Topic: First Chapter
For more information on this wonderful trilogy and Nina M. Osier, please visit:
and stop by tomorrow for a wonderful interview with Nina!!
FARTHINGHOME, BOOK ONE: INVASION
by Nina M. Osier
Kiev and Sedna hung in the after viewports like blue-green gems awaiting the jewel smith’s mallet. A mad smith, who would soon fling them into a furnace—the heat of which their fragile loveliness couldn’t hope to survive.
Viewports on a sleeper ship seemed like such a useless luxury. After today, who would be awake to appreciate them? And what was there to see, anyway, in open space?
"Janna, our stasis couches are ready. It’s time, don’t you think?" Fraya, the watching woman’s sister and research partner, stood at the hatch that led from this narrow compartment (a mere viewing gallery, no wider than a corridor) to the place where they would lie through the long years of their journey. Just the two of them, close to the vessel’s secondary controls. At its bow, near the primary control center, their brothers already slept.
Janna asked nevertheless, without turning around, "Are Kar and Adair all right?"
"Yes. Their readings show everything’s normal." Fraya took the single step that carried her to her sister’s side, and stood at the viewports with her arm around Janna’s shoulders. "It’s difficult to imagine, isn’t it? That when we arrive, we’ll wake up and not realize time has passed at all."
"It’ll be like when we did this to test our tolerance for it." Janna nodded as she ran the tip of her tongue over numb, dry lips. "As if we’d gone to bed for a night’s rest, and wakened with the morning."
"Yes. That’s exactly how it will be." The other woman tightened her clasp. "But that’s not why you’re so afraid right now. Is it, Janna?"
"No. It’s not what’s going to happen to me physically." How well her sister knew her. "It’s everyone for whom we’re responsible, Fraya. All those lives, suspended. All that distance to cross, with no one to take care of an emergency if one arises. And then, at the end—what if we’ve made a navigation error? What if our calculations are wrong, and we wake up somewhere that Humans can’t live?"
"That won’t happen. Farthinghome is a recognized, charted colony world. We know where it is, and how to get there safely. We will get there safely, Janna. If I didn’t believe that was true, I wouldn’t be here. I’d have stayed behind, to die with our grandmothers on Kiev. And so would you." Again the warm arm tightened.
"I still think we ought to try for Earth. After all the time it’s been since they banished our foremothers, surely they’ve forgotten there was ever a reason for sending us into exile. It’s not too late to plot a new course. We could do it from here. Without waking Kar and Adair." Janna was grasping at sun sparkles now. Grabbing water in her hands, watching it trickle through her fingers, and then trying again to get a grip on the elusive stuff, because she’d reached a pitch of desperation at which such behavior almost made sense.
"No. Terra sent us here because they didn’t want people like us contaminating their society any longer, and that can’t have changed. Our ancestors didn’t leave the home-world that long ago." Still gently, but with growing firmness in her tone, Fraya pressed her case.
"They didn’t want people like the ones they sent to Farthinghome, either! What makes us so sure there’ll be room for us when we get there?" Janna snatched at one last handful of beloved, fast retreating Kiev’s golden lake-water. At one last breath of Sedna’s blossom-perfumed breeze. "What if the people already on Farthinghome tell us we can’t stay?"
For that question Fraya knew she had no answer. So she said, "We’ll deal with whatever we find on Farthinghome when we get there. The last time our worlds communicated, the settlers had taken hold and started building themselves a good life. In spite of what the prognosticators on Terra predicted they’d do, if dumped together on a planet and left to fight each other as they’d battled the authorities where they came from. They’ve had centuries fewer than we had, to fill their new world and move out into space beyond it. And unlike us, they didn’t arrive united by a common culture and a coherent belief system. So I can’t imagine they won’t have room. Especially once they understand what we can offer them that Terra never could!"
"If they’re still Human at all, I suppose they’ll have to take us in. Just because we’re Humans, too. Because by the time we get there, we really won’t have any choice but to stay." Janna put up a hand and wiped her face. "All right, Fraya. I’m ready now."
"Good." The other woman lowered her arm so they could walk separately through the narrow hatch. Leaving their final view of twin worlds soon to be swallowed by a star going nova, to enter the state that everyone on board this ship must attain before its hyperdrive could kick in and put enough distance behind them so the coming catastrophe wouldn’t engulf them in its fringes. And, by so doing, wipe out the last few hundred Humans whose dangerous customs and unholy skills had sentenced their ancestors to perpetual banishment.
"It’s just another damn nosey, Brenna. Don’t get your keezers in a knot." Lieutenant of the Home Guard Gregory Wolfenden lifted the nose of his tiny spacecraft and climbed away from the object of his flying partner’s exclamation. They’d seen dozens of those things during the years since the two of them, Greg Wolfenden and Brenna Taggart, first took to Farthinghome’s skies. Shimmering silver spheres, loaded with a weird jelly-like mess that probably meant something to someone, somewhere—since that was what the scientists found when they opened the spheres and analyzed their contents. Clearly these so-called "noseys" had been made on purpose, by someone or something intelligent. But just what they did remained a mystery, because so far Farthinghome’s best minds couldn’t dope it out. All anyone knew was that the noseys had never hurt people or damaged property, and that after surviving the impossible heat of passing through the planet’s atmosphere they self-destructed following varying periods on the ground. Or in the ocean, or (if collected but not opened right away) in storage at one of Farthinghome’s research laboratories.
When opened, they didn’t do anything. Their organic contents decayed quickly when exposed to air, and their gleaming shells soon followed.
"I got it!" Taggart’s voice announced over her comrade’s suit-comm, in triumph.
"Nice shooting," Wolfenden answered, but his words came out on a groan. "Brenna, target practice is all those things are good for! D’you really need it today? Just ignore ’em if we see any more. Noseys aren’t worth the power it takes to blow ’em out of the sky."
They’d had this discussion, which occasionally turned into an argument, many times before. Taggart sighed as she answered, "Greg. Dammit all, every one of those things ought to be blasted before it can get anywhere near our atmosphere! I don’t care how long ago the Powers That Be decided there were just too many, and quit bothering. I don’t care how harmless the experts’ stupid tests claim they are. They come from an alien species somewhere, one we don’t know anything about. You can’t tell me those aliens aren’t sending ’em here on purpose. For a purpose. Besides, they just plain give me the creeps! Unless someone who’s got the right to give me orders tells me I can’t do it anymore, I’m gonna go right on taking out every nosey I see."
"Some people are too damn stubborn to be believed!" Wolfenden muttered that with his head turned aside from his comm pickup, addressing himself to the universe in general. When he turned his face so his flying partner could hear him again, he said, "Brenna, did it ever occur to you that maybe the people, beings, whatever who’ve been sending the noseys our way are friendly? Or at least want to be? That’s what I’ve read some of the authorities think. If they had any interest in hurting us, they’ve had more than ten years to do it. And they haven’t. That sounds pretty conclusive to—"
"Greg!" Taggart’s scream cut him off. "Look!"
He looked. At a swarm of nosey-globes, coming in faster than any he’d seen before. Normally they almost drifted out of space, and let Farthinghome’s gravity capture them and pull them down. But not this batch. These spheres moved toward Humankind’s home with purpose.
The two pilots also moved deliberately, as Wolfenden switched from private comm-cast to his partner and shouted instead to a battery orbiting high overhead.
* * *
"Primate, there’s a call for you."
Bazel daKiev turned a swift glower in his aide’s direction. His voice he kept cheerful and hearty, though, as he answered, "Sheena, take care of it. I don’t have time. Not if I’m going to arrive at my next engagement on schedule!"
The Primate of the Outlands, newly sentenced to that exile, could have toured his domain at leisure because his boss back on Farthinghome certainly wasn’t going to verify his stops and write him up for tardiness. daKiev knew that very well. But he also knew that if he wanted his new flock’s respect, he would have to start earning it immediately—and colonists, inhabiting space stations and the Farthinghome system’s less hospitable worlds, had little use for officials who wasted their time by not respecting an agreed-upon itinerary.
He would visit the settlements on planets closer to the sun, and farther away from it—including those on the moons of the great gas giants, and on the largest of the mineral-rich asteroids in two belts of solar-orbiting debris—later. His tour, or "progress" as his staff grandly called it, must begin with the mother planet’s own satellites. The natural ones, as well as orbital habitats built to host industries that could function more efficiently (and without further harming a stressed biosphere) in space.
He’d already made his appearance aboard every permanently occupied space station in Farthinghome orbit, and at every dome and Human-carved cavern on Castor. He was now halfway through his progress across (or rather around) Pollux, Farthinghome’s smaller moon, and he couldn’t spare even the time to take a comm call if he wanted get his ashram underway to Minerva with any hope of arriving there on schedule.
Getting to Minerva on schedule mattered. That most Farthinghome-like of the system’s other worlds had surface conditions hospitable to some Human crops, without the need for doming over. So its enclosed habitats housed thousands, stable communities of colonists who’d been there through generations. Visiting Minerva was (at least from a political standpoint) very much like visiting Castor or Pollux. It mattered to the Faith, not just to Primate daKiev and his flock’s individual members, that he make a good appearance there.
So I suppose I must make a good appearance, then! daKiev told himself with resigned sarcasm, as he sighed and took the bright orange priority comm unit from Sheena’s hand after all. Mustn’t put Great Mother through the awkwardness of finding an even worse place to send me, by fouling up my assignment to this one. I wonder what she’d have done with me if I hadn’t merited a primacy, or if the one for Outlands hadn’t been vacant?
"Father Bazel." Great Mother Sigrid’s voice sounded sharp and impatient in his ears. "You’re recalled. Immediately!"
"What?" Her tone held something more than impatience, on second thought. Something that the man she was addressing so formally had never heard from her before. Something he couldn’t pin down, except to realize that it troubled him. A siren’s screeching wail filled the hall whose podium he’d been about to mount when the call came through, and he felt the same nameless, sinking horror that had haunted his nightmares through fifteen of his first eighteen years. The same certainty that something a thousand times larger than he was, relentless and pitiless and vastly powerful, was bearing down to tear him away from everyone and everything he held dear.
"Great Mother? Great Mother Sigrid? Sigrid!" He dropped her title as he realized that the alarm on Pollux, the interrupted comm from Farthinghome’s surface, and the completely foreign sound of fear in the voice of the most powerful woman he knew must spring from a common source.
* * *
Aisha Tambour hauled herself out of sleep with ruthlessness learned long ago, and honed by years of starship service. She said to the pickup beside her berth, "Tambour. What’s going on, Lieutenant?"
The officer of the watch answered tautly. Which didn’t make sense, with the armed cruiser safely orbiting its mother planet. "Sorry to wake you, ma’am. But Central Dictate’s just put all ships in system on alert, and since you are in command right now...."
"I see." Tambour swung her feet to the deck, and grimaced at the metallic cold beneath the thin carpet that was one of her cabin’s small luxuries. On a warship this old, only the captain and the XO rated carpets, private heads, and—the most valuable perk of all—solitude. "Recall the captain immediately. I’m on my way to the bridge."
What could it be? The coup come at last, as the increasingly restive labor co-ops seized this moment of military weakness to take control of Farthinghome’s faltering and disordered central government away from the industrial giants who’d held onto it for so long? That was Aisha Tambour’s guess, as she hauled on her uniform trousers, jammed her feet into her boots, and shrugged into a blouse that she tucked in one-handed as she emerged into the narrow passageway bisecting Officers’ Country. Jacket and weapons belt she held under the other arm.
Her ship wasn’t at full alert, despite what Lieutenant Maher had said. The signal lights along the bulkheads flashed yellow, and the officers and ordinaries heading toward their duty stations moved quickly—but not with the frantic purpose of men and women under orders to prepare themselves and their vessel for impending combat.
Whatever it is, then, it can’t be that bad, Tambour decided with relief that didn’t cause her to slacken her own pace. She emerged from the lift onto the Gallant’s bridge with her belt fastened over her tunic, her sidearm riding her hip, and her sleep-rumpled silver hair (that used to be auburn) finger-combed. She demanded of Maher, who stood in the bridge’s center and stared at the main viewscreen: "Report!"
The senior lieutenant’s voice came out rusty, but steady. "Central Dictate’s gone quiet, ma’am. Not a peep since they put us on alert. They don’t even answer when I hail them."
"Get me a private link to the captain. Now." Tambour’s hazel eyes narrowed. She walked the few paces from lift to command chair, and sat down.
"No can do, Commander." The Alpha Shift communications officer, who must have slipped into his seat only a second ago, didn’t offer that negative response. His Beta Shift counterpart did, because she was still standing beside him. "She took herself off web a couple of hours ago."
Tambour put her forearms flat against the command chair, and drew a breath. Then she said, as if to herself, "So this is what I get for going to bed early for once. Damn!"
It was, after all, only 2143 hours on the 25-hour standard chrono followed by all ships in space and all off-world installations. The new primate of the Outlands would still be working his way through his engagement calendar on...Pollux? Yes. He’d be perhaps halfway through his progress there, finishing long after midnight and then sleeping aboard his outward bound ashram. Off to Minerva, with the Gallant providing suitable escort. So the Gallant’s executive officer had retired early, anticipating her captain’s last-minute return and tumble into bed—leaving the XO in charge of their departure.
Valerie Ashton seldom worried about how her personal behavior affected her XO, and Tambour really couldn’t fault the captain for wanting to stretch a gift of unexpected (although also unauthorized) dirtside time out to the last possible moment. The older officer could well remember what it was like to have a child and a spouse who at every sailing from the home-world must be left behind. For her that was far in the past, but Aisha Tambour couldn’t recall deliberately removing herself from Farthinghome’s communications web except while on properly granted furlough. Not even once, during all the years when she’d been wife and mother as well as military officer.
That seemed so long ago now, with her one offspring grown and in uniform, and the man who’d been her husband mated to someone else. Not only mated to another, but the father of a second family. Tambour pushed those thoughts down, ruthlessly, to where personal matters belonged while she was on duty. The Gallant’s main viewscreen was showing her the skies between it and Farthinghome’s surface, and those skies swarmed with small, silvery spheres. Spheres that the orbital batteries and Home Guard patrollers blasted steadily, but there were far too many tiny invaders for any amount of fire to stop them all. She asked sharply, "Are we picking up any ship chatter?"
Alpha Shift’s comm officer answered, "Plenty, ma’am, but none of it’s for us. Want me to put it on speaker?"
"Yes." The XO clamped her teeth together, and waited.
* * *
Wolfenden pushed his little ship hard, climbing away from Farthinghome’s surface for all he was worth. Behind him, in her own cockpit, he could hear Brenna Taggart swearing. From all around came the sounds of ship talking to ship, and space station talking to space station—while from the planet below came nothing but silence. Except, of course, for unnaturally calm prerecorded emergency messages and monotonously wailing civil defense sirens.
"Greg, we’ve got to return to base!" Taggart’s shouted words cut across the din. "When we can’t raise anyone on the ground, that’s standing orders! Greg, do you hear me? Greg!"
"Brenna, something’s gone totally wrong down there!" Wolfenden finally remembered that he could mute the background noise. "I’m not sure what, but until we do know we’re staying clear!"
"Maybe you are. But I’m not. See you dirtside, Greg. Whenever you finally get there." After a long silence, his partner’s voice came over the commlink one more time. She was turning her patroller as she spoke. Flipping the little spacecraft around, and diving it back toward the planet’s surface. Toward base, and home.
"Okay. What’ve we got in orbit? And who does that put in command?" With all of Farthinghome gone incredibly silent, Aisha Tambour turned her attention to the habitats and other ships. Most of which weren’t military—and there had to be a reason for that. Of which she remained unaware, because the XO of a nearly antiquated cruiser wasn’t privy to Central Dictate’s secrets. She only knew that most of the fleet had been "on maneuvers" for weeks now. In deep space somewhere, beyond comm range.
Withdrawing to the captain’s ready room would make sense right now, but Tambour couldn’t bring herself to leave the bridge. So she’d ordered her senior staff, those who hadn’t arrived here when she called the ship to battle stations, to gather into the space between command chair and viewscreen. They formed a semicircle around her, most of them looking impossibly young. Officers who despite their senior status aboard Gallant weren’t far into their careers, any more than was Captain Ashton. Unlike Commander Tambour, who’d passed her minimum eligibility date for retirement five years earlier.
"I hate to tell you this, ma’am. But until Central Dictate gets communications operating again—unless someone more senior is off duty in the Outlands, you’re the ranking officer in system right now." What the Gallant’s chief engineer didn’t want to say out loud, of course, was what everyone aboard must slowly be realizing. Saying it, admitting it, might make it irreversibly real. And that no one, Tambour herself included, felt ready to do.
"We’ll need to verify that." The XO nodded, and turned her gaze toward her comm officer. Lieutenant (j.g.) Michael Poisson sat at his station, with his chair swung around to take in the meeting. He returned her nod now, and got busy.
Would a full captain, a commodore, or even (please eternal paradise!) an admiral of one description or another turn up, lodged aboard one of the habitats or in a hotel on one of Farthinghome’s moons? Or would the lieutenant commanders who had charge of the orbital batteries, and the lieutenants who "captained" everything smaller than a light cruiser, all wind up looking to her now that everyone else was absent or cut off?
Tambour added for her staff’s benefit, not to mention for her own reassurance, a confident: "Even worst case, I’ll only be the ranking officer until a bigger ship comes back from maneuvers. That shouldn’t take long." I hope.
"Do we know where they are right now, ma’am?" Lieutenant Maher, who’d been commanding Beta Shift, was still present.
"No. We don’t." And unless one of those off duty, off world senior officers for whom Tambour was so devoutly hoping turned up, their ignorance was doomed to continue. "Look, people, someone’s got to say this. So I will. Fleet chatter’s confirmed that no one else is hearing a real-time peep out of Farthinghome, anymore than we are. So either we’re looking at a full-planet communications failure—which doesn’t jibe with the recorded emergency broadcasts we’ve started picking up—or the scanners are right, and no one down there’s talking to us because there’s no one left alive."
"That’s impossible." The chief medical officer, who was older than the others and had seen more death, nevertheless spoke up as denial’s first voice. "What could kill billions of Human beings in less than an hour? Over a surface area that big?"
"I don’t know what it was, Doctor. But I think we all know how it got here." The nightmarish rain of nosey-globes had stopped now. They’d completed their ghastly mission, and in a few hours more (if they behaved like their harmless forerunners) they would self-destruct and leave behind only their handiwork. "Mike?" Lieutenant Poisson was turning his chair in her direction again as Tambour acknowledged him.
"Ma’am, we’ve got company. A Home Guard patrol craft, lookin’ for a place to dock before he runs out of air and fuel." The comm officer sounded bemused.
Tambour gave her head a slight, disbelieving shake, even as her heart leaped with mingled hope and fear. "He’s out pretty far," she said, before realizing how inane she sounded. "I wonder what happened to all the others? This pilot can’t have been the only patroller aloft when it started. Oh, Hades, Mike, he can’t go back to base now. Tell him he’s got docking clearance, and pass the word to roll out our welcome mat." After which she prayed, silently and without a shred of faith to back up the imploring thoughts, that of all the pilots assigned to Home Guard duty the one she cared about would soon emerge from his cockpit into Gallant’s lowermost deck.
"Will do," Poisson told her. "And, ma’am—it does look like you’re in command of whatever fleet we’ve got right now. Want me to find out who’s the top civilian authority?"
"You’d better do that. Yes." She didn’t need to ask who was now the Faith’s senior representative, if everyone on Farthinghome really was gone forever. Someone she’d known well, long ago—or at least, she had thought that she knew him.
* * *
"My partner and me saw the first swarm coming in. They’re different than the noseys we always saw before." Greg Wolfenden informed the old star cruiser’s lower deck chief of that fact as he took off his helmet, after climbing out of his grounded patrol craft. "Grounded," that was, in a surprisingly cramped docking bay; because the Gallant’s shuttles took up most of the available deck space down here. Everywhere else was crammed with weaponry, supplies, and—of course, behind protective bulkheads—bunk space for the crew members assigned to this deck.
"No kidding!" the chief answered with a bitter twist of her lips. Then she stiffened as if listening to something that her uninvited guest couldn’t hear, and added: "Our XO’s getting ready to speak on shipwide comm. Maybe we’re finally gonna find out what’s happening. Shut up, everyone!"
In the wake of that order, which she raised her voice to direct at the entire repressurized deck, things went quiet. Wolfenden stood with his helmet in his arms, glanced around the unfamiliar metal cavern, and waited along with everyone else.
"All hands, this is Tambour." The strong contralto voice that the young pilot knew so well sounded calm, but not a bit reassuring. "It looks as if I’ll be in command for the time being, since as far as we can find out Captain Ashton didn’t make it off Farthinghome. We don’t know what happened, except that as you’ve all heard by now our system has been hit by an influx of nosey-globes—so-called—that obviously are different from the ones we’ve been used to seeing. I don’t want to frighten anyone needlessly, but I do have to tell you that the scanners show only a few life signs left on Farthinghome. And those are showing up only as people who were underground when the crisis hit, or underwater, come out to the surface. Or as some misguided souls land there, expose themselves to the air—and, as far as we can tell, die soon afterward."
Wolfenden drew a breath, noisily, as he pictured Taggart doing just that. Landing at their Home Guard base, cracking her patrol craft’s canopy, taking off her helmet...he gulped himself into silence, and went on listening as Tambour continued. "The most sensitive scanners, the ones in the main observatory on Pollux, have just confirmed that there are a few people staying alive long enough to take off from the surface in shuttles or whatever else they can find that’s spaceworthy. None of them has made it far, and those who’ve managed to hail anyone in space haven’t lived long enough to say anything useful. Mostly they just gasp, and then they go quiet. The scanners stop picking up their life signs soon afterward."
"Which means that anyone who breathes the air on Farthinghome dies. Fast," Wolfenden muttered. The crew chief favored him with a glare, and a barely audible hiss.
He shut up as ordered, just in time for the woman up on the bridge to resume. "It appears, therefore, that the immediate danger we’re facing is a ship or space station mistakenly taking aboard a refugee who may by some miracle stay alive long enough to match orbits. Or manage to program a shuttle to do that, on autopilot, before expiring. Compassion’s a wonderful thing, people, and we normally don’t leave our own behind. You know that from your training. But this time’s different, because the minute we expose a ship or station to whatever those super-noseys have brought us, everyone on that ship or station is dead, too. So that’s how it’s got to be."
Another short silence, after which Tambour’s voice took on a more official tone. "All ships, all habitats and space stations, all residents and visitors on Castor and Pollux and other worlds of the Outlands. This is Commander Aisha Tambour, Acting Captain aboard the StellaGuard cruiser Gallant. As senior surviving officer, I’m assuming command of our remaining forces. Effective immediately, I’m also declaring martial law on all civilian installations to insure everyone’s continued survival. The first order I’ve got to give is this. Under no circumstances will ships or ports receive refugees from Farthinghome’s surface. Any vessel or installation that does so anyway will be destroyed. I know this is a harsh measure, but I believe we can all understand why it’s necessary. Think about how lethal, and how fast acting, whatever those globes contained must be in order to do what it’s already done. And then imagine it getting loose in the air you’re breathing. Bottom line is, we can’t help those who’ve already been exposed. All we can hope to do, now, is prevent that substance from killing anyone else. That’s all I can tell you for now. I’m instructing all captains, battery commanders, and executive-level civilian officials who can reach the Grand Hall on Castor within two hours to join me there. We’ll bring the rest of the Outlands in via interactive commlink, and we’ll figure out how to proceed. Tambour out!"
Then she added, with the broadcast link cut, "I take it that pilot we picked up hasn’t dropped dead yet. Does he look sick, Chief?"
"No, ma’am. He does not." The deck boss realized her C.O. was talking to her and no one else, now, and braced her shoulders even though Tambour didn’t have her on visual.
"Good. That means I didn’t just violate my own order and screw us all. Send him up to my ready room, then. PDQ."
* * *
She’d called it "my" ready room. Not "the captain’s ready room." Aisha Tambour realized that as she stepped through its hatch, leaving the crowded bridge behind for blessed solitude. Admitting to herself that Valerie Ashton, like everyone else who’d been on their home-world when the attack came, would never again be seen or heard from by those who’d survived. But had the person who mattered most to Aisha Tambour survived?
He came through the hatch just as she reached the captain’s—her—desk. She didn’t sit behind it, after all. Instead she uttered a strangled sound of relief and held out her arms. "Greg!" she said, making the shortened form of his name into a long-drawn sigh.
"Mother," the tall man answered, as he crossed the ready room’s deck in two long strides and embraced her. Lifting her off her feet in arms as strong as his father’s had been at the same age, and holding her so tightly that it hurt.
"I am going to let any transport land, that makes it all the way here from Farthinghome. No acting captain of a fifth-rate StellaGuard cruiser is going to tell me how to run my moon!" The governor of the Outland Colony of Castor was making clear his reaction to Commander Tambour’s order when Bazel daKiev walked into the Great Hall. Late, because he’d offered Pollux’s governor a lift. After which he waited while the fellow’s staff figured out, behind closed doors, what to tell the primate about how their governor had reacted to the emergency. Which was by setting off for the home-world aboard his personal shuttle—and whether he’d arrived there, or instead had enough sense to turn back, they couldn’t say. In any case, Pollux’s lieutenant governor finally insisted on telling daKiev the truth; after which she rode with him to Castor. She followed in daKiev’s wake now, a small determined woman who he suspected had been doing much of her boss’s job all along.
"No, you won’t, Charlie." She stepped around the primate to face Castor’s governor as an equal. "What part of ‘martial law’ didn’t you understand?"
"She’s only a lousy commander. She’s got no right whatsoever to give orders to civilians. Especially not the ranking government officials left alive—because it works the other way around, the last time I checked. Military authorities report to civilian ones! And that, Teryl, is you and me now." Charles Keniston greeted his colleague without surprise at seeing her instead of his actual counterpart. "She’s got no power we don’t choose to give her."
"But I think she does. Seems to me a heavy cruiser’s got quite a lot of power for its captain—or acting captain, if you really must split hairs—to command. Not to mention the other StellaGuard vessels that are looking to her now, and the orbital batteries, and—"
"Governor Keniston. Lieutenant Governor Thorne. Primate daKiev." A low-pitched but firm voice came from behind them, near the otherwise vacant anteroom’s door. "I’m glad you’re in one place already. That saves me from having to gather you, before we go out and face everyone else."
"Commander Tambour?" daKiev turned, and put out a hand in courtesy. As if he’d never seen her before—would she take the cue?
"Yes. I’m pleased to meet you, in spite of the circumstances." The uniformed woman accepted his handclasp, making it clear that she’d caught the primate’s signal and meant to play along. She looked from governor to governor as if expecting similar greetings from them. "You’ve dismissed your staff, Governor Keniston? That’s good. We can speak freely, then."
Keniston’s fair-skinned face reddened as he drew himself up and opened his mouth. Whatever he intended to say (which, if daKiev knew anything at all about how angry martinets behaved, was destined to be a "piece of his mind" that he couldn’t possibly spare) got cut off by a loud whistle from the comm unit at Tambour’s service belt.
That belt also held a blaster. As the officer reached for her comm, the three civilians’ eyes went to her weapon instead. After which daKiev noticed, in a covert glance, that Keniston had shut his mouth and was swallowing hard. Tambour said, "What is it, Mr. Maher?"
"Ma’am, we’ve got an incoming ship. Damaged, but on its way in system at a pretty good clip just the same. It’s one of ours." A masculine voice, cool and professional despite its undercurrent of sheer terror, responded. "They’re not answering our hails, so I’d guess one thing that’s taken a beating is communications. The transponder code says it’s Valor."
"Keep me informed. When you do establish a link, I want that captain put through to me no matter what." Tambour spoke crisply. She was about to put the comm unit back on her belt when it whistled again. She sighed and asked, "What else, Mr. Maher?"
The fear in her unseen subordinate’s voice was palpable now. "Ma’am, Valor’s not alone. She’s got a whole damn fleet on her tail. And not one of ’em’s ours."
This Tambour hadn’t dreamed about, let alone anticipated. But she should have. She’d been a fool to order captains off their ships, battery commanders and civilian installation heads away from their posts. Yet kicking herself right now could only distract her, and predispose her to making further errors. She felt daKiev’s eyes (although she knew everyone else’s were on her, too) as she said, "I see. How long until they get here?"
* * *
"Is your son all right, Aisha?" Bazel daKiev sought her out, his friend and (however briefly) lover from so long ago that he’d gone by another name then, while she stood waiting at the Grand Hall’s VIP space dock for her coxswain. She stood there alone, the two governors left behind in Keniston’s office, because Tambour had ordered all civilian vessels to hold their stations until further notice. A panicked exodus would do no good, with an unidentified star fleet mere hours away; and an orderly exodus would take time to organize. Right now the best she could do was a hastily arranged defense of Farthinghome’s orbiting survivors and the resident populations of its moons. Moving them to new homes, somewhere that could sustain them without constant resupplying from the mother planet, would have to wait until she’d kept them safe from the immediate crisis—if only because she had no idea in the universe how or where to find those new homes for thousands of resource-hungry fellow Humans.
"I didn’t think you knew I had one," she said, and then deliberately called the man beside her by his former name. "Basil Montoya. The last time I saw you, I hadn’t yet taken a husband."
"True. But you didn’t change your name, and...well...it’s been easy enough for me to follow your life. So I know you have a son, and I know he’s a pilot currently assigned to Home Guard duty." The primate looked hard into her face.
"Am I supposed to be flattered?" Whether or not she should be, Tambour couldn’t decide. At least she ought to appreciate his delicacy in not mentioning the event that had first pushed her into all the newscasts, and after that relegated her to professional obscurity. "Yes, he’s okay. Lieutenant Wolfenden seems to have been the only pilot on patrol with brains enough to make a break for space, instead of returning to base and cracking his canopy and taking a nice, deep breath."
"I’m glad to hear that, Aisha. Truly I am." daKiev put a hand on her shoulder.
She started to yank away, and then didn’t. Instead she snorted and said, "I’m glad he’s alive, but I could skin him for picking my ship to run to! When the dust settles, you know, that’s what he’ll be accused of doing. Running, and hiding himself behind me." Like mother, like son. Cowardice runs in families! That was what other officers would say about him, far down the future when they remembered this day.
"Better a live jackal than a dead lion," daKiev reminded her, using a classical literary phrase. "I know you military types don’t like to admit there’s any truth in that saying. But there is, just the same."
He, too, had gone silver-haired since they were midshipmen together. His face showed lines from years of living, just as hers did. When such things happened gradually, to someone you saw often, you didn’t notice them. But when you encountered an old comrade again after a lapse of decades, the changes not only shocked you on his account; they also held up a mirror in which you saw your own mortality reflected. Aisha Tambour hadn’t expected this with the man she’d known as Basil Montoya. After all, she’d seen him on newscasts from time to time—in recent years, since he reached a prominent post at Faith headquarters. What had he been doing there? Oh, yes. Private secretary to Great Mother Sigrid. Which made him the person who stood between the Faith’s temporal head and the public, who often spoke for her to the media.
Clerics didn’t usually move on from that role to primacies. That was the equivalent of a StellaGuard officer shifting from staff post to line commander; of jumping sideways from a support job into one that carried vital chain-of-command authority. Now, that’s one story about ecclesiastical politics I’d actually like to hear! Tambour thought, suppressing a grin of wry amusement that she needed badly right now.
"Aisha?" daKiev was staring down at her.
"Sorry. I’ve got way too many things on my mind." With that gentle falsehood, she let him see her smile—but only after she’d schooled the irony out of it. "It’s been good seeing you again, Basil."
"Likewise. I really am glad your boy is all right." Wistfulness touched both the primate’s taut mouth and the wintry gray of his eyes. "I’d ask about your husband, but I remember that you put him out of your house."
"Yes. I did. Luckily for him, in light of what’s happened today, the next thing he did was move into his mistress’s home on Minerva." If she felt any relief at knowing that Torgas Wolfenden was safe with his second family, Aisha Tambour didn’t show it now. "It was for the best. And long overdue."
"I’m sorry." Anyone but a cleric would have taken a backward step, involuntarily, at the blast of bitterness she’d just unleashed. Primate daKiev didn’t budge. He said the expected thing, instead, and somehow made it sound sincere. As if expressing real regret for that particular mating’s ignominious end, and for this woman’s wounded pride. But did he actually mean it? As Basil, who’d been her comrade when they were both in their teens, and not as today’s cleric?
She couldn’t tell, and told herself as the VIP dock’s auto-address system instructed her to prepare for boarding that it didn’t matter because she didn’t give a rat’s ass (another beautifully expressive yet mysterious ancient expression!) about Bazel daKiev, son of Mother Faith and now its highest-ranking official. While the young man she remembered, the Basil Montoya for whom she had cared very much, was long gone and willfully forgotten.
But she asked him anyway, before she walked into the docking tube: "Basil, why are you Bazel now? Why did you pretend back there that we’d never seen each other before? And why didn’t you return the message I left with your parents, after I found out you weren’t coming back to the Academy?"
"I’ll tell you everything someday, Aisha. With the way things are going, I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing each other again. For now, let’s just say that I didn’t want to drag you down with me." He smiled, but his eyes went from gray to nearly black with otherwise hidden pain.
* * *
The shuttle that was Tambour’s stand-in for the "captain’s yacht," to which command of the Gallant now entitled her, lifted from Castor’s domed surface and set a direct course for its mother ship. Tambour sat in the co-pilot’s chair, with no one else aboard but her usual coxswain, and watched her panel’s displays with such obvious and intense concentration that her old friend didn’t trouble her with his chatter. She had the Gallant’s long-range scanners patched through, to show her the ships approaching from deep space. The lonely one out front whose transponder code matched that of the StellaGuard’s own light cruiser Valor, and the countless other distinct blips (some smaller, but many far larger) that followed. Nowhere near far enough behind it for Tambour’s liking. Or, she felt certain, for the liking of the Valor’s skipper.
She knew only too well how her colleague felt right now. That would be Meryn Benson, according to the duty list of captains and their assigned vessels. Another member of Aisha Tambour’s aging generation—but Benson had reached command, at last, after a long and slow climb from newly commissioned ensign to lieutenant commander. To her the Valor wouldn’t seem like a step backward. She would be as happy with her light cruiser as Tambour would have been by now with a flagship, if the career that Aisha began with such promise hadn’t foundered along the way.
"Commander Tambour? This is Lieutenant Poisson. Ma’am, Mr. Maher asked me to let you know that Captain Ashton’s alive. She’s en route to rejoin the ship and resume command." The familiar young voice emanating from the shuttle’s comm unit took her by surprise.
Tambour switched to the little spacecraft’s own scanners, and put them to use before she answered. "Would that be her yacht on its way to close with you now, Mr. Poisson?" Even the smallest of StellaGuard conveyances had a transponder code, and the one for the blip moving in fast toward Gallant was prefaced by the heavy cruiser’s own. "Because if it is, you need to find out right now where she launched from before you let her dock."
"Ma’am, she’s the captain. There’s no ‘letting’ her dock with her own ship!" Maher’s voice replaced that of Poisson. "It’s none of my business where she’s been until now. She’s doing her own flying, so if her being sick from the noseys is what you’re worried about...."
"Patch me through." Tambour bit off every syllable. "Now, Mr. Maher. Before I do it myself."
"Aye, aye, ma’am." With an audible gulp, the younger officer complied.
"Captain Ashton?" As soon as the indicator glowed, Tambour addressed her miraculously resurrected commanding officer. Tensely, with her coxswain silent beside her. "We couldn’t reach you earlier. Where have you been?"
"Aisha?" The responding voice told her far more than she wanted to know. Valerie Ashton sounded weary, and weak, and ill. "It’s taken me forever to get decompressed and up to the surface. I was at Deep Trench City with Mac and the baby, and everyone who runs its topside installation died in the attack. We lost outside communications early on, but I heard enough before that happened to know I’d have to get back to my ship. And to know my family’s safer where they are right now."
"I see." Tambour closed her eyes against visions that her imagination went right on painting—only one of which showed Ashton’s spouse and their baby far beneath the surface of Farthinghome’s broadest and deepest ocean, secure for the moment inside a residence dome. "Valerie, this is very important. Did you breathe outside air before you lifted off, after you got to the surface?"
"What kind of a question is that? Of course I did." Ashton coughed, and didn’t stop until she choked. When she finally regained enough breath to speak, she added on a gasp, "Damn! I’d better slave my autopilot to the ship, before I pass out. I don’t know what’s the matter, I felt fine this morning...guess I must have screwed up my accelerated decompression. I’m close enough now for Gallant to pull me the rest of the way in. See you soon, Aisha."
She didn’t know what she’d done. Or, far worse, what she was about to do. The woman was clueless, totally, about the attack on Farthinghome’s nature. Tambour looked at the panel again, and saw that the pass-through commlink to the captain’s yacht had gone inactive. She spoke, after closing it down manually to make sure Ashton (if still conscious) couldn’t hear, to Gallant’s bridge again. "Mr. Maher, this is Tambour. Now that we know for certain Captain Ashton can’t be allowed to come aboard, let’s get it over with. Lock weapons on her yacht, and fire."
"Ma’am, I can’t do that. And I won’t!" The lieutenant drew a noisy breath before he answered.
"Fine," Tambour said. She cut the shuttle’s links to the mother ship, all of them. She said to her coxswain, "Frank, give me the conn." When the leading starman wordlessly complied, she altered course and dove between the Gallant and the larger shuttle that rapidly approached it. Only then did she lock the weapons now at her disposal onto the captain’s yacht. Blowing it and its doomed occupant out of space at the last possible second, now that she’d made certain it wouldn’t dock with the Gallant even if (by some mischance beyond imagining) her fire failed to take it out.
"Tambour to Gallant. Open the bay doors, if you please. We’re ready to dock." She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and released the controls to her coxswain. Relief mingled with honest sorrow flooded her oxygen-starved body along with the air her lungs drew in. For just a moment or two, while Leading Starman Frankel piloted them into the docking bay, she could relax and mourn. Although she’d had a less than close relationship with Captain Ashton, she had to admire the younger woman’s disastrously timed determination to return to ship and duty. Not to mention the grit, however misplaced, that had kept Ashton going for long enough to almost make it aboard.
"Commander, don’t! Stand clear!" Poisson’s voice filled the shuttle’s cockpit with its urgency. "They’ll be waiting for you in the docking bay...!"
"What?" She didn’t need to give her coxswain the order. Instead of sliding into the Gallant’s belly, the shuttle swooped past its gaping doors. "Lieutenant Maher, report. Now!"
"Commander, I’m sorry. But I just relieved you, and the minute you come on board I’ll have to place you under arrest." Maher came on the comm again, sounding resolute and sure of himself as she’d never heard the ship’s senior lieutenant before.
"Oh, for gods’ sake!" Tambour slammed both hands against the co-pilot seat’s armrests. "Lieutenant Maher. You were going to let the plague that’s been turned loose on our home-world, that’s already killed all but a fraction of our species, board your ship and kill its crew. I stopped you. That’s not cause to relieve me of command—even if you had the authority, which you damn well do not. It’s cause to thank me. Now, put Dr. Janscom on. The CMO’s the only person who’s got the right to relieve me. And just in case you forgot, he also outranks you. Plus everyone else attached to the Gallant, except me."
"No can do, ma’am. The doctor’s on his way to the brig. He’ll be sharing it with your son—and with you, too, when you get here." Maher spoke with even more assurance. "Now, come about and dock. If you don’t, I’ll have to do to you what you did to Captain Ashton. Frankel," the senior lieutenant switched from addressing the XO to the leading starman who served as her coxswain, "bring Commander Tambour aboard now. That’s a direct order."