by John R. Plunkett
"Here, Sarlen," Krita said. "Catch." With a gentle flick of the wrist she sent an empty food container drifting toward him. Sarlen darted out and seized it; only after exploring it thoroughly did he return to Krita's side and solemnly hand it back. "Thank you." Krita gave him a gentle pat and waved the container, as if to throw it. Sarlen darted this way and that in anticipation of its trajectory if she did release it.
"He seems normal enough," Janis observed.
Krita spun the container offhand at Janis. In her surprise she fumbled it; Sarlen streaked in like a bullet, crashing into her and wresting it from her grasp. "You little jerkwad!" she shouted as he darted away.
"Seems?" Krita asked.
"But-" Janis recalled suddenly to whom she spoke and dropped back to her place on Krita's wing. "I'm sorry, Grandmother. He acts just like a regular child. But he doesn't speak."
Krita found it intensely amusing that Janis, not in fact very much older than Sarlen, spoke as if she and Krita were equals and Sarlen the odd one out, completely oblivious to the fact that, from Krita's point of view, both Janis and Sarlen might as well be embryos. "When one has lived only a short time events within that period are of grave import because they are one's entire existence," Krita said.
"But he's not that young," Janis protested.
Irony is wasted on the young, Krita thought wryly. "Try this, then. When you get as old as me, Janis, and have seen hundreds of children born, raised, live, and die, then you may come to realize that the events of a single life- no matter how grave they may seem at the moment- are not so terribly significant compared to the great flow of time. Sarlen doesn't speak because he's suffering from a terrible pain and doesn't know how else to deal with it. Our duty, as his family, is to comfort, not accuse."
"But- what if he never speaks?"
"What of it?" Krita shot back. "It doesn't mean he can't become a mighty warrior. His choice not to speak won't impair his children in any way. It's not a good idea to point fingers at those who see the world differently from you, Janis. You may very well find fingers pointed a you some day."
Sarlen stopped tossing the container and studied it closely. With a fingertip he traced the odd sigils imprinted upon it. Not for the first time Krita wondered what those designs meant. As art they seemed lopsided and poorly composed but logically the muck dwellers put them there for a reason. Once, when curiosity bit her particularly hard, Krita had collected a pile of empties and studied the designs carefully. She noticed a consistent pattern to the placement and alignment of character groups and how some groups repeated but others didn't. She couldn't divine what it meant, though.
"I hope we find more of that food," Janis commented.
"The warriors are out looking for another nest right now," Krita replied. Which was why she, the children, and the other women were off on this long and basically pointless journey. Parn deemed it too dangerous to take them along on his reconnaissance expeditions but nor could he bring himself to leave them behind. So he sent them on a mission of their own, escorted by a single warrior. It came as no surprise- at least to Krita- that the warrior ended up being Parn himself, though he'd rather lead the warriors. The simple fact was that if any other warrior were detailed to look after the women by himself there'd inevitably be arguments and fights over who it would be. Parn was Starlord; no one disputed his right to monopolize the women, at least for a time.
Still... Krita glanced at Parn, who stationed himself a ways off to one side. He arranged the group as if it were a combat patrol: Azaria and Toki, Gava and Khalia, then Krita, Janis, and Sarlen. But young women were not warriors; they didn't like travelling alone, even with assigned wing men. Over time they clumped together, which was exactly what Parn wanted to avoid. Every so often he harangued them, driving each flight back out to its assigned station. Krita found the plan somewhat disturbing, though she understood the tactical reasons for it. With no less than four attractive, healthy females at his disposal- any one more than willing to bear a child for the Starlord- he hadn't made even the mildest of overtures. In fact Krita didn't think he even looked at them except to check their positions. Every bit of his attention remained focused on scanning the heavens for any possible sign of attack. With memory of the terrible battle still fresh in his mind she could understand his reluctance but now-
Krita's own words haunted her. From her perspective there wasn't so much difference between Sarlen and Parn. Sarlen wasn't the only one struggling to deal with a terrible loss.
"Sarlen!" Janis shouted, snapping Krita's attention out of herself. Sarlen had darted away; apparently he found it necessary to rush everywhere at top speed, a behavior that made Krita's bones ache just to watch him. Nothing wrong with him in that respect.
Sarlen came up near Parn. When Janis started after him Krita restrained her; Janis was right to want to keep Sarlen from bothering the Starlord but Krita wanted to see how Parn would react.
After a moment, in which Parn did not acknowledge Sarlen's presence in any way, Sarlen spun the container toward him. Just when it seemed Parn would let it hit him, quick as a wink he caught and gently tossed it back. Sarlen wasn't content to let it go at that and tried again. To Krita's immense relief Parn seemed willing to play the game- and the tension in him, which had begun to dull the beautiful finish of his skin, started to ease. He didn't even yell when the other four women closed in around him.
"Grandmother-" Janis began.
"Hush, darling," Krita said. "The Starlord needs this. The Tribe needs it, too. Just... keep watch for him." Krita's senses weren't what they used to be. Janis' were young and sharp- if, that is, she could be induced to use apply them conscientiously.
"Yes, Grandmother," Janis dutifully replied.
The women joined the game, playing catch with Parn and occasionally keep-away with Sarlen, but not very seriously. They just used it as an excuse to stay near Parn. Gava made the first overt move, drifting close and stroking Parn's back. He stiffened suddenly, the tension returning tenfold- but Azaria, Toki, and Khalia moved in as well, touching and stroking.
"Please, Parn, don't fight it," Krita whispered. "They've lost as much as you did. They're just as scared, just as hurt. They need it. As much as you do."
"It's nothing, darling." Krita stroked Janis, drawing hir close like a child, rather than a wingman.
Parn hurled the container. Krita rolled and caught it, grunting from the impact. Parn's fingers had dented its exterior.
"It's time for you to stay with me, Sarlen," Krita said sternly as he tried to pull the container from her grip. She held on firmly, not so much to keep it away from him but because it reminded her of Parn's hands, so powerful and yet gentle, roaming over her skin. Just the memory of it made her shudder. Sarlen was young enough not to be particularly interested in what happened around Parn; when Krita finally let him have the container he moved off with it and started playing. Janis was of an age to take serious interest in such activities and she watched with great attention as events unfolded. Parn and the women, naturally, had other things on their minds. As such it perhaps was not so great a surprise when Krita looked around and suddenly noticed Sarlen was gone.
"Sear it!" Krita hissed, smacking Janis on the back so hard she yelped. "I told you to keep watch!" In truth she was more annoyed at herself. She was old enough to know better. "Come on," she growled. "We need to go find Sarlen."
"But- what about them, Grandmother?" Janis asked, pointing.
Krita dithered. It wouldn't be particularly wise for her and Janis to go off on their own, nor would it be very polite to abandon Parn and the others. But they needed this release... and Krita felt guilty for letting Sarlen slip away in the first place. "They'll be all right," she said. "Stay close and stay alert this time!"
The search would go faster if Krita and Janis split up but Krita couldn't bring herself to do it. Loosing track of Janis- or getting lost herself- would be the crowning indignity. She, the almighty gerontarch, who was supposed to be so damn smart! Wouldn't that be a laugh!
"I see him, Grandmother!" Janis exclaimed.
"Not so fast!" Krita grabbed Janis as she tried to dart off. "Lead me in. Carefully."
Janis gasped and Krita groaned. That was why Sarlen wandered off so far. He'd found a muck dweller shell and followed it.
Chief Engineer Kip Akland's eyes snapped open. She gasped for breath and sweat drenched her skin. She sat up and slapped the light control. Nightmare shadows still clung to the fringes of her mind. After a few deep breaths to steady her nerves she looked around her cabin. What had shocked her out of a sound sleep in a screaming panic? She didn't normally have nightmares. Except-
Even as Kip's hand reached for the intercom panel it lit up, showing the face of Third Officer Lenny Cage. "Howdy, Kip," he said brightly. "Sorry to bug you but Howie said you'd be up. There was a pretty big burp in the warp field."
"On my way." Kip rolled off her bunk and struggled to her feet. After pulling on a coverall- and nearly falling on her face in the process- she left her cabin and hurried to the bridge. It wasn't a long trip; for all her size Qantas Challenger was no star liner. In fact she was the antithesis of everything glamorous about space travel: a bulk container ship, making a circuit of the Terran Expansion Zone before returning to her home port of Brisbane, on Terra. Already she was fifty hours late because of a long series of glitches and inconveniences, due mostly to the apparent inability of local factors to get their shit together. As if Home Office wasn't in enough of a snit about that, now there was this.
"Morning, Kip!" Lenny grinned. Behind him the master chronometer read 03:38.
"Fuck you, Lenny," Kip growled, shooting him a baleful glare.
"Why, I'm fine, thank you very much," Lenny replied, his good cheer dented not in the slightest.
As she boosted herself into the chair at the engineering station, Kip thought- not for the first time- that she'd like to dent his skull with a power-spanner. It just wasn't natural for a person to be that cheerful at such a Gawdawful hour even if the time of day was completely arbitrary. Then too, Kip Akland didn't exactly look like the chief engineer type. Only 124 centimeters in her stocking feet she had a slender, elfin frame, delicate Anglo features, large brown eyes, and pale, China doll skin. Her hair fell in beautiful golden ringlets- or would if she took better care of it. With a pair of butterfly wings stuck to her back she'd be a storybook fairy.
Kip hated her parents. They gave her an androgynous name everyone assumed was male. They gave her a beautiful, delicate body but a keen, analytical mind that loved to tinker with things. If she were a big, fat, ugly girl people might be more willing to take her seriously as an engineer.
"Great googlie mooglie," Kip muttered as she reviewed the drive data. What Lenny described as a "burp" was a severe instability, one that pushed the drive to within ten percent of an emergency shut-down. Nor had it completely recovered; warp field power continued to fluctuate far more than Kip liked. "Hey, Lenny," she called. "Did we hit a subspace rift?"
"No, sir," Lenny replied. "Latest data from Hawking shows us clear all the way to Colulite."
Kip caught a stray curl in the corner of her mouth and chewed on it. Qantas Challenger's warp drive wasn't in the best possible shape; asking the owners to cough up money for maintenance was like asking them to sacrifice their own children. Still, it wasn't in bad shape- due in no small part to Kip's constant attention. She was almost positive the instability wasn't due to a malfunction in the drive itself. She'd like to shut it down for a complete check-over but that would put the ship even more behind schedule and she'd never hear the end of it from Home Office. If things went as they typically did on Colulite there'd be time to run a diagnostic and planetfall was only two days off.
"Should I call the captain?" Lenny asked.
"Nah," Kip replied after a moment's thought. The Old Man would get all pissed off that his rest was interrupted and he'd just reach the same conclusion Kip had, then berate her for bothering him with stuff she should have taken care of herself.
Still... if it wasn't the drive and it wasn't an irregularity in hyper-space, what had caused it? Sure, anyone who'd been in space long enough knew that weird things happened. But it took a lot to upset a warp drive that badly. Kip remained at the console, puttering aimlessly, though there really wasn't anything she could do at the moment. Going back to bed was pointless; she'd just lay awake wondering. Might as well get some work done.
Sarlen stared in rapt fascination. He'd never seen anything like it. The object moved, not through shadow space, but something close to it, wrapped in what appeared to be a little bubble of normal space. He approached more cautiously this time, staring in wonder as the bubble twisted and distorted in reaction to his presence. This was way more fun than the empty box- which he still clasped in one hand. You did not drop things while in shadow space or Grandma gave you a hiding you never forgot. He pressed himself into the bubble, reveling in the sensation as it swirled around him. It tickled.
"Sarlen!" Grandma bellowed.
Sarlen jumped- and dropped the container. He was already in serious trouble for wandering off; losing the container could only make things worse. Fortunately it had fallen into the bubble with the, the thing. He side-stepped in to grab it-
Kip arched her back in a bone-popping stretch. Maybe she should go back to bed. She wasn't doing anything useful here, that was for sure. Suddenly the bridge started spinning, swaying, and twisting, folding back on itself like an M.C. Escher print. Colors shimmered and distorted, sounds soared up and down the scale, and Kip's own body stretched like taffy on a machine. Terrible vertigo rendered conscious thought impossible. She came to on the floor next to the console; stomach acid scorched her throat and she'd messed her pants something fierce as her body tried to purge itself of phantom poisons. Red and yellow warnings flashed everywhere and alarms shrilled as Kip hauled herself upright and wiped vomit from the console so she could read the displays. They told her what she already knew: A huge instability in the warp field had triggered an emergency drive shutdown.
The purpose of a warp field is to hold all parts of the ship in the same relative energy state as the ship as a whole moves through hyper-space. If the field becomes unstable different parts of the ship may develop different energy states. Since energy is matter, parts of the ship may gain or lose mass, or start moving at different speeds relative to one another. The only defense against such an occurrence is to collapse the field before it gets too far out of whack. The quickest way to do that is to convert its energy back into mass, specifically the plasma which has been fed into the drive coil arrays to energize them in the first place. But with both the warp reactor and the drive coils producing plasma and nothing using it the excess has to go somewhere before the whole system ruptures from overpressure. So waste gates in the nacelles open, letting plasma vent into space until the warp reactor shuts down.
Kip clutched at her belly as dry heaves wracked her body. Emergency shutdown was a last-ditch effort to keep the ship from either turning into a black hole or exploding at the speed of light. Thermal stress could fry drive coils, rupture a conduit, overload an energizer, or- in the worst case- crack a reactor vessel. Kip wasn't worried about a core breach; in that case the ship would go up like a super nova as matter and anti-matter fuel elements mixed in an uncontrolled fashion. The crew would cease to exist before ever realizing anything had happened. What terrified her enough to make her piss her pants was the idea of surviving. It wasn't unusual for a drive to be so badly damaged during an emergency shutdown that it wouldn't start up again- and Qantas Challenger's drive wasn't exactly in great shape to start with. Without warp power the ship was not only dead in space but blind, deaf, and dumb; the mass detector and hyper-wave transceiver were both effectively part of the drive. Their only hope was that a message torpedo might reach somewhere that could send help or being discovered by another ship. Worse yet, hyper-space travel wasn't a straight line affair; a ship exiting warp in an uncontrolled fashion didn't necessarily return to normal space anywhere near where it was travelling. Theoretically it could end up anywhere in the universe, displaced forward or backward in time, or even (it was speculated) in another universe altogether. In the history of interstellar travel any number of ships had simply vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again. Kip wasn't afraid of dying. She feared living, trapped in Qantas Challenger's less than abundant crew accommodations until the food and air ran out.
"Thank God!" Lenny exclaimed, sounding like he really meant it. "There's a ship!"
"A ship?" Kip blinked in surprise. "Where did it come from?"
"Well- ah-" Lenny gaped. "I don't know but it's right along side!"
"On screen," Kip ordered.
The viewer lit up and there was the ship. A tiny one, no larger than a star fighter. Streamlined for atmospheric travel, with swept wings and a pointed nose. It carried a liquid cargo container and didn't seem to have any visible markings-
Kip's gut turned to ice. Hir mouth worked several times before words would form. "Lenny," she said. "Do you remember that alert we got just before leaving Amazonia? About raiders in the Langston-Banus system?"
"Yeah?" Lenny frowned, more alarmed by the chief engineer's obvious distress than the content of her words. "What of it?"
"There was a profile of the raider ships. That's one of them."
"Sarlen, come here!" Krita bellowed, side-stepping out almost on top of him, grabbing him roughly, and pulling away quickly. She'd seen how he popped the shell's bubble; she feared it would get angry and attack him.
"Grandmother, it's full of food!" Sarlen exclaimed.
That he spoke aloud shocked Krita more than the import of his words. She had to spend a moment sorting everything out before responding.
"Grandmother?" Janis appeared, immediately taking refuge behind Krita.
The shell didn't attack. In fact, it just sat there. When Krita examined it she found that Sarlen was right. At least half of its cargo was food. "Parn!" she shouted. "My lord-"
"No need to shout," Parn replied, appearing beside her.
Krita yelped and nearly jumped out of her skin. "My- my- my- my-" she stuttered.
"When I noticed you were gone I got worried and came looking," Parn explained in a quiet, soothing tone. "Actually, finding you was relatively easy." He chuckled. "I just imagined what I'd do if I were a bored little boy looking for something to do. It wasn't hard at all." He turned Krita and gently stroked her arms until she let go of Sarlen. Her fingertips had bruised him. "What did you say?" Parn asked.
"It's full of food, my lord," Sarlen whispered.
"That's wonderful, Sarlen," Parn replied. "You've made an important discovery. One that will help the whole Tribe. I'm proud of you."
"Thank you, my lord!" Sarlen fairly glowed with pride.
"You will be my wing man, Sarlen," Parn continued. "Form on me."
"My lord!" Sarlen quivered with excitement as he took the coveted place on the Starlord's right.
"Now." Parn gazed up and down the length of the shell. "I think we should take this food. Fetching the warriors will take too long so I'll need you all to help me get it out." A small tube leapt from the shell and streaked away. Parn spun and fired; the tube vanished in a puff of vapor. "Curse it," he growled. "They're trying to send for help. We need to take care of this now. You women, form on me and fire on my mark!"
"My lord-" Azaria squeaked, her voice shrill with fear. Her and the other women clung to one another a short distance away.
"Form on me!" Parn bellowed. With a chorus of frightened squeaks the women fell into ragged formation. Krita ended up in the number two slot, on Parn's left. "On my mark," he continued in a quieter but no less stern voice. "Krita and Janis here. Azaria and Toki here. Gava and Khalia here." He marked each location with low-power beam. "Sarlen, with me. Ready? One, two three, fire."
Power beams ripped through the shell's plating, tearing open the bubbles of muck-dweller atmosphere inside. Gouts of vaporized metal, escaping gas, and in some cases tattered muck-dweller corpses, exploded into space.
"Cease fire," Parn commanded. Sarlen and Krita fired accurately, though their beams did comparatively little damage- Sarlen's due to his youth and Krita's due to her age. The rest of the women exhibited terrible marksmanship, though with the target sitting still and no appreciable range it hardly mattered. Several cargo containers were torn open but so was every bit of the shell's interior. No muck-dwellers remained to tell of what happened to their shell.
"We will collect the food ourselves," Parn declared. "Azaria, Khalia-" they looked to be the strongest of the group- "grab those panels and get ready to pull." When they were in place Parn slipped back and fired a series of carefully placed shots. His beams sliced through the latches holding the cargo pods shut but did not damage the containers of food within. Things would go faster if he could have the women shooting open other pods but he didn't trust their marksmanship. Either they'd shoot each other accidentally or they'd destroy the food.
"Sarlen, get in there and start throwing them out!" Krita commanded.
Sarlen darted into the pod. "Grandma, they're all stuck together!" he replied.
"Tear them apart!" Krita snapped.
"Wait," Parn cut in. "Let me see." He drifted around the pod, examining it from various angles. He reached in and tugged at one of the containers; they were square and their corners locked together. Breaking them apart would work but some would inevitably be broken. "How did the muck dwellers pack them in here?" he mused, tugging at the container at each corner of the array. Much to his surprise one slid out easily. He studied it carefully, running his fingers along the edge- and suddenly he had it. "The grooves and ridges slide together," he said. "See this? Grooves on these two sides, ridges on these two. Look at how the containers are arranged, then go to the edge that has adjacent ridges exposed." He pulled out an entire row, still locked together, and attached the first container to the end of it. "If we leave them locked together, we can carry more at a time."
In short order food containers were pulled from all of the cargo pods and built into an enormous raft. When complete they'd carry it back to the rendezvous point as a single unit. For Sarlen, though, this was all too much like work. With much blasting, tugging, and twisting, he managed to pull the cover from one of the pods not carrying food- only to discover it packed with smaller boxes. He prized one out and picked off the end. Inside was fantastic treasure, at least to young boy. He shook out one of the strange contraptions and turned it over in his hands, studying it carefully.
The object was long and wide but not particularly thick, with a rounded bulge on one side. The other side was flat and had four small rollers, one at each corner. A narrow track ran the length of the shell between the cargo pods fixed to its spine. The object fit nicely when Sarlen set it there, roller side down. He pushed it along, applying gentle pressure to keep it from floating off, and it slid down the track on its little rollers. He giggled excitedly and slid it back and forth while the adults worked. But in his excitement he pushed too hard; the bulge collapsed, the rollers bent, and suddenly it wouldn't roll any more. He tossed it away and got another one.
"Sarlen, come along!" Krita called. "We're going now!"
Sarlen dropped the container and rushed to Krita's side, one the exciting roller-toys clutched in his hands.
"Where did you get that, Sarlen?" Parn asked in a tone that was mostly bemused.
"In the box, my lord," Sarlen replied, pointing.
"May I see it?"
Sarlen fidgeted. The Starlord had asked politely and his tone was gentle, not to mention that he was the Starlord. But Sarlen hesitated to give up his fantastic treasure. The Starlord might want to keep it.
Krita began to speak; Parn raised a hand to forestall her. After a moment of struggle Sarlen drifted over and offered the toy.
"Thank you." Parn took the object, handling it with appropriate reverence. It was fantastic, though Parn's amazement had a different source than Sarlen's. Hundreds of parts, of dozens of different materials, had been carefully crafted and fitted together to create this thing. A tremendous amount of gadget-making skill had gone into building this one artifact- and the shell was full of them. Not to mention the shell itself. In that instant a realization struck him, like the eruption of a supernova in his mind. The Tribe survived by fighting; skill in combat allowed them to hold their own against a hostile universe. These muck dwellers... Parn had never once given a thought as to where their shells and gadgets came from. Certainly the muck dwellers built them but he'd always thought of it as an instinctive thing, like bees building a hive. Could it be that they had not been predisposed to these things, that they had applied the power of Mind to the creation of these artifacts?
Parn looked at the roller-toy. It was a toy only because people were so much larger than muck dwellers. On the surface of a planet- such as where muck dwellers typically lived- gravity would pull the object down. It was easy to see that it would roll across the ground. The bulge opposite the rollers was hollow; inside were several structures that looked like they might cradle muck dweller bodies. This was not a randomly made object; it was a mini-shell. Probably it allowed them to travel to places on the surface of their planet that would be difficult or impossible to reach on their own, just as the large shell allowed them to travel in space. An icy chill of fear spread through Parn's innards. He'd always thought of muck dwellers as separate from their gadgets. Individually they were laughable creatures: tiny, soft, and helpless. Limitations they had overcome by building clever machines, perhaps? It was a terrifying thought. It meant they recognized their own helplessness and sought to overcome it. For all his own skill, and the Tribal history before him, Parn couldn't even begin to imagine how even a thing like this mini-shell had been made, to say nothing of the huge interstellar one.
Muck dwellers build machines to multiply their power. So much have they multiplied it that they can travel among the stars and fight on nearly equal terms with people.
"Here." Parn handed the mini-shell back to Sarlen, who took it and darted back to Krita's side.
Once the raft of food containers was safely translated into shadow space Krita switched with Gava, placing herself as close as possible to Parn. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"Hmm?" Parn's mind was elsewhere. "Sorry?"
"Thank you. For being... so patient with Sarlen."
"I... know how he feels," Parn replied. "What he wanted was... such a small thing. It made me- it made me-" Parn didn't know how to continue, how to explain that helping Sarlen, as much or more than being with the women, pushed back the icy calm that made it possible for him to kill and kill and kill without thought or feeling. "It made me feel more... human."
"That's good," Krita replied. "A Starlord has to be compassionate as well as brave and skilled in battle."
"But... Krita, I do it for myself," Parn said. "Because I don't want to... to feel like a monster."
"Is that as a bad thing?" Krita demanded. "There's far worse things you could do than to do a kindness for yourself by doing one for another."
Time passed in silence. The women did well; better than warriors would have because they didn't upset the group effort by trying to show off. No surprise, really; collecting and carrying food was traditionally women's work. In their own way they were as skilled and disciplined as men were at fighting.
"That reminds me," Parn said aloud in response to his own thoughts. "I've come to a decision. We can't go on like this. There aren't enough warriors to search for food, patrol for Enemy, and look after you women."
"But what can we do about it, my lord?" Azaria wanted to know.
"Simple," Parn replied, allowing a note of humor to creep into his voice. "I'm going to teach you how to fight."
"My lord!" Torgai exclaimed. Then, because he couldn't think of anything to add, he repeated himself. "My lord!"
"My lord, you can't teach women to fight!" Hesai exclaimed.
"Why not?" Parn countered.
"Because- because they're women!" Hesai shook with the intensity of his feelings. "Women collect food and care for the children. Men fight. That's the way it is."
"No," Parn replied shortly. "Not the way it is. That is the way it has always been. Not the same thing."
Hesai glanced nervously at Torgai. Obviously Parn had let the stress get to him. If Torgai would support a change in leadership-
"Torgai, you've lived longer than any of us," Parn said. "In that time you've gained skill, courage, and above all, experience. You know I hold that experience dearly. It's our greatest treasure. I need it now so that I may lead the Tribe wisely. Please tell me: in all your life, has there ever been a time when we were so few?"
Silence fell heavily. No one spoke, not one even moved. Everyone knew that Parn was Starlord largely because Torgai supported him.
"No," Torgai admitted. The warriors gasped and muttered. Krita wanted to sing out with joy but remained silent.
"And whose fault is that?" Garan muttered.
"Mine!" Parn thundered. "Because the Starlord is responsible. For everything."
"Maybe it's time for someone else to be responsible," Hesai said, hardly believing his luck.
"I'm glad you think that way, Hesai," Parn replied. "I've been thinking about it quite a lot lately. I keep wondering what's going to happen when I die and have to stand before the Ancestors. I worried about what I would say when they asked me how the Tribe's legacy fared under my stewardship. I'm so glad you're willing to take that burden from me, Hesai, and risk eternal damnation in my stead." Parn waited; Hesai said nothing. Parn drifted close- and slapped Hesai so hard his claws drew blood. "You question my leadership but you aren't willing to risk your soul in my place?" Parn demanded in an icy calm, almost lilting voice. "Do you know what that's called, Hesai? It's called cowardice. For that the Ancestors banish you to the eternal darkness between galaxies, never again to feel the warmth of the Ancestor's touch, never to enjoy the blessing of the Creators. If you ever question me, Hesai, I will send you to their judgement. You had best pray that you can either defeat me in combat or that your soul is pure when you go." Parn drifted back to his original position. "By following the wisdom passed down to us by the Ancestors we have thrived," he continued in a more normal tone of voice. "But even that is only the second most precious gift they have given us. The most precious gift, the one their wisdom was meant to safeguard, is their seed." He beckoned Sarlen forward and held him, stroking him gently. "I want to know who among you is willing to stand before the Ancestors and tell them that you let their precious seed die out because that was easier than confronting a situation where comfortable tradition might no longer apply?" Parn waited a moment for his words to sink in. "Nothing is more precious than the seed," Parn pronounced, letting each syllable fall like a hammer blow. "Nothing. Not even the ancient and revered wisdom. Without the seed there is no wisdom!"
"But... who will train them, my lord?" Shev squeaked.
"All of us," Parn replied. "Then we will each mate with them, in turn, until they are all pregnant. You won't know if your seed was the one that took until the children are born, so if you feel the temptation to go easy on the woman carrying your baby you won't know which one it is. All you will know is that if one of them dies because she wasn't adequately trained it could very well be your child lost."
"When do we begin?" Torgai asked.
"Immediately," Parn declared. "We need to move quickly. The Enemy will find us eventually, as they always do, and these muck dwellers could... make things difficult for us."
"My lord," Torgai said after the meeting broke up, "Do you have any idea where this course of action will lead us?"
"No," Parn replied. "And if I thought for even a moment that you did I'd abdicate to you in a heartbeat."
Torgai made a sound that might have been a chuckle. "Then perhaps it's just as well I don't. I don't envy you, my lord, and I certainly wouldn't want to be Starlord. Not even if things were going well. Being a great warrior is trivially simple compared to being a great leader."
"I just wish- I wish-" Parn began.
"My lord," Torgai cut in, "If you wake up and some of us are still alive then you're a great leader. As you said, all that matters is the seed."
"Yes," Parn replied. He wished he could believe it so effortlessly, the way Torgai seemed to.
"Go train your women, my lord," Torgai added. "You've piqued my curiosity. I want to see what sort of warriors they make."
"Why does life have to be so complicated, Torgai?"
"If it wasn't complicated it wouldn't be life. Only death is easy."
Parn found himself thinking of the muck dweller bodies spilling from the ruptured shell. Yes, death could be very easy indeed.
"Echo two one niner to Security Windhoek," Flight Officer Ariel announced. "We have completed our sweep of Grid 6D79 and are proceeding into Grid 6D80. Bugger all to report. Echo two one niner out."
"I don't recall seeing the term 'bugger all' in the communications handbook," Warrant Officer Larissa commented. Shi passed a metal slinky from hand to hand; the rasping sound it made drove Ariel nuts.
"With all due respect, the handbook can pucker up and kiss my hairy backside," Ariel declared- but first shi checked the communications status panel to make sure hir words stayed in the cockpit.
Larissa shook hir head sadly. "Sir, If I didn't know you so well, I'd think you had a serious attitude problem."
Ariel grunted. Larissa's comment was clearly insubordinate but Ariel was not disposed to make an issue of it. Larissa's behavior, when it really mattered, was more than adequately professional. Besides, after being crammed inro Echo two one niner's cockpit for nearly three and a half hours during which time absolutely nothing of any consequence happened, Ariel felt a little insubordinate hirself. Not to mention that hir space suit prevented hir from scratching an itch in the middle of hir lower back. Shi understood the need for these exercises; Chakona was a major transport node between the Terran and Voxxan sectors and thus the local space lanes were heavily traveled. Raiders wouldn't dare operate this deep in Federation territory but there were any number of entirely prosaic reasons a star ship could get into trouble. Machinery malfunctions, lack of fuel, poor navigation, sudden changes in hyper-spatial topology, lack of food or other supplies, even mutiny. In one highly publicized case a ship became stranded because its crew was incapacitated by food poisoning. Security Force had to be ready at a moment's notice to lend assistance or conduct rescue operations. None of which meant that Ariel had to like it.
"Would you please put that thing away?" Ariel asked, not for the first time.
"C'mon, Chief, you should give it a try," Larissa replied. "It's great for relieving stress- hullo." Shi dropped the slinky, leaning forward to look closely at hir instruments.
"What is it?" Ariel asked, hir voice tense.
"Sir, we have a large normal-space contact," Larissa reported. "With an operational but inactive warp drive."
"Plotting now." Larissa's fingers, even when encased in heavy suit gauntlets, operated the controls swiftly and precisely. On Ariel's side of the cockpit new information appeared on the navigation display. As soon as the new course came up shi executed it.
"Security Windhoek to Echo two one niner," the stellarcom announced even as Ariel prepared to key it. "We just got word from Razagal about a possible de-fold event in this area. Stand by to receive."
"Windhoek, I think we may have found it," Ariel replied as the data came through. "We just picked up a kiloton mass with a definite warp signature. Intercept in... nine minutes."
"Roger, Echo two one niner. Keep us informed."
"That's an affirm, Windhoek. Echo two one niner out." Ariel switched to the intercom circuit. "Is there anything on the movement list that would tell us what this is?" shi asked. "Did we pick up any distress calls or warp trails?"
"Negatory." Larissa inspected hir instruments closely. "Everything on the movement list seems to check out okay. No distress calls, no unidentified warp signatures. So far as I can tell this baby just popped out of the blue."
Ariel grunted. That wasn't a good sign; it meant the ship had displaced a very long way when its drive shut down, which spoke of a catastrophic failure. Shi keyed the stellarcom. "Echo two one niner to Windhoek. You might want to notify Rescue to stand by."
"Already done, Echo two one niner. They're scrambling now."
"Roger. Echo two one niner out."
"I just hope there's someone for them to rescue," Larissa muttered.
"Since the ship wasn't blown apart and the drive readings seem to be stable, I'd say there's a good chance," Ariel replied. Larissa nodded.
When the moment came Ariel closed hir eyes and clenched hir teeth. Hir stomach gave a sickening lurch as Echo 219 returned to normal space. It struck hir as terribly unfair; some people felt it and some people didn't and shi had to be one who did.
"Boxhall class container ship," Larissa reported while Ariel choked back bile. "Sixty-seven kilotons... Warp reactor is on line and stable... but the main energizer is shut down and some of the plasma conduits are burned. Emergency shutdown, it looks like. According to hir transponder shi's Qantas Challenger out of Brisbane, Terra, registered to Queensland Interstellar. I've tried hailing and there's no response."
"On screen," Ariel directed. Larissa touched a control; Qantas Challenger appeared- thought only as an elongated speck in the view ports. As Echo 219 approached more detail emerged.
Qantas Challenger was, basically, just a long spar with freight containers bolted to it. At the bow and stern were thruster modules for maneuvering in normal space; in the center a thick bulge contained the warp drive and crew accommodations. A pair of rather skinny looking warp pods jutted out to either side.
"Any life boats?" Ariel asked.
"Negative," Larissa replied. "There seems to be some serious damage to the superstructure but I can't localize it through the drive interference."
"Then we'll do it the old fashioned way." Ariel disengaged the auto pilot and guided Echo 219 in a close loop around the derelict.
Larissa gasped. Ariel's intestinal discomfort came back full force. The entire top of the crew module was blasted open, its interior reduced to a tangle of broken, twisted, and melted debris. Ariel didn't need the sensors to know that someone had phasered it, very carefully and deliberately, so as to puncture all of the areas that could hold atmosphere. Unless they'd escaped beforehand the entire crew was dead.
"There's... organic material in the debris cloud," Larissa reported in a slightly quavering voice.
Ariel shifted hir attention to the cargo pods. Several of them were cut open and emptied. A few were opened but not or only partially emptied.
"What in the world is that?" Larissa exclaimed.
Ariel brought the ship to a relative halt near the strange object. "It looks like a ground car," shi replied. "Rather a nice, one, too. At least it was."
The car was a sporty sedan with soft, rounded lines and a bright yellow finish. Now it was a wreck; something had smashed the roof down into the passenger compartment hard enough to bend the frame. Anywhere but in outer space Ariel would have said something heavy fell on it. An impression on its top- possibly left by the thing that crushed it- looked suspiciously like a gigantic hand print
"Looks like somebody stepped on it," Larissa commented.
Ariel unfastened hir gauntlet and pulled it off, staring at hir bare hand, trying to imagine a person large enough to make that big a mark. They'd have to be about twelve meters tall.
"Windhoek to Echo two one niner, have you located the disturbance?"
"Ah- yes, we've just arrived," Ariel replied. "It's a derelict container ship. Stand by- slug that data, Larissa."
Ariel licked hir lips, forcing hirself to look again at the shattered wreckage that had once been Qantas Challenger's crew module. "No, no survivors. Better notify Security Force command. The ship was attacked by raiders and they executed the crew. Larissa... shields up. Charge all weapons."
Larissa hesitated only a fraction of a second before complying. These days piracy and smuggling were done mostly by lawyers and middle managers, the pitched battles fought in court rooms. If by some chance a raider did appear Ariel was ready to attack without the slightest hesitation. As part of hir training shi'd briefly endured mild decompression. Contrary to popular impression bodies didn't explode in vacuum. Decompression killed by a combination of oxygen deprivation and nitrogen narcosis, where bubbles of gas formed in a person's bloodstream. Qantas Challenger's crew, those not instantly incinerated or cut down by flying shrapnel, had died slowly and in excruciating agony while they suffocated and their blood boiled.
"Do you think the raiders are still around?" Larissa asked, actually looking up from hir instruments and glancing around.
"Oh, I certainly hope so," Ariel breathed, caressing the firing teat with hir thumb. Shi would fire very carefully, to disable the engine modules without destroying the ships. Then shi would turn back. Give them plenty of time to watch, to wonder, while shi lined up for the kill. A short burst would do, just enough to rip open the raiders' cockpits. Shi would watch while they spilled out, flopping and gulping like gaffed fish. Shi would be very careful, oh yes. Shi wanted them to live long enough to die like their victims had. When a ship de-folded nearby Ariel fed on power and swung Echo 219's nose around to get a lock before realizing that it was Security Windhoek.
"Windhoek to Echo two one niner. The ship's drive seems to be in reasonably good order so we're going to board and attempt to fly it in. Keep over watch for us."
"Roger," Ariel replied as shi swung Echo 219 onto a racetrack course. Larissa said nothing; though looking at the instruments shi watched Ariel out of the corner of hir eye. For as long as they'd known each other Ariel was as loving and gentle a person as one could imagine; this change in hir was frightening, even more- at least to Larissa- than the wreck of the Qantas Challenger. Frankly shi hoped the raiders never showed up, even if it meant they'd escaped. Larissa would do hir duty... but shi feared going into combat. Shi couldn't bear to be separated from Ariel, who in addition to being hir pilot was also hir lover. The only thing that could frighten hir more was the possibility that it might already be too late, that the gentle person shi loved was somehow already lost to hir.
"Form on me!" Krita shouted. Naturally she'd ended up commanding what was being called the Women's Wing. She had the most experience with combat and the other women were accustomed to obeying her.
Gava fell into the number two spot on Krita's right as smartly as any warrior could have done and better that some Parn knew. Of all the women she seemed to have taken best to the training. Parn suspected he knew why; Gava might have recovered from her wounds but they left her hideously scarred. She who, at one time, was called fairest of the Tribe. Parn would bet she prayed for the Enemy to show up.
Toki, in the number three spot, did well but only so long as someone directed her. On her own she got flustered and didn't know what to do but her flying and marksmanship were excellent so Krita took her as wing man.
Khalia, number four in the formation and Gava's wing man, was more resourceful and independent minded than Toki but not quite so skilled. She would do better, Parn thought, except that she seemed to regard these exercises as an opportunity to flaunt herself in front of the men. And he'd thought men were bad about that sort of thing.
The last two, Azaria and Janis, were a conundrum. Janis was a better all-around fighter but Azaria was older so Parn had to make Janis her wing man. It wasn't a total waste, at least; threatening to reverse the assignments spurred Azaria to redouble her efforts. Being anchor man was bad enough; being subordinate to an adolescent would be the crowning indignity. Parn wasn't sure about Janis in any case; she mastered the required skills quickly enough but didn't seem to appreciate the gravity of what she did. Though in fairness her attitude wasn't so different from that of a male warrior her age.
All in all this experiment forced Parn to reconsider much of what he'd always assumed was so about men and women. Given that they hadn't been trained in combat almost since birth the women did pretty well. As a rule females were larger, slower, and less maneuverable than men, as well as lacking missile launchers. Their beams, on the other hand, tended to be more powerful. In gunnery engagements they served quite capably. He'd always believed that something about the female psyche made them unsuitable for combat but in this group he saw no less dedication that in the men. Krita and Gava in particular carried themselves like veterans and Parn doubted not at all that they'd attack without hesitation when the moment came. Parn also began to suspect that staying in camp and waiting for your man to come back from a mission wasn't so easy a thing as he'd always thought.
"Echelon right!" Krita ordered. The delta opened up and reformed into a slanting line, each person moving into place quickly and precisely.
"Barrel roll!" Krita led into the maneuver; the rest of the formation followed as if they were welded into a single unit. Which, in a sense, they were.
"They are rather good," Torgai allowed.
"That they are," Parn agreed. At the completion of the roll the women executed a sequenced turn, which resulted in their switching their formation to echelon left. "But a man is not warrior until he's been blooded in battle."
"Have you... something specific in mind, my lord?" Torgai asked after a long pause, during which time the women had returned to delta formation, broke, looped around, and re-formed.
"Yes," Parn replied. "The nest Hesai discovered."
Krita formed on Parn's left, opposite Torgai. "Do we please you, my lord?" she inquired.
"You do," Parn replied. "And now, my new warriors, you will have the chance to demonstrate your courage and skill. You will lead our next raid. Torgai, signal the tribe to assemble."
"But, my lord, will they go back to the old ways when this is all over?" Torgai asked while the Tribe gathered around, pitching his voice so only Parn would hear.
"If the Tribe survives long enough for that to a problem," Parn replied, "I will consider it a great victory."
"Hey, Chief, how long are we going to be stuck here?" Spaceman First Class Harold Bride wanted to know.
"If you don't stop flapping your gums and get back to work," Third Engineer H'ralana replied, "It just might be for the rest of your life."
"Huh." Bride re-lit his fusion torch and casually cut away another section of burned plasma conduit. Despite his apparently lacksidasial attitude the cuts were clean and precise.
H'ralana tried to wipe his forehead and was defeated by the face plate of his helmet. He muttered a curse and started scanning the next section of conduit. He needed to ascertain, with absolute certainty, which parts of the conduit were in spec and which weren't. There weren't enough spares to replace the entire thing; any mistakes and F.S.S. Valaparaiso would end up stranded somewhere in deep space- or waiting at Silver City until a depot ship arrived. H'ralana wasn't sure which would be worse. Only yesterday he'd been about to turn in after a long shift when, quite suddenly, the Valaparaiso seemed to roll almost on beam ends. He was quite alarmed; under normal circumstances star ships with artificial gravity don't do things like that. Naturally he was recalled to duty; after several hours of frantic work the cause of the accident came to light. A ruptured plasma conduit in the portside warp pod threw the ship out of hyper-space. Fortunately the starboard pod was okay, allowing them to call for help. A commercial salvage tug brought them to Silver City, an asteroid mining colony in the Naga system. Rather than submit to the indignity of being towed any further Captain Rostron decided to try repairing the damage. H'ralana wouldn't have recommended it but captains weren't known to consult junior lieutenants.
Bride stopped working- halfway through a cut this time- and stared, literally, off into space. "Bride, if you're not working you'd better be fucking dead," H'ralana growled, re-fastening the scanner to his forearm.
"What's that?" Bride asked, raising an arm to point. H'ralana twisted to look; the neck of his space suit didn't pivot enough to let him glance. At first he thought Bride was pointing at Silver City itself, an apparently random collection of spherical and cylindrical habitats attached to a mountain-sized hunk of free floating rock about four hundred meters off Valaparaiso's beam. Then he noticed the lights: pale momentary flickers like a string of firecrackers going off. For a moment he stared, mystified; in this context he couldn't imagine what they were.
"Holy shit!" Bride screamed and dove for cover inside the nacelle with H'ralana only a half second behind. They'd seen only a momentary flicker as sunlight reflected from a highly polished object but it was enough- especially when they also saw pale beams of energy slashing out of the darkness. Though nearly invisible they cut through Valaparaiso's armored hull like hot wires through soft cheese. By comparison Valaparaiso's return fire was searingly bright even though H'ralana's visor polarized automatically to cut the glare.
"By the Sky Mother's hind teat!" H'ralana cursed. If Bride heard the words he probably didn't understand; they were in Caitian and an octave higher than H'ralana's normal speaking voice.
The battle proceeded in eerie silence. Enemy warships were sparkles of light twisting and dancing like fireflies until one realized that they were huge, sleek craft moving at incredible speeds. They danced around the comparatively huge and bulky Valaparaiso, tearing at it like wolves attacking a moose. Not thirty meters away a dozen beams converged, drilling deep into the ship's engine module. Drive plasma erupted in a sparkling rainbow plume. H'ralana clung to the structure with desperate strength, praying that none of the jagged shrapnel tore his suit. Outside was not the place to be during a space battle-
Everything but Valaparaiso herself shimmered as if through heat haze. The ship's shields were finally coming up but H'ralana feared it was already too late. Too much damage had been done in the opening seconds of the engagement. Enemy fire intensified; the shields seemed only partially effective. The brace to which H'ralana clung shuddered as explosions tore through other parts of the ship. The shields flickered and collapsed. The battle was over.
It took H'ralana almost a minute to realize that he was, in fact, still alive. He lifted his head and looked around. Plasma, atmosphere, and debris vented from dozens of jagged, scorched rents torn in Valaparaiso's formerly smooth, polished hull. Impulse from all that outgassing drove the ship into a majestic tumble, like a gigantic pinwheel. The enemy ships- twenty or thirty in all- clustered around Silver City, cutting open cargo modules containing processed heavy metals and radioactives stored for shipment.
"Hey, Bride, we made it," H'ralana called in a voice that quavered only slightly. "Bride?" he looked around.
An enormous black stain painted the nearby struts. Bride's right arm and leg still clung to a staple; nothing else remained of him but a few tatters of suit material. Flying shrapnel had cut him apart like a buzz saw. H'ralana clenched his jaw and swallowed hard to force back the bile rising in his throat. The last time he'd seen someone messed up that badly had been on Amazonia, almost nine years ago. At any rate, throwing up in a space suit was not a good thing. Now that he had time to think of it H'ralana wondered what to do. Bride was clearly beyond help and plasma still erupted from Valaparaiso's stern, meaning that the engine room crew was dead, incapacitated, or simply unable to control the venting. It hardly mattered which; the plume emitted so much hard radiation that even H'ralana's heavily shielded suit couldn't withstand it. Only with the bulk of the warp pod between him and the plume would he have a chance. He crawled laboriously around the outside of the pod, keeping one eye on his radiation sensor. Levels hovered right around the border between yellow and red. Ionizing radiation was smashing H'ralana's delicate tissues but with a few weeks of therapy he'd be okay- so long as levels didn't approach the black range at the top of the scale. Up there they didn't even let you back on board because your corpse would be too hot to handle. When the level rose sharply H'ralana pulled back, fastened one of his rad sensors to the end of a long wand, and probed in front of him. The scale pegged. He tossed the wand away, watching it tumble slowly as it vanished into infinity. All he could do now was wait and hope there was someone left to pick him up. He watched the raiders do their work on Silver City. They moved quickly and professionally; after cutting open a pod two or three ships moved in and used large manipulators to toss out freight containers. Desirable ones got added to a large raft forming nearby; others were simply tossed away. They knew exactly what they wanted and didn't bother opening all the pods. Despite himself H'ralana was impressed; he'd used remote manipulators and it was a lot harder than it looked. Still, skilled operators- as these obviously were- could transfer cargo as quickly and safely as with tractor beams and scooters. He wondered how they planned to move the cargo; the quantity they'd assembled would require a full-sized freighter at least.
At one point a raider shot at something not approved. Another raider moved over and smacked the first with a manipulator. H'ralana frowned because that behavior didn't make any sense. It reminded him of a time he'd supervised a cargo gang doing manual stores transfer.
All at once the raiders ceased their activities and clustered around the raft of containers. Some grabbed it with their manipulators; others moved out into what were obviously escort positions. For a second or two nothing happened- then the raft flickered with a strange light; whorls of glittering brightness raced across it, blending and branching until they'd surrounded it completely. The entire formation disappeared in a blinding flash.
In gravity H'ralana's jaw would have dropped. As it was he just stared, long after the raiders had gone. The sky wheeled slowly as Valaparaiso tumbled; glittering clouds of gas and debris surrounded her and Silver City. Then he began to sob.
"This is a disaster!" Garan wailed.
"How do you figure, exactly?" Torgai demanded, his tone dripping with contempt. "No one was seriously injured and we got away with a fuck load of loot!"
"But the shell!"
"It wasn't there when I scouted," Hesai growled.
"No one doubts that," Parn cut in. "It didn't matter. The shell wasn't ready to fight."
"But- the women could have been hurt!" Garan exclaimed.
"Of course they could have been hurt," Torgai snarled. "That's why it's called combat instead of exercises."
"But-" Garan began.
"Garan," Parn interrupted, "Shut up." Silence fell. "This raid was a success," he pronounced. "No one was seriously injured-" except Kagan, who suffered a nasty burn but with Khalia fawning over him he hardly had any reason to complain- "and we captured enough food that we can raise up our first batch of youngsters without having to find more. What's more, the muck dwellers, for all their clever gadgets, cannot see us." He paused to let that sink in. "Think about it. They weren't ready. They didn't know we were coming. Until we side-stepped out on top of them." He allowed a moment for the chuckles and comments to die down. "Which means that we don't have to leave after all. We can stay right where we are until the children are old enough to fight. Then we'll need more food, of course." His voice dropped, taking on a lilting, almost singsong tone. "And the muck dwellers will yield it up to us, won't they?"