Nostra Sylvania (Book Two): Chapter One
June 30-August 30 2444
Meon nylek deles, Meon nylek lamos, lamos barek Meon, lamos orsenek Meon
Kanta spoke the incantation aloud as she laid the small plate of sliced fruit before the shrine that sat on the side of the road a thousand vatyk from the gates of Ulpkanu station. She bowed her head, kissed her medallion and tucked it back beneath her shirt.
Night still engulfed the world; daylight would come later than usual because of the thick overcast, giving the buryk more time to work their mischief on any humans abroad in the dark. They avoided towns, shunning lights and people. The danger began outside the protection of walls and shields; Kanta’s offering would help keep them at bay.
A few weeks ago one of the Terran corporals had asked her about them.
"I think you must call them spirits," Kanta replied.
The boy looked puzzled. "You don’t really believe that stuff, do you, Major? You’re so rational and all."
Kanta was equally puzzled. "How can I not believe a thing that is?"
The corporal had turned a deep red, a normal Terran response.
The tall grass, thick and unyielding, reached her waist. Two vatyk high; no, one meter. She would spend the next several months in Terran space. She must think in English.
Behind her shone the lights of vend Ulpkanu-Ulpkanu Station. Rusorin and her people had been stuck here for three weeks, waiting for the last three members of their mission to arrive; Kanta had come to tell her aunt they were here at last. The sentries had told her the Commander had gone walking north and east of town, toward the creek.
Kanta pitied the sentries, who shivered at their posts along the shield and gates. Their relief would come on duty at sunup. Today would be warm and muggy, making sleep difficult. It was still cool enough to keep the biting insects in their nests. Frogs and a few birds gathered at the water’s edge. Kanta paused and scooped a handful of water to wipe her face. There was no sign of Rusorin.
A blue-sleeved arm rose from the grass just a few paces ahead. "I’m here, Kap."
Kanta hurried to her and noted a crushed length of grass, where her aunt had lain flat on her back. Sleep, meditation, or just watching the clouds?
Rusorin patted the ground. "Sit and rest. They’ve arrived?"
"They land in half an hour. Rap Roben must speak to you privately."
"Did he say why?"
"It’s not my business to ask." Kanta had no interest in the apermenyk; they had their duty and she and Rusorin had theirs. "But why are the Sylvanians willing now to join us?"
Rusorin arched her back and inhaled, taking in scents humans could never detect. "They think they can throw off the Usurpation if they have help. Rob thinks they hope they’re far enough away from Neoran space that we’ll leave them alone once they join us."
For now Kanta accepted her aunt’s reply. She was trying to give her whole attention to the mission that would begin at noon today, when Rusorin and her small crew left Ulpkanu for a two-month voyage so deep into enemy territory they couldn’t even call it a war-zone. But after a bad year they must bring Nostra Sylvania into the Confederation. The war went worse for the Neorans than the Admiralty admitted.
She tilted her head back as a ray of sunlight, pale gold and soft, poked through a rent in the clouds. Meonesne, God’s light, come to chase the buryk away. The daylight grew stronger as they set off back to the gravel road. The morning was still except for the soft hish-hish as they moved through the grass. The high humidity must be keeping the birds and others animals in their beds.
The sentries opened the gate and saluted. The town was beginning to stir; the day began early here, on the edge of Neoran space. Until last year Ulpkanu had been nothing but a rest-stop and trading-post, a chance for travelers to walk on solid ground and breathe fresh air before continuing longer journeys. Its military installation was still new; its small size and remote location made it difficult for spies. Many missions departed from here.
Kanta’s scooter waited just outside the guardhouse. Rusorin sat up front; Kanta put her arms around her aunt’s waist and they set off down the narrow, curving street. Like all Neoran towns Ulpkanu was built in ever-wider circles radiating from a central agora; it was impossible to get lost.
"What are they like, these Specialists?"
"All I know is what’s in the dossiers." Rusorin had chosen them for their impressive skills; everything else was unknown.
"We learn nothing from dossiers," said Kanta. She hoped these people were dependable. Two months in space and then a long mission were dangerous things to trust to strangers.
The office was small and cluttered; the one tiny window afforded a good view of the neighboring warehouse. The far corner was piled with empty crates. A viewscreen covered one wall. Rusorin sat in the only chair. Rob sat on a small, dilapidated desk.
"It’s barbaric and unacceptable," he said angrily, surprised that such a thing could still shock him; the Geneva codes had gone down the mulcher long ago. "Are you going to tell them?"
"It’s their right to know."
"What will you do if they decide to drop out?"
"Carry on without them, of course. The crew won’t leave."
Rob crossed his arms. Damn Commander Septeron! Killing prisoners always got your own side’s captured officers killed. Damn the Admiralty for backing him up. And damn the Rapalak for standing by the Admiralty in the face of Rusorin’s objections.
"If you were an admiral you’d have more say in this sort of thing," he said. "Has that crossed your mind?"
"Of course it has. But if they want me to fight this war for them, I’m going to do it in the field, not from a console in Remanotu." The subject was closed as the eight member crew arrived; Rusorin had specifically asked for them, out of knowledge and trust of their captain, Anatsa Mykeson.
Rob nodded to Peren Duremon, thinking he was every bit the sourpuss he had been in ‘41. He said good-morning to the others: Anatsa, whom he hadn’t seen since Bretton Katt; Sadkenna, Salen, who played the adkot; he was a cousin of Metta Pasekon, whom Rob had seen die in Bretton Katt; Tolmen, like Tata, Peren, and Anatsa, fluent in English; Molova, a first-rate medic (she and Tolmen were a couple); Eolpa, whose warmth put everyone at ease; and Mukda, her young cousin. All were skilled technicians and experienced fighters.
The Terrans radio operators came last. Like Anatsa’s crew, they belonged to no single regiment; the Admiralty sent them where they were needed. As they walked into the small room their minds were wide open: Clayton Grymes’s cheerful bravado brought an eager light to his face. Amy Harp looked nervous and kept her eyes on the floor as if she hoped to make herself invisible. Kenneth Dixon’s face was pale, his eyes wary; he expected no warm welcome. Rusorin greeted them warmly, offering her hand to each of them.
"Welcome, Lieutenant Grymes, Corporal Dixon, Corporal Harp. Thank you for coming."
They looked at her intently, surprised at her graciousness and her simplicity. They had all heard, but never believed, that she wasn’t human. Seeing her now, they realized it was true.
Anatsa offered welcome on behalf of her crew. Spokesman by default, Grymes shook her hand. "Thanks. My colleagues are a little shy."
Everyone scrambled for places to sit, settling on the crates, the old desk, and the floor. Rob leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, aware that his darker uniform marked him as an outsider. Except for Rusorin, Kanta was the eldest person present. When everyone was settled Rusorin locked the door and commanded the screen on. A map of Nostra Sylvania lit up. Clayton exhaled.
"Yes," said Rusorin. "We’re going to drive Bastian out and bring Nostra Sylvania into the Confederation."
"Fifteen of us?" Amy exclaimed, shaken from her habitual quiet.
"Don’t you think we’re up to it, Miss Harp?" said Rob.
Amy could never tell when Lieutenant Lorrondon was joking or not. But Commander Rusorin must think they were up to it or they wouldn’t be here.
Rusorin smiled at her. "They don’t need more troops; they need a plan. Once on the ground we’re meeting up with the government-in-exile and the main guerrilla forces. The Sylvanians have asked for our leadership."
"The Sylvanians have called for help for years," said Clayton. "Why are we helping them now?"
"Until now they wouldn’t join the Confederation," said Rob. "We’ve helped out too many worlds who’ve said ‘thank-you-now-get-lost’. From now on the Confederation won’t rescue anyone who won’t join."
This sounded fair. Still, it was a dramatic shift in policy. A base on Nostra Sylvania would be a great asset, particularly after the loss of Hecuba Station.
"But why us?" Dixon asked. "Why not Intelligence?" He looked pointedly at Rob.
The crew knew the answer. Rusorin’s dislike and distrust of Serben Pammallon were the worst-kept secrets in Neoran space. The recent blunders had shaken everyone’s confidence. The debacle at Hecuba had cost three warships and six thousand lives, most of them Terran. The station, the last major outpost in that sector, was now firmly in Bastian’s hands.
"This is a military operation," Rusorin replied. "Lieutenant Lorrondon will give you the background and the outline."
Rob stepped forward and took the pointer. "The planet’s surface is seventy-three percent water. Eighty-eight per cent of the land mass is forested, hence the name. The human population is fifteen million; most of them live here, on the southern continent, Elysium. The major cities are Rocherville, here on the south coast, and Quattropontia." He indicated a bend in the river some distance to the north. "Both are controlled by Charles Casaubon, in cooperation with Victor Bastian. Montpelier, here to the west, is the seat of the opposition."
"The Casaubon family got the charter one hundred years ago. They’ve run the planet as a private corporation for four generations. The title of Director is hereditary. Fifteen years ago the last Director, Frederic Casaubon, died. His eldest daughter Eugenie was named as his successor, with Frederic’s brother Charles serving as trustee until Eugenie came of age."
"Nine years ago she turned twenty-one and her uncle refused to step down. She took the dispute to the courts. Charles’s younger brother Leopold supported her. The case was still undecided five years ago, when Charles made a deal with Victor Bastian; at that point Eugenie declared her uncle’s rule illegal and fled north."
"Why did Rap-" Eolpa wrestled with the name- "Leopold support his niece?"
Rob supposed that Neorans, with their preference for maturity and experience, would find this odd. "They split over dealing with Bastian; both Leopold and Eugenie were set against that."
"According to the treaty with Bastian, Nostra Sylvania could have self-rule in exchange for the lion’s share of the planet’s resources. In the past three years Bastian’s influence has grown and things have gotten worse for the populace. Under his orders Charles has begun deporting thousands of Sylvanians from the northern hemisphere. He’s also deforested large areas of the north and west. The planet is part of the Bastian Union in all but name."
"The exiled government has carried out a heavy guerrilla campaign for three years now, without a lot of success, they’ve asked other free Terran worlds for help; most refused, not wishing to weaken their own forces, or to provoke Victor Bastian. Eugenie Casaubon then appealed to the Neorans. The Rapalak told her they would drive Bastian out if Nostra Sylvania granted use of their spaceports; Eugenie refused, with no real explanation."
The Neorans sniffed; typical Terran behavior, wanting much and offering nothing in return.
"But last year Bastian began rounding up and deporting hundreds of Sylvanians, and this seems to have been the final straw. More Sylvanians are joining Eugenie."
"Most Sylvanians will welcome our help, as long as we make it clear that we don’t plan to replace Bastian. Any resistance we get will be stiff. The Usurpation’s been good to a lot of people. They’ll be reluctant to let that go. They’re in for a hard time when Bastian’s gone."
"They deserve it," said Kanta. "They betrayed their own people."
"True, but we must nail them first." Rob turned back to the map. "The Bastian Union keeps fifteen thousand troops in Elysium; that number has probably increased since that intelligence came in. Charles commands another forty. Between enemy troops and the terrain, we’re looking at a hard campaign. Communication will be difficult; the last report we have says that Charles shut down the remaining satellite, rather than let les Paysans keep hacking into it."
"The entire planet is blacked out?"
"That’s where you and your colleagues come in, Mr. Grymes."
"How long do we have for this?" asked Dixon.
"The voyage takes eight weeks. We must be on the ground by late August. This campaign will take months, perhaps longer." Rob switched off the screen. "The Commander has something to add, for the Specialists."
"Lieutenant Lorrondon informed me of a new enemy policy concerning captured officers and any Terran in the Confederation Fleet. They’ll no longer send us to labor camps. They’ll shoot us, anyone with the rank of lieutenant or higher. This applies to me, and to Major Sevoron and Captains Takkermon and Mykeson, and to the three of you."
"They can’t do that!" Dixon cried, horrified.
"Can or not, it's what they’re doing," said Rob.
"This increases the risk of this assignment," said Rusorin. "Any of you who wish to back out may leave now. You can return to Remelan tomorrow morning."
No one spoke.
"There’s more danger here than Bastian’s troops," she continued. "The territory is still wild, with a scattered population. We’ll be landing in the spring, but we might be forced to stay over for a year or longer. We’ve all done this sort of thing before, but not on this scale. I chose you on the recommendation of Lieutenant Lorrondon."
"Thanks, Rap Roben," said Clayton. Everyone laughed except Dixon.
"If we succeed, you three may have your pick of postings. We leave at noon, shuttle pad seven. Anyone with questions may stay."
"We’ll think of a dozen later," said Clayton. They filed out of the office; only Kanta stayed behind.
"You must not have told them that," she said. "It’s their duty to go where the Admiralty sends them; the danger isn’t relevant."
"‘Yours not to make reply, yours not to reason why, yours but to do and die’," said Rob. "Don’t you want to know what you’re getting into, Major?"
That must be a poem; he quoted poems all the time. "I fight this war. That’s ‘mine’. What’s yours?"
"Spying on the Basties and keeping my skin intact for as long as possible, if you want it straight."
Kanta gave him a reproachful look; he mustn’t joke about his allegiance. But perhaps he wasn’t joking. He was good at his job. At twenty-six he was already an officer, with three missions to his credit. He had been commended twice. Serben Pammallon favored him. Kanta wondered how Tose reconciled that with her own affection for him.
"I must pack. I’ll see you at noon."
Rob locked the door behind her. He shouldn’t bait her; it wasn’t her fault she was Eresenna’s sister. "There was something else in the report; someone took a shot at him again, ten days ago. An entire machine-clip."
Rusorin’s eyes sparkled eagerly. "Is he dead?"
"Not a scratch. But his escort was killed."
Rusorin struck the desk, reducing it to splinters. "This is the third try in the last year! How hard is it to kill a man?" She slumped into the chair and buried her face in her hands. "How hard it is to kill him," she whispered. She meant no blame, but Rob flinched.
"I’ve never been angry at you for that, Rob. Who was it?"
"We don’t know. But they seem to be concentrating on him and not Bastian. Pammy thinks it might be a group of Neoran expats. I admire their pluck, if nothing else. But his death won’t change anything. It’s really Bastian who needs killing."
"They both do," said Rusorin. In the last three years Bastian’s rule had grown more brutal, grinding the remainder of the Bowman Pact under his heel and seizing more independent worlds. Only Kepler, remote and with few resources a tyrant would want, remained free.
Thousands had fled to Neoran space. Thousands more had disappeared, the mastyk, the lost. Doren was among them, and Rusorin’s disgraced nephew, Karen Rommendon. No one had seen Anna since the autumn of ’41, when she left Birchvale for her cottage in the south. From there she had vanished. Rumors abounded. She was dead, shot by Bastian’s agents, or by Bowman rebels eager to avenge Bretton Katt. Or maybe she had blown her head off herself.
Witnesses claimed to have seen her safe in the Confederation, living as a guest of Ryset Kessanon himself (Rob knew this one wasn’t true). And still others claimed she was living on Gamma Perseus on a handsome pension from Victor Bastian, her reward for handing him the Bowman Pact (That one was probably not true either). The sad truth was, no one knew where she was, or even if she was still alive. Why did he still care? Anna bore most of the blame for this mess, for the end of the world in which she had raised her children. The world in which they had all expected to live out their lives.
Rob had seen much of the mess first-hand, on reconnaissance missions from the permafrost of Jocasta V to the desert country of Salem. He had seen millions of people, taken from their homes and shipped across the galaxy as slave-labor. Prisoners over five and under seventy disappeared into monstrous plants built in desolate places from which there was little hope of escape, and none of ever returning home. Here they worked until they died; they were thrown into pits and their places taken by new prisoners.
Bastian was building huge automated ships run by mobile computers and a few loyal officers to direct them. This was his grand plan, using Terran slaves to build unhuman weapons to destroy the Neorans and their Terran allies.
This was Rob’s own conclusion, after his return from his last mission, to Salem. Other apermenyk returning from other worlds made similar reports. Serben Pammallon agreed and informed the Admiralty. Six months ago they had announced their plan to bring new allies into the Confederation and secure new bases to counter Bastian’s threat; the mission to Nostra Sylvania was part of this.
But neither Serben nor the Admiralty addressed the one issue that disturbed Rob the most. Why did Bastian’s soldiers bring in twice as many new prisoners each day as dead ones they hauled out each night?
"Someone else must discover that," said Serben. "Your friend Rap Rusorin wants you as her liaison to the apermenyk."
Rusorin squeezed Rob’s arm. "Does anyone besides me and a handful of incompetent rebels want Walsam dead, Rob? Has everyone else forgotten?"
"I haven’t. Nor will I." He patted her shoulder. "Now if we’re done with this, I’m going to get some breakfast."
There was no proper military mess at Ulpkanu; the two hundred soldiers of the morrdotsyk, or Fleet, shared the port’s dining-room with travelers and traders. When the three Specialists walked into the hall with Kanta, people turned to stare at them, the only Terrans in the room.
They moved slowly through the line, aware of everyone watching them, conspicuous by both their otherness and their blue uniforms. Color surrounded them-blue coats over red trousers, red coats over black or khaki trousers, black jackets over light or dark gray trousers, purple, green, burgundy, white, cream, yellow, turquoise-every possible shade matched with a complementary color. The bright clothes clashed with the dour expressions and the vague ripple of hostility.
Terrans might make up one-fifth of the Fleet, but they were still panoryk, outsiders who must constantly prove themselves. The Neorans questioned their loyalty and competence at every turn. Even though Terrans had borne the brunt of the fighting at Bretton Katt, Argus, and most recently Hecuba Station, the Admiralty was slow to promote them. Few Terrans carried rank higher than lieutenant. And they frequently got the most dangerous postings.
A few soldiers and officers looked at them with sympathy, even friendliness. Some Neorans in the Fleet supported their Terran comrades and protested their poor treatment. Amy knew some who had even fought duels in defense of Terran friends (or lovers). But they never dueled with Terrans. Terrans were unfamiliar with this mode of fighting; it wouldn’t be a just contest; they settled slights or disputes with Terrans with a dirty look.
Amy took the breakfast tray, laden with porridge, hot milk, and the little dome-shaped buns; Neorans had eaten the same thing every morning for centuries. The server was polite but cool; when she spoke to him in her halting Neoran he smiled, in sympathy or derision Amy couldn’t tell.
"Where’s Major Sevoron?" she asked. Surely the Commander’s ADC would take care of them
"Over there, talking to Takkermon." Clayton waved an arm. "Funny-looking little guy, ain’t he?"
Amy giggled. The captain was odd-looking; his half-closed eyes and thin mouth made him look like a drowsy frog; his complexion was fair almost to translucence, and thick with freckles.
"Is he really the Commander’s nephew?"
"That’s what he says.; he’s the Rapalak’s grandson, too. I’ll get the tea."
"Let’s just get out of here, all right?" said Dixon.
Amy thought, he always sounds anxious. She had worked with him before; they got on well together, but she wouldn’t call him a friend. The most he had ever told her about anything was that his only sister had been taken as slave-labor. She grunted as she struggled with the heavy tray. "Some help, please?"
Dixon didn’t hear her. He watched two apermenyk walk up to a civilian and whisper something, then all three left the room. Dixon lowered his eyes, looking askance at the departing officers. Everyone in the room relaxed. The Fleet had little use for Intelligence. Dixon moved toward a table at the back.
Amy followed, then stopped short as a man in a bright green jacket stepped in front of her. She caught at the tray, straining her wrists to keep everything from spilling.
"Excuse me," the man said. "You’re Terrans, aren’t you?"
"Yes," Amy said politely.
"I thought so. Terran, that’s not an Enkleste word, is it?"
"No, it’s Latin, a very old language." Amy’s face was hot and she wished she could sink into the ground.
The man sneered. "Yes, I’ve heard. It’s the name of your world, the world you must leave because of environmental trouble."
Amy kept her eyes down and hoped for relief. Several officers sat nearby, but none made a move to stop this; some openly enjoyed it.
"I understand it also means ‘dirt’. Is that why they call you ‘dirt people’?" He turned to his comrades, pleased at his own cleverness. His pleasure vanished as Kanta confronted him, her left hand resting on the hilt of her dagger.
"Return to your ship."
"I have every right to be here," the man said angrily. "More right than others." He glanced at Amy and Dixon.
Captain Takkermon walked up. "You heard the Major," he said in a fading drawl that sounded at once blasé and distressed.
Another trader took Amy’s tormentor aside and whispered something; the man gave all of them a baleful look and walked off.
"Hmm," said the captain as they joined Dixon "Surprised that lop didn’t call you out, Kap."
Kanta was angry and embarrassed on the Terrans’ behalf. "I must tell Tose to draft him."
"Thank you, Major, Captain," said Amy.
"Call me Tata." He held a large mug of the stuff Terrans called kove; he had an affinity for many Terran things; he even smoked tobacco. "We must eat. Noon comes quickly."
Clayton joined them, carrying a tray full of tea mugs. "Are you guys all right?"
"I think so," said Amy. Dixon smirked.
Clayton sipped his tea and added some sweet-syrup. "That creep’s pal must’ve told him not to mess with Rap Rusorin’s ADC." They tucked into their breakfast.
Rob joined them a few minutes later, eager to gauge the temperament of these newcomers with whom he would share a cramped ship for two months. They told him what had happened; he snorted in disgust. "I don’t know what gets into some people."
Dixon said, "Why don’t you ask him?" He left the room without another word. Amy and Clay looked abashed at their colleague’s rudeness.
Rob sighed and sipped his tea; he ought to have expected this. Dixon was from Indus IV, and he couldn’t seem to put aside that grudge for the sake of the assignment; he hated the apermenyk almost as much as he hated Bastian. Whenever he spoke to Rob he was barely civil, looking up and down the uniform as if it were a rotting corpse, something smelly and diseased and best avoided. But it was too late to drop him; he and Harp and Grymes were a team. Nor would they find another radio expert anywhere in this port.
He rubbed his arm; the chip was itching again. This was one of the new ones, developed in the last year. It blocked trackers, heat sensors, motion detectors, any surveillance or tracking device short of a pack of bloodhounds. Fleet soldiers wore theirs in their boots, or sewn into the hem of their jackets; apermenyk wore theirs embedded in their flesh. Of course Bastian would come up with new devices that overrode the chips. Nano-engineers on both sides must give themselves ulcers, trying to keep up.
"Ludicrous," he muttered, finishing his muffin.
"What’s ludicrous?" asked Amy.
"This whole damned affair." His wrist-com beeped. "Yes?"
"I must see you immediately. My quarters."
Rusorin’s anger was palpable; Rob gulped the last of his tea and hurried out.
Rusorin thrust a file at him. "We have a new companion."
"Captain Merset Kopremon, apermenyk. He arrived five minutes ago. Do you know him?"
"Only by reputation. He’s one of the best field people Pammy’s got. What the hell is going on? Kessanon didn’t authorize this, did he?"
"Ryset signed the order himself."
No wonder she was angry. "What’s his reason?"
"His reason, is that Rap Serben wants an officer to observe and assess the situation on Nostra Sylvania."
"While I stand in a quiet corner and not get in the way?" Rob scanned the mission orders. "This is bullshit."
"I know. We can’t do anything about it."
"We’re only provisioned for fifteen; it’s too late to add anyone."
"He brought his own supply, even water. They’re ahead of us, Rob."
"Damn." Not only would another Intelligence officer make the crew nervous, the Sylvanians themselves wouldn’t like it. "What’s the point?"
Rusorin leaned back, arching her spine to grasp her ankles. "It takes a day to send a message to Remanotu and get a reply. They’ve planned well. We have to take him."
"According to this, he was pulled from deep assignment on Gormlaith," said Rob. "I’ll bet real money Pammy always meant to attach someone at the last minute, just to shake us up." He almost spat his commander’s name.
Rusorin agreed. Rap Serben might favor Rob, but he would drop his favor like hot iron if he knew some of the things Rob said against him: A humorless prig; a racist (Serben hated Terrans); he disliked Rusorin. For that alone Rob disliked him. "Why does Kessanon let him get away with this garbage? Never mind."
Rusorin smiled sourly. Most people accepted that Ryset was Serben’s father, even if neither man had ever admitted it publicly. "It has to wait. We leave in an hour."
Rob nodded grimly as he leafed through the file. Rap Merset’s record was impressive. Six field missions. Two years’ deep-assigned on Gormlaith. Assassinated three of Bastian’s field commanders. Commended twice in the past eighteen months. Spoke English, Japanese, French, and German. Skilled in ciphers, booby-traps and interrogation (Rob shuddered at this last). Close kin: None.
"Have you read this?" he asked.
"What do you see there that I don’t?"
"No one gets pulled from deep-assignment and sent on a military operation ‘to observe’. He’s either an assassin or a saboteur, possibly both. And if he’s as savvy as this indicates, he knows I’m going to read this and figure that out, and tell you." He handed Rusorin the file. "I don’t suppose he can meet with an unfortunate accident before we leave."
"Talk to him instead. Two months in space is a long time."
The ship was christened Whistlejacket, a class-three Terran freighter carrying plasma cannon fore and aft, and a Marburg gun on a swivel; ample defense against most smaller-class fighters.
"Let’s hope we meet nothing bigger," Tata quipped.
Inside, cabins were small and corridors were cramped. Personal storage was limited; packs and satchels were stuffed under bunks. Rob feared they would all be at each other’s throats after two months in this tiny tub. He grabbed an upper berth in the cabin he would share with Grymes and Captain Kopremon and laid his combook on the narrow shelf just below the ceiling. He would have to be careful not to slam his head when he got up.
Captain Kopremon came in and took the lower bunk, saving the longer upper for his taller comrade. He looked classically Neoran, short and wiry, with a dark complexion and eyes the color of black coffee; his thick brown hair had no trace of red. As he stowed his gear under the bunk he smiled at Rob and Clayton, showing small, straight teeth. He offered his hand; he was right-handed, that one Neoran in fifty thousand.
"I know this is awkward," he said pleasantly. "It wasn’t my idea either. The crew must be uncomfortable."
Clayton smiled politely.
Rob thought, he’s good, coming into this situation and seizing the initiative.
In the mess-hall Rusorin rolled the table away and set the chairs in a semicircle. Before she began she gave the crew a chance to study their new companion.
"Has everyone met Captain Kopremon? He joined us this morning, on the Rapalak’s orders."
"Hello," said Kopremon, in the same pleasant way he had spoken to Rob. He made no indication that he even noticed anyone’s discomfort. The others returned the greeting in polite, hesitant tones.
"We’re leaving orbit in one hour," Rusorin continued. "In six days we go into Velik space. Once we’re there, we’re blind. You want to get a letter out, you must do it before that."
"Major Sevoron and Lieutenant Grymes have the first watch in the cockpit. I’ll post the schedule this afternoon. Tonight Lieutenant Lorrondon and Rap Tolmen are in the galley. Any questions?"
Dixon started to speak, then pressed his lips together in a tight line.
Letters arrived an hour before the ship went on blind-flight. Tolmen printed them and handed them around
"A page-and-half, Rap Roben."
"From a girlfriend?" asked Amy.
Rob could tell she was trying not to be so bashful. "One must have a girlfriend to get letters from her," he replied. "It’s from my brother, on Remelan."
"One page for you, Rap Kanta."
"Anything for me?" Sadkenna asked anxiously. She hadn’t heard from her husband in two years. He had returned to Terran space to help his parents escape, then he had vanished; their young son was in the care of Sadkenna’s sister.
"Sorry, Sada, that’s all." Tolmen hugged her; Kanta mewed in sympathy.
Sadkenna resumed her map-reading and tried to conceal her deep disappointment. Normally she kept a good humor and didn’t mope, but such grief must be exhausting. Rob felt lucky. Lily might not be with the family, but they knew where she was, and that she and her children-Sinclair, Melly, and baby David-were all right.
He smoothed Enrik’s letter and began to read.
"3 July 2444. Voso Panorad, Remelan
Dear Rob. Not much is going on around here, but I want to drop one more line before you get out of reach. I hope it doesn’t bore you.
Work is the same-old-thing. My boss, Carlisle (you remember him, You said he looked like a psychotic trout) is quickly losing his grip on this establishment/hell-hole/madhouse. He won’t delegate tasks; he says ‘It’s everyone’s job’. So of course the same people (and you know whom that includes) end up doing everything. GRC needs to appoint someone who’ll crack the whip around here and get something done. Meanwhile he assigns pointless busywork and locks himself in his office. Doing what, I do not want to imagine. Last week Brekchen, Dr. Matsue and I were taking inventory of the medical supplies-much needed and long overdue. We’re up to our elbows in vials of medicine, bandages, and other sundry items of the medical trade, when The Tyrant comes in and tells us we’re wasting time. He called us lousy krauts, too, which I thought was entirely uncalled-for and not even accurate. Since yesterday he walks around bobbing his head and muttering to himself. He’s clearly going insane. I may get there first, though.
Home is better. Brekchen and I work, Missy and Felix go to school (she’ll be twenty in December, and done with all that. Can you believe it?). Basil stakes out a patch of sun and sleeps all day. At night he curls up by my head as he’s always done. We move around this tiny house and try not to get on each other’s nerves. So far so good. We even enjoy each other’s company.
We’ve still had no word of Doren. You know that’s always weighed on Brekchen, and for some reason it’s beginning to weigh on me too. Oh, well, he’ s the one who burnt the bridges.
I had an epiphany the other day, or at least an insight. I don’t think I can explain this to anyone else (I miss you terribly!). You know I like my work, most of the time, Carlisle notwithstanding. It’s stimulating, even challenging (Matsue says I’m becoming a good medic. I have actually stitched people up!). And it’s necessary. These people need our help and I’m glad I can give it. What I’ve been thinking, what I’ve thought my entire life, is this is real work. Keeping people alive, helping them rebuild their lives as much as they can. The Library, much as I loved it, was nothing to this. There’s little point in ‘preserving’ books if no one survives to read them.
But here’s the rub. It should not be necessary. I’m dealing with damage that should never have occurred. We congratulate ourselves on the work we do and talk about how wonderful it is that people come together in times of crisis. But this isn’t a storm, or an earthquake, or even an epidemic. These people are here because of humanity’s seemingly bottomless capacity for evil. They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t need our help. The whole thing is built on sand. I have to wonder. Does everyone else know this, and they don’t talk about it? I think I may be breaking a code of silence. I can’t be the first person who ever realized this.
Seeing this on a screen, I’m appalled at how cynical it sounds, which is why I discuss it with nobody. I don’t plan to quit (what would I do? Join the Fleet?) I’ll stay here as long as I’m needed. I hope it isn’t too much longer. Could you speak to your friends about ending their little war?
"We’re trying, Nikolasha," Rob murmured.
"So now I’m a little sadder. Serves me right for being introspective instead of leaving well enough alone. Space is pressing, so I’ll cut this short. How come, in a purely physical sense, time and space are infinite, but in the practical day-to-day there’s never enough of either? Let’s save that one for when I see you again, or when I can send another letter. Tell Major Sevoron I said hello. And BE CAREFUL! I cannot stress this enough! Come home in one piece. I love you. N."
Come home safe! A
Hugs and kisses. M.
Good luck! F.
"What’s funny?" Kanta asked.
"Just a greeting from my brother’s cat. He says hello to you, by the way."
"Your brother’s cat?"
"My stepbrother. You met him that day in Remanotu, remember?"
"Yes." Never before had she met a Terran civilian; he was strange, from his clothes and his fair hair to his height. But he was soft-spoken and courteous, perhaps shy. He spoke Neoran well, with the faintest of accents. She could tell that he and Rob loved each other dearly. "Why does he say hello to me?"
"Just friendliness," Rob replied. He tucked the letter into his pocket
He was glad that Enrik confided in him. In the past three years there had been little time to talk; frequently they only got on each other’s nerves. Enrik didn’t like Intelligence; if Rob had to wear a uniform Enrik preferred blue to dark brown. Spying was nothing more than a game, he declared, an absurd, pointless game of agencies trying to undermine each other for no reason than to undermine each other.
"The game itself becomes the point. The reasons for starting in the first place are forgotten. Read Levine’s Annals. You’ll see."
A sharp insight, Rob thought, except for one thing. This wasn’t a game, not to him, at least. He never tried to explain; if Enrik didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand, Rob couldn’t make him.
That last morning in Bretton Katt, when smoke and clouds had turned the sky the color of dead flesh. Another four or five centimeters to the right…or lower, directly to Walsam’s heart….
It would have made no difference. The war had already begun.
Kanta caught his eye before he could look away. "Bad news, or just a cat who says hello?"
"Just missing them, that’s all. How’s your news? "
"Not so bad," she replied, even though it was. Eresenna had been in the boil ever since her return from Terran space. Unable to obey her officers or get along with other soldiers, she spent much of her time locked up. This latest incident, involving two more privates, an ensign, and a carafe of hot tea had led the Admiralty to expel her permanently (Just like Bretton Katt). On her release from the brig she would go to work at a tiny hospital on a moon-base in the Remelan system; the Terrans’ GRC was short of people and had agreed to take her.
"Oh, Era," Kanta murmured, unable to hide her exasperation. And Lara, the youngest, was living in a children’s home in Remanotu. Kanta often felt she was failing both of her sisters.
"Are you all right?" Rob asked.
For the first time he could remember, she looked him full in the face. "I feel I must be different places at once. Here with Tose, home with my sisters. I feel they all need me and I must decide. Forgive me, Rap Roben, I know not why I tell you this."
The crew settled into a routine. When not on duty or sleeping they passed the time at marksmanship, or study at either English or mission notes. Or Salen would pull out his adkot, for Neorans love music and use any excuse to sing, often making up songs to fit the moment. Sometimes they sat and talked of home, of family that waited for them, or that they had lost.
Rusorin seldom joined in, and this worried them. They knew of her pensive moods, but this voyage and this mission weighed more heavily on her than previous assignments. When she became aware of their concern she would smile and tell them it was nothing. She slept little, despite Rob, Kanta, and Tata nagging her to take better care of herself. She spent most nights going over charts; this campaign must succeed. They needed Nostra Sylvania desperately.
The war wasn’t going well, despite last year’s victories to Bestrelan and Poseidon III, despite excellent work on the part of the apermenyk (she was proud of Rob’s successes). There was the disaster at Hecuba Station and the loss of the Gallo shipyards. Refugees poured into Remelan, taxing the GRC’s ability to cope. Rusorin could understand Enrik Ratt’s problems.
Perhaps when they won at Nostra Sylvania more worlds would risk active rebellion, instead of waiting for the Neorans to rescue them. The war would end sooner. If he still survived she would pursue him and end this at last. She would have no peace until he was dead. This was the sad truth of her life.
How she hated him! It ate at her, invaded her sleep, robbed her of rest. It drove her, a monster with sharp talons and razored teeth and fiery breath snarling at her heels. Let humans go on about peace in the galaxy and free trade among free people and all those other lies. She wanted Walsam dead. What humans did to themselves was no concern of hers. Fools! Stupid, short-sighted, shallow creatures….with whom she had cast her lot. She accepted the leadership they offered her. She wore their uniform. They were her only allies; she even loved a few of them.
But few of them saw her whole. Among Neorans she was almost a legend. They spoke her name with reverence, reaching to touch her sleeve or trying to catch her eye and looking away in haste when they did. The Terrans treated her as an oddity, if they even accepted she wasn’t human. Many of them thought it was a private fantasy, an eccentricity and she didn’t disabuse them. Perhaps it was better if they didn’t believe it.
The crew would be awake soon. Rusorin prepared tea in the large kettle and set out the bowls and the jar of sweet-syrup.
Rob came in first, carrying his mission combook. Rusorin handed him a mug, remembering he preferred that to a bowl.
"Thanks. I can use the jolt." He noted her weary expression. "Have you slept in two days?"
"No. You’re up early yourself."
"Wasn’t sleeping, so I may as well get up. What’s bothering you, Rusorin?"
"Who says anything bothers me?"
"When something bothers you, you rub that scar, or you lean over backwards and grab your ankles."
"When you read you move your tongue back and forth across your lower lip."
"I do not! Do I?"
"Sit with me a few minutes, Rob."
Three and a half years had passed since their first meeting; he looked older than the passage of time should tell. The work of an Intelligence officer-dangerous and often solitary-had left its mark. His face had thinned, losing its boyish contours; his expression held experience and knowledge borne of hard living. That uniform suited him.
Concerned, he sat beside her and took her hand. "Tell me what’s wrong."
"I feel like I’m running out of time. There’s so much I have to do, and I don’t have the time to do it."
She meant being stuck with the Confederation when she wanted to go after Walsam. It must be a lonely feeling, to be one of two people left of your race, particularly when the other was your mortal enemy.
"How long will you live?"
"I don’t know. We never measured time the way humans do. When we met the Neorans we could only guess. Another two hundred years, maybe?" Rusorin sighed. "If I’m not killed."
"That’s time to find him, isn’t it?"
"I don’t know. I said it’s only a guess. He is older than I. He must not die comfortably, of old age. He will not have that!" She gripped Rob’s hand. "I don’t care who kills him, as long as someone does, as long as he dies before his time, like so many others." She snorted contemptuously. "Like his own comrades."
Rob had never seen her so worked up, nor heard her speak with such hatred. "Can I do anything to help you at all, Rusorin? I owe you so much, starting with my life. That’s a favor I haven’t returned."
"It wasn’t a favor, Rob."
"All right. But sometimes you’re so unhappy and I can’t do anything to help." His eyes prickled as they lost all color.
"But you do, Rob. I never talk to anyone the way I talk to you. You’re my closest friend. It comforts me, when you’re here."
Her words touched him deeply; she looked at him with such warmth and respect. They sat in companionable silence, still holding hands and listening to the ship sounds around them, the soft, deep whirr of the engines and floating above that the shallower whisp of air circulating through the vents. There was no indication of anything living on this ship beyond this room. Rob half-expected to hear the scuttling of mice.
Nor was it possible to feel any movement of this ship, except for an abrupt course-change, and that always meant trouble, if not outright disaster. Only the blue-green digits of the Velik clock showed that they were actually getting somewhere, and not stuck in this cosmic limbo. There was nothing to see out the window except the usual supra-light blur that turned the glory of space into a taupy mess that looked like it would be slimy to the touch. Some people claimed to find this effect calming, even hypnotic. Rob didn’t believe them; Astrogoraphobia had never afflicted him, but he understood why some people did go mad.
Maybe the Calderists were right; people ought to stay home instead of tearing around the galaxy in little metal boxes, getting into all sorts of trouble.
"What about Kopremon?" Rusorin asked suddenly.
"His discretion’s phenomenal. The rest of them don’t even shut up anymore when he walks into a room. I don’t think his orders concern this mission. We’ll have to wait until planetfall." Rob spoke lower, as if the room weren’t soundproof. "I’ll tell you something. The apermenyk do a lot more internal work than they did a few years ago. I don’t know much about it. Pammy reserves those jobs for his own drovv. I wasn’t sure if you knew that."
"We’ve both been away for a while."
"Yes," he said. "I was gone for sixteen months, then home for two weeks, then we began this. I miss them so badly. I’d give anything to see Lily again. Some of the others have been away from home longer than that, or they’ve lost their entire family. I don’t know how they cope. I don’t know how you cope."
"Hate," Rusorin said softly. "And hope, for many of them. For others it’s vengeance, like Mr. Dixon."
"Vengeance is a sin, the way I was brought up. But sometimes it’s so hard to hold on to hope."
"It’s all we have, often." Rusorin finished her tea.
Kanta came in, carrying her own books; she looked worriedly at Rusorin’s tired face. "You must rest," she said firmly. "You have eaten? She has eaten, Rap Roben?" She spoke as if discussing someone under medical supervision.
"I haven’t seen her," said Rob. "She’s right, Commander. You should take better care of yourself, or you’ll make yourself ill and you’ll be no use to anyone."
Kanta started at the blunt way he spoke to her aunt.
"The two of you sound like my parents. All right, I’ll take your advice. I’ll eat, and then I’ll sleep."
Alone with Rob, Kanta gave him a searching look. So, she knew, and she didn’t approve.
Tolmen came in, wished them good-morning, and began preparing breakfast. "Rap Amy is out in the corridor. She’s not well."
Amy came in a moment later, supported by Eolpa and Salen. She looked pale, folding her hands across her abdomen.
"She’s bleeding," Eolpa said kindly.
Amy blushed and jerked her head frantically at Rob and the other two men.
"For God’s sake, Harp," said Rob. "I have two sisters. I’ve even had girlfriends."
Kanta put her hand on Amy’s forehead. "Mola brought some medicine, to help?"
Salen looked around the cupboard. "Here it is." He opened the bottle and dumped out a huge yellowish capsule. "This will help the cramping and other symptoms."
Amy meekly swallowed the dose, which wasn’t as difficult to swallow as its size suggested. She felt a bit foolish for her embarrassment; they were all so kind and concerned.
"No need for squeamishness," said Salen. "We live with women." He settled into a chair and called up the English grammar on his com.
Study was on everyone’s mind today. Dixon sat quietly in the corner, tinkering with one of the transmitters. Eolpa, Tolmen and Salen practiced their English, speaking in low voices so not to disturb their companions. Sadkenna joined them. This reminded Rob of the common room of the freshman dormitory; the memory was bittersweet as he switched on the combook and began reviewing his notes.
According to the intelligence, Eugenie’s forces were actually good fighters, when they chose to fight. No, the rebels themselves didn’t lack courage or even skill; their captains lacked the willingness to cooperate. Because of their infighting and jealousy the campaign was hopelessly stalled. Rob hoped Rusorin could kick their heads in and get them to remember their real goal.
There were other obstacles too. The larger towns offered anything anyone could want. Shops sold imported goods; there were plays, concerts and plenty to do outdoors. The capital itself, Rocherville, could hold its head up among any major city in the galaxy. But once you left the towns, you plunged into the eighteenth century. Roads were few, and many of them weren’t even metaled. People in the villages lived by hunting or harvesting trees and other plants from the forest. Even mining-Nostra Sylvania’s largest and richest industry-was old-fashioned by off-world standards. So far, Victor Bastian had shown no interest in modernizing, as long as he got his seventy-two per cent.
Kanta sat across from Rob, her own book open before her. She read slowly, often running the dictionary’s wand across a word or an entire sentence, then writing notes in the book’s margins when the translation appeared on the little screen.
"Is that Ryder’s History of Nostra Sylvania?" Rob asked.
Kanta nodded and scribbled another note. "Tata says it’s out of date, but if we’re there several months we must know their history. It’s not enough, knowing only the present."
"Why, Major, you think like a Roman, as the Romans would have said."
Kanta couldn’t tell if he were serious or making another joke. "I can’t pronounce the family’s name."
Kanta repeated it and wrote an approximate spelling. "Kaso bon. It must do. You know them?"
"Our families corresponded, diplomatic courtesy, mostly. Charles Casaubon’s father was nuttier than a walnut-cake. His own sons deposed him, forty years ago. He died in a hospital, with some assistance, according to some."
‘Some’ must be the apermenyk. "They weren’t kind to each other."
"They still aren’t," said Rob. "Eugenie took her sisters and brothers with her into exile. Six years ago her brothers went into the city of Quattropontia for medical care. Charles promised he’d leave them alone, then kidnapped them and sent them back to Rocherville. Their sisters haven’t seen them since."
Kanta looked aghast.
"I told you they were screwed up," said Rob.
"You’re one to talk," Dixon muttered.
Rob looked him in the eye. "You’re right. My family isn’t much better. We’ve all got skeletons in the closet, don’t we, Ken?"
Dixon’s face darkened. Kanta wondered what that was about.
"What does that mean?"
Her dark eyes faded to the color of dried sage. "Yes," she said stiffly.
Rob had no idea how he had offended her; he called up the map of Rocherville, the capital, arranging his stills around the map itself. Ninety per cent of the city was made of glass. At night it reflected so much light people could see it from the planet’s far moon. Here was the Manor, the Casaubons’ official residence before the Usurpation, and the old Council Hall, also no longer in use. They were both graceful, inviting buildings, like the beautiful neo-Gothic Cathedral; it was still in use, but there had been no Masses said there since the arrest and deportation of the Bishop, earlier this year.
He brought up the picture of the Citadel, Charles Casaubon’s own project, built in the heart of the city on what had been a public park. This shot was from the front, showing huge gates, with a rounded glass turret at each corner. Rising from the middle was the great Tower, a shiny, sickly-looking brown spike, soaring one hundred and sixty meters above the city. In this wide shot, with the rest of downtown Rocherville around it, it looked like a smudge, marring the cityscape. Victor Bastian must have advised Charles on the design.
"There’s a dark Satanic mill for you." Bastian’s territory was full of those. He wished he had an aerial shot, or better, an actual schematic.
Kanta leaned across the table to take a look. "It’s ugly," she declared. "It’s not so nice as the others."
"‘Isn’t as nice’"
She looked puzzled. "Was that not right? I sounded not right?"
"‘Didn’t sound right’ and ‘isn’t as nice’. The way you said it is understandable, but it sounds funny."
Kanta wrote out both sentences. "This gives the sentence two verbs. It needs one only."
"I agree, but the wisdom of our ancestors is in two verbs with a negative, and I’ll not disturb it, or the country’s done for."
Kanta turned to Sadkenna. "You have this trouble, learning English with your husband?"
"He speaks Arabic, not so much English," Sadkenna replied, refusing to refer to Yusuf in the past tense.
"Rap Roben, you must help me learn. I mustn’t talk like a panoran."
Her fierce practicality was so at odds with Eresenna’s flightiness; what was the youngest sister like? "All right, but I speak it; I never said I understood it."
Kanta looked frustrated: why did Terrans make this their common language? Other Terran languages must be simpler, like Neoran. But if she wished to be a good officer, she must learn.
"What’s going on?"
"Hey, Clayton. Not much, just an English lesson."
"Oh? I know some exercises that might help. Try this one. ‘Moses supposes his toeses-"
"You’re not helping," said Rob.
Kanta’s frustration turned to bewilderment.
"All right. How about this one-"
Clayton huffed theatrically. "You wound me, Rap Roben."
"If you sound garbled people will know you’re not native speakers and start asking unpleasant questions."
Everyone turned around, for it was Captain Kopremon who had spoken; he had been so quiet in his corner that they had forgotten he was there. He glanced up from his own combook with a friendly smile
"Thanks for the tip," said Rob. "Learn this or die."
Kits in hand, Rob and Tolmen hurried to the washroom. They had only a few minutes before the women’s turn. Rob stripped off his shirt and rubbed down with a space-towel. He drew water to wash his face and thought longingly of a proper shower with unlimited hot water.
"Planetfall in a week," said Tolmen. He carefully measured out the water needed to wash his face and clean his teeth. He looked at Dixon and pursed his mouth; the way he insisted on washing his hair and shaving every day, he would go through his water-ration before they reached Nostra Sylvania.
Tata wandered in, looking like a man who had spent the previous night tavern-hopping. He responded to the greetings of his comrades with a groan, filled his basin with cold water and dunked his head.
Tolmen closed his kit and watched Dixon ply the shaver over his chin. "You feel that hair on your face?"
"No. Do you feel the hair on your head?"
"Grow a beard, Ken," said Rob.
"I might," said Dixon. "Terran men should all grow beards. Neoran men and women all dress the same and wear their hair the same way. Sometimes you can’t tell them apart."
"Is that the only way you can tell men from women, clothes and length of hair?" asked Tolmen, eager to get his own back. Tata and Clayton burst out laughing.
Dixon scowled. "Some help here, Lorrondon? You’re really more Terran than Neoran."
Rob folded his towel and slipped on a clean shirt. "‘Before anything else I’m a human being’."
Dixon snorted. "What does that mean?"
"It means what it means, Ken." Rob grabbed his kit. Clayton and Tolmen filed out after him. Kanta and Sadkenna waited in the corridor. "Good morning, ladies. What’s up this morning?"
"Mukda called from the cockpit. She spotted another ship."
"She says it’s in orbit around Sylvania XII."
Sylvania XII was a tiny ball of frozen dust with nothing on it; there was no reason for a ship to be here. Rusorin hurried to the cockpit; adjusting their own course would take time and fuel, but a ship so close to their destination, right in their path, wanted examination. "How long until we reach it?"
"Ninety minutes. It should be in visual range in an hour."
Slowly the ship came into view, a small trade-ship (passengers and freight) fitted out with some small arms. There was no answer to Mukda’s repeated calls; the ship put out no signal at all, not even a normal signature; it was lit only by the reflected light of Nostra Sylvania’s distant sun.
"Can we get any ID at all, name, markings?"
"Nothing. It’s Terran. That’s all I can tell."
Rusorin crossed her arms. "There’s no one left alive on that ship."
Puzzled by her assurance, Amy asked, "How do you know?"
"We’ll board here," said Rusorin, indicating the hatch to the ship’s shuttle bay. "It’s the best spot to attach the tube. Bring us in, Tata. Give me ten meters’ clearance."
Tata deftly maneuvered the Whistlejacket into position. "Extending boarding-tube…locking now." A muffled thump sounded from the depths of the ship, followed by a faint whoosh. "Seal is complete, Tose."
The crew pulled on their suits and headed down to the main hold and through the boarding-tube.
"Life-support is off. The air’s very thin. Temperature is minus four degrees centigrade. Looks like we’ve got gravity, though."
"Good." Nobody liked ‘swimming’ in Zero-G.
"The hatch is vacuum-sealed," said Clayton. "I think we’ll have to blow it open."
"We don’t want to cause damage," said Rusorin. Seizing the handle of the hatch she took a deep breath and pulled. Dixon watched in disgust. Rusorin took another breath and braced her foot against the bulkhead. She pulled again; the seal popped. "Damn, that thing’s tight. Open it, Tata."
Tata pulled the door open. Cold air seeped into the tube, but it was air, not vacuum.
"Tata, check the engines; Rap Tolmen, Mr. Dixon, you take the computers. Rob, Kanta, I want you and Rap Merset to look around the rest of the ship. Stay in constant contact, with me and with each other."
The boarding party adjusted their masks and stepped through the hatch into a small landing bay. Rob swept his flashlight through the room and saw only the technical equipment one would expect to find here. Two shuttles covered with a thin film of ice sat in the shadows; the floor was white with frost. "Watch your step, everyone."
They fanned out slowly through the bay, trying to keep their footing. Tata and Dixon made their way to the computer console. It was blank, but showed no sign of vandalism. Aside from that, no one found anything sinister, or even out of place. They reassembled at the main door, expecting to find it sealed. But it opened easily, dropping a few ice crystals as is slid into the wall.
"Anyone there?" Rob called. His voice echoed up the corridor.
"Don’t do that again," said Tata.
"This must be the main corridor," said Kopremon. "The crew quarters will be up a flight. The engine room will be directly ahead. Rap Taset, Rap Kenneth, see to the engines and the mainframe. Rap Kanta, Rap Roben, we’ll see if we can find what happened to the crew."
"Who put you in charge?" Dixon muttered.
For once he was right. Kanta was the ranking officer; yet this matter did seem more in Kopremon’s line. "You heard him, Mr. Dixon."
Dixon grumbled and followed Tata.
"What is it with him, anyhow?" said Kopremon.
"Quite a few things," said Rob. "Come on."
The elevator was dead, forcing them to take the stairs. The stairwell was narrow and the metal steps slick; Rob, Kanta and Kopremon held tightly to the rail. Twice Kanta slipped and would have fallen if Kopremon hadn’t grabbed her arm. Their soft footfalls sounded flat. Rob kept a firm grip on the flashlight. They reached the next level and found the door frozen shut. Kopremon clicked his sidearm to laser and melted the ice.
The corridor before them was empty. They put their heads into open cabin doors and forced closed ones. Then they stopped, aghast. Kanta put her hand to her mouth.
The dead lay frozen to floors or strapped into chairs and bunks, in pools of iced blood; both the walls and ceilings were spattered red. Many of them still had open eyes, fixed in an expression of terror and disbelief. Others huddled in a fetal position, eyes closed and hands clasped. Rob knew an attitude of prayer when he saw it. He watched Kanta suppress her horror as they examined each one.
"Well?" said Kopremon, when they reached the end of the hall.
"Shot or stabbed," said Kanta. "They saw it. Look." She knelt by the last body in the corridor. "All of the wounds are frontal, to the face or the heart. They tried to protect themselves." She touched several small red blots on the hands and arms. Rob crossed himself; it still shocked him, how people facing high-powered pistols loaded with explosive pellets still hoped to shield themselves, drowning reason in sheer animal instinct.
Kanta gently closed the man’s eyes. "We can’t know how long they’ve been dead. It can be three hours or three weeks."
Rusorin’s voice came through the com. "Have you found them?"
"Yes, all dead."
"Hello?" Tata’s voice crackled through the com. "Lots of dead people down here." He sounded shaken.
"What of the computers and the engines?"
"It’s all dead, but there’s no sign of sabotage." There was an awkward pause. "Everything’s shut off."
"We’re headed your way, Rap Taset." Kopremon switched off the com. "We must count them. You two finish there." He headed back down the corridor.
He had spoken as if he were in charge.
"This is odd," said Rob.
"This is the quarters, right? All of these people were killed in their own rooms, or right outside. But nobody looks ready for bed."
"I don’t know." Rob examined the body of a young woman, a Neoran by the look of her, probably no older than Missy; she had two small red blots on her neck. He took the girl’s hand. On the inside of her wrist three small red marks were tattooed into the skin.
Rob whistled softly and backed away from her, finally knowing why Kopremon was on this mission, and why he acted now with such authority.
They counted thirty-five dead, mostly Terran. There were a dozen Neorans. Moving through the ship they found four more, killed at their workstations. The infirmary, mess-hall and kitchens were all empty, and impeccably tidy. No blood, or any mess at all. Standing in the doorway of the auxiliary kitchen Rob began to shake. That peaceful order chilled him more than those murdered people upstairs. Bile rose in his throat. Hastily he backed away and bumped into Amy.
"Sorry," Amy said nervously. "The Commander sent me to help you." She pulled out her scanner. How young she looked. Had she ever seen this kind of violence before?
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for fingerprints."
"You won’t find any."
By afternoon the bodies lay in the shuttle-bay, covered with sheets. Even if the crew couldn’t identify them, they felt some kind of service was required. Following their own beliefs they walked among the rows, whispering prayers before covering the dead with sheets.
Rob stopped over the bodies of two of the Terrans; no knowing if they were New Church, or some other Christian sect, or Jews, Islamists, Unis, something else or nothing at all. In any case, they probably wouldn’t mind a sincere prayer offered on their behalf. Rob crossed himself and recited what he remembered of the burial service.
In the landing-tube he met Amy. "The Commander says to hurry. The air is almost gone, and we have no time."
"Only Kopremon’s left. I think he’s almost done."
"I’ll get him."Amy stepped through the hatch. Kopremon was kneeling over the body of a woman. Then he did something that looked strange to Amy. He turned the woman’s wrist over and examined it.
"Did you know her?" she asked quietly.
"No. But I know who she was, and what she was."
"What are those marks?"
"What marks are those, Miss Harp?"
Amy blushed. "Those little red marks. When we moved them I saw them on two of the men."
This woman, the woman Rob had checked, and two men. That made four. "Tell that to no one. If we have a chance later, I’ll explain."
"The three in Engineering are the only ones not hit in the front," said Rob. "Two were shot in the back, the other stabbed in the neck. They were all killed at their stations."
"It must have begun there," said Rusorin. "Can you tell me anything about the killers?"
"They’re damned efficient," said Rob. "That’s about all."
"Suromekyk?" said Mukda.
Rob shook his head. "It’s not their m.o. Pipes would have just blown up the ship."
"Can we get the computers up, or the engines?"
Dixon shook his head. "Parts are missing, or fused. It’s very cleanly done. If we had the parts and the equipment it would take three days to fix. The base cells are completely burned out. Lorrondon’s right; these people are experts."
Rusorin stretched, laying her palms flat on the ceiling. "But who are they?"
"Smugglers," said Rob. "The hold’s full of raw ore, probably payment for war supplies, small arms and medical; that’s the standard currency. There’s no way of knowing anything else about them. The d-base is wiped. We didn’t find anything written either. Logs, letters, nothing. I’ll bet real money that it’s an inside job."
"I agree," said Rusorin. "Hmm. An emergency prompts the captain to order a lock-down. Only those at the crucial stations stay on duty. This isolates everyone and makes them easier to kill. No sign of invasion, no self-inflicted wounds. The killers killed each other."
"Do we abort the mission?" Kanta asked. Rap Sadkenna and Lieutenant Grymes had already asked.
"No," said Rusorin. "I want everyone to get some sleep now."
Alone, she retracted the landing-tube and resealed the dead ship. Then she took a good hard look at their situation. They were in the middle of enemy territory, with thirty-nine people killed by someone they must have trusted. Without any personal logs she couldn’t know if this was sudden, or if the crew had expected some disaster; their thoughts had been as violently destroyed as their lives.
For the first time in months she remembered Geoffrey Slater. The trail was long cold; she and Rob had had little opportunity to pursue what they had begun in Bretton Katt. A merot killed by Neorans. Terrans and Neorans killed by who knew. It was difficult to see any separation.
What waited for them on Nostra Sylvania? For all they knew Bastian had smashed all resistance and the Whistlejacket was headed into an ambush. But even if they could set the ship to reverse they lacked the provisions for a return trip.
No one would frighten her off; les Paysans expected them, and they would keep their word. She would silence any among her crew who spoke of retreat.
But in the days that followed, no one did.
Rob sat in the cockpit, checking the readings for the landing on the planet’s second moon. Kopremon greeted him cordially and took his chair, adjusting it for his height. "Anything to report?"
"No. Rap Salen and Mr. Dixon had nothing either. Course correction, twenty degrees port."
"Course set. Engines responding."
In the distance the stars whirled about like a flock of birds startled by a thrown rock before righting themselves; the ship was back on a direct course for Nostra Sylvania.
"Straight shot from here," said Rob, setting the autopilot. "I never believed the losadryk were extinct, but it’s still disconcerting to find out they’re not."
Kopremon never stirred from his calm inscrutability. "It would be, I suppose. Especially for you."
"Are they resurgent, or just a remnant that wants to make some trouble?"
"We don’t know. That’s one of the things I’m to find out." Kopremon's tone was grave. "How much do you know about the apermenyk, before the war?"
"Not much. Until 2440, they were part of the Fleet. When Admiral Bassandon died Pammallon lobbied for the job and asked the Rapalak for autonomy. He threw out a fifth of the officers, then doubled the number he had left, wielding us into the elite corps of spies, saboteurs, assassins and interrogators we are today."
Kopremon studied him. "You don’t like Rap Serben."
Rob remembered he barely knew this man. "I can take him or leave him."
Kopremon gaze sharpened. "Do you know what happened to the rejected officers?"
"Most of them are dead. Rap Serben had some of them tried and executed. Some have died in the war. I’ve seen the files." It wasn’t pleasant reading. "The rest are scattered. ‘Present location unknown’."
"That’s not entirely true." Kopremon studied the younger man’s face; Rap Roben wasn’t the Commander’s creature, as he had been told; he could trust him. "Some of them are very much alive."
"Yes. I saw their mark."
"Do you know how it’s made?"
"It’s a tattoo, so some sort of ink, I imagine."
"It’s a blend." They both smirked, thinking of the additional meaning of the word merot. "It’s made from a plant from the Old World, rescued from the kurrdmap. They mix it with the blood of a comrade."
Rob could scarcely believe that people in the twenty-fifth century did such things. "That sounds like a great way to spread disease."
"It’s an ancient practice, from the days before space travel, long before the enemy, before the Commander and her brother found us, when our people were still as scattered as the Terrans. How many different languages do Terrans speak? A hundred? Two hundred? We spoke a thousand. The kurrdmap made us one people."
Rob knew little of the Neorans before the kurrdmap, but after fighting among them for three years, he suspected that their history wasn’t as peaceful as many of them pretended it was. "So, what do the losadryk want?"
"Same things they’ve always wanted, nothing to do with any Terrans or meryk. If they must use violence to achieve this, they will. Back in ‘38 they killed the governor of Kamonad because she allowed Terrans to settle. Four of them died for it; they’re considered martyrs."
Rob remembered that incident; it had made the news reports in the Bowman Pact. The NTL had declared it evidence of the Neorans’ innate savagery. "Pammy probably wants to nip this in the bud."
"He’s no friend of theirs, particularly since they’d never have him."
Rob knew what he meant; even if Serben renounced his father, his illegitimacy barred him from their ranks. The losadryk were hard-nosed about such things. The idea made Rob flinch. More than once in recent years he had heard people refer to Enrik not as ‘Daniel Ratt’s eldest’, but as ‘Daniel Ratt’s bastard’. "Why are people so unkind? A child’s a child."
"I don’t know that it’s right or wrong," Kopremon said quietly. "But it’s our way."
"So they’re hiding out among Terrans, the very people they hate."
"How did those people get on board that ship?"
"Under cover, I expect; their families are losadryk. Few people know what the marks mean. Smugglers don’t run checks on recruits, particularly if they’re short-handed. If they’re Neorans, they’re not Pipes or Bastianites. Captains think these people are safe."
People should remember there were many dangers in the world. "What makes Rap Serben think they’re on Nostra Sylvania?"
Kopremon looked surprised. "He didn’t tell you? You know we had three officers, deep-assigned in Rocherville."
"One of them was to meet us when we arrived at Maison Pierre."
"Three months ago, two of them were caught by Charles’s guards and executed. Firing squad in the public square."
Rob’s stomach contracted; all apermenyk knew, and tried to forget, that this might be their fate. "The third?"
"A losadram. He betrayed them."
"Rap Serben wants you to kill him."
This was disturbing news. More than fifty years ago the Rapalak had ordered a raid against the losadryk who had broken with the Confederation. The ambush had become a bloody battle that lasted three weeks. The accounts were no reading for the squeamish. And it was where an intense young officer had first distinguished himself as a ruthless fighter and a skilled tactician. The names of Doren Lorrondon and his commander, Ryset Kessanon, had been cursed ever since. No doubt that blistering hatred would be visited upon their sons.
"Everyone on this ship’s in danger," said Kopremon. "The Commander’s crew, a merot whose father almost destroyed them, and three Terrans. All on their list of enemies."
"What about you? How do I know you’re not one of them?"
Kopremon laughed. "Don’t worry, they’d never have me, even if I were inclined to join."
Rob decided to take a shot. "Did they kill Geoffrey Slater?"
"I suppose it’s possible. I want to ask you a favor. You’re seconded to the Commander for this mission, so you don’t have to answer to me. Don’t mention this to anyone, not until we know more. Rap Serben wants you to have no part of this. I wasn’t to mention it to you at all until we arrived."
"So they’re not among les Paysans."
"It’s unlikely. Neorans would be pretty conspicuous."
The dead ship made him sadder than before; those people weren’t killed to keep les Paysans from getting supplies, it was a warning, but of what? If Walsam himself couldn’t frighten Rusorin out of Bretton Katt, then a bunch of humans couldn’t do it with a sick practical joke.
"Maybe they just want us to know they’re here," Rob said softly. "But why?"
"I doubt they could tell you," said Kopremon. "Why does anyone do anything?"
Dixon pressed his ear to the cockpit door, wishing he could pick up more than the tone. Lorrondon and Kopremon were deep in talk, something serious.
Dixon jumped. "Both the sneaks in there tonight," he said. Major Sevoron disliked Intelligence as much as he did; she would understand.
"You mustn’t call them that," she replied. "Their mission is ours. Show respect, Rap Kenneth."
She at least pronounced his name correctly. But why take up for Intelligence? Common thugs, that’s what they were; no better than Pipes.
More rain. It always rained in Bretton Katt. Rob didn’t want to go to lecture. He couldn’t remember if he hadn’t done the reading or if it had been boring and he had forgotten it. Professor Montrey would torment him, either way. He burrowed into the blanket and jerked awake, barking his forehead against the force-field that sealed him in his bunk. He shut it off in disgust.
"Mornin’," said Clayton.
Rob grunted and hopped down to the floor and pulled on his boots and jacket. No point in trying to get back to sleep. In three hours they would arrive at Nostra Sylvania’s far moon and begin their descent.
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