Winter clung tight to the city. Icy fogs daily filled the darkened streets, driving most inhabitants to hearth and bed. This day the prostitutes were asleep, the bartender dozing. Listless, Hadeishi sat on the stage in the empty tea-house, plinking away at a mournful tune. He was regretting the lack of even a few quills to purchase sheet-music. How am I supposed to entertain, when—
The traditional cloth curtain at the front of the main room parted with the slight shimmer of an environment field, allowing in a gust of chill air and a sleek-haired woman dressed in a conservative pale blue winter suit over a black sweater, pants and high boots.
Hadeishi paused in mid-scale and tightened one of the strings on his samisen. The tiny sound drew her attention, fine-boned head turning his direction. A moment later, she had crossed the room to stop at an appropriate distance and bow in greeting, which surprised Mitsuharu a little. Close up, the peculiar golden tone of her skin suggested she was Javan or perhaps Balinese.
“Konnichi-wa,” she said, drawing a 3-v card from inside her jacket. The woman held up the tiny pasteboard, which flickered to life when pressed between her thumb and forefinger. After an instant of intense scrutiny – comparing his own face to the picture – she nodded in satisfaction.
Hadeishi laid aside his instrument and returned the bow.
She tapped a modest pendant hanging at her neck, which generated a full-featured holo in the air before him. A duplicate of the woman’s face appeared, surrounded by blocks of text and a variety of commercial mon. In more refined circles, his comp would have exchanged greetings and security protocols with hers, verifying her identity. Here he was satisfied her amber-hued eyes matched tone and color from life to holocast.
Hadeishi found himself nodding. Not for long years, woman—
“There is a ship—”
Hadeishi was nonplussed. His mind raced, trying to frame some response, but the woman continued, blithely unaware of the abrupt struggle between pride and raw greed that seized hold of his tongue and held him helpless.
“A small ship, which has need of a junior engineer. If you are not already contracted here—” Imwa indicated the bar, the sleeping prostitutes and the spiderwebbed curtains with a wave of her fine-boned hand. “—then we may fulfill our obligation by arranging your service.”
I’ve not served in Engineering since I was a cadet. My course seemed so promising then. Hadeishi realized he was gaping at her, while she waited patiently for his response. He resisted the urge to explain what he was doing playing samisen in a house of pleasure. Now it seems I cannot even rate as an officer on some tramp steamer.
“When— when does she lift?” He croaked out at last.
The Javan smiled prettily and drew a crisp-edged packet from the inner pocket of her jacket. “As soon as there are hands to fire the reactors.”
“I will consider it,” he said, and with another bow the young woman left.
Hadeishi scanned the papers to see if they were some kind of joke; then he sat down on the edge of the small, dark stage and read through them carefully. Now he regretted parting with his Fleet surplus comp and comm. Both would have made verifying the recruiting company and everything else about Miss Imwa and this… this ship… far easier.
I will have to go see this scow for myself, he thought, amused.
Then he realized just how tightly he was holding the papers, and how fast his heart was beating.
Despite the poor weather – morning rains had turned to sleet and then a nasty, treacly slush in the streets – Mitsuharu found himself loitering across the cargo road from lift-pad ninety-two later that afternoon. The bulk of the ship was visible behind a tattered razorwire fence and a series of tar-shingled warehouses held together by broadsheet advertisements.
Small, was his first thought, looking up the sixty-meter high shape. Cramped inside… but lean. Those atmospheric drive fairings look a little big for this class of barge.
It felt strange, to be standing groundside, sizing up the tiny starship. He felt crippled, without the constant ebb and flow of data on the threatwell; the reassuring chatter of his bridge crew in his earbug. I’m the crew! He realized, and perversely the thought heartened him. Even as Musashi was always alone, yet never lacking companions. And what would the sword-saint think of this ship?
With a more critical eye, Hadeishi waited for the latest line of lorries to rumble past, then walked quickly across, his boots crunching in the icy slush. The air was thick with fumes and constantly hammered with enormous bursts of noise. Every ten or twelve minutes a ship or shuttle lifted off from somewhere in the sprawling expanse of the uchumon, and each time the whole world shuddered. The gate to the pad was half-ajar, but he did not enter. Instead, he walked past craning his head to see the flanks of the little ship, the way she sat on the blast-plates, whether there was rust or grime caking her intakes – what he could see of them, anyway.
The gangway into the lower cargo deck was foul with sooty ash and oil. The painted letters identifying the registration numbers and name were almost unreadable; micrometeoroid scaling had worn them away. He could still see, however, the outline of a string of katakana representing the word Wilful.
Musashi, he thought sourly, would be disappointed. This isn’t even a smugglers’ ship! It’s just … small, nondescript and poorly maintained.
But in the back of his mind, a casual voice said: She is still a ship, and she can still make transit.
Hadeishi could not disagree, so he traced his way back to the gate. There he stood for a moment, turning the Rusman Corporation hiring packet over in his wiry hands. This one thing stood out in a peculiar way – the contract chits and packaging were all first rate, the agency far too expensive for the presumed owners of the battered old Wilful. There were no lack of ‘hiring agencies’ in the office parks ringing uchumon, and none of them would employ an expensive-looking Javan… not for a contract as paltry as this.
“Hmm.” An intrigue of some kind. But whose? Standing in the cold slush, surrounded by the scents and sounds of the port, with an actual ship in front of him, he found he did not care. He pushed aside the half-open gate and went in search of the purser.
The crew did not take to Mitsuharu. The Bosun, a stringy Frank in a stained shirt and nondescript work-pants, directed Hadeishi to a hammock slung behind the number two heat exchanger, in a space previously inhabited by a refrigeration unit, and mostly filled with spare boxes of ration bars. A fine layer of grime coated the floor, overlaid by discarded litter, and the walls were mottled with dings and cracks.
The cubby hole was mostly private and Mitsuharu settled in with his few remaining belongings, including the lamentable samisen. Some sticktack and spare wire scavenged from the bins under the Engineer’s desk made a hanger for the instrument and then he lay back in the hammock to consider the conclusion of his grand career as a musician. And well done with, he thought, relieved. His efforts had only embarrassed the shade of his father, which was doubtless now resting easily once more in the Western Paradise.
A day after Hadeishi had come aboard and been pointed to his hole, the Engineer returned – he was a Marocâin showing faint traces of Swedish blood, named Azulcay. The officer scowled at Mitsuharu, ordered him to ‘clean things up’ – and then disappeared into the upper decks of the tiny ship to consult with the Captain. Barely had Mitsuharu started stowing tools and making sure nothing was going to come loose the next time they turned over the engines, than the Bosun returned and detailed him off to help load cargo.
This led to a raised eyebrow on Mitsuharu’s part; the cargo holds were some kind of refit – a pair of modernized transfer bays sitting on opposite sites of the ship. Though they had a passable ground-loading configuration with extending ramps and a forklift, to his eye they were custom built for open-space resupply with a matching pair of z-g gantries in each hold.
Realizing this, as he helped two other crewmen guide a heavy cargo pallet up the A-ramp, Hadeishi felt a tiny jolt of adrenaline and a tiny fragment of chambara rose out of his memory; Musashi sitting under a bridge, in the rain, with twenty or thirty other rootless men, listening to them complain about the weather, the lack of food, the cold. And marking they were all missing the same mon from their haori, and the underlying colors were all of a kind.
He started to whistle a little tune under his breath as they rolled the pallet into one of the holds.
When the loading was done, the Bosun failed to reappear, leaving Hadeishi an opportunity to investigate the further corners of the Wilful. Much of the ship itself was a mess, showing signs of clumsy repair and refitting, but some things very much in order were not easy to hide. The overly large atmospheric drive fairings on the outer hull were matched by a series of interesting bulkheads ringing the hyperspace coil and the maneuvering drives.
He ran a hand along one of the bulkhead, feeling the metal tremble with the action of hidden engines. A little over-powered, I think. There’s something beyond the usual gear behind these walls.
Mitsuharu’s movements on the ship were limited – there were too many locked doors and hatchways to allow for all his curiosity– but he was beginning to feel her out.
She might be fast. He rubbed his hands together and grinned quietly. Not even the foul air seeping into his quarters from the fuel stowage dimmed his cheer. Sitting in the semi-darkness, feeling the Wilful throbbing at his back, reactor idling in port, Hadeishi counted up the days and was ashamed to find his “abyss of despair” had lasted only twelve weeks. “Barely three months! Addict!”
The mess proved to need more than a cook, but the simple act of opening the self-heating threesquares and doling out portions gave Mitsuharu a satisfaction out of proportion to the minimal nutrition obtained from the food. Out of long habit, he sat quietly watching the dozen men eating at the single long table while he nursed a cup of tea. Possibilities, he mused. Under the dirt and sloth. Something could be done with them.
The Wilful lumbered into space the next day and a shadow lifted from Mitsuharu’s mind. The tug of gravity faded, the ship shivered alive under hand and foot, and even though his spirits sagged momentarily at the tremulous moan the engine emitted, he smiled to be home again.
“Stop smirking,” barked the Engineer, who was listening to the maneuver drives with a cocked head. “One of the translator circuits is going bad. Get that kit and follow me.”
High on the side of a skytower rising above the neon tumult of the Tlapocan district, a thin, darkly handsome Méxica of indeterminate years stepped from an unmarked aircar and onto a landing platform shining crimson with silken carpet. Six guardsmen had preceded him, each shrouded in combat armor, their faces invisible behind armored masks skinned as jaguars. The nobleman paused, waiting for his bodyguards to check their perimeter and signal an all-clear. While he waited on the open platform, a hot southern wind tousled his long, straight hair, carrying with it the stench of the largest city in the world – burning rubber and plastic, the smoke from countless fires, and the acrid tang of industrial solvents exuded from the endless kilometers of factories, workshops, foundries filling the old city districts climbing the surrounding mountains. Such was the heady air of the Valley of the Méxica people, Anáhuac.
The lead guardsman snapped shut a portable sensor and inclined his head towards the man standing quietly in the center of the platform.
“Clear, my lord,” growled the jaguar-knight. The nobleman nodded slightly, then lifted his arms. A manservant stripped away his mantle and under tunic, leaving nothing but bare flesh. A second servant immediately ran his thumb – enhanced with a spur-like ring – along the man’s shoulders, arms, sides and down to his heels. The first servant hurried back from the aircar and now gathered up the almost-invisible skinsuit puddling at the Méxica’s feet.
Now the second servant produced a slim, metallic wand and carefully ran the device around the periphery of the man’s limbs, eyes fixed on a tiny readout. When he was done, the servant nodded sharply to the Méxica, who let out an infinitely small breath of relief. He shrugged his shoulders, loosening the muscles and then beckoned for the heavy, Tatarsky coat just carried from the aircar. A sleek ermine-fur hat followed, and both servants made a careful check of cuffs, belt and boots before whispering “all is well” in the man’s ear.
The pattern word made something click in his mind, and the omnipresent exocortex overlay that daily informed his vision faded away.
The jaguar-knight stepped away from the man’s side, his heavy Yaomitl plasma-rifle at half-port. The safety interlock was sealed and peace-bonded with a texite strap, but none of the guardsmen could bear to leave their weapons behind, not even here. The circle of iron parted, allowing the Méxica to approach the single door exiting the platform.
The portal was massive – six meters high – and formed of a single anthracite slab. The walls on either side gleamed dully, showing the refractive sheen of battlemetal. When the man’s step reached a hand-span from the door, there was a soft hissing sound and the entire massive structure folded up and away into a hidden cavity. Beyond, a dark corridor receded, lit only by a line of pale blue lights on the floor. Chill air billowed out around the nobleman, biting at his high cheekbones and stinging his lips. Eddies of fog formed as the near freezing air inside the corridor mixed with the thick, warm air of central México.
“Await me,” the man said to the jaguar-knight before stepping away and pacing down the corridor, fog boiling at his heels. “I will return in due time.”
The twenty-meter long passage was entirely empty – and in truth, in the whole of the man’s life this was possibly the only time he was truly alone– and ended in a second titanic slab of stone. As the first had risen, this one receded into the floor at his approach and again the temperature dropped. Hoar-frost now rimed the walls, though the chamber beyond was well appointed with large, heavily constructed chairs, a pair of low waiting tables and behind them – on walls cloaked in heavy silken tapestries – a vast collection of curious artifacts.
Gorgeous masks and finely-wrought amulets, tiny figurines of gold and silver, one or two delicate statues in glossy marble – a collection of treasures, all drawn from the cities, nations and principalities of Anáhuac– and all well known to the Méxica, who had spent many interminable hours considering them as he waited in this very room.
Thus are our museums plundered, he thought drily. Any anger had long since been schooled from him. And our history held up to mock us.
This time he did not pace along the walls, but rather stood quietly attempting to conserve some vestige of the summer heat in the folds of his coat. The first time the nobleman had entered this chamber – sixty years ago, more or less – he’d come close to hypothermia and he had no desire to lose fingers or toes to hastiness.
A breathing technique imparted by a nauallis of his acquaintance settled his mind, slowing his heartbeat and moderating his metabolism. His mind, usually filled to capacity with a thousand and one details, all warring with one another for his attention, fell quiet as well. In other circumstances, the Méxica would have welcomed a moment of quiet mediation.
Here, however, such efforts were part and parcel of his preparations.
No more than an hour later, a creature appeared out of one of the passages opening into the waiting area, and the Méxica was curiously surprised. He guessed – and a review of historical records would later confirm – this was the shortest that either he, or one of his predecessors, had ever waited.
Odd, he allowed himself to think.
The servitor gestured sharply with a wrinkled gray-black hand and then turned away. The Méxica followed without hesitation and moments later had climbed a flight of steep, granite steps into a second room – this one well known to him, and occupied by a being he knew far too well. Like the servitor, the creature sitting upon a large chair of some blood-red wood was wrinkled and gray-black with a heavy, close-napped fur. To a human, it seemed as though a two- or three-meter high tapir had found hind-legs and stood up. A pair of shiny, feverish eyes were placed far back in deep sockets on either side of a long, tapering skull which ended in a pair of slit-like nostrils. Though his scientists had not dared to dissect of the rare Hjo which fell prey to misfortune in Imperial space, the Méxica knew the alien could withstand tremendously cold temperatures, that it was very fast when startled and stronger – kilo for kilo – than an equivalent human. In other circumstances, the suffering the Hjo must endure in the Anáhuac summer might have drawn a drop of compassion from the Méxica, but in this case – he often prayed for even worse heat and drought to afflict his city.
“Esteemed Ekbanz.” The man bowed precisely as low as required, then stood up straight with benign attention arrayed upon his face. “Guide me to Right Thought.”
“Right Thought? Right Thought?” The zhongdu Ekbanz’s brow furrowed sharply and his eyes gleamed with distaste. “Ever we are displeased to hear sacred words from your pitiful lips.” A massive hand cut the air sharply. “Though so you must address us, as guided by Law…” There was a long, high-pitched hiss as the creature exhaled through a set of multi-valved nostrils.
The nobleman neither spoke nor moved. He felt his own naturally smooth brown skin blotching and pitting with the cold in the audience room. He waited an unseemly period for the zhongdu to continue, but by continued slow breathing and a focused mind he kept from making an unwise movement, or showing any hint of the grim cold which was stealing into his limbs.
At last, the zhongdu stirred from his contemplations and exposed a single claw-tip. The appendage gleamed with red and black lacquer as it pointed at the man’s chest. “You have neglected Duty. You have broken the third agreement, human. By Law, this entire system should be forfeit to us – an example to be made, of cindered worlds and ashy skies…”
What has come to his attention? And more important, who was the messenger? “Esteemed—”
“You cannot force harmony from this dissonance! My sources are accurate, timely, detailed in their facts.”
Just fishing for information? I wonder. “The third agreement?”
The zhongdu bared his teeth. Even at this distance, its breath was hot upon the Méxica’s face. “With proper concessions, We may be satisfied with a colony world serving as an example. What do you offer to restore proper balance between us?”
“Esteemed, I still await the accusations.”
The Hjo grimaced, revealing twin rows of tiny, cutting teeth. “You are a bold servant, human. But this is not a matter for a Speaker of the Law to adjudicate. This is between us. Our arrangements require that you provide us with all evidence of the Ones-Who-Wait in a prompt and forthright matter. If you have found anything…”
Ahuizotl felt suddenly, unaccountably sad. An Imperial security breach. At the highest levels. The Mirror, I would think. Now there must be another purge. He straightened his shoulders. “Esteemed, I assure you that the evidence is quite poor. It consists only of three missing ships. We are mounting an effort to examine the area of space and determine if a permanent hazard to navigation exists, and if so, to determine what it might be that all might avoid the region in future.”
The zhongdu settled back, wrinkling his long leathery snout and took a protracted drag on a nargile sitting beside the chair. The sharp scent reaching the Méxica’s nostrils suggested opium, or another derivative of the poppy. No, not just opium. Something else less subtle. Probably synthetic. Remarkable how much psychoactivity Hjo physiology absorbs without noticeable effect. It is true that in his place I, too, should not be pleased. Nor surprised.
After a moment, the creature issued a long, coiling stream of smoke from one nostril. Its eyes had settled back in their sockets, leaving only a faint, disgusted gleam.
Ekbanz considered the human with disgust. Look at the fragile, pink-skinned toy in the heavy jacket and fur-lined cloak! See how it mimics Us, as though taking our seeming would confer our strength! This one seems sick, too. Behold the yellowing of the eyes. But Right Thought has guided it to me, just as my patience with Sahâne wanes. Their ships are fragile – easily lost in the abyss – yes, there is Purpose to be found here.
“We shall send an expert to review the situation,” the zhongdu declared. “As we have great experience in such matters.”
“Esteemed, such generosity is far beyond our—,” the Méxica began.
“Hsst! Your fleet’s departure requires our emissary aboard the flagship. Do not consider otherwise.”
The zhongdu shook its head slowly. “You will wait until the emissary arrives. Go now and prepare. Your presence here is no longer required.”
Despite an intense desire to begin running, the man held a measured pace as he removed himself from the chamber. Once outside, in the blue-lit tunnel he clenched his jaw against a stabbing pain behind both temples. A migraine and no medband to alleviate the pressure.
With the toy gone, Ekbanz glared down at the pitiful specimen his servitors now dragged before him. The zhongdu felt a painful throbbing in his forebrain, just from considering the doleful aspect of the Hjo at his feet. But, as was proper, he said nothing for a long moment, partaking of the bitter smoke provided by the water-pipe.
“A punishment is in order,” he declared at last, “for disturbing the right order of my heavens. You were sent here with great expectations, Sahâne, but you have only proven how low your noble line has fallen.” The zhongdu made a gesture indicating large and abiding regret. His nostrils flared wide to inhale the aspect of the young priest suffering deliciously from pure fear. Ekbanz felt almost repaid for having this embarrassment cluttering up the embassy for so many months. “The Hypothesis that brought all of this about was posited by you, and you will prove it out.”
Sahâne’s nose quivered. “Esteemed, I only imagined...”
“Pack your bags. You will accompany the local toys to investigate this anomaly.”
“Yes of course. Guide my Thoughts.”
“They shall find Guidance.”
Sahâne shuffled out into the outer hallway and sank immediately into a dreadful depression. Isn’t it enough that I am exiled to this backwater? He fished about in his pouch for a box of opium pellets. I am too large of mind and body to be stuffed into a miniature spaceship! How shall I stand the smell and chatter of these ignorant toys? It will take too long—these foolish exercises are beyond the Rim. The universe is full of worthless stellar clusters. I am no astronomer! This is beneath the station of anyone in my family! Pah!
“Ah, Most Honored One… word has it that you have received a crucial posting, a task from the zhongdu himself. Where are you going?”
The young Hjo straightened up, seeing two older members of the embassy approaching. Their fur was lying quite flat and still, indicating hidden amusement and delight.
“As you can well guess,” he replied, trying to keep his voice level, “this is a secret mission, and not to be bandied about. I must leave you now. There is little time to prepare.”
He brushed past the others quickly, but still heard the sneering whisper: “Maybe the great Sahâne can bring Right Thought to the humans and their chattels!”
“Yes, a task worthy of our esteemed holy one!”
“I do not need servants to remind me of my family duties,” the young Hjo mumbled to himself. “More than a thousand generations of noble duty are more reputation than any one Hjogadim of the Sacred Line should have to bear.” Once safely inside his sleeping compartment Sahâne slumped against the hatchway. “Little is more useless,” he whispered bitterly to the nearest wall, “than the last priest of a race without need for gods.”
A thousand meters away, the unmarked aircar lifted from the landing stage with a swirl of dust and sped away into the thick, humid sky. A constant layer of cloud lay over the city, trapped beneath the massive dome which enclosed the Capital. The vapors and exhalations of the millions living below rose upward, forming a microclimate beneath the glassite despite the presence of thousands of air circulators in the dome superstructure. The leaden clouds replied with a constant, stinging rain.
Two kilometers from the skytower, four Tocatl-class airtanks dropped out of the gloom and settled into formation around the aircar. Now the entire convoy increased speed, racing northwest across the sprawl. In the comfortable passenger compartment, the nobleman coughed harshly and rubbed his temples, trying to banish the remaining chill. The servants had dressed him on the platform, resealing his armored skinsuit, applying a fresh medband and pressing a cup of circulatory stimulant into his hands.
The kaffe had gone into the disposal as soon as he was alone. He needed the warmth, but his stomach would not stand the acidity of the drink. And now his mind was full again, and ten thousand priorities vied for his attention.
The zhongdu command, however, held sway in his thoughts.
But what could be done? If the Hjogadim wanted to interfere, then he must let them. “There is too much set on this throw to provoke another crisis,” he said aloud to the mauve and gunmetal blue compartment.
“Later.” The Méxica tapped up a panel showing the faces of five men. Four were quite alike, handsome and clear-faced, flint-eyed, each radiating a sureness of spirit which would have made another father positively glow with joy. The last was a sallow, dissolute wreck with puffy features and lank hair. Despite his intent, the man’s eyes settled there and remained for a long time.
“Tezozómoc, my son,” the Méxica breathed at last, running the edge of his little finger along the side of the 3-v pane. “You were such a beautiful child…” Great sadness suffused the Tlaltecutli’s face, here in this false privacy. The image before him melted into that of a little black-haired baby held in a woman’s arms. His large, bright eyes looked out from the folds of a blanket. “Now look at you… my little, little boy. What has become of you?”
After a long moment, the Emperor passed his hand over the pane and it folded away. Only the four mighty brothers remained. Outside the armored windows, the convoy threaded between soaring towers aglow with neon and searchlights. Tenochtitlán the Eternal sprawled out to fill the bowl of the Valley of the Méxica like a lake of living gold. The cold fire of his city lighted Ahuizotl’s face while he considered each of his sons in turn. Four of the finest warriors we can produce, he mused. Equipped with the finest training, with dearly-bought exocortex overlays, genetically enhanced… which should I spend on this useless exercise? Who goes to the eagle’s stone?
“My son,” he began without greeting. “I have a task, a mission which I wish you to undertake.”
“My father, I..”
The Emperor did not permit a response. “Someone exceptionally trustworthy must convey an agent of the zhongdu beyond the Rim. It is possible that a weapon of the First Sun has been found. Considering your capabilities, I am confident that no one else will serve. Understand that the Mirror is already on station, monitoring the device… and a Fleet battle-squadron will be underway within the hour.”
“Surely one of the Admiralty would...”
“Yes. She has just cleared the fitting yards. And it is only proper that you should command her. But carefully now,” the Emperor went on, a serious tone creeping into his voice. “The Scout Service may have found something real out in the back of beyond, and if they have, the single most important thing you must do is make sure this Hjogadim emissary does not find out what it is. Too, he must be returned safely to Anáhuac. And of course, we must secure the relic or object for our own use. You understand?”
Ahuizotl knew his son’s blood would be afire with the prospect of reaching high enough to touch the face of Tonatiuh itself. As for himself, the Emperor felt exhaustion and sadness settle deeper into his bones. We cannot afford the loss of a ship like the Firearrow… not now. I can spare a son, but not her… curse the Mirror, the Judges and all meddlers!
He tapped the channel closed, an old song coming to mind - something he'd heard long ago, in his innocence, from one of the elders at Chapultepec:
Oh youths, here there are skilled men with shield-reeds,
In the flowers of the pendant eagle plume,
The yellow flowers they grasp; they pour forth noble songs,
They make payment with their blood,
With their bare breasts
They seek the bloody field of war.
And you, O friends, put on your black paint
For war, for the path of victory;
Let us lay hands on our shields,
Raise aloft our strength and courage.
The Akbal Yards
Off Europa, The Jovian System
Koshō entered the temporary officer’s mess on the Naniwa balancing a tray of tea, rice pudding and sliced fruit on her right hand, while a heavy set of construction binders were tucked under her left arm. The room seemed enormous to her after the cramped quarters on the Cornuelle. Due to the rush of work underway to complete fitting out the ship, there were sections of wall panel missing, and several ceiling tiles were pulled up, exposing bundles of comm and power conduit.
Two long tables ran the length of the room and both were crowded with officers of all stripes, busily digging into bowls of rice, fried egg, picken and chiles. As soon as she’d stepped across the threshold, the nearest ensign shot up out of his place on the tatami and bawled, “Chu-sa on deck!”
Everyone paused, chopsticks in midair, and the veterans cast amused looks at the clean-shaven young man, so fresh from Academy. No one else stood up, though everyone was paying close attention to the new commander’s response.
“As you were,” Susan announced to the room, which brought a rustling sound as everyone relaxed. Then she nodded politely to the ensign, saying: “We are not so formal at mealtimes, Sho-i Deskae. A well-fed crew is a hard-working crew. Please continue with your breakfast.”
The boy was back at his bowl of noodles faster than the eye could follow, bronzed skin darkening in embarrassment. Susan hid a smile as she paced along the tables towards her place at the far end. After a dozen paces she slowed, noting an empty zabuton between two senior petty officers from Engineering – but there was a little, mahogany-skinned man sitting cross-legged on the floor in just such a way as to block anyone else from sitting on the cushion.
Koshō stopped, looking down at his bald head and was dismayed to glimpse her own reflection. Ay, I look haggard as a fishwife, she thought. Three months of sixteen hour days wears… that it does.
Her initial postings to the destroyer Ceatl, and then the Cornuelle, had begun nearly a decade after the light cruisers’ commissioning, and though they’d been in dry-dock or offlined for repairs many times, Hadeishi had always been in the middle of the actual repair work, leaving her to manage the local authorities and run security while he crawled around in the engines with Isoroku and the grease-monkeys. Under normal conditions, she’d have had the option to task her XO with the engineering review or take it herself – but Sho-sa MacMillan had not yet arrived from his previous command – and that left her very short-handed.
Now she was the one in the conduits, banging her head and shuffling around after the construction foremen and Kikan-cho Hennig while the engineers talked non-stop about kinetic absorption rates in the between-frame armor and the spalling tendencies of the new model g-decking.
She had never felt better in her entire life, or more exhausted. Every cell in her brain had been stretched in three or four directions, and then snapped back into place. But she’s my ship, and I have – at last – my own command.
It had not really occurred to her, until now, how long she’d spent on the Cornuelle, banging around in the dark, out beyond the fringes of Imperial control. She was years behind the others from her Academy class in achieving a ship command – but there is a balance, Koshō reminded herself, none of the others were given a battle-cruiser. None of them had her combat experience.
“Chu-sa Koshō,” the man said, peering up at her with a pair of black eyes. The pupil and irises were almost exactly the same peat-dark brown, leaving only a thin white ring to outline them against his skin. He was wearing the somber black uniform of the Engineering service – not the shipboard branch, which was under the purview of the Fleet, but the station-side arm which ran the sprawling complex of orbital habitats, forges, construction frames and fitting stations which comprised the Akbal yards.
“A pleasure,” she replied, then paused a split second before saying: “Is there something wrong with this zabuton?”
Chac nodded, lips thinning.
“Should it be replaced?”
He shook his head, no.
His silence was both amusing and irritating at the same time, and she was hungry.
“What suggests this?” She shifted the binders under the tray and started picking at her sliced fruit.
“Saving yours, kyo, there are only twenty five seats.” He indicated the tables and Koshō saw this was indeed the case. “The last to sit will be – must be – in the thirteenth chair, regardless of how they enter.”
“Ah,” she said, suddenly realizing who he must be. “You are our hafuri priest.”
“Starmen are … superstitious, Chu-sa,” the Mayan hissed, trying to keep his voice down. Koshō realized she’d cut him to the quick with the heedless statement. “Do not tempt fate! You bring this ship bad luck enough, kyo, without provoking Camaxtli with your rudeness!”
“Bad luck?” Susan’s eyes narrowed to bare slits.
“Not that you are a woman!” Chac hissed, standing his ground. Though Koshō would never be accounted tall, she had a good two inches over the tiny Mayan. But he did not flinch away from her. “Your last ship died, her crew disgraced, captain sent down to the List… you think no one here knows what happened at Jagan? And you survived? Were promoted? How dearly bought was that last golden skull, Chu-sa? Did your family pay? – Or did you?”
“I see.” Koshō felt still and cold, the Mayan’s words a well-placed dart straight to the heart. She turned, sweeping the mess with a sharp, piercing glance. Every officer sat still as a statue – staring at the two of them in varying degrees of interest, horror and uncertainty. “Rumor is fleet of foot, they say, and your ears will be filled with all manner of calamities.” Her voice echoed from the unfinished shoji. “I will say this – and no more – the Cornuelle was well and truly caught in a trap at Jagan. Her captain taken by surprise, myself trapped planet-side when the ship was stricken. The Admiralty made many excuses for us, but none of them are the truth. We had been out on patrol too long. We were far past tired, and our ship had worn down to nothing… a stupid, deadly mistake her captain rues to this day. His soul was in that ship, and now – with Cornuelle sent to the breaking yards – he is lost as well.”
Koshō inclined her head towards the ensigns sitting near the main door. “Remember this lesson. Chu-sa Hadeishi was one of the finest ship-handlers you could ever meet – and even he was caught out – defeated – by an enemy whose first weapon was patience. The odds always turn against you.”
Koshō ’s right hand tightened on the breakfast tray. The Mayan matched her frigid stare without flinching, then raised one eyebrow minutely, bowed, and made his way out of the room. Susan did not watch him go, but stalked to her seat and sat down.
Koshō took two deep breaths, closed her eyes for a moment, and then set to eating the rice pudding. A fine breakfast with my officers, she thought, chewing mechanically. Very fine.
The next week passed a blur of construction review; sitting in with Thai-i Goroemon while the Logistics officer bartered with Supply Service to fill the ship’s holds with perishables and spare parts, and the lengthy business of actually meeting all of her department heads and their staff. In all the confusion of the tribunal at Toroson and the hurry to get to her new command, Susan had neglected to obtain the services of a manservant or – as she might have claimed – a maid. She’d always considered Hadeishi’s maintenance of old Yejin some kind of a charitable arrangement … until now, when she woke one morning twenty-one days after reporting aboard the Naniwa and found she had not a single clean uniform left in her closet. The ship, of course, boasted a fine, modern laundry but someone had to gather up the dirty clothes and send them off to be cleaned.
Her comm chimed politely, reminding her that Thai-sho Kasir – the operational commander of the Yards – was expecting her on v-cast within the hour. A set of orders packets had arrived during shipnight and they required discussion with the Zosen officers responsible for the Naniwa’s construction, as well as other personnel issues she would have to manage herself.
Grandmother Suchiru would put her cane to the soles of my feet for this… Koshō stiffened at the thought of facing a superior Fleet officer in a less-than-immaculate uniform. All night and all day. What to do? Improvise. I will improvise.
Her stylus skipped across the control interface in a blur as she called up a skinning module, mapped her proper dress whites onto a splice of the v-cast feed routed back from the pickup nodes to pane two, then set pane three to show her what the Admiral would see.
Six minutes before the v-cast started, she was finished tweaking herself and the door cycled open to admit one of the midshipmen.
“Everything is over there, Jushin-tzin.” She watched him for a moment as he bustled around, gathering up uniform tunics. A thought occurred to her while she was waiting. “Ko-hosei – do you know if our fitting officer is still aboard?”
Two hours later, Susan had an excellent view of the construction frame enclosing the six-hundred meter length of the Naniwa. Beyond the spindly web of metal and the hundreds of canisters queuing to be unloaded into the cargo bays, the striated orb of Jupiter blotted out most of the visible sky. The constellation of orbital habitats holding station between Europa and the gas giant were off to her left, though invisible save for the tiny moving flares of shuttles or cargo lighters trolling between the wide-spread components of the Akbal complex.
Koshō stepped carefully, wending her way along the hexacomb pattern of the shipskin tiles. Her combat armor boots were magnetized, as were the narrow walkways installed for the final fit-out of the ship. Primary hull construction had been completed early the previous year – the last sixteen months had been spent by the Zosen installing crew compartments, weapon systems, fuel bladders and so on. The main transit coil and reaction drives had been assembled first – then the three-layer armored hull was wrapped around the engine core, anchored and then unfolded section-by-section to allow second-phase construction.
With the loading bays and internal atmosphere operational, the shipskin had been laid down – a quarter-million tiles according to one of the binders now filling up the tiny office in her quarters – and punched down to the shipnet. Each tile was composed of a multi-phase composite which could deform – within limits, of course – upon command. Reflective or refractive surfaces could deploy within milliseconds, absorptive ones as well. They were tough, too. A diamond-bit saw could barely scuff their surface, much less cut the material.
But the Chu-sa knew there were gangs of yard specialists running hundreds of tests against the skin, looking for defective linkages, bad command interfaces or skunky tiles which had – for unknown reasons – lost their ability to deform with acceptable speed. Her boots trampling on the quiescent surface would trigger alarms and lead to unnecessary work.
We have enough to do, she thought pensively. Naniwa was still at least thirteen days from being spaceworthy.
The Marine walking point in front of her raised a warning hand. They had entered a region of the shipskin where long radiating fins ran out from the hull, making a queer sort of forest – all black limbs and leaf-like extrusions frilled with thousands of tiny heat-exchanging surfaces.
“Priest dead ahead, kyo,” Socho Juarez muttered across the local comm. Susan could tell the sergeant major was unhappy, but who wanted their commander skylarking around outside the ship’s armor – even here, deep in Anáhuac space – when they could be safely parked in Command, out of harm’s way? “Chu-sa, do you want some privacy?”
Susan shook her head.
The officer’s compliment on the Naniwa stood at almost a hundred men and women. After her discussion with the Mayan hafuri their attitude towards her had cooled noticeably. When she’d first come aboard, most of the crew were already hard at work, so Susan had found herself out of synch with her subordinates. There had been so much to do, however, they had started to gel into something like the team she expected.
But nothing like we had on the Cornuelle. Koshō knew that had been rare – Fleet crews usually had a high rate of turnover as specialists rotated out and the officers were promoted. A ship’s complement which remained substantially intact for three years – particularly under combat conditions – was almost unheard of save in the Clan-supplied squadrons. She missed the comfort long familiarity provided.
Proper respect for the Chu-sa was absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of the ship, but there was an uneasy tension Susan could not ignore, particularly when the fitting officer was not in her chain of command. The Fleet was dependent on the Zosen -- Construction and Supply Service – but did not control the logistics arm of the Imperial military. Like the Army they were held separate from one another by the Emperor’s decree. Each Kaigun Kyo reported directly to the Military Council. Her rudeness, therefore, had exacerbated a natural division between Zosen and Fleet.
Again, grandmother would have illuminated this error with a bōken or perhaps a kettle.
The Marine signed an all-clear and Koshō stepped past him, around one of the towering fins, and onto an open area among the heat radiators much like a meadow in a forest of black battlesteel. Oc Chac was waiting, hands clasped behind his engineer’s construction suit, helmet turned towards the vast eye of Jupiter burning down upon them. His mirrored faceplate glowed amber and red, as though filled with fire.
“Chac-tzin.” Susan waved off the Marine, who faded back into the ‘forest’, his combat armor dappling to match shadow to shadow. Most Fleet officers seeking a private conversation – particularly of ship-command rank – would have ordered the sergeant-major to stay aboard ship and out of their hair, but Koshō had spent far too long beyond the Frontier to go anywhere without proper security precautions. Indeed, she hadn’t even thought of not having Juarez accompany her. “I understand we’ve finished final inspections on all systems save the shipskin and the main drive coil?”
Chac nodded, but said nothing. In response, she gave him an abbreviated bow and turned to look upon the face of Jove as well.
“I would like to apologize for my behavior the other morning. It was rude.”
“I understand,” she continued, “that you have been most diligent in your efforts to see construction completed and all systems readied for our trials. Engineering, in fact, sings your praises and promises to spill a thousand cups of octli beer in your honor. Which, from my experience with engineers, is heady tribute indeed.”
There was a short, abrupt snorting sound. He laughs. Well, now I have him.
“These same engineers pressed me, in a most unseemly way, to let you finish your work. I must admit, as I’ve never served on a new ship before, that I do not fully understand your role.”
“Truth, kyo,” the Mayan barked, almost against his will. “Your service jacket bears such a statement out…” Now he was facing her, and Susan could make out his eyes as shadows within shadows. “The Cornuelle was far past her time.”
He paused. Koshō could hear him click his teeth together. Thinking, is he?
For a moment Susan struggled, trying to frame a proper response. How can he say this! Mitsuharu was spinning gold from straw for six months! How… Her shoulders sagged for an instant, before she straightened up again. How could he have risked all our lives? He did. He dared Hachiman over and over again… even at Jagan he was still maneuvering for a way to stay out on patrol. Even at the end, when he and the ship and the crew were past exhaustion…
“He was.” The words were harsh, brittle, metallic in her mouth. But true. “And so he paid, in the end, in blood – as we all pay.”
“Battle, kyo? In a month!” The Mayan laughed out loud. “Oh, Chu-sa, you know she is not ready, the crew is not ready! Six or seven months of working up, running the engines through a full maintenance cycle… then you can go hunting! A month.” He chuckled.
“We have received deployment orders,” she said quietly. “To join a battle group forming up off Europa right now. Chu-sho Xocoyotl is already aboard the Tokiwa and the other ships are arriving in short order. Naniwa is expected to join them within five days, fully supplied and ready for action.”
“Tell that to the Admiral. Will your work be done in time? Will everyone cease giving me such foreboding looks and turn their minds to proper work?”
The Mayan’s chiseled old face twisted into a grimace. “Chu-sa, you don’t believe they have cause to fear? Even with all that has happened to you, even with the engineer’s mighty tribute?” For an instant, it seemed as if he would spit in disgust, but then held back. “You called me the superstitions officer, as though such a thing had no weight in this world!”
“Waste, kyo?” Chac cut her off with a harsh bark. “Waste is the root of my business, and the fullness of your ignorance. Listen!” He stopped abruptly, his anger having passed as quickly as it had come. “Listen, kyo.”
Koshō said nothing, waiting patiently. Grandmother had spent a long time teaching her to grow still, to pause in the instant of action, waiting for balance to emerge from chaos.
“The mind of a warrior must be clear, kyo,” Chac began, “undiluted by fear, unrestricted by disorderly thoughts. If he hurries the throw, his aim ever goes awry. You know this, you are samurai. You family is noble with a long tradition, a great lineage… your blindness in this matter is of great concern – both to me, and to your men.
“So listen. There is no mechanism yet devised by man which exceeds the complexity of a ship of war. Our Naniwa is small, as the great ships go, yet she holds within her every kind of system, every kind of compnet, sensor, power-plant, engine of destruction we can devise. Her armor may be lighter than a dreadnaught, she may lack so many launch-racks as a carrier – but everything is present in her. A capsulation of all we can build… and she is fragile. A delicate bubble.”
Chac lifted his face to the vast, molten orb hanging over their heads. “Despite all her shielding and armor and bronzed hull, if Naniwa were plunged into the heart of Jupiter – tidal pressures would crush her shell, incinerate her inhabitants and leave nothing but dust.”
His hand moved, indicating the radiating fins surrounding them, almost invisible against the ebon backdrop of open space. “If the thermocouples fail, we roast inside, broiled by our own waste heat. If engineering does not balance containment properly, a fusion rupture obliterates us. In battle, the slings, arrows and stones of the enemy will seek us – and one penetrator through the point defense leaves us an expanding cloud of superheated plasma. Everywhere, failure is waiting to consume us.
“All this, beside the unforgiving environment of open space… a hideous broil of hard radiation, micrometeoroid swarms, gravitational eddies – you have seen what happens to a ship which loses transit shielding in the run-up to gradient! There is no soft margin upon which to fall, not for us.
“Thus the Zosen crawling through every compartment, access way and control space on this ship. All of them seeking to find and eliminate as many sources of failure in this machine as they can. Your crew, too, is deep in the work. Preparing to take her out – then the real learning begins! And I am here, Chu-sa, trying to keep you alive with my… superstitions.”
“What kills more ships, Captain, than pitiless space? More than microscopic black holes, the teeming ships of the Megair or Khaid or Kroomākh? More than solar storms lancing out from the heart of some unseen sun to overwhelm shielding and armor?
Susan tilted her head; her face a quiet, still mask. “Tell me.”
“Your crew, kyo,” His left hand stabbed at the hull beneath their feet. “These men and women toiling inside, all effort concentrated to our safety. They are my enemy, and a cunning, devious one they are too! More than a match for all failsafes and interlocks, able to overcome every restraint we put upon them.”
“The Agarwal was a fleet battleship in the Vishnu-class. A planetary commission financed by the colonies around Maghada Prime. Two thousand, five hundred crew. Lost with all hands off Tau Ceti during her second trials. The wreck was recovered and the Zosen tore the remains of the ship apart, seeking to understand her death.
“This much they found -- ” he held his thumb and forefinger apart by the smallest fraction. “One of the waste recirculators failed behind a bulkhead, seeping biochemical sludge into the between-hull. Line-sensors reported the initial leak, but the engineering tech investigating the alert did not enter the between-hull. Instead he checked the flow meters on either end of the line, saw they were within variance of each other and then suppressed the alert.
“Two months later the sludge fermenting in the between-hull ate through a compnet relay and shorted the node. This dropped a shipnet cell during a maneuvering burn, which threw every kind of alert in engineering.” Chac grimaced, making a sign against ill fate across his chest. “The same technician responded to the alert and, again, did not enter the between-hull. Instead, he rerouted shipnet around the shorted node and made a note to fix the damaged relay later. He did not have time to effect this repair.
“The sludge – containing a robust strain of mycelium – seeped through the between-decks, multiplying vigorously. Now it infiltrated the air circulators for a series of sleeping compartments and poisoned the men occupying those quarters. A contamination alert was triggered, but the men didn’t realize they were suffering from mycotoxic infection when they went on shift. A sanitation crew arrived after they had left – and by then it was too late. Two of the uchu were gunnery crewmen and began suffering violent hallucinations at their duty station. Agarwal was destroyed by a sprint missile ignited in the launch-rack by mistake.”
Susan said nothing, waiting for the Mayan to continue. After a long moment, Chac continued: “The technician refused to enter the between-hull because one of his co-workers had suffered a bad injury in the same area during construction. The man had lost his left arm when his z-suit was ruptured by a dislodged stanchion. His z-suit autosealed of course, but the severed limb was too badly damaged by cyanosis by the time the rest of the work-crew got him inside.”
“The Agarwal’s fitting officer should have taken action, but in this instance ill-fate had already befallen him. He had been off-ship dealing with a troublesome component supplier, and by the time he returned to work, the incident – though duly logged – had faded from his memory. And for everyone save the technician who could not bring himself to enter the between-hull. Who killed himself, and his ship thereby.”
“And what,” Susan asked, now truly curious, “would you have done to prevent this?”
“Chu-sa, my purpose is to address Kaach'al – the things which are broken. To mend them. One of the most curious things to repair is men’s apprehension – their fear of ill-luck. Had I been aboard the Agarwal, then my Huitzitzilnahualli and I would have attended to the compartments where the man was injured. And every crewman aboard would have known of what happened and how any ill-luck was taken away from that place.”
“What?” Koshō could not help herself. “How is this not wild superstition?”
Chac stared openly at her for an instant. “Have you no faith, Chu-sa, in the power of men’s belief? In things unproven by theory or experiment? Are you such a child you have not realized men’s faith is more powerful than what is in the world? And here is such a belief – that a place can be tainted by calamity, touched by evil – and all men must avoid it… this is what the huitzil overcomes. What a fitting officer overcomes. Belief that some tool, some compartment, some shuttlecraft is cursed.”
“How is a dwelling haunted, Chu-sa? There is nothing that can be measured, no true apparitions to behold – but you enter and feel a deadly chill, you walk night-drowned hallways and your heart races with quiet panic. What makes this dreadful place so different from your parent’s quiet peaceful garden where your heart finds ease?”
“Nothing! Do not delude yourself, kyo, every centimeter of Anáhuac is drenched in blood. No meter of the earth has not seen murder, rape, betrayal, theft… if you knew the provenance of every stone in that garden, you would recoil, your mind’s eye filling with the blood of the innocent, your ears with the shrieks of those enslaved or betrayed. There is no difference between the cursed dwelling and the beautiful garden, save that you do not know what has occurred there.”
“This is the purpose of the huitzil – to go into these dreadful places, to show himself to all, for his feathered cloak to shine alabaster white, to take upon himself the burden of this ill-luck, these curses, this dreadful karma – before an entire crew, a nation, a planet. And by his sacrifice, to ease so many minds and lighten so many hearts that you can, once more, lift the tool, use the chamber, send the ship of war into the face of the enemy with an unburdened heart.
“And not a man aboard will doubt his fellow, or a system, or even take a critical twenty seconds to run down a different corridor, to avoid the place where someone was felled by accident. This is my task, to see the knife in your hand is unmarred by failure.”
He fell silent, and Koshō did not speak. Instead, she stepped away, circling among the radiating fins, her head bowed in thought. When at last her steps led back to the old Mayan, she regarded him with a new appreciation and a faint smile.
“Then you cannot leave the ship until all is done, can you?”
“Very well.” Susan removed the second packet from her pouch. “Sho-sa MacMillan will not be joining us from the Akashi. He has been brevetted to command in place of her late captain. And I must replace him with someone the men trust, particularly if they are wary of me and my inexperience.”
“I will not. But I will guide them, as needed, and expect you to perform admirably.” With this she presented the packet and gave an abbreviated, but proper bow. “Welcome to the Naniwa, Sho-sa Oc Chac. I’ve had the orderlies move your gear to the XO’s cabin – a bit more spacious than your old bunk, I trust, but not palatial!”
She squared her shoulders, regarding the older man with a stern expression. He was struggling to frame a response.
“Sho-sa, we have sixteen hours to finish loading supplies and get underway. The rest of the squadron is already formed up off Europa – two more battle-cruisers in Tokiwa and Asama, with the heavy cruisers Axe, Gladius, Falchion and Mace as escorts for the fleet tender Hanuman and the science platforms Fiske and Eldredge. They’re our real purpose, I expect.”
Chac let out a long, sober hiss of dismay.
“Sealed orders, Chu-sa, we’ve had no real-time 3-v onto the stellarcast in weeks. No regular mail coming or going. All incoming manifests under crypt, but you’re doubled on every kind of ration, repair-part and munitions they can pack in. Be gone…” The Mayan pursed his lips, calculating stowage. “At least nine months.”
“Prove them wrong, Sho-sa. Dispel this apprehension.” She paused minutely. “Put on a brave face!”
Two days later, with her comm-panel singed by a vitriolic series of messages from Chu-sho Xocoyotl, Koshō was on the bridge of the Naniwa as she matched velocity with the rest of the battle-group nearly sixty million kilometers off Europa. One pane of her command comp showed their approach to gradient as a sharply narrowing spike.
Susan sat back, her heart steady, looking for a moment upon the golden orb of Jupiter arrayed behind the blue-black of nightside Europa. Where now, she wondered. An ancient jisei crossed her mind as the whine of the main coil began to shudder through the decking, lifting the fine hairs on her arms and making her inner ear sing in counterpoint.
Rise, let us go—
along the path lies
the clear dew.
Hadeishi woke, feeling the ship drop from transit with a twisting sensation. Almost immediately a subsystem somewhere in the ceiling kicked into operation. With a frown he realized that a capacitor was discharging at sharp, staccato intervals. Transit shielding is taking a hit, he thought and swung down easily from the hammock. His boots, a heavy jacket he’d scrounged and his tool belt peeled off the wall easily enough. Out of habit, he tugged at the bolt cutters, hand-torch, welding arc and other useful items on the belt. All were secure. Though the ship was under acceleration and there was gravity of a sort, he’d spent too many long-suffering hours as a cadet to trust even Fleet g-decking.
He padded to the engineering boards in the outer room and ran through a quick checklist.
We’re running hot, he saw, and tapped open a series of v-panes showing exterior telemetry. There was only one hull camera patched through to Engineering – which was odd of itself– and it revealed only a confused roil of dust clouds shot with intermittent points of reddish light. But the shielding monitors were in constant motion, registering thousands of impacts a second. Hadeishi frowned and his stylus – dug out of a crevice behind the main comp panel – skittered quickly across the control surface. Two more capacitors dropped into the circuit, and the secondary fusion pump shivered awake.
“In protostellar debris like this,” Mitsuharu said, his voice level and unconcerned, “sensor reaction times degrade – sometimes masking something more massive behind lesser dust. The shielding control relays would have tried to bring more capacity on-line – but by then, we might have lost deflection… and even if the deflectors snapped back in time to push aside something big…”
“We’d already be punched full of a thousand little holes.” The Engineer grunted in agreement and then – with a grudging air – went through his own checklist on the panels. Hadeishi stepped away, keeping a polite distance, and took a moment to make sure his boots were strapped tight and all of the tools in his belt were in place.
When he looked up, Azulcay was peering curiously at the video feeds, one olive-skinned hand scratching at his tight, curly beard. “What is this place?” The Marocâin tapped the v-pane with a ragged fingernail. “Can we run for long in this much debris?”
“Depends on how fast the Captain tries to go,” Mitsuharu said quietly. “May I?”
The man nodded, and Hadeishi folded most of the v-panes away, replacing them with a large single pane containing the camera feed surrounded by a constellation of smaller displays showing hit rates and the status of the various shielding nodes on the outer hull. For some time he scrutinized the ocean of dimly lighted debris streaming alongside as the Wilful pressed onward. Thrust rates from the engines seemed to indicate the Captain was pressing a hard course. The dust thickened as they watched, showing whorls and patterns in the fitful light.
Mitsuharu weighed the time since last they had passed an Imperial navigation beacon. Out of range of Search and Rescue, I think. One of the sensor panels dinged quietly, warning of scattered asteroidal fragments in the murk. The ship shifted course minutely and the Engineer let out a soft whistle.
“Someone upstairs is paying attention… but we’d better get ready for damage con—”
The comp displays on the main panel wavered, blinked twice and went dark. The Engineer cursed fluently in Norman, then jerked a frayed power cable from its socket in the back of the board. “Gimme those spacers and a meter probe.”
Hadeishi had the tools in hand already, and he hid a smile at how quickly the action had become second nature. For all his faults, Azulcay knew far more about the Wilful’s systems than anyone else. The Wilful’s mix of systems were not up to Fleet standard, and they made a constantly mutating puzzle to unravel.
“There!” The Marocâin scrambled up from behind the console as the screen flickered to life again, revealing even an ever thicker murk, now glowing in long striated bands with the light of some distant, unseen star. “Damn, it’s worse.”
Mitsuharu nodded, though he noted the Engineer did not open a comm channel to the bridge, or issue any kind of warning to the captain. Interesting, he wondered. His faith in the command staff is remarkable. In this murk, I would have my damage control crews in z-suits and waiting in the airlocks to go hullside… The paucity of data irritated him immensely, but there was only a single, shielded comm run connected the engineering spaces to the bridge. One camera, one shipnet conduit… we’re blind down here. Still, I should—
“What the hell! We’re right on a moon.” Even as the Marocâin spoke, the rumble of the maneuvering drive hiccupped into a lower pitch. “That’s orbit. To stations!”
Mitsuharu immediately took his place at the secondary console. It was the “station” he had appropriated from the beginning, giving him a reasonable view of the Engineer’s panel and control of some useful secondary systems. A moon, he saw, but without a planet or star in reasonable distance. Only a dim glow illuminated the indistinct sphere. One could imagine ice-shrouded peaks piercing the roughened surface, but without better sensors it looked dimply red-purple, like the passing boulders.
“Gravitational eddies could form a moon from stellar debris without forcing an orbit.” Mitsuharu shrugged. “Or the star could have lost fuel millions of years ago… who could say?”
“See if you can get a read on....” The Engineer stopped, listening.
“Explosions. Coming our...”
The alarm began to blare, but the wailing noise did not drown out a succession of dull, heavy thuds.
“We are attacked.” Who? I wonder. Perhaps Kryg’nth? A dull whoomp came from the direction of the nearest loading bay. Something dark and jagged flickered across the camera pickup before the entire control console died again with a massive thud that made the flooring shake. All the loading bays.
“We’re boarded,” cursed the Marocâin.
It wasn’t a question. Hadeishi was already sealing up his z-suit as Azulcay fumbled with his. The feeling of the suit gelling around his neck and face brought back a thousand memories. Wind was rattling the bamboo, making the surface of the stream flowing past at Musashi’s feet sparkle with tiny wavelets. A series of mossy boulders made an uneasy path to the far side. Kiyohara was poised on the largest of them, his nodachi slung insolently across his massive shoulders. ‘Come then,’ the brigand shouted, ‘unsheath your famous blade, King of Swordsmen!’ Behind him, on the far bank, the sally drew a raucous laugh from the dozens of ronin gathered there.
“Gun locker code?” Hadeishi was at the armored cabinet, but the battle-steel door was properly secured. The Engineer nodded, his face paling. Despite obvious fear, his fingers were steady enough to punch in the authorization code and the gray metal doors swung aside to reveal a brace of shipguns and two bandoliers of ammunition.
“Pretty light,” Mitsuharu muttered, pulling a Bloem-Voss TK6 from the padded cradle. The civilian weapon only carried a single kind of round, a ship-safe flechette, and lacked a grenade launcher or a thermalsight. The Nisei had the bandolier over his shoulder and secured, with the gun tucked under his arm and lanyard snugged to his tool belt before the Engineer had even managed to get the ammunition and snub-nosed rifle out of the cabinet.
“Let me,” ordered the Nisei, quickly righting the civilian’s gear. “Follow me and shoot at anything you don’t recognize. But, please, not the back of my head.” The proper helmet for the z-suit slid down over Hadeishi’s brow and he locked the neckring with a practiced twist of his fingers.
A moment later, Mitsuharu eased out into the main corridor connecting the cargo bays to the shipcore. The overhead lights were flickering on and off as something interfered with environmental power, so he tripped the nearest panel and killed them entirely. Azulcay’s breathing was harsh and fast in his ear.
“What’s—” Two crewmen bolted down the passageway towards them, followed immediately by a stabbing flare of gunfire. One of the spacers staggered and spun around, crashing into a wall. The other threw himself down, caught on the nonskid decking and scrambled past them on hands and knees. Behind the gun-flashes, five or six bulky figures advanced at a quick pace, the muzzle of the leader’s gun glowing like a hot star in the gloom.
The sideways, skittering approach of the invaders told the Nisei all he needed to know about the enemy which had overtaken them. Khaiden, he thought, a brief flash of memory bringing back visions of a bulky starship breaking apart under the impact of three well-placed shipkillers. The Cornuelle had taken severe structural damage in that affray, but shipboard losses had been light. We were lucky, part of his mind commented as he moved. They thought we were too small to—
Hadeishi squeezed off a burst just low of the enemy gun in his sights, then darted aside into the corridor, his shipgun pointed at the floor. Answering fire raked the wall, shredding the paneling and sending the Marocâin into the nearest room with a yell. One of the Khaiden was down, and the others rushed forward. Mitsuharu stepped in, emptied the rest of his clip into the nearest hostile at point blank range and then darted past, trying to burst past the following two in the darkness.
The roar of Khaiden guns filled the corridor behind him as the other crewman and the Engineer opened up. Flechettes hissed past, spattering from his armor and Mitsuharu felt something clip his shoulder. He stumbled, thrown off balance and into the last of the Khaiden boarders.
The creature towered over the slightly built Nisei by a least a meter and its shipgun lashed out hard, butt-first, to slam into Hadeishi’s faceplate. The tempered glassite rang with a clear, bell-like tone and Mitsuharu was thrown to the decking. Teeth clenched, he snatched a fresh clip from the bandolier and snapped open the Bloem-Voss’ cartridge bay – then froze, the glowing bore of a Khaiden zmetgun jammed hard into his faceplate. Smoke curled across his vision and the glassite popped with the heat. Hadeishi groped for a suitable koan. No time left, he thought sadly. For a proper parting.
Ah, Mitsuharu realized with surprise. They do prize technicians – a life of servitude awaits...
With two of the enemy in close proximity, there was nothing to be done but clasp both hands behind his back and feel the bite of a heavy pair of steel cuffs through the z-suit gel. Hadeishi kept his eyes lowered as the Khaiden dragged him down the corridor past the bodies of Azulcay and the other starman. The Marocâin’s face was invisible behind shattered glassite coated with congealing blood. The Khaiden in front of him kicked the corpses aside, ignoring their tools and comm bands.
Now that is even odder, they haven’t even taken my tool belt. Mitsuharu hurried along between the two invaders, chin tucked to chest, trying to see anything he could out of the corners of his eyes. The shipcore was swarming with the enemy, most in battle armor – the usual grab-bag of stolen equipment – but some were kitted out in dark blue z-suits with a gold-colored icon of some kind of hunting bird. The tight, blocky script on the sides of their helmets was hard to read, but Hadeishi thought it might be something like Qalak, or Khaerak. Those are custom fitted uniforms, he realized with a little, chill shock. He did not remember ever seeing a Khaiden raider sporting standardized equipment, much less uniforms or heraldry.
Mitsuharu was herded up the shipcore, following a swing-line with three other crewmen from the Wilful, and then into a cross-corridor marked with heavy yellow stripes warning of environment change ahead. The port, forehull airlock, he guessed. They had passed several more squads of Khaiden, and now he was thinking the dark-blue z-suits were officers. The boarding parties – the equivalent of the Fleet marines – showed little standardization in their arms, armor or personal gear. That’s business as usual…
At the entrance to the airlock, he stopped abruptly as the lead guard jammed the other prisoners against the wall without warning. Four Khaiden jetted past, z-suit maneuvering jets spitting exhaust, with two more of their fellows on litters between them. Still keeping his head bowed, Hadeishi smiled tightly. That little gun did some good.
Ahead, the airlock cycled open, sending a gust of damp, hot air into the corridor. The medical party disappeared through without a pause. Mitsuharu weighed his chances, but then the guard behind him was pushing him forward. They passed a cross-corridor leading upship and for the first time Hadeishi caught a glimpse of the command deck. There was a drift of corpses – all of them apparently human – pinned against one wall with a net of sprayfoam. More of the dark-blue suited Khaiden were busy at the consoles. The doors were pitted with thousands of tiny, sparkling blemishes where shipgun flechettes had impacted.
Fierce smugglers in these parts, he thought, seeing a cloud of tiny ruby-colored droplets drifting in the hatchway. Then the momentary vision was gone, and the airlock was cycling around them. Hadeishi tensed, feeling the hot, humid air of a Khaiden ship wash over him.
The Qalak, then, he thought. Into the belly of the carrion bird.
The guard jammed him in the back with the muzzle of a tribarrel, pushing him forward and as they passed into the dull, redlit space beyond, his earbug cycled frequency – losing contact with the Wilful’s shipnet – and for just a moment, before an encrypter kicked in, he caught a burst of Khadesh.
“—blood-drinking Maltese! A pestilence upon their—!”
In the Kuub
Koshō sat easily in the captain’s chair, one leg crossed over the other, comp control surfaces arrayed to the left to allow an unobstructed view of the engineering stations on her right. Mid-afternoon watch was nearly half over and there were crewmen at every station. The threatwell forming the center of Command was filled with light – the hard diamonds of the battle-group and a contorted maze of filaments representing the dust clouds they had been passing through for the last three days.
On her central board, the transit shielding status displays were flickering crimson and amber much like the fluttering of hummingbird wings – nearly too swift for the eye to follow. One of the graphics surged into red, and then scarlet and a soft ding-ding sounded. Susan looked up from the readiness reports filling her displays and frowned, a sharp crease splitting her forehead.
Gravitational densities were fluctuating in an uncomfortable way; causing the protostellar debris to congeal in ever-moving eddies. The Naniwa’s newly installed deflectors were easily shrugging aside the constant stream of impacts, but she was beginning to worry about the other smaller, older, ships in the convoy. At present the combat elements made a widely dispersed globe around the Fiske, Eldredge and Hanuman. The squadron was currently arrayed to prevent wake overlap and further damage to the smaller ships following the heavy warships.
After a few minutes of considering telemetry from the non-combatants, she tapped her earbug awake and paged Engineering.
“Hennig here, kyo.” The kika-no was a dough-faced Saxon of very conservative mind. Koshō found him refreshingly direct, and like many engineers disinterested in politics of any kind. Had he shown any flickering of concern for the past glories of Imperial Denmark – of which Saxony had been long part – he would not have found a posting in the Fleet at all.
Which would be a shame, Susan thought, Because we are short enough of talented officers as it is.
“Poorly, Chu-sa.” He looked off-pane, and Koshō was heartened to see that the engineer already had the ‘cast telemetry on his own monitors. “We’re pegging up to five or six percent capacity – that last bolus deflected from the port shielding at nineteen percent – but Fiske is showing sixty or seventy percent just in the easy going.”
“You’d agree the densities are increasing, the deeper we go?”
He nodded. “Kyo, whatever gravitational sources are causing all of this debris to collect are – more or less – dead ahead. The closer we come, the tighter the influx spirals are going to be. Right now, if you plot back to our entry point, you can see we’re cutting across deeper ‘valleys’ in the clouds. The interval between each ridge is growing shorter as well.”
Susan shook her head, no.
“Increasing as well. Tachyon relay times are starting to vary – which indicates we’re getting deep into a gravitational eddy as well – and ‘cast timing is starting to slow. Not noticeable to you, or I, kyo – but our ability to supplement the navigational suites of the smaller ships is starting to degrade.”
“And if – when – we’re attacked?”
Hennig showed a set of small, pearl-like teeth. “Chu-sa, below decks chatter says the gunnery officer on Mace nearly lit off a sprint missile into the Falchion two watches ago … a distortion interposed between them and he lost ident lock. So it will be interesting.”
The Chu-i stiffened and then immediately began speaking into his throatmike. Koshō stood up, stretched and took a roundabout of the bridge. This caused a wave of activity to move with her, as the staff checked and rechecked their status displays. When Susan came around to the threatwell, she was standing well away from everyone else. Only Oc Chac had remained on-task with the gunnery control officer, testing the launch control relays for the main missile batteries spaced along the ‘wing’ of the battle cruiser. Six or seven control modules had already been replaced, having failed their workup.
Susan shook her head, then tapped her earbug live as Pucatli reported the channel was open, secure and the admiral on-line. A holocast of the Chu-sho’s face appeared before her, surrounded by a wedge of informational glyphs. Xocoyotl was a little overweight for a Méxica officer, with hard cheekbones and a northern – or Anasazi – cast to his features and a deep, gravelly bass for a voice. So swift had been their departure that Koshō had yet to actually meet her commanding officer in person.
“Chu-sho, battlegroup ‘cast is showing increasing shipskin erosion from the cloud. Naniwa’s deflectors are fresh from the yards and we’re still failing to make a perfectly clean channel – the smaller ships are doing worse, with an increased risk of equipment failure.”
“Your point, Chu-sa? We are still behind schedule to reach rendezvous. If we slow—”
“Understood, kyo. If I may – our projections show that slowing one-half – or reorienting the battle-group for overlapping coverage – will reduce the chances of losing the Fiske, Eldredge or Hanuman by almost sixteen percent.”
The admiral’s expression did not change – it was habitually disapproving – but Susan thought there was a brief flicker in the deep-set, black eyes. She missed Hadeishi again – discussing something like this with him would have been brief, efficient and to the point.
“We’ve no time to experiment,” he said at last. “All ships will stay course and make do.”
The v-cast folded away in the air before her with a soft ding!
Susan tilted her head, considering the engineer for a moment. Then she said: “What we discussed earlier: live-fire exercises for our command and gun crews. But given the rush, I doubt he’d approve the expenditure of munitions or time that would require.” She sat down in her chair and flicked open the v-panes on her control surface. “Not that I am easy about pulling power from the deflectors in this muck – even without the stress of gun exercises - it’s eating my ship.”
Oc Chac stiffened at the light tone in her words. “This does not seem amusing to me.”
Here there is no light but what we wayfarers bring with us.
We grapple in the dark with degraded, phantom faces.
Only treachery awaits us.”
“It is as if we are finding our way to the underworld,
To the dark stairs which bisect the sky.”
The low, chanting tone to his voice began to raise the hackles on Susan’s neck. His face – normally striking, given the strength of his features – now seemed cold and still. The long oval shape, the distinctive nose, the wide lips punctured by labrets of jade and turquoise – a living statue dredged up from the wreck of old Palenque or Copan.
He waited expectantly. For what? She wondered.
“Kyo, did they teach you that the Méxica Kingdom of the Dead is but a weak shadow of Xibalba, place of phantoms, place of fear? That deadly trials and cruel, prankish gods and whirlwinds of knives bar the way to that awful kingdom?”
“Those who go that way have no choice, kyo. It is only for those who are dead.”
“Hai, Chu-i, put him through.”
“Chu-sa Koshō,” Xocoyotl’s voice rumbled in her ear. “I have decided to reform the squadron. Tokiwa, Asama and Naniwa will lead with the cruisers forming a secondary wedge. Set your transit shielding at maximum extent and clear a path through the dust for those who follow. New vectors will be on your navcomm within the quarter hour.”
Susan turned, feeling the chair motors kick in quietly. She tapped up the intraship channel and waited for Pucatli to confirm green across his repeater boards. Chac said nothing, his attention turned inward. Koshō’s attention lingered on him for a moment, before she shook her head and opened the channel.
“All hands, all section officers. Be advised that Chu-sho Xocoyotl has commanded the squadron reform our flight pattern. We will be shifting vector in fifteen – I say fifteen – minutes. Engineering sections be aware that we are going to full transit shield power. Stand by for maneuver on my mark.”
Chac turned, his face somber. “Such thoughts come to me in this place unbidden, kyo – and if they assail my mind, they will afflict the soldiers, starmen and scientists aboard the squadron doubly so.”
He nodded sharply to her, and now everything about him seemed professional and direct once more. “There is work to be done, Chu-sa.”
“Dismissed.” She replied, and then watched him with interest as he strode off.
Can he really make the men forget – or put aside – this apprehension? That would be a boon indeed.