Exodus [Farthinghome Book 2] [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Nina M. Osier
eBook Category: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: With their home-world taken over and poisoned, and their navy destroyed, the surviving Humans of the Farthinghome system must choose between setting off into the unknown or attempting to keep their off-planet colonies functioning. Those who cast their lot with the refugee fleet will depend on one man, Father Bazel daKiev, to reach deep into ancestral memories for the coordinates of another world where Humans can live. Meanwhile, the invaders are targeting Humankind's allies--and at least one of those allies sees in the nearly helpless Humans a target far to inviting to resist.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, Published: ebook, 2007
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2007
This eBook is part of the following series:
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9 Reader Ratings:
"Tambour." The chrono glowed a lurid green 0150 above the berth-side comm unit. As she reached to activate that unit so it would transmit her voice, the former StellaGuard commander blinked and pulled herself free from the arms that held her. She sat up, and wondered for a moment why the cabin's lighting failed to respond.
Of course. She wasn't in her stateroom aboard the Daughter of Ceres, a pampered guest of the Faith's only surviving primate. Until recently this cabin had belonged to the captain of a hyper-capable cargo vessel, whose owners wouldn't have dreamed of providing their hired hands with motion-activated illumination. She'd lived aboard Primate daKiev's ashram just long enough to grow used to its luxuries. Which was her tough luck, since the newly re-christened Spirit of New Thecla's accommodations--even its best ones--didn't measure up to the XO's quarters aboard her final StellaGuard ship. Antiquated though the Gallant had been, there she could put her bare feet down on a carpeted deck. Not on cold metal, as she must soon do here.
She would be getting up and going to the bridge. She knew that already, because none of the Thecla's small company of officers would wake her except to meet an emergency. She swung her legs over the berth's edge, into the cabin's chilly air, as the comm said in her son's voice, "Commodore, we've got company."
"Janet's on her way?" Greg might feel obliged to use his mother's title as he stood graveyard watch, but that didn't mean Tambour must be equally formal. She was on her feet now, and the deck felt colder than she'd anticipated.
"She said to call you, too. They scan as Drajs, Mom." The young man who had been a Home Guard patrol pilot would not have encountered non-Humans before. His slip back into familial address told Aisha what his tone didn't. That he was nervous, and glad he wouldn't be facing the next few minutes alone.
Tambour reminded her offspring, "That means they're our friends. I'll be right there."
"Okay. Captain said not to count on that, though." Before Gregory Wolfenden could close out the call, the vast ship shuddered. Aisha Tambour, standing on one bare foot as she jammed the other into a trouser-leg, lost her balance.
She tumbled backward, swearing, into the arms she'd left. The man they belonged to was sitting up in bed now, and he caught her easily. He said into her ear, "Drajs or not, Aisha, they don't sound very friendly to me."
"Shut up, Bazel." Once again she heaved herself up, and away from that other bare body's warmth. Once again she damned herself for letting this happen--any of it. All of it. Whatever.* * * *
There really wasn't enough deck space for two adults to dress simultaneously in this cabin, but Bazel daKiev slid out of the berth as soon as he could do so without knocking Tambour off her feet again. He shrugged on last night's jumpsuit, jammed his feet into soft ship-shoes, and followed her into the passageway. Past the hatch to his own compartment--sometimes he felt guilty about the nights he left it vacant, while he slept next door with Aisha. But the alternative, giving it up and moving in with her officially, he couldn't entertain for a moment. Not as long as he must go on practicing his priesthood and its nominal celibacy, on which his position as one of this expedition's leaders very much depended. Nor as long as he must remember, every day and every hour, his other and more important qualification for his strange new job.
It didn't matter, since Aisha didn't seem to mind his comings and goings from her bed. Right now she either didn't care whether or not he kept up with her controlled dash toward the nearest lift, or she was taking it for granted that he would manage despite her head start. He made it through the doors as they slid shut, covering the last two meters at a full run on legs that weren't appreciably longer than hers. Why couldn't the geneticists who'd done all that fine tuning on his ancestors, the sleeping cargo of the ship called Sedna, have paid attention to that deficiency along with all the others? Not, of course, that being a short man was comparable to carrying in one's genome the seeds of deadly diseases. But those who'd re-engineered his kind of Human had taken care of male pattern baldness ... because correcting one anomaly was simply easier than correcting the others? Or had cultural values also driven the god-players' decisions?
Bazel, you idiot! You never cared about your height until you realized how tall Aisha's ex was. And just why in Hades are you even thinking about that now? The deck plates under his feet heaved as if the lift were trying to change course independently of the ship, causing Father daKiev to forget about the reasons why he'd found it necessary to "age" prematurely during his Great Chapter House days. He took hold of the nearest grab bar with one hand, and reached for Aisha with the other.
She linked arms with him as she wrapped her free hand around the opposite grab bar, and said with a grimace, "Hades! What's the matter with those Drajs, Bazel? They can't be firing on us. We fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the Trade Wars."
Refusing to acknowledge reality as it bit her on the ass wasn't normal behavior for Aisha Tambour. Seeing the truth and then acting on it, while everyone around her discounted what they simply couldn't believe, had defined her life--until now, anyway. Making Tambour of Walentine's Star both hero and villain, starting at that infamous battle, for the exact same deeds.* * * *
"Report!" Tambour said as she exited the lift, too loudly because she was used to barking out orders on the much larger bridge of the destroyed star cruiser Gallant.
"Drajs, Commodore. Nine ships." Captain Janet Durant didn't look up from her panel. "And someone else, coming up behind 'em..." She frowned, and then added without changing her tone, "A dozen Ecrusipis."
"What class are they?" The former StellaGuard commander took one of the ship's two weapons consoles, while daKiev took the other.
"Take a look." The captain linked both consoles, added during this vast merchantman's refit for its current incredible assignment, to her panel and the one manned by Gregory Wolfenden.
Tambour uttered a sound that was half gasp, half curse. Then she said, "Hail them. Both battle groups. Are all our captains awake now?"
"Yes. Mr. Wolfenden took care of that after he called first me, and then you." Durant never lapsed into informality. Not in a duty situation, anyway; and seldom at other times, as if she'd made up her mind that keeping discipline alive on this unpredictably long journey depended on attention to such details. Had her merchant marine background taught her that? Or had she learned it during her stint as captain of the ashram assigned to carry the Primate of the Outlands from one Human outpost to another, throughout the Farthinghome system?
The man who'd been this ship's skipper had traded jobs with Durant, literally, after surrendering the great vessel to the trio of leaders planning the survivors' escape. Instead he had joined those who preferred to remain in Farthinghome's off-world enclaves, or aboard the sub-light ships that would tie those settlements together after the interstellar fleet departed. Had he taken the same lay order vows that bound Durant during her service to the Faith? Or did Mother Nezrin, who claimed the primate's title as soon as Bazel daKiev set it aside, not require that from her ashram's captain?
The alien voice that filled the bridge next drove those stray thoughts from Tambour's mind. She waited for the man across the compartment--who had spent most of his ecclesiastical career as Great Mother Sigrid's secretary and confidant at Great Chapter House, a role that could also be described as "diplomat"--to render the Draj commander's words, for which no translation algorithms existed.
"We heard about your misfortune." Her old friend's voice dropped and roughened in mimicry of the Draj's guttural speech. "We came to assist you against the Silver Scourge. But it appears we are too late."
"You might say that." Was there any point in pretending the nosey-globes hadn't contaminated Farthinghome against all Human habitation, killing everyone who'd breathed its atmosphere during or after the attack? Probably not. The Drajs had no other reason to be on this course, in ships of war instead of in trading vessels, unless they already knew what they claimed. "If you've come to help, why have you been firing on us?"
"We were not certain who might be in control of your ships. Little is known about the Silver Scourge and its capabilities. It's rumored that while their seed kills most species, there are others that it drives mad. Or instead renders amenable to their control. We feared meeting Humans who would appear to be our allies, who might kill us by the slightest direct contact."
That made sense. Drajs and Humans could, with proper filtering (or even without it for brief periods), breathe similar atmospheres. So as unlike as the two species appeared physically--the Drajs being huge flightless avians, whose residual wing-stubs anatomists characterized as analogous to the Human coccyx--they had reason to fear being poisoned by the same agents. Yet firing first, at what Tambour now realized had been deliberately non-lethal power, didn't make sense. The commodore scowled. She asked, "What'll you do now, since you can see we've had to leave Farthinghome behind? And why are the Ecrusipis riding your wake?"
"Eden to Thecla!" A different voice, a Human one, sounded urgently over the intra-fleet commlink. "Commodore, those Drajs just helped themselves to our logs--Hades, to our whole damn database--!"
The agro-barge Eden, whose hydroponic and aeroponic gardens had supplied food for Farthinghome's military until its outmoded engines relegated it to less demanding assignments than trailing after the home-world's war fleet, fell silent as a blast from the nearest Draj destroyed its transmitter. After that the alien ship and its companions altered course, and increased speed far beyond the Human flotilla's ability to follow.* * * *
"Great Mars." Aisha Tambour spoke her patron's name with either extraordinary reverence or its exact opposite. Even she wasn't certain which. Whatever their allies-turned-enemies hadn't known about the situation in the Farthinghome system before, they surely knew now; and that couldn't possibly mean anything good. She activated her comm and said, "Tambour to all captains. The Drajs are gone--you can see that. Eden's damaged, but nothing we can't repair. We'll be doing that, as soon as we find out what the Ecrusipis up ahead want. Hold your ships on course. Did anyone else draw fire? Whether or not you sustained damage?"
They checked in, vessel by vessel. Captain by captain. Other cargo carriers like the Spirit of New Thecla, although none as large. Diplomatic couriers fitted for interstellar missions. Supply and agro-barges that, like the Eden, had spent years servicing the StellaGuard's battle fleet before being declared surplus. And, in greater numbers than anything else, ordinary star freighters. Smaller by far than Tambour's chosen flagship, the workhorses of Farthinghome's interstellar trade. They'd picked up several more since leaving the home system behind, and the commodore hoped others might still join them before they moved beyond what the people of Farthinghome regarded as known space.
"Okay. So we're the only ones who stopped Draj fire, except the Eden." Tambour waited until she'd heard from the last of her convoy before she spoke again. "Greg. Take a shuttle and get over there. Lend them whatever hand you can."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." Her son got out of the co-pilot's seat and headed for the lift.
"Aisha?" daKiev turned in his flight chair.
"So you don't expect trouble from the Ecrusipis." Durant, who had years of deep space command experience that the ex-primate lacked despite his StellaGuard Academy training, understood. "I'd better get a relief up here. You don't expect Wolfenden back anytime soon, do you, Commodore?"
"No. The Eden's the first casualty we've taken since we left home. The whole fleet needs to know that when something happens, I'll do everything I can to take care of them." Tambour ran a hand through her hair, bringing order to its sleep-rumpled silver. She hadn't given it a thought before. "I know I'm not the only leader this expedition's got. But in battle, I'm the one in command. And that's a responsibility I can't share." There was no reason to remind Janet or Bazel of what they already knew--how wrong she'd been about the Drajs' intentions.
"I see." daKiev's tone held quiet respect.
"Ecrusipi group leader on comm for you, ma'am," Durant said into the silent moment that followed.
"Put it through." Tambour braced her shoulders and looked straight into the pickup.* * * *
"We cannot make enemies of our remaining allies. The Drajs should not do what they are planning to do. But we cannot follow them into your system and fight them there. Your entire war fleet was lost, in its attempt to locate the Silver Scourge's home system?" The Ecrusipis, thank gods, could master Human speech. And this battle group's leader was among those individuals who'd studied sufficiently to make itself understood.
"I'm afraid that's true, Honorable One." Aisha Tambour forced herself to keep her eyes open as she faced her counterpart via commlink. She wanted to close them against what the Ecrusipi was telling her, even though she knew it wouldn't stop the images from forming behind her lids. "Did our allies know about that expedition?"
"Yes. Did you not know?" The interrogative inflection came through loud and clear. The Ecrusipi commander couldn't believe what her question implied.
"I didn't." With that admission, Tambour shut her eyes anyway. Just for a moment, until her shamed wince had passed. How could Central Dictate and Fleet Command between them have managed to be so stupid? There was "need to know," and then there was paranoia. Keeping everyone left behind to defend the home system in the dark about that mission definitely qualified as the latter. Everyone except the top ranking officials at both civilian and military headquarters, who died within minutes of an assault that Tambour now believed any damn fool with the right information ought to have anticipated.
"A pity." The Ecrusipi nodded its huge, scaled head. "But done is done. How can we help you now?"
"We had difficulty outfitting and supplying our ships for this expedition." The Human opened eyes that had gone from hazel to dark brown, as they always did when her emotions ran deep and ragged. "Your home-world is similar to Farthinghome in many ways. We haven't much to trade this time, but..." A diplomat would have laid the request out in words. Well chosen ones, that Tambour of Walentine's Star couldn't begin to compose. Should she turn to daKiev now, and tap his expertise?
No. The Ecrusipis had no equivalent to Farthinghome's Faith. Bazel daKiev to them would look like a civilian manning a freight hauler's weapons battery, and they would treat anything he said accordingly. Like it or not, Tambour herself had the best chance to pull this off. So she stared into the other commodore's lidless, reptilian eyes, and waited for it to pick up on her meaning and respond.
"We will do what we can, I anticipate. Since my mission is to assist you in any way that does not require engaging another ally in battle." The huge head dipped in agreement.
"Thank you." Once again Tambour closed her eyes momentarily, as relief washed through her. "We need to deal with repairs for the ship that Draj fire damaged. Should we follow you home, or would you prefer that we come at our own pace instead of holding you up?"
"Is 'delay' the meaning of that idiom?" The Ecrusipis never minded admitting to what they didn't understand. "If so, we do prefer that you arrive at our system after we have returned and given account of this day's happenings."
"Very well." The Human had half hoped the alien commander might remain nearby, offering her lightly armed and ridiculously slow flotilla its nominal protection. Although she knew she must take seriously the Ecrusipis' determination to obey orders against engaging other allies--allies who, like the Drajs, might turn on the helpless Humans now--she also knew that their formidable presence alone should cause any would-be attackers to hesitate.
"I bid you safe journey, then. When you arrive, make it known to my people's leaders that you spoke today with Archat." Again the Ecrusipi dipped its head, partly to emphasize the honor of giving her permission to use its name; and partly to emphasize that this was farewell. The link went dead.
From across the Spirit of New Thecla's bridge, Bazel daKiev said in a whimsical tone that Aisha remembered from their cadet days, "Well! What do you suppose Magister Waxwoman's going to think about this, um, turn of events?"
"Especially about me committing the whole fleet to visit Ecrusipi? Without consulting either of you first?" Tambour grimaced as she swung her flight chair around. "Bazel, I couldn't care less what she thinks. Someone had to make that call, right then. It was in my lap. So I took care of it. End of story."
"Agreed." Her old friend and reclaimed lover sobered, and nodded. "But that doesn't mean Charra's going to take it calmly, you know."
"Don't I just," the commodore admitted, as the abortive battle's tension departed from her in a sigh that but for vacuum and bulkheads in between might have been heard aboard the fast departing Ecrusipi ships