing closer to Mela, Gareth placed a hand on her arm.

When she shied away, he knew his efforts to lighten her mood were failing.  She was beginning to view him as something alien, far from anything she’d known before.  It was not an uncommon reaction among groundsiders.  Some were drawn to a spacer’s otherness, some repelled.  Maybe Mela was somewhere in between.  Strange, he’d pegged her for a sure thing.

One more try, Gareth resolved.  He scratched unruly brown hair that was overdue for a trim–he’d let it grow out groundside–and heaved a defeated, if theatrical, sigh.  “I was wrong to do this, Mela,” he said with false contrition.  “I should have put you into hibe with your parents.  They would be furious if they knew.”

“No!” Mela blurted.  “No, Captain…William…I can’t thank you enough for this.”  Her gaze, suddenly aimless, fell on some alien blooms.  “It’s all just so new to me.”  After a brief while she looked up and with all the courage she could muster reached out one slim hand to touch Gareth’s sleeve.

“You said I could spend the first week awake,” she said.  “I’ll never get the chance again.”  A tear formed and hung perched on Mela’s eyelash, threatening to break loose and float away.

Gareth couldn’t help but pity the poor girl, who would soon leave behind the only home she’d ever known to settle on a distant, unfamiliar world with her extended family.  It was a regular enough occurrence: some groundsider’s life wasn’t going well enough so he packed up his belongings, booked hibe capsules on a passing freighter and set off to some other world he’d only ever seen in a vid, if that.  Sometimes the emigrants were entire families, like Mela’s, sometimes they were loners, fed up or bored or just looking for a change.  Lady’s passenger holds were always full of both kinds, some bound for the next port, others in for a longer haul.

Gareth reassured Mela with a gentle hand on her hair, which she’d braided to make more manageable in zero grav.  Spacers of both sexes invariably wore their hair cut very short for that same purpose, but cutting was hardly an option for Mela–not if she meant to keep her exploits secret from her slumbering family.  Just as well, since long hair was one thing Gareth particularly appreciated on groundsider women.

“Of course the offer still stands,” he told Mela softly.  “I just don’t want you to waste your time being upset.”

Just then Gareth was interrupted by a chime from the comm implant in his ear canal.  A synthesized voice named the caller as Lady’s navigator, Rita Aprile.

“I’m sorry, I have to take a comm,” he said quickly to Mela, so as not to seem to be talking aloud to himself when he answered.  “I’ll only be a moment.”  Turning his back on the girl, Gareth switched from the Meradi tongue he’d been using into spacer Galactic.  “What is it, Aprile?  I’m a little busy right now.”

“No doubt.”

The dry insinuation in Aprile’s voice arrived undiminished by the distance it had traveled to reach him.  Apart from the few seconds of transmission delay, his navigator on the surface of Merada sounded almost as near to him as Mela.

“In two hours I’ll come aboard with the last batch of passengers,” Aprile reported.  “All accounted for.”

“And our hibe capsules?”

“Spoke to the workshop this morning.  Just more excuses.  Said they’ll deliver them directly to Lady.”

“The sooner we lock down, the sooner we can get this bloody Interim inspection over with and shove off.”

“I know.  That’s why I offered them a bonus if the units reach Lady before I do.  Hate to reward incompetence, but it beats more delays.”

“You’re awful generous with my accounts, Aprile.”

“You’re welcome to handle them yourself, Captain.  But then you always seem to find other things to handle, don’t you?”

Gareth laughed discreetly, mindful of Mela’s presence even if she was incapable of comprehending what was said.  “If that’s all,” he returned to Aprile, “I have some of those other things to get back to right now.”

Typically, Aprile didn’t laugh.  Gareth wondered sometimes why, or if, she even liked him.

“Actually there is one more thing,” Aprile said.  “I was given a comm disc addressed to you.”

“Strange,” Gareth commed back.  “Anything important?”

“I wouldn’t know.  Probably a damn marriage proposal.  You want me to access it?”

“No, I’ll check it out when you get back.  See you soon.”

A tone signaled abrupt termination of the link, letting Gareth return his full attention to Mela.  Though the girl’s eyes were a touch pink from her earlier flirtation with tears, she seemed otherwise to have collected herself.

“Why don’t I take you back to your quarters,” Gareth suggested.  “You can relax.”

Mela forced a smile.  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay here.  You can tell me where all the plants come from.  Unless you have something else to do.”

“Of course not.  I’d love to.”  Clasping Mela’s proffered hand, Gareth pulled her deeper into Lady’s garden.

An hour later he helped the girl recover her shirt, which had become lost in a bank of Delthnian ivy.

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWO

 

<>

Interim Directorate of Research & Assessment

Ref. No. MK-21110-315

Type: Planet, Class 3

System: CX551-0315

Local designation: Merada

Interim registered designation: Merada

Dominant language: Leshtar (Interim designation: Meradi)

Tech Quotient: 7.1

Commonwealth Induction Quotient: 8.4

Revision date: I.0286

<

>

Merada is a temperate world of three major continents inhabited by some twelve billion individuals representing a wide cultural and ethnic spectrum.  As with most worlds of diverse population, it has a history rife with conflict.  However, Meradi civilization can safely be said to have passed through its period of existential danger, its last major geopolitical conflict having concluded some three centuries ago with casualties reducing the global population by one fifth.  Most military action since then has taken place within the context of an emergent planetary government purging itself of reactionary elements.

One potential negative indicator can be found in the fact that some thirty percent of Merada’s population adheres to organized religion in the form of an obscure doomsday cult with supposed Earth origins.  Since I.0109, Instruction & Guidance has adopted active and passive measures to contain it and discourage its spread.

A more immediate danger has been the significant presence on Merada of militant groups explicitly opposed to the planet’s entry into the Commonwealth.  Such groups include at least a dozen distinct factions of both the isolationist and rejectionist varieties.  The isolationist elements are the minority but tend to be the most proactive, employing violent means in an effort to sabotage Merada’s chances at induction.  The most famous isolationist exploit was the successful bombing of Merada’s only interstellar spaceport in I.0184.  The rejectionist factions, largely religious in origin, particularly oppose the Commonwealth’s prohibitions on the spread of superstition.  Groups of this second variety tend to be highly subversive and well organized, preferring long term objectives to more immediate and visible ones.  Social Engineering Service has been deployed on a small scale in the past to assist Meradi authorities in the suppression of these elements, an endeavor in which the planetary government has proved highly cooperative.

<>

Despite some negative indicators, the potential for catastrophic reversal in Merada’s social evolution remains slight.  In all likelihood Research & Assessment will recommend Merada for Level 4 Provisional Commonwealth partnership at the next Expansion Conference.

[Detailed entry follows.]

***

Several kilometers from the site of the ambush on his Social Engineering team, Erick Fyat pulled the nondescript land cruiser onto a deserted side road.  He and Coleridge had escaped the city limits without apparent pursuit, but they were by no means safe.  Repeated transmissions to Whisper of Death had yet to yield a response.  The limited instruments at hand in their getaway vehicle suggested deliberate interference–EM screamers or some other form of electronic warfare.  Whatever the cause, it was depriving them of direction and backup.

To complicate matters further, five minutes ago Coleridge had begun to weep.  Her behavior, steadily declining since her injury in the park, now verged on hysteria.  It had been her frantic efforts to exit the vehicle at speed that had prompted Fyat’s brief pause in their flight.

The moment the cruiser halted, Coleridge made another lunge for the door.  Fyat grabbed her by the neck and yanked her bodily back into the cabin.  Maintaining an iron grip on her, he produced a set of cord restraints from his belt and secured her single remaining arm and one ankle to the seat frame.

When Fyat finished and returned to the driver’s station, the female agent didn’t struggle against the ties but rather just issued a few light sobs.  “I won’t go back,” she said mournfully.

Steering the vehicle back onto the road, Fyat answered Coleridge’s treasonous declaration with calm detachment.  “I’m required to terminate you if you try to desert.”

With vague disinterest in her red-rimmed eyes, Coleridge nodded.  Now that she’d been restrained her panic began to melt into something like resignation, at least insofar as a trained Social Engineer could discern two mental states that were to him little more than distant memories.

Sparing Coleridge just a glance or two in the quiet moments that followed, Fyat focused on the road ahead.  Maybe some deeply submerged facet of his old personality compelled him to pity the woman, for at length he decided to offer her some explanation for the turmoil she was currently experiencing.

“The damage upset a flow of chemicals to your brain,” he explained.  “The effects are temporary.  Once the balance is restored you’ll be good as new.”

“I won’t go back,” Coleridge repeated feebly.

“The same happened to me,” Fyat went on.  “Long ago.  I realized what I was, what I’d been doing.  The same things you are realizing now.  I made my decision to continue in the Service.  As will you.”

Minutes later, as Fyat quietly drove on, Coleridge began to speak in a distant voice, as if to no one in particular.  “I was twenty-two when I enlisted,” she said.  Her stiff, burned lips made her voice a low monotone.  “Thought I’d spend a decade or two seeing far places, then go home to Verond and use my pay to…I don’t know, start a family or a business or something.  But now I’ve done fourteen ops on Verond.  I might have killed people who knew me.”  She paused and swallowed through her scarred throat before correcting herself. “–who thought they knew me.”

“You’ve done your duty,” Fyat said dismissively.  “Whatever lives you took were for a higher cause.”

Coleridge frowned, pain and disgust twisting her half-face.  “I’ve killed pregnant women, children, old men, cripples.  Most of them only because they happened to be in the way.  I could see every one of their faces now if I tried, except they have no faces.  They were just colors on a thermal scan.  And now they’re not even that.  They’re nothing.”

Mouthing again and again her final word, ‘nothing,’ Coleridge lapsed back into trancelike silence.  When she spoke again minutes later it was with renewed strength.

“I’m a citizen of the Commonwealth,” she said.  “I have rights.”

“You waived them.  Your chances of ending up in SES were small, but they did exist.  If you weren’t aware, you should have been.”

“How?  Civilians have no idea what we do.  How could they?  We don’t make newsfeeds, even when we operate on the homeworlds.”  Coleridge stared forlornly out the window of the moving cruiser.  “Home…” she said.  “I have no home now.  Look at me, I’m half a person and I feel no pain.  We aren’t human anymore.  We’re monsters.”

Her head sank against the glass.

“I won’t go back,” she pledged anew.  “I’ll make sure you have to kill me.  It’s what I deserve.”

Fyat didn’t argue.  Privately, though, he found himself faced with a dilemma where there should have been none.  He faced it not because of anything Coleridge had said–not just that, anyway.  Rather it came from the unprecedented degree of freedom afforded by the comm breakdown.

Not since that day decades ago when he’d found himself in Coleridge’s current position had the idea of desertion even crossed Fyat’s mind.  Such thoughts were irrelevant without the opportunity to act upon them.  But now, with the omnipresent eye of Command temporarily blinded, there was such an opportunity.

For years after his own enlistment Fyat, like every Social Engineer, had been an obedient and amoral killer incapable of questioning orders.  Then had come his single, bewildering moment of clarity, the one Coleridge now faced, the moment in which his true self had emerged from years of deep slumber to witness for the first time what it had become.

His own crisis had gone rather differently than Coleridge’s.  Naturally, full cognizance had come as something of a shock, like waking from a long and elaborate dream.  At first he’d felt betrayed: why hadn’t his superiors trusted him enough to let him serve unimpaired?  Deeper reflection, though, brought acceptance.  Acceptance that the Interim had done only what was necessary in pursuit of its goal.  Acceptance, too, that this goal was a noble one.  Every one of the bloody planetside ops in which he’d participated had in some way advanced the cause of peaceful unity for all mankind.  And so, even with his independent faculties restored, and even after having been, in a sense, used, he retained the same sense of conviction that had led him to enlist in the first place.  Social Engineering was a sometimes violent means to the Interim’s just and glorious end, the blade by which humanity would carve itself a brighter future.

Thus, of his own newly freed will, Fyat had subsequently renewed his dedication to that cause.

Since then he’d seen a thousand missions on a hundred worlds.  Too often, though, when Fyat stopped long enough to consider, it began to seem they were the same missions on the same worlds, over and over again without end.

These seeds of doubt had lain dormant in his mind for years, he realized, but only now, outside the harsh glare of Command, did they have the chance to take root.

And they made him wonder.  While Coleridge questioned the morality of their work, Fyat questioned its efficacy.  However noble the Interim’s goal, could it ever be achieved?  Had anything he’d done truly brought its vision closer to reality?

He had an unthinkable decision to make and little time in which to make it.  But for the chance concurrence of Coleridge’s dysfunction and the loss of comm, he might have passed the remainder of his service without ever confronting these nagging doubts.  But circumstances, it seemed, were conspiring to spur him to treason, even the thought of which was a punishable offense.

Halting the cruiser at the site of his decimated team’s enshrouded flyer, Fyat spoke words to Coleridge that sealed his fate.  Upon speaking them he would be forced to summarily liquidate the woman or desert with her.

“After my own imbalance,” Fyat confessed, “I learned to disable the chemical flow.  I’ve been myself ever since.”

Restrained in her seat, Coleridge looked over blankly.  Her expression showed no hint of understanding.

“I won’t go back,” she said again, her voice a dull whisper.

***

Leaving Mela in her guest quarters, Gareth walked to the hub of Lady’s rotating habitation module and entered the lift to its axial shaft.  His body’s weight yielded during the short trip, reaching zero by the time the doors slid open at the cylinder’s axis.  En route to the bridge his comm chirped and Aprile’s voice sounded in his ear.  The signal was weak and noise-filled, but managed to convey considerable exasperation.

“Gareth!  <zzzt> it, what’s going on?”

“Sorry, come again?”

“You haven’t <zzzt>?  Isn’t there <zzzt> on the bridge?”  Aprile’s grunt of disapproval was not quite subsumed by the interference.  “No, <zzzt>, of course not.”

“You want to fill me in?  Is it serious?”

Her response was riddled with static and likely profanities, but Gareth caught the gist of it: “–trying to contact you for an hour–aggressive jamming–pierced the heaviest of it–ETA twenty minutes–visual of the Fleet cruiser in orbit.”

Gareth’s lazy swim toward the bridge became a bit more urgent.  “Give me a hint,” he commed back.  “What is it?”

“Check the logs <zzzzt> heavy shit going down.”

“You’re scaring me, Aprile.”

“Maybe you need a good scare <zzzzzzzzt> hibe capsules delivered?”

“Ilias took them aboard a little while ago.”

“Glad something went right.  When I’m <zzzzzzzt> discuss options.”

A tone signaled termination.  Moments later Gareth hurried into Lady’s bridge, an empty hexagonal chamber of dull grey fibresteel, and activated the large main viewscreen.

It took him just a few seconds to call up a visual of the Interim voidship that had entered Meradi orbit five days ago.  Whisper of Death, was it?  Bloody Interim gave their ships such melodramatic names.  If the owner of Lady of Chaos had any right to criticize.

When the visual did come up, Gareth could only stare.  A massive field of debris surrounded the cone-shaped Interim vessel.  At the heart of that debris stood a yawning black gash in Whisper’s hull.

In all his life Gareth had never seen an interstellar vessel deliberately damaged.  But that’s just what this was, he knew it.  The fact that it was an Interim warship made the historic first all the more historic.  And dangerous.

He called up Lady’s sensor logs from the past hour.  No visual record existed of the precise moment at which Whisper had been damaged, but there was enough stored data to piece together what had happened.  The resulting picture made Gareth more eager than ever to leave Merada far behind.

***

Right on schedule, a freshly returned Aprile sailed onto Lady’s bridge.  Since Gareth had last seen her groundside she’d shaven back to a fine stubble the sandy hair that he’d convinced her–bribed her, actually–to grow out during their months of leisure on Merada.  But if he’d was going to tease her about it, it would have to be later.  Right now they both had more pressing concerns.

“What the hell happened?” Aprile asked urgently.

Calling up the relevant sensor data on the main viewer, Gareth filled his navigator in.  “The EM interference started with thousands of tiny detonations in Merada’s upper atmosphere.  Screamers, apparently, intended to cut off groundside comms.  A few seconds later, twenty ships from the spaceport and high orbit engaged their drives simultaneously on a common heading…”  Gareth didn’t disguise the note of admiration that touched his voice as he finished.  “Straight into Whisper of Death.”

Aprile studied the display momentarily before switching back to a realtime feed of the damaged warship.  She zoomed on the gaping black wound in its rear quarter.

“Whisper evaded most of the ships,” Gareth went on.  “Whatever Fleet uses for defense screens neutralized most of the rest.  But at least one made it through, and with a payload of antimatter by the look of it.”

“Damn,” Aprile said in awe.  “Wonder what’s going on groundside.  Seemed quiet enough when I left.”

“I’m monitoring what channels I can for details, but so far nothing helpful.  Whatever’s going on, Merada isn’t a good place for anyone to be right now, not least us.  I’m halfway inclined to just shove off.  Screw the inspection.  Who knows how long it’ll be now before they grant any clearance.”

“I’d like nothing more,” Aprile concurred.  “But if that Interim ship didn’t vaporize us on the spot, they have translight.  They’d have years to intercept us and no trouble doing it.  Leaving now will just make it seem like we have something to hide.”

 “Yeah, yeah, I know.  But talk about bad timing.  What are the chances we’d end up here when a war breaks out?”

“Someone had to be.  Might as well be us.  It’ll be a story to tell.  Anyway, we’ve got nothing to hide.”

Gareth scoffed.  “I could do without any more stories.”  He unbuckled his seat restraint and launched toward the exit.

“You’re going to leave the bridge abandoned again?”

“Doesn’t look abandoned to me.”

Scowling, Aprile offered some choice comments on her captain’s fitness to command.

Gareth paused at the hatch and twisted to face her.  “I have to welcome our last passengers aboard before they go into hibe,” he said.  “I’ll be back soon and you can take some downtime.  Promise.”

“Whatever!”  Before settling into her station Aprile fished an object from her jacket and flung it at Gareth.  “There’s your comm disc.”

Gareth plucked it from the air as it sailed past.  “Who delivered it?”

“Some girl.  Big tits, freckles.  Think I saw you with her a few times, but fuck if I can remember her name.”

Smiling and thanking her, Gareth secured the disc in his pocket and left on a heading for the medsuite, where the late-arriving passengers Aprile had brought aboard would be prepped for hibe.  About halfway there his comm chimed.  It was Ilias, Lady’s engineer.

“Captain,” Ilias began hesitantly.  “Ah, you know those three hibe capsules that were just delivered?  Well, one of them…”  He hesitated, clearing his throat before spitting out the rest of his thought.  “One of them is not empty.”

Gareth halted ungracefully on a grab hoop.  “What do you mean ‘not empty’?”

“Maybe you’d better just get down here.”

***

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER THREE

 

INTERIM: FOUNDATION AND PURPOSE

[From Commonwealth primary school text, Civilizing the Stars: The Crossing and Beyond.]

Two millennia after the great Crossing, humankind took its first step into a bold new era.  The advent of the translight drive (‘Drive’) and void engine in I.-00053 suddenly made the universe a smaller place.  With the Drive, humanity’s age-old dream of instantaneous translation became real, while the void engine all but eliminated the need for fuel by harvesting energy from the fabric of space itself.  Human civilizations once separated by vast gulfs of time and space now stood to become virtual neighbors.

At first glance, the potential seemed to exist for a new golden era of unity and prosperity.  But careful examination of our species’ tortured history painted a far darker picture indeed.  Wisely, the makers of the Drive opted to pause and consider the implications of their discovery before sharing it with humanity at large.  Thus began the great Survey, the meticulous cataloging and assessment of inhabited systems heretofore visited only by those few willing to undertake long and dangerous sublight voyages in hibernation.

A Fleet outfitted with the new Drives set out from the makers’ homeworld of Reissa bearing an army of scientists and intellectuals to worlds known and unknown.  The yield of knowledge from that fifty-year Survey was as unparalleled as its implications were grim.  Precious few worlds, it seemed, had fared as well as Reissa.  A handful had flourished, but most walked a tightrope of annihilation.  Nearly all had undergone global catastrophes of their own making.  What might be the result if such disparate and unstable civilizations were to come instantaneously within arm’s reach of each other?  The answer, of course, could not be known with certainty, but there grew a consensus among the Survey’s architects that the resulting clash of cultures would mean dire consequences for the future of our species.

The risk of unleashing the Drive on humanity was deemed unacceptable.  But the Survey’s architects devised a means by which they might safely usher mankind into its new age: the Interim.  A legion of sociologists and historians, anthropologists and philosophers, adventurers and administrators, these sole keepers and users of translight would undertake the enormous task of uniting the scattered outposts of humanity into a peaceful, star-spanning Commonwealth.

Based on the Survey results, a handful of worlds were offered immediate membership in the union, with others granted provisional status.  The remainder would be continually monitored, even aided, as they struggled toward the elusive stability that few had achieved.  Only Commonwealth worlds would be permitted to colonize other stars, lest the Interim’s mission become an endless one.  Although the citizens of Commonwealth worlds would enjoy the benefits of translight travel, the technology itself would remain under the strict and exclusive control of the new Fleet.  One day, they hoped, Fleet might surrender its monopoly to a united and stable human family that could be trusted to wield such awesome power responsibly.

Today, almost three hundred Reissan standard years from its Founding, the Commonwealth comprises thirteen member worlds and twenty-one provisional partners.  With over six hundred catalogued systems presently comprising human space, the time of the Interim is still far from over.  But when at last its end does come, it will surely represent mankind’s finest hour.

[END]

***

In a maintenance bay attached to one of Lady’s four passenger holds, Gareth beheld an unconscious female who should not have been there.  Wearing civilian clothes common to most of Merada, she slumbered peacefully with her head slumped on one wall of her recently opened hibe capsule.  She had olive skin, fine features and black hair that in Merada’s gravity would have fallen to her shoulders.  Assuming she’d undergone decent gene surgery at birth, her physical age was somewhere between ninety and one-twenty, a little younger than Gareth.

She was attractive, and Gareth’s first instinct was that he had associated with her–in one capacity or another–on Merada.  He racked his brain but came up blank.

“It’s pretty clever how they hid her,” the engineer Ilias explained.  “If they’d tried to get her aboard in real hibernation, the unit would’ve registered as active.  Instead she’s sedated and breathing from a stored oxygen supply.  The viewport in the lid showed a false image of an empty capsule, and the casing is cloaked to scan as empty.  It worked, too.  She came as a total surprise when I opened the thing.  Who do you think she is?  Stowaway?”

When an explanation failed to suddenly dawn upon him, Gareth mused aloud, “A stowaway would have to be pretty stupid to do this.  If you hadn’t found her, that thing would’ve been her coffin.”

The engineer scratched his neatly-trimmed blond beard.  “Whoever rigged this wasn’t stupid,” he said.  “Or poor.”

“Guess we’ll just have to ask her.  Get Thorien down here to–”

Gareth had been about to say ‘revive her,’ but at that moment he recalled the disc in his pocket.  Unexplained woman, unexplained comm disc–maybe it was coincidence.  Maybe not.

“Let’s wait on that,” Gareth said instead.  “I should check something out first.”

“What should I do with her?”

“She’ll keep.”

With that Gareth excused himself from the maintenance bay and made for a small comm station a few chambers away.  He slipped the small disc into its port.  The screen lit with a message.

>>FACIAL IDENT COMPLETEDECRYPT WITH THUMB SCAN.

For his eyes only.  So the disc’s sender had gone to some trouble–not unlike their stowaway, Gareth couldn’t help but notice.  More alarming still was the knowledge that the disc’s sender must have scanned his face and prints on Merada.  The woman Aprile had described would have had ample opportunity to do so, but why?

Not for a love letter, that was sure.

Indeed, it wasn’t a love letter.  The image that presently appeared onscreen showed a darkened room, a lone figure seated in shadow.  When the figure spoke, its deep voice was deep and heavily distorted.

“Captain Gareth,” the phantom said.  “Let me begin by apologizing for the position in which I am about to place you.  But we are desperate and faced with little time and few choices.  I represent a movement on Merada opposed to the tyranny of the Interim.  Friends and enemies know me as Astynax.

“If you’ll forgive the lack of subtlety, the visual on this recording will now show you some footage recorded on Merada in recent days, along with images from other worlds and other times that begin to illustrate the naked brutality of the Interim.”

The view before Gareth faded to black and reopened on a grainy image of bloodstained walls.  The camera panned floorward to hover on the wide-eyed corpse of a man with a cavernous opening where his chest had been.  Then it tracked slowly across the floor, showing more corpses similarly dismembered.

While these grisly images played on, each successive scene bloodier the last, Astynax resumed in voiceover.

“As you surely know,” he said, “Merada is now the victim of an Interim assault, some of the results of which you see here.  The purpose of their criminal actions, besides spreading terror among those who dare to resist them, is the search for one woman.

“Her name is Dr. Jilan Zerouali, and she has been hiding here for some years under my protection.  Now it would seem the hounds have regained her scent.  Judging by the ruthless efficiency with which the Interim’s death squads are liquidating our underground, soon nowhere on Merada will be safe for her.  Some among us urged Zerouali to enter hibernation in the deepest cave we could find, but for better or worse she refused.  She insists on passage out-system, and we are obliged to help her find it.

“At this point I must apologize to you again, Captain, for our agents secretly observed you during your stay on Merada.  Some even interacted with you for the purpose of assessing your character.  After as much deliberation as time permits, we have selected you as the most suitable candidate to approach for this undertaking.  I pray that our judgment proves correct.

“I may be dead by the time you receive this.  Time is so short, in fact, that we cannot even afford to await your response.  Instead we have already begun arrangements to transfer Dr. Zerouali to your vessel.  I hope you will see fit to aid her, and I dare to hope even further that you will succeed.

“Naturally you will wonder what one woman could have done to warrant such attention.  The honest answer is that I do not know.  She refused to say.  However, it is my own deep conviction that she has committed nothing that you or I might consider a crime.  The Interim wants her imprisoned or dead, which alone is reason enough for me, and for any man or woman of principle, to desire her freedom.”

The parade of well-captioned images depicting the aftermath of Interim raids on Merada and elsewhere ended.  Gareth watched and listened in bewildered silence as the view yielded once more to the shadowy speaker.

“I place my faith in you, Captain,” Astynax said, “a man I do not know and never will.  I cannot and need not lie to you about the risks involved should accept my plea.  But desperation guides our actions now, as often it must when the tide of history bears down with great force upon us.  I regret I may never know how the story ends.”

The rebel leader shifted forward in his chair, and as he did a silver cross glinted on his chest.  “It is tempting now,” he went on, “to offer you platitudes about courage, responsibility, heroism and such, but I fear that this mere ‘groundsider’ would only insult a spacer of your considerable experience.  So instead I only implore you to look within yourself.  Meet the doctor when she comes aboard.  Judge her on her character and act according to your own principles.  This is all anyone could ask.

“I thank you for hearing me out, Captain, and dare to thank you in advance for your selfless actions in the name of justice.”

The shrouded figure gave a parting nod, and the image onscreen yielded to flashing letters.

>>DELETING…….DONE.

The display melted into gibberish, and the console spat out the now-useless disc.

Staring dully into the blank screen, Gareth wondered if maybe he hadn’t completely misunderstood everything he had just seen.  It certainly seemed as if a talking shadow had just politely requested that he smuggle a fugitive past Interim inspectors.  But that couldn’t be right.  That was crazy.

With the evidence erased, Gareth couldn’t even double check.  Neither could he just dispose of the disc and pretend he’d never seen it, thanks to a single, nagging detail.

Zerouali was already aboard.

As luck would have it, Gareth knew, making the fugitive’s presence on Lady a fait accompli was the best move this Astynax could have made.  For had he not done so, the answer from her chosen savior would have been a regrettable but emphatic no.

With Zerouali here, however, the decision was as good as made.  She would not be surrendered.  Not easily anyway.  Although Astynax could hardly have known it from his brief surveillance on Merada, he had chosen very well indeed.  Lady’s captain and crew would never, ever knowingly aid the Interim. 

As Gareth pushed away from the comm station, he took with him an ominous feeling that for the second time in his life, all hell was about to break loose on account of an unexpected female presence on his ship.

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER FOUR

 

From the surface of Merada, Erick Fyat guided the small escape flyer through the atmosphere and approached the planet’s orbital spaceport.  He didn’t dock there, though; instead he used the massive structure as cover and locked the controls.  The craft in which he and Coleridge had fled Merada, while outwardly civilian in origin, did have some distinctly military features.  For instance, with stealth measures engaged it was all but invisible to any other vessel in orbit, with the notable exception of Whisper of Death and its web of tiny spysats.

Deserting the Social Engineering Service had left the two agents with a choice: remain on Merada and wait for Fleet operations there to end, or attempt to leave the system forthwith.  Since Coleridge, in her current state, was all but useless Fyat had made the decision himself to take the latter, bolder course.  Hiding in basements or living a quiet life undercover in some rural backwater held scant appeal for him.  He’d left the Service, but he wasn’t dead.

Getting out-system, however, would be no easy task.  The spaceport wasn’t an option.  Even if he could somehow explain away Coleridge’s massive injuries to Meradi authorities there, any use of their SES-provided aliases would send up flags in Whisper’s Intelligence section.  Instead he and Coleridge would have to board one of the docked vessels directly.

Ships at port handled their own internal security, something about which commercial spacers were famously lax.  Even if they did take adequate measures, they were not likely to stand up to SES infiltration.  All he and Coleridge had to do, then, was to sneak aboard a suitable outgoing vessel, evade the eventual Fleet inspection, and ride the ship safely away.

No more Interim service meant no more translight, which meant, of course, long voyages in or out of hibernation.  But such was the price of ‘freedom.’  For Coleridge, the freedom to leave the killing behind.  For Fyat, the freedom to seek another, more achievable cause in which to kill.

Studying the spaceport schedules from the flyer’s datastores, Fyat quickly chose his target.  Lady of Chaos was a moderately-sized vessel with a crew of just fourteen.  That high space-to-crew ratio meant lots of hiding places and few seekers.  Better, it was third in line for departure clearance, not first which would have been too obvious.

With the flyer’s controls programmed, Fyat went about collecting equipment from its stores that might prove useful.  At the top of that list were devices that would help him to subvert Lady’s systems and gain complete access to the ship and its provisions.  Then medical supplies to treat Coleridge.  And plenty of weapons, of course–just in case.

Securing these things in a small case, he helped the one-armed Coleridge into her v-suit.

“How do I know you’re not taking me back to Fleet?” she asked as Fyat fastened the suit’s loose arm behind her.

“You don’t,” he said.

Coleridge frowned, but didn’t ask again.  Just prior to sealing her helmet Fyat jabbed her neck with a sedative.  A word of protest died on the woman’s lips as she sank into a deep sleep that would last several hours.

Fyat could have warned her, of course, but deemed it unnecessary given that her opinion was not needed.  With only one functional arm, she was best treated as cargo.

Once his own v-suit was sealed, Fyat improvised a harness out of seat restraints and fastened his inert comrade’s form to his back, along with his case of equipment.  Then he maneuvered into the flyer’s small airlock and started the exit sequence.

Decompression complete, the airlock door hissed open on the massive, skeletal arm of Merada’s spaceport.  Dozens of vessels of all shapes and sizes clung to the thin structure like tiny leaves on a branch.  Fyat’s visor sensors picked out Lady of Chaos among that array of ships, and neurilace-guided arms and legs cast him into open space.  Moments later, the flyer he’d just abandoned fired its thrusters on course for the system’s asteroid belt, where it would silently detonate.

Half an hour into his unpowered flight through void, Lady of Chaos loomed ahead.  With the enhanced optics in his visor Fyat selected an airlock on the unsuspecting freighter’s hull.  He raised his right arm.  On it was mounted the device upon which their lives depended: a recoilless launcher loaded with a tiny magnetic harpoon and two kilometers of ultrathin fibresteel filament.

He fired.  After several seconds’ delay the harpoon struck the ship’s hull in just the right place and the filament began to retract, pulling the pair of SES deserters on a wide, gentle arc toward Lady of Chaos.

***

Some time after viewing the fateful comm disc from Astynax, Gareth sat drumming his fingers on a table in Lady’s hab module medlounge and waiting for his uninvited guest to awaken.

He had taken pains to ensure he was alone with her when she regained consciousness.  No one else among the crew yet knew who or what she was–and they wouldn’t, Gareth had decided, until after he’d spoken with her one-on-one.  So, feigning ignorance of the woman’s identity, he had offered Lady’s engineer a flimsy argument that the woman should be awakened in the simulated gravity of the hab module.  She was clearly a groundsider, of course, on account of her long hair, and it wouldn’t do to have her wake in a fit of retching.  And so he’d brought her here, alone, to the hab module medlounge, where she could come around with a solid bed underneath her.

Waiting by the woman’s side for the mild stimulant he’d given her to run its course, Gareth began to second-guess himself.  Though he could scarcely stomach the thought of turning anyone over to the Interim, he also could not deny that it was the more responsible choice.  A captain’s first duty was to his passengers and crew–even if said captain only held the role by virtue of owning the ship in question.  Could he really justify risking the lives in his care for the sake of a personal conviction?

Then again, there remained the possibility that Lady was doomed now no matter what he did.  Sheltering Zerouali presented obvious dangers, but even surrendering her came with no assurance of safety.  There were risks involved for William Gareth–even a revoltingly subservient William Gareth–in any dealings he might have with the Interim.

At any rate, he could hardly wash his hands of the whole problem now.  Zerouali was very real and right in front of him.  Gareth determined to delay any decision until after he’d spoken with her.  Maybe Astynax was wrong, maybe she was some hardened criminal who deserved whatever she got.  That might change things.

At length she began to stir.  Gareth felt uneasy as he hadn’t in ages, sensing that life was about to become complicated.  Complication was never good.

Zerouali stretched and rolled her head dreamily for a few moments before at last opening a pair of striking eyes of deep brown.

Gareth greeted her amiably in the Meradi tongue.  “Hi,” he said.  “How’re you feeling?”

Her dark eyes studied Gareth in his chair, wary but not quite distrustful.  Surely the look of an experienced fugitive.

“Where am I?” she asked calmly in Commonwealth Standard.

Though it was certainly no favorite of his, Gareth used the same tongue to answer her.  “You’re aboard my ship, Lady of Chaos, at Merada’s spaceport.  You’re safe.  For now.”

Zerouali’s fine, tired features hardened subtly.  Gareth wasn’t sure precisely what this meant, but it seemed that something he’d said or the way he’d said it had surprised her.  Naturally no self-respecting fugitive would be willing to accept her safety at the word of some stranger, but this was something different.

“Right,” Gareth said, if only to break a long silence in which the woman just stared at him.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Commonwealth world,” he explained.  “My Standard is rusty, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Zerouali obliged him then by shifting into Meradi for all of the two words she spoke before falling silent.

“I had,” she said.  Then she just stared, her eyes and expression opaque.

“We haven’t been introduced,” Gareth said, resuming the more comfortable Meradi language.  He was determined to break the needless tension, or at least fill the dead air between them.  “I’m Will Gareth.  Jilan Zerouali, I presume.”

When the woman failed once more to hold up her end of the conversation, Gareth shrugged in defeat.  Maybe she wasn’t ready to talk yet.  He was halfway ready to give up and leave her to rest a while when he made a perhaps insignificant realization.

“Speaking to me in Standard just now,” he said.  “That was some kind of test, wasn’t it?”

Zerouali’s answer was short and uninformative, but at least she answered.  “If you like.”

“If I like?” Gareth scoffed–gently, so as not to offend her.  “You could at least tell me whether or not I passed.”

Rubbing her eyes, Zerouali raised herself to a seated position on the bed before delivering her eventual reply, the first to consist of more than three words.

“You’re not from a Commonwealth world,” she observed.

“Thankfully, no.”

Gareth hoped she might speak further on the subject, and so was disappointed when the conversation failed yet again to achieve escape velocity; Zerouali slipped right back into her silent glare.

A comment came to Gareth’s mind to the effect that she evidently was of the Commonwealth, something that gave him even more cause to suspect her than vice versa.  But he dismissed such words as too confrontational, not to mention revealing.

“Alright,” Gareth said with rising impatience.  He opted to abandon small talk and cut straight to the business at hand.  “I’ve been asked to smuggle you past a Fleet quarantine.”

This seemed to faze Zerouali–almost.

“Quarantine?” she echoed without particular urgency.

“Just announced.  Departures suspended indefinitely.  Did you sleep through the attack, too?”

Again her reply was a single, borrowed word.  “Attack?”

Gareth nodded, pleased at having managed at least to pique the fugitive’s interest.  “The Interim warship in orbit took serious damage,” he said.  “I’d have thought your Meradi friends had something to do with it, except if it was meant to help you escape it backfired.”

Zerouali betrayed perhaps the barest hint of emotion as her dark eyes went thoughtfully to the ceiling and back.  “They are not my friends,” she said at length, “and I’ve never been privy to their plans.  However…the attack would seem to be the work of others.  The timing is unfortunate.”

“To say the least,” Gareth agreed.  “But let me guess.  If you knew anything more about it, you wouldn’t tell me, would you?”

“No.”

“Thought not.”

More silence followed.  The woman’s patience seemed infinite.

Gareth’s was not.  “Look,” he said at length.  “I’m willing to help you, but try to see this from my side.  I have a ship full of passengers and crew who are already at risk because of your presence here.”

“Are they aware?” Zerouali asked quickly.  Even now, when she showed something akin to true interest, her speech came across as distant and mild.

“No,” Gareth said.  “I was–”

“You’d place your crew in such jeopardy without consulting them?  That’s irresponsible.”

Though part of Gareth was pleased to see the conversation gain momentum, Zerouali had crossed a line in insulting her would-be deliverer within minutes of waking.  Never mind that she might be right.

Instead of loosing his more instinctive reply, Gareth made a conscious decision to begin choosing his words.  He’d obviously have to be careful what he revealed to this woman.

“How I run my ship is my concern,” he said calmly.  “Now that you’re aboard it, you’re my concern, too.  I was hoping you and I might have a meaningful talk to help me decide what to do.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely.”

The casual insult left Zerouali unmoved.  “The decision is obvious,” she said.  “You must not put your passengers at risk for me.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Gareth said, too forcefully.  “I told you I’m willing to help, and I am.  The only decision I’ve made is not to turn you in.”

“Perhaps you should reconsider that.”

Puzzled, Gareth let out a genuine laugh.  “Strange attitude for a fugitive,” he said.  “I offer to help and you say I shouldn’t bother?  How is it you haven’t been caught yet?”

The expression Zerouali managed to conjure was withering despite being scarcely distinguishable from the impassive mask she’d worn until now.

“Perhaps you were hoping I’d cry on your shoulder?” she said.  “Fall to the floor begging for asylum?  Tell you you’re my only hope?”

Gareth’s teeth clenched.  “You know…” he began brusquely, forgetting diplomacy, “being hunted by a bunch of power-mad murderers is no excuse for being a bad guest.  Maybe I should turn you in after all.”

Unaffected, Zerouali returned calmly, “Maybe you should.”

Gareth scowled at her.  The woman’s calm only intensified his frustration.  “I just don’t understand you,” he confessed.

The fugitive regarded him patiently for several moments.  When eventually she did speak, her voice was softer, almost placating.  She asked, “How many passengers are asleep in your holds, Captain?”

Gareth hesitated, knowing already the point she intended to make.  But in the end he answered honestly, “Almost a thousand.”

“If you are caught sheltering me, those thousand will never wake.  My freedom, even my life, is not worth such a price.  I will not hide behind human shields.”

“I’m not offering that,” Gareth snapped.  “Astynax said–”

“Astynax values only his cause.  He told me I would not be placed aboard a passenger vessel.”

“Whatever.  He seemed to think you were worth saving.  And without even knowing what you did.”

“I can’t speak for Astynax,” Zerouali said.  “But I can say that symbols mean a great deal to men such as he.”

Gareth got her meaning, if barely.  He let curiosity dictate his next question.  “What if I were to need more than symbols?”

A glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes foreshadowed a derisive laughter that failed to materialize.  She said placidly, “I’ve already told you what you should do with me.”

“Yeah, I heard.  And I’m more confused than I was five minutes ago.  Do you talk like this to everyone who tries to help you?  Because if so, your social skills need serious work.”

Zerouali answered coolly, “I’ll practice them with my prison guards one day.”

“A joke?” Gareth said, making an exaggerated show of surprise.  “Maybe you’re human after all.”

Zerouali didn’t smile or otherwise acknowledge the comment, didn’t say anything in fact.  Gareth was again left to fill the void.

“Anyway,” he said.  “You could murder my mother and I probably wouldn’t hand you to the Interim.  So assuming you won’t tell me why you’re wanted, how about at least telling me as much as you told Astynax.”

Zerouali’s response, like the look she gave Gareth, was predictably opaque.  “I told him that the Interim and I had different ideas about my future.”

“That’s often the case with hunters and prey,” Gareth said. By now he’d almost grown accustomed to her non-answers.  Enough to take them in stride anyway.  “So why are you so eager to surrender now?”

“Not eager, Captain,” Zerouali said.  “As a trader you must accept the principle that any given commodity has a certain finite value.  I simply don’t wish to see the cost of my freedom exceed its worth.  It may have already.”

A noble sentiment.  As a conversation partner Zerouali was aloof and condescending, but here was some hint of a redeeming personality behind the impenetrable facade.  How to combat it, though?  She made a strong argument against aiding her, but paradoxically–or inconveniently–this made her only more sympathetic.  If it was a strategy on her part, it was arguably more effective and less transparent than any tearful pleading she might have done.

“I’ll put the matter to my crew,” Gareth concluded.  “We’ll decide by majority.”

“No.  There’s too much at stake.”

“It’s out of your hands.”  Gareth was determined to have the final word, at least for now.  “You’re on my ship,” he said.  “A word from me and you could be buried so deep in the hold you’d be lucky to see stars again.”

The fugitive regarded him with some unreadable expression, a mix, perhaps, of amusement and condescension.  When at last Zerouali nodded acceptance, Gareth felt he’d achieved a victory of sorts.  Though he was loath to admit it even to himself, the woman intimidated him.  His inability to read her left him feeling powerless.  Hence his idle threat, an admittedly clumsy attempt to exert power over her.  Her reaction said she had recognized it as such.

Damn.  Already his relationship with her was far too complex.

“I’ll convene the senior crew in two hours,” Gareth said.  “You should be there.”

Zerouali’s answer was another silent nod.  Gareth rose and started for the door, more than a little puzzled by the whole exchange.  Lady was now sanctuary, at least temporarily, to a fugitive who declined to divulge her alleged crime and advised against helping her.  Was she worth the risk?  Probably not.  Even she didn’t seem to think so.  But the Interim wanted her and that was enough.  Her symbolic worth had been sufficient for Astynax.  Maybe it could suffice for Will Gareth, too.

He paused at the door before leaving.  “You’ll have to stay here for now.  Our only guest quarters are occupied.”

“I’ve spent the last eight hours in a box, Captain,” Zerouali replied.  Her manner betrayed no evidence of any deliberate attempt at humor.

As Gareth made again to leave, an afterthought turned him back.  With a few keystrokes he eased security routines on the room’s system console to allow Zerouali access to some of Lady’s basic functions–environment controls, entertainment, non-sensitive datastores–without authentication.

“You have comm implants?” Gareth asked.  Taking her silent stare to mean ‘Of course,’ he continued, “You can get our frequency and encryption keys from the ship.”

“Do you make a habit of handing those out to strangers?” Zerouali snapped.

Gareth scowled.  Twice now in the few minutes he’d known her, the woman had taken him to task.  She was absolutely right, of course, on both counts, but that made it no easier to stomach.  Best now just to cut his losses and make a quick exit.

“It’s a judgment call,” he said hurriedly.  “If you want the codes they’re yours.”

Zerouali’s unreadable eyes grew reproachful–or maybe Gareth imagined it.

“The Interim is not a forgiving enemy, Captain,” she said.  “Your judgment might require some tuning.”

Gareth clenched his teeth.  A proud, childish part of him longed to tell her off.  A wiser voice told him simply to leave.  Fortunately the latter won out, though not without a small and careless concession to pride.

“You don’t know who you’re talking to, lady,” he said evenly.  “Comm me if you need anything.  I’ll be back for you in two hours.”

With that he let the hatch slide shut, putting a welcome barrier between himself and a woman whom he had little doubt would be the source of considerable headaches to come.

***

“Hi, Celene, it’s Simon.  I’m sure you must have heard about Merada by now.  Well, we’re being sent there.  No telling how long I’ll be, but I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.  We embark in two hours, so if you receive this before then, call me back.  My love to the boys.  Take care.”

Simon Ascher disengaged his comm upon finishing the message to his sister.  It was deep in Reissa’s night and he hadn’t wanted to wake her by calling directly.

After he severed the link, a familiar low buzz persisted in Ascher’s ear.  His hardware was acting up again.  For as long as he’d had neurilace his body had been rejecting it, a problem that even a half-dozen surgeries had failed to fix.  Neurilace rejection was not uncommon, but it almost always doomed a career in Fleet.  Command wouldn’t tolerate this state of affairs much longer before handing him his discharge.

Nonetheless, he’d been called up for this voyage.  If it was to be his last, he could hardly have asked for a better deployment.  Whisper of Death had been attacked and damaged in a terrorist attack at Merada.  Hours later the voidship’s translight beacon had brought the shocking news to Fleet Command on Reissa, where it was decided to dispatch Hunter in the Dark to the wounded ship’s aid.  A lucky Simon Ascher, senior payload specialist, would be among the flagship’s complement of three hundred.

Ascher’s advice to his sister not to worry had not merely been a platitude to give her peace of mind.  Despite the unprecedented attack, the assignment struck him as more exciting than dangerous.  Perhaps Whisper should have been better prepared, or more likely there had been an intelligence failure.  Whatever the explanation for this minor victory achieved by some band of groundside deadenders, it seemed unlikely to repeat itself.  Fleet would not permit a recurrence.

Reissa’s media had been quick to devour the incident.  Within hours the most reactionary of commentators had hailed the attack as the beginning of a new and less innocent age.  Citing a growing resentment toward the Interim (of which the attack on Whisper was only the latest and most extreme example) and the Commonwealth’s painfully slow rate of expansion over three centuries, voices many and shrill were screaming for a new order.

The calls to Empire were nothing new.  Since the Founding there had been a vocal minority in government and among the population calling for just that.  Thus far the idea had failed to take root, but the Merada attack had given those voices a powerful rallying cry.  Just how powerful remained to be seen.

Though he would never speak openly of it–for as a Fleet crewman he was forbidden to criticize–Ascher did secretly hope that the calls for drastic change would pass unheeded.  The violent course those voices endorsed struck him as the kind of adventure generally favored only by those who would stay safely at home.

Whatever path was chosen, though, Simon Ascher would do as ordered.  Until his dismissal, anyway, which right now didn’t seem far off.  After that…who knew?  Maybe commercial spacing.  He wasn’t much looking forward to the day he’d be forced to decide.

For now, though, he had the Merada voyage ahead of him, and that was more than enough.

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER FIVE

 

Gareth paused a moment outside Mela’s guest quarters to prepare himself for the unpleasant task ahead.  Prior to the eventful past few hours, he had truly meant to spend time with the girl.  He still wished he could.  However, the immediate future now seemed to offer a distinct lack of opportunity, if not the mood, for recreation.

Mela was a sweet girl, but circumstances had made her something of an inconvenience.  Gareth wasn’t looking forward to telling her she’d have to join her family in hibe much sooner than planned, but it had to be done.

Earlier, the girl’s valiant struggle to maintain at least the outward appearance of high spirits had ended in dismal failure.  When Gareth last had left her she’d just finished crying herself to sleep.

He requested entry to her quarters.  Before long the door slid open and a tired-eyed Mela appeared dressed in less-than-modest bedclothes.  She beckoned him inside.

“Will,” she said, smiling awkwardly as he entered the room.  “I’m so sorry about earlier.  Sorry I was such a killjoy.  I’m over it now.  It won’t happen again.”

“No, no, you’re not a killjoy, Mela,” Gareth assured her.  “Not at all.  I enjoy spending time with you.”

That caused the redhead’s faint smile to expand.  She was not making this easy.  Best just to tell her quickly, Gareth resolved.  The longer he dragged it out the crueler it would seem.

“Listen…” he started, drawing Mela away from him with a hand on her shoulder, the better to look her in the eye.  “It’s hard for me to tell you this, but I’m afraid something has come up and I’m going to be very busy.”

Mela’s tired eyes narrowed.  “What are you saying?”

“I’m sorry, Mela.”

“But I-I won’t cry anymore, I promise!” she said desperately.  As if solely to put the lie to that vow, her wide eyes began to tear.  “I’ll be good.”

“No, Mela, it’s not like that at all.  It isn’t anything you’ve done.  This is my ship and I have responsibilities I can’t run away from.”

Mela hid her face in her hands as tears began to fall freely.  Gareth touched a hand to her cheek.

“We’ll have dinner later,” he offered.  “With a view of Merada like you’ve never seen.  Okay?”

She sniffled a few times, avoiding his eyes.  “And then I have to hibernate?” she asked meekly.  “And wake up on…on my new home?”

“I’ll revive you for the last part of the voyage, before anyone else.  Promise.”

Mela wiped her face and looked up defiantly.  “What is it that’s come up?”

Gareth had prepared for this.  He’d decided not to tell her of the recent events on and around Merada, which could only upset her.  He might have blamed unspecified ‘technical troubles,’ but that excuse was hardly comforting to an already nervous groundsider.

“One of the cargo bays is imbalanced,” he lied.  “We have to reload the entire thing.  Then there are some accounts left to settle on Merada.  It’s all very dull.”  Gareth lifted Mela’s pretty chin with two fingers.  “Believe me, I would much rather spend the time with you.”

That last part, at any rate, was no lie.

The hurt softened in Mela’s eyes as she nodded and sank into Gareth’s chest.  He held her silently there for several moments before disengaging.

“I have to go,” he said, “but I’ll be back later to take you to dinner.  Will you be alright?”

Mela nodded silently with downcast eyes.  The door slid shut to separate them.  From her quarters Gareth walked one hundred and eighty degrees around the hab module to the medlounge and requested entry.

The door opened promptly to reveal Zerouali, ready and waiting for the coming conference to decide her fate.  She gave only a courteous nod as she stepped into the corridor.  It came as somewhat of a relief to Gareth not to have to converse with the woman.  It wasn’t so much that he disliked her–he hardly knew her enough for that.  Rather her presence was simply too powerful.  Based on what little Gareth had seen, Zerouali managed to dominate any space she occupied, controlling the flow of conversation with scarcely a word.

But for all the impression of cool distance she projected, Gareth sensed, there lay a great deal of complexity behind those dark eyes.  There had to be.  He had joked earlier to Zerouali that she should have been captured already, but the mere fact that she hadn’t been spoke volumes.  Something had kept her alive and free, and it wasn’t luck.  She was not to be underestimated.

The two arrived in the conference room and took adjacent seats at the oblong table.  There they passed a few minutes in awkward silence awaiting the arrival of Lady’s senior crew.

Aprile entered first.  After eying Zerouali, the navigator cast a questioning glance at Gareth, who just nodded and gestured for her to take a seat.  Ilias, the engineer, and Thorien, Lady’s doctor, followed shortly behind and took their seats with friendly smiles at the newcomer.

With all present, there was nothing to do but start.  The room’s occupants, with the exception of Zerouali, who stared blankly ahead, looked expectantly at Gareth.  He’d been spacing with the two men present for the bulk of his life, and with Aprile for a number of years, yet this was the first time he could recall feeling even remotely uncomfortable addressing any of them.  He heaved a reluctant sigh and began.

“I think you’re all aware that we have a guest,” he said with a nod to Zerouali.  For the fugitive’s sole benefit Gareth spoke in Meradi rather than the spacer Galactic he would normally employ among his crew.  “She was smuggled aboard today with our hibe capsules.  What I haven’t told you yet is that I do know something about why she’s here.  So I’ll just come right out with it.  Everyone, meet Dr. Jilan Zerouali.  Meradi rebels on the surface snuck her aboard in the hope we’d smuggle her out-system.  Apparently the Interim wants her very badly.”

As he spoke Gareth’s eyes hovered on Aprile, whose response he’d expected to be the most immediate and vocal.  She surprised him by staying silent, even if her tight lips suggested she was holding back.

“While normally I go to great lengths to avoid trouble,” Gareth went on, “it looks like trouble has found us.  We have a few options, and those are what we’re here to discuss.  Dr. Zerouali herself has suggested… Well, I suppose I should let her speak for herself.”

Gareth felt a measure of relief in turning the proceedings over to Zerouali, though he hadn’t a clue what she might say.

The fugitive remained cool and unflinching as the crew’s eyes turned as one toward her.  “Though I have no particular desire to be captured,” she began without ceremony, “I believe that the risk to your vessel and its passengers is too severe to justify any efforts on my behalf.  Therefore, I apologize for my presence and suggest that your wisest course would be to surrender me to Fleet authorities immediately.”

A curt nod indicated she had finished.  The speech disappointed Gareth, even if it failed to surprise him.  Her stubborn but well-reasoned refusal to argue her own case might make aiding her a tough sell.

Aprile chose this moment to break her silence with a perfectly reasonable question aimed at the fugitive.  “What did you do?” she asked.  “Or assuming you’re innocent, what do they think you did?”

Zerouali answered with her usual composure.  “I’m afraid that to divulge that would only heighten the risk to myself and all around me.  As I explained to your captain, I prefer to say only that I took issue with the Interim’s plans for me.”

Aprile snorted.  “Well, that tells us nothing.  For all we know, you could be a mass murderer.”

Since Zerouali offered no hint of reaction either positive or negative to the accusation, Gareth pressed her.

“Well, have you killed anyone?” he asked.  “Can you at least tell us that much?”  He was eager to give Zerouali a chance to improve her image, even accidentally.  Assuming she said anything at all, of course.  Speaking to her was like a game, Gareth realized.  Find the right question and you just might get a decent answer.

There was a tense pause before Zerouali’s reply.  Presumably she spent that time deciding whether or not to answer at all, since it seemed a rather straightforward question otherwise.

“No,” she said at length.  “I’ve never killed anyone.  But I’ll say no more on the matter.”

However unsatisfying, the answer struck Gareth as an honest one.  In the brief silence that followed, a simple possibility occurred to him.  One that he, of all people, should have seen from the start.

“You know something, don’t you?” he guessed.  “Something dangerous to them.”

Gareth watched Zerouali’s features carefully for a reaction.  He might just as well have tried to read a bulkhead.

“As I said,” she replied, “I have nothing more to say on the matter.”

The room lapsed again into silence.  Gareth broke it with a sigh, but only after sharing a brief, meaningful glance with the two male members of his senior crew.

“I see three options,” Gareth began next.  “A: we attempt to smuggle the Doctor through quarantine.  B: we find a way to get her safely back to Merada.  Or C: we hand her over and be done with it.  We’ll put it to a vote.  First, so she can’t accuse me of forcing anything on her, does anyone object to allowing the doctor to participate?”

Silent approval all around.

“Okay, then.  Aprile?”  Gareth had little doubt how she would vote, or at least how she wouldn’t.

“C,” she said, predictably and with an unapologetic glance at Zerouali.  “She said it herself.  There’s too much at stake.”

“Thorien?”

“A,” the graying doctor said quietly.

“Ilias?”

A thoughtful pause preceded the engineer’s, “A.”

Aprile’s eyes flashed.  No doubt the only reason she didn’t leap onto the table in protest was that she hadn’t yet accepted defeat.  She looked expectantly at Zerouali, next in line to vote and presumably a guaranteed “C” given her earlier speech.

“I abstain,” she said instead.

“What the–”  Aprile cut herself short before the inevitable curse.

“And my vote is A,” Gareth announced.  “With three votes for, one against and one abstention, the A’s have it.  We take her out-system.”

“Have you all gone raving mad?” Aprile blurted, reverting to the spacer tongue.  “She didn’t even ask for our help!  And do you understand the consequences if we’re caught?  Never mind our passengers–we will all spend the rest of our lives on some prison rock at the ass end of the galaxy!  If we’re lucky!

“I think we’re aware of the risks,” Gareth cut in, sticking with Meradi as a courtesy to their guest.  “Anyone want to change their vote?”

Ilias and Thorien shook their heads subtly, holding fast in the face of Aprile’s angry, incredulous glares.

“So what’s the deal?” Aprile asked Gareth caustically, again in Galactic.  “Have you slept with her already or are you just hoping to?  She’d better be good, because she might just be your last.  Last female, at any rate.  Prison will be another story.”

“That’s enough,” Gareth said dispiritedly, finally switching to the spacer tongue himself.

“No, really,” Aprile persisted.  “Don’t you have some piece of tail wandering the ship already?  Is she not good enough?”

“This has absolutely nothing to do with my sex life,” Gareth grumbled.

Aprile sank back into her chair with arms folded, scowling.  She came across as bitter and sulking–hardly her typical disposition, but this was hardly a typical encounter.

Once she’d quieted Gareth addressed Aprile calmly, directly, in the spacer tongue.  It wouldn’t do to have bad blood aboard Lady, especially not now.  “You know the three of us better than that, Aprile,” he said.  “You make jokes at my expense and I would never change that.  I usually deserve them.  But you wouldn’t have stayed on as long as you have if you really thought I would make life-or-death decisions frivolously.”

“I haven’t seen life-or-death on Lady yet,” Aprile countered.  “And besides, it’s not exactly easy to find another berth even if I wanted to jump ship.  Which I don’t, of course.”  This last was a hasty afterthought.

“And I’d hate to lose you,” Gareth said gently.  “Believe me, Aprile, I would be much happier if I had never seen this woman.  But here she is.”

The comments about Zerouali, even though spoken in a language she was unlikely to comprehend, seemed a touch inconsiderate given her presence in the room.  But Gareth hardly worried about insulting her.  To feel insulted one required emotions, something their guest had yet to prove she possessed.  At any rate, she didn’t react.

“You know nothing about her!” Aprile accused.  “She won’t even explain herself.  You’re right, I do know you pretty well–and you should know me well enough to realize I’m no coward.  I’ll put my ass on the line for the right cause.  But can you even tell me what the cause is here?  What is her cause?”

Of course, Gareth had no answer to this.  Yet Aprile was perfectly within her rights to demand answers, as were they all.  That Aprile was the only one to exercise that right stemmed undoubtedly from the history, completely unknown to her, that she alone didn’t share with the other three crewmembers present.

Aprile hadn’t been with them on Lucifer’s Halo.  She hadn’t been present, as they had, for the very birth of the Interim–hadn’t played a role, however accidental, in its creation.  No, Aprile was too young to even remember a time in which Fleet’s fibresteel claws weren’t wrapped around every star.

“You’re right,” Gareth said in eventual reply.  “We know very little about her.  But what I do know makes me inclined to believe her.”  With no way to know whether or not she was capable of following the conversation, Gareth continued to speak of Zerouali as if she weren’t beside him.  “She offered to give herself up rather than put us at risk.  That doesn’t sound like a murderer to me.” 

“Actually,” Aprile said, “it sounds like a very clever and successful murderer.”

“The man who sent her to us was a Meradi anti-Interim leader called Astynax,” Gareth said.  “I couldn’t dig up much about him or his faction, but naturally I identify with his cause.”

“Astynax.”  Aprile repeated the name as if searching her memory.  “Never heard of him.  What reason do you have to take him at his word?  Maybe he’s the one conning us.  I’d like to see that disc.”

Gareth winced.  “I know this sounds bad, but it was coded to wipe on first access.  I’d have done the same in his place.”

“No doubt.  Look, I personally have nothing against rebels or fugitives or shady people in general, and you know I have no love for Fleet.  What we don’t know is just how shady these people are, your new girlfriend here included.  We don’t know what she’s done or what her motives are.  We know nothing at all.  She might not seem like a criminal, but the best ones never do.  When someone’s in as much trouble as she apparently is, it’s fair to assume the worst.”

Gareth shrugged.  “I happen to disagree with that last part, but otherwise you make a sensible case.  Do you want another vote?”

Aprile gave a dismissive wave.  “Don’t bother.  I know how it’ll go.  I’ll settle for permission to say ‘I told you so’ when this is over.  If we live long enough.”

With a curt, “Permission granted,” Gareth was happy to bring an end to his aside with Aprile and switch back into Meradi to address the whole room.  “The next thing we need is a plan,” he said.  “How do we conceal her from an Interim inspection?  We’ll meet at 0800 to discuss.  Meantime, there should be absolutely no mention of Zerouali’s name or presence over comms.  Strictly face-to-face.  She’ll be staying in the medlounge for the time being.”

With that the gathering adjourned.

“Welcome aboard,” Aprile muttered to Zerouali as she rose.  The phrase, spoken in Meradi, was a deliberate and bitter imitation of the cheerful recorded greeting heard incessantly on Merada’s groundside public transit system.  Aprile then wondered aloud in Galactic as she left the room, “When did Lady get a parliament, anyway?”

Ilias and Thorien passed by next, with much more cordial goodbyes.  Zerouali acknowledged the two with a tiny nod, the minimum of courtesy.  Left alone with her in the now empty room, Gareth motioned for Zerouali to precede him out the door.

“So, can I trust you?” he asked as they started the walk back to the medlounge.

“That’s not a proper question.”

Gareth stifled a sigh.  “How so?”

“It’s not complete.  Can you trust me for what?  You can trust me to do some things and not others.”

“Well, that’s one way to look at it,” Gareth scoffed.  “An aggravating way.  Fine–can I trust you not to do anything stupid like trying to contact Fleet and turn yourself in?”

“There seems to be enough stupidity aboard your vessel without my adding to it.”

This made Gareth’s blood boil, but he didn’t give in to his anger.  “Just give me a straight answer, will you?” he said.

Zerouali answered in no hurry, “Your word is law on your ship.  Hence my abstention.  I’ll abide by your decision.”

Once more Gareth found himself inclined to believe the fugitive despite the lack of any convincing reason to do so.  The content of her speech was usually sensible enough; it was only the manner of delivery that left much to be desired.

“At least if we all burn,” Gareth said, “it’ll be no one’s fault but my own.”

“If you like,” Zerouali returned.

“You use that phrase too much.  It doesn’t mean anything.”

Gareth wasn’t sure why he bothered to complain.  Maybe he yet believed he could get under her skin the way she did his.  But apparently he failed, for the short trip concluded in silence.  At the medlounge door Gareth recalled something he’d meant to ask her.

“Do you understand Galactic?”

Zerouali’s answer emerged fluently in that very tongue.  “That’s something any spacer’s ‘girlfriend’ should know, is it not?”

Coming from some other woman the words might have been flirtatious; from Zerouali they were just belittling.

She stepped across the threshold into the medlounge and waited there a moment, detached, a scientist observing her specimen.  Gareth felt once more the familiar urge to escape her presence.

“Someone’ll comm you about dinner,” he said tersely.  “You’ll find food and drink here in the lounge, if you haven’t already.  Beyond that you’re on your own, although I’d appreciate it if you didn’t leave this room without escort.”

Zerouali nodded, indicating at once understanding and farewell.  Then she keyed the door shut.

Muttering a few choice monosyllables under his breath, directed more at fate than at Zerouali, Gareth turned to leave.

***

The shipwide comm aboard Hunter in the Dark sent Simon Ascher into a panic.  All personnel were to undergo an upgrade to their neurilace security protocols prior to departure from Reissa.  The broadcast would come just a few minutes from now.

It was actually Ascher’s second surprise since boarding.  About an hour ago he’d supervised the loading of a rather strange last-minute addition to the ship’s cargo: a woman in a hibernation capsule.

He supposed there must be occasional cause for Fleet vessels to transport passengers in hibe, but it was something Ascher hadn’t seen himself in a decade of service.  Perhaps Hunter was transporting some criminal or dignitary for a reason unrelated to its well-known primary assignment.  The injured or ill were sometimes placed in capsules to prolong their lives while awaiting medical attention.  But what reason could there be to leave the Commonwealth for treatment?

Even if Ascher were inclined to devote much thought to the matter, the impending neurilace upgrade was a much more immediate and personal concern.  With his erratic hardware there was no telling whether or not the downlink would even succeed.

With all his pre-embarkation duties complete, Ascher lay sweating in his berth, awaiting the moment of truth.  At last a synthesized voice sounded over his comm.

“Encrypted transmission will commence in ten seconds.  Nine…eight…

Ascher remained tense as he blinked the neurilace lens into place over his right eye.  At least that seemed to be functioning.

“Four…three…two…transmission commences now.”

Only silence followed, but this was normal; there would be no audio during transmission, just a confirmation immediately afterward.

Not two seconds into the broadcast Ascher felt the familiar ache behind his eyes, heard a hiss and crackle in his ear.  The interference persisted until ten seconds later when the ship’s voice declared, “Transmission complete.”

The display on Ascher’s neurilace lens screamed failure.  Flicking it back in disgust, he resisted the urge to cry aloud.  Fortunately there was no way his superiors could know the truth short of direct inspection, which was not standard practice.  They had no reason to suspect anyone might have missed the transmission, not even deliberately, since it had been broadcast at highest priority with Division-level Command encryption, impossible for a crewman to override.

He was safe, then, so long as the upgrade wasn’t anything vital.

***

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER SIX

 

Vice-commander Daniel Sallat stood at attention before Whisper of Death’s captain, Jan Bohringer.  The Captain did not really demand strict adherence to formality by his first officer, but Sallat persisted as a matter of form.

Bohringer looked more haggard and unkempt than usual.  From behind his desk he gave Sallat a cursory wave, bidding him commence his second regular briefing since the insurgent attack.

“Repairs proceed apace,” Sallat began.  “The breach is nearly sealed and hull integrity is holding.  Casualty count has settled at seventeen missing and presumed dead, six more with minor injuries.  Groundside comm is ninety-five percent restored.  Eight groundside SES assets are confirmed killed.  Five who were missing have been relocated, but six remain unaccounted for.

Orbital batteries have struck sixty-four groundside targets identified as centers of resistance or their support facilities.  Cooperation from planetary authorities is less than enthusiastic, but Merada Commission assures me we have nothing to worry about on that front.  All things considered, my recommendation remains the swift, if temporary, removal of all groundside assets to orbit.”

Captain Bohringer flicked a few fingers in the ‘move-it-along’ gesture that Sallat knew well.  “What of the lead on Zerouali?” he demanded.

“The freighter Lady of Chaos has been placed under observation,” Sallat reported.  “Anyone attempting to exit the vessel will be discreetly apprehended.”

Bohringer exhaled sharply in a half-scoff, half-sigh.  “She just had to hole up with the one man in the galaxy we’re not allowed to kill.”

Sallat let his captain’s complaint go unanswered.  When Intel had discovered, minutes too late, that Zerouali had been smuggled onto Lady, Intelligence Section had immediately commenced an investigation into that vessel.

A hundred flags went up.  If machines were capable of showing wild excitement, these did.  A boarding party of Fleet marines poised to storm Lady had been recalled just in time, and an urgent translight beacon dispatched to Reissa.  Now Whisper watched and awaited instruction.

To Bohringer this was a headache on top of disaster, the last thing he needed now that his vessel had become the victim of the first hostile-fire shipboard casualties in Fleet’s history.  Perhaps he was taking his frustrations out on Merada, the bombardment of which, in Sallat’s mind, was far too indiscriminate.  Bohringer had granted Intelligence wide discretion in groundside target acquisition.  To battery crews more accustomed to cratering barren moons on practice runs, it was occasion for perverse excitement.

A more delicate hand was needed, Sallat realized.  Even if the attack on Whisper of Death had failed to constitute a serious blow to Merada’s quest for Commonwealth membership, Bohringer’s subsequent lack of restraint had set it back a century.  The whole planet was against the Interim now.  Before long its government would be forced to choose between joining the mob or being trampled beneath it.

“Anything else?” Bohringer prompted.  His exhaustion was apparent.

“ETA of Hunter in the Dark is twenty-one hours,” Sallat added.  “That’s all, sir.”

“Thank you, Commander.  Dismissed.”

“With respect, sir, I suggest you take some rest.  Matters are well in hand.”

“Suggestion noted,” Bohringer said.  “And rejected.  You’re dismissed.”

With a quick, unacknowledged salute, Sallat left the captain’s office.

***

Gareth guided Mela into a wide, unlit chamber on Lady’s hab module.  The door shut behind them, plunging the room into total darkness apart from the dim yellow glow of an access panel.  When Gareth keyed a particular sequence into that panel a soft hum filled the air.

“You ready for this?” he asked Mela softly, standing close behind her.

A soft blue light began as a sliver at the room’s center and slowly expanded toward the walls.  Mela took a few curious steps toward the advancing threshold of light.  Reaching it she stopped, a breathless statue.  Her gaze was locked on the floor, where nothing seemed now to separate her own feet from the surface of her homeworld miles below.

Of course, the appearance was far from reality.  Were there truly nothing but a transparent film beneath them, the dizzying view from inside the rotating hab module would have been enough to make even a spacer ill.  Instead, the floor here was essentially a chamber-wide vidscreen which right now showed the best available projection of Merada–one captured from the opposite end of Lady entirely, in fact.

“What do you think?” Gareth asked the girl after allowing her a minute’s wide-eyed silence.

In those wide eyes was a mix of awe and sadness.  A tear slipped loose, and Mela began to tremble.  She collapsed to the floor.

Gareth knelt beside her.  He should have expected this.

“There’s nothing to cry about,” he said.  “Let’s have dinner.”  Guiding the girl back to her feet he took her to the table in one corner of the room, where he’d already set out their meal.  “I made it myself,” he said.  “It’s Terran black bear from stock that made the Crossing.  Insanely rare.  You’ll like it.”

But by the time Gareth seated her at the table, tears were coursing freely down Mela’s cheeks.  “I want to go,” she sobbed.  “Please just take me back down there.”

Gareth took the seat opposite her.  “I can’t do that, Mela.”

After a few more weak sobs the redhead lifted her weary eyes to plead with him.  “Yes, you can!  I’m an adult and it’s my decision.  I want to stay!”

“What would I tell your parents when they woke up without you?”

“You tell them I changed my mind.  Or I can leave a message.  Whatever–I don’t care!  I just don’t want to go!”

Reaching across the table, Gareth laid a hand atop Mela’s.  “You’ll like your new home,” he said.  “You’ll have your whole family with you.  You’ll know the language when you get there.  You’ll make friends, build a life.  You’ll be happy.”

Mela’s lips pursed.  Gareth sensed the impending outburst seconds before it came.

“I–don’t–want–to!  I want to go home–and home is down there!”  Crying hysterically, Mela withdrew her hand from Gareth’s, balled it into a fist and slammed it down hard on the table.  Then she lowered her face into her folded arms and wept.

Gareth watched patiently.  Maybe Mela would come out of this spell and they could at least enjoy the meal.  More likely not.  He felt tremendous pity for her.  Shortly she would fall unconscious to awaken years later in a new home she didn’t know or want.  He’d have liked nothing more than to grant her wish and leave her on Merada.  True, it would be tough to explain to her parents, the actual paying clients, why the daughter with whom they’d boarded hadn’t made the voyage.  But such a trivial concern was hardly enough to dissuade him from following his conscience.  The family would have no legal recourse.

No, the real reason he wouldn’t send Mela back was one he couldn’t bring himself to tell her.  Merada just wasn’t safe anymore.  The image beneath their feet at this moment was in reality several days old.  He didn’t dare use a live image for fear that Mela might witness some of the planetary bombardment that had been raining down on Merada regularly for hours now from the orbiting Interim warship.

“Trust me, Mela,” Gareth said.  “It’s for the best.”

She looked up and wiped sad eyes, her tears beginning to subside.  She shook her head feebly.  “I don’t want to,” she whispered.  “Please…”

The look Gareth gave her conveyed his sympathy, and his regrettable answer.  Mela sat quietly for a moment with head bowed before rising and walking out to the center of the wide chamber.  There she sank to a prone position on the floor with forehead propped on folded hands.  Gareth sat beside her, and together they stared down at the clouds swirling over her deceptively tranquil blue-green world.

After several minutes Gareth withdrew a hypo of sedative concealed in his clothing and pressed it to young Mela’s neck.  She let out half a surprised moan and went limp.  When next she awoke she would be far from the home she knew.

At Gareth’s spoken command, the recorded view of Merada flickered to black and was replaced by a live shot.  A series of flashes lit the planet’s sky: Whisper mopping up the last of the EM screamers.  Thankfully there was no sign of surface bombardment just now.  Gareth had never seen anything like that before.  From orbit it was nothing more than a faintly shimmering line arcing down through the planet’s atmosphere–then nothing.  But the havoc that those innocuous streaks unleashed groundside was, no doubt, a hellish sight he never cared to witness.

He wanted to think that Whisper took care to strike only legitimate military targets, something still they probably had no right to do, but somehow he knew that wasn’t the case.  Perhaps it was just his personal mistrust of these would-be emperors of humanity.  Or perhaps the Interim really were the merciless, unrepentant killers of Astynax’s vids.  Whatever the truth, Fleet’s attack on Merada only strengthened his resolve to keep them from capturing Zerouali.

Gareth sat with Mela a few minutes longer, stroking her soft red hair and considering her fate.  It might prove some consolation to her that when she did awake to a strange new world, she would find an account in her name with more than enough funds to pay her passage back to Merada should she so desire.  Naturally such generosity was not something he extended to just any passenger.  Mela was different.  He couldn’t help but feel some measure of responsibility for her happiness.  Maybe he would time the account to open only after a year or two, just to be sure she gave her new life a real chance.

Eventually Gareth stood and commed for someone to come take Mela away for hibe prep.  As he left the room carrying the two plates of black bear, he thought of offering the meal to Zerouali.  Even if her personality disagreed with him, he could hardly imagine her to be any sort of hardened criminal.  But even if she were a beast, Gareth knew, he’d still choose her side any day over that of the tyrants who now rained death on innocent Mela’s home.

He was nearly at Zerouali’s door when Aprile commed him.

“I need to see you, Will,” she said.  “Asap.”

Halting, Gareth reconsidered his dinner plans.  Zerouali would probably only reject his offering anyway.  And he could stand to mend fences with his navigator.

“You eat yet?” he commed back to Aprile.

“No.”

“Hab module mess.  Five minutes.”

On her acknowledgment, Gareth proceeded there to wait for her.  Ten minutes later Aprile entered carrying an unwieldy mesh sack over one shoulder.  She heaved it onto the floor where it landed with a metallic clatter beside the table on which Gareth had set their freshly heated dinner.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Weapons.”  Kneeling, Aprile dug into the sack.  “I’ll be carrying one.  I suggest everyone else does the same.”

Gareth looked on with mild surprise.  “Where did you get these?  I would hardly have known we had arms aboard without checking the manifest.”

That wasn’t quite true.  Armaments were a tightly controlled cargo at any port, so any captain knew of necessity what his ship carried and where.  Nonetheless, whatever stock Lady had in the holds was for trade, not personal use.

“I’ve kept a few on hand for just this occasion.”

“You don’t really think we might need them, do you?”

Aprile held up a sleek, blunt-nosed rifle almost as long as her arm.  “Maybe Fleet will just ask nicely if we’ve seen their girl,” she said, “but I tend to doubt it.  If they suspect she’s here, there won’t be any questions.  We’ll be lucky if there’s even any warning.  I just hope they want her alive and not dead.”

The images from Astynax’s disc flooded Gareth’s mind, and all at once he realized Aprile was right.  He was treating this whole matter too lightly.  It was one thing to make a dangerous decision, another entirely to plan ahead for its likely consequences.

Planning ahead was exactly what Aprile was doing, by the look of it.  By now she had laid out on the floor an array of weapons of varying shape and size.

“About an hour ago an airlock alarm went off on one of the stern decks,” she reported.  “Ilias went down to check it out.”

Gareth felt a sudden chill.  “And?”

“Sensor malfunction.  Or clever imitation of same.”

“So it was nothing?”

Aprile shrugged without looking up from her inspection of some type of pistol.  “Right now we can’t afford to make assumptions.  I’m going to spend the night prowling the ship.  You’re welcome to join me.”

Despite a newfound appreciation for the danger they were in, Gareth remained determined to play down the possibility of violence.  Even if it was only an exercise in denial.

“Is that really necessary?” he asked.  “Lady has tiny glitches like that all the time.  I’d be suspicious if there weren’t any.”

“You want to be in charge?” Aprile said abruptly, and gave him a sharp, accusatory glare.  Without breaking that gaze she plucked a sleek black rifle from the floor and thrust it at Gareth with greater than necessary force.  “Then take charge,” she said.  “You know how to use that?”

She might have intended the question to shame him.  If so, Gareth obliged her by admitting his ignorance.  “I’ve fired weapons before,” he said.  “Never at a human.”

Hoisting an identical weapon, Aprile indicated a switch beneath her thumb on the rifle’s grip.  “Couldn’t be simpler,” she explained.  “This is the safety.  Hit it once with your thumb and the light here goes green.  Then just point it at the bad guy and squeeze the trigger.”

Gareth hefted the deceptively light weapon and leveled it as if to fire.  “I don’t want anything punching holes in my hull.”

“It won’t.  The beams are high-energy, low penetration, designed for shipboard combat.  They’ll sear human flesh from the bone at highest settings, but won’t even scratch fibresteel.”

Gareth noticed that the weapon seemed in fact to consist of two barrels fused one atop the other.  “What’s this underneath?”

“Concussion grenade.  The trigger is just up and forward of the other.  Projectiles are tricky in zero grav, so think twice and fire once.  If that thing ricochets into your face–”

“Yeah, point taken.  So who gets these?  I’d rather not have the whole crew involved.”

“They’re involved already, whether they know it or not.  I agree we should keep it discreet, but I also believe a crew has a right to know when their lives are in danger.”  She shrugged.  “Your ship, your decision.”

Gareth considered for a moment.  After centuries of quietly avoiding conflict, in particular with the Interim, he had finally led himself and all those who trusted him right into it.

More stumbled than led, truthfully.  But however trouble had managed to come, here it was.  As Zerouali had reminded him once already, quite needlessly, the Interim was not a forgiving enemy.  Nor could they be counted on to behave in any manner one might call civilized.  If Zerouali’s death or capture really was important enough to justify the current chaos on Merada, and if Astynax and his like were to be believed, then the thousand lives aboard Lady might represent nothing more to Fleet than acceptable losses in the achievement of their goal.

Apparently it was time to start making hard decisions.  That or give up and retire.

“We arm the whole crew on the pretext of the Merada crisis,” Gareth announced at length.  “I’ll patrol the ship tonight.  I want you to rig up some kind of additional security on every airlock.  I don’t care how primitive it is.  In fact, the more primitive the better.  Sometimes primitive is harder to fool.”

“Can’t Ilias handle that?”

“No better than you can.  Besides, I have another job for him.  I promise you’ll get your chance to prowl soon enough.  In the meantime, if anyone tries to force entry while you’re working on the airlocks, feel free to shoot.”

Aprile cast him a dubious look, which quickly lightened.  “Now you’re talking like a captain,” she said.  She slung her rifle over one shoulder, took a place at the table and dug into her meal.  Opposite her, Gareth did likewise.

“You really think there might be Fleet agents aboard?” he asked as they ate.

Aprile paused in devouring her meal just long enough to answer.  “If we were the target of a military strike, I think we’d be dead already.  But I won’t rule anything out.”

“Who’s on the bridge now?”

“Welch.  I told him to alert me of anything out of the ordinary.  Anything at all.”

“We could probably put another man on patrol without causing a panic.”

Already halfway through her meal, Aprile nodded agreement.  She cleared the rest of her plate within a few minutes.  “Thanks,” she said, rising.  “I’ll get to work on those locks.”

“You know,” Gareth observed as he finished his own meal.  “For someone who didn’t want any part of this, you sure are diving in headfirst.”

“Only because I’d like to have a head when it’s over.”

“Fair enough.  But just so we’re clear: on the off chance that Fleet does come asking nicely if we’ve seen their girl, we say ‘no’ and try to avoid bloodshed.”

“I’ll try to control myself,” Aprile said.  “I’m not stupid.  I know that once we raise a hand against Fleet it’s the end for us.  The only question is how much of a fight we put up.”

Gareth scoffed.  “That’s encouraging.”  As he rose to leave the dining hall, he forgot his weapon and was forced to turn back for it.  Ignoring a sly smile from Aprile, he snatched up his own rifle and a second of the same make and departed with the unfamiliar accessories slung on his back.

Some minutes later he conversed privately with the engineer in a control room off Lady’s drive chamber.

“Even if we’re boarded by hostiles,” Gareth told him, “and even if by some miracle we manage to repel them, we still don’t have a chance with a Fleet ship in orbit.”

“Unless maybe we could run away,” Ilias finished knowingly.

Gareth felt uncomfortable even speaking aloud on the subject–one that had gone all but unspoken for long decades.

“I thought this might come up,” the engineer continued.  “I’ll begin prep.  But I have to ask: once it’s ready, why not just use it?”

“No,” Gareth said, even though the same thought hadn’t been far from his own mind.  “Once we do that we’re back to square one.  Worse, even.  Nowhere in the galaxy will be safe for us.”

“You realize that might be the case soon anyway.  Fleet aren’t amateurs.”

“I know.  How much time do you need?”

“Three hours, more or less.”

“Do it, but for now it stays a contingency.  We try the legit route first.  I’m still hoping we can leave here and go on with our lives.”

“Just give the word.  Meanwhile, I’ve given some thought to hiding our new passenger.  I say we put her right back into that shielded capsule and stash it in an external bulkhead.”

Gareth nodded.  “Good.  Do what you have to do.”  He handed Ilias the extra rifle he’d taken from Aprile.  “You know how to use that?”

“I’ll manage.  But I tend to think if it comes down to that, we’re already screwed.”

Gareth gave a morbid laugh.  “That seems to be the consensus.”

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Gareth sat harnessed in his station on Lady’s dark bridge, watering grey eyes riveted on glowing displays.  He was monitoring ship’s security, of all things.  A bank of monitors to his left displayed thermal images of every approach to the hab module medlounge in which Zerouali was housed.  One screen showed Zerouali herself, a human-shaped heat source pacing like a caged beast from one corner of the chamber to the other.

Even as Gareth followed her shape absently with his eyes, he continued to hope all these precautions were unnecessary.  He told himself that Aprile was right, that if Fleet knew about Zerouali they would have made a visible move by now.

Unless, perhaps, they had quietly inserted a scout or assassin.  If that was the case, then patrolling Lady as Aprile suggested might be the wrong approach, one that might only get them killed one by one.

Then again, a static defense mounted in the medlounge or anywhere else on Lady might only get them killed all at once.  At one point Gareth had toyed with the idea of gathering the whole crew in the hab module and evacuating atmosphere from the rest of the ship.  But, he quickly realized, any intruders aboard would have entered from space and so were likely to be equipped for vacuum.  Purging the atmosphere for any length of time would only give their hypothetical enemies free rein over ninety-five percent of Lady.

So maybe they were doomed no matter what they did.

Gareth refused to accept that just yet.  As long as hope remained that Fleet could be fooled, he would maintain a cool head and refrain from precipitous action.

Whether or not there were hostile forces aboard, nothing remotely connected to Zerouali could be safely transmitted over comms; the potential for eavesdropping was just too great.  Against this threat they had devised that simple code that Aprile was now using to issue reports from the patrol she’d just begun.  A single chime meant all clear.  Two, possible trouble.  Three, deep shit.

Thus far Gareth had received only the all-clear, sent once every ten minutes.  Since starting patrols, the crew had managed to cover less than fifteen percent of the ship, leaving Gareth to doubt whether anything would come of their effort.  Lady simply had too many places to hide and no effective internal security.  But what else could they do?  An excess of caution couldn’t kill them.  Laziness could.

Eventually Gareth found himself fighting to stay awake, wishing he’d brought a dose of stim to the bridge, or even coffee.  He was hesitant to leave the monitors vacant even for a moment, if for no other reason than the sharp rebuke it would earn him from Aprile.  Maybe he’d call Thorien and have him bring something up…

Within half an hour Gareth sat in a state of half-sleep, penetrated every ten minutes by the single chime of Aprile’s all-clear.  At some point he was dragged forcibly back to consciousness by something out of place.

Instead of the single, lonesome ping to which he’d become accustomed, there was a rapid succession of three.  Then, forgetting or deliberately abandoning the decision to avoid comms, Aprile’s voice shouted over the comms:

“Cargo Three!  Now!”

Gareth wakened instantly.  Even as he released the chair harness he opened a comm channel to the crew.  “Someone to the bridge to relieve me,” he said.  “I don’t care who.”  He wasn’t about to wait around for his replacement.  Security would be unmonitored for a few minutes at most.

Slung rifle trailing behind him, he sailed out the hatch and accelerated through Lady’s corridors.  Minutes later he burst into Hold Three with weapon ready in sweating palms.  Aprile hung twenty yards down the hold’s central shaft with her own rifle in hand.  She waited there for Gareth to sail closer then gestured at him to follow her into the maze of numbered cargo containers.

A distant, erratic pounding filled the air, growing louder as they moved.  It sounded like someone beating frantically on a bulkhead.  Gareth tightened an already viselike grip on his gun and followed Aprile, closing in on the source.

The source was a sealed cargo container, at which Aprile arrested her forward motion.  Gareth halted alongside her.  Each hollow thump from the container caused his pulse to rise.

The conclusion was obvious and unavoidable.  Lady had been infiltrated.  Again.  He waited, staring fixedly at the box with weapon leveled.  Belatedly he noticed that Aprile had been silently trying to get his attention.  When he finally looked over she jerked her head at the container, raised her weapon to one shoulder and sighted down its blunt barrel at the box.

Taking her meaning Gareth edged forward, reluctantly, to a position at one side of the container.  He poised his free hand over the switch that would open it.

After a silent count of three Gareth punched the panel and readied his weapon.  The container’s articulated metal gate began to retract.  The pounding ceased.

From his position, Gareth could not yet see past the opening gate into the module–but Aprile began shouting at someone or something inside.

“Stay right where you are!” she barked.  “Don’t move or you’re fried!”

Still unable to see the object of her ire, Gareth maintained one clammy hand over the switch, ready to reseal the gate.  When in the next few seconds Aprile issued no such request he finally shoved carefully away from the container and sailed quietly past Aprile’s feet.  By the time he arrested his motion on the neighboring cargo container he was treated to an unobstructed view of Lady’s latest unticketed passenger.

The injured woman held one hand straight out from her body with palm open in half of the universal gesture for surrender.  It was only half the gesture, one could not help but notice, because her left arm had been severed at the shoulder.  Scorch marks and severe burns covered her face and neck on that same side.

Grisly wounds aside, the newcomer had the appearance of a typical Meradi groundsider, with fair skin and long blonde hair.  Nothing about her seemed threatening–except, of course, for her very presence.  And this was a point Aprile wasn’t about to ignore.

“What are you doing in there?” Aprile asked, five decibels too loudly, with weapon squarely on the intruder.  “How did you come aboard?”

The injured woman’s eyes darted back and forth between her two captors–or rescuers, or whatever she might take them for.  “Sevrat…sevrat alni alsa’amin.  Feyaral!” she spat, in no tongue that Gareth could currently comprehend.

Evidently it was gibberish to Aprile as well.  “Talk sense or you’re slagged,” she threatened in Meradi.

The stranger shifted her gaze to Gareth, perhaps seeking a more receptive audience.  “Sevrat,” she repeated urgently.  Her desperation was clear, even if her meaning was not.  “Araj la dajeina keranin…Teralla!”

Though the incomprehensible plea was aimed squarely at Gareth, Aprile replied bluntly on his behalf.  “Forty seconds!”

Gareth met the intruder’s hopeful glances with stone-faced silence.  He probably would not have chosen himself to take so hard a line, but given the extraordinary circumstances he yielded to Aprile’s more practical approach.

The woman shut her eyes and loosed a volley of tears.

“Time’s almost up, friend,” Aprile said coolly.  “Unless you have something better to say, this conversation’s finished and so are you.”

Only now did it dawn on Gareth that Aprile might not be bluffing, that she might really incinerate the woman without knowing who or what she was.  Though the idea gave him chills, Gareth held his tongue and merely watched.  Such was the grim new reality he’d entered at the moment he agreed to defy humanity’s self-appointed overlords.  Aprile’s measures were harsh, but necessarily so, for Lady’s crew could not afford to let more risks compound the ones already taken.

Was this how Aprile would have elected to deal with Zerouali?  Had she been in command, would the greatest threat facing them right now be the boredom of waiting out a Fleet quarantine?

“Turn around!” Aprile ordered her captive.

Tears glistening on her horribly scarred cheek, the intruder obeyed.  Presumably she responded not to Aprile’s verbal command, spoken in Meradi, but to the corresponding gesture with the muzzle of her firearm.  Aprile began a loud countdown from five while simultaneously maneuvering closer to the cargo module.

“P-please,” the condemned prisoner whispered, suddenly adopting a heavily-accented Meradi.  “Please…”

This, the woman’s first recognizable word, made Gareth cringe.  If it was all an act, it certainly was a good one.  Still he refused to intervene, sufficing instead to hope Aprile knew what she was doing.

To his relief, she did.  Upon reaching ‘two’ she tapped the cargo container controls.  The doors slammed shut, and her countdown went unfinished.  Aprile exhaled, deflating.

“What do you make of her?” Gareth asked immediately.

“Not here,” Aprile chided.

They reconvened around a corner several containers down the line.  Even there Aprile insisted they whisper.

“She’s full of shit, of course,” she said factually.

“How do you figure?”

The query drew Gareth a sharp glance from Aprile.  “How I figure,” she said, “is that she’s selling a story only an idiot would buy.  Number one, we can’t afford to believe in coincidence right now.  With all this other shit going down, she has to be involved somehow.  Number two, I don’t think she got those wounds picking flowers.”

“They’re bombarding Merada.”  Gareth didn’t mean this to defend the intruder; rather he was just thinking aloud.

“Unless she’s from some backward province where they only speak Dumbass, she’s not Meradi.”

“I’m not saying I buy the act,” Gareth said.  “I don’t.  But any guesses what might be her real purpose here?”

“If I knew, I probably would have pulled the trigger.  She’s alive on the slight–slight–chance that she might be harmless.  What scares me is the fact that she wanted to be found.”  With a rueful sidelong glance at the container, Aprile finished ominously, “Whatever her purpose might be, my guess is she has us right where she wants us.”

***

With Lady’s captain en route to the holds, Erick Fyat slipped unnoticed into the vessel’s habitation module.  As he traveled he scattered behind him more of the spymotes which already offered him near omniscience aboard the freighter.  Jogging right past several hastily-rigged thermal imagers, he progressed swiftly to the medlounge, which according to his subtle probing of Lady’s systems contained a prize of great value.

It took him twelve seconds to override the lock on the medlounge door.  It slid open.  The dark-haired woman lying on a cot within had barely enough time to look up in surprise before her body convulsed with an electrical charge from the half-dozen microdarts Fyat pumped into her flesh.

Strange, Fyat thought.  All of Lady’s crew was accounted for.  No one should have been here.

A quick thermal scan as Fyat sealed the door behind him confirmed the chamber to be empty apart from the woman whose limbs still twitched atop her bed.

Fyat moved deeper into the room.  The unconscious woman happened to pass once more into his field of vision.  An urgent warning flashed across his visor.

<>

Were he inclined toward humor, Fyat might have laughed.  Apparently he wasn’t the only outlaw to have sought refuge aboard Lady.

Despite other pressing matters he decided to spare the few seconds necessary to verify the woman’s identity.  Leaning in close to her face, he pried one eye open with thumb and forefinger and stared at it for the full second it took to complete the scan.

The result was displayed immediately.  Positive.  A new instruction flashed in bold red letters: <>.

Without bothering to dwell on the irony of having stumbled upon his former quarry now that he’d deserted Social Engineering, Fyat cleared the insistent message.  Zerouali’s presence on Lady could yet change things dramatically, but for the moment he would proceed as planned.

He was here in the medlounge for one reason.  The security protocol on the room’s access panel had been relaxed enough to grant him just the level of access he needed for the easy subversion of Lady’s systems.

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Several hours before his next scheduled briefing, Daniel Sallat found himself unexpectedly reporting once more to Whisper of Death’s captain.  The hastily arranged meeting took place in a small office on the forward decks where Bohringer was supervising Whisper’s groundside ops.  The ship’s artificial grav was weaker here, at the farthest point from the Drive that generated it.  Sallat was by now well accustomed to walking in the shifting gravity fields of the cone-shaped Fleet voidships, although his own first tour, like that of any crewman, had been an endless succession of bruises.

“Proceed, Commander,” Bohringer said.  The words were almost a sigh.

“There’s been an interesting development, sir,” Sallat began.  “On reviewing some recent sensor logs, the team responsible for observing Lady of Chaos came upon something they’d missed earlier, a signal that was mistaken for debris during the EM interference.”

“Out with it,” Bohringer prompted needlessly.

“Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, an unknown individual boarded the freighter.  Identity could not be confirmed, but Intelligence suspects it to be one of our missing Social Engineers.”

“Then we have an asset near Zerouali,” Bohringer said, suddenly perking up.  “Can we make contact?”

“SES is working on it, hindered by the need to avoid exposing our agent.  But they assure me they’ll come up with something.”

Bohringer’s interest faded.  “Very well,” he said, already making for the door.  “Keep me posted.  I want to see that bitch liquidated at first opportunity.  Him, too.  In fact I’d just have that ship destroyed if I weren’t sure Command would have my head for it.”

Sallat nodded in feigned sympathy.  At least Bohringer had the restraint not to act on such a wild impulse.  This situation was a delicate one, best handled with a cool head.

Yes, great caution was required where Lady’s captain was concerned.

***

 “Any chance she can get out of there?” Gareth asked Aprile of the cargo container that currently held Lady’s newest stowaway.

“I won’t put anything past her.”  Leveling her weapon at the container Aprile let off a small blast that left the controls a fused mess.

They had already agreed that the safest course was to leave their guest right where they’d found her for now.  With the container secured to Aprile’s satisfaction they began retracing their path to the hold’s exit.

On reaching it Gareth narrowly avoided a collision when the hatch neglected to open for him.  Worse, the controls were unresponsive to his repeated and frantic efforts to unlock it.

“Ship!” he shouted several times, to no response.  Aprile tried the same with an equal lack of success.

Gareth already had a sinking feeling by the time he finished trying in vain to comm any of Lady’s crew.

The realization, no longer mere paranoia, came in a flash: Lady had not only been penetrated.  It had been hijacked.

Aprile cursed.  Her knuckles were white on the grip of her gun.  Gareth returned his attention to the access panel, punching in sequences nearly at random and hoping for any response at all.

He quickly gave up.

“Shit, what now?” he wondered aloud, making no effort to conceal rising panic.

“You’re the fucking captain.”

Gareth fought to pull his mind out of a dizzying spiral.  “Cutting tools,” he said.  “We burn our way out.”

Without access to the cargo manifest they would just have to start searching.  It could take hours.  Days.

“What do we do once we escape?” Aprile asked.

Gareth knew what she wanted to hear, and he gave it to her: “Suffice to say that if my ship is under attack I won’t take the matter lightly.”

Aprile nodded approval.  “I think we’d better have a chat with Lefty back there,” she said.  “Whatever’s happening, she’s part of it.”

Before Gareth could agree, the formerly dead panel beside the door emitted a chirp.  He looked over to find its small display lit with a message.

>>YOUR VESSEL IS UNDER MY CONTROLCREW WILL NOT BE HARMEDFEEL FREE TO CUT THE DOOR, BUT BY TIME YOU FINISH I WILL BE READY TO OPEN IT.  NEXT CONTACT ONE HOUR.

“Son of a bitch!” Gareth cried.  “It’s them.  Interim.  It has to be.”

“And they can hear us,” Aprile admonished in an overloud voice.  With that she launched herself back toward their captive, whose presence now was undeniably sinister.

Gareth followed, and they regrouped at the container.  There Aprile raised an outstretched finger to Gareth’s face.  Barely visible on her fingertip was a tiny translucent sphere.  A spymote.  Lady’s hijacker had eyes and ears all over the ship.

Hot with rage, Gareth called out into the air, addressing their unseen adversary.  “I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but if I don’t get my ship back in five minutes, your friend here will pay for it!”

Aprile flicked the tiny spymote from her finger.  “Save your breath,” she said.  “Lefty is obviously expendable.  Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t be glad to give her three more stumps if she refuses to talk.”

Such a crude approach remained less than appealing to Gareth, but he could hardly bring himself to object.  First, however, they had to reach the prisoner, who was now trapped in a cargo container with a fused lock.  Aprile began adjusting the settings on her weapon.

“You think that can cut her out?” Gareth asked.

“Narrowest dispersal might do it.”

“No need to free her completely.  Just cut a hole big enough to talk…and do whatever else you have in mind, I guess.”

When Aprile finished toying with the weapon, she braced herself on a corner of the container.  “Shield your eyes,” she warned, taking careful aim.

***

Erick Fyat paused briefly in his assault on Lady’s electronics upon hearing the fugitive stir behind him.  A scraping sound accompanied Zerouali’s brief, futile struggle with the cords securing her wrists to the bed frame.

The movement stopped, and Fyat sensed the woman’s eyes on him.  He ignored her.  Her presence was secondary at the moment.

“I demand to know why I am being held,” Zerouali said calmly in Commonwealth Standard.

Without sparing her a look Fyat replied in the same tongue. “You were in my way.  That you happen to be who you are is coincidence.”

This seemed to give the woman pause, albeit brief.

“You’re SES,” she said.  Her vocal patterns betrayed a fear that she tried and failed to conceal.

“I’m busy.”

“Yeah, you’re SES all right,” she said more confidently.  “You should be ashamed of yourselves that it took so long to find me.”  She paused as if awaiting reply.  When none came she continued.  “So what do they have planned for me?  Trial?  Interrogation?  Or are you just taking your time carrying out termination?”

“You’re not in custody,” Fyat said dismissively.  “I told you, I’m busy.  Speak all you want but do not expect a response.”

Zerouali sighed.  “Fine.  I’ve waited a hundred-something years, I can wait a few more hours.  And by the way, thanks for the high voltage wake-up call.  Typical Interim subtlety.”

***

Approaching the still smoldering ten-centimeter rend in the cargo module, Gareth positioned himself to peer inside.  He took care not to touch the hot edges as he angled his head to scan the container for its occupant.

The woman within looked up with apparent disinterest from the corner farthest from Aprile’s cut.

“Hello,” Gareth greeted her reasonably in Meradi.  “It seems our ship has been taken over.  We need some answers quickly, and in order to get them my colleague here is ready to carve off what limbs you have left.  I’d like to leave that as a last resort, so I hope you’ll save us all the unpleasantness and just cooperate.  I know you understand me, so you might as well give it up with the gibberish.”

The captive stared up at Gareth in the shaft of dim light that pierced her cell.  “I’m not in the mood for questions,” she said unhurriedly.  Her Meradi was smooth and flawless.  “But I do have some advice.  Just do as Fyat says.  I’d rather not see you killed.  I’ve seen enough of that.”

“That’s kind of you to be concerned,” Gareth said.  “But I’m more interested in who you are and what you’re doing on my ship.”

“Agent Coleridge,” she said tonelessly.  “Formerly of the SES.”

“Fuck!

This blurted curse from Aprile startled Gareth.  “What’s SES?” he asked her.

“Social Engineering,” Aprile came back grimly.  “Death squads.  She’s dangerous, Will.  Stay clear.”

Gareth looked back at the prisoner, suddenly half-expecting to find her lunging at him through the fist-sized hole in the metal container.  It dawned on him now, rather belatedly, that she might have a small arsenal concealed in there.  He backed away from the hole so as to avoid, or at least delay, having his head vaporized.

“I am armed,” declared the now invisible Coleridge, as if reading his thoughts.  “But I don’t want to harm you.  I’m tired of that.”

“I might be more inclined to take you at your word if I knew what you were doing here.  Are you under orders?”

A bored sigh echoed inside the container.  “If I wanted to, I could have killed you ten times over by now.  You weren’t listening.  I said I was former SES.  As is Fyat, the one who’s taken over your ship.”

“Rogue agents?” Aprile whispered, shaking her head.  “No way.”

Concurring, Gareth resumed addressing Coleridge through the hole.  “We might require a little more proof.”

“Believe me, don’t believe me.  It doesn’t matter much.  I gave you my advice.  Do what he says.”

“Thanks, we’ll consider that.  In the meantime you still haven’t answered my main question.  Why are you here?”

Coleridge heaved another protracted sigh.  “If I explain, will you leave me alone?  This is pointless.”

If not for the deadly seriousness of their current situation, Gareth might have laughed.  “Sure,” he agreed.

“We want passage out-system,” Coleridge explained dully.  “We intended to stow away, but once he heard about the quarantine Fyat decided we’d stand a better chance of escape with him in charge.”

“Why this ship and not another?” Gareth probed–subtly, he hoped.  There were of course one or two very obvious things to set this vessel apart from others at the moment, but did these hijackers know that?

“Fyat chose it,” Coleridge replied tersely.  “You’d have to ask him.  Now, you promised to leave me alone.”

“You promised explanation,” Gareth said.  “I don’t have it yet.  Why do you need passage out-system?”

Coleridge issued a short, humorless laugh.  “You really don’t pay attention, do you?” she said.  “We’re running from the Interim.”

***

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER NINE

 

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

Celebrating 450 years!

I.0286.05.21 14:35

Commonwealth:Politics:OPINION

 

The Grand Delusion – Part 1 of 2

by Adm. Karina Althauser, 3rd Fleet (Ret.)

 

No one these days can argue that the Founders of our glorious Interim were unwise in their decision to withhold the awesome might of the aptly nicknamed ‘Demon Drive’ from use by humanity at large.  Scores of Reissa’s most brilliant researchers long ago correctly concluded that sudden, precipitant contact between disparate civilizations could not but prove catastrophic.  And had this decision not been taken, humankind would long since have obliterated itself.  At best it would lie in ruins.

Given that our humble race would appear to be the sole bearer of intelligence in our cosmos, we owe it to History to perpetuate our knowledge, our culture, our creative might, into perpetuity.  Such an undeniably righteous goal can be achieved only by the imposition of a universal order that encompasses all, or at least the vast majority of, human beings in peaceful and productive coexistence.  For nearly three centuries now we have gambled on our Commonwealth as that means of order.

However, while offering my utmost respect to the intelligence and sensitivity to the Founders, I am forced to conclude that our current course has reached a dead end.  For proof one need look no further than the comprehensive study completed two decades ago by Zhielan and Bast.  According to their data, no fewer than twenty-one planetary civilizations have suffered extinction or near-extinction since the inception of the Interim alone.  Another thirty have descended into what can be accurately described as global anarchy.  Perhaps worse still, there exist human societies in our cosmos in which women and ethnic minorities are treated as chattel; where lives are dominated by ancient tribal allegiances; where wholesale slaughter erupts over resources so mundane as water; where a petty clash between rival chieftains can blossom into world war.

Imagine if such madness as infects those worlds were allowed to touch Reissa or Verond or any peace-loving member of the Commonwealth.  Imagine the jealousy that a native of one of these savage lands would feel upon observing our society.  Raised in poverty and barbarity, he would quite easily resort to the crudest of methods, naked force, to steal for himself that which we take for granted.  Failing that, his jealousy would compel him to wipe us out rather than let us enjoy what he cannot.  Is such primitivism not what our histories tell us we left behind on Earth?

[Continued in Part 2]

***

Not far into Hunter in the Dark’s voyage, Simon Ascher received orders to transport an item of cargo to the medical suites.  He recognized the item’s inventory code right away: it was the piece had caught his attention earlier, on departure from Reissa, the woman in the hibe capsule.

Ascher took her up to the suites as ordered and delivered the capsule there to the waiting techs.

“Are you going to revive her?” he asked the techs conversationally.

“I’m sure that’s not your concern,” one answered in mild annoyance.

Conceding with a smile, Ascher made his exit.  Still he remained curious about the woman.  He wondered about her as he lay sleepless during his next rest cycle, kept awake by intermittent screeching from his faulty neurilace.

During his next shift, with Hunter still a ship-day away from Merada where it would reinforce the damaged Whisper of Death, Ascher’s orders brought him yet again to the medsuites.  He was to retrieve the hibe capsule and return it to the hold.

A tech he’d met earlier granted Ascher entry and directed him to the capsule.  As Ascher had suspected, it was empty.  He glanced casually around the suite to see if he might catch a glimpse of its former occupant.  He didn’t, and not caring for another reprimand, didn’t persist.  A little disheartened, he engaged the magcushion on the bulky hibe unit and prepared to leave.

Just as Ascher began guiding the capsule toward the exit, though, his attention was drawn by a door hissing open at the periphery of his vision.  He turned to see a med tech enter from an adjoining chamber.

Through a half open doorway, he saw her.  The woman from the capsule.  She sat on a chair, dressed in a blue-green medical smock, gazing up nervously at some other unseen presence in the room with her.

Two details of the woman’s appearance particularly caught Ascher’s attention.  First was the fact that at least one of her wrists was cuffed to the chair.  Second, and perhaps more shocking, was the unmistakable bulge in her abdomen.

Just as the door began to shut, the dark-haired–prisoner?–turned her head to face Ascher.  She’d been crying; her red-rimmed eyes were alive with panic and despair.  Ascher stood frozen, eyes locked with hers until the door finally separated them.  He emerged from a trance-like stare to realize that the encounter had lasted all of four seconds.

He glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed the incident.  None of the med techs in the room seemed to pay him any heed.

As Ascher guided the empty hibe capsule out of the medsuites, he took with him also a very real sense of uncertainty.

***

“I don’t believe her for a second,” Aprile said when she and Gareth had moved out of earshot of Coleridge’s makeshift prison.  Of course, the knowledge that her fellow hijacker, Fyat, could eavesdrop on them at will via his network of spymotes made the change of location seem rather pointless.

“We have no reason to believe her,” Gareth agreed.  “But what does she hope to gain?”

“Time.”  As she spoke Aprile cast regular glances back at the container, as though expecting Coleridge to burst free at any moment.  “The longer we talk circles with her, the more time her accomplice is loose on our ship.”

“I’m afraid he’s loose regardless of what we do down here.”

“If you believe that then they’ve already won.”

“No.  Assume for a second she’s telling the truth, that we really have been boarded by at least two rogue Interim agents–”

“Then we must have some sort of beacon to attract rabble.  It’s too much of a coincidence.”

“Watch it,” Gareth chided, for Aprile’s comment hinted at another foreign presence on Lady.  Even if Zerouali were already captured or dead, they had to continue to feign ignorance of her.  “Not necessarily.  This system is in chaos.  If someone needed to get out fast, there aren’t more than thirty ships to choose from, and we’d be one of the first in line if not for the quarantine.”

Gareth couldn’t say as much, but he sensed that if Fleet really were aware of Zerouali’s presence they would go about extracting her differently.  An injured agent with a scarcely-believable cover story just didn’t sit right.

“This is exactly what they want!” Aprile burst.  “While we scratch our heads looking for logic where there is none, they act!  Whatever this bitch is doing here it can’t be good.  She’s admitted to being an Interim assassin.  I don’t care if she’s had an attack of conscience, she still has no right to be here.  I say we get what we can from her, then…”  A grave look finished Aprile’s sentence without the need for words.

Sensible as such a course might seem, Gareth’s brief conversation with Coleridge had left him less willing to resort to naked brutality.  Why did she seem so cooperative?  Granted, given her line of work she must be a practiced liar, but her story had the ring of truth.

“Maybe you’re right,” Gareth said at length.  “Maybe we’d be better off without her.  But I’m not willing to stake her life on it.  If she really does want out, she deserves the chance.  In any case I won’t start torturing and killing to save my own skin.  I won’t let them turn me into that.”

After a few false starts at rebuttal, Aprile reluctantly conceded.  She propelled herself back toward Coleridge’s cell.  As he made to follow, Gareth’s comm chimed.  Ten seconds later it chimed again.

“You getting anything over your comm?” he called to Aprile.

“Nothing.  You?”

“Signal tones.  Someone’s trying to get my attention.  Fyat, I presume.  I’m going back to the panel.”

“I’m with you.”

As he began the trek back to the hold’s entrance, Gareth was startled by a burst of light and the sound of a muffled explosion from behind.  He twisted mid-flight to find Aprile sailing toward him.

“You okay?” he asked.  “What was that?”

“Concussion grenade,” Aprile said impassively, gliding up to overtake him.  “I gave your new friend one to play with.”

Gareth accelerated to catch her.  “Was that really necessary?”

“She’s a trained killer who infiltrated our ship.  You really trust a cargo container to hold her?”

“Guess not.  You sure you didn’t kill her?”

“I don’t know what SES agents are made of, but judging by those injuries of hers, they can take a beating.  Don’t forget what she is, Will.  It’s time to think with your head and not whatever else it is you use.”

Gareth accepted the rebuke without protest.  When they reached the hold’s exit hatch, a simple message awaited them.

>>HAB MODULE, MEDLOUNGE.

Gareth gaped at the words in despair.  Unless Zerouali had an incredible talent for escape, she was now dead or captured.  It wasn’t clear to him yet exactly how this affected their situation, but it did not bode well.

“Why does he want to talk face-to-face?” Gareth wondered aloud.

“Same reason we weren’t using comms.  Security.”  Looking up at nothing in particular, Aprile raised her voice to address their faceless enemy.  “I’m coming with him,” she demanded.

Within moments a reply appeared.

>>ACCEPTABLEBUT I WARN YOU: YOUR VESSEL WILL NOT SURVIVE HOSTILE ACTIONCOOPERATE, AND CONTROL WILL BE RETURNED.

At this, the previously unresponsive hatch slid open.  Gareth sailed through first, rifle trailing behind him on its sling.

***

Some minutes later Gareth and Aprile walked the corridor on approach to the hijacked medlounge.  Aprile marched in front with weapon ready.

“You’d better shoulder that thing,” Gareth advised her.  “I don’t want any misunderstandings.”

With a scowl and show of uncertainty, she complied.  As they drew within two meters of the open medlounge door Gareth made to take the lead–only to be blocked by Aprile’s outthrust arm.  Her grave, insistent look left him little choice but to trust her and yield.

The gesture quickly proved irrelevant.

“You may as well just come in,” a voice called in Commonwealth Standard from inside the lounge.

Gareth pushed past a tense Aprile and stepped up to the door.  He moved cautiously, despite being resigned to the fact that they were at this intruder’s mercy.

Inside the medlounge, the SES assassin stood facing the open hatch.  He was only slightly taller and broader than Gareth but easily ten times more imposing.  Perhaps it was the sense he managed to convey of being ready to strike at any moment despite standing stock still with hands clasped behind his back.  The jet-black eyepieces, which doubtless served some function other than shade, added no doubt deliberately to his aura of menace.

Behind the assassin, Zerouali lay in her cot with wrists cuffed above her head.  She seemed unharmed.  In fact her expression conveyed more aggravation than fear.  Gareth made brief eye contact but opted not to let his gaze linger on her.  If Fyat sensed any concern for the hostage’s welfare, he might use it to his advantage.

“I think we have much to offer one another, Captain,” the killer said.  His voice fit his dark, steely face.

Gareth had plenty of things he felt like saying to this filth, but Coleridge’s warning and a modicum of common sense told him to keep it simple, if not cordial.  “What is it you want?”

“An arrangement in our mutual interest.”

Gareth scoffed, quickly forgetting his decision to play it cool.  “That’s a strange way to refer to the theft of my ship.”

“These are strange times.  If my intent were to liquidate your crew and apprehend this criminal–”  With a slight movement of his head he indicated Zerouali.  “–I would have done so already.  That I haven’t should be enough to inspire a degree of trust.”

Gareth shook his head.  “Leave it to the Interim to kick you in the balls and tell you it’s for your own good.  I’ve made deals with your kind before.  They don’t last.”

He quickly regretted the far too revealing comment.  Words were coming instinctively despite his intention to handle the situation with more tact.  He had kept his secret for centuries and couldn’t afford to start slipping now, when it mattered most.

“Had you met my kind before,” came Fyat’s answer, “it’s unlikely you’d be breathing right now.  And if you wish to continue breathing you’d be wise to hear my offer, since once you’re caught harboring this fugitive you’ll find yourselves with far fewer choices.”

“That sounds more like an ultimatum than an offer,” Aprile interjected.  Gareth cautioned her with a wave.

“Call it what you will,” Fyat came back calmly.  “A partnership, if you like, until we are safely away from this system or fail in the attempt.”

“What’s the catch?” Gareth asked.  “Aprile is right, it sounds like an ultimatum.  There must be a price if we refuse.”

“I took some liberties with your ship.  If I sustain damage, lose consciousness or go out of range, none of you will live to regret betraying me.”

“I fail to see how we benefit.”

“You don’t stand a chance of passing inspection with the fugitive aboard.  In light of her presence, you’re lucky I showed up.”

The fugitive under discussion chose this moment to break her silence.  “I am a human being, you know,” Zerouali said irritably.  “Not cargo.  Is keeping me tied up part of your plan?  It might look like fun, but it’s really quite uncomfortable.”

Without turning his head the assassin raised one arm to point a palm-sized device in Zerouali’s direction.  Before Gareth had time to panic, a burst of sparks erupted over her head.  Zerouali cringed but made no sound.  A second later she sat rubbing her freed wrists as a lick of black smoke curled up from the bedframe above her.

Gareth released held breath, relieved that Fyat hadn’t chosen to ‘liquidate’ his prey on the spot.  The brief fright served to reinforce lessons that should not have needed reinforcing: tread lightly, take nothing for granted.  Especially not now.

To one side of Gareth, Aprile stood with her rifle half-raised.  She had not been quick enough to level it before Fyat had turned his own weapon upon her.  The assassin’s free arm remained casually behind his back, giving the impression he had scarcely moved.  He might well have planned the whole scene as some sort of demonstration.

“Aprile, put your weapon down,” Gareth instructed.  “It’ll do us no good now.”  Slowly he unslung his own rifle and set it on the floor.  But it took another sharp glance to convince Aprile to follow suit.  Then he addressed Fyat.  “Alright, partner,” he said with arms spread wide in surrender.  “What say you turn my ship back over to me and we discuss details?”

Though Fyat lowered his weapon, he did not relax one iota, if indeed he was capable of doing so.  “I will return basic controls momentarily,” he said.  “But first I warn you and your crew to make no effort to override my alterations to the system.  Tampering will activate failsafes.  Second, I’ll retain sole access to communication arrays.  There will be no external transmissions except through me.  This is for your own good.”

“I suppose you get to keep my ship when this is over, too.”

Fyat’s answering stare reinforced still another unneeded lesson for Gareth: the Interim has no sense of humor.  It made him resolve yet again to stifle his automatic reactions and start playing this game much smarter.  To think with his head, as Aprile had put it.

Striding forward, the assassin forced Gareth and Aprile to make way.  He brushed past them on approach to the room’s access panel.  More accurately he approached the hole in the bulkhead that until recently been an access panel.

“I’m adding stronger encryption to your comms,” Fyat said, kneeling to resume his surgery on the panel’s innards.  “They won’t be one-hundred percent secure, but we will be able to use them for non-critical traffic with low risk of compromise.”

Suddenly Gareth found himself uncertain exactly what to feel–indignant rage at such a violation of his freedom or guilty relief that someone who seemed to know what he was doing had finally taken charge.

A glance at Aprile’s expression proved she was strongly inclined toward the former.

“Listen, Fyat–” Gareth started.

“Never use my name!”

“I won’t call you at all, if I can help it.  But I don’t think this discussion is over.  We need to clarify a few things.”

Fyat did not even pause in his work.  “Later,” he said.  “I’ll brief you in one hour.”

“You’ll brief us, huh?  That’s comforting.  In the meantime, what about control of my ship?”

“You have it now, with the limitation I described.  No external comm.”

With that the assassin resumed ignoring them, his back turned as if in a deliberate message that he considered none of them the slightest threat.  No doubt he was right; they were powerless aboard their own ship.  On the bright side, though, maybe this creep really could get Lady safely out-system.

While Gareth wondered what to do next, Zerouali passed him en route to the exit.

“Are you alright?” he asked, a rather belated courtesy.

Zerouali only nodded, not stopping.  Gareth couldn’t guess where she might be headed considering that this lounge and the conference room were all she had yet seen of Lady.

When Aprile also made for the door, Gareth reluctantly followed.  Fyat took no apparent notice of any of them.

Once out in the corridor, the two women started purposefully in opposite directions.

“Where you headed?” Gareth called first after Aprile.  The navigator slowed and turned her head, but offered only a raised brow in response.

Right.  It was no longer safe to talk.  Aprile resumed her stride, leaving Gareth to chase after Zerouali.

“Any idea where you’re going?” he asked as he caught up.

“Not really,” she answered.  “You?”

Other than this mildly agitated reply, the woman seemed unmindful of Gareth’s presence a step behind her.  She didn’t let it stop her aimless march down the corridor.

Her pace only slowed as they approached the T-intersection at its end.  There she turned abruptly left and started ‘up’ one of the curving concentric paths that marked the hab module’s aft endcap.

“Doctor,” Gareth called to her.  “I think it’s better you stay put for now.  I’ll clean out the guest quarters for you.”

This stopped Zerouali, but she didn’t turn back to face Gareth.  “Guest,” she echoed.  “I’m tired of being a guest.”

Here, at last, Gareth thought, was a glimpse of emotion.  The rare display made him almost feel he could talk to the woman.

“Would you rather Fyat killed you?” he ventured.

Zerouali shrugged–or maybe she didn’t.  All her expressions were almost more implied than real.

Seeming to give up now on her aimless walk, she took a few steps back toward Gareth.  “At least that would be an end point,” she said, already calmer.  “But no, I’m not suicidal yet.”

“Where would you be now if you weren’t running?” Gareth asked.

“Paradise,” Zerouali said simply.  “A heavily guarded one, but paradise nonetheless.”

“A prison is a prison,” Gareth offered.  “Once we get out-system, maybe we’ll find a place where you can stop running.”

Even as Zerouali nodded, her features reverted to their usual opacity.  Whatever guard she might have momentarily let down slammed abruptly back into place.

“You’re wrong to risk the safety of your passengers for me,” she said stoically.

“I’m afraid neither of us has much say in that matter anymore.”

Gareth hadn’t intended the comment for Fyat’s omnipresent ears, but it suited that purpose just fine.  Best that Fyat believed Lady’s captain to have admitted defeat.  Maybe that wasn’t far from the truth.  It was hard to tell.  Everything had happened too fast.  He needed time to think.

Together the two started back in the direction from which they’d come.

“I want to turn myself in,” Zerouali announced abruptly.

Gareth studied her expressionless face, searching it for cracks.  None appeared.

“I don’t think I could let you do that.”

Her dark eyes probed, penetrated him.  “You’re reckless, Captain,” she said at length.  “That, or you have ghosts of your own.  Either one can be deadly.”

Gareth declined to reply.  Aprile had been right moments ago, as she had been quite often of late.  It hammered home one last lesson: Just shut your mouth until further notice.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TEN

 

Gareth sat in the medlounge as Fyat outlined his plans to three of the four individuals aboard Lady of Chaos who were aware of his existence.  The fourth, Coleridge, remained sealed up in the cargo hold.  Not long ago Gareth had commed the remainder of Lady’s crew with a simple apology for the system lockout Fyat had caused and a pledge to explain more later.  If he was to be forced to lie to them again–not an appealing prospect–he would need to get his story straight first.  That story would largely depend on what Fyat had to say now.

“Our best course,” the assassin began, “would involve turning over the fugitive.”  Tellingly, Fyat did not use Zerouali’s name.  “But taking for granted you’d reject this, Captain, in the spirit of cooperation I’m willing to entertain another possibility.”

Gareth stifled a scowl.  The killer’s assumption regarding Zerouali all but proved he’d been eavesdropping.

“Plan B is as follows,” Fyat went on.  “The fugitive and my damaged associate will take a flyer into this system’s asteroid belt, where they will enter hibernation.  Your ship will wait out the quarantine then undergo inspection and leave the system as planned.  We can return for the two women roughly nine ship-years from now, according to my initial estimate.”

Gareth glanced at Zerouali in search of some reaction.  Predictably, he found none.

“I don’t like it,” Gareth objected on her behalf.

“It’s non-negotiable.  The primary obstacle will be launching a flyer undetected now that the EM interference has cleared.  To this end I am reasonably confident that given some time on your sensor suites I can calculate a launch window that evades all of Fleet’s spysats.”

“What about you?” Aprile asked with evident skepticism.  “How do we pass inspection with you aboard?”

“I’ll handle that.  You and your crew, however, will be interrogated by people who will know instantly if you are lying.”

“And?” Gareth asked.

“Naturally it is not listed in your manifests, but I presume you have Saerix somewhere in your holds.”  Fyat followed the accusation by listing several other common names for the illicit substance.

Scoffing, Gareth offered no reply.

“I’ll take that as an affirmative,” Fyat said.  “Saerix will dull your physiological reactions enough to make the examiners’ results inconclusive.  I recommend a fairly high dosage for those with direct knowledge of the fugitive or myself, lighter ones for the rest of your personnel.  An entire commercial spacer crew addicted to Saerix would hardly be surprising to Fleet.  At least half of your kind are addicts.”

Illegal on just about every world where there was law, Saerix was gram-for-gram the most valuable cargo a vessel could carry.  So, naturally, Lady had some.

Forgoing the pointless denials, Gareth argued, “I don’t much like the idea of dulling my senses at a time like this.”

“You have no choice.  Otherwise they will know you are lying before you ever open your mouth.  Even if the inspection turned up nothing, you and your crew would be detained and sentenced.  No.  You will have your medic administer doses to yourself and your navigator, after which I will simulate an interrogation.  We’ll practice until you get it right.”

“Like hell we will!”

Gareth cringed at this protest from Aprile.  He shut his eyes and willed her back to silence.  There was little doubt that Fyat considered her expendable–and might even be happy to make an example of her.

“I think what she means…” Gareth interjected, at the same time silencing Aprile with a sharp glare, “is that–”

“What I mean,” Aprile pressed on, heedless of the danger, “is that you’re not putting any of that shit into me, period!”

Aprile’s refusal was understandable not only as a matter of principle, but also due to the fact that she had never used Saerix.  Gareth himself had taken it now and then but was certainly no addict.  In fact, he’d been forced to dismiss addicts from his crews in the past.  Saerix was potent stuff which over time could all but liquefy an otherwise functional brain.

From the look she gave Gareth now, Aprile might have been ready to mutiny.  Too bad.  Keeping her good graces right now mattered less than preventing her senseless death.  A brief staring match ended with the navigator’s reluctant surrender.

“Could she go into hibe instead?” Gareth asked the assassin hopefully.

“As senior crew she would be revived and interrogated anyway.”

Gareth sighed.  Avoiding Aprile’s eyes he gave the assassin a sober nod, accepting his plan.

“Of course,” Fyat added, “our efforts hinge on the assumption that this vessel is not already under suspicion.  I am prepared to make such an assumption based on two facts.  The first is that to my knowledge this was not the case at the time I lost contact with my superiors.  The second is that you have not yet been forcibly boarded, nor presented with an ultimatum.  If I am wrong, however, and Fleet does already suspect the fugitive’s presence, this ship will never leave Merada no matter what we do.”

“Outstanding,” Gareth said dully, feeling more and more defeated by the moment.  “Any more good news?”

“You may use your comms freely for general traffic, but nothing sensitive.  I will head to the bridge now to plot a launch window and course for the flyer.”  He gestured expressionlessly at Aprile.  “You might be useful.  Follow me.”

Gareth thought he heard Aprile growl, but this was almost surely his imagination.  On her way to the door Gareth managed to catch her eye and silently urge compliance.  Her unspoken reply was less than respectful.

She stooped near him to retrieve her discarded rifle, treating him as she did to an icy glare.

“If we get through this,” Gareth whispered to her, “consider your stake in Lady doubled.”

“Triple it and we’ll talk.”  With that Aprile trailed out of the room after Fyat, leaving Gareth once more alone with Zerouali.

“She’s not happy,” Zerouali observed halfheartedly.

“She’ll get over it.  I’d trust her with my life a thousand times over.”

“And Fyat?”

Beneath the unfamiliar burden of awareness that his every word might be monitored, Gareth hesitated.  “Not for a second,” he said eventually.  “He’s in this for himself.  We can only wait and stay alert.”

Zerouali nodded, seeming not terribly interested.  “I’m sure you have duties, Captain.  Don’t let me keep you.”

Indeed he did have duties, none of them pleasant.

“I’d better explain all this to my crew,” he said, more to himself than Zerouali.  “I hate lying to them, but if they’ll be questioned then I suppose the less they know the better.”

“You were prepared to lie to them about me.”

Gareth made for the exit.  “You’re old news,” he said.  “We’re in a whole new world of lies now.”

Zerouali rose from her seat, presumably to return to the guest quarters that Gareth had cleared for her now that Mela was safely stashed away in hibe.  Gareth noticed a glaze in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.  As much as he didn’t care for Zerouali’s personality, he couldn’t help but feel for her right now.  Nine years adrift in hibe waiting on someone to scoop you up was enough to scare even a lifetime spacer.

“You know…” Gareth began hesitantly.  He was loath to show the woman too much concern lest she shove it back in his face as she’d done before.  But he swallowed his pride and just came out with it.  “Once you’re out there,” he said, “I will come back for you.  No matter what.”

Even as he spoke Gareth knew that it was not Zerouali he hoped to reassure, but himself.  She had already accused him of having ghosts, and she was right.  Long buried, they lurked as a shadow beneath the surface of his thoughts, threatening to return in force at moments just like this one.

But now was no time for ghosts.  Gareth thrust them back down into that deep hiding place in his mind where they had dwelt unheeded for centuries.

Perhaps mercifully, Zerouali chose not to comment.  She just gave a curt nod, her impenetrable eyes blinking perhaps one too many times.  On his way out Gareth plucked his weapon from the floor.  Likely he would have no use for it, but it wasn’t the sort of thing a responsible captain left lying around on his deck.

He laughed inwardly at himself then, reduced to a safety marshal on his own ship.

***

‘It’s not our business, Ascher.’

‘There must be some good reason she’s here.’

‘So that’s what the meds do in their spare time.’

Such were the comments offered by Ascher’s colleagues and acquaintances aboard Hunter in the Dark when he’d told them of the pregnant woman he’d seen tied up in the ship’s medsuites.

“You didn’t see her,” Ascher pressed.  “She was terrified.”

But he dropped the subject when he realized he was getting nowhere.  They didn’t even want to hear it.

Ascher’s next brief rest period was interrupted not by the usual interference from his own neurilace but by a series of chimes from his room’s terminal.  Fighting through a fog of sleep, he dragged himself from his cot and stepped over to the panel beside the door of his two-by-three meter berth.  He rubbed his eyes to bring the display into focus.

When he saw it, he rubbed them again.

>>HELLO SIMON.

Strange.  Even if his privacy blocks hadn’t been engaged, who would message him?  Was he even on a first-name basis with anyone aboard?

Once he’d collected himself he keyed in a reply.

>>WHO IS THIS?

>>FRIENDNEED A FAVORYOU’RE ONLY ONE ABOARD CAN HELP.

Ascher sighed.  At the moment he could barely hold his eyelids open, much less carry on a conversation.

>>NEED SLEEPCAN IT WAIT?

>>SORRYYOU ARE ONLY ONE NOT INFECTED, SIMON.

>>INFECTED?

>>VIRUS.  A PRESENCE.

>>THIS IS A JOKEWHO ARE YOU?

>>NO JOKENEED YOU TO RESCUE SOMEONEYOU HAVE SEEN HERSAVE HER AND LEAVE THIS SHIP.

>>SURE, I’LL JUST STEP OUT AN AIRLOCKLET ME SLEEP!!!!

>>LOOK IN YOUR STORAGE BINTHINK IT OVER, BUT MUST ACT SOONGOOD NIGHT.

The words faded from the display.  Ascher stood in the dark, literally and figuratively, wondering what could possibly have just occurred.  It could only be some sort of joke, one of his shipmates teasing him after what he had said earlier.  He muttered a mild curse and returned to the welcome comfort of his bed.  But before he could sleep, the instruction to look in his storage bin began to eat at him.  Had his tormentors gone so far as to break into his berth and plant something?  He rose again and keyed open his locker.

What he found there could not have been planted by just anyone.  Before him was a standard Fleet ID badge belonging to one ‘Ensign 3rd Class Hellene Hawthorne.’  The image the card bore was that of the woman he’d seen in the medsuites.  Beneath that was a neatly folded uniform matching the rank and assignment on the ID.

And behind them: a standard-issue beam weapon of the make used by Fleet Security.  In a blind panic Ascher shoved all three items deep into the bottom of his locker.  He covered them over and slammed the door, holding it shut with his body as if something might try to burst out.  His heavy breath was littered with whispered curses.

This is a nightmare, he told himself.  I’ll wake up and none of it will have happened.

But he didn’t wake up.  Nor did he sleep again before the start of his next duty cycle.

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

Celebrating 450 years!

I.0286.05.22 13:02

Commonwealth:Politics:OPINION

 

The Grand Delusion – Part 2 of 2

by Adm. Karina Althauser, 3rd Fleet (Ret.)

 

It is profound fallacy to believe that generations of deeply ingrained madness can be erased through the minimal guidance and social engineering that the Interim provides to backward planets at its own great expense.  No sooner does one world achieve a degree of stability than another collapses into anarchy.  No scholar has accurately calculated the average continuous life expectancy of a planetary civilization, mostly because the relevant data is so difficult to collect and interpret.  But given what evidence exists, Reissa and her twelve siblings of the Commonwealth, planets whose combined histories of peace and stability amount to more than thirty millennia, would seem indisputably to fall well above the median.

And there need be no end to that prosperity.  The very goal of a unified humanity must be to guarantee its own existence in perpetuity.  Yet failure in that goal will be assured the moment this fragile equation admits too many unpredictable variables.  The building of a civilization requires generations of steady progress, while undoing it takes but seconds.  Chaos is the natural state, order the exception.  Even the laziest among us can destroy, while those who cherish order must toil endlessly and remain ever vigilant.  Antimatter weapons can sterilize a world’s surface in the blink of an eye, and translight offers attackers the means to deliver such deadly payloads with total surprise and slim chance of interception.  Millennia of peaceful achievement can be thus be erased in a single, horrifying instant.

Thus the elements capable of unleashing such terror on peace-loving peoples must never be allowed the opportunity to do so.  Yet I would argue that this unspeakable scenario is not merely possible, but inevitable.  Recent optimistic estimates project that the Interim will be at least six thousand years old before our Commonwealth encompasses, at its current rate of expansion, all of the human species.  Even more bleak calculations maintain that it can never succeed but rather only move forward by halves, never reaching its envisioned end.

Some would say that this is good enough, that such an ambitious project as ours cannot be hurried, or that uniting ninety-five percent of humanity would of itself constitute grand enough an achievement.  I would call such people hopelessly naive.  To accept such thinking presupposes that in the course of the next six millennia (more than twenty times again what has already passed since the Founding) not one mistake shall be made, not one single error of judgment shall occur which allows the supreme powers of life and death to fall into the hands of madmen.  Further, should the nightmare scenario transpire, there could not then be a single fault in our capacity to defend our lives and our freedom from the resulting existential threat.  Indeed, one mistake is all we will be allowed before the negbombs start falling.

What then must be done?  Do we sit patiently and await proof that our monopoly on translight has been compromised?  Do we wait until the shining cities of Reissa or Verond lie in ruins?

No, because by that time doom will be already upon us.  As the gardener must prune a diseased branch to save the tree, so must we prune the diseased and malformed branches of our species to ensure the continued prosperity of the whole.  As beings of conscience it will quite rightly pain us to undertake such a grim endeavor, but undertake it we must and with surgical precision, without anger or malice, thinking only of what is best for the future of our lonely race.

The present Commonwealth has run its course.  We must now embark upon a new path for the sake of that bright dream of bequeathing to our children–nay, to the universe–the gift of a peaceful and united humanity, a single civilization built upon the foundations of freedom and dignity and prosperity, lasting unto eternity.  The sole voice of culture and intelligence in this bleak void we all inhabit must never be permitted to fall silent.

[END]

***

Aprile screamed and writhed in agony as Thorien struggled to restrain her.  She alternated between fighting him off and clawing desperately at her own face.  Fyat stood close by, observing with stony disinterest.

Watching the scene unfold, Gareth laughed.  He laughed even harder when without warning Aprile launched a stream of vomit into the assassin’s chest.

This put an end to Fyat’s patience; in one swift move he pinned the flailing Aprile to the wall by her wrists.  She kicked ineffectually at him a few times before giving up in a fit of sobbing.  Lady’s doctor Thorien, who’d been enlisted for the Saerix ‘trials’ dictated by Fyat’s plan, applied a hypo of sedative to her neck.

In a flash of lucidity Gareth stifled his laughter.  His close friend and crewmate was suffering a violent reaction to the very same mind-altering substance that made him think the whole thing was funny.  He had never seen Aprile cry until now.  Such indignity was her reward for having lived a clean life and failed to build any tolerance for illicit drugs.

His crewmate’s agony managed to pierce, if just a little, the chemical shroud that enveloped Gareth’s brain.  The scene ceased to be amusing, at any rate.  Instead he began to grow angry at the one who’d caused it.

“Fix her!” he blurted at Fyat, then almost laughed at how stupid he must have sounded.  “What a fucking ship I run!  Letting some fascist killer dope up my crew!”

Gareth had begun to rise to confront the assassin when a hand on his arm offered gentle discouragement.  He turned to find that the hand attached to an arm, which was in turn attached to Zerouali, who sat beside him on the couch.  She was the only one in the room who seemed to be paying him any attention.  Typically, though, her expression didn’t reveal much.

Easing back onto the couch Gareth all but forgot why he had risen.  Instead he now found himself dumbly fixated on the woman who’d stopped him.  Zerouali met his empty gaze evenly for a beat before returning her attention to the more interesting events centered around Aprile.

Gareth stared at the fugitive in profile.  His eyes followed the gentle lines of her neck, chin, nose, forehead, up and down and back again.  He wanted to trace the smooth shapes with his finger.

“Something wrong, Captain?” the subject of his study asked without so much as a glance in his direction.

Gareth spent a few seconds puzzling over the meaning of her words.  Then he forgot them.  What intrigued him far more was the movement of her lips.  They were a deep red-brown, not too full but not thin.  Didn’t she ever smile?  She should.  Maybe she would speak again.  He liked watching her mouth move.

He liked the rest of her, too.  If only she could learn to lighten up a little.

Without further thought on the subject Gareth set his face on a steady course for the woman’s cheek.  Zerouali’s profile, in particular those lips, filled more and more of his vision.  Then suddenly the woman’s head turned and Gareth was approaching her head-on.

Vaguely mindful that he might be in trouble, Gareth nonetheless continued his steady advance, the goal of which was just a taste of those tempting lips.

Just centimeters from success, he was stopped by a hand clamped viselike over his jaw.

“Did you want something, Captain?”

Drawn by her warm breath and flitting lips Gareth made one final push for contact, but to no avail.  The hand on his face offered too much resistance.

“Perhaps you might try this approach with the Interim,” Zerouali suggested softly.

Gareth really had no idea what she was saying.  He did, however, sense that it was time to admit defeat.  Backing off, he focused hazily, reluctantly, on the room’s other occupants.

Thorien’s injection seemed to have had some effect on Aprile, though her sobs proved she was still hurting.  After one minute or several–the Saerix ensured he had no clue–Gareth hung his head and sank into a dreamlike fog.

He was roused by someone snapping in his face.  Looking up, Gareth scowled in displeasure.  Fyat loomed over him.

Memories drifted back.  One of them involving Zerouali might have been pleasant if not for the knot of embarrassment it caused in his stomach.  But that was for later.  Right now Aprile lay motionless in a cot, the only other presence in the room with him besides Fyat.

“How is she?” Gareth asked, rubbing his eyes.

“She’ll be fine,” Fyat said without sympathy.  “The revised plan is to let her remain comatose.  It may be better for us that way.  Now come with me.  Time to rehearse your interrogation.”

Gareth sighed heavily.  He sensed reality lurking somewhere just out of reach.  “I can’t face Fleet like this,” he said.  “I can barely keep a thought in my head, much less a lie.”

“For your own sake you’ll find a way.”  Fyat stepped back and lowered the opaque lenses over his cold, dead eyes.  “Stand.”

The mock interrogation began with some simple factual questions.  Gareth answered them with practiced ease.  These lies hardly even counted as lies anymore; they were so much second nature to him as to be indistinguishable from truth.

Then came the life-or-death questions, the required response to which was, of course, total ignorance.  Gareth answered them through a mild and not entirely unpleasant cloak of unreality.  Several times Fyat corrected his wording or delivery.  The interrogators, he explained, would not rely solely on their equipment, but would react equally to old-fashioned verbal and nonverbal cues.  It was necessary to deceive not only their sensors but also the human eyes and ears behind them.  More and more it seemed an insurmountable task.  Gareth began to lose hope.

“That was miserable,” Fyat said after the first hour-long drill.  “Again.”

“This isn’t going to work.  I can’t go into this thing half-witted when–”

“Again.”

Gareth scowled, but he gave in.  He had no choice.

The second and third sessions went slightly better.  By the fourth, Fyat was almost satisfied.

***

Vice-commander Daniel Sallat delivered his next scheduled briefing to Bohringer just as the captain was returning from a brief rest cycle.

“Hunter in the Dark has made its final translation in-system and is currently under propulsion to Merada,” Sallat began.  “ETA is four hours.  Their last comm beacon contained some instructions.  First, we are to have our negotiating team standing by for transfer to Hunter upon arrival.  Their hostage is revived and ready.”

“Negotiations,” Bohringer almost spat.  “Is the team assembled?”

“Almost, sir.  I was hoping I could lead it myself.”

“Granted.  Why aboard Hunter and not here?”

“I presume because it is the flagship, sir.  Or possibly because we’ve sustained damage.”

The captain grumbled acknowledgment, dismissing the unwanted reminder of his failure.  Sallat proceed undeterred.

“Hunter’s communiqué also contained an upgrade to our neurilace security protocols, to be broadcast shipwide under command encryption.”

Bohringer shrugged.  “Schedule it.”

Sallat hesitated, mindful that his next request might be mistaken for disloyalty.  “Permission to delay the broadcast, sir?”

Bohringer seemed more curious than suspicious.  “On what grounds?”

“I took the liberty of asking some of our techs to examine it.  Their names appear in my submitted report.  There are some elements within the code that cause them to recommend further review.”

As he pondered this, Bohringer looked (quite typically, Sallat thought with mild annoyance) as if half his mind were elsewhere.  “Second-guessing Command is not standard procedure,” the Captain said at length.  “What made you question the upgrade?”

How much detail to offer him? Sallat wondered.  The explanation was less than straightforward.  Upon his first review of Hunter’s communiqué, the enclosed security upgrade had leapt unbidden to his viewer, decrypting itself and scrolling to a seemingly random section of code.  Three times when he dismissed it, his display had promptly repeated the same action.  Since his own programming experience was virtually nil, he had passed the file along to a security-cleared senior tech for urgent analysis.  Once that action had been taken, his display returned to normal functioning.

“A slight glitch in the file led me to submit it for review,” Sallat simplified, mindful of his captain’s selective attention span.  “I’m prepared to accept disciplinary action.  However, I believe the concerns raised are still worthy of address.”

With the often-used wave of his hand, Bohringer indicated dismissal.  “You probably violated policy,” he said, “but damned if I’m going to look up which paragraph.  How do you propose to explain the delay?”

“Command needn’t know.  But if necessary, we express concern that our copy was corrupted during transmission.”

“Very well,” Bohringer replied, but his next words were an unsubtle warning.  “For your own sake you’d better be right.  Dismissed.”

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Gareth awoke from several hours of deep sleep with the Saerix trip a dull memory.  Lightheadedness soon yielded to simmering anger–at Fyat, at the universe, at himself.  He had passed centuries now without major incident, world after world with nothing worse than a disorderly conduct charge here and there.  Now, with a Fleet warship within spitting distance, Lady of Chaos was suddenly a magnet for the Interim’s most wanted.  And what was its senior crew doing?  Sleeping off a bad Saerix trip.

If and when this unpleasantness ended, he’d have to think about a new vessel and a fresh identity.  Couldn’t hurt to be cautious.

After a few moments spent making himself presentable Gareth walked lazily out of his Captain’s quarters and into the common room across the hall.  To his disappointment, the room was not unoccupied.  Sitting at a table, staring quietly at a bulkhead, was Zerouali.  Gareth hesitated, even briefly considered backing out, but too late–she noticed him and looked up.  Gareth continued reluctantly into the room.  He plucked two bottles of chilled water from the stores and took a seat across the table from Zerouali.  Just as well.  If there was an awkward patch to be endured as a result of his clumsy advance earlier, he may as well get it over with.  Zerouali’s company beat Fyat’s, at any rate.

“Listening to something?” Gareth asked casually, handing her one of the waters.  She accepted it politely.

“News from Merada.”

“What’s happening?”

“Chaos.”  There was resignation in her voice.  “Fleet raids, orbital bombardment.  Riots in fifty cities.  Local authorities are ignoring the government’s orders and siding with the rebels.”  She shrugged and fell silent.

“It isn’t your fault.”

Zerouali looked mildly perturbed.  “I know that,” she said.  “The Interim creates this mess, then stays to make it worse.  It’s an old story.”

Gareth just nodded and drank.  He harbored no desire to engage the woman in conversation on any such heavy subject.  Life itself was heavy enough right now.  Unfortunately he couldn’t come up with a change of topic, and so instead just sipped at his water while entertaining a casual desire for something stronger.  The abortive conversation lapsed into awkward silence.

Gareth knew from a lifetime of living shipboard with little privacy that interpersonal issues, however small, were best dealt with promptly.  Besides, the more he evaded the topic the more foolish he’d likely look when it finally did come up.

Of course, if he just waited a few hours Zerouali would be launched into a stellar orbit.  But no.  He didn’t need this hanging over his head for nine years.

“About what happened earlier,” Gareth began.

When Zerouali gave him her stock impenetrable gaze, Gareth froze, forgetting whatever he’d been about to say.  The lingering effects of the Saerix on his brain, he told himself.

After several awkward seconds Zerouali let him off the hook.

“To explain an event is to admit its significance,” she said scientifically.  “This one has none.  You weren’t yourself.”

The words relieved Gareth.  “Glad to hear you say that,” he said.  “I wouldn’t want you to think–”  He faltered.  Think what?  There was really no way to finish that sentence without sounding like an egotist or an ass.

Zerouali cut in to offer some straight-faced suggestions of her own.  “That you’re attracted to me?  That you’re desperate for approval?  That you’re a shameless womanizer?”

“No,” was all Gareth’s muddled mind could offer.

“No indeed, Captain,” she agreed calmly.  “I don’t think any of those things.  You weren’t in possession of your senses.  Luckily one of us was.”

Gareth continued to struggle for a response.  Forced to admit failure, he resigned himself to forgetting the issue and the incident.  “Good,” he said.  “So it never happened.”

“I didn’t say that.  I said it wasn’t significant.”

If not for the pleasant dullness at the edges of his brain, Gareth might have been annoyed.  As it was he only felt tired and in no mood for wordplay.  He rose from the table.

“You should eat something before hibe-fast,” he said.  “Help yourself.”

“I’m fine, thank you.  Although I do hope to hear that offer again in about nine years.”

Gareth gave a mirthless smile.  “Count on it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure there’s something I should be doing on what was until recently my ship.”

He hadn’t even left the room when his comm chirped and an unwelcome voice filled his ear.

“Captain,” Fyat began.  “A second Interim vessel has entered Meradi space.  It’s Fleet’s flagship, Hunter in the Dark.”

Gareth cursed.  “That can’t be good, can it?”

“No.  And undoubtedly worse is the fact that they are requesting direct communication with you.”

“Me?  Directly?  Realtime?”

“Yes.  They are standing by.”

Gareth experienced a moment of intense, paralyzing panic.  The Saerix-fog obligingly receded from his awareness as he scrambled to rationalize this latest development and come up with some reason why it might not be as ominous as it seemed.

“Maybe they just want to schedule inspection?” he said hopefully.  “Or ask some routine questions.”  But he knew he was grasping at straws.  Anything so mundane would take place via request-and-response, with no direct communication required.

“I rather doubt it, Captain,” Fyat confirmed.  “Whatever they want, there’s no avoiding it.  You know what you need to tell them.  Perhaps you can pull yourself together on your way to the bridge.”

But Gareth barely heard Fyat over the storm of panicked thoughts raging inside his own head.  His ears burned hot and he all but forgot to breathe.  He looked down to find his hands shaking.

“Something wrong?” Zerouali asked, still at the table behind him.

Gareth turned, staring vacantly at her while he struggled to regain composure.  Panic was useless, he told himself.  There was nothing to do now but face whatever was to come.

“The Interim wants to talk to me,” he told Zerouali, hardly hearing his own voice.

“You’ve practiced for it,” she said reassuringly.  “You’ll do fine.”

Fyat’s voice erupted again in Gareth’s ear.  “Perhaps you should disengage your comm before holding such conversations, Captain!”

Gareth stifled an instinctive, angry reply.  “Right,” he said instead.  Then he announced to Fyat, “I’ll answer from here in three minutes.”  Switching off his comm, he added quietly to no one in particular, “That way I’ll have nice hard floor to pass out on.”

“Don’t panic,” Zerouali offered.  “Speak as if you’ve nothing to fear.”

“Easy for you to say.  You get to hide in the corner.  Speaking of which, get out of sight.”

As Zerouali retired to the far corner, Gareth positioned himself at the room’s comm panel.  He stood there silently for most of three minutes, breathing deeply and steadying his nerves.  Finally he keyed acceptance to the pending request from ISS Hunter in the Dark.  His finger hovered over the final key for some time.  Try as he might, he could not conceive what would happen next.  A dozen vague scenarios raced through his head, none of them appealing.  But his fate was likely already decided; whatever he said now would probably have scant effect on the outcome.

The thought helped to calm his nerves, even if it offered little in the way of comfort.  With supreme effort of will, he completed the acceptance.

He waited what seemed an eternity for the display to flash acknowledgment.  Finally it lit with a visual.

Onscreen there appeared a tall, grey-uniformed uniformed Fleet officer in a plain white room.  Sweeping his fear aside Gareth managed with moderate success to adopt a casual and unworried demeanor.

“What can I do for you, officer?” he said with a smile.

The man returned a thin-lipped smile of his own, one that set Gareth’s stomach churning.  “Captain William Gareth,” he said stiffly.  “Or perhaps I should call you Mayweather Kearn.”

Fuck!  Gareth wasn’t sure whether his inward cringe was visible on camera or not, but he proceeded nonetheless with the requisite denial.  What other choice was there?

“Sorry, I don’t follow.”  He smiled through near-overwhelming panic.  “And I didn’t catch your name.”

“Vice-commander Daniel Sallat of ISS Whisper of Death.  There’s no sense denying it, Mister Kearn.  We know who you are.  We also know that you are currently harboring a known fugitive, one Jilan Zerouali.  In the interest of expedience I would like to propose that we set aside for the moment your own history with the Interim and resolve the present impasse with a simple exchange.”

Suddenly a weight deferred for centuries came crashing down upon Gareth.  The full meaning of Sallat’s words took a full minute to sink in.  Even when they had, Gareth could only manage one faint word in reply.

“Exchange?” he echoed.

“An exchange, Captain.  Zerouali for… Well, see for yourself.”

The view onscreen panned to Sallat’s right.  Gareth guessed what he was about to see well before the monitor proved him correct.  He croaked her name: “Ren.”

Serenity Martijn sat on a bench in the featureless room.  She was dressed in bright red coveralls, clutching bound wrists to her chest.  Lower, the curve of her abdomen revealed a pregnancy hardly more advanced than it had been when Gareth had last seen her centuries ago.  She gazed out dully from the vid, eyes cloudy with checked tears.

“Hi, Kearn,” she said.  Her gaze darted nervously off-screen, toward Sallat or another of her captors.  When she looked back there was more strength than sorrow in her eyes.  “Do what you have to, Kearn,” she blurted in rapid Galactic.  “I’ll understand.”

The view jerked abruptly back to Sallat.  “An exchange, Captain Kearn,” Sallat said soberly.  “Two for one.  We get Zerouali.  You get Ms. Martijn and your unborn daughter, both of whom I assure you are in excellent health.  An hour from now we could all be on our separate ways.”

Sallat paused to await a reply that was not forthcoming.  Gareth’s head swam.  Lately he’d managed to cope reasonably well with some disastrous developments, but this…this erased all else.

“I see you need some time to consider,” Sallat said after Gareth’s minute-long blank stare.  “Very well.  But please be advised that this is our one and only offer.  I’ll expect to hear from you shortly.  Good day, Captain.”

The screen blanked.  Gareth turned his back to the wall and slumped quietly to the floor.  There he remained with no intention of rising.

***

“What happened?” Fyat asked Zerouali upon his arrival in the hab module common room.

“He just dropped there and hasn’t said a word since.”

On the floor, Lady’s captain sat staring downward with his grey eyes wide and glazed.  He’d been ignoring Fyat’s persistent comms from the bridge.

“Gareth!” Fyat ordered.  “Get up!”

No response.  Kneeling, Fyat drew his weapon and placed its tip squarely between the captain’s eyes.  Still no response.

“Gareth,” he said evenly.  “Or Kearn, rather.  If you’re going to give up then I may as well kill you now.  You’re of no use to anyone like this.”

“He’ll come out of it,” Zerouali said calmly from her seat at the table.  “He’s just taken quite a shock, apparently.”

Fyat rose and holstered his weapon.  He spoke to Zerouali only as a proxy, on the chance that the unresponsive captain might hear.  “I’ve analyzed the transmission from Hunter,” he said.  “A second layer in the signal contained a coded message for me.  That means that Fleet knows of my presence here, or at least believes it has an asset aboard this ship capable of monitoring your communications.  How they came to believe this I don’t know, but their instructions are simple.  Upon failure of negotiations, I’m to liquidate the crew of this vessel and extract you and Kearn.”

Zerouali appeared unmoved.  “Good thing you’re on our side then,” she said.

Fyat cast Gareth one last irritated glance as he left the room.  “He has ten minutes.”

***

Two hours into his duty cycle, Simon Ascher was beginning to think he’d prefer a stroll out the nearest airlock to spending another moment on his feet.  He was currently in the midst of a bleary-eyed search of the cargo manifest, hunting down some parts requested by Engineering section.  Most of his energy, however, was devoted merely to keeping his head from hitting the console.

In his current diminished mental state he began to question whether his bizarre encounter of the previous night had actually occurred.  If it hadn’t, then the sole cause of his current misery was his own dementia, brought on perhaps by his malfunctioning neurilace.  There were recorded cases of just that sort of madness.  Maybe it was time to face reality and pay a visit to the medsuites before the damage became irreversible.

When he found that his display had frozen, Ascher realized his mind had been wandering.  He tried and failed several times to bring up the list he needed.  He tried to reset the display.  No luck.  Instead he found himself once more staring into the face of his own delusion.

>>HELLO SIMON.

“No, no, no,” he pleaded silently.  He really wanted to cry.  “No, don’t do this to me.”

>>I’M SORRY SIMONWOULD SPEAK IN PERSON IF COULDGREAT RISK EVEN THIS WAY.

“Go away–” he began, but then thought better of speaking aloud to his console in plain view of witnesses.  As he’d done last night, he keyed in his replies.

>>I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BUT LEAVE ME ALONE!!!

>>WISH I COULD SIMON, BUT I NEED YOUYOUR SHIP HAS BEEN SUBVERTEDCREW INFECTED.  I WANT TO HELP THEM BUT NEED YOU TO RESCUE MY FRIEND FIRST.

>>TREASON.  GO AWAY.

>>IT SERVES A HIGHER PURPOSESHE HAS DONE NOTHING SIMON.  I KNOW YOU FEEL COMPASSION FOR HERPLEASE.

>>I HAVE NOTHING MORE TO SAY TO YOU.

>>UNDERSTAND YOUR RELUCTANCE BUT AN INNOCENT WOMAN AND MANY MORE WILL PAY PRICE FOR YOUR INACTIONHEROES KNOW WHEN TO BREAK ORDERS, SIMON.

>>I AM NO HERODON’T WANT TO BE.

>>I’LL HELP YOU.

>>NO!!!!

>>VERY WELLTHEN I HAVE FAILEDGOODBYE SIMON.

The words faded, leaving the console to resume its proper function.  Ascher stared blankly at the screen for another ten minutes before he could bring himself to return halfheartedly to his task.  Even then he could think of little else but the strange conversation he’d just had with… Himself?  A phantom?

For the first time now, Ascher felt lucky that his duties didn’t require a great deal of concentration.  He really wasn’t much more than a glorified clerk, a button pusher, and that’s probably how he would die.

No–he would never be any kind of hero.

***

Gareth was vaguely aware of Fyat’s departure.  He’d heard the assassin’s talk about a hidden layer in the Interim’s comm signal, his orders to murder Lady’s crew.  It gave him some small measure of satisfaction to ignore the arrogant prick.

Once the assassin had gone, Zerouali crossed the room and settled on the floor beside him.  “So you’re Kearn, huh?” she said conversationally.  “The Kearn of Lucifer’s Halo.  A legend.  If I had known that maybe I would have let you kiss me.”  She paused, as if to emphasize that this last was a joke.  “Of course, everything I’ve ever read says you died in a hibe malfunction before I was born.  I always thought that was anticlimactic.  I’m glad it isn’t true.”

Though she paused again, it was clear enough she expected no reply.

“I don’t know who that woman is,” she resumed.  “One of your old crew from Halo, I suppose.  Mother of your child.  Obviously someone they think you care about.  Judging by your reaction, they might be right.”

Another casual pause, longer this time.  Then: “You have to accept.  Take their offer and move on.  Save yourself.  I told you already, I’m finished running.  Wherever I end up, it will give me comfort to know that you continue to defy them.

“If there’s time, though, maybe before I leave you can tell me more about Lucifer’s Halo and L155.  I’ve been there, you know.  I was a researcher on the Artifact for thirty years.”

Though he heard her every word, Gareth offered no acknowledgment.  He needed privacy now.  Time to think.  Still, he could give her some of what she wanted.  No sense hiding anything now that the biggest secret of all, his identity, was blown.

“Hold two, bay thirty-four, box nineteen,” he said tonelessly.  “Specimen container labeled Diomedea exulans.  It’s really a blood sample from a human girl.  Her DNA is the encryption key to some files in Lady’s datastores.  They’re the Halo logs.  If you need help, ask Ilias.”

At that Mayweather Kearn, until recently William Gareth, picked himself up from the floor and left the room without looking back.

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

Celebrating 450 years!

I.0286.05.25 10:21

Commonwealth:BREAKING NEWS

 

UNKNOWN VIRUS SPREADING RAPIDLY

Little is yet known about the neurilace virus dubbed Embassy (for its initial discovery at the Verond Consulate in Reissul) except that it seems to be spreading at an alarming pace.  More than seventeen million infections are confirmed, with new instances being discovered at a rate estimated as high as four per minute.  The virus propagates via a wide array of neurilace software, from simple diagnostic utilities to specialized industrial routines and even entertainment suites.

Programmers have yet to determine exactly what, if any, effect the virus has on infected individuals.  The current alarm is caused not by Embassy’s destructive potential, which is yet unclear, but rather solely by its unprecedented rate of expansion.  The virus has thus far stymied attempts to halt its progress.  More than six hundred variants have already been catalogued.

Users are advised to avoid loading any new neurilace software from any source, known or unknown, until such time as Embassy has been properly assessed and contained.

[END]

***

 

 

PART TWO: COUNTING STARS

 

[] CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

600 SHIP-YEARS EARLIER
228.3 YEARS BEFORE THE INTERIM (I.-228.3)

 

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Star of Beshaan interception +4h

Moriet will be reviving the girl we rescued from Beshaan soon.  It seems cruel to wake her up only to tell her she’s the sole survivor of her derelict colony ship, then slam her back into hibernation for another century.  Call it curiosity or maybe just a selfish need for gratitude, but on the off chance that we do end up dead before seeing civilization again, I’d like to meet the girl first.

Initial inspections indicate no extensive structural damage to Halo after the massive system failures experienced during the Beshaan boarding.  Dumping the antimatter core saved us, even if we are still doomed.  We’ll be triple-checking every system before we enter hibe for the long haul out to the dead star L155 and subsequent slingshot back into inhabited space.  I’ve drawn up a duty schedule that revives us in pairs on a five-year cycle to catch any problems before they happen. –MK

***

“I’m finished talking about this, Ren.”  Kearn unbuckled his chair harness in a move to extricate himself from the bridge and the conversation.  “There’s nothing more to discuss.”

Unfortunately, Serenity followed Kearn as he sailed toward the hatch.  “You’re being unreasonable,” she accused.

Kearn spun on her.  “I’m being plenty reasonable.  I told you I’d take you anywhere you want and sign over every asset I have there.  I wish you a great life!”

“That’s just getting rid of me.”

“Count yourself lucky I don’t just dump you on Reissa the minute we get there.  I’m not this kid’s father–I’m an involuntary donor.”

Quickly regretting the outburst, Kearn softened his tone.  “You’re a good person, Ren,” he said, “an asset to this crew.  But you’re obviously imbalanced.  You should have been honest with me about these…impulses.  I would have known right away you weren’t cut out for spacing.”

“So you’ll wash your hands of me?”  Ren wasn’t quite crying, but that seemed only the result of sheer willpower.

“What else can I do?  I’m not about to raise a child on my ship, and even less am I going to settle down somewhere to do it.  But truthfully it’s not even about the baby anymore.  I trusted you and you deceived me.”  Kearn frowned at a bulkhead.  “You should have told me, Ren.  I probably would have given you my genes.  But you can’t have my life.  Or my ship as a nursery.  I’m sorry.”

Ren accepted the rebuff tight-lipped.  She nodded sadly, humbly.  “If I…terminated it,” she asked, “could I stay aboard?”

Kearn was forced to avert his eyes lest he find his judgment clouded by pity.  The answer to her question required no thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to deliver it just now.

“It’s absurd to be discussing this,” he said instead.  “We’re on course for nowhere.  Whatever future any of us may have is a long, long way away.”

Looking back at Ren, Kearn was mildly surprised to find her eyes still dry.  Sullen, defeated, she stared at him.  Finally, without further word, she sailed back to her station and strapped in.  Kearn watched her back for a few moments before leaving the bridge.

What a mistake it had been to get involved with a crewmate, even recreationally.  This was no recreation at all.  Never again, he swore.  Maybe it would be best if Ren’s capsule didn’t pop again until Reissa.  Halo could get by without her.

In the corridor just outside the bridge, Kearn’s comm unit chirped.  Kearn tapped his ear to accept the call–then quickly remembered to fish the tiny earpiece out of his breast pocket.  Damn thing bothered him sometimes when he left it in.

It was the ship’s doctor, Moriet, reporting that the girl from Beshaan was conscious.  Glad for the chance to forget about Ren, Kearn made haste to the medsuite.

“So how is she?” he asked the doctor upon arriving.

“She’s in perfect physical health.  But mentally, I don’t know.  She hasn’t asked where she is.  She may have some memory loss.”

“Name?”

“Lisset Hawthorne.”  Moriet gave a little laugh.  “I also got her local date of birth on Troia and did a little math.  At the time of Beshaan’s launch her age in standard years was seventeen.”

“Wow.  A baby.”

Kearn glanced over his shoulder at the young woman to find her staring back from inside a cocoon of safety webbing, patiently awaiting her turn to receive his attention.

“Guess I’d better introduce myself,” he said to Moriet.  But he hesitated before approaching the girl, turning back to the doctor with a sudden thought.  “How did you communicate?  None of us are imprinted with Troian.”

The doctor smiled.  “That’s the other thing.  She speaks Galactic as well as any of us.”

“What use does a colonist have for spacer talk?”

Moriet offered no answer to this question, which should have been rhetorical.

Kearn proceeded to the girl’s bedside.  Her luminous blue eyes tracked him all the way.  She looked just as Kearn remembered her from the icy capsule, albeit minus the deathlike pallor.  Long auburn hair was pulled back to prevent drift.

The girl responded to Kearn’s approach with a mysterious twitch of the lips, not quite a smile but close enough to pass for one.  Moriet was right–she didn’t seem terribly upset.

“Lisset, is it?” Kearn said warmly.  “How do you feel?”

“A little nauseous,” she said.  Sure enough, her Galactic was flawless.  “I miss gravity.”

“I’m afraid it may be a while before you get gravity again.  Moriet here probably already gave you something to help with the nausea.  I’m Kearn, captain of this ship.”

Lisset looked pensive for a moment.  Her serene expression melted into one of mild puzzlement.  “You’re not the captain we started with,” she observed.

So, Kearn realized with a knot in his stomach, the poor thing still believed she was aboard Beshaan.

“Honey,” he started.  “I don’t know how to tell you this gently, so I’ll just say it.”  He reached in vain for delicate words with which to deliver the sledgehammer blow.  “This isn’t your colony ship.  There was an accident.  We rescued you.  You were the only one.  I’m sorry.”

Lisset’s mouth twisted in a distracted frown which was somehow not the powerful reaction Kearn might have expected.  She sighed and nodded in a sort of sad acceptance.

Was that it?  Was this her response to such cataclysmic news?  Kearn almost felt like asking her as much, but knew that would amount to a deliberate attempt to upset her.  Besides, who was he to judge?  Maybe she had been a less-than-willing passenger on Beshaan.  An outcast, perhaps?  She didn’t quite seem the type to be running from her past.  At seventeen she could hardly have much of a past.

No–instinct told Kearn that her family had been on that ship.  Her passive acceptance made no sense.  But even if he had the right to judge, now was not the time.

“You’re in good hands now,” he said.  “Is there anything I can get you?”

Lisset shifted within the restrictive netting.  “I’d like to get out of here.  I feel fine.”

 “I think Moriet would prefer to keep you for a while,” Kearn said with a sympathetic smile.  “You’ve been through a lot.”

“Actually, her vitals have been perfectly stable since revival,” Moriet contradicted him.  “She’s as fit to move as any of us are after hibe.”

Kearn hesitated, feeling trapped.  As much as the girl intrigued him, he wasn’t keen on playing host just now.

“I suppose we’ll have to let you out then,” he conceded.  He disengaged the webbing to let her float free.

Lisset launched herself too hard from the bed and began a wild headfirst dive into the medical suite.  Kearn’s arm shot out and grasped one bare ankle to pull her back, causing her body to swing round and collide with his.  She wound up sprawled awkwardly in his arms.  The girl talked like a spacer, Kearn concluded, but she didn’t move like one.

She looked up from his chest and giggled.

“Careful,” Kearn whispered, his face centimeters from hers.  Her bright blue eyes drew him in swiftly and easily, stirring something unwanted within him.  He forcibly reminded himself that she was just a baby.  If that weren’t reason enough to tread with caution, something in those eyes told Kearn she could be as much trouble awake as she had already been in sleep.

Quietly disengaging himself, Kearn took the girl by one hand and guided her toward the exit.  As he left he gave Moriet a facial shrug, which the doctor met with a soundless laugh.

In the corridors beyond, Lisset ricocheted off bulkheads in a string of narrowly averted concussions.  At first Kearn cautioned her and offered assistance, but he quickly gave that up.  He gave up too on trying to guide her, and instead just let her enjoy herself.  After a half hour of aimless wandering they came at last to the hatch that led to Halo’s bridge.

“Take it easy in here,” Kearn warned.  “You could do serious damage.”

“Aye, Captain,” she answered with a smile.

Though Kearn offered no reply, he remained astonished by what appeared to be the girl’s complete removal from reality.  She may as well have been on a pleasure cruise.

As the pair came into the bridge, Serenity watched them with mild interest from her post.  Or rather she watched one of them; her eyes didn’t linger on Kearn for more than a moment.

“Ren, this is Lisset,” Kearn said.  “Lisset, Serenity Martijn, navigator and my right hand on Lucifer’s Halo.”

The girl gave a childish wave.  Ren smiled insincerely and turned her attention back to the console.  Kearn cleared his throat to break the icy silence that followed.

“Ren,” he said, “I thought you might take Lisset here to the hold and find her some decent clothes.”  Currently Lisset was dressed in the tight black leggings and sleeveless top she had worn in hibe.  “I also thought maybe you could keep an eye on her for a while.”

Now Ren looked up to glare at Kearn briefly.  Then her eyes tracked Lisset, who was roving the walls of the bridge, investigating various instrument panels.

“Don’t touch anything, honey,” Kearn chided.  The girl gave no indication of having heard him.

“Fine,” Ren said spiritlessly.  “I’ll babysit her for you.”  She might have muttered something else under her breath that Kearn didn’t quite catch.

He let it go.  “Thanks, I appreciate it.”

Serenity unbuckled and sailed toward the hatch.

“You’ll be going with Ren,” Kearn explained to Lisset, though not before having to call her name several times to get her attention.  “She’ll take good care of you.”

Obediently, the girl followed Ren to the exit.  She seemed to be adapting quickly to zero-gee.

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Lisset asked.

“I have a lot to do, but I’ll catch up with you later.”

With a parting smile the girl pulled herself through the hatch behind Ren.  She let out a little yelp of pain as her ankle inadvertently struck the hatch rim.

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +22h

I’m baffled by Lisset’s behavior.  She’s shown no interest whatsoever in the fate of Beshaan and shrugs off any attempt to discuss it.  If her family or friends were aboard, she certainly doesn’t miss them.  She’s enjoying herself on Halo and even seems to have taken a liking to Ren.  Maybe vice versa, as well.

I’ve asked Moriet to give the girl a psych evaluation.  Hibe delirium is rare and she doesn’t show any of the typical signs, but it’s all I can think of to explain her behavior.  Or maybe I should just stop judging and be glad she’s not suicidal like she probably has every right to be.

In any case, Lisset is the least of our concerns.  Eighteen hours from now we’ll enter hibe for the 68 year voyage to L155-0918. –MK

***

“Well, everyone,” Kearn said before his assembled crew of nine, plus one unlikely guest.  “As spacers we rarely know where we’re headed next.  But what we face now is unique.  I don’t think any of us have been in hibe quite as long as we will be this time.  With one notable exception, of course.”  He indicated Lisset, positioned to one side of him.  “But I know we’re well equipped to take this in stride.  What’s a century or two in the grand scheme of things, especially to us?

“On the bright side, we get to be the first humans to orbit a virgin star.  Castro tells me life-support should be near one-hundred percent reliable for the whole journey.  And if not…I’ll make sure his capsule is the first to fail.”

A chuckle rippled through the crew–notably bypassing Ren.  Kearn raised a squeezeflask of six century old red wine.

“Here’s to a boring journey,” he toasted.  “And to Lisset, whose life is well worth this little unexpected detour.  Now eat, drink, and then drink some more for tomorrow we sleep for a very, very long time.”

Kearn downed the contents of his flask, refilled it, and spent the next few hours doing his best to forget reality.  The informal gathering passed smoothly, if too quickly.  Despite their uncertain future, the crew seemed in good spirits.  Ren kept to herself, talking only to Lisset before leaving the assembly on her own.

When the room had nearly emptied, the girl caught Kearn’s arm and drew him aside.  “Why do you treat Ren so badly?” she asked.  Her delivery was gentle, even if the words were blunt.

“I don’t think that’s your business,” Kearn answered.

“She’s my friend.  I’m concerned for her, that’s all.”

“I’m glad to hear that, really I am.  But whatever Ren and I have between us is private.  I hope you understand.”

“She has your baby,” Lisset said, quite casually.  “I know the choice wasn’t yours, but didn’t you just finish saying that this crew was ready for the unexpected?”

Kearn could only gape.  Who was this girl?  Didn’t she have bigger things to worry about?  Although Lisset’s unenviable situation might excuse much of her erratic behavior, it failed now to keep Kearn from growing defensive and annoyed.

“I’ve told her all I have to say on the subject,” he said, intending to have the final word.  “I’m genuinely happy you’ve become friends, but I have to ask you to stay out of this.”

Lisset fell quiet and regarded him a little sadly with her bright blue eyes.  “She loves you,” she said quietly, plainly.

The statement stunned Kearn into silence.  The girl went on.

“No one expects you to change your life against your will,” she said.  “Maybe you have a right to be upset with her.  But please don’t dismiss her.  Even if there is no solution that suits both of you, you can still be kind to her.”  She smiled warmly and touched his hand.  “That’s all I have to say, Captain.  Thanks for listening.”

Not knowing how else to respond, Kearn just nodded.  Lisset turned to leave.  On an afterthought Kearn caught her by the arm before she shoved off.

“She didn’t send you to say this, did she?”

“No,” Lisset answered.  “She told me she would find someplace to settle down, get on with her life and forget about you.  But I think you and I both know she would never quite give up.  After five years, or ten, or twenty, she’d try to stop checking the spaceport registries.  But she wouldn’t.  And every time she looked at the stars she’d wonder how long before you came back to admit your mistake.”  Lisset’s arresting eyes shone with sorrow.  “However it ends, Captain, don’t let it be that way.”

Once more Kearn was at a loss.  He muttered, “Thanks for your concern, I guess.”

Lisset smiled.  “Thank you for your hospitality.”  She pulled herself closer, lightly kissing his cheek before bolting off.  Her skull barely avoided the hatch rim as she left.

Suddenly Kearn found his good mood shattered by unwelcome thoughts which were as much about Lisset as Ren.  A girl awoke from centuries aboard a doomed colony vessel and within a day was offering relationship advice to total strangers.  Coupled with her implausible fluency in the spacer tongue and a total lack of regard for her past, it made Lisset Hawthorne a first-class enigma.  What that growing pile of evidence might amount to, however, Kearn couldn’t begin to guess.

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +41h

After our encounter with Beshaan I can’t help but wonder at our own fate.  Will Halo end up an icy derelict to be discovered millennia from now or never at all?  Perhaps, long after we’re dead, this ship will vanish silently into the heart of a sun many thousands of light years from human space.

Maybe, but I tend to doubt it.  I like our chances, and if this log is ever accessed then I suppose Halo at least made it back to civilization.  Either that or some distant alien race is mining our datastores for insight into the minds of a perhaps extinct species.

Some ambassador I’d make.

Enough rambling.  Time to close the lid on this ark. –MK

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +138,406h

All passengers and crew are alive and well after our third scheduled revival.  Life support is running flawlessly on backup.  In about four years this will become the longest uninterrupted voyage of my career, and we’re only an eighth of the way through.

Think I’ll save the celebration for our first orbit of L155. –MK

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +592,321h

L155 is an ugly star, but a welcome sight.  During the last few years of approach, Halo has been gathering data.  The star has six major orbital bodies, each less hospitable than the last.  In that sense it’s no different than billions of other barren systems.  There are, however, some faint anomalous signals originating from a point between the third and fourth orbital bodies, signals that match no known natural phenomenon in datastores.  In a few ship-days our course will give us a closer look.

We’ve lost three passengers to hibe failure.  Statistically that number is what one would expect on a voyage this long, not that statistics will be any consolation to their next of kin. –MK

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +592,387h

The source of the anomalous signals is an artificial satellite of unknown origin.  No one wants to say it, but we’re all thinking it: this might be the first evidence in history that humans are not alone.  After what Halo has already been through I hate to put us at more risk, but as I see it there’s just no choice.  We will change our flight plan to remain in-system as long as it takes to investigate.

I understand this decision disregards the safety of our passengers, but I can’t justify passing up an opportunity of this magnitude.  If the odds of our encounter with Beshaan were astronomical, then I don’t think there’s a word to describe the unlikelihood of what’s happened now. –MK

***

“That’ll do it,” Ren said dispiritedly, withdrawing her hands from the console.  “We sacrifice sixty percent of our speed for two hundred hours within flyer range of the object.  It’s the best trade we’ll get.”  She unbuckled her seat restraints and left her station.  “I’m not feeling well.  I’ll be in my berth if you need me.”

Kearn gave a bare nod as she exited.  He had yet to follow Lisset’s advice and make amends with Ren, and so their relationship remained cold and awkward.  Now it seemed too late, and at any rate the artifact provided yet another convenient distraction.

‘Artifact’ was how he thought of the object, even though no one was ready to say it aloud.  But if that’s what this really was–some alien construct, proof of intelligent non-human life–then Halo’s voyage, and even his own name, would become the stuff of legend.  Who cares that the discovery had occurred only by strange accident?

The course Ren had plotted took Halo through more than one full orbit of L155 before their scheduled rendezvous with the object in eight ship-months.  There wasn’t much to do then but return to hibe.

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

Beshaan interception +598,154h

We’ve begun our initial approach.  While we were in hibe Halo was busy launching probes.  The analyses remain inconclusive, but the visuals have stunned us all.  The object is clearly artificial.  Constructed, yet not by human hands.  By what, then?  That question is almost secondary to the mere fact of its existence.

Optimal time for a manned excursion will occur in twenty-eight hours.  It’s probably reckless and unnecessary to send down human explorers at all, but nothing in this universe could keep me away.  –MK

***

Kearn spent the last two pre-launch hours checking and rechecking equipment and supplies aboard the shuttle.  With tolerances already so low after Halo’s first brush with disaster, there was scant room for human error on this expedition.  Loaded with recording and analysis instrumentation, the small cargo hauler they would take could accommodate a crew of four.  Kearn himself would be the first, of course.  Second and third would be the chief engineer Castro and his apprentice Isaak, the two most capable of grasping unknown technology and reverse-engineering it if need be to determine the most promising samples for collection.

The fourth would be Serenity.  Maybe the decision to take her along was more personal than professional, given that she’d already cracked once under pressure during the Beshaan boarding.  But even if leaving her behind was the right decision, he couldn’t do that now without it looking and feeling personal.  She was Halo’s most capable pilot, Kearn told himself, and let that be the end of it.

The one assumption inherent to their preparations was that the Artifact was abandoned.  That hypothesis seemed a safe enough one.  Any advanced intelligent presence would have had ample warning of their presence in-system, yet no attempt to communicate with or intercept them had yet been detected.  Halo had even broadcast, to no reply, some simple greetings in many languages over the past several months.  And according to sensor logs, the artifact’s behavior hadn’t changed in years, a fact which further lent itself to the conclusion that no one was home.

Of course, if they really were dealing with alien beings, no assumptions were safe.  One could not apply human logic and thought patterns to whatever might have created this thing.  Maybe its owners just didn’t find Halo worthy of interest.

Or maybe they weren’t very friendly.  On that possibility, the expedition would carry no weapons of any sort.  Arming the party could only increase the risk of giving offense.  And if the hypothetical alien presence did turn out to be hostile, resistance was not likely to prove a realistic option, even with the best weaponry humanity had to offer–a description which decidedly failed to apply to Halo’s available arsenal.

But all this was wild speculation, the stuff of groundsider fantasies.  It had no place here.

After Kearn, Ren was the first of the expedition crew to arrive in the shuttle hangar.  She was already dressed for void, minus her suit’s helmet.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Kearn said when she drew near.

She eyed him skeptically.  He’d given some thought to what he might say, but the preparation failed to make the words come any easier.

“I’m not sure what we’re heading into,” he started.  “Maybe it’s dangerous.  So just in case anything happens…”  He trailed off.  “I don’t want us to be like this.  Not that I have any easy solutions.  Lisset told me how you felt, and–”

“She came to you?” Ren cut in.  “That’s news to me.”

Kearn dismissed her surprise.  “It’s okay.  She’s right, I was too harsh, and I’m sorry.  I don’t really know how to solve this, but I hope that when we come back we can talk.  Like adults.”

Serenity looked dubious, almost defensive, as she considered his offer.  Finally she nodded dignified approval.  “I appreciate it,” she said coolly, and breezed past him into the shuttle.

Kearn watched her go, pleasantly surprised at how easily the encounter had gone.  Lisset’s talk and his own experience of Ren’s character had led him to expect a less subtle reaction.  Perhaps, for better or worse, Ren had changed.  Probably for the better.  In any case, what counted now was that they be able to look one another in the eye while spending the next two hundred hours in close quarters.

Castro and Isaak arrived shortly thereafter and ran some final pre-launch checks on the boxy cargo hauler.  Then the crew of four boarded, and the mission was prepped for launch.

“All systems optimal, engines primed, course set,” Kearn confirmed from his station.  “We’re go.”

“You’re all clear,” came the reply from Lady’s bridge crew.  “Good luck, and keep in touch.”

The hangar door slid back on a tranquil starscape.  Looking out into the unknown on the shuttle’s viewscreens, Kearn felt his first glimmer of real worry.  If the worst happened and this flyer failed to return, Halo would continue on its programmed course back into human space.  In that event, if they weren’t killed outright on the Artifact, the four in this cockpit would live out the remainder of their extremely brief lives here in the cold light of an alien star.

An ugly fate, but hardly enough to scare him off.  What fear Kearn could not dismiss, he swallowed as the tiny cargo hauler cast out from Halo’s black belly.

***

It was a long, silent ride before the hauler began its descent toward the artifact, a dull grey planetoid some thousand kilometers in diameter.  Its surface had proven completely opaque to Halo’s probes, which meant nothing could be learned of its interior, assuming it had one.

Ren decelerated and took them on their first close pass.  The view of the satellite’s surface thus achieved would not have been terribly inspiring but for the simple fact of its construction by alien hands.  If hands they had.  What little visible light reflected off the sphere’s dull surface revealed an array of geometric structures, mostly squat cylinders and shapes like decapitated pyramids.  Around and between those structures flowed a network of green lines, reminding more of veins or rivers than artificial seams.  The overall effect, in Kearn’s mind, was rather haphazard and ugly.

“The Pit should be on our horizon in ninety seconds,” Kearn advised, consulting a map compiled from Halo’s probe data.

The Pit, as they called it, was a gaping circular hole, or rather more of an effect, at one fixed location on the planetoid’s surface.  The feature baffled scans by trapping or absorbing any and all electromagnetic signals directed at it.  Probes that were sent into it registered no physical impact, but rather just ceased transmission on crossing the threshold.  This was the planetoid’s only truly distinctive feature, so naturally they were drawn to it.  It remained only to hope that the thing was more front door than hungry maw.

“One minute,” Kearn counted down.  “Ren, you ready to take us in?”

“Ready as I will be.  Hold on.”

The Pit came into view as a dark ellipse on the curved horizon.  It grew steadily wider as the flyer maintained a tangential course, gaining altitude over the sphere’s surface.  Inertial forces tugged the on crew in their seat restraints as Ren altered course by eighty-five degrees over twenty seconds.

Completion of the maneuver left the hauler aligned directly on the black, featureless Pit.

“Heading in,” Kearn transmitted back to Halo.  “We may be out of touch for a while.”

What he meant, of course, was that they had no idea what might happen next.

The Pit drew nearer, filling the hauler’s forward view with a widening ring of impenetrable black void at the floor of a shallow crater.  With sheer grey walls rising to greet and engulf them, Kearn’s survival instinct begged him to call off the dive.

“If this ends abruptly,” he said with eyes riveted on the Pit, “it’s been great knowing you all.”

Passing the crater’s lip, the craft was swallowed by darkness.  After a few anxious heartbeats in which he failed to meet a catastrophic end, Kearn recovered his wits enough to study his instrument displays.

“I’m receiving signals from the lost probes,” he reported.  That confirmed the assessment, or rather the guess, that the Pit served as something of a one-way door.  “We’re inside.  I just hope it lets us out when–”

Suddenly a pale greenish light flooded the cabin, leaving the thought unfinished.  Ahead lay a succession of glowing rings roughly equal in circumference to the Pit entrance behind them.  A tunnel.  The darkness through which they’d passed was merely a veil, pierced without noticeable effect.

Ren adjusted course to avoid skimming the tunnel wall and set the hauler on the long, straight course described by the glowing green rings.  Kearn launched a beacon back up the shaft to let Halo know they’d survived, on the chance it might be allowed to exit.  That done, he turned to the incoming data from the lost probes.

“This shaft ends thirty kilometers ahead in an open chamber,” he said.

The hauler progressed through ring after ring.  None of the four souls in its cabin spoke words of wonder or awe.  Words seemed unnecessary, even futile.

They passed through the final ring to emerge into a cavernous chamber filled with the same greenish light as the shaft.  Walls arced away in all directions.  The shape of the chamber suggested that the planetoid was not completely hollow, but rather at least one sphere nested within another.  Their flyer currently occupied a space between two layers.  Spindly bridges or struts connected the outer ‘crust’ to a smaller, spherical ‘core’ at regular intervals like useless, threadlike spokes on a monolithic wheel.

As Serenity decelerated, Kearn scanned the immense chamber for any sort of activity.  He found none.  What did manage to draw his attention, though, was an assortment of irregular shapes that dotted the face of the outer shell for as far as was visible in every direction.

Hesitant to speak any more than needed in this place where human voices did not belong, he motioned to Ren to steer closer to one wall.  The hauler veered toward the concave outer shell.  With that closer view, it became clearer that the irregular shapes were not part of the artifact but rather something attached to it.  Strange oblong objects tethered to slender towers.

“Ships…” Kearn concluded breathlessly.

His mind hovered somewhere between excitement and fright–excitement at the enormity of this discovery and fright at the prospect of meeting its owners.

Well, the aliens would be spacers, right?  They already had something in common.

But as the flyer continued along its course Kearn sensed more and more that the Artifact was deserted, and had been for quite some time.  It came as a relief.  However great the honor of being among the first humans to encounter an alien life form–assuming said life form had no desire to kill, imprison, experiment upon or otherwise torment its hapless visitors–it seemed quite a bit safer and more profitable to explore an empty relic.  Someone else could have the honor and the risk of first contact, if ever that came.

For now Kearn was satisfied to study the wide curving field of what he assumed to be alien starships.  Admittedly, that assumption owed more to instinct and context than to any similarity the craft bore to human equivalents.  Though they varied greatly in size, all the alien vessels followed the same essential blueprint of a tapering cone with a hemispherical base.  The design conveyed a certain organic quality, an impression that each had been molded as a single whole rather than assembled from parts.  A sleek, metallic root vegetable was the unlikely comparison they conjured in Kearn’s mind.

Or perhaps the comparison was not unlikely.  He reminded himself again of the dangers of assumption.  Maybe humans actually did share the universe with starfaring root vegetables.

Serenity noted in apparent confusion, “I don’t have to correct course to hug the wall.  The central sphere exerts gravitational force.  Far too much for its apparent mass.  We’re orbiting it.”

Her voice snapped Kearn out of a mesmerized stare.  “We’ll fly a few full circuits of the place,” he announced.  “If no one stops us to say hello, then we’ll…dock.”

Two full orbits of the Artifact’s core passed quickly, with no apparent sign of life.  The initial sense of awe began to wear off, replaced by intense curiosity.

“As bad as it sounds, this is now a scavenger mission,” Kearn instructed his crew.  “Castro, Isaak, get inside one of those ships and get me an engine.  If it’s feasible I’d even like to bring one of the smaller vessels back to Halo intact.  Ren and I will try to access the interior of this station.”

With the plan thus set, they approached a relatively dense cluster of alien craft and secured the cargo hauler with grapples to an empty docking spire.  All four boarders checked equipment, suit seals and maneuvering harnesses before passing through the hauler’s airlock into the vast unknown beyond.

First priority was to gain the engineers access to an alien craft, a seemingly simple task that proved nothing of the sort.  All of them together spent their first twenty minutes in the alien environment scouring the hull of one vessel from bow to stern without finding a single hatch.  Isaak located some all-but-invisible seams, but even these failed to yield to any pressure they could exert.  There were no obvious locks or keypads, nor sensors for scanning of thumb or retina or whatever analogous parts its alien crew might possess.

“My guess is an EM key,” Castro lamented.  “But who knows.”

“Can we cut the hull?” Kearn asked.

“We may have no alternative, but somehow I think no means no on these carrots.”  The engineer cast a glance down the sheer, curved surface of the Artifact’s shell, dotted at more or less regular intervals with docked vessels.  “Should be no more than a few minutes of EVA between each berth.  We might find one unlocked.”

“Try it,” Kearn agreed.  “If you have no luck by number ten, just start cutting.  Record your every move and check in by comm at five minute intervals.”

The two engineers set off along the circumference while Kearn and Ren began an easy ascent to the base of the docking spire.  Half-expecting more locked doors, Kearn was pleasantly surprised–after an initial fright–when a circular marking on the surface ahead of them emitted a green glow as they approached.  A solid two-meter wide chunk of wall described by the circle first grew translucent, then faded altogether from view.

Beyond them lay a green-lit chamber.  Ren wordlessly overtook Kearn with a burst of forward momentum and sailed feet first through the hatch.

“After you,” Kearn said belatedly, following her in.

Past the portal was the intersection of two wide tubular hallways that ran perpendicular to one another.  Assuming each docking spire on the shell’s inner circumference marked a similar crossroads, the entire outer sphere was a lattice of tunnels.  Like everything else in this place, the corridors were lit by a faint green glow.

“Pretty adamant about their color scheme,” Kearn joked.

Ren replied humorlessly, “I’m sure they knew what they were doing.”

Letting that matter drop, Kearn consulted his suit display.  “There’s atmosphere in here,” he reported.  “But none we can use.  It would leave a bad taste in your mouth for all of the ten seconds you lived.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Where do we go from here?”

If such a gesture weren’t meaningless in a v-suit, Kearn might have shrugged.  “Forward,” he said.

Planting a locator beacon at the now-vanished hatchway, he selected one of the two passages arbitrarily and started down it.  The tunnel’s walls were inscribed with more circles like the one through which they’d entered.  If these were in fact more doors, they failed to open obligingly upon approach.  Private, perhaps?

Ten minutes later, satisfied that nothing lay ahead but more of the same, Kearn called a halt to take a closer look at one of the circular markings.

“Any ideas?” he asked Ren as she drew even with him.

No sooner did he speak the words than the area of wall within the circle began to glow, then, like the first, vanish.

Suppressing his natural reaction, which if not fear was its close cousin, Kearn peered into the newly revealed chamber.

The room was less featureless than what they’d seen so far.  Its walls were irregularly shaped and lined with bright lights and symbols in various shades of green.  No movement was visible inside, at least not from their vantage point in the corridor.

“You don’t think that was an invitation, do you?” Kearn remarked.

Ren studied the room cautiously.  “I think it opened when it realized we weren’t just passing by.”

With a deep breath Kearn crept forward through the portal.  Ren followed.  They were relieved to find that the room was indeed vacant, at least according to their human senses.  The rows of lights arrayed on the curved walls in clearly meaningful designs gave the unmistakable impression of technology.  Arrangements of metal bars set into depressions on the floor might have been some alien equivalent of chairs.

“I’m not sure I want to see the thing that finds that comfortable,” Kearn muttered, only half-kidding.

They had just finished an initial survey of the room when Isaak’s voice burst over the comm with barely contained excitement.

“We’re in, Captain!”

“Great.  It’s looking more and more like we won’t have any owners to answer to, so just get to it.  Keep us posted on your progress.  We’ll keep poking around and recording down here.”

***

Eight hours and several dozen chambers later, Kearn and Serenity each lugged behind them a large mesh bag stuffed to capacity with the most portable bits of alien technology they could find.  Some items they had collected as they were; others they had ‘creatively liberated’ from larger pieces.  Now, unable to carry more without a return to the hauler, they passed time trying in vain to decipher a room-sized alien machine.

More accurately they were pushing buttons and watching for anything interesting to happen.  The glowing shapes and symbols they pressed did seem to react to their touch.  A few times their actions caused displays (?) to light up with yet more indecipherable symbols.  More often their efforts yielded a strange–to human ears–howling tone they took to mean ‘ERROR!’

One might argue that it was criminally irresponsible to play with incomprehensible alien hardware.  Yet, to the extent that human parallels were applicable, it seemed to Kearn that barring the most miserable of bad luck one could key random patterns on a starship bridge for months without ever doing much harm.  Systems designed by any reasonably intelligent being should all but preclude accidental activation of anything really dangerous.

It proved an amusing diversion for some time, but since they really couldn’t claim to be learning anything useful Kearn made the decision at length to return to the hauler with their bounty.  Locking his suit display to the locator beacons that now littered the place, he commed Castro.

“We’re heading up now,” Kearn said.  “Any progress?”

The two engineers had been checking in regularly but had declined to engage in any ‘distracting’ conversation apart from brief assurances that they were getting somewhere.  This time, after a short delay, Castro offered a real report.

“We’ve isolated and disassembled two types of what must be alien drive units,” he said.  “One of them is fairly comprehensible, though I can’t figure what it uses for fuel.  The other is like nothing I recognize but is certainly significant.  I’ll show you when you get here.”

Castro’s ‘significant’ find, Kearn discovered upon meeting him back at the hauler, was a black metallic sphere roughly the size of a human head and marbled with glowing green lines.

“What is it?” Kearn asked.

“I’m not quite sure.  Readings are all over the place.  Two facts make me take notice.  One, it exerts weak but measurable gravitation, the equivalent of something trillions of times its mass.  And two, it produces enough energy to run all of Halo’s electronics and then some.”

“Engines?”

“If we had more of them, which should be no trouble.”

“So it’s some kind of power plant?”

“Well, let’s say it can function as one.  But I don’t think that’s its purpose, given the low output.  All I can say with certainty is that it forms the core of some system I can’t very well comprehend.  Yet.”

Kearn ran a suit gauntlet over the black sphere.  He probably imagined the slight tingling in his palm.  “Is it dangerous?”

“No emissions harmful to human tissue, if that’s what you mean.”

“I want as many of them as we can pull,” Kearn said.  “Plus at least one complete example of the system it was part of.  Ren and I will take the hauler back to the surface, let Halo know we’re alive and ask them to send the other flyer to help with transport.  Provided we can escape, of course.  I hope you’re all prepared to eat stims for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next eight days, because there’ll be no sleep.”

If there was any alien presence to be found in this place, Kearn now wanted to meet it less than ever.  No doubt if their actions here were to be used as evidence in weighing the worth of humanity, the captain and crew of Lucifer’s Halo had just succeeded in giving their species a bad name.

***

 

[] CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

L155-0918 departure +3h

We’re safely underway toward civilization, ETA 121 ship-years.  We return with our holds stuffed with technology that is not only conclusive proof of non-human intelligence, but which is also undoubtedly of immense practical value.  It blows my small mind to think that I’ve just looted a site that in all likelihood predates the human race by millennia.  What excuse can I offer but to say that anyone else in my position would probably have done the same?

Castro, Ilias and I will remain out of hibe initially while we attempt to work out some means of using the alien components to speed our arrival at Reissa.  Castro is optimistic, but I’m insisting he proceed with caution.  Halo doesn’t need any more unforeseen catastrophes.

Speaking of the unforeseen, we returned to Halo from the Artifact to find Lisset revived from hibe.  Moriet informed me that her capsule had popped on a timer he assumed I had set myself.  I had done no such thing.  Under normal circumstances something like this might bother me, but given everything else we’ve been through, I’ll ignore it.

Besides, she’s not bad company.  Interesting, at any rate.  –MK

***

“What are you going to name it?” Lisset asked, breaking a long silence.

Kearn looked up from studying–or rather playing with–some trinkets collected from the Artifact.  The real treasures, the drive components, he’d left to the professionals.

Lisset had been hanging around Kearn for the past hour or so, conducting her own casual examination of the alien booty.  Her question tore Kearn’s attention away from something unfathomable.

“Pardon?” he said.

“The system, the Artifact.  I think you have the right to name them now.  Kearn’s Star, Kearn’s Folly, Mayweather’s Luck.  Whatever you like.”

Kearn scoffed and shrugged her off.  “Hadn’t really thought about it.”  Actually he had, just not very seriously.  “Anyway,” he added, “we wouldn’t be here if not for you.  You name it.”

“You’re the one who should be remembered.  I’m a footnote at best.  Besides, I don’t think my name has much cosmic potential.”

Resuming his work, Kearn continued the conversation absently.  “Well, how about pets, nicknames, favorite colors…family members?”

This last suggestion of Kearn’s was a spontaneous and none-too-subtle attempt to coax out of Lisset a long-overdue reaction to the Beshaan tragedy.  It might have been cruel had he believed there was any real chance of success.

“Well…” she said after a prolonged pause, “someone very close to me once called me angel.”

This first reference to a past of any kind took Kearn by surprise.  “Father, mother, brother?” he probed.

“Something like that.”  Lisset spoke the words with finality, effectively closing the topic.

The interest Kearn had felt in the subject quickly waned.  Not inclined to exchange one insoluble puzzle for another, he resumed stabbing inappropriately at the object in his hands.  “I’ll think about it,” he said disinterestedly, and let the conversation lapse into comfortable silence.

Some thirty minutes later Serenity drifted in, making the silence less comfortable.  Which of the room’s two occupants Ren had entered in search of, if either, was unclear.

Lisset made the decision for them.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, disingenuously, just prior to a hasty exit.

Kearn looked up to face Ren.  It was just as well he speak with her now.  He hadn’t exactly been looking forward to this encounter, but now there was no sense in putting it off.

Anyway, it was good news he had to deliver, wasn’t it?

“Ren,” he said humbly.  “I’ve thought a lot about our…situation.”

“Me, too.”

“Let me go first.  When we get back to civilization, I’m going to use some of our profits to trade Halo for a better ship.  A bigger one, with a hab module.”

He paused for a moment, considering his next words.  The phrasing of the offer he was to make had to be clear and unambiguous.  “I’m not promising we’ll be a family,” he said, “or that I’ll be any kind of father to this child.  But there will be quarters set aside for you both on my next vessel.  You’re welcome to stay there as long as you like.”

Ren’s icy expression gave way to ill-disguised confusion.  Kearn could tell he’d caught her by surprise.  Realizing suddenly that his careful clarity might have come across as callousness, he moved to amend the offer.

“What I mean to say,” he added, fully aware that he might in reality be lying, “is that I’d like to have you aboard.  I hope you’ll consider staying.”

Ren took several moments to overcome a stunned silence.

“This is sudden,” she said at length.  “I’ll…think about it.”  She looked away.  When she faced Kearn again, she was the closest he’d seen to the old Ren since their brief association had gone sour.  “Thanks,” she said, with a sad half-smile.

Kearn just waited awkwardly, unsure what else to say.  Truth was inappropriate, while more lies could only serve to compound future hurt.

“I’ll be entering hibe soon,” Serenity said eventually, to Kearn’s relief.  “I’m just counting stars at this point.  Anyway, I think I’d rather sort everything out when we’re back to reality.  I feel like I’ll wake up and this whole trip will turn out to be a hibe-dream.”

“I know the feeling,” Kearn said with a smile.  “I also know about not feeling useful.  This alien junk is a mystery to me, and Castro won’t have me anywhere near his engines.  I’m really only staying awake on principle.”

After a final dose of awkward silence and a stilted exchange of farewells, they parted.

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

L155-0918 departure +2,144h

Boredboredboredboredboredbored.

Castro tells me he’s made considerable progress, but none of it makes much sense to me.  Fuck it, I’m going under for a few months. –MK

***

LUCIFER’S HALO

L155-0918 departure +4,391h

Castro and Isaak have managed to power our engines with a dozen or so of the spheres.  With the added acceleration our ETA at Reissa is 34 ship-years. –MK

***

LOG: LUCIFER’S HALO

L155-0918 departure +82,870h

We’ve had the first hibe failure of our return voyage.

Lisset expired four ship-months ago.

I don’t know what else to say. –MK

***

LUCIFER’S HALO

Hawthorne’s Star departure +82,884h

L155-0918 has a name. –MK

[NO FURTHER ENTRIES.]

***

[] CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Martin Ascher felt like the walking dead.  His mind seemed barely to function from lack of sleep, and when it did it was only to reflect upon his own dementia.  If he continued to hear messages from this phantom voice urging him to commit treason, he decided, he would have no choice but to submit himself for medical review.

Currently he was on his way to the Hunter in the Dark’s medsuites on a task unrelated to his own mental health.  He wasn’t keen on going back there, but an item on his duty schedule demanded it.  Exiting the lift, he turned down the corridor and walked with bowed head toward his destination, guiding the loaded supply palette in front of him.

As he neared the medsuites, he sensed motion from behind and turned instinctively.  Approaching with her hands bound, flanked by four Fleet guards and a medical staffer, was the woman whom Ascher couldn’t help but view as the source of his current troubles.

Now, instead of a medical gown, the woman that the mysterious ID badge in his locker identified by the unlikely name of ‘Hellene Hawthorne’ wore the bright red coveralls of a prisoner.  Ascher paused at the medsuites’ entrance and yielded to the procession escorting her.  He stared, maybe even gaped at ‘Hellene,’ unable to avert his heavy eyes as she approached.

It took his dazed mind several seconds to realize that she was staring back at him.  The dark-haired woman’s eyes held not only the fear he’d witnessed earlier, but something else as well that filled Ascher with sudden shame.

She hated him.  Hated him because he wore the same uniform as her captors.

When she passed, the prisoner’s gaze fixed on Ascher’s identity badge and her eyes went wide.  Looking up squarely into Ascher’s face, she mouthed a desperate, silent plea in Commonwealth Standard.

“Help me!”

As the guards ushered her past, scarcely noting Ascher’s presence, she craned her head to keep wild eyes locked on him.  The contact was broken only as she vanished into the medsuites.

Ascher stood dumbly through the whole encounter, and continued to do the same now that she had gone.

“Do you have business here?”  This inquiry from one of the guards who’d remained outside the medsuites in the corridor snapped Ascher out of his trance.

“Yes,” Ascher managed to spit out.

“I suggest you get on with it.”

Ascher nodded and started forward, shoving the supply palette ahead of him.  Once in the suite he looked around, but found no sign of Hellene.

“What’s this?” a tech asked.

“Supplies you requisitioned,” Ascher answered, still glancing around hopefully.

The tech gave him a confused frown and shook his head.  “I don’t think we’re expecting anything.”  He turned and started off.  “I’ll double check.”  He returned moments later with confirmation: there had been no such request.

An hour later, Ascher lay sleepless in his berth, staring at the image on Hellene Hawthorne’s ID badge.  Was it a forgery, or was she really a Fleet ensign?  What had been her crime?  Ascher’s phantom tormentor insisted she was innocent.

Help me.  Her silent plea haunted him.

Some time later Ascher walked to the panel by his door, typed a string of letters and returned to his bed to slip at last into a welcome sleep.

>>TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

***

“Sulking time’s over, Kearn.”  The Social Engineer’s grating voice was an unwanted intrusion in the silence of Kearn’s darkened quarters.

Kearn swiveled in his chair to face the entry, where Fyat stood framed in soft light flooding in from the corridor.

“Time to contact Sallat and arrange the fugitive’s transfer,” Fyat said.

“There won’t be any transfer,” Kearn answered dully.

Zerouali stood a step behind the assassin, an aloof watcher in shadow, as if her own fate weren’t the topic of discussion.

“There will be,” Fyat insisted.  “We are out of options and the choice is simple.  We sacrifice one for the many.  I remind you that I will be on the winning side no matter what.  If your prospects grow dim I simply have to honor my orders and liquidate your crew.  Command will never know I was anything but loyal.”

“Maybe,” Kearn replied from the darkness.  “Then again maybe they’ll believe the recording I made a while ago of Coleridge spilling everything about you two.  If it’s part of her cover, then no problem I guess–but if not, I don’t think your masters would be pleased.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Could be.  You’re welcome to scour the ship and find out.  See, I know a thing or two about leverage myself.”

“So it would seem,” Fyat returned.  “The Interim fears that even in death you might unleash forces that would destroy them.”

“The Interim’s fears are no concern of mine,” Kearn said.

Fyat stalked deeper into the room.  “You are the discoverer of the thing from which the Interim derives its power,” Fyat said.  “They assume the worst, that you managed to keep some Drive cores, and maybe more, for yourself.  That even in death you could destroy their monopoly by means of a failsafe.  That is why they haven’t risked an attack, and why they consent to bargain with you.”

Kearn wasn’t sure how much of what Fyat said was common knowledge within the Interim, and how much he’d learned from accessing the incomplete Halo logs in datastores.  Though Kearn’s instructions to unlock the logs had been intended for Zerouali, the assassin’s spymotes were everywhere and he had almost certainly overheard.

Listening silently to Fyat now, Kearn affected disinterest.  Even with so many cards already on the table, he couldn’t afford to let anything slip.  As an adversary Fyat could not be overestimated.

“If any such failsafe exists,” the assassin continued, “you would be wise to tell me about it.  Fleet’s hesitation will only last so long.  At some point the implied threat must become real.  My contingency orders to capture you prove their willingness to take a calculated risk.”

As Fyat went on, Kearn grew increasingly tense.  Finally, in an instant of the closest thing he’d felt to clarity for quite some time, he realized why.  He knew what game this killer was playing.  And worse–it was not just him but Zerouali, too.  How could he have been so lazy and careless as to think he had fooled the most powerful force in all of human history?

While Kearn silently cursed himself, Fyat droned on.

“Properly handled, your leverage can get us all safely out of this system.”

Kearn fought to cool himself.  He needed a level head to confront the unshakable, almost robotic Fyat.

“Your only hope to emerge safely from this crisis,” the assassin continued, and his words only confirmed Kearn’s newfound conclusions, “lies in full disclosure.”

With hard-fought calm, Kearn stared up at Fyat from his chair.  “I understand now,” he said.  Then to Zerouali: “He knew right where to find you when he came aboard, didn’t he?  Not one bit of this is coincidence.  Every event of the past two days was arranged for my benefit.  It’s all just to find out whether or not I managed to keep any Artifact tech for myself.  If I do have a so-called ‘failsafe,’ you two learn how to neutralize it.  If not, you kill me.  Clever.”

With a roar, Kearn rose and strode for the exit.

“Kearn!” Fyat barked, and moved to block him.  “This is no time for paranoid fantasies.  Keep your secrets.  Like I said, I win no matter what.”

Kearn stood inches from Fyat’s face.  “The one person on this ship I should have trusted from the start is in a drug-induced coma thanks to me,” he said.  “I’m going to come clean with her now and hope she forgives me.  Then my crew and I will decide what to do.  You two are welcome to stay aboard or run back to your masters.  Or go ahead and blow us all up if you’re that stupid.”  With that he moved around the assassin, who thankfully let him pass, and breezed past Zerouali on his way into the corridor.

“Kearn,” Zerouali called, trailing after him.  “The Halo logs end before you get to Reissa.  What happened next?”

Kearn laughed.  Some nerve she had.

“Fuck off!” he told her, and abruptly she stopped following him.

Leaving the pair he now saw as co-conspirators behind, Kearn made haste toward the medsuite where Aprile still lay comatose, recovering from her Saerix poisoning.  En route he commed ahead to Thorien.

Moriet, Kearn reminded himself.  Their pseudonyms were useless now.

“Any chance we can revive Aprile soon?” Kearn asked.

“I’ve only kept her under because that cretin told me to,” the doctor replied.  “I can wake her any time.”

“Do it.  And don’t take any more orders from Fyat.”  Kearn deliberately used the assassin’s name over the comm, half-hoping that he, or even his masters, overheard.  “I’m in charge here.”

A few minutes later Kearn hovered at the side of a bleary-eyed and half-conscious Aprile in her stasis web.  In another web nearby was a sedated Coleridge.  The charred stump of her missing arm sported a more professional, if still temporary, treatment.

Aprile’s eyes flickered for long seconds before finding focus.  For a while she looked up blankly as if trying to remember her captain’s name.

Of course, the name by which she did know him was a fraud.

“Some fucking plan…” Aprile groaned.  “I hope you’ve come to tell me it’s all over and I missed everything.”

Kearn laughed apologetically.  “I’m afraid it’s only begun.  How do you feel?”

“Like I look.  Get me out of this damn thing.”

“Glad you’re in a good mood.”  Kearn punched the web release by Aprile’s head.  “I have a few things to tell you before you hear them somewhere else.”

Aprile stretched, massaging her neck.  “I’m listening.”

“You’re the best friend I have,” Kearn said.  Even if the task at hand was unpleasant, it felt good to set cold calculation aside for once and speak with sincerity.  “That’s why I very much regret what I have to tell you.”

Aprile stopped stretching and faced Kearn warily.

“William Gareth was a lie,” he went on.  “My name is Kearn.  It’s my history with the Interim that’s put us in the danger we’re all in now.”

Aprile reacted with mild skepticism.  “All spacers have a past,” she said.

“Not like mine.”

“What did you do that was so bad?”

Though hardly comfortable with the subject, Kearn found relief in purging himself.  “Actually, they weren’t even the Interim when I met them more than three hundred years ago.  But the short version is…I supplied them with the technology they used to dominate the human race.”

Aprile laughed aloud.  “So are they desperate to give you a medal, or what?  I should probably kick your ass on behalf of the species.”

“In my defense, I didn’t do it on purpose and I’ve been kicking my own ass ever since.  But right now we have other worries.  I promise if we get out of this mess you can beat me to a bloody pulp.”

“Noted.  I owe you for this Saerix shit, too, by the way.  What did I miss?”

Kearn sighed.  “Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on anymore.  Fleet has offered to trade Zerouali for a hostage from my old crew, after which we’re supposedly free to go.  Of course I don’t trust them for a second.  I don’t know what to make of Fyat or Zerouali anymore either.  I’m starting to think maybe they were planted here just to get at me, but the bottom line is I don’t know.  I can’t make sense of any of it.  All I do know is that Fleet is not stupid.  They don’t plan to let me leave this system a free man.”

Pondering a moment, Kearn scowled.  “I also know that I have a duty to my old crewmate,” he said.  “She’s in this because of me.  I’d do the same for you.”

“I’d like to think so.  So what do you have in mind?”

“There are some details to work out, but essentially–”  Kearn smiled, permitting himself a faint glimmer of less-than-honest optimism.  “A last stand.  Naked force.  Alone if I have to.”

Very quickly Aprile’s lips twisted in a conspiratorial smirk.  “That’s insane,” she said.  “Let’s do it.”

***

Simon Ascher awoke to the sound of an alarm in his berth, an alarm he knew he hadn’t set.  A squint at the chronometer confirmed he’d slept only two hours.  Several times he ordered the blaring siren to cease, but it failed to respond.

Much as he wanted to deny it, he knew exactly what was happening.  He dragged his stiff body out of bed and over to his room’s terminal, where, unsurprisingly, a message awaited him.

>>YOU MUST MOVE NOW SIMON.  A LEAK OF ANESTHETIC GAS HAS BEEN ARRANGED IN MEDSUITES, SENSORS BLINDEDWITHIN 10 MINUTES STAFF WILL BE UNCONSCIOUSEXTRACT OUR FRIEND AND FOLLOW THIS PATH.

Below was a floor plan of the cone-shaped Hunter with a red line tracing a route from the medsuites to the cargo hold where Ascher worked.

Ascher keyed his incredulous reply.

>>EVEN IF WE LEAVE IN A CARGO HAULER AND EVEN IF THEY DON’T DESTROY IT IMMEDIATELY, WHERE CAN WE GO?  THEY’LL TRACK US.

>>LEAVE IT TO ME.  I’M COUNTING ON YOU SIMON.

>>I’M RISKING MY LIFE FOR YOUYOU OWE ME EXPLANATIONWHAT DID YOU MEAN THE SHIP IS INFECTED?

>>NO TIME FOR THAT.

>>TELL ME.

>>I CAN DESTROY STARS WITH A THOUGHT SIMON.  SO CAN THE ONE WHO HAS INFILTRATED YOUR SHIPTHE DIFFERENCE IS THAT UNLIKE MY ENEMY I WOULD PREFER NOT TO SEE HUMANITY ERASED.

>>I’M TO BELIEVE THE FUTURE OF THE RACE DEPENDS ON MY RESCUING ONE WOMAN?

>>SHE IS A FRIENDBUT I AM LOSING AND YOUR ACTIONS COULD HELP.

>>WAITYOU WANT ME TO GET YOUR FRIEND OFF THE SHIP

>>SIMON YOU MUST GO NOW.

>>YOU’RE GOING TO DESTROY HUNTER, AREN’T YOU?  I WON’T BE PART OF IT!

>>SIMON.  I DISLIKE THREATS, BUT YOU FORCE MY HANDYES, I WILL CRACK THIS VESSEL’S ENGINE CORE.  IF YOU DO NOT PROCEED TO MEDSUITES IMMEDIATELY AND THENCE OFF THE SHIP, YOU WILL BE OBLITERATED TOOGOODBYE.

>>WAIT.

But the lines faded.  The phantom had gone.  Ascher’s stomach churned, his tired mind raced.  He desperately wished to believe he’d imagined this, but knew it was all too real.  He knew too that his decision must be made quickly.  Which consequences were worse, he wondered, those of action or of inaction?  A possible death sentence from Fleet, or the more immediate death promised by this phantom?

The former seemed the more desirable, if barely.  But more than that…something in Ascher knew that if he chose now to do nothing and death did not come, he would spend all his remaining years–right up through his early retirement–wondering ‘what if.’  What if he’d tried?

His Fleet career had been short and dull, but it would not end that way.  It would end with a story to tell his grandchildren, should he live to have any, a story like an adventure vid, in which the hero risks life and career for the sake of a mysterious woman, death the price of his failure.

Ascher went to his locker and retrieved Hellene Hawthorne’s badge and uniform.  He left the weapon there untouched, for even if this phantom planned to slaughter every soul aboard, he wasn’t about to kill anyone himself.  Besides, he was accepting on mere faith that success was even possible; if that faith was misplaced, no weapon would save him.  In fact it might even ensure his death by provoking Security into using lethal force against him.

Ascher’s breath came shallow and blood pounded in his ears as he made his way to the medsuites.  Part of him expected to find everything there as normal, with a curious medical staff staring expectantly at him as he entered.  On that possibility Ascher stood in the corridor and requested entry first, wondering what he might say if someone actually answered.

When no acknowledgment came, he keyed the request again.  Several moments passed with no response.  He summoned his courage and entered.

The staff inside the medsuites were inert heaps on the floor.  In that instant all Ascher’s doubts were erased.  Hunter really would be destroyed.  Until now he’d been living as if in a dream, not fully believing that his actions mattered.  Now it was real.

A rarely-used part of his brain kicked in, telling Ascher he probably didn’t have much time before he succumbed to the gas himself.  He had to find the woman quickly.  Breathing as slowly and lightly as possible, he began a hurried but systematic search.

He located Hellene on the floor of a tiny observation cell.  He hadn’t counted on her being unconscious as well, though in retrospect it made perfect sense.  That freshly awakened crisis center in Ascher’s brain told him to find some sort of stimulant with which to wake her.

Scouring the adjacent lab he soon came across a prepped hypo with a familiar label–a stimulant administered to him once before.  Hurrying back into the woman’s cell, he pressed it to her neck.  Then, for good measure, he gave himself a dose.

Within a few seconds the woman came round.  Groggy eyes focused on her rescuer.

“We don’t have much time,” Ascher said urgently, helping her to sit up.  “We have to get out of here.”

“Who are you?”

“You seemed to know me earlier.”  He half dragged the woman to her feet.  “We’ll talk later.  Here, put this on.”  Passing her the Fleet uniform, Ascher politely turned around.

“I saw your name on a keypad display,” the prisoner explained as she changed out of her red coveralls.  “It said you would help me.”

But before Ascher could absorb the content of the woman’s words, he was forced to struggle past their delivery.

“Your speech,” he said in mild astonishment.  “I understand you, but it’s a pre-Commonwealth dialect.  Where did you pick that up?”

“What Commonwealth?” she asked casually, but did not await reply before declaring, “I’m ready.”

Ascher turned around and looked the woman over.  The uniform fit perfectly, but nothing could effectively conceal the bulge in her abdomen.

“It’ll have to do,” he concluded, adding the final touch by affixing the Fleet ID badge to her chest.

Together they left the medsuites and started along the phantom’s prescribed escape path.  Ascher felt the effects of the stim keeping him wide-eyed and alert.  Then again, perhaps that was only the danger.

“You’re not Hellene Hawthorne, are you?” Ascher said with some conviction, as they walked into the corridor.  He kept his pace swift but casual, fighting the natural urge to run.

“Serenity Martijn,” the woman confirmed.  “I wish someone would explain what’s going on.”

“I wish I knew myself,” Ascher said.  “But whoever you are, it seems like you have a friend in a very high place.”

***

[
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[
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[] CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

It was with satisfaction, if not confidence, that Kearn emerged from the hastily-convened meeting of Lady’s senior crew.  Their chosen course of action was one born of desperation, but one that Kearn felt had a fair chance of success.  Even if it failed, at least he was in command of his own ship and his own fate again.  And at least the damage might be limited.  Kearn himself was the only one likely to die.  With or without regrets.

But if the plan succeeded, Lady would leave Merada with Serenity and all other passengers and crew safely aboard.

Of course, Zerouali and the two SES assassins would be aboard, too.  Kearn was still uncertain about those three.  Maybe they weren’t actually here just to entrap him, but for now it was safest to assume they were.  If that turned out to be a paranoid fantasy–well, no harm done.

Fyat in particular was a problem, though, for anything that he learned of their plans could potentially be communicated to Fleet, spoiling any chance of success.  Before the meeting, Ilias had swept the conference room for the assassin’s tiny spymotes, but who knew what other eyes and ears might be employed by a man who seemed able to subvert Lady’s systems at will?

Now Kearn stood outside the hab module medlounge, Fyat’s unofficial headquarters, on a mission that he hoped would remove the assassin as a player in events to come.  He entered to find Fyat standing, typically statuesque, in the center of the room.  Was he like this even when no one was around?

“I honestly don’t know if you’ve been lying to me or not,” Kearn started right in.  “I don’t know if it matters.  I intend to save my ship and Serenity.”

“Then accept Fleet’s offer and make the exchange.”

“No.  Maybe Zerouali’s one of you, maybe she’s not.  But if there’s any chance she’s legit, I won’t let them have her.  Besides, I don’t believe for a second that Fleet will let me leave here no matter what I do.”

“Their instructions to me were a contingency.  Had they intended your death they could have ordered it already.”

“Unless they don’t trust you,” Kearn argued. “Which may be  a wise move on their part.”

If Fyat took offense, naturally he failed to show it.  “You have no chance,” he said.  “Unless, of course, you possess secrets of which I remain unaware.”

Kearn snorted.  “Nice try.  All I’m asking from you now is a promise that I get one chance to end this my way.  If my plan fails, do what you will.  Go back to your death squads.  Capture me.  I won’t say a word to your masters, assuming of course they didn’t put you up to all this to begin with.  You have nothing to lose.”

Fyat stood impassively for a moment, presumably deliberating his verdict.

“Very well,” he said at last.  “One chance.”

Nodding acceptance, Kearn headed to the room’s comm panel where he keyed a live comm request to Hunter in the Dark.  Fyat stepped back to avoid being visible in the transmission.

Several anxious minutes later, Vice-commander Sallat appeared on screen.

“Captain Kearn,” Sallat said cordially.  “Good to finally hear from you.”

 “We’ll make the exchange aboard my vessel,” Kearn said, not needing to try very hard to sound bitter and defeated.  “Send a shuttle, and Martijn better be aboard.  No tricks.  Your men don’t lay a hand on Zerouali until I see my crewmate alive and well.”

Sallat nodded.  “Agreed.  Rendezvous will occur one hour from now.  Sallat out.”

Kearn cut the transmission and started for the door.  There remained much to prepare.

“Captain,” Fyat called after him.  “You should be aware that you are about to enter a trap.”

As much as Kearn wanted to walk away, Fyat’s words were impossible to ignore.

“How’s that?”

“Fleet would never allow the transfer to take place on your vessel unless it suited them.  I suspect that once they have Zerouali safely in hand, your own capture will follow.”

Kearn might have been annoyed, were he not too busy being genuinely worried.  “You just finished telling me the opposite,” he said, “that I should just make the trade–that they would have ordered a strike already.”

“New data, new assessment,” Fyat said simply.  “There will be an assault team of Fleet marines aboard the craft that comes.  If you’re lucky, your crewmate might actually be with them.”

With Fyat’s words, Kearn’s mild optimism died a brutal crib death.  He had assumed the Interim’s offer to be some sort of trick, of course, but having Fyat confirm as much cast the planned operation in a new light.  Where Fleet marines would rely on skill and high-tech weaponry, Lady’s crew had been counting on the cruder means of surprise and explosive decompression to achieve a similar goal: neutralize the enemy and steal its prize.

Shit, they were all as good as dead.

“I’ve yet to analyze it,” Fyat continued, “but I expect that Sallat’s latest transmission will have contained revised orders detailing how I am to aid in the coming attack.”

“Do your masters really change their minds that quickly?” Kearn asked, searching for any reason to doubt the bad news.  “No, forget I asked.  The important thing is, do I still get my chance?”

“Yes.  But I warn you: you will lose.”

Kearn didn’t need the warning.  From the moment he’d heard the phrases ‘assault team’ and ‘Fleet marines,’ he’d begun to accept the fact of his impending death.

But maybe there was another way.  A rather repugnant one, but certainly one he could live with if it meant averting disaster.

He had entered this room determined to remove Fyat as an active participant in the deadly events to come.  Instead he would beg the help of a man who made no secret of his willingness to betray them all the minute things went awry, if not sooner.

“Alright,” Kearn said with a sigh.  “Tell me how we can win.”

***

His conversation with Kearn at an end, Vice-commander Sallat stepped away from the comm station on Hunter in the Dark’s bridge.  He was a guest there in his capacity as leader of the ‘negotiations’ for Zerouali.

“Strike team, stand by,” Sallat ordered.  “Ready the hostage for departure.”

Slumping back into his seat, Sallat worried.  On a tactical level, the negotiations with Kearn had borne fruit.  Strategically, however, a decision by Bohringer and Hunter’s incoming Intelligence chief threatened to negate that success.  They wanted Kearn apprehended and his crew liquidated.

Sallat had objected, arguing that the failure of such an attempt could precipitate trouble on an unprecedented, galactic scale.  Lacking key intelligence on Kearn, it was anyone’s guess whether or not he truly posed a threat to the Interim.  Maybe he did have a cache of translight cores hidden away somewhere, and maybe, in the event of his death or capture, those cores could be scattered throughout human space.

Or maybe he had nothing.  The only certainty was that three centuries had passed without any hint of a threat to the Interim’s translight monopoly.  Why risk provoking Kearn now?  If he was harmless, they stood to lose nothing by letting him go.  If, on the other hand, he did pose a threat, then a preventive strike against him amounted to sheer provocation.  A simple exchange of Martijn for Zerouali would have represented one hundred percent accomplishment of Fleet’s objective at Merada.  Stumbling onto the long-lost Kearn, not to mention instigating a planetwide rebellion, had been mere happenstance.

But those decisions were not Sallat’s to make, and with Reissa a full day away by translight beacon, even appealing to Command was not an option.  Even if it were, such action would represent considerable risk to his career–even when, as he suspected, the very future of the Interim might be at stake.

Such debate was academic.  Sallat’s more immediate and personal concern was now his own culpability in the event of failure.  His position as nominal head of the mission against Lady left little doubt who would be first in line to receive blame.  It would not be Bohringer.

Sallat’s musings were cut short by an announcement from his number two.

“Sir, there’s no response from the medsuites.  Security section reports that sensors there show nothing amiss.  They’ve sent a team to investigate.”

Moments later a security detail arrived in the medsuites to find the entire staff there unconscious and Martijn nowhere in sight.  Hunter went to high alert.

***

Simon Ascher suppressed gut-wrenching anxiety upon his and Serenity’s first encounter with fellow crewmen along their escape path.  Ascher had been especially worried that Serenity’s pregnancy might give them away.  In his entire career he had never known a female crewman to work in that condition, but, he decided optimistically, that didn’t count as proof that it never happened.  To his knowledge there was no specific regulation against such a thing.

Hunter’s crew seemed to share his own level of uncertainty.  As something uncommon, a curiosity, ‘Ensign Hawthorne’ drew glances, but no one stopped to question her credentials.  Her badge and uniform, along with the mere fact of her presence aboard, gave her the benefit of the doubt.  There were stares directed at Ascher, too, the meaning of which, once he grasped it, caused him mild embarrassment.  Naturally the child must have a father.

Whatever embarrassment Ascher felt was quickly replaced by panic when the ship went to high alert.  He and Serenity were halfway across the floor of the cavernous cargo hold.

This was it, he thought.  They were certain to be caught.  Even if the alert were unrelated to Martijn’s escape, the launch bay doors would never open to allow them off the ship now.  Nonetheless, they had no choice but to continue.  Whether he was caught now or later, the consequences would be the same.  No traitor had ever earned leniency by turning himself in.  Examples had to be made.

Ascher shot an encouraging look at his companion, urging her to remain calm and continue walking.  The cylindrical lift leading to the launch bay was just ten meters off now.  The few crewmen present in the hold became wary as the alert lights flashed to life, but none of their nervous attention was directed at the two innocuous-looking figures walking calmly across the hold and into the lift.

The pair ascended to the hauler bay without incident, and Ascher dared to hope they might escape after all.  The phantom had prepared his way in the medsuites; it may yet get them through this obstacle, as well.

Ascher’s retinal scan granted them access to the empty hauler bay where, finally free to run, they hurried to one of the flyers.  Ascher helped Serenity into the co-pilot’s station and adjusted her harness to keep pressure off her belly.  He felt as if someone else was doing these things.  Certainly it was not any Simon Ascher he knew.

This other Ascher took the pilot’s seat and keyed the series of commands that would seal and depressurize the launch chamber, neutralize the local gravity field, and open the bay doors above.  He held his breath, hoping the controls would function in spite of the shipwide alert.

To his relief and amazement, they did.  He could have done without the warning klaxon that always accompanied decompression, but this minor worry was as nothing compared to the sheer joy of seeing the bay doors part above them on starry void and the curving blue expanse of Merada.

Ascher felt confident enough now to think ahead to their flight path.  The plan was to make for low orbit, putting several degrees of longitude between themselves and the two Interim warships before attempting planetfall on Merada.  The chunky cargo hauler was not intended for atmospheric use, but was designed to survive accidental entry.  He’d just have to steer clear of mountains and open ocean.

Such thoughts of his future became suddenly, shockingly irrelevant when the launch chamber darkened around Ascher and the bay doors ceased to retract.  The ghostly message that flashed across the hauler’s lit displays just before they winked out swept away any last shred of hope.

>>DISCVR*D FORCD OUT.  SO SO*RR&^”%****

***

Sallat watched the entire row of consoles before him go dark.

“What’s happened?” he asked.

The tech punched frantically at his instruments.  “I don’t know, sir.  Everything’s gone dead.”

“I can see that.  Why?”

The tech offered no explanation.  How could he?  System failure on this scale aboard Fleet’s flagship, or any Interim voidship, was unprecedented.

After several nervous seconds the panels blinked back to life, one after another.

The crew’s confusion subsided, or at least was set momentarily aside, as reports began to filter in from Hunter’s Security section.

There had been an unauthorized launch attempt by a cargo hauler, which sensors had completely failed to detect.  Then had come the unexplained shipwide systems failure.  When instruments came back online seconds later, the breach had been immediately discovered.  The suspect hauler was now trapped in the launch bay and a security team en route.

There would be much explaining to do in the wake of these incidents, both security breach and technical failure, but those were problems for Hunter’s own commanders.  Sallat’s one concern was to verify that the missing Serenity Martijn was indeed, as he strongly suspected, aboard that hauler.

***

In those dark and silent moments after his fate was sealed, Ascher felt strangely resigned.  He experienced no fear of arrest or court-martial, none of the wild panic he would have expected from himself.  Instead he remained calm, embracing that other self that had emerged in this time of crisis.

What he did feel acutely, however, was the shame of his failure.  Now Serenity would go back to meet whatever end awaited her.  Maybe his actions had even worsened her fate, assuming of course Hunter’s Drive core wasn’t about to crack and compress them all to subatomic size.

After a few uncertain moments, Serenity asked in her extinct dialect, “What’s happened?”

Ascher had trouble facing her.  “It’s the end,” he said sadly.  “We’re caught.  I’m sorry.”

Serenity said nothing for a time.  Above them the launch doors began an ominous reversal, sealing off the escape that had been so near.  Gravity returned to the launch chamber, pressing them into their seats.  Ascher sat with head bowed, awaiting the end.

He felt a hand on his arm.  He looked up to find Serenity watching him with sad but understanding eyes.  Her fingers slid down his sleeve to find his hand.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’ll never forget you.”

Smiling mournfully, Ascher now felt even more ashamed.

He turned his palm upward and their fingers interlocked.  They remained quietly in that position, hands clasped, until their unceremonious detention by Security.

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.05.27 04:34

Commonwealth:BREAKING NEWS

 

THREE VOIDSHIPS DESTROYED–SABOTAGE?

Three ships of the 2nd Fleet were obliterated by spontaneous implosion today while in port at Veilat.  The vessels, two Eagle- and one Ariel-class, apparently suffered catastrophic core failure of a kind that has not occurred since the Drive’s initial testing phase more than 300 years ago.  As with earlier disasters of its kind, there were no survivors among the crew and virtually no physical remnant of the vessels themselves.  Fleet Command estimates the combined casualty count at 624, a figure that includes the entirety of the three crews plus 91 additional personnel believed to have perished in affected sections of the port facility.

Fleet Intelligence is investigating the circumstances behind the disaster.  Terrorism has not been ruled out, although military analysts express disbelief that any known terrorist group could command the assets required to mount such precise and devastating simultaneous attacks.  Experts, however, are at an equal loss to explain how such a catastrophe could have occurred without deliberate intent.  The timing of the three implosions, which occurred within seconds of each other, particularly fuels suspicion of foul play.

One less menacing explanation put forth is that the orbital port facility passed through a henceforth unknown and unexplained space-time anomaly which reacted catastrophically with the vessels’ Drive cores.

With the remains of the three vessels measured in micrograms and scattered in planetary orbit, forensic investigators face a difficult task.

Relatives of personnel stationed at Veilat may contact their local Fleet offices for more information.

[END]

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

With just a few minutes remaining before the planned hostage exchange, Kearn tried hard not to think about what was to come.  As distasteful as the development was, Fyat looked poised to become Lady’s savior.  It was weaponry from the assassin’s arsenal and some dirty tactics of his design that promised to give mere commercial spacers a fighting chance against Fleet’s finest.

Kearn was currently armed with three fist-sized metal canisters.  Two of these canisters contained thousands of minuscule concussion grenades that were smaller than Fyat’s surveillance motes.  When these bomblets were dispersed in a confined space and detonated simultaneously, the air itself would seem to implode with concussive force.  In a high enough concentration they could perforate unprotected eyes and eardrums, even kill.

But Fyat assured him that the Fleet boarding party would not come unprotected; a nonlethal concentration of the bomblets probably wouldn’t be effective against the marines’ armor.  Unfortunately, the deterrent to using a higher dose was Ren.  Getting her back dead, or even deaf and blind, would have to be considered something of a failure.

Two canisters of bomblets dispersed in the cabin of a standard Fleet medium transport, Fyat said, would fall near the upper limit of nonlethal force.  Guessing that a Fleet marine’s ‘upper limit’ and that of a pregnant civilian might be rather different, Kearn had opted to empty one of those two canisters by half.

The third container held bomblets of another variety: screamers not unlike those the Meradi rebels had employed against Whisper of Death.  These would fill the shuttle’s cabin with enough sonic and EM noise to blind electronic eyes and ears and cause physical pain to flesh-and-blood ones.

Roughly, the revised plan went as follows: in advance of the Fleet shuttle’s docking, Kearn would release both types of bomblet into the airlock and raise the pressure inside to 125 percent.  When the lock was opened from the outside, the resulting rush of air would disperse the motes into the cabin of the docked shuttle, where they would be triggered.  Thus, ideally, the strike team would be blinded and stunned when Kearn went forward into the craft–insulated against the screamers, of course–to extract a disoriented but hopefully intact Serenity.

According to Fyat, the tactic was an old favorite.  It was also, in Kearn’s opinion, a rather nasty trick.  Ironically, the Fleet marines were lucky that Fyat had stepped in, for the plan originally devised by Lady’s crew had called for grabbing Ren and spacing the boarders without regard to whether they lived or died.

It scared Kearn a little to realize how easily his enemies had been able to make him something he was not, a killer.  The realization was something that, with luck, he would live to dwell upon later.

Fyat had offered to carry out the rescue himself, but Kearn wasn’t quite willing to trust him that far.  Especially not since the assassin’s confirmation that Sallat’s last transmission had, in fact, contained more coded orders.  Once the boarding marines verified that Kearn and Zerouali were safely in custody, Fyat was to liquidate Lady’s remaining crew.

With that chilling possibility in mind, Kearn had convinced the assassin to remain in the medlounge for the duration of hostilities.  That left Kearn with this task for which he was ill-suited in training and temperament, but at least the outcome, whether positive or negative, would rest squarely on his shoulders and no one else’s–least of all those of some Interim butcher.

Aprile’s voice sounded urgently over Kearn’s comm: “Incoming shuttle confirms entry point as Airlock Six.  Three minutes.”

“On my way,” Kearn answered, already in motion.  He flew down Lady’s corridors at breakneck speed, racing to prepare the boarders’ unfriendly welcome.

“One minute,” Aprile counted down.  She wasn’t thrilled about being stuck on the bridge, having argued extensively for a more active role.  But the ambush at the lock was an all-or-nothing gambit; if Fyat’s bomblets failed to deliver, there would be no resisting the inevitable counterattack.  Far better that Aprile remain in the second line of defense, where she might yet save the rest of the crew.  Her instructions upon failure of the rescue effort were to vent the entire quadrant of the ship containing the invaders.  Kearn would have liked to include spacing Fyat as well, but there was little doubt the assassin would survive to bear a grudge.

To further reduce the potential body count if anything should go wrong, all but Lady’s four senior crew and the three uninvited guests had been placed into hibernation.

The second and final stage of the current plan, escaping the two Fleet voidships, was far simpler–and unknown to Fyat.  Regardless of success or failure in securing Ren, Lady would soon be light years from Merada.

With less than half a minute remaining, Kearn slammed into the bulkhead at his destination and scrambled to open the airlock’s inner hatch.  The Fleet shuttle was probably just dozens of meters away beyond Lady’s hull.  One by one Kearn discharged the canisters into the airlock, its hatch open just a crack to prevent backspill.  Each can hissed and released a jet of what looked like nothing more than steam.

When they were empty, Kearn slammed the hatch shut and keyed the nearby panel to boost the pressure within.  Then he stationed himself in the airlock’s anteroom, detonator in one hand, a powerful palm-sized energy weapon, also courtesy of Fyat, in the other.  Just in case.

He waited breathlessly.

Soon his comm sprang to life, startling him enough that he nearly squeezed the detonator.

“Bad news,” Aprile said ominously.  “Lock eight.  Six was a bluff.  They’re almost there now, say they’ll wait for you to bring Zerouali.”

Kearn’s mind flooded with scores of expletives in a dozen tongues.  None was sufficiently powerful.

Of course they had bluffed.  These were professional military men who wouldn’t subject themselves so readily to ambush.  The game was over before it had begun.

Kearn’s comm burst to life once more.  This time the voice was not Aprile’s.

“Stay where you are,” Fyat ordered.  “I’m on my way.”

With this final insult, Kearn’s helpless despair flared into rage.  “I’ve had enough of your help for one day!” he cried.

The assassin offered no reply.  Kearn pounded empty air with his fist and set off toward lock eight, a trip that would take him some five minutes.  There was little doubt Fyat would arrive first, even assuming he’d remained until now in the hab module as promised.  There was no real effective way to monitor his whereabouts.

En route, Kearn commed his crewmates.  “Ilias, forget the countdown and act on my signal instead.  Aprile, if it looks like Fyat is moving against us, don’t hold back.  Vent any sections that don’t have our people in them.  Space me if you have to.”

Aprile gave a morbid laugh.  “Never pegged Will Gareth for a martyr,” she said.  “I think I like Kearn better.”

“I hope you’ll have time to get to know him.”

A full three minutes later, Kearn broke his rather considerable momentum on a grab hoop in the antechamber of airlock eight.

Staring back from that lock’s closed hatch was Fyat.  It was not the assassin that drew Kearn’s gaze, however, but the woman clinging white-knuckled to his side.  Spattered blood covered Serenity’s exposed face and hands.

“Give the command!” Fyat ordered urgently.

Coming quickly to his senses, Kearn screamed into his comm.  “Now, Ilias, now!  Go!”

An invisible hand plunged down Kearn’s throat to scoop out his innards.  His head swam.  Maybe he blacked out–he couldn’t quite be sure.

He still felt intensely nauseous when, a short time later, he opened his eyes and struggled to focus.  He found himself staring silently at Ren, whose own eyes were shut tight.

Dragging his gaze from her, Kearn took in the scene around him in the lock antechamber.  Fyat seemed unaffected by the jump.  It was only natural; someone in his line of work would be well accustomed to translight.  Even if Fleet’s more advanced breed of Demon Drive didn’t sport the same unpleasant side effects as Lady’s poor man’s version, Fyat still had the advantage of being virtually indestructible.  Kearn’s eyes lingered briefly on the assassin, mostly to assure himself he wasn’t the man’s next target.  For the moment Fyat seemed firmly on their side, but who could know what motivated the killer, or what he might do next.

With a look of dazed shock in her eyes, Serenity let go of her liberator and began to drift.  Kearn propelled himself toward her, halting on a grab hoop and catching her gently in one arm.  When she looked up at Kearn, the panic in her eyes subsided, replaced by a sort of nervous uncertainty.  Kearn’s own expression showed little of anything, mostly because he wasn’t yet sure what to feel.

Within seconds the centuries-old awkwardness between them loomed large, threatening to return.  It was Ren who prevented it by averting her eyes.  She unclenched her tightly balled fists to plant both palms on Kearn’s chest.  Clutching two handfuls of his shirt, she pulled herself into him, tucked her head beneath his chin and heaved a single, wracking sob.  Kearn wrapped both arms around her in an embrace.

His comm sprang to life.

“It worked!” a jubilant Ilias cried.  “We’re in one piece!”

“Aprile, confirm,” Kearn requested.

“Aye, Cap’n, one piece,” was her quick reply.  “Current coordinates…one-point-six light years from Merada!”

***

“Vanished.”

Standing on Hunter’s bridge, Sallat echoed the word dumbly, not in astonishment or disbelief, neither of which he felt, but rather in grim recognition of the vast import of what had just transpired.

A crewman reported what Sallat had already guessed.  “EM signature confirms activation of a translight core at the freighter’s last known position.”

At Sallat’s side stood Hunter’s captain, Cassandra Rideaux.  They had been monitoring the impending strike on Lady of Chaos when suddenly all signals from the boarding craft had abruptly terminated.  Nothing came of the bridge crew’s subsequent efforts to reestablish contact.  Lady, too, failed to respond to a hailing request.  Rideaux had just placed Hunter’s weapons systems on standby to unleash a crippling EM pulse on the freighter when it simply vanished without trace from their screens.

It was immediately apparent to Sallat, as it should have been to all present, that they had just been privileged, or rather cursed, to witness an historic moment: the first confirmed use of translight by a non-Interim starship.

Centuries from now historians would record that the beginning of the Interim’s end had been written at Merada.  The grave mood aboard the bridge seemed to indicate that Sallat was not alone in grasping this fact.

“Our shuttle is out there, sir,” one of the bridge crew informed Hunter’s captain.  “Adrift.”

“Retrieve it,” Rideaux ordered.

Nearly an hour later Sallat was present in the hold for the opening of the recovered craft.

The strike team and flight crew were dead to the last man, and not by accident.  They had been slaughtered.

Fleet had made a big mistake indeed.

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Kearn took Ren to his quarters.  She’d been quiet since her rescue, probably still stunned.  Privately Kearn wasn’t looking forward to his first real exchange with the woman.  In her perception they had been separated for a matter of weeks at most; in his, forty years.  His feelings toward her were dominated, perhaps rightly, by guilt.  How Ren felt about him remained to be seen.  The intervening centuries might have changed nothing for her, or perhaps she hated him for having left her to her fate.  One could hardly blame her if the latter was true.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Kearn said.  “We don’t have guest quarters free right now, so you can take mine.  Your clothing and possessions are in the holds.  I’ll have someone bring them up.”

Ren glanced around at the accommodations, which were spacious compared to what she had known on Halo.

“You kept my things,” she said.  “Thanks.”

By her rather dejected tone Kearn gathered that Serenity sensed his own ambivalence about her return.  She was right–he was going through the motions but failing to make her feel very welcome.  He wanted to remedy that, even if he could hardly conceive how.

“You should get cleaned up,” was all he could manage.

Ren slouched into a soft chair and sat hunched.  “I guess it must be strange for you, seeing me after all this time.”

Kearn stumbled for a response.  “No.  I mean, yes–it’s not easy.”

“You’re under no obligation, you know.  I don’t expect to pick up where we left off or anything.”  Ren’s voice was distant.  As she spoke she stared vacantly at the floor.  “I’m sure you have another life now.”

Kearn sighed, gazing at the back of Ren’s head while he grasped for words.  If moments ago his guilt had been immense, now she’d succeeded in tripling it.  By granting him permission to discard her, she made it impossible to do so, not if he cared to be able to live with himself afterward.  Zerouali had used much the same tactic.  The difference, Kearn had come to sense, was that where Zerouali really had expected him to throw her to the wolves, Ren just seemed to think she deserved it.

“It’s all very sudden,” Kearn said eventually.  “And right now we’re the most wanted ship in the universe.  We’ll be lucky to even find a place to hide.  I need to concentrate on that first.”

With no appreciable change to her dismal mood, Ren nodded.

“Whatever happens…” Kearn said in the hope of easing her gloom, and by extension his own conscience.  “I want you and your…our child to be happy.  I’ll make sure that happens.”

Serenity looked up at him with eyes that showed fatigue and little else.  Kearn extended a palm toward her.  She studied it a moment before taking it in her own hand.  A melancholy smile touched her still blood-spattered lips.

“So what’s the universe like now, anyway?” she asked.

The lightness of her question gave Kearn some relief.  “Very different,” he answered, “and not for the better.  I’ll fill you in later.  For now you should clean up and rest.  I have some decisions to make.  Check out the ship if you like.  It puts Halo to shame.”

With that Kearn made a graceful exit.  He had hardly taken two steps, however, before someone called out his name.  He turned to find Zerouali striding up.

“What happened?” she asked, showing a barely discernable enthusiasm which, on her, passed for excitement.  “I felt nauseous earlier.  Like a Drive translation only ten times worse.”

“Sorry about that,” Kearn replied tersely, moderately annoyed at the intrusion.  Like Serenity, Zerouali was a living reminder that the easy life of Will Gareth was long gone and irrecoverable.  “We’re out of trouble.  For now.”

She stared incredulously.  “So you do have translight,” she said with the hint of a mischievous smile.  It didn’t look bad on her, and for some reason brought to mind the embarrassing near-kiss they had shared earlier.

 “Walk with me,” Kearn invited, starting toward the radial lift en route to Lady’s bridge.  “Yes, we have translight.  I guess it’s not as refined as what you’re used to.”

Trailing behind him, Zerouali let out a true, if abbreviated, laugh.  “So where are we now?” she asked with an uncharacteristic level of interest.

Kearn sighed.  By force of habit he was still reluctant to speak on the subject he’d spent centuries keeping a careful secret.

And even if he’d largely dismissed the theory that Zerouali was a spy, she was still a relative stranger.

Screw it, he thought then.  Everyone knew everything now anyway.

“Our Drive has no nav control,” he admitted.

He couldn’t see Zerouali’s face behind him, but he sensed amusement.  “You mean you don’t know where we are?”

“We know exactly where we are,” Kearn said irritably.  “We just didn’t choose to end up there.  Now we’ll make some calculations, decide vaguely where we hope to end up next, and make another jump.”

They halted at the lift.

“Doctor,” Kearn said, curt but hopefully cordial.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d stay in your quarters for the time being.  I hope you understand.”

In an instant Zerouali became her distant, unreadable self again.  “Certainly, Captain,” she said stiffly.  “Sorry to bother you.  Perhaps when you have more time.”

Nodding, Kearn stepped alone into the lift.  When the door closed on the woman’s retreating form, he tried to put both her and Serenity out of mind.  Minutes later he emerged onto the bridge, where Aprile was a welcome sight.  She was simple, familiar.  She made sense.

Her face split in a wide, celebratory smile.  Kearn clasped the hand she extended from her station.

“It has never felt so good to puke my lungs out!” she said.  “We got both your girls and got away right under their noses!”

Though Kearn’s own joy was hardly as unmitigated as Aprile’s, her excitement was infectious.  Kearn couldn’t resist smiling himself.

“We probably shouldn’t celebrate just yet,” he cautioned.  “Things will be tough for us from here on.  Within two weeks we’ll be known to every Fleet crew in every corner of human space.  I don’t think we’ll be truly safe anywhere now.”

“Buzzkill,” Aprile scoffed.  “I know it’s not over yet.  But we just humiliated the lords of the fucking universe and I’m going to enjoy it.  I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Will.  Or should I say ‘Mayweather.’  What a fucking name!  That alone is reason enough to use an alias!”

Kearn cracked a fresh smile and smacked the sandy stubble on the back of Aprile’s head.  “We have work to do, partner,” he said.

“As usual, I’ve already done most of it, partner.”  Aprile touched controls that sent streams of data pouring onto the main viewer.  “A nine-point-five light year jump gives us a sixteen percent chance of landing within a ship-year of an inhabited system.”

“For someone who just found out about our translight drive an hour ago, you got the hang of it pretty quick,” Kearn observed.  “But sixteen percent?  That’s really the best we can do?”

“What more do you want with no nav?  Unfortunately, according to the figures from Ilias–or whatever his real name is–that nine light years is also very close to the upper limit we can jump while leaving enough fuel afterward for propulsion.

“Of course,” she added, “we could always just get under thrust now, but my instincts tell me to put Merada far, far behind us first.”

Aprile waited expectantly while Kearn studied the displays.

He found that the data, not to mention his own instinct, bore out Aprile’s suggestion.  Assuming they actually planned to go on the run, that was.

“There is one other option,” Kearn said reluctantly.  “I know it doesn’t sound appealing, but–”

“Extended hibe,” Aprile finished for him.  “Go out of circulation for a while and hope things cool off.  I thought of it.  I even picked out a few scenic routes.”  Her tone betrayed clear distaste for the idea.

“I don’t like it much either,” Kearn agreed.  “Still, it’s probably safest.  Why flirt with disaster?”

“You may be right.  But if you do take that option I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to part company first.  I’d rather take my chances living life than just crawl into a box and hide for who-knows-how-long.”

Kearn nodded, already a trifle shamed at having made the suggestion.  Once more Aprile had managed to remind him why he liked and admired her.

“It’s decided then,” Kearn said with fresh resolve.  “We jump.”  He cued his comm for shipwide broadcast.  “Crew,” he announced, “honored guests, fugitives, criminals, stowaways, and other assorted scum.  Empty your bladders, strap yourselves in, and hold onto your lunch.  In one hour’s time Lady of Chaos will initiate a second translight jump.  Details to follow.”

***

Following the Kearn Debacle, as he knew it would one day come to be called, Vice-commander Sallat beat a hasty retreat to Whisper of Death without waiting for Bohringer to recall him.  The damage to the Interim was irreversible now, but he might yet prevent the ruin of his own career.

During the shuttle ride Sallat composed his own private, if unofficial, account of events, emphasizing his lack of input in–his outright objection to, in fact–the decision on how to handle Kearn.

Truthfully, he wasn’t certain he could have done much better.  To get at Zerouali, Fleet had been forced to back Kearn into a corner, leaving him little choice but to use his illegal Drive.  In retrospect it would have been better to leave both fugitives unmolested.  For all Fleet’s effort they had not only lost both their targets but also gained a potentially powerful enemy in Kearn, a man who probably could have destroyed Reissa at any time in the last three centuries, yet instead had never raised a finger.

Kearn hadn’t wanted a fight.  But after this ill-conceived molestation, who knew what he might attempt?  Centuries without the slightest whisper of a serious challenge had led most among the Interim brass to dismiss the ‘Kearn threat’ as more imagined than real.  The histories even said he was dead–perhaps a mistake, or more likely a deliberate massaging of facts meant to allay those very fears that might soon sweep the Commonwealth if this incident did not remain highly classified.

The most frightening scenario envisaged by the Interim’s upper echelon was one in which Kearn was found to be in possession of a number of Drive cores–five, ten, fifty–with which he could threaten the Commonwealth’s very existence.

But these were matters for men and women of much higher rank than a vice-commander.  Sallat would be lucky to set foot on a voidship again, if Bohringer indeed had him pegged to take the fall, or if Command decided on its own to be generous in distributing blame.

To his great relief, Sallat discovered upon returning to Whisper of Death that its Captain had ideas of his own.  On Whisper’s bridge, a bitter but stoic Bohringer announced his resignation and handed over acting captaincy to his Vice-commander, Daniel Sallat.

Bohringer’s official statement on record complained that Command had failed to provide him with proper intelligence and that under the prevailing circumstances at Merada, no one in his position could have succeeded.  It was an argument clearly aimed at exonerating himself in the court of Commonwealth public opinion rather than in Fleet’s unforgiving eyes.  Maybe it was the wisest move he could make, or maybe a foolish one–only time would tell.

Sallat’s first action in command was to confine Whisper’s outgoing captain to quarters.  His next directive halted offensive operations on and around Merada, pending his own complete review.

The next order of business was something he’d all but forgotten amidst the chaos: the suspect neurilace security upgrade.  The latest analyses had come back and were again inconclusive.  While it really offered a slight improvement to existing protocols, the upgrade did contain at least one patch of ambiguous code, the effect of which could not be determined.

Perhaps it was his sense of the temporariness of his position, the conviction that his career was already speeding groundward, that gave him the courage to do what he did.  With a few inconspicuous words in his log, Sallat noted that the neurilace upgrade had been implemented as ordered.  Chances were good that no one would ever notice it hadn’t.

***

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY

 

Lady’s second Drive translation passed without complications.  After fending off the resulting attack of dizziness and nausea, Kearn waited anxiously for a verdict from the ship’s disoriented nav systems.  Within a few seconds the displays revealed the ship’s new position.  Kearn and Aprile both launched into a frantic search for the nearest inhabited systems.

“Ona,” the two concluded and announced almost simultaneously.

“Six months at maximum burn,” Aprile noted.  “That’s pretty lucky.  Ever hear of it?”

“Nope.”

Kearn called up some data on the body.  When he saw it he began to wonder just how ‘lucky’ the jump had been.

“Terraformed moon founded by a militant religious sect,” he read bitterly.  “Sounds like a total shithole.”

Scanning the entry herself, Aprile concurred.  “No vacation spot, but its saving grace might be a minimal Interim presence.”

“I was hoping for someplace we could refit or maybe even ditch Lady for something else.  Can we even get fuel there?”

Aprile tapped a finger on her display.  “As of ‘74 they had an antimatter station.  Anyway, our next choice is at least seven years out, and that’s a Commonwealth partner.  Probably not the first place we want to turn up.”

Kearn sighed deeply.  Why couldn’t anything be simple anymore?

Nonetheless, considering what they’d been through already, this latest development was hardly worthy of complaint.

“Alright, let’s get underway.”

Soon Lady was programmed for the voyage to Ona, and a two-hour countdown commenced until onset of acceleration.  Kearn’s mind turned toward what seemed the next most pressing of his several problems.  Fyat might refuse hibe.  If he did, it meant that someone–meaning Kearn–would be forced to spend the next six months counting stars and watching over him, for all the good it would do.

Truthfully, Fyat would probably be wise to decline hibe, for if he went under Kearn wasn’t sure he would ever bother to revive him.

“I’m sure you have some personal business to attend to,” Aprile said.  Her use of that phrase was markedly less derisive than usual.  “Go on, I’ll finish up here.”

“‘Personal business’ ain’t what it used to be,” Kearn said wistfully.

“So you’re really going to be a daddy, huh?”

Kearn laughed.  “The galaxy will have to tolerate my genes for another generation, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not really, but then it’s none of my business, is it?  You’ll manage.”

“I might.  So long as you stick around to watch my back.”

“Careful, Captain.  I might start getting ideas about the size of my stake in Lady.”

“Stake?  I’m ready to give you the fucking thing.”

Bidding her thanks and goodbye, Kearn left the bridge.  En route to his quarters, to Ren, he changed his mind and stopped off in the common room.

Again it was not empty.  No, he couldn’t be that lucky.

“I thought I told you to stay put,” Kearn said to Zerouali without much feeling.

“I got restless.  Do you have a minute?”

Kearn went to the galley to pour himself a drink.  Something strong.  Now that the immediate danger was behind them, he really needed it.

“That depends on what you want.”  Even as he answered, Kearn didn’t much like the words that emerged from his mouth.  Thanks to the stress of late, he realized, he was in danger of becoming a real asshole.

Zerouali, on the other hand, seemed unusually sociable as he sat down across from her.  Now that he thought of it, her whole attitude toward him seemed to have changed since the revelation of his true identity.  She had called him a ‘legend.’  She didn’t seem the type for hero-worship, though, so why the sudden interest?

“Coffee?” he offered absently.  “My own blend.”

She accepted, and Kearn poured.

Zerouali took a sip and winced.  “How do you make coffee taste like industrial solvent?”

Kearn smiled cheerlessly and filled his own cup.  “Three parts coffee, one part industrial solvent.  It’s an acquired taste.  So you’ve got your minute.  What is it you want?”

 “The Halo logs,” Zerouali said, suddenly businesslike.  Despite her initial reaction to the coffee, she continued to drink.  “They end abruptly, obviously for your own protection.  I want to know the rest.”

Kearn heaved a deliberate sigh, bored and disappointed by the topic.  “I keep a secret for half my life and suddenly I’m supposed to tell anyone who asks.  Maybe you want a stake in Lady too, while I’m at it.”

There he went being an asshole again.  He knew that treating this woman brusquely was only a rather childish mode of retribution for her own real or imagined mistreatment of him.

Zerouali smiled knowingly–though it turned out she hadn’t read Kearn’s thoughts quite correctly.

“Do you still believe I might be an Interim plant?” she asked.  Her tone made it clear enough that she knew his answer: the suggestion was nonsense.

Kearn sipped from his coffee and made a conscious decision to behave more agreeably.  The Interim had nearly succeeded in turning him into a killer; he wouldn’t let them make him antisocial, too.

“I might have believed that for a minute or two,” he answered.  “But it’s obvious enough you’re no undercover agent.”

“How do you know?”

“You would have done a better job ingratiating yourself.”

She raised her brow over the rim of her mug.  “I think I know what that means.”

Kearn shrugged.  “Not necessarily.  But you certainly could have played a more sympathetic figure.  As it is, you almost went out of your way to make sure no one liked you.”

“Maybe I’m just a better mole than you think.”

“A good mole would never say that.  Besides, you might have noticed the score stands at Kearn two, Interim nothing, so if you are working for them then you haven’t done very well.  No, you’re exactly what you said you were.  A fugitive.  That’s why you push people away like you do.”

This last observation had dawned upon Kearn only as he spoke it, yet it made perfect sense.

“You can’t have a home,” he went on.  “The last thing you want is to get attached to anyone.  I’m guessing you learned that a long time ago.”

If his assessment struck home on any level, Zerouali hid it well.  She gave Kearn the same tight-lipped, impenetrable look that he’d seen many times already.  Maybe her dark eyes clouded ever so slightly, or maybe that was just steam from her coffee.

“We’re getting off topic,” she said.

“Off your topic,” Kearn corrected her.

Now he was sure he’d scored a hit, but in accordance with his decision to play nice he was prepared to leave it alone.

More at ease now that he sensed he had more of a handle on Zerouali’s character, he opted for his own change of subject. 

“You couldn’t have cared less about Will Gareth,” he observed, voicing the thought that had sprung to mind earlier. “Why such an interest in Kearn?”

The smile that then crossed Zerouali’s lips conveyed a warmth that had been decidedly lacking in its infrequent predecessors.

“The universe is full of boring people, Captain,” she said.  “I thought I might have found someone a little less boring.”

“I’ll ignore the past tense and take it as a compliment.  But you’re wrong, the universe isn’t boring.  Far from it.  I think you’re just traveling in the wrong circles.”

Her smile melted.  “I’m traveling in circles alright,” she lamented.  “I’d like to break out.”

Without further word on that topic, the woman’s hand slid abruptly into a pocket of her clothing and withdrew a bio-specimen vial which she placed on the table between them.

“I assume you know what that is,” she said.

“Lisset’s blood,” Kearn answered factually, caught off guard by the unheralded change of topic.  “What of it?”

“Look closely.  Notice anything?”

Kearn eyed the vial without particular interest.  “It’s fuller than I remember.”

“It’s fuller than it was a few hours ago.  And not only that.”  She nudged it across the table toward him.  “Take a closer look.”

Kearn set down his coffee and reached for the tube.  As he did so a glance at the ship’s clock made him realize he should probably get back to Serenity before too long, however much he might wish to postpone that encounter.

What Kearn saw upon raising the vial to one eye was interesting enough to thrust Ren back out of mind.  Suspended in the blood sample were what appeared to be tiny motes of solid matter.

“Contamination?”

“No,” Zerouali said with authority.  “It’s changing.”

Kearn set the vial down.  “That’s crazy.  This sample is hundreds of years old.  Obviously it was contaminated in storage, and now it’s reacting to light or heat.  Simple.”

“I’d be happy to accept a simple explanation, too.  But having just viewed the Halo logs, I’m already curious about Lisset.  This makes me more curious still.”  A pause seemed calculated to give her conclusion the maximum impact.  “That’s human tissue in there.”

Kearn sank back into his chair, leaving the sample on the table.  “Nonsense,” he said.  “Lisset was examined when we brought her aboard.  That blood has been tested.  Granted her behavior was strange, but she was still a normal, average human being.”

Zerouali’s delivery grew softer, as if she were taking deliberate care not to sound pompous.  “I didn’t suggest otherwise.”

Kearn eyed his cup in sullen silence.  Lisset was another of those things he didn’t much care to think about.  Not because the memories were painful, but for the precise reason that Zerouali did want to discuss her.  The girl made no sense.

“What’s your point?” Kearn asked eventually.

“I have none yet,” she said gently.  “But I’d like to know Halo’s story ends, if you’re willing to tell me.  That’s all.”

Kearn smiled, not a little self-consciously.  The last time she’d asked him this he’d told her to fuck off, and the timid phrasing of her new request said she hadn’t forgotten.

“Alright,” Kearn conceded.  He let his eyes issue an apology where words weren’t forthcoming.  “You have a way of getting what you want, don’t you?  Maybe you wouldn’t make a bad spy after all.”

This yielded from Zerouali another genuine smile.

“But I have things to do, so you’ll have to settle for the short version.”

***

“Losing Lisset hit us all pretty hard.  It hurt to think that she’d come so far only to die in our holds before ever setting foot groundside again.  I hardly knew her, but I wished it could have been my capsule instead of hers.

“There wasn’t much question in my mind about what to do with her body.  We loaded it into a cargo module and launched it on course for Ganeille, the system that Beshaan should have taken her to.

“Halo put into port at Reissa, where we planned to spend at least a few weeks groundside.  It wasn’t home for any of us, but it was solid ground and full of people, which was good enough.  We knew that our cargo from the Artifact could put us in danger so we kept it quiet.  I should say most of us kept quiet, because somehow, I still don’t know how, word got out.  About a week after our arrival Halo was raided and seized by Reissan corporate police on a government warrant.  They took us without a fight.

“After a week of separate interrogations, they slammed us into hibe capsules.  I was revived six months later for more questioning, but this time they were only interested in one thing: whether or not I had managed to withhold any alien tech from them.

“Long before we ever reached Reissa I had made sure that Halo’s logs couldn’t be compromised, so they didn’t have those.  I told the Reissan cops I’d stashed some alien parts away, but refused to reveal their location.  They tried charm, then bribery, then persuasion, then drugs, finally brute force.  Looking back I don’t know how I managed to hold out, but I did.  In the end I convinced them to cut a deal.  Let me and my crew go and we would fetch the missing cache for them.

“Naturally there was a downside.  They kept two hostages from my crew, and chose them well.  Ren, who was pregnant, and Castro, who knew much more than they did about the alien drives.  If we failed to return, or if the tech ever showed up in use anywhere, they would be killed.

“So Lucifer’s Halo set sail, minus two.  The Reissans sent probes and pursuit ships to track us, but we managed to lose those within a few decades.  Eventually we ditched Halo, disbanded the crew and took new identities and a new ship.

“We never went back to Reissa.”

***

“No doubt you know the rest better than I do,” Kearn finished with a glance at the ship-time on the wall.  Ninety minutes to onset of acceleration.

“So you’re not Reissan,” observed Zerouali, his rapt audience of one.

“Who said I was?”

“The official story is that you voluntarily surrendered your cargo to authorities.”  Her voice affected deliberate irony as she quoted or paraphrased: “‘It belonged to humanity, not to one man.’  I feel naive now for having believed all that.”

“How could you know?  No one did.”

Kearn spoke halfheartedly now.  Telling the story left him drained, although in a way that was perhaps not entirely bad.

“Ganeille,” Zerouali announced abruptly.

Kearn smiled a little, but feigned ignorance.  “What of it?”

“Your cache.  Halo’s logs.  You sent them to Ganeille with Lisset’s body.”

To his surprise, Kearn found himself smiling.  “We picked them up more than a century later,” he confessed.

“And Lisset?”

“Still very dead, if that’s what you’re getting at.  A lot worse off for lack of proper shielding, in fact.”

“I suppose you know what became of your engineer.”

“Not officially, no.”

“Juan Castro was one of the pioneers of the Demon Drive and void engine.”

Kearn nodded unenthusiastically.  “Good for him.”

“You don’t see it as a betrayal?”

“I left him to die.  And anyway, he stayed loyal.  He was the only one besides me who knew about Ganeille.  He may have worked for Reissa, but he never betrayed me.  He never gave them that.”

Setting down the bitter dregs of his coffee, Kearn rose from his chair.

“I’d better go,” he said with finality.  “Good talking to you, but whatever it is you’re thinking about the girl, stop.  It’s nonsense.”

Zerouali rose, too.  “Thanks for your time, Captain,” she said formally.  “But think on this: Lisset appeared in the right time and place to lead you to the Artifact, then lived just long enough to see you there and back.”

Kearn scoffed.  “You think that hasn’t crossed my mind?  Halo’s voyage reads like an old ghost story, I know that.  But life is strange sometimes.”

“Very,” Zerouali agreed, as Kearn made for the exit.  “I may not believe in ghosts, Captain.  But thanks to you I do join all of humanity in believing in aliens.”

Kearn, frozen in the open doorway, turned back.  Zerouali’s expression was quite serious.

“An interesting theory,” he said.  “But I’m not really one for theories.  Report to the crew hibe vault in one hour.”

With that he left.  In the corridor he commed Fyat.

“How will you be spending the next six months, assassin?”

“Hibernation,” Fyat replied, offering nothing further.

But that confirmation alone was enough for Kearn.  Having Fyat on ice would make life that much easier.

“Crew hibe vault, one hour,” he told the assassin, and signed off.

Kearn found his mood was almost positive now.  The simple act of confessing his secrets had brought more relief than he ever would have thought.

As he approached his quarters, however, the months-long voyage ahead of Lady began to look brief compared to the coming hour with Ren.

It might not be so bad, he told himself.  A little awkward, maybe.  So he’d abandoned her to her fate a few centuries ago, along with his own unborn child.  It was a decision he’d questioned a thousand times since, but always with the same conclusion.  It could not have been otherwise.  He would do it all again.

He entered to find his living area in total darkness.  When the door slid shut behind him, the only visible light came from faint glowstrips outlining doorways and furniture.

“Lights, dim,” he commanded, in a low voice in case Ren was sleeping.

She wasn’t.  The rising light revealed her huddled form in a corner of the floor, wrapped in his robe.  Her hand came up to shield her eyes from the light.

“Ren, what’s wrong?  Are you alright?”

Stupid question.  Of course she wasn’t alright.  He should never have expected her to be.  Without awaiting response, which at any rate never came, he crossed urgently to her side.  He knelt and laid a hand on her shoulder, finding robe and hair damp from bathing.  Ren said nothing, just looked up to squint against the light, revealing bloodshot eyes and the dry tracks of tears on her cheeks.

“Turn it off,” she begged, voice a bare whisper.

At Kearn’s spoken command the room plunged back into darkness.  He settled against the wall beside Ren and sat in silence listening to her ragged breathing.

“Talk to me,” he ventured after some time.  Rather selfishly, he feared her response.

“I don’t belong anywhere,” she said blankly.  “I have nothing, no one.”

The sentiment was hardly surprising, yet it pained Kearn to hear it.  Since leaving her, even the longtime belief that he could have done nothing differently had failed to rid him of guilt over Ren’s imprisonment.  Now that she was alive and free–and miserable–such excuses offered even smaller comfort.  Worse, she was absolutely right.  She did have nothing, and nowhere to belong.

But maybe this was just her weakness.  It was that very desire for a home where she belonged that made her, as Kearn had told her once long ago, unfit for spacer life.  Where a true spacer saw only the journey, Ren looked forward instead to an endpoint.  Her life should have been lived out groundside, where she could have been happy in spite of a secret longing for the stars.

Such an argument, though, only shifted Kearn’s own culpability further back than Reissa, to his erroneous decision to sign her onto Halo in the first place.  There was no question now that that had been a mistake.

Still, ultimately, nothing could clear Ren of responsibility for her own life.  Likely she knew that, and it only made her pain more acute.

She wept quietly beside Kearn in the pitch dark.  Regardless of blame, regardless of her fitness for the life she’d chosen, Kearn was still technically her captain.  Even her friend.  He owed it to her not to abandon her again, especially now that the choice truly was his to make.  No masterstroke of rationalization could prevent him feeling pity for her at this moment.

With an arm around her damp shoulders, he drew Ren closer.  Her head sank willingly into his chest and they passed a wordless hour thus.

***

Later, Kearn hovered over Ren in her open hibe capsule, holding her hand as she drifted into a chemical-induced sleep.  He had to admit that putting Ren under wraps brought him a sense of relief, as shallow as the admission made him seem.  It was part of the spacer character to view a problem out of sight as a problem solved.  But, alas, some problems dogged one more persistently than others.  Kearn had a few of those, and Serenity counted topmost among them.

With Serenity out of sight, if not quite forgotten, Kearn turned his attention next to a more immediate concern.

“Fyat, you’re up,” he announced.

The assassin drifted over and pulled himself into the waiting capsule.  As Kearn secured the netting over him, he took care to meet the man’s stony gaze with an expression equally impenetrable.  Undoubtedly Fyat’s dead and unexpressive eyes hid many secrets.  Right now it was vital that Kearn hid one of his own.

Thorien administered a hypo to Fyat’s neck.  The assassin closed his eyes voluntarily, making it difficult to determine when he actually crossed the line into unconsciousness.  It didn’t matter much, though, for Kearn immediately sealed the capsule and initiated the hibernation sequence anyway.

If stowing Ren had eased Kearn’s mind, locking Fyat down brought positive exultation.  He waited a few moments before speaking, in case the assassin had some unlikely means of eavesdropping from within his capsule.

“Aprile, Ilias,” he said when he felt it was safe.  “Slight change of plan.  You two and I aren’t going into hibe yet.  We’re going to purge Lady of Fyat’s presence, however long it takes.  There’s no way he’d submit to hibe without some means of making sure we’ll have to pop him later.  I’m betting he’s made himself ‘indispensable’ again–some six-month destruct sequence, or whatnot, that will require his intervention to abort.  We’re going to find it and disable it.  Then, once Lady is clean, we can keep this freak on permanent ice, or maybe even toss him into a passing star.”

“Damn!” Aprile sang out with a grin.  “I really do like you better, Kearn.  Will Gareth was way too mellow.”

“I intend to get mellow again as soon as humanly possible.  Which is exactly why I have zero tolerance right now for bullshit.  So let’s get everyone tucked away.”

Zerouali climbed next into her capsule.  “I hope I’m not slated for jettison, too,” she said humorlessly.

“We’ll see.”

Thorien applied the hypo to her neck.  Seconds later the woman fought to speak a few final words as she drifted off.  “Don’t let me…sleep…too long.”

She slipped into unconsciousness.  Kearn shut the lid and engaged her capsule, leaving her plea unanswered.  She couldn’t have heard him anyway.  Her body would technically be ‘asleep’ for only ten minutes or so.  How much objective time passed during that nap was another story.  Zerouali wasn’t slated for revival at Ona, which with any luck would be a mere refueling stop en route to some more palatable destination.

Thorien was last to go under, leaving conscious only those three of the crew who would spend their next few days, weeks, months–however long it took–purging Lady of Fyat’s sabotage.  The job promised to be a tedious and frustrating one, but compared to the unbridled chaos of late the prospect of working with trusted crewmates toward an identifiable goal came as an absolute joy.

Kearn looked forward to a voyage decidedly lacking in fugitives, assassins, hijackings, ultimatums, hostages, military assaults or anything that remotely qualified as a surprise.

For a while at least, life might be simple again.

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.05.35 07:21

Commonwealth:BREAKING NEWS

 

CENTURIES OLD COVER-UP EXPOSED, TRANSLIGHT MONOPOLY SHATTERED

Following closely in the wake of reports of an illegal translight vessel evading two Fleet warships at Merada, an anonymous source within Fleet now claims that Interim officials have been aware since before the Founding of a potential threat to the translight monopoly.

In I.-00077, the civilian freighter Lucifer’s Halo discovered the alien site that yielded the technological basis for translight.  Upon his return, Halo’s Reissan captain Mayweather Kearn turned over the contents of his holds to corporate authorities.  The new leak within Fleet alleges that the subsequent Reissan expedition to the alien site in I.-00036 found thirteen gutted alien vessels whose translight cores were unaccounted for.  The leak also alleges that these missing cores were secreted away by Kearn and that the authorities of the nascent Interim were fully aware of this fact.

Kearn himself perished in a hibernation mishap in I.0012, but any cores he may have stolen remain missing.  Should the new allegations prove true, they could shed menacing light on the recent incident at Merada.

Coming on top of the loss of twenty-four voidships in seven days due to apparent terrorist attacks, the latest news is certain to have significant impact on Commonwealth politics.  Extreme right wing factions such as the Stellar Union Party of retired Fleet admiral Karina Althauser have seen a significant upsurge in popularity in the wake of recent events.

[END]

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.06.04 13:02

Commonwealth:BREAKING NEWS

 

KEARN ALIVE?

Jan Bohringer, former captain of ISS Whisper of Death, currently in administrative detention awaiting court-martial, has smuggled out a startling statement regarding recent events at Merada.  According to his account, the captain of the illegal civilian translight vessel discovered there, the first such ever encountered, was none other than Mayweather Kearn.

Kearn, as captain of Lucifer’s Halo, was the inadvertent discoverer of the alien translight technology more than three centuries ago.  Recently an anonymous leak within Fleet alleged that Kearn might have withheld a number of critical translight components which were subsequently never recovered.

Kearn is officially believed to have perished in I.0012.

[END]

***

 

 

 

 

 

PART THREE: ONA

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.11.38 15:08

Commonwealth:POLITICS

 

ALTHAUSER SWORN IN

Retired Fleet admiral Karina Althauser was sworn in today as First Secretary at the head of a new Stellar Union Party administration.

“We embark today on a new era in human history, an era in which we will secure the future for the peace-loving citizens of our Commonwealth,” said the 189-year old Althauser in a brief address following her inauguration ceremony.

The Stellar Union Party swept to power in elections earlier this year running on a security-oriented platform.  Long an outspoken public figure, Althauser herself is an advocate of zero tolerance for non-Commonwealth worlds which might one day threaten the union.  A widespread pre-emptive military campaign, while not yet part of Stellar Union’s official platform, is widely seen as the inevitable outcome of the party’s victory, especially given its selection of Althauser herself as First Secretary.

Months ago a high level leak within Fleet revealed that elements hostile to the Interim may well be in possession of translight technology.  That revelation is widely credited with catalyzing public opinion just in time for Stellar Union’s massive surge at the polls.  Opposition parties claim that Althauser, a retired five-bar admiral, exploited or even engineered those leaks and the subsequent paranoia for electoral gains.  Earlier this year Stellar Union described the still-unexplained loss of sixty-two voidships, nearly one eighth of the fleet, possibly to sophisticated terrorist attacks, as a ‘wake-up call’ to the Commonwealth.

The votes for Stellar Union, which won an unprecedented sixty-six percent of Assembly seats, are seen as a strong public mandate for Althauser’s well-known positions.  If so, the debate now is not about whether a military campaign will commence, but when and how.

[END]

***

Simon Ascher floated silently in his three-by-six cell aboard the Fleet prison transport Scalia.  This was it, the end of the road.  Or it would be shortly anyway, once Scalia dumped him on Frost–or home, as he would soon call it.  The months of detention, the court-martial, the sentencing, all were a blur behind him.  After a few months of constant solitude, one developed of sheer necessity a new outlook on life, a new perception of time.  Often Ascher went weeks without speaking a word to anyone.

At first he’d thought he would never be able to handle it, that he’d have no choice but suicide.  But eventually, as the days and weeks began to pass more easily and he learned to retreat within himself, he’d discarded that idea and made a surprising realization.  That single hour of reckless rebellion aboard Hunter was the single proudest moment of his life.  He felt more fulfilled now than at any other time in his life.  Until Merada, he’d been going through the motions of life without ever really having lived it.

Far from regretting those actions that had landed him here, he embraced them.  They represented the Simon Ascher that should have been.

Because of that man’s actions, though, the real Simon Ascher would now live the rest of his life at hard labor in a bleak maximum-security prison asteroid.  Located in Reissa’s own system, Frost traced a cold and distant orbit where sunlight was a fond memory.  Surprisingly, the prospect didn’t really scare Ascher that much.  By all accounts, ‘the rest of his natural life’ wouldn’t amount to much there.  The sentence would be short and brutal.

It was worth it.  Given the chance, he’d do it all again.

A great deal of Ascher’s inner life was devoted to Serenity Martijn, even though he still had no idea who she was or what had become of her.  As much as he’d have liked to believe otherwise, her fate could not have been a happy one.  But regardless of his failure to rescue Serenity, what carried Ascher through these dark times was in part the knowledge that his actions had mattered.  To her.  Serenity’s final words to him echoed nightly in his head.  I’ll never forget you.

The sentiment was mutual.  Sometimes, despite himself, Ascher dreamed that somehow, someday, against all odds, he might meet her again.

He tried not to dwell on that fantasy often.  It hurt too much.

Scalia’s crew didn’t bother to keep Ascher informed of how close they were to arrival.  The voyage was sublight, of course.  Why waste a translight vessel on criminals?  For the duration of the trip thus far, Ascher had not seen a living soul.  Food was delivered twice daily through a dispenser slot.  If he’d been thinking, or if he’d really cared, he might have counted his meals so as to maintain some sense of the passage of time.

Ascher’s troublesome neurilace had been deactivated.  It was now just a mesh of microscopic metal and organic matter lodged in his flesh.  He was glad to be rid of it.

Suddenly, and long before Scalia began deceleration, Ascher found the door to his tiny cell opened for the first time.

“Out, now,” ordered one of the pair of armed Fleet crewmen who appeared.

Even though he knew better, Ascher began to protest.

“Quiet!  Move!”

Wondering if perhaps someone had devised for him a fate worse than Frost after all, Ascher obeyed.

***

“Retrieval complete, Captain,” a voice reported over Daniel Sallat’s private encrypted comm channel.

Sallat gave no response.  None was required.  Success or failure in this mission, the kidnapping of Simon Ascher, had been written in the planning stages.  The operation represented a tremendous risk for a completely unknown payoff, a desperate act in desperate times.  It had required months of planning and careful placement of trusted operatives, operatives who were by far the most valuable commodity of the tiny, unnamed conspiracy–or rather, counter-conspiracy–in which Sallat participated.

The forces against which his secretive group conspired were largely unknown.  The only certainty was that the so-called ‘Embassy’ neurilace virus that had swept the Commonwealth–nearly infecting Whisper of Death via the upgrade Sallat had stopped at Merada–was not harmless.  No one had yet discerned in any concrete way what the virus’ effects were, but effects there were.  In some very real, if inexplicable, way, Embassy was responsible for the sudden rise to power of the warlike cabal around the new First Secretary and her Stellar Union party.

The connection was vague, but it existed–Sallat knew it.  The handful of uninfected engineers and programmers on Reissa and elsewhere who’d gone underground to become the core of the resistance knew it, too.  That small cadre had managed to devise a silent comm handshake to distinguish infected from uninfected individuals.  Using it they had expanded into the secretive network that had won over Captain Sallat and much of the crew beneath him on Whisper of Death.

But Sallat and his allies were a resistance movement in spirit only, for they possessed neither a plan of action nor the means to uninfect even a single individual whose neurilace had loaded Embassy.  Their only achievement thus far was to have recognized the threat.  Their hope was that Simon Ascher, the disgraced Fleet crewman who had tried to rescue Serenity Martijn, might tell them more.

Ten minutes from its report of success, Sallat’s retrieval squad confirmed a safe return from the prison transport Scalia to Whisper of Death.  On his way down to the brig to interview Ascher, Sallat gave his bridge crew the order to take Whisper out-system on its official, Fleet-sanctioned voyage.

Sallat entered Ascher’s cell on Whisper’s detention deck accompanied by a single guard whose weapon remained holstered.  Simon Ascher sat calmly but with obvious anxiety on the edge of his cell’s cot, eyes fixed firmly on the floor.

“Frost is an ugly place, Simon Ascher,” Sallat opened. “You’re fortunate never to have to see it.”

Though Ascher made an obvious effort to remain impassive, his features betrayed cautious interest.  He seemed to want to speak, but opted instead to hold his tongue.

Proceeding farther into the cell, Sallat smiled with the deliberate condescension any Fleet officer could project at will.  Even had Ascher not been seated, Sallat would have stood a full two heads taller than the little man.  “Scalia has been destroyed,” Sallat said matter-of-factly, “and along with it sixty kilograms of Simon Ascher’s genetic material.  To anyone who matters or cares, you are dead.”

A glimmer of hope flashed then faded in Ascher’s eyes.  He wasn’t quite sure whether this revelation of his death came as good news or bad.

“You can start a new life wherever you like,” Sallat went on, putting an end to the man’s confusion.  “All we ask in return is that you answer some questions.”

Ascher nodded, still wary but not so skeptical as to pass up what was sounding like a second chance.  Even though the decision to rescue Ascher had been strictly business, Sallat couldn’t deny a streak of sympathy for the condemned man.  As a pair of traitors, they had something in common.

“Defense counsel at your court martial argued that your treasonous acts were the result of temporary insanity brought on by the chronic malfunction of your neurilace,” Sallat said.  “You acted under the delusion that the entire crew of your vessel had become infected with some sort of plague, a fact revealed to you by a phantom presence in the ship.”

Ascher confirmed as much with a slightly self-conscious nod.

“We need to know everything you can tell us about this infection, and your phantom.  Every word it said to you, if you can remember.”

“Everything I know came out in the trial,” Ascher answered dejectedly.  “You must have seen it all in the transcript.  Anyway, Hunter’s logs didn’t show any trace of the messages I saw.”

“We have reason not to trust any of the official records.  In fact they are almost certain to be inaccurate.  So what do you say, Mr. Ascher?  Will you help us?”

Ascher lit up.  “You mean you believe me?”

“Suffice to say that your story warrants further investigation.”

Ascher bowed his head, looking stunned.  “All I have to do is answer your questions and you’ll–do what?  Where will you take me?”

“Any convenient destination you choose, although I would advise against a return to the Commonwealth.”

It took Ascher less than a second to decide.  He nodded like a madman.

“Then I welcome you aboard Whisper of Death, Mr. Ascher.  The guard will escort you to more comfortable quarters.”

As Sallat made to leave the cell, Ascher called out to him.  “Excuse me, Captain,” he said humbly.  “Weren’t there other prisoners aboard Scalia?”

It seemed a rather impertinent question for one in Ascher’s position, but its asking suited Sallat just fine.  The convict seemed already to possess a good deal of healthy fear, but a touch more couldn’t hurt to jog his memory.

Sallat had taken no pleasure in sentencing Scalia’s other passengers to death, but the sacrifice was unavoidable.  Their remains were required among the wreckage to complete the illusion of an accident.  Simulating Simon Ascher’s dismembered corpse had been challenge enough.  Too much tampering would have invited suspicion.

“In death,” Sallat told his fellow traitor, “they have served greater purpose than any they would have found on Frost.”

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Nine long weeks it had taken to thoroughly purge Lady of Chaos of Fyat’s pervasive presence.  Even once the tedious work was declared complete, Kearn couldn’t shake a nagging doubt that they’d missed something.  The assassin had managed to subvert pretty much everything, from engines down to waste reclamation.  In the course of the purge Kearn and his crewmates had lost some hardware and data to traps laid by Fyat, but fortunately nothing irreplaceable–precisely for fear of such booby traps they had chosen to leave the most vital systems for last, after practicing on less critical ones.

Despite the danger and tedium of the project, the relative downtime had given Kearn something of a recharge.  The end of those nine weeks had left him almost reluctant to join the rest of the crew in hibe.

But joined them he had, and now, three months later, Kearn was once more Lady’s only conscious occupant.  He’d programmed his own revival a week before the others, partly to confirm that the purge had taken but mostly just to spend some quiet time alone before Ona.

After three days of quiet time, Kearn was stir crazy.  He found himself fixating, not so much on the situation at hand–which actually wasn’t seeming so bad now–not even on Ren and her child.

It was Zerouali that got to him.  Of all the many things that were new since Merada, she was the only one that didn’t make sense yet.  She claimed that her only crime had been to reject some sort of retirement the Interim intended for her.  Assuming that much was true, there was only one possible explanation for her pursuit–the one he’d guessed early on.  She knew something that the Interim was desperate to avoid letting out.

What could that be?  Rather than just wonder, Kearn decided he would pop Zerouali from hibe and ask.  She knew all his secrets; now it was her turn.

With a faint hiss, Zerouali’s capsule unsealed.  Kearn unhitched her restraint web and waited patiently for her return to consciousness.

After a few minutes her eyes fluttered open and fixed vacantly on his face.  She blinked a few times and grew more lucid.  With a deep breath, she asked dreamily, “Trouble?”

“What would make you say that?”

“Seems like a safe assumption.”

Zerouali braced her arms against the sides of the capsule and indulged in a stretch.  Kearn indulged in watching her.  He noticed her body as if for the first time, and not without appreciation.

When his gaze found her face again, Zerouali’s eyes had already opened.  There was no telling whether she’d caught him or not, and quite characteristically she gave no indication one way or the other.

She glanced casually around the hibe vault, apparently noting the lack of company.  “How long has it been?” she asked.

“Almost six months.  We’re nearly at Ona.”

“Where is everyone?”

“Still in hibe.  It’s just you and me for now.”

Mild amusement played over Zerouali’s fine features, a look that might easily be read as arrogance, and perhaps was.  “Should I be flattered?”

“If you like,” Kearn said, borrowing one of the woman’s own non-replies.  “I just want answers.”

“I see.  Why the sudden interest?”

Kearn had asked the very same thing of her not long ago, less than two hours in her perception, and her words were clearly intended to recall his own.  Not long ago his reaction to such wordplay would have been impatience.  But for whatever reason, maybe because he’d had enough of solitude, he wasn’t bothered now.

“Guess I ran out of more interesting problems,” Kearn said.

Zerouali reached up to grab the handrail and extract herself from the capsule.  “Fair enough,” she said.  “Mind if I get dressed first?”

“Be my guest.”

Setting off toward the crew lockers, Zerouali cast back a particular glance that Kearn had seen plenty of times before, though never from her.  It said she knew.  She knew he’d been looking, and she didn’t mind.  She knew, too, that he would look again now.  Perhaps despite his better judgment, Kearn obliged.

A short time later Zerouali emerged fully dressed from a changing stall and rejoined Kearn by the exit.  “I can give you answers,” she said, “but I’m afraid they’ll only invite more questions.”

Kearn let her precede him through the hatch.  “I just want to know what makes you so dangerous,” he said.

With a backward look, Zerouali smiled.  She was doing much more of that lately, maybe even too much.  “You think I’m dangerous?”

“Obviously someone does.  Maybe I’m just curious about the competition for my status as Fleet’s most wanted.”

“If it’s any consolation,” she said, “after Merada I’m quite sure the title is yours.”

“In which case, you might say our roles have reversed and I’m the one complicating your life.”

The relative ease Kearn felt with Zerouali now was a pleasant departure from the frustration he’d felt with her not long ago.  He couldn’t quite tell whether the new dynamic resulted from changes in her or in him, in their situation, or some combination of them all.

“I think the distinction might be irrelevant now,” Zerouali said.  “Let’s just say our complications are mutual.”

The conversation lapsed into a not-uncomfortable silence while they made leisurely progress through Lady’s corridors.

“Where are you from, Captain?” Zerouali asked suddenly at the habitation module’s axial shaft.

“Pardon?”

“You’re not Reissan.  So where were you born?”

“I thought it was my turn to ask questions.”

“Then tell me it’s none of my business.”

They entered the radial lift that would take them down through the concentric layers of the hab module.  Kearn didn’t answer immediately.

“I was born out here,” he admitted at length.  “Raised shipboard.”  Kearn wasn’t sure why he needed to tell her this.  Perhaps once one began purging oneself, it became hard to stop.

“I see.  That’s not common, is it?”

“No, and for good reason.  It’s a lousy way to grow up.  Every time we put in at port I wondered if we might stay.  I hoped we would.  We never did.”

“You remained a spacer, so I take it you overcame the disappointment.”

Kearn nodded, feeling mild surprise at how easy it was to speak of these things, and with a stranger no less.  Perhaps some degree of comfort came precisely from the fact that he didn’t know Zerouali well and that her presence on Lady seemed a temporary thing.

As the lift descended, an approximation of gravity tugged them gently toward what would shortly become the floor.

“Humans didn’t evolve in a void,” Kearn said.  “They weren’t meant to grow up in one.”

And suddenly he wasn’t so comfortable anymore.  Those words.  He had said almost the same thing to Serenity once, centuries ago, arguing about her pregnancy.  And with Ren aboard Lady now, the subject was suddenly relevant again.

Perhaps Zerouali sensed his sudden disquiet, for she said nothing further until they arrived at her guest quarters.

The doors there parted to greet them with a blast of foul, putrid air.  Zerouali covered her mouth and nose.  Kearn was forced to do the same.

“Did you leave out some food?” he asked irritably.

Zerouali shook her head.  Kearn brushed past her to enter the living area, where the stench was overwhelming.  Zerouali came in behind him and within a few seconds was walking purposefully to one corner of the room.  She knelt and plucked something from the floor there.

“What is it?” Kearn asked, coming up behind her.

What she held aloft for him to see was a shattered cylinder of glass and metal–a broken specimen vial.  Kearn didn’t need to ask what its contents had been, even though not a single drop of Lisset’s blood now appeared on any part of its surface.

Kearn struggled for a rational explanation.  “I don’t suppose it looked like this six months ago?” he suggested in vain.

Without reply, Zerouali rose and crossed the few paces to the suite’s washroom.  Its door slid open on approach, treating them both to a fresh blast of foul air.  The smell forced Kearn’s battered senses to admit urine as one certain ingredient in the noxious mix.

But there was more than foul air behind that door.  The broken vial slipped from Zerouali’s suddenly limp fingers.  Sprawled in an awkward pose on the washroom floor was a naked female.  Her flesh was chalky white, in striking contrast to the wave of vibrant auburn hair that covered her face.  Kearn didn’t need to see the face to know who this was.  Or, rather, whose corpse.

“Is that–”  Zerouali stopped, gagged, resumed.  “Is that who I think it is?”

“Lisset,” Kearn confirmed.

As they stood gawking, Zerouali kept one hand clamped tight over her face to stave off another round of retching.  Kearn, fighting the same impulse himself, uncovered his mouth long enough to shout an order to the room’s environmental controls.  An inrush of cool air announced the start of atmospheric purge.

“What do we do with her?” Zerouali asked, venturing a few steps forward for a closer look.

“I’m very much open to suggestions,” Kearn admitted.  In fact, he could hardly think.  He’d been thrown quite a few surprises lately, but this one easily surpassed them all.  At least those other surprises, even seeing Ren again  , meshed squarely with his perception of the universe, with what one might call reality.  This one trampled all over it.

“Is there someplace we can store her while we wait?” Zerouali asked, rather cryptically.  She had grown bold enough by now, or at least inured enough to the odor, to kneel down directly beside the body.

“Wait?” Kearn echoed.  “Wait for what?”

“For her.”  Zerouali’s tone suggested the answer should have been obvious.  “To live again.”

The obvious insanity of this pronouncement served to rouse Kearn from his state of shock.  “Listen, I’m somewhat forced to accept that a bottle of blood turned itself into a corpse.  But now you tell me it’s going to live again?”

No longer bothering to cover her face, Zerouali touched one hand to the corpse’s neck and quested for a pulse.  “The first of those two leaps is the greater,” she said, with a trace of her prior arrogance resurfacing.  “In fact, once you accept the first, the second is almost logical.  Anyway, the vial was over there.”  She pointed to the corner.  “And she’s here.  Ergo, she already lived at least long enough to crawl across the room.”

“Human beings can’t do this,” Kearn said in hopeless denial.

He guessed immediately how Zerouali would respond, and she failed to disappoint.

“We’re not dealing with a human,” she said.  “At least not one like we know.”  She rose, wiped her hands on her shirt and started back into the living area.  “Looks like I was right after all when I said there was trouble.  Come, Captain.  The time has come for those answers you wanted.”

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.12.16 09:17

Commonwealth:POLITICS

 

Transcript of first policy speech by First Secretary Adm. Karina Althauser (ret.), I.0286.12.16

Citizens of the Commonwealth, you elected my party on its promise to secure a future of peace and prosperity for your children and for all generations to come.  Your voice has been heard, and as your elected leaders we must waste not a moment in heeding the call.  Your Assembly has already voted by strong majority to grant this administration the broad authority to do whatever is necessary to fulfill our historic promise.

At this time when our great Commonwealth finds itself beset on all sides by the forces of chaos, we cannot stand by complacently awaiting the inevitable deathblow.  There are at least thirteen translight cores out there, somewhere, in unknown hands.  There are also thirteen unique and beautiful worlds in our union.  In thirteen moments of horror, the future of our civilization could be erased.  Only the hopelessly naive can deny this danger.  The flame of humanity must not be allowed to dwindle and fade from this universe that we call home.  Yet that is precisely what shall occur if drastic action is not taken, and taken soon.

It is with this firm conviction in mind, as well as with love for the ideals upon which this Commonwealth was founded that I announce the start of Operation Freedom’s Reign.  This sweeping initiative is designed to deliver enduring peace and security for all of humankind by seeking out and eliminating forces of evil and chaos throughout known space.  By removing such elements, which can only be called ticking bombs, from humanity’s starscape, we open the door to a new epoch in the history of our species, an epoch of unprecedented peace.  Civilization will be free to flourish as it has never done before.

It may pain us some among us to extinguish the lives of those who have yet to raise a hand against us.  Such compassion is admirable, and indeed is part of what makes us human.  However, it is that same compassion, along with healthy measures of pragmatism, intellect, and foresight that inspires and necessitates Freedom’s Reign.

For centuries now, that noblest of all endeavors, our Interim, has stood firm between our Commonwealth and the yawning abyss of History, between order and chaos, civilization and anarchy.  Now we must make the sad–nay, painful–admission that this shield which has protected us so well for so long has been pierced.  Forces far outside our control now wield the ultimate powers of life and death, powers they will inevitably one day choose to deploy against us.  They have already done so to devastating effect, extinguishing in seventy-five gruesome moments the lives of thousands of our brave, innocent brothers and sisters serving on Fleet voidships.  Should we wait now idly for the next, even more brutal attack by those who are jealous of our freedom and prosperity?  How long before we take notice, before we rise up and say to their terror, ‘Never again’?

This government’s emphatic answer–your answer–is that we will not wait.  Freedom’s Reign is our answer.  The line has been drawn and we are called upon to step up to it, or else perish.  The plans are made, the stage is set, and the curtain is soon to rise on a bright new age.

My fellow lovers of peace, I thank you.

[END]

***

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

Sallat sank into despair upon reading the fresh communiqué from Reissa.  Whisper of Death was to put in at Ayara, the nearest Commonwealth world, to be outfitted with a full ordnance payload for its part in an operation dubbed ‘Freedom’s Reign.’  He would be given a list of inhabited planets to pacify.

Pacify by cleansing.  By genocide.

He had sensed it coming, but never dreamed it would be so soon.  Until this moment he had even maintained some hope that the people and leadership of the Commonwealth might come to their senses in time to avert catastrophe.  At very least he had believed there might be time enough yet for he and his co-conspirators to discover the yet-undetermined correlation between the Embassy virus and the mania that had swept Althauser and her warhawks to power.

As a Fleet captain, Sallat was by far, to his knowledge, the highest-level convert among the fledgling resistance.  He brought with him a largely uninfected crew, for he had maneuvered to keep his roster thus since Merada, and potentially the immense power of a Penumbra-class voidship.  He had scarcely imagined he might be called upon to use that power for overt insurrection–but then neither had he quite believed it would ever come to this, to the orders he now scanned for the hundredth time.  To the wholesale destruction of worlds.

Now Sallat faced a fateful decision.  Whisper was a powerful weapon, his weapon, and with a single order he could bring it to bear against the full might of Fleet.

The Demon Drive granted an attacker terrifying advantage, the very reason the Interim’s founders had so feared its misuse.  With it, a vessel could arrive completely unannounced, deliver a planetary deathblow, and vanish without trace.  Cleansing a world was child’s play, and defending against it all but impossible.

But one vessel might still make a difference.  Even if Whisper could not directly prevent the death of a single world, it might take some of the exterminators by surprise.  Destroying a voidship meant sparing all those worlds further down its appointed list of targets.

Ultimately, though, facing the full strength and infinite resources of the Commonwealth, an isolated resistor was doomed to failure.  If Fleet’s leaders were determined to sterilize a sizable chunk of human space, nothing could stop them, certainly not one ship.

This sense of futility was precisely what had led the resistance to kidnap Simon Ascher.  Some amongst them, not least Sallat himself, had hoped Ascher might provide some insight into the cause of this nameless threat, thus perhaps allowing them to strike at its root.  After all, Ascher’s court martial testimony amounted to the only non-circumstantial evidence that the virus was even something malign.  More importantly, his story hinted at an intelligence–his ‘phantom’–that was aware of the virus at an early stage, and actively opposing it.  Maybe they could even somehow enlist the phantom’s aid.

It had been a long shot which, in the end, hadn’t paid off.  Ascher really didn’t know anything more than he had told the tribunal in his defense.  The only plausible theory in Sallat’s mind was that this phantom had been someone at a very high level aboard Hunter in the Dark at Merada, or perhaps a powerful intruder, who had detected the problem and moved to act against it.  Ascher had claimed that the phantom’s intention was to destroy Hunter.  That the months following Merada had witnessed the unexplained destruction of dozens of other Fleet voidships, then, hardly seemed coincidental.

Realistically, a force that could achieve this level of destruction had to represent more than a lone individual.  Certainly it was not Kearn, whom most Commonwealth officials now linked, at least publicly, to the so-called terrorist attacks.  No, this phantom was a true force for resistance in every sense of the term, and almost certainly the only one with the remotest hope of success.

It remained a mystery among mysteries why the phantom’s priority aboard Hunter had been to rescue Serenity Martijn.  An interview with her might shed some light, but unfortunately she and the Lady of Chaos on which she’d escaped had not been sighted in the months since Merada.

Of course, none of this theorizing helped Sallat one iota to make the more immediate decision at hand.  One thing was sure: he could not participate in the wholesale execution of entire worlds.  It did not take him much longer to conclude that neither could he stand idly by while others did the same.  He had to stand against Fleet, however futile the effort.

Maybe, just maybe, there were other captains out there who would make the same decision.  The resistance kept its branches largely ignorant of one another to ensure that the entire network could not be easily compromised.  Thus far the precaution had proved unnecessary, since no visible moves had been taken against them.  Sallat saw three possible explanations for this: one, there was no guiding intelligence behind Embassy; two, it hadn’t discovered the resistance yet; or three, it simply didn’t consider them a threat.

Now it would pose a threat, if only briefly.  Whisper would battle impossible odds, and in the end would fail.  Sallat’s actions may not halt Fleet’s inexorable march, but he might yet grant billions of innocents a short stay of execution.

Soon he would issue the order to imprison all of Whisper’s crew known to be infected, a careful list of which was locked securely in Sallat’s own flesh and blood memory.  He would then allow his uninfected crewmembers, individually, the option of remaining aboard for the coming conflagration or disembarking somewhere outside the Commonwealth.

Most would stay on, Sallat was sure.  For soon, even the deck of a renegade Fleet warship would be far safer than the surface of any non-Commonwealth world.

Right now, at least, the course was clear.

To Ayara, to arm.

***

It was in something of a stupor that Kearn sat on the couch across from Zerouali in her guest quarters.  He hardly knew what to think–about Lisset, about Zerouali, about anything.  Luckily he didn’t have to think too hard because an unusually animated Zerouali took charge of the conversation.

“I told you already I was a researcher on Prophet,” she said.  “That’s what the Interim scholars on the first translight expeditions there unofficially named the Artifact, in kind of a deliberate swipe at religion.  Had they known what lay ahead, they might have been more careful.

“Prophet turned out to hold a few surprises not to the Interim’s liking.  For starters, there were buried signals in its electromagnetic emissions, and, as it turned out, in those from the translight cores as well.”  Zerouali’s dark eyes lit.  “Coded layers in both contained unmistakable references to pre-Crossing Earth–art, literature, music.  Have you heard of something called ‘the Beatles’?”

Kearn shook his head.

“Me either.  Ancient Terran musicians, evidently.  Songs of theirs were found encoded in the cores’ EM signatures.  Along with much more.  The patterns were easy to find once you noticed them, so after the first was discovered, thousands more came pouring out.  Most of the references are so obscure as to be absent from datastores.  By the time I left, only a fraction had been identified.”

From her look, Zerouali seemed to expect some kind of reaction, but Kearn’s mind was too overloaded to offer one.  He stared blankly until she went on.

“It could only mean that whoever or whatever created Prophet and the Drive cores possessed an intimate knowledge of ancient human culture.  But not only that: consider also that after thousands of years of steady development, human science reached a plateau without ever making the slightest progress toward faster-than-light travel.  Independently of the Prophet discovery, it still hasn’t.  That, along with the suspect EM patterns, might lead one to conclude that the cores were…well, not real science.”

Once more Zerouali seemed to expect something from Kearn, but she gave up and resumed.

“Material analysis of Prophet indicated an age measured in millennia,” she said.  “But when translight probes were dispatched to measure change over time in its emissions, they got a very big surprise.  More than fifty light years away, there was no trace of it.  Nothing at all.  It just wasn’t there.  Meaning, by the time Halo discovered it, Prophet had only been in existence for fifty years.”

The gleam in Zerouali’s dark eyes persisted well after she stopped speaking.  Yet again she gave Kearn space in which to reply, but to his mild embarrassment he once more had nothing with which to fill it.  He did wonder how any of what she was saying tied into the centuries-dead young woman a few feet away on the washroom floor.  But he sensed that wasn’t the right question just yet.

Zerouali loosed a gentle sigh, more sympathetic than exasperated.  “You don’t have to draw any conclusion from this,” she said.  “No one really has.  In fact, it’s exactly the lack of explanation that worries the Interim.  If you consider the implications, it should be pretty clear why they’re desperate to keep it all a secret.”

Taking this as a challenge, Kearn finally shook off his daze and made a solid effort to respond, even if only not to seem like a complete dullard.

“A gift from the gods,” he said in a moment of surprising clarity.

Zerouali seemed pleased with the contribution.  “Exactly.  Gods are one of those things the Interim works hard to suppress.  But if everything I just told you were to become public, they could never control the fallout.  Prophet was sent by God, they’d say.  There have always been harmless fringe cults devoted to the thing, but with evidence like this, suddenly God is back in the mainstream.  The outbreak of religion would shake the Commonwealth, maybe even topple it.

“While I’m at it, I may as well mention another of the Interim’s dirty secrets, one that isn’t actually much of a secret to anyone who cares to notice.  Their grand experiment is already a failure.  The Commonwealth worlds are far from stable.  They’re plagued by crises, upheaval and failed revolutions just like the rest.  The statistics are classified, of course, but I’d be surprised if Social Engineering spent less than half its time operating on member worlds.

“But that’s something else entirely.  On an even more basic level, Prophet’s secrets undermine the Interim’s very legitimacy.  Even if you replace God with ‘godlike aliens,’ Prophet and its contents could only have been intended as a gift to humanity.  All of it.  In which case, the Interim monopoly is a crime against humanity.”

Zerouali’s final statement forced a scowl out of Kearn.  “It’s a crime no matter how you look at it,” he said.  “But you’re right.  What you know would change everything.  So why didn’t you transmit it to every corner of the Commonwealth?”

Zerouali sank into her soft chair.  Her excited glow subsided.  “As bad an idea as the Interim was and is, its collapse now would do more harm than good.  Too many worlds depend on it, and not just within the Commonwealth.  They have their hands everywhere.  I can’t be responsible for the kind of chaos that might result from its downfall.”

“You prefer to be responsible for the chaos that comes from its existence?  You saw what happened to Merada.  You told me you’ve seen it before.”

Her eyes flashed with anger, which quickly calmed.  “You didn’t save just one core, did you, Captain?” she said, almost accusingly.  “You’re smarter than that.  You saved two or five or a dozen.  Why didn’t you use them to take down the Interim?  Or give the cores, or sell them, to someone who would?”

Kearn gave her only a noncommittal frown.  Zerouali didn’t look as if she expected a real answer anyway.  She’d only meant to make a point, and it was one Kearn didn’t want to challenge for the simple reason that she was right.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know,” Zerouali came back evenly.  “I think the two of us have one thing in common, Captain.  We want only to live our lives on our own terms, without complication, without interference.  That’s why I ran.  Not to be a crusader or a revolutionary.  And that’s why you’re the first person I’ve told any of this.”

“And if I choose to make use of it?”

“What you do with that knowledge is your decision and your own responsibility.  I’ve carried it for a fair share of my life, and during that time I’ve asked myself a thousand times what was right, to speak up or keep silent.  I suspect my dilemma, and my decision, were much the same as yours.”

With a nod Kearn accepted her observation.  Then he changed the subject.  “I’m surprised they didn’t shut down the Prophet site and kill everyone who knew.”

Zerouali smiled ruefully.  “Maybe now they wish they had.  I was very high up, though.  Close to the top.  When I retired in another fifty years or so, they would have secreted me away somewhere, carefully supervised but lacking no comfort.”

“You didn’t want to live out your life with your feet in some stream.”

She shrugged.  “I might do just that.  But I’ll choose the stream.”

To Kearn, this point required no explanation.  Something else did.  “Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

Zerouali smiled anew.  Kearn guessed that this might be the first time in many years that she had so yielded control of a conversation, allowing herself to be led.  It was certainly the first time she’d done so since coming aboard Lady.

“I could tell you it’s because of Lisset,” Zerouali said.  “But you’d know that for a lie since I’d already agreed to talk before we found her.”

She paused and looked away.  Her smile melted.  When she met Kearn’s gaze again, she was once more impenetrable.  Or maybe not quite.  There was a trace of fear in those dark eyes.

“You saved my life,” she said simply.  “I know I haven’t really thanked you until now, but believe me I do realize it.  And I appreciate it.”

From their somewhat awkward delivery, it seemed to Kearn that these words had not come easily to Zerouali.  He could certainly relate to that.

“It’s nothing,” Kearn said dismissively.  “I couldn’t have done otherwise.  In fact, sometimes it seems like all the major choices in my life aren’t choices at all.”

Zerouali nodded.  Her moment of weakness had passed, if weakness it had been.

“Anyway,” Kearn resumed.  “You think Lisset is–what, an alien?  A god?”

“I hope we can ask her ourselves.  I’m anxious to meet her.”

Kearn glanced over at the washroom, where only a pallid ankle was visible through the open door.  A touch of the corpse’s foul odor yet lingered in the chamber’s vigorously scrubbed air, but the two living persons present had long since adjusted to the smell.

“This is insanity,” Kearn said.

“Surreal, perhaps.”

“Call it what you want.  It makes no sense.”

“I’m sure it makes perfect sense.”  Zerouali sank heavily into her chair, settling in for a long wait.  “Or, rather, it would if we saw the whole picture.”

“Is that likely to happen anytime soon?”

Zerouali inclined her head at Lisset’s corpse.  “I think that depends on her.”

“So you’re really waiting for her to get up and talk?”

A simple nod.  A few moments passed in silence.  Kearn stood and walked to the washroom for another look.

“She looks pretty well dead,” he said dubiously.

“Give it time,” Zerouali countered from her chair.

Kearn turned away from the nude corpse to pace the living area.  A sudden restlessness gripped him.  “We don’t have to just sit and watch her, do we?” he asked.

“Not if you have something better to do.”

Kearn halted by the woman’s chair.  “How about dinner?”

Zerouali failed to look up or even break her expressionless stare at the wall.  “I’ll get something later,” she said plainly.  “Thank you.”

“Aren’t you hungry?  Everyone is after hibe.”

An unnatural pause preceded Zerouali’s distant and formal, “Not really, thanks.”

Kearn shrugged off the defeat.  He could see the woman’s guard was back up.  She was her old self again.

“Well, comm me if you change your mind.”

With quick words of parting, Kearn left her alone.  He accepted her rejection and managed not to take it personally.  It fit in with what he’d already observed, that familiarity scared her.  A spacer of all people could respect the defenses one built of necessity over a life spent constantly on the move.

  Back in his own quarters Kearn hunted for a means to kill some time.  He absently searched Lady’s datastores for the Earth musicians Zerouali had mentioned, but found only a phonetic match with some insect.  Well, she’d said the references were obscure.

From there he began wading through everything he could find about old Earth, which was not terribly much.  The strange and unlikely thought crossed his mind that maybe Lisset had been there.  The time and distance involved seemed impossible.  But, of course, impossible seemed a relative term of late.

There had long been whispers that Fleet had mounted translight expeditions back to Earth, humankind’s home before the Crossing had taken its seed, and its peculiar brand of madness, to more desirable galactic real estate.  But such expeditions, if they’d occurred, remained the stuff of speculation.  No findings had been released, at least none that had managed to find their way outside the Commonwealth and into Lady’s datastores.  Maybe Zerouali knew more.

As he passed the next few hours sifting through miscellaneous and largely uninteresting data on Earth, Kearn drifted to sleep a few times.  His eyes were bleary and his mind almost numb when Zerouali commed.

“Captain,” she said urgently.  “Something’s happened.”

The words brought Kearn to life.  He extinguished the screen in front of him and began a mad dash for the guest suite.

On arrival there, he was greeted by the sight of a live and naked–but still decidedly corpselike–Lisset hanging awkwardly from Zerouali’s shoulder.  He stood dumbly at the entrance, watching the pair stumble toward the couch.

“I could use some help,” Zerouali said.  “She’s not very graceful.”  As if to prove that point, Lisset slipped from Zerouali’s grasp and plunged face-first to the floor.

Kearn raced over to grab one of the dead girl’s arms and heave her up.  He winced with ill-concealed disgust on feeling her cold flesh slide easily over atrophied muscle in his hands.

Together they set the girl on the couch, where she lay unmoving but for the slow rise and fall of tiny breasts atop a starkly defined rib cage.  Irrationally, Kearn wiped his hands back and front several times on his shirt after touching her.

“Clothes?” Zerouali panted.  Her breathlessness likely came more from excitement than exertion.

“None here, unless you have something?”

“Only what I’m wearing.  I’ll get a blanket.”  Fetching one, she draped it over Lisset’s semi-animated corpse.

“You think she’ll want a drink?” Kearn wondered aloud, after several dull minutes spent watching the girl breathe.  “I know I do.  Something hard.”

No sooner had he said this than Zerouali gasped.  Kearn looked over to find that Lisset had opened her eyes.  It was among the more disturbing sights he’d ever witnessed–those two bright blue irises lodged in that pale, dead face from the past.

The girl lurched up into a seated position, the blanket crumpling into her lap.  Her head flopped lifelessly on her chest, then snapped back to perch at an awkward angle.

Blue eyes shifted lazily back and forth between the two gawking onlookers.

“K-K-K-Kearn…” the corpse croaked.  The initial sound stuck in her throat and sounded like gagging.  After this her eyes, and only her eyes, moved to Zerouali.  “Don’…‘member yooou,” she drawled in the spacer tongue.

Kearn could only stare.  He managed a quick sidelong glance at Zerouali, who stood similarly transfixed.

Lisset emitted a string of disjointed words.  They emerged in bursts from pale lips that scarcely moved.  “Wait…hard…gotta…conc’trate.”

Her hand twitched beneath the blanket.  Other parts followed until it looked as if her body were being jolted intermittently with electrical current.

This went on for a minute or so before subsiding.  Zerouali took a hesitant step forward to reposition the blanket over the girl’s bare chest.  Lisset didn’t seem to notice or care, alternating between blank stares at her audience and flicked glances around the room.

Zerouali knelt on the floor, squarely in front of the girl.  “What are you?” she asked in slow spacer Galactic.  Kearn had forgotten she knew that tongue; they had been conversing in Meradi.

The corners of Lisset’s mouth turned upward in a dumb, babyish grin.  “Trouble,” she said.  “Looooosing…”

Zerouali took the non sequitur in stride.  “Losing what?” she asked.

The girl took her time answering.  She seemed distracted.

“So close.”

“What?  What’s so close?”

“Slipped in…tiny…expands.  Undoes my work.  Negates my influence.  Clever.  Can’t stop it…”

Ignoring this apparent nonsense, Zerouali changed tack, leaping straight to what she no doubt considered the most pressing question.

“Are you the creator of Prophet?” she asked.

A curl of Lisset’s dead lip conveyed something like puzzlement.  “Prophet…?” she said.  “Oh, that… S’pose.”

Encouraged, Zerouali leaned in and planted hands on Lisset’s lap.  “What are you?” she demanded.  “Why did you give us Prophet?”

Lisset’s dull features twisted in another smile.  “I like you,” she slurred.

“I like you, too,” Zerouali returned, as if to a young child.  “But we need to know what you are.  What are your intentions?”

Lisset must have tried to shake her head then, but instead it only rolled a fraction to the left.  “No m-m-matter now… Hopeless.”

“Maybe you should let her rest a little,” Kearn offered.

But Zerouali shushed him angrily without even a backward glance.  “You said ‘influence,’” she went on calmly to Lisset.  “What influence?”

The girl’s blue eyes drifted belatedly to Kearn, back to her questioner.  “He right, need time… Better…soon.”

“We’ll help you all we can,” Zerouali said hurriedly.  “But there’s so much we need to know.”

Kearn laid a hand on Zerouali’s shoulder and said, “Let her rest.”

Zerouali turned to whisper urgently at him, “We’ll get more while she’s disoriented!”

“No,” Kearn said firmly.  “That’s my friend you’re talking to.  Sort of.  Maybe.  I say we let her rest.”

“This is bigger than both of us, Captain.”

“I agree.”  Kearn stared heavily at the recently-dead girl, who appeared to be practicing her motor skills with simple, jerky movements.  “That’s exactly why I want to tread lightly.”

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

Uriel.  Home to fifteen billion souls, it was the first system that Daniel Sallat would betray his masters to defend.  Whisper of Death, like nearly every translight warship in the Interim Fleet, had been loaded to capacity with planet-cleansing ordnance and assigned a string of inhabited systems for systematic extermination.

There were five systems on Sallat’s itinerary.  Five that were safe.  For now.

Uriel was not among them.  Sallat wasn’t privy to knowledge of when or by what particular voidship Uriel was due to be cleansed, but he did know it to be one of those targeted.  And its location relative to more than one Commonwealth world made it fairly likely to be among the first.

Whisper now stood in wait a few million kilometers from Uriel Prime, the system’s only inhabited body.  Stealthed spysats were deployed over millions more kilometers, awaiting sign of an incoming Fleet warship.  There was no predicting the path by which an attacker might approach the planet.  Drive navigation was at best ninety percent accurate, necessitating travel in a series of ever-shorter translations followed by a final approach under conventional propulsion.

When the executioner did arrive, there would be little time to react.  Ideally Whisper would destroy or disable the incoming vessel before it was able to fire ordnance at Uriel Prime.  Under normal circumstances this would be a nearly impossible feat, but fortunately for Sallat, and for Uriel Prime, Fleet’s own orders gave a defender a fighting chance.  The local Instruction & Guidance Commissions at the targeted worlds had been issued notice, albeit short, to evacuate any and all groundside assets.  Upon arrival in-system, the executioners were to establish contact with the local Commission and verify evac before proceeding to bombard the planetary surface.

Command deemed such a luxury acceptable because, quite reasonably, they anticipated no resistance.  But this critical delay would give Whisper a window in which to strike.  Sallat’s plan was to jump Whisper as close as possible to the incoming vessel and fire a volley of stealthed antimatter warheads  , weapons normally intended for use on groundside targets but which should equally suffice against another ship.  In the vast void of space, where a ship’s hull was the only significant clump of matter for thousands of kilometers, even a near-miss with such arms could be lethal.  With a clean hit, the targeted crew would never know what hit them.

Not surprisingly, official Fleet doctrine contained no reference to combat between two translight-capable ships.  No doubt such tactics had been conceived at some point in history, but Fleet had decided, quite rightly from a political standpoint, that to make them public amounted to tacit admission that the Interim’s monopoly might fail.

Now, in Sallat’s view, it had.  And so a rogue Fleet captain and his crew waited not-so-patiently to engage in the first battle in human history to be fought between two Drive-equipped vessels.

The wait lasted nearly two ship-days, two days in which Sallat knew that other worlds were becoming the first, unfortunate prey of Freedom’s Reign.  At last Whisper’s web of spysats intercepted an incoming comm transmission signed ISS Colossus of ArgilWhisper jumped, landing within several thousand kilometers of the invader, and fired four missiles.  Overkill perhaps, but the enemy must not be left functional after the first volley.

The brilliant intensity of annihilation left the outcome in no doubt: target destroyed.  Sallat wasted no time ordering Whisper’s subsequent leap out-system.  He didn’t stop to consider the hundreds of lives he’d just snuffed out, or even the billions he’d just saved–billions that included not only the inhabitants of Uriel Prime but also all those of the subsequent worlds on Colossus’ deadly agenda.

More honestly, Sallat had not saved them at all; he’d merely earned them a reprieve.  Whatever.  It was unimportant right now.  When this madness ended, if it did, then perhaps then one might have time to reflect and mourn.  Right now, though, all participants in this inhuman game–the Fleet crew whose very atoms Sallat had just erased; the people of Uriel, who remained ignorant of a catastrophe narrowly averted; and the trillions of others who stood to die on other worlds–were mere numbers in an equation.  The equation must be kept in balance.

***

Eighteen hours after her resurrection, Lisset was looking considerably less deceased.  Her flesh, if still a bit on the pale side, appeared healthy.  She wore ill-fitting clothes borrowed from among Serenity’s belongings.

Kearn and Zerouali sat with the girl in Lady’s guest quarters.  Zerouali tactfully posed the same question she had asked almost a day ago.

“Please, tell us who you are.”

Lisset’s mouth twisted in a dismissive scowl.  “I’m losing,” she said.

The fact that Lisset could now form words more readily, it seemed, was no guarantee she would make sense.  Kearn had already decided to let Zerouali do the talking.  She was the one with all the theories, and–Kearn didn’t kid himself on this point  –her mind was undoubtedly sharper than his.

“Losing what?” Zerouali asked patiently.

Lisset let too much time pass between question and answer, as if half her attention were elsewhere.  Her head flopped back onto the couch.  Her body went limp.

“What happened?” Kearn whispered.

“Wait.  She’ll be back.”

Zerouali was right.  Some three minutes later, Lisset sprang back to life and regarded her observers as if no lapse had occurred.  Yet she made no effort to answer the last question posed.  Perhaps she had missed it.

“What are you losing, Lisset?” Zerouali repeated.

The girl’s bright eyes shone remorsefully from a face that looked suddenly ancient.  “This envoy is strongest yet,” she said.  “Has beaten me a thousand times.  Will destroy me soon, unless I surrender.”

The cryptic pronouncements made little sense to Kearn.  But an unfazed Zerouali continued to address the girl as if she expected a decent answer.

“Who will destroy you, Lisset?”

Several beats passed in which the young girl seemed she might again collapse.  But she didn’t.  She muttered distractedly, “Six hundred, six hundred.”  Then she shook her head, exhaustion apparent on her undead features.  “Can’t sustain.  Must focus.”

Her head and limbs fell limp.

“Shit!” Zerouali said, an uncharacteristic outburst.

“I don’t suppose you understood that?” Kearn asked her.

“There wasn’t much to understand.”

“What does ‘six hundred’ mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what’s your guess?”

“About what?”

“Any of it!  I’m lost.  A girl whose corpse I spaced three hundred years ago just told me she’s under some kind of attack.  I can’t begin to know what to think about that, so please tell me!”

Zerouali’s lip curled in a thoughtful frown.  “I’m at as much of a loss as you are.  But I will admit I don’t like how it sounds.”

“You think there’s reason to worry?”

“You said it yourself, Captain. A girl we know to be deceased regrew her body from a vial of DNA.  I don’t pretend to know what Lisset is, but I don’t think we want to meet anything that she thinks can destroy her.”

The woman’s words brought Kearn to a reluctant but instinctive realization.  “Another fugitive,” he lamented.  “I’ve got another damn fugitive aboard, haven’t I?”

Zerouali hesitated.  There was uncertainty in her eyes.  “Actually,” she began at length, “I suspect she might be a danger to more than just your ship.  Whatever battle it is she claims to fight might have stakes beyond our comprehension.”

“Stakes?  What stakes?” Kearn asked, frustrated.  “And what battle?  She’s sitting on a couch in my guest quarters.”

“Not any battle we can see.  Maybe not even one we’re capable of perceiving.”

Kearn sighed.  “Doctor, with all due respect to your scientific credentials, which I’m sure are golden, I think you’re taking too much license.  You want proof for your ideas, so you’re finding it.  There has to be some more realistic explanation.”

“Such as?”

“I don’t know, something we’re overlooking!  Deception is my first guess.  Insanity a close second.”  This last, muttered addition was more expression of Kearn’s frustration than any real contribution.

“Captain,” Zerouali said, “apparently you’ve forgotten what she already told us.  By her own admission, this being is the creator of Prophet and hence of translight.  She manufactured a catastrophe aboard your vessel in order to cause its discovery.  Now she’s returned from the grave.  With all due respect to your credentials, what more can she do to prove she isn’t human?  I would suggest that for lack of any better term, we might as well call her a god.  Not in a theological sense, perhaps, but in the sense of a being whose nature and actions are indecipherable to us.”

God.  The word gave Kearn a chill.  He cast a long glance at Lisset’s inert form on the couch.  From the look of her body it seemed she might have died again.  Was this a god?

“I don’t know if I’m ready to believe that.”

“Understandable,” Zerouali offered sympathetically.  “I only hope that if and when we are given proof, it doesn’t kill us.”

***

Sallat’s success at Uriel was followed by two more unequivocal victories in the span of eight ship-days.  Fifty more hours under Drive and conventional propulsion brought Whisper of Death to Hualt.

Formerly home to a civilization of ten billion, Hualt was now a barren, dying world.  Sallat regretted the waste of valuable time spent getting here.  By now, warnings would have trickled out to Fleet warships in the field, and henceforth Whisper would have to be wary of ambush.  Worse still, the executioners’ orders may now become ‘cleanse first, ask questions later.’

Where to go next, then, to catch an unprepared enemy and arrive in time to avert another holocaust?  With each passing hour the likelihood of success grew fainter.

Of course, that assessment presumed a continuation of their current strategy.  There was yet another, more daring option, a plan in fact conceived by one of Sallat’s aides.  They could threaten the Commonwealth itself, deliver an ultimatum: call off Freedom’s Reign or Reissa will be the next world extinguished, to be followed thereafter by another and another of the thirteen.  Even if the threats were idle, Fleet would be forced to recall most or all of its forces for homeworld defense.  Reissa might be blackmailed into exercising reason, at least for a while.

However, there was quite an ethical leap to be made from preventing genocide to committing or even threatening the same.  If it came down to it, Sallat wasn’t sure he could give such an order.  Killing Fleet crews to prevent an impending crime was one thing, terrorizing sixty billion civilians quite another.

Regardless of whether he could bring himself to act on the threat, the ultimatum seemed a wise strategic move.  Sallat retired to his office to compose the necessary translight beacon.

Just as he began, his display went haywire.  A single entry from the Catalogue of Inhabited Bodies sprang forth unsummoned.  He dismissed it.  It returned.

By the time Sallat had cleared his screen for the third time, a vague sense of deja vu had become outright flashback.  It had been a similar glitch at Merada that alerted him to the bogus neurilace upgrade and ultimately saved Whisper from infection.

This was no glitch, Sallat concluded with a chill.  There was intelligence behind this.  Was it the work of Ascher’s phantom?  Sallat could scarcely guess.  If anything, the mystery had only deepened.

Of far more immediate importance was that Whisper now had its next destination.

Ona.

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

<>

Interim Directorate of Research and Assessment

Ref. No. MR-3351-277

Type: Satellite, Natural, Class 7

System: NG785-9953

Local designation: Ona

Interim registered designation: same

Dominant language: Thaniq (Interim designation: Onari)

Tech Quotient: 3.6

Commonwealth Induction Quotient: 0.6

Revision Date: I.0284

<

>

A rocky and barely habitable natural satellite, Ona houses a civilization founded by religious outcasts from the system’s major inhabited body, Delchet.  From approximately I.-00228, in the face of persecution by Delchet’s emergent world government, adherents of an extremist religious sect began relocating unlawfully to Ona, the incompletely terraformed moon of the system’s gas giant.  Less than a century later Delchet was ravaged by sudden and catastrophic magnetic field fluctuations, resulting in massive depopulation.  Attempts by survivors over the next several decades to rebuild a viable population on the planet ended in failure.

Ona, now the system’s sole habitable body, rejected refugees from Delchet, often with lethal force.  A century later it was Ona, the colony of exiles, which would begin the slow and methodical recolonization of its former homeworld.

Ona’s population of 1.5 billion is governed by a hereditary council of spiritual elders wielding supreme religious and political power.  To perpetuate that power, the council employs social engineering on a massive scale.  Male children are subject to postnatal gene surgery, advanced even by Commonwealth standards, which extends the recipient’s lifespan to some three hundred years, while females are left to live out a natural span one-third that length.  The male-to-female birth rate is carefully controlled in order to maintain a stable ratio.  The rationale for such manipulation derives from precepts of the state religion.

Unsurprisingly, the field of genetics continues to progress on Ona, a society in which technology remains otherwise deliberately stagnant.  Limited outbound interplanetary space travel is permitted insofar as it advances the goal of recolonizing Delchet.  What few vessels arrive from other systems are welcomed only in the hope that they contain useful cargo for trade.  Offworlders are not permitted to set foot on the surface, and local women are not permitted to leave except those destined for Delchet.  Females are not allowed out-system under any circumstances.  It would seem that the architects of Onari society concluded, quite rightly, that large-scale exposure of its citizenry to foreign value systems contradictory to the state religion would undermine the ruling council’s authority and dramatically increase the likelihood of regime collapse.

Ona is at present a danger only to itself.  Any organized attempt to export its religion by conventional means would be doomed to failure.  However, were it to obtain translight in its current state, Ona would pose a threat of the highest order.  Thus fundamental revision of Onari civilization must be considered a desirable outcome.  To promote future stability, the collapse of the current order is being engineered along evolutionary rather than revolutionary lines.  Instruction & Guidance has made gradual and steady progress on this path.

It should be noted that nearly every generation of Onari rulers has faced a social movement aimed at liberating Ona’s female population from ‘gene-slavery.’  Such movements have been entirely ineffectual, enjoying support from only a tiny fraction of the population at large.  I&G monitors these cells and provides covert support where deemed expedient, but only as part of the longer-term strategy, not as a viable avenue for change.

<>

Ona will certainly not be a candidate for any sort of Commonwealth partnership in the next five centuries.  Interim presence for the foreseeable future will remain clandestine.

[Detailed entry follows.]

***

Miryth.  Her name and face were fixed in Associate Director Liam Jagr’s head as he left the freshly concluded special session of Instruction & Guidance’s Ona Commission.

In just two of Ona’s days, Miryth would be dead.  The special session had convened at Jagr’s own request to determine what, if any, action the Commission might take to prevent her execution.  Jagr had argued for urgent intervention on the grounds that someone like her could potentially galvanize the small women’s underground on Ona.  Already in her short life Miryth had become known in subversive circles planetwide for spreading forbidden ideas about female education, genetic freedom and social equity.  For eight Onari years she had been a shadow, successfully eluding the civil-religious authorities with just the occasional, ever-so-subtle assistance from ‘on high.’  Not gods, but the closest thing to them.

Then, six days ago, Miryth had been captured.  A sham trial held in secret yielded a predictable conviction on charges of apostasy and incitement to revolution.  To ensure her proper demonization, the Council even managed to falsely implicate her in two assassinations they knew well to have been the work of other, entirely unrelated, forces.  Jagr had argued that a successful rescue would humiliate and undermine the Onari establishment and make Miryth a hero of mythical standing.  When next she chose to speak, Ona might listen.

His request had been rejected, for it ran counter to the Commission’s plans for Ona.  The decision had been made long ago that the eventual reordering of Onari society would begin on the recolonized Delchet.  ‘A frontier society in a geographically expansive space is the ideal breeding ground for subversive ideologies,’ they believed.  Moreover, any premature emergence of a strong rebel element on Ona itself might backfire, convincing the Elders of a need to tighten their grip.  In the worst case they could even abort the recolonization project, as some in power were already advocating.  Ideally, in the Commission’s eyes, the Onari administration that eventually took root on Delchet would be arrogant, complacent, and ripe for collapse.  In fifty Onari years the Commission would move its own primary base to Delchet, where the ‘real work’ would commence.

Within such a framework, the Commission could not afford to risk valuable assets in an action that might well prove counterproductive.  Miryth, they had ruled, ultimately served their purposes better in death than in life.  Jagr understood the reasoning but could not quite accept the arrogance with which his Interim consigned a brave woman to a miserable fate.

Monitoring Miryth and her associates had been Jagr’s special, if only semi-official, project for the whole of his four years in this post.  Miryth didn’t know it and never would, but she was alive now because of him.  He had prevented her capture on at least five occasions, through means ranging from well-placed warnings to outright acts of sabotage against her pursuers.  Two of those interventions had been unauthorized, and if discovered would surely cost Jagr his career.  Saving Miryth now that she was imprisoned, however, would be impossible without authorized allocation of groundside resources.  The mission was too dangerous and too high profile.  Miryth’s impending public execution was already the talk of Ona.

Sadly, it seemed that this brave heretic’s invisible guardian would be powerless to save her this time.  That knowledge kept Jagr from focusing on his work.  Not that there was terribly much of it to be done, even by an Associate Director, in a backwater posting like Ona where progress was measured in centuries and the ‘real’ work hadn’t even begun.

Perhaps it was the lack of variety, or perhaps the isolation that had led Jagr into the trap into which he’d fallen, of feeling sympathy, even affection, toward one of his assignments.  So much had Jagr come to care about Miryth, a woman whom he’d never met and never would, that he had even betrayed the Interim.  Sometimes the realization shamed him but the truth was clear: his first loyalty was to her.

And now, as Onari men began to converge from far and wide on the capital city to witness Miryth’s ritual murder, there was but one thing on Jagr’s mind.  How he might yet save her.

No viable option presented itself that didn’t require extensive groundside assets, something Jagr could not hope to accomplish without the authorization the Commission had refused.

And so as he waded through the day’s surveillance data, Jagr worked halfheartedly at best.  He was taking a break when something of considerable interest came to his attention.

A ship.

Ona averaged only two or three incoming interstellar vessels per year, and dispatched none of its own.  As a result, the monitoring of traffic didn’t even warrant an additional post in the Commission.  The job was tacked onto Jagr’s own.

Several hours ago, a vessel calling itself Maseilya had contacted Ona’s port authorities looking to trade for fuel.  There was nothing inherently noteworthy about that.  Visitors to Ona were rare, but not extraordinary.  This time, however, Jagr recalled a strange communiqué received some months ago from Fleet Command, a warning of a wanted ship fitted with an illegal translight drive.  Had the alert not been so unusual, he might have forgotten it.

The Fleet communiqué had included full specs on the fugitive vessel.  Jagr moved now to retrieve those.  At the same time he keyed a system request for a full-spectrum scan of Maseilya.

***

Kearn didn’t bother to try explaining Lisset to his freshly revived senior crew.  Instead he simply escorted them into the guest quarters to let them lay eyes on the girl personally.  Ilias and Thorien recognized her immediately as Star of Beshaan’s lone survivor, leaving Aprile in the now-recurring role of lone skeptic.

“You’ve all gone mad, haven’t you?” she said calmly, only half-joking.  “I knew this would happen one day.  If you’re planning to shove me out an airlock and replace me with a goldfish, you may as well just get it over with now.  Shit, with a name like Lady of Chaos I really should have known better.”

“Aprile, this ship is named for her,” Kearn pointed out, as if it were relevant.  “Sort of.”

Aprile shrugged off the perceived affront to her sanity and departed abruptly for another part of the asylum.

Since lapsing into that state some sixty hours ago, Lisset had remained in deathlike catatonia.  After a few failed attempts, Kearn and Zerouali had abandoned efforts to wake her.  Still, Zerouali maintained a constant watch on her, awaiting fresh sign of life.

Meanwhile Zerouali herself had grown more distant.  She had taken her meals alone, even during the time in which she and Kearn had been the only two conscious humans on Lady.  She never actually told Kearn that his presence was unwelcome, but her cool silence made it apparent.  Kearn didn’t take offense, nor did he pressure her; rather he just let her have the space she suddenly seemed to desire.  It seemed ironic that just when he no longer dreaded sharing a room with the woman, she switched on her defenses.  Then again, maybe it was only natural.  At any rate, Kearn had plenty to do preparing for their imminent arrival at Ona.

He buried the ship’s old registry and logs, and Lady became Maseilya.  Each of her senior crew likewise received a fresh alias.

They managed to establish communication with the Onari authorities.  The short voyage had not afforded sufficient time to imprint the Onari language, and as a result all communication had to rely on Lady’s translation routines.  These were serviceable, although the recipients were liable to get a few laughs–and hopefully not bitter offense–from its lack of nuance.

Several days, filled mostly by transmission delay, passed before a deal was reached.  From the small station in the hab module, Kearn commed the details to Aprile.

“In twenty hours we’ll enter Onari orbit and unload the agreed mix of tech, trinkets and biosamples.  Then it’s off to the antimatter station on the far side of their gas giant.  Couldn’t be any simpler.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”  Kearn disengaged his comm and stepped out into the corridor.  Such simple movements were becoming more difficult as the force of Lady’s increasing deceleration under thrust and magsail slowly overcame the hab module’s ability to compensate.  In a few hours, conscious passengers and crew would enter grav couches for the more vigorous braking to come.

Kearn was at the door to his quarters when his comm chimed.  It was LadyMaseilya, he reminded himself–announcing an incoming transmission from the vicinity of Ona.  Language: Commonwealth Standard.  Signature: Interim.

Kearn cursed aloud and scrambled into his quarters, managing to whack his knee on some furniture as he momentarily forgot to account for decel.  Cursing all over again, he hobbled to his comm panel and cued the incoming message.

Attention civilian freighter Lady of Chaos approaching under false registration Maseilya.  This is Associate Director Liam Jagr, Interim Directorate of Instruction and Guidance, Ona Commission.  Your vessel is wanted for harboring known fugitives, unlawful possession of a translight drive, and terrorist activities.  Our station has standing orders to report your presence immediately for detention, or, failing that, to destroy you.

Now Kearn flew into an unbroken stream of obscenities.  Things had been going so well.  Relatively speaking, of course.  Yet something didn’t seem right here.  Why the warning before Lady even reached Ona?  Why sacrifice the advantage of surprise?

However, the communiqué continued, answering Kearn’s doubts, as the only Interim representative in this system currently aware of your presence, I may be prepared to accept an arrangement that facilitates your safe passage.  I require a service to be performed on the surface of Ona.  If you refuse it, your vessel will be disabled and quarantined here until such time as you can be apprehended.  Complete the service, however, and your vessel will be permitted to refuel and embark.

From the quantity of fuel you have requested, it appears that your situation is desperate.  If you feel that the deal I offer is unfair or inappropriate you are welcome to register a complaint.  Should you choose to accept, though, please review the attached details.  I hope that some among your crew may be suited to the task I require.

You may not contact me for any reason, else the arrangement is void.  Good luck.

Fresh out of expletives, Kearn sank against the comm panel.  A short time later, hot and twitching with anger, he reviewed the attached instructions.

He commed Aprile.  “I don’t know how to break this to you,” he said.  “But we’re fucked.  Again.”

***

“When did we become terrorists?”

“It’s news to me, too,” Kearn said in reply to Aprile’s incredulous question.  He was addressing the members of Lady’s senior crew, plus Zerouali, in the conference chamber.  “At any rate, the mission specs are in front of you.  This Jagr guy wants us to rescue an Onari woman slated for execution.  If we refuse we’re looking at a very slow century-plus haul to the next inhabited system–which we would never reach without being intercepted.  So I don’t see that we have much choice but to accept.”

“What about Demon Drive?” Aprile asked.

Kearn shook his head.  “Our fuel can’t power a jump of more than a light year.  It would only delay Fleet’s finding us.”

“And what are our chances of pulling off the rescue?”

“Honestly?”  He heaved another deep sigh.  “Next to nil.  I’d almost rather pluck out my own eyeballs than make the suggestion I’m about to make, but given the circumstances–”

“No!” Aprile interjected hopelessly.

“I’m afraid so.  We have two trained commandos aboard.  We’ll have to consider using them.”

“One of them is short an arm,” Aprile argued, “and anyway, what makes you think they’d agree?  Fyat is going to be plenty pissed when he finds out we already tried to screw him over.  Let him rot!”

Kearn wasn’t pleased to have to defend his idea, which represented merely the least ugly of several ugly alternatives.  “All I know is that I don’t particularly want to risk the lives of my crew on a job better suited to killers.”

“This Jagr is bullshitting us,” Aprile said.  “Getting us to do his dirty work.  Once the deed’s done, he’ll sell us out.”

“That’s possible.  But the last part of his plan calls for us to take him out-system with us, presumably so he won’t be shot for treason.”

“I’d say the same thing in his position.”

“We have pretty damning evidence against him, in the form of his own words.  He’d go down with us if we were caught.”

“If we’re killed, no one will ever see any evidence.”

Kearn sighed involuntarily, hating every minute of this.  What had he done to deserve such an eventful life?

“Look,” he said irritably, “unless you can offer a viable alternative, we have to do as he asks.  The only question is how.  I’m willing to revive just Coleridge first.  If she agrees and thinks she can handle the job alone, we let her.  But barring that…we might need Fyat.”

Scowling, Aprile sank resignedly into her chair.  “Do we get some time to think about this?”

“Until Ona orbit, I suppose.”

The meeting adjourned with no final decision taken.  Hours later, during Lady’s final stage of decel, Kearn spent his time in the grav couch searching desperately for a last-minute alternative, something he had missed, a way out of this latest in a string of disasters.  He was forced to conclude that there was no such alternative.

It was decided then.  Upon easing Lady into a stable orbit of Ona, Kearn accompanied Aprile into the crew hibe vault to revive Coleridge.  Kearn, first through the hatch, halted abruptly on a grab hoop upon receiving an entirely unexpected and unwelcome greeting.

“Thought you were rid of me?”

“Fyat.”  Kearn all but spat the speaker’s name.

“I’m willing to forgive,” the assassin said coolly, hovering near his empty hibe capsule.  “Once.  In fact I have to admit some respect to you for having managed to lock me out of your systems.”

“How did you get out of hibe?” Kearn demanded–as though lack of suitable explanation might make the problem vanish.

“Did you really think I would place myself at your mercy without insurance?”

Kearn just muttered more curses under his breath, something he’d been doing far too often lately.  “Well,” he started with a disheartened sigh–something else he’d been doing too much of.  “It turns out we can use your help.  What do you say to mounting a rescue mission on the surface of this dump we’re orbiting?”

“That would depend on who needs rescuing and how it benefits me.”

“We’re being blackmailed by what I guess is a rogue Interim official.  Quite a lot of you seem to be disgruntled these days.  Anyway, he wants us to rescue some imprisoned local in exchange for fuel and safe passage out-system.”

“You have a habit of finding trouble, Captain Kearn.”

“I was minding my own business until I met you.  I’ll provide you with the mission briefing in hard copy, seeing as I’d have to be an idiot to grant you even limited access to my systems again.  After you see it, you can make your decision.  I would note, however, that this is most likely the end of the line for all of us if you refuse.”

“As you say, I’ll make my own decision.  What is the level of Interim presence here?”

“Oh, I guess he forgot to tell us that.”

Typically, Fyat was unamused.  “You detected no vessels, correct?  If we truly are being blackmailed, there can be no major Fleet presence.  They would have attacked.  We must be dealing with the local Instruction & Guidance office, which cannot command sufficient resources to back such threats.  The best course is to seize Ona’s antimatter station by force, refuel and jump out-system long before Fleet can deploy assets to stop us.”

Taking an instant dislike to Fyat’s ultraviolent line of thinking, Kearn moved to cut off discussion.  “If you’re ready to hijack a flying bomb, then you can handle a simple rescue,” he said.  “Let’s call your idea Plan B.”

Fyat moved purposefully closer, approaching the exit.  Kearn tensed instinctively but held his ground.

“Fine, I’ll do it.”  The killer’s cold eyes flicked over Kearn’s shoulder at Aprile.  “But I won’t leave this ship without insurance.  You or this one will accompany me groundside.”

“I’ll go,” Kearn agreed swiftly, if reluctantly.  It was only fitting that he face this danger himself.

But just as quickly Aprile objected.  “No, I’ll go.”

Kearn cast her an irritated glance.  “Overruled.”

“I’m no soldier,” she said in reply.  “But at least I know which end of a rifle to point away from me.”

“That’s not–”

“Besides, none of us speak the language,” she went on.  “And females have the ‘advantage’ on Ona of being expected not to speak.”

“They also wear ten layers of clothing.  I can pass for one as easily as you.”

But Aprile’s logic was not Kearn’s main point of contention.  Mostly he would just feel like a coward letting her face this danger in his stead.

“I won’t let you be a hostage, Aprile.”

Kearn intended this to be the final word, but the assassin hijacked that honor for himself.

“She may have a thicker skull than you, Captain,” Fyat said, “but it holds more common sense.  She’d pull a trigger in the time it took you to figure out who you’re supposed to shoot.  I don’t want a hostage down there, I want an extra pair of eyes and hands.  I’ll take her.”

“I can’t allow that.”

Fyat scowled, to the small extent that this differed from his usual expression.  “For now I am allowing you to retain command, Captain,” he said icily.  “But don’t test me.  I’m not your crewman, and I am far from defeated.  I’ll take the woman.  It’s no longer negotiable.”

Aprile laid a hand on Kearn’s shoulder, an uncharacteristically warm gesture that took him by surprise.  She followed it with a simple, grave nod urging him to acquiesce.

“Fine,” Kearn conceded.  “What about Coleridge?”

“Wake her.”

***

Reissa InfoFLUX – Your total news source for Reissa and beyond.

I.0286.12.30 01:12

Commonwealth:BREAKING NEWS

 

SOURCES: ROGUE VOIDSHIP THREATENS COMMONWEALTH

A Fleet captain may have turned traitor, say unconfirmed reports from anonymous high-level sources.  According to them, a voidship captain whose identity was not revealed has already destroyed several Fleet vessels with the apparent aim of disrupting Operation Freedom’s Reign.

A separate anonymous source indicates that the rogue captain has even made direct threats to the safety of Reissa itself.  A formal government response to the rumors has yet to come, but at least one administration official was quick to go on record as denying any immediate cause for alarm.

[END]

***

“Forget it,” Coleridge said flatly, reclining in the medlounge shortly after her revival.  “Do it yourselves.  I’m no one’s dog anymore.”

“Until your freedom is won, you’re just that,” Fyat said.

“Back off,” Kearn advised the assassin rather boldly, before turning to address Coleridge himself.  “Coleridge–Valerie–we’re being blackmailed.  The safety of this vessel and all aboard, yourself included, depends on this.  Don’t do it for Fyat or for any of us.  Do it for yourself.”

Coleridge fell quiet.  Her eyes, far more human than those of her black-hearted colleague, were deep and reflective.

“I appreciate being asked and not ordered,” she said pointedly to Kearn.  “But if you didn’t notice, I’m not even whole.”

Fyat broke in: “Accept this mission and you’ll have your repairs.”

“No!” Kearn yelled.  “You’ll get your new arm no matter what.  I’m being blackmailed already.  I won’t do the same to you.”

Coleridge regarded both men with a mix of sadness and contempt.  “Fine,” she said at length.  “One more time.”

Kearn gave her a smile.  “Thank you, Valerie.”  His repeated use of her given name was deliberate, and admittedly an attempt to manipulate her.  “I owe you.  We all do.”

The two assassins and Aprile spent the next two hours prepping their mission.  Kearn, meanwhile, joined Lady’s recently revived full crew to begin arrangements for the delivery of cargo to Onari authorities on the optimistic assumption that the fuel trade would eventually take place.

Later, at Fyat’s comm, Kearn came to watch the surface team depart for Ona.

“You’re sure about this?” he asked Aprile privately in the hangar anteroom.

“No,” she confessed.  She put on a good outward show of calm, but one who knew her as Kearn did could detect deeper disquiet.

“Well,” he started, but quickly stumbled for words.  “Be careful.  Leave the real work to the professionals.”  He paused heavily, regretfully.  “It should be me down there.”

“Shut up,” Aprile said with exaggerated irritation.  “I’ll see you soon.”  Without further word she turned and set off into the flyer bay.

Kearn was left behind feeling powerless, with his fate firmly in hands other than his own.  “Fyat,” he commed privately, just prior to departure.  “These people have done nothing to us.  Try to keep the carnage to a minimum.”

“Naturally,” the Social Engineer replied.  But Kearn rather suspected there was a world of difference between Fyat’s ‘minimum’ and his own.

After the launch Kearn found himself once more alone with Zerouali.  He wasn’t quite sure why she’d come to see the flyer off personally.  She wasn’t close to Aprile, and certainly not to the assassins.  Whatever her reason for the small gesture, Kearn welcomed it.

“How’s our undead friend?” he asked Zerouali casually as they set off together from the hangar.  He conversed with her in the spacer tongue now, since she knew it as well as she did any other.

“No change.  A bit paler perhaps.”

“Did you give any more thought to what she said?”

“Quite a lot, in fact.”

Surprisingly, Zerouali seemed ready to leave it at that, passing up a perfectly good opportunity to speak about the mysteries that seemed to excite her so.

“Tell me,” Kearn prompted eventually.

“I’m sure you have other things on your mind.”

“I do.  That’s exactly why I’m asking.”

“If it’s a diversion you want, this won’t qualify.”

Kearn scoffed.  “I’ll take what I can get these days.”

Zerouali did not reciprocate his forced levity.  “Very well,” she said.  “I think Lisset is, or rather she represents, a force that has been manipulating us for quite some time, and which continues to do so now.”

“You’ve already said as much.  What kind of ‘force’?”

“Impossible to know.  What I’ve been wondering about foremost is her motivation.  Why give us Prophet, and why the absurd manner of discovery?  And why all that’s happened since?  Why the Interim?”

“That’s a lot of ‘why’s’ without any answers.  Any guesses?”

“All we could ever do is guess.  Aside from what she’s admitted to us, there’s no way to tell which events in human history have been accident and which design.  Maybe her hand, or another like it, was present in more subtle ways even before Prophet.  I don’t know which is the more frightening prospect–that some higher power has plans for the human race, or that we’re simply being toyed with indiscriminately.  We may never know.”

“I sense a ‘however’ coming,” Kearn guessed.

“However,” Zerouali added deliberately, “given Lisset’s current condition and her talk of an ‘envoy’ destroying her, my admittedly unsubstantiated guess is that some other, more powerful force took exception to her ‘influence’ or to something she did.”

Kearn snorted.  “I take exception to what she did.  So should you, so should every human being who’s lived under the Interim.  But how did you get all of this from hardly a dozen words?  I’m afraid all your years alone may have given you a vivid imagination.”

“That’s cruel of you, Captain.  You admit that Lisset is responsible for the existence of translight.  Is the rest really so much harder to accept?”

“Sorry,” Kearn offered sincerely, mindful again of that unsociable asshole he so wished to avoid becoming.  “I guess you were right not to want to bother telling me.  I’d better stick to more practical things, like getting us safely away from Ona.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Zerouali warned.  “I believe Lisset and what she represents are things you should worry about.  In fact, I’m afraid she may make everything else irrelevant.  Her struggle, the struggle we cannot see, might be vastly more significant than our own.  If my instincts are correct, someone or something is intent on erasing her past or present misdeeds, with potential consequences for every one of us.”

Kearn pondered all this briefly and managed a smile.  “Seems like you have it all worked out,” he said.  “Maybe you’re right, maybe not.  Either way, my first concern has to be my ship and crew.  I can’t wait around to find out how a war of the gods turns out.”

“I agree, Captain.  If you fail here, we might not live to see humanity erased.”

Studying Zerouali as they traveled side by side, Kearn couldn’t quite tell whether she’d intended the comment as a morbid joke or honest irony.  He hoped the former, suspected the latter.

Soon they approached the cargo holds, where Kearn would rejoin hid crew’s prep for the Ona trades.  “I have to go,” he said, halting his motion on the hatch.  “You’re welcome to come and help.  I’m sure we could use a hand.”

Zerouali looked almost ashamed.  “I should get back to Lisset.  I don’t want to miss her if she should return.”

“See you later then,” Kearn said amiably.  Then, suddenly, in a moment of boldness, fueled perhaps by stress and exhaustion, he dared to get a bit personal with the lately cool and distant academic.  “Maybe when we’re through this,” he said, “you’ll spend less of your time locked up with a corpse and more with the living.  You’re good company, and I hope you don’t feel unwelcome.”

Zerouali looked stunned for a half-second before delivering her graceful and measured response: “Not at all, Captain.”

“And no more ‘Captain’,” Kearn added.  “I didn’t earn that rank, I bought it.  Call me Kearn.”

“I’ll take that under advisement, Captain.”

Kearn gave her a smirk, deciding to accept the stone-faced remark as a joke.  “I’m sure you will,” he said.  “I’ll see you soon.”

Zerouali’s unspoken reply was too subtle to read, for her formidable defenses were fully online.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

Following the rogue I&G officer’s detailed instructions to the letter, Fyat piloted Lady’s flyer on a precise flight path designed to evade detection by Onari authorities.  He found their assigned landing site three hours outside Ona’s capital city.  It was stocked according to plan with ground transport, local clothing, weapons, currency, and identity papers.  If all went well, he and his team would return to this spot twelve hours from now and escape in the flyer into the debris ring that surrounded Ona’s parent gas giant, where a freshly refueled Lady would be ready and waiting for translation out-system.

“Damn, ‘s’fucking cold!” Aprile griped as she disembarked.  The words all but crystallized in front of her.

“Quiet,” Fyat said, and proceeded to deploy the flyer’s camouflage shroud.

The particulars of this moon’s orbit around its gas giant, and the giant’s orbit around its star, caused Ona’s seasons to alternate rapidly between scorching heat and bitter cold.  It was currently deep in the midst of the latter, a winter during which Ona’s sunless ‘days’ were a perpetual red twilight brightened only by the dim reflected glow of the gas giant.

The clothing in the waiting ground transport was enough for one male and several females.  Jagr’s instructions had included a detailed guide to Onari dress and customs, which the party would have to follow strictly to avoid unwanted attention.  With none of them knowledgeable in the local language, any scrutiny at all could quickly become fatal.  As Social Engineers, Fyat and Coleridge had the minor advantage over Aprile that their neurilace could provide reasonably quick after-the-fact translation of speech, but even that wouldn’t help them reply to the simplest of questions.

Luckily Fyat was the only one likely to be called upon to answer, given the Onari cultural injunction that forbade females to speak aloud in public outside of very particular circles.  For public use, Ona’s women had a separate, gestural language of which the party remained ignorant.  Jagr’s instructions had called for all but one of the rescue team, no matter what its composition, to dress as females, with just one male to act as the chaperone dictated by custom.

Inside the waiting land cruiser, Fyat slipped into the heavy jacket and boots of his own disguise, while Aprile and Coleridge draped themselves in the bright wrappings and hoods of Onari females.  The last touches for them were intricate gilded masks which entirely shielded their faces.  These particular masks were not of local manufacture, but rather were enhanced I&G-produced replicas with many of the same features of an SES visor, operated by whisper-sensitive vocal controls.  In this sense, Coleridge and even Aprile had a slight advantage over Fyat, who could not wear his own visor without drawing attention.

Weapons provided for the operation were chemical projectile arms of local manufacture.  For protection from enemy fire, the team’s bulky cold-weather garments, like their masks, were not authentic but bullet-resistant Ona Commission imitations.  Since an SES agent could scarcely be destroyed by any conventional Onari weapon short of heavy artillery, this particular enhancement was really only of great import to the unaugmented Aprile.

A final set of Onari female attire they carried, minus Interim enhancement, was intended for Miryth, who after her rescue was to vanish anonymously into the city crowds and rendezvous with waiting comrades.

Within eight minutes of landing, the team was en route to the capital.  The operation was right on schedule.  Just under five standard hours remained until the appointed strike time, when their target was slated for transfer from her prison cell to the place of execution.

The uneventful journey into the city ended with a discouraging blow.  Bad intel.  They arrived outside the detention center expecting to have two hours for reconnaissance; instead they found the transfer already in progress.  An armored truck sat behind a tall wire fence in the sea of armed guards and police cruisers that was the prison courtyard.

Fyat swung the vehicle around on a circuit of the block.

“We get her at the execution site,” he said.

Coleridge called up a map of the city in her faceplate and fed directions to Fyat as he drove.  They arrived ahead of the prison convoy at the massive outdoor arena, and after an exploratory circuit of the neighborhood, returned in time to witness the convoy passing a cordon of armed guards and entering the stadium’s underground garage.

Now was the time to strike, before the guards brought Miryth into the stadium where tens of thousands of civilians, not to mention police snipers, could potentially interfere.

“Get down,” Fyat warned, a directive intended primarily for the weak-fleshed Aprile.  He flicked a switch to lower the van’s windows.  “Fire at will.”

Accelerating on a direct line for the parking entrance, the cruiser shattered a flimsy police roadblock.  Fyat opened fire with his Onari machine pistol on the scattering phalanx of guards.  Crouched in the backseat, Coleridge and Aprile followed suit.  Every half-second targeted burst from the two Social Engineers felled another guard; Aprile’s fire was considerably clumsier but still served to suppress.

Some brave Onari guardsmen stood their ground, managing to raise weapons as their comrades dropped around them.  But such ‘heroic’ resistance did not last long, for those who stood fast inevitably became the next to fall.  Some did manage to pepper the onrushing van with a few ineffectual rounds before scattering.

A dull thud sounded on the hull as the cruiser ran down one of the last remaining defenders.  Then it entered the subterranean garage a short distance behind the convoy.  Ammunition spent, Fyat tossed his current weapon aside and plucked another from the heavy folds of his coat.  From the backseat the two women directed persistent fire at the handful of guardsmen foolish enough to regroup in the cruiser’s wake.

Ahead, the two rearmost vehicles of the prison convoy came into view.  Their brakes squealed as they spun to position themselves lengthwise across the cruiser’s path in a makeshift roadblock.

“Grenades,” Fyat said aloud.  Normally no such instruction would be necessary, but with Coleridge damaged and Aprile untrained, it didn’t hurt.

Coleridge didn’t need the reminder.  Even as Fyat swerved wide to bypass the obstruction, she had her launcher leveled out the window.  Two dull pops were followed shortly by two detonations, then a blast of heat and a hail of flaming debris.

Fyat steered the cruiser through the tumbling wreckage of police vehicles.  The armored wagon that presumably contained Miryth came into sight, flanked by its six remaining escort cars, the occupants of which opened fire.  Leaving return fire to the others, Fyat focused his own efforts on weaving a path through the chaos to close in on the truck.

One, then another, of the escorts erupted into fireballs.  Fyat sped on through curtains of black smoke, briefly losing sight of his target.

When he found it again, he knew it was theirs.  Facing a blank wall with nowhere left to run, the truck turned and braked hard, narrowly avoiding collision with one of its own wrecked escorts.  The resulting skid was uncontrollable and sent the wagon tumbling helplessly onto its side.  It ground to a halt in a shower of sparks and a wail of rending metal.

The remaining escort cars, having avoided the barrage of grenades and the dead end chosen by the wagon, wisely elected to retreat.

Fyat brought the team’s cruiser to a halt beside the overturned police truck, stopping so that other wreckage blocked their pursuers’ line of fire.  Instructing the two women to wait inside, he leapt from the vehicle and approached the overturned wagon.  Its rear doors, which now hung horizontally rather than vertically, thumped and rattled as if someone within were desperate to escape.  Fyat waited a few paces back with weapons ready.

A few more blows from within sent the wagon’s door flying outward.  A bloodied guardsman swam toward the opening through a tangle of limbs.  Before the man could react, Fyat put a single bullet between his eyes.

There was no further sign of motion within.  Keeping the muzzle of his weapon trained on the opening, Fyat unlocked and lifted the topmost door and scanned the darkness within.

The side wall of the van, now its floor, was piled with bodies and weapons.  Slight movements suggested that some of the occupants yet lived, if barely.  It took Fyat only a few moments to locate his target within the mess, easily identified by her plain prison garb and head covered with sackcloth.  Stepping over the fresh corpse by the door, Fyat plucked the woman one-handed from the heap of bodies.

Miryth was a dead weight in his arm, but there was no time to worry about her health.  He slung her over one shoulder, scanning for hostiles on the dash back to the waiting cruiser.  There he dumped Miryth heavily in the seat beside him and reassumed the driver’s station.  The entire extraction had taken less than three minutes.

They met no effective resistance en route back to street level; either the defenders had been completely routed or they were rallying elsewhere.

Back on the city streets, Coleridge called out directions to the place where their instructions advised them to ditch the cruiser and obtain new transport.  There was no overt ground pursuit, but very quickly a flyer appeared and kept station with them overhead.  Coleridge loosed a few rounds at it, but it hovered out of range of their primitive local firearms.

Aprile leaned forward over the front seat, throwing off her thick gloves and struggling to untie the grey burlap sack covering Miryth’s head.  An ominous red blotch, unnoticed before, became visible on the fabric.  When the hood came loose, copious amounts of blood and brain matter spilled forth onto the seat.

“Fuck, she’s dead!” Aprile screamed.

Fyat made a jarring left and screeched to a halt underneath an overpass.  “Any hope of revival?”

“Her brains are in the bag.”

Reaching into the folds of his coat Fyat drew forth a small SES-issued energy weapon which was essentially contraband on this planet.  He thumbed its setting to full power and widest dispersion.

A second police flyer joined the first.  Fyat watched both for several seconds, taking careful aim.

Time for Plan B.

***

A few hours into the tedious cargo arrangements, Kearn received an urgent and surprising comm from Zerouali.

“Lisset spoke again,” she announced.

“Well?”

“Her exact words were: ‘Whisper coming.  Sallat friend.’”

Kearn clutched his head.  More variables, more complications.  “Well, that seems clear enough,” he said at length.  “I hope she’s right about the friend part because we couldn’t run right now if we wanted to.”

Zerouali apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to point out that she’d been right.  “I might add that if Sallat and his vessel do appear, Captain, it would be unambiguous evidence supporting the rest of her claims.”

Kearn smiled inwardly.  “I stand corrected.”

Sure enough, less than an hour later the bridge crew advised that an object with the size and signature of a Fleet voidship had been detected on approach to Ona.  Soon afterward Kearn retired to a corner to accept an incoming transmission from ISS Whisper of Death.

“Civilian freighter Lady of Chaos, this is Captain Daniel Sallat.  Somehow I’m not altogether surprised to find you here, Kearn.”

“Likewise.  In fact, we were warned you were coming and told to trust you.  I presume you’re not here to arrest us?”

After two minutes or so of transmission delay, Sallat’s reply arrived.  “At the moment, you’re the furthest thing from my mind.  Fleet has started cleansing non-Commonwealth worlds by the dozen.  I’ve managed to save a few, if only temporarily.  We’re at Ona on the guidance of what would appear to be a phantom presence on my ship.  If you were given forewarning of my arrival here, it occurs to me that we might share a common benefactor.  How did you receive your information?”

Torn between relief and still more frustration, Kearn stumbled to formulate a reply.  By now, nothing about Lisset could truly surprise him.  But something else Sallat had said certainly had.

“We have a girl aboard our ship,” Kearn explained hurriedly.  “Not actually a girl but some kind of entity, I suppose, that looks like a dead girl.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s your phantom.  But if you don’t mind, can you explain this cleansing business?  We’ve heard nothing of it.”

Strangely enough, it seemed natural to speak to Sallat as an ally, despite their one decidedly unfriendly prior encounter.  The bond of a common enemy–namely, Fleet–could be quite strong.  At Merada it had been that very bond which had led Kearn to aid the less-than-likeable Zerouali in defiance of his well honed instinct for self-preservation.

“There isn’t much to tell,” came Sallat’s response after the requisite lag.  “The Commonwealth decided that some less palatable worlds weren’t worth the threat posed by their existence.  They are now being exterminated as a preventive measure, and a great many others placed on probation in a campaign called Freedom’s Reign.  I declined to participate.”

‘Exterminated?’  Kearn could hardly bring himself to accept that Sallat actually meant what he’d said.  Yet even his most paranoid fantasy could not conjure a means by which such news comprised part of an elaborately laid trap for Lady.  Which left only one possibility: he was telling the truth.

Lisset’s incoherent ramblings sprang to Kearn’s mind, or rather Zerouali’s interpretation of same.  Consequences for every one of us.  Was Fleet to be the instrument by which Lisset’s supposed misdeeds were undone?  Certainly Fleet was capable of undoing just about anything.

Kearn banished the wild thoughts from his head and cursed himself for having had them.  Still he found that a heavy pit remained in his chest, a sense of impending doom that made him want to curl up in a hibe capsule for three or four centuries until the madness blew over.

“You’re a good man,” Kearn said in eventual reply to Sallat.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”

The minutes of lag passed at a crawl, then:  “I’m afraid not, Captain.  Your vessel is no use against a voidship.  I advise you to make all possible haste out-system.  I must engage radio silence now while we await Ona’s exterminator.  Victory is by no means assured, especially now that Reissa knows of our treachery.  Wish us luck, Captain.  Sallat out.”

Kearn scarcely heard any of Sallat’s words after the mention of ‘Ona’s exterminator.’  What should have been obvious to him from the start had escaped his grasp until now–the reason for Sallat’s presence here and why Lisset would seem to have guided Whisper to Ona.

Ona was among the condemned worlds.  Of course it was.  And if Aprile was down there when it happened…

Kearn was still stunned when he received yet another comm, this time from Zerouali.  Some hours ago, on her own initiative, she had begun monitoring Onari newsfeeds, translated by Lady.  No doubt the activity made her observation of Lisset’s warmed-over corpse slightly less dull.

“Something’s happened, Captain,” Zerouali reported calmly.  “An incident at Miryth’s execution site.  Gunfire, explosions, dozens dead.  No details yet.”

The news drove Kearn’s dismal mood still lower, if that were possible.  “I’m not sure it matters anymore,” he answered slowly, painfully.

“What do you mean?  What did Sallat tell you?”

Zerouali’s voice didn’t seem real.  Nothing did.  Kearn had to remind himself to answer her.

“Ona is going to be cleansed,” he said, and left it at that.

“What?  Captain, what does that mean?”

Kearn fumbled briefly with a reply, but gave up.  “I’ll forward you the recording,” he said instead.  “Kearn out.”

Retreating from the comm station in a daze, Kearn returned to his quarters.  A short time later the Onari commerce authorities commed Maseilya to suspend the transfer of goods pending investigation of a violent incident in their capital.

But did it really matter anymore?  Did anything?

***

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

Sitting in his small office, Liam Jagr listened anxiously to the official Onari government channels.  Details were trickling in about the recent massacre at the civic arena.  Jagr’s initial reaction had been fury–the rescue was supposed to have occurred at the detention facility.  But apparently Miryth’s executioners had changed their schedule at the very last minute in order to foil just such an attempt.  With some effort Jagr managed to convince himself he was fortunate that his proxies on the ground had managed to recover so quickly from the setback and mount the operation anyway.

The reports spoke of massive carnage, dozens of fatalities.  That was fine, so long as Miryth wasn’t one of them.  That’s what Jagr was truly waiting to hear.

It was nearly an hour before that word came, confirmed by a guard who’d survived the crash of her prison transport.

She was dead.  The moment her captors had realized there was no escape, they’d executed her on the spot.

Jagr’s head fell forward onto his desk.  His efforts had only served to change the manner of Miryth’s murder.

He listened in a daze as the reports continued, hoping in vain that it was all propaganda or some ghastly mistake, that maybe she really had been rescued after all.  But he knew this was just fantasy.  The comm feeds he monitored were the private channels of Onari Security.  This was where the lies originated, not where they passed as truth.

Some time later, an entry request at Jagr’s office door sent him bolt upright in his chair.  He quickly composed himself, or tried to, and bid the visitor enter.  The hatch slid open to reveal the Commissioner flanked by two armed guards.  As they entered, Jagr understood that his career, maybe his life, was finished.

“The Directorate has given orders to close operations and evacuate groundside assets,” the Commissioner said.

Strange.  Perhaps the visit wasn’t about Miryth after all.

“The beacon went off course and we received the order late,” the old man continued.  “There is no reason given for the evac.  We get precious little news out here, but apparently there’s been talk back home of eliminating some of the less favorable outposts.  It seems Ona will be among them.”

Jagr swallowed past a knot in his throat.  “I heard about that,” he said cautiously.  “I never thought they’d go through with it.”

“Well, they are.  We’ve already begun withdrawal.”

“That’s…that’s…”

What Jagr really wanted to say was that he was glad.  That Miryth’s murderers deserved to be removed from any civilized universe.  That their whole accursed backward society was guilty of criminal ignorance.

“…unfortunate,” Jagr finished instead.

The Commissioner nodded agreement.  “However,” he continued gravely.  He reached into his pocket for a data chip, which he set gently on Jagr’s desk.  “The fact that Ona may be slated for obliteration fails to absolve you.”

Jagr stopped breathing.  Just when he’d begun to think that he might emerge blameless, with all evidence of his misconduct conveniently and permanently erased by Fleet itself, it was over.

“These gentlemen will escort you to a holding cell pending full review of the evidence against you on charges of Unauthorized Intervention.”

With those words, Jagr found himself facing an ugly choice: submit to decades of imprisonment for a crime that, even if successful, would have achieved precisely nothing…

Or…

His mind was already made up.  As he reached for the sidearm in his desk drawer Jagr was careful to telegraph the move.  Naturally the two guardsmen took notice and drew their own weapons.  Jagr froze for an instant before reaching again for the drawer.

“Hands in sight!” a guard ordered.

Jagr paid the command no heed.  Instead he slid his drawer open and picked up the sidearm within.

The guards must have fired then, for Jagr felt a tremendous impact followed by a tingling in his chest.

A nonlethal blast.  No–they were supposed to kill him!

His limbs went leaden and the weapon in his hand suddenly weighed a ton.  There was not far to go.  If he could only raise his arm a few more inches, he could finish the job himself.

Jagr channeled his every ounce of energy into lifting that one arm, a lifeless sack of meat.  Success!  With superhuman effort he managed to guide the barrel to his head.

Another concussive blast pressed him backward into his chair.  Jagr willed one numb finger to depress his trigger.

Apparently it worked.

***

Sitting alone, belted into a station on Lady’s bridge, Kearn waited.  Waited for almost anything–for news from Fyat or Sallat or even Liam Jagr, for instructions from the Onari authorities, for signs of another Fleet vessel.  Anything.  But for three long hours there was nothing.  The frustrating silence was broken only by occasional reports from Zerouali updating him on Onari newsfeeds.

These did not offer much.  The planet’s media was tight-lipped and probably heavily censored.  They were emphatic about one thing, though.  Miryth was dead.  Of course they would say that.  Even if she’d escaped, a government like Ona’s had a vested interest in quashing legends before they were born.

Honestly Kearn couldn’t bring himself to care whether the woman was dead or alive.  There was only one person on Ona he cared about.  Besides, the deal with Jagr amounted to nothing if the Onari authorities refused to allow Lady refueling privileges.  And even those would be meaningless when Fleet arrived bent on annihilation.  How much he missed the old days–really not very old at all–when disaster meant revisiting a world to find out that its economy had collapsed and his accounts there were worthless.  Those days seemed a universe away and likely never to return.

Kearn’s comm chimed.  Probably just Zerouali again with another dose of Onari non-news.

He was half right.  It was Zerouali.

“Help!” she cried.  “It’s Lisset, she’s crazy!”  A loud crash punctuated her plea.

Kearn unbuckled and shot toward the exit.  “On my way.  Is she attacking you?”

“Help!”

“Get away from her if you can.  I’ll comm the rest of the crew and–”  An ominous crack, a groan, cut him off.  “Doctor?” Kearn asked frantically, hurtling toward the hab module.  “Jilan?”

Several beats passed without response.

Kearn sent a shipwide comm.  “Medical emergency in hab module guest quarters.  Anyone in vicinity, return comm immediately.  Thorien, I’ll meet you there.”

Even as he spoke, Kearn cursed himself as an idiot.  After all he’d learned, how could he have failed to treat Lisset as a threat?  Tempting as it was to just shut off his brain under the weight of recent events, it was the last thing he could afford to do right now.  He should have taken precautions.

One crewman reported back, an off-duty assistant of Ilias’ who’d been drafted earlier for a shift in the cargo holds.  Kearn dispatched him to Zerouali’s guest quarters.

“I’m at the door, Captain,” the man reported shortly, while Kearn was still en route.  “What should I do?”

“You hear anything inside?”

“Nothing, sir.”

Kearn passed into the hab module’s axial passage, still at least a minute away.  “Just wait there for now,” he instructed the assistant.  “I’m on my way.  Tell me if there’s any change.”

The delay could conceivably cost Zerouali her life, Kearn realized, but if Lisset really was a threat he couldn’t justify sending her another potential victim.  If there was danger to be faced, he’d face it himself.  For a change.

He arrived to find the attending crewman poised cautiously outside Zerouali’s quarters.  No disturbance seemed to emanate from within.  Standing tensely to one side of the door, Kearn keyed it to open.  When a feral Lisset failed to burst into the corridor and attack, he ventured a look inside.

It took him several slack-jawed seconds to take in the whole scene, a few more for it to fully register.  Zerouali lay face down and motionless just past the room’s the entrance.  The chamber around her had been thoroughly wrecked.  Every object that could be picked up and several that couldn’t had been overturned or shattered.  Curled on the couch at the center of the chaos was Lisset.

Crying.  The girl paid Kearn no notice as he rushed to Zerouali’s side and rolled her over.  The soft moan Zerouali emitted upon being manhandled offered some degree of relief, despite the copious amount of blood on her face.

“Jilan,” Kearn whispered close to her ear.  He found himself almost afraid to speak for fear of attracting Lisset’s attention.  The girl terrified him now.  He very much wanted to drag Zerouali into the corridor and seal the door, but he refused to take risks, however slight, with her life.  He’d wait here for Thorien instead.

Though Zerouali failed to respond to repeated calls of her name, her head did loll back and forth.  Kearn guessed she’d make it, assuming the unlikely perpetrator of this violence–still weeping and evidently indifferent to their presence–made no attempt to finish the job.

Kearn’s eyes darted between Zerouali’s bloodied but serene face and the deceptively innocent-looking Lisset.  He placed a steady, reassuring hand on Zerouali’s cheek.  “You’re safe,” he said quietly.  As his thumb brushed her bloody lips, he thought once more, impertinently, of his earlier clumsy advance on her.

Dismissing the stray thought, he resumed his watch on Lisset until Thorien arrived.  After a cursory exam the doctor issued a comforting prognosis.

“Scalp wound,” he said.  “Looks worse than it is.  Maybe a mild concussion.”

“Let’s get her out.”

Together the two carried Zerouali’s inert form over the threshold and set her carefully on the floor in the corridor.

“I’m going back in,” Kearn said when that was done.  “Don’t open this door under any circumstances.  Until I say otherwise, Lisset is to be treated as hostile.”

With that Kearn stepped back into the guest quarters and sealed the door with his personal override.  He stood quietly staring at Lisset for some time before he worked up the nerve to approach.  Her appearance didn’t exactly inspire terror, but the room itself gave another impression entirely.  The quarters weren’t just trashed; they were quite literally in a state of chaos.  Solid, heavy objects were mangled and misshapen far beyond the capacity of any unarmed human, even an enhanced one like Fyat.  The chair that had served as Zerouali’s home during her long vigil over Lisset had been torn into halves, one of which was lodged seamlessly inside a fibresteel bulkhead.  A dining table was similarly embedded at a steep angle in the floor.  Given the maelstrom that must have occurred here, it was a wonder that Zerouali had escaped with only a scratch.

When Kearn finally came to stand directly before the one presumably responsible, Lisset looked up mournfully with desperate and very human blue eyes.  Her tears were gone, but their tracks still showed fresh on her pale cheeks.

“I’m sorry I hurt her,” she said in a voice that threatened to crack.  “I lost my temper.”

“She’ll be alright,” Kearn said, and could think of nothing more.  What did he even want from her now?  Answers?

Before he could decide, Lisset raised a trembling hand toward Kearn.  The palm was up, as if in a plea.  For what?  Forgiveness?  Kearn just regarded her open hand, avoiding her eyes until she gave up and buried face in her palms instead.

Kearn continued to stare at her with a growing sense of unreality, thinking of all that was alleged to have occurred because of her.  Her gift of translight, whatever its intended outcome, had been an unmitigated disaster.  The Interim was her fault, her creation.

But would anything have been better without her?  The monsters currently en route to cleanse Ona were humans, weren’t they?  Tempting as it was to believe otherwise, humans needed no help bringing themselves to misery.  It had been in their blood since Earth.  Translight had only let it spread faster and wider.

Such thinking brought Kearn to a simple realization.  Whatever Lisset was, however callous she had been with human lives, she had not wanted this outcome.  And now, in evident defeat, she sat here on Lady reacting to events not as a god or omnipotent alien, but as what she appeared to be.  A human girl.  A baby.

No longer afraid, Kearn closed the remaining space to sit beside her.  Lisset looked up with tearful eyes and slumped sideways onto his chest.  The arms that snaked around his torso were warm and, thankfully, un-corpselike.  Kearn draped his own arm over the girl’s back.

“What are you?” he asked gently.  He didn’t really expect a straight answer to this question, one that Zerouali had already put to her at least twice already.

“Alone,” said the sulking Lisset.  “Scared.  An exile.  Soon I will be nothing.”

“Exile?” Kearn repeated.  “From what?”

Lisset shook her head against his chest.  “I’m tired.  Their war against me has consumed countless layers already.  But I’ll surrender to them now, before it claims yours, too.  It’s one of my last.”

Intrigued, but also thoroughly lost, Kearn wished Zerouali could have been present to question the.  Since she wasn’t, he instead said lamely, “I don’t understand,”

“No need,” she said.  “I only want you to help me feel human again for a short while, before I die.”

“How do I do that?”

“Talk to me.”

“About what?”

“How is Serenity?  I went to a lot of trouble for her sake, and all for nothing.”

“She’s fine,” Kearn said.  But damned if he would sit here with a deity in his lap and make small talk.  He dared a tepid accusation instead.  “Why did you do what you did?  To us.  To Halo.”

“I know the results were not ideal,” the girl replied.  “For any party.  Not even for my hunters, I’m glad to say.  I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?  For playing with our lives?  For exterminating whole planets?”

Lisset turned up a tear-stained cheek to flash Kearn an affronted glare.  “I’m not feeling very comforted.”

The petulant look and juvenile words toughened Kearn’s resolve to treat Lisset like a child.  “I’m not here to comfort you,” he said, firmly but without ire.  “If anything you should comfort me.  If you’re what Zerouali thinks you must be, then you owe us all a lot more than that.”

From her position on his chest the girl studied Kearn with narrowed eyes that were suddenly more mischievous than sad.  “What is it she thinks I am?”

“A god,” Kearn admitted.  The statement made lots of hairs stand on end.

Lisset smiled.  “I’m no god.”

Kearn was relieved to hear her say so, even if he didn’t quite know whether to believe her.  “Well…you’re no human,” he said.  He hadn’t meant the observation as an insult; he realized too late it might easily be taken for one.

The soft chuckle Lisset issued in response was not childish at all, but neither was it menacing.  “Not human?” she said.  “I’m more human than you.  More than any to ever live.”

The talk of humanity directed Kearn’s thoughts to what Zerouali had told him of Prophet and the cores.  “You’ve been to Earth,” he said resolutely.

The girl’s smile widened.  Her head sank back onto Kearn’s chest.  “Born there,” she said dreamily.  “Died there.  Wish I could be there now.”

“Why can’t you?”

“Yours has…precious little to recommend it.”

“Mine?  My what?”

But Lisset gave no answer.  Her soft, regular breaths said she might have fallen asleep on his chest.

“My earth?” Kearn muttered, mostly to himself.  “How many are there?”

When a few more moments passed in silence he craned his neck to confirm that Lisset’s eyes had closed.  He shook her a little, eliciting a feeble moan.

“It’s over,” she said as she stirred.  She pressed her cheek harder against Kearn’s chest, as if wanting to burrow inside.  “I don’t want it to be over.  It was only the beginning.  So much depends on me.”

 Kearn tightened his arm around the girl, granting her wish for closer contact even if what he felt toward her stopped well short of sympathy.  Maybe the ‘comfort’ she sought would make her more talkative.

“A certain someone,” he said, meaning Zerouali, “would kill me if I didn’t ask you what it was that’s ‘over now.’”

Lisset squirmed in Kearn’s arms.  Her breath came heavy.  Her face ground against him, fingers clawing deep into his thigh.  Kearn squeezed her tighter and stroked her hair.

“What’s over, Lisset?”

In a single, spastic move the girl wrenched her neck to gaze upward.  Brilliant blue eyes, now glassy, seemed fixed on something far outside the confines of Lady’s hull.  Kearn had never actually watched anyone die, but he imagined this was what it looked like.

“Tell me,” he said.  “What’s over?”

The response, if response it was, came in the form of nails digging deeper into the flesh of Kearn’s leg.  He bore the pain, sensing he couldn’t have broken her grip if he tried.  Lisset’s fingers, along with her every other muscle, had seized up like coils of fibresteel beneath her thin flesh.

As quickly as it had hardened, the steel melted.  The girl collapsed fully into his lap.  Her still-open eyes grew dead and lusterless.

“Lisset?” Kearn called.  Then twice more to no reply.  With a sigh he sank back in the couch and shifted her inert form in his lap.

He didn’t quite know yet what to make of what she’d said.  Maybe someday it would start to make sense.  Or better yet, with her final passing–if indeed that was what he’d just seen–none of it would matter anymore.  She had said something was over.  Maybe it was her ‘war.’

But just what did that mean?  She’d warned that her conflict threatened to consume this layer, like it had many others.  Worlds were right now being consumed, one by one, in Fleet’s vicious cleansing campaign, but was this the destruction she meant?  Would Freedom’s Reign now come to an abrupt end?

That seemed hard to imagine, so perfectly suited was that course of action to the nature of the Interim.  In retrospect it was perhaps the only possible outcome.  And why should Fleet reverse its natural course only because some unseen battle had raged to its conclusion?  Lisset and her enemies, whoever those were, could hardly be responsible for mankind’s every wicked impulse.

No, Kearn suspected–Lisset had meant something else, some devastation on a far more massive and permanent scale than even the rampage on which Fleet had embarked.  Humans were pawns to Lisset and to her adversary, not prizes, and they played no role in the battles that truly mattered, the battles that had ended in defeat for one self-described exile.

So much remained unclear.  Had Lisset been humanity’s champion or its bane?  Would anything have been better, or even different, without her ‘influence,’ or had she won instead of lost?  Only the corpse in Kearn’s arms could say, and even if she could speak she probably wouldn’t.

Judging from her apparent track record, though, Lisset was no champion.  Maybe even to believe in champions, human or otherwise, was hopelessly naïve.  Even the Interim considered its actions righteous.  Whether or not those actions were significant on any cosmic scale, the damage they caused and the chaos they left behind did matter.  It mattered to mere humans.  Lives had been erased, with many more likely to follow.  Maybe one of Lady’s own was among them.  And just as the Fleet crews who obliterated unsuspecting innocents in their billions did so at the direction of their captains and not of gods, so was there only one party responsible if Aprile were to die.

So why didn’t he feel anything?  Shame, guilt, fear–anything at all.  Maybe, strangely enough, the very scale of events eased his mind.  What could possibly be worth worrying about here at the End of History, when human lives, plans, desires, accomplishments, all amounted to precisely nothing?  Or maybe he just hadn’t fully accepted it all yet.  Maybe this was just too big to be real to him.

But, End of Everything or not, Kearn was still a captain, and one with a crew in danger.  Powerless as he might be, there wasn’t any good excuse for sitting here with a dead body slowly decomposing on his chest.

Shrugging the girl’s inert form aside, Kearn rose and emerged from the guest quarters into an empty hall.  A quick comm to Thorien confirmed that Zerouali was stable and soon to recover.  Kearn’s next comm, to the bridge, confirmed there had yet been no contact with Aprile or the assassins.  “Keep trying,” he said.

And that command began and ended what was in Kearn’s power to do.  Even were he willing to break orbit without giving Aprile every chance to return, Lady wouldn’t get far without replenishing its antimatter chambers.  And the ones who manned the platform on the far side of Ona’s host gas giant weren’t likely to fork it over simply because their civilization may or may not be nearing extinction.

A comm from the bridge several seconds later removed the uncertainty from that last proposition.

“Captain, unidentified objects detected on course for planetfall on Ona.”

Warheads.  Little doubt of it.

“ETA?” Kearn asked urgently, halting in his tracks.

“Eight minutes.”

“Still no word from Aprile?”

“Negative, Captain.”

Kearn braced both palms against the wall and hung his head.  He hadn’t exactly been hopeful about Aprile’s chances – already he struggled not to think of her in past tense–but confirmation, complete with a countdown, hit hard nonetheless.

“Any danger to Lady?” Kearn returned eventually.

“Negative.”

“Sign of Whisper or Fleet presence?”

“Negative.”

“Maintain current disposition.  Kearn out.”

Severing the link, Kearn engaged total comm silence.  So much for trying to be a captain again.  It looked as if there really was nothing to do now but sit and wait for whatever end might come.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

[] CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

If Aprile was to die because of him, the least Kearn could do was watch.  A quick reversal of his course through the hab module brought him to a darkened chamber, the primary use of which until recently had been to impress pretty groundsider girls out of their clothing.

Girls like Mela.  Kearn thought of that girl now, blissfully ignorant in hibe.  Was her home, Merada, among those slated for extermination?  Probably, if Fleet’s recent humiliation there was a factor.  In which case, his stubborn refusal to send Mela back there had saved her life.

And Lady’s holds were filled with hundreds more like her who would likewise awaken to find homeworlds and destinations exterminated.  It would be for time and history to decide which fate was worse, to live or to die.

The chamber’s floor-wide vidscreen lit with pinpricks of starlight.  Kearn cued up the best available view of Ona and sprawled on the floor near the chamber’s center.  In a matter of minutes he would watch from the safety of orbit while billions far below lost their lives.

A wide arc of Ona filled the floor beneath him.  It was not a particularly pretty world.  Neither was its civilization, by any standard.  But such observations offered no consolation whatever to those unlucky souls soon to perish without ever knowing why.  Not long ago, a different Kearn–or Will Gareth, if he chose to believe his own lies–might have said that the destruction of a dead-end like Ona would be no big loss to the universe.  He would never say that now, and not only because his friend was down there.

Kearn waited four minutes in silence for a world to end.

It came in a single bright flash that lit Ona’s atmosphere.  Then another and another.  The blossoms swelled into expanding discs of light, the edges of which crept silently, relentlessly outward to meet and fuse with one another.  Seen from high above, Ona’s ‘cleansing’ was silent and deceptively beautiful.

Kearn settled face-down on the screen with forehead resting on the back of one hand.  The chamber’s design made it seem as if nothing at all lay between him and the megadeath below.  He felt vaguely that he should shed tears for Ona, but none came.  Minutes passed.  The lights on Ona faded and dissolved, and when they vanished its surface looked much the same as it had before.  From on high, anyway.  For those few that might survive to witness the results at closer range, no doubt it was horror beyond reckoning.

Kearn remained there, silent, for the better part of an hour, feeling like a ghost hovering above and outside of reality, a detached observer.  Twice he ignored comms from Lady’s crew, speaking only to insist he be left alone.  They could say nothing that mattered.  They were all ghosts on a ship of ghosts.  Maybe they weren’t dead yet, but they would be soon enough.

Some time later the chamber’s entrance hissed open, flooding the black room with light and spoiling Kearn’s view.  When darkness returned an instant later he sensed another presence with him in the room.  The air current from the entrance carried the scent of the newcomer’s groundsider hair.  Zerouali.

“I had your engineer override the lock,” she said solemnly.  “Hope you don’t mind.”

Kearn remained face down on the screen.  “No.”

The answer was an honest one, for he was relieved to find that Zerouali was his visitor and not any other.  With her insight into Lisset and translight, she seemed about the only one who belonged in his nightmarish new version of reality.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Kearn offered distractedly.

“Thanks.”

Zerouali came forward to join him at the room’s center.  They exchanged no further words as she took a position beside him on the floor.  Though Kearn didn’t look up to confirm, he sensed that her gaze, like his, was on the deceptively calm surface of Ona.  In here, one could hardly avoid it.

After a long silence in which Kearn found himself increasingly aware of her presence, Zerouali finally spoke again.

“It’s amazing,” she said.  “Not the death, of course, but the view from up here.  I never get used it.  It makes one feel like a god.”

“I don’t feel like a god,” Kearn said.  “Far from it.”

“A spirit, then.  Powerless to interfere.”

The familiarity of the sentiment lightened Kearn’s black mood, if just a shade.  “You read my mind,” he said.  “Don’t tell me you’re some kind of superhuman entity too.”

“No,” she said.  “Just human, for better or worse.”

“Worse, probably.”

“Given the circumstances I won’t take that as an insult.”

Kearn permitted himself a single, halfhearted laugh.

After another quite long silence, Zerouali asked, “Do you come here often?”

“Better place than any to count stars.”

“I’ve heard you do more than that in here.”

Kearn gave another light laugh.  This one, though, masked pain.  “You sound like Aprile,” he said–and with the sound of her name came Kearn’s first real pang of sorrow over her loss.  The first of many to come, no doubt.  For now he suppressed it.  “Counting stars is a spacer term,” he explained.  “It’s not literal.”

“I know.”

“You know so much about me,” Kearn said, glad for the opportunity to steer the conversation away from himself.  “And I still know almost nothing about you.”

“I suppose that makes two of us.”

When Zerouali didn’t offer any elaboration, Kearn elected to pry.  “What do you mean?”

Her answer came hesitantly.  “Let’s just say I’ve spent so long playing a role that I may have lost track of who I really am.”

Shifting onto his side, Kearn saw Zerouali now for the first time since she’d entered.  He found that the woman who sat with him in Ona’s dying glow was not the same Jilan Zerouali who’d come aboard at Merada with her too-clever speech, unreadable expression and cool detachment.  Back then he could hardly spend five minutes in a room with her without itching to leave.  Now he didn’t feel like leaving at all.

An awkward silence ensued in which Kearn felt something he’d rarely, if ever, felt while alone with a woman.

He was unsure of himself.

The only consolation was that Zerouali seemed equally uncertain.  Her eyes met his once or twice, but spent more time watching her own hand trace invisible patterns on the floor.  Kearn found himself watching that hand, too.

Precious little these days seemed familiar to Kearn, but he surrendered now to a familiar impulse.  He reached out and set his hand atop hers.

Zerouali froze, and her deep brown eyes fixed on his.  The only thing immediately discernable there was a flash of mild surprise.  Her gaze quickly lowered to the point of contact between them, their hands.  She turned her palm upward and let their fingers interlock.  The other hand rose and moved toward Kearn’s cheek.  But it stopped just shy of contact, retreating with fingers curled in a loose fist.  She hung her head.

“A planet was just murdered,” she said.

Kearn looked back down at the calm grey expanse of dead Ona.  “I know,” he said.  “I watched it.”

Disengaging her hand from Kearn’s, Zerouali clasped her knees in an upright fetal ball.  “You were right.”  Her penitent tone came as sharp contrast to anything Kearn had come to expect from her.  “I should have fought, should have used what I knew to destroy them.”

“Nothing would have changed,” Kearn said, shifting his body to bring himself alongside her.  “One person can’t topple an empire.  Neither can two.”

“They can try.”

“And they can die.”

With a blank-faced nod, Zerouali said, “If necessary.”

“Of the two of us, I’m the one who really could have screwed them.  But what would I have done?  Destroyed Reissa?  Verond?  The whole Commonwealth?”

“Maybe that would have been for the best.  Or maybe if you and I had met a century ago we might have accomplished something.  The only certain thing now is that we’ll never know.”

“No, we won’t know,” Kearn conceded.  “But I do know that we’re alive and we have to look ahead now.  Even if what we see isn’t pretty.”  Funny how he was offering her encouragement when he himself had just been all but ready to give in.

Evidently that irony did not escape Zerouali, who breathed a melancholy laugh.  “This from a captain who locks himself away at the first hint of trouble.”

Had the old Zerouali, the one Will Gareth had met at Merada, made such a remark, he certainly would have taken offense.  Now Kearn laughed along with her at his own expense.

“Never too late to change, I guess,” he said.

“It’s too late for Ona.  And many others.”

The grim reminder cast the room once more into a deep silence that befitted the planetscape beneath.

It was Zerouali who broke it.  “You’re right, Captain,” she said.  “Whether we deserve it or not, we’re alive and have the luxury of learning from past mistakes.”

Kearn nodded, agreeing with the sentiment even while unsure if she was correct in attributing the thought to him.  Just what mistakes did she have in mind?

Zerouali didn’t return his look, but instead stared squarely out over the knees she clutched against her chest.  A hint of motion drew Kearn’s gaze downward to where her hand had begun a controlled descent of her calf.  Reaching the floor it proceeded purposefully across the sliver of Ona that separated them.

About halfway to Kearn, it stopped.  Was this an invitation?  Instinct told him it could hardly be otherwise.  Then again, with her

Casting doubt aside, Kearn surrendered to instinct and dispatched a hand toward hers for the second time in this encounter.

Centimeters before contact, Zerouali drew back.  Too slow for a real retreat, Kearn noted.  He continued his advance.

Once more she pulled back just before contact.  Kearn’s hand stalked hers to its new position very near her body.  Any farther and he’d have to lean forward bodily to catch it.  A glance up to Zerouali’s face found dark eyes still firmly on her knees.

Predictably, her hand slipped away again, this time retreating completely out of reach into the small empty space under her folded legs.  Too far into the pursuit to give up, even if he’d wanted to, Kearn dispatched his whole body forward behind his now outstretched arm.

His hand passed under Zerouali’s legs and reached its now stationary target.  Even now, with their faces separated by little more than a thin slice of their combined warmth, Zerouali declined to look at Kearn.

“I’m not good at giving signals,” she said.  “Whatever those are.”

“That was pretty good.”

Kearn leaned closer, and was glad when Zerouali did not retreat.  Their cheeks touched.  Her soft lips brushed his jaw, setting hairs there on end.  They lingered this way for long seconds, knowing there was but one place to go from here.  Maybe Zerouali had reservations, or maybe she was simply savoring the touch.  For his part, Kearn’s heart raced and stomach churned.  He wanted very much to proceed, but, strangely, nothing in his considerable experience seemed to apply.

He was not left long to ponder the subject, for Jilan Zerouali’s lips finally skirted the line of his jaw and swept up to meet his.  He returned the kiss, and they lowered as one to the floor.

Some time later they lay naked, Zerouali’s head on Kearn’s shoulder, a ravaged world beneath their sweaty backs.  The comfortable silence that had persisted during and since their lovemaking dragged out and threatened to become awkward.

“Tell me,” Kearn finally ventured.  “Did that really just happen?”

Zerouali exhaled a lazy sigh.  “I’m afraid so.”

“Afraid?”

No answer.  Kearn had intended the question lightheartedly, but perhaps it had been a touch too personal.  Even if Zerouali had allowed him inside her walls, so to speak, naturally such an invitation was not without limit.  He hurriedly changed the subject.

“You were Interim,” he said.  “That means you have neurilace.”

Her simple answer came, thankfully, without sign of offense.  “Of course.”

“What’s it like?”

It took her a while to come up with, “Helpful.”

“It was ages before I even worked up the nerve to get comm implants,” Kearn confessed.  “But I hear the lace can…enhance things.”

Zerouali’s tone indicated that she grasped his meaning.  “They can,” she said.  “In fact there are plenty of men and women who have enhanced themselves right into varying degrees of catatonia.”

“So, just now, did you–”

“No!”

“Have you?”

Zerouali patted Kearn’s bare chest.  “That will have to wait until we’re on a first name basis, Captain.”

So here was a more gentle deployment of her formidable defenses.

“And when might that be,” Kearn asked, “if not now?”

“That depends.”

“On?”

“On how long we live.”

“I see.  Wouldn’t want to get too comfortable right before a Fleet warship blows us away.”

“Actually I was thinking the opposite.  Feel free to ask me anything once the warheads are locked on.”

As was frequently the case, Kearn had trouble telling just how seriously Zerouali intended her words to be taken.  He felt outclassed, as if she could talk circles around him.

“And if there aren’t any warheads?” he asked, mostly just to avoid a deeper silence.  For all he knew, they could be having two separate conversations.

“Then we’ll die some other way,” Zerouali said.  “Some other time.”

“How do you want to die?”

“I don’t.”

“I know, but when it comes, how would you like it to be?”

Zerouali’s bare shoulders, chill with dried sweat, rubbed Kearn’s flesh in a shrug.  “I haven’t stopped running long enough to know.”

“When Lisset died, she only didn’t want to be alone,” Kearn said.  “I used to think that someday I’d just run out of luck and expire in hibe, like you thought I already had.  But I’m not so sure anymore.”

Suddenly it was Zerouali’s turn to prod at the other’s defenses.  “Has the legendary Captain Kearn become that child again?” she taunted.  “Tugging at his parents’ sleeves and begging for a home?”

The words cut close, but Kearn did not begrudge the woman for having spoken them.  He stared instead into the blackness above, considering the words and the soft flesh against his, the gentle heartbeat not his own, the flutter of her breath on his neck.

Mind and body, within and without, thought and sensation, it struck Kearn then, all stood distinctly at odds.  When had he ever had a post-coital conversation like this one?  The answer was simple enough.  Never.

But Zerouali’s accusation wasn’t quite right.  No, he hadn’t reverted to childhood.  Quite the contrary: he’d finally grown up.

“We should make a pledge to each other,” Kearn said at length.  “A century from now, wherever we are, we’ll both have stopped running.”

After a moment’s thought, Zerouali nodded.

“Good.”  Kearn angled his head to meet the woman’s eyes.  “Seal it with another round?”

Zerouali’s lips twisted in a smirk, then twisted even more when she caught Kearn’s gaze wandering well below her face.

“You’re single-minded, aren’t you?” she said.

“More than you know.”

At that, Zerouali’s body tensed subtly against Kearn’s–suggesting that she sensed the veiled meaning in his careless remark.  There was no fooling her.  But she voiced no objection.

“Believe it or not,” she said instead, “I didn’t come here to fuck.”

The crude spacer verb Zerouali had chosen to describe what they’d just done was perhaps intended to deliver a subtle message of her own, a warning and rebuff.

She said, “Ilias had something urgent to tell you when you refused his comms.”

“Can’t be too urgent if it’s slipped your mind this long.”

“It didn’t slip my mind.”

“Well, then I’m flattered.”

“You want to hear it or not?”

“Yes, sorry.”

“Lady’s translight core is dead.”

“Dead?”  Kearn sat bolt upright, forcing Zerouali to roll off of him and prop her head on one elbow. 

“Dead,” she repeated calmly.  “Just like its maker.”

Kearn’s mind had already drawn that connection.  “I suppose it’s gone for good then,” he said.

“I wouldn’t ‘suppose’ anything.”

With a sigh, Kearn glanced around him, seeking out his clothes.  “I should get out there and be a captain again.”

Zerouali reached for her own strewn clothing.  “Then my work here is done.”

They dressed in silence.  Finishing, they stood at arm’s length on the floor-wide display, gazing solemnly down upon Ona.  Many people had died down there, yet Kearn’s thoughts were selfishly on just one of them.

Zerouali said suddenly, “She didn’t like me very much.”

The comment took Kearn by surprise.  “It was nothing personal,” he answered.  “She didn’t like anyone.”

“She might have survived, you know.”

“I know.”

“Then we should speak of her in the present tense.”

Kearn nodded.

“When you make plans to search groundside,” Zerouali offered, “be sure I’m included.”

“I will.  Thank you.”

Kearn tore his eyes away from Ona and shared one last glance with Zerouali before heading to the exit.  When she did not move to accompany him, Kearn paused.

“I’d like to stay here for a bit,” she explained.  “You don’t need me in your way.”

“You wouldn’t be,” Kearn assured her.  “But it’s your choice.”  He resumed his exit, but stopped again at the hatch.  “I recorded most of Lisset’s final words on my comms.  They’re not quite neurilace, but useful nonetheless.  I’ll prep a copy for you.”

From across the chamber, too deep in shadow to read, Zerouali’s eyes met his.  “I’d appreciate it, Captain,” she said.

With that somewhat stilted exchange, and nothing more, they parted.

Kearn was halfway to the lift when it dawned on him what Zerouali had just done.  The spacer tongue contained at least eight words for ‘captain.’  She’d used the most intimate and familiar of them, the one Ilias and Thorien used, suggestive of equals whose fates were intertwined.

Permitting himself a quick half-smile, Kearn proceeded to the radial lift.  He commed the bridge and gave a rushed apology for his antisocial behavior before moving on to business.

“Any word from our team groundside?” he asked.

The crewman on duty, Welch, delivered the disappointing but not unexpected reply.  “No, sir.”

“Keep trying, and prepare to break orbit for Ona’s fuel platform.  Its crew may have no idea yet what’s happened.  We’ll deliver the bad news and offer them a ride in exchange for fuel.  Once we’re full, we come back and start the search for Aprile, assuming we haven’t heard from her first.”

“Aye, sir,” Welch replied.  “There was a transmission received while you were unavailable.”

At Kearn’s acknowledgment the recording issued forth over his comm.

Civilian freighter in Ona orbit, this is Ona Commissioner, Interim Instruction & Guidance Directorate.  Against my personal recommendation, eight among my staff have elected to seek evacuation aboard your vessel.  I therefore request that you grant them passage.  I remind you that you are bound by Interim Universal Spacing Law to comply if you are able.  We await response including details of the transfer.  Our station’s emergency beacon has been activated.

“What’s our reply, Captain?” Welch asked.

Kearn sighed.  “Much as I hate to let the likes of them set foot on Lady, I suppose we ought to agree.  But let’s refuel first and wait for word from Whisper.  Maybe Sallat can take them.  I’d rather let the Interim take care of its own.

“However,” Kearn added, “when and if we do take them aboard–and please quote this precisely in our reply–if one of them is armed with so much as a fork, the whole lot will suck vacuum.  Keep me posted.  Kearn out.”

“Just one more thing, sir,” Welch came back.  “Ilias has something to tell you.  I don’t know what it is.”

Of course, this would be the message Zerouali had already delivered.  Nonetheless, Kearn commed the engineer.

“I’m told our translight days are over,” Kearn said to Ilias when they were connected, preempting the man’s announcement.

“At least for now,” Ilias returned.  “Core’s gone cold.  No output on any frequency.”

“Use it to decorate your quarters,” Kearn returned.  “Or space it if you like.  It’s never coming back.  The only thing yet to be seen is whether Fleet’s cores have done the same.”

“I won’t even bother to ask how you know that.”

“Wise choice.  Kearn out.”

Thirty minutes later, Ona’s antimatter platform rose over the curved horizon of the swirling gas giant.  Lady began broadcasting all manner of friendly greetings in machine-translated Onari.

The reply came in a different language entirely.

“We were wondering when you’d show, Maseilya.”

“Fyat?” Kearn blurted aloud, then remembered himself and commenced recording for return transmission.  “Fyat,” he said urgently.  “Ona’s surface has been cleansed.  What is your status?  Is Aprile with you?”

Seconds later Fyat’s never-welcome voice returned with welcome news.  “Affirmative,” he reported.  “She is alive and undamaged.  We have twenty-three captives, several wounded.  Another fifteen are dead.  The station is ours.  Approach for refuel.”

Kearn hardly heard any of this beyond the news of his navigator’s well being.  “Acknowledged,” he said anyway.

Were it not for zero grav on the bridge, Kearn might have collapsed.  He rubbed his eyes to stave off stinging tears.  Losing Aprile on the now utterly pointless Ona mission would have weighed on him the rest of his days–and just when his burden over Serenity had begun to ease.

Ren.  She’d scarcely crossed his mind of late.  Now, just as during those centuries of her captivity, her presence lurked in the corners of his mind, ready to shame him when he bothered to notice it.

She carried his daughter.  That thought gave Kearn pause.  It was really only his genetic material.  Nothing special, nothing magic.  Given all the worlds he’d visited and all the women he’d been with down the centuries, the mere statistics of contraceptive failure favored the likelihood of his genes being out there somewhere already.  Great-great-grandchildren of his could have been snuffed out in Fleet’s extermination campaign.

But that was in another life, one now behind him.  In this life, Ren–like all aboard Lady–would face hard decisions upon emerging from hibe into a new reality.  Decisions on how to live, where to live.  Whether to live.

Maybe this child could help make the new universe a better place.  Maybe even her bastard father could help, too.

“Captain, scanners pick up what looks like a Fleet warship inbound, ETA six-point-five hours.”

This report from the crewman currently sharing the bridge with him dragged Kearn’s mind out of the future and past, into the present.

“It’s Whisper of Death.”

Kearn transmitted a standard greeting.  Minutes later he received a reply.

“I wonder what you’re still doing here, Kearn,” Sallat sent back.  “Hunter in the Dark slipped in-system hours ago and survived our ambush.  During the battle they managed to launch warheads at Ona, which sadly seem to have struck home.

“Our battle with them ended prematurely with the failure of our translight core.  We have six dead from the sudden loss of grav.  Since then we’ve had no sign of Hunter, although last we knew she was undamaged.  If she does reappear while we’re in this state, we’re as good as dead, so we’re not waiting around.  We’re heading out-system at maximum burn.  I suggest you do the same.  Over.”

“Glad you made it, Sallat,” Kearn recorded for return.  “We’ve lost translight, too.  I’m afraid I don’t believe in coincidence anymore, so my best guess is that Hunter and every other Fleet vessel has suffered the same thing.  I’ll send you what data we have on a girl, Lisset Hawthorne, now dead, who claimed to have created the cores.  It may not explain much, but I think it’s best she not remain a secret.  Maybe someday someone will make sense of her.

“The local I & G staff are in need of rescue.  You should detect a beacon from their station in high orbit of the gas giant.  I hope you can spare the time to pick them up.  Right now we’re approaching Ona’s fueling platform, which has been commandeered by a rogue SES agent who came aboard my ship at Merada.  I’d be grateful if you could take him off my hands as well.”

After the requisite delay, Sallat’s reply arrived.  Whisper would stop to take aboard the stranded I&G crew, but with Hunter at large, he would not risk a rendezvous at the fueling platform to take on Fyat.  Well, Kearn thought, it had been worth the asking, but hardly any surprise that Sallat should refuse.  A captain would have to be insane to willingly bring aboard a renegade assassin.

Sallat would also share with Lady all his own information regarding some mysterious occurrences inside the Commonwealth.  Maybe they had something to do with Lisset and her war, maybe not.  What was most important was to see that the raw, unaltered facts found a home in public datastores.  Gods, phantoms, unfathomable conflicts, and rogue assassins were matters for a later date.  For now Kearn was just anxious to get Aprile safely back aboard Lady where she belonged.  With his vessel intact and all passengers and crew accounted for, Kearn realized, a captain had some small reason to be content in spite of whatever horrors lay outside his hull.  One might even start thinking of the future again.

Accompanying Sallat’s transmission had been a list of eight worlds he knew to have survived Freedom’s Reign: the five he had refused to cleanse himself and three more he’d successfully defended.

Kearn couldn’t help but notice that Merada was not listed among the eight.  It would take a long time for the extent of destruction to become fully known, now that the spread of information was once again limited to the quaint and cumbersome speed of light.

***

After docking Lady at Ona’s fueling platform, Kearn came down from the bridge to welcome Aprile.  Only the three who’d left Lady–Aprile and the two ex-assassins–would be returning.  The Onari survivors had refused an offer of transport, as they probably would have even had Fyat not killed many of their colleagues.  They had on hand a number of intrasystem craft they would now use to seek survivors on Ona before proceeding to the system’s other habitable body, Delchet.

The returning flyer eased into its cradle in Lady’s hangar, and the chamber repressurized.  Minutes later the airlock hissed open to admit the arriving trio to the antechamber where Kearn anxiously waited.

Fyat emerged first.  Kearn barely acknowledged the stone-faced assassin as he passed, for he was already looking beyond him at the only one he really cared to see.

Aprile’s eyes were dull, her stare vacant.  She barely spared her captain a glance.  Until now Kearn had been debating whether or not to embrace her, but as she blinked and averted her gaze from his, such thoughts evaporated and he allowed her to pass unmolested.

Coleridge came out last.  She paused at the lock and regarded Kearn with detached concern.

“She’s never killed before,” Coleridge said academically.  “She did a lot of it down there.”  No sympathy was evident in her words, but rather something like vindication.  Another innocent had been dragged into the same pit in which she herself had been forced to live.

She moved along, and Kearn was left alone.

It was hardly the homecoming he’d hoped for, but all things considered it was hardly grounds for complaint.  Aprile was alive, which was more than could be said for billions on Ona and elsewhere.

***

 

[] EPILOGUE

 

The first time Kearn had held his newborn daughter, still slick from the womb, he had wept.  Now, as he cradled tiny Coura Martijn in his arms for the second time, he looked down into her wide, innocent eyes and smiled.  Those eyes couldn’t even focus properly yet, but the girl knew enough not to be afraid.  Little Coura, named for her mother’s mother, looked back lazily with her baby’s mouth hanging open and miniature fists curled at her neck.

Holding the warm little body to his chest, Kearn whispered in her ear.  “Coura,” he said gently, the name already growing familiar on his tongue.  “I can tell already you won’t cause me grief like everyone else who comes aboard, will you?  No.”  He lowered his lips to the tiny thing’s forehead and planted the lightest of kisses on her pink skin.

After something like an eternity, Kearn looked up and let his world expand to encompass the two others present in Lady’s medlounge.  Reclining in her bed, Serenity looked on with a weary smile.  Beneath the blanket her abdomen bore the still-fresh scar from the incision via which Coura had come into the universe.

Standing close at Ren’s bedside was a man who’d come aboard Lady at Ona’s fueling platform, a last-minute arrival shuttled over from Whisper.  Simon Ascher was yet another exile from the Interim, one whose crime in fact had been the attempt to liberate Ren from Interim captivity.  From the man’s own account of the story, and from the data sent over by Sallat, it seemed certain that Lisset had guided Ascher in this action.  The girl-god’s motives, of course, would never be known.  Like everything else about her, these actions only made her more of an enigma.  Or maybe just more human.

Ascher was a good man, if a bit on the timid side.  For one who’d lived his life strictly by the rules, he seemed to have adjusted well to a wildly new set of circumstances.  Kearn would offer him a permanent place on Lady, not least because he was a competent career spacer, but more importantly because he seemed to have some sort of relationship brewing with Ren.  He seemed to make her happy.

Lady’s first destination after Ona was not one of the eight planets of Sallat’s list, but rather just the nearest non-Commonwealth-affiliated world whose Catalog entry (perhaps the one useful thing the Interim had bequeathed the universe) made it likely to have avoided the attention of Freedom’s Reign.  Nevertheless, there was an element of risk in any voyage now.  Who knew what worlds had been laid waste?  Even those that had emerged unscathed might face major upheaval as a result of the Interim’s removal from its self-appointed role as power broker throughout human space.

Then again, who could tell yet if the Interim had really ended?  At the moment it remained a mere assumption, if a strong one, that the translight failure witnessed at Ona was a universal effect.  Even deprived of the basis of its power, the former Commonwealth might still harbor unhealthy designs for the rest of the species.  Not likely, if humanity’s pre-Interim history–a time in which interstellar conflict had been utterly unheard of–was any indicator.

Kearn did not envy Sallat’s place in whatever the new order turned out to be.  Even with its founding purpose voided, the former Interim was not likely to look kindly upon the actions of a renegade captain.  Whisper might find itself a marked ship.

And there was still another reason not to envy Sallat and his crew.  Like every Fleet ship, Whisper was not equipped with enough, or indeed any, hibe capsules for its crew.  Kearn had given Sallat a handful of spares along with what other necessities of life he could spare.  Whisper would make it, but the long sublight voyage would not be pleasant.

The one stroke of luck for Fleet was that their so-called void engines still functioned for propulsion.  This second exponent of Prophet operated not on the spurious alien ‘magic’ that powered translight, but on real scientific principles to convert the invisible energy of space itself into thrust.  Indeed, as Sallat’s datastores revealed, Fleet had long ago reverse-engineered the alien versions and begun to construct their own copies.  Whisper’s complete void engine specs now graced Lady’s datastores, and Ilias was drawing up plans for Lady’s eventual overhaul.

Of course, this plan, like all plans for the future now, assumed an end to Lisset’s war.  Zerouali had spent much of her time since Ona working to combine the girl’s disjointed utterances, her own experience of Prophet, and data provided by Sallat into something resembling a clear picture of events.  According to Zerouali’s best guess–even she didn’t dare call it a theory–Lisset had been influencing human affairs, if not at times directly manipulating them, since at least the time of her ‘rescue’ from Beshaan.  An opposing force, something called the ‘Six Hundred’ had taken exception to her actions and sent an envoy, at least one manifestation of which was the so-called Embassy virus that had made any infected into agents opposing Lisset’s influence.

Maybe Zerouali was right, or half-right, or maybe not even close.  Whatever Lisset was, though, whatever the Six Hundred were, Kearn only hoped that the universe had seen the last of them.  After a violent and senseless diversion of several centuries, a bloodied but unbroken human race seemed now poised for a return to its more natural course.  As ever, a spacer could only plunge on into the void and hope for the best.  The occupants of Lady, and every human who’d lived through this dark time, would embark now on their respective futures.  There was no chart.  There would be no Golden Age.  The future lay as open as the void itself, and unwritten.

In his arms Kearn now cradled a living piece of that future.  Young Coura would not grow up the subject of any empire or the pawn of gods in some pointless, unknowable conflict.  Aliens and would-be emperors would have to come through her father first.

Kearn planted one last gentle kiss upon Coura Martijn’s tiny forehead, then did the same to her mother before passing the infant carefully into Simon Ascher’s waiting arms.  As he bid the three goodbye, he thought of his own more immediate future.  Every life aboard Lady now seemed immensely more precious than before.  It would be his role as captain to see that each found some safe haven or measure of contentment in the new order.  That task may take some time.

And when it was accomplished, then what?  Kearn used to think his own future was carved, not by fate or any higher power, but by his own will.  He would wander the stars until statistics caught up with him in a peaceful, easy anticlimax.

Now that plan, like so many others, had changed.  But the reason for that was not the demise of translight, not the trillions dead or any changed notion of reality.  It was a simple pledge he’d made to one woman.

He’d told that woman that a century from now he would have stopped running.  But this was not quite his actual pledge.  Maybe someday he’d tell Jilan what his real promise had been.

His promise had been to spend that century, and more, with her.  And when the time came, perhaps to die with her.  For now, though, better to avoid giving the one with whom he was sharing his quarters a fresh excuse to start running.  Or too big a head.

After half a lifetime spent enslaved to secrets, it would be a welcome change to keep only this single, harmless one.

END

 

 

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[] AUTHOR’S NOTE

2015

“So what just happened!?”

I finished Interim around 2003. It was my first “real” novel, and it won a magazine contest, which told me, OK, well, maybe I kind of know what I’m doing. It has plenty of flaws in execution, one of which I think is the vagueness in explaining exactly what’s going on in terms of the cosmic stuff. I saw it as following that tradition of space-based, far future SF where incomprehensible things are slowly revealed until you finally say, in Book III, “Ohhhhh, I get it…. maybe, sort of.”

Since I never wrote a direct sequel, and it hardly worked to have a godlike figure just appear at the climax and explain everything in crystal clear detail, I’ll elaborate briefly here. If you haven’t finished the book yet, but plan to: SPOILER AHEAD.

The Six Hundred are AI’s that outlived their various civilizations and transcended the physical bounds of the universe. At 600, they decided it was crowded enough out there, so they locked the door behind them by altering the laws of our universe so that it was no longer possible to break out. Then they wondered: Well, what’s next? They learned they could ascend even further but that the process would annihilate the universe they had left behind (meaning ours and Kearn’s).

One among them didn’t love that plan, and it rebelled: a Lucifer or Prometheus-like figure. The rebel sabotages the next ascension, making it impossible, and flees back into our universe, where it lives thousands upon thousands of mortal lives in various worlds. In Interim, the rebel appears in the form of Lissett. To prevent her capture at the end, she disperses herself into fragments which scatter across space and time. Now, for the next ascension to happen (and our universe to be destroyed), the fragments need to be reunited.

I’ll stop there, so as not to give away everything. This is a shared universe that I still work within. For example, AI Prometheus had an immortal son who for the longest time doesn’t even know anything about the above. But he has an enemy whose goals just might have something to do with it. You catch glimpses of them in ATHENIAN STEEL, the first book in a series which begins as rather earth-bound and historical, but will gradually integrate more and more SF elements.  In the immortal words of the autobiography of Jimmy James, after it was translated into Japanese and then back to English: “I have fancy plans, and pants to match.”

I like to think I have vastly improved as a writer since Interim. Even though I no longer write space opera, I hope you’ll give some of my other work a try.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed, please consider returning to this book’s product page and leaving a review. I am an indie author, and positive word of mouth is just about the only way I can hope to sell any books!

Best,

P.K. Lentz

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ATHENIAN STEEL

It is the best book I have read in the last fifteen years and easily makes it my top 10 of all time (most of which are Hugo and/or Nebula award winners).” – Amazon review

GREECE 425 BCE. Four hundred Spartans are besieged on an island by the wily Athenian general Demosthenes. Fate has decreed that Athens shall win this battle, but that victory in the long, grinding war shall go to Sparta. When a woman’s corpse washes ashore before the battle and springs to life, Fate is undone, history unwritten.

ATHENIAN STEEL is a unique, violent, and sexy blend of gritty historical fiction and classic sci-fi set during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The story is rich in historical detail, featuring bloody and brutal battles, but at its heart is the complex, dysfunctional, and ever-evolving anti-romance between Demosthenes and his starborn ally Thalassia.

The first volume of The Hellennium, ATHENIAN STEEL begins a saga of altered history that will span centuries.  Unique. Twisted. Bloody. Epic. Iron Age Sci-Fi.

  • * *

THE PATH OF RAVENS

Thamoth died once in Atlantis. He’ll die again in the armies of Ares or Odinn, if the world-devouring Myriad has its way. Epic Fantasy steeped in Norse and Greek Myth. 

"In some ways it's one of my favorite manuscripts of the past few years, and I'm dying to read the sequel.  [Lentz is] on the highest professional level when it comes to creating a scene, whether it's a blood and guts action scene or a tender scene of hairwashing.... [T]hose kick-ass female characters ... are among my favorites of all time. This one is perhaps the best because [he shows] such genius in creating all the complexities of her character ... without giving her a single word of dialogue. This is a bravura performance." -  R. G., early reader & SF/F publishing industry veteran

 

 

 


Interim

WINNER, 1st PRIZE, CINESCAPE GENRE LITERARY COMPETITION The Interim, humanity's sole possessors of faster-than-light technology, stands between the species and extinction, or so its Founders claim. The crew of the sub-light freighter Lady of Chaos wants nothing to do with them. But when two fugitives, one a scientist, the other a rogue agent of the Social Engineering Service–the Interim's death squads–come aboard, Lady suddenly becomes the most wanted ship in the galaxy. And that's even before the Interim learns the true identity of Lady's captain. The hunt is on, and its outcome will leave the universe forever changed. "...reminiscent of sagas like Dune and Foundation, without ever being repetitive. It's thoughtful, but also a good old-fashioned page-turner." -Cinescape magazine

  • ISBN: 9781311681935
  • Author: P. K. Lentz
  • Published: 2015-11-29 06:20:21
  • Words: 86154
Interim Interim