Disclaimer: This story contains violence, implied sexual activities, and bad language. People whose sensibilities are offended by such are invited to leave. All characters and situations within this story are fictional, and any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2012 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
the Enigma of Flatness
|The Secret War||Part XXVII
An Alyan scoutship, pushing its engines to redline, entered the Zauq System an hour after it went dark to find only vapor and debris left of the listening post and the cruiser assigned to protect it. Even the asteroid the base was built upon had been blasted to rubble.
However, then the true magnitude of what had transpired had yet to become clear. As Zauq fell under attack, so had the Polarian outposts at J'balem and Nu Serpentis, and the Procyonese-staffed NSC supply depot at 42 Librae. The night was more than a reversal of Dvesh; it felt like the opening shots of a war.
Twice now, the Dream had detected Guild flotillas at long range. The second time, Ky had dove the ship into the atmosphere of a nearby gas giant before they were noticed, and there they decided to stay and catch their breath.
"This isn't possible." Tallas raked a hand through his hair, reading the last batch of news.
"You've said that." Sabrin was frankly tired of news. He stared out the window at the far side of the conference room, though beyond there was only shapeless murk occasionally lit by lightning.
"It shouldn't be possible," Dreamer corrected, "but it happened." He stood bowed over the table, straight arms planted amongst the scattered readers, vibrating with savage energy. "Shit, we missed somethin' huge, like a black hole."
"Camisard." Ky's voice was low, almost taunting except the joke was on themselves.
Lirelle shot him a look. "There were no references in the Madhrahi data to any of the other three attacks."
"Four Guilds workin' together?" Tallas snorted at his own suggestion.
"That'd be a first," Dreamer muttered in agreement; Guilds were more disposed to eating each other. "We're lookin' at this from the wrong angle. Forget the primary targets...theoretically Madhrahi or any other big Guild could've taken 'em, even if the intel says they didn't have the forces in place." He glared darkly at the reports. "How the fuck did they wipe the cruiser at Zauq? That ship could've chewed up ten pirate cutters and not scrached its paint job."
"Maybe they got their hands on something bigger."
"Perhaps some form of sabotage or subterfuge." Neither Tallas nor Lirelle sounded very convinced.
"I don't think they could've pulled it off at all."
"Then who?" Tallas asked Dreamer, who only shook his head.
Sabrin knew the words that would come, had been waiting for them because there were no answers to be found hiding in these clouds or in Alyan space. "We need to go back to Xiuhcoatl," Tallas said. "That's the only way we're gonna find out what happened."
"Reaching it without unwanted attention will be more difficult than last time," Ky said.
"We'll turn off the transponder and take the back way to here--" Dreamer summoned a map and indicated an uninhabited system of four red dwarfs "--and jump in at the high orbit potential. Most of Xiuhcoaltl's intersystem traffic passes through there, so with a bit of luck we should be able to slip in under the radar."
"Alyan Command is expecting our return," Lirelle pointed out. "Should we attempt to reestablish contact--"
"Rather not, in case they say 'no'. With the number of pirate ships out there right now, they won't ask questions if we're delayed for a couple days. Sabe," Tallas's hand landed on his shoulder. "Are you with us?"
"Yeah." He first met those intent dark eyes, and then regarded the rest of his crewmates. "Once we get there, I think we need to go after Croy." Rester had been on the right track. "In the last month she's been in touch with all the major Guilds on the Fringe, including Madhrahi. I'd bet that she at the least knew about all four attacks."
"Agreed." Lirelle nodded, and the others followed suit.
They all felt through the hull the roar of supra-hurricane-force winds outside, not quite completely smoothed by the inertial dampers. Sabrin found it oddly reassuring.
The Dream of Dawn emerged into pandemonium over Xiuhcoatl. Sabrin banked them hard to port with a curse as an outgoing transport nearly plowed them over. Dreamer cursed too when the ship jumped out so close that the wash singed his paint. "Raise shields!"
"Done!" Tallas was blinking after the flash. "God, how many are there?"
"I'm detecting several hundred starships along the approach vector to Xiuhcoatl," Lirelle reported. "Most are civilian, of various types. I would estimate approximately three-quarters are incoming, one-quarter outgoing."
"Guild warships?" Sabrin asked, eyes glued to his display.
"Quite a few in orbital space, but none are scanning or approaching us."
"We're gettin' hailed. Lots and lots of hails," Dreamer said. "People wantin' to buy a ride out of the system. Not gonna lie, guys, I'm tempted." The lightness of his words belied his grim mood as he took in the sight of ships rising from the atmosphere like seeds swept aloft by the wind. He'd seen it before, many times. Mission focus. Ignore all.
They passed a bulk freighter heading for the potential with about a dozen shuttlecraft clinging on. The people in them might find themselves dumped in a barren system, at the complete mercy of their would-be saviors.
"They're afraid of reprisals from the Polarians or Alyans, or both," Ky answered to Fennic's question.
"But then why are there so many ships coming in?"
"They're from systems closer to the Alyan-NSC border," Dreamer told him. "Maybe they're hopin' that Xiuhcoatl's big enough it won't get hit, or maybe they just don't have the range to go any farther."
Fennic swallowed hard, glancing at the ships outside. "Will the Alyans or Polarians attack here?"
"I don't know, bud." The final overnight casualty count was nearly four hundred -- most from the cruiser, which didn't bear dwelling on. Command's calculus wouldn't be based on numbers though; the coordination and firepower on display, that's what would demand the response. Remove those culpable. Neutralize their capability to launch further strikes.
His sensors were certain. There were no Guild warships bigger than a corvette here.
The brown of Xiuhcoatl grew until it filled the windows. "Something is happening in Huyapa," Lirelle said, her brow furrowed. Dreamer put it on the viewscreen: a plume of smoke slashing off-white across the city blocks.
"The hell..." Tallas breathed.
Dreamer checked the address. "That's Croy's condo."
"I can't locate the Zoroastria's transponder." Lirelle's fingers danced, switching to profile matching.
"It ain't here." Destroyed or departed, Dreamer was confident in saying that before Lirelle finished the sweep. He stepped forward, laying a hand on the back of the pilot's seat. "We need to get a closer look at that."
"I don't think we should land." Sabrin jerked his head at a nearby display. "The spaceport's not a good place to be right now."
At Flint Colony they had pulled down the fence and hung onto his engine pylons. Shuttle it was.
The fire was extinguished by the time they got close enough to see the rows of blown-out windows, the stripped supports and yellow-clad figures wading through the wreckage. Unlike its surrounding, lesser cousins, the skyscraper was of modern construction and that had probably saved the top of it from collapse.
"I'm feelin' a bit exposed here, Dreamer," Tallas murmured; a giant black kite hovering forty stories up wasn't exactly inconspicuous. There was something distressingly familiar about the scene before them. "Looks like a bomb went off."
"Yeah." Dreamer turned his head to both sides. "Set down on that roof over there. I'll ask somebody what happened."
Said roof didn't look like it could hold their weight, so Tallas slowly dialed down the antigrav just to the point that the landing legs touched. Dreamer hopped out, leaving him to anxiously watch the skies. It was actually a beautiful day, the sun high and bright, glinting off the cars that flew back and forth. Inside his little metal cocoon it was easy to believe that nothing had changed since their last time here.
Boredom had begun to edge in, when the comn chirped with Sabrin shouting their names.
"Get back now! Guild cutter comin' our way!"
His hands were already darting over the console. Tapped his comlink. "Dreamer! Get your ass back here on the double! We're about to--"
"Fuck!" Tallas startled as Dreamer's big body rocketed inside, making the shuttle sway. He gave the command that sent them into a steep climb. Dreamer sealed the hatch and levered himself into the copilot seat. "Did you find anything?"
"It was a bomb." Dreamer tilted his head back. "Croy's already gone. Lirelle's found a bounty the Guilds put on her. Five million."
More than pocket change. "Why'd they blow up her place?"
"They wouldn't have. Only thing I can figure's that she booby-trapped it in case somebody went snoopin'."
"Shit, man. Thank god that somebody wasn't us."
Dreamer gave an amused grunt. "I'm startin' to wonder if none of us had any idea who she really was," he said softly.
The Dream of Dawn dipped down into the outer atmosphere to collect the shuttle, then raced full bore towards the potential. Tallas caught Sabrin's glance as he slid behind the starboard console -- which said that the pirate cutter had entered weapons range. Blue-white plasma lanced across the space in front of them.
"Warning shot?" Dreamer arched an eyebrow. "Awfully kind. Incomin' message."
The man on the viewscreen wore the well-practiced sneer of a bully who had never doubted his station. "By the authority of the Coalition Council, your ship is being nationalized for the planetary defense forces. You'll power down immediately."
The next one, a second later, slammed into the aft shields. Maybe that was supposed to be the warning shot. "They're targeting our engines."
The ship lurched violently; their shield status told Tallas they were pulling ahead but not fast enough. Sabrin began to weave through the panicked civilian ships scattering out of their path, skimming within a hundred meters of one after another. The fire from the cutter sputtered to nothing, and finally it broke off the pursuit.
"The fuck was that, Sabe?" Dreamer asked Sabrin after the jump, low and angry.
"Breaking their target lock." And he had kept interrupting the cutter's line-of-sight often enough that it couldn't reestablish.
"I know that. We don't use civvies as shields!"
Sabrin turned, chin raised defiantly. "We were movin' too fast for 'em to try to punch through any one of those ships to reach us."
"And if they'd just thrown everything in our direction?"
"They didn't! They wanted to disable us," Sabrin said. "I got us out safe, didn't I?"
"Not the fuckin' point." A tense hush cloaked the bridge as the two stared each other down.
Tallas examined his own memory of awe, when he'd recognized what Sabrin was doing, that now stirred uneasily. It was the feeling from when Lirelle had asked him whether he would've destroyed Gnosis Station to prevent Stavar's triumph. His real answer was yes but she'd wanted no, and he'd been left casting for the blind angles that kept ambushing his thoughts.
"Hey guys, why don't we step back, huh?" Sabrin's eyes found Tallas's first; Dreamer backed off, lips in a firm line, and there were quiet releases of breath all around. "We need to focus on Croy. How do we find her now?"
The expressions he saw weren't encouraging. "Croy seems to have anticipated her exit well in advance," Lirelle said. "We have to assume she had a fallback position ready."
"She could be anywhere," Sabrin concluded. "If all the bounty hunters on the fringe haven't found her yet for five mil..."
Futile. That's how Tallas had viewed trawling for Rester in a single measly city. It would've been better had they gone right for Croy in the first place instead of him, the poor bastard. "Maybe Dreamer's girl can help?"
"By what means could Mareva find Croy, if not Rester?" Lirelle asked.
"I don't know exactly, but it's worth a shot. And besides, I'm not hearing any other ideas."
No one disputed that statement. "Okay," Dreamer said. "I'd recommend we find someplace out of the way while I link to the relay hub," he told Sabrin, before slanting a wry look back to Tallas. "And here I was hopin' to save that favor for a rainy day."
In a week the space they occupied could be a warzone. "Dreamer, it's pouring."
Some time ago, Lirelle had introduced them to real coffee, which was a rare commodity on Orion planets outside the core and therefore far above their means. Sabrin thought it was the worst thing ever but Tallas was developing a taste for it. Well, sufficiently creamed and sugared up, at least.
He handed her the steaming mug, black, having left Sabrin and Dreamer on deck four to their tinkering with the recycling system. "You ever stop working?" he asked half-jokingly as he sat, bracing his own mug on his belly and one foot on the other free chair.
"Thank you." Lirelle smiled, paused to savor the rich aroma. "I suppose I've become accustomed to spending my time this way. With my mother absent and our line disgraced, we were no longer socially welcomed by the peerage."
"Sorry." Tallas suspected he could never really understand what she'd meant, or what she'd lost. Kinjor to him always sounded like a fairy tale, a place of gilded palaces and servant-filled country estates and intrigue. Lirelle came from that world, what little she spoke of it was with such knowing disdain.
"No need to be. I had more urgent priorities by that time." Lirelle sipped delicately, sly humor in her dark eyes. "And they have seemingly never declined in urgency since."
Tallas laughed. "It does feel like that sometimes, doesn't it?"
"Perhaps some natural defect bars us from uninvolving ourselves, even if it may be wiser."
The laugh came more ruefully this time. "Especially if it's wiser." Tallas remembered Sabrin in his quarters after Dreamer had made contact with Mareva. He had asked, lightly like he didn't care as much as he did, how long they were going to wait for results. How about forty-eight hours,Tallas made up the number on the spot. We'll start back if there's nothing by then.
He blew over his mug and brought it to his lips. Leaning forward, he peered at the closest upside-down reader. "Madhrahi data again?"
"I thought it prudent to re-analyze them, given that they have become nonsensical In the light of today."
"Today is the 332nd." It is. Huh. The date had been so significant before. Lirelle's mouth curved ever so slightly. "I highly doubt the Madhrahis will be bringing any of their plans to fruition."
"That makes me feel sad." All that scheming wasted. He hoped someone got a stern talking-to.
"If there had only been one attack, on the Zauq listening post," Lirelle said. "The human and strategic cost to the Alyans would have been non-trivial, but it probably wouldn't provoke massive retaliation."
"What you're saying's that the Madhrahis got too much of a good thing."
"Essentially." Lirelle took a drink, "But there's a more interesting pattern." Tallas gave her an expectant look. "The Madhrahis had information on the plans of their rival Guilds. Those plans, aside from also being moot, are not optimized to take advantage of Zauq."
"What do you mean?"
"To take one example--" Lirelle slid over a reader "--this TSS shipment planned by the Bitter Knives. The route is high-risk, barely less so with Zauq neutralized. Previously, I'd dismissed these irregularities as simple incompetence."
"Not a bad bet." Tallas could guess what she'd concluded. "But the route makes more sense if it's one of the other attacks."
"Nu Serpentis," Lirelle confirmed. "Though I haven't finished, I suspect that this hypothesis resolves all the irregularities."
"Camisard." Black hole. Tallas sprang up and paced the small office. "Dreamer!" He didn't spare a glance at the screen flicking on.
Tallas's hands echoed the pace of his thoughts. "It's a code. Every Guild thinks it's one of the four attacks, but only one." Because. "Because they never would've supported it if they'd known how big it was. Pullin' that much attention all at once would bring the hammer down. It'd be like shootin' themselves in the head."
And the big day. He gripped the chair back, rocking on his feet. "And then the big day comes. The Alyans and Polarians are screamin' for blood and there's a shit-ton of evidence linkin' the Guilds to all four attacks. The fuckers are gonna go down." And Croy's conveniently gone. The house crashed down to a single point.
"Tallas's scenario fits the facts," Lirelle said quietly, "including Croy's disappearance and the price on her head."
"Yeah, fuck. That's one way to take down the Guilds."
Tallas's face snapped towards him. "Are you saying she did this for a good reason?"
Dreamer's features twisted in disgust. "Hundreds of people are dead. If this thing escalates a lot more are gonna follow. There's nothing good here."
"One person could not possibly have carried out Camisard on her own," Lirelle said after a beat. "As it seems she kept the Guilds as blind to each other as to her, we can rule out their involvement--"
"I called it." Dreamer shook his head. "The cruiser at Zauq? No way that was them."
"Then who is she working with?"
"That's the five million credit question, ain't it?"
Susannah Croy's file was thin before her appearance on the Guild scene some ten years ago. Born and raised on Xiuhcoatl, worked for a large freight company, eventually bought the Zoroastria and started her own specialized service. She had never been arrested.
Tallas slumped back into the chair and reached for his neglected coffee. Maybe he'd missed a sharpness in her hazel eyes, or a devious curve to her too-wide mouth, some landmark for the potential he'd ascribed to her. As he lied on his bed that night, blinking into the darkness, a formless and intimate thing worried at the pit of his stomach.
The Alyan Fourth Battle Group had mobilized to reinforce all Alyan outposts along the fringe. The Fearless Invention was in J'balem and the Mediation by Starlight in Nu Serpentis. The NSC Security Council began discussions for a Joint Task Force.
A Polarian destroyer had briefly exchanged fire with a torpedo attack ship purportedly operated by mercenaries. The attack ship retreated and the Polarians hadn't pursued.
Ky was reclined as far back as the pilot's seat allowed, his limp right hand pinning a pad face-down on his chest. He opened his eyes at the footfalls of someone arriving on the bridge. "Good morning."
"Good morning to you too." Unlike many his age, Fennic's tendency was to rise early. "How was your night?"
"Quiet." Not peaceful. Outside, a steady trickle of starships passed by the Dream unawares. Fennic's yellow palm trees T-shirt appeared at the corner of his sight, and Ky craned his neck to smile up at him.
"That's good." Fennic hesitated. "Do you miss sleeping?"
Ky missed waking from a truly deep, long slumber after a hard day, the well of energy inside not just refilled but brimming over. Gradually and very consciously returning to a steady state didn't compare. "Yes, occasionally. Though there were times my younger self would have envied the free time I have now."
Fennic smiled and pointed at the pad. "Time for lots of reading?"
"Updates on current events." Ky lifted it, scrolled the open document to the beginning and offered it. "This one's slightly amusing."
We, the Xiuhcoatl Unity Coalition, categorically deny the outrageous accusations that have been levied against us by the Polarian Alliance, the Republic of Alya, and the Procyonese Federation. We join all the peoples of this region in grieving for those tragically lost in the recent acts of violence, and in condemning those responsible...
"Who are they?" Fennic asked after some seconds.
"The Guilds," Ky answered. "The idea that they could collaborate thus was ridiculous yesterday, but today, well...seems to be a day of unity." Sharing the threat of annihilation often had such an effect. "It's funny, is it not?"
"Yeah, it is funny," Dreamer's serious image said. "Mornin' guys. Listen, Mareva's found the Zoroastria."
The helm controls eagerly embraced his hands. "Where?"
"It's on the move. Jumped to de Bruyn's Star a few minutes ago."
"Can we overtake her?"
"Please," Dreamer looked offended. "A fast freighter's still a freighter. It'll be in our sights by this afternoon." At which time they would ideally have a plan of some form in place.
As the Dream's ion engines ramped up to full thrust, Ky asked, "How is Mareva tracking Croy?"
"She says she's got a friend with 'a lot of eyes', whatever the hell that means," Dreamer said. "Sabe says he'll be up to relieve you in a couple minutes. You should clean up and get some breakfast."
"By 'get', did they mean 'make'?" Ky smiled; he had been sporadically experimenting with a new chocolate chip pancake recipe over the past month, and there had been some very unsubtle hints dropped since the last trial.
"Only if you want to." Dreamer's expression epitomized innocence. "Call it a contribution to ship morale."
Sooner than they expected, the forward sensors registered a ship matching the Zoroastria's configuration, minus the rear cargo module. It appeared to be adrift and docked to a smaller ship. Neither had an active transponder.
"They're undocking and raisin' shields," Tallas said, powering up their own shields and weapons. Most of the unknown ship was three cylindrical ion engine-fuel tank assemblies. No cargo space and running a high-powered comn jammer. Bounty hunters.
"The Zoroastria's sustained heavy damage. Power is at emergency levels, propulsion systems offline." An understatement on Lirelle's part; the starboard engine nacelle was in a hundred glowing, spinning pieces. "I'm registering nine lifesigns aboard."
"Beat it! We were here first," the ship sent.
"We're bigger," Dreamer sniped back. His avatar casually braced himself on Tallas's seat as a tachyon beam splashed gold against the shields. "That cannon's not too shabby though." Tallas sent a series of answering beams into their bow.
The bounty hunters knew they were outgunned and their ship swung into a perpendicular course. Dreamer advised Tallas to hold his fire until he detected them rerouting power to make their escape. The first two torpedoes collapsed what remained of their shields, and the second two punched into the active engines.
"Wouldn't do to have 'em callin' in their friends," Dreamer said of the bounty hunters' ship splitting open in flames.
"I'm bringin' us in to dock," Sabrin said. Most of their original plan for the Zoroastria, the bounty hunters had already done. The only part left was to go in and grab Croy and whatever intel she might have with her.
"Wait. I'm detecting an anomalous signature..." Lirelle furrowed her brow as she worked. "It's an active fusion catalyst. The self-destruct mechanism has been engaged."
"What kind of freighter has a fuckin' self-destruct?" Tallas yelped.
They should have expected it in this case, given what Croy had waiting in her condo. And if their last hope of finding out about Camisard was about to get vaporized, Dreamer had half a mind to do it himself. Lirelle raised her voice. "The device will detonate in under ten minutes. Sabrin, we must withdraw to a safe distance."
Instead of getting them the hell away, Sabrin turned his head, asking hurriedly, "Can we hail the Zoroastria?"
"What for?" Tallas asked at the same time that Dreamer opened the channel. "Go."
"Audio only," Sabrin specified. "This is Captain Payne of the freeborn starship Swiftsure to unknown freighter. It looks like your ship's in trouble, can we help in some way?"
Seconds ticked by. Dreamer drew closer to the helm, noticed Sabrin's fingers twitching.
"This is Captain Croy of the Zoroastria." Her voice was strong but weary. "I could kiss you for pastin' those pirates out there, but we've still got three of 'em aboard. My people are barely holdin' them off deck one."
"Would it help if we distracted 'em from the back?"
"You've got no idea." The relief there wasn't fake.
"Alright. I'll send my best man in through the port airlock." The Zoroastria's starboard airlock was blasted open and the corridor beyond exposed to vacuum. Sabrin glanced at Dreamer. "Get ready. I'm not tellin' him to stick his ass out any more than necessary."
"I wouldn't expect you to. We'll be ready. Thank you."
"Hey, any day I get to help some Guildies move on's a good day, far as I'm concerned. Payne out." Sabrin closed the channel, leaving his crewmates frozen and wide-eyed.
Lirelle was the first to return to her console. "Their self-destruct has deactivated."
"Fuckin' shit, Sabe," Tallas exclaimed, looking some combination of awed and turned on. Dreamer could commiserate. "Where the fuck did that come from?"
Sabrin's face heated as he set the Dream to meet the Zoroastria. "She was ready to blow herself up. I saw a chance and I took it."
"Why didn't you give a different name for yourself?" Fennic asked.
"Too hard to keep up. I'd slip." Sabrin shook his head; Tallas hid a smirk.
Dreamer was going to find out about that story. For now, he grinned lopsidedly and slapped Sabrin's shoulder. "Don't worry, you were awesome. And I'm definitely gonna remember you callin' me your 'best man'."
"In this particular situation," Sabrin glared. "You should maybe go as a human, if we're gonna try and sell that we're just some boring spacer ship that happened to pass by. And no uniform."
"Ah, you meant 'ass' literally. Got it captain." Dreamer called over his shoulder as he left the bridge. His image took over making sure that they were ready to run at a moment's notice, in case Croy's self-destructive tendencies flared up again.
The interior of the Zoroastria was barely lit by red emergency lights and periodic showers of sparks. The darkness was no impediment to his avatar as he moved towards the center of the ship. Following the sounds of a firefight, he saw bulkheads that had descended when the starboard side decompressed, and eventually scorch marks on the walls and the already fallen.
The three bounty hunters were holed up around a corner to the wide stairs leading to deck one. They had plasma rifles and body armor; parsing what he'd heard, Dreamer determined that the crew was armed only with pistols and needlers. That explained how they'd been pressed despite their numbers advantage.
Dreamer's own pistol was more than adequate to hit one of the boarders square in the chest when she looked down to check her rifle's power cell. Reactive armor was impervious to needles but a plasma shot could flash-cook the organs beneath.
Molten metal bits sprayed off the wall he hid behind, under a torrent of plasma. Almost buried by the thunder were the cries of behind us and now and the thunk of falling bodies. It was over in less than a minute, five lifesigns left. Dreamer gave some time for hearts to slow, adrenaline to drain, before he called out, "Y'all squared over there?"
After some curses and scrambling noises, a deep male voice came. "You're the man from the Swiftsure?"
"That's me." Dreamer risked exposing his hand -- the non-gun one -- and waving. "If I come out am I gonna eat plasma?"
"I'd guess Captain Payne would take poorly to that." Croy.
Dreamer stepped into the open, pistol lowered at his side. Croy stood with crossed arms, pistol holstered and a lock of escaped blonde hair in her face, and next to her was a large man with braids and a newly gained rifle. Behind and to the side, a younger man glared sullenly, shifting a rifle in his hands. Never used one before. The two other lifesigns were farther away and one deck up; probably someone wounded being cared for.
He could down the other two, or four, and have Croy tranqed and over his shoulder without breaking a metaphorical sweat.
Except, she obviously had orders to keep her secrets at any cost, including her life. That kind of dedication Dreamer only knew from a few sources, the ones that often also dispensed suicide implants. Forcing the issue now, his ship self explained to his crewmates, might not only end in a bloodbath but a pointless one.
"Hey." His avatar tipped his head. "Captain Croy?"
"I am Susan Croy." Croy indicated the man at her shoulder, "My first mate, Telio Rez-Jaha--" and the younger one "--and my engineer, Mike Bashad."
"Caleb Ghant." Dreamer extended his hand and was met by Croy and Rez-Jaha; Bashad looked like he was as close as he wanted to be. He thought about how the owner of that name would've loved this situation. "My captain would like to meet you, soon as it's convenient."
An hour later, Croy arrived unarmed at the conference room under Dreamer's escort -- because, as Dreamer had put it when he described the agreed-upon meeting, "Right now we've got 'em over a barrel and they know it."
They exchanged short, formal greetings and a handshake. Face-to-face, Sabrin couldn't bring himself to smile as he directed her to a chair, despite how ordinary she seemed. She had made an effort to clean up, having donned a fresh gray jumpsuit and washed her skin mostly free of soot and grime.
"You've got an impressive ship. It looks Polarian."
"It was, hasn't been for a long time." Sabrin figured staying close to the truth wouldn't be amiss. "The AI was decommissioned. The ship was a total mess when we found it; we fixed it up, all of us."
"You're proud of the home you've made."
Sabrin realized he could smile after all. "Yeah, I guess I am."
Croy smiled too, teeth straight and white. "I know the how you feel. First time I saw the Zora, it was this rusted-out shell at a salvage yard on Xiuhcoatl. There was a family of rats livin' in the deflector housing." Sabrin laughed with her, until he felt the icy jolt of reality. His thoughts flickered to Dreamer standing guard outside the door and his other crewmates on the bridge, listening in.
"Took damn near five years to get her spaceworthy again, met most of my people in the process," Croy talked on, seeming not to notice. Her eyes fixed on his. "Captain...I don't know how we can possibly repay you for saving us."
"Forget it. We couldn't just let the pirates do that to ya. Decency's hard enough to find out here, especially these days."
"You can say that again. It's like the whole fringe has gone insane."
"Is that why you're all the way out here?" Sabrin watched her carefully as he asked, not knowing what he was hoping to find. He wasn't going to be talking a confession out of a woman who had deceived a dozen Guilds into hanging themselves.
Croy never flinched. "War's coming." The one you started. "Hell, it's probably overdue, with the way the damned Guilds keep getting greedier and greedier. So I figured I'd take my people and get out of the way. I bet that's why you're out here too, isn't it?"
Sabrin let her think she'd won an insight. "I'm a fan of running."
"Keeps you in shape," Croy quipped. "It was maybe not that bright an idea, in retrospect."
"Maybe, maybe it was. Bad luck can happen anywhere."
"Tell that to the ones we lost." Croy exhaled heavily. "Only three of them boarded and we couldn't hold them back."
"The Guilds weren't gonna give ya a fair fight." We wouldn't have, either. Fight to win.
"We've...had our share of run-ins," Sabrin allowed.
Croy leaned forward, lowering her tone with intent. "Captain, I know a place where we'll be safe, from the Guilds and the war and the rest. My crew and I were on our way there when we were attacked."
The where was on his lips when Dreamer interrupted.
"Yeah...Ghant?" Sabrin remembered just in time, and also to rein in the annoyance in his voice. He frowned at Dreamer's grave expression. "What is it?"
"We've picked up another ship, comin' straight at us. They don't look friendly."
Croy swore under her breath and jumped to her feet. "I have to get back to the Zora." At Sabrin's nod, she took off with Dreamer as her shadow.
"Well that was a waste of time," Tallas greeted his return to the bridge. "We should've just grabbed her and had Ky do his thing."
"That's still an option." A messy one, regardless of whether Dreamer was right about that personal self-destruct. Sabrin skimmed their readings of the incoming ship at Tallas's console before dropping into the pilot's seat. It was heavier and sharper than the one they'd destroyed, though built along similar principles. "More bounty hunters?"
"I'd say so." Dreamer's image scowled. "Y'know, one showin' up when we do, I can call a coincidence. But two, almost on top of each other? That's when I smell bullshit."
"Mareva," Lirelle made the connection. "You believe she has divulged Croy's location to them."
"Fuckin' bitch," Tallas spat. "They'll be in weapons range in forty minutes. We could fight 'em but I'd rather we didn't."
"Payne to Zoroastria. We need to haul ass ASAP, what's your status?"
"Power's at thirty percent, one ion engine left, and the jump vane's trashed," Croy responded. "We're not moving anytime soon."
Okay, that settled it. "Croy, you and your crew get over here. We'll take you to the next inhabited system."
"No, we're not ditchin' the Zora." Croy's voice was pure steel. "Captain, that place I mentioned? We can still make it there, both of us, but not without this ship. Look, it's not enough, but you can have our antimatter if you take us."
Not enough, but not a small sum either. Sabrin actually felt better knowing that, despite her insurances, Croy wasn't so keen on dying if she could help it. "Stand by," he muted the channel and turned to the rest of the bridge. "Guys--"
"I don't know about this, man," Tallas said. "She's playin' us."
Probably. "Yeah, but this is what we wanted, isn't it? Wherever she's goin', that where the answers are," Sabrin said. "We don't have to decide if we wanna go all the way with this yet. Just this one jump, right?"
"Right," Dreamer agreed, his virtual face determined. "Think it's time we went over your basic, piece-o'-cake piggyback."
The Dream of Dawn undocked and, maneuvering in front of the Zoroastria, fired its two aft tethers that latched onto the freighter's spaceframe. Sabrin fed energy into the engines, slowly until the monomolecular wires went taut, and then picking up speed. When they reached the potential, the Dream's oversized jump vane launched both ships through the burst of light.
"Okay, we're alone. Now, mind explaining to me why I just had my ship do that?" Sabrin held Croy's assessing stare on the desktop screen. Their ships were in the clear, for the moment, and he was borrowing Lirelle's office.
Croy appeared to reach a conclusion. "How much do you know about the Hanzu?"
"Just that they're spacekind." Humans who centuries ago genegineered themselves for microgravity, believing it to be the next logical step in the evolution of their species. Their ships and habitats were scattered throughout settled space but they tended to be insular. Sabrin had never seen one in the flesh.
"Currently their Nomad Fleet's in the Hellespont Nebula, four jumps away. If we can reach them, they'll protect us."
"Why would they do that?"
"They're paying back an old debt," Croy said. "The catch is that they're waiting for their security code to come out of the Zora. If it's sent by any other ship, they'll take it to mean I was compromised and shoot first."
"Shelter with the spacekind..." Sabrin said with open skepticism.
"It's the truth." Or a lie polished to flawless perfection.
"Alright, send me a copy of the Hanzu code then. From what you've said, it won't do me any good anyway."
"Fine, if it'll help you believe me," came the ready answer. Croy looked off-screen to press some buttons.
Waiting for the data to arrive, Sabrin wondered if he was kicking back too hard. "Sorry if I'm comin' off as a bit paranoid, but I'm sure you know how it is."
"I do understand. Code's sent."
"We have it, thanks. I'll let you know what we decide. Payne out." Sabrin lifted his eyes to Dreamer and Lirelle seated on the other side of the desk. "We still have her hooked."
"And she us," Lirelle said. "We hold a viper to our breast."
"Trust me, I haven't forgotten." Sabrin transferred the code to a pad and handed it to her. "What do ya think about the Hanzu?"
"I can't tell ya much about 'em, 'cept that they ain't real welcomin' types," Dreamer said. "They mostly keep to themselves. Every now and then a ship of theirs will pop up to do trade."
"Could they have been behind the attacks?"
Dreamer shrugged. "Hard to say what they have or what they want, considerin' how fuckin' stand-offish they are. I'll say that I haven't heard of Hanzu flyin' anything bigger than what the Guilds have. Besides, why would they turn against the Guilds? They take Guild contracts sometimes."
"What do you make of that code Lirelle?"
"The structure's highly sophisticated and unusual. Difficult but not impossible to duplicate, or forge from nothing. We can't be certain of its authenticity unless we test it." In front of a Hanzu ship was implied.
Sabrin stood up, followed by the others. "I think we all know I'm gonna string her along for now, but how long 'til the shit has to turn real?"
"I'm weighted down, but we can still make the final jump to Hellespont in thirty-two hours, give or take... If we want to, that is."
That long to get answers from Croy or the Zoroastria, or choose between two very messy options.
Rez-Jaha -- "call me Telio" -- met Lirelle and 'Caleb' at the airlock. There was a tiny moment of tension when the three took stock of the pistols on everyone's belts, ended by Telio's broad smile. Their boots clanged off the metal deck plates as he guided them toward the reactor room. "Caleb, the last time we met I failed to thank you. God, if you hadn't appeared when you did..."
"I just wish we could've gotten here faster," Dreamer said evenly.
Lirelle swallowed her discomfort and changed the subject. "How long have you been working aboard the Zoroastria?"
"Since before she could fly...the second time, and believe me I had more than my fair share of doubts about that point." Telio's words flowed like warm caramel. "As my comeuppance, the captain made me her first mate, so that I may continue to witness how wrong I was with my own eyes."
"How's it go, 'the captain's always right'? I know that's what I always say," Dreamer said, winking. "Right Lirelle?"
"You're the very archetype of obedience." Telio's shoulders shook with laughter.
Their mirth evaporated when they came upon the primary corridor, which ran along the midline of the ship. Ten bodies had been laid out on the left side, including the three bounty hunters. "I'm sorry for your loss," Lirelle said.
"The captain says that the body is a shell. That the dead are carried on by those who loved them." Telio moved on.
The fusion generator was a massive, squat cylinder with bulky conduits branching off at the top and bottom. "Mike, they're here!" Telio boomed, scanning the room.
"We don't need 'em!" was the reply from behind an open wall panel.
"We do and you know it, bean sprout! Now come here and in a gracious fashion." That triggered a stream of complaints as Mike backed out of the space, limbs unfolding awkwardly once he was out. He fell silent as he turned around, and remained so through Telio's introductions. Telio finished with a respectful nod to both of them. "I will leave you to your work. Thank you again."
"Okay then Mike," Dreamer flashed a shark's grin. "Where do ya want us?"
"Perhaps you should first inform us as to the extent of the damage."
Blinking, Mike suddenly began talking at high speed, explaining their situation -- generator and port engine largely intact, power distribution, regulation, and control systems damaged to varying degrees -- and the remedies needed. Dreamer assured him that both he and Lirelle had many years of starship engineering experience and they went to work.
"Hey, let me take care of it," Dreamer whispered to her as they were clamping off the starboard plasma conduits.
"Why?" The 'it' was the network transceiver hidden inside their case of tools.
"I think you can distract Mike better than I can."
Lirelle glanced at Mike for a second longer than strictly necessary, noted the stilling of his body, the widened eyes. "Very well."
They finished and stood up. "Yo Mike," Dreamer called, "we're done with these. You want me to start workin' on the control lines?"
"Oh, sure Ghant. If ya think you can handle it," Mike said promptly.
"Cool, just show me to the spare cable." Tool case and transoptic cable in hand, Dreamer mouthed have fun and headed to the far side of the room. Lirelle discreetly rolled her eyes and proposed that she and Mike start realigning the magnetic constrictors, a long and tedious task that required two people.
They settled into an efficient rhythm, Lirelle monitoring the field geometry and sending the needed adjustments to her partner. "You really know your stuff. Where'd you learn how to do this?" Mike asked.
"Ledon," Lirelle answered. "It's a small planet near the Kinjori border."
"Yeah? I thought I could hear some Kinjori in your voice. Like in the way you pronounce your R's, y'know. It's pretty...uh, nice. Pretty nice." Mike paused. "You're really far from home."
Ledon and home occupied diametrically separated poles in her mind. "I have no intention of ever returning to Ledon. I consider the Swiftsure to be my home."
"Same here. With the Zora I mean. I got on and never looked back." The words bore old scars.
"What motivated you to sign on with Captain Croy?" Lirelle kept the question light.
"The same as everybody else, promise of a better life." Mike smiled and his hand found her wrist, a tentative touch of two fingers. "I uh...I hear your captain's thinkin' about comin' with us. I know it didn't look like I was too...welcoming of the notion before but--"
Lirelle received the signal through her dataport that the transceiver had activated, linking her to the Zoroastria's computer system. Opening her mind, she examined the security architecture and devised an entry plan. She also realized that she'd missed the end of Mike's sentence and he had turned back to his work, cheeks a little red.
Sweet but very young. "Mike, may I trouble you for some water?"
In the brief solitude that followed, Lirelle accessed the internal sensor feeds and discovered a subtle blind spot on deck two -- likely where Croy had concealed the self-destruct device, and would unfortunately require further planning to deal with. The computer memory didn't contain any walled-off block of data that would suggest Croy's confidence. She was good, as good as any member of the Onyx Hand Lirelle had known.
The Dream of Dawn was making its final dash towards the Hellespont Nebula, the Zoroastria in tow. Behind them, two bounty hunter vessels closed in from different directions.
"Sabe..." Tallas said nervously, keeping one eye on their distance to the potential. "What are we doin'?"
Sabrin watched Tallas's sure hands at the helm with a sick clench in his chest. Thanks to their ploy, Dreamer was waiting on the Zoroastria's bridge for his command to retrieve Croy, damn the consequences. Telio, Mike, Kieu, and Doyle...part of him regretted reading the files of the surviving Zoroastria crew.
"Five minutes to the potential."
They could see the Hellespont Nebula from here, a swath of blue-green like crumpled tissue paper. Inside lied the unknown, Croy's domain. Quite possibly the Hanzu Nomad Fleet, an uncertain variable in the most normal of times. Maybe the force that had arranged a war and destroyed an Alyan cruiser without leaving a trace.
Dreamer was waiting. If he had Tallas jump them anywhere other than the nebula, that would be the same as go, to Dreamer.
"Sabe, c'mon! Left or right?!"
"Ship jumping in ahead!" Lirelle's alarm turned all of Sabrin's reasoning to ash.
The Guild cutter swung towards them, the six missile pods ringing its waist coming into silhouette. Sabrin jolted out of his paralysis. "We can't maneuver like this--" the stress would crack the spaceframe "--we have to cut Croy loose."
"No! There's nowhere to go but the potential. We have to jump," Dreamer said.
We won't make it. The cutter was between them and the potential; they would be exposed to its weapons for too long. Their only chance was to use the Zoroastria to split their fire. "Dreamer, get your avatar--"
"Sabrin, more ships are jumping in!"
Six vessels emerged from the potential in hexagon formation; about a hundred meters long, each had a tapering, flanged hull with tall fins above and below. Their jump vanes still crackled with residual energy as they rained fire on the cutter. The Guild ship managed to retaliate with one, two missile volleys, damaging one of the attackers, before its shields buckled. It died shortly after in a blinding flash.
Lirelle verified that the two pursuing ships had veered away, while the Zoroastria began broadcasting the code. Sabrin didn't relax as the Hanzu ships closed in and prowled around them like a pack of wolves.
Dreamer finally let the hail through. "Croy to Swiftsure."
"Captain, the Hanzu have accepted us and will escort us to their Fleet." On cue, the Hanzu ships re-formed the hexagon with them in the center. "Your pilot will have to give them control of the linked jump."
"Fine." Sabrin gave Tallas a nod. He sank into his chair, all but shaking with released nerves. "You should tell 'em thanks, and that they've got excellent timing."
"I did. They say the Madhrahis tried to hire them to take us."
"Surprise," Sabrin sing-songed faintly. "Thank you, captain."
"We couldn't have made it without you. See you on the other side. Croy out."
Almost the end of the road. "Dreamer, can you get one of those flash bombs you made ready?"
"Way ahead of ya."
The Hellespont Nebula was a spectacular ocean of turquoise swirls, in which floated veils of silver and violet and thousands of brilliant stars. They traveled for over an hour before the first pickets of the Nomad Fleet came into sensor range, followed by the mining ships, deuterium tankers, and other utilitarian craft. Eventually they neared the core of the Fleet, the habitat ships that glittered fat and green and the antimatter farmers stretching their black sails in the light of the host sun.
Also there was the Hanzu's most valuable possession, the factory ship. The huge mass of domes, angles, and engines dragged behind it a series of drydocks, one of them occupied by an Orion strike cruiser.
Sabrin felt ill as his eyes followed the blackened scars of battle, the blinking lights of work pods gathered around patches of new, unpainted hull. This was the ship behind the attack at Zauq. The only way we know how to live.
"Oh god." Tallas said, low and broken open. "It's the Synochrion." Mark's ship.