Now that the release date for No Foreign Sky is just three weeks away, how about a teaser?
What I’m going to do is make this a real teaser; that is, I’m going to give you the first bit of Chapter One and break off at a cliffhanger.
In the next newsletter, which will go out on May 1st, I’ll include the entire first chapter, which will resolve the cliffhanger.
Anyway, here we go, the introductory scene for No Foreign Sky, which carries you immediately into the action in an unfamiliar world.
Twelve Disks and forty Blades, right here in this ordinary juncture system – right here, in this utterly unimportant, empty system between living worlds, at the near edge of Ka’ Taand space, where no serious danger ever came.
Twelve Disks were too many even without an escort, a lot too many – forty Blades were a whole lot worse – and worst of all, that enemy formation had come raking through the outer-system slide only after Nkaastu was already far too close to shear off, shield up, and hide.
For that first stretched instant, while the computers resolved inputs and built increasingly horrifying images in the display, everyone on the bridge, including Daamon himself, stood frozen in shock.
“Daamon!” Paaol snapped, first to recover. “Give me a hundredth chime, I’ll get the heart-Disk spotted and get you a firing solution!” He had been lounging back, his eyes half closed, bored and probably half asleep, letting his main-crew partner, Aanhk, support most of his weight with her left arms. The blazing icons in the display had snapped him to attention; now he was on his toes, leaning forward, almost vibrating with eagerness, skimming fingertips across the console he shared with Aanhk, not waiting for her to drop the console to comfortable uman height.
Paaol had to know this was disaster, obviously everyone understood it was disaster. But that was Paaol, ready to leap into even the most horrifically unequal fight, convinced they’d win or – in this case – ready to die trying. That wasn’t an attitude Daamon had ever thought he’d need on Nkaastu. But, gods beloved and forsaken, he was grateful for it now, especially as Paaol’s urgency snapped him, out of that shameful heartbeat of paralysis.
Tightening his grip on his cane, Daamon took the instant necessary to strike the battlecommand signal hard with the heel of his right hand, taking priority command of the ship and summoning the rest of the battlecrew. The emergency lights across the high ceiling of the bridge flared to life, black enamels threaded with bright purple and crimson against the ordinary bridge displays, warning tones ringing with the slowly gathering resonance that signaled the emergency transfer of command. Across the bridge, all the primary consoles automatically dropped to uman height, leaving secondaries for the turun crew.
Beside Daamon, Nkaastu’s captain, Kuotaan, had stiffened into a defensive pose, leaning forward, gripping the railing with one lower hand, setting her other lower hand on Daamon’s back in support as she ran her own swift calculations of possibility and risk on their shared console with both upper hands. All the turun across the wide bridge were responding to imminent threat in the same way, opening their golden eyes wide, leaning forward, bracing their four powerful legs, gripping the crash railings, supporting their uman partners. That was how nturun responded to a threat: by bracing to defend. The males, the uturun, were more than aggressive enough to face any enemy, but uturun could not work together and were never khand – crew – only allied passengers. Flexible, fast-moving, adaptable, and above all cooperative aggression was the entire purpose of the uman battlecrew.
Daamon had not expected to need any of those qualities here.
Uut should never be here, not along the near edge of Ka’ Taand space. Definitely not anywhere along the simple run from the heart-star of Gaatuu to long-settled Hanaa, through this empty juncture system to the settlements at newly discovered Aam and back again.
Rival matrilines might attempt half- or near-piracy, yes. True pirates had become a significant threat, yes. That threat was excitement enough for a man who’d nearly died – twice – in the fighting along the far edge. That was where a person expected to encounter uut, Blades leading Disks as they probed for an unguarded opening through the complex, weird geometry of the slides that wove space together into a lacework of junctures. Out there, distant from home and hearth and family, a ship might run into any gods-be-forsaken disaster. Not here.
But here they were: twelve Disks blazing red in the display, cutting through the outer reaches of the juncture system straight toward Nkaastu, every one of them larger and more heavily armed than a small half-fighter. Worse, those viciously fast Blades were so small they were much harder for targeting to acquire, still showing mostly as white flickers of extrapolated positions, only a handful of the closest burning steadily in the display.
No blue or green anywhere. No full-fighters passing through the juncture who might have better matched this level of threat, which was going to lead to disaster. But at least no tradeships to fall helpless prey to the uut.
Fall prey to the uut first. Everyone at Hanaa was in deadly peril now. They just thought they were safe, exactly as Daamon had thought they were safe until this moment.
“Got it!” cried Paaol, and then, shook his head in frustration, feather clips swinging in his long hair. “No – sorry, that’s not the heart-disk, forsaken uut are playing hard to tag. But I’ll get it, Daamon, don’t worry!”
“Four thousand worries, that’s not one,” Daamon promised Paaol, with perfect sincerity. He’d bent his own attention to throwing Nkaastu onto a different course, one that would skate them at an angle away from the uut, delay engagement, but keep Nkaastu between the uut and the Hanaa slide. If even one Blade got through to Hanaa, then got away again, that might be worse than half-disaster or near-disaster. That might be absolute disaster. There was no way a single half-fighter could take out a formation like this. But whittle the numbers down to something whoever was at Hanaa might handle … maybe. If the beloved gods were merciful.
“Got – no, gods be forsaken, who’s taught the uut to scramble their patterns like that?” Paaol sounded seriously offended rather than upset or afraid. Battle-keen even for an uman, Paaol had his saaom tournament feathers coated in protective lacquer and wore them all the time. His partner Aanhk, alone among the primary crew, wore three clips of her own, the feathers swinging from rings through the edge of one pierced ear, showing her pride in her battlecrew partner.
Daamon left them both to sort out priorities for the computers. He was running different scenarios as fast as he could, modeling tactics. No great options, no good options, no mediocre options … he set interdicting the Hanaa slide as first tactical priority and disabled every other possible priority, including Nkaastu’s own survival, and that finally did the job. In a sense. Daamon looked up at Kuotaan, looming beside him.
Matriline before every other consideration, that was ever and always the nturun priority. But Kuotaan had been out there too, on the far edge. She, along with Daamon, had faced the uut during those very first battles, when the Ka’ Taand had suddenly discovered they were in a war, fighting an enemy they did not know. Both of them junior, both of them painfully inexperienced, neither of them expecting to take command. But their primary captain had fallen, and half a chime later their secondary captain, so Kuotaan, youngest and least experienced of the captains, had shouldered the burden of command horrifyingly alone. Then word came echoing from ship to ship that uman crew might do best against the uut, and Kuotaan had – personally, without support from secondary commanders – risked everything to throw battlecommand to a very young uman crewmember whose own uman seniors were dead.
She’d been desperate. But she’d been right. Daamon had gotten their ship and the remnants of their tradeship group out of that mad, desperate, bloody series of disasters mostly because the beloved gods had been merciful and the worst of the fighting had passed on and left them on the periphery, but partly because he’d made decisions that were just barely fast enough and good enough to get their ship, and half a dozen others close enough at hand to tie into a defensive formation, out of the far edge and back into familiar space.
Daamon remembered vividly the long, limping nightmare journey through the lacework of juncture systems, the nuclear flares as, all along the far edge, slide after slide was deliberately destabilized behind them to stop the uut following them toward the heart-stars. He remembered rather less clearly the long recuperation afterward. He had returned home. Everything had been the same. Nothing had been the same. Every time he looked at the sky, every time he closed his eyes, Daamon had seen again the fire running through the dark lacework of the far edge, the bloody coruscation of the destabilized slides that warned of monsters waiting in the dark.
A year later, the Aanuku matriline had sent an offer of alliance to Kaamharaa, and a separate specific offer to Daamon. A new settlement at Aam; a routine, easy run out from Gaatuu and back again. They needed battlecrews. For half-fighters, not a full-fighters. To face ordinary threats, not uut. Kuotaan wanted him. Would he come?
Daamon had not exactly thought he would return to space. But in all that year, he had not managed to find or make a real place for himself within his sep’ family. The offer of alliance was a good one, good for Kaamharaa, good for their family. He had said yes.
Kuotaan had trusted his judgment then. Now, nine years on, they each had confidence in the other.
Daamon had better not be wrong. But he wasn’t wrong. The priority had to be keeping the uut away from Hanaa, gateway to the heart-stars and the entirety of familiar space.
“Yes,” agreed his captain, her voice a low rumble. “Nda Daamon, we approve.” She inclined her head to look down at him from her one good eye. She also tapped the console, formally accepting the priorities as he had set them.
Daamon acknowledged with a nod and locked in the priorities.
A heartbeat later, Kuotaan’s secondary captain, Tuutka, slammed onto the bridge to take her place beside and behind Kuotaan. Daamon hardly noticed. All his attention had gone back to the displays.
Aanhk, Paaol’s partner, threw a look over her upper shoulder toward Daamon. She’d followed that reorientation of priorities, but she didn’t say a word, only braced Paaol with a lower hand against his back as he rapidly figured priorities and firing solutions. Left to himself, Paaol might move too fast and commit too early, but Aanhk would keep him from running too far ahead of the action.
Daamon braced himself with one hand on his cane, glad now for every moment he’d spent studying the maneuvers and mistakes of real battles, those early disastrous battles he’d been caught up in and those less desperate that had taken place afterward. He was grimly glad as well for every saaom tournament he’d entered since taking his place as battlecommander of Nkaastu, glad that his sep’ brother Paaol had practically submerged himself in the games. Saaom was deadly serious practice for battlecrews, but mostly that meant the battlecrews of full-fighters, not half-fighters.
He was even grateful for every single pirate they’d ever faced, and he certainly hadn’t expected ever to be grateful for pirates, but those sharp, vicious battles had provided crucial real experience for himself and his battlecrew. Their situation here was terrible. But Daamon thought they might yet manage to do something useful with the handful of dice the beloved and forsaken gods had thrown their way. Tactical options tumbled through his mind as the tactical displays changed and changed again. Mostly not very good options.
Even as he watched the tank, the computers reordered the display, updating the positions of the icons. The Disks had taken on an attack formation and pairs of Blades were cutting away below and above the plane of the formation’s ecliptic to wait their chance for independent runs toward the half-fighter. Worse, most of the Blades, all but eight, had already slashed away along the line of Nkaastu’s original course.
Saraa arrived, out of breath and panting, throwing herself toward her station, letting her partner Tsumon catch her and swing her into position. “A bit of a mess,” was her comment as she assessed the situation. “I expect you want every option we can develop.” She was speaking to Daamon, not her partner, so her tone was cool.
“As fast as you can work them out,” he confirmed. “Priority every option that takes out a good number of that formation. The Disks, not the Blades.”
Genru, a decade older than anyone else in the battlecrew, came onto the bridge hardly a twentieth chime behind Saraa. He took in the displays with one appalled glance, but made no comment as he settled in beside his partner Suumat. Those two were a great deal alike, though Suumat was turun and Gen uman. They were both gifted with signals work, but more important, they were both calm and unruffled in every situation. That was a valuable counterpoint set against Paaol’s volatility and aggression on the other side of the bridge.
That was the full battlecrew at last, and Daamon tried not to waste time wishing he stood on the bridge of a full-fighter, with at least twice the battlecrew and a minimum of four times the firepower. He definitely did not let himself wish some other battlecommander stood right here on this bridge with this battlecrew – someone more aggressive, someone eager. Someone who hadn’t tucked himself away on a half-fighter that flew nearly safe routes on the near edge because saaom was one thing, near-pirates were a second thing, full-pirates were a third thing, but he had not wanted ever to face real battle again.
Daamon took a breath, let it out, and shoved all that stupidity out of his head, hard.
“Leftmost Disk!” Paaol called, setting the one he meant as a double-priority for targeting, painting it a much brighter red in the display.
“Huh.” Genru raised his eyebrows. “I guess you’re sure.”
Paaol made a scornful sound. “I’m sure all right – I’ve got it now! That’s the heart-Disk, I’m telling you.”
That was definitely not the usual position for a heart-Disk, and Daamon hadn’t picked that one out himself, but Paaol was the best of them all, so fine, left Disk. He began to calculate an intercept solution between the formation and the Hanaa slide that would give Nkaastu a reasonable shot at that specific Disk, then more sensibly shunted his half-completed solution to Saraa’s console.
“Check the priorities,” he told her.
“Teach your grandmother,” Saraa answered coolly.
Even under the circumstances, Daamon had to smile at the rebuke. She didn’t actually mean Stay out of my business. She meant, I’ve got this.
Saraa was a viciously clever battle navigator. She wasn’t like Paaol, running on instinct and sheer ferocity. No, Saraa’s mother was the north wind. Nothing could knock her off fast, steady assessment of upcoming possibilities. The computers handled the instant-by-instant maneuvers, of course – but Saraa would set upcoming battlefield priorities and present Daamon with plausible choices for the tactical goals he handed her.
Genru said over his shoulder to Daamon, “Gods beloved and forsaken, what’s this big a formation doing on the near edge? What are any uut doing on the near edge? We can’t stop this many, Daamon!”
“You know you love a challenge,” Daamon answered. Genru told him in pithy uman cant what he could do with his challenges. Like anyone sensible, like Daamon himself, Gen preferred overwhelming superiority rather than any kind of challenge.
Paaol, who did love a challenge, said, “Who cares why they’re here? We’ll turn ’em into stripped particles, Gen! Think of the glory accents we’ll win from this!”
His show of confidence wasn’t an act. Paaol really did feel that confident. Daamon wished his sep’ brother’s delight in battle was based on realistic odds. But it wasn’t Paaol’s job to come up with a brilliant strategy that would let Nkaastu take out a good proportion of those uut fighters by herself. That was his job.
“Saraa?” he asked.
“Disks are shedding vee, angling for an intercept. Forget the thirty-two Blades, they’re way out of reach, they’re going through and we can’t stop them, but we can get in front of the rest of the formation if you want to do that. I don’t think it’d be great for Nkaastu, but looking at the priorities you’ve got locked in, I guess that’s all right with you.” She paused. Then she said crisply, “Okay, here we go, we can get in front and cut them off from the slide in two point two one chime-down. Or we can cut and run, then come around behind them and try to pick off the ones in the rear. Or something else if you’ve got a brilliant idea I haven’t thought of. We need a decision within point zero nine.”
All that with perfect calm. Daamon was glad of every drop of glacier melt in her veins. He said, “Assume the intercept, options for the Disks, priority the heart-Disk,” and let her alone to figure that.
The swarm of Blades that had already gotten past them, cutting toward the Hanaa slide, were a serious threat to everything in Hanaa system. But, depending on who was flying what on the other side of that slide, maybe thirty-eight wouldn’t be too many. If his own people played this right, if Nkaastu managed to cut through the rest of this formation hard enough, then whatever full-fighters and half-fighters might be at Hanaa right now might be able to finish those thirty-two Blades plus however much of the rest of this formation got through.
They had to do that. Because some Blades carried worldbreakers. That was something the people of the Ka’ Taand had learned on the far side. Not all Blades carried those, but some. You never knew which. If just one Blade got through to Hanaa … Daamon cut that thought off, because that kind of terror was just too paralyzing.
He tried even harder not to think about what losing Nkaastu would mean. Kaamharaa himself was on this ship, one of the first and few turun males to establish residence on a matrilineal ship. Daamon’s own little sister Taya was on this ship. He could hardly bear to think of losing either of them, far less both.
If Kaamharaa died, their sep’ family would almost certainly shatter and dissolve. Worse, every tentative attempt to bring individual uturun into permanent alliance with major matrilines, an effort supported by every sep’ uman in the Suund but only a few turun matriarchs, might shatter as well. The hard-won progress uman people had made toward pulling adult turun males into broader society might very well begin to fail, setting the whole effort back – who knew – a hundred years, two hundred, more than that.
All that was true, but at the moment Daamon cared less about that than the risk to his own and Kaamharaa’s family, to Taya and Paaol, who also belonged to sepu Kaamharaa; to his own battlecrew; and to the primary crew and Nkaastu.
No choice but forward. He shoved all that aside too because at the moment, he could not afford to care about family any more than ship.
“Paaol,” he said. “Defer the heart-Disk, set immediate priority on the central Disk, range that one as loud as you can, let’s persuade them we missed the real heart of their formation. Saraa, take the intercept, get us in front of the main formation.”
The eight Blades that hadn’t headed straight for the in-system slide were directly in front of the formation of much larger Disks. No surprise there, that was just how uut liked to arrange formations. Daamon went on. “I’ll try to give the word in time for it, but if I don’t, call it yourself, got that, Saraa? Get us right in front of the Blades, right in front, point zero zero in front of the Blades if you can manage it. Gen, assume they’ll try to target us with energy weapons.”
Probable. Missiles fitted with insystem drives were higher-vee once they got moving, but much slower to target extremely close targets; Blades usually relied on energy weapons for short-distance battle and saved their missiles for use against stations and worlds and other stationary targets. Daamon added, “Saraa, set up a skip-path that’ll blink us out of their way the instant the Blades fire, but drop us right back again behind them, in front of the Disks. Paaol, range the Blades and the central Disk, but the instant the Blades are past us –”
“Got it, good plan,” said Paaol, with a satisfied little lift of his head; he loved risk and riding the knife’s edge of disaster. Paaol would have done just fine out on the far edge, battlecrew on a full-fighter, working to keep uut out of a handful of truly crucial juncture systems that linked important settlements. He’d only joined Nkaastu because Daamon was already battlecommander and Paaol knew he’d be able to join the battlecrew right away – and a little because he didn’t want to leave Kaamharaa.
“Oh, yeah, great plan,” said Saraa, but her hands flew over her console, setting up the break he’d asked for and, knowing her, probably three more for good measure.
Daamon said, “If we cut down the number of Disks, whoever’s at Hanaacan handle the rest of them, plus the Blades.” They would have to.
“Maybe. If,” said Saraa.
Paaol ranged the uut ships Daamon had specified; the whole hull rang with his marks. The formation of Disks cut away “up” and “down” to evade the attack that ought to have followed, then tightened their angles to a sharper, more direct course when no attack was forthcoming after all.
“They must think we’re fools,” said Paaol, grinning tightly. “Or empty and trying to slow them down with a bluff. They’re in range, Daamon. Fire incoming –”
“Break,” said Saraa.
There was no sense of movement; there never was any sense of motion aboard ship, of course. Only the tank display showed Nkaastu’s change of position and course as they shifted from a straight course to a random walk, sharp shifts in vector, acceleration, velocity – very difficult to target, though sheer bad luck could still drop them directly in front of enemy fire. But random walking was still the best tactic for a smaller ship, less well armed and a lot less heavily shielded than a full-fighter.
The insystem drive made one or two peculiar maneuvers possible, as well as bringing whole systems within convenient reach. From a near-star slide to the far reaches of a system took chimes or days, not months or years. That was important for tradeships and matrilineal envoys. But the capacity for skip-courses and slip-courses was the part that mattered to a battlecommander. The Blades’ first attack missed as Nkaastu’s course and velocity flickered and stuttered, random and therefore comprehensively unpredictable. A pause drew out as Daamon waited for the true uut heart-Disk to come within range.
This was one of those moments that occurs during battle, when everything was set and there was nothing to do until the chime rang down. Daamon glanced up at his captain, whose ship he was planning to risk and most likely sacrifice. Kuotaan angled her blunt-jawed head to gaze down at him, her single golden eye meeting his, the white seams of the scars across the other side of her face a reminder of horror.
She knew what he was doing. Nturun would never, could never, subordinate the needs of their own matrilines to any broader priority. As the saying went, it was nturun who made the matrilines, but it was uman who made the Ka’ Taand – the great civil society of familiar space, the accord that kept the heart-stars from breaking into four hundred competing polities. Kuotaan would never deliberately sacrifice Nkaastu.
But she wouldn’t stop him from doing it. Even though she saw it coming.
He said to her, quietly, “Tsaa Kuotaan, I thank the beloved gods I was blessed to fly with so diligent and meticulous a captain.” There was no time for her to answer. In lieu of further words, he set a hand on her muscled lower shoulder while he turned his attention back to the Disks.
“In-and-out in point zero four,” Saraa said coolly from her station. She shunted the finished maneuver to Genru to carry out so that she could turn her own attention to predicting what sort of maneuvers they might need next.
The eight Blades flashed through the tank display, glittering white. The slower Disks came inexorably onward, glowing a dull red – the color dull because they were hardly bothering with defensive countermeasures. They thought Nkaastu had targeted the wrong Disk. They were perfectly ready to let Nkaastu focus on that one, take the opening that mistake gave them to swat the half-fighter and follow the Blade swarm in-system.
“Ready to engage,” Daamon said to Paaol, not a question.
“Ready, holding ready,” Paaol said tensely, poised over his console. Aanhk rumbled in wordless encouragement and braced both herself and him, setting one of her big lower hands on Paaol’s shoulder, ready to steady him against the unpredictable acceleration and velocity of the skip-course.
“Mark, point zero zero two,” said Genru.
“Saraa,” said Daamon.
“In and out,” She answered in a crisp tone, and the skip-jolt came, sharp and sideways, out and instantly back into normal space, with the eight Blades past Nkaastu and the Disks much closer. But now six of the eight Disks couldn’t fire on Nkaastu without risking their own Blades, and the other two were far enough away they could be evaded. Paaol, grinning tightly, had already triggered his firing solution against the Disks.
They did not take out all twelve. There had never been any hope of that. But Daamon had the satisfaction of watching the glittering icon that represented the heart-Disk disintegrate into dusty sparkles in the tank display, and three of the Disks closest to it as well. Targeting failed with the Disks farther from the heart-Disk; those had been painted with a lower priority and the uut had good confounders. Better than a turun ship, especially at close range.
It wasn’t true, as Daamon knew very well, that taking out the heart-Disk would leave a formation helpless. But generally uut tactics afterward were simplistic. Only the heart-Disks were actually flown by living uut; that was the theory. The others might be controlled by automated routines; or by mechanisms; or by another, less decisive species. Or maybe by subordinate uut. Even after eleven years of battle, no one really knew.
Destroying the heart-Disk did not create enough confusion this time. Return fire raked Nkaastu all down one side as a Disk found a firing solution that nearly worked. Saraa almost but not quite got Nkaastu clear, the ship staggering as the primary gravitics failed and the secondary gravitics took the load. Kuotaan supported Daamon and kept him from sprawling, as all across the bridge turun supported uman battlecrew.
“Random walk!” said Daamon.
Saraa said tersely, “Can’t, we’ve lost half our ventral propulsion and lateral’s not so great either, too many crossconnections down, I’m faking it by hand.”
They all knew neither uman nor turun could generate a true random walk, and the remaining uut ships wouldn’t be fooled long: the moment their computers spotted the inevitable pattern Saraa put into her evasion, Nkaastu would be gone.
“Gods be,” said Genru, from his tone a fervent prayer rather than an exclamation.
Daamon agreed, though silently. He’d believed Nkaastu could at the very least take out several more Disks; now he feared that might not be possible. He should have done better than this, he had needed to do better, he was furious at his inability to do better. But he said, absolutely deadpan, “I’ll be embarrassed for us all if we can’t take out more than three Disks after striking the heart-Disk. Saraa, options?”
“I don’t think there’s any course that’d set us up to take out more than one at a time. Anything I can see, we’d be setting ourselves up for return fire.” She didn’t need to say that Nkaastu couldn’t handle another hit like the last one. She said instead, “But since, looking at your priorities, we’re apparently willing to take return fire, maybe that’s okay. I’m shooting everyone a course; see what you think.”
“I like it!” Paaol exclaimed almost at once. “Daamon, we can do this! We should do it!”
“Yes, this is why no one asks for your opinion in actual battles,” Daamon told him. The attack run Saraa had suggested did not look very survivable, but taking it might give them a chance to take out several more Disks – up to four, if Paaol gamed out targeting just right.
Paaol ignored that. “We should do it! I’ve got firing solutions, Daamon!”
Destroying eight Disks out of this formation might make all the difference at Hanaa. Against that – against that, his own stabbing fear and grief for himself, for them all, could not be allowed to make the decision for him.
He didn’t look up at Kuotaan. He took a breath and said, trying to keep his voice steady, “On my mark, do it. Saraa, give us a good kick out of the ecliptic a thousandth chime after we fire. Gen, throw everything into taking us dark the second after Saraa kicks us out of the way of return fire. Ditch accel, weapons, shields, everything but basic gravitics. We’ll run dark as long as we can, see if inertial drift carries us clear.”
Pouring every bit of available power into darkmasking was the only tactic he could think of that might give them a chance to survive the inevitable counterattack. Not a great chance, especially since every bit of power they could divert would still only hold the darkmask for a chime or so. But it was still the only chance he could see. Maybe every single uut ship would head out instead of sitting right here to wait for Nkaastu’s mask to fail.
Saraa’s hands flicked across her console, preparing to implement the course the instant Daamon gave the order. Paaol had already programmed the firing solution and hovered over his console, ready to adjust priorities on the fly if necessary. Genru looked at Daamon, signaling his readiness for the maneuver.
Daamon drew breath to say Mark! —
—And at that moment something new came through the Aam slide. Something big, flashing sharply into the display with the brilliance that meant powerful energy signature, and the lavender that meant unidentified.
“Unknown ship’s fired!” Paaol cried, almost before the stranger had cleared the slide. For once he sounded rattled. In the display, every single remaining uut Disk and Blade flared and dissolved, one after another, so fast it was hard to say which had gone first and which last.
Genru said, his voice hushed, “Beloved gods be merciful, did you see that? Whoever they are, they must’ve painted juncture space for uut before they were all the way out, did you see, they had solutions before they were all the way out of the slide!”
“As they solved for the uut and not us, we have no complaint,” rumbled Suumat. She had wrapped her lower left arm around Genru’s shoulders, steadying him through his first instinctive recoil at the newcomer’s blazing display of violent efficiency.
All the turun crew were rumbling deep in their chests, the sound at once reassurance for their own people and warning for any enemy. Kuotaan was rumbling too. It did help. Every uman knew that sound meant safety. Even a battlecommander whose actual job involved protecting the people of his ship – or, if necessary, spending their lives to protect others – felt that deep promise of safety, of protection, right in his bones.
Daamon drew a breath, let it out, patted Kuotaan’s lower shoulder, and demanded, “Gen, what is that? Do we have that in records anywhere?”
“First pass search isn’t kicking up anything. I’m trying to get a visual –”
“We’re being ranged!” said Paaol.
“Don’t range them back!” Daamon ordered urgently. “Paint them if you can, but very, very quietly. Kill our accel, keep our relative vee just as it is. Saraa, lay out every course you can think of that we might need. Gen, can you get us a visual signature?”
“Suumat?” Genru said to his partner.
Even during combat, primary crew were allowed to assist battlecrew if requested, and Suumat had obviously already been working to sort out incoming signals. “Yes,” she rumbled. “Visual!” She loaded her images into the display.
It was black and silver, that stranger, with sharp, raking lines and a narrow prow and lights flaming crimson and gold along its flanks. It was huge; Suumat had tagged the icon with an image of Nkaastu for comparison, and this new ship was at least six times the size. More. Daamon shook his head, comparing chunky Nkaastu to that monster. Ten times bigger. At least.
“That’s designed for atmosphere,” Genru said softly. “Who builds something that big for atmosphere?”
“Who builds something that vicious for atmosphere?” muttered Saraa. “Did you see it take out all those uut practically all at once?” She was throwing courses into her console, mostly different options that would get them away from this strange ship and back toward the Hanaa slide.
“Yeah, you think maybe we blinked and missed it?” said Paaol. “Daamon, you know what I think, I think that monster chased those uut through the Aam slide, that’s why it had solutions so fast. Who goes hunting uut with just a single solitary ship?”
Who was definitely the question. Daamon asked, “Tsaa Kuotaan?”
“That is no people we know,” Kuotaan stated, her deep voice rolling out with slow assurance. “That is nothing built by the Ka’ Taand. We have no record of any such ship. That is some foreigner.”
Daamon gestured acknowledgment. He asked, mostly for courtesy, “Captain, do you want command?”
Kuotaan flicked an upper hand in a gesture of negation. She answered, still in the nturun plural. “We do not. This assuredly remains your command.”
Daamon nodded. “Saraa, forget subtlety. Lay in a course that will take us back to the Hanaa slide at our best possible vee, but just hold onto that for now.”
Saraa nodded, but warned him, “Even if that ship out there lets us go, there’s no way we can catch up to those Blades.”
“Give me a course that’ll make the best possible try at it. I also want a slow course toward the stranger, minimal vee, but hold that, too. For now keep us just as we are. Paaol, quick, what would you think if you were them and we picked up just a little accel on an approach course? Would that look aggressive to you? If we head back toward the slide, would you think we were trying to run away, and if you did, what would you do about it?”
Paaol gave him a look. “Gods be, I should know?”
“Gut feeling. Give it a try.”
Paaol raked a hand through his hair, stroked the brilliant feathers that gleamed in the accent clips, and shrugged. “I wouldn’t head toward them. If we slowly add accel toward the Hanaa slide, that couldn’t be taken as an attack, at least I don’t see how, so nobody over there ought to take it as a reason to turn us into stripped particles, unless they want to do that anyway. If I were them and I wanted us to stop, I’d shoot across our path with an energy weapon.”
Daamon nodded. That sounded right to him, and if Paaol, the most aggressive uman on the battlecrew, thought a slow retreat shouldn’t prompt attack, that might be good. But he knew uman instincts might not predict this stranger’s reactions. They all knew that.
“I’ve got a solution,” Paaol added. “But I wouldn’t use it if I were you, because if we don’t look like a threat over there, I sure don’t want to change anybody’s mind.”
“Absolutely do not fire on that ship, no.” Daamon scrubbed his palms across his face. “Those thirty-odd Blades that cut off first, they’ll certainly get through to Hanaa.” They were out of scan range by this time. Possibly they’d already found the slide. If there weren’t enough full- or half-fighters currently in that system, then the world itself must be in deadly danger. And here was this foreign ship, hunting uut, and here was Nkaastu, perfectly placed to show it exactly where the Hanaa slide lay and lead it through. Obviously this stranger would have no difficulty at all dealing with even a fairly sizeable Blade swarm like that one. What this ship might do on its own account once these strangers saw they’d come to a green and glowing world … Daamon had no idea. No way to guess.
But they had no need to guess about what those Blades would do, or try to do. Daamon realized he was gripping the head of his cane so hard his fingers hurt, and deliberately eased that grip. He said to Genru, “Can you ping them?”
Gen shrugged. “I can, sure. Whether they’ll answer, that’s a different question. Who knows if they’re in the mood for a chat?”
“Yeah,” said Daamon. “Saraa, give us just a touch of accel back toward the Hanaa slide. Roll us to point our main weapons away from that ship. No, you know what? Roll us to show them our damaged flank.” That ought to be taken as acknowledgement that they knew the other ship was much stronger. It might even be taken as a request for help. He would take it that way. He added, “Gen, ping them, just one ping, we’ll hope they can tell a courtesy when they hear one. I sure hope you can make sense of any signal they broadcast –”
“We’ve got one,” he said, mirroring the signal to Daamon’s console. “Not a ping, and I don’t think it’s broadcast – I think it’s a directional signal, meant just for us. Oh, it’s binary. That’s good. How complicated can a binary signal be?”
“So they want to talk,” Daamon said confidently, as though he were certain this was a good thing. “That’s hopeful.”
“Them not firing, that’s what I find hopeful,” Paaol said.
Genru, ignoring Paaol, said, “Saraa, I’m mirroring you what I’m getting. Look at the variation in intervals. I’m not sure this is binary after all.”
“Huh,” said Saraa. She turned to Tsumon. “Look at this signal, Tsu’, and see if you can help me figure it out faster than Gen, right?”
“Suumat, help!” Genru exclaimed, and bent over his console.
Daamon privately bet on Saraa and Tsumon; Gen was the signals expert and he worked well with Suumat, but Saraa and Tsumon had grown up together, half-sisters, with the advantage of close familiarity. He left both teams alone to work on the problem, studying the foreigner. They had set a parallel course. Matched vee, maintaining distance and orientation. That didn’t seem like an aggressive move. He glanced up. “Tsaa Kuotaan, how would a turun interpret all these events?”
His captain gazed at the visual display of the foreign ship, cupping one of her upper hands and then the other in a gesture of turning over alternatives. She said at last, “It is our feeling that no turun could mistake our actions for either challenge or hostility. Any turun would understand a slow retreat, turning our wounded flank toward them, as the gesture of a subordinate entity. We believe that this is also your uman perception, yes? This was your intention to convey.”
Daamon opened a hand in assent.
“To our eyes, the response of this foreigner signifies a like understanding,” stated Kuotaan. “We see their act in following and paralleling our course as an act of dominance, directed toward an entity they believe is inferior.”
At Kuotaan’s side, Tuutka inclined her head and added, “Though these actions are not necessarily hostile, we yet wonder if they believe that they may claim this territory and intend to escort us away from the region they claim.”
Daamon thought about this. “You don’t read their parallel course as curiosity?”
“Curiosity,” Kuotaan rumbled. She and Tuutka exchanged a glance. “Curiosity,” Kuotaan repeated. “Perhaps. We had not considered that possibility. Interesting. Perhaps it may be so.”
Daamon studied the narrow, elegant foreign ship. Dominance, aggression, maybe hostility. How would one distinguish any or all of that from curiosity? Or from some other unknown, unknowable, alien motivation? “Paaol, time to intersect the Hanaa slide at our current vee?”
“Uh –” Paaol worked it out, not quite as fast as Saraa would have. “Two point six two.”
That seemed a long time, under the circumstances. Daamon added a touch more vee. Then a little more.
“Got it!” said Saraa, and a hairsbreadth behind, Genru snapped, “We have it!” They looked at each other, Saraa with an ironic quirk to her eyebrows and Gen with a mute shrug that conceded the contest.
“So, we can ping the foreigner now, and talk to them if they answer. Want me to do it?” Gen looked at Daamon, expectant, waiting, his hand hovered over the glowing enamels of the primary signals console.
Daamon took a deep breath and looked around the long smooth arc of the bridge and its stations. The stations, rising in parallel curves, were sized to the primary turun crew. Yet the uman battlecrew did not look out of place. Small relative to the high arches of the stations, yes, but not out of place. That impression might have been created by the supportive attitudes of their turun partners. The walls and consoles glowed, turquoise and dark loam-brown, pearl and sea-green, translucent taupe and dawn-pink; the soft hues reflecting from the polished brown turun hide and glowing against the softer and more variable colors of uman skin. The emergency lights still glimmered in a delicate tracery of violet-lit black. Even those were beautiful. The image of the foreign ship rode in the display, all raking lines and aggressive angles. It, too, was beautiful, in the way that the great predators that hunted the oceans of Gaatuu were beautiful.
Daamon opened one hand and then the other. “Saraa, can we pick up a random walk yet?”
“Not yet. I can set up a series of skip-courses in case we detect incoming fire, try to duck if they get mad.” She was doing that without waiting for his assent.
Daamon tipped his chin up anyway. “Set an automatic trigger. Signal Gen when you’ve got that set up. Gen, when you get the signal, send your ping.”
“Right,” Gen agreed, tense but steady, and a moment later sent the signal: one ping whispering softly out through silent space to the other ship, which might respond with curiosity or hostility or maybe some other unguessable alien reaction. Daamon laid his hands gently on the face of his console, waiting.
“They’re responding,” murmured Gen. “We should have visual and sound, if we got the translation right. I’m fairly certain they’re trying to give us a real-time feed from their ship. I’m answering with our standard real-time bridge feed. I think that’s best, don’t you?” He glanced at Daamon, who nodded, hoping they weren’t making a terrible mistake, but what else was there to do but try to talk to this powerful stranger?
“Right,” said Gen. “I’m feeding their signal directly into our display … now.” He stroked her console, and the image of the foreign ship flickered out. For a moment that stretched out painfully, the display was blank. … … …
Okay! What happens next? What appears in that display?