Aboard The Moulins
In the Kuub
Gretchen sat squeezed in behind a narrow fold-out table on the mess deck, a mug of coffee clinging to a stickyplate by her right hand and a battered field comp balanced on her left knee. The crew was grumbling in and out of the tiny space, getting their threesquares heated and coffee refreshed, and passing what gossip had managed to evolve in the last shift. The room was cold, crowded and noisy. Every surface felt worn with age and constant, hard use. Like the rest of the ship – or the parts she’d seen – it was spotlessly clean, but the freighter was of an age that no amount of scrubbing and polishing could make the walkways, walls or counters seem fresh.
Despite this Anderssen felt almost happy for the first time in nearly six months, her nostrils filled with the stink of cold diesel and burning rubber. Abstracts from a good year’s worth of the Extraplanetary Archeological Review flipped past on the comp’s screen. From time to time she recognized names or remembered the faces of old co-workers or rivals or long-standing dignitaries in her field. Occasionally an obituary cropped up – leaving a small, cold chill behind as she paged to the next document.
How did I get so far behind? All of the time spent toiling at the Technical College seemed to have faded from memory already, as though the whole interlude had been a fever dream, and her last ‘real’ assignment and this one were running together with only a few idle weeks at home in between. Easy to forget the last six months, I guess. She hoped that was true.
The articles were the same as ever – plenty of insights promised, but the results were always a few pages of heavily censored data, some half-hearted conclusions and hopes for further funding. The good stuff, of course, was never in the public journals. The Honorable Company, or the Mirror Which Reveals, saw to that quickly enough. Our Secret Histories, she though morosely, where the truth goes to be stuffed, buried and forgotten.
Her coffee cup suddenly shivered – dark liquid pulsing into a sharp spike and then collapsing. Her stomach did the same thing, at the same time.
The freighter had dropped from transit. The g-decking in the mess area failed momentarily, eliciting curses from a crewman trying to refill his cup from the dispenser. Gretchen’s mug had a clear cover, which kept it from disgorging a flight of brown-and-white globules into the air. Without thinking, she put her thumb over the drinking spout – gravity returned – and she wiped her fingers on the thigh of her field pants.
Hummingbird ducked into the room, even his short frame needing to bend to get through the hatchway from the passenger cabin they’d booked for this leg of their journey into the unknown. Like the crew, the old Méxica was kitted out in a workaday mantle over his z-suit, with a broad leather belt at his waist and deep pockets. As he passed, Gretchen looked up curiously. The old man lifted his chin, indicating the hatchway to the control deck.
“Are you ready to transship?”
Anderssen nodded. Next bus, now departing… “How soon?”
“We’ll see in a few moments.”
Though he hadn’t invited her, Gretchen slipped out from behind the table – tucked her comp away, drained the coffee cup – and followed along quietly. They had been in motion – hopping from ship to ship – for nearly ten days now and the old sorcerer had yet to speak more than a handful of words to her, none of them concerning their eventual destination.
For her part, Gretchen was glad to ignore him in turn. Her mind had been far away from this – her life’s work, or so she’d believed – and now she was having trouble digging back in. Even the field comp seemed foreign in her hands; and all of the other tools stowed in her backpack were strangers as well. She needed time to get reacquainted.
When she squeezed into the door to the control space – bridge seemed too grand a word for the crowded warren of consoles, wire bundles and creaking shockchairs – the sharp, abrupt impression of fear and adrenaline was a cold splash on her face. Better than coffee! She thought, feeling suddenly awake and on edge.
The freighter’s master, a short balding little man named Locke was standing over the pilot’s shoulder, peering at the main navigational display. The camera displays were filled with a riot of iridescent color. Thick clouds of dust congealed out of the void on every side, lit with the radiance of distant, unseen stars. In comparison to the usual emptiness of interstellar space, the view seemed dangerously crowded. Hummingbird was also squeezed in, on the other side of the pilot, and his face seemed tight.
“Maybe two,” ventured the pilot. His stylus clicked on the display surface. The navigation holo shifted slightly and Gretchen, now quite alert, could see two vectors illuminated by the computer. “But this big signature is washing out the other.”
The freighter captain rubbed his forehead, and then swung into the astrogator’s seat. “The commercial shipping registry has some drive signatures on file,” he said, uneasy. “Let’s see what it kicks up.”
Hummingbird waited patiently, while Gretchen – who felt an urge to start tapping her fingers – took the opportunity to examine the little room and the adjacent compartments. In comparison to the mess area, things were cleaner, and some components might have been recently replaced – but even so, there was a sense of age and hard use permeating everything she could see.
No, she suddenly thought, that’s not right—
Locke cursed, drawing her attention back to the three men. Two ship’s schematics had come up on his display – one obviously of considerable size, the other showing an outline almost exactly like their own paltry freighter. The captain sat back, covering his mouth with one hand. He pointed at the larger schematic with his chin.
The pilot hissed in dismay, looking back to the drive trails on the navigation holo.
“Our agreement, Captain Locke, says you deliver me and my assistant to our destination.” Hummingbird’s tone was even, showing neither anger nor concern. “I will provide you with new transit coordinates, and we will press on.”
“Could you step outside, and see we’re not disturbed?”
Meeting his gaze directly, Gretchen felt the adrenaline-heat suddenly flow away, replaced by cool calculation. He expected this, she realized. The old nauallis didn’t seem fazed by the turn of events, though there was a substrate of annoyance in his voice.
“Sure, boss,” she said, ducking out through the hatch. The heavy steel drew closed behind her, though she didn’t let the panel lock into the socket. Three crewmen were now standing around the dispenser, their attention drawn by her sudden appearance and the clank of the hatch.
“I think,” She said brightly, “that you’re all going to get a hazard bonus.”
The men looked at her quizzically, and then one bustled off down-ship with three cups balanced in his hands. Gretchen leaned against the hatchway and unwrapped a stick of chicle from her pocket. I am so very nonchalant, she thought in amusement as the hot taste of cinnamon filled her mouth. Very much the idler.
The remaining two crewmen ignored her and sat down to the table.
Without consciously intending to, Anderssen turned to examine some old bulletins posted on the nearest wall and let her eyes lose focus. Like magic – if sensory prioritization could be called magic – her hearing sharpened and she heard one of the men say: “Spero Lockenem maleficum eum circuagere non permissurum esse.”
The other replied, equally softly: “Navarchus non stultus est. Claude os et oculos aperi!”
How odd. They’re speaking ---
She forced herself to step away from the door and pick up her cup of coffee. The little sound leaking through from the control space indicated a vigorous discussion was under way, and now that these two burly specimens were watching her, it wouldn’t be polite to overhear. She swirled the cold liquid around in the cup, frowned, and went to the dispenser. Both of the men at the table turned away as she passed, but something about their clothing – no, their tool-belts – caught her eye. Nothing unusual about them, she thought, wondering what had set her on edge. You’re getting paranoid… that’s Hummingbird’s business, not yours.
Hot liquid steamed into the cup and she thumbed the glyph for extra cream, extra sugar-substitute.
Both of the crewmen stood up, pitched their cups and climbed down the ladder to the engineering spaces.
Not their work tools, she realized, watching them go out of the corner of her eye. They have the same sidearm. The thought caught in her memory and other fragmentary images suddenly coalesced. Tattoos – at least two, maybe three of these men have a crimson cross fitche on a white field. Like an insignia. Every one of them has at least one hand gun. All about the same size, too, as though they were issued arms. These men must be ex-military.
She gave the mess deck a considering glance, then cast about in memory for any other details she’d noticed in the last two days while the ship had bounced from transit point to way station and onward into this trackless expanse. The Moulins was small; listed as a freighter seeking supercargo passengers, or some kind of high-value, low-mass cargo that couldn’t wait for a big liner or cargo-carrier to come by. Or, she realized, for fugitives to smuggle… like her, like the Crow. Or information – very low mass; data crystals or comp discs – and that could turn a tidy profit.
That familiar pressure – the constant, draining, exhausting need for quills which had been omnipresent her whole life – seemed out of place here. That’s not right. This captain, this crew, they don’t taste right, feel right; they’re not mercenaries. She couldn’t say quite why, but she was suddenly certain that Locke and his men were not out in the back of beyond looking for money.
A spy-ship? But not an Imperial one. Her heart skipped. None of the crew she’d seen were Méxica or Nisei or Skawtish or any of the other nations bound by the compact of the Four Hundred families. Could this be an HKV courier? A Resistance ship? Glorious Christ, there is still a Royal Navy at work amongst the stars? She thought of her great-grandfather, a fiery old man with a neat white beard, killed in the Last War. He had served aboard a Swedish cruiser in battle near Saturn. A flood of emotion filled her and for an instant – her heart aching – she perceived something of the shape of the ship, the crew, even the irritable Captain Locke. She saw a bloody spear, shining in the darkness, radiating roseate light into the void. Pointed ever outward, fixed upon the heart of an invisible, implacable enemy.
Chilled and sweating, Gretchen slumped back against the bulkhead. The coffee cup squeaked in her hand. When she looked down, her knuckles were white. Oh. Well. I guess I don’t need Malakar’s singing to bring on this… this… whatever it is.
The peculiar perceptual gestalt which came and went – incited by stress, or by psychotropic drugs, or the presence of another being in a state of extreme agitation – had been absent from her daily existence while she’d toiled away in the basement office on New Aberdeen. The nightly visions or dream-states which caused her to speak aloud in the tongues of ancient Jagan had been slowly diminishing as time passed and her body recovered from being exposed to the memory-echo of the kalpataru. Malakar’s notebooks were filled with drawings, songs, tales long lost to her people – Gretchen’s troubled sleep had yielded up an unexpected bounty for the old librarian – but even that had been drawing to an end when the Hummingbird had arrived.
Now, with her mind feeling awake for the first time in months, Anderssen licked her lips in unease. Is simply being in the presence of the nauallis enough to fray the veil blinding my perception? On Ephesus he had to give me a pill – a dose of oliohuiqui to part the shadows – but on Jagan all I needed was the presence of the Tree Which Gives What You Desire. And here? There doesn’t seem to be even so much…
The prospect of perceiving the true shape of the world around her; to glimpse the underpinning of men’s purposes was both troubling and exciting. Now if only I could make it work when I want it to! That would be a bonus. What a tremendous tool. Just seeing the proper pattern of a broken pot would—
Then, with her mind alert to the present, she heard through the hatchway Hummingbird’s low, sharp voice speaking in an unfamiliar language, though the vowel cadence sounded terribly familiar. Locke’s astonished reaction was like a bucket of ice water.
“You? Præceptor? Impossible!”
Ah, a pity. Anderssen’s throat felt tight with disappointment. These men were not HKV, not Resistance. A crimson cross on a white field. A bloody spear and some secret language. No crew-women to be found. Just some marginal religious sect fallen prey to the Crow’s blandishments.
Disappointed, she gathered up her things and crawled back to their tiny cabin behind the food recyclers. Lying in the narrow bunk, with barely enough room for her shoulders, much less her feet, the hurt curdled in her breast. The thought that Grandfather’s cause – noble and doomed as it had been – was still secretly alive in the wilderness out beyond the Rim, had lifted a little of the weariness upon her heart. Now the same cold weight settled again, twice as heavy and she fell into a fitful sleep, troubled by dreams of men’s voices singing beyond a golden doorway, in a lost tongue she aught understand.
Deep in the Kuub
“Transit kick three – two – one …”
Susan’s stomach flipped, settled and she swallowed the faint taste of bile. At the pilot’s station, Sho-i Holloway counted down his post-insertion checklist, announcing all systems green; deflectors intact and the ship in proper spatial position. By then, two minutes had passed.
“Status of the squadron?” Susan had already reviewed her own boards, seeing that all three battle-cruisers had kept station after dropping to normal space, but it never hurt to check. Particularly with a pig-like fleet tender along. The Fiske and Eldredge had done well in keeping up so far, but she doubted they had any legs at all if things got hot.
“All present and accounted for,” Holloway replied. “We have three friendly IFF registers. Fleet says they are – “ He reviewed a side-pane on his panel, making sure that the battlecast relays had come up, verified the new ships, that they matched registry entries and the Naniwa’s long range cameras had confirmed their outlines in the heavy murk. “—Temasek, Corduba and … no name on the third vessel, but she’s registered as a ‘mobile science platform’ – same as ours in the registry, but the silhouette is markedly different.”
In transluminal space, the physical protostellar matter collecting in the wasteland of the kuub was represented by both a gravity dimple and a quantum-level spore, or nugget, which interacted with the translated quantum-frame state of a ship much as a physical rock would interact – that is, smash into – the physical hull of a ship in realspace. Here, though, where physicality assumed its usual guise of solidity, the swarms of dust particles, or even micrometeoroids and outright boulders or asteroidal fragments posed an even greater danger to the Naniwa and other ships trying to make realspace headway.
Everything within optical range of the battle cruiser’s cameras was a thick haze of heavy dust and debris. What dim light filtered through the murk from distant, half-hidden stars was diffuse and red-shifted. It made an appalling sight for a Fleet captain. Even a miner’s scow would find heavy going in this environment.
“Forty-five percent,” responded the weapons officer. “And we’re nearly dead slow.”
Susan nodded, leaning back in the shockchair. “Holloway, you and Konev work up some velocity metrics for me – how fast can we go, how best to configure the transit deflectors. We need to make headway in this mess. I want something by end of the watch.”
“And get us a name for that station – something simple.”
“That will do.” Koshō considered the threatwell for a moment, trying to map out the local terrain in her mind. This was just the situation – some nasty, unknown patch of space filled with hidden opponents, tangled local politics and unsteady stellar phenomena – that Hadeishi excelled in. Nothing drains the strength of your opponent, he would say, faster than unknown ground. But if you are alert, even the most treacherous swamp can be your ally, a third arm striking at the enemy.
Good, she thought, relieved to finally get a chance to meet her fellow squadron commanders and exchange proper introductions with Chu-sho Xocoyotl. Now we’ll find out what the devil is going on out here.
The staff conference room on the Tokiwa was crowded, hot and noisy as the last of the squadron commanders found their seats. Chu-sho Xocoyotl’s staff were arrayed along the walls, while everyone else was present at a long oval table which folded up out of the floor. The flag battle-cruiser was an older model than the Naniwa, though still in the Provincial class, and this same room did not exist in the current configuration of Koshō’s ship. If memory served, a suite of Logistics and Supply offices occupied the same internal coordinates.
Xocoyotl was of medium height, carrying a bit too much flesh on his bones, and the color of polished mahogany. His high cheekbones caught a gleam from the overheads as he took his place at the head of the table. “Sit,” he growled – his voice was even deeper in person than over stellarcast.
“Our business here comes under purview of the Imperial Secrets Act,” he said with a scowl. “The Mirror is leading an investigation of some local phenomena and Fleet is providing security for their operations. Beyond this, I am informed we do not need to know anything.”
He stopped, glanced around the room at all of the officers, snorted and continued in the near-perfect silence.
“Survey informs us this area of the kuub is tremendously dangerous. It is also uncharted and there are no navigational beacons within range. I expect, therefore, that all watches will be fully staffed and weapons will be maintained in ready status at all times.”
Xocoyotl flashed a tight, frosty smile at Koshō. “At least one of our ships – the Naniwa – has a fresh crew, a fresh captain and has not yet completed trials. I expect the other combatants to make allowance for this when plotting combat vectors.”
To her credit, Susan remained entirely still while the Chu-sho went on about the combat patrol pattern he expected of the other ships, and she did not let her outrage show in any obvious way. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she could see some of the cruiser captains’ glancing sidelong at her in puzzlement. How could I be more circumspect, she wondered, in suggesting that deployment change during transit? Losing one of the support ships would have crippled the entire mission.
“Scientist Cuaxicali? Your turn.” Xocoyotl gestured abruptly at a fat little Méxica civilian in a Survey Service mantle who had been standing by one of the doors. One of the admiral’s aides keyed up a projector panel and the lights dimmed. Cuaxicali cleared his throat, looked at the Chu-sho questioningly – received a snarl in response – and then began tapping on a slim, silver comp with his stylus.
Behind him the projector shifted aspect and a holo of the surrounding region sprang into view. The collection of ships arrayed ‘south’ of the Can appeared with Imperial standard glyphs. ‘North’ of them, a broad area of crimson points appeared.
“Avoid this range of spatial coordinates,” Cuaxicali said, indicating the bee-like swarm of scarlet, “If you wish to keep your ship intact. This is the area of our – ah – the phenomenon. And it is exceptionally dangerous.”
The assembled captains looked at one another, then a forest of arms went up to ask for details.
“No, no. No questions.” Cuaxicali shook his head nervously. “This is a matter of the utmost security. There is no other information available at this time save what I’ve shown you – a copy of these astronomical charts has already been commed to your navigators.”
“Surely you can tell us what sort of peril to expect?” A loud voice boomed across the conference room.
“I could,” Cuaxicali agreed, attempting a consoling smile, “But for safety’s sake I will not.”
A red-haired Chu-sa whom Susan remembered vaguely from Chapultepec stood up and asked, “Begging your pardon, Scientist Cuaxicali, but please explain how can it be safe to not know the nature of our opponent? Or even what it looks like?”
An ill-disguised snort of laughter erupted at the back of the conference room.
“That is all. Return to your ships. Patrol patterns will be distributed by third watch.”
Five hours later, as second watch was winding down, Koshō was back on the Command deck in a fresh uniform and her hair slick from a fast shower. For the moment, the bridge was double-staffed as the crew prepared for turnover. Amid all of the commotion, she had taken a moment to comm up the two officers she remembered from the academy. Both of them – Muldoon on the Falchion and Tloc on the Axe – were been surprised to hear from her.
“Not often you high-flying battle-cruiser commanders take the time to say hello to the plow horses,” said Muldoon after they’d confirmed a private channel and triggered their own encryption. “But it’s good to see you again, Koshō-tzin.”
“Likewise,” grumbled Tloc. The Ciguayan captain had acquired a bad set of burn scars on the side of his face since graduation day. “How did you get on Xocoyotl’s bad side? I’ve never heard him rip a junior officer like that before.”
“I gave him some advice,” Susan said, shaking her head slightly. “I should have known better.”
Muldoon laughed. “Admirals know all and see all, remember? Just like the upper form prefects on Grasshopper Hill. The Runner said you’d been the wise woman behind that formation change during transit – but I didn’t think he’d take it so hard.”
Tloc grimaced. “I’m on my second posting with him – he knows best, and likes it that way.”
Koshō frowned, feeling worse for having the extent of her misstep made so clear. “My last commander would’ve expected me to suggest a better course, if I saw one.”
Susan nodded, once. “Too good, sometimes. I have been reminded – repeatedly – that being very good can lead to believing you can do the impossible one more time than you can.”
Both men nodded, sobered. “That’s the truth,” Tloc said, touching the side of his face.
Muldoon perked up, laying one finger alongside his nose. “My money is on a quantum-level distortion. We could see it from here, except it’s invisible to our sensor suite.”
“My information says a gravitational distortion’s been detected around a huge volume, all of it clogged with nova debris. Almost impenetrable to scanning… just to twist the screw another thread.”
Susan frowned. “Do these lost ships have names? Any detail at all?”
Ten minutes later, after arranging a trade to keep the kitchen happy, Koshō signed off. The second watch was in the process of leaving Command, most yawning, some already busy in conversation with their fellows. The comm duty officer and the assistant navigator were a step slow and Susan beckoned them over.
“Rumor says a pair of Survey scouts caught hold of the Chu-sho’s phenomena by the sharp end. See if you can pick out any wrecked ships in the immediate vicinity. They ought to be the other side of the Can. Keep your eyes open for anything out of place. Something very odd killed those scouts – and I’d like to avoid the same fate.”
Susan looked up from her cup of tea. It was navigator’s assistant Llang, trying to suppress a huge grin. Susan beckoned her over. “We’ve got ‘em, kyo.” Llang blurted, comp clutched to her chest. “All three. It’s--”
“Not to be discussed here.” Koshō silenced the girl with a sharp look. The Chu-sa picked up her tea and guided the young Thai-i back out the door at a brisk walk. “Let’s use my station on the bridge instead.”
In the lift, as the decklights blurred past, Susan considered the young Tagalong lieutenant. This was the girl’s second duty posting – she’d come recommended from the MacAllan, a frigate working shipping lane patrols around Alpha Centauri – and Koshō was sure she had very little political experience. After a moment she said quietly, “There may be those aboard Naniwa who will have lost friends or family in those ships. We do not want to break such sad news in a casual way.”
Third watch should have found the bridge nearly deserted, but when the lift doors rotated away, every duty station was staffed and there were four or five extra bodies present, holding up the walls and checking console diagnostics that had been checked only the day before. Oc Chac nodded as she approached.
“Show me.” Koshō nodded to Llang, who slipped into a seat at the comm and sensor station. The Thai-i’s-stylus skittered across the control surfaces with admirable speed. Immediately a series of navigation diagrams appeared and a holo rotated into view, showing the science platform, the debris clouds in the immediate vicinity and then – three sharp taps zoomed the focus far, far down – showing an indistinct smear a goodly distance from the Can, deep into the area marked off by the Mirror as out-of-bounds.
“Kyo, it’s really hard to see – the remains of the ships are just more radioactive junk in with all of this other radioactive junk, but we believe that this—”
Llang tapped once more, and a camera overlay sprang up, showing a sort of empty wedge in the cloud.
“That this was the Kiev after she lost reactor containment. The scout must have been traveling within gun range of the Korkunov—that’s this other gap off her starboard. When they blew, the force of the explosion actually cleared an area in the nebular cloud. The densities of material around the edges of each of these gaps sort of approximate the mass of the ships themselves. At least we think that’s right. And look at this –the Calexico has been cut clean in half!” Llang looked up, her face filled with mingled horror and awe. “Have you ever seen anything like that before, Chu-sa?”
Susan stared at the enhanced, high-contrast image and marveled at the clean edge of the ship’s wound. “How far away is this?”
Susan compared the plots and the information from the morning’s briefing. Her frown deepened.
“There’s an opening.” She said, clenching her hands, which had suddenly gone cold. “Survey and the Mirror advance elements have been here at least a week – they’ll have seen what we see, guessed what we guess. Their danger zone is well on this side of all three of those ships. The Kiev must have blundered into a failed component of the weapon’s array, leaving just the tiniest gap… but not big enough to avoid destruction when they stepped out of bounds.”
Sho-sa Chac considered the plot, eyes fixed on the Mirror research ships now snugged up against the station. “They’ll be going in, Chu-sa, and someone will have to play watchdog… pray to the Lady of Tepeyac we avoid such a fate!”
For her part, Koshō felt claustrophobic. The emptiness around her ship seemed suddenly confined, filled with invisible walls. “Keep the coordinates of this… barrier… in the threatwell at all times,” she decided, caution pricked by the object lesson of the three wrecked survey ships. “If we need to maneuver at speed, we don’t want to interpenetrate by accident.”
“What else?” Koshō felt the tactical problem beginning to turn over in her mind, options shifting in and out of consideration, alternatives discarded as quickly as they suggested themselves.
Llang tapped through a series of detailed views of the area around the Mirror station itself. “Kyo, the only other thing we’ve found is this… probably a good third of the Calexico is the core of the Can itself. Looks like they dragged half of the scout back out of the danger zone and cut away the damaged sections. The other two ships lost containment on their reactors, but by some miracle the Calexico’s power plant survived.”
“Frugal.” Koshō clicked her teeth together. “Someone must have survived the attack or they’d never have found this opening… not without losing another dozen ships blundering around in the dark. Ask around, Sho-sa Oc. See if you can get names.”
“Hai, kyo!” The Mayan nodded, his face impassive. But as he strode away, Susan caught a fragment of a prayer, muttered under the man’s breath: “Hear us, O Xbalanque. Lend us your clever mind and subtle hand. Guide us in this foul Darkness which over you has no power.”
Now, she thought, feeling the bone-deep ache of being up too long and running on too many cups of tea. That makes me feel so much better. May it settle his mind, for it does nothing for mine.
His image of a whirlwind of knives barring the dark road to Xibalba remained with her.
Aboard the Qalak
In the Kuub
Inside the Khaid ship, Hadeishi and the other prisoners were hurried out of the main airlock – a fresh squad of Khaiden marines was crowding into the space, preparing to board the Wilful – and immediately down a side passage. As soon as the hatchway groaned shut behind them – Mitsuharu’s ear caught the distinctive sound of a pump working overtime to compensate for a fouled hydraulic line – he lifted his head in the dim, fetid darkness and glanced around.
The last time he’d been aboard a Khaiden raider his Fleet sensibilities had been affronted by how poorly maintained the alien ships were. And his reaction had been mild compared to the outrage shown by the Engineering team he’d put aboard … that captured heavy cruiser couldn’t have been salvaged without a complete interior rebuild. Much of this, he believed, sprang from the paucity of resources afflicting the ill-defined and disorganized Khaid polity. Fleet intelligence bulletins indicated the hostile power was more a fragile alliance of feuding clans and stations than a real nation. In particular, they lacked a unified industrial base – most of their ships were captured, or stolen – and repair facilities were few and far between.
In the same situation, Mitsuharu believed he’d have taken pains to keep his ship – or ships, if he were some lucky Khaiden warlord – in the best possible condition. But then, he suspected the Khaid might do just that, for ships they had built themselves. But for a stolen ship? Some alien vessel jury-rigged to allow Khaiden operation? There was no reason to spend more than the most minimal resources on a captive vessel; particularly when it would likely be destroyed in the next raid.
Now, seeing the interior of the Qalak, he guessed they were being herded down to a holding facility – and from the look of the piping overhead, and the steadily growing heat – it would be close on to a thermocouple station. Then the guard behind Hadeishi interrupted his train of thought with a hard jab to the shoulder with a zmetgun.
Hadeishi fell clumsily, knocking into the sailor in front of him. The man turned, snarling. Mitsuharu took the opportunity lose his footing and fall down. The guard kicked him, catching Hadeishi on the thigh and then turned to warn off the sailor.
Curled up on the decking, Mitsuharu pulled his cuffed wrists under both tucked-in legs and – once his hands were in front of him – jimmied the bolt-cutters from his tool belt. Groaning with effort, he managed to twist the steel chain into the cutting blade. Seconds later, a heavy gloved hand seized his shoulder and dragged him up.
“Suk korek!” A throaty alien voice snarled in his earbug. At such short range, the conductive comm system in his suit was picking up the ‘cast from the Khaid’s radio. Hadeishi turned, keeping his head down and gritted his teeth. The cheap steel in the cuffs was resisting the cutters, and the tight pressure on his wrists was sending sharp, bright pains up his arms. “Napiyorzun?”
The Khaid reversed his zmetgun and made to slam the metal stock into Hadeishi’s chest, but the Nisei officer bounced up and slashed the alien across the neck of its z-suit with the heavy cutters. The blow sent a shock up both arms, but the creature’s trachea – or equivalent – ruptured. Dark blue-black blood suddenly gushed from the Khaiden’s mouth, sloshing into the bottom of his neck-ring. Its wide-spaced eyes – set into a skull resembling nothing so much as an Afriqan meerkat mated with a hyena’s coloring – glazed with pain.
That was enough – Hadeishi smashed the tool down on the Khaid’s gun-hand, knocking the zmetgun free. The rifle skittered away on the metal decking. At the same moment, the lead guard – who had whirled at the gurgling cry from his fellow – triggered a burst from his weapon. The first of the sailors was lunging at the Khaid and caught the burst full in the chest and face. Shattered z-suit material, clothing and blood sprayed back. The second two men rushed the guard, heads down. Hadeishi darted in behind them, desperate to silence the Khaid before he could sound an alarm. The guard knocked one sailor aside, then fired wildly – missing everything – and Mitsuharu speared the cutters into his faceplate.
Glassite splintered, turning the clear material milky-white, but did not shatter.
This is taking too long, flitted across Mitsuharu’s mind as he backhanded the Khaid’s helmet with the cutters. This time the blunt tool caught the creature in the join between neck-ring and the helmet proper. The z-suit gel – much the same technology as in a Fleet rig and designed to ablate high velocity impacts – gave way and metal jarred on bone. The Khaid staggered, clawing at its neck, and the other two sailors – hands now free – tore its zmetgun away.
“Back to the ship,” snarled the remaining sailor. He’d recovered the other zmetgun and ammunition.
“No!” Barked Hadeishi, without thinking. He still had the cutters clenched in both hands and his whole body was shaking with adrenaline. Every instinct screamed to tear down the passage and lose themselves in the environmental conduits sure to be spidering out from the thermocouple into the rest of the ship. “We need to go down deck and look for a shuttle bay.”
“There are—” Hadeishi fell silent. Both men had already run back up the passage towards the main airlock. He shook his head once, and then snatched up the equipment belt from the nearest Khaid, something that looked like a document pouch on the creature’s thigh and – using the bolt cutters with a sharp, violent jerk – the guard’s right forearm. Then he ran himself, in the opposite direction.
Past the next set of hatchways, Mitsuharu found himself at the top of a gangway leading ‘down’ and paused for a moment to crack open his helmet. The smell of the alien ship was violently awful, but he forced down the urge to vomit and let the heat flowing up from the shaft wash over him.
Definitely a heat exchanger below and that sound– There was a gargling sort of wail echoing from the dripping walls. --will be the holding cells we were destined for. Now I do need that shuttle bay.
Which posed a dilemma; his Khadesh was limited to the barest courtesies – the human palate and tongue couldn’t really duplicate the high pitched yelping and growl undertone that characterized the diplomatic language used by the clans – and he couldn’t read most of their written language. The ship itself, even if stolen from another star faring race, wasn’t a model he recognized so he was going to have a hard time guessing where to find the nearest shuttle bay.
From in here, he realized. I need to get outside, where I can make better time…
He cocked his head, listening again, and now – very distantly – he heard something like the roar of gunfire. Some of the overhead lights flickered and Hadeishi felt certain the sailors from the Wilful had found an honorable death.
No more distractions for the enemy. He picked a corridor that seemed – if he was not entirely turned around – to lead outwards toward shipskin and ran swiftly along, watching the maze of pipes and conduits overhead as he moved. A dozen meters on, a big pipe emerged from the floor and disappeared through the wall to the left. It was banded with bright mauve stripes and covered with blocky lettering.
Now he felt his shoulders creep with tension and the prickling at the nape of his neck which usually meant something hostile was close by. He scuttled along the base of the wall, shining a hand-light at the joins in the passage molding. Fifteen meters down he found an unusually thick panel border and stopped.
His helmet was still open, so he squatted down and closed his eyes, listening.
Back the way he’d come, there was an echoing grinding sound. Hatchway opening.
The tool-belt produced a cutting torch and he thumbed the plasma emitter to quarter-power and bit in along the edge of the panel. The join came apart, revealing a dark access way carpeted with mold. Ah, brown mushrooms! He thought, a fragment of an old song unspooling in memory. In we go.
The panel pulled closed behind him and, duck walking, he scrabbled along by helmet light. After only a few moments, the shape of the huge heat exchanger conduit loomed up before him. This time the mauve striping had been replaced by bright crimson bands and, to his surprise, lines of a different – familiar – script ran between the warning markings.
He did remember a bit of low Heshok as well as most of the more important letter forms, and what he could make out of the warnings indicated that yes, this was an air circulator attached to the heat exchangers. On one of our ships, that means the outbound air will circulate through shipskin radiators to cool before being returned to the sterilizers.
Feeling grimly determined – Musashi himself would have been impressed by such a stoic demeanor in the face of such calamity – Hadeishi hurried along beside the conduit until, after squeezing past a number of stanchions, he found an access port to the exchanger itself. Finally!
The panel popped loose with a little help from his pry bar, and then – after making sure the things he’d looted from the Khaid guard were secured to his suit by lanyards and his helmet was snugged tight – he crawled inside. Immediately, a hot wind roared around him and his z-suit began to squeak alarms about the mounting temperature. He also felt his stomach quease with the loss of gravity and guessed he’d just moved past the last of the g-decking.
Quickly then, he thought, scrambling along the pipe as quickly as he could. I wonder how long my temperature regulator will hold out?
Some time later the character of the conduit changed. The pipe came to an abrupt end in a wall filled with hundreds of dimples, each with a much smaller pipette opening recessed within. Hadeishi stopped, feeling the hot wind beating at his back, and then retreated. This proved difficult – going with the airflow, he hadn’t realized how hard it was pushing at him – but three meters back from the diffusion wall he found an access plate. Now he pressed his temperature sensor against the opening, and saw with relief that the plate itself was quite cold.
They’d be fools to have open vacuum adjacent to the air exchanger, right? Don’t want to trip a pressure alarm.
Regardless, he forced open the access plate and eeled out into a dark, congested room filled with more pipes and machines of unknown provenance. Getting the panel closed behind him was an effort, one that left him exhausted. Hadeishi hooked one leg around a nearby pipe and let himself float.
A search of his pockets found a threesquare bar, which – after checking his environment readings – he ate. That quieted his hunger, but did nothing for his thirst. He licked his lips, trying to remember how many days or hours he could survive without something to drink. Probably the least of my worries, he thought. Hopefully, he went through the equipment belt and pouch taken from the Khaid marine, but found nothing edible. He did find brace of thumb-length cylinders on the belt. Turning them over, he sighed – despairing for his fellow man – for they were Méxica Imperial Army HM-240 grenades long past their expiration date.
Why sir, I found these lying in the street. They must have fallen from an air-lorry.
Fortified, Hadeishi checked his chrono and tried to gauge how much time has passed since the Wilful was attacked. No more than an hour, I hope. I’ve got to keep moving. He didn’t remember feeling the over-under nausea of punching into transit, which meant the Khaid were probably still cleaning up after their attack on the freighter.
Searching the machine room he found a small door and another access-plate. Both seemed temperature neutral, so he eased the door open and found himself looking into a service way lit by only a thin strip of glowlights along the walls. This struck him as a proper maintenance shaft and he looked back, trying to gauge which way was skinside from the heading of the conduit.
That way? He guessed, pulling himself quickly ‘down’ the corridor. Twenty meters on the shaft turned to the right and a heavy lock-style door emerged from the gloom on his left. O praise Ameratsu bringer of daylight!
Mitsuharu kicked away from one wall and touched down beside the lock. A control panel faced the heavy hatch, but there was no glassite window showing what lay beyond. He wanted to rub his face, but found himself nervously tapping on the faceplate of his helmet instead. The controls had a keypad with twelve buttons around a hex-shaped bezel, some kind of card-reader beside them and a touch plate.
Time for the old guard to lend a hand, Hadeishi thought. The severed Khaid forearm had been dripping globules of blood behind him as he’d moved and now they gleamed fitfully in the air, drifting past like tiny blue-black planets. He pressed the glove against the touch plate.
Then he felt relieved - Idiot! If they found those bodies, someone will have noticed the missing hand, and shipboard security will be on the lookout for these credentials. That meant getting through the airlock the old fashioned way… the keypad was a guessing game he didn’t have time to play, the card-reader had possibilities – but a quick search through the pouch and the belt he’d stolen didn’t find an access card or crystal – and the touch plate was too likely to trigger an alarm. Instead he cast around in the immediate vicinity, looking for an emergency access hatch that would let him cycle the airlock on an override. This led him further down the corridor without success.
Back at the lock, Hadeishi felt his chances of escape eroding with every chrono tick. At a loss, he examined the control panel and its various components again. This time, something tickled in memory and he found himself staring at the hex-shaped bezel. A ship built for the Hesht, six fingers on each hand, six packs to a pride… He took out his pry bar and jammed the metal tip under the edge of the bezel, which was not made of the same heavy steel as the rest of the lock. Indeed, the plastic cap popped off, revealing a deep socket – also hex-shaped – running into the hatch.
Emergency access! He gloated, fumbling through both tool-belts for something that would fit the keyhole. A moment later he was spraying some unlok into the opening – it was a fair guess no one had manually opened the hatch since construction! – and then he wedged a number six socket wrench into the opening and then ran one handle of the bolt cutters through the socket itself. Then Hadeishi braced himself against the sidewall – thankful for once that he was working in z-g – and put everything he had into cranking his scratch built key around.
For a long, long minute the socket and cutter combination resisted, going nowhere. His arms started to burn and he felt a twinge in his chest. Then, with a creaky vibration felt through his boots, the wrench rotated a centimeter. Breathing harshly, Hadeishi stopped – sprayed more unlok into the hole – and then put his shoulder into it again.
Now the mechanism creaked again, but faster, and then began to rotate smoothly. Letting out a long hiss of relief, Mitsuharu worked the balky key around until a dull thud reverberated through his arms and the control panel flashed a magenta icon. At the same time, a pair of handles popped free from the metal.
Now, he thought, I will truly be on the clock. Before opening the door, he carefully stowed all of his tools and secured the lanyards and pouches on both belts. Even the severed hand was tacked down. Then he took hold of both handles and pulled. The hatch swung towards him a little ponderously, revealing a dull gray chamber with a perforated grating as the floor. On the opposite wall was a thick glassite panel and beyond that – the wink and gleam of distant stars.
Thirty seconds, Hadeishi counted, watching the airlock cycle. A number of warning lights had come on as soon as he’d secured the inner lock and vented atmosphere. Thirty five seconds.
The exterior hatch opened and the dull, ruddy light of the Kuub streamed in, throwing harsh shadows on the walls. Mitsuharu checked his wrist, watching the radiation indicator fluctuate and then settle into the orange zone. Thirty eight seconds.
He swung out of the lock, oriented himself and then dialed up the magnification on his helmet to thirty-x and took a quick three-sixty of the horizon-line. To his ‘right’ a long profusion of radiating fins emerged from the shipskin, blocking most of his view. To the ‘left’ the hull arced away into nothing but the abyss of stars. Behind him, however, he felt his heart leap to see the drive cowlings of the Wilful rising over the horizon.
Forty four seconds. Watching the radiation detector fluctuate wildly, Hadeishi wished he had a full EVA rig. His z-suit was airtight and temperature regulated but it was not intended for lengthy stays outside of the shielding of a ship. Beggars cannot be choosers he chided himself and moved off towards the freighter as fast as his boots could adhere to the shipskin.
A hundred meters on he halted, catching sight of a pair of recessed cargo or boat-bay doors ahead. He crouched down and crept to the edge of the opening. The doors were closed, but he could see a port-hole-like window not far away, on a smaller access hatch. Carefully he glanced around, checking the horizon. Nothing caught his eye, so Hadeishi worked his way down to the smaller hatchway, trying to keep out of line-of-sight from the window. Just a meter away from the opening, he froze, feeling the hull under his hands and feet begin to tremble.
One hundred and sixty seconds.
The bay doors began to separate, spilling a frosty wisp of atmosphere out into the void, and letting a sharp white light gleam through. Beneath him, the metal doors continued to roll back into the hull, carrying Hadeishi with them. One hundred, sixty-eight seconds.
He scrambled to the port-hole and risked a look inside before the smaller hatch disappeared. Sure enough there was a boat bay on the other side, holding a fair-sized shuttle. With the brief glimpse, he picked out a pair of Khaiden pilots visible through the beveled windows of the spacecraft. Then he took in the rest of the bay and froze, heart thudding in his throat, back pressed against the cold metal. The loading deck beside the shuttle was swarming with Khaid marines in combat armor; some of them were climbing onto EVA carts like the ones the Zosen used to ferry supplies and work-crews around the hulls of larger starships.
Musashi was trudging through mud, in the rain, his head bowed beneath a peasant’s bowl-like straw hat, a simple bokutō over his shoulder, when the gates of the castle swung wide. Perforce, he stopped, moving to the side of the road, and watched in interest as a great column of samurai rode out, their armor gleaming wetly and their spear points bare to the sky. Weary, he squatted as they thundered past, wrapped in silken cloaks, their faces hidden behind armored masks. At the last, the banner man rode out and though his uma-jirushi hung heavy in the pelting rain, Musashi could not avoid seeing the Tokugawa mon. Thus knowing the evil lord remained within the castle, his heart was gladdened – for victory or death over the Mongol overlords was close at hand.
Hadeishi glanced back at the shuttle, saw the bus-sized craft was not mounted on a launch rail like a strike-fighter and raced to dig into his pouches. An instant later, he’d found the roll of stickytape he needed and double-checked the severed arm. Nerving himself, he moved to the edge of the still-moving bay door. Keeping out of sight of the Khaiden hunting party, he crouched down, tensing his legs.
One chance, he thought, feeling giddy. Watch for it…
The bay doors stopped with a clunk and then the shuttle separated from the landing cradle. Ponderously, moving only under low-powered thrusters, the craft wallowed out of the boat bay. Crouched just beyond the edge of the opening, Hadeishi waited for the right moment – then he saw the port-side passenger door slide past – and he sprang outwards, hands and feet outstretched.
He hit the side of the shuttle with a heavy thud, let his knees and elbows flex to absorb as much impact as possible, and then flattened himself against the hull. Second later, the Khaid shuttle had cleared the Qalak and the entire spaceframe shivered as its main engines went into pre-ignition.
Two hundred seconds. A cool sensation tickled his left wrist as his medband started to inject anti-radiation meds. Ignoring the sensation, Hadeishi scuttled forward to the passenger door and peered inside.
Perfect, he thought, suppressing a laugh. A Khaid sailor in a blue-and-black z-suit was just inside, watching an environmental control panel as the shuttle started to pick up speed. After a moment of preparation, Mitsuharu began banging hard on the porthole with the severed forearm. Then, before waiting to see what happened, he secured the limb with two quick passes of stickytape so that the bloody glove was easily visible in the window, and scrambled up and over the ‘roof’ of the shuttle.
Crouching, he took his bearings and saw the shuttle was turning away at an angle from both the Qalak and the Wilful. It was hard to gauge distance with no backdrop, but he guessed the freighter was a good kilometer away. Two hundred, fifteen seconds.
Hadeishi pulled out the little plasma cutter, oriented himself towards the Wilful – looked back towards the passenger door with a wry twist to his lips – and when he saw the top edge of the door cycle outwards, he rotated the strength ring to ‘full’ and thumbed the control.
The plasma jet flickered out in a long, blue-white line and Hadeishi felt his boots tug – kicking away, he lost adhesion – and then saw the shuttle falling away below him. Long seconds passed … he imagined the hatch cycling open, the limb being retrieved, the Khaid sailor stepping back inside to examine the queer artifact. Then the portholes on the sides of the shuttle suddenly flared with a stabbing, orange-red light. The spacecraft shuddered, spilling debris. Out of the corner of his eye, Mitsuharu saw a swarm of combat suits boiling out of the Qalak’s boat bay. EVA carts winged towards the shuttle, which was now leaking spheroids of gray-white smoke as the interior fittings burned.
Two hundred, forty seconds.
He switched off the plasma cutter and curled himself up into a ball. It was a long fall to the freighter and he hoped – devoutly prayed – that the Khaiden commander on the Qalak didn’t decide to turn on full active scanning for the immediate volume around his ship. Then I would fry like a sweet dumpling!
At two hundred forty-five seconds a wave of metallic debris, intermixed with charred cushions, chunks of piping, internal framing and bits of z-suit accelerated past him. Buffeted by the flotsam, he looked back and saw that the entire shuttle had vanished in a blast-cloud. The Khaid marines –barely visible at this range – were in equal disarray. Score one for the army! Good thing, too, he thought. That combat armor will sport an IR mode for extra-vehicular combat. Gritting his teeth, he dialed down his suit temperature regulator. Can’t go to zero, but I can draw down my signature…
Sixteen minutes later, his limbs numb with cold and his radiation monitor strobing red, Hadeishi collided with cargo hold B on the Wilful’s port quarter. Shocked out of a hypothermia induced daze, he bounced along the pitted, scarred surface of the freighter for five or six seconds until he managed to get his hands flat against the metal hull and his z-suit adhered. The jerky stop sent stabbing pains up each arm, but he managed to hold on. Ah, now that hurt.
Now able to dial up his suit temperature, Mitsuharu scrabbled along on all fours, looking for the nearest airlock. If memory served, there was a cargo door between two of the drive fairings. The last six meters seemed a vast distance, but he managed to drag himself to the control panel and punch in his access code. Human-friendly lights flickered on inside the lock chamber and he fell in, feeling utterly drained. Hands shaking, Mitsuharu managed to get the outer lock closed and atmosphere cycling before he collapsed.
Gravity kicked in as he lay on the floor, inner door rotating open. For a long moment Hadeishi couldn’t even lift his head, but when he could the cargo hold access way was empty. No alarms had triggered, no sirens sounded. Khaid haven’t reprogrammed the ship yet.
Dragging himself over the threshold, Hadeishi managed to prop himself against the nearest wall and close the hatch. His hands and feet were getting warmer, and he felt some strength returning. When he could get to his feet, Mitsuharu shuffled down to the cargo master’s office – really no more than a closet with controls to manage the gangways and cranes – and rummaged through the storage bins. This yielded up a Gogozen bar – a kind of high-fat candy he usually avoided, but now stuffed into his mouth without delay – and far better, three cans of Kuka-kolo – a carbonated chocolatl beverage sweetened with the sap of the Nopal cactus. When all three were drained dry, Hadeishi began to feel human again. Ah, sugar. Very delicious. Now I need a weapon, or more than one.
After searching the closet one more time, Hadeishi signed into the shipboard net and paged through the security camera views available to him. Restricted to below-decks, he found nothing in ten fruitless minutes. No Khaid down below… they must be up on the bridge.
Picking up a long pry bar stowed behind the comp panels, Mitsuharu slipped out of the closet and made his way towards the shipcore with his helmet external audio turned up, listening for anything beyond the usual groaning and hissing of the old ship.
The starboard cargo lift rattled to a halt on the accommodation deck – not an area Hadeishi had even set foot in before – and he eased out, pry bar in both hands like a bat, and he stepped lightly towards the shipcore. Almost immediately he encountered a rec room strewn with burned fabric and paper, fallen coffee cups and broken plates. His boots crunched on scattered shipgun flechettes and the walls and cupboards were badly torn up. Two bodies lay sprawled on the floor – both wearing the jumpsuits favored by the Wilful’s crew – and as he gingerly approached they convulsed with a rippling wave of motion.
Both corpses collapsed into a tatter of cloth and white bone. The Khaid shipbugs, an insectile omnivore about the length of his thumb, swarmed across the floor, their silvery carapaces making a queer, shimmering mass. Hundreds of antennae turned in his direction, waved about tasting the air, and then the entire swarm turned away with a rustling tik-tik-tik, looking for more decomposing organics to consume.
Why the Khaid – who were not one of the insectoid species known to the Méxica —employed the shipbug, Hadeishi did not know. One intel briefing he had seen suggested the Khaiden themselves had once been a subject race of the Kryg’nth or Megair and had adopted some of their past master’s technologies and practices. Too, he understood they found the insects a delicacy. He found the bugs loathsome and stayed back, out of the room, until the swarm had departed for some other corpse-strewn pasture.
Then he forced himself to search through the remains of the two men, and gathered up their identity cards, pocket multitools and anything else of use he could find. The refrigerator in the rec area also yielded up more to eat and two bottles of Mayahuel-brand beer, which he stowed in the leg pockets of his z-suit.
Do they have a handler? He wondered, thinking of the shipbugs again. So far they are the only sign of life… Perhaps the Khaid close off the ship, let the bugs scour everything clean, and then come in to gather them up. All fat and juicy and… He spat violently in the sink, then wiped his mouth. I need to find a real command console with access to all of the security cameras.
Hadeishi crouched at the junction between the shipcore and an access way to the main passenger airlock, morbidly amused to stand no more than a meter from where he’d been marched out in chains no more than an hour earlier. This time the roundabout was empty – all of the bodies had been dragged away and the Khaid marines were gone. Cautious, Mitsuharu held a small mirror mounted on a telescoping handle around the corner, looking for the expected guards. The airlock itself was open, but no one seemed to be in the gangway leading to the Qalak. There must be someone just out of sight on the other side….
Wary of showing himself in the crossroads, Mitsuharu backtracked to the nearest door and slipped inside. The room was one of a set ringing the top of the shipcore and seemed to be sleeping quarters for four. On the far side was a sliding doorway leading into a shared bathroom. Hadeishi wasted no time in passing through, giving the fresher a quick once-over – no weapons or tools – and then easing open the doorway to the second bunkroom.
Here he found the bodies from the roundabout and bridge. They were thrown in a heap – and the tik-tik-tik of the shipbugs was loud enough to hear through his helmet. Suppressing an urge to vomit, Mitsuharu kept to the edge of the room and made a quick exit out the far door.
Breathing fast, Hadeishi forced himself to stop – now he was in a short corridor leading back to the roundabout – and he was suddenly afraid he’d walked out in full view of any Khaiden camera pointing down the gangway between the two ships. Luckily, the corridor was not in line with the airlock itself. Breathing a sigh of relief, he ducked across to the other side of the passage and was about to chance angling back to the crossroads to get to the bridge itself when he realized that the thick trail of blood and offal leading into the charnel room had a companion. Not much more than a scrape of blood here and there, but a clear sign that someone had come out of the slaughterhouse – crawled across the corridor on hands and knees – and through a door at the end of the passage.
Well now, they missed someone on their sweep. He followed the trail down a short maintenance passage filled with racked air filtration membranes and into a space holding the plumbing risers for the bathrooms.
The dim glow of his helmet lamp glittered back from a pair of pale gray eyes.
An elderly, silver-haired woman was squeezed in among the plumbing, her jumpsuit caked with blood, her face gashed open. Now he could hear her labored breathing and see the muzzle of an automatic – a Webley Bulldog, from what he could see – pointed in his general direction.
“Sencho,” he said quietly, recognizing the rank tabs on her collar. “I’d better get you out of there.”
An hour later, on the bridge, Captain De Molay was lying back on the pilot’s shockchair, her face bandaged and a mug of instant kaffe clutched in hands shining with antibiotic biogel. She looked only marginally better and her breathing was still hoarse. Hadeishi was sitting at the captain’s panel, carefully paging through the onboard cameras, a long machete-like knife close by his hand, and two different earbugs inserted. The Wilful’s systems were more of a hodgepodge than he’d believed, but on-board power was up, the transit coil was spun down to a low idle, reactors were cooking and every kind of weapon on the ship had been gathered up by the Khaid and hauled away.
Well, he thought, almost everything. He patted the machete.
“Kind of him,” Mitsuharu replied, glancing over at the main hatchway. The door was locked and barred, though he knew there was a shipbug swarm busily cleaning up the blood sprayed across the floor and walls outside. The thought still turned his stomach. “Are there any explosives on board? Grenades?”
“If the bastards didn’t take it,” she coughed, pointing at the bridge gun-locker – whose door was hanging open, the locks sprung – “there might be some blasting putty in there. I keep some on hand when we have to clear a landing zone.”
Hadeishi nodded, distracted by a faint tremor suddenly running through the floor and making his fingertips buzz on the control panes. He checked the exterior camera feeds, and saw the Qalak’s shipskin was deforming. The forests of radiating fins were drawing inward, while the destroyers’ transit drive foils were unwinding.
“Move where?” De Molay managed to lift her mug and drain the rest of the sludge. “Two poor pilgrims are we, with only one tired horse – not even one we can fly out of here!”
“No, not yet.” Hadeishi rummaged quickly through the gun locker – twice looted between the Wilful’s crew and the Khaid – and came up with a half-used cylinder of grayish putty, no more than a finger in length. “No triggers?”
“Not in there, child.” De Molay attempted a smile, which made her cheek twinge. “Stowage bin beside the captain’s chair, the one with the broken lock.”
On the camera pane pointing down the gangway into the Qalak there was sudden motion. Mitsuharu leaned over, caught sight of four Khaid in z-suits strolling across the gangway and motioned to De Molay. “Time to go, Sencho-sana.”
Moments later, with the bridge hatch propped open once more, Hadeishi was climbing down a service tube running between the decks, with Captain De Molay clinging to his shoulders. The old woman was light enough to carry, but no burden he wanted to freight for hours. A clumsy set of straps tied them together, and he could do no better with the time allowed.
He could feel, from the vibration of the ship, that the Wilful was underway, though her engines were still cold. Hadeishi assumed the Qalak was accelerating away from the ambush-point and spinning up gradient. Hadeishi was hoping find somewhere for them both to hole up before—
The dim lights in the shaft flickered – his stomach sprang up, reversed and crawled back down his throat. De Molay groaned, her abdomen clenching in protest. She gagged, but managed to choke down the vomit.
“We’re away,” Mitsuharu said, when he felt steady enough to resume climbing down. “And who can tell where we’re heading?”
“Hai, kyo. At our first opportunity.” They reached a junction between decks and Hadeishi struggled to step off the ladder and onto the service door landing. De Molay had to help, grasping at a stanchion with her weak hands, while he navigated the corner. Then Mitsuharu keyed through the door and saw they had descended far enough to reach the lower cargo deck.
“Wait here, kyo,” he muttered, setting her down. “I need to set some insurance.”
Back in the maintenance shaft, he tore open a series of access panels until he found a orange-colored conduit the thickness of his wrist. Gingerly – who knew how stable the substance was! – he tacked the blasting putty behind the communications main and then wedged the remote detonator into place. Working his way back to the corridor, he closed and locked the entrance to the shaft and then checked the detonator relay.
Cupped in his hand, the status light shone a pale green.
“What did you mine?” De Molay asked, peering up at him from the floor. She was still too weak to stand.
“And how did you know it was there?” She was frowning, and had the old woman her full strength, her expression would have been formidable.
Slinging her on his back again, Mitsuharu set off for his old quarters behind the fuel tanks.
Winter rain was pouring down, setting the mountainside streams to rushing, white-frothed torrents. Musashi was climbing the pass under Mount Murou, a plain wooden stave in each hand. A bitterly cold wind howled, nipping at his face, etching white streaks on the wolf-skin he wore as a cape. The old blind man clinging to his back was cursing endlessly, complaining about every jounce and jolt in the road as the swordsman climbed, step by step, his feet bleeding in the straw sandals, towards the summit of the pass. If he missed a step, the old man would strike the side of Musashi’s head with a begging bowl and shout – ‘donkey!’ – over the hiss of the wind.
De Molay slumped into Hadeishi’s hammock with a relieved groan. Her face was very pale, her skin waxy. Mitsuharu pulled one of the bottles of Mayahuel from his leg pockets and popped the cap. The old woman drank noisily, but seemed a bit revived when he took the empty away.
The main engineering console had been shorted out, which Hadeishi found a crude but effective way to prevent its use, but his secondary panels were still active. He retrieved his stylus from a corner and keyed up the interface. “Kyo, what code should I use?” He asked, looking to De Molay.
“Hierusalem,” she said, and then spelled out the Latinate word for him. The panel quickened to life, showing a wholly different interface than he’d ever had access to before. Both of Hadeishi’s eyebrows rose in surprise, then he quickly navigated through the sensor options to find the transit display.
At the summit of the pass, where Toudai temple had once stood, there was a ring of shattered pillars and broken stones. Here the icy wind was howling like a demon, and the chill cut through Musashi’s cloak like a knife. Arrayed across the road, their own furs white and almost invisible against the blowing snow, stood a line of men with drawn blades. In his ear, Musashi heard the blind man sniff once, then twice. ‘Ah, idiot donkey – why have you angered the shugenja? Now we shall be late…’
The engineering panel was not equipped to generate a full-up threatwell display, but Hadeishi could read the swarm of glyphs and icons as well as any Fleet officer. De Molay opened one eye, peering at him from the hammock. “Well, engineer’s mate, where are we going?”
“That, I cannot tell. But we have found company … two dozen Khaid warships, I would judge – some of them larger than I’ve ever seen under their colors before – and we are all on the same heading.”
Near the Pinhole
Anderssen woke abruptly, finding herself in near-darkness, and for a moment she was certain the roof above was formed of bronze-colored metal. Metal which gleamed and flickered with the light of constantly moving streams of flame. Something like wraiths, or fiery shadows, which moved throughout the tower around her, which tenanted the streets below, and darted through sullen, amber-colored skies above.
Her mouth was filled with a hard, metallic taste and she tried to muster enough spit to clear her palate. Gods, what did I drink last night? She could not remember drinking anything harder than tea.
Sitting in the darkness, Gretchen flexed her fingers, tied back her hair and groped around for her comm-band. She found the bracelet by touch and turned the device over. The cool blue glow of the readouts steadied her and the last of the flickering, flame-tenanted shadows faded from the edges of her vision.
“I see,” she said aloud, suddenly wishing she’d brought Malakar along to watch over while she slept. Or Parker, or Magdalena! Where are my friends, my team? In the old days I would never have hared off like this without them. The thought brought her up short and Anderssen realized – with a chill shock – that she had placed herself in a very precarious position. I am out here, in the middle of nowhere, with a crazy old sorcerer and a crew of religious fanatics, looking for … something… which by all rights aught be left well enough alone. Holy Mary of the Roses, what was I thinking? Magdalena would give me such a cuffing!
Then she decided that Hummingbird had jobbed her again with his measly five hundred thousand quills. And why did he pay that out? She wondered. He must be desperate for… for a washed-up, out-of-work, out-of-her mind xenoarchaeologist. He could rent a graduate student from the Company for almost nothing!
The obvious reason was disturbing. He knows about my talent, and how it’s grown. He’s expecting me to be able to find all of the pieces of some puzzle that would elude everyone else, even him. This is not going to be pleasant.
She clipped on her medband and comm bracelet, swung out of the tiny bunk and found her jacket, comp and other tools. The Moulins had been poking along in the dark, following an uneven, zigzag course for several days. But now, she had a sense the ship had stopped moving. Have we arrived, she wondered? “Time to find out.”
After a detour by the mess deck to fill her mug with hot, weak kaffe – the dispenser seemed programmed to produce the most wretched version of anything requested – Gretchen climbed the gangway to the control spaces. Captain Locke, the pilot and Hummingbird were sitting, watching the navigational displays with varying degrees of boredom. The screens showing the exterior view of the Moulins were filled with gorgeous, glowing dust-clouds in every shade of red, violet and viridian. Streamers of iridescent material arced across the field of view. Embedded in the murk – were they distant pulsars, or stars almost swallowed by this wrack? – were hot points of light.
Hummingbird turned slightly, his weathered old face impassive. “We’ve found what seems to be an Imperial battle-group. Most of the ships are stationary, but some are working patrol patterns around this whole area.”
“But we’re waiting?” She felt itchy, knowing that the artifact -- her life’s work if she could but touch it – might only be light minutes away. “What for?”
“The right ship. And the right commander.” His voice was very low, only barely audible to her, even sitting in the adjacent seat.
“So, we’re thinking weeks parked here in the dark, watching the pretty lights?” Her light tone did not move him.
Instead, he nodded minutely. “If need be.”
A chime sounded from one of the console panels and a series of glyphs strobed on the main board. The pilot leaned over, interested. His stylus circled a moving icon on the display and the view focused in. Velocity and heading figures appeared in a sidebar.
Locke snorted, saying: “I don’t think he can see any better in this than—”
“Go dark!” Hummingbird’s voice was sharp as a knife and filled with an unmistakable tone of command. Without even thinking, the pilot jerked around in his seat, both hands busy on the controls. The level of ambient noise in the control space suddenly dropped and every light shaded down to a dull red, or turned off entirely. The sound of the air circulators ceased and the constant, low-level vibration in the decking stuttered and then died.
“Captain, we are at zero emissions.” The pilot reported in a low voice. “Gravity generators are cold. Engines are cold.”
Gretchen was interested in Locke’s reaction – Hummingbird had given direct orders on his bridge – but the freighter captain seemed unperturbed. If he’d noticed at all? Anderssen found that peculiar, but the captain had been treating the old nauallis very deferentially for the last week. I need to look up what Præceptor means.
The icon on the navigation board continued to show swift progress and Gretchen, peering over Hummingbird’s shoulder suddenly realized that another icon – one shining green with a blue band around it – must be the Moulins. Which meant…
On the camera screens, a point of blue-violet light suddenly became visible. As she watched, it grew in size, resolving into a black speck surrounded by a brilliantly-colored corona of violently excited particles. The wake of the approaching starship quickly became apparent as a corkscrew-like fan of burning motes.
“Hold position.” The Crow’s voice was steely and his demeanor inflexible. “They are blinding their own sensors with all that electromagnetic trash. If we remain still, they will race past, unknowing. Otherwise, we’ll be a fine target for a sprint missile or a particle beam practice.”
Locke nodded, swallowing hard. His hands clenched on the arms of his chair.
Gretchen was glad – she’d had the thought before – she’d already had her quota of children. Though just one more… no, it’s too late for that.
“A super-dreadnaught,” whispered the pilot in awe, camera interpolation yielding an enormous outline through the curtains of fire. “It must be four kilometers long, or more!”
Hummingbird was working his stylus in a quick, efficient blur on a hand-comp. A lead had been jacked from the unit into the control consoles and Gretchen jumped slightly when he suddenly cursed aloud. Locke and the pilot turned in alarm.
“Xochitl!” The sound was harsh, abrupt.
Hummingbird stared at his comp, right eyelid twitching. Then, after a stiff moment with everyone staring at him, he looked up. “Captain Locke, spin up the mains as soon as we’re in the thrust shadow of that monster.”
“Delicate flower?” Gretchen ventured. “I’ve heard that name before.”
“One of the Princes Imperial has arrived,” the old nauallis answered, looking at her sidelong. She had been around him long enough to glimpse anger and unease behind his usual stoic mask. Could our all-seeing sorcerer be worried? Gretchen struggled to suppress a grin.
Xochitl – precious flower – now where… Ah! Of course.
A flurry of 3-v magazine covers, each more lurid than the last, came to mind. Page after page of Temple of Truth filled with ‘candid’ snaps of a young, heartbreakingly handsome man. The foremost of the Emperor’s ‘Mighty Sons’, Prince Xochitl was not the eldest, but he did shine the brightest in popular culture. A victorious fleet commander – he’d driven the Kroomākh back from Al-Haram, recapturing two colony worlds and a series of critical mining stations – a notorious duelist who had left a long trail of broken hearts and honorable deaths behind him.
So, she thought, feeling Hummingbird’s tension ratcheting up with each second. The pilot had the maneuver engines on restart and Captain Locke had pitched in to bring up the hyperspace coil. But she could tell it was all going far, far too slowly for the Crow’s frayed patience.
“Hm,” she said, drawing a baleful gaze. “He’s the pretty one, isn’t he? With the hair?”
Koshō happened to be reviewing battle-group dispositions in preparation for ordering a change in heading for the next leg of their patrol pattern, when a bright spark popped into view on the threatwell. Her eyes widened, then flicked to the ident code glyphs popping up around the speeding mote.
The lieutenants at the navigation and pilot stations were already in motion and acceleration alarm klaxons blared the length of the ship. Naniwa’s frame groaned, antimatter-powered drives kicking into maximum thrust, and Koshō watched, face impassive, as they cut away from intercept.
Susan did not answer for a moment, her face hard-set, brows furrowed. She was watching the conversation between the Naniwa’s ‘cast system and the intruder. Camera images of the oncoming ship began to unfold on her panel, and the ident system chirped, yielding a verified identification.
“IMN SDN-6 Tlemitl has joined the battle-group,” she said at last, her lips a tight, hard line. “Under the command of the Prince Imperial Xochitl, Admiral of the Fleet.” She sat back in her shockchair and forced her hands to stillness. “What is he doing here in the Firearrow? There isn’t a 3-v camera within light years! I should…”
Then she turned back to her XO. “Sho-sa Oc, get us out of the Firearrow’s drive plume. Send Naniwa wide, then curve back to the patrol pattern. That should avoid any radiation wake behind that behemoth.”
Susan tried to turn her attention back to reviewing the latest supplies and munitions projections from Logistics, but the constant chatter on the battle-group stellarcast – which she had spooling on one of her earbug channels – was afire with speculation. Tlemitl had not ‘cast the usual greeting or pleasantries, though the massive ship’s course was clear – dead on to the Can.
The thought of Xocoyotl’s reaction to being usurped by the Prince, who outranked the rear admiral in every possible way, did lighten her mood a little. But she did not relish the prospect of managing both of them.
“Chu-sa!” The navigator said sharply, looking up from his console. “Unknown signature on the plot! We have an intruder in our patrol box.”
“Project location from the data we’ve already captured, Thai-i. Lock heading as soon as we’ve caught sight of her again.” Koshō looked to Pucatli, who was sitting in at comms for the usual first-watch officer. “Signal battle stations to all hands, Chu-i. Immediate intercept. Unauthorized ship of unknown flag. Guns live. This is not a drill. Load missile racks one and two. Direct So-cho Juarez to ready two teams for board and seizure.”
Then she sat back, feeling a cold shiver of adrenaline course through her limbs as the klaxon sounded, and her bad mood vanished like the morning frost from the eaves. Smartly now, she thought, watching the bridge crew in action. Mitsuharu would be pleased to see their progress.
She shook her head, no. “Let’s see what we’ve beaten from cover, first, Sho-sa. Then I’ll report to the various admirals.”
The Naniwa cut in quite nimbly, Susan was pleased to see, using the particle storm kicked up by the Tlemitl’s passage as a hunting screen, and Juarez’ combat teams had dropped alongside the tiny ship with two shuttles before there was any indication the intruders realized they’d been seen.
Koshō listened intently, a constellation of v-feeds from Marine armor cameras unspooling on her main console, as the So-cho and his men cracked two airlocks simultaneously and secured the ship. There was some chatter from the inhabitants, but by then the engines were locked out.
She raised an eyebrow, looking questioningly at Oc Chac.
“The Moulins, kyo. A ‘merchanter for hire’ out of Denby 47. No more than an asteroid with a hydrogen cracking station and fueling gantry. If memory serves, Denby lies within the jurisdiction of New Malta.”
Susan folded her slim arms and stared apprehensively at the multi-plane view afforded by the threatwell. This place is drawing far too many players. All for a hazard to navigation? No – the Mirror must think they can gain control of the weapon, or whatever it is, and turn it to our use. But why did the Prince arrive so late? He was never late to any affaire or affray before… curious. Very curious. She tapped open the Marine command circuit.
“So-cho Juarez, what do we have for passengers?”
His report, brisk and efficient as it was, was not what Koshō wanted to hear. Her expression turned quite remarkably sour, as though she’d bitten into a rotten persimmon. Oc Chac waited, his curiosity obvious, while the Chu-sa stared distantly at the threatwell. When she turned to him, he straightened, hands clasped behind his back. “Kyo?”
“Sho-sa, prep the bay to tether that ship. I want it inside our coil field as quickly as we can.” She looked away. “So-cho Juarez, we’re bringing you inboard, but I want a squad on-board at all times and bring in some Zosen to tear it apart – hidden compartments, look for everything…”
On the bridge of the Moulins, Hummingbird watched with equanimity as the gaping maw of the battle-cruiser’s rear cargo hold enveloped them. He was keeping an eye on his comp, which chirped pleasantly a moment after they were fully inside the Imperial ship. Anderssen frowned – her hands were clasped on the top of her head, just like Captain Locke and the pilot – and she was staring down the barrel of an Imperial shipgun. The nauallis’ comp was sitting on a side console, still plugged into the freighter’s shipnet, and seemed to be quite busy.
“Who are you talking to with that thing?” She hissed out of the side of her mouth.
Before the Imperial could say anything, however, Hummingbird nodded pleasantly and said: “So-cho, please consider my credentials before doing anything rash. I am an Imperial tlamatinime – a Judge – on official business. This woman is my assistant and we appreciate your commander’s efforts in picking us up.” He twisted his wrist, exposing a comm band, and then submitted quietly as the Marine scanned his various forms of identification.
Gretchen snorted in disgust, knowing full well there was no way the old Méxica had planned this. “You know, Crow, you remind me of my first field instructor. She really didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t plan. She was clumsy and forgetful. Disasters followed her everywhere, but something always happened to make her look great. She eventually wandered up a pyramid on Go-Long in the rainy season and was struck by lightning.”
So-cho Juarez returned, his expression thunderous. “The Chu-sa will speak with you.” He jerked an armored thumb at two of the Marines. “Heicho Gozen, Chayle, the captain is waiting for them in the loading bay overlook.”
“We’ll need our luggage,” Hummingbird interjected, radiating an aura of perfect reasonability. “It will only take a moment, and save time later.” Juarez just stared in bafflement. The nauallis slowly lowered his hands, gathered up his spare mantle, the hand comp and gestured for Gretchen to precede him out of the control space. Both Marine corporals – shipguns at the ready – followed along, a little nonplussed themselves.
Clattering down the gangway from the Moulins, half-blinded by the brilliant glare of the spotlights illuminating the enormous hold, Gretchen shifted her duffle and backpack, feeling the straps dig into her shoulder. “But the native people that lived nearby said they had seen a bright angel escape from her body. So they built a shrine so they could pray to her for good luck.”
Hummingbird said nothing, breath frosting in the chill air, his attention fixed on a petite figure in dress-whites looking down upon them from a glassite window half-way up the side of the bay. His two travel bags – made from some heavy synthetic and badly worn, some holes patched over with dozens of transfer stickers – hung heavy in his hands as he walked.
The overlook was entirely lacking any amenities – no chairs, no soft couches, no dispenser filled with cold drinks. No heat to speak of, as the cargo hold was actually part of the exterior hull of the warship which carried the shipskin, weapons, boat and cargo bays and so on. The secondary hull – probably twenty meters inward from their current position – would be warm and toasty. Gretchen looked around, sighed, and parked her duffle and backpack against the foot of a control console. Then Anderssen leaned back against the metal, arms crossed, and nodded politely to the Imperial ship-captain. This one looks very familiar, where… ah now, its Captain Hadeishi’s second! I haven’t seen her since that embassy reception on Jagan.
Koshō’s attention was wholly upon Green Hummingbird, and she radiated an icy distaste which matched the room temperature. The strength of her animosity was refreshing to Gretchen, for the Nisei woman evinced not the slightest fear, respect or deference for the old Crow. That is more like it!
“I see,” the Chu-sa said, lifting her chin slightly. “Now everything is perfectly clear to me.”
“Excellent,” Hummingbird replied, setting down his own luggage. “Then I need not explain. We require a private room with bath, shipnet access and transport to the science station I believe the Mirror Which Reveals is operating not too far from here. And quietly, too,” Hummingbird said. “This is a privy matter.”
“Is it?” Koshō gave him a steely glare. “I am entirely familiar with my operational orders, Hummingbird -tzin. Your … faction… is not welcome here – your presence forbidden.” The faintest smile threatened to disturb the cold perfection of her lips. “I could have you both shot, buying myself the favor of the Mirror with the same flechette. A bargain, I think!”
Hummingbird became very still. Gretchen watched, wide-eyed, wondering if the sense of sharp, coiled fury she felt from the Imperial officer was apparent to the nauallis. Damn, Anderssen thought, her fingertips are on her sidearm! Is she going to chop him down right here?
“My word upon it.”
“Utterly without value.” Koshō’s free hand made a chopping motion. Then she glanced over at Gretchen. “Dr. Anderssen, a pleasure to see you again. Do you know what is happening here? What all of this is about?”
“I do,” Hummingbird interrupted at once.
The Chu-sa flashed a tiny, cold smile.
Gretchen wanted to smile, too, but thought it wise to mind her own business. She could feel Hummingbird’s anger starting to rise. She knew perfectly well the nauallis did not like to barter. He needs something very badly, or he would not be prepared to horse-trade. She sat down on her duffle – the console was like ice -- and reached into her jacket for a Gogozen bar. Maybe I should record this, she mused, for posterity.