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Aftermath

Ann Aguirre - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780441020782 | 320 pages | 30 Aug 2011 | Ace | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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During the war against murderous, flesh-eating aliens, grimspace "jumper" Sirantha Jax decided to go it alone. The cost of her actions: the destruction of modern interstellar travel-and the lives of six hundred Conglomerate soldiers. Now she's on trial fro dereliction of duty, desertion, mass murder, high treason...and her life.



One

Dying isn't like living; it requires no effort at all.

I just have to sit quiet and let it happen. But I can't. Like a fish with a barbed hook caught in its mouth and I twist and pull, desperately fighting my way back to the anguished meat I left in the cockpit with Hit. She has no way home without me, and if I don't succeed in this, the consequences will be far worse than two lost females. Despite the siren call of grimspace and the scintillant colors, I must live; it's never mattered so much before.

I have to get back. I have to warn them, or every ship that tries to jump will never come out again.

Since the Conglomerate doesn't have an armada to match the size of the Morgut fleet, I had to reprogram the beacons; it was the only way to slow them down. Otherwise, so many lives might have been lost. But no impulsive act, however well intended, comes without consequence. I know that better than most.

As I draw closer, the pain ramps up. At least I have the assurance that the nanites will repair the damage, so whatever I've done to myself, I won't wind up trapped in my own body. If March were here, he'd help anchor me, but Hit lacks his Psi ability, which means I'm on my own. Instead of the door in the far horizon—that place of passing through—I focus on my body. Past the silent screaming, I can hear my heartbeat, faint and sluggish, right now no more than a reflexive physical response. Yet it might be enough.

With each thud, I pull myself closer, as if that tenuous thread is a rope I can grasp with ghostly hands. Each pound of my pulse brings me a little closer, then, with a wrench almost as agonizing as the one that tore me loose, I fall back in. My hands move, and I feel Hit beside me, questioning. You back, Jax?

Sickness boils in my veins. I don't feel right in my own head, as if I've come back smaller somehow, but I block it off from her. She's done enough. The consequences from this point on are mine alone.

Yeah, I reply, time to go home.

I don't know whether I've been gone minutes or hours, but we've tarried too long regardless. Grimspace is a bitch mistress, who will drain you dry and leave the husk without a second glance—and without my implants, this suicide run would've killed me, no question. Weakness wracks me, but I can get us out; I have that much left. Though it might break me, I'm determined to bring my pilot home safely. The colors glow brighter as grimspace swells within me, and it feel as if a door opens in my head. Thanks to the neural blockers, I can't feel the associated pain; the ship shudders and sails through.

We emerge in straight space, high over Venice Minor. Such a long, impossible journey, when we didn't go anywhere at all. Not really. Not in the sense of distance, but this is the nature of paradox. My hands tremble as I unplug, then the scene unfolds before me.

Lights twinkle in the dark, but they are not stars. Mary, no. We weren't fast enough. So many Morgut ships made it through; they dim the constellations. Their shapes are alien to my eyes, like creatures that came out of the sea, finned and spined, with odd appendages and stranger designs. Because we're so small—a two-person vessel—we haven't registered on their sensors yet; there are too many energy signatures clustered in a small area for our numbers to leap out at anyone. But it's only a matter of time, and we have no weapons.

The Morgut have left their homeworld and are seeking to colonize other planets, most of which are Conglomerate held. They treat us as livestock, food for the feast, and it's all I can do to contain my fear. My mother, Ramona, sacrificed herself, dying on the dreadnaught hull, to give us a chance, and bought time before the rest of the Morgut fleet could arrive at Venice Minor.

But they're here now. Not the whole force, certainly. I accomplished what I set out to do—I diminished their numbers. Mary only knows if it will be enough.

Sweat cools on my forehead as I study the scene. With some relief, I note there are no more dreadnaughts. If we can get ships up here, we have a chance in this final battle. It looks as if they're positioning to bombard the planet. The flagship is enormous, with jutting guns powerful enough to take out entire city quadrants. As yet, I don't see any movement from the armada; they must still be forming up and performing repairs down below.

I hope they weren't sending reinforcements here when I changed the beacons. The changes I wrought in grimspace will affect jumpers universally; the Morgut can't navigate, but neither can the Conglomerate—or any other ships for that matter. I've done a dire thing, but I refuse to let fear govern my actions. That's not me, and it never will be. First off, I must bounce a warning, but we're close enough to the Morgut fleet that they'll catch the transmission, then blow us to hell. I weigh the risks and decide the message can wait until we land; if I die here, then I've set humanity back a hundred turns in terms of using the beacons to navigate. Still, I don't feel good about the call. At this point, every second counts.

"Do we make a run for the surface?" Hit asks.

"We can't do anything up here."

No weapons, no shields. So that's the answer. She offers a brief nod in reply, and we start the insane journey home. As we approach the atmosphere, the enemy fleet notices us, and Hit dodges shots coming in hot on our stern. One successful strike, and we're done. But she flies like other people dance, and even negotiating the burn as we fall planetside, she manages to skew us away from the incoming barrage. I can only watch; I've done my part, and the rest is up to Hit. Her constant maneuvering makes for a rocky reentry; she can't calculate the best angle and take care with the ship hardware, so I watch the ground sail toward me at insane speed and fight the urge to close my eyes. The flagship shoots wide, its missiles zooming past us toward the ground. Ha. Missed.

The clouds whip past, and the tiny dots on the ground resolve into lines, then trees; the green-and-brown patchwork sharpens into the lines of my mother's garden. In the distance I glimpse the blue shine of the sea, but several alarms flash red, and a low whine fills the cockpit. The small ship rattles as if it might break apart entirely. I do shut my eyes then.

Our vessel goes into a low roll as we near the ground; impact flings me forward, but the harness catches me. I'll have bruises to show for this most recent bit of insanity, but that doesn't seem like enough damage. I should have new scars. I risk a look and find we're upside down, but more or less in one piece, outside the hangar. I don't know who's more surprised, Hit or me. She flashes me a triumphant grin and a high sign.

"Pretty fragging good, right?"

"Maybe the best I've ever seen," I admit.

She winks. "I won't tell March."

We've burned out the stabilizers, but otherwise, we did remarkably well. Maybe only a tiny ship like this one could've gotten past the vanguard of the Morgut fleet. I imagine the rest of them lost in grimspace, trying to interpret the new signal and failing. They'll die there, no matter how powerful they are or how indestructible their dreadnaughts.

"Does the comm still work?"

"It should."

I set it to Tarn's personal code and bounce a message at the highest priority. "Don't let any Conglomerate ships jump. They won't be able to interpret the new beacon frequency without instruction. Give coordinates for a central meeting point and instruct them to make their way via long haul. Doesn't matter how long it takes… it's better than being lost. I'll explain everything fully when I see you."

Not content with toppling the closest thing we had to a stable government, I've now crippled interstellar travel. But it was for a good cause. I'm still positive I did the right thing, no matter what they do to me later. If it means prison time or execution, I'm not sorry. Someone had to make the tough call, and I was there.

The doors are jammed from the rough landing and don't respond to the computerized controls, so Hit and I kick our way out. Before I exit, I snag the small survival pack that's included in ships like this one. My limbs still feel weak as I pull myself up; I'm not prepared for the wreckage that greets us. Oh, not from our ship. All around us, the jungle burns, black smoke swirling toward the sky. Stone rubble constitutes all that's left of the villa, just a bombed-out shell with broken walls rising no more than two meters anywhere. Cracks web the foundation, charred black, and I can smell death in the air. It's not a scent you forget.

"They weren't shooting at us," I realize aloud.

Hit shakes her head. "I should have realized. Those weren't ship-to-ship weapons; though if we'd been hit, they would've vaporized us just the same."

As we rocketed toward the ground, the bombardment began. What I'd taken for lasers being fired at our stern had been photon missiles from the flagship, aimed at decimating the ground. The wrongness hits me, then—because we left, we lived. Survival feels like cowardice.

I can't see the point in destroying such a beautiful, defenseless place, but I'm not Morgut. Maybe this devastation serves their master plan, or it's simple retaliation for our defiance. Millions of innocent civilians will die on Venice Minor, innocuously enjoying their vacations; they might've saved for the trip their whole lives, as such consummate luxury doesn't come cheap.

The smoldering wreck of the Triumph catches my eye, recognizable only from the charred metal piece bearing its Conglomerate registration number, and the rest lies scattered around the hangar in bits no bigger than the span of my arms. God help any crewmen who were still aboard, working on repairs. My heart feels like lead in my chest. Beside me, Hit curls her hands into fists.

"We should look for survivors," I say at last.

We ready our weapons in case the Morgut sent a ground team—yet why would they? They can continue the blitz from above. The missiles aren't toxic, so the natural beauty will rebound in time—and by then, they will have claimed the lush, tropical paradise, a replacement for their own dying world. Once they establish a foothold on Venice Minor, fighting them will be more difficult. For all I know, they might breed fast enough to compensate for the troops lost in grimspace, and then we'll be back where we started—with no solution in sight.

Still, I power up my laser pistol, wanting it charged and ready in case we run into trouble. Silently, Hit does the same. We move through the burning graveyard with the scent of smoke and scorched metal in our nostrils, compounded with a chemical burn that makes breathing difficult. There's no telling what might be in the air, but I don't have any air scrubbers handy. The little ship we departed in offered no special equipment, and there's nothing left intact here on the ground.

"Any movement?"

Grimly, Hit shakes her head, continuing to pick a path through the wreckage. It looks as if we've lost all our ships. How many dead? So far, we see no signs that anybody survived the attack. As far as I know, my mother didn't have an emergency bunker. Nobody would reckon that a necessity on Venice Minor.

My timing was off. I didn't get there fast enough. They'll find some way to blame you for this, a cynical little voice says.

I shake my head, trying to silence it. The Conglomerate isn't like Farwan, I tell myself. If I'd been here, I only would've died with them. No help in that. But maybe it would've been better for me. More than most, I know the pain of surviving.

There is an awful gravitas in standing at ceremony after ceremony, listening to a holy man intone words that are supposed be comforting but instead merely remind you that you've been left behind.

Not this time, I tell myself. You'll find them.

In slow, stealthy movement, we complete our circuit of the perimeter. No bodies, but I recognize the stench of burned meat. It lingers in the air, people become ash in a white-hot instant. They rain down on us in the aftermath, clinging to our skin and hair, the dust of the ones we loved drifting in ladders of light. This is a wound too grave for weeping, a silence of the soul burned black as a night without stars.

.CLASSIFIED-TRANSMISSION.
.SUCCESS.
.FROM-EDUN_LEVITER.
.TO-SUNI_TARN.
.ENCRYPT-DESTRUCT-ENABLED.

From the tone of your last communiqué, I believe you have become anxious about my safety. That is… unusual for me. I am not accustomed to anyone noticing whether I disappear or run silent, as is sometimes necessary. Tarn, my work is, as they say, often best done in the dark.

At any rate, I am pleased to report success at last. It took nearly all my guile and expertise to interest the gray men in a mutually beneficial arrangement, as they had found much to occupy them since Farwan's fall. They required convincing that it was not less complicated to hunt whomever they choose—with little or no authority to stop them. But at length, I reminded them that hunts sanctioned by an operational governing body carry no repercussions. They do miss that autonomy, and they are willing to talk terms with the Conglomerate. With judicious financial finagling, you can afford them.

Attached, please find the coordinates for a meeting that will permit the gray men to commence seek-and-destroy on those Morgut vessels that survived the carnage above Venice Minor, and the subsequent grimspace disaster.

For your other remarks, I respect a man who is capable of owning his moments of self-doubt. Mary knows, we've all had them, questioned our course, or whether we deserve the boons life has bestowed upon us. I think no one could have steered this ship better than you, not under the prevailing circumstances. You have stepped up to the mark during a difficult time, and you will be remembered for that courage, not for your imperfections. I will make sure of that myself.

Do you find the political life a difficult one? From my vantage, it seems difficult, akin to living always in the public eye. Does that suit you? I would find it vexatious in the extreme, I believe.

And… thank you for caring.

Yours,
Edun

.ATTACHMENT-MEETING_COORDINATES-FOLLOWS.
.END-TRANSMISSION.

.ACTIVATE-WORM: Y/N?

.Y.
.FILE-DESTROYED.


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